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This Time, Things Will Be Different

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The first year, at the very beginning of it all, hadn't even lasted the full year. He'd made a mistake--made lots of mistakes, but then he couldn't have known that at the time--and they'd been ripped to shreds as a result. They all had. The ground had warped beneath his feet, pitching violently, and he'd still had screams ringing in his ears when he stepped back, the Moel gas station attendant looking over him appraisingly.

Nanako had asked him if he was feeling well, a perfect replica of a memory from just a few months previous, and he tried to shake the swirling sickness from his mind. He wondered if it was possible to experience such an elaborate fantasy in so few brief moments of time, letting the memories fall to pieces all around him. He was mildly horrified when everything began to build itself back up, exactly as it had been.

It was an opportunity, though. An opportunity to learn and to be better prepared. He had a better idea of what he was up against, how to fight against the shadows in the other world, which items would prove most useful in their struggle. He'd made a valiant effort, because second chances were still a foreign concept, a rare and precious gem.

Almost the end of the year: almost. He'd railed against the pain and hurt and loneliness, the unfairness of it all, and when Yosuke made his case for revenge, he hadn't thought twice before jumping at the chance.

And then Nanako's voice had reached him through the fog of hate and agony, asking somewhat awkwardly if he was feeling okay, and he'd wanted to break down crying on the spot. Such relief, such fear, and he'd spent the better part of almost a year trying to think of where he'd gone wrong and how he could save her. He tried telling his uncle the truth about everything, in hurried desperation because he didn't understand and she was going to die and it would be his fault because he'd known it was going to happen and here they were at the last possible second and he still hadn't found a way out of this.

When Dojima only looked at him with disappointment, told him that he'd thought maybe they were beyond not being able to trust one another, he'd wanted to scream. He tore through the other world in a single day to bring her back, and still he wasn't fast enough. She was stolen from them again, and he sat beside her hospital bed in silent self-loathing, unable to stop himself from crying even before she was fully gone.

He hadn't said anything when Yosuke made his case that time. Let him fuel the dull embers of hatred that were directed mostly at himself, by then, and looked at him with a tired determination that spoke enough.

Again, when the ground had quit pitching beneath his feet and his vision had stopped swimming sickly, everything had gone back to the way it had always been. He fought it tooth and nail, that time. Without him, they couldn't get it in their heads that they could do anything to begin with. He would stand guard over her all year if he had to, everyone else be damned.

And then Yukiko had gone missing, and even though he'd never spoken to her (except he had, the memories oppressive in his mind--all the times he'd said the wrong thing, the chances he'd had to set them right) he couldn't help but feel responsible. Neither Yosuke nor Chie knew him as anything more than the transfer student, wouldn't have believed him by then if he'd told them the truth anyway. He set out the night before the fog would come, alone, and threw himself at shadows until the darkness swallowed him up again.

From then on, he approached things analytically. There were certain situations that he could not alter--some he could only superficially. He would find the ones that mattered if he had to do this a thousand times.

He couldn't count how many times it had been that he'd felt her small, fragile hand go weak in his own. He wasn't sure how many times he'd cried, shouted, sworn, lashed out. He remembers the first time he hadn't done any of those things. He'd been there enough times to know that it wouldn't change anything.

Standing over Namatame, listening for what felt like the thousandth time as Yosuke made his case for finishing this themselves, making sure that someone paid, he felt a jolt of new-found emotion flurry through him for the first time in years. Maybe. Maybe.

But he was tired and angry and unreasonable, and he hadn't managed to do anything but leave everyone cold and bitter with one another, upset that they'd failed, upset for the lack of resolution. He wished he could laugh at how ridiculous it was--wished he could tell them they hadn't the slightest idea what lack of resolution felt like. He didn't get a chance before he was standing at the gas station and Nanako was at his side, and he felt his strength leave him all at once as he was hit with the weight of another year.

Another, and another, and he's worked it out by now. He's beginning to catch on. He fights back; they only know him calm and calculated, because they've never seen him on new ground. He finds it, clutches it, shouts with triumph and fury and exhaustion: "Calm the hell down!"

New road. New road is all that he can think, and he throws himself into it full force.

They fail anyway. He's not sure he ever expected any different.

It still feels powerful the second time, anyway. He's more prepared, filled with the strength of resolve and validation. He's never felt more satisfied than when they drag Adachi into the electronics section of Junes, triumphant, victorious, and it's finally over.

He receives a letter. Tears it to shreds, and the year begins anew.

Maybe this time. Maybe, he thinks tiredly. Maybe.