It almost felt like a distant memory, but he could still remember those words in his head ringing clearly like day.
Time never waits.
It delivers all equally… to the same end…
You, who wish to safeguard the future,
However limited it may be…
Will you take full responsibility for it?
He couldn’t remember where he was or what time of the day it happened, but he remembered accepting those terms, however odd it sounded to him.
If you want to proceed, then please sign here.
The only other thing he could remember clearly from the otherwise vague memory was signing his name at the bottom of some sort of contract. Kurusu, Akira.
The contract has been sealed.
No one can escape time.
It delivers us all to the same end.
However, a choice can be made.
You are the hidden Ace,
And you will be given one year;
Go forth without falter, with your heart as your guide…
April 6th, Monday. Late Night.
“Yep, I’m definitely running late,” Kurusu Akira muttered under his breath, unconsciously pushing up his glasses out of habit. “Do trains ever run on time anywhere in the world?”
Around him, the station bustled with activity and life, some people stepping off the platform to get some space outside while a few others took their time waiting for the next train to arrive. Unfortunately, it was running really late.
Had Akira not been busy fiddling with his phone, he might have heard the PA system voicing over. “Due to a malfunction in the switching system, today’s rail schedule has been greatly altered. We apologize to any passengers who were in a hurry…”
Even if he had listened to the PA system, Akira wouldn’t really care much. He was tired, and it was almost midnight. It had been a long day for him, travelling all the way from Yokohama to board the last train heading for his hometown, and all he wanted was get to the dorm and get some sleep. He still had to wake up early to attend his new school in the morning, after all.
“Iwatodai, Iwatodai,” The PA system droned just as he stepped onto the station’s platform. “This is the final train bound for Tatsumi Port Island. Please make sure you board in time for departure…”
The curly-haired youth paused for a moment, carefully adjusting his bag a bit. He peered over inside his bag and sure enough, his black cat (sans the yellow scarf around its neck and the muzzle, tail tip and paws which were colored white) was curled inside and slept peacefully despite the commotion. Akira couldn’t exactly remember when he got Morgana, the cat inside his bag, except the instant connection he felt with the cat when he was still a kid. His childhood was pretty much a collage of blurred memories, but he knew that Morgana was one of the last few mementos he had of his hometown.
That is, before he was shipped to live with his other relatives around Japan after his parents died in an incident in Tatsumi Port Island ten years ago.
Akira sighed quietly to himself. He didn’t know what exactly compelled him to return to his hometown after ten years of moving in with one relative to another, but he felt like it was a good—no, right —path to take. After all, with his amnesia on the entire incident that happened, maybe he could finally get some answers to it and finally give him some peace of the mind.
Despite nearing the midnight hour, the station itself was still pretty crowded and even the noise was still substantial at this time. Akira didn’t seem to mind though as he reverted his attention back to his smartphone. He looked through the email he received from his new school’s director about the dormitory he was supposed to be staying and reconfirmed its location. The last thing he wanted was to wander around his (unfamiliar) hometown and get lost.
The clock struck midnight.
His phone suddenly died… and so did everything else around him.
“Huh?” Akira blinked in surprise upon seeing his phone’s screen reflecting black at him. He noticed that it wasn’t only his phone that had suddenly shut off—the clock seemed to be frozen at midnight, the monorail had turned quiet and even the lights stopped working, leaving the station lit by an otherworldly glow.
The crowd turned silent too, he noticed. Finally tearing his gaze away from his phone, Akira turned his attention to the people gathered in the station.
He didn’t think that they would be replaced black coffins tinted in bloody red. In the eerie lighting, it made the coffins look even creepier. As if having people transform into coffins in the middle of a blackout wasn’t creepy enough.
Akira blinked once, twice. Then, he removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, half-hoping that this wasn’t a trick of his mind again. Sadly, that didn’t seem to be the case.
“What the hell…?” He breathed, taking a step back in bewilderment. The phenomenon hadn’t been new to him though—he had ten years of experience to thank for that—but he had never been out in public when it happened. His psychiatrist had often told him it’s just his post traumatic stress disorder acting up and prescribed him some medicine and sleeping pills strong enough for him to get knocked out and sometimes not notice this eerie hour from happening. On days when he chose to forego his sleeping pills, however, Akira would just stay in his room with Morgana as his company just to let the hour pass.
There were times when he thought of wandering outside to see what it’s like (it could still be his PTSD acting up), but this was the last thing Akira expected to witness.
His bag started to shake, forcing Akira to open it and let Morgana out. The black cat leaped from the bag and landed gracefully on the platform, its startling blue eyes glinting unnaturally in the ghostly hue of the station.
Upon seeing his cat, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder why he hadn’t been transformed into a coffin too. He knew his mind couldn’t be possibly conjuring hallucinations—his surroundings were enough proof of it—but what was going to happen if he was the only person still wandering around?
“What do you think we should do, Morgana?” Akira asked his cat. As strange of a sight as it was, talking to Morgana tended to help calm Akira’s nerves a lot. Either because his psychiatrist recommended it to him or the black cat’s unnaturally smart in its own right, the teen couldn’t tell.
Morgana just meowed and padded over to the exit of the station. Akira took this as a sign to get moving and followed it outside.
Walking out of the station, he tried not get more crept out of what he was seeing. He thought the humans transforming into coffins was disturbing enough, but the moon overhead looked bigger than usual and glowed a ghastly shade of yellow. It didn’t help that the puddles of water he saw transfigured into blood either (he half-hoped the blood’s not what he thinks it is).
Morgana meowed again, causing Akira to turn his attention back at it. The cat tilted its head, as if gesturing to keep walking. He knew that it was trying to tell him that standing there wouldn’t do any good.
So, Akira adjusted his bag once again started to take a (hopefully short) walk to the dorm.
With his phone out of service, Akira couldn’t tell how much time had passed, but he assumed it’s been nearly an hour by the time he arrived at the front of the dormitory. While the building looked cozy despite its strong structure in his brochure, it now looked ominous and imposing with the strange greenish light that blanketed the world. The puddles of blood around it didn’t help with the image either.
Contrary to how long it took for him to get there, Akira knew the walk to the dorm didn’t really take that long. It wasn’t truly a long walk from the monorail station, but he hadn’t been exactly moving fast either. A gut feeling told him he had to be extra cautious when roaming around at this hour.
Morgana climbed up the stairs and settled on the top of it, glancing over at Akira as if waiting for him to get a move on. Shrugging, he adjusted his grip on his bag and hustled the handful of stairs before pushing the double doors of the building.
Much to his surprise, the lights were on in the dormitory, showing him clearly the interior of the building. There was a reception desk to his right as well as a common area to his left; straight ahead was a dining room, that much he could see. It confused him how his phone remained off and his watch was still dead, yet this place was somehow functioning.
He couldn’t ponder on his thoughts for long though, not when he heard someone coming from the stairs.
Akira’s gunmetal eyes looked up near the stairs leading to the upper floors of the dorm. Standing there was a girl, looking around his age, wearing what seemed to be a modified version of a school uniform. He barely noticed her bright blue eyes and ash blonde wavy hair clipped in pigtails; he was more concerned with the apprehensive look on her face.
And the fact that her hand seemed to be hovering over what looked like a holstered pistol.
Startled gray met anxious blue, and Akira slowly raised both of his palms in the air just as the girl took hold of her pistol and started to draw it out from its holster—
The girl, Ann, turned around and Akira focused his attention over her shoulder. Standing there now was a girl slightly shorter than the blonde, her brown hair styled into a bob cut with blunt bangs and her reddish-brown eyes looking sharp. Her uniform seemed less customized compared to the blonde’s, but it looked similar enough to her comrade for Akira to recognize that they go to the same school. Like her, the brunette wore a holstered pistol and a red armband with an intricate mask and top hat design on it.
Unlike Ann, she looked composed and undeterred by his sudden arrival, and Akira was immensely relieved for that. Despite all the strange things that happened tonight, being shot was definitely the most unlikely outcome he could ever think of.
Ann, though visibly relieved by the brunette’s appearance, remained tense...until the eerie green light started to fade. Normal lights started to come back and Akira’s phone lit up again. The tension in the room also started to fade.
Maybe that’s why she’s so apprehensive , Akira thought. I wasn’t in a coffin like everyone else. Does this mean that these aren’t hallucinations after all…?
He dropped his hands down, though he raised one again to rub the back of his neck in a sheepish manner. “Um, I’m sorry if I scared anyone.”
“It’s fine,” The brunette said with a faint smile of her own. “We didn’t think you’d arrive so late, after all. My name is Niijima Makoto, one of the students living in this dorm.”
“…Who’s he?” Ann asked, facing towards Makoto but glancing a bit at Akira.
He supposed this was where he comes in with the introductions. “I’m Kurusu Akira, it’s nice to meet you.” He bowed slightly, before straightening and gesturing towards Morgana who laid pooled at his feet. “And this is my cat, Morgana.”
Morgana purred in acknowledgement, its unnatural blue eyes unblinking.
“He’s a transfer student. It was a last minute decision to assign him here.” Makoto further explained. “He’ll eventually be moved to a room in a normal dorm.”
“And the cat?”
“Well, there’s no actual policy here on banning pets, so I guess it’s not much of a problem to have the cat here,” Makoto said. “Full responsibility still goes to the owner though.”
Ann still didn’t seem so convinced. “…Is it really okay for him to be here?”
Akira was confused. The way the blonde girl phrased her question made him wonder whether he was placed in the wrong dorm… or the residents here were hiding something.
“I guess we’ll see…” Makoto murmured with a thoughtful look on her face. Then, she turned her full attention to Akira and gestured towards the blonde. “This is Takamaki Ann. She’ll be a junior this spring, just like you.”
“…Hey,” Ann offered, her expression still guarded but was visibly relaxed compared to moments ago.
Akira decided to try and lighten the mood. “Thanks for not shooting me.” He joked.
It gained a different response from what he expected though. “H-Huh?” Ann started to look flustered. “You’re welcome? I mean—I, uh… I didn’t mean to try and shoot you. It’s sorta like a hobby…? Wait, no, it’s not like a hobby…”
She subtly turned to Makoto, eyes pleading for help. “You know how it is these days… it’s for self-defense. It’s not a real gun, of course.” The brunette explained, and Akira seemed to be convinced enough by it. It’s fairly reasonable, right?
Then, Makoto gestured towards the stairway. “Anyway, it’s getting late. You’ll find your room on the second floor, at the end of the hall. Ann can show you where it is, if that helps. Your things should already be there, so I suggest you tuck in for the night.”
Ann was surprised at being volunteered to help the black-haired teen, but she hid it with a small smile. “Oh… I’ll show you the way,” Ann said. “Follow me.”
“Thanks,” Akira let Morgana walked through first and followed his fellow junior up the stairs to the second floor, the one with actual dorm rooms in them.
Sneaking glances on the way up, Akira noted that only a handful of rooms were occupied by the residents, which only added to his confusion towards the whole situation. Gekkoukan High School was one of the elite high schools in Japan, so it should be reasonable that the school had a fairly normal complement of students, given that Port Island wasn’t a small town either. Yet, if his hunches were right, the dorm was barely half full.
This made him think that the residents are hiding something here.
“Here we are,” Ann announced, stopping at the last room at the end of the hall. “Pretty easy to remember, right? Since it’s at the right at the end of the hall…So, any questions?”
Akira could think of several, given how bizarre this evening had been for him, but he decided on none and shook his head. “Not really…should I be concerned of something?”
Ann hesitated. “Um, actually…On your way here, was everything okay? You didn’t encounter any problems on your way from the station?”
Other than every electronic thing blacking out, the moon being freakishly gigantic and yellow, people turning into coffins, and water changing into blood? “Nah, everything’s fine.” Akira told her, smiling a bit for reassurance. It was half of the truth—despite all the freaky shit that happened in the past hour, he did make it to the dorm in one piece.
Obviously unconvinced, Ann nodded nonetheless. “I see… Never mind then. Well, I’d better get going. I’m sure you have other questions but let’s save them for later, okay? Good night.”
“Good night,” he returned and stepped into his room, waiting for Morgana to come inside as well before closing the door. He dropped his bag near some of the boxes containing his possessions and flopped onto his bed, suddenly exhausted. He decided to start unpacking his things tomorrow.
Morgana hopped onto the bed and settled on top of him, falling asleep almost immediately. “Luck you, you aren’t bothered by all this shit,” Akira said, though he knew the cat wouldn’t likely respond anyway. He sighed and adjusted carefully until he had his hands behind his head. “Another city, another weird shit going on. Just when I thought I could get away from it…”
April 7th, Tuesday. Morning.
Seeing Gekkoukan up close didn’t disappoint Akira. He knew that Tatsumi Port Island might be fairly recent and new compared to other locations in Japan, but it also meant that the place itself was modern and up to date. His new high school was no exception, as well as the monorail he rode earlier this morning to get to the school.
Being a transfer student, Akira couldn’t deny that he felt some degree of unease. Of course, it wasn’t uncommon for anyone to feel insecure being in a new environment, even for someone who walked through some dark, creepy hour with blood and coffins littering around.
(Akira half-wanted to bring Morgana along with him to his first day, but knowing the policies on pets in Gekkoukan and judging from Niijima Makoto’s demeanor, he knew things wouldn’t end well if he disobeyed the senior and he didn’t want to risk getting on her bad side in less than twenty-four hours. At least he wasn’t entirely alone…)
“Morning!” A female student greeted just as Akira and Ann stood in front of the gates of Gekkoukan High School. Ann smiled warmly and raised a hand in greeting. “Morning!”
She turned back to Akira and gave him the same warm smile. “Well, here we are. Welcome to Gekkoukan High!”
Akira looked up and took in his surroundings. For all the talk of how modern it was, he could still feel a hint of something natural within the school. Like it was reminding him to not lose sight of where he came from. “Thanks, Takamaki-san.”
“Hm? Don’t mention it!” She said, still smiling as she walked towards the school. “And you don’t need to be so formal with me; we’re in the same grade, after all.” With that, the black-haired teen followed her from behind. They stopped by the rows of lockers where Ann dropped a few of her things. “You’re okay from here, right? You seem to be pretty street-smart, considering how you didn’t lose your way to the dorm last night.”
Akira was still bothered with what he had seen last night, but he wouldn’t admit it in front of the blonde. “I can take care of myself,” he said instead, nodding.
Ann nodded back. “Okay then. You should go see your homeroom teacher first. The faculty office is right there to the left.” She gestured towards the hallway branching off from the school lobby. “Well, that concludes our tour! Do you have any questions before I go?”
“Where do I find the classroom I’m in?” Akira asked. Never mind knowing where the faculty office was; he’s more worried of getting lost trying to get to his classroom.
“I think the room assignments are posted on the bulletin board, but I haven’t checked yet either.” She answered, before her expression turned into something more solemn. “Hey, about last night… Don’t tell anyone what you saw, okay?”
Akira raised a brow at this. He thought that the girl had forgotten entirely of what happened last night, but apparently that wasn’t the case. He was secretly relieved that he definitely wasn’t hallucinating last night, but it intrigued him on why Ann wanted to keep that under wraps.
Were his dorm mates hiding something from him?
Akira just nodded, smile crooked. “I won’t. Besides, who would believe me if I told them anyway?”
There was a cloud of doubt in Ann’s eyes when he told her that, but then she smiled back in a fraction of a second, visibly relieved that he took the whole thing to stride. “Okay then. See ya later!”
He watched the blonde head off before turning back to look around the school lobby. He found the bulletin board Ann mentioned earlier standing near the staircase where a couple of students were getting crowded over. Hands sliding into his pockets, he walked over to see if he could find his name in any of the room assignments.
He started to worry for a bit when he couldn’t find his name until he saw a small note written on one of the room assignments the second time he looked over. Akira Kurusu, 2-D.
Well, that made my first day even easier, Akira thought, backing away from the growing crowd. Now, I’m gonna have to find my homeroom teacher…
Stepping into the faculty office, Akira was mildly relieved to find it mostly empty. He had legitimate business there, of course, but his overall experience of having to go through different schools helped him recognize enough oddball teachers to know that the meaner ones wouldn’t care. Seeing that he wouldn’t be facing either at the moment, it was nice on his sanity’s part that he’d get to be able to take things slowly while he got a feel for this school’s faculty.
Giving the room a quick glance, he saw that nothing was out of the ordinary (not that he expected anything to be; if anywhere in Tatsumi Port Island was likely to be normal, it should be here ) and quickly spotted an adult he presumed to be a teacher perusing some records on the off side. A woman in her mid-twenties with dark brown unkempt hair and sleepy eyes, Akira noted she at least looked normal enough. Well, this is better than that teacher who had ridiculous hair colors every other month and kept reciting lines from Shakespeare’s plays out of nowhere I had a few years back…
The teacher soon noticed him and came over. “Hm, would you be the new student? I thought we had a transfer student starting today.”
Akira raised an eyebrow, as though the faculty should have been made aware that he’s coming in today. Then again, with a school as big and busy as this, they probably couldn’t keep track of all that’s happening. “Right,” he confirmed with a polite nod. “Kurusu Akira, grade eleven.”
The teacher hummed. “That’s what I thought.” Looking down at the clipped folder she was carrying, she flipped through the pages until she found the appropriate file. “Let’s see, Kurusu… I see you’ve lived a lot of different places back then. In fact, up until ten years ago, you were here, huh? Wow, that’s quite some time...and then, your parents…”
She trailed off, dark eyes widening, and winced sharply. Akira wasn’t surprised; he had seen that kind of reaction far too many times.
“I’m sorry,” she said apologetically. “There’s been so much going on lately—start of the term and whatnot—that I didn’t really get the chance to look over your records until now…”
Akira shook his head. “It’s fine. It’s been ten years, and I can’t really remember much of what happened since then.”
That was partly true; his memories were hazy, but it didn’t really erase the fact that he still could remember what he felt from that incident. He lost his parents so young over a drastic accident that he developed a trauma case over it. At least his relatives were kind and supportive enough to help him through that ordeal.
But he’s not planning to tell his teacher that.
“Well,” the teacher went on after only a slightly awkward pause. “I’m Kawakami-sensei, the Japanese Language teacher here. Welcome to Gekkoukan.”
Akira smiled, thankful. “Nice to meet you,” he said in earnest. Thank god she’s a sane teacher…
“Aren’t you a polite student? If only I could say the same for the rest of the students here…” Kawakami said with a resigned sigh, though she gave the transfer student a quick smile. “Anyway, you’ve seen the classroom assignments, right? You’re in 2-D, which is my class. We’ll be seeing a lot of each other over the next year.” Pausing, she glanced over at the room’s wall clock. “But first, we need to get to the auditorium. The Welcoming Ceremony’s about to start, so follow me.”
Nodding again, Akira fell into step behind the teacher, maintaining his quietly cheerful demeanor. In truth, he was far from being that kind of enthusiastic, but at least he was polite enough to begin with. He’d been over this routine more times than he could count in his previous schools that it was almost like second skin to him whenever he’d move to a new place. School as a whole was at least tolerable, if only because it was genuinely informative. But somehow, this school—and maybe Tatsumi Port Island as a whole—was promisingly interesting, if the events of the last twenty-four hours were any indication.
But the Welcoming Ceremony? Akira was half-thinking that he needed something stronger than coffee to make it out of the coma-inducing speeches alive and kicking.
“As we begin the new school year, I’d like each of you to remember this proverb: ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.’ When applied to student life, this means…”
Frankly, Akira’s hunches weren’t wrong. For all of Gekkoukan’s grandeur and class, Akira definitely wasn’t betting the principal to be this boring . It took all of his willpower not to yawn in the middle of his speech, not especially when the seats of the auditorium are leveled and arranged well enough for each person to have a perfect view of the stage. Absolutely perfect for Akira to be lulled to slumber because of this.
While he already half-expected the speech to be boring, this was definitely going beyond his expectations. He didn’t think that the principal has some knack for turning a really inspiring message to a dry, dull one that could easily be a substitute for sleeping pills. Akira was sure that even if the stout principal would spout obscenities and whatnot, no one would notice. He’ll be damned if one out of ten students gave their full attention to the principal.
His hunch seemed to be right on track, and he wasn’t sure whether to feel annoyed or elated for the distraction when a classmate behind him had tapped on his shoulder. “Psst!” His classmate whispered, though Akira thought it wasn’t really necessary. “You came to school with Ann this morning, right? I saw you two walking together.”
“Well, yeah?” Akira replied, though low enough so he wouldn’t get the suspicion of talking. Even with how bored he was right now, he wasn’t so keen on getting told off just because of this. Of course, he could hear a faint bit of muttering around him as well…
“I have a question,” his classmate asked, and Akira fairly had an idea with what the question might be, judging from the anxious look on the other student’s face. “Do you know if she has a boyfriend?”
There were a lot of ways he could have answered that, all ranging from the obvious to sarcastic. Instead, Akira settled for a simple shrug. “Dunno,” he murmured. He suspected that Ann didn’t really have a boyfriend, but he’s not really in the position to say. Of course, he didn’t want to have his classmate’s hopes way too up over that either. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“Eh, we don’t really see each other much…” the student blinked. “I thought you’d at least know her that well, considering you came to school with her…” He paused, thought for a moment, and started to speak again, only to have his next words cut off by a teacher in a nearby area.
“I hear talking!” An older, stern teacher remarked, his features settling for a scowl. “I bet it’s coming from Kawakami’s class.”
“Quiet!” Kawakami hissed from several seats away. “You’re going to get me in trouble!”
Akira’s classmate quickly leaned back to his seat, and the curly-haired teen couldn’t help but sigh in relief. He knew that they weren’t bent on singling out every student that was talking right now, but he wasn’t exactly complaining on having the conversation cut off either.
He thought he’d rather prefer being lulled to slumber thanks to the principal’s dry speech than discuss the love life of someone he barely knew.
Now, if only he could avoid getting caught sleeping for real…
April 7th, Tuesday. After School.
Akira stretched his arms, clinking out the tensed muscles in his body, and leaned back gratefully in his seat. So far, his day hadn’t been as horrible as he thought it’d be; school was as normal as it could get, the principal was duller than a washed color and his homeroom teacher wasn’t as evil as the one in his old school.
He could count himself lucky in this regard.
Deciding to pack his things up and call it a day, Akira was halted in his movements when the boy sitting in front of him turned to face him and leaned forward.
“Hey, man,” his classmate said with a slight dip of his head. If it hadn’t been for the school’s blazer and him being present in the classroom, Akira would have thought the guy in front of him with his spike, bleached hair and loud graphic shirt was some sort of juvenile delinquent. “What’s up?”
“Besides the ceiling? Not much, really,” Akira jested, seeing there’s no reason in declining for a chance of conversation. Other than the classmate asking him questions earlier during the assembly, nobody else made an effort to talk to him. He sort of appreciated the guy’s effort though. “Well, other than being bored to death this morning. And you’re…?”
The guy straightened up a bit and grinned. “The name’s Sakamoto, Ryuji Sakamoto. And you’d be the new guy, right? Haven’t seen you around here before and that’s something, considering how small Port Island is and all.” Then, he stuck out his hand. “I know how it’s like being the odd person out and all, so I’d figured I’d come over and say, ‘hey.’”
Almost despite himself, Akira smiled and shook his hand. Ryuji was weirder than what his first glance suggested, but it wasn’t the bad kind of weird. The curly-haired youth felt bad for thinking he was some kind of ruffian, with how his appearance exude that he’s rough around the edges, but that’s where his first impression turned wrong; in fact, Akira found Ryuji to be a nice guy and a whole lot saner than his schoolmates from his old schools.
“Kurusu Akira,” he said aloud, suspecting that Ryuji probably had a hard time remembering names. If his attention span inside the classroom was any indication, at least. “Just in from Yokohama, but I lived here when I was a kid.”
“Hey, no kiddin’? What brought you back here?”
“Just felt like this would be a good place to wrap up my education,” Akira shrugged. “Something along the lines of ‘coming back to your roots,’ I guess? It feels like the right thing to do anyway.” Absently, he placed his hands inside his pockets, adopting a casual pose he’d practiced to the point of reflex.
The two engaged in small talk for a while. Slowly, Akira realized how different the blonde was from what he first made him out to be—Ryuji outspoken and curious to know more about the transfer student. Akira didn’t mind the blonde’s overly energetic demeanor, figuring this was as good as any to start getting a feel for how the city changed since he had last lived here. Not a bad way to kill time either.
Approaching footsteps broke up the light conversation, and Ryuji turned his lopsided smirk at the blonde walking towards them. “Yo, Ann,” he greeted with that boundless energy of his. “Looks like we’re in the same homeroom again. Cool!”
Ann, for her part, merely sighed. She seemed familiar with Ryuji’s antics. “You’re at it again, huh. Y’know, someday you’re going to run into someone wouldn't want to get fussed over at the first meeting. What will you do then?”
Ryuji blinked. “Whaddya mean? I was just bein’ friendly, introducing myself to the new guy. You know, show him the ropes.”
“You mean the ones that pull the gears in your head? Jeez, Ryuji.” Ann shook her head. Then, she turned to Akira. “Anyway, it looks like we’re in the same homeroom, huh. Some amazing coincidence this turned out to be.”
“It must be fate,” Akira commented in amusement. Ann snorted, smiling to herself a little. “Fate? That’s one way to put it.”
“Hey guys?” Ryuji called, waving his hands in the air. “I am standing right here. You forget that I’m in the same class too?” He pointed at the desk next to the one Akira had just left. “Right next to… Ah, forget it. Y’know, I heard the two of you came to school together this morning. What’s up with that?”
Akira could almost feel himself facepalming. Is this going to be a regular thing now?
Apparently, the news of it hadn’t reached Ann until now. “Huh? W-What’s that supposed to mean?” She blinked in surprise. “We live in the same dorm, okay? And I was just acting as tour guide, that’s all.” She narrowed her eyes warily at Ryuji. “Why are people even talking about it?”
It was Ryuji’s turn to be skeptical. “Just living in the same dorm, huh? C’mon, that can’t be all of it, right?”
“Wrong,” Akira said dryly. “Like Ann-san had said, I just got here last night. A senior at our dorm asked her to show me the way, that’s all.” Mind you, something did happen last night, but it’s not what you think it is, Ryuji.
He could tell that Ryuji still wasn’t buying the story, but he could also see Ann thinking along the same lines as he did. “Hey,” she said quietly, deciding Ryuji’s inquiries to have received the attention it deserved. “You haven’t said anything to anyone about...well, you know, have you?”
Well, someone’s bound to notice if you’re going to talk like that with several students still around.
“Of course not,” Akira assured her. “I already said I wouldn’t, didn’t I?”
She sighed in relief. “Right, sorry...I should’ve figured you wouldn’t. It’s just...seriously, it’d be a bad idea to let anybody know what happened last night. I’m just worried that—”
The sound of somebody crashing over a desk had Ann stop midway in her sentence. Akira winced when he turned to see Ryuji had almost fallen over, his eyes bugging in surprise. It confirmed his suspicions that someone would get the wrong idea with how Ann phrased her sentence, unless they were aware of the exact topic at hand.
“L-Last night?” Ryuji stammered out. “Wait, I thought you said—!”
Ann, realizing that she and Akira weren’t alone and the implications of what she was saying, almost stumbled into a desk herself. “H-hey, wait a minute! Don’t get the wrong idea!” She protested. “I told you, I just met him yesterday and I never saw him before that. There’s nothing going on between us!”
“Oh, yeah?” Ryuji was a little more than skeptical now. “Then what’s this stuff about ‘last night’ that you want nobody to know about, huh?”
“Just a misunderstanding that would be completely misunderstood by anyone who wasn’t there to witness it,” Akira interjected, before Ann could say anything. The least he could do was save both of their dignities from further embarrassment. “Really, it’s nothing, Ryuji-san.”
“Right!” Ann confirmed, giving the transfer student a brief but grateful glance. The glare she gave Ryuji made Akira mentally thankful that he wasn’t at the receiving end of it. “Anyway! I’ve got to go and take care of a couple of things, so I’ll see you guys later. You better not start any more rumors or I’ll know who to ‘thank’ for it, Ryuji!”
Cranking a megawatt or two into her death glare, she turned her heel, gave a brief smile at Akira, and walked out of the classroom quickly, eager to be away from any more innuendos coming from Ryuji.
“Sheesh, what’s got her panties in a bunch?” Ryuji grumbled, doing a good but not so perfect job of hiding the after effects of having to receive a concentrated death glare from a woman scorned. “To think this is the Ann that doesn’t give a shit about what people say about her. Man…” Shaking his head, he turned to Akira. “She’s probably just stressed with modeling and whatnot.”
“Oh, she models?” Akira wondered. Well, with a face and body like that, he wouldn’t be surprised if Ann did have some kind of modeling gig.
“Yeah,” Ryuji nodded, confirming the black-haired teen’s unanswered thoughts. “She’s pretty popular around here. And you’re making quite a first impression, too!”
Akira gave him a sidelong glance. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”
“Oh, come on! Live a little, will ya?” Ryuji grinned, slinging an arm around Akira’s unsuspecting shoulders. “This is gonna be a fun year...I can just feel it! Great things are gonna come to us, man!”
Akira couldn’t help but smile at that.
April 7th, Tuesday. Evening.
Niijima Makoto frowned at the documents in her hand. The top page of the document featured a picture of a certain curly-haired youth, and some basic physical statistics; other than that, there was a short summary of his biographical information as well as other pieces of miscellaneous information expected to come out of a background check. She had been through the documents several times already, and probably would read it several more later.
Slowly pacing around the “command room” of student organization Phantom, Makoto reaffirmed that there was nothing out of the ordinary in the report. Nothing to show anything special or unusual coming from Kurusu Akira, the transfer student from Yokohama.
Which was exactly the thing that was bothering her now. Twenty-four hours earlier, she had been simply pleased to know that she wouldn’t be expecting any problems coming from the new student. What baffled her more was the sheer ordinariness of his background check after his very unusual arrival last night.
“There is nothing ordinary about someone who can function well during the Dark Hour,” she mused aloud, glancing over the wall filled with monitors. Mostly blank now, one monitor showed a video feed coming from a certain room in the dormitory. There was no activity there currently—Akira had just arrived back from Gekkoukan and was busy making small talk with Ann in the lobby—but she knew that information would soon come when night would fall over Port Island...as well as midnight.
Nothing ordinary at all. I grew up with the knowledge of the Dark Hour, and even I had problems adjusting to it, Makoto pondered, her reddish brown eyes now skimming over the documents once more. Goro is so comfortable to it now that it feels like breathing to him, but he was as disoriented as anyone at the start. And Ann… Last night showed how she still feels about it.
Her gaze stopped over at Akira’s picture, and she frowned once more. But this one though… It’s the middle of the Dark Hour, with all departure from normal reality implies, and just walks into the dorm as if nothing happened. Being so calm when experiencing that for the first time is not normal. And then there’s what happened afterwards.
Makoto placed the documents down and walked over to the monitors. She opened up the footage from the cameras in the lobby from the previous night. There was a brief, puzzling gap between Akira’s arrival and Ann’s awareness of his presence, but after that, things were crystal clear. She watched again as Ann spotted him, startled, and made a move to reach for the pistol-like device in her holster. Then, she watched the more interesting part: Akira’s reaction at what supposedly was an attempt to shoot him.
Slowing down the playback, Makoto watched Akira intently. Saw the tension tightened in his face, but no signs of outright fear. Saw how he held his hands up in an attempted risk, but not out of surrendered defeat or caution. Saw the way he examined her when she arrived to break what should have been a messy encounter, and only then ease the tension in his face.
Makoto’s trained eye allowed her to recognize the way Akira reacted to that particular encounter, and it wasn’t the most relieving way to react from that. The way he acted with his hands in the air showed that he meant no harm, but his subtle body language seemed to suggest otherwise. The tension in his body wasn’t out of caution, but it was as if he was goading Ann to shoot him. The way his steel gray eyes widened in a startling yet apprehensive manner also suggested much.
He wasn’t afraid of Ann shooting him; the fact that he didn’t quite fear death left an unsettling feeling in Makoto’s gut.
“You know, Makoto, watching it a dozen more times still won’t make them tell you what you really want to know.”
She glanced over the door to the hallway, where a brown-haired senior with a tan peacoat and black gloves was just entering. “Goro,” Makoto greeted, unsurprised. “I didn’t expect you to be back so soon.”
Akechi Goro shrugged. “The little meeting with Officer Iwai ended earlier than I expected it to be. He gave some useful insight, but everything else is just as what the newspapers have shown.”
“I see,” Makoto sighed and closed her eyes briefly. “People who had no problems before are suddenly developing acute cases of Apathy Syndrome...it’s all what people are talking about lately. They say it’s due to stress, but…”
“Yeah, right. It’s obviously their doing,” Goro said, scoffing. Then, he nodded at the playback still running on the monitor. “Still wondering about that?”
“Aren’t you?” Makoto countered. “What’s your take on this?”
Goro simply hummed. “I haven’t met him so I can’t say much about it yet. For what it’s worth, the recording supports your suspicions, but there’s not enough concrete evidence to show his full potential. He looks promising though, as far as Phantom is concerned.”
“That’s true,” the female brunette shook her head. “It definitely makes him a really promising candidate. He shows an unprecedented level of potential, if how well-functioned he is during the Dark Hour despite it being his first time was any indication of it. At this point, I’d be more surprised if he turns out incapable of summoning a Persona…”
“Then why are you still doubtful?”
“It’s how he reacted when he thought Ann was going to shoot him. Tell me, have you seen anyone who looked like he doesn’t give two cents about death barreling straight at him, instead goading death to come at him already? Like it’s a game he finds really interesting to play?”
Yes, I know someone who would definitely take risk on his life, Akechi had wanted to say, but for the sake of his female senior’s frustration, he decided against it. “He must have a gambler’s spirit in him, then,” the male brunette offered instead. “Otherwise, there might be some details on his psychological being that could have been missing. If the case was the latter, your sister must have known about it or else it wouldn’t have reached as far as here. She’s a pretty smart person, so there’s also that fact that she could have edited them out herself. If it bothers you that much…”
“No,” Makoto said firmly, snapping the file on the documents close. “If my sister arranged things to be this way and didn’t tell me, she must have her reasons. It’s just…”
Goro lifted an eyebrow. He knew that the de facto Phantom leader had some issues in the past; at the most mundane, there was the fact that she hailed from the Niijima Group, and her older sister was grooming her to help her lead them after she had graduated. The implications of that were enough to stress any high school senior; that would also explain her awkwardness in some social encounters.
Couple with whatever it was that had brought the Niijima Group into the Dark Hour mess—Goro had an inkling, but he needed to dig some deeper files to confirm his thesis on it—and it was no wonder that Makoto was so prim and proper, pondering matters that he himself also showed concern over. This , however, was an unusual sight.
“You’re worrying too much,” Goro said after that pregnant pause. “Kurusu hasn’t even been here a full day yet, and all you have to go on personally is that recording. See what Ann has to say about when she gets back, and try to think about that testimony instead. I’m sure we’ll know more in a few days; if his arrival is any indication, he’s going to get himself involved with the Dark Hour somehow soon enough.”
Makoto took his words into consideration, and finally nodded. “I guess you’re right.”
Goro couldn't help but smirk a little at that, arms folded across his chest. "Of course, Mako. When wasn't I ever right?"
She just rolled her eyes (good-naturedly) and turned off the monitors. Then, Makoto faced the door. “He’s unusual, I’ll give you that, but it’s too early to draw any conclusions as to why. We’ll see how he is when the Dark Hour begins.”
Goro watched as the brunette left the command room. He couldn’t help but ponder on what the brunette had said earlier. He must have faced death head on in the past to have developed some sort of resistance to it, but to play with it like it’s some child's play…? Either he had some past trauma big enough for him to give hell to death, or there’s something about him that wires his brain to act that way, and it’s not reflected in the documents. Either way, how Makoto described him showed how unusual he was for reacting during the Dark Hour.
He tapped a finger to his chin, his face set in determination. This is someone to keep an eye on.