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Persona 5: Daywatch

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Persona 5: Daywatch

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Afternoon

Yongen, Leblanc

In the quiet residential neighborhood of Yongen, Tokyo, a dark-haired teenager came to a stop at the door to Leblanc. The sleepy cafe lacked any lit-up advertisements, even a sticker identifying which kind of wi-fi it hosted.

Akira brushed a hand through his curly hair and straightened the thick glasses on his nose before pushing the door open. A small bell fixed to the inside of the door jingled. Worn, mostly wood interior had an old-time feel like many of the old buildings Akira lived in. It used a minimalist décor, but warmer than industrial-style buildings like the Smiling Mountain Institute. The thick scent of coffee soaked into him, reminding him of the tiramisu his mother would order. Identifying the manager by the only occupant wearing an apron, the teenager shifted the duffel bag strap on his shoulder, then straightened his gloves and strode to the register where the cafe worker lounged. “Sakura Sojiro?”

The middle-aged man looked up from The Prisoner of the Tower, a small book in his hands. What black hair hadn’t already receded was slicked back, making his goatee seem larger in comparison. “Oh, right. That was today.” He set the book down underneath the counter.

Laughter bubbled up from a group of three young adults as they rose from a booth further in, and the three men trotted to the exit, one of them pausing to raise a hand. “Thanks for the coffee, Boss.”

Sojiro gave a show smile, something wide enough for Japan’s near-obsequious service industry, but thin enough to use as little of his face as possible. “We appreciate your time.” He waved back, watched them go out, then dropped slack the instant the door swung closed. Looking to their place, three coffee cups and a plate with crumbs spilling over the table waited for him. After letting out a heavy breath, he picked back up the book and opened it up with the traveling boy in his peripheral vision. “So you’re Akira?”

Not buying the feigned disinterest, Akira gave the expected bow for any new introduction. “Sorry for the trouble.”

Sojiro’s eyebrow rose and he looked up from the paperback, no effort to conceal either his suspicion or interest now. “I wondered what kind of unruly kid would show up.” He jammed a time-yellowed receipt as a bookmark and set the book back under the counter. “You’re more polite than I expected. You’ll be in my custody for the next…”

“Year,” Akira said, scanning the rows of coffee shelved behind the counter. “According to Officer Ichijou.”

Crossing his arms, Sojiro harrumphed. “You seem pretty calm about moving and living with a stranger.”

Still scanning the back wall, Akira responded, “Anything’s better than back there.” Finished with his visual inspection, he focused on Sojiro. “I’m just curious how you knew me. Officer Ichijou said you were a friend of the family.”

“I knew Waka…” Sojiro cleared his throat. “You know what? It doesn’t matter.” He headed for the small hallway at the back of the cafe. “Walk this way.”

Taking a loping gait after him, Akira threw back, “If I could walk that way—”

“Don’t get cheeky,” Sojiro snapped over his shoulder, then led him up the stairs. “I’ll bring up sheets for…” He turned, eyebrows rising at the youth’s pulling bags of refuse together. “What are you doing?”

“What?” Akira looked down, settled the two bags in his hands, then set his duffel bag next to the shelf crammed with coffee sacks. “Sorry, I can’t stand a mess. Anything reserved?”

“I don’t care about the books, bags, or boxes,” Sojiro said, hands going to his hips as he watched Akira’s attention leave him and return to the inanimate objects around him. “But if you throw out the ladder or any of my spare tables or chairs, I’ll boot you.”

Akira wiped a finger down the planks of the wood flooring and shuddered. “Do you have a clean broom for this room?”

Sojiro’s left eyebrow rose. “A clean broom?” He pointed in the corner, across a dilapidated mixer to a broom that looked as old as the last World War. “Just sweep up.” He drew his keys and held them up. “I’ll lock up when I leave each day. Don’t do anything stupid just because nobody’s here to keep an eye on you.”

Akira let go of the latest bag of trash and snapped straight, arm coming up at precise angles and palm out to give a picture-perfect British salute.

Sojiro’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t be cute. Officer Ichijou may have argued for you, but she said you’re here because you butted into an adult’s situation.”

Akira’s salute fell and his lip twitched. “He was assaulting a terrified woman. How was I supposed to know who the drunk was before I stopped him?”

A long-suffering sigh emanated from the middle-aged man, though the look in his eyes felt considerate instead of condemning. “Either way, that’s what happens when you stick your nose into someone else’s business. You did injure the guy,” he finished, setting hands on his hips.

Clenching his teeth, Akira growled. “And Inuri High expelled me.” He clamped his eyes shut, sucked in a deep breath, then blasted it out through his nose before going back to cleaning. “At least the court really did send me away from the old bastard.”

Sojiro’s arms crossed. “That’s no way to talk about your fath—”

The garbage bag hit the ground and Akira took one stomping step at Sojiro, finger pointed like a weapon. “That bastard is not my father.”

Sojiro’s eyes narrowed. “You should be a little more considerate of the only link between you and Wakaba.” Uncrossing his arms, he took a quarter turn to the stairs. “Just don’t cause any trouble and don’t say anything. A restaurant lives and dies on its reputation. As long as you behave yourself, you’ll only have to put up with this for a year. After that, your probation is lifted and you can file whatever motions you want with the court.”

Akira set the bag down in a neat grid with the others by the table next to the stairs, and swept the open swath of floor.

Waiting a moment for eye contact, Sojiro gave up with a quiet sigh. “Make sure you’re ready to go to Shujin Academy tomorrow morning. They never mailed your ID and said they want to be sure your paperwork is finalized.”

Akira spared him a confused glance. “I already got the uniforms. What else do they want?”

“You’re on thin ice already. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that they want a proper introduction before you start class.” Sojiro put his hands on his hips, fingers tapping for a moment. “It’ll be… First thing Sunday. Are you going to need to do anything?”

Akira paused, a garbage bag in each hand. “I would be going to Mass since it’s Easter season, but they hold it in the morning.” Setting them down against the tidy arrangement of trash bags against the stairs, Akira dusted off his gloves before reaching into his time-worn jacket and drew a fat envelope. “Father Motoori gave me this for Father Sugiyama.”

“Sugiyama?” Sojiro’s eyes widened.

Akira looked the middle-aged man in the eyes. “Why do you sound so surprised?”

“He…” Sojiro’s eyes drifted to the bottom of the stairs, “buried Wakaba.”

Akira’s shoulders slumped. “I… sorry. I didn’t—”

“Don’t get any wrong ideas,” Sojiro said, turning to the stairs. “Just be sure you’re ready to make the trip up to school tomorrow. Once you get your transit pass from them, you can handle your own travel.”

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Evening

Yongen, Leblanc Loft

Akira grunted, standing the ladder against the corner near the stairs. With several more square meters of floor open and swept, he sloshed the mop in the bucket and attacked the dusty floor like a soldier the enemy in a battlefield.

The stairs creaked as somebody paced up, a purposeful but measured gait. Sojiro watched for a moment, his eyebrows raised. “You were serious about cleaning.” He looked to the corner. “Looks like you prefer your bed against the wall.”

Keeping his focus on the floor even as his back complained, Akira threw back, “I can’t stand a mess.” Reaching the end of one stretch, he kept his feet on the dry floor and returned to the mop bucket. “I’m assuming by the flat tires the bike is an abandoned throwaway?”

For some reason, Sojiro smiled. “It is, but for Shujin you’d be just as well walking to and from the train station.” He folded his arms over his chest, sweeping his gaze over the room and the stack of unsorted books on the table by the stairs. “Hm. This place doesn’t look so bad.”

“A professional is neat and tidy,” Akira said, attacking another lane on the floor.

“If you’re trying to make a good impression, I think you already have your start.” Sojiro watched the boy clean in determined silence for several long seconds. “Don’t forget to get some rest so we can get to your school on time tomorrow.”

Akira stopped to jab at a dark spot multiple times.

Sojiro’s brow furrowed. “Fine, if you get sick, I’m not going to look after you. You’ll be—”

“I’ve been on my own my whole life,” Akira snapped, returning to longer sweeps with the mop. “This is just a bigger flat to do it in.”

“Oh!” Sojiro snapped his fingers and trotted downstairs with a little more energy than his entry, coming back up a few moments later. He set something leather-bound on top of the nearest stack of books on the table. “Here’s a journal. You’ll make a complete record of your daily activities. You’ll turn it over to me whenever I need to make a report to social services.” He folded his arms over his chest again. “Don’t trust that your social worker will skim over, actually fill it in so I have something to report.”

Akira continued mashing the mop over the floor. “Just as long as Father Sugiyama doesn’t have to read it. I’ll already be doing Hail Marys for skipping Mass tomorrow.” He stopped and lifted the mop, making a face at the dark water dripping from it. When he noticed Sojiro still standing there at the top of the stairs, he asked, “Something else?”

The middle-aged man adjusted his glasses, then relaxed. “You may be on probation, but since you don’t have a special conviction like computer crime there’s no special limitations on anything in particular. As long as you follow the law.” With that, he turned and went downstairs.

Akira swirled the mop in the dust-muddied brackish water in an effort to rinse it off. Letting out a deep breath, he pulled his phone out to step back his alarm in the morning. A bleeding eye icon sat on his grid of apps and Akira tilted his head. “I wonder what update that came with?” Sniffing at the scent of dust and old books, he put the phone away, picked up the mop, and trotted downstairs to change the water.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Night

Location: Unknown

Akira opened his eyes to blue crushed velvet. Confused, he reached out to brush a finger against it and check whether it felt like what he saw. Before his arm got halfway, he noticed the salvaged large shirt he wore to bed replaced by a black and white striped shirt. At least it wasn’t hot. Sitting up, he realized all his clothes were replaced by the silly striped uniform. Glancing to his side, he spotted bars. “Oh, this is just ridiculous.”

Chuckling echoed from beyond the bars and Akira turned his focus from the prison cell to its source. A bald man with wild tufts of pale gray hair sat behind a fine wood table. The stranger wore a crisp tuxedo that only served to enhance the eeriness of his wide, bloodshot eyes and the longest nose he ever saw. “Welcome to my Velvet Room. I am delighted to make your acquaintance. This place exists between dream and reality, mind and matter.” The well-dressed stranger folded his hands. “I am Igor, master of this place.”

Akira stood up, trying to ignore the chains linking his wrists or ankles. “Nobody who’s truly a master of something needs to stop and say it. Now why do you fear me so much you need me behind bars?”

A blond child in a corny blue warden’s uniform stepped out from his right and whacked her baton on the bars, sparks zipping between the contact. “Know your place, Inmate!”

Akira shot her a dirty look.

Igor’s smile thinned. “This place is a reflection of your heart. Are you a prisoner of society? Fate itself?” He took his hands apart, resting his chin on one. “You stand on the cusp, but will you have the strength to stop the impending ruin?”

Akira approached the bars, noticing a similar kid-wannabe-warden on the other side. Keeping his focus on the man behind the desk, he gripped the bars and pushed out to test their strength. “If you’re trying to make a veiled threat, you’re going about it the wrong way. The only way something in the future is assured is if you do something.”

Igor chuckled, unperturbed. “Do not be afraid. It may be possible to oppose fate, perhaps even rehabilitate your way—”

Akira snarled. “Yeah, I’ve already seen what ‘rehabilitation’ does to prisoners and psych ward patients. You might as well be honest and call it a lobotomy. ‘Mental reprogramming’ is just a set of words to make yourselves feel better about it.”

Igor chuckled, something incongruous about the well-dressed man finding something amusing about the phrase ‘mental reprogramming’. He straightened just a little from his drastic hunch. “Such spirit! Perhaps you may yet find the resolve to challenge the world’s distortion.”

Rankled, Akira tightened his grip on the iron bars. “I have the resolve to take on anything, old man.” He glanced down to one child, then the other. “So, who’s Oxymoron?”

A soft but pleased chuckle floated out of the tuxedoed man. He held a hand to the costumed kid on Akira’s right, “Caroline, and Justine,” he finished gesturing at Akira’s left. “They shall be your wardens.”

Akira pulled at the bars. “Nobody keeps me prisoner, so nobody is my warden!”

“Struggle all you like, Inmate,” the eerie girl with a blindfold over one eye said.

“If you insist,” Akira snapped. He yanked with all his might.

Igor’s grin only widened. “This shall be a most interesting ‘rehabilitation’. I shall look forward to seeing what power you choose to awaken. Shall you seek your own world, or will you seek other thieves to use—?”

Akira banged his fist on the bars, then recoiled and shook out his hand. “I’m no thief!”

Igor let out a laugh with all the depth of his voice. “In time, young one.”

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Early Morning

Yongen, Leblanc Loft

Grinding his teeth at the irritating buzzing, he fumbled for his smart phone and shut off its alarm, then put on his glasses to check and see if it decided to go off an hour early like his body claimed it did. No such luck. “Damn, didn’t I get any sleep?”

A clatter sounded downstairs and the ‘first thing in the morning’ business at Shujin leaped to his mind. Akira scrambled to get into his Shujin uniform, getting his long-sleeved shirt on and trousers up before Sojiro strode up the steps. Hopping on one foot to try to keep his balance, he hit the bookshelf crammed with thick books and binders, knocking over the broom.

The middle-aged man looked over the polished floor of cleared space. “I’m surprised you’re up…” His gaze paused at the broom. “You did sleep, didn’t you?”

Akira zipped up his school uniform and picked up the black jacket. “That’s what I’m trying to tell myself.” Heart still beating fast and hands aching to land fists on someone, he shook his head to push away the strange dream. “I thought I’d be able to get a peaceful night’s sleep now that I’m outside.”

Sojiro crossed his arms, an eyebrow rising as he looked over the transfer student. “Outside?”

Akira’s face heated up and his stomach twisted at the humiliating days past. “Never mind. If we’ve got to go, let’s go. Shujin’s in Aoyama, right? Yongen-Jaya to Shibuya, then transfer Ginza to Aoyama-Itchome?”

“Something like that, but I’m driving.” He held up a finger as if making a stern point was necessary. “Just for today. I don’t want to take the chance we have a problem with the subway.” Sojiro headed back to the stairs, muttering before descending, “Sheesh. Men usually aren’t allowed in my passenger seat.”

Akira buttoned his jacket. “Wonderful. I finally get out of the asylum and my caretaker is a nut.”

Given the standoffish, naked hostility from Sakura Sojiro, Akira turned and stared out at a city looking more like a rat maze with thick crowds of people rushing about anywhere cars didn’t choke the streets. Either he picked up on Akira’s overwhelmed state, or Sojiro didn’t feel like talking past one quip, so the trip passed in as much silence as one of the world’s busiest cities would afford.

Pausing just before the front gates of some school with “Shujin” on the sign out front, Sojiro turned on Akira and set his hands on his hips. “Do me a favor and behave yourself, all right?”

Akira played up the offended innocence. “Just because I usually don’t behave doesn’t mean I don’t know how to.” At the restauranteur’s flat stare, he straightened. “Right. No stand up in the halls. I understand.” He snapped one foot against the other, standing at attention and gave a British salute.

“Just… don’t be yourself,” Sojiro said, sounding weary. “I don’t care what happens to you, but I don’t want to have to clean up anybody else’s mess again.”

“Again?” Akira’s mocking salute fell.

Sojiro whipped around and marched Akira up to the school principal’s office.

The obese man in a Dijon-yellow suit leaped straight to the expected rhetoric. “You’ll be expelled if you cause any problems.”

Staring straight ahead, Akira drew his heels together with a click and stood at attention. “Sir!”

Kobayakawa looked down at a manila-sheathed dossier, his frown deepening the folds on his face. “I understand you have a history of fighting and infractions that never led to charges pressed in your hometown, but you will behave yourself here.”

Akira stared straight ahead, letting out nothing but a curt and clear, “Sir!”

Kobayakawa paused, his feigned officious anger losing the battle to bewilderment before he looked away from Akira. “Well…” He swiveled his seat to a woman in a yellow shirt. “This is Kawakami. She will be your homeroom teacher.”

She gave a brief incline of her head. “Kawakami Sadayo.”

Akira turned to her with a click of his heels and snapped a thirty-degree bow. “Kawakami-sensei!” He rose with the same swiftness.

She took a set of paper envelopes from the stained-wood desk and handed them out. “Here’s your student ID and your authenticated transit pass. Make sure you read the instructions, it might be different from the buses and trains where you came from.” After Akira took both, she shifted back just a little. “Violations will result in a trip to the guidance office, so read the school rules and don’t repeat your behavior from the last schools. We call this Shujin Academy for a reason. If you have any problems, I won’t be able to protect you,” she said in a manner that sounded very much like ‘I wouldn’t even bother trying.’

Akira clenched his jaw for a moment to hold up his façade-for-the-moment. In the same snappy, professional tone he stated, “You will find that a new environment has an enormous effect on performance and behavior, Kawakami-sensei.” He snapped his right hand up at a sharp angle, palm flat and out against his eyebrow, then dropped it.

“W-well,” Kawakami said before retreating a step toward the principal, then leaning closer to whisper not quite low enough, “I thought he was a regular student, not a transfer from a military school.”

“He is supposed to be a regular student,” the pudgy oaf complained. He swiveled back to Akira. “Oh, relax, boy. You’re making me feel tired.”

Akira snapped his hands behind his back, feet spread to shoulder width and back still straight as a meterstick.

Granting Akira no shred of attention, Sojiro gave a tired, “If that’s all? I have a business to run.”

Kobayakawa cleared his throat and feigned the least believable smile the transfer student ever saw. “Thank you for keeping a close eye on him.”

Sensing the end of the demeaning meeting, Akira snapped back to attention with a click of his heels, bowed, then came back up and returned to rest.

Kawakami rubbed at one eye for a moment before saying, “Come to the faculty office tomorrow and I’ll show you your classroom.”

Sojiro led the way out of the office, but failed to conceal a sense of tension which burst at the entry hall when he towered over Akira and snapped, “What was all that in the office about?”

Akira slid a foot back and bit his tongue to try to keep a grip on his temper. “At least I held back the urge to snap up an arm and shout ‘Heil Kobayakawa’,” he said along with a click of his heels and right arm held out. The transfer student fell back into a relaxed pose. “Besides, the best thing to do when you’re in an unusual situation is to smile. It confuses people.”

Sojiro rolled his eyes. “Ugh. Let’s just get going.”

Chapter Text

Persona 5: Daywatch

Monday, 11 April 2016

Early Morning

Yongen, Leblanc

Sojiro looked up from a cup of hot coffee as Akira trotted out in a crisp Shujin uniform. “You’re really going to school.” He scrutinized the youth.

Akira shot him a hooded gaze. “Your faith in me is touching. Surely I must be on the fast road to rehabilitation.” He held up his hands wide. “Welcome, glorious civilization, here I come!”

“Don’t get smart,” Sojiro snapped, eyes narrow as he set a plate of curried rice down on the counter. “Just sit down and eat before customers start coming in.”

Akira pulled up the bar chair, clasped his hands in prayer, then dug in. He jerked away. “Wow, this is good curry. As in really good.”

Sojiro crossed his arms and struggled to look neutral, but the corners of his lips quirked up.

Despite the amazing flavor, the limited time pushed Akira to scarf down his first breakfast in Tokyo before pushing away. He gave a swift bow. “Thanks for the meal.”

Sojiro’s left eyebrow twitched, but he retained that watchful, neutral look. “Maybe you really do have manners after all. Hurry to school. You’ll be late if you get lost.”

Akira pulled his smart phone out and read the screen. “Weather report said there was a chance of rain. Do you have a spare umbrella?”

The middle-aged man shook his head. “Sorry, you’ll have to buy one at the station.”

Akira looked into his wallet. “I have four hundred yen, plus a thousand in the account. That should be enough.”

Snorting, Sojiro shook his head. “You sure are new to Tokyo. No way are you going to find an umbrella for less than three thousand.” When Akira’s expression took a turn for the murderous, he opened up the register. “Here, two thousand, five hundred yen.” When Akira’s fingers closed on the bills despite his dubious expression, Sojiro held on. “This isn’t a gift, this money belongs to the shop. You’ll pay it back as soon as you can. You can start by flipping the sign open for me.”

Monday, 11 April 2016

Morning

Aoyama

Akira trotted out of the station, coming to a stop under the first convenient business awning to pull out his phone and read the map. “Shit. There’s no way I’m going to get there on time.”

His scanning the map for a faster alternate route halted when a shapely set of legs and a little bit of black pleated skirt poking out from a white hoodie walked into his downward-directed view. The slim girl came to a stop under the same awning and brushed water off her damp sleeves. Her shoulders shifted from a weary breath, then she reached up to pull her hood down. Smooth, ash blonde hair cascaded down and Akira’s breath hitched in his throat. Even through the warm hoodie extending past her waist, he could tell her curvaceous frame.

“Yes?” She asked, the controlled tone of somebody impatient but trying not to sound rude.

Akira opened his dry mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “I-is that a Shujin uniform?”

Her pretty, pale blue eyes flicked over him before fixing on his, the mask of indifference drawing back a little from the porcelain-skinned beauty. “Uh… yeah. Same as you.”

Kicking himself for making a bad impression with the prettiest girl he laid eyes on, Akira blurted, “Sorry, I’m Akira. I’m a new transfer.” He reached over the hand holding the umbrella. “Could you show me a fast way to Shujin Academy?”

Her blue eyes bore into his for several seconds before she reached for the umbrella, fingers not closing over it. “Takamaki. Even if we run, we’ll still be late.”

Akira adjusted the angle, inviting her to take the handle, allowing a confident smirk over his face. “Trust me, I can keep up. We used to practice parkour back home.” He waited a moment for her to take the umbrella, and followed her at a strong run all the way to Shujin. She went one way as he turned for the office.

While she wore a lighter, orange-striped yellow shirt today, Kawakami looked almost identical to yesterday. Her hair and expression both looked frazzled, and she turned a cool glare on him. “You skipped the whole opening ceremony. Fashionably late may work in the country, but we expect punctuality in the city.”

Akira fought to keep a snarl off his face. This wasn’t Inuri High anymore, the only person to embarrass was himself. And if Sojiro was any indication, he’d have nobody to turn to. “The train lines have all been fouled up with that accident yesterday. I was expecting to be half an hour early.”

She looked at his empty hands. “Didn’t you even pick up your books?”

“No, Kawakami-sensei. I came straight here to check in.” He bit his tongue to keep from throwing out ‘like you asked yesterday’. People didn’t like being reminded they asked for something unnecessary.

Her pen shot out, scratching out a signature on three separate forms in quick succession. “I don’t have time for excuses. Let’s just go.” Collecting her binder, she led him to class 2-D. When another student tried to slip in behind her, she shot him the evil eye.

Akira took his spot up at the front for the requisite introduction of the transfer student. The almost twenty students chattered amongst themselves.

That’s the guy? He looks so normal,” somebody in the middle of the room said.

Akira quirked an eyebrow, but held his tongue.

Kawakami plopped her binder down and came to a stop behind the front desk. She sounded as tired as she looked when she more pleaded than demanded, “Everyone settle down.”

The back door slid open and another girl and boy slunk in, taking seats in the corner of the class behind Ann. Kawakami gave them both a good glare before continuing, “I understand some of you may have had problems with the subway. I expect you to adjust as needed. We start regular classes tomorrow, so there’s no leeway time.” She paused for a tired breath out, lifting a lazy hand in Akira’s direction. “This is our transfer student. Introduce yourself.”

Despite the weak beginning, he took a piece of chalk and wrote his whole name. People just asked more questions when he tried to drop the family name entirely. Done, he bowed to the class. “My name is Kurusu Akira. Please call me Akira. I look forward to attending school with all of you.”

“Maybe it’s one of those ‘beware the quiet ones’ types,” one of the girls near the middle of the room said.

Ignoring the strange chatter, Kawakami waved her hand at empty seats near the middle. “Go sit down there for now. Share with somebody’s books until you pick up yours.”

Akira slipped in and sat down in front of a dark-haired male with his uniform suspenders hanging slack at his sides. It felt like everybody’s eyes were on him as Kawakami begain routine administration. “Who’s the class rep today?”

The boy behind him stood and gave a brief bow. “Mishima.” As the teacher wrote, he called out, “All rise.”

Monday, 11 April 2016

Lunchtime

Shujin, Cafeteria

Belly growling, Akira stepped into the cafeteria and took in the scent of soy and fish, splurging on the grilled fish lunch.

“Look out, I hear that guy’s with the creeps in Shibuya.”

Akira paused, glancing around for the source of the muttering, but the amount of movement made it impossible. Nobody met his eyes and most scurried away from him. Muttering under his breath, he glanced for candid cameras. This treatment would make sense if he was still at Inuri High, but he hadn’t made a terror of himself here. Finally, he spotted somebody who didn’t look away. The blond bombshell he met at the train station, sitting across from a pretty girl with a black ponytail. Akira slid over to a seat on the other side of the table and pasted on a smile. “Hi. I’m surprised to see nobody else already sitting here. Do you mind?”

“Wow, first day and he’s already hitting on Kamoshida’s bitch? He really must be looking for an early grave.”

A snarl flashed over Ann’s face.

The transfer student gave a polite nod to the dark-haired girl next to Ann. “I’m Akira.”

The dark-haired girl gave a shy smile and Akira’s stomach flipped. She looked him in the eye, gathering her courage. “Suzui Shiho. Are you… really the transfer student?”

Wondering what her tone meant, Akira decided to play it off as if people weren’t giving him weird looks. He thrust out his chest and smirked. “Yeah. I finally escaped from the boonies.”

Ann squared her shoulders. “But it’s nice out in the country, Kurusu-san.”

“Don’t call me Kurusu,” he shouted, drawing a hush from the surrounding tables. Akira’s teeth clacked together and his hand squeezed so hard the chopsticks popped out, clattering to the floor. Forcing his hands open, he shot to his feet but maintained enough presence of mind to control his pace to the serving window for another set of chopsticks. Waiting until he felt his blood pressure go down a little, he returned to his seat and responded with a controlled, neutral tone, “Just Akira is fine.”

Shiho’s phone chirped and she snatched it up, reading the incoming text. Her mouth twisted in embarrassment, but also curled up at the corners. She looked up and across the room until meeting eyes with Akira’s class representative. Her stance softened and she beamed a soft smile that made the whole room seem warm and pleasant.

Swallowing at the sudden butterflies in his stomach from eavesdropping on a lovers’ silent exchange, he coughed into his hand and struggled to think of something to say before something stupid came out. “So, um… I heard this place has quite the athletics program.”

Shiho looked at him, seeming pleased with herself. “Oh, yes. The volleyball team’s been to the national championships for the past four years in a row. Last year we even won.”

Akira tapped his fingertips on the table a couple of times. His ‘sports’ back at Inuri High tended to involve running from the police. Father Motoori was clear he needed to leave those things at Inuri. “Um… good for you.”

Ann looked offended for some reason. “That’s all?” She crossed her arms, elbows on the table. “Shiho-san was even on the team then.” She flashed a smile filled with haughty pride at Shiho. “She’s even one of our starters when we go to nationals in a couple weeks.”

Shiho’s shoulders drooped and her head fell enough for the overhead lighting to look like it cast deep shadows in her eyes. “It’s not so big a deal. After all, volleyball and Yuu-chan’s all I have.”

“Oh,” Akira said, looking up from his fish. “I didn’t want to demean your role or anything. It’s just that when I looked up the school website last week, I didn’t see almost anything in the way of fine arts programs or recreational clubs.”

Shiho sat back in her plastic folding chair, eyes rolling up in thought for a moment. “Well, that would be more Kosei High. We’re an athletics and academic place.”

Akira pursed his lips. “I’m just not looking for a sports program. Father Motoori said I should use this change in venue to apply a little more of my mind and a little less of my muscle, and he’s always given me good advice in the past. I’m studying to be a chiropractor.”

“Really?” Shiho said, looking Akira over with the first undiscriminating curiosity he saw since setting foot in Tokyo.

“Yeah,” he looked down at his food, trying not to blush at the first sign of interest from a pretty girl. The fact that she had such bright, soft eyes only made it harder. “My family would never allow me to do anything outside of medicine, but I don’t want to be a researcher. I’d rather help heal people. Chiropractics is something that’s small-scale and cheap enough that I can be easily approachable, but also can offer the weary and pained some immediate relief so I get to see my patients walk away with a smile.”

Ann raised an eyebrow, scanning him as if expecting a disguise. “Are you for real?”

“Why?” Akira shot back, free hand curling into a fist and his right tensing on his chopsticks. “Is there something strange about that?”

Shiho gave him a genuine smile. The kind that nudged her shoulders up and made her eyes sparkle, besides making the whole room seem warmer. “Not at all, I think it’s a very good goal to work towards. It’s something good for society and good for you.”

Akira swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry and butterflies dancing in his stomach, knowing he lost the battle to keep the blush from his face. “Thanks, Suzui-san. Say, do one of you want this?” He held up a plastic-wrapped pink-frosting-covered dessert.

Ann opened it by the time he realized she swiped it from his fingers. At least she smiled as she said, “Donations of sweets are always appreciated. Maybe you’re a good guy after all.”

Akira swallowed a large chunk of grilled fish, deciding while good it wasn’t worth the yen. “Well, if volleyball’s really the only thing going on, should I come by and watch one of the practice games? It’s not like we have a chess or medicine club.”

Shiho tensed. “No!”

Akira blinked and glanced around, wondering what happened. “Huh?”

Ann flashed a plastic smile, her shoulders and body posture indicating general anxiety like Shiho but also hostility aimed at himself. “She means you should get settled in before you try to join a club. Keep your eyes open, you know?”

Akira shrugged and picked up another bite of sushi rice before looking back at Shiho’s slow settling down. Once she seemed back to normal, they settled into meaningless small talk and Akira felt a smile on his face.

Monday, 11 April 2016

After School

Shujin, Hall near North Stairs

Pacing out from the student guidance office with his books, Akira adjusted his school satchel and headed for the library. Before even getting halfway to the second floor, he saw Ann trudging out from class 2-D. She angled for the stairs when a tall, muscular man in a white shirt and dark blue track trousers walked up to her from the hallway further down. “Hey there, Takamaki.”

Ann’s leg twitched, shifting her weight to the balls of her feet and her body angling away from him.

He either ignored or took no notice of the stark change in her stance. “I saw you running to school with that transfer student.”

Ann’s shoulders pinched up, her fingers clenching over her book bag. She shifted, still refusing to look him in the eyes. “Oh, was that him?”

The muscled, towering man waved an arm, something a little too practiced about it to be genuine dismissal. “And I heard he was with you at lunch. Be careful around him. He’s got a criminal record. Assault, I hear.”

Her attention perked at that, though she cringed with it. “I see.” She shifted the strap of her book bag, and Akira noted his opaque blue umbrella still tucked into the bottom loops.

The tall man reached a supplicating hand toward her. “You look tired after a long day. Could I give you a lift home?” He reached his hand out to take her shoulder, only managing the lightest, briefest of touches.

Ann flinched, a brief tremor passing through her body. She angled her face and body even further away, not quite daring to let him out of her peripheral vision. “Sorry, I have a photoshoot today. It’s for a summer issue, I can’t afford to miss it.”

The towering man let out a sympathetic sigh even as his torso tightened with impatient annoyance, stark lines appearing at his neck. “I feel bad keeping your best friend at practice so often. That’s why I asked you out in the first place.”

Somebody stopped next to the stairs below him, and a young female voice asked, “Oh, hello.”

Akira stumbled away, trying not to look like he was eavesdropping.

A girl with curly, auburn hair stood there in a pink cardigan. She held two large books between her hands, and sent him the same wary look as most students had been all day. “Are you lost?”

Akira paced down to the first floor so he at least stood on the same level as her, and slid his hands into his pockets. “Uh… no. Just getting a feel for the school’s layout. It’s different than the last one.”

The girl scanned him, holding her books against her chest. “You’re the transfer student?”

He knew he shouldn’t be surprised that most students knew there was a transfer student, but this sounded like yet another instance of everybody hearing about him and having some strange expectation where they preferred to avoid him like a leper. He pushed on a nervous smile. “That’s right. Name’s Akira, second year.”

The girl inclined her head, standing straighter. “Haru, third year.”

Akira leaned against the wall nearby, keeping his eyes on her. He wondered why she didn’t give her full name like normal introductions, but if he was going to do his damnedest to distance himself from his name, who was he to deny her the same right? “Do you mind if I ask you a question, Haru-senpai? Since you’ve been attending here for the past two years?”

She gave a wary nod.

“Why does everyone seem so skittish here?” Akira brushed a hand backwards through his hair. “I’m not especially surprised about all the rumors – we’re all teenagers, after all – but it’s like everyone’s looking over their shoulders. And a bunch of people keep giving me this look like they’re expecting something to happen.”

Haru’s shoulders drooped and she clutched her books tight to her chest. “Oh. W-well, I don’t like to gossip,” she stuttered.

Akira bit down a ‘bullshit, you’re a teenage girl’.

“I’m sure most of it’s just the pressure,” she explained. “Shujin Academy is a somewhat prestigious academic school, and a lot of the student body are probably just concerned about keeping up and earning a letter of recommendation to their first choice college.”

Akira rotated his shoulder to work out a kink. “So there’s nobody I need to watch out for or anything?”

Her eyes fell. “O-o-oh, I don’t know.”

After scanning her nervous posture, he couldn’t decide if she was just that timid or if something else was up. He gave her a self-deprecating smile. “Just me, then. That’s okay, Senpai. Thank you.” Snapping straight, he gave her a picture-perfect British salute and marched away.

Haru watched him leave. “That wasn’t what I expected of him.”

Monday, 11 April 2016

Late Afternoon

Yongen, Leblanc

Sojiro wiped a wide circle over the counter, stopping when the bell tinged. Looking up, he saw Akira trot inside with a dark book bag. “So, you did go to school today.”

“Nope,” Akira said back with a flat tone, “I spent all the time at arcades with those fat stacks of cash I smuggled in.”

Sojiro sighed, wondering if the kid was always this mouthy. “Just… don’t get into trouble. There’s already plenty of eyes on you waiting for you to slip up.”

Akira’s shoulders fell and his gaze hardened. “Right. Because it’s so easy to be a model citizen even when people back up and give me room to fucking breathe.”

As Sojiro tried to think of a way to tell the kid to just let things pass by, his phone rang. Recognizing her number, he answered and listened for a moment. “Okay, okay. Just give me a minute to lock up.” Closing the call, he turned a hard look on Akira. “I’m heading out. Don’t go wandering around.”

Akira grumped right back. “Fine. I still haven’t finished cleaning upstairs.”

Chapter Text

Persona 5: Daywatch

Tuesday, 12 April 2016
Morning
Aoyama Station

Akira trotted out of the station, coming to the dull cityscape of Tokyo under a mat of grey clouds. While not excited to get to Shujin Academy, he couldn't think of any amusing diversions. Before getting far from the stairs to the train station, he spotted a distinctive pair of blond pig-tails. Speeding up, he confirmed that yes, it was the hot girl from the other day. "Morning, Takamaki."

She turned on him with a jerking motion, her hand drifting down her bag to the matte-blue umbrella still slipped through the under-loops. "Oh, h-hi."

He came to a stop and blinked at the tension in her shoulders and suspicion in what should be pretty blue eyes. Straightening, he tried to keep any sign of emotion out of his voice. "I hope my umbrella was useful yesterday."

Ann looked at it as if it bore her every sin in writing, her eyes narrowing and face twisting in a disgusted embarrassment that seemed far out of proportion with forgetting to give a stranger back his umbrella. Cringing, she pulled it out and offered it. "Oh. Sorry, here."

"Thanks." Taking it, Akira gave a show smile she ignored. When she turned back to Shujin without a further word, he couldn't keep all his indignance down. Frustration crept into what should've been concern and he sped up to keep pace with her. "What the hell is your problem?"

"Huh?" Ann's eyes flicked to him, and her pace stepped out a little to keep ahead of him. She spared him only a glance before turning her eyes back to the sidewalk ahead.

"You're acting different," Akira snapped, feeling a little too much like a lawyer in a courtroom drama. He sucked in a deep breath to keep his cool, reaching back for a nice moment when Ann and that gorgeous volleyball player with the kindness of a saint shared lunchtime with him. "I thought you didn't mind my presence when I sat down next to you and Shiho-chan at lunch. I'm still kind of new here, and when I first saw you it was raining and I was late to check into the faculty office so I didn't stop for all the usual greeting niceties."

"No, that's not it," Ann threw back, still avoiding eye contact before she stepped out her stride and maneuvered around two salarymen.

Akira sped up, bumping into one of the snaggle-toothed men in his efforts to keep up with the determined blonde. "What did I do now?"

"Nothing!" Her fingers clenched and back straightened before she took off at a solid jog.

Growling, Akira wondered what got into her. After a moment of shifting from foot to foot, he decided against chasing her and reached into his jacket for his smart phone and the map function.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016
Lunch
Shujin, Courtyard Nook

Akira sat down at the lonely table tucked away in Shujin's inner courtyard. Setting the bento purchased from Muramasa Grocers, he set his chopsticks on top and clasped his hands in prayer. After closing his eyes, he took in a deep breath, trying to exhale all the things he heard people say about him in the hall.

"Oh," a familiar feminine voice said, "would it be okay if I had lunch here?"

Akira looked up, the name Shiho springing from his memory as he looked up into her deep, warm, brown eyes. He felt his frame tighten as he prepared to move. "Oh, go ahead. I didn't know this spot was taken."

Shiho plopped down on a different bench nearby, flashing him a weary but still beatific smile. The kind that didn't just sparkle in her eyes but made her shoulders rise and seemed to light up the shadowy corner. "It's just a quiet, out-of-the-way spot." She let out a whoosh of air before digging out a plastic tupperware stuffed with rice and vegetables. "And I could use one of those. Were you meditating?"

"Praying," Akira said, unsure whether he was agreeing or correcting. He took his chopsticks and tore the plastic film off his lunch. "Father Motoori said I should do it more often. It's supposed to be good for our hearts as well as our relationship to God to bring Him our troubles and wants." He gave a self-derisive smirk and opened his mouth, wondering what was making him so chatty. "I guess I could use some work with that."

Shiho's smile waned, concern edging out some of that beautiful warmth. "Having trouble with all the rumors?"

Heat having nothing to do with the April humidity wrapped around his throat and he averted his eyes. "A-a little."

Her tupperware popped as she pried the lid off. "Try not to worry about the things people say. Soon enough they'll find something new to gossip about. Ann was in a similar situation and she had to persevere, too."

Akira gazed at her, unable to find any angle in what seemed genuine unselfish kindness. His eyes traced the smooth curve of her jaw as she opened and closed it around her food, the way her black ponytail jostled when she swallowed. A faint sigh leaked out of his mouth. "Your boyfriend has no idea how lucky he is."

Shiho shot ramrod straight, looking at him with wide eyes and a grain of rice falling from her open mouth. "W-wha?"

Akira blinked, feeling dizzy from the sudden change in mood. "Your boyfriend." He snapped his fingers a couple times. "I can't remember his name. My class rep, the one you gave that 'you're special to me' smile yesterday."

The color drained from her face and a piece of something fell backward in her throat. Suzui slammed her chopsticks into her lunch and gripped the edge of the table, hacking against the rice.

"Shiho, there you…" Ann said, trotting up from the Academic building before a look of concern tensed her shoulders. "Are you okay?" She jogged to the table and glared at Akira. "What did you do to her?"

He raised his hands in confusion. "Is it supposed to be a secret that Suzui-san's got a boyfriend?"

Ann's eyes snapped wide and she rounded on the other girl, a touch of pale creeping into her face. "You told him?"

While Shiho kept hacking, Akira's eyebrows raised at the panic in the blonde's tone. "I didn't think it was that hard to figure out. Why are you both acting like this is the end of the world? I get some couples like to keep things on the dee-el. I won't tell anyone."

Ann planted her free hand on her hip in what would've been a cute pose if it wasn't held by a snappy bitch. Just for good measure, she threw a renewed glare at him. "You better not. Kamoshida's harsh enough when he doesn't think we're 'distracted'."

Shiho tore the cap off a small water bottle and drained it.

His left eyebrow rose. "Who's Kamoshida?"

"Just the volleyball coach," Shiho answered just a little too quickly.

Shoulders pinched up and arms crossed, Ann watched the black-haired girl for a moment of concern. Then stepped between her and Akira. "Just make sure not to screw things up for Shiho. She worked too hard to earn her starter position and as her best friend I don't want anything to mess that up."

Akira held up his hands again, trying not to make a bad impression in front of Shiho no matter how much he wanted to throttle the blonde. "I'm only trying to get through the day. I'm not here to trip up anyone else."

Pressing her hand against her sternum and unintentionally tightening her shirt over her breasts, Shiho coughed out the last rice. "It's okay, Ann. I think he does mean well."

Stepping aside, Ann's stance fell into a slouch before she looked back to Akira. "You can see how fast rumors fly. We can't afford to let anything happen." Her eyes drifted to her volleyball friend. "You deserve everything you can get."

Tuesday, 12 April 2016
After School
Shujin, Courtyard Nook

Stretching back against the bench, Ann froze when her phone rang. Turning a little from Shiho, she took it out just long enough to glance at the screen for caller ID. She slipped it back into her pocket without answering or cutting the call, letting it keep ringing in her pocket.

Shiho tilted her head at the blonde. "You're not going to get that?"

Ann gave a stiff smile. "Oh, it's just my part-time job. Nothing to worry about." She turned away, muttering, "It has to get better." When heavy footfalls drew close, she looked up at Mishima, her eyes widening a little at the bruises under his left eye and along the right side of his face.

Mishima stopped and drew in a breath as if the journey from the practice building took all he had, sparing only a glance at Ann. "Shi-chan. Kamoshida told me to get you. You should get going."

Shiho's arms closed around her school satchel. "What did he say?"

His eyes clenched, his left eye twitching. "Just please go before he finds out you were still here."

Shiho turned to her longtime friend and swallowed hard. "Ann, I…" She looked up at Mishima, who held a serious, patient stance. "Thanks, Yuu-chan." She gathered her bag, stood up and dashed for Shujin's front gate.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016
After School
Shujin, Front Gates

Akira pushed open the door, trying to pick a snark to throw out at the person ahead who let it close in front of a line of people. Stepping outside, the humidity punched all the way down his windpipe and he decided it wasn't worth yelling at someone if he couldn't get his hands around the jerk's throat. Then he stumbled from some unlucky fool running into him. His hand lashed out to grab her, but he froze when he saw the girl attached to it was Shiho. Surprised, his grip went slack and she bolted into the city.

"Good thing she's fast, I heard he's got a knife," one of the male students said as Akira paced towards the cityscape. He wondered who tipped them off.

"Keep your distance," a girl's voice hissed. "If you get close to him he'll only ruin your life."

Akira kept walking, trying not to show how much the last one stung.

"Don't make eye contact, he'll drag you into a dark alley and stab you."

He ground his teeth to keep from responding, "No, I'll only stab you." By the time he passed through the gates proper, his fingers pulsed from the strain of clenching his satchel.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016
Late Afternoon
Yongen, Leblanc

The little bell above the door rang and Akira ground his teeth to hold in the urge to punch the happy-sounding piece of metal.

Sojiro, reading a newspaper behind the counter, looked up. "So, you're back."

Stomping his way in, Akira snapped, "Sorry to disappoint."

Sojiro set the paper to the counter, his eyes narrowing behind his glasses. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Knowing he just stepped in it, Akira stopped and clamped his fingers over the back of one of the bar chairs. The leather groaned under his grip and he leaned against the chair for support. Despite his efforts, his arms trembled. Following Father Motoori's guidance, he drew in a long breath, then blew out a long breath, keeping his eyes focused on an indistinct point ahead of him. "It's been a long day, Sakura-san."

Sojiro straightened. "You haven't been getting into trouble, have you?"

Akira whirled on Sojiro, but nothing breakable sat in easy reach. Somehow, the tiny logical part of his brain that knew he had nowhere to go if Sojiro kicked him out clawed its way to the fore and he spoke instead of reaching for a sugar shaker. "Somebody leaked that I have a record. Now there's only one person at school who treats me like a damn human being." Standing up from the chair, Akira let out a long breath. "I need to go running." He jogged up to his room and changed.

He heard a musical tune play as he walked down the stairs in his exercise outfit, a black tank top and baggy black shorts tied with a drawstring.

"…told you," Sojiro said from somewhere in the kitchen ahead. "It's just a part-timer I hired." He met gazes with the student as Akira paced out from the hallway, phone still by his ear. While Akira couldn't make out the words, he could hear a female voice from the other side. Sojiro covered the microphone and looked Akira in the eyes. "How long are you going to be out?"

"Until I'm done," Akira snapped before his brain could find the reigns for his tongue. Withering under Sojiro's glare, Akira looked at the floor. "Three or four hours."

A long, uncomfortable look passed as Sojiro scrutinized the boy before lifting his phone and taking his hand from the microphone. "Okay, fine. I'll be there in just a few minutes." Hanging up, he turned to Akira with a look of wary understanding. "Inokashira Park's only a short ride away, though you'll have to buy round-trip fare." Crouching under the counter, he fiddled with a few things, then came up and set a key down on the counter and gave Akira a stern glare. "This doesn't mean you can just go around anywhere at night. I just have better things to do than keeping watch over you. Make sure you lock up any time you're out. And if anything's missing—"

"I'm no thief," Akira snapped, pride unable to take any more. When Sojiro nodded at that and walked out, Akira stood staring at the key for a minute before swiping it and heading for the door.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016
Evening
Inokashira Park

Akira huffed in and out through the mouth, breath heaving in a harsh but regular pattern as he dodged around people, then leaped over a bench. Artificial yellow drew his eyes and he spotted another runner on the path, this guy wearing a red shirt declaring Pow! to go with his bad blond dye-job.

The other runner held eye contact through the crowd for only a moment before an unspoken signal passed between them and he smirked. His eyes narrowed and he accelerated.

Dodging around another couple meandering down the path, Akira leaned to pour on the speed and catch up with Blond.

Red shirt smirked and pulled ahead.

Akira narrowed his eyes at the back of Blond's red shirt.

A park custodian pushing a trashcan-laden cart trundled into his path. The man stared like a deer at an oncoming train.

Too much inertia to stop, Akira leaped, springing off the cart, over the man, and tucking into a roll to come back to his feet. Once he got his eyes back on the crowd, he growled when he noticed Blond still ahead and accelerated.

Blond glanced over his shoulder, then spotted Akira coming alongside. Blond nodded in acknowledgment, pumped his arms, and pulled ahead.

Akira leaped over a fallen log at the side of the path, spotting a thin space in the trees at the main path curved around. Making eye contact with Blond, both smirked at the other and focused on the race ahead.

Akira dodged between trees, surging out of the thin copse just in time to see Blond rush ahead of him, still on the main path.

Akira stumbled to a stop, bracing against his knees as he breathed. "Damn, that guy's fast."

Chapter Text

Persona 5: Daywatch

Wednesday, 13 April 2016
Afternoon
Shujin, Gym

 

The rubber of fresh sports shoes squeaked against polished wood panel flooring. For lack of anything better to do, Akira scrolled through the mobile version of the school’s website for any sign of who leaked his record.

Somebody in a male gym uniform plopped to the floor next to him, his scratchy voice blurting, “Hey, you’re that guy sprinting at Inokashira.”

Akira looked over at the student next to him, his eyes shooting to the dyed-blonde hair. While the hair screamed ‘delinquent desperate for attention’, he remembered that undeclared race yesterday. Anybody that good at running deserved recognition if just for the running itself. He slipped his phone into a pocket to turn his full attention to the strange student choosing to sit next to the ‘dangerous criminal’. “And you were that red shirt.” He raised a few fingers in a tiny wave. “You’ve got some serious speed and endurance.”

“Ryuji,” bad dye-job said with a modest shrug that ran counter to his delinquent appearance. He leaned back against the painted brick wall. “And I’m not as good as I was before. Used to be on the track, before Master Asshole there,” he gave a nod at Kamoshida, weaving between teachers in the ongoing game, “destroyed the team.” A snarl pulled Ryuji’s lip up, exposing pointed teeth and a familiar hate. “Couldn’t take any competition with his precious volleyball.” After a moment, Ryuji tore his glare from Kamoshida and loosened up as he focused on Akira. “I guess you’re that transfer student.”

“Akira,” he said with a nod before leaning closer to stage whisper, “Just to warn you, I’m even scarier than the rumors.”

Ryuji snorted, but a smile split his face.

A larger movement than before drew Akira’s attention to the game. Kamoshida made a leap taking him almost a meter off the floor. Something passed over the coach’s face – a snarl? A feral grin? – too quickly for Akira to judge, but his eyes locked onto one of the students and he spiked the ball straight into the class representative’s face.

Akira leapt to his feet. “Mishima-san!” He dashed to the fallen student. When Kamoshida ducked under the net, Akira repositioned to put himself between the coach and his classmate.

Kamoshida looked down at the bruised student. “Is he all right?”

Mishima stirred under the would-be chiropractor. A faint groan leaked out of the class representative’s mouth. Mishima’s eyes clenched, then opened and gazed up, unfocused.

Akira let out a relieved breath. “He’s bleeding. He hit his head and was unconscious for at least a few seconds. I think he may have a concussion.”

“Take him to the nurse,” Kamoshida snapped before turning back to the court.

Akira’s fists clenched and his legs tensed to stand and unleash retribution on the callous coach when Mishima reached out, balance wobbly.

The transfer student slung Mishima’s arm around his shoulder and stood. “C’mon, Mishima, talk to me.” His eyes traced over fading yellowed splotches as well as bruising he hadn’t seen since he got into street brawls even before Inuri High. “Damn, are you sure you just got hit with one ball? You look like you went ten rounds with Big K.” He angled for the door. “Do you know where you are?”

Mishima slipped and his head lolled to one side. “Coaching?”

Akira pulled until Mishima stood on his own legs. “Hey, stay on your feet. One foot in front of the other.” Once they got moving, he smiled in relief. “There you go.” They passed through the doors and into the deserted hallways. “Do you know what day it is?”

Mishima let his head fall forward, eyes clenched shut. “No more.”

Concerned about the lack of cognitive communication, Akira couldn’t keep his volume from rising. “Talk, Mishima. Stay conscious.” He grit his teeth, before admitting under his breath, “C’mon, I don’t actually know how to treat head injuries.”

“I…” Mishima flinched, but at least maintained pace. “No. Just don’t hurt Shi-chan.”

Akira froze, the door to the nurse’s office looming mere steps away. He looked at Mishima’s injuries, the bruises on his hands and arms. “Oh my God. Has he been doing this to you because you and Suzui are a couple?”

Mishima’s eyes cracked open, unfocused, then slipped closed again and he flinched away. “Th… the special coaching…”

Flashes of bandages and haunted gazes on no few male students passed before Akira’s eyes. “What kind of…” His teeth ground. “How has he not been reported and fired yet?”

Mishima picked his head up, eyes focusing on Akira. “Transfer?” He jerked, then tried to pull away and vomited on the tile floor.

Akira scrambled to get him into the nurse’s office, a heavyset woman looking up at them from the desk inside. “Possible concussion,” the transfer student explained in a no-nonsense tone. “Volleyball hit his face and the back of his head hit the ground. He’s only starting to regain lucidity and threw up just outside the door.”

The nurse reached for a pen light in a drawer. “Was he unconscious?”

“Ten to fifteen seconds,” Akira yielded his class rep to a chair next to her desk. “And still pretty out of it the three-ish minutes it took to walk him here.”

Finished checking his pupil reaction, she pulled on gloves and shone the light into his hair. “Thank god this one was only that long.”

Akira’s breath caught in his mouth for a moment before he blurted, “Only?” His hands curled into fists. “Concussions can result in permanent behavioral and learning disabilities. He needs to be at a hospital!”

The nurse kept her eyes on Mishima and continued scanning his scalp. “Leave the medicine to us, honey.”

He stepped closer anyway, tone rising. “If he takes another head injury like that, it could do worse than kill him! Do you want a mental vegetable at this school?”

Mishima’s unswollen eye widened and his face paled.

“Don’t you worry about it,” the nurse demanded, still bent over the bruised student. “He just needs some rest.”

Akira fought to keep from swinging at her. “How many other people had to be escorted in here after special coaching?”

The nurse stood straight, eyes shooting left and right before looking away from Akira. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Akira ground his teeth together. “Then you condemn the next person to even worse!” Fists trembling, he stormed out and stomped around the vomit. “I need answers, and there are only two people who’ll give them to me.”

Two students gossiping at the side of the hall stared at him but failed to wait until after he passed out of earshot to return to their conversation. “I heard he almost killed someone.”

“I heard he’s working for those thugs in Shibuya.”

Akira stalked through the halls, thrusting his hands in his pockets to resist the urge to throw a punch at the next morons who bandied rumors behind his back. With more students coming out of their games, the halls started to sound more like normal. At last, he spotted a flash of natural blond and broke into a run after Ann, bulling past a girl with a braid-style hairband.

She shot him a glare, but he ignored her in favor of catching up with Shiho and Mishima’s mutual friend. Finally reaching her just before the opening to the third floor, he snagged Ann’s wrist.

She whipped around at him, her other hand raised to swing back at him. When she realized it was him, her hand dropped and her stance relaxed but her glare held some heat. “What do you want?”

“I want some straight answers for once,” Akira snapped back. He let go of her hand and both glowered at each other like yakuza daring the other to draw the knife first. “When I took Mishima to the nurse’s, I spotted a lot more bruises than any sports practice.” His eyes narrowed. “Somebody’s using him as a punching bag.”

“He’s…” Ann’s eyes fell away and her fists tightened. “No, Shiho’d tell me if somebody was going after him.”

“Would she?” He leaned even closer, which only brought his eyes lower given the step she stood on. He tried to ignore the prominent chest right in front of his thick glasses. “Would she tell you everything about some guy she’s,” Akira clapped his hands flat together, “that tight with? Maybe even that way?”

Ann’s posture regained its confident hostility. “She… We’re best friends, have been since middle school.” Her eyes, which had been boring a hole through his, slid to the wall. “She works so hard and I can’t… I can’t mess up something she loves almost as much as, maybe even more than Yuuki.”

Alliance Force Assemble sang out of his phone and Akira whipped it out to cut the call, snarling, “Shut up!” Fumbling to put it back, something red came on the screen before he shoved it back in his pocket and looked Ann in the eye. “Who would be that against her being romantically involved?”

Ann turned a little further away and she crossed her arms. “I don’t know if it’s about her, but…” Her lip curled into a snarl and her hands fisted again. “Kamoshida.”

Akira blinked, unable to place the name. “Excuse me?”

She turned to him, eyes blazing with fury and posture all set to fight. “Kamoshida Suguru.”

A twang sounded from his phone, but he held gaze with the angry young woman in front of him. “What, does he have an iron-fisted rule here in Shujin Academy?”

Another twang played, and only seemed to make her more pissed off. Her sneer grew, and her fisted hands swung down to her sides. “You don’t know anything about that pervert. It’s not just Mishima.” She took a step down to him, almost nose-to-nose now. “Everybody here is like some… serf in his own private castle.”

Another twang played, but before either one could say anything, a computerized voice stated, “Match found. Target Asmodeus. Beginning navigation.”

Both of them queried in confusion. Red swam before Akira’s eyes and the world twisted like a collapsing acid trip. A grandiose, carpeted spiral staircase replaced the efficient, squared stairwell. Anger at her bleeding through even as he stared at the stonework, he snapped, “Wha? Where is this?”

“That’s what I want to know,” she shot back with no less anger. She crossed her arms and glared. “Did you drug me?”

Akira whirled on her fist cocked back before he caught himself. He snarled, “Oh, don’t flatter yourself, princess.” He glanced up and down. “Where’s the door to the hallway?”

Ann leaned down over the railing to peer into the dark below, then up. “I don’t see any light down that way, but I do see something up there,” she pointed.

Akira blinked and forced his fists to open. “Shouldn’t that be the roof?”

“If it was the school,” she snapped at him as she turned for the stairs up. “Does this really look like Shujin?”

Grumbling, Akira followed her up the stairs as they spiraled up much higher than Shujin before opening to an ornate hall with whitewashed walls and a polished stone tile floor covered with a thick, red, hall-length rug. Glistening sunlight streamed in through giant windows, but something about the angle set off alarm bells. “Is it really getting to twilight already?”

Ann spun on him, hands on her hips. “We’re in some weird-ass palace and you’re worried about the time?”

Akira advanced on her, doing nothing to hide the snarl pulling at his lip. “I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on by any clues I can pick up.” He pointed at the windows. “That’s not early afternoon sunlight.”

With neither having anything else to say, they advanced to a three-meter-tall polished oak door. When Ann hesitated, Akira felt his own confidence waning and burst inside just to keep her from seeing his hand shaking.

Soft reds, pinks, and browns dominated the expansive room. Scattered around with a total lack of neatness lay oversized pillows and the girl’s volleyball team in various states of undress.

Ann’s anxious meekness vanished and her trembling hands curled into fists as she stomped after him. “What the hell is this?”

Akira threw up his hands defensively. “Don’t look at me! I’m a cuddler, not a groper.”

One of the girls gave a sensual moan and batted a curled hand at him with a hooded, expectant gaze that made him glad Shujin’s gym uniform had baggy pants. He jerked away.

Ann, scanning the room, froze. Her eyes snapped wide and her face paled. “Sh-Shiho?”

“Huh?” Akira said, following her gaze to a round waterbed near the center of the opulent room.

Suzui Shiho crawled to the edge of the waterbed on all fours, wearing nothing but tight gym shorts. Locking eyes with Ann, she sat back on her heels for a moment. “It’s the princess!” The volleyball player threw herself backwards on the waterbed with a happy groan, her breasts jiggling at the impact. “He must be pleased if he’s going to take us all today.”

Ann gaped, her face stricken with horror and fear, but her posture screaming rage. “Shiho! What are you doing?”

Shiho pouted for a moment, then her eyes slid to Akira. She gave a sultry grin and reclined on her side, displaying every curve. “Did the king send you to get us ready?”

Ann shot a look to her side, spotting an Akira still frozen in fascinated horror. She snapped, “Don’t look, you pervert!”

“I’m not!” he protested, then slammed one hand over his eyes. Fighting just to control his breathing, he shouted, “Would somebody just tell me what’s going on?”

Shiho turned a hooded gaze to Ann but remained spread out across the edge of the bead. “You’re not here just to show off, are you? Just because you’re his favorite…”

Ann jerked away, one hand grabbing the two sides of her gym jacket closed even as a blush spread across her horror-stricken face. “W-w-what?”

Akira took a single stomp towards the bed, hand still clamped over his glasses. His other hand clenched in a white-knuckled fist, he roared, “What the hell is going on?”

The doors burst open, and an enormous man decked out in metal armor strode in. Gasps echoed from the girls as they scrambled to the walls to give him a wide path to Akira.

Ignoring them, the knight looked at the students in Shujin gym uniforms. “Who dares to intrude in the king’s pleasure chambers?” His gaze stopped on Ann. “Princess? What is My Lady doing outside His personal chambers?”

“Princess?” Scandalized, she turned the full force of her sexy anger on the plated man. “Personal chambers?”

The knight sheathed his sword and trotted up to Ann, reaching a hand out. “Come with me, My Lady. I shall escort you back to His Highness’ bedchambers.”

Akira hopped between them, shoving at the knight’s arm and having about the effect of a stiff breeze. “The hell are you taking her any—”

The knight backhanded him with a very solid metal gauntlet, sending Akira spinning and blood flying from his split lip. As Akira caught himself on the edge of the waterbed, the knight loomed, “Know your place, slave. If you’re not in the Training Hall of Love, you should be doing only the task His Highness ordered you.”

Shiho crawled to him and brushed his hair out of his eyes now that his glasses weren’t there to obstruct his gray gaze. She cooed, “It’s useless to resist. Aren’t we all here at the pleasure of the king?”

Face still smarting and head still pounding from the blow, he stumbled back in between the armored man and Ann. “Get away from Takamaki-san and Suzui-san.” Eyes remaining locked on the knight, Akira ground out to the girls, “Go on, get out of here.”

“Insolent knave!” The gauntlet snapped forward, grabbing Akira by the throat and lifting him off his feet. “The king deserves all things. You should be pleased to be permitted to serve him.”

Gagging against the crushing grip, the transfer student slammed his fists against the solid metal.

“Akira!” Ann cried out. After a moment to settle her stance, she shoulder-slammed the knight, bouncing off him. She rubbed her shoulder against the sensation of having rammed a wall.

The knight glared down at her. “You wait your turn, princess. It shall be your honor to service the king later.”

Spots forming in his vision, the blows of Akira’s fists weakened.

“Do you yet understand, slave?” the knight snarled. “If you cannot serve the king by pleasure, you shall serve him by pain!” It hurled the boy to the ground.

He crumpled, curling up and coughing. Flecks of blood dirtied the tile floor.

“Akira!” Her hand still holding her shoulder, Ann took a step to him, then stopped and turned back to her friend. “Shiho, come on! We can save you! Just come with us!”

The room darkened and both schoolkids cringed when harsh voices floated at them from no-where.

“If you can’t do it, you’re useless!”

“Nothing matters if it doesn’t succeed.”

Akira struggled to his knees, still bracing on his hands, and coughed. Flecks of blood flew from his split lip. He brought a hand to his head, grimacing against a pounding, burning pain.

“Hey, look,” a boy’s voice mocked. “It’s the lab freak’s son. You gonna lock us in a dark, scary place and make monsters come out of us?”

Thou art I,” a deep but calm voice said through the swirl of accusations.

“Everything you touch gets ruined!”

Akira clenched both hands over his head, his breathing ragged and feeling like millions of hot needles stabbed him all over.

“Stay away from that troublemaker,” a woman’s voice snapped. “Those types will only drag you down.”

I am thou,” the calm voice cut through the storm of accusations again.

“Useless boy, how can anybody take you seriously if you make mistakes in such petty things?”

Fingers already sliding through his hair, his hands clamped tight and he pulled, desperate to let out the searing pain and impossible pressure in his skull. Arching his back, he howled in agony to the ceiling.

“You’re a monster born from a monster!”

“There is no buddha,” a high man’s voice spat, “or god or anything out there to save you. If anything pulls us from the coming ruin, it shall be me and my research!”

Slammed with a sudden numbness, Akira’s hands slid away from his head and fell to his side. “And God went ahead of his people in a pillar of darkness during the day to shelter them and a pillar of fire during the night to guide them.”

Hot winds whipped through the ostentatious room. Deep red flames licked over his face, leaving a mask. Reaching up at the sudden sensation of weight, Akira pulled at the mask and his own skull tipped forward. Bringing up both hands, he dug his fingers in as the pounding inferno in his head returned with a vengeance. Desperate, he heaved at the mask, blood dripping down his cheeks. Screaming in pain, he ripped the mask off.

Red fire roared over his body, leaving a high-necked longcoat. The swirling winds whipped into a scalding gale, sending pillows hurling through the air and the knight crashing all the way against the wall by the door.

The knight pushed itself to its feet and drew its sword. “What manner of trick is this?”

A vortex of darkness and flame churned between them, as if fire and black smoke condensed into a near-liquid density and twisted into a pillar rising all the way to the vaulted ceiling.

Akira stood, a calming numb spreading over him. “Pillar of Heaven, destroy our enemies!”

Hot winds whipped around, sending pillows tumbling again, but concentrated on the knight. Darkness gathered under the armored man and roared up in a torrent, leaving dissolving black smoke.

The pillar vanished into the ceiling and Akira collapsed to the tile.

“Akira!” Ann shouted, dashing forward to help him off the floor.

Akira blinked and turned a bleary gaze to her. “Is he gone? Are we safe?”

Confused beyond anger, she retorted, “You idiot!” She clamped a hand on his arm to hold him up. “What the hell was that? You scared me to death.”

Akira swayed, but forced himself to stand on his feet. “What exactly happened?” He looked around the cavernous room edged in gold. “What happened to the girls?”

“Shiho!” Ann spun around, her foot taking a step to the waterbed of its own accord. Scorch marks marred the floor in jagged lines spiraling out from where the pillar formed. Gaping for a long moment, when she spoke her soft voice was filled with trepidation. “She… they’re all gone.”

Akira, realizing something about himself felt different, reached to his face. Hissing in pain, he tried again, avoiding the part of his face still pulsing from the gauntleted back-hand. Fingers coming to his cheekbone, they ran up, then around his mask. His eyes snapped open and he let out a gasp. “My glasses!”

Ann glanced down, snatching them up and presenting the split frames to him. “Easy, they’re right—”

Continuing to explore the mask with his gloved fingertips, a smile split his face. “I can still see!” When she lifted the glasses up at him again, he took them anyway. Turning to the door back out, he took one step and wobbled.

Ann caught his arm to steady him again. Raising an eyebrow, she set her free hand on her hip.

Catching her silent inquiry, Akira answered, “Takamaki, I’m nearsighted like you wouldn’t believe. I’m practically blind without my glasses.” His grin grew wider, revealing the even rows of his pearly whites. “Or I should be.” Shaking his head, he wavered more and leaned against her support. After slipping his broken glasses in his pocket, he turned back to the tall oak door. “Well, there’s no other way out of this room and the girls are gone. I say we bug out before another one of those knights comes in.

“But… Shiho,” Ann started, eyes unfocused as she paced alongside him. “I put up with so much for her sake.” The corners of her eyes glistened. “How could she…?”

Taking his head in his hands, Akira let out a groan. “None of this is right.” Walking, he paused to pull the door open, then stepped out on his own. Besides the rug, nothing interrupted the hallway from the stairs to a shorter, gold-plated door further down. “So, back to the stairs and hope down goes somewhere? Or out those gold-lined doors?” He paused and looked down the hand he just pointed with, specifically the red glove. “Did you change me?”

She left a hand on her hip. “You did that.”

“I don’t remember that.” Looking down, he checked out his current garb and smiled. “Oh, man. The old bastard would flip if he knew I had a swankier longcoat than he did.”

She spared him just a quick glance. “I guess it’s not a bad style. For you.” Ann lifted a finger to her chin. “Oh, I just had an idea.” Jerking both hands up in fists, she shouted at the top of her lungs, “Let’s get out of here!”

Leading him to the stairs, they heard metal clacking up the long, winding stone. Turning around, they both bolted the other way down the hall.

Three knights came out just before they reached the red oak door again. One pointed its gauntleted hand. “Intruder!”

Another drew its sword. “He’s trying to abscond with the princess.”

Racing as fast as they could run, both students reached the gold-plated doors and hauled them open, dashed in, and slammed the doors closed. Panting, both collapsed against the doors for several seconds.

Looking around, Akira wrinkled his nose at the gaudy space. Three walls glistened with mirror from floor to ceiling, and all across the length. A giant canopy bed dominated the center, gossamer curtains flapping in the breeze from an open window.

Akira spit at the bed. “And I thought the old bastard was tacky.”

A bang sounded through the door and both students froze. Akira pressed his ear against the door.

“I’m not going in His Highness’ chambers, you go in!” one of the knights whined.

Ann trotted to the wall with windows and closed the open one, slowing as she looked at the dozens on dozens of portraits of girls on the wall. Some were edged with silver, some framed in gold. Coming to a stop, she snatched a silver one off the wall as her face contorted in anger. “What the hell? I’ve never worn a slingshot bikini!”

Covering his nose just in case, Akira approached to confirm the wall was covered with photos of the girls’ volleyball team in provocative swimsuits and lingerie. While all of them smiled, the eyes of many remained tense with fear.

Ann gasped, then ripped a gold-framed portrait off the wall. “Kiriko-senpai!”

“Who?” Akira said, coming closer.

Ann clutched the portrait against her chest and turned away from Akira. “She was one of the volleyball starters last year. Everybody loved her. She was smart, and beautiful…” She turned back to Akira, looking down at the picture. “Then overnight she became a recluse. Just stopped talking to everyone. She transferred out at the end of the semester.” Her brow furrowed. “A lot of her clubs disbanded.”

Ann hurled the pictures in her hands to the floor, earning the sound of broken glass. “Who would do something like this?”

Akira blinked, his eyes drawn to a gold-framed photo of Shiho, giving a come-hither gesture while wearing lacy lingerie that hid almost none of a bust that seemed larger than he remembered when they sat down together in the courtyard.

The golden doors banged open and Kamoshida stepped in, cloaked in a long, red velvet cape and followed by two knights, one in golden armor. The gray knight snarled, “Filthy vermin!”

It slowed a few paces into the room, visor stopping on Ann. “Princess? What are you doing in such rude attire?”

Kamoshida scoffed, the small gold crown on his head sparkling. “How could you mistake that for my Ann?”

Ann’s mouth drifted open. “Ka… Kamoshida-sensei? What have you done with the school?”

Another Ann wearing a micro-bikini came to a stop next to Kamoshida, leaning closer as if begging him to touch her. Akira swallowed, feeling like his own pants shrank.

The Kamoshida in strange garb scoffed at her. “I am king of this castle. I do what I will, and all serve my desires.” He lifted a hand to stroke the scantily-clad Ann’s cheek, revealing nothing beneath his luxuriant cape but a hot pink speedo.

Akira threw himself to his knees, hands over his face. “Oh, God, my eyes! Somebody, please cut out my eyes!”

Smile falling to a thin line, Kamoshida glanced to the gray knight. “You, execute him.” Flicking his eyes to the knight clad in gold, he threw out, “You, take her.”

Goldie sheathed its large knife and turned to Ann. Akira interposed between them, a snarl on his face. “Like hell you will.” When the gray knight kept closing with sword drawn, he paced backwards and attempted bluster. “You really think you can take me one-on-one?”

The gray knight stopped and shuddered as if caught in a seizure, joints jerking and black oozing out of the joints in its armor. Moments after the armor was covered in the flowing muck, it burst like a bloody pustule. In its place were three creatures. The first, a blindfolded woman with birdlike wings and straps covering strategic points on her body.

The second had a carved pumpkin in place of a head, a bright yellow fire burning within the head as well as the iron lantern dangling from its left hand. Dark, heavy but ragged robes flapped from the air currents of its transformation.

The third Akira would have called a snapping tortoise if it weren’t for the long, orange serpentine head extending from where the tail should be.

“Oh, darn,” Akira moaned.

All three creatures advanced on him and Akira fell back towards the wall covered in pictures. He held up a finger at the floating feminine creature. “Okay, I should inform you that if you’re trying to intimidate me, angels didn’t look like some blindfolded bondage fantasy. They’re soldiers. There’s a reason every time they showed up in the Old and New Testament they had to say ‘don’t be afraid’.”

The orange serpent-head opened its toothy maw and snapped down at him.

Throwing himself out of the way, as Akira rolled to his feet he reached inside for that sense of righteous indignation. “Pillar!”

The faux-angel stopped and waved its hands in repetitive gestures, flecks of light appearing and disappearing at its fingertips.

Darkness zipped out from the base of the swirling pillar of darkness and fire, its zig-zagging course bringing it under the false angel where it roared up and disintegrated the monster in dark flecks.

Akira smirked. “I knew it. False images.”

Genbu’s tortoise head snapped at Akira, forcing him back against the wall. The lantern-wielding monster surged sideways, hurling a fireball from its lantern into Pillar.

Still running to keep his distance from the monsters, Akira stumbled with a cry of pain and Pillar shuddered back. Akira straightened on his feet, looking past them to see the gold knight locking Ann’s hands up to a set of handcuffs above her head on the bedpost.

Ann pulled against it. “I’m not a whore!” She kicked the knight in its codpiece.

“Now, now,” King Kamoshida reprimanded, just watching as the knight locked her right leg in a low shackle even as she kicked it with her other. A leer spread over the coach’s face. “What shall I do with you?”

Eyes wide with confusion but blazing with anger, she snapped at him, “You’ve been coming on strong, but this is crazy!”

Smirk spreading into a smile, Kamoshida looked the Ann in a gym uniform up and down. He ran his tongue over his lips. “This slave’s a lively one.”

Akira dove out of the way of an icy explosion, grunting in pain. Pillar surged at the Jack, but it floated back. The Genbu’s dragon head reared up and coughed an ice bolt at Pillar, which dodged out of its path.

Ann jerked with a pained grimace against the gold knight as it locked her other leg. Anger being replaced by desperation, she yelled, “Let me go!”

Kamoshida rubbed his chin, baring his unshaven legs and speedo again. “Talking back. Now what should I do about that?” He reached his arm around the other Ann, hand sliding under her bikini and stopping at the swell of her breast.

The strange Ann clicked her tongue and gazed up at Kamoshida. “That is totally the worst.”

Akira dodged a gloved swing from Jack, which changed targets to shoot another fire bolt into Pillar. The swirling column of fire and black swerved out of a snap from Genbu’s tortoise head.

Kamoshida gave a sage nod. “I think drawing and quartering is in order.” A leering smile split his face. “Start with her clothes.”

Goldie drew its gigantic knife.

Ann pulled against her bonds jerking away from it. “Get away from me, you freaks!”

Kamoshida frowned. “Now, now. That’s not the proper attitude to show a king.”

“That’s not the proper attitude for a king to show!” Akira snarled as he dove away from the Jack. It floated away, frustrated, and lifted its lantern, blazing a seconds-long gout of flame into Pillar. Akira growled in pain and ground his teeth.

Pillar pulsed, emitting a bolt of fire against the Genbu. The tortoise-like monster flinched but held the column in its sights.

Goldie grabbed Ann’s shirt and sliced down through it.

Akira changed direction to head towards her. “Stay away from Takamaki, you son of a bitch!”

Ann jerked one way, then another against the bonds, panting with exertion but failing to budge them.

Kamoshida turned from Ann to Akira, lip curled in a sneer. “I’ve had just about enough out of you, vermin. Isn’t it about time you tire out and die?”

An icy explosion burst, catching Pillar in the detonation. Pillar shuddered, giving Jack an opening to fling an exploding fireball into it. Akira clenched his teeth, collapsing to one knee.

Jack swooped down, wrapping its huge gloved hand around his throat and picking Akira up off the floor.

“No!” The real Ann shouted, still jerking against her bonds, her slashed shirt flapping. “Kamoshida, stop it!”

Akira kicked Jack in the dark fabric covering what should be its chest. The material deformed with the blow and the fire in its carved head flickered, but it held steady. Still able to breathe, he brought his hands together and slammed the combined fist against the glove, only getting a mild twitch.

Genbu’s tortoise head snapped at Pillar, which dodged, but the dragon head sucked in air and glowed with blue. Jack shot a fire bolt into Pillar as the dragon head blasted a long ray of ice into the churning column.

Akira screamed in pain.

“Stop it!” Ann pulled at her bonds, her eyes on Akira as he kicked from half a meter up in the air in the Jack’s grip. “Kamoshida, I’ll…” She stopped, her head falling. She drew in a long breath, seeing her own chest rise, then looked up to the demented coach. “Let him go, and I’ll…” Her eyes fell away.

Kamoshida held up a hand, his smirk back in full force. Genbu retreated a step and Jack lowered its lantern. “Now that’s the sort of look you should’ve had to start with.”

Breathing ragged, Akira kept slamming down on Jack’s glove. Pillar shrank in on itself, retracting into the ceiling.

Leering, Kamoshida reached for Ann’s open shirt, fondling her breast over the dark purple bra.

“No,” Akira shouted, still pounding against Jack’s glove. “Takamaki, even if all you can do is deny the enemy victory, never give in!”

“This is Takamaki we’re talking about,” a girl’s voice floated from no-where.

Kamoshida’s voice floated out of some indeterminate direction, thick with empathy but tinged with expectation. “It must be lonely with your friend spending so much time in practice. Give me your phone number. I’m sure I can find a way to help you out.”

Ann jerked against her bonds, clenching her eyes shut. “No.”

“Sure, she’s got the body. But what’s she willing to give to be a model?”

“Is she really doing Kamoshida? She seems easy, you think I’d have a chance?”

Ann snapped straight, glaring at Kamoshida. “I’m nobody’s toy.” She flinched in a new pain as flames crept up her face, in moments ragged screaming tore from her throat. When the flames ceased, a solid red mask rested over her face.

Kamoshida jerked back and retreated another few steps for good measure. “What is this?”

“I’m not some cheap whore, scumbag!” Ann declared.

“Bitch,” Kamoshida shot back.

Ann tore her bonds from their mountings against the bedpost. Tilting to keep balance, she kicked Goldie, dropping its knife and sending the ostentatious knight tumbling over the floor. Picking up the knife, Ann plunged the gaudy blade into the false Ann, which dissolved in a puff of dark dust. That satisfied, she reached up and tore off the mask with a shriek of agony.

Akira smirked. “You’ve just been out-maneuvered. Pillar of Heaven!” He kicked Jack across the face to make it flinch, twisted, and slammed both feet against the lantern, causing the monster to drop it.

The column of fire and darkness shot out of the ceiling, blasting fire into Genbu, which slumped and dissolved into black and red goo.

“Carmen!” Ann shouted.

A torrent of blue flames exploded out from her, knocking Goldie and Kamoshida away. Breath ragged, she looked over to see Akira still gripped by the Jack diving for its lantern. Casting out a hand, she snarled.

A huge, glowing figure in a frilly dress lashed out a long, thorny whip that cut through Jack’s head, blasting it into dissolving black and red goo.

“Oh, shit!” Kamoshida said before scrambling out the door.

“That,” Goldie said, rising to its feet, “is quite enough of that.”

Shuddering like the throes of a massive seizure, black ooze leaked out and it popped into a towering woman holding Shinto dancing fans, clad in scanty white wrappings too revealing to call a proper kimono.

Akira stumbled closer, sweating and bruises developing on his face. “Pillar of Heaven!”

The column churned between he and the towering woman, shooting it with a bolt of flame.

The bolt splashed against her and vanished without hint of a singe. The woman focused on Ann. “You think you can deny Lord Kamoshida’s love?”

Ann snarled. “Don’t feed me that line when he doesn’t even know what love is. We’re not sexual outlets.”

Carmen lashed out with its whip, wrapping around the towering woman’s neck and sending a howling blizzard’s gale that froze the enemy monster. The frozen figure fell to the floor in front of the door before it suddenly picked up and hurled into the canopy bed, shattering into dissolving black and red goo.

Something between a child and a cat strode into the room, flicking an arm in dismissal. A burly, glowing figure vanished from over its head. “I guess I arrived just in time. You look like you’re on your last legs.”

Chapter Text

Persona 5: Daywatch

Wednesday, 13 April 2016
Afternoon
Location: Unknown

Breathing heavy, Ann slid to her knees in the gold-gilded bedchambers of the twisted king. Her eyes locked onto the short, bipedal creature approaching them from the door, she managed, “Wha… what are you?”

The half-meter black and white creature looked over Ann, its eyes widening. “What a meowvelous woman! Fierce and beautiful.”

Ann braced a hand on her knee, only then looking down and noticing her form-fitting red leather bodysuit. Wrapping her arms around herself for all the good it would do, shouted, “What the… when did this happen to my gym uniform?”

The cat-kid held a hand up at her. “That is the shape of your will of rebellion against the injustice of the world.”

Still favoring his left leg, Akira came to a stop just a pace from her. “But… red leather?” When Ann shot to her feet, shoulders back and posed to throw herself into a fight, he raised his hands in surrender. “Not that it doesn’t look good on you.”

“Everybody constructs their lives with the building blocks made available by the world around them,” the catboy said. He gestured at Akira. “Much as you.”

A clatter of plate mail from the door heralded the appearance of a group of gray knights. “There they are!”

“Quick,” catboy snapped, “Follow me!” Drawing a fist-sized canister from his belt, he threw it and smoke billowed.

The sounds of metal charging in rang, but the smoke obscured everything. A voice echoed out of a metal helm, “Where are they?”

Struggling to squint through the dense fog, Akira spotted the diminutive form of catboy and followed him out the door. Pausing, he turned to see Ann at his back. Satisfied both of them were safe enough, he followed catboy to a vent, then through that to a narrow, smudged servant passage.

Once they all stood in relative safety, Akira put his hands on his hips. “So who are you?”

Pausing to glance around warily, catboy looked up at him as if hoping not to say. “I’m Morgana.”

Akira brought his hand to his chest and inclined his head. “Akira.”

“Ann,” she introduced in likewise fashion. Staring out at the narrow corridor, she asked, “What is this castle? What happened to the school?”

Morgana’s ears fell slack against his broad skull. “The school is the castle. This is the distorted reflection of your school in the heart of the palace ruler.”

Akira straightened his longcoat. “Well, you did say Shujin was his own private castle.”

Ann’s eyes widened. “I didn’t mean it literally!”

Akira focused on Morgana. “But… What about the girls? Especially Suzui? There’s no way a nice girl like that would be caught dead with Kamoshida, much less half-naked in some… pleasure house,” he spit, “and gushing over how wonderful it would be to wait on that shit-head. I know it’s dangerous, but we’ve got to go back and bust ‘em out.”

Morgana tilted his head. “Girls?”

Akira frowned. “He must’ve had the whole female volleyball team there in that gold-caged sex dungeon.”

Ann rolled her eyes. “I think you mixed a few metaphors there.”

“Up yours!” he snarled back.

Hopping up and waving his arms to get their attention, Morgana said, “Whoa! We can’t go back up there. There’s nobody to rescue.”

“The hell there isn’t!” Akira reached for Morgana, who danced out of his grip. “I saw… it must’ve been twenty girls.” A flush of heat spread over his cheeks.

“And that…” Ann shivered. “…look alike.” Her mouth twisted into a grimace. “I’d never wear something like that for Kamoshida.”

Akira stared off. “She sure filled it out.”

Ann glared at him.

“I…” Akira stepped back. “…just noticed…” He pressed a palm against his eye, then hissed and flinched away from the darkening bruise over his face. “I must have foot-in-mouth disease.”

Morgana’s eyes snapped wide. “Oh, I think I understand what girls you’re talking about. Like that cognitive image the Palace ruler had of Lady Ann?”

Now Akira’s eyes grew wide. “Cog… are you telling me they were all cognitive constructs formed from an amalgamation of his conscious and subconscious desires?”

Morgana crossed his arms, his gaze narrowing to slits. When he spoke, his tone was nothing short of accusatory, “You catch on… very fast.”

Akira scratched his neck, eyes on his feet. “I… didn’t exactly have a lot of choice in whether to learn about psychology.”

Ann crossed her arms. “How do you know so much about this place, cat?”

Ruffled, Morgana bared his teeth. “I am not a cat! I am Morgana.” He held up his hands, ears curling down as he flexed his fingers. “The Metaverse has been distorted by something lately. That’s what changed me into… this.”

Straightening to try to inject some calm neutrality, Akira looked Morgana in the eye. “When did that happen?”

Morgana looked away, his ears pressing against his skull. “I… don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve been here so long, but…” He held his arms down and looked Akira in the eye. “I can’t remember anything from very far back. A matter of months, maybe a year. The distortions that turned me into this also robbed me of most of my memories.”

Akira shoved his hands into his pockets. “Man, I wish I could get that.”

Both Ann and Morgana turned scathing looks on him.

Akira shrugged. “I don’t exactly have a diary full of warm memories.”

Sighing, Morgana waved it aside. “If I could just find the Treasure, I could topple this palace and right at least a little of the distortion.”

“Huh?” Ann blinked, her crossed arms loosening.

“Palaces form when a ruler has a focus of warped desires.” Glancing up, he noticed both costumed teenagers giving him blank looks. “Think of a Treasure like an anchor. It’s a core of their desires. If it gives rise to a Palace, it could even stop them from being able to go anywhere in life, forcing everything to circle around that one primary obstacle in their mind.

Akira blinked, seeing double Morganas and Anns. “Could you four do me a favor? Stop wobbling.”

Ann raised an eyebrow. “Wobbling? We’re both standing still.”

Hot red flames washed over Akira, returning him to his gym uniform, and he fell to his knees.

Morgana maintained a calm, analytic stare. “Huh. I knew he was burning up a lot of energy, but I didn’t know his power was still so unstable.”

Kneeling next to Akira, close enough to see perspiration beading across his skin, Ann glanced back at their short benefactor. “What’s going on?”

Looking her in the eye, Morgana’s held a serious tone. “If that was your first time summoning your Persona, you won’t be far behind. We need to get both of you back to your world, quick.”

Bracing a hand against the wall to come back to his feet, Akira couldn’t find enough strength or coordination to push Ann away. “No argument there.”

Ann looked to Morgana. “Is it because he summoned his Persona three times?”

“Once you’ve awakened, it should just depend on how hard you’re pushing your Persona.” Morgana glanced between them, then his eyes snapped wide open. “Wait, are you saying he just awakened too?”

“Why?”

“That’s very dangerous. I’m surprised you can still walk so soon after calling out your Persona for the first time. If he forced his out three times today,” Morgana opened his mouth, then closed it, then waved his hands in the air. “I don’t even know what could happen. Worse, he’s vulnerable to the palace distortions now.”

Head pounding, Akira grunted. “What’s that mean?”

“That…” Morgana swirled a hand in a circular motion, “outfit you wore. Think of it like armor that protects you from the effects of the palace ruler’s distortion. It’s a reaction of your will against his.”

Akira tilted his head, hammers still pounding the inside of his skull. “So… those threads were how Kamoshida thought of me?”

Morgana shook his head. “No, your appearance is determined by your self-image, as well as your perceptions of how others view you. Now hurry, follow me before you forget you came from the outside.”

Struggling against the headache and rubbery sensation in his knees, Akira followed Morgana to the castle entrance, relying on Ann to steer him in the absence of his glasses. They came to a place much brighter than the halls of the castle, and Ann stopped, staring out. “No way, it’s Tokyo!”

Morgana came to a stop in front of them. “Now you just have to use the same artifact you used to get here and you’ll return to your world.”

Ann threw her fists down to her sides. “We don’t know how we got—”

“Wait,” Akira said, a tinge of elation joining the throbbing headache. “My phone said something before we wound up here.” Digging around, he pulled out his smart phone and stared, baffled, at the bleeding eye icon taking up the screen. “The hell?”

Morgana stood like a sentinel by the vent they used to escape the castle. “Just don’t forget that I helped you when you needed it.”

Ann gave him a serious nod. “Okay.” Refocusing on Akira, holding a hand against his head, she said, “Let’s go home.”

His thumb tapped the screen and the same mechanical voice from earlier read, “Returning to the real world. Thank you for your hard work.”

Red and darkness tore across their vision, but after a blink the bustle of Tokyo stood all around them. At least outside the narrow alley across from the gates of Shujin High. Both struggled to breathe for a moment, shocked at the journey they concluded. Caught up in the euphoria of victory and return, they embraced.

Akira glanced down to see her purple bra peeking out.

Ann glanced down to see her split shirt. Jerking apart, her hand lashed out and slapped across his face.

Akira stumbled back into the air conditioning units, hands going to the one side of his face. His split lip started bleeding again as he let out a moan of pain.

“Sorry!” Ann grabbed her gym jacket and zipped it up. “Look, about that castle fiasco… the things that cat said…”

Akira searched around through every pocket for his glasses until finding the half a frame without a cracked lens. Holding it up over his eye, he turned to Ann. “Morgana. Yeah. We need to check it out again. I know he said they weren’t real, but… if there’s even a chance Shiho’s in danger, I can’t just sit it out.”

Leaning her forearm against the brick wall for support, Ann scanned his face for a few moments, her eyes coming to rest on the purpling bruise on the left side. She took in a deep breath, but something about her pose seemed more relaxed than the transfer student had ever seen her. “You really care about her a lot, don’t you?”

The wistful hint in her voice sent a feeling of fire through his face and he coughed against a tightness in his throat, unable to meet her azure gaze. “N-no! It’s just that… Anybody who would have stuff as sick as that in his head is somebody too dangerous to leave unchecked.”

Letting out a heavy breath, Ann leaned fully against the brick wall opposite Akira. She brought a hand up to clutch her head, wincing. “I’m feeling dead on my feet.”

“I feel like I’m ready to collapse as soon as I sit down.” His head pounded like oni took turns slamming each side with warhammers. Looking back to Shujin, he said, “I’ll see what I can find tomorrow. Want me to message you if I find anything?”

Ann hesitated, then looked to the bruise darkening on his face. “If I can’t trust you after that, who can I trust?” Taking her phone out, they exchanged contact information. Glancing up at the sky, deep crimson giving way to purple, she gaped. “It’s that late? I am so dead!”

She dashed back inside the school and Akira followed at a more measured pace.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016
After School
Shujin Hallways

Shiho shifted her grip on the stack of books in her arms, tired even before having started them. A familiar stride approached and she turned in the empty hall to see Mishima, favoring his left foot just a little.

Some recent swelling kept him from fully opening his left eye, but he looked up at her with the same tender worry as he did back when he used to meet her after volleyball games. “Shi-chan… are you leaving?” He reached for her shoulder.

“Sorry, Yuu-chan,” she said, the act of having to send away the most supportive person in the school almost painful. “I’ve got too much studying to do.” She looked over his bruised face and cast her gaze away, shrugging his hand off before her mind could start whirling through that fearful cycle of wondering what happened that he wouldn’t talk about. She glanced up and down the empty hall, but couldn’t help but notice the way her heart sped up at his touch. “C’mon, we can’t be seen like this at school.”

Mishima took his hand away. “Go.”

Shiho blinked, turning to her pillar of gentle support. “What is it?”

Mishima flinched and turned further away, a tremble entering his hands. “Kamoshida’s asking for you. He’s in the PE Faculty office.”

She swallowed, trying to push away the rumors of what happened to people he called to his office after practice. After all, she was the starter. The star of the girls’ volleyball team. She didn’t make any mistakes. He had nothing but praise for her, even if he was a little harsh to the other players. “What did he say?”

His trembling hands clenching into fists. Mishima turned further away, his body tense as a violin string. He whispered, so quiet she hardly heard, “Go.”

“Yuu-chan…?” After several seconds of him looking away from her, doing nothing but tremble, she let out a breath. If anybody would tell her if something important was up, he would. Taking another moment to glance around the empty hall, she stepped closer and reached out but couldn’t actually cup his bruised cheek. He looked more worried than the night he met her mother. “What is it?”

Mishima swallowed and straightened, but just when he was about to look up at her he cringed and looked away. His limbs shook so much she was surprised she didn’t hear his knees knocking together.

When he refused to speak, she drew her hand back, her patience thin. “Yuu-chan, I don’t have time for this.” Shiho shifted her grips on her books again. “I have books I haven’t finished reading that I need to check back in to the library.” Glancing at him, he refused to turn to her and a spike of annoyance shot through her. Yuuki, the one friend she thought would always talk to her, stood there looking like a beaten dog. “Yuu-chan, he’s got to know I’m here today.”

Mishima opened his mouth, then closed it. “Kiriko…”

The long-haired senior sprang to her mind’s eye. Vice captain of the girl’s volleyball team last year, president of several clubs and a shoe-in for student council president in her senior year. Until she dropped off the face of the earth. “You heard what the student council VP said, she was over-extended and exhausted herself. Nothing happened.” She shuffled a half-step to one side to try to look him in the eye, but he turned his face further away. Shiho sighed. “I can’t just skip school every time you get nervous. If I keep vanishing every time he wants to see me, he’ll kick me off the team.”

Mishima’s fists tightened. “He just said to the come to the office.” His hands trembled and eyes clenched shut, turning his face all the way away from her. “I can’t do it again!” Glistening light appeared at the corners of his eyes before he turned and fled.

Baffled at his refusal to speak to her, she took the books to the library, finished the chapter for her upcoming history essay, and returned them. Knowing she had no other excuses to get in the way, she took the hallway to the practice building.

Echoes of the whispered rumors passed through her ears. Two students keeping their distance from the office glanced at her, to the door, then made themselves scarce as if a monster chased them.

Shiho straightened, muttering to herself. “The tournament’s going to be starting soon. I’m the starter. He wouldn’t do anything to me. Those rumors are wrong.”

It still took all her will to lift her hand and open the door. She stepped inside, and the door closed with a low click far louder to her ears than it should have been. “Kamoshida-sensei?”

Kamoshida took his time standing out of the stunted chair in front of his desk, stepped around her, and locked the door.

The towering man looked down at her, his tongue running over his lip.

Shiho backed away, her limbs feeling cold and heart racing. “P-please…”

Her sobbed scream echoed through abandoned halls.

Chapter Text

Persona 5: Daywatch

Wednesday, 13 April 2016
Evening
Yongen, Leblanc

“You’re late,” Sojiro snapped before he even looked up at Akira. Once he did, the middle-aged man’s face snapped taught and eyes wide. “What the hell happened to you?”

Walking through the feeling of being absolutely drained, Akira paced down the lane towards the stairs. The image of that gold knight cutting Ann’s shirt and her helpless thrashing still replayed through his mind. “I had to help someone out.”

Sojiro stood from the bar stool and into the transfer student’s path, crossing his arms, his tone rising. “What kind of lame excuse is that? You can’t be getting into fights!”

“Excuse,” Akira spat, then looked up at Sojiro, too tired to dredge up his comforting, familiar anger. At least the train trip gave him time to think up a cover story. “Right. Because if I called the police to say someone jumped me, they’d leap at the chance to help a reformed convict.”

Sojiro sighed, but his frame loosened. “Child services were here this afternoon. I tried to call you.” His gaze turned heated. “I am not going to stick my neck out for you again.” Sojiro set his hands on his hips. “Have you been hanging around any bad influences?”

Akira’s lip twisted in a snarl. “I’m surprised you’d consider someone to be a bad influence on me.” When Sojiro tensed, exhaustion swept over him and the boy let his shoulders slump. “Sorry, it’s just been a long day.” A smile curled on his lips, then he flinched in pain. “In truth… I think I made a friend.”

Sojiro scanned Akira. “It’d have to be some really weird person to want to spend time with you.”

Akira’s hands curled into fists and he bit his lip, then cringed in pain from the swelling. Heart crumpling at yet another person reminding him what bad company he was, he angled to rush around Sojiro.

The older man sighed and stepped in the way to prevent a quick retreat. “I’m just saying if you’re not careful who you let close to you, you’re going to get hurt.” He reached to set the newspaper on the bar counter. “Think of how I feel, having to stay up and worry about you. Then you walk in with a bruise the size of Hokkaido, a split lip, and a thousand-meter-stare.”

“You weren’t worried about me. You made that plenty clear.” Akira slipped around, trotted upstairs. Despite the feeling of shards where his heart should be from Sojiro’s cruel assumptions, he forced himself to his bed and got halfway through changing for bed when his phone buzzed.

Ann’s ID stared up at him, so he opened the instant messenger and read. <I just wanted to say thanks before I passed out.>

Akira’s fingers moved almost before his brain caught up. <It’s no big deal.>

<Yes, it is. I wasn't very nice to you before and you still saved me. Also, sorry about slapping you near the end.>

Akira typed in, <It was a nice view,> then considered the day as context and deleted it. Instead, he sent, <You were still freaked about everything. As long as you're okay, it's all good.>

<I don't understand you.> She sent back. A few moments passed before she added, <I mean, thanks.>

Thursday, 14 April 2016
Early Morning
Yongen, Leblanc

Akira pulled the door closed behind him and took a good look at the cafe’s washroom. Almost wide enough for him to stretch out his arms in either direction, it felt much more roomy than any other one he’d been in. The sink bolted to the wall lacked any counter, so he had to leave his bag on the ground, but at least it had a mirror big enough to view his entire face in.

The half of his face the knight’s gauntlet struck yesterday still smarted. The swelling was on its way down, but a huge bruise extending from his cheek to his temple stood out like a blighted field. Reaching down to his bag, he pulled out the makeup kit and opened the pale, skin-tone container. “Good thing I’ve had to do this before.”

Swabbing a cotton ball over the top, he touched it to the bruise and hissed in pain, jerking his hand away. Taking in a deep breath, he swept it over the bruise and painted over the injury.

Thursday, 14 April 2016
Afternoon
Shujin, Class 2-D

Ushimaru drew a stick-figure representation of a judge and turned back to the class, still droning about the separation of powers in the Japanese government. Akira ignored him, speed-reading through the book until one of the students on the right wall of the class jerked to his feet and peered out through the window. “Hey, who’s that?”

Ushimaru cleared his throat. When the class didn’t all turn their focus back to him, he gripped his chalk and snapped, “Class is still in session. Sit back down right now.”

“She’s outside the fence!” somebody from beyond the classroom shouted.

Now half a dozen students next to the window abandoned the pretense of paying attention and rushed to see what was going on through the courtyard. The first student to stand said, “We’ve got a jumper!”

Mishima shot out of his seat, knocking his chair into the aisle. “Shiho!” He bolted out of the class.

Ann turned pale as death and stood. “Shiho?” She followed the class representative out at a slower run.

With two people repeating the name of the only kind student in school, Akira felt a chill trickle down his back. “Suzui-san?” He chased Ann out to the window, just in time to see the black-haired girl tip over the edge and plummet into the courtyard.

Ann clapped her hands over her mouth, eyes wide with horror.

Akira felt the blood drain from his face, a sensation of ice pounding him. He hardly felt Ann slam through him, even though the motion knocked him spinning around. Once he finished almost falling into the window to the courtyard, his eyes picked the blonde out of the crowd building in the hall and he took off at a panicked dash, praying he didn’t see what he knew he saw.

He slammed into Ryuji, pausing only enough for eye contact before resuming the sprint outside.

A crowd gathered, numerous vultures in student guise holding up their phones to record videos as the jewel of Shujin Academy bled in front of them. One of the third-year teachers called for the students to return to class, but the buzz of horrified conversation and gossip only grew.

Snarling as he shoved aside one student recording the debacle, Akira finally came close enough to see the poor girl herself. “Suzui!” He bulled through other students until coming to Ann, kneeling on the ground and crying as medics locked a brace around the black-haired girl’s neck. Akira kneeled behind Ann. “Is she gonna be all right?”

Ann crawled closer. “Shiho, what happened?”

“Can’t…” Shiho whimpered in pain. “Sorry.”

Ann pushed closer and a paramedic shoved her aside to shift Shiho onto a stretcher.

“Ka… Kamo…” Shiho’s eyes slid closed and her body went slack on the mat.

Feeling wetness at his eyes, Akira prayed like he never had before.

The medic pushed the stretcher in and jumped in after. Another came out from the direction of the passenger door. “We need someone to go with her. Who is her teacher?”

The third-year teacher muttered some lame excuse, and Ann jumped to the fore, her makeup streaked with tears. “I’ll go!”

The medic pursed his lips, then glanced to the ambulance. “Fine. Hurry.”

Akira struggled to breathe. Air came in thin wisps, and it felt like the whole world pressed on every square inch of him in its best attempts to crush him into paste. Numb and feeling his knees giving out on him, Akira stumbled in a turn and grabbed Ryuji’s shoulder to stay on his feet before he consciously realized the runner was there.

During the turn, he spotted Mishima slipping into the Practice Building.

Akira’s wheezing vanished, his gaze hardened, and he strode through the crowd like a Terminator as Ryuji followed, trying to talk to him. Akira cornered Mishima by lockers in the practice building, crying his eyes out. Feeling detached from his voice, from the school, from his own thoughts and body, Akira asked with unnerving calm, “What happened?”

“I…” Mishima wiped at the snot dribbling down his nose, but the tears came too fast to hide. He looked away. “…don’t know.”

Surging out with strength he didn’t know he had, Akira threw Mishima against a locker. “The hell you don’t!”

“Whoa, man!” Ryuji grabbed Akira and pulled him back before looking at Mishima. “Talk to us, dude. We won’t blab, but we gotta know what’s goin’ on.”

“Shiho…” Mishima took his head in his hands and leaned against the locker, sobbing. “Kamoshida… called her out.”

Akira’s eyebrows arched. “What the hell’s that mean? I thought he only got rough with guys getting close to girls on the team.”

Ryuji snorted. “Like he’d have that much restraint.”

Mishima shook his head, hands lowering. “Not just guys. He calls out anybody on the volleyball teams. Anybody who’s done anything wrong, and…” He looked away, tears still streaming down his face. “Oh, god, Shiho…”

Akira flexed his free hand, grinding his teeth, but reached out to Mishima’s shirt, pressing the class leader against the locker. “What exactly happens?”

Mishima struggled for a few moments before his breathing evened. “He’d nominate someone when he was in a bad mood, for the smallest mistakes… and hit m-us.” He clenched his eyes and flinched. “Again. And again.” He reached up to cradle a bandage on his cheek. “But Shi-chan never made any mistakes or anything.”

“That…” Akira stopped, thinking back to how the coach looked at Ann days ago, how the king Kamoshida touched Ann in the castle of horrors. The topless Shiho in that pleasure room. Akira stepped away from Mishima, fingers curling into tight fists.

The memory of Ann’s words echoed in his mind, “Then something happened. Overnight, Kiriko-senpai became a recluse…”

Akira’s teeth ground. “So that wasn’t just his desire, he acted on it.” He turned around and stalked towards the PE faculty office. Mishima and Ryuji followed close. Akira heard them call at first, but soon everything was drowned out by the roar of blood in his ears. “Ka-” The door came in sight, “-Mo-” he reached out for the lever handle, “-Shi-” he slammed the door open, “-Da!”

Kamoshida looked over his shoulder from his desk, nonplussed.

Akira roared, “You rapist pig!” Ryuji clamped on one arm before Akira could start swinging.

Kamoshida threw his pen on the desk, turned around, and stood with a deep frown. “You’re expelled.”

Akira clenched his fists, and Mishima took his other arm.

Kamoshida stared down through narrowed eyes. “Don’t think you could throw such serious accusations without repercussions.” A bitter sneer twisted his face. “What did you even come here for? Even if I did what you claim, there’s nothing you could do.” Straightening, with a little more of his nonchalance back, he threw a meaningful glance at Mishima. “Even… certain people couldn’t do anything to stop it.”

Mishima froze.

Kamoshida straightened, looking as calm as a man in control of everything in the world. “The hospital just called. Suzui slipped into a coma.”

Mishima broke into a sob, his grip on Akira changing from one of holding the hot-head back to clamping on him for strength he couldn’t find in himself.

Kamoshida took a shallow step closer, his eyes on Mishima but his body angled at Akira. “I hear there’s no chance of recovery.”

“No,” Mishima’s voice cracked, fresh tears falling.

Akira’s arms vibrated with the urge to lash out despite the two students holding him back.

Kamoshida smirked, locking eyes with the transfer student. “Am I going to have another case of self-defense?”

Akira jerked at the coach, held back by Ryuji. “Pig!”

Ryuji pulled back harder. “Don’t let him do it to you, man! This is just what he did to me. No matter what happens here, he’ll win if you let go now!”

You?” Kamoshida chuckled and crossed his arms. “You’re stopping the criminal?” He threw back his head and let out deep, belly-full laughter. “That’s rich.” He leaned just into Akira’s reach. “What’s stopping you? Don’t hold back.”

Akira curled his fists, nails biting into his palms, but he felt Mishima clamped on his arm, crying into his sleeve and stopped straining.

Kamoshida closed his fists and stood back. “You’re all expelled.”

“What?” Mishima and Ryuji both shouted, aghast.

Kamoshida’s lip twitched, the only sign of a smothered snarl as he turned to Mishima. “Didn’t you ever wonder why I let someone as talentless as you stay on the team?” He leaned closer. “Even though you were distracting the real talent?”

A tremor passed through Mishima before he dashed out.

Akira ran after him, Ryuji hot on his heels. “Mishima!”

Ryuji grabbed Akira’s school coat and brought them to a halt. “Dude, let him have some space for a while.”

Akira pulled once against Ryuji’s grip, but the track star held on until Mishima disappeared around the corner. With both targets out of sight, Akira had nowhere to bury his fists and he ground his teeth.

Shouting muffled by the heavy doors came from the courtyard, but the transfer student gave it no mind until one burst open and a first-year teacher strode in, her drab gray suit-style vest disheveled. She took one look at the pair of second-years and shouted, “Back to your classes! The principal hasn’t released school, so get back to your rooms!” Getting nothing but a glare that could’ve set forests on fire from the transfer student, she looked to the blond-haired student. “Have any other students come this way?”

“Nah,” Ryuji said, furrowing his brow at her before he grabbed Akira’s arm. “C’mon, Kurusu-sa-”

“Don’t call me Kurusu!” Akira snapped, his vision clearing a little as he rounded on the runner.

Taking the shout in stride, Ryuji gestured his chin at the door the teacher just walked through. “The courtyard’s gonna be packed, let’s take the walkway.”

Akira growled, but let himself be led back to Class 2-D. The only thing that filled his mind was the image of his hands choking the life out of Kamoshida.

Chapter Text

Persona 5: Daywatch

Thursday, 14 April 2016
After School
Front Gates of Shujin

Akira stormed through Shujin’s front doors, every student noticing him clearing a wide path. The image of Shiho’s body, limbs twisted and glassy eyes staring up with a lingering ‘please make it end’ still in every line and wrinkle. A look that echoed from too many dark nights in his own life. A look that didn’t belong on such a beautiful face. Bumping into somebody in a Shujin uniform, he pushed him aside and stalked past the yawning gates, trying to figure out how to murder Kamoshida for laying a hand on the sweetest girl in Shujin.

A black cat hopped up onto the cleanest air conditioning unit next to him and scrutinized him with what the transfer student could swear was worry. Then it opened its mouth, but instead of a meow he heard the voice of the creature who guided them out of the Metaverse yesterday, “Something wound you up.”

Akira’s fingers twitched. “Morgana?”

The cat blinked, one ear twisting as an impressed surprise slipped over his face. “That was easier than I thought it’d be. How did you recognize me?”

“I never forget a voice.” He clenched his fists, deciding to shelve how Morgana got here or why he looked like a street cat with white paws. It wasn’t much different than his bipedal cartoony-catboy form in the castle. “You were right about that perverted bastard. He needs to go down. So how do we do this, cat?”

Morgana’s tail twitched back and forth, ears folded against the back of his head. “I’m not a cat!” He glanced to the transfer student’s fists. “And we’re not beating him up, we’re simply stealing his distorted desires.” He looked back out at the road. “Where’s Lady Ann?”

Akira ground his teeth, impatience beating on his body’s need to act. “She went to the hospital with Suzui earlier. She’ll meet us here in a few minutes where nobody will see us… go.”

Morgana’s eyebrows arched, concern clear despite the furry feline face. “I understand you want to do something, but if you’re sloppy about it, you could cause a mental shutdown.”

Akira lunged at the cat already less than a meter away. “Damn the shutdown, this man is as evil as my old bastard.” He lowered his fists to his side and forced a breath in, then out. “I waited when I had the opportunity before. I knew what was in his head.”

Shaking his head, Morgana sighed. “You were in no condition to press farther. It’s only been a day since you and Lady Ann awakened. I’m not even sure you’re fully recovered ye—”

“Look what happened to Suzui-san!” Akira shouted. One girl turning onto the road paused, giving him a funny look for yelling at a cat, but she speed-walked away when he shot her a glare. Swallowing and struggling to keep his volume to a harsh whisper, he held up his hands, trying not to see them tremble. “Her blood is on my hands. She isn’t even the first one. How many came before? You think it was just Kiriko? Who’s it gonna be next time? Takanashi? Takamaki?”

Morgana turned his head away.

“You think I can afford to wait? You think they can afford to wait?” Akira shoved his hands into his school jacket, feeling his tone rising. “This is playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun!”

Ann jogged in from the street, breathing hard. Her chest heaved, but something cold yet energetic like a winter blizzard swirled in her eyes. “I just… got back from… the hospital. You messaged… that you’ve got a way to deal with Kamoshida?”

Akira snarled at the mention of the name. “We crush the king.”

Standing, Morgana shot him as firm a gaze as a little cat could a teenage human. “This isn’t a decision to make lightly. If you’re going to do this, I need all of you—”

“I’m in,” Ann interrupted.

Morgana’s ears curled and he tilted his head as he looked up at her, a waver in his eyes. “I just don’t want you to do something you’ll torment yourself over afterwards.”

Akira crossed his arms. “You really going to get in the way of a girl with the fires of vengeance burning in her belly?”

Morgana fixed a clear glare at Akira. “You can’t run into this thing half-cocked.”

“Then stay out of our way,” Akira shot back.

Morgana stood up, tail twitching. “Don’t think you can do this without me. You need me as much as I need you. Are you both sure about this? Sure you can keep a grip on your emotions, too?”

Akira nodded, but when Ann gave her own assent they both looked as determined as ever.

Morgana let out a sigh, then took a deep breath. “The moment we cross over, we’ll treat each other like phantom thieves, so I hope you’re ready.”

Ann set a hand on her hip. “Excuse me? Phantom thieves?”

Puffing out his chest, Morgana sat. “Masters of the covert who sneak into the most secret of places and stylishly steal treasure.”

Akira spat at the ground. “I don’t care about treasure. I’m going in to stop Kamoshida from doing to anyone else what he did to Suzui-san.”

Ann stood straighter, squaring her own shoulders. “If you’re that certain, there’s no way I can back out either. Shiho was my best friend since middle school.” She glanced at the downcast Morgana. “Well, I think it sounds cool. So how do we get back into the castleverse?”

Akira drew his phone and turned it to her, the bleeding eyeball app in the center of the screen. “Same way as yesterday. Except this time, we mean to do it.”

“Who made that?”

Akira turned his phone back and lifted his free finger. “Some douchebag with a long nose. What’s it matter as long as it works?”

Ann shifted her hips. “You’re weird, but I guess you have a point.”

Akira tapped his smart phone and the world bled red for a moment before the castle sprang up where Shujin once stood.

“What the shit?” Ryuji shouted from just around the corner to the alley.

Morgana the catboy flopped on the air conditioner. “Aaand, there goes our stealth.”

Akira trotted out of the alley, Ann and Morgana at his heels.

Gawking up at the castle, Ryuji’s hands closed into fists and eyes widened. “What the eff happened to the school?” He whipped around, looking down both directions of the street. “Where’d everyone else go?”

Akira reached out. “Same place you’re going to.”

“Don’t you even…” Parrying, Ryuji brought up his fists. “Who the hell are…?” He leaned closer, his eyes squinting for a long beat. “Akira?”

“Guilty as charged,” he said, droll. “Now get going.”

“What happened to your clothing?” Ryuji turned to Ann, mouth drifting further open and a blush spreading over his face. “Takamaki…? Da-yum, who put you in that getup?”

Ann swiped a hand at him despite several meters between them. “It’s our residual mental image.”

Morgana trotted closer. “Right. It’s a defense against the palace’s distortion.”

Just starting to settle down, Ryuji took a step back and his eyes widened again. “Is that a… cat?”

“I am not a cat!” Morgana roared. “This is just… from the distortion of the Metaverse. I’m trying to restore my true form.”

“Which is a cat?” Ryuji blurted.

Akira stepped between them. “No, it’s human. How would a cat learn to talk? Now stop getting in our way, we’ve got a rapist to take down.”

Ryuji straightened, looking Akira in the mask. “You really goin’ up against Kamoshida?”

Ann stepped out of the alley, crossing her arms. “This doesn’t concern you, Sakamoto.”

“Suzui-san was in my class, too,” Ryuji shot back, ears and face reddening. “She may not have been my BFF, but she was the class rep for a reason. There’s not a single one of us who didn’t like her. If Kamoshida’s responsible for her tryin’ ta kill herself, I can’t just walk away. He’s stolen from both of us. Or have you forgotten the shit he put the track team through? What he put me through?”

Looking down, Ann took a half step back. “Listen, Sakamoto, it’s not that I don’t understand, but this is… way beyond—”

Akira slipped his hands into his pockets. “You willin’ to put everything on the line?”

Ryuji pumped a fist in the air. “Hell yeah!”

Akira stared into Ryuji’s eyes. “You willin’ to go up against this Kamoshida, even if it means a fight to the death, if it means keeping what happened to Suzui-san from ever happening again?”

Ryuji’s hand came down and he backed up a step, unable to meet Akira’s eyes. “I… I dunno about killin’ the guy. I mean, he’s a class A hole, but…”

“Then leave,” Akira snapped. “Either you go all the way with us, or you walk out now. I won’t blame you for choosing to duck out. It’s your life and I don’t know how far we’ll have to go. I’m the only one with nothing to lose.”

Ryuji took a step closer, narrow eyes fixed on Akira’s. “He expelled me, too.”

Ann blinked. “Expelled?” She put her hands on her hips and directed a harsh look at Akira. “Too? What happened?”

With a bitter smirk, Ryuji jerked a thumb at Akira. “Dude took a page from my book and stalked down Kamoshida in his office. Would’ve put the beat down on him if me an’ that other guy weren’t there. That asshole expelled all of us just for bein’ there.”

Ann’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know how good you think you are, but Kamoshida would’ve destroyed you.” A sigh leaked out and her shoulders slumped. “I don’t know, if he’s already announced your expulsion, maybe he basically did.”

Akira turned to the castle. “In the end, it doesn’t matter. I’m here to see this through.” He looked down to Morgana. “I think we saw everything there was in that sex dungeon—”

“In what?” Ryuji blurted, eyes shooting wide.

“—but one of the guards mentioned the Training Hall of Love,” Akira continued without a beat of hesitation. “You see anything like that while you were scopin’ the place out? Kamoshida was a gold medal winner, if his treasure wasn’t in that slave tower it’s got to be there.”

Morgana put a hand on his chin. “Mmm, I was scouting the dungeons, but I bailed when I heard about a princess kidnapping in the tower. It might be down there.” He straightened and pointed his hand at Ryuji. “I still think he should sit this one out.”

Ryuji lifted a fist at the small catperson. “Dude you couldn’t throw me out if you wanted to.”

Morgana sent him a hooded glare. “Those two have already faced the oppression of the world bearing down on them and the dark weakness in their own hearts. They’ve already awakened their Personas. You’re just a loud, impulsive thug.”

Akira chuckled. “Damn, he’s got you pegged.”

“Fuck you, man.” Ryuji jammed his hands in his pockets. “Like I ain’t faced down plenty’a shit myself.”

“You’re right,” Akira said, looking back at him with a calm tone. “That was uncalled for.”

Ryuji let out a breath that seemed to take most of his energy with it. “What?”

“I’m being strategic and tactical in one move,” Akira explained before Ann or Morgana could pipe in. “Between the three of us we might be able to force you back into the real world, but it’d take more effort than it’s worth. If you do have a beef with Kamoshida, far be it from me to stand in the way of letting you pay him back.”

Ann held a wary stance, hip jutting out. “What is it with you and revenge?”

“It’s the only thing that keeps me warm at night.”

Ryuji swallowed. “You worry me. But thanks.”

Morgana scanned the three humans. “If we’re all ready?” When the others nodded, he shook out his tension. “Okay, I’m counting on you, Joker.”

“Joker,” Akira said, a smirk growing on his face as he tested the sound. “I’ve always wanted to wow the crowds.”

Ann crossed her arms. “You hate crowds.”

“Shut. Up.”

Ryuji rolled his eyes. “Why the stupid nickname?”

“It’s an alias,” Akira said, terse. “Like when me an’ the guys’d group up to go steal a cop’s hat. Without a code name, it doesn’t matter if you get away or not.” He removed his hands from his pockets and stretched out one shoulder. “As soon as they hear applause and ‘go Yoshida’ you’re dead as soon as you get home because they’ve called your parents. But if all they hear is ‘break left, Viper’ all they can do is chase you down to get it back.” A smirk spread over his lips. “And the only one smart enough to take us down one by one was this crazy kung-fu chick who could out-parkour everyone but me.”

Ryuji chuckled, rocking back on his heels. “Damn, man, you must have tons of crazy stories from where you grew up.”

Morgana held a hand to his forehead. “There’s no telling what kind of effect yelling our real names could have in the Palace. It may not be Kamoshida’s consciousness, but it’s still connected to it.”

Ryuji turned on their short compatriot. “So whadda we call you?”

“Something swift and deadly,” Akira said. “Bachi Hebi?”

Morgana bared his claws, the points glinting in the torchlight from the castle courtyard. “You’re going to compare a nimble animal with claws to a fat snake?”

“They can jump…” Akira said, a drop of sweat running down in front of his ear. “Just throwin’ stuff out there. Aomanjaku?”

Morgana sheathed his claws, withdrawing into his frame. “Do you really think of me as an instigator of cheap tricks?”

Ann stepped closer, holding out a hand. “Byakko?”

Eyes widening, a look of dawning awe spread over Morgana’s face. “The guardian of the west.” He nodded. “Well, I do have a little white fur. Okay, Byakko it is.”

Ryuji looked Ann over, eyes lingering for several seconds longer than necessary. “What about Takamaki?”

Inside the confines of his own mind, Akira debated potential codenames for the fellow student who stood at his side. And wore a red leather bodysuit. “Sex kitty?”

His alter ego slapped him with a paper fan.

“Hot leather?”

The paper fan lashed out again.

“Night Woman.”

His alter ego slapped him up and down with the paper fan. Coming out of his internal musing, Akira shouted, “I got nothing!”

Ann smirked, placing confident hands on her hips with no apparent idea how blistering hot the pose in that getup looked. “There’s only one name for me. Panther.”

Akira’s eyebrow rose enough for it to be visible above his eye-mask. “Seriously? What kind of—?”

Ann stomped a foot, leaning down at him in anger. “It’s Panther, all right?”

Akira looked away from her cleavage, feeling like his face burned and pants shrank. He mumbled, “Sure, okay, no problem.”

Morgana turned to Ryuji. “Well, that just leaves you.” He held a hand to his cheek, tapping a finger as he hummed. “Something descriptive, something defining. Mouth.”

“Dude,” Ryuji glared and raised a fist, “your naming privileges are gone.” He shook his arms and bounced on his feet as if waiting to take off at a run. “What about Captain?”

Akira and Ann both snickered. She recovered first and stood straight. “Brawler?”

Rolling his eyes, Ryuji sighed. “Man, I get enough crap for that shit with Kamoshida already.”

Akira slapped his palm to his face. “We don’t have all day. I took mine and went with it, couldn’t you do the same?”

Ryuji clenched his teeth, but after a beat sighed. “Fine. But if I get one of those weird costumes, I get to pick a new one.”

Akira rolled his eyes and turned to the courtyard. “Fine, whatever.”

Morgana led them up crates and scaffolding to a decorative window high on the courtyard and they slipped into the castle.

Chapter Text

Persona 5: Daywatch

Thursday, 14 April 2016
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace, Training Hall of Love

Half a dozen students in Shujin gym uniforms pumped their arms but only held in place on the massive treadmill. A pot of cool water dripping with condensation dangled in front of them and a long roller of spikes whirled behind them. Ryuji slammed the bars and roared, “Son of a bitch!”

One runner got underneath the pot and struggled to get his arms up, failing to reach. After a moment, he just stretched out his neck and opened his mouth to catch a precious few drops before he stumbled and fell.

Two runners dodged around him and one jumped over him with a panic-fueled hop. The fallen had just enough time to crawl to all fours in front of the spiked roller before crying out, then sudden silence. The tips shone with fresh red.

Akira crossed himself. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph… is this really the kind of thing he does in real life?”

“I…” Ryuji gripped the iron bars, resting his forehead against them. “He was practically doin’ this shit with the track team when he was drivin’ us into the ground. I should’a known he wouldn’t stop.”

Akira stared, transfixed at the five left running. “When I was carryin’ Mishima to the nurse to have his concussion checked out, he let slip that Kamoshida calls in guys and beats ‘em any time they made a mistake. Called it ‘special coaching’.” His fists clenched into such tight fists the leather groaned. “Poor sap looked like Kamoshida’d been puttin’ him through ten rounds of kick boxing every day.”

Ann turned away. “I should’ve known, too. I was with Shiho almost every day, I saw girls and boys on the teams with bruises and bandages. Shiho even told me about how Kiriko-senpai changed almost overnight, even if she believed the official story.” She crossed her arms. “I was just burying my head in the sand as long as nothing hurt Shiho. She and I tried to keep her boyfriend secret, but Kamoshida must’ve found out.”

Akira slammed a fist into his opposite hand. “Enough with the pity party. This just confirms what we knew. Kamoshida needs to go down.”

Clapping echoed from behind them and they heard Kamoshida quip, “Well isn’t it lovely to see all the vermin in agreement?”

All three wheeled around, fists up. Six silver knights in a neat formation two rows wide stood before them, blocking the passage. A larger gold knight stood further back and the King Kamoshida past it. Kamoshida stared down at them, his gold eyes glistening with more light than the candles should give.

“You bastard!” Ryuji took a couple steps at him, cocking back a fist, but Akira caught him.

The nearest two knights hefted their shields and lifted their swords.

Kamoshida waggled a finger at them. “Now, now, there’s no need to rush into things.” He gave an expectant smirk. “A king does so love his entertainment.” He threw his hands on his hips, elbows out, pushing open his cape.

Akira dropped to his knees, clapping his hands over his eyes as if preparing to claw them out. “My eyes! Oh, God in heaven, my eyes! I can’t un-see it!”

Ryuji’s face twisted in disgust. “I never thought a speedo could look so nasty.”

Kamoshida dropped his arms, mirth gone. “You know, perhaps I should thank you. That irritating pet of yours has been a bother for so long, it’s a joy to see it behind bars. If only I could decide how I want to execute it. There are so many ways to skin a cat.”

“Byakko!” Ann glared at Akira, next to her. “I told you we shouldn’t have sent him out scouting alone!”

Kamoshida’s eyes stopped on Ryuji and his smirk widened. “And you brought me another gift. The track traitor.”

Akira’s fists tightened and his lips peeled back to bare his teeth. “You’re raping girls and beating boys and you call someone who stood up to you a traitor? Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”

Still smirking, Kamoshida rolled his eyes. “Hasn’t he told you? How many lives he ruined so he could have the satisfaction of that one punch? The rest of the track team was strong enough to bear up under the weight of my… tender training.”

Ryuji growled. “That wasn’t no training! You just couldn’t take another team doin’ as well as your precious volleyball team. We were all set to take our own trophies and you were scared.”

Lip twisting, Kamoshida spat at them, “The only one who needs to produce results is me. If that coach hadn’t tried to oppose me in front of the other faculty, I wouldn’t’ve had to settle things with breaking his star’s leg.”

Ann’s shoulders drooped and she looked over her shoulder at the ex-runner. “Sakamoto…”

“Now,” Kamoshida said, “go kill the vermin.” His eyes roamed over Ann’s hourglass shape and he smiled. “And do feel free to see how much you can cut from the girl. I’d love to peel the leather from her.”

The front two knights burst into a quadruplet of four-legged rams standing as tall as a warhorse. Their curved horns looked dark as obsidian, but their eyes glowed with crimson.

The two persona-users summoned their own glowing monstrosities and Carmen froze one with a single powerful burst of ice. Pillar sent a zipping shock of dark into another, the inky darkness roaring up and dissolving a second, but the remaining two Bicorns charged.

The next two knights shuddered and burst into four leathery-winged, gaunt demons with huge strap-on codpieces. The knights behind them raised their swords.

The Bicorns slammed into Carmen and Pillar, drawing a cringe and pained grunt from Akira and Ann.

Pillar of Heaven flared, cracks of darkness spreading out over the ground, then roaring up into the Bicorns, disintegrating one and knocking the other to the ground, twitching. Carmen lashed it with her thorned whip and the Shadow burst into dissolving ashen darkness.

Two of the Incubi held up their hands, claws twitching as an orb of crackling darkness formed. The other two dashed at the Personas.

The knights behind them lifted their shields and paced forward.

Both Incubi slipped close enough to slash into the Personas with claws as big as Akira’s forearm. Ann cried out. Akira’s footing faltered but he stayed up and grunted in pain, nothing but anger and resolve on his face.

“No!” Ryuji ran up until Akira snagged his sleeve.

Carmen lashed her whip into the nearest Incubus, knocking it into the bars with a clang. The two Incubi hanging back charging darkness threw their inky orbs into the Personas. Akira just grit his teeth.

Ann cried out and stumbled to her knees.

Pillar of Heaven churned, expelling a shimmering ball of yellow flames at the Incubus facing it, blasting it into fading ashes.

The waiting Incubi bared their claws and flapped ahead, still grinning. The one slammed into the bars struggled to its feet, then flapped up but wavered in the air.

Ryuji tugged at Akira, wanting to rush in to help but having no idea how to take down the monsters. “Fucking stop, Kamoshida!”

The self-styled king looked to him with a droll expression. “You wait your turn.” His lips curled up. “I’ll start with your other leg, just for poetic sake.”

Both vigorous Incubi clawed into Carmen and Ann fell back with a grunt of pain, clutching her sides. As Pillar shot fire at the faltering Incubus, Akira dashed to help her up.

Carmen slashed her whip across both attacking Shadows, winding one of the grinning demons.

Pillar hurled fire at the other, knocking it stumbling to the ground, but it leaped and slashed at Pillar in a frenzy.

Stumbling in place, Akira grit his teeth and tightened his hold on Ann.

Ryuji grit his teeth, hating the sensation of impotence. “Kamoshida, you asshole! Is destroying people the only thing you’re good at?”

Kamoshida smirked.

One gray knight burst, leaving a pair of green demons hiding in large, gold pots. The other also burst in tainted darkness, leaving a pair of armored knights riding red horses. The green demons peeked out and wiggled their fingers, a crackling and scent of ozone filling the air. The armored men on horses readied winged spears and took aim at separate Personas.

Pillar blasted the closest Incubus and Carmen lifted her arm, twirling her thorned whip above her and raising a snowy gale around her that buffeted one of the faltering demons.

Both of the timid green demons blasted Pillar with lightning.

Akira cried out, falling to one knee but clamping his grip on Ann’s arms.

“No,” Ryuji growled. “I can’t just stand here, watching my friends beaten to death in front of me.” He stepped in front of Akira and held a steady march forward.

Carmen slashed her whip, shredding an Incubus.

The remaining grinning demon cracked its knuckles and slashed into Carmen.

The mounted soldiers tapped their horses and advanced with spears raised.

A boy’s voice shouted from nowhere, “We don’t have a track team ‘cause of you!”

Ryuji clenched his fists, but took another step forward.

“No!” Akira shouted. Letting go of Ann, he took a stumbling step at Ryuji. Pillar advanced, churning with fire and darkness, but the first Berith powered a slash knocking it aside.

Akira fell against the bars, then to his knees with one hand struggling to hold himself up and the other clutching his chest.

Carmen blasted the last Incubus with ice, knocking it to the floor in dissolving goo.

The green Agathion unleashed blasts of lightning into both Personas, driving their users to all fours.

A familiar girl’s voice spat into Ryuji’s ears. “Ugh, who’d want to be with some violent thug who even hits teachers?”

Ryuji took another step forward, hands tightening and teeth clenching.

His mother’s voice wailed from nowhere, “You had a track scholarship! Why couldn’t you just be a good boy?”

The Berith advancing on Carmen paused, shifting its empty visor at the ex-track star.

His father’s voice bellowed, “That stupid bitch ain’t worth nothin’!”

Ryuji forced another step, growling in pain as one hand lifted to his dyed-blond hair.

The Agathion lanced lightning into both Personas again.

Akira and Ann collapsed to the ground with cries of pain.

Ann struggled to push herself up off the dirty floor. “I can not let it end here.” She shot a glare at Kamoshida even as her chest heaved breath in. “You have too much to pay for – not just for Shiho, but for everything!”

Akira rolled onto his side, reaching a trembling hand at the Berith staring him down. Pillar shot it with a zig-zagging blast of darkness.

The mounted soldier flinched, then kicked its horse forward and stabbed its spear into Pillar.

Akira rolled away, curling up and howling in agony.

The sound of his mother weeping behind her door rang in Ryuji’s ears.

Trembling, he forced one more step, then hunched as his stomach rebelled and his head pounded in pain.

The Berith staring at him tapped its horse and advanced, lifting its spear for a stab into his throat.

One of his fellow track brothers’ voices whispered from nowhere, “All we can do is endure.”

Ryuji straightened with a pained scream and fire licked over his face, leaving a heavy skull mask. Surprised at the sudden weight, he clawed at his face, catching the mask. He growled in pain when his first tug only sent a shock of pain into his system. Ryuji grit his teeth, refusing to give up. Digging his fingers behind his mask despite the flare of pain, he tore it off with an agonized shriek and splatter of blood.

Hot winds exploded out from him, slamming the Beriths away and both Agathion into the far wall.

Kamoshida gaped at the glowing figure taking shape above Ryuji. “What? I-impossible!”

Ryuji looked Kamoshida in the eye as a pirate cutter the size of a large truck coalesced above him, a humanoid figure a couple meters tall rising up out of it. Blood dribbling down his face, Ryuji spat at the royal-garbed coach. “Believe it or not, you piece of shit, you’re still going down.”

He swiped a hand like throwing a knife and the skeletal figure riding the cutter like a surfboard held aloft a cannon where one of its hands should be. Howling winds tore through the room and both Agathion smashed into the solid stone wall again, collapsing into goo and knocking both Beriths to their horses’ knees.

The gold knight advanced between them, something black and thick like tar oozing out of its joints and its movements twitchy. It burst into a huge, cloaked skeleton wielding a bow and riding an enormous white horse covered with eyes.

Darkness, then a bolt of ice slammed into the mounted soldiers just as they struggled up, knocking them back to their knees.

One Berith, just within reach, swung its spear into the boat-riding figure wearing a tattered cloak and hat bearing the skull-and-crossbones.

Ryuji grunted and snapped up a hand, clenching a fist as if crushing a rotten orange. “Captain Kidd!”

The boat-rider swung his oversized cutlass, driving the Berith to the ground in broken bits of dissolving goo.

An arrow the size of a long spear flitted into Kidd. Ryuji fell, but caught himself on one knee.

Pillar shot a zig-zagging blast of dark at the white rider, but the dozens of eyes on its horse blinked and it leaped out of the way.

Ann struggled to her feet. “Carmen!”

Her frilly-dressed Persona shot an ice ball at the white rider, which dodged. The ball of frost splashed against the wall.

Rider shot Carmen with another huge arrow and Ann collapsed to the ground, clutching her chest.

The remaining Berith charged at Kidd from behind, thrusting its spear.

Kidd parried, slashing its cutlass across the mounted soldier’s neck. The decapitated Shadow fell into dissolving black and red muck.

The towering rider shot Captain Kidd with an arrow.

Ryuji dropped to one knee, planted a hand on his raised knee, and stood back up.

Darkness flitted back and forth, surging up underneath the white rider.

It dodged and returned an arrow into Pillar. Fell back to his knees, clutching his chest with both hands.

Another ball of ice sailed at the skeletal archer, which dodged and snapped another arrow back at Carmen. The dancer twisted out of the way.

Ryuji clenched his fists and began to roar. Captain Kidd grasped the ship’s mast and rode it like a surfboard as wind howled through the room, whipping around the white rider.

The monstrous Shadow ducked its head, its mount’s eyes squeezing closed against the stinging gale.

Carmen flung an ice ball, which veered in the howling wind but hit the horse. Darkness zipped beneath and roared up into the eerie rider.

Ryuji’s breath ran out and he dropped to one knee, the gale relenting.

Rider shot an arrow into Kidd.

Ryuji growled in pain but struggled back up.

Carmen floated closer and lashed out with her whip. Rider dodged, but her whip wrapped around the horse’s neck. Braying, it pulled the thorned whip taught.

Rider shot her with an arrow, and Carmen shuddered but held. Ann fell to both knees, a tear of pain leaking down, but grit her teeth and held her focus.

Darkness roared up from underneath and Kidd blew past, powering a cutlass slash through the rider and its horse, sending it stumbling to the ground. Pillar of Heaven churned and blasted fire into it as ice encrusted the length down the whip and over the many-eyed horse’s neck.

Kidd swung back, slashing a deep blow across the rider’s torso and horse’s neck, casting it into dissolving red and black splatter.

Ryuji collapsed to both knees, breathing hard and covered in a sheen of sweat. “Damn, the… bastard got… away.”

Dismissing his Persona, Akira stumbled but walked closer to Ryuji and reached out to help him to his feet. As they struggled for breath, he looked over the ex-track star’s new look, dominated by heavy black cloth. “I see you’ve finally got a spine.”

Ryuji struggled to smile and frown at the same time. “Screw you, man. Better than your red-light-district magician getup.”

Turning to Ann before she closed the distance under her own power, Akira smirked. “Whatever.” He glanced around, then let out a frustrated huff. “Clearly the palace treasure isn’t here. Let’s go bust out Mo-Byakko.”

Ryuji pointed to the four prisoners on the treadmill. “What about all these guys?”

Akira slipped his hands into his pockets. “They’re figments of Kamoshida’s imagination. This,” he gestured his chin at the dungeon, “is all a product of that bastard’s mind. They’re no more real than that chesty facsimile of Ann that walked in when Ann and I were in the tower of pleasu—”

Face crimson, Ann blurted, “L-let’s just get going.”

As recovered as they were going to get, the three headed out and smashed through the two silver-armored knights guarding his cell to find Morgana tapping his foot inside.

Akira gave a cocky grin. “Good thing we were here to break you out, huh?”

Morgana hrumphed as they struggled to pick the lock open. “It’s technically your fault that I was caught in the first place. They stepped up the guard since that stunt you pulled in the tower of pleasure.”

Ryuji squeezed his eyes shut. “Please never say those words again.”

Morgana looked up, then gaped at the track star half-behind Ann. “You… even got him to awaken? You’re more impressive than I thought.”

Ryuji clenched his fists. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

The lock popped and Akira hauled the door open.

Morgana trotted out, shooting the track star a knowing smile. “It means I didn’t think you had it in you, Brawler.”

Ryuji swept out his hands. “Okay, first thing we’re doing is a new name. I ain’t goin’ around with somethin’ embarrassing like that.”

Pausing, Morgana tapped his chin. “Thug.”

Ryuji snarled. “Do you want me to drop this steel-toed boot on your ass? If I’m gonna have any name, it’s gotta be about the mask.”

Akira exclaimed, tone giddy, “Oh, like Moonbeam Man!”

Ryuji sighed. “Seriously, how old are you? Naw, I’ll be Cranium.”

Ann, Akira, and Morgana chorused, “No.”

Ann turned to Ryuji with a half-shrug at Akira. “He could’ve said Tuxedo Mask.”

Ryuji sighed, sounding tired instead of angry. “I will hurt you.”

Akira’s eyes rolled up and he ticked through silent options on his fingers before clapping. “Namahage?”

“Ugh, no,” Ryuji grumped. “Do I look like I’m wearing a costume made of straw?”

Ann crossed her arms tighter. “What about Reaper?”

Ryuji bobbed his head. “Yeah, I can dig that.” He looked back at Akira. “I’ve been meanin’ to ask. What’s up with your face?”

Akira held up a hand to his cheek, then flinched and hissed in pain.

“Ohhh,” Ann muttered. “Yeah, from that knight.”

“Huh?” Ryuji said, blinking.

Ann gestured to where the guard knights used to be. “One of those knights hit him right across the face with that metal hand.”

Morgana growled, staring down the corridor they came from. “If I hadn’t been caught, I could’ve been right there to help defeat the palace ruler.”

Akira sighed. “Consolation is there was no treasure down there.”

Morgana shook his head. “I didn’t think there was, it feels like we’ve been getting farther away from it.”

Ryuji frowned, tapping a steel-toed boot. “You knew where it was to start with?”

Eyebrows furrowing, Morgana faced Ryuji straight-on. “Not exactly.” He pointed at Akira as he looked up. “When you mentioned the Training Hall of Love, I thought you had reliable intel.” Looking back to Ryuji, he noticed how the runner braced a hand against the bars. “You two haven’t even recovered from yesterday, and Ryuji’s burning up energy fast. I know you all want to see this finished quickly, but if we rush in unprepared that does nobody any good.”

Akira growled, “But we’ve gotten nowhere.”

Ann wavered on her feet, one hand taking Ryuji’s offered hand to help stand steady. “I… I’m not feeling so good, Joker.”

Ryuji held his free hand to his forehead. “The cat’s right—”

“I am not a cat!”

Akira opened his hands, closed them into fists, then forced his fingers open again. His jaws clenched, but when he looked at Ann, his eyes fell to the floor and he let out a defeated breath. At that signal, the group started walking for the exit.

Ryuji came up next to Akira. “Hey, if we’re headin’ out anyway, I got an idea.”

Akira growled, but when he spotted Ann clutching her stomach, he let out a heavy breath. “Fine. I’m listening.”

Folding his arms against his chest, Ryuji smirked. “It looked like you guys were really dependent on your Personas.”

Ann stopped and turned on the former track star. “Did you not see the kind of monsters we’re up against? Some of them almost killed Joker twice yesterday. They almost killed us all today.”

Ryuji nodded. “That’s just my point. We need some firepower.”

Sighing, Akira pressed his hand against his side, wishing he had a hot or cold compress. “If you’re about to suggest we lift a Scottish claymore from a local museum, I don’t think I can fit that under my school jacket.”

“I mean guns, dumbass,” Ryuji snapped.

“Ryu—Reaper,” Akira started, nonplussed, “this is Japan. I may have a record, but even I don’t know how to get my hands on guns. What do you think I am, yakuza?”

Ryuji grinned underneath his heavy skull mask. “Wouldn’t have to be real guns if we’re not using them in a real castle, eh?”

Ann shot him a glare. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Morgana stopped and turned to him, eyes widening. “No, actually, it’s brilliant.” He gave a wide grin. “I’d have never expected it from you, Reaper.”

Ryuji smiled and puffed out his chest as they all headed towards the entrance. A little while later, he stopped walking. “Hey, wait. What’s that supposed to mean?”

Chapter Text

Persona 5: Daywatch

Thursday, 14 April 2016
Early Evening
Front Gate of Shujin Academy

Ann glanced out of the alley in front of Shujin Academy. Dark doors and the distant sound of traffic met her senses. Satisfied the coast was clear, she rubbed at her shoulder, then stretched it out with a wince. “I guess we’re off on our own way for now. I just wish we had a quick way to get together.”

Morgana hopped up onto one of the air-conditioning units to look them closer to eye-to-eye. “Like a secret hideout.” He purred. “We’d be like the classic thieves.”

“I am not a thief,” Akira muttered, then rubbed at a bruise he felt forming below his ribs. “Well, you guys are the ones who’ve been here the longest. Where’s a quiet spot to hide out when we don’t want to be overheard?”

Ryuji shrugged. “Nobody ever goes up on the roof.”

Ann’s eyes rolled up for a moment. “I guess not. The roof it is, then.”

Ryuji slouched against the air conditioning units, favoring his left leg. “Man, I’m gonna sleep like a baby when I get home.”

Akira smirked. “Up every thirty minutes?”

Ryuji rolled his eyes. “Speakin’ of time, I feel like we were stuck in there for days! I’ve had track meets that didn’t wipe me out that much.”

Rubbing an eye with the heel of his palm, Akira nodded. “I could use some rest, too.” He drew his phone. “Before we split, we should exchange contact info. Being physically present all the time shouldn’t be necessary if we can just call or text each other. If anything comes up, go ahead and send me a ring.”

Morgana’s ears drooped. “What about me? I can’t contact you from the Metaverse.”

Akira finished checking Ryuji’s number, then looked to their smallest member. “So stay in this world.”

Ryuji stretched out his leg. “They don’t allow pets at my place.”

Morgana turned a hopeful look to Ann, but she shook her head. “My father’s allergic to cats. If he came home and saw you, he’d blow his top, cat or no.”

Morgana’s ears drooped.

“I guess that means you’re stuck with me.” Akira smirked and collected his school bag. “Tough luck.”

Ryuji pointed a steady finger at Akira. “Don’t you dare forget to call me before you go back.”

Akira tisked. “You shouldn’t have to worry about that, you’re showing me that place we can get guns from.”

Ryuji’s stomach growled. “Man… I’ll have to do that tomorrow. I’m starvin’.”

Akira waved at him with a, “Pshaw.” Then his stomach growled.

“Even I feel like I could eat a horse,” Ann declared. Then she flinched, holding a hand to her ribs. “Okay, not a horse.”

Ryuji smirked and slipped his hands in his pockets. “Well, if we’re all rarin’ ta go, I happen to know a great place.

Akira squinted at him. “If this is a greasy back-alley gastropub…”

Waving him off, Ryuji stepped out in the road and turned for the train station. “Nah, it’s a Chinese joint, real authentic. But they got ramen bowls if you’re hankerin’ for Japanese cookin’.”

Thursday, 14 April 2016
Evening
Nerima, Chinese Restaurant Nekohanten

Traditional styling gave a warm, homey feel to the restaurant tucked between a commercial and residential neighborhood. Ryuji slurped down a long noodle, then looked up from his soup. “So, transfer—”

“The name’s Akira,” he snapped, then tore into the small mountain of sliced pork on his plate.

“Sorry,” Ryuji said, at least having the grace to look sheepish. “You really got a criminal record?”

“Sakamoto!” Ann chastised.

“No, it’s okay.” Akira swallowed a bite of pork and peppers, then poked at his meal. Bringing up his checkered past might have brought up anger before, but between the hunger and pain from the fight leading up to Ryuji’s awakening, Akira couldn’t manage anything more than a self-derisive smirk. “To be honest, I’m just pissed off that the one time I did get arrested, I didn’t even actually beat the guy. It’s not like I haven’t gotten into fights, they all just got swept under the rug.”

Ryuji stirred at his soup, looking for another piece of shrimp. “You have a lotta assholes back home?”

“I wouldn’t call it home, and no.” Akira swallowed and picked at his pork. “Sure, it would’ve been great to be one of those nice guys everybody’s friends with, but everyone knew my old bastard.” He lifted another slice, watching the pink meat dangle. “All I wanted was for people to know that I wasn’t him. The last time I made a real effort to play nice with people outside the chess club was basketball. The captain saw me and said ‘hey, it’s the creepy geek’s kid’. That was when I decided, what’s the point playing nice if people are going to treat me like I’m a monster anyway?”

Ann stared at the piece of white fish between her chopsticks. “You’re not the only one who had no friends. I was born in Finland and my parents were always busy with fashion shows. We were traveling all the time.” Her eyes took a distant look and a nostalgic smile pulled at her mouth. “That’s why I decided to go into modeling. When I’m in front of the camera, no matter how silly the dress, it’s like… I’m right there with them. When I came here, everybody saw me and said ‘hey, it’s the foreign girl’. Shiho was the first one who actually came up to me and talked with me, instead of hanging back and talking at me.”

Hunching over his bowl, Akira swallowed a large bite. “What about you, Sakamoto?”

“Dude, that’s what my teachers call me an’ they don’t even want anythin’ to do with me.” He flashed a smile. “Just Ryuji is cool, yo!” His smile faded. “My old man wasn’t exactly a model father.” He pulled a shrimp out of the soup, letting it drip a second before stuffing it in his mouth. “When he finally left, mom wanted me to make somethin’ of myself at a new school. I started runnin’. Got into Shujin and crushed the track team quals.” His eyes took a faraway look and he swallowed. “She looked so happy when I came home and said I might be gettin’ a sports scholarship.”

“Yeah,” Ann said around a mouth full of fish. “Shujin isn’t cheap.”

Ryuji’s face flinched in a bitter grimace. “Then that asshole had to go screw it all up. He called it self-defense, but he was abusin’ us, too.” His eyes squinted, a brief flicker of intense hatred. “One day… I couldn’t take it no more and let him have it. He broke my leg and the next week the track club was disbanded.”

Akira snorted and picked up a long chunk of pork. “I guess that means we’re all a bunch of misfits. No wonder you guys haven’t ditched me yet.”

Ann looked him over with tense, arched eyebrows.

“You know,” Ryuji said, “you never did say how you got a record, exactly.”

“Oh, that?” Akira swallowed the rest of the chunk of pork. “I was reading late at Inuri High one evening. On the way home, I spotted some drunk trying to force a woman into his car. Mother or the old bastard would’ve walked away. That’s all I need to know that’s the wrong thing to do. So I dove in there and pulled him off her. The dumbass was so sloshed he tripped on himself and fell on one of those concrete barriers separating the road from the sidewalk. I didn’t know he was one of my old bastard’s benefactors until the cops pulled up with their headlights on.” Akira chuckled. “He stood up and said,” his tone dropped, “I will bury you.”

Ann looked up from her fish. “Your father didn’t try to do anything to help you?”

Akira snorted with a deep frown. “They pulled out the red carpet whenever that prick came around. My old bastard was the one who suggested kicking me out. He was so proud of the idea he told me.” He popped another slice of pepper in his mouth. “Besides, the idiot was drunk. You know nobody takes what you do seriously if you’re drunk. So I’m the one with the felony.”

“Damn!” Ryuji snapped, slamming a fist against the table next to his bowl. The napkin holder and pepper shaker jumped from the impact. “What an asshole!”

“Dude,” Akira said, “Chill. It’s in the past.” He ate in silence for a moment, then shrugged and pointed his chopsticks at himself. “Only guilty man in Shawshank.” When Ann and Ryuji shot him confused looks, he sighed. “I think of it like this: I may not deserve those charges, but I’m not innocent. Besides, at least I’m away from the old bastard.”

Ann scrutinized him out of the corner of her eye. “Wow, you really know how to let life roll off your back.”

Akira rotated his shoulder, feeling an unpleasant tingle at praise.

Ryuji tilted his bowl and drank the broth, then brought it down to the table hard. “Between what you did at Kamoshida’s office and inside that castle, you’re one of the…” He shrugged. “I dunno how to say it… most real people I know. You ever need somethin’, I got your back.”

Akira swallowed a mouthful of noodles, his throat feeling tight and his eyes unable to meet the others’.

Thursday, 14 April 2016
Late Evening
Yongen, Leblanc

Akira pushed at the door, but it swung in with no resistance, the bell tinkling and a woman standing right there past it. Her black, biker’s leather jacket looked generic enough, but the green dress had a spiderweb pattern to it and her black pants had holes slashed across the front.

Morgana hopped up in his bag, bracing on Akira’s shoulder to check out the cause for the stop.

Akira stepped back to let her out. “’scuse me.”

She gave a polite nod, but paused when her eyes fell on Morgana. “Nice cat,” she said before walking on.

Morgana growled, “I am not a cat.”

Akira shook his shoulders to drive Morgana back into the bag as he walked in.

Newspaper crinkled as Sojiro looked up from the end of the counter. “You’re pretty late today.”

Akira shrugged. With his belly full, his aches returned and all he wanted to do was lie down. “Who’s the punk rocker?” he jerked a thumb at the door.

Sojiro snorted, lifting his newspaper. “She’s the doctor at the clinic down the corner.”

Akira slipped his hands in his pockets. “The one selling drugs? Who gives half-assed exams?”

Sojiro’s eyes narrowed. “Where’d you hear something like that?”

Akira shrugged. “People talk. I learned early on in life how important it can be to pick up on the little details some people whisper.”

Sojiro flicked the newspaper in his hands to try to straighten it. “She may sell weird homebrewed medicines or whatever, but as far as I know she’s a legit doctor. I haven’t been there, myself, but I bet neither have any of the people spreading those rumors. It’s not like she’s doing anything to them. I don’t know why they’d bother talking about someone they never deal with.”

Akira stared down, feeling a strange sense of empathy for the woman facing the uphill battle of a bad reputation. “We’re the easiest targets.” He paced toward the stairs.

Sojiro looked Akira up and down. “Were you limping yesterday? I hope you’re not getting into trouble.”

“You know me,” Akira threw back. “Trouble is my stage name.”

Sojiro sighed. “Well, if you’re joking it can’t be that bad. As long as it’s not trouble with the law, I don’t really care. Just remember that as long as you’re staying here, anything you do could reflect on my livelihood.”

Akira’s eyes fell to the floor with a heavy sigh. “I got it.” He slipped around Sojiro, trotted upstairs, let Morgana out, then started cleaning the table next to the couch.

Morgana sniffed at a bag of coffee beans. “Is this an abandoned warehouse?”

Akira snorted. “I wish, at least that would be cool. This is just Sakura’s attic.” He set a stack of books in a bin, then paused. “There’s a lot of books on psychology up here. I wonder if he was more involved in Isshiki’s research than he let on.” He paused in between book piles. “Recognize any of this?”

Morgana hopped down to the floor to scan the titles on the spines of the indicated stack. His ears curled down. “Uh… I don’t think so.” He looked up at Akira. “Why?”

The student stacked more books and set them down to sort into unwanted, suspicious, and a small stack for personal use. “I was wondering if you might have been involved in Isshiki’s research, too. You seemed to have a real knack for the Metaverse.”

Morgana smirked and stretching himself up a little. “Well, you did luck across the Metaverse’s greatest thief extraordinaire. That castle is just one of many Palaces that sprang up from the people of this place. While I was exploring it, I found lots of places representing Kamoshida’s suppressed self.”

“You mean he’s not just a rapist with delusions of adequacy?”

Morgana pointed a clawed paw at him. “Don’t be too eager to dismiss him. Kamoshida may be small fry in comparison to some, but you all have only begun your journey through the Metaverse. You’ve already seen some of the things he longs to sate – his lust and his longing for power. However, he’s also driven by fear and all the inertia of his past life.”

Heavy footsteps tromped up the stairs, and Sojiro’s voice projected, “Are you watching cat videos?” He reached the top of the stairs and his eyes locked onto Morgana. “A stray? This is a restaurant! I can’t afford to let pets run around.”

Akira stood up, finding his hands curling into fists on the way. “Morgana was abandoned.”

“I was what?” Morgana blinked at Akira.

“Morgana?” Sojiro scratched his head.

Akira stacked books from the shelf against the wall. “That’s his name.”

Sojiro stroked his goatee for a few moments as he stared at the cat. “I suppose if you’re already that attached, you’ll be on better behavior.” He let out a sigh with a hint of wistfulness. “But you’re taking care of it.”

Akira straightened the stack of books against the wall, then stood up and snapped a British salute. “Right-o, Boss.”

Rolling his eyes, Sojiro trotted downstairs.

Morgana hopped up on the desk in the corner. “Is that the ruler of this place?”

Scowling, Akira said, “He’s not a…” A deep breath passed before he chuckled. “You know what? I guess he kind of is.”

Morgana swept his gaze across the half-cleaned attic. “He seems pretty understanding for a guy keeping you crammed in this dump.”

Akira chuckled, going back to stacking and sorting out books and other detritus. “You must not know much about housing. This may be an attic, but it’s probably twice as big as most apartments in Tokyo.” His eyes rolled up. “Well, the ones I’d have a prayer of affording. It’s not a cell, anyway. The cell my old bastard kept me in? I could touch both walls if I stretched my hands straight out.”

One of Morgana’s ears twisted down. “Why do you keep saying that? What is an ‘old bastard’?”

Akira sighed, set down the last of his stack of books in the sort, then sat on the corner of the bed with a sigh. “Well… other people have a father. It’s not just the person who donated the half of your genes to allow you to live, he’s supposed to be a person who provides for you. He gives you shelter, a safe place to stay. When you’re lost or confused he’s supposed to teach you. He gives discipline so you grow up to be a good person, but he doesn’t beat you or shackle you as bait in terrifying experiments. He never lies to you, never makes you feel like you’re an unwanted mistake. A father is supposed to be the person who builds you up so you can go out into the world. He gives you that little push when you’re unsure.”

Morgana started sniffing the air, but kept an ear on Akira. The transfer student took off his glasses and rubbed a palm against one eye. “That’s what you have to do to be a father. If you can’t do that, you’re not a father, you’re an accidental parent.” Setting his glasses back on, Akira spotted Sojiro’s head poking up from the stairs. “You don’t have to eavesdrop from that far away.”

Striding up with a gait too stiff to be nonchalant, Sojiro avoided eye contact as he walked in with a plate of tuna. “I… uh… thought the little guy should at least have something to eat.”

Morgana’s eyes grew wide as Sojiro set the plate of tuna down on the desk. “Now that is a generous man. You didn’t bring me any meat when you went to that place with Lady Ann.”

Akira’s phone vibrated, but he held off answering when he noticed Sojiro still there looking at Morgana.

“He just kept on calling out in that cute little voice.”

Akira covered his mouth to hide his smile.

Sojiro turned on him, straight and all-business. “Make sure you wash that dish.”

Akira snapped him a British salute. “Aye-aye, Boss.”

Sojiro shook his head and left.

Smirking, Morgana looked up from the half-eaten plate of tuna. “Looks like he likes me more than you.”

“Laugh it up, fuzzball.” Akira crossed his arms. After a moment of watching Morgana eat, he straightened. “You seem to be comfortable eating straight from a plate. Were you an eating contest champion?”

Morgana licked a paw, then cleaned off his muzzle. “To be honest, I don’t remember. Listening to you all talk about your lives growing up made me realize I must’ve lost a lot to the distortions in the Metaverse, not just my form. That’s why we’ve got to go back into that castle. I’m sure we can clear up the distortions, and I can get my real body back.”

“Well,” Akira said, picking up more junk and moving it to a bin already lined with a black trash bag. “As long as you’re backing me up with this, I’ll back you up with that. It’s only fair.”

Morgana smiled. “Well, if you’re that certain, I guess I could pass along some of my knowledge. This keen mind and these dexterous paws aren’t just for show. I could show you plenty about infiltration tools.”

“You could help me make a new tension wrench? I had to leave the crew’s old tools behind when I moved.”

Straightening, Morgana scrutinized Akira. “You already know about picking locks?”

Akira dropped some broken chunks of styrofoam packing into the trash bin, then gave an uncomfortable shrug. “Me and the guys used to go all sorts of places where we weren’t invited. I wasn’t the expert, I just tended to carry the tools because I was the only one who ever got away from Kung-fu Cop. I’m more curious about that smoke canister. That could be useful if we need to do some sneaking or escaping after they already know we’re there.”

“I don’t know if all my tools will work in this world, but I’ll teach you what I can.” Morgana leaned back down to lick off the plate.

That conversation over, Akira took out his phone, hoping to see an update on Shiho from Ann. To his surprise, it was Ryuji.

<About this treasure and palace stuff you guys were talking about… how's that work?>

Akira checked with Morgana, sitting down at the stool against the bench so he could read in, then typed in the explanation to Ryuji.

It took a few moments for Ryuji to type out a reply. <Wait a minute, isn't desire a good thing? I mean… when I was in the track team, I had plenty of days I didn't wanna go to school. But training with the guys was enough to get me up and out.>

Morgana flicked an ear. “It’s true. We’re all defined by our desires. To eat, sleep, to build something, to fall in love—”

“Oh, please,” Akira barked. “Love’s just running around trying to entertain yourself while still calling yourself an adult.”

Morgana’s ears folded back and his eyebrows rose. “Where on earth would you get a strange idea like that? Love is the glue that holds families together, that forms new ones.”

Akira adjusted his seating and pushed up his glasses to rub at one eye in an effort to stave off exhaustion. “I hear about love all the damn time.” He raised his voice to mimic the airheads at Inuri, “I love chocolate!” He lowered his voice a bit, adding more of a western twang to mimic his mother, “I love sex!” Akira straightened. “'Love' is people trying to excuse not having control.”

Morgana stared at him. “We’ll have to talk about this later. About stealing a Treasure, if all of a person’s desires were taken away, he’d shut down.” Akira forwarded a quick summary.

<So Kamoshida could turn brain dead if we mess up? I may be pissed at him, but I dunno if I want to go so far as killing him.>

Akira ground his teeth. <Ryuji, I used to think there was only one person in the world so evil he deserved to die. Then Kamoshida raped Suzui.>

Morgana looked over Akira. “You feel really strong about her. How long was she your friend?”

Blushing, Akira let out a wistful sigh at the memory of her beautiful smile. “Uh… Three days.”

Morgana backed up, eyes wide. “Three days?”

Akira found himself unable to make eye contact. It felt like months to him. “It’s not just about her. I came from… a really bad place. I needed somewhere good when I left there. She was the only one at Shujin with the strength and kindness to smile. When Kamoshida hurt her, he didn’t just take that away. He took it away from me.” The instant the words were out of his mouth, Akira realized how selfish they sounded. “He took it away from Ann, her boyfriend Mishima, her class. He hurt the entire school.”

Morgana looked back down to the instant messenger. “I’m surprised you’re forwarding all of this to Ryuji. I was kind of expecting you to edit what you said to make him feel more cooperative.”

Akira shot him a nasty look. “I’m not the most honest of people, but I don’t like tricking people into things. If Ryuji’s on board, I don’t want it to be ‘cause I have him hooked on a line. That’s the kind of thing my old bastard would do.”

<I get what you're saying, but if we go so far as to kill him just because we don't like him… isn't that a little too close to what he does? Crushing everything he doesn’t like? Sure, I want him to pay for what he did. I just don't know if I want to become a murderer over him.>

<I've been over this with Ann. The volleyball team's keeping mum, the parents and teachers all turn a blind eye for the glory of Shujin. You and I are already outcasts. I know I lost it back there in his office, but you've heard the rumors after. Almost nobody believes it, and the few who do would never stand up and say it out loud. Going into that world is the only option we have. If you want to sit out, _I_ will protect Shujin from him.> Akira turned off his phone and set it on the wide sill next to the bed before changing. A long day of school came before Ryuji’s mysterious gun connection.

Chapter Text

Persona 5: Daywatch

Friday, 15 April 2016
After School
Front Gates of Shujin

Akira turned around, pacing a little oval in the turf between the opening of the building proper and the front gates. Most students ignore his presence, but a red-eyed girl with a braided hairband met eye contact, her gaze narrowing for a moment as if to say, “I see you,” before the exiting throng forced her to walk on.

Akira got close to the walkway, several students recognizing him enough to veer away, but he turned back to the lawn and the flow returned to normal. The students buzz with gossip, most irrelevant drivel but one girl amid the exiting stampede asking, “Did you hear what he said to Kamoshida? There’s no way!”

At last, a dyed-blond head appeared and Akira stormed to him. “What the hell took you?”

Ryuji’s hands drifted out of his pockets and he returned the almost-glare. “Dude, it’s only been ten minutes since classes got out.”

“Look, it’s the two delinquents!”

“At least they’ll be expelled soon.”

Akira whirled to the gate. “Let’s just get going.” He paused to take a quick scan of the crowd, but saw no specific people holding attention on him. “I get the weird feeling that girl with the hairband’s got me marked.”

The two jogged to the train station and caught a ride to Shibuya, coming out to Station Square. When Ryuji trotted into the mass of people without a breath of hesitation, Akira couldn’t muster the courage to make an excuse, but the chaotic storm of people spiked his anxiety and he found himself pushing back.

Pausing near the north end of Station Square, Ryuji glanced back and spotted Akira shoving through a salaryman but breathing heavy. The urban veteran raised an eyebrow at the transfer student. “You good?”

Akira grimaced but refused to show weakness. “Let’s just get there.”

Ryuji shrugged and walked into the crowd towards Central Street.

Akira followed, attempting to keep a straight course but bumped and jostled by the throngs of humanity. When he shoved yet another person out of his way and saw fists on the hands he retracted, he realized his anger was starting to get away from him and he shoved his hands in his pockets.

Hearing a shout of dismay, Ryuji paused in front of a bookstore to turn and look back at Akira, bulling through a slow-moving clump of people. The former track star leaned against the brick at the end of the shop and waited for Akira to stop next to him.

The transfer student braced a hand against the glass storefront, shoulders rising and falling as he forced air in and out of his lungs.

“Dude,” Ryuji said, eyebrow raised at the pale face and snarl on his fellow student’s face. He almost looked ready to bolt. Ryuji stood up to be sure Akira looked at him. “You sure you’re okay?”

Akira took a short but clear lunging step at Ryuji, baring his teeth. A beat passed and he withdrew, looking no less haggard. “Is it like this all the time?”

“For real?” Ryuji chuckled, shaking out his shoulders. “This is Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. It ain’t even a busy day.” When Akira angled away from the crowd, the blond bit down a snort of amusement. “Takamaki wasn’t kidding when she said you don’t like crowds.”

Akira’s lip twitched, revealing teeth, but he pulled back. “I don’t like the crowds at the school.” His eyes scanned the bookstore beyond the window. “I thought I was ready for out and about in general, but I feel like a sardine in a can.”

Ryuji laughed. “I know, ain’t it great?”

Akira glowered.

Ryuji put up his hands, fighting to keep down a smirk. “I mean, if you’re not up to the challenge, I could always—”

Bared teeth and fire blazing in his eyes and stomach, Akira shouted at him, “I am not useless. Failure is—” He bit his tongue to regain control, wincing. “Sorry.” Looking up, he noticed a smirk growing on Ryuji’s face. “Oh, stop smiling.”

Ryuji chuckled and led him the few remaining paces left to the alley. “Well, you made it.” He jerked his shoulder at a nearby alley. “Shop’s right back here. You know anything about guns?”

Akira blinked. “Never look into the barrel, and if in doubt… it’s loaded.”

Ryuji tilted his head and looked Akira up and down. “Really? That’s it?” When Akira failed to respond, he cleared his throat. “I kinda pictured you as a closet gun nut.”

Finally separated from the apathetic mass of humanity, Akira straightened and took in a deep breath. “The closest thing I have to experience with guns is playing Resonance of Fate at Yoshida’s.”

Ryuji led him to the front door and pushed it open. “At least tell me you know the difference between an automatic and a revolver.”

Now Akira shot a baffled look at him. “Are we talking about cars now?”

A wielded, cross-linked grating stretched across the counter, realistic model guns on the far side. Scattered common goods like dust masks and cotton swabs hung from hooks on the customer side. Coats, survival and military-surplus-type goods occupied the rest of the customer space, but a surly man with a heavy coat and hat looked up from a sporting goods magazine and made eye contact with Ryuji. “So, Little Man returns. Did you decide you stick out like a sore thumb either way and you’re keepin’ the bleached hair?”

Ryuji scoffed, yet smiled. “A man who’s his own man doesn’t need to blend in.”

“Nope,” Akira said, coming to a stop next to Ryuji. “Only men who want to make it to the next paycheck.”

The shop owner snorted, the corners of his lips curling up, and maneuvered the white stick in his mouth to the other side.

Ryuji gestured to Akira. “I brought fresh meat.”

Mister Cool and Surly turned the page in his magazine. “You’re still not getting a discount.”

Ryuji slumped. “Aw.” He looked up at Akira. “So, what kind do you think you like?”

“There’s a lot here,” Akira answered. He tilted his head up at some bunch of tubes hanging from the metal girders above. “What’s the plumbing doing hanging from the ceiling?”

Ryuji puffed out his chest and gave a proud smile. “That, my friend, is an RG-6 forty millimeter semi-automatic grenade launcher designed by Izhmash.”

Cool and Surly turned another page in his magazine, eyes still down. “It was designed by the Central Design and Research Bureau of Hunting and Sporting Weapons. Izhmash was the manufacturer group—”

“Of the single-shot underbarrel version,” Ryuji said, swiping a fist with a familiar self-disappointment on his face.

Akira smiled and jabbed an elbow into Ryuji’s side. “Damn, you just geeked out on me.”

Ryuji kicked at the worn carpet floor. “Everybody’s got to have a hobby.”

Akira chuckled.

Ryuji shifted so he could point at the array of faux weapons on the other side of the grating. “So what do you think you’d like to start with? Revolvers? Pistols? SMGs?” He looked down at the lounging shop owner. “You got assault rifles too, right, Big Man?”

Cool and Surly turned another page, eyes on some article. “Not for casuals, Little Man.”

Ryuji turned back to Akira, an eager glint in his eyes. “Let’s start you off with somethin’ classic, but powerful. Somethin’ easy ta grip and aim. The MP-443 Grach.”

Cool and Surly stood. “One Rook, comin’ up.”

Akira rubbed his shoulder. “Ann’s gonna want something, too.”

Ryuji gave a leering smile. “Don’t worry, I already thought of that.” He elbowed Akira. “With that suit of hers, I can totally see her totin’ a PP-91 KEDR with a laser sight.”

“Mods are extra.”

“But she’ll like the base version,” Ryuji finished without missing a beat.

Cool and Surly plopped the magazine onto the laptop behind the grating and headed to the back.

Akira grinned. “I hope you know what all those things are, because you might as well have been speaking Greek.”

Ryuji laughed, looking more relaxed than Akira ever noted before. “I had two great loves since I started high school.” He held up an index finger. “Track,” then he extended his pinky, “and guns,” then head-banged to some tune inside his own mind. Chuckling at his own joke, he lowered his hand and looked Akira in the eye. “What about you?”

Akira shrugged, rubbing the back of his own head as he looked at the guns on display behind the heavy wire grating. “We played a whole bunch of strategy games in chess club at Inuri High. I may not have really made friends with the other guys, but I liked the games.”

“Were they really rude?”

“A few,” Akira conceded, slipping in hands in his pockets. “But most were just really quiet. It was like you weren’t allowed to talk or do anything besides think of your next move.” Akira scratched his neck. “Granted, I think a lot of that was because they were all nervous of me, but… still. I was kinda hoping to make a new start with a club like that at Shujin where nobody knew me or my family.”

Ryuji scanned the transfer student and his slouched shoulders. “I getcha. I’m sure you don’t need any further reason to go after him, but I bet it was that effin Kamoshida who leaked your record in the first place.”

The shop owner returned and set two paper boxes on his side of the counter, eyes flicking to Ryuji with a casual air. “I already know you, but,” his gaze slid to Akira and hardened. “Just to be sure, even though these are models, don’t go ‘round pointing ‘em at people.”

Akira snorted. “If anybody even thought I might have a gun, I’d have so many goddamn fuzz on my ass I’d look like a cop parade.”

A short moment of consideration passed through Cool and Surly slid the smaller box out to the square opening at the counter. “These ones are models for enthusiasts. Real guns feel… different.” His eyes flicked to Ryuji for a moment. “Maybe one day I’ll show you the good stuff, but for now you start at the bottom of the ladder.” He pointed a lazy hand at Ryuji. “Just like him and everyone else. That’ll be six thousand yen.”

Akira’s jaw dropped. “Six thousand?”

Ryuji sidled closer. “These ain’t no gundam models, this is serious quality merch. The kinda stuff you’d mount on the mantle.” His eyes flicked to the shop owner, then he turned away from Cool and Surly and leaned closer to whisper, “Just think how useful it’ll be in the castle.”

Frowning, Akira pulled out his wallet. “Yeah, fine. You’re paying for Ann’s.”

Thin-lipped, Ryuji pulled out his own duct-taped wallet. “This time.”

Friday, 15 April 2016
Evening
Shibuya, Central Street

Akira trotted down the stairs and turned around a crowd of people meandering towards the train station. With no place in particular he wanted to go, he let whimsy take him down the narrower, grimier streets of Shibuya.

Morgana popped his head out of the bag and stared up at the skyline. “The sun’s going down. How long until your curfew?”

Akira groaned. “Now I really don’t want to go back to Leblanc. It’s not like Sakura-san’s a horrible human being, but damn sometimes I can’t stand him and his lecturing. Sometimes I don’t know whether he thinks I’m a bad person or not.”

Voices down the narrowing alleys perked his ears and Akira crept closer, peering around a corner to a dirty side street. Some woman in a dark dress and leather jacket crossed her arms. She looked familiar.

A few paces in front of her stood a gangly man in a leopard-print silk shirt hanging sloppy on his frame. “…think you’re the only doc who can write prescriptions in Tokyo?”

The woman tapped a plastic case almost as big as a suitcase against her side. “I’m the only one offering the bulk you’re asking for. Amphetamines aren’t exactly easy to get. It takes a lot of effort to keep my suppliers and the government in the dark.”

The gravelly-voiced man switched a brown paper sack from one hand to the other. “The head honcho’s puttin’ the squeeze on everyone in Shibuya.”

Despite being alone with a man in a dark alley, the woman held a confident, almost bored pose. “My concern is getting the drugs you demand. I know very well you’re making a lot more than you’re paying for them. If you want me to be able to keep this up, just pay the five hundred thousand we agreed on last time.”

Leopard Print tisked. “This ain’t gonna fly every day.”

“That’s why we’re doing this at night,” she responded, holding out her free hand. “Now if we can just do this? I have real medicine to do.”

Leopard Print threw the brown paper sack at her.

Stepping back, she caught it and set her plastic medical container to the ground to open the sack and count. After a few moments, she looked up. “This is four hundred thousand.”

Leopard Print reached into his pocket and threw a handful of taped rounds of cash at her.

The woman grabbed for them, dropping the sack and knocking over the plastic container. Leopard Print chuckled, but after confirming the count the woman slid the plastic container across the pavement at him. He picked it up, smirked, and strolled away.

The woman in dark clothes stuffed the cash in the paper sack, shoved it in her purse, then walked away. Her platform shoes made the metal storm grating clack under her feet. She continued a few paces towards central street, then stopped and leaned against a cleaner segment of brick wall under a light. The pause in good lighting allowed Akira to make out her dark hair, a studded leather choker around her neck, and the rips in her jeans. She looked up at the sky. “I’m sorry, Miwa-chan. I never wanted this. If I can just make it up to you…at least I can make that right.”

Curiosity stirred, Akira slipped his hands into his pockets and stepped out from the corner behind her. “So who’s Miwa-chan?”

The woman in punk-rocker styling spun around, her hands up and her tone placating. “I’m just a small clinic doctor.” Takemi paused to look him over as Akira stepped into the cone of light with her. Morgana popped out of the bag to look over his shoulder. “That cat… you’re that boy from Leblanc.”

Akira slipped his right hand from his pocket to give a tiny, mocking wave. “Luce. Turner Luce. What the hell are you doing selling drugs in a dark alley in Shibuya, doc?”

Takemi deflated. “Dammit.” She looked him in the eye, a note of pleading in her face even if her tone sounded more like a command, “Look, when I said I’m a small clinic doctor—”

Akira waved her off. “This isn’t a shakedown.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall in mimicry of how she stood before he revealed his presence. “But I’m sure we can come to some… mutually equitable arrangement. First I want to know why you’re out here involved in that little… exchange.”

Her eyes narrowed and he could swear he saw the gears whirling behind her eyes for several seconds before she let out a long breath, shoulders slumping. Takemi more collapsed than leaned against the brick wall. “I had a… period of disagreement with a few suppliers. I didn’t want to shut down my clinic so soon after opening it, not with all I have to do, so… I went to the wrong people for help staying open. I just wanted to finish researching a treatment for my old patient, Miwa-chan.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath in, then out. “Now even though I could get everything from legitimate suppliers, if I stop doing business with those thugs, I’m a dead woman.”

Akira scanned her, seeing no sign of deception. “I… might occasionally need medical care I can’t have reported to the police.”

The doctor stood up and opened her eyes, glancing from Akira to the night-darkened alley. “You in trouble with these bozos?”

Akira swallowed, but maintained his outward cool. “I’m kind of involved with another… issue right now.”

Takemi narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing him for several moments, then shrugged. “Fair enough. At least I shouldn’t have to worry about that moron for another four or five weeks.” She turned and walked out to central street at a brisk pace.

Morgana purred. “Talk about a fruitful day. New weapons and a doctor who owes you.”

Akira watched Takemi disappear into crowd. “Let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.”

Friday, 15 April 2016
Evening
Yongen, Leblanc

The bell let out a merry jingle that grated on Akira’s tired nerves as he walked into the cafe, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee stirring up his stomach. A young adult, probably a little older than himself, sat at the nearest tall chair at the bar. A tan, pressed jacket from some school or college hung on the back, its neatness contrasting with the young man’s thick mop of brown hair Akira could swear had a hint of red in it.

Looking up from his legal pad, the customer flashed a wide show smile. “Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just here to enjoy the finest coffee in Tokyo.” He glanced at Akira’s tired eyes. “Are you a regular?”

“You could say that,” Akira said as he paced down the bar.

The customer lifted his cup. “You should count yourself fortunate. I fell asleep on the train and got off at the wrong stop. Now I need to make my way back to Shibuya, but I thought why not take a moment to grab a cup and get a little work done?” He tilted the cup back, paused for a disappointed moment, then looked into it and sighed before putting it back down on the saucer. “Alas, I think I have drunk my excuse out.” Reaching into his pocket, he drew a student debit card and held it out. “Thank you very much, Master Sakura.”

Sojiro swiped the card over the chip reader and handed it back. “Any time.”

The young man packed his papers in a metal briefcase, shrugged on his uniform jacket, then departed.

Sojiro pressed his hands against his lower back and stretched backwards. “Well, it’s time I get home and start making dinner.”

“I’ll finish off the dishes,” Akira said, slipping his bag off his shoulder. The thought that he wasn’t being paid for his labor passed through his mind and he cringed, remembering how much he paid for the model gun. “And I need to get a job somewhere. I should stop by the boards down in the Shibuya underground.”

Sojiro closed out the cash register and doffed his apron. “Well, look at you, acting like a responsible member of society.” He gave an easy smirk as Akira carried the dishes to the sink, walked out and locked the door.

Akira set his bag on the nearest bar chair, then got to work on what ended up being almost thirty cups. After a minute of silence from Morgana just watching, Akira looked down at him. “Do you think I’m not responsible?”

Morgana tilted his head, ears turning askew. “Why would you think that?”

Akira sighed. “Japan may not be the Near East of the Old Testament, but one thing that’s the same in both is that you don’t tell someone to be brave or strong if they’re already brave and strong. I know I’ll always be an outcast, but… life is like a democracy.” Finishing the dishes, he rinsed and pulled a handful of paper towels to dry his hands. “If everyone in my life says I’m trouble, isn’t it insanity to try to say I’m the only right one when everyone else around me is wrong?”

Morgana stood up. “The fact that an answer is popular doesn’t mean it must be right. Isn’t everyone at Shujin turning a blind eye to Kamoshida? Aren’t you the only one leading the way into his Palace to keep him from hurting anyone else?”

Akira’s lips turned into a snarl as he snatched his bag and walked up the stairs. “I will bury him for what he did to Shiho.”