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You have only been visiting the velvet room for a month when you arrive to find a stranger.

“He’s our new arrival,” Margaret tells you. “We have just begun his training; please be patient with him.”

You look to the young man standing beside her, but he’s got his head turned away, gazing off at nothing as if he finds this all so very uninteresting. He looks about your age, but you’ve learned that doesn’t mean anything with the attendants; he could be decades to centuries older. The stiff, crisp suit of his uniform seems to sit heavy on his shoulders, his hair is the same white blonde as Margaret’s –part of the uniform? - and the one eye of his you can see is a heavy gold. When he finally turns to you, his gaze is piercing, assessing and dismissing you simultaneously, and you feel a shiver run up your spine.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he says, and you think it would be impossible for him to speak with less emotion. “My name is Minato. I hope to be of service.”

“Seta Souji. It’s a pleasure to meet you too,” you say, still a little unsettled. When the flashes of lights outside the limousine hit his face, he seems pale and otherworldly in a wholly different way to Margaret. He has none of her warm assurance or professionalism, none of her expertly simulated human charm, and you hope you can continue dealing with her and not need to brave these treacherous new waters.

Luckily, it is still Margaret that steps up to assist you, setting out the compendium and helping you through the eldritch, bureaucratic processes of demon management. Minato just watches silently from behind her as you play at fusion. Whenever you glance at him – which is probably more often than you would want to admit to – he’s just peering around her to look at the cards, head cocked like he’s analysing the patterns she’s trying to help you assemble.

You’re ashamed to admit it, but his presence might be one of the reasons you find yourself lingering just a little longer, fingers toying with cards as though there are moves left to be made, though you’ve exhausted every possibility. He’s compelling in a way you don’t fully understand, like his approval is a prize, like his company would be a blessing if only he’d deign to give it to you. He doesn’t speak the whole time you’re there, but there it feels like there is always space left empty, just in case.

Even after you leave for the day, you find that you don't forget him, the quiet, judging gleam of his gaze flickering through your mind. Normally you write the mysteries of the velvet room off as wholly ineffable, but you're curious about Minato, about who he is and how he got there. A 'new trainee' for the velvet room, when you'd been assuming its inhabitants just sort of always were – and one that’s off-putting, unsettling, and captivatingly magnetic.

You don't really want to work with him, but you wouldn't mind getting to know him. 

 

You don't think about him again until after your next run through the television world. A long day of fighting coupled with too many close calls left you and your friends ragged, collapsed on the floor at the entrance while Yosuke rattles off a list of all the wounds too minor for you to have bothered healing them. 

"Let's go home," Chie groans, as Yosuke demands she examine a burn on his pinkie, "I need a big meal and a hot bath." 

"Can you wait a moment?" you ask, "I just need to check in." 

The group consensus is that they can wait so long as they don't have to move, and you slip through the blue door and out of space. There's a vague anticipation of seeing Minato again at the back of your mind, but it's not realized fully until you finally step in and spot him, a midnight blue shadow at the back of the limousine. 

His eyes flicker over you, and you become very suddenly aware of how sweat-soaked and dishevelled you must look after all your exertion. You quickly try to straighten out the slump from your shoulders, but there’s only so much you can do, and only so much energy left to be spared. 

"Welcome," Margaret says, warm honeyed voice everything Minato's stare isn't. "How may I assist you today?" 

She does her best to coach you through fusion, but the handful of visits you've had are not enough for you to have learned all the inheritance rules of the tarot and you feel like your 'just try everything' approach is not a winning one. It might be some rule of the velvet room that the inhabitants guide guests but don’t actually correct them, as Margaret watches you pick out combinations with an adamantly serene expression. Eventually you give up and ask her to fetch the compendium so you can recall the personas you knew worked before, and in the seconds that her back is turned, your gaze slides inevitably to Minato. 

He's been watching the whole time, you realise, sitting neatly by Igor's side but with his head cocked and eyes fixed firmly on the cards laid out before you. Trying to learn how fusion works, or marvelling at your incompetence? Either way, he catches you looking and glances sideways at his master. Igor nods to him, and Minato follows whatever cue that was, gets up from his seat and slowly moves around the car to stand just behind you. 

"You're having trouble?" he asks, and he actually sounds a little interested, that small upward tick in his voice capturing an embarrassing amount of your attention. 

"Yeah," you admit, "I thought I'd gained enough strength lately to make something better, but..." 

He reaches around you, selects two cards and slides them towards you. "Try these," he asks. "The result will be able to shield its own weaknesses, if you use it correctly." 

He's not a novice to this, then - or at least not as much as you are. Margaret slides back into place before you, eyes glittering with interest, and you offer the pair of cards to Igor. You can afford to make at least one mistake, and take him on faith.

The resulting fusion does not have a selection of skills that would usually appeal to you, but you can see the strategy underlying it. Minato is still at your shoulder, and when you glance up at him you guess that he’s waiting for your opinion. You’re not sure his fusion will see much use, but it’s not bad and this is a new job for him, you ought to be polite. “Thank you for your help,” you tell him, “It’s a clever choice.”

He just nods, looks back at your other cards. There is something oddly intimate to his expression as he considers your persona, something you don’t understand. “You don’t have a lot of healing or support skills.”

“Yosuke’s persona can heal,” you tell him.

“And what if Yosuke’s dead?”

You recoil from the suggestion, stare at him appalled, but he doesn’t blink, gaze hard and impassive. “He’s not going to die,” you start, but Minato’s eyes narrow a fraction in disagreement and you try to force yourself to swallow the possibility, no matter how unpalatable it is.  “If – if – that ever happens, then… then, we’ll…” panic, you think, with no idea how to answer him.

Minato is completely unreadable as he looks at you. “You haven’t been fighting long, have you?”

“Minato,” Margaret says, tone reproachful.

He bows his head briefly, and he is nothing but clinical when he speaks again. “Forgive me for getting distracted. It would be useful for you to have multiple healing options, should the need arise.”

He doesn’t say much else after that, but you take the advice you were given, fuse a healer, and leave a lot more confident in your line-up. But you still think about Minato, and how he’d looked satisfied when you’d managed to make something to meet his specifications. You wonder what had happened to him before; he had sounded like he was speaking from experience. Do the attendants ever get to leave the velvet room?

You half-carry Yosuke back out of Junes, nod through Chie’s scattered battle plans, and you think about who Minato might be.

 

"If it's not too much trouble," Margaret says the next time you're there, "I would like to make a request of you."

"Sure," you say, because everyone has been asking you for everything these days and it's oddly satisfying to be getting so much done. "What do you need?"

"I'd like for you to fuse a specific persona for me," she says. “An Ippon-datara that knows the skill Sukukaja. Do you think you can?"

You are not sure, but you think you can just trial-and-error it out, and nod. "I'll do my best."

"Thank you, Souji," she says. "Perhaps if you get stuck, Minato would be willing to help you. He has... quite the talent for fusion."

Minato has been hanging back as he usually does, but he's still watching and inclines his head slightly at Margaret's words. You wonder what they’re training him for, if he already knows this kind of thing, but then you know so little about the velvet room you can't really start to guess. On a whim, you ask him, "Is there anything you want?"

He stares. "Sorry?"

"Since I'm doing something for Margaret," you say quickly. "I could do something for you, too." You feel ineloquent under his cold gaze, but slowly he shifts away from the back wall and approaches, looking thoughtful.

"That's right," he says, looking at Margaret, "I could make requests too, couldn't I?"

"I heard Elizabeth kept you quite busy," she tells him, and she's smiling more openly than she does to you. "Perhaps you could avoid emulating her devotion to minutia."

He nods, faces you, says, "In the television world, have you seen any red shadows?"

"Once," you tell him. "We decided to avoid it."

"That's smart," he says, and you feel pleased that at least you've managed to say the right thing to him once. "They're stronger than regular shadows. But, I'd like you to face them. Kill five, bring me back whatever they drop." He pauses, cocking his head like he's considering something, tapping into knowledge outside himself, and then says, “They look like kings, and leave something fibrous behind. Bring me those.”  

You're not sure you or your friends really need the extra challenge of a more powerful group, not when you're struggling in the television world as it is. But if Minato wants you to kill them, you would hope there's a reason beyond him wanting their trophies. Maybe they're valuable. Maybe he hates them. Maybe he actually does just want their prizes. You’re not surprised at the swell of the urge to please him, to bring him whatever it is he's after, so that maybe he'll look a little less austere. "Is there a reward?" you ask, half-joking and half-considering your very light wallet.

"There is," he says. "I'll help you with Margaret’s request." His mouth twitches with the most appealing hint of a smirk, and that’s it, you’re sold, you practically trip over your tongue to make your promise to him.

 

The red shadows are powerful, but you manage – just barely – to kill them. The healer you fused sees a lot of use in that fight, working in tandem with Yosuke’s Jiraiya to bring you all back from the brink of death over and over again. You know that you couldn’t have managed it with just Jiraiya, and fear and gratitude spike down your spine in alternating, terrifying waves.

You would tell Minato you owe him your life, but you’re not sure he wants to hear it. He’s the one that put you in danger, besides, and you lead your team out of the castle with a restless tension in your gut.

 

"Here," you say, tossing him a handful of the king’s moustache fibres, glad to have them out of your hands. "Five, like you requested."

Minato takes them from you, rolls them together between his elegant fingers, and just nods. "Thank you," he says, and you're almost insulted by how little he seems to care about the prize.

"They were difficult fights," you say pointedly, and you realise it's rude but you're hoping to wring just a little bit of gratitude out of him. He asked you for these. "But we managed."

He stares at you, eyebrows raised. "So I hope you gained valuable combat experience."

You get it. "Oh," you say, a blush colouring your cheeks. "Uh - my apologies. I misinterpreted the purpose of your request."

He nods once, and he still doesn't seem to care. His disinterest in you is scalding. He holds out your hard-won trophies palm-up, saying, "You can keep these, if you like. They might sell for a lot, if you know the right merchant."

"I think I do," you say, taking them back, not nearly petty enough to refuse them. "Again, uh, I'm sorry I didn’t realise -"

"It's fine," he says before you can finish. "Have you thought about Margaret's fusion at all?"

You have not, and at least his disinterest means his stare isn’t too admonishing when you admit that. “I have made Ippon-datara,” you say, trying to claw back a little credibility. “And I’ve seen Sukukaja on a few other personas, so… I’m sure it’s possible.”

“Of course it’s possible,” he says, and of course if he was going to use any kind of inflection it would have to be condescension. You swallow it down. “You just need to learn the laws of skill and arcana inheritance.”

It really might be some rule of the velvet room, that he can't directly help you, not without his master’s permission like he had the other day. He teaches you the rules, and he tells you the answer is in the cards you hold, and then he repeats some very specific rules in his dry, pointed tone until you find the solution. He looked bored by the end of his teaching, and you so earnestly wish that you could impress him.

You impress Margaret, though. She lauds your valiant efforts, pays you handsomely, and you leave with your head down and a bitter pang in your heart all the same.

 

You try a lot harder to learn the inheritance laws. You start writing them out instead of your history notes, try and cobble a chart together to hang on the wall of your room for you to look at in those rare hours you spend there. Nanako tells you it’s ugly, and draws you up a new one in glitter pens. You hang that up instead.

 

He’s taken over helping you with fusion completely, though he never moves the cards for you directly anymore, not without that little nod from Igor. “Charm skills are powerful,” he says, looking off to the side like it’s a thought that has suddenly struck him.

It’s not like it’s not obvious what he’s getting at – though it is still not obvious to you exactly which fusion is going to give you charm skills – but you still object. “I thought they only had a low chance of success,” you argue, and his cool gaze is almost enough to dissuade you from dissension on its own. “Wouldn’t it be better to pursue guaranteed damage, end fights fast and not waste time trying to lock down enemies?”

“If you think that’s the best course, you should take it,” he replies, lifting his chin just a little, like he is perfectly willing to let you dig your own grave.

You decide that if they’re not training him on fusion, that they must be attempting to coach his hospitality skills. You fuse - and keep - a persona that knows Marin Karin, and when you grudgingly face him the hint of a smirk playing over his lips is enough to drop your aggravation immediately.

“One day you’ll have to tell me how you know all this,” you say, trying to hide the rising flush to your cheeks. “How you talk like you know what works against shadows.”

“Isn’t it my job to know?” he asks, and his smile is gone, he’s as cold as the world rushing past in the dark, and you wish you knew how to hold his interest for more than three seconds at a time.

 

Margaret asks you for another odd skill-persona combination, and Minato offers to help you if you’re able to kill another set of red shadows. The way he asks is so casually dismissive you burn a little at the insult, but you agree to both.

You're getting the hang of red shadows, you think, and you manage to keep them locked down under love spells while your team hammers their elemental weaknesses. Another victory you owe to Minato, though you tell the others that while your strategy came from advice you took, they did all the real work to achieve it. 

The experience you get from the fight is worth more than the handful of trinkets the creatures drop, and you look at them for a while, consider how worthless they're going to be to Minato. Is he offering to help you out of pity, or could it be some part of his training, to ‘challenge’ the guests? His actions seem to speak to concern for your wellbeing. You just wish his expression would too.  

When you present the trophies to him, he's as disinterested as you expect. "For the fusion," he starts, but it's your turn to cut him off.

"I've already completed Margaret's request," you say, and you can't help but smile just a little at the flash of surprise on his face.

He bows his head for a moment to hide it, but when he looks back up there's actual interest shining in his eyes. "Well done," he says, and it sounds genuine. Something warm and hopeful unfolds within you, and Minato tells you, "I'm glad that you've begun to learn on your own. If you can master fusion, then the shadow’s world will fall away before you."

"I'm not sure about that," you say, "but it's getting easier and harder in different ways."

"That's to be expected." He glances around the limousine, and he looks livelier than he has before. You feel so eager to see more of him than the side he usually presents, you’re almost greedy with want. "I'm afraid I can't think of a suitable reward for your work, if you don't need my assistance."

"I could still use some help," you say. "There are still things I want to learn."

“Then I’ll continue helping you with the cards,” he replies, and there’s almost warmth in his voice, you’re sure, there’s a hint of something proud to him, and you think he’s avoiding looking at you just so you won’t see it.

It’s fine. It’s so much more than you thought you could get. You spend half an hour fixing your persona, and he is that little bit more pleasant to work with the whole time. You leave grinning.

 

The next time you visit the velvet room he’s not there, and embarrassingly, Margaret catches you looking. “Our sister Elizabeth came to visit today,” she tells you apologetically, “and she is always so excited to see him.”

“’Our’ sister?” You consider the similarities – and the chasm of differences - between Margaret and Minato and ask, “Minato is your brother?”

A flicker of a smile, but Margaret only says, “In a way,” and moves smoothly on. “You need our services?”

You do, but your heart isn’t in it and your attention wanes, drifting to the corners where he used to stand before he took over as your primary assistant. Margaret is polite to a fault, but eventually she clears her throat, a courteous little sound, and says, “If his absence is troubling you, I should let you know that he will be back by your tomorrow.”

“Oh,” you start immediately, blood rising in your cheeks, “No, I mean, I won’t have time for another week, I need to complete these tasks today… What were we looking at, again?”

She patiently guides you through the fusion you need, and you apologise twice before you leave. You stop looking for him, but it is a very conscious effort on your part, and returning to a space where he has never been is a relief from the persistent idea that he might appear if you hope hard enough.

You might need to actually address your feelings soon, if they’re getting so obvious and out of hand, but Minato is only just beginning to warm to you. It might be impossible, anyway. He might not exist in space and time, he might not be real, all your bitter dreaming might be a total waste.

Might not, though.

You’ve never really thought of yourself as stubborn, but the idea of giving up on Minato makes you dig your figurative heels in. No harm in finding out if high school confessions work on ethereal beings, you’ve already embarrassed yourself enough in front of Margaret.

You’ll probably embarrass yourself worse before this is over.

 

You make yourself wait a week before you return, because you’re busy and you have friends and homework and training and a job, because you don’t need a new persona and you’re keeping on top of the television world, because you don’t want to look strange, over-eager, desperate. But you’re there the second your imagined timer runs out.

Margaret and Igor are out, for once, but he's there. There’s a gramophone on the table, brass and antique, and he’s fiddling with it with such concentration that he doesn’t even notice your entrance. When you shut the door behind you, he startles, quickly standing and falling into a low bow. "Greetings,” he says, sounding as though he’s taking the responsibility of being the only attendant seriously. “How may I assist you today?"

“I was just here for the usual,” you tell him, approaching slowly as he takes the gramophone and sets it on the floor, wondering where on earth he got the thing. You doubt he’d give a satisfying answer. “You’re here alone today?”

“Igor and Margaret had other business to attend to,” he replies, setting out the compendium. He’s seated before it, crisp as ever, but you find that without the spectre of humiliation in front of Margaret, you have less interest in fusion than you ought to.

“Do you like music?” you ask him.

He hesitates, hands on the edge of the compendium, like he’s going to tell you to get to work or to leave. When he shuts the book, you think you must have crossed some invisible Velvet Room line about not visiting for chit-chat, but he answers you. “Not really.”

“Ah,” you say, “Then why the gramophone?”

“I used to listen a lot of music,” he tells you, and you get stuck on that used to even as he continues, “It wasn’t for enjoyment, so much as to block out the rest of the world’s noise.”

You’re not sure you’ve ever heard him say so much about himself before, and you are deathly afraid you’re going to say the wrong thing and ruin it, moment shattering under your careless words. You hold back your real, desperate questions about who he used to be, and keep your tone light. “So the gramophone is… habit?”

“It’s just something I missed,” he murmurs. He stares out the window, and you notice the water streaking down the limousine’s windows, blurring all the lights beyond. You can’t even guess at the expression on his face, distant and lonely, like he’s looking across the world. You almost jump when he snaps the compendium back open. “I should help you with this,” he says, not as cold as he has been, but still deliberately shifting the mood. “Time is precious. I’m sure it’s enough of a struggle for you to get here.”

“It is,” you say, and sit before him, watching the shadows of the rain play over his face and trying to want him less. If the mood is gone, there’s no reason not to try your luck. "You always talk like you know what it’s like, for me. Like you've done all this before, yourself."

He looks at you for a long time. The car and the world outside are silent, and you’re waiting for his dismissal, waiting for derision to cross his face as he has enough of you, once again. But there is something different with the rain, with Igor and Margaret gone, and though it takes a long time, he answers. “I have.”

You try to feel surprised, but you can't, and it shows on your face. He manages to smile just a little at your attempt. It explains so much and so little about him, and you have to ask, "Is that what happens to people who come in here? Will I be offered a position?"

"No," he says. "My case is... unusual, I think. I'm not sure yet. But I'm not meant to be here."

“I see,” you lie, not sure if you should be relieved or not. “So you – I mean, you did this before, you came to the Velvet Room and you fought shadows?”

"I used to be the same as you," he says, and it's not really an admission, just a weary fact. He sounds tired just saying it, but he goes on for you, and you listen so intently, trying to memorise his every word. "I fought different shadows in a different place, but I had the same power of the wild card."

"And what happened?"

He just shrugs. "A lot of things." After a moment’s consideration, he adds, “A lot of things that will not happen to you. You don’t need to look so concerned.  Do you really have this much time to waste?”

You don’t, and he knows it. He’s more helpful than usual though, and you don’t know if it’s because he no longer needs a nod from Igor or if it’s his master’s absence, but he shows you some tricks you never could have figured out on your own, and you leave the velvet room with the strongest set of persona you’ve ever held.

And you feel like you understand him a lot better; the bond between you is growing, but there’s no card for him in any deck.

 

Your friends notice how restless you get between trips to the television world, and they notice how distracted you seem in classes you used to do well at. Thoughts of Minato fill your mind because your lucky guess was right, and now you know the truth you can’t let it go.

He was like you, he fought shadows, he was human, and now he’s an ethereal attendant helping you manage your demons. You spend too many hours thinking what that must be like, how you would feel, what you would do. It makes it harder to tell if he was always that aloof, or if that’s just how he’s coping.

You’re not sure you would cope.

 

The fusion requests from Margaret get more difficult, and you try your best to meet them on your own. Minato keeps asking you to kill red shadows for him, and his reward varies, from help to huge handfuls of yen when you don't need assistance. "Advice is all well and good," he says, "but I think practical assistance might prove more useful to you every now and then."

"It really does," you say. “Pulling demons from the compendium – why is it so expensive?”

“A price for energy,” he tells you like it’s an explanation. You suspect all the money he gives you is your own, returned, and waiting to cycle back into his hands. “It’s worth it, though. Your persona are your main weapons, the heart of your power. Letting your line-up slip because of the cost would be foolish.”

“I know,” you mutter, before it occurs to you that he knows and you have to ask, “Did you – when you fought shadows, you had your own persona?”

“I told you I had the power of the wild card,” he says coolly, and he’s always cold when he has to repeat himself but it’s not your fault that he’s so completely overwhelming. “I went through a lot of persona, found them, fused them like you’re doing now. They were… very useful.”

You try to imagine him fighting shadows, cold and aloof and totally lethal, and a little shiver runs down your back. It’s impossible to imagine him as anything other than viciously, gloriously victorious. "Do you still have any left?"

"I do, actually," he says, and you catch the flicker of a smile, a strange kind of warmth to him as he looks aside. You haven't seen this expression on him before; it's a kind of eagerness that makes him more human than usual. "I managed to keep that piece of myself."

You know your personas represent your connections, and wonder if that’s true of him, too, how many friends he made and lost and still carries around in his heart. You want to see it for yourself, and you want to see him active and focused like he must have once been. "We could battle."

"You want to fight me?" he asks, surprised, but there's a strong thread of amusement in his words. "Are you sure?"

"I just meant a practice fight,” you say quickly, “Not one with any kind of risk. You're all about getting me experience, aren't you?"

"You’ve got me there," he agrees, mouth curling up into a smile that is not wholly kind. "Alright. I'll meet you in your television world later. Come prepared."

 

You decide – carefully, with some reservations - to go into the television world on your own, trusting that Minato will not kill you and you won’t need your team around to revive you. None of the others have ever met him before, and bringing them in now for a battle like this would just feel odd to you. Intrusive. You don’t want to examine the feeling.

Minato is waiting for you in the foyer when you fall gracelessly into the world. His fingers smooth the fox’s fur, and he watches smirking but without comment as you pick yourself up, always embarrassed to look a mess in front of him. “Are you ready?” he asks, straightening up. There’s a pair of elegant midnight blue glasses perched on his nose, and you can’t decide if it makes less sense for them to be from the velvet room or from Teddie.  

“As ready as I’m going to be,” you tell him. He nods and leads you off through the fog, a path you haven’t taken before and that seems to close up behind you. There’s another door to nowhere standing in the world, ornate gold, and Minato pushes it open.

You’re expecting something else like the velvet room, tasteful and regal, but instead the door leads into a darkened classroom. Minato doesn’t hesitate, and you follow him in. The windows have been blacked out, and all the desks are pressed up against the door. Green fog curls around your ankles and you feel like you’ve entered a different part of non-space, the flavour on your tongue unfamiliar. “Where is this?” you ask.

“It’s nowhere,” he replies, “A part of the television world, replicating a place that never existed.” But you get the sense that it’s not nowhere to him. He stands across the room from you, and the door behind you has disappeared; now that you’re looking, the ceiling is high for a classroom, the floor wider. He’s brought you to an arena. “I promise not to deal any lasting damage.”

It’s less assuring to hear him say it. You unsheathe your sword, breathe deep, and ready a card, but you’re more interested in seeing what Minato’s going to do than getting the first strike in yourself.

He’s still calm, of course, but his hands drop out of his pockets like he’s finally getting serious.  From his hip he lifts a sliver gun, the weapon unnaturally natural in his hands. Your first wild thought is that he's planning on shooting you. Then he turns it on himself.

“Don’t -” you shout, but he’s already pressing it to his temple, finger on the trigger.

He calls, “Messiah!” and the gun blows glassy shards of him clean through his skull. Time seems to slow as the glass fades to nothing before it can fall, and Minato doesn’t stop staring at you, heavy gold gaze unreadable.

A moment later, a god rises up before you.

You take a step back, knowing in a second that you are hopelessly outclassed. You don’t know why you’d thought his skill level would be anywhere near yours, but now your assumption is a bright-red mistake that you can’t take back. His persona shudders with power and energy, its clasped hands shifting over the hilt of its weapon, watching you with sad eyes. It reminds you of him; but of course, it’s his persona, it should feel the way he does, distant and tragic and overwhelming.

“Okay,” you say, trying to keep the nerves out of your voice because you know that if that creature decides to strike you will be obliterated, “I underestimated you. Shall we call this off now?”

“You said you wanted the experience,” he replies coolly from behind his monster and okay, he’s got you there, but there is no way this isn’t going to hurt. “You’re going to fight foes stronger than you are. Try and learn from this.”

You try. You really, absolutely do your best, bring out every persona in your arsenal, try to chip at Messiah and try to find a weakness. You run out of options, except for light and dark because Minato taught you not to rely on instant-kill moves, but now he’s the one smirking at you from behind his god, recovering from every scratch you deal him instantly, and just generally being more of a smug bastard than you thought him capable of.

“Had enough?” he asks, and he’s less calm and condescending than you would have expected. He sounds almost mocking – like he’s having fun. You didn’t know Minato was capable of fun. There were probably ways to learn this that wouldn’t end with your face getting mashed into the floor, but still – how long must it have been, since he got to feel power coursing through him? Maybe this will be more tolerable if you can reframe it as an indulgence for him.

“I don’t think I’ve got much of a chance against you,” you tell him. His smirk broadens, and if it wasn’t infuriating it would be infinitely distracting. “So will you let me call it now?”

“You still haven’t earned your experience,” he replies, and then Messiah starts to glide forward, raising its huge sword like it’s ready to cleave your head in.

You dodge and run for as long as you can, but it pursues; you try to summon a persona to shield you, but Messiah cuts through it like air, leaving you tired and just as defenceless. The edge of its weapon clips you eventually, scoring a long, bloody gash in your shoulder. The strength behind the blow is immeasurable and it sends you sprawling back across the arena to land in a heap by a stack of desks. Messiah is there a second later, weapon poised to strike, and you flinch, try to brace yourself, try as hard as you can to believe that Minato is not going to kill you.

He doesn’t. Messiah hits you with a burst of bright light and you feel the heavy cut it dealt close over, your skin healing like it was never broken to begin with. Your blood on its blade is the only testament to damage dealt. White light swallows up the persona, and the air seems to ease with its absence, leaving you space to struggle upright and check the rip in your shirt, the smooth skin underneath.

Minato approaches you casually, stands in the place Messiah stood with his hands in his pockets and a pleased curve on his lips, and you think you’re looking up at something no less powerful. He’s smiling, just a little, and offers you a hand up.

“I feel like you enjoyed that a lot more than I did,” you tell him, “And I’m not really sure what I’m meant to have learned from getting so totally flattened.”

“Well,” he says, “Maybe next time you’re up against a foe that strong, it will occur to you to run.”

“That’s not – it was a practice fight,” you protest, and Minato just laughs, and his laugh is completely unreasonable, very rude, and possibly the greatest thing you have ever heard. He sounds happy, and you shut up, deciding to hope he was just joking. “Were you using this as an excuse to play with your persona?”

“This fight was your idea,” he replies, trying to keep acting cool but his gold eyes are dancing, and his joy is almost luminous to you. You want to keep seeing him like this forever. “I don’t think I need to justify my own motives for agreeing.”

You snort, and ask, “Is being mysterious part of the velvet room contract?”

“In a way,” he says, and laughs again. He opens the door back into the television world, and you do not want to leave, not when he glances back at you with something like fondness in his eyes. “Didn’t you have fun?”

You have to consider. The cost of one sleeve and a bounty of fear, to see genuine happiness on Minato’s face. “I guess I did.”  

 

It's less than a week before the busy days of your friends match up with the off days of all your commitments and you find yourself dawdling in the shopping district with nothing to do. You don’t want to go home and study; you need a break from the investigation, from all the stress that your attempts to solve the mystery have brought. You find yourself drawn to the blue door, and you don’t need new persona, you might just be wasting their time, but you can’t resist the temptation and you head inside.

Margaret greets you as always, but Minato stands and bows too, with an almost friendly expression. You refuse to acknowledge how overly pleased you are to see it. “Good afternoon,” you say to them, embarrassingly aware that there’s no purpose to your visit, “I was just wondering if, ah… if you wanted to chat.”

“Chat?” Margaret repeats, and even she is not professional enough to keep the amusement out of her voice. “Perhaps Minato has time for that.”

“Of course,” he tells her. He glances at Igor before he turns to you, sounding surprisingly hesitant as he says, “The attendant that used to serve me would sometimes request – excursions – outside of the velvet room. Perhaps you’d like to show me around Inaba?”

You light up at that. “You’re able to leave the velvet room?” you ask, not caring how over-eager you sound. “Inaba’s a bit quiet, but of course, I’d love to take you out.”

It’s bad phrasing, but he smiles anyway, follows you out of the limousine and back into the world. Seeing Minato against the backdrop of the run down shopping district is totally surreal, and he looks wildly out of place with his uniform on. Some of the locals stare at your so obviously otherworldly companion, but at least no one approaches to ask where the hell he’s from.

“It’s foggy,” he murmurs, looking around the shifting grey air. You would call it damp and unpleasant, but he just nods and states, “It’s nice.”

“Is there anywhere you want to go?” you ask him as you start walking.

He shrugs, seeming content just to look around. “It feels like a long time since I’ve been outside. Just getting the fresh air is good.” After a moment of consideration he adds, “I think I can still eat – is there anywhere nearby that does beef bowls?”

There is, and you take him there, and you try not to stare too much as he sits in the little shop and delicately, steadfastly consumes an entire beef bowl on his own. “Did you used to take your attendant out for these?” you ask.

“No,” he replies, “Elizabeth knew a lot less about modern Japan. She wanted to see things like wishing fountains and the train station. It was fun.”

“Elizabeth is – your sister?”

He laughs dryly, and you blame Margaret for being so vague. “No. Or, maybe. She’s Margaret’s sister more than mine. They have a brother, too, but I’ve only met him a few times. I don’t know if they’re actually related, or if they just call each other siblings and I really am part of the family. They’re still better than I am at the art of speaking while saying absolutely nothing.”

At least you can agree with him on that. “So how did you end up in the velvet room? Or is it a cosmic secret?”

“It might be,” he says, but seems to be considering what he can tell you. “The important part is… let’s say that I died, in a physical sense. And Elizabeth brought me back. She actually left the velvet room for some time, to try and find a way to release me… I’m very grateful.”

“You sound… very fond of her,” you say, trying to sound neutral.

“Of course,” he replies. “She’s the only friend I haven’t lost. Aside from you, of course.”

"I'm glad you think of us as friends."

"I'm still that human, at least," he replies. "Margaret and Igor are... pleasant, but not much like people anymore. In the past I wouldn't have minded the lack of company, but... I made good friends, before I died. Teammates like you have."

"You miss them?" It's a stupid question, and you regret asking it from the way his face creases, closing off to you.

"Yes," he says, "I miss them."

You walk him back to the velvet room slowly. The fog turns to rain, and it's only soft but enough to drive most of the locals inside. You almost ask if he wants to stop at the shrine, but he doesn't even glance at it, so you don't bother. What would he do, pray for his own spirit?

“You stare at me a lot,” he murmurs, making you jolt.

You feel heat creep up your cheeks. Of course you were obvious enough to notice. “Ah – sorry. I just… sorry.”

He chuckles a little, and leaves you to stew in your embarrassment for the rest of the walk back. You don’t think he’s offended, but that doesn’t do much to make you feel better about things. Getting to go out in the real world with him, like you’re on a date, you think it might have gone to your head.

You hope Margaret hasn’t told him how often she catches you staring. She probably has. Completely humiliating. 

"I do like you," he says abruptly as you reach the blue door. You stare, and he adds, "I've been told I'm hard to read."

"You really are." Even now, you don't know what meaning of 'like' he was using. You try the safest option, and say, "I like you too."

He smiles, a soft, genuine curve to his lips that you have to drag your gaze up from, as though you'll be able to handle the warmth in his eyes any better. "It's lonely, being the leader, the wildcard," he tells you. "When they all look up to you, it adds weight, distance, leaves you with no one for yourself. The others will never quite know. But you can come to me."

"Yeah," you say, feeling just a little numb, "I’ll be sure to."

He disappears back through the doorway, and you spend too long looking at the space where he was. You can only hope that he’s still human enough that the outing meant something like what it meant for you, even if only a fraction.

 

You stand in the lobby of the television world after a very long trip, swaying on your feet. Behind you, Kanji’s growling about needing to get out, Naoto’s still bleeding, stoic but sagging, and Yosuke’s trying to ask what exactly is in the velvet room that’s drawing you to it like that. All you know is that you’re tired and sweaty, blood drying under your fingernails and more still dripping down your jaw, and you want to see Minato.

You tell the others to head home, and that you’ll see them at school the next day. They’re reluctant to leave you alone, but they go after you promise not to go looking for shadows, and you are free to step through the glowing blue door.

Minato isn’t there alone, but he approaches you first, eyes flickering over your injuries. He doesn’t fuss, of course, but he asks, “Rough trip?” in a tone that you are almost confident indicates concern. He looks indifferently professional through his assessment, but you don’t believe it after he said he likes you. You are very stuck on the fact that he said he likes you, and it triumphs over the stiff set of his shoulders now.

“Yeah,” you say, deciding to answer like he actually wants to know, “We all ran out of energy pretty deep in and… I don’t know. I think we started exploring about five hours ago. It feels like an eternity.”

“Why don’t you have a seat?” he asks. His voice is soft. You’re in great danger of thinking he cares, but then again, maybe he does. If he knows he’s hard to read, he could make it easier for you.

You take his offer though, sitting down on one of the soft car cushions near the back of the limousine. You’re waiting for Minato to come and ask you what you want to do, but he’s taking his time collecting the compendium or whatever else he’s doing, and your head settles back against the seat while you wait. It’s dangerously comfortable, and you wonder what’s taking Minato so long.

Margaret and Igor have turned away, at the other end of the limousine, and the other end of the limousine appears to be more distant than it did a moment ago. The thrum of the engine is steady, rhythm regular, and you feel your eyes start to close against your will, like the lids are weighted and they’ll seal as soon as they shut. Sleep feels a second away, like it’s hovering, waiting for your weakness. It would be beyond rude, surely.

It is not a conscious decision, in one of the truer senses.

When you wake up, you feel groggy and bleary and hopelessly uncomfortable because you fell asleep sitting upright in a car and now your neck and shoulders ache in revenge. But as soon as you’ve wiped the sleep from your eyes, most of the bleariness fades and you feel that you’re a lot more human than you were when you entered the velvet room. So they’re willing to let you sleep in their interdimensional, magical space – charming. Or, rather, Minato invited you to have a nap.

He’s sitting at the front of the room reading, turning the pages of some huge elegant book with cursive gold ink on black paper, and he doesn’t seem to have noticed you’re awake. There’s no one else, just him and the endless hum of the car driving to nowhere. There’s a warm weight on your shoulders, and when you shift it, it falls off; a thick, cosy, midnight blue blanket. It feels velvety because of course it does, and it was also definitely placed on you after you slept.

You hope that was Minato, and not Igor.

You get up slowly, cracking your neck and wincing at the kinks. You’re still gross with your own blood and sweat, but you notice all the other injuries you’d picked up in your expedition have vanished to nothing, no solid ache over your ribs from a square, blunt hit, no long, stinging cut from a wicked scythe. Your uniform is still torn, but your skin is not.

“Sleep well?” Minato asks, and there’s a mocking edge to his voice but it’s the kind that comes out when teasing a friend. The warmth of your sleep stays in you, flutters in your chest as you fold the blanket and slowly tread up the length of the car to him.

“I did,” you say. “How long was I out for?”

He shrugs. Maybe time doesn’t matter to him, but you are a high schooler with human obligations. Getting your phone out in the velvet room seems inherently wrong, too mundane for an impossible place, but you need to, and it tells you that it’s well past midnight. No reception, of course, or you know you’d be seeing missed calls from Dojima.

He won’t be pleased, but that’s a problem for later. You’ve probably built up enough credit with him that you can get away with this.

Minato watches you set your phone away, eyes almost jealous on the technology. But he doesn’t mention it. He just tells you, “You should be careful in the television world. There’s no coming back from a mistake in a place like that.” His voice is heavy, severe, and drenched with concern.

He said he likes you. You ask, “Is it your job, as an attendant, to give me advice like that? To try to keep me alive?”

The look he gives you says that he knows what you’re trying to do. “It’s my job as an attendant to meet the needs of the guest,” he says. “The advice is as a friend. Do you need me to say outright that I’d miss you if something went wrong?”

Your skin prickles. You can’t help it; “Yes.”

“Well, I won’t.” He closes his book authoritatively, stands like he’s going to escort you out. “That’s not the sort of thing you should rely on. You should just ask.”

You want to ask now, but that would just annoy him more. You spend a long moment considering the patch of carpet between your feet, and wondering how you should spend the last sentence he’ll allow you before you’re asked to leave. You say, “You’re hard to read.”

“You’re not,” he replies. He gestures towards the door, but he follows you there, a five-step voyage with enough time for him to decide what he wants to say to you. You’re quite disappointed when he only comes up with, “You still look at me a lot.”

“Sorry,” you tell him, automatic.

He cocks his head a little, as enigmatic as the rest of this impossible space. He says, “You should do more than look sometime.”

You’re already halfway out the door, and you leave, his words swimming around in your head and you fail to scrabble together anything approaching a reply, even long after you’ve left. You weather the admonishment Dojima meters out, and you apologise to Nanako for abandoning her, and you lie on your bed and try to make sense of the what you’re beginning to believe you dreamed came out of Minato’s mouth.

There’s hope and then there’s false hope and then there’s whatever arcane electricity he’s set running through you. The only conclusion you reach that night is that the world is terribly unfair, and still more giving than you deserve.

 

You fight with the others, eventually. Inevitably. You expected it would be over the wild card, your ever-growing versatility, but instead they begrudge you the lack of your shadow.

You don’t know how to express it to them, that you just don’t have it in you, that you don’t think any less of them, that they’re braver than you for having faced their darkness where you’ve just never needed to look. There’s a moment – fleeting but no less sharp for it – where someone suggests you don’t have a shadow because you’re not quite whole.

It’s not true. You’re quiet, not empty. Not hollow like you’d need to be. But you blur the face out from the voice, save yourself a poisoned relationship, try to calmly refute the claim, and then you leave.

You move mechanically until you reach the door to the velvet room, body automatically knowing where you can find comfort but your hand lingers over the knob. Minato told you that you could go to him, but you’ve never sought his company quite this obliquely before. He might be busy. He might not want you when you’re not the hero.

You do not want to be alone with your thoughts right now.

You open the door. As you do, you have a momentary flicker of understanding of why you don’t have a shadow. Just a whisper of the truth that evaporates as you focus on it, and not something you need in your mind right now.

Minato comes to meet you at the door, and that’s gratifying, until you suspect you’ve already given away the reason for your visit in the set of your shoulders or the hard line of your mouth. He asks, “How are you today?” and the words may be the proper ones for welcoming a guest but he says it like a real question, like he wants to know, like to him you do not have to be a leader but can instead be a person.

You tell him, “Not great,” and do your best to smile wryly. You’re not sure it comes out right.

He nods, glancing over his shoulder to gain some kind of approval from his master, and then he says, “I’d like to see more of Inaba.”

“Okay.” You don’t look back to see Margaret watching the two of you as you step out of the limousine. It’s the middle of a Sunday, grey and miserable, and you know there’s no family waiting for you at home and no friends waiting for you at Junes. Or maybe they’re holding a miserable court without you. It will blow over in a day, an hour, in no time at all and then it will be like the fight never happened.

It’s not like that yet, though. You pose the dull question to Minato; “Where would you like to go?”

He considers, looking up and down the dreary street, and you wonder vaguely if you should be ashamed that your world is so much less wondrous than his. He tells you, “I’d like to see where you live.”

You don’t analyse his answer, just obey, leading him down quiet suburban streets to the Dojima household. Once again, he’s a character out of his story, too crisply perfect to be real, and you’re glad for emptiness of the neighbourhood. You couldn’t have gotten away with this back in Tokyo. You probably won’t get away with this here either, but at least your observers will just be peeking out from windows and not coming up to ask.

Nanako and Dojima are both out, which you knew, but you call for them anyway as you slide your shoes off. Minato does the same, looking around himself with a vague air of impassive judgement. You’d tell him to be nice, that it’s a good house and they’re good people, but it’s probably not too different from how he first looked at you and you’re not in the mood to fight with anyone anymore besides. You hold your tongue.

On his own, he tells you, “It’s a nice place.”

You manage a, “Yeah,” and lean awkwardly against the kitchen counter. You’re struck by how little you know him, that you don’t know what he likes to eat or drink, that you don’t know what his old home was like or if his current one has a mysterious midnight-blue bedroom somewhere for him. You don’t know if he sleeps, or if he’s properly alive, or what he meant when he said that he likes you.

He’d probably just say that he meant he likes you.

“Can I get you, uh, anything?” you ask him, not actually confident that there’s anything in the fridge you can give him.

To your relief, he shakes his head, and says instead, “I’d like to see your room.”

You don’t remember if you’ve left any laundry on the floor, but he’d definitely laugh if you asked him to give you a minute to clean, so you decide to chance it. You lead him up the narrow stairs and into your bedroom, carefully closing the door behind you both, as though his shoes at the door wouldn’t give him away if anyone came home.

It really doesn’t look like you’ve lived here that long, even though it’s been months. Too much time outside the house; you stand beside Minato and survey your space, the simple furniture, the handful of books and personal possessions that just barely make the room yours.

And then he catches sight of the glitter-pen fusion chart that Nanako made for you. It never stopped being useful, so you never took it down; its place is over your bed, with ‘hierophant’ misspelled in silver glitter-glue. The look on Minato’s face is staggering disbelief, and he turns slowly from it to you, as if you have helped him hit some new depth of incredulity he didn’t know he was capable of feeling.

“That,” he says, in the flat deadpan that he has so perfected, “That’s how you study?”

You no longer feel the faintest bit defensive around him. You spread your arms wide in surrender and say, “It worked, didn’t it?”

Any tension in the air is banished when Minato laughs, near-silent, whole body creasing up with incredulity at you. He tries to say something doubtlessly derisive, but there’s a wheeze strangling all his words and he doesn’t quite manage.

You crack. You laugh with him, and at some point you go hoarse, half-sobs catching in your throat, all the stress that’s been sitting on you for months crashing down all at once, and it is immense, and it is too much for you to hold, and you never asked to be leader, never asked for your power, never asked for all the lessons you’ve been learning in blood, over and over again.

You’re sitting on your bed before you realise it, bent over with elbows on your knees, laughing or crying or croaking, but feeling better with every fractured breath of air. “Sorry,” you say, when you’re in control of yourself again, and Minato’s sitting next to you, his knee pressed against yours, and you should be embarrassed by yourself but there’s just nothing left in you to do it. The pressure’s gone for the moment, and you’re just light, numb, exhausted. “Sorry. It’s just – a lot. Shit. Now you know I’m not cool.”

He laughs once, dry, and you let out a damp little huff, your best attempt to join him, and then there are cool fingers under your chin, tilting your head up towards him, and you are a wreck but you have wanted this boy since you first laid eyes on him and somehow he likes you, and somehow he’s looking at you with something warmer than pity. “I have never thought you were cool,” he tells you, gravely serious, and pulls you in for a kiss.

It is everything your shattered heart needs. Minato is more inhuman up close, and he tastes like rainwater and smells like void. He lets you brush a hand over the back of his neck, past that crisp collar and into against his effortlessly soft hair, and every tired little piece of you breathes against his mouth, all the unkindness of the world melting away.

He was a hero, you think, kiss-drunk and dumbly sweet. He was champion of his world, hero and martyr, and he never saw you like that. He never saw you as anything other than exactly what you are, and that’s why folding yourself up against him is so simple, so perfectly natural.

It takes the silence of him to understand how loud the world’s demands are, how long you’ve been trying to echo back and appease.

Together you are quiet.

 

Before the very end, when fear and anger drive you more than justice ever did, you find him waiting. He stands in that saccharine-bright lobby, as out of place as ever, and nods to your friends. “Good evening,” he says, and somehow he’s less real under all their eyes, shrinking under the stage lights. He commands attention, but it doesn’t sit right on his shoulders. He’s only looking at you, like out of his own world you’re his anchor, and he says, “If you can spare a moment, I’d like to give you a gift.”

“Is that him?” Yosuke asks, and Chie shoves him, and you’re all brittle now, worn down and righteous, but the juvenile chuckle that snakes through your group is warm. 

“I’ll just  be a minute,” you tell them, disappearing into the velvet room before they can make any more fun of you.

Minato’s gift is a key, antique wrought brass and matching nothing else you’ve seen in the sleek limousine, except perhaps his gramophone. “It will help you,” he says, and even across the small table the distance between you aches. “It will open a possibility.”

You’ve learned the language of the velvet room well enough now to know the hint he’s giving, and you fuse the persona he’s unlocked for you, a dark and monstrous beast, chained body brimming with power. It settles into the sea of your soul, and then it’s you and him and silence. The world beyond the car is waiting, and you don’t know what to say, so you say, “Thank you,” and know it’s not nearly enough for everything he’s given you. 

“Good luck,” he tells you, and you think that’s it, you nod to him and turn to go, ready to march off into battle, your last real test, but as soon as you move he snags your sleeve. Minato’s mouth is twisted miserably, words chewing each other up before he can even get them out to you, and what he says at last is, “Come back and see me again.”

“I will,” you say, automatic, before you realise what he means, realise that he led his team out one day and didn’t return, realises he’s scared that if he ever sees you again, you’ll be clad in midnight blue. It stops you dead in your tracks, and you turn to take his hands properly. Still inhuman, still overwhelming, and your palms are clammier than his, but his fingers twitch like he’s fighting the urge to latch onto you and not let go. “I’ve just gotten good at reading you,” you tell him, soft. “You think I’m going to throw that away now?”

“I think you’re an idiot,” he says, deeply miserable. You remember the god he summoned, power you still haven’t matched, and try not to imagine how hard this must be for him.

“I’ve got a good healing persona,” you say, and you smile, and it’s probably not enough but it’s the best you’ve got to offer.

He takes your face in his hands and kisses you, as still and severe as ever. The streetlights outside the car flash on and off, and in the darkness in between you think you might both be shaking apart. “Good luck,” he says again, and it doesn’t sound any less like mourning though his voice is steadier this time around. His eye on you is molten gold and burning.

You go to face the end.

 

After Adachi, you don’t get a lot of free time, not between caring for Nanako and Dojima. Your friends all pitch in, but there’s a lot to be done, and it all seems to exhaust you. You know what you need, and you know by now that he’ll be waiting for you too, but it seems the longest time before you can believe your family won’t disappear when you take your eyes off them.

 

You know the two of you are alone from the moment you step into the velvet room. Music drifts from the gramophone set up in the compendium’s place, every note deep and dark, slipping out from the limousine into that endless night.

He doesn’t say that he’s happy to see you again, but you didn’t think he would; his smile is a slim, contented thing, and it tells you enough.

“I have a request for you,” is what he says aloud.

“Can you still make requests of me?” you ask, crossing the room. You’re done, as far as you know, the fog cleared, the world settled.

He shrugs one elegant shoulder, still as otherworldly graceful as the first moment you saw him. “Call it a favour, then.” In his hands is the neatest envelope you have ever seen, soft gold card with midnight blue ink for the address. “Or, two; the first is to write a return address, in case the recipient has moved. The second is to post it for me.”

You don’t question the rules of the velvet room that require you to play mailman. Your penmanship is even clumsier in gold ink, but you provide a real world address, before flipping the envelope over to see who you’ll be sending it to.

The address line reads Mitsuru Kirijo, and you’ve heard of that group, and for a moment you don’t understand at all why Minato is asking you to send corporate mail, and then you get it. “You know her?” you ask, suddenly terrified at his prestige.

“A friend from high school,” he says, that mean smile playing around the corners of his mouth, like he’s anything older than a high schooler himself. “I’ve been – I should have tried to reach out sooner, but I didn’t have anyone to send this for me.”

You turn the envelope over in your hands again, a little stunned by the importance of what you’re holding. “You could have requested it.”

“It works better as a favour.”

You tuck the letter in your bag, careful, knowing he’s watching his message until after it’s out of sight. “They’ll be happy to hear from you,” you tell him, quiet and kind, and for a moment you get to see Minato actually surprised, a treat you’d never thought you’d get to enjoy. He schools his expression within a second, but you know you’re grinning, and you know he’s happier than he’d ever tell you.

“I hope so,” is all he says, and then, “You did better by your friends than I did.”

“We can’t even compare,” you tell him before he can get any further down that path. His hand in yours is cool and smooth and timeless. “The only thing that matters is whose persona was cooler.”

He squeezes your hand, just once, brief, and then presses your foreheads together. “It definitely wasn’t yours.”

You don’t know how much longer you’ll be allowed to stay, but for the time being the limousine keeps moving and Minato is standing still. He is bony as anything but you hold him despite it, and the purr of the motor rolls on as long as you need it to.