With all his time spent living out in the streets, Shinjiro Aragaki figures he should be used to dealing with weirdos by now.
No one who calls the trash choked gutters, needle littered alleyways, and every shadowy, dirty corner Iwatodai has to offer their home is completely all there in the head. Maybe its just the territory that comes with being stripped of all sense of comfort, of having nowhere to belong. Survival is a heavy burden for a mind to bear, and the weight of never knowing when you’re going to get your next meal, or if where you’re going to hole up to sleep that night is even safe enough to do so, could easily cause even the strongest of minds, the kindest of hearts, to splinter into something strange, even cruel.
Just look at Takaya and his minions, with their dead blank eyes and penchant for paid murder and drug dealing. It’s fucked up, almost even ironic, that those three make their living by stopping others from doing just that.
Tch. Like I’m one to judge…
Yeah, and just look at him, sitting here acting like he was any less of a murderer himself, that he was any less damaged both inside and out. Not just a misfit, a thug, a killer, but a hypocrite too.
Damn, I’m just the entire package huh? But...
His gray eyes rolling slow and exhausted about the bright and lively room he currently found himself trapped in, though, he couldn’t help but let out an incredulous huff under his breath,
“Better a package than a basket case, I guess…”
He and the rest of of the S.E.E.S team were currently on their most surreal mission yet, and that was to escape, of all things, a movie theater not unlike Tartarus with a young girl who also found herself a hostage of the place. They were to do so by, of all things, partaking in the films the cinema was screening as the stars, kicking Shadow ass all the way from the title card to the very last of the rolling credits and changing the movie's story as a whole.
The absurdity of all of that alone was nearly too much for him to handle. Between his dwindling health, both mental and physical, and his dwindling days left on Earth, Shinjiro literally did not have the time to be putting up with this kind of bullshit right now. Add on the additional stress of Akihiko always pestering him for everything from wanting a free meal to wanting an all out brawl, of having to listen to Junpei’s and Yukari’s incessant bickering, and Ken attempting to send him to the fires of hell early with the heat of his glare alone, his mental state was as delicate as a souffle fresh from the oven- stretched out to its absolute limits, ready to implode within itself with the slightest change of the breeze.
But oh no, his life had never been just breezy, and sure as hell it had never ever been easy on him either. Because he wasn’t just stuck here with his teammates, a group of people he felt at least somewhat comfortable with at this point, people he knew for a fact he could depend on...well, save for Ken anyways.
As shocking, as unbelievable as it was, it turned out there were other teams of Persona users imprisoned in there with them, other kids who had awakened to this great (in his case, terrible) power. And not just that, either. It wasn’t like they were just other teams who operated in different parts of the world. Turns out they were from completely different times too, dimensions even.
And since finding himself in all of their company, Shinjiro has come to discover that these investigators, these thieves were all a rather unique cast of characters….
Hell, scratch that. They were a bunch of fucking weirdos.
The other teams' furry companions, who seem to serve as both friend and mascot to their respective groups, probably freak him out the most. Morgana the talking cat, with his giant bobble-head and conviction that was a dashing gentleman and not actually a cat at all, and Teddie the roly poly bear, who is perverted as he is emotionally shrill, make the skin on his arms crawl underneath his jacket every time he peeks over at them. The two of them argue a lot (not to mention loud as all hell) about who's cuter, who the girls like best, but Shinjiro already knows the answer to that one easy peasy. Neither can even dream of holding a candle to how cute, how well behaved, how easy to love Koromaru is. There was just no contest there at all.
And speaking of girls...
While he's known Mitsuru too long and much too well to ever actually be intimidated by her, some of the girls on the other teams downright scare him. He can hardly stand to even stand to think of Yukiko from the investigation squad, who calls the horrific violence she inflicts on helpless ingredients cooking as if she means to send him to an even earlier grave than scheduled. And though the girl is definitely overcoming some struggles of her own and actually has a funny sense of sarcasm even he can appreciate, Futaba of the thieves unsettles him a bit too, with the way she looks up into space and speak as if she was conversing with some unseen god watching them scramble for the lives down below, “Oooh, is all this trauma gonna play a part in our tragic character backstories?! Is it gonna help us level up!? Make sure to equip us with something good, okay?"
None of them are as strange, though, not a single one perplexes Shinjiro more, though, than the girl sitting right beside him this very moment, happy to join him in his silently judgmental people watching as she contentedly swings her loafered feet to and fro where they don’t quite reach the floor. He had sought out this specific bench in the lobby because it was a bit more obscured than the others, wedged between a lush decorative plant bursting with foliage he could easily duck behind and a giant sign promoting the flavors of popcorn one could try at the concession stand, a sign just tall enough only the very top of his beanie peeked out over it.
Apparently, that tiny glimpse of hat had been all she needed to spot him and invite herself to join him, her crimson eyes sparkling with delight as she popped out from behind the sign like an especially pretty ghost. “Shinjiro-senpai! There you are!”
Pretty…? He shook his head as if to send the confusing thought tumbling out from his brain and out straight through his ears, and then at the confused tilt to her head, turned the motion into a nod of greeting instead. “Minako-chan, hey. Here I am.”
It was weird to see this strange girl he had never seen before wearing the S.E.E.S uniform, a shining white Evoker sitting proudly on her hip. It was weird knowing that she was from another dimension that was apparently an exact mirror of his, only she was the brave and capable leader of S.E.E.S and not the cool and reserved Minato he had come to trust quite well. Hell, that in itself was so strange, and almost even frustrating to Shinjiro- how even though the two could not be any more different from the other, Minako a bright red sun to Minato’s cool blue moon,she brimming with joy and energy and he radiating an almost melancholy sense of calm, their names could still just be a single letter apart, so so close...and yet worlds apart.
What really unsettles Shinjiro most about Minako, though, has nothing to do with her being from a parallel universe or how she knows so much about him and the others when they know next to nothing about her at all, like she's been observing their lives through some trick mirror all of this time.
It's just how happy she seems to be around him in particular.
There was no doubt about it that she was naturally just a cheerful, happy go lucky type of girl. It hadn’t escaped his notice how easily she seemed to mingle with any of the groups, like she could have been the leader of all of these different groups and not just S.E.E.S alone.
One minute she could be gushing about the latest makeup trends with Ann and Rise and Yukari, a girly girl through and through, and the next she’d be roaring in rambunctious laughter with Junpei, Yosuke, and Ryuji just like she was one of the guys. And on the rare occasion she wasn't floating seamlessly group to group having fun with everyone, a true social butterfly if he ever did see one, Shinjiro had also seen her deep in serious discussion with the other team leaders, her usual smile subdued into a focused line as she talked strategy with Minato, Yu, and Akira.
She could have be spending her time with anyone in the theater as she wished, and hell, Shinjiro wouldn’t have been surprised if she could even find a way to crowbar a smile and a laugh out of that creepy masked blob Doe up in the projector’s room, and yet he found her orbiting in his general vicinity more than anyone else’s, always ready to embarrass him by saying something about how sweet or caring he was, or gush over she loved his cooking the best. That’s what really tripped him up about this girl the most. How even though they had just met, she could still so easily get under his skin with her playful teasing, simmer him down from an explosive fight with Akihiko just by making whatever they were scrapping about into a silly game.
Even now, just watching her from just out of the corner of his eye, he couldn’t help but think, feeling just a bit unnerved by the thought and how for some reason it made him feel more good than bad-
There’s something about this girl...
“Heehee! Aigis has found quite the fan club with Futaba-chan and Naoto-chan, hasn’t she, senpai?” Minako nudges him in the side as she nods across to the center of the room, pulling him from the strange path his mind had begun to wander down.
Sure as shit, the two new girls in question are positively fawning over Aigis and all of her next level technology, the android happy to showcase whatever they request of her- the firing barrels that make up her pearly fingers, the propel rockets embedded down and alongside her delicate heeled feet, even the scanners in the bright blue of her eyes.
The sight is charming enough to even make him genuinely smile, and he nods in approval. “Heh, yeah, she sure has. Good for Aigis, though. She deserves to be appreciated for exactly who she is. She gets so wrapped up in being more human herself, I think sometimes she forgets there ain’t nothin’ wrong with the parts of her that are robotic too, you know?”
He’s just speaking honestly, but Minako beams at his words as if he has shared some grand and beautiful story with her, and excitedly bunches up her fists in front of her face in eager agreement.
“I know exactly what you mean, Shinjiro-senpai! I feel the same way about her too!” And then, like he has seen happen many a time since first meeting Minako back in the chrome lined walls of the scifi labyrinth, he watches her reaction as she catches her own words, of confusing someone she cares for deeply for another who is only just learning to know who she is, and her whole face sort of crumples up like tissue with the painful feeling. “Ahh, I mean, I feel that way about my Aigis too! Haha...ha.”
She had bought them both drinks from the concession stand before joining him at his table, and she looks down at her cup of bubbly peach soda and takes a lonely sip that only serves to punctuate how flat and insincere her laugh just now had been.
Shinjiro mirrors the action, taking a thoughtful swig from the can of unsweetened black coffee she knew to get him without even having to ask, and thinks hard about why seeing her down frustrates him so much. He already has enough on his plate without taking any of the helpings Minako has on her's, and yet-
She’s prettier when she smiles, that’s for sure. She lights up the whole room…
Those unexpected thoughts cause him to nearly start choking on his coffee, and as Minako’s eyebrows shoot up high under her bangs in concern, Shinjiro decides its best to play it cool like he was merely taking a drink to clear his throat, and slamming the can down like he would bring down one of his heavy battle hammers, he demands in a rasp that's thankfully so so different from his usual tone, “Hmph! So there’s something you gotta clear up for me about your world, Minako-chan. It’s been bugging me for awhile and I figured now’s the best time to ask.”
He puts on his best serious glower, all business and no bullshit, and sure enough, Minako falls for it hook, line, and sinker.
“O-oh! Oh yeah, of course, senpai! Anything you wanna know, I’m happy to tell you! Don’t be shy!”
She quickly sets her own drink down and adjusts herself on the bench they’re sharing so she’s facing him directly, her hands a neat nervous fold in her lap. Her eyes are fixed so intently on his face, so wide open and sincere, he almost can’t help but smile, but then the whole set up will be ruined, so instead Shinjiro forces himself to scowl a little more darkly.
Acting as if he’s about to ask her something so secret it’s vital no one else hears, he shifts his eyes to the left of the lobby, and then to the right, and he even throws a quick peek over his shoulder just for good measure before he leans in with one elbow on the table to confirm with her, “It’s about Junpei.”
That certainly catches her off guard, and she blinks at him in wide-eyed disbelief. “Junpei? You want to ask me about...Junpei, Shinjiro-senpai?”
“Yeah.” He nods, trying to look as serious as he can, and some locks of his messy dark hair curl into his face with the movement. Brushing them back behind his ears, he admits to her like he’s sharing a secret that he was supposed to be taking to the grave, “I’ve got my suspicions about that guy and I just want to see if the one you know might be the same…”
“Umm...okay?” She still seems baffled that of all the things, of all the people he’d be grilling her about, it’s that goofball with his penchant for stupid jokes and losing his temper, but she manages an awkward smile all the same and opens up both of he palms his way, giving him the floor to ask whatever’s bugging him. “Y-yeah, okay! In my world, Junpei is actually my very best friend! If there’s anything you wanna know about him, I actually probably know it myself. Ask away!”
“Alright, so the Junpei in your world…” Shinjiro takes a deep breath and shuffles in just a little closer to deliver the final punch, and Minako shuffles in a little closer herself so that she can hear it, and at this point their shoulders are touching, and their foreheads are practically bridged, but neither one of them seem to even notice or mind for that matter as he finally deadpans,
“In your world...does he only have one brain cell or two?"
It all happens quicker than he can anticipate. Minako throws her head back and laughs full and loud at his stupid joke, her nose scrunched and eyes crinkled in pure unexpected delight, and as if it was something she was used to doing to him in a situation like this, something he himself was used to her doing, collapses completely into his side, her paprika colored ponytail tickling his cheek as she clasps her hand over his own and gives it an affectionate squeeze.
"Hahaha, Shinjiii! Oh my gosh! Jeez, you're so-"
And then her eyes snap open with mortified realization at what she's doing, and with a tiny squeak of humiliation she practically throws herself across the bench and away from him, her burning face ducked low into her trembling hands. "Ohhh, hahaha! I am so sorry, Shinj- ahh, senpai! A-aragaki-senpai, I mean! I'm sorry! I was just really in the moment, and for a minute I thought I was with--! You know you're so much like…! Well I guess you technically are him, but…! Ughhh!"
Defeated by the combined forces of her own embarrassed rambling and the perplexing circumstances of parallel worlds, Minako simply slumps further into the couch, like a peppy birthday balloon deflated of all its buoyant cheer, and mumbles through her hands, "Iiii'm just gonna stop myself here, actually…"
Shinjiro can feel that the sudden, unexpectedly affectionate contact has caused him to abandon his usual slouch to sit as stiffly as if he was inflicted with rigor mortis, and he can also feel the heat radiating off of his blushing face in waves, like when he’s stupid enough to let Akihiko goad him into a race to see who can finish the Devil Spice bowl at the noodle shop first.
More than anything, though, he’s acutely aware of how his heart feels in his chest after Minako’s embrace. It’s certainly hammering away like it means to break his ribs into dust, that’s much for sure. It’s making it a bit harder for him to breathe, even more so than usual anyways, and his stomach feels sick as hell, like he drank something that was way too sweet way too fast and then decided his dumb ass wanted to take a spin on a roller coaster.
He knows all of this bullshit should all make him feel sick, make him feel terrible but… it doesn’t. He feels really good, actually, enough so anyways that it gives him enough courage to gently smack her shoulder with the back of his hand so that she’ll lift her head up to look at him as opposed to the floor.
“H-hey,” he visibly winces at how his voice cracks with a sudden rush of nerves when his eyes meet Minako’s, but it makes her smile again, just a tiny bit, so he decides to just shrug it off with a smile too. “It’s okay.” He assures her simply, sincerely. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. That was…”
And it’s here his courage fails him, his tongue suddenly too heavy and awkward in his mouth to roll out any of the words he’d use to describe what just happened between them.
Nice. Warm. Wonderful. Something I wouldn’t mind you doing again…
Before he can spit anything meaningful out, though, Minako finishes for him with an apologetic smile, sitting herself up straight once again, “That was something I would do with the Shinjiro in my world… but you’re not really him, in that particular sense. I’m so sorry if I made you uncomfortable just now, senpai. I should have been more mindful.”
It’s not her apology that sticks in his brain right then, not when he neither expected or even wanted one from her from something so harmless, but how casually she admitted that back in her world, she’s up close and personal with him like that all the time.
What exactly is going on between us in her world…?
He tries to ask as casually as he can, like it’s no big deal at all, "So you and me… in your world, that is… we're uhh, p-pretty close, huh?"
Easily slipping back into the flow of conversation, Minako seems to relax back into her usual peppy self as she replies with a sparkle in her eyes, "Mmhm! We spend a lot of time together, actually! I mean, whenever we're not in Tartarus or I'm at school, that is."
He doesn't need to know, it's not his business to know, but even still he finds himself asking her in a deceptively half-interested huff, like he was only asking to humor her and not feed his own sudden sense of curiosity, "Hmph, oh yeah? Like what? I'm sure if he's actually me the guy must be barrels of fun-"
She startles him by clapping her hands together in immediate, genuine agreement."Oh yes, without a doubt! Being with Shinji is the best!”
He had laid the sarcasm on pretty thick there so it surprises him how brightly Minako perks up at his question, how her whole face seems to light up in joy with whatever memories are dancing behind those sparkling eyes of her's. The smile on her face is so big and dopey looking it's practically contagious, and he finds himself disguising a chuckle he can’t hold back as a cough into his fist at the sight.
"Heh. That right?"
If she notices the barely-concealed amusement dancing around the edges of his question, she chooses to ignore it as she enthusiastically nods her head in confirmation. "Yeah, totally! Even if we’re all wiped out from exploring Tartarus or I have a lot going on at school or with volleyball, we always make sure to go out together at least once a week.”
Admittedly, Shinjiro had been smirking just a bit at Minako’s bubbly obliviousness to his indirect teasing, but her delivering the answer he was secretly looking for so directly throws him off completely, and with a lurch forward he finds himself dissolving into a coughing fit for real this time, a great horrible one that leaves his whole chest heaving and Minako an immediately worried mess beside him.
“Shinjiro-senpai!? Are you alright?” She inquires as he sputters and wheezes in his shock, one hand offering him the can of black coffee he’d been sipping from throughout their chat, the other on his opposite shoulder from where she’d wrapped him up under her arm as if she means to keep him held together by her own strength.
Minako’s concern alone is enough to make his skin crawl with shame at his own weakness, and his hacking is so obnoxiously loud he’s worried it’ll draw the attention of the countless others hanging out in the lobby. Through blurry eyes he can already see Aigis staring at him pointedly across the room with those bright digital eyes of her’s, as if scanning him, and though the bobble-headed feline apparently had been napping on a tabletop just a bit way’s away from them this whole time, Morgana was now awake with one black slitted pupil trained warily on him, his ears twitching. So he readily snatches the drink from Minako’s hand and chokes it back, and it certainly does the trick in drowning whatever coughs were left wreaking havoc on his lungs back into submission.
By the time he finishes downing the entire can with a strained rasp and places it back on the table with a rattle, Minako’s dainty hand has migrated from perching atop his shoulder to rub slow, calming circles into his back. She’s also leaned in a little closer to peer into his face to check on him, and her expression is not one of pity but patience and kindness, though the way her eyebrows are pinched just so in the middle betrays how concerned she still really is. “Senpai? Are you alright?” She asks him again, and though her touch is actually nice- like the warmest most comforting sensation his body has known since he first taking his suppressants kind of nice, Shinjiro gently shakes her off of him and sits up straight to show he has recovered fully.
“H-hmph. Yeah, don’t even sweat it. I’m fine.” He swipes at his nose and straightens out the lapels of his coat, reorganizing himself back into his usual unflinching, and more importantly, unfeeling self. He can sense Minako’s eyes on him throughout the entire process, though, and sure as shit when he finally looks down at her she’s still observing him closely.
She doesn’t seem fully convinced by his half-assed reply, and honestly, Shinjiro doesn’t like the way her face looks all cloudy with concern the way it does now, not when she’s such a sunny girl whose face practically glows when she smiles. Watching her fidget uncertainly with the mp3 player swaying in front of her chest, it’s obvious she’s debating internally with herself if she wants to press the issue with him further, that she won’t be truly okay until she knows for sure that he is truly okay, and suddenly Shinjiro wants to see that very glow more than anything, and in an attempt to do so he flashes her a small smile of his own and cheesy as all hell thumbs up to boot. “C’mon, Minako, see? I’m peachy keen, alright? No need to worry.”
“Peachy, huh?” She tries to return his smile in full, but it falters at the edges, like the sun failing to burst through especially dark dense clouds in the winter. “Umm...are you sure, senpai? I could go get someone for you, if you need me too. Maybe Akihiko-senpai, or Mitsuru-”
“Forget it.” He shuts her down at once, and right away feels a little guilty with the unnecessary amount of bite he used to spit the words out, how her eyes immediately drop from his face to stare at her hands picking and pulling at the pleats of her skirt.
Nice going, dumbass. He mentally berates himself, and then clearing out the last of the croak in his voice, tries to smooth the ripple between them over as gently as he can.
His voice is softer, even shy as he mumbles in honest admittance to her, “Y’know, thanks for lookin’ out for me and all, Minako. Nothing’s really wrong, I swear it. I guess you just kinda, uhh, threw me through a loop is all…”
She lifts her face up and he finds all of her worry has been seamlessly transformed into genuine confusion. “Through a loop?” She parrots back, as if repeating the words to herself will help make them easier to understand. It doesn’t help at all, so she begins to tap a thoughtful finger into the soft swell of her cheek, her chin nestled atop of her knuckles as she puzzles it over some more. “What do you mean, senpai?” she finally asks, giving up, but not before teasing, “I didn’t even need to hold your hand to cause all of that just now!”
Shinjiro knew she would be asking that and was still dreading having to say something so embarrassing out loud. And with the way she was looking up at him now, with her big doe eyes and mischievously quirked lip, well, it was just so unfair for her to be asking shit like that while looking so damn cute.
Just because they go out doesn’t mean they’re actually…! In her world, could we actually be…? A girl like her, with someone like me...
Pulling his beanie down more snugly over his head to hide his rapidly reddening ears and abruptly turning away to hide the same burning in his cheeks, he just barely manages to find another way to dance around the question he truly wants to ask her and instead abruptly inquires, bringing them back to the previous topic that had been at hand, “So in your world, we...Uhh. You and him, whatever...You guys go out? Where do you go?”
His question certainly catches her off guard, that’s for sure, if the way she jolts upright and hides her own blushing face says anything about it. To see her so flustered, so completely bowled over by such a simple inquiry when she was usually so endlessly optimistic and confident only made her that much cuter, and Shinjiro had to shut his eyes and take a deep breath through his nose to center himself as she babbled in a near breathless rush,
“O-oh! Yeah! That’s what you meant, hahaha! Yeah, I guess that’s what I said, huh? Yeah, we do go out… Together I mean! We go out to places together is what I’m trying to say, hahaha! U-um! Where do we go? Umm, let’s see…!”
She drops her hands from her face, still blushing as red as if her cheeks had been dusted with cayenne from the kitchen cupboard, to tick all of her and other Shinjiro’s haunting grounds from off her fingers,
“Well! We go out to the noodle bar and to the cafe together to get food or ingredients to cook with sometimes! I always get some fancy tea latte with a bunch of honey and cream in it and you- ahaha, I mean… he always gets just a plain black coffee and never lets me pay even though my drink is always more expensive! Even when I insist, he just goes up to the counter and pays anyways when I’m not looking!”
Shinjiro can’t help but bark out a laugh at how Minako pouts at this grave injustice of having her drinks paid for, and agrees with her sarcastically, “Wow. What an asshole.”
Again, it seems to sail right over her ponytailed head as she whirls towards him with her hands thrown exasperatedly into the air. “Right?! Like, the person who has the more expensive item should be the one to pay and treat the person with the less expensive drink! It makes so much more sense that way! I’m glad at least one of you understand that!”
And then realizing how worked up she was getting over the issue of cafe etiquette, she takes a deep breath and pushes her hair back behind her ears, before getting the conversation back on track with one final huff.
“Anyways…. We don’t actually go out for food all that much. As I’m sure you know, even in my world, you are the best cook ever and usually we’ll just have dinner in the dorm. Actually, it was so much fun! We recently just had a big dinner party with everyone! There was so much good food, and everyone was laughing and smiling and having fun just enjoying it...It was one of the best nights we’ve ever had as a team. It was perfect.”
“Hmm? We really cooked for everyone like that?” Shinjiro blinks at her dubiously, trying to imagine how in the hell she managed to convince him to do so much work. In all honesty, it probably wasn’t much if it was Minako’s idea. Maybe all she had to do was smile at him and ask? At least, if she had been smiling as happily at him as she was now, that would probably be enough to convince him-
“Actually, I didn’t help out too much in the kitchen, but Fuuka did!”
“Bullshit!” He can’t help but pull a hand from his pocket to slap it atop the table at those words, just hard enough to slightly rattle his empty can of coffee. When she only laughs and nods her head in affirmation, he calls her on her bluff again, a small smile of his own playing at the corners of his mouth. “You’re fucking with me, I know you are! Don’t get me wrong, Yamagishi is a sweet girl, and she’s solid backup for sure when we’re taking on Tartarus. In a fight, I’d trust that girl with my life. But in the kitchen…?” He visibly winces at the memory of some of the nightmares the timid girl has birthed from her cooking efforts, all the food that was burnt to a crisp on the outside but still raw inside, the total lack of seasoning in some of her dishes and the heavy-handedness in some so extreme it left them completely inedible. Nearly gagging, he instead concludes with a shudder, “I wouldn’t trust her to make toast.”
“Gosh, meanie!” Minako bops him hard in the arm, but there’s something sheepish in the way she’s laughing that proves she knows exactly what he’s talking about. “Maybe the Fuuka you know is that bad, but the one I know is…” She trails off as she tries to find a nicer way to say what she’s actually thinking, and Shinjiro watches her lips just barely moving as she tries a few different words on for size,
Inexperienced… Tolerable… Not lethal…
She finally decides on a kinder adjective with a triumphant snap of her fingers and happily declares, “She’s striving! Yeah! Maybe her food isn’t always, umm, well...let’s just say as yummy as your’s!” She shoots a wink his way before rushing on, “But! She is always striving to learn from her mistakes and accept any help or advice she’s offered if it’ll help her improve, and that’s exactly what you...That’s exactly what my Shinji-senpai did that night, and it really paid off! Everything, even the food Fuuka prepared, was super delicious and everyone else really loved it! Ken-kun even finished all the green bellpeppers on his plate and he hates those, hahaha!”
Her words cause a cold flicker in his heart, and his hand that is still resting casually on the table instinctively curls up into a fist, which he quickly shoves back into his coat pocket while Minako’s busy giggling to herself.
Shinjiro’s not sure why her words come as such a shock to him. Since they all very first met her, Minako had been honestly insistant that there was absolutely no difference between the S.E.E.S of her world and all of them here. Junpei was still a goofball who had more stupid jokes and scary stories than he did braincells. Akihiko was still obsessed with getting stronger and taking on whoever, whatever he could in a fight. And Fuuka was still as intelligent and as kind as a person could be but a total disaster in the kitchen.
And if members as impossible to believe in existing in one world were also somehow miraculously in her’s as well with Aigis and Koromaru, it of course made perfect sense that Ken Amada would also still be a part of S.E.E.S as well.
He observes Minako with ill-hidden guilt on his face, this bright and bubbly girl who apparently spends more time with his other self than anyone else, and knows without a doubt she is totally in the dark of the history between him and Ken, the confrontation that is slowly but surely building up between them.
But, hey, what if...What if maybe…?
Maybe Minako’s optimism is rubbing off on him like stray glitter from a birthday card or sickly sweet smelling perfume wafting in the air. Maybe the suppressants are beginning to melt his brain into stupid gray mush that’ll come leaking out from his ears from underneath his beanie. Maybe he’s always just been this much of an idiot, but for a moment, watching Minako having so much fun just talking with a guy like him, Shinjiro actually feels hopeful.
Maybe in her world, it’s different between us. Maybe I never…? What if that night never happened and we can all actually…?
Shinjiro tries to squash the hope from both his voice and his heart somewhere deep and dark within himself, where he can’t feel it, where it can’t hurt him if he’s wrong as he inquires casually, almost bored sounding, “Oh? So Ken was there to enjoy the party too, huh? Is he getting along fine in your world, too?”
“Aww, so you even worry about Ken-kun in your world too! You’re so sweet, Shinji-senpai!” Everything from the way she’s looking at him to her words are filled with such obvious fondness, it’s nearly enough to send him into another coughing fit.
Instead, he deflects her compliment in a flustered mumble, “S-stop it. Ain’t nothin’ about me that’s sweet, got it? I was just…” He drops his eyes to the floor, unable to look her in the eyes as he admits, “I was just hoping the kid caught a better break in your world is all. But if he’s still in S.E.E.S that must mean…”
Following his lead, Minako also dips her head to study the floor, her eyes soft and sad. “Mmhm… Ken-kun doesn’t have either of his parents in my world either. He only lost his mom a few years back, and…You can tell he’s still working through it. Sometimes he’ll hide in his room by himself for hours. And you can just tell by the look in his eyes... He’s so sad. And sometimes, very angry too. A kid shouldn’t have to know that kind of pain... It really does shape you for the rest of your life.” She exhales deeply through her nose, and Shinjiro can tell by the look on her face, the waver in her voice, that despite her seemingly endless cheer, Minako personally understands that level of grief, of unjust loss for herself. It’s a look he’s glimpsed on Minato’s face as well, and on Akihiko’s too. Hell, it’s a look he’s seen staring back at him through busted mirrors and parking lots puddles on his own ugly mug.
It’s the same exact face Ken wears whenever he glowers at him from a distance.
That emptiness. That pain. Anger and sorrow melded as seamlessly together as two sides of the same ugly coin.
Of course. Of fucking course you’re still a fuck-up in her world too.
Smiling ruefully to himself in understanding, Shinjiro leans his elbows forward onto his knees, practically crumples down within himself as he lets his messy hair tumble to hide his face. He was going to try his best to sneak some details out from Minako, see how much she knew about the situation, how different his circumstances might have been in another life, in another time, but it’s pointless.
No matter which life he was living, it seemed he was both a harbinger of death and an offering to it as well, and this was an unavoidable story him and Ken were destined to ink with blood no matter what...
A slight nudge on his arm brings him back from his grim realization, and he upturns his face just enough to see Minako gazing at him worriedly once more. She moves her lips, and he knows she’s about to ask him for the hundredth time that day if he’s okay when he abruptly sits up and smiles at her to hide the darkness he can feel swirling like fog behind his eyes.
He’s sick of dragging this poor girl down today, and if his other self is really going to cause her the amount of pain he’s expecting to here soon, he at least wants her to have a few more happy moments while she still can. It’s the least he can do, right?
“I wanna know more, “ He cuts her off with a nod of his head as he stretches out his long, spindly legs and sinks back all the way against the couch, making himself comfortable. “About you and other me. Where else do you two go? Is he a real motormouth like I am too?” He even manages to pull off a joke despite the fact his chest feels like it’s collapsing in like an old church roof, and this seems enough to disperse Minako’s growing worry at as she lets out a relieved laugh and a sarcastic quip of her own,
“Oh yeah, I can hardly get him to shut up actually! Other You talks enough for the both of us, hahaha! But um, yeah, we actually talk a lot! We go on walks together at night, usually up to the shrine where we’ll sit and chat for awhile, but the other night we ended up just staying in the lounge and talking all night. Really, all night long! It was wonderful! Whenever I’d finish talking about anything, you would, haha! Oh my gosh, I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of this parallel self stuff, sorry! But umm, yeah, as I was saying, whenever I’d stop talking he would just start smiling and chanting encore, encore! And I could tell he was actually really listening to me, and that he was really happy to do it...It was wonderful. It really, really was so wonderful…”
She sighs almost dreamily and leans her cheek into the palm of her hand, as if she's attempting to melt right into the memory and return to it at once, and Shinjro could only smile at her in pained realization.
Everything she had described about how things were between her and this version of himself, and even how she had described them too with her cheeks blooming rosy with blush and her eyes sparkling full of stars…
It was obvious their bond in her world weren’t just two buds hanging out, or a sympathetic senpai letting some under classmen play tag along.
They were two stupid kids going on dates and entangling themselves deeper and deeper into something that was going to hurt them exceptionally here very soon.
She fucking loves you, you dumb bastard.
Despite how bitterly he thinks it, how deeply painful the thought pierces through his heart like the edge of Castor’s lance, it still finds a way to make his face feel warm, and he smiles even though it feels like a betrayal to Minako.
How easy it is for him to smile when he knows he won’t be the one getting left behind, after all.
“H-hey? Not to get off topic or anything, but... You know what’s something I’ve noticed about you and the Shinji of my world?”
Minako’s wearing a weird look on her face when she asks him this, and Shinjiro realizes right away it’s because she doesn’t seem to have her usual amount of bravado. She’s blushing from her neck all the way up to the tips of her ears, the same cherry red as the headphones dancing around her neck, and though she’s holding his stare, she’s blinking at him an awful lot, like he was a light almost too bright for her to stand to look at.
He decides to humor her and gives his shoulders a lithe shrug, like the weight of all his life’s misfortunes weren’t currently trying to crush him into a guilty paste beneath their unforgiving weight. “Yeah? What’s that? We both have the same hat or something?”
For the second time that day, she catches him off guard by suddenly gripping his hand in her own, this time completely intentional, and he’s shocked by the to the marrow tremble he feels in her fingers, the warm sweat in her palm.
She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, and for a wild free fall of a second Shinjiro is nearly convinced she might even try to kiss him, his heart jackhammering in his chest at the thought, but it’s only her taking a second to gather her courage as she admits, “S-so, umm! I’m sorry for unloading all of this onto you, Shinjiro-senpai, but I don’t have the guts to tell my Shinji any of this to his face just yet. But it’s something I really do want to say to him eventually, when the time is right. So thank you for being my Practice Shinji for this! I totally owe you one!”
Everything about the moment, from her burning hand squeezing his corpse cold one to her saying she was about to use him to practice something, was way too much for him to handle.“P-practice Shinji?! What the hell does that even-”
“Both of you have the saddest look in your eyes sometimes! Even when you’re smiling, or having fun, it’s like some horrible sadness is holding you back. It’s like you’re all alone at the bottom of the sea with no light or air at all… That’s what I’ve noticed.”
Her words still his overwhelmed fidgeting at once, and the protests he’d been ready to throw her way die unused and heavy in his mouth. He blinks at her in disbelief, once, twice, before he finally goes slack beneath her desperate grip, his shoulders slumping from where they’d been bristling by his blushing ears to instead hang as loose as a straw doll’s, all the fight leaving him with the motion. “Oh…” He responds lamely, the corner of his suddenly dry mouth twitching like a dead leaf in the wind. He casts a quick and wishful glance at his coffee, sorry he had to drink it all in one go earlier. He turns his face to cough into his shoulder before encouraging her to speak further with the only words he can manage to think up, “Is that right?”
She nods, and he can just barely hear the clink of the silver hairpins crisscrossed through her hair moving with the motion. “It’s what I mean, yes, but I wouldn’t say it’s right . In those moments where you seem so sad, you can be right beside me and still feel millions of miles away. I know you don’t think I notice, Shinji, but I do. The way you never talk about your own future or want to make any plans for later on, or the way you freeze up and seem so ashamed after letting yourself laugh and have fun when it’s just the two of us. It’s like you think you don’t deserve to have those moments, or that you don’t have anything to look forward to. There’s nothing… nothing about that is right! I mean, just the other night, you made me promise not to cry. Why? About what? I know there’s something you’re not telling me, and that you’re trying to shoulder some horrible burden all by yourself.”
Though Shinjiro knows that while Minako’s words are meant for him but not actually him... Her words move sharp as shears through his heartstrings, and it took every ounce of restraint he had to maintain his composure through the pain. Had the other him really made such an unfair request of her, knowing damn well what he was going to be putting her through sooner than later? Was he truly so obvious, so selfish in this other life? Was he like this even here, in his own life now? The thought, combined with the fact Minako’s eyes were growing large and leaky with tears as she stares up at him, the tip of her nose shining bright pink, causes a hairline fracture to trace a crooked line all the way to the very core of his heart.
She must sense what is happening behind his eyes in that moment, the guilt threatening to drown him like water that was churning very cold and black around him, because she suddenly squeezes his hand just a bit more tightly to bring his attention back to her. “But hey! If that’s what I know about you, I want you to know this about me in return, okay, Shinji?”
Minako uses her free arm to swipe at her eyes, and with a final sniffle to pull herself together, she manages to beam at him with some of her usual brightness. “I want you to know that no matter what it is you’re struggling with, whatever is making you feel like you’re all alone...You’re not! You are absolutely not alone, you never are, because I promise that I am right here by your side and always will be. Even if you feel like you have absolutely no one else to turn to, I want you to be able to turn to me. I’ll wait as long as it takes and when that time comes, I’ll be ready to help you however I can! And I’m happy to shoulder whatever burden you might have because… because you’re so precious to me. Shinjiro, I...I want you to know that I--!”
She had gradually been leaning in towards him closer and closer as she swore this promise to him, her one hand still trapping his own on the table and the other now tightly gripping his opposite arm, and her face is thoroughly flushed, her eyes shining brightly with the fire of her own conviction, and for one beautiful moment, Shinjiro is able to believe she actually meant all of this for him.
Barely feeling the bench beneath him, her words leave him completely untethered from his own sense of self in both body and mind. All at once, he feels himself sinking and soaring, breaking and thriving. More than anything, just once before his fuckup of a life is over, he wants to hear someone say what Minako is about to blurt out to him and mean it. Maybe those three magic words would save him, maybe they’d change his entire life around and make him a brand new man, a better man, someone who deserves another chance.
But at the very last moment that beautiful, hopeful moment passes and he remembers that he’s not the Shinjiro she knows, that everything she’s saying isn’t truly meant for his ears at all, and that it wouldn’t be fair for him to hear those words tumble from her lips before the other him, the one she actually loves, hears them first.
He stops her cold in her tracks by unceremoniously plopping his one free hand atop of her head, his long fingers nearly disappearing completely into the messy fluff of her ponytail, and she gawks at him, bewildered and red-faced, completely thrown from the momentum she’d had going leading up to her confession.
“Shinji? W-what are you--”
“Save it for the lucky one, alright?” He’s able to genuinely smile at her as he roughly tousles up her hair, even laughs out loud as she snatches his wrist with both her hands and a squeal as she tries to get him to stop.
He finally does after a few of her silver pins have gone askew, her ponytail is twice as fluffy and frizzed out as it was before, and he realizes that she actually does have enough strength to easily snap his wrist, and abruptly rises to take his leave, a satellite ready to take a tumble into the nearest black hole in can find.
Minako stands with him, and despite the playful moment they just shared, her face is full of apologetic regret. “Umm, Shinjiro- senpai? About just now? I’m so sorry! Again! I really overstepped my bounds with you and-”
He can’t help but roll his eyes at how much she worries about his feelings, how she seems to worry about everyone else besides herself so much in general. “Minako, jeez. I don’t wanna hear it, alright? I don’t care. If just now helped give you the courage to say whatever you need to say when you get back to your world, that’s enough for me. Don’t sweat it.”
He turns on his boot, ready to stride off somewhere else so he can begin the messy process of dealing with all the feelings this encounter, this one silly girl has caused him, but catches sight of Minako’s face, still so flustered and obviously in love with...no, not him, but another luckier version of himself and with a tenderness that sounds alien even to his own ears, assures her gently, "You're a real special girl, Minako. Even someone as thick-skulled as me can see that. I hope the me in your world understands that for himself and doesn't blow it."
And then with one last grin as this stranger, this friend, apparently this lover in another life all wrapped up in one adorable face, he shoves his hands deep into his pockets and angles himself away to leave for real, his face burning hot as a wok under his beanie.
"Well, if that's what you hope for the Shinjiro of my world…"
He's surprised when he feels Minako's hand suddenly squeezing his shoulder to pull him down a little lower from his slouch, her laugh teasing and warm in his ear. "I hope if there's another Minako running amok in your world, Shinjiro-senpai…”
Her hand drifts from his shoulder to his jaw, and she gently prods him to look at her, and he finds her smiling at him all pink-cheeked and shy in a way that sends both his stomach and his heart in near-nauseating somersaults, all his plans for a cool and collected exit completely dashed,
"I really hope she gets to meet you too!"
And then quick as a shooting star blinking across the sky and as sweet as the candy being sold at the concession stand just across the lobby, she kisses him right on the cheek, close enough to the corner of his mouth he feels her breath warm on his lip.
He can only gawk at her, speechless, as she leans back and giggles behind the curl of her hand, and he has never felt such heat in his face, never felt such warmth in the cold ache of his chest.
With apparently everything she wanted to say to him, to do to him, out of her system, she flashes him a happy go lucky peace sign and chirps, "Heehee, okay! See ya at the next movie with the others, okay? Byeeee!" Before scampering off with a skip in her step and her head held up high.
Watching her retreating back, Shinjiro almost allows himself one more smile as he brushes his fingers against the spot where she'd kissed him when a familiar, muffled rattle comes from the depths of his jacket pocket and kills the smile in its tracks, snuffs the warm fire glowing in his heart like the icy breath of death itself.
Might as well be, right?
Limply dropping his hand from his cheek to plunge it into his pocket, Shinjiro wraps his fingers tightly around his bottle of suppressants, his very own special poison that is gonna keel him over sooner or later if Ken doesn't get the job done first, and gives them a rueful squeeze.
"Hmph… you’d really want yourself to go through this shit twice? What a dumb thing to wish for, Minako..." He mutters under his breath, and with an aching in his chest that has nothing to do with the illness consuming him, he stalks away to find a place in this bizarre cinema where he won't be a bother, a reminder, a liability- to anyone else.