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Between Twilight and Dawn

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Minato smiles and nods his head as Kenji waxes on about his girlfriend's figure and personality and maturity. He makes the appropriate noises and replies and Kenji doesn't seem to notice that his mind is wandering or that he's a little bored. Honestly, he thinks that this relationship is a bad idea, but to say so to Kenji will result in a reversed (or broken) Arcanum and he can't afford to let that happen. He wonders what that says about himself and about his personality (or lack thereof), but he tries not to think about it too much.

"So, anyway, she was saying that she likes those bags from--" Kenji grins and looks a little pained at the same time.

Minato gives him a commiserating smile, says a few things about older women--Kenji beams at that and laughs--before getting up from his desk. School is just about done for today, and while Kenji has invited him to go out to eat ramen, Minato thinks that, just once, he'll go do something by himself. He's popular, apparent by the way his shoe locker sometimes has cute envelopes that result in him gently turning down stammering girls and the way the guys all laugh with him and sling easy arms around his shoulders, but sometimes even he gets tired. He's not sure anymore if he's doing all of this because it's for the good of the world (and how messed up is it that he can say that seriously) or because he genuinely likes his friends.

It doesn't matter either way, he still needs to do this and in his secret heart of hearts he knows that he does enjoy the company. He just sometimes wishes that he doesn't have to pretend so much.

"Hey, Minato."

His head jerks up and he stares into Akihiko's placid eyes. The older student ignores the gossiping class around them and Yukari's and Junpei's questioning gazes. Minato barely manages to get out a questioning, "yes" before Akihiko is speaking again.

"Come out with me." It's less of a question and more of a... well, it wasn't really a command either, not with the way Akihiko is loosely standing with his thumbs hanging casually on his pants and has an eyebrow cocked in Minato's direction. Akihiko, for all that he is a boxer and when you think of boxers you think of bruised faces and bulky bodies, has always been attractive and has no shortage of admirers considering the titters of the girls around them.

Minato, biting back an immediate agreement, slants one eye in Kenji's direction. Kenji, however, is grinning and doesn't look put out so he could breathe a quiet sigh of relief and nod in Akihiko's direction.

"Good," Akihiko says. The older boy picks up some of his books and, as he is leaving the classroom, beckons Minato with a little wave of his fingers as he calls out over his shoulder, "Hurry up."

Minato had wanted to be alone, but he thinks that this is fine as it is. He's not sure why, but it probably has to do with not having to really guard his thoughts and words and actions around Akihiko. It's refreshing for a change.

~

They spend the afternoon just casually hanging out. They hit the arcade and then went to get something to eat and then Akihiko walked him home (only not, because they live in the same dorm), and it was all so normal and easygoing that Minato finds himself laughing as their steps fall comfortably beside one another. It's easy to be with Akihiko in a way it isn't easy to be around others because he doesn't have to worry endlessly about whether or not his answer is correct or maybe he should have done this instead of that. He doesn't have to think about reversed or broken links or getting stronger or feeling like he's using others just to be better in battle.

It's blessedly normal and Minato secretly thinks that he wouldn't mind staying like this.

Akihiko's profile in the dying light is strong. He has a straight nose and firm lips and elegant eyebrows and beautiful hair. Unthinkingly, Minato reaches out to touch him, only to pull back as Akihiko gives him a questioning look.

His step stutters and he says faintly, as if hearing himself from far away, "There was this bug, but it flew away before I could get it."

Akihiko smiles at him and Minato makes himself breath slow and easy.

This is new.

~

It doesn't change anything though. After that day there isn't another for some time because Minato has obligations and he can feel time slipping through his fingers and dragging him down. He needs to study and make friends and shore up his courage and try to be more personable. He has to bring gifts and visit people and make sure he doesn't forget anyone. Kenji needs dating advice (Minato doesn't know why Kenji needs advice from him when he doesn't even have a girlfriend [or boyfriend, but that's neither here nor there], but if it helps the link it helps the cause) and Chihiro needs to learn to be more brave (and he despairs at finding her blush at him all the time and give him shy looks underneath her full lashes, but). The old couple at the bookstore needs him to be kind and strong and apparently act like their dead son (which is disconcerting, but they're kind and give out cookies and they do like him for just being him).

Minato doesn't mind the demands of everyone so much. Even though he feels as if he's sometimes fooling them, a link goes both ways and he is genuinely fond of the people. It's just that. Sometimes. He's tired.

~

Fighting during the Dark Hour doesn't get any easier. No matter how much stronger he or his companions get, the higher they go up the tower the stronger the monsters get as well. By now everyone is fine with pulling the trigger to the Evoker. Minato doesn't think twice. It doesn't hurt, it feels curiously freeing, but it also feels like he's exposing his soul to the world and he doesn't know if he likes that or not. The thing is, his soul always seems to change and while that's good in terms of battle, he wonders what it really means. All right. The persona are not their souls bare, exactly, but it's close enough to make him inwardly shiver.

The others are much the same way. At least it seems like it because they don't talk about their personas other than in vague terms that have to do with battle or specific events. It's not like Minato goes up to Junpei and tries to get him to talk about what he thinks his persona represents about him--because they do, they represent something, it's just that that something can't be pinned down exactly.

Minato thinks that sometimes it's better to have a bit of mystery about oneself because every time he uncovers one more layer of truth he gets nervous or sad or wonders if this is all that he is. That the sum of what he is is spelled out in a rush of blood and battle and death.

He wonders how Akihiko deals with it. Akihiko likes battle well enough. Minato knows it's more about Akihiko proving his strength to himself and others more than Akihiko loving the feeling of bones breaking beneath his hands and the dying wail of monsters, but sometimes... There is a rush that battle gives Minato that's heady and almost overwhelming. That made him smile the first time he squeezed the Evoker's trigger, and makes him think that there really is something different about him other than the ways his persona evolve and how he somehow manages to have more than ten of them crowding inside him.

But then his strangeness doesn't feel so strange under Mitsuru's calm, "Good job," and Akihiko's firm clasp on his shoulders.

~

"Hey."

Minato blinks as he barely hears the word over his headphones and he turns the music down until it's a dull buzz in his ears. It's Sunday. He's at his computer and wondering if maybe he should work on the Hermit Arcanum link because it's been a while, but he doesn't really feel like dealing with happy emotes and bad grammar and the perky (or drunk) way Maya acts. He turns towards the voice and tries not to show his surprise at the owner.

"You busy?" Akihiko is standing by his door, leaning lightly against the wooden frame.

Minato is shaking his head before he fully registers the question. "I'm just shutting down," he lies even though he has just turned the computer on and a few quick clicks makes the computer hum with its shut down sequence. He doesn't know why Akihiko's here, but he can't stop the warm bubble in his chest even as he's telling himself not to expect anything. He reasons that Akihiko just wants to tell him that he can't go to Tartarus later (though Minato isn't planning on going today anyway--he needs to study because exams are coming up and he's thinking of grabbing some coffee before that).

"Is it about Tartarus?" he asks as he swings himself up to his feet. Akihiko's giving him a funny look, but he ignores it in favor of grabbing his wallet. Minato tells himself that he'll just go out and see a movie instead or something.

"No," Akihiko says, "Are we planning on going there tonight?"

Minato smiles a little at the 'we' and shakes his head. "No," he says as he laces up his shoes, "I think I'm going out."

"Alone?" The other boy's voice sounds a little odd.

He gives Akihiko a curious look. "Yes." He pauses and then takes a chance. "Unless you want to come?" He still remembers that ease and comfort of being around Akihiko during his 'day off'.

Akihiko is silent for a beat or two before replying. "Yeah. Sure."

~

Minato never does find out why Akihiko went looking for him in the first place.

However, the coffee that night is good and the company is even better.

~

Minato actually likes Bebe. Somehow the French boy is endearing in his own way, even if he is a little socially clumsy and is so very obviously a Foreigner. He doesn't mind so much when Bebe finds him after school and tugs him into the home economics room. It probably says something about him, he muses wryly, that he doesn't mind sewing or working on a small, painstakingly hand embroidered pillow. It's almost mindless and he lets Bebe's voice wash over him and finds it easy to give the other boy the replies he's looking for.

Bebe, for all that he is different (not necessarily bad) and loves Japan a little too much when Japan hasn't been as kind to him (he's still an outcast and Minato is still his only friend), is a good person. He's sometimes over exuberant and prattles on about Japan in gushing tones and loves to mix both English and French in his Japanese, but... Minato enjoys spending time with him.

Most of the time. Right now Bebe is comparing material against Minato's skin tone and babbling on about fabrics and comments like "Hai! Perfect!" and "This goes wonderfully with your skin tone! Magnifique!" are being flung into the air with joyful ringing tones. The fabric feels like silk (definitely not in the club's budget, but Minato suspects that Bebe's allowance is a lot higher than most people's allowances and that the boy doesn't really feel the need to spend it on anything other than Japanese paraphernalia) and it's a deep blue color--royal blue. He puts up with playing the doll and lets Bebe convince him to strip his shirt in order for a more accurate comparison.

The silk is fine, smooth against his skin, and cool to the touch. He likes it, but doesn't say so. Bebe will not shut up about it anyway and Minato knows that he'll choose it in the end. He doesn't know what project the fabric is for, but if Bebe is good at anything, he is good at designing. Minato is sure that whatever it is will look nice and be Japanese (because it's Bebe and everything he does has to be about Japan).

He hears the door open and twists to see who it is; only to have swathes of silk fall around his head and Bebe chides him to stay still. As the fabric floats down from his gaze he finds that the door is shut once more and that the person has left.

~

They go Tartarus the next night. Akihiko acts as he always does, or seems like it, but Minato thinks there is something a little off about him even if he can't pin it down. It's like Akihiko is hitting a little harder, pushing himself a little more, but that's so typical of the older boy that Minato doesn't even know why he thinks that something is off. He can just feel it in the pit of his stomach, low and uneasy, and the few times he's spoken to Akihiko, the other boy just asks if he needs something.

Then a particularly harsh blow slams into his side, Minato barely gets his sword up enough to fend off most of the attack. Thank gods he did because otherwise he'd have broken ribs and possibly his guts would be lying on the floor. Still, he's knocked off his feet and he's winded and he thinks that while his ribs may not be broken, he's sure that at least one is cracked. The creature that is attacking him rears up for another strike, hooves a dull black, only the twang of an arrow catches it in its shoulder and Akihiko rushes over and slams his gloves into the broad head--splintering the skull and causing bits of bone and brain matter to go flying all around.

"Eww," Yukari says from her position towards the back, bow still raised and bow string still quivering.

Akihiko is the first to his side as he wheezes and tries to ignore the pain that's rushing through him. He's gotten used to pain, but he doesn't like it. He also knows it's futile to hide his hurts when Fuuka knows by scanning him and anyway, having cracked ribs would be a liability in a fight. Akihiko's hands are dripping blood as they carefully raise the hem of his shirt to peer at his side, but Minato doesn't care.

He sucks in a sharp breath at Akihiko's light prodding and Yukari says in a disgusted voice, "You're getting blood all over him, senpai."

It's true. Now he has blood streaks across his pale skin, but he doesn't mind. Before he can say so, Akihiko backs off and Yukari falls in the other boy's place. She's the best at healing so it's not a surprise that he defers to her in these cases.

Fuuka is asking if he's all right and Mitsuru is supervising with worry in her eyes. If Junpei was here instead of down at the first floor, Minato is sure he would say something like 'Che. He isn't that hurt anyway,' but still look at him with silent concern.

The dia spell washes over him and it's enough to knit the bones back together even though the sound of bone against bone still causes Yukari to turn slightly green. It hurts like a bitch though, and Minato keeps quiet by sheer force of will, biting his bottom lip hard.

"We should head back." Mitsuru is already looking around for a teleporter.

They have already cleared out most of the floor, so they only run into two more enemies before they find the glowing green sphere that takes them back to the first floor. Once there, Fuuka exclaims over him and Junpei mutters about how if he had been there then Minato would not have been hurt in the first place.

Akihiko tells Junpei to shut up and Yukari laughs and goes, "Yeah right."

Minato watches his team and he thinks that he sort of loves them all. They haven't known each other for long, but the battles and the constant danger breeds familiarity faster than time does. He just hopes that it will all last.

~

Minato is heading down the stairs the next day--carefully, because his side still twinges even if it's been mostly healed--and he stops several steps from the bottom and just stares.

Mitsuru is standing with Akihiko and their heads are bowed together. Her hand is curved delicately on his arm and they look so cozy that Minato feels sick for a second. He can't catch what they are saying, but their body language implies a closeness that Minato doesn't think he can hope to obtain and the pain is enough to make him turn his head away and just breathe.

"Huh," Yukari says as she walks down the stairs. Minato has not heard her steps and he jerks a little out of her way. She raises a brow at him but continues down, says in a conspiring tone as she passes him, "I hate to say it, but they look good together, don't they?"

Minato is not aware that he had made a sound until Yukari looks back at him and says worriedly, "Are you all right? Is it your side?"

It isn't and it's worse than that, but Minato just shakes his head, plasters on a weak smile.

"It's okay, I'll be fine."

He will, eventually, given time.

~

If he's a little more distant with Akihiko, well, he has reason to be, Minato tells himself. He can't ignore the other boy (bad for team dynamics and he doesn't want to explain why he's acting like a little girl who's first crush got stamped into the ground when the man shows up with another woman--even if it is sorta true) and he can't just pretend that everything is fine and business as usual (it hurts and there's this hollow feeling in his chest, but Minato thinks that it'll disappear one day--it just might take a while).

Akihiko has asked him once this past week, casual, like he didn't care if the answer was yes or no, if Minato would like go with him to see one of the new movies coming out. It almost physically hurts Minato to say "No, I can't, I have plans," but he manages to choke out the words.

~

The fighting gets even harder once the full moon has passed--the barrier to go up the tower to higher levels has broken--and Minato is weary. It isn't helping that Akihiko has been sneaking him these puzzled looks lately, eyes holding traces of confusion. Minato wants to go up to him and let his thumb rub away the thin wrinkle between Akihiko's brows and smile and touch him.

He doesn't let himself though. Minato tells himself that he is not disappointed when Mitsuru goes up to Akihiko and takes him aside to speak in low tones.

~

It is damning, but Minato sometimes feels like he doesn't want this all to end. Sometimes, when they're all gathered together and sitting on couches and just talking, he just feels so warm inside that he nearly bursts because of it. He fears the future because the end seems inevitable, like fate has already decided for them and they're just puppets going along with everything. He feels like the end will really be the end. That when it's all over and done with some of them will have died and the others will have drifted away. He has been alone for all of his life and now that he has people, now that he has some semblance of a family, he doesn't want to let it go.

It's selfish though, so he doesn't tell anyone this. He's pretty sure that the others don't feel the same way. Yukari is always grumbling about going to Tartarus, and even if Junpei and Akihiko seem to enjoy the fighting and challenging themselves--well, they're not freaks who want to keep doing it for the rest of their lives.

Minato can't seem himself in the future. He doesn't have dreams or aspirations, and when asked to write down prospective careers in school, his mind blanks and he turns in an empty sheet. He has to do it, the teacher tells him to, but the careers he finally writes down are those he doesn't really have any interest in and he doesn't see himself at any job.

This says something, but Minato isn't sure what.

~

Akihiko corners him after school one day and asks if something is the matter.

Minato refrains from touching the other boy's hand and shakes his head. He excuses himself with a quick, "I have to go to club," (Akihiko frowns at him) and ends up down in the photography room, staring at stills.

~

Bebe is hovering in the hallway a few days later and Minato lets the boy grasp his sleeve and take him aside. They are partially blocking the traffic, evoking dirty looks from people who have to curve around them, but Bebe seems too excited to care and Minato doesn't want to deflate him. The other boy bows his head close to Minato's ear in order to be heard above the other chattering students. He is asked to come by the home economics room later--Bebe has something he really wants to show Minato, and though Minato was planning on visiting the girl by the shrine, he finds himself nodding to the request instead.

The other boy seems so much more earnest than usual--with a wide smile and his fan dancing in the air because Bebe can't seem to keep his hands still. It's something important to Bebe and if he misses it, Minato isn't sure how badly that would affect the link.

Suddenly Minato feels a weight at his back, a heavy gaze, and he turns around to look for the source, only to see a wave of chattering girls. When they pass, the owner of the gaze has moved on.

~

"My tomodachi!" Bebe cries as he sees Minato enter through the doors and the French boy bustles him in with fluttering hands and quick smiles. A quick touch to his elbow guides Minato towards a table with a beautifully wrapped box on top of it--silver and gold ribbons and shiny white paper. Minato turns and gives Bebe a confused look. Bebe just grins at him.

"This is for you!" Bebe announces, picking up the box and placing it into Minato's hands. He is looking at Minato with anticipatory eyes and tries to hide his wide-wide smile behind his fan, but Minato can tell he's smiling broadly by the way his eyes crinkle. Minato tries to give the box back--it wasn't as if it was his birthday or any special holiday--but Bebe waves it towards him and says.

"You've always been there for me! And now I, in your hour of need," Bebe really says 'in your hour of need' and Minato wonders for half a moment what the other boy has been imagining, "will be there for you!" The blond head bows a bit, dropping a little as Bebe goes on, "But if you think I'm just being a nuisance... Gomen!"

Minato stares at Bebe in surprise and his fingers curl along the smooth surface of the box. He doesn't think that he's transparent; he never imagined that other people would get to know his moods almost as well as he knows theirs, but he suddenly has to bite down a flood of words and he feels a glad tightness in his chest. Instead he fussily lets his hand slide across the surface of the large box and, under Bebe's eager gaze, unties the ribbons and unwraps the gift.

Dark blue material glitzes across his vision and he takes out the carefully pressed kimono. It's beautiful. Silk--he vaguely remembers the material Bebe had pressed against him before--and soft and carefully tailored to his exact size. It's just that. Well.

Minato wants to tell Bebe that this style of kimono is for girls (it's a furisode and Minato doesn't want to imagine the price), but that would break his heart or something (Bebe is looking at him with shining eyes and clasp hands and Minato can't say anything). "Thank you," he finally gets out and, even though his voice is a bit odd, Bebe doesn't seem to notice. Instead, the boy just looks even more pleased and he pushes Minato towards a changing screen.

"Try it on!" He urges, hands surprisingly firm against Minato's back. "Remember when I took your measurements? I had this specially made by hand! But!" Bebe continues proudly, "I stitched on some of the decorations myself!" His expression is not unlike an eager puppy and Minato smiles helplessly at Bebe and lets himself be corralled behind the changing screen.

Minato tries to put the kimono on, only he's not sure exactly how it goes and there are so many pieces that he's just getting confused. Bebe is still babbling on the other side of the screen, gushing about kimonos and Japanese traditional clothing ("Excellent! Beautiful! I have never seen clothing so noble and proud!").

He holds a piece--the obi--helplessly. Minato manages to get most of the pieces on in some semblance of order, but he knows that he doesn't have it exactly right. With a deep breath Minato walks out and says to a surprised Bebe, "I need help," and avoids the other boy's delighted gaze. Bebe immediately fusses over him ("You do not know how to put on a kimono? C'est une honte!") and skilled hands turns Minato around and starts fixing pieces of silk and putting others on.

"I knew this color would match well with your skin, hair, and eyes!" Bebe enthuses. "Très gentil! You are fantastic!"

Minato's gives a slightly strained smile and lifts an arm at Bebe's urging.

The sound of the door opening makes Minato twist in place and he shudders slightly in surprise as he meets Akihiko's eyes. Akihiko looks visibly startled to see Minato half undressed and in a kimono and suddenly Minato is aware that he is half undressed and in a girl kimono. He flushes a dark red and averts his eyes and Bebe is looking up in faint bemusement even as he tugs down a sleeve.

"Who is..." Bebe partially gets out before Akihiko is striding towards Minato and pushes Bebe aside.

"What are you doing?" The older boy's voice sounds calm, but Minato notices the way his fists are clenched and the subtle undercurrent of tension in his voice.

Bebe butts in before Minato can reply. "He is trying on my gift! Isn't he pretty?"

Akihiko slants Minato a Look and Minato tries to shrink into the flowing kimono and wishes that the floor would just swallow him already. He feels unaccountably flustered and bites back a denial--because there is nothing to deny (except for the 'pretty' bit, but it's Bebe saying that and you can't take Bebe that seriously when it involves Japanese goods).

"Leave," Akihiko orders Bebe.

Bebe looks confused and he's looking back and forth between Minato and Akihiko with a contemplative look in his eyes. Then his gaze brightens (Minato does not want to know what he concludes) and he drops the sleeve he had been holding and backs away.

Minato grows less aware of him--he'll have to apologize later--and more aware of the way Akihiko is standing next to him, warm heat by his side. He still has his eyes averted towards the floor, but he can feel Akihiko's presence and edges away slightly. Akihiko slides closer to him.

Bebe's voice interrupts one last time, bubbling happy words even as he leaves. "Oh! This is like that samurai love I've read about! Beautiful!"

Minato covers his face with a delicate sleeve.

"Weird guy," Akihiko says finally.

Minato shrugs and the kimono slips off his shoulder. He raises a hand to bring it up again, but Akihiko is suddenly there, tracing his skin with a finger and Minato shivers and looks up in surprise to see a thoughtful look on Akihiko's face.

"Hey." A pause and Akihiko is visibly searching for words. His thumb is making gentle circles near Minato's collar and Minato suddenly can't speak a word. "You and he are...?" Akihiko trails off suggestively.

He shakes his head mutely.

"Good," Akihiko says, "Good." And then he lowers his head and his lips come into contact at the curve of Minato's shoulder and neck and Minato can't even breath let alone move. He would be lying if he says that he never imagined a scenario similar to this (only without the kimono and not at school), but that doesn't mean that he thought that this would ever happen and he can't do anything but stand there and close his eyes.

"All right?" Akihiko asks, and his voice is a rougher and a measure lower than usual. A hand comes down to rest at Minato's thigh, hitching up the silk there slightly, as the boy's other hand rests at the small of Minato's back.

In reply, Minato tilts his head back more to give Akihiko greater room to kiss at his neck.

~

Things will be okay, Minato thinks. He still feels stressed and like he's running with the ticking of the clock dogging his heels. He still feels like sometimes he's pretending to be someone he isn't and he can't see himself in the future and doesn't even know if they have a future. But it's all right. He'll be all right. He has his friends and comrades and he has Akihiko who laughs with him and holds his hand and curls warm around him at night.

It's enough. The present is more than enough.