You weren’t expecting to survive the Fall.
But you remember Nyx, and you remember Messiah, and you remember freefalling as your consciousness faded—and when you wake, you’re tucked in your bed in the dorms. There’s a lukewarm glass of water by the bed with some crackers, and your MP3 player and headphones are sitting neatly beside them.
You sit up carefully, clutching at your splitting head, and try to figure out what’s going on.
It’s still cold outside, if the falling snow is any indication; it’s maybe mid-day, and when you fumble with numb fingers for your phone, it tells you that it’s February 3, 2010.
Three days after you were sure you were going to die—you stare blankly before pushing yourself up properly. You ignore the aches in your joints for the moment, and take a few steps toward the door, intent on finding out what happened.
You lose your balance on knees that refuse to lock and feet you can’t quite feel, and go crashing to the ground, only saved from a bloody nose by quick reflexes. You—you suppose that being weakened after spending all your strength would make sense, but you don’t think you’ve ever felt this tired. Not after any other Shadow fight, not after Ikutsuki’s betrayal, not even—not even after your parents…
There’s pounding footsteps in the hall, and you look up, willing your eyes to focus, as Junpei throws open the door. “You’re awake!” he says, surprise and cheer playing across his face as he takes a few steps forward, offering a hand to help you up. “Should probably take it easy, though—you all right? Sounded like you took a hard fall, dude—you haven’t been up in forever—”
There’s something off in his figure, though, and you spend perhaps a moment too long trying to figure out what it is, because Junpei’s grip on your arm tightens as his brows shoot up. “Everything all right?” he asks, hauling you the rest of the way to your feet. “No shame in the flu, it can be a bitch when it wants to be—Yuka-tan and I can wait until you’re feeling better!”
You blink at Junpei, and then squint, because his face is refusing to come into focus, and your entire room is swimming worryingly despite your friend’s tight grip on your arm. You nod, because you think there was a question in there somewhere. Junpei’s smile grows bright again, and he leads you carefully back to bed.
“I’ll getcha some more water,” he says, once he’s sure you won’t crack your head on the floor. “Just yell if you need something, kay?”
You nod again, and he beams at you before spinning to hurry out of the room. You stare after him for several moments longer, though, because something about even his blurry form seems wrong to your eyes.
Junpei does not return before you fall asleep, but you realize, on the edge of consciousness, that his SEES armband is missing.
Yukari comes in with meals, the next couple of days—only thick broth, but when you indicate you’re still hungry she brightens, coming back only a few minutes later with more solid food. “You haven’t really been...aware,” she says quietly, her face pinched in worry as she watches your shaking hands. “For the last few days. We probably should have brought you to the hospital, honestly, but…”
She shrugs, hugging herself for a moment before letting her arms fall. “I’m really glad you’re feeling better. Everyone at school’s been worried, too.”
(When you ask her about the Fall—obliquely, because you think your fears have been realized—you only get a blank look. And you think the fact that the rest have not rushed to meet you is telling, after they sounded so desperate, during the fight.)
You reassure her that everything’s fine, because Yukari’s always been a worrier, and you should do this much for her, at least. Though she doesn’t seem to wholly believe you, something loosens around her eyes, and she smiles at you when she leaves that evening.
A couple of days later, you’re not sure whether the crushing exhaustion has lessened, or whether your sheer desperation to see everyone is trumping all else. But you get your feet under you and make it to the door, grasping the knob a little tighter than necessary before going out into the hall.
Akihiko is there, just about to enter his own room, and you raise a hand in greeting even before you remember the strange circumstances you’ve found yourself in. He isn’t wearing his armband, either, and though one brow rises in concern as he turns to you, the familiarity that has long been on his face is utterly absent.
“You all right, Arisato?” he asks skeptically, and you try not to flinch, because you have been Minato to him almost since you moved into the dorms. “Iori and Takeba said you haven’t been feeling well—Mitsuru’s gonna ship you off to the hospital if you sleep much longer.”
“I’m fine,” you say quietly, and Akihiko’s other brow rises to match the first. In truth, your friend’s figure is growing blurrier by the moment, and you have no idea how you’re going to get downstairs on your own. The floor starts to slip closer.
“Hey, hey,” Akihiko says, moving quickly toward you—and then strong hands are beneath your armpits. He kicks your door wide, half-carrying you back to bed.
“Shit, Iori wasn’t kidding,” he mutters, pulling out his phone and tapping at it for a moment once he gets you situated. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Dunno,” you say, trying to focus on Akihiko’s phone screen. His frown grows deeper, and he stands, as if to leave. You reach out suddenly to grab his sweater; he looks down at you, obviously startled.
“Is—everyone else okay?” you ask, and Akihiko blinks.
“Why wouldn’t they be?” he says eventually. “I don’t really keep track of you juniors, but you’re the only one missing meals, if that’s what you mean.”
It’s close enough to an answer until you can see everyone with your own eyes, and you loosen your grip on his shirt, allowing your hand to fall. Akihiko frowns at you before turning to leave, closing the door carefully behind him.
You reach with shaking hands for the MP3 player by your bed and turn the volume all the way up, desperate for something familiar.
Mitsuru bothers you about going to a doctor—she’s familiar with you, after everything you’ve done for her the last couple of months, but not so familiar as she should be. She acts as if you’re friends, not as if you’re teammates who have taken down Death itself.
It’s wrong, and the wrongness sits in your gut like a stone, but you have no one to discuss it with. You planned for the possibility of forgetting the Dark Hour, of course, but...you weren’t expecting for you alone to remember it for reasons you can't explain. You weren't expecting it to hurt this much.
Most of the physical wounds from your fight with Nyx have healed, a couple of days later, when you next attempt to stand. Junpei is beside you, his grip strong on your arm—and Mitsuru stands in front of you, death promised on her features should you try to overstrain yourself. But you feel better than you did when you first woke—though by no means do you feel well. Junpei looks pleased, and Mitsuru is obviously relieved, and they help you down the stairs for a group dinner you haven’t had in over a week.
Fuuka is there, and she smiles warmly when she sees you, asking whether you’re feeling better. But her gaze is just as unknowing as the others’, and you swallow down the truth, nodding a bit. Her smile grows broader, and she pats you on the shoulder briefly as Junpei sets you down beside her.
Aigis is nowhere to be seen, and neither are Ken and Koromaru, and you bite down on the panic as you realize none of them have any reason to be here. But then, would the others even remember if they were injured—if they were killed—?
They couldn't have been. You saved them; you stopped Nyx, created the seal using your own soul. Aigis probably just returned to the lab; Ken went back to the elementary school dorms, and Koromaru is guarding the shrine.
You have nothing to worry about, you're sure, but the panic at the edge of your senses does not go away. Junpei says something ridiculous and Yukari chastises him for it, and there's more venom behind her words than there should be; Akihiko stands up the moment he’s swallowed his last bite, muttering something about getting his room cleaned up before he moves out in a few weeks.
The pang in your chest is sudden, and you stare after him for several moments as he walks up the stairs. Akihiko’s always been up for an after-dinner chat with anyone who seemed even remotely interested. “Arisato, are you all right?” Mitsuru asks, and you blink, turning to look at her.
“I’m fine,” you say, and don’t think you’ve ever said something further from the truth.
You return to school the next day, the sounds of rattling chains and heavy breathing dogging your every step.
Everyone’s happy to see you—Kaz slaps you on the back hard enough that you lose your balance; Kenji grins at you from the back of the classroom, wide and unknowing; Keisuke and Hidetoshi and Yuko and Chihiro all stop you in the hall, relief clear on their faces as they ask whether you’re feeling better.
You’ve never been known for your smiles, so no one questions it when you only nod, saying you’re still a little tired. You barely hear their responses over the Reaper’s looming threat in your mind.
You take the first train home, your headphones blaring, and do your best to ignore the rising hairs on the back of your neck.
(You’ve only seen that monster once, in the summer, on a Tartarus floor so unstable that only high-level shadows could survive. You found out why almost too late, when the chains started rattling and Fuuka screamed at you to get to the stairs.)
(You almost didn’t make it—you saw a bloodied head and enormous guns and dragging chains floating down the hall behind you, as Yukari shrieked and Aigis turned to face it down and Akihiko tried to pull all three of you along at once, his face pasty and horrified.)
The Reaper was the most terrifying thing you’d ever seen, before Nyx, before the world started falling to pieces around you. And isn’t that funny, that Death has claimed your soul and now its lackey has come to collect?
Mitsuru’s the only one in the lounge, when you arrive, and you shake your head slightly to clear it, pulling your headphones off to say hello. But she stares at you a moment too long, and sighs.
“You shouldn’t have gone to school today,” she says, standing and walking toward you to lead you carefully to the couch. “You look awful, Arisato. I’m seriously concerned for your health.”
“I’m feeling a lot better than I was,” you say, because it’s the most truthful thing you can, and Mitsuru shakes her head as you sit down.
“That only makes me worry more,” she says, and sighs again as she looks you up and down. “I want you to be examined by a doctor. I’ll cover all the expenses. But if there’s something seriously wrong with you, we need to find out what it is so we can fix it.”
It can’t be fixed, you want to say. But she wouldn’t understand, so you attempt a smile and nod up at her. She lets out a heavy breath. “Thank you,” she says, and pulls out her phone.
She says you have an appointment in an hour, which makes you think that either she’s pulled some strings with her family’s hospital, or she scheduled you already and was going to drag you there anyway if you said no.
You decide not to say anything about it as she accompanies you on the train. Though she frowns when you turn your music up loud enough for her to hear, she says nothing about it. Small mercies, you suppose. The Reaper’s going to drive you insane otherwise.
You only pull your headphones off when Mitsuru walks up to the receptionist, speaking quietly with her before you are admitted immediately into an exam room. Mitsuru waits outside, her posture rigid and her eyes full of fire, daring you to lie to the doctor, or to her, about what’s going on.
You sigh, shove your hands in your pocket, and try to listen to the nurse as he asks you basic questions.
No, nothing hurts. You’re here because of increasing malaise and exhaustion, starting about two weeks ago. Mostly, you say with a wry smile, you’re here because Mitsuru dragged you along.
The nurse fills out his forms with a small frown, hms over your vitals, and says that he’ll bring the doctor back right away.
The not-silence is unbearable, for the scant minute you are alone, and even with your back to the wall you feel as if you’re being snuck up on. You take deep breaths, resist the urge to turn on your music again, and count down the seconds until the doctor appears.
He seems concerned as well, as he looks over your chart. Your blood pressure is low, and you’re underweight, when you’ve always been healthy and fit. Both of these are new developments, and the doctor wants to run a battery of tests, to see if there’s a chemical imbalance that can be fixed with pills, or if it might be something more serious they need to address.
You hm in agreement, knowing Mitsuru won’t let you walk out of here otherwise, and the doctor’s frown deepens. “Did anything happen two weeks ago, to set this off?” he asks, staring at you over thin glasses as he sets his clipboard down. “Any major life changes, like an accident or a death?”
Just your own—just the aversion of everyone else’s. “Not that I can think of,” you say, and his forehead creases though he does not press.
The tests bring up nothing, as you expected, and Mitsuru worries but seems to accept that there’s nothing physically wrong with you. “Let me know if it takes a turn for the worse,” she tells you harshly, the day the results come in. “Just because the doctors can’t find it doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong.”
“I will,” you lie, and try to uncurl your shoulders, and pray that she drops the subject.
You find yourself spending more time with your friends outside of SEES, when you have the energy. Your relationships with them haven’t changed since the Fall, and the familiarity is comforting—even if you don’t have the energy to go to track practice, or even to help the Kitamuras organize their store.
But after everything, of course you love your teammates—and you always take Junpei up on his offer when he asks if you want to come to the manga cafe or karaoke with him. It’s draining though, in a way you've never expected. Everything that’s missing hurts more than you can deal with.
Fuuka frowns at you, sometimes, as if trying to figure something out. You wonder if Juno is still lurking in the back of her mind, whispering things she can’t quite hear—warning her of your waning health. Either way, she never brings it up, and you’re left wondering whether it hurts more than the relief, that the only questions she’d ask are the ones you can’t possibly answer.
You find Koromaru at the shrine, protective and loving as ever. He’s happy to see you, as he is any other respectful visitor of his master’s resting place. You bring him food, sometimes, and he grows to love you again—but it is not the same.
Still, you find yourself sitting with him at the playground some evenings, petting his back and scratching his ears for hours as you stare at nothing. He doesn’t leave the playground until you do, occasionally pawing at your arms, licking away any stray tears that happen to fall.
Koromaru may only be a dog, but his companionship is maybe the most comforting you’ve found, since the Fall.
Today, you stay until far past dark—you’re sure Mitsuru and the others will lecture you for it, but it’s not as if anything is a danger to you, now. With the Dark Hour and the Shadows gone, there’s nothing left to threaten you; you allow yourself an extra few minutes with Koromaru, lying back against the slide and staring at the stars.
Motion to your left catches your eye, and you turn slightly to see who it is. The area is only dimly lit, but someone small is walking furtively up the steps, hunched in on himself and looking around.
You’re sitting up even before your brain registers this as Ken, calling out in a hoarse voice before you realize he may have no idea who you are.
He jumps, looking over at you, but Koromaru’s tail is wagging; clearly, the two of them remember each other. “Koro-chan?” he asks, a little uncertain, and Koromaru barks once, his tail thumping against your ankle as he sits by your feet. Ken hesitates before walking your way, looking around in the dark, before his eyes finally land on you.
“Oh, Minato,” he says, his eyes growing a little wider as he recognizes you. “Um, what are you doing here so late?”
“Just needed to think,” you say, trying for a smile. Ken, of all people, does not need more weight on his mind. At least he recognizes you, and he is safe. “How have you been? It’s been a while.”
“Yeah,” he says, clutching his bag a little tighter to his chest. “I’ve been fine. I just thought everyone would be busy, with your finals, so I didn’t want to bother you at the dorm.”
“You’d never be a bother,” you say immediately, shaking your head sharply enough that you get dizzy for a moment. “You’re our friend, right?”
“Yeah…” Ken says, and seems confused for a moment before sighing. “Um, I just brought Koro-chan some food, and wanted to pray at the shrine, so…”
“Sure, don’t let me keep you,” you say immediately, and take a moment to lever yourself up as Ken watches. There’s a faint crease in his brow, but he doesn’t say anything about it.
Instead—”Would you like to pray with me?” he asks suddenly, and you blink down at him, a little surprised. “It always helps me calm down, and since…”
He trails off, suddenly a little confused, and Koromaru whines. “I just...thought you had someone to pray for,” he says eventually, looking back up to you. “It—seemed important, in the moment, but now I can’t think of who it could be.”
“My parents,” you say softly, glancing to the shrine behind him. He’s trying to remember Shinjiro, certainly, but apparently his entire existence has been erased from Ken’s mind. “They died, almost eleven years ago.”
Ken’s face flushes as he seems to remember, and looks away in shame. “I’m sorry I forgot,” he says quietly, but you shake your head.
“Everyone’s had a lot on their mind,” you say, hesitating before walking toward the main building. “It’s been a while for me—I’m sure they’ll appreciate the prayers just as much as your mother.”
The shrine is large and imposing, but you kneel down alongside him as Koromaru waits a small distance away, eating the food Ken brought. You’re both quiet for a long time; you find yourself praying for Shinjiro and Chidori, too—and even Jin and Takaya. You’re not sure any of them have many people left to remember that they even existed.
Eventually you stand, drop a few hundred yen in the offertory box, and smile to Ken as he stands as well. Koromaru trots over, grinning, and you reach down to scratch behind his ears.
“I prayed for you, too,” Ken says suddenly, and you jump, straightening back up to stare at him. “I know we don’t know each other that well, but...you seem like you need it.”
He scuffs the toe of his shoe on the ground, looking embarrassed, but your smile comes a little more naturally than it has. “Thank you,” you say, and Ken’s cheeks grow redder as he smiles tentatively back. “I think everyone could use prayers, sometimes.”
Ken leaves soon after, and you know you need to get home as well. But as you say goodbye to Koromaru, descending the stairs, you realize that the area has grown eerily silent.
You’re not sure whether it was Ken’s prayers that silenced the Reaper tonight, but you have the best night’s sleep you’ve had since the Fall.
You find yourself wishing, one night as midnight comes and goes, that Akinari were still alive.
It’s not that he ever heard the truth of the Dark Hour, or anything about what you did—after all, your own problems always seemed so small when compared to the hugeness of his own. But he understood the finality of death; better than anyone, he knew and faced the knowledge that nothing he could do would stop it.
You know you’re dying. You know it deep in your bones, in your tired eyes and in your shaking hands. You know it every time you wake after sleeping for twelve hours and feel like you could sleep for twelve more. You remember why it’s happening (a miracle unto itself), and you do not regret it.
Saving your friends and the rest of the world from an eternity of apathy is absolutely worth your life, but damn it if you haven’t ever been so scared.
You take Akinari’s notebook off your shelf, hesitating before flipping it open to the first page. He put everything he had into this book—everything and more, you think, and the page starts to tremble as your vision blurs with tears. You sink heavily onto your bed, staring blankly at the neat, shaky handwriting on the first page naming Akinari the author.
You swallow, grip the leather cover a little tighter, and flip the page to a bright illustration and neatly printed text.
You take a deep breath, and begin to read: Once upon a time, there was a pink alligator…
When you leave the next morning, Akinari’s book stays at the head of your bed, in easy reach and safe from prying eyes.
It’s a Sunday, thankfully, but you’ve slept in more than you meant to; it’s nearly noon by the time you make it down to the lounge. Fuuka and Yukari are settled in on the couch, hunched over Fuuka’s laptop and talking quietly to each other. Notes for the upcoming final exams (something you can’t bring yourself to care about) are scattered, abandoned, on the coffee table.
“Oh, Minato!” Fuuka says, her eyes flying wide as she looks up to you. Her hand grabs at the laptop lid, pulling it a little closer to her. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” you say, and frown at a guilty Yukari. “What are you guys doing?”
“Um, nothing,” Fuuka says, and you’ve never heard such a blatant lie in your entire life. “We were studying for exams, and then…”
She trails off, looking down, and Yukari sits up a little straighter. “We’re worried about you,” she says bluntly, and you blink at her, unconsciously trying to straighten your posture as well. “You haven’t been the same since you got sick—what’s going on?”
You swallow, looking between both of them. Fuuka’s lower lip is trembling a little, and Yukari’s eyes are steely as she looks up at you. “I’m just tired,” you say, and Yukari’s face hardens.
“This isn’t normal,” she says, and grabs Fuuka’s laptop from her lap, spinning it around to show you a dozen tabs pulled up—some medical sites, some old news articles. “Look, we did some digging—remember, this past year, when people were getting sick left and right, missing weeks of school? There’s all these old reports of people just turning up basically comatose in the middle of the night, being rushed to the hospital!”
You blink at her; did knowledge of Apathy Syndrome survive Ryoji’s promised purge of the Dark Hour? “I’m not comatose,” you say, a little defensive, and Fuuka sighs as Yukari stands abruptly, walking toward you. There’s a sudden, sharp poke in your shoulder, and you lose your precarious balance, stumbling back before Yukari catches you by the arm.
“This isn’t normal,” she says again, glaring at you as her grip tightens. “We know Kirijo brought you to the hospital to get checked out—what did they tell you?”
“That they couldn’t find anything wrong with me,” you say, and Yukari squeezes her eyes shut before letting her hand fall.
“We’re worried that there’s something going on,” Fuuka says after a pause, putting her laptop on the coffee table and standing as well. “You—well, you don’t seem like yourself, and if you’re really sick…”
She hesitates, her eyes losing focus for a bit. “It’s...just a feeling I have, but I think there might be something wrong with you. Almost like something’s missing, if that makes sense?” She shakes her head sharply, looking up to face you properly. “And—we both, and Junpei and the seniors—we want you to be able to tell us, if there’s anything we can do to help, all right?”
You swallow down a sudden tightness in your throat, looking from Fuuka to Yukari, who nods vehemently. “I will,” you say, your voice a little thick, and wish you didn’t have to lie.
“Hey, Ar—Minato,” Akihiko says, the next day, and you jump sharply. He’s behind you in the lounge, when you turn, standing next to a nervous Junpei. “Wanna go grab dinner? Dorm’s just about out of food, and none of us feel like shopping.”
You blink at him, try your hardest to focus on his face and voice when your exhaustion has only gotten worse. “Sure,” you say, because it’s not like you had any plans for tonight, and you’ve spent precious little time with Akihiko since the Fall. “Where to?”
Akihiko grins a bit at you, and Junpei’s posture relaxes. “I know a great beef bowl place,” he says, because of course he does. “It’s not too long of a trip, and it’s a pretty warm night.”
“Okay,” you say, and lift yourself off the couch, blinking away the stars and trying not to show the sudden dizziness you feel. Akihiko frowns at you, but doesn’t say anything about it as he leads the way out.
Junpei keeps up a stream of constant chatter, a big grin on his face and his hands in his pockets, bothering Akihiko for exam answers and talking about all the stuff he’s got planned for spring break. You listen and nod along, say you don’t have any plans in particular when he asks, and try to keep up with Akihiko’s brisk pace as he leads you down the road.
“Dude, slow it down a bit,” Junpei says to Akihiko, exasperation all over his face after you trip for a third time. Your face burns as you straighten up, turning to say it’s no problem, but he continues, “My legs are cramping from all the sitting I’ve been doing lately—leave the workouts until after finals, yeah?”
“Oh,” Akihiko says, slowing immediately and not even glancing at you as he grins sheepishly to Junpei. “Sorry about that.”
You’re expecting a smile, an elbow to the ribs, a wink from Junpei—but he doesn’t so much as glance your way. Instead, he tilts his head back to look at the stars, wondering loudly whether he’ll finally get a girlfriend in senior year.
You think of Chidori, who has a headstone only because Mitsuru insisted and paid for it herself. Junpei spent more nights visiting it than not, in the lead-up to the Fall.
You wonder if anyone at all remembers her, and think the answer is probably no.
You arrive at the restaurant soon enough; it’s late enough that the dinner crowd’s mostly gone. Akihiko sits at the counter like he belongs there, grinning familiarly to the cook and requesting three house specials. Junpei whines that he didn’t even get a chance to look at the menu, as he sits down on your other side, but Akihiko assures you both that nothing else compares.
A few minutes later, when the cook sets the bowls down in front of you, Junpei stops arguing.
You try to eat—really, you do. But you think there might be something wrong with your sense of taste, because even when you dump an excessive amount of hot sauce in (to Akihiko’s horror), everything just tastes—ashy. It’s like you’ve got a bad cold and your nose is blocked, like you slept for too long breathing out of your mouth. You didn’t eat breakfast, and didn’t have much for lunch, but your stomach is churning and your throat burns. You find that you’re not hungry even as your friends devour their bowls.
“Dude, you gonna eat that?” Junpei asks incredulously, from your right, and you look over to see his nearly gone. “‘Cause if not—”
Akihiko must have sent him a look, over your shoulder, because he stops short and immediately changes tactics. “I mean, you must be hungry, right? This stuff’s incredible! You’ve gotta eat it!”
You grimace a bit, pick up your chopsticks, and take another bite as both of them watch. The texture’s good, and you remember it tasting delicious, when you came with Nozomi, months ago. But now it doesn’t taste much like anything, and you need to put your chopsticks down again as your stomach lurches at the food sliding down your throat.
“Minato,” Akihiko says, concern in his voice, and you lift your head to look at him. “We’re—well, we’re worried about you.”
“Not you, too,” you mutter, without any heat behind it. You appreciate the concern, but with your ears ringing and your thoughts fuzzy, you’re not sure you have the ability to lie to them. You want, more than anything, to tell them the truth, but they wouldn’t understand. They would worry more—for your sanity, probably—and it would ultimately get you nowhere.
You’ll be gone soon—very soon, you think, if your waning health is any indication. If they never remember, they’ll think you just got sick. And if they do, then hopefully they’ll understand that you had no other choice.
“I know Mitsuru comes off a little harsh, but she means well,” Akihiko continues, and you sigh. “We’re all worried—you haven’t seemed healthy for weeks. And Junpei says you’ve been skipping meals.”
“Dude, don’t tell him that,” Junpei hisses, and you sigh again as Akihiko’s eyes narrow.
“What’s going on?” he asks, his tone hard. “If you’re sick, you have to tell someone—Mitsuru’s got access to the best doctors in the world. We’ll be able to help if you stop lying!”
His fists are clenched in his lap, and his voice is serious in a way you’ve rarely heard it. You realize that even though Junpei forgot Chidori, Akihiko certainly didn’t forget Shinjiro. “She already took me to the doctor,” you say. “Nobody could find anything wrong with me.”
“But you’re obviously sick,” Akihiko says, and you give a half-shrug as the Reaper’s noise hits a climax. Junpei makes a small noise, from behind you, and it cuts through the fog, grounding you a bit.
“Obviously,” you admit quietly, and Akihiko lets out a breath.
“We could put you under monitoring at the hospital,” he suggests, sitting up straighter, as if having an admission and the beginnings of a plan help him feel more in control. “She’s got connections in Tokyo—they’ve got world-class hospitals there, we could—”
“I don’t need to go to Tokyo,” you say hastily, shaking your head. “And I don’t know what they could monitor for that they haven’t already checked.”
Akihiko’s face contorts, and he leans forward, gripping you by the shoulder. “You should know,” he says, his voice low. “I promised a long time ago not to let anyone I care about get hurt on my watch. And I know we’re just dormmates, but I’m your senior, and…” he trails off for a moment, his eyes losing focus. “Well, I don’t want anything to happen to you, especially if I could have done something to stop it.”
“I appreciate it,” you say after a moment, swallowing against a sudden lump in your throat. You glance over your shoulder to Junpei, who looks uncharacteristically serious. He nods to you. “I...I promise, I’ll let you know if anything changes. But right now, I’m just...I’ve been really tired. That’s all.”
That’s all that they would understand—and both of them look unconvinced as Akihiko lets his hand fall. “Eat at least half your bowl,” he says, nodding to you. “Then we can go home.”
You sigh, pick up your chopsticks, and do your best to dig in.
It’s been three weeks since the Fall (the longest three weeks of your life), and you know your condition’s only growing worse.
Mitsuru’s dragged you to another doctor, and another, and finally her own personal physician—but no one can find anything wrong with you. “Get some rest,” the last one says, “and come back immediately if things get worse.”
Mitsuru’s glare as you walk out is more terrifying than any of her bufudynes ever were, on the battlefield.
The Reaper has long since returned to the back of your mind, drowning out most rational thought; it’s all you can do to stay half-aware in conversation. You’ve given up on class entirely; everyone’s cramming for finals, but your textbooks are stacked, unused, on your desk.
You’re sure you’ll be gone before your senior year, anyway—you don’t see a reason to waste your time studying when you have so little of it left.
The others look at you sideways when you say you’re going out, again, rather than joining them in studying; even Junpei’s buckling down, desperate to pass. Akihiko opens his mouth, obviously thinking of saying something, but changes his mind when you look to him expectantly. “Don’t stay out too late,” he says. “Mitsuru’ll execute you if you do.”
“I’ll be fine,” you say, and ignore the way Mitsuru’s gaze turns sharp as you walk out the door.
You wander to Paulownia tonight, wondering if maybe Tanaka will be around to talk your ear off for an hour or two. But the mall’s all but deserted, the club’s bass barely reaching you through the white noise in your mind. Your eyes slide over the storefronts, the karaoke sign catching your attention for a moment before your gaze flickers down.
The back alley, usually illuminated a bright blue with eerie music emanating from it, is dark and quiet. You frown, wondering if your eyes are tricking you; after all, Igor and Elizabeth have always left their door open to you, at all hours of the night, ready to assist whenever necessary. You wander your way toward it, and it’s only when you reach the back of the alley that you realize the Velvet Room is truly gone.
Your fingertips scrape the back wall as you reach out for the door, and you blink, staring around in the dim light. Igor isn’t the type for tricks, but maybe Elizabeth is pulling something—maybe the Velvet Room has moved, maybe—
Maybe they’ve abandoned you because you accomplished what you set out to do. Because you’re dying from the power they gave you. (Take responsibility for your own actions.) Igor, after all, gave you Messiah—possible because of your link to Ryoji; Igor called upon your friends’ power to help you seal Nyx away.
Igor has always been there to help you, no matter how cryptically, and Elizabeth always seemed to delight in your visits to their realm. But now that your contract has been completed, maybe they have no more use for you. Maybe Messiah’s continued presence in the back of your mind is only an aftereffect of the Fall, and the power of the Wild Card is beyond your reach.
The alleyway is dark, and there is nothing for you here; you frown in the general direction of the door before turning and walking away. If Igor wants nothing to do with you, then that’s fine—you’ll spend what time you have left with your friends: the social links Igor pushed you so hard to create.
You end up returning early to the dorms, barely able to see straight but smiling at the others nonetheless. Fuuka’s smile brightens the whole room, and Junpei hastily puts his textbook down, asking whether you want to go catch a movie.
Yukari elbows him in the ribs with a hiss, and you suggest a movie night in the dorms instead. It’s getting late, you point out, and finals start tomorrow. (You don’t think you’d be able to make it to Port Island Station at this point, but none of them need to know that.)
Mitsuru’s eyes narrow, and Junpei groans exaggeratedly—but Akihiko brightens up and says he’ll be right back, that he picked up a DVD recently that he wants to watch.
You help rearrange the couches until Mitsuru notices your shaking arms and makes you sit down. But the rest make quick work of the lounge; Fuuka disappears for a few minutes before returning with microwaved popcorn, and Akihiko puts in some sort of action movie that you can’t quite pay attention to. Junpei’s enthralled, though, and Yukari seems more interested than she’s probably willing to show. Even Mitsuru has put her books away, leaning back into her armchair and watching the movie with a small crease in her brow.
You’re nestled on a couch between Junpei and the armrest, and even with your friend’s over-exaggerated reactions to everything on screen, you find you can’t keep your eyes open. The movie’s blaring out of the old TV set, and Junpei’s practically bouncing in his seat as the aliens get beaten up (again), but you find your head lolling against his shoulder and the back of the couch.
You fall asleep quickly despite the uncomfortable position, and do not wake the rest of the night.
In your dreams, Elizabeth stands, weeping, before an enormous set of golden doors.
Ms. Toriumi frowns at you as you turn in a mostly blank exam, but you ignore her concern, going back to your desk and slumping forward, planning to sleep for the next half-hour before the bell. It’s the last day of exams; you think Junpei will be glad, at least, that he’s not bottom of the class.
It’s a dark, self-deprecating thought, but as February bleeds into March, you find it’s the only kind of humor you can entertain, anymore.
“You turned yours in quick!” Yukari says, beaming at you after shaking you awake, and you can’t tell whether you appreciate her forced cheer or not. Surely, she’s thinking that you’ve always scored well—even though you’re sick, you did at least well enough to pass. You decide not to discourage this notion, stretching your neck and shoulders as you sit up, trying for a smile.
“How’d you do?” Junpei asks with a grin, slouched over his chair as he turns to look at you. “I think all that studying might’ve paid off—I knew the answers right off to a lot of ‘em!”
“That’s great,” you say, your smile growing a little more natural; even Yukari looks pleased.
“Wanna go out?” Junpei continues brightly, cocking his head as he thinks. “We could go to karaoke or the arcade, celebrate the end of the year!”
You grimace, trying to figure out if you even have the energy to get home. But Yukari reaches over to punch him in the arm— “You know he’s not feeling well, Stupei. Is there anything you want to do, or do you just want to go home?” she asks, turning to you, and you blink at her, trying to think.
You wanted to go around and say goodbye to all your school friends—ostensibly due to the end of the school year. But Yukari and Junpei seem excited to hang out with you, too, and you’re pretty sure you’ll still be alive tomorrow. You can talk to your other friends then.
“There’s that new sci-fi movie out, right?” you ask, because you remember Fuuka talking about it with some excitement. “Sitting for a couple hours sounds great.”
Yukari’s face grows a bit pinched, at that, but she doesn’t contradict you. Junpei leads the way to the train station after you retrieve Fuuka; he chatters the whole way about the previous movies in the series, bragging about how he’s avoided spoilers so far, and in the next breath trying to think of what could happen next.
Fuuka smiles and nods along right up until she can get away—and then she falls back to walk next to you, her face contorting in worry. “You look terrible,” she says quietly, and you scarcely hear her over Yukari and Junpei bickering—over the Reaper, near-deafening, now.
“It’s the same as before,” you say, and she jerks her hand in an aborted little movement, as if thinking of grabbing your arm. “Tired, don’t feel great.”
“It seems worse,” she says, and the fear on her face makes you stop in the middle of the sidewalk, wondering irrationally whether she’s remembered. “It’s...it’s been bothering me all week, how terrible you look. It almost makes me sick, like…”
She trails off, before looking you in the eyes. “I feel like I’m forgetting something,” she admits eventually, and twists her hands around each other. “Something important, about you.”
You blink back the sudden tears, smile against the lump in your throat, and shake your head. “Don’t worry about it,” you say, and Fuuka’s face contorts. “With all of you looking out for me, I don’t think you’ll let anything happen, yeah?”
“We’re trying,” she admits, hugging herself around the middle, “but I’m just worried it’s not going to be enough. It’s silly, but I’m scared—what if you’re very sick? What if you’re dying and none of us knows any better?”
You grit your teeth; how on earth are you supposed to respond to that? “I’m not dying,” you say, with as much reassurance and levity behind your voice as you can manage. “Worry about me if you want, but you don’t need to worry about that.”
Fuuka hesitates, glancing to Yukari and Junpei, still bickering several feet ahead of you. “I know it’s silly,” she says quietly. “It’s just...a thought I can’t quite shake, you know? I’m sorry to bother you with stuff like this, but…”
“Fuuka,” you say seriously, stopping again on the sidewalk to look at her. “You—all of you—are my friends. You’re not bothering me, it just gets a little suffocating after a while. But it’s...it’s comforting, to know you care.”
“Of course I care!” Fuuka says loudly, and Yukari turns around. “We’ve been through so much together, how could I not—?”
She cuts herself off, rubbing suddenly at her eyes and turning away, her brows furrowed. “Fuuka?” Yukari asks, backtracking and sending you an alarmed look. “Everything okay?”
“I’m sorry, I’m fine,” Fuuka says, and straightens up with a watery smile. “Let’s get going, okay?”
Yukari looks skeptical, but turns back around when you take a deliberate step forward. Junpei, standing back with a small frown, keeps going as well, so neither of them see when Fuuka grabs your hand and squeezes it tight.
You jump and turn to look at her, but she doesn’t say anything—only holds onto your hand for a few moments longer before letting hers fall. Her face is red but deadly serious, and you think you know what she’s trying to tell you, where verbal communication has failed.
Neither of you say anything the rest of the way to the theater.
Keisuke’s going to take his entrance exams again next year. Nozomi’s leaving on a gourmet world tour the day after graduation. Kaz is fully healed and ready for the regional meet in a couple of weeks.
Everyone’s moving on and doing great things with their lives—but you’re dying, and none of them know it. On these last few days of school, when your head feels like a ton of bricks and your hearing and vision are starting to fail, you do your best to seek out every one of your friends in this town—and even those you only ever spoke to in passing—to say goodbye.
Many of them question the finality of your conversations; all of them comment on your health. You’re too tired to really smile, but you assure them that you just wanted to see them before your spring break. You’ll be traveling, you say, to visit family for several weeks, and won’t be back until senior year starts.
Some of them—the Kitamuras, Yuko, others you’ve discussed your family with—don’t seem to believe your story. But nobody questions you too closely when they see the way you sway on your feet, the way your eyes refuse to focus, the way you nearly lose track of a conversation halfway through it.
Keisuke squints at your face a little too long in concern, and Bunkichi stuffs you with melon bread you barely taste until your stomach hurts, but no one seriously questions your thin stories. You’re equally glad and disappointed—at this point, you’d tell the truth if someone asked. You have so little time left—and the possibility of dying alone terrifies you more than you’re willing to admit.
When you stumble into the dorm that evening, the lounge is deserted, and the Reaper looms.
The next morning, you see Aigis for the first time since the Fall.
You stop abruptly in the courtyard, staring at her as she peers out from behind a tree. You were sure she hasn’t been coming to school, or even been about in the dorm, but Ms. Toriumi hasn’t once commented on her absence. Though Yukari says she lives with you, her tone’s unsure, as if she knows this to be true but can’t say why.
But Aigis is here, and Aigis is alive, and you find yourself slumping in relief. You open your mouth to call out to her, but when you look again to the tree, she is gone. The first bell rings, and you have to keep going, walking slowly up the steps to your classroom so you’re not late.
Aigis’ wide eyes as she stared at you—as if she wasn’t expecting you to be there—haunt your memories all through class.
You have half a dozen letters from your friends who have moved; Maiko and Mamoru and Mutatsu and all the rest have written, telling you what wonderful things they’ve been doing in their new lives. Their letters weigh you down, slotted carefully into your school bag. You think of Maiko’s careful writing, Bebe’s sloppy hiragana, and think that you should respond.
You should, but you don’t think you’ll be able to. You’re scarcely staying awake; luckily, Ms. Toriumi, has avoided even chiding you for sleeping in class since she realized you’d been playing that MMO with her all this time. You feel a little guilty using her mortification like this, but you don’t think you could stay awake, even if you tried.
The only reason you continue coming to school at all is to appease your friends and to lessen Mitsuru’s worry, and your relief that graduation is tomorrow drowns out nearly everything else. You’re meeting your friends on the rooftop, if they remember, immediately after the ceremony. And if none of them come...well, the rooftop is a nice enough place to spend an afternoon, with the sunshine and cherry blossoms.
You think you’ll be lucky if you have another week of life left in you, let alone the month of spring break to bring you through to senior year. Today’s the last proper day of classes for the term; when the last bell rings, everyone’s grinning at each other, hugging their friends and promising grand plans for tomorrow afternoon.
You attempt to smile at Kenji and Kaz, as they approach you, but all you can really manage is to keep your eyes open and your head upright.
“Go get some rest, all right?” Kaz says, and his face is twisted in worry as he looks down at you. Kenji offers a hand to help you stand up, his brows furrowed as well. “I’ll need you in top form for the meet—even if Hayase’s not gonna be there, we can’t start slacking now!”
“I’ll try and make it,” you say, because the lying is too much, anymore. Kenji’s grip on your arm tightens for a moment before his hand falls, and both of them look at you strangely.
“I mean, if you’re still sick, you could at least come to watch,” Kaz says, uncertainty dampening his tone, and you blink at him. “But I mean, even mono’s only supposed to last a month, right? And you’ve been sick since…”
“The 31st,” you offer, and Kenji’s face twists in worry.
“Right,” Kaz says, his eyes wide, “so you’ll be getting over this any day now, right?”
You grimace, plant your feet a little wider apart to keep your balance, and mutter that you hope so.
Both of them stare at you, Kaz’s hands hovering a little, as if wondering whether he can help. “Look, Minato,” he says eventually, and you manage to focus on him as he continues, “You’re the one who convinced me to take my health seriously. Do you really think I’m just gonna let you blow this off?”
“No,” you say quietly, “I just don’t know what I can do to make it better. It’s not as easy as a busted knee.”
“Sleep,” Kaz says instantly, manhandling you until you’re facing the classroom door and giving you a little shove. “Get back to the dorm, bother your friends into cooking you dinner, and sleep. Work on getting better, and we’ll see you later, all right?”
You swallow, feel your sluggish heartbeat and labored breaths, and are suddenly certain that you won’t see either of them again. So you turn back around, look them both in the eyes for several seconds, and say, “Thank you, for everything.”
Kaz blinks, worry growing on his face anew, and Kenji grins at you, barely stifling his own concern. “The hell do you think friends are supposed to do?” he asks, crossing his arms and leaning back against your desk. “I’ll check around for the hottest teacher and let you know, all right? Gotta make sure you make it into the best class next year!”
He winks at you, and Kaz rolls his eyes, and you smile at them both before turning around and leaving the classroom.
The hallway is full of people—Chihiro all but buried in a novel, Yuko with her tracksuit slung over one arm and walking quickly down the hall, Hidetoshi speaking quietly with Mitsuru outside the Student Council room. You hesitate, wondering whether you should say something to any of them, but after all, it’s the last day of school; no one wants to be cooped up inside when the cherry blossoms are blooming.
You leave the school doors, breathe in the warmth of spring’s air, and make your way slowly to the train station. You keep an eye out for Aigis, try to listen for her distinct hydraulic joints through the white noise in your mind, but you find nothing. You wonder vaguely whether she was a hallucination, brought on by your failing mind. After all, why would Aigis stay here after Nyx has been defeated?
The dorm, again, is deserted, and you make your painstaking way to the second floor before all but collapsing at your desk. You take the letters out of your bag, staring at them—Mutatsu’s is written on formal stationary, while Maiko’s is a page torn out of a notebook. All of them are heartfelt, warm, and full of hope for the future. Every one of them says they want to see you again when they come back to Iwatodai.
You look to the stack of blank paper on one side of your desk, and know that they all need replies. You also know that you don’t have the energy to write one, let alone half a dozen.
And doesn’t SEES deserve a letter as well? Regardless of whether they remember the Dark Hour, you’re still good friends—this much you’ve realized. If they never remember, they will be shocked and grieve your death; but if they remember after the fact, their horror and guilt may very well consume them.
The golden doors have appeared again and again in your dreams, and you know you are meant to guard them. If it protects humanity from Nyx’s return, it is a small price to pay. But they will not understand this—even should they remember the Dark Hour, they would beg you to save yourself, make a different decision. But your hand has already been dealt.
You wonder what will happen if they remember only after you have died—and you do not want to think long on the answer.
There is no energy left in your arms or your eyelids, but you pull a piece of paper and a pen from your desk, staring at it blankly before beginning to write:
“Thank you for everything. I did this to stop the Fall, and I don’t have any regrets. I cherish every memory I’ve made in the last year.”
You sign your name in shaky script at the bottom, fold the paper over twice, and address it to SEES before leaving it conspicuously on top of your textbooks.
You stumble the few feet to your bed, scarcely able to pull off your headphones and MP3 to drop them by Akinari’s notebook before you’ve lost consciousness.
You wake the next morning still in your uniform, your mind fogged, your hands trembling beyond use.
The Reaper is silent but looming in the back of your mind, so close you can almost feel it. You realize even before you open your eyes what this must mean. (You only hope you can survive until the designated time, on the school roof.)
There’s a sharp knock on your door, and you mumble something even you can’t understand as you attempt to get at least your elbows underneath you. There’s a pause before the knock sounds again, this time accompanied by a voice—”Minato, it’s me. Aigis.”
You swallow thickly, force yourself up, and say “come in” just loud enough that she can hear.
Aigis walks in, her eyes wide and pained in a way you never would have thought of her, six months ago. And it is so clear, in this moment, that she remembers—she has not forgotten the Fall like all the others, and you see your own relief mirrored in her eyes as her posture collapses. She has always remembered, she says—and has feared that she would be the only one to come to the rooftop.
The others have long left for school; Aigis heard Yukari and Mitsuru deliberating, in the hallway outside her room, wondering whether they should wake you to bring you along—but ultimately decided against it. Aigis listened to them leave through the walls, and only left once she knew the coast was clear.
“The others—they can’t remember me,” she explains, as the two of you walk to Gekkoukan. She worries over your instability, but does not comment on it beyond asking once if you would like her help. “Because I am a product of the Dark Hour, my very existence is an impossibility to them. They forget me as soon as they turn away.”
You think of Yukari’s confusion, of Ms. Toriumi’s lack of admonition, and this makes a little too much sense. “That sounds terrible,” you say. It is even worse than what you are dealing with—at least your friends remember you and value your time together. Aigis has been alone, all but a ghost in a world that refuses to acknowledge her existence.
She looks over to you, her face pained. “I did not seek you out,” she says, her hands clenching, “because I did not want to see you react in the same way.”
“I never forgot,” you admit quietly, and Aigis nods.
“Neither did I,” she says, “but I avoided everyone else until yesterday, because I thought it would hurt more to know for sure. However, with Graduation Day so close, I needed to know whether anyone would remember our meeting.”
“No one else has mentioned it,” you say, grimacing and shoving your hands further in your pockets.
Aigis hesitates. “Maybe they will still remember,” she says. “Mitsuru is giving a speech at the ceremony. Perhaps they plan to come after.”
“Maybe,” you agree, but remember Junpei’s excited plans for karaoke this afternoon—the way Yukari asked if you could come to meet her mother, today. You’re sure no one had any plans to visit the school rooftop.
The school’s in view, and the sun is blinding as your vision blurs. You stumble over a crack in the sidewalk, and Aigis reaches out, gripping you firmly by the arm. She does not let go even when you straighten up, trying to pull free as her hand slides into your own. “I will not let you fall,” she says, looking at you seriously, and you sigh but do not resist.
Her hand, despite its mechanical make, is very warm.
The sun is brighter than you thought possible, on the rooftop, and you stare at it in some wonder as you lie in Aigis’ lap.
Her legs are warm, and soft—more than they have any right to be. You do not have the energy to think on this, so you only rest your hands on your chest, and shift your gaze to Aigis’ face.
The sun is still in your eyes, and she’s talking to you softly. There are tears on her face. Once, you might have wondered at this, that an android could cry. Now, you only want them to stop.
“Why are you crying?” you ask, when she pauses, and your voice is a whisper. Aigis laughs.
“I don’t know,” she says, and reaches up to wipe at her eyes, staring at her fingers for several moments as they come away wet. “This is a happy moment, so why am I…?”
She continues talking, and you hear enough that you want to stop her, to explain, to make sure she understands. She remembers Nyx, but she regards the halting of the Fall as a miracle with no consequences. She speaks of a future where she protects you, when you have already given up an eternity to protect her, instead.
She needs to understand, so that she can explain to the others after you are gone—but you no longer have the words.
You are so very tired.
You are here with Aigis and so you will not die alone, but she doesn’t even know that you are dying. She has not seen your steady decline this month and so she has no way of knowing—she thinks you are only tired, or maybe a little sick.
She thinks she can protect you, but it is as impossible as killing Death herself.
Your fingers twitch, meaning to reach up for her hand but unable to muster the strength. She misinterprets the movement, putting her own hand over yours and squeezing in comfort. “It will be all right,” she says quietly, smiling. “I will always protect you.”
A slamming door, pounding footsteps. You just manage to tilt your head in the direction of the stairs, and see blurs of red and green, hear barking and heels clicking on the concrete.
Your friends are here. Your friends are here?
None of them remembered; Akihiko and Mitsuru were moving out next week; Ken and Koromaru had left the dorm completely; your classmates were concerned for you, but had no way of understanding. You lied to them all. But now you hear their voices, filtering through your hearing: they are equally euphoric and horrified, asking after you, asking whether you are all right—
Aigis’ grip on your hands tightens, and a few tears fall from her eyes onto your face. She smiles down at you as she confirms what you scarcely dare to hope—
“Everyone’s come,” she says softly. “Just like they promised.”
Suddenly, staying awake seems of the utmost importance, and impossible. You need to speak to them—you need to explain, that everything is all right now, that they shouldn’t worry, that Nyx and the Dark Hour will be gone forever, so long as you are there to lock them away.
You need to tell them everything you couldn’t say in these past weeks, but your vision is growing dimmer, and your limbs are far too heavy to lift, and even the breaths you draw laboriously into your lungs feel less feasible by the second. They sound close, now, and you fight to stay awake for as long as you can, to show them that everything will be all right.
Their voices blend together until the words are unrecognizable, and smudges of color blot out the white as they huddle around you. As you close your eyes against the blinding sunlight, the last thing you see is your friends, returned to you at last.
That will be enough. It will always be enough.