At 13, Akihiko, Mitsuru and Shinjiro run.
The Reaper follows.
The three barely teens run through the demented prison of their high school at midnight with Death itself on their heels. In Mitsuru's heart, she hears her father and the director’s voice, urging her to go further, explore higher. In her ear: Akihiko’s weak breath, faltering, faltering, and Shinjiro's not much better. All Mitsuru can think about is getting Akihiko and Shinjio to safety. She's the leader, after all. She's supposed to be the leader.
“This is bullshit!” Shinjiro screams, and she hears him and her heart falters. They are no match for this shadow, not yet. They spent too long here, she thinks; her fault, she’s the leader, it’s her fault. She just wanted to bring more information back for her father, for the director. She just wanted to please them.
Tears fall from her eyes but no one comments; they all simply look ahead, looking for the stairs back down.
And so they run.
Shinji and Aki pull ahead for a moment, and she bites her tongue, doesn’t want them to leave her behind, but she’s too proud to beg and decides to just keep running instead. Then Aki stops, bent over, and she expects him to run again as she runs past him but he doesn’t, he just keeps on breathing heavy.
She glances back at him as she almost – almost! – catches up to Shinjiro, and finds Aki still bent over, sweating and pale, and the Reaper on his heels.
The smart thing to do would be to run, to let the Reaper feast upon him and find another child-soldier to take into Tartarus with them. Even at her young age, Mitsuru understands that much: she has been taught to lead, since she could walk and perhaps before. She has She has been taught the price of leadership is guilt. Kirijo's are forged by guilt, she knows. And she knows, better than most, what happens when Persona get out of control. Ikutsuki-sama would never go back for her, and certainly not for Akihiko or Shinjiro. They're all disposable. But – Mitsuru is not Ikutsuki-san, not her father.
“Aki! Mitsuru? Shit!” Shinjiro looks at them both with a panicked expression, and then he’s coming back, and before she knows it, she’s turning back, too. She doesn’t understand how Shinjiro can do that, can just be so brave and so decisive like it’s nothing, nothing at all, and she thinks he should be the leader, she’s too weak and she’s falling behind but Shinji doesn’t seem to notice it at all.
“Come on!” She shouts, and she grabs one of Akihiko’s hands hand, and Shinjiro takes the other, and they run, run, run: run until their lungs burn, down one staircase and then another, run even when her chest feels like it will explode. A warmth like nothing she's ever felt flutters through her chest when their hands touch and Mitsuru uses that power to keep running. She falls behind for one half-second and then Akihiko is there, encouraging her to run, and so she does. She runs through the gates and finally collapses on grass, gloriously alive in the midnight hour. Akihiko and Shinjiro collapse on a heap on top of her and she does not mind. She cradles Akihiko's head tenderly for a second but she's interrupted by Ikutsuki-sama, who strolls up with a critical eye like he doesn't know they almost died in there. He tuts and looks disappointed, says something that she can’t quite hear over the blood pounding in her ears, something about it that it being a pity they couldn’t go higher and that they wil just have to try again tomorrow.
It doesn’t hit her until the moment that Ikutsuki-sama drags her away from a still panting Akihiko and Shinjiro that she ran the whole way down ten flights with them both, and not once did either let go of her hand.
She stares at them until she’s shoved back into her father’s car; Shinjiro picks up Akihiko and a deep jealousy floods her soul as they walk back to the dorm alone.
Later, she tries to summon that golden glow she felt when touching them, but she can't, not by herself.
She never feels anything like that jealousy again for several years: it’s not until she sees Akihiko holding Shinjiro's hand and looking at him with more than friendly overtones in Tartarus so many years later after he’s rejoined them that she feels it once again. She finds them tucked into a brief corner of Tartarus while she and Minako look for treasure on the floor. Instantly, the old flames return: they’re going somewhere, somewhere she can’t follow, and in her surprise, she drops the odd Hawaiian shirt she'd found in a chest that she’d planned to give to them triumphantly.
Aki and Shinjiro both look at her, cheeks aflame. “I’m sorry,” she says, and turns away, because she cannot bear to be near them, not now. She stalks across the room and tries to find the way back out to the corridor Minako has run to, running again because she can’t face being the one left out, even if she is used to always left-out.
“Mitsuru, wait!” Shinjiro takes her hand, and Akihiko takes the other.
“I’m sorry,” she says, shaking her head, and she wants to run, but this time, they hold her tight. "I didn't mean to - "
“We were just waiting for you,” Shinjiro says, smoothing her shoulders, and Akihiko murmurs half-heart apologies for getting started without her, and then she’s kissing Akihiko, and then Shinjiro, and her heart feels like she’s never stopped running since that day. There’s a golden bond between them growing, growing, and she feels that old, almost-golden glow inside of her burst as she is kissed and kisses them, like a hidden part of herself is bursting forth. I am thou, and thou art I, a voice whispers in her mind, but she doesn't know if it's her persona or one of theirs or something new entirely; doesn't think about it because she has never felt so alive as she has now, with Shinjiro pressed up against her back and Akihiko kissing her neck.
“I missed you guys,” Shinjiro says, head bent, and she hears the pain in his voice and wonders if he, too, was jealous for all the time she and Aki spent alone.
“Is this….is this okay?” Mitsuru says, uncertain; she’s never dated but she can't imagine being someone with two lovers, and there’s so little in her life that’s steady, and Akihiko and Shinjiro, they’re really the pillars of all she has left.
“Hell yes, it’s okay!” Shinji says, snorting, then turns to Akihiko. “Aki, this isn’t – “
“This is all I ever wanted.” Akihiko’s words are quiet, but his actions are bold: he wraps both of Mitsuru and Shinjiro up in a hug, and suddenly they are all embracing, and for the first time in many years, Mitsuru feels warm and happy and wants to do nothing more than cry.
And then she hears the tell-tale sign of the Reaper once more: chains, rattling upon the wind.
“Guys!” Minako barks, the natural leader already. “Reaper on deck! Abort abort abort!”
Instantly they’re running again, trying to catch up to their leader. Mitsuru reaches out both her hands, and Aki and Shinjiro grasp them, and this time they run for their lives, but there’s no where else she’d rather be.