The Definition Of Insanity - BkZa555 (2023)

Chapter 1: Live, Die, Rinse, Repeat

Chapter Text

Chapter 1: Live, Die, Rinse, Repeat

When Makoto lies down on Aigis' lap to rest, to breathe his final breath on March 5th, he is ready and content to die; to embrace Death (Ryoji) into his heart and slip away—

And once he feels his very soul drift off into its final destination, he expects to be greeted by oblivion, or that yellow scarf, or those bright blue eyes, oranything. But not this.

Not joltingawake, with air in his lungs and warmth in his fingertips. Not with eyes that shouldn't be snapping open to look through the windows of the train that calls for the nameIwatodai Station.

(And that is but a start of an endless cycle that he could never escape from.)

It is not Pharos that greets him when he reaches the dorm, oddly familiar yet dishearteningly quiet.

It is Ryoji. Fully grown man with long yellow scarf that has surrounded his form so many times, with eyes that shimmer and shine like sapphire under the morning sun.

"What is happening?" He croaks, his voice unbearably loud against the staleness of the Dark Hour.

Ryoji looks just as lost, mouth slightly agape, his fingers shaking almost uncontrollably, mimicking Makoto's beating heart. Makoto forces a gulp down his throat, forces a strange sensation to fall into the pit of his stomach and lets it fester under his feet as he focuses his attention on Ryoji, whoremembers– just as he has. He remembers their bonds, what had happened, what should have been—

"I don't know," Ryoji breathes, terrified, quiet, eyes glowing with the eerie light of the moon, of Nyx and her deathly splendor. "I don't know, Makoto – why are we—"

Why are we here, when we should've died, where we shouldn't be?Neither of them could finish.

"I don't know," He says, breathes, as the tickling clock of the Dark Hour starts to fade, as shadows rise and fall like tidal waves, one that surrounds him, choking him silent—

And when the quietness leaves, he's greeted with what shouldn't be; of Yukari standing on the staircase, of Mitsuru looking at him with coldness instead of warmth.

Igor doesn't know what had happened, either.

But, to Makoto's quiet delight in all this nightmare, Igor doesn't forget, unlike his friends (family), who don't remember the bonds that they've shared, don't remember what they are, what they mean to him. The Velvet Room exists where time has no meaning, where space is both vast and minuscule. So it is as it should be, that the Velvet Room would be exempted from whatever happened to the world, to the flow of time that should only march forward, not into itself like this.

And, another thing that surprises him more is thatRyoji is here with him, too.

He is as he always has been – a flicker, a phantom, the boy born from within his own heart, one who carved out a piece of Makoto and cherished it more than Makoto ever could. The boy who shares his heart and soul, who fills the void in his chest and makes him whole, who makes himaliveand human, the boy who he loves and loves him in return.

"What happened?" He asks as he clutches his Evoker to his side, its cold steel a cruel reminder that this is not just a nightmare, but reality manifested through Fate's twisted whim. "I shouldn't be here.Weshould have been dead; we should have been made to guard the Great Seal—"

"I do not rightly know," Igor shakes his head, and Makoto catches from the corner of his eyes the way Elizabeth seems to be, oddly quiet and contemplative. "I cannot feel anything, only a slight twist in reality itself. Whatever had trapped you here is by no meansnormal."

"Makoto," Ryoji breathes quietly, reaching out his hand – ethereal but sosolid, so warm, one that Makoto desperately misses since that day, since New Year's Eve – to grasp his. "We'll figure this out together. Even if I'm Nyx Avatar, I'm still me – and I willneverforget. I'll not leave you alone."

And, in the midst of all of this, that is probably the very thing that keeps his sanity intact.

Months pass, and nothing changes.

Even if it hurts, Makoto tries his best; he forges his bonds up from the ground, molds them just as he had before, but with higher level of care, and with more love than he had the first time around.

And each night, he would talk – with Ryoji, with Igor, with Elizabeth.

But nothing changes. They never do.

There's nothing to work with, no changes except that little dent at the edge of reality that they couldn't touch, a ghost of the beginning and the end that seems to melt away into the shadow of the Dark Hour. And while Makoto doesn't want to give up, doesn't want to stop his search for the truth, for his right to die in peace, he has to take a pause – a breath.

A breath he isn't supposed to take.

"Makoto," Ryoji says, sitting beside him during the dark night of the Dark Hour, his warmth seeping into Makoto's marrows like a prayer, his fingers indefinitely warm on his hand. When Makoto looks up, to those eyes that shimmer and shine like the lapis lazuli under the moon's glow, Ryoji smiles sadly, "Just give it time. I'm sure the opportunity will present itself eventually."

"…I hope so, too," Makoto murmurs, curling Ryoji's scarf –even if it's not real, it's warm. To him, it's warm and kind and infinitely patient– around his frame, kneading Ryoji's knuckles in between his fingertips. "I hope so. I don't want to risk their lives with this."

"I know," Ryoji breathes, with love and reverence; with kindness that Makoto doesn't know what he did right to deserve. "I'm here with you, Makoto. Even if I want you to live, I'll help you."

I'll help you fight for your right to die,Ryoji doesn't say.

Makoto, against all odds, snorts out a laughter, bitter and slightly resentful at it all, at the hands Fate has dealt him. But he supposes (hopes) this won't repeat, this will be the last time, his final chance to live his life once more before he surrenders everything for the sake of those he loves.

"Mhm," He hums, leaning his head against Ryoji's shoulder, breathing deeply the scent of life and death, of moonlight and fallen snow. "Thank you, Ryoji."

(What they don't know at the time, however, is that this isn't something so simple that it would go away with just a few wishes to the distant stars.)

He tries to change it, change fate, change the past. But he fails.

Aragaki isdead, just the same. So too does Ikutsuki. So too does Kirijou Takeharu.

Makoto couldn't feel anything. There is no sensation in his limbs, no thoughts in his head – only coldness and numbness remains.

Why would he be given this chance at all, if he couldn't do anything to alter the flow of events?

"Makoto," Ryoji calls, now tangible and human, reminding him of the path forward, reminding him of their bonds,doomedfrom the start— "Are you sure you'll be alright?"

"No," He replies, truthful of the dread bubbling up his chest like wildfire, spreading through his body like the plague and latching onto his heart like a parasite. "I don't want to live through this again. I want you to stay."

I want to be alive, with you beside me,he doesn't say.

But Ryoji gets it – like always, Ryoji could understand him like no one else could, could see past his walls of apathy and deep into his heart, where it bleeds and wails out in misery, in pain that could never be soothed—

"It's okay, Makoto," Ryoji murmurs, taking in his hand and dotting a soft kiss to his temple, breathing onto his skin and leaving a ghostly trail of heat behind as he kisses lower, reminding Makoto that right here and now, Ryoji is alive; not a personification of Death that would soon call forward the mother, the Fall, but a boy who he loves and loves him in return. "After all of this is over… I suppose eternity will be ours."

He allows himself a small smile, even if something prickles at the back of his mind. Something vile and dark and infinitely dangerous, something that makes Makoto want to curl up and cry, to forget it all and surrender himself to infinite darkness that lies between space and time. "I hope that would be the case, too—" He pauses, then adds with a chuckle "—I can't believe I'm actually waiting to be molded into the Seal for an eternity to come."

Ryoji doesn't smile, but instead presses his lips against Makoto's own, silencing his beating heart under the light of the moon.

"I have to go."

Ryoji murmurs, on the last day of the year that marks the beginning of the Fall. Makoto had made sure to talk to all of his friends, to see their resolves to live strengthens one more time, while Makoto himself is fighting for the chance to die in peace – an irony, to be sure.

"Only a few months left," Makoto whispers back, squeezing his hand gently, lightly. His chest grows hollow, but this time not without hope – there's a spark of their bonds, warm and growing stronger, even when Fate has dictated they be separated for as long as they live and breathe. "And we'll see each other again."

"Not before at the summit of Tartarus, though," Ryoji says, mirthless, but with affection; fond in ways Makoto could never repay, but is nevertheless given in kind. "…You do know I don't have the ability to resist Nyx's calling, right? That would include my inability to stop myself from fighting you, too."

"I know," He murmurs, leaning into Ryoji's hand as the boy touches his cheek, reminding him of the warmth that he would soon lose to the relentless march of time. "Don't worry about it. I've done it before, and I'll do it again."

For the both of us, remains silent, settling in between the lines like the words Makoto often holds between his teeth like a secret he doesn't want to tell a soul.

"Alright," Ryoji hums, standing up and pulling him along, holding him close to his chest one last time –he hopes it would be one last time, yet hopes that there would be more chance to feel Ryoji's hand on his, too– before letting go. "Let's go. I still have to tell your friends how to face me."

"I could—"

"—do that? I don't think you could," Ryoji murmurs solemnly, reaching a hand up to his cheek and wiping away a drop of tear that falls down from his eye. "Allow me to. Okay?"

Makoto breathes, keeping his emotions steady – enough to get him through this – then nods, curling his lips down and pressing them into a tense line. "…Okay. I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you, too."

The end is nigh.

He's staring up at Nyx's ruby eyes again, seeing nothing but the darkness that spans outward forevermore and the reverberating roar that deafens even the sound of his heartbeat into oblivion.

But this time, instead of being alone, a single hand reaches for his, cradling his fingers in it, giving him the warmth that he needs, the last push to go through with this for the second (and hopefully last) time.

Are you ready?The voice whispers, quiet and with love.

Makoto finds himself smiling back in return, squeezing onto the nonexistent hand that has been with him since the start, and one he craves to return to the most—

"I am," He breathes, and calls for the power that is the beginning and the end.

One last time, for his right to die.

I'll see you again soon, love,Ryoji breathes, letting the softness of his words wash over Makoto like mid spring's stream, soothing his heart and claiming his soul as its own.Wait for me, okay?

I will, Makoto thinks, as he allows the Universe to pull his soul apart, molding it into the Seal once more, and lets himself be shaped into what he is always meant to be.

And here he lies, on Aigis' lap, in his final days.

Makoto could feel Death's embrace coming closer, cold yet infinitely warm with kindness and love, with reverence and affection. He simply waits it out, just like the first time, feeling the way his life ebbs away through his fingers like grains of sand, feeling the way the spring wind feels in his hair, the way the warm sunlight feels on his cheeks.

"The others will be here soon," Aigis murmurs quietly, with love, with affection, and with understanding – she knows he will die, she knows he will leave and never return, too. And this time, he manages to take a closer look, to see sadness hiding behind her soft blue eyes, to see determination simmering like embers within her mechanical – yethuman– heart. "You can rest easy, Makoto-san. They'll be here."

I know,he stops himself from saying, hands grasping her colder ones, feeling the way her fingers shift under his palm.I know.

And when the door creaks open, and when his world – save for the part (for Ryoji) that exists up above, beyond where he could see – comes into view, he allows himself to slip away—

And when silence and darkness embrace him, he relaxes.

The nightmare is finally over, and peace – and eternity – is now his.

To his horror, he finds himselfjolting awakeon the train,again, with a feeling deep in his gut that some part of the universe really wants to mock him, wants to laugh at his expense and damn him into the purgatory that he could never get out of.

He banishes the thought and wills himself to think, to make his way through the eerie glow and to where he knows he will find his answer (the confirmation to his fear).

And when he reaches the dorm, under the Dark Hour's distant moon, he's greeted with Ryoji,again.

Ryoji, whoremembersthat this is not the second time, but thethird.

"Makoto—" Ryoji whispers, horrified at the implication of it all. "Makoto, what—"

"—I don't know," He breathes, even when he shouldn't. Breathe in the air as stale and as silent as that moment at Tartarus' zenith, breathes in with life he shouldn't have, life he willingly gives up for the Seal, for eternity to take hold of his soul— "I don't know. What the hell's happening?"

Neither of them could find the answer, and soon, only silence remains.

Igor is as terrified and clueless as Makoto is.

And this time, Ryoji no longer reassures him that they will find the way out, as if knowing that Igor's lack of words or advices could only mean one thing – thatthisis not normal, and that they have no way to know what influences time's stagnation, orwhomakes it so that time doesn't flow.

Instead, he gives Makoto his love, and his silence; his reassurance, that he will not forget.

But what good would that do, when I've been denied peace?Makoto doesn't say.

It's harder than the second time to reforge the bonds anew, and he knows his sanity is crumbling like sandcastle – brittle and fragile, full of pain and misery.

And in his haste to fill the gaps in his heart with bonds so that he could look for more clues, he makes a grave mistake – of nurturing them with resentment that shouldn't be, of building them up with anger and bitterness that shouldn't have been left between him and the rest of his family—

And so, they grow distant, as bitter and angry as he is with the hands that Fate has dealt him with.

It is harder to breathe, but he has to keep the hope that this would be the last time for them both alive.

(But all of them know in their souls that this won't ever end.)

The only silver lining in this miserable existence that exists between life and death is that Makoto is allowed more time with Ryoji – to breathe in his scent, to feel him close, to keep him closer.

And Ryoji indulges him in it, in the feelings of heat on his skin, trailing along each curve of his body in ways he has always imagined they would do together, in silence and solitude, with only the thoughts of each other and nothing else on their minds.

They stop (Makoto stops) trying to find a way out after November's shootout, where he has to relive Mitsuru wailing for her father, where he has to see the lost hope in their eyes again. Ryoji doesn't push him, but reminds him that the opportunity to unwind all of this will come in due time. And when he bids Makoto to wait, to keep his eyes on this reality a while longer, all he could do is laugh.

They both know – a gut feeling, and nothing more – that this won't be the last time. But they both keep up the hope that it will, and Makoto refuses to think of the alternative.

He'll face that alternative if (when) another cycle happens.

"Makoto," Ryoji breathes, biting the words into Makoto's neck as his hand, soft and cold, traces across his chest and down his navel, unravelling the knots of tenseness in his chest into strips of little nothings that can be shaped and changed into something more stable, more permanent— "Breathe."

He does, inhaling the scent of moonlight and fallen snow, of Death and decay, that settles into Ryoji's being like a second skin. He rests his hands on the knob of Ryoji's shoulders, pulling him closer, feeling the heat of life that he doesn't truly have exchanged between their flushed skin—

"Makoto," Ryoji repeats as he pulls away, and Makoto groans with displeasure at the lost of touch, the lost of warmth. But Ryoji persists, taking his cheeks into those cold hands and looks down at him, with a soft and gentle smile that he could never get tired of. "The chance to end this will come. Have some faith."

We both know, deep in our hearts, that it won't,Makoto wants to say, but bites the words back down, nodding his head as he rests his forehead on Ryoji's shoulder, feeling the way his pulse sings under his skin, feeling the air and the life fill his lungs. "…Okay."

"Don't think," Ryoji says – commands – his voice low and raspy, his lips forming into a devious smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "I'm still here.We'rehere. We'll get through this together."

"Okay," Makoto repeats, even when the tense line of Ryoji's shoulders doesn't leave, even when the unspoken words hang above their heads like a crown of thorns. "We will. Together."

Going through the final few months is as painful as the first two times – saying goodbye to Ryoji is never easy, and seeing the sparks of life fading from his friends –family– is never painless.

But he persists, keeping the hope that he could find what had gone wrong to the flow of time alive through his muted emotions, through his bonds molded with pain and with hurry, with desperation and with fear. They feel different, marred and broken. And they feelnothinglike how they should be. Bonds should be foster with care, with love, and what had he done this time around, in his desperation?

He wishes he could've done it better, not giving up to his despair and his misery this easily.

But instead, he sighs, keeping his hope that this will end alive and breathing in the cold air, filling his lungs with life until he could face Ryoji one more time at the apex of the world. He sighs again, and keeps himself alive, even through the bonds that are jagged and ill-defined, bonds that are more likely to hurt him than they will heal.

(Somewhere in his heart, Orpheus stirs, his lyre plucked into tunes unknown to him. Makoto sets his heart to remember the sound, as it is the only way for him to mark the flow of time that will soon stagnate around him, and around Ryoji, too.)

Making the Seal is much harder this time, seeing how painful and how brittle his bonds are.

He dies withinhoursof performing the Seal, and with pain – with so much pain that it is unbearable, that he could feel his heart crumble to pieces inside him. And he hopes that this won't last, that the world will resume, even if they don't consider him like the family that they should've been, that theyusedto be – because he still loves them, no matter what they would think of him.

And when he dies, this time, he dies alone – cocooned in his room, with nothing but the cold silence and the creeping dark as his grave.

He shouldn't have been surprised, but he still does, when he jolts awake again on the train to the place that is now both his safe haven and his purgatory.

Ryoji looks like he wants to cry when Makoto sees him again.

Neither of them says anything for the rest of that night.

Live. Die. Rinse. Repeat.

One life he lives like he never does, with care and love, open and without secrets, with his emotions laid bare. Another, he lives in resentment, in recluse and in solitude, just to die alone, cold and angry. And in another, he lives in muted, unbreakable silence. Over, and over, andover.

Each time, he tries to act differently, yet the results remain just the same—

With each year, with each life, his emotions numbed, his wills crumbled, his sanity shattered.

But at first, Makoto persists – he tries to live it out, to find that sliver of evidence that might help pull him out of his nightmare, that might end this endless cycle once and for all.

Ryoji remains by his side, always, as a kind hand to hold, as an ear to listen to his plight, as a presence to give him a reassurance; that, at the very least, Makoto is not alone in this.

He's tired.

He's just so tired, living and dying andliving and dyinglike this, without an end in sight, without real purpose, without a goal.

And the bonds he has to reforge multiple times feel like vices around his neck. He wants to let them fail, let them turn bitter and broken, like he did on that third cycle – but he couldn't allow himself to. If this is the chance for this cycle to be the last, then he couldn't afford to.

It hurts. Everything does, and he just wants it all to stop.

Under the single eye of Nyx, Makoto breathes, resting his forehead on his clasped hands.

"Einstein once said," Makoto says one day, on the rooftops within the glare of the Dark Hour, to Ryoji – who, at this moment, is but a phantom, an illusion of his own machination, but is never the lessreal– with his head tipped towards the sky. "That insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

"You never live a year the same way," Ryoji says, sadness leadens his every word, even as he takes the hand Makoto rests on the rail of the roof into his own. "You try everything differently."

"But the results remain the same," Makoto mutters, gripping his hand a little tighter, feeling the way Ryoji squeezes back gently and with love, with affection; and Makoto briefly wonders just what had he done right, to earn himself such an unconditional love. "I'm tired, Ryoji. I don't want to live like this. And I just don't care about anything else anymore."

"I know," Ryoji says, and stays where he is even when Makoto produces a gun he has stolen from Ikutsuki into his hand. Ryoji's voice cracks at the end as he continues; "Makoto…"

"I'm tired," He says, shaking his head and pressing the gun – real and metallic andcold– against his temple in the silence of the night, just a few minutes shy of the Dark Hour. Makoto looks up at the sky before closing his eyes. "…Please, don't judge me."

"I won't," Ryoji reassures, moving his hand up Makoto's arm and to his shoulder, the ghost of his touch both warm and cold. His touch is as kind as ever before. "…I'm so sorry."

I'm so sorry I couldn't do more. I'm so sorry I couldn't break you out of this.

"It isn't your fault" Makoto says, pulling at the trigger, feeling the way his heart races in anticipation within the confines of his ribs. "I love you."

"So do I," Ryoji sobs, silent and mournful, as Makoto steels his heart and completes what he has set out to do this time – to end it earlier than it should, to cut the cycle once and for all— "So do I—"

And when everything bleeds away into the dark, he lets himself think that he succeeds, that he has finally breaks the chains and shatters the cycle—

Of course, nothing isevereasy with Fate.

"Fuck," Makoto groans, slamming his head back into the glass pane behind him as the train races towards Ryoji, towards his purgatory where he is doomed to a life in constant repeat, to a life without a goal, without end.

He glares at the moon, at its iridescence and at its vileness, one that seems to glimmer in mockery to his current – continuous, unending – predicament.

But he knows nothing will ever change. Cutting the cycle early doesn't do the trick, either.

He sighs – he still has many more lives to live, and Makoto is by no meanslookingforward to it.

A few cycles, a few lives after that, he starts smoking and drinking alcohol.

"Why?" Ryoji asks one day, sitting beside him in Club Escapade, a glass full of whiskey in his hand.

He has earned enough money within Tartarus to bribe his way to the counter, to loosen the bartender's tongue and to seal the polices' lips shut. And while he normally doesn't even dare try the first few times, once he gets Mutatsu to actually let him have a sip, he just knows thatthisis probably one of the very few ways he could keep himself entertained during all of this.

It is audacious to suggest beingentertainedwhen he and Ryoji are both trapped within this perpetual life that starts and ends within one pocket of the universe, sequestered away from the flow of time that should have continued forward without looking back. But he has lived around ten or so years' worth of life already, and while he still clings to a dim hope (the Arcana is the means by which all is revealed speech is now living rent-free inside his head) that this won't last, he won't get his hopes up too high, either.

"Nothing better to do," He shrugs, taking a sip and feeling the familiar scald of the alcohol's bites upon the back of his throat. Makoto then takes a pause, rolling the words on his tongue, before he corrects himself with a small frown. "…Actually, that makes me think. I should start doingsomethingto pass the time."

"I'd suggest learning a new skill," Ryoji shrugs, nudging Makoto's shoulder with his own. "Do you have anything in mind? Or would you rather I suggest a few?"

"Cooking," Makoto replies instantly. He has so little chance to bond with Aragaki that he regrets not being able to learn more than just a few dishes, and he has always wanted to be able to cook, to give a bit more joy to his bland existence. "And maybe playing more music, too. Guitar looks like something I could enjoy most with you."

"Mhm," Ryoji hums, placing his hand on Makoto's shoulder silently, smiling gently at him, his eyes shining with the same glints of distant stars that never fails to take his breath away, knocking him off his balance and making him feel loved and whole— "Let's do that, then."

Afterwards, for each cycle, he decides to try to master a new skill – and while he couldn't say he has master it all, Makoto thinks this is one of the very few way for him to keep his sanity intact through this nightmare, even if he could still see no end to it all.

He stops counting after the 47th one.

Why 47th? It's probably because, during that one, he managed to screw up the only thing he was supposed to do – to foster the bonds with love and care. Instead, with but a few slips of his consciousness, a few bitterness let loose through his teeth, he had managed tofuck uphis bonds with the SEES so badly that it resulted in him dyingthe moment he performed the fucking Seal—

And oh, it hurts to evenrememberthat moment, the pain seared deep into his soul and leaving behind scars too large for him to ever heal.

The next few (not a few?) cycles Makoto didn't even care enough to count, he lived unlike how he promises himself he was supposed to – in silence, in solitude, his bonds made at bare minimum, just enough for him to perform the Seal. He still died the moment he erected the gate between Erebus and Nyx, but the next uncounted times, with none of the bonds with the SEES broken and reversed – simply left incomplete – he doesn't feel as much pain, doesn't feel as much misery.

When he could finally erase the pain of that one cycle that marks his soul with its claw so absolutely that the wounds could never be undone and look up after jolting awake on the train, he frowns, feeling like he has lost something, enough to leave a gap in his heart that could never be filled.

And when he meets Ryoji upon the doorways, eyes sorrowful yet with some form of anticipation, he smiles and shrugs, apologetic. "…I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me—"

"It's okay," Ryoji breathes in relief as he wraps his ethereal arms around Makoto's frame, holding him just enough for the warmth to spread through the touch, phantasmal as it may be. "I'm just glad you're okay. Are you?"

He smiles, and before the Dark Hour fades to welcome him back to the infinite nightmare made manifest through some malevolent will, murmurs, "Of course not. We both know I never will."

Ryoji doesn't say anything, allowing darkness and shadows to swallow him back into the void as Makoto turns to greet Yukari and Mitsuru once more (for the umpteenth time).

It turns into somewhat of a waiting game.

He's tired, enough that he would just forge the bonds as perfunctorily as possible, enough to not make any of them attached to him, but enough for him to make the Seal. And he's tired, enough that he's just living day by day, fighting Shadows mostly on autopilot. Because he remembers his bonds – or whatever cosmic fluke it is that allows him to retain his myriads of Personas – he could call for anyone and anything. The Universe allows him to bring out the best that his Personas have to offer, through the superficial, brittle and weak bonds that he's made, and that's okay with Makoto.

He's just so fucking tired, and if this won't end, then he's going to enjoy it by waiting for one of the only souls that remembers how the world should be—

By, at times, doing something rather questionable with Elizabeth, his ever eccentric and energetic attendant, who remains as understanding as she ever was. She never judges him, nor his choice. Never judges the fuck-ups he had done within these endless cycles, instead keeping him company, filling the void in his heart with her gentleness that could never be replaced.

And by, during the only month they have together as humans, alive and tangible, living and breathing in Ryoij's scent, remembering his face and searing his touch onto Makoto's own skin. Neither of them look forward to the end of the cycle anymore – given how futile the first forty seven times and the cycles after that has been – only to each other; to each other's touch, to each other's warmth and love.

And that, perhaps, is for the best.

Makoto stops caring, stops wishing for things to be different, stops looking for a way (that might not even exist) out of this nightmare, instead letting himself be muted and weighted by the corruption of the world, allowing himself to be the Makoto he used to be the first time only in the presence of those who remembers.

And to him, that is okay – he's just so, sotired, and he could do nothing to change this.

He allows his mind to fall away into cold apathy and silence, living out the rest of hislivesin relative peace.

When he jolts awake after an unknown number (one that is far too large for him to evenbeginto count) of half-hearted attempts to free himself from these countless and meaningless lives he's doomed to repeat until eternity ends, something feels different.

He looks up first and foremost, noticing another person right across from him. A person that, probably close to afew thousandlives Makoto had lived before, doesnotexist. Makoto blinks, rubs the weariness and exhaustion away from his eyes, and looks again andyep, he totally isn'thallucinating.

(He had, admittedly, hallucinated a lot of things during the time spent in his nightmarish limbo. Like seeing Aragaki when he was already dead, or Ryoji who should already be gone and awaiting the final Full Moon – the latter of which might not have been so much a hallucination as a vision, a lingering image of Ryoji that remains with him, manifesting through his now unbreakable bonds with Death and Death alone.)

Who are you?Makoto almost asks, but stills his tongue, instead watching the girl before him—

The girl who wears casual spring clothing, with orange scarf and light-colored sweater, on her neck the exact copy of his MP3, with its color changed topink. Makoto watches with bated breath, unsure of what this person is, his brain trying and failing to find any memories that he might have about this person—

"…Makoto?"

The voice, unmistakablyRyoji, comes frombehind him. And Makoto whips around fast enough for him to feel the half-crack that jolts his mind to full wakefulness—

And there, standing beside him outside of the Dark Hour in fuckingApril, looking as real and as human as he could've been is Ryoji. Ryoji, who should be waiting for his arrival at the dorm, who should not be here andtangibleandalive—

"What," He deadpans, feeling happiness and fear anddreadclimbing up his fingertips, all at once, and oh – it had been so long since he was overcome with emotions that he couldn't help but let his anger and bitterness drip through his teeth and into his words. "The. Actual.Fuck?"

And when no answer comes, all Makoto could do is stares at those bright blue eyes, dumbfound yet alight with long lost hope renewed—

Oh my god,a part of him says as he turns to the strange girl with red eyes and auburn hair, who keeps her attention to the Iwatodai pamphlets in her hands, who he doesn't know.

"Oh my god," Ryoji breathes, mimicking Makoto's sudden realization. "Makoto—"

"Yeah," He breathes, looking at the girl once more. "Something's different."

They both feel it, deep within them, Makoto is certain – that whatever had happened this time, too, isn't something that issupposedto happen—

—But they couldn't help but allow themselves to hope, that they might finally be free of this nightmare, and that Makoto would finally be given the chance to truly die for the last time.

Chapter 2: Where They Shouldn't Be

Summary:

Makoto knows the first few days after the dorm is going to be rough, with the Magician Shadows lying in wait.

He never expects it to be so... startlingly difficult to adjust to a new person who he learns to be none but his supposedly dead twin sister, though.

Notes:

Hello!

So, you might've noticed. Yes, I changed the name back to Makoto, sorry, my fucking fingers keep correcting the name Minato to Makoto so what the hell lol XD

Also! Here you go! I think I've got a good layout for half a story already. Writing it gonna be different though, so please bear with me!

Here you go!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Where They Shouldn't Be

Makoto quickly gathers his thoughts.

He sees, from the corner of his eyes, that Ryoji is trying (and failing miserably) to do the same; keeping his shock and disbelief andfearshut tight within his heart as his eyes dart around the empty train car, then up and down the strange girl's form to try to find out who in the world is she—

It is a pleasure to finally meet you, dear one,a voice calls, feminine and soft, burning like a warm ember during a cold winter's night. Makoto freezes, letting the warmth roll down his back and settle deep in his stomach. He tastes the words, and listens closer, with Orpheus' presence now a constant reminder that he is connected to the Sea of Souls still, even through all of this—

She is my muse, little one,Orpheus says, plucks a tune from beyond time – a tune that exists in the future that Makoto could never see, that Makoto knows never come to be – and sings words that means nothing and everything into his ears.Eurydice is her name, and she is as I am; a mask born from within the Sea, the mask who is but an expression of one's ego.

A Persona.

That voice is a Persona that is not his, that he has no control over, that he could never call – a Persona that is tethered to another, unable to be pulled into the world through the shards of his psyche. And when he looks at the girl, her eyes still on the papers as the train rattles forward, he instinctively knows that the owner of that voice –Eurydice– ishers.

She is a Persona User.

She is a Persona User, and—

"What are you staring at me for, Makoto-nii?"

Another voice – the strange girl's – cuts his thoughts off completely, shattering them through the teasing tilt of her words, and Makoto finds himself biting the inside of his cheek hard enough for the taste of blood to register, for his fingers to twitch and for his mind to reel. Makoto thinks quickly – despite the constant pull of exhaustion accumulated through eons of going through the same year over and over – and comes up with a hurriedly-crafted explanation—

"Nothing," he quickly says, adding a careful tone of faked innocence into his voice. His brain then manages to connect two dots together; she called him Makoto-nii, which means that she either sees him as a brother, or they are actually brother and sister byblood—"…Was lost in thoughts."

She giggles, Eurydice's presence flickering through the edge of his soul like dying embers, before pulling off her headphones and putting the pamphlet away from his sight. "You do that all the time, huh. So… what about that guy? You know him?"

She points, and Makoto turns to the still thoughtful Ryoji, whose attention is solely pointed inside him and not out; a trait they both developed after some time stuck in the cycle, as a way to cut off the world to think (as a way to keep all the pain at bay), and now that trait is being seen – by Makoto's rough estimate – as something rather strange.

He quickly kicks Ryoji's shoe, enough for the boy to jolt out of his own head, and his sapphire eyes trail upwards to Makoto's, then to the stranger (not stranger? He doesn't know her, but she knows him, what the actual hell). He looks to Makoto again, and he mouths back, silent but with enough care for the other boy to actually catch his meaning;she's asking if I know you.

"Oh! I'm sorry, I was just admiring your beauty," Ryoji flashes the girl an easy smile, one he has repeatedly trained to near perfection after many meaningless cycles, as a way to entertain himself, Makoto supposes. He still finds it as endearing as it is infuriating. "I'm a close friend of his."

"Why have I never seen you before?" She tilts her head, but smiles brightly in the end, her own question discarded. "But, oh well! Not like Makoto-nii is the most open person. I'm surprised he even hasfriends."

"I know, right?" Ryoji plays along easily – flashing him one cheeky grin too, the bastard – as he bows his head and offers the girl his hand. "I apologize for the late introduction. My name is Mochizuki Ryoji. A pleasure making your acquaintance, miss—?"

Makoto has to admit, that is a verysmoothway to gather information.

"You didn't evenmentionme?" The girl huffs, hands on her hips, mild irritation coming out from her in waves, but not one that is hostile. Makoto decides to do what he does best; staying cold and aloof, a craft he has perfected as much as Ryoji does with his flirtatious nature. "Oh well. Name's Kotone! Yuuki Kotone! This guy'stwin sister!"

Makoto nearly splutters, but covers up by instead coughing – and oh, when he glances to Ryoji, he could see just how much that information shakes him up, too, with how wide his eyes are blown, and how much confusion Makoto could feel radiating through their bond, now made near indestructible withtimethat doesn't have a beginning nor an end—

"I see," Ryoji recovers quickly, enough for his moment's worth of shock to be missed, as he shakes her hand once before pulling back then leaning into Makoto's shoulder – a welcomed sensation, even after all this time – with one hand dug into his pants' pocket. "Forgive Makoto. He's a really shy one."

Makoto tries to hit Ryoji – and misses – before hissing out lowly. "Oh, for the love ofgod, shutup."

Don't tease me in front of a stranger.

Ryoji only grins as he pulls out something. It's the same damn pamphlet, one that Ryoji quickly hands over for Makoto to take a careful look at; and, sure enough, it is the same as ones that he and this person –Kotone, he corrects himself, he really needs to get used to her name (and soon) – have, an invitation to the Iwatodai Dorm—

"Looks like we're going to be dormmates from now on!" Ryoji says brightly, but it is there, Makoto could hear it, couldfeelit in the way Ryoji's fingers twitch lightly over his own; the fear of the unknown, of the unwelcome surprise that has greeted them this time around. Ryoji's voice then tilts into the gap between being carefree and being thoughtful, with a smidge of confusion laced into it. "Let's get along, Kotone-chan!"

"Wow, first name from the get go. I like that!"Kotone– fuck, this is so different and so strange and he feels like he wants to throw up – grins back, equally bright, like the sun itself. "Let's get along, Ryoji-kun!"

Makoto decides to squirm away from their conversation, instead leaning towards the familiar hum of his earphones, of the songs that he now knows the beats and the lyrics by heart, enough to count the flow of time with them if he so chooses.

(He also isn't willing enough to look deeper into this yet and let Ryoji does all the talking in his stead – one of the few things the boy always loves doing whenever they're together. And he knows that his already shitty, crumbled and broken sanity will do him no good here – Ryoji has much better control over his own thoughts than Makoto ever will, so he supposes Ryoji is just the man for this job – gathering information they need to further find the root cause to it all.)

Pharos doesn't exist for Kotone; instead, the contract is laid bare for her – and him, too – to sign on the table.

It's the first sign (aside from Kotone's very existence) that this timeline, this cycle, is much more different and mysterious from the hundreds that exist before it. And, since Makoto knows that his gut feelings is the last thing he should overlook, he also knows that this isnot a good thing.

The unknown is never a good thing. The unknown that could tip the balance towards the better or the worse (more the latter than the former) is never a good change—

"Makoto," Ryoji breathes from beside him as the Dark Hour fades, with Yukari and Mitsuru coming down from the stairs to confront them and their wakefulness during the time that shouldn't exist. Makoto looks his way, stepping back and letting Kotone take the lead – and the brunt of their distrusts – as he leans his attention towards Ryoji's voice. "Is she—?"

"—marked by Death? I don't know," Makoto replies, eyes carefully gauging the other three's reactions – or lack thereof from Mitsuru, always so cold and collected – before humming into the air between them quietly. "We'll talk more later."

"It's alright, Takeba," Mitsuru says, in that same cold, commanding tone Makoto has come to both love and hate after hearing it over and over for hundreds of times. When Yukari stands down, but not without shooting the three of them a careful, almostafraid, look first, Mitsuru continues. "They're the new students being assigned to this dorm temporarily."

A conniving lie born from Ikutsuki's twisted goal to call for Death,Makoto stops himself from saying. Ryoji catches on – of course he would, after so many times of Makoto retelling the exact sequence of events that Ryoji had missed – and smiles instead, using his rather light bearings to dispel at least some of Mitsuru and Yukari's distrusts of them. "Oh my, two other beauties in the dorm! I'm so blessed."

—If Makoto doesn't know any better that Ryoji actually swings his way and no one else's, he would have believed that wholeheartedly.

He notices the slight frown on Mitsuru's face, and a twitch in Yukari's brows, but doesn't think too much on it as the former sighs, glancing towards the three of them once more before patting Yukari's shoulder lightly. "…I apologize for the late introduction. I am Kirijou Mitsuru, a third year. And right here is Takeba Yukari, a junior just like you."

"Yuuki Kotone!" Kotone says, smiling brightly against the heavy atmosphere that has settled down into the dorm's lounge, dishearteningly empty and devoid of life Makoto has come to look forward to more (even if he refuses to forge his bonds back up the same way he did anymore because ithurtsand—) "And here's my brother, Makoto! Andthatis Mochizuki Ryoji!"

"Nice," Ryoji whistles, placing his arm on Makoto's shoulder. His protesting growl goes unanswered as Ryoji speaks up in his place. "There's that, ladies! Hope we get along!"

Yukari hums, reluctant, before she whispers something towards Mitsuru (something along the line ofare they supposed to be here,if Makoto remembers correctly), who only says something back at her before declaring to them with a small nod, "Takeba will show you to your rooms. Yuuki Kotone, your room will be on the third floor. The two of yours will be on the second."

Makoto resists the urge to walk up to the place that he has spent most of his looped life in – one he could recall every little detail down to the spec of dusts by the windowsill – and forces himself to fall behind Kotone and her footsteps, one that has springs and enthusiasm that Makoto always lacks—

"Makoto-nii!" She calls him when he's about to enter his room, with Yukari hanging slightly back, waiting for the girl to accompany her. When Makoto turns, the girl waves at him, "See you tomorrow!"

Makoto decides not to reply as he hurries into his room and closes himself off from the rest of the world.

Ryoji waits for exactly an hour before joining him, sitting on the bed next to Makoto like he always does.

"So," Ryoji begins softly, discarding his flamboyant mask away into the abyss, leaving nothing but his genuine smile and the gentle edge of his voice for Makoto and him alone to see and hear.

"So," Makoto echoes, thrumming his fingers on his knees, the initial shock now subsiding into something much more manageable within his chest. Orpheus stirs, the feeling of his flame – bright and soothing and kind – shifting from how he's felt it times before, into something stronger, into something morewhole. "I don't know where to start."

"We still have time, don't we?" Ryoji says, taking Makoto's hand into his own, mapping it out with soft, gentle fingertips, the cool winter's wind dancing along the edge of his sensation. When Makoto hums – to acknowledge his words rather than to agree to it – Death laughs, lightly, softly. "Don't be like that, Makoto. It might be different from before, but we have time to think about it."

"After I don't know how many lives,timeseems both irrelevant and a vice to me," Makoto shrugs, glancing towards the camera hidden at the corner of his room. And with the lights off, he sighs in relief to himself once more; they're not being watched right now, at least… but it might not remain so for the next few days, and would remain so for at least until the Magician Shadow comes—

"Five hundred and seventy nine lives, including this one," Ryoji replies to his rhetoric question, and when Makoto turns to look, the boy is smiling, dotting a soft kiss to his forehead as he continues. "You've lost track, but I didn't. Couldn't afford to."

"Why?"

"I want to be your anchor through all of this," Ryoji says, the note of sadness clinging to his feature as he shifts on the bed, allowing the mattress between them to dip and pulling them a little closer. Andoh, Makoto never thinks that being able to be with Ryoji here inApril, withmonthsstill ahead of them yet, would feel so subtle but so fulfilling, as if that void in his heart left by the pain of making the Seal with his broken bonds is being mended— "And while keeping count is insignificant, I thought you might want to know eventually."

It is just as Ryoji's said – the numbers of lives lived in muted solitude and pain and despair amounts little to nothing to Makoto; but the moments he shares with those who remember – with Igor and his always cryptic yet kind and sympathetic smile, with Elizabeth and her eccentricities, and with Ryoji (who is his everything) – are not.

Makoto hums, leaning his head into Ryoji's shoulder, no longer ethereal but solid and warm withlifethat he both does and does not have. "…Thank you."

"It's the least I can do," Ryoji says with a sigh, kissing Makoto's knuckle softly before murmuring against his skin. "So… You have a twin sister."

Makoto groans, finding the idea in and of itselfridiculous, not to mention what it could mean, what their presences here would mean for this timeline, this cycle. He takes a few moments to arrange his thoughts, to allow his mind to wander briefly into the dark and twisted unknown, before he brings it back and bites at his lips until he could find his voice again.

"I don't remember much of anything before the car crash," Makoto says, tasting the words on his tongue and the thoughts in his head. And when they appear mostly harmless, he allows himself to continue. "But I think… in the ashes of it all, before Aigis sealed you in me… there weren't two people in the car. There werethree."

Even with a few centuries' worth of time between that memory and this very second, Makoto could still recall it quite vividly the very moment that marks his heart and makes him cold and apathetic, the very moment that makes him shut himself off completely and almost absolutely.

He doesn't remember much of them, but he knows that heloveshis parents – even now, with them long since gone, with their faces fogged and forgotten – and that love is the source of the pain of losing them to the flame of the burning car, of that fateful day where he was marked by Death and sealed his fate to bonds that he would (and have) die a countless times for, for a life tied to his other half, to Ryoji for all eternity to come.

And now that he thinks back, towards the Moonlight Bridge ripped apart by the beginning of the Dark Hour, he remembers not just his already deceased father in the passenger's seat, nor just his mother's final smile before the flame engulfs her. He thinks he might've vaguely remembers something warm on his hand before he was ripped out from the door by the force of the impact, one that sent him careening out of the burning vehicle. And he thinks he might've remembered another person who he no longer knows within the car as it burned to ashes—

"Makoto," Ryoji's voice spurs his thoughts away from the images of burning steel and scent of decay and rots that reeks through the gaps between the car's door— "Makoto, are you okay?"

Ryoji reaches up a hand to his cheek, wiping a single trail of tear that Makoto has only noticed just now. He blinks, swallowing back a foreign emotion he hasn't allowed himself to feel for eons and exhaling into Ryoji's palm. Leaning his cheek on the other's boy softness and warmth of life, Makoto lets his thoughts cool down inside the pit of his stomach and hums one of the many songs Orpheus has introduced him to softly onto Ryoji's snow-white skin.

After a moment, he nods – reluctant and barely noticeable as it may – before clearing his throat. "…I will, eventually. But, yeah… when I think about it, there's… three in the car. Not two."

"…That means that, in other timelines and in our original one, Kotone-chan—"

"—died on the Moonlight Bridge, ten years before all of this," Makoto finishes.

Which means that either we both survive in this cycle, or that I died, and I am not supposed to be here in the first place,is what Makoto has left unsaid, has left strung between them like banners of their agony, the testament of their still ongoing nightmare festering inside their shadows.

"Makoto," Ryoji murmurs again, taking both his cheeks into his hands and forcing Makoto to look into those sapphire blue eyes, wide and dark and beautifully lit with the glow of the midnight's moon. When Makoto breathes, forcing the air in his lungs – air that he's unintentionally trapped within him for far too long – out and filling the gap between them, Ryoji smiles, pressing his forehead on Makoto's own. "Don't think like that. If you're here now, that means this world is yours, too, isn't it?"

Makoto is not convinced in the least, the thought that he shouldn't have been here still lingering at the back of his mind, that whatever kind of clusterfuck has forced the both of them into these endless but constant and predictable loops has now thrown a wrench into their supposedly unchanging sequences, and might've doomed everyone and everything else to fates irreversible—

But when Ryoji smiles at him and dots another careful kiss to the corner of his eye, holding him close against his yellow scarf that smells like fresh fallen snow and the moon's light, he allows himself to believe in those words. "…If you say so."

"Mhm," Ryoji hums, eyes shining with sorrow and hope – he knows what Makoto was and is thinking, just as he always does, and will continue to know – before he closes them and holds Makoto closer once more. "Let's think more about this tomorrow, okay? For now, let's sleep."

"Can you stay?" He mumbles quietly. Hundreds of cycles, and never once were the first night of each cycle filled by Ryoji's presence. But now that the boy is here,aliveand tangible and human, Makoto doesnotwant to waste even a moment they have together. If this is going to be their last one (he both hopes that it is and will not be), he sure as hell will not waste any more seconds being apart.

Ryoji smiles and nods, carding his fingers through Makoto's hair as he breathes. "Of course. I'll stay here for as long as you want me to."

As long as I could, remains unsaid, but always understood, as Makoto lets himself relax into Ryoji's arms.

He wakes to the knock on his door, a familiar yet missed weight on his body, and to the glare of the morning sun – always so bright, and always so unwelcomed.

"Makoto-nii! You're going to be late for school!" The strange girl –Kotone, he corrects himself,fuck– calls from beyond the wooden door. And without Makoto's consent, the privacy of his room is breeched when she casually unlocks it and swings it open. "Get up already, sleepyh—oh."

She stops mid-track, eyes wide and looking at him like he's sprouted out another head. Makoto, in his still sleep-saturated mind, doesn't know why she would stare at him that way, so he mumbles with as much feigned closeness as he could've mustered, hand absently pushing a mob of midnight black hair away from his face. "I'll be there. G'out of my room—"

"I thought you two were justfriends," is what Kotone ends up saying, andthatis enough to make Makoto backtrack into himself, with his mouth hanging slightly agape and his thoughts drifting from her words to the weight on his chest. Holyshit— "So you're actually gay, huh, Makoto-nii?"

He groans again, hitting Ryoji awake – not hard enough to actually hurt, of course – before sitting up fully and glaring at her, hand absently rubbing at his eyes then patting down his crumpled pajamas, andyep, his luck just never runs better. Now he's seen on the bed, with Ryoji… by astrangeron the very first day of a new cycle, and oh, how he wishes he hadn't forgotten to lock the damn door— "Bisexual. Now scram and leave. Me. Alone."

"Oookay. I'll see you downstairs! Don't be late!" She says with more cheer than she should, and as she sidles away from his line of sight, she shouts back. "Good morning, Ryoji-kun!"

"M'ning," Ryoji murmurs, still nudging Makoto's hip with his head like a cat before blinking to full alertness in two seconds flat. Makoto waits for Ryoji to actually realize what had just happened, and once he does – with his face flushing red and him bolting up with an indignant yelp – the boy exclaims, "Holyshitdid she just saw us—"

"—cuddling on the bed?Yes," he says, not so much with spite but with annoyance; he has never held his relationship with Ryoji a secret, not ever since the second cycle, and he doesn't intend to start doing that any time soon. But the way his privacy is intruded by an outsider so carelessly makes the nerves in his body zing, and it makes him feel sick. "Now get up and go get dressed."

"You arewaytoo composed, you know that?" Ryoji comments as he hops down, hand snatching his scarf, draped over the headboard, before leaning in to kiss the crown of Makoto's head softly. When he bats the boy away, Ryoji just smiles – with an edge of shyness after being discovered so early in the way his lips quirk – before winking at him. "See you downstairs, Makoto."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever."

Once Ryoji leaves, Makoto exhales and pushes his hair away from his face, for a moment focusing inward and to the Sea of Souls that he has strengthened his ties with so absolutely that he could reach out and tug at the strings of his bonds with each and every Persona, and call them out at will, even without the aid of an Evoker. But when he notices some of these golden threads leading deeper into the Sea, into an uncharted territory that shouldn't exist, he frowns—

Orpheus suddenly plucks a warning tune that he has to resume hisnormal schedule, at least for the day. He shakes his head and rids himself of the thoughts. He could ask Igor and Elizabeth later into the month. For now, school (and Ryoji, who is now right here with him) awaits.

Yukari and Kotone hit their friendship off immediately, a stark contrast to his previous experiences.

He's been listening to Kotone since the commute, and through the morning right before the first class; she is a chatterbox, opening her heart half-bared for all the world to see, with her emotions worn on her sleeve without fear or reservation. She is his exact opposite, a fiery soul to his cold one, a flaming beacon to his gentle shadow.

Despite himself, despite everything, he could feel a stab of jealousy; Makoto has tried to be like that a few times, but he found himself suffocating on the vulnerability of beingseen, so he simply stopped after a few attempts, after a few tries of wearing his heart on the surface for all the world to see. And Kotone – someone who should not exist. That, or it'shimwho doesn't belong (and he's more inclined towards the latter) – just does it, so casually, so freely. And seeing how calm and at ease his one-sided family are around her, he couldn't help but feel like she really belongs there, and not him.

(Makoto also notices the way she cares, in the way that she keeps her morning discovery to herself. No one is asking them about it, no one is saying anything about it. And it hurts as much as it heals, the thought of having a family who knows and cares, something he has intentionally discarded many lifetimes ago.)

And it's fine by Makoto. While the pain of not being seen as family that they used to be would linger at the edge of his soul like parasite latching onto its prey, he's fine with this. When he dies (not if,when) again, and if this is truly the final time, that would mean that she will live past the making of the Seal, would mean that he'll be the only one who disappears from memories, with the bonds he's kept close to his heart without looking at them forcenturiesand the connection he shares with Ryoji as the Seal's guards and cornerstones.

He's alright with that. He's died half a thousand deaths expecting things to change when they won't. If he could die once more, letting another live in his place and forging bonds as golden and as warm as the sun's aurous ray, letting another stay in his family's hearts instead of being ripped away and tearing their souls to pieces, then so be it. Makoto is tired, but that doesn't mean he doesn't love his family, his friends, those who give his life its meaning, those who build him up from the ground and mold him into who he is today with their loves, their cares, ones that he's shunned away after cycles and meaningless cycles—

"Makoto," Ryoji hums, hand reaching under the table to take his into it. Makoto turns away from where Kotone is, in the seat that was his lives ago, and to Ryoji, who's smiling warmly and sadly at him. He could feel their bond shifts and ripples, kindly and gently— "Please don't think like that."

Ignorance would be the last card he could play, Makoto supposes; the bond between them is tempered since time immemorial, hardened through the harsh winters and heated through the blazing flame of hellfire that is his own perpetual purgatory, so it would come as no surprise that Ryoji would know what he thinks, even when he says nothing, even when he keeps words locked inside his mouth and clamps it shut, keeping them away from the world.

He squeezes Ryoji's hand back lightly, smiling and pulling back, opening his textbook – one that he has gone through more times than mere ten thousand, simply because of the boredom and the lack of early challenges that come with his powers transcending the laws of time itself – and biting into the end of his pen. "You know why I'm thinking this way."

Ryoji sighs, nudging Makoto's shoulder with his own before opening his book, too. "I do. But I don't want to see you thinking that as the only option."

"Do we have another?" Makoto asks, and Ryoji's continued silence is all the answer that he needs – they do not. They don't even know if Kotone is touched by Death or not, and chances are she wasn't, since Ryoji is here with him and not bounded to her, not marked by her humanity and given heart by her soul. And without Death's power, she won't be able to forge the Seal. "I thought as much."

"…I suppose only time will tell," is what Ryoji decides to say at last, his voice surprisingly leveled, even when their bond rises and falls like the tides upon a distant shore. "At least, let me stay with you."

"Haven't you always?" Makoto teases, drawing out a forced laughter from Ryoji. And that is enough, perhaps, for now. When the class slowly settles into a rhythm, as Toriumi starts to take charge, he hums softly. "And I'll always be grateful to have you here."

"I know," Ryoji breathes, with love, with affection.

"Mhm. You always do."

"Makoto-nii!"

Kotone waves, stopping him and Ryoji from crossing the school's gate. He exchanges a look with his Death as she runs over, with Junpei and Yukari trailing behind her. "What?"

"Let's go eat dinner together!" Kotone beams, expectant and without a shred of nervousness. It must've been something the Makoto she knows does, something she shares with her only family that has survived the explosion, the only one who might've been her only anchor, someone Makoto doesn't have, and someone Makoto cannot be— "Junpei said he really recommended Haga—"

"Not interested," Makoto cuts her off, not with disgust nor hate, but withfear. It is only here, where she's talking to him as if she's known him while he knowsnothingabout her, that he realizes one glaring fact his presence brings with him; that he's robbed her of her possibly well-loved brother, instead replacing that person with a cynical death-seeker who couldn't be bothered to reforge old bonds because of the pain he's had to endure. "I'm going with Ryoji."

Subtly, Ryoji squeezes his hand.You don't need to do that,his eyes seem to say, as he turns to greet Kotone, who has somewhat deflated from her previously energetic attempts at connecting with him. "Sorry, Kotone-chan. We've made plans since yesterday, and he's really grumpy right now."

If Makoto hadn't been spending years after endless years observing people and their expressions, taking notes of the way their faces or bodes shift with emotions, he would've missed it; a slight twinge of sadness in her smile, one that she completely wipes away with a bright, childish laughter that sounds forced to Makoto's ears. "I see! Welp, see you at the dorm then, Ryoji-kun! Makoto-nii!"

They watch as Kotone half-forcefully skips away, Yukari and Junpei restarting their discarded conversation and following closely behind. Makoto waits until he's certain they're all out of earshot before he turns to Ryoji. But he's not fast enough – Ryoji has already opened his mouth to speak his mind. "You don't have to shut her out like that, you know."

"I do," Makoto says with a small shrug, frowning at the floor as he nudges Ryoji's foot with his own. When Ryoji doesn't move, he says, "I might not want to, but Ihaveto. For their sakes.Hers."

I'm not the brother she knows. It's better she starts getting used to losing him now,remains in his heart.

Ryoji gets it, like he always does, as he squeezes his hand lightly once before intertwining their fingers together, spreading warmth into his marrows and silencing the wild thoughts marring his mind like the plague. "I don't really agree with your plans, but I understand it. I really do."

"When have we ever been in agreement with what I do?" Makoto muses, recalling back to the very day that Ryoji asked him to take their memories away during the first New Year's Eve, with his eyes glowing like sun-blessed lapis lazuli. They understand and love each other as they are, but they've rarely agreed on what they think is best – Makoto values the fight for the right to live (now for the right to die), values friendship (now cold solitude and silence), values bonds above anything else, while Ryoji valueshimabove anything else in the world, values his painlessness over the world, over Makoto's sparks of determination.

The only thing they ever agree upon is valuing the unique, ever-growing bond that they share, tempered through time that would not march forward, strengthened through their love despite the way that Fate dictates they be separated forevermore.

"There are some," Ryoji hums, amused, even though what he means isn't exactly what Makoto does. They do agree about many things – trivial ones – like what to eat, what to do for the night. But they could rarely agree upon the hardest and harshest of decisions that involve his life and death, his wellbeing and his mental health – something that Ryoji loves and cherishes, but Makoto readily discards for everything else. "Don't say it as if we bicker all the time."

"We never do that," Makoto corrects him as they continue to walk past the sunset, through the buzzing streets of Iwatodai and towards the Paulownia mall. "Or have we?"

Ryoji pauses to think, matching his longer steps with Makoto's own, before he hums with a small, almost surprised shrug. "We never do. Huh. That's a surprise—" at this, Ryoji trails off, tilting his head to the side before looking at him "—what're we going to buy? Guitar?"

"Guitar," Makoto nods, feeling Orpheus hum in contentment within the cavity of his chest, singing the song from beyond time into his ears and plucking his bonds into the tune that sounds sorrowful yet marked with the light of hope for him and Ryoji to hear. "You can hear Orpheus, can't you?"

Ryoji tips his head up, mimicking the song Orpheus is singing and smiling slightly at the tune, foreign yet so right, as if it belongs to this world, and not the one beyond from where they could see. "Mm, this is a new one for me. Do you want to play it?"

"Yeah," he nods, squeezing Ryoji's hand again before letting go when they've reached the mall. "But, first thing first – we meet with our old friends."

Ryoji smiles simply at that, eyes so soft, so warm, so kind. "First, we meet those who remember."

"Welcome – ah…"

It is one of the few times Makoto has ever seen Igor pausing in his first welcomes, the tilts of his voice and the softness of his words well remembered by Makoto's ears. He only smiles as he lets Elizabeth comes over and hugs him, laughing lightly when she squeezes him tight – something he would only do with those who remember, those who are trapped in this hell with him – as she says. "It is good to see you again, no matter how many times it has been, or however short or long it has been."

"It's good to see you, too," Makoto says as she steps back before he greets Igor with a small bow. And Igor, after a short pause, smiles back at him. "It's good to see you as well, Igor-san."

"It always is a pleasure, Makoto-san," Igor echoes, his eyes trailing towards Ryoji, who only waves at him as he bows deeply towards Elizabeth – who plays along and bows back. "I had not expected this, but it is a welcomed surprise all the same to see you within the Velvet Room so early, Ryoji-san."

"Likewise," Ryoji says, waving for Makoto to sit down. When he does, the boy takes the same place he always does whenever he's drawn into the Velvet Room along with him – something that rarely happens, but something he always looks forward to, one of the few surprises within the endless cycles that is the sequences of his lives and deaths – which is right behind him, with his arm rested on the back of his chair. "I don't think we've ever met each other this early and with my consent before."

"Indeed," Igor agrees, pausing briefly as the elevator that is the Velvet Room – one that has stopped at the top floor, with nothing but gentle rays of lights at the other end – slowly shifts and melts away into something immaterial, turning the room into nothing but smokes and a table with a pair of chairs that they're sitting on. "…I do not rightly know what had happened this time, but do be cautious in your endeavor, Makoto-san. The world has changed, and I do not think that the events will play out like it did before. Not with the presence of Kotone-san."

Makoto bites his lip. He wants to ask if he really has just robbed an innocent girl of the brother she loves, wants to ask if he had just ripped away the first bond she's ever made and spat it back into her face, hurting her more than he should, harming her in ways he shouldn't have. But he stills his tongue – this isn't the question he should ask, since his heart alreadyknowsthat those things are exactly what he had done by coming here, even if it was out of his control, even if it is against his own will.

He breathes, taking in the shapeless form of his Velvet Room, noting the ways he could see dots of stars that adorn the darkness like the ephemeral canvas that used to greet him whenever he stared into Nyx's ever roaring blood-red eye. He then looks at Igor, exhaling briefly, before humming. "She is a Wild Card too, isn't she? Kotone, I mean."

"She is," Igor confirms, hand clasped in front of him, smile dotted with a slight frown, the unease born from facing the unknown. Something he's shown during the earlier cycles of Makoto's plight. "I cannot inform you of any more. She is in charge of her own fate, as you are to yours. But know this; that your fates are intertwined, just as yours is with everyone else that you've come to love, come to bond with."

That sentence is soothing, for Makoto; it means that he could die to let her live, could sacrifice himself like he did so many times before for the world to live on, for it to march over his cold grave and leaving him with only silence and the brilliant bonds that he has made and kept close to his heart. So, despite the new development, the unexpected circumstances, he allows himself to smile. "That is good to hear."

"But be warned," Igor suddenly sounds more serious, enough for Makoto to look up into those unblinking eyes, and he has to force down a gulp as Igor continues through the silence. "Don't let the darkness runs too deep. And don't lose your heart."

"I never will," Makoto declares. "I have nothing more to lose, have I? I won't lose heart simply because something's changed. Dying a few months earlier than I used to or dying for one last time won't make much difference to me."

"Wouldn't it?"

That simple question forces him to stop, to stay his thoughts and to frown over his own words. But, not yet – he's not willing to look into it, to explore the possibilities, to question himself, not just yet. So, he only smiles and shrugs, deciding to borrow Ryoji's words to describe his own state of mind; "Only time will tell now, wouldn't you agree?"

Igor returns his statement with a smile, one that seems sad, much sadder than it should, to him.

It is almost eight in the evening when they get back to the dorm.

Makoto does what he's always done, ignoring the various greetings from the lounge – and catching the way Kotone frowns and saddens at his lack of response to her – while Ryoji replies to each one with delight and energy. They all ask about the newly purchased guitar, something that Makoto doesn't even deign them with a word, before he excuses himself back to his room first, with Ryoji following right behind.

"The Full Moon is tomorrow," Makoto says once Ryoji enters and he's made sure the recording of the room's camera isn't on. When Ryoji hums, Makoto sits down, crossing one leg over the other and probing the guitar down into his lap, feeling the cold woods and the hard strings on the pads of his fingertips. "We have to be prepared in case things change."

"I can't test if I have my powers during the Dark Hour or not, since it's certain they'll be watching us today during it, but I think it might've been safer for me to act like Ikutsuki anyway," Ryoji breathes, sitting down beside him and humming the soft tune of Orpheus' lyre for them to enjoy together. "What about you?"

"Eurydice is Orpheus' muse, so I assume she would be just as fiery in spirit, and as kind in the heart," he says, more about Kotone than Eurydice herself. At this, something stirs, edge creeping into his conscious and blowing a soft, calm gale into his heart, filling his heart with the winds of delight. Andoh, he realizes that it isn't just Eurydice who's celebrating his return. Io, too, it seems – something he finds rather odd, when hundreds of lives before they remained silent and detached from him, leaving him alone with his amalgamation of masks— "But her power would be only at the very start."

"And she doesn't haveme," Ryoji finishes, recalling the way Thanatos – the very being born from their souls intertwined, a being that isn't reachable by anyone else – ripped Orpheus apart with an unearthly cry that fills the air with decay and death. "Eurydice at her first appearance might not be strong enough to take the Magician down."

"I'll be there," Makoto assures, even if he doesn't want to form more bonds (because he knows how painful it'd be if he lets his budding bitterness reigns, and he's sure that he'd let himself slip eventually, like he'd done so many times before—) with anyone, because he doesn't want to see them ripped apart and torn to shreds. "As a failsafe. If she can't take it out, I will."

"Would you be put as the leader, then?" Ryoji tilts his head.

Makoto shrugs. "I'm being as antisocial as I've always been. That alone will dissuade Mitsuru – ah,Kirijou-senpai," he corrects himself, still tasting the bitterness of their now nonexistent familarity on his tongue. He frowns and decides to push the thoughts away (he doesn't want to feel this, not again, never again, it hurts so much and he couldn't—) before slapping the body of his guitar once. "If that doesn't, I could always decline. She isn't the type to put commands in the hands of someone who doesn't want it."

"Maybe that's the best we could do for this particular Full Moon," Ryoji says, and Makoto agrees by strumming a single, melancholic chord softly, feeling the familiar bite of the strings on his fingertips. "Are you sure you're ready?"

I never will be."I am."

Ryoji smiles, but doesn't say anything to his silent denial of the truth as he sits back and closes his eyes, allowing Makoto to strum the strange song from Orpheus' memories to life on his fingertips.

When the Full Moon comes, things don't go as planned.

When have they ever?

Makoto silently curses himself as he sits up; one moment, he was in his room with Ryoji, ready for the night to come, his mind at a set and Orpheus' power running at a ready at the tip of his tongue, like a prayer ready to be said to the wicked and the cruel. And in another, after but a slip of his concentration, Makoto is greeted by nothing but the expanding darkness and wisp-like shadows beneath him.

He looks around, and sees nothing; not Ryoji, not Yukari, not even a Shadow. He's utterly alone, and this reminds him of that final moment before the making of the Seal, where only darkness embraces him and his bonds, ones that are shaping his soul into the gate that should've separated Death and humanity's pain and suffering for as long as it is needed—

"Little one,"a voice calls, soft yet firm, authoritative but with care. Makoto doesn't feel the need to be alarmed by it, to be startled by it. And when it rings from everywhere and nowhere, from inside and out, he doesn't turn his head to try to find the source, instead closing his eyes and listening intently."Fate has been quite cruel to you, and this one is no different. It has dictates you going through another trial, one that is radically dissimilar to those you've gone through before."

Makoto nods, even if his thoughts stray briefly to the Full Moon, to the lonely roof and the masked Shadow that represents the reversed Magician. Even if he tries, he won't be able to go back – notyet, not when something in him, a golden thread of bonds he's kept close to his heart, pulls him back here, urging him to stay and listen close – so he breathes into the airlessness before him. "Who are you?"

"I am Thou, Thou art I,"the familiar phrase registers, and a thread spins, pulling him towards the feeling of darkness, one that is gentle and warm, one that is not oppressive. He breathes again, seeing the eyes of the entity, the right bright red like blood, like life, the left jade green like the midspring's canopy. And then, he could feel the thread being pulled in return."I am but one of the many who would aid you yet. Call for us whenever you are in need of aid, Death-Seeker. My name is—"

The reverberating roar of the void silences the voice, but the feeling of the name has already been etched into a part of his soul, and it sings in exultation, and in appreciation; of the powers born from his ties with time itself, or from his imprisonment inside it. Makoto doesn't let his mind wander too much, doesn't let the opportunity slip away from his veins, as he looks around once more.

The ground shakes, the smell of toxin and vileness invading his sense and burning his very core, making him sick and forcing him to gasp; the airlessness that he could somehow breathe is no longer breathable, the atmosphere turning dark and repulsive. And when Makoto feels something looming from behind him, he turns, fingers twitching at a ready, pulling at the bonds long formed, at the power newly acquired—

What stares back at him is nothing he has expected, and something he fears the most; the body made out of dark ooze that forms itself into a beastly physique, with red glowing eyes that whisper curses and damnations into his ears and driving his mind to the very edge, pulling his nerve taut and making every bit of his skin singe.

Erebus,Makoto breathes silently, remembering the brief, infinitesimal gap of time that he had seen the thing, hundreds of times prior, as he erected the stone gate; a beast without voice, a monster without sentient, one that is doomed to reach Nyx repeatedly, and once that the Great Seal was supposed to keep away from reaching Nyx for all eternity. And here, with a glance, Makoto could feel it in his veins, a feeling he never before felt whenever he looked at it before shattering his soul to pieces to make the gate.

It has thoughts, and goals. Sentient. Something that it shouldn't have.

Erebus, with its bone-white rows of teeth sharp as blades,smiles, red eyes angling up, as if to look down at him, as if to mock him and his failure. And instead of being angry, or being disgusted, Makoto isafraid; it is the form of primal fear that clenches into his gut and squirms its way into his brain without pause, without a way to separate it from his soul—

"We shall meet again, Great Seal,"the thingsays, mocks, as crows of laughter ring loudly inside his head, drowning out everything else but the lingering dread that has settled deep into his bones."And when we do, your death will be absolute, and I will be victorious."

Makoto gasps, andbolts—

"Makoto!" Ryoji's voice derails his thoughts from their fear-stricken stupor, and he glances to see Ryoji grasping both of his shoulders tightly, the heat of his touch fixing him to the earth. Makoto blinks away the feeling of intense fright as Ryoji murmurs, "What happened? Are you okay?"

No,he mouths, glancing to the side to see what he thinks is Kotone, leaning on Yukari's shoulder, the latter with a large cut on her thigh.They're on the roof,his mind registers, with embers scattering around the place, and a distant gleam of the dissipating Shadow's mask coming into view— "Y-yeah, I'll be. What happened?"

Ryoji pauses, looks back, before squeezing his shoulder subtly –I'll tell you everything later– and pulling him shakily to his feet. "Kotone-chan, uh… dealt with the monster on the roof. We need to go, though, because they're climbing up here."

"I can still—" Kotone begins, before stumbling further into Yukari. "I can help, I can—"

"Nope, none of you are going to fight any more of these craps!" Yukari declares with finality, her eyes lingering on Makoto a moment longer. "Yuuki-kun, are you sure you'll be alright? You blacked out the moment you locked eyes with thatthing."

She makes a point to gesture towards the now empty rooftop, and Makoto figures that he just had a retrograde amnesia, of all things, with a part of his memories prior to his confrontation withwhat was it again? – muddled up by something he couldn't quite name, and it leaves a foul taste in his mouth. But he decides to think about that later as he nods, inhaling sharply the familiar scent of cinders and burnt flesh. "I'm fine, I'm fine. How long until—"the Dark Hour's over?

(Something tells him that he's starting to forget an important detail, a face he's seen now having no name in which he could recall. Something urges him to look deeper, something tells him that the name is far too important than to be forgotten just so, but… he couldn't. He couldn't remember anything except for rows of white teeth and vile shadows in the back of his eyelids.)

"Roughly ten minutes," Ryoji answers, bowing to Yukari lightly once. "I've been counting."

"That's a little too long," Yukari murmurs, biting on her nail, before she quickly gathers her thoughts as dark tidings squirm their ways up the side of the building and onto the rooftops, ignoring what Makoto assumes to be Eurydice's sparks left by her initial summoning. "Holy shit, now wereallyneed to go—"

And when they turn towards the back, the door is already blocked by Shadows –Mayas, to be exact – with their laughing masks flickering in the dim moonlight.

Surrounded. Kotone out of commission,Makoto notes with a frown, and takes a single glance towards Ryoji, who nods in return.I have to fight.

"How did Kotone deal with the thing?" He says, even if he already knows the answer to that question. He couldn't afford to let it slip that he knows more than he should, at least not yet – or suspicions will be placed on him, and he won't be able to move too well.

"The gun, um," Yukari says, fingers trembling around the object, her frown growing as seconds pass. She doesn't seem like she could fight, and she's not mentally strong enough to pull the trigger –yet. "It's – it's not a real gun, but you mimic dying by it, and then you can call out what we call Personas—"

"Good enough explanation," he cuts her short, snatching the Evoker into his hand, pressing it deep into the side of his head as his eyes scan the roof once more. He breathes deep – while the Evoker is no longer a necessity for him, the feeling of putting it where it belongs is always a welcoming sensation – and reaches deeper into the Sea, to the many voices that await—

Let me show you my new form, tempered through time and your strength of heart, little one.

And who is he, to deny such a request from his mask, his true expression, his other self?

So, Makoto grins, pulling the trigger and calling for the name that has always felt like home on his tongue.

"Come,Orpheus!"

Notes:

So yeah, cliffy, because I'm a filthy writer ;)

See you again next time! Hope you enjoyed this one!

Chapter 3: Sever The Ties

Summary:

The Full Moon comes and goes.

Afterwards, he tries to get back into old but new routine, cutting off his ties and severing everything that he could as he prepares to march forward unto death.

Notes:

I'm a little late oof sorry XD

So! Featuring: Makoto trying to get back into routine, more angst and self-deprecation and whole lot of mental baggages that would follow after a time loop! Enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Orpheus is a spark, the first warmth after a decade of cold, detached silence.

Orpheus was fairly weak at the very beginning, but grew stronger as his bonds grew, as time passed. But even when time stagnated, when bonds were left to rot and die, his growth did not suffer; he continues to burn brighter even now, cinders to embers to blazing flame that does not burn, but warm the heart, soothe the soul.

And here he is, in a new body that Makoto still doesn't know the reason for its formation. But he quickly disregards the thought as he looks up at the figure bathed in pale moonlight.

Instead of the old form, the form that resembles a doll with a harp, this new one looks more regal, of high power and absoluteness, yet with that sort of gentleness that calms the mind. Makoto glances up a little higher to see Orpheus in his full glory; his body no longer like a marionette, but humanoid covered in noble-like garb, red scarf flowing outward like the trails of fire left by a meteorite. Everything from the curl of his scarf up is covered by snow-white, gold-embroiled hood, with nothing visible through the dark-steel helmet adorn with runes of fire that shimmers and shines dimly in his own azure flame that covers him like a mantle. In place of a heart, all he could see is the blazing flame of the sun itself, the hollowness of Orpheus' chest seen through the slight part of his robe is filled by the scorching heat of a newly-born star, scarlet light burning away even the shadows of the white-teeth and the red-eye of the beast whose name suddenly eludes Makoto's mind—

"I am Thou, Thou art I,"Orpheus declares, the long tail of his dark coat and the scarf of ephemeral flame flowing behind him as he spins with a flare befitting a showman, the lyre now more intricate than ever before. And Makoto couldn't help but admire this new beauty, the new change, and the royalty of his bearings; a stark contrast to the original appearance that he had shown Makoto countless times before."I am to you as you are to me, two souls fated to connect, separated by not even time. I am Orpheus, the Master of Strings. At your service, little one."

Orpheus bows again before straightening up, and Makoto feels a grin splitting his face, even if something horrible starts to stir inside his gut, making his head spin even as Orpheus' bright flame surrounds him. But he ignores that gut feeling, something he might've felt before during the cycle of life and death, and pushes forward, ordering Orpheus to rid themselves of the Shadows around them.

The lyre hums against the void of the Dark Hour, and from the hallowed notes and his segmented fingers comes a burning spark that forms along the Shadows' twisted masks, scorching them to ashes with another note strummed as a celebration – for what, though, Makoto doesn't know.

When the fire dies down, he exhales, and looks up once more. Orpheus, despite having nothing but a casque and royal clothing that hides all but his fire, seems tosmileas he bows at Makoto again, the ringing in his ears subsiding into a quiet hum that fills the hole in his heart.I am forever in your care, Seeker. A pleasure to stay by your side, as always.

As always,Makoto whispers into his heart. And Orpheus, an extension of his own emotions, laughs lightly into the midnight air before fading away.

Makoto breathes, the tension he isn't quite aware was in his veins dissipating. He looks to Ryoji first, and he could see awe all too clearly in his gaze. He offers the boy a smile before he glances to Yukari, to the way she seems to gape at his display of power – something he is not proud of, but nevertheless doesn't regret – and to the way she seems startled when he hands her back her Evoker.

"Here," he says, pushing the object into her hands, taking Kotone's still crumbling form in for a moment before he looks around once more. And, mostly out of habit, he turns to Ryoji. "Any more?"

He almost stops himself, but thinks twice on it before deciding to allow himself to go with the flow; Ryoji is already awake during the Dark Hour, and in the past, he – as the ghost no one but him could perceive before the congregation of the twelve Shadows – had always been the one to inform him of dangers where even Fuuka couldn't see, where Lucia and Juno failed to detect in time.

Ryoji smiles, seemingly catching on to his line of thoughts. Ikutsuki couldn't use a Persona because god knows why, and as long as he acts as if he fears death (fears himself), Ryoji could always decline the act of pulling the trigger while providing aid from the back, a silent guardian to those left behind whenever Makoto has to ascend into Tartarus in the future.

"I don't think so," the boy decides to say at last with a shake of his head, smile light and careful. "There are three strays on the street by the door, and one clinging to the wall of the second floor next to your room, but they don't seem to be moving anymore. We should be safe for tonight."

"Yeah," Makoto hums, fingers twitching in the night air of the Dark Hour as he looks up at the eerie moon, at Nyx's still closed eye. "For tonight, at least."

Something in him twists again, pulling his mind back towards the images of a strange, hidden beast bearing its fangs down at him, of the thing that shouldn't have a mind of its own, of maddening grin and blood red eyes. But he decides to ignore it, for now focusing on one thing at a time.

(The strange Persona that has introduced itself to him stirs, the unknown name resting snuggly at the tip of his tongue. Makoto decides to keep its presence in his heart, for now, and not outward. While he has yet to heard the name, cut off by a crooked vileness, he doesn't feel fear. It feels, just like Orpheus on his tongue, like home.

But that vileness… it has a name, hasn't it? So why couldn't he remember?)

The Definition Of Insanity - BkZa555 (1) The Definition Of Insanity - BkZa555 (2)

Two Persona Users, all within a few nights. And someone who seems to be able to feel Shadows without the aid of Personas, too.

Mitsuru paces the control room, even long after Ikutsuki is gone. They're done analyzing the data and the footages gathered from that night. Yuuki Kotone's power is excellent – to be able to take down that gigantic Shadow all by herself, and her ability to use the Evoker with so little pause, too… and while the girl has yet to be asked to join the SEES, Mitsuru has an inkling of feeling that she will.

On the other hand, instead of being reassured by Yuuki Makoto's quickness to put the Evoker to his own head – despite the initial loss of consciousness after facing the large Shadow – she feels uneasy; even if they've met but a few times, and be in each other's presences for but a few days, he gives off the aura of someone who doesn't likeanyone(except for that other boy, clearly), the aura of someone who doesn't care if another lives or dies. And while Mitsuru would usually have no qualm with such a thing, something about him makes her feel… on edge. Terrified. Almost suffocating, even.

His display of power, with bright burning spark far more refined and controlled than Yuuki Kotone's own, does little to quell the fear bubbling up in her stomach. It makes her feel like he's someone who's far too dangerous to be put on a team, even if he had pointed his powers towards the Shadows, and not Takeba, not at any of them for the remainder of the Dark Hour. And even his sister has that tiny spark of hesitation when pulling the trigger, while he does not – he grasps the gun from Takeba's hand, and almost seemsgleefulwhen pointing the object to his own head.

Terrifying, despite all the rationality in her head saying that this is the kind of power that the SEES needs. Yuuki Makoto… is simplyterrifying.

And then there's Mochizuki Ryoji – someone who seems just like any ordinary boy and one who, just like the Yuuki twins, does not display any symptoms of disorientation experiencing the Dark Hour. While he didn't display any combat ability during the Shadow attack, it seemed quite unnatural for him to be able to tell Yuuki Makoto so accurately about the incoming Shadows (she checked as soon as she heard him talked about the positions of remaining Shadows, and he had been oddly accurate). Penthesilea could sense that sort of hostility, but not as accurately as Mochizuki has shown so far. The boy doesn't seem to have a Persona (with him being unable to even hold the Evoker in his hand); something strange, to be certain, but he could sense these kinds of changes. While it sets something odd in her off, she couldn't afford to keep that power unused; keeping an eye on him, certainly, but his help would be valuable for their future investigations.

"You're still here, Mitsuru?" Akihiro says, and she turns towards him as he walks over, his injured arm now mostly taken care of. Still a slight limp, a slight twitch, but nothing too major or too out of ordinary. "They seem like good additions, don't they?"

"Yes," she replies, glancing back towards the frozen footage of three separate occasions; the girl's first awakening, then the boy's, then Mochizuki's uncanny ability to predict – or rather, to sense – any Shadows approaching them. "Quite. However—"

"—Yeah, I do feel the same," Akihiro says quietly, surprising Mitsuru enough to draw her eyes back to him. He just shrugs, eyes on the boy's Persona, with regal bearings and words too deep and too bright and toopowerful. "He seems really powerful, but something about him sets me on edge. I don't like it."

"Me neither," Mitsuru agrees. And what's more surprising is that Yuuki Kotone is still in the hospital, even almost a week after the incident, while Yuuki Makoto just… seems to have shrugged it all off, returning to normal schedule as soon as the Dark Hour is over, as if he didn't feel any effect from summoning a Persona for the first time. "Something about him feels… off. Wrong. I don't know if we can trust him or not."

"But he hasn't done anything to harm us since, right? Hell, he doesn't even askquestions," Akihiko says, even if that slight frown on his face says otherwise. Mitsuru only hums in respond as she sighs, leaning back against her seat, rubbing away the tension between her brows. "I don't think he's going to harm us or anything. But, just to be safe than sorry… I don't think we should put him in any position of power just yet. Yuuki Kotone seems like a good candidate to lead the rest while I recover, anyway."

"At least we're in agreement on that point," Mitsuru hums, closing the screen and turning his way briefly, a small frown permanently etched on both of their faces. "…The three of them are a good addition; one to help in support, two for the front line. But something about Yuuki Makoto is unsettling, and I don't like it."

"Me neither. But we can't complain," Akihiko shrugs. "We need all the help we can get."

"That is true," Mitsuru sighs. "That is true."

For now, her feelings are to be kept under lock and key; the SEES' powers and ability to investigate the Dark Hour and Tartarus comes first. The rest… they can think about it more later.

Makoto has always been sensitive to the emotions of those around him, in the way their bodies give off tells, in the way they breathe.

And oh, he doesn't know what they see in him, but they do not trust him in the least. That, at least, Makoto counts as a small blessing.

(A part of him feels a stab of pain, deep and scalding, inside him, tearing at his bonds and reminding him of what he could've had, what should've been. He elects to ignore it post haste.)

And much to their luck, the SEES has explicitly asked for Ryoji to help as a support. Something he supposes is a welcome change (something that went according to plan, foronce), in spite of certain… uncertainties that have occurred. Not to mention that, while Makoto has been granted entry into the SEES with unease following their every twitch of muscles, their every step, Kotone is the one who's given the position of a temporary leader.

And once Junpei joins in, Tartarus is now open to them.

"Something feels odd about this place," Ryoji says as soon as the tower is built from the ether into its malevolent spire, dark tidings looming where their eyes couldn't see. And those words aren't meant for the others – they're meant for Makoto. A warning. "It feels… disconcerting."

"I can tell just by looking at it," Kotone whistles, rocking back and forth on her heels as her eyes train upward towards the top, hidden inside the darkness of the slowly waning moon. "This place is creepy as all hell. Not that the Dark Hour has never been creepy, but this is just on a whole another level."

"This really is the only place we can look for clues?" Junpei asks.

"As far as we're concerned, yes," Mitsuru says flatly as she leads them inside, the clattering of their shoes against the ground their only companions within the blood-stained walls of the time that shouldn't be. "I am not certain if there are other clues for us to look for or not, but this tower has been standing tall since the beginning of the Dark Hour. It is only logical to conclude that this place might hold the secrets about the Dark Hour for us to find."

It is the spire that calls forth Nyx, after all,Makoto muses silently, hand resting on his Evoker, its cold steel a well-missed sensation against his palm. He ignores Kotone's look towards him, instead focusing his attention on Ryoji. "Don't hit on anyone while we're doing our jobs."

Don't let your attention stray,is what Makoto means, and while that look of being offended on Ryoji is real, there is also that light of understanding reflecting within his eyes, now glowing with the peridot light of the Dark Hour.

Ryoji smiles, shrugging and laughing lightly into the cold, stale air. "Of course. I can keep my focus when I want to, you know."

Once they enter, Makoto immediately spots the familiar blue door that brings more comfort as time – as looped as it is – goes on; a reminder that there are those who remember, those who share his pain and his suffering here, too. He notices a male attendant, this time, but with that distinct silver hair and bright golden eyes not unlike Elizabeth's own. The man gives him a knowing smile, so Makoto returns one, too.

Makoto looks down at his own feet, noticing the way the floor – which should've been solid and unmoving, unchanging – seems to shift and change just barely at the edge of his shoes. He frowns, unsure of what to make of it, Ryoji's comment from earlier squirming its way back into his mind. Red eyes gleaming beyond the dark smog of a beast resting at the edge of reality, fangs and claws sharpened by pain and misery of billions of humans—

"We'll explore only a floor for tonight," Mitsuru's voice cuts off his thoughts, and he blinks to clear his head. He shakes it at Ryoji, who looks at him with concern, as he concentrates on Mitsuru's words – or at least,triesto – while she explains their plans for the night. "Yuuki –Kotone– you'll lead the team. It isn't that you haven't proven yourself, Yuuki Makoto—"

"It's fine," Makoto shrugs easily, ignoring the way Kotone is looking at him, with reservation instead of openness she showed him at the beginning. "I don't like leading people, anyway."

"…That's good to hear," Mitsuru says, clears her throat, and glances at Akihiko – who seems as relief as she is with Makoto openly declining the position that they don't want him to take – before resuming in her explanation. "…regardless, there is one thing to look out about Tartarus; its structure changes every day. Outside support is imperative, which is why I have to stay outside. Mochizuki doesn't have a Persona, but he has the ability to sense hostility. He'll stay back here to help provide support, to communicate with you through me about possible incoming Shadows."

"Isn't that… kinda dangerous?" Junpei asks with a small frown. "What if we get lost?"

"With our help, you hopefully won't," Mitsuru says, without sugarcoating anything, as always. Makoto has always liked that about her – her inability to say anything remotely resembling a white lie, is something he always appreciates. He doesn't like to be told he'll live when he's destined to die, after all— "but the floor won't change enough for you to be out of my reach. That's why we'll look around for only one floor for tonight, to get the feel of it. And if I deem it safe enough, in other nights, we might be able to climb higher."

"Roger that!" Kotone says cheerfully, voice grating on his eardrums and making him frown, the misplaced enthusiasm making his gut churns with an emotion he couldn't quite name. "Everyone ready?"

"You're so unfazed, Koto-nan," Junpei sighs, but with less jealousy and skepticism than what he'd shown when Makoto was in charge; a change so glaring and disturbing that it does nothing but confirming his budding suspicion that he doesnotbelong in this world, shouldn't exist and shouldn't— "But hey! I guess if you're leading us, then we should be good! Sorta. Eh. Whatever. I'm ready!"

"So am I," Yukari says, stretching her arms and readying her bow, even if her fingers still shake with that smidge of fear that lingers.

Makoto doesn't say anything as he waits for Kotone to ascend the stairs, but when the silence stays even after they've confirmed their readiness, he turns – and they are all looking at him. Ryoji mouthsyou have to say it too, to which he only returns with a scoff. He supposes forgetting is par for the course; he is so used to be the one asking for a confirmation that he has forgotten that this time, his role is to follow the lead, and not taking the first step. "I'm ready."

They gather, with Kotone's eyes following his footsteps, her mouth pressed into a thin line. He ignores it – as he has been for the past who knows how long – as he swings the sword, testing the weight and, as always, finding the faults in the way the weight shifts strangely in his hand. Makoto stifles the sigh back down, and follows Kotone as she takes the lead up the stairs, but not before Mitsuru whistles for their attention one last time.

He turns, and finds her saying something she hadn't hundreds of lives ago; "be careful, all of you. Take care, and return home safely."

Kotone grins, bright and wide. "We will, Mitsuru-senpai! Be right back!"

Makoto decides to ignore that same pain, one that grows stronger with each different interaction that Kotone gets, and pushes everything back into a box deep within his heart. He has to focus – right now, the tower awaits.

"Three Shadows twelve meters to your right, four right ahead of you."

Ryoji's voice – even through Penthesilea – is an odd calm against the emotions Makoto isn't too willing to feel or to look into just yet. Orpheus hums as he swings his blade, foot skidding in the same manner, the same folly he's alwaysrepeatedwhen he fights in Thebel. Even after constant repeating cycles he has gone through, he still sometimesforgetsabout the blood pool that would, more often than not, throw him off balance.

He curses under his breath, using that unintentional momentum to sweep his sword low, cutting the Shadows' equivalent of feet and staggering them just in time for Kotone and her Naginata to finish them off with a surprising show of finesse that Makoto lacks. He doesn't say anything, but nods his head as he wipes the sweat off his brows.

"That's some nice footwork, Kotone-chan," Ryoji praises her easily, and Makoto could hear a smile in his voice as he hums, quiet and with adoration. Makoto couldn't help but feel a little jealous, even if he knows full well that Ryoji loves him more than he ever loves himself."But why a Naginata? Have you perhaps had experience with one before?"

"You could say that," Kotone replies with a small smile, even when an edge of sadness lingers when she looks at him. He, as always, makes a point to ignore her – he's not the brother that she knows, he never could be, he's just an imitation that isn't meant to be here in the first place— "So, a quick check! How are you guys doing? Wanna take a breather?"

"Yeah," Junpei's reply is quick and curt, his form hunched over against the wall. Makoto also notes the way Yukari rubs at her drawing arm, fingers trembling just minutely on her bow. "Gimme a few minutes and I'm good. How much longer do we need to go till we can go back?"

"You're nearly at the end of that floor,"Mitsuru says through the link, and true to her words, he could see it even from here – the stairs that would lead them further up, a tiny step towards the zenith of the world, towards the fated battlefield that hopefully would mark his grave for the final time—"Once you are, you can return. I do not intend to let you explore much today."

"Roger that!" Kotone says, with her face tilting just slightly upward. Makoto scuffs his shoes against the floor, a strange feeling of unease and dread that eats away at him when he's first set foot in Tartarus – something thatnever happens before– growing stronger the longer he stays. He frowns, deciding to call Orpheus for his aid. And sure enough, he starts playing a strange, otherworldly song into his ears, calming down his beating heart and— "Makoto-nii, you okay? You look pale."

"I'm fine," he half-growls, briefly closing his eyes to center himself before snapping them open, kicking the blade back up into his hand and rolling his shoulders, ones that have started to sore over a few simple fights that never fail to tire him out no matter how many lives he has repeated. This is the reason why he always makes a point to start training as soon as they visit Tartarus and gaining access to the Kendo team's practice. "Keep going."

"Okay!"

With that, Kotone leads the way forward, her steps quick and light, unlike his – he's always prided himself (something he rarely does anymore) in his steps, slightly faster than Mitsuru, but slower and less stable than Akihiko's own, but with more finesses and more control. But hers? Hers are light, almost like a feather dancing on a water's surface, a contrast to her weapon of choice, one that should've matched best with strong, unfaltering steps.

He lets himself observe as he tilts his head to the side to avoid a piercing attack from a Shadow, noticing the way her steps seem more like a dance than a fight for her life; light and free in spirit, her blade flowing like water and glancing the edge of the Shadows' masks before sundering it to pieces with one final circle. And, frankly, Makoto finds himself actuallycaptivatedby the way she is.

And, to his defense, Ryoji isopenlyogling her for it."Wow, Kotone-chan. Anyone ever told you that you're pretty doingeverything?"

"A few, but I'll take it any day!" She laughs brightly as she swings the long weapon a few times. Makoto nearly forgets to kill his enemy, but thankfully reacts in time, stabbing it between the eyes before flinging its body into the wall, letting it splatter into the black ooze that its body is made of. "Also, I didn't know you're that type of guy who'd say that so shamelessly to a girl, you know."

"In my defense, you were spectacular, truly!"Ryoji says, a pout all too clear in his voice. Makoto tugs and pulls at their bond teasingly, making the boy splutter before a whine escapes him."I've rarely seen anyone as beautiful as you fighting, Kotone-chan. And I've seen a lot of fights."

Makoto knows what Ryoji means, and he finds no offense in that. Kotone seems like a natural, to him, and that is a good sign. She'd need all the edges that she can get for the months to come. He blinks away another wave of darkness that seems to keep invading his senses as Kotone speaks up. "Aw, thank you so much! But I've trained just for fun. Never thought I'd actually have the chance to use it. I don't know if I should be glad, or if I should be mortified by this."

"Be glad about it, Koto-nan!" Junpei laughs as he slaps her shoulder, as physical as he always has been. She doesn't seem to mind – again, something that is a stark contrast to Makoto's own conduct – as she laughs alongside him. "You're so cool out there!"

"For once, I actually agree with Junpei," Yukari grins, even if her arm loses some of its strength. "You're so good at this, Kotone-chan! Also, Eurydice's music isbeautiful."

It is, Makoto admits. While the beats of Orpheus' lyre are of long-lost hope and sadness and death, hers are of light and life, of distant stars and hope, something that lift up spirits instead of pulling them down. They couldn't have been more different, and he shouldn't be here at all—

"Are you okay, Makoto-nii?"

Her voice cuts off his thoughts, and Makoto, for once, feels his breath hitches. He frowns, flexes his fingers over the empty air, before forcing out another breath. "I'm fine. Let's get going."

She doesn't seem convinced. "You don't look it. Can we call it a little early, Mitsuru-senpai?"

"Of cou—"

"I'mfine," Makoto bites out, irritation burning at the tip of his tongue like poison, and he doesn't want to feel like this. He's been throughlivesafter lives, and the last thing he wants to be is a deadweight when he has never been before, when he should've been the one who persist, should've been the one who will stand at the apex of the world to stop mankind's foul manifestation to ever reach Nyx— "We just need to finish this floor, then we can go."

Kotone pulls back, a slight frown on her face. Eventually, though, she nods. "…Okay. If you say so. Lead the way, Ryoji-kun, Mitsuru-san."

"Roger that."

Makoto ignores the strange looks he gets and breathes, focusing inwards and to the many masks that await. All he needs to do is what he's always done best; keep on moving, forward and onto death that waits at the end of this long, arduous road.

"You don't look alright at all, Makoto."

Ryoji says as soon as they return from the first expedition in Tartarus, and while Makoto is reluctant to admit it, he has to; he never feels this tired and spent after a night in Tartarus before, not in any of the cycles after the third one. His mind has been honed to a razor's edge, his Personas and his psyche at an apex only a few could've achieved, and yet the hand of exhaustion is clinging to him, making him feel all sorts of things he doesn't want to feel.

"I'm not," he says at last, dropping down into his bed before even kicking the shoes off, with his eyes staring straight up into the ceiling, noting the way black spots are spread on it. He glances to the camera, and when the lights are not on, murmurs. "I've never been tired in Tartarus, not since the first few times. It's strange, and disconcerting."

"It's not just that that's bothering you, is it?" Ryoji sits down at the edge of the bed, hand finding Makoto's own, squeezing gently. Makoto exhales, closing his eyes and focusing his thoughts on that feeling. "Makoto, youbelongin this place, too. She has memories of you. You survived the explosion, you—"

"Maybe, but I'm not her brother," he says, biting his lip hard enough for the sting to form, for him to frown into himself and feel the way Orpheus stirs, this time with anxiety that shouldn't be. "I robbed her of her own family, Ryoji. I shouldn't be here. I am notherMakoto, I—"

"Shush," Ryoji says, pulling him up and holding him against his chest and his yellow scarf against Makoto's will, and he's sowarm—"You're here right now.Thisis your world, too. You didn't rob her of anything. Youareher brother, even if you don't have the memories that she has. You could just start again, be the brother that she's always had. Connect to her."

"I can't," Makoto breathes, closing his eyes and leaning further into Ryoji's warmth, hand placed on his chest, feeling the thud of his heart under his palm. "Ryoji, I can't. I am going to die – even if she's supposed to be the one who gains the power of the Universe, I'd rather it be me. I'm not the Makoto I used to be, not the Makoto you used to love. It's better that I die so that she can live and bond."

"You've always been the Makoto that I've fallen in love with," Ryoji says, the edge of his voice sad and forlorn, and Makoto couldn't help a choke that climbs up his throat, couldn't help the shakes in his body as a sob starts to wreck him. "You're you. You've always been you. You deserve to live as much as she does."

"Even after I've robbed her of her own family?" He murmurs. And Ryoji's silence is enough – that the other boy, too, realizes just how badly Makoto's presence here is, how much he doesn't belong. "I don't belong here, Ryoji. This is her world, not mine. I'm going to die to end the Dark Hour, and she's going to live, because this world ishersand not mine."

When Ryoji doesn't respond, keeping his silence, keeping his arms around Makoto, he allows himself to let go and, for the night – and only for this night – cry himself to sleep.

He manages to push those feeling all down after a night's rest (one that, as always, is plagued by the nightmares of what should've been, what could've been, what had become), and while he knows full well that the making of the Seal would be much easier with bonds, he decides to shun it all away.

If he has to die anyway, and if he's going to succeed with the bonds that he cherishes most already deep within his heart without the need to reforge the rest of them here, then why bother making new ones that would only serve to burn and hurt those that he loves?

Even if it hurts, with pain so deep that he could never forget, his pain would be brief and insignificant compares to the pain of those who live. So why bother at all? Why try to connect, when it would all serve to do nothing more than to hurt them, to change them into something that shouldn't be?

"What song is that?"

Kotone's voice snaps Makoto out of his thoughts. He's been purposefully avoiding anyone and everyone for the past few days, with Ryoji always by his side – his only anchor to reality, his only supporter, as begrudging as he may be. But Ryoji is just any other boy, one who loves life more than Makoto ever could, and he's out there enjoying life, while Makoto elects to stay in solitude, with silence and oftentimes Orpheus' strange music as his companions.

He frowns; while he usually keeps to his room, the entire dorm's electrical circuit decides to fuck itself up after a single thunder during the off-season rain that has never happened during the many cycles that past, and he's been left seated in the dorm's lounge, one that is supposed to be devoid of life; Mitsuru and Akihiko are out doing gods knows what, and the others won't return for as long as they could. This is one of the few times he could've had this place to himself, but here Kotone is, standing at the entrance with her schoolbag in one arm, an umbrella tugged in another.

"…I don't know," he replies half-heartedly, tuning the guitar in his lap once more and strums the song in time with Orpheus' voice, always so calm and so kind. He frowns when the key is still slightly off, so he adjusts again before stringing one note after another.

"Can I listen?" She asks, tilting her head to the side as she puts the umbrella a distant away from the door before walking over, sitting across from him with her bag resting on the table.

Makoto shrugs, closing his eyes and focusing on the feeling of the strings' hardness against his fingers and nails before he starts singing along with Orpheus' ethereal hum;

"Sayonara arigatō koe no kagiri

Kanashimi yori motto daijina koto

(I said "goodbye" and "thank you" as loud as I could

I wanted to tell you something that's much more important than sadness)

Sariyuku senaka ni tsutaetakute

Nukumori to itami ni maniau yō ni

(And when I'm gone, I hope that I managed to convey

That in time, the pain will turn to warmth as we go our separate ways)

Kono mama tsuzuku to omotteita

Bokura no ashita o egaiteita

(I thought it'll last forever

I was imaging our tomorrow together)

Yobiatteita

Hikari ga mada

Mune no oku ni atsuinoni

(The light that was bouncing

between us is still

Burning in my chest)

Bokutachi wa moesakaru tabi no tochū de deai

Te o tori soshite hanashita mirai no tame ni

(We met in the middle of a fiery journey

We held our hands and let them go for the sake of the future)

Yume ga hitotsu kanau tabi boku wa kimi o omoudarou

Tsuyoku naritai to negai naita

(Every time a dream comes true, I'll think of you

I cried wishing to be stronger)

Ketsui o hanamuke ni

(I'll see you off with this determination)"

He doesn't know if Orpheus picks this song because of what he's lost – Aragaki (who he's just met when Junpei dragged them all to the hospital to visit Sanada. And while the man is as crass as ever, Makoto knows better – that he is gentle and kind, and he should've lived. And Makoto had failed him, just like he had everyone else—), countless others he couldn't name and Ryoji, too, at the end of every road that leads them here – or simply because the song itself is beautiful, but he likes to think that this is chosen as a tribute to those he couldn't save. The least he could've done for them is to keep them in his memories, as deep and unblinking as he could, as he fights for his right to die for the last time, for the world to live and for her to takehis place

But that's a wrong way of thinking, isn't it? Kotone is her own person, so is he. But he's done the worst that he's ever did, even if it's unintentional, even if he doesn't want to; he's robbed her of her last family member, sundering the bonds that should've been with his mere intervention alone. He couldn't be the brother that she had, not with his soul marked by his own failures and his mistakes, not like this. For her sake, he has to stay away. This world is hers. He is simply here to see it through, and if he truly dies for the last time, being lonely wouldn't have been so bad; he would've paved the way for a brighter future with his cold grave, and he's alright with that.

He only wishes that, with Ryoji here instead of being untouchable and ethereal like he was a thousand lifetime ago, he could be spared, too; could be given back life, could enjoy it a little more with the friends that they share, and could appreciate the one thing he's been denied to have until the end of his human's lifespan. And maybe, if he could, maybe he could have saved someone else, like Aragaki, or changed events that were set in stones hundreds of lives before—

"…It's sad," her voice cuts him off, and he stops singing, stops conveying Orpheus' (his own) thoughts into words, but he keeps his hands moving, filling the silence with sound, with life. When she notices that he has stopped singing, she smiles slightly. "…who are you referring to in the song?"

"…Many," he says. And it is painful to lose people this way; he was supposed to be strong, the so-calledchosen oneset upon a blazing path towards a brighter future. But all he's ever managed to do is to watch as people die, his hands holding not enough sway to change fate. In all cycles, he had always tried to save Aragaki, but he never could; the man still died, still perished under the light of the Dark Hour. But maybe, this time will be different. He couldn't. But maybe she can. Correct the mistakes he's made and be better than he ever was—

"…You know," she begins again, and Makoto sighs, stopping his hands and letting the soft hum of the lingering notes fill the atmosphere. He doesn't look up, not even when her voice turns sad, forlorn; for the brother she has lost, he should think. "I don't know what happened, but… I've known you for all of my life, Makoto-nii. And now you're just… I feel like I don't know you anymore. And I want to, I really do."

"What good would that do?" He says, pulling the mask of cold apathy, of hostility, over his face. He could not be the brother that she has, but he could cut ties here, severs it and lets it rot. It may leave her with a scar, but it'll prepare her for his eventual death, one that will come without fail. "I'm not the brother you know. I never was, and I never will be. You're not even asisterto me—"

Not the one I'm supposed to have. Not the one I deserve to have,remains unspoken.

"Makoto-nii!" She says – snaps – as she rises to her feet, with tears in her eyes and shaking fingers. Makoto knows doing this would mean he's going to hurt her – and while he knows nothing about this girl, not a single fact, he also doesn't like the feeling of intentionally harming someone. He shouldn't, but hehasto – hemust—"We're family! We've always been! I've—"

"Shutup," he bites out against the bile rising up in his throat, the unease bubbling up his stomach like lava. He frowns, putting the guitar away and standing up, Orpheus' lyre singing in time with Eurydice's own, andoh, ithurtsto evenbreathe. "Just… get out of my sight. I don't want to see you."

I don't want to hurt you more than this.

Makoto leaves in a hurry, feeling just like that day on New Year's Eve; like he's left a part of himself behind to break and shatter in his wake.

Kotone had always known her brother to be silent and hard to read, but he'sdifferent.

Different. Hostile. And it makes hersick.

"Koto-nan, you okay?" Junpei asks after a gruelling class with the one and only Edogawa, and ohgod, why does that class have to beso long?

"I'm not," she says, blowing a strand of stray hair out of her face, frowning in the direction of her brother – who, with Ryoji and Ryoji alone, issmiling. Chuckling lightly, even, unlike when they're alone. They used to know each other like the back of their own hands, used to be able to read each other's mind without the need for words, used to help each other through times where they were left alone. But now, she no longer knows him— "What do you think of Makoto-nii?"

"Mm? Makoto?" Junpei asks, tilting his head to the side, his frown deepening – something he never does with her or Yukari, mind you – with his lips set. "Eh, I don't know how you'd put this. But I've seen lotsa introvert before. He's just on whole 'nother level though, seriously."

"Elaborate?" She half-mumbles into her arms as she keeps watching her brother – who, up until now, she has never realized doesnotsee her as his own – talking and being at ease with Ryoji. She wants to blame Ryoji for the change, but after knowing him, she just knows that Ryoji isn't the type to do that kind of thing. Flirting people shamelessly? Sure. But not hurting people, not turning one person against another.

"Just a feeling I get talkin' to him and all," Junpei shrugs again, sitting down in Yukari's seat across from her and leaning his cheek against his hand. He ponders on what to say for a moment before shrugging once again. "But I dunno, Koto-nan. You know him better than I do. He looks kinda cold to me, though, and almost like he really doesn't care about anyone or anything except Ryoji?"

"That's what I thought, too," she sighs, not willing enough to voice her worry out loud.

Kotone has always been… dependent on people, to a degree. Makoto is the quiet one, never so much as looking forward totalkingto anyone ever since the very beginning. And he has always been her emotional support, her very pillar of going through the past decade. She has been there for him, too, but she doesn't know –neverknow – that he doesn't see her so much as asister, and it hurts, it hurts sobad—

"Am I interrupting something, Kotone-chan?"

That voice, kind but always sounding so oddly familiar, pulls her out of her thoughts. She looks up to see Ryoji leaning on Junpei's shoulder, with a kind smile, not the flirtatious one he's always worn around any of them in the Dorm. And when she looks into those sapphire blue eyes, so intense and glowing with the light of something ephemeral, something like dying stars at the edge of the universe, she finds herself looking away.

After a moment, when she realizes that she's left that question unanswered, she sighs. "No, no, you're not. I'm just having a little crisis, but I'm okay. I think."

"Are you free this afternoon?" Ryoji says, oblivious to the dirty look Junpei is throwing him. When Kotone raises an eyebrow, the boy just smiles. "I've always wanted to know Makoto's sister better since I've learnt about it, you know? And we never got the chance to talk before, I think."

"Go ask your b—" Kotone starts, before cutting the wordboyfriendoff half-way. While she feels like Makoto is a stranger and not her beloved brother – not anymore – she still doesn't find it decent to mention that kind of relationship out loud. She sighs loudly "—ask your best friend why he never mentioned me before, and I might answer you."

Ryoji doesn't seem to find that statement anywhere near funny, brows furrowing and fingers twitching over his bright yellow scarf. But that look is gone just as soon as it had appeared, and Kotone blinks as the boy hums, quiet and… with a twinge of sadness she couldn't quite place, one that makes her heart ache, one that makes Eurydice sing with sorrow. "…I'm sorry."

Junpei is looking back and forth between them, an attempt to cheer them both up already at the tip of his tongue, but Kotone stops him as she gets up from her seat. "It's nothing you should be apologizing for, Ryoji-kun," she says, eyes flickering towards Makoto once before trailing back to Ryoji. Something in her stirs, a Social Link ready to be made, a bond ready to form, perhaps… "I'm free today. What do you wanna do?"

Ryoji perks up, beaming slightly, before he stands to his full height, too – a good few inches over her, at least – with his smile lightening up, the dots of what she thinks is pained acceptance melting away into something warmer. "That's great. I just want to sightsee today, since Makoto denied my attempts to drag him to the Moonlight Bridge just now. Do you mind?"

Moonlight Bridge is an odd place for him to sightsee, Kotone has to say. But that spark of little something is there, like nostalgia in the depths of his bright blue eyes, and she finds herself agreeing to it with only a heartbeat's worth of pause. "Of course not. Lead the way."

Ryoji complies, but not before saying goodbye to Makoto, who treats as if she doesn't exist.

(It hurts, it hurts, and why would he do that? Has this past decade been a lie? Has he been her support, her emotional pillar, only as a play? Why?

Kotone decides to stifle those questions away, allowing Ryoji's incessant talks to muffle the sound of her own heart, painful and suffocating.)

She never knew that the Moonlight Bridge has this kind of view.

Much to her surprise, Ryoji takes herup– past the walkways of the bridge and into the maintenance shaft, without a shred of fear of being discovered orfalling– to the very top of the bridge. The sun has already started to set when they reach the top, and the way the slightly red-hued light reflects off the ever-shifting surface of the water is just breathtakingly beautiful she couldn't help but gawk in awe.

Eurydice strums her instrument with care, soft and kind, as she sits down beside Ryoji. The boy keeps his eyes on the horizon, all the light smile and flirtatious grin and bearings of a womanizer all gone, replaced by something much more sorrowful, something… she couldn't fully name. Kotone doesn't say anything for a moment yet, electing to let silence stays, waiting for him to break it.

And break it he does, with a small sigh and a look of someone who's lost those he loves, something she feels is misplaced, and yet… "…I've always liked it here, you see. From up here, you can see lives beyond the horizon, you can see the way the sun gives way to the moon, you can see… a lot of things you usually never pay attention to."

"Yeah," she hums in agreement, tilting her head to the side and kicking her legs – ones that dangled over the edge – back and forth minutely. "It's beautiful here."

He stays silent for a while longer. Another sigh, then, "I'm sorry. About Makoto, I mean."

"What he did isn't your fault," Kotone mutters, twiddling her thumbs uneasily in her lap as she frowns, slight as it may, before something akin to anger bubble up her throat and to her lips, spilling out of her mouth before she could even stop herself. "…He never mentioned me. Thedicknevermentionedme!"

If she hasn't been honed to be sensitive towards emotions in general, she would've missed it; the way his eyes twitch, the way his smile falters. But he recovers quickly – far too quickly – as he laughs, the sound a horrible interpretation of joy. "Makoto is… he can be difficult, but trust me, he never did those things intentionally."

"But forgetting to mention histwin sister,though?" She repeats back, incredulous. "Ryoji-kun, you do realize thatthatsounds—"

"—not like something family should do to each other? Yes, I know," the boy breathes, eyes glancing up towards the sky, now slowly dotted and painted with light and jewels from beyond their reaches. Ryoji then takes another pause, sighing into his hand and leaning forward, enough for Kotone to briefly fear that he might tip over and fall. "…I have no words for that, but… mm, he can be hard to understand for a lot of people, even his own family."

Kotone doesn't say anything, too tired to keep thinking about Makoto and his sudden coldness towards her, his sudden change upon returning to where it all began for the both of them – to where their father and mother died on the Moonlight Bridge.

She quickly rearranges her thoughts – thinking about any of that would do her no good, she supposes – and changes the subject to something she could stomach. "Let's stop talking about something so depressing. So, how did you know my br— Makoto—?"

It's hard to grind the word brother andMakoto-niiout of her, but she will. Until she either gets an answer as to why he would say such a hateful thing, or until the end of time. No in-betweens.

"It's… actually a very long story," Ryoji frowns, seemingly unsure himself. "I'll tell you more another time, but let's just say I met him during the Dark Hour, and it's one thing after another. Next thing I know, I've already fallen in love with him, hard and fast andabsolute."

"…Okay, that's off to a weird start," Kotone comments with a small frown, shrugging and plucking a strand of white hair off of her head. "…But I respect that. To each his own, I guess."

Ryoji chuckles, but with a little reserve – just as he has with almost everything that he does – before he turns to her, his smile sad. "I'm sorry that Makoto did that to you. You don't deserve that."

"Say that tohim," she says, the ghost of bitterness biting and clawing at the back of her throat. She frowns when Eurydice doesn't share her anger, the song she plays with her lyre an imitation of what she's heard Makoto dotted into the guitar not too long ago. She doesn't know the name, doesn't even knowfrom whenthe song originates, but it sounds oddly melancholic, enough to make her want to cry— "I've known him all my life, and he just… told me he never saw me as a sister, and then told me to get out of his sight."

Ryoji doesn't say anything, but she looks up to see a thoughtful light in his eyes. The boy seems to want to say something before he shakes his head, mostly to himself. "…No, I suppose there's no way for me to explain him to you. What he did is cruel."

"I just want to know why," she mutters, mostly to herself, expecting no answer from him. She decides to bury it all away – thinking about it would do her no good. Talk to him. She has to talk to him, catch him alone while Ryoji isn't around—

"He won't ever tell you why," Ryoji sighs. "He's more stubborn than a bull, and that's coming fromme."

She snorts a laughter at that, even if that edge of bitterness remains, even if it still hurts and the wound is still raw. "…Yeah, that's true."

"Although," Ryoji says again, this time with a bit more life to his voice. She turns to him, to see the boy smiling gently and almost too brightly at her, with stars spreading across the expanse of his eyes. "I might not be able to mend what he's broken, but Iammore than happy to lend you an ear. Or even be there for you, or anything, should you need me."

She blinks; while she really doesn't have much reservations with, well,anything, the people she's met so far has their own troubles they need to sort through, their own pain they need to overcome. But here, he's doing what she's been doing for the others; to be the ear she could talk to, the person she might be able to confide it.

Eurydice sings, in exultation and with lightness, and she finds herself smiling, nodding slightly as she returns her gaze towards the far horizon, as the sun kisses its last goodbye to the world for the day, and allowing the moon to come up across the darkened sky.

"Thanks, Ryoji-kun," Kotone says, humming a new tune that Eurydice sings into her. "I'll hold you onto that, then."

(Somewhere in her heart, an Arcana stirs; Death, the end of the cycle and the new beginning, the foreboding yet gentle name that fills her heart with both dread and joy. It is the name that is feared, but one that she knows to be far gentler than what most would think of.

And she would cherish this, not knowing where the path of Death will lead her towards.)

Notes:

The song, you guess it, is HOMURA by LiSA!

homura here is the version! :D

Orpheus' image is by @marudyne on Twitter! Feel free to check on him! :D

See you next time, folks!

Chapter 4: A New Narrative

Summary:

The next Full Moon arrives, and oh, he is so not prepared for the changes that come with it

Notes:

Heyo! Sorry, took me a while to reread it all lmao. Anyway, hope you like this!

Please forgive any typos, they might still slip uwu

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Makoto likes silence.

(Lies. He's always preferred silence because he doesn't want to feel pain, because it hurts to breathe when those he cares about perish from his grasps, never to return. And it's been centuries, eons of lifetimes that he's failed to save those he should've been able to, so he's reverting back, returning to how he once was, because he's a coward. And bonds hurt because they don't know a damn thing and because he's all alone and none of them but Ryoji and the Velvet Room remember—)

And, much to his surprise, he's been given exactly that; something in him must've given off the impression of being either inapproachable or even dangerous, because healwaysnotices that the two seniors would look at him with apprehension. And while the feeling of such gazes being directed into his bones always hurts, he is glad that it is so. Because like this, they won't get attached, they will see him as just a member, less valuable than anyone else, one that is readily discarded, one whose death wouldn't be missed.

Ryoji seems to have form a certain bond with Kotone, something he questions often but never objects; he knows how much pain he's caused her, with her eyes turning colder whenever he catches them. Ryoji's presence might be something that could heal the wound he's marked into her heart. Much better than leaving it alone to fester, Makoto supposes.

"Makoto," Ryoji's voice calls, soft and pensive, and Makoto looks up from the guitar in his hand, the notes left to linger in the night air as the moon is already halfway to its peak; the Dark Hour will soon begin, and the Full Moon – one where the Priestess lies – will be upon them in merely two weeks. "You shouldn't do this to yourself, you know."

"Do what? Being alone?" He says, when in truththatis probably the exact thing that Ryoji is talking about. Ryoji is always adamant that he doesn't spend his last cycle –ifit is truly the last – alone only to die upon the moment the Seal is formed, always steadfast that Makoto should allow his bonds to flourish and grow like he used to make them. "You know I'm not bothered by this."

"Liar," Ryoji calls him out easily, warm hands grasping his own, stopping him from continuing to strum the song of life Orpheus sings into his veins and forcing his eyes up into those bright blue ones, always so intense with emotions and affection, ones that he could never get enough of, and ones that he knows he doesn't deserve. "Makoto, you always do. Even if you've acted this way for hundreds of lives, you always do. It always hurts you to see your family grow apart from you, and it always hurts to be—"

"Stop," he says, his voice sounding far too weak for it to be passable, for it to stop Ryoji from convincing him. Ryoji has always known about that, hasn't he? That while he performs and starts these bonds, these meanings of his life, in ways that are superficial and almost as if they were but acquaintances and not friends, notfamily, he has always wished for it to be different, always wished to form them up like he had done so before, to see them flourish and grow and fill his heart with joy— "Just… stop. You know why I'm doing this."

"But you're hurting because of this," Ryoji argues, a frown settling deep in his face as he takes Makoto's hand towards his lips and planting a careful kiss on his fingertips. "Please, you deserve love, Makoto. Stop doing this to yourself and restart these bonds. With Kotone-chan, too. I'm sure she—"

"Isn't it the same when you offered your life for my memories on the very first cycle? The very first life we shared together?" Makoto shoots back, voice rough and raw, and he could feel the way Orpheus stirs anxiously within him. Ryoji seems lost, the recognition already deep in the way he frowns, in the way he stills his tongue; and that tells Makoto all that he needs to know— "This is the same. But instead of offering to wipe her memories to escape from pain with Death as the reward, I'm exempting her from experiencing any pain at all while she'll be able to continue forward."

"It's—"

"—You know what I said is true, Ryoji," Makoto cuts him off, and sure enough, Ryoji relents with a small sigh that sounds like a lost prayer. He only smiles as he grabs Ryoji's hand and pulls it to his chest, feeling the way his warm skin tense against his heart. "It's okay. I've been preparing for this for hundreds of lifetimes. One more won't make that much of a difference."

Ryoji hums, in acknowledgement and with sadness; his eyes seem to always glow gently when he sees Makoto like this, in pain but with grim acceptance. And while it doesn't seem like Ryoji is content with how things are, the boy decides against saying anything else, instead leaning in close and pressing his lips against Makoto's own, gently and warmly and kindly.

He returns it, brief and so bittersweet. And when Ryoji pulls back, his Death is smiling, gentle but broken. "I understand. But at least allow me to stay with you for as long as I live and breathe."

"You always will, won't you?" Makoto muses, hand caressing the woods of the guitar briefly before he starts thrumming a few notes to begin the song anew. "You always have, and you always will."

"Of course," Ryoji hums, sitting down beside him, a hand over his knee. "I always will. For you, anything."

Makoto closes his eyes, and starts humming the music of his heart into the air as the world turns the same shade of sickly green, of Death that awaits him, of decay that saturates it.

(Ryoji doesn't say anything more, but accompanies his – Orpheus' – song with the shades dancing upon his fingertips, the powers of Nyx Avatar following him through the veils of space and time that separate the other cycles and this one. Makoto counts it as a blessing; because, like this, Ryoji might be safe from harm still. And if their theory about something else taking Ryoji's place in this world is true, it might've meant that he could live past the beginning of the Fall – that he could become human, and live a life he should have had, long ago.

He only smiles, allowing dark wings and Ryoji's – Thatnatos' – cold presence to accompany him as the dark moon rises, as the silence dies.)

It is a new moon today.

Usually, a new moon is simply a tell-tale sign that they've already passed the halfway mark to the next Full Moon, and nothing more. But tonight, the air feels chilly, sky darkening almost to the full absence of light under the blackened moon, and Ryoji is restless.

For all the cycles that passed, Ryoji wasneverrestless.

Makoto silently thanks the stars for Kotone's plan of not doing any Tartarus run today as he waits for Ryoji's concentration to snap, splinters of his heart laying bare and almost far too clear to see. And when it does, Ryojishudders, the cold that has always saturated his veins unable to stop it.

When Makoto moves to ask, Ryoji murmurs. "It's… there's something strange in the air, but I don't know what."

"What do you feel? Can you elaborate?" Makoto asks, recalling all the other cycles, and none of them have anything significant going on during the new moon phase. It has always been a period of silence, of voices of his masks, of recurring nightmares and unsung lullabies—

"I don't… I'm sorry, I don't know," Ryoj shakes his head, eyes staring into nothingness far beyond the edge of their convoluted reality. Makoto waits, patient, with a hand over Ryoji's own. And when the boy snaps out of his thoughtsagain, he frowns. "It feels… weird. Muted. I've never felt like this."

"Is it Nyx?" He asks with worry, the possibility of Nyx breaking through this early improbable but never impossible, and he's not willing to take anychances.

"No. It's… I don't know what, but it's something else," Ryoji says, eyes glancing up towards the dark moon, the dot of the distant stars shining softly in his bright blue eyes. Makoto puts his hand over the boy's cheek and feels the way he trembles under his fingertips,fearand anxiety far too prominent to be ignored. "I… Makoto, Idon't knowwhat it is."

And I'm scared, is heard as words are strung across the stars; something Ryoji never speaks out loud but always let him know whenever the end of a cycle approached.

Makoto frowns, unsure of what to say or do next. A part of him wants to deny it, but he knows that he shares Ryoji's fear of the unknown, too; Kotone's presence is already unprecedented enough, and to add onto that with unexplained feelings of doom waiting at the horizon on the day that should have nothing going on is enough to make his gut shifts into itself, a primal fear rising to his throat and crawling at the back of his tongue, making him want to throw up.

Instead, he squeezes Ryoji's hand, and feels the other boy squeeze back, a quiet sigh escaping his lips and a smile – bland and joyless as it may be – replacing his frown. After a moment, that disappears, too, replaced yet again by a thoughtful look. "…How are we going to know what we're dealing with, if I don't even know what I'm feeling?"

"Fuuka might be able to help," Makoto muses. Fuuka –he'll have to call her Yamagishi soon, won't he?– has always been… sensitive to change, sensitive to the way the air twists, her sixth senses and her ability to feel things so precisely the SEES' only guide to victory. And while Makoto is reluctant to admit it, herelieson her in every cycle, even if he doesn't show. Because even the most elusive of his Personas couldn't have done that, couldn't do what she could— "Until Fuuka comes into the picture, we won't know for sure what to look for exactly."

"…I suppose that is the case," Ryoji hums with a sigh, nudging the lines of tenseness away from between his brows and exhaling shakily into the stale, rancid air. Then, he squeezes Makoto's hand once before kissing the back of his fingers, his breath warm unlike all the hundreds of lifetimes before. "I don't know what's what anymore, and I'm not sure if I'm more relived or scared about it."

Makoto doesn't say anything as Ryoji finally relaxes after a while, pulling him down into the safety of the covers and murmuring sweet nothings into his ears until sleep claims his weary soul.

(Somewhere in his heart, Orpheus stirs; he isn't sure what exactly it is that Ryoji means. Why would he say he isn't sure between fear and relief, when it is clear that changes in the sequences of events are always something to be afraid of?

But deep down, he thinks he knows. He thinks he knows why Ryoji would feel relief, and he hates the way long lost hope starts to dance at the edge of his heart, that some way, somehow, he will save those he never could before, Ryoji included.

With his life on the line, he decides to cling to that baseless fantasy, flickering as it may be. Because he doesn't want to feel helpless watching those people burn to ashes anymore.)

Eurydice's song, even in the midst of battle, is more upbeat and carefree than Orpheus' – than his own expression, than the personification of his now twisted heart – own.

He ducks down as a Shadow bolts pass, its gnarly, nearly shapeless mass grazing his cheek and leaving a small trail of blood behind. He slackens the grip of the sword in his left hand briefly to allow the handle to slide further down, then swing. The way the weight balance changes makes his shoulder groan, but he ignores it as he puts his body weight behind the act. And with the way he alters his grip, the reach is long enough to cut the Shadow's mask into two, destroying it into nothing but smokes and dusts.

He tightens his hand again and swings the sword down to force another Shadow back away, and when it does, an arrow sails through the air and hit it in the head.

He nods at Yukari in gratitude as he rolls his shoulder, wincing at the way the muscles around his left arm begin to pull taut with tension. He tends to always forget – no matter how many cycles have passed – that it will take himmonthsto be able to do a maneuver of that nature as much as he wants. Instead, he just sighs, straightening up and changing his sword to his right hand—

"I've been meaning to ask," Yukari says, and he tilts his head to the side, half of his attention focused on the way Kotone is helping Junpei, whose swing is still so unrefined and full of gaps to be exploited. When he nods in acknowledgement, Yukari points at his hands. "Are you ambidextrous? You changed hands during fights pretty often."

"Yes. What of it?" He asks back, the irritation of being asked the same damn thing over and over andoverfor hundreds of lifetimes biting at the back of his throat. And when a flash of anger runs across her eyes, he knows he's done it wrong right in this cycle, too, and succeeded in something he's always made sure to do in every life he has to live sincethat one– to push it all away and stay in stunted silent unti—

"You know, you're kind of a dick," she huffs, hands on her hips, as if challenging him. He merely pats at his Evoker to make sure that everything is in place as he half-listens to her. "Can't you be nice like your sister? Not as nice as her, of course, butnicer?"

He merely looks her way, a familiar and almost suffocating feeling of splitting his bonds into scraps far too painful for him to even recall properly. He has done this only once; sundering his precious bonds and allowing the reversed Arcana to tear him apart when he erects the Seal is something he'd rather not think about, but if this cycle is to be the last one, if there is hope to break the unbreakable at all – then he will do it. Reversed and broken bonds mean they won't see him as even friends, and when he dies, he'll diealone, and they won't have to be in pain because of that—

"You absoluteasshole," Yukari half snarls at his lack of response, and he only shrugs at her as he walks over to where Kotone is. The girl seems to be eyeing him with some form of sadness, one that Makoto hopes he'd be able to rid her of eventually, before she blinks when Yukari addresses her directly. "Hey, Kotone, how far are we going to go today?"

"Maybe until tiredness starts to settle in? I'm not sure," she shrugs, but Makoto could hear it in the notes that Eurydice plays; thoughtfulness underneath her half-carefree nature. The pause stretches for a little more before the girl smiles. "We're going to be back here in a few days, so let's not push ourselves too hard today. I'll call it quits once we find the stairs."

"Sounds good to me," Junpei says, rolling his shoulders and readjusting the grip on his greatsword. It doesn't seem like Kotone had said anything about what he did just yet, because Junpei doesn't act all that differently when he addresses Makoto with a grin. "How about you, dude? You doing okay?"

"I'm fine," he says curtly, frowning slightly at the edge of exhaustion that, again, clings to his frame even after being unable to feel it forhundredsof lives before this. Ryoji pulls and tugs and their bond, a reminder that he's still there, so Makoto sighs and shrugs a shoulder. "Let's get going. We're wasting time."

"Why so serious?" Junpei says, but doesn't wait for a response as he glances towards Yukari, and pauses at her clear… not quite hatred, butanger, at him. "Yo, Yukari-cchi, you good?"

"Oh, I'mperfect," she spits, walking over to the rest of the team. "Come on, let's go. I don't want to spend longer than necessary in this freaky place."

With that assholeremains unspoken.

"Alright. Let's go. Tell me if you need any help, 'kay?" Kotone smiles as she leads them forward, steps not faltering.

It takes a little longer than what Makoto's used to finding the stair; he usually prefers everyone splitting up and going in all directions, but it looks like Kotone's far more cautious than he ever was. When she does order them to split into teams, she always goes for a two-man team rather than letting individuals run amok, and while Makoto does not like company, he could see from a Leader's point of view why she would choose to do so.

He lets his step fall behind and listen as the three talk and bicker – already close friends and not some kind of acquaintances that he's familiar with at this time of the year. Orpheus then plucks a melancholic tune, and Makoto couldn't help but smile briefly. Right. This world is hers, after all, and never his own. None of the world but the first is truly his, and even then, he couldn't do anything, couldn't save anyone, not Ryoji, not evenhimself—

Makoto,Ryoji's voice echoes, not through Penthesilea, but through the bond more precious than his own soul. He feels his breath hitches slightly as Ryoji hums, quiet and sorrowful.I'm still here with you. You can lean on me, too, okay?

Okay,he breathes back silently, feeling the cold steel of his sword against his palm, the blisters forming under his grip and the ache in his muscles growing as he hacks away at incoming Shadows, not bothering to call for Orpheus to aid him. The others have got this. He's just a failsafe. An extra. And once Akihiko joins in, he's sure he won't be called on that much often anymore—

Breathe, Ryoji commands, his voice soft yet firm, and Makoto does as he's told, feeling the rancid air fill his lungs and calm down his thoughts, ones that always spiral into the dark he has visited far too often for it to be healthy, for it to be normal.You're not just a failsafe. You're their friend and family, too.

"And I intend to change that",he whispers silently as he follows the other three along, the way his bonds starting to twist and bend by his own doings – and to see Kotone's own shining so brightly and captivatingly – makes his heart ache with pain that's almost too asphyxiating for him to stand.

Ryoji doesn't say anything, but the sadness radiating from the only connection that survives the repeated, unending cycles of life and death is enough to tell him that Ryoji doesn't want him to do this.

He doesn't, either. But he has to.

For their sakes, hemust.

Working with Makoto has now become something close to anagony.

Kotone sighs as she sits by the stairs of the Iwatodai station, fingers idly tracing the blade of her Naginata and drawing line of nothings into the cold steel. She glances up briefly at the moon – round and full, with its light as gentle as ever before – before she looks back down at herbrotherwith a scowl.

YukariandJunpei are never in agreement, but when it comes to Makoto, they certainlyare.That, in and of itself, is a terrible, terrible thing to happen; they both agree that Makoto is someone they don't feel comfortable being around. And Kotone, try as she might, cannot diffuse them. After coming to Port Island, he has been nothing like the brother that she used to know. He used to be kind and caring in his own way, even if he's a bit hard to understand and blunt and mostly tactless.

But now? Now he's just a plain, simpleassholewho doesn't take others' feelings into accounts, doesn't care about what anybody thinks or feels. And that would've been fine, really, but he has become straight upmiserable. Unlike Ryoji – who she still doesn't know what he sees in Makoto to even stay with him as aloverand not friends – who is as kind as he is flirty, Makoto just… blocks everyone off, cut them all out and listen to no one and nothing but Ryoji and his headphones.

(Strangely enough, he is not being openly insufferable. Just… closed off, barred the door to his heart with woods made from something she couldn't tear down, and refuses to even try to bond with another person but Ryoji and Ryoji alone.)

And those changes are so abrupt that they scare her, make her think that tomorrow, the sky will fall and the world will end, or that tomorrow, he will just disappear from her life, gone without a trace like their parents—

(Even like this, she doesn't want to let him go. Couldn't afford to. He was all that she had, and while she now has friends she could confide in, nothing could ever replace family. Someone who had stayed by her side for so long, with a kind hand and warm words to heal and comfort her – how could she ever let someone like that go?)

The sound of the raving engine cuts her thoughts off, and she is grateful for the distraction as she looks up and towards the lightless street, to see a single dot of brightness approach them at an incredible speed. Then, after but a few seconds, Mitsuru reaches them with a futuristic-looking bike with its plate as white and reflective as pearl.

She pulls off her helmet, ignoring Junpei's clear admiration for the vehicle, as she orders. "There's a strong Shadow signal on the monorail, and you four will go down there to investigate it."

"We have to walk on the rail?" Yukari asks Kotone's question, concern lighting up in her voice. "Won't that be dangerous?"

"Don't worry," Mitsuru replies with a small smile that is nearly too heavily-guarded to see. "No electrical devices work during the Dark Hour. It's safe to walk on the rail."

"But what about the bike?" Junpei points out the obvious, and Kotone nods in agreement.

"It's specially crafted by the Kirijou Group to be able to operate during the Dark Hour," she shrugs easily before her eyes land on Ryoji, who keeps his eyes on the moon for a bit longer than she thinks is necessary. It's large and almost captivating, of course, but it's not that important a detail in a world where nothing obeys the natural laws, is it—? "Mochizuki, can you feel the Shadow?"

The silence stretches almost uncomfortably, and Kotone could see the way Mitsuru's face shifts into one of annoyance when no reply comes. But when Mitsuru opens her mouth to say something, Ryoji hums with a small sigh that sounds defeated, to a degree. "…I can. The strong one is in one of the monorails, I think… there're also some smaller ones abound. Be careful."

"Roger that," Kotone says, getting up and dusting herself off, eyes taking in the condition of her friends (and brother) one last time. Junpei and Yukari seem as ready and eager as always, while Makoto, much like Ryoji, is keeping his eyes on the moon with a scowl as deep and unreachable as his own heart. "Hey, you ready to go yet, Makoto?"

He turns to her at the name, eyebrow quirking up slightly – probably at the absence of the suffix she usually added – but without any words to voice his curiosity. It takes him uncomfortably long to nod, and he tightens his grip on the blade as he says something to Ryoji (a whispered secret, or a reassurance, or something else entirely, Kotone isn't sure) before walking towards her. "I am."

"Good luck, all of you," Mitsuru says, setting up the devices Kotone won't even begin to name as she beckons Ryoji towards her. The boy readily complies. "We'll provide support from here."

"We'll be back," Kotone promises as she leads them down the dead silent railway, with the moon's light and the distant, looming tower of Tartarus as their only guides.

Things go downhill very quickly as soon as the last of them step into the train.

While Kotone herself doesn't necessarily fear death, it still would be kind of inconvenient, so she is by no means looking forward to it. Still, she manages to keep a cool head as she orders the other two to follow her as Junpei –why are you in such a hurry?– rushes forward with his sword raised and teeth bared.

"That idiot!" Yukari curses, knocking an arrow and sending it sailing across the train car, hitting a Maya right in between the eyes of its mask. Kotone kicks another Shadow away before stabbing the end of her weapon into its form, sending it crumbling into nothing. "Let's go, Kotone-chan! We need to help him!"

"Yeah!" She says, silently frowning down at her weapon of choice. Within such a confined space, a long-reach weapon has now become less of an asset and more of a vice. "I'll lead. You two, follow me!"

The distance between the end and the control room is not that far, but the Shadows and the distortion of space-time itself seems to have skewered her perception of things somewhat. Kotone doesn't allow herself to think about it, however, as she focuses on the fights before her, clearing a path to where Ryoji said a strong sense of hostility lies – and where Junpei is heading towards.

When they reach the first car, she hears a stumbling step from behind, but doesn't turn to look back – it does happen from time to time, even in Tartarus – as she kicks down the door, just in time for the large, intimidating Shadow to grin down at Junpei, with a spear of icicle barreling through the air like a bullet.

"Eurydice!" She bellows, pulling the trigger and commanding her other self to come forward, shattering the veil of the world and bringing the gentle flame with her. Before she could utter the word of order, Eurydice has already responded to her will, steel-tipped fingers strumming on her lyre and shattering the icicle spear with her blazing flame.

"You idiot!" Yukari hisses, hand stretching outward to grab Junpei, hauling him up to his feet. Kotone sighs in relief when she sees that, aside from beads of sweat forming on his brows, he looks quite alright, with no external wounds to be seen. "Don't go running around on your own like that!"

A sheepish laughter comes as the air grows colder, and Kotone frowns when she realizes that the monorail is speeding up— "We need to get to the control room."

And this thing is blocking our path,is left unspoken.

The two of them nod in agreement, and Kotone thinks with she and Makoto – with Eurydice and Orpheus' flame – they could probably undo the blizzard coming from this Shadow enough for them to land at least a blow or two in first. So, she turns, expecting to see her brother behind her—

—Only to find darkness and silence where he should've been.

"Welp, I guess it's just us three now," Kotone says, with some foreign emotion she assumes is discontent tingling at her fingertips. Ever since their first Tartarus expedition together, Makoto has never been… truly cooperative; he would often stop fighting altogether at times, and even stay his blade when he has the chance, and it usually would either be her or Junpei who has to clean up the mess he's left unfinished.

"I swear to god, Yuuki-kun is just here as amascot," Yukari snarls, testing the string of her bow before pulling it backward, allowing her arrow to slot in. She exhales slowly. "Ready whenever you are, Kotone-chan. Ryoji-kun, anything we should know about this Shadow?"

If Ryoji notices Makoto's absence, he never talks about it – and Kotone believes that to be more because of the futility of such an act rather than acceptance for that kind of actions – so none of them brings it up, either. But she will have to address this later, becausethisis justunacceptable.

The boy then hums, quiet and thoughtful."Nothing in particular, except that it excels in controlling ice. It's not exactly that strong defensively either, so you should be able to take it down with a few good hits."

"Alright then," Kotone hums, Evoker pressed to the side of her head. Eurydice dances at the edge of her mind, and she pulls the trigger. "Come,Eurydice!"

Fire dances across her vision, and she couldfeelthe flame burning down the frost that has covered up the mirrors, only for another breath of ice to part her flame into two. She pulls her trigger again, and when the flame is snuffed out for a second time, she could feel it in her bones; the frost biting deep into her marrows and grasping her veins in its icy fingers—

Your bonds are what give you your power, Kotone-san. Can you feel it?

Igor's words snap into her mind, bringing clarity into her thoughts as she exhales. The Shadow grins wider as blizzards start to turn the train they're in into coffins of cold, but she can't allow that. With a thought, a single fraction of second's worth of pause, she orders, "Yukari-chan, protect us. Junpei, do you still have some gas left?"

"I won't be a man if I don't," He grins, a drop of sweat rolling down his chin. An Evoker is on his temple in an instant, and he calls, forceful and with ragged breaths, "Hermes!"

She follows the path inside her mind, to the bonds Igor spoke about – ever since coming to Port Island, she's managed to form some bonds of her own, each tied to a certain Arcana; and she knows exactly who she needs to stop the blizzard, the Magician's determination (Junpei's, she corrects herself) making itself known through the string that connects her to the boy beside her.

(A part of her wonders what Arcana Makoto belongs to. She wonders if he would even have one at all.)

"Jack Frost!" She calls, ignoring the silent gasp from Mitsuru and Yukari – she thinks, she isn't too sure, since the sounds are all drowned out but the little thing's laughter of delight – as the snowmanwinksat her, with childish glee that makes her smile.

And, following her command, Jack Frost goes forward, taking all the ice into its body with ease, sucking in the wind as if Jack Frost itself is a black hole—

"Junpei!Now!"

"Got it!" The boy says, gripping his sword tight as Hermes crouches down, flame at the tips of his steel wings. "Hermes! Let's go!"

The Persona rushes forth, and like a bird of flame, slices the Shadow's dark scrolls to shreds, allowing her enough time and space to go in with her Naginata.

A spin, then a duck to avoid a sweep from its frail arm, before she slices her blade upward as Junpei trusts his sword between the Shadow's mask. The unearthly wail nearly makes Kotone drop her weapon, but she tightens her grip around the pole, pushing it up against the resistance that built up against the blade. And, with one final heave, she cleaves the Shadow's head in two.

Something in her stirs as she lets her Naginata's blade drops to the ground, the sound of metal against metal ringing loud in her ears. Something deep and powerful, something that sends chills into her spine and makes her mind scream at her to—

"Very well done, guys,"Ryoji comments, cutting off her sudden morbid thoughts. But something about his voice seems wrong, to her; a dip in his tone, a worry, afear"But the Shadow's influence still remains on the train. You need to stop it manually."

"You serious!?" She hisses, looking back to Yukari, who looks just as lost as she is. "Oh, for the love ofgod—"

She rushes forward in a hurry, and in her haste to stop them from crashing into another monorail waiting in the dark, fails to notice Makoto stumbling through the door, pale with his face scrunched up in pain.

"Makoto, what happened?"

Ryoji sets him down on the bed, careful yet firm hands on both of his shoulders, unusually warm despite his lack of life. Makoto doesn't –couldn't– say anything, his mind and a part of his memories still a jumbled mess he couldn't get sorted out no matter how many times he tries.

As soon as he looks at the Priestess Shadow, something iswrong– a part of his memories is cut off, severed and torn out of his head with teeth white as snow and claws black as night – and he couldn't quite place his finger onwhat, exactly. This happened with the Magician, too, and Makoto remembers only the sharp teeth and the red eyes, but he couldn't fully recall the look of the monster that laughed and sneered at him from the edge of reality itself—

"I don't… I don't remember," he words it carefully, a frown settling deep on his face, a hand pressed tight against his eye as if to ease away the throbbing headache. The Magician didn't do this, didn't split his head open, but there is one thing in common; the loss of memories, fragments of unrecognizable pieces of information he could no longer obtain. "I… not Idon't. Ican't."

Ryoji stills for a moment, and Makoto doesn't need to look up to feel the boy frown, deep in thoughts and in worry. Then, he murmurs quietly what he had said to Makoto before, many lifetimes ago; "Memories are ambiguous… old ones can be replaced with new ones, creating a new reality."

"Somethingis doing this to me," Makoto murmurs, another pang of headache rising up to the center of his brain, making his vision white out momentarily. When he blinks and regains a part of his mind back from the void again, he realizes that Ryoji has already pushed him down on the mattresses, fingers gently stroking his hair, with love and with affection— "What are you doing?"

"You're in pain, aren't you?" He says, even if that edge of sadness and of worry still remains. Makoto opens his mouth, and is ready to comment about how wrong Ryoji's priorities are, only for a warm finger to find his lips, pressing down and making him stop. "I know. A loss of memories isn't something normal, and I guess it must've been Nyx. That, or something close to it."

He frowns, unsure of what to think. A name comes and goes, lingering in the back of his mind far too briefly for him to catch it.

"Could it be E—?" Ryoji asks, and at the very first syllable of the name, searing pain shoots through Makoto's eyes and makes him bite on his lip hard enough to taste blood, and he winces, Ryoji's fingertips doing nothing to help— "Could it do this? But it has no thoughts, no sentient—"

Makoto decides not to try to learn of the name, since even its invocation causes his head to split open with blinding light and maniacal cackles. Instead, he tries to ask; "I'm not… what doyouthink?"

"I… honestly don't know," Ryoji shakes his head, carding his fingers through Makoto's hair and sitting down fully on the mattress beside him. He still keeps a hand pressed against his eyes, and it takes almost everything in him not to slam his head into the nearest object just to distract himself from the pain that rises and falls like his chest when he breathes. "It could be, or it might not be. Kotone-chan's presence, andminehere, are something that change even the basic of the narratives we used to go through. I don't know what else is different in this cycle. I don't know anything, and it'sterrifying."

"Yeah," he breathes, closing his eyes and focusing as much of his attention as he could on Ryoji's hand and his voice, low and always so gentle, so calm. After a moment, he leans into the touch, feeling the warmth of his palm against his skin. He could feel Orpheus stirs, along with many names Makoto doesn't recognize – name of those who belongs to the other Arcanas, as well as those of theWorld, ones he could never before call, ones whose names are now saturating at the tip of his tongue. "I'm scared, too."

"So, the Full Moon Shadows' presences did something to you," Ryoji hums softly, and Makoto decides to scoot away and closer to the wall. Ryoji takes his silent cue and climbs up into the bed beside him, kissing his forehead gently before lying down. He offers the boy a hand, keeping the other pressed over his eyes, and Ryoji takes it readily, lovingly, as if he's something so precious. "That's all we know. We'll have to look into the Kirijou Group's archive for this, I think."

"For what exactly?" Makoto asks. All he knows is that the group is responsible for the creation of Death, and of Aigis and her old and battered Seal – one that Makoto suspects might not have been in Kotone's possession in this world. Ryoji is Death, is a fragment of Nyx, yet he's here, tangible and human and alive. It could mean two things; that he's stronger than he used to be, or—

—Or, because of what had happened to them both, he's no longer this world'sHarbinger, no longer the Death that was scattered into twelve pieces.

(A change in the unchanging narrative, creating a new storyline, a new beginning… a new ending.)

"Something else must've taken my place as the Shadow that isn't meant to be," Ryoji finishes his unspoken thoughts, squeezing his hand, and Makoto knows that Ryojiknowsexactly what he's thinking – is having the same thoughts as he is. "If we can look, we might learn the name of the Harbinger. During the first cycle, you said that Aigis' reports said that she sealed me – sealedDeath– in you, right?"

"…Yeah," he says, and then, his thought finally catches up; it would mean that, if this cycle, this timeline hasDeath, and if Death was sealed, it would have been mentioned in the reports, too. "…Oh."

"Precisely," Ryoji breathes, and Makoto pulls back his hand and turns his head to see Ryoji smiling back at him kindly, knowingly. "We could find our answers there. But for now, we have to think about how best to reduce the others' ires from being pointed your way."

"I don't care about that," he says (lies), shifting just a little to ease his tense shoulders against the pillow, feeling the way the warmth of the bed seeps through his shirt. When he feels Ryoji's silence turn almostaccusatory, he adds, "Ryoji, I've already decided to go through with this. I don't care about—"

"—I know," Ryoji mumbles. "…I know. Will you really be alright, though, if I stay friends with them? I don't want you to be ostracized alone—"

"It's fine," Makoto hums, peering through his fingers and at the empty, dark wall of his own room. He, like always, decides to push away that foreboding feeling of fracturing memories and forgotten pieces of his mind to somewhere he couldn't look (if he can't see it, then it isn't real—) before he murmurs softly. "I want you to have a life, you know."

"And I you," Ryoji responds, his voice cracking slightly at the end. Makoto decides not to look, because if he does, all he'd see is sadness shining in those bright blue eyes, and hedoesn'twant to. "You can still change, Makoto. Make friends like you used to."

"Only for me to die on them? No, thank you," he says, adding enough note of finality in his voice to stop his conversation where he wants (needs) it to. "It's okay, Ryoji. I've had centuries to prepare for this, remember?"

Ryoji doesn’t say anything, and Makoto refuses to think of the alternative. He wants to reconnect again, to have friends and reforge his bonds, to reach out and nothing more than to be left alone to rot inside his own head.

Silence befalls them, and Makoto lets it stay that way until nightmares sleep claims him.

(He thinks he might've seen something. White fangs and claws and crooked smile, eyes red as blood that shine brightly against the light of Nyx's wicked splendor. But when he bolts awake, gasping for breath and shaking, he couldn't remember anything.

All that he knows is that the dream – or whatever it is that he had – feels far too real and far too terrifying for him to keep it under his skin. But still, he tries, because what is the point discussing dreams that he cannot even recall?)

"I don't know what to do, either."

Kotone says, more exasperated than anything, when Mitsuru – who is actually nicer than what her initial bearings and her posture would suggest – asks to talk to her about the now dubbed resident troublemaker of the SEES; Makoto. Oh, she knows full well why Mitsuru thinks it's better that she talks to him about this, but after the abrupt change from a doting brother into someone she no longer knows, she isn't sure she could. Ryoji might be able to, but if he hasn't been saying anything, then nothing'll ever be done about it.

"I… see," Mitsuru says with a sigh as she gestures for her to sit down. When Kotone does, the other girl frowns, lips set with her eyes darting away and to Akihiko, who's busy doing… something at the monitor control. "While his skills in battle are excellent, his attitude will pose a problem to the team in the near future."

"Did you try talking to him about it yet?" She says, pauses, then adds when she recalls how close he and Ryoji are. The others must've seen it, too. "Or maybe to Ryoji-kun?"

"Mochizuki won't unseal his lips for some unfathomable reason, even when I threatened to freeze hell along with his behind over," Mitsuru says, and oh, Kotone couldfeelthe ice forming around her. She issoglad that she somehow gets on Mitsuru's good side, because she does not, in a million years, want to be on the receiving end ofthat. "As for Yuuki… I feel like I'll explode a few vessels in my brain if I talk to him any longer than I already had."

"How come?" She says, mostly out of curiosity. She knows Makoto, since April, has become difficult to even get a conversation started (bless Ryoji and his easy-going attitude, or they would never get anything across to that bullhead), but she doesn't really know what he'd said to Mitsuru to get the heiress to be this furious. "What the hell did he do?"

"Nothing in particular, actually," Mitsuru says slowly, reluctance clear in her tone, and her words make Kotone pause. Why would him sayingnothing in particularmake Mitsuru this uneasy? And, as if hearing Kotone's thoughts, Mitsuru says with another, longer sigh. "He… simply listened to me. Once I was done, he only said 'is that so?' before asking to leave. That's it."

Kotone thinks she could see where Mitsuru is coming from; him not listening to them is infuriating enough, but him not being openly hostilebut still doing that?She could see why Mitsuru would actually feel a lot more uneasy about it. If he had been even a little bit violent or antagonistic, either with words or forces, Mitsuru could easily put him under her heels. But that response… how could anyone continue to say anything to himorresort to violent?

"I can't help you, Senpai," she says, sitting down and silencing her thoughts for a moment, Jack Frost's playfulness easing her tensed shoulders a little. She hums the tune Eurydice makes as she looks towards the heiress. "Well, at least he still listens to orders… sometimes. Bars that time on the monorail, of course."

"I suppose keeping an eye on him wouldn't hurt too badly, for now," Mitsuru hums. "Thank you for your time, Kotone. You're free to leave."

"Alright!"

She then excuses herself and walks out of the control room – still quite a sight to behold, a room with such large monitors for the Dark Hour – and down the stairs. She's soon greeted by Yukari, who's walking towards the stairs, probably heading for the first floor, no doubt. When she spots Kotone, Yukari grins. "Hey there, Kotone! What're you doing up there?"

"Just a chat with Mitsuru-senpai," she replies, hooking her arm around Yukari's elbow and tugging her along, ignoring Yukari's half splutter as she forces them to take skipping steps down. "Come on! You're going to find something to eat, aren't you?"

"How did you know that!?" Yukari hisses, but there's a hint of smile on her lips as Io's warm wind breezes through Kotone's mindscape. She's always liked talking to Yukari – she's not as much of a chatter box as Kotone herself is, but she always continues their conversations, and it's so much fun talking to a girl her age who's facing the same Dark hour – not to mention that Io's verdant wind feels so nice whenever they fight alongside one another.

"What can I say? A girl's gotta eat, right?" She winks, remembering faintly what Junpei said not too long ago after their first Tartarus excursion; something about Yukari wanting to eat but never could eat much in fear of gaining extra weight. "I know you always want to."

Yukari huffs, but with a smile as wide as Kotone's own as they skip down to the first floor. The distant sound of simmering oil alerts her that someone's in the kitchen, possibly cooking, and she intends to crash that party, thank you. "I love and hate that you know when I want to eat. I also hate that you can always eat anything without getting fat."

"Blame the metabolism, not the person," Kotone winks back, and falls into a fit of giggles with Yukari as they round the final corner and into the kitchen—

"Oh! Fancy seeing you two ladies here at this hour!"

It's not Ryoji's presence that makes her –them– pause, but rather the person next to him, and what the two are doing; Ryoji is cutting up a piece of meat Kotone assume to be marinated pork, andMakoto, of all people, is frying the rice in the pan, apron and all.

She thinks her brain might've stuttered and crashed for a few seconds, because Yukari is the first to speak up as she cautiously walks forward. "Oh, um… hi? What're you two doing?"

"Cooking, of course!" Ryoji flashes them his always so cheerful, deceptively charming smile as he looks back at the task before him, slicing the meat up with practiced motion, but still with that little bit of difficulty that coins Kotone in to the fact that he mightn't have had that much practice in the culinary arts. "I'm asking Makoto to teach me, since he's the better cook."

Makoto grunts as a response, his foot kicking Ryoji's leg,hard, making the other boy flinch with a smallow. Kotone takes a moment to let that information sink in, and something is… not right. Totally not right. "Wait a sec… Makoto, you cancook?"

Makoto turns to her, hands still working on the frying pan with ridiculous finesses she thinks she knows he doesn't have. She's known him forsixteen years, and sheknowsMakoto cannot cook at that level. Some omelet and easy-to-make dishes, sure, but not whatever monstrosity it is that he's trying to make. He seems to know exactly what she's thinking, either through her silence or through her expression, because he shrugs with aI can and Iwill on his face before turning back without saying another word.

Ryoji looks back and forth between them, his expression already apologetic, so Kotone only shakes her head with a small smile. He pauses briefly, offering her back a smile of his own, before he hums. "He, uh, can cook a lot of things, actually. Just doesn't want to, for some reason."

"I can stop, if you're going to complain," Makoto says curtly, although she could hear it; a note of small but distinguishable fondness – something he used to give Kotone often, something that she hasn't heard from him since the very beginning of this semester.

"No! I was only answering Kotone-chan's question!" Ryoji half-pleads with haste, and Makoto only shakes his head – andchuckles– as a reply. Ryoji pouts before turning his attention back to them. "I think he might've made a bit more than we could eat, so… do you want to join in?"

She exchanges a look with Yukari, reluctant and uncertain; for her part, she just couldn't stomach the thought of having to see Makoto being socoldwhen he used to be much,muchwarmer. But another part of her is really curious about this. As for Yukari – Kotone had heard her saying something about Makoto being a dick in Tartarus…to his face, so it's reasonable that she would find this awkward.

But when she looks back to the two of them, to Makoto in particular, she doesn't see any sign of him actually objecting the idea. They've already huddled together, talking about something she couldn't quite hear under their breaths, with Ryoji's expression light and bright like the sun. So, she decides to bite the bullet and tugs Yukari in along with her, seating themselves on the table, facing their backs as the two boys continue to cook.

"It's kind of… unsettling, when I think about it," Yukari suddenly says, her eyes watching the two as they continue to talk amongst themselves. About what? She isn't sure. But she's caught on a few times, and they could talk aboutanythingandeverything, so her guesses could either be absolutely right or entirely wrong, depending on their interested subjects at hands.

"What's unsettling?" Kotone asks, and looks back briefly when Ryoji leaves his spot next to Makoto and walks over to the fridge.

"Yuuki-kun, I mean," she says with a small frown. When Kotone nudges her, Yukari sighs before shrugging once. "With us, he's kind of adick, and not openly about it, either. But whenever I see him with Ryoji-kun, he just… he looks sosoft, so gentle. I wonder which one is real, and which one is fake. Or maybe both are real?"

Kotone follows her line of thoughts, humming into the staff of her ribs and feeling Eurydice pluck at her lyre again; much softer, much quieter this time. She wonders about it, too – whether the kind, caring Makoto she's known her whole life or the cold, detached one is the real him. She just doesn't know, and she frankly doesn't want to think about it – justyet.

She decides to stop her train of thoughts entirely when Ryoji comes over to sit down across from them, placing a plate of peeled apples before them. "He's adding the finishing touch right now, nothing I can do to help. So, here you go."

"Thanks!" Kotone chirps, the food making her forget her predicament briefly as she practically gorges herself in it, ignoring Yukari's half-startled yelp and Ryoji's chuckles.

And, if she had looked to the side now, she might've seen a brief but fond smile on Makoto's face as he looks at them all, forlorn but oh-so-proud.

Notes:

As fas as I'm concerned, the twins will make up... maybe in about 7-8 chapters from here. Sorry uwu

See you next time!

Chapter 5: Amalgamation

Summary:

The third Full Moon arrives, and something that has never happened before occurred.

Notes:

IM SO SORRY ABOUT THE LATENESS ASLFHLAKGSLDGK

Exam killed me, seriously. I'll try to get it out at least once a month, but this story might be slower than my other one, so please, bear with me. Thank you so much for your patience uvu

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

The time after the monorail's Shadow is a little on the slow side.

Makoto seems just as distant and cold as ever before, with that edge of nervousness in the way he looks around him as if expecting something to pounce on him from the dark. Kotone had tried to ask him that a few times, but gave up when the answer never came (he's always been stubborn, but never held any secrets from her. Now he does, and Kotone doesn't know what to do—) and just called him weird before being done with it.

"Are you okay, Kotone-chan?" Ryoji says, snapping her out of her own head. She looks up from her book, the passages and equations slipped through her eyes completely without even a part of it managing to stay in her brain. Ryoji gives her a smile before sitting down in the vacant seat beside her, handing her a can of coke. "You sure space out a lot."

"Am I?" She says, even if Kotone herself is aware that she has been lost in her own head far more times that she cares to count,especiallywhen the exam is looming on the horizon. She sighs, accepting his offering before drinking angrily from the can. "I guess so. I just donotunderstand Makoto. At all!"

Ryoji's pause is small but noticeable; the boy rarely stutters in his thoughts and words at all, so the absence of any comments from him is enough to alert her that he is at least uncomfortable with this subject. But he erases that anxiety off of the atmosphere soon enough, instead humming to acknowledge her words before sipping on his own drink. "I'm sorry about that."

"Not your fault," Kotone sighs, finally having enough and deciding to veer the subject of her conversation away and towards somewhere brighter. "Anyway, exam's coming up! You wanna join me, Junpei and Yukari's study group, Ryoji-kun?"

"I'd love to, but I have plans today," Ryoji says with a wink, and while Kotone shouldn't, she still finds herself raising an eyebrow in a silent question. Ryoji laughs and replies, pointing at the subject of her internal turmoil— "There's this café near the edge of Shirakawa Boulevard we've been eyeing to go together for a while, so I'm sorry for not being able to study with you today."

Kotone couldn't help but arch her brows up higher in disbelief. "You two do realize exams are, like, a week from now, right?"

"Yep," Ryoji says without a smidge of remorse. "Don't worry about it, Kotone-chan. We'll be fine."

"It's your funeral," Kotone mutters.

(It would take her months to know that, at this very moment, she has missed a certain morbid joke.)

"It is, isn't it?" Ryoji laughs merrily, nudging her shoulder with his own before he leans on the table, his intense blue eyes boring into hers. It is as unnerving as it is calming – as if she's been looked at by two different people of entirely opposite nature; one imposing, one like a dear, old friend. "I'll join you tomorrow, if you'd like? I'm free, after all."

"Sure," Kotone nods, grinning at him. "I think I'll have fun asking you questions to death, because we both know you don't pay a lick of attention in classes."

At this, Ryoji's smile turns into a smirk, lips stretch wide with a mischievous tilt of his head to accompany it. "We'll see about that, won't we?"

She's wrong.

She's so damn wrong!

"You almost got that right, Kotone-chan," Ryoji winks as he points his pen at the last and hardest question she's been unable to get correctly so far – it's not like she's bad at studying or anything, simply that math isn't her best subjects – his cheek resting on his bent knuckles and his eyes as kind as they are mysterious. "You got this part wrong. You forgot to multiply theXwith 3 during the differentiation."

"Arg!Goddamnit!" She hiss-yells, trying her best to not be loud enough to earn the ire of Odagiri sitting in the corner reading something she thinks are history books. "How!? How are you this good without paying a lick of attention in classes!?"

"Man, and here I thought you and I are the same! The betrayal," Junpei sniffs, wiping crocodile tears before pointing rudely in Ryoji's direction. She thinks she hears a small, soft chuckle from the side (from where Makoto is), but that's justimpossible, so she doesn't pay much attention to it. "But you're kind of a good teacher, though! Have experiences?"

"You could say that," Ryoji hums lightly, scribbling the solutions of the problem into the book before he starts writing the explanations into little snippets on the side and turning the note back to them. Yukari, who has already ditched her seat next to Ryoji – being bothered by his constant flirting Kotone finds is as charming as it is annoying, no doubt – leans into Kotone's shoulder to try to get a glimpse, too.

Ryoji then starts explaining the problem in details, patiently and without any outward feeling of being annoyed radiating from his smile, only warmth. But to Kotone, his warmth seems a little… non-human like, somehow. Not like the heat of life or the spark of a breath, but like a gentle shadow that surrounds the night whenever the moon ascends.

She quickly diverts her mind – one that would, more often than not, think about things that doesn't have anything to do with the present – back to reality, blinking twice to center herself as she follows Ryoji's directions. And while she has no problem understanding the solutions he's provided, she notices that he has worded his thought process quite meticulously, enough for Junpei and Yukari to be able understand and try to solve similar questions on their own.

"How are you this good while paying no attention to class, though?" Yukari comments, pausing her chewing of the end of her pen to speak up before she returns to solving the next problem. "I want that brain."

Ryoji chuckles, leaning slightly to his right – and into Makoto, who has remained silent so far with his headphones blasting music quite loudly into his ears – and nudging the other boy's shoulder with his own before winking at them. "I just happen to have a personal tutor."

This, she knows; Makoto has always been good at studying, especially in subjects like math and sciences, but less so with history and language while she is his polar opposite. They'd always compare their study notes in the past, complimenting each other's weaknesses and plugging that gaping hole left in her heart when their parents died and when everyone around them shunned them away—

"It's already six," Makoto's voice snaps Kotone out of her thought, and she looks up to see Ryoji checking his own cross-strapped watch. "Aren't you supposed to take me tosightsee?"

Ryoji laughs sheepishly, scratching the back of his head as he shrugs. Kotone questions why Makoto would accompany them to the library at all, but that just gives sense to everything— "Oh, uh, sorry. I forgot?"

Makoto sighs, albeit without any real irritation in the way he seems to smile just ever so slightly, as he looks at Ryoji in the eyes with a raised brow. "You wanna stay?"

"Mhm," Ryoji says easily.

While she knows that they both are close, so very close, she never thinks that forgetting what she assumes to be adatewould not be a big deal. But then again, the Makoto she knows (knew?) never really mind anything, always as forgiving as he is silent— "Suit yourself. I'll go on ahead."

"Alright," Ryoji hums, reaching a hand to pat Makoto's shoulder once as her brother stuffs his stationaries and his books into his schoolbag with a little less finesse than he usually would. When Makoto gets up, Ryoji flashes him another smile, an entire conversation passing in between them as they look at each other, briefly but with so much meaning. "See you at the dorm?"

"See you."

When Makoto leaves, for a while, there is only silence; by now, Junpei and Yukari have both become aware of their closeness, but it is as new to them as it is to her, so for a while, no one says anything. Then, after a pause, Junpei speaks up, "How're you even best buds with Makoto?"

"How?" Ryoji repeats, tilting his head to the side, his reply coming out quickly and without delay. "We just do, that's all. Is there anything about him I shouldn't like?"

"Yeah?" Yukari and Junpei say simultaneously, as incredulous as they are surprised. Out of the two, she thinks Yukari really doesn't like her brother all that much – and she gets it, she really does. After all, he's just as cold as he is deadpan, wearing his emotion deep in his chest with his words curt and cold and uncaring (and it hurts and she just wants to know why). He has never been openly hostile, never appeared outwardly antagonistic, but—

Ryoji's quiet chuckle rings into the tense air between them as he leans back slightly, the math problems in hands briefly forgotten. "I suppose… it's hard to explain, and it's not my place to really say anything. But I owe him… a lot. He had helped me through some grueling periods and vice versa, so we just kind of bonded over it."

She wants to ask more, to find out what theseperiodsof his are, but something stops her; the sound of a lyre plucked as a warning and as a plea, and not one from Eurydice.Orpheus, she realizes – the Persona that is the muse to her mask, the one that appears so different yet with flame as gentle as Eurydice's own. What strikes her odd is that she never feels this with anyone else's, never feels Io's breeze or the sound of Hermes' steel clashing inside her chest, but Orpheus' presence is somehow as prominent as her other masks, as if he is hers and not Makoto's—

"…Right," Yukari says at last, deciding to cut the conversation she wants no part in short, before stretching her hands up in the air and muttering. "Alright! Only a few more to go!"

Ryoji smiles, seeing through her best friend's attempt at changing the topic quite clearly – or she would assume so, seeing that glint in his eyes – but electing to ignore it as he nods, leaning forward and tapping his pen into the book before him. "Well then. Let's do this."

Kotone decides to keep everything else for later, focusing only on the approaching exam and not the strange, hollowing feeling of no longer knowing her brother, or the song of yore sung through the threads of the Sea of Souls beyond the veil of stars.

The midterm is finally over.

Kotone stretches on the sofa, invading Junpei and Ryoji's privacies with her hands and feet (she does not care, and they can't tell her otherwise, mwehehe) while she redirects her focus to Yukari, who's munching on snacks Makoto had made in excess a few days ago. How he keeps doing anything unrelated to studying (just like Ryoji, somehow) during exam season baffles her. But she won't be getting any answers anyway, so what the hell, right?

(She tries to ignore the way her bond with him never forms during these past few weeks, as if he isn't supposed to be her Social Link to begin with, as if they never shared any emotional connections she knows they used to have. And it hurts, it hurts so much she wants to scream at him and cry and—)

"Koto-nan!" Junpei says, knocking the thoughts out of her head as he pushes her hand away, feigning a look of disgust as she laughs, rolling onto her stomach and kicking something (probably Ryoji's hands or his book). "Stop! I know I like invadin' your personal space and all, but ain't this a little over-the-top?"

"Nah," she says easily, turning back to see Ryoji holding back an amused smile, his body tilted slightly away from her waving legs. She decides that she's doing more harm to him than she should, so she angles her legs away from him, and in return is given a small sigh of contentment and appreciation. She then turns back to Junpei with a wicked grin. "I know you love me, Junpei!"

"Yeah, I hate you too," he says jokingly, pushing his finger on her head and making her yelp a smallow, with how hard he actually pushes. "But, seriously, though. At least mind Ryoji! Dude's just chilling, and you're kicking him!"

"Oh, I don't mind at all," Ryoji laughs delightedly as he waves his hand. Kotone couldfeelthe betrayal in the way Junpei makes a sound that is closer to a whine than to a grumble while Ryoji continues tonot helpat all. "You do you, Kotone-chan. I don't mind it in the least."

"See? He's nicer thanyouare," Kotone fakes a pout and sticks out her tongue.

"You're such a goddamn tease, and I hate you, really do," Junpei grunts.

"Sure you do," Kotone giggles.

They continue to laugh, banter, and bask in each other's presences, the exam long since dispelled from their minds. Kotone briefly looks towards the kitchen, where she sees Makoto busying himself with the knives and the pan for god knows what, the aroma of seasonings and grilled meat invading her senses and making her drool almost instantly—

She stops herself from focusing on her brother who she no longer knows (who no longer cares about her and it hurts so bad) and decides to just stay idle for the day, leaving the worries for tomorrow's her to take care of.

Sanada, rightfully, is an unforgiving and fierce fighter.

She swaps Makoto out for the day (because while he's kind of competent, working with him is mentally torturing her to death because of his lack of response), and her decision seems to be the right one; Makoto's Persona, Orpheus, is more focused on support than firepower, the songs of battle that flows from the obsidian fingertips and marble-like lyre more suited to healing than to wreaking havoc, and they've been lacking in offense for a while, now. So, yes, Sanadaisa welcomed addition (welcome back?) to the team.

"Ten Shadows total that I can see,"Ryoji comments softly as Kotone spins around and avoids the first strike from the dark, hitting the Shadow with the pole of her Naginata before kicking it into Sanada's waiting reach. The man grins and nods at her before punching the damn thing to kingdom come."Alright, make that nine. Good reflexes!"

"Thanks!" She says, nodding at the others before taking a few glances around; only a few meters and they'll be at a crossroad. But, only ten Shadows would mean that splitting up into a two-man team would be a waste of time, since these ones are fairly weak, at least to her. "Alright, I think we could split up into four directions. Just run if you see more than two."

"Roger that!" The rest of the team echo before they split off.

She feels that the world is oddly quiet, the shadows shifting and changing like ripples of water. It is as nauseating as it is confusing; it's as if the corridor of this floor, something that should've been straight and without any unexpected twist, is folding into itself. She decides to voice her thoughts out loud, because if this happens everywhere on this floor, then she'd rather not risk everybody. "Hey, Ryoji-kun, Mitsuru-senpai… is there something strange going on? I feel like the ground is folding into itself."

There is a pause, and Mitsuru is the first to speak up, surprised and concerned."I… do not. Are you seeing anything of note, Kotone?"

"Yeah?" She says, a little unsure herself, as her step slows into a pause. She lets the edge of her Naginata grate along the floor, Eurydice's voice echoing deep into the dark and ricocheting back out weaker and more subdued. "I mean… the corridor should be straight and all, but it looks to me like this thing is twisting and expanding."

"Retrace your steps, Kotone-chan,"Ryoji says calmly unlike his usual conduct, the chipper tone of his voice and the lightness of his words gone, replaced by intense focus."I can still feel you from here. It's either a Shadow's power or a hallucination."

"Okay, I'll do just that," she hums, slowly turning back towards where she comes from. If she can gets to the crossroad, then she's good—

Begone, Fool.

The voice growls from around and within her as a low, deep rumbling of a beast that sends chill down her spine and through her entire being. Her first instinct is to run, but she quickly suppresses the urge and let her battle mindset kicks in instead; quickly, she draws her Evoker into her hand, the other gripping tight on her weapon, sweeping her eyes and her blade around once.

There is nothing within sight, not even a Shadow, her only companion in this strange corridor the blood-stained walls and shattered glasses and dark light that seems to swallow even the brightest flame into its depths. But when she blinks, everything disappears for a moment, and—

"Eh?" She voices when everything returns to normal. Or, as normal as it could be for Tartarus and Dark Hour, with the dark light disappearing into nothing and the warped space reverting back to how it was before. "Uh… well? That kind of fixed it?"

There is a pregnant pause that follows, and Ryoji is the one to break it, with something in his voice Kotone couldn't fully pin; and edge, perhaps, or—"That's… good. Are you hurt anywhere?"

"No, I'm fine," she says, looking around once more to make sure that whatever fuckery it is that has just happened hasn't reoccurred. "That was weird."

"Thread carefully, Kotone,"Mitsuru says tersely."We do not know how Tartarus operates, so something of this nature could happen again. Should you notice anything at all, notify me. But I'll leave any immediate responses to such events in your hands."

"Roger that," Kotone replies.

She decides to push forward, ignoring the incessant buzz from something deep in her chest, ignoring the crooning voice that she has heard just now, distant and faint with words and foul intent clear as day.

(It would take her months to figure out what the owner of the voice is, and by then, the damage would've already been done.)

It starts off innocently enough.

Just a few talks of a missing girl in 2-E, and some bullies being nothing but a bunch of idiots that anger Kotone just so. But what she first thinks of as nothing more than a common story of someone being bullied moving away from their original school turns into something that might or might not have something to do with the SEES.

Most likely does, though, since the girls found passed out in front of the school have all been inflicted with Apathy Syndrome, just like those haunted and devoured by Shadows.

Yamagishi Fuuka is… a potential Persona User, but that isn't the point that Kotone's worried about. She's beenmissingfrom school forten damn days, and if the rumors of this girl turns out to be about her, then there's a chance she's already gone. But Kotone won't allow herself to think of that just yet. She wants to confirm whether the rumors about her being a ghost could be believed in its entirety or not, and if it does not, there's still a chance that she might be alive.

ShehopesFuuka might be alive. Not coming to school doesn't mean she's dead, right?

After a bit of asking around with their efforts bearing no fruits, Kotone decides to trust Yukari's judgement and go for one of the Port Island Station's back alleys where delinquents and party goers frequent; dark and out of eyesight, a perfect place for something to go horribly wrong.

She looks back quickly once, half of her mind still questioning why Makoto would be here – but she thinks it's a given, since Ryoji's here with her, too (it's so weird seeing Ryoji without his scarf, but summer heat, right?). It's at least… slightly more reassuring, having more people on their side when they're walking right into a den full of people who would often resort to violence more than words, more prone to flaunt around theirsuperioritythan to listen.

It doesn't take long for the crooks to notice them when they walk into their line of sights – and one of them with piercings in his nose stands up, scoffing and scowling harshly. Kotone feels a strange urge to kick him in between the legs, all of a sudden. "Hah? What's this? Ain't those uniform Gekkoukan High's?"

She decides to ignore it (and also trying hard to ignore Junpei voicing out the mirror of her inner voice) and speaks up, keeping her voice as leveled as possible. "Excuse me, I'd like to—"

"Hey," the punk cuts her off, and she could see some of the guys closing in around them. "I think you're in the wrong place here."

She frowns, trying to keep her anger from appearing as she attempts to asknicelyagain. "I just—"

"You don't belong here, get it?" The man snarls, curling his right hand into a fist, hostility emanating from him in waves after sickening waves. Kotone really wants to kick the man's nuts right now, but if she does, they're oh-so -dead, seeing how many people have already gathered around them like wolves circling their preys. "Beat it, redhead."

She is about to try to ask nicely, but Yukarireallydoes not like that – because she suddenly growls out a speech of her own, filled with disgust that Kotone feels in her bones, too. "We don't need your permission to be here, you know!"

"Are younuts!?" Junpei hisses, and Kotone, yet again, has to agree with him. "This is stupid! Look around you, Yukari-cchi! Do you have a death wish!?"

"I'm notblind, you idiot," Yukari rolls her eyes, and Kotone could see the subtle signs of anxiety in the way that she moves; there's a certain tell in her voice that Kotone would've missed, had she not seen and heard Yukari being uneasy before. But it looks like her heart is getting better of her rationality, because Yukari suddenly adds, "don't be intimidated by thesescums."

Kotone resists the urge to both sigh and scream.There's a time and place for words like that, but not in the middle of a crowd!

"Hey, what did ya call us?" One of them snarls, stalking closer with his taller frame looming over them. "You oughta learn to shut that trap o' yours,bitch!"

Unsurprisingly, the punk throws a punch, wild and with enough force behind it. Kotone is quicker, though – he's just so damn slow compared to the Shadows they have to content with on a near daily basis – as she manages to grab Yukari and yank her out of the way in time. The second punch then comes, but the unfortunate one is Junpei, who's only been standing right in the middle of it all.

The sound of fist colliding with Junpei's nose makes her stomach drop, and she turns to see him collapse to the ground with blood gushing out of his nose. Before Kotone could think about anything else, the punk sneers as he lifts up his foot. "Here, lemme give you a lesson!"

"Stop—!"

"That's enough."

The voice is rough and deep, rumbling like thunder during the storm. Kotone turns to the owner of that voice, an imposing figure with a strange edge in his tone she couldn't quite place. The punk stops, turning around to the newcomer with a scowl before he snaps. "Huh? It ain't your damn business! Get lost!"

When he steps out of the light, recognition sparks across her temples; dark red overcoat over his broad shoulders and tall frame, eyes as dark as they are warm, and a growl that sounds both like a protective wolf watching over his family and a predator eyeing his soon-to-be-prey. She could feel Eurydice laugh within her as something graces along the edge of her consciousness; a roaring hoof slamming into the ground and a war cry of something that is both gentle and powerful—

"You have three seconds to get outta my sight," the man – Aragaki Shinjirou, she now recalls – snarls as he takes more steps forward, each heavy and unwavering. The punk slowly backs off, and Kotone helps Junpei up while Aragaki grabs the punk by the collar. "If you ain't gonna run, I'm sure as hell gonna stomp your sorry ass todeathright fuckin' 'ere."

There's a terrified yelp spilling out of the punk's lips, and before she knows it, they've already scrambled off into somewhere she doesn't even want to think about. After they're left alone, she quickly bows to Aragaki. "Thank you so much, Aragaki-senpai!"

"Hn," he snorts, and when Kotone looks up, she sees the way he seems to look at all of them, as if to gauge something about them. His eyes pause on their trail for a moment, frown deep and mouth set. Then, the man shakes his head, scratching his beanie as he waves at them. "You guys are all idiots. Get lost before punks gank up on your asses again."

"Um!" Yukari speaks up, still slightly startled by all of it. Kotone thinks she's seeing Makoto whispering something to Ryoji, but doesn't pay them much mind as Yukari continues. "There's… actually, we'd like to know about something."

Aragaki gives them a long, hard look before he sighs again, heavy and with reservation. But he finally nods, muttering half to himself. "Did Aki tell you to come here or something?"

"Actually, no," Kotone denies, patting the dirt away from Junpei's shirt as she moves to stand beside Yukari – who has somewhat calmed down from that little frightening experience – and addresses Aragaki with another bow. "We'd like to know about that ghost story. The girl, Yamagishi Fuuka—"

"Figure as much," Aragaki shrugs. "Girls who wound up in the hospital were here talkin' shit every damn night about a girl – this Yamagishi of yours – they were bullyin'. That's why they said it's Yamagishi's spirit that did all this."

"Wait… what do you mean by that?" Yukari inquires. But oh, Kotone thinks she already knowswhy, and it makes her gut twists into itself, makes—

"You don't know?" Aragaki frowns, crossing his arms. "This Yamagishi girl might be dead. She hasn't been home in over aweek."

"Oh my god," Kotone breathes, the weight of that sentence hitting her fully and making her gut clenches; he's saying that Fuuka might've already been killed, either by the bullying or by theShadows. And oh, she isn't sure which is worse, being offed by some bullies who see her as no more than a source of entertainment, or having her mind ripped apart by—

"That's all I know," Aragaki hums, his voice strangely soft despite the scowl on his face or the way he tenses under his coat. Kotone snaps herself back to the present as the man raises an eyebrow at her, in particular. "Satisfied?"

"Yes, thank you very much, Aragaki-senpai!" Kotone decides to push that gut feeling of dread to the back of her head, bowing deeply at him and smiling brightly like she always does with her brother (who has remained silent this whole time). "You're very kind, Senpai."

She isn't sure if she's seeing things or not, but she thinks she might've noticed a slight blush on his cheeks, or the way he seems to avert his eyes, or the small spluttering sound he makes as he murmur. "Now scram and go home, idiots. Don't let me see you here again."

Kotone only follows him with a smile as he leaves.

Turns out, Fuuka might actually be alive, locked inside the twisted tower for only ten hours simply because Tartarus doesnotexist during any other time.

Even if the chance of that is slim, she wants to save her – matching her determination with Sanada's own – as they plan their rescue mission. They'll have to leave Moriyama at the dorm, but it cannot be helped; bringing her with them to Tartarus might do more harm than good, after all.

"Is everyone ready?" Mitsuru asks before they depart from the dorm, with the clock indicating the time of 11.45pm – just a quarter of an hour shy from midnight.

Kotone looks around, and at first, she sees nothing wrong; Sanada readying his knuckledusters, Junpei experimentally swinging his sword, Yukari checking the strings of her bows, and Mitsuru sharpening her rapier and cleaning it to a mirror's sheen. She spies Ryoji descending the stairs, but when she waits and waits… no one else (Makoto) comes down. So, she frowns and addresses the problem immediately. "Hey, Ryoji-kun. Where is Makoto?"

"About that," the boy says almost shyly, eyes looking away from them. Mitsuru is already releasing her trademark icy glares – thankfully one that isn't pointed at her, but at poor Ryoji – when Ryoji speaks quietly, a slight frown on his face. "I… Makoto doesn't feel well today. He has a fever, so I'm going to stay with him tonight."

Kotone frowns, unsure if this is some kind of attempt at a comedy or not. But when there's no punch line to be delivered, only heavy, nigh-unbreathable silence, she forces out a sigh. If Makoto is going to be this difficult… "He's being really difficult now, is he?"

"Does he have a real, measurable fever, or is he just lying to you?" Mitsuru says, her voice sharp with icy edge of Penthesilea's frozen glare merging into her words, dropping the temperature around them to an even lower degree. "Because if it is the latter, I will go up there and—"

"It's the former, Mitsuru-san," Ryoji quickly cuts her off, his voice unusuallycold, despite being one of the warmest and carefree and anger-less people she knows. Kotone shivers, the cold fury very small but still palpable in the air. But that anger dissipates as quickly as it comes, with Ryoji flashing them a small, tired smile as he shrugs. "I don't know what he did, but he's in no position to fight. My… ability to sense the Shadows' positions won't help with this particular endeavor, anyway, so I just want to stay here with him. If you're alright with it, of course, Mitsuru-san, Kotone-chan."

She and Mitsuru exchanges a look, their frowns deep. It is unusual forRyojito ditch them. Not once had he tried to find an excuse to exclude himself from an operation – unlike Makoto, who might not be that vocal but always makes himself known physically that he wants to work as little as possible, even if his entry into the SEES is byhisown choice – and him saying this out front makes them think, makes them pause and unsure of what they should do.

The logical, leader-like choice is to ask him to help, since Makoto can live through a fever for an hour. He's not a small child in need of constant monitoring with another close at hand to cater to all of his will, but on the flip side, Ryoji has always been very easygoing, always available for her every mission. In the end, Kotone could only sigh; it is not often Ryoji would ask for a favor, after all, and she'd like nothing more than to let him have his ways once in a while.

Mitsuru seems to think in alignment as she is, since the heiress closes her eyes, exhales slowly, and nods her head. "Very well. It shouldn't affect the mission all that much. We're just going to go in to rescue Yamagishi and not to fight, after all. Just be certain to keep Moriyama under your and Yuuki's watch."

"Thank you, Kotone-chan, Mitsuru-san," Ryoji bows lightly once before he takes a pause, frowns, then adds. "Good luck on the mission. Come back safely."

"We will," Kotone grins as she lets Mitsuru leads the way, letting her mind wander to her brother only briefly before she concentrates on the matter at hand.

When Ryoji comes back, Makoto already feels like he's going to throw up.

Something feels wrong. Something feelsverywrong; as if the loss of memories and consciousness during the last two Full Moons aren't bad enough, every climb up Tartarus also saps away his strength more than it did in the previous lives, previous cycles. But those are the last of his worries tonight – because right now, justlookingat the moon feels absolutelyhorrendousthat even Orpheus is shifting uneasily in his chest.

Images of white teeth and vile shadows flash in his mind, taking up a part of his thoughts and drawing out the most basic instinct – the most basedfear– in him. Even staring up at Nyx never did this, even looking as his friends walked away from him, leaving him to die alone in the cold dark, watching their bonds break into a thousand pieces never did this—

"Makoto," Ryoji breathes, a hand firm on his shoulder. Makoto only shakes his head, unsure of what to think as the small throbs of headaches breach into his mind. There is no evidence, but he justknowsdeep in his bones that, if he looks at any Full Moon Shadows right now, he might pass out, he might be reminded of things that had come to pass, or things from beyond the edge of time, of space, reminded of the very thing that's fated to destroy the world— "Makoto, stop thinking andlook at me."

His command is soft, but absolute, laced with intent and with authority he rarely wields – a mirror of Makoto's own whenever he barks his orders at the SEES as they fought against Shadows in the cycles before this one – but also hiding that smidge of worry he's seen far too often in the past two months that Ryoji shouldn't exist. Makoto could only nod, following Ryoji's breaths with his own, inhaling and exhaling regularly along the silent countdown in his head.

Once he gathers enough of himself in one place, he opens his eyes, the light of the moon shining through the window making bile rise up his throat, and he squirms as he tries to push it all down. "…Sorry, I… I don't know what's wrong, and—"

"—The Moon. Nyx," Ryoji says, placing both his hands on Makoto's shoulders and grounding him to earth, stopping his thoughts from veering into uncomfortable territory. He feels hot and cold and unpleasant, and all of these reminds him too much of the moment he died performing the Seal with his broken, reversed bonds on that one single cycle that turned his heart back to its cold, apathetic state. "The phase of the moon influences Shadows, after all. I think this might have something to do with Nyx. Maybe the time loops happened because of her?"

He frowns. Even if the reason is sound, something in him – the many masks that lurk and stir within him – disagrees, the synchronicity in which they echo their dissents far too loud for him to ignore. The moon is Nyx; her obsidian, stone-cold body and dark red gaze and the bright, milk-colored light are nothing but two sides of the same coin, like night and day. Even if the phase of the moon changes, her influences during a Full Moon and a waning moon shouldn't be this contrasting, this jarring.

He thinks of another god, skittering about at the edge of the Sea of Souls, a name he has somehow forgotten when he should've recalled, a god born of malice and age-old resentment brewing through generations of man, from even before the age of reasons, where only anger and steel and fire rule the earth—

"I don't know," Makoto decides to say, trying hard to cut off his thoughts, to stop them from going too far away from the present. The name of that god would come to him – a god that is not Nyx, one that is far too malevolent to be the Goddess of Death who is neither good nor evil – in time, but right now, he needs to find a way to bypass this crippling headache and fear and fever. If it comes every Full Moon, every time major fights would befall them, then he won't be able to be the Seal for their sakes, won't be able to fight to protect what he used tolove. "It might be her, but it might not—"

Ryoji tilts his head, realization dawning in his feature as his grips on Makoto's shoulders tighten. "…Do you think it's—"

Ryoji suddenly stops, a heavy scowl settling deep into his face, his blue eyes dimmed and dulled by worry and confusion. Makoto looks into Ryoji's eyes, and when he sees the way the boy looks, as lost as that moment on the Moonlight Bridge, he knows that this is something they're both inflicted with—

"…The name slipped," Ryoji says, with haste and with fear, his mouth hanging agape and his mind reeling, the hand on his shoulders quivering minutely under duress. "IknowI remembered the name just a few days ago, but itslipped."

His fear becomes reality, and for a moment, all Makoto could hear is the distant ring of vile darkness and maniacal cackles in the back of his head. He also realizes that they've actuallysaidthe name of that god not too long ago, too, with clarity and with full knowledge. Makoto remembers that god being the very thing that the Great Seal was supposed to ward off, supposed to keep from ever reaching Nyx and drawing her single eye towards earth. Butsomethingdid this to thebothof them, not just him, tearing the name out of their heads and leaving only the images and the knowledge of that one being behind.

"I still remember what it is, though," Ryoji frowns, cocking his head to the side as his frown deepens. "Why would it take away only its name, and not what it is, not our memories of it?"

It takes Makoto a moment to formulate a response, one that is but a theory that makes something in him churn almost angrily; "…In some cultures, names are… powerful. It allowed Isis to overpower Ra, stopped Death from taking an ill child away, caused the universe to come to its end… maybe that's why? I don't know, I'm not—"

"It might be so," Ryoji nods slightly, keeping his hand placed firmly on Makoto's shoulder. "But if we can't remember the name, then we'll have to rediscover it somehow. The Velvet Room, maybe?"

"Yeah," he breathes, leaning his head into Ryoji's shoulder, trying his hardest to ignore the way his stomach folds into itself and the hot and cold that wash all over him, freezing his veins and setting him alight. "Maybe."

"We have to try to find a way to deal with this, too," Ryoji states, and when Makoto nods his agreement, Death hums lowly. "How are you feeling now?"

"Nauseous," he states truthfully, the distinct, familiar and terrible taste of acidic liquid biting into the back of his throat and making his gut squirm in disgust. He decides to close his eyes, focusing on the voices of his many masks; of Orpheus' warm flame and the notes plucked into a calming tune. "Headache's worse."

"I think I saw painkillers hidden in the cabinet downstairs not too long ago," Ryoji mumbles, pulling slightly back and placing his hand on Makoto's cheek before he rubs his thumb along the patch of skin just under his eye. When Makoto sighs, content and with slightly less pain throbbing in the back of his head, Ryoji whispers. "I'm sure Kotone-chan and the rest can take care of the Emperor and Empress Shadows."

"What if something happens?" Makoto says, even if he's seen Kotone dealt with the Magician on her own before, even if he's seen her led the others into battle against the Priestess on the monorail just a month ago. A strange gut feeling is worming its way into his head, writhing like some kind of insect being cooked alive— "If we aren't there, and if they couldn't—"

"The others are still with you, right?" Ryoji says, placing a single digit on Makoto's chest. At this, his masks hum, in agreement and as a promise; that they are ready to do whatever he wishes them to, be it fighting against Shadows on his own or on his behalf in another's care. He looks up, and Ryoji is smiling. "This might have never happened before, but you draw out your powers from the Sea of Souls, same as any Wild Cards. If push comes to shove, Orpheus'll be there. Right?"

He speaks the truth, Seeker,Orpheus hums in response, his voice coming from everywhere and nowhere, a dulled but booming voice that is both human-like and omnipresence; and for once, Makoto finds himself slightly more at ease, smiling and humming quietly into the air that is getting colder as the Dark Hour approaches.I shall be there for her should she need my aid. Your wish is mine, little one.

"See?" Ryoji grins, bright and calm, even if his eyes still glint with worry and unshed tears. "They're all in good hands. Right now, let's try to take care of your headache first, so you can be there when the next Full Moon arrives."

After a moment, Makoto nods, placing a hand over his eye to press back down the pain that seems to erode the nerves in his brain and make him feel like someone has poured melted iron into its socket. "I guess. Okay. One thing at a time."

"One thing at a time."

When Ryoji is gone, before he lets himself relax as the Dark Hour envelops the world, he thinks he hears something; like centipedes skittering along the edge of his consciousness, dark plume of dusts and diseases spreading in his chest like coal-fire. But when he reaches for Orpheus, that feeling is gone, leaving only the taste of a forgotten name on the tip of his tongue—

He shakes his head; there is no point thinking about it when he isn't even mostly in the present, his mind being bounced back and forth between one line of thoughts and another. For now, he should focus on the moment, on the matters at hand; to find a solution to the worsening headache that seems to dull something in him, to find an explanation to the strange occurrences that is the time loop that seems to put a wrench into its own unchangeability.

(Somewhere at the edge of his heart, a dark beast stirs, with a sinister smile and eyes as red as blood pulsing in his veins. But when he closes his eyes to look, to see and to find out what it exactly is, that image and that sense of being watched is gone.)

She is sonotgoing to enter Tartarus like this again.

It's a miracle at all that Kotone wasn't ambushed while she was unconscious being pulled into the Tower during its formation just so; in fact, there seems to be so few Shadows around, and ones that she finds are far too weak to pose a problem to her. Eurydice seems as giddy as she is expectant, of something she doesn't quite know what. But if her other self is in good spirit – if squirming inside her chest as she takes more steps through the deserted, twisted corridor of the Dark Hour could be called so – then she supposes she'll take it as a blessing.

It doesn't take too long to find Sanada and Junpei, much to her luck – they seem to have encountered only a small number of Shadows, too. As soon as they convene, though, Kotone decides to start doing what they were supposed to do; "have you guys seen Fuuka-chan?"

"No," Sanada shakes his head, a thoughtful look crossing his feature. "It's strange, though… I thought I heard a voice of someone in here—"

"Shh!" Kotone hisses when the clattering sound of footsteps register. Something in her – a Persona she couldn't quite fully control, walking silently at the far reach of her mind and filling her heart with reassuring warmth, one that is far more powerful than Eurydice's own – seems to communicate something into her, that the voice isn't from a Shadow. So, she cranes her neck to try to locate the source.

And once she does, the voice comes closer. Junpei and Sadana are quick to have their guards up, but that is proven unnecessary when the origin of the footsteps come into their view; a girl wearing Gekkoukan's uniform with small frame and unsure eyes. "Who is this…? Are you human?"

Kotone quickly smiles, relief flooding over her as she says with as much confidence as she has. "Yes, we are! Are you Fuuka-chan?"

"Y-yes," she murmurs meekly, tugging a strand of stray hair behind her ear and ducking down, as if to avoid being detected by something.

Kotone thinks it is a miracle to have survived in the Shadows' nest this long without a Persona, but her questions are left unanswered with Sanada steps in. "I'm glad you're okay. Come with us, we'll get you out of here."

"Thank you so much," Fuuka says, clutching the front of her shirt nervously. "…Where are we? I was at school, and then…"

"It's hard to explain, but we'll get to it eventually," Kotone says, looking around. Oddly enough, there are not as many Shadows within Tartarus as there usually would be. But something in her tells her that this is not right, that something terrible is going to happen. "Anyway, Fuuka-chan, are you hurt? Have you run into any monsters?"

"Huh? Oh, so therearestrange creatures in here," Fuuka murmurs. Kotone detects that subtle shake in her hands, and reach out to take them both into hers, smiling slightly to reassure Fuuka that she's alright. At least it works, because Fuuka nods again before half-whispering. "I… I've managed to avoid them so far."

"Avoid?" Kotone repeats. When Fuuka nods, the first person she thinks of is Ryoji – someone who could pinpoint a Shadow's location so perfectly as long as they are within a certain radius, or with Mitsuru's aid – and then of Mitsuru—

"I can, um… sort of tell where they are."

"You're thinking what I'm thinking, right?" Sanada says. When she nods, he grins slightly. "She has talents, for sure. Just like Mitsuru and Mochizuki – maybe even stronger than both, since Mitsuru's Persona is more battle-oriented, and Mochizuki couldn't use an Evoker."

"…Persona? Evoker?" Fuuka repeats, her expression enough a sigb that she is as confused as she's curious – a trait Kotone finds quite like herself. "What are those?"

Sanada pauses, seemingly contemplative, before he pulls out a spare Evoker and hands it over to Fuuka. Before the girl could speak up her protest, he smiles reassuringly. "It's alright. This is not a real gun. Just… think of it as a lucky charm."

Kotone waits for a moment for everyone to get ready, her eyes shifting towards the Full Moon beyond the twisted glass of Tartarus. She ignores the comments from Sanada about Full Moon's effects on Shadows and focuses on something that nags inside her, that the moon looks… oddly familiar – and while itshould, it's not so much as the sight itself as the feeling that comes with it that sets her on edge. It feels like a disaster is waiting to happen, the collective malice of mankind is merging and combusting into flame of destruction—

She gasps, realization dawning on her when she remembers exactly what the Full Moon means. The last two times they were faced with unusually strong Shadows, those nights were— "Full Moon. Both of those unnatural Shadows came with the Full Moon!"

It doesn't take Sanada too long to get into her line of thoughts, and when he does, terror fills both of their expressions – that means that, tonight, too, one of them would come. "Shit! Mitsuru, are you there!?"

The voice is staticky and with so little coherence, but the urgency in her tone is enough to make Kotone's heart sinks to the floor. And when she sees the look on Sanada's face, all she could think of is a single order that would allow all of them to move with haste; "we have to go.Now!"

When her vision warps from the sickening green veil that separates the insides of Tartarus from the entrance, she couldfeelher adrenaline kicking into her system at an alarming rate at the sight.

"Mitsuru-senpai! Yukari-chan!" She screams their names on her lips as she races downwards, Sanada and Junpei close behind her. At her voice, the large, black Shadow turns its head to look at her, its enlarged hand still clutching onto Mitsuru's form, crushing the air and the life out of her, and she can't allow that— "Let go of her!Eurydice!"

Eurydice responds to her command, the flame bursting out from her fingertips and into the Shadow's head, scorching it black and sending it stumbling away, its fingers loosening from around Mitsuru. Sanada is quick to follow, diving in and catching her before she could hit the floor. "Mitsuru! What the hell happened!?"

"They came… frombehindus," Mitsuru grits out. Kotone glances around to see Yukari's body crumbling not too far away, but she's still twitching, still moving her fingers and arms just slightly, so Kotone allows herself to look away to focus on the monstrosity before her. "They came from outside—!"

"That means our theory is right," Sanada says with a slight frown. "It's Full Moon today, Mitsuru. And those two Shadows we fought came on the Full Moons, too. The phase of the moon and their appearances are definitely connected."

"We can talk about that later, Sanada-senpai," Kotone says, ordering Eurydice to slam her lyre into the smaller, bloater Shadow and sending it skidding away from Yukari. "Junpei! Get 'em!"

"You got it! Let's go,Hermes!" Junpei commands, drawing out his own Evoker and firing it. Without delay, Hermes lunges into the fray, his steel-clad wings slicing through one of the Shadows' torso, his flame sending another onto its back, spraying on the floor as if it has lost all its power to even stand. "Awright! Got them!"

"Be careful!" Mitsuru hurriedly shouts when their attentions stray, and Kotone looks back in time to see something like magic circles spinning before both of their forms. When she commands Eurydice for anotherAgi, somethingchanges— "Normal attacks won't work on them!"

The smoke engulfs the Shadows when the spark from her spell explodes, and for that single moment, everything is silent; a muted hum of the Dark Hour penetrates through every nook and cranny of this place, bathing them in its oppressive sound and silencing their thoughts. But then, the crack and click of footsteps and steel ring through the smoke—

"Kotone, watch out!" Sanada bellows.

It takes her far too long to see the gigantic, obsidian blade swinging down through the smoke of her own flame, but Junpei is there in time, tackling her out of its path and sending them both sprawling on the ground. She quickly scrambles up to her feet, pulling Junpei along and out of harm's way as the blade swings sideways, drawing a large, horizontal arc that would've decapitated them both otherwise.

"Sanada-senpai!" She calls, pulling out another Persona from within her. If flame doesn't work, then all she has to do is use something else— "Come,Inugami!"

The spirit canine bursts forth, and with an ear-splitting howl, summons gusts of verdant wind that rips and tears through their very being. But something feels off, as if what she's done is not exactlycorrect, not something she should do. But she decides to ignore it as Sanada snaps. "Here I go!Polydeuces!"

Thunder strikes through the dark, ripping through the storm of wind and creating another explosion that rocks through the very space around them.

"Did we… get them?" Kotone says, mostly to herself. Her breath is getting a little short, the atmosphere around these two Shadows heavy and barely breathable. But when she sees spots of red shining through the dust clouds, she grunts. "Of course not."

She readies herself again, but those magic circles erupt, and something in her tells her that those lights must've been their abilities – what do those do, though? She has no idea. But when she is about to pull the trigger to her Evoker, she hears someone from behind her, a voice of that girl they've harbored in the dorm for her own protection—

"Moriyama!?" Kotone hisses. Shouldn't Makoto be looking after her? How is she here, then? And Ryoji was with them both, too! "How in the hell!?"

The situation has gone from bad to worse, and Eurydice's presence does nothing to help with something boiling deep inside her; something that she couldn't pin, an emotion born from fear and resentment and anger bleeding into one another like paint in the water.

(How could Makoto have failed a task so simple, and inadvertently endanger an innocent? How could he have been this much of a burden, how could he have been—

No. She refuses to think about any of that here. Right now, she needs to focus on getting them all out of this mess alive. And after that – after that, they'll see.)

That… turns out a lot better than how Kotone thought they would.

Fuuka's powers are a godsend against Shadows that can shift their weaknesses like these Emperor and Empress Shadows, and thanks to her help, they somehow managed to scrap by, even if they had taken quite a beating for themselves.

Kotone collapses as soon as the Shadows are defeated, burned to a crisp and shocked to death by her flame and Sanada's lightning, respectively. Fuuka sighs in relief, even if she looks dead tired and ready to fall asleep on her feet. She couldn't help it, though; she's just been trapped inside Tartarus forten damn hours, and it's already a miracle that she could find it in her to even pull the trigger.

"Roll call!" Kotone says with a sigh as she leans back against her hands, feeling the rush of adrenaline falling off of her limbs. "Everyone's still alive, right?"

"Yep!" Junpei says from beside Sanada, spraying like a starfish on the marble floor of Tartarus. There is a pause before he adds, "no Tartarus for a week, though. I'm beat."

"On that, I agree," Yukari finally sits up, the bruises on her arms darkening ever so slightly as time passes, as the beats of the Dark Hour continues to flow. "If we have to fight one of these on every Full Moon, I'msogoing to stop complaining when you take me up the towers."

"Glad you think so," Kotone deadpans, without a bite in her voice. When Yukari laughs, she grins. "Well, I guess we all survive another day!"

"But to think Makoto and Ryoji would flop hard looking afteroneperson," Junpei rolls his eyes slightly as he gets up to his feet, slightly unsure but with more vigor than a few minutes ago. He walks over to help Fuuka stands. "You okay, Fuuka?"

"Uh… yes," she murmurs, her face pale with beads of sweat forming on her forehead. "I… am just tired, I think."

"Normal reaction after the first summoning," Sanada explains with a hum as he half-carries Mitsuru in his arms. "It'd tired you out, not to mention that you've been stuck in here forhours. Of course you'd be tired – but I'm still surprised you've not passed out yet."

"I think… I could feel something else, too," she pauses, a frown creeping up her features. At this, Kotone could feel something being pulled inside her chest, like a string of warning, like a bell of war tolling in the distant as a reminder that the fight has only just begun. "It's… hard to describe, but I—"

"Don't push yourself too hard, Fuuka-chan," Kotone says, finally getting to her feet and walking over, taking Fuuka's hand in hers and squeezing gently. "We're safe now. You can rest for a b—"

Before she could even finish her sentence, the ground quakes under her feet, sending all of them tumbling about like a rag doll. She manages to catch herself in time with the pole of her Naginata, and when Fuuka's eyes seem to look past her shoulder into the owner of an encroaching darkness that starts to cover them and choking their lungs with the scent of death and decay, Kotone finds herself following Fuuka's line of sight, into—

"What…" She trails off, unable to form a proper sentence at the sight; it's just like the Shadows they've fought before, but significantly larger and exuding disastrous aura that makes her instinct screams at her torun—

"Kotone!" Mitsuru bellows when the Shadow suddenly moves, and before Mitsuru could even say anything else, the mass shifts its congregation of mangled limbs and eyes and teeth into a limb, one that falls down in her direction with such speed that all she manages to do is bracing for impact—

"Castor!"

The voice is rough but oddly familiar, calling for a name she hasn't heard before. She opens her eyes in time to see something ramming into the Shadow's side, sending it skidding into the ground with a loud, screeching voice accompanying its fall. Kotone takes a moment to look up at the knight-like Persona, his one-legged steed rearing back in a victory cry before dissipating into shards of dusts and moonlight.

"Shinji!?" Sanada hisses the name, and Kotone follows his eyes to see Aragaki standing there, with the ephemeral smoke still oozing through the barrel of his time-worn Evoker. "I thought you—"

"Yeah, about that," Aragaki snorts, takes a quick look at all of them, before stepping up to her side, his broad shoulders as steady as the immovable mountain. He looks down at her shortly, then back at Sanada. "I'll tell you 'bout it later. There's an ass in needs of kickin', right? Who's in charge?"

"Her," Sanada points at Kotone, and when Aragaki's dark eyes fall on hers, adds, "she can use multiple Personas, just so you know."

"That so?" Aragaki hums, taking another step forward, the Evoker back to his temple. "You can still fight, brat? If so, I'll charge ahead."

"Um, yes!" She quickly replies, trying her best to push away the creeping exhaustion that starts to hang to her shoulders and sifting her mind through Personas under her command.

The fight isn't yet won, and she'll make damn sure they all live through this.

Notes:

So... cliffhangers, because I'm a filthy writer :D

Chapter 6: Disagreement

Summary:

Once Kotone defeats the strange Shadow, she confronts Makoto about a certain thing that has happened during the fight.

Makoto's refusal to bulge ultimately create a spark of conflicts he isn't willing to mend.

Notes:

Yoo! Sorry it took a while, I had an exam two days ago so it's only now that I have the time to proofread

Some typo might still be left tho, so if you spot one you can call me out! But there shouldn't be any glaring ones left.

Anyways, cheers!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Aragaki Shinjirou is the firepower that she always wants in the team.

While Castor lacks any magical capabilities, his attacks are hard and powerful, each knock of Castor’s single hoof enough to break the stony steps of Tartarus, each swing of his arms sending resounding cracks across the high ceiling of the entrance they’re in.

She has Junpei, Yukari, and Mitsuru in the back line, all of them far too tired to stay safe within reach of this strange Shadow that has formed multiple skull-like masks all over its upper body, lacking even a proper neck and head, with its torso making out of hands and teeth and eyes – something straight out of Cthulhu horrors, and something that makes every fiber in her being want to run.

“Sanada-senpai!” She shouts to get his attention and, when he turns, barks. “Down!”

He follows without delay, dropping down to the floor with both hands planted on the ground, ready to spring back to action. Soon enough, the mass of mangled limbs sweeps past where his head once was, crashing into a few pillars and sending debris scattering all across the hallway.

“Holy shit what the hell is this!? A secret boss!?” Junpei cusses, and even if the comparison is terrible, she could do nothing but agree. “Koto-nan, shouldn’t we run!?

“Do you think any of us is fast enough to outrun—” she takes a pause, dives out of another swipe as the masks in shapes of tusk-white skulls cackle in harmony the sound of insanity and gurgles of unknown origin, and yells back, “—its attacks!? I don’t think so!”

“Stop yapping, yer lot!” Aragaki snarls, hand grabbing Kotone’s shirt quite roughly before pulling her a few more steps back, causing her to hit Aragaki’s chest as the thing slams its equivalent of a foot down into the ground, cracking the marbles and sending them both tumbling backwards. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I think,” she mutters, quickly scrambling up and off Aragaki’s body before putting the Evoker to her temple. But, much to her horror, the thing does what no other Shadows ever did before – it hits the Evoker out of her hand with a quick snap of its whip-like limp.

(And if she had the luxury of time to contemplate, she might’ve noticed the glint of intelligence in those blood-red eyes.)

“Shit!” Kotone curses, ducking out of the way before fetching her fallen gun as she stumbles through the flying debris. She could hear Castor’s one-legged stallion roars from behind her, the sound of hoof clapping into flesh and bones drowned out only by the amalgamation of human-like voices that shrieks and shrills into her very core. “Thanks, Aragaki-senpai!”

“Up on your feet!” Aragaki snaps back at her as he reaches out his hand towards the still limping Mitsuru. “If you ain’t gonna fight, give me the sword! I don’t have any on me!”

There’s a refusal already at the tip of her tongue, but rationality wins over quickly as Mitsuru nods and throws the blade Aragaki’s way. The man grabs it tightly before making a wide, blind swing, severing a few tainted limbs and sending black, oil-like liquid splattering all across his face. Aragaki doesn’t pause, however, as he points a finger at her.

Take opportunity of this, is what she gets from his demeanor. Sanada is quicker to act, punching into the mass of flesh and bones and eyes, doing just enough for the Shadow – or a congregated mass of one – to howl and flail all of its limbs upward into the air. Kotone quickly puts the Evoker to her temple, the muted hum of the Sea of Souls (or so she assumes, since all the Personas she made contracts with said the same line) echoing inside her temple as a reassurance.

“Eurydice!” She calls for her most trusted Persona, the personification of her. And Eurydice responds in kind, golden plume dancing in the air as she bows once in acknowledgement to Kotone’s command. “Get back, everyone! Agi!

The sound of her lyre bleeds into the very space around the Shadow, and for a second, everything remains still; but then comes the sparks of a dying star, warping the fabric of reality and sucking in everything around it for but a moment before it expands outward, engulfing the upper half of the Shadow in flame and smoke.

The unearthly wail pierces the air, making Kotone wince into herself and forcing her hands up to her ears as an attempt to silence the cry as Eurydice shattering into shards of glasses and cloud of argent dust. She sees the others do the same from the corner of her eyes, and the sound becomes so oppressive and so invasive that it’s crawling its way into her head and squirming into the back of her eyelids—

“Kotone!”

Someone calls from beyond the screeching noise and the roaring dark, and it takes her too long to realize that she’s closed her eyes. She opens them and looks up, eyes locking onto the Shadow before her, only to see its humongous mass dropping down on her, claws and teeth and mutilated flesh stretching out towards her. There is no way she could dodge, no one strong or fast enough to save her—

She squeezes her eyes shut, preparing for the mass to collide with her, to flatten her into the ground. But, instead of the crushing pain of her torn limbs or her shattered bones, she feels only warmth.

“Are you quite alright, little one?”

The voice is soft and careful, a voice of something she thinks she might’ve heard in passing before. It is masculine, but neither Aragaki’s nor Sanada’s, a voice that echoes and bounces from without and within, light as stardust and warm as sunlight. She opens her eyes, and gasps at the figure dressed in white robe and dark cloak, flowing scarlet scarf that seems to be made of fire itself, and faceless mask burning with the runes of yore, one that stands before her proudly. But it is impossible, it should be impossible—

“…Orpheus?” She says the name reluctantly. Orpheus is supposed to be her brother’s sense of self, supposed to belong only to Makoto. She could never call Io, could never force Hermes out of her own psyche, could not mold the Plume of Dusk into Polydeuces, so how

The Persona seems to smile, by the way he lets out a low chuckle despite the severity of her situation. But when she looks past the Persona’s frame, she could see that the limb-like mass that had been aiming for her had already been blasted into pieces scattering on the ground. Orpheus’ lyre – one that seems just as sturdy as it is intricate – is glowing a faint color of blue, and the strings of his instruments hum quietly the song from beyond the stars.

Orpheus snaps his fingers, creating a spark much larger than what Eurydice did, engulfing the entire thing in flame before his claw-like fingertip plucks a single cord, creating a soft, lone note that seems to trigger chains of explosions that send the Shadow flying into the staircase leading back to the depths of Tartarus. And then, the musician turns to her, with a finger to where his lips should’ve been had his face not been covered by obsidian and fire.

“I came not from thee,” is what Orpheus says. Kotone simply looks around to see the others staring at her – or rather, at her brother’s Persona – in confusion. Being able to wield multiple Personas is already an ability that the others couldn’t replicate, but being able to call out another person’s Persona and hearing him talk is— “But we are connected, you and I. I am here to aid you, no more, no less.”

She opens her mouth to ask what exactly is Orpheus talking about, but her thoughts are cut short when the Shadow rises with surprising speed with a roar of anger and hatred. But strangely, the thing doesn’t move in to attack, its many eyes trained onto Orpheus and his flowing cloak, the edge of his scarf burning like the very sun itself.

Then, there’s cacophony of voices coming from the abomination, like chatters spoken in unknown tongue, before the thing gives out one haughty roar and disappears into clouds of smoke.

Orpheus seems to face that direction where that strange, powerful Shadow was moments prior for a moment before he turns to Kotone again. She could feel questions forming on her tongue, but before she could ask, could utter her thoughts, Orpheus bows as azure blaze starts to cover his form.

“My flame will always protect you, little one. Such is my promise,” Orpheus hums, and even though he is faceless, his voice indicates that he is smiling. “My name is yours to be called. Always.

And with that, he is gone.

“Why did you come back so suddenly?”

Aki is quick to ask, and Shinjirou simply sighs. He hadn’t thought that coming back tonight would make him see lots of shits he hadn’t seen before, not to mention the brewing anxiety the others seem to have as Mitsuru and that Yuuki girl walk upstairs to, quote, “ask my brother if he knows anything about this”, which Shinjirou thinks it’s kind of strange.

He taps his fingers on the table, still unwilling to answer Aki’s question right away. It’s not that he had a reason to come back, because he was content with walking at the edge of society and letting the Persona Suppressor rot his insides away until he dies cold and alone on a sidewalk somewhere. No.

The reason he came back is because of curiosity and a sense of… worry, perhaps. Not for the girl, but the Yuuki boy standing behind her when they met in that back alley just a few days ago. He and the boy with burning sapphire eyes… Shinjirou knows for certain he had never met them before that night, but when he looked at them (at Yuuki in particular), something in him stirred, like a long lost, buried memories being dug up and forcing their ways back into his head and settling deep between his brows—

“Shut up,” Shinjirou finally grunts when Aki sits down across from him, a steaming mug of coffee in his hand. He would’ve scolded the man for drinking caffeine after the Dark Hour, but he himself is fairing no better, so he refrains from commenting. “Ain’t your business, Aki.”

“I guess not,” Aki says simply, and that surprises Shinjirou enough to force him to look up. His eyes linger on the staircases, the sounds of hushed whispers rolling down the steps and disappearing into Shinjirou’s ears. “But it’s good you came back when you did. We would’ve died if you hadn’t.”

“The credit’s the girl’s, ain’t mine,” he waves, recalling the second Persona she used, black mask and regal robe and hallowed notes leaving a taste of nostalgia on his tongue. “That thing blasted the Shadow away by itself. Could she not control it?”

At this, Aki’s face settles into an uncomfortable frown, the grip on his mug tightening and loosening repeatedly. “It’s not that she couldn’t, but she wasn’t supposed to be able to.

He raises an eyebrow. “How so?”

“That Persona is Orpheus,” Aki says, turning the mug around in his hands before he looks Shinjirou in the eyes, expression serious without that teasing light he usually wears. “And it belongs to Yuuki Makoto.”

It takes him a long moment to ingest the information and to see why are they all so tense, and suddenly, everything makes perfect sense; being able to call forth multiple Personas is something unusual enough to make his eyes bulge, but to be able to call for another person’s sense of self, sense of acceptance for death, is enough to make his blood runs cold.

“Oh,” is what his idiot brain decides to say before he frowns into the mug. “What’re they going up to talk to him about?”

“To see if he knows about this or not,” Aki says with a frown. “There’s so many implications. Like Yuuki’s stability as a Persona User and all that.”

It would be a disaster should something like this happen in the middle of a fight where both twins are involved, Shinjirou realizes as much. But he sees something odd about the others when they talk about the boy in hushed whispers on their way back here; some form of unease and contempt. “Are you guys not on good terms with him?”

To his surprise, Aki – someone who usually speaks his mind right away without reservation – takes a single second’s worth of pause, lips set, his eyes darting towards the stairs again. Shinjirou simply waits it out, and soon, Aki mutters with a defeated sigh. “He is competent, but indefinitely hard to work with. He is not outwardly awful, just… hard to understand and hard to… everything.”

“Harder than me?”

“Yeah,” Aki says without hesitation this time. “Much harder to work with than you are. It’s like he doesn’t care about this fight at all, and joins maybe because of curiosity or something. Often spaces out during Tartarus climbs and all of that, too.”

Shinjirou thinks he gets a different impression when he looks at Yuuki for the first time, like watching a boy that is gentle who’s been wronged trying to get back into society. Someone who’s been trying his hardest not to topple over the edge, someone who’s desperately clinging on to the cliff and trying to climb his way back up. And Shinjirou’s instinct never lies, never fails him once.

He’ll get to the bottom of this, one way or the other. But for now… for now, he should just settle back into the role of a Persona User, even if the memories of Castor trampling Amada’s mother to death still bite and linger at the back of his head like a goddamn parasite.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?

Makoto is really tempted to just grab the heiress and shake her shoulders until she stops questioning him while his head threatens to explode with the pressure of it all. But after a full hour of headache and another thirty minutes of pain after the Dark Hour ends, he’s just too tired and too hurt to think of doing anything more than sitting there with his head in his hands and Ryoji’s arm around his shoulders. So he just sighs, shakes his head, and says again. “I meant what I said. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“But I didn’t call for Orpheus. Your Orpheus,” Kotone says, her voice strangely quiet and contemplative, and he understands that; never once could he mold Isis out of thin air, or summon Trismegistus with an Evoker. But, just as Ryoji had said before – Wild Cards are connected through the waves of the Sea of Souls, thus the aid of their true other self could, theoretically, happen— “How could he be there, coming out from my shadow, offering his name to my call?”

“Hell if I know,” he snaps sharply, and sucks in a deep breath when white blooms across his vision. “I don’t have control over it, if you are asking me that.”

“That makes this even worse!” Kotone retorts. “What if this kind of thing happens during Tartarus climbs? During fights where you’re involved? Without your Persona, you’re defenseless—”

“Um, Kotone-chan,” Ryoji interjects, his tone almost pleading, and Makoto doesn’t need to look up to see his expression to understand; he’s been trying to suppress the damn headache ever since the Dark Hour starts, but it doesn’t stop even after the shadowed moon retreated, and he knows as much as Makoto does just how restless he is. “Maybe you can ask this another day? He still has a fever—”

“Maybe the fever comes from this? From Orpheus’ betrayal?” Kotone breathes, pauses, then quickly backtracks. “N-no, of course I didn’t mean it like that! I mean—”

“You think Orpheus betrays me to be with you,” Makoto notes flatly, with malice that shouldn’t be under his tone. Of course, it’s only logical for her to think that, to believe that the only reason a Persona would leave one’s side to another’s would be because of betrayal and not worry, not love. But before he could stop himself, could listen to Orpheus’ lyre humming the notes of tranquility into his marrows, he snarls out his anger and his insecurities brewing in him for ages. “Of course you’d think like that, you fool.”

“Say what!?” Kotone hisses, and footsteps come uncomfortably close to him. He feels Ryoji shifts out of bed, and there’s those uncoordinated footsteps that signals her unease staying within his vicinity. “So you do know something! Just tell us, so we can sort this out!”

“I don’t!” he bellows – lies – through his gritted teeth. “I don’t know a fucking damn thing, but your theory pisses me off, so get the fuck out of my sight!

The silence is suffocating, wringing out residuals of breath left in his lungs and making him wince; that is far too harsh, but he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t help the thoughts of being accused that his Personas – ones that have stayed by his side and kept him company all these time – would betray him, stab him in the back and turn their backs to him just to—

“Fine, fine!” Kotone half-shrieks, hitting something hard and sending it tumbling to his feet. Makoto doesn’t look, but feels the object roll into his toes. “It’s just a goddamn theory, I didn’t mean it like that! You know what? You’re a dick, through and through, and I’m done playing nice with you!”

Her steps are heavy and angry while Mitsuru’s are reluctant, and not too long after, the door slams shut, leaving only him, the fallen whatever-it-is, and Ryoji behind in silence.

After a while, though, he peers through the gaps of his fingers – and almost regrets doing so when pain blooms behind his eyes – to see Ryoji kneeling down in front of him, hands on his knees, eyes filled with worry. “Makoto, why did you do that?”

I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry, almost slips through, but he doesn’t let it. Instead, he presses his lips together tightly with a frown. “…You know how much I depend on all of them. What she said, it—”

“—scares you,” Ryoji finishes, and when Makoto hums in affirmation even without meaning to, reaches his hands to pull Makoto’s down, cradling it between his palms and kissing the knuckles gently. “You know they’ll never betray you, Makoto. You’re their Universe, the light all the denizens of the Sea of Souls look out for.”

“Maybe that’s just you,” he mutters, letting out a forced laughter as he wipes away the tears that are threatening to fall. “I know Orpheus was there because I wanted him to, and the possibility of him doing what Kotone said is next to none, but what if he—”

Do you think so little of yourself, dear boy? Orpheus cuts him off, his voice gentle and light, but careful. Steps of his onyx feet and the warmth of his obsidian fingertips brush at his hair gently. I am your oldest friend, the sense of yourself. Why would I betray you? Why would I leave you behind? My name might be hers to call, but I will always answer to you first and foremost.

He lets out a weak chuckle at the firm reassurance, ducking his head down as Ryoji tightens his grip around his hands. “…I guess I’m just that unstable, huh.”

Ryoji pauses again before he sighs, drawing Makoto’s hand towards his forehead. Neither of them moves or breathes for what feels like an eternity before Ryoji speaks up quietly. “The time loops did more to you than we both realized. We need to fix this.”

“Fix what?” he asks back – what is there to fix? He’s fine, he still thinks clearly, the edge of insanity still hasn’t climbed its way into his head yet—

“It’s not insanity,” Ryoji interjects, his voice firm enough for him to wince into himself, for the string of their bond to send ripples through his limbs and make him pause. He looks up to Ryoji’s bright eyes, burning with life and death in equal measure. “Makoto, I’m sorry I didn’t realize this sooner, just because I am not exactly human—”

“It’s not your fault,” he murmurs, letting Ryoji runs his fingertips along the back of his hand and sending a wave of affirmation into his spine. “You’re as much a prisoner as I am.”

“But the effects these time loops have on us are different because of what we are,” Ryoji explains, getting up to his feet before sitting down beside him, reaching his hand to take Makoto’s into it again. When he squeezes Ryoji’s fingers back, the boy hums. “I am not as human as I am Death, as such, time holds little meaning to me. When it loops, I simply exist as a part of Nyx, as an existence that doesn’t hold time as something important.”

Ryoji pauses, fingers getting impossibly warmer despite the fever still raking on Makoto’s skin.

“But time marks a human’s progression. Marks the way one ages and grows old and dies – and when you’re refused all of those effects, it takes a toll on your mind instead. Because you’re human, and humans are not supposed to live forever.”

Makoto pauses, and realizes that Ryoji is speaking nothing but the truth; that while he thinks nothing of life and death now, he is still human, is still bound to the laws of time. And when he’s refused the right to die, refused the right to grow old, he starts to crumble. Because no matter how strong he is, he is only human, and humans are not supposed to live unchanged for centuries.

He feels himself chuckle, the laughter raw and maddening, the sound clawing through his entire body and forcing him to realize just how much all of this hurts, how desperate he has become. “Haha… this is so funny I can’t stop laughing.”

“Makoto…”

He continues to laugh for a little while until his own voice dies down, and when it does, he leans into his beloved’s shoulder, feeling the slow rise and fall as he breathes before he murmurs. “This is such a bad joke, and I’m not sure if I should continue laughing or start crying.”

“Mhm,” Ryoji hums quietly, finally circling his arm around Makoto’s shoulders and drawing him closer. “What is ailing you is not insanity, it’s the sense of isolation. The sense of being forgotten. Even if I remain, I am but a part of your bonds, not all of them.”

“To live is to bond,” Makoto recalls quietly, closing his eyes and feeling Ryoji tighten his grip on his shoulder. “It’s because I value, no, depend on my bonds so much, their disappearances are a burden to me, even if I never know it.”

“Yeah,” Ryoji affirms. “We need to find a way to correct this, somehow.”

“There’s nothing you can do,” Makoto says curtly, and when he feels Ryoji tense up under his cheek, he only smiles into the stale air. “I’m not going to reforge these bonds I’m going to eventually break simply because I feel lonely, you know.”

“I know,” Ryoji murmurs, even if disagreement is clear in his voice.

But he doesn’t say anything more, so neither does Makoto, and they let silence blanket them for as long as they need to, until he could finally fall asleep through the pain pulsing in his skull.

“I see…”

Those are the only things Elizabeth says after he finishes recalling the events of last night and the fact that a god’s name (one that Elizabeth couldn’t recall, either) slipped through his grasp like sands. The headache, surprisingly, doesn’t leave, only toning down into no more than bouts of migraines and not earth-splitting agony that he felt when Orpheus left his side to protect Kotone from whatever kind of Shadow it was that climbed out from where the Emperor and the Empress had fallen.

“I’m just an insecure brat who refuses to see the effects the time loops have on me until it’s too late, and an incompetent fool that couldn’t remember a name long enough to fight against its owner,” he muses bitterly, the bile scalding the back of his throat and sending an unpleasant chill down his marrows. He tries his hardest not to think too much about it. “It’s funny, don’t you think?”

“I do not believe that our definitions of humor are the same,” Elizabeth says with a smile, as teasing as she is serious. She then looks away from where they are, perched on the swings in Naganaki shrine, and towards the leaves flying down from the nearby tree. “But alas, I concur. Perhaps this is what you people call dark humor?

“Something like that,” Makoto chuckles mirthlessly, his toe drawing absent lines into the sands. He looks up briefly to wave at Maiko – always so cheerful yet so sad – before turning back to his attendant. Her expression reminds him again that the name has escaped her, too, seeing that guilt written so clearly on her face. That, and the Velvet Room’s inability to interfere. So, he won’t ask of that anymore. Instead, he sighs. “Even though my heart knows my Personas will always stay and always remember, I just… couldn’t help it. It’s like I’m slowly losing parts of myself, even if you guys still remember.”

“I apologize that I could do nothing more than this for you, Makoto-san,” Elizabeth says quietly, her eyes gleaming with warmth that Makoto always loves to see.

He smiles back, shaking his head and looking up to the tree once more. “You have helped me more than I could ever repay you. There’s nothing for you to apologize to me for.”

“As kind as ever before, are you not?” Elizabeth muses.

She then remains silent for a while, and Makoto is content to stay where they are until night comes, only to have his eyes drawn to her again when he hears the sound of ringing bells and the chimes of the wind. He turns fully, and sees that Elizabeth is holding onto the tome she’s shown him when she challenged him to a duel on the very first life he’s ever lived.

“…What’re you doing?” He asks.

“I am certain you’re already aware of what this is, but as a reminder, this is the Persona Compendium,” she explains, letting the pages fly open, flipping through and glowing gently. Makoto looks around to make sure that no one is looking at them (oh thank god Maiko isn’t looking) before he leans in a little closer. She then places her hand when the book reaches a certain blank page, and from it, two Arcanas emerge; the card without a face, and The World. “I believe this is the proper time to introduce you to those who reside even deeper, those you can now call.”

He raises an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“The Sea of Souls is vast and bottomless, just like hearts of men,” Elizabeth muses, her fingers gripping The World and handling it to him. When his fingers brush the card, he could feel – hear – so many voices he hasn’t heard before, calling to him, beckoning him. “Even as the Universe, you were never given the chance to dive into its depth because of your unique circumstance. My master and my siblings have talked about this at length, and my master saw fit that you are more than qualified to take a closer look at the Compendium, Makoto-san.”

He knows for a fact that the Sea is endless, but he never dreams of calling more than he already could, never dreams of bringing out anyone else other than those he’s known before. But some voices sound so familiar, the spear of thunder and the cackles of the trickster echoing inside his chest as a reminder. Yet, they seem different, as if reshaped by the time that doesn’t march, by the future that he failed to see, that he couldn’t reach—

“If you have the time, you are welcomed back into the Velvet Room, Makoto-san,” Elizabeth says, closing the page – and dispersing The World in his hand back into oblivion – before dematerializing the tome out of her grasp. “I am certain you would find it… distracting, to a degree.”

Distracting is an odd way for her to put it, but when she smiles at him, he finally understands; to delve deeper into the Sea of Souls is to experiment with the bonds that have survived through time, to temper the feelings of sharing those connections into something stronger, brighter. For him to understand them – and himself – even more.

(Or perhaps, for him to forget the pain of destroying them with his own hands.)

“I’ll hold you onto that, then,” he finally says, smiling back before standing up, brushing away the sands collecting at his knees after Elizabeth had unwittingly kicked a pocket of it his way half an hour ago. “Where do you want to go today?”

“I do not believe I wish to venture for too far today,” Elizabeth shakes her head. He blinks at her, perplexed – in all the lives, in all the cycles, she never misses her chance to make him take her around, even to places that she has already visited. But, as if on cue, she gestures towards the tree and drawing his eyes to a tuff of white fur poking from behind the trunk— “I do believe your day will be best spent with the company of your Strength, Makoto-san.”

At the mention of Strength, he could feel it – the three flaming maws that light up in the dark, bright eyes and white muzzles shining dimly within the scope of the Dark Hour. When he blinks, he sees Koromaru peeking out from around where he is, hidden behind the coiling roots, teeth shown through stretched muzzle that mimics a human’s smile—

“Wait,” he voices his stuttered thoughts as Koromaru – who has never shown the sign of remembering him even once in the lives before – suddenly charges towards him and practically jumps into his arms, knocking him down onto his back and lapping at his face with his warm tongue. Makoto couldn’t help the bubbles of laughter that come from his lips as his hands find Koromaru’s fur, trying (and failing) to push the dog away. “Wait, wait – haha, stop, Koro!”

Koromaru barks, sitting back on his hunches and wagging his tail playfully. Makoto manages to sit up, wiping the strings of saliva off of his face before looking up at Elizabeth, who seems more amused than anything. She answers his unspoken question in a heartbeat. “The difference in this cycle is much larger than even master could anticipate. This could be called a happy accident, could it not?”

In all his repeated, doomed lives, Koromaru has always been there – a friend he could readily reconnect without hesitation (because he’s the only one besides Ryoji to have seen through him, and the one who keeps his secret away even from Aigis), a silent yet warm presence that would keep a shard of his mind intact. And while he never once remembered Makoto, now that he suddenly does, it brings out more questions Makoto isn’t too willing to answer just yet.

Instead, he laughs (and cries), pulling Koromaru’s head close to his and letting him laps up the tears as he murmurs into the grayish-white fur in his palms. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”

Koromaru barks again.

“Then, I will leave you to it, Makoto-san,” Elizabeth says with a bow, taking a few steps back, then raises her head. “I will see you again soon.”

“Mhm,” he hums, holding Koromaru close to his chest and buries his nose into the dog’s fur, feeling the heat of life and the warmth of one of his oldest, dearest friends under his skin. “See you.”

And when she is gone, he just remains there, seated and heavily dusted in sands with Koromaru wiggling playfully in his arms.

“…Why are you bringing a dog in?”

Akihiko is the first to ask when Makoto decides, by himself, to wait until the Dark Hour arrives before introducing Koromaru into the Dorm right when everyone else but the seniors and Ryoji have gone back to sleep. Ryoji just blinks at him, stupefied, but smiles gently when Koromaru barks at him playfully, with remembrance and with affection. Makoto decides to hold Koromaru a little tighter for a fraction of moment before setting the canine down, letting him run around and hopping into the vacant seat next to Ryoji. “I found him fighting a Shadow while walking outside.”

“Fighting a Shadow?” Mitsuru repeats, and when Makoto nods, seems to scoff at the notion. “Is it even possible for an animal to fight a Shadow?”

“Koromaru is smart,” is what he decides to say, walking over and sitting down next to Ryoji, his bag propped carelessly on the floor. At this, Koromaru yelps, wagging his tail and practically climbing his way into Makoto’s lap (by kicking Ryoji’s face in the process) (sorry). “He understands human language like no other dogs could. And I saw him fight.”

There’s that edge again that never fails to return when Makoto says something he thinks Mitsuru doesn’t trust – the way she seems to tense up, eyes full of disbelief and so many negative thoughts. And it makes him want to throw up as it pulls at the bond of the Empress he’s managed to forge and twisting it until his insides scream in pain—

“Are you certain?” is what the heiress asks instead, her voice carefully leveled.

Makoto schools his expression back into its neutral state, fingers carding through Koromaru’s fur gently as he speaks. “Yes, I am.”

To his surprise, Aragaki speaks up from kitchen, his beanie absent and his eyes darting between his and Ryoji’s face. “I can at least vouch for the Koro is smart thing. He’s a good and gentle dog, that’s for sure.”

“Still, that doesn’t mean that he’s a Persona User—”

“But he’d need to have potential to be awake during the Dark Hour, right?” Ryoji interjects, subtly winking at him before he raises his voice a little louder. “I mean, we don’t see any other animals around during the Dark Hour, and he’s still conscious within it. I daresay it’s at least worth keeping him here until we can figure out what to do next.”

Mitsuru opens her mouth, as if to argue, for once her emotion trying to get the better of her. But, to his expectation of someone that’s the voice of reason within the SEES, she finally relents, sighing and nodding solemnly. “…You have a point, Mochizuki. Very well. Then, you’ll be the one to take care of him, Yuuki.”

He doesn’t really have anything against that arrangement. He’s delighted by it, rather, having at least one more friend returned to him almost exactly like how he used to be, even if Makoto doesn’t know how much Koromaru remembers. The fact that he even does, even if his memories are but a fraction of what Makoto had gone through, is enough— “I understand.”

“Why are you out so late, anyway?” Akihiko inquires, sitting down across from him as he keeps his fingers buried deep in Koromaru’s strands. He looks up, tilting his head to the side in a silent question, only for Akihiko to sigh back in return. “You know it’s dangerous to wander about alone.”

“I’ll be fine,” he reassures. With Orpheus’ flame and Odin’s lighting running loose in his veins, he will be. He will always be, at least until the Fall comes, until the Fate beckons for his soul to be returned to the void to create the Seal. “I can defend myself.”

“Think about this for a second, Yuuki,” Mitsuru adds tersely, and he looks into her eyes to see a surprising degree of concern and something else he couldn’t quite name radiating from her. “What if Orpheus—”

At that simple suggestion, an ugly part in him stirs, making him almost whimper and causing the tips of his fingers to grow unbearably cold. The notion she’s suggesting, of Orpheus even deliberately leaving him to suffer a terrifying one, even if the strums of the lyre still echo within his heart; as a lullaby, and as a reassurance that he never will— “It’s fine, Kirijou-senpai, really. I can still feel him connected to me.”

“But—”

“—Mitsuru-san,” Ryoji quickly cuts in, his hand grasping Makoto’s knee tightly, his expression – as far as Makoto is aware – tight and almost pleading. “I always make sure to keep a tab on him, so he’ll be fine. If there’s a chance of him being in danger at all, you’ll be the first to know.”

Mitsuru, of course, doesn’t seem as satisfied, but Ryoji’s constant and reliable presence holds at least some weight to her. In the end, she nods, her frown unwavering. “I will allow it for now. But if anything new happens at all, I’ll reserve my right to change my judgement about the matter.”

“Thank you, Mitsuru-san,” Ryoji says, stopping Makoto from letting the bitterness loose through his teeth, hand firm on his own. Makoto squeezes back lightly. And, in a painfully obvious attempt to lighten up the mood, says, “I think we should feed Koromaru before going to bed. Where’s he going to sleep?”

“My room is fine,” Makoto murmurs. His and Ryoji’s rooms being close help with the matter, too, in case he needs some privacy. He decides to ignore the seniors as he ducks his head slightly before getting up to his feet, dragging Ryoji along with him. He then turns to Koromaru, eyes as warm as they are filled with worry. “It’s fine, Koro. I’ll cook for you, ‘kay?”

When Koromaru barks, he allows himself to smile and goes about drowning in his isolation feeding an old friend who oddly remembers him through the unmoving tides of time.

“…A dog?”

Is the first thing Kotone says after stepping through the front door to see Makoto nodding off on the couch with a grayish-white Shiba Inu curling up in his lap. She looks at Yukari and Fuuka, neither of whom seems to know how exactly there is a dog inside. So instead, she decides to try to find someone else, only to hear Ryoji speaking up from the kitchen. “Welcome back, you guys!”

“We’re home,” Kotone echoes, sidling in with enough care to not wake Makoto up (even though he was and still is a dick to her, she still has enough decency, thank you), before putting her belongings down on the opposite couch. “Whose dog is this?”

There’s a clatter coming from the kitchen, and soon enough, Ryoji emerges with a bowl full of food. The dog perks up at this, tail waving back and forth, but he strangely isn’t barking, as if fully aware that doing so now would wake up his pillow— “He’s a stray Makoto picked up yesterday. He fought a Shadow and Makoto found him after he defeated it.”

“A Shadow? Really?” Yukari interjects, tilting her head to the side. “A dog can have a Persona?”

“It’s quite new to all of us, too,” Ryoji muses, setting the bowl down and clicking his tongue. The dog comes charging towards him, and he laughs lightly. “Alright, alright. I’m sorry if I’m not as good as Makoto or Aragaki-senpai, but enjoy your food, ‘kay?”

The canine yips softly at this, nuzzling his nose into Ryoji’s hand for a moment before backing away and sniffing at the bowl. After he starts eating, Kotone hears Fuuka ask Ryoji with a slightly pensive voice (he’s a flirtatious bastard and Fuuka is easily embarrassed, after all). “Ryoji-kun… um, what’s his name?”

“Koromaru,” Ryoji grins, wiping his hand on his pants before sitting down next to Makoto, who only grunts but not opening his eyes. “You can play with him too, you know. He’s a friendly dog.”

“Nice,” Kotone grins, leaning slightly off the couch and catching the dog’s crimson eyes. “Huh… he looks pretty intelligent, isn’t he?”

“He is,” this time, it isn’t Ryoji who answer, but Aragaki walking down the steps. Kotone greets him with a bow of her head, and the man only grunts in response before addressing Ryoji with an awkward wave of his hand. “Did you two get any sleep last night?”

“I did, he didn’t,” Ryoji shrugs a shoulder, patting Makoto’s leg with his hand before he gives Kotone a little smile. She thinks she knows what he means by that; that after the night of her little outburst – one that Ryoji finds as heartbreaking as it is warranted – it doesn’t seem like Makoto’s fever has gone away just yet, even though he looks perfectly normal to her— “…Did he wake you up, by any chance?”

“You wish,” Aragaki snorts. “I just pulled an all-nighter so he didn’t do jack shit to screw up my sleeping routine. And – what are you feeding Koro with?”

Ryoji blinks, then gives out a sheepish smile as he rubs the back of his neck. “I just cooked what Makoto taught me, although I think I didn’t manage to do it the way you two did.”

“Figures,” Aragaki rolls his eyes, looks at Kotone, then back at Ryoji again. “I’ll take care of it tomorrow, since I’ve finished moving all my stuff in.”

“Thank you, Aragaki-senpai.”

Aragaki lingers for a moment, looking at her and then at Makoto alternatively, the gears turning in his head but intentions hidden under the near-constant frown. But, at least to Kotone, he seems… kinder than he appears to be. After a moment of staring contest, Aragaki hums before turning back on his heels, a hand raised. “See you later, then. I’m back to organizin’ my stuff.”

“Goodnight,” Kotone calls after his retreating back, and he only grumbles something under his breath from afar.

“Aragaki-senpai is kinda scary, don’t you think?” Yukari mutters from beside Kotone, and when she just throws Yukari an odd look, the girl huffs. “What? You’re the only one who’re unfazed by anything except for that mess of a human being, Kotone.”

“That’s true,” she relents with a small sigh, knowing full well that Yukari meant no one else but Makoto – her used to be loving and gentle brother who has somehow turned stone-cold at the flip of a coin, as if the past sixteen years were all lies, lies, lies— “Anyway, I’m gonna leave you two to it. See you later, Ryoji-kun!”

“Mhm,” Ryoji hums softly. “See you later.”

She keeps the question about Makoto’s slightly tired and strangely pale look close to herself, not willing enough to seek an answer she fears knows she will not like.

He almost ran into Kotone at the Velvet room, holy shit.

“That’s too close,” Ryoji comments as he exhales, sitting down on the nearest protrusion of obsidian not too far from his chair. “Well, at least she didn’t see you.”

“What was she doing?” Makoto asks, even though the answer is as obvious as his presence here; the Velvet Room provides many things for the Wild Cards who seek its aids – a shelter away from the cold, a place for great many beasts to reside, a place to strengthen the power of one’s heart. Still, he couldn’t help but ask, when Kotone had made it clear that they’re not going back to Tartarus for at least a week.

But then again, Ikutsuki had just confirmed their already half-established theory that the special Shadows will always come on the Full Moon, so maybe she’s there to strengthen her heart for that matter.

“The very same thing that you are about to do, I would assume,” the male attendant says from the side as he walks over to join Elizabeth. When he regards Makoto with a slight bow, he returns one, as well. “We have not seen each other much, and it is my pleasure to finally speak to you, Makoto-san. My name is Theodore, Kotone-san’s attendant.”

“Yuuki Makoto, but you already know that,” Makoto hums with a small smile as Igor snaps his fingers, calling forth a bigger, much more intricately embroidered tome and setting it on the table between them. “…Wait. Aren’t you supposed to be the one to hold onto it?”

“This one is different from the others that you have, Makoto-san,” Igor explains, gesturing for him to take the monstrosity into his hand. When he touches the cover, it feels hot and cold and alive, the soft hum of its power running into his fingertips and making Orpheus stir in return. “Unlike the others, the Personas that I am about to introduce you to are… different. They require more than just sacrificing a part of your heart to garner their approvals.”

“What do I have to do?” he asks as he takes the tome towards him, setting it in his lap and staring at it; the cover itself is made of an otherworldly material, the very fabric shifting and changing like water, glitters of stars shining under his palm. The very thing feels almost surreal to see, even more unbelievable to hold.

“A test of the heart,” Igor replies. When Makoto looks up at him, the long-nose only smiles. “I have seen only once when an individual with a nearly unbending will such as you awakened as a Wild Card, so I myself do not have much experience in the matter. However, that Compendium will allow you to reach deeper into yourself, to ask for aid from those far stronger than what you’ve had before.”

The Sea of Soul is vast and endless, dear boy, Orpheus hums, using his ribs as an instrument to breathe a song of life into his lungs. To peer into the abyss, one must be aware that the abyss will stare back. A test of faith, you could call it.

How far are you willing to go, huh?” He hums, and looks to the side to see Ryoji at the edge of his seat. He places his hand on the cover and ready to turn it, only to stop midway and look up. “…I can open this here, right?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth nods. “We will be with you during the process, Makoto-san. If you are ready, then you may proceed.”

“Well then,” Makoto sighs, bracing his heart and brushing along each of his Personas, with Orpheus’ presence brighter than most. It is only then that he notices the lack of two; the absence of Thanatos and the incomplete form of Messiah. But he already knows the answer, because Thanatos is born from the very bond that refuses to break during all of this, born out of the hearts that they share—

He smiles to himself, sets Orpheus as the first who would come to his aid, and opens the Compendium to allow the depths of the dark Sea to swallow his senses whole.

“Take it slow, Makoto.”

Ryoji sets him down on the bench, the Paulownia Mall at night housing scarcely a soul. It would have been scary had he not been so used to it after drinking himself under the table so many times. He hisses and presses the hand harder over his eye, his head pounding in the same rhythm as his own heart. But instead of feeling miserable, he feels at ease, the new voices louder and much more refined, much more powerful than those that existed before.

One of them in particular is a very interesting fellow, almost an imitation of his predicament, even though that Persona’s existence is that of a saint and a sinner. He laughs quietly when he feels the booming voice of the sinner echoing inside his chest, and places his other hand over his heart briefly before he sucks in another breath to try to dull the pain.

“They’re nice,” he hums. The test of the heart has been… fairy intriguing, thus far, not at all grim like what he was expecting out of the changes that come with the stagnation of time. But what is not is the fact that with each contract made, his headache grows worse, to the point of it nearly rivaling the splitting throbs during the Full Moon. “But fuck, this hurts a lot.”

“Making contracts with those so powerful is bound to put a strain on your psyche, and we both know how vulnerable you are right now,” Ryoji half-chides, the biting edge of his voice barely there and doesn’t linger long after that. “You shouldn’t have pushed it so hard.”

“Sorry,” he laughs, shaking his head and making his vision swim, the bile rising up to the mouth almost immediately. He manages to gulp it down before he closes his eyes, trying to ground himself as much as possible. “Just… connecting with them is… it feels nice.”

He does it because the powers these Personas offer are great and nearly boundless in his human eyes, not to mention that making contracts with them feels like filling that gaping hole left by his rotten bonds that he himself sunder over and over and ove lighting a fire of passion he’s lost a long time ago within his chest again.

Ryoji sighs, more exasperated than anything, but doesn’t say a word as he sits down beside Makoto and lets him lean against that warm shoulder. He silently mourns the absence of that infuriating yellow scarf, but doesn’t dwell too much on it as Ryoji speaks. “You know, Makoto, you’re not lying to yourself, and you’re not lying to me. You’re trying to compensate for what you’ve lost.”

For the bonds you try so desperately to keep away from yourself, is left unspoken.

“I’m aware,” he mutters, pulling the hand away from his eye and letting it fall to his lap, fingers twitching minutely at every other beat that pulses in his skull. “But I stand by my decision.”

“There are only a few times I actually hate your stubbornness. Now is one of them,” Ryoji says tersely, his voice dark with an emotion Makoto knows all too well; one that is a mixture of anger and fear and worry and love, for him and him alone, brewed by time and grew bitter over the years of the stilled hands of the world-clock. “You’re killing yourself sparing them from pain, and I don’t like any of it.”

“I’m a dead man walking, Ryoji,” Makoto whispers, trying hard not to recall the way the Seal ripped him apart each and every time he erected the stone gate between the stars. “There’s no point making bonds when I’m going to keep hurting them over and over.”

“You told me yourself that the point of bonds is to cherish the time that you have left together,” Ryoji says, his voice suddenly steely and almost cold. It’s been centuries since they last disagree this badly on anything, and he’s scared— “You should know better than anyone that if this cycle is the last – and we both think, know, that it will – then you should—”

“Ryoji,” Makoto says the name softly, utters it as a prayer, and as a request, imploring for Ryoji to stop making him remember what it is that he wants to do the most has to accomplish, for them to leave this fight intact even at the cost of his own damn life. “I can’t.”

The silence that follows is almost suffocating, and it is unpleasant to him; Ryoji has always given him his silence whenever he needs it, but right now, this wordlessness is strangling him, as if to wring out a confession he couldn’t possibly provide, as if— “You can, Makoto. I want you to. And you know you need this; you need them as much as—”

Stop,” he finds himself choking on his own resolve, the headache briefly forgotten when his fear starts to rise up, nausea latching onto his senses. He quickly leans forward, both hands clasped over his mouth to stifle down whatever it is that’s threatening to spill, be it bile or words he couldn’t possibly allow to be said. Not again, no more, not anymore.

He can’t shun Ryoji away. He can’t shun him away like he does the others or he’s—

“Shh,” Ryoji hushes softly, warm arm circling around his shoulder and rubbing soothing circle on that patch of skin between his shoulder blades in a familiar way Ryoji always does whenever he’s struck by a sense of panic that comes and goes without warning, without mercy— “Makoto, I… know you’ve already decided on this, and that I’ve agreed to it, but I just want you to reconsider… for yourself, please?”

He exhales slowly, burying his face into his hands and trying his best to stop his thoughts from reeling. It takes him a moment to find his voice again, and god, he hates this, hates being so weak even when he should be strong. He’s gone through centuries without Ryoji by his side for the most of it, for fuck’s sake, so why does he feel like crying right now—

“No,” he finally finds it in him to reply, shaking his head and keeping his eyes shut tight. He wants to have doesn’t need those bonds, all that he has now is enough, there’s no reason for him to build up those connections when they’re going to cause his family and friends and himself so much pain unnecessary. “No, I’m not going to, so just… leave it at this. I’ll be fine. This won’t happen again.”

Ryoji hums, and the way he breathes tells Makoto enough that he knows, sees through his self-assurance and his façade. But he plays along anyway. “…Alright. Don’t worry, Makoto; I’ll stay by you until the very end, okay?”

And, oh, Ryoji doesn’t know just how much he needs to hear that, as a confirmation that he doesn’t have to be alone when the time comes.

Sleep doesn’t come easy anymore.

Ryoji is far too observant for Makoto to lie his way through that inquisitive gaze, but he’s been keeping this half under wraps for almost a week now. Before this, sleep doesn’t come as quickly as it used to, the cycles rendering his attempts to get rest harder and harder with each and every beat that pass, but now it is even worse than that. He used to be able to get at least a few hours before sunrise, before every fight that demands his attention, but right now, sleep is a necessity that he could no longer find on his own.

Closing his eyes, even tired and exhausted, doesn’t help him fall into a deep slumber, his rest light and easily interrupted either by the sound of the wind from outside or that wicked growl ringing in his own head. Ever since the last Full Moon, all his nights are starting to get like this; far too hard to fall asleep, and even harder to remain at rest. Dreams and reality are starting to mix together, the edge getting blurrier and harder for him to discern.

But for once, when he jolts awake for the tenth time tonight, Ryoji doesn’t wake up with him. He’s more human than he used to be, with exhaustion now a factor, a blessing for him to find a measure of peace within their own private pocket of the universe, tucked away under the hands of the world-clock. He lets himself breathe for a moment, the lack of shut-eye starting to catch up to him. He mourns the fact that he used to be such a heavy sleeper, easily fallen prey to the sandman’s hand even inside the confines of Tartarus, even to the point of being narcoleptic.

Oh, how far has he fallen, turning into an insomniac right when everything’s starting to hurt.

He quietly shifts out of the bed, trying his best not to cause too much change to wake Ryoji up. And when he’s sure Ryoji would remain fast asleep, he pads his way over Koromaru’s curled form and out of his room, his destination already half in mind. He looks at the clock as he walks down towards the lounge, the hands reading almost three in the morning, and fuck, he still has so many hours left before the school would come to at least bore him back to sleep—

“Why are you down here so late at night, Yuuki?”

A voice jolts him, and Makoto blinks languidly before he sees the dim light from the kitchen. He looks around for a moment before spotting Mitsuru with her hair slightly disheveled and a cup of hot chocolate cradled in her palms. He takes a moment to shuffle into the kitchen himself, still racking through his head to find something that could help him back—

“Well?” Mitsuru continues, slightly irritated, judging from the sharp edge of her voice.

He resists the urge to curl away as he walks over to the fridge, his answer coming out quiet and with barely any energy behind it. “Can’t sleep.”

There is a pause as Makoto sweeps his eyes through the fridge for something, and soon grabs a hold onto a plate of half-eaten cake left by Ryoji this morning. He ponders for a moment if he really should, since eating now might cause him to throw up later, but decides to do it anyway because he needs anything that could help (that could act as a distraction from the turbulent dreams).

“…You do not look well-rested,” Mitsuru comments as Makoto grabs a fork and sits down on the table, his eyes trailing up from the cursed plate of sweet and to her face. Strangely, that edge of coldness and hostility is… blunted, somewhat. “Is something ailing you?”

He snorts, knowing that whatever his answer is, she will either not believe him or brush it off. She is still at the stage where human relations and friendships are a foreign concept, the only thing that could spur her to say a compliment a job well done or a fight well fought. But somehow, Kotone manages to do just that, manages to make Mitsuru genuinely smile much earlier than Makoto ever could, as if she really is the one who should’ve been alive the first time and never him—

He shakes his head, grounding his thoughts to a halt, and murmurs. “Nightmare. Don’t worry about it, Kirijou-senpai. It won’t affect my ability in a fight.”

That is only half-truth, however, since the state of his mind plays a much larger role when it comes to the strength of his summoned masks. Orpheus doesn’t demand as much of his psyche as the others do, but he still needs Makoto to remain awake to be able to fight well, to be able to draw his strings taut and to play the songs of battles that would suit their needs.

“…I thought you didn’t care about your performance, seeing how many times you’d freeze up or outright ignore an order,” Mitsuru says, her words cold but her voice leveled, neither warm with worry nor freezing with a threat. It’s a… strange sound that makes Makoto half-wince into his core, his finger twitching just minutely over the edge of the plate, the cake slowly thawing out of its frozen state.

It’s not like I ignore them on purpose, but the tower’s fucking with me, is what he wants to say, each floor he climbs up making his ears ring louder and louder. It’s like what Ryoji had warned; something is definitely up with that place, making his performance drop drastically, not to mention the headache that comes with the Full Moon. Something – a god whose name escapes them both – is doing this, and he’s turning into a fucking deadweight—

“I never want to be a burden,” he says quietly, half-hoping that she won’t hear him. “It just… happened.”

“…That is an odd way for you to put it,” Mitsuru says at last as she takes a seat across from him, but Makoto decides not to look up, his frown deepening ever so slightly. “You have a choice to pull out of the SEES if you want to, Yuuki. I never wish to force this upon anyone.”

“I know,” Makoto mutters. Mitsuru has always been like that, even if she’s crude around the edges; she knows the price one pays in order to fight Shadows on a daily basis, destroying a part of their innocence and even their sanity with each pull of the trigger until something is drawn impossibly taut that it could break under just one wrong step. “You’re not the type.”

There is a short pause and a surprised hum, but Makoto doesn’t pay much mind to it as he cuts the cake and takes a small bite. But, in his insomniac haze, he finds it hard to enjoy the taste— “What do you mean by, I’m not the type?

Makoto blinks, then realizes that he’s said something he shouldn’t have. But when he looks up at her, rather than being condescending and even remotely accusatory, she seems confused and curious. He weighs his option, with Alilat’s voice bouncing inside him softly along each beat of his heart, as if to say that it’s fine to let slip a little something—

No, he thinks, curling his hand into a fist. I can’t do that to any of them. I can’t let them see me as I am, I can’t let them in again, can’t hurt them— “You just… don’t seem like someone who’d force people to do something they don’t want to.”

Mitsuru doesn’t seem convince, but ultimately drops the subject. “That… is a surprising attitude, coming from you.”

He only huffs in response to that as he tries – and fails – to eat the damn cake before trying to go back to bed for the umpteenth time tonight.

“Here,” Mitsuru suddenly says, and he looks up to see her pushing a few pills inside a small glass his way. When he blinks stupidly at her, she only sits back down. “I… sometimes have trouble sleeping, so I usually have sleeping pills stowed around. I can give you a few advice of how to get to sleep if you want.”

He never knew this; before her father’s death, she’d always sleep and wake at the same time every single day, her internal clock well-tuned. It wasn’t after Ikutsuki shot her father that she started having trouble sleeping, and even then, he never caught her at three in the fucking morning, because she’d take care of it by her lonesome.

(It must’ve been thanks to Kotone, Makoto notes, jealousy burning at the back of his throat. But at the same time, he thanks his supposedly nonexistent sister for this; because like this, Mitsuru can grow more, have more time with her father. Should he fail to protect those who are doomed to die at all, she will at least have the time precious to her in her heart.)

“…Thank you for the offer, but I’ll manage somehow,” he nods, taking the pills and gulping them all down dry, the cake a mess in the plate with only a quarter of it eaten. He feels sick, and wants nothing more than to throw up, nausea and exhaustion a condemnable combination that does not help with his state of mind at all.

Mitsuru looks like she wants to say something, but retracts her words back and nods curtly. “I will stay to finish my drink before returning to my room. You are free to do as you pleased.”

“Okay.”

It takes him almost half an hour before he could find it in him to get back to bed again, his head pounding all the while, and Mitsuru is with him for as long as he remains there. And, because of his sleep deprived state, he fails to see the warm light of worry that she never wears before he forges the Empress bond with her dancing in her eyes just so.

Notes:

Comments are welcomed! :D

Next chapter featuring: pain meds, awkward moments, and Akinari :D

Chapter 7: Calm Before The Storm

Summary:

During the next week, Makoto finds himself some semblance of control, a little comfort he could fall back to.

What he doesn't know now, is that not long after this, the foundation of his belief would crumble to dust.

Notes:

Heyo! I'm here, as promised!

Exam in three days so I just got to get this out real quick before diving back into reading lmaooooo

Have fun!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

“We’re skipping school today.”

Ryoji declares as soon as he wakes up. Makoto only turns slightly, with Ryoji propping his head up with one of his arms to look at him with a small frown. Makoto could only sigh; he thought he was discreet yesterday. No luck, he guesses. “Mitsuru-senpai will kill us.”

“I’ve talked with her when I went out to shower, and she gave me a green light,” Ryoji says, and that draws out a surprised hum from him. He doesn’t dare look Ryoji in the eyes, and that in itself is a dead giveaway of what he’s done. “You’re going to burn yourself out if this keeps up. If you’re not going to reconnect to any of them except for Koromaru, then your only alternative is medications.”

He allows himself to relax when he realizes that Ryoji will still hold on to his promise of staying by him and not forcing him to do what he can’t afford to; to reconnect and reopen old wounds and to sunder them when the Seal tears him apart and sends his pieces scattering all across the universe again no matter how much he just wants to get close to them like he used to. He closes his eyes and groans into his hand, still sluggish and woefully in pain, both physical and mental.

“…Did I wake you up?” He decides to ask, even if he’s already aware of the answer.

Strangely enough, Ryoji frowns, scrunching up his nose with his expression morphing into what he thinks is contempt. “…No, you didn’t. That is what worries me; how many times did you wake up last night?”

Too many that I lost count, he almost says, but bites back just in time. Instead, he rolls to his side and curls slightly into Ryoji’s form, not wanting to face him and even less prepared to leave his little spot where he could lie down and think about everything that he’s lost nothing except for the present.

But his silence and his action, as always, are what give him away. It is not that he forgets that they’ve been through hell together for half an eon, but he is never willing put down his defense, even in the face of someone so very dear— “It’s been a week, and I can say that this isn’t just because of the Full Moon anymore. Maybe this is tied to the appearance of that strange Shadow that Orpheus repelled.”

A god without a name, he muses silently, and relaxes a little more when Ryoji brushes a strand of his hair away from his face. He leans into the touch for a moment as he hums. “I suppose so.”

“Mitsuru-san gave me her ID, by the way,” Ryoji says, and this time, Makoto has to look up to the black card with the symbol of the Kirijou Group etched into its material, with Mitsuru’s portrait and name written clearly on it. “She said that we’re free to visit the hospital and ask for physical and mental exams with this, for any interventions you might need.”

This surprises him more than his head could comprehend, so he falls silent, chewing the inside of his mouth and trying to find a reason as to why; she’s never liked him in this timeline, with him freezing up inside the tower and failing to provide any meaningful services during the Full Moon. Somehow, he thinks it might be tied to last night, but his memories of what happened after he’s taken the pills are hazy and unfocused, as if he’d walked through them during a terrible fever.

He decides not to think on it because thinking hurts and he just never wants to and instead counts this as a blessing to get the job done without a hitch. “…We’ll be there awhile.”

“That is true,” Ryoji says quietly, pressing a kiss onto his temple before shifting up. “Do you want to go right away, or do you want to stay a while longer?”

He ponders on it for a moment. Staying sounds nice, but any longer than this and his thoughts will swerve back to that uncharted territory, and he doesn’t want to explore it, not ever yet. “…Right away, I guess.”

“I’ll help you shower,” Ryoji says without the usual flirty lilt in his tone, and that is enough to notify him that, indeed, he must’ve looked far worse than what he believes himself to be.

The taste of the morphine syrup is bitter and bland, but it helps with the headache quite a lot, so Makoto decides to power through it as he takes a sip.

A sip is a stretch, considering the volume of the syrup he had just swallowed; a mouthful that could make him throw up had he not been so used to the feeling of being sick for months. He sighs, placing the bottle back onto his table, now littered with pill panels and bottles and packages he and Ryoji spent the whole damn day being tested and exam by at least two doctors and three psychiatrists before being ordered to pick up drugs that they need – all the while being under the head pharmacist’s scrutiny – and stuff them all inside both of their bags.

(It also helps that Makoto has picked up a new summer clothing beforehand, otherwise the excess of pill panels will spill out of his pants’ pockets and he won’t like it. Who knows a summer jacket would come in handy?)

While Mitsuru’s IDs itself doesn’t allow them to pick the medications by themselves, instead forcing him to go through hoops of evaluations and examinations, Makoto did pass with flying colors (that is, if being given the clear to take multiple kind of sedatives and high-end painkillers and whatever else by more than two doctors at once could be called so), so they at least have no trouble getting all that they need. Still, he will have to return there tomorrow, since one of the psychiatrists thinks he has Major Depressive Disorder and some other mental illness he refuses to name.

It’s almost funny that he has yet to be coined clinically insane, after all is said and done.

“…You’re going to become a drug addict at this rate,” Ryoji comments, seated not too far away from the bed, one leg crossed over the other with his elbow resting on it. He props up his chin with his palm as he looks at Makoto, back at the myriads of drugs sprawling on the table, and back at him again. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I prefer you getting drunk on a daily basis than taking morphine once every eight hours like this.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll get to that, too,” Makoto deadpans. Alcohol and painkillers are a weird and effectively incapacitating combination of substance that he’d rather not take together, but they both know alcohol can sometimes dull the pain (the pain of not being able to look at them and speak to them like he used to) and make him forget. It all comes down to risks and rewards. “Eventually. Maybe.”

Ryoji sighs. “At least you know how bad it would look if you get addicted to both.”

He snorts, peeling a fentanyl patch – he has never before known that there is a painkiller in the form of skin patch up until this goddamn point what the fuck – out of its confinements and slapping it onto his back without much care, the cool and sticky feeling of the thing making him flinch. “Let’s hope we can find a workaround before I start to develop a drug tolerance, because when I do, that isn’t going to be pretty.”

None of this is pretty, but I agree,” Ryoji hums, uncrossing his legs and scooting the chair in a little closer to pull the uppermost button of his shirt loose. “You’re sweating.”

“Thanks,” he murmurs, leaning back against his hands, unsure of what to do next. Ever since exploring the new Compendium, Ryoji has remained just as kind, but he seems constantly on edge, and oh… Makoto knows he is the reason for that, is the reason for Ryoji to frown more often than he smiles. And he hates himself for this— “I’m—”

“Don’t apologize,” Ryoji says quietly, the note hesitant and pained, and he loathes every second of it. “It’s not your fault that these things happen, and I’m not the one who suffers the most. It’s you.”

“I’m used to it,” he lies says, eyes looking anywhere but at Ryoji’s shimmering blue ones.

“Liar,” Ryoji calls him out easily.

He lets silence fill in the blank for a moment before he reminds himself that they have a plan to go to Tartarus today. The clock already reads 23.37 pm, so they don’t have that much time left before they have to get moving. “…I wonder if Kotone’ll pick me. Probably not, seeing how shit I am at the job I’m supposed to be best at.”

“I also am not sure if I want you to be selected for the expedition or not,” Ryoji scrunches his nose as he gets up, taking a few panels and a bottle of liquid morphine into his hand before pushing it into Makoto’s face. He takes them and packs them all away on the holster’s small bag, with the cap poking out just enough to be seen. “I suppose we’ll have to see.”

“There is power in the name,” Makoto repeats, recalling the way the name of the god he is supposed to keep at bay is ripped right out from under his feet – and Ryoji’s, too – and spat back as a mass of darkness and red eyes and white teeth. He shakes his head to get rid of the feeling. “We need to find out what that god’s name is so we can deal with it. It shouldn’t be too hard, since we still remember what it is, and remember Nyx.”

“But why only take away the name and not any other memories?” Ryoji questions, fingers on his chin and eyes gazing out the window, towards the darkness as the Dark Hour creeps over the horizon. “It doesn’t make sense. Even if there’s a power in the name alone, if I were that god, I would’ve done more.”

“Gods never make sense, do they?” Makoto muses. Nyx just is, she doesn’t make a lick of sense as to why she would respond to that dark god that lingers at the edge of the Sea of Souls this year and not before. He is willing to bet his soul on it that gods just do not have the same logic as humans do. “You never do most of the time, Ryoji.”

“Hey, I resent that,” Ryoji huffs out a small laughter, enough to set Makoto at ease for a moment. “I love you for who you are and for what you fight for. I make sense most of the time.”

“No, you do not,” he says softly as he gets up and starts undressing – he needs to get into Gekkoukan’s summer uniform before he leaves the room or Mitsuru will freeze his ass, and he’d rather that not happen today, thank you – with his eyes glued to the floor. “It doesn’t make sense for you to continue to love something so broken, you know.”

“You’re not broken,” Ryoji hums, and when Makoto looks up, his eyes are shining like light, like life… and it makes his chest clench and ache in pain he doesn’t want to feel— “Even if you are, you’re still you… the person I fell in love with. The person I’ll continue to love for an eternity to come.”

He only smiles as he pulls at the buttons of his shirt, feeling the gentle heat rising up to his cheeks, a mimicry to how it was when Ryoji confessed to him the first time, when they shared their hearts and souls before the Fall ripped them apart—

“Thank you,” he decides to say instead, leaning into the softness of Ryoji’s words as they wait for the dark moon to rise above the horizon.

“It’ll be Aragaki-senpai, Mitsuru-senpai and… Makoto.”

He perks up slightly at the name, but doesn’t complain as he clenches his hand around the sword a little tighter. Mitsuru throws him an odd look, but he decides to keep his eyes away from hers instead, unwilling to be seen, as they gather at the steps and get ready to ascend the twisted tower. Towards Arqa block, he should think.

(It doesn’t help matter that today’s a new moon, the sky dark and set alight with the eerie jade-green from the edge of the universe itself. Just like the last new moon, he feels odd; like a part of him has welcomed in ashes and dusts that force their ways into his lungs and make him breathe in the burnt remains of his own sanity and whatever is left of his bonds.

Something feels wrong, and yet again, he couldn’t point out what is and what is not. All he could see is the blood-red eyes of someone human staring back into his soul when he glances down at his own shadow, casted into the darkness of Tartarus and swallowed whole by the walls and the pillars.

And when Ryoji shakes his head, with Fuuka feeling not a single thing wrong like they could, Makoto knows they’ve already been brought back to square one.)

“You know, the feeling of sharing my senses with Fuuka-san is definitely… stronger than with Mitsuru-san,” Ryoji says from the sidelines, giving Fuuka a wink and causing the girl to blush. He sees Kotone give him a glare, to which he only replies with a laughter. “Come on, I did nothing! I only winked once!”

“Yeah, and you’re causing discomfort for her! Tone down on your flirting, please, thank you,” Kotone says, although her lips are stretched into a grin and her eyes are gleaming with delight. He looks back as Ryoji gives him a thumb up, silent and quick like a flash, before he refocuses his attention on Kotone, who’s regarding him only shortly before she speaks to the group. “Alright, we’re heading to a new path today.”

“How do you know it’s open?” Aragaki asks, a question Makoto never really answered in cycles before. How could he, when the only reason he knew was because Elizabeth raided his phone and called him out of the fucking blue all the damn time—

“Girl’s hunch,” Kotone grins easily, the lie rolling off her tongue like the truth would, natural and without delay. He only frowns, but doesn’t comment on it (since he knows how fucked up it is to try to explain the entirety of the Velvet Room to the others) as she waves at them. “Alright, then. Makoto, you be back-up. Mitsuru-senpai, cover for him if he’s indisposed. Aragaki-senpai, you’re with me.”

Right, he reminds himself with a frown as he steps through the gate and into the Tower of Demise, his skin prickling with a sense of dread that never fails to make him feel sick. I’m not the leader anymore.

“Makoto,” Kotone calls, and he only glances at her as she walks over to him – and continues in a hushed almost-whisper, as if afraid of being heard. “I know you’re going to hate this, but um… Orpheus kinda said I could call him. I—”

“—It’s fine,” Makoto sighs, Orpheus shifting softly in his chest, lyre played into a single note that hums and extends until it lost its volume inside the abyss. Makoto doesn’t face her eyes, instead looking down at his Evoker, feeling the choruses of souls from the Sea tugging and pulling at the edge of his mind, waiting to be called, wishing to be called. “If I’m not in any danger, you can use him. He gave you his permission, so I don’t see why not.”

“…Makoto,” her voice is soft but stern, the sound grating his eardrums harsh enough that he could feel them almost snap at the tension alone. He’s forced to look into those crimson eyes as Kotone frowns. “I’m not sure how I should feel, hearing you talk about your Persona so dismissively like that.”

“I don’t care,” he says, falling back into the familiar self-made isolation and detachment, drawing out Kotone’s ire even more. He revels in it, he lets her do it – because like this, she could forget about him, see him as no more than another pebble on the road— “Do what you want.”

Kotone growls, her anger matching something dark in him he’s not willing to look into, an ugly emotion brewed through time that loops and never marches. “Fine, then. Don’t complain or ask me to save you if he somehow popped out from my shadow when you called.”

Her words make that irrational fear in him bubbles up like a volcano again, but when Orpheus hums into the staffs of his rib – as a promise, as a reminder – he calms down enough to ascend the Tower of Demise behind those he once called friends and families.

“I saw you a few days ago…”

Makoto turns to the owner of the voice, and sees a familiar face he’s had to watch die so many times he couldn’t feel anything anymore. But right here, right now, he doesn’t know Makoto (at least, not like he used to) yet, doesn’t know who he is exactly and doesn’t know what kind of hell he’s been forced to go through over and over. So instead of talking to Kamiki Akinari like an old friend right away, he greets the man as if this is their first time meeting; “I was here to pick up something. Did I bother you?”

“Of course not,” he shakes his head as Makoto taps into his phone to message Ryoji that he’ll run a little late, because he knows full well that aside from Koromaru, Akinari is probably the only other soul that always sees through him, eyes piercing right through his defense and into his crumbling, brittle heart that refuses to die no matter what— “You seem troubled.”

“Not as much as you do,” Makoto muses, packing the last of the morphine and syringes into his backpack, the prospect of him needing to inject himself with painkillers a grim and unwelcome one.

The climb up Tartarus last night is a disaster to his mental welfare, seeing that he hallucinated red eyes of something prowling around the edge all the damn time, not to mention that every time Kotone called for Orpheus – probably not out of spite, but necessity, since Orpheus is much stronger than any Persona she possessed at the moment – he could feel that sense of dread in him grow even worse, clawing at his insides and begging to be free.

But it eased up somewhat when Orpheus never once failed to come to his aid, so he supposes his near irrational fear might’ve come from being in the Tower. Because, somehow, strolling the Dark Hour with only his wits and his masks resting in his chest doesn’t case panic to latch onto him, doesn’t make him feels like he’s all alone in the world, a prey ready to be pounced, a fragile soul ready to be destroyed upon a whim.

Something made him like this, either the time loop itself that makes him unnaturally unstable (or maybe he has already gone insane and hadn’t noticed a damn thing yet), or the fact that the Appriser of this world is not Ryoji, not the Death that he knows, but something else entirely. He is leaning more towards the former, however, because it’s been centuries since he was last normal, since he was wholly sane, and he’s fairly certain that his sanity is already at its limit, that if this isn’t the last, he probably would be driven mad by everything—

“Are you in pain?” Akinari asks as he sits down, the wheeze accompanying his every breath. Makoto looks back at him, and when Akinari pats the vacant spot beside him, walks over to join the man. “Judging from your cloth, I would assume you’re a high school student. You look healthy, and yet, your expression is… sorrowful, I should say.”

“I am healthy,” Makoto replies, even if the words feel so forced and so harsh on his tongue. Just like all the previous cycles, meeting with Akinari always starts like this; as if he’s so fine-tuned to death that he could see that Makoto, too, has been witnessing the end of life far too many times to keep his sanity intact, for him to have his heart irreversibly blunted and numbed by the idea of life and death itself. So, after a moment, he sighs. “Who am I kidding? Yes… I’m in quite a bit of pain, actually.”

Akinari looks at him a while longer, face knowing and full of sorrow for him, with compassion Makoto no longer deserves. “I thought as much,” Akinari finally chuckles, then coughs for long enough that the man himself is gasping for air. Makoto looks at him, feeling his life ebbing away so prominently that he feels like he could cry all over again. “Ah… haha, I’m sorry about that. I’m a little ill, you see.”

“I wouldn’t call cystic fibrosis a little ill,” Makoto says, recalling the name of the disease that he learned about from Akinari’s mother on the very first cycle, a few days before his own supposed end – one that never comes, he laments quietly – and notices far too late that he’s talking about something he shouldn’t have known— “Oh, uh, I—”

“—So my instinct wasn’t lying,” is what Akinari says, and Makoto glances at him to see a calm, gentle smile on the dying man’s feature. Silence fills the air for a moment before Akinari hums. “You see, when I saw you, something in me told me that… we’ve known each other for a long, long time. And that you and I are not that much different. That you are in pain far worse than I could ever hope to understand.”

“Your pain is just as bad. You didn’t choose to have that disease,” Makoto says, the bitter taste of his own decision to rend his heart and soul to bind the gate between the stars stinging the back of his throat like needles. “Those choices aren’t yours to make. Just like the choices aren’t mine.”

“I see,” Akinari muses, fingers tapping along the edge of his own knuckles gently, his eyes saying enough; that he knows the words I chose this by myself is only a façade, because deep down, he’s afraid to forge the bonds up all over again, afraid that this will never end to admit to himself that he never wanted to choose any of it. “Of course I didn’t choose to have this, and yet I have it anyway. We have at least that in common. If you do not mind… could you tell me more about yourself? Who you are and what ails you?”

“Only if you do the same,” Makoto smiles, briefly recalling each and every one of their past interactions, slightly different yet ending up the same – with him telling Akinari just enough to ease the pain off of his chest, just enough for him to realize that he’s much older mentally than he lets on, and in return listening to the dying man’s hopes and dreams and keeping them safe in his heart for an eternity to come. “I’m Makoto. Yuuki Makoto.”

“Kamiki Akinari,” the man smiles, as if he sees right through Makoto’s attempt to make it seem like this is their first meeting. “But you already know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” he hums, falling back into the quiet, comfortable pocket of the Sun Arcana, one of the very few that he doesn’t have to tear his heart and soul to reforge, because they’re both the same, bound to Death until the universe itself falls apart under their palms. “I already do.”

And so, their chance meeting ends up with Makoto sharing each and every one of his experiences, feeling just a little bit lighter, with another soul ready to hear him out as he trudges through the life he didn’t ask for all over again.

Ryoji is understandably upset that he talked to Akinari about as much as he did with Ryoji, but for an entirely different reason.

“I’ve never met him. You have to take me to him sometimes!” Ryoji pouts, even if he’s massaging Makoto’s temples carefully to ease away the throbbing headache that rarely ceases. The climb up Tartarus the day before didn’t help, either; the act of stepping through the fogged gate itself is already a hazard to his physical and mental health, enough that morphine’s barely able to cover his pain from prying eyes. “He seems like such a gentle soul who deserves a longer life than that.”

“He does,” Makoto agrees, relaxing into Ryoji’s touch and closing his eyes, his shoulders for once loose and not drawn taut by tensions. Ryoji presses his leg slightly deeper into Makoto’s back to gain a better access to his head, and he only hums appreciatively as he lets those fingers work their magic. “Why have I never brought you to meet him before?”

“Probably because we had so little time together,” Ryoji comments softly. “Eleven months, and I’m tangible for only two of it. Not to mention that December usually wasn’t really a good month for me to come by and be in the same vicinity as you, seeing that your friends wanted to both kill and not kill me.”

“True,” Makoto hums, remembering full well the repeats of their despair upon learning Ryoji’s true nature, with or without their bonds with him. “Well, but you’re here now. Next time we go to raid the hospital, I’ll take you to him.”

Raid is a strong word, don’t you think?” Ryoji laughs.

They continue to converse a while longer, light and without worry, any impending doom pushed back into the furthermost corners of their minds for the moment. It’s… nice, to be able to act like himself and not a cold, emotionally-clipped death seeker for once. It’s been so long since he’s got to relax, and the first time in forever to do so in the presence of his other half so early. He would rather not waste it trying to find an alternative for the Seal Ryoji so desperately wants him to—

Their bubble of bliss pops when there’s a quick, curt raps on the door. Makoto takes a moment to heave out a sigh, getting up – silently lamenting the loss of Ryoji’s touches – and sweeping all the drugs scattering on the table down into the drawer before opening the door, only to find himself confronted by no other than Mitsuru.

With a frown, he asks. “Can I help you, Kirijou-senpai?”

“I would like to talk to you about your visits to Tatsumi Memorial hospital,” Mitsuru says curtly, reminding Makoto that their little raids aren’t going under Mitsuru’s nose. He’ll have to find a way to explain this, somehow— “You as well, Mochizuki.”

“Um… okay?” Ryoji frowns and stand up. “What do you want to talk about, Mitsuru-san?”

At this, Mitsuru doesn’t reply right away, but waves her hand into the room, as if asking for a permission to enter. Reluctantly, Makoto complies, stepping back and away from the entrance and allowing the heiress to come in without much hassle. He thinks it’s already strange for her to give Ryoji so much liberty as to pick out whatever drugs he – they – want (with doctors’ approvals, of course), but right now might be the moment Makoto learns as to why exactly would Mitsuru do something she’s never done before.

Mitsuru’s face seems to sport some form of discomfort and concern, both in equal measures and both warranted; after all, she doesn’t seem to trust Makoto all that much, since he’s barely given the team any power worth his weight since the second Full Moon, not to mention the attitude of I don’t care he’s been wearing since the very beginning of this year. He wonders if it’s about that, too.

“Morphine, Fentanyl, myriads of benzodiazepines and SSRIs,” Mitsuru says calmly, noting each and every major type of substances Makoto had managed to put his hands on. It’s not that her ID card allowed him to get everything he wants, since he has to go through physical examinations and mental evaluations from the doctors and psychiatrists, but he thinks he understands her worry; all those drugs, taken alone, are already bad enough. To take them in combination is a nightmare, for certain. “How?

He is a little offended, but after a moment of consideration, her shock is just; he appears almost normal, and he perfected his psyche evaluation scores from the school, so it would come as a shock that he could be allowed to take so many things after just a day’s worth of tests. It comes down to only two scenarios in which such a thing is possible; either he lied on the school’s tests, or falsified the hospital’s evaluation.

He thinks Mitsuru might be thinking more about the latter than the former as he replies truthfully. “I just let them examined me and evaluated me as per procedure. They gave me a clear.”

Mitsuru’s frown deepens as she moves to sit on the chair. Makoto decides to remain standing, digging his hands into his pockets and waiting for her icy glare to come; but when it doesn’t, he feels like something is amiss, as if Mitsuru is actually contemplating and worrying more than she should, more than she ever did in cycles before—

“You don’t have any underlying diseases mentioned in your profile,” she says at last, her voice leveled but not cold, something that makes his heart clench – both in nostalgia and in pain – and makes his skin tingle with a sensation of a well-missed kindness he’s not seen from Mitsuru for centuries. “I… know it might sound off and truly invasive, but if there is anything I can help with at all, let me know.”

What can you do? He barely stops himself from saying, the weight of the world crushing into him and almost suffocating him. Some forgotten, forsaken part of him wants nothing more than to tell her everything, whether she will believe him or not, but a more rational part of him stops him in time; there is no need for him to reforge old bonds that would only serve to reopen wounds, after all.

“…Thank you for the offer, Kirijou-senpai,” he says despite that feeling of longing bubbling up in his chest, his hands finding one another to keep himself a little grounded with touches and the soft cackles of his joints as he pops them to distract himself from… something.

Ryoji, as always, detects his not-so-subtle internal turmoil and steps in, a hand on his shoulder, his warmth helping with calming down his thoughts somewhat. “The doctors from the hospital did tell him to come by for continuous treatment, Mitsuru-san. I’ll make sure he gets it.”

“…I will not pry further, then,” Mitsuru nods simply, and despite it all, Makoto feels himself smile under the shadow of his own face. It’s so strange for Mitsuru to be so openly caring without his intervention, and it must’ve been thanks to no other than Kotone. He wishes he could’ve thanked her in person, but he’d rather not rip open any more wounds if he could— “But, I would appreciate it if you notify me beforehand if you realize you’ll become incapacitated due to your conditions.”

“We will if we do know, Mitsuru-san,” Ryoji says, squeezing his shoulder lightly and pulling slightly at their bond, warm and golden but so, so lonely. “Thank you for dropping by.”

Mitsuru looks like she wants to say something more, but decides to leave after a moment, letting Makoto and Ryoji sit together with nothing but their silence and the dark of the night.

At first, she thought Yuuki is simply… an antisocial person.

But the reports given to her from the hospital prove otherwise.

There’s an unanimous diagnosis that Yuuki, despite looking so very normal, has something they thought to be severe chronic migraine coupled with, but not limited to, chronic pain syndrome, not to mention a more worrying psychiatric evaluation.

Because of the nature of psychiatric examination, she isn’t given the exact details, but they did give him an appointment to get checked up once a week, and all those antidepressants, as well. It’s as if they’re treating an old, scarred, traumatized war veteran and not a teenager with normal, if regretfully sorrowful, records of being bounced around orphanages his whole life.

From what Kotone told her, she and Yuuki used to be so close, acting as each other’s pillars as they hold their hands towards the next school, then the next, then the next. From her account – something that Mitsuru wholeheartedly trusts – it is only after transferring here that some… changes occurred, with the appearance of Mochizuki Ryoji, turning him into an entirely different man, as if haunted by a ghost and possessed by demons from below.

She doesn’t believe Mochizuki to be the source, but rather, the buoy that keeps Yuuki at least floating through the neck-deep water of whatever darkness is stalking him. She will need to look closer into this, but where to begin, when the only clue she has would not pry his lips open for a single soul?

What could possibly happen for this change to happen? What could possibly make Yuuki so different and so… not quite hostile, but isolated?

“You thinkin’ about Yuuki?”

The sound comes from the door of the command room, and for a moment, she is frozen – how unlike her – only to come to a realization that there’s at least one another that seems to notice something odd about those two boys, too. “…Yes, I am.”

Shinjirou closes the door with a soft click and walks inside, seating himself two seats away from her with a contemplative look. He takes a moment to nod to himself then says, “I don’t know what to think. I mean, from what I heard that Kotone kid saying, the boy seems like he did a one-eighty. I ain’t gonna believe it’s got nothing to do with this place.”

“Maybe Tartarus is affecting him?” She says, only to shake her head at her own theory. “…No, on a second thought, I don’t believe so. The Tower should’ve affected us equally. There is no cause for it to specifically target him.”

“Those twins were involved in the explosion ten years ago, right?” Shinjirou inquires. When Mitsuru gives him a curt nod, he hums. “Could it be because of that? But… Kotone was there, too, and she didn’t seem bothered by it. I checked with the previous records as you’ve asked; her characteristic hasn’t change at all in the span of three years at the very least.”

“So this is an isolated case, hm?” Mitsuru rubs her finger on her chin. Penthesilea stirs, icy wind caressing her cheek softly; a strange notion at a thought, since her Persona rarely interacts with her from within or outside of the Dark Hour. “…Something tells me that we must get to the bottom of this.”

“You’re getting the same vibe as I am from the kid, then,” Shinjirou says with a sigh as he looks down at his Evoker, worn with time and disuse. “You find things from your end; I’ll find from mine. Good thing I learned how to cook, huh?”

“…Indeed,” Mitsuru finds herself smiling ever so slightly. “It is a good thing to have that in common.”

Something in her tells her that, if she doesn’t find the root cause, they might lose more than just a child soldier in their care. It feels like she’s going to lose one of her own, her family and close friend; something they are not, and yet…

And yet…

“Come on! Why don’t you cook more often?”

Kotone nudges and urges Aragaki on, knowing full well just from a glimpse of him being infatuated by the cutie that is Koromaru that he is a softie behind all those tough guy bravados.

Aragaki only huffs with a small frown of his own as he tries – and fails– to ignore Kotone. Junpei and Makoto (in the old day) would often claim that she seems to always have her ways with flinging her entire personality at someone until they open up (something she’s failed with Makoto, who keeps shutting her off and it hurts, it hurts—) and speak to her.

She considers that a compliment.

“Aragaki-senpai,” she nudges again, even more persistent than before. Koromaru is yipping gently at their legs as Aragaki prepares for the canine’s meal – all the while in the absence of most of the SEES – and, in the end, nuzzles Aragaki’s leg hard enough for the man to grumble. “Come on, I can do this all day, and you know it.”

“Fine,” Aragaki rolls his eyes, but a hint of a smile is forming at his lips as he flips the meat in the pan with practiced ease. “I just don’t feel like cooking for people to see. That enough an answer for you?”

“I asked you why, and you’re still not giving me a reason,” she pouts, nudging his side with her elbow (“you’re so fucking persistent, dammit,” she thinks he’s saying), careful to avoid harming herself on the still hot stove. “I mean, I heard from Ryoji-kun that you’re a stellar chef!”

If she’s any less observant, she would’ve missed it; a stain of red gracing Aragaki’s cheek as he finally finishes the plate and puts it in the dog’s bowl. He quickly ducks his head out of her gaze and sets the meal near Koromaru, patting his head gently, before rising back up and towering over her. “That prick is so fucking talkative it’s annoying.”

“I find him cute, actually,” Kotone laughs lightly. “But! I really want to see you cook more. I peeved on you once last week—”

“—You what—”

“—and I just want to see you in apron more often!” she finishes without allowing him a moment to interject, and she could see clearly enough annoyance in his face, as well as something else she couldn’t quite pin. She thinks it might’ve been fondness? “I’ve eaten Ryoji-kun’s and Makoto’s, and if Ryoji-kun says that yours is a must, then I want in!”

Aragaki looks at her for a long while, his lips curving up into a small smile as he reaches out a hand. She thinks he might’ve aimed to do something else, at first, but in the end rests his palm on the crown of her head, tussling her hair and making her yelp indignantly.

“You’re really fucking persistent, aren’t you?” Aragaki says, but without a bite. It feels like he’s actually enjoying himself teasing her back however he could. “But, oh well. Since nobody’s fucking here yet, I guess I’ll cook you a simple one.”

“Nice!” she says under her breath and fist-pumping herself slightly, gaining an odd look from Aragaki. She quickly smiles brightly up at him and tiptoes to peer over his shoulder at all the ingredients lying around. “What’re you going to make?”

“Just a donburi, I think,” Aragaki hums thoughtfully as he walks over to grab whatever he needs. Kotone is by no means an inspiring cook – at least, not before coming here, since Fuuka had insisted that she joined her newly-made cooking club (how the hell could one refuse such a sincere request!?) – but she knows that what Aragaki is trying to do is, by no means, normal. “…The hell you starin’ at me for?”

“I just want to learn,” since I can’t ask Makoto to teach me, is what she does and does not say. She wrinkles her nose at her mental mention of her brother for just a fraction of moment before she rids herself of those thoughts and smiles. “Can you teach me?”

Aragaki rolls his eyes as a response at first, but he eventually nods as he throws things onto the counter, careful not to break anything but not nearly gentle enough for Kotone to not wince. “Don’t write things down and watch me first. I believe in hands-on experiences.”

“We have that in common, too!” Kotone grins.

And for a while, their little world is perfectly bright and happy; Aragaki teaches her with words, follows by actions, deft hands cutting and slicing ingredients with ease. She leans in a little closer to get a good look, the way the meat sizzles on the pan not failing in the least to make her salivate, and oh, if Makoto’s meals are already so good, she just cannot wait to eat Aragaki’s, too.

It doesn’t take too long for the food to be done, and by then, Koromaru has already retreated upstairs – to wait in front of Makoto’s room, she should think – and most of the others have already returned. Aragaki only growls at Junpei when the boy pokes his head inside, making the rest of the team flee from the scene amidst gossips and giggles.

“You know, Senpai,” Kotone begins as he pushes her towards the table and sets a hot, steaming bowl of donburi in front of her before sitting down across from her, with his own bowl ready in his hands. The man perks up, and she takes a bite – oh god this is so good – as she continues. “You’re a really good cook. Why not do one for the team once in a while?”

Aragaki frowns, snapping his chopsticks and taking a few careful bites before asking back. “What do you mean, cook for the team once in a while?

“Come on, you’re a big mama bear and you know it,” Kotone teases. All the times in Tartarus so far – less than a month, but ample of moments to catch Aragaki helping someone to their feet, or protecting them from otherwise dangerous blows – tells her that he cares about the SEES far more than he lets on. When Aragaki pauses, eyes narrowing just slightly, Kotone smiles. “It wouldn’t hurt to share some tender moments with those you care about, you know?”

Like how I used to do with Makoto, just the two of us against the world, her thought turns bitter, almost resentful. But she quickly snuffs it as she pinches her thigh hard enough for her to wince. Somehow, her head keeps thinking back to Makoto – to what had gone wrong, and what could’ve been – and she really, really needs to stop doing this to herself.

Aragaki takes a moment, chewing the words in his mouth before letting them loose carefully, reluctantly, as if he has never before considered such a thing; “…You know what? I might as well take you up on that offer. If I don’t, you’re gonna keep nagging me like a mother hen till I do, right?”

Kotone could only grin as she’s seen through and through. “You got it!”

She thinks she hears Aragaki snort a laughter, but decides not to push things too far as she focuses on eating the bowl in front of her, letting the taste roll off her tongue and settling deep inside her bones. It’s more than just being delicious; it’s warm, both physically and psychologically. Aragaki must really loves cooking – and cares a lot about the SEES – for the meal to feel this kind—

“Oh! Fancy seeing you two here!”

Ryoji says, poking his head slightly through the doorway. Kotone smiles and waves at him as he takes her greeting as an invitation to join. “Heya, Ryoji-kun! Back already?”

“Mhm. We’re just trying to get used to Port Island’s layout,” Ryoji says, jerking his head towards Makoto, who looks at them all briefly with an unreadable expression and a small paper bag in his hand. She only looks back at him as he turns away and up the stairs like he always does.

Liar,” Aragaki snorts, making Kotone’s brows shoot up slightly in retaliation. Ryoji only gives them a look – like someone who’s been caught – as he sits down beside her, as oblivious (or uncaring) about privacy as always. “How’s the sightsee been goin’ for ya?”

“Very… clarifying, I must say,” Ryoji says, the note reluctant and unsure. She feels the question boiling at the tip of her tongue, but doesn’t pursue it, since she knows full well just how eccentric Ryoji actually is – at least he’s less inhuman than Elizabeth and Theo, for sure. “So, Kotone-chan, when will we go to Tartarus again?”

“Maybe in a day or two, I don’t know,” she shrugs truthfully, finishing her bowl – and still feeling empty, goddamnit – before leaning back against her chair. Aragaki is watching her with curiosity more than anything, so she just smiles and looks at Ryoji, who simply enjoys talking and nothing more. “Why do you ask?”

“Nothing,” he grins. “I just want to know, since Makoto’s obviously too shy to ask himself.”

“Or too scared,” she mutters darkly under her breath.

If Ryoji hears that, he doesn’t mention it, because he lets out a hearty laugh as he gets up, waving at her and then bowing at Aragaki. “I’m off, then. See you two later!”

“Yeah, see you!”

What she couldn’t see from the corner of her eyes is Aragaki’s gaze following Ryoji’s back, a looking of discomfort settling clear into his feature as he mutters something she couldn’t hear under his breath.

“Aren’t you going to join one of the clubs?”

Ryoji asks from beside him as he takes a small, careful sip from the syrup morphine in hands. It’s been a week since they first raided the hospital, and god, he really misses sleep. All the sleeping pills and fucking antidepressants, of all things, couldn’t even knock the lights out of him. The best they manage to do so far is to make him feel slightly dizzy and nauseous, which in and of themselves do more harm than good to his mental health and the situation at large.

He looks at Ryoji, who’s half-smiling and half-demanding that he does something for once. Instead of locking yourself away from the joy of life, he said. While he’d like nothing more than to disagree, he finds himself relenting to Ryoji’s logic, one that is a polar opposite from his own; if he’s going to have to die anyway (something Ryoji often says is not set in stone, but also something he grimly accepts as Makoto’s way of thoughts), why not give this life a little happiness (ha, as if he could achieve that anymore) while he waits for the end to come?

He sighs, in the end, stowing the bottled morphine back into his pants’ pocket and straightening up. Ryoji takes the cue and follows him towards the club rooms – he’s already joined Kendo for the sake of training and nothing more, trying his damn best not to stand out in the process – where people start to flock around three of the doors. “Alright, fine, you win.”

Ryoji’s smile widen at this, a sad tinge failing to escape Makoto’s gaze fully still. But he doesn’t mention it as Ryoji tilts his head to the side. “Last time, I think you joined the photography club, right? Which one do you want this time?”

If it’s going to be his last cycle he hopes it’s his last he just wants to die godda then he supposes he should go for something that has always been his sole escape in Ryoji’s absence; with the notes drawn into shapes of his own heart and songs sung through the voice of the world. “…Music club, probably. I did learn both violin and piano when I was a child.”

“…What made you stop?” Before you restart it when the time loop begins? Ryoji says and does not say, the question clear enough to be understood even with the lack of spoken words.

He smiles slightly, the tinge of pain he hasn’t felt for so long seeping into his ribs and tugging at his heart. He allows it to stay there for but a moment before he shrugs. “When my parents died.”

“…Oh,” Ryoji murmurs, placing a careful hand on his and squeezing it lightly. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s centuries too late for me to feel anything now,” he lies says, his brows furrowing just a little. “…Since it’s been years in this timeline, it’s going to take me a while to actually play what I was able to in cycles before this one.”

What surprises him is his partial retention of any motor skills he has acquired through the time loop; be it his ability to play piano or violins or guitar, or the ease he feels fighting up the Tower of Demise. He thinks he should have lost all of his muscle coordination when time folded into itself, because as far as the physical world and reality go, he should’ve been only sixteen years old without centuries of training to back his ability up. But somehow, he never fully lost his skills, never truly forgets his ability to translate thoughts into songs, his ability to fight like he used to—

“You’re thinking of that again, aren’t you?” Ryoji says knowingly as he nudges Makoto’s shoulder with his own, forcing him to walk towards the music room, with the sound of dissonant notes and various instruments piercing through the closed doors. “You really like thinking in circles, you know.”

“What’s new?” He replies, shrugging his shoulder slightly as he peers through the music’s club windows. As far as he knows, the music club has never been filled with people before, with only a dozen students interested in it at most. Keisuke would often shift between clubs in each and every loop – just like Kaz – for some unknown reason, and it would’ve been nice to have him in here, as someone he knows will not bother him for—

“Are you interested?” A familiar voice asks, and Makoto turns to see Keisuke – thank fuck – smiling at the two of them cordially, papers in hands. He spies Kotone watching him from afar with confusion, but does nothing to reply to her unspoken inquiry— “You can just come in and watch, if you want.”

“Thanks,” Ryoji says in his stead, slinging his arm over Makoto’s shoulder and grasping his arm gently, fingers nudging into his flesh and half-forcing him to join. He really doesn’t mind much, though; music club has always been his best escape, one that he gravitates to more than the rest, anyway— “Would it be alright for us to try out an instrument or two?”

“But of course!” Keisuke grins, ushering them both inside. Ryoji smiles back while Makoto simply retains his attention on the myriad of sound as Keisuke speaks. “Do you already know how to play?”

“Piano and violin,” he and Ryoji says simultaneously before the latter pushes him towards the white, lone grand piano. “Come on, Makoto. Try it.”

Ryoji usually allows him to do whatever the fuck he wants and never once does this. It must’ve been because he’s here with Makoto so early in the loop – one where the changes are most glaring – or maybe he’s fed up with his shit—

“Fine,” he rolls his eyes and shuffles his way to the instrument, its cool wood greeting his touch with a low hum. Orpheus stirs, delighted by this change, clearly. He decides to amuse his masks as much as he would Ryoji as he sifts through his memories for a song that would help with warming up his muscles. His mind remembers, his muscles do not (well, not fully, anyway).

“Can I borrow a violin?” Ryoji asks.

“Of course! Let’s see…” Keisuke hums, ruffling through the stacks of boxed instruments. He finally pulls one out and hands it to Ryoji, who carefully fiddles with its bow and its string. “Here. Are you two duet players of sort?”

“You could say that,” Ryoji shrugs easily. “You can start ahead, Makoto. It’s going to take me a while, since I’m not used to this,” not as much as you do. And I know you’re itching to play.

Makoto snorts, but decides to comply, closing his eyes and selecting a song from his older, hazier times. His mother loved music and its interpretation; something that somehow both he and Kotone inherited, and he remembers well the song she loved the most – Liebesfreud, Love’s Joy.

He only frowns. She had always been the romantic one, as far as he’s aware, always so kind and upbeat. But to him, since before, he had always liked the other song better, one with an opposite meaning.

“Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Liebesleid it is, then,” he murmurs, then cuts off the rest of the world.

The song itself, translated as Love’s Sorrow, used to hold a significant meaning between him and Ryoji in the very first cycle, where they were fated to be enemies, to fight each other to the death. The bitter realization that their love won’t last, that one of them – or both – will have to perish a persistent and terrifying note in the back of his head. But with each loop, each cycle, the song itself loses parts of its meaning, instead it becomes somewhat of a comfort when he’s alone, cold and resentful from the bonds lost through time.

He sighs to himself, trying his best not to think. Thinking is a habit developed after years of isolation, of watching them lived their lives as he prowled around the edge, not caring enough wanting to hurt them again. Instead, he narrows down his focus, humming quietly along the melody as he meticulously carves the notes into the air, careful not to let any of his emotions seep into them—

“Keep playing,” Ryoji whispers, and he turns to see the subject of his infatuation – his love, his joy, his sorrow – smiling at him. The bitter taste of vile emotions is forgotten as he sees the boy who was supposed to disappear here with him, now as someone who he may finally be able to save— “Don’t think about it, Makoto. Keep playing.”

He hums in acknowledgement, and soon enough, the sound of violin registers.

Makoto decides to do half of what he’s told; he doesn’t switch the version of the song, but improvises away a part of the melody to let Ryoji’s own sound fits in.

Playing music is such a pleasure, is it not? Orpheus comments, and Makoto finds himself laughing, fingers hovering and pressing on the keys softly. Playing music and gracing his senses with the notes are always something he loves doing, as a way to find peace, as a way to pass the time. A duet even more so. A duet is an exchange between two musicians; a love confession, an argument, a brawl, an understanding. What kind of exchange are the Universe and Death having, I wonder?

Makoto glances at Ryoji, who only smiles at him as he continues to move the bow with precision, sharp movement with softened edge and even gentler sound made along each twitch of the muscle, each exhale of breath. He lets the song flow for a moment before he replies with a whisper; a declaration of love. Or just a conversation to fill in the silence. Or both.

Marvelous, Orpheus hums, plucking his lyre to join in their closed-off world and becoming the foundation in which their music could grow. When Makoto laughs, Ryoji does, too, Orpheus’ play clearing heard and understood. It has been so many cycles that you last entertained yourself with the sound of your own heart. Let me add to it, if you would, dear Seeker.

“Why do you all call me a Seeker?” Makoto asks, and when Orpheus replies with only a chuckle, leans over to Ryoji, ignoring the looks from the other students and oblivious to the absence of any dissonance that should’ve come within the walls of the practice room. “Do you want to continue?”

Liebesleid, sadly, is a short song. And Makoto doesn’t really want to break this spell between them. Ryoji seems to think the same, because the boy nods as he turns fully to him. They pause for a moment when the rest in the scroll allows them to. “I’d love to. Any particular song in mind?”

Orpheus, ever the musician, ever so helpful, interjects. Chopin’s Nocturne in c sharp minor, perhaps?

“Mhm, that sounds nice,” Ryoji replies. “Shall we, then?”

Makoto smiles and nods before allowing the song from the stars to carry his mind off of the world, at least, for this moment.

(Playing music here like this, where he doesn’t have to think about his pain and his worries and his fear his mission to die, he feels free. Freer than ever before, freer than when he chooses to die over and over to escape from the pain save his friends and family.

It feels nice, to at least find a sliver of solace in between all of this.)

One thing he’ll never get over is how fast Mitsuru is at arranging things he’d often deem impossible to accomplish in record amount of time.

Then again, he supposes his little recluse with Ryoji in the music club might not have been the most… subtle thing he’d ever done.

Still.

“I’m not even going to begin asking questions,” Ryoji speaks both their minds as Makoto walks over to inspect the piano innocently placed in the lounge, its dark, well-polished body and the gold engravings of the name Steinway and Sons on the side ones of many tell-tale signs of how much Mitsuru is willing to do – and has paid for – … whatever it is that she’s aiming for with this.

The coffee table and the sofas have all been slightly rearranged closer to the TV, the cabinet to the side moved nearer to the kitchen, and the piano has completely blocked the window by the entrance. Before Makoto could open his mouth to comment on the absurdity of her action, Mitsuru says, arms loosely crossed. “I have not played piano in a while, so this is a good investment in my eyes.”

“…I see?” Makoto says, more of a question than a proclamation. “Won’t this disturb the others, though?”

“The rooms are made to be soundproof both ways; in and out,” Mitsuru replies, sitting on the stool and adjusting the seat a bit. “And I’m certain a musician of your caliber can and will control the volumes in the face of others, would you not?”

That’s not the point, Makoto barely stops himself from saying. He fidgets slightly, still unsure what exactly spurs Mitsuru to do such a thing out of the blue, but decides against questioning anything else further. Because, the changes made by Kotone aside, she will talk only when she wants or needs to, with not a sway in the world that could change her mind. So, instead, he accepts this rather alarming fact with a nod. “…Yes. I suppose so.”

“We could play duets!” Ryoji suddenly exclaims, and briefly, Makoto thinks he sees that little light bulb popping up over his head. When he frowns, the boy just laughs. “What? I know you love it, otherwise you wouldn’t have put up with me for four hours—”

“Alright, you’ve made your point,” he groans, exasperated at Ryoji’s particular proclivity for spontaneous and blatant mentioning of his inner thoughts. Not in front of anyone else, thank you— “I don’t know. We’ll see,” if I want to touch this thing here, he says.

Ryoji seems unbothered by this – a surprise, seeing just how hung up he was about the state of Makoto’s mind and his insistence about his involvement with social gatherings of any kind in the past week – as he slings his arms over Makoto’s shoulders. “If you say so. Should we head back to our safe haven, then?”

He rolls his eyes, but nods in agreement, not bothering to give Mitsuru a proper goodbye.

What are you afraid of? some voice within him growls, and he thinks he must’ve hallucinated a pair of crimson eyes looking at him from his own shadow. Are you afraid of making bonds because they’ll hurt you? They would hurt, wouldn’t they? That’s why you’re running away from yourself.

Makoto frowns, stepping onto the blood-red eyes and leaving it to melt away under the sole of his feet. Of course not. He’s not afraid of pain lair lair lair or anything involving bonds. He just doesn’t want to be hurt by them the SEES to suffer anymore.

“…You know,” Ryoji suddenly says, his voice velveteen and calming as it always has been as he holds the door open for Makoto. When they both step into the room, Ryoji smiles, lighter than the whole month combined. “When you get lost in the notes and the songs, you look and feel just like how you were centuries ago. I quite like that.”

“…What do you mean?” He tilts his head to the side.

“You look… at peace,” Ryoji says, taking his hands and pulling him to the bed before seating him on it, Ryoji himself taking the spot beside him. “Serene. It has been so long since I’ve last seen you like that.”

He leans on Ryoji’s shoulder, feeling the boy breathe under his cheek, feeling the way the fingertips of his other hand map away at his knuckles and his palms. He isn’t sure what he should think about what Ryoji just said, but he supposes that it is a good thing to be at peace when he himself isn’t quite sure of what kind of feeling he was having at the moment exactly. “Is that so?”

“Mhm,” Ryoji murmurs. “It is a good look on you.”

“Thank yourself for that, then,” Makoto muses. “You’re the one who convinced me to start playing it again, so all the credits go to you.”

“It’s you who make the final decision, so I’d say it’s a group effort,” Ryoji laughs lightly, the strained note barely audible under the joy – of seeing Makoto at peace, he should think – lacing his voice. Ryoji then cards his fingers through Makoto’s hair, and if it had been a month ago, he could fall asleep just like this, right here. Instead, he still remains wide awake, and sleep won’t come to him tonight, or the next, or the next either— “I’m glad it could help, at least. Did it help?”

He pauses to think, then nods. “I think so. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

If Ryoji wants to say anything more, he doesn’t speak up, instead holding him closer, allowing him to forget the approaching Full Moon for the night.

(What he doesn’t know now, is that the upcoming Full Moon would break his world apart and make him realize just how far he has fallen, just how much sin he’s had within his soul, dyed black with his own weaknesses and his mistakes.)

Notes:

Mitsuru best friendo uvu

Next chapter is going to be a lot of pain, so be prepared!

Also twin reconcilation in 6 chapters!!!!!! Hope you're ready for that :D

Chapter 8: Remembering Thine Sins

Summary:

When he thinks things are getting a little bit better, July happens.

He is reminded of why he needs to die, reminded of all the sins he has commited, the wrongs he had done.

Notes:

Hello! I'm hereeeee! This is me post night-shift, so if there's any typos, feel free to point out and I'll get to it as soon as I can!

aside from that, the hurt is here. You could probably see from the summary lmao.

Go have fun (?) then!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

It takes Kotone almost three days later to learn that no, the reason Mitsuru bought a grand piano into their living room is not because of her own whim, but because of Makoto.

She’s heard about what he and Ryoji did in the club room, of course, but she was with Saori back then in the quiet corner of the infirmary, so she didn’t hear much of what they had played back then. And when she inquired Ryoji about it – because Makoto was being as antisocial and avoidant as always – the boy only shrugged and smiled, but said nothing more.

Today marks the end of June and the start of July, with the Full Moon looming at the far horizon. Kotone isn’t too worried, though; the team is very strong, especially with Mitsuru and Aragaki both on board. All that manages to make her the slightest bit nervous is the fact that Makoto would sometimes just freeze up without so much as a notice, or even worse, stumble without anything to trigger his fall.

He seems almost too pale the higher into Tartarus they climb, and at first, Kotone chalked it up as only a temporary problem of him being antisocial. But he looks sick most of the time they climb Tartarus, and with Mitsuru suddenly tolerating him more than she already was, Kotone could only surmise that there must’ve been something going on that she isn’t aware of, that Mitsuru deems necessary to intervene to such a degree.

She yawns – there is no point thinking about any of that. It’s only a few days off before their mission, and she should be sleeping; instead, she finds herself wide awake in her room, eyes glued to the horizon, to the canvas of stars and universe beyond it. As much as she’d like to deny it, she and Makoto still, to this day, share a certain thing in common – their now inability to fall asleep properly.

(God, how she misses staying in his room during the night, talking nonsense and sharing music. She just couldn’t stomach going to see him so cold, to see him so hostile. And she’s so angry at him calling her a fool for not understanding him. How could she, when he’s no longer the brother she knows?)

She groans and hits the pillow, bolting to sit up with a small frown that keeps deepening further when she still couldn’t find any tiredness in her bones when there should be one – she’d been going at it on the tennis court with Rio for hours, for Christ’s sake.

In the end, she just gets up and makes her way down the steps. Maybe eating would help her fall asleep (it’s not that she doesn’t care about weight, she just doesn’t care enough), or maybe just screwing around with whoever might be awake during three in the morning would help. Kotone sighs again, cursing her infrequent but annoying insomnia – one that started when Makoto began to ignore her – as she walks down the steps with—

“Aren’t you supposed to play this part with the pedal?”

Ryoji’s voice comes through, and Kotone almost jumps over the last few steps when she catches sight of Makoto on the piano’s seat, one hand on the keys while the other tracing along the lines of the slightly weathered musical sheets before him. Makoto pauses for a moment, then plays a passage softly as he hums along. She isn’t as musically-inclined as Makoto is, but the sound seems so… serene, so right, that she has to decide to stop and listen instead of going back up or walking over.

(Afraid to disturb his rare moment of peace.)

“No,” Makoto says, and repeats the passage again, this time without the pedal. “If you use the pedal, you’re going to bundle up all the notes. You should instead hold the melodies with your little finger as you play the chord with your thumb and middle finger. See?”

“But the chord would be short and curt like that, wouldn’t it?” Ryoji asks, tilting his head to the side and resting his chin on the crown of Makoto’s head, both arms hugging her brother from behind. She feels like she should just leave them to their privacy, but—

“That’s why you keep your fingers pressed for as long as the scroll dictates. Here—” Makoto plays the same passage again, making a point of holding down his fingers for the lower notes to stretch out until another takes their places. “—You don’t lift them right away.”

“The slow parts are actually harder than the fast ones, huh?” Ryoji laughs lightly, leaning forward despite Makoto’s grunts of protest as he mimics what Makoto’s just played. Kotone sidles forward and into the kitchen, staying as quiet as she could as to not be noticed. “Like this?”

“Mhm,” Makoto hums softly, a small, gentle smile on his face. She feels like she’s never seen it like that once, even before coming here; the smile is definitely kind, but there’s something else in there, too. Like a sense of regret, or— “We have never played piano duets before, have we?”

“I don’t think so?” Ryoji says, tilting his head to the side slightly again. “I mean, I only had one month with you on each of any other cycles, and we mostly just… hung out and about, since our times were even more limited than now.”

She pauses, peering from the edge of the pillar and listening closer. What is Ryoji talking about? Any other cycles? Only have one month? What does he mean by our times were even more limited than now?

Makoto sighs, his smile disappearing, replaced by a thoughtful frown. His eyes shift between the keys under his fingertips and the sheets before him, and he reaches a hand to hold onto Ryoji’s arm, tight like clinging onto a lifeline. Makoto then scoffs, closing his eyes and pulling Ryoji’s arm slightly upward before burying his nose into the crook of Ryoji’s elbow. “Why do you have to remind me.”

“Sorry,” Ryoji murmurs, dotting a soft kiss to his temple before pulling back, sliding into the piano stool and pushing Makoto slightly to the right. “What did you bring with you, then?”

It’s a forced change of the subject, judging from how overly bubbly Ryoji suddenly becomes within the span of two seconds, but Makoto seems to appreciate it, because he nods with a small, tired smile as he shifts a few sheets forward. He clears his throat then gestures at the music scroll before him. “I found the four hands arrangement for Libertango, so…”

“A tango? Really?” Ryoji beams. “So, who play what part?”

“Whatever is fine,” Makoto says, rubbing the bridge of his nose as he yawns. It’s only then that Kotone notices the bags under his eyes and the way his body shudders just minutely. Ryoji pauses at this, his back straightening up as he glances Makoto’s way.

“…Are you okay?”

“Of course not,” Makoto mutters, bitter and angry, his voice filled with resentment for something Kotone doesn’t understand. As long as she’s known him, he rarely got angry – rarely ever showed any emotions – with all he ever showed at times just his trademark barely-noticeable smiles. But now, it felt like he’s a different person entirely since the beginning of April, so much further than she could reach— “How am I supposed to be okay when I can’t even close my eyes for a few minutes without—”

At that, he cuts himself off, slamming his hand onto the back of the piano and sending a resounding thud across the silenced dormitory.

“…Sorry,” Makoto shakes his head, the cold fury melting away into nothingness as he cradles his head in his hands. Kotone feels something in her stir; unease, perhaps, with worry mingling in, too. “I didn’t mean to lash out at you like that.”

“It’s okay,” Ryoji replies easily, reaching for Makoto’s hand and holding it before standing up, pulling her brother along. “We should head back to our room. I’ll give you a massage?”

“…Sure,” Makoto mutters. “I wish you could put me to sleep. Or death. You’re Nyx Avatar, for fuck’s sake.”

Those words make no sense to her, but his too casual remark of wanting to be put to death almost makes her wince. And what’s Nyx Avatar? Why would he want—

“Makoto, I’m not going to do that again if I can help it,” Ryoji says tersely, kissing the back of Makoto’s hand before placing his fingertips under Makoto’s chin, forcing his eyes up. “I loathe every moment I spent fighting you to the death. I’m not doing that again.”

“I know,” Makoto sighs, closing his eyes and looking far too pained for Kotone to bear. What are they talking about? Why does her brother want to— “I’m just tired of this. How many times do I have to die to make things right for once?”

Kotone frowns. He speaks as if he’s died more than once. But that’s not possible, so maybe he’s meaning death as in spiritual death? Or emotional death? Or—

“Stop thinking about that,” Ryoji murmurs, pulling his hand back and smiling gently down at the other boy, with his eyes as kind as it is broken. “Please? Let’s just try to get back to sleep. We’ll think about the Fall and the Seal and whatever else later only when they require our attentions.”

Makoto breathes heavily and nods. “…Okay. Okay.”

When the boys speak no further (about nonsense she knows absolutely nothing about), Kotone quietly retreats away from sight after a moment (when the atmosphere is getting thick and unbearable), only to hit her hips against the chair in the kitchen. The next beat of silence that follows is almost suffocating, so she decides to peek over the corner, to see the both of them looking at her, slightly startled. She offers them a smile instead, making sure to look as though she has only just arrived. “Hey there!”

“…Hey,” Ryoji says, reluctant, eyeing her with distrust that is so not in his character for but a moment before he smiles brightly, wiping whatever expression he is sporting away completely. He pulls away from Makoto and walks over to her, all the while straining his smile so much that it almost snaps. “Why are you down here so late?”

“Can’t sleep,” she bemoans, acting just as bubbly as she always is around everyone else. She spies Makoto from the corner of her eyes, his expression so done and so exhausted— “What about the two of you?”

“Same,” Ryoji says easily, shoulders rolling down just a little more. It seems like they don’t seem to want any of them to hear that talk about cycles – something that still doesn’t make a lick of sense – but with the way he relaxes slightly, it seems like Ryoji doesn’t believe that she’s been eavesdropping on them. Or heard them, for that matter. “If you’re here, why don’t we fix ourselves some warm cups of chocolate?”

Makoto opens his mouth instantly, only to stop, his eyes glazed over for a moment. In the end, he sighs and hums. “Fine.”

Her brother then walks past her – without so much as acknowledging her existence, again, but instead of feeling frustrated, she feels like there’s more to it than just him being a dick – and sits on the table with his head in his hands. Ryoji’s smile twitches briefly because of that, but he recovers just as fast, gesturing for her to take her own seat. “Are you nervous about the Full Moon?”

“Not really,” Kotone shrugs, truthful. It’s not like the Full Moon doesn’t concern her, but what she just saw, Ryoji and Makoto talking about something she couldn’t understand, concerns her more. “I think we’re strong enough to take the Shadows on.”

Makoto mutters something under his breath, too soft for her to hear. If Ryoji does, he doesn’t recite it as he goes over to the counter to start making three cups of chocolate for them. “Well, insomnia can happen sometimes. It’s rare for you to come down at this hour, though.”

“You said as if you came down here at three in the morning a lot,” Kotone comments jokingly.

But instead of laughing it off, Ryoji smiles, rueful and dark, the edge of his lips twitching as his eyes rest upon his hands. Kotone feels her breath hitch when Ryoji chuckles, mirthless and flat. “You could say that. We’re just a couple of insomniacs in need of sleep.”

She looks to her brother again. “You too, Makoto?”

Makoto doesn’t deign her with even a response, but the silence itself is all the confirmation that she needs – and while she knows from Mitsuru that the heiress had met with Makoto in the middle of the night once or twice, Kotone had always assumed that it’s just sporadic episodes of sleeplessness.

Something tells her that this has everything to do with him wanting to die and Nyx Avatar and whatnot.

She decides to keep those thoughts to herself, for now, and enjoys a warm cup of chocolate provided by the boy who suddenly looks a lot less human, with his blue eyes glowing like the radiant stars themselves.

She finds herself looking up about Nyx, who turns out to be the goddess of the night from Greco-Roman mythologies, in the school library the day after.

(This was one of those times where she hated Igor’s cryptic smile. The Velvet Room exists to help the ‘guest’ that has signed the contract, so why couldn’t he help with this, too?

And she hates it even more when Igor’s ever-lasting grin faltered, and then Theo smiled apologetically at her as Igor left her with only a few words;

“I pray for your success, Kotone-san.”

What did he mean by that? What’s going on?)

She herself never found fascinations in mythologies before coming here, since all of them are merely old folks’ interpretations of the nature they did not understand. But reading up the names of her Personas may or may not have acquainted her with many a folklore, since Personas are born from the Sea of Souls, and from what Eurydice once told her, the Sea is the congregation of the hearts of men.

There is no such thing as Nyx Avatar for her to find in any translation of the old tomes, neither is there a mention of Nyx having an avatar in Hesiod or Orphic version of things, but Nyx herself is widely regarded as one of the primordial gods – the daughter of Primordial Chaos. There are twelves of such primordial, and one of them is actually Tartarus, the underworld itself.

(She only feels it, but does not notice right away the strangeness when she reads a certain name, one that keeps erasing itself from her mind whenever her attention slips. The name is of one of the Primordial Gods, too, and oh, it would take her a long time to realize that the name never sticks, and why it is so.)

She sighs and snaps the fifth tome she’s gone through and shoves it back into the shelf without much care. She couldn’t find anything regarding Nyx Avatar, only Nyx as the mother night, and the primordial gods mentioned in Hesiod mythology, and… that’s it. She slowly makes her way out of the library as she thinks back to what she heard the two said the day before, of wishing that Ryoji could put him to death.

His Arcana is Death… is this a coincidence? She doesn’t think so.

But still, without anything to work with except for the snippets of conversations caught between rare moments, between their bubbles of privacy she had intruded, there is no way for her to look more into this. And since the Full Moon is coming, she’d rather not think too hard about it – at least, not until she knows more, not until there’s something else that would guide her towards the answers she seeks.

She thinks all of this has something to do with Makoto’s sudden change in demeanor and Ryoji’s kind but mysterious appearance.

“You are here quite late, Kotone,” Mitsuru’s voice calls, and Kotone quickly smiles up at her as the senior approaches her with a stack of books she’s not going to even begin to name in her embrace. “It’s almost seven already. The library will close soon.”

“Same goes for you, Mitsuru-senpai,” Kotone replies with a grin, and when she manages to draw out a half-smile from Mitsuru, giggles. “You usually go back to the dorm by like, five thirty, at most. What gives? And that’s a lot of books.”

“Ah, this?” Mitsuru says as they check out with the librarian. Kotone quickly makes a detour to grab her bag and jogs after Mitsuru, who slows her stride to wait for her. “I’m just doing a little research of my own. There is nothing for you to worry about.”

“What kind of research? Can I take a look?” Kotone says, leaning forward to look at the books’ spines, only to pout in disappointment when nothing but leathers greet her eyes. “Aw, no book titles on the spine? Really, Mitsuru-senpai?”

Her senior chuckles at her antics – something Kotone actually takes pride in – as she hands her one of the books. And color her surprise when she finds a subject so very familiar to her in there; mythologies, of all things. When she looks up, the older girl simply smiles. “There is something I am curious about, after all. For example; who truly is Orpheus?”

“…You’re looking into Makoto,” Kotone says with a frown, recalling the sudden interest Mitsuru takes in her brother, cold and distant and hateful. But Orpheus, who is a part of him, is so warm and gentle and kind, so it makes her wonder what is the real him and what is not, too— “Why?”

“How do I explain this…?” Mitsuru says, weighing her speech in her mouth as if she’s afraid of being seen as insane in her reasonings. But when Kotone gives her the best puppy-eye she could manage, the heiress chuckles, clearly amused, before her expression turns a little more solemn. “…I don’t know why, but for some reason, looking at Yuuki… it makes me feel nostalgic, as if looking at an old friend. Do you perhaps have that kind of thought as well?”

“…No,” Kotone shakes her head with a frown. Makoto seems even more not Makoto the longer her little conversation with Mitsuru is going, and no, it’s not fear or contempt or jealousy she’s feeling – it just feels like something is off, that she’s missing something important. “…Since coming to Iwatodai, I feel like everything I’ve ever known about him just suddenly does not make sense. What you said just make me even more curious, not to mention what I’ve heard.”

“What have you heard?” Mitsuru inquires.

She debates with herself for a moment, but decides to tell Mitsuru – while she seems outwardly cold, the heiress is by no means a bad person. She cares in her own way, awkward as she is, and Kotone knows she’s not going anywhere doing this alone. “…I woke up in the middle of the night the day before, and caught Makoto and Ryoji-kun talking about… something, I don’t know. They spoke weird, for one, and Makoto called Ryoji Nyx Avatar?

Mitsuru frowns. “I am aware that Nyx is the goddess of the night in Greco-Roman mythology. But I believe I have never heard any mention of an Avatar before.”

“That’s what I was looking for in there,” Kotone says, glancing back at the direction of the library. “I was hoping you might know.”

“…There might be something in the Kirijou Group’s archive,” she confesses. “I will look into it later on.”

“Thank you, Senpai,” Kotone smiles, giggling mostly to herself as she gets into her senior’s personal space – and somehow gets away with it – with her hands hooked into Mitsuru’s elbow. “You’re the best!”

Mitsuru smiles and shifts the book in her arms to pat her head, the feeling not at all nostalgia, but nice all the same.

“Why must it be in a love hotel, of all places!?”

Kotone, sadly, has to agree with Yukari on this one – Fuuka detects a single Shadow, the Hierophant, in this place, which is creepy as all hell.

But she feels more than just that tension whenever they’re facing powerful Shadows – she feels weird and heavy, each breath smelling like tar and disease and corruption lying in wait. The Priestess never did this, nor did the Emperor and the Empress. But she thinks she remembers this feeling, looking into the hundred-eye Shadow that spawned from the crumbling remains of the Emperor and the Empress in the last full moon.

Her first instinct is to look at Makoto, who is cradling his head in his hands, she notes – Ryoji is looking at him worriedly from time to time, but doesn’t make any attempt to alert this to the rest of the group. She watches a little longer, and soon enough knows why – Makoto takes a moment to fiddle inside his pants’ pocket, and pulls out a crumbled drug panel before popping one pill loose then swallowing it dry.

His face is still pale, but he’s no longer folding into himself, no longer sweating as if he’s in great pain, so she supposes it should be alright, for now. She decides to leave him be as she checks with the team one last time before going in. “Alright, you guys ready?”

“Not really, but the faster we deal with it, the better,” Yukari voices her thought, shuddering slightly again at the sight of the love hotel under the vileness of the Dark Hour. “Whenever you want to, Kotone-chan.”

“Alright, let’s go, then.”

Their trek through the darkened love hotel is met with little to no resistance, with both Ryoji and Fuuka confirming the presence of a Shadow – a Hierophant – at the topmost floor with barely any noteworthy Shadows within the vicinity. She finds it odd, but then again, the Emperor and Empress didn’t come at them with an army of darklings—

“…Wait a second, you guys,” Ryoji suddenly calls, holding up his hand to signal a stop, his eyes trialing up towards the ceiling and beyond it. His feature holds some form of discomfort and confusion in it, and when Kotone looks at Makoto – whose brows are scrunched up in a silent question – she knows that something must’ve been really off.

“What is it, Ryoji-kun?” Kotone asks, with Aragaki coming to her side, his axe heavy and ready in his grip.

“I…” Ryoji begins, only to trail off into himself, glancing towards Makoto once before looking straight at her, shaking his head and pressing a finger to his forehead. “…I’m sorry, it’s just… it feels weird, is all, as if something’s watching us.”

“I don’t detect something of the sort, but I do feel that there’s more than just the Hierophant in this place – perhaps there’s another powerful Shadow here?” Fuuka voices, placing a careful hand on Ryoji’s arm. The boy only smiles at her as the girl looks around again. “But it feels a little hazy, so I’m not too sure…”

“We’ll just have to proceed with caution,” Kotone says, looking at Mitsuru and nodding at her, to which the heiress nods in return. “Call if you detect anything at all.”

Unease stirs within her when she looks at Makoto again, and for a moment, she sees the shadow of something vile and dangerous hugging onto his shoulders. But when she blinks, it disappears.

She decides to push the image to the back of her mind for now, and focuses on the present.

(Oh, and how wrong she was to not stop him or question him or even accompany him through the hotel, and she’ll come to regret it not long after this.)

Kotone wakes up to the sound of running shower.

Granted, she is pretty sure they ran into something at the top floor, before they even faced the Hierophant Shadow. But her memories seem to just cut themselves to black, only to come back to her in bits and pieces when she sits up.

She’s… in one of the hotel rooms, probably, on the heart-shaped bed, with her armband, her Evoker, and her MP3 left lying beside her. Kotone cocks her head questioningly, since she doesn’t remember herself pulling all of her equipment off of her.

The shower stops, and she turns as the door creaks open; and come walking out of it is a very much half-naked, very much dripping wet (and oh he’s so fucking hot) Aragaki, with only a towel around his waist as the sole protection from the cold, dread-saturated air.

She stares at him (or ogling at him?), seeing his eyes murky and unfocused, hearing distantly a strange voice of something that is certainly not any of her Personas – but somehow, the voice does not get any louder than a whisper. It is as if it’s being pushed away by something, and the tingling warmth at the tip of her fingers and the hum of the lyre that is not Eurydice’s own tell her enough—

Orpheus? she asks absently, reaching for her Evoker and approaching Aragaki with a degree of reluctance and caution.

I am here with you, dear girl, Orpheus hums softly, but she notices something in his voice – a sense of urgency, and a feeling of anxiety unbecoming of the showman she’s seen a month ago. And, as if sensing her unsaid question, the bard hums again. My dear Seeker… disappeared. I cannot connect to him. Please, help me find him quickly.

“Makoto? Disappeared?” she asks, leaning forward just slightly to face Aragaki, who blinks once, twice, before the twinkling light of consciousness returns to his eyes. “…Hello there, Aragaki-senpai!”

The man blinks again, looks her up and down before looking down at himself and his clothing (or lack thereof), before a furious blush surges through his face. “Oh shit, what the actual fuck—

“Probably Shadows, Senpai,” she says, whistles, before commenting with a grin. “You’re pretty stacked.”

“Shut up,” Aragaki groans, rolling his eyes and slapping her head softly. “If you can joke waking up like this in the middle of a fucking Dark Hour, then you’re fucking fine. I’m going to get dressed.”

“Sure!” she chirps, taking one last look at him before she refocuses herself, trying to feel Fuuka – since, if anyone’s going to be exempted from whatever has just happened, it’s probably her. “Fuuka, you there?”

“Yes! It took me quite a while to reach you!” Fuuka exclaims, the sigh of relief escaping her lips. “Are you alright? And Aragaki-senpai, too?”

“We’re okay,” she nods, feeling Orpheus’ tender flame running up her spine. Aragaki looked like he was under some kind of influence, and she supposes Orpheus kept her from being overwhelmed. Still, what is this sense of unease? “…What about the others?”

“We’re all here—” Ryoji is the one to respond, and his voice – one that should’ve been cheery and lack any kind of negative emotions – is strained. She could hear the frown on his face and the anxiety on his tongue. “But Makoto disappeared. Fuuka-san and I can’t find him anywhere, and since we’re all scattered because of the Shadows, I’m reluctant to go find him on my own.

“We should find him first before we tackle the Shadows, then,” she reasons, garnering an approving hum from Orpheus. She feels something odd in the way Orpheus sings his notes, but doesn’t question it much as she gathers her things back onto her person, with her MP3 snuggly on her chest again, and the holster of the Evoker across her hips. “How many are there?”

“Two. Hierophant and Lovers,” Ryoji replies curtly. “…I say we tackle the Shadows first. The hotel is large, and the walls seem more warped than they first appear. If we go about this blind, we might lose our chance to destroy the Shadows. We cannot risk more people going into Apathy Syndrome like that.

She pauses to think – there’s this foreboding feeling that doing as Ryoji said might make something break, might screw up something beyond repair, but he is right; if they waste too much time looking for Makoto when the Shadows are still amok, there’s a good chance they’ll waste too much time. Destroying the Shadows first seems like a sound call.

“You have a point. Gather everyone and point us to where the Shadows are, Fuuka,” Kotone orders, and sees Aragaki coming out from the shower, having clearly heard her conversation with the others.

“Mochizuki, I’ll go look for ‘im,” Aragaki offers, looking at her as if to find any resistance. When she doesn’t offer him any form of rejection, the man continues. “Better be safe than sorry. I’ll go look for ‘im, the rest of you can focus on the Shadows.”

“In that case, let me go with you,” Ryoji says, a stark contrast to his standing earlier. But then again, Makoto is his significant other, as far as she’s aware (and a Nyx Avatar, something that makes her think he’ll do just fine, even by himself), so it’s only fair. He’s just looking out for the rest of them, after all— “If you are alright with this, Fuuka-san.”

“I’ll be alright, you don’t need to worry,” Fuuka affirms. “I’ll guide the rest of you to the Shadows, so be prepared, alright? Good luck out there, Aragaki-senpai, Ryoji-kun.

“He’s still my brother, even if he’s kind of a dick,” she says, a little unsure, drawing Aragaki’s eyes to her. “I’m worried, too. So find him quickly, and tell me everything that happens, okay?”

“You have my word,” Aragaki nods. “Good luck with the Shadows, Kotone.”

“Likewise, Senpai.”

When Makoto stirs awake, he finds himself on the bed, his body hot and cold, his breath short, and his focus wavering and hazy, at best.

He knows the Lovers Shadow must be the one behind this, and he’s already made sure that he’s properly prepared for such an assault, with the Persona from the Black Compendium at the ready in the back of his eyelids. But he couldn’t recall how he ended up here, lying on the bed, feeling like he’s going through a terrible fever and drunken on despair and resentment.

He sits up, trying to center himself. His Evoker is gone, stripped from his person and hung on the doorknob at the other end of the room. His sword is nowhere to be seen, and his connection to Ryoji feels weak and barely palpable – which, in and of itself, is never a good sign.

He thinks he hears Fuuka’s voice reaching out to him at the edge of his consciousness, but it’s staticky with not nearly enough coherency to be understood. And whenever he tries to focus on it, something rips her away and out of his reach.

(Something feels wrong, horribly wrong. And with the absence of the many voices that always accompany him wherever he goes, with the stillness of the Sea of Souls, it makes him that much more anxious, that much more terrified.)

When trying to make head and tail of his situation fails, he resorts to the next best thing he could think of; he tries to get up and look around, to see what else he could’ve done. He should at least get a hand on his Evoker, since he couldn’t possibly summon anyone like this without its aid—

You are as weak as you always have been.

He remembers the Lovers’ voice, sultry and velvet-like, which is the exact opposite of what he’s hearing – the voice that invades him this time is nothing but sadistic and raspy and cruel, the edge jagged and sharp like a knife. He has to wince into himself upon hearing it, feeling the sting in his ears and the way it sunders the air in his lungs.

He cradles his head in his hands, feeling the way thoughts of death and pain bleed into his head and decay off his rationality into soup of dark-gray sludge behind his eyelids. He finds himself unable to think straight, so he forces his thoughts through his mouth as he mutters, low and hoarse. “What are you?”

I am you, of course. Look up.

He does, and he wishes he hadn’t.

It’s him – an illusion, a manifestation from his mind, or something more twisted than just a mirage; it wears his face and his body, in the summer Gekkoukan’s uniform and SEES’ armband and his MP3 and headphones, all details as genuine as the real article. When he looks into the eyes of his own mirage, it’s not his usual color of steel-gray, but tinged with red that reminds him of something he couldn’t quite name, couldn’t fully place his fingers on—

“You spent centuries living, yet you remain the same. Worse, even,” the mirage mocks, a grin splitting the mirror of his face wide, crooked around the edges and sinister like the devil himself. Makoto tries to push himself off the bed, but there is no strength in his arms, nothing in which he could summon to confront his own imitation— “You’re so weak. So weak that you still have to rely on your bonds with others to thrive! And look what that get you! Pain, pain, pain, because no one could understand how you feel!”

“Shut up,” he groans, using all the air in his lungs to force himself off the bed, only to stumble to the ground, his vision spinning. He gathers his scattered thoughts back into himself, trying his hardest to ignore the mirage’s voice, only for it to get louder, louder, louder— “shut up, shut up, shut up!

“They’re annoying, aren’t they?” The mirage sneers, and suddenly, he’s sitting cross-legged on the chair in front of him, when seconds ago he was at the edge of the king-sized bed. Makoto grabs the round table and tries to push himself up, only to crumble to his knees again. “Yukari is an annoying bitch, Junpei is a brat without tact, and Mitsuru is so stuck up you couldn’t bear to be in her vicinity for a minute straight!”

“That’s not true,” he counters, only for a small part in him to say yes, yes, yes— “that’s not true! They’re my family, and they’re—”

“You hate them,” his counterfeit says, cold hand finding Makoto’s chin and tipping his face up, forcing him to look into those eyes, with ruby-light glowing behind the shine of his gray irises. “You hate that they don’t remember you. You hate that you tried to explain and they didn’t understand. You hate that they hate you! You want them gone as much as you do yourself, don’t you?”

“No, I don’t! I never want that!” He protests, only for the thing to release its grip from his chin and standing up, circling around his fallen from like a vulture. “I don’t hold a grudge against them. Never! I understand them. It’s not their fault—!”

“Do you really not remember what you did? After that time where your bonds broke and bent so much that you stopped caring?” it sneers, and pain sears through his skull like never before. “Do you not recall what you did to them, who abandoned you, who resented you for what you have no control over? Do you want me to show you what it is that you have forgotten?”

What could it possibly mean? What has he forgotten? What—

“You are me, and I am you,” the figment of his imagination says with a grin – is it his imagination anymore? Or something else entirely? – as it kneels down before Makoto, looking straight at him with his own face and talking to him with his own voice, twisted and vile and— “If you don’t remember, then I guess it’s my job to remind myself what I have forgotten.”

And before long, the only thing he could hear is his own scream as memories after memories come flooding back into his senses, drowning out everything else.

“I can’t believe we just did that. I can’t fucking believe we just did that!”

Honestly, Kotone has to agree.

Fighting two Shadows at once really gave them a run for their money, and she isn’t even sure how they even managed, with the Lovers’ uncanny ability to manipulate their emotions, and Hierophant’s lightning strikes that hit as hard as Mitsuru’s slap – probably. Which does nothing to help her situation in the least, since Eurydice really hates lightning.

While Orpheus being with her instead of her brother is a concern in and of itself, his resistance to the Hierophant’s attack and his inability to be swayed by the Lovers – something odd, seeing that none of her Wild Card Personas could do both at this very moment – is what makes this fight a lot easier for her.

She couldn’t say the same for the rest of the team, though.

“Why!?” Yukari hisses, being struck by thunder so many times she could barely stand, and oh, Kotone felt it every time. “Why. Does it have. To put us. In pairs!

“I mean, Lovers?” Kotone says with a small smile, also fully aware that Yukari’s Social Link to her is also the Lovers. A little inside joke, if you will— “It’s kind of the point of that Arcana, actually—”

“Kotone, come on!

“At least we came out of it all mostly unscathed,” Mitsuru says as she clears her throat, a furious blush as scarlet as her hair adorning her cheeks. Her eyes land on Yukari, then back to Kotone, and oh, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what kind of stupid stunt the Lovers had pulled on them both. “Kotone, please stop looking at me like that. It’s making me uncomfortable.”

“Sorry not sorry,” she winks, seeing the way Mitsuru and Yukari are exchanging glances. She decides to keep herself from grilling them and look around again. “Well, while I’d like nothing more than to wait the rest of the Dark Hour out, we still haven’t heard from Ryoji-kun and Aragaki-senpai. Are you two there?”

“Yeah, we’re both here,” Aragaki grunts through the link Fuuka has established. “Either Yuuki is really, really good at hiding – which I’m not buyin’ – or this place is really fucked up.”

“We’ve combed through three stories during your time fighting, and we found nothing. Nothing,” Ryoji murmurs, tension and fear and everything he’s feeling bare in his voice. “And I— I don’t know, the— If he’s not here, then I don’t know where, and I’m scared—”

“Calm down, Mochizuki,” Mitsuru commands, even though a frown has crept up into her face. “We are on the fourth floor right now. You can meet us here, then we’ll help you find Yuuki.”

“Appreciated, Mitsuru-san,” Ryoji mutters, voice clipped. “We’ll meet you there.

She really doesn’t like how things are playing out, and somehow, she just knows it’s going to get much, much worse than this.

He killed them.

He killed them all, out of his own choice, over and over and over again—

“See how deranged you have become? How much hatred you harbor?” his other self mocks as he screams and cries into the floor, his voice unheard yet drowning out all thoughts and the calls from his Personas, leaving emptiness and pain and fear and his own resentment brewing up in his chest, the insidious flame of insanity creeping up his limbs by the seconds.

He remembered looking at Yukari and Junpei from behind after he’d fucked up his bonds so bad that he died with pain unimaginable, his resentment for them growing to a new height, making him see nothing but red, red, red

Yukari turned to ask something of him, and he recalled it, the way she looked at him with disgust before they ascended Tartarus the cycle before this current one, the way she begrudgingly healed his wounds even though he was in so much pain, and something in him just snapped, torn asunder by what she did, what he did—

And the next thing he knew, he was covered in blood, red and warm, their bodies in pieces with Orthrus’ fangs deep in whatever remains of their flesh and bones—

“You hate them, and you know it. You just choose to forget because of your attachment, your need of them,” the voice sneers at him, and he finds himself scrambling for something – his sword, somehow within his reach. But then, he hesitates when he brushes the steel of the blade, cold and hungry— “You want to do it again, don’t you? You want to kill them, get rid of them for good. Because what good are they, when they remember none of what you’ve sacrificed for their sakes?”

“No. No no no no no no nonononono,” he feels the strings of words leave his mouth, his hands clutching the blade so hard that the edge is wedge deep into his palms. He looks up at his own face, grinning down at him knowingly, before he lunges at it. “You don’t know me! You don’t know anything! Nothing!

He tackles his other self to the ground, the pounding headache and the unknown fever and the memories of when he had killed them making his arms shake with uncertainty. It’s undeniable at this point what he did, what he had done, with his blade in their hearts and his Personas following his every whim without question, scorching and tearing them to pieces—

He chokes back a sob as he holds the blade up, his other self not putting up any resistance and allowing him to straddle it (himself?) with a wide, wicked grin on its (his?) face. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you so keen on getting rid of me before? Or do you want to kill yourself? Or kill everyone and be done with it?”

He opens his mouth to answer, but he couldn’t find his voice, the only thing managing to come out a broken sob that he couldn’t stop no matter what he does. He grips the blade tighter, allowing the sting from the way the edge bites into his flesh to ground him somewhat to reality – or is this an illusion? A nightmare? A fragment of his own shattered mind? – and allow him some semblance of thoughts.

“You already know the answer. You just don’t want to admit it,” the thing mocks, the red gleam in its eyes sharper, brighter, like the blood moon. It reaches for the tip of the blade, and pulls it to its neck, letting the tip sinks into its own throat and drawing out but a single drop of blood. But the scent of that only drop is so vile and overwhelming he couldn’t breathe

“What did you do to me?” He asks, the blade impossibly tight in his hands. This couldn’t be what he did out of his own volition, not the thoughts he would’ve harbored against his own family, against those he would and have died many deaths for— “What did you do to me!?”

“What did I do? What did you do!” The thing crows back, grinning and reaching its hand to his cheek, brushing away the tears that have slipped past his eyelashes. “You’re running away from the truth, and you know it! You want them dead! You want them all dead for what they did to you!”

“Shut up! Shut up!” he snarls, pulling the blade back and striking it into its neck, only to feel no resistance, no sound of flesh being torn apart, no blood and no warmth spilling out. So he tries again, and again, and again, because he can’t keep hearing this, he can’t keep thinking about this— “Shut up! I never want them dead! Never! How could I!? I couldn’t have thought of this atrocity on my own!”

“But you did!” the thing laughs, and again, he pushes the blade through its intangible neck, letting his hands slide on the edges and cut in deeper, the steel biting into his flesh and scorching his palms open with each movement made, with each action performed. “You did, or else you wouldn’t have been in so much pain right now! You killed them for who knows how many times before you decided to keep it all away, because you don’t want to face it! You’re a coward, and you know it!”

SHUT UP!” he screams and slams the sharp end of the blade back into its neck over and over, even if he gets nothing out of his endeavor but his blood staining on the steel. Finally, the sword cracks, the hilt that he hasn’t held for a minute that feels more like an eternity comes flying loose, and the blade shatters into smaller pieces. So he resorts to the next best option, grabbing the largest bloodied piece he could reach and resuming the task he was doing— “Shut up! I didn’t want to! I never wanted to!”

Have I never? Even though, deep down, I hate them for not remembering? Even though they caused me so much pain and suffering when I’m doing my best to keep them alive? Safe and sound?

He gasps and chokes on his own thoughts – he’s a fool to not have realized this sooner. He kept telling himself that he’s doing all of this – living and dying and living and dying – for their sakes, but who’s he fooling but himself? How could he not hate them after all of this? After—

“You realized it now, haven’t you?” his own shadow says, laughing loudly as the edge of reality folds into itself. It starts to dissipate, leaving the bloodied floor to be seen through its disappearing body as it croons softly. “You are no better than Ikutsuki. You’re no better than the god you’re trying to fight. You are a hypocrite, a murderer, and you want them dead! You have always wanted them to!”

SHUT UP!” he bellows at the top of his lungs as his shadow disappears, leaving eerie laughter lingering in the air in its wake. And it’s only then that he could see it; Shadows crawling out from the edge of the void, with blood-red eyes and skull-like masks that do not look like any of the reversed twelve Arcana they should’ve represented.

He couldn’t feel Orpheus’s flame, or Odin’s royal lightning, the only thing in his chest emptiness and pain and that haunting voice (screams, screams, screams) lingering at the edge of his mind. His Evoker would be useless no matter what, and with everyone gone (Ryoji, you promised you’d always stay, so where are you now?), he realizes that he’s going to burn in hell for what he did—

A Shadow jumps at him, and instinctually, he ducks out of the way and jams his broken blade into its mask, shattering it and destroying it. The pain in his palms is nothing compares to the harrowing feeling in his chest, growing and festering like tumors.

He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t do this anymore, not when he’s alone, all alone—

You have always wanted to kill them, because you hate it. You hate everything that they are, you hate that they do not share this fate with you!

He chokes back down a sob, and when the deep burn in his chest grows unbearable, he couldn’t see or hear or feel anything anymore except his guilt chaining him down.

No, no, no, not like this.

Ryoji’s been feeling restless ever since they were separated. Makoto should’ve been immune to the Lovers and its power to manipulate the heart – his Universe is stronger than to fall into its grasp like this. After the first cycle, he’s observed during the Dark Hour Makoto’s nigh immunity to everything except for Nyx Avatar’s (his) blackened blade and chaos-touched hands. This shouldn’t have happened.

He stops when a chill runs up his spine, something strange and unfamiliar and terrifying. His bond with Makoto should’ve been indestructible, tempered through time that doesn’t march, and yet, like this, he couldn’t feel a damn thing – couldn’t feel his connection to his beloved in the least, instead feeling the string of their bond touching the all-consuming void that makes even Death in him halt.

“This is the last room, so he should be in here,” Aragaki says, snapping Ryoji out of his thoughts. He looks up to see Aragaki attempting to open the door, only for it to not only stay closed, but also emitting out foul-smelling smoke that reminds him of that night where he initiated the Dark Hour, before Aigis sealed him inside Makoto’s heart and starting this whole thing— “…If it ain’t budging, then I guess this is it.”

Thanatos, he hears Orpheus call, voice leveled but nevertheless terrified. He forces himself to breathe as he clenches his jaws, trying to keep himself calm. He’d be useless if he cannot control his heart where Makoto fails. I cannot sense him. He has been isolated.

“Thought as much,” he breathes quietly as he looks around before placing his hand to the door, only to recoil back when the biting cold rushes up his arm and into his marrows. “Ah!

“Ryoji-kun! Are you okay?” Kotone asks as she runs up to him, so he simply smiles at her reassuringly. Something feels wrong and vile and dangerous, and he couldn’t help but want to shed his human’s skin and turns into Death right at this very moment. “What happened?”

“Something’s preventing the door from budging,” Aragaki says, giving the door another kick that sends him flying backward instead. “Ow!

“He’s probably in there. Can you sense him, Yamagishi?” Mitsuru asks curtly.

Fuuka frowns – something worrying all on its own – before she shakes her head. “No… It’s like that room is sequestered away from the rest of the world.”

A god must’ve done this, Ryoji concludes. Nothing else could’ve isolated the Universe so completely as is like this, not to mention being able to sunder his bond, his connection with Makoto, too. And while Makoto had only admitted it once, his dependency on his bonds is what makes him strong – and susceptible to the only thing that could’ve completely broken him down to pieces.

(“Will you promise?” Makoto asked one day, in the earlier times before a few dozen loops of disasters that would cause him to do things that, should Makoto remember, would destroy him completely.

Ryoji smiled as he reached for Makoto’s hand, one that trembled slightly upon the thoughts of him leaving again. It was nearing the end of November, and the time he had left as a human was slowly trickling down. The Fall would arrive again, and when the time came, they would have to fight, and oh – Ryoji hated it so, to have to raise his hands against his beloved over and over and over.

“I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again. I’ll always stay by your side, as long as the world permits me to. I won’t leave you alone,” he said. He would stay even when time reset itself, even more so if it marched – such was all he could do to ease Makoto’s burden, even a little. “I know how important your bonds are to you.”

And killing all of your bonds but mine and the few others must’ve caused you unimaginable pain, Ryoji didn’t say.

“You have no idea,” Makoto laughed, mirthless, his voice scratchy and parched. He seemed almost as entertained by the thought of Ryoji not knowing anything as much as he seemed to despise his obliviousness.

“Can you elaborate?” he asked, even if a part of him was already well aware of what Makoto would say.

“I… have always been alone,” Makoto said, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand and squeezing Ryoji’s own with the other. “Before I met you, anyway. I’ve always been alone, and coming here, I… I have always cherished these bonds that I’ve made. When I decided to cut them all away because I don’t want them to be hurt by my death, I felt… feel… hollow. Incomplete.”

Makoto paused to take a deep, wavering breath.

“If I lose you too, I don’t think—” He stopped for a moment to swallow anxiety back into his throat, so Ryoji tightened his grip a little more – as a reassurance that he was always here. Makoto hummed gently in appreciation. “—I don’t think I’ll be able to do this anymore. I’m weak, aren’t I?”

“Of course you’re not,” Ryoji murmured. “I don’t think anyone else but you would be able to relive the same life over and over, with or without bonds. You’re stronger than anyone else, than anything else.”

“Ha,” Makoto chuckled, shaking his head. “I… thanks, I think.”

“You’re welcome, Makoto. Always.”)

“He’s all alone,” Ryoji chokes out after recalling that little promise he’s made not long before the disaster that is Makoto’s complete psychological breakdown that happened at the tail end of the 47th cycle, before he spiraled into the pit of despair as he ripped and tore his friends apart over and over and over— “He’s alone. No, no, no—

“Ryoji, calm down, man,” Junpei says, but his voice sounds so far and so weak like a phantom. It takes Ryoji a moment to register the feeling of a warm hand on his shoulder. “I mean, Makoto should be fine, I think? He ain’t that weak—”

“—That’s not what I’m afraid of,” Ryoji bites back, with his nail between his teeth and his fear rising to his throat. Orpheus’ voice in his head only confirms his fear – that right now, Makoto is cut off from even his Personas, completely and absolutely. If he could still feel Orpheus, it would’ve been fine, but this is not fine and he’s going to— “We need to get to him. Now.”

As if hearing his plea, the Dark Hour suddenly ends, the foul stench of black blood and disaster melting away as the moonlight pierces through the veil. He spares only a moment to look at Aragaki, who nods his head and slams the door down with one thrust of his shoulder.

The hinges come flying off as the door is knocked down to the floor, and for a moment, everything is silent – nothing but the pink-colored lights of the love hotel occupy the room, luxurious but with so much trails of blood and blade marks on the floor.

He could faintly feel Makoto’s presence – finally – and he quickly follows it. The amount of blood is far too little for his injury to be fatal, but enough that he must’ve been heavily wounded to a certain degree. There are bloodied handprints dotting the violet carpet with its deeper color, giving him enough clue to chase.

And then he hears it; a broken sob and whispered mantra repeated from somewhere close by.

He glances back quickly once to notice the others inspecting the room – at the large pool of blood with torn carpets near the foot of the bed, at the broken pieces of Makoto’s blade caked with dried blood that makes so little sense, and at the Evoker holster left hung at the doorknob – before turning his attention back towards the voice (he hopes it isn’t Makoto’s, but it could only be his. He’s there), and finds himself standing in front of the bathroom.

When he opens the door, his heart sinks into the bottom of the sea, and—

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Makoto repeats, over and over like a broken record, with his hands bloodied and clearly broken, tears streaming down his cheeks and the look of someone who’s seen the end of the world far too many times back with a vengeance on his face.

“…I found him,” Ryoji calls back before he kneels down in front of Makoto, who curls into himself even tighter, his hands shaking almost uncontrollably. “…Makoto?”

At the name, Makoto jolts up, eyes blown wide with fear more than anything. After a moment, though, he seems to regain some semblance of composure as he exhales shakily. “…I’m… I’m okay. I’m—”

“You’re clearly not,” Ryoji murmurs. What could’ve happened, to make Makoto this rattled, to make him look so broken? He wants to ask more, but he knows he couldn’t – at least, not yet, not when the wound is fresh and when his heart is weary. “…I won’t ask, okay? At least, not right now.”

“…I killed them.”

“…What?”

For a moment, Ryoji allows himself that hope of Makoto talking about Aragaki’s or Kirijou Takeharu’s death, but the fog in his eyes and the way he looks up at Ryoji like he wants to die more than anything speaks enough volume. “…I killed them, Ryoji. I killed them, and I wanted to!

“Makoto!” He quickly stops the boy, even when a part of him knows this is the worst possible way for Makoto to find out the secret that Ryoji’s kept. He grasps both of the boy’s shoulders to stop him from thinking about it. Not now, not like this. “Stop thinking. Please. Breathe with me, okay?”

Makoto only shakes his head, refusing to comply, eyes screwed shut tight.

“What happened, Mochizuki?” Mitsuru asks, pensive, as she peers from the door and towards them.

He remembers, he almost blurts out. Makoto’s forgotten about it all for hundreds of lives, so why now? What made him remember? Ryoji decides to banish the thought and replies. “…We’ll need a week off, at least. I’m… I don’t know if—” he pauses, his mind reminding him that they know nothing, even if they are the cause of everything “—I’m sorry.”

“…Understood,” Mitsuru says, much to his surprise. Ryoji tightens his grip on Makoto’s shoulders, feeling the tremor under the boy’s skin, and decides not to linger for much longer. Luckily enough, Mitsuru seems to agree. “Let us head back downstairs. I’ll call for an ambulance right away.”

Makoto doesn’t meet his eyes, doesn’t so much as speak any more than that low, nearly silent I’m sorry he keeps repeating over and over.

I’m sorry, too, Ryoji doesn’t say.

“It’ll be alright. I promise,” he murmurs instead, pulling the other boy into a hug and feeling his heart beating in time with the minute sobs that come out of Makoto in waves.

I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you from this. I’m so sorry.

Notes:

So... yeah. lmao. I'm sorry but also not really

Feel free to join discord if you want! If not, comment sections below welcome you uvu. I'll answer anything that isn't considered spoilers lol!

Chapter 9: Hell Is In The Heart

Summary:

Makoto lives through the aftermath of his sins' reveal.

Speculations are made, attempts to correct the wrongs SEES do not know are made, but only for them to realize that this isn't something they could fix with just words and wishes.

Notes:

Heya! Sorry for the delay! I got COVID earlier this month, and I finished betaing my other fics first so this is postponed a little bit I'M SO SORRY

On that note, I updated the tags agian. Self-harm -- it's minor, but be prepared just in case :D

Anyways, I won't keep ya! Read away!

THANK YOU ASTROPOCAPLYSE FOR THE BETA

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

For the next few days, Makoto simply refuses to do anything.

Only Ryoji is fully aware of what happened to make Makoto like this, but the others aren’t as oblivious as he thought they would be, either. Especially Mitsuru and Aragaki, who seem to have an inkling of an idea of what might have been, even without their memories of time’s repetition. The others are less aware, but they are as kind as they used to be – giving Makoto the time and space that he would need to recuperate.

(Whether he recovers from this or not remains to be seen, but he’ll keep his hope up. Because what else can he do?)

He sighs, combing his hair back with his fingers as he punches the vending machine with vengeance. They can’t tell the SEES – they’ve tried it before, but only a few times, and failed every single time, enough for Makoto to give up – nor can they the therapist. And without that, Makoto absolutely refuses to say even the rearranged version of what he’s gone through, to even lie, just to get the help that he needs.

Because, to him, he deserves all of this, and Ryoji despises that with his entire being.

“You are… Yuuki-kun’s friend, aren’t you?” A voice calls for his attention, soft-spoken and laced with both hatred and acceptance. Ryoji turns to see a gaunt young man in hospital gown and a sickly pale face, and immediately, somewhere in him stirs, alerting him to the fact that this is Makoto’s Sun Arcana. “I’ve seen you with him often, but never gotten the chance to speak to you.”

“You must be Kamiki Akinari-san,” Ryoji smiles, punching the vending machine again, and groans when the can of coke he’s been trying to buy for the past four minutes refuses to drop. “Sorry about that. I’m his friend, yes – Mochizuki Ryoji. A pleasure.”

“Likewise,” Akinari smiles gently, offering a hand for Ryoji to take. Once they shake their greetings, the man hums and leans over his shoulder and nods towards the corridor of the hospital. Ryoji can make out the door of Makoto’s room from here. “Is Yuuki-kun alright? I’ve visited him a few times, but he didn’t seem well. Not as well as he was the last time we met, anyway.”

“How much did he tell you, exactly?” Ryoji inquires, gesturing for the sofa. Akinari accepts his invitation to sit down right away, so he follows, dropping onto the soft material without much care. “I’m aware that he actually told you the truth…?”

“As unbelievable as it is, yes. He told me about how time folded into itself for him – and for you, too.”

Ryoji sighs – at least there’s some form of upside to all of this development. It’s great to know he’s not the only person Makoto could talk to about everything, even if said person would end up dead before the beginning of the end. “…That’s good to hear. That he told you that much, I mean.”

“From what I feel from talking to him a few times, he doesn’t seem the type to open up to even the closests of friends,” Akinari notes with a grim smile as he coughs, and Ryoji waits as another ghost of Death’s finger (his, he corrects himself) brushes his hair and fades away into the void. “And, from sitting here next to you… It really is true, isn’t it? That you’re the incarnation of Death?”

“It is,” Ryoji hums. He has always hated keeping his existence as Death a secret, because every time he had to tell the SEES about it, everything became so, so much worse. And this, what Makoto had recalled within the Lovers’ grasp, is something he never wanted Makoto to experience. To know you will have to kill – and have killed – people with your own hands is the foulest of feelings no one should have to go through. “…God, I really don’t know what I could say, if anything at all.”

“I won’t pry, because some things just cannot be understood without experiencing them,” Akinari says softly, the Sun Arcana burning as bright as it is kind. “But, should you two need an ear… You know where to find me. I can’t go anywhere much anymore, anyhow.”

“Thank you, Akinari-san,” Ryoji hums, combing his hand through his locks one more time. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see. I’ll see you around, I suppose.”

“Yes. Talk to you later, Mochizuki-kun,” Akinari beams.

After a moment, he decides to walk back to Makoto’s room. None of the SEES have dropped by to visit yet, and whether it’s because they’d rather give Makoto time, or that they don’t want to get involved with him any longer, Ryoji isn’t too sure. His thoughts are going haywire and his rational thinking far too jumbled up to make an appropriate, well-reasoned guess, at the moment.

He expects to open the door to find Makoto still sleeping the day away. But when he walks through the threshold, he finds Makoto sitting up, each thumb digging into his palms and drawing out blood from his freshly-stitched wound without so much as flinching.

He doesn’t move for a moment, for fear of disrupting whatever strange peace that has befallen him. But finally, Makoto turns to him, his expression so tired and so dead and he hates it, hates everything that had happened, hates his own weakness and his inability to—

“…Why?” Makoto rasps with a frown before he tears his gaze away and back at his hands. At this, Ryoji decides to walk closer, reaching out to take his hands in Ryoji’s own before firmly holding them apart. The scent of blood reminds him of the zenith of Tartarus, where they had faced off against each other for far too many times for him to even want to recall. “Why haven’t—”

Makoto chokes the words down at this, but Ryoji could hear them as clear as day as he tries to pull his hands away from Ryoji’s own; why haven’t you left me yet? Why did you stay?

“Because I love you, and you deserve better,” he says, truthful. Whether Makoto feels the same way he does or not remains to be seen, but he will not stop saying it until Makoto gets the message; that he will be here. Always. “Just rest, okay? We’ll talk about this more later.”

Or never, he muses.

Makoto lets out a shaky breath at this, leaning his frame in towards Ryoji. He sighs and climbs up the edge of the bed, seating himself next to Makoto’s shaking hands, and waits. It doesn’t take long for the boy to finally lean fully into his shoulder, his breath stuttering ever so gently, as if he’s trying to hold back in sobs that’s waiting to come out—

He opens his mouth, as if wanting to say something, only to close them and shake his head. “…I’m sorry.”

About what, Ryoji doesn’t know, but he could be talking about so many things; things that are in no way his burdens to shoulder, his faults to blame.

But he doesn’t say that. Makoto doesn’t need to hear that right now, even if Ryoji wants him to; he has always been stubborn and bull-headed, after all. Right now, he needs to rest and stop thinking – rest that, for the past few months, he’s never been able to fully get.

“It’s alright,” Ryoji murmurs, carding his fingers through Makoto’s hair and rocking him back and forth ever so slightly. When he feels the boy relax in his arms a little more, he smiles. “Just rest for now, m’kay? We’ll talk about this when you’re ready. I promise.”

Makoto hums, and Ryoji stays like that for as long as the sun remains high in the sky, with Makoto cradled in his arms.

Blood splattered all across his front. Scent of steel and rot in his nose. He didn’t care.

Orthrus was chewing on something. A leg, maybe. The thigh-high boot was ripped into pieces and the only other thing that gave him any information at all as to whose leg was in the hellhound’s mouth was the locks of flowing red scattered on the floor, their color as deep and dark as the blood flowing underneath the hound’s bloodied maws.

Broken bodies scattering about, with no more faces to be matched, no more pieces left unmarred by blades and claws and hellfire. He didn’t care.

Everything was… empty. Futile. What he did didn’t really matter anymore.

They were just pawns in this twisted, grand game. He, too, was one such thing. Whether any of them lived or died didn’t really matter. Whether time flowed with their deaths or not didn’t really matter.

All his sacrifices, all his pain, were for nothing. So why should he care at all?

So he took the blade into his hands, and—

—Makoto gasps awake with a start.

His room is still dark and silent except for the sound of cicadas crooning from beyond his room’s tightly-shut windows. He looks at the slowly waning moon, then sits up, the feeling of bile crawling up his throat suddenly too hard and too prominent to ignore.

When the push becomes too much, he leans over the bed, a hand on the bedpost to find some sort of purchase, fingernails scratching on the woods as he coughs and retches nothing but bile out. Of course, that would be the only thing to ever get out of between his lips. Why would there be anything else, when he couldn’t even stomach anything for days?

When had he last taken anything but water, anyway? After the hospital, four days ago? Or longer? Or—

“Makoto,” Ryoji whispers from behind, a hand rubbing up and down his back as he coughs out any remaining taste of acid. “You okay?”

How could I be, after remembering all I’ve done? he wants to spit back. Ryoji knew about it all along, so why hadn’t he told Makoto about it? Why hadn’t Ryoji abandoned him yet? Why—

“I don’t know,” he rasps, using his own voice to drown out their screams and wails of misery his thoughts and insecurities. “I’m sorry. Fuck, I’m—”

Shh,” Ryoji hushes, circling his arms around him. It is only then that Makoto notices himself shaking quite pitifully as a sob starts to wreck him again. “It’s not your fault.”

Isn’t it?” he breathes out, bandaged hands reaching up to clutch onto Ryoji’s forearm, hard. “I killed them, all of my own free will. I’m a fucking monster—”

“You were hurt and in pain,” Ryoji mutters against the crook of his neck, lips settling a soft, rueful kiss against his skin. “It’s not your fault. You were just exhausted and suffering and—”

“That doesn’t give me an excuse!” he snaps, recoiling at the sound of his voice, harsh and focusing on the wrong person. He should’ve used that tone on himself, not on the only one who remains by his side even after all of this, even after he’s betrayed all of Ryoji’s trust in him and turns his heels on his own sins. “I’m— I’m sorry, Ryoji, I—”

“It’s okay,” Ryoji says, forgiving him as easily as he lives and breathes. “…It’s my fault for not telling you sooner, too.”

He only shakes his head and squeezes his eyes shut tight. After a moment, when his sobs have somewhat calmed down, he murmurs. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

But I have to, because that’s the only way I can atone for what I’ve done, is left unspoken.

“Frankly, I don’t really care whether the world lives or dies,” Ryoji states, tone cold as ice and Death. His arms tighten around Makoto a bit more, lips stretch into a snarl on his skin, his breath sending chills down Makoto’s spine and saturating his marrow with Ryoji’s cold fury. “I don’t give a damn about what the world needs. It can go screw itself for all I care.”

Makoto releases his half-death grip on Ryoji’s arms and look back, to see Ryoji smiling at him with his expression almost unreadable.

“What I care about the most is you. You’ve been through far too much already. So, if you want to give up, and just—”

“I can’t,” he murmurs, taking his eyes off of that pair of piercing blue. “I’ve already done so many terrible things already. I can’t repeat it again. I can’t.”

He can’t become the reason for the world’s end, even more so SEES’s – the only family he ever had, the family he repeatedly murdered for some godforsaken reason of being in pain – demise. He no longer has a choice to run, to hide, to give up—

I no longer have a choice but to finish this, like how I’m supposed to; to guard the Seal alone without involving any of them for an eternity to come.

Ryoji sighs, sounding not pleased in the least. But he only hums in the end. “You’re far too kind for it to be healthy, and I hate this.”

Kind?” he repeats, pulling slightly away from Ryoji with a frown on his face, and a bitter taste of some vile feelings in his mouth. “I’m a horrible person, and you know it. I’m just doing this for myself.”

Ryoji exhales, climbing off the bed and kicking a rag lying on the floor to cover up what Makoto had spat out of his stomach. Ryoji then turns towards him with a sad smile. “What you think of yourself doesn’t change who you are.”

“Doesn’t it?” he snorts, but finding the idea of trying to rebuke Ryoji’s line of thoughts= – always so biased towards him due to a baseless affection he still has towards Makoto, after all this time – a moot one. “…Whatever.”

“If you can’t sleep anyway, want to go take a walk?” Ryoji offers, even though he’s been trying to push Ryoji away. The boy had never faltered once, and it seems like he’s more determined to hold onto him than ever, too. “Some night air might do you good.”

As if that would erase what I’ve done, what— “Okay.”

Ryoji smiles and offers a hand.

And he takes it.

(It feels wrong to do this, to be loved like this even though he did so many unforgivable things so many times. Even though he killed simply because his heart was weak and his resolve weaker.

He decides to stop questioning it when Ryoji brightens up when he accepts that outstretched hand.

He doesn’t want to do this anymore, but to atone for what he did, and to save those that he used to love so very dearly, he has to.

He must.)

Kotone hasn’t seen Makoto ever since the Full Moon.

He just shuts himself off completely, looking fear-stricken and ridden with guilt and some unknown things she couldn’t exactly pinpoint whenever they crossed path in the school’s halls. And it’s the look that makes her heart ache; she doesn’t know what exactly happened that night on the Full Moon, but when Ryoji brought Makoto out from where he was hiding, it looked as though he’d been forced to relive the worst nightmare anyone could’ve had.

Even if she still can’t understand him, and that he seems to still not consider her as his sister, she shares the bloodline with him, and he is still her brother no matter what. And to look like that, lost and terrified and in so much pain—

“Damnit,” she breathes into her pillow. It’s already half an hour past the Dark Hour, and she still can’t fall back asleep for the life of her.

She knows Ryoji and Makoto are boyfriends (it still feels weird for her to not know of this before, because they’ve been attached at the hips ever since their parents died, damnit), but it seems like that bond is much deeper and much more intricate than she first gave it credit for. And when Ryoji doesn’t tell her anything – not about what made Makoto look like that, not about what he knows that she does not – Kotone comes to realize that she truly knows nothing about the both of them.

With a deep sigh, she catapults herself off of the bed. If she can’t sleep, might as well play with Koromaru in the lounge or something. She heard off-handedly from Mitsuru and Aragaki’s conversation a few days ago that the chairman is making their dog friend (Makoto’s?) a collar with an Evoker-like function, so he will be joining the team later on should he be alright with it.

(How does Makoto even know what Koromaru is thinking, she has absolutely no idea.)

When she reaches the second floor, she glances over to the end of the hall for a second. It is already deep into the night, and the lights in Makoto’s room are still on, flickering dimly past the crack of his door and shifting in and out of sight when Makoto’s shadow – or so she presumes – passes over it. A part of her wants to just go there, but… it feels like she won’t be able to do anything for him.

Not when she knows little to nothing about her brother anymore, not when he’s closing himself off from everyone like this.

Her thoughts derail when she hears the sound of the piano being played, and cautiously, she descends the stairs with the hope of finding Makoto on that stool with an expression more serene than she ever saw from him. Instead, she is welcomed by Koromaru’s soft but crystal-clear barking; a greeting, judging from how he waits at the foot of the stairs with his tail wagging rapidly at her.

“Hey, boy!” she greets the canine, rubbing her hands against his snout before looking up, only to find Ryoji looking straight at her with a small smile. “…Hey, Ryoji-kun.”

“Good evening,” he says, returning his eyes back to his hands and the keys as he draws out lullaby-like melodies from his fingertips. He doesn’t stop, but quiets down his playing for a moment before speaking up anew, a little louder this time. “Can’t sleep?”

“Yeah,” she shrugs, walking over to him. She hasn’t heard the two of them play the piano for a while, and oh – it sounds just as nice as that one time she accidentally walked into the two of them. “What’re you playing?”

It’s an obvious, unmasked attempt at making their conversation light, when she – and Ryoji, too – are concerned about the same person. But Ryoji only hums and takes it, letting the melody fall off into a bass of a tango. “I was playing something random. Right now? It’s a tango I’ve been meaning to play with Makoto. Aster Piazzola’s Libertango, if you will.”

“I see,” she mutters, unsure of how to properly respond. But then, Ryoji scoots slightly to the side, and with only his left hand remaining on the keys, use his right to pat the empty spot he has created. She takes it, sitting down close to him, before he resumes playing again at a much slower, softer, more solemn pace. “It’s beautiful.”

“Isn’t it?” he laughs lightly, only for the sound to fade away when his smiles turn sad – on the verge of being mournful, even. “I wish he would at least accompany me down here. But I suppose it’ll take more time than just a few days to heal, huh?”

From the way his voice dips low and almost silent, she knows he’s not talking about the wounds on his hands. Those were made by him, she knows this much, judging from the way blood was splayed on the largest section of the broken blade they retrieved from that room. But what she doesn’t know is what could have driven him to do that – to do something that would most definitely hurt, something that would be more agonizing than what it could’ve achieved.

What was he trying to do, back then? There were stabs marks on the ground, repeated enough times for the wood to cave in and for the tip of his broken blade to dull.

She doesn’t know what they are, what had happened for him to change so drastically. But Ryoji definitely knows to the minutest of details, and he’s keeping his mouth shut about it, too. Kotone thinks she’ll have to find out more about this Nyx and Nyx Avatar thing soon; about what Ryoji is, for Makoto to talk to him as if he’s a demon (or a god) that could grant death at only a moment’s notice—

“I want to help him,” she finds herself saying, all the questions she has temporarily boxed up into the furthest corner of her mind. She will have her opportunity to find out about Nyx Avatar and their mysterious words later. But for now, she wants to help; even if she doesn’t know him anymore, Makoto is still a family so very dear to here, a family she doesn’t want to lose. “I just want to help him however I can.”

“…Yeah, me too,” Ryoji murmurs softly, his hand stilled against the keys, a long, suffering sigh escaping from his lips. “I know you want to. The best I’ve been able to do is stay by his side, but… even that’s not enough anymore. It used to be.”

This happened often? she barely stops herself from asking. He speaks as if he’s known Makoto for more than a lifetime, something she knows to be impossible; the longest they could’ve known each other would’ve been three, four years, when they both started to have a small group of friends (or lack thereof) of their own.

As if knowing her thoughts, his smile saddens as he shakes his head, as if getting rid of some thoughts brewing up inside his mind. “…It’s not a story for today. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” she says, no matter how much she wants to know. “Can I do anything to help at all, though?”

“I don’t know,” Ryoji whispers, his voice so small like a child terrified of a monster under the bed. It sounds like he’s lost in a dark sea, with nothing to cling onto. It’s such a strange notion to have, but she feels like that is exactly what Ryoji’s thinking, feeling. “I don’t know what to do, and it scares me, Kotone-chan. I don’t like feeling like this.”

She’s never seen him this way, insecure and afraid of the things yet to come. To think whatever happened in the love hotel a week ago could’ve done this much, it makes her realize that something is amiss, something is so horrendously wrong, and she wants to change that. whatever it is that had happened between the two of them is just that much more complicated than what she would like to admit.

She reaches for his hand and squeezes it gently. When he looks up, slightly startled, she smiles. “If it helps at all, Ryoji-kun, I’ll be here for you. We will, okay?”

The boy blinks lazily a few times before he forces himself to smile, unshed tears shining in his eyes as he bows his head ever so slightly. “…Thank you, truly. Thank you.”

(The Arcana of Death grows, a dark, cool wash of powers as deep as the void coursing through her veins. Eurydice sings and rejoices as it expands, and she’s left to wonder why.)

“…What is the meaning of this?”

Mitsuru asks, clearly dumbfounded. She, Shinjirou and Akihiko have gathered on the fourth floor, wondering what they should do at Yakushima. They’re the only ones who really know about the beginning of the Dark Hour – Takeba Eichirou’s doings, something she wishes she doesn’t have to tell Takeba at all – so they’re here thinking of how they should tell the others. Even if father and Ikutsuki said they should convene at Yakushima for the summer break, something simply doesn’t sit right with her.

But that is the problem for later; for now, she’s faced with Yuuki, who has simply placed his Evoker, the holster, his sword, and the SEES armband down on the table before her.

She doesn’t say another word, and neither do Shinjirou nor Akihiko. Yuuki doesn’t say anything, either, as he keeps his eyes glued to the Evoker as if willing it to combust, while Mochizuki seems like he wants to say so many things, only to gobble it down with a gulp that sounds like a sonic boom within the silent, enclosed space of the command room.

Yuuki opens and closes his mouth a few times only to clench his jaw harder, enough for her to hear his teeth grind themselves to dust. But when he fails to say anything more, Mochizuki chips in, his voice light, as if trying to will away the heaviness that has befallen them. “Uh, he… after the Full Moon Shadows at Shirakawa, he said… he wanted some time to himself, Mitsuru-san.”

Yuuki looks about to protest, but closes his mouth when Mochizuki gives him an oddly meaningful look. It’s as if they’re having a lengthy argument within that short span of time, and not an exchange of a glance that shouldn’t be able to tell more than a few words, a few thoughts. “…Yes.”

“You need not return these to us, then,” she states, pushing the Evoker back his way, causing him to flinch into himself. She stops and quickly pulls back, only to clear her throat. “…If you wish to quit the SEES, you should say so. I would understand.”

She hears him mutter something under his breath, something oddly similar to no you won’t, you never will, only for him to sigh and shake his head. “…No. Just… a temporary leave.”

“Permission granted,” she says when the silence starts to settle again, and pushes the Evoker further towards him. He doesn’t pick it up, his arms limp at his side, so she urges him with a small frown. “Even if you wish to leave, the Evoker is meant to be your means of protection. Keep it with you, Yuuki.”

He shakes his head again and bows deeply, ignoring her icy (and questioning) glare. “Thank you for your understanding. I’ll… inform you when I’m ready.”

He turns on his heels without so much as a pause, leaving her with her dearest friends and Mochizuki, who seems stuck in place, eyes shifting back and forth between the door he has just went through, and to the gears left lying on the table as if they’re cursed objects and not his only means to fight back against the Shadows and the Dark Hour.

When she turns her gaze fully towards Mochizuki, the boy bows his head ever so slightly, eyes apologetic and in deep pain. “I’m sorry, Mitsuru-san. He’s… not well. But I’ll remain in active service within SEES, though, that much I can assure you.”

“Thank you, Mochizuki,” she nods. “…Do you know when he will return, if at all?”

Mochizuki looks a little conflicted at this, with brows scrunched and eyes alight with fury that is being directed at something far away. But that cold anger is enough to make her, whose Persona is the most adapted to the freezing atmosphere of the Dark Hour, feels a chill – a fear of death – run into her very bones.

“I don’t,” he answers simply, straightening up and pulling a part of his collar up to try to cover the lower half of his face. “I’m… not sure. I’ll keep you updated, though. Is he allowed to stay in the dorm, even if he chooses to truly quit?”

She ponders for a moment; the dorm is supposed to be the last bastion for SEES, a safe haven against the Shadows. Should he decide to no longer be a part of it, it would stand to reason for him to be sent off to a normal Gekkoukan’s dormitory. But she… finds that she loathes the idea, that abandoning someone who had offered his help to them – even begrudgingly – is not something she should do.

“Yes,” she nods again, eyes looking at the other two for confirmation she doesn’t need. They nod their agreements, so she assures him. “Even if he quits, he’ll be allowed to stay. This place is safer than a normal dormitory, as far as I’m concerned. There is no need for us to chase him out even if he no longer wants to fight with us.”

“I see,” Mochizuki hums out a sigh of relief as he smiles. “That’s… good to hear. Thank you, Mitsuru-san.”

His departure then brings about absolute silence – one that Shinjirou promptly breaks with a frown, deep and unwavering. “I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t think it’d show itself like this.”

“What do you mean?” she asks, even though Mitsuru herself has been noticing a strange pattern in the two of them for a while now; a sense of nostalgia, a sense of dread, of longing. As if they’re family that haven’t talked in ages, as if they’re more than just senior and juniors living in the same dorm, fighting for their lives within the confines of the same Dark Hour, putting their minds towards the edge of death in every moment within it.

Shinjirou looks at Akihiko first, then at her, lips pressed into a thin line. He leans over the armrest, eyes glued to the shut door, as if to make sure that their privacy will be absolute. When he is satisfied, he leans back, crossing his legs and rubbing his chin and the stubble growing from weeks of careless self-grooming routines.

“I don’t know if you two noticed or not, but that kid – he has the same eyes I had two years ago,” Shinjirou notes solemnly, and she winces upon the memory of the event that drove Shinijrou out of SEES in the first place; with Castor stomping Amada Ken’s mother to death, and her father and the group covering it all up as some freak accident that is sure to be seen as fraud as soon as someone knows to look deeply enough to see through all the lies.

“What did you mean by that?” Akihiko asks.

Shinjirou seems conflicted, for a moment, before he shakes his head and gets up. “This ain’t somethin’ I can tell you. But Imma get to the bottom of this whether any of you like it or not. The kid is cold – but there are reasons behind it. Why would he allow Mochizuki into his personal space, if he’s that much of an asshole he’s makin’ himself up to be?”

She knew something was off after that chance meeting in the dead of the night, with him being sleepless and downright miserable. It should have been impossible for her to miss the signs that he’s not a habitually antisocial person, when she thinks about it – how he would alternate between being cold as ice and warm as the sun within two groups of people, or how he refused to quit the SEES even though he doesn’t seem to even want to fight for something he couldn’t grasp—

He shuns people by choice, not because that’s who he is. It would also explain Mochizuki’s tolerance of him. Even if that boy is as patient and kind as a saint, no one should’ve been able to stay within Yuuki’s vicinity for that long – unless he knows the truth behind Yuuki’s actions and embraces it, understands it, and chooses to stay regardless of what he did and what he still does.

(“I never want to be a burden,” he said, his eyes full of sorrow and pain, and it made Mitsuru pause. Then came that strange sense of nostalgia, as if they had conversed like this many times before, in different circumstances, in different times. But that should be impossible— “It just… happened.”

“…That is an odd way for you to put it,” Mitsuru decided to say as she took a seat across from him. He averted his gaze, eyes transfixed on some place far away, lips terse and shoulders drawn taut. And then, she continued. “You have a choice to pull out of SEES if you want to, Yuuki. I never wish to force this upon anyone.”

Even if he chose to fight by himself the very first time, something could have happened to make him want to quit, like Shinjirou. She would rather not make someone do something they don’t want to do – but a part of her, small and irrational, said that she knew he would not back down, even if he had every reason to, even if his demeanor and his actions and his disregard for social interactions said otherwise—

“I know,” Yuuki murmured quietly, and she looked up. They had never talked outside of the Dark Hour except when absolutely necessary, and during one, he would just follow Kotone’s instruction silently, even if he couldn’t perform his duties to the letter. Mitsuru thought she saw something; a smile, self-deprecating and isolated and sorrowful. “You’re not the type.”

“What do you mean by, I’m not the type?” she found herself asking after a breath, a pause. Yuuki tried and half-failed at eating whatever it was he had brought out from the fridge, with his brows knotted together, as if the action of chewing on something was causing him pain.

And there it was again – looking into those eyes, it was as if she seeing something from the past that never happened, from the future that was never meant to be; a storm of emotions passed through Yuuki’s gaze for a moment before he blinked it away, again and again.

When she thought he would remain silent, however, he replied, with his hands balled tight, eyes fixed on a single spot before him. “You just… don’t seem like someone who’d force people to do something they don’t want to.”

Something in her chest twisted and churned. But why would she feel this way, when he was nothing more than a teammate, whose actions and words had never done anything good for the team? Why would she feel like he was about to break, and that she had played a part in it, too?)

“So he deliberately makes himself scarce?” Akihiko voices her mind, eyes alight with the same conclusion she’s coming to, himself. But then, his frown deepens as he looks up at Shinjirou. “What about Kotone? That doesn’t explain why he’d put Kotone at his arm’s length.”

“I’m going to find that out, trust me,” Shinjirou growls. “But… not tonight. I need to catch him alone, which is going to be hard when he and Mochizuki are practically joined at the hips.”

“We shouldn’t care about him this much,” Akihiko suddenly says, but not with contempt; it is with pure curiosity, voice lilted and face contorted in an attempt to understand something he couldn’t fully comprehend. “He’s not the best of conversationalists, much less so a teammate. Then why do I keep feeling like we have to do something, and why does this feeling keep getting stronger the longer he stays?”

To that, none of them has an answer to.

Exam seasons are the grandest blessing Shinjirou could ask for, really.

He catches Yuuki after the last day of the exams, away from Mochizuki – who’s being hoarded away into groups of girls. He smiles and jokes with them, but his eyes are as disinterested as they are cold, even angry; he is trying to keep up a flirtatious front, it seems, so Shinjirou gladly takes the opportunity to follow Yuuki out the building and to the front gate.

The boy pauses after a moment, and Shinjirou has been counting on that; he’s been making sure he’s as conspicuous as possible, his whole body radiating that aura of hostility he often wears in the presence of those drunkards and bullies that would, more often than not, huddle together at the back of Port Island station.

“…Do you need something, Aragaki-senpai?” He finally asks without turning back to face him, shoulders lax and voice tired and dreary. It looks to Shinjirou like his knees are going to buckle and drop him to the floor at any given moment, exhaustion palpable in his every movement, every breath—

“Can we talk for a bit?” He says, walking closer and finally making the boy turn to him. He has to take a pause at those gray eyes, deep and in so much pain that it dulls Castor’s anger, with something else filling his Persona’s being instead. Something like sadness, perhaps, or— “I ain’t here for Mitsuru or Aki, so you can rest assured. I don’t even care about the SEES all that much.”

That is a lie, but the kid doesn’t need to know that.

“What do you want?” Yuuki repeats, turning to face him fully. Unlike the other juniors, he doesn’t back down even when faced with his unwavering gaze. Even Kotone admitted that she was scared of him the first few times, and Yuuki’s lack of fear, to Shinjirou, feels like a proof to a theory that’s sitting deep in his chest. “I don’t think I can help you with anything, Senpai.”

“I don’t need help, thank you,” he half-spits, only to stop and remind himself that he shouldn’t do it like that. This boy isn’t Aki, isn’t a bull-headed idiot who only looks back and never forward. “I just want to talk. Friendly talk.”

He knows he’s not the type to offer such a thing, but he seriously hopes Yuuki will take it.

The boy’s eyes wander away from his face and towards the school gate again, his expression as hard to read as Ikutsuki’s, or maybe even harder. After a moment, much to Shinjirou’s luck, he bows his head slightly, tugging his school bag tighter against his flank. “…If you want to.”

“You eaten anything yet?” Shinjirou decides to ask, pulling out his wallet to make sure he’s got enough cash for a meal for two. When Yuuki reluctantly shakes his head, he jerks his thumb in the general direction of where Hagakure is. “Let’s talk over dinner. I ain’t trying to get something outta you or ask you to do things, I promise.”

Yuuki opens his mouth as if to say something, but ultimately relents, back hunched and shoulders sagged even more than they already were. “…Yes.”

He orders the same extra-large Hagakure’s specialty for Yuuki, and while the boy doesn’t seem discontent with his choice, his actions speak otherwise.

As soon as the bowl is set in front of him, he begins to look as though he’s been thrown overboard a ship during a storm, his face pale with sweat dotting his forehead. At first, he thinks Yuuki is just that irredeemable in his social ineptness, but he quickly banishes the thought when he notices the boy clasping his hands over his mouth, shoulders trembling.

“…You don’t like the food?” he says tentatively as he starts eating his own, trying to stay as quiet as he possibly could. “It’s fine if you don’t want to eat that. You can order another thing, I can just gobble that down, too.”

“Why—” Yuuki begins, only to bite his lip hard enough for blood to bloom. He quickly shakes his head after a moment of long, deep breaths. “…It’s alright, Senpai. I’ll pay for this, and—”

“I told you, this meal’s on me whether you eat ‘em or not,” he says with a small scowl. Unlike Kotone, who had practically thrown herself into his private circle or Mochizuki, whose bubbly and extrovert personality makes it hard not to talk to him, Yuuki is even worse an introvert than he ever was, and still is. Even more so when it comes to his willingness to talk. “Don’t think too much about it. A bowl or two won’t make a dent in my wallet, dumbass.”

Yuuki pauses briefly before nodding once, hands reaching inside his shirt’s pockets and pulling out a few tablets, fingers frantically sifting through them.

“What’re those?” He asks in a renewed attempt at starting a conversation, only to be met with stunted silence and discomfort as Yuuki pops one capsule out of the panel and downs it dry without so much as batting an eye. “…Painkillers?”

At least he’s certain whatever the boy’s having is not a Persona Suppressor he’s been given by Strega, but he doesn’t trust the look of nausea on Yuuki’s face as he presses his hand against his mouth for what Shinjirou decides to be an uncomfortably long number of seconds.

“…Yes,” he says with a small frown, eyes glued to the noodles as if trying to set them on fire with just his glare alone. Shinjirou is willing to bet that he would’ve succeeded, had the Dark Hour been under effect right now. “What do you want from me?”

Shinjirou groans. Truly, the boy is not at all open, just like what Mitsuru and Kotone say, the latter more about his sudden change in attitude than the former. “I don’t want nothin’ from you. Just checking to make sure that you’re okay, or somethin’.”

Why?” Yuuki says, closing his eyes and leaning into his hands, cradling his head as if he’s plagued by headaches and pain constantly. Maybe that was it, then? Or maybe not?

“Like it or not, you’re my junior and dormmate and a member of SEES,” Shinjirou says, waving his hands for no one but himself to see. Castor rumbles within him – I’m doing the right thing, right? – as he reaches to place his hand on Yuuki’s shoulder—

The boy quickly gets up, shaking himself free, eyes dark and bitter and resentful—

(Just like himself two years ago, he supposes. Furious at himself and even more at the fucked-up shits he had done. Rancorous and sullen, the feeling almost as palpable as the tension growing around them.)

“Mind your own business,” the boy growls, more hurt than he is angry, and it confirms that growing suspicion he’s having; that Yuuki is afraid of something. Of what, he only has vague clues, but that is enough to spur Castor out of its slumber, to spur him to move. “You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me—”

“And I’m saying, I don’t care about that,” Shinjirou growls out, turning to face the boy fully, their meals forgotten. He ignores the eyes of the others in the restaurant as he tries again. “Come on, kiddo. You don’t gotta tell me anythin’, that’s fine, but it’d be better if—”

“If what? If I lean on you? On the others?” He snaps back, and for a moment, Shinjirou’s anger grows to match Yuuki’s own, only for it to simmer down into something softer when he realizes that Yuuki’s not lashing out because that’s who he is – his eyes are dim and his shoulders are taut. He is afraid of all of this— “I don’t want to. Stop trying to befriend me. I’m fine.”

“You’re clearly not,” Shinjirou says evenly, pushing himself to stand before him, towering over him and oh shit, he’s so small— “Look, I don’t care if you don’t wanna continue, or whatever the fuck it is that you’re trying to do with your life—”

“I just want to die.”

He pauses at this, the mirror image of his own self-hatred reflecting inside those dull gray, and he feels a lump form in his throat.

For whatever reason that makes Yuuki say that, it seems that was not at all the boy’s intention; his eyes widen and his nails bite deeper into his skin, his teeth drawing blood from his lip. After what feels like an eternity of debating with himself, the boy finally shakes his head as he crumbles back into his seat, with his head in his hands again, and his breaths as short as they’re unsteady.

“…Just… forget what I’ve said,” Yuuki murmurs, shaking his head and hugging himself, his face obscured by his own mess of a hair and the shadows casted over his eyes. “It’s nothing. I’m fine, I’ll—”

“Hell if I believe that, dipshit,” Shinjirou says, scratching the back of his head with uncertainty singing in his veins; he’s never been good with words, even if he knows what the boy must be feeling. He knows he himself felt like he doesn’t deserve to be alive, too, when he found out that he’s killed that woman during the Dark Hour two years ago, leaving only a spiteful and far too young to be orphaned Amada Ken behind. “It might not seem like it, but I understand, I really do.”

“No, you don’t,” he spits back, fury dancing at the tip of his tongue like wildfire. Shinjirou pauses when he realizes that the boy is glaring up at him through the gaps of his hair, eyes alight with bitterness that seems far too deep for it to belong to a sixteen-year-old. “You don’t understand anything. None of you do – not you, not even Ryoji—”

“You don’t know me, kid,” he bites back, this time getting close and grabbing the boy’s shoulder before he could pull back, startling Yuuki enough to make his death grips on his own arms lessen thier holds. “Don’t talk as if you’re the only one who’s in pain. We all have things we want to change—”

“You won’t!” The boy whispers darkly as he shakes his hand off again. His voice is soft and barely audible, but the resentment is crystal clear, sharp and barbed and cutting deep into everyone around him – even himself. And for that moment, Shinjirou is unsure what he should do – if he should fight back, or if he should just shut up and listen. “You never have to—”

Yuuki swallows something back as he pulls away completely, his hands clumsily pressing the headphones back over his ears as if trying to drown out something, anything, everything—

“Yuuki, wait—”

“Thank you for the meal,” the boy bites out, more a formality than sincere gratitude, before he turns around and leaves without so much as glancing back.

He isn’t even sure how long he was there, looking at nothing until the sky turns dark and the world turns dim and buzz with the void’s ever-present static.

“May I sit here with you?”

Someone says, voice loud enough to get through his headphones, blasting at full volume. Makoto opens his mouth to decline, only for his eyes to land on one and only Elizabeth, who’s smiling warmly at him, with that monstrosity of the Black Compendium in her arms.

He takes a long, deep breath, leaning back into the bench of Paulownia Mall and nodding his head. Even if a part of him wants to be alone right now, another, quieter part of him longs for company, one that he has made sure to rid himself of in every life, every cycle—

“Even repeating the year like this, I still find many interesting items and creations,” Elizabeth says, sitting down fully and talking in that same eccentric, carefree tone of hers. He only allows himself a small smile as she waves her hand around. “And there is no one else for me to thank but you, who showed me what I wished to know, even if you’re trapped and ailed by so many things. For that, you have my sincere gratitude, Makoto-san.”

“You have mine for remembering and staying, too,” Makoto murmurs, pulling his earphones off and taking himself out of the safe haven that is his music, his life and soul. “…Why are you thanking me now?”

“I think I may have a way to help you,” she says, and when Makoto gives her a skeptical look, puts both her hands up. “Not with the time loop, unfortunately, since master Igor has yet to understand what made something like this happen. But with this.”

She then taps at his chest, turning his attention to its steady beat and the feeling of voices within his ribcage, each voice old and new combining into a strange yet calming melody—

“But you have to depart for your summer vacation soon, so I shall postpone it for later,” Elizabeth hums and hands him a single Arcana card that glows dimly between her fingertips. He reluctantly takes it, and turns it around to see its face morphing from one Arcana to the next endlessly. “Do you remember my final request in the very first cycle? The one that required you to utilize everything that you knew?”

He remembers; that, despite Nyx looming on the rooftop of Tartarus, he still ventured downward into the deepest depths where only the scent of the strong lingered, with his myriad of Personas at the ready in the back of his mind. And he remembers, too, of himself walking towards Elizabeth. She requested a fight against him, making him use as much of his power as he could’ve mustered to best her – a request for her to find herself, as she had put it.

“…Does that have anything to do with what you’re planning?” Makoto asks. The prospect of fighting her again makes dread seep into his veins, yet makes him quiver in excitement; it has been so very long since he’d had any friendly spar with anyone, and fighting Nyx Avatar has never been about power, but determination; about his ability to suppress his own affection to destroy the very thing he’s loved for as long as he could remember—

“Indeed,” Elizabeth smiles. “While fighting with you at that moment didn’t provide me with enlightenment as I hope it would, it is certain that the fight gave me quite a new perspective about the world, too; the way you handled and brandished the Personas born from your connections and your bonds have always been a sight to behold, after all.”

Makoto lets out a short, choked laughter at that statement. He had forgotten what any other bonds feel like anymore, with him repeatedly hacking them apart and breaking them with his own hands like this. “You said this to me, as if you want to explain that I still have those kinds of bonds. I destroyed them myself, don’t you remember? Over, and over, and over.”

“You still do, deep within you,” Elizabeth says casually, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “If you do not, you wouldn’t have been able to call for so many still, would you? Even if you are the Universe, you still need to cherish those bonds in your heart to be able to call forth the full potential of those from any Arcana that is not Death and the Fool.”

“…What’re you getting at?”

“I am saying, that even like this… you still love them as dearly as before, and I wish for you to see how much they love you, too.”

Loved, Elizabeth,” he corrects her, the foul stench of decay making itself known through each and every word. “They used to love me. Not anymore. I made sure of that. Not to mention that I killed them myself.”

“That is the thing that I wish to talk to you about as well,” Elizabeth states. And when Makoto says nothing, only giving her a hard stare, as exhausted as he is, she hums quietly. “Firstly, what you did back then is understandable, even to us residents. For those trapped in time, it is hard not to give in to your rage and pain.”

“That doesn’t exempt me from my sins,” he breathes back, and waves his hand. He doesn’t want to talk about this anymore. “What about the they love me part you want to talk about?”

She looks dissatisfied when he dismissed her first explanation, but only smiles instead as she continues. “What I have realized through the time loops, is that it should’ve been impossible for you to call forth anyone else but the Fool and Death and Messiah, had all of your bonds been truly erased from your heart. But you still could, so I will say with full confidence that these bonds survive the loops itself, even if each loop played out… as disastrously as you might’ve seen.”

“That’s impossible,” Makoto snarls, anger bubbling up his throat like acid. “Then why would it bring me so much pain when I erected the Seal over and over on the cycles that I broke them? Why would—”

Your bonds are like threads, Makoto-san,” she says with a small smile, enough to ease his fury away into something that simmers deep within his gut. “They can be bended, but unlike blades, they cannot be broken – and I wish to show that to you when you return from your vacation.”

“Show me? How?

She smiles, this time with her eyes alight with what he could only describe as glee. “I wish to fight you.”

As he watches the sun, waiting for the van that’d take them to the pier to arrive, he wonders briefly if throwing himself off the ship would kill him or not.

If he wasn’t stopped by his guilt and his wish to just make things right for once, he would’ve murdered his own stupid, worthless self and be done with it right here and now.

(And Elizabeth, what the fuck was she thinking, asking to fight him like this? What could she possible show him, when all he could see is darkness all around with no end in sight, with his bonds burnt to a crisp and his heart stone-cold like this?)

He killed them, and with the nightmares of his memories and Ryoji’s solemn retelling of the events, he now knows exactly what he’d done, and for how many times; he can still feel vividly the warmth of blood on his hands and the scent of steel and sprayed guts in his nose, and he doesn’t want to do this anymore. If he could just die and be done with everything, he would do so in a heartbeat.

But he knows he can’t.

This world is theirs, and no matter what kind of atrocity he had committed under his own name, he still wields the power of the Wild Card and the Universe, still has the Black Compendium where all those strange Personas lie in his possession. That means that he can perform the Seal again, can lock the darkness away from Nyx and wipe their memories of the Dark Hour and himself away, and it would also mean that he could atone for what he’s done by allowing none of them to die, and allowing Kotone to live past the fight against Nyx on the Judgement Day.

However, before he could do that, before the twelve Shadows are merged into one, before the Appriser and the Harbinger of the Fall – something he knows in his gut is not Ryoji, because he’s still here, human, even if he could call for Nyx’s vile light to his fingertips – emerge, he has to stay alive. He cannot die before then. He has to keep on living (even if he doesn’t want to), so that he can finish what he is meant to do, to go where he is destined to be.

Stuck between the realms, to sunder the lonely road that connects Nyx to the nameless dark god away for good, chained with bonds as sharp and resentful as his own heart—

“What’re you listening?” Ryoji’s voice snaps him out of his thought, and he feels himself jump under his skin when Ryoji’s warm hand reaches for his shoulder, thumb kneading gently into his clavicle and sending a shiver down his spine. “Lemme listen, too!”

He’s too shell-shocked by the suddenness of Ryoji’s presence around him to realize that he hasn’t pushed play on his MP3 for the past hour he’s been sitting in the lounge, with his bag filled only with the bare necessity and a lot of drugs he had just taken from the hospital the previous day—

“Makoto,” Ryoji murmurs, hand tightening around his shoulder when he realizes that Makoto hasn’t been listening to anything like he’d been making everyone else believe. “Talk to me. Please.”

He swallows a lump in his throat back down and attempts a smile that doesn’t seem to convince Ryoji in the least. He spies Aragaki looking at him with a deep scowl as he shakes his head toward his Death, a hand placed atop Ryoji’s own in an attempt to ease something in him, something deep and dark and twisted— “I’m fine, really. Just lost in thoughts a little bit.”

Ryoji opens his mouth to say something – seen through, am I? Makoto doesn’t say – but ultimately only sighs and scoots in a little more, brushing their knees together. His hand reaches for Makoto’s MP3 and cycles to a random song before pressing play, forcing some form of white noise into his senses, to drown out their screams as he hacked their limbs to pieces—

Makoto,” Ryoji presses, eyes serious. “I’m here with you, so talk to me, please.”

“What’s there to talk about?” He murmurs, looking down at his own feet and seeing blood on his shoes. He quickly shakes his head and bites into the tip of his finger until the disgusting calming taste of blood register. “I don’t know what you want from me, Ryoji.”

“I want you to rely on me,” Ryoji says, and Makoto can’t help the deprecating laughter that bubbles out of his throat, grating all along the flesh of his mouth and burning him with the acidity of his hatred and fear and anger and everything that makes him a disgusting human being that should’ve died a thousand deaths more— “Makoto, come on. Anything is fine. I’m here with you.”

“It’s not your fault, so don’t be concerned about me,” he mutters, curling into himself, as if to will the darkness that stirs at the edge of his heart to come off and release its claws from his soul. “I’ll be fine, I promise. I just need to sleep on it and think.”

About how much misery I’ve caused, about how much pain I’ve inflicted, about how many wrongs I’ve commited in my miserable, repeated existence, he doesn’t say.

Ryoji pauses for a moment before he pulls his hand away from his shoulder, only to find Makoto’s hand and interlace their fingers together tightly. His breath stutters, but he doesn’t pull away – can’t afford to. Because he is so close to breaking and giving up, and he doesn’t want to lose this warmth, doesn’t want to lose this kindness and—

“I’ll always be there with you, m’kay?” Ryoji murmurs, squeezing his hand a little more. “Just tell me if you want or need anything at all – I’ll provide, if I can.”

“I know. You always have, haven’t you?” Makoto hums, leaning into his soft words and his warmth and the music blasting in his ear. He can feel his Personas brushing against the edge of his soul, too, as a reminder that they’re there (even if he thinks they should just abandon him, too. He is not worthy of their praises, not worthy of their aid), that they’re ready to come to him should he ask.

“So, what did you talk to Aragaki-san about?” Ryoji asks, an obvious attempt to steer their conversations to something else, without knowing that it just makes the bitter taste in his mouth grow stronger. “…Did something bad happen?”

“Just a dinner. Nothing to worry about,” he lies, looking up at Aragaki, who’s now talking with the two seniors. Lair, lair, lair; he said he wasn’t there for those two. Makoto supposes he should’ve known better. He has become a liability in their eyes, so it’s not surprising that Aragaki was there to find out how fucked up his head is, how weak he actually is, how— “I’m really fucked up, aren’t I?”

“Of course not,” Ryoji quickly interjects. “You’re not, Makoto. In pain and hurt, yes, but you’re by no means a bad person or irredeemable.”

“You think so?” he laughs, the sounds painfully scratching, making him wince even more. That empty space in his chest grows wider, yawning its gaping maw and spilling out a dangerous sense of being truly, undeniably alone into his veins again. “…I’m sorry, I guess I’m a little… pessimistic at times.”

“…It’s alright. You’ve always been like that,” Ryoji murmurs, his voice forcibly made cheerful, but not quite convincing enough to fool him. “Anyway, I’ve never been to a beach before! At least, not outside of the Dark Hour. Do you like the sea?”

“Not without you there, no,” he answers Ryoji’s attempt to change the topic, and Ryoji squeezes his hand back, eyes set alight when Makoto gives him a small smile. “But… hm, I like watching the waves and the sand. It’s calming.”

He only had maybe a dozen instances where he enjoyed the beach like the first time – not counting the ones he sundered his bonds apart and the last one that made him choose to no longer bond with others because it hurts – but those times were something he’ll not trade for anything else, just like the first cycle. The beach had always been beautiful in Yakushima; devoid of people, but filled with life, with the seagulls crooning from above and the crabs walking their ways on the sands, leaving little footprints in their wakes.

“Let’s go swimming when we have the time, then,” Ryoji grins easily, mischief dancing in his eyes. Makoto laughs at how easy it is to appease the boy, to lighten his heart and to saturate his blood with curiosity and awe— “I’ve always wanted to swim. I have never done that before, have I?”

“No,” he replies, shifting his body a little and placing his free hand over the MP3, as if to feel the music still humming lowly in his ears, too. “There are so many things you’ve never done, right? Thing we never had the chance to do together.”

“But now we do,” Ryoji smiles, forlorn but with palpable anticipation. “…It would be nice, if you could join your friends like you had before, too.”

What good would that do? he bites back, carefully picking out the bass of Burn My Dread, the song that has now been ingrained into his very being with ceaseless repetition. Instead, he smiles slightly, shaking his head and looking down at his hands, still slick with warm, tender blood— “It would’ve been nice if I could go back to how things were.”

“At least I’m here now,” Ryoji says, as if seeing through his thoughts. And he hates this, hates being seen through so thoroughly and absolutely with nowhere else to hide. “Let’s stop talking about this, okay?”

“Mm,” he hums in a quiet agreement as the sound of the engine and wheels spluttering before them. “Let’s pretend we’re just a pair of normal high school lovebirds for today.”

And tomorrow, let me be crushed by the weight of my sins again, Makoto doesn’t say.

Notes:

So... just a fair warning, chapter 10 is going to get worse.

And the duel with Liz? You think that gonna go well?

Oh hell naw. You know me ;)

Comments are welcomed! Discussions are also welcomed! See you in a month, folks!

Chapter 10: The Nightmare That Never Ends

Summary:

Yakushima turns out a lot worse than Makoto had hoped.

His old bonds are torn asunder and a harsh, unrelenting truth revealed. Is there no end to his nightmare?

Notes:

Heya! Sorry for a little late, I sent it to my beta on a short notice, again, so lol.

I told you it's worse this chapter, right? Buckle up, people, because it IS!

Also, side note; the mythological name appearing in this chapter will be elaborated at the end note. If you're curious about it, feel free to check out!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the beach?”

Ryoji asks the question that has already saturated on Makoto’s tongue as they sit, silent, on the king-sized bed in Mitsuru’s – or rather, Kirijou Takeharu’s – ownership, their fingers loosely interlaced and their gazes directed towards the bright blue sky just beyond their two-meter-tall window.

“What about you?” Makoto says, ignoring the insistent croon of something in the back of his head. He doesn’t want to admit that he misses them be around anyone else right now. The wounds on his palms sting, the terrible edge of hell-flame making him itch. He decides to rub the thoughts out of his eyes, brushing along his Personas and landing on the all-familiar fur of Orthrus.

“You know I’d rather be here for you, you know,” Ryoji hums with a small smile, shifting slightly and falling backward onto the mattress. “But! Let’s not talk about that. We do have to think about what to do with the tampered version of Yukari-san’s father’s recording, and to find the reports about the Appriser of this world, too.”

“That’s true,” Makoto nods. He can do that much; focusing on the bigger picture so that he can forget about them in order to keep his thoughts from wandering too far. “Well, I still don’t know if we should tamper with the recording or not. Because, if we don’t defeat the Twelve Shadows – something he insisted we don’t do – then there’s no way for the Dark Hour to end.”

“…I don’t think it’d be that bad, actually,” Ryoji says, sounding thoughtful. And when Makoto turns to give him a look, the boy raises a hand to stop him. “I know, Makoto. But look at it this way; all we have to content with are some Shadows here and there, and we don’t have to trigger the coming of the Fall, don’t have to—”

“Ryoji,” Makoto says curtly, grimacing at his Death as his fingers twitch. “You’re literally asking me to trade thousands of lives for mine. The Lost will only continue to grow that way.”

He’d made his choice long ago – even if it was negated by what happened when he killed his own friends before fighting towards the Fall himself, all alone – that he’d rather end the threat of the Dark Hour once and for all than to let it fester, than sacrifice lives he doesn’t know to continue his own. It’s the choices he made when he cherished all of his bonds with so much love that it backfired hard enough to scar his heart and blacken his soul forever—

“I’m sorry,” Ryoji murmurs, sitting up again and pulling Makoto’s hand to his lips to plant a soft, careful kiss on it. “I know. I just… I just don’t want you to die, is all.”

“After so many centuries, I think death would be a mercy for me,” Makoto snorts out a mirthless laugh as he brushes another thought out of his eyelashes.“That aside, I don’t think trying to recover the original copy now would be a good course of action. It’ll only make the team stop trying to fight the Full Moon Shadows, and allow the Dark Hour to persist.”

“What about Yukari-san?”

“She has Kotone, hasn’t she?” Makoto says, heart clenching painfully when he realizes that he had failed her so many times he can’t even count anymore. But here, he’s their fail safe, he’s nothing more than a stranger, a key to end it all – for them. “Kotone is the protagonist of this story, not me. I’m not Yukari’s friend anymore.”

It hurts it hurts he just want to—

“…I see,” is all Ryoji says, even though his eyes paint a different story. Makoto ignores it, focusing on his breathing as the boy hums thoughtfully. “Then, what about the records?”

“I remembered asking Mitsuru-senpai about it once or twice before, a long time ago,” he explains, recalling every excruciating detail as he weaves his memories into words. “There is a Kirijou Group’s laboratory for researching Shadows on this island. I could send someone in during the Dark Hour while we convene downstairs as per Kirijou Takeharu’s request.”

“Why not let me go instead? I can use Nyx’s power, after all,” Ryoji inquires, shifting his fingers up and showing him a faint trace of shadow dancing at his fingertips.

“Because you need to be down there when they talk about it. This is far too important for our usual excuses to work,” Makoto reasons, sighing again when the headache starts to creep and crawl up from the edge of his consciousness. “I can be there and let someone else take care of it instead.”

“…Why would they need to talk about it during the Dark Hour?” Is what Ryoji asks him.

Frankly, Makoto has absolutely no idea; he had questioned it once or twice before in the earlier cycles, only to be dismissed with an excuse that the recording needs to be shown during one – bullshit, if he has any say in it. Because anything that works in the Dark Hour works in reality, even if it’s not vice versa, and retrospectively, he should have seen Ikutsuki’s lies coming since then on his first time.

“No idea. Probably some of Ikutsuki’s bullsh—” he cuts himself off halfway when spots of black starts to decorate his vision, so he closes his eyes and exhales loudly, partly in pain and partly in annoyance. The headache subsided after the Lovers, somewhat, and he does not think it’s because things are going to be looking up from there. It feels like a calm before the storm, or—

“Here,” Ryoji murmurs as he pushes something into Makoto’s hand – a pill – and he nods a thank you in return before gulping down the medication dry. After the bitter taste melts away from his tongue, he feels Ryoji’s hand on his knee, squeezing gently. “You should take a nap for now. I’ll wake you up when lunch rolls around, and we can talk more then.”

“Skip to dinner,” Makoto mutters, even if his stomach is growling in protest at his abuse. But he can’t imagine himself eating anything right now, with every bite feeling like chewing on ashes and not meat.

“…You should eat more than this,” Ryoji murmurs, although he doesn’t sound like he’s going to force feed him or anything similar. “You’re already gaunt as is.”

“It’s fine,” he sighs, only to cringe back when Ryoji’s eyes bore into him, deep twinkling stars piercing into his soul and flipping him over, revealing his darkest of secrets— “…Alright, I get it. I’ll try, okay?”

Ryoji brightens up ever so slightly and nods. “That’s good enough. Good afternoon, Makoto.”

“Mhm. Good afternoon.”

When Kotone comes back from the beach (also holy shit Aragaki-senpai is even more packed than she remembered what the heck) with Yukari’s arm hooked in hers and Fuuka giggling beside her (where the hell is Junpei anyway?), she – they – are greeted by the sound of the piano.

The aroma of lunch prepared by Mitsuru’s maids – as real as they are uptight, she’d say – is alluring, but the sound of multiple notes strung together expertly is also something she likes. Music is like another part of her, at this point; whenever she and Makoto were alone, they’d find solace in music, in the lyrics that represented their thoughts and the harmony that synchronized with their heartbeats. So, naturally, they both are (were?) very prone to go after any song worth listening to.

“Who’s playing that?” Yukari asks as they turn the corner to the lunch table, to see a myriad of plates lying on it. The sound is unmistakable from within the room, so Kotone supposes the originator of the music – a piano, most likely – must be in here. “I don’t think Kirijou-senpai would hire a musician to play for us.”

“Aren’t Ryoji-kun and Yuuki-kun also pianists?” Fuuka adds from the side, eyes darting around. She claps her hands and points towards the leftmost end of the room, where the black, shiny grand piano lies.

And, as she expected, only one person is present. Ryoji smiles up at them as they approach, fingers deftly stringing notes together into a calming tune.

“Afternoon, ladies,” he greets, bowing his head slightly as he plays a little softer, so that they could converse easier. “I hope you won’t mind a little background music for lunch.”

“We don’t,” Fuuka smiles softly as she wanders towards Ryoji’s side, her eyes on the sheet propped on the built-in stand. Ryoji shifts to allow her to look, and she hums in surprise. “Ah, that’s why it sounds so familiar! Debussy’s Claire de lune is one of my favorites!”

“Really? Then I should play it more often, then,” Ryoji grins easily, but doesn’t flirt further, unlike what he usually would’ve done. He looks up at Kotone and Yukari, eyes slightly squinted in thought, before he addresses them with a laugh. “Anyway, lunch’s just about done. It should take only a few more minutes, I guess?”

“How long have you been down here? We haven’t seen you all morning,” Yukari asks, leaning slightly against the piano’s body and looking at the hammers and the strings within its confinements. “I thought you of all people would’ve liked to join us on the beach.”

At this, his expression is subtle, but Kotone can still see it; a slight discomfort and a sense of fear that doesn’t seem to match the situation. But when she looks at his eyes, he only shakes his head at her before grinning easily back at Yukari. “I would’ve loved to, but it seems like my stomach disagrees with me today – I’ve been sick all morning, you see.”

That’s an obvious lie, she realizes as much; he’s certainly not sick by any means. But Makoto, on the other hand, looks far too terrible for him to just be sick from the boat trip here. She thinks she knows why exactly Ryoji hasn’t been with them (with Junpei and Sanada trying and failing at wooing girls), and it seems Yukari thinks so, too.

But she doesn’t say anything. If the last Full Moon and the disaster that came with it is anything to go by, then Kotone supposes saying anything about the matter carelessly would’ve been seen as heartless or worse. So, obliquely, Kotone mentions her brother. “Are you alright now? Is everything okay?”

“Mhm,” is Ryoji’s only response, and that alone is enough to dissuade them all from pursuing the topic any further. He quickly changes the subject after a moment. “Welp! Let’s not talk about me. What were you girls doing? Swimming and playing beach volleyball, I would assume?”

“Yeah!” Kotone answers with a bright smile, her periphery picking up the seniors – and a rather deflated Junpei – walking in. She gives them a grin before turning back to Ryoji, who’s only halfway through the song and is already look up new ones from the worn music book. “You should’ve joined us. I’m sure we’d have fun together.”

“Or, you’d have fun hitting my face in with the ball,” Ryoji laughs, winking at Yukari who huffs at him with a you know it look, before shrugging. “Yes, I would’ve loved to. Maybe tomorrow, if you wouldn’t mind?”

“Sure,” Kotone agrees easily. “You two?”

“It’s fine,” Yukari nods, her eyes alight with mischief. “Really.”

Ryoji laughs and continues to play his piano, as if trying to drown out something. So, she lets him, without realizing the truth that’s about to be revealed to her a few hours from now.

When Makoto wakes again, the clock is already nearing midnight.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Makoto says, even if in truth he has only managed a few minutes of shut-eye with the rest of the time pretending to be asleep (for Ryoji’s sake). Each time, he would wake, gasping for air with his heart galloping like a herd of wild horses in his chest.

(Sleep doesn’t come easy anymore, and it hurts to think, to breathe. He just wants to be normal, to be able to rest for once. Why is he denied even that simple satisfaction?)

“You looked like you needed it,” Ryoji says, his eyes accentuated even more by the moonlight that shines through the half-parted curtains. “You woke up only a few times, though. Is it getting better?”

No. “Yeah,” he lies, pausing for a solid second when the taste of bile makes itself known. He gulps it down and starts looking through the Sea of Souls, fingers brushing across the many names that have become his to call. “When did they say we have to go down there again?”

“Five minutes after the Dark Hour, I reckon,” Ryoji says, glancing down at his cross-strapped wristwatch before looking out towards the dark sky. “You know where the research facility is?”

“How many times do you think I’ve tried to get rid of my boredom?” Makoto snorts back. He’s tried a lot of things to make sure that no stone is left unturned, so of course, exploring Yakushima is a given. Still, it has been so very long since he last did just so, and he can’t help but wonder if he can still recall the details correctly. “But it doesn’t matter. The one I think I’ll summon will find the place in my stead if I didn’t remember it correctly.”

“Which one?” Ryoji asks.

At this, he takes the boy’s hand, letting him feel and see and hear what he does; an old man, sitting atop a lonely hill with skull-like mask and darkness at his feet.

“…Ah,” Ryoji murmurs with a smile. “The Old Man of the Mountain. Sending in an assassin really fits for what we hope to do. Would you be alright, though? Summoning without your Evoker, not to mention staying up until the meeting is over?”

“We don’t have a choice, if we want to find more information about our enemies,” Makoto says, the nameless god laughing in the back of his head again. It’s getting harder to ignore the sound of screeching metal and his own stuttering breath, but he has to. Only six months, and if he can do this right, it’ll all be over. He’ll get to die like he is supposed to, get to finally bail out of this nightmare.

Suffering is the price, and death, the reward.

“I’m with you, Makoto,” Ryoji suddenly says, hand grasping his tightly, their bond like a golden chain that can never be broken. “Always. Okay?”

Ryoji’s smile and his warm words are usually what soothe him most, but right now, they feel bland and dulled by the smog that has made its home around his shoulders. He decides not to say that, however, as he smiles back and forces himself to lie.

“Okay. Thank you, Ryoji.”

(The image of himself tearing his friends apart then comes back to him again, like a reminder than he should rot in hell for an eternity to come. And he wants to, so, so bad; he wants to curl up and die and pay for his sins and his mistakes. But he can’t – not until the world is saved and Ryoji is free. He is sure that the boy could be human in this timeline, and he wishes for Ryoji to be able to live. Because, like that, then he’ll never have to turn back into the dark queen’s Avatar, never have to turn against the SEES – his friends, too. And if he could—

—If he, along with the others, could live upon Makoto’s grave, then he’s fine with it.

Even if it hurts, and that he wants nothing more than to ignore everything and let himself go, he will still fight. For their sakes – and Ryoji’s – he must.)

The hearing is as disastrous as the hundreds of times Makoto has seen it before.

How Yukari lashes out at Mitsuru for something she kept under lock and key in fear of Yukari turning her back on SEES, something that she always knows would hurt Yukari to see; it still makes something in him squirm when the fight unfolds. It had been so long since he last talked to Yukari about it on the beach, so at least he is glad that Kotone is running after her, with her eyes filled with worry for her dear friend.

(They used to be his, too. Now, they’re simply strangers. Strangers that he has sworn to protect with his body and soul, and strangers that he had killed with his own two hands before.

The only silver lining in this is the fact that Ikutsuki had issued a collar for Koromaru earlier than usual, with the canine yipping happily at his legs, as if trying to dull some of his worries. It doesn’t work.)

Seeker, a voice rouses him from his half-stupor, and he perks up, eyes carefully watching the room, now dead silent. Ryoji is keeping tab on the both of them, but if Makoto’s experience is anything to go by, then they’ll be safe – Aigis will be there, he is certain— Am I speaking to you at an inconvenient time?

Despite being a highly renowned and feared assassin, Hassan – the Old Man of the Mountain – is soft-spoken and very, very kind. His Arcana is of the Hermit, but he exudes that aura of death just like how Ryoji – how Thanatos – always does. He decides not to leave his Persona hanging and shakes his head, even if none of his former family can see and hear what he does. No. Is there a problem?

The matter is not related to the documents you wish to procure. I have managed to gather the data from the research facility, but something bothers me, the assassin notes solemnly, and Makoto can feel them on his fingers; the papers, dusted and with blood at the corner. Having his sense partially integrated with a Persona is new and so very strange, but it helps him take his mind off the blinding headache and that sense of exhaustion that comes with the dark moon, somewhat. I am not familiar with the stories you have repeated, Seeker. But, was there a human who made a pact with a deity?

No, he answers quickly, uncomfortable anxiety brewing in his stomach. He remembers Ikutsuki’s blind reverence towards Death, and Strega’s doomed ambition and their profaned calling for Nyx to deliver them. There was no such thing as a pact mentioned anywhere, at any time, even before the time loops began. So, what can it mean? What could it be?

I see, Hassan comments tersely, the shadow under Makoto’s frame shifting as if something is returning to him. And then, a pair of dark red eyes boring into his own from his shade, the Persona’s voice echoing inside his chest like a chime of a bell. We shall keep watch. I have delivered your information at your quarter, Seeker. A pleasure to help you.

Thank you, Makoto nods his head slightly before looking up when the sound of Ikutsuki’s phone rings, signaling the Shadows’ breakout. He looks to Ryoji and whispers sharply. “Is everything still alright?”

“Wow,” is the answer he’s graced with, and he’s about to snap when Ryoji blinks once, twice, before he grimaces. “I’ve… I must admit, my time sensing Aigis’ true nature has been quite short. Has she always been so short tempered before August?”

“…Yes?” Makoto says, a little unsure. It has been centuries since he last met with Aigis normally, so the memories are blurry, at best. “I’m not sure, but—” he lowers his voice and looks around to make sure that he’s not overheard “—I think she came to save me from the Shadows. If it went like how it was the first time, then they’d be fine.”

“I see,” Ryoji hums. “Then, Ikutsuki-san will introduce her to us?”

“Yeah,” Makoto nods, turning to look at Ikutsuki, who is strangely… observing them, that air of levity gone without so much as a trace.

He feels like Ikutsuki knows more than he should have, more than he ever did. But when the sound of gunfire rings through the stagnant air, he diverts his attention to it, not realizing that Ikutsuki is following his every movement with an interest he could never understand.

(And oh, it would take him far too long to realize how Ikutsuki’s role in this new narrative is much larger than he ever wants it to be.

And what pain that change would bring.)

He remembers Aigis talking about having to be by his side whenever they met again.

So why? Why is this happening?

“Aigis! Back down! He’s an ally!” Mitsuru steps in between him – who’s still guarded by Ryoji – and Aigis, who has all but raised the guns that are her fingertips at him. She had already fired a few rounds, and they hit him in his right arm and leg because he hadn’t expected her to attack him so abruptly, with so much hostility.

Why? Why, when you always tried to protect me, even when I shunned my bonds away?

“He is dangerous,” Aigis says, her words laced with even more venom than when she spoke to Ryoji at the beginning of December’s Full Moon, so many lifetimes ago. Makoto can feel the blood in his veins freeze, the darkness that he’s managed to keep at bay by Ryoji’s constant presence now encroaching closer, choking him silent and making him realize something he doesn’t want to— “He must be eliminated.”

“You’ve never even met him before!” Ryoji counters, stepping closer to shield him completely from her line of sight. It never occurs to him before, but having Aigis’ view of him change so completely is truly terrifying. And he doesn’t want this, please, he can’t do this— “Why are you saying that he’s dangerous!?”

“I cannot explain, but my sensors are telling me than he is a threat to all of you. You included, Mochizuki Ryoji-san,” Aigis says, her hostility towards Ryoji next to none. While he is glad that it’s no longer so, her hatred for him spells one thing – the only thing that he has never thought would be possible, and something that explains why this world is different in a heartbeat.

“Aigis, please stand down,” Ikutsuki says, placing his hand on her shoulder. The android turns towards him with hesitation, and Ikutsuki shakes his head before looking Makoto’s way apologetically – or so he tries to make it to be. “He has been a member of SEES since April, and he has never once attacked any of the other members. You can rest assured that he will not do any of them any harm.”

Aigis doesn’t seem to like the idea, and the blood trickling down his fingertips only serve to ground him to this moment more. He wants to run away, to hide, to—

“Understood,” Aigis stands down, her eyes turning to him once more. “But I request your permission to watch him closely. My purpose is to protect mankind, and I deem it necessary that he be kept under watch at all times.”

“I won’t allow that,” Ryoji seethes – a new one, as far as Makoto’s concerned – his eyes dark and his shadow trembling with Nyx’s vile power. “I’m with him almost all the time anyway, so there should be no problem if I become, what, his watcher permanently, right?”

Aigis opens her mouth to argue, and Makoto can feel it in their bond, treaded together within their souls – Ryoji is furious, every fiber in his being trembling with anger. He should feel relief that Ryoji always comes to his aid, but Aigis turning from his steadfast protector – something he’s always taken for granted – to his hated rival is something he never knew would hurt this much.

Thor trembles in his chest, with anxiety and dread, mimicking Makoto’s feelings to the tiniest of details. And he hates this – to be looked at as if he’s a monster, as if—

As if—

The voices around him, of Ryoji and Aigis arguing, are drown out as he remembers the first time he talked to Ryoji about this, about her hostility towards Ryoji before he regained his memories. She fought him on the bridge, and her sensors recognized him as a Shadow – as Death – even when he was human. So, that would mean that…

I’m the Appriser…?”

His voice is low and stuttering with every syllable, but it is loud enough for only Ryoji, who has practically pressed his back against Makoto’s chest, to hear. Ryoji whips around in and instant, but Makoto doesn’t hear what he’s saying, can’t focus on anything but the beats of his heart and Thor’s anguished cry. It shouldn’t have been possible, but Aigis’ reaction tells a different story.

Just like how she viewed Ryoji in cycles past, she now sees him as a danger. A host of Shadows.

An Appriser.

“Makoto!” Ryoji’s voice snaps him out of his daze, and he looks up into Ryoji’s eyes to see his own expression reflected off of them – one of pure terror. Ryoji presses his lips together before forcing him to walk backwards until his knees hit the edge of the couch, and when he’s finally forced down, Ryoji turns to Aigis with darkness in his every breath. “I really want to like you, Aigis. But if you overstep even once more, I will rip you apart myself.”

“Now, now, there is no need for violence,” Ikutsuki says, putting up his hands towards the both of them. Makoto sees Kotone looking at him with worry, but he doesn’t focus on her – can’t – and tries his best to feel his fingers again. Everything’s blurred and numb, and he has to breathe, but he suddenly can’t remember how— “Aigis, I don’t think it’d be necessary to observe him so closely. Don’t worry about it.”

“But—”

“Even if he’s less than a teammate, he still is an ally. And he has never raised his sword against us once,” he hears Mitsuru says, and something in him screams at her that wrong, she’s wrong, he’s killed them so many times before. “I trust him enough that he will not stab any of us in the back.”

Aigis, after a long beat of silence, nods stiffly, even though her eyes remain on Makoto still, like a watchful guardian observing a predator. “…Understood.”

“Let’s call for a doctor to take a look at those wounds,” Kirijou Takeharu speaks tersely, his one eye addressing Makoto with curiosity. Makoto looks away, clutching the wounds on his arm tighter as they throb with more than just physical pain. “I apologize for this, Yuuki-kun. Should you require anything at all, I will provide as compensation for our oversight.”

What can you do? he bites back from saying, instead shaking his head as something darker than dizziness tries to consume his senses, ravenous and angry. “…Thank you.”

The gunshot wounds burn with the heat of the bullets and the metallic taste of blood and something more, something psychological, but he doesn’t want to think about anything else anymore.

Why? Why does it have to turn out like this? Hasn’t he suffered enough already?

It’s impossible to hear his own thoughts.

The Full Moon is approaching, and he’s stuck here in their room in Yakushima, trying desperately to feel something other than the agonizing burn in his chest. The documents Hassan has so painstakingly stolen from the facility are left in Ryoji’s hands while he tries his hardest to maintain a semblance of control, something he now deems impossible because of the sheer volume of the voices in his head.

Voices that are whispering; you deserve all of this, because you are indeed a monster.

“…It doesn’t make sense,” Ryoji scowls, putting the papers away and grasping his hand. It’s only then that Makoto realizes that he’s shaking, his fingers unfeeling and his thoughts scattered like broken glasses. “It shouldn’t be possible, Makoto. An Appriser is a Shadow, remember? Even if you host one, you shouldn’t have been turned into it. There’s no way you are the Appriser. Maybe you just have it in you, just like how you hosted me.”

“Then why?” He asks, his voice cracking at the end as he tries and fails to stifle a sob. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts— “Why did she shoot me? Tell me that I must be destroyed? Attempt to kill me without a hint of hesitation? Thor is in pain, too – are my Chariot and Aeon broken…?”

“It might’ve been because the Appriser is not Death this time,” Ryoji tries, but his voice is weak. He seems to think the same, even when rationally, Makoto being the Appriser itself should be impossible. “I’ve finished taking a look at these reports. They never mention anything about Death, but the names or even the original Shadow’s epithets are all crossed out. It’s impossible to make anything out like this.”

“Maybe. I don’t know,” he mutters, feeling the cold of being left alone – his one greatest nightmare wish – biting deep into his marrows, sinking its fangs into his heart and tearing it asunder. “I don’t know, I don’t know anymore and it hurts.”

“Hey, look at me,” Ryoji says tersely, both hands grasping his cheeks and forcing his eyes up. There is something in there, something he isn’t sure if it’s pity or exhaustion, but either one hurts. So he doesn’t think too much on it. “Makoto, none of this is your fault. Something did this to you, turning her against you. I’m sure of that—”

“There’s no way Ikutsuki would know what I am, what we are,” Makoto hisses back, nails biting deep into his palm. There is no evidence to what Ryoji is trying to claim, everything that’s been happening in this damnable place an indication that he is the Appriser, the one who would call forth the end of the world. Even if he doesn’t know how, that much is the truth—

“You are not an Appriser,” Ryoji says, but his voice sounds so unsure, so scared. He’s trying his best for Makoto, but it’s no use, and he has to tell the one he loves the most that please, stop trying to say that everything’s alright already. “You’re not, I can—”

“—assure me? How?” He spits back, pulling himself away, and Ryoji lets him, this time. His hands go slack against Makoto’s cheeks, and it feels harrowing to let the warmth of those hands go, but he doesn’t know what to do or think anymore. “You know as much as I do that Aigis wouldn’t have been hostile to me if I simply had an Appriser in my soul, but she wants me dead. Me! Can’t you see that I’m the cause for all of this? I am their albatross, Ryoji!”

“Makoto!” Ryoji looks like he’s about to cry, and Makoto hates that look so, so much. So much that it makes him want to sell his soul just to stop Ryoji from loving him, because he shouldn’t be loved like this, shouldn’t be cared for this much— “Makoto, you’re not. None of this is your fault. Let’s – let’s just sleep on this and think it through, okay? I’m sure there’s another reason why this is happening.”

“What is there to think about?” He whispers, his own voice grating at his eardrums. Something in him shifts and churns, silent and terrified, and he feels Orpheus’ flame grow dim. Is this because he realizes that Makoto is the cause of all this mess in this cycle, too? That if he had died and disappeared right here and now, everything would be— “If I die, it will end, won’t it?”

“No, it won’t!” Ryoji snaps, grasping both of his shoulders and shaking him, as if trying to dispel something out of his heart. But the darkness won’t budge no matter what. “Makoto, listen to yourself! You’re not thinking straight. I know you’re scared and hurt, but please – listen to me. We need to think this through. What if— what if you die, and nothing changes? Kotone-chan doesn’t have Death with her, so it’d be impossible for them to win.”

Makoto inhales, the sliver of truth in Ryoji’s words stopping his mind from yearning for death (more than it already is), so he nods silently. After a moment, Ryoji lets him go, and Makoto tries to ground himself to something – holding both his arms against his frame, as if to fight off the cold that creeps and crawls ever closer.

“Okay,” he finally manages out, his chest constricting and disallowing him even a deep breath. He doesn’t want to do this anymore, but all his exits are sealed. He can’t run, not when the Universe is him and not Kotone, not when he’s their only card against Nyx and the dark god that is supposed to be on the other end of the Seal. “Okay, I’ll… I’ll try. Think of something.”

He doesn’t know if Ryoji believes him or not, but the boy smiles and presses his lips against Makoto’s forehead softly, as if trying to soothe him, to calm him down.

But what good would that do, when all that he has left is torn out of his heart, too? That he, who is supposed to be their guardian, turns out to be their grim reaper?

“It’s worrying,” Mitsuru says as soon as Shinjirou and Aki walk in.

It’s not surprising, really. Her room is next to Yuuki and Mochizuki, and if even he could hear them arguing inside their room with so much fear in their voices, then he could only imagine the volume and the dread Mitsuru must’ve felt hearing them last night.

They’re by no means loud, but in the dead of the night – where everyone is practically scared shitless by Aigis suddenly trying to kill their least productive member and calling him a threat – there is only so much the padded walls can do to stifle their worries and fear from dripping through the cracks.

“Shit, as if he ain’t already hard to reach,” Shinjirou groans, flopping on the couch and leaning his head back against the wall. “That little stunt Aigis pulled musta been traumatizing for him. It’s as if we’re saying you’re a fucking obstacle or something.”

“Aigis can’t explain why she feels compelled to eliminate him, either,” Mitsuru says with a wince, her lower lip slightly swollen from being abused. “I couldn’t make out what they were talking about, but it looked as though Yuuki was having a breakdown.”

“I wouldn’t blame him, though,” Aki sighs, looking at his own feet and kicking something into the corner. “I mean, yeah, we are kinda justified to be angry at him for not fighting properly when he volunteered to be here before he quit, but being shot because of that? That’s just messed up.”

“Is there someone who’s going to check on him?” Shinjirou asks. He doubts that anyone else could help where Mochizuki failed, but it’s better than sitting on their asses doing nothing. “If not, then I—”

“No, Shinjirou,” Mitsuru quickly stops him, and when he throws her a death glare, the heiress growls back. “It’s not like I don’t want to, but from what I’ve heard and seen, he doesn’t trust any of us. You were trying to talk to him, and then he rejected you, right?”

“What does that have anything to do with him not trusting me?” Shinjirou inquires sharply.

“Before we came here, you talked to me about him. And he saw it,” Mitsuru explains, and Shinjirou comes to a realization in an instant. He’s seen the boy glancing his way with a frown, but he didn’t think too much on it. He supposes he should’ve known better. “I don’t think any of us approaching him now would do him any good, considering his expression back then.”

“Then what do you say we do? Wait till some miracles happen?”

“No,” Mitsuru shakes her head, leaning slightly forward, with her eyes on the doorway. “You are quite late, Kotone.”

“Sorry,” the girl in question, Kotone, walks out with a somber expression, something Shinjirou is not at all used to. There’s that worry in her eyes, even though she was adamant whenever he talked to her that she doesn’t care about her brother anymore. Liar, he had said. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, just…”

“We weren’t trying to keep it a secret,” Mitsuru hums, patting the empty spot beside her. Kotone takes it after a moment’s pause, and when she does, Mitsuru frowns. “Your room is adjacent to his too, isn’t it? Did you hear anything?”

“I… am not brave enough to listen to what they were talking about,” Kotone says with a scowl, her red eyes murky with anxiety about the whole situation. She then looks up, and Shinjirou follows her gaze to see the bullet marks left on the pillars when shit went down a few hours ago. “…Really, I have been cold towards him since I confronted him about me being able to call for Orpheus. I feel like I’m missing something, and I can’t help but feel like I did all of this wrong, y’know?”

“Would it be strange, if I were to say that I feel the same?” Mitsuru says, tilting her head to the side. “It is strange, but… I feel as though I’m one of the causes for this, too. Even though I’ve never known the both of you before coming here.”

“We shouldn’t think too deeply about it,” Aki speaks up. “Kotone, since it isn’t like he trusts any of us, will you be alright going to check on him? Mochizuki is nice and all, but he keeps his mouth tightly shut, and that means we won’t be able to get anything out of him. Even when things are this bad already.”

“…I guess, yeah,” Kotone mutters, nervousness radiating from her in waves. “If he still wants to see me, that is. I’m not even sure if he ever saw me as a sister before, and I sure as hell think he doesn’t now.”

“Better try and fail than not tryin’ at all,” Shinjirou huffs, patting Kotone’s head softly. The girl pouts and tries to push his hand away – and he can’t help but grin back at her – but Shinjirou keeps his hand where it is. “Don’t be nervous, c’mon. You want me to hold your hand or something?”

“That’d be nice,” Kotone returns immediately, and oh, he can feel his cheeks heating up just the tiniest bit. But only for that moment, though, because Kotone finally smiles as she inhales. “Alright, I’mma give it a go. Wish me luck, guys!”

“Yeah,” Shinjirou hums. “Good luck, kid.”

It takes her a while, since Makoto is not in his room (“he said he needed some alone time. I’m sorry, Kotone-chan” “do you know where he might’ve gone to? Please, I just need to make sure that he’s okay” “…I think he’s at the beach”), but she finally finds him.

“Makoto?” She calls out, uncertain, when she sees Makoto sitting on the pier, his legs dangling off the edge and his left hand clutching at his arm, face contorted in discomfort and pain. When he doesn’t turn, she calls a little louder. “Makoto! Hey!”

Makoto still doesn’t turn, but acknowledges her with a deep sigh, pulling up one knee and resting his forehead on it. The Dark Hour is fast approaching, but he doesn’t have anything on his person that would be able to fight off Shadows. What is he trying to do, waiting to get pounced on?

“The Dark Hour’s soon,” she says when she’s finally at the pier, her feet making each step on the wooden boards loud like a gong in the dead of the night. “You’re not even keeping an Evoker with you, idiot.”

“What do you want?” Makoto says, but more than just venom, there’s resignation in it, too. If it was before the love hotel, she wouldn’t have cared enough to listen to it. “Spit it out or go back. I want to be left alone.”

“As if I’d let you,” she huffs, walking over and sitting down next to him. He shifts his gaze up to her, tired and defeated, before looking back down at his own leg. The silence that settles is awkward, so she’s not sure if she’s supposed to say anything more. But she chooses to, because silence right now would only make her – and his – thoughts run wilder. “How’re your arm and leg?”

He doesn’t respond, refusing to pretend that he’s thinking about her question, but she doesn’t push him. Suddenly being shot with the intent to kill, even to him, would be traumatizing and terrifying, no matter how stone-cold he’s making himself seem.

After a moment, though, the sky begins to darken as the Dark Hour arrives. But strangely enough, Eurydice doesn’t react; she simply sits and waits, content and at ease, even though she would always stand on guard for Kotone whenever the midnight hour comes. Kotone grimaces slightly, and when the dark sky finally turns to the sickly shade of green, something shifts in the air.

At long last, Makoto lifts his head up but doesn’t look Kotone’s way. His gaze is instead on the far horizon as he contemplates on something, his eyes lifeless and dark, and it makes something in her twinge. She hates this look on him, whether or not they’ve had a big fight, whether or not he sees her as a sister like she does him. It looks sad, and in pain, in so much pain that she wants to rip it out of his chest and cast it into oblivion just for—

“They’re fine,” Makoto answers the question he’s left hanging for what feels like an eternity. “Didn’t Aigis tell you to stay away from me?”

“She does, but you’re my brother, even if that sentiment isn’t shared,” she shrugs, ignoring the burn in her chest as she looks him in the eyes. He quickly averts his gaze away, a deep frown on his brows and his lips set into a terse line. “You might be an asshole and a prick, but you’re not a threat, I know that much.”

Makoto snorts with a self-deprecating laughter as he shakes his head and puts his forehead back to his knee, expression unreadable but nevertheless haunted. “What if I am? What if I’m some sort of agent for a monster that wants nothing more than to watch the world burn?”

She opens her mouth, but something in his expression stops her; there’s that sliver of truth lingering in his every breath, as if he’s not speaking metaphorically, but truthfully. Eurydice sings softly, sadly, and she has to take a moment to breathe, to rearrange her thoughts.

“…Even if that’s the case, and I doubt that it is,” she says, the twitch in his expression minute but hard to miss and harder to make sense of. “I don’t think you’d choose to be the so-called agent by choice.”

Makoto laughs quietly, shaking his head again before standing up on shaky legs. She reaches out to help him, but he refuses, pulling his arm back from her reach, but doesn’t take steps away from her. When she rises up to stand near his level, seeing for the first time how his posture is hunched and so weary, he finally smiles at her, no matter how tormented it seems.

“You really belong here, huh…” He muses quietly, nodding once to himself before turning back. “…I’ll be fine. This will pass, eventually.”

“I don’t believe you,” Kotone insists, grasping his hand and pulling him back to face her. He keeps his eyes on the ground and not her face, his appearance that of someone who’s already accepted his fate, and it both confuses her and infuriates her. What is he not telling them? Why is he not bearing his wounds for them to see, for her to see? They could’ve helped—

“I’m not your brother, and you’re not my sister,” he repeats, but there’s no venom in his voice, only sincerity. Eurydice hums into the staffs of her ribs as she looks Makoto in the eyes, and he looks back. For the first time since he said those words to her, it doesn’t feel like he’s telling her this out of spite anymore, but something else, some other reason she doesn’t know.

“…What did you mean by that? Makoto?” She asks, and resists his attempt to pull his hand away.

“I meant exactly what I said,” he hums, tugging his hand free and digging it deep into his pocket. “We are not related. At least, not anymore – so stop looking out for me. Stop caring about me. Just think of me as someone who’s already dead to you.”

“As if I can do that so easily, you ass,” she growls. How could he say that, when he was all that she had left before they – she – found her place here, among friends she’d like nothing more than to count as found family? “How could you say something like that? How could I cut ties with the only family that I have left?”

“You should,” he mutters, looking to the side. She follows his gaze to see Aigis standing there, her eyes hard and dark, the soft whirs of her mechanisms echoing deeply into the night. “You never were my sister, and I, your brother.”

“Stop repeating that, please,” she pleads, the pang in her chest growing worse when she realizes that he doesn’t harbor any spite when he says that. It feels odd, out of place, and she’s now led to believe by what she’s seen and heard that he has a goal in mind. That he’s doing all of this, cutting ties with her so cruelly and absolutely, for something. “Just talk to me. I’m sure I can help. We can help.”

“Try all you might. It won’t change a damn thing,” Makoto bites out, his voice low and barely audible. “I should go back. I’d go crazy if Aigis shot me again.”

“I won’t let her,” she insists, grasping his arm tightly only to realize that he’s shaking, trembling under her fingertips and cold like ice. “You’re my brother, and I’m going to protect you no matter what.”

There’s an infinite pause, his eyes wide and looking through her. And then, unexpectedly, he smiles – soft, and kind, and warm, just like how he was many months ago. But it’s always tinted by something darker at the edge; a sense of guilt, of sadness. “…It isn’t much, but—” he inhales sharply at this, pulling his arm away from her grip for the last time, before bowing his head once. “—thank you.”

She isn’t allowed a moment to ask him why he would thank her when she’d achieved nothing, because he simply shakes his head at her before walking away, past Aigis, whose eyes look after his form like a predator looking after her prey.

It’s like looking at everything through fog.

He neither likes nor dislikes this feeling – but then again, simply existing without a goal to drive him, without hopes and dreams, is like he’s not even alive at all.

(But when he remembers Kotone’s hand placed on his arm, he still recalls the warmth spreading under his skin. She is just like the sun, a spark of life he hasn’t felt for a long, long time.)

“Where did Elizabeth-san say she would fight you again?” Ryoji says as an attempt to lighten the mood. Makoto isn’t even sure why he’s saying yes to Elizabeth’s request to fight him, but he supposes he has nothing better to do, when he has yet to ask to return to SEES to fight the Chariot and the Justice.

“She said to meet her in the Velvet Room,” he says, fingers brushing his own knuckles where Kotone had grasped onto him a few days ago on the beach. She felt so warm, and she was so kind – kinder than he ever will be. She really belongs here, not him; as someone who’s better and stronger than him, heart and soul. For once, he’s glad that he has this power – so that she wouldn’t have to die, that she could live in the companies of ones she loves and ones that love her in return. “I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?”

“Of course not,” Ryoji grasps his hand tightly, a different kind of warmth from Kotone’s, but a warmth that is irreplaceable all the same. “I mean, you never regretted fighting her before facing me on top of Tartarus, have you?”

“Right now, I don’t. But I’m not too sure about back then,” he confesses, the memory a fond one at the edge of his consciousness. He breathes those thoughts out through his nose as he sighs. “Well, not like I have anything better to do beside playing the arcades anyway.”

Ryoji laughs lightly as they arrive at their destination.

To Makoto’s surprise, it’s not just Elizabeth standing there in front of the familiar blue door. Theodore, a resident who Makoto has seen often but rarely talked to, is here, too. He looks around, to see the alley shrouded in the same nether shadow that often surrounds the Velvet Room, before turning back to the two pair of siblings bowing their heads at him.

“I’m glad you came, Makoto-san,” Elizabeth declares, the monstrosity of the compendium hugged against her chest. Makoto doesn’t respond right away, only looking at her with a ghost of a smile. And at his silence, her smile widens. “I do not know how effective this fight will be, but I must thank you for allowing me this chance all the same.”

“It’s not like fighting with you is going to change how the time loops are,” Makoto shrugs, dismissive, as he follows Elizabeth and Theodore inside. The scenery shifts in the same half-nauseating way, and his Velvet Room has now taken a proper form; instead of a confined space, he’s in the middle of a meadow, with the radiant but illusory moon up above and summer’s breeze in between his fingertips. “…Do you know why my Velvet Room keeps changing?”

Igor is the one to reply, his smile still as unreadable, as always. “The Velvet Room is the reflection of your journey, Makoto-san. Even I cannot say for certain why it keeps changing, when it has remained the same for so long, but I do believe that it is because your fate is meant to be different in this cycle.”

“Different, as in, I’ll get to die, and time will get to flow, right?” He asks, expecting no real answer.

Igor doesn’t reply to his rhetorical question. Instead, he waves his hand to the side, where both Elizabeth and Theodore are, standing with their compendium in their arms. “This is entirely up to you, but I believe both of them wish to fight you.”

“Both?” He repeats. He knows Elizabeth to be spontaneous and eccentric, but is Theodore one with such character, too? “You’re going to fight, Theodore?”

“If you would allow me, of course,” Theodore smiles warmly, tipping his head down and opening his compendium. The rush of power that gushes out like unbridled fury of the high sea fills the air as Cu Chulainn comes forth. A familiar face he hasn’t used for a long, long time— “I am to Kotone-san as my sister is to you, and vice versa – we exist to aid you in your journey. Will you allow me this honor?”

Ryoji looks at him as Elizabeth summons Thor to her side, and Odin shifts in his chest, ready for a chance to duel one of his own. But he feels different; like golden armor and crystallized left eye and the twin crows perched on his hand and his spear. A change, just like Orpheus—

“Should I join in?” Ryoji asks, worry marring his voice. “You’re fighting the both of them, and—”

“It’s alright,” Makoto decides to cut him short, even as he feels the cool wash of darkness from Ryoji’s power seeping into their Social Link. He smiles and pats Ryoji’s arm softly as he takes his Evoker into his hand, feeling the chorus from deep within him. “I’m not sure what you’re aiming to accomplish with this. All this will show is my strength of will, not my bonds—”

“You are wrong in that regard, Makoto-san,” Elizabeth cuts his sentence short, her eyes fierce but kind. He startles to a halt, electricity singing his fingertips and a foreign sensation filling his chest. “Those bonds are the basis of your power. The stronger your bonds are, the stronger you are; even if in each loop, each timeline, they do not care for you nor love you, their souls still remember.”

“You’re spitting nonsense,” Makoto snarls. If their souls had remembered, then he wouldn’t have suffered like this, wouldn’t have to tear his heart out of his chest with his own hands over and over like this. “I’ve made sure that my bonds are broken in each cycle. Those looks in their eyes, the pain in my chest when I erected the Seal – they’re all real. I’m damn sure their souls do not.”

“If that is what you believe, then why is it that you can still utilize your Personas to their fullest potential like so?” Elizabeth asks, and for once, he has to stop to think. At his momentary pause, Elizabeth smiles as Thor lets out a haughty roar, hammer high in the sky and thunder crackling on Mjolnir’s steel. “I know that it is hard to believe, so I shall request you this; fight me with all that you have, so that you may see that your bonds are still there, Makoto-san.”

He wants to just run away from here, to not have to face this truth lies and be done with it. But he can’t ignore the fact that Elizabeth proposed this to help him, not to harm or to open his scars for her pleasure. He’s known her for all moments, in all lifetimes, in all of timelines; and she is far too kind to concoct such a plan so he could suffer.

Let us proceed then, dear boy! Orpheus laughs, genuinely and without reserve, excitement lingering in the air like starlight. Makoto feels the warmth spreading all over his core as his other self stirs, eager and ready. She is your friend, a very old and very dear one. I believe she shall not lead you astray. Would you not agree?

He finds himself pressing a hand to his own chest, to feel his heart shudder with uncertainty. He’s anxious and afraid about something, about what this battle might bring—

Do not hesitate, boy, Odin calls, the caws of his trusted crows echoing deeply inside his skull. We are all here with you. You trust her, and you trust us – so go forth without falter. There is nothing for you to lose in this fight, is there?

“…You’re right,” Makoto sighs, shaking his head and pressing the Evoker to his temple. Ryoji nods at him once and steps back, eyes focused at the two attendants opposite from him. “The only thing I have to lose fighting my dear friend is my pride. But what use is that, right?”

“Are you ready, Makoto-san?” Theodore inquires. “Shall we proceed, then?”

“Yeah,” Makoto nods, pulling the trigger and calling out Orpheus to his side. “Let’s.”

He must’ve been more affected by Aigis’ change in attitude and everything in between than he realizes.

“Makoto!” Ryoji calls from somewhere at the edge of his consciousness, his hand finding Makoto’s shoulder and squeezing it, as if to ground him to the present.

There are too many voices of his Personas in his head, the sounds of their concerns and worries converging into one incomprehensible mass he couldn’t discern. He exhales, expelling some of their worries out of his mind as he cradles his head in his hand. “I’m fine, I’m fine. It’s just—”

“I’m sorry, Makoto-san,” Elizabeth apologizes, to which he responds with a shake of his head. How could she have known that he’d be this weak and fragile? How could she have known that what she was trying to prove is a moot point? “I didn’t realize just how—”

“It’s okay,” he mumbles, feeling the tips of his fingers again. “Who could’ve seen this coming?”

It’s only a matter of time, when he thinks about it; he is a Wild Card, and someone who relies on the strength of his bonds to thrive. How long has it been since SEES have seen him as one of their own? How long has it been since he’d forged his bonds with others aside from Ryoji, Akinari, Aigis – who has now turned her back against him – and Koromaru? He hasn’t even talked to Bunchiki in ages, hasn’t bonded with Kaz for as long as he could recall. And Keisuke is only on cordial terms with him, nothing more.

What Elizabeth is trying to make him see – that his bonds did indeed survive through time that loops – turns into a testament of his own failure as a human being.

It took no longer than ten minutes for the issue to surface; calling for his Personas, one or two at a time, doesn’t do much except for causing a degree of discomfort. But shifting and changing them constantly strains his psyche out enough that he can feel his heart snapping into splinters, even more so when calling for those of the Black Compendium.

They are not disobedient, by any means; Hassan is a gentle shadow, with Asterius a bloodthirsty but not at all terrifying beast prowling at the edge of his heart. But their presences are supposed to signify his bonds with the others, of the Hermit and the Fortune – Toriumi and Nozomi, respectively – and how long had he been neglecting them? Taking what powers that he possesses for granted? How—

“It is not the strength of your bonds that is in question, Makoto-san,” Theodore interjects softly, and Makoto finally opens his eyes – the meadow still looks just the same, with the grasses singed and frozen and electrified, and the moon still mocking him from above. “It is your condition that makes the process of summoning your Persona repeatedly tiring just so.”

“You don’t have to sugarcoat it,” he snorts a mirthless laugh, pulling his hand away from his face and feeling the cold sweat of dread cascading down his brows. He wipes it away and looks up, his vision swimming slightly at the sudden change. “It’s my own damn fault this happens.”

“It is not, by any means—”

“I told you, it’s fine, you don’t need to make me feel better by lying,” he snarls through gritted teeth as he clenches his shirt hard enough for the fabric to tear. After a moment, he gets up wobblily, with Ryoji helping him with a hand on his arm. “This is a terrible idea. I’m sorry I couldn’t provide you with any entertainment, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth looks as though she wants to say something, but only smiles after a moment, sad and pained. He is the cause of that pain, too, just like he is the cause for everything that has gone wrong in this godforsaken— “It is quite alright, Makoto-san. It is me who has to apologize; I wish to help, after all, and yet…”

“You being here is already enough for me,” Makoto murmurs softly, the throbbing headache subsiding into something a little more manageable. The Full Moon is soon, so he supposes he shouldn’t dawdle. “I should go back. The Chariot and Justice Shadows are approaching.”

“I suppose so,” Elizabeth agrees, a little awkward, a little pensive. Ryoji remains silent, and Makoto looks to him, only to see the boy trying to reassure him with a smile. He looks away as Elizabeth guides him towards the same chair he has sat on for many a lifetime. “I suggest you rest here awhile longer, however. You do not look as dashing as before.”

He snorts a laughter, despite it all. “Shut up.”

There is a beat of silence before he looks towards Igor, whose brows furrow just the tiniest bit. “Please, do not blame yourself for this development. It is something we have not foreseen, is all.”

He is about to retort Igor’s words with what he’s said to Theodore and Elizabeth both, only to stop himself when Igor’s eyes bore into his soul, making him feel seen and bare and—

“…If you insist,” he decides to say, rubbing the back of his neck and feeling the prickling sensation of his fingers scraping his skin. “…Thank you for allowing me to use this space, by the way. The Velvet Room has always been my escape from reality, somewhat.”

“It is our pleasure, Makoto-san,” Igor smiles softly. “You may return at any time – we are more than happy to host an outstanding guest such as yourself.”

I’m not that great a person you’re making me out to be, he barely stops himself from saying. He isn’t a good person, not even remotely decent. He’s just a failure and a disaster, who was somehow given the power that allows men to best Death itself. Why was he given this fate? This ability as the Universe?

He rubs the thoughts away from his eyes and straightens up, hands fisting his pants hard enough for his nails to leave marks on the fabric. “…I really should get going. I’ll see you all later.”

When he leaves, he feels hollower than ever before. And with the moon laughing at him from beyond the Paulownia Mall’s windows, he can’t help but want to curl up and disappear, all over again.

Notes:

Hehehehehehehe.

But! Good news! Things get a little better from here, bits by bits. I won't tell you where it'll get worse again, but rest assured there're plenty of pain to serve :D

Hassan in this particular chapter is Hassan I-sabbah, founder of the Nizari Isma'ili state and its military group, the Order of the Assassins. He's also known as the Old Man Of The Mountain, so there's that! :D

See you next time!

Chapter 11: A Sliver Of Hope

Summary:

After the fallout with Aigis, thing might've seemed grim. But, unlike before, there's a light shining through the darkness.

The bonds he still keep within his heart share their thoughts, and convinces him that maybe, just maybe, he can have some of this, too.

Notes:

Hello! Sorry for the lateness, I did not anticipate my procastrination at betaing my work to be this bad lol. I sent this to my beta super late, but she's so good at reading this so it comes out not TOO late XD Sorry again!

This chapter is a bit more hopeful than the previous ones. Rest your heart for now, I'll tell you (or not) about the incoming disasater lol

(also forgive the typos if there are any still, will correct as soon as I spot it! Or if you do, really!)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

She has never seen Ryoji as angry as this.

Granted, Aigis was more or less socially inept; she is an android, after all, and androids aren’t human. Kotone thinks she has the heart of one, but it’d take some time for her humanity to fully form.

But what she did, looking at Makoto as if he’s a threat, pulling her weapons at him for simply looking at Kotone for too long? That’s not normal.

And Makoto doesn’t take it well, either.

“Aigis, you can relax a little, you know,” Kotone says as the android keeps watch from the corner of the living room. Makoto is eating in the kitchen, his eyes carefully gauging her reactions with a permanent frown on his face, shoulders drawn taut and eyes dark with fear and something she can’t quite name. “He might be a jerk, but he’s not a danger to me.”

“But—”

“Aigis,” Kotone tries again, a little more exasperate this time. “It’s fine, really! Just stop this and go back to following me around or something?”

Aigis looks at her for a long, long while, her eyes impossibly wide and piercing into her. After a moment, she nods stiffly. “Understood, Kotone-san. I still recommend you keep your distance, however.”

“Nope,” she quickly replies with a small smile, and Makoto must’ve heard that, because he looks up at her, scowl deepening. “What? What I do is my own decision, and you of all people don’t have any right to tell me what to do, Makoto.”

He opens his mouth to say something, only to close it and get up abruptly. The meal is only quarterly-eaten, and he’s already looking gaunt and starved. She is tempted to grab him and push him back down, but he just puts the earphones over his ears and hides himself from the rest of the world before walking back upstairs.

“You still never told me why you think Makoto is a threat. Is there a reason, or is it just your gut feeling?”

“My ‘gut’ does not have the capacity to think,” Aigis replies, pauses, then adds. “But I believe that gut feeling means something akin to instinct, yes?”

“Yeah, that,” Kotone nods, crossing her arms. “So? Is there a reason?”

Much to her luck, Aigis repeats what she had said for dozens of times before, just like when Mitsuru and her father asked her; “there is no evidence, but I simply know that he is a danger to all of you.”

“Just… He’s not, okay? He’s a jerk, maybe, but he’s not a danger. I guarantee it,” she mutters, a strange feeling worming inside her stomach. She looks towards Ryoji, who’s looking at Aigis with dark, unblinking eyes. She has never seen him so furious, so full of hatred, and it scares her. “…Ryoji-kun, are you alright?”

“No,” he quickly denies, the temperature around him dropping even more. The air gets colder than when Mitsuru sends them an icy glare, and that is saying something. “…But, thank you, Kotone-chan. If Aigis continues with this any longer, I will not be able to help myself and do something I will regret later.”

He stands up, and Aigis locks eyes with him. Ryoji glares her down, and for a moment, she feels like she sees something overlapping with his form; of bloodied blade and dark chains and hollowed eyes with wide, maniacal grin walking alongside his shadow. But when she blinks, that image is gone, and Ryoji makes a point to pat Aigis’ shoulder, causing the android to jump—

“I kind of like you, Aigis. So please, stop with this, or I might break you without meaning to,” Ryoji warns, voice dripping with poison and eyes colder than ice. “Goodnight.”

She feels a shiver run down her spine, and for a moment, a vile, dark thought she never wishes to harbor crosses her mind;

Isn’t Ryoji-kun more dangerous than Makoto?

Amada is a nice, if too mature, kid for his age.

“Thank you for letting me join!” he bows again, and Kotone laughs as she waves her hand to signify that he doesn’t need to be so uptight. “I promise I’ll do my best to help you!”

“Don’t fret it, kid,” Aragaki snorts a laughter, shaking his head and patting his hair as he walks past. There is an edge of sadness in his eyes as he looks at Amada, and guilt; something she feels might tie to what he has left unsaid, to his past and the reason why he left SEES the first time. “Well, the Full Moon is approaching, yeah? What about that kid?”

That kid means Makoto, and everyone knows this; Aragaki is a soft and gentle giant, and despite his harsh words and maybe slightly thug-like attitude, he cares like no one else. She’s seen Aragaki and the other seniors talk about Makoto pretty often even before Yakushima, and their concerns only grew when Aigis shot him. What irks her more is the fact that he only asked for a temporary leave from SEES, not to quit like Aragaki did—

“He said he will join us on the Full Moon,” Mitsuru says with a sigh, glancing her way and giving her a small shrug. “He told me through Mochizuki, so there is that. How has he been doing?”

“Avoiding everyone like the plague, more or less,” Junpei grumbles. “I wanna call him a dick, but what happened at the Love Hotel and Yakushima aren’t something nice. Uh – no offense to you, Aigis.”

“None taken,” Aigis replies.

“I’ll keep tap on him the best I can,” Kotone offers, and Koromaru barks up at her, wagging his tail excitedly – and she doesn’t need Aigis to translate this. I will help you seems to be what the canine is getting at, and she can only smile appreciatively at her non-human friend. “Koro-chan seems to want to, as well!”

“Alright. Tell me if there is anything of note at all,” Mitsuru hums quietly. “Let’s get Amada settled in by visiting Tartarus once, then? What say you?”

“That sounds like a good idea, actually,” Kotone smiles, then looks at Amada. “Are you free tomorrow, Amada-kun?”

“Yes, I believe so,” he nods enthusiastically. “I’ll be in your care then, Yuuki-san!”

“Please, call me Kotone. Yuuki feels a little distant,” she laughs.

“Alright, then we’re set,” Sanada comments, nodding in agreement as they make a plan to go through Tartarus one more time before the Full Moon arrives. They still have a week or so left, so the timing isn’t too bad – they would be fine doing this, because they’ll still get plenty of rest before the next major battle. “We should all get ourselves trained, so if you’re up for—”

“May we join, too?”

Ryoji’s voice stops him, and all of them – Aigis more than the rest – turn hard enough for their necks to snap. Ryoji is there at the staircase, his smile tired and with that degree of reservation, of the guard that he’s put up higher than ever before. He has always been friendly but hard to reach, but now he’s simply, purely inapproachable—

“He’s physically fine,” Ryoji continues, walking down and accepting Amada’s confused bow with his own. His eyes look at the boy for a moment, then across the room once. “It’d be better like that, anyway. The longer he stays in his room, the more his thoughts stray. If you’re alright with it, of course.”

“If he’s not mentally prepared, then he is exempted from joining in, Mochizuki,” Mitsuru interjects, her voice authoritative. But, unlike any other time before, Ryoji doesn’t flinch away from it. Rather, he seems even more on guard and alert at the receiving end of her glare, and it’s something new and different. “…What are you planning? Do you want him to be in danger in Tartarus instead?”

Ryoji’s smile turns wry at this, and he only shakes his head. “He wants this, Mitsuru-san. But we would understand if you’re afraid that he might be a burden.”

It’s like a dare, that sentence – as if he’s telling Mitsuru to forbid him from joining if she feels like he is a burden and a danger to himself, and on the other hand, if she does… then it would mean that she doesn’t trust him at all. And they’ve been running low on his trust ever since before, and that rift will only grow with each denial of his request.

Logically, Kotone knows he shouldn’t join the fight at all. It has been well over three weeks since his last involvement with SEES’ business. But, if he’s going out of his way so much just to do this, just to keep himself in the fight despite his expression of wanting not to fight anymore?

Something is amiss; it’s as if he has a hidden agenda that disallows him from bailing out from the fight, as if he’s forced into it with no way out—

(But that is impossible. What could he have planned that would make backing out a taboo?)

“It’s fine. He can come,” Kotone declares, drawing eyes from the rest of the team. “I’ll keep watch over him myself, and we’ll go with a team of five instead. Everyone alright with that?”

There’s a momentary pause, and she’s relieved when Mitsuru sighs but nods, in the end. “…Yes, that is alright. Is that fine with the two of you?”

“Yes,” Ryoji smiles and hums a strange tune, the sound forlorn and sad and pained. “It is.”

Makoto looks terrible.

But, despite looking as tired and pained as he is, he can still fight, strangely enough; with his eyes trained on every target, his summoning of Orpheus much more on point and his command for the spells at his disposal much more aggressive and reckless than before.

“How is it, Amada-kun? You doing alright?” Yukari asks as she heals them with Io, the verdant wind soothing their skin and healing their scratches and burns. “Not too hard, I think?”

“I’m quite alright, thank you for asking,” Amada bows his head, looking slightly winded but still going strong. He looks towards Makoto, and with a small frown, asks in a hushed voice, directed only to the rest of them and not her brother. “…Is he okay, though? I mean, he looks like he’s in pain all the time.”

“I don’t know either,” Kotone sighs and gets up, looking towards Makoto as he destroys the last Shadow within sight. Orpheus’ flame decorates the tip of his blade, warm but scorching and merciless to the enemies. “Makoto! You want to rest yet?”

Something in her stirs at this, not furious but irritated. A strange notion, something she finds odd, all things considered. But she isn’t given time to think when Makoto shakes his head, silently running his fingers across his Evoker before shooting his head with his expression unchanging, as though he’s already used to it. Even Mitsuru isn’t that comfortable using her Evoker, even after years, so why is Makoto so at ease with mimicking death all the time?

Orpheus comes forth from smoke and azure flame, and a stronger, warmer healing spell engulfs them, ridding them of their tiredness and their wounds. It must’ve been because he sees Yukari slightly pale and sweating, but his timing is appreciated, since Yukari thanks him with a small nod.

“I’m a little tired,” Aragaki says, and Kotone is about to shoot him down – he’s still swinging his axe like it’s made of paper and home-running Shadows for sports, damnit – only to stop when he eyes Makoto with what she assumes to be concern. “Five minutes?”

“…Sure,” she agrees. “Five minutes.”

After finding themselves a suitable spot for a quick rest, she quickly beelines for Makoto, who has taken a seat near the corner. She hesitates at first, unsure of what to say or do, but decides to breathe in deeply before propping herself down next to him.

“How’re you feeling? Better?” she asks, expecting no real answer.

There’s a pregnant pause following her attempt at making small talks, and when she is about to give up, he sighs; not a sigh of exasperation, but of defeat. His eyes remain distant and unfocused, but his lips are no longer set, and his expression has turned somewhat soft; a mimicry to what he showed her back in Yakushima.

“You don’t need to do this if you don’t want to,” Makoto says, leaning fully against the wall with his gaze turning skyward. “…You’re not going to give up, are you?”

“Never!” she grins, nudging him with her shoulder lightly. She gives the rest of the team a smile that says please let me do this before she turns to Makoto again. He still has that slight scowl, but something feels a little lighter, at least. “But, seriously, though. You don’t have to force yourself to do this if you can’t, or if you don’t want to. You said so to me yourself just now.”

He pauses at this, as if wanting to say something, before shaking his head. “I want to.”

“That sounds like a lie,” she calls him out instantly.

Orpheus laughs in her chest at this, delighted and taken aback in equal measures. Makoto doesn’t seem as amused, but the lines of tenseness on his shoulders smooth out somewhat when he looks at her, gray eyes dark and tired but still strangely determined. He opens his mouth again, stops, then looks back at the others and swallows something back into his throat.

She is about to nudge him for an answer when he gets up slightly shakily on his feet, Orpheus’ azure blaze clinging to his fingertips like a glove. She wonders how he can do that, without Orpheus needing to be there physically— “…Soon.”

“Huh?”

“You’ll know. Soon,” he says, resigned but slightly relieved, as if he’s lifted a great weight off of his shoulders just by saying those simple words with no apparent meaning. “I’m ready.”

She wants to ask more so badly – wants to ask what he wants to say, why he says you’ll know and not I’ll tell you – but stops herself. She doesn’t know her brother anymore, but at the same time, it looks as though he’s trying to… do something, to actually talk or at least try to ask for help he never says out loud.

And so, she will wait; as long as she needs to and as patiently as she can.

“Alright. But that’s a promise, okay?” she demands, standing up beside him and smiling reassuringly. I’ll be here whenever you’re ready, she tries to say through her eyes alone.

Makoto doesn’t smile, doesn’t so much as make a sound. But when Orpheus stirs in her chest again, a little softer this time, she knows that he’s already heard her.

“Are you sure you want to spend your time with me?”

Akinari asks, the same question he often recites when Makoto visits. Even if he is dying and his time is limited, Makoto thinks Akinari’s presence plays a part in keeping his sanity somewhat in one place, not allowing his thoughts to scatter too much. This time, just like all the cycles before, he told Akinari all that there is to know – about the Dark Hour, about his death, about what he doesn’t want to feels.

“Of course,” Makoto sighs, leaning his head into his hands and allowing the warmth of his own palms to sear some rationality back into him. He’s been slipping around Kotone, more than he should, and he can’t afford this anymore. He has already made his choice to be forgotten, so why is he wavering now? Why does he want so much to just tell her everything?

“What are you thinking about?” Akinari asks, eyes shifting back towards the Naganaki Shrine at large, with children playing in the sandbox and adults talking idly on the sides, their expressions so happy and serene – and he wants that to, wants to feel just that again, but he knows he just can’t— “Are you thinking about wanting to tell everyone about what you had experienced?”

Akinari knows, as he always does; Makoto has tried his best to mask his thoughts, but Death brings them closer together than ever before. It’s as if his thoughts are laid bare through his wish for death, and it terrifies him. “…How did you know that?”

“When you talked to me, looking at the others, you often had this wistful look on you,” Akinari explains, his voice soft and calm. “Then why not tell them? I think they’d want to know.”

“I’m going to die anyway, and I don’t want them to—” he cuts himself off, suddenly realizing that he has worded that out loud, disregarding Akinari’s own pain. “…I’m sorry, I—”

“Our circumstances are different,” Akinari says with a smile. “I didn’t choose this, but I know I will soon pass. But you? You had a choice, and every time, you chose to die to save someone you love. I think that is the kindest thing you could’ve done.”

“…You haven’t seen what I had done before,” Makoto murmurs, exhaling shakily before straightening up and letting himself fall backward onto the bench. After a moment, a thought crosses his mind, so he wonders out loud. “…If you have a choice, would you have let your mother know?”

Akinari ponders for a moment, his breath still strong enough to hold a conversation at length. Makoto wishes he could save this man, too – broken but kind and infinitely understanding. On the fifth cycle, he thinks, he let slip by chance that he was trapped in a time loop, and Akinari had always been there. They shared their pain as if the other’s is their own, eased their broken hearts and healed their weary souls—

“Yes.”

The answer is firm and unflinching, and for that single moment, disappointment takes hold; shouldn’t Akinarki understand his position, his choice? Wouldn’t he have made the same decision as Makoto had?

But when silence stretches, Akinari laughs quietly, frail hand finding his shoulder. “Makoto-kun, I know this might seem strange to you. I respect your choice, I really do – I couldn’t imagine having to live the same year fighting a fight no one knows about over and over like you have to. But, for me, I still would like for my mother to know.”

Makoto presses his thumb hard into the bridge of his nose, forcing pain to sear through his skull and into both of his eyes. Stars glitter behind his eyelids, sunlight accentuating the bubbling flashes like halos.

(As a distraction.)

“I love her very dearly, even if… I have said many regretful things to her,” Akinari says, and Makoto opens his eyes and glances to the side to see the man smiling, his eyes looking far away from the present. “I love her, and I have asked her once in a fit of rage if it’d have been better had she never known that I was dying.”

Makoto had heard about that, but that’s about it; he has never heard of the exchanges afterwards before, and in his fit of curiosity, he asks, with Orpheus urging him on with a croon into his heart. “…If it’s not too much, what… what did she say?”

It’s as if he’s trying to cement an idea in him, as if he’s trying to find a way out, when he knows there are none. But hope is here, nevertheless, dancing at the back of his skull and pulling his bonds around his wrists a little tighter; not enough to shackle him into the Seal, but enough to remind him of their flickering presences, their near-permanence, their brilliance.

And he hates thinking like this; he has made his choice long ago, because he knows they will be in pain, so much pain he couldn’t hope to erase in a single lifetime, if he lets himself waltz back into their lives. But maybe, just maybe, a part of him was hoping that he is wrong, that he deserves to be loved—

No, he bites his lip, bitter and angry and terrified. No, I don’t deserve anything, I—

“She said,” Akinari begins, squeezing his shoulder a little tighter as their bond – as the Sun – burns bright inside his heart. “That it would be painful, but she’d rather get to know me and have memories of me than to never have known and loved me at all.”

He wants so terribly to believe that such notion applies to himself, too, but another part of him refuses it, because he killed them, and—

“I believe,” Akinari says again, leaning back into the seat with eyes looking up at the sky. “That the meaning of our lives is something we make but don’t see. That our lives are defined by the things we do for others, and for ourselves. You’re only doing half of that, aren’t you?”

His breath hitches, and for the first time in centuries, he finally hears those words again; the meaning of our lives is something we make but don’t see. But he’s never heard an extension before, never had he known that Akinari meant it like that—

“I might hate the hands Fate has dealt me with all that I am,” he says, smiling gently at Makoto, as if he has never killed a person, as if he has never hurt his friends willingly before. “But, now that I’ve talked to you, I feel like making the most out of the time I have left doesn’t sound so bad. And death isn’t that scary, either – he’s really kind, isn’t he?”

Just for that statement alone, he allows himself a laughter; it is true. Ryoji is kind, far too kind to be stuck with a piece of shit with no good qualities like him. “Yeah. He is a Death that loves life more than any of us combined. He deserves to be here.”

Unlike me.

“Give it time,” Akinari states, reaching for his well-worn notebook and flipping through the pages, his pen – still chewed by Koromaru, and one Makoto assumes Kotone returned to him – already between his fingertips. “You said that time is a vice. But then again, time heals all, does it not?”

Akinari has always been wise beyond his years, either by his own merits or because of his circumstances, so for the most part, Makoto can’t find anything in him to object the man. But it feels wrong, to simply wait until something makes sense, to wait until he knows what to do next with this chance he’s given. He refuses to forge bonds that will only serve to hurt those he holds dear, but—

“…I’m not sure if I’m just selfish or afraid,” Makoto relents, feeling his lips move before his mind can catch up. But with Akinari here, he feels like he could say things he never wishes are real. “My… whole life has always been… defined by other people. But when all this began, I don’t know. I just don’t know what to do, I feel like connecting again is the wrong thing to do when I’ve destroyed them myself.”

“I see,” Akinari hums softly. “Then I leave you with a question; if it was someone else is in your shoes right now and not you… Kotone-chan, for example… would you rather her tell you everything, or would you rather her die alone and in pain to save you from her memories at all?”

And a part of him knows immediately before his brain ever could that the answer is as simple as it is terrifying, that maybe, just maybe, reattaching these bonds to his heart might be the right thing—

No, he quickly repeats under his breath, his fingers suddenly shaking with ferocity. I can’t think like that. They deserve better than this, they—

That is a decision you came to by yourself through a pain-tainted lens, but would they say the same, had they the chance to know the full story?

The voice isn’t his, nor is it Orpheus’; it is gentle, but firm like a strict but kind parent. He doesn’t know this voice, but something in him already realizes who it belongs to, of someone residing in the depths of the Sea of Souls, watching, waiting—

“I believe they would’ve loved to know you, no matter if you live or die, no matter what you’ve done,” Akinari snaps him out of his head, voice gentle and amused, to a degree. Makoto looks up at him, and that strange voice croons through the cacophony of symphonies Orpheus conjured up – as if the voice agrees with this. As if it wants him to truly reconsider, to—

“…What makes you say that?” Makoto asks. “What makes you think someone is going to be stupid or kind enough to want to know about someone like me? Someone who’s not supposed to live through this year at all?”

And the answer that comes is unexpected, and it makes his heart sink and soar, all at once.

“Because you are far kinder and gentler than you’re making yourself seem,” Akinari responds, his hand feeling so solid and real like the bonds he had lost, long ago. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Take a step back and watch from outside again. Can you do that for me, at least?”

The voice whispers within him, agreeing to Akinari’s words. And while Makoto wants nothing more than to dig his own grave for what he’s done, he couldn’t help but huff out a laugh when the Sun’s warmth seeps into his bones.

“…Alright,” he finally relents with a small, tired smile. “It’s a deal.”

(A butterfly perches itself on his fingertips an hour later after he’s parted with Akinari. And right then and there, he knows what he wants to do next.)

“You want to talk to someone?”

Ryoji asks, his back still against Makoto’s door with two cups of coffee in hands. Makoto only smiles thinly, his eyes narrowed in thoughts and something brewing at the tip of his tongue. “…Yeah. I talked with Akinari today, and I… I think I need to talk. To someone.”

“Who?”

Makoto doesn’t answer that, which makes Ryoji even more curious. Who could it have been, that Makoto wants to talk to, other than the ones that remember? But Ryoji finds that Makoto wanting to seek help – or something similar – is something he wants to happen, so he doesn’t object to the idea.

Instead, he smiles reassuringly as he puts a cup into Makoto’s waiting palms. “Sure, go on ahead. When do you want to?”

“Just… leave me alone during the Dark Hour,” Makoto says, and upon Ryoji’s puzzled look, gives him a warm, reassuring smile, tired as it may be. “It’s fine. It’s not like I’m going to talk to Nyx or anything.”

“If you say so,” Ryoji shrugs, sitting down beside the other boy and taking a sip, the liquid warm and welcoming on his tongue. “Can I help at all?”

He expects Makoto to immediately shoot back with “with what”, but when the silence stretches on, he feels like something has shifted in him. It is a feeling not dissimilar to one he felt before the disaster after that fateful cycle that turned Makoto into this, but it feels warmer, calmer – it is a good change, something in him says.

He looks at the other boy, and finds Makoto’s gaze lingering on the rising moon, his expression more serene than he has seen in centuries. Ryoji isn’t sure what it is that he has talked with Akinari about, but if it’s making Makoto think about it all in a different way, to bring a little change to his mindset, then he is more than willing to welcome it.

“It’s fine,” Makoto finally answers, exhaling and taking a sip. He is still pale, his face gaunt and his muscles slowly wasting away with how little sleep and how much suffering he’s been forced through, but he looks the tiniest bit more alive than before. “I’ll tell you if there’s anything you can do.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Ryoji hums softly. Makoto’s shadow shifts at this, and he can see eyes of something (not a Persona?) inside the shade casted by the moonlight. A name comes to Ryoji, a name so strangely familiar yet somewhat different. “What are you thinking about now?”

“What Akinari said,” Makoto admits, brows furrowing slightly more. “I… I’m still not too keen about this, but I think… I think I could finally find a semblance of peace with this.”

“That sounds nice,” Ryoji smiles knowingly, putting his hand above Makoto’s, squeezing his fingers gently once. “I hope you do. I truly do.”

“You always do,” Makoto hums, interlacing their fingers together for just a moment before finally letting go, shoulders no longer taut and expression almost at peace. “You always have. And you always will.”

“And nothing is going to change that,” Ryoji echoes, stands up, then pats his head affectionately. “I’ll be hanging out downstairs, then. Tell me when you’re finished, okay?”

“Okay.”

He takes a final glance at Makoto before grabbing the guitar then walking out. The Full Moon is soon, so any and all Tartarus expedition is suspended, at least until the Greater Shadows are defeated. Ryoji has seen them in action, and even though he knows this is biased because he’s spent so long watching Makoto practically steamrolling everything in sight, he feels like they are too weak.

Weak might not have been the right word; Kotone is certainly growing at an exponential rate, each spring of her step and each fight she goes through molding her soul into something brighter, sharper, sturdier – it is like how he had watched Makoto once, a long time ago. Their souls are the same, able to grow far more than any other human beings could, because they are the Wild Cards. Or perhaps, is it because their souls are the way they are that they’re given the power of the Wild Cards?

He pats Koromaru, who faithfully waits on the second floor’s lounge, and together they descend. Maybe he is thinking about this wrong – maybe the quality of one’s soul dictates their fates, and not the other way around. Still, to give a soul so bright and so kind this harrowed but painful fate is something his human heart cannot accept, even if that god inside him only hums in acceptance without a shred of emotion.

“What do you think, boy?” Ryoji decides to ask as they reach the ground floor, Aigis standing guard as sturdily as she always has beside Kotone. Unlike before, she regards him with a respectful nod, and not a glance of distrust. “Do you think the soul decides its power, or the power chooses the soul first?”

He doesn’t expect any answer, of course, because he thinks even someone like Mitsuru couldn’t have known what exactly he is asking about. To talk about Wild Cards is to talk about hearts, and to talk about hearts is to mention gods and Shadows and everything they haven’t seen before.

But, to his surprise, Koromaru barks up at him, an answer clear in his voice.

Both, is what Ryoji thinks he’s hearing through the yips of the canine, and he couldn’t help but smile – at least, someone is agreeing with him on this one.

Even if the soul is strong, if it is vile and dangerous and evil, power like the Universe wouldn’t have chosen to awake within it. And he knows – he is a godling, after all, and he has seen Makoto in that final moment for far too many times to not see how his soul looks like; brilliant and warm like the rising sun itself.

When he killed his friends in the cycles before, it was simply because of the circumstances; he was already way past the breaking point by then, and Ryoji isn’t even sure if he himself could have made it out of the time loops intact and rightly sane, even if he is partially a god. Makoto did his best; it is simply that his best was not enough.

He wishes Makoto could’ve seen himself from Ryoji’s own eyes.

“You’re moping.”

Kotone’s voice is soft and perfectly calm, not a smidge of resentment in it. Whatever happened with Aigis showed them what Makoto never wanted them to see; his weaker, broken side. Ryoji smiles the thoughts away and hums softly, fingers still threading through Koromaru’s fur. “A little. Am I that easy to read?”

“Only when it concerns Makoto, yeah,” Kotone shrugs, dropping down beside him. Koromaru yips softly, muzzle stretched into a canine-smile. “Speaking of Makoto… we have never talked about him before, huh, Ryoji-kun?”

“Have we never?” Ryoji asks, even though he knows she’s speaking the truth. Anything regarding Makoto, he would either speak defensively or would simply deflect the question altogether.

And he is proven right in his observation of Kotone’s doubt when she scowls at him. “Yeah, no, you’re not lying to me about that anymore.”

He laughs quietly, Nyx’s shadow making his shade shift under his feet. It feels wrong for Makoto to be called an Appriser, for Aigis to hate him and not Ryoji, but what could he say about it? No matter how much he wants for them to know, to understand what Makoto is going through, he can’t muster the words. The choice to say or not to say the truth does not lie with him, after all.

“What is there to talk about?” he says instead, eyes glancing towards Aigis, who watches him with a form of curious fascination rather than hatred, something he is not at all familiar with.

“I mean, you know him more than I do, and I’ve been avoiding the topic like the plague for ages now, haven’t I?” Kotone says as Ryoji puts the guitar on his lap, fingers threading the strings softly. “I might not know him as much as I hoped I do, but he still is my brother, and he’s…”

The words dissipate in between them, but Ryoji doesn’t make an effort to continue their conversation. It is only when the sound of bells rings in him and his bond with Makoto ripples softly does he decide to even give her a glimpse of their situations at all.

“If anything, the only thing you need to know is that this whole situation isn’t yours to blame,” Ryoji says, fingers plucking a few notes, testing the way they feel in the back of his skull.

Orpheus seems in an oddly good mood, but after closer inspection, a good mood might not have been the right word for it; it is as though Orpheus is more accepting of their situations. He finds it strange, but that otherworldly presence that now exists in Makoto’s room might’ve played a part in that, he supposes.

Kotone’s gaze is long and unflinching, but it doesn’t take her too long before she looks away. “Even if you say that, Makoto’s actions seem to speak otherwise.”

Because he wants you to hate him, he barely stops himself from saying. Instead, he mimics the sound Orpheus makes, and adds a little something into it. “Thoughts rarely translate well into actions, Kotone-chan. But, then again, his story isn’t mine to tell.”

“You understand him more than I do,” she says again, voice saddened and pained, and he knows Makoto hates himself for doing this. He never speaks of it, but how long has it been since Makoto last smiled without a hint of sorrow? How long has it been since he could speak about his shouldn’t-exist sister without a shred of guilt? “Is there nothing you can tell me at all? I want to understand him, you know. I want to help him. I imagine you do, too.”

Of course I do. Of course I always do, Ryoji thinks, bitter and angry at himself for his inability to change all of this. He would’ve sacrificed his entire being, heart and soul, for him – he would, without a second thought, without a doubt. “It’s complicated.”

“We have time,” Kotone insists, leaning back. When Ryoji ignores her and continues to play that song that Makoto thrummed into the air at the beginning of the year – Homura, he recalls, a song from a time that is not now – Kotone grabs him by the wrist, stopping him. “How can I understand if you don’t talk about it?”

“He doesn’t want me to say anything,” Ryoji murmurs, even if his heart wants nothing more than to tell her everything. He has seen Makoto try to reiterate what he went through before, a long time ago, and it ended with doubts. They thought him deranged, even when he was a very dear friend at the time. “And even if he wanted me to, you wouldn’t have understood most of it anyway.”

“How would you know that if you’ve never even tried?

At this, he feels laughter rip itself out of him, bitter and resentful. And before he can even stop himself – an action that should’ve been a certainty for him, had the topic of their discussion not involved the only person who made him whole – he finds himself saying, venom in every word. “You don’t know anything. Don’t assume we haven’t tried a damn thing to salvage the situations, Kotone-chan.”

The next few minutes are filled with nothing but stilted, heavy silence. And he hates this, hates himself for doing this to an innocent person who knows nothing, who is not even remotely accountable for the predicament they’re in. But before he can apologize, Kotone does it first. “…I’m sorry, I shouldn’t— I shouldn’t have assumed anything.”

Ryoji sighs. He couldn’t keep playing music, not when he’s doing this to Makoto’s sister. “No, that’s on me. I’m sorry, I must’ve been more on edge than I thought I was.”

“Aren’t we all?” Kotone mutters, probably in an attempt to lighten the mood.

Koromaru senses the tension in the air, and so does Aigis; the former is licking his hand – how come he did not feel this? – while the latter seems to stand even closer to them. He decides to smile and banish the dark, brewing feeling in the pit of his gut the best he can. “Let’s not talk about this for now, okay? I know you’re worried about him. I am, too, but he is not the type to seek help. He needs space to think by himself, so please, give him that, alright?”

Kotone remains silent for a moment before she nods, a frown still deep on her feature. But she seems to trust him enough to allow him his selfish request. “…Alright. If you say so. I trust you, Ryoji-kun.”

“I know,” he decides to add, placing a hand on her forearm and smiling at her reassuringly. “Thank you.”

(It takes a few minutes for the Dark Hour to set in, and when it does, he keeps Kotone company for as long as he can, until that strange presence in Makoto’s room is gone.)

“It’s a pleasure to see you, Makoto-san.”

Unlike Elizabeth, Theodore is… mild-mannered and soft-spoken, a contrast to his sister, forever energetic and quite a bit of an airhead, much to Makoto’s horror and unadmitted enjoyment.

And unlike Elizabeth, he isn’t as… invested in Makoto’s life as she is, which means that whatever he wants to ask the man, he’ll probably be given a straight, objective answer.

“Thank you for coming,” Makoto says, Orpheus thrumming a quiet tune into the back of his head. He ineloquently jerks his head to the side for Theodore to sit on the bed beside him, and once the attendant does, he lets out the breath he’s holding. “…Frankly, I’m… still not sure what to think about this whole thing, so I hope you can help me find the answer I need.”

“Of course,” Theodore smiles, a hand on his chest and head bowed politely. “If it is within my power, then I’ll be more than glad to provide you aide. After all, you are Kotone-san’s brother, and any family of her that is also a Wild Card can be considered a special guest for me. But I would not intrude in my sister and your private matters, of course.”

“Any family of hers is a special guest to you, huh?” Makoto repeats, lips quirked into a small smile. But soon it melts away as his thoughts go back to what Akinari said when he was at the hospital, seeking some semblance of his old, uncursed life and a companion that can and will understand him. “You might know Kotone more than I do, so…”

Makoto trails off, unable to voice his thoughts right away, his gut twisting into knots and his fingers colder than ice. But he knows he has to, because if he doesn’t, there’s no chance he can… actually move past all of this. He knows he might not be able to do that now, if ever, but he still has to try.

He’s promised many he’ll do better before, and he cannot allow himself to fail at the first step like this.

“She—” he gulps, throat parched and heart hammering in his chest. Orpheus sings a lone note within him, calming him down, allowing him to continue. “…I’m… I’m not sure how to say this, but… what do you think would be best for her? Me, telling her the truth, or…”

Theodore gives out a thoughtful hum, eyes gazing up towards his ceiling, into the blighted spot in the middle of the wooden boards. He eventually smiles, cheeks tinted with red like he’s remembering a fond memory between them. “I do not know if my, ah, take on the matter will accurately reflect Kotone-san’s thoughts and feelings or not, but if you allow it, may I say what I think she would like to do?”

“Sure,” Makoto nods, still afraid but more than determined to make things better, make things right. “Go ahead. I’m listening.”

“I think,” Theodore begins, finger resting on his chin and brows slightly furrowed in thoughts. “She would have loved to know you rather than not know you at all. And if I may add, from my own point of view, Makoto-san – you did your best, better than what anyone could’ve hoped to accomplish, with so many odds stacked against you just so. I believe you are more than worthy of having your bonds restored.”

Just like Akinari, he thinks. Although Akinari had managed to somewhat sway him to think that he deserves a semblance of peace despite all of his fuck-ups, but Theodore, who he’s never known before this year and who is his sister’s attendant, much like how Elizabeth is to him, saying this? Maybe he can allow himself a little bit of this, allow himself to fall into the embrace of his bonds again even if he has to—

“People live only to die, the answer to life is just that,” Theodore says, reminding him of the question Ryoji asked, many lifetimes ago. “But humans truly live because they can make bonds, can remain in memories and live on within the hearts of others. That is what I believe. You need not take it to heart, but you can think about it later on, Makoto-san.”

How could he have forgotten that? The Answer?

Makoto finds himself laughing, the weight on his shoulders disappearing just a tiny bit more.

(And, somewhere in his heart, the many voices of his Personas croon out, reminding him of the bonds he’s severed, the bonds he’s left to fester, and the bonds he still holds closely to his heart. He’s reminded that he’s died for so many times that he’s forgotten how to live, walked through so many lives that he’s forgotten what it means to actually be alive and not just breathing his life away, one cycle at a time.

He wants to do better, be better, make things right. But how could he do that, if he refuses to even live correctly, for once?

Even if he’s still afraid, he thinks… he thinks he knows what he has to do, even if he’s too scared to try, even if he’s too afraid of the possibility of all of this going wrong. Because he knows, deep down, that the dead cannot change the present, only the living can.

He has to live first, if he’s going to change anything at all.)

“How did it go?”

Ryoji decides to ask the next day, after they’ve visited the hospital, Makoto’s bag yet again filled with a myriad of drugs Ryoji no longer cares enough to name.

Makoto takes a moment, his face serene, calm, unlike before. The edge of guilt and sadness is there still, true, but it is as though he’s almost there, almost able to accept the fact that not everything is his fault and under his control. “It’s… quite something, actually. Talking to someone that doesn’t know me as well as you or Akinari do.”

He thinks about it, but he cannot think of anyone who’d possibly come to talk to Makoto at the Dark Hour aside from Elizabeth. “Who? Elizabeth-san?”

“No,” Makoto hums quietly, drumming his fingers on his thighs to mimic the sound sung from the veils of stars above them. “Theodore. Kotone’s attendant.”

“Ah,” Ryoji murmurs. He wants to ask what they talked about, he really does, but maybe not today, not yet – Makoto isn’t someone who’ll keep things secret from Ryoji unless he’s not ready, after all. He will give the boy as much time asis needed, because it has always been the only thing he’s capable of doing, even if he wishes he could do more. “What are your thoughts currently, then?”

“I think,” Makoto begins, uncertainly clinging to the edge of his words. “…I’m not too sure, but Theodore gave me an… insight, I think. He and Akinari said the same, too, that none of this is my fault, even if I still think of all of that as wrong. My head disagrees, but I think, maybe I can do this, too. Make bonds and live, all the things I used to do.”

“Your head has been in the wrong place for ages, Makoto,” Ryoji chides lightly, even if wetness is starting to collect at the edge of his eyes. He pinches Makoto’s cheek, drawing out a huff from the smaller boy, and he can’t help a grin climbing up his face. “I would love for you to try to do just that. You deserve it more than anyone else in the world, Makoto.”

“I’ll try,” Makoto whispers, his hand slowly finding Ryoji’s own. When he squeezes back, Ryoji can see Makoto’s lips quirking up just a little bit more. “If you think it’s alright to believe it, just once, then I guess I’ll try. I’ll try to believe that all this isn’t my fault, and that maybe I deserve a shred of peace, too.”

“I’m glad,” he says, voice shaking. It took him centuries to be able to even say these things, and for Makoto to finally allow himself to indulge in Ryoji’s request is enough. Even if he wanted Makoto to do this sooner, for him to care about himself more than his friends, he knows Makoto could not; his heart is too kind, after all. “So… where do we go from here?”

“I don’t know yet,” Makoto shakes his head. “I’m still resistant to the idea of getting close to SEES, and I’m not sure if I ever could regain what I had. It’s been so long since I’ve last spoken to any of them normally.”

Ryoji pauses, before a question forms in his mind. “What are you planning now, then? Telling Kotone-chan?”

Makoto’s immediate frown tells him he doesn’t like that in the least. “I told you before, I just don’t want her to get hurt—”

“And you just said that you want to believe that you can be at peace,” Ryoji chides, throwing Makoto’s earlier resolve back into his face. A cruel move, he knows, but the only one he knows would be effective against him. “We can take it slow, but you have to remember that being friends with all of them is you finding peace, too. Promise me you’ll try that much?”

Makoto presses his lips into a tense line before he shrugs. “When you put it that way, then I suppose I’ll try. Promise,” he pauses, squeezes Ryoji’s hand a little harder, before he snorts. “But… that’s a low blow, and you know it, Ryoji.”

“Sorry,” he laughs. “But not really.”

“Jerk.”

When they share their laughter, Ryoji feels like everything doesn’t look so bleak anymore.

“You’re really good at this.”

Makoto turns when he hears the voice, and Aragaki is there, arms crossed, face passive. But the edge of his voice is neither cruel nor harsh; it is gentle and soft around the edges, almost like a father figure, or a brother. He can see why Kotone gets along with him well, and he can see why his death hurt so bad for the rest of them.

“Thank you,” he decides to say, Ryoji’s constant reminder that you said so yourself that you deserve peace still bouncing around in his skull. He should’ve shunned them, his heart insists, but what he spoke to Akinari and Theodore about… maybe he deserves some of this, no matter how much a part of him loathes the idea. Maybe he deserves to be at peace, too.

“Here, a little trick,” Aragaki says, walking over and standing beside him at the kitchen counter. The man gestures for the frying pan, and when Makoto hands it to him, Aragaki starts flipping the eggs over with an amount of finesse Makoto still doesn’t have. “You use just your wrist if you’re not flipping somethin’ over and over. If it’s just once, your wrist gives you more control.”

“I’ll remember that,” he murmurs, bowing his head slightly in a thank you. Koromaru is taken out for a walk, Aigis is in her room charging, and the rest are out in the living room. They are practically alone, and there shouldn’t have been any motives for him to come here.

But then again, Aragaki did try to get close to him – to investigate? To comfort? To do both? – once after his breakdown after the Lovers and the Hierophant, so maybe there aren’t any ulterior motives. This might only be the man looking out for Kotone’s brother. They seem close, after all, and that spark of affection they have for each other is hard to miss—

“Were you telling the truth?” Makoto decides to say, the question boiling hot at the tip of his tongue. “When you said you were worried about me, back then?”

Aragaki takes a moment, the defensiveness rising up to his chest, only for it to die down as he sighs and nods. “Yeah. I might be doing that because I feel some weird vibe talkin’ with you, too, but mostly cuz you look like you need help. Miserable, too.”

He told Aragaki he didn’t need help, but everyone knows – himself included – that he does, even if he had to refuse because he was too afraid to move. Was he that obviously distraught? Is he?

There is a cacophony of agreement – and a laughter at his predicament – from the back of his mind, and he is so tempted to call Orpheus out, but refrains from doing so. Orpheus has always been there, too, through high and low. He has seen all that Makoto is, pathetic and weak and terrible, but he remains. He always remains, steadfast and warm and kind.

“Was I that obvious?” he asks, taking a step back to allow Aragaki to put the egg into the plate.

“Yeah,” Aragaki snorts a laugh, before the air suddenly turns solemn. He looks at Makoto for a while, clearly trying to say something. When Makoto remains silent, patient – he has had centuries to be patient, after all – Aragaki only hums. “You still thinking about it?”

About wanting to die? Aragaki doesn’t say.

It would be a lie to say that he no longer thinks so, and it would also break his promise to Ryoji to at least try to find himself closure if he says he still does. And the look in Aragaki’s eyes just screams I know you’re still thinking about it, so in the end, his only option is to tell the truth. “…Yes.”

“All the time?”

“Sometimes,” he confesses. Other times involved him bunching up and in pain because some asshole god whose name he still can’t remember had decided that they want him in agony as long and as often as they could. But Aragaki doesn’t need to know that. “I’m not going to kill myself, you can rest assured.”

Aragaki’s eyes linger on him for a moment before he shifts his gaze towards the freshly-made omelet, then back at him again. There is another unspoken question at the tip of Aragaki’s tongue, but the man doesn’t say anything, so neither does Makoto.

Instead, Aragaki huffs, shaking his head. “Really, I can’t believe there’s someone who’s more tight-lipped than I am. You take the fucking cake, kid.”

He used to be more open right before he died the first time, he knows this much; Junpei was the first to weasel his way into Makoto’s life without so much as a care for his personal space, Yukari would crack inappropriate jokes with him whenever the air was dire, Fuuka would smile and give him her silence and her presence when the night was calm and empty, Akihiko would make sure he at least got out of his room to do things just to be active, Ken would try to cheer him up when he was down but didn’t show it, Koromaru would keep him company as he took him for a walk, and Aigis—

Aigis, his thoughts turn bitter and scared. Aigis, who had always insisted she be by his side, would never leave him even though he tried to shun everyone. Ryoji’s presence was a constant, too, back then, but before he came into the picture and broke every chain in Makoto’s life, it was Aigis who was always there. A steadfast friend who stood by his side at all times.

He misses them.

“I miss them,” he says out loud before he could stop himself, a vague sense of longing building up in his chest, ready to explode. When the silence settles, and Aragaki’s face turns confused, Makoto only lets out a shaky sigh.

“Who?”

“You wouldn’t believe me,” he mutters. His promise to Ryoji, whispered to his ears and for his ears alone, shudders inside his chest, as if to tell him to just take a leap of faith. How many leaps has he taken? And where did they lead? Here is where he ended up, so a leap of faith is out of the fucking picture. “No one ever did. Neither will you.”

“Try me,” Aragaki says, pushing the plate aside and leaning in a little too close. But the man realizes his mistake soon enough when he sees something in Makoto’s eyes, and he backs away slowly, putting up both hands before letting out another sigh. “Sorry, didn’t mean to be intimidatin’ or anythin’. Just… you look like someone who needs a push. Or ten.”

He can’t help a low chuckle at this. “Ryoji said the same thing, too many times.”

“That means we’re right,” Aragaki says almost immediately, taking the plate into his hand again and gesturing for the table. “You mind if I eat with you?”

He is about to say yes, I do mind, but he locks eyes with Ryoji first. His Death has this look of anticipation and a silent reminder that you promised me in the way those blue eyes shine, and when he is about to refuse, their bond ripples, the string pulled slightly with gentle force. He grimaces, and Ryoji knows about his hesitancy, because he smiles reassuringly and nods.

Go ahead, try, his eyes seem to say, his thoughts sent across like they were Makoto’s own. He wasn’t the one we tried to recount the stories to before. Maybe it will be different.

Maybe it won’t, he counters back, but finds that hope welling up in him. Dangerous, dangerous—

“I don’t,” he says, heaving out a defeated sigh when Ryoji grins at him triumphantly.

“Cool,” Aragaki says simply. “Cool.”

He settles down in front of Akagaki after this, with his eyes on the bowl and his fingers slightly numbed from the approaching Full Moon. He dreads to think about the implication of these changes; if the moons before Ikutsuki’s betrayal are this bad, this detrimental, then would he be able to do it at all? To recreate the miracle he has taken for granted so many times before?

“If,” he begins, uncertainty heavy on his tongue. It’s a dangerous hope, to believe that this time could be different, to believe that he could change something. But Theodore and Akinari insist that he deserves some form of peace, and Ryoji has been adamant on that for centuries, so he will put his faith in it. “If I tell you that… time doesn’t move linearly, would you believe me?”

Aragaki opens his mouth to response, absurd is probably the word of choice settling deep in his throat. But there is something in his eyes, like doubt, or— “Depends. What are you getting at?”

Makoto only smiles, the numbness in his fingertips worsening. Could he truly tell someone whose death is as absolute as the rise of the sun about this? Could he try and change it, change something that he has failed so utterly half a thousand times before?

Maybe he can’t, but he should. It has been far too many times already that he has to repeat that Full Moon in October where Ken’s screams filled the air and Akihiko and Mitsuru cried and cried and cried

“I’m—” he frowns. He isn’t sure where he should be getting at, if at all. Would telling Aragaki anything at all be the right thing to do? Would not telling him be? He isn’t sure, but he wants to stake on this, wants so badly to believe in his friends' words that he can do this, that the pain he brings will be outweighed by the memories they will share.

Will it? he finds himself asking again despite steeling his heart for this multiple times, but he can’t help it; can’t help feeling like he’s going to undo centuries of work by doing something the tiniest bit different from how he did before. But when Orpheus stirs gently, when the sinner and the saint hums in agreement with his resolve, he finds himself exhaling another shaky breath.

After letting the tension out through his nose, he murmurs. “What if I say that I’ve lived for longer than what should be possible?”

He bites on his tongue in anticipation, and he’s terrified, he’s so afraid that he’s going to do something unforgivable. But then, Kohryu growls out a breath, gentle, as Aragaki tilts his head back and forth as he contemplates something in Makoto’s words. “…It’s hard to believe, but Mitsuru did say that the Kirijou Group’s archive mentioned something about Shadows having powers to manipulate space and time. So yeah, I don’t think it’s actually that far-fetched?”

He isn’t even sure why; he was expecting Aragaki to look at him like he has already gone insane (he had, most certainly, he knows as much) or call his words a blatant lie, both instances having already happened in almost all of the attempts in cycles before. He wonders what makes this one different, what makes him more open-minded, what—

Do not question our faith in thee, boy, Kohryu hums softly, not at all reprimanding, but more of a reminder that Makoto, too, should trust in his own bonds a little more, even when he had neglected them for so long. Thine heart is connected to many others, even through the time that does not march. Even if they do not seem so, thy bonds have already transcended the fabric of time. Trust in us and thine connections to thine friends and take that leap.

He breathes out through his nose, combing his hair back and trying to get a grip on himself, before he looks into Aragaki’s eyes. The man looks back at him patiently, contemplative but not with contempt, not with doubt, but trust.

He finds himself smiling at nothing briefly before he lets it fall as a headache starts climbing behind his eyelids again. The Full Moon is going to be so much worse than this— “I’ve seen things. Done things. Terrible sins no amount of good deeds could erase.”

Aragaki shifts in his seat, uncertain, before he places both hands on the table. “I won’t pry. Hell, I don’t even know what I would feel, being trapped like that,” and then, he pauses, brows furrowed slightly. “How long have you been, well… like this?”

“Long enough,” he mutters, not willing to say anymore. He’s scared, he’s scared, he’s scared—

“Got it,” Aragaki accepts his explanation easily, his mouth twitching into a frown. “Don’t worry. I know that some things, you can’t just say out loud to anyone. Right?”

Of course, Aragaki would know that. Why wouldn’t he, when he had to live his life knowing that his Persona killed an innocent person, leaving a boy orphaned in his impossible-to-control rampage? Makoto can’t help a low, raspy chuckle that forces its way out of his throat as he cradles his head in his hands. He doesn’t know what he should say next. He doesn’t know what he should do next.

He’s never done this before – at least, not successfully – and now he wants nothing more than for this to turn out better. Hope is a dangerous thing. Dangerous, and yet…

“After the Full Moon,” Makoto decides, postponing facing one of his many fears away for moments, days longer. Kohryu growls softly within him as he looks into those dark eyes, to see Castor stopping and turning his attention to him in full. “I’ll tell you what I can after the Full Moon.”

It looks as though Aragaki wants to say something, but he doesn’t. Instead, he nods, takes a bite out of the meal Makoto had cooked and hums in approval. “Sure,” he says. “After the Full Moon, then.”

(And with this, somewhere in his chest, the cacophony of voices dies down. The silence is soft and sweet, and for the first time in centuries, aside from the fear brewing in his gut—

—there is peace.)

Notes:

How was it? Comment away! :D

See ya next time!

[ALSO I FIXED SOMETHING QUICKLY AT 3 AM GMT+7 SO IF YOU READ BEFORE THEN REFRESH AND READ AGAIN HNNG]

Chapter 12: No More Running Away

Summary:

August Full Moon approaches.

Makoto finally makes his decision -- between saving his only family or curling into himself, running from reality forever, there is no way he will choose the latter.

Notes:

HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIiiiiiiiiiii

I'm sorry I'm so late with the chapter. It's exam, so i sent this to my beta very late, hench the 2 weeks lateness lmaooooo

Annnnnyway, I hope I can satisfy you folks with this. It's going to be close to 30 chapters, this fic... yeah, i did not anticipate this before, and certainly don't think it'll go exactly as I've planned, either.

Anyway, go ahead and enjoy the angst!
(if there are any more leftover typos, hope you don't mind them! I'll fix soon as I notice!)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

“What did you commission from the Kirijou Group’s scientists?”

Mitsuru asks as she places the box on the coffee table. Makoto can see the others hanging around from the corner of his eye; Aigis is as distrustful of him as she was with Ryoji in the previous lives, Aragaki is both curious and waiting for a change, and Kotone seems to notice something different in him. He doesn’t let his thoughts linger too long on them as he returns his gaze to the box.

The Full Moon is today which, in and of itself, is a bad omen; his headache is starting to spike, and whether it is because he’s used to the pain or because he had already pumped himself full of pain meds to deal with it, he doesn’t know. What happened during the last Full Moon where he had to relive the feelings of sinking his own blade into his family’s flesh still remains, leaving a terrible taste on his tongue, but he tries hard not to focus on it.

Instead, he focuses his attention on the feeling of his fingers as he unwraps the package. One of Mitsuru’s differences in this cycle is her willingness to allow the others to use the Kirijou Group’s resources – courtesy of Kotone, no doubt – for their own benefits; with limited budget, of course. So, after a bit of research and asking around the doctors at the hospital on his and Ryoji’s part, he had come to a temporary solution to his problem.

A solution that would expose to Ikutsuki the fact that he is not what he seems, a risk he’s willing to take so that he would be able to fight.

“It’s a synthetic painkiller,” Makoto says as he unwraps the package, revealing more boxes inside. He opens one of them to see glass cylinders stacked neatly within. He picks another package up; something that looks oddly like an adrenaline pen with slots for the cylinders of medicine, and inspects the designs. “To help me get through the Full Moon.”

He requested only a single thing; to develop pain-control chemicals strong enough to outclass morphine. Such a thing for the Kirijou Group – with its vast knowledge and wealth – is not impossible. But what is impossible is the fact that they cannot outdo nature so quickly; to develop pain-controllers stronger than anything humans have created so far without side effects is a task too hard to accomplish within such a short amount of time.

But side effects are not something he has to concern himself with; he will die in no less than seven months, anyway. What’s a little bit of lasting effects, when he won’t be there for it to show?

“Is the pain that debilitating?” Mitsuru asks, voice low, for him and Ryoji alone to hear, understanding suddenly reaching her eyes. It’s a terrible sight to see, for someone to recognize the effect of his pain, enough for him to take such a drastic step just to fight. And she should’ve known at least a part of his request for the pain controllers, too, because her face then morphs into one of horrors. “Didn’t they say that the side-effects include, but aren’t limited to—”

“Post-injection pain, hypersensitivity disorder, visual and auditory hallucinations? Yes, they did,” he says, and can see Ryoji wincing just beside him. Ryoji knows of this, too, but he couldn’t fight Makoto when he presented his argument; that he would be dead if he didn’t do this and the Full Moon’s fight got any worse. “I don’t care about that.”

“I suggest you pull out of SEES, then, for that reason,” Mitsuru says with a deep scowl as she tries to snatch the injector away from him. He doesn’t let her, and her eyes grow cold and fierce. “Your health has to come first. If you’re throwing your life away for this fight, then—”

“I have to finish it,” he says, scowls. “I told you that I entered this fight of my own free will. I’m not going to back out when I can still help.”

“Still—”

“This is all I have left, Kirijou-senpai,” Makoto mutters, the word Mitsuru-senpai nearly slipping out. She freezes, eyes blown and mouth slightly agape. But then, when he realizes that he hadn’t even thought about what he was saying, he sighs. He was speaking his mind. He can’t do that here. Not ever yet. “…I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Didn’t mean it like what?” she demands. Unfortunately for him, this Mitsuru is more caring than what she would’ve been, had he been the one to befriend her. “Yuuki, tell me.”

He looks towards Ryoji, who only gives him a pleading and sorrowful smile. Of course, he wants nothing more than for Makoto to say everything, but Ryoji also knows that Makoto can’t do it. He’s too afraid to take such a leap, even talking with Aragaki has already made his gut fold into itself so many times that he almost wanted to throw up.

This fight is all that I have left. After this, there’s nothing left, nowhere else for me to look back to, is the things he wants to tell her, left to rot between his teeth. What could he say? That he’s been so hell bent on stopping the time loop that he had shredded his bonds and cut them apart with his own hands? That he is so willing to throw away his sanity to see its end? That he doesn’t know what else he should do, in this very moment, in this particular instant?

He can’t say it. He can’t say anything.

“I made a promise,” he decides for a compromise instead. She doesn’t need to know what promise he has made, and to whom. All she needs to know is that he made one – to Ryoji, to himself, to the stars and to the void in between – regarding this fight. “I’m not going to back out until I see that through.”

Ryoji seems visibly upset, but he understands, as he always does. He sighs mostly to himself and nods his head, interjecting with a calm, collected voice. “It’s not like I’m alright with this arrangement, either. But I wouldn’t have allowed him to go this far if I wasn’t sure he’d be safe, Mitsuru-san.”

That is a blatant lie, and they both know it.

Mitsuru doesn’t know that, however, but she knows that Ryoji is important to him and vice versa. But there is something else in her eyes, something Makoto can’t quite decipher, but he isn’t given the time to dwell on it when she gives up and sits down, legs crossed and fingers intertwined. “…If you so insist. But should any problem arise at all, or should you feel like you cannot go any further, you must tell me. If I see that you are in danger, I will pull you out immediately. Understood?”

This reminds him so much of the Mitsuru after November; a personality, hidden behind the mask of the heiress and one he could never bring out this early on his own. He feels himself smile bitterly and jealously as he nods. “Understood, Kirijou-senpai.”

She watches him for a while longer as he fidgets with the injector before putting his finger against the needle that springs out when he presses the button. The pain from stabbing himself with such a small, sharp needle is negligible, at worst, and he couldn’t be more satisfied about it, even though acquiring this through the Kirijou Group is the foulest decision he could make.

He knows Ikutsuki would have already been made aware of this, and there may be some other scientists who’re in league with that fanatical bastard, too. But what else could he have done? He had nowhere else to turn to for this, and he has to be prepared for the consequences, too.

(Something that will happen very soon.)

“How is it?” Ryoji asks softly, fingers brushing against his wrist. Makoto takes a moment to watch the thing in his hand before putting it inside his Evoker belt’s pouch. “Do you really have to do this? Never mind the risk of Ikutsuki taking an interest in you, the drugs—”

“We both know the pain is only getting worse,” Makoto murmurs, careful not to let his voice get carried into the wind. Kotone is talking to Mitsuru and Aragaki now, all three of their eyes landing on him every once in a while, and he hates those looks. “We also know that this cycle is different. I have to be able to fight, if I’m going to change anything at all.”

Ryoji sits back, jaws clenched. He sees what Makoto does, too; the reality of their situation, with the unchanging narrative now drastically different from how it should be, and what it means. “Still—”

“I’ll be fine,” Makoto says again, this time reaching towards his bond of Death, pulling at the string and letting a Persona from the Black Compendium stir. Ryoji stops, blinking stupidly once, twice. “I was wrong before. I was never alone – even without you, I was never alone.”

Ryoji doesn’t seem satisfied by Makoto’s explanation, but he does relent, gripping his hand a little tighter before busying his fingertips with Makoto’s pulse point. “And you never will be,” Ryoji murmurs softly as his own power – Thanatos – hums in Makoto’s marrows. “We should be more careful from now on, though. What should we do with Ikutsuki?”

“It’ll be a moot point trying to explain what we know to the others when they know nothing,” Makoto says, recalling all the times he tried to tell his friends of Ikutsuki’s intention and inevitable betrayal. They never believed him until it is too late – why would they? – and everything ended just the way it began; with nothing but death, death, death. “If we’re going to deal with him at all, we need to do it by ourselves.”

By this point, the impending glow of the Dark Hour has already half-settled into the room, the sickly-green light seeping through the cracks ever so slowly like blood oozing from a gaping wound. It is a bad omen, as the croon of cicadas and the buzz of the city fade into the night; a signal that the Chariot and the Justice will soon arrive.

“We’ll discuss that later tonight,” Ryoji says, patting his knee. “Are you sure you want to do it yourself, though? It would mean you would have to…”

To kill, Ryoji doesn’t say.

“Yeah,” Makoto hums. He has murdered hundreds – himself and his friends, over and over – so what’s the difference in adding a few more to the book of the dead? “I’m sure.”

Ryoji squeezes his knee gently, gets up, then leaves him to his own head as they prepare for the Full Moon.

“Kotone.”

She turns to Makoto, who seems torn even talking to her. But his expression is soft, much softer than what it always has been; the edge on his shoulders is gone, and he seems a bit more at peace than the past few months combined. It is a surprise, not at all unwelcome, but it’s one that brings a few questions to her.

What happened? And why is he talking to her now?

“Can I help you?” she asks as they wait for Mitsuru and Aragaki to get the door of the underground bunker open. The Shadows – two of them, as Fuuka and Ryoji confirmed – are hiding deep in here, and even if they are confident in their abilities, fighting in a closed space could pose a problem. “Are you nervous about the Greater Shadows?”

Makoto shrugs, noncommittal, hands digging deeper into his pockets. He looks to the side to Aigis, who’s glaring daggers at him, and wilts a little more – a strange reaction, but understandable. So she makes a point to shift around until she’s completely blocked Makoto from Aigis’ sight (oh damn it, Aigis, stop glaring holes into my brain already!) before gesturing for him to say something.

Makoto tilts his head to the side for a bit, brows scrunched, before he sighs. “Who’s the strongest Persona you have right now?”

That is a question coming out of the left field, and she finds herself raising her brows at him.

“I didn’t know you actually listen to me talking about them,” she says, partially venomous and partially surprised; he’s always acted so aloof, so uncaring in Tartarus, so much so that it never crossed her mind before that he would actually listen. But then again, she doesn’t quite know him – and that smile on the beach of Yakushima a few weeks ago seems more like the real him than the cold, apathetic him she’s seen for the past few months, so maybe she was wrong. “Why are you asking me that? It’s not like you’d know of them.”

At this, Makoto snorts, shaking his head and muttering something to himself. There’s a beat where both her and her brother’s – both Eurydice and Orpheus – hum in unison before Makoto shrugs again. “I know more about mythology than my whole being would suggest. Try me.”

She weighs the option for a while before finally deciding to humor him; Makoto talking to her should at least be a good sign. No matter how much pain he’s caused, he too is in agony – being shot, being ignored, wanting nothing more than to curl up into himself – so the least she could do is do what he wants for a few simple moments.

“Right now? I think it’s… huh,” she pauses, reaching into her mind to feel some of her bonds. The Moon – Aragaki, strangely enough – is actually pretty far down the road. Hierophant, too. Death – Ryoji, that is – seems to be in some kind of stagnation she isn’t quite sure how to overcome, but she supposes that it has something to do with Makoto and everything between the two of them. “I think it’s actually Kurama Tengu?”

Makoto tilts his head again, his eyes looking far away, before he nods with a heave of a sigh. “I… see. Thanks for answering.”

Before he could leave, however, she stops him, placing her hand above his arm and making him stop. He seems to tense under her touch, but forcibly relaxes himself soon after, his eyes cold but with a tint of something else in it.

“Why did you ask? Uh, just curious,” she says, suddenly feeling small but strangely safe under his gaze. Something about him feels… distant, but gentle, a combination that should’ve been impossible to coexist. “You never asked before. Are you asking for help?”

He opens his mouth, as if to say something – yes, I am asking for help, she had hoped – only for him to shrug again, noncommittal as always. “Just curious. Nothing more.”

“You know, you’re a terrible liar sometimes.”

At this, she expects him to brush her off or to scoff or whatever else, but she never would have expected him to laugh – a chuckle, short as it may – and he shakes his head again. This time, he looks towards Ryoji, who rolls his eyes at him before winking at her— “I’ve been getting that a lot.”

“You could talk to me,” she offers again. “Even if you hate me, I’m still your sister. It’s my job to help you too, you know.”

Makoto doesn’t deign her with a response, but instead of a scowl or brushing her off completely, he offers her a small smile – and that is enough to spark a hope in her that maybe, just maybe, things could return to the way it was, the way it’s supposed to be.

(A bond emerges between them, a bond that should have existed before the Dark Hour even began – but it feels light and bright and gentle and kind, much kinder than anyone or anything she’s ever felt. And when she looks at him, Orpheus sings back, as if to signify that the connection between them is slowly forming, healing.

And she quite likes that feeling.)

“In case you guys forget, that thing took the body of a tank!

Ryoji yells from somewhere behind her, and she’s rudely reminded of that fact when the top half of the tank – the cannon one – suddenly turns with a sharp squeak, its barrel aiming right at her. Eurydice is still out, burning whatever she can with her flame, and she has just fired her Evoker, goddamnit—

“Kotone-san!” Aigis calls her name before jumping forward, her hydraulic joints groaning with tension as she literally tackles Kotone out of the way before placing her back down with as much finesse as a recently repaired android would have – almost none. “Are you unharmed?”

“Yeah,” she nods, wiping the sweat off her brows, recalling her Persona back before recycling to whoever she has. The Justice alone is bad enough, but coupling with it suddenly dislodging itself from the Chariot – which tends to burn its tank-ties trying to ram her into minced meat – and this fight becomes a literal nightmare on earth. “We need to find a way to deal with them, one at a time.”

“That won’t work!” Ryoji bellows as the Chariot speeds into Aragaki, who barely manages to dodge it with Amada in his arms. “They’re connected, that much I’m sure! There’s a good chance that if you don’t destroy them both at once, the remaining one’s going to just revitalize the other!”

“Won’t know till we try for sure!” she says, stubborn, because Ryoji is suggesting them taking these two out simultaneously and that is such a scary thought she never wants to deal with it. “Come, Yamata-no-Orochi!

The eight-forked serpent rises from nothingness, screeching into the air the sound of its cries before its many heads launch out to bite at the steel torso of the Chariot, halting it. As retaliation, the Justice comes out from where it was, perched atop its steel steed, with the barrel of the cannon aiming right at her.

But she trusts her friends and comrades, and sure enough, Polydeuces is there to punch it away from her.

“Focus on the Justice! I’ll hold Chariot off!” Kotone bellows her command, grunting as Yamata-no-Orochi is being pushed slightly backwards by the Chariot’s strength. “And please hurry! This thing sure has lots of gas in it!”

She sees Makoto watch Aragaki with a combination of reluctance and sadness, but she doesn’t allow herself time to ponder on it; instead, she shifts the name on her tongue and dodges the Chariot again as it runs over her Persona with relative ease (ow, that actually hurts her brain, what the hell), then puts her Evoker to her temple in an attempt to call out a name—

“Kotone-chan, watch out!” Yukari screams somewhere from the edge of the fight, and she turns a little too late to see the Justice aiming at her. The Chariot is also speeding up towards her, leaving her with no room to run out of harm’s way.

Orpheus!

Makoto’s voice is clipped and clear, not at all a bellow but loud enough to cut through the din of the fight. And suddenly, there is warmth enveloping her frame; barrier of azure flame rises around her, and she could see the shell of the fired cannon dissolving in what she feels more like the heat of a bonfire rather than that of a blazing sun.

She blinks, and the flame dissipates, revealing Orpheus grabbing onto the Justice’s cannon and averting it away enough for the bullet to not come directly in her direction but instead into the flame, and she looks to the side to see one of the Chariot’s wheels melted by the uncompromising heat, trapping it in place and fusing it to the floor.

“Focus,” Makoto snaps sharply as Orpheus’ obsidian fingers spark with flame before it ignites, blasting the Justice away from the group as Orpheus dissipates. He seems to ignore the eyes on him, instead pointing at the Chariot as its wheel regenerates. “There won’t be another shot from the Justice.”

Leave your back to me.

Rationally, it should’ve been hard to trust his words; he had pulled so little weight before that it’s nearly nonexistent, but this time feels different. His voice still quivers with something, she isn’t sure what, and he still looks a little pale, but something is different, like a decision finally made, or a resolve decided upon somewhere in his heart.

So, she nods, turning towards the Chariot once more as it rises, the burnt wheel now regenerating with the Shadows’ otherworldly powers. “Alright, then! I’ll take care of this one!”

Kotone then zones her focus, narrowing it down to just the only thing in front of her. She sees Sanada and Aragaki joining in, and gives them commands with waves of her hand.

Eurydice sings with joy as she fights her way through the Chariot’s unrelenting speed, and she briefly wanders why as she focuses on the foe in front of her, and nothing else.

When the Chariot is downed, there is an explosion.

She immediately turns, even when her ears ring, and the first thing she sees is Orpheus right in front of her, guarding her from a spout of flame. She immediately looks towards the others, and screams at the top of her lungs. “Makoto! Guys! Are you okay!?”

“We are!” Mitsuru’s voice cut through, but the pain is there beneath it. Quickly, she looks at Orpheus, who simply dissipates into shards of glasses as the smoke clears, revealing the team fighting the Justice to be more bruised and injured than she would like them to be. “Be careful! Something is off about it!”

“Everyone, be on guard!” Ryoji snaps sharply, and the urgency in his voice is enough to cause her hair to stand on end. “Something is happening to the Chariot!”

She turns as soon as Ryoji finishes the sentence, and the Chariot, instead of disappearing like Shadows should, is slowly turning into black sludge. And with a great sense of dread, she rolls away in time as its remains suddenly move as if the sludge itself is alive, all tendrils reaching for the damaged Justice and clinging to it like hungry parasites.

“What the hell is this!?” Aragaki calls, voice sharp, his axe ready in his grip. “It’s like they’re fucking fusing or something! Mochizuki!”

“The Justice is not fusing with it, it’s absorbing it!” Ryoji corrects, and everyone backs off quickly from the maelstrom of shadows and darkness that now surrounds the Justice like a cage. “Be careful! If you think you can’t fight at all, run!

“That isn’t an option here, not if we’re going to slow down the Apathy Syndrome!” Kotone retorts, even though her gut is squirming with unease. Something is wrong, so horrendously wrong that she can feel ice around her heart, choking her and terrifying her very soul. “We have to take it down. One more day is too much time to let a Greater Shadow amok!”

“If we can’t fight, I’ll make that call,” Mitsuru says, and before Kotone can diffuse her, shoots back with sharpness she only wears in dire situations. “I’ll bear the responsibility. We have to live to fight another day, too.”

“It’s coming!” Aragaki declares.

The storm of shadows and darkness disperses with violent gusts of wind, and in place of the small, gun-wielding justice, there is something larger; the Shadow itself has multiple, skull-like masks adorning the top half of its body, with the Justice’s mask obscured somewhere in between. The main head – or so she assumes – is partially solid darkness with red eyes, the lower half an ivory jaw with fangs sharper than blades.

It raises its tail first, filled with eyes and scales, then its four legs, with claws sinking deep into the floor and dripping spots of black goo into the cracks. It rises up, its hands pushing its whole being upward, and for a moment, she can think of only one thing;

Run.

The centaur-like thing gives her the same feeling as that abomination during the Emperor and Empress’ strange Shadow did, months ago, and she knows deep down in her gut that she has to run now, or they will all die. Orpheus won’t be strong enough to deal with this thing—

“Kotone! Duck!”

A voice comes from somewhere, she isn’t sure, but she isn’t given enough time to contemplate. She does so as soon as the command reaches her, and something goes past her head; a shell of a cannon. Kotone tries not to look back as she quickly presses her Evoker to her head. She has to buy time, to figure things out, or to just run, run, run—

Eligor!” she commands, the crimson knight coming out from nothingness. She isn’t sure what this thing even is, or if she could do damage to it at all, but she has to try – either waiting for Fuuka and Ryoji to crack its weakness open for them, or to make one herself. “Agilao!

She has always had an affinity for fire, so of course, her first attack of choice would be fire; and while she knows she could have used Eurydice, too, Eligor is more likely to help her survive another counterattack should it gets flung at her. And, luckily enough, the fire hits, spreading across its skull-decorated torso as if the blackness of its flesh is oil.

“Get up on your feet, now!” Aragaki snaps sharply, his axe half-flailing as he helps Amada fall back from the massive Shadow’s hitbox. “We have to run!”

She doesn’t need any convincing; while she knows the victims of the Apathy Syndrome will only grow, it is better they fight another day to save more lives than to fall right here, right now. It will always be a heavy weight on her conscience, but she is the Leader – and making a hard choice is something she’ll have to live with. It is her responsibility, after all.

“Aragaki-senpai, Sanada-senpai, help me keep it at bay! The rest of you, fall back! We’ll be right behind you!”

There’s reluctance in their eyes, but that soon vanishes too when the centaur-monster Shadow rears up on its hind feet, the front paws’ obsidian claws spread wide. Polydeuces and Castor come out at once without her prompting, and it takes both of them to even stop the claws from stomping downward. Kotone shifts her tongue again, finding a name she’ll need to call next—

“Koto-nan!” Junpei screams from the doorway, and she turns to see the rest of the team pooling there, darkness blocking their retreat. She spares a moment to dodge out of the way as the beast crushes both Polydeuces and Castor to pieces before straining to hear Junpei say something more. “We can’t get out! Not sure what this is, but I can’t break through it with Hermes!”

“Shit,” she breathes her dismay, every nerve in her body on edge. They cannot retreat, but the thing before them is probably far too strong for them to take on at this point. What should she do? What could she do? What—

“I can buy you some time,” Aigis says, the mechanical whirs of her motors humming softly and steadily gaining speed and intensity. She stops Aigis at once, but the android only slows her motors, not stopping them entirely. “I suppose the roof might be the best option we have at escaping. I will use Orgia mode; I will be overheated after a short moment, but hopefully, it will be enough.”

“What if it isn’t? I’m not going to lose you. Any of you,” Kotone snarls, her hands shaking. She has always thought that she’s strong, that she’s been getting constantly stronger with each floor she climbs up Tartarus, but it isn’t enough. It isn’t enough, and she’s going to lose something tonight, and she’s afraid—

She has to do something. She has to, or they will all die, and she can’t lose any of them, not like this.

But then, everything stops.

There’s something in the air, time stagnating and drawing the moment into infinity; she can feel her very being vibrate with tension, and life. The beast stops its attack, looking somewhere that is not at her, red eyes squinting and jaws slightly ajar, the sound of a thousand souls slipping through like the murmur of the damned in the backdrop of her mind.

“I’m done hiding,” someone says, and she turns to see Makoto stabbing his sword into the ground, his Evoker tight in the other hand. He looks at her, a certain kind of light shimmering dimly in his eyes, before he speaks up again with clarity she has never heard before. “I’m done running away.”

He points the Evoker to his head, and breathes out the name as softly as a prayer to the stars.

“Hassan.”

Makoto hadn’t expected things to turn out the way they did.

He knew something was wrong the moment Justice didn’t try to reattach itself to the Chariot with all of its might – something that never failed to happen in the cycles before – but instead waiting for the Chariot to fall. He didn’t expect it to devour the Chariot and the Shadows around them, hidden in the crevices of the bunker, to evolve itself into a conglomeration not unlike the one Orpheus guarded Kotone from a few months ago.

He never expected things to turn so dire so quickly.

If they could run, all he had to do was just making sure they all got out safely – easy to do, when he has all the shadows and the lack of attentions to perform the tricks up his sleeves. But when the centaur-like beast holds more power in it than the current SEES could withstand, and when their only exit is blocked by something Ryoji can only destroy with Nyx’s power, he knows something isn’t quite right.

And when it speaks, ignoring Kotone as she tries her hardest, with face scrunched and fear at the tip of her fingers, to find a way to get them out, he knows he has to do something.

Run, boy, the thing mocks him with choirs made from disjointed voices. One of the voices, he recalls, belong to the illusion from the Shirakawa’s love hotel from so many days ago and with the sound grating like iron claws scratching upon steel. Run like you always have. Abandon them like you always have. Hide. A coward like you should always hide in the face of disaster. A coward like you should cower. Because that is who you are.

He should. He should have hidden himself away and curled up and died somewhere on the sidewalk, not to be seen again for the things he did, for the things he had done. But they are his family, even if he had failed them so many times before; they were the ones who teach him the meaning to life, the ones who were there through thick and thin, before the start of all of this.

He is weak, and he had been hiding for too long, running away for too far; if he wants to preserve whatever scrap of sanity and his heart that he has left, if he wants to save them at all, he has to stop running from himself, stop running from his own faults and fears.

Even if they hate him for it, he wouldn’t have cared – it will hurt, so much so that he’d want to die again, so much so that he’d want nothing more to do with bonds. But Akinari and Theodore told him that it is alright for him to believe, for him to have his peace; that it is alright for him to be selfish, for him to try to reclaim all that he had sacrificed in the name of protecting what matters most to him.

“I’m done hiding,” he breathes through the thick air around them, finally deciding that whatever happens next, he will face it all. He will face his fears and his sins, because what else could he do, now that their lives are in danger because of him? And the Personas within him shift in unison. They are ready to fight. So is he. “I’m done running away.”

His shadow shifts, and this time, the names are there to be called. The bunker’s ceiling is high, but air cannot circulate too freely, and too much heat and flame would burn them all to death. So he reaches for someone else he had summoned once, not too long ago – an assassin, the dealer of death himself.

“Hassan.

And rises from the shadow he does; clad in nothing but back, intricate robe and a pale mask in shape of an upper half of a skull with deep red tattoos crossing over the sockets, the lower half concealed by scarf and darkness. The hood shifts gently as Hassan rises to his full height, the clawed gauntlets shining dimly under the green moon. And when the shadow stops swirling around them, there is silence; all eyes, friends and foes, are on him.

Hassan takes a moment, the connection of the Hermit humming softly like a lullaby, before Hassan crosses his arms before him, claws glimmering dangerously. “And I was afraid you would never call, Seeker.”

“Thank my Sun and her attendant for that,” Makoto says, the pull of the Persona and the pain from calling for someone so strong so suddenly weighing on his mind like a block of bricks, but the pain medication and his sheer determination to see this through dampen the pain, somewhat. He feels a bead of sweat roll down the side of his cheek, but ignores it. “Can you do it?”

Hassan takes a moment, dark blue eyes from the socket of the skull-like mask shining ever brighter like Altair in the dead of the night. Like a hawk watching its prey. “Yes. How much am I allowed to pull from you, dear boy?”

To use a Persona from the Black Compendium, one must have a strong heart and a stronger mind; neither of which he possesses at the moment. He knows there will be pain, and agony, but he doesn’t care. What could possibly hurt more than that single moment, when he died over and over and over to perform a miracle that never exists?

“As much as you need,” he says, clenching his Evoker tighter as something forms in Hassan’s hand – a sharp scimitar that seems to shift and change like a mirage. “I can handle the pain. Take what you need from me, and bring it down.”

“As you wish.”

There’s an incessant buzz in his ears, rumbling like thunder, just loud enough to drown out even his own heartbeats. But he ignores it; he doesn’t know what will happen next, but now is not the time for those thoughts. Now is the time for him to fight back and keep these people – his family, his life – safe. What comes after, he’ll deal with it later.

We, somewhere in him stirs, another Persona of the Arcana that means the most to him appearing at the back of his eyelids, name heavy but gentle. Remember. You are not alone. Thanatos is always with you. And so are we.

Makoto chances a look to the side, and even with his expression hardened by dismay, Ryoji is nodding at him with understanding clear in his eyes. There’s a small smile on his lips, too, so Makoto only nods back, and does what he does best;

Cut out all the rest. Here and now is his only focus.

Hassan releases a long, deep breath, smog of black following him in trails as he rushes forward like a bolt of darkness, scimitar shifting in and out of reality as he ascends. The beast roars, but before its claws could touch the assassin, the flesh has already been torn from the beast’s body.

“Kotone!” he snaps his command, for a moment deciding to forget that he is not their Leader, not the head and the heart of their team; right now, he is their failsafe, their guardian – and for that reason and that reason alone, he will act. “Get them out from under its feet! I’ve got you!

Girimehkala stirs from within him, ready to aid, but he holds him back. Kotone’s heart might be strong, but it is still developing – she is not strong enough to hold Girimehkala up just yet. He has to buy them time, and for that to happen, he has to endure the pounding headache that seems to keep rising to a new height.

Hassan heeds his call, and the shining clawed gauntlet finds itself buried inside one of the ivory masks on the beast’s body. The sound of torn flesh saturates the air, and Makoto maintains his gaze on Kotone’s own, terrified and confused, but still shining with that same kind of life he’s seen since the first time he’d met her. After only a moment, she nods, determined, her hands dragging Akihiko and Aragaki away from under the demon’s domain.

And as soon as the area is clear, he bellows. “Hassan!”

“Aye, aye!” the assassin echoes, glee clear in his voice as he curls both arms in front of him, pulled taut and at a ready. Wind gathers like a brewing storm, before Hassan leaps up above the beast and twists his body around, spinning his blade and creating multiple, wide arcs of gale that cut and tear everything in their paths to shred. “Panta Rhei!

Unsurprisingly, the beast only loses a part of its body – an arm torn asunder, masks scarred and marred with marks of wind – as it rises to its full height.

The flesh regenerates, and the main head’s jaws twist into a grin.

“Welcome back into the game, Universe.”

He snorts a laughter back at the beast’s mockery. It was just a theory before, but now it becomes a certainty which he cannot deny; this thing is either the nameless god itself, or an Avatar of it. Calling him with that name, with the Universe, tells him enough. It knows what he is, and there are only two gods he has ever faced.

(His heart is pulled with claws of darkness, beckoning him closer. He is the Appriser, and these things, these wicked beasts they’ve been fighting, are parts of him that have been torn asunder, long ago.

But not yet. He will not fall into this beast’s grasp, not even if he has to burn for eternity to prevent himself from becoming the herald of their fall.)

“Don’t mistake my scant involvement for leniency or a lack of care,” he says as the beast’s wicked smile grows in size, and Hassan separates himself from the beast after tangling with it in a deadly dance and lands before him, his mirage scimitar covered in black ooze and the smell of decay. “As long as I live and breathe, I will continue to fight.”

I will not let you take them from me.

“Is that so?” the beast croons as something creaks and cracks, before an extra pair of lanky, bloodied arms sprout out from its shoulders. Its hands reach forward, as if to frame Makoto in between its fingers while that smile grows ever more maddening, and taunting. “Even though you gave up? Even though you are the one who sundered your precious bonds yourself? Do not kid yourself, boy. You are neither kind nor great in heart and spirit; you’re weak, and I will make sure to strew your guts across the stars and let you relive that moment you became the Seal for an eternity to come.”

Makoto blinks and finds himself growling (it spoke about that, how much did the others hear?). He can feel Ryoji try to suppress what he knows to be a furious sigh as he replies to the god – a moot point, he knows, but he can’t help it – with his lips stretched into a haughty snarl. “You don’t know a damn thing about me.”

“But I do,” the beast’s crooked grin grows wider, more taunting, sending unease across his spine and up his limbs. It’s telling the truth spitting out lies and he hates it. “You are weak and gullible and an excuse, and you are destined to die, as you always have been,” the beast sneers, voice low and raspy. Makoto doesn’t dare look back – not now, or his focus will break and he will crumble and everything will be gone“And you shall pay the price for overstepping your boundaries, Universe.”

There’s a cacophony of disagreement and anger within his chest, Ryoji’s bond of death also humming with a warning tune for this nameless god. Makoto feels like his world is crumbling – everyone definitely hears that, he knows from the muted murmurs in the background. But he’s decided to face all of this – all of his fears, his sins, his insecurities – so he will not back down. No more.

Never again.

“If I have to go to hell for what I did anyway,” he growls back at the beast, baring his teeth and letting Hassan’s darkness seep into his bones. With this, he has no choice left; he doesn’t want to tell them has to tell them, or they’ll not trust him enough to let him finish this fight, and he’s the only one who can he’s scared he doesn’t want to do this. “Then I’ll be sure to drag you right along with me.”

“Insolent fool!”

The beast lets out a roar at this, deafening and intrusive, enough for Makoto to feel something snap inside his skull. He doesn’t need to reach his fingers to his ears to feel them bleed, but he doesn’t give himself a moment to contemplate – instead, he turns to Kotone, who looks just as confused and lost as the rest of SEES. “Protect them, Kotone!”

Ryoji understands by proxy, too; he never wants Ryoji to be seen as a monster, especially when the narrative of this particular story has already painted Makoto as the Appriser. And even though he trusts Kotone to be strong enough to avoid grievous injuries from whatever it is that is about to happen next when Hassan and the nameless god clash, the only one he trusts with his heart, body and soul to keep everyone safe aside from himself is Ryoji—

—Ryoji, who doesn’t even care if he’ll be despised by SEES or not if he uses his power. Ryoji, who seems to want to let Nyx guide his hands right now, but restrain himself because it’s Makoto’s wish he does so. Ryoji, who nods in understanding as he readies himself – in case that all else fails, Makoto can at least rest assured that they’ll live to see tomorrow.

“Don’t look back!” Makoto commands, the grip on his Evoker impossibly tight as Hassan envelops his scimitar with emerald, violent blades of wind. “I can take the pain! Go!

Something is pulled out of him again – a piece of his soul, a shard of his psyche – but he’s used to this. This is just like summoning Orpheus – Thanatos – for the first time, just like how he ripped his soul from his chest to chain Death where she should have stayed. But all of that is a given, when he’s fighting a god whose name slips through his fingers like sand.

Hassan doesn’t falter, his intent perfectly understood; the assassin simply lunges forward, with wind at his beck and call and darkness as his companions. The beast roars, a thousand cries mingling into one, words jumbled and incomprehensible. All of that hatred and anger is on him, and he deserves all of it, so Makoto only winces when the volume cuts through the buzz in his head as he trains his focus only forward.

And when the blade cuts the beast into a thousand pieces, he knows that they are safe. And for now, he allows himself a measure of peace, and relaxes ever so gently even as the pain rises behind his eyes.

Kotone is too afraid and too awestruck to move.

It is different from when she and the other of SEES fought before – there is no desperation, no panic, no shred of doubt as he commands his Persona with silence and unblinking eyes. There is something like a deep understanding in his every breath, in his Persona – Hassan, not Orpheus – and in the very air that surrounds him like a wreathe.

It’s as if he isn’t afraid of death – as if he actually had died before, just as the Shadow claimed – and it’s as though he sees things from a different angle. He isn’t afraid of dying, but something else – his eyes are always focused even as an immeasurable amount of pressure starts to mount and choke them all to complete submission.

(But what is the beast talking about? As if death is not something that happened only once, as if Makoto has committed some kind of irreversible crime and scarred the universe with his mistakes?)

He is used to this, Kotone realizes as much, even as Hassan tangles with the beast in a deadly dance for their lives, even as the Persona claws and tears the beast to shreds with both grace and voraciousness for destruction. He is used to fighting, to living and dying within the Dark Hour – his gaze never falters, he doesn’t flinch away even as the beast’s strike comes so close to hit him.

He believes in and knows his own ability more than Kotone understands hers; and the sheer pressure Hassan exudes may as well bring her to her knees, had that darkness been directed at her and not the Shadow, now reduced to nothing but ashes and dusts and splinters of memories in the air. And when the death throes of the beast die down into echoes under their feet, she can’t bring herself to say anything.

Not until Makoto stumbles backward and falls down sitting, with a hand clutching his face and another propping himself up on his shaky arm.

“Makoto!” she calls out, briefly making sure that Aragaki and Sanada are safe before she stumbles on unsure legs towards him. But before she reaches him, the imposing Persona is there – with skull-like mask and bright eyes and darkness in its every step. She isn’t sure what she should do, but he is her brother and he seems to be in some sort of pain— “I’m— I have to make sure that he’s okay. I’m not the enemy.”

The Persona looks at her a moment longer, eyes squint, before it lets out a low chuckle. “Oh, I know, my girl. You are his sister, after all. Are you unharmed?”

“I am,” she says hastily as she shuffles forward, still a bit afraid of the Persona after the display of power. But it makes no move to stop her, no indication of intending to harm her, so she allows herself to relax just a little more. “Are you okay? Makoto?”

Are you going to die? What did that thing mean by die again? Why did it call you the Universe? Kotone barely stops herself from asking.

He doesn’t respond verbally, but nods, a little shaky. She sees Ryoji walk up to him from the side, eyes stopping to look at Hassan for a moment before he regards the assassin with a stiff nod. She looks up, and the assassin seems to assess her with a long, unblinking gaze, before it finally bows and moves slightly away. She doesn’t even make a few steps towards Makoto when Ryoji sighs.

“You can undo the summoning now,” Ryoji says, voice low. So he knows – and it explains why they are so close. He knows about what Makoto can do, but keeps it deep somewhere in his chest. There must be a reason for this, Kotone thinks, so she elects not to ask just yet. “We’re safe.”

“We certainly are, as long as I remain, that is,” Hassan cuts in, and Ryoji looks angry and annoyed; but he doesn’t move his hand away from Makoto’s shoulder, doesn’t move to argue, simply waiting for some form of explanation to happen. And Hassan does, after a moment. “Outside of this makeshift barrier the baleful god had erected, there are battalions of them. I do not know whether you agree with this or not, but he has made his priorities clear. Even you will not sway me, Thanatos.”

First Nyx Avatar, then Thanatos – names that seem like they belong to a Persona or even a Shadow are used to regard Ryoji again. She opens her mouth to ask on instinct, only for Ryoji’s voice to cut her off, sharp and furious, but resigned. “…I know,” Ryoji mutters, looking at Kotone, lips set into a thin line. “I’ll… there’s too much to explain right now. Let’s wait until we’re safe, and—”

“We can wait until after school tomorrow,” she offers, looking back at the others, battered but alive, for some form of agreement. Mitsuru surprisingly agrees, but her eyes are clear that she needs them to tell the rest of SEES the truth. “Can we at least get the gist of things? How is he—”

“He is a Wild Card, same as you are,” Ryoji answers the question before it even leaves her mouth, as if he’s been anticipating it. Eurydice hums within her. “It’s complicated, but there are reasons why he kept this a secret. Some of them make sense, some… not so much.”

Aragaki walks over to stand beside her, brows scrunched, before he says slowly. “…Does this have anythin’ to do with him talking about time not moving linearly?”

Kotone could feel her neck crack when she whips her head around at that. Time not moving linearly? What does that even mean? Time isn’t something that can fold and bend into itself, can it—?

“Yes,” this time, it’s Makoto who responds, shaking his head softly as if to clear it. He still doesn’t face any of them, but his voice sounds much smaller than when he was shouting through the din of the fight, more afraid than when he was facing the abomination Kotone couldn’t hope to beat. And it makes something in her twinge. “It’s… going to take a while to… explain it all.”

They exchange glances, unsure of what to say or do next. But, thankfully enough, their attentions are drawn to the sealed exit when Hassan knocks upon it experimentally. “You should wait until the Dark Hour is over, dear boy. It would be less painful for you that way than if I were to cut them all down now.”

Makoto turns his head to glare at the Persona, eyes burning with a strange color of bright blue not unlike Ryoji’s own, but dimmer, more subdued. “No.”

There seems to be a conversation passing between them – something she knows of, but maybe not well enough, since not all of her Personas talk to her like Hassan just did; not so naturally and lively like this, and certainly not with their personalities clear like this.

“I understand,” Hassan says with a nod, left hand placed upon the solidified darkness that has blocked their only way out. “Thanatos—”

“I know,” Ryoji sighs, pressing a hand to Makoto’s chest. He helps her brother up, and Makoto seems less shaken than he was a moment ago, but still, he keeps a hand pressed firm over his face, as if to dull something under his eyes. “Makoto, you sure you can stand?”

“It’s not painful. Just disorienting,” Makoto mumbles, closing his eyes and inhaling sharply once. He does not open them for a long time, and when he does, his eyes are on the ground, refusing to look at any of them. “I’m going to hate myself in the morning, aren’t I?”

“If you can jest, then surely you are alright, boy,” Hassan says from where he stands, with his hand pressed firmly against the solid blackness. “Very well, then. The Dark Hour will persist for a while yet. As such, I will take care of this post haste.”

Wind explodes from the Persona’s palm, but the gust never reaches them – instead, the wind blows forward like a bullet, cutting through the dark barrier Junpei couldn’t cut down on his own like hot knife through butter. And before any of them could actually react, Hassan is gone with trails of darkness and wind trailing behind his unseen path.

Once they arrive at the dorm, the first thing Makoto does is bowing his head before all of them.

“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice not clipped nor forced, but sincere. She isn’t too sure why, but a part of her thinks he’s apologizing for all that has happened, his fault or not. And he confirms it with his words that he’s referring to his barely noticeable involvement, his actions, all of them. “For everything.”

They exchange looks at this, unsure of what to say. Makoto never seemed particularly interested in their feelings and their affairs before, so this apology does come out of the left field, not to mention what they heard the beast say before its demise, about death and the Universe. Kotone coughs into her hand, trying to recover, before saying with the awkwardness she possessed when Makoto first distanced himself from her. “…I think, uh… I forgi—”

“Don’t,” he shakes his head, his eyes tired but alive. There’s sweat clinging to his frame, a single drop slowly trailing down past his cheek and cracked lips, and he seems like he’s about to fall over – and he would have, she thinks, had Ryoji not been there, practically glued to his side. When Kotone looks at him questioningly, he sighs. “You don’t need to forgive me right now, if ever, because you don’t know everything yet,” a pause. “Just know that I’m sorry.”

Aragaki pats her head before pushing her back, face twisted into a mixture of curiosity and discomfort; the feelings they all share to a certain degree, Kotone thinks. “You look like you’re gonna drop, kid. Go get some rest. You promised to tell tomorrow, right? I can wait until tomorrow.”

Aragaki looks back at Mitsuru, not quite a plea but a statement – something, much to Kotone’s relief, she shares. Mitsuru nods. “You should rest, Yuuki. And… thank you. For saving us.”

Aigis shifts on her feet, conflicted, because she was there to see him display his powers for their sakes, and also because her apprehension is only strengthened by the fact that Makoto kept all of his abilities hidden for some unknown reason. In the end, however, Aigis lets rationality take over. “I will remain vigilant, Yuuki-san. But for now, I will tolerate you, and I will await your explanations tomorrow.”

Makoto’s eyes twitch slightly, the look of hurt crossing his face for but a second. But he wipes it soon enough, unlike Ryoji, whose anger is still palpable in the air and beneath her fingertips.

“I understand, Aigis. Thank you for tolerating me,” Makoto says, still swaying on his feet. But then, he turns to her, his eyes impossibly warm despite the coldness he used to wear. “Kotone, can we talk for a moment?”

She isn’t sure what he wants to say, but decides to ignore Aigis and nods. “…Sure.”

“Are you sure about this?” Ryoji says, mostly to Makoto. But within the stilted silence of the dorm, his voice sounds clearer than a ringing bell. “You don’t have to tell her that—”

“I do,” Makoto says, defeated, as he beckons Kotone forward. Ryoji takes a moment to look between her brother and her before bowing his head towards the rest as they start retreating upstairs. When Kotone begins following them, Makoto murmurs. “She isn’t one of them, but… she deserves to know.”

“What are you talking about?” Kotone asks, glancing back to the rest of SEES, who still follow her with their eyes, curious gazes boring holes into her back. She ignores them as Makoto leads her towards his room – in the furthest corner of the second floor, where she hasn’t been to for a long, long time. “Makoto, what’s going on? You’re starting to actually scare me, you know.”

Makoto doesn’t respond right away, instead placing his hand on the knob. He takes a deep breath before pushing the door open. His room is still as bland as she remembers from April; with scarcely a decoration and only the absolute necessities. But she sees two set of toothbrushes on the sink and yellow scarf hanging from the bedpost, so she assumes that Ryoji is here almost every night – or every night, rather.

He stumbles a little, hand grasping onto his chair for support, before he plops himself down onto the bed, with a hand to keep himself up and another resting on his lap, fingers fidgeting anxiously on the fabric of his pants. She looks questioningly at Ryoji, who smiles at her and closes the door behind her. “Give him a bit of time. Summoning Hassan isn’t as easy as he made it seem.”

“I figured, yeah,” she says, dancing on the balls of her feet. After a moment, she decides to take the chair, sitting down on it and watching Makoto as he keeps his eyes close and his breath steady, albeit a bit quickened. “Is it about Hassan and your Wild Card power that you want to talk to me about? If that’s the case, I can wait until tomorrow—”

“It’s not just that,” Makoto whispers softly. “There’s… something else. That night, a few days before July’s Full Moon, I think… how much did you hear?”

He’s referring to the night where she heard him called Ryoji Nyx Avatar, most assuredly. And his gaze tells her enough, that he has at the very least an inkling of idea about how much she knows. She weighs her options, unsure of what to say, but decides to be truthful; Makoto’s suddenly opening up to her, so he must have his own reasons for keeping these secrets for so long, right?

“I heard you call him Nyx Avatar, and something about the Fall and the Seal?” she repeats, the words so foreign on her tongue. “I don’t know much about any of those, though.”

“Who else did you talk to about those?”

His eyes are not at all hostile, just simply curious; he has been bitter and angry and almost resentful since the beginning of the school year, and this sudden shift, while welcome, makes no sense to her; why is he like this now, and not before this? Why is he suddenly talking, apologizing, after saving them from almost certain death?

She chews the edge of her lips and decides to tell the truth. Something about him compels her to; his eyes, his words, his tone. Everything. “I only talked about this with Mitsuru-senpai, but I’m not sure if she talked with the others about that or not. It kind of wasn’t our focus – but she did talk to Aragaki-senpai and Sanada-senpai often.”

Makoto curls up slightly, a hand pressed to his scalp. Before she can ask, Ryoji interjects. “Makoto, I’m alright with it, trust me. Strategic-wise, it’s better they know the truth, too.”

“You didn’t choose this,” Makoto spits, eyes hard for a moment. But he calms down soon enough when Ryoji holds his gaze. “…I don’t want them to see you as their enemy.”

“They never truly did, did they?” Ryoji questions, and the way he words that sentence is odd; why is he using a past tense? And what’s this about seeing him as SEES’ enemy? “Initially, yes. But in the end, they all called me a friend. This time, everything is different, as well; I don’t think they’d have a reason to be hostile to me. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Makoto snorts. “They have every reason to be, actually.”

“But I’ve been here since the beginning, helping them,” Ryoji counters, holding a hand towards Kotone as if to say please wait a moment. Even if she wants to ask, she isn’t sure where she’s supposed to begin, anyway. “You know them better than I do, Makoto. What do you think they’d do? Now that they have Kotone with them?”

Makoto opens his mouth, frowns, and closes it. He looks up at Kotone, contemplative, and something about the way he looks at her doesn’t sit right with her; it’s the look of someone who’s resigned, who’s beaten and broken, who’s hurt, and it doesn’t sit well at all. It conjures a heavy weight in the pit of her stomach and sinks it into the ground—

“…You’re right,” Makoto says, breaking the silence, before straightening back up. “You’re right. She’s here, after all. I believe in them – and in you, Kotone.”

She startles from her spot, and watches as he slowly pulls the MP3 off of his neck and places it on the bed. Ryoji joins him after a moment, and when she counts almost five seconds, Ryoji begins. “We’ll talk about me tomorrow when everyone is present. But for now, there is something else you need to know first.”

Makoto hesitates, gauging her reactions with his eyes. “Aragaki-senpai touched this subject barely half an hour ago, but let me ask you this upfront; would you believe us, if we say that time isn’t linear? That it can circle and fold into itself? That it can skip and bounce around without origin, without end?”

She opens her mouth to respond that no, she doesn’t believe that, but Makoto’s face says that he is not kidding. She turns to Ryoji to ask if Makoto is serious, and his gaze says enough. His eyes are burning almost unnaturally bright, like something from a fairytale, and they’re as beautiful as they’re scary. She gulps, trying to formulate a reply.

“…I don’t know,” she confesses, rubbing the back of her neck. “I’m not sure, but maybe? I guess?”

“Not sure, huh?” Makoto mumbles with a heavy sigh. “Still, you are a Wild Card, and you are someone who was never in the equation. I suppose it is worth a shot.”

“Excuse me if talking about time folding into itself is unbelievable,” she huffs, but loses her bravado soon after. He and Ryoji had talked about things that didn’t make sense, had the eyes of someone who’s seen more than a lifetime’s worth of pain, so in hindsight, they might be telling the truth. “…But, when I think about it again, it shouldn’t be surprising if it can. I mean, the Dark Hour isn’t something that should be physically possible, after all…”

Makoto blinks, then snorts a laugh at her. For a moment, she feels like she’s seeing the old Makoto again – kind, caring, blunt and more often than not willing to crack the most inappropriate jokes at the most inconvenient times. “That’s true. This is going to be a long explanation, though.”

“We have all night,” Kotone shrugs. “I can sleep in Edogawa-sensei’s class, anyway, so what’s the harm pulling an all-nighter?”

“She reminds me so much of you,” Ryoji comments, slightly amused.

“Shut up, Ryoji,” Makoto growls good-naturedly before he turns to her again, sighs, and smiles warmly at her – an expression she has missed for so long, and one that suits him the most. He reaches out a hand, palm facing upward. “Would you like to hear the full story, Kotone?”

It feels like he’s going to bare all of his secrets for her to see, all of his dread and fear and insecurities, and she is both elated to share his pain, and scared of learning about what is truly going on. But what are bonds, without taking a little leap of faith?

She takes his hand, feels its softness and its warmth under her fingertips, and smiles. “I’d love to.”

And so, they begin, with only the night and the moon as their witnesses.

Notes:

The Old Man Of The Mountain makes his appearance yoooooo.

There're more mythological figures coming, some of which you already know of. They'll be using their SMT V designs so ;)

Anyway, drop a comment, tell me how the chapter went. If not, well, hope you enjoy it still and see you next time!

(All questions will be answered but no spoilers given :D)

Next Chapter Included:
confessions
more confessions
confessions that will drag into the next chapter too lol

Chapter 13: Confession I

Summary:

Makoto decides to finally tell the others his deepest, darkest secrets.

And oh, no one could ever be prepared for this.

Notes:

HI HI HI HI HI IM SO SORRY IM LATE XD

I went to korea last week! So that's a part of the reason why i'm so slow with this update. Also, also! I sent this to my beta super late (again lol) so there's that lmaoooo

anyway, things are looking brighter, i guess?????? kinda???????

Go read to find out! and i apologize for any typos in advance!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

His hands are shaking.

Kotone notices it when he breathes, as if trying to gather his courage, his thoughts. There are conflicting feelings in his eyes, weights on his tongue, as if he’s uncertain how to begin. It looks as though he’s taking a leap of faith himself, too, and so she’ll give him time.

After a moment, Makoto sighs, shoving his hair back with both of his hands. His voice sounds hoarse, and soft like a whisper. “How do I… how do I even begin telling you this? Nothing is going to make sense, and I’m—”

I’m scared, he doesn’t say, but she understands it anyway. He might act differently now, but sometimes his actions speak louder than his words ever could. She waits for a moment as he exhales shakily, letting his hands fall back to his lap.

Kotone smiles slightly. “You really don’t need to tell me everything, just whatever you want to is fine. But still, I would like to take some of those burdens off you if I can.”

Makoto snorts a laughter, eyes for a second burning bright like Ryoji’s, but with the edge of softness in them, Orpheus’ azure blaze seeping into his irises like blood. There is power behind his eyes, behind his words, behind his entire being, but there are also fear and anger and bitterness; Makoto is trying to balance out all those conflicting thoughts and emotions, and she wants him to share those burdens to her, too.

She might not know him anymore, but she is his sister, whether he likes it or not.

“When—” Makoto begins, pauses, then frowns. Ryoji squeezes his knee softly, not even trying to say anything else. So she waits, too, until Makoto finally continues. “When I said that I’m not your brother, it’s not that I hate you. It’s… it’s more literal than that.”

“…Literal?” she asks, tilting her head to the side. “We were born from the same parents, Makoto. I fail to see how that literally makes us not siblings.”

“Biologically, we are,” Makoto hums, fingers fidgeting around one another nervously. All the fierceness, the air of superiority he had shown just half an hour ago when he fought the strange Shadow, is nowhere to be seen. “But – where… when I came from, you died.”

“…Excuse me?”

“This is not my original timeline,” Makoto explains, already wincing into himself as if expecting an outburst or anything else from her. But she’s too confused to voice anything, let alone yell, and he continues when he sees the look in her eyes. “For me, I’ve… I’ve lived through this year before. But back then, you… you died on the Moonlight Bridge, ten years ago.”

She waits for him to say that this is a joke, wishing that there’d be a punchline somewhere in his story. But when nothing comes but the silence and the palpable fear in the air, she realizes that he’s telling her the truth – so impossible yet so close to her. She takes a moment to think, to try to see if he will elaborate or not, but he doesn’t; his eyes say that he’s going to give her the time to understand for herself.

And she does, after another moment of deliberation; they talked often before coming to this place, after all, and Makoto might not be a chatterbox, but he still talked – he shared his thoughts like they were hers and vice versa. He spoke and smiled and laughed with her, the only other person in the world who survived the blazing car crash on the Moonlight Bridge ten years ago. And it was on the train, when he suddenly jolted up from dozing off standing, with Ryoji by his side without her knowledge – probably while she was not looking at them but at the pamphlets – that everything suddenly changed.

It was on the train that his voice turned clipped and bitter, it was on the train that he started talking in ways he never did; with familiarity towards Ryoji, and a sort of bitterness and terror towards others. They were close, and if nothing had changed at all, Makoto most definitely would’ve told her about him, seeing how tight the two of them were before. And him suddenly turning cold and being unkind and telling her that she wasn’t his sister make so much more sense like this, when he came from a different time – like an alternate universe, where he lived but she didn’t, where he was all alone for ten damn years—

“I took your brother from you,” Makoto whispers, as if wishing for her to not hear it; he’s chewing on his lips hard enough for his skin to break, but he doesn’t seem at all bothered by the pain. He looks like he’s confessing his most grievous sins and is awaiting punishment. “I came from a time where you died and I alone survived. And I took your brother from you—

Don’t,” she stops him, reaching out and taking his hand in hers. He’s still shaking, his fingers cold and clammy, and he’s trying to pull away, but she doesn’t let him. “Makoto, I— I didn’t know. You were alone while I had you. You were all alone. How could I blame you for being afraid? How could I blame you for any of it?”

“I’m not the brother that you knew and loved,” Makoto insists, voice breaking. Ryoji isn’t intruding into their conversation, but one glance at him says enough; that this pains him as much as it pains her. She never knows Makoto would feel so guilty for something she assumes he has no control over. And he proves her right when he murmurs quietly. “I… don’t know why, but you never lived before, and you suddenly do, and I took the only family you had from you, replacing him with… with this.”

He regards himself with disgust, as if he loathes the thought of him being here and not whoever it was that existed before. But to her, while this revelation startles her enough that it makes her heart clench and beat painfully against the staffs of her ribs, it also makes her understand the current him more; why he was suddenly so hostile, so bitter.

He was all alone, while she had someone with her all the time. He never chose this, so why should she condemn him for the choices he never had the chance to make at all?

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose to do this,” Kotone reassures him, squeezing his hand a little harder to emphasize her point. He doesn’t look at her, averting his eyes away towards somewhere. “Makoto, I still think of you as my brother. You still are, even if you’ve changed. This doesn’t matter.”

“But I—”

“You looked out for me,” she says, smiling. Now it all makes so much sense, why Eurydice seems to like his presence in the team ascending Tartarus so much, why Orpheus is hers to call, why the flame Orpheus held in his hands whenever she summoned him always felt so kind and gentle and warm. “You pushed me away because you were guilty and afraid and it sucks, yeah. But you looked out for me, even when I was angry at you. That’s why I can call Orpheus, right?”

Makoto refuses to answer, refuses to look at her eyes. It takes him long moments to say anything, and his voice is so quiet that she almost misses his words. “…You’re far too kind. I guess that’s why you’re the Wild Card here.”

“You said that as if you yourself isn’t a Wild Card,” she huffs lightly, pulling back. “Makoto, I’m not as upset as I thought I was gonna be hearing about that. I mean, yeah, you changed, but… to me, you’re still you – my brother, my family. Does it matter if your memories changed a little bit?”

He snorts an unamused, self-deprecating laughter as he shakes his head. “It’s not a little bit. I haven’t even told you everything yet, and you’re making it sound simpler than it is.”

“Isn’t it simple, though?” Kotone asks, and when Makoto lifts his gaze up to hers, confused, she elaborates with her hands swinging wildly between them. “I mean, this is all a mess and a half, but when you think about it, it’s just… you’re you, but you’re also not you. It’s like my brother just gained and extra year or two, and that our childhoods are different, and that’s it! At the core, you’re still you – you’re closer to the, well, other you than you believe you are, Makoto.”

Makoto opens his mouth before closing them and tilts his head at this, and frankly, she can’t blame him – talking about this, with Makoto now a different person, but also the same, is kind of confusing. But isn’t this what it all boils down to? He’s the same – still looks out for her, still cares, even if he turns more bitter and resentful than he used to be. In the end, though, the core remains just the same.

Orpheus is undeniable evidence that, too.

After a while, he lets out a soft hum, fingers picking at the scars on his hands a little less. “…If that’s what you think of me, then I’m… Thank you. Just… thank you.”

“You’re welcomed, you absolute idiot,” she says, ignoring the wetness collecting at the edge of her eyes, and reaches out to pinch his cheek, hard. He doesn’t startle much, but still jumps a little under his skin, blinking owlishly at her before his lips quirk into a small smile. “You’re more of an idiot than you were before, though. So there’s that, I guess.”

“I guess,” Makoto echoes, looking out the window, his eyes fixated on the bright moon above them. There is another, longer pause before he murmurs. “…But, I… fuck.”

She tilts her head, confused, as Ryoji squeezes Makoto’s knee. “You don’t need to tell them that.”

“I do,” Makoto says, voice low. “In hindsight, it’s been cruel for me to keep it a secret. They deserve to know, Kotone included. If they’d hate me or curse me for it, then there’s that. But they deserve to know. They need to know.”

“What are you talking about?” the words and the tone he uses are foreboding, creating that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She doesn’t like the way Orpheus stirs in her chest, either, deep and sad and forlorn. “Makoto, look at me. What are you talking about?”

“…The year,” Makoto says, reluctant, refusing to lock eyes with her. Ryoji sighs from the side, but nods in the end, easing back onto his hands and waiting for Makoto to continue. “I said I’ve lived this year before. But I’ve lived it more than once.”

“…What?”

“There’s no need for you to know more than that,” Makoto mumbles, and those words make the ache in her heart grow worse. Not just once? He has to endure pain and solitude and whatever else more than once? Why? “But I’ve lived the year more than once, and there’s a few more important details, one of which I’m sure you remember.”

No, she doesn’t want to, she wants it to be wrong. But there’s that look of resignation in his eyes as his smile turns solemn. Grim acceptance is written all over his face as she bites her lip, shaking her head. “No, I… I don’t believe it.”

“You have to,” Makoto says softly. “Because it’s the truth.”

She feels like she wants to cry all over again.

“You probably already know it, but, just to make sure…” he trails off, as if to give her a moment. But a moment won’t be enough; no days, no months, no years could’ve prepared her for this— “the year began and ended with my death.”

It’s a horrible, horrible thing to know, to have it confirmed and cemented so thoroughly.

Makoto didn’t elaborate further than that, didn’t dare say what else it is that he wants (needs) them to know, because he said he will talk about the details after school tomorrow – today, rather – so he gave her time to contemplate, to think, to feel the truth deep inside her heart.

It’s a terrible thing to know, and it’s even more terrible to realize why he told her that.

She thinks she knows he was hoping she would distance herself from him because he is going to die. There’s no evidence, no words, but the necessity of his death seems to saturate the air like the vileness of the Shadows during the Dark Hour. It’s cold, and uncaring, and unkind, and she hates this. She hates that she never knew, she hates that she never realized just how much pain he was in when he tried to push her away, when he wore the mask of coldness and indifference she should’ve seen through within minutes of witnessing it.

And she can’t help but think what else he isn’t saying.

There is no way on heaven and earth that he’s telling her everything; there are lies etched somewhere within the truth, untold stories left to rot between words, things he could never say no matter how much he tries. There is still more that she doesn’t know, that he isn’t willing to say, and all of this makes her think; how much more to it is there that he’s not saying? How much pain and fear does he have to endure just to tell her a sliver of the truth she is no longer certain she wants to know?

Sleep doesn’t come tonight, of course – why would it, when there’s so much to unpack? She isn’t sure what she’s supposed to think about this entire situation; his words and actions both point to the fact that he’s lived through this year enough times for him to be afraid of bonds than to cherish them, and isn’t that the very opposite of what the Wild Cards stand for? Wild Cards are supposed to be the ones who turn their bonds into strength, who shape their shared hearts into powers that could save them? How much did he see, did he have to live through, for things to turn upside down like that?

He said he’s giving her the space to think, but she thinks the opposite is true, too – he himself seems to need the space and time to sort through his emotions, his fears, his insecurities. It must’ve taken Makoto courage beyond her imagination to even tell her all of this, Kotone thinks. She can’t even say that she wouldn’t turn out the same, if she had to go through what he had.

But instead of thinking about what-ifs, she figures that the best thing she should focus on isn’t the past. What to do from here on out, she wonders?

He gave her space, as if he’s hoping she would elect to disconnect with him, who’s doomed to die. The year began and ended with his death, so maybe that’s the entire point of these conversations; he thinks – or maybe knows – that this will end with his death, too. She knows Makoto thinks that, if they think of him as less a friend (or family) and more of a simple acquaintance, the pain would be less, that he wouldn’t leave scars behind when he has to go.

But heaven and hell be damned; she isn’t going to let him go without a fight. Relationships are fleeting, love even more so, but isn’t that the point? Relationships aren’t supposed to last; they’re supposed to begin and end out of their controls. It’s their jobs to make the most of it, and she’ll never be able to forgive herself if she chooses the easy way out and leaves Makoto to his own devices just to save herself some grief.

They’re brother and sister, and even if he has to die – something she’ll fight tooth and nail to prevent, should her suspicion becomes real – then she’ll make sure these moments are cherished, not forgotten.

And when the sun comes up, a few hours later, she’s already out of her room before her alarm even rings, with determination in her steps and a greeting at a ready.

She’ll not let a single moment go to waste.

“Makoto?” she knocks on his door as soon as she arrives on the second floor. When he fails to respond, she raises her hand to knock again, only to stop when the door creak open, revealing Ryoji – why is she still surprised about that again? – who looks at her with a slightly raised brow. “Good morning, Ryoji-kun! Is Makoto awake?”

Ryoji blinks, as if dazed, before he looks back into the room. She hears someone (Makoto) retch and gasps, and Ryoji’s wince is enough to confirm that yes, that is indeed Makoto. “…It’d be more precise to say that he hasn’t slept since. But don’t worry, Kotone-chan, it isn’t your fault. This is bound to happen eventually.”

“Is he okay? Are you okay?” she asks, pushing the door a little to get a better look. Ryoji resists for a moment before he finally lets her in, and she’s greeted with Makoto, hunched over the sink, both hands grasping the edge tightly. “Makoto? You alright?”

He takes a moment to breathe through his mouth, sweat making his shirt cling to his skin tightly. His eyes are dull, and they shine a little when he sees her. He takes an uncomfortably long moment to gather his thoughts and nods, pauses, then shakes his head. “I told you… I’m going to hate myself in the morning. I am hating myself right now.”

“Is this because of you summoning that Persona yesterday?” she asks, reaching for him, only to stop when he shies away. Kotone thinks she hears Koromaru yip from outside of the room, but doesn’t pay the canine much mind.

“That and the drugs, maybe, I don’t know,” Makoto mumbles, unsure, eyes glued to the faucet as if willing it to set itself on fire. It takes him almost a minute to continue. “…Why are you here?”

“I was thinking about walking to school with you today,” she says, shrugging nonchalantly at his raised brow and slightly dubious gaze. Ryoji is blinking wildly, but it is there, that light of appreciation hidden under his bright eyes. “I know you told me all those things yesterday, and yes, I still remember. I still want to walk to school with you, though.”

He stares at her a moment longer, uncertainty back at the edge of his eyes. But before he can say anything, he retches again and spits out more saliva into the sink.

“Orrrrr maybe you should take a day off!” Kotone says, making sure that Makoto would hear the dismay in her voice. She wonders how many times something like this have happened, for Ryoji to look so calm as though he’s seen this many times before. A few? Not a few? “I’ll tell Mitsuru-senpai—”

“It’s fine,” Makoto rasps, more forceful than he had been since last night. It’s only here that she actually realizes that him talking with darkness at the edge of his voice is only when he’s annoyed or when he disagrees with something. The entirety of last night, he was nothing short of soft and sweet – a contrast to what he used to show. “I want to go.”

Wanting to go and being able to go are two different things, Makoto,” Ryoji says from the side, but he has already given up on convincing Makoto otherwise, it would seem, since he has already grabbed both of their schoolbags under his arms. “Not like I don’t understand, of course.”

“Give me a moment,” he mutters, holding up a finger, eyes glancing up at her. “Are you sure?”

Are you sure you want to do this? Getting close to me?

Even before April, Makoto has never been one to speak his mind; instead, he would let his eyes and the twitch in his fingertips convey his thoughts and feelings. Even now, though he claims he is not the brother that she knows, he still has the niche and the little touches of one. And the silence that stretches confirms it – that he is afraid to come closer, and is also afraid to lose everything.

She’ll be damned if she lets him go. “Yes, I am. I have all night to think, you know, and I don’t think my answer will ever change even after tonight.”

Makoto opens his mouth as if to say something, but pulls back when she looks him in the eyes, making sure to wear her heart on her sleeve. In the end, his stubbornness finally wears out – either due to the exhaustion of having to go through this alone with Ryoji or because he just wants to make bonds – and he hums in acknowledgement.

“Thank you, Kotone-chan,” Ryoji says in Makoto’s stead, his smile warm and kind. They never did tell her about him being Nyx Avatar, but she can see it better, now; that glint of power no human possesses, that shine of bright blue that looks more like a quasar rather than sapphire. “Truly.”

“Don’t mention it,” she smiles, waving her hand to make sure they both know that this is nothing much, that they both mean to her more than some baseless fear of the unknown. “Do you want me to wait outside? I can go camp downstairs and raid the fridge ‘til you’re ready or something.”

“That’d be ideal, yes,” Ryoji hums, reaching over and rubbing Makoto’s back as if to ease the heaving of his chest. She wonders what the drugs he’s commissioned the Kirijou Group before the Full Moon actually do, to make him this shaken up and nauseous. Or maybe it’s more than just the drugs that’s— “I promise, Kotone-chan. We’ll tell you everything tonight.”

“Does it show on my face that much?” Kotone blinks. She’s been thinking a little more than she usually would (hey! She is usually not a thinker, okay?), true, but she is pretty sure she is hard to read.

“You hid it pretty well,” Ryoji says, again, as if he can read her mind. When she gives him a questioning look, the boy laughs lightly. “It’s not like I can read your mind or anything. I’ve just gotten pretty good at reading people after so long, you know?”

“…Okay? That’s not creepy at all?” she comments and looks at Makoto again. He has already straightened up somewhat, but still has his hand on the edge of the chair. “…I’ll go wait downstairs, then. Just – if you’re not up for it, you can just message me or something. I can tell Mitsuru-senpai to give you two a day off.”

“Just give me a minute,” Makoto insists. His voice is light and with an edge of a smile there, something that makes her feel warmer than what she’s used to these past few months. “It’s alright. I’ll be alright.”

“If you say so,” she hums lightly. “See you downstairs then! Don’t be late!”

When he chuckles lightly, it feels like this is the family that she used to have, that this – this is what their relationship should be like.

(Instead of one of the Twenty-Two Arcana, she’s given something else; something that is both infinitesimal and grander than life, something that is both light and dark, something that is all and none – a card without a face, a name without a voice. Orpheus laughs in her chest, as if he is hers, and when she reaches out to touch the card—

It is warm. And it feels like home.)

“We had literally nothing to do before, and now we have everything we need to do.”

Ryoji agrees wholeheartedly, if his expression is anything to go by; they were just waiting before, letting the SEES grow and vigilantly watching from the dark. They never planned on showing the rest his powers, never dreamed of spontaneously just telling the truth, never prepared to see their anger and hatred and maybe guilt and pain up front. And now that he did, the bonds in his heart are starting to feel nostalgically warm and welcoming, and he would do everything to sink into these feelings forever and never let go.

“Should we deal with that first?” Ryoji asks, tilting his head to the side. By that, Makoto supposes he’s meaning Ikutsuki the traitor. The man has already planted the seed of false hope already, anyway, so as far as he’s concerned, the role he has to play in this game – as the nameless god had put it – is over. “I can deal with that for you, if you want.”

Makoto shakes his head. Ryoji might be Death, a fragment of a celestial being that governs the very rule of nature, but he is also human; with clean hands and cleaner heart. Makoto isn’t willing to let Ryoji bear that burden of having taken a life, of knowing he has to take a life. It’s already too terrible for Ryoji to relive being the Nyx Avatar over and over before, and if Igor’s words and predictions are anything to be believed (he believes it. Somewhere in him knows that those words are real), then Ryoji will survive these cycles as a human and not be reabsorbed back into the vile moon.

“I’ll do it,” Makoto mumbles, making sure Kotone won’t hear him. Kotone who, despite Makoto giving her the time to back away, doesn’t. She seems even more determined to get closer than before, and he’s already far too tired to push her away any longer – he wants this. He wants all of it, wants the bonds he used to make and the bonds he could make, wants to fix all the wrongs he had done and correct all the decisions he had made. “I’m not sure how, though.”

“We can think after you’re not feeling nauseous, thank you,” Ryoji pats his shoulder lightly, but his eyes are anything but. “You of all people should know best how pain affects your abilities to both think and fight. Just wait for a week or so for the pain to subside, then we’ll plan it out together.”

“Sure,” he hums, not having enough mental capacity to argue. “Now that I think about it,” he says, finally reminded of something during their partially silent conversation. “Kotone?”

“Yeah?” she turns back, eyes bright and smiles brighter.

You don’t have to do this. You’ll hate me after you hear the whole truth anyway, so you don’t need to do this. You don’t have to get close and—

“Have you met Elizabeth?” Makoto asks, brushing the thoughts out of his eyes even though he can’t stop it from resurfacing over and over. “Or do you see only Theodore?”

He knows that question comes out of absolutely nowhere, but at least she knows he’s a Wild Card, too, and a time-repeater at that. There’s no more secrets he needs to keep about the Velvet Room anymore, and he’s been wanting to ask for a while. Because who knows what would happen when two energetic and kind-of, sort-of fearless curious beings are in the presence of one another?

(Chaos. Chaos would ensue, and as much as he hates to admit it, he’d like to see them become friends.)

“Yeah?” she replies, surprising him. “I mean, Theo is there to greet me all the time and he’s my attendant, as he put it. Elizabeth likes to pop up from time to time without warning,” Kotone says, tilting her head with a frown. “Wait, your attendant isn’t Theo?”

“No,” Makoto shrugs. So Kotone is already aware of it. “Mine’s always been Elizabeth. Only her.”

“I see. That’s neat,” Kotone grins easily. Their bond is still weak and a fledgling, but he likes it; and he knows he will die for this one, too, just like the rest. She has somehow accepted him as her real brother, even after all that he’d put her through and more. “What is she like for you?”

He blinks away the convoluted thoughts and brushes the remnants of darkness away from his eyelashes as he clears his throat, unsure of where to begin. In the first cycle, where he was oblivious to Ryoji’s true nature, he could never talk to anyone about Elizabeth; a foreigner with silver hair and bright, golden eyes that seemed to go in and out of existence as she damn well pleased.

“…Eccentric?” he offers. Ryoji laughs unhelpfully by his side. “Kind of spontaneous. She’s learning about human cultures in general, and with me as her teacher, you can see how that went.”

Frankly, if she had been with Kotone or even with Akihiko, she’d have a much easier and better time understanding life. All he could ever offer is the Answer to Life’s Greatest Question; the Answer that is a cryptic message where nothing becomes everything to him, where bonds become life and life becomes death. But she cherishes their subtle connection, and so does he, so he supposes all of it is not entirely a bad thing.

“Give yourself some credit,” Kotone grins, slowing her steps slightly and falling behind, nudging his side with her elbow. Ryoji, again, unhelpfully pulls his schoolbag out of his grasp, letting Kotone have a little more room to squeeze herself into his personal space. “I mean, yeah, you were kind of a dick, but you have your reasons! Even if you were a jerk about trying to save us grief.”

“You practically called me a jerk twice in that sentence,” Makoto can’t help but roll his eyes, the lead behind his eyelids somewhat forgotten. He still feels like he wants to throw up, though, but he can make it to the school without splattering their shoes with whatever remains of his gut, thank you. “But, yeah, I get your point. I’m terrible, aren’t I?”

“Have you listened to what I just said?” Kotone pouts, leaning in closer than what he’d like. “I told you that you have your reasons, and I understand it! You’re not terrible. You just have your head in the wrong place – and who could blame you, really?”

“Everyone, I suppose,” he mutters, ignoring Ryoji’s eyes boring hole into the back of his head. Orpheus stirs, quietly and gently, in disagreement. He only sighs. “Do you think it’s easy trying to ease back to even a semblance of normalcy when you’re no longer normal?”

Kotone takes a moment, puts his words in between her palms and shapes them into something easier to understand. And she does – as he knew she would, as he hoped she would – before she smiles, this time tinged with a little sadness he’s been killing himself to prevent. “Guess not. But you’re trying to do that now, right? Better that than doing nothing.”

“Mhm,” he hums, rolling their fledgling bond between his fingertips. “It’s better than not getting started at all.”

“On that note,” Ryoji says, leaning slightly over him as he speaks. “Thank you again for managing to get through his thick skull. It took me my whole life to even start this. You and Theodore-san are what he needed to finally forgive himself, you know?”

“You’re welcome!”

Makoto frowns – forgive himself? Ryoji surely knows that that isn’t going to happen after tonight, right? He should know that Makoto could never— “Ryoji—

“Shush, you,” Ryoji says, putting a finger to his lips to effectively stop Makoto from saying anything more. He then lowers his voice, just for him and only him to hear. “You know full well that the reasons you were doing all of that is because you could never forgive yourself for failing things that were never in your control. Among other things, of course.”

“How much things left do we need to unpack tonight, anyway?” Kotone asks, voice low. “Hopefully no more traumatic experiences you need to share, right?” Aside from your death?

Kotone’s spoken and silent questions are left to linger in the air for a moment, and at this, he and Ryoji exchange glances. What could Makoto say? That he’s killed the SEES over and over for reasons he still could only partially fathom? That he’s fucked everything up for most of his life, repeated in the same dull patterns within the scope of a year?

“You’ll see,” Makoto decides to say instead. And she doesn’t seem to like that answer, with how deep her brows are furrowed, so he adds a little more (lies a little more). “I’m alright now. You don’t have to worry about the minor details anymore, okay?”

Ryoji is about to protest, but Makoto stops him. What good would baring all of his pain for her to see do? He needs no more pity, no more guilt; all he needs is their understanding. Even if they hate him for it, curse him for it because they know nothing of his pain, that’s the choice he’s willing to make. They don’t need to feel the guilt of not knowing, if they never get the chance to know at all.

Ryoji sighs, in the end, but he relents. When Kotone gives him a hard look, Makoto could only smile back, with a silent plead at the tip of his tongue. “Don’t worry about it.”

She frowns a little more, but backs away in the end, forcing out a smile and squeezing his arm a little harder than she should. “If you say so. Let’s save these conversations for later, yeah?”

“Mhm,” he hums, hopefully not having to say anymore aside from what they had planned to say – and show – during tonight’s Dark Hour. “Later it is, then.”

“You look quite refreshed, Kotone,” Mitsuru says as soon as her junior arrives at the student council room.

She smiles brightly, all the weight she used to carry halved with just a single night. Something good must have happened, she supposes; while she wasn’t there to see the results of their conversation, she could feel it in her bones as soon as she saw Kotone and Yuuki (and, by extension, Mochizuki) walk to school together, his expression soft and warm.

It gives her a pang of nostalgia in her chest, as well as a sense of relief far beyond one reserved for a mere acquaintance.

(It feels as though he’s a dear friend of hers, even though they rarely ever interacted before that day, where they spoke in the dead of the night.)

“Yeah!” Kotone chirps as she hops down into the chair nearest to her. Shinjirou only regards Kotone with a stiff nod of his own, not bothering to open his mouth to speak, as always. But, just like Mitsuru had observed many times before, Kotone actually seems to like that? “He talked to me a bit about what he wanted to tell you all today,” at this, she pauses, her grin faltering. “It’s… kinda a lot to take in, actually.”

“Do you wish to tell us about it?” Mitsuru inquires, even though she thinks it’d be better for the subject of their discussion to disclose these secrets himself. Penthesilea seems to agree, too, as she shifts gently within Mitsuru’s chest, her ice cool and soothing within her heart.

“Nah, it’s better Makoto told you all those himself, anyway,” Kotone refuses, her voice and eyes saying just enough; that she knows Mitsuru doesn’t quite like the idea of forcing the issue, either. “It’s just… I have to warn you, though, there’s a lot to take in, even a part of it. You’re not going to like most of what he’s going to say, and that’s just a tiny part about this… whole thing.”

Shinjirou scrunches up his nose. “Yeah, I figure that’d be the case since he told me he wanted to die.”

Mitsuru – and Kotone, too – squirm uneasily in their seats at the reminder. The signs have always been there in the open, waiting to be seen. It took them months to get a glimpse of things, so Mitsuru considers the incident of yesterday – of the Shadow far stronger than anything they’d ever seen showing up, of Yuuki single-handedly taking care of it without regards for himself – somewhat a blessing.

Would Yuuki actually destroy himself to keep his secrets? Would he just consider suicide as an option, had he been given a choice? A part of her knows he never would, but it still is a thought that brings unease to her chest and sends chills into her spine. He wouldn’t commit suicide, but he might as well throw himself into the fray without care, or curl into himself and disappear – these are but thoughts, but to her, it feels real.

And it feels even more real when she recalls what the beast had said yesterday, about death and wanting to strewn Yuuki’s guts across the stars.

“Does he still want to?” Shinjirou’s voice breaks her out of her thoughts, and Mitsuru perks up at the seemingly sensitive question. Even though his death seems like a certainty he had yet to confirm, having to die and wanting to die still are two different things. “…Hopefully not?”

“I… don’t know,” Kotone withers into herself, hugging her arms as if to find a semblance of warmth, the cheeriness she had shown mere moments ago overshadowed by something else – by fear, perhaps. Or more than just fear. “He… we didn’t talk about that. It’s mostly us trying to mend our relationships. It’s… hard to put into words, but I believe he still does?”

“Should I be concerned?” Mitsuru asks, unable to help herself.

At this, she has expected Kotone’s answer to be clipped and sudden, but the silence stretches longer than what she thought it would. After a while, Kotone frowns before shrugging, helpless. “…Just wait until tonight, I guess. It’s… hard to say if we should be concerned or not before he gives us the full story. All he told me is that he’d lived through this year before.”

Time not moving linearly,” Shinjirou repeats what he had said last night, reluctance rolling off his tongue and thoughtfulness crossing his eyes. He puts a finger to his chin, uncertainty latching onto his spine as much as it does Mitsuru’s. “Truth be told, if he had lived through the year more than just once or something like that, there’s no telling what exactly happened, and what it is that he actually went through.”

“He told me as much; about him having lived through the year differently, I mean,” Kotone shifts again, her frown deepening. “And, uh… there’s something else he wanted me to tell you guys, too. Have you told Ikutsuki-san about this yet?”

“I was about to,” Mitsuru says, gesturing towards her phone atop a pile of papers. “Why?”

“He, uh, told me,” Kotone says, unsure, a shiver passing through her fingertips, barely noticeable. She exchanges a look with Shinjirou, who only shrugs back at her. “Makoto insisted we do not let Ikutsuki-san know about this, actually, and that we should talk a little closer to midnight. He said there’s something he’d rather show than tell.”

“Did he tell you why?” Mitsuru asks. This must means that Yuuki knows something that they do not, some form of information that makes the chairman a liability. What could it be? Could the chairman be in danger if he knows?

(Or is the chairman himself the danger?)

“No,” Kotone shakes her head. “He didn’t. But he seems… yeah, he and Ryoji-kun both insist we don’t involve him, at least for now.”

“…I suppose I can compromise for that,” Mitsuru sighs, sitting down and drumming her fingers against the table. Something in her actually agrees with Yuuki’s assessment, even though she knows Ikutsuki for longer than she does Yuuki. Her father trusts the chairman, so why is it that it feels right to leave the chairman out of his rather outstanding issue?

“I’ll tell him that, then,” Kotone mutters, inhales, then smiles brightly again. There’s something else, too, and even though she wants so badly to know, Mitsuru will not pry; Yuuki’s secrets are his to tell, not hers nor Kotone’s. “Well, I guess there’s that? We still don’t talk much, but… it’s progress. I’m still kind of nervous about tonight, though.”

“Aren’t we all?” Shinjirou snorts a small laughter as he makes his way to the door, pausing briefly to pat Kotone in the head – affectionately, if Mitsuru’s knowledge of the man is anything to go by – before he opens the door. “See you after school, then.”

“Yes!” Kotone grins, the edge of worry and sadness in her eyes gone. “See you!”

The last time Makoto has ever been this nervous and scared and terrified was right before facing Nyx Avatar at the apex of the world the very first time.

It has been so long since he last connected with anyone, he doesn’t exactly remember how to do it; Kotone is easy, because she is a Wild Card and because she’s more than willing to reconnect, even after all that he had said and done. Besides, he’s still very resistant to the idea of reforging the old bonds he used to have – and afraid of Aigis and her hostility towards him, most of all – so he’s still torn about what to do next with the hands that he has.

“Have you rested well?” Mitsuru asks, her voice kind and betraying nothing. “I saw you in the hallways today, and you still look rather exhausted. We can postpone this—”

“It’s alright, Mit— Kirijou-senpai,” he corrects himself, forgetting that no, they don’t know everything yet. They don’t know about what they mean to him – more important than the world itself – why he has to die at the end of this road, what he has set out to do and what the Dark Hour even is. “I’ve had worse. I can manage a few bouts of headaches.”

The others have already starting to gather in the fourth floor’s command room. Ryoji has made sure that there are no hidden mics or recorders within the scope of this room, but just to be completely certain, they will have to wait it out a little longer to explain Ryoji’s existence to them. Showing is much more convincing than simply speaking, anyway.

“You can take it slow,” Aragaki says slowly, tasting the words in his mouth. Has Aragaki always been so kind, so open? Makoto doesn’t think so. He always died in the previous cycles, and it’s all his damn fault that Aragaki had to go through that (even if he doesn’t remember anything), and he couldn’t help but feel that stab of guilt in his chest again. “I mean, we have all night.”

“What do you want to know first?” Makoto asks, because he doesn’t know where to begin. With Kotone, all he ever wanted to tell her was the truth that he had robbed her of her only family, to which she forgave him easily as though he just spilled a mug of coffee and not killed the only brother she had. “There are a lot of things I have to explain, and I’m… not sure where to start.”

“A lot to explain, huh…?” Akihiko says, taking a seat to his right. Ryoji leans against the sofa Makoto sits on, at the head of the long table. “And I’m curious as to why you insist we do not involve Ikutsuki-san in this. I think it’s almost prudent to let him know—”

“He’s not who you think he is,” Makoto growls, failing at keeping his voice in check. There’s something prickling the back of his throat like needles, the feeling of disgust outweighing everything else for that single moment alone. “You wouldn’t believe me if I had given you the reason. So thank you, for following my request without asking questions.”

“Try us,” Mitsuru says after a moment. “You said that you have your reasons. I am willing to put my personal feelings and knowledges aside. Tell us why the chairman isn’t trustworthy enough, will you?”

Makoto looks at Ryoji, uncertain. But he has been doing things he’s not certain about for a whole damn day and a half how, hadn’t he? First telling Kotone about his death – something that she, thankfully, still hadn’t told anyone else yet, because he wants to tell them himself – and then all of this; showing them his true colors, stripping off his defenses for the rest of SEES to see (to damn him for another eternity to come).

“…After this,” Makoto says with a sigh, rubbing tiredness and pain away from the bridge of his nose. It’s tempting to tell them the reason, but he isn’t going to risk it; the first and only time he did try to tell them about Ikutsuki had been nothing short of a disaster; they didn’t even believe him when he told them about Nyx before, so talking about Ikutsuki’s obsession with death is out of the question.

We’ll see if it’s worth a shot telling you about it or not after this.

Mitsuru looks like she wants to argue, but she finally relents, nodding once and relaxing back into her seat. “Very well. Then, if you do not know where to start, why not begin at how and when exactly did you come across the power of a Wild Card, like Kotone?”

Makoto pauses, fidgeting over his fingers, making sure the contact is brief and impermanent. Starting from that means starting at the time loop, and starting at the time loop means reliving them in his memories.

He already is hating this.

But he has to do this; he’s promised Ryoji and himself and everyone that he’d tell them, that whether they hate him and curse him for an eternity or not is not alright he’s afraid they’d turn their backs fine by him. So he breathes, pushes his hair back with both of his hands, then begins, his voice shaky. “It’s… how do I put this? I told Aragaki-senpai once about this – time, for me, does not move linearly.”

“What does that mean?” Yukari asks.

He waits, and when he sees some form of grim understanding crossing Mitsuru’s eyes, explains. “I’ve… lived through this year before,” so many times I lost count, he barely stops himself from saying, “and in the past – this year that happened before, if you will – I was and had always been the only survivor of the car crash ten years ago.”

He then gives them time to murmur among themselves. Mitsuru is already trying to explain it to the rest as he sits there waiting, his hand cold and fingers turning static. “It… should be easier to understand that he’s from another timeline.”

“Like in the movies? You kidding?” Junpei exclaims, disbelief thick in his voice. But whatever expression Makoto and Ryoji are wearing must be enough to convince him, because he shrinks back with a wince.

“I’m not kidding,” Makoto says, digging his nails into his palm and feeling the bite of his nails in his flesh. It feels wrong to explain this to them, to tell them even a part of the truth – but they’ve seen him fight, pull out the power of the Wild Card to protect them. If he refused to tell them at all, the rift would grow too wide, and he won’t be able to continue within the SEES to finish what he’s started. “That’s why… that’s why I knew you’d do fine so far.”

“What changed, then?” Akihiko asks. “If things went according to what you know would happen, then why intervene now? Is it because someone is going to die?”

Yes, he doesn’t say, because he can’t afford for his words to be interpreted wrong. Instead, he opts to say just a part of the truth, sprinkled with a single lie. “No. It’s just that… that Shadow that I fought – it shouldn’t—” he flinches, catching himself slipping on his wording, before he corrects himself “—it never exist in the past timelines. It’s new, and I wasn’t sure what would happen if I didn’t interfere.”

“Let’s wind back a little,” Ryoji says, leaning against Makoto’s armrest and waving his arms in the air, drawing images into it. “Before we go about saying how we know—”

We?” Aragaki interjects.

“Yes. We,” Ryoji repeats, his voice flat, as he sits straighter with his fingers laced over his crossed knee. “I am the same as he is. I’ve repeated this year before with him, so I know the gist of things, too.”

“Why aren’t you miserable like Makoto, then?” Junpei asks, venomous, and no matter how many times he’s heard it, Makoto can never get used to the hostility. It’s only now that he decides to face his own fears and his sins and his mistakes that he feels like he wants to curl up and die all over again— “If you two repeated the year together, why is he the only one who’s so damn—”

“Junpei,” Ryoji hisses, anger seeping into his voice. Even if they are close friends, him and Ryoji are much closer – and even though he doesn’t want Ryoji to go so far just for someone like him, Ryoji wouldn’t have stopped, anyway. “Don’t talk as if you know everything. That’ll be your first strike.”

Junpei opens his mouth to argue, but a sharp glare from Mitsuru silences him.

“Apologies,” Mitsuru says after a moment, but Makoto only shakes his head. Their anger and their hatred is warranted, and he’s not prepared for them. He deserves all the hate, after all. “Please, do continue.”

“Alright, then back to what I was saying,” Ryoji says, shifting slightly in his seat as Nyx’s power seeps out from his fingertips. Makoto takes his hand, and Ryoji squeezes back gently. “We have to go back to the beginning of the Dark Hour. The truth behind it.”

“The… truth?” Yukari whispers, her voice dangerously quiet, as if she’s daring them to speak any more about the father who she believes is the culprit. “What is there to know about it? My father caused the explosion, and the twelve Greater Shadows are born from—”

“It’s not the twelve that were born initially, but a single entity who originally was the host of the twelve, the Thirteenth,” Ryoji says, and Makoto could feel the way his pulse races. The tensions are high, and Makoto thinks he should take over before Ryoji’s guilt crawls up his throat again. “It’s called—”

“—Death, the Arcana that was not meant to be,” Makoto finishes.

Silence reigns, and it’s Mitsuru who speaks up first, her voice on the verge of breaking. “…Death?”

“The Kijirou Group… your grandfather… they were experimenting on Shadows, harnessing their powers. Imagine it; what if you could use your Personas’ powers outside of the Dark Hour? You could rule the world with them,” Makoto snorts, still disgusted every time he thinks about Kirijou Koetsu and the lead scientists’ twisted goal of rejuvenating Death. Death comes for them all, but they should at least have a say whether they will die now or when their time is up, not have their fates forced upon them like him. “In the end, they found out about the existence of the Fall – the apocalypse, if you will. The Fall is the end of all life – and they wanted that to happen.”

He expects Mitsuru to break down, to lash out, to anything – but instead, there is a certain form of grim acceptance he’s seen on his face in the mirrors in her eyes now, too. Then again, she had known about this for years before he even came into the picture, so why would she not know? Why would she not be prepared to know that her grandfather wished for something so vile and crude?

“…What is the Fall exactly?” Mitsuru asks after a short moment. “And what is Death?”

“There are… gods out there,” Makoto says, waving his hand dismissively. There is no point mentioning the nameless god, only Nyx and her bloodied eye. Orpheus hums, and Ryoji squeezes his hand back just as tightly. “One of them is the embodiment of Death – the answer to all life. And your grandfather, during his experimentation with Shadows, found Death – and learned about the Fall.”

He breathes deeply, bracing his heart for any storm that might come.

“The Arcana that was never meant to be, Death, is like a… caller. An Appriser. With its existence, it calls for the mother of Shadows; her name is Nyx, the goddess of Death. And with Tartarus as the beacon, Nyx would descend, and all life would perish. That is the Fall; the end of the world.”

There are gasps and confusions and distrusts and fears flooding their eyes, and he hates seeing this. Every other cycle, it has always been Ryoji who spoke of this, who told them the tales of the Fall and who urged them to make a decision to forget or to fight – something that Makoto thinks maybe unnecessary now. Aigis hates him, wants nothing more than for him gone – which means he is the Appriser, or at least, his soul is hosting one, while she has no ill-will towards Ryoji. Maybe, this time, Ryoji is more human than he is Thanatos, more alive than he is Death, more—

He shakes his head, looks down at the ground, and continues. “Yuka—” he catches himself again and frowns. He can’t keep slipping up like this. “Takeba’s father caught wind of this plan, and stopped the scientists from back then from completing Death. The explosion he caused stopped Death, tearing it into pieces – and those pieces are the Greater Shadows. And with that, the Fall is delayed, and the Dark Hour began.”

“So, you’re saying…” Yukari murmurs, her voice quivering, tears collecting in the corner of her eyes. She had just had her world flipped upside down a month ago, and Makoto is turning it back to where it belongs, a little faster than usual. He can do this, right? He can correct some mistakes, give them less grief with this, right? “That my father—”

“—is a hero,” Makoto nods. “Your father gave us time. And I know how to stop the Fall.”

“How?” Akihiko questions.

There’s that heaviness in the air, and a soft gasp shatters the peace; Kotone is looking at him, eyes wide as the realization finally hits her. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it all out, and since he’d told Kotone – rather, confirmed what they’ve already heard the colossal Shadow said last night – it comes as no surprise that she’d be the first to understand.

“You—” Kotone gulps, shaky hands grasping something – Aragaki’s sleeve – for support. Understanding is like a snake, this time – it slithers and cascades through their eyes and settles into their guts. Even Aigis’ unblinking eyes seem to widen – and even soften – at that. “You… stopped this Fall by dying, not because you died fighting.”

Ryoji chokes back something, but Makoto decides not to look. Because if he does, he’ll know just how much he has hurt the only person who’s ever meant something more than what everything in the world combined could ever hope to be.

He can’t help a wet chuckle that follow, and after a moment, he nods.

“Yes,” he breathes, feeling the way his hand tremble under Ryoji’s grip, and smiles at them, mirthless, not looking at any of their eyes. “I did.”

She can’t breathe.

His words scare her, and Ryoji’s voice that comes after those grim confirmation that Makoto did is tuned right out of her mind. Ryoji is explaining something, but she’s only half listening to it as her mind reels with the implication of Makoto’s dark whispers of the truth. She had thought – she had thought he died fighting, burned his soul in the blaze to let them live after a final battle where he kept the beasts at bay so the rest can flee. But this isn’t it; he dodged the subject completely after that, but his eyes say enough, Orpheus’ saddened hum says enough—

He didn’t stop the Fall by going down fighting. He stopped the fall by using his very life

“Don’t be sorry for me,” Makoto says when she catches his eyes, almost like a growl with that sadness and that pain she’s seen a moment ago gone, eyes squinted and hands clasped. His shoulders are pulled tighter to his frame, and there’s as much guilt as there is anger in his expression. “I don’t want or need or deserve your pity. I just want you all to understand that I will die by the end of the school year, and nothing is going to change that.”

The word deserve sounds wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Yuuki—” Mitsuru begins first, reaching out a hand towards him even through the distance between them, but retracts back when Makoto openly glares at her – dares her to do just that. Mitsuru bites her lip, the coldness she used to wear hidden under the weight and the guilt this new revelation brings. “There must be something we can—”

“Even if there is, I don’t want or need you to find an alternative,” Makoto says, his voice flat with a tint of desperation in it. Ryoji squirms, but doesn’t interject. “You don’t know what I did before this timeline happened. You don’t know me – I’m not a good person. The only reason I chose to die at all is because there is something else I value more than my own life.”

“But—”

“Stop,” Makoto deadpans, and this is a first for Kotone, to see Mitsuru pressured to submission. But Makoto isn’t saying that word out of spite, or anger – it’s more because he doesn’t want to be in more pain, and while she couldn’t have hoped to understand everything, she thinks she knows. “This is my choice. You don’t need to put your safety above mine. It isn’t worth it.”

“It isn’t worth it!?” Kotone growls, hitting the arms of the couch hard enough for Ryoji to wince. Makoto, if he is bothered even a little, doesn’t act out on it. He only looks at her in the eyes, and somewhere in her tells her to look away, to let him have this. But she can’t – if she gives up now, then what about that resolution she’s had only a day before? “This is your life, for Christ’s sake! A life, not some trinkets you can just toss aside without a second thought!”

“How long do you think I have had to contemplate this?” Makoto asks back, his frown deepening. When she couldn’t find anything in her to respond, he gives her a small, self-deprecating smile. “I’ve had years’ worth of time to rethink this, and this is the best I’ve got.”

“Could you just—” Mitsuru begins again, only to stop when Makoto lets out a disapproving sigh. But when Makoto doesn’t speak up, the heiress shifts her tongue and says something else instead. “…You told us you want to tell us everything. Why not… finish your stories first? And after that, we can speak more of the future.”

“There is nothing you can do,” Makoto repeats, but ultimately exhales and nods. “Aside from that, I do agree. It should be better that we finish every explanation we can before we jump into things.”

“Which reminds me,” Ryoji says after a long moment of silence, eyes glancing out towards the waning moon beyond the tinted glass. Makoto reaches a hand to grasp the boy’s knee, to which Ryoji smiles in return before standing up. “It’s almost the Dark Hour, so let’s clarify something. How many of you have heard of the phrase Nyx Avatar?

That is a blatant call out, but there is no anger in Ryoji’s voice – in fact, there is barely any emotion at all. A trace of surprise is all there is in the boy’s undertone, but somehow, she feels that pressure like staring up into the eyes of the Greater Shadows themselves. He still doesn’t feel threatening, but it feels… inhuman, god-like, even.

She raises her hand, and after a moment, Mitsuru, Aragaki and Sanada – the latter two hearing the word from Mitsuru, of course – follow suit. Ryoji simply hums as the green light of the Dark Hour starts to swallow the moon. “I see. Why do you think Makoto called me that?”

Kotone tries to think – Nyx is the mother of Death, right? So Nyx Avatar would mean—

Nyx Avatar would mean—

“You’re kidding,” Kotone breathes, realization hitting her full-force like a freight train. “You were this so-called Appriser?

Ryoji smiles, darkness engulfing his shadow and his body as his voice turns haunting, dark, ominous.

“I was,” Ryoji says again as his form emerges from the tendrils of shadows anew. “Before I am Ryoji, I am a Shadow – a fragment of Nyx, given a human’s heart. And before this cycle, I have always been your enemy, the bane of your existences.”

Notes:

The confession is split into two parts because word counts lmao. The later half is like 5k so i cut it and give you this stupidly enraging cliffhanger, so you can all suffer with me hahahahahahahhahahahahaha

If you notice any glaring typos, let me know! I might miss it still XD

comments are always welcomed, and join the discord below! If you cannot, just leave a comment and i'll fix it right up!

Chapter 14: Confession II

Summary:

Their discussion continue. SEES is left to contemplate the meaning of Makoto's reveal afterwards.

The Sea of Souls beckons, new resolves are made -- and finally, his bonds are slowly being mended, one by one

Notes:

Heya!!!!!! Exam sucks, but at least I'm past it now!

This chapter and a few more after this is just Makoto repairing what was fundamentally broken long ago, so they're going to be slow with some fluff, angst, hurt and comfort sprinkle it

Without further ado, have fun! :D

[Thank you @astropocalypse for the beta, as always!
Also if you find any mistakes I apologize in advance. I'll get to it as soon as I can!]

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

He is not as scary as he is beautiful.

She was expecting – something else. Maybe a grotesque, half-rotten face or dried up hands, but instead, the being – Ryoji – standing before them is anything but; his mask is silver, shining dimly with hollowed eyes and coffins with images of mother saints on each of the lids. And Kotone isn’t the only one who isn’t fully intimidated by the appearance, either; even Aigis, who always has that strange quirk of turning hostile and quick-to-the-draw in a Shadow’s presence, barely reacts.

With their reactions – or lack thereof – Ryoji lets out a somewhat surprised hum. His voice has changed, but the kindness in there in unmistakable. “Why are you not attacking me? Seeing me as an enemy? Hating me? Why are you all so… calm?”

“…That appearance is surprising, to say the least,” Mitsuru finally says, eyes still wide with shock. But she relaxes soon enough as she regards Ryoji like she always does; without any added suspicion or fear within her voice. Even though a rational part of Kotone thinks this is strange, Ryoji doesn’t feel dangerous to them – and he has been helping them since the start, hasn’t he? “But you’ve proven yourself to be our comrade since the very first day. I don’t suppose I should see you as the enemy now – unless you would later turn to be just so?”

Ryoji moves, as if to say something, but Makoto cuts in. There’s an argument between the two of them, brewing and unsaid. “We don’t know for sure, since in the cycles before, he… didn’t exist until early November.”

“Didn’t exist?” Kotone asks. “What do you mean?”

Ryoji shifts back into his human form at this, displeased and with a tint of regret. But he shakes it off as he explains. “I am Nyx’s fragment, given a heart – before I became this me, I was sealed inside Makoto on the day the Moonlight Bridge exploded. I was only able to have a body only when the Greater Shadows were all defeated.”

It’s easier to believe that Makoto is a time-traveler rather than whatever this is, damn it, and she doesn’t know what they’re getting at with this. But then, Makoto exhales and leans back into his seat, eyes pointing at Aigis. “Aigis used to hate him, called him a No-Good. She could sense it when a person is dangerous or not, whether he was involved in the explosion at the Moonlight Bridge or not. Her lack of hostility towards Ryoji, and a presence of one towards me suggests—”

“—That in this cycle, it’s either Makoto that’s the Appriser himself, or his soul is housing one,” Ryoji says after that nearly imperceptible pause.

“…I’m not following,” Aragaki cuts in, frown deep, but his expression shows that he has already drawn a conclusion out of that. He points up a finger, eyes brewing like a storm, before he words all their thoughts, slowly. “So you’re saying that, in whatever the fuck timeline you came from, you both—”

Died.

Kotone instinctively looks at Ryoji for confirmation, and the boy is smiling; there is no fear in that gaze, only grim acceptance, the same haunted look Makoto always wear briefly passing through his face. And he nods, sitting back down onto the armrest of Makoto’s couch. “Yes. I am – well, was, I’m not sure – Nyx’s Avatar. So when the Fall was triggered, I was reabsorbed back into Nyx.”

“You weren’t given a choice,” Mitsuru whispers.

Ryoji is too kind, too polite, too laid back; he has all the niches of a human, and not a tint of a Shadow’s savagery. It only stands to reason that he would become their undoing, their arch-nemesis, only because his nature forced him to.

“No,” Ryoji smiles, gentle but broken. “I wasn’t.”

“But this time, we think it’s different, we don’t know,” Makoto mumbles, sinking deeper into his seat and drumming his fingertips against his knee. “Aigis’ reactions and a whole list of things I’m not going to name challenge that idea. If what I hope would happen is true, then I am the monster in this story, and not him.”

Aigis moves before she can stop her, but she only manages a single step, intimidated to the spot by Ryoji’s frozen gaze.

Do not dare, his eyes seem to say, dark and cold and absolute. Your transgressions will not be forgiven again.

Aigis looks at her, as if asking for her permission to attack her own brother. So, of course, Kotone only shakes her head.

“So you’re saying that we should wait and see how it turns out, right?” Sanada states, trying to ease the tension building up between them. When Makoto nods his head, he hums. “…I’m not too comfortable with just waiting, but you’ve been through this before, so might as well. Are you sure there won’t be any dangers?”

“There always are dangers,” Makoto admits. “I’m not sure how defeating the Greater Shadows will affect me in the future.”

“Can we just… not do that?” Ken voices Kotone’s thought, tilting his head to the side. “If what you said is true – and I think I do believe you, I guess? – then won’t not going after the Shadows mean you would survive?”

At this, Makoto laughs, hoarse and mirthless. He shakes his head and speaks, even as his shoulders shake with the laughter rolling off his tongue, dry and so painful to listen to. “If I do that, the Apathy Syndrome victims would continue to appear, and there’ll be no end to the Dark Hour. We have to trigger the Fall for us to stop it.”

There’s a twist in Kotone’s chest, and she doesn’t like this; Makoto is so flippant about his pain and his death, and he sounds so certain, so sure. She doesn’t want that; she wants them to be family again, she wants more time with him, not time to mourn him for a death she doesn’t have a chance to fight against. “But we could buy time, give you a chance—”

“My life isn’t worth billions,” Makoto grounds out, and if she had not been terrified of his attitude now, she would have realized that he looks so scared, even if that look is brief and quickly forgotten. “Five months is all the time we have. If you want to find an alternative, go ahead; but my plan stays the same. I’m not risking the world for some wishes upon a star.”

The rest begin to start to voice their disagreement, but Ryoji steps up, both hands raised to stop them from saying anything. “It’s not like we won’t be looking, but as far as we know, triggering the Fall and ending it – Sealing Nyx away with his life, so to speak – is the best plan we have right now. We should stick to it, at least until we find something useful.”

“Are you alright with this?” Kotone asks, standing up and looking Ryoji in the eye. “Are you alright with him dying, Ryoji-kun?”

The look that crosses his eyes is partly pained, partly resigned; it doesn’t seem like this is the first time they have had this conversation, but it looks to be the last.

Ryoji manages out a smile and shakes his head. “I am not. But what choice do we have?”

And when she fails to answer that, she knows that the argument she might’ve had is all but lost.

“Maybe if you know about this, you’d be less hung up about it and be glad I’m planning on offing myself,” Makoto suddenly says, and there’s both anger and fear in his voice, and she hates this; it’s conflicting, it’s maddening, and she doesn’t know what to do. “And you deserve to know about this, so you’d know what you’d want to do with me.”

“Please, stop doing this already,” Kotone finds herself saying between what she thinks are hiccups, and she bites her lip hard enough for something to break; either her lip, or her heart, she doesn’t know. “You don’t need to say anymore! We get it already!”

“No you don’t!” Makoto snaps, and Ryoji looks like he’s on the verge of crying, too. But how could he stay there, not moving a single muscle, she can’t understand. Why isn’t he stopping her brother from doing this to himself? Why isn’t Ryoji stopping Makoto from speaking as though he wants to be hated when he looks like he wants to hold them close to his heart, too? “You don’t know what I did before!”

“You dying for our sakes is us knowing enough! It’s—”

“I killed you!” Makoto is practically screaming himself hoarse, now, with his shaking fingers and his unsteady breaths. There are tears at the corners of his eyes, but he isn’t stopping. “I killed most of you, over and over for who knows how many times, because I was too much of a coward! Because I couldn’t handle living the same damn year for a few times! I don’t know why, but I killed you!

And when they’re stunned into silence, Makoto repeats again, a little quieter, a little more broken.

“I killed you, mauled you to pieces and let the world burn. But it didn’t end, so… I kept doing it, until I had enough. Until I’m sick and tired of it, until…” he trails off, and suddenly pushes himself up.

With that, he promptly rushes out of the door, leaving them only to this knowledge and this mind-numbing darkness that seems to encroach ever closer with every passing breath.

Makoto couldn’t say he’s had a worse night than this.

He has always been scared of the future – Ryoji knows this, too, because he told Makoto the same when he sat with Makoto on the riverbank in Kyoto, talking about futures and fears and uncertainty. Because the future is constantly changing, constantly shifting, constantly out of reach, it is inevitably unstable. There is nothing he can do to mold the future to his will; the best he could manage is to prepare paths for it, and whether the future takes the ones he’s prepared, or gives him a new disaster and deaths and heartbreaks for him to suffer is up to its whims alone.

And he’s always hated that.

“Makoto,” Ryoji calls from beyond the door as Makoto sits there, his back against the wood, legs curled up against his chest. Even though he’s always insisted he has to tell them that, he never thought— he never thought the possibly of them cutting him off completely and absolutely and hating him with all of their hearts and souls would make him feel this lost, this pained— “Makoto, let me stay with you, please?”

“I just—” he begins, finding the words crumbling between his teeth like dust. His throat hurts from that brief but desperate screaming, and his eyes are prickling with tears, and he hates feeling like this, hates the thought of them finally letting him go. He never wants them to, and it hurts, it hurts— “I’m… even though I keep saying that I need them to hate me, I—”

“I know,” Ryoji murmurs, his voice sounding so close, as if he had knelt down before the door, too. “I… I know. You don’t have to be alone for this; I want to always be there for you.”

“I’m… you’re not going to get any sleep with me. You’re not going to get to enjoy life with me,” Makoto mutters, defeated, as he lets his body sag against the door. The summer’s night is usually pleasantly cool, but tonight, it’s biting and he hates this feeling. It reminds him of Nyx and her icy fingers around his throat as he pulled out his soul to seal her, over and over— “You should go and… do that.”

“Not without you, I won’t,” Ryoji says, and he sounds so sincere, with a hint of smile in his voice. “I’ve made you a promise that I intend to keep until the day literal Death pulls us apart. Until then, I’ll always have your back. So, open the door, okay? You’re not alone. You shouldn’t be alone.”

It makes him feel sick, for Ryoji to bind himself to him like this; he might have given Ryoji a human’s heart, but he took it in stride, he cherished it and made it his own. Makoto is now simply living and dying like an undead, expressionless and without goal nor joy. Our roles should’ve been reversed, Makoto thinks, as he gets up on shaky legs with his hand on the doorknob. He deserves better than this.

(He idly wonders if Ryoji’s power as the holder of Nyx’s fragment, the power of absolute death, could cut their bonds apart or not. After all, death is not the absence of life, but severance, as Ryoji once told him, long ago.

He wonders if Ryoji can do that, cut their tempered bond with his power. Then again, he knows Ryoji enough to know that he’s always loathed that power as much as he loathes himself.)

When he opens the door, arms are already around him, pulling him into that infuriatingly soft yellow scarf and warm chest and steady heartbeat. He opens his mouth to say something, but Ryoji silences him by dotting soft, careful kisses against his temple instead. “You just forgot how to enjoy life. Why don’t we learn together again, like we used to, long ago?”

“It’s a bad investment,” Makoto mutters, even if he knows that his heart yearns for it. “I don’t even know where I should start anymore. They’re probably already sick and tired of me, too.”

“Have a little faith,” Ryoji whispers, closing the door behind him and resting his chin on Makoto’s head, his chest rising and falling steadily. Makoto wants to sink into this warmth and never let go, and even though he partially wants Ryoji to just get away and live like he’s always wished to, another treacherous part of his heart wants it to be like this forever. “You know them. What do you think they’ll do?”

He purses his lips, shaking his head. He doesn’t want to think about it.

“Alright,” Ryoji hums easily, always so kind, so understanding. What had he ever done to deserve this? To have this boy as his anchor, as his closest friend, and his heart and soul? “We don’t have to talk about it tonight. But let me stay, okay? I’ve already made this promise – out of my own free will – that I’ll always be there for you. You do not get to push me away.”

“…Yeah,” Makoto relents, leaning his weight into Ryoji’s chest as the events of the day finally catch up to him. To confess all of his sins and see them so worried for him even before knowing the truth disgusts him more than it should, and he feels sick; why didn’t he make them hate him even more? Why hadn’t he told them everything sooner? Why—

“Stop thinking in circles,” Ryoji chides, and for once, Nyx’s darkness doesn’t feel as cold as it was. It is cool like a breeze, not biting nor freezing; it just is, soothing the heart and calming the soul. “The answer will be there when you wake up.”

“…Mm,” he hums, finally allowing the exhaustion to climb up his limbs and into his bones. “Okay.”

And, before he realizes it, he has finally, finally fallen asleep.

He has never had this happened to him before.

Sleep – or its edge – has always been a playground for strange happenstances for Makoto; it was within the realm of unconsciousness that he was introduced to the Velvet Room, that he met Pharos, that he dreamt of things that are, used to be, and will be. This time, he finds that he isn’t suspended between what he supposes is wakefulness and dreams. More often than not, his memories of time spent between one day and the next would consist of foggy images and vague lights and dim surroundings.

This, though, is different.

He finds himself waking up – or sleeping into? – the great white mane of Kohryu; warm, and gentle, and patient. The dragon stirs when he opens his eyes, and those red eyes shine ever brighter as the dragon moves, nudging his muzzle into Makoto’s hand, the cackle of lightning following his every breath, his every movement, his every twitch.

How long as it been, since thou have had peace, since thou have had a moment sequestered away from the relentless march of time that does not move forward? Kohryu’s voice echoes and bounces, all around and within him, his eyes lighting up ever so gently. Sleep did not come easy for thee, but here, thou art blessed with it. For the night, I am content to let thee rest, if thou wish.

Makoto breathes; the airlessness of the void is strange, and he should’ve suffocated long ago. Instead, there is only that – peace and quiet. He lets his fingers skim along the edge of Kohryu’s whisker before asking. “…Am I waking up in the Sea of Souls?”

That is correct, dear boy, Kohryu hums, lifting his tail up and revealing the endless expanse of stars before him. Why art thou here, I wonder?

“…I don’t know,” he says truthfully. He has always been connected to the Sea, has always known about its ins and outs, has always been able to feel the presence of his Personas as though they’re a part of him in the most physical sense, and not celestial beings confined within the embodiment of collective hearts of men. But waking up inside it like this is a first for him. “Why am I here?”

Kohryu doesn’t answer. Instead, he looks somewhere toward his right, and Makoto’s eyes follow to see a strange Persona he had made a contract with not too long ago; a Persona whose name is well known yet also lost to the records of history. The sinner wears matted onyx armor adorned with silver and red mufflers and waist cloths, embroidered with gold. And his eyes, red like blood on the right and emerald green on the left, shine as brightly as that of Kohryu’s.

He breathes out the name as he stares at him, at the horns of his helmet, the left of which broken off like a symbol of endless struggles in pursuit of a brighter future. “…Longinus?”

The sinner and the saint. Longinus glances at him, horned helmet and demonic-like decoration of his garment betraying his soft voice and calm demeanor. Indeed. I have watched over you ever since our contract. I, as well as many others, sympathize with you and the pain of telling the truth you have decided to go through, dear boy.

Makoto takes a moment to formulate an answer, standing up with Kohryu’s help. “I fucked up. It’s only fair I pay the price for it.”

There’s something stirring inside his chest, like disagreements from voices that are not his own. Makoto frowns, and looks into Kohryu’s disapproving red eyes. His confusion only grows when Longinus shakes his head and stands to his full height, eyes hidden inside the visor of his black helmet facing his way. It’s only then that Makoto sees anger in his eyes, too – one that makes him shiver with dread more than anything.

He pulls his hands off of Kohryu’s body, off those warm scales and warmer mane, and the dragon rises to his full height, majestic but not at all threatening. “…Why are you—”

You have always been kind, Universe. Kinder than you should have been, Longinus says, and Kohryu raises his head into the starry sky and roars, his cry reverberating through the airlessness and shaking his very core. Why blame yourself for things out of your control? You have done and accomplished more than any other Wild Cards could ever hope to do. You should be proud.

“By fucking up at living over and over again?” Makoto barks out a laughter as he shakes his head. Why do they keep insisting that he is not at fault, when all of this is his sin to shoulder? “I kept doing things that I shouldn’t do. Pain is not a good reason why I should betray someone over and over, and you know that.”

That is correct. But your circumstances are different from many of ours, Longinus says, a little less angry and a bit more calming. Then, he speaks of something else entirely. Are you aware, that the so-called test we have imparted upon you is only but one half of a whole?

He doesn’t, Makoto must admit. He finds it strange, of course, that to unlock the Black Compendium – what Elizabeth said to be the deeper reaches of the Sea of Souls and requiring a certain level of strength of heart to wield its power – would be as easy as facing his fear of death. It felt a little underwhelming, back then; that they’d test whether or not he was afraid of death, when he has long since become invested in trying to die.

“You tested me to see if I was afraid of death before,” he says slowly, frowning. “But that’s not the only strength of heart you wish to see now, is it?”

Of course not, Longinus replies, and Kohryu curls around them a little looser, revealing more stardust and moonlight behind his form. But there is a proper time and place for everything. You have been wronged by the world, by time itself – it is not our intention to beat you into submission, nor is it in our nature to force you to accept what you cannot. But now, I believe that you are ready.

“Ready? For what?” he frowns, not quite following Longinus’ line of thoughts. What is he saying? What test is worth waiting for months just to see if he is the right person to access the Black Compendium or not, when he could’ve as well been an investment that is not worth their time? “Why would you wait before doing a test? I could become a liability later—”

This is not a test; it is not designed to gauge a person who would command us, Longinus says, now standing tall and proud, weapon used like a staff beside him with the sharp end of the spear pointing up at the sky. It is a reminder, designed to remind the importance of polar opposites. Of emotions and rationality, of peace and war.

If he is not mistaking it, he could see something – like a smile, through that horned helmet and the bearing of the warrior, unmistakably authoritative.

It is designed to remind you of your bonds, Universe, Longinus hums, and at the word bonds, something tugs and pulls at his heartstring; of Death, the steadfast, and the Sun, always understanding. Of so many others he has always kept close, and of many more he has shunned away in the favor of their peace in trade for his pain. To remind you that your pain isn’t trivial, that your suffering isn’t ignored. We all agree to help you since the very first time – so allow us to remind you of the things that you have forgotten.

He is—

He is scared, Makoto admits, when even the Sea of Souls has deemed him enough to be forgiven. He is scared of being alone, scared of living like this without end, scared of pain. He is afraid of all things and everything, he realizes as much; he’s afraid of being forgotten as much as he’s afraid of being remembered. He knows what pain he will bring either way, and he wants so badly to believe that he could change everything, that he has influence over things he could faintly see, now, that he has absolutely no control over.

He is afraid, too afraid to change.

And they’re… they want to help

“…Yes,” he finds himself saying as he holds himself in his arms, fingers digging into his flesh and shoulders shaking as something – a sob – wrecks through him. “Please. Save me.”

Longinus seems to smile.

Of course. Give us your hand, boy, and we will help you the best we know how.

Kotone knows she should stop popping up like this.

Still.

“Good morning!” she shout-whispers as she knocks on Makoto’s door, soft enough that he probably wouldn’t wake up to it if he’s still deep asleep, but loud enough to rouse him if he’s already halfway there. She dares not twist the knob, this time, because she’s breached his – and Ryoji’s privacy – last time, and she thinks there’s only one place Ryoji would be, really.

With a lack of response, she fears two things; because of how bad of a note last night had left them on, she wonders if he will want to talk to anyone at all, but she has to try – and because of that, she is afraid of him being scared and alone, and she’s afraid that yesterday has been the one and only day she’ll ever have a shot at becoming family with him again—

Her phone then beeps, and upon its screen, a message.

[Mochizuki Ryoji]: He’s asleep. Peacefully, soundly asleep! This never happens!

[Mochizuki Ryoji]: image.jpg

She raises an eyebrow, but decides to click on it either way. The image is simple, but intimate enough that she can feel her cheeks heating up just a little; Makoto is there, lying on his side – with presumably Ryoji’s shadow cast over a part of him – with eyes closed and face as peaceful as he could’ve been. Given the circumstances from last night, this seems like a pretty good outcome.

“Sorry,” she whispers to the door, and when her phone beeps again with a message of acknowledgement, she asks. “Are you guys going to go to school at all? Mitsuru-senpai has already called in a day for you, so you could just, you know… hang back and rest?”

There’s a short delay, then the message comes.

[Mochizuki Ryoji]: That is… very considerate of her. I will have to take her up on the offer, then. Thank her for me.

She smiles and backs away from the door, getting ready to leave, only to stop when her phone pings again.

[Mochizuki Ryoji]: What are your thoughts? All of SEES and not just yours alone, Kotone-chan.

She purses her lips, unsure of what to say. She doesn’t know what the others think of this situation, of Makoto’s confession. They know little to nothing of what he went through, of what had happened and what should have been, but one thing is clear; that his pain is real, so very tangible that it makes some part of her squirm with unease, makes her heart squeeze and her stomach sink.

Junpei and Yukari are both confused, because while they view Makoto as an antisocial, asshole-ish person, they – none of them – could ever see him as a murderer. And he hadn’t antagonized Fuuka before, so her stance on this is on a sympathetic side. Sanada is upset, to say the very least, but he, Aragaki and Mitsuru seem to have a similar idea in their minds.

That whatever it is that he did doesn’t seem to be his fault, that he doesn’t do it because that’s who he is, but because the environment in which he’s been forced into had thrown his heart off balance and his moral compass askew.

And Kotone knows – why wouldn’t she, when Orpheus is right here? Orpheus is his true other self, the first Persona to answer his call, and he is so warm and kind and trusting. There is no way in hell Makoto is the monster he’s trying to paint himself to be, the monster he’s trying to make them believe he is. He sounded so scared, so lost, when he confessed what had happened that none of them could recollect; of pasts that had never existed, and futures that never will be.

She sighs, unsure, before she murmurs softly against the door. “I don’t know what the others think, but I… I don’t believe him. He’s trying to make us believe that everything is his fault, but how could I? Orpheus is here, so how could I have believed in such a lie?”

The silence stretches, and she is sure Ryoji would’ve kept quiet for the rest of the day, only for her phone to ping with another message again.

[Mochizuki Ryoji]: Thank you, Kotone-chan.

“Mm,” she hums quietly with a small smile. “It’s what friends and family are for.”

“I trust them.”

Iori, surprisingly, says that as soon as every one of the SEES members – sans the two currently resting from their confessions (and outbursts), of course – come into the student council room.

Mitsuru quirks an eyebrow. She might not have been close to the rest of them, but she knows well enough that Yuuki was never well-liked – he has done a disturbingly convincing job of making sure he’s hated or at least disliked, one way or another, after all. And Mitsuru would’ve fallen into that trap harder than this, had she not seen him that night, talking about not wanting to be a burden and speaking with distant eyes and a tired heart.

“I see,” Mitsuru murmurs after a while, arms crossed. “Do you all share Iori’s sentiment?”

After a round of agreements from both her juniors and her friends, Akihiko speaks up with his frown near-permanent. “I’m not entirely one hundred percent on this, but my gut tells me that we should trust them both. That we could trust them both. And we both know my gut never lies, Mitsuru, which brings up a question – why?

These past few days have been strange, Mitsuru cannot help but say; there is nothing that suggest that Yuuki could be trusted, that his stories are true, but somewhere in her heart, she knows he didn’t lie even once. Only half truths, maybe, but not lies, and everything that he did, he seems to have done for their sakes and no one else’s, even without evidence to support such an outrageous claim.

“I don’t know, either,” Mitsuru finally relents, leaning back against her seat with her eyes up at the ceiling and looking far beyond where she is. “But maybe we should be a little wary, just for now. But not distrustful – I believe I share Akihiko’s sentiment, as well.”

“I believe his story to be true, but I do not trust him,” Aigis says immediately, her voice clipped and hostile, and Mitsuru can’t help the wince that comes to her. “Even without evidence, however, Yuuki-san’s words make sense. I suggest we keep a close eye on him, but otherwise proceed as we always did.”

“That’s… kind of contradicting itself?” Kotone comments, and Mitsuru has to agree. However, if Aigis – who has been nothing short of hostile towards Yuuki for the past weeks – deems Yuuki’s words to be true, then it is safe to say that she can put everything that had happened for the past few days behind her and move forward with the information given.

I don’t want or need or deserve your pity. I just want you all to understand that I will die by the end of the school year, and nothing is going to change that.

Yuuki might’ve said those words with conviction, but there is also an unbelievable amount of fear and pain and suffering in the way he spoke, much like how Shinjirou used to be, long ago. And she could see why Shinjirou suddenly took an interest in Yuuki when they met. As much as she’d like to deny it, there is something even she cannot understand about Shinjirou, but Yuuki does, and Shinjirou knows about this, too – could use their mutual pain to understand one another.

She doesn’t like the way Yuuki spoke of his death, so sure and so flippant, and she doesn’t like the way he sounded, so scared even when his eyes teemed with the determination of many lifetimes. How many lives have he lived? A dozen? More? How many times did he kill them, and was he truly at fault, or were the faults theirs and never his?

There are so many questions without a single answer, and Mitsuru despises this.

“Thinkin’ about this will probably solve nothin’,” Shinjirou says with a deep sigh, dropping down onto the chair beside her with a loud thud. “Let’s just see for now. These things take time to unfold.”

“Time that we don’t have, apparently,” Kotone mutters, and then, Mitsuru – and the rest, judging from the way their eyes start to widen in realization – are rudely reminded of the fact that their time is limited. The end of school year is in March, but from their story, Mochizuki (who spoke in Yuuki’s place, of course) said that the Judgement Day where this Nyx would descend will be at the end of January; another Full Moon. “We have maybe five months left with him, less if the final Shadows really will appear in November’s Full Moon. We won’t have enough time to figure things out.”

To save him, Kotone doesn’t say, but they all hear it anyway.

“But he told us that things are different this time, right?” Takeba interjects, almost hopeful, and that hope is terrifying. Because Mitsuru knows how a hope could turn into pain, if they give it too much of their hearts and souls. “Maybe he wouldn’t die! Maybe—”

“Aigis feels like she wants to kill him. All the damn time,” Kotone grits out, her hand gesturing towards Aigis to emphasize her point. But she isn’t blaming Aigis, no – she is merely stating the facts that are as glaring as they are unreasonable. “Even if he wouldn’t die, I doubt things are going to be all sunshine and daisies!”

Kotone,” Shinjirou half-snaps, and it’s only then that Mitsuru notices the tremors in her hands, the sweat clinging to her brows, her ragged breath. It would stand to reason that Kotone is afraid, of course; before anything else, Yuuki is her brother, her only family. Why would she not be afraid for him? “We know. But we still have some time left, so let’s go about this slowly but surely, ‘kay?”

But we all know time is scarce, Mitsuru doesn’t say, because of course they all know, Kotone most of all. How many times have she told Mitsuru about her brother, about the warmth she missed and about what they could’ve been? But when things seem to return to how she wished it was, something else – darker, much crueler – is born out of the truth.

But still, it feels wrong to just accept Yuuki’s fate as it is and let go. Some part of her, deep within her heart and saturating her very bones, will not allow it. It’s as though she’s remembering the times Yuuki does but she does not, as if her heart knows him, even though her brain does not. So, she forces herself to smile a little and gives Kotone’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “I will spare no efforts looking into this, Kotone. I will help you, alright?”

Kotone smiles, haunted, but she brightens up against the weight of the world anyway. “Thank you, Mitsuru-senpai.”

When Kotone returns to the dorm, she is greeted by Ryoji, who looks just as pale as he was yesterday.

“Welcome back,” he greets, fingers absently toying with the edge of his scarf he only started wearing again after the revelation. If he was a human, wearing a scarf during summer would be weird, but now, it’s not as strange as it would’ve been. But him fidgeting on his feet? It’s a sign Kotone has come to know is a signal for his distress, no matter how small or large. “Has… anything changed?”

Have you decided to hate him? Hate me? Do you trust us? Do you want to kill us?

There are more than just those questions, unspoken but crystal clear in his body language, his breathing, his everything; his entire being is exuding that aura of terror one would expect to find in a lost child or a widow, not an embodiment of Death that had heralded the end of the world many times before. But of course, he would be terrified; why would he not, when every interaction she has had with him, when every conversation she has eavesdropped between the two of them points towards the fact that Ryoji is kind and infinitely gentle, even though he is Death’s very own Avatar?

She smiles, pushing herself in slightly more to allow Fuuka and Yukari to come in, and they pause at the doorway for the briefest of moments when they see him. But soon enough, they give him a proper greeting, weighted and guarded with unease. And of course they would be; he is – was? – the supposed reason the Dark Hour exists, after all. Why would they not be on guard against him?

But it will be different this time, she thinks (hopes), because things are not as they should be, as Ryoji and Makoto had told them. It will be, and they’ll all get to live happily ever after—

“No,” Kotone finally answers after the silence has run its course, and upon Ryoji’s confused but hopeful look, smiles. “You’re still our friend, and he’s still my brother. So no, nothing’s changed, not really.”

Ryoji sighs, lips quirking into a tired but fond smile. He bows his head very lightly and seats himself on the couch as he addresses the other two. “How about the two of you?”

“Same,” Yukari shrugs, even though that edge of discomfort remains. But she seems to trust them – or at least, wants to – since the truth behind her father’s death is not because he instigated all of this mess as Ikutsuki’s recordings suggested it to be, but that he was a hero who gave the world enough time for them to put an end to this nightmare. “Where’s Yuuki-kun, anyway? I think I kinda want to apologize.”

At this, Kotone winces, recalling one of the many times Yukari had called him names, both behind his back and right to his face. He didn’t seem outwardly bothered by it, but maybe he did, and maybe he still is.

When the silence stretches on, with Ryoji looking at Yukari with distant eyes, Kotone interjects. “Hey, Ryoji-kun. Are you okay? Can we go see him or something?”

“…He’s still asleep, so I’d rather you not,” Ryoji shakes his head. “It’s been… a long time since he’s had this kind of peace, and I don’t want anyone to disturb it,” he pauses at this, eyeing Yukari contemplatively before he smiles at her, cordial. “But I’ll tell him you want to talk to him when he wakes up.”

“Thanks,” Yukari mutters, scratching the back of her neck with her hand. “God damnit, now I feel so damn terrible for all the things I said.”

“Don’t be,” Ryoji says, shaking his head again. When Yukari perks up – and Kotone following suit, as well – he smiles and waves his hand with a clearly forced laugh. “It was his intention to be hated by you, so that reaction is kind of what he wanted, anyway. There is no need for you to apologize.”

“No,” Yukari says tersely, voice clipped, unyielding. “Even if he wanted me to, I should’ve been better. His deception doesn’t excuse me being terrible. I should’ve seen that he was in pain, I should—”

“Yukari-san,” Ryoji says softly, raising a hand to stop her. “He has been through this more times than you’d like to know, trust me. And because of that, he’s become very hard to read at times, even to me. But I assure you, that this isn’t your fault.”

Something feels off about it, Kotone thinks. His smile, even if it’s forced, should’ve been a little kinder, a little lighter than this. But this? It feels as though he’s holding something back, something dark and vile and bloodied, and she hates that look on him. Ryoji should be the anchor her brother’s hanging on to for his entire life, but that strange glint in his eyes reminds her of the shadowed moon high up in the sky, reminds her of that goddess she has never seen—

“Ryoji-kun,” Kotone decides to ask, fingers skimming the edge of her skirt almost nervously. “Are you… are you angry at us?”

At this, Ryoji blinks, clearly surprised, before his smile turns a little more real, a little less bitter. She exchanges a look with Yukari, prompting him to chuckle ever so lightly. “No, of course not. Why would I be? None of this is yours – or his – fault.”

“Then… why do you look so furious?”

Ryoji stops for a moment, his eyes glazing over as if contemplating something. He then smiles and bows his head a little, fingers twitching as though he’s trying to grasp onto thin air. He keeps his eyes on the floor for a long, long time before he speaks again, softly but coldly. “…It’s that obvious, isn’t it?”

His smile turns wry, bitter and dark unlike what he usually is. Death Arcana – Ryoji, that is – has always been someone that is warm and easy to be around despite whatever lingering darkness he carries. But this smile, this instance, he feels distant, twisted and cold and even almost hateful.

“What else is there not to be angry about?” Ryoji mutters softly, leaning back into the couch fully with his eyes looking anywhere but at her. He sighs into his hand and lets out a chuckle. “I am practically a god, and I couldn’t even give him a proper death he so desperately wants. I don’t care about the world, or – no offense – any of you more than I do him.”

And she thought she knew what kind of relationship they had. It seems like she truly knows almost nothing about them, even though—

“When you’ve lived enough lives, died enough times, a proper death is a gift more than a curse,” Ryoji says, leaning his cheek into his bent knuckles, eyes boring into hers and making her squirm. His gaze has always been so intense, but this is on whole another level. “To live is to die, they are one and the same, after all.”

Yukari is the first to sit down across from Ryoji, a sympathetic look in her eyes. She is trying to understand, she really does, but who could ever understand this without experiencing it themselves? Who could know what it’d be like, trapped in time that doesn’t march and forced to watch one’s own friends forgetting about them over and over?

(He was all alone. She had always had him – her brother – with her, all those years, and he was all alone for the most of it. Ryoji didn’t exist until November, so it’d be impossible for them to be together for the majority of that accursed year. And the thought – of imagining herself in his shoes, seeing her friends forget all about her and having to die so that they may live – she doesn’t know if she would have that kind of strength to keep pushing forward or not.)

“We’re here for you, okay?” Yukari speaks up as she smiles at him. Kotone sits down beside her, and she exchanges a brief look with Yukari before she continues. “I… know it isn’t much for the two of you, but we’re here, this time. At least, I want to make up for it however I can.”

Ryoji hums, noncommittal.

“Me too,” Kotone insists. She wants to close the distance between them and hug him, make sure that he doesn’t feel alone, but that doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. He doesn’t seem to want any of her pity right now; and she knows. Of course she’d know. She’s always hated being pitied, after all. “We’re here for you, okay?”

“Mhm,” is Ryoji’s only response, and for the rest of the night, no one dares to say anything else.

“How are you feeling?”

Ryoji asks, suddenly feeling small, when but a few moments ago he was resentful towards everyone and everything in the world. He knows, deep down, that this isn’t their fault, that them not remembering isn’t something they chose for themselves. But he cannot help it; he cannot stop blaming them and cursing them for forgetting the person that chose death over and over to keep them from harm, even though right now, he wants death more than anything.

It feels like walking on a thin sheet of ice, breathing in a room full of wisps and predators – every step taken towards him is like Ryoji’s testing the water, threatening to break it with his own feet. But strangely enough, there’s this calm atmosphere that’s hugging Makoto protectively, as if the very air is alive, so he takes his chances and closes the door behind him before speaking again. “Makoto?”

Shh,” is all he gets, as Makoto remains seated on the bed, head tipped upward and eyes closed. His brows are slightly furrowed, and he looks deep in thoughts, serene to a certain degree. All his fear and his pain are still there in his very being, but he looks… better. Calmer.

We are with him, a voice calls from beyond the scope of dark, and Ryoji doesn’t know this voice. But, in place of alarm, he feels quiet, tranquil. We thank you, for staying by his side for the longest of times.

“I’m not doing this for any of you, though?” he says, inquiry thick in his voice, before walking in a little closer. Makoto opens his eyes then, and a smile crosses his face briefly. Ryoji smiles back. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Makoto echoes, patting the comforter beside him as an invitation. When Ryoji sits down, there’s only a single beat of nothingness before Makoto hums. “How did they take it?”

“…I’m not sure, but they don’t want to kill me,” Ryoji shrugs. Truthfully, he doesn’t mind being hated himself, since he was forced to look through Nyx Avatar’s bleeding eyes for as long as he could remember, many times before. But now that he is tangible, with real flesh and blood, it feels like he should be a little more invested than this. But then again, he is also a god – so no, he doesn’t care about their opinions of him. All he cares about is their thoughts on Makoto, and Makoto alone. “Kotone-chan insists on wanting to be your sister, though.”

Instead of lashing out, or frowning darkly, or another negativity he expects from Makoto – who was so sure and so intent on making himself hated – there is nothing. Makoto’s eyes linger on the ceiling for a moment before he closes them again. “Is that so?”

“…You took that better than I thought you would,” Ryoji notes, reluctant, before adding with a little haste, since he feels like he comes off as wrong. “I personally like it, though, don’t get me wrong.”

“I know,” Makoto smiles, before that expression wavers into something thoughtful, a little dark. He opens his eyes again and looks at Ryoji. “…Can you promise me something?”

Ryoji tilts his head to the side but nods, lips set. “Anything for you. You know that.”

Makoto hums in acknowledgement, but for a moment, he doesn’t voice his thoughts, only allowing the stagnant silence to saturate the air. Ryoji isn’t daring enough to break it, of course; whatever Makoto wants to ask of him, he’ll wait, because this moment of peace in him is rare. He has been doing nothing but straining himself – against his own beliefs, no less – so Ryoji is glad that he—

“Promise me,” Makoto breaks the silent suddenly, cutting Ryoji’s thoughts into ribbons. He blinks, looking up at his other half, into the eyes that seem brighter with determination for something Ryoji couldn’t quite name. “That you’ll live your own life. After all of this is over, I mean.”

He protests instantly. “I’m not going to give up just yet, you know that—”

“I know, and that’s what worries me,” Makoto says, his voice so gentle, so kind, so patient. Whatever it is that happened in his sleep must’ve been something that put him at ease, Ryoji thinks, because Makoto hasn’t looked this patient ever since the bloodied moon, many centuries ago. “I love you. More than I can say. You know that, right?”

Ryoji swallows, unable to find anything to continue his argument. “…Yes.”

“Just… promise me,” Makoto says, his voice strangely level. He still seems hell-bent on dying, but it feels a little… different. What could have happened in the world of dreams for him to change? Did he talk with his menagerie of Personas while he slept? “That you’re going to start living for yourself, too. You’ve been living for me for as long as I can remember, and when I’m gone, you’ll still be here. You need to live for yourself.”

He wants to say no, he really does – even though he will not go down without a fight, there’s a certainty in the way the world spins around the axis of time; that, somehow, Ryoji – who’s least deserving of a second chance – is going to be given a shot at redemption, while the world’s supposed savior is going to be forgotten somewhere, with only the name on his gravestone to be remembered by—

“Ryoji,” Makoto urges again, more forceful this time. “Please.

He wants to scream, to cry, to tear apart the world for what it had done – and is doing – to his dearest.

Instead, all he could ever manage is a meager, “…I promise.”

Makoto watches him for a moment that seems too long, too suffocating, only for his lips to quirk into a small smile as he nods his head in appreciation. Then, once the promise stops ringing in the air, Makoto murmurs, waving his fingers around and drawing the invisible canvas with his heart and soul. “I’m… not sure what I think about this, but… I think I’ve forgotten a lot of things. Things I want to remember. Things I want to correct.”

“…Your bonds?” Ryoji asks, but he knows from that odd look in Makoto’s eyes that his bonds aren’t the only thing he’s talking about.

“When you’ve died enough times, you… forget how to live,” he says, and at this, something pulls at his bond, his connection with his Universe; the voices of his many masks, echoing in the boundless space that exists between the past, the present, and the future. “I’ve forgotten how to be me. Forgot how beautiful the world can be. I’ve forgotten many things, including the fact that you are your own person, and not my shadow.”

I am. I am your shadow, I want to stay by you forever, Ryoji barely stops himself from speaking out loud, because Makoto’s words could never be truer; Ryoji has always seen it, but he has always been powerless to do anything about it. But he understands, he really does – doing something repeatedly enough (trying to kill Makoto over and over at the zenith of the world—) numbs you of some emotions, some thoughts, stems it and dulls it away into oblivion.

“There’s only a few months left,” Makoto whispers, hand reaching for Ryoji’s own, and it’s only then that he realizes his own fingers, cold and numb, are shaking, shaking, shaking. “I… wouldn’t mind if they won’t forgive me, but I want to make sure that whatever time I have left, I don’t waste it again like I have for so many years.”

Ryoji bites the inside of his cheek, but nods regardless, his breath unsteady and heart thrumming with the beat of eternity he no longer wants to feel. What is the point of him having all this time, all this power, only for him to fail to save the person he cares about the most?

“I—”

“Ryoji,” Makoto whispers his name, and for once, he finds himself unable to meet his eyes. What could he say now? He had been adamant about staying by Makoto’s decision to the bitter end, but now that the cat is out of the bag and everything is so clear and so nearing its end, he can’t help but divert his gaze away, can’t help but wish for things to be different. Why is he wavering now? Is it because Makoto finally looks like he’s ready to let go, and not in constant agony like he had been?

“…I’m sorry,” he manages out, turning his hand up to interlace their fingers together. Makoto is so warm, so gentle, he doesn’t want to lose this. He doesn’t want to live – not when the person who gave him his heart has to create the Seal with his own soul again. He had been trying to deny the possibility of him living before, but now that it’s been thrown into his face, he—

He doesn’t want to be left alone.

Makoto has always been the one that matters most to him; the world be damned, he would sunder the very earth apart and rip Fates to shred just to give Makoto one more minute, and the thought of him living with his beloved destined to die terrifies him. He would be alone, alone, alone—

“I just…” Ryoji finds his voice again when Makoto squeezes his hand, gentle but firm. “…I’ve never… I’ve never really thought about you dying… like this. Never thought about the cycle breaking with me alive and breathing and you being—”

“I know,” Makoto murmurs. Orpheus’ flame licks the crevices in his chest, warm and calming. Orpheus is the perfect representation of who Makoto truly is, Ryoji thinks absently; he is bright and trusting and so very sweet that Ryoji wouldn’t mind feeling like this forever— “I’ve… never thought about it, either. Just… repeating the year hadn’t been kind to either of us, and I… I’m afraid, too.”

Ryoji whips his head to see something in Makoto’s expression; a cloud of fear and anxiety brewing in the pit of his stomach, no doubt. And Ryoji thinks he understands, to a degree; fearing death is par for the course, of course. Why would one not be afraid of it? Death is like wiping the slate clean and pure, leaving not even your memories of the ones you love behind.

It’s only natural, and sometimes, during all of this, repeating their lives must’ve been ingrained into their hearts and souls. They have forgotten that they can and will die, erased from existence—

“I was afraid, too, the first time I did all of this,” Makoto says, quiet and distant, his eyes looking at some piece of memories far away in the past. “But I did it anyway.”

“You love them more than yourself,” Ryoji finishes for him, the pang in his chest growing worse. He knows this, he remembers this, how small and scared Makoto was, gazing up at Nyx’s incomprehensible core and fighting back against the wave of darkness she spouted out like lava plumes. “You were scared, but you did all of that because you loved them. Love them.”

“Mhm,” Makoto hums out a lone note, his smile soft and his voice quiet. “And now the possibility – fact – that this cycle will be the last one terrifies me, because I’ve been so used to dying and then opening my eyes back on the train in April that I forgot how afraid I was. I was… reminded of that.”

“You don’t have to do it again,” Ryoji says, pleads, even though it sounds wrong to his ear, because he doesn’t want to be alone. Makoto deserves better than this – they could just let the Dark Hour reign until the end of time, and no one would know, no one would care— “You can just take on their offer, you know. Letting the Dark Hour continue to prevent anything more from happening.”

“Do you really believe that?” Makoto says with a small laugh bubbling out of his chest. An emotion Ryoji hadn’t seen for a long, long time; true, unmarred acceptance. “Of course you don’t. Your heart is too kind.”

“So is yours,” Ryoji can’t stop from saying, because such is the truth – the truth not many now know, and the truth even less cared about.

But Makoto doesn’t accept that; instead, he shakes his head, leaning back into his arms and looking up at the ceiling again, this time his expression a little more thoughtful. Then, softly, he says, “you said so, a long time ago, didn’t you? To live is to die, they are one and the same. What is life without death? It’s more of a curse than a blessing at this point, and you know that.”

“But if you live past this year, living would be a blessing, wouldn’t it?”

“True,” Makoto smiles. “But we both know I can’t do that. Not without letting the Dark Hour be.”

To that, Ryoji could no longer say anything. Makoto is too kind, his heart too gentle; he wouldn’t let the world die just for the sake of living, he knows that, embraces that. And yet—

“These last few months, I want to make it count. Save as many as I can, correct as many wrongs as I’m able,” Makoto hums, his words so soft, so warm and trusting. “I’ve been terrible and insufferable almost my entire existence, and this time – it’s the end. I want to make sure I don’t regret anything anymore. I’m done running. I’m done hiding.”

And, even though he is determined, Ryoji can’t help but see for the first time the unshed tears left to collect in Makoto’s eyes.

Ryoji swallows thickly. This is no longer something he has the right to deny from Makoto; he has already found some way to make this final life his, even if it is bound to his guilt and his sense of duty. He cannot deny Makoto this sliver of peace they had been desperately fighting for since the start of these endless loops. And so, even if he refuses to give up on saving Makoto, he will also prepare himself to stand by his Universe’s side for as long as he’s able.

“I’ll be here,” Ryoji promises, pulling his hand up and kissing Makoto’s knuckles gently. “I’ve promised that to you, long ago. I won’t break it now.”

No matter how much it breaks my heart, Ryoji doesn’t say.

Whether Makoto knows that or not is unclear, but his eyes light up ever so gently as he wraps his own fingers around Ryoji’s hand, firmly squeezing it until the warmth of his palm spreads into his death-touched marrows and gives him the life he wishes so desperately he could give the only person who’s ever meant anything to him at all.

“Thank you,” Makoto murmurs, Orpheus humming in time with his words, his breath, his heartbeat. “For everything. I’ll be in your care until the very end.”

“Happily,” Ryoji smiles. “I’ll be in your care, too.”

Notes:

So, how was it? Let me know! :D

I will answer any questions you have, but of course, I cannot post spoilers! hehehe

Chapter 15: The Brightest Path

Summary:

After all the weights have been lifted, Makoto decides to start correcting all that he can, one by one.

Notes:

Hey there! I'm back yooooo!

for the next few chapters everything's going to be quite... well, light, considering my standards. Can't keep throwing you into the pit, right? Gotta give you some carrots between the sticks once in a while XD

Without further do, here you go! Forgive me if there's any typos left!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

“How did you know?”

Shinjirou asks, even though of course Yuuki would know about his goddamn mistake(s) two years ago. Why wouldn’t he? If he’s really a time traveler, knowing this wouldn’t be impossible, considering that Amada kid is here, too – the kid he orphaned by his own weakness, no less. Did Amada find out on his own? Or did Shinjirou tell the kid himself? How—

“It slipped,” Yuuki responds, as if sensing his unspoken question, brows knitted together. They’re leaning over the railing of the Moonlight Bridge, alone in the middle of the night, Mochizuki nowhere to be seen. They have been silent ever since the meeting, so Yuuki calling him out here alone is kind of a surprise, to say the very least. “On October 4th. You remember, don’t you?”

Shinjirou hates this, but Yuuki is going somewhere with this, he’s sure; there’s a knowledge of the future Shinjirou doesn’t understand in those eyes, so he will give him the benefit of the doubt. And the mention of that day, the day he fucked everything up with his own hands and robbed Amada of everything that he had just because Shinjirou couldn’t control the monster in him makes him want to puke his guts out.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Yuuki says after a moment, his gaze fixated on the reflection of the moon. Shinjirou opens his mouth to protest, but Yuuki shakes his head. “A Persona isn’t something you can control so easily, not without accepting yourself for who you are.”

“What about you? You don’t seem to have that problem,” Shinjirou shoots back immediately.

“I did. I still do,” Yuuki murmurs, solemn, as he turns his head towards Shinjirou. They are both still after those words, and because of the streetlight from above their heads, for a moment Shinjirou thinks he sees more than just this martyr their stories make Yuuki to be.

He’s seeing a child, god damnit. A child, who deserves none of these shits thrown at him by some asshole god who wants nothing more than to watch the world burn.

“…When I saw Castor for the first time,” Shinjirou finds himself say, confess, to this boy he barely knows. It is as though their pains are not at all dissimilar, and that thought both comforts him and terrifies him. “All I could think of was; that thing is a part of me? I only thought about that, and then I tried not to think about it. The next thing I know—”

Castor had already trampled and innocent to death because it didn’t listen to me.

Yuuki hums, thoughtful, as he tilts his head upward to look at the sky. “It isn’t your fault, to think like that. Do you know that Personas and Shadows are two sides of the same coin? That Personas are our own Shadows, tamed and accepted?”

Shinjirou’s eyebrows shoot up at this. All he’s ever heard of is that Shadows are monsters conceived within the Dark Hour, and Personas are their acceptance towards the inevitable death. “…wait, what?

“Ryoji told me, long ago,” Yuuki explains, waving his hand slightly as he speaks. “That Shadows are all born of Nyx, of death; fragments of her psyche, if you will. They exist in everyone, and they have been with us for as long as humanity exists. They are a part of us, born of our minds and emotions. And our “self”, our unconsciousness, cannot exist without it.”

“And Personas are the same,” Shinjirou says with a frown. “But that doesn’t make sense. Then why would Shadows eat people’s mind? Why would they do that?”

“They don’t eat us, Aragaki-senpai,” Yuuki chuckles mirthlessly. “What they do is freeing themselves from our unconscious, which in turn causes the mind to break down. However, Shadows are existences born of thoughts and emotions, so they don’t have physical bodies to interact with the world at large. That’s why the Dark Hour exists – to turn the world into something they can touch.”

“…You’ve got to tell us everything about that later,” Shinjirou decides to cut it short. He might not be an idiot, but it hurts his head to just think about this, goddamnit. “But, back to what we were talking. What were you getting at with all this story about Personas and Shadows?”

Yuuki looks toward the horizon for a moment, eyes dark and thoughtful, hands clasped together. It is silent, the chill of the Dark Hour encroaching ever closer as the clock ticks near midnight. But Shinjirou, for some unknown reason, believes – knows – that he is safe here, as long as Yuuki is with him. So he remains silent, saying nothing as long as Yuuki is still—

“Telling you to forgive yourself would be hypocritical of me, but I’ll do it anyway,” Yuuki snorts a laughter, shaking his head. “Your sins and mine are different. You didn’t choose to kill his mother, after all.”

Did you choose to kill us? Shinjirou almost asks, but doesn’t. Who knows how many lives have this boy led and how many times he has had to watch them forget all about him? For a Wild Card – Kotone, for example – the friendships they have seem to be what sustain them. What would happen if that is ripped out of their hands? He doesn’t want to think about it.

“But even if you couldn’t just do that, that’s fine, too,” Yuuki mutters. “I just… want to correct all the wrongs that I can, before…”

It is so very clear, in the way he speaks, in the way he breathes, and Shinjirou speaks up before he could think better of it. “I died, didn’t I?”

Yuuki doesn’t seem surprised. In fact, he seems oddly prepared for Shinjirou to know of it, only that the preparation doesn’t do squat to keep the pain off of his face. “Yes,” Yuuki murmurs after a while. “You did, and it was because I wasn’t enough.”

“My death is probably my own fault, kid,” Shinjirou snorts. No matter what Yuuki says, he won’t be able to sway Shinjirou with this one; he knows he’s killing himself, with all these drugs taken, away from Mitsuru and Aki’s eyes. And his death is probably justified, too, with what he did to Amada’s mother. “You said as if it’s preventable.”

“I hesitated,” Yuuki growls, expression clouded with self-hatred, a look Shinjirou has worn for too long, and too often. “You died while we fought a Full Moon Shadow, and we would’ve gotten to you sooner. But I hesitated, because I was afraid there would be no place for me when the Dark Hour ended. And then you—”

He stops himself, hands curled tight. He hits his hand on the railing, hard enough for Shinjirou to wince, the cold, self-directed fury bubbling in his gray eyes.

“And the cycles after, it’s always something else. You always died before I had the chance to save you, all because I wasn’t fucking enough. And then—” there is something akin to unshed tears collected in his eyelashes, and Shinjirou wants so bad to tell him that his death ain’t no one to blame but Shinjirou himself. But he cannot find the words. “—and then, I just… stopped, and let it happen. Again, and again, and again, all because I didn’t want to care about it any longer.”

“You probably tried your best,” Shinjirou says, trying to convince the boy of something he doesn’t really know about, has never seen. And something in him – Castor – tells him that the boy did, even without evidence; that he tried his best. But sometimes, one’s best isn’t enough. “It ain’t your fault. All this started because I was a coward who couldn’t face his own faults.”

“I knew what would happen, I just refuse to struggle more. How is this not my responsibility, Aragaki-senpai?” Yuuki hisses sharply, only for his shoulders to slump mere moments later. “…I just want to make things right for once.”

For once sound like such strong words, coming from someone so young. And Shinjirou would gladly die for his crimes, he knows this – but that look on Yuuki’s face, him calling Shinjirou here so suddenly without any warnings, they give him just enough clues. If he’s going to make something out of his miserable life, then he needs to do this. He needs to save this boy

“Alright,” Shinjirou says quietly, his shoulders a little less tense. “But I’m going to die because of these so-called Persona Suppressors anyway. There ain’t a point saving me.”

“Those Suppressors are only killing you because you haven’t fully tamed your Shadow – your Persona – just yet,” Yuuki hums softly. “I can help you with that. I will help you with that.”

Frankly, the prospect of gaining another life he doesn’t deserve doesn’t sit so well with Shinjirou, but that subtle pleading look in Yuuki’s eyes convinces him otherwise. And he has already failed a person once, so what does he have to lose, trying to save another who’s already dooming himself to an inevitable end?

“Sure,” he says, throat suddenly seizing. He’s really gone soft, hasn’t he? “What do I need to do?”

Yuuki stills for a moment, before his lips quirk into a small smile. And with that, he whispers, his voice light as though a great weight has already been lifted from his shoulders.

“First, you talk to Amada. Then, we’ll see.”

“Thank you for coming, Amada,”

Yuuki says, his smile softer than what Ken has ever seen of it. There are dark circles under his eyes, and Ken doesn’t want to begin to imagine what it is that Yuuki has gone through. Ken might still be a child, but he knows enough.

Or, at least more than a few day’s before .

Aragaki is there, sitting not too far from Yuuki, eyes dark and wrought with guilt. Ken doesn’t know why, of course, but he is certain that it must have something to do with all of these situations. The time loops, the killing, the end of the world prevented by sacrificing a single life; what is there not to be guilty about? Ken, like the others, doesn’t remember anything Yuuki and Mochizuki had claimed happened, but he feels them in his heart to be true, much to his chagrin.

“I am glad to be here, Yuuki-san, Aragaki-san” Ken says with a small, cordial smile. Sitting down across from Aragaki, he fidgets nervously. Only then does he notice Mochizuki standing by the window, arms crossed and eyes locked onto something far away. “Good evening to you as well, Mochizuki-san.”

Death incarnate or not, Mochizuki has always been kind during the short time Ken’s spent in his presence. Even after the revelation, Ken doesn’t feel the need to distance himself, or even to be afraid. Mochizuki seems like such a gentle person, after all. And he’s proven right when Mochizuki turns to him, surprised but for a second before he gives Ken a warm smile. “Good evening, Amada-kun.”

“Do you want us to stay?” Yuuki turns to ask Aragaki, his voice controlled, unlike his outburst just a few days ago. “I think it’s best I don’t, since this is your story and yours alone. I don’t want to pry.”

“…That’d be best, yeah,” Aragaki says with a small sigh, scratching the back of his head nervously. He looks up at Ken, and for some reason, Ken’s heart clenches with a foreign emotion he can’t quite name. What is this? “You alright being alone with me, kid?”

“Of course,” Ken nods instantly. Aragaki has always been a steadfast presence, firm but infinitely patient, so he doesn’t see why staying alone with the man would bring him any harm. Nemesis hums absently in his chest as he does. “Is there something going on? Why do you all look so… fear-stricken?”

Yuuki raises his head at this, but doesn’t say anything. He only gets up, and Mochizuki pushes himself off the wall. “It’s best you hear this from Aragaki-senpai,” Yuuki says, nodding reassuringly at him. “Once you two are done, just… you should probably sleep on it for a while, I guess.”

“We’ll see,” Aragaki snorts. “Go on, kid. You should rest, too.”

“Alright,” Yuuki hums gently, and waits until Mochizuki is out of the door before he turns to Ken, partially thoughtful, partially… sympathetic? Is that what his expression is? “Amada, can I ask you a favor?”

“Of course, Yuuki-san,” Ken says, even if he has a strange gut feeling brewing inside him. What does he want? He has never talked to Ken this extensively before – at least, not that Ken is aware of – and this both surprises him and scares him. “What is it?”

“Whatever he says,” Yuuki says, waving his hand towards Aragaki. “Listen. You have the right to feel a lot of things, but listen. Can you do that?”

He isn’t sure if he should promise anything, with how Yuuki says it, ominous like so. But Nemesis doesn’t want to disagree, so he nods his head, against his better judgement. “I will, Yuuki-san. I promise.”

Yuuki smiles, kind and warm. It’s a different warm from Kotone’s radiant grin; it’s not so much like staring into the gentle glare of the sun – energetic and without end – but rather that of a bonfire. Something languid and trusting. But it is warm all the same, which says much about his character, different from how he’s seen before, and definitely a contrast to how Takeba often said that he is.

“Thank you,” he says, and regards them one last time with a short bow. “Then, take your time.”

And so, he’s left with Aragaki, something akin to a confession brewing in the air between them.

They could hear the screams and the cries from up on the rooftop, and it takes many minutes for those agonizing screams to subside.

It’s warranted, after all, when the person who killed your family is there in front of you, confessing and admitting all his faults. Makoto doesn’t know if this is right or not, but Ken deserves the truth, Aragaki deserves closure. And, if Ken would allow it, repentance. It’s going to take a while, though, if such a thing is possible.

He hopes it is.

“Hierophant, hm?” Ryoji hums softly, twirling something – a coin, maybe – between his fingertips. Makoto only hums; he’s never gotten close to Aragaki before, so seeing that the man is his Hierophant is a surprise. It should have been impossible, since the elders at Bookworm are his Hierophants, too, even now. “I think it makes sense, actually. You don’t need to have just twenty-two close friends in your life, after all.”

“True,” Makoto hums, fidgeting his fingers together. He’s waiting, unsure if either Aragaki or Ken would make it here tonight or not. The truth will always hurt, and it’s up to time as to when they will accept it and move forward. Makoto has spent centuries mulling over the truths he wishes to deny, and he still hasn’t fully accepted it yet, either.

He wouldn’t blame either of them for not being able to get past this.

“Have faith,” Ryoji whispers, taking one of his hands and squeezing it, gentle. “They will get through this. They have you and Kotone-chan both, don’t they?”

“Take me out of the picture,” Makoto snorts, shaking his head, but turning his hand up to intertwine their fingers together. “But Kotone is a good person,” a better person than I ever will be, “so I suppose you’re right. They will be fine. They should be fine.”

Ryoji doesn’t seem to like his attitude very much, as always, and he doesn’t say anything to it just as usual. They’re left in a quiet, serene silence for a moment or two before Ryoji speaks up again, his grip on the hand Makoto has left lax tightening just a little more. “Maybe not tonight, but they both will come around. We can save them.”

“I hope so, too,” Makoto nods, the most radiant bond that is Death strengthening even more. He wonders if it could grow on forever, if the loop doesn’t end this time, too. And wonders if the bonds he’s managed to put together from scraps he’s left them as would survive “time”, but he seriously doubts it. They never did survive before, so why would they now? Why would they at all—

“Stop thinking, Makoto,” Ryoji says, pleads, as he leans in closer, their shoulders pressed together. “It will end this time, I’m sure. Otherwise, I would have remained an Appriser, and I wouldn’t have been here, human and alive.”

He forces out the breath he was holding – Ryoji’s right. It should end, because changes in cycles that have remained frozen solid for centuries should signify the end of the loops altogether. And even if there is no evidence for such a thing, he believes wholeheartedly (he has to) that this will be the end of it all. And once he dies, this time, he wants to at least save a few more people, correcting as many wrongs as he could.

We stand by thee, and we shall walk by thy side, his menagerie says, all at once.

“You know I’ve always been terrible at stopping my thoughts,” Makoto snorts a laughter, finding at least a piece of him to snark out a joke. “Also terrible at being somewhat decent, too. I don’t know why you let me do this – forcing him to talk is a terrible fucking idea.”

Ryoji shakes his head, turning his gaze upward towards the moon above. “It’s a good thing, trust me,” he finally says after a moment, his thumb rubbing soothing circle on the back of Makoto’s hand. “It’s painful, but sometimes the right choice is the most painful one. You taught me that yourself.”

“Did I?” he asks, only vaguely aware of how his voice sound, unsure and so pathetically small. “I don’t think I ever did. Maybe you took my lack of courage for something that it isn’t.”

Ryoji sighs, pulling his hand in to press his lips against the skin of his knuckles. Makoto hums, appreciative of the distraction, before Ryoji lets his hand go and pushes himself off of where he was, leant against the railing of Iwatodai Dorm’s rooftop. “Don’t think so poorly of yourself. Now come on, let’s head back down already. I don’t think they’re going to be here today—”

As soon as those words leave Ryoji’s lips, the door to the roof creaks open. Makoto turns to see both Aragaki and Ken walking out, the former looking more solemn then ever before and the latter having his eyes puffy and red but shining with more life that Makoto has seen of him.

Aragaki raises an eyebrow, snorts, then says, “what? Didn’t think we’d make it?”

Makoto’s jaws lock themselves tight for a moment, and he has to push his fingers into them to finally say something. “…Something to that effect. I thought it’d take you longer.”

He then looks at Ken. He is still definitely angry, judging from how Metatron is positively rumbling within him, but there is a form of acceptance in it, too. If Makoto remembers correctly, he thinks Ken had told him once why he was so angry at Aragaki before – he wanted the truth, wanted to talk to his mother’s killer man-to-man. When Aragaki hid away, it’s only fair that he’d be angry, because he thought that the man is trying to put everything under the carpet and out of everyone’s reach.

It's all a big, messy misunderstanding, one that has costed Aragaki his life many, many times—

“I will be alright, Yuuki-san,” Ken murmurs, wiping angrily at his eyes again. Aragaki keeps his large hand hovering over the boy’s head, but doesn’t move to comfort him. Time, Makoto thinks. It will take time. “I… thank you, for making him talk, or… something. I… I needed this.”

“So did I, apparently,” Aragaki snorts, only for his face to soften upon looking fully at them. What he sees, Makoto doesn’t know, and he doesn’t let himself ponder on it. “So… what now?”

“You’ll have to figure out the rest yourself,” Makoto hums, looking down at his wristwatch. The Dark Hour approaches, so it’s almost time to show them a little of what they represent, what they can be. “The essence of having a Persona is to know yourself, and accept yourself.”

Which I haven’t done in a long, long time, he bites back. The cacophony of voices ring out within him, but Makoto only lets them stir inside his head for a few seconds before silencing them with a hushed whisper to himself. Instead, he looks up at the sky, and waits until it turns the shade of sickly green, a shade of Nyx’s vile power bleeding into the very world around them.

“You’re a Hierophant,” Makoto begins, gesturing towards Aragaki, before he nods at Ken. “And you, the Justice. For us Wild Cards, the bonds we make – and the Arcanas they represent – give birth to the Personas that we wield.”

“…So that’s why Kotone’s Persona catalogue keeps getting updated,” Aragaki snorts, understanding lighting up his dulled eyes. “She always talks to everyone, me included for some god forsaken reason. And she keeps getting closer, becoming more important to me.”

“That’s the point of bonds. But it’s not just because bonds make them strong,” Ryoji interjects softly, reaching toward Makoto’s shoulder to squeeze it gently, carefully. The boy is smiling, and his words seem to be directed at Makoto more than at the others. “Bonds make them – and all of us – human. As Death, I will tell you this; life inherently has no meaning – but these bonds you’ve made, these connections you’ve fostered? They are what give your life a purpose, a goal. We are defined by what we do to others, and for others. We are defined by the bonds we make, and the connections we share. Never forget that.”

He remembers these words, from long go.

I’ve said those things myself, haven’t I? he thinks, mouth gaping in awe as he recalls their talks in his room, before Ryoji left him to go back to Nyx’s dark embrace. I told you this. And you’re reminding me of it.

Ryoji smiles, nodding once, as he steps back from Makoto. “You were going to show them, weren’t you?”

These warm tendrils of feelings he’s lost long ago bubble inside his chest, and he is reminded of how much he has forgotten, how many things he has given up for the sake of continuing these endless cycles of life and death. He has forgotten how to be decent, he has forgotten how to be kind, he knows of them. But among the things he had recalled, it’s only now did he finally remember the most important of all the lessons he’s learnt in the very first cycle;

He has completely forgotten what the true Answer to Life’s Greatest Question is.

Makoto can’t help but bark out a laugh at this. The road will be a long and arduous one, but there is no going back now; he’s promised many – human and otherwise – that he will at least try his best to do things better. And so, he shall.

With a pull at the Hierophant – of Bunchiki and Mitsuko, the old couple and of Aragaki, fresh and only a sapling – he calls forth the golden dragon of yore that has always been by his side, after all this time.

“This,” he says, looking at Ryoji as he does, breathing in gratefulness and in reverence towards his oldest friend, his most beloved person. “This is what your bond with me looks like.”

Kohryu gives out a rumbling yet powerful roar, reminding Makoto of what it truly means to live, just one more time.

“Are you awake?”

Really, Kotone thinks she has to stop popping up like this, pushing her head between the gap of the door and whatnot. But she can’t just stop doing what she’s always done, even if she had kind of renounced Makoto months ago. Still, that look on his face as he cracks his eyes open and rubs them with the heel of his palms suggests that no, he definitely was not awake before she asked.

“I am now,” Makoto mutters, and for the first time in forever, Ryoji is nowhere to be seen. She cocks her head to the side in confusion, to which Makoto replies with a quiet hum. “Ryoji’s out buying supplies.”

“Supplies?”

“For the guitar. And the violin. And the piano,” Makoto says, one by one, as he pushes himself up. He still sways on his hands, and even though he looks lighter than ever before, there is no denying the fact that the time loop and whatever else that had happened in the span of a few weeks have taken a great toll on him, body and soul— “Can I help you?”

“Oh, uh, nothing,” Kotone says, sidling in and closing the door. “I just… can we just hang out? Like siblings? I’ve missed that a lot. If you want to, of course, I mean…”

She really isn’t sure if this is the right thing to do now, of all times; that one day before he revealed it all to them probably was an exception to the rule. He was in dire need of support back then, when he prepared his heart to tell them his scars, his secrets. But now that all of it has calmed down, and that they’re only fighting to stop the Dark Hour (to give him the death Kotone doesn’t wish for), she’s not—

“Alright,” Makoto says easily, hands rubbing his eyes again. She thinks her brain might’ve stuttered for a second as he gets out of bed, still in his pajamas and looking not as well rested as someone waking up at noon should be. “…What?”

“Nothing, it’s just…” she trails off, gauging his reactions to see if he would react violently against her asking about the golden dragon last night or not. Its appearance was brief, but it shook her very core, and she’s not sure if talking about it would be a taboo or if it’s even allowed. But when she finds him raising only his eyebrow at her, she decides to bite the bullet. “I wanna ask about the golden dragon from last night. That was you… right?”

Makoto blinks, and she can practically see the gears in his head grinding to a halt, as if he has forgotten about it entirely. After what feels like an eternity, he says with an unsure voice. “Uh… right. That was me. I forgot Kohryu isn’t one of the smaller ones out there.”

Kohryu. The name is unfamiliar, yet it sits deeply on her tongue like a prayer. The Hierophant chimes inside her quietly at the name, and from a distant, a gentle, golden beast stirs.

“Don’t get impatient,” Makoto says, grabbing his clothes and bathroom items, tugging them all under his armpit. She looks up at him; while he isn’t smiling, his eyes are so soft and patient. “Give it time. He’s there – you just need to forge bonds like you always do.”

“What Arcana is… it?” she mumbles even when her heart knows the answer, her feet following Makoto as he yawns and heads out of his room. The sun is glaring through the windows, and she can’t help but notice the way Makoto squint his eyes when he walks past the second floor’s lounge.

He,” Makoto corrects, his voice stern. But his gaze softens when he turns to look at her. “If you want to know, then I suppose it’s fine. He’s a Hierophant.”

Hierophant makes her think of grandpa and grandma at Bookworm, and idly, she wonders if it’s the same for Makoto as well. She doesn’t ask him, though – because she’ll know soon enough, probably. And with that, a rather unpleasant thought crosses her mind. “Hey, have you heard that Mitsuru-senpai’s signing us all for summer classes? She was going to revoke yours and Ryoji-kun’s since you both are, well…”

“She doesn’t need to,” Makoto hums, almost easily. “School is probably the best way for me to try to ease back into life I’ve been ignoring, anyway.”

Kotone feels a scalding burn in her chest at his words. How many times did he have to repeat all of these, both mindless and terrifying? How many deaths have he witnessed, for him to become so detached that it took him many months of their pestering to finally begin to try to regain a semblance of life? For him to be so ready to throw it all away for them, who have abandoned him, who have—

Her thought stops abruptly when a finger jabs her forehead, hard, and she can’t stop letting out a small ow at the pressure. Her hand comes up to rub at the sore spot, and she glances towards the owner of the hand, Makoto, who’s looking at her with something close to a bemused smile; his eyes are shining with some kind of adoration she’s sorely missed since April, and something more, too. Something infinitely gentle and even more patient. Something vastly warm and deeply understanding.

“Don’t think too hard about it,” he huffs, and stiffens a little when he spots Aigis at the lounge. The android is glaring daggers at him, and Kotone would’ve missed the way he wilts into himself, had she not been practically right beside him. He plays it off as tiredness as he drags his feet towards the shower. “If you’re still here when I’m out of the shower, we can do whatever you want. Are you sure, though?”

“I am,” she says, steadfast. “My answer isn’t going to change any time soon.”

“I see,” Makoto hums, lips quirked into a thoughtful smile. “I see.”

And with that, he disappears into the shower.

“Aigis, please stop hovering over me. I’m fine!”

“But he is dangerous, Kotone-san.”

“He is not!

Aigis is a nice person, she knows – she always watches out for Kotone and the rest of them, has always been an immovable fortress in which they could retreat to. But it’s on this one thing that she is positively annoyed by; Makoto is a mystery to them all, but she’s seen for herself with he’s like behind all of those bravados he’s made up for himself. Why would Aigis insist he is a danger, when she doesn’t even bat an eye against Ryoji, who’s a full-blown Shadow?

(And where the hell is chairman Ikutsuki? Mitsuru actually called him multiple times, but he doesn’t even answer! Not once!)

It's not nice thinking of it like this, certainly, but while she trusts and likes Ryoji like a friend, he logically should be the one who’s more of a danger to them than a really human Makoto. Even if Makoto’s soul is not the same as the one she’s always had by her side for sixteen damn years, he still is real flesh and blood, a human with a heart under his chest and the power of the Wild Card slumbering deep in his soul.

“But—”

“Aigis,” Kotone snaps, turning back to Aigis with choice words at the tip of her tongue. But at the earnest worry she sees, she can do nothing but wither back and settle for something less furious. “I know you’re worry about me, but trust me, please? He’s a Wild Card! And he could’ve killed us long ago if he wanted to, and he never did harm us!” even if he doesn’t help all that much, she decides not to say, “so it’s fine!”

“Still, I suggest—”

Aigis—” she begins, exasperate.

“She has every right to be cautious, Kotone,” Makoto’s voice cut through their conversation, and the way Aigis’ bright eyes darken at his arrival is concerning. Makoto only sighs as he sits down a good distance from her, with his elbow on his crossed knee and his fingers idly mapping out the controls of the MP3 on his neck. “I don’t mind being watched.”

You do, she wants to say, because she will never be able to miss the way Makoto tenses up every time Aigis talks about him as if he’s a real danger to them. He might’ve confessed that he’s killed them, but frankly, she couldn’t find anything in her to blame him. Reliving a life where no one remembers your sacrifice must’ve been a burden on one’s heart, and when Makoto is this pained, this vulnerable, how can she believe that all of those things are solely his responsibility to shoulder?

“Is Ryoji-kun lost somewhere?” she decides to change the subject. It’s been an hour, and they all know that Ryoji and Makoto are mostly never apart. “He’s been gone a while.”

“He texted me a few minutes ago,” Makoto replies, nonchalant, pulling his phone out to emphasize his point. “He said that I ‘should bond with my friends more’. Something along that line.”

It isn’t so much as him hating the idea of bonding than being afraid of it, and she, to a degree, understands his reluctance. Why wouldn’t he? How long has it been since he last talked to anyone but Ryoji normally, anyway? And she suspects that it’s been more than just a few years, judging from how he looks, haunted by nightmares of times that’s never happened.

“Great. Then let’s do that!” she puts on a smile, ignoring Aigis’ protest, and hops over to Makoto’s side. It truly feels like home, this; sitting close to him and making him uncomfortable on purpose. “We have summer school for the whole week, anyway, so let’s do something nice today. Do you have any ideas?”

He shakes his head, but his expression suggests that he’s somewhat amused by her antics. “No. Do what you will, I’m not having any bright ideas anytime soon.”

“I plan on hanging out with Yukari-chan, Fuuka-chan and Junpei today. You should come with!” she grins, and from the corner of her eyes, catches Junpei spluttering something into the sink. She winks a sorry at him for the unannounced change of plan and continues on anyway. “We’re going shopping and eating bunches of things! Also, buying food for the fridge! And, well, things!

“Have you asked them if they wanted to walk about with me?” Makoto shoots back, his brows raised and his lips set. He might act like he doesn’t care, but she now knows he’s just afraid of doing this again, when they’ve repeatedly forgotten about him for so many years. “I don’t think—”

“It’ll be fine,” Kotone interjects, doesn’t allow him so much as a time to doubt himself. She doesn’t know this him well, but from whatever she has seen, he isn’t someone who seems too comfortable asking for help, whether he needs it or not. So, she takes it upon herself that she’s going to drag him out of his own head with her hands.

She will hereby promptly ignore him kicking and screaming in protest, but he doesn’t need to know that.

Makoto looks at her, long and hard, before he sighs, shaking his head all the while. “Don’t blame me if the mood sours because I’m there.”

“I won’t,” she winks.

They simply sit there in the lounge and wait for a while, with Makoto’s eyes looking between her and Aigis alternatively, as if to try to convince her that he shouldn’t be allowed near her at all. But all his confessions, all his acts – there is no way in absolute hell will she allow him to be alone. She doesn’t know what the others might think, but Yukari is slightly guilt-ridden by all this, and Junpei looks like he wants to try to do things better, too, even though they both know they do not remember anything.

Fuuka is a bit of an exception – Makoto has never once antagonized her directly, their interactions limited to everyday greetings and staying in the lounge together with silence as the only thing that went on between them. But she knows Fuuka, and Fuuka would never blame Makoto for something he has no control over. Well, has some control over, but who’s to say they could do better with the life they didn’t ask for? Who is to say that they won’t lose their minds, too, forced to walk through the same life, the same year, like he had?

“Koto-nan!” Junpei’s voice cuts off her thoughts, and she turns with a bright smile to see the boy waving at them, with his baseball cap and tank top and the brightest grin she couldn’t find anywhere else. He stops when he notices Makoto sitting in the couch next to her, and his facial expression falters a little, his smile turning sheepish. “Uh… hey, Makoto.”

Makoto nods, drumming his fingers on his knees. “Afternoon.”

“So,” Junpei begins again, a little more reluctant, eyes shooting several questions at Kotone. She simply gives him a raised brow – she thinks she knows what he wants to say, after all – and it doesn’t take long before Junpei walks over to Makoto, hand rubbing the back of his neck. “You wanna come with? Just us pals hanging out before summer school?”

She can see the way Makoto jumps under his skin, clearly expecting hostility and not this, and she can’t blame him, either. He’s painted himself as a villain ever since they step into the dorm, and he did a very fantastic job at it. He’s still reluctant to the idea of taking back what he gave up for this endless loop himself, but she will not let him go ever again if she can help it.

It takes an uncomfortably long time for Makoto to finally relax, his form slumping forward ever so gently as he finally looks up at Junpei. His smile is faint, but it is there all the same. “That’d be nice. If you’ll have me, of course.”

“’Course, dude,” Junpei shrugs easily. “You had your reasons. Would be nice for us to get to know each other a bit more, yeah? Or, uh… for us to know you, since it looks like you know us already.”

Makoto hums at this, amused. “Just tell me if I bring down the lively atmosphere. I’d rather not do that again if I can help it.”

Again, again, again. He keeps repeating everything as if they’re all his fault, and she hates this. How much does Ryoji truly know for him to be able to accept this? Or had he never truly accepted the fact that Makoto has a tendency to pile everything up inside him until he breaks? Kotone thinks that she already knows that, but she doesn’t want to say it out loud, because—

“It’s gonna be awkward as hell, true,” Junpei shrugs, dropping down on the other empty spot next to Makoto with a hand on her brother’s shoulder. Makoto doesn’t flinch, but he still seems surprised by this. “But hey! You can’t start shit if you don’t get over the awkward phase, yeah? Every couple does that!”

The comparison is terrible, but if it draws a laughter out of her brother, then she has no complaint.

She decides to ignore Aigis glaring at him from the side, instead focusing on the present, and only the present. Because that’s all they have.

It almost feels normal, almost being the keyword.

“Isn’t it great, though?” Ryoji reasons from the other end of the line as Makoto hangs back from their group walk, not actually ignored and given just enough space to talk with Ryoji alone. “We’re hanging out like friends, for once! I know you missed it.”

“You know I—”

“—don’t want to spoil their fun, I know,” Ryoji hums, a little softer. “But they invited you first. It’s not like you forced your way back into the group or anything! This could be fun, if you let it.”

Makoto can’t help but snort, eyes glancing towards his right, at the bustling street that leads the way to Paulownia Mall. He gives out another noncommittal hum. “Fine, fine. What are you doing, anyway? You could’ve come back and walk with us.”

“With you, you mean,” Ryoji laughs.

“Guilty as charged,” Makoto sighs, shaking his head. He doesn’t hear it, but he can feel well how Ryoji is practically screaming just talk to them through the phone without uttering a single word. It’s a gift and a curse of being so deeply connected to Death, he supposes. “Alright, fine, I’ll talk to them. See you at Hagakure, Ryoji.”

“See you,” Ryoji whispers, the bond inside his chest humming softly in response, before he cuts the line.

It’s only when he finally stows his phone away that he notices Fuuka walking beside him, her gaze always so gentle, just like how he remembers her to be. Among SEES, Makoto thinks she’s the only one who remains kind and cordial towards him even after how he acted. She’s always been patient, too patient for the likes of him.

“Who was it?” Fuuka asks with a light smile. An attempt to make a conversation, no doubt.

“Ryoji,” he replies. And, among the bonds that he has, hers has always been one among the selected few that has never truly been broken after everything. If he remembers the disaster correctly, he thinks she is the one who he’s never ever laid a hand on in all of those doomed timelines. “…You don’t need to do this. I’m fine as I am.”

Fuuka hums, clearly not believing his words. Priestess is an Arcana of instinct, after all, so he supposes she would see through the fact that he’d like nothing more than to keep them all close to his heart, despite—

“You always look as though you’re in pain, physical and emotional,” she comments, bouncing on her feet even as she walks at his speed, not fast enough to catch up to the other three, but not as slow as to be called a leisure pace, either. “I think… Even if you have to… go when all is said and done, it’s better that we get to know you than not knowing at all. Um, that’s what I believe, anyway.”

“Even if all I’ll ever give you is pain?” he asks, his voice sounding so foreign and so small to his own ears. He wants to reforge them, of course he wants to, but they will be sad and in pain because of him and he doesn’t want that, especially not after everything he’s ever said and done. “I have nothing to give you.”

“The point of friendship isn’t whether you can give something to someone or not, is it?” Fuuka smiles, so gentle and radiant, and he feels like he’s in awe at how easy it is to talk to her. She’s always been sharp of mind, without the edge of distrust in her voice. He’s always hated the way she makes him feel, exposed and seen. “I want to be your friends, Yuuki-kun. I really do.”

“…Even after how I acted and treated you?” he asks, his voice strangely low, almost inaudible. “I’ve been nothing but a dick to you. All of you.”

“I don’t think you were,” Fuuka shakes her head. “I… I think I felt as though you were trying to avoid talking to us for a reason, but I didn’t want to pry. You always looked so sad and lonely, and I couldn’t help but think that everything you’ve done is nothing but a self-defense mechanism, you see.”

Sharp. She is too sharp and too open and too kind and he can’t help something twisting in his chest, coiled tight and ready to snap. Makoto isn’t sure if it’s fear or anticipation, but he doesn’t – can’t – find out, because if he does, he—

Trust in us, Universe, Longinus whispers from somewhere beyond the veil, and his eyes snap up towards the sky to listen. The voice is as soothing as it is authoritative; hard, demanding, but understanding still. How can someone sound like that? So full of power yet softer than stardust? You do not deserve the fate given to you. This world is not the same as the ones previous; even after all that you remembered doing, in this place here and now, they have never happened. Your hands are clean.

Easier said than done, that. He still tastes bile in his throat whenever he thinks back towards all those doomed timelines, with him trapped and unable to escape no matter what kind of atrocity he had committed in the name of freedom and death. But when he turns his gaze back towards Fuuka, she is smiling. Why are you smiling? he barely stops himself from asking.

But she hears it anyway, as Lucia always does. She smiles, extending a hand his way. “I think you’re kinder than you believe yourself to be, Yuuki-kun. And I’d love nothing more than to get to know you.”

“Even after everything?” he repeats, nails biting deep into the palms of his hands. “That I’ve said and done? Even when I am going to die anyway?”

“Even then,” Fuuka beams.

He can’t stop a small laughter bubbling out of his mouth as he sighs. And finally, finally, he’s given a hand other than Ryoji’s and Akinari’s, to mold a bond back to where it was, maybe even further – and with that, with Fuuka’s refusal to back down and the echoes of encouragement from the sinned saint, he takes her hand.

“Call me Makoto, then,” he says, and feels her hand tightening around his a little more.

“You can call me Fuuka too, Makoto-kun,” Fuuka smiles, radiant and oh-so-warm. “All my friends do.”

Indeed, he hums deeply as the Priestess, long forsaken into the pits of the void, finally comes back into his palms. All my friends call me Makoto, too.

Talking to Fuuka is something he doesn’t know he missed.

She is not like how Junpei is, a blabbermouth without end, nor how Yukari is, overbearing but not at all condescending. Fuuka is… quiet, just like him, the words between them sparse but enough to convey to the other their thoughts, their feelings. Fuuka has always been this way, since the very first time that he remembered; so kind and patient and infuriatingly sacrificial that he can’t help but think that, if she was in his place, she would’ve made do with things he’s given better than he ever could.

This time’s conversation is quite different from how theirs often went, however; this time, she has the knowledge of the time loops he’s been experiencing, and he is with the scars of a life without death. It started like this; Fuuka began with some small talk about the weather, purposefully avoiding the subject of his wellbeing, thank god, and he replied with the intent of at least trying to mend the things he broke in his path.

And, somehow, Makoto finds himself staring at her when she suddenly asks a question that seems too deep but too little, all at the same time. “What… was it like? The time loop, I mean.”

He takes a moment to process her question, Scathach laughing delightedly within his chest and Longinus humming a quiet surprise in time with his heartbeat. He doesn’t think she’s asking that out of curiosity, since Fuuka has never been one to initiated anything remotely private unless the other party explicitly gives her the permission.

“…Why?” he asks, testing the way his explanation would sound and wincing upon the discomfort it will definitely bring. Even with Ryoji, they only talked about it on the surfaces; how tired he is of it, or how he just wants it to end. They rarely talked about feelings and emotions involved, because they both were there, and it hurts to even think about it.

Fuuka attempts a smile as she reaches for his elbow, grasping it gently and squeezing it once. “I heard that… I mean, I’ve read about it from my parents’ medical books, and it’s said that… those that suffered from PTSD or anything similar benefits from psychotherapy. I’m not qualified for that, of course, but sometimes talking about it a little helps… especially if you take this to a professional.”

Who would understand this? Makoto almost asks, but bites back when he notices the genuine concern she’s giving off of her eyes. He glances towards Kotone – who’s definitely looking at them with relief – and back at Fuuka. He chews the inside of his cheek and mutters. “…I don’t think they can.”

“You wouldn’t know until you try, would you?” Fuuka insists, her grip on his arm tightening. “Please. If this is… if this is really the end for you, at least I want you to try and be happy until the time comes.”

He wants to rebuke her, he really does, but she is too soft and too gentle and he can’t find his words, now trapped between his teeth and rotting like a piece of flesh torn off. He remembers the words Akinari said to him on his last visit, days ago;

I believe they would’ve loved to know you, no matter if you live or die, no matter what you’ve done.

He doesn’t want to admit it, too scared of the pain it would bring, but maybe Akinari was right. Maybe it isn’t just Fuuka who’s willing to see past all his flaws and connect with him regardless of his doomed fate. Maybe that’s who they are; with the ability to cherish the limited time they have together and not squandered it like he had done repeatedly just to spite the world and himself.

He is surprised at a small smile that comes to him at this, long-forgotten and natural. “You’re kind,” he says, more so to himself than for her to hear. “You’ll get hurt being like this with me. All of you.”

“I don’t mind,” Fuuka smiles. “Do you?”

He can indulge in his own selfishness a little, right? He can do this and not fuck things up for the rest of them, right?

Makoto decides to shake his head and smiles. “No, I don—”

Hellllooooooo,” Kotone says from the sideline, startling him out of his conversation and back to those foreign yet slightly familiar playful smile. He blinks, and sees Fuuka from the edge of his vision, staring at her quizzically. “You’re not talking to me, like, at all! And I’m your sister!

Even if she tries to hide it, he can’t help but notice the lightheartedness hidden in her statement. So, he chuckles, reaching his hand for her forehead and flicking it with his index finger, hard enough for her to yelp and cringe back. “It’s not like I didn’t talk at all. You were talking with those two, weren’t you? I don’t have a place in that conversation.”

Yet,” she adds, pouting a bit more up at him, only for her face to break into a grin. “But you seems to get closer to Fuuka now! That’s nice. That’s a good start.”

“Mhm. It is,” Makoto hums, and Fuuka pulls her hand away at this, interlacing her fingers behind her back instead. Fuuka gives him an encouraging look – go on, have fun, her eyes seem to say – and after a moment of hesitation, he gathers his courage and says, “So… what?”

What what?” she repeats with a scowl, and already, her fingers are hooked into his sleeve and pulling him along with a little too much force and a little too much enthusiasm. “Come on. I can keep things from being awkward!”

Makoto thinks he might’ve heard Loki’s laughter at this, but he isn’t given enough time to contemplate when he’s yanked right in between Junpei and Yukari. Ryoji’s name rests at the back of his head, only to be met with a you’ve got this – and a laughter at his misfortune – to which he could only respond with a scowl as Kotone pats both of his arms.

He doesn’t quite dare look at either of them, but he can still see from the corner of his eyes how guarded and judging they are. Maybe he doesn’t see things as rightly as he would’ve loved to, but he can’t help the anxiety and the fear bubbling up the center of his chest when he thinks about every fucked-ups that he’s ever done—

“So,” Junpei’s voice snaps him out of his own head, and he looks to the side to see Junpei scratch his cheek, eyes looking away from him. “Uh…”

“What he meant to say,” Yukari interjects. “Is that we’re, uh… kinda sorry about everything we’ve ever said. We didn’t know anything, and yet—”

Makoto simply shrugs. “You don’t need to apologize. I deserve everything.”

Stop with the self-hatred!” Kotone slaps his arm, hard, and how long has it been since he’s been slapped ever since that incident at the Love Hotel with Yukari so many centuries ago? Even through the slight haze of the opioids still in his system, he still feels its sting. “Makoto, everything is screwed up, but it isn’t your fault! So stop,” slap, “with,” slap, “the,” slap, “self-deprecation!”

“Ow!” he growls, coiling back, but still allowing something to creep back into his heart. He hasn’t had these light-hearted exchanges for as long as he still remember, with Ryoji’s presence so far and few between that he cannot afford wasting even a single moment of it. “That hurt.”

“As it should!” Kotone exclaims, but she’s already smiling. “Now come on! Let’s chat!”

And with her attitude like this, so light and free and so bright like the sun, he can’t help but let his anxiety wash away as he tries his best to reestablish everything that he’s lost and more.

Hagakure looks more appealing than he remembers it to be.

Maybe it’s because he’s now surrounded by the sound of laughter and words exchanged between friends, or maybe it’s because Ryoji is there, waving at him with his smile more tender than he’s ever seen. The place is still swarmed with patrons, as it always is and probably will continue to be, but it doesn’t take them long to make their ways to the innermost counter where Ryoji is.

“Thanks for savin’ us the seats, man!” Junpei crows with a grin, waving his arm into big arcs before sitting on Ryoji’s left, arm resting on his shoulder. “You sure know how to convince the owner to let you take the seats alone!”

“And five seats at the counter, too!” Yukari chirps with a grin. “Nicely done, Ryoji-kun.”

“It comes naturally,” Ryoji grins, winking at Makoto once before nodding his head towards the owner, who simply ignores him as he goes about making the orders. “Truth be told, though, I’m just lucky that no one wants to come in after me! Strange, huh?”

Makoto just rolls his eyes at Ryoji’s blatant lie that the rest probably wouldn’t even notice; it is a new discovery for them still, but Ryoji could, to a degree, make people subconsciously avoid him. He’d been doing that to give them a quiet place at Naganaki shrine a lot when the moon was high in the sky and his heartbeat was filled with his past mistakes and the pain they bring—

“I’ve already ordered things for you guys,” Ryoji continues, unfazed by Makoto’s half-glare, and pushes the menus Junpei’s way before pointing at dishes he’s ordered; some extra large pork ramen for Junpei, something a little less filling for the girls, and only a large bowl of rice Makoto isn’t even sure he could stomach even a quarter of for them both. “Anything you want to change?”

“Nah, this looks good,” Kotone states, sitting down and stretching her arms and legs. “I’m starving! Let’s eat then find something to do afterwards!”

“We could do movies,” Junpei shrugs, glancing Makoto’s way with uncertainty once, before speaking in a much more reserved tone. “…You wanna?”

He only shrugs as he sits down to Ryoji’s right, and practically away from them. He’s not as… opposed to the idea of getting close as he used to be, but constantly being surrounded and bombarded with questions exhaust him still. “Do whatever. I don’t care.”

Ryoji chuckles. “Don’t mind him. That’s just how he was before, too. He’d say I don’t care even though he kinda does.”

“I see,” Junpei sniffs, scratching his cheek. “That’s good to know.”

The conversation devolves into something mindless as they wait for their meals, and after a moment, Ryoji turns to him, leaning his cheek against his bent knuckles and smiling radiantly. “You look a lot lighter than you were yesterday. Has the walk been any good for you?”

He rolls his eyes, again, but can’t quite keep the smile off his face this time. Ryoji knows him as much as Makoto does himself, and vice versa; so, it would stand to reason that the boy would know when he wants and needs these little talks and affections(?) even though he’d never admit to himself. Instead, he takes Ryoji’s other hand in his, drawing absent little circles on its back as he hums in affirmation.

“You know,” Ryoji begins again, eyes twitching just slightly. Makoto has no idea why, until he does. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m human in this timeline or not, or whatever the reason it is, but uh… I can kind of, sort of hear some of your Personas now? I guess?”

It isn’t surprising. They share their hearts and souls, after all. But that hilarious and constipated look Ryoji’s never before worn tells him just enough, that while Nyx’s calling is something he hates and never wants to hear ever again, his menagerie of Personas is… more than enough a collection of chatterboxes that even Ryoji would get annoyed by.

“You get used to it,” Makoto says with a small smile as Alice’s childish giggle filters through. Ryoji even makes a face at that, so he only waves his fingers. “Trust me. I have had years to get used to it.”

“They’re different from Nyx,” Ryoji half-whispers, but the bite in his words are nothing more than a façade at his childish curiosity that creeps up his face like New Year’s firework lights. “Some of them are quiet. Some sure do love chatting someone’s ears off, though.”

“I’m guessing,” he says, lolling his head slightly backward to feel something familiar yet different; the sharp smile and curved horns and strips of white and dark that makes up Loki are all there, instead of his usually winged appearance with blonde hair. “Loki?”

Ryoji makes a face. “I thought so. There are so many, though!”

“You’ve probably met all of them already, although not in the appearances some of them are now,” he shrugs. During some of the middle cycles, he decided to do things to pass the time – since they were going to have to fight anyway, he made some kind of challenges with the help of the ever-cheerful Elizabeth and his myriads of Personas he rarely ever called.

“Oh, yeah. Those times,” Ryoji scrunches his nose, clearly still displeased by how those cycles turned out; with Makoto shunning everyone and everything away in favor of honing his masks he rarely ever commanded to absolute perfection, even though he didn’t need to. “Looking back, we probably shouldn’t have done that.”

“There are a lot of things I wish I hadn’t done,” Makoto laughs, his voice hoarse and grating. He now knows of the things he wishes he could’ve locked away forever, but he can’t run anymore. He’s here, given a chance, no matter how small, at correcting all the wrongs and making things better. He would be a damn fool to let this chance go. “Lot of things I wish I could take back.”

Ryoji sighs, but squeezes his hand tightly once before letting go, his face so soft and kind and caring, and Makoto still wonders to this day what had he ever done to deserve all this love. “I know,” Ryoji murmurs. “I know. I wish I could’ve done things better, too.”

He can’t allow himself to wallow in self-hatred forever; because, if he is to believe in the lifelong friends that are Igor and the Velvet residents or Longinus’ distant promise, then forever is no longer something he has. He had wasted so many instances of forever for the sake of rotting inside his own head, and he’s done running away. He has only a few months left, and just like the very first time, every second counts.

He cannot waste it again, for the sake of those he holds dear.

(Even if he’s not going to be there to see their futures with his own eyes.)

“Then, what we can do now is do things better, be better,” Makoto hums, smiles, and puts his hand up with his pinky sticking out. “I give you that promise. And I refuse to break any promises ever again.”

Ryoji smiles back, takes his finger into his grasp, and pulls his hand in to place a tender kiss on his fingertips that says, and I will be there all the way with you.

Notes:

How was it? Lemme know! :D

Chapter 16: The Present And Us

Summary:

Makoto decides not to let the mysteries of the unknown future weigh him down like before. He learns how to have fun and be a good friend to his only family again.

Notes:

Hi! I am now stuck in a 5 days intense conference thingy my college requires me to attend so this comes out a little late uwu sorry!

BUT BUT BUT! It's more fluff! Again! so here you go!

thank you minni for the beta!

(Also pls excuse any typos, I'll fix as soon as I can as always!)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

At least no one’s asking him about his terribly tiny appetite anymore.

Makoto doesn’t know what the exact conclusion they’ve actually come to about him and Ryoji, but he counts his blessings, regardless; they learn to keep a little bit of distance, but is not shutting him out completely out of both curiosity and kindness. And so, when he ate only a few spoonful of the meal only to shove the rest Ryoij’s way as he tried hard not to gag, they didn’t say anything much aside from if he’s alright, and that gave him enough leeway to deflect the question entirely.

His mental stability and health are getting better, but his physical health is declining at an alarming rate.

So, halfway through the first movie marathon (that has never happened before in any other cycles at this time of the month, what the heck), he excuses himself out to the bathroom, only to hunch over the nearest toilet and coughing and spitting out the only meal he’s eaten today.

“Makoto,” Ryoji’s voice calls from the entrance, even though Makoto was sure Ryoji didn’t follow him. He doesn’t answer, instead clutching onto the edge of the toilet tighter, his chest still heaving with efforts and his lungs burning with their needs for air. “Are you okay?”

He takes more time that he would like to steady himself, and by then, Ryoji has already come into the stall he’s in, gentle hand pressing firmly on his back and rubbing some soreness away. He knows saying I’m okay now would be the most blatant lie he could’ve conjured, and Ryoji already knows the truth anyway. So what’s the point keeping secrets anymore?

He shakes his head, to which Ryoji replies with a click of his tongue, another hand gripping his shoulder and pulling him slightly backward. “So your physical condition is actually getting worse even though you’ve already made peace with SEES. Is it the nameless god? Is it because of you fighting that monster during the last Full Moon?”

“Maybe,” Makoto rasps, and feels bile rush up his throat again with vengeance. With a great heave, he empties literally everything in his stomach out and into the toilet, the bitter taste of acid and the sickening scent of blood a perfect mix inside his mouth. “Fuck.”

“…Do any of your Personas have an idea?” Ryoji asks.

The response is immediate, and it is Hassan before it is Longinus; the assassin that Makoto had already summoned twice before. We do not know, Thanatos. This is the first instance we’ve ever made contracts with our little seeker, but ‘tis possible his aliment came with the change to the timeline. You said that your android companion, Aigis, never viewed you as an enemy before, aye?

Makoto frowns at this, pushing himself back and leaning against the wall of the lavatory, his head pressed against his knee. Ryoji’s fingers brush at his bangs, digits pressing on his cheek gently to ease some of the pain away, and he hums in appreciation and leans slightly into the touch as Ryoji replies. “Yes. If I remember correctly, Aigis was against me before because I was – am? – Death. An Appriser.”

“My theory might be right,” Makoto mumbles, his tongue numbed by the bitter taste of many bodily fluid he would rather not name. “I might be the Appriser—”

Or perhaps you housed one within your soul, one that is more sinister than Death, Hassan reasons. When Makoto is about to protest, he interjects. Think wisely. Death is inherently neither good nor evil. When he was sealed within you, your soul remained pure, because Death’s soul is neither light nor dark. It simply is, a void, an emptiness. What if this nameless god is one of a viler proposition? If so, it might be possible for an android whose purpose is to combat darkness – Shadows – to mistake you for an enemy.

“…The nameless god is a god born of malice, death wishes and negative emotions,” Ryoji says, even though the frown on his face indicates that he doesn’t think anything could be more sinister than Death. But then again, Life and Death are but two sides of the same coin. How can you call Death vile and Life pure, when one cannot exist without the other? “…It might be possible, actually.”

“It’s affecting me,” he manages out, and after a while, pushes himself up. Ryoji’s hand finds his arm and hoists him fully to his feet almost effortlessly, while the boy’s brows are furrowing deep with lips set into a thin line. “If this keeps up, I’m not going to last until the Judgement Day.”

Ryoji’s face twists into something darker, angrier, too bitter for his eyes to take them. Makoto wants to wipe that look away, he truly does, but— “If that god really is using you as an Avatar, I don’t think it’s trying to kill you. It’s weakening you, but for what purpose, I have no idea.”

Makoto snorts, taking in a few deep breaths and straightening out his shirt. The bouts of nausea and pain is mostly gone, now, leaving only some dull aftertastes behind. “As long as drugs can help, then I can still fight. We have no choice but to keep moving forward.”

“Elizabeth-san might know,” Ryoji says, reluctantly pulling his hand back, but not without squeezing his fingers once before letting go completely. “We should ask her when we go to Tartarus… or just later.”

“Mm,” Makoto hums, noncommittal.

When they walk out of the bathroom, much to his surprise, Kotone is there, face adorn with worry. He is quick to make sure he’s presentable, but the face that he has when they walk out must’ve given himself away, because she scowls. “You could’ve told us that you’re not feeling well.”

Makoto shakes his head. “It’s nothing you should be worried about. I’m fine.”

“Sure you are,” Kotone rolls her eyes, reaching a hand and poking at his arm. At least he’s not feeling constant pain in his chest or tightness in his lungs anymore, but the physical part of his predicament is going to get worse, and he doesn’t want to involve too many people in it. They already have enough on their plates – to know that he will die and still electing to reach out to him still – so he doesn’t want to add anymore to— “I’m here for you, dummy. Just tell me, and maybe I can help you get better.”

He wishes it’s that easy, but he chooses to smile and reaches out towards her. His hand finds the crown of her head, and after ruffling her hair until they’re out of shape, says, “I will get better eventually. You don’t need to worry too much.”

Kotone pouts, clearly annoyed by his answer, but doesn’t pursue anything further when Ryoji presses himself to Makoto’s side, smiling gently at them both without it ever reaching his eyes.

“How are you doing?”

The night rolls around, and unsurprisingly, Kotone calls for one more Tartarus run before a full week of summer school to come. They still have a few hours before the excursion, so Makoto decides to spend the quiet – and blazing hot, mind – night loitering around on the couch, reading some books that he still hasn’t read from Bookworm.

Mitsuru’s question isn’t at all surprising, when he thinks about it; Kotone broke her icy shell faster and more thorough than Makoto ever could, and Mitsuru always looks out for her peers no matter her stance of them.

So, after a moment, he only shrugs, closing his book and looking up at her as she makes her way over. “I’m fine, Kirijou-senpai. I can fight.”

“That is not what I meant,” Mitsuru says, sitting down across from him with that same constipated look she often wears when she’s unsure of what to do. Confidence is something she has in spades, but when it comes to human interactions, she could be a little awkward still. Not that Makoto has any right to judge her, of course, since he isn’t better than how he was centuries ago. “I meant—”

“Mentally, I’m better,” he decides to answer her truthfully, giving her a cordial smile as the drums of Orpheus’ lyre soothe his nerve. “It’s… been so long since I was last on a good term with any of you that… I actually forgot how to be…”

Your family, he barely stops himself from saying.

Mitsuru wants to understand, he can see it in her eyes, sparkling with that subtle worry. But she gives him a smile instead of questioning him further, warmer than she ever was with him. “That is good to hear. What about your body?”

Makoto weighs his options; the truth and the lie have their pros and cons, but Makoto’s always been leaning towards the latter, because what would the truth do in this situation? But then again, where has the lies ever led him to? Just more pain, because he can’t stomach what the truth would bring, so he shut himself away completely in shells of lies, only to break down and did so many things he should’ve died a thousand more times for.

Makoto decides to settle for a compromise. “…I still have headache from time to time, and some… pain. You know about my chronic pain syndrome, don’t you?”

Mitsuru sets her lips tight but nods. “…Yes, I do.”

“That’s all that’s bothering me right now,” Makoto offers, holding back any other information away from her. His dwindling appetite and his insomnia is now more physical than they are psychological, so as long as the medications are working, he has no qualm doing just so. He only has to keep up with it for a few more months anyway. Unless he’s going to die because of whatever’s happening this time around and faster than his supposed end, he won’t tell another soul about it. “You giving me your privileges as your group’s associate is enough, Kirijou-senpai.”

She nods, seemingly satisfied, before silence falls over them again. It isn’t heavy, just a little awkward, and something expected considering the ineptitude regarding socialization from them both. When he thinks she’s about to let the conversation end at this, however, she speaks up. “…May I ask you something a little… private?”

“…If I can answer it, yes,” he nods, unsure where she’s getting at.

“Were we…” she trails off, brows furrowed, before she clears her throat and tries again. “How close were you and the rest of us the first time? Or how many times there were before this one?”

He didn’t see that question coming at all. He looks to the side for some support, only to see Ryoji smiling and chatting away with Aragaki and Koromaru – the latter of which keeps barking up at the two for more food, no doubt – and the others scattering about the living room and far away from reach. It doesn’t seem like this is a question all of them has, and Makoto isn’t sure what he should say, if at all.

Would they be wrought with guilt if he said that they were close, that he considered – considers – them his only family, his life and soul, and that he will and has died a thousand deaths for them? Would they try to do things that aren’t in their natures to please him when they know everything? What would they even do with the information, should he give them?

But the look in Mitsuru’s eyes is earnest to a fault, and he can’t help but be reminded of how SEES cracked him out of his apathetic shell (only for him to go right back in a dozen or so cycles later, he does not say), and of how Mitsuru told him that she’d prefer the truth no matter how heavy it is. Because the truths would at least give you an insight as to what went wrong, what could they’ve done better while the lies would just screw you over with their inconsistencies.

Makoto sighs, Alilat humming a quiet note into his spine as a confirmation. Mitsuru wants the truth, and he has no right to deny that of her; but, at the very least, he’ll tell her what he thought of them – all of his thoughts of them, both at his highest and lowest – and the rest is hers to decide.

“The first… few times, we were. All of you are my family,” he says, eyes looking at the floor, unwilling – and unable – to look into her eyes. “You are everything to me. My saviors, my guides, my life and soul. And then… when the loops didn’t stop, I just… grew to resent all of you.”

He doesn’t continue, but after a moment, Mitsuru nudges him softly with her words. “Go on, Yuuki. I want to know everything.”

He can feel his brows twitch with discomfort at the prospect of saying things he still regrets to this moment. Even with Ryoji, who knows him in an out, they barely ever exchange words regarding all that he feels, because talking makes things real. And when they’re real, they hurt more, they become a vice around his throat, choking him silent.

But he has promised so many that he’ll do better, be better, so he bites his tongue until the taste of blood halts his ever-spinning thoughts and hums quietly before answering her. “…I resented you for not remembering all that we were, because I— I was sure that I was as important to you as you were… no, are to me. But then, when all of you kept forgetting when things grew worse, I just—”

“I’m sorry,” Mitsuru cuts in, shaking her head for Makoto to stop. He follows her gaze, only to see that his fingers are curling hard against his knees and digging into his flesh through his pants. “I know you do not blame any of us now, but I’d be surprised if you didn’t hate us when things were… different.”

“It’s not something you can just change, anyway,” he only shrugs, even though he knows this is not what he thinks back when the loops are still unchanging. Telling her all these might be the worst thing he could’ve done, but he feels like he needs to – because if he doesn’t now, he might irreversibly damage something more in him. More than he already has, anyway. “Even though… I did blame you for things you have no control over back then, too.”

“Is it not normal, though?” Mitsuru questions, crossing her legs and leaning just a little forward. “I know I am not quite aware of how much you’ve gone through, but I believe I would’ve fared far worse, if I were to be in your place.”

“But you aren’t me, so that speculation is irrelevant,” Makoto says, forcing out a little smile. “I… didn’t do my best with what I was given. I thought I did, but… I didn’t. I gave up after only a few tries, believing that none of this will ever end, and threw it all away – all the hard work, all the love, for some resentment and hatred and fear because I was weak.”

“You have been through something none of us could hope to understand,” Mitsuru says again, her voice firm and cool but not biting like a blizzard. Alilat stirs within him as she gives him what he thinks is a sad, sympathetic smile. “You said that you killed us before in the previous timelines, but… how many times out of all the repeated years have you done so?”

Makoto frowns. “You don’t want to know.”

“I don’t need to,” Mitsuru shakes her head. “When you repeat something painful over and over, it’s not… easy to keep your emotions in check,” she frowns deeper at this, polished nails digging crescent wounds into her palms. “Don’t blame yourself for what you feel. If you don’t feel anything at all going through all of those years, then I would have called you a psychopath.”

“Even though I changed into some deranged degenerate?” he asks, his voice almost inaudible.

“You’re not, Yuuki,” Mitsuru hums. “If you truly are deranged, and if you truly are the bad omen you tried to make yourself seem, you wouldn’t have tried to protect us while simultaneously making us despise you. You would have ignored us and be on your own, you wouldn’t have cared at all. But you did – in your own broken way, you did, and you still do. Don’t you?”

I do, he thinks, but can’t find the voice to articulate out loud. He does care about them, of course, even when parts of his heart are numbed by time and rotted by his own brewing darkness. He cared about all of them more than his own life and death, and he still does, even now.

Mitsuru takes something from his expression and smiles, standing up and walking a little bit over. She pats his shoulder softly once, her expression as tender as he knows it to be when his bond with her – the cool but gentle Empress – reached its zenith. The bond has crumbled, true, but he feels as though he can sculpt it back into how it was before again.

“I know you do,” Mitsuru says before she leaves him to prepare for the expedition to come.

(Songs of the stars change in tune when he closes his eyes this time; instead of dread and fear and sorrow, it is full of hopes and dreams he has discarded for the sake of stewing in his own misery.

Never again will he let these feelings go. Even if this isn’t the last time, he refuses to fail any of them ever again – not SEES, not Ryoji, and certainly not himself.

Longinus’ eyes gleam with a smile as he retreats back into the darkness he comes from, ready to come to him at his command.)

Ignoring Aigis’ murderous eyes is easy when he’s under watch from everyone else.

(It doesn’t help matter that Makoto had to tell Mitsuru of what Ikutsuki had planted into Aigis – a switch, of sort, to make her an obedient puppet. He doesn’t know the exact detail of how such a thing was removed from the android, but he knows well enough that, even though she claimed not to feel, having her body pulled apart then put back together is not something she particularly craved.

Even though it’s a relief that the scientists selected by Kirijou Takeharu himself will be tasked to find the switch and remove it, the glare Aigis gave him after Mitsuru informed her of this is much worse than what it used to be.)

Makoto, of course, decides to escape most of the questions by playing with Koromaru’s soft, warm fur instead of catching eyes with any of them. Cerberus has always been a… weird Persona for him. When he reaches into his own heart, Cerberus does not have three flaming maws and black plates for fur, but it is whiter than snow with eyes fiercer than, if he is to be so bold, Thanatos.

A Persona’s appearance for one person might diverge for another, Orpheus offers helpfully. ‘Tis all about your interpretation and how you see the world. But… do try not to question it. Asking for reasons from the hearts is similar to trying to hold a conversation with a fish.

Makoto snorts a laughter as he rises to his feet – he knows he’s stalling for time, damnit – before dusting his knees and looking towards the Velvet Room. Even though he’s been here for dozens of times in this timeline, he’s always been too preoccupied in his own misery to actually notice anything new. And that anything new is Kotone, standing at the corner and staring off into the distance—

“Is that how I always looked like?” Makoto asks. His friends did tell him he looked like he was spacing out whenever he visited the Velvet Room, but he didn’t know he’d look like that, so… “She looks like she dozed off on her feet.”

“I can confirm. You looked exactly like that,” Ryoji hums, patting his shoulder gently. When Makoto keeps looking at the entrance to the Velvet Room – because he’s thinking about truly correcting every wrong – Ryoji nudges him. “…What are you planning?”

He was planning to—

“You’re planning on challenging the attendants again, aren’t you?”

Makoto blinks – that thought hasn’t fully formed before, not until Ryoji actually put it into words. He botched that duel because he was miserable in his own head without a clear picture of who he even is, and coupled that with his mental issues and nonexistent emotional stability, his ability to summon his Personas turns out into a complete disaster. The… things happening to him right now – headaches, pain, nausea, all of that – might have had some other explanations to them, but they were the direct results from his refusal to move forward, first and foremost.

So… maybe. He thinks he wants to redo it again, to actually show both Elizabeth and Theodore what he’s really capable of. That maybe he really deserves this peace everyone tells him he does, that he still has a place here, as their friend and a part of their family.

“Maybe once we cracked the mysteries behind my illness,” Makoto says with a shrug, pulling out a few pills from his pouch and popping them into his mouth before swallowing them dry. “I’ll talk to them about this later, though. We’ve got Tartarus to climb.”

“We do,” Ryoji smiles, pats his shoulder again, and looks back at Fuuka. “Fuuka-san, would you mind if we did the thing we’ve always done? Or would you be uncomfortable around me?”

Fuuka doesn’t even pause when she replies, so bright and easy. “Of course not. You’re welcomed to help, Ryoji-kun.”

Ryoji gives his shoulder one last squeeze before going over to Fuuka, leaving him kind-of alone for a little while. But his peace doesn’t last when Junpei comes over, nodding his head towards Kotone. And when he’s within earshot, Junpei asks, a little awkwardly. “I’ve gotta ask, though… you know what she’s doin’ right now, staring off into space like that? She always did that when she came to Tartarus.”

“It’s a Wild Card thing,” Makoto explains, looking towards Kotone and the translucent blue door. He can see the gleam of his own Velvet Room – a vast meadow of stars and leaves – and can feel Igor’s presence just beyond the veil from here. “It’s… like a room for you to talk to a helper. Or three.”

“A room? Really?” Junpei quirks an eyebrow, clearly not believing him.

“There’s no way I can actually confirm that for you,” Makoto says. Junpei doubting him is quite a new and unpleasant thing, but hopefully, he’ll get over it. But that look of a tease in his eyes is starting to form, just like how he used to be around Makoto, so Makoto supposes it is a good thing. “…I bet you an extra-large bowl of Hagakure that she’s coming out with a new Persona or two tonight.”

Junpei’s look of disbelief quickly morphs into a grin as he nods his head fervently. “That’s a deal! If you’re right, though, I’mma gonna have a buncha questions for you about this… room or whatever.”

Makoto shrugs again, smiling just thinly, before he goes back to simply waiting.

It doesn’t take long for the door of the Velvet Room to open, with Elizabeth the one escorting Kotone back out, her smile as radiant as it always is. She looks at Makoto and grins, bowing her head, and this time, he smiles back; emotions have always been something he’s uneasy around, but a smile for an old friend seems so long overdue, so what is a little grin to assure her that he’s alright?

“Hiya!” Kotone’s voice is unusually full of excitement, finally snapping out of her trance-like visit to the Velvet Room, with both arms high up in the air as she stretches the tension off of her bones. She hops over with bounces in her steps and grins. “I’m ready! So, how’re we gonna do this?”

“Which block were we last at again? Yabbashash?” Akihiko states, fingers on his chin. “We found a roadblock at the 90th floor, if I recall correctly.”

“It should be open now,” Kotone smiles, and upon the senior’s confused look, winks at him. Makoto knows this, of course; Tartarus’ schedule is something he remembers by heart, because aside from Tartarus, he had no other means of escape against the void in his chest— “So, what’re we going to be up against?”

“Two more guardians at the 98th and the 110th,” Makoto supplies. Right now, they know what he really is, so offering this aid shouldn’t break too much of the world’s fabric. Besides, this timeline is so different and a contrast to the previous ones already, so Makoto sees not the harm of changing anything more. If the god they have to fight this time really isn’t Nyx, then there’s no telling what they will be up against. The best thing Makoto can do is to help prepare them for these Tartarus guardians so that they’ll have more time and room to train. “We don’t have to worry about those until then.”

“Nice. What else do you think we need?”

“Aside from not bringing Kirijou-senpai to the 98th floor guardian, anything works,” Makoto explains, arms crossed. He doesn’t look at any of them, instead focusing his attention on the voices in his head, instead. If she wants him to join, he should pick someone of appropriate powers. “Just to be clear, though, I’m not going to destroy everything for you. All of you need to grow stronger, too, in case—”

In case I became incapacitated beforehand.

Mitsuru is quick to nod, her gaze firm. “That is probably for the best. Which brings me to another matter; since Yuuki is a Wild Card as well, wouldn’t it be possible for us to separate SEES into two teams to speed up the expeditions and allow all of us to train at once?”

Makoto has thought of that in passing once or twice, most certainly, but that idea somehow terrifies him this time. He used to be impassive and uncaring of what they’d see, because he was their sole choice before. But right now, they have a leader; a kind, bright, easy-to-smile leader whose heart is bigger than even the universe itself. And to nominate him is to put him on display, hangs him within the canvas of stars and the void and compare him to the sun that burns brighter than his own heart ever could.

And they do not trust him, even though they are trying to, and he doesn’t blame them, either. All the time before, where he was so detached from the world, he didn’t care enough about them. Just fought his way through Tartarus on his own simply because he could, with Orpheus’ music filling his ears and the thrums of war replacing his heartbeat. Their trusts were unnecessary, since their power didn’t matter, their abilities didn’t bring anything new to the table.

But now that he’s resolved himself to see this through right, to make things actually better instead of leaving them how he had hundreds of lives before, he can’t ignore them anymore. Can’t think of them as simply unnecessary additions, when he wants to make sure that both their bodies and hearts grow into the splendid specimens he knows they can be. He can’t afford to be like how he was, but right here, where he has most certainly forgotten about how to actually be the first him and not this death-seeking Wild Card, he doesn’t know what to do.

Not to mention his declining health and the pulsing madness at the back of his head whenever he enters Tartarus, its call always so maddening, so relentless.

He doesn’t know if he’s still qualified to stand before them now

“I—” he begins, only for Mitsuru’s eyes to convince him otherwise. She isn’t just offering him, but is expecting him to take the mantle for himself. But he isn’t sure he knows how anymore, and she has to see that. “…It’s been too long since I last led SEES properly. I don’t think I can, even if I want to.”

“You surely can learn, can you not?” Mitsuru nudges.

“That’s not the only thing,” Makoto says, pulling out a bottle of morphine from his pouch, and at this, Mitsuru’s expression turns understanding. “I don’t know what Tartarus’ full effect on me is, or what will happen the higher I go. But I’ll never be at a hundred in here until I figure out what’s wrong – so, for your safety, let me be just a regular member. Please.”

“That’s fine, too,” Kotone smiles. “Just give me pointers sometimes, yeah?”

“Alright,” Makoto can only smile and relax at how easy she is at accepting things that looks – and is – unreasonable. “But, as long as I’m alive, I’ll give it my all. That is my promise.”

“That is quite enough,” Mitsuru finally relents, nodding her head again and preparing her rapier in her grip, elegant and deadly, as always. “So, who will join you this time?”

With the restrictions gone, Makoto can actually do whatever he wants.

Aside from the pounding pain in his head whenever the darkness of Tartarus catches up to his shadow and the maddening glare of the light inside these twisting halls finds him, he can use his all to support them. He did tell them that he will not interfere too much, lest he stunted their growths, but that doesn’t mean he can’t heal them back to their peaks whenever they’re injured or support them with the hymns of war only Orpheus knows.

The expedition didn’t last for too long, considering long days at school for a week to come, but it was a nice change of pace all the same. Even when they still weren’t the same with how they were the very first time, they were trying to understand and to mend the relationship Makoto had severed himself. It feels… nice, at least, to be able to do this again.

But when the Dark Hour ended, the thing Makoto’s been purposefully ignoring is back on the table for him and Ryoji to discuss once more.

What to do with Ikutsuki?

“He went AWOL right after Yakushima,” Ryoji says with a frown. “I heard it from Mitsuru-san, so that’s probably true. Is it possible that he knows?”

I stole those documents for you during the Dark Hour, but disappearance of those documents would be quite obvious had they rechecked their belongings, Hassan offers from somewhere within the Sea of Souls, and Makoto frowns in response. It is entirely possible that this Ikutsuki would disappear to try to find out who thieved it away. But they have no way to know it was I – shadow is my cloak and dagger, after all.

“Besides, most security cameras wouldn’t have worked in the Dark Hour. But I’ll assume that the facility’s security systems should be able to operate in one, considering they conducted experiments on Shadows and not humans,” Ryoji says, crossing his arms with his frown deep and growing even deeper. “Even so, Hassan is an assassin. The best you’d see is the papers suddenly disappearing.”

“What if,” Makoto says, fingers twitching over his knees. “The god that he worshipped isn’t Nyx? It’s all different this time, so if those idiots didn’t worship Nyx, would it be possible for other gods to interfere? To tell these people of us?”

Gods interfering with humans to such a degrees is a new concept to them; for their entire lives, Nyx has always been the only celestial being to ever pose a threat, and even then, she didn’t directly influence someone into doing her biddings. Strega and Kirijou Koetsu and Ikutsuki were all blinded by the dark brilliance of Nyx’s absolute death, and acted according to their own skewered faith. But what if this god whose name still escapes their tongues were to be the enemy they had to fight this time? Would it be possible for gods to interfere and change all that they know?

“…I’m not certain, but I’m afraid that’s not off the table,” Ryoji sighs, dropping down sitting next to him on the bed, nails creating crescent-shaped wounds on his arms. “The beast that takes shape using the Chariot and the Justice as its base is telltale enough. We’re fighting the nameless god, which brings us to more problems; it erased its name from our memories. And we know that it’s the god you’ve been trying to prevent from reaching Nyx since long ago.”

“I’m thinking that, maybe, Nyx didn’t interfere directly not because she couldn’t, but rather because she didn’t have a reason to,” Makoto says. Now that he thinks about it, the only reason the Dark Hour exists is because the Kirijou Group created Death from Nyx’s scattered psyche. Nyx had remained with humans for as long as they existed, so the only reason she’d begun to move was because Death was born, and that the nameless god – an embodiment of their calls for deaths – came into being.

“This timeline is so different already. So many things have changed, and we don’t even know half of it,” Ryoji clicks his tongue. “If we use that as a basis, then it’s possible that Ikutsuki knows more than he let on.”

“…Fuck,” Makoto sighs into his hand, shaking his head. “Now this is just complicated.”

“Your conditions improved because of the changes we made with the rest of SEES,” Ryoji hums, his eyes darkening, Thanatos’ visage bleeding into his face for just a fraction of second. “Still, the effects the Full Moon Shadows and the Dark Hour remain on you, so we can’t just barge in and deal with them all with brute forces. We need to be careful about all this.”

“As long as it isn’t a new moon or a Full Moon, I’ll probably be fine against foul plays,” Makoto says into his fists, his thoughts reeling. Even if he’s prepared to kill a human – or more – he won’t be able to do it without knowing who to kill. And to use a Persona – he thinks he has someone suitable for the job – to find one tiny human in the city is going to be impossible, unless he does it in the Dark Hour.

“Can you find him?” Ryoji asks.

Makoto shakes his head. “I don’t even know where to look. Ikutsuki never revealed where he went during his stay with SEES, and we never got the chance to ask where he hid afterwards. I can try scouring the entire city for him, but if he has his connections inside the Kirijou Group, there’ll be no telling what kind of technology he can deploy to keep himself hidden.”

“Mm. I don’t like playing defensive, but I suppose we’ll have to take it slow until we actually find out where Ikutsuki, and possibly Strega, is hiding,” Ryoji summarizes, sighing deeply and leaning back into the dark comforter with a thoughtful look on his face. “We’ll just have to be vigilant.”

Makoto only hums a little sound of affirmation into the air as he slowly allows himself to relax back, his eyes glancing upwards towards a dot of blackened woods in the ceiling. Sleep still doesn’t come easy, that one and only time he actually was peacefully, soundly asleep was only because he’s finally laying down his burdens. So, he’s back to where he was again, unable to close his eyes without seeing the sear of Nyx’s dark light across his eyelids like a brand.

“I miss sleep,” Makoto murmurs, finally falling back next to Ryoji, with legs dangling off the edge of the bed and his hand atop Ryoji’s own. The other hums, interlacing their fingers together. “I want to be able to do that again like a few nights ago.”

“Give it time,” Ryoji says without much intent behind his words, because they both know Makoto isn’t going to be able to close his eyes anytime soon. “I’m sure you’ll be able to eventually.”

Makoto snorts, deciding that thinking about sleep isn’t going to get him anywhere, so he elects to do what he always does when Ryoji is around; talking about little nothings and bathing himself in Ryoji’s kindness. “So, it’s summer school tomorrow. You’ve never been in one.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ryoji says, the seriousness in his eyes lighting up, changing into curiosity and the joy of finding something new to look forward to. “How was it for you?”

“Edogawa-sensei often talked about things unrelate to tests, but I found his lessons the most interesting out of everyone’s,” he explains, fondly recalling all the explanations about Arcanas. He took notice of Edogawa’s class right away, because of how those explanations resonate deeply in his chest like the truth left unsaid. Like his bonds, strung between stars and twinkling with their brilliances. “He often talked about Arcanas, you know. About what the Fool’s Journey truly meant.”

“Mm. Now I’m interested,” Ryoji laughs, leaning his head into Makoto’s, touching their foreheads and breathing against his lips. A soft and tender form of intimacy Makoto will never get enough of. “What do you want to do after the lessons?”

“Whatever. I don’t care,” he says with a small smile, leaning back into the comfort of his familiar phrases. Because Ryoji will see through his intent anyway; will see that he doesn’t really care, as long as Ryoji is there with him. “What do you want to do?”

“A lot of things that probably can’t be done within a day,” Ryoji laughs easily. Makoto misses this.

“We have a whole week,” Makoto whispers, sighing contently as Ryoji’s grip on his hand tightens. “Let’s enjoy it.”

While it lasts.

Ryoji smiles and closes the remaining distance between them.

Even if the world is threatening to tear itself apart, even if his body is failing, even if gods are trying to kill him and Fate is trying to rip them apart, he will not let anything have this moment. He will not let anything take these little minutes of nothings and tenderness and soft whispers away from him as long as he still lives and breathes.

He’s wasted his life for so many times before. He refuses to do so again.

The next few days is the first time in centuries Makoto has ever seen Ryoji being so bright.

Granted, Ryoji has always been bright and exceedingly energetic, his preference for light and life only occasionally overshadowed by Nyx’s calling. He always loves seeing things from a perspective no one ever would, always loves trying things they’ve never done. He likes to breathe in life and put their images in his memories for him to carry them within his soul for when Nyx swallowed him whole.

But right now, even with everything unpredictable and dark and dangerous, there’s that one silver lining of the possibility that Ryoji is human here. That he is alive and no longer tied to Nyx’s dark moon, that he will have the chance to have a life of his own past the end of his year, that he will be able to live as a human and still fight with them until the very end.

And it’s Makoto’s job to ensure that life will continue past the next spring.

“Come on! Come on!” Ryoji says happily, jumping on his feet and dragging him along with energy Makoto doesn’t have. But he follows along anyway as the boy drags him to one of Port Island’s harbors, bustling with life when the sun’s starting to sink past the horizon. “I heard that there’s a really good spot to watch the sunset in this harbor!”

“Yes, I heard you,” Makoto says with a small smile, allowing himself to be pulled to wherever Ryoji’s desire takes him. He regrets wasting so much time in the first few months doing nothing but wallowing in his own misery, because if he hadn’t, he would’ve seen Ryoji like this sooner. He would have the time to enjoy whatever time they have left together so much sooner than this—

Makoto brushes the thoughts out of his eyes. No point thinking about that now.

“What’s with that face?” Ryoji asks, squeezing his hand just a little tighter. “Don’t tell me you’re starting to regret this now?”

Never. “Maybe,” he teases, drawing out strings of laughter from Ryoji. Their steps slow to a leisure walk, and Makoto looks towards the skyline, to the shimmering sea and the soft, gentle light of the sun waving the world its goodbye for the day. He hums softly before actually answering the question. “I was just… I don’t know, I was just thinking. Sorry.”

And, as always, Ryoji sees right through him, his face softening as he draws Makoto a little closer. “It’s not your fault you didn’t want to do these things before, you know. You’re human, and human aren’t supposed to live near forever like this. Especially not with events repeating themselves as they had.”

“I know,” he sighs, the regret still clinging to him like a ghost. But Ryoji’s brilliant smile shoves those things away, leaving him with only something fuzzy and warm he hasn’t felt for so long he nearly forgets what it’s like to just be him. To just be Yuuki Makoto and not the Universe, not someone grand and bound by fate to die for the world he doesn’t really care much about. “My brain just likes to think in circles.”

“I know,” Ryoji parrots, slowing down to almost a halt as he points his fingers towards the furthest pier, where people are most scant and the elevation is highest. “There. We could take our time looking at the setting sun and talking.”

“Sure,” Makoto hums, squeezing his hand back. “What did you buy from the mall, anyway?”

“Snacks, of course,” Ryoji grins, bright and easy. “Watching beautiful things aside from you should always be complimented with snacks, or it’s going to get bland.”

He has forgotten that Ryoji was flirtatious before Makoto became apathetic, and he can’t help blaming himself for causing Ryoji to change into someone so dark and solemn. But right here, right now, Ryoji’s starting to wear his usual hat of a flirt and a bright person who finds joy in every little thing. And right here, right now, Makoto refuses to let himself drown in his own self-pity. Their time together is no longer infinite – it is limited, but that’s the point of life, isn’t it? Life isn’t supposed to go on forever, and its meaning is only created by cherishing whatever time he has with his best.

“You’re back,” Makoto comments, following Ryoji to the edge of the docks. The boy sits at the wooden pier, legs dangling off the edge and toes touching the sea’s cool breeze. Makoto joins him as Ryoji rummages through his bag with a wide grin on his face. “And here I thought you had actually stopped being a flirt. Guess not, huh?”

Ryoji hums quietly. “I can quit, if you want. I just find it funny seeing people’s expressions after I say things out of the norm. But for you, though? My compliments are genuine.”

He still can’t get used to how Ryoji can so easily speak of these compliments without pause, but he knows he can’t stand it, so he simply averts his eyes and brushes his cheeks until the warmth that has made its home under his skin fades away. “Shut up, Ryoji.”

“Never,” Ryoji laughs easily, pulling out Gekkoukan’s melon bread and pushing the package into his hand. He takes it, his stomach churning at even the thought of eating, but says nothing as Ryoji continues. “But, enough about that. I’m sure you’d be ready to self-detonate if I keep it up, so I’m going to change the subject here.”

“Yes, please.

“How are your relationships with the rest of SEES?”

Makoto knows that Ryoji knows, but he doesn’t think Ryoji’s asking that in the most direct of sense. His eyes are gleaming with curiosity and worry, and Makoto knows why; he always does. Because Makoto is as afraid of forging his bonds anew as he is shunning it all away, and before he talked to Theodore, before Longinus, before his talk with Akinari prior to the Full moon, he has convinced himself that he doesn’t need to keep those bonds.

He still is slightly conflicted, but for the most part, he thinks he’s already made up his mind. “It’s alright,” he begins, tasting the words and rolling them between his teeth. “I’m starting to get better at talking to them, I think?”

Ryoji smiles, so soft and tender. “Go on. I’m listening.”

Makoto sighs, rubbing under his eye with his fingertips, feeling the way his thoughts roll inside his skull. Orpheus hums a little sound of nothingness into the staff of his ribs, and fills the rest of the silence in his head with the plucks of his lyre. “A part of me still resists the idea, but I – along with the rest of them – am reminding myself that I can have this much, at least.”

Ryoji hums, taking Makoto’s hand into his and mapping it with his fingertips. He lets silence linger between them for a while, the sound of Orpheus’ lyre occasionally accentuated by the breeze and the rolling waves beneath them. And then, Ryoji smiles wider. “That’s good to hear. Tell me if you want me to help with anything at all, alright?”

“Same goes for you,” Makoto responds. “You’re human now, real flesh and blood. Even if you are also Thanatos and Death, you’re Ryoji before all of those. Igor and Longinus and the rest of them confirmed this much, at least, and I refuse to believe otherwise – especially when you’re here. Warm and breathing right beside me.”

“…Isn’t it strange?” Ryoji says, his eyes looking towards the horizon, sad and almost resentful. “That I, who wouldn’t have existed without you, get a chance to continue living when you’re still destined to die? When you’re the one who should have lived the most?”

“Life isn’t fair,” Makoto shrugs. “We just have to make the most out of what we’re given. I consider this a blessing, you know; you getting to live, like how you’ve always wanted to, for hundreds of lifetimes.”

“I know,” Ryoji’s lips curl into a small, sorrowful smile as he squeezes Makoto’s hand impossibly tight, as if afraid to let go. “I always wished things were different. I never thought it’d be like this; with me having a chance at life, and you…”

“I have a chance to live, too. Finally, this time,” Makoto breathes, eyes looking towards the far horizon. The sun has already sunken halfway past the line of waves, and the sight is absolutely breathtaking. “And… thank you for bringing me here. This sight is beautiful.”

“But it’s sad, don’t you think?” Ryoji hums a lone, sorrowful note. “The sun is life and warmth, and when it leaves, its departure brings about the night. And the night is darkness, and darkness is Death.”

“You said that as if Death is a scary thing.”

Makoto wouldn’t have been able to say it like this, if it had been a few nights ago, a few weeks ago. Here, he has been reminded many times now since Theodore’s visit, of what being a Wild Card truly means, what privilege it is to live and create a meaning to life by bonding with those around him. And life, he knows, cannot exist without death, because they’re one and the same.

“It’s not death I’m afraid of; it’s being forgotten,” Makoto continues, and feels Ryoji’s fingers drumming their ways along his knuckles. He smiles and inhales the scent of saltwater, eyes drifting shut to take in every little motion, every little breath, every little scent. “How many times have I been erased from their hearts, their memories? It’s only recently that I actually realize what I’m afraid of. I’m not scared of bonds – not really, not literally. I’m just afraid of being forgotten again.”

Our lives are defined by the bonds that we make, the connections that we share,” Ryoji repeats softly the words he’s told his very own shadow, his Thanatos, the very first time they were forced to become mortal enemies. “…I’ve never forgotten that. It was you who made me realize that I’ve lived, even though I am not even a living thing.”

“Truth be told, I myself forgot about that after a few cycles,” Makoto snorts a laughter, remembering how hell-bent he was to die that he forgot that he has to live, too. That one cannot exist without the other. “I remember them now, though. Why I fight, and why I continue to struggle.”

Because I know that I’m loved, and that I want to live with all that I have.

“I like that look on your face,” Ryoji hums, pulling Makoto’s hand to his lips and planting on it a gentle kiss, softer than a butterfly’s touch. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m not dead yet,” Makoto chuckles, leaning into the softness of Ryoji’s words and the warmth he gives out. After a moment, Makoto inhales again before speaking, a little clearer. “Let’s do our best together.”

“Mhm. Let’s.”

(Somewhere in his heart, Orpheus sings; the notes are shaped into the bonds Makoto wants to redo again, and his voice draws into the very air his promise, and his resolution.

This time, it will be the last. And this time, he will make things right, do things better, be better.

For the sake of those that he holds so very dear.)

Chidori has never really cared much about life and death.

But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t feel fear.

She has known for as long as she remembers that Takaya and Jin are the same as she is, cursed with the power they never wished for, scarred by the injustice of the world and broken beyond repair. They are all deemed unfit to go back into society, all deemed unworthy of lives – and so, they all view lives as no more than a state before death, no more than a path towards oblivion.

That’s why, when Ikutsuki Shuji approached them many moons ago, they went under his wings very quickly with their heads on the ground and their loyalties sworn to a dark god Ikutsuki has never named.

“We have a new directive from Ikutsuki-san,” Takaya announces as soon as the door to their home – no more than a storm-worn shack in the middle of nowhere, really – clicks shut, and there is something in his hand. A gun that is not his own, well-crafted with a box Chidori assumes to be its bullets in his other hand. “It seems like there is a certain kid in SEES that he thinks is becoming dangerous to our salvation. His name is Yuuki Makoto.”

She has never cared for this salvation of his or Ikutsuki’s before, but something in her churns with unease and anxiety at the name, brewing deep in her gut and rotting with alarming speed. She pushes the thoughts away, however, electing to keep following Takaya simply because she doesn’t know what else she can do.

“Does he want us to kill him?” Jin asks, leaning back into his chair with an impassive expression.

“No. A hindrance he may be, but Ikutsuki-san said that he must be brought back alive,” Takaya says with a small shrug. “It is a decree of our revered god, after all. Who are we to defy that order?”

What god? Chidori almost asks, but doesn’t. She has heard Takaya spoke of this god a few times, and at first chalks it up to nothing more than his usual mad rambling. But that look in his eyes, so full of reviled reverence, suggests that this is more than just an insane murmur. There actually is, for him, someone – or something – out there that he regards as a divine being.

She’s learnt along ago not to ask questions she doesn’t want to know the answers to.

“So what? Kidnappin’?” Jin inquires.

“No,” Takaya states simply, and that draws Chidori’s eyes up to him. Why would he tell them that there’s someone becoming a hindrance to their (not hers. Never hers) grand plan when he intends on doing nothing? But then, Takaya continues with an eerie smile. “We’re going to wait. Ikutsuki-san told me that he had a plan in place to deal with the boy.”

“When, then?” Chidori asks, not wanting to appear indifferent to this cause of theirs, even though she is. She cares not for their plans, or their lives, or hers. Why would she? Nothing has any meaning, anyway, and the world has already made it clear that she meant nothing to it, either. “When do we have to get involved with this hindrance of yours?”

“Some time before December. The Shadows falling will be to our benefit, so we’ll wait for as long as we can before we deal with the nuisance.”

Something feels wrong, absolutely and horrendously wrong that she wants… no, needs to stop them.

Because, in Takaya’s eyes and his twisted grin, she sees nothing but chaos and ruin, threatening to consume them all.

The next day, Makoto decides to visit the Velvet Room.

And he’s greeted, first and foremost, by the ever-energetic Elizabeth.

“You look rather well, Makoto-san!”

Elizabeth’s grin brightens more than it ever was, and Makoto can’t help a small smile coming to his lips at her antics. She’s becoming much closer to how she was when she first met him, so full of curiosity and wonders in her eyes. So, after he seats himself on the chair in the middle of the meadow that has now become a welcoming sight, he turns to her. “Thank you. So do you.”

He glances up at the tree that overshadows them from above, and for once, he notices hyacinths blooming along its barks and branches. A beat passes before Igor’s voice comes through. “I am pleased to see you well, Makoto-san. What can I do for you today?”

“I have a favor to ask you, or rather, my attendant. But first, I want to say thank you.”

For being here, even though you cannot help more than with words and guidances.

“I am here to serve, so there is no need for you to worry, Makoto-san,” Igor says easily, his smile gentle. “Then, if I may ask, what is this favor you wish to ask of us?”

He pauses for a bit , placing a hand to his chest to feel the cacophony of his Personas rumbling under his fingertips. They have helped him and stayed by his side for so many times before, and now, he wants to let them do what they wish; to fight to their utmost without any stakes but their prides. He wants to redo what Elizabeth was trying to do, too – to help him come to terms with his own fate, and to help him see that he deserves the good things in the world, too.

Igor quickly picks up on the unspoken words and turns to Elizabeth, who smiles radiantly at them both with her eyes wide and full of stardust. “I believe she is more than eager to accept your challenge. This realm is yours, after all; you are free to do as you pleased.”

“Are you?” Makoto regards Elizabeth with a question, the sound of Orpheus’ lyre strumming a quiet note into his heart.

“Of course I am, Makoto-san. I always will,” her grin is positively childish, but Makoto doesn’t mind it. And before he can ask more, she practically half-jumps where she stands. “Let me arrange that with my brother Theodore, then! I shall be waiting for you. Whenever you are ready!”

“I’ll need to wait until I can sort things out, but,” he pauses for a tiniest moment. “I look forward to it,” Makoto replies with a smile.

Before he leaves the Velvet Room, though, Igor stops him, his face suddenly solemn and grim. Something crawls behind Makoto’s eyelids at the expression, and Ryoji’s presence by his side feels minuscule compares to the dread brewing in his stomach.

“Please, be careful,” Igor warns. “Your enemy might not be the same in this particular timeline, but I can give you this much; that your adversary will do everything in their power to destroy you.”

Not kill nor stop, but destroy him.

He doesn’t like how that sounds in the least.

Makoto decides not to let Igor’s warning put a damper on things.

He and Ryoji both are painfully aware of the possibility of them being found out faster than ever before, but they will be ready for it when the time comes. Being careful can go hand-in-hand with being free and cherishing the lives that they have in their hands, after all.

So, after a quick moment to decide to mull things over later on in the confines of their home (how long has it been since he last used that word for the dorm?), he finds himself squeezed in between Junpei and Yukari in the lounge.

…What the fuck?

“What the fuck?” he half-whispers, scowling mostly to himself. “You don’t have to invite me if you’re still uncomfortable, much less so caging me in by siting on both my sides, you know.”

“We really wanna know you better, man!” Junpei says with a grin, throwing his arm over his shoulders and pushing through his personal boundary like it’s nothing. “I mean, you’re really a major pain the butt, but hey, circumstances!”

He sighs. Junpei really is a terrible lair, especially with his voice; it becomes too sharp and too loud and he speaks with stiffness whenever he’s lying. “You’re lying through your teeth, and even if you don’t know me, I know you.”

Junpei’s face falls at this, but he quickly puts it back together, his grin this time a little less bright, but it’s genuine without that trace of feigned care he was wearing. “Welp, can’t say I didn’t try. It ain’t like I don’t wanna know you or nothing, though! Koto-nan really loves you, and I wanna know what you’re like as her brother. If you hurt her, I’mma kick your ass, though.”

“Same here, even though you’ve already hurt her. Multiple times,” Yukari sniffs, her eyes fierce, but the edge of her gaze is soft just like how Makoto always remembers it to be. “But, as we’ve said before; you had your reasons, shit as it may be, and you had your circumstances. Personally, though, I just want to know you better so I’d stop judging you.”

He almost repeats those words – you have the right to judge, and you should hate me – to them, but he remembers his promise to Ryoji and the talk they had on the pier yesterday. So, instead of saying anything at all, he sighs, pushing his fingers into his hair before leaning fully back into the cushion of the couch.

“What are we doing, then?” he asks, suddenly feeling a little unsure.

“Let’s start with some questions or something, yeah?” Junpei grins, and from the sideline, Makoto can see Ryoji giving everyone in the lounge – mostly the second years – and not him a thumbs-up. “So! Tell us somethin’ about what you always listened to!”

“You mean the songs?”

“Yeah, that!”

His music has always been private, and even before all of this mess, the only one he’s ever shared it with is Ryoji. It is his gesture of baring all his secrets for Ryoji to see, his way of saying I love you before his mouth learned speak those words. Having to share it here is unthinkable, and a part of him is already rejecting their attempts at small talks—

Do not shun away these bonds you long to reforge, boy, Longinus’ voice echoes in his ears in place of the songs he always listened to, and he pauses, briefly curling his fingers into his knees. You need not tell them all of your secrets. Only some would suffice. But do not be afraid – even if they do not remember you, they are still the ones you remember, long ago.

“…I don’t really like sharing my songs,” he begins, uncertainty crawling up his tongue like an insect, and he swallows hard to get rid of that feeling. Fuuka is watching him almost curiously, and Kotone – who’s sitting right across from him – is urging him on with a look. “But I can play some of them for you?”

It comes off more as a question than a statement, but Junpei, just like he always remembers, bites on it almost instantly. “Yeah, sure! Been curious for a while about what you played!”

“Even though you know next to nothing about music, huh, Ace Defective?” Yukari jabs, her grin lop-sided.

“Ouch, that’s just mean!

Even though he still saw this often since April, he was never in the middle of their bickering before, not since the time loop. But now that he’s here, uncomfortably squeezed in between the two of them in their not-really intimidation to get him to talk, he has finally gained that sense of familiarity, being in the middle of their fight just like this.

It feels nice, no matter how annoying it actually is.

He gets up on slightly shaky legs, his eyes darting to the kitchen to see Aigis glaring at him with the same intensity she showed when she bore holes into the back of Ryoji’s head, long ago. And despite a pang of pain in his chest at being looked at like this, it still feels just right for Aigis to be here, learning how to be human from a better teacher than he ever could be.

“I’ll play a few songs, then,” Makoto says again, carefully stepping over Koromaru, who’s lying belly-up on the ground next to Yukari’s legs. “You can ask me something else while I do.”

“Neat,” Junpei smiles, changing his seat to sit across from Yukari and nearer to the instrument. “You are the multitasking type?”

“Sort of, yeah,” Makoto hums, making himself comfortable on the stool. “I’m also the type to overthink things a lot, so… if you see me just space off, know that it’s probably not your fault.”

“So, Koto-nan’s polar opposite, then,” Junpei crows, leaning further forward with his eyes glancing at Kotone, who’s pouting at him. “No offense, Koto-nan! I meant it in a good way, I swear.”

“Sure you did, Junpei,” Kotone retorts, but a smile is already on her lips as she walks over to him, her eyes bright and welcoming. “You can keep talking, though, Makoto-nii! I want to get to know you better, too!”

Makoto-nii.

She hasn’t called him that since late April or early May, Makoto isn’t sure, but he takes it that this is a good sign. Mending relationships aren’t easy, but if she’s more than willing to give him a chance, then he can’t – won’t – waste this. And when Makoto looks into the others’ eyes, he sees the very same thing he’s seeing from Kotone; anticipation, and acceptance.

It’s a nice feeling.

“Sure,” Makoto relents, fingers caressing the keys of the piano as he selects things, from mundane to grandeur, that he wants them to know. “I’ll talk for as long as you want me to, then.”

(And talk he does, for as long as he could, until the bridges between them – ones that he himself has burnt down to the ground – are remade once more.)

Notes:

how was it?? Lemme know, I wanna hear your thoughts too! :D

See you next chapter folks!

Chapter 17: Before The Storm

Summary:

Makoto's attempt to redo his bonds continue.

And, an unexpected visitor comes to him.

Notes:

Heya heya!

Good news! I'm almost done with the stories! Probably 32 chapters long I'm sorry but also not really lmao

It's still far off but hey! I'm getting there! If I finish the drafts early I might hasten my posting pace ;)

Anyways! This chapter we have; Makoto trying to be human (and fails), and an underrated girl! Hope you enjoy, and please do forgive me for any typos. I will fix them as soon as I notice, but if there's a glaring one, you're more than welcome to point them out (politely)!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

“Why are you out here so early in the morning?”

Akihiko’s voice rouses him from his standing stupor. Makoto turns his head towards the senior, the lack of sleep pulling his mind taut and causing his muscles to tense almost uncontrollably. He only regards Akihiko with a small bow before he returns his gaze up towards the stars, arms crossed and leant on the railing of the roof.

After a moment of deliberation, he says, “I haven’t been able to sleep properly for a while now. I like to come here to look at the stars when I can’t rest.”

“I see,” Akihiko hums solemnly, footsteps echoing from behind him and edging closer. Summer school is coming to a close, and Makoto idly wonders if there is still a chance for him to bond with the kendo team – Kaz and Yuko – and the rest of them, too. He thinks not, but it’s not a bad idea to try out— “Can I stay here with you for a moment?”

Makoto blinks himself out of his thoughts and nods, fingers fidgeting on his MP3 lightly. “Of course.”

Akihiko comes to stop right beside him, eyes thoughtful and conflicted but warm all the same. There is a sense of uncertainty brewing within the Emperor – Odin still prominent in the back of his mind – but it is very brief and not worthy of any note. Then, Akihiko turns to look at him fully, head bowed and fists tight by his side. “I’m sorry.”

Akihiko is just like the rest of the SEES when it comes to his fucked-ups; he was often hated by the senior not only for not pulling his weight, but also for disregarding both fights and lives, seeing those as nothing more than a hindrance for his eventual death that never came. Akihiko might acted like he’s a berserker looking only for a fight, but he is not – he is kind, and he looks out for everyone like they are his own brothers and sisters. So it only stands to reason that Makoto’s lack of interest back then – both in the loops prior, and earlier this year – would be seen as doing a disservice to everyone.

He only lets out a huff, shaking his head. He will no longer say that he deserves no apology, because he has promised Ryoji that much – so instead, he will say something else. Something that Akihiko needs to know. “I don’t know what you’re apologizing for, but thank you regardless. I’m sorry for everything, too.”

“Mm,” Akihiko responds curtly as he raises his head back up. He lets silence linger between them for a while before sighing quietly to himself. “I must say, though; you’re very good at fooling people into thinking you didn’t care. I fell for it hook, line and sinker.”

“Truthfully? I kind of didn’t care. Not as much as I used to, and not as much as I do now,” Makoto says, as a confession more than an explanation. “I guess… living the same year repeatedly dulled me enough that I stopped caring for longer than I should have.”

“I see,” Akihiko nods, brows scrunched in his attempt to understand Makoto. Odin hums, golden armor and flowing azure cape cackling with the power of thunder – of authority, and light. “I don’t know what you have gone through before. But I suppose it’s only fair you’d be desensitized. Hell, even imagining going through what you did makes my spine crawl with dread.”

He chuckles. “Thank you, Sanada-senpai. It means a lot.”

“Have you ever called any of us by our first names?” Akihiko suddenly asks, his voice firm but gentle. He seems to smile when Makoto looks back at him, Polydeuces’ presence slowly but surely changing into something else; into Caesar. What could’ve been the trigger— “We were close, weren’t we? And your friend, Mochizuki, might’ve let slipped that we were more than just friends to you, too.”

Makoto frowns, slightly baffled as to when Ryoji could’ve possibly said that, but decides to push the thoughts away. Ryoji cares more than he should at times, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he would actively try to do something like this. He appreciates it, of course, but a part of him is actually annoyed by the fact that this is done behind his back.

He’ll have to thank Ryoji later for this – but for now, he has a question he needs to answer.

Makoto returns his eyes towards the stars once more, Odin’s royal lightning a constant presence now that his Emperor – another one beside Hidetoshi, obviously – is here beside him. “…I used to. To most of you, except Aragaki-senpai for a certain reason,” because he died before I realized what it means to bond. “It’s been so long since I last did that, though.”

“Well, you have my permission,” Akihiko shrugs nonchalantly, and for the first time in a while, Makoto turns his head to him with a crack of his neck. Akihiko actually smirks at that, amused. “What? You look as though I’m asking you to jump off a cliff or something.”

“No, it’s just—” Makoto pauses, unsure of how to actually go about this. He rubs his hand over his mouth as he tries to form words, only for his stupid brain to fail him in his times of need. He manages to actually answer, though, when Orpheus starts laughing at him failing at holding a conversation. “I’m… you know what? Jumping of a cliff is easier than explaining this.”

“I have all night. Can’t sleep either,” Akihiko laughs, the tenseness in his shoulders and the reluctance he had mere moments ago morphing into something of a teasing nature. “Think of it as an exercise to get back into life or something. Shinji told me we’ve gotta try something like that for you, y’know?”

“Aragaki-senpai is really kind, isn’t he?” Makoto says, more a statement than a question. He didn’t have much time to get to know Aragaki back then, and with their occasional cooking sprees, he supposes he’d have the chance to, now. “He also is surprisingly motherly in nature. I meant that as a compliment, of course.”

“He’d love to hear you say that, even though he’d probably try to kill you out of embarrassment for it,” Akihiko states with another grin, his guard slowly dropping away. “So, back to the topic at hand. Why is it hard for you to go back to calling us with our first names?”

There are so many negative thoughts and terrible memories that he doesn’t want to relive but still does regardless, his spine singing with the pain of everything he’s ever been through. He doesn’t want to say anything, because saying would make them real. But Akihiko’s eyes are firm and genuine, and Makoto can find nothing in him to do a disservice to the man by keeping all of this to himself.

It’s as though he’s trying to help, even though they didn’t start on the best of terms this year. It’s only recently that he’s even trying to hold a conversation with him. In the end, though, he relents. “…I told you, right? That I killed most of you more than a few times before this certain timeline?”

Akihiko’s face darkens, but he keeps his gaze on Makoto, not judging and not demanding anything he can’t possibly provide. “You did. You never gave us a proper reason except for things never ended, though. Why did you do it?”

“You’d probably hate me if I tell you this,” Makoto snorts a laughter, fear suddenly rising to his throat. He doesn’t want to say this, because he’s too scared of being left alone again, of being forsaken and forgotten like he used to. “But you deserve to know.”

“It’s not like I have the right to judge you, Yuuki,” Akihiko sniffs. “Hell, you coming out of living the same year – no matter how many times – partially sane is already a miracle on its own. I wouldn’t blame you for losing it a few times in between.”

Losing it is a mild way to put it, but Makoto accepts that statement anyway, humming quietly and leaning his forehead into his hands. “I don’t know. I guess.”

“Why, then?” Akihiko presses.

“I resented you for not remembering, even though of course you wouldn’t. Why would you? From your eyes, we never met before this year. We never talked, never fought side by side, never nearly died fighting a god at the top of the world together,” Makoto explains, the feeling of guilt twisting his gut into a deep knot. He doesn’t like talking about it, but they deserve this much. The truth is always hard to say, and harder to accept. “But still, I resented you for not remembering anyway, and after a while, that resentment—”

“—turned into hatred and anger,” Akihiko finishes. Having it put into words makes him even more uncomfortable with the truth, but he persists. He has to start looking at the truth more if he wants to be better, to make things right and to stop fucking everything he touches up. “Mm. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.”

Makoto doesn’t turn to face Akihiko this time, instead busying himself with picking at his nails and the edge of his short sleeve, as if the acts would distract him. He sighs after a while, shaking his head and burying his nose into his crossed arms. “That hatred turned into indifference after a while, but the damage has already been done. I’ve already killed most of you… more than a few times.”

Akihiko remains silent, the only sounds between them Makoto’s beating heart and Polydeuces’ cackles of lightning that fill the static void with its brilliance.

“…But those times never happened, yeah?”

“…What?”

“Those times that you killed us or whatever; they never happened, right?” Akihiko says, his voice sounding more positive than Makoto thought possible. He idly wonders why Akihiko would dismiss the truth so readily like this, but isn’t given the time to think on it when the man grins at him lightly. “What? I mean, none of us remember anything of the sort. When time resets, doesn’t it mean that everything you’ve said or done before never happened?”

“You—” he opens his mouth, only to close it when he fails to find words to debunk Akihiko’s line of thought – instead, he rubs at his jaw, working out a way to respond without himself sounding like a total idiot. A task he’s failing quite miserably, at that. “I remembered everything, so they happened, even though you don’t remember. That’s why I—”

“I know,” Akihiko sighs deeply. “If I was in your place, I don’t know if I’d have thought of this as something trivial. But, I promise you, we – at least me and Shinji – don’t see you as some irredeemable monster you’re making yourself to be. You’re just a kid. A kid who’s been through too much for any normal person to endure.”

A kid? Makoto rarely sees himself as a kid anymore, considering how many times he’s gone through this. But then again, he is still sixteen, he still sees things from only one perspective while refusing to see another. He still tries to catch Fates between his teeth and tries to tear them off. He still tries to disregard their opinions without making an attempt to understand them.

Deep down, he is still a child – both in mind and spirits.

Makoto lets out a long breath, finally realizing that he has to listen to their opinions, too, if he’s going to make progress with literally anything. Even though they aren’t friends (yet, he hopes), they are also the people he trusts the most. Their thoughts and feelings are something Makoto refuses to dismiss so easily ever again.

“…I see,” Makoto murmurs. “So… do you hate me for it? Knowing what you know now?”

Akihiko snorts, shaking his head. “’Course not. How could I? All of this is messed up, and I don’t even want to try to understand the whole time loop thing. But one thing I know is that none of this is your fault – it’s all just a byproduct of being trapped with no way out.”

He can’t help but laugh at how easily he’s forgiven, but he can’t find anything in him to refuse these hands, extended to him with understanding and kindness. He wants to rebuke their every claim, their every attempt at reaching out to him, but the times for those thoughts and doubts have already passed; here and now is the time for him to start building his bonds back up from the ground up again.

As someone who’s destined to die, he wants nothing more than to cherish these bonds and thoughts and take them with him into the gate between the stars for an eternity to come.

“I’m going to die in about half a year, you know,” Makoto says, pulling himself away from the railing and turning to look at Akihiko once more. The senior is raising an eyebrow at him, but his gaze is so soft and so gentle like how he remembers it to be, long ago. “But… if you really don’t care about that, among all the things you’ve just learned… I want to get to know you, once more.”

“More like you want me to get to know you,” Akihiko snorts a laughter, but he’s extending out a hand, his gait no longer guarded. “But yeah, I’d like to. Seeing how much you’re willing to sacrifice to make us hate you makes me curious, more or less.”

“At least you’re refreshingly blunt about it,” Makoto just has to laugh at this. If anything, he can trust Akihiko to be straightforward with him – a nice change of pace, considering that even Ryoji could never bring himself to be this blunt with Makoto. “But… if you’re willing to try, then I’d be more than happy to take your hand.”

“I am,” Akihiko confirms with a nod. When Makoto grips the senior’s hand, he grins. “Glad to finally have you really on board, Makoto,” he emphasizes on his first name, and oh, how long has it been since he lasts heard that name from Akihiko’s mouth? “You can call me Akihiko though, if you want.”

“Then, don’t mind if I do, Akihiko-senpai,” Makoto smiles.

(Odin hums within him, content that he’s reforging the Emperor once more. Makoto smiles at the warmth in his chest, and when he finds himself standing before the deep dark abyss that is his uncertain future, he knows that he will have these bonds with him, at the very least.)

The days go by, and soon he finds himself in front of Tartarus once more.

Surprisingly, Makoto actually met Monoma not long after the tournament ended. He was on the stand watching with a few of SEES beside him, commentating about the techniques or whatever else they fancy at the moment. After Monoma won the cup, he approached Makoto out of the blue, said that he had overheard the way Makoto talked about him before or somesuch.

Fate is such a fickle thing. But he’s glad it turned out this way.

There’s a lot of checklists he needs to go through, of bonds he wants to forge anew before his time runs out. But, fortunately still, time is something he still has a little left. Precious time is trickling through his fingers like grains of sands, but it’s not pouring away into oblivion; it slowly crawls by, giving him space and enough little moments he needs to reforge his bonds and blinds himself with their absolute radiance once more.

But, that’s a problem for another time.

Makoto sighs; even though his mental state is getting better, his physical health grows worse. The moon always looks larger than it is, the shadow rippling around his feet like stepping through puddles of water, and sometimes he isn’t even sure if he’s feeling his own fingers or someone else’s. His senses are thrown into disarray the closer he is to the tower, and the whispers of long-forgotten hatred sing in his ears like they belong there, and he hates it.

The nameless dark god has proven itself to be an annoying adversary; like this, he becomes dependent on drugs, and he can already feel himself ensnared by the promises of painlessness when the pills roll in his palms. And Makoto’s sure he won’t be of much use otherwise – he’s tried, of course, countless of times before. His world would grow dim and his senses dulled by the voices and the whispers that overpower even Longinus’ roaring words or Orpheus’ lullabies whenever he refuses to take the medications, so for now, all he can do is take it all down his throat and hope for the best.

He's going to need to find a workaround, and quickly.

“The next Full Moon is where, again?” he hears Aragaki ask from the side. Makoto turns to see the man looking at him expectantly. “Paulownia, right?”

“Yes,” he nods, shuffling through his Personas and deciding on one of the more stable ones. Odin’s changed form feels interesting, with a raven by his side and body clad in armor of gold. Loki’s also changed quite a bit, too, more sinister and carefree like a true trickster god. He’ll have to cycle through them to see who’s changed and who’s not, not to mention the Black Compendium—

“But, to think that the Shadow would actually take over the electrical wirings,” Kotone sniffs, stretching her arms and rubbing away soreness from between her shoulder blades the best she can. “That means Aigis and Yukari-chan are out. Sanada-senpai is a must.”

“I’ll use someone else. I suggest you take Thor for this one,” Makoto says with a slight scowl as Thor crows at this, his voice booming like thunder. Makoto rolls his eyes. “Just try not to get swept up by his thirst for battle.”

“Oh yeah! The muscle-headed one,” Kotone brightens. Makoto decides to tune out a distressed protest coming from somewhere deep within the Sea of Souls, only for the laughter of the other Personas to ring through. He’s completely forgotten how refreshing – and annoying – being fully in-synch with his own heart feels. He has half a mind to tune them out completely— “He’s awesome! What’ll you use, then?”

Makoto shrugs. “Probably Odin, why not,” he pauses, then smiles lightly as his fingers are filled with the cackles of Odin’s lightning. “You take the lead, though. I don’t want to steal your thunder.”

“That pun is so bad, man,” Aragaki groans from the side, rolling his eyes. But his lips are quirking, and when he walks pass Makoto, puts a hand in his hair. “It’s nice knowin’ that you’re behind us.”

“Don’t rely too much on me, though. I still feel wrong inside the tower, and who knows what’d happen when the Full Moon comes,” Makoto says through the numbness in his mouth. “But my promise still stands; as long as I live and breathe, none of you will come to harm.”

No matter how long it may be, is left unspoken.

Ryoji sighs from where he is, right beside Fuuka with Nyx – no, Thanatos’ shadow covering the tip of his fingers and a part of his hand like a glove. But he only smiles at Makoto before calling the rest of the team with a leveled, if a bit cold, voice. “Let’s get this party going, or we’re going to end up clearing only a few floors today.”

“That’s true,” Kotone jumps up from her seat, energetic and enthusiastic. “So! The team! Let’s go with what we’ll do when the Full Moon Shadow comes, yeah?”

“No me or Aigis, then?” Yukari asks.

“Mm. So, Makoto-nii, you be the healer?” Kotone says, more a suggestion than an order. He nods – it’s only logical. Orpheus’ songs are more suited to strengthen their hearts than sow chaos among their foes, and he is a capable healer by his own rights, even if he is more of a master of flame than music when it comes to Personas and Shadows. “Aragaki-senpai be the frontline along with Sanada-senpai. I’ll play the all-rounder this time.”

“A’ight, then it’s set,” Aragaki hums as his eyes go towards Ken, and Makoto inwardly flinches. They might have already talked about their secrets, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any lingering animosity – or, even worse, the wish for vengeance. But Ken’s eyes are bright even though they’re marred by pain and betrayal, so Makoto supposes things will be different, this time. “You alright with this, kiddo?”

Ken blinks before smiling up at the man. “Of course, Aragaki-san.”

Makoto waits for a while before he straightens up and regards Aragaki with another bow. “I know you still have trouble keeping Castor in check. I’ll help you with it for as long as you need me to.”

There are questions, surely, but none of SEES speaks of it. They only nod their agreements, even though those aside from Ken and Aragaki are visibly more confused. Kotone doesn’t seem surprised, though, so Makoto wonders if she’s actually closer to Aragaki than he once thought.

“Let’s prep and get going in five,” Kotone finally orders, her eyes glancing towards the Velvet Room. He sees Theodore there already, with a gentle smile and a hand over his heart as he holds the door slightly ajar for her. Elizabeth’s silhouette lies just beyond the border, so Makoto doesn’t pay it much mind as Kotone comes up to him with a grin. “So! Give me lots of tips, okay?”

“Only if you work hard for them,” Makoto hums softly, chuckling when she purses her lips into a pout. “I will, don’t worry. But what is the point of learning if you don’t experience both rights and wrongs first?”

“True,” Kotone sighs, turning on her heels and towards the Velvet Room. “See you in five!”

After she leaves, the world around him turns quiet once more. Some opts for a more dynamic preparation, stretching their arms and legs and crackling their joints. Others prefer silently meditating on their feet, which cause the only sounds to ever occupy the area they’re in breathings and occasional grunts of efforts.

Ryoji’s footsteps is hard to be mistaken; steady and light and nearly silent, as though he’s walking through smoke and shadows and not marbled floor of Tartarus. Makoto turns, and smiles when Ryoji offers him a proud and serene grin. “Your relationship with them seems a lot better now.”

“Mm,” Makoto hums softly, fingers playing the invisible piano keys on his legs to keep himself occupied. Orpheus sings in tune with the silent notes, filling the quiet atmosphere with a song from beyond the stars. “They still have a little reservation, but I’m surprised how… open and willing they are.”

“Elizabeth-san might’ve been right,” Ryoji comments, catching Makoto’s hand with his own and giving it a gentle squeeze. “Their memories might be lacking, but their hearts remember, deep down. I suppose the reason they never recall must be because the nameless god’s touch is a tad too strong before. But now that everything’s changed, for better or worse… we finally have the opportunity to remind them.”

“Maybe. Maybe we’re just lucky,” he says, relaxing his shoulder and looking at the gigantic door looming before them. The portal that defies the law of the world is right there for them to explore, and this time, Makoto no longer feels alone; he finally gains back his companions, even if they don’t think of him as friends and family just yet. “Whatever the case, I’m glad it turned out alright.”

Ryoji sniffs, but smiles regardless, even if it’s sad. “I’m glad it is for you. And I’m sorry.”

That I can’t change your fate anyway.

“What’s there to be sorry about?” Makoto asks, the dark wash of Death’s ever-present power running into his marrows, more a promise than a threat to his life. Death has always been a source of comfort, even before all this – a promise of solitude and peace, a promise of the end. “I’m not afraid of death. I never was, and I never will.”

Ryoji’s grip on his hand tightens, so he only shakes his head.

“That doesn’t mean I want to,” he finally confesses. He knows Ryoji feel the same, when it comes to life and death, both for themselves and for each other. He just needs to put it into words for reality to sink in for the both of them before they can move forward with what little time they have left. “Of course I want to live. Of course I want to continue being with you, loving you, loving all of them.”

Ryoji’s frown deepens, but the grip of Makoto’s hand slackens enough that he can flip his hand and interlace their fingers together. Finally, the boy speaks up through half-gritted teeth. “I find myself angrier every time I think about this. Pathetic, isn’t it? For Death to be angry at what life throws at the one who gave me my human heart.”

Makoto pauses to mull over the boy’s words. Ryoji has never shown much emotion save for joy, sorrow, and a few more on rare occasions. Anger has always been a foreign thing to see on Ryoji’s face, that is true. This cycle, though, it’s definitely there, hiding between his smiles and brewing underneath his sadness like his own personal stalker.

No matter how terrifying it is, though… Ryoji showing all of these emotions just for him and him alone fills him with a certain sense of joy he shouldn’t be allowed to feel.

“Of course not,” Makoto says, looking up at his Death and smiling at him the best he know how. He hopes Ryoji can still read him like he always does, as if he’s an open book with no secrets between them. “You have every right to be angry. Life is never fair, nor is it kind. We just have to make the most out of what we’re given, don’t we?”

Ryoji’s gaze softens at this, his smile so tender, just like the first time they looked into each other’s eyes and saw each other’s souls, long ago.

“We do,” he breathes, the visage of Thanatos overlapping with his piercing blue eyes for a moment, and in that moment alone. “We do.”

It was around the end of August that he’s surprised out of his own ass, having forgotten about Chidori completely with the Film Festival ongoing outside.

He almost drops the bowl in his hands when he sees Chidori walking in through the front door.

Junpei is smiling his idiot smile again, saying that he met her in the park somewhere and that she wanted to meet his friends. Makoto isn’t too sure what exactly happened with them even on the first cycle, since he doesn’t want to be privy to Junpei’s love life, but this – this is a surprise in and of itself.

Medea is also a strange thing. In the cycles before, she often felt like a kettle set to boil, because Chidori did not accept herself for what she was and was following Takaya’s orders because it’s the only thing she knew to do. But this time, Medea is calm and watchful. If Makoto focuses enough, he can see the shadow of Medea’s visage shifting inside Chidori’s shadow.

The others are walking over to greet her now, but Makoto isn’t that oblivious – she keeps looking at him whenever an opportunity presents itself, her eyes curious and worried. What happened exactly for her to be here? And why is she seeking him out, of all people?

Does this have something to do with Ikutsuki’s timely disappearance? Does—

“That’s Junpei’s girlfriend, right?” Ryoji whispers from beside him, a brow raised. “I don’t remember much, but isn’t she supposed to, like, meet him just a few days ago? Then kidnap him before the Hermit?”

“Yeah,” Makoto returns with a scowl of his own as he moves to the kitchen’s table, setting his bowl of steaming hot rice he won’t be finishing in front of him. He ignores the way his stomach churns and looks at Chidori again as she glances around, taking in the halls of the dorm, this time. “Why is she here?

Ryoji tips his head slightly forward, pushing himself before Makoto to half-shield Makoto from Chidori’s gaze, and greets the girl with his cheery front with a little too much enthusiasm, with his voice a little too loud. “Heya! I’ve never seen you before! May I ask for your name?”

Chidori stares blankly at him, clearly displeased. Makoto can see Ryoji’s patience wearing just a little thinner, but not enough to cause any external change. Chidori only hums after a moment, bowing her head cordially. “I’m Chidori. And you are…?”

“Mochizuki Ryoji,” Ryoji smiles, turning to him for confirmation. When Makoto nods, Ryoji steps slightly to the side, gesturing to Makoto with a bit of reserve. “This here is my close friend, Yuuki Makoto.”

Her eyes twitch just the tiniest bits, and whether the call of Attis in the back of his mind is a warning or a sound of acceptance, Makoto doesn’t know. But he knows enough that she is worth saving – she’s only someone led astray by Strega and their wishes for deaths, after all. She might not fear death, but she does not crave it, and that makes her someone worth saving.

He’s failed her, just like he’s failed Aragaki and Mitsuru’s father before. He refuses to look away again.

“Hello,” Chidori greets him, her eyes not leaving his even once. Attis croons something into his chest, and he can feel it clear as day like this; Medea looking at him with curiosity and a smidge of caution. Medea’s flame has always been one coming from life, though, so it doesn’t surprise Makoto as much when he feels Medea so readily, unlike with the others.

Makoto forces himself to smile and bows his head. Her gaze is worrisome, but not in a hostile way. It feels as though she wants to talk to him about something, and why, Makoto has no clue.

“Dude’s a bit shy, so don’t worry about him,” Junpei grins sharply, winking Makoto’s way once before steering Chidori away. She has only half a mind to resist – a surprise, but also not really, considering their past relationships in all the cycles before – as Junpei half-pushes her towards their next destination. “Let’s take a little tour then eat lunch together!”

Whatever questions Makoto has, he’ll have to wait. For now, all he can do is play along until they’re alone without prying eyes around them.

(And, as it turns out, Junpei met Chidori much earlier in this timeline. Makoto idly wonders why it is so, and if this is a good sign or a bad omen.)

Said alone time comes soon after.

“Can we talk?” Chidori asks as soon as she opens the door to the rooftop of the dorm and finds him, her voice as emotionless and clipped, as always. But she isn’t hostile, and Makoto couldn’t see a glimpse of Takaya or Jin around, either. “There is something I want to confirm.”

Makoto gauges her actions closely, but he’s never spent much time around her, so he isn’t too sure. He looks to Ryoji, and the boy only shakes his head – there is nothing worrying I’ve noticed, his eyes seem to say – as Makoto replies with a slight frown. “What is it?”

“Do you know of Strega?”

That comes out from absolutely nowhere, and for a moment, Makoto’s fingers twitch and his defensive reflex almost comes into play. But he pulls back in time when he realizes that she’s not confirming this to spite him nor to harm him – there’s a bit of reservation, true, but Medea isn’t pulled taut with the need to battle, and Attis is actually encouraging him to continue with the conversation.

With a sigh and a look to the Iwatodai street below them, he nods. “I do. What of them?”

“I…” Chidori only frowns, words caught in her throat and unable to escape. “…I’m… here to warn you.”

Makoto perks up at this. This had never happened in any of the cycles, and as far as he’s concerned, Strega has never had any plans before. They operate solely during the Dark Hour, taking orders from the underground list of people that some other random people want dead without a care for consequences (probably because there were and will always be none), without any elaborate planning beforehand.

Makoto glances at Ryoji who’s nearby, hidden from view but still close enough to hear everything that they’re talking. When Ryoji nods, even with his brows slightly furrowed with concern, Makoto hums, taking Attis into his heart and letting the Hanged Man linger at the edge of his consciousness. Like this, he feels Medea become a little calmer. “Alright. I’m listening.”

“I overheard them,” Chidori says, eyes watching his reactions carefully. Makoto does the same, and finds no faults in her words. “They talked about Ikutsuki, and some hindrances. I didn’t know at first who it might be, but I think it’s you.”

It brings a lot of red flags to his mind; firstly, is that Ikutsuki actually employs Strega’s services this time, and not watching from the sideline scheming with cursed knowledge and doomed intent. And secondly, is that Ikutsuki sees him as a threat – but then, Chidori’s never once said his name. She said I think it’s you, which means—

“Why do you think it’s me?” Makoto asks, suddenly on edge, skin crawling with tension. “Do you even know my name?”

She pauses, eyes squint, definitely at his speculation. But Medea is singing something in his veins, much like how the other Personas of SEES had done in the past, long ago, so he waits for an answer to come. And answer she does, with a sigh and her gaze far away. “I… You know about Personas, right? I have one, too. Her name—”

“—is Medea,” Makoto finishes, surprising Chidori. He only offers her a shrug. “I know.”

She opens her mouth, as if wanting to ask something, but she doesn’t. Instead, she nods solemnly, her hand pressing firmly against her chest. “Yes. I’ve never been… I’m not like you, as far as I’m aware. I’ve always been hated by her. But this time, she talked to me. Well, she communicated, rather.”

Makoto narrows his eyes, looking past Chidori’s shadow and to the veil between. Medea bows her head, her voice soft and not as sullen as he thought and remembered her to be. His encounter with Medea is numbered and brief, oftentimes interrupted by Junpei or the world or Strega. This is the first time he’s ever had the chance to stare at Chidori’s Persona this long, and he wonders what kind of Persona Medea truly is.

Medea hums softly, the flame in her hand thoughtful and collected. After a moment, Medea bows her head deeper, and Chidori continues shortly after. “I don’t know. When I heard Takaya talk about dealing with a nuisance, as he’s put it, Medea compelled me to come here.”

“…I see,” Makoto says, allowing himself to let his guard down. “I’m listening.”

Chidori sighs in relief at this as she straightens herself up. “Alright. I haven’t heard much, since the only one who knows the details is Takaya. But it seems like Ikutsuki knows someone – you – are a danger, and he wants Strega to deal with you before December.”

That… leaves quite a bit for interpretation. Ryoji’s anger is already seeping through their bonds, sending shivers down his spine and making him uneasy. Makoto suppresses the urge to sigh – at least, this serves as a warning he can use to prepare himself. It’s going to be troublesome dealing with Strega (and maybe Ikutsuki, if that cockroach ever comes out of hiding) and finding out the truth, but it’s better than nothing.

“Why did you tell me?” Makoto decides to ask, looking her square in the eyes, searching for something. “You gain nothing doing this, and you might be seen as an obstacle in their eyes, too.”

Chidori quiets down for a moment before she finally sighs. “I do not rightly know. But… I’ve been having this… dream, this bits and pieces of a time that’s never happened in my head. And I instinctively knows that it’s tied to you.”

She remembers, Orpheus hums quietly. Those who have faced Death is more likely to recall memories from times that’s never meant to be, much like you and Thanatos. Your Sun might not remember, but he knows you with his soul because of this. So does Aragaki Shinjirou, who feels compelled to seek you out. And so does this girl, I would say.

Akinari… when he thinks about it, Akinari has always been patient, and often says that he feels like he knows Makoto since long ago. Why didn’t he catch onto this sooner? Why didn’t he realize that maybe, just maybe, Chidori could remember him faintly, too, even though their interactions were limited? That maybe he might’ve managed to save Aragaki had he tried to explain hard enough, insisted more, prodding and poking at his nonexistent memories harder?

Do not concern yourself with the past, boy, Longinus chides. You have done your best. And you still are – now that you know of this fact, what will you do with it?

“…What do you think about life right now?”

It’s a loaded question, he knows, but if she truly remembers, then she wouldn’t be as flippant about life and death as she used to be. And if such is the case, he’ll have to talk to Mitsuru about her, to ask for her to be under SEES’ protection, if possible.

And, true to his speculation, she is hesitant to answer, but not because she sees life as nothing more than a thing. She is starting to doubt her own reason of being, and with Medea being this calm instead of screaming and spewing flame everywhere, Makoto allows himself to hope just a little more than he usually would that he’ll be able to save Chidori this time, too.

“I’m not sure,” Chidori finally answers, for once her voice sounding small and uncertain, even more so than when she told him she’s here to warn him of dangers neither of them fully understands. “But… I’ve been talking with Junpei for a while, and it’s… not so bad?”

He can’t help a small smile at this. “I see. That’s good,” and then, before he can think better of it, offers. “Do you have anywhere else to go?”

Chidori’s eyes widen just a tiny bit, but there are both curiosity and a smidge of hope in her gaze. Medea’s name still feels bitter on Makoto’s tongue, but she is listening, too, calm almost to a fault. He’s never been able to talk to Chidori to this extend before, never had the chance to pull her out of Strega before things go wrong and Death (Takaya, he corrects himself) claimed her.

He has been doing things differently for a little while, now, so maybe he can keep doing this. Correcting all these wrongs with his own hands before the end – his end – arrives.

“…No,” Chidori says after a while, surprising Makoto. He had thought she might’ve said yes, because as far as he’s aware, she should’ve been somewhat dependent on Strega. Is that not the case here, in the world where everything is different and where Ryoji is human? “Is there somewhere I can go?”

“I’d hope so,” Makoto responds, rubbing the back of his head as Attis pulls back with a huff of laughter between his lips. “I’ll talk to Mitsuru-senpai about this, and hopefully find somewhere for you to stay that’s far enough away from Strega.”

Last time, they raided the hospital, he recalls, frown deep. Maybe I’ll have to tell Mitsuru-senpai more details later.

“…That’d be ideal, yes,” Chidori bows. “Thank you.”

“No, Chidori… thank you.”

For being the drive Junpei needs all those lives ago, for being here, for allowing me to correct more of my wrongs. For warning me of the danger.

She only smiles, but says nothing more.

Mitsuru actually arranged for everything pretty quickly after he told her.

Granted, he had promised to tell her why when she gets back, which should only be a few minutes from now, but still – the amount of trust that is this unnatural still makes him uneasy, to a degree. And, as if noticing that little thought, Ryoji huffs with a small smile. “It’s fine, Makoto, really. As Elizabeth-san said, their souls still remember, even when their minds do not.”

“Leave it to you to read me like a book,” Makoto rolls his eyes, but doesn’t leave any bite in his words. They’re on the rooftop – again, since this place is hard to get eavesdropped on as long as you stay out of the lone security camera’s range – and from here, with the moon shining from above, Makoto can see just how light Ryoji has become. “That’s a good look on you.”

“I could say the same,” Ryoji says without the need for elaboration. Makoto noticed since before, too, of course, but it isn’t like the worries lining Ryoji’s eyes and the faded hope lingering on Makoto’s face is something easy to ignore. They’re plain for the other’s eyes to see, even though it’s impossible for any other person to make out their inner thoughts with just a glance.

Makoto looks down at his MP3, and after a moment of deliberation, unslings one of the earphone from his neck and pushes it into Ryoji’s hands. “It’s been a while since we’ve listened to something together without worry like this,” he says, even though there are a lot to be worried about. But Ryoji gets the idea, he’d assume. “You wanna?”

“Of course!” Ryoji grins easily, taking his offering and putting the earphone to his ear, their shoulders touching and their hands in close proximity.

He mindlessly pushes the play button for a random song – not Burn My Dread this time, which is a surprise – before he starts humming along with Orpheus closely behind. It’s almost the end of August, which means he’d have seven months at most (counting the last two where no one remembers shit, too) to make everything worth it this time. But maybe, just maybe, he should not worry so much – after all, how is this different from his first life, where he spent half of this year in stunted silent, only get dragged out of his own head kicking and screaming by SEES?

It's almost amusing, when he thinks about it; even without Kotone there, SEES, by themselves, had managed to make him care even when he didn’t want to, because caring hurts and he didn’t want anything to do with it. He didn’t want to care because he was afraid of pain, but they dragged him out of his shell anyway, with Ryoji being the final influence that broke his walls down.

It was the worst and the best thing to ever happen to him. He wishes he can be a good friend and give them some nice memories in return this life, too.

And he’ll make sure this is the last time he and Ryoji’ll have to do this.

“I wish I could hear the songs Orpheus sang to us when they came out into the world,” Ryoji suddenly says, and Makoto perks up at this, tilting his head to the side as a question. Ryoji only grins. “Some of the songs we played were from Orpheus’ memories of the time beyond this year, isn’t it? I really want to listen to the original tracks, too.”

“You will, don’t worry,” Makoto hums, picking at his nails and looking down at his shoes. I won’t be there with you is left unspoken, but it’s louder than thunder, at this point, and he hates it. But, there is no more room for what-ifs, no more room for regrets. “Just make sure to think of me sometimes when you finally get to hear them.”

Ryoji seems like he wants to cry, but he doesn’t. Instead, the boy offers him his pinky, an invitation to a promise. “I promise.”

Makoto hooks his own little finger against Ryoji’s, feeling his warmth and his sadness rolling into him in waves. He only hums again once, drawn the note out as long as he is comfortable, before he settles down and leans slightly into Ryoji. Not quiet enough to rest his head against the boy’s shoulder, but enough to ease some anxiety brewing in his gut.

Silence fills the remaining gaps after that, the song blasting in their ears the only other sound. He takes this time to think about what he should and can say to Mitsuru; after all, she’s made it clear that he can share anything to her, even if she won’t believe him one hundred percent. But, when he starts to think of leaving some details out – like how her father got shot by Ikutsuki and Ikutsuki’s betrayal itself – Alilat croons against his ears.

She will believe you, boy. Just like I have, Alilat murmurs softly. No truth is painless. But truths are always better than lies, do they not? You have seen it for yourself. You know it, as well.

Makoto sighs into his hand. “Yeah,” he mutters. “I do.”

Right here, he decides; he will tell Mitsuru… and Shinjirou, too, everything he knows about Ikutsuki and Strega. And then – and then, they will see.

“He what!?

Mitsuru can’t really keep her voice down after Yuuki and Mochizuki told her about… all of it. About the fact that Ikutsuki is one of those death worshippers and had been using them to call forth Nyx this whole time, or the fact that the girl Yuuki asked her – begged for her – to take in and keep her existence hidden is one of the so-called Strega, a group of people experimented upon by the Kirijou Group.

Yuuki doesn’t seem surprised at her reaction. He looks ready to take on whatever she might shoot at him, be it anger or denial or… whatever it is. But Pentheselia believes him, and somewhere in her whispers that this is the truth only Yuuki and Mochizuki remember, lost between the strands of time. It doesn’t feel real – no, she doesn’t want it to be.

But when faced with many evidence of Ikutsuki’s involvement in some experiments in Yakushima Mitsuru isn’t aware of, papers that Yuuki said he stole from the lab by means he wouldn’t tell her, she just cannot look away. This is the truth – the truth that has been masked up by sweet lies and false promises of returning the honor the Kirijou Group lost when they caused the Moonlight Bridge explosion ten years ago. It makes her sick, and somewhere in her, it makes her want to scream at— at something.

Yuuki waits, does not so much as speak a word, more patient than she thought he would. He always seems to hurry towards his death, but like this, it feels like this is the true him; the man who’s waited hundreds of lifetimes for something to change.

After a moment, when Mitsuru fails to respond – both verbally and physically – Yuuki murmurs. “I’m… sorry about this. I know it’s a bitter truth to accept, but you need to know, because…”

Yuuki trails of, a sigh caught between his lips. Mochizuki takes this moment to steer the conversation away, while a part of Mitsuru still thinks about what Yuuki said, about what he is going to say next. About the words lost between anxiety and fear. “Take your time, Mitsuru-san. I know it’s hard to accept this as the truth, but I swear on my life that this is what Ikutsuki really is.”

Mitsuru inhales sharply, trying to center her thoughts as much as possible. She finally manages to find something in her and nods. No matter how much she wants to deny it, their words make sense; Ikutsuki has always been so… strange, so off-putting at times, even. The fact that he even knows what these Shadows are when her father doesn’t should’ve raised the red flag a long time ago, and she wonders if it’s because her and her father’s wish for redemption that they are blinded to this.

“…What are you planning to do?” she finally asks, fingers finding the hem of her skirt and doesn’t let go. “If Chidori is a member of Strega, wouldn’t she be our enemy, just like in your stories?”

“Her circumstances are different from the rest of them,” Yuuki says with a deep, unwavering frown. “She’s nothing more than a victim in Strega and Ikutsuki’s little game. I’ve watched her die too many times before – and I refuse to do so again if I can help it.”

That only answers a part of her question, but the way Yuuki scowls at himself, about watching Chidori die more times that Mitsuru even knows of – it makes her stop. She can’t just repeats the question this soon, in this instance.

But, to her surprise, Yuuki actually answers her first question, albeit with something akin to shame bubbling in his gaze, in the way his fingers pick at his knees like his life depends on it. “About what we planned to do… It looks like Ikutsuki is already partially aware of my and Ryoji’s… particular circumstances. Which means he isn’t going to show himself in front of me or any of us anytime soon.”

“And it translates to the fact that he can and will try to sabotage us, one way or another,” Mitsuru finishes for him, her eyes twitching uncomfortably. She will have to sort her… emotions later, because this information will make or break what they all stand for, what—

“It can wait,” Yuuki says, his eyes full of understanding, and Mitsuru’s breath catches. Even if he’s told her the whole story, she still isn’t used to the fact that he knows her more than she does herself. And, upon her silence, Yuuki smiles. “It’s a lot to take in, I know. But, if he’s this careful with me, not to mention that he didn’t try to deal with me right away, it means that he’s wary of me, too. We still have time. You can sit on this for a bit.”

Mitsuru frowns, arms crossed and deep in thought. On one hand, his offer sounds tempting, especially in this particular scenario where her world has been flipped upside down once again. On the other hand, though…

“It’s alright,” Mitsuru finally speaks up against the lump in her through. “You’re the one in the most danger here, not me. It’s better that we get this sorted as soon as possible.”

Yuuki raises both eyebrows for a moment before he smiles, soft and gentle. “…I see. Thank you.”

“Then,” she begins again, recalling the question still left unanswered. “What exactly are you planning to do with Ikutsuki-san?”

“What else?” Yuuki says, his voice superficially flippant, but there is something hidden between his breath; discomfort, and even guilt. He interlaces his fingers and rests his hands between his legs, eyes glancing between her and then Mochizuki.

“For your safety and his both, we’ve decided that we’ll need to deal with him. Permanently,” Mochizuki explains, and her blood freezes. If he notices her sudden fear, Mochizuki does not show it; instead he only hums as he shifts on his seat, crossing his legs and looking outside and towards the sky. “You can rest assured, that this isn’t a decision we came to lightly. Even if we captured him, Strega might free him, since they seem to be in league this time around. Besides, you have no way to prevent them from using their Personas, even if we manage to apprehend them all. Suppressors are meant to keep their powers in check, but they’ve already overcome that on their own. Their abilities to summon Personas without an Evoker is enough proof that Suppressors do not work on them.”

“…Unfortunately,” Mitsuru echoes, her voice ringing hollow. “If you feel that it is necessary, then I—”

“No, Mitsuru-senpai,” Yuuki says, and even if she did give him permission, her first name coming out of his lips still feels a bit off. But he is so gentle and so caring even though he is broken, so she can’t find anything in her to retract her permission. “Everything got this out of hand because I was too lenient, because I was too busy drowning in my own head. It’s one of the mistakes that’s my duty to correct.”

He might sound determine, but there’s no way Mitsuru can miss the slight tremor under his voice, or the way his fingers shake when he looks down at them. But his eyes, when he looks up again, says; please let me do this. As if doing something like that wouldn’t bother him even if it’s the most surefire and morally gray solution they have, when in truth she doubts he wouldn’t understand the weight of that decision.

If he kills someone – this time, that action will be permanent. He will be marked as a murderer for the rest of his life before surrendering his soul to guard the world that doesn’t care about him at all.

This is my fault, some part in her whispers, dark and cruel but truer than any words. I didn’t remember him, even though he knows me. I didn’t know anything at all.

Yuuki blinks once, twice, before he smiles, a laughter coming his lips. “It isn’t your fault, Mitsuru-senpai. It’s not like you chose to forget. You weren’t given that choice to begin with.”

“I know,” Mitsuru sighs, cradling her head in her hands. “But… if there’s any way I can lighten that burden at all, let me. It’s the least I can do.”

“Then I ask that you keep Chidori safe,” Yuuki hums softly, and Mochizuki reaches a hand to touch the boy’s shoulder. Yuuki places his own hand atop of Mochizuki’s when he looks at her again with a small, sad smile. “I’ll need to speak with her at some point. But she is no prisoner, so take care of her well.”

“…Understood.”

Whatever Yuuki’s planned, Mitsuru decides to believe in him. Because, if this voice – Pentheselia – singing within her is true, then he is someone who will never, ever let her down.

A day before the Hermit Shadow, Makoto finally visits Chidori.

She’s very well behaved, just like all the times before, but there are no new cuts on her arms even when there are boxes of razors sitting by her bedside drawer. The building she’s in is inconspicuous enough, with only SEES and Kikuno, Mitsuru’s maid, that know about it. He’d feel very uncomfortable if the Kirijou Group as it is now has a hand on this knowledge.

When he and Ryoji arrive, Junpei is there, too, chatting away with adoration in his eyes. And this time, unlike all those years before, Chidori is no longer reserved. She’s letting herself feel, and even if there are pain in her eyes, the way Medea sings in his veins tells him enough; she remembers partially what had happened the years that never happened, she knows the pain of love and the pain of lost. She knows what the meaning of life really is, and she’s starting to understand it.

He wonders if things could have been like this, too, if he had pushed a little harder in the cycles before. If he’d moved with more vigor, maybe they’d have achieved a happy ending Makoto is denied. Maybe—

“Oh! Hey, man!” Junpei greets him a little too loudly, waving his hands with too much energy. But this is the Junpei that he knows, the Junpei before Chidori’s death culled his enthusiasm. The Junpei he has not seen for a long, long time because he had stopped telling Junpei to visit Chidori and to share with her the life she’d given him. “Kirijou-senpai said you gonna be in today! I was just talking to Chidori here, and she’s so lovely!

Makoto can’t help a small smile pulling at his lips, and he almost laughs when Chidori throws Junpei a positively nasty look that is equally embarrassed and equally annoyed. “I can see that. Did we interrupt something?”

“Nah, I was just about to go grab a bite,” Junpei shrugs, looking at Chidori and smiling radiantly at her again. And his attitude has always been so laid back, so carefree and certainly very infectious, because Chidori giggles slightly, squeezing his hand back before letting go. “Alright! Imma go find things to eat now, and I’ll buy some more flowers for you!”

“Junpei, you don’t need to—”

“But I wanna,” Junpei grins, winking. “I’ll give you a huge bouquet, and you’re gonna love it!”

“Tell the cashier at the flower shop for the Romance Special,” Makoto gives him a tip as they walk in, and he catches Ryoji snickering from the corner of his eyes. “She’ll give you a huge one. Make sure you bring enough cash, though.”

“Got it! Thanks, man!” Junpei laughs as he finally untangles himself from the side of Chidori’s bed and walks past him, but not before slapping his shoulder with fondness. Even if it’s not the same as the first time, it’s enough to fill his heart with joy he hasn’t felt in years. “You’re actually a pretty nice guy. Let’s grab a bite together sometimes, yeah?”

“Sure,” Makoto hums. He almost says when all of this is over, but they won’t remember a thing when it does, so he shifts his tongue and says something else instead. “After the Full Moon, maybe?”

“Works for me,” Junpei says, looking at Ryoji and bumping his knuckles with the boy’s. “See ya later too, Ryoji!”

“Mhm. See you,” Ryoji responds, waving his hand at the boy as he goes out of the door.

The silence settles soon enough, but strangely, it is not suffocating; there is that sense of understanding that shouldn’t be possible lingering around Chidori like a veil, the scent of resurrected flowers filling the room with their fragrance. Makoto takes a moment to let the comfortable feeling settles deeply into his bones before he walks over to Chidori’s bed, watching the girl closely as he bows his head slightly. Medea hums into the space between them as he speaks up. “Good afternoon.”

“Afternoon,” Chidori parrots, putting her sketchbook down and tugging the pencil neatly into its spine. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”

“Am I that obvious?” Makoto says, mostly to himself, as he drags the chair Junpei sat on moments ago closer towards the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Like… I’ve been here before, countless of times,” Chidori says, and even if he shouldn’t be surprised, he still is. Elizabeth might’ve insured him that their souls do remember, and that he and Ryoji had come up with a theory that those connected to death – those who’d died – would remember, or at least feel, more than they usually would. But still, for this to be said out loud with little room for interpretation, is quite enough to shake him out of his lingering doubts. “You know about it, don’t you?”

He hums quietly. “Yeah. I do.”

“…Life,” Chidori says with a small frown, eyes looking towards Ryoji, who simply gives her a gentle smile he’s always worn around Makoto, before looking back at him. “I’ve always thought of life as… bothersome. But these memories, these thoughts – they were mine. They are mine, aren’t they? How strange…”

“Don’t look at me, I don’t know how to explain it, either,” Makoto says, putting both hands up and feeling Medea laugh in his chest. How curious. “I can’t tell you everything, but yes. You thought of life as cumbersome before, but then… then, you changed.”

Chidori looks out the window, lips curling into a soft smile. “It’s because of Junpei, isn’t it?” she says, and without waiting for an answer, laughs lightly. “He’s such a strange person. Cares when he shouldn’t. Laughs like there is no tomorrow. I find myself drawn to him – and find that I both fear and crave for it. Can you tell me why is that?”

“I can’t really answer that,” Makoto confesses, shrugging slightly as his eyes wander to her sketchbook. He blinks when she opens one of the drawings and turns it to him – the drawing of a beautiful beds of flowers Makoto recall seeing once or twice, long ago. “From memories?”

“From memories,” she echoes gently. “It’s strange. Really strange. I’ve never felt this alright with Medea or other people before.”

There’s a question at the tip of her tongue, Makoto can see it, but he isn’t sure if he’s supposed to do this or not – to tell her like he told Akinari, about what should’ve happened and should have been. But her expression is so serene and Medea is so quiet that he thinks things are fine as they are. But, regardless, while it doesn’t seem like that truth is necessary, he sees more good than harm telling her about it.

Because something in his gut tells him that the more people that can help, the better. That whatever Chidori has warned him about – of Strega plotting to deal with him sometime in the near future where he’s never once drawn their ire towards him before – is not something he can overcome on his own, no matter how strong he is or how devoted to protecting him Ryoji might be.

He looks at Ryoji, and the boy simply shrugs, a smile playing on his lips, for once. You can do this, he seems to say, conveying those words through his eyes better than his voice ever could. This should be alright. You want to, too, don’t you?

Orpheus hums a quiet agreement into his chest, too, his fire lingering a second longer than necessary at the edge of his heart, and Medea responds to it. This seems like as good a time as any, and if he can save her, bring her to the light without having to fear death, then what’s the harm?

So, Makoto smiles, laughs quietly to himself and his Personas, before offering Chidori both his hand and his story. “If you’re want to know, I can tell you what exactly happened before, and how come I know about what I shouldn’t.”

Chidori pauses briefly, as if conversing with Medea, before she nods. Her gaze remains sharp but there’s an edge of curiosity prickling at the corner of her eyes.

She finally hums before speaking her mind. “That’d be ideal, yes. I’m listening.”

And so, Makoto tells her his story, in hope that maybe, just maybe, he will be allowed to save her this time.

Notes:

Sooooo how was it? Lemme know!

Can you see how many red flags there are? Hehehehe >:D

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