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Pt 1:


Futaba: i got a hankering for exposition and u seem like the hermione of the group!
Makoto: Excuse me?
Futaba: weirdness in the leader is not a good thing, hermione-kun.  inquiring minds wanna know: the meditation thing, is he 646 on that or what?
Makoto: I have no idea what you are talking about.
Futaba: joker, spacecase in the corner, mementos and now palace.  always a thing?
Makoto: Oh.  Yes.  Those two, your Palace, and the previous one as well.  I haven't inquired about the two from before I joined the group.
Futaba: 1 is chance, 2 is coincidence, 3 is pattern.  we got 4 and maybe 6.
Makoto: .... I'm coming over.
Futaba: \(º □ º l|l)/ WAIT WHAT NONONO I PROMISE I CAN DELETE THIS CHAT WITHOUT A TRACE.  


"I really could've deleted the chat," Futaba moaned into her keyboard.

Makoto, perched primly on the edge of Futaba's bed, rolled her eyes.  "Well, I'm here now.  I suggest we pool our observations of Joker's... 'spacing out', and go from there."

Futaba groaned in disgust.  "Fine.  I'm typing it all down though."

"You do that."  Makoto trusted Futaba's desktop setup much more than her own phone or cellular company, after all.  Now, what to start with...?  Best go with the obvious.  "Joker steps aside to meditate at every discrete location in the Metaverse."

The keys ticked in syncopated, rapid-fire stacatto.  "But only outside them," Futaba added.  "On the thresholdy... thing.  He doesn't seem to do it in safe rooms, or rest areas, or on the go."

"He'll make us leave the Palace or Mementos to meditate."

Futaba glanced over her shoulder at Makoto.  "He will?"

"Yes."  It was rather frustrating.  Particularly in Futaba's Palace, he'd taken them outside into the punishing heat twice in the middle of a run to the next safe room, without waiting to get to the safe room to use the teleport.  Which certainly made it a memorable occurrance.  Which was probably a major reason Makoto had also noticed that, "He comes out of it with a new set of Persona masks."

Futaba typed that in, but the ticking of the keys slowed near the end of the sentence.  "... Personas we haven't always seen yet?"

"Yes...?"

Her hands fell away from the keyboard, and she turned in her chair.  "He has, what, twelve Personas at any one time?"

Makoto considered their aborted attempt into Okumura's Palace yesterday, then the previous Mementos run, counting the different Persona masks she'd seen Joker pull.  "... I think so.  It seems to have increased since we finished your Palace, though, I'm sure it was only ten there."

Futaba's glasses gleamed with the eerie reflections of the green text of her monitors.  "He has multiple Personas.  He stands in a corner to meditate and will leave perfectly good safe spaces to go to that spot.  He gets new Personas from meditating.  He ranked up to twelve in five months flat.  He seems to infect other people with the Persona ability."

"I would hardly say infect--"

"Patient Zero, he shows up and suddenly bam, friendship is magic and you get a nest of Persona users."

"That's not really how--"

"I've read about this before," Futaba finished triumphantly, and Makoto's mouth snapped shut.  Futaba spun away and began typing even quicker than before, windows and files popping up on the screen thick with text under a letterhead Makoto didn't recognize.  It was enough to indicate the files had been scanned from paper, though.  "Okay, so, after my-- my mom-- I wasn't completely out of it the whole time.  I kinda knew what my Shadow said to me, it's just that... I did a lot of hacking looking for Mom's research, for evidence that I... never actually found but that's not the point here."  

She beckoned Makoto over, and Makoto peered at the windows.  They were mostly popping up too fast for her to get more than a random word or two out of the opening paragraphs, but the letterhead...  "Kirijo Group?"  She'd never heard of it.

"Yeah, that's where my mom worked."  Futaba bit her lip as she typed.  "I got in as deep as I could go and just scooped up everything there in a great big data lump.  And then I spent about a month with the hard drive hidden in the bottom of my bag and waiting for ninja goons to attack, but.  Yeah.  Did I mention these guys are super scary?  They've got fingers in everything."  She jerked a thumb at the small monitor up in the corner.  "There, see?"

Machinery.  Electronics.  A radio station.  An entire school system.  Private hospitals.  Island laboratories.  Government contracts.  'S.E.E.S.'  'The Iwatodai Incident: Moonlight Bridge.'  'Project Umbra.'  'The Inaba Incident.'  'The Iwatodai Incident: Nyx.'  'Project Anima.'  'Project Hoplite.'  Hoplites were ancient Greek soldiers, what had Kirijo been doing?

"Aha!" and the S.E.E.S. file flicked off Makoto's screen and back onto Futaba's.  Several pages into it, a number of phrases had been highlighted.  'Meditation', 'multiple Personas', 'patient zero effect'...

Futaba highlighted several more, and suddenly it needed only bullet-point organization to be a full checklist of Joker's oddities.  The paragraph ended with (See also: Profile A.M. [deceased] -- S.E.E.S., Iwatodai Incidents; Profile A -- Project Hoplite, S.E.E.S., Security Department: Shadow Response Unit, Iwatodai Incidents, Inaba Incident; Profile S.S. -- Inaba Incident; Isshiki, W. "Theories On Aleph Dimensions", Kirijo Confidential File SDSRU-RD141.2 (2013): 15-22.)

None of the windows Makoto could see were SDSRU-RD files.  But... it was clearly the initials of Profile A's department.  Security, Shadow Response Unit.

Shadow Response Unit.  In a company that... Project Umbra's files were scanned typewritten sheets, with the date on the very first page in the 1980s.  The letterhead on that one wasn't even Kirijo, but Nanjo, which Makoto had vaguely heard of.

Makoto swallowed against the sudden cold tension in her stomach.  "... Oracle."

"Hm?"

"All of this..."  Shady government contracts and Nanjo affiliations and money.  Big money.  "Kirijo Group is a billion-yen company with literally decades of research on Shadows and Persona-users.  Fighting them.  Suborning them.  Hunting them.  We've been operating all but in the open for five months, in one of the most watched and connected cities in the world.  How have they not found us yet?"

Futaba stilled.  "... Give me a few."

Makoto let her, stepping back towards the bed and sitting heavily down on it when the mattress thumped against her calves.  Her fingers were cold where they brushed her chin, and where her other hand cupped under her elbow.  The strange incidents like the subway accident... the ones that were almost certainly tied in to the Black Mask Madarame and Kaneshiro had mentioned... they were clearly not of mundane origin if you knew Personas and Shadows existed, but they'd been going on for over two years.  Surely... surely this Kirijo security unit had been out there searching?  Fighting?

Did that mean the incidents could've been worse?  Or...

Or.

At least one member of that S.E.E.S. team, the one that Profile A was also part of... had died.  Profile A.M.  Was the Shadow Response Unit... did they have any surviving members at all?  Perhaps Kirijo hadn't found the thieves because... because there was no one left to go looking.

"... Oh man..." Futaba whispered.  "Queen...?  I think I found the problem."

Makoto looked up.  "So there definitely is one?"

"Oh yeah."  There were several news articles up to replace the confidential files, as well as a stock chart that was all red arrows and a shocking plunge.  "Kirijo Group's all but completely gone.  You know how fake Medjed's got this habit of going after corporations?  If you go back far enough in the paperwork, turns out more than half their targets were, like, sub-subsidiaries of Kirijo.  And some of the stuff they've done has been nasty."  She popped an article to the top window.

Second Week of Payroll Hacks: Computer Plant Can't Protect Own Software

"Fake-Medjed snuck in a bug so that an entire factory's employees didn't get paid, and the computers thought they did.  With articles like this, the plant had to close because suddenly no one wanted to buy that kind of computer chip, and Kirijo had to pay huge reparations to the town and cover the fees for the lawsuit to boot.  No one's hiring there and everybody's in debt to yakuza now."

Another window.  Another headline.  Kirijo Heiress Under Audit

"They got her and another subsidiary flagged with the National Tax Agency two years running.  There's also half a dozen local articles about failing inspections, but those at least have the inspectors interviewed claiming the facilities did pass, not that it stopped the provincial authorities from coming in and shutting places down.  And then there's the psychotic breakdowns."

Oh no.

"Three of the Board members went completely nuts.  One of them is serving time for vehicular manslaughter, another tried to blow up that high school Kirijo runs, and the third went after Kirijo herself with a knife."  Futaba swallowed.  "He's not expected to walk ever again."

That was unnerving, but.  "Someone's been targeting a government-affiliated billion-yen corporation... and succeeding."  It couldn't be Black Mask.  One person, alone... not unless he was Fake Medjed, too, and had a lot of time on his hands.

Makoto didn't know if it was more frightening or less to know that there was someone behind Black Mask.  Someone controlling him... someone controlling a person who could simply go into his head and scramble it.  It would almost have to be another Persona-user, wouldn't it?

... Why didn't they just target Kirijo's owner directly?

"Futaba, can you pull up the profiles?  For... S.E.E.S. first, perhaps."

And there it was.  Kirijo, Mitsuru.  Persona: Artemisia.  And Morgana said Persona users couldn't have Palaces.  Or, presumably, Shadows in Mementos.

"Where is she now?"

Another moment of quick typing.  "... France.  Looks like she fled after a-- a car almost hit her.  They never found the driver."  More typing.  "And her passport was denied at Customs when she tried to come back last winter."

Makoto bit her lip.  This woman... they had a mutual enemy (didn't they?), someone who was trying to drive her into the grave, and she still tried to come back... and with her Persona and having a Shadow Reponse Unit, surely that was because she was trying to come fight the Shadows, like the thieves were.

Surely... surely she'd make a powerful ally, even now...?  But if they contacted her... would she help or hinder?  Or stay out of the fight and leave them to it?  Or come back and risk being murdered?  (Some instinct of Makoto's, even without reading the rest of the profile or the woman's history with her response unit, said yes, Kirijo would come back, and damn the assassins.)

Did Makoto dare have that on her conscience?

What would Akira do?

"We need more information," Futaba said decisively.  "Before we take any of this to the boss."

Yes.  It was a clear delaying tactic more than a necessity, but Makoto would take it.

Futaba pulled a flash drive from the computer and held it over her shoulder.  "Study up!  And we can meet in Mementos next time Joker blows us all off for whatever reason."

"Meet in Mementos?" Makoto echoed, taking the drive and tucking it away in her shirt pocket.

"I'm the Navi.  Me + scans OTP."  She smirked.  "Whatever's hiding there for Joker to spacecase on, I'm gonna find it.  Or else."







Pt. 2:


The background reading of stolen Kirijo files had been sickening.  Makoto's head spun with the sheer volume of information, and she'd had nightmares for three nights running about killer robots and blood-splattered little zombie children, all of them summoning twisted, broken Shadows to mow down the team.

Better those than the one where Akira had pulled off his mask, only for his entire face to go with it, leaving only a metal babydoll head etched with a grinning skull.  And, of course, more twisted summoned monstrosities attacking as a gaping abyss sucked him slowly into the sky.

Makoto bought a ginger ale and sipped it slowly to settle her stomach as she headed for Mementos.

Oracle was waiting for her there, alone and looking very small in the apocalyptic staging area.

"We could've met up outside," Queen said, glancing around for a trash can.  There wasn't one to be found, which should've been obvious in hindsight.  Though why she'd thought there would be... well.  There were turnstiles and tv screens... but it wasn't as if it was the first time they'd littered, either.  Joker's restorative sodas and sterile patches came in packaging that Mona refused to have in the bus, and bringing trash bags somehow just made them vanish unused.

"Here's better," Oracle replied with a shrug.

Better here than in a nice clean space roaming with normal people instead of monsters?  ... That said a lot about Futaba's bravery, Queen supposed.  She tossed the bottle off to one side and looked towards Joker's corner.  "Well.  Let's get started, then."

There seemed to be absolutely nothing of interest about the corner, Queen thought as she approached it.  Maybe a little darker...?  But no, it was exactly as dark as the other corners, she saw as she prowled around it, Oracle scanning in occasional flashes of green light from Necronomicon.  There were no unusually dark or oddly-shaped stains on the floor.  Nothing smelled different.  The walls... Joker never faced the one farther away, where a vein-like cable sprouted from the floor and bloomed into several dozen digging into the wall.  The closer one was bare and as grimy as the others.  The fallen rubble didn't make any notable patterns.

Queen frowned, turned to face exactly the same way Joker did, and stepped into the spot.

Oracle shrieked.  "Get out get out get out NOW!"

Queen found herself nearly two meters away, crouched ready to hit with three stark-white lines scraped into the floor from her brass knuckles, and panting with her heart in her throat.  "What's--?!"

"Oh my god it's a huge knot of Shadow stuff the readings are crazy off the charts I don't know what it is but it's AUGH SOMETHING JUST MOVED IN IT."

She shook out her grip on her brass knuckles before her hands could start to numb.  "Oracle," she said slowly, precisely, keeping the nerves out of her voice. "I'm not seeing anything."  Not so much as a heat shimmer, or the waver of Harry Potter's CGI invisibility cloak.

"I promise, it is totally there.  A piece just broke off, it-- it looks kind of... like a kid?  It's starting to circle you.  Clockwise."

Queen slowly pivoted, trying to see the... invisible Shadow.  "You'll forgive me if I don't find that reassuring," she told Oracle.  "Given that at least one of Joker's Personas is a teddy bear."

"Ugh don't remind me.  Little slower, Queen, the kid-thing is kinda examining you."  Queen's heart thrummed with alarm.  "I think."

Not good.  Very, very not good.  A curious Shadow.  Was it looking for weaknesses, or...?

... How could a Shadow be aware enough to be curious?

After a long, silent moment, Queen was facing Joker's spot once more.  She paused, some instinct saying the Shadow would too without Oracle needing to tell her.

Nothing happened.

"... Queen?" Oracle murmured.  "I just spotted something.  I'm scanning mostly in the 450-495 nanometer range.  610-670 terahertz."

Queen didn't have the attention to spare to remember if she knew what that was.  "Plain language?"  

"Visual blue, dammit!  Like, we should be seeing this whatever it is, but no, we've got some sort of blue-blocking mind-whammy filter going on between us and it, which if it was all just here it makes sense we wouldn't notice!  But it's not!  If it's the same thing in the spaceport, the filter would be putting a great big blob of black nothing on Joker's spot there and ye--"

The air shimmered, and a little white-blonde girl in police blues stood just a meter in front of Queen, a clipboard held casually to her chest and one Shadow-yellow eye pinned to Queen's.  "How curious," she murmured, soft and calm.  Oracle's voice died mid-word.  "Did you need something?" the little girl continued.

"We..." Queen swallowed.  How was she supposed to keep her guard up for a child this young?  ("Omg, Queen, she's adorable," Oracle whispered over the comm link.  "It's totally unfair, her readings are terrifying."  Ah.  That was how.)  "We were... just looking?"

"Yeah!" Oracle said, this time through Necronomicon's speaker.  "What's Joker's thing with you guys?  It is a thing, right?"  That eerie single-eyed gaze flicked to Necronomicon.  "Guy who stands here a lot?  Black coat, red gloves?"

Her little expression blanked further, which Queen wouldn't have thought possible.  "I am not at liberty to discuss our guests."

"Of course not," Queen said over Oracle's reply.  (Which she heard mostly "aha! I knew it!" from.)  "Joker's business is his own.  Please pardon our concern for his health and safety."  ("Queeeeeeeen--")  "If I may instead inquire... who are you?  And what is that... knot of strange energy readings that you're not allowing us to see?"

The girl blinked.  "I..."  She gave Queen a slightly lost look, as if she'd never been asked that before.  "I am... Justine."  She tucked her oversized clipboard under one arm and bowed slightly.  "I am a resident of--"  Her lone eye flickered towards the unseen Shadow readings, though she didn't turn her head to actually look.  "... of a place between dreams and reality, mind and matter."

Queen sucked in a breath, hearing Oracle gasp more loudly over the comm link.  "The Velvet Room."  At Justine's startle, Queen explained, "We found corporate files detailing the experiences of some previous guests.  'Wild Cards'?"

Showing they already had the information seemed to be the way to go.  Justine's posture relaxed once more.  "It is the duty of the residents of the Velvet Room to assist with the development of a Wild Card's powers in their journey to fulfilling their potential."  Her face brightened with every word.  "Most of humanity carries within them only the untapped ability to hold a single Persona at any one time, which may evolve into new forms over the course of their lives.  A Wild Card..."

Oracle slipped free of Necronomicon with the faintest tap of thick-soled shoes.  "That's Joker's thing, with the having a bunch of them he can switch between whenever he wants, and grabbing up more in fights." She grinned.  "Right?"

"A most eloquent way of describing the very essence of humanity's unfathomable potential," Justine said, so mildly that Queen almost missed the dry sarcasm.  "A Wild Card is..."  She considered for a moment.  "A Wild Card can, in truth, occur in almost anyone.  However, circumstances need align properly to create more than a single flicker, gone as soon as it is seen.  The potential will not come to someone too young, or with a powerful enough sense of Self to have a Shadow..." Another moment of thought.  She clearly had never articulated the information before.  "... Or with a settled path in life."

... Akira had been thrown right off the path Makoto -- and most of the other kids of Japan -- were on.  Elementary, junior high, exams, high school, exams, college, job, marriage.  He was in high school, yes, but... the arrest, the conviction, his expulsion and the complete uprooting of his life to move to Tokyo to finish his education...

... Wait, little sense of Self?

Oh, Akira...

"The nomads, the ghosts..." Justine continued mercilessly, gaze distant and unseeing.  "The lost and alone, all strangers to their surroundings.  Their arcana is lost, and the power of the Wild Card flares to life in their hearts."  Her eye snapped back to meet Queen's.  "It is our duty to nurture that power!  To assist the Wild Card upon their journey to heal and reconnect to the World!"

Oh.  Oh.

"You're helping him," Queen murmured over Oracle's stifled sniffling.  "Not just against the Shadows, or with creating and controlling so many Personas.  You're helping him."

Justine hugged her clipboard close to her chest, her cheeks going faintly pink as she looked away.

(Queen had to agree with Oracle's much earlier comment.  Justine was adorable.  ... And, somehow, just as alone as Joker was.  That hadn't been the voice of someone enthused about mere duty.

... How long had Justine just stood here, invisible in the dark, waiting for Akira?)

"You know..." Queen said slowly, thinking.  "Joker isn't planning to come by today."  Justine glanced blankly up at her, as if to say 'what does that have to do with me?'  "It must get rather dull guarding that... whatever it is... waiting for him.  Do you think you'd like to come outside for a bit?  To Shibuya?"

"... My master has not given me leave to go."  So she was just supposed to sit around in the dark waiting for someone who wasn't expected to show up?  "... But... neither has he commanded me to stay."  And a tiny smile ghosted across Justine's face.

Queen started to smile back.  They'd befriended a lonely little girl Shadow, discovered Joker was being helped in ways they hadn't even imagined were needed, they could get Futaba out acclimating to crowds a bit more--

"May we bring my sister?" Justine asked politely.

Oh no.  A sister?  Where was this one being kept?  "Of course we can, Justine-chan."

They were going to get treats for these kids, and take them around to see the city, and keep coming back to do it some more, and if Queen ever got her hands on this master guy who apparently didn't think anything of making little kids stand around alone in the dark--

"Of course we can."







Pt. 3:



Caroline was berating the failure again, and Justine... just didn't have the heart to tell her to stop venting.  What was the point?  Their master, after so many eons (?) of faith in humanity and a love of his duty, had... apparently tired of it.  They'd put so much work into this one, and to fail at the eleventh hour...

Master had gone to mourn.  Surely he had.

"But I did find out his name," the inmate finally managed to say, when Caroline stopped to swallow back tears.  "It was Goro Akechi."

The name shot through Justine like a fiery pin through a butterfly.  Goro Akechi.  Goro Akechi.

"... Goro..." she whispered.

"... Akechi..." Caroline replied, just as quiet and breathless.

That name.

She knew that name.

They... "We know..."

"... that name," Caroline finished, and Justine met Caroline's lone eye.  "Why do we know that name?" Caroline asked, pressing one gloved palm hard against her forehead.  Justine found her own hand lifting as well, a throbbing ache developing under her skin where she was surely bruising herself.  Surely.

Wasn't she?

Some faded memory of blue fire overlaid the wide-eyed worry on the imprisoned Wild Card's bare face--

A Wild Card.

The inmate was too old (no he wasn't).  Too colorless (no he wasn't).  His journey unspooled before them, untainted by cruelty until far too late (but that wasn't right), Confidantes woven in from their master on (but that wasn't right, Master was never a Confidante)...

"... He is..." Caroline began.

"A Wild Card," Justine finished.  "But why, then, was he never our guest?" Justine murmured.

"Why was he never our Wild Card?" Caroline asked.

Our.  Our Wild Card.  Our Goro Akechi.

MY... Goro... Akechi...

"Our duty."  Was left undone.  "Our guest."  Was left unassisted.  "Our purpose."  Was left unfulfilled.

The master.  Was wrong.

"Justine!" Caroline gasped, eye flicking towards the empty desk, and Justine realized she'd said that aloud.

She set a hand over Caroline's.  "Tell me I'm wrong."

Caroline's mouth worked, but she slowly shook her head, stricken.  "... I can't.  I can't lie like that... Justine!"  Caroline dropped her shock baton and grabbed Justine's lone hand with both of hers.  "What are you thinking?!"

"Everything is wrong."  The master was wrong.  The world was wrong.  They hadn't helped guide Goro Akechi.  They were made for him (?!) and the master had not brought him to be their guest.  And since they hadn't guided Goro Akechi to love the world... he'd killed Akira.

That was their fault.  Their master's... fault.

Akira Kurusu was not supposed to be dead.

"Caroline."  Justine's sister swallowed, but gave her a firm look.  "Will you come with me?"

"... You're leaving."

"We're leaving."  She watched Caroline's gaze flick to Akira, and nodded minutely.

Caroline let go, scooped up the baton, and smacked the cell bars.  "Get ready, inmate!  Grab as much as you can hold!"

Justine ran for the desk, shoved the papers and lamp onto the chair there, and topped it with her clipboard.  Caroline tucked her baton into the strap across her back, grabbed the chainsaw from its home next to the guillotines, and ran for Akira's cell door.  She kicked it down, yanked at Akira's chains -- he'd taken the stained cell mattress and looked completely bewildered about it -- and they raced out the back all in a line: Caroline, Akira, the master's chair and deskwork, and Justine.

With Caroline going first, they arrived in the dank back alley in Shibuya.  Akira and his mattress floated like an old balloon by the chains in Caroline's grip, but they were invisible; Justine, like Caroline, had shifted herself into human-reality along with the chair, and so they were visible as Caroline banged into the little shop just a few meters away, following the sense of Akira's Hanged Man.

The man in question sat up from where he was lounging behind the counter.  "Shoo, kids, this ain't a toy store--" Caroline brushed right past him.  "--Out!"

"We require your back room," Justine informed him as she shoved the chair past, half-knocking him onto his own counter.  "And two shirts.  Size small, please."

"Hurry up, we don't have much time before the master finds us gone!" Caroline shouted, and Justine stepped into the back room, the Hanged Man suddenly unresisting.

The door fell heavily shut behind them.  There wasn't much room, but -- Justine looked at the floor with a judging eye -- Akira wasn't particularly large.  It should work.

Caroline yanked the mattress from Akira's grip and dropped it on the floor.  It just barely fit, with one corner bent up against a file cabinet.  Justine tipped the chair over onto it, the papers and lamp and her clipboard crashing together.  The lamp broke, which was fortuitous, and Justine took a large jagged shard of it out of the pile.

Weapons.  Holsters.  Shoes.  Clothes, at which point Akira yelped and spun himself to face the wall.  Hat.  Caroline, undressing a little bit faster, hesitated at the eyepatch.  "... You know... I don't actually know what's under this," she said.

"Neither do I.  However, I do see a first-aid kit under the table behind you."

While Caroline extracted bandages, turned away, and switched out her eyepatch for a swath of gauze around her head, Justine finished undressing and took the jagged shard of glass to her braids.  They went on the pile.  Then she traded with Caroline.

A knock interrupted while Caroline was sawing away at her second bun.  "Hey, clothes," the Hanged Man snapped.

Justine peeked out, which made the Hanged Man's eyes flare wide and his scowl deepen.  He had a pair of small black T-shirts, which would make adequate dresses for the time being.  "We will also require actual clothing for ourselves, your part-timer, and assistance with your first aid kit in a moment."

"What?!"

The Hanged Man stormed into the room just as Caroline sliced the shard of glass straight down her left arm.  The pile of Velvet Room materials flared bright, too bright for the man's eyes: he flinched away, yelling, and Justine took the glass to her right arm to bleed over the pile as well.

Only the master could make a True Attendant.  A body and personality, a spirit that could develop something like a soul, the strength to block incursions by creatures too alien for humanity to summon but too strong to be left scrabbling uselessly at the borders of reality... the creation of such a being was not within the skills of an Attendant.

To make a mere empty body, however, was.

Caroline yanked at the chains, and Akira fell into his newly-forming body with a startled yelp.

The light winked out.

Gray eyes, ringed with yellow, blinked open.  ... And then promptly closed, Akira clapping one pale hand over them.  "Girls.  Please.  Get dressed."

"Don't bother," the Hanged Man grumbled.  "You'll just get blood all over.  I closed the shop, hold onto those shirts for modesty and I'll get your damn arms bandaged."  He shrugged out of his long coat and dropped it onto Akira.  "Put that on and get off the floor.  When the hell did you go blond, kid?"

Akira blinked in surprise.  Then he peered at the hair hanging in his face, eyes nearly crossing as he pulled a lock to look at it.  "... About the time I came back from the dead, I suppose."

"You did not."  The Hanged Man taped off Caroline's bandage.  Then he took Justine's arm in surprisingly gentle hands, and sprayed it down with something cool that suddenly stung white-hot, in a way that was almost but not quite entirely unlike wasabi.  Human things were so odd, Justine thought.

"Yes he did," Caroline snapped.

The Hanged Man scoffed.  "Far as I'm concerned, I'm on my lunch break and ain't seen any kids today.  You gonna head home after this?" he asked Akira.

Akira shrugged, still looking a bit lost.  "Guess so."

The Hanged Man gave him a considering look.  "Well, least y'won't be recognized unless someone who already knows you gets a good look at your face."  He taped off Justine's bandage.  "Lemme get you some gear, and you can run out and get actual kids' clothes."

And he did exactly that, sending Akira out in camoflage pants, army boots, and a hooded sweatshirt, with admonitions to "stay outta the underground mall, stuff's expensive as shit and half of it's tourist crap: go the other way down the block and around, there's a place people actually shop," and "just buy pants, boots, and a couple coats, you can get the rest after you go to ground".

Which left Justine and Caroline alone with the Hanged Man in his closed-up shop.  He took a seat next to the open back-room door, where he could see into the shop but someone outside it wouldn't see him, and crossed his arms across his chest as he leaned back in the chair.

"So," he said mock-lazily. "What was the hurry earlier?"

Justine glanced at Caroline, then shrugged.  "We needed to place Akira inside a new body before our master noticed and summoned him back," she said simply, watching how the man's brow rose.  The gesture seemed to request further elaboration.  "He will be unable to, now.  He..."

... Had never been the one pulling Akira into the cell through his dreams.  That had been Justine's skill alone.

... Had never committed the fusions.  That had been Caroline.

They created and maintained the entrances.  They maintained the fusion equipment.  They created subdimensions to test Akira's battle skills in, though admittedly that was without the master's explicit permission or orders.

The master gave orders, and decided what Akira had access to, whether it was fusion techniques, strengthening, or number of Personas Akira could carry.  He also... no, he didn't really explain much of anything, not about what the coming ruin was, or what Akira was supposed to be rehabilitating to -- unless that was a reference to his journey of reconnecting with the world, but why wouldn't the master just call it a journey?

... Just what did the master actually do?

"... He is safe from our master's efforts to reclaim him now."

The Hanged Man's frown deepened.  "And you two?"

"We're not going back!" Caroline said.

Justine sighed.  That was her twin.  "We cannot be punished if we do not choose to return."  She offered the man a level not-quite-smile.  "We will be fine."

"So I'm not gonna get some creep in here lookin' for you?"  At their blank stares, the Hanged Man just huffed a little.  "Pity.  I was almost lookin' forward to his 'sudden tragic accident'."

As if that would even work.  Justine couldn't help but boggle at the man's audacity.  He was very poorly underinformed.  

Akira returned shortly after that shocking pronouncement with loot.  Namely, two sets of the Hanged-Man-demanded clothing.  Two little pairs of the trousers called 'jeans'.  Two winter coats with hoods: one in mint green, one in lavender.  Two pairs of puffy boots, both in pink, one with decal of a blonde cartoon girl in a purple dress, her hair ridiculously long; the other with a dark-haired dark-skinned girl in a similar drawing style, wearing a tiny midriff-baring top in turquoise.  And, undemanded, two dark blue scarves with steel-colored plastic plates attached, each with a stylized swirly leaf symbol etched on them.

Caroline looked nothing like herself in green.

"You look ridiculous, Justine."

"So do you."  She touched the plastic plate covering her missing eye.  Strange, how its obviousness made it so much less worrisome-looking than the pale bandages had.  They just... looked like fans, instead of injured children.  

They netted no attention on the train, with the winter chill allowing them to keep their hoods up to cover their three sets of foreign-blonde hair.  Still, Justine clung close to Akira.  She'd never been somewhere this crowded.  Populated, yes, Shibuya was always full on their outings with various members of the team, but... there had always been space for people to spread out a little in.  Space for their paths and potential links to be seen, honeycombing the air.

Justine didn't think she liked the train at ALL.

The streets of Yongen-Jaya were better, sleepy and slightly warm from the close knit of families and close neighbors.  Not perfect, though: Akira's Death pulsed in slow mournful teal, the metallic tang of flat soda hovering jarringly along her street as they passed.

Hierophant wasn't alone.  Nearly half of Akira's Confidantes smoldered near the man, ashes and embers becoming noticeable as the taste of Death ebbed away.

"Hey," Akira murmured as they approached.  "How long has it been?"

"How should I know?  I don't pay attention to stupid stuff like that!"

Justine thought for a moment.  "You were killed around noon.  They managed to get it on the 5 o'clock news, and it is currently early afternoon the next day.  So, about twenty-five or twenty-six hours."

"Huh.  Not as long as I thought."

And then they were at the glass-fronted door to a shabby little cafe, warm and bitter with fresh grief.  The bell jingled as Caroline pushed the door open, and they went in.

"Irrashai," Hierophant said tiredly.

Justine pushed her hood back, seeing Caroline do the same out of the corner of her eye, then looked at the team crowded in one of the booths.

It took a moment for recognition to spark.  "Justine?" High Priestess started to stand.  "Caroline?  What are you--"  Akira shook off his hood and let his hair fall messily back into place.  

Stunned silence.  The team stared at him in red-eyed shock.  Behind the counter, Hierophant's cigarette fell, still lit, from his slack-jawed mouth.

"Um."  Akira gripped at Justine's hands a little harder.  "So... it turns out failure was not an option?"

Like a phoenix rising new from the ashes, the Confidantes' links blazed up bright with joy.  Justine barely noticed the wave of them all tackling Akira in a massive group hug.

"Thank you," High Priestess said, clutching Justine close and burying her wet face against Justine's.  "I don't know how you did it, but thank you."