I always thought the point of good memories was to give you the strength to face the future.
Wasn’t like I woke up suddenly and Mitsuru was there – I’d been drifting in and out of that hellhole of beeping machines, pain, drugs, and scratchy blankets for a while, couldn’t tell you how long really. But I wasn’t surprised Mitsuru was the first person I saw that I recognized. I felt like shit by that point but alive, which was more than I expected to be, and seeing a familiar face in front of me, well… it drove in the fact that I wasn’t dead. Despite all my best efforts. Dammit.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, rising smoothly when she saw I was looking at her.
I tried to swallow. Throat was bone-dry from the meds that were making my head swim and weren’t entirely effective at dulling the ache in my chest. Mouth felt stuffed full of cotton too. Even the air coming in through the oxygen mask smelled medicinal. I shifted a little, a weak-ass attempt at sitting up, which we both knew wasn’t gonna happen. “Like I got shot,” I mumbled around the mask. My voice didn’t sound like anything I recognized, hoarse and strained and so damn weak.
“You barely survived you know,” she told me quietly, coming to stand next to the bed. She gave me a wan little smile, her eyes full of mysteries as usual. “The bullet would’ve hit you right in the heart had it not deflected off your watch…”
“Granddad’s watch?” I tried to lift a hand to fumble at my chest where it had been, but that was too close to the heavily-bandaged wound, and my arms were all trussed up with IVs and whatnot anyway. “Aw hell, I just got that back.” I paused, that memory swimming back up to the surface, my chest tightening with a different pain. “She’s gonna be pissed.”
“She hasn’t stopped crying since it happened.”
“When was that again?”
“Two weeks ago. I told everyone you were in a coma and couldn’t receive visitors.” Mitsuru’s lips tightened, a surefire sign she was pissed, though her anger was always ice-cold and contained. “You didn’t want to make it out of that night alive, did you? And now they’re all acting like you’re as good as dead, and–“
“Better for them if they think that way.”
“All of them?” Her tone was challenging. I kept my eyes away from hers for a moment, then forced myself to meet them. It wasn’t as easy to lie anymore for some reason, wasn’t as easy to put up the walls.
“Yeah. All of ’em. Aki will be happier without me and my damn issues dragging him down, keeping him tied up in the past. All he’s ever wanted to do is move forward and forget anyway. Let him. Hell, tell him I’m dead for all I care. Let him mourn and move on. He’s better off.” Why was it so hard to say? Must’ve been the dry mouth. I swallowed hard again, but it was just as useless as the first time.
Mitsuru’s eyes were flashing, but her voice could’ve frozen a hot cast-iron skillet with a single sentence. “And what about her?”
Damn, but I was grateful for the oxygen mask covering half my face. Made it easier. “What about her?”
“Don’t be a fool. Do you really expect us to think you two haven’t gotten close this past month you’ve been back with us? We’re not blind you know. If there’s something going on with you two, then she really–“
“She’s better off.” My voice sounded harsher even to my own ears, but I didn’t get why. My face was still the same, fixed hard into my usual stare; I should’ve sounded the same too. I really needed some water. “She’s better off now anyway. Leave it.”
A nurse came in, fussed with the bandages, stuck medicine in my arm tube. Mitsuru turned away, the lines of her shoulders and crossed arms radiating frustration and pain. What had her so upset? Couldn’t just be me. Another memory, floating up like an air bubble from the bottom of the ocean. “Her and Aki get together?” I was proud of myself that time, my voice sounded light, casual. Like I didn’t care. I DIDN’T care. Good for them. She’d take care of him.
Mitsuru didn’t answer, but her arms slipped to her sides. “So that’s why you’re trying to force us together,” I snorted, turning my head away so I didn’t have to look at her. “She’s cute, but she’s just a kid. So’s Aki really. You’ve never told him right out how you feel huh? If you’d just do that–“
“I have my responsibilities.” Her voice was diamond-hard. Damn well put my efforts at the same to shame. “And my duty. That’s all that matters. He’s liked her for a while now, though I don’t think he really realized it until–until the last full moon.” The diamond was cracking now, showing the strain of what it was holding back. “You were gone, she was hiding it all and crying all night in her room, then coming out in the morning with a smile and puffy eyes. Iori and Takeba are half-mad with worry for her. Akihiko’s torn up inside himself, and he wants to protect her.”
“Fine with me,” I muttered. “That’s fine.”
“Is it really? Is it really fine with you?”
“I’ll come again. You should get some rest.”
A man’s got plenty of time to think when he’s laid up in the hospital like that. Half the time the meds had my mind wandering. Well, after all that shit Mitsuru was saying, it was natural for me to think about the last month, dream about it. Longer than that really, since I’d met the girl a while prior. For the first time in the hospital, back when Aki broke his ribs playing the damn hero. She was definitely just a kid then, in a flock with that Junpei kid and his silly-ass hat and ridiculous goatee, and Yukari, sharp-dressed and sharper-tongued. I couldn’t forget that girl though – red eyes, short brown hair in a bouncy ponytail. Seemed like everything I hated about women actually, always smiling or laughing at things you don’t get, wrapped up in stuff that’s not really important. And nuts for Aki of course. They always were, even back in the orphanage. Our eyes met a second after they asked where he was, and she smiled, and I got the hell out of there.
Turned out she was the new leader of S.E.E.S., though how that happened when Mitsuru was still around is beyond me. Then Aki kept bringing me the dumbest tales about those kids. “The underclassmen took out a speeding monorail by themselves!” he’d say, grinning like an idiot with pride. Or, “We almost got trapped 30 meters underground, but our leader got us out!” The girl wasn’t a figurehead, it sounded like, even though Aki and Mitsuru were still in the works. I didn’t wanna get interested, but I admit I was a bit. What kind of girl was she? It didn’t seem like a cute girl with barretts in her hair should be kicking ass and tying Shadows into knots in her spare time. And wrapping Aki round her finger.
Yeah, yeah, I knew about that from the start. It’d be hard not to. He was so damn enamored of her. Couldn’t stop talking about her over ramen, though I think he thought he was just talking about the team, trying to make me come back. He’d brighten up when he talked about her. Only Miki used to make the guy smile like that. And he didn’t even realize it. I almost said something a time or two, but hey, girls only get a guy in trouble. Maybe he’d grow out of it. It didn’t really bug me til I moved back into the dorm myself.
Hell, moving back into that dorm. Worst decision I’d ever made maybe. Suddenly she was always there around me, sitting on the couch with the others in the lounge, making coffee in the kitchen, walking the damn dog. And she seemed to be always talking to me too. Not that she was a chatty Cathy like most girls are, but she kept going out of her way to talk to ME for some reason. “Senpai, want to go walk Koro-chan with me?” “Senpai, would you like to go get something to eat?” “Senpai, how are you feeling? Would you like to go to Tartarus tonight?” It bugged me a little at first, not because it was annoying – I dunno what it was. I thought it was because she was always in my face, but when I thought back to it, it wasn’t all that often. It just felt like it because I began thinking about her more and more.
I’m a dumbass, really. Last thing I needed was to get involved with some girl, much less THIS girl. Gotta admit, when we got into battle she was all Aki had said and more. She had this fearless way about her in battle, just throwing herself in there without seeming to give a damn if she got hurt or not, and I found myself charging in after her just the same, trying to keep her ass from getting knocked around by Shadows. If Aki was there too, he nearly went insane trying to protect her, not that I think she noticed. Not that she even really needed our help. All I knew was, it damn near made my heart stop whenever Shadows got too close to her, or whenever I saw her raise that gun to her head, one hand on her heart as she blew out her brains (yeah, yeah, I know, not for real, except it was and is on some level) over and over again.
She just kept pushing me. Not hard, not noticeably, but it was almost every night for that month. Asking questions. Wanting to know my opinion on stuff. Listening to me. Complimenting me. I hated it, but each time it happened, I wanted more. I’d wake up the next morning and prowl around the dorm til it was night again and she’d come home. I’d get damn pissy on the few nights she left me alone. Withdrawal, I guess. And then she’d do something so damn stupid, like invite me out to a film festival about pets or some such shit – and I’d have such a good time with her – that it was even worse the next day. It was so easy to get wrapped up in her, damn her. Even when I remembered to try to keep her away, to try and warn her not to get attached to me, to try and keep up the walls I had up around everyone else, even Aki – it was like she could just throw one of those little carefree smiles my way and it’d all go to hell.
Which wasn’t to say things were romantic. I didn’t have my hopes that high. I’m an ugly cuss and I know it, and she had Aki there making goo-goo eyes at her all the time. I’d sometimes kinda hint that she and Aki should get together or something, and she’d either brush it off or ignore it. I just wanted to make sure someone would look after his sorry ass when I was gone, dammit. But when I told her that, she looked me right in the eyes and said, “But what about you, Senpai?” That hit me like a punch to the gut. She looked… sad. Lonely. Shit, that hurt. I’ve never been fond of myself, especially not since the accident, and I had Ken there every damn night reminding me that the check was coming due, and yet – when I hurt her, I wanted to rip myself into shreds.
Then one night, she came up to me with my granddad’s watch in her hands. I’d lost it. Heh, it’s pretty funny it ended up being the thing that saved my ass. She put it carefully in my front coat pocket. I had a watch for her too, a little leather thing. I’d gotten to the point where I couldn’t see things in stores and not think of her, not think of buying her stuff. I wanted her to have something that reminded her of me. Y’know, when I was gone. My hands shook when I put it on her wrist. They say watches and clocks and stuff are bad news. But the check was coming due.
Then that stupid girl… the next night, she came right up to me in the lounge, in front of God and everyone, her eyes shining like rubies. Just walked right up to me as if she’d been thinking about me all damn day just like I had been thinking about her. That couldn’t be true of course. “Don’t look at me like that, I’ve got nothing for you,” I growled at her. I wanted her to go away. I didn’t want her to go away. She had to go away. “Go spend your time with the others.”
“I love you, Senpai.”
She didn’t say it loud, but it sure felt loud to me. Think my mind shattered like a dropped glass. She was still staring at me like that, her feelings out like a banner and one hand clenching the front of her uniform. She declared her feelings like she fought Shadows – fearlessly and with her whole self. They were right there for anyone to see, even a fool like me, but I still averted my eyes and tried to deny it. “What are you saying something so stupid for in a place like this?!”
She asked to go to my room.
Her words were like taking a sledgehammer to the walls I had up. Each word was a blow of that sledgehammer right into the bricks. Damn, but I admired her chutzpah even as I told her to quit being an idiot and go to bed. I said anything I thought would make her stop, make her go away. She just stood there and asked again and again, her voice low and fervent, her eyes glued to my face. I couldn’t look back in her eyes or I knew I’d relent.
I relented anyway of course.
It was so stupid, once we were up in my room – heh, I say my room, but it was just a hole Mitsuru and Aki were keeping for me, nothing in it but a bed and a dresser. I knew I wouldn’t be there long, and I didn’t want to leave stuff for them to clean out. The walls were thin and shaky now, and all the stuff about her that I didn’t want to think about were pressing up against the walls, like water undermining the foundation. I asked her to leave. She refused. I TOLD her to leave. She refused. She just looked at me, that same look she gave me in the lounge. I refused to see the longing there.
Somehow, she wound up in my arms. I heard myself telling her everything. That she’d crawled into my head and I couldn’t stop thinking about her and everything was all wrong now and why the hell was this happening? She just looked up at me as if she loved no one else in the world, and I shit you not when I say that letting her go – letting that amazing girl that I cared for so much go – it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. But I had to give her one last chance to go.
She refused, smiling, her eyes full of tears now. She knew why I’d given her one last chance to leave. She didn’t want to go.
I wonder if she knew we didn’t have much time left.
“I’m not going to hold back anymore.”
But when I pulled her to me and bent to kiss her, she was there reaching up to me, too. How the hell could anyone feel for me one-tenth of what I felt for her? How in God’s name could anyone kiss me like that, like they wanted me and needed me and adored me and wanted me with them forever? I told you she’s a stupid girl. How dare she fall for a dirty mutt like me, three steps from the grave, walking right into that grave of my own volition, when Aki was at dinner every night in the lounge looking at her with a boy’s eyes full of love. How could she do that to him? How could she do that to me, too? How the hell was I supposed to walk into that grave now that I had someone like her?
I shoved all of that to the back of my mind. For one night, I wasn’t going to hold back, or hold anything in, or lie, or pretend something was okay when it wasn’t okay. She loved me – I couldn’t deny it anymore – and if I gave her this cherished memory, this night together, then she would be strong for the future. That’s the line I fed myself so I didn’t have to think about how much I needed and wanted her. That’s the bullshit I told myself to get through the next day.
She came home, and walked right up to me in the lounge, her eyes still shining like stars, even brighter after our night the night before. And I shut it down. “Go spend tonight with the others,” I told her in my coldest voice. The walls were back up, higher than before. Ken was watching us, with hate he thought I didn’t see. “I have nothing to say to you.”
You ever see someone’s face right as their heart breaks? You ever look right into their eyes as you’re the one that breaks it? What if that person is the person you care for above all else?
She turned away from me and staggered back over to the others. Good girl, I thought, as she pasted on a smile that surely the dimmest of them would know was fake, but they all seemed to buy it, welcoming her over and chattering about their days and whether or not we were going to Tartarus. I heard her voice and her laughter that night as she hung out with them, her back turned to me. I should’ve gone off to my own room. I should’ve gotten ready for the full moon the next day. I stood there in my dark little corner, my hands shoved in my coat pockets, and I listened to her laugh and chat, and stared at her back and the little sliver of her profile I could see. I burned them into me. And when I did drag myself back to my room and laid down on my bed, I could smell her rose-scented soap on the blankets, and I burned that in too.
It was for the best. I was dying the next day, and she’d be free from grief.
Only I didn’t die. That damn watch she found for me… and now here I was in this bed. She couldn’t be allowed to come see me, to look at me and cry over me and suffer as I hurt and healed or maybe died, I dunno. I had to keep her away. I didn’t want her to feel the weakness I was feeling – a weakness that only seemed to grow with time spent away from her – longing and heartsick and God knows what else. She had to be strong and take care of the others and conquer Tartarus and all that shit. She had to put an end to the Dark Hour forever.
So I laid in my bed night after night as the Dark Hour came, and I’d remember that night we spent together, and the Dark Hour we’d shared. I’d never been grateful to the Dark Hour before or since, but that night, it’d meant one more hour we could spend together. And I’m nothing if not a greedy bastard. I needed every second, every instant of her. I’d thought at the time I’d drown in her, and then maybe that would satisfy me. But in the hospital, I felt more like a man dying of thirst, who’d finally gotten a drink of water – only to be thrust back out in the desert again.
Funny thing about memories though. They fade.
Mitsuru came by one more time. She said a bunch of truly crazy things, about the Dark Hour and Tartarus and something called Nyx, and how we humans were all longing for death. I thought about it a lot after she left, and during my rehab and everything. It’s not that I was longing for death. I just thought that was the only way to pay the check I had due. I took a life; my life was owed. Simple as that. I’d tried my best to make sure no one else paid with me. But that night before the full moon, that girl had paid too. Aki paid. Anyone who gave a damn about me – and despite my best efforts, it seemed there were a few – they paid. And yet I’d just ignored all of that and ran headlong into death. And as time went by and I got well, and this Nyx thing approached, it’s like I stopped caring whether or not it was the right thing to do. If we’re all going to end up in the grave anyway, it seemed, maybe the way I’d chosen wasn’t too bad. That girl was just the one to screw it all up for everyone.
And I forgot her, too.
Graduation day. I drifted up the stairs of the school. Tartarus no longer, or so they said. Wasn’t sure why I was there, really. I’d barely been in school the past two years, ever since the accident. My chest still twinged when I breathed deep. But it was spring, and the others were going up to the roof – there was someone they had to meet, they said, to say goodbye to on graduation day. Sure, yeah, I’d go along.
She was there. The sight of her, lying like that – it was like someone yanked a veil off my eyes. I knew what was happening. I knew I’d forgotten. But she was smiling, and she wanted me there by her side, and it was like some force was keeping sadness and pain away. Maybe that was her too. Maybe it was because she didn’t want me to be sad, watching her die.
I knelt down and pulled her into my arms. Don’t remember what I said really. Thanked her, I think, for meeting me, for being with me. What I really wanted to do was ask forgiveness. For being a dumbass and pushing her away. For running into death when I could’ve been holding onto every last moment of life. For choosing months in a hospital bed alone over a night in my bed with her. For not being with her until now, the moment of her last breath. But I knew she forgave me. Her eyes didn’t shine anymore, but I knew when she looked up at me that it was me she loved most and best of all.
She took my hand and placed it on her heart. The place I would’ve gotten shot if not for her; the place she touched to call forth her Persona. I could feel the last fluttering tremors of her heart under my fingers, like a frightened animal. She was still smiling. Then she was gone.
A damn fool once thought that happiness in the past could make up for sadness in the future. Take your happiness when you can, before the chance passes forever.