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When Misaki is six years old, she’s riding in the back seat of her parents’ car, her feet kicking lazily against the booster seat as her father drives just a little bit faster than the speed limit down the Moonlight Bridge. Her mother speaks animatedly about something her coworker had said the other day, while her father laughs. For Misaki, this is enough.

Suddenly, a loud boom echoes throughout the bridge and the car swerves and crashes into the center divider. Her father stops laughing. Her mother’s body contorts in such a way that it shields her from the brunt of the impact, but looks like a rag doll from the way it hangs limply and lifelessly before her once the dust settles.

When she wakes up in the hospital later, everything is gone. All that’s left is her grandmother Mitsuko crying by her bedside while her grandfather Bunkichi speaks in hushed whispers to a doctor by the door.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, a part-timer named Aragaki comes to work at the bookstore. He’s tall enough that he can reach things on higher shelves without having to use a ladder, and he wears a coat at all times, even during summer. He goes to Misaki’s school kind of, but not really — kind of, because she’s seen him on campus before, sometimes on the rooftop with his blazer unbuttoned, his arms tucked behind his head as he lies there with his eyes closed; not really, because she hasn’t seen him at school in a long time, and he doesn’t talk about it much. But Aragaki doesn’t talk very much on principle.

Theirs is a companionable silence. He doesn’t expect her to make small talk with him, and she doesn’t expect him to go out of his way to be friendly to her. It’s comfortable, in that it doesn’t need to be stated. He comes to the bookstore and, if there are no customers, rummages through the shelves for books on cognitive psience. He doesn’t tell her why he’s so interested in the subject, and she doesn’t ask.

One day, a week before the start of the new school year, Misaki catches the eye of a boy staring at her through the window, while she’s shelving books near the front of the store. He isn’t standing anywhere close — several students and families stand and walk in his way, but he doesn’t break eye contact. His greyish hair spills in stringy waves over his shoulders, like snakes, and his eyes are a harsh, unnatural yellow. She wonders if she’s seen him before — at school, in the bookstore, somewhere in passing that he can remember when she can’t.

She doesn’t realize she’s staring too until suddenly there’s a big wall of Aragaki in front of her. “Hey,” he says, his voice rough and his brow furrowed into something almost like a glare. For a moment, he’s almost scarier than the boy who’d been staring at her — except, his anger is not directed at her. This much, she knows. “What’s going on?”

“N-Nothing,” she answers shakily, dipping her head towards the floor to avoid his gaze.

Aragaki takes one look out the window, and sets his jaw. Then, his hand is on her shoulder as he gently pushes her towards the cashier’s desk. “I left a customer on hold,” he says. “Can you cover for me?”

There is no customer on hold; the phone receiver sits where it should be. In hindsight, she never heard the phone ring at all. But Aragaki is at the front of the store, glaring out the window, and the boy who’d been staring at her stands there exactly as he was before with a smirk on his face, his gaze drifting from Aragaki to her.

(Do you wish for this to end? whispers a voice in her heart.

Yes, she answers. All of this.)

Ten years ago, Misaki’s father taught literature at Gekkoukan High School. He was adored by his students for teaching stories that they actually wanted to read, and for making them think about what those stories meant. Most days, he would come home two hours after school and scoop up Misaki in his arms, before sitting her on his lap while he worked through a stack of papers. As he underlined, circled, and scribbled on each one in red pen, he would tell her a story and explain what each student thought about the story, based on what they wrote in their paper. Then, when he was done, he would ask what she thought of the story, and what she would change about it to make it perfect.

It’s not something her actual teachers ask of her. Her first year composition teacher cared more about the way her papers were written, than about the point being made in those papers. She’d have to read stories for the class, but the class was never about those stories. Her teacher wouldn’t ask what the students thought of what they were reading. He wouldn’t ask how they felt about it all. If it had been her father instead—

—if it had been her father instead, then maybe that class would have been harder than anything else she’d ever taken. Maybe he’d make her think just as hard as he expected of his other students, picking apart each and every one of her arguments and stripping them bare until there was nothing left for her to do except to fight for what she believed.

Maybe the real world wouldn’t be so simple. There would be more to her life than just her grandparents and their bookstore. Maybe she would want more than just this simplicity, where nothing is complicated and she needs nothing more than what she already has. If it had been her father instead, maybe she would have had to take an entrance exam to gain admission into Gekkoukan High, instead of it being given to her because the Kirijo Group felt that it owed her family for its (small, removed) part in her parents’ deaths. Would she have even wanted to go to Gekkoukan High? Would there have been something in her life that made attempting that exam worth it?

But instead, Misaki returns for her second year with no more excitement or purpose than she did her first year. She goes to look at the class rosters and skims them for familiar names, and then heads to her classroom while exchanging only the barest minimum of pleasantries with  the few classmates that find it worth their time to speak with her. She picks a seat somewhere near the middle, close to the front but not in the first row, and pulls out a book from her bag to make time by pass more quickly while she waits for the teacher to show up. It’s a simple thing in a long line of simple things — nothing overly complicated, or too demanding of her attention and emotional input.

Yukari Takeba plops into the seat in front of her with a sigh, and she flips her short hair behind her shoulders — and even that is just another maybe. Years ago, when the bookstore was just a place she sometimes visited with her parents and her grandparents were kind people that were there but not all that she had, Misaki would go to the Naganaki Shrine every day after school and play with a girl named Yukari. They would play a great number of things — tag, hide and seek, with dolls that Yukari had smuggled from home even when her mother said that such things were not to leave the house — until their mothers came to pick them up.

(Misaki misses a month of school after the accident because a lot of her bones are broken and there are scars where her skin was perfectly clean before. Yukari doesn’t visit, and before that month is over, she moves away. After that, Bunkichi and Mitsuko don’t let Misaki play in the shrine because neither of them can pick her up, and ask her to come straight to the bookstore after school. Then, Bunkichi sits Misaki in his lap and reads to her, and his voice isn’t quite the same as her father’s but it makes it easy to forget that there was ever anything else, to stop thinking that there should be anything else. Mitsuko disappears into the room behind the cashier’s desk to cry, and neither Bunkichi nor Misaki says anything when she returns with puffy, red eyes and a handkerchief pressed to her nose. This small world they have is enough. It is always enough.)

Yukari Takeba swivels around on her chair and smiles at her as if they are children playing for the nth day in a row, and not like they can no longer talk to each other for longer than a few minutes without it feeling awkward, the years separating them from who they were back then. “Oh, hey!” she greets her with mildly exaggerated cheer. “Looks like we got placed in the same class!”

Misaki gives her old friend the smile she reserves for customers — practiced and mechanical, a mask that’s so easy to slip on that she can do it in her sleep. “We did!”

“Isn’t it great?” Yukari asks. “We’ll finally get to hang out!” As if they haven’t spent the last year having this exact conversation over and over. As if they haven’t promised each other to make time to catch up, and broken that promise over and over. As if Yukari’s schedule will magically free up, between archery club activities and the work she does for the student council president’s dubious community service club. As if being forced into close proximity each other for over six hours a day will somehow make up for the fact that there is no concrete benefit for Misaki to go back to the bookstore later than she already does.

“Yeah, that would be great!” Misaki says, and hopes that Yukari will drop the subject. Then, the teacher walks into the room and demands their attention at the front of the class, and Misaki is sure that this exact conversation will happen again, some days later.

There are three principles to cognitive psience, as outlined in “The Collective Unconscious and Cognitive Theory” by Wakaba Isshiki:

  1. There exists a world that lies parallel to our own, where human thoughts have the potential to become reality.
  2. This cognitive world, paradoxically, is not meant for humans, and to try to manipulate it is to go against nature itself.
  3. To exist in this cognitive world, one must have a firm grasp of their own identity and never lose sight of it.

The text speaks of a great many things, drawing from anecdotes of people who once lived among demons. No such records exist in the actual news: if there are any demons to speak of in the memories of people who live in Mikage-cho and Sumaru City, they only exist in what the media labels as mass hallucinations.

Aragaki had brought the academic journal containing this text with him on his first day as a peace offering of sorts. He spoke to Bunkichi and Mitsuko, back when Misaki was still in middle school, of complications rendering him unable to stay in Gekkoukan High’s dorms. Bunkichi loaded the boy’s arms with as much melon bread as he could find and offered him a part-time job at the bookstore on the spot. Misaki didn’t mind his company, and Aragaki never tried to take advantage of her grandparents’ generosity, so he got to stay.

Still, cognitive psience is a small field, caught somewhere between STEM and the occult — and the journal Aragaki had brought that day is not in print anywhere else. Misaki doesn’t ask him where he got it or why he felt the need to bring it to the bookstore, where the chances of someone finding it and purchasing it are slim but still there. Some days, he still goes back to it, his rough fingers ghosting over the journal’s spine as his lips curve downward and his brow furrows into something that almost looks like pain — as if he’d given up a part of himself, by bringing it to the bookstore.

When the clocks strike midnight and the city where she’s spent every day of her life distorts into something ugly and horrific, Misaki wonders if this, too, is a hallucination. It’s not something she tells her grandparents — that she lives through twenty-five hours in each day, when there should only be twenty-four — though she probably should have when she was younger and they were more insistent that she see a counselor in the months after the accident, after her release from the hospital. She wonders if the creatures she sees prowling the streets are the same demons that were seen in Mikage-cho and Sumaru City. She wonders if her grandparents would have turned into stained red coffins there, too.

(The first time she sees it, Misaki is six years old. It happens in the hospital, when suddenly the fluid in the IV drip is bright red and no one comes, no matter how loudly she screams. A sinister voice whispers in the back of her mind, the Arcana is the means by which all is revealed…)

Five days into the new school term, there’s a loud crash outside during this pocket hour that all but confirms that, maybe, this isn’t just a hallucination. Misaki is on the balcony of her grandparents’ apartment when it happens, and something seizes in her chest that makes it impossible to do what she knows is logical — to stay exactly where she is, or better, to go back inside and wait for the twenty-fifth hour to pass. Instead, she hops off the balcony while repeating to herself, mentally, that such a fall is not going to hurt her. (It doesn’t.) Then she runs.

It takes all of two minutes to learn that Isshiki’s publication didn’t lie — there really are demons in the world, and they come out only in this twenty-fifth hour that should not exist. Yukari Takeba is there, with a bow drawn that looks too real to be part of the archery club’s equipment. Her eyes drift from the demon she’s fighting to Misaki, and then she glares. “What do you think you’re doing?” she yells without questioning why Misaki is there at all. “You need to leave! Now!” Misaki doesn’t move, not out of any sort of defiance, or out of confusion — just the realization that, somehow, inexplicably, demons are real, that the twenty-fifth hour is realand it does not belong solely to her.

Yukari fires another arrow at the demon, which practically bounces off its body. Then, she reaches for a gun strapped to a pouch on her thigh and holds it to her head. “No!” Misaki cries, reaching out to — to do what? Stop her from potentially killing herself then and there, and just wait for the demon to do the job for her?

But no gunshot rings out — instead, there’s the sound of shattering glass as something large and glowing rises from her, and sets its sights on the demon. “Finish it, Io!” Yukari cries. The figure that rose from her raises its arm, and a gust of wind envelops the demon. The demon cries out in pain, a high-pitched, guttural sound, and staggers backward as well as a creature without any visible feet can. Yukari turns to glare at Misaki once more. “I’m serious!” she shouts. “You need to get out of here! You’ll—“

The demon flings one of its swords at her, knocking her back. Yukari isn’t bleeding too much — there’s only a gash on her thigh that’s too small to have come from a blade of that size — so it can’t be real swords that the demon is holding — or maybe this is another aspect of that cognitive world, where thoughts can become reality if you just believe hard enough. Yukari tries to get up, and falls immediately back down.

Misaki lunges for the gun that lies a little ways away from her friend. It doesn’t feel like a real gun — it’s too smooth, too light, and when she points it at the demon and pulls the trigger, nothing happens. Then, she thinks back to what Yukari had done just moments ago, and presses the mouth of the gun to the side of her head. She tells herself, mentally, that it won’t hurt her. (It doesn’t.)

Instead, there’s the sound of shattering glass. A large, shadowy figure rises into the air, cloaked by a veil of black mist with a white mask-like face. “Thou art I,” it says, “and I am thou.” Then, something in Misaki’s mind pulses, and suddenly that figure is no longer there. There is nothing misty about the monster in front of her now, with its black, inhuman body and the austere coffins surrounding it. There’s nothing misty about the way it lunges for the demon and rips it to shreds with its bare hands, while Misaki can barely keep her eyes open on the sidelines.

And then, as quickly as it had begun, it’s over. What looms before her now is a shadowy figure cloaked by a veil of black mist with a white mask-like face. For a moment, the air feels blissfully cool. It’s the last thing she sees before the world seems to tilt on its axis and she crumples into something soft. “A-Are you okay?” Yukari asks, as if from far away. “Please… answer me!”

(When Misaki is six years old, she’s riding in the back seat of her parents’ car, her feet kicking lazily against the booster seat as her father drives just a little bit faster than the speed limit down the Moonlight Bridge. Her mother speaks animatedly about something her coworker had said the other day, while her father laughs. For Misaki, this — having both her parents with her, having both a place she came from before and a place to go — is enough. She thinks about what she’s going to wear to school the next day, what games she’s going to play with Yukari at the shrine, what kind of stories her father will tell her when they get home.

Suddenly, a loud boom echoes throughout the bridge. Her father stops laughing. Her mother’s body contorts in such a way that it shields her from the brunt of the impact, but looks like a rag doll from the way it hangs limply and lifelessly before her once the dust settles.

Suddenly, when she wakes up in the hospital later, everything is gone and only her grandparents and their bookstore are left.)

When Misaki wakes in a hospital room for the second time, it’s Yukari that sits at her bedside and not her grandparents. “Hey…” says Yukari, her expression uneasy. “How are you feeling?”

Misaki closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Everything is too bright, too loud. She might be hallucinating, because since when did Yukari Takeba take time out of her busy schedule to spend time with her, like she’d always promised and never delivered? But there’s a throbbing pressure behind her eyes and her thoughts are painfully slow to collect. “Head hurts…” she mumbles, closing her eyes.

Yukari gives her a strained smile and laughs nervously. “Yeah, that’s to be expected. You were out for a few days. Your grandparents were so worried…”

Suddenly, as if Yukari’s words had flipped a switch in her head, it’s so much easier to think, and Misaki can’t bring herself to keep her eyes closed for a second longer. How much did her grandmother panic when she woke up to a house without Misaki safely in it? What did her grandfather have to do to hunt her down and figure out what happened?

“Don’t worry,” Yukari says quickly, before Misaki could spiral down even further. “I told them that you came out to help me with something — which is… almost true, I guess? I mean, there’s still the fact that we were both out at midnight, and you collapsed so suddenly, too… Oh! By the way, the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with you. He said you’re just overworked and exhausted.”

She can hear her grandfather’s apologies already — wondering where he went wrong, where she got the impression that she was expected to work so many hours in the bookstore while other kids her age were out having fun and going to cafes and spending time with people who weren’t several decades older than them. Her grandmother would most definitely have cried.

“So…” Yukari says slowly, awkwardly. “You… already know about the Dark Hour, huh?”

Isshiki was right, Misaki wants to say, but what are the chances Yukari would know of an obscure government scientist? “I didn’t know that’s what it was called,” she says instead.

“How long have you… known about it?”

“As long as I can remember.”

Yukari’s eyes go wide for a moment. “Wow, that’s… and you’re okay? I mean, the Shadows never bothered you or anything?”

Misaki raises her eyebrows. “You mean the demons?”

“No,” Yukari answers quickly. “I mean— yes, but they’re called Shadows. This is… oh, Mitsuru-senpai’s definitely going to want to talk to you.” She grabs her cellphone from the side table and flips it open, immediately typing away. “Wait, is this something I should really be telling them over a text message…?”

“Telling them what?” Misaki asks before she can stop herself. It’s rude of her, dreadfully impatient, but Yukari looks almost apologetic.

“Mitsuru-senpai’s been looking for people with potential for a while now,” Yukari explains. There’s a disconnect there — there’s a deeper meaning to her words, buried under layers of context that Misaki simply doesn’t have. “To think that there was someone right here under our noses… Oh! This probably isn’t making much sense to you, is it?” Yukari stands and rests her hand on Misaki’s shoulder for a moment. “When you’re feeling better… come over to my dorm after school, okay?”

Of course her grandfather is okay with her taking an afternoon off — he’d be okay with it even if she made a habit of it, and the mere thought of doing that to him makes guilt swirl sickeningly in her gut.

Misaki’s first day back in school, less than a day after waking up in the hospital, is met with little fanfare. Her homeroom teacher expresses concern, of course, but it’s halfhearted — Misaki is not involved in any school clubs, and only ever spends the barest minimum of time at school before going straight home to a glorified part-time job that isn’t strenuous in the slightest. Halfway through the school day, when her head starts to feel heavy and her thoughts turn nonsensical with fatigue, she goes to the school infirmary to sleep for the rest of the day, and it’s there that Yukari finds her and collects her to meet the student council president.

They go to Yukari’s dorm, as promised: an old-looking brick building with lots of windows and a front door that looks like something out of a fairy tale. As Yukari guides her to the fourth floor, Misaki has to pretend that climbing the stairs to get there doesn’t tire her out. When she sees the student council president, the cool senpai that half of her class drools over, and a faculty member she sees so little of that he must be important, Misaki knows immediately that she doesn’t belong here.

But Yukari guides her over to one of the couches anyway, and Misaki is too tired to go back down the stairs so soon after climbing them, so she sits down and tries to look less tired than she feels.

The faculty member peers at her, his face uncomfortably close to hers, and rubs his chin. “Fascinating!” he says. “It seems she’s had the potential for quite some time now.”

“You can tell just by looking?” Akihiko-senpai asks, raising an eyebrow dubiously.

Mitsuru-senpai clears her throat, and lays her hand delicately over a black box. “Welcome,” she says in a tone that is not at all warm or inviting, but somehow doesn’t feel too demeaning or intimidating. “We’ve been expecting you.”