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Again and Again and Again Once More

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Yosuke had known something was up. Lying about it now was pointless, and, besides, he would only be lying to himself. Yosuke stepped carefully around a puddle on the pavement, trying in vain not to notice the way the red splashes turned into rotten green pitch under the false moonlight.

He had, though. He had known. Maybe he had not recognized what was going on for what it was, but something had been off with his best friend for weeks, perhaps longer, and he had turned a blind eye.

A slimy, knotted feeling churned in his gut and, recognizing it for the guilt it was, Yosuke internally rebelled. This wasn't his fault, damn it. What the hell was he supposed to have done?

Souji had been acting off, he supposed, but it was not in some bold, 'worry about me' sort of way. It was little things, weird little things here and there, and it was only in retrospect that Yosuke started to see some semblance of order, some common thread to them all.

If he had pinpoint the first time he noticed, Yosuke would say that it started with the C60's. A lot of things about Souji impressed him. Hell, sometimes his partner struck him into a state of abject awe, and Yosuke would be left feeling embarrassed and foolish around the other boy for days afterwards. So, yes, Souji Seta was a pretty impressive guy, but his music knowledge was just terrible.

It wasn't even that the guy had a bad ear. That was what made it such a crime, Yosuke thought. Souji got music when it was presented to him, got it in the same way Yosuke did, but he did not have the background to make it stick. In order to correct this horrible oversight, Yosuke had set out of be his friend's guide through all of the different genres that music had to offer.

If for once being smarter and more in-control than Souji made him feel way better than it should, Yosuke chose to ignore it.

He had been a little overenthusiastic to begin with, but he quickly realized that most of his personal favorites took some getting used to. Yosuke had changed his strategy, instead leading Souji along in baby steps, slowly but surely guiding him through an explanation of how good music could be.

His friend had come a long way, he really had, but Yosuke knew that they had barely scratched the surface of the harder stuff. So, when Yosuke had one day offhandedly muttered about the C60's and the release of their new CD, Souji should not have been able to respond with a reflexive, "I haven't really liked their sound since their second album."

Even at the time, Yosuke had stilled in confusion. The weird thing was, Souji was right. Triple Helix, the C60's response to their shaky debut album, had been freaking awesome. It was so classy and refined, but at the same time off-the-wall crazy, and Yosuke remembered not listening to anything else for weeks after it was first released. It was also true that the band simply had not been the same since that whirlwind record came out.

So, Souji had been right, and Yosuke knew it, but he had watched, fascinated, as Souji's face contorted, changing from his initial confidence in his answer to an odd, vaguely skittish look as he appeared to think over what he'd just said. His friend's face had finally settled into a sort of hesitant pride, and, though Yosuke knew it was weird, it was also way too awesome to question.

Souji was finally taking to all of their music lessons. Was he supposed to flip out and panic just because his partner had shown interest and, apparently, initiative? He hadnlet it slide, instead jumping into an excited discussion about his favorite songs from Triple Helix, and was pleased to note that Souji's comment had not been uninformed. The man knew his stuff.

Yosuke wondered why that actually surprised him. Souji was never anything less than genuine.

That event had passed without being remarked upon, but looking back, Yosuke saw that it was the first time he'd been sure something strange was going on, and it had not stopped there. Souji did things and knew things, and Yosuke could not figure out why. At first, Yosuke had thought that these were merely personal quirks that Souji had been hiding from the group and was now letting slip since he felt more comfortable. Sometimes, though, that just did not fit. How was knowing the name, style and relative success of execution of each of the moves in Chie's martial arts movies something to be ashamed of? A little odd, maybe, but Yosuke thought it was pretty damn cool when it all came down to it.

Then there was that one time while they were fighting in the TV when Souji had been disarmed by a particularly nasty red shadow they had found while making their way through Naoto's secret lab. Souji had lunged forwards, testing the shadow to see whether it had a physical weakness or not, and had been repelled violently. Souji had hit the ground, hard, and his sword had gone skidding to the other side of the room. Without pausing, Souji had pulled back to where Chie and Teddie were guarding Rise, and grabbed a pair of Teddie's gauntlets. He then strode back into battle, cool as could be, and pummeled the living daylights out of the shadow until nothing but black ooze remained. Then, gauntlets returned and sword back in hand, Souji had continued into the rest of the dungeon like he had been fighting shadows with his fists his whole life.

Shit. Yosuke looked down to find his white sneakers coated in red ooze and, after a few seconds of stunned revulsion, jumped forward out of the puddle he had blindly walked through. Brought forcibly back to his surroundings, he stilled, falling to the back of the pack as he watched his friends move quietly through the phantom streets this particular shadow had conjured up. This area was so unlike all of the others scattered throughout the TV world. Usually they would stumble through yellow fog until it would break, dissipating all at once to reveal a small clearing that led to the first floor of whatever crazy labyrinth awaited them. This, though… this was different and so much huger than anything they had seen.

The fog had cleared slowly, revealing the hulking city in increments. At first it looked fairly normal, as normal as an empty city can look, but then the moon had broken through the fog, and they had all been stunned to stillness. The moon sat low in the sky, its massive weight sitting hugely on the tops of the buildings. The whole effect was strangely threatening, like if the moon snapped through those buildings, nothing else would be left to hold it up, and it would fall upon them, crushing anything in its path. The rest of the city was no better. The streetlights were dark, but there was no absence of light. Everything glowed yellow and green, and the light from the moon bounced back off of the strange red puddles of ooze that pooled on the tarmac.

Then there were the figures. Yosuke could not pinpoint just what they were, but they definitely were figures, tall, black things that could be people or maybe coffins. He would turn, trying to get a better look, but by the time they had moved beyond his periphery, they were gone, vanishing into the mist like a bad memory.

'This world's freaking odd,' Yosuke thought, forcing himself to move again and pick up speed so that he could catch up with the rest of the group. Souji was leading, his shoulders hunched and hands in his pockets. Yosuke frowned. Their leader's posture was usually so perfect. Yosuke shook his head, adding that moment to his growing list of Souji's character mishaps.

He jogged up to stand beside his friend, dancing around puddles in an effort to keep his shoes from further damage. When Yosuke slowed besides him, Souji glanced up, the hard look that had set into his features melting a bit before he straightened.

"Where exactly are we headed to," Yosuke asked as nonchalantly as he could. Souji seemed to have a plan, and that was all right with him, but he just had to know. Souji looked back at him again, bemused.

"I don't know, Yosuke. Maybe the big damn tower that we've been walking towards for the last half hour."

Yosuke frowned and looked back at the skyline. 'What tower…?'

And then it was there, and for the life of him, Yosuke couldn't decide whether it had been there the whole time or not.

"Oh, yeah," he muttered. "Make's sense."

Souji shook his head, hunched back down, and picked up his pace until Yosuke was looking at his back.

"We're almost there, guys," Souji said, loud enough so that the whole group could hear.

"The question of course being, where exactly there is? This whole area looks so familiar," said Naoto.

Souji stopped, and when he turned back towards the group, his expression had gone from bemused to outright incredulous.

"We're on Tatsumi Port Island. We were here just a few weeks ago," he trailed off.

And Yosuke saw that it was, indeed, Port Island. They weren't on some abstract street. They path they walked was familiar. They had trekked up and down the street every day during their school trip. Now that he looked back, all of the vague lines of the city resolved themselves in his mind, and he realized that they must have emerged from the fog somewhere around the train station. That meant that they were walking towards…

"The school? The tower is where the school should be, isn't it?"

"What tower," Kanji said with a soft grunt before he hissed, noticing the distorted building for the first time.

Souji seemed not to notice that Kanji had said anything.

"It looks that way," Souji replied.

'Port Island,' Yosuke thought, bitterly. He had been trying, rather successfully, to forget about their school trip. Not that he wanted to block the whole thing out. The ramen place they had visited had been wonderful, and Souji had looked so content and at home there that it was impossible not to feel happy along with him. The club had been fun, too, in a dysfunctional sort of way, but Yosuke tried to fight the flush of anger that rose within him as he thought of how Souji had disappeared afterwards in order to go get a coffee at the mall's café. He tried not to think about the quick text he'd gotten and hour after he had left, 'something came up. I'll be late, so don't wait up' or how he had waited up, despite Souji's cautioning. He didn't want to think about how, around five the next morning, Souji had come creeping into their shared hotel room, collapsed on the bed and groaned, sitting back up and heading to take a shower instead, because damn it, Souji was better than that. He wasn't the kind of guy that snuck out in unfamiliar cities and ditched his best friend. Souji had, though, and something in Yosuke's stomach snarled at the thought.

Yosuke looked up at Souji's back. That's just how his friend was, lately. Not bad, just different, and afterwards Souji would always act like he was surprised by his own behavior. He was never shocked, just hazy on his own motives, and Yosuke wondered now how he could have ever believed things were normal.

The group turned a corner, and thoughts of Souji were pushed clean out of Yosuke's mind.

The tower, if it could really be called that, hulked out behind the school gates, and Yosuke's head tipped back comically so that he could take the whole sight in. Neither physics nor logic governed the structure. It grew with wild abandon, wings splintering off every which way until the whole building looked something like an extremely tall artichoke. A soft chuckle ripped its way out of Yosuke's stunned throat. The comparison was utterly inappropriate, but facing the daunting majesty of the tower all at once was too much for him at the moment.

Kanji whistled. "Shit, man, will you look at that."

There was a chorus of grunts in general agreement.

Chie was the first to move. A delighted, nervous kind of chuckle bubbled up from her chest, and she took off down the flat stretch of road leading to the great tower. She trotted, dancing from foot to foot as she called back, "Come on, guys! We gonna do this thing or aren't we?"

Tension seeped from the group, and they all followed Chie's lead. They stopped at the gates, and Souji turned towards Rise with questioning eyes.

"Rise, can you tell us anything about this place? It would help to know how many floors there are."

Rise shook her head. "I can't tell how many floors there are. Part of me says hundreds, but that's impossible, right? But I can tell you one thing!"

"What's that?"

"It's name. This place is called Tatarus."

Souji nodded, and Yosuke thought he saw a pained look flash across his partner's face, like Souji had hoped he was wrong about something, and Rise had shattered any chance of that being the case.

Chapter Text

Souji chuckled, smothering a grin behind the palm of his hand. He really was not sure whether his friends were actually drunk or whether he was witnessing the placebo effect in all its glory, but at the moment, he could not care less. The girls' giddiness was infectious, and he felt more relaxed than he had in ages.

It really had been ages, he realized bitterly, and it was all the damned not-voice's fault. The dull burn of recognition was slowly becoming familiar, but ever since they had arrived in Iwatodai, the whine of familiarity had mounted until Souji's head ached with the static playing back and forth.

Earlier that day, their group had walked by a shrine, and the not-voice had started to chatter

'festivals and colored lights and a dying man loved this shrine but then everybody loved this shrine especially at night after long walks and on weekdays and Sundays and I wonder whether the fox would like this place as much as the dog did and why do animals like shrines anyway'

and Souji had hissed, and his head had throbbed, and Yukiko had sent him that sideways look she sometimes adopted when she knew one of their friends wasn't feeling well. Healer's instinct, he guessed. Teddie sometimes got that look, too.

The feeling passed, but never entirely, especially not on Port Island. As much as he enjoyed the break from their busy schedule back in Inaba, Souji found himself desperate to get home. Something about the island city sent his mind into overdrive, and the chatter was maddening.

Mostly, it sounded like a Persona. Many of his Personas talked in their way, though they never got quite as verbal as this particular voice. They expressed feelings of approval or disdain towards people and events, and Souji was used to the noise, but this persona knew things, things it shouldn't, and Souji was left wondering where the information came from.

All in all, the trip had been strangely stressful, but at the club, surrounded by lights and friends, Souji found himself relaxing fully. Everything was okay, he told himself soothingly, even if the light on a half filled glass and the smell of smoke set the voice muttering

'I wonder if the monk's ok he was really worried about his wife and it can be hard confronting people you've lost after being gone for so so long'

Souji reclined, content, and watched the others as the evening wore on. It was around one in the morning when he decided it was time to call it a night. Rise had been out for a while, and she was dozing contentedly on Naoto's shoulder. Souji thought Naoto was acting like a real champ. The kid was awkward and stiff backed, but he had been very considerate towards Rise all night, and Souji found he approved. It was late, though, and they could not stay out all night, so he rounded up the troops, and, together, they left the club.

He opened the club's large doors, and as the smell of smoke and sweat dissipated, the not-voice roared. Souji reeled, not sure what the voice was reacting to. It seemed to be everything, as though there was not a single thing in this mall that didn't feel familiar to it.

'jack frost dolls and crane machines and let's sing it loud all night long and I'll be braver not smarter or more charming but that's ok there's still time'

A whine tore out of Souji's throat, and Chie was there with a hand on his shoulder, looking concerned.

"Hey, are you ok? You look a little woozy and stuff. The smoke in there get to you? I know we breath fog all of the time, but it's kinda different, don't you think?"

He plastered a reassuring smile on his face.

"I'm sure that's it. You all go on. I think I'm going to go get a coffee and sit for a moment."

"You sure? I don't want to leave without you, and that stuff will keep you up all night."

'sing it all night long wail until midnight until the arcade closes and the fountains shut down'

Fighting down another grimace, Souji nodded.

"I'm sure. I won't be long."

Chie hesitated for a moment, worry in her eyes, but then she smiled, straightened up and rejoined the group waiting by the door.

"Alright, show's over. Leader man over there's gonna catch up with us later, so let's get back to the hotel."

Souji watched as they all exited out the mall's front entrance, and then turned towards the large coffee shop located in the back of the mall. Sending up a small prayer of thanks for all-night cafes, Souji pushed open the door with a jingle and wandered into the mostly empty shop. The place smelled wonderful, all warm and smooth, nothing like the burnt coffee smell that permanently enveloped the Dojima residence, and he felt himself relaxing again. This was what he needed, a warm coffee to clear his head, and then he would be fine. Just fine. It all was just fine.

Souji walked forwards to the counter, nodding warmly to the barista before he looked up, searchingly at the menu boards. It was a force of habit, and even though he knew that he would probably end up with a plain, black coffee, he felt the need to survey his choices before making a decision.

The bells attached to the door jangled as someone else entered the café, but Souji did not look away from the menu board, opting instead to move to the side so that whoever was behind him knew that they were free to order.

Souji heard the person pause behind him then begin to move as he realized that he was at the front of the line.

"Sanada," the barista greeted quietly, "you aren't still on call, are you."

"Just got off. I'm too tired to go home, though," a rough voice responded, and Souji glanced over to the man at the counter before looking back up at the menu. The man looked a lot like himself, Souji thought absently. That was a rare enough event to warrant notice, as Souji's coloring was not particularly common, but the thought quickly slipped from his mind.

Souji blinked. It was as though all of his other thoughts had decided to follow that one out, leaving his mind ringing in the silence. The voice, for the first time since his arrival in Iwatodai, was perfectly still. It was waiting for something, Souji realized, and his heart beat a little faster.

"Are you ready, sir," the barista asked.

Souji shook himself and responded, "Yeah. Yes, I'll have a cappuccino. For here, please."

He paid and then moved to stand beside the man as they waited for their drinks. The voice stayed quiet, and Souji realized that it was times like these that scared him the most. When the voice hummed and chattered, it was easy to treat it as something other than himself, something apart, but, when the voice clammed up, it became unclear whether the impulses Souji followed were his own or not. Mind buzzing in the silence, Souji found that he could not have not spoken to the man if he had wanted to.

Souji coughed softly. He hated being the first one to talk.

"I've never been to this place before," he said. "Is their espresso decent?"

The man looked surprised at being addressed, but responded, "No idea. I'm not a coffee guy. The stuff's really pretty terrible for you, you know."

Souji smiled, knowingly.

"Tea person." Souji said, as though that cleared everything up.

"Not really, I just needed something to do after work. You've really never been here before? It's kind of famous, in it's way."

"No, I haven't. I'm not from around."

"Oh. Well, there's this story about how the coffee here makes you more sociable, but it's just stupid. Coffee doesn't make you cooler; it just makes you crazy. I had a," the man trailed off, seeming to realize what he was saying. He swallowed and continued, "I, uh, had a friend once who really bought into it though. He'd come here all of the time and then come back to our dorms completely amped. Wow, I'm sorry," he said, a slight flush rising on his cheeks, "I…this is weird. I don't talk about him. Sorry, I just…"

He looked up as the barista handed him a mug of hot tea and shot her a grateful look. She smiled back then turned to Souji.

"Yours will be right up."

Souji nodded, turning back to the man.

"It's fine. It isn't a problem," Souji said, placating.

The man nodded and looked down at his tea. He smoothed a hand around the white, ceramic surface, looking around the empty café before turning back to his tea, jaw working. Souji was about to turn away and give the man his privacy when the man coughed, straightened and ran his free hand through his grey-white hair.

"Wait, I'm sorry."

Souji smiled, "Yeah, you said that."

"No, I mean," the man scoffed, searching for words. "I just freaked out on you, and you don't know why. That's awkward, and I'm trying…" he huffed in frustration. "Look, this place is empty, and I don't see any point in us sitting on opposite sides of the room just because. So, when you get your drink, you can sit with me," he paused, "If you want."

Souji forced himself not to grin at the man's expense and nodded, assuring him that he'd be over in a minute. The man looked flustered, but Souji was an expert at judging when people needed to talk. This man needed company in the worst sort of way. Besides, the voice had been so wonderfully quiet since the two started talking, and though that scared him a bit, it was also a welcome reprieve.

The girl behind the counter approached with his cappuccino sitting on a small tray.

"Here you are, son," she said, warmly then made a gesture beckoning Souji to lean in closer, "and thank you for talking with Sanada."

Souji quirked an inquisitive eyebrow.

"Sanada," she clarified, gesturing over at the man who was now situated in a booth near one of the café's large windows. "I worry about him sometimes. Ever since he moved back, he's been so somber. It isn't like him."

"Moved back?"

"He went off to university or some such thing, but I guess it didn't stick. I don't know whether he's just taking a year off or if he's quit for good, but I worry. He's such a smart man."

Souji accepted his drink, thanked the lady, and made his way over to the booth where Sanada sat. The man looked up, slightly astonished that Souji had actually taken him up on his offer, and let a strained half-smile spread across his face.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey," Souji responded. He set down the saucer holding his coffee cup and sidled into the booth opposite Sanada. Souji took his time getting comfortable, settling into his seat and pulling his cappuccino to sit in front of him. He looked up at the man. Sanada looked back.

"Well this is awkward," Sanada said.

"Then talk."

Sanada's lips twitched. "About what?"

"The lady behind the counter says that you're on a year off from school."

A sigh. "Haruhi needs to stop telling strangers my life story."

"I really hope it wasn't your life story she told me. It'd be pretty boring if it was."

Sanada shook his head. "Yeah, I suppose it would. Uh, yeah, I did take a year off. A lot of shit went down my senior year of high school, and I tried to do the university thing afterwards, but it didn't work for me anymore. As of now, I work in the police department."

Souji hummed in understanding, but mentally he ticked down the information. Souji waited for Sanada to continue, but it appeared as though he had said all that he was going to say. Souji had discovered through trial and error that all it took to make most people talk was a willing listener. If he actually paid attention to what people said and responded at the proper points, most people would be more than willing to fill the empty air. The man appeared to be an exception to that norm, so Souji took a new approach. Sensing that there was something Sanada wanted to say, he pressed.

"What are you waiting for?"

"I'm waiting for you to ask."

"Ask what?"

A sneer. "About him. About me. Earlier. Are you going to ask?"

"No."

"No?"

Souji smiled, softly. "Apparently, you don't talk about him. I figured it wasn't worth asking questions that would go unanswered."

Sanada laughed, and though it was low and breathy, the little half-smile it brought to his face was the first true expression of amusement Souji had seen from the man all night. He mentally patted himself on the back.

"Well then, fair enough," Sanada responded, still smiling. "Thank you."

Souji shrugged his shoulders.

"So, uh, I've told you why I'm at a café at one in the morning. You know, getting off work, but why are you here?"

Sanada being a police officer forced Souji to censor his answer a little, "Some of my friends were at Club Escapade, and I had to make sure they left before it was tomorrow. I missed by a bit."

"Yeah," the man said, quickly appraising Souji, "you probably have school tomorrow, don't you. Shouldn't you be headed back?"

Souji tucked his hands around his cappuccino, taking a deep sip and wiping his mouth before answering. "I work night jobs back home, so my sleep schedule is shot anyway. I'll be fine."

They sat in silence for a bit, but it seemed that now Sanada wasn't expecting to be interrogated any moment about some strange facet of his past, he was more than content to drink his tea quietly. No tension built, and Souji smiled. It had taken months for his friends to get used to Souji's quiet nature, but Sanada seemed to assume silence as the norm, like it was something he was used to. Almost like

'sitting on couches and monkey bars and late night runs because he likes late night runs and miki miki she reminds him of miki and rabbits remind him of miki and he's crying on his knees in blood again'

and Souji griped his head in his hands, groaning.

"Hey, you ok," Sanada asked, eyes wide and searching.

"I'm fine," Souji ground out, dropping one hand back to the table but continuing to rub circles in his temple with the other. "Just a headache. I came in here with hopes that coffee would clear it up, but apparently that was not the case."

"You should get some fresh air. Come on." The man was out of the booth in one smooth motion, but Souji barely had time to be impressed. Sanada grabbed him by the elbow and dragged him none too gently up away from the table and out the café's front door. He let go, leaving Souji to walk quickly besides him as they headed for mall's entrance. They pushed through and oh god, being out of the mall felt so much better. Why hadn't he thought of this before?

Souji's relief must have shown on his face, because Sanada grinned, looking somewhat proud of himself. Souji smiled back.

"That mall can get stuffy as hell during summer nights, and besides, fresh air is always the best treatment for a headache," he grinned wider, "I love nights like this."

"You're probably right. Some air should do me some good," Souji said, thinking on his feet. "You probably know this, but there's a shrine across the bridge. It's a ways, but I think I'm going to take a walk over there."

Sanada appeared to deflate a little, but he nodded.

"It's a great shrine. Be careful on your way over, though. This area can get nasty at night."

'There are just two options here,' Souji thought. 'Leave the man be, or ask him to come with me.' Voices rose in his head, but they weren't the strange not-voice that had been plaguing him as of late. They were familiar and wonderful, the warm whispers of his Personas as they found a match. Souji frowned. The Personas that were reacting the strongest were the same ones that drew power from his friendship with Teddie, the same ones that beamed and sang whenever the two boys got closer. 'So Sanada is a Star. Interesting, but I already have a Star. I don't need duplicates…'

Souji could have kicked himself. Damn it, there were times when he just…no. No no no, people were not things to be collected, and he knew that. Sometimes, though, it was just too easy to forget, but that was beside the point. It didn't matter if something about Sanada reminded him of Teddie. He was still a person.

So, go or stay? Souji looked up. Sanada had not moved.

"Do you still need something to do to keep from going home? Because I'd feel better if I wasn't walking alone, and, besides, night walks are best with other people, aren't they."

Sanada's face flipped between happy and almost pained before it eventually righted itself into a look of acceptance.

"Yes, they are."

Behind the ecstatic voices of his star Persona, Souji could have sworn he'd heard a new sound, like the creaking of feathers and the pound of six wings as they stretched for the first time in years.

Chapter Text

'something came up. I'll be late, so don't wait up'

Souji's thumbs sped across the small keypad on his phone as he quickly typed out a message to send to Yosuke.

"Anxious girlfriend waiting for you at home," Sanada asked.

Souji chuckled, "Nope. Worse. Neurotic best friend."

"Ah," Sanada smiled, hoisting himself up to sit on top of the jungle gym. "I hear you."

"What about you? Do you have somebody back at that home you're so anxious to stay away from?"

"Yeah. Mitsuru."

Souji blinked. "Girlfriend?"

A snicker, "More like my neurotic best friend."

"Touché," Souji laughed, leaning against one of the large poles that supported the slide and letting himself slip down until he was sitting in woodchips. "Hipster?"

"Valedictorian."

"Oh, ouch. I'm sorry, man," Souji said, but he didn't sound sorry at all.

Quiet settled over the pair, and Souji took the time to look out over the city. The shrine was situated on top of a hill, and looking out, he could see the whole metropolis spread out before him. Even at night, it was beautiful, and Souji realized that, while Iwatodai set his teeth on edge, he'd missed cities in general. He had missed the sounds and the space and the way the sky never got truly dark. Something about being there, at that shrine, felt like home, and Souji smiled softly to himself.

"What are you thinking about," Sanada asked.

"Honestly? Nothing. It's nice."

Sanada hummed quietly. Souji leaned back and looked up.

"Can I ask an odd question?"

Sanada shrugged, "Shoot."

"Most people don't like quiet. Not really, and especially not with strangers. It drives some of my friends crazy, actually. Why are you ok with it?"

"Why are you?"

Souji smiled, "Because I'm odd. Never mind, though. Forget I asked."

Sanada said nothing for a moment, and Souji figured that the man and taken his advice. In time, though, Sanada muttered, "I used to know this really quiet kid. He was outgoing and all, but boy would he make you run a conversation. It got to the point where I felt bad just talking to him because I'd end up blabbing on about myself or something equally embarrassing. I think he liked it that way, though."

"I thought that you didn't talk about him."

Sanada stilled. "Who says I'm talking about the same kid?"

"Nobody," said Souji, and the topic was dropped.

Quiet reigned for a long time after that. Sanada eventually clambered down off of the jungle gym and made his way over to one of the park benches, collapsing along one and throwing an arm over his eyes. He lay there for a moment.

"I was, though," he said, eyes still covered.

"I know."

"Have you ever," Sanada said, jerkily, and then trailed off with a frustrated sigh.

"Lost someone," Souji ventured.

Sanada dropped his arm so that it fell off of the bench, fingers dangling just above the ground. His face was blank, but his head jerked in affirmation.

Souji looked down. He hadn't, actually. His grandfather had passed when he was little, but he had been young, then, and had not been hit with the full force of loss. So no, he hadn't, but

'blood blood oh god blood there's always blood no matter how it plays out except when they just walk away and that might be worse because then all you have is a back and maybe a closing door and a sad farewell or the weight of a journal left in your hands but blood might be worse because the stains never fade and in the end everyone's broken'

plays through his head, and Souji thinks that he can understand what true loss must feel like.

Regardless, the answer he gives is, "No," because what good would it do him to say any of that out loud.

Sanada's breath leaves him all at once in a gusty sigh. "Thank goodness for that."

Souji was about to say something in response to that when he heard the sounds of a scuffle breaking out somewhere close by. The night was too quiet to tell just how far away the origin of the noise was, but the sounds mounted and Souji heard a sharp cry of pain.

Sanada was already on his feet, and he was beside Souji a moment later. The man was at full attention, eyes sharp and darting, every muscle quivering as he tried to pinpoint the location of the fray. Souji's body language mimicked the older man's, and when a resounding crack went off that Souji recognized as gunfire, the two were moving in unison. They jogged down the shrine's steps and to the left. There were no more scuffling noises, but as they drew closer to a dark alleyway, Souji could hear muted, wet gasps and shallow grunts of pain.

Sanada held out a hand to stop Souji, eyes darting to his holster to remind the boy that Sanada was, in fact, a police officer. Souji leveled a look back at the man then ducked under his arm to turn into the alley.

Souji was no stranger to blood. After having fought in the TV world for months, he had become almost completely desensitized to it. A bleeding form quivered against the far wall, and Souji hurried over, stopping just short of the hunched man to make sure there was no danger. Once he was sure that there were no possible weapons in the vicinity, Souji knelt down.

The man was posh, clean cut and dressed very carefully, so Souji guessed that he must have been the victim of a mugging. The man clutched at his side, head tossed back and shuttered with pain. Souji could hear Sanada moving in behind him, but began to address the situation regardless.

"Sir, can you hear me?"

The man's head jerked, but he made no other move.

"Ok, listen. I need you to keep your eyes shut. I'm going to do what I can to take care of you, alright?"

Without waiting for confirmation, Souji reached down into his own pockets. He had realized early on that it was difficult to always be prepared. He never knew when his teammates might get seriously injured during their fights, but he made sure that he always had a least one powerful healing item on him. His fingers closed around a chain of beads, and he grimaced. Talk about an expensive save. Pulling the chain out of his pocket, Souji grabbed one of the beads on the end, twisting until it ripped loose from the others. With the string torn, the beads fell off of the chain and into his hand. He pocketed all but the one and then turned back to the wounded man.

Using healing items was so much harder outside of the other world. There, the power that activated the prayer beads was right below the surface and easily accessible, but on the outside, it took an effort to drag it out. He cursed softly in frustration. Though the bead began to glow, it was not nearly enough.

"How are you doing that?"

Souji tried to ignore Sanada and focus solely on making the damned bead activate.

"Here, I can do it," Sanada said, and pushed Souji aside. Souji almost snarled in protest as the light he'd been calling in the bead died out, but when he turned to snap at Sanada, his anger cooled.

The man looked equal parts determined and terrified. He glanced over at Souji, fear turning to anger on his face. The glare was spectacular.

"Don't look, OK. Turn around and, I don't know, close your eyes or something. Just, whatever you hear, do not look."

Souji stepped back, but did not turn. He watched as Sanada reached into his holster and pulled out an intricate thing unlike any gun he had ever seen.

Souji was not sure what he had expected to see the man do with the beautiful gun, but watching Sanada whip the gun back until he was looking down the barrel and then pull the trigger was definitely not it.

There was a crack and a boom, the sound of shattered glass ringing in the air, and

'Caesar Caesar Caesar Caesar Caesar Caesar Caesar Caesar'

a persona loomed in the cool blue light that now cloaked Sanada.

"Diarahan," Sanada whispered, and with a burst of warm light, the wounded man was whole.

Sanada's persona faded from existence, and he strode forwards, checking the man's vitals.

"He's OK, but he must have passed out at some point. We should call an ambulance or something just in case," Sanda said, pointedly not looking Souji's direction.

Souji pulled out his phone and quickly contacted the police. Once he had told them that they could find the injured man at the shrine, he turned back to find Sanada hoisting the man's arm around his shoulders and moving out of the alleyway. Souji moved aside to let him pass, then filed in behind.

They made their way to the shrine in silence. As the steps loomed closer, Souji decided it was time to clear things up. He considered a few backhanded ways of getting Sanada to spill, but in the end, he concluded that the most direct approach was probably the best.

"What's his name? Your persona."

Sanada stopped walking and looked over at Souji. "What did you say?"

"Your persona. I asked what his name was."

Sanada moved to the wall lining the road, and lowered the unconscious man down to sit on the pavement. Straightening up, he turned to Souji.

"Well that clears up why you just so happened to have a damn bead chain in you pocket."

Souji shrugged, "It never hurts to be prepared. Pity it didn't work, though. I always forget how much harder those things are to use in the real world."

Sanada frowned, "Real world?"

"Yeah," Souji replied, his frown mimicking the other man's. They stood there, staring at each other for a moment.

"What the hell," said Sanada, tightly.

"No idea," Souji responded with a confused shrug. Looking down at himself, he added, "And as much as I'd like to stay here to clear things up and make sure that the man is ok, I for one am covered in blood, and I don't want to have to explain why to any other cops. You are more than enough."

"Hell, no. Don't think you are getting off the hook just like that. You're going to tell me why the hell you know this stuff," Sanada said, growling before he seemed to actually look at Souji. "Though, damn, you're right. You're a mess."

"I'm glad you think so."

Sanada ran a hand through his hair, looking around aimlessly. "Ok. Ok, then we're going to meet at that café again tomorrow, and you are going to tell me what the hell it is that you know and why you know it."

"Hey, don't snap at me. I'm not the one that called a huge monster in the middle of an alley. Maybe you should explain things to me."

"You can, though, can't you? You have a persona."

Souji remained steadfastly silent.

"Don't you freeze up on me," Sanada said. "I showed you mine. You don't get to play coy on me."

Against his better judgment, Souji let an amused smile spread across his face. Sanada colored.

"Oh shut up."

"I can't."

Sanada glared, "You were being quiet enough earlier."

"No, I mean I can't explain everything tomorrow. I told you I'm not from around. I go back home tomorrow."

Sanada suddenly looked small. "Hell no," he said quietly.

"I'm not trying to avoid this conversation, but not now," Souji said, pulling out his cellphone. "What's your number?"

Sanada shook himself. "I…fine," he said, sounding confident once again, and he listed off the digits.

Realizing that, though he knew the man as Sanada, the two had never properly been introduced, Souji asked, "What should I put you down as? Supercop?"

Sanada smiled that half smile. He stretched out his hand.

"It's Akihiko. Akihiko Sanada."

"Souji Seta. It's been interesting, Sanada."

The sound of far off sirens made them turn.

"I guess it's time to split," Akihiko said. "You don't think that guy will remember anything, do you?"

Souji shook his head, "No, probably not. I mean, he'll be confused as to why there isn't a bullet wound in his stomach, but he shouldn't cause you any problems."

Sanada nodded distractedly then turned to walk away.

"When we talk next, you are going to explain to me why the sight of a shot man barely fazed you. Don't think you're getting out of this," he called back.

"I wouldn't dream of it," Souji said, loudly, then turned to walk back towards the hotel.

It took much longer to get back than Souji had expected, and by the time he made it to his hotel room, he was exhausted, and the blood staining his pants was dry and flaking. He unlocked the door to his room and opened it as quietly as he could. He peered into the room, but Yosuke appeared to be asleep. Sighing with relief, Souji opened the door fully and stalked forwards, making a straight path to his bed. The waterbed sloshed beneath him when he fell upon it, but it felt like heaven to his sore body. He opened his eyes and saw the face of the room's clock. It informed him that it was 4:37 in the morning.

Damn it, he thought, sullenly. He couldn't go to bed like this. He would have to explain to Yosuke when he woke up why his best friend had come home at almost five in the morning covered in blood, and it just wasn't worth it. Souji rolled back off of the waterbed, grabbed a clean set of clothes and made his way to the bathroom to clean up.

Darting one last look towards Yosuke, Souji let a weary smile creep onto his face. He was glad Yosuke had slept through all of this. He didn't want Yosuke drawing any strange conclusions about his disappearance that night.

As Souji turned on the shower and stepped back to wait for the water to warm, he realized that Akihiko had never told him his persona's name. It didn't matter, though. 'Caesar,' Souji thought. Somehow, it fit.

Chapter Text

Some time later-

"Are you done changing? I need to see how you look right now, and we can build off of there." Yukiko said, a blush softening her businesslike demeanor. "I'm sorry. I didn't exactly have your measurements when I went shopping for your outfit."

The curtain Souji was changing behind blocked his shrug from Yukiko's view, but that didn't stop him from rolling his shoulders and clenching his fingers. He'd been attempting to keep his mind blank for the past hour, but the more he suppressed his own thoughts and misgivings about his current situation, the louder the not-voice got. It seemed to find the whole situation as amusing as the girls did, and kept muttering

'if it's going to happen it might as well be done correctly and with those lines and those hips the others can't pull it off but I can we can I used to be able to and wouldn't he look better wouldn't I look better in something shorter that showed some leg'

and Souji would look down despairingly at his own legs and wonder what the hell his mind thought it was talking about. He stepped carefully into the long, black skirt he had been provided with, pulling it up high above the waistband of his boxers and instinctively fastening the button on his left side. He smoothed his hands over his hips and shuffled his boxers down a bit so that they didn't mess with the lines of the skirt. He looked down at himself, turning from side to side before he called to Yukiko, "I think I might need…tights, or high socks maybe."

"Can I see what you look like, first," Yukiko said, softly, and he could hear the smile in her voice.

Souji sighed, folded the uniform's outer jacket so that he could try it on later, and pushed the curtain aside. He expected his muscles to lock in embarrassment, but the wave of shame never came. Instead he threw his shoulders back and stalked forward with ease. 'If it's going to happen, I might as well do this thing correctly,' he thought. The not-voice approved and muttered hints on how to sway his hips without looking ridiculous. He mentally rolled his eyes at it.

"Souji," Yukiko breathed, pulling out a chair for him to sit in. Souji did not take it. Instead, he stopped in the middle of the classroom floor, turning in a full circle so that Yukiko could admire her work.

"It fits," he said, pulling on the cuffs of his white collared shirt. "More or less. My shoulders are a bit big, but I don't think anyone will be nit picking on the fit."

"Souji," Yukiko repeated, her soft smile spreading until it overtook her face, "You look…" she snorted.

"That bad?"

"No, no no no," she smiled, a trill of laughter ringing through her voice, "No, not at all. I mean, makeup and your wig will help a lot, and you are probably right about the stockings. You have man legs."

"It's a curse."

"But," she continued, still smiling, "I have to say, I thought you would look just terrible, and then you came sauntering out of that changing room like you owned the place," she broke off, giggling.

Souji smiled in spite of himself. If he could make Yukiko laugh, then this was ok. At least, it was ok until he was out onstage in front of the entire school. He grimaced, moving forward to take the seat Yukiko had pulled out for him. He leaned back, crossing his legs, and tried to ignore how being in this outfit made them naturally want to cross like a woman's would. He looked over at Yukiko.

"So we have two hours until we need to be ready. Do you know how we can get a pair of stockings?"

Yukiko nodded, her laughter finally ebbing to a pleased glow, and she moved to the classroom's door. She cracked it, slipping her head out to peer down the hallway.

"Ah, Rio," she called to a girl in the hall, "I was wondering…" but the rest was lost to Souji under

'tennis and tournaments with a girl that was strong like a chariot relentless like a chariot and she needed a friend and I was her friend but the inn girl doesn't remember and the chariot wouldn't remember and nobody ever remembers because it didn't happen and that link was never built and the chain falls to pieces'

and he had thought this was getting better, damn it. Souji pulled his head out of his hands, looking down at them in confusion. When had he buckled? The pounding in his head kept on and on, and he fumbled at his waist looking for his phone until he remembered that he was currently wearing a skirt and that his phone still in his pants' pocket.

"Rio is running to find a pair of tights for you. She should be back pretty soon. So many people are working with costumes this week," she said, and then seemed to actually look at him. "Is everything all right?"

Souji swallowed and nodded. "Yeah, everything's fine. Could you fetch my pants for me?"

Yukiko looked scandalized.

"No, uh, my phone. My phone is in my pants' pocket," Souji said, too distracted to be embarrassed. He needed his phone. There were very few things that would make the not-voice stay truly quiet for any period of time, and he had learned to take full advantage of them when he could.

The first, blessedly, was when he and his team fought in the TV world. The moment he jumped through the widescreen in Junes, the voice would move to the back allowing his other personas to fill the space in the forefront of his mind. He could think when he was over there, and he found himself looking forward to their afternoons on the other side more and more.

Music also had the power to placate the voice, and the moment he realized it, he had begun to badger Yosuke for more music lessons. Placate really was the word for it, he thought, because while being in the other world actually pushed the voice away, music simply made it happy. When it was happy, he was happy, and Souji soon found himself with a nice MP3 player, a respectable pair of headphones and more archived music than he knew what to do with.

Everyday things like cooking and doing little tasks calmed it down, also, but one thing helped more than any other. Souji was not sure what to think about the fact that talking to Sanada provided the greatest relief of them all.

Souji had kept his promise to Akihiko and had called him the night he returned to Inaba. Souji had curled up on his small couch, turning the phone over in his hands before finally biting the bullet and going to his contacts to call 'Supercop'. The phone had rung twice, and, when Sanada answered, their conversation went like this:

"Yeah, this is Sanada."

"I think that it's time that we both got answers."

"Seta?"

"Yes."

"Oh. Hey. I thought that you weren't going to be free tonight."

Souji readjusted his phone, "Not in person. I'm not in Iwatodai. Have you ever heard of a small town called Inaba?"

"Uh, yeah, actually. My high school competed in a sports competition there during my senior year. I didn't personally go, but everyone was talking about it. They said that the place was miniscule."

"That isn't doing it justice. Anyway, that's where I am now."

"Ok."

Souji frowned, "Look, if you can't talk or you don't want to, that's fine. I mean, I'm not going to pretend I'm not curious as hell about last night, but I have enough on my plate right now as it is."

"No, damn it, I'm sorry. I just didn't expect you to call. I didn't get your number, you just got mine, and I kind of figured that you would just disappear someplace. I wasn't…hell, I wasn't entirely sure last night actually happened."

"I know the feeling," Souji smiled.

A chuckle buzzed across the line, "Yeah. So, uh," Sanada said, his tone trailing off.

"Personas?"

"Personas. What do you know about them? I know I accused you of having one last night, but do you actually? You know, there are some people out there who know about them but don't personally have one."

Souji frowned, "I guess if somebody met their shadow but didn't accept it, they wouldn't have a persona. That seems a bit odd, though."

"What do you mean, 'met their shadow'? Shadows don't actually belong to people. They are just general reflections of human kind."

"Well, yeah, the small ones, but…wait, are you telling me that you've never met a humanoid shadow?"

Sanada was quiet for a long moment.

"Just one," he said, quietly.

"Did he look like you?"

Sanada snorted, "No. Although, now that you mention it, he did kind of," he trailed off before starting again, "That's weird. Now that I think about it, he looked a hell of a lot like a friend of mine. Same build, same face. Their eyes were different, though."

"Were the shadow's yellow?"

"Nah, they were blue. Like, scary blue. So bright it was almost creepy."

Souji froze. Blue eyes. Piercing blue eyes looking joyfully up at him through blond hair, and no, he was not going to think like that. Not about Teddie. Not about his star.

White wings flapped in the back of his mind and Akihiko was talking again.

"But that was the only human shadow I've ever seen, and his circumstances were kind of odd."

"You speak of him as though you actually knew him. Like a friend."

Sanada sighed. "I did. We weren't close, but I knew him."

"He didn't try to kill you?"

Sanada laughed, but it was only ten percent humor and ninety percent pain. "He did."

"Oh."

"Yeah. Look, I've got to go," Sanada said, hurriedly, in a way that made Souji doubt Sanada actually had anywhere to be. "I'll talk to you later," he said.

"Alright," said Souji.

"No, I mean, really," Sanada said with a soft growl. "Sorry. Can I call you tomorrow or something?"

"Sure," Souji said, and Sanada was gone.

It wasn't until the line had been dead for a couple minutes that Souji realized that the not-voice had been quiet for their whole conversation. Something about talking with Akihiko satisfied the other enough to keep it quiet even long after their conversations had ended.

So, Souji had begun to keep up a regular correspondence with the white haired cop. Through trial and error, Souji learned that, while talking about the people and events that had surrounded Akihiko's experience with shadows and persona was off limits, Sanada was always up for a discussion about fighting shadows. It had simply amused Souji at first, but he soon realized that Akhiko knew more about fighting than Souji had ever hoped to know. He had begun to mine that knowledge and apply it wherever he could.

Sanada still did not know about Souji's ability to wield multiple personas, and Souji planned to keep it that way for the time being. Any time he got close to revealing his power, the not-voice would wake back up and caution him away, and Souji just was not in the mood to fight with it.

"Um, Souji? Here," Yukiko said, snapping him out of his reverie. He looked up to find Yukiko standing right next to him, holding his phone practically under his nose.

"Thanks," he murmered.

"It's not a problem. You have a text, by the way. Is Supercop your uncle or Adachi?"

"What? Oh, neither," he said, then smiled, "Why exactly would I be getting texts from Adachi?"

She smiled, "I don't know. I'm sure that he'd be capable of riveting conversation if he were given the chance."

"Have you ever had an actual conversation with Adachi?"

Yukiko giggled, "No, I've never had the privilege."

"It is an experience," Souji grinned, leaning back in his chair. "I've learned so much about cabbages and magic from him, I can barely hold it in."

"Don't you think that you're being a little hard on him?"

Souji's grin softened, "I know. He's an easy mark, and that's not fair. I just feel like I can make fun of him a bit because he's practically part of the family. He's around almost as often as Dojima is."

Yukiko smiled, "I wonder if he realizes."

"Probably not. He can be a dunce when he wants to. He and my uncle share that trait."

They sat comfortably in the quiet that followed. Souji looked down at his phone, noting the brief text from Akihiko: 'Are you in a skirt yet or should I wait an hour more to mock you?'

Souji rolled his eyes, lips quirking in spite of himself. He responded, 'mock away. I can take it,' then flipped his phone shut. The not-voice seemed satisfied and quieted.

"Amagi? I have your stockings," a girl called from the hall.

"Ah, thank you, Rio," Yukiko said, fetching the garment from the girl. She turned back towards Souji, "So, how do you want to do this? You can't," she blushed, "you, uh, they aren't going to fit over your boxers."

He leveled a flat look back at her.

"They will if I want them to. Toss 'em."

Yukiko handed him the stockings, still looking embarrassed, and moved so that Souji could stalk behind the curtain.

"Do you know how to put them on," she asked after a moment, a hot blush coloring her words.

"You just scrunch the material down near the sock part and put them on one leg at a time, right?"

A pause. "Yes, that's right," she said.

He shrugged and finished pulling the stockings on. He tucked the elastic part at the top around he waistband of his boxer shorts and shuffled, trying to prevent the wedgie he knew was fast approaching.

He looked absolutely ridiculous. The whole situation was ridiculous, but at least the skirt hid most of his sins and his legs no longer showed. Once he had decided that what he saw was the best that he was going to get, he move back out from behind the curtain.

Yukiko was looking at him strangely.

"Souji, do you have a sister?"

He blinked. "No. Not unless you count Nanako."

"Oh," she said softly.

"Why?"

"Oh, um, well it's just that you look good, and you knew how to put all of those pieces on and I was just wondering how you knew, I guess."

Souji frowned, "It seemed pretty obvious to me."

The smile that wormed its way onto Yukiko's face was incredulous. "Tell that to every little girl who tried to dress herself and ended up with her skirt pleats all over the place."

"I'm not a five year old girl, Yukiko. Despite current appearances."

Her smile shifted until she simply looked embarrassed, "No, of course you're not. That's our leader, excelling at everything. Even this," she gestured around. She looked at Souji fully. "I'm really sorry, you know. Chie, Rise and I just got so excited over the idea, and I think we went overboard. You are being such a good sport, and it makes me feel a little guilty."

Souji shrugged. He privately agreed, but he wasn't angry, especially not with Yukiko. He could tell that she was trying, and he knew that he had lucked out when Yukiko said that she was the one who would be working on him. Rise, he knew, would go for something showy and shocking, while Chie would take full advantage of the situation and make her costume choice as embarrassing as possible. Yukiko, on the other hand, seemed to take the job seriously and had picked a rather practical outfit when it all came down to it. He still felt utterly foolish, but it was better than the alternatives.

"It doesn't really matter now. Let's just get this over with, alright?"

She nodded. "Go ahead and get your outer jacket on so that we can start working on your wig."

He gestured vaguely in response and moved to put on his jacket. By the time he had finished shrugging the garment on and adjusting the yellow bow so that it sat flat against his chest, Yukiko was back with two bags in hand. She set them both down on the table then asked him to stand so that she could pull his chair away farther out to make room. Souji watched her pull a flattened, grey wig out of one of the bags. It was still wrapped in netting, but he had to commend her on the color choice. It matched his own hair almost exactly. She fussed about for a couple of moments, sorting through pins, powders and small pencil shaped things.

"May I ask you something?" He said, softly.

Yukiko made a distracted noise, but darted her eyes quickly his way to prompt him to continue.

"I was thinking about the group date from yesterday."

That got her attention. Her hands tightened around the brush she had just picked up, and the blush reemerged on her cheeks.

"Oh, gosh, that was so embarrassing. I was so uncomfortable, and I was sitting with friends. I can't imagine what it must have been like for any body else that visited."

Souji smiled in agreement, but pressed on, "It was a bit painful, but I actually wanted to ask about something you said."

"You can't hold me responsible for anything I said during that. I was so embarrassed; I just said the first thing that came to mind. I mean," she said, wringing her fingers around the brushes handle, "I even mentioned fighting shadows to a complete stranger."

"That's actually what I wanted to ask about."

"Oh. That was probably a really bad move, wasn't it? We never know who might take the crazy stuff we say seriously, do we?"

Souji shuffled. What Yukiko said was true, but he was far from innocent on that front, so he refrained from commenting.

"Is that why you asked about it," she said. "You wanted to make sure I didn't say something like that again?"

"No," he said, honestly. "I was just wondering whether you meant it. Is fighting shadows your main hobby?"

"I really just said the first thing that came to mind."

"I know. That's my point. It's just…is that it?"

"Are you saying I'm boring, Souji?"

Souji grinned. She was playing with him. "No, I'm not. You know what I mean."

She set the brush down by her side. Looking back at him, she said, "In a way, I suppose it is. I keep up with schoolwork and, you know, I've been learning how to cook and such things, but I feel like the best work I do is on the other side. We accomplish things, and I'm good at what I do. I may not be strong like you or Chie, but I have my job and I've been getting so much better. It's neat, you know. Magic," she said, eyes warm.

He did know. Souji leaned back in his chair, looking up at the paneled ceiling before saying, "But what happens when we're done. When we win."

Yukiko remained silent. Souji's mind fled back to his memories of Iwatodai and how reverent Sanada's voice had sounded when he called Caesar. He had whispered 'diarahan' like a confession or a prayer, and having his persona respond in turn had brought a light to Akihiko's face like nothing else Souji had seen. Souji wondered, then, what it must be like to have personas always in your mind but to have no need to call them. It was a painful thing to contemplate.

"I guess that we will just go back to normal," Yukiko said at last. "Or, most of us will. You'll be leaving, won't you?"

"Probably. Eventually. I try not to think about it."

Yukiko launched back into motion, picking pins and a small thing of hair gel out of the mess.

"Well, we have time. Let's think about the end when we know we're close to it."

Souji breathed out a sigh, and heard his phone buzz on the desk. He reached out and flipped it open. Akihiko's response read, 'joking aside, enjoy today. Not the dress but you know, other stuff. Talk tonight?"

Souji smiled, and typed out an affirmative reply. The not-voice whispered softly

'he's right and she's right take this time and hold it and maybe later you can ask him how he used diarahan'

and Souji's had to wonder at how coherent the not-voice was getting.

"Souji?"

He shook himself and looked back at Yukiko, pushing thoughts of the other voice as far away as possible. He had more pressing matters, mainly the amused glint in Yukiko's eyes and her hand full of hairpins.

"You are going to look so pretty when we're done!"

Souji rolled his eyes, but a resigned little chuckle managed to escape.

Chapter Text

Nanako's face glowed with excitement as Souji finished laying out the kotatsu. It was the first truly cold evening of the season, and she was thrilled at the prospect of sitting under its warmed blankets. She beamed, wriggling under the futon's folds, and Souji couldn't help but marvel at how much better she looked. Nanako was usually so healthy, and he hadn't seen her sick once during the duration of his stay. Seeing her limp and weak, flushed bright and incoherent from fever had chilled him to the bone, and he couldn't stop himself from checking and rechecking her face to make sure that the glassy glaze over her eyes truly was gone. Nanako sick and weak was just not something he wanted to contemplate.

Nanako unhappy was also not something he liked to deal with, but he found himself faced with it far too often. He looked up to find the glow of jubilation gone from her face.

"It doesn't work. It must be broken," she said, lowly as though she couldn't be surprised by it. Nanako flipped the useless kotatsu switch for him in demonstration.

Souji found himself promising to take her shopping for a new kotatsu before he even had time to think about it. It was not a choice between whether to get a new one of not to. The only choice he could see was between a fancy kotatsu and a cheap one, and she seemed fine with either choice.

Souji had no illusions. He knew that he would get Nanako anything if it kept her warm and bright. He looked back on how Nanako had acted when he had first arrived, and it scared him. Souji did not want to think about how Nanako would be after he left. Maybe, if he and his team solved the murders, Dojima would have enough time to be home and see what an amazing little girl his daughter was, but part of Souji told him that Dojima will always be busy. It was a part of who the man was. Souji just hoped that Nanako would be fine without him.

Though it was broken, the two remained sitting under the kotatsu for some time after that, Souji mentally counting down until midnight. Rain pounded down on the roof, and the tinny sound reverberated through the little house, making the night feel even darker.

At ten-thirty, Souji put Nanako to bed, laying out her clothes for the next day and saying goodnight before he ascended the stairs to his own bedroom.

While the rain had sounded loud in the living room, it was nothing to the deafening ting-ting-ting in his room. He collapsed on his couch and tried to ignore it for a time. Reading helped, but when he looked up, it was only 11:35, and he groaned and put his book away. Flipping out his phone, Souji checked his messages.

Nov 4, 2011 6:32 PM – Yosuke

'u think the mid chan will be on 2nite? nobody's been on the tv lately, so idk. i'll call if nethings up.'

Nov 4, 2011 6:35 PM – Yosuke

'also dude i got put on late shift, can u believe that? Second day in a row…'

Nov 4, 2011 9:27 PM – Supercop

'Is your sister better? I haven't heard from you since she got sick. Oh, and while I was boxing up those old Somas that I told you about to send your way, I found some of my friend's old CDs. He doesn't…need them any more, so they're in the box. Should be there within the week.'

Souji replied to Yosuke's messages with an appropriately horrified response, then turned to Akihiko's and shook his head. He just could not fathom having an excess of Somas, but he was thankful as hell that Akihiko had consented to sending them for his team's use. They were running dangerously low on all of their soul-based items, and it was making long treks into the TV world nearly impossible.

Souji contemplated texting Akihiko back, but finally shrugged and pressed dial instead. After a few rings, Akihiko picked up.

"Hey there," Sanada said.

"Hi. I just wanted to let you know that Nanako is all better."

A relieved sigh, "I'm glad. I know what it's like, having a sick sibling on your hands."

"Yeah, it's scary. I've never had to deal with it before. And, uh, thanks. For the Somas. You have no idea how much those are going to help."

"They are nice to have around," Akihiko said. "So, are you going to tell me why you need healing equipment? You've told me the name of all of your friend's personas, about the shadows you've faced, about the guy who sells you weaponry, about how ill-equipped your police force is and everything else under the moon, but I still don't know what the hell it is that you're fighting against. I'm not even sure how there can still be shadows."

"Because you stopped them two years ago?"

"Yes! Yes, damn it, we did. We had to have," he said, a small whine laced into his words.

"Akihiko," Souji said, tone soft. "What happened? What happened to you?"

Akihiko's breath shuddered.

"I'm not going to defend myself and claim that I'm not prying," Souji said. "I know I am, but I just can't tell you what's going on without hearing what happened to you first. I've told you, the police are involved with this, and as much as I'd like the help of an additional persona user, I don't know whether that's safe or not. For you or for us. Knowing that there have been other shadow-related incidents changes the way that I look at everything that's happening here. I don't think that just one person could be behind it, especially if whatever happened to you wasn't caused by humans."

"It was," Akihiko said, flatly.

Souji paused. "Oh."

"I mean, not really, but it kind of was. It's just, shit, I'm not used to talking about it."

"We've been talking about it for over a month."

"But it's not the same! Souji, look. Nobody's…you're group's still whole, right? You said that you've never lost somebody."

"That's right," Souji said. "We haven't lost anybody along the way. We've had a few near misses, but nothing serious."

"Good. God, I'm glad for you, but it's different when lives are on the line. I'll be the first to admit that fighting shadows is fun. It's a kick like nothing else I've ever experienced. It's just…it seems like our situations are different. I fought these things for years, and still, when it came down to it, I didn't know what I was fighting for or whether what we were doing was right or not. That's why I want to know what's going on over there. Yeah, I'd love to swing by and kick some shadow ass, but first and foremost, I want to make sure that you all aren't making broad assumptions. Don't just take the story offered to you at face value. I don't want you all to have to make the same choices that we did."

"I wouldn't let that happen. I made a promise."

A snort. "Promises are powerful things, but they can only take you so far."

Souji clenched his fingers. Akihiko didn't understand what it was like to make a promise like he had to Teddie. It was binding, like a contract. A promise like that could not be broken, not without consequences. "Haven't you ever-"

'don't'

and Souji stopped speaking. In that moment, the not-voice did not sound abstracted or small. It resonated with absolute clarity, and for a second, Souji could not decide whether it was one voice speaking or two, reverberating together with one mind.

When Souji spoke again, he said, "Never mind. What you should know about me is that I keep my promises when at all possible. I will get to the bottom of this."

"You sound like a bad detective."

"Sometimes I think that's exactly what I am."

"Well, fine. So be it. Also, if you're going to be a jerk and not tell me what's going on over there, I'm just going to have to piece it together for myself."

Souji chuckled softly, "Go for it."

Akihiko shuffled, "I checked out some of the local papers from your area. There have been a whole slew of murders with no apparent cause of deaths. There also seem to have been a whole mess of disappearances. Amagi, Tatsumi and even the idol Kujikawa all were missing for large swaths of time," he said, and Souji could hear the smirk in his voice. "Wasn't Amagi the girl who made you look all pretty for that pageant or something?"

"And you called me a jerk."

"Regardless, you think shadows are behind these deaths and disappearances? That's a little far fetched, don't you think?"

"Shadows aren't kidnapping people, but they were the direct cause of death for the two women that died."

"What about the man?"

Souji sighed, "Copy-cat killer. He didn't do a good job of it."

"I don't see where the shadows come in."

"They're," Souji huffed, gesturing uselessly at the TV in front of him though he knew Akihiko couldn't see him. He froze. The screen was glowing faintly. Souji's eyes darted to the wall. The clock there, unsurprisingly, told him that it was midnight.

"Shit," he whispered, watching as a fuzzy figure appeared on the screen.

"What's wrong? Souji?" Akihiko said in confusion, but Souji ignored him, settling the phone against his shoulder as he moved towards the television.

He stared hard at the figure, eyes slightly squinted as though that would help him discern who the person was. It was absolutely no use, though. The longer he looked, the more uncertain he became. At first he was sure it was man, then he was sure it was a woman and then back again. The image was so blurry that it was difficult to tell anything, but he could not shake the feeling that the form was actually changing the longer he watched.

"Souji," he heard, the sound muffled against the fabric of his nightshirt.

Souji lifted the phone back to his ear, "Yeah?"

"What the hell was that? You were just gone."

"Yeah," Souji repeated. "Look, I'm probably going to receive a call in a minute, and I've got to accept it. Sorry to bail on you."

"Wait, hey," Akihiko said. "What the hell?"

"Sorry. Something's come up. Bye," Souji said, and with a click, Akihiko was gone.

Souji stared at the now black TV screen, puzzling over what he had seen. He had watched all of the local networks over the last couple of days, trying to see if anyone had gained any fame from the news broadcasts or from interviews, but as winter approached, Inaba seemed to be settling down. The only people on the news were the broadcasters, and Souji figured that, if they were going to get thrown into the TV world, it would have already happened.

He ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair, destroying the perfect arrangement and sending silver spikes up in all directions. His phone buzzed in his other hand, and when Souji looked at the screen, he almost expected to find Akihiko calling him back and demanding answers. It wasn't Akihiko, though, and Souji answered, flopping back onto his couch.

"Hey."

"Was that weird or what?" Yosuke said, frustration painted all over his voice. "Was it clearer over there?"

Souji shook his head, "No. I couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl."

"I could barely tell that it was a person, man. I've never seen it so blurry."

Souji grunted in agreement.

"So, what do we do? We have nothing to go on, though I guess that means that the killer has nothing, either."

"I suppose that is a good thing," Souji said, carding his fingers through his hair again and pushing more of it askew.

"Yeah. So, should we meet tomorrow and discuss our options?"

"We can do that. Or, frankly, we could just wait until tomorrow night. It should still be raining then, and I'm not sure what we will accomplish by meeting up."

"What if it's still all weirded out tomorrow?"

"Then we're stuck. The person obviously isn't in the other world yet, but I guess we should check out what's going on over there if the figure remains faceless for too long."

"Sounds like a plan. See you tomorrow. I'll call the others, OK partner?"

Souji smiled and said that yes, it was OK. Yosuke hung up, and Souji set his phone down on his desk. As he moved to get ready for bed, the not-voice stirred, filling him with its presence until it seemed to stretch beyond his mind and into the rest of his body, tingling right down to his toes.

'i want you to make a promise'

Souji flexed his fingers just to prove that he still could.

'no matter what happens from here on out, I want you to promise that you will take full responsibility for your actions. Whatever those actions may be'

Souji was about to bite back with a scathing retort, but then remembered that he would only be talking to himself. Instead, he collapsed across his futon, burying his head in his pillow and murmured that he'd already made that promise a long time ago.

Chapter Text

Souji picked at his lunch, periodically leaning back in his desk chair and sending glum looks out of the classroom windows at the rain that pounded unrelentingly against the glass. Three days. It had been raining for three days, the fog was rising through town, and the image on the TV remained as stubbornly blurry as it had been the first night it had appeared. He looked back down at his barely touched lunch and pushed it away.

"Please tell me you're not going to eat that," Yosuke said, a grin painted across his face. "I just picked this crap up last night after work, and it's disgusting. Please? I want real food."

Souji chuckled in spite of himself and passed his box back to Yosuke, earning him a laugh and an appreciative slap on the back. Souji remained turned in his seat, looking back at Yosuke as he tore into Souji's lunchbox. After a few moments, Yosuke looked up.

"Dude," he said, pausing to swallow. "You're staring."

Souji shrugged in apology.

"No, I mean in general. At your lunch, out the window, at me. You have to chill. I know that you're wound up all tight over the midnight channel, but if the picture's blurry, then nobody's in there. Just because the fog's rising, doesn't mean that somebody's going to die. We won't let that happen."

Souji just looked back out of the window. The fog was so thick, it was difficult to see the trees near the school building. Everything was just murky and yellow.

"You're still doing it," Yosuke said, and when Souji looked back, he saw worry crawling into Yosuke's eyes.

Souji knew he should try to reassure his friend, to tell him that everything would be fine like Yosuke said, but what came out of his mouth when he tried to talk was, "What do you think Teddie would look like on the midnight channel?"

Yosuke blinked, "Like, what secret would he show? I'm not sure that idiot has secrets. He, uh, well, he likes to bear it all, if you know what I mean."

Souji shook his head. He'd long since learned to just ignore bear puns. "I mean, what form would he take? We've seen three different Teddies: as a suit, as a human and then his shadow. And," Souji's voice dropped, and he looked back out the window, "he messed with the medical equipment. We know what humans look like on the midnight channel, but what about shadows?"

"Actually, all we've seen on the midnight channel are shadows. Humanoid ones, but still shadows. Real people never turn up."

Souji looked back at Yosuke, frowning. "I guess that's true."

"Why'd you ask? Do you think the midnight channel is reacting to some big, powerful shadow? Like, one of those scary ones or maybe a weird one like Ted?"

A grin broke out across Souji's face, "Actually, I hadn't thought that far. It might make sense, though. Nice thinking."

Yosuke colored and looked to the side, "Nah, that's nothing, partner. But, back on topic, do you think that's too far fetched? The midnight channel just reflects what's going on here, but do you think it could be, like, interfered with?"

"I'm not so sure about that. It's just…what do we really know about shadows? Are they created when a person enters the TV, or are they already over there, waiting? Was Naoto's shadow over there the whole time, but it only woke up when she appeared on the news? If that's the case, then what are we killing when we fight the random shadows. Are they general reflections of humanity or are they specific people who just haven't been given form yet? I just…we don't really know anything, and I'm more clueless than most."

Yosuke leaned forward onto his desk, balancing himself on his forearms so that he loomed over the lunchbox. His eyes tightened, a crease forming between his brows.

"If you're worried that we've somehow killed the shadows belonging to the people in this town, you shouldn't. Shadows don't ever really go away, even if you've accepted them. At least, that's how it's been for me. But, I don't know, man. Maybe they're always over there, and they just get more and more powerful the closer their original gets," Yosuke said, switching his weight onto an elbow so that he could scratch at his temple. "Honestly, I'm just bullshiting. I guess…it's kind of weird to think about, but I almost took the shadows at face value. Maybe cause they were the first damned things I saw in the other world, my personal one included, I figured they just came with the territory."

"I did too. I've just been thinking about shadows a lot lately," Souji said.

When Souji looked back, Yosuke was giving him that look, a snarled mess of worry, pity and envy, that he got every time Souji tried to ask what having a shadow was like, and Souji quickly decided that he wasn't in the mood to delve into those waters. It wasn't his personal shadow that he had been thinking about, anyways. It was the shadows in Iwatodai, the ones Akihiko had claimed were eliminated, that plagued Souji's mind, and maybe Yosuke was right. Maybe shadows never really went anywhere. Maybe they couldn't be destroyed

'What about death? If he begged and pleaded, could death die? If you shot him down and watched him fall, would he be reduced to nothing but bloodstained yellow cloth and fading memories? Does it really work like that?'

Souji whipped around in his chair, finished with the conversation. He called out to Chie and Yukiko who were sitting together on the other side of the room, beaconing them over.

Chie grinned at them, walking over with a bounce in her step. "What's the matter, boys?"

"How do you three feel about checking out the other side this afternoon? I'm tired of sitting around, and Rise might be able to tell us if something's up."

"Oh, I was so hoping you were going to say that," Chie said, beaming. "I've been cooped up all week, and I'm going stir-crazy."

"It has been pretty uneventful lately," Yukiko said.

"Then it's settled," said Yosuke, standing up and stretching. "I'll run downstairs and let the others know what's up. Meet at the secret headquarters at five?"

Souji nodded, but before Yosuke could take off out of the classroom, Souji snagged the edge of his shirt. Yosuke turned, questioningly.

"Hey," Souji said. "I'm sorry for getting all dark and depressing there. I've not been much fun since the rain started."

"Dude, don't worry about it. I'd say all your fretting was going to turn you prematurely grey, but that ship's already sailed," Yosuke said, grinning.

Souji gave him a flat look, puffing air up into his grey-blond hair. Yosuke just chuckled, eyes sparkling, before glancing at the clock. He cursed slightly and darted out of the room, hurrying to get to the lower floor before class resumed.

The rest of the school day passed without event. As soon as the final bell rang, the investigation team pack up, undid their umbrellas and made their way to their secret headquarters.

The Junes food court was practically flooded when they arrived. Water was accumulating in the main sitting area faster than the small drainage systems could deal with, and after taking a quick look around the benches and over to the small, covered sitting area, Souji decided to give up on sitting outside entirely. The bottom of his pants was already waterlogged from their walk over, and there was no point in attempting to talk over the rain. He gestured for them to move inside, and as the sliding doors closed behind the group, he shook off his umbrella and closed it. He looked back at his friends as they did the same, Naoto taking her hat off and shaking water off of its brim. Once they were all assembled, they moved as one to stand by the home goods isle, grouping together so that they could talk without being overheard.

"So we're going in just to check things out, right?" Rise asked, pulling on one of her pigtails. "How long do you think we'll be in there?"

"That is dependant on what we discover on the other side," said Naoto.

Yosuke nodded, "Yeah, everyone is free for the whole afternoon, right? I don't want us to get into something and then have to suddenly leave."

"I was supposed to help out around the inn this evening, but I've already made some calls," Yukiko said. "I'm free."

When no one else voiced any protests, Teddie chimed in, his voice hesitant, "I don't want to act like a dumb bear, but I don't really get what we're doing. It's foggy on this side, which means that the fog must have cleared over in my world. I haven't left Yosuke's house since the rain started, but I'm sure it's really scary over there. Are we sure we want to head over?"

"I don't see what other choice we have," Rise said, head tilted to one side. "We're not accomplishing anything by just sitting around, waiting. Let's just stop in, check and see whether something's over there or not and then move from there. We don't even have to leave the back-lot area."

"Yeah, man, I'm tired of sitting on my ass," said Kanji. "At least we can see what's up, right?"

Souji nodded, "I think it's better to be safe than sorry. I'll head in first. You all follow when you sense that the coast is clear."

"I'll be right behind you, partner," said Yosuke.

Souji turned and walked away from the home goods section, passing the sports wear and children's toys sections as he made his way towards electronics. The heels of his boots clacked against the department store's hard floors, and the sound was loud in the near silence. Very few people were at Junes at four O'clock in the afternoon. There were always a few customers over where the food and groceries were sold, but as he neared the back, the number of people he encountered dropped dramatically. Soon, he was standing in front of a wall of TVs, the one they used as a portal to the other world standing like a monolith before him. Souji scanned the area, making sure that there was, indeed, no one around, and once he was sure, he moved forward. There had been a time when he used to hesitate before diving through the screen, when he used to think that, 'Maybe, this time, it won't let me through.' Those times had long passed, and he reached for the top of the screen to use as a handhold. His fingers closed over the plastic edge.

Something within his mind pulled, and all at once, with a violent ripping sensation like the skin being peeled off the back of his skull, the voices in Souji's mind went silent. Souji went cold.

He was close enough to the TV that his breath fogged up the screen. He breathed, and for a moment he was completely still, his eyes locked on his reflection as it rose from the TV's blackened face. Then, in one motion, he pulled away, a desperate hope roaring through him that it he just let go of the TV, everything would be all right. He staggered back, the momentum making him stumble before he caught himself and straightened up. His mind remained silent. He was left alone with his own thoughts, and he forced them to be loud, loud enough that they echoed in the now cavernous hollows of his head.

Souji's breathing hitched and then kicked into overdrive until he felt like he was hyperventilating. He felt warm and lightheaded, and his throat was slick like he might throw up. He wrapped his arms around his middle, eyes darting.

Then a thought jumped into his mind, and he was moving towards the TV again. What if he couldn't…? But no, that had never been a problem for him before. The TV had always let him in; the other world had always been available to him.

He reached his fingers towards the screen. They flattened against the cool glass, soft static lacing along the pads. He tried to force his breathing to sound normal, but it was no use. He pulled his fingers back, then tried again, crushing his palm along the glass and sliding it along before pulling back again and falling forwards against the TV, his forehead and nose squashing up against the screen. His hands curled into fists on either side of his head. The glass remained cool and hard against his skin. His nose prickled, and his eyes burned.

And then, as he lay there against the glass, something stirred in his mind at last. The voice was soft but confident, and Souji felt like he could finally breathe again.

'Thou art I,' Izanagi reminded him, and Souji smiled against the glass.

"And I am thou," Souji whispered, lips barely moving, and the glass began to give.

'Though many of the voices in the sea of your soul are shared between the wild cards, I am yours alone.'

"What happened to the others? They were called away, somehow, weren't they," Souji said, but Izanagi seemed to have said his part. Souji let him go but made sure he kept a note of where his persona had moved. Souji could sense him, and as he focused his mind on Izanagi's presence, the glass dissolved into the portal he was so familiar with. He moved back, pulling his face away from the screen but kept his hand inside the screen to ensure that the portal didn't close. For a few seconds, he just stared at the rippling, white surface, watching as it moved and shifted. Then, before he could talk himself out of it, he grabbed the top of the screen, hoisted himself up and jumped through the screen.

Chapter Text

After jumping through the TV on so many occasions, Souji had at last mastered the art of landing on the other side without falling or hurting his knees. He pulled out of his half-crouch, standing up to survey the back-lot. The first thing that Souji noticed was that he could see. There was still fog, but it clung low to the ground, and his field of view was mostly unimpaired. Souji reached into his jacket pocket to grab his glasses, flipping them open with a flick of his wrist. Putting them on made no true difference, but he kept them on anyways, just in case. He moved forward, running a hand over Teddie's tower of TV's as he circled them, moving into the main area of the back-lot. As it came into view, Souji froze, scanning the far corner of the lot in confusion.

Where the Velvet Room's royal blue door should have stood was only empty air. Souji stalked forward, hand outstretched in hopes that the door had merely turned invisible but was still physically there. His fingers met no resistance, and he pulled them back, dropping them to pat at his pants pocket where he usually kept his key ring and, on it, a small, blue key.

Souji had learned in his first week in Inaba that the Velvet key would simply always be on him. If he left it in his pants pocket one night and forgot to grab it the next morning, it would appear in his school bag or coat pocket during the course of the day. That did not stop Souji from attaching it to his key ring and checking that it was there every morning. His ability to get into the Velvet room was important, and though Souji knew that he was accepted as a guest, he still liked to check that the courtesy remained extended.

The key had definitely been on his key ring that morning. Dojima had gone into work early, leaving Souji to lock up the house before he left for school. The softly glowing, blue key had dangled from his key ring, chinking lightly as he'd secured the house.

Souji pulled out his ring of keys, but it held only ordinary, metal keys. No ethereal light encircled any of them, and he felt a bubble of frustrated rage rising in his chest before he clamped down, hard, on the feeling and began searching his other pockets. 'Maybe it just fell off,' he thought, with no real conviction, sliding his hands down the thighs of his pants to make sure his pockets truly contained nothing.

"You're not feeling yourself up over there, are you? That's so not classy," came Yosuke's voice from behind him. Souji hadn't even heard him come it, and he was too distracted to respond. He patted his back pockets and, finding them empty, undid his jacket so that he could check the compartments inside.

"Did you lose something," Yosuke asked, moving alongside Souji until he stood by his side.

"Yeah," Souji said, straightening up and scanning the floor. "A key."

"And you need it now?"

Souji whipped around, anger, frustration, and worry building up until the veins on his neck felt like they were going to pop and his jaw hurt from clenching his teeth. He opened his mouth to say something mocking and sarcastic, something that would put Yosuke in his place and stop him from asking any more stupid questions, because of course the key was important, how could the idiot not see that, but as he met Yosuke's eyes, Souji's fury evaporated. Yosuke just stood there, somehow looking both eager and confused, and Souji just couldn't. None of this was Yosuke's fault. Hell, Souji didn't even know what the hell was going on, but he knew that he refused to stoop that low.

Instead of saying anything, Souji just sighed, sitting down on the taped up floor and wrapping his arms around his knees.

"Souji," Yosuke said, brows crinkling.

"Don't ask. No, I'm not OK," was all Souji said back, burying his mouth and chin against his elbows and mentally reaching out for Izanagi. His persona stirred but said nothing. Souji still found it reassuring.

Yosuke just stood there, looking awkward, before sitting down besides Souji. He didn't say anything, and the two sat in silence until the rest of the group arrived.

The team milled around, choosing weapons, adjusting straps and discussing tactics in quiet undertones. With a groan, Yosuke stood, and the others all focused their attention on him as he spoke.

"Look, guys. I don't think our leader is feeling too hot. Maybe we should come back tomorrow."

Souji pulled his head off of his arms. "No, that's not…Let's not leave," he said, looking at each member of the group until his eyes settled on Teddie, whose nose was twitching. Perplexed, blue eyes stared back.

"You smell funky, Sensei."

Souji popped an eyebrow. "How do I smell funky?"

"I don't know. You smelled like you always do back in Junes. Maybe my nose is still busted," he said, trailing off, but he continued to sniff, first in Souji's direction and then off to the left. Everybody watched Teddie as he closed his eyes and lifted his nose in the air, taking long pulls in and breathing out through his mouth. His eyes shot open, and he turned to look at Rise.

"Rise, babe, can you help a struggling bear out over here?"

Rise moved to stand by Teddie's side. "What do you need?"

"I think there's something in that direction. It smells like Sensei, but it's weird, and Sensei smells weird too, so I don't know."

Rise shrugged and called Kanzeon, dropping her persona's visor over her eyes and scanning the distance.

"There is definitely something over there, and it's big. I can't get a good look at it, though," she said, turning to face the group with her visor still on. "What should we do, boss man," her voice fell as her eyes settled on Souji. "Wha-?"

"I don't know," Souji said in response.

"Wait, where are they. I don't…" she said, bringing a hand up to her visor to hold it steady.

"I don't know," Souji repeated, standing up and brushing dust off of his pants. "But I fully intend to find out. What do you see?"

"I, um," Rise said, looking from Souji then to the left and then back to Souji. "I don't really know, but Ted's right. There's something over there that feels like you."

"Well it can't be his shadow. The dude's standing right here," said Kanji.

"And he's been on this side loads of times," Chie added. "What's so special about now?"

Souji shrugged. "The fog is clear for one."

Yukiko was looking at him knowingly. Souji met her gaze. "How have your headaches been lately," she asked, softly.

"Headaches? What headaches," asked Yosuke, looking baffled, but Souji ignored him, concentrating on the one voice he had not thought to look for when the rest of his persona had been stripped from him. Something foreign swelled in the back of his mind as he searched, but it wasn't the not-voice. That voice was quiet, stiller even than it was when he spoke with Akihiko. He pressed it, trying to get an answer, but it was in vain. Not reassured and unwilling to put forth the effort it would take to explain the situation properly, Souji settled on the simplest response.

"Gone," was what he settled on saying. "It's-they're gone. My headaches are gone."

"Yeah, along with every other thing in that head of yours," Rise said, pouting in anxiety.

"Wait," Yosuke said, throwing his hands up. "What's going on? What's gone?"

"My personas," Souji said, quietly. Yosuke gaped back. "My headaches are gone, too, but I think that's hardly the point."

"Then how'd you get through the TV," asked Kanji, frowning.

"Izanagi's still with me."

The news did not put Yosuke at ease. "You mean this just happened? Like, in the time between when you left us at the entrance of Junes and when I saw you looking for some stupid key over here, you lost all of your personas? What the hell did you do?"

The anger that had abated inside of Souji earlier returned full force, because what the hell? What the hell?

"You're saying this is my fault? You think I wanted this?" Souji hissed, his voice low and sharp as sabers.

"Yeah, cool it Yosuke," Kanji said. "Stop being such a jackass."

"Well, I'm just saying…"

"We know what you're saying, Yosuke, and we are saying that you need to think before you speak," Naoto said, calmly. She turned to Souji, "Can you tell us what happened?"

Souji pinched the bridge of his nose and nodded, explaining in as much detail as he could what had occurred when he had touched the TV. The others looked back, shocked.

"And then when I got here, I noticed that I had lost something else as well. I'm just…I don't know what's happening," he concluded, lamely.

"What else did you lose," Naoto asked.

"He lost a key," said Yosuke, who walked over to Souji and lightly punched him on the shoulder in silent apology. Souji accepted it without a word.

Rise pursed her lips. "Is the key important?

Souji jerked his head, walking to the left towards whatever it was that Teddie and Rise sensed. "Yeah. I thought that I could use it to get some answers, but I guess I'll have to get those the hard way."

"Hold up a sec," Chie said, waving her hands in front of her chest. "Shouldn't we discuss this? I…well, can you even, you know, fight? Like this?"

Souji knew not to delude himself. "Probably not. At the very least, I won't be as capable as I was. Izanagi can use some weak electricity moves, and I can use Rakukaja and Tarukaja to make myself stronger and more resilient to attack. I can still use a sword, but we'll probably need to change out formations."

"I'm not trying to question your judgment," Naoto said, cautiously. "I'm simply curious. Do you think that your personas would come back if we left and waited for a bit? I don't fully understand your special circumstances."

Souji decided not to shrug Naoto's suggestion off lightly and instead gave it some thought. At last, he muttered, "No, I don't think that will help. I haven't stopped being a persona user. The space for all of my personas is still there. It feels more like they've been called away and dismissed. All I would ordinarily need to do is re-summon them from my compendium, but I don't know how to do that now."

Yosuke looked baffled. "Re-summon?"

Souji waved a hand distractedly. "It's weird and confusing, but it works. Just know that I can't do it now, and I truly hope that this isn't permanent."

"Do you think there are some answers over where Teddie pointed?" Rise asked.

Souji shrugged, helplessly, and looked out into the indistinct distance. "I have no idea."

When no one else moved, Chie huffed, pushing ahead of the group. "Well, I say we check it out. It's not like we haven't wandered blindly into places before, right?"

Souji managed to smile back at her. "Please, guys," he said.

The rest of the group seemed to take that as a sign, and finished their preparations to move out. Souji positioned himself at the front of the group. "I'll lead as I normally do, but I promise that the second shadows turn up or things look bad, I will get out of there. Does that sound acceptable?"

Though Kanji and Yukiko looked like they had doubts, the others agreed without hesitation. As one unit, the team left the back-lot, stalking towards a shadowy area in the distance.


Souji hunched his shoulders, slouching forwards as he made his way towards the huge tower that had sprouted out of this phantom Iwatodai. The detail put into the city was exquisite, every streetlight and windowpane exactly where he knew they should be. In a way, this shadow world was a work of art, a masterpiece of color and thematic lighting. Any other time, he would have appreciated it, but now he knew something was wrong.

The not-voice was silent, but in the place of its senseless chatter was a well of knowledge and certainty. The second he had stepped out of the area between worlds, Souji had known where they were and what was waiting for them. The thoughts even felt like his own. He looked up at the towering structure, and recognized it. It was like he was remembering this place, but doing so poorly. As the group moved towards the tower, Souji focused on what he knew and tried to see whether it was truly memory that he was accessing.

He had figured out that the tower's presence on Port Island's sky line was not an anomaly, but he was pretty sure that it only appeared at specific times. He knew that the figures in the street were coffins, but after thinking about it a little more, he decided that they were people, too. He tried not to dwell on the notion.

'Does the tower have a name,' he thought, and just like that, he knew.

Tartarus. The tower was called Tartarus.

Yosuke ambled up beside him, and Souji straightened up, glancing to the side. Yosuke tried to feign nonchalance as he inquired, "Where exactly are we headed to?"

Souji tried not to laugh. Honestly, Yosuke had been trying to keep his distance ever since their near fight on the back-lot, but he didn't have to fake stupidity to get back in Souji's good graces.

"I don't know, Yosuke," Souji said. "Maybe the big, damn tower that we've been walking towards for the last half hour."

The corners of Yosuke's mouth quirked downwards. "Wha…" he trailed off before blinking. "Oh, yeah. Make's sense."

Souji refocused on figuring out what he knew about the tower. Tartarus. Why did he know that it was called Tartarus? He picked up his pace, blocking everything else out except the city, trying to make the image in his head as clear as possible. Despite his best efforts, it was fuzzy, like when his mom showed him a photograph of their family and told him a story to accompany it. From that moment forward, it was impossible to tell whether the memory was his own or just something that his mom had convinced him had happened. Regardless, he grabbed hold of it. The alien presence that was neither the not-voice or any of his other personas shifted, moving until it held a seat equal to Izanagi's.

'What are you,' Souji thought, pushing his frustration forcefully against the other. It did not respond in words, but it hummed back at him with a sound that thrummed like a cello and lilted like a plucked harp. Somehow, the sound was soothing in a way Souji had never experienced before, and the presence felt so entirely unthreatening that Souji could not find it in himself to be concerned.

He turned to address the group. "We're almost there, guys."

"The question of course being where exactly there is," Naoto said. "This whole area looks so familiar."

Souji couldn't stop the dubious frown that spread across his face. "We're on Tatsumi Port Island, part of Iwatodai. We were here just a few weeks ago."

Understanding dawned on Yosuke's face, "The school? The tower is where the school should be, isn't it?"

Souji nodded back at Yosuke. "It looks that way."

The team walked quietly down the empty street, each lost in thought. Souji knew he was being a poor leader. He should demand their focus and attention, but he was even more bewildered than the others.

They rounded a corner, and there Tartarus was, erupting out of the ground as if nothing could stop it.

A mysterious voice rang in Souji's head.

'Thou shalt have our blessing when thou choosest to create a Persona of the World Arcana…'

and Souji looked back up at the tower, heart hammering. The voice was so familiar it hurt, but not because he had heard it every time he crafted a new social link. It was the not-voice, and it had gained substance, pulsing with power. For the second time, Souji was sure that it was two voices, not one. Like the presence in his mind that sat at Izanagi's side, it spoke in a high tone and in a low, and as it faded, Souji felt the weight of the World settle over him.

Chapter Text

"I can't decide whether this place looks more steam-punky or neoclassical," Souji said from the other side of the room, hand still resting on the frame of the random blue door to nowhere that he'd run to the moment they entered the tower's atrium. The door was bizarre. It was secured to the middle of the floor by seemingly nothing at all, and Yosuke could not think of a single, conceivable purpose that it could serve.

Souji seemed to disagree, as he had wasted five minutes when they had first arrived opening and closing the door, walking through it and then repeating the whole process. Though he had stopped acting like a freak, Souji hadn't left the door's side, his hand wrapped around the frame like he thought it was some kind of lifeline. Yosuke's neck itched with worry. Souji was still acting like the leader they all looked up to, gently handing out orders the moment they had entered the hall, but his reluctance to move and the concern that tightened his features set off alarm bells in Yosuke's mind.

There was nothing he could do about it, though, so he shrugged at Souji's comment on the architecture and turned towards the large staircase, trotting up it two stairs at a time until he felt like the king of the room. He gazed down at all of his teammates as they milled about the hall. Rise glanced up in his direction.

"Boy, do I really not want to start on the first floor of this baby," she said, staring at the large clock face behind him. "This thing is way too tall. Getting to the top of it would take…"

"Weeks," Souji finished for her. "It might even take months to climb to the top of this thing if we had to deal with shadows and the like."

Kanji grimaced. "Do you think there's some way 'round that?"

Yosuke hadn't taken his eyes off of Souji, so he didn't miss the way his fingers clenched around the frame of the weird, blue door or how he stared at it wistfully for a few seconds before he let go to stride across the marble floor. He crossed to Yukiko and Chie who were standing by a green machine near the entrance. He squatted beside it, running a hand over the arc of golden coils.

"What do you think it does?" asked Yukiko.

"It's connected to a slew of similar machines," Souji said then scowled. "At least, that's what I think it does. See the green pad? I think if I switch the settings," he said, trailing off as he fiddled with the machine's control panel. Something clicked, and the machine whirred to life, the soft green glow turning bright in the dim hall. "Got it."

"Wow-ee! Way to go, Sensei," Teddie cheered, his bear suit squeaking as he moved to Souji's side. "So what's it do now?"

Souji's head darted like he was searching for something before he paused, hands going up to his face and pulling off his glasses. He folded them, and placed them in the middle of the green pad. Reaching across to the main machine, he said, "This machine seems to be linked with others on the floors above us. There's a dial here that you can set to a whole bunch of different floors. There's a setting for the 5th floor, the 10th floor, the 15th floor and so on all the way up to the 252nd. I think that if you put something on the pad and then choose a setting…" he said, turning a knob on the machine. With a flash of light, his glasses were gone. "Something like that will happen."

Chie looked impressed. "Whoa, where'd they go?"

"Hopefully to the 36th floor. Let's see if I can get them back," he said, rotating the knob again. With a second burst of green, the glasses returned looking no worse for wear.

"Wow, that is so cool," Chie said, beaming.

Yosuke moved to sit on the edge of the staircase, his legs dangling. "So we can use that to skip 252 floors? That is so damn convenient."

"Yeah," Kanji said, chuckling. "Makes you wish all the shadow worlds were this welcoming."

"This world is strangely accommodating," said Naoto, crouching beside Souji. "What a fascinating device."

"It's kind of pretty, too," said Yukiko, warmly.

"I'm sure whatever's on the other side won't be nearly as friendly," Yosuke said, dropping down off of the landing. He hit the ground harder than he expected, and groaned as his knees whimpered in protest.

"Dude, the stairs were right next to you," Kanji said.

"So? I landed just fine," Yosuke said, trying to keep his voice steady. His efforts earned him an eye roll from Kanji, and he glared back, stalking over to join the rest of the group.

"…Are we all ready?" Souji asked, his eyes flat. The group quieted to show that they were. "Alright," he said, moving away from the machine. "Yosuke, I'd like you to lead."

Yosuke's heart sped up. "Wha-? Me?"

"Oh great," Chie said, grumbling. "We have to take orders from the idiot."

"Chie, stop it, and yes, Yosuke, you. I want you to lead Teddie, Kanji and Chie in the front. Yukiko, Naoto, are you two OK with hanging back with Rise and me? I'd feel better if we had a healer and an insta-killer at the rear."

"I see no problem with your plans," Naoto said. "In fact, I feel somewhat comforted."

Yukiko nodded as well, and Souji continued to address the group. "I know that I'm the one who pushed you all over here, but I just wanted to remind you all that there's no reason to try and tackle this entire place in one day. Nobody's in danger of dying this time."

Kanji asked, hesitantly, "What about you?"

"I'm fine. This is strange and uncomfortable, but it certainly won't kill me."

"There goes our big, ol' leader, acting tough," Chie said, smiling fondly. Souji shook his head.

"So, I repeat. Are we all ready?"

Yosuke joined the chorus of agreements and moved to take his position at the front of the pack. He looked to Souji.

"Take it slow, and we'll be fine. I'm right behind you," Souji said, grinning wryly.

"Oh ha ha, like I need you," Yosuke said, his grateful smile ruining his words.

Yosuke, Kanji, Chie and Teddie all squeezed onto the green pad. Souji clicked something on the control panel, and suddenly all Yosuke could see was white.

It took his vision a moment to readjust. The entrance hall had been dim and green, but this new area shined brightly. The walls were a whitish pearl-sheen, and they glowed from the inside making the whole room almost blinding.

"For once, I'm glad Ted made me sunglasses," Kanji said from Yosuke's side, lumbering away from the green machine and into the new room. "Hey, Bear. You smell anything?"

Teddie sniffed the air as the others appeared by the machine. "There are shadows on this floor, but they aren't coming any closer."

"That's kind of them," Yosuke heard Souji say, but as the words left his mouth, another voice rang through the hall.

'I never made it this high,' the warm, light voice said. 'This area was locked to me, and the way didn't open until after I'd already made my choices. It's nice up here, though, isn't it?'

"Who…" Rise said, looking around the room in confusion. "Is there a shadow here?"

'Shadows are everywhere,' the voice responded, and the whole team stilled. 'Everywhere, and wouldn't it be nice if they all just disappeared? If we could stop all of this, all of the pain and the sacrifices and the loss, wouldn't it be worth it? That's what I thought. The end was coming anyways, and I just…I couldn't watch them die. Besides, he begged and pleaded, and I made my choice, but I guess free will doesn't count for shit in this game.'

Yosuke looked to Souji to see his partner's face contort, eyes clenched shut as he hid his head in his hand. "You weren't replaced," Souji breathed, reluctantly, like he knew he had to say the words but would have given anything not to. "That wasn't the point. You were just…"

'I wasn't what was needed. I cared too much. I tried to fix things. I meddled, and worst of all, I listened,' the voice said, and gently faded away. Souji opened his eyes, looking startled, and then chuckled humorlessly.

"Oh, great. I guess I learned something," he said, shuffling. "God, rank two, and this chain is already heavy as shit."

Yosuke frowned. What the hell was that supposed to mean? "Souji? You good?" He asked.

"Fine," Souji grunted. "Come on, people, let's move."

Rise caught Yosuke's eyes, and showed him with a look how concerned she was. Yosuke furrowed his brow and shrugged towards Souji. 'Be with him while I lead,' he said, wordlessly. Rise seemed to get what he meant, as she moved to stand beside their leader, grabbing his hand and giving it a light squeeze. He looked for a moment like he would shake her off, but then he slouched, tension seeping out of him. Souji gave Rise a soft smile. She returned it, and he pulled his hand away.

"So, stairs?"

Yosuke nodded, turning down the nearest corridor. It was exhilarating the way the whole team followed his lead without question as he trekked through the hallways. He kept expecting to see a shadow around ever turn, but none appeared under the room's white burn.

"Teddie, are you sure you sensed shadows? There don't seem to be any around anywhere."

"I know I did," Teddie pouted. "Are you doubting these miraculous powers of perception?"

"In a word, yes," Yosuke said, turning to Rise. "Do you see anything?"

"There are totally shadows on this floor! I don't get what their problem is," she said after taking a peak through Kanzeon's visor.

"Maybe they don't want to fight us," said Yukiko.

Kanji frowned, "Since when have shadows ever not wanted a good beating?"

"Whatever," Yosuke shrugged, starting to move again. "If they're not going to attack, that's fine with me. I'm just getting tired of feeling like I'm in some kind of horror game. I keep turning corners, expecting a big baddie to jump out at me, and then nothing's there. It's getting me tense."

Rise snorted indelicately. "What, you need a backrub now?"

"Oh Rise," Yosuke said in a mock-charmed voice. "Are you offering?"

"You wish," she said, simply.

Yosuke feigned hurt as he turned into another room. A ramp across from them led to the next floor, and Yosuke mentally patted himself on the back. So far so good. This leading thing wasn't all that difficult.

"Alright, team. Let's head on up," he said, and they all climbed to the 253rd floor.

As they stepped onto the next landing, the warm voice began to speak again.

'We all make choices. You haven't been forced to make any of the tough decisions yet, but you will have to one day. You all care far too much for any of you to sit idle,' it said, affectionately, and Yosuke felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end like he was being stared at. He shivered.

'I made my own decisions,' the voice continued, 'and you don't realize how important every move you make is until fate comes swooping in and erases all of the good because it didn't like the outcome, because it chose you, and you didn't accomplish what it wanted from you. It's enough to make you scream and rage and want to kick them all to hell, because how can they just erase a life? Why wasn't I good enough?'

Souji muttered something from across the room. It sounded to Yosuke like he said, "Why did they have to forget?"

The voice quavered. 'I was alive, once. I lived too.'

"I…" Souji said, floundering.

'You know I did,' the voice said, sharper this time.

"Yes, I…I know you did," he said, looking around the hall. "I remember."

'What do you remember?'

Souji straightened his back, moving hesitantly into the center of the room.

"I don't know. Not yet."

'But you remember me?'

"I remember her," Souji said, and the phrase seemed important somehow.

A humming noise flowed through the room. 'What do you think I am?'

"A shadow. Just a shadow."

The warm voice seemed to laugh. 'There are shadows everywhere,' it said, and was gone.

"So I've been told," Souji said, his voice low, and he tucked his hands back in his pockets.

"What do you mean, you 'remember'?" Kanji asked, doubt etched across his face.

"She's trying to make me feel something, or learn something. I'm not fully following."

Naoto moved forward. "Do you think that it's wise to proceed? Clearly, this being has chosen you as a target, and I will admit to being uneasy with that."

Souji faltered for a moment before his features steeled. "Yes, I want to keep going. Let's press on."

"What you just said," Yukiko said, softly. "Do you really think that this is a shadow that we're talking to? It doesn't seem aggressive enough. It's so warm."

Yosuke agreed. "It seems frustrated, but not with us or even with one person in particular. It's like a ghost, almost."

Souji shook his head, "You're right. I don't actually think it's a shadow. It's more like a wraith or remnant. I think it's this tower's way of talking."

Yosuke hoped his laugh didn't sound as forced as it was. "What, the building's talking to you?"

Souji did not look amused. "No, but I think that whatever built the tower is."


Three floors up, Yosuke called for a break. After a good deal of analyzing, Rise had concluded that the structure had 263 floors, and since they were now on the 256th floor, he thought it was high time they started to make a plan about what they were going to do once they reached the top. If he were honest with himself, Yosuke knew it was a complete waste of time. They had no clue what to expect at the top of the tower, and they had not yet been able to gauge the power level of the shadows in the area. Though the team still had not fought any monsters, they had caught sight of a few. Before they could even pull out their weapons, however, the shadows had scurried away, panicked hisses left in their wake.

Though the group was still fresh and strong and though planning for the upper levels made no sense, Yosuke still called for a brief time out. As the rest of his friends sat against the room's walls and dug through their bags for water and other refreshments, Yosuke crossed the room to where Souji sat, staring up at the ceiling in distraction.

"She's really getting to you, isn't she," Yosuke said, sitting close enough to his friend that their shoulders brushed.

"She?"

Yosuke shuffled his shoulders, "I don't know. You said a few floors back that you remembered 'her', and I guess the voice does sound kind of feminine. I just figured that she was a she, you know?"

Souji shook his head, trying to smile before he gave up and clenched his eyes shut.

"Talk to me, partner. What's going on? I don't care if you've been keeping some secret from us as long as you tell us now before it bites you in the ass."

Souji just looked back up at the ceiling, a pained smile stretching across his face.

"Come on, man! For once in your life, make this about you…" Yosuke began before Souji cut him off.

"I want to play tennis."

"Wha…"

"I want to play freaking tennis, Yosuke," Souji repeated, chuckling and leaning back until his head cracked against the wall behind him. He didn't seem to notice.

"What does tennis have to do with anything? I didn't even think you played."

Souji closed his eyes, the wrecked smile still stretched across his face. "I don't."

"Then what…"

"My family moves around a lot."

Yosuke was baffled. What did this have to do with anything?

"We used to move once ever year or so, but we lived in America for three years in the suburbs near this country club in California. My mom wanted me to meet people at the club and get into a sport, so she signed me up for tennis lessons with an instructor. I only went to him twice, but I was good. Weirdly good. I remember the guy…he called my mother back after my first session and told her that he wanted to give me private lessons. He said I had, 'unnatural, untapped talent' at the game, and he thought that I could be really good at the sport one day," Souji smiled. "I was so happy, I didn't know what to do with myself. I never took all that quickly to sports of any kind, so to find something like that…"

"You learned how to use a sword pretty damn quickly," Yosuke said, quietly.

"Yeah. Isn't that interesting? Anyway, after my second lesson, my dad came home from a business trip with a fervor like I'd never seen before. He'd concluded on his trip that, to live a successful life, a man had to know how to play golf, so he pulled me out of my tennis lessons so that I could learn. My mom…she wanted me to tell father how much I had enjoyed playing tennis…I mean, it was all I could talk about…but dad didn't hire an instructor to teach me how to play. He took me out to the courses himself, and I just…dad never did stuff like that. He willingly gave up his weekends so that he could spend them with me. So I forgot about tennis. I never played again. Hell, I haven't thought about it in years."

Yosuke had no idea what to say to that. "But now you want to play?"

"No," Souji said, dropping his head forward. "She wants to play. She played her whole life, sneaking into sports clubs and the like. God, she loved it so much..."

"Who is she, Souji? What is this place? You know, don't you? Was she, like, your sister?"

Soft chuckles shook Souji's body, "Oh, of course, now you care. Now that it could affect you, you bother to learn something about me."

Yosuke's stomach dropped like a stone. "No, I…dude, you know that's not it. I'm worried about you."

Souji just sighed and leaned his head back against the wall once more. "Sure you are."

Yosuke felt like throwing up. How…how had this gone wrong so quickly? "I'm…I'm your best friend."

"Shouldn't you be reminding me that I'm your best friend?"

"What difference does that make? I mean, yeah, of course you are. I figured that was obvious."

Souji just stared straight ahead. "It is obvious. The magician is always the best friend. I wonder how that works. Does being the magician make you my best friend, or does being my best friend make you the magician?"

"You're starting to freak me out, man."

Souji winced, looking over at Yosuke properly for the first time since their discussion had begun.

"Being the magician must really suck," he said, smiling like he'd said something important.

Yosuke didn't know what Souji was talking about, but Susano-o brushed against his consciousness, prompting him to say, "It's not so bad, partner."

He must have said the right thing, because Souji's smile turned real. He bumped his shoulder against Yosuke's. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean any of that. She's just…in my head, somehow, and it's driving me to distraction. The last few floors have almost hurt, and that's weird because this has never hurt before."

"What doesn't hurt?"

"Making bonds," Souji said, leaning lightly against Yosuke. "Usually it makes me feel…strong. Powerful, even, but this time I just feel drained and snappy, like it's taking something from me, not giving it back. Or, maybe, it feels like it's just giving me too much. Like I'm Atlas, and it expects me to hold up the whole damn world."

Yosuke stared at Souji for a long moment, and then something clicked into place. "Having multiple personas makes more of a difference than we realize, doesn't it."

Souji almost snickered. "You have no idea."

Yosuke shifted, letting Souji lean more fully against his side. "Why haven't you ever talked to us about this?"

He felt Souji shrug. "I was always more interested in what was going on with you guys."

Yosuke looked back on all the times he'd hung with Souji, talking on and on about himself and never once pressing his friend to talk about his own problems. The nauseous feeling returned.

"I'm sorry."

"It seems like my best friends are always apologizing to me. Don't sweat it. You have nothing to apologize for. I preferred it that way."

Yosuke ducked his head. "I'm sorry," he repeated, softly. He felt Souji huff at his side.

After a moment of quiet, Yosuke felt the need to speak again. "Souji?"

Souji hummed to show that he was listening.

"What is it like? Help me understand, because I can't even imagine. Susano-o takes up the whole back of my mind. He's there to fill all the empty space, so I can't image what having more than one must be like."

"It's loud," Souji said after a moment. "They don't just fill the back, they slide into any slot that they can find, and I can't have too many of them or else I feel like my head is going to explode and I can't use any of them. It took me a while to figure out my own limits and push them. I can have more at one time now than I did before, but I still have to pick and choose."

"So you can send them away whenever you want to?"

Souji nodded.

"So, wait," Yosuke said, shifting so that he could look at Souji. "How do you get them back?"

Souji's lips twitched. "Welcome to the problem."

Yosuke hunched over, thinking for a moment. "So, what you're telling me is that, if you were to get a slew of new personas, you'd need to clear out the old ones, right? How would you do that?"

Souji stiffened. "I would dismiss them all. Otherwise, my head would rip itself to shreds."

The two looked at each other, and Yosuke felt some of the pieces to the puzzle finally fall into place.

Chapter Text

'They made sure that things were different the second time around,' the voice said as the group climbed onto the 258th floor. Yosuke cut Souji off before he could say anything back.

"How were things different?" Yosuke said, scanning the large room as though he hoped to see someone there.

The voice giggled, 'The magician speaks. Did you enjoy that heart-to-heart on the last floor?'

Yosuke frowned. "You were listening?"

'I'm always listening,' it said as though that was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Well that isn't creepy," Yosuke said, backing up so that he stood with the rest of the group again.

'Creepy or not, your noble stand deserves an answer. When they chose to start over, clearly they decided that I was the problem. I wasn't offered a mulligan. I guess they thought that, since I wasn't able to see things through the first time as I was, the only option was to change me. Oh, she was warm and cared too much the first time. Let's make her cold and aloof and cynical. Oops, she actually fell in love with one of her social links and ignored some of the others. Let's make her a jerk that doesn't give a damn. Aww, she's a girl, so let's fix her and make her a dick.'

Souji snarled, "He wasn't like that."

'He was me, idiot, and I was him. I'm allowed to outline his character flaws. Some would even call it healthy.'

Yosuke snapped, "What's your point?"

'My point is that I didn't make it this far. Had you climbed Tartarus from the first floor all the way up to here, the voice you would have heard would have been mine, because for me, the journey was more important. It's all I had. But you didn't, you skipped ahead, and as always, I was only able to squeeze in a few words because he let me. For him, the top of the tower's what's important. He cares more about the damn answer and ignores how he got there."

"So past here, it won't be you who talks to us," Souji said, uncertainty laced through his voice.

"No. I've said my piece. From here on, you're in his hands. Assuming, of course, that you make it beyond here."

A chill ran through the group.

'The one at the top has laid his protection over you. He's been scaring off all the other shadows in this tower, but he's not the only one with power, and the ruler of this world is pissed,' the voice said before fading away.

The floor trembled, and Yosuke suddenly felt horribly exposed. "Everyone back, guys," he called over the rumbling that filled the air. "Get against the railing!"

"No," Souji said, moving into the middle of the floor. "Get to the middle. They're going to climb over the edge. Get into your teams and get ready."

Yosuke dodged back just in time as slimy, dark hands groped over the railings that surrounded the floor. Deep, red shadows pooled beneath the creature's fingers as they scrambled for purchase. The shadows moaned, pulling themselves up, and Yosuke's eyes darted between them, trying to figure out how many arms each dark mass possessed.

"There are five enemies," Rise said from where she stood, hunched against a row of pillars with Naoto and Yukiko flanking her.

Souji stood on point, sword drawn and eyes steeled. "Rise, can you start analyzing them?"

"Sure, I'm on it," she said.

Souji's eyes locked on Yosuke's. "You can do this," was all he said.

Yosuke turned back to the field, watching as the five shadows hulked over the railings, their bright, red eyes glowing from gashes in their faces as their four arms loomed above them. He pulled out his knives, twirling them around his fingers.

The shadow before him lunged, and he skidded to the side to avoid it. He called out as he moved, "Chie, Ted, try to hit them all with ice. Let's see if we can freeze a few of them."

They did not respond verbally, but after a few seconds, the sound of shattering glass filled the air, and everything got much colder. Yosuke looked over at Chie, trying to make sure she was safe, but in that moment of distraction, a second shadow got behind him. Yosuke barely had time to avoid the full force of the blow, but as it was, he went skidding back across the floor to crash into one of the pearly structures that blossomed out of the platform. He groaned, calling Susano-o to life so that he could heal himself. How did Souji make giving orders during battle look easy? The amount of focus that must take was extraordinary.

"Ted, don't heal Yosuke," Souji called from where he stood near Rise's safe-place. "He's got it. Kanji, that shadow on the far left is frozen. Bash it in. Chie, Ted, it doesn't seem to be strong against ice, so keep that up until you're feeling tired, then heal and buff yourselves, alright?"

Yosuke shrugged. He couldn't be upset with Souji for taking back over as leader. The man was way too good at it. Yosuke turned back into the fray, calling wind down to rip into the shadows near him.

It took Yosuke a while to realize that the shadows just weren't dying. The team wasn't taking too much damage, but the shadows didn't seem to be either. No matter how many consecutive hits they landed, the monsters never faltered or fatigued.

"What's going on, partner," Yosuke yelled back to Souji, who still had not done much more than call orders and swing his sword a few times during the battle. He hadn't even summoned Izanagi, yet.

"They have sooo much health," Rise called back when Souji didn't respond. "It's totally ridiculous. And, while you can hit them with whatever, they don't seem to have any weaknesses-"

A rumbling roar cut off Rise's words. She shrieked, and Naoto grabbed her by her arm, jerking her away from under the pillar as a shadow crashed into it. The pearly stone crumbled under the monster's force, and Yosuke looked on in horror as it rose up on itself, its great hands clawing towards Yukiko, who had yet to move. Yosuke concentrated, trying to summon Susano-o in time to stop the shadow's assault.

Souji got there first. In a roar of blue flame and shattered glass, Souji had called Izanagi to his side. The masked persona vaulted over its summoner, yellow eyes flashing as its spear bit into the shadow's side. The creature shrieked, falling to the right and missing its target. Yukiko hurried out of reach, and Yosuke looked back at Souji in relief.

The blue fire surrounding his friend had not faded. Souji ducked his head, the light turning his glasses opaque. A roaring, ripping sound filled the hall, and even the shadows had stopped moving, all eyes locked on the light show. Izanagi threw its head back, and though the persona made no sound and though he could not see its mouth, Yosuke knew the creature was screaming. White light cracked along the persona's side, and with one last creaking groan and a snarled curse from Souji, something tore out of Izanagi's side. In those first moments, the form was nothing but white light, but as silence spread across the floor, the light began to resolve itself into a vaguely human shape. Pale, pupil-less eyes blazed behind a white mask, blond hair falling haphazardly across the persona's face and down over the white scarf that rode high over the creature's collar and chin. It's red, white and gold body stood in sharp contrast to Izanagi's black and silver, and the strings of the harp on its back vibrated under the power the creature threw out into the air.

As one, Izanagi and Souji stood, turning to look at the creature that hovered at their side. It spared them a glance, then turned towards the shadows cowering against the edges of the field. Its mouth opened, and with a wordless cry, thunder and lightning exploded through the monsters. With a sizzling hiss, the shadows were gone.

Izanagi caught Souji by the shoulder, holding him up as they both gazed at the blank-faced persona.

"Who are you," Souji whispered, and something told Yosuke that it wasn't the first time he had asked that question.

The creature spoke, it's voice simultaneously high and low and more beautiful than any music Yosuke had ever heard.

'I am thou,' it began.

"No you aren't," Souji responded, glaring out from under his fringe. "Who are you?"

The persona smiled a placid, open-mouthed smile. 'I am the fool, and I am that which holds endless possibilities. You have inherited me from the others of your kind, and therefore I am yours.'

"I didn't ask what you were. I asked who you are. What is your name?"

The persona seemed genuinely amused. "I am the master of strings."

Souji growled. "Your name, creature. What is your name?"

"I am Orpheus Telos, and even in death, my head still sings. From this day forth, I am yours to command."

The blue light faded, and both Izanagi and the new persona were gone.

"Shit," Kanji said, moving to steady Souji as he stumbled. "That was unbelievable."

Souji blinked, and pulled away from Kanji. He looked down at himself and then back around at the group.

"Are you OK, Sensei? That must have taken a ton out of you," Teddie said, fretting.

Souji looked back at the unblinking eyes of Teddie's bear suit. "I'm fine," he said.

Kanji was back by Souji's side, a hand on their leader's shoulder, "Come on, man. Don't be a dumbass. We should leave for today."

"He's telling the truth," Rise said from the other side of the room where she stood, huddled against Naoto. "He's fine."

Souji shrugged. "I don't know how, but the second the fight ended, all my strength was back. I feel amazing."

Yukiko moved to stand by Souji, her hands fisted in her red sweater. "So, you have Izanagi, the creator of all life, and Orpheus, the one that tames all creatures. One to create and one to control."

"So the stories go," Souji said, his gaze wary.

The team turned towards the large staircase that led to the next floor, its purple-white sheen dancing in the light. A voice rose in the hall, like the girl's voice but lower, and it practically purred in satisfaction.

'Now that's more like it.'

Chapter Text

Yosuke sprawled across the staircase, his arm slung out across one step and his feet projected out in front of him along the cold, marble-like floor. His head was cocked back so that it pressed against the sharp corner of one of the stairs behind him, but, though it was uncomfortable, Yosuke didn't more. It was strange, Yosuke thought. As far as dungeons went, the tower was strangely simple and easy. They had made it to the 261st floor, and, according to Rise, that meant there were only two floors to go. The shadows had not reared their ugly heads since their confrontation a few floors back, and the voice had been bafflingly quiet as they continued to climb. By all accounts, the team should be nothing but energy and eagerness to be done with this hell-hole, but everyone was subdued.

Kanji had not left Souji's side since Orpheus Telos had emerged. Though Souji tried to convince the tall blond that he really was fine, Kanji hadn't accepted a word of it. Yosuke silently thanked him, because Souji and false bravado just weren't mixing. Souji could pull off calm, cool and collected without any problems, because, much to Yosuke's envy, he really was that chill. That relaxed demeanor seemed to be escaping his friend at the moment, however, and Yosuke was left wondering how much of it was actually Souji and how much was whatever it was that was going on in his head.

If there was one thing he was sure of, it was that the real battle in this tower was one he wasn't permitted to see. A war was raging inside of his best friend, and uselessness burned like acid through Yosuke as he realized there was truly nothing he could do to help.

He hissed out a breath, sitting up on the bottom stair and glaring around the hall.

"Why don't you talk, you son of a bitch," he yelled, and Souji stared at him, looking exasperated.

Yosuke hadn't expected the thing to respond.

'I had no reason to,' it said, simply. 'I'm waiting.'

"What for?" Souji asked, and Yosuke was relived to hear the strength behind his voice.

'It would take too much time to explain. You'll have to see for yourself,' it said, and if Yosuke didn't know any better, he would say it sounded bored.

Souji rocked onto his feet, and Yosuke was grudgingly impressed by how graceful he made the movement look. Souji brushed himself off, held out a hand to help Kanji up, and then turned towards the staircase.

"Then I guess we have to go see. I think we're all sufficiently rested. Let's press on."

Yosuke stood, stretching the stiffness out of his shoulders. When Souji neared, he stepped aside to let their leader pass, filing in behind him as they moved together up the stairs.

The staircase was longer than the others they had encountered, and as they climbed into darkness, Yosuke noticed that there was no pearly-white glow up above to show where the next landing was. Soon, he couldn't see the steps in front of him, and he gripped the railing to make sure that he didn't trip and crash into Souji. Just as the blackness became absolute and Yosuke began to wonder whether there even was a next landing, he heard Souji grunt and stumble.

"Careful," he said softly, almost whispering. "The landing's right up ahead."

Souji's warning was unnecessary. As he stepped onto the platform, the back edge of it burst into light, illuminating the staircase and causing Yosuke to flinch his eyes shut.

The light did nothing to banish the darkness that clung to the rest of the floor, and they all crowded on the edge of the stairs, staring into the gloom.

"Ha ha, so, uh," Chie said, laughing nervously, "Who wants to go first?"

"Man, I can't see shit from here," said Kanji. "How do we know there aren't a bunch of shadows in that mess waiting to jump us?"

"We don't," Souji said, moving forwards. "You all wait here."

"Oh, like that's going to happen," Chie said, moving to follow, but as Souji walked, the floor lit up around his feet.

"See, it just wants me," Souji said, and he smiled tiredly back. He called up into the darkness, "Hey, if I move ahead without them, will I be fine?"

'No one will be injured in this room,' the voice assured him, and Souji nodded and started to walk again.

"Wait, you're listening to that thing? It could be lying to you," Chie said.

Souji turned so that he was facing the group and walking backwards. Yosuke grit his teeth. That arrogant…

"He's not," Souji said, his heels clicking as he shuffled back into the darkness. "I almost wish he was, but he's not."

Souji turned back around and made his way across the room, the floor alighting under each step he took. His form got smaller and smaller until it stopped all at once, jerking back.

"What's going on?" Yosuke yelled, his voice echoing in the dark. He ignored Souji's words and ran across the room to his side. If the clomping sound of footsteps behind him was any indication, the others had decided to follow as well. "What's wrong?"

Souji stood still, staring down at a splash of red that poured out of the gloom.

"Is that blood?" Yukiko breathed.

Souji continued to stare down at the crimson that pooled across the floor. He hesitated for a moment then stepped into the mess with a squelching sound. The blood, because Yosuke could smell and could tell what it was, clung to Souji's shoes as his partner half-walked, half-slid across the floor.

And all at once, like a spotlight had been shone down upon them, the area before them was illuminated.

There, in the middle of the pool of blood, hung the statue of a man. Chains strung him up, pulling his arms wide apart and high above his head, and two more chains curled under his shoulders and around his torso, so that his head lolled forward while the rest of his body was held aloft. He was held low enough that his knees bent above the pool of blood, the tops of his feet resting against the ground behind him but providing no support.

The statue looked so life-like that Yosuke thought for a moment that the man was real and just looked grey in the lighting, but then he saw the statue's face, its dead eyes gazing out from under the cracked stone of its shaggy hair, and something shriveled in Yosuke's stomach.

It was then that Yosuke saw the source of the blood. The statue looked like it had been stabbed by something. A golden object was lodged into its chest all the way up to its spiral shaped hilt, and blood welled over its glinting handle and down onto the floor.

"You can't be serious," Souji said, staggering over to the statue. He lowered himself onto his knees, raising his hands up to cup either side of the boy's face.

"What's jammed in his chest?" Yosuke said, loudly.

Souji lowered one hand, circling his fingers around the hilt of the object and gripping it tightly. He yanked back, but the item did not budge.

After a few more attempts to free the object, Souji let his hand fall. "It's a key," he said at last, wiping blood onto his already soaked pants. "A big, important key."

Chie took a step forward. "Is that the key you were looking for?"

Yosuke couldn't see Souji's face, but he saw his shoulders shake. "No, it isn't," Souji said. "I don't know what it is about keys today. The key I lost is important to me, but this…I think it's a key to time or…Shit," he whispered then yelled sharply, "Margaret!"

Nothing responded.

"Damn it, Margaret, I know you can hear me!"

'She won't respond. You don't have the Velvet key,' the voice said, softly.

"The Velvet room is in my subconscious. She can hear me, key or no."

'But she will not respond. Why do you want to talk to your handler, anyway? What does she have to do with anything?'

"You know," Souji growled.

The voice remained quiet.

"Margaret," Souji yelled, louder than before. "What did your siblings do? What did you let them do?"

'She didn't let them do anything,' the voice said, and it almost sounded angry. 'They made their own choices. It wasn't her job to stop them.'

"They could have ruined everything," Souji said, his voice strong and flat.

There was no response.

"What if they had messed up? What if it went wrong?"

'It didn't.'

"But it could have," Souji said, grabbing the hilt of the key once more.

'But it didn't,' the voice said in a frustratingly even tone.

Souji pulled on the key again. The voice said nothing. Souji grunted, rising up onto his knees and leaning in until he knocked foreheads with the statue. He sat there for a long moment.

"Souji," Chie said, hesitantly.

When Souji spoke, he wasn't addressing Chie. "Is this real?"

'It is what you wish to see.'

"And what do I wish to see?"

'The truth.'

"This is the truth that I lived for?"

'Apparently not,' the voice said, and there was humor in its tone again.

"When does this happen?"

'Half already happened, and half won't happen for a long time. A very long time, but you shouldn't trust my estimate. We were like that for…I can't even really say.'

Souji pulled away from the statue so that he could look it in the eyes.

"We…" he said, then pushed on past his false start. "Meaning you and me?"

'That wasn't what I meant, no, but it isn't inaccurate.'

"So, you're…" Souji said, quietly.

'You? That depends. Do you accept me as such?'

Souji stood. "You are not my shadow. You won't go berserk if I don't."

'No,' the voice said. 'But don't you think this might be even more important?'

"Maybe," Souji said, brushing a hand over the top of the statue's head. "Do you realize what you're asking of me?"

'Compared to what's been asked of you before, I'd say this is nothing.'

"The person on the next floor. He isn't controlling you, is he?"

'No,' the voice said, genuine pleasure behind his words. 'My counterpart on the lower floors and I are nothing more than reflections of what you want us to be. You wanted to deal with this in a more personal way, and the tower complied. I'm glad this is finally getting through that thick skull of yours.'

"You mean that thick skull of yours."

The voice almost sounded like Souji when it laughed and said, 'There you go. That really is more like it.'

A gust of wind swept across the platform, and Yosuke closed his eyes against the force of it. When he opened them again, the field was lit, and the statue was gone.

"So, dude," Kanji said, clapping an arm on Souji's shoulder. "I thought my bathhouse place was weird, but you totally take the cake."

"You can even eat it, too, if you want," Rise said, laughing weakly. "You couldn't have a normal shadow, could you? You just had to show all of us lowly folk the ropes. You dog, you."

Souji actually laughed, and the sound was bright enough to push the teems of questions in Yosuke's brain aside. He was still going to interrogate the crap out of Souji when this was through, but it could wait. There was only one more floor, and once they were done, he could corner is friend and demand some answers at his own leisure.

Chapter Text

When the team finally made it to the roof, they emerged into a swirl of black and green clouds that clung to the falcon crested columns and hugged the tower's sides. The moon, which had already seemed large on street level, sat monstrous above them, its hulking mass blocking out all glimpses of the sky beyond.

The clouds and the moon combined to successfully bleach out all color, and Yosuke found the bleak grayness disheartening. The others must have agreed, because they all huddled together, casting suspicious looks across the final stage.

Despite expectations, the platform appeared to be empty. Wind swirled in the thin air, and Yosuke shivered.

"I thought those two downstairs said there would be somebody up here," Kanji said, yelling over the gusts.

"Maybe nobody's up here because you haven't decided who you think should be up here, yet," a new voice said, and unlike the previous two, this one sounded clearly human. "I must admit, I find that a tad insulting. I know you didn't mean it that way, but even unintended blows can sting, especially after I've been waiting for such a long time."

Yosuke didn't know what reaction he had expected, but Souji breaking out into a wide grin and laughing just wasn't it.

"Oh, wow," Souji said, and the guy was freaking smirking, "I really should have seen you coming. I didn't realize you were this much a dick."

The wind swirled, and with a sound like flapping wings, an angel stood before them. Brilliant, blue eyes glowed out from under tufts of short, black hair, and the smile on the angel's face was downright serene. He flapped his black wings twice then furled them at his side.

"No, you have me all wrong," he said, cocking his head playfully. "I would never toy with my dearest person like this. I'm sorry to say it, but you did this all to yourself. Well, with a little divine help, of course."

Souji stared at the angel. "What are you doing here, Pharos?"

A breathtaking smile lit up Pharos's face. "You remember me," he said, happiness seeming to stunt his ability to talk.

Souji began to circle the angel, and, smiling, Pharos circled back, mirroring Souji's movements with glee.

"I remember," Souji said. "But I don't understand."

"That's fine," Pharos said, his wings ruffling. "In answer to your question, I suppose that's what I'm here for. My purpose is to…clear the water, if you will, but I'm sure you realize there's more to it than that. The main reason I'm here," he said, gesturing around the rooftop, "Is because I'm your shadow."

"You are not my shadow," Souji said simply.

Pharos's soft smile turned into a smirk, and in an instant, the angel was taller and broader, his black hair suddenly long and slicked back away from his forehead. Yosuke started. The angel looked just like the statue from the floor before, but his clothes were entirely different. A tattered yellow scarf cloaked his neck and fell from his shoulders in a billowing wave.

"I kind of am," the angel said, tilting his head.

Souji stilled and closed his eyes, a look of concentration marring his face. When he opened them again, he looked puzzled.

"You were there," Souji said, his voice disbelieving. "The whole time."

Pharos's smirk turned back into a smile. "Yep," he said, huddling down in his scarf. "Keeping you company really was the least I could do after everything, even if being brain-buddy's with a statue for a couple hundred years was kind of the sleepover from hell. There was no one I'd have rather been with, though. Besides, I'd already hollowed out a place in your soul for myself when you were growing up, so it was kind of nice to move back in. It got a little strange after Elizabeth and Theo showed up, but what can you do?"

"A couple hundred years," Kanji said, grunting from where he stood next to Rise.

"Huh. You're group's kind of small this time," Pharos said, scanning the crowd then whistling. "Wow, though. I think you might be exceeding your attractiveness quota. Hey," he said, waving nonchalantly at Rise and Yukiko. "I'm Ryoji." The angel bowed, looking up through his eyelashes seductively. "It really is a pleasure."

Souji was on him in a second, fisting a hand in the angel's scarf and yanking him back so he stumbled, wings flapping. Pharos or Ryoji or whatever-his-name-was just laughed, the sound ringing above the wind.

"God, you better not be my shadow," Souji said, dodging away from one of the angel's wings as it flailed in his direction.

Ryoji snickered, "You just don't want to admit that you're easy."

"I am not easy," said Souji, snarling.

"Oh, don't deny me, Souji. I wouldn't want to go berserk on you," the angel said, trying and failing to replace his cat-like smile with something more innocent. "All you have to do is admit it!"

Souji just popped an eyebrow at the angel, utterly unconcerned, and Yosuke felt the anxious tension seep out of him. He didn't know what the hell was going on, but it seemed like Souji wasn't too worried about it.

"Gosh, you are just absolutely no fun to mess with," Ryoji huffed. "How did I put up with you for so long?"

"You managed. Besides, after the first while…"

"Yeah, I totally don't remember much," Ryoji chuckled. "I guess I blocked it out."

Souji finally let his threatening smile emerge. "You're in high spirits."

"Of course I am. I'm free again, and I'm talking with my favorite person."

Souji sighed. "I'm not sure I can be who you want me to be, Ryoji. I remember certain things, but I'm a different person now. I'm a happy person now, believe it or not, and I don't really want to be who I used to be. Either of them, really."

Ryoji's smile didn't fade. "That's got to be odd."

"You have no idea. I was a…" Souji trailed off, and, for the first time in Yosuke's memory, looked flustered.

Ryoji grinned. "A chick?"

Souji didn't seem to agree with Ryoji's amusement.

"Damn, you were a fine woman," Ryoji said, head tilted back in blissful recollection.

"Please stop," Souji said, groaning. "I really can't deal with this right now."

Ryoji seemed to sober up. "I'm sorry. I'm being horrendously callous. You aren't even OK, yet, are you? Tell me what's going on up there."

"It feels like…like there's a huge dam in my head that's holding everything back, but I kept poking and picking at it because I thought that knowing what was going on would always be better than not."

"Allow me to act like your shadow for a moment. You really have a problem with that."

"What, picking at scabs that are better left untouched?"

"Pretty much."

"Whatever. I just…I cracked the dam or something, and now its all I can do to hold back the tides. All the memories that I've recollected so far have been nothing more than run-off, but behind those walls…that's people's lives, Ryoji. It's not just memories, its consciousness. It's everything that they were."

Ryoji moved to Souji's side, pushing his grey hair back and looking him in the eyes. "You have to let go. It'll be OK."

"I can't," Souji said weakly. "I don't want to."

"I hate to say it, but you're too far along now to just back out. This isn't happening because you scratched at some mental barrier on Tartarus's lower floors. This has been happening for months, and you know it."

"But what if, when the waters wash back out, I'm not here anymore?"

Ryoji looked almost nauseatingly fond when he said, "You're an idiot. This isn't an invasion," he said, his eyes darting across Souji's face, "It's a reunion. You need to stop playing the fool, Souji."

Souji snorted. "I am the fool."

Ryoji tapped Souji's forehead. "Not anymore. You're the Judgment, now, and it's time you started seeing things clearly. Where do you think we are?"

"We're on top of Tartarus."

"Which, during the day is…?"

Souji frowned. "The roof of the school?"

"Exactly," Ryoji said, his smile serene once more. "The Dark Hour is over, Arisato. You can't let it haunt you anymore."

The clouds parted, the moon shrunk, and before Yosuke could even breathe, he found himself standing, not on the 263rd floor of some crazy tower, but on the roof of a school building at nighttime, overlooking the ocean.

Souji stared out across the vista until he let his gaze settle on a simple bench located near the fenced-in edge of the roof. He looked at it for a long time then lifted a resigned gaze to the rest of the team.

Yosuke had been struck dumb and motionless by the whole scene, but he suddenly felt the ability to move flow back into him. This was real. Souji was about to surrender in whatever mental battle he had been fighting, and Yosuke had no idea what to do about it. This angel-shadow thing thought he could just show up, manhandle Souji and then convince his best friend to quit? Yosuke wasn't going to have any of it.

And then Souji caught his eyes, and somehow Yosuke knew it was all going to be all right. He refused to blink and watched as the dam broke and the roaring tides swept his friend away.

Chapter Text

Ryoji knew the exact moment that Souji let go, because, in essence, they were still one entity. When the roaring wave of power and memory rolled through Souji, Ryoji felt it too, and he was so affected by it, he almost didn't catch his other as he crumpled under the stress. Luckily, he still had a hand on Souji's shoulder, so when he fell, Ryoji managed to get underneath him, a few wing flaps keeping them both balanced.

Seeing that his other was unconscious, Ryoji dropped an arm beneath his knees and moved his other arm so that it curled along Souji's back. With strength that Ryoji had yet to fully test, he stood, pulling Souji up and tucking him against his chest, bridal style.

"Get your hands off him," said a panicked voice from across the roof, and Ryoji turned to see Hanamura glaring at him, hands clenched at his sides. Satonaka mirrored her friend's stance, her body tensed, ready to fight.

Ryoji would have raised his hands in a placating gesture, but doing so was impossible with a hundred and something pounds of Souji Seta in his arms. He settled on sending a soft smile their way, but doing so only seemed to put the rest of the group more on edge.

"Easy, Mr. Hanamura. I promise, I mean your friend no harm."

"Oh, so Souji's shadow refers to me as 'Mr. Hanamura,' huh? You have got to be kidding me."

"I didn't mean an insult by calling you that. I don't…I'm not him, Hanamura. I'm not going to act like all the other shadows that delude themselves into thinking that they could simply replace their hosts. I could never do that. As for why I'm calling you Hanamura…well, I don't actually know you all. Not like Souji does. I've been out of his head since you all first entered this world, so, while I share Souji's memories up to that point, I only know Ms Satonaka and, you, Hanamura, by name at all. I'm sorry," he said, looking at the black haired girl in red that stood by Satonaka. "I can't recall your name, sweetheart. If I gave you any offense, I'm sorry for it."

The girl shifted, blushing. "My name is Yukiko Amagi," she said, and despite her frail stature, her gaze was fierce and strong. "What happened to Souji?"

Ryoji sighed. "He just took on too much. I thought that, maybe if his head was empty, finding a place for Minato and Minako wouldn't be too difficult, so I convinced his other personas to leave for a while. Unfortunately, that did not seem to help too much," he said, frowning down at the top of Souji's head. "Sorry, bro."

A dark haired person in a deep blue hat asked, "Who are they? The people whose names you just listed."

"Before I answer that, may I please have all of your names? I'd really appreciate it."

The person in that hat hesitated for a moment then sighed. "My name is Naoto Shirogane," she said then gestured to each of the others as she stated their names. "Yosuke is Hanamura's given name, and Chie is Satonaka's. That's Kanji Tatsumi, Rise Kujikawa and the one in the bear suit is Teddie."

Ryoji stared intently at Teddie. "Yes, I noticed you," he said.

Teddie shuffled, but said nothing. Naoto cleared her voice, "You were about to explain to us exactly what occurred here."

"Ah, yes," Ryoji said, shifting Souji's weight in his arms. "Listen, I know that you'll think I'm stalling, but I'm really not. I'd much prefer we got off the roof and settled Souji somewhere before we got into this, alright."

"There's nowhere safe or comfortable like that inside the TV," Yukiko said.

Ryoji frowned. "Why can't we just take him to his uncle's? Does he not live there anymore?"

Yosuke twitched. "You can leave this side?"

"Of course I can," Ryoji said, smiling. "I'm not a product of this world, and, even if I was, it only takes an understanding of oneself to be able to cross the border on either side. I know what I am, so I'm permitted across the dividing line."

"Yeah, I guess that is how it works, huh?" Chie said.

"Yep, sure is," Ryoji said, and began to move towards the stairs. "Let's head on. The school's only a few floors tall, and it's not going to be all maze-like. There shouldn't even be shadows."

"Why is that?" Kanji asked. "Were you scarin' them off?"

"The small shadows are attracted to us more powerful ones, but they also know their place. They knew I didn't want them around, so as long as nothing else interfered, the chose not to engage you all."

Chie frowned. "What else could have interfered?"

Ryoji reached the door that led to the steps and fumbled with the doorknob with one hand while he supported Souji with the other. After a moment, he managed to turn it, and he pulled the door open. "There are other things," he said, leaning back against the door to allow the others to pass, "besides shadows out there."

Souji's team said nothing to that as they filed down the stairs, but what they didn't say was far more interesting to Ryoji. Yosuke's knuckles were white from where his fists clenched, and his jaw worked as he stoically tried to look anywhere except for at where Souji rested, nestled in Ryoji's arms. Humor bubbled in Ryoji's chest, but he quashed it down, saving it for later.

The bombshell with pigtails looked back at him, questioningly. "What about your wings?"

Ryoji shrugged. "I'll just put them away. I actually have four wings, not two, but the others get so cumbersome. Angel wings aren't like insect wings, and more really isn't better."

Chie chuckled. "Four? Geez, how do you fold them?"

"Like an absolute idiot," Ryoji shrugged.

"Can you…could you put them away right now?" Yukiko said, giggling slightly. Ryoji smiled. They were all still on edge, but they felt comfortable enough to laugh, even if it wasn't completely genuine. He supposed it was a start.

"Absolutely not," Ryoji said, smiling. "They're helping me balance, and if I put them away this moment, I'd probably go tumbling down the stairs with Souji in tow. I'll get rid of them once we're on solid ground."

"That's pretty practical of you," Chie said, and her smile was almost real. "Your name's Ryoji, right?"

Ryoji shrugged. "Ryoji, Pharos, whatever. You can call me whatever makes you comfortable. Heck, you could call me Nega-Souji if you wanted to. It might give this stick in the mud here a laugh," he said, shifting his grip on Souji.

"Why ain't you like the other shadows," Kanji asked, and his voice was still wary.

"There are a lot of answers to that question," Ryoji said. "One factor is, like I mentioned before, that I'm not a creation of this world, therefore its rules don't fit snuggly around me. The second reason is that neither Souji, nor Minato nor Minako had true shadows because I filled that place. I'm not sure if you're aware, but children cannot develop shadows. In all three cases, I took up residence where a shadow would have one day formed before they had a chance to fill it. I've already proven that I can frighten off shadows, and the same theory worked in my hosts. Once I holed up inside, there was no way I was letting some wimpy, mundane monster take my place, so I fought them off. With both Arisatos, I was operating only on instinct. Back then, I didn't care what the results might be or what damage it might cause the person that I lived inside. In Souji's case, I knew he would be fine."

"So Souji really doesn't have a shadow?" Yosuke asked.

Ryoji bit his lower lip, his expression sullen. "No, I guess he really doesn't, but the undeniable truth is that I am a shadow and I am Souji's. Neither of those facts is going to change."

"You have blue eyes," said a muted voice from inside Teddie's bear suit. "Why aren't your eyes yellow like the other shadows?"

Ryoji smirked, "Because I'm special. Actually, that's another reason to add to the list. In fact, it's probably the most important."

Chie scoffed. "What, that you're special."

"Yes," he said simply. "And because I am death. The latter, perhaps, being more important and neither being mutually exclusive."

"Damn, you're a prick," Kanji said, jumping down the last few steps of the stair well and moving across Gekkoukan High School's main hall. "It's like you're telling us real stuff, but you're being vague enough so that it don't mean shit."

Ryoji laughed to himself. Even under scrutiny, it was nice to talk with humans who not only talked back but also knew who they were talking to. His glossy dress shoes clicked on the hard floor as he moved away from the steps, and he crossed the room to the school store's counter. He leaned against it to steady himself, and in a rush of wind, his wings were gone. His shirt mended itself in the blink of an eye, and soon all that remained to hint at the wings he'd once possessed was a sharp twinge in his back. He shivered, hoisted Souji back up, and moved to follow the rest of the group.

"You could pass for a real human, now, to anyone who wasn't looking closely," Rise said, her eyes trailing up and down Ryoji's body. He smiled appreciatively back at her, and she huffed, looking defiantly ahead. Ryoji just chuckled.

"Tell me, Ms. Kujikawa. What gives me away?"

Rise hunched her shoulders. "Nothing, really. That's what bothers me about you."

"You don't think that you could tell the difference between a shadow and a human in the real world, do you?"

"No, I'm not sure I could," Rise said, letting her shoulders fall. "In here, I can see things for what they really are, but out there…If you had approached us as just a friend of Souji's or something, I wouldn't have known to look for anything beyond that."

Ahead, Kanji and Naoto were pushing open the large front doors of the high school. Ryoji looked over their heads and was pleased to see that the city looked like it normally would at night, no coffins filling the streets and no blood pooling in the gutters. Reassured, he gazed down at Rise.

"No, you probably couldn't," he said, unwilling to lie. "But ordinary shadows wouldn't think of trying to live in the real world. Next time you see a yellow-eyed shadow, watch what it does instead of listening to what it says. They don't want dominance or to somehow eclipse their originals. They just want acceptance from the person that matters most to them. They're…simple. Uncomplicated."

"But you aren't," she said, and Ryoji knew it wasn't a question.

"No, I'm not simple. I like simple things, though."

Rise smiled reluctantly back at him. "Like what?"

"Living," he said, a big smile curling over his face. "And pretty things and video games and hot springs and the rain. I like trying new foods, and I like high places. I just like stuff, really."

"Are those things that Souji secretly likes?"

"No," Ryoji said, something warm lighting up in his chest. "Those are things I like."

Rise seemed to contemplate that as they walked through Iwatodai's streets. Ryoji bit his scarf, pulling it up over his chin and burrowing down into it until his head was practically resting on top of Souji's. Treading the streets of the phantom city was eerie at best, and Ryoji thanked Souji, even in his unconsciousness, for his proximity.

"So, what are you two?" Rise said in a soft voice.

"How do you mean?" Ryoji asked, and something in her tone made him huddle reflexively over his other.

"I mean…" she said, waving her hands and looking flustered.

"Oh, you mean…heh," Ryoji said, chuckling. "Well, if you'll permit me to go a little Dylan on you, he was my shelter from the storm when I truly needed it, and a true friend despite all my failings. And, in a past life…" he said, and a flush of memory washed over him. "Well he has always sort of been my everything ever since I was capable of comprehending what 'everything' was, but the first time around, when living was fresh…Minako was, god, she made me feel…human. Like I, Ryoji, mattered beyond just my purpose as Nyx's avatar, and I can't even explain," he said trailing of with a skittering laugh.

Rise stilled, staring at him. "You loved her," she said.

"Did you believe love was beyond the capabilities of shadows?"

"Of course not," Rise said, and Ryoji was mildly stunned by the absolute sureness behind her voice. "Shadows are capable of affection and humor and all sorts of other things."

Ryoji jerked his head towards the red and blue bear suit that waddled beside Yosuke. "You know what he is."

Rise nodded. "When we first met Teddie, he was just an empty suit," she said.

"That would do it," Ryoji said, smiling. "I'm glad you know. I didn't want to be the one to break the news."

"We aren't that stupid, feather-brain."

Ryoji grinned, "So we're close enough to have nicknames, are we. I'm truly honored, Ms. Kujikawa."

"You said to call you whatever made us feel comfortable. But, hey, back on topic. Don't think you can weasel your way out of this one, mister."

Ryoji just laughed. "Yes, I loved her. Still do, actually, regardless of circumstances. I cared for her just as much the second time around."

"But she was a dude. Or am I following this correctly?"

"You're on track. She was different the second time around, but the same in spite of it all. She's the same still."

Rise gave him a pitying look. "Feather man, I hate to tell you this, but Souji's definitely not a girl."

"I was aware, but I appreciate your warning," he said, sincerely.

Rise snorted, "Wow, I keep trying to talk to you like I would Souji, but he's got a way better head for sarcasm than you do. I'm practically lobbing them at you, but you let them fly by."

"I am plenty cynical, Rise darling, I just don't think it's polite to backtalk a lady."

"Oh boy, are you going to have trouble with this group. I'm going to go ahead and warn you away from treating any of our girls like porcelain. They're stronger than you think, and they really won't appreciate it."

Ryoji smiled. "Thank you."

"What, for telling you how to charm us fighter chicks?"

"Well, yes, for that too, but primarily for staying back and talking with me. It means a lot."

"The way I see it, if you wanted us dead or hurt or anything of the like, it would have already happened. Besides, I trust Souji's judgment, and he seemed happy around you."

Ryoji blushed lightly, clenching his fingers in the fabric of Souji's shirt.

They walked together for some time, making their way through the empty streets under the glow of the streetlights. When they were close enough to the train station to see it looming above them in the distance, Rise asked, "So, what was Souji like?"

"Which time around?"

"What was…she like?"

"A little like you, actually. I won't pretend to know what type of person you are from this one meeting, but you two are similar in voice and diction. Beyond that, I'd rather not say. I don't know what Souji will want me to tell you and what he'll want to say for himself."

"You just don't want me prying," she said, pouting.

Ryoji sighed dramatically, "Let's see what I can tell you without really giving you anything at all," he said as they approached the stairs and began climbing them up to the station. "I guess I'll just say that you shouldn't take the voices you heard in Tartarus at face value. She wasn't nearly that scornful, and he was not cruel or callous."

"So what do you mean when you say 'both times'? I'm assuming something happened twice, but how can the same person be two- wait, no, three - people at once?"

Ryoji's eyes flicked down to Souji's still face. "Time," he said in a deliberately loud voice, "is not strictly linear. It prefers to flow in one direction, but sometimes the path has to double back on itself. The world has ended dozens, maybe hundreds, of times already, but in this continuity, none of those events have occurred. See, when disaster seems inevitable, a certain group steps in and prevents it. Call them the harbingers of fate or what have you, but this group finds special people and guides them down the right path, ensuring that the world remains safe. Anyways, nearly two years ago, a being called Nyx, the creator of Death and Night, was called to earth by the personification of death itself. She, that is to say Nyx, was the manifestation of humanity's grief and sorrow, and her job was to end their suffering."

"By killing them?"

"Naturally, my dear," Ryoji said, but the smile was gone from his face. "If Nyx was allowed to fall upon the world, it would be destroyed."

"Obviously, that never happened," Kanji called back from in front of them.

"You all were listening," Ryoji said, and he let his smile return. "Good."

"Yeah, I figured you wouldn't mind since you were practically yelling," Yosuke said, his voice gravelly.

Ryoji shrugged. "I'd rather not tell this story twice," he said simply.

"So," Naoto said, her voice cutting through their chatter. "These 'harbingers of fate' stepped in to make sure the world did not end?"

"Yes. During their first attempt, they chose a woman to be the wild card that would defend the world against the fall. Minako was powerful in a way the associates of the Velvet room had never seen, and through her close connection to Death, the one who would bring about the fall, and her friendships with many others who fought shadows, she stood the best chance out there of pushing back Nyx. The thing is…Nyx was immortal and invincible."

Kanji scowled. "So they were screwed to begin with?"

"Epicly, and I mean that in its traditional meaning. They had no chance, so I," Ryoji said, and cold shudder pooled in his stomach, "I talked her out of it."

"You talked her out of saving the world?" Yukiko asked, looking dazed.

"The world was either going to end violently or it could end peacefully. I knew how to ensure the latter, so she chose peace for the world, and the end came. Obviously the fates did not approve, so they tried again. Minako's soul was perfect. It was exactly what they needed, but they decided to change some of her traits the second time to better suit their purpose."

"They can just do that? They can start over whenever they want to, and they can just screw with people?" Kanji said.

"Only if there is great need," said Ryoji. "So, then it was Minato's turn, and he managed to find a way to appease Nyx and convince her not to destroy the world, but then there was some stuff with this other monster named Erebus, and Minato ended up having to become a seal to keep humankind's misery at bay. He wasn't alive, but he never really died, so I decided to hole up in his head to keep him, and her, company."

"Ugh, that's so confusing," Yosuke said, running his fingers distractedly through his hair. "And all of this somehow has something to do with Souji?"

Ryoji smiled. "It has everything to do with Souji and also nothing at all."

"You're doing that on purpose," Chie said, her features dark with distaste.

"I'm sorry," Ryoji said, gripping Souji tighter as they entered the space between worlds. "Sorry. I really shouldn't tell you any more right now, though."

Yosuke growled. "Hey, you haven't cleared anything up at all! What about that key in the statue's chest? What they hell was that all about?"

"Later, I promise," Ryoji said, calmly. "Are we almost at the entrance?"

"Nearly there," Rise said, trotting to the front of the group. After a few more minutes, they were at a back lot, and the relief radiating from the group was palpable.

"Back at last," Teddie said, and with a metallic zipping sound, the head of the bear suit popped off to reveal a lithe, blue-eyed man. Teddie pushed his blond hair out of his eyes and stepped out of his bear suit.

"Yeah, man, I'm beat. Let's get to Dojima's house and just crash," Yosuke said, cracking his back. "Hey, you must be tired of lugging him," he said, looking at Ryoji. Dislike burned just behind Yosuke's eyes, but he kept his tone pleasant. "I can carry him from here."

Ryoji looked down at Souji, shrugging. "I'm physically stronger than a human would be, so it makes sense for me to carry him. You might fatigue where I would not."

Yosuke's face remained friendly, but Ryoji could feel his anger prickling across his skin. "Sure," Yosuke said. "That makes sense."

"The coast is clear," Rise called from over by the TV tower. "Nobody's in the electronics department. Let's go, go, go!"

She crawled through one of the TVs, her skirts flapping and was followed by Yukiko and Kanji.

"You and Sensei can go through now," Teddie said, his eyes downcast. "The others will help you through."

"Thank you, Teddie," Ryoji said and moved to the TVs. After a moment's deliberation, he crouched, leaning over Souji and sticking his face through the screen.

"Kanji, can I hand him off to you for a moment. I don't want to try to cross at the same time. Kanji grunted and grabbed hold of Souji as Ryoji passed him over. Once liberated of his burden, Ryoji jumped through the portal without a second's thought. As he stood on the other side for the first time in years, Ryoji thought to himself that freedom really was better than he ever was able to imagine it.

A sharp poke in the back brought Ryoji out of contemplation. He glanced around to find Yosuke frowning at him. "Hey, why are you just standing there? Are you ok?"

"Yeah," Ryoji said, moving away from the TV. "I'm excellent. Really excellent."

"Good to hear it," Yosuke said, rolling his eyes.

"Dude, Souji's phone's vibrating in his pocket," Kanji said, looking uncomfortable. "Should we, like, check to make sure it's not Dojima freaking on him?"

Ryoji reached a hand into Souji's pocket before anyone could follow, flipping the phone open to look at the main screen.

"Hey, you can't just read his phone. A man's cell has personal stuff on it," Yosuke said.

"Oh, eww, Yosuke. I didn't need to know that," Chie said, grimacing.

"That's not what I meant," said Yosuke, rolling his eyes.

Ryoji looked down at the call log. Souji had two missed calls and one voicemail. The first missed call was from a girl named Nanako, who Ryoji remembered as being Souji's cousin. The second was from somebody named Supercop.

"Dojima's a cop, right?" He asked.

"Yes. Why do you ask?" said Yukiko.

"Because," Ryoji said, pressing the call back button. "I think he called and left a message, and I'm going to explain the situation to him. I think it's better if he…" he began, but cut off when the call was answered.

"Souji? Thank god. I hadn't heard from you since you hung up the other day, and I was starting to worry."

Ryoji froze, shocked disbelief running through him.

"Souji?" the gravelly voice said across the line.

"Akihiko," Ryoji whispered and heard a sharp intake of breath.

"…Minato?"

"No, its…" Ryoji said, glancing around in panic. "It's me. Ryoji."

With a crackling hiss, the line went dead.

Chapter Text

Earlier that day:

"May I have a word with you," said Mitsuru's voice from the doorway, prompting Akihiko to look up from his breakfast of orange juice and toast. He gestured at her to continue as he finished chewing.

"This might take longer to clear up than our usual check-ins, Akihiko, so if you don't have time, tell me. I'd rather not be interrupted."

Akihiko swallowed and frowned. After a moment's pause, he gestured at the seat opposite him at their kitchen table. "Say what you need to," he said, cautiously.

With a sharp nod, Mitsuru crossed the kitchen in long strides, settling uncomfortably in the proffered chair. Mitsuru hated eating in the kitchen and often insisted that they take all of their meals in their apartment's small dining room, but Akihiko was a morning person and breakfast was his time. He would eat wherever he pleased, thank you very much. Besides, he saw no point in moving to the dining room when breakfast consisted of nothing more than juice and bread.

He looked up at Mitsuru, and, damn, if she wasn't fidgeting. "Are you alright?"

She raised a carefully manicured hand to her forehead, two fingers massaging the space above her eyes while her thumb turned circles in her temple. "What's going on with you?"

He blinked. "What do you mean 'what's going on'?

She leveled a bitingly cold gaze at him. "You know exactly what I mean. The dodgy research, the late nights, the working out. I'm not blind, Akihiko, nor am I a fool. You're getting in shape, getting prepared, and I want to know what for."

Akihiko blushed and looked away. He'd always been terrible at keeping things from his roommate and best friend. Frankly, he was surprised she'd waited this long to confront him.

Mitsuru's glare morphed from angry to almost hurt. "What are you hiding from me, and, more to the point, why? What could possibly require your discretion from me of all people?"

"It isn't like that," he said, trying to adopt a flippant tone.

"Ah, so there is an 'it'," she said, and the hurt was replaced with grim triumph.

Akihiko sighed, "You already knew there was. Stop looking so pleased with yourself."

"I'd watch your tone, Akihiko. You are the one being interrogated here, not I" she said, satisfaction still lacing her voice.

"You aren't even going to pretend that this isn't an interrogation? Geez, I would have at least appreciated the effort," he said, a nervous wince behind his words.

"You're dodging my question. What are you keeping from me?"

"There's nothing. Nothing. Just a weird case in a small town that I've been looking into."

"And you think that you will be deported to said small town to, what, beat some petty crook into submission? There's only one reason that I know of that would prompt you to work out as much as you have been lately, and that would be that you were gearing for a fight," she said, her tone becoming anxious. "What is there left to fight?"

"More than you know," he grumbled, quietly.

"What did you say?"

"Whatever, it doesn't concern you," he said, pushing his chair back away from the table and standing up.

"Oh no you don't. You are not just walking out on this."

"What do you want me to say, Mitsuru? That I found something maybe a little more interesting than this," he said, gesturing around at the kitchen and, by extension, the rest of their apartment, "and that just looking into it has made me feel alive for the first time in years?"

"Well, yes, that's a start," she said, triumphant look back in place. "What have you found?"

"This doesn't concern you," he said, almost yelling in frustration.

"Well it should!"

"Mitsuru…"

"You don't think I've noticed? Akihiko, you've been actually acting like yourself for the first time since you left college, and, while that delights me, you're also acting shifty and absent, and that concerns me in equal parts. We're in this together."

Akihiko sighed. "Look, I'm not even sure my input is welcome on this case, let alone if everyone else got involved."

Mitsuru froze. "Everyone else," she repeated.

Akihiko lowered his head into his hands. "Shit," he whispered.

"Everyone else," she said again, rage coloring her face and causing her eyes to turn hard. "Everyone as in SEES? Are you telling me this is shadow related?"

"Hold on just a…"

"And you thought that you could keep this from me? You think this isn't my problem? You fought for a long time, Akihiko, but this was my life. I was fighting shadows before you even hit adolescence, so what makes you think this isn't my problem?"

"Maybe the fact that it isn't, Mitsuru," he said, patience wearing thin. "It's not my problem either, but I found an in, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to figure out some way to get involved."

"Involved in what? Rounding up the last of the shadows from Nyx?"

"I don't think…shit," he said, walking across the kitchen to lean against the refrigerator.

"If there are still shadows left over from the old days, then there must be remnants of the Dark Hour. Why can't we access it? What's changed? What did we stop?"

"Mitsuru…"

"Don't you say my name like that," she said, her voice cold and flat. "Don't act like you have a right to look down on me, you condescending-"

"Mitsuru," Akihiko said again, frustration biting into his voice. "Just…calm down."

Her body practically vibrated with indignation, "Don't talk to me like that," she said, quietly.

Akihiko scowled. "Stop acting so noble…"

"I said, don't you dare talk to me like that," Mitsuru said, her voice like a whip. The tendons of her neck popped and she looked positively murderous. "I won't be treated like some senile, retired veteran. I haven't forgotten, and I will not pretend the war is over if it isn't. I am a soldier and a survivor and so help me god, Akihiko, if you don't tell me what's going on, I'm going to jump to conclusions, and, trust me, you do not want that."

Akihiko leaned back against the cool, white surface of the refrigerator and felt defeat settle over him in a heavy wave. He met Mitsuru's determined stare and sighed, a small smile curving onto his face.

"You just don't give up, do you," he said, fondly, and crossed back over to the table.

"I've been called stubborn before," said Mitsuru, vicious heat still burning in her eyes.

Akihiko sat back down at the table, and in a rush, the whole story came pouring out. He told her how he'd met Souji at the café and about the dying man in the alley. He told her about Caesar and his own regular correspondence with the shadow fighting young man, about the strange friendship that had blossomed between them and how Souji hadn't taken his calls, damn it, since he'd hung up three days before. He told her about the murders and disappearances and what he thought it all meant. When he was done, he leaned over the table, scratching at his eyebrow in frustration. "I don't think this has anything to do with Nyx," he said in conclusion. "And that's what's got me so bothered about it."

"How can shadows exist without Nyx? Wasn't she the mother of all shadows?"

"Apparently not," he said. God, he was exhausted and it wasn't even nine yet.

Mitsuru brooded for a little while, her chin resting daintily on her crossed fingers. When she spoke, her tone was cold again and so resigned that it gave Akihiko pause. "You're going to leave, aren't you?"

Akihiko shrugged, "I don't know, Mitsuru. If Souji doesn't get back to me sometime soon, then, yeah, probably. I think something might have happened to him."

"What about Ken," she said softly.

"You know, I've been really eager to pretend that Ken needs me, needs me to stand in as his dad at school functions and the like, but you know what I've realized? He doesn't. He didn't need us two years ago and he sure as hell doesn't need us now."

"Yes he does, Akihiko. He needs a proper family."

"No," he said, his voice steeled. "No, the truth is that I needed him. I needed a reason to leave college, because I hated it. I didn't leave for duty. I ran away, and I hate myself for it, Mitsuru. I've turned into a coward, and I'm done with it."

"So you expect me to feign ignorance as you wander off into unknown territories? I am not an army wife. I won't be left behind."

"Please, stop it with the metaphors. I'm not leaving you behind," he said, lifting up his glass of orange juice before slamming it down in frustration. "You have a company to run and classes to take online and a life to live. It's you who's left me behind, and I don't want you to have to be dragged back down. Also, on that note, I'd like to mention that it's probably best that this stay between you and me. You know as well as I do that some of the old members of SEES would not benefit from this news."

Mitsuru paled. "I…that's true. I suppose deception really is the better course in this case."

"Have you visited him lately?"

"I stopped by late last week," she said. "He's…doing well."

"You don't have to lie to me."

Mitsuru breathed deeply. "I don't know what to do about him. Leaving him on his own like we have just seems to cruel."

"Junpei's got Koromaru with him. Koro's a good dog."

"I suppose," Mitsuru sighed. "I have three stipulations, Akihiko."

He frowned. "What?"

"If you are going to go, I have three conditions."

"You're OK with me going?"

Mitsuru held up three fingers, and he quickly silenced.

"Condition one: you must tell me before you depart, and I make no promises that I won't follow."

Akihiko frowned but stayed silent.

"Condition two: you have to visit Junpei before you go. Don't tell him what's going on, but stop by, alright? You haven't for a long while now."

He sighed but didn't argue.

"Finally, condition three," she said, and her voice was cold and flat again. "If, and that's a big 'if' Akihiko, I don't choose to go with you, and I'd like to remind you that I made no promises, but if I choose not to go with you, you will report in daily and keep me posted on every detail, no matter how miniscule you think those details are. Are we in agreement?"

"No," Akihiko said, adrenaline pumping in his veins and making him feel brazen, "I won't agree unless I can make a counter-condition."

Mitsuru's face remained blank, but she sniffed, prompting him to continue.

"I'll follow all of your requirements, but in return, you have to swear to me that you won't let this slip past the two of us," he said, a strange urgency making him speak faster than he normally would. "It's bad enough that I broke Souji's confidence. I won't have you spreading this."

"Are you calling me a gossip?"

"I'm just making myself clear."

Mitsuru smiled crisply, "Are we clear?"

"Yes, we're clear," he said, a brittle smile rising on his face to match Mitsuru's. "I swear, sometimes you act like you're my mother."

"Well, somebody has to," she said, her familiar, confident tone back in place. "I'm going to go check the Kirijo Group's sales logs. If there are other persona users out there, they must have somehow gotten their hands on evokers, correct? They aren't offered for sale to the public, however, so either I missed something, or we have a leak on our hands."

Akihiko blinked. "I hadn't thought of that."

"Honestly, you thought you could manage this on your own?" Mitsuru said with a weak chuckle. She stood, moving away from the table with fluid grace. "Expect a call from me this evening and don't stay out too late. I plan on continuing this discussion."

As Mitsuru made her exit, Akihiko had to smile. She really had a way about her, he thought. He was glad, though it stung to admit it, that she had figured out what was going on. It might infuriate Souji and cause undue stress at home, but she really was the best ally anyone could hope for. He shook his head and turned back to his breakfast, the adrenaline still pumping through his veins causing his hand to shake.

Chapter Text

Mustering up the energy to go to work after a morning like that really was all Akihiko could manage, and once he was there, he found himself waffling aimlessly, unable to focus on any of his paperwork. He glared down at the stack of papers and files on his desk, sliding a finger through a few before giving up and leaning back in his chair. He stared around the room, his leg bouncing in agitation. God, it was like he was in high school all over again, his mind torn between two central focuses. Except, the more he thought about it, the less that seemed to be true. Back at Gekkoukan, he'd always been able to balance work with his…extracurriculars. At the police department, though, there seemed to be no contest. The second he let his mind wander, it went crawling back to dark alleys and beyond to a small town he'd never even seen.

Akihiko tapped a pen against his desk and sighed. If he were honest with himself, he very rarely enjoyed coming into the job. He had always imagined police work as something that was almost made for him, but after being on the force for the better part of a year, he had learned otherwise. The thrills of interesting cases were wonderful highs, but they were brief blips on a landscape of tedium. Akihiko wasn't built for short sprints and long rests. He was an endurance trekker and worked best under constant stress, and though there was always work to do at the force, it wasn't the kind of mental stimulation that he needed.

That all being said, he knew he was lucky to be allowed what he had. The fact that he was allowed to act as an almost-official member of the police force in the first place was something of a miracle. It had very little to do with his proficiency, though he was not lacking, and a great deal to do with the fact that the officer that had interviewed him for his job had been none other than Kurosawa. Officer Kurosawa had taken one look at him as he sat on the other side of the table during their interview and smiled softly. "I know you've been saving people for a lot longer than your resume could capture," he'd said. "I'm not going to insist you go to the academy, though many would. Work under me for a year, and I'll see you on active duty."

It hadn't been a year yet, but Officer Kurosawa was always a man of his word. Akihiko had been given more than he ever could have dreamed, but a restless tick in his gut told him it would still never be enough.

He tapped his pen on the desk one more time, then stood, hastily grabbing a case file and moving away from his spot in the room towards Kurosawa's small office in front. He drew the brief stares of his coworkers, but few of them spared him more than a glance. Little rookie Sanada didn't deserve much attention from the force.

Akihiko rapped twice on Kurosawa's door, and didn't have to wait more than a couple seconds before he was called in. Kurosawa no longer manned the front desk, but he kept his old office, a tiny closet-like thing towards the front of the building. The stoic officer didn't seem to mind it, and he sat back in his shabby office chair looking for all the world like a decorated military general, stripes and all.

"What's the matter, Sanada?" Kurosawa said as he entered. Akihiko closed the door behind him with a soft click and took a seat in the office's only empty chair.

"You remember what happened two years ago, don't you?" Akihiko asked without preamble. Besides the brief mention of it in his interview, Kurosawa had never brought up their history together, and he felt the need to verify before making his point.

A shadow passed over Kurosawa's face as he muttered, "Yeah, I do. I still don't like what we made you kids do. It should have been the police's job."

"The police couldn't have done anything," Akihiko said, truthfully.

"Doesn't make it better. So, why bring this up now, Sanada? What's on your mind?"

Akihiko shifted then steeled himself. "Did you follow that murder case surrounding that politician, Taro Namatame, and his mistress a few months back?"

Kurosawa's face remained as blank as ever. "Yeah," he said flatly, "As I recall, they finally caught the murderer a month or so ago."

Akihiko leaned over his knees, crossing his arms across them. He let a light puff of air escape his lips before he looked back up at Kurosawa, gaze grim.

"I think we might have another case like the one two years ago on our hands, one that the police can't solve. I hear they're trying, but they aren't looking in the right places. Even if they were, they simply wouldn't have the potential."

Kurosawa's eyes hardened. "I thought that was over."

"It was…is…I don't know. I haven't been to the town yet to investigate, but I'd like to."

"Is that why you're here, then? You want permission to investigate this case in Inaba?"

Akihiko sighed. "If you can't make this official, I understand. I'm not even a real officer yet, and I'm sure there are a ton of inter-force politics that we'd have to circumvent, but I plan on sticking my nose into this whether I'm a member of the police system or not. I just thought, after your role in everything last time, that you deserved to know…and that maybe you could help."

"I can apply you for a transfer," Kurosawa said with a frown, "but that wouldn't afford you the freedom that you'd need. You'd have to work under their schedule on their cases, and you'd be at the absolute bottom of the heap."

"There's no way that I could go as a visiting officer or as outside help? They have a young detective helping them with the case, already."

Kurosawa looked up. "Who got sent out there? Kirihara?"

"Nah. Shirogane."

Kurosawa coughed and muttered something that sounded like, "Damn kids."

"So, anyways, is there anything you can do?"

"I'll look into it," Kurosawa said at last. "I might be able to make something up, but I need to ask you something. If I can't come up with a convincing story covering you going there, what will you do?"

"I'll quit," Akihiko said quietly.

"Just like that?"

Akihiko looked back at Kurosawa and bared his teeth in what he hoped looked like a smile. "This is just something I've got to do. You understand."

"Hell, you know I do," Kurosawa said, closing his eyes. "Now, get out. I'll make something work."

"Thank you," Akihiko said honestly and left the room, leaving his file on the murders in Inaba on Kurosawa's desk.

Akihiko momentarily considered returning to his desk and trying to work before he disregarded the option completely. He simply was not going to be productive, and wasting a day twiddling his thumbs seemed ridiculous. Instead, he grabbed his suit jacket, fixed his tie and left through the front room into the main body of the mall.

He stared dazedly out at Paulownia's familiar facades, the sound of running water and chattering people washing through his senses, before he shook himself. Damn, he needed some sort of focus and discipline. Without it, he was just…

Souji. He was going to call that brat and demand answers. Feeling clear headed and determined, he marched over to the benches surrounding the central fountain and pulled out his smart-phone.

Akihiko grit his teeth as the phone rang, absently flicking his knee with his free hand as he waited for Souji to pick up.

'Hello, you've reached Souji Seta's phone. I'm sorry I missed your call…' the playback message began, and Akihiko's jaw clenched.

He waited for the message to play out, and when he heard the beep sound, he said, "Hey, it's Akihiko. Souji, listen, I don't know if you're actually in trouble or just mad that I went and investigated your case, but if you aren't injured or something, I'd like you to at least let me know. Not knowing is making me think the worst, and if shadows got you…listen, we need to talk. I've been thinking about everything lately, about, you know, that stuff that happened a couple of years back and the like, and I've decided that I want in. I'm tired of playing the jaded old mentor. I wasn't the leader of my group, and I wouldn't, like, try to usurp you or any of that shit, but this wouldn't be my first rodeo and I really think that I could help. If nothing else, I could handle the police. Anyway, call me back or pick up the phone next time I call you. I'll try to sort some stuff out on my end. I hope you're okay."

After a pause, he hung up, staring at the phone in frustration.

"Well that sounded idiotic," he said, grumbling. He continued to glare at his phone, and, after a few seconds, he breathed a long-suffering sigh and selected a new number.

The phone rang once before it was picked up.

"That you, Akihiko? Damn, it's been a while. I'd almost thought you'd forgotten about me."

"Hey, Junpei," Akihiko said, and he hoped his voice sounded happy.

"Hey yourself. So, what's the occasion?"

"I was, uh, wondering if I could stop by sometime today or later this week."

A long pause buzzed across the line. "Dude, don't try to fulfill your community service through me. I'm not going to be your way to wrack up karma points."

"That's not…" Akihiko sighed. "That isn't what I meant. I just thought I might bring lunch over or something and we could…hang."

Junpei laughed, the sound like a sad giggle as it echoed hollowly through the phone. "Yeah, you know what? Fine. I'd love to hang, Akihiko. I miss our bro-ings on."

"Oh," said Akihiko, deflating a little. "Good. So, what, five o'clock then?"

"Just show up sometime," Junpei said wistfully. "I'll be here."

"Yeah. Ok. See you then."

"Bye, dude."

Akihiko hung up with a weary sigh, pocketing his phone and staring around the mall once more.


Akihiko stood awkwardly outside the door to Junpei's dingy, first story apartment, a bag filled with two orders of takeout ramen dangling from his hand. Oh, he didn't want to do this. He really, really didn't want to talk to Junpei. The ex-members of SEES had made it something of a duty to keep their old teammate company, but what with the girls going off to university and Akihiko's reluctance to get involved, the job usually fell on Mitsuru and Ken. Akihiko felt genuine guilt for keeping his distance, but being with Iori these days set his teeth on edge.

Regardless, he'd come too far to back out. Huffing a deep, reluctant breath, Akihiko tapped once on the door and was surprised when it gave. The door was slightly open, and he hesitated for a moment before pushing inside.

Junpei's father had died the year before, and the ratty apartment was one of the only legacys he'd left his son. The smell of stale alcohol still filled the house, but besides that and the dusty cloth smell, the apartment was at least sanitary and livable. Akihiko recalled that Mitsuru had hired a maid service for the place, and he silently thanked her as he moved inside.

"Hey, Junpei," he called, slipping off his shoes and moving into the dim main hallway. "Your front door was open."

"Oh, was it? I hadn't noticed. I sometimes leave it open for Koromaru so that he can come and go. He must be out. Come on into the living room."

Akihiko padded down the shaggy carpet and into the apartment's little living area. Junpei was curled up in an overstuffed armchair on the far side of the room, a DS clutched carelessly in one hand. Akihiko plastered a weak smile on his face and slunk across the room to sit on the couch.

"Hey," Akihiko said, quietly.

"Hey yourself," Junpei said, grinning back and unfurling in his chair. "I'm not even going to ask you what prompted this visit. Mitsuru, right?"

"I told you, it wasn't like that."

Junpei grunted, but he didn't seem to be upset. He gestured towards the bags, "Man, what spoils have you brought me?"

Akihiko rifled through his bag, pulling out a plastic container and a sealed bowl full of broth. "I hope the special's alright."

"The special's always alright," he said, taking the two containers and reaching out to accept the pair of chopsticks Akihiko passed him. "So," Junpei began as he assembled his food, "how's work and all that jazz?"

Akihiko sighed. "I, uh, think I might be quitting. Maybe."

"Dude, what happened? I thought that being a police officer was, like, your thing."

"I thought so too," Akihiko said with a shrug, "and I'm not saying I'm quitting today or anything like that. It's just, sometimes, I feel so…"

"Unmotivated?"

Akihiko glanced up into a far too knowing look and turned away, feeling sick. "Yeah, yeah, exactly," he said in a muted grumble.

"I hear you. You ever," Junpei began before his eyes seemed to glaze. He looked away from Akihiko to some fixed point above his shoulder. "What…no…he wouldn't…god, will you just…" he muttered, his blank eyes darting before they settled back on Akihiko and the fogs cleared. "This might sound strange, but you ever feel like you're only half living?"

It was moments like those that made Akihiko dread spending time with Junpei. Mitsuru called them episodes and said there was some method to dealing with them. When they were calm like this, Akihiko could cope. He just ignored the weirdness and paid attention to whatever Junpei said on the fringe, but sometimes Junpei got angry or chaotic, and Akihiko just had no idea how to communicate with his old friend.

In this case, the answer was clear. He nodded, trying not to look spooked and said, "Yeah, sometimes I do feel like I'm only half there."

Junpei seemed to take great delight in his answer. "I know, man! You get it. Sometimes I feel like I left something behind back then. I wish I could visit the Dark Hour one last time and go find it," he said, and there was no irony behind his tone.

Akihko clenched his fist until it shook. For want of something to do with his hands, he broke his chopsticks open and began to pick at his ramen.

"But then there were things that got left behind, weren't there," Junpei said, conversationally.

Akihiko flinched and continued to stare at his noodles. "I'm not sure I know what you mean."

"Yeah you do, bro. I'm talking about people. The only difference between us is that you got left behind. Me, well, I took my girl with me, for better or for worse."

"I didn't get left behind, Junpei."

"Yeah, you did," Junpei said, and his eyes were somehow colder in the light of his bright smile. "First Shinjiro and then our furious leader. Dude, you clung to both of them like you needed them to breath or something. Hell, the first time I saw you with leader-man, it was like seeing a different person. You lit up around him. Yuka-tan and I used to joke that, if one of you was a chick, you two would totally have been bangin'. Well, maybe I used to joke. I don't think Yukari found it all that funny."

Akihiko grit his teeth, grinding them in frustration. "You don't…" he began.

"Don't tell me what I don't know," Junpei said in a flat tone, his eyes still steely. "I'm not as lost as you think I am. I just," he breathed, and the biting chill behind his eyes seemed to melt. "It's just that, sometimes, I wish she wasn't with me, bro. Sometimes, I think getting left behind is the better deal."

"There was nothing between me and…me and him, Junpei," Akihiko said.

"You're kind of missing the point here. I'm saying that, damn, maybe you won't get this, but there are ghost that don't leave. You ever think about your persona?"

Akihiko felt the phantom of the surge of power that had burned across his skin in the alley, and he jerked his head in acknowledgment. Nowadays, he thought of Caesar all the time.

"Trismegistus is always there, you know? Even now that the drive is gone and whatever made him emerge in the first place is nothing but…empty, I guess…he's still there. I wonder what personas are. Where do they come from?"

"I don't know," Akihiko said, but a voice that sounded like Souji's whispered something about 'meeting one's shadow'. "I don't know," he repeated, because that didn't make any sense.

"I just wish I could start over," Junpei said with a strangely happy smile. "Wish I could go back to empty and maybe fill it with something that fits. Ah, hell, I'm not making sense."

"Yeah you are," Akihiko said, the nauseous feeling back in his stomach. "I understand."

A smile curled its way across Junpei's face as he said, "I'm sorry you feel like me, but I'm glad of the company. Thanks, man."

Akihiko nodded absently and turned to eat his noodles in silence.

The rest of their meeting passed without incident or any more upsettingly deep conversation. Akihiko inquired about what game Junpei was currently playing and carefully avoided topics like work or school or anything else that could be construed as meaningful, and an hour slipped by without comment. As the afternoon began to wane towards evening, Akihiko packed up and left, nodding his goodbye to Junpei and feeling like he might actually have done some good. He made his way out of the first story apartment, leaving the door slightly cracked so that Koromaru would have a way in when he returned.

Akihiko trotted over to his car, climbing into its chilly interior, and adjusting his scarf as he waited for the heater to start warming the air. He sat there, draped over the steering wheel for a few moments before the buzzing of his phone brought him back to full awareness. He pulled out the device and smiled as he saw the name flashing on the screen. Souji. It was about damn time.

"Souji? Thank god," Akihiko said after pressing answer. "I hadn't heard from you since you hung up the other day, and I was starting to worry."

Souji didn't respond, and Akihiko frowned. He could hear quick, almost panicked breaths from the other side of the line, so he knew someone was there, but whoever it was didn't seem to be in the mood to talk.

"Souji?" Akihiko said, wariness coating his words.

"Akihiko," a smooth, if hesitant, voice responded, and Akihiko thought his heart might stop. He knew that voice. He'd only ever met two people with voices as flat and silky as the one that had just said his name, but there was no way either of those people could be calling him. He had no control over his own voice, however, and a name had rolled off his tongue before his brain had even had time to think it.

"Minato," he whispered, and then froze. He hadn't said that name in years.

"No," the voice said, and Akihiko could have kicked himself for the relief that washed through him. "It's…It's me," the voice continued, and suddenly Akihiko knew who he was talking to. He started to hang up before the name was even uttered, but as he sat with his now silent phone, the name rang loud and clear.

Ryoji. Ryoji had just called him with Souji's phone.

Shit.

Shit.

Akihiko felt his phone slipping from his hands and quickly scrambled to regain a steady hold on it. His heart, which had stilled during his brief conversation with Ryoji, began to beat hard in his chest.

Holy shit.

It was all he could think. No possible actions or reactions made themselves apparent, so he settled on panic.

Ryoji. On Souji's phone. The list of potential explanations that Akihiko began to generate in his mind seemed to stretch infinitely, and after only a few seconds, he shut his wild imagination down. That wasn't helping. He needed to…there had to be some logical explanation…

The phone was ringing again. Akihiko stared down wide-eyed at the screen where Souji's name flashed merrily, but he knew it wasn't Souji on the other end. Unless…maybe he'd heard wrong. Maybe he was making the whole thing up, and if he answered, he'd have nothing scarier to face than a very perplexed Souji. Akihiko continued to stare at the screen through its third chime and, in a fit of impulse, pressed 'accept call' and put it to his ear.

"Akihiko, stay on the line," said Ryoji's voice from the other side, and Akihiko quickly pulled the phone away, ending the call and tossing the device into his passenger's seat. He sat still for a moment, inhaling deeply through his nose and exhaling through his mouth. He gripped the steering wheel tightly with one hand.

A ringing sound buzzed from the left side of the car, and with a snarl born of frustration and confusion, Akihiko turned on the radio, blasted the heat and shifted into drive, taking off towards his apartment. He couldn't deal with this. He couldn't, but, he thought with a rough laugh, that had never been his job.

He waited for the phone to ring out, then reached blindly for it, entering a number without looking away from the road and placing the phone between his shoulder and ear as he waited for an answer.

"This is Kirijo talking. How may I help you?"

"Mitsuru, you said you wanted to continue our conversation, right? Leave wherever you are. I don't care what you're doing. You need to get home now."

Chapter Text

Mitsuru began speaking before the front door had fully closed. "I was in the middle of a class, Akihiko," she said, peeling off her coat and hanging it carefully on the rack by the door. "I hope this is important."

Akihiko could barely huff out an indignant laugh at her comment. He sat back in his chair as Mitsuru made her way into the kitchen, sitting down at the table and staring intently at him until he looked up and their eyes locked.

"Well, go on then," she said.

Akihiko shuffled, reaching into his pocket for his phone. After a moment's hesitation, he placed it onto the kitchen table and pushed it so that it slid across to Mitsuru. She caught the phone in the middle of its slide and picked it up, her eyebrows raised.

"Your phone," she said without inflection.

"Yes, my phone. Look at the call log."

She sighed, entering his password without question and brought up his list of recent calls.

"They're all from your friend, Souji," she said, tapping the down button to see how many calls he had received. "He's called a lot."

Akihiko snorted. "Yeah, no kidding."

"I don't understand why this was worth calling me away from class. Has the rogue shadow hunter turned into a stalker now? Is that the problem?"

"What? No," he said, his face incredulous. "God, that's so not the point. Look, you wanted to be a part of this, problems and all, and you're getting your wish. This is your problem now. I can't. I just…I honestly have no idea what to do."

"About your stalker?"

"No! Ignore the stalker thing. I'm sure he'll be calling again in a minute. When he does, you answer. You'll see for yourself."

Mitsuru was beginning to look concerned. "Why do I need to wait for him to call? His number's right here," she said, selecting Souji's number. She turned on the speaker and set the phone down on the table lightly. Akihiko paled.

The phone didn't even have time to finish its first ring before it was answered gruffly.

"Finally. I'm assuming this means you've cooled down enough to talk to me. I'm tired of playing this game Akihiko. I'm as confused as you are, but you…" was all Ryoji got to say before Mitsuru ended the call. She stood stock-still, her eyes fixed on the phone on the table like it was some sort of bomb. Akihiko almost found it funny.

"What," she said, rising from her chair and taking a few steps back. "What?"

"I don't know," Akihiko said, shrugging. "At least now he'll be pissed at you as well as me. Although, actually, you didn't say anything, so it's probably still me he's angry with."

"Was that Ryoji?"

"Yeah," Akihiko said, leaning over the table. "And, before you ask, I have no idea."

"Why is Ryoji calling you from Souji's phone? What connection do they have? Why is he alive?"

Akihiko gave her a pointed look, and Mitsuru sat back down, her stare never leaving the phone on the table.

"I'm calling him back," she said softly, but she made no move to touch the phone.

"What? Why?"

"We're never going to figure anything out sitting here like useless cowards. At this junction, we have no choice but to call," she said, and her voice was steely. At last she reached out, recalling Souji's phone and sitting back in trepidation.

"Ok, that's it. I'm officially annoyed," came Ryoji's voice from the other line. "I'm sitting here with a very pissed off investigation team who's wondering why the hell I'm playing phone tag with a stranger when their friend is suffering, and I'm having a difficult time coming up with a good reason, Akihiko. Talk to me, or I'm done."

"Fine," Mitsuru said, her voice flat but her hands shaking.

"Mitsuru," Ryoji said, and all the anger in his voice seemed to evaporate. "I'm sorry, I thought it would still be Akihiko on the line."

"He's still here. You're on speaker phone so that we can both hear you."

"Oh. Are you the only two listening?"

"Yes," Mitsuru hissed. "Ryoji, I don't understand. How is this possible?"

Thin laughter hummed across the line. "It's a long story, and I'm personally missing pieces. I don't even know how Akihiko and Souji know each other. The two must have met during the last year."

"Where is he?" Akihiko asked.

"Nice to hear from you too, Akihiko. I love how much more confident you are around your lady friend. Souji is resting. We were headed back to his uncle's when I called you in the first place. He's up in his room now, and I'm here with a bunch of very curious shadow fighters," Ryoji said, and a voice buzzed in the background. "They know, Ms. Kujikawa," he said, clearly talking to someone on his side, "No, I don't just go around telling people I'm a shadow, but they're…yeah…well, his, actually, but they were both on her team as well…here, hold on just a second," he muttered before turning back to the phone and speaking clearly. "Can I put you two on speaker phone as well? I think it's only fair, and I'd rather not have to act as mediator."

Akihiko and Mitsuru locked stares.

"Who did you say was on your side?" Mitsuru asked, caution weighting down her words.

"Souji's team. They're like the Execution Squad in their way."

Mitsuru sighed and Akihiko nodded.

"Fine, go ahead," Akihiko said almost submissively. There was a click, and light, humming chatter rose from the phone.

"I don't understand why talking to these people is even important," a male voice whispered loudly.

"Shh, you idiot, they can hear you," a female voice bit back.

"Now that I have your attention," Ryoji said, speaking loudly so that he drowned out the murmurings of the others, "I'd really like you to explain how you know Souji, Akihiko. It's a bit curious."

"What I think is more curious is why the hell you're alive, Ryoji," Akihko said sharply. "Care to explain that one?"

"This isn't going to work if we're not both cooperative," Ryoji said. "I know we've had dealings in the past that weren't exactly savory, but this isn't about me and it isn't about you or SEES or any of it. At this moment, it's about Souji, and if you know anything, I'd really appreciate it if you spilled."

"Not exactly savory," Akihiko parroted, feeling righteously annoyed. "We killed you. You're supposed to be dead."

Quiet ate into both sides of the conversation. At last, a soft woman's voice said from Ryoji's side, "They tried to kill you? I thought we were talking to Souji's friends."

"We are," Ryoji said. "Akihiko and Mitsuru are rightfully confused. We were friends once, it's true, but we didn't part on good terms."

"Yeah, I'd call trying to kill you bad terms all right," said a sarcastic male voice.

Ryoji huffed. "Mr Hanamura, I appreciate your distrust towards me, as unfounded as it is, but you really aren't helping."

"I met Souji at a café," Akihiko said, tired of the banter and from his exhausting day. He wanted answers, and if getting them required cooperation, he could cope. "We talked, and I may have let slip that I had a persona. That's it. There's no big conspiracy, so please just tell me what's wrong with him."

"What is going to happen to him?" said Hanamura's voice from across the line. "You never actually bothered to explain that."

"He'll be fine," Ryoji said.

Hanamura snarled. "How can you know that? What, are you freaking all-knowing or something?"

"I'm not omniscient, Yosuke, and I won't pretend to be able to calculate all of the effects this afternoon's events will have. I am, however, connected to Souji, and if he wasn't well, I'd know."

"Wait, what," Akihiko said, trying to reclaim some control over the conversation, but Hanamura talked over him.

"I think our opinions on what 'well' means kind of differ. You'd be fine if those weird ass voices from the tower took over, 'cause you love them or something, but I sure as hell wouldn't be. This is my best friend we're talking about, not a host for two parasitic ghosts. I won't lose him."

"You shouldn't have to, Hanamura. Now, please, be quiet. I promised to explain eventually, and I will, but you need to learn tact."

"What ghosts? What tower? Stop taking over me," Akihiko said.

"Enough," Mitsuru said, her voice sharp enough to cause everyone else to fall into silence. "That's more than an adequate amount of aimless ranting, I think. Ryoji, would you care to explain?"

"I don't know what you two are already familiar with. I didn't actually mean to call the first time. This would have been better left until Souji woke up, but once I'd already slipped up, I couldn't leave that loose end untied."

"I understand," Mitsuru said, and Akihiko marveled at how calm she appeared. "I'm sorry for our initial panic. I, personally, was startled to hear from you, and I acted inappropriately. I apologize."

"Mitsuru, you don't…I understand," Ryoji said, genuine feeling saturating his words. "I truly do. I didn't mean to rock your world in a manner of speaking."

Akihiko sighed. "We had already talked earlier today about what we thought was going on in Inaba. You certainly never came up, but I guess realizing that whatever is happening there is anything but simple isn't all that much of a stretch. What I don't understand is what this has to do with Souji."

"Yeah, you and me both," said Hanamura, grumbling.

"It's Minato," Ryoji said.

Akihiko shuddered, and Mitsuru inhaled sharply. "What," Akihiko said for lack of a better response.

"Minato. It's all got to do with Minato. I couldn't be here without him being involved. You know that."

"You said that you and Souji were connected," Mitsuru said. "You and Minato were also linked. Is this a similar case?"

"Very much so," Ryoji said, hesitantly.

"Why can't you ever just say things straight out? What's your problem?" Hanamura said, his voice rumbling.

"It isn't my place to do so," said Ryoji. "Yes, I'm connected with Souji. Yes, I was connected to Minato. Use your heads, please. It's not that hard."

"Screw you," Akihiko said, an angry flush washing across his cheeks. "You think you can just swoop in and dump all of this in our laps? God, every time you show up, Ryoji, it's nothing but problems and trouble, so don't go pretending like we're old friends."

Ryoji was quiet for a moment before saying, softly, "I didn't think I was pretending."

Akihiko clenched his eyes shut. "Ryoji…I didn't…"

"No, it's fine. I was being unrealistic. I thought going to you, gathering the old team would be…but you're right. That's a fantasy. Absolute nonsense. I'm sorry for wasting your time."

"Ryoji, do not hang up that phone," Mitsuru bit out in clipped tones. Ryoji did not respond, but the line still buzzed with life. "Thank you," she said, calmly. "Now, let's stop acting like children."

Ryoji chuckled. "Yes ma'am," he said with forced amusement.

"I won't ask you to start from the beginning, not without Souji. I understand your discretion, but, please, tell us what this has to do with Minato."

"Yeah…yes, of course," Ryoji said. "Well, were you two both aware that he didn't exactly die two years ago?"

"No," Mitsuru breathed. "I…we were not informed of that fact."

"Yeah, he sacrificed himself during the fight with Nyx, but things weren't as clear cut as that. Nyx wasn't the only problem, and…" he said before the sound of a door swinging open cracked across the line, and a loud, older male voice interrupted him.

"What's all this," the voice said, frustration barely contained behind his stoic words.

"Ah, Dojima," said a serious, androgynous voice. "Souji developed some sort of illness earlier today, and we brought him home and put him to bed. We were waiting here for you."

"Oh, gosh, is big bro OK?"

"I'm sure he's fine, Nanako," the androgynous voice assured.

"Well, you all have done your part," said the older, male voice. "You can get on home, now. And who are you?"

"My name is Ryoji, sir. I'm a friend of your nephew's from over seas. There were circumstances, and I thought I should visit…"

"It doesn't matter," Hanamura said, coldly. "He's coming with us. Good evening, Dojima."

"But…"

There was a muffled sound, like a hand awkwardly reaching for the phone, and after a few moments of shuffling, the call was ended.

Mitsuru stared at the phone on the table for a long moment before she picked it up, passing it to Akihiko in silence. He pocketed it and ran a hand through his short hair.

"Well," Mitsuru said. "That settles that."

"What settles what?"

"You are definitely going to Inaba."

Akihiko looked up at his best friend and felt a bubble of hysterical laughter froth in his gut.

"Yeah, I guess I am. Holy-"

"I know."

The two ex-members of the Nyx Annihilation Team stared at each other for a moment before Akihiko dissolved into confused laughter while Mitsuru lowered her face into her hands.

Chapter Text

A distant part of Souji's mind was aware that clarity and consciousness were close at hand, shimmering like the surface of water, and all he had to do was put up some sort of effort, to kick and writhe and rise up, and he'd have it in his grasp. The border between consciousness and unconsciousness had almost become familiar over the years. When one fought shadows, blackouts and concussions were just a fact of life, and usually he was all too willing to struggle his way back to the real world.

This time, though, something felt different. There was something far too bright about the waking world, something that pressed and twisted and cooed, trying to pull him up, wrap around him and crawl under his skin, and Souji groaned, scuttling back as far and he could into the darkness. It was no use. He'd clearly been out for a while, and his body was anxious to wake up. Even without opening his eyes, he could feel the world around him, the sheets under him, the soft light that glowed through his eyelids and a static-y hum that let him know that some electronic was on in his immediate vicinity.

All at once, he was awake, truly awake, and the anxious tingling burning through his limbs made him almost doubt that he had ever been asleep at all.

Souji's eyes snapped open.

It was nighttime, the infuriating orange streetlamp outside his window burning in the gloom, but his room was glowing from the inside, meaning that there must be another light on. Souji rolled on his side with a soft murmur.

Ryoji was curled on the couch, his whole body wrapped around Souji's computer. His startlingly blue eyes were almost dulled in the screen's glow, but they lit up as they locked with Souji's. Souji couldn't help but smile.

"Hey," he said, and was frustrated by how rough and wrecked his voice sounded. It wasn't even like he had been injured, damn it. He'd just…passed out.

Souji clenched his jaw.

"It's about time you woke up," Ryoji said with a smile as he unwrapped himself from around the computer. "Although, you could have picked a better time, I suppose. Sleeping through until morning might have been the best."

"I put forth my best effort," Souji said, pushing himself up so he could sit back on his pillows. Ryoji stood, closing the computer, placing in on the desk and crossing the room so that he could plop down on the other end of Souji's futon. He wrapped his arms around one knee and hunched over it, his eyes glowing cat-like in the near darkness.

"You know, you look weird without your scarf," Souji said, because it was true.

Ryoji just shrugged, resting his cheek on his knee. "It's gotten ratty," he said with a melancholic sigh. "The ends are shredded to bits. I don't think I'm going to be able to wear it for much longer."

Souji hummed his agreement and leaned back against his pillow. He anxiously combed his mind, searching for something to say, something to prompt Ryoji to talk and fill the silence because otherwise Souji would have to think, and that just wasn't an option at the moment. "How did you convince Dojima to let you stay?"

For a second, Ryoji gave him a look that was far too knowing, but then it was gone, replaced by a flippant shrug. "I didn't," he said, tilting until he was leaning against the wall.

"So, what, you just barged in here and refused to leave?"

"Nah," Ryoji said with a smile. "Your friends dragged me away after we'd gotten you settled. I came back a few hours ago and snuck in through your window. You really should lock up, by the way. Just because you're on the second floor doesn't mean you're safe."

Souji smiled. He supposed he should be upset at having his space invaded, but really there was nothing he could hold sacred from Ryoji. "I'll keep that in mind," he said, mildly. "I'll explain things to my uncle tomorrow, I promise. I've got enough drama on my plate at the moment, but I suppose I should at least get your situation sorted."

He didn't know what, but something he said made Ryoji go still and then fidgety. Ryoji looked away and dropped his shoulders.

"Ryoji?"

"Yes, um, we…need to talk," Ryoji said, looking back at Souji with those wide, blue eyes.

Souji flinched, "Please, don't ask."

"Wha-"

"Don't, Ryoji. I can't talk about this yet."

Ryoji frowned. "I wasn't actually going to pry into what happened at the tower yet, but now you've got me concerned. Are you okay?"

Confusion skittered across Souji's mind. "Wait, what? What else could we possibly need to talk about other than my little break down on top of Tartarus?"

Ryoji looked legitimately anxious. "Look, it doesn't matter at the moment. We'll clear things up later," Ryoji said. "What matters now is whether you're well or not."

"Ryoji…"

Ryoji stared back, silently begging him not to ask, and Souji relented, against his better judgment. If it had Ryoji worried, it probably meant Souji would have to deal with it eventually, but for the moment, he let it pass.

Unfortunately, that meant he was going to have to talk about his feelings, and something, a hulking, dark, multi-headed something inside him, started thrashing in protest. He didn't want to think, he didn't want to talk, he didn't want to even acknowledge, because, if he stepped back for even a moment, he'd have to deal with whatever was going on in his head, and he honestly didn't know how.

His emotions, locked behind his impassive mask, were in turmoil. They couldn't stick with one feeling and instead peaked and crashed like he was on some bizarre designer drug. He'd started out with fear and a vague sense of invasion, but that had been paired off with a triumphant, gleeful joy that left him almost breathless. Then came the awkwardness, a feeling of discomfort in his own skin that made him was to squirm, but all that was fine compared to where his emotions seemed to have settled.

Guilt. A slick, slimy feeling of guilt had dropped into his stomach, and part of him knew why it was there while the rest steadfastly refused to acknowledge it. If he ignored it, maybe it would go away like so many things in the past had done, like everything she'd ever done…

Souji let his head fall back onto the pillow, and he looked up at the ceiling.

"Who do you think you're talking to?" Souji asked quietly.

"You," Ryoji responded in an equally low voice.

Souji wanted to laugh, but it just wasn't funny.

"So, I'll take that as a 'no, I'm not okay, Ryoji,' shall I?"

Instead of answering, Souji asked, "Why couldn't I save them? I should have…damn it."

"You mean Shinjiro?"

"Fuck, I don't…I don't even know. I shot you."

Ryoji huffed, sitting up and crawling along the futon until he collapsed next to Souji. This close, Souji could see that Ryoji had stolen a pair of his sweat pants and a t-shirt, and that his hair was mussed out of its usual style so that it fell in his eyes.

Souji couldn't decide whether it should or shouldn't feel like he was looking in a mirror, but he knew it didn't. Whatever that meant, he didn't know, but it wasn't Minato's face or his own that he saw staring back at him. It was Ryoji's, and that was infinitely comforting.

Instead of saying any of that, he settled on, "You really don't get personal space, do you?"

Ryoji grinned.

Souji lay there for a few minutes and realized that his discordant emotions had settled. He fought back the urge to laugh, because honestly? Of course. He should have known. Lying next to Ryoji had the same effect that talking to Akihiko and fighting shadows had. These were the points where they all lined up, where Souji and his past incarnations completely agreed. Fighting shadows and being close to the ones he'd cared about felt right, and suddenly he could breath again.

They he realized how damn complicated this was all going to be, and groaned low in his chest.

"Are you okay?" Ryoji said, his glowing eyes wide with concern. Souji threw an arm over his face, groaning again.

"Souji?"

"God, what am I going to tell him?"

"Tell who?" Ryoji asked.

"Akihiko. The others too, but Akihiko's in a really weird place. I know him, Ryoji, not just from before but from this life as well."

"Yeah, I know you do," Ryoji said quietly.

Souji threw his arm off of his eyes, rolling to his side to look at Ryoji. "What? How?"

"Remember that thing I said I didn't want to talk about-"

"Oh, god-"

"-I didn't know! He was in your phone as Supercop for Nyx's sake!"

"Did you just say-"

"That's besides the point. You were practically asking for trouble-"

"-You called him?"

"-I thought-"

"Aggh," Souji said, rolling so that he was on his back again and staring at the ceiling.

"I'm sorry," Ryoji said, and his voice was strangely small, smaller than the situation seemed to warrant.

"I'm not…I'm not angry with you, Ryoji. It's just…damn…this is so…"

"Complicated?"

Souji giggled helplessly. "That's a word for it."

Souji expected Ryoji to join his laughter, but his other stayed solemnly quiet beside him.

"Ryoji, I'm really not mad."

A little tension seeped from Ryoji's shoulders, but he remained still at Souji's side. It took Souji a moment to run through what might be bothering the shadow, but when he finally reached a conclusion, he was baffled by how he could have missed it for so long. Why hadn't he considered it?

"I left you with the clean up," Souji said, quietly. "I left you to deal with my friends."

Ryoji made a sound that tried to mimic a laugh, but it was unsuccessful.

"And they were scared," Souji continued. "Because why wouldn't they be, and then Akihiko was probably scared too when you called."

"Your friends in general don't seem to like me much."

"You were in the wrong position at the wrong time-"

"-With the wrong face and the bad news and the-"

"Stop it," Souji said, his voice calm and firm. Ryoji shut up and stared at the ceiling.

"I'm always the one bringing bad news," Ryoji said after a minute. "Oops, the world's going to end. Oops, your friend's about to pass out. Oops, I'm death, and that just sucks."

"You can't really help that-"

"-and I stole Minato's face and Minako's trust and-"

"Okay, you're done," Souji said, his voice cutting through Ryoji's personal diatribe like a whip.

"But…"

"You're done," Souji said again. "My trust was mine to give to whomever I so chose, and your face is yours alone. Is Minato alive anymore?"

"I mean-"

"Is he walking around talking to people? Does he need his face?"

"You're talking about your self in the third person…"

"Answer the question, Ryoji."

"No. No, he isn't…doesn't…"

"Then your face is your own. You don't need to slick your hair back and hide behind a scarf, you know. If you need an official announcement, here it is: that form is yours now. You can have it. So, stop doing that stupid thing with your hair. It makes you look like an idiot."

Ryoji couldn't help the surprised bark of laughter that ripped itself from his chest. He stared at Souji with something akin to awe painted across his features.

"You're actually serious," he said breathlessly.

"Bizarrely, yes I am."

Ryoji fell back against the pillow-Souji's pillow, Souji felt the need to point out- and laughed, his body shaking.

Souji gave him time, but when he was still chuckling a minute later, he felt the whole situation had become ridiculous.

"What?" Souji asked in exasperation.

"It's just," Ryoji said, still giggling but trying mightily to calm down, "You. Just…you."

"What's me?"

"Nothing," Ryoji said, a wide smile painted across his face. After a few moments, he sobered up, and when he spoke again, he sounded calm and serious. "Thank you."

Souji grunted and grabbed his second pillow, folding it in the corner so that he'd have some room.

"I'm sorry about your arm, by the way," Ryoji said, softly.

Souji rubbed absently at his shoulder. It ached, but bruises were another part of shadow hunting that he'd become accustomed to. What he didn't know was why Ryoji would be apologizing.

"Why? What happened to it? I assumed I hit it when I passed out." Souji pulled back the collar of his shirt and looked at the skin hidden beneath. Even in the dim light, he could see that the bruise was hand-shaped, and he frowned, looking back at Ryoji. Ryoji looked a little guilty.

"I'm, uh, stronger than I first assumed," he said, quietly. "At least, I'm significantly stronger than I was last time I was human. Anyway, I was carrying you, and I guess I held you a little too tight."

Souji just shook his head. He curled up in the corner of the futon, Ryoji spread out across the other side. Souji's mind was blissfully calm. He recognized the serene quiet for what it was. He was sitting in the eye of the storm. He'd come through one side safely, but beyond the walls and shadows that filled his room, something was waiting. Even in his own head, he felt like a small boat on a twisted sea. Sooner or later, he'd have to face the world and the others, both past and present, but instead of worrying, he closed his eyes. Tomorrow.

He'd deal with everything tomorrow.

Ryoji hummed by his side, and more than one part of Souji was glad to have his shadow beside him once again.


The next morning, Souji lay in bed, debating whether or not he had it in him to actually go to school. It was a Tuesday, and some part of him was intensely amused by how the world just went on. The end could come, the moon could fall, but still one day would follow the next.

Tueday.

Souji snorted.

It was early still. Souji had woken up at around five to find Ryoji had moved back to the couch. His shadow was once again curled up around the computer, but his hair was damp showing that he'd recently gotten out of the shower. His long bangs fell down around his face, and Souji was intrigued by the fact that Ryoji's dark hair did not naturally fall the same way Minato's had. While Minato's hair had parted on the left side and swooped across his face, Ryoji apparently didn't have a part. His fringe fell haphazardly across his eyes while the rest of his hair curled down along his neck. Souji chuckled.

"I think I see now why you slicked your hair back," Souji said.

Ryoji glanced up at his bangs, a pout curling his lip. "I just need to get it cut or something," he said.

"You need more than just a haircut," Souji said, glancing down at the clothes Ryoji had borrowed. Their body types were drastically different, and the pants Ryoji had on were far too long for him. Souji's white t-shirt clung to Ryoji's shoulders, and he generally just looked uncomfortable.

"Can't you, I don't know, generate clothes or something? You made your scarf appear," Souji said, genuinely curious. He looked over at the tattered, yellow scarf that hung from the hook on the back of Souji's door.

"I…don't think so," Ryoji said, uncertainly, scratching at the beauty mark under his eye. "At least, I don't think I can out here."

Souji nodded and stretched, getting up off his futon and cracking the kinks out of his back.

"You're going to have to leave before I head down for breakfast," Souji said, making his way over to his drawers and pulling out a white shirt and his school uniform. He turned back to Ryoji. "I can explain to him later why he should let you stay, but if Dojima comes up and finds that you've broken into the house, it won't help your case."

"You're going to go to school?"

"I…yeah, I guess," Souji shrugged. "Better there and distracted than here and panicking. Afterwards, I'll take you to Junes and buy you some clothes, and I'll have to call Akihiko and…talk to him. Shit," Souji said, carding his fingers through his own hair in distress. "What, uh, did you tell him?"

"I told him that I was alive," Ryoji said, mater-of-factly. "He and Mitsuru were worried about you-"

"Mitsuru?"

"Oh. She didn't know you? She referred to you by name, so I just assumed."

"I guess Akihiko must have mentioned me," Souji said with a frown.

"Well, I told them that you were fine, that I was alive, and that this all had to do with Minato, but not that Minato and you were the same person," Ryoji said.

"That's it?"

"That's really it."

"Okay then. I'll call later and try to clear things up with them. Also, we need to come up with some background information for you. If you're planning on staying here, Dojima's going to insist on knowing who the hell you are. I don't know how to forge records, though," Souji said, trailing off.

"I exist," Ryoji said, trying and failing to conceal a grin.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, Ryoji Mochizuki exists. How do you think I got into Gekkoukan? It's a pretty prestigious school, and they do background checks on all of their students."

"So you have faked records?"

"Everything down to the birth certificate. There's even a nice paper trail showing where my parents are and why they aren't in Japan. We'll just need to update it to show where I've been for the last two years. Do you think Mitsuru will be willing to help?"

"Probably, but how did you put this together in the first place?"

Ryoji shrugged, "Honestly, I'm not entirely sure. It happened some time between you guys releasing me after you killed the last of the big shadows and when I showed up at school for the first time. I didn't know who or what I was, remember, but my background was pretty solid. I didn't feel like I was lying. I must be a bit of a bad-ass, though, if I was able to make everything look convincing."

Souji frowned. "So," he said, "If I recall, you said your parents were overseas, right?"

"Yep."

"So we met in the states?"

"Works for me," Ryoji said with a smile.

"Fine," Souji said, "I'll ask Mitsuru to help out when I talk to her later. Now, out," he said, moving to the window and pulling it open. "Begone, before the rest of the house wakes up. I'll find you after school. Damn, you probably need a cell phone, too," he said, muttering to himself.

"Is there anything you need me to do," Ryoji said, leaning against the window. "You know, I could go to that department store on my own."

Souji smiled, wryly, "Oh, right. Of course you can. I must have been accidentally associating you with Ted. Here," he said, pulling out the bag in which he kept the team's funds and handing a wad of cash to Ryoji. "Get a phone and whatever clothes you think you need. Get a suitcase too, so it looks like you've been traveling."

Ryoji was still staring at Souji's moneybag, an incredulous grin stretched across his face.

"What?" Souji asked, feeling self-conscious.

"You realize that you look like a drug dealer with that bag, right? If your uncle saw that, he'd throw a fit."

"Well, what else am I supposed to do with it? I can't open a separate bank account just for team funds. That would look even more suspicious. Besides, I'm pretty sure Dojima already thinks I'm a murderer or something. Frankly, him thinking I'm a drug dealer might raise my reputation in his eyes."

"He doesn't like you?"

"No, he does. It's just…we're really close to this murder case, and my uncle isn't stupid. He knows we're involved somehow, and without evidence showing that we're stopping the crimes, it's only too easy to assume we're behind them. Obviously, he doesn't have any proof, but still."

Floorboards creaked somewhere in the house, and Souji held his breath as he listened to somebody descend the stairs and putter around the kitchen.

"That must be Dojima. You'd better go," Souji said, his voice a low whisper. When he looked up, Ryoji was gone. Souji walked over to the open window and slid it closed. After hiding the moneybag away once more, he set about getting ready for the day, steadfastly ignoring the way his mind began to chatter and chafe the moment Ryoji was gone.

Chapter Text

"What about this one?" Mitsuru called from the other side of the room as Akihiko laid out his collared shirts in a hanging bag. "Two bedrooms, one bathroom with a combined kitchen and dining area. It's located up above an old liquor store in the shopping district. The owners must be going through a rough time, because they're renting it out pretty cheaply."

"Does it look as bad as I'm imagining it?" Akihiko asked, returning to his closet. The metal hangers scraped against the rack as he slid them back and forth, trying to gauge what he wanted with him and what he actually needed.

"It's…no. No, it's not that bad. It's rather…homey," Mitsuru said, hesitantly.

"Wow, it must really suck if it's got you at a loss for words. Fine, go ahead. I'm sure it'll work, and I really don't care what the place looks like."

Mitsuru sighed, "I'll keep looking."

"I just said that it was fine."

"Well you didn't mean it, did you? I'm going to find a decent place in that silly town if it kills me first."

"Mitsuru…"

"Here's one. One bedroom, kitchen, living room…"

"Mitsuru. Stop. You've been up all night."

"…Full bath. Apparently it has a rather lovely view of the river. Or how about-"

"Mitsuru."

Mitsuru looked up, and Akihiko's stomach clenched at the sight of her fatigue.

"You're doing that thing again," he said, not unkindly.

Mitsuru sniffed and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. "What thing?"

"That thing where you obsess and try to plan every detail of my life," Akihiko said.

"This isn't 'every detail,'" she said, looking disgusted by the very concept. "This is you needing a roof over your head, and don't you even let me start on the whole affair with your job. There is absolutely no need for you to rush into this like a blind man. What you're doing is idiotic…impulsive…"

"Reckless and insufferable," Akihiko finished, pulling down a few more pairs of pants and tossing them in the vague direction of his suitcase. "I know, I know. You've mentioned that already."

"So why won't you listen?"

"Because I'm an idiot," he said, a rough growl lacing his words. "What do you want to hear me say, Mitsuru?"

Mitsuru said nothing in response. She interlaced her fingers so that she looked vaguely like she was praying and lowered her head so that it rested gently against her hands. After taking a few deep breaths, she said softly, "I don't want to fight with you."

"I don't see what there is to fight about," Akihiko said.

Mitsuru made a displeased noise in the back of her throat before continuing, "I just don't want you to throw your life away for this."

"What life…?" Akihiko muttered bitterly, and instantly wished he'd held his tongue.

Mitsuru rose to her feet, striding across Akihiko's bedroom to his bedside table. She grabbed his phone in one quick movement and settled down on his bed as she scrolled through his contact information.

"It's four thirty," Akihiko said. "I'll call Kurosawa when it's properly light out."

Mitsuru ignored him, selecting a number and holding the phone to her ear. Akihiko snarled, darting across the room and ripping the phone away from her just as it was answered.

"Bit early, don't you think" came Kurosawa's deep voice from across the line.

"Yes, yes, I know. Sorry," Akihiko said, the embarrassed flush on his cheeks almost canceling the effect of the glare he sent towards Mitsuru. "I just wanted to tell you that I'm leaving town tomorrow. Indefinitely."

"I know you are," Kurosawa said flatly. "I was going to let you know in a couple of hours. I've got an assignment for you."

"I…what?" Akihiko said.

"An assignment, boy. I looked into that file you left on my desk, and I found myself highly suspicious of the way that murder case was handled. False arrests, poor forensics, the whole of Inaba's police department seems to have handled this with an excessively heavy hand. I smell incompetence, and that just won't do, will it?"

Akihiko could not suppress the wide grin that overtook his face as he muttered, "No, of course not, sir."

"So, seems to me that we need someone to go to Inaba and give the whole department a thorough look over. Someone with integrity, a solid work ethic and absolutely no use to me here in Iwatodai."

Smothering a laugh, Akihiko feigned annoyance. "No use? Are you calling me a wasted resource?"

"The worst kind of one," Kurosawa said.

Akihiko couldn't stop himself from asking, "How?"

"Just leave it be, kid. Don't ask questions that you don't want the answer to. That said, before you go, we need to get a few things straight."

"Fine. Shoot."

"I didn't do this for you," Kurosawa said, his normally deep voice pitched almost an octave lower than usual.

"I know," Akihiko said.

"On the books, it's just going to look like I transferred you, but to save your career from spiraling into the rural muck out there, I'm making sure this is all backed by our department. You get it there, you do what you need to do, and you come back to us. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir."

"Good," Kurosawa rumbled.

"Why use an excuse like this?"

"It was the first convincing reason I could find," Kurosawa said with a huff. "That damn department is just making it too easy. You realize that you're going to actually have to investigate them too while you're there, right?"

"Of course."

"Here's hoping you dig up something terrible. It would make my life fucking rainbows."

Akihiko chuckled. "I'll see what I can find. Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet. Go do your job, and we'll talk on the flip side."

"Yes sir," Akihiko said, and grinned softly as Officer Kurosawa hung up.

"Well, that seemed to go well," Mitsuru said smugly.

Akihiko just shook his head, returning to his packing. One bag was already packed to the brim with his old armor, his gloves, tape to wrap his hand with, his gun, his evoker and a variety of other trinkets and goods he thought he might need. A second large duffle and his hanging bag sprawled across the floor, and he skipped over them en route for his drawers.

"I've decided what you are going to do," Mitsuru said, matter-of-factly.

Akihiko did not look up as he pulled pairs of track socks from the top-most drawer. "What's that?"

"You," Mitsuru said, pausing as she clicked through a series of pages on her laptop, "are going to stay here."

She turned the computer around so that it faced out towards the room. Akihiko moved to it, dropping an armful of socks in his bag as he went. He crouched down to look at the screen. The browser was open to the simple, charmingly laid out website of the Amagi inn. One wing, it claimed, was reserved for long-term guests and could be rented out for a modest price. Akihiko whistled lowly.

"I know the family that owns this place," he said. "Well, I know of them. The daughter was one of the kids that got kidnapped, and I'm pretty sure she's part of Souji's team. This place looks really nice, Mitsuru."

"Want me to go ahead and rent a room for you?"

Akihiko felt something heavy and uncomfortable settle over him. "Mitsuru, you don't have to…"

"This is SEES business, so I'll use the SEES accounts," Mitsuru said with a soft smile. "You won't owe me anything."

Akihiko grinned tightly. "Thanks," he said. "And yeah, go ahead."

Mitsuru turned the computer back around and began to fill out the forms Akihiko's transfer necessitated. She knew it wasn't just the inn that had to be dealt with, but as she began to log into the Kirijo group's secure system, a smile spread across her face. Managing was, after all, what she did best.


The first thing Akihiko saw as he stepped off the train was fog. In retrospect, he should have expected it. The weather reports had hinted at it, and Souji had said something weird about thick fog always following the heavy rains that washed through the area, but Inaba's fog was like nothing he'd ever seen before. It was dense and soup-like, and making his way from the train to the lone cab that sat out in front of the station left him feeling clammy and strangely unclean. He'd shrugged it off, hauling his bags into the trunk of the cab and slipping uncomfortably into the back.

The trip to the inn had been quick, but checking in and dropping off his luggage had not only been painful and time consuming, but doing so had also revealed how limited his plans had been. Apparently, packing for a trip and moving were rather different things, and he quickly realized that, putting aside the simple things he'd forgotten like shampoo and his high school boxing team blanket, he hadn't thought to pack some of the bigger essentials. He needed food, dish towels for the small kitchenette, tissues, cleaning agents…he'd groaned, sketched down a quick list and taken off for the local all-purpose department store.

Junes was nothing special, he decided as he strolled through the kitchen goods aisle. It was just a place to shop, and he hated shopping on a good day. He glared half-heartedly at one set of oven mitts then another, before rolling his shoulders in defeat and grabbing the ones nearest to him. It really didn't matter, anyway.

Lost in an annoyed, travel-lagged daze, he nearly ran over a kid in a Junes apron as he pulled out of the aisle. The kid flailed, long limbs wheeling to steady himself, and he shot Akihiko a sharp look.

"Sorry," Akihiko said.

The kid straightened and schooled his features. "It's fine," he said with false cheer. "Is there anything I can help you find, sir?'

Akihiko blinked, his gaze sharpening on the apron-clad teenager. "Can you say that again," he said, focusing on the worker's voice.

The kid blinked. "Uh, yeah, is there something I can help you with?"

"You're him," Akihiko said. "You were on the phone yesterday. You're…Hanamura, right?"

Hanamura's eyes widened then narrowed with dislike. "I swear," he said, his voice sharp and brittle, "You people just plan on taking this place over, don't you?"

Akihiko frowned, "I'm sorry, but what?"

"All of you, you friends of the time-traveling, zombie parasite guy."

Akihiko felt cold. "What the hell-"

Hanamura cut him off before he could continue. "You're here to see Souji, right?"

"Actually, I'm here to buy towels. Are you saying he's here somewhere?"

Hanamura went statue still, and for a moment Akihiko thought that the kid wasn't going to tell him where Souji was, that he might just storm away or hit him or something equally ridiculous, but then all the tension seemed to seep out of the boy's shoulders, leaving him looking frail and tired.

"Follow me," Hanamura said, his voice flat and almost sad. "I'll take you to him."

Akihiko clenched his jaw and nodded, pushing his cart after Hanamura as he moved away with a flap of his apron. They moved through the aisles, distancing themselves from the home goods section of the store as they made their way to the clothing department. After a few minutes of searching, Hanamura called out, "Hey, partner! I've got a present for you, so show your face."

"Shirts," Souji's voice called back, and Akihiko smiled despite everything, because this was Souji, and Souji was something he knew how to deal with.

Hanamura rapidly switched directions, grabbing the front of Akihiko's cart and pulling it along so Akihiko was forced to trot to keep up. They moved three aisles to the left, made a hard right, and there Souji was.

And there Ryoji was.

The smile froze on Akihiko's face. Ryoji looked different. He was wearing a pastel blue collared shirt with the top two buttons undone and dark, stained jeans that looked so crisp and new that Akihiko decided that he must have bought them earlier that day. His hair was also shorter, cut so that his bangs curled just above his eyes. It was the eyes, though, that caught Akihiko's attention, because they were every bit as unearthly as he remembered. Those same, blue, piercing eyes gazing out of a face that looked so much like-

"Hey," Souji said, waving, and Akihiko was back in the real world again, a world that didn't ooze with blood and glow green.

"Hi," he said softly, then smiled, then grinned. "Hi," he repeated, his voice sure and strong.

"I was wondering how long it would take you to show," Souji said, smirking in a way Akihiko didn't remember him doing before. "I was going to call you later, but that would be rather useless now, wouldn't you say?"

"Sorry. Couldn't stay away," Akihiko shrugged, turning to Ryoji. "Hey again," he said, willing his voice not to quiver.

Ryoji's brilliant smile was worth the effort. "It's so good to see you again, Akihiko. I see you've met Mr. Hanamura-"

"I don't need you to introduce me," Hanamura said with a grimace.

"Yosuke," Souji said, quietly.

"Well, I don't," Hanamura said, turning his back to the group. "I've got to get back to work. See you later, Souji."

"Yosuke," Souji called after him, sighing in annoyance. "Damn him. I'm sorry, could you two give me a moment?"

"Yeah, sure," Akihiko said without thinking. Souji shot him a smile, nodded at Ryoji and took off after his friend.

That just left Akihiko with Ryoji.

"So now that he's awake, want to tell me what's going on," Akihiko said, staring down at Ryoji.

Ryoji smiled, running a hand through his newly shorn hair. "Yeah. You really want to know?"

"If you'd be so kind."

"Well, there's some nasty killer on the loose, there's a world like Tartarus on the other side of TV's, and that kid you know as Souji is Minato."

Akihiko mind went blank.

"I'm not sure I listed those in order of precedence," Ryoji said, grinning to himself.

Chapter Text

Yosuke heard Souji's quick steps as his partner hurried to catch up, and something in Yosuke's chest crowed. Apparently, he still took priority over those damn other guys, and his deflated ego swelled a little at the thought.

The rest of Yosuke just wanted to scream, and he picked up his pace in an attempt to outrun his tail. It was not to be, however. Souji's tactical mind soon had Yosuke cornered near the gym paraphernalia, and, feeling resigned, he turned to look at Souji.

He had expected frustration or even that disappointed look Souji so favored, but the expression marring his friend's face made Yosuke's blood run cold.

Souji's normally cool demeanor had been scorched away to leave nothing but white-hot anger in its place. Souji looked furious, angrier than Yosuke had ever seen him, and Yosuke recoiled in distress.

"What is your problem?" Souji said through gritted teeth.

The need to either cower or bite back tore through Yosuke, but because he had never been blessed with much tact, he yelled, "What the hell do you think my problem is?"

Souji just stared at him, his face flat and his eyes burning. Yosuke's breathing picked up, his discomfort pushing him into overdrive.

"What, you thought I'd just pretend everything's normal like everyone else did at school today? Golly, wasn't yesterday weird," Yosuke said, his voice mockingly lyrical. "Good times with the bizarro tower thing. Good times. The rest of our useless team seemed willing to jam their fingers in their ears and yell 'mi mi mi' at the tops of their lungs, but I'm not playing dumb, partner. Just yesterday I was sitting next to you in some pearly white hellhole while you blathered on about magicians and tennis and shit, and then I had to watch you give up or something and pass out in the arms of that winged psycho-freak. That happened, Souji. I'm not pretending it didn't, and now feather-brain is shadowing you like he's sewed to your feet and this other guy shows up and you expect me to not have a problem? What happened to our team, huh partner? Our team, not yours to do whatever you want with!"

Yosuke huffed, panting, as he ended his rant, throwing his arms out wide in indignation. His shoulders heaved, and he licked his dry lips.

"I cannot believe that you are trying to make this about you," Souji said, softly.

"How exactly does this not involve me," Yosuke asked.

Souji chuckled darkly, and something about it, something that raised the hair on the back of his neck, reminded Yosuke of the voice near the tower's top floors, the one that purred and sneered and tore Souji apart.

"It's funny," Souji said, a cold smirk twisting his face. "You're right. This isn't just about me. Whatever happened yesterday was based on actions made by Ryoji, SEES, and, if I'm not mistaken, Theo, Igor and Elizabeth as well, and I can't even begin to measure the aftershocks. So, call me selfish for trying to take a bit of time to recalibrate, I can take it, but realize that you are the king of the hypocrites in this particular palace. You are not part of this story, Yosuke, you just aren't, and the fact that you are trying to butt your way into this, to make Ryoji and Akihiko out to be intruders into your little world, hurts. It just hurts."

Yosuke felt the color drain out of his face, and he tried not to shudder under the force of Souji's derision.

And then it was gone. The smirk, the ice and the pained amusement all at once were completely absent, and there in their place was the stoic, earnest, disappointed Souji that he knew. Yosuke could have cried with relief. For a moment there, it had almost been like someone else was standing there wearing Souji's skin, and a shiver crawled its way across Yosuke's shoulders at the thought.

A flush burnished Souji's cheeks. "Oh wow," Souji said, sliding a hand across his face. "I'm…I can't even say that I didn't mean it, because you won't believe me, but I'm sorry, Yosuke. I don't know what came over me."

"You were just telling the truth, right? It's rare to hear you actually speak your mind," Yosuke said.

"That's not..." Souji tried before pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head. "Like I said, I don't know what came over me."

"You meant it," said Yosuke, softly. "Please, at least don't insult me by pretending you didn't. It just makes things worse."

Souji just looked at him, his cold mask firmly back in place. Yosuke sighed. "Whatever," he muttered. "Keep your secrets."

"I did mean it," Souji said, his tone painfully accepting. "You don't give a damn about me, and you're proving it as we speak. I tried speaking honestly to you yesterday, and apparently it registered as me blathering on, so what else do I have to go on?"

"Souji…"

"I know that's not what you meant, but you have to see things from my perspective. You aren't going to ignore what happened yesterday, right? Good for you. Press me for details, yell at me for not telling you everything that's on my mind all at once, because you getting all the pieces in place is what's really important, right? Yosuke," Souji sighed, a weak laugh echoing hollowly behind his words, "the others weren't ignoring what happened. I was barely able to drag myself to school this morning, and they were respectful enough to back off for a bit so I could get my world back in order. I'm not mad that you didn't do the same, but you're making me mad now."

Yosuke's throat itched and his stomach felt awful and heavy. He swallowed. "Partner, you know I didn't mean…I didn't think…"

A voice cut through Yosuke's weak apology. "Akihiko! Slow up, man. I'm sorry. Come back and we can actually talk about this."

"Seta," Akihiko's voice called, louder and closer than Ryoji's had been. "Get out here, now. We need to talk."

"Don't you think you're being a bit unreasonable-?" Ryoji called back.

Souji made a rather undignified whining noise in exasperation. "Was it too much to ask them to behave for five minutes? Honestly," he said, and though the question was directed at Yosuke, it seemed to be rhetorical. Sighing, Souji quickly turned his full attention back to Yosuke. "You don't think. You never do, and it's a real shame, Yosuke, because you're significantly smarter than you let yourself believe you are, but it doesn't matter. It's fine. It's you, so it's fine. Just…leave it. I can't deal with your inferiority complex right now," Souji said, turning his back and moving away towards the main aisle. "Because only a third of me gives a damn," Souji mumbled, and, before Yosuke could do more than blink, Souji reached the end of the short aisle, turned and was gone.

Yosuke's hands were shaking. He looked down at them in mild surprise. Clenching his hands into fists, Yosuke took off after Souji, skidding around the corner and dogging up at his friend's heels as Souji waved down Ryoji and the white haired man. Souji stopped and stood still, waiting for the others to approach.

The cop's shoulders were squared as he marched towards them, and he must have lost his cart at some point, because his hands were empty. He looked angry, or, more to the point, he looked like he was trying to look angry. His whole demeanor was carefully crafted down to the way his jaw popped as he ground his teeth, but the man's light eyes ruined the illusion. Yosuke wasn't quite sure what he saw there, whether it was hurt, disbelief or an awful kind of longing, but it certainly wasn't anger.

His voice sounded angry, though. "Start talking. If there's anything you think I should know, say it now."

"What did Ryoji tell you?"

"This isn't about Ryoji," the cop spat before shuffling awkwardly and revising his position. "Yeah, you know what? This is about Ryoji. How do you know him?"

"How do you think?"

"Stop…answering me with questions," he said, and his affected anger was slipping because he sounded more desperate than anything. "Tell me he's wrong."

"I don't know what he told you," Souji said, his tone infuriatingly even.

"He said that you're…him."

Souji inhaled deeply and let out the breath as slowly as he could. "Right. Ok. So, why did you believe him, Akihiko?"

Akihiko seemed to be at a loss for words. "Because…I mean, I don't. It's ridiculous."

"Then why are you making a scene in the middle of a department store?"

"Souji," Ryoji sighed from behind Akihiko. "Stop it. Don't do this to the poor guy."

Akihiko turned in a quick circle, so that he was facing the angel-freak. "But you said-"

"He is," Ryoji said, almost glaring at Souji in annoyance. "He's just being a jerk."

"I'm really not," Souji said, running a hand over his eyes, and Yosuke hadn't noticed how tired he looked. He also was being maddeningly vague.

"Are you or aren't you? Which is it? God, I don't know why I'm even considering this," Akihiko said.

"Because something's tipped you off, and I'm wondering what it is," Souji said, softly.

"I can…I can talk to you," Akihiko said, swallowing tightly, and Yosuke felt a stir of empathy towards the white haired cop.

Souji closed his eyes. "There's no easy way to do this," he said.

Akihiko's breath hissed. "Wait, so you really…? But, how? I don't…" he fumbled, but then his eyes turned steely, and real anger stiffened his back and shoulders. "You…you manipulative, lying bastard! What the hell did you think you were doing? Pretending you were a stranger, trying to pry information from me-"

"Akihiko, it's not what you think-"

"-Making me dance of fucking strings-!"

"Dude, shut your trap and let the man speak," Yosuke said, and they must have forgotten that he was there, because he was suddenly pinned with three pairs of surprised eyes. Yosuke felt vaguely affronted. "You want answers, right? Well, so do I. How 'bout we both chill out for a second and let Souji tell us what's going on. You know too, don't you feather-brain?"

Ryoji gave a jerky nod.

"Ok then," Yosuke said, reaching around back and untying his apron. "Well, I'm not going to get any more work done today, so let's just head over to the secret headquarters and talk about this like human beings, shall we?"

"Secret headquarters?" Akihiko asked, sounding intrigued despite himself.

"It's the food court," Souji said, shaking his head.

"Dude! You can't just go around giving away team secrets," Yosuke said with a wink.

Souji chuckled wryly.

A few quiet minutes later found the four seated outside around a round table as fog pressed in on all sides. Akihiko shivered, rubbing his upper arms and tightening his red scarf around his neck.

"You alright, cop boy?" Yosuke questioned with a grin. "You look a little green around the gills."

"Is it always like this?" Akihiko asked.

Yosuke's first thought was that, yes, the fog always was that bad, but he noticed Souji's reluctance to answer and considered. "No," he decided at last. "Actually, this is kind of worse than normal. Well, anyway, Souji, I think the floor is yours."

Souji sat forward, his shoulders slightly hunched. "I've never lied to you, Akihiko," he said. It was a weird place to begin, Yosuke thought, but he settled back, giving Souji some time and space.

"Prove it," Akihiko said, arms folded.

"I'm…there really is no way to say this without looking like a total lunatic, but I hear…voices sometimes. All the time recently, and I'm not counting yesterday and today in that. The voices are like personas -you two know how they speak sometimes- but they know things that I don't, things that they never could. When I first met you," Souji said, looking Akihiko solidly in the eyes, "I had no idea who you were. Your name, your face…they meant nothing to me, but I knew you were important somehow. You felt familiar, comfortable even. You reminded me of late night dog walks and hot springs and stuffed rabbit dolls and a little girl named Miki-"

Akihiko made a choked noise, but Souji ignored it, pressing on.

"-and so I talked to you. You made the…voices in my head," Souji said as though the words tasted foul and sour, "shut up. I didn't know why, though. Over the time since, the voices got louder and clearer until yesterday when everything came to a head."

"You hear voices," Yosuke said, sounding skeptical.

Souji scowled. "And your persona looks like a super saiyan. Don't act like you can judge."

Yosuke shrugged, "I'm pretty sure you made it look like that."

Souji chose to ignore him. "Look, Akihiko. What Ryoji said was true, but it also wasn't. I'm me. I mean," he said, looking a little lost. "I think I am. I haven't changed, have I?"

He sent Yosuke a look. "Um," Yosuke said, flailing a little. "I don't…kinda? There was this moment when we were arguing earlier…"

"But I was just upset," Souji said, looking a bit panicked.

"I'm just saying that you seemed a bit out of character," Yosuke said weakly.

"So wait," said Akihiko. "You're saying you aren't…him…but he, what, talks to you? Are you crazy?"

"Yeah, I probably am," Souji said. "And, no, Minato and Minako don't talk to me. Not any more. Yesterday, stuff happened, and now I'm not sure where the lines are. I have access to information I couldn't know and the feelings and reactions to match, but I'm not even sure what belongs to who at this point."

Akihiko was staring at Souji, and there was something strange in his eyes that made Yosuke squirm.

"We made a promise," Akihiko said, his voice a low rumble. "We all made a promise to do something after we defeated Nyx. It's something Ryoji couldn't know, so he couldn't have told you. What did we promise?"

Souji smiled sadly. "We promised to meet up on the roof of the school," he said, face twisting. "I tried to be there. I really did…"

Akihiko was out of his seat and around the table before Yosuke could register he'd even moved, and in one movement, he pulled Souji into a hug so tight it looked like in must hurt. Akihiko's light eyes stared unseeingly over Souji's shoulder for a minute before he buried his face in the cloth of Souji's uniform and shook, hands grasping at the fabric on his back. Souji looked confused and uncomfortable for a moment, before he huffed a sigh and wrapped his arms around Akihiko.

"Shinji always did call you a cry baby," Souji said in a warm, affectionate tone that Yosuke had never heard before.

"You never called him Shinji," Akihiko said, lifting his head enough to be heard.

"Not that you would remember, no, but I called him that all the time, once."

They sat there in silence for a moment, long enough for Yosuke to start to feel uncomfortable. He was about to say something to help dissipate the gay, but before he could speak a word, Akihiko pulled back, looking flustered and a bit confused.

"Wait," the cop said. "Who's Minako?"

Ryoji chuckled. "You do know how to ask the right questions. She's another piece of the story."

"Yeah," Akihiko said, sitting back completely. "What is the story, if you don't mind my asking?"

Souji gestured to Yosuke in a tight flourish, and with a smile, Yosuke began to regale his small audience with the exciting tale of serial killers, monsters, baddies and heroes that was his life. Akihiko seemed to know many of the basics, but he was an active listener, pressing for details and reacting accordingly when the story got really wild.

"So, you're still looking for the killer," Akihiko said when the tale came to a close. "Do you think this whole thing will end when you've caught the culprit behind all this?"

"No," Ryoji said from the other side of the table, and Yosuke and Souji looked up in surprise. "What? I don't," Ryoji said with a shrug.

Yosuke had to ask, "Why not?"

"Because that world doesn't exist because of some human. I mean, it exists because of people in general, probably," Ryoji said, gesturing around at the world at large, "Shadows tend to, but not because one guy's got a vendetta. No, if you take out the murderer, then you stop the killings, but that won't eliminate the murder weapon. It might take years, but some day someone's going to rediscover the other world, and history will repeat itself."

"Well then, what are we supposed to do? We can't just let whoever is killing people keep at it," Yosuke said defensively.

"Of course not. I'm just saying that we shouldn't ignore the oddness of the other world simply because a murder mystery is more fun," Ryoji said. "There's something else over there."

"Like a shadow?" Akihiko asked.

"No," Ryoji said, but didn't elaborate.

"Well," Yosuke said, pushing himself out of his seat and stretching. "Sitting around's not going to do us any good. Cop man, can you figure out whether or not the police have more data than they're sharing?"

"I'll see what I can do," Akihiko said.

"That's the most we can ask," said Souji. "Meanwhile, I think we should explore the other world some more. Yosuke, can you tell the others to meet here tomorrow after school?"

Yosuke nodded.

"Then Ryoji and I should probably get back to shopping," Souji said with a smile. He glanced at Akihiko. "Are we cool?"

"For now," Akihiko said.

Yosuke waved farewell, turning his back on the group and trotting away. If he were honest with himself, he had to acknowledge that his confusion and discomfort still lingered. It would take more than a few words and a couple of hours to put his world back at rights, but he hummed to himself as he padded his way towards Junes' parking lot, because at least life was interesting.

He felt that way for a full minute before his earlier conversation with Souji came rushing back, and though he kept his face blank, Yosuke's hands shook all the way home.

Chapter Text

The team had agreed to meet up around five in the afternoon, since it allowed everyone to get through school, work and the other things that occupied the day, and Ryoji totally respected that. That being said, the plan said absolutely nothing about how he was supposed to occupy his day while the others were off doing the human things that they were prone to.

He'd thought about staying at the Dojima's residence. After a quiet but heated discussion the previous night, Souji had convinced his uncle to let Ryoji stay for an indeterminate amount of time, and Ryoji was both humbled and gratified by the effort Souji had made. However, after being trapped in one way or another for so long, Ryoji just couldn't sit still.

He'd wandered through the streets, hoping to spend the better part of the day constructing an internal map of Inaba, but doing so proved significantly less time consuming than he'd hoped. Inaba just was not that big. He'd covered every area of note by lunchtime, and he was left at a bit of a loss.

That was, of course, until he remembered that he didn't technically have to stay in Inaba, and without much further thought, he found himself in Junes, staring at the monolithic flat screen he'd emerged from mere days ago.

It felt like longer, he thought, raising a long-fingered hand and pressing it against the flat, black surface until the screen rippled. It felt like longer in the same way that his month as Ryoji years ago had felt like an eternity. He'd been around for a long, long time, but actually living seemed to move at a different pace. Ryoji liked it, liked the feeling of moving at the same speed as the rest of the world, but it was still unnerving.

All that was neither here nor there, though, and Ryoji put it out of his mind. He didn't need to glance around to know that nobody was watching, and without a further thought, he sucked in a deep breath and dived.

That ended up being a rather poor choice, and Ryoji drew out two of his four wings in order to catch himself mid-fall. He touched down lightly, wings beating hard until he found his balance, and shook, his muscles growing, shifting and groaning around his re-discovered appendages. After a moment of pained readjustment, he bent them solidly against his back and looked around.

The fog had returned, and if he had thought the yellow haze was thick in Inaba, it was nothing compared to the almost smoky clouds that hung thick in the air in the TV world. He squinted, peering through the haze.

It took Ryoji a minute to realize that he wasn't alone.

"Who's there?" Called a high voice from the opposite end of the backlot.

"Can't you see me?" Ryoji said calmly, cocking his head to the side.

After a sullen pause, the shadow said, "Yeah, I can. I can smell you too, but at first this nose of mine thought you were a shadow."

"I am a shadow," Ryoji said, smiling. He waited by the TV tower as Teddie squeaked away the distance between them. Ted was back in his bear suit, and the plastic-like eyes gleamed in the dim, yellow light.

"You're not like the other shadows," Teddie said, fidgeting.

"Neither are you," Ryoji said, collapsing gracefully to the ground and stretching his wings out behind him so that he could recline back against them. "This is your place, right? Come on, don't make me feel ridiculous, sitting on the ground while you loom over me. Join me." He tilted his head playfully, gesturing to the ground beside him.

Teddie remained standing, looking uncomfortable.

"I bother you," Ryoji said, leaning forward a bit until he had to tilt his head straight back to meet Teddie's eyes.

"'Course you don't," Teddie said, his voice higher than normal. "What would give you a silly idea like that?"

"Teddie, you haven't looked me in the eyes since I showed up."

"It's not you," Teddie said, sighing dramatically, and Ryoji could have sworn the bear suit started blushing. "But if you must know, I'll tell you. It's a heart warming and titillating tale of a lone bear, thrown into a world not his own. It's got passion! It's got drama! It's got-"

"You thought you were his shadow, didn't you," Ryoji said, and though his words were gentle, they derailed Teddie more effectively than any scathing accusation could have.

"I…what? I thought I was whose shadow? Pshaw, you don't make much sense. I'm not anyone's shadow. I'm Teddie. I'm my own bear."

Ryoji leaned back against his wings, keeping his eyes locked on Teddie. The bear suit seemed to deflate a bit.

"I mean, yeah, I might have thought about it some," Ted said, sitting down at last. The thick material of his suit creaked and bunched in protest, but he paid it no mind. "It was awful lonely back when it was just me and the shadows."

"Why did you differentiate yourself from the others?" Ryoji asked.

"'Cause that's how it was. There were the shadows, and there was Teddie, and they weren't the same thing."

"How long were you here before the others arrived," Ryoji asked before he realized it was a stupid question. He didn't call back the prompt, but he knew the answer before Teddie have even started to give it.

"No idea," Ted said, shrugging. "Time was different back then. It felt like things had been the same for always and forever, but I don't know how long forever is, right? It could have been a really long time, or a really short time, or no time, or all time. Things move-"

"-differently when people are involved," Ryoji finished.

Teddie laughed, not a cynical or dreary chuckle, but something bright and light hearted that made Ryoji want to laugh too.

"Doesn't it?" Teddie said, his plastic eyes sparkling. He hunkered down, still looking embarrassed, but there was cheekiness behind his smile. "So, yeah, then Sensei showed up, and I thought…I mean, everyone else had a shadow, but he didn't, and I didn't have a human, and I know I don't look like him, but then, I mean, you don't look like him, so I guess that's not, like, a super official rule," he said, barely stopping to breathe.

"Shadows need to know their other inside and out, though," Ryoji said, feeling slightly baffled. "Didn't you think it was strange that you didn't know his secrets and so on?"

Teddie shrugged. "I'm not like the other shadows," he repeated. "Besides, this is Sensei we're talking about. I just figured he didn't have creepy skeletons hanging around in his underwear drawers."

Ryoji blinked. Oh. "Closets," he said, smiling. "It's 'skeletons in the closet'. I think I prefer yours, though."

"Whatever. Those," Teddie said, unimpressed. "He's not like other people."

"He's not perfect," Ryoji said, his voice gentle but firm. "You do realize that, don't you?"

Teddie looked straight back at him. "He's Sensei," Ted said as though that explained everything that could ever need to be addressed.

Ryoji's chest hurt.

They sat there for some time, and after a while, Ryoji began questioning Teddie on his knowledge of the TV world. Were there other worlds besides the ones the Investigation Team had generated, or had the place been nothing but a stretch of endless floor before the others arrived? Were there other shadows like them out there? Did the fog only respond to rain patterns, or did the seasons affect it as well?

Teddie answered as best he could, but the general response seemed to be, "I don't know," or "I can't remember," and after a time, the conversation drifted into lighter, less consequential areas. Ryoji found that he genuinely liked the bear-shaped shadow, and he wondered why Souji and the others seemed so keen on underestimating him. Ted was innocent and almost bashfully naive, but the guy wasn't stupid. In fact, Ryoji found it to be quite the opposite. Ryoji had been given three lifetimes of silent study to learn the way the human world worked and to grasp the fact that it was fickle and always changing. He knew how trends changed, how words could mean one thing at one point and then shift to mean something completely different. He understood how conversations were supposed to flow, how clothing was meant to be worn and the typical path a life was supposed to take. The human world was no less wondrous for his understanding of it, but at least he knew how to keep the slack-jawed awe off his face.

Teddie, however, took everything in stride. Within months of his first introduction to humans, he had moved past the point of raw imitation. He had, rather effortlessly it seemed, become human simply because he wanted to, and he had done so convincingly enough that no body in the small town questioned him. Sure, he missed popular references and misused slang, but, as Ryoji giggled at a ridiculous thing the bear said, he wondered how often the shadow actually messed up and how often he did it on purpose.

Ryoji didn't know how much time had passed, but suddenly Teddie was on his feet, brushing off his suit and heading for the stacked TVs.

"Where are you going?" Ryoji asked, still seated on the floor.

"It's time to go meet Sensei and the others," Teddie said.

"How do you know?"

Teddie looked perplexed. "Because it is," he said simply.

Ryoji smiled. In one powerful motion, he was on his feat, grunting a bit in discomfort as he tucked his wings away. Grabbing onto the edge of a TV, he twisted his torso, sighing happily as his back popped back into place. Feeling better, he gestured for Teddie to proceed ahead of him, and within moments, they were back in Inaba.

The others were gathered around a table in the food court, and Ryoji noticed that the smiles and shoulders that had lifted in greeting towards Teddie fell when they noticed Ryoji behind him. Only Souji's and, he was amused to see, Rise's smiles didn't waver, and Ryoji beamed back at both of them.

""s about time you two showed up," Kanji barked, his eyes smiling at Teddie behind his scowl. "We've been waiting."

"Now all we need is for the cop-dude to arrive," Yosuke said with a shrug, and the others turned to frown at him.

"Uhh, Yosuke," Chie said, her hands fidgeting. "Which cop-dude? We're waiting on somebody else?"

"Akihiko just texted me," Souji said, ignoring the question. "He's near the entrance. He should be here soon."

"Akihiko was the one on the phone the other day," said Yukiko. "He's joining us?"

The question was more complex than it sounded. Ryoji had been quite clear about the fact that Souji knew other persona users, and what Yukiko was really asking pertained to all of SEES. Would they be joining the Investigation Team? What happened to the delicate system they already had in place? Yukiko's question could be answered in a number of ways, and Ryoji was curious how Souji would take it.

"Akihiko wants to join, and he's got more experience than all of you combined, so I can't see the harm in giving him a test run," Souji said, and Ryoji tried hard to fight a grimace.

All of you combined. Damn it, Arisato.

If the others picked up on the wording, they kept quiet. Naoto was the first to speak. Nodding, she said, "I suppose that's fair. We have never turned anyone down before, and it might be beneficial to interact with a soldier trained in a different setting."

The team murmured its agreement.

Rise pursed her lips. "What about you, Souji," she said, eyes wide and questioning. "Are your personas back?"

Souji's face didn't change, but Ryoji could feel his anxiety from across the table. "No, they aren't. I have three with me now, four if you count Thanatos, but the others haven't come back. The…" he said, trailing off uncertainly. "The key I was looking for the other day hasn't come back, so…actually, Ryoji, could I have it back?"

Ryoji frowned. "What key?"

"The velvet key. You convinced my other personas to leave, right? Then you must have taken the key so that I couldn't re-summon them."

"You can't get into the Velvet Room?" Ryoji asked, looking a little stunned.

Souji stared. "You didn't take it," he said.

"Nah, I didn't. I feel a bit silly now, but I wouldn't have even considered it."

Souji hummed, but didn't continue the conversation. After a moment, he sighed. "Well, I guess I'll have to make do with these, which, really, isn't making do at all. I'm more powerful than I was. We'll be fine."

Ryoji marveled at how the others took his word for it.

Akihiko arrived within the next five minutes, a dark jacket wrapped around him to hide away his gun holster and chest armor. He glanced around the group, a strange expression tightening the skin around his eyes.

"Sorry I'm late," he said, his voice thin and controlled. "So, shall we?"

Souji nodded, gesturing for the others to make their way over, and then stood, moving to Akihiko's side.

"How'd your first day go," Souji said, a calm nonchalance brightening his words.

"I got a tour, was shown around, and reminded that I'm the scum of the earth, so on. Your uncle seems like a real treat to work under. So, we just jump in, right?" He said, skipping between topics with a practiced ease. "Just like that?"

"Should be," Souji said. "Just make sure Caesar's the first thing in your mind."

"Yeah, that won't be a problem," Akihiko said, his voice still strangely calm. "I sure hope this isn't like studying for a test."

"How so?"

"You know that thing where you do nothing but calculus for a week," Akihiko said, grinning wolfishly, "and then you take the test, and afterwards it's just gone?"

"I'm familiar with it in theory. It's never happened to me," Souji said.

"You little shit," Akihiko said, affectionately.

A smooth smirk slid onto Souji face before it brightened, opening up into a full, unabashed smile. Souji bounced forward onto the balls of his feet.

"Oh, come on," he said, a lilting quality in his low voice. "You whipped out a Diarahan in the alley that first day like it was nothing, and that was in broad daylight. Well, moonlight, but normal moonlight, not the dark hour stuff."

Akihiko frowned at Souji's odd tone, and Ryoji felt his heart skip a beat in his chest.

"I didn't have days of fretful anticipation before that, though," Akihiko said, rolling this shoulders.

"You aren't nervous, are you? You?" Souji said, his smile slipping effortlessly back into a smirk.

The edge of Akihiko's lips quirked, and before he could talk himself out of it, he was moving towards the electronics department in the same smooth, confident strides that had captured the hearts of every girl in Gekkoukan.

Ryoji butted up against Souji's side.

"It might just be me," Ryoji said, staring after Akihiko's retreating form. "But I'd say he's back. Took his sweet time, didn't he?"

Souji made a light noise that could have been an agreement. Ryoji glanced up at him.

"You alright there, Minako," Ryoji said, an entertained grin splitting his face. "I thought you were going to turn a flip there for a moment. You were practically bubbling with energy."

Souji groaned, sounding both venomous and painfully amused. "It's really weird," was all he said, grinding a thumb in the hollow under his eyebrow. "Truly strange."

Ryoji thumped him on the back before moving away, returning to the entertainment department with an already familiar ease.

He'd leaned his lesson, and instead of diving through the screen, he gripped the top, flipping through so that his legs would be under him to catch himself. He hit the ground hard, bending to absorb the impact, and looked around at the others.

"So apparently," Akihiko's voice growled behind him, "There's a bit of a drop after first entering this place. It would have been nice if you'd given me a bit of warning."

Ryoji chuckled, turning to see Akihiko looking fully put out, one hand rubbing the hip he must have hit when he landed.

"Sorry," Ryoji said. "If it makes you feel better, my first entry earlier today wasn't graceful either."

"Yes, but you weren't in front of a bunch of strangers, now, were you," Akihiko said, still rumbling in annoyance. He sighed, shrugging his dark jacket off and pulling tape and two sets of hand spurs out of its inner pockets.

As he set to work wrapping his wrists and hands, Ryoji took time to glance at the belt and holster slung loosely around Akihiko's waist.

"Are you a gun user?" Rise asked from where she leaned against the back lot's railing.

Akihko looked up. "Eh?"

"Your gun," Rise said, gesturing to the evoker at Akihiko's side. "Naoto uses guns, too."

"This isn't a gun," Akihiko said with a frown. "Don't…wait…" he trailed off, looking around at the rest of the group.

Souji chose that moment to jump through the portal, landing nimbly on the taped up floor.

"Ted," he called, his leader tone firmly in place. "Ryoji and Akihiko need glasses. Is there anything you can do about that?"

"Way ahead of you, Sensei! I've got a few pairs prepared specially for the occasion," he said, pulling two sets of glasses out of, what seemed to Ryoji to be, thin air.

Teddie waddled over, passing one pair to Ryoji and another to Akihiko. Ryoji's pair was wide brimmed and artsy-er than the rest seemed to be. They were midnight blue and large enough that the covered his face from his eyebrows down below his beauty mark.

"Woah," Akihiko muttered, and Ryoji had to agree. Magic was not unfamiliar to the shadow, but the way the glasses automatically cleared the room up was something to behold.

"There you go," Yosuke called from across the room, a smile spread across his face that didn't meet his eyes. "You two have the uniform now and everything."

Ryoji looked back at Akihiko who had gone back to wrapping his hands, using his teeth to wrap his dominant left hand. His glasses were barely-there hints of things, frameless and clear so that they almost disappeared into his face.

Ryoji shifted his own frames self-consciously, wondering if they made him look as young as he felt.

"Should we go to the castle or the sauna as a warm up?" Yosuke asked.

"I don't think there's any need to go that easy on them," Souji said with a smile. Let's go to the laboratory. We'll stay on the first floor today, just in case. In the mean time, Rise, can you perform a general scan?"

"What are we looking for?" Rise asked.

"I'm not sure," Souji said. "Anything at all, really. If you find anything, let me know. Teddie, you can provide backup while Rise's working, okay."

"Can do, Sensei Sir," Teddie said, chirping.

The team, excluding Ryoji and Akihiko, slid into a loose formation as Souji gathered up his sword and buckled the sheath to his side. Turning, Souji gave them a quick once over.

"Kanji, pull back. I'm going to need you on second string today. Akihiko, I'm putting you on the front line. We'll just fight a few shadows today. Nothing excessive."

Kanji switched positions without complaint and soon the team was ready to move out. Souji led with Yosuke, Akihiko and Yukiko at his side. Rise and Teddie occupied the middle of the pack with Naoto, Kanji, Chie and Ryoji providing the rear guard.

Ryoji watched the others watch Akihiko. It was interesting how they found the new human member of their group more interesting than the shadow following at their tails, but he supposed it was to be expected. Ryoji had entered their lives in a burst of drama and acclaim and declared himself an important part of their story. Akihiko, however, had slipped in almost unannounced, and the others seemed uncertain as to what to do with the older veteran. There had been no twisted world to introduce him, no yellow-eyed shadow to spill his secrets and show that the worst thing hiding behind his everyday mask was some insecurity or jealousy. He'd just appeared, and what they didn't know, they couldn't trust.

Oh, that might be part of it, too. They considered Ryoji a part of Souji, a darker, uncanny part, but still familiar and trust worthy. No wonder they had chosen to be wary of Akihiko instead.

For his part, Akihiko seemed to be unaware of their scrutiny, but that was not all together surprising. Akihiko had always been oblivious of his surroundings, and Ryoji laughed as he watched the white haired cop prance from side to side, warming up for the fights to come.

"Whatcha laughing at?" Chie asked, looking up at Ryoji with her big, brown eyes.

"Nothing of consequence, sweetheart," Ryoji said, and patted himself on the back mentally when her face glowed pink. "I just think our boxer friend's been itching for a fight more than he's realized."

"So he's a boxer, then," Chie said, giving Akihiko an appraising glance. "I should have called that. Look at him, bopping around like he's Joe Calzaghe. Yep, look, he's a southpaw, too," she said, watching as Akihiko took himself through a few quick forms.

"Boxing fan?" Ryoji asked, intrigued.

Chie blushed again. "I like all sorts of martial arts. They're the true sports."

"Akihiko taught me everything I know about them, so you would probably be better off talking to him than to me. I'm afraid that I would be nothing more than a parrot, repeating what he's already said."

Chie smiled. "I might do just that. Do you trust him?"

"Do you trust me?"

"I trust your trust in him," she said, her jaw jutting defiantly. Ryoji found it painfully cute and was about to say so when the fog cleared and they found themselves outside of a building that resembled an abandoned military facility.

"Here we are, guys," Souji called from the front of the line. "Yosuke, Yukiko, Akihiko: you guys are with me. We'll go in, engage a few little shadows and see how we feel after that. Ryoji," he said, calling over the tops of the rest of the team's heads, "I want you close behind us. I don't know how you're going to affect my ability to summon personas, but it's probably best you stay close."

Ryoji nodded and pushed through the crowd until he was right behind Souji.

"I'd feel better if you warmed up without personas first," Ryoji said quietly.

"Yeah, that's probably for the best. Guys, let's rush the first few. That'll give you time to get back into the flow of things, Akihiko. We'll see after that."

The others nodded, Yukiko stretching out her arms and flicking her fan restlessly. There was no verbal cue to move out, but as one the small group moved to the entrance.

After descending a flight of stairs, the group found themselves in what appeared to be a control room. Flashing panels and touch screens illuminated the far wall, and the green light they threw caught on the metal rafters and coated the whole room in a pale sheen. The four fighters wandered in, Ryoji and Teddie at their heels.

"Ted?" Souji asked, looking around the room with sharp, practiced movements.

"There's two enemies," Teddie said, his nose turned up into the air. "Careful, they're coming in fast!"

Sure enough, two shadows came tearing out of the hall to their right, two Hableries, their great mouths gaping until they were nothing but black voids, dripping tongues and horrible, white teeth.

Ryoji watched Akihiko, watched as his eyes went wide from surprise and a sinful kind of delight. Without any command, Akihiko began to move, prowling up and behind one of the Hableries before the drooling maw had even registered his presence. He jabbed, once, twice and again at the mask on the back of the creature's head, knocking the floating orb spinning. The creature roared, using the momentum Akihiko's hits had afforded it to swing back around in mid air, its elephantine tongue whipping with enough weight and power to break bone. Akihiko dodged, his movements dancer smooth before he tucked in closer to the Hablerie and bashed into the side of its face with his elbow. Before the creature had time to recover, he'd moved back enough to hit the creature hard again with his leading hand, the spikes on his spurs catching and ripping the maw's cheek to shreds.

The Hablerie went crashing to the floor, its teeth crunching together so hard that they cracked. Akihiko pulled back, narrowly avoiding the fire the creature ignited in desperation before diving back in, delivering a finishing blow that sent the shadow dissolving into mist and ooze. He straightened, whipping his hand back and forth to free it of some of the tarry substance the Hablerie had left behind, then turned to see the others.

Souji was grinning. Yosuke looked pissed. The other three had quickly dispatched their shadow, and must have been watching like Ryoji.

"What the hell was that?" Yosuke asked, an indignant snarl behind his words. "You just rushed in there like a berserker. What, don't they have orders where you come from? There's a hierarchy to this team, got it?"

Akihiko frowned. "Our team always had a leader, but so long as we weren't stupid, we were free to do what we needed to do."

"Well that isn't how we work," Yosuke said, crossing his arms.

"That was good, Akihiko," Souji said, wiping his sword clean. "Next time, though, it might be best if you waited for direction."

Akihiko nodded sharply and moved back to the group.

"That was totally cool," said Teddie from around Ryoji's elbow. He sounded a little dazed.

"Akihiko was one of the best," Ryoji said.

The team stayed in the room for a few more bouts. Souji would move into the hallways and lure whatever shadow he encountered first back into the main hall where the others would take over. They struggled at first, working out some of the kinks. Akihiko didn't like taking direct orders, especially when those orders primarily consisted of, "Rush the thing! Hit it with whatever you can," but he was willing to grit his teeth and bear it.

They were just finishing off a set of Dancers when a creaking groan on rock on metal filled the hall.

"Three enemies headed this way," Teddie shouted. "This one's weak to lightening."

Three massive Basalts tore into the room, their sharp, craggy edges ripping into the metal on the walls as they hurtled through the room.

Ryoji saw it because he was looking. Akihiko threw a pleading glance over to Souji, and, after a thoughtful pause, Souji tossed a nod back. Akihiko's smile in response was blazing, fierce and sharp around its edges, and with one movement, he'd popped the clasp on his holster and pulled the gleaming gun out of its case. Yosuke and Yukiko weren't looking in his direction, so they missed his moment of reverence before he turned the evoker back on himself and, without a word, pulled the trigger.

There was a snap, a crashing boom, a terrible screeching sound like cut glass scraping along window panes and Akihiko screamed as a sluggish, putrid red light filled the room.

"Holy shit-" Youske yelped.

"-did he just shoot himself?" Yukiko said, gasping.

"-should have thought…an evoker in this world, that was stupid, STUPID, I didn't even consider-" cursed Souji from across the room.

Akihiko had collapsed to the floor, his rough, terrible scream dissolving into silence as a figure tore itself free from him. Ryoji recognized it, a vague half remembrance of the persona from the final battle. He remembered how the figure had struck, it's sword swift and brutal, and he remembered the burn of its electricity as it howled through bones and muscles. More than that, though, he remembered it as being marble white, pure and solidly whole, and the creature ripping itself in pieces from Akihiko's back certainly wasn't that.

Sick, red light burned from its eye sockets and mouth. Its face sagged, the wreath on its head crumbling as it settled itself on two legs. The persona was corroding, Ryoji realized. It was missing pieces, as though it had been physically ripped apart, blasted away from where it clung to Akihiko's psyche.

Ryoji expected the thing to collapse in on itself, but he was mistaken. With a reverberating roar, Caesar leapt away from Akihiko's crumpled body, hurling itself towards the three mostly forgotten Basalts. Heedless of the gaping wounds in its chest, legs and neck, it slashed into the shadows, red lightening arching along its sword rendering each strike fatal. It only took three swings for the corrupted persona to obliterate the enemy.

The room hummed with dry static. Caesar didn't disappear.

Ryoji did not know what instinct propelled him forwards. All he knew was that, were this creature to turn on the party, they would not be able to stop it. Something about the decaying husk hinted at more power than Ryoji had ever witnessed save in himself, the Arisatos and in the great shadows of the world, and Ryoji would not permit that to come crashing down on the his friends.

The transition was effortless, distressingly so. One second, he was dark haired, blue eyed Ryoji. The next, he was Death, bearing down on Caesar with all his cold might. Death wrapped a great, gloved hand around Caesar's throat, the other grabbing the persona's sword hand and bashing it against the wall until the sword clattered away. The chains draped on Death's shoulders clinked and clamored as the shadow roared, tackling Caesar to the ground and pinning one arm beneath his knees while the other was slammed into the ground so hard it dented the metal floor. Death pressed hard against the persona's throat, and Caesar writhed, the edges of its corroded wounds oozing and spitting as the persona bucked and thrashed, a high keening noise filling the room.

And then Caesar was gone, and Death knelt only over empty air. He might have stumbled were Death a thing that could stumble, but instead he simply stood, looming over the room like a dark specter.

Souji was beside Akihiko, rubbing the man's back as he wheezed, each breath a desperate gasp for air. Akihiko was shaking, and Death had seen bleached bone with more color, but he was conscious and breathing and that was all that mattered.

Caesar was gone, so there was no need for Death anymore. Without even stirring the air, Death became Ryoji again, and Ryoji ran to Souji's side.

"What…the hell…" panted Akihiko, his voice raw and tired.

Yosuke, Yukiko and Teddie, who had been struck dumb during the whole affair, inched closer, their eyes wide.

Souji squeezed Akihiko's shoulder, looking panicked and furious. "I didn't even think," he said bitterly. "I saw your evoker, but I didn't think. I should have taken that from you the moment we entered this place."

"Wha...how would I have…without my evoker," Akihiko breathed, looking back at Souji over his shoulder.

"Persona's here work slightly differently than they do back in the real world or like they did during the Dark Hour," Ryoji said sinking to his knees on Akihiko's other side. Souji darted a probing look at Ryoji over Akihiko's shoulder, and Ryoji shrugged, pushing aside Souji's concern. They would talk later.

"Do you know how persona's work?" Ryoji asked mildly.

"Mitsuru once…but…" Akihiko began before shaking his head wildly. "No…not really…"

"They are a part of your psyche, a presence that's distinct from the rest of your mind but fully integrated. They are formed from your hopes, your fears, your social interactions, and those pieces of your life wrap around them like a womb, keeping them suppressed while permitting them to grow. The more insecurities a person has, the less satisfied a person is with their inner persona, the more the womb becomes something like a cage. What once were nurturing guides become tethers and chains."

"In the…Dark Hour…" Akihiko said, desperately trying to ease his breathing back into normal territory.

"There were those who had what you called potential," Ryoji said, and Akihiko nodded gratefully. "Yes, those people were able to relax their bonds on command and, with the aid of evokers, could push their persona's away from themselves for brief bursts before permitting them to return to their proper place. You were able to do that, but I can't even imagine the fatigue it must have caused. What you all did…it wasn't natural."

"But we could," Souji said, looking firmly at Ryoji. "What's changed?"

"This place is more sensitive," Ryoji said, glancing around the hall. "Whatever is in charge wants people to be able to use their natural powers, and so everything is enhanced. It's how the shadows here are able to lock in on your psyches. They are practically open books, which is good since it allows you all to call your personas with such ease. That being said, you only are able to call them once you've 'faced your shadows', once you've torn apart the chains that would hold your personas down. What with your lowered restraints and the natural ease this world allows, I bet you all barely feel it when you summon personas."

Ryoji glanced at Yosuke, Yukiko and Teddie and, after a moment's hesitation, they all nodded.

"I can't even imagine it being a chore to summon my persona," Yukiko said, softly. "She's always just…right there."

"Here, once your chains are gone, they're gone, but the same thing works in reverse. Those same bonds are significantly stronger while they are in place, and even with evokers, they are reluctant to let go," Ryoji said.

"So, wait, it doesn't…hurt you guys," Akihiko asked, looking stunned.

"No," Souji said. "And the only time it hurt me last time was when Thanatos ripped free that first full moon. That's why I didn't think to stop you. I should have known there was a difference."

Akihiko huffed wetly, his breathing finally sounding almost normal. "Then what am I supposed to do? Caesar…I can't do that again."

"Actually, I think you got really, really lucky," Ryoji said softly. The other looked at him in confusion.

"Don't you realize what could have happened? He literally blasted his mind apart. We're just lucky that you're a pretty self-accepting guy, Akihiko, or I think we might have lost you."

Akihiko looked sick.

"Let's get you back to the real world, and we'll go from there," Souji said. "It shouldn't be too hard to coax your persona out for real, but it will have to be the natural way. I'm instituting a team-wide evoker ban, effective immediately."

Souji tucked himself under Akihiko's shoulder, helping the man up onto his feet. Ryoji grabbed the other arm, steadying the pair, and together the hobbled back to the entrance, Yukiko, Teddie and Yosuke trailing behind.



Chapter Text

Akihiko's head hurt. Describing it as such in no way did the pain justice, but there was simply no accurate comparison. Akihiko could take pain for the most part. It was part of his way of life, but the pressure inside his head, the wailing, bone-crushing agony that screamed around his skull was like nothing he'd ever experienced. He was sick with it, his mouth slick with saliva and his stomach furled up in knots, and it would not go away. He'd even lowered himself to taking painkillers, but they had not been any help at all. He stared over his desk with unblinking, glazed eyes, too pained even to groan or whine about it.

Worst of all, he was stubborn. Akihiko knew that going to work that morning had been stupid as hell, but missing his second day was just not something Akihiko wanted to do. Despite his age, he had at least earned a solid reputation at the department in Iwatodai for being dependable and dedicated, and he refused to be seen by the crew in Inaba as anything but.

He only realized after dragging his sorry ass to work that showing up in a pained daze would invite an entirely different reputation.

"I have to commend you, kid," said a jovial voice over Akihiko's shoulder. "In a town like this, you have to work to get a hangover like that."

Akihiko could barely muster up the energy to grunt at the unwelcome voice.

"You're kind of doing things backwards, though," the voice smiled, and a rumpled looking man trotted around Akihiko's dingy corner desk, pulling up a chair and falling into it with a graceless sort of flair. "Most people leave towns like these and go to the big ol' city to blow up, but you had to go and reverse the process. I don't know where you found a party on a Wednesday, but next time, could you make sure I'm on the list?"

Akihiko pulled himself out of his bleary stupor enough to fake a laugh. "Trust me, you did not want anything to do with this particular 'party,'" he said, looking the other cop over. The man was wholly unmemorable. Akihiko scanned him, trying to pick out details. If he was pressed for a description, he'd probably say the man was about 5'10" and in his late twenties or early thirties. He seemed young, boyish in the shaggy cut of his hair and the sloppy knot of his tie, and Akihiko was about to file the young cop away under the heading of uninteresting coworker when something altogether unsettling made him stop.

"In this place, anything, and I mean anything, interesting is worth checking out," the man said, a jaunty tilt to his eyebrows and an easy smile on his face. It was that smile that set Akihiko on the automatic defensive.

Akihiko didn't trust easy smiles. It was stupid, and it was something that always sent Mitsuru into one of her stern, concerned moods, but Akihiko had not trusted smiles like that man's since a similar smile had turned noxious and Akihiko had found himself chained to a cross and forced to watch as Mitsuru lost the family Akihiko had always quietly envied…

He didn't know why the rest of SEES seemed so keen on forgetting Ikutski, so eager to pretend that their buoyant, good-natured mentor hadn't screwed them six ways to Sunday. He guessed it was embarrassment. Better to forget the betrayal than to let the wound fester, but Akihiko was not the type of man to forget.

So, when the friendly, unkempt police man sent a disarming smile his way, Akihiko bit down on his cheek and clenched his hands so hard he felt his palm sting.

"You'll want to be careful, though," the man said, earnest concern in his voice and face. "Mr. Dojima's not a bad sort, but he can be an absolute slave driver when he wants. He'll see you as a kid anyway – hell, he sees me as a kid – but you don't want to go verifying that fact."

Akihiko forced his face into something neutral and nodded.

"God, I'm sorry though, kiddo," the man said with a wistful smile. "Getting sent out here. I don't know what you did to piss your old chief off, but if you need a shoulder to lean on or a partner in crime when you go and TP the guy's yard, I'm there for you."

"Why? I barely know you," Akihiko said, his tone forcefully dispassionate.

"Empathy," the other cop said, shrugging, "And, if I'm being honest here, catharsis. I've been there."

Akihiko smiled and was surprised when it didn't feel fully fake. Damn, either Akihiko was an absolute ass, or this guy was good.

"Tell you what," the man said, patting his thighs before he stood. "How about a little 'you scratch my back and I make sure Dojima doesn't eat you alive'?"

Akihiko frowned. "What are you suggesting?"

The man moved in, closer than was comfortable, and leaned against Akihiko's desk. "Anyone can tell just by looking at you that you're completely burned out," he said, a sheepish smile on his face as though he wasn't sure if it was okay to be so honest. "I was on that case. You know, the big one? Well, Dojima's had me going back over old security tapes, interviews and the like for a week now, and, I'll tell you, if I have to look at another hour of silent footage in a sound-proof room, I'm going to just lose it. So, let's trade. I'll do whatever it is you're supposed to be doing," he said, gesturing at Akihiko's nearly empty desk, "and you watch home movies in a box where no one has to see you. The lack of sound might even be good for your head."

If Akihiko were honest with himself, the idea of quiet sounded absolutely blissful. "Thank you," he said, honestly.

"It's the least I can do. But, seriously, next time there's a party or whatnot, give me a call," the cop said, extending a hand. "It's Tohru, by the way. We didn't get properly introduced yesterday. Tohru Adachi."

"Akihiko Sanada," Akihiko said, accepting the handshake and trying to ignore the squeamish chills that seized his arm from the action. "Where do I have to go?"

Adachi turned their walk to the video room into a makeshift tour, telling brief stories about each room they passed and giggling to himself like he was whispering secrets. The whole act was charming, like a cat rolling on its back and exposing its neck. It practically screamed, "I'm safe," and, "I'm weak," and Akihiko almost wanted to buy into it, to rub the cat's belly and ignore the teeth. Suspicion was just not something Akihiko fell comfortably into. He was not naturally wary, and learned caution never felt like the real thing.

Still, Akihiko had been taught his lessons the hard way, and, though he shot a quick, thankful smile in Adachi's direction as the man left him outside of the video room, Akihiko's first actions upon entering the small, sound-tight box were to whip out his phone and text Souji.

Nov 8, 2011 11:14 AM – AS

'What do you know about a man named Tohru?'

He didn't expect a quick response. Souji wouldn't be getting out of classes until lunch, so 12:30 at the earliest. Though it was possible that Souji might text him back during class, it was rather unlikely.

Akihiko dropped his head into his hands, trying to will the pain behind his face and biting through his skull away. He did not know how to make it better. He wasn't sure if anything could make it better.

The worst part, if indeed there could be a worst part, was the fact that the pain served as a constant reminder of the previous day, of the way it had felt when he had pulled the trigger, of the moment he realized that something was terribly wrong.

The worst part was remembering the madness.

He hadn't told Souji and the others yet, though he knew he would have to eventually. The information could be useful someday, and, besides, keeping anything from their leader was probably a poor idea.

Still, the thought of admitting what the whole ordeal had really been like made cold sweat prick up along Akihiko's neck.

There was always some separation between a person and their persona. Sure, a persona was a piece of that person, and at the end of the day, they were two faces of the same whole, but personas felt like a presence apart even as they grew along side their human. That was why personas were given names and why people felt the need to call those names when summoning. Personas were helpful aids and kind-spirited guardians, always there, but with thoughts and actions all their own.

That's how it had always been for Akihiko, at least. Caesar and, before him, Polydeuces had been something like secret friends to Akihiko, like older brothers he could call on when things got rough. Akihiko liked it that way.

It had been like that until he pulled the trigger.

Akihiko wretched, a wet sound almost like a sob escaping his throat as his head throbbed at the memory.

The closest thing he could compare it to was when shadows cast those terrifying enrage spells that washed his eyes with red and sent bleach burning through his mind, banishing all thought except those that fueled anger and bloodlust. He'd been mad before, knocked almost senseless by the power behind those spells, but still his mental boundaries had remained intact.

That was what scared him so much. That hadn't been Caesar that ripped itself away from his pathetic body the previous day. It hadn't been Caesar that Ryoji pinned, whose throat Ryoji had crushed until the world went black then white around the edges. It hadn't been Caesar that had roared and whimpered like a frothing animal.

It had been Akihiko. Mad, blind Akihiko.

Hissing in pain and in shame, Akihiko turned to his appointed task, watching the video monitors with a desperate kind of vacancy.

An hour later, though it could have been any stretch of time to his weary brain, Akihiko's phone chimed. The merry sound made him flinch, and he quickly switched the phone from loud to vibrate before opening his inbox.

Nov 8, 2011 12:21 PM – Seta

'Tohru who?'

Akihiko quickly responded.

Nov 8, 2011 12:22 PM – AS

'Adachi'

Nov 8, 2011 12:22 PM – Seta

'Please tell me that doesn't mean you went to work'

Nov 8, 2011 12:23 PM – AS

'So you know he's a cop, then'

Nov 8, 2011 12:23 PM – Seta

'Damn it akihiko'

Nov 8, 2011 12:24 PM – Seta

'He's a friend of my uncle's'

Nov 8, 2011 12:24 PM – Seta

'Why?'

Nov 8, 2011 12:25 PM – AS

'At the moment, no reason. He set me up looking at security footage.'

Nov 8, 2011 12:26 PM – Seta

'You've got access to security tapes? Witness interviews too? Can you look at the ones around the time Mayumi Yamano was killed? Like, Saki Konishi's?'

Nov 8, 2011 12:27 PM – AS

'What date?'

Nov 8, 2011 12:28 PM – Seta

'Shouldn't you know? Forget it, um, April? The 12 th or the 13th'

Nov 8, 2011 12:28 PM – AS

'Can do'

Akihiko put his phone aside, turning back to the computer that was hooked up to the main screen. He was rather lucky, all things considered. The Inaba department was by no means state-of-the-art, but, with the recent press, they had taken the time to digitize most of their old files and video recordings. Akihiko quickly paged through the stored video files, finding a list of recordings from April and sitting back to watch.

He hadn't had access to these interviews and interrogations before, and seeing the faces that matched the names in the files was rather off-putting. While skimming all of the reports on the Inaba murders, Akihiko had woven a mental narrative and had imbued each person with a personality to match their involvement. He'd been rather drawn towards the enigmatic enka singer, Misuzu Hiiragi, and had developed an unreasonable distaste towards Taro Namatame who he saw as flighty and disloyal.

Yet, seeing them on the tapes changed all that. Akihiko had no reason to dislike city boys, being one himself, but he'd simply given Namatame up for lost or even suspicious. He'd heard 'politician' and written the man off, and Akihiko would have mentally kicked himself for it had his head not hurt so much.

He recognized the look in Namatame's eyes as the man stared at the camera, recognized the hollow way they danced back and forth and recognized the deep, sunken circles that cozied up under them. Most men would mistake the signs for stress, temporary and easily curable, but there was a certain, very specific cast to Namatame's face that told Akihiko that the man would never get over it. It was guilt, not the proud sort of guilt that some killers had, but the kind that comes from the honest knowledge that strikes a man when he knows he was responsible and there was absolutely nothing that could have been done to change the situation.

Namatame hadn't killed Yamano, but he may as well have for the way he was tearing himself apart.

It was sick, but Akihiko instantly liked the man.

He watched Namatame's interrogation twice more before moving on. There were witness interviews of the locals who had been near the scene when the police arrived and interviews of the workers at the inn where the victim had stayed. He watched Hiiragi's interrogation only once before moving on, unimpressed and slightly troubled by her utter lack of sympathy or understanding. No wonder Namatame had tried to get away, he thought sullenly.

It took Akihiko a long time, longer than he would have liked to admit, to realize what was missing. He dug back through, combing the many folders of files to see if he'd simply skipped over it, but the longer he searched, the more obvious it became.

Saki Konishi's interview was missing.

That was decidedly odd, seeing that Akihiko had read a transcript of her interview describing her discovery of the body not three days previous. He frowned, switching tactics. Every room in the station had a security camera hidden in it somewhere, and, after getting briefly lost in the vast, twisted tree that was the department's secured file storage, Akihiko found what he was looking for.

Saki Konishi had to have been brought to the station for questioning, and, if that were the case, she would have been taken to the main interrogation room. Dojima had pointed it out during their tour the previous day, and, though the senior officer had shown him two other, similar rooms, he eventually confided in Akihiko that only one room had ever been used.

So, if Ms. Konishi were going to show up on any camera, it would be on the main room's video feed. He opened April 13th's recording and skipped forward to around midday before he sat back and let the video run along on fast-forward.

The feed was black, white and grainy, but while concentrating made Akihiko's head scream, he couldn't afford to slack off. The minutes crawled by – one, two, ten – while the miniaturized figures of the police department darted in, out and around the screen. Jagged lines of film flaws occasionally jumped across the monitor, sending the whole image rocking and buzzing before it righted itself and continued on its frenzied way.

Akihiko had tilted sideways, one hand cupped around his forehead while his thumb and ring finger pressed into his temples when the screen jumped. At first, he thought it was just another flaw in the film, but he sat forwards none-the-less and rewound the video to watch again.

No, not a flaw, he thought, staring intently at the monitor. The screen didn't so much jump as it did blink, and he stared blankly at the small, white numbers in the corner. Instead of letting the video play at its own rate, he paused it, moving along one frame at a time, watching the time signature in the corner.

2011-04-13 W 04:10:22

2011-04-13 W 04:10:23

2011-04-13 W 04:10:24

2011-04-13 W 04:12:47

Well, damn, Akihiko thought. The video had been edited. Not very professionally, Akihiko mentally added, grabbing blindly for his phone as he continued to stare at the screen, but, then, why would it matter? Why would somebody with police access even want to look back at the security feed?

"Find anything?" Souji asked, his voice muffled. Akihiko brought the phone closer to his own ear.

"Can you think of a reason for somebody in the police force to delete both Saki Konishi's interview and the security feed depicting her?"

The air hissed quietly as Souji took the information in. "Wow," Souji said, sounding dazed. "I was not expecting that."

"Expecting what?" Akihiko asked, mildly, flipping back and forth between the 4:10 frame and the following one at 4:12. "The deletion itself or the conclusion you think it leads to?"

Souji laughed thinly. "Either? Akihiko, this is important. Is there a TV in the room? One big enough to fit a person through?"

Akihiko had been looking at the room for so long, he could have told Souji how many mug-stains were on the table. "Yes," he said, heavily. "There is."

Souji exhaled in one, long burst. "I should have asked for your help a long time ago," he said. "That narrows things down considerably. I mean, jumping to conclusions isn't smart, but if somebody cut that section of the footage out, it's got to be for a reason. How much is missing?"

"A little more than two minutes," Akihiko said, a blur in the 4:12 frame catching his eyes. "God, she left her bag," he said, eyes pinched in an effort to see the smudge of shadow more clearly.

"Who interviewed her?" Asked Souji.

"I don't know off of the top of my head. I'll have to check," Akihiko said. "Shit, I went lumbering through these files like an elephant. I didn't think I'd find anything sensitive."

"Do you know how to make it look like you weren't there?" Souji asked, sounding anxious.

"Not effectively," Akihiko said, entering a succession of quick commands and bringing up the access log. "I had to log-in in order to access the server. If I clear the log, it will hide which files I looked at, but it will also clear the record that I logged-in in the first place. Then when I log out-"

"-There will be an unpaired log-out recorded without any apparent reason," Souji said, quickly catching on. "Is there a way to get around that? How likely is it that the police will even check?"

Akihiko's head throbbed, and he ground his teeth. "I'm just going to call Mitsuru."

"Good idea. Do that, and then call me with details later, okay?"

Akihiko nodded, quietly ending the call and selecting Mitsuru's number from his contacts.

As the phone rang, Akihiko flipped back between the frames a few more times, a cold knot settling in his stomach as he realized that, in the flash between one picture and another, a girl was silently dying and, once again, there was nothing he could do.

Chapter Text

Mitsuru had hoped that Akihiko's visit a few days prior would have helped Junpei in some subtle way, but the opposite was proving to be true. Over the last couple of months, Junpei had seemed to be getting better. He ate more often and talked more coherently, and his episodes struck with decreasing frequency. He would go days without disappearing into his own mind, and Mitsuru had begun to hope that, with time, Iori might grow back into his own skin and re-enter the real world.

Staring across the grubby dinner table at Junpei's hunched, muttering form, Mitsuru realized that she might have been getting ahead of herself.

"Iori," she said, her voice sounding surer and firmer than she felt. "I do not understand what it is that you took offense to. Can you explain it to me?"

Junpei shook his head, slouching further down onto the table. "Nah, I really can't," he said, looking anywhere but at her. "You'd just think it's dumb, Mitsuru, so I'm not gonna…you don't honestly think she'd…no, 'course not…it's just…will you just shut up for a moment and let me get a word in? You aren't the ultimate authority, you annoying…"

Something inside Mitsuru twisted, and she struggled not to recoil, to move away and put some distance between herself and the revenant she had created. She knew why Akihiko hated visiting Junpei, and, deep down, she shared Akihiko's discomfort.

It was impossible to avoid feeling responsible. She watched Junpei rock back and fling his arms over the back of his chair, and all she could see was Akihiko's face, flushed and bright eyed, as he'd said, "I found another one, Mitsuru. He was flailing around in the dark hour, and I took him aside and explained everything to him. He wants to help."

All she could remember was the rush of pride that had burned its way through her, because she had known then that they were saving that poor boy. They were going to teach him how to fight, how to thrive, when the shadows crawled their way out of the dark spaces, and surely he would be better for it some day.

"Yo, Mitsuru! You listening at all? I'm trying to tell you something here."

Mitsuru shook herself mentally and smiled across at Junpei. "I'm sorry. My mind was elsewhere. What did you say?'

"Well, for one, your phone's ringing," Junpei said with a sly smirk. Mitsuru blinked, realizing that the soft buzzing noise she'd been ignoring was coming from her purse. She reached smoothly for the sleek, black bag, unlatching it with carefully manicured nails as Junpei continued talking. "And before that, I was saying that you might want to keep an eye on our good old friend Akihiko. Dude's in a bad place, man."

Mitsuru hummed distractedly, trying to free her phone from its holder. "Why do you say that, Iori?"

"Eh, just a feeling I get," Junpei said, flashing a wide smile that was mostly teeth. "He said he was going to quit his job, but he's Akihiko. He can't drop out of police school. He already dropped out of real person school. Where else does he have to go?"

Mitsuru smiled despite herself. "He didn't quit his job. That was a momentary flight of fancy," she said, finally freeing her mobile from the grip of its case. She glanced down at the screen. Well, speak of the devil and he doth appear, she thought.

"It's Akihiko calling. Would you mind terribly if I took this call?"

"Nah, go for it girl," he said, the lazy smile on his face making him look dopey and intoxicated. "Take care of our man-friend, will you?"

Mitsuru nodded, accepting the call with a tight flourish. "What is it, Akihiko?"

"Hey, Mitsuru. I'm in a bit of a bind. Could you help me out real quick?"

Mitsuru sat up straighter, tucking an errant red curl behind her ear. "That depends on what you have gotten yourself into."

The laugh Akihiko breathed was so low that it sounded more like static than mirth. "I was wondering whether there's a way to make it look like I haven't accessed some files."

"You can start by not accessing those files," Mitsuru said.

"It's a little late for that," Akihiko said, and Mitsuru was surprised by the utter lack of humor in his voice.

"Akihiko, are you all right?" she said, an edge of worry staining her words. "What have you gotten yourself into? Are you…hacking?"

"I'm not hacking," he said, sounding indignant. "I mean, I wasn't initially. I still haven't…hacked anything, I mean."

Mitsuru closed her eyes, begging for patience. "Start at the beginning."

"The beginning doesn't matter, Mitsuru. I just need to know how to clear an access log. If you can't tell me how, that's fine. I'll just leave it and pray, I guess."

"No, Akihiko, I can. You merely caught me by surprise. I'm sitting with Iori right now."

"Oh…god, Mitsuru, don't talk about this stuff in front of him. It's fine. I'll figure it out."

"Akihiko-"

"I'll just throw something together, and, if worst comes to worst, I'll just crash the computer or something."

"You can't just-"

"It's fine. They think I'm a rookie and that I come to work hung over and shit already. I can just play that up."

"Hung over-?"

"It's fine. Talk to you later, Mitsuru."

"Akihiko, if you hang up this phone," Mitsuru began to say before the line went cold and silent. She blinked, her face a cool, plastic mask.

"Wow," Junpei said, whistling. "Man, did he actually hang up on you? You? He must really not want me to know what he's up to."

"It had nothing to do with you, Iori. He got interrupted, and he thought the question he had to ask was too sensitive to discuss in front of the other party."

Junpei's smile stiffened. "You think you're a good liar, don't you Mitsuru?"

Mitsuru frowned. "That did not sound complimentary, Iori."

"There's no use trying to charm you," Junpei said, his smile stretching uncomfortably. "Everyone at school knew better than to try for anything there. You're one strong babe, Mitsuru, but you're all ice. You're also not great at telling fibs."

Hot anger arced through Mitsuru, setting her eyes flashing. "Don't try me-"

"What has Akihiko gotten himself into?" Junpei demanded, his wide eyes cold, and his smile gone.

"Nothing," Mitsuru bit out. "And I don't see how it is any of your business."

"I know," Junpei said, his eyes shifting rapidly from ice cold to bleary and unfocused. "It's like I wasn't even there, isn't it? They treat me like some outsider, but I was there," he said, and his eyes were clear once more and blazing towards Mitsuru. "I was there, damn it! I'm one of you guys."

"Iori-"

"Don't 'Iori' me, Mitsuru," Junpei yelled, voice dripping with a desperation that was thick as honey. "Please. Please, for once, don't treat me like the damn comic relief sidekick and realize that I fought beside you every inch of the way. I. Was. There. With you. Hell, I'm still there," he finished, his voice nothing more than a lashing whisper.

"Yes, you were there, Junpei," Mitsuru said, placating.

Junpei smiled until it was a grimace. "So, you've settled on condescension, then. Cool beans, captain. I guess the mad hatter doesn't deserve to be part of the cool kid's table," he said, pulling his hat down until it covered his eyes.

"I do not think that," Mitsuru said, her voice thin.

Junpei peeked out from under his hat's brim, and the effect was disconcertingly childish. "See! Wow, you are so bad at that. Stick to half-truths, Mitsuru. You'll deliver them better."

"Iori-"

"But I'd be more concerned about your boxer boy-toy. He was this close to falling under last time I saw him," Junpei said, spacing his thumb and index finger an inch apart in demonstration.

"Akihiko's fine."

"He's just hung over and hacking computers, am I right? Girlie, there's only one thing in the world that would make hot-stuff 'fine.'"

"Really," said Mitsuru, dryly. "What would that be?"

Junpei smirked. "Well, beside getting his grove on with some magical girl-version of our leader-man with amazing tits? Kicking ass and taking names might be a good place to start."

Mitsuru's instinctive flinch turned into a smile as she glimpsed an easy way out. "Fine, Iori. I'll tell you what's going on, but you cannot speak a word of this."

Junpei gave her a look that was half suspicion and half curiosity.

"Akihiko told Kurosawa that he wanted to resign, and in order to keep Akihiko on the force, Kurosawa gave him an assignment that he'd been saving for a more senior officer."

"So, what, he's undercover?"

"Yes," Mitsuru said, fighting a smile. "He is investigating a small town's police force in order to determine whether or not there has been any malpractice. The Inaba police seem to have been handling a murder case rather poorly."

Junpei gave her a long look before he frowned, looking disappointed. "Oh. Well, kudos to Akihiko, then."

Mitsuru breathed a sigh of relief.

They sat together for a long while after that, the conversation warming over time until it was almost as if nothing had happened. Mitsuru considered calling Akihiko back, but decided against it. She didn't want to raise the subject with Iori again.

Before she knew it, evening had fallen, and Mitsuru smiled across the table at where Junpei slouched, legs thrown over the arms of his chair as he tapped furiously at his DS with a stylus.

"I'm thinking about getting dinner," she said, softly. "Would you like anything?"

Junpei was slow to stir. He looked up at her blearily before saying, "Yeah," as though it was a question. He shook himself. "Sure," he said, more firmly.

"Give me a moment, and then I'll go fetch something," Mitsuru said, rising from the table. She quickly ran to the restroom to wash her hands and freshen up. She looked at herself in the mirror for a long moment, but though she gazed and gazed, she still hadn't decided what it was she was looking for when she left the small room a few minutes later.

Junpei was up, the thin robe he had wrapped around his bony shoulders billowing as he turned in place, looking around the kitchen.

"Iori?"

"Wha- oh, sorry. I thought I could set the table while you were out, but I couldn't remember where the non-plastic plates were hidden."

"Third cabinet from the end," Mitsuru said, grabbing her purse off of its chair and strolling to the coat stand to remove her jacket from its peg. "I'll be back in less than an hour."

"I'll be here," Junpei said, a wistful shrug in his voice.

Mitsuru quickly left the shabby little apartment and moved in long, smooth strides towards the curb of the street where she had parked her Porsche. She slipped into the driver's seat and, with the low, pulsing roar of the starting engine, pulled out onto the road in order to make her way towards Café Renard, a small French eatery a few blocks over. It was not fancy, but it was solid French fare, Mitsuru was very much in the mood for a croque-madam, and she knew Junpei would appreciate the frites.

The drive took eight minutes and parking took four, so all told, it took Mitsuru less than a quarter of an hour to make it to the café and place their orders. She sat down at a small, wrought iron table, wrapping the slight discomfort she felt towards being alone at a casual eatery around herself like a cloak of pride.

After a few moments of waiting, stiff-backed, Mitsuru reached into her purse, grabbing for her phone. Her fingers glanced against its case, and, finding it empty, she frowned. She must not have put it back properly. Though it was undignified, she began to grope around at the bottom of the bag, shifting her wallet, change purse and makeup kit aside in hopes of finding her missing mobile. Her fingers grazed the bag's silky lining, but though she searched for a few further seconds, she did not find her phone.

Cold anxiety breezed over her, and she brought a hand up to her ear, twisting an earring in agitation.

The food seemed to take forever to arrive, and when it did, she snatched the bag with none of her usual grace and flew through the café's door, practically running to her car. Everything was fine, she told herself. She had forgotten to put the phone back in her bag after Akihiko had called, but that certainly wasn't a problem. It would be sitting there on the table, and she and Iori would eat, and all would be well.

Mitsuru wouldn't admit it later, but she blew through a red light on her way back to the apartment.

Koromaru was sitting at the front door when she arrived, looking downtrodden. He perked up when he saw her, but his head still drooped, and his tail only wagged once before it flopped sadly back onto the cold, cement walkway. Mitsuru stooped, scratching behind his ears as she opened the door.

"Did Iori not hear you scratching at the door?" She asked. Koro's head bowed further.

The apartment was dark when she entered, and Mitsuru's heart began to pound as she turned on the front hall's lights and moved to the kitchen.

"Iori," she called, fumbling along the wall as she looked for the light switch. "Junpei?"

There was no answer, but an alarmed part of Mitsuru acknowledged that it hadn't expected one.

She found the switch at last, and she flipped it, bathing the room in harsh, white light. Her phone sat in the middle of the table next to a note that appeared to have been written on the blank side of a receipt.

'See, the half-truths almost got me. God, you're a bitch. Clear your texts next time.'

Mitsuru numbly pushed the note aside, grabbing her phone and unlocking it with a quick swipe. The screen had been left open on a series of texts, and she cursed bitterly.

Nov 7, 2011 11:58 PM – Akihiko

'Stop looking for evoker orders. These kids don't need them. They can summon personas all on their own, and Ryoji can just turn into some weird thing at will, so he doesn't need one either.'

Nov 8, 2011 12:01 AM – Akihiko

'Don't get upset, but I may have almost died today.'

Nov 8, 2011 12:18 AM – Akihiko

'Fuck my head hurts'

Nov 8, 2011 12:32 PM – Akihiko

'It was amazing, though. There really is nothing in the world like it, is there?'

Nov 8, 2011 07:51 AM – Mitsuru

'No. There isn't.'

Mitsuru slammed the phone down on the tabletop and, because nobody but Koro was watching, buried her head in her hands.

Chapter Text

"Good idea," Souji said, sighing into his phone. "Do that, and then call me with details later, okay?"

Souji heard Akihiko's muted hum of approval, and ended the call without further prompting. He let his hand, still clutching his phone tightly, fall down onto the rough cement coating the school's roof, his knuckles catching the grain and stinging with the impact. He flinched, curling up more tightly in the corner he had claimed as his own.

It was cold. Damn, it was cold. Inaba did not get much snow, but the heavy, wet air mixed with biting winds to make every moment outside brutal and numbing. He wrapped his free hand around his chest, and his muscles flinched and tightened, making his arm shake against his torso.

Souji frowned, setting his phone down and shifting awkwardly so that he could pull a pair of headphones out of his pocket. Once they were freed, he rolled back on himself, plugging the cord into his phone's headphone jack and tucking the right earbud into his ear.

He knew he needed to go inside. Staying out in the chill could only end badly, and, besides, there were things he needed to do. The school day was over, but he had been avoiding soccer practice for weeks, and Daisuke's hurt looks were difficult to ignore. Even if he skipped practice, there was still Naoki to comfort, and if not Naoki, there was Ai, who had cornered him on his way to the roof with an offer and a question and the promise of a new level in their social link.

Another part of Souji scoffed. Why bother, it asked. Why court the moon? Why comfort the hanged man? A warm glow that hazed around the back of his mind reminded him that those links had already reached their maximum potential. He pushed against the warmth, and voiceless songs whispered back, one for the hermit, one for the sun, one for justice, one for strength, and one for fortune. Each song was so strong and sure, they made Souji pull away, feeling weak and inadequate. He did not retreat quickly enough, however, and as his mind attempted to right itself, he brushed against the world.

He was surprised to realize that it was the only incomplete link in his mind. Though Minako had not been able to follow all of her chains to completion and Minato had allowed some to fall by the wayside, their two paths, coupled with Souji's own, lined up perfectly so that every arcana had reached its max. The Moon had been Shinjiro, the Sun, Akinari. Rise had been the Lovers. They had all been the Fool. There was some overlap, but for the most part, the three different lines fit together like puzzle pieces.

Souji considered the World. He had touched a power similar to it before, but only once and only briefly. In those final moments against Nyx, he had called the power of the Universe, and it had come to him whole and unbroken. Thus, he found handling the pieces of the World to be distressing and strange. Though he knew the chain to be unfinished, the piece he currently held felt absolute. There did not seem to be any place for it to go, any direction for it to grow. It was sure and perfect and unchangeable.

Unfortunately, it had felt that way at every level. Every time the social link progressed, it felt almost sinful, like melting down the world's most perfect sword in the prideful hope that he could craft one twice as good, and, though he had succeeded at every step, he felt like he was building a castle on top of sand. One wrong move, and the whole thing would crumble. He did not know what would happen then, but it could not be pleasant.

He mentally pulled away, leaving the World with the Tower and the Temperance, retreating to the corner of his mind that was less musical and less arcane but belonged solely to him. He curled up into it, lulled by the bass line rolling through his headphones, and his body bent further into the corner of the roof's wall.

Souji was not sure how long he sat curled up in the corner, but it was long enough for his limbs to feel locked and heavy. He might have stayed there all afternoon had familiar voices not roused him from his reverie.

"Oh! There he is. Yosuke! I've found him. He's…yes, come on," Yukiko said, her voice carrying in the cool, November winds. Souji unfurled, watching her flit across the roof towards him, her dark hair caught in the wind. She wrapped her arms around herself, the bright red of her sweater blazing against the grey of the sky.

"It's freezing out here," she said. "Aren't you cold?"

He was cold. Souji brought a hand to his face and tried to wipe at his eyes before realizing that he still had his phone in an iron grip. He chuckled lowly, using the other hand instead to cuff the gritty feeling away from his face.

Feeling better, he stood, rolling to his feet all in one motion and settling back on his heels with an effortless ease. He smiled at Yukiko.

"Sorry. Akihiko called, so I came up here to get a status report. I guess I got distracted," he said, looking embarrassed.

Yukiko's face was halfway to a smile before she frowned. "Status report? Shouldn't he be in bed after yesterday?"

"Aki's as bull-headed and stubborn as anybody I've ever met. More so even than Yosuke, sometimes. He decided that he wanted to go to work, and nothing I could have said would have stopped him."

"That's a poor quality in a team player," Yukiko said, her tone hesitant. Souji fell in step beside her, and they moved towards the stairs that would take them back into the main building.

Yosuke's head peeked around the door. "Hey! What, were you trying to turn into a topsicle out here?"

"It's always been one of my secret dreams, actually," Souji said, a slight smirk quirking his lips.

"You fantasize about some weird shit, partner," Yosuke replied, holding the door open for Souji and Yukiko as they began to descend the stairs. "But save it for another day, 'kay? Yukiko and I want to talk to talk to you for a bit."

Souji nodded, his face expressionless. "Good, because I need to talk with you two as well."

The school's warm air wrapped around Souji the second the door closed behind him, and after a moment, he began to shiver in earnest. Damn, he was cold. How long had he been out there?

"Dude, you're totally shaking," Yosuke said, a crease between his eyebrows. Souji shrugged away his friend's concern, wrapping his arms tightly around his chest and grinning.

"Yeah, remind me not to do that again," he said, rubbing his hands up and down along his upper arms to warm them. "I'll be glad when Kanji finally finishes those scarves that he's been talking about."

Yukiko smiled, amused. "Kanji has been promising to make those since summer," she said, her voice coarse with laughter.

"Yeah, if I see even a stitch of one of those scarves, I'll be surprised," Yosuke said. "Guy's such a liar."

"Leave Kanji alone," Souji said, but there was no real reprimand behind his words. "He's been busy with real work. I doubt he has time to make neck wraps for all of us."

"Eh, it doesn't really affect me much," said Yosuke with a shrug. "I'm not a scarf kind of guy."

"Well, if Kanji makes one for you, you really should wear it," Yukiko said, her voice still warm with amusement.

Yosuke flapped his hand in a vaguely reassuring gesture.

The three slowly descended the stairs to the second floor, hanging a quick right and entering their now deserted homeroom classroom. Yosuke prowled across the room, falling into one of the desk chairs with visible relief. Yukiko also sat, but her movements were far daintier.

Souji shuffled, feeling put on the spot. "So you two wanted to talk to me?"

Yosuke shot Yukiko a questioning look, and she nodded. Straightening, she looked Souji in the eyes.

"Yosuke and I met up yesterday after…well, after the events. At the lab," Yukiko said, looking down at Souji's shoes briefly before her eyes returned to his face. "We talked. Everything that happened, with Ryoji and your friend, Akihiko, it all was…well, it's…"

"It was crazy, Partner. Bat-shit bizarre," Yosuke said, shrugging apologetically. "Frankly, everything's been a bit odd lately, and I'm speaking relatively here."

Souji did not bother denying it. He grabbed his own desk, pulling it until his, Yukiko's and Yosuke's desks formed a lopsided triangle. He sat down with a weary sigh.

"Things have been a bit…unfortunate…lately," he said, smiling in a way he hoped was reassuring.

Yosuke was looking, not at Souji's face, but slightly to the side, his expression clouded.

"Yosuke? What's wrong?"

"No, it's…it's nothing, man," Yosuke said, still frowning. "I was just…what are you listening to?"

"Oh, um," Souji said, his cheeks heating up. He was not sure why he was embarrassed, but he quickly ripped his right earbud out. "It's on shuffle. I listened to a little Claude Bolling and then a song by Bury the Lunchbox and, um, other stuff. Actually, Ryoji is working on recovering my old library."

"Your old…you mean, from before? So, wait, when you know songs and stuff, it isn't you is it? It's the tower people, right?"

Not quite trusting himself to speak, Souji simply nodded.

"Then, what you said the other day was true," Yosuke said, looking dazed. "Sometimes, when I talk to you, I'm not talking to you at all, am I?"

Souji shrugged, and was about to say something more in response when Yukiko burst in, her eyes glittering. "I knew it," she said, sounding triumphant.

"Knew what?" Souji asked, an edge of trepidation to his words.

"You were a girl in a previous life," she said, her cheeks flaming as though she had said something scandalous.

Souji groaned.

"Oh, god, you were," she said, and she almost squealed. "Oh, Souji."

"Yukiko," Souji began to say, but Yosuke interrupted him. Yosuke's eyes were wide, and he looked torn between awe and horror.

"Dude, dude, dude. You didn't…I mean, you do have her memories and stuff. Can you, like…I mean, have you ever? With a dude?"

Souji could have died right then and been better for it.

"Yosuke! You cannot just ask a lady who she's been with," Yukiko said, looking disgusted and gleeful in equal parts. "Have respect for Souji's feelings."

"Feelings be damned," Yosuke said, crossing his arms. "How often does a guy get to ask another guy what it's like for a woman when she has…I mean, when she's intimate…and know he's going to get a straight answer?"

Souji buried his head in his hands, torn between laughing and whimpering.

"Hmm, straight," Yosuke said, a pensive look on his face. "Is that straight? If I catch you looking at my ass, should I be flattered or what?"

All right. That was enough. Souji sucked in a deep, calming breath and flipped an internal switch. All at once, the situation went from being embarrassing to being deliciously funny. He lifted his head out of his hands, his face nearly cracking with mirth.

"Yosuke," Souji said, his voice rich and expressive, "I'll go ahead and say that, in the unlikely event that you ever catch me staring at your derriere, you have my full permission to be flattered."

"Hey! What's that supposed to mean?" Yosuke asked, taking more offence than was perhaps warranted.

Souji just smiled. "And, Yukiko, I appreciate your defending my honor, but there's really no need. Though, I must say, I'm surprised that you two tracked me down just to ask about my…shall we say, sexual exploits? I'm not sure how to put that more delicately."

"That was so not the reason we tracked you down," Yosuke said, flapping his hands again in earnest. "We weren't going to ask about your…wait, sexual exploits? There have been exploits! Whoa, dude. Story time. Now."

"Not story time," Yukiko said, frowning disapprovingly towards Yosuke.

Yosuke cackled. "Yes, story time! Aw, man, I don't even know how to feel about this. Were you…I mean," he said, looking confused.

"Was I hot?" Souji said, his voice monotonous and his eyes flashing.

Yukiko snorted, dissolving into helpless giggles.

"Find something funny, Yukiko?" Souji asked, almost sounding bored.

"It's just-you-you're always so," Yukiko said, trying to slip words between her desperate laughter. "You're so-suave! Even-even now!"

Souji heaved an elegant shrug, tilting his chin back so that he was looking ever so slightly down his nose. "You've caught me in a mood, I'm afraid."

Never one to miss out on an opportunity, Yosuke asked, "So, were you?"

Yukiko scooted forward, trying not to look too eager.

It all struck Souji as just too funny. What the hell kind of life did he have where discussions like this felt almost natural?

What the hell kind of wonderful friends did he have that, despite their initial hesitance, they were willing to take something like this in stride?

And so, Souji pushed aside his impassive mask and laughed. It was not a snicker or a chuckle. It was not reserved or controlled. Souji collapsed forward on his desk, his eyes stinging and his chest heaving as he laughed harder than he had in years.

When he looked up, he saw Yukiko smiling at Yosuke in a proud, almost knowing way that made Souji's laugh shift from loud and boisterous to subdued and warm.

"Well played," he said, his jaw aching with humor. Yukiko blushed and smiled bashfully. Souji leaned back, draping bonelessly across the back of his chair and breathed deeply, his body still shaking with the occasional chuckle. "That felt good," he said, purring.

They sat in comfortable silence for a moment before Yosuke felt the need to break it. "So, how hot, partner? One to ten? Hanako to Risette?"

"Yosuke!" Yukiko said, glaring.

"It's a legitimate scale," Yosuke said, winking.

All at once, Souji realized that he did want to talk about her. He wanted it more than almost anything he could name. He wanted to talk, because, if the people she loved didn't remember her, then maybe the people he loved now could, if only second hand.

Souji smiled and swallowed around the knot in his throat. "Fine. You two want a story?"

Yukiko smiled excitedly and Yosuke's smile turned almost lecherous. Souji rolled his eyes at Yosuke.

"Not that kind of story, Yosuke. I don't know what you'd do with that kind of information, and frankly, I don't want to know."

Yukiko giggled while Yosuke mimed being wounded.

"But I can tell you about her and about him if it suits you. It's a longish story, and it's not particularly happy, but it stars a terrific cast, and not all of it is sad."

"I would love to hear it," Yukiko said, her dark eyes inviting.

"Yeah, me too, partner."

Souji smiled, getting comfortable. "Let me set the stage," he said, his voice deepening into a soothing storyteller's rumble. "It's nearing midnight, and a train rattles its way though darkened tunnels. I'm sure people are talking. I'm sure the train is making that hypnotic du-dum du-dum noise as it rocks along the rails, and I'm sure the robotic conductor's voice is making announcements, but the young woman standing by the doors does not hear them. All she hears are the electric cymbals and harsh singing blaring through her headphones. Her hair's pulled up in a high, messy bun so that her neck is exposed, and her bright red eyes reflect in the dark window, looking more brown than crimson."

"Wait, red eyes? People don't have red eyes," Yosuke said, frowning.

"Don't interrupt, Yosuke," Yukiko said. "He'll never get through the story if you keep stopping him."

Yosuke scoffed, but stayed quiet.

And so, the story went. Souji quickly realized that telling the whole tale would take far longer than they had, but instead of rushing himself, he let the story unravel on its own. Certain chunks warranted much more care and time than others, and he allowed himself to linger on those moments, hoping to imbue his words with the proper weight and respect.

He only truly talked about the beginning. The rest he would tell in time, but those first few months had been exciting and fun and wonderfully simple. He could talk about Thanatos' dramatic appearance, Junpei's petty grudges, Yukari's strong face and the first few full moons with a cool sort of ease, but he purposefully cut himself off before Ken or Shinji joined, clapping his hands and promising to tell them more later.

Yosuke had to ask whether the 'man in the shower' at the hotel during the third full moon had been Akihiko or Junpei, and Yukiko had to ask whether or not the investigation team had spent their trip to Iwatodai in a place that once crawled with shadows. Yosuke wondered where Fuuka, Mitsuru and Yukari would fit on the one-to-ten scale. Yukiko asked whether Rio, Kaz and Yuko, Souji's friends from tennis and around school, had ever visited the Amagi Inn.

Souji felt warm, clean, and absolutely exhausted from the telling. He glanced tiredly out of the large windows.

"It's late," he said. "They'll probably kick us out soon."

"We should leave before they get the chance," Yukiko said, stretching elegantly and climbing to her feet.

"I can shoot for dinner if you two are interested," Yosuke said, also stretching but with much less grace. "That is, if you don't mind me bringing Ted. My parents are never sure what to do with him. You, uh," he said, rubbing the back of his head. "Why don't you call up the angel-man and ask him to meet us, too?"

Souji's grateful smile seemed to be the response Yosuke had been digging for. "That sounds great, Yosuke."

Yukiko hummed tunelessly, pulling out her phone. She was probably texting Chie, and Souji could find no fault in that.

The three left the school building, making their way towards dinner and friends. Souji knew he should bring up Akihiko's discovery and the troubles facing their team, but he could not find it in himself to bring his friends' spirits down quite yet. There would be plenty of time for plotting and planning and dealing with the rough stuff, but as his small crew made their way down the school's front steps, Souji could not help but be thankful for those moments in between.

Chapter Text

Akihiko realized, with the damnable powers of retrospect, that the solution to his file-access goof should have been obvious from the start.

"You are on a server, correct," Fuuka asked after Akihiko had called her and brought her up to date. "With an admin and such?"

"Yeah, Fuuka."

"Well, then, I suppose the question is who you are trying to hide from. If it's your boss, and he has administrative rights, this might get tricky, because it's very difficult to hide anything from an admin when you don't have admin rights yourself."

"So there's nothing you can do?"

"Oh, no, I didn't say that. I just said it would be tricky."

"Well, I'm not trying to hide from my boss," Akihiko said, gruffly. "Or, at least, I don't think I am. That's kind of the problem. I don't really have a clue where the threat's coming from."

"You could talk it through with me, if you would like," Fuuka said, and Akihiko could hear her settling in. "I have a meeting with my Data Structures group in two hours, but I can help until then."

"That…yeah, okay," Akihiko said, scratching the back of his head. "So, I don't think my boss is the problem. He's the leader of this case I'm working on, but while he seems to be the most powerful guy in this office, he doesn't strike me as particularly tech savvy. In addition to that, the whole system's been recently updated. I'm guessing that there's some secondary guy in charge of all this. Either that, or this office's system is really just accessing the national one, in which case…" Akihiko trailed off with a groan. "This is why I didn't go to school for this stuff."

"Okay, well, for the most part, if the person you're trying to hide from doesn't have administrative powers, you should be fine. They can't call up the log any more easily than you can. Also, if your server were handled out of office, there would be no reason for them to look. That said, I see where your ill ease is coming from. If the person is that techie or knows that techie, he or she might have the ability to take a peek at the records and see what you've been up to."

"Yeah, exactly."

"But, why?"

Akihiko blinked. "What do you mean, why?"

"I'm sorry. Maybe I'm not understanding you quite right, but I can't really comprehend why someone would go to all this trouble. You don't know from whom you are hiding, so they can't have a grudge against you. This just seems like a lot of effort to go through on everybody's parts."

"Yeah, but-"

"Have you done anything that might make you look suspicious?"

"Not yet, no."

The silence that followed stretched until Akihiko felt supremely awkward.

"Fuuka, look. I'm dealing with somebody that may have killed two people. Maybe more. For my peace of mind-"

"Oh, sorry. I usually don't talk when I'm working. I just started writing a program that should clear the log back a few spaces. How far back do you want it to go?"

Akihiko blinked again. "Thanks," he said, starting to grin. "Uh, about nine – wait, no, ten files should work."

"Okay. Give me some time," Fuuka said and fell silent.

Akihiko sat quietly for a few minutes, but soon the need to move or do something left him antsy and itching. He shuffled in his chair, the creaking of the fake leather loud in the constricted box. He tapped his fingers softly against the keys, making them clack.

"So, what have you been up to besides breaking into files, Akihiko?" Fuuka asked, and Akihiko silently thanked her perceptiveness.

Then, he realized that he could not really answer her question. "Not too much," he said, slightly louder than was necessary. An idea struck Akihiko, and he stammered, "W-wait, Fuuka. I have question. It's a bit weird, but..."

"Yes?"

"You know those headphones? The ones you made for Minato-" Akihiko said, and he had to take a moment to shake off the awed wonder that swept through him, because that had been so easy. For the first time in years, he felt no hesitation upon approaching Minato's name, and the rush of elation that tore its way through him made his eyes clench and the tendons in his throat pop.

Fuuka responded after a hesitant silence. "Yes, Akihiko. Of course I do," she said, and Akihiko sobered instantly at the old pain residing deep within her words.

"It wouldn't...do you use them for anything? I have this friend who's into music and stuff the same way that our leader was, and he also really likes homemade electronics, so I thought…I mean, if they are just sitting around…"

Akihiko could feel Fuuka's shock before she even said a word. "Akihiko, those were his," she said, and Akihiko flinched in recognition. A week ago, he would have felt the same. Worse, said a cruel, petty part of his mind, but Akihiko stomped down on it, returning his attention to Fuuka.

"I know. I really know, Fuuka. I'm sorry. That wasn't my place."

For a moment, no sound came from Fuuka's side except for the clattering of keys. "I'll," she said, uncertain, "I'll think about it."

"Wha-"

"I've always felt bad about keeping them boxed away. I don't think our leader would appreciate knowing that we have held onto his things like relics," she said. "I'll think about it."

Guilt turned Akihiko's smile sour. "Thank you, Fuuka."

"I miss him too," Fuuka said in that wonderfully warm way that was only hers. "We all do."

"I know," Akihiko said, his voice firm and his heart shaking.

After that, Akihiko's restlessness evaporated. He did not particularly want to talk anymore. Fuuka remained quiet, too, but Akihiko couldn't figure out whether it was due to her insightful nature or whether she felt the same way.

It took Fuuka fifteen minutes to finish her program, but Akihiko hardly noticed. He had dozed off in the first two, lulled into drowsiness by the humming static of white noise. He was jarred back into consciousness at the sound of her voice.

"I've sent it to you in plain text format. It's in C++. Do you know how to work with that?"

Akihiko had a vague idea and told her as much.

"I'll walk you through it," Fuuka said, and she did.

A quarter of an hour later found Akihiko with a cleared computer, and he and Fuuka ended their conversation cordially. Having nothing else to do and feeling weak and drained after his long day, Akihiko gave the booth a quick once-over before grabbing his phone and exiting into a hallway. He wandered towards the large, open room that held most of the officers' desks and working spaces. He looked like shit, and he knew it, but his embarrassment over the fact had evaporated during his long hours in the booth, leaving nothing but resigned apathy in its place. He strolled uncaringly to his space, grabbing his jacket off the back of his chair and reaching under the desk to retrieve his briefcase.

"Feeling any better?" asked a voice to his left, and Akihiko jumped because he could have sworn the room was empty. "Woah, sorry! I didn't mean to frighten you."

Akihiko turned to see Adachi leaning against a desk and looking even more sheepish and disheveled than he had that morning. He brought his hand up to wave but seemed to decide against it, moving instead to scratch at the back of his neck.

"Are you headed out?" Adachi asked, looking pointedly at the jacket Akihiko had slung over his shoulder.

"I was planning to," Akihiko said, his voice a flat rumble.

"If you don't have anything better to do, Dojima and I were about to head out for drinks. You're welcome to join us, if you'd like."

Akihiko laughed dryly. "I really don't think I need to be drinking tonight," he said, and his head throbbed as if to prove his point.

"I'm so impressed with your hangover, I'm speechless," Adachi said, looking equal parts proud and sympathetic. Akihiko snickered. "Well, if I'm honest, we'd really just be getting dinner. I'm trying to sell this as more fun than it's probably going to be, but it's worth a shot, right? Do you know any of the restaurants around town?"

"Not really," said Akihiko.

"Perfect! Then you don't know better than to believe me when I say that this one place called Aiya has the best food in town," Adachi said, his lips quirked into a small, easy smile.

"Aiya?" Akihiko asked.

"It's a Chinese diner. It's good, I promise, and, more importantly, it's cheap. You in?"

Akihiko considered briefly, but since he was unable to come up with a reason against going, he shrugged. "Lead the way, Adachi," he said.

"Please don't call me that," Adachi said with an exaggerated sigh. "Around here, my name is practically an insult. 'You're starting to act like Adachi,'" Adachi snarked in a rather passable impression of Dojima. "'If I didn't know any better, I'd say you've been spending too much time with Adachi'. It's a nightmare."

"Did you do anything to deserve that reputation?" Akihiko had to ask.

"Not particularly. That's just how Dojima is."

"But you two are friends," said Akihiko. Adachi looked back at him, eyebrows tilted in confusion. "I mean, you go to dinner with him, right?"

Adachi appeared to think on that for a minute. "I guess so," he said with an open-armed shrug. "Sure. Dojima and I are pals."

Akihiko decided not to press the matter.

The two swung by Dojima's office to find the scruffy older detective setting his desk into order. Adachi rapped on the door, a jovial smile spread across his face.

"Sir, are you about ready to go?" He asked.

Dojima looked back, several folders in hand, and frowned. "Can't. The kid called saying he's going to be late, so I need to get back to Nanako."

"Oh, of course, sir. I just thought that it might be nice to show the new guy a bit of hospitality, is all."

"Yeah, that's the last thing I need. More hotshots from the city," Dojima muttered under his breath. "You two go ahead."

"Sure, Dojima," Adachi said with a put-upon smile and turned back to the hallway, gesturing for Akihiko to follow.

"Poor guy's had it rough," Adachi said once they were out of earshot. "He's personally in charge of that murder investigation, and as you can imagine, he's been the butt of a whole lot of abuse from the higher-ups. The serial murder case is practically cold, now, and we still haven't made much progress. I think he's half convinced you're some kind of mole sent to keep tabs on him."

Akihiko forced a soft smile. "Yeah, I wish."

Adachi laughed. "Don't worry. He'll get over it in time. Dojima usually has good intentions. He's just been so harried lately, he's jumping at shadows."

Privately, Akihiko thought that shadows were more than worth jumping at, but he ignored Adachi's turn of phrase. "So, it's just you and me, then."

"I guess so. The restaurant's on the main street, but if you need a ride, I can drive."

Akihiko nodded, remaining steadfastly silent. This guy seemed to like to talk, so Akihiko decided to sit back and listen.

Aiya turned out to be a wood-paneled, brown and red restaurant that reminded Akihiko of his favorite noodle restaurant back in Iwatodai. Akihiko caught the door after Adachi had already entered, and all at once, he was hit with the sounds of spitting oil, clattering pans and loud, enthusiastic talking.

"-t's not even obscure, Yosuke. It's a well-known play. I don't know how you could have not heard of it."

"Gah, musicals, partner? Come on. Why the hell do you know about it, anyway?"

"I'm in drama. What do you think I do in drama?"

"Skinny chicks with daddy issues-"

"-Yosuke!"

"-I told you that in confidence, you absolute ass, and I've never slept with Yumi."

"Well, why the hell not?"

Adachi chuckled at Akihiko's side, and the noise was loud enough to catch the attention of the bickering table.

"Adachi," Souji acknowledged with a wave. Souji barely glanced in Akihiko's direction, which was probably a smart play.

"Hello, Souji," Adachi said with a smile. "Dojima mentioned that you would be out tonight."

"Ah, sorry. I didn't know he had plans."

"It's probably for the best, really," Adachi said, a picture of meek deference. "He should spend time with Nanako while he can get it. Besides, I'm showing the new guy around, and, well, you heard how Dojima reacts to young city boys."

"Fair enough," Souji said, extending his hand towards Akihiko. "Souji Seta."

Akihiko accepted the handshake. "Sanada," he said, struggling not to smile. He saw a muscle work in Souji's jaw, but Seta's face remained impassive.

"Nice to meet you, Sanada," he said before nodding at Adachi and turning back to his friends. Adachi moved away, claiming two seats at the bar.

"Is that Dojima's son?" Akihiko asked

"Nah, that's his nephew. It's good to see those kids acting normal and not, you know, crazy suspicious," Adachi said with a skipping chuckle.

"Suspicious?"

"Well, you know," Adachi said, trailing off. "I-uh-really shouldn't. Dojima will ride me hard for speculating wildly on case stuff. It's just-"

"I mean, you don't have to say anything if you don't want to," Akihiko said, trying to sound reassuring. Damn it, acting had never been his strong suit.

"No, it's fine. I…look, what would you say if somebody or multiple somebodies showed up around every crime scene or suspected crime scene involved in a case, sometimes even before the police got there? Those kids…it's probably bad luck, but they've been around at every stage of the investigation, and it's starting to look awfully suspect."

"Does Dojima know about this?"

"Oh, he knows, and it drives him crazy, but Souji's his nephew, and I'm afraid he's a little too involved in this to see things clearly."

Akihiko frowned. "Do you think Souji and his friends did it?"

"No, no, of course not," Adachi said with a smile. "But it's stupid to ignore simple facts. The murders started right after Souji moved to town, and every person that's mysteriously disappeared since started following him around like a dog the moment they returned."

"But that makes no sense," Akihiko said, trying to make his voice sound intrigued but doubtful. "If he's behind the whole thing, why would the abductees follow him? Are you thinking Stockholm Syndrome?"

"You're trying to make this too black and white," Adachi said, and his face briefly twisted into a frown before it smoothed back out. "He doesn't have to be the murderer to be involved. I just think it would be beneficial to call the group in and pick their brains a bit, but I suppose all of this is just baseless conjecture at the end of the day."

"It sounds like you've been thinking about this for a whi-"

The door opened with a blast of frosty November air that made Akihiko tighten his jacket around his shoulders. Ryoji trotted in, Teddie tight on his heels, and the two chattered all the way to Souji's table. Ryoji grinned broadly at Souji.

"What have you been up to all day?" he asked, his face rosy from the cold.

"Leader here was telling us about everything that happened two years ago," Yosuke said.

"Oh, have you mentioned me yet?" Ryoji asked, his eyes glowing.

"Ryoji, you don't show up until the very, very end," Souji said. "No, I haven't gotten to you yet."

"But I was there the whole time!"

"Oh, right, good. Yes, so there was this creepy kid who used to sneak into my room at night sometimes and watch me sleep. There, your contribution has been noted," Souji said, and Akihiko saw his jaw pop again, meaning he was amused but hiding it.

"Yes, and then we'd make out for hours and hours," Ryoji said, cackling as Souji's expression turned deadly. "Oh, I'm sorry. Is that not how the story went?"

"Ryoji," Souji growled.

"Well it's so hard to remember! Maybe if you added a few more details, you might jog my memory," Ryoji said, and Akihko realized he had never seen the shadow laugh that openly.

"Fine," Souji bit out. "This kid named Pharos used to…what do you want me to say? Literally, all I can tell you is that this distressing ten year old used to show up in my room sometimes. There's nothing else there to work with!"

"He used to dream of me," Ryoji said, adopting a sagely tone.

"You didn't show up in my dreams," Souji said, his feigned annoyance cracking to show the laughter underneath. "That would have been fine, but no, you had to show up in real life and wake me up at all hours with stupid prophetic jargon-"

"-and to tell you how dear you were to me-"

"-and to tell me how dear I was to you, when I could have been sleeping," Souji said, unable to hide his smile any longer. The others at the table snickered, and Yosuke rolled his eyes.

Adachi scoffed. "I'm trying to parse some sense from them, but I'm coming up blank."

Akihiko started. "Ah, sorry. I…feel like a total creep now."

Adachi shook his head dismissively. "I was listening, too, so I won't judge if you don't. Ah, the conversations of the young," he said with a strange, wide grin. "So wonderfully naïve, don't you think?"

The rumbling of a phone in Akihiko's pocket saved him from answering. He pulled out the device, checking the front screen.

"Mitsuru," he said, frowning. "Uh, do you mind-?"

"Go ahead," Adachi said, dismissively.

Akihiko quickly unlocked his Blackberry and pulled up Mitsuru's text.

Nov 8, 2011 19:48 PM – Mitsuru

'Junpei knows. I can't find him.'

Akihiko stared vacantly down at the screen, his eyes wide and his forehead creased. He reread the line once then again, in hopes that it might say something different. Finding the news unchanged, he slammed his phone down on the counter. "Fuck," he spat, scrubbing his hands through his hair. "Fuck," he repeated for good measure.

"You okay, kid?"

"Don't call me a fucking kid, and, no, I'm not okay," he said, his voice so low that his words were barely discernible. He caught Souji's worried stare out of the corner of his eyes and shook his head. Later, he growled mentally, and hoped Souji had some form of telepathy. Regardless of whether he got the message or not, Souji still turned away. He looked concerned, but he did not pry.

"I'm sorry," Adachi said, and he actually sounded like he meant it. "What happened? Is Mitsuru your girlfriend?"

There was something about the way Adachi said 'girlfriend' that set sparks hopping in Akihiko's mind. There was a hint of condescension and the barest breath of scorn to the man's voice, and it was enough for Akihiko to start slotting everything he had gathered about the man into place to form the beginnings of a strange, disturbing picture.

All that was left was to test it.

"Ex," Akihiko growled, making up a story on the spot. He followed that brief statement up with a "Barely."

"That sucks. What's her problem?"

"She doesn't…approve of my transfer," Akihiko said, trying to keep the gravel in his voice.

When Adachi caught his eye, Akihiko was struck by the realization that, for the first time, the other cop was really looking at him. Adachi's face looked different, the boyish smoothness dissolving into drained, angry lines. There was a hardness to his eyes that would have made weaker men than Akihiko cower, and when he spoke, it was in a cold, silky drawl that raised the hairs on Akihiko's arms.

"Then screw her," Adachi said. "Don't even respond. Or, better yet, tell her that you've forgotten her sorry ass and moved on."

"I can't say that," Akihiko said, summoning up the memories of spats he and Mitsuru had fallen into in the past in hopes that some lingering resentment would bleed into his words. "It would be a lie, and she knows me well enough to see through that crap."

"How well could she possibly know you if being transferred was enough to kill your relationship?" Adachi asked, his drawl turning sweet and sickly.

Akihiko needed a different approach. "She's, well…she's rich, and she's beautiful," he said, feeling distinctly odd about summarizing Mitsuru in such a way.

"And she got tired of you," Adachi said. "That's how they are. You're," he said, gesturing vaguely at Akihiko as a whole, "Well, you were probably a killer back in the academy, but the second you aren't hot real-estate anymore and they realize that a cop's all you'll ever amount to being, they move on."

Akihiko frowned. That struck a little too close to home. "So, what would you do?"

Adachi chuckled lightly. "Me? I've kind of given up on women for the time being. There's far more interesting ways to entertain oneself."

"Around here?"

"Well, that's true," Adachi said, his smile perfectly symmetrical. "Even the arrests in these parts are lame, but what can you do? If you look around, I'm sure you'll find something exciting, though. You just have to keep your eyes open."

"Like catching the murderer?"

Adachi shook his head. "I mean, sure, but not everything is black and white. What are you going to tell your lady-friend?"

"That she was wrong to leave me?"

"Black," Adachi said. "Try again."

"That she should take me back?"

"White," came the chipper response.

Akihiko thought for a moment, trying to figure out what the guy wanted. "That she'll regret it?"

"Isn't that an interesting shade of grey? What does that even mean, right? Does it mean that in time she'll see that you were something special, or is it a more active threat? Obviously, I'm not advocating the intimidation of women, but it might make you feel better to put her on her toes."

Akihiko gave Adachi a long look. "Alright, then," he said slowly and pulled out his phone. With unhurried movements, he began to text.

Nov 8, 2011 19:51 AM – Akihiko

'Don't go chasing after Junpei. We'll deal with him later. Right now, I've got a resentful, misogynistic cop with access to interrogation rooms and the ability to delete security footage on my hands. Tell Souji.'

He glared at the phone for good measure as he sent the text and then slapped his phone down on the table in a huff. "There. Done," he said.

Adachi tossed him a sloppy, sideways smile. "Feel better?"

Akihiko could not find it in himself to respond, so he grunted, reminding himself oddly of Shinji. Luckily, food arrived a few moments later. Akihiko had not ordered it, and he did not remember Adachi doing so either, but it was hot and delicious, and he had skipped lunch, so it was something of a godsend. He tucked in, glad for a reason to be silent.

His phone vibrated on the wood of the counter, but he flipped it over, ignoring it. Adachi smiled slightly. Akihiko's eyes darted quickly over to Souji who caught his gaze, blinked, and looked away. Akihiko continued eating.

The rest of the meal passed in uneasy silence. Adachi pushed his bowl away when he was done, sighing contentedly. "Wow, that was good," he said, donning a sleepy grin. "I love this place."

Akihiko grunted in response.

"Cheer up, okay," said Adachi, patting Akihiko on the back. "It'll get better. Just wait and see. Everything'll be better soon, I promise."

Akihiko forced a smile and paid for his food. The two left the restaurant, Adachi waving a quick farewell towards Souji and his friends, and they parted ways at the street. Akihiko headed in the direction of the bus stop and did not stop until Adachi's car was out of sight.

He pulled out his phone, opening his texts.

Nov 8, 2011 20:03 AM – Souji

'So we've reached the same conclusion. When you told me about the footage…let's talk tomorrow. I'd like Naoto to be a part of this conversation.'

Akihiko sent an affirmative response, pocketing his phone. Only then did he remember the content of Mitsuru's message, and with a keening roar, he punched the wall until his hand bled.

Chapter Text

Souji made his way down the main stairwell to the first year's classroom with easy, measured footsteps. The previous day had been long, but…good, all things considered. It seemed he was no longer fighting with Yosuke, and a light smile quirked his lips at the thought. He hated quarrelling with his second-in-command, and having the team mostly on the same page was reassuring. That said, he, Akihiko and Naoto needed to talk, and he slid open the door to the younger team member's homeroom to find Naoto, Kanji and Rise eating lunch in the corner. Souji waved at the underclassmen, getting a beaming smile from Rise and two head-jerking nods from Kanji and Naoto. Souji paced over, placing a hand on Naoto's slim shoulder.

"Naoto, could I speak with you briefly?"

Naoto looked up, her eyes momentarily wide and startled before she regained her bearings. "Yes, of course," she said, sliding out of her chair and standing awkwardly by Souji's side. "Do you wish to converse elsewhere, or would here suffice?"

"Elsewhere, if you don't mind," Souji said, quietly heading towards the hallway. Naoto tagged along, a mantle of confusion settled over her shoulders.

"What is it you would like to discuss, Souji?"

Souji turned, settling his back against the hallway's far wall. He gave Naoto a steady look.

"Naoto, who do you think the murderer is?"

Naoto's brow furrowed, "I believed that to be the point of our investigation…"

"I know, but humor me. If you had to name one person as the most likely suspect, who would it be?"

Naoto's look of bleak confusion lasted longer than Souji had expected, but he fought a smile as her eyes brightened in excitement. "You have a suspect," she said, absolutely sure of her hypothesis.

"Akihiko found some evidence that cast this case in a slightly different light, and I think we can start to put the pieces together."

"What did he find?"

"Saki Konishi's interrogation tapes have been deleted, and her presence has been scoured from the Police's data. Obviously, there are still written accounts of her statements and such, but the video documentation is just gone."

"Meaning," Naoto said, the enthusiasm in her eyes dimming, "That a member of the police force is involved."

"Other than the two of you, naturally," Souji said with a nod.

"That is troubling," Naoto said, her voice low and cautious. "I feel now is as good a time as any for me to bring up a theory I've long been toying with."

Souji tried not to look anxious as he prompted Naoto to continue. "I'd like to hear it," he said, evenly.

"I've had…reservations…about a certain character at the police department for some time, but there was simply never any incriminating evidence to corroborate my suspicions."

"And that person would be?"

"It's…I know he's close to your family, but-"

"Naoto, just say it."

"Adachi."

Souji hissed a sigh. "Damn. That's three for three."

Naoto seemed startled by this. "Sanada came to this same conclusion?"

"Yeah," Souji said, leaning carelessly back against the wall. "But I don't think I like the way he reached it. As you say, Naoto, there just isn't any evidence. Even if you put aside the lack of motive, I still don't understand how he could have done it."

"That is the same problem I have been facing," Naoto said, contemplatively. "How could Adachi manage to kidnap every member of the team and force them into the TV without anybody noticing? There is no way for a man of his stature or station to cart a TV large enough to hoist people into around without sticking out."

"More to the point," Souji said, a slight frown on his face, "He was actually with us when Rise got kidnapped. So either we are off base-"

"Or he has an accomplice," Naoto finished, nodding astutely. "In either case, it would foolish to proceed blindly at this point."

"The good news is, we have time," Souji said, pushing himself off the wall. "Nobody has appeared on the Midnight channel for a while now."

"Excluding the blurry images that were on earlier this week," Naoto added.

Souji paled. "Wow. That was just earlier this week, wasn't it?"

Naoto smiled wanly at him. "It does seem like much longer, doesn't it?"

Souji nodded. After stretching slightly, he began to move back along the corridor toward the stairwell. "I'll tell Akihiko to proceed with caution. He's somehow gotten close to Adachi, so he might be useful in getting information."

Souji had almost made it to the stairs when Naoto piped up, nervousness making her voice light. "Err, Souji?"

Souji turned to regard her.

"We should…" Naoto said, playing with her hat distractedly. "The group. We…well, we should do…something. Together."

Souji smiled. "Something not case related?"

"Exactly," Naoto said, looking relieved.

"I actually agree, but I'm surprised to hear you say so," Souji said.

"Well, somebody had to. Everybody has been dancing on eggshells all week, and I think it needs to be remedied," she said, her chin tilted slightly to the side in proud defiance.

Souji bit down furiously on a grin. "I'm glad you think so," he said. "I'll even cook if you can get the others involved."

Naoto smiled lightly. "With that offer on the table, I'm more than happy to see these orders out," she said.

Knowing a dismissal when he heard it, Souji turned back to the stairs, slowly making his way back to homeroom. As he walked, he pulled out his phone, sending a quick text to Akihiko requesting a meeting that evening.

Souji spent the afternoon running after kids at the daycare. It was a rare, sunny day and by Inaba's standards, absolutely gorgeous, and Souji roared as the monster in lava-tag before leading the children with great severity through a game of Simon-says. By the time Eri and the other parents came to pick their children up, Souji was almost as giddy as the rest, picking up little Kisa and turning her upside down into a flip before passing the giggling girl to her amused father.

He saw Eri waiting for him as he turned to remove his apron, and he stored it away before strolling over to her, lazy warmth in his features. Eri clutched Yuuta's small fist in her hands and the two looked up contentedly as he approached.

"You seem very happy today, Mr Seta," Eri said, and though her smile was thin, it brightened her whole face. "Have you had a good week?"

Souji had to laugh at that. "Uh, not really, no," he said, but his smile did not waver. "I'm just happy to have made it through, I guess. That, and it's nice out. It's good to see the world looking this pleasant," he said, and though he knew his answer was vague, it satisfied Eri. The three walked together all the way out of the floodplains, strolling casually towards the bus stops that would take them in opposite directions.

Yuuta hummed the Featherman R theme song to himself, occasionally breaking into full song when he got excited enough. Souji chuckled, causing Yuuta to look up at him, pouting and embarrassed.

"I'm not laughing at you, Yuuta," Souji said. "I just was remembering another kid I know who loves Phoenix Ranger Featherman R almost as much as you do."

"But not as much," Yuuta said, seriously. "Nobody likes it as much as me."

"That's probably true," Souji conceded and earned a grateful look from Eri. "He was a little embarrassed about liking the show, so my friends and I would turn it on every Sunday so that he could watch it without feeling self-conscious. Plus, he got to think he was being sneaky, which I'm sure he enjoyed."

"Why would anybody be embarrassed about watching Featherman R?" Yuuta asked, looking appalled.

"Well, Ken liked to think he was too grown up for those sorts of things," Souji said.

"That's dumb. Your friend sounds dumb. I'm never going to be too old for this show," Yuuta said, chest puffed out with pride, and Eri's smile could have lit up a room.

The three parted ways at the bus station, Eri and Yuuta catching the bus that would take them home while Souji took one to Junes to buy ingredients for a quick dinner. He and Akihiko had agreed to meet at the shrine at seven, so Souji had just enough time to get back to Dojima's and make enough food to tide Nanako, and possibly Ryoji, over.

The living room was warm and noisy when Souji finally arrived home. Apparently, Ryoji had found the game consoles he rarely took out of hiding and had set up the PS2 in the main sitting area. A stack of games that came up to Souji's knees towered next to the television, and Ryoji and Nanako sat on the couch, twin half-guilty, half-exuberant expressions on their faces.

"W-welcome home, Big Bro," Nanako said, gripping her controller tightly.

"Hey, we found your games," Ryoji said, unnecessarily. "You have so many! You never liked games before."

Souji shrugged, setting the shopping down on the kitchen counter. "I never had the time, really. Have you been playing through all of them?"

"Nanako and I sorted through them and found all of the kid-friendly ones, and we decided to pick up from wherever your save files were and just play. Don't worry, we haven't saved over your data or anything," Ryoji said. "Tell him which ones were your favorites, Nanako."

Nanako smiled happily. "Oh, oh, there was this one with a wolf and flowers and it was really pretty, and there was this other silly one that looked like cartoons and…but, um," she said, suddenly looking uncertain, "We didn't play games when I got home. I did my homework first, I promise."

"I can verify that," Ryoji said, a gentle smile causing his bright eyes to crinkle. "Nanako's very responsible."

Nanako beamed.

Souji started to set out the ingredients. He looked up as he was pulling out the small measuring bowls kept under the sink to find Nanako at his side, her smaller, matching apron already tied around her neck and waist. Wordlessly, he handed her anything that did not need to be cut or cooked, and she set to work.

They worked in companionable silence for a time before Souji had to ask, "So, you're getting along with Ryoji, then?"

Nanako's responding smile was bright but strangely vague. "Yeah! He's nice."

"That's good," Souji said, giving her a look that said he knew there was something she was not telling him.

Nanako shuffled. "He reminds me of you, Big Bro. A lot," she said with a frown. "I think that maybe it's weird. You weren't home, but he was, and that was good, because it felt like you were home, but that's…wrong, I think."

"That's," Souji said, uncertain of how he was supposed to respond to that. "That's fine, Nanako. You aren't wrong," he continued, his lips tightening.

"But you look unhappy," Nanako said, her eyes wide.

"I'm not unhappy, Nanako. I'm actually quite happy. I'm just surprised. It's a good surprise, though," he said, brushing her bangs back affectionately.

Reassured, Nanako turned back to her appointed task, and with their almost streamlined efficiency, they had a full dinner on the table within the next forty-five minutes. Ryoji sat on what was sometimes referred to as Adachi's side of the table, and the three dug in, Nanako chattering happily while Ryoji ate with an appetite that rivaled Minato's at its peak. Souji felt bizarrely proud of both of them.

Souji himself wolfed down his own portion, excusing himself from the table with rather more speed than was polite and set his dishes in the sink.

"I'll clean," Ryoji said from the table.

"Are you going out, Big Bro?"

Souji nodded. "Just for a bit. I shouldn't be too late."

Ryoji stood, brushing his slacks off casually and strolled over to stand beside Souji at the sink.

"What's going on?" Ryoji asked, softly.

"Nothing," Souji said. "I'm just going to talk to Akihiko. Want to join us?"

Ryoji shook his head. "No, you should probably go without me. I put him on edge, and besides, have the two of you actually talked since he got here?"

Souji knew he did not need to answer.

"Talk to him, please," Ryoji said. "He's been working non-stop since he arrived, and I'm fairly certain that's how Akihiko deals with situations he doesn't like or doesn't understand. He just keeps moving and acting and fighting, and you need to bring that under control before it becomes a problem. Besides," Ryoji said, fiddling with the strap of his suspenders. "He's your friend."

Souji simply nodded.

"That, uh, was meant to apply to all of your old friends, actually."

"I know, Ryoji," Souji said, heading towards the door so he could start shrugging into his coat. "You aren't very subtle."

Ryoji's tranquil smile did nothing to hide the amusement burning behind his eyes.

Souji gestured a quick goodbye to Nanako and left to begin the long walk towards Inaba's shrine.

The night looked like it was going to be as unseasonably warm as the day, but unseasonably warm did not mean warm, and Souji hunched in his jacket, wishing he had opted for a heavier coat.

Akihiko was already at the shrine when he got there, the pale outer coat he had worn during high school wrapped around his suit jacket. He called out as Souji approached. "Yo."

Souji lifted a hand in greeting. "I'm not late, am I?"

"You're fine. What did you want to talk about?"

Souji sighed, sitting beside Akihiko on the crumbling shrine steps. "I want you to watch Adachi," he said, looking straight out into the town.

"So we're going to just sit back and watch?"

"For now? Yes."

Akihiko said nothing, but Souji could feel the burn of frustration coming from the older man in waves.

"I'm sorry," Souji said, a little more bite to his words than he meant. "Did you think you were just going to swoop in here and solve the murders in a day? I'm not saying you're wrong, Akihiko, I'm just saying we need to take our time."

"What good has waiting ever done us?" Akihiko asked, blandly.

Souji huffed. "Not much, but we have nothing to stand on here. It's better to be sure, Akihiko. You said so yourself not so long ago. 'Don't make broad assumptions,' you said. 'Don't take the story offered to you at face value.' Well, I'm not. I want to keep my people safe, and charging a possible murderer with next to no evidence cannot benefit us. It just can't. We'll figure something out, but please tell me you understand."

"I get it," Akihiko said, too quickly.

The two sat side-by-side, discomfort bouncing back and forth between them. They stared out over the town as night approached.

Akihiko broke all at once with a sigh, deflating until he was hunched over his knees. "Sorry," he said, staring at the pavement. "Yeah, I get it."

"Thank you."

"I've just been so caught up in this," Akihiko said. "It's like going from zero to sixty in a couple of seconds. I thought I had gotten off this road, and to have it all come back so quickly…"

Souji hummed so Akihiko knew he was listening.

"And then there's another problem I haven't told you about yet."

Souji's stomach dropped. "Please tell me this is a hypothetical problem, because I don't think I can take it otherwise."

"It's not, but if you want, I can handle it on my own," Akihiko said, flippantly.

"No, just tell me what it is."

"It's Junpei. He knows."

Souji frowned. "Oh. Well, I mean, I would have preferred that to happen on our terms, but I don't see how that's a problem, per se."

Akihiko turned to face Souji fully, wild upset ringing his eyes before it dissolved into pity. "Of course, you don't know. How could you, I mean-"

"Akihiko?"

"Geez, how do I put this," Akihiko muttered, looking around distractedly. "Um, so. So, the dark hour ends, right? And that was good, because that was what we had been fighting for, but as you know, everything was…bittersweet. We all had to re-enter the real world, and for some, that was fine. Takeba took to real life like a duck to water, and that kind of made sense. Fuuka, too, and so on. Then there were those who…didn't, for one reason for another. I mean, you go back to school and to the friends you thought you had, and life starts moving, and you're in university, but it isn't…and so you quit. You figure why not do what you've always wanted to do? What's stopping you? So, you do, and you get everything, but it's…not, either."

Akihiko stared at his hands. "Then there are those who don't even get that far. Junpei…he lost his girlfriend, his two best friends and, later, his father, all in under a year's time. For a while, he was fine, though. He went to school, he chilled with Takeba, but…he lost more than people when the dark hour ended. With its close, Junpei lost the only thing he had ever been good at. It's just…that and Chidori…he's not…"

Souji felt sick. "So, he…"

"He's broken, Souji. Mostly, he's okay, but sometimes…"

Souji jerked a nod. "I see."

Akihiko scoffed. "There's no way you can see."

"What do you mean by that?"

"You weren't there. You don't get it," Akihiko said, a sharp snarl to his words. "You don't get how close all of us were to being like Junpei. Damn it, you just don't…"

Souji stared blankly at Akihiko. What was he supposed to say?

A whine caught in the back of Akihiko's throat.

"Why wouldn't you ever talk about…about Minato?" Souji asked, softly. "You talk about Shinjiro all the time."

Akihiko huffed a laugh and began to stand.

"Oh, no you don't," Souji said, grabbing the cop's jacket and hauling him back down. "You can't hang up this time, and I'm not letting you just walk away. Talk to me, Akihiko."

"You weren't there," Akihiko repeated, bleakly.

"When?"

"We-you can't imagine what it was like in the auditorium when everything came back. We were standing there like mindless drones, and then, suddenly, everything was clear. It was…joyous, in a way I can't describe. Even Mitsuru up on the podium glowed with it, and she literally leapt off the stage to run along side us. It was…when we had defeated Nyx and it looked like you weren't coming back, everyone was furious, screaming or crying, because it wasn't fair. After everything, it wasn't…and then Ryoji told us that we had gotten our miracle, and the Dark Hour vanished and you came back…

And then it was gone. Our memories just taken, so we never got to appreciate the magnitude of what happened. In the auditorium, the sheer…absurdity of everything we'd done…everything he'd done…hit us all at once, and we laughed. We laughed away all the shit we'd been through, because nothing bad could happen when we'd come that far. Junpei was in the lead, snickering with Takeba as we tore our way up the steps to the roof, and I remember how loud the metal door was when Junpei barreled into it, sending it crashing open…

He was…by the time we got to the roof, he'd already gone pale and cold. Aigis wasn't…she wouldn't look at us and…I mean, at first, we thought he was asleep, but he wasn't and…it's just, shit like that isn't supposed to happen. That was supposed to be the beginning, damn it. Why did he even come back to begin with if he was just going to die again so soon?"

Akihiko curled in on himself, his arms braced on his knees as he looked down at the ground. He stared for a long moment.

"Sorry," he said at last. "I said 'he' that whole time. I don't know why I did that."

"I do," was Souji's soft response. "Akihiko, do you know anything about the Tarot?"

Akihiko looked up at him, his eyes hollow and slightly angry. "No. I mean, I know the shadows had Tarot-based classifications, but…"

"Ryoji was Death," Souji said softly. "And because he was Death, so was I. Death sounds ominous, and in many ways it is, but in the Tarot, it has a very particular meaning. It isn't the end. It isn't even the final arcana. It means…closure and rebirth. Only with the end of one cycle can another begin-"

"Don't give me that crap," Akihiko bellowed. "Don't try to feed me that fatalistic bullshit. He died. For nothing."

White-hot rage boiled in Souji's stomach. "I died," he said, growling, "For everything."

Blood pounded in Souji's ears, and the air crackled with tension. Souji could feel himself shaking, was almost startled by the sudden rush of anger. At some point, he had found his feet, and he was looming over Akihiko, eyes burning. Realizing what he must look like, Souji sat back down, still vibrating with fury and looking anywhere except for at Akihiko.

"It really is you, isn't it," Akihiko said, his voice so small that Souji almost missed it.

"You doubted it?"

"No," Akihiko said, slowly. "No, I didn't. I believed, but there's a difference between knowing and knowing."

Souji chuckled dryly, running a hand over his face. "Wow, this guy has a temper."

"Yeah, you didn't get to see it much, but it was there."

"I don't know how to deal with it," Souji said, slightly distressed. "He's either hot or cold, and there's not much in between."

Akihiko smiled that soft half-smile that Souji had noticed when they first met, and he felt the last of his anger dissipate.

"So, what happens when Junpei gets here?"

"I have no idea," said Akihiko. "Also, I doubt it's going to be just Junpei. Going on the assumption that Mitsuru completely ignored my request for her to stay at Port Island, which is rather likely, I'd say she should arrive here some time tomorrow."

"Is there anything else I need to know?"

"No. I think we're covered for the time being. I'm going to…I'll prime Mitsuru for the situation. I'll let her know about you."

"Good," Souji said and leaned back against the stairs.

The two sat together for a long while, watching the world dim to shades of grey as the sun set.

"I'm sorry I wasn't there," Souji said, later.

"You're here now," was Akihiko's reply, and Souji smiled, because it was true.

Chapter Text

Mitsuru's call at noon the next day proved Akihiko's suspicions right. She had demanded that he meet her at the station when her train arrived at six, and, knowing a lost cause when he heard one, he grudgingly agreed. At 6:04, he trotted up the platform's short staircase to find Mitsuru talking sternly with a handful of men and women who could only have come from the Kirijo caretaking service.

Akihiko lifted a hand in reluctant greeting. "Are they going to help you move in?"

"Yes," Mitsuru said, and with a final nod, the hired help departed. "They will transfer my belongings to my room at the inn, and Kai is in transit with my motorcycle."

Akihiko nodded, shuffling from food to foot. "I asked you to stay," he said, because he felt it was called for.

"Luckily, you've never had the power to tell me what I can and can't do," Mitsuru replied with a small smile. "Besides, you didn't actually expect me to sit idle while you ran around doing my job, did you?"

"Nah, I really didn't," Akihiko said, fighting an exasperated grin. He leaned back against the paneling on one of the station's walls. "So, why'd you want me to meet you here? I could have gone straight to the inn to help you unpack."

Mitsuru shrugged elegantly. "It was one part sentimentality and two parts practicality," she said. "It is customarily appropriate to be greeted at the station upon arrival, although your tardiness ruined that opportunity."

"I couldn't get off work on time."

"Which is a rather good excuse," Mitsuru said, turning to head for the door. Akihiko followed obediently.

"So, what's the practical part?" He asked, falling into step at here side.

"It seems to me that now, while my rooms are uninhabitable, is the perfect time for you to tell me what's been going on here, Akihiko. In lieu of the nightly reports you promised, I've received only four sparse text messages. I need information."

"Yeah, sorry," Akihiko said. "Uh, I've been taking morning runs along the river, and there's a nice path that starts near here and heads into town. It's cold, but we could walk that and talk or something."

"That sounds marvelous," Mitsuru said with a soft smile before getting down to business. "So, they don't need evokers?"

"No, and, uh," Akihiko said, walking backwards so he could look at her head-on. "Do not use your evoker under any circumstances. It's…it's brutal stuff."

"Then what are we supposed to do? My foil and your fists can only carry us so far."

"Look, I don't know. I still haven't actually seen any of the others summon, so I don't know how they do it. I just trust that they can."

Mitsuru hummed in acceptance. "What is the other world like? Does it resemble Tartarus?"

"Uh, it's yellow and foggy," Akihiko said, flinching away from Mitsuru's withering look. "What? I didn't see much of it. I've only been over once, and that was kind of…short lived."

Mitsuru scoffed.

"You'll have to ask Souji," Akihiko said with a shrug. "He'll be patient enough to explain things."

"How is he as a leader?"

Akihiko's brows knitted. "He's the best," he said, simply.

Mitsuru's cold stare turned murderous.

"I mean…oh, shit, Mitsuru. We, uh…there's some stuff you need to know."

"Enlighten me," Mitsuru said, her voice pure acid.

"S-so Ryoji," Akihiko said, turning off the street and onto the paved, tree-lined path that followed the Samegawa. "Remember on the phone? He started to talk about our old leader before he got cut off."

Mitsuru's eyes sharpened, and she straightened attentively. "Yes. What was he talking about? He said that Arisato might…might not be…gone."

"He's not," Akihiko said, and heard her startled gasp beside him. "He's not," he said again, turning bright silver eyes to meet her burgundy ones. "But it's complicated."

"Complicated how, Akihiko?" She said, desperation escaping through the cracks in her reserved mask.

"Damn it, how do I even begin this?" Akihiko growled, scratching at the back of his head in frustration. The leather of his gloves prevented him from gaining any satisfaction from it.

"The beginning might be a good place to start," Mitsuru said, her nostrils flaring.

"I know, I know. Damn. I feel like I need back up for this or something."

"Might I offer some assistance," came a soft, familiar voice from the left, and Ryoji poked his head over the scrub-bushes that stood at the edge of the hill before it dived down to the riverbanks. He looked both embarrassed and pleased.

"I'm sorry," he said, passing through the brush with infuriating ease before moving to stand before them. "We caught a glimpse of you from the banks, and I thought I might alert you to our presence. I didn't want to interrupt, but the timing was too perfect," he said, grinning cheekily. To Mitsuru, he added, "It's nice to see you again, Ms Kirijo. I do hope you had a comfortable journey."

"It's good to see you again as well," Mitsuru said, slipping easily into the social graces and ignoring her own discomfort. "And thank you. My trip was perfectly pleasant."

"That's nice to hear," Ryoji said, raising a hand to his chest in a remarkably earnest gesture. The shadow smiled, turning back to Akihiko. "Souji, Ms Amagi and I were fishing down at the docks if you would like to join us for a spell."

"Yeah, sure," Akihiko said quickly before Mitsuru could object. At her curious look, he added, "You're going to have to meet some of the group eventually, right?"

Mitsuru nodded slowly, her eyes still confused and lightly suspicious. Akihiko smiled as disarmingly as he knew how and turned back to Ryoji, motioning him to lead the way. Ryoji's cheeky grin had turned hesitant, but he nodded nonetheless, walking along the path in front of them until he reached a pair of stone stairs.

A large blanket had been stretched out across the stone docks that extended out into the river, and its corners were held to the ground by a weighty tackle box and a square, Styrofoam container. Souji sat close to the water's edge, a fishing rod held loosely in his hands. Yukiko sat farther back, away from the coldest winds that swept across the river, and she was wrapped in a second blanket. She looked remarkably snug as he, Ryoji and Mitsuru approached.

Souji looked up as the neared the dock, and Akihiko saw the brief flash of nervous anticipation that filled his eyes before his face returned to its usual state of peaceful placidity. Souji set his fishing pole aside, climbing easily to his feet as he moved to meet the trio halfway. A warm, soft smile crawled its way onto the boy's face, and his arms twitched like he planned to use them in an embrace, but when Mitsuru's expression did not shift away from pleasant indifference, his arms settled and his shoulders slumped. He did, however, keep his smile in place, and when they were close enough, he gave a light bow.

"It's good to see you," he said, his voice warm but his words vague. He met Mitsuru's eyes in a way Akihiko had never quite been able to master.

Mitsuru returned the bow, her natural grace turning it into something majestic despite its simplicity. "Likewise, Seta. I've heard quite a bit about you," she said, straightening. Akihiko caught Souji's eye, and if the slight eye roll he got was any indication, Souji was thinking, 'Clearly she hasn't heard enough.' Akihiko tried to look apologetic.

Souji turned, moving back to his spot on the blanket, and Yukiko waved the three to sit. Akihiko and Mitsuru claimed places on the opposite side of the spread, while Ryoji slotted in next to Souji, close enough that their shoulders bumped.

Yukiko introduced herself quietly to Mitsuru, and Mitsuru responded in turn, outwardly at ease.

Not sure how to begin, Akihiko asked, "Why are you guys fishing? It's foggy and cold."

Yukiko and Ryoji chuckled softly while Souji just shook his head. "Naoto Shirogane is planning a get-together tomorrow with the whole team, and she convinced me to cook," Souji said, leaning backwards and propping himself up on his hands. "Most of the team's at Junes right now getting ingredients and party supplies so that we don't have to go running around tomorrow."

Akihiko nodded, looking towards Yukiko with interest. "So you're helping him fish?"

For some reason, Yukiko's face fell, and she blushed furiously. "Um…no. See, they…I wasn't allowed to go shopping with the others."

Souji chuckled, and Yukiko glared at him. "I don't see what you all thought I would do," Yukiko said anxiously. "I'm not incapable of following directions. Besides, Chie's as bad as I am."

Souji made a strange sound in his throat, but remained silent. Yukiko huddled in on herself, looking fierce and upset in equal measures.

"Am I?" she asked, frowning at Souji. When Souji still did not respond, she glowered. "Souji."

"You're…you are worse than Chie," Souji said at last with a sigh. "Chie can't cook, but she doesn't get super experimental, either."

"Well, how am I supposed to get better if you won't ever let me try?"

This seemed to exasperate Souji more than Akihiko thought was warranted. "Yukiko, I've offered to taste test your food if you ever make any. You know I have. You've just never taken me up on it."

Yukiko mumbled something into her knees.

"Ms Amagi," Ryoji said, looking perfectly concerned.

"I have," Yukiko said, lifting her chin away from her knees to be heard.

Souji frowned. "When?"

"I made Chicken Katsu one day and brought it in to try and –this is ridiculous. I'm sorry. Nevermind," she muttered quickly, lowering her head back to her knees.

"Yukiko," Souji said in that tone, the one that could get a person to talk about anything, about everything. Akihiko almost smiled, because hearing it not directed at him was wonderful.

"You, umm…you had made lunch that day. It was so amazing, like, some sort of tofu dish, only you had made two portions of it with beef instead for Chie and Yosuke, and there was no way I could have competed with that. My cooking's terrible, and you must have worked so hard on that."

Souji shook his head, laughing. "First of all," he said, softly, "I cook all the time. One lunch I made can go to waste, especially if you struggled to cook something for yourself. Secondly, I promised, so if you ever want to try again, my offer to try your food still stands."

Yukiko smiled, her cheeks turning lightly pink. "Thanks, leader."

Souji nodded.

Akihiko cleared his throat, feeling awkward. "So, uh, why fish?"

"And why must you catch it yourself?" Mitsuru added, frowning. "Are there no markets around that could provide such things?"

Souji smiled, leaning forwards. "No, there are, but I'm the chef, and I think fish for dinner sounds great, so there you go. Besides, I've been trying to catch a particular fish here for this one elderly man for a while now, and there's always a chance that today is the day I get lucky."

Akihiko pulled a face. "Why does some old guy want you to catch a fish for him?" Mitsuru, Yukiko and Ryoji looked equally perplexed.

"He taught me how to fish, and he's willing to trade useful things like armor and items for the fish I catch."

"Why would a civilian offer armor in exchange for fish?" Mitsuru asked, shocked.

"Do you think he's part of the conspiracy?" Yukiko asked, eyes sparkling, and a slight smile curling her lips.

Souji sniffed in amusement, but nodded. "Yeah, actually. He's my personal contribution," Souji said, shrugging.

It was Ryoji who voiced Akihiko's confusion. "I think you might have lost us," he said.

"Sorry," Souji said, still looking amused. "It's a stupid inside joke sort of thing between Rise, Yukiko and I, but it's kind of weird."

"Maybe they can tell us if we're being ridiculous or not," Yukiko said.

"Fair enough," Souji said, settling back. "So, it all started about a week after Teddie started living in our world. We realized that with school and our jobs, we weren't going to be able to look after him for large swaths of the day, so Yukiko, Rise and I decided to show him around town and explain all the places that he could go in the case of an emergency."

"We showed him where all of our teammates lived," said Yukiko, "where the pharmacy was and where the restaurants were, and then we started to show him people who would be likely to help if something happened. That's when it got a little strange. See, we took Teddie to Daidara's."

"I don't know that place," Akihiko said.

"I'm not surprised," Souji said. "It's a place that you would only go to if you needed it. Daidara is a weapons expert. At first, we thought his store was one of those novelty places that sell cheap, decorative weaponry to collectors and the like, but we were wrong."

"Daidara's work is sensational, and all of his pieces are handmade," Yukiko said. "Anyways, after leaving the shop, Teddie asked us why everybody didn't wear swords or armor, and we told him that carrying arms in public was illegal. Even owning certain types of weaponry without a permit is illegal."

Akihiko nodded. He could see where this was going.

"That got us thinking," Souji said, his voice gentle, almost passive. "About a month after we started investigating the TV world, I replaced a katana I had been using with a new model. The katana I was replacing was the first real sword that I had ever used, and it was absolutely beautiful. It was simple, but it kept an edge really well, and its weight was nearly perfect. I had purchased it from Daidara for, I don't know, five thousand yen tops. That seemed wrong to me, considering the quality of the blade, so out of curiosity, I decided to have it priced by an appraiser. It was worth…" Souji trailed off, pulling a face like he could barely believe what he was saying, "so much more than that."

"But the fact that he was selling us grossly under priced weaponry was not the most suspicious thing," Yukiko said, jumping in excitedly. "It was the fact that he was selling to us at all. I can understand his possible initial reasons, but, I mean, we buy from him on an almost weekly basis. Selling ornamental katanas or pretty fans to a bunch of weird kids is one thing, but he has to know that we long ago switched from buying the most decorative things to buying the most practical things. Look," she said, reaching into the sleeve of her jumper. "This isn't my main weapon, but I feel uncomfortable lately walking around completely unarmed. I asked Kanji to sew pouches into the sleeves of my sweaters and uniforms."

Yukiko pulled a small fan out of her sweater, one slightly smaller than Akihiko's hand. It was slim and appeared to be made of iron. "Daidara made this," Yukiko said, opening the fan with a flourish. "It's easily concealable and wickedly sharp."

She flicked the fan so that it caught light, and Akihiko could see the blades at its edges.

"It isn't particularly pretty either," Yukiko said with a sigh, closing the fan and slipping it back up her sleeve. "Daidara is a weapons expert. He must know that it wouldn't work as a wall decoration."

"He also sells guns," Souji said. "Naoto has a license, so, technically, selling guns to her is legal, but Naoto rarely goes to Daidara's. He never used to sell firearms, but after I took Naoto by to talk with him about what she wanted, he started to build custom guns just for us. Furthermore, it's usually me who goes to purchase her arms, and I certainly don't have a license. This is past the point of foolishness."

"It's illegal," Yukiko said with a nod. "Even beyond that, we sometimes give him things we've collected off of shadows. Pincers, claws, teeth, strange bits of fiber or hair, we bring them all back to Daidara and he uses them as raw materials for his craft. He's never once even blinked at us for the things we bring. Sometimes, he'll even make requests."

"Our point," Souji said firmly, "is that he knows. There's no other explanation, and he isn't the only one."

"I've lived in Inaba for all of my life," Yukiko said. "For as long as I can remember, the Shiroku store has functioned as an odd little pharmacy. Admittedly, Old Lady Shiroku is a bit eccentric, but you would go there to buy ibuprofen, bandages-"

"The usual stuff," Ryoji said, smiling.

"Exactly," said Yukiko. "Anyways, not long after we started buying weapons from Daidara's, Old Lady Shiroku started stocking weird items. Suddenly, alongside the ginger root and digestives, you could find revival beads and macca leaves, and over time, she's been able to assemble a whole collection of items that are useful for fighting shadows but not for much else."

Akihiko took a moment to let all of that information settle. "They must know," he decided at last, looking at Souji. "Officer Kurosawa knew, and that was the only reason that we were able to arm ourselves. It's the same with the pharmacy in the mall."

Souji nodded. "That much we're sure of. It's clear that, for whatever reason, quite a few people around town know how to combat shadows, and are willing to supply us with the necessary equipment to do so. Beyond that," Souji said, looking a bit embarrassed. "Our speculation gets a bit silly."

"I don't think it's silly," Yukiko said, smiling. "Neither does Rise."

"What are your theories?" Mitsuru said sternly. She looked surprised when, instead of recoiling at her tone, Souji smiled fondly.

"There's a rumor going around that the fog," Souji said, gesturing around at the yellow haze that clung to the riverbed, "comes around every fifty years. During those times, weird things have been known to happen. Strange radio broadcasts, television mishaps, even reports of people getting drowsy and," Souji locked eyes with Akihiko, "apathetic."

"At first we thought it was just a rumor, but we've looked up city records from fifty years ago, and there were quite a few reported oddities. So," she said, smiling, "we have this theory that Daidara, Shiroku and a few other people around town were all here fifty years ago, and they must have stopped the shadows."

"Or something along those lines," Souji said, shrugging. "Honestly, we're stretching it a bit, but it's fun to think about."

For the first time, Akihiko looked over at Ryoji who was sitting disturbingly still, staring at the ground with a blank expression.

"Ryoji?" Akihiko asked, drawing everyone's attention to the vacant brunet.

"Hmm? Oh, sorry," he said with a bashful smile. "I was just thinking…if the other world did open up fifty years ago, why did it close? And why would it open up again now?"

Souji shrugged, but it was not nearly as flippant as he had been before. "I don't know," he said, sincerely.

Ryoji's smile was forced when he said, "That's fine. It is interesting, though, don't you think?"

The whole group nodded. The deep rumble of distant thunder caught Akihiko's attention, and he looked up as the rain that had been threatening to fall all day began to pitter down in a soft drizzle.

After a moment of strained silence, Souji said, "Mitsuru, you and I are going to have to talk sometime soon."

"Yes," she agreed. "I would like to discuss the formation of your team with you. I have experience that I can offer, and I would like to be an asset to your investigation."

Souji raised a hand to cover the painfully affectionate smile that was overtaking his face, but Akihiko still saw it. "I would appreciate your input," Souji said from behind his hand.

Mitsuru rose in one fluid motion. "Well, Akihiko, we had best get going. We were in the middle of a discussion, and I would very much like to finish it."

Akihiko stood, rolling his shoulders. When he looked down, Souji was giving him a look that made Akihiko snort and roll his eyes.

"I know," he said out loud, before turning to follow Mitsuru. "I'll see you three later."

"You know, you two are invited," Yukiko said, catching his and Mitsuru's attention. They turned back, startled.

"You are invited," Yukiko said, her dark bangs falling into her eyes. "The dinner is for the whole team, so we expect you to be there."

Souji adopted the same serious tone when he said, "I'm going to be slaving over a hot oven all day. The least you two can do is show up."

A laugh bubbled up from Akihiko's chest before he could stop it. "Won't your uncle get suspicious? He is my boss."

"Suspicious of you? No," Souji said. "Suspicious of me? Probably, but by now it's pretty much a moot point."

It did not take Mitsuru and Akihiko long to agree after that, and the two departed shortly there after, climbing the stone stairs up to the main path along the Samegawa. The two walked side by side for a long while, their steps matched as they made their way towards the shopping district in the rain. It took Akihiko a distressing long amount of time before he noticed that Mitsuru was shaking.

"Mitsuru, what's wrong?"

"That's him," she said, as sure as she was shattered. "Souji's him."

"How did you know?"

Mitsuru gasped slightly in a way that sounded like a sob. "I don't know. I have no idea," she said, shaking her head.

Akihiko looped an arm around her shoulders, and prayed desperately for understanding.

Chapter Text

Junpei turned off the practically antique TV set in the corner of his dingy motel room and collapsed backwards onto his bed. Sprawled out, staring at the speckled stucco ceiling, he admitted to himself that, yeah, he had no idea what he was doing. Leaving Port Island had been easy and ridiculously fun. It had been awesome to actually do things again, to be sneaky and, he thought, clever, but what the hell was he supposed to do in fucking Inaba? He knew there were Persona users about, and Persona users, even badass ones that could call their Personas without evokers, meant shadows - and shadows meant action and adventure and death and regret and, honestly, he could be such a child sometimes. Had he not grown out of this yet?

Junpei shrugged, squirming back on the bed until he could settle his head on the pillow. Regardless, he did not know how to start. Saying that he was going to fight shadows was all well and good, and he had been friggin' pumped the first day, but when he got off the train, he found himself in who-the-hell-cares-ville. That had been just fine, though. Sure, the town sucked, but any town would be fine if it let him back into the Dark Hour one last time, so he had bummed around all day, waiting restlessly for midnight. He had sat on top of a hill that rose above the town and stared at the moon, watching for the moment that everything turned green and repulsive and wonderfully familiar.

Midnight came.

Midnight went.

Junpei glared at the ceiling. There had to be a trick to it or something. He had the potential, damn it. Hell, he had twice as much potential as the rest of SEES, so much friggin' potential running through his veins, giving him headaches and insulting him when he deserved it, which, really, was almost always. So, yeah, if the Dark Hour had come, he would have noticed.

He could go ask Akihiko. He knew where the boy was, playing cops and robbers like a big boy at the police station, and he could ask. Akihiko would know. It would be so simple, Junpei knew, but that jerkass had been fine with leaving him to rot back in Port Island while wonder boy got to play hero. There was no way he was going to ask for help, especially if Akihiko had been able to figure this thing out on his own. No. He just needed time and patience that he did not have, and did he have to be so arrogant?

"Oh, shut up. Like you're any better," Junpei said out loud before he rolled over, burying his face in his pillow and hugging it close. There were just a few minutes to go until midnight, and he was willing to try this whole thing out again. Maybe midnight wasn't the Dark Hour here. With time zones and all that shit, the Dark Hour could really be whatever time of day it felt like. He would wait for midnight, hell he would wait all night, just to make sure. If the Dark Hour did not bother showing up, if the town remained stubbornly shadow-less for a few more days, he would go to Akihiko. It would be humiliating as hell, but…

Junpei raised his eyes away from the pillow, tilting his head so that he could stare vacantly at his watch.

A minute to go. He swallowed, his throat bobbing against the bed spread.

Fourty-five seconds to go. Junpei re-buried his head in the cushions, angling his wrist so that his watch rested beside his ear. Eyes closed, the sound monopolized his senses. His world narrowed to tick-tick-ticking of his watch, and, in the quiet of the room, it and the soft patter of rain outside seemed oppressively loud. Junpei's eyes squinted against the cotton pillowcase, and he counted.

Twenty five seconds to go, and Junpei wanted. God, he wanted. More than anything. More than he had ever wanted to be a hero and more than he had ever wanted Chidori, he wanted to go back, just for an hour, a couple of minutes even, so that he could find whatever it was that he had lost, so he could find himself or their leader or whatever the hell it was he did not seem to be able to live without, because life was fucking killing him, and he did not know how to make it better. That was all he wanted. To make it better, and to find proof that the waking world was not as bleak and solid as it seemed.

Five seconds to go, and Junpei prayed. Just once. He just wanted one more look. Please.

And it was midnight.

Junpei almost sobbed when his watch kept ticking, pulling him away from midnight and on to 12:01. Furious, at himself and at the world, Junpei punched his pillow, jerking backwards until he could scramble into a sitting position. Panting, he glared at his cushions before stilling. There was another sound in the room.

Junpei whipped around, staring at the television that he knew had been off only moments ago. The screen crackled with static for a few seconds before it resolved into a picture so crisp and clear that it was like looking through a window.

Holy hell. He really was crazy.

He had known abstractly, Junpei thought as he flopped off the bed. The other members of SEES certainly made no secret of what they thought of his mental stability, but he had not thought…could one progress to hallucinations that quickly? Was he supposed to know the things he was seeing could not possibly be real? Junpei staggered forwards until he was face to face with the ratty black box. The screen filled his vision.

Well, he had gotten what he wished for, he supposed, even if it came at the expense of what was left of his sanity. The TV-window was situated about nine stories up so that he could look out and see Port Island and the bay as they basked in syrupy moonlight. Blood ran thick down the walls of a building across the street, and he could almost see Tartarus on the right hand side, but it was just past the edge of the screen. Junpei reeled forwards, clammy and frantic with the mindless urge to see around that corner, to see Tartarus like he had so many times before. His cheek flattened against the screen, and the glass friggin' gave.

Junpei scrambled backwards so quickly that he cracked his head against the bed frame. Holy shit. Holy…he panted, eyes wide and terrified and holy shit.

So, apparently he was not hallucinating, unless his mind could simulate tactile responses at that level. Junpei's chest heaved as he tried to calm himself down, but peace of mind did not seem to want to visit him at the moment. Junpei glanced at the screen and was both relieved and alarmed to see that the Dark Hour was still on the other side, clear and calm and as real as it ever had been.

Junpei stood, edging cautiously towards the television set. He could not decide whether touching the screen again was brave or supremely idiotic, but he did it anyway, because he was not sure that he could live with himself if he didn't.

Just as before, the screen held for a moment and then yielded, practically pulling him through. He ripped his hand free, flexing his fingers and twisting his arm, but it seemed whole and unharmed.

Okay. Alright, time to think about this. The screen appeared to be permeable to a certain degree. Iwatodai was on the other side, and so was the Dark Hour. Was that really so strange? Junpei clutched the edges of the television, staring longingly down into the Dark Hour's streets. Hell, Tartarus had been the school during the day, and if a school could turn into a crazy tower thing, then why couldn't TVs turn into portals? It was not weirder than anything else in his life, or at least in his old life.

Besides, he had known that the Dark Hour was hiding somewhere. So, it was a place rather than a time here. He could gel with that. Time, space – who gave a fuck so long as he could see it and almost touch it?

Static crackled across the screen.

Wait. Hold the freaking phone, no no NO, it could not go just yet. He had only just found his way back. Junpei rushed backwards, moving away from the screen and towards his bag. He did not have time to think as he threw aside the few pairs of clothes he had decided to bring. He chucked his DS aside, not even flinching as he heard it crack against the wall. At the bottom of the bag, he found what he was looking for, and he pulled his evoker and holster free, turning back to see the television hissing earnestly.

He flew to it, placed his hand upon the glass pane and pushed.

The screen gave, and Junpei smiled, wiggling his fingers in the remarkably tangible nothingness on the other side. He wished he had a sword, but it did not matter. He had Trismegistus, and Junpei tightened his grip on the leather strap of his holster. Smile still on his face, Junpei took a deep breath, held it and jumped.

Chapter Text

"He clearly changed tactics once he got to Inaba," Mitsuru said, pacing back and forth across the carpet in her small living room. After a brief conversation about Minato and Souji the previous night, Mitsuru and Akihiko had turned their attentions towards tracking Junpei down. Akihiko knew that Mitsuru was using the search as a distraction, but finding Junpei really was of great importance. Mitsuru was certain that he had bought a ticket to Inaba two days ago and that he had actually used that ticket, but after arriving, Junpei's trail disappeared. "He's trying to be clever. Assuming he is not sleeping on the streets, he must have paid for a hotel room in cash and used a false name."

"The guy's treating this like a heist movie," Akihiko said, disdain clearly evident in his voice. "I wish he would just be serious for once."

"I think he is quite serious, actually," Mitsuru said, crossing her arms. "He was upset, Akihiko. More so than I have seen in quite a while."

"Whatever. He's still acting like an idiot. He knows now. The secret's out. If he came forward at this point, we would have no choice but to include him, and I don't think Souji would mind, so why the hell does he have to hide? Does he have any idea how annoying he's being?"

"I don't disagree," Mitsuru said, looking weary. She leaned back against the wooden-panelled separator that stood between the living room and its attached kitchen and tugged on one of her loose curls. "Not knowing where he is bothers me."

"Yeah," Akihiko sighed, dropping his head against the back of the couch. "I'm sure your people will find him soon. Inaba isn't huge. There aren't all that many places that he could hide."

"I suppose," said Mitsuru, pushing herself off of the wall. She looked around the room, not sure what to do, before pulling out her phone. "I should check in with the office," she said, glancing in Akihiko's direction.

"Go for it," he said, closing his eyes. He listened as she moved to her bedroom and lightly closed the door. Akihiko reclined on Mitsuru's couch, not really thinking about anything. He was not sure what was bothering him most, and obsessing over things had never gotten him anywhere. At the moment, he just wanted to go to the other world again and blow off some steam. Then, he could think clearly.

Somebody rapped on the main door, and Akihiko jolted up, startled. After a moment's hesitation, he stood, prowling towards the door with measured caution. He slid the door open to a crack, glanced through and sighed, pushing the panel completely ajar.

"Uh, hi," Akihiko said.

Yukiko stood on the other side, her cheeks pink. "Oh, Sanada. I…I went to your room, but you weren't in, so I thought…is Ms. Kirijo in?"

"Yeah, she's taking a call. What's up?"

Yukiko still looked embarrassed. "I was about to walk over to the Dojima residence, and I thought that you two might like to join me. Do you know where Souji lives?"

"I have his address, but we can walk together. Hey," he called back towards the room, "Mitsusu, do you want to head over to Souji's?"

Mitsuru slid her door open and nodded, phone pressed against her ear. Akihiko turned back to Yukiko. "She'll just be a minute."

"Of course," Yukiko said. "I can wait in the lobby if you need time."

"Just come in," Akihiko said, walking back to Mitsuru's couch and leaning against the arm. Yukiko hovered at the threshold, awkwardly shifting back and forth for a moment before she steeled herself and walked in.

"You okay?" Akihiko asked.

"What? Oh, yes, of course. I just didn't know that the two of you were, you know, together."

Akihiko blinked. "What?"

"Um," Yukiko said, uncertain. "Aren't you?"

"Aren't I what?" Akihiko asked, one eyebrow raised before his face dropped. "Oh. Oh, no. God, no. She scares the hell out of me," he said, shuddering.

"As it should be," Mitsuru said, humor thick in her voice. "Is there some sort of dress code for this event?"

Yukiko laughed hesitantly. "No, not at all. It's not so much a party as an excuse to eat good food and fight over movie choices, though I think Rise might put on some sort of show. I'm never quite sure with her."

Akihiko frowned. "What would Rise be doing?"

"Um, karaoke probably? She likes to remind us that she's Risette from time to time," Yukiko said with a smile.

"Risette?" Mitsuru asked, her eyes wide.

"I'm sure you've heard of her," said Yukiko.

"Yes. My friend Takeba was quite the fan, and she insisted that two of our other teammates and I attend a performance with her. I had heard that Risette was now living in Inaba."

Akihiko frowned. "You, Fuuka, Aigis and Yukari went to a pop concert together? That must have been…an experience."

"Oh. No, actually Yamagishi had already moved away, so it was Aigis, Takeba, Iori and I."

Akihiko snorted. "Junpei?"

"I believe Risette is quite popular with males and females," Mitsuru said, turning to Yukiko for confirmation.

Yukiko struggled not to laugh. "Yes, Rise has all sorts of fans," she said, grinning.

Akihiko moved out into the hall and the girls followed. "Was she any good?"

"I suppose. As those things go," Mitsuru said indifferently. She turned back to Yukiko. "So, you have an idol in your party?"

Yukiko smiled. "We're an eclectic bunch all around. I don't think many of us would have found each other had we not been involved in the kidnappings, but I'm glad that we did."

"You were the first one kidnapped, correct?" Mitsuru asked.

"The first living one, yes, but I was actually the fourth member of our group to get their Persona."

"What does that mean?" Mitsuru said, frowning. The three exited the inn and began to make their way down the long drive. "How does one get a Persona?"

"Right, your Personas are different," Yukiko said, softly. "Um, I hope it doesn't seem like we were talking behind your back, but our team had a conference about the differences between your Personas and ours, and I can tell you our theories if you like."

"That would be most helpful," Mitsuru said, nodding.

"The reason we originally started talking about your Personas is because certain members of our group were unsure as to whether adding you two to the team would be an advantage or a hindrance."

Akihiko bristled. "Excuse me?"

Yukiko waved her hands. "I don't doubt your skills, but we were afraid that you two might call up two new shadows, and facing even one shadow requires quite a bit of preparation and effort. Fighting two at a time would not be pleasant at all."

Mitsuru frowned. "Are the shadows in the other world that powerful?"

"Not the little ones, no, but these are humanoid shadows, and the human ones are different."

Akihiko saw Mitsuru shiver. "You mean…like Ryoji?"

Yukiko frowned. "No. Ryoji is even more unusual. Our shadows have yellow eyes, and they are more…reflections than people in and of themselves. We don't think you two will have to deal with them, though."

"Why is that?" asked Mitsuru.

"Your Personas evolved, right?"

Akihiko nodded, eyes grave.

"What did it feel like, when that happened? What prompted it?"

Both he and Mitsuru were quiet for a long moment. Mitsuru was the first to speak. "My father died," she said, softly.

Yukiko's eyes grew wide. "That isn't the reason your Persona changed, though, was it?"

Mitsuru shook her head, a few red curls slipping over her shoulder. "No, it wasn't. It looked like our fight had ended, and I had lost my reason to keep pushing on. I was apathetic about life and about my goals," Mitsuru said, trailing off. She coughed. "My friend helped me. She pulled me out of my own mind and reminded me that not all was lost. I…" Mitsuru looked up, meeting Yukiko's eyes, "faced my demons and myself. Is that what it takes?"

"That's what it took for us. Once you accept your faults and desires, your shadow turns into your Persona. Souji thinks that you two have already technically faced your shadows, so we shouldn't have to fight them. That said, Souji also admitted that he has a very limited understanding of how normal people's Personas work," she concluded with a smile.

"I-I can imagine," Mitsuru said, her smile wavering. "Which Personas does he have with him? Does he still have Helel and Thor?"

"I've never seen those," Yukiko said. "Right now, he only has Izanagi and Orpheus…Telos? I think that was its name."

A rough voice called from a little ways down a side street. "Hey! Yukiko!"

"Kanji! Akihiko, you've met Kanji, right?"

"In passing," Akihiko said, squaring his shoulders as he looked up at the approaching thug. He knew Tatsumi was just a member of the group, and Souji vouched for him completely, but Akihiko had to admit that the guy looked like somebody he could find in the alleys Shinjiro used to frequent. The blond was wearing a tight leather jacket with a fur collar, a barbed wire choker and a heavy, black satchel that he had thrown over one shoulder. Akihiko glanced to the side to see that Mitsuru had straightened up, her eyes slightly wider than usual.

"Uh, hey," Kanji said, lifting a hand self-consciously. He looked at Mitsuru and ducked his head. "I-I don't think we've met."

"No, we haven't," Mitsuru said, striding forwards and sticking out her hand. "I am Mitsuru of the Kirijo Group. I am here to help."

Kanji accepted her handshake. "That's, uh, nice of you. Are you guys headed to Souji's place?"

Yukiko smiled. "Yes. Want to walk with us?"

"If that ain't a problem, then sure," Kanji said, falling into step beside Yukiko. "What're you folks talking about?"

"We were discussing our leader's Personas," Yukiko said, clasping her hands behind her back as she continued down the empty road. "You know, how he only had two now."

"Yeah, damn, that whole mess with the tower people the other day was totally crazy," Kanji said, scowling. Mitsuru and Akihiko walked behind the pair, and Akihiko could not help but notice how odd the two looked walking side by side.

"It was strange, and the other day with you was even stranger," Yukiko said, glancing over her shoulder at Akihiko.

"Yeah," Akihiko said, looking down at the pavement.

"What the hell even happened? All Chie, Naoto and me got to see was Rise completely flipping her shit. I've never seen her wig out like that," Kanji said.

"I guess she must have sensed Akihiko's Persona," Yukiko said, frowning lightly.

"It's actually more likely that she was responding to Ryoji," Akihiko said. "He can be something else when he wants to."

"Uh, so you two are Ryoji's pals?" Kanji asked, turning sideways so that he could look back at Mitsuru.

"In a manner of speaking," Mitsuru said, tightly.

"Oh, wait, you're the chick from that phone call," Kanji said, nodding. "Makes sense. I was wondering who the second persona user was. I sorta figured it'd be Ryoji or something."

"How could Ryoji have a Persona? He is a Shadow," Mitsuru said.

"The fuck's that got to do with anything? Our shadow's got one."

Yukiko smiled. "Our shadow?"

"Well, he is," Kanji said, blushing. "You spent some time with the angel, right? How much like Ted is he?"

As Yukiko thought on that, Mitsuru asked, "There are…other shadows like Ryoji?"

"I guess they are a little bit alike," Yukiko said, looking up at the grey sky as she swung her hands. "They both have that knack for naïve flirtation, but I think Ryoji knows what he's doing. He's sweet, actually. I think he might be a really good guy, but there's something off about him. He's not creepy or anything, but it's like he knows something you don't, and he doesn't enjoy it."

Kanji nodded, jerking his head. "Yeah, I get that. The only time I've been with the guy, he was talking in nothin' but riddles. Drove me crazy."

Akihiko smothered a smile as he saw Mitsuru grit her teeth. Mitsuru had been something of a language and grammar nut for as long as he had known her, and he could tell Kanji's way of speaking was driving her crazy.

Akihiko cleared his throat. "If shadows and Personas are the same thing, how can one have the other?"

Kanji shrugged, uninterested. "Who knows, who cares, man? Maybe that means Ted's human."

"The medical equipment would beg to differ," Yukiko said, blandly. "I don't think a shadow can become fully human, do you?"

"Like I said, who gives a crap? I'm not sure what the difference between shadows and humans actually is, but I've met some nasty-ass shadows and I've met some pretty cool ones, so I refuse to judge. All I know is that Ted's got a Persona, and that's good enough for me."

"That's true," Yukiko said with a smile. "So, what's in the bag?"

Kanji cheeks burned. "Uh, t-t-that's…I promised, so…"

Yukiko practically glowed. "You finished our scarves?"

Kanji grumbled something that might have been a yes.

"Oh, can I see mine? Please?"

A small smile crawled its way onto Kanji's face. "Yeah. Sure," he said, pulling his satchel in front of him and digging through it. There were several different bundles inside, all wrapped in tissue paper, and after a moment's struggle, Kanji pulled out a pile of red and pink that he pushed in Yukiko's general direction. She held it gently, unwrapping it layer by layer until she could pull the long garment away from its packaging. She crumpled the thin paper together, balling it under one arm and held the scarf up in order to examine it.

Even Akihiko could see that the thing was beautiful. The cream colored base was broken by splashes of red Sakura blossoms, a few at one end but more and more collecting towards the other until the scarf almost appeared to be all red. The effect made it look like the flowers were falling from some unseen tree and collecting in a lush pile on the ground. The only strange thing was the color, Akihiko thought.

"The flowers look like sparks," Yukiko said, awed. "Oh, Kanji."

"Well…I mean, at first I was just gonna do flowers 'cause you like flowers and yer Persona's all pink and shit, but, well, you wouldn't be Yukiko if you weren't all fiery and stuff," Kanji said, scratching his head. "Is it okay, or…"

"Kanji, this is absolutely beautiful," Yukiko said, wrapping the garment around her neck so that the red end fell over her crimson dress. She smiled down at it and fiddled with the ends.

"You made that?" Mitsuru asked, quietly.

"Yeah, err…that's…what I do," Kanji said, neither frowning nor smiling. He did not seem to know how to take Mitsuru's interest.

"Remarkable," Mitsuru said, gazing at the scarf around Yukiko's neck.

"T-Thanks," Kanji said, and his face melted into a smile.

Walking with the group was strangely comfortable, Akihiko thought as the four made their way across the small town, catching a short ride on a bus before turning down the street that would take them to the Dojima residence. It reminded him, in a bizarre kind of way, of the walks to and from Tartarus that SEES would take in the evenings. There was the same calm quiet to the town, the same twitchy buzz of power that kept him aware but at ease. He had spent enough time with Yukiko to decide that he liked her. She looked like such a girl at first, but she had a fight in her that he could not help but respect, and Kanji seemed remarkably chill despite his exterior. Akihiko smiled softly. Okay. He was starting to get this group. When he had first seen them all together, he had been baffled, both by the lack of a unifying factor and by the way they all fell so easily into line in the other world. It was starting to make sense, though. He just wondered how they would behave together when no orders were being thrown around.

"Kanji! Kanji! Kanji! And Yukiko too! It's about time you both got here," the little blue-eyed blond called, streaking out of a house's open front door and to the group. He ran in a quick circle around them before skidding to a halt, turning his impossibly blue eyes towards Mitsuru in wonder. "Oh, wow! You're so pretty," Teddie said, practically sparkling with awe. "Sensei told us that there would be a new girl joining the team, but he didn't tell me that you would be such a gorgeous lady. Hi," he said, tilting his head and looking up with blazing blue. "It's nice to meet you."

To her credit, Mitsuru's face never changed. "I'm going to assume that you are Ted."

"Oh, she knows me! Kanji, does this mean I might score?"

Akihiko blanched.

"I seriously doubt that, bear," Kanji said, pulling Teddie into something that was half headlock and half hug. Teddie squirmed. "Have you been helping your Sensei or are you just gettin' in the way?"

"I've been helping. I'm a big help," Teddie said, pulling out of Kanji's hold and pouting. "I've been given the honor of playing with Nana-chan. It's my sworn duty to keep her entertained and out of the way."

Akihiko heard Yukiko snort and watched as Kanji grinned like a fool. "Yeah, 'cause Nanako needs to be kept out of the kitchen," Kanji said, smirking.

"No! Nanako is super mature and careful and…oh. Yosuke, you meany!" Teddie said, running back towards the house. Yukiko laughed into her hand.

"What did I do?" Asked a muffled voice from inside as the four made their way across the foyer. Akihiko, Mitsuru and Yukiko carefully took their shoes off at the door as Kanji kicked his aside and trotted into the living area. The room was warmly lit and smelled like crisp fish and grilled vegetables. Akihiko closed his eyes and inhaled.

"What the hell is with the man-purse, Kanji? I mean, I know you like to accessorize, but come on," Hanamura called from where he was sprawled across the brown couch that sat in the corner of the room. Teddie seemed to have forgotten his annoyance in favor of grabbing a bowl of what looked like cookie dough and spooning out a mouthful for himself.

"You guys all heard that, right?" Kanji asked, glowering. "So, when everyone else gets a present and Yosuke doesn't get jack-shit, he can't bitch about it, agreed?"

"Dude, you brought presents?" Yosuke said, sitting up and looking interested.

"Not for you, dumbass," Kanji said, grumbling.

Akihiko heard a soft laugh off to the left and turned to see Souji leaning against the kitchen counter, apron on and looking perfectly at ease. When he noticed Akihiko looking his way, Souji pushed away from the counter, brushing flour off of his hands and moving to greet them.

"Fair warning: this is going to be chaos," he said, smirking softly.

"Yeah, just be glad that the girls aren't cooking this time. I've lived that nightmare too often," Yosuke said, pained.

"That is extremely rude," Mitsuru said, and Akihiko could practically feel her disappointment.

"No, you really have no idea," Kanji said, tossing his bag onto the table and crashing on the couch next to Yosuke. He looked over at Souji. "You need any help over there?"

"I'm mostly done," Souji said, smiling at Mitsuru. "Don't worry too much about any insults that get flung around. They're mostly out of love."

"Did you have to make us sound so queer?" Yosuke asked, groaning.

"I know Chie is helping Rise carry some sort of karaoke game over," Yukiko said, ignoring Yosuke on principle, "but where are Ryoji, Naoto and Nanako?"

"I figured, to end disputes early, that we could let Nanako, Ryoji and Naoto pick the movie for tonight," Souji said. "They're upstairs on my computer trying to find something interesting."

"That's actually a good idea," Kanji said.

"Yeah, I was kind of hoping for a horror movie this time, but…if it's Nanako," Yosuke said, standing and brushing invisible lint off of his red pants. "Come on, you two. You aren't going to stand in the doorway all evening, are you? You must be Mitsuru," he said, trotting over and looking overly exuberant.

Souji intercepted him, catching his eye and giving Yosuke a look that Akihiko did not quite understand. The two communicated silently for a moment, and Yosuke's expression turned from one hot excitement to one of amused caution.

"Well, uh, it's nice to meet you," Yosuke said with a measured politeness that Akihiko did not believe for a second. The boy nodded and turned away, and Souji quickly moved to fill the void.

"What was that about?" Akihiko asked.

"Yosuke can be…flirty. I was warning him that trying to be a charmer, in this case, might not be fully appreciated," Souji said, looking at Mitsuru. Akihiko looked too, and his stomach hurt at the look of pained disbelief on her face. "Judging by that reaction, I'm guessing that you know now. About me."

"I figured it out on my own," Mitsuru said, softly, moving forward until she was inappropriately close to Souji. The man did not move, and he looked her straight in the eyes.

"I'm glad," he said, "but I'm not sure how you managed that."

"Instinct, perhaps," Mitsuru said with the beginnings of a smile. "You have certain distinctive tells, Arisato."

"Interesting. You'll have to tell me about them sometime," Souji said, slyly.

"Hey, guys. Did anyone besides me and Ted watch the Midnight Channel last night?" Yosuke called from across the room.

"Oh, no, I didn't," Yukiko said, pulling a strand of her hair. "I completely forgot."

"Yeah, me too," Kanji said, his eyes downcast.

"Guys," Yosuke said. "What the hell? Now is not the time to get complacent."

"I watched it," Souji said, walking back to the sink. "Green, right?"

"Yeah, it was weird. At first I thought it was empty, you know? All static, but it was a strange color."

"Was it a special shade of green?" Akihiko asked, finally moving out of the doorway and pulling out two chairs for himself and for Mitsuru at the table. They both sat, turning to face the living room.

Yosuke shrugged. "Not particularly, I don't think. I mean, I couldn't help thinking about how Iwatodai looked on the other side, but, really, it was just vaguely green."

"Iwatodai?" Mitsuru said, sitting forward. "On the other side?"

"The Dark Hour ended over there, though," Souji said, wrapping a towel around his hand and opening the oven. "So that can't be it."

The front door burst open, and Chie and Rise came in, Chie carrying two speakers and Rise twirling a microphone around her hand while she hauled the karaoke machine's tower under her other arm.

"What are you all doing sitting down? This is a party, right?" Rise asked, cheerfully, setting the console down by the TV and turning on the group with a flourish. "Is dinner done? We need music!"

Souji chuckled, pulling out a tray of what looked like cheese crackers, and Akihiko suddenly realized that he was ravenous. Dear lord, those smelled good.

"Dinner will be done in a second. Hey, Ryoji," Souji said, not quite yelling, but pitching his voice loud enough to be heard upstairs. "Have you three found anything?"

A shriek of laughter sounded, and Ryoji came trotting down the stairs, a computer under one arm and a little girl tucked under the other. The little girl's face was rosy with laughter, and she giggled, clutching at Ryoji's shirt as he spun around. With a flourish, Ryoji set the girl on her feet, and she held her arms up like a gymnast just as the little dark haired guy in the hat started to descend the staircase. Yosuke clapped.

"I'd give that a 9.5," he said, grinning. "What have you chosen for us, Nanako?"

"Um, um, so I thought you all might want to watch an actiony movie, but then Ryoji found this really, really pretty cartoon one and I was wondering if that was okay, and Ryoji said it was, but I wasn't sure, and…" she said, staring at Akihiko and Mitsuru with trepidation. "Um, Big Bro?"

"Nanako, and Chie, Naoto and Rise, I suppose, this is Mitsuru Kirijo and Akihiko Sanada. They're friends of mine," Souji said. Nanako nodded, shyly, and ran past them to catch hold of the end of Souji's apron. Souji looked down at Nanako firmly. "Nanako?"

"It's nice to meet you," Nanako said, still clutching Souji's apron but smiling over her shoulder.

"It's very nice to meet you too, Nanako," Mitsuru said seriously, and the little girl giggled, releasing Souji from her hold.

"Will you help me set the table?" Souji asked, and Nanako bounced on her feet.

"Sure," she replied, darting off to collect flatware and cutlery.

Souji arranged the dinner in a buffet style, and once the table was set, the entire group went about getting their food, piling their plates and laughing at each other's excess. They crowded around the small table and dug in, chatting cheerfully.

"Dude, this is amazing," Yosuke said, glowing over his flaky fish.

"I had no idea that you could cook," Mitsuru said, softly.

"I learned, and thanks, Yosuke," Souji said, sorting his vegetables into piles.

"So, music and then a movie?" Rise said, waving her chopsticks in the air.

"Nobody's gonna stop you if you wanna sing, Rise," Kanji said.

"Aww, but I want a partner. Come on, who's with me?"

"Want to be her partner, Partner?" Yosuke asked, grinning.

"You should do it," Akihiko said, and everybody looked at him. He blushed. "You…don't you, like, really love karaoke or something? You used to go to Mandragora all the time."

"Sensei, you can sing?" Teddie asked.

"Oh, god, no, guys. Sorry, but no," Souji said, shaking his head.

"You don't want to sing with me?" Rise asked, turning big, pouty eyes in his direction.

"Sorry, Rise, but absolutely not."

Ryoji had been trying to smother a laugh, but he failed, giggling into his arm.

"You're a jerk," Souji said monotonously, looking at Ryoji. Ryoji only laughed harder.

"You did like to sing, though," Akihiko said, at a loss.

"Did being the most important word in that statement. Ryoji, care to demonstrate just why I was always at Mandragora?"

Ryoji nodded, holding up a finger to request patience as he forced himself to stop laughing. After a few failed starts, he managed to get himself together. Ryoji took a deep breath and sang. It wasn't much, just a few melodic lyrics before his voice swooped up, running through a handful of lilting high notes and plunging back down in a rumble of power. He cut off, grinning.

The room was still. "Oh, wow," Chie said at last. "You can really, really sing."

Ryoji shrugged. "Minato could really, really sing. I'm just reaping the benefits."

"Mandragora's upper echelons were…elitist," Souji said. "Basically, unless you were willing to rent out an individual room, you performed for everyone there. It was a competition of sorts where, every night, you had to defend your right to the stage. The best people from around the city would come and watch, and it was wonderfully nerve wracking. Anyway, in order to keep performing, I had to keep performing. It was recursive. That's why I went so often."

"Then why won't you sing with me?" Rise asked.

"Because, I'm a terrible singer, and while I used to be fine with that, I recently developed a complex. Sing with Ryoji."

"Aww, I'm sure you aren't that bad," Chie said, smirking.

Souji shot her a flat look and leaned back on his hands, conveying with every inch of his body that he could not be moved. Everyone but Rise laughed.

"Ms Kujikawa? Could I have the honor of singing a duet with you?" Ryoji asked playfully.

"Absolutely," Rise said, jutting her chin out. "You're missing out, Souji."

Rise and Ryoji sang back and forth while the others continued to eat. Akihiko had to admit that they were exceptional. It was clear that Rise had training and stage performance to back her up, and he could not blame Nanako for the reverent look in her eyes as she watched the idol dance and belt. Then, there was Ryoji. It was strange, Akihiko thought as he watched the pale brunette lean back against Rise as the two wailed some overly dramatic number. Back when Ryoji had attended Gekkoukan and they had all hung out at the dorm and on the school trip, he had completely missed the fact that Ryoji looked so much like Minato, but now the similarities were difficult to ignore. It cast all the disparities between the two in a harsh light. He watched Ryoji as the shadow laughed and smiled, his face glowing in a way that it never would have with Minato.

God, it was strange. He felt Mitsuru shift at his side and turned to see her giving him a knowing look. At least he was not alone, Akihiko supposed.

"Teddie wants a turn!" Teddie called, standing as Rise and Ryoji finished their song. "Nana-chan, want to join me?"

"Sure!"

The evening passed in a strangely frenetic haze. They cleared up dinner, hooked Souji's computer up to the TV and piled on the couch and, when the couch ran out of space, on top of each other in order to watch. Akihiko looked over to see that Rise was sitting half on Souji's lap and half on Yosuke's, her head resting on Souji's shoulder. Both she and Yosuke looked completely blissful, and, grinning, Akihiko decided it was probably for similar reasons. Souji, for his part, just looked content.

The movie began, and the movie ended, and though it was not at all Akihiko's preferred fare, it seemed to make the rest of the group happy. While they stretched or flopped down across the couch and refused to move, Souji took Nanako to bed. He returned less than ten minutes later to find Yukiko and Rise rearranging the room.

"Now that Nanako's in bed, we should totally play a game," Rise said, grinning.

"What type of game?" Souji asked, keeping his face blank.

"Something fun like Truth or Dare! We could even make it a drinking game," Rise said.

"Yeah, 'cause the last time we had alcohol as a group, things went so well," Yosuke said, rolling his eyes. "And what's with Truth or Dare. What are we, ten?"

"Hangin' around that club wasn't all bad," Kanji said, shrugging. "It could be fun."

"You just liked it 'cause you got to make out with Teddie," Yosuke said.

"T-That is so not it, and I thought we swore never to mention that again," Kanji said, stuttering and blushing.

"I do not remember any such promise," Naoto said, calmly. "Besides, I maintain that no one consumed alcohol that night."

"Whatever. If you guys want to be lame, we can just play regular old Truth or Dare or Never Have I Ever. I don't mind," Rise said.

"It seems to me that, if the goal of these games is to learn about the rest of the group, we could just tell stories," Mitsuru said, diplomatically.

"I want to hear more about Sensei's story," Teddie said, leaning in. "It was just getting good."

"No, you don't," Souji said, seriously. "It's true, the story was just about to pick up, but, like I said before, it isn't particularly happy. I don't want to bum everybody out."

"You could tell us random stories, if you want," Chie said. "I didn't hear the beginning, so that might be better."

"Yeah, we can go out of order," Yosuke said, grinning. "It'll be like one of those hip indie films."

Rise smiled. "Well, it isn't exciting like Truth or Dare, but if it's about you, I'm for it," she said, looking at Souji with adoring eyes.

Mitsuru exhaled sharply before speaking. "When they refer to your story, do they mean the events of two years ago?"

Souji nodded, addressing Akihiko, Ryoji and Mitsuru. "Would you three like to help me tell it?"

"Uh, yeah I guess," Akihiko said. "Where do you want to start?"

Souji chuckled, running a hand through his hair. "So, how about…if I were playing Never Have I Ever and somebody said 'Never have I ever been beaten up by a bunch of girls due to hot spring hijinks,' I would have to drink twice."

Yukiko snorted. "Are you serious? What is it with you and hotsprings?"

"I think Souji might secretly be a pervert," Chie said, grinning.

"Yes, that's my problem," Souji said sarcastically.

"All right," Naoto said, blushing. "Give us the set up."

Souji told the story, darting annoyed looks at Ryoji, who was utterly unrepentant. As the tale went on, Souji began to dart off on side tangents, explaining Aigis's presence through a detailed and, for Akihiko, amusingly embarrassing description of their failed attempts to pick up women at the beach. They talked for a long time, and the stories strayed from the big moments towards the smaller, more personal anecdotes. Akihiko found himself fondly remembering dinners in the dorm and that one time that Junpei had talked Akihiko and Yukari into trying to sneak into Escapade at night only to find Minato already there and sitting with several of the regulars like he owned the place. Mitsuru recalled the one time that their jokes about Yamagishi setting the kitchen on fire had become a lot less funny, and how the school's Home Ec room had smelled of char and smoke for almost two months afterwards.

Akihiko tried not to linger on how odd it felt to reflect on his time in SEES fondly. Sure, he often remembered the thrill of battle and the security of having a team at his back, but he very rarely thought about the other members of SEES as the friends they had once been. Akihiko relaxed into the memories and wondered whether the whole exercise had been thought up for Souji's friends' benefits or for his and Mitsuru's own.

Before he knew it, it was the early hours of the morning. They had grazed through the entire batch of Souji's cookies and nearly exhausted the SEES member's supply of light hearted stories, and though it was time to depart, everyone was hesitant to leave the content warmth of the living room.

"Oh yeah," Kanji said, jerking everyone out of their relaxed stupors. "I have stuff for you all. Uh, sorry Kirijo, Sanada. I didn't have time to make anything for you guys."

"It's no problem," Mitsuru said with a closed-mouth smile.

"So, uh, I'll pass 'em out," Kanji said, lurching to his feet.

"Presents!" Teddie cheered, keeping his voice soft enough that he would not wake Nanako.

"Keep your stuffing in, bear," Kanji said, tossing a blue and red bundle towards the excited blond. Teddie tore into his as Kanji moved around the room.

"It looks like me." Teddie said, thrilled as he wrapped the red, blue and cream scarf around his neck, swatting at the red bobbles that hung off the ends.

Kanji passed a wrapped scarf to the rest of the room, including, despite his threat, Yosuke. The last people he stopped in front of were Souji and Ryoji, and he gave them a white bundle and a blue bundle respectively.

Ryoji was thrown. He looked down at the package in his hands and back at Kanji, at a loss. "You didn't…" he said, his voice small.

"Souji mentioned that you needed a new scarf. I hope it's okay," Kanji said, sitting down amongst the shreds of discarded tissue paper.

Ryoji unwrapped the scarf gingerly, pulling out the extra long, yellow garment with cautious fingers. He smoothed a hand along it, his face lighting up with a radiant smile. "Thank you," he said, and there was power in his words.

"No problem," Kanji replied, looking over to see that Souji had wrapped his bright red scarf around his shoulders.

"Thanks from me, too," Souji said, nodding.

"I hope you don't mind the red. You needed some color," Kanji said with a smile.

Once all the presents were unwrapped and the shreds of paper were disposed of, the night was called to a close. Kanji offered to walk Rise, Naoto and Chie home, while Akihiko went with Yukiko and Mitsuru, and the group parted ways, wishing Ryoji and Souji goodnight as they left.

Akihiko, Mitsuru and Yukiko walked in near silence, breath fogging in the cold. Yukiko smiled, trotting a bit in front of the two.

"That was…nice," Mitsuru said, arms wrapped close around her body to ward off the chill.

"Yeah," Akihiko replied, trying not to think about Junpei and murders and the work he had the next day. It had been a good evening, despite some awkwardness. As they made their way towards the inn, he thought to himself that, maybe, things were going to turn out alright.

Chapter Text

Souji's cell rang as the second year students cleared out their desks and packed their bags for the day. Curious, he pulled the phone out of his pocket and felt unease settle over him as he read the caller ID.

"Well, this can't be good," he said to himself, staring at the screen.

"Who's calling?" Yosuke asked.

"It's just Dojima, but he never calls during the day. Give me a second," Souji said, walking to a secluded corner of the room to take the call. Dojima's message was brief, but it did not reassure Souji. After slipping his phone back in his pocket, Souji returned to the center of the classroom, frowning.

"Is something wrong? Are you in trouble?" Chie asked, frowning slightly.

"Um, yeah. I think something might be wrong," Souji said, rubbing the bridge of his nose distractedly. "He asked me to come down to the station."

"That's weird," Yosuke said, pulling a face. "Your uncle never does that. You don't think something's wrong with Nanako, do you?"

"I don't know," Souji said, softly. "Look, guys, I have to run."

"Yes, of course. Please let us know what's going on when you know," Yukiko said.

"Will do," Souji replied before heading for the door, his pace rather quicker than normal. He assumed that Nanako was fine. Dojima would have told him if something were wrong with her, regardless of the situation, but that meant that, whatever Dojima wanted, it was probably case related. Souji's eyes hardened, trying to think of what might have set his uncle off, but the longer he thought, the more he realized that there was very little that wouldn't have set Dojima off. Souji had evidence of his involvement in the case lying around everywhere, and he knew his uncle at least had his suspicions.

The more he thought, the worse Souji's fears became, and long walk to the station was excruciating. Doubts surfaced and rehashed themselves, building and mutating, and damn it, what was he supposed to do? Souji shook himself and took a steadying breath. He could not panic, he realized. There was too much at stake and little room for error. If talking with Dojima and taking the fall meant saving his friends some trouble, he would do it in a heartbeat, but there was more to it than that. If the team's investigation was called to a close, there was a good chance that the killer would never be caught. The other world would continue to be used as a weapon, and Souji could not let that happen.

His chest hurt as he neared the station, dodging unconsciously around a slowly moving car and pushing through the building's main entrance so that he emerged in the waiting area for civilians. He stood awkwardly near the doorway, shifting from foot to foot and he stared around the room. It was a friendly space, all windows and light colors, but Souji was twitchy with nerves, and even well thought-out design was not enough to soothe him. Just as he was pulling his phone out to call his uncle, Adachi came around the corner, eyes brightening when he saw Souji.

Adachi ambled over, his face forcefully serious. "Hey, there you are. Dojima's been waiting. I can take you to the back if you'd like," he said.

"Yeah, thanks," Souji said, trying not to stare Adachi down as the cop turned, leading back into the grey walled sprawl of the police station's inner rooms. "Do you have any idea why he asked me to come by?"

"Dojima's been worried about you for a while," Adachi said, his eyes sympathetic. "He's trying to be a good father figure but not trying to impose himself. Problem is, you and your friends keep getting into trouble, so I guess he's decided to switch tactics. I've no clue what triggered him today, though. It's a bit of a mystery."

"My friends and I have done nothing wrong," Souji said, quietly.

"I actually believe you, kid, but you're going to have to suck it up and face Dojima like a man on this one. Listen and let him rant, and you should be fine. I get chewed out by Dojima daily," Adachi said with a sweet smile. Souji's gut clenched.

Adachi walked down the oppressively colorless hallway slowly, no hurry in his strides, and Souji was forced to match his leisurely pace as nerves ate him up inside. Adachi's absolute calm was, for some reason, doubling his anxiety, and a suspicious part of Souji's mind wondered if the rumpled cop was doing it on purpose.

Adachi stopped beside an inconspicuous door on the right hand side of the hallway, and he rapped on it twice. "Sir," he called, and Souji let out a breath he had not realized he'd been holding. He sagged wearily when Dojima opened the door, relieved despite the lecture he knew was coming.

"What's going on?" Souji asked, staring at his uncle. Dojima gave him a hard look, his eyes cold and strangely sad, before he moved out of the doorway.

"Adachi, go fetch Sanada and bring him to the interrogation room," Dojima said firmly. Souji tried to keep his face straight, but he was unable to hide the way his eyes darted and widened. Luckily, he was not the only one who appeared to be startled.

"Sanada? What does this have to do with him?" Adachi asked, his words shaky.

"Just do it, Adachi," Dojima growled, and Adachi sprung into action, jumping back a few steps before he turned back down the hall.

"Yes, sir," Adachi called over his shoulder. Dojima watched Adachi retreat for a ways before turning to look at Souji.

"Come on," Dojima said, moving in the opposite direction. Souji jogged to catch up, falling into step by his uncle's side.

"Dojima, what's going on?" he asked with forced calm.

"We'll talk in the other room," Dojima replied.

"I don't understand-"

Dojima pulled open a door. "In," he said, jerking his head towards the entrance.

Souji set his shoulders and nodded, walking through the door. The room was even gloomier than the hallways that led to it. Grey walls, grey table, grey chairs…Souji swallowed, scanning the room until his gaze rested on a television set on the other side of the table. That meant…he must be in the room where Konishi was killed. Souji felt something in him harden, and a shocking sense of calm settled over him. He walked to the near side of the main table, pulling out a chair and settling into it. He looked up at Dojima expectantly.

Dojima sighed, and he no longer looked frightening, only sad and tired. Souji tried to flash his uncle a small, reassuring smile, but Dojima only shook his head.

"I need coffee," Dojima said, looking at Souji. "Do you want some?"

"Sure," Souji said, leaning over the table.

"When Adachi gets here, tell him not to leave," Dojima said, moving back into the hallway.

"Sure," Souji repeated, and sat very still until the door closed. At the click of the lock, he pushed his chair away from the table and stood, moving around the room until he stood in front of the TV. It wasn't a huge set, barely wider than the width of his shoulders, but it was more than big enough to fit somebody through assuming they put up little fight. He stared at his reflection in the shiny, black screen. Adachi…he could have really done it.

Holy hell. Souji was not sure what he felt as he stared at the TV that had been used to kill Konishi. There was anger, sure, and it was balanced with a healthy dose of disgust, but more than anything, he felt dismal, bitter disappointment that ate his insides until he felt hollow. If it really was Adachi…if he had truly been that blind

An idea hit him with so much force that Souji almost laughed with it. He let out a thick breath of air, his reflected face twisting back at him.

God, it could go so wrong, but…maybe. Souji watched his mirrored mouth smile grimly and straightened, moving back to his side of the table and sitting in his rolling chair. All he needed was for Akihiko to play along.

Souji pulled out his phone and quickly typed a message, praying that Adachi would not check Akihiko's texts.

Nov 12, 2011 16:23 PM – Souji

'You willing to follow my lead?'

Souji twiddled his phone, waiting.

Nov 12, 2011 16:24 PM – Supercop

'Always.'

Souji smiled tightly, pocketing his phone. When Adachi opened the door a minute later, he and Akihiko found Souji leaning back in his chair, his head lolling over the backrest. Souji sat up, pivoting to face the two cops as they entered.

Adachi dragged the chair from the other side of the table and stuck it next to Souji's, gesturing for Akihiko to sit. Akihiko scowled, jaw popping from where he was grinding his teeth, but he sat, glaring around the room.

"Why am I here?" He asked, looking at Adachi.

"I honestly don't know," Adachi said, looking distinctly unhappy. "Did you do something? Did both of you do something?"

Souji shook his head, and Akihiko shrugged, hunching down in his chair.

Dojima entered the room, two mugs of coffee in hand, and he passed one to Souji, keeping the other for himself. Souji was strangely reassured by the fact that Dojima had prepared his coffee the way his uncle knew he liked it, and he took a sip, hoping that it would show trust.

"Why are we here?" Akihiko asked, his arms crossed.

Dojima moved to the other side of the room and stood to Adachi's left, leaning back against the wall.

"My daughter told me something interesting this morning," Dojima said, staring down into his cup of coffee. "I asked her if her Big Bro's friends were nice to her at their get together last night, and she was very excited because she had gotten to meet two of her cousin's new friends. I didn't like the fact that you had let strangers into my house without letting me know first," Dojima said, looking up at Souji sternly, "and I asked Nanako who the two new people were. She told me there was a pretty woman named Mitsuru and a white haired young man named Akihiko. I asked what the man's family name was, and she said it was Sanada."

Dojima's gaze switched to lock on Akihiko, and his sternness transformed into real anger. "I've had doubts about you since you first arrived here, rookie. What were you doing at my house?" Dojima asked, his voice pitched low and dangerous.

"You two know each other," Adachi said, looking between Souji and Akihiko in alarm.

"Apparently," Dojima growled.

Souji waited for Akihiko to speak. "I'm sorry. I met Souji the other day after Adachi pointed him out to me, and since I didn't know anybody in town and I knew he was your nephew-"

"Stop it, Akihiko. You're a terrible liar," Souji said flatly, not looking in Akihiko's direction.

"What?" Akihiko asked, his voice pitched low.

"I don't want to lie," Souji said, looking at Dojima sincerely, "And I certainly don't want you to lie to cover for me."

Dojima's eyes widened, and Akihiko growled, "What do you think you're doing, Souji?"

Souji ignored Akihiko. "You know," Souji said, eyes locked with his uncle's.

"What do I know?" Dojima asked softly. Souji said nothing but gave his uncle a look that made the man clench his eyes shut. "I want to hear you say it to my face," Dojima said, opening his eyes and staring Souji down. "You've been hiding something from me for as long as you've lived as part of my family, and I need you to tell me what it is, now. I've let you worm your way out of talking about this too many times, but not anymore."

"Okay," Souji said, "But if I'm going to do this, I want you to promise to listen to me."

Dojima grunted, taking a sip of his coffee.

Souji sighed, leaning forward over his hands. "There's a reason," Souji said, throwing caution to the wind, "why you haven't caught the murderer to that big case that you're investigating."

Souji heard Akihiko jerk beside him, but he was too busy looking at Dojima to offer reassurance. Dojima's face fell at Souji's words until he looked miserable rather than angry.

"So you are involved," Dojima said, his voice startlingly quiet.

"Yes," Souji said. "Not in the way you think, but I know enough about the murders to know that you will never catch the responsible parties, not with your current tactics."

"What the hell makes you say that?" Dojima said. "What have you gotten yourself involved in?"

"I'll explain," Souji said, holding his hands up, "but you have to let me talk, okay. I got involved not long after I moved here. Ms Yamano and Ms Konishi had been killed, and nobody could figure out the weapon. There wasn't any apparent cause of death, right? That's…I had just moved to a new town, and I didn't know anybody or have anything to do, so I looked into the cases, because it was interesting."

"What did you think you were doing, getting involved in police business?" Dojima asked.

"I didn't say it was smart," Souji said, adopting a self-deprecating smile. "I said it was interesting. Regardless, I did investigate, and I have continued to follow this case since with the help of many of the victims."

"You mean the kids who have disappeared over the course of the year," Adachi said.

Souji paused. "Yes, that is what I meant. We pursued routes that the police were unaware of or uninterested in, and we've unearthed a great deal of data."

"Like why we can't catch the killer," Dojima said, his eyes hardening. "Souji, if you are lying to me-"

"Let me finish, and you can decide for yourself," Souji responded forcefully, catching his uncle off guard. He met Dojima's glare and held it.

"Fine," Dojima said, settling against the wall. "What do you think you know?"

"We know the method of murder, and we have a suspect," Souji said softly.

"What?" Adachi startled away from the wall.

"We have a method and a suspect," Souji repeated, staring at his interrogators with steely confidence.

"Really," Dojima drawled. "Kid, this isn't a game, and this isn't funny. I had hoped that you had grown to trust me, but even if you-"

"There were no marks on the body and no toxins in the victims' blood streams, right? Besides the fact that they were dead and hung from antennas, there was no evidence of distress on either of the bodies, was there?"

Dojima took a deep breath. "No," he said.

"That's because the method of murder in this case is top secret," Souji said. "Very few know about it, and it is practically untraceable. That's where Akihiko comes in," Souji said, facing Akihiko at last, catching his eye. Akihiko nodded, and Souji could almost sense the adrenaline pumping through his friend. "I've known Akihiko for some time. He belongs to a task force that was established after a major corporation accidentally created the killing method that was used in the murders."

"And what company would that be?" Adachi asked, a crooked smile on his face. "Sir, you aren't actually listening to this, are you?"

"I'm not at liberty to say," Akihiko said, sitting up. "The best I can tell you is that I've been dealing with cases like these for most of my life. Did either of you two follow the string of deaths that hit Tatsumi Port Island a couple of years back?"

That caught Dojima's attention. "You mean that case where all the people wasted away for no reason? What did they call it? Advanced lethargy? Indifference Syndrome?"

"Apathy Syndrome," Akihiko said clinically, "and, yes, that is what I mean. The victims of Apathy Syndrome were placed in a very particular psychological state where their brain attacks itself."

"One part," Souji said, quickly diving in to take the reins, "let's call it the shadow, attacks the different centers of the brain, knocking them down one by one. First a person loses their planning skills, eventually losing all motivation to eat and sleep. The worst cases died of asphyxiation simply because they could not be concerned enough to breathe."

"You're trying to tell me that the deaths in Port Island weren't due to disease, they were murders?"

"Of a sort," Akihiko said, his voice a little high. "The first few were accidental, but Apathy Syndrome was eventually harnessed as a weapon by a terrorist group. Though it was never reported in the media, the organization responsible for those deaths was brought to justice. The problem is, the technology existed and was out there for anyone to use. Souji called me in so that I could confirm that it was Apathy Syndrome that killed those women."

"And was it?" Adachi asked, leaning forward.

"Yes, but you must understand. People cannot just die due to Apathy Syndrome. They have to be…pushed into it," said Akihiko, and Souji saw his eyes flash. "Someone forced their minds to fracture. Yes, Yamano and Konishi's deaths were due to Apathy Syndrome, but someone did that to them, knowing full well that they would be killed. Their deaths were murder, pure and simple."

"So, they were poisoned," Dojima said, his words deeply uncertain.

"Sort of, but in an untraceable way. The damage is mental, not physical," Souji said. "Akihiko confirmed. Anyway, once we knew how they were killed, we set about trying to figure out who the murder was."

"You said you had a suspect," Dojima said.

"We do," replied Souji. "The first thing we looked at was where the two women went missing. According to Yukiko Amagi, Yamano disappeared from inside the Amagi inn, despite the presence of a police officer."

"That was never confirmed," Dojima said, "and there's no way of knowing when or where Konishi disappeared."

"Oh, I think there is," Akihiko said, and Souji gave him major props for the quality of his smirk. "Konishi went missing from inside this building."

"This room, actually," Souji said, looking around. "Which, I'm not going to lie, is a bit disturbing."

"What the hell gave you that idea?" Adachi said, laughing lightly.

"Video footage," Akihiko said smugly.

"There's no footage of that Konishi girl ever being in the station," Adachi said, the whites of his eyes bright around his dark irises.

"Yes there is, Adachi," Dojima said, frowning. "I was there when you brought her in to be interviewed."

"Were you there every time Saki Konishi was interviewed?" Souji asked.

Dojima's brow furrowed. "Every time?"

"I'm friends with her brother, and he informed me that Konishi was called upon by the police on multiple occasions," said Souji.

"I can't think of a reason for that," Dojima said, but he looked more contemplative than annoyed. "She had nothing useful to offer us, so we sent her home."

"We can give you the names of witnesses that can confirm," Souji said.

"Wait, but," Akihiko said, "Tohru, why did you think Ms. Konishi wouldn't be on the security feed? I know that she was called upon on the thirteenth of April and interviewed in this room. Why wouldn't she show up?"

Adachi's reaction was not what Souji expected. Instead of looking caught out, Adachi grinned smugly. "The thirteenth, huh? That's awfully specific," he said, and everyone looked at him. "See, it's funny. I know Konishi's not on the security feed, but it's not because she wasn't brought into the station. See, sir, the footage has been altered."

"Altered?" Dojima asked.

"I thought the same thing you did when I met Akihiko," Adachi said, eyes wide and innocent. "I thought he was a mole, but the more time I spent with him, the more I realized that he was something else entirely. Unfortunately, I didn't follow up on my instinct until it was too late. I let him into the booth to review footage, sir."

"You let somebody in the booth when they weren't authorized?" Dojima bit out.

"It was dumb, sir. I'm sorry. I didn't think anything of it, but after Sanada and I went to dinner, I was suspicious. Sanada had gone on and on about how upset he was about his transfer and his breakup with his ex, and I thought…he just seemed fake. Like he was here for a different reason. I finally get what it was. Sanada was called in to try to pin the murders on somebody in the office by planting fake, altered footage. That way, while we were all chasing our tails and covering our asses, he could hide the real killer from our view."

"Are you seriously trying to say that Souji hired me to hide the fact that he's the killer? That's bullshit. Besides, I didn't look at the footage," Akihiko said.

Adachi started. "Yes, you did. Obviously, you did."

"No, I didn't. I assumed that something must be hidden in them and bluffed. Thank god you're so damn gullible," Akihiko said, grinning. "You were the policeman posted at the inn when Yamano was pushed in, weren't you? Oh, this is too good."

"If we bring up the access log, I can guarantee your name will be on there," Adachi said, the hair around his temples beaded with sweat. "You altered the feed."

"And I can guarantee I won't be. Besides, that's not the point," Akihiko said, grinning.

"You were the policeman on duty," Dojima said, staring at Adachi with wide eyes. "I remember the schedule."

"This-this is ridiculous! Dojima, do you even hear what these kids are saying?"

"What organization are you with?" Dojima asked, his eyes not leaving Adachi. Adachi backed up a few steps.

"SEES," Akihiko said. "I can get my boss on the phone, if you'd like. I'm sure that she would be glad to explain the situation to you."

"Do that," Dojima said, looking over at Akihiko. He moved a step forward, and the moment Dojima's eyes slipped off of him, Adachi bolted. He turned towards the television set, and Souji swore under his breath, vaulting over the table towards the cop, knocking his coffee cup flying. Shit, Adachi had been scooting towards the TV during the whole discussion and he hadn't even noticed. The guy was too close; there was no way he was going to get there…

The television screen lit up as Adachi pulled himself through, arms and head first before he tucked one leg up, pushing himself off of the floor with the other. Dojima had been too stunned to move, but Akihiko hadn't been. Akihiko moved faster than Souji, diving after Adachi and scrambling to grab his leg before it disappeared to the other side. He caught Adachi's ankle in one hand and then the other, the force pulling his arms and torso through the screen. He stood there, trying to haul Adachi back through before Souji got to his side.

"Akihiko, let go," Souji shouted, grabbing Akihiko's arms.

"I've got him," Akihiko said, snarling with effort.

"I said let go," Souji said, shouldering all of his weight into Akihiko's side. Akihiko stumbled, loosing his grip and the white-haired cop roared as he stumbled back out of the TV, empty handed.

"What the hell gives? I had him."

"Yosuke and I once went in with a rope tied around our waists," Souji said, his voice loud and cold. "Chie held it on this side while we took it to the other. You know what happened to the rope?"

"What," Akihiko said, trembling through an adrenaline high.

"The rope was severed, burned through with something so hot it left perfect, barely singed edges. I don't know what happens to people who straddle the divide for too long, but I'm assuming your shoulder wouldn't like being sliced off."

Akihiko panted, grimacing. "So, let's go after him."

"No."

"Why not?" Akihiko said, voice rough.

"Because I don't know where that TV set leads!" Souji said, his chest rattling with the effort. "We're unarmed, unprepared, and if we go through here we could be set down right in the middle of hell for all I know, and I'm not going to risk that, Akihiko. Every TV leads somewhere different, and the only one that I know of with an exit is the one in Junes. That's why we only use that one, and that's why you are going to calm down and listen to me."

Akihiko ground his teeth, crossing his arms in an attempt to hide how much they were shaking. "Okay, what do we do?"

"What the..." Dojima said from behind them, reminding Souji that his uncle was still in the room with them. Souji briefly considered comforting the shell-shocked man, but realized that he couldn't be bothered yet.

"He could go through the TV," Souji said, half to Akihiko and half to himself. "How could he go through the TV?"

"What do you mean," Akihiko said, voice hoarse but sounding mostly calm again.

"Unless you are a shadow, you have to have a Persona to go through, unless you already know someone with a Persona who can open the path for you."

"So he's either a shadow, or he was let through by someone else?"

"Or, he has the potential," Souji said, quietly. "I don't know. Look, I need you to get your evoker to Rise. Damn it, I should have done this ages ago. Ask her to scan the town for Persona users. She should scan once an hour, so that we can make sure Adachi doesn't come back to this side without us knowing. Call Kanji and Yukiko and post them outside of the TV in Junes. Kanji will keep people away and Yukiko will stop people from feeling distressed about the fact that they've been kept away. Ask Ted to go to the other side and try to locate Adachi there. Chie and Yosuke can go with him."

"What about you?"

Souji looked over at Dojima who was looking at the two of them blankly. "I'm going to try to explain things here and do some damage control." He looked calmly at Akihiko. "This was not a bad thing. I should have noticed that he was so close to the television, but at least now we know it was him. We just…damn it, we still need to find his accomplice. I guess…let's deal with Adachi first and then we'll go from there."

"Accomplice?" Dojima asked, coming back to the conversation.

"Yeah, Adachi couldn't have kidnapped all of the victims. He was accounted for some of the time. He has an accomplice. In fact," Souji said, turning back to Akihiko, "ask Rise if Kanzeon picks up any other persona users. If the accomplice was pushing people into TVs-"

"Then he must have a Persona. Understood," Akihiko said. "What if Adachi doesn't try to come out?"

Souji met Akihiko's eyes and allowed a slight smirk to crawl onto his face. "Then we go in and drag him out," he said firmly.

Akihiko smirked back.

Chapter Text

Not knowing what to do while they waited to hear word from Souji, the second years left campus and strolled lazily towards the shopping district. Yukiko and Chie walked ahead of Yosuke, he being too busy dragging his feet to notice the growing distance between them. Just as Chie turned around in order to goad him into walking faster, Yosuke's phone began to ring in earnest. He jumped, startled both by the noise and the unfamiliar number flashing on the screen, and he answered with a hesitant, "Yeah?"

"Hanamura?" said the gruff voice on the other side, and it took Yosuke a moment to place it.

"Uh, yeah, hey, Akihiko," Yosuke said, stumbling through his words. "What's wrong?"

"I need you to call the rest of the group and tell them to meet at your headquarters in around fifteen minutes."

Yosuke pulled his phone away from his face, staring at it incredulously. "Dude, you can't just order us around. What, are you trying to replace Souji, now, too?"

"I-what?" Akihiko said, confused. "Aren't you the second-in-command here? Look, I'll call Ryoji and ask him to gather the troops if it's a problem. Just meet at Junes with the others."

"No, wait," Yosuke said, scratching his neck. "Sorry. I'll call them. See you in a few."

Yosuke flipped his phone shut and looked over at the girls. "Akihiko wants us to head to Junes. Something must be wrong."

"Oh my…" Yukiko said, her voice skittish and her eyes rabbit-wide. "He must have gone after Adachi."

Yosuke's brow knit. "Wha-…wait, why would he go with Adachi?"

"Go with-? No, not-" Yukiko clenched her fists, her tongue rubbing strangely against her teeth as she struggled to get her words straight. "Souji," she said, upset and earnest, "Souji must have…but he said we should wait and play it safe. He wouldn't have done something reckless unless…Youske! Did Sanada sound upset or panicky?"

"No. No, he just sounded stressed. What's going on? What about Adachi?"

"Souji thinks Adachi's the killer, or at least he, Sanada, and Naoto strongly suspect it. Souji and Ryoji were arguing about it the other day while we were fishing. I think Sanada found something at the station, something about how Konishi was killed."

Yosuke's stomach dropped. "How…what did he find?"

"Umm…there's some weird stuff with security recordings," Yukiko said, "but the long story short is that she was pushed into a TV inside the police's interrogation room. Only a member of the police could have done it, and I remembered the other day that Adachi was the cop on duty when Yamano disappeared."

"Fine, but seriously? That goofball? Isn't all that evidence…damn it, what's the word…circumstantial? Yeah, that's it. Adachi couldn't have been the one who killed Saki," Yosuke said, his throat tight. "He just…that isn't right. Why didn't Souji tell me any of this?"

"I don't think it was purposeful neglect," Yukiko said. "He told those that knew that we shouldn't do anything until we were sure. That's why it didn't come up. Oh, I really hope that Souji confronted Adachi and not the other way around. I wonder what we're supposed to do now."

"That's prob'ly what Sanada's calling us together for," Chie said, her face set and serious. "Do you think it could really be him?"

Yukiko nodded. "It's…I hadn't even considered it before I listened to Souji and Ryoji talking about it, but in retrospect, it does make a certain amount of sense."

"But why didn't Souji…" Yosuke muttered to himself, his eyes locked on the pavement. "Why does Akihiko suddenly know more about this case than the rest of us?"

Chie knocked her shoulder against his roughly, making Yosuke look up. "Stop being stupid. You're Souji's best friend, but Sanada's known him for a while, too. You have to give them their space."

"Sanada is a good person," Yukiko said, smiling reassuringly. "I don't think he's trying to encroach on your position."

Yosuke knew that they were trying to be nice, but before he could censor himself, his mouth went ahead and said, "He's a dick, but you can't see that because you're so caught up staring at his pretty ass."

Yukiko stopped, staring Yosuke down with her shoulders stiff. "Do you really think that I'm that shallow? I don't like people just because they are attractive."

Yosuke snorted, something mindless pressing him forward. "Yeah, well, your track record sure doesn't support that. I knew it was about time for you to break the Amagi Challenge, but damn, I didn't know you were so easy to-"

The punch to his shoulder was not unexpected, but it still hurt like hell. He stumbled forward with the force of it before wheeling around so that he was facing the blazing eyes of his attacker.

"Stop being a brainless, petty, jealous wimp for five seconds and realize that we're all in the same boat as you, you idiot," Chie snarled, her hands curled into tight fists. "You think I don't get it? Souji's my friend too, moron, but you don't see me attacking Yukiko for it. Actually, I've been crazy impressed with Yukiko, 'cause unlike us, she's actually trying."

Chie turned to Yukiko, who looked simultaneously pleased and pissed. "It's worth it," Yukiko said quietly. "I assumed that, because they were Souji's friends, they would be good people, and I was right. They are kind but introverted. They won't come to you. Give them a chance and stop seeing them as a challenge. Souji is going to be with them whether we are included or not, so I don't see the advantage in disliking them."

"Well said, Yukiko," Chie said, grinning. "I feel like Sanada could be a cool guy. He was a boxer, you know," she said and began walking towards Junes, her back to the group. "Kirijo, though…"

"She's quite something," Yukiko said, smiling determinedly at Chie and ignoring Yosuke. "She is beautiful."

"She's got Sanada totally whipped," Yosuke said, trying to make his words airy and unconcerned.

"That's true," Chie said, chuckling lightly. "She's got power."

"Yes, but she's practically demure around Souji," Yukiko said. "I wonder what the history there is."

"Well, this is Souji we're talking about," Yosuke said.

Yukiko sniffed. "He does have a way to him."

The three laughed lightly, but there was a forced quality to the whole exchange, and they soon settled into silence. Chie swung her arms, and Yukiko stared at the sky. Yosuke glared at the ground, the cold rot that had been eating at his stomach for days, weeks…hell, that had been there ever since Souji stayed out all night in Iwatodai doing who knew what with…with Akihiko…

"I'm trying to imagine how Souji's assault against Adachi could have gone, but I can't picture it," Yukiko said softly, her chin tilted back.

"I'm sure we can ask our leader for a blow-by-blow once the whole group's together," Chie said.

"I should call the rest of the guys," Yosuke said, flipping his phone open.

Chie and Yukiko walked quietly ahead of Yosuke in they grey afternoon light as he called each member of the team, convincing each to gather at the food court. His calls took up much of their walk to Junes, but even once they were done, the three did not speak. Yosuke knew he would have to apologize to Yukiko eventually, but his stomach felt too sour at the moment to deal with social norms.

Surprisingly, they weren't the first to arrive. Teddie and Ryoji were already sitting comfortably around the table, and the Kirijo chick sat next to Ted, prim as could be with a duffle bag and a long, thin case set in front of her on the table. Ryoji waved placidly as they approached, a smile tight across his face.

"Do you know what's going on?" Yosuke asked, pulling a chair out with his foot and swinging it around so that he could slump into it.

Ryoji shrugged. "More or less. I figured this was coming sooner or later. Souji's miserable when it comes to letting sleeping dogs lie," he said with a soft smile. "I wish I had been there."

"It's not like you were doing anything else, right?" Yosuke asked, shrugging. "I mean, what the hell do you do during the day, Ryoji?"

Ryoji blinked, and Yosuke wondered how much of his kicked-puppy routine was an act. "I don't…I mean, I'm not sitting around bumming off Dojima's kindness all day, if that's what you mean," he said, shrugging down into his new scarf. "Mostly I've been filling out forms and making calls to Iwatodai to get my affairs in order."

"Filling out forms?" Chie asked, head cocked slightly to the side.

"School stuff, work stuff," Ryoji said, shrugging. "I've been debating whether or not it's worth applying to Yasogami when I'm going to transfer in April, and there's no way that I can complete the year anyway. I mean, I've filled out the application, but I've also been filling applications out for schools in Tokyo. To be honest, I'd rather, you know, work for the rest of the year so that I can pay Dojima back and support myself, at least superficially, when we get to Tokyo."

When nobody responded, Ryoji grabbed the black edge of his scarf, pulling it up over his chin and leaning against his hand. "I have to do something, right? I don't technically exist, and so if I'm going to, you know, live, I've got to get my life straight. Last time I wasn't…I didn't know what I had, and I didn't know what I had to lose. I do now, so I'm going to protect it."

Mitsuru's face looked odd, and Yosuke couldn't read it. It was a strange mix of disturbed and satisfied, all tight, diagonal frowns, creased eyebrows and wide eyes, and Yosuke tried to parse the useful bits of it for a minute before giving up. Besides, there was a far more important issue to address.

"You're leaving with Souji?" Yosuke said thinly, looking at Ryoji.

Ryoji smiled, unabashed. "Of course," he said. "Frankly, I'm not sure I could not go with him even if I wanted to. We are unified at a basic level, and being apart is…unpleasant."

"Like twins," Chie said.

Ryoji did not blink, and Yosuke didn't like the set of his smile. "It's much more fundamental than that. Luckily, I have no qualms with following him wherever he wants to go."

"I always forget that he's got to leave," Chie said. "He seems so…permanent, if that doesn't sound too dumb."

"It doesn't," Yukiko said, smiling sadly. "I wonder what he'll do afterwards, especially now that he's got the Arisatos' memories."

"Plural? Why 'Arisatos' plural?" Mitsuru asked, softly.

"Um," Ryoji said, chuckling uncomfortably, "I'm not sure how to put this for someone who was involved. Let's…you know how…in December, I asked you all, specifically Arisato, to…well, you know how I thought it was the only choice, right?"

Despite his disjointed delivery, Mitsuru nodded. "You asked him to kill you," she said, plainly. The breath Yosuke took in was much sharper than usual.

"Yes," Ryoji said. "Let's just say…once upon a time, Arisato made a different choice."

Mitsuru froze, her face slowly changing from surprise to horror as she considered the full implications of what Ryoji meant.

"Are you saying that the Fall came, then?" she asked, leaning forward so that she seemed, despite her stature, to tower over Ryoji.

Ryoji's scarf covered half of his face, and when he nodded, his nose brushed along the top edge. "Yes, it did. It was a whole different set of circumstances, though…in a way. That year happened more than once, Mitsuru. You simply do not remember."

"That's not…" Mitsuru began to say before catching herself and revising her position. "I suppose…that is possible. I once forgot the year entirely. I suppose it is not wholly improbable to believe that events may have conspired that escaped my memory. How do you mean, Mochizuki?"

Ryoji's hand hovered, reaching in mid-gesture as though he was not sure what to do with it. At last, he set it down on the table, shaking his chin free of his scarf and smiling at Mitsuru softly. "The year happened, the world ended and then the year happened again. Any description beyond that would be…irrelevant detail. Suffice to say, things were different the second time."

"Does Arisato remember?" Mitsuru asked.

Ryoji closed his eyes and nodded.

"I see," said Mitsuru, lacing her fingers together and leaning over them. "What disturbs me most about the idea of this is that things could happen many more times than we are aware of, and we would have no way of knowing about it. The very idea of futilely repeating the same events, making the same mistakes…it is similar to my idea of purgatory."

"The one upside is knowing that the events that were recorded were the ones that led to the Fall being averted," Ryoji said, his eyes serious, and Yosuke thought that, for the first time, Ryoji did sort of resemble Souji. "If you stop and take a moment to realize what that actually means, it's actually rather inspiring."

"The world wants to be saved," Mitsuru said, the beginnings of a smile sliding onto her face. "It is willing to do what must be done to survive. Yes," she nodded, closing her eyes and leaning onto her locked hands. "That does inspire hope."

Ryoji grinned, tilting back in his chair. Mitsuru's smile slowly faded, however, and she soon looked grim.

"Um, is something wrong, Ms. Kirijo?" Yukiko asked.

Mitsuru blinked, looking up. "No. No, it is simply…" she said, turning her gaze slowly towards Ryoji. "Did Arisato remember? Did he know? The whole time? Did…did you remember?"

Ryoji shook his head emphatically. "No! No, of course not. He did not remember until...actually, I'm not sure when he remembered precisely. I know he knew before his body died, but I'm not sure what that means. If I had to guess, I'd say he probably remembered when he got the Universe Arcana. That would make sense, right? If you're one with the Universe, I'm pretty sure that you get to know what's going down."

"Is that when he became the Seal?" Yukiko asked.

"The seal?" Mitsuru asked, her gaze sharp and calculating.

Ryoji nodded. "Yes. His soul became the Seal a little while before his body actually died."

"I have a question about that," Yosuke said, his eyes hard. "You said that the tower people had to become a seal to keep some big ass end-of-time monster from killing everybody, right? So how can they be off the Seal now? What's stopping the monster?"

Ryoji's expression turned stony. "I have an answer to that," he said softly, his impossibly blue eyes burning Yosuke with their solemnity, "but I doubt that you will like it. It is also pure speculation, so you should not take my word as absolute truth."

"Yeah, I don't think I'll have any problem with that," Yosuke said, gesturing for Ryoji to continue. "Tell us what you have to say."

"The monster on the other side of the Seal is formed by humanity's ill will, cruelty and selfish desires. It…let's be honest. I believe that humanity is beautiful and, at its essence, good, but you cannot hope to purge the world of absolutely all meanness, any more than you could hope to stop all of the world's kindness and beauty. It is impossible to have one without the other, and it is foolish to try, so as long as humanity exists, the Seal must also."

Something cold settled alongside the rot in Yosuke's stomach. "So," he said, the pitch of his voice suddenly frighteningly low, "If the tower people are off the Seal, that means-"

"-that somewhere in the future, humanity must have ended, yes," Ryoji said, softly. "That is the only conclusion."

The foodcourt's buzzing ambient noise roared around the silent table. From the other side of the patio, they could hear Kanji, Rise and Naoto chattering as they approached, but nobody could muster the energy for a greeting.

"How long?" Mitsuru asked. Yosuke wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer.

"A couple of centuries, I think," Ryoji said with a shrug, and damn had Yosuke not wanted to know the answer. "It's difficult to judge time in that position, but if I had to wager a guess-"

Kanji, Rise and Naoto pulled up chairs around the table, but sensing the tense atmosphere, stayed quiet.

"How?" Chie said, and she was not quiet at all, but bright with fury. "What happens in the next couple hundred years that could wipe us out? How can that happen?"

"I don't want that," Teddie said, his voice stricken. "How do we stop that?"

"Nobody wants it to happen," Ryoji said, clasping Ted on the shoulder. "And the best thing we can do is fight and keep fighting."

"If the world is going to end in a couple of centuries, though, why were you all sent back to now?" Yukiko asked, softly. "Why Souji?"

The whole table quieted, because, really, that was the question, wasn't it? Yosuke leaned forward, staring imploringly at Ryoji. Why was it Souji that got saddled with all of this? He knew his Partner was pretty cool. Hell, Souji was one of the best guys Yosuke had ever known, but what made their crazy leader special on a cosmic level?

Ryoji stared at the middle of the table, his eyes thin and his dark brows drawn. Without looking up, he said, slowly, "Because it always had to be him." Ryoji frowned, clearly unsatisfied with his own answer, but when he lifted his head he looked resigned. "I'm sorry," he said. "I know that isn't helpful, but that phrase sticks out. It had to be him, but I couldn't tell you why."

Yosuke's sigh was more of a snarl. "Well, when we're left totally clueless and it comes back to kick you in the nads, I call that I get to say 'I told you so,'" he said, flopping his head over the back of his plastic chair so that the ridge bit into his neck.

"Yosuke," Chie said darkly.

"Thank you, though," Yosuke continued, looking down his nose so that he could see Ryoji. "At least knowing this is better than knowing nothing, even if it sucks. You're right. We have to keep fighting and pushing until we've done all that we can do."

Ryoji smiled. "I agree completely."

"So, guys," Kanji said, shuffling in his seat and trying to push his way into the conversation. "Where's Akihiko?"

"He does not have a car, so he might be a minute," Mitsuru said, pulling her phone out of her coat pocket. She lifted the phone to her ear, and Yosuke silently enjoyed the way her head tilted into the device, making a show of her long neck.

"Are you nearly here," Mitsuru said without greeting. She hummed after a few beats and hung up, looking satisfied. "He's walking across the parking lot."

"Um, what are we supposed to be doing?" Chie asked.

"Deciding on the best way to pursue Adachi, I suppose," Naoto said, passing her hat from one hand to the other.

"So, you guys know?" Yosuke asked.

"Naoto filled us in on the way over," Rise said. "I guess I should head over to the other world and start scanning, right?"

"Eventually, yes," Mitsuru said, unzipping the duffle bag on the table and setting aside a dark pair of pants and what looked like fencing pads in order to pull out a metal case. She set it on the table, sliding it slowly towards Rise.

"What's in the case?" Rise asked, pulling it in front of her with both hands.

"Open it," Mitsuru said, and Rise unclipped the clasps, opening the lid to reveal the plush, velvet interior and the piece it held. "Akihiko asked me to bring my evoker. I think he wants you to scan the town."

Astonishment widened Yukiko's eyes. "W-wasn't Sanada using one of those when he-"

"-blew his friggin' brains out," Yosuke finished, staring fixedly at Mitsuru.

Mitsuru's nostrils flared, nothing but disdain on her face. "That was in the other world," she said. "Evokers were designed for this world, and I can promise you that they work. Does anyone know of anywhere around here that is free of surveillance?"

All of the investigation team members turned to look at Yosuke. "Yeah," he said, scratching his head. "There's a kind of alley place where the employees go to smoke because you won't get caught. We could go there and block the doors so nobody stumbles out accidentally."

"Let us move, then," Mitsuru said, standing. She zipped her duffle up with a single, controlled movement and settled her thin case across her back, slinging her duffle over one shoulder to join it. Once she was settled, she began to move away from the table.

"Wait," Teddie called, standing. "Weren't we supposed to wait for Aki?"

"We'll run into him on the way," Yosuke said as the others stood. "He should be almost here, really."

Sure enough, as they left the food court and moved into the main area of the department store, they caught sight of Akihiko who was walking so fast, he was practically gliding down the aisle. He trotted into a full jog as he neared them, and though Yosuke knew the guy had been flying like a bat out of hell, he barely looked rumpled and his breathing was only slightly shallow. Geez, that wasn't fair.

"Where are we going?" Akihiko asked, slowing at Yosuke's side.

Yosuke was startled by the fact that the cop had come to him, but he shrugged it off, saying, "There's an empty area down on the first floor where Rise can summon her Persona."

"You took your time getting here, Akihiko," Mitsuru said with a smug smile.

"I should have gone ahead and stolen the keys to Adachi's car," Akihiko said, grumbling. "I've done just about everything else today."

"What did you and Souji do?" Yosuke asked.

"We, uh," Akihiko said, embarrassed. "We lied to the police. Shit. We lied to police. Speaking of…Mitsuru!"

"Yes, Akihiko?"

"You and I are now members of SEES-"

"-I'm aware-"

"-which is a secret government task force. You're the boss."

Mitsuru stared, her expression turning thoughtful. "That is not too far from the truth," she said after a moment. "Actually, now that it has been brought to my attention-"

"Yeah, why the hell isn't there a task force," Akihiko said. "It makes no sense."

Mitsuru folded her arms. "That should be remedied. New people should not have to face these things when there are already those that are trained and experienced."

Akihiko nodded, and Yosuke's mind began to race at the possibilities.

Before he could let his imagination run away with him, Yosuke clasped Akihiko on the shoulder, making the man turn, hunching in surprise. Yosuke felt weirdly young as he looked sideways at the cop, and he sucked in a breath, straightening to his full height so that he was able to look down at Akihiko. "Do you really think that it's Adachi?" Yosuke asked.

Akihiko chuckled. "Oh yeah, it's definitely him. We got that son of a bitch to actually crawl through the damned television screen while Dojima watched. It was, well," he said, his smile wry and twisted, "honestly, it was exciting. I had more fun in there than I should have, and that's including the big Souji-shaped bruise I've got on my side."

"What, did you and Souji stage a fight?"

Akihiko shook his head. "Nah. He tackled me."

Yosuke decided to leave it at that.

The group made its way in single file down the escalator, moving to the far back of the store and slipping silently into the Employees-Only section. After moving through a series of hallways, they dodged around a corner and out a door into a narrow, dark alley.

Yosuke leaned against one of the walls. "This should do, right?"

"It's perfect, Yosuke," Rise said, opening the case and pulling out the evoker. "Not to be a buzz-kill or anything, but how do I know this won't make my head explode?"

Mitsuru sighed. "Like I said, we've used these hundreds of times. What you witnessed was a fluke."

"I'd still feel better if you showed us how it's done first," Kanji said, his voice a rough rumble.

"Gladly," Mitsuru said, holding out a hand for the gun. Rise passed the evoker to her and stepped back. In the same motion that she had used to grab the gun, Mitsuru pulled it back, pressed it against her temple and pulled the trigger, the soft murmur of her Persona's name lost behind the explosion of the gunshot and the hissing swirl of released power. Billowing black folds and sharp, cool armor rose in waves above Mitsuru, two white eyes staring blankly from behind a beak-like, red mask. The Persona stared down at them, silent and still as a specter, and Yosuke shivered, feeling very cold and very frail.

Mitsuru, on the other hand, smiled. "Thank you," she said, looking up at creature's red mask, "for coming when I called."

It nodded, disintegrating into light and dust.

Mitsuru turned back to Rise, who was practically glowing, her eyes ecstatic.

"That was so cool! Can I try?" she asked, squealing when Mitsuru handed her the evoker. "Watch out, real world. You're about to have to deal with Kanzeon and me, and we're one heck of a team."

She closed her eyes, tilting her head back and placed the tip of the gun flat against her chin. Before she had a chance to talk herself out of it, Rise clenched her eyes, brought her free hand up to brace against the butt of the evoker and pulled the trigger. Bars of white and black rose in columns above her, and when the blue light cleared, Kanzeon towered above them, the reflective panels of her satellites trained towards the sky and her fingers loosely wrapped around Rise's visor.

Rise laughed joyously. "This changes everything," she said, struck loopy with excitement. "If I can scan in the real world, I can actually use this!"

Yosuke laughed. "Why don't you start by using it to track down Adachi?"

"You got it, kill joy," she said, gently grabbing Kanzeon's hands and lowering the visor over her eyes. The air hummed with anticipation as everyone watched Rise's head swing in one direction, then another.

"This is kind of trippy," Rise said, laughing softly. "It's really different out here."

"There's probably loads of interference, huh," Chie said.

Rise shrugged, her expression difficult to read behind the mask. "Yeah, that's part of it, but it's just different. I guess…it's more like I didn't know what it was doing before, but now I get it better."

"What do you mean?" Akihiko asked.

"So, you guys know how, when Naoto disappeared, it took me forever to find her even though we knew her and a lot of stuff about her? That really bummed me out, because I can tell that Yosuke didn't eat breakfast from a dungeon away and that Teddie's taken too much damage and needs to be pulled out of battle. The same's true with shadows, you know. I can barely tell the weak ones are alive, but the strong ones have their weaknesses all laid out in front of me like they're begging to be slaughtered," she said with a grin. "I mean, the human shadows are different, but it's all the same principle. It's weird, right?"

"What makes that happen?" Kanji asked, settling against the wall beside Yosuke.

"What I'm seeing when I look around the town is kind of cool, actually. There's three tiers of people, in a way. There's the normal people, and they barely register. If I focus really, really hard on trying to find somebody specific like…there we go…I've found Nanako. Looks like she's at a friend's house," Rise said, smiling. "I know her, so I could find her, but it's really tough, 'cause she looks the same as almost everyone else."

"Does anybody stand out? We need to find the accomplice," Akihiko said, leaning forward.

"Hold your horses, boxer boy," Rise said, grinning toothily. "There's a second group of people. Apparently, you can have a Persona without knowing you have a Persona."

Mitsuru nodded. "That's how the Kirijo group found test subjects back when they were in the first stages of shadow research. They designed machines that could sense a person's latent ability, or their potential. There was a problem to that method, though. It is impossible to tell how much potential a person has based simply off the readings. They could just as easily have a full, fledgling Persona already developing as they could have barely anything at all. Because of that, some of the subjects were not quite…up to the tests."

"I'm dealing with a major case of that right now," Rise said, backing up so that she could rest against Kanzeon's dress. "You guys show up as clear as day. Like, I can tell you that Souji's in a car on the way over here, because he's moving too fast to be walking, but I only can tell the person next to him is Dojima because I know Dojima pretty well. Then there are the people who aren't like us big time persona users, but are pale dot-like things that stand out, but not from each other. There's a handful in the residential district, a few scattered through the shopping district- oh, hey! The fox is one. Anyway, they all kind of look the same, so even if one of them has been into the TV world, if he hasn't killed himself some shadows and toughened himself up, he won't look different from the others."

"So, there's no one else in town that looks like, well, us?" Akihiko asked.

Rise smiled at Yukiko. "Only the ones that you would expect," she said cheekily, "but, no, not really, no. Sorry. If it's any consolation, though, I'm pretty sure that means that Adachi hasn't come back to this side. There's no way to go anywhere over there without having to fight, and unless he went over armed with machine guns and strapped into a suit of armor, he's gonna have to call his Persona."

"Should we go to the other side to look for him?" Chie asked.

"Yeah, probably," said Akihiko. "Souji told me to split you guys up into teams, but if you've really searched the whole town already, I don't see any reason for all of us to not go over together."

"Seconded," Yosuke said, nodding to the group. "Let's go over, scan and leave. We can plan back here when we're done."

"Hold on," Rise said, lifting Kanzeon's visor off her head and shivering lightly as the Persona faded. "Souji's on his way here. Shouldn't we wait for him or at least call him to make sure everything's okay?"

After a few mumbled agreements, Rise pulled out her cell and put it on speaker as Souji's phone rang.

As soon as Souji answered, Rise began talking. "We scanned the town, and we can't find anything, so we thought we could go to the other side as a group and look there. What're you up to?"

Souji's laugh was strained but true. "I'm in the car with my uncle. We…talked," he said, a shuffling sound crackling in the background. "I'm going to put you on speaker phone for his benefit if that's fine with you."

"Go for it," Rise said, and the sound quality changed.

"So, my uncle and I talked. I explained some of what's been going on to him, and he's seen some rather undeniable evidence, so he is willing to suspend some disbelief, but-"

"You kids are going to show me what kind of crazy you've gotten yourselves into," Dojima said, growling.

"About that," Souji said, softly. "I do have some rules that I would like you to agree to, uncle. I refuse to show you the other side unless you accept my conditions."

"You cannot declare law in this family," Dojima said, lowly.

"And you cannot cross to the other side without my help," Souji said, his voice flat.

Dojima made a noise that practically epitomized exasperation before saying, "What rules?"

"There's just two," Souji said. "The first is that you are not allowed to leave the first area. Shadows start to form once you leave our haven, so for our sake as much as yours, please do not try to barge ahead."

Dojima grunted but said nothing.

"Secondly, no matter what you see on the other side, you cannot try to stop us from continuing our investigation. We've been doing this for some time now and we're good at it, and, more to the point, we are the only people that you've got. It is dangerous over there, I'll admit, but somebody's got to do this, and we are the best people for the job."

"Why should a bunch of kids like you have to do all of this. It's the police's job to capture criminals and deliver justice, not children's!"

Souji's breath hissed across the line. "At what point, exactly," Souji said, painfully calm, "would it be okay? What, do I have to pay rent to be willing to die for something I believe in? I made these rules because I am responsible for keeping my team safe. I'm not trying to usurp our familial hierarchy, but I will if you do something that might put my friends in danger."

Yosuke hardly dared to breathe as he waited for Dojima to crack. Almost a minute passed before Dojima finally responded.

"I guess I have to respect that," Dojima said quietly. "You…it's damn hard to admit, but you've clearly done a better job figuring this mess out than the force has, but if I'm going to let you guys keep at this, I need to see what I'm pushing you guys into."

Yosuke sighed in relief. "We understand, Sir," he said, grinning.

"Thanks, Dojima," Souji said. "Guys, we're almost there, so why don't you go ahead and cross. We'll be there in just a few minutes."

"See you soon," Rise said, flipping her phone closed. She turned to the rest of the group. "I'll go on over and start searching."

"We'll be right behind you," Yosuke said, propping his head against the wall to wait. As per usual, the team staggered themselves as they crossed, only going one at a time or in pairs to ensure that they were not seen. Once everyone save Souji was gathered in the backlot, Mitsuru and Akihiko having come last and Mitsuru somewhat flustered from the fall and the fog, Rise turned to the group, her face stony.

"Did you see anything?" Yosuke asked.

"Yeah, I did," she said, pushing her glasses up on her nose and chewing on her lip. "There's definitely someone here, but that's not all. You know how I said people could be bright or dim or whatever? There's more than one person in here, and I'm thinkin' that, you know how Souji thought Adachi had an accomplice? Well, I'm kinda sensing that that's wrong. I found Adachi, but he's…dim. Like he hasn't used his Persona all that much, but the other person is blazing."

"You sayin' our accomplice is really the mastermind?" Kanji asked, frowning.

"At the very least, he's more powerful," Rise said, nodding.

"Where are they?" Yosuke asked. "Can you tell?"

"Pretty much, yeah," Rise said, gazing to the left. "They're near Iwatodai, but…guys, something's wrong. Really wrong."

Susano-O silently agreed, and Yosuke felt the last of his good will ebb away.

Chapter Text

Souji walked mutely beside his uncle towards the electronics section in Junes. Outwardly, he was cool, almost aloof, but inside his mind raced and each breath caught in his throat as he inhaled and exhaled. When he had woken up that morning, he hadn't expected any of the crazy that had ended up consuming his whole afternoon, and his lack of control made Souji feel distinctly uncomfortable. He was glad that Adachi had been outed, glad that at least one part of his team's investigation had finally been solved, but things were moving too quickly, and getting too many people involved was dangerous. He glanced sideways at Dojima, who seemed to have locked down all feeling at the moment; his face was steely as they turned towards the wall of TVs, and Souji coughed lightly, catching the older man's attention.

"Here we are," Souji said, nodding towards the largest television set.

"A TV," Dojima said, his words flat and lifeless.

Souji nodded, grabbing Dojima by the elbow and walking him towards the set.

"What if somebody sees us," Dojima said, his eyes flicking back and forth across the empty sales floor.

"I've been doing this all year. Nobody's going to notice," Souji said, reaching a hand out and pushing through the screen so that it rippled. Dojima exhaled slowly, the air hissing through his teeth and the TV's white light glowing on his face. "We're going to have to go through at the same time, or the portal will close on you. On the count of three. One. Two-"

"What exactly is on the other side? You said it's dangerous outside of the entrance, but I don't know what that means."

"You won't get to see much, but the other side is sprawling and immense. I'm pretty sure space over there is unlimited. If you can think it, the other world can make it, and that's the problem with letting a bunch of people take day-trips over there. Now, if you want to see, let's go. One. Two. Three-"

Souji pushed forward and through, dragging Dojima by the arm behind him. The man balanced himself with his free hand, tucking his legs over the lower rim of the TV, and together they dropped, falling through space until the floor of the backlot caught them. Souji stood, catching his uncle as he stumbled.

Yosuke moved in front of them, pulling off his pair of orange glasses and holding them out for Dojima to take. "Put these on," he said, and as Dojima complied, Souji donned his own pair. Dojima made that same tight hissing noise as he slid Yosuke's glasses on, and he looked around the empty lot, taking in the faces of all who were present.

"All of you are involved, then," he said, and Souji saw his eyes catch Ryoji, then Naoto, before finally looking back at his nephew, frowning. "Have you all been in on this from the beginning?"

"People joined as they got involved," Souji said, crossing his arms. "I'm sure you realized that a lot of these people went missing over the course of the year."

"I'm not an idiot, kid," Dojima said, turning his glare once more on Ryoji. "And what about you? You only just got here. Are you part of the same group that Sanada's claiming to be a member of?"

"SEES? No, I'm not, sir," Ryoji said, smiling softly. "I've come in contact with them from time to time, though, same as Souji."

"Yeah, right, sure," Dojima said, grumbling as he paced around the studio, staring at the scaffolding and suspended lights as he made his way towards the outer circle of the target etched across the floor. "Where the hell are we?"

"The TV world," Yosuke said with a shrug.

"It's more like the collective unconscious," Souji said, turning away from the group and moving behind the stacked TVs to retrieve his sword and sheath. He buckled the belt around his waist, adjusting the weight until it was settled comfortably on his hips. He stalked back out to the center of the lot, and caught Dojima staring at him, his uncle's face inscrutable.

"You're all armed," he growled.

Souji nodded, but did not explain further.

"So, this is it?" Dojima said, glowering. "I'm not allowed to go past here, right? You drag me through a TV for god's sake, show me some studio stage and then tell me to shove off?"

"So long as you stay in the backlot, I don't care whether you leave or not, but you cannot go further. If you'd like, though, you could help us out."

"How, exactly?"

Souji smiled thankfully. "Adachi had an accomplice-"

"-that we think might be in here," Ryoji interrupted.

"Right, well, if he isn't in here, then he's probably around town somewhere. This guy would be the one who kidnapped some of the members of this team over the course of the past year. If you can track him down for us, we can direct all of our energy into catching Adachi."

Dojima looked like he had swallowed something rancid and sour, lips set in a thin, stony line and eyes tightly narrowed. He stared wretchedly around the group, his eyes catching on Naoto's pistol before swinging to Yosuke's long, wicked daggers and darting to the side where they hovered over the evoker strapped to Mitsuru's side, but Souji was waiting for the moment when his uncle would look farther, and he was unsurprised when Dojima's teeth ground together and his breathing turned into something more like a string of snarled hisses. When Dojima's eyes began to move again, they didn't lock on weapons but limbs. Souji's teammates had been in the middle of changing into their pads and armor when he and Dojima arrived, and without the shrouds of their long sleeves and jackets, the damage the year had wrought on every member of his team became painfully obvious. Souji watched as Dojima's eyes raked along the long, ragged lines on Chie's forearm and the shiny patches of burn that freckled Kanji's shoulders and neck. The act of following became leading and, before Souji was even aware of it, he was staring at the thin, white line that bit up Yosuke's chin and the slightly uneven set to Yukiko's otherwise perfect nose, and he felt something settle in his stomach that sat like guilt but burned like pride.

"Souji, can we talk for a moment?" Dojima asked, startling Souji out of his reverie. Souji nodded, and the two walked slowly over to one of the railed walkways that led away from the lot. Souji leaned heavily against the railing, the metal creaking as Dojima joined him.

Dojima sighed, looking at the ground. "Let me see your hand," he said softly. Souji rubbed his thumb and middle finger together unconsciously before offering Dojima his sword hand, fingers splayed. Dojima grabbed it roughly, turning it palm-up and rubbing the pads of his fingers over Souji's thick calluses. A rough chuckle tore its way out of Dojima's throat, and he shook his head, dropping Souji's hand. "I'm a blind fool."

Souji flexed his hand before letting it fall to his side. "You aren't blind," he said. "It's just that I didn't want you to see, and you didn't really want to know."

"You all look like you've been torn apart and sewn back together," Dojima said, staring out over the yellow-fogged drop that opened on all sides of the backlot. "And I let it happen." He sighed, pushing away from the railing so that he could stare Souji in the eyes. "I'll leave you be, but so help me," he said, grabbing Souji's shoulder and shaking it firmly, "if you force me to tell Nanako or, hell, my sister that I let you get yourself killed, I…" he trailed off, shaking his head. "Just, please," he hissed, giving Souji's shoulder one more shake before letting go and looking to the side, "Don't make me do it."

Souji nodded and tried to smile reassuringly. Dojima returned the smile creakily, and they walked back to where the rest of the group had finished dressing and arming themselves. It was weird, he thought, to see the old SEES crew out of their Gekkoukan uniforms. It hadn't been as strange with just Akihiko, but seeing Mitsuru all strapped up in her fencing pads was distinctly interesting.

"I'm going to head back to the station and see what I can dig up," Dojima said, and Souji could not help but chuckle at the relief that splashed its way across his friends' faces.

"I am glad to hear it, sir," Naoto said, nodding stiffly. "If I might be so bold as to hypothesize, I believe the accomplice must be somebody that no one would notice, or, more precisely, that no one would think strange or out of place. They also must be mobile and capable of carrying a wide screen television. My best guess would be a mail truck or a moving van. Something inconspicuous but large."

Dojima closed his eyes and shook his head. "I'll keep that in mind," he said wearily, turning towards the stacked television sets. "How am I s'pposed to get out?"

"Just climb on through, and you'll end up back in Junes," Yosuke said. "Um, and could I have my glasses back?"

"Oh, sure kid," Dojima said, pulling the frames off of his nose and passing them to Yosuke. "Uh. You all keep safe. Don't be stupid or reckless or…just don't get hurt. I want to see you all back tomorrow and the day after that for however long this takes."

A chorus of "Yes Sir's" rang through the empty hall, and with a jerky wave, Dojima ducked through one of the TVs and was gone.

"Wheew, glad that's over," Yosuke said, putting his glasses back on and fluffing his hair over his headphones. "Are we going for this? We're all here, so I don't see why we can't start today."

"I'd like to get a move on, if that's alright with everybody," Souji said, looking around.

"What exactly is involved in this?" Mitsuru asked, unclasping a long, thin case and pulling out the fencing saber and scabbard that it held. "Do we even know where we are going?"

"Yeah, totally," Rise said. "The people we're after are over to the left."

"Right, of course," Mitsuru said, setting her case down and securing the scabbard at her side. "There is, however, one more road block."

"Yeah, Akihiko, Mitsuru, come here," Souji said, moving to stand in the center of the large target on the floor. "You both need to learn how to summon your Personas."

"Is there some sort of trick to it?" Akihiko asked, looking equal parts excited and determined.

"Not particularly. It came naturally to the rest of the team, but, if I had to describe it, it's like this," Souji said, holding out his hand, palm up. "You know your Persona. You know its name and its voice, its strengths and its weaknesses. You know what is keeping it inside you and what is pushing it out. Imagine all of that stuff as a sort of cage holding your Persona in," he said, his fingers curling. In a flash, a card appeared in Souji's hand, a zero emblazoned across the top.

Mitsuru nodded and Akihiko breathed deeply.

"Imagine all of that and realize that your knowledge of your Persona is the only thing keeping it locked inside you. You have to let it go. Muster up your force and break the cage," Souji said, swiping his hand through the card in a quick, knife-like movement, his fingers clenching into a fist as blue light and fire burned across his knuckles. The blue light exploded outwards, and behind Souji's back, a pair of yellow eyes blazed coolly, the black and gray form of Izanagi solidifying from the fog.

"Shit, so you can really just summon? Without anything to help?" Akihiko said, staring.

Souji nodded, distracted by Izanagi's heavy, labored breathing. He turned to see Izanagi huffing, shoulders heaving up and down with each weighted pant. "Hey," Souji said, startled. "What's wrong with you?"

Izanagi shook his head, bright, yellow eyes locked on something over Souji's shoulder, and Souji turned, his heart hammering as he saw Ryoji hunched on the other side of the lot, his shoulders lifting and falling in time with Izanagi's.

"Ryoji, are you okay?" Souji asked, suddenly frightened, but Ryoji turned his head and, though he was still panting raggedly, he smiled.

"My bad," he said between gasps, and his voice doubled, echoing lowly in a way that sent shivers down Souji's spine. He saw Mitsuru and Akihiko freeze, but he kept his attention focused on Ryoji. The shadow took two more growling breaths before forcing himself to calm. As Ryoji evened his breathing, so did Izanagi, and after a few moments of struggle, the two calmed.

"What was that?" Souji asked, staring blankly at Ryoji. Ryoji grinned, but Souji was staring at the dark shadows pooling under his eyes.

"Minato could summon more than one Persona at a time," Ryoji said, shrugging. "When you called Izanagi, something in me reacted to your summons like it thought you were calling me, too. I didn't think quickly enough to ignore it. I'll be ready next time," Ryoji said, folding his arms across his chest.

"Are you sure you can do that?" Souji asked, eyes darting back and forth between Ryoji's blistering blues.

Ryoji nodded immediately. "You'd have to really want Thanatos to come out for me to let him go," he said, stubbornness etched across his features.

Souji hummed, looking back at where Izanagi towered behind him. "What about you," he said softly and felt a wave of reassurance wash through his mind. Fair enough, he thought, and Izanagi dissipated back into the fog. Souji turned back to Mitsuru and Akihiko, shrugging. "Well, besides that weirdness, that's how it goes. Give it a try."

Mitsuru's eyes flicked to Ryoji quickly, doubt poorly masked on her face, but she straightened, nodding at Souji. Her eyelids flickered as she focused, but no power burned in her hands.

"You're over-thinking," Souji said.

"What if she does not come?" Mitsuru said, her eyes closed and her expression blank.

"She will," Rise said. "She's right there. I can feel her. She answered your call just a little while ago, back in that alley, so you can bet she'll listen now. Just let her do her thing."

"What does that mean?" Mitsuru asked sharply.

"Ask her to do something. Like, watch," Yosuke said, flicking the knife in his left hand halfheartedly and basking in the flash of power Susano-o arrived with. He gestured towards Akihiko, and a sparkle of healing light settled around the boxer. Yosuke grinned. "I wanted to heal you, so I did. Piece of cake."

"Yeah, don't think about it," Chie said, smiling. "Do whatever feels right. I doubt your Personas will let you get hurt without trying to do whatever they can to stop it."

Akihiko's eyes were distant before they flashed, triumphant. A card swirled to existence in front of him, and with a tight jab, Akihiko ripped it to pieces. In a rush, Caesar was there at his side, and Akihiko groaned, a loopy grin on his face.

"Dude, you alright?" Yosuke asked.

"My head's been killing me for days, but now it's all clear," Akihiko said as Caesar vanished. "Damn, that feels better."

Mitsuru clenched her eyes shut, determined, and after a long pause, she too smirked and called her second self. As Artemisia faded, Mitsuru turned to Souji. "I believe we are ready to follow," she said, "if you are ready to lead."

Souji grinned, slipping effortlessly into role as team leader. "Right. We're going to mix things up a bit today, I think," he said, turning to the team. "As most of you know, our normal formation is split into two groups of four. I lead the vanguard along with three others, always including one of our two healers. The second team consists of Rise, a healer and two others, and this team functions both as a rear guard and as protection for Rise since she needs to be close by at all times, but she cannot enter battle. Now that we have three more people, though, I think we can afford to mess with that formation. The vanguard will remain unchanged, but I think we should have a two-person rear guard that acts on its own and covers the group from the back. Kanji, Yosuke, Yukiko, you three come with me. I want Teddie, Naoto and Chie with Rise and Ryoji, and I want Mitsuru and Akihiko in the back. You two acted freely back in Tartarus, and I think you would be better off following your own direction rather than mine. That said, if you hear me call orders, please obey them."

Akihiko and Mitsuru nodded, falling to the back of the group as Kanji, Yukiko and Yosuke fell into place at Souji's side. Souji grabbed a protective vest from the small stack on the side of the lot, shrugging it on and pulling his jacket over it snugly. He adjusted his collar, nodded to himself, and rejoined the pack.

"Let's do this, guys," he said, assertively, and his teammates chorused back, voices steadfast with resolve.

They made their way steadily towards Port Island, crossing over the elevated walkways and through the fog between worlds. Unlike the last time, the fog cleared all at once as they approached the city, and they looked down from the station over the blood-stained mall and green-lit streets before them.

"The Dark Hour's back," Ryoji said, staring over the city. "I don't understand. It's not you controlling it this time."

"Why would Adachi make the city go all haunted and crap?" Kanji asked. "Did he have somethin' to do with all this shit back when you guys were in it?"

"Of course not," Souji said, frowning at the city. "The best we can do is just go through. I'm sure he'll make himself heard eventually."

"This is seriously messed up," Akihiko said, but he was smiling weirdly over the island.

"I never thought we would come back," Mitsuru said, her expression a mirror of Akihiko's.

Souji shook his head, moving down the stairs. "Come on, guys, let's move."

The city was eerily quiet. Souji was so used to the noise of the other shadow worlds, the thrumming bass in the strip club, the whine and spit of steam in the bath house, and the metallic groaning and clanging of the secret base, that the absolute silence of this phantom island was beyond uncanny. Their footsteps echoed like drums upon the pavement, and Souji's eyes darted from side to side, trying to get a feel for the place.

"Hey, Ryoji," Yosuke called back, and Souji flinched at the sound. "Are you holding the shadows off again?"

"No, I'm not. They're around," Ryoji said. "This isn't Souji's world anymore, so I'm not in control."

"How can it not be Souji's anymore?" Chie asked, distressed.

"Well," said Rise, looking from side to side. "This isn't the first time this has happened. My shadow was all doing her shadow thing in my world, but then Teddie's shadow came out, and I lost control of the whole place. No more shadow, no more flashing lights. He ripped a hole right in the middle of my stage."

"The same thing happened in Yukiko's castle," Chie said, frowning. "My shadow came out and, poof, suddenly the room was all about me."

"More to the point," Souji said, staring fixedly ahead as he thought. "You said that there are two people in here, right Rise?"

"Yep! There are definitely two people somewhere around."

Souji stopped, understanding hitting him like a train wreck, and he cursed bitterly under his breath.

"What's wrong?" Yosuke asked, bending forward so that he could look at Souji's face.

"Every time that there's more than one new person on this side, the same thing happens. Instead of two new worlds popping up, only one appears. The first person in, be it Saki for Yosuke, Yukiko for Chie or Rise for Teddie, establishes the world, and the second person in takes it over."

Yukiko bit her lip. "Then, the first person in here made the Dark Hour come back-"

"-and Adachi must have taken the world over," Yosuke said.

A laugh echoed through the empty streets. "Wow, nice job, guys. Right in one. I'm honestly impressed," said Adachi's voice, and in a blaze of red and black, Adachi appeared, strolling down the street like he owned the place. "And what a world it is, am I right? You've got to respect the art direction."

"Adachi!" Yosuke said, his voice reverberating loudly off of the tall buildings that lined the road.

"Really, though. It is such a joke that you all got to me like you did. I mean, do you even have a clue what's going on behind the scenes? I'm almost insulted, really. This whole set up was beautiful, and you had to go and call me on it before the show even began. I kind of hate you kids right now."

"Why did you do it?" Yosuke yelled around the knot in his throat.

Adachi threw his head back, rolling his eyes in distaste. "Oh come on. Please, can we not make this predictable as hell? This is the one thing I've got going for me right now, and if you manage to make even this boring, I might just have to kill all of you," he said, voice sweet and smooth like molten taffy, and Souji had to stop himself from shivering in an attempt to shake it off of him.

"Tell me why," Yosuke said, rushing forward, but when his blades hit Adachi, the man flickered, and Yosuke tumbled through him.

Adachi laughed heartily. "Tricky, tricky, huh? Did you think I'd be so stupid as to meet you face to face? I'm not suicidal. Come on! Come and find me, kiddos, if you really want to know my evil, secret plan."

Before Souji could blink, Ryoji had darted past him, his yellow scarf billowing behind him as he hurtled towards Adachi. Adachi's eyes widened, and he smirked as the image of him began to flicker.

"Aw, too bad, little guy. Damn, you're stupid. Don't you get that I'm just a projec-" Adachi said before cutting off with a scream. Ryoji buried his hands in Adachi's collar, and in a burst of power that left everybody gasping, the phantom Adachi was very solid and very real. Adachi's eyes bugged out as he gasped violently, most of his weight resting on Ryoji's hands.

"Found you," Ryoji said darkly, and his smile was almost all teeth. "You aren't the only one with power here, so don't get cocky."

Adachi snarled, eyes wild and mad, and he ripped himself backwards, tearing his way out of Ryoji's grip and wrapping himself in blue light as he called his Persona to the field. Ryoji stumbled backwards as a spear swung centimeters above his head. He hit the ground with his shoulder, rolling onto all fours so that he could scramble forwards, finding his feet and diving behind Souji as Adachi's Persona fell into stance, barring the way. Adachi grinned from behind his red and black monster, and in a flash of teeth and eye whites, he turned, fleeing towards Tartarus as his hulking, palette-swapped Izanagi turned his spear against the team.

"Get him," Ryoji yelled, moving back beside Rise as she summoned Kanzeon, and Souji nodded, sword in hand as he surged towards the yellow-eyed Persona.

Rise shrieked. "Oh my god, guys," she said, her voice shrill. "Shadows, coming in fast!"

"From where?" Akihiko said loudly, eyes darting.

Rise's voice shook. "Everywhere," she said, her hair billowing as Yosuke called down a windstorm, and darkness descended, pooling out of the alleys and down the buildings until the city seemed alive with black sludge and fiery, red eyes.

Chapter Text

Shadows poured in from all sides, their groans and hisses nearly deafening after the city's long silence. Ryoji backed up against Kanzeon as the other members of the team surged forward, Souji barking orders over the din. Fire bloomed amongst the darkness as Yukiko's Maragidyne exploded back through the swarming masses, and Ryoji was briefly able to catch a whiff of the acrid burnt tar and seared flesh rising from the shrieking creatures before Yosuke brought down blades of wind that carried both the smell and several small chunks of shadow away with them.

Kanji bit forward, swinging his large shield horizontally into the side of a four-armed shadow until it stuck. The shadow bucked, grabbing Kanji around the arm and throwing him back against the pavement, and he skidded along the ground, scraping his cheek and chin on the asphalt, but though his skin sizzled where the shadow had grabbed him, he grinned ferally, calling up his massive, flame-decaled Persona to rain down lightning that arced towards the shield still embedded in the shadows side. Electricity shot through the creature, and its spitting scream sputtered out horribly as it baked from the inside. Kanji laughed triumphantly, rushing forward to pull his shield out of the bubbling ichor, and though electricity shocked up his arm as he grabbed the metal plate, he didn't seem to feel it. Without pausing, Kanji lunged towards the next shadow, bashing it to the ground in one sweep before grabbing his shield with the other hand and spinning to the side, catching an approaching monster in the jaw. The sound of its jaw shattering echoed loudly in the air, followed by a sickening crunch as its head collided with a nearby wall. Above him, Kanji's Persona bellowed like a warlord, and in one swing, its bolt-like blade ripped through five shadows, splashing sludge and worse across the field and its inhabitants.

Ryoji watched as the remains of one shadow ate through the skin and muscle on Yukiko's leg and saw the girl buckle and scream. There was so much to hear, from Rise's muttered analyses to Akihiko's hoarse curses; from Souji's calm orders to the city's silent whimpers, Ryoji heard it all and saw it all, and it was so damn much. He leaned into Kanzeon's side and closed his eyes, hating how useless he was, and realized what he had to do. He, as Ryoji, was not trained to fight, but this city was partially his. He had power here, damn it, certainly enough to push these weaklings away, because how dare they? Did they not realize what they were dealing with?

The ground shuddered as Ryoji released as small wave of power, one strong enough to catch everyone's attention but not enough to do real damage. Several of the shadows paused long enough for Naoto to bury a few bullets in their brains or for Chie, Teddie and Mitsuru to freeze their feet to the ground, but it was not the shadows' attention that Ryoji craved. Souji caught his eyes, and Ryoji nodded. Returning his attention to the shadow in front of him, Souji slashed sideways and up, catching two of the creature's arms and ripping through them so that they fell to the ground, writhing and grabbing futilely at the air before they bubbled, melting to join the rising tides of black muck that clung to the streets. Souji back-stepped, once and again, never turning his back on the fray, but slowly making his way towards Ryoji in quick, measured lunges.

"You want to take some inspiration from Alice?" he called over his shoulder, and, though it was exactly what Ryoji had hoped to hear and though he smiled broadly, something melancholic sank into his chest and rang hollowly as he closed his eyes, letting Souji's next words wash over him and break through all of his defenses like they weren't even there.

"Die for me," Souji said, not much more than a whisper, and Ryoji choked once again on how effortless the shift was. He gazed over the field, eyeless but all-seeing and heard nothing but rattling chains and ringing in his ears as death fell upon the heads of the gathered shadows, of the gathered monsters, that spat and screamed and cried out as they were purged away.

And then he was human again, and the streets were clear of all but the last sizzling puddles of slime. Ryoji could feel the weight of his teammates' stares, could feel Rise pull instinctively away from him as Kanzeon faded, but Souji did not look away, and he smiled in a way that made Ryoji realize that, in the end, that smile was all that mattered. He stumbled forward, walking jerkily to Souji's side, and Souji squeezed his shoulder.

"Thank you," he said with a formal kindness that Ryoji was infinitely grateful for.

"Any time," Ryoji said, and meant it.

"Let's heal up, everybody, and get a move on. Adachi can't have gotten that far," Souji said, and Ryoji looked him over, noticing that he did not have a scratch on him. Silently thanking Orpheus Telos for his protection, Ryoji turned back and watched the group. Teddie rushed to Yukiko's side, chattering kindly nonsense as he healed her leg, and Yosuke pulled a slim medicine bottle out of his jacket pocket, knocking back a mouthful with a grimace and passing the container to Kanji. Yosuke popped his tongue in distaste, trying to clear the tang from his mouth.

"Thanks," Kanji said lowly, taking a sip with a straight face.

As the others set about fixing themselves up, Rise ambled over to Souji and Ryoji, grabbing both of their forearms and pulling their shoulders together so that she could rest her head between them. "Adachi's almost at Tartarus," she said, hugging their arms to her chest. "We should get going if we want to catch up to him."

"Give everyone a moment," Ryoji said softly, thankful that she was willing to get so close but uncertain as to where he stood after his little display. Much to his relief and amusement, Rise tilted her head so that her chin was on Souji's shoulder and the crown of her head rested against Ryoji's neck.

"That was pretty impressive," she said, and Ryoji could tell that it was directed at both of them. "I've never seen a Mudo spell like that."

"It's the signature spell of one of my Death Personas, and Thanatos inherited it," Souji said, looking sideways at Rise.

"Thanatos, huh," Rise mumbled, giving their arms one last squeeze before she released them, stretching with her hands above her head and turning towards the team. "Ready, guys?"

"Yeah, let's get a move on," Yosuke said, tossing a dagger in the air and catching it after a quick fumble. "Same groups?"

Souji nodded, and everybody fell back into formation. They ran down the streets, trying to make up as much time as possible, and their footfalls thundered as they turned from black asphalt onto the beige brick pathway that led down towards Tartarus's gates. A long way down the road, they saw Adachi, jacket flapping as he fled, but, almost as though he sensed their presence, he stopped just inside the gates, turning to look back at them as they descended the hill towards him.

"I should have figured that wouldn't stop you for long," he said forlornly, tilting his head with a sigh as they approached. "You know what they say. If you want a thing done well and all that."

"You done running, you sick freak?" Kanji asked, gesturing wildly with his shield.

"I wasn't really running. Your friend simply caught me off guard," Adachi said, staring at Ryoji with intense scrutiny. "I'm not sure what you are, kid, but you surprised me. I'm glad. That makes this game a bit more interesting."

"Game? This isn't a game," Yosuke said, rage and desolation turning his words into sobbed roars. "How can you treat people's lives like they're your playthings?"

"Because they are," Adachi said, smiling cruelly. "Those girls you're so upset about were my toys and you are too. You don't even realize how much. Shit, your idiocy is really pissing me off. Don't you have any idea what you've all been part of? Don't you see how beautiful our game has been? I hate that you guys aren't going to get to see it through before you die. It's almost pointless without an audience."

"We will not fall today," Mitsuru said, striding forward. "You are a blight on this world, and I vow that we will crush you beneath us."

"Damn," Adachi said, and the look he gave Mitsuru, that he dragged up and over her, lingering here and there, made Ryoji want to be violently sick all over the smug bastard's face. "Can't say I'd mind being beneath you for a turn or two, but we'll see how this thing goes. So," he said, turning to stare at the whole group with a look of bored indifference, "What exactly is it that you want? What's your point? Do you want me to confess my crimes? Do you want to slap my wrists and tell me what a bad boy I've been and make me promise never to do it again?"

"Oh, shut up," Chie said, snarling. "Do you ever stop talking?"

"I'm sorry," Adachi said, wide eyed. "I thought you wanted to hear me out. If you want to take me back to the police station, that's fine with me. I mean, if you try, I'll have to put you pathetic little shits down, but even if you do manage to drag me in, that could be funny too. Actually, that would be hilarious. Little old Adachi all locked up, and you guys thinking you're heroes," he snickered, walking backwards until he was at the foot of Tartarus's steps.

"The hell do you mean by that?" asked Kanji.

"You really don't get it," Adachi said, not a question but a bleak and beautiful statement that seemed to steal the rest of his breath away. "Wow. That's amazing."

"Are you done?" Souji asked flatly, staring Adachi down.

"Of course not," Adachi said, smiling warmly. "I haven't even started. That's the point, kiddo. Things are just about to get exciting! After trudging through boring shit day after day, finding this power in the first place was a dream come true, but to have front row seats to watch as the world changes…that is something truly special."

"What do you mean 'as the world changes?'" Ryoji said, voice smooth and fierce.

"The real world sucks," Adachi said seriously. "It's boring and cruel, nothing but a network of lies and empty promises. Humans are petty, suicidal creatures, and this world inside the TV reflects that. This world is designed to give the real world what it wants most, and it's finally figured out what that is."

"What, you think the real world craves absolution or something?" Ryoji said, shaking his head. "You're a fool. The real world is full of plenty of terrible things, but its beauty and its fundamental desire to endure more than overwhelm all of that. It can take whatever this world has to throw at it. I know, down to the very core of my being, that it will hold strong, because there will always be those that care enough to counter all of the bad."

"You're so naïve, it's actually painful," Adachi said, almost fondly. "You can't fight death. Everything ends. This will just bring things on a little faster."

Ryoji laughed, the sound low in his chest before it bubbled up into full-bodied chuckles.

Adachi stared, fuming. "You think that's funny?"

"Hilarious," Ryoji said, grinning broadly. "Absolutely hilarious. So, you'd embrace death for the world, but you don't want to die yourself? Obviously you don't, since you ran from us like a coward. You're pathetic and childish, blaming an uninterested world for your own troubles."

"Shut up," Adachi hissed. "Shut up! Shut up! What do you know?"

"I know that you aren't worth the trouble," Ryoji said, folding his arms.

Blue haze burned around Adachi as he snarled, casting his face in grayish light. Gold swarmed his irises, eating out the black until his eyes glowed yellow. The brightness of his eyes against the pallor of his face made Adachi look sunken and sallow, deep shadows opening beneath his eyes as he pulled back his lips, flashing bright, white teeth.

Rise cried out, cupping her head in her hand.

"You don't know anything about the world or about me," said Adachi.

"Rise, are you okay? What's happening?" Chie said, fearfully.

"It's not him," Rise said, whimpering. "Oh, god. It's behind him. It's in my head. I can't think…"

Tartarus's doors swung open and a colossal hand plunged out of the darkness. Adachi stood mere feet away from it, half-turned as looked up, and the creature grabbed a hold of him, fingers wrapping around his throat. He spluttered in shock, the air rushing out of his lungs as he was yanked upwards off his feet, and Adachi choked, a gurgling noise rising out of his throat as he grappled with the fingers that held him, fingernails screeching as they scraped against the armor at the creature's wrists. Adachi kicked, legs flailing and head lolling back against the monster's large hand as the creature moved out of the shadowed doorway and out into the light.

Ryoji felt Souji's horror at the thing at the top of the stairs, and felt it double inside his own chest, disgust leaving his mouth dry.

It wasn't Trismegistus. There was little in common between the proud, red Persona that Junpei had set against Nyx's Avatar at the top of Tartarus and the abomination that stood before him now, and Ryoji stared in blank horror at the disfigured, corpse-like thing that hulked in the entrance way. Hermes's helm sat corroded and twisted atop the creature's shoulders, the metal surrounding the open faceplate torn and melted as it pooled over what could only be Medea's ram-skull-like head. Molten gold streaked over the bleached bone, pouring in rivulets down the cracks in the skull and into the eye sockets. A single eye lolled back and forth inside the ram's head, glowing ominously within one dark socket, then rolling across the gap into the other socket, so that the un-tarnished bits of metal along Hermes's helm flashed with hellish light in the darkness. Its wings were torn, frayed to metallic bits and burning from the inside with red fire, and they dripped hot gold upon the ground, flicking glinting droplets every time the creature moved.

"Guys."

But that wasn't the worst, thought Ryoji, staring at the creature's midsection. The arm Hermes was not using to crush Adachi's windpipe was pushed up on the monster's back to make room for a third arm that tore its way out of the gaping, rusted holes in Hermes's chest plate. Medea's red arm drooped overlong towards the ground, where its claws were sunk knuckle deep into the back and shoulders of what looked like the carcass of its last kill.

"Guys-"

Ryoji knew better, though, and his stomach churned as he stared at Junpei's unmoving body where it flopped against the floor.

"Dudes, that thing's gonna kill him!" Kanji said, hollering loud enough to bring everyone back to the present. Ryoji's eyes darted to Adachi who was barely struggling anymore, his face blue and one arm slung loosely over Hermes's wrist while the other dangled at his side.

"Shouldn't we stop him?" Yukiko asked.

"Why should we?" said Yosuke bleakly, staring wide-eyed at the scene before him. "He's a sicko and a killer, and it's not like we're the ones actually killing him, right?"

"We are not discussing this," Souji said, starting forward.

"But Partner-"

"We don't have the right to choose who lives and who dies," Souji said, Izanagi appearing at his side. "Not like this."

Izanagi surged forward, tucking his spear under one arm so that he could grab hold of Hermes's wrist, trying to shake Adachi from its grip or bend the monster's arm to the ground, but not only did Hermes not let go, Izanagi was unable to make him move even an inch. The creature was like a statue, utterly unmoving and terribly powerful, and Izanagi threw himself at its side again and again, slashing at its arms, hurling himself against its armor, fighting with all its power. The monstrous beast didn't even shudder.

"Help," Souji said, growling, and all at once, the team was alive again, eight Personas flashing to life and attacking the mutated colossus with everything they had.

But still, the creature did not move. The attacking Personas were just as effective as children attempting to get a stone lion to move, and Adachi's foot stopped twitching even as Izanagi grabbed the monster's fingers, trying to pry them open.

"It's not working," Akihiko said brokenly. "He must have used an evoker. It's like Caesar. It's too powerful. You can't hurt a Persona like that."

Ryoji silently agreed, feeling worthless as he stood beside Rise while she attempted to scan for any weakness. Ryoji watched Medea's single eye dart between the many attacking Personas as they struck, vanished and were recalled, and Ryoji's gaze wandered down its long, red arm before settling.

An idea came to Ryoji, a brilliant, disgusting idea, and he knew that Akihiko had reached the same conclusion when he said, "You can't hurt the Persona."

The thing must have heard Akihiko too, because, for the first time, it moved knocking its attackers aside as it shot towards the white-haired cop. Akihiko barely had time to move, pulling his gun out of its holster on pure instinct and taking aim with both eyes open and wide. The creature threw its side towards him, its two unoccupied arms blazing with infernal fire that turned the metal on its armor white with heat.

It happened too quickly for even Ryoji to follow. He heard the explosion of a gunshot coupled almost instantaneously with a slick thud and sharp crack as the monster hit Akihiko's left side, the force shattering his arm and shoulder and coursing through his ribcage. Akihiko flew across the bricked road, hitting twice before he skidded to a halt, but even as his body settled, the monster began to shudder, its internal fire roaring as its body simultaneously melted and faded away. The ram-skull blew to dust, leaving the bright, red eye to dart wildly within Hermes's helm as it melted down around it, the metal screaming and spitting as fire ate into it and through it. Medea's claws disintegrated out of Junpei's back, and he slumped forward to the ground just as Adachi fell out of the creature's grip. With a last burst of fire, Junpei's corrupted Persona vanished, leaving three terribly still bodies sprawled on the pavement and nine silent, staring onlookers refusing to breathe as they waited for somebody to move.

Chapter Text

Yukiko was rushing over to Akihiko's side before Souji had even thought to breathe again. He inhaled sharply though his nose, and his world, which had been careening wildly out of his control, caught on Konohana Sakuya's whispered name and the holy light of Samarecarm as it settled around Akihiko's broken shoulders, but the whiplash was almost worse than his previous pains, and it sent Souji's head reeling.

One by one, the rest of the team kicked into action, Mitsuru flying to Junpei's side with a strangled, "I need a knife. Something thin and sharp. I can't heal him until we've gotten the bullet out," before her voice softened. "Iori, if you are alive, I'm going to execute you, you idiotic fool."

Yosuke ran to Mitsuru's aid, pulling out one of his knives and flipping the handle towards her, tightly.

The sound of a hitched groan rumbled over from Akihiko's direction, and Souji looked at his friend blankly, watching his head pitch back against the road in distress.

Souji waited as the rest of the group moved towards their personal duties, and he shivered, supposing the job would fall on him. He turned his back on his friends, dull numbness eating into his limbs and fogging his mind as he made his way towards Tartarus's steps and the still body at their feet. He knelt at Adachi's side, settling back on his heels as he pressed two fingers against the inside of his throat and again to the bend in his wrists. He stared at the purple discoloration wrapped like a scarf around Adachi's neck, and he noted the tears in his skin where Adachi had fought against the metal at Hermes's wrists.

He locked eyes with Adachi's misty, flat gaze.

"Is he…" said a voice at Souji's shoulder, and he found himself torn between two instinctive reactions, one to jump and one to ignore, his body eventually settling on a strange, half-hearted sort of jerk, his eyes refusing to leave Adachi's lifeless ones.

"Souji?" The voice said again, and Souji's stomach surged and twisted like it had during those first weeks inside the TV, sick nausea turning and tumbling until his mouth turned salty and slick. Panic rose up, burning through his apathy with shocking acuity, and his hand lurched forward, flopping against the top of Adachi's face and dragging the man's lids down so that he would not have to see those eyes anymore.

"Dead-" Souji said, choking around his own tongue. He coughed, his hand still on Adachi's face, shaking. "Adachi's dead," he said, loud enough to be heard by the whole group.

Just like that, the energy that had rekindled in the group sputtered out. Souji stood, turning his back to Tartarus's front doors so that he could see the three clusters of people spread out on the ground. He saw Yukiko cradling Akihiko's dead weight as he lolled, unconscious, in her lap with Kanji and Chie beside her as they helped hold the comatose cop still. He saw Mitsuru, her white pads stained up to her elbows with blood as she carved the bullet out of Junpei's shoulder, Yosuke and Susano-o hovering over them and healing along the way. Lastly, he saw Teddie and Naoto idling uncomfortably behind Kanzeon's vertical stripes, and he heard Rise's whispered, "That's wrong," just as power pulsed at his back.

Souji whipped backwards, turning in time to see something dark, bright-eyed and shapeless rise out of Adachi's still corpse. Wreathed in smoke and wrapped in shade, the thing hovered momentarily above them, pinprick eyes boring into them, seeing and judging, and it wasn't so much painful as it was violating, like being tied down and having his thoughts rifled through like filed papers-

"Rise, get a read on that thing! Follow it," said Ryoji, and they were Souji's words coming out of his shadow's mouth, but Souji could not find it in himself to care as the creature finally looked away, its body of black smog and mist dissolving into the ether. Souji's shoulders fell in relief.

"Were you able to keep track of it?" Ryoji asked, anxious, and Souji turned back to the group once more, walking slowly towards Rise as she gripped the edges of her visor.

"Yes. Yes, I…wow. This is crazy," she said, very little inflection in her words. "Have you guys ever been to, like, an amusement park or something?"

Kanji made a confused noise in the back of his throat, and Chie and Ryoji mimicked it, perplexed.

"No, hold on. I have a point. So, you know how amusement parks sometimes have themes to their areas or they're trying to make you think that the park is luxurious or something like that, and so you'll go through a whole series of streets that look like a medieval township or a ritzy shopping district, but really they're just warehouses and things with fake facades plastered on the front? You only ever get to go in the front rooms, and they're all glammed up for you and made to look authentic, so you never have to break the illusion, but just behind the plaster of paris and the fake wood finishing is a big ol' bureaucratic mess. Well, guys…I think I just found the cement columns and steel beams behind the TV world's frou-frou front."

"Wait," Naoto said, eyes wide, "you're saying-"

"There's a whole matrix of substance surrounding the places on this side that we know, but I never noticed them, because there was nothing to draw my attention that way. That shadow that came out of Adachi led me right to it, though," she said, her words dropping at the mention of Adachi.

The panic from before made Souji's shoulders tense, rattling through his hands, and he bit violently down on it, forcing his voice steady as he said, "What should we do with him?"

He knew it was a tough question, one probably without a right answer, and he was unsurprised at some of the suggestions.

"I suppose we could…leave him here," Chie said, trying to subtly turn her back on Tartarus so that she could ignore the topic of conversation.

"Like hell we can do that," Kanji said, face solemn. "First of all, he'd prob'ly turn up on the other side hung from a power line, and the police would hav'ta reopen the murder investigation, and this time there'd be no one for them to catch. Besides…that's…we can't do that shit. I mean, come on…"

"We can't exactly drag him through Junes, though," said Yosuke, his voice rough.

"If we can get him out of Junes," Naoto said, "we could bury him by the Samegawa."

"Do we even know that leaving him here will result in him turning up on a telephone pole?" Yukiko asked.

"What do we know about him?" Souji asked, his face burning between his nose and his eyes and a hollowness to his throat that was worse than when he had been choking. "I don't know if Adachi had any family or if we should call them. I don't…did Adachi even have any friends? Is anyone going to care?"

Souji's words rang hollowly, and the silence that settled was only disturbed by Tartarus's subtle groan as it shifted in the wind.

Souji grit his teeth, nodding towards Yukiko and then to Mitsuru. "Are they okay, at least?"

Yukiko brushed fingers through Akihiko's short hair. "I've done what I can. It's lucky, in a way, that he was knocked out by the blow. I was able to knit his bones back together without him being awake for it, but all told, the force of the initial impact shattered his left humerus and broke his clavicle, and he suffered several small fractures to his ribs due to the hit, and then when he was thrown against the cobblestones. He's just lucky he didn't hit his head," she said, her fingers fisting unconsciously in Akihiko's hair. "I'd say we should follow the typical procedure. Anything worse than a fracture deserves a day off at least. We should get him back to the inn so he can rest."

Souji nodded, turning towards Mitsuru. "What about Junpei?"

Mitsuru ran a hand over her face, accidentally smearing blood on her cheek under her left eye. "I don't know," she said, wearily. "We removed the bullet, and we've healed the entrance wound and his other scattered injuries, but…I suppose only time will tell."

Souji hummed in response, feeling cold and hot and numb and tingly all at once, and he carefully made his way back over to Adachi, flipping the man's coat open and grabbing his badge out of the inside pocket. He stared at the warm metal plate and stared longer at the off-puttingly goofy picture on the badge's inside, and when the image and the scene had filled him up to bursting, past bursting, he tucked the badge away,

"I think we should leave him," Souji said at last. "Let's get Akihiko and Junpei to someplace secure, and I'll give this badge to Dojima and let him know what happened. Rise, if we leave, will you be able to track that creature down once we come back in?"

"Definitely," she said, eyes big and sad, and he had not noticed behind her visor, but her mascara was blurred by the tears under her eyes, a viscous black mixture trailing down her cheeks. Souji felt irrationally envious.

"Let's go home. We can deal with all of this there," Souji said, making his way towards Akihiko as Ryoji lifted Junpei effortlessly into his arms.

"We could cremate him," Yukiko said, softly, but it was enough to draw everyone's attention. "That way, even if his body turns up on our side, there would be nothing to identify and no reason to reopen the case."

"Yukiko," said Chie.

"I can get the fire hot enough," Yukiko said, her eyes wet and cold, her will steely.

Yosuke's words were strangled. "You don't have to-"

"It's what should be done," she said, ending the discussion. "It's better than leaving him lying on the ground."

Everyone except Yukiko and Souji turned their backs on the massive, green tower, making their way back through the streets towards the exit and the familiar. Souji and Yukiko shared no words, staring down at the man who had thrown them all together, who had orchestrated the scheme that had consumed their lives and minds and had changed them forever. They stared at the man they had fought so hard to find and so hard to stop, and as Souji switched Izanagi out for Orpheus Telos, he felt his panic settle into nothing. Ryoji had been right, after all. Adachi hadn't been worth it, but as fire sparked to life and Adachi was consumed by the Ragnarok, Souji took shelter under cool branches and wondered about the new world Adachi had spoken of before he died.


Due to quick thinking and a lot of practice, the investigation team did not make a scene as they re-entered the real world and made their way through Junes's sterile, white halls. They had all changed out of their damaged clothing, Mitsuru stripping her bloodstained pads off with disdainful efficiency and Yosuke frowning at his red-flecked cuffs for a moment before tossing the shirt aside and pulling on one of the old t-shirts he kept stored at the backlot in case of emergencies. They had carefully changed Junpei's shirt and had thrown a loose sweatshirt over Akihiko, and, once they were all tidied up, they made their way through Junes, keeping to empty halls until they exited out of the seldom used back entrance. Unwilling to catch a bus, Souji called Dojima asking for a ride, and the group settled against the curb, Mitsuru glancing blearily back and forth between Junpei and Akihiko, her thumb rubbing absently across Junpei's forehead as a cool breeze set them all to shivering.

"You should all head home," Souji said, folding his arms around his middle. "Mitsuru and Yukiko can go with my uncle in the car. Everyone else should get some rest. Don't do any work today, okay? I know you won't want to, but eat dinner and then watch a good movie or turn in early."

"What about you?" Chie asked.

"I'm going to go make dinner for Nanako, and then I'll walk to the inn," Souji said, dragging a hand through his hair so that his bangs spiked away from his face.

"Why are you exempt from the 'watch a movie and go to sleep' decree?" Naoto asked, a curious smile light on her face.

"Because I want to make sure Junpei's okay. Akihiko will be fine with some rest. Most of us have had worse, but I don't know about Junpei."

"You know this guy?" Yosuke said, frowning at Junpei's limp form in Mitsuru's arms. "Who is he? I thought he was the accomplice, but he has one of those holster belts like Kirijo and Sanada have."

"He was a member of SEES," Souji said, two sets of memories attempting to drag him under, "and he's a friend."

"What was he doing on the other side?" Rise asked, appalled.

Mitsuru sagged against her free hand, and she looked old then to Souji, old and tired. "He is here because of me," she said. "I allowed him to discover the nature of your activities here in Inaba, and he wanted to take part. That's why I joined Akihiko here. I have been trying to find Junpei since my arrival, but, I'll confess, I have not been trying all that hard."

"It's not your fault, Mitsuru," Ryoji said.

"I think you'll find that it is," Mitsuru replied, blandly.

Nobody seemed willing to confront her further on the matter, and after a moment, Kanji stood, gesturing to Rise, and the two began to make their way down the street in the direction of the shopping district. Chie, Teddie, Yosuke and Naoto took their cue, and with a few, solemn goodbyes, they departed as well.

"Let's head home," Ryoji said, quietly, and Souji nodded, hauling himself to his feet.

"I'll stop by later," Souji said, and began to make his slow way home, his shadow dogging comfortably at his heels.


Dinner was prepared in silence and eaten in silence, and Souji could see Nanako's concern in every bitten lip and averted eye, but his usual ease at navigating people's moods seemed to have abandoned him, and he was not sure of how to deal with the little girl's worry.

"Um," she said, biting the ends of her chopsticks. "Did something happen?"

"Everything's going to be fine," Souji said. "Ryoji and I are going to meet Dojima at the Amagi inn in a little bit. Will you be okay here on your own?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine." she said. "Will you say hi to dad for me? I think I made him angry this morning. He asked about our party, and I must have told him something wrong."

"Your father's had a rough day," Ryoji said dryly. "He wasn't mad at you."

Nanako smiled behind her chopsticks.

With dinner concluded, Souji set about wrapping up the leftovers while Ryoji pulled on his short pea coat and draped his scarf loosely around his shoulders. Souji turned to face Ryoji in time to catch the bundle of fabric that was tossed his way. The arms of his thin track jacket were still ensconced in the sleeves of his thick, winter coat, and, though it scraped at his vague OCD, he shrugged awkwardly into the double jacket, vowing that he would get his space back in order once his life decided to slow down for a minute.

Waving to Nanako as they left, the two opened the front door and made their way out into the cold.

"You don't mind coming with me, do you?" Souji asked, realizing for the first time that he had assumed Ryoji would be at his side but had not asked.

"You couldn't stop me from checking on them if you tried," Ryoji said, smiling his smooth, radiant smile, and Souji felt himself relaxing in spite of everything.

"Thanks," Souji said, setting off down the street.

They had caught the bus and were two blocks away from the inn when Ryoji said, "You're going to explode, you know. You can't keep fighting it."

"Fighting what?"

"Oh, come on," Ryoji said, not unkindly. "You can fool everyone else, but I know you, and I know that you are going to lose it soon if you try to keep holding your lid on so tight. You liked Adachi, didn't you? And you, Junpei and I were best friends both times around. It's okay to care, you know. No one is going to judge you for it."

"The purpose of a leader isn't to give orders or to boss people around, Ryoji. It's to keep cool and hold everyone together, and the others need me to stand strong. Obviously, that doesn't apply at this exact moment, but," Souji said, his voice shaking before he pressed on, "it's been a long week. A really long week, and I can't let that loose now. I can rest when this is all over. Hell, we can catch a train to Okina and spend way too much money on stuff we don't need, or we could break into school on a Sunday again and go to the roof and scream until our throats are raw, but until then, I have to keep it together."

"I understand," Ryoji said, his hand twitching at his side like he meant to reach out with it before he aborted the action, stilling after an awkward moment.

"We'll talk when this is over, too," Souji said, his efforts earning a bright smile.

Warm, wood-scented air greeted them as they entered the inn, and a glance at his text messages confirmed which rooms Akihiko and Junpei were in. Ryoji was anxious about Junpei and headed straight to Mitsuru's room to check on him, but Souji decided to stop by Akihiko's room first. He tapped twice on the frame of the sliding door, and was hugely relieved when Akihiko's voice responded, calling him in.

He slid open the door with a smile. "I'm glad you're awake."

It was strange seeing Akihiko not in motion. He looked uncomfortable, irritated at his position near the ground and hunched down in his pillows, but he grinned back nonetheless.

"I haven't made a good showing, have I?" Akihiko asked with a shrug and a wince.

"Not particularly, no," Souji said, settling down by Akihiko's futon and leaning back against the wall. "That's twice you've been in, and twice we've had to drag you out. My favorite part was when Kanji had to throw you over his shoulder."

Akihiko grimaced. "That must have been…glorious."

Souji chuckled, more quick breaths than laughs, but it felt good all the same. "You had me worried, you know," he said with a one-sided smile.

"You knew I would be fine."

"No, I didn't, actually," Souji said, looking at Akihiko out of the side of his eyes. "When Trismegistus charged at you and I saw him preparing to strike, I was pretty sure you wouldn't survive the impact. If he had hit your head or if your arm hadn't absorbed most of the blow, you probably wouldn't have."

"That will teach me not to announce my attacks before I make them," Akihiko said, his small smile disappearing as he looked at Souji fully. "It served me right, though."

Souji groaned. "No. I'm ending your angst-fest before it begins, because I don't want to deal with it right now, thank you very much."

"But-"

"I can tell you every iteration of what you want to say, and I can also tell you that it's all complete bull. Yes, you shot a friend to save a murderer, and no matter how you spin it, I promise that it was the right thing to do. Trismegistus could have attacked our team members just as easily as it attacked Adachi, and you stopping Junpei was the only reasonable course of action."

"I could have killed him."

"And Caesar could have killed us when you used that evoker a few days ago. If putting a bullet in your shoulder was what it had taken to stop you from hurting our team back then, would you have wanted me to do it?"

"I-yeah, but-"

"There. Moral dilemma solved."

Akihiko growled. "Stop being such a jackass."

Souji shrugged. "It needed to be said."

"Maybe, but you didn't have to be a dick about it."

"Yeah, but you're feeling better now, aren't you?" Souji asked with a grin.

"Not particularly," Akihiko said, leaning back into his pillows. He grit his teeth as the movement jostled his arm. "Junpei really did a number on me."

"That he did. Your bones are healed, but you're going to be sore for a little while. I'd prefer it if you were off active duty. You're no good to anyone dead."

Akihiko sneered, rolling to his side. "Yeah," he said, darkly, "well, neither are you."

Souji closed his eyes. "That was rather pointed."

"I thought Mitsuru would bring it up, but since she hasn't, I guess it's my job, so I repeat. You're no good to us dead, Souji."

"And?"

"Don't try to screw with me."

"I'm still waiting for your point."

"Well," Akihiko said, turning back to look at Souji, "why haven't you called the rest of SEES, for one? Fuuka, at the least, would be a huge help, and you can't tell me that having another healer around wouldn't be nice."

Souji hissed, leaning back against the wall.

"Aren't you going to defend yourself? Seriously?"

"If there is one thing that the last week has taught me, it's that I don't know shit, Akihiko," Souji said, staring at the ceiling. "Last Monday, I thought Adachi was a goofball, and here he is today, dead and burnt to dust, so I'm not going to pretend that things can't change. That's how life goes."

"You can't live life thinking that you're gonna die tomorrow, though," Akihiko said.

"When we went to fight Nyx, we were all prepared to die. That made giving up my life a whole lot easier, but the fact remains that I didn't have much of a choice in the matter then, and I don't know if I will have one now. I just don't know. What I do know is that I'm still a Wild Card, and I know that I signed a contract, so I have to accept whatever comes my way."

"A contract?"

"A promise," Souji said, slumping his shoulders. "A promise to see things through."

"So that's why you won't call SEES? Because you can't see what's coming?"

"I won't call SEES, because I can think of nothing crueler than telling Aigis, or Yukari, I guess, that I'm alive only to disappear on them again. You and Mitsuru are beyond help, there, but I don't want that for the others."

Akihiko's voice was low and terrible. "Don't talk to me like you're okay with dying. I will kick your ass-"

"Do I look like I'm okay with it?" Souji asked, turning towards Akihiko fully, and at least a small fraction of the fear and fury trembling inside of him must have shown, because Akihiko's anger melted. "I'm not okay with any of it, but I'll do what I have to. Just…don't ask me to add their weight to my shoulders right now, too, alright? Because I can't. I just-"

"I get'cha," Akihiko said. "Sorry. I keep getting on your case, don't I?"

Souji smiled thinly. "A bit."

"You don't honestly think that's going to happen again, do you?"

Souji shook his head. "No. At least, I really hope not. That would be pretty boring," he said with a forced smirk.

Akihiko chuckled. "I don't get you sometimes."

"Akihiko, you don't get most things," Souji said, snickering as he knocked away the pillow Akihiko tossed at him.

"Jerk," Akihiko said, grumbling fondly.

"Yeah, probably," Souji said, standing. "I'm going to go check on Junpei. Get some rest."

Akihiko nodded before regarding him seriously. "When this is done, you're going to call them."

Souji clenched his jaw.

"Promise me that," Akihiko said. Souji nodded, but Akihiko only growled, "I said, promise."

"If I make it through this, I'll rebuild all of those bridges. I promise."

Satisfied, Akihiko rolled on his side so that he faced away from Souji, shutting his eyes as he grumbled, "Get out of here."

Souji did not have to be told twice, and he moved into the hallway, making his way towards Mitsuru's room in unhurried strides. Pulling open the door, he saw his uncle sitting straight backed on the couch, and a door was open in the back that led to a bedroom.

At his entrance, Dojima started, his eyes going wide and then slim. "What happened? The Amagi girl and the red head didn't explain anything."

Souji sighed, acknowledging that the time for tact was behind him. He reached into his pants pocket, pulling Adachi's badge out and dropping it on Dojima's lap before flopping down on the couch beside him.

"What happened?" Dojima asked, quietly.

"A monster got to him before we could stop it," Souji said, closing his eyes and sinking comfortably into the couch. "We got him to monologue for a bit before it happened, though. He explained some of his motives."

"So he's dead," Dojima said, eyes unseeing as he stared at the badge in his hands.

"I'm sorry."

"Why are you sorry?" Dojima asked, wearily.

"He was your friend, and now he's gone, and I couldn't stop it. There was something weird inside of him. I don't know whether it was that thing that drove him crazy or if he was simply sick, but now we'll never know, and I hate that."

Dojima flipped the badge closed and propped his elbows on his knees so that he could lean forward over them. Souji expected him to say something coarse or something flippant to lighten the air, but Dojima stayed silent and Souji soon joined him in his quiet contemplation. He thought about bright, red eyes and pinpricks of yellow. He thought of twisted, white stairwells obscured by the fog. He thought of fire and burned flesh, and just as his breathing began to pick up in revulsion, an image unfurled, keeping it at bay. Wild flowers and rolling fields opened before him, as far as the eye could see, and the churning chug of lapping water filled his ears. Souji was not sure where the vision came from or even which of his lives had inspired it, but he sank mentally into the grasses and felt a smile spreading over his face, because the sense of peace and satisfaction the scene gave him was unparalleled.

"What are you grinning about?" Dojima asked, suspicion deep in his voice.

"I couldn't tell you," Souji said, without opening his eyes. "Ask me again when this is all over."

Chapter Text

Souji must have fallen asleep while sitting on Mitsuru's couch, because when he came to, he was sprawled gracelessly across it, one leg propped up on an armrest while the other dangled off the edge. He groaned, shifting his shoulders, and was about to fall back into the soft embrace of the cushions when he realized how bright the room was. He stiffened, looking around guiltily.

"You're missing school today, if that's what you're worried about," Mitsuru said from her low table across the room. Souji pushed himself up so that he was sitting and blinked blearily. "It appears that your tendency to sleep like the dead has not changed, and after several attempts to rouse you yesterday evening, we finally had to call it a night. I hope the couch was not too uncomfortable."

"No, uh, it was fine. Fine," he said, stretching his neck. Mitsuru smirked without looking at him. "Did Junpei wake up last night?" Souji asked, slinging his leg off of the armrest and onto the ground.

Mitsuru frowned, staring downwards at her tightly-gripped newspaper and orange juice, eyes glazing over, almost distant. "He seemed to regain consciousness briefly earlier this morning, but that was…short lived. I don't know whether we should take him to a doctor or not. I doubt there is anything obviously wrong with him, but I can't help but worry," she said, crinkling two pages of her paper between her fingers distractedly before she cleared her throat. "Your uncle returned home late last night and gave me orders not to wake you until you were good and ready," she said, a thin smile warming her face. "He's a good man."

"Yeah. Yeah, he is," Souji said, looking around the room. "Where's Ryoji?" It was strange to realize that, after only a week, he had gotten used to seeing his shadow crashed out in some strange corner of his room every morning, searching the computer, rereading all of his books, and trying to fold cranes or envelopes or whatever else he did to amuse himself. Souji wasn't certain Ryoji ever slept, but he had decided not to press the shadow on it. Regardless, it was oddly unsettling not having him around.

"He left a little while ago to deliver my evoker to Ms Kujikawa," Mitsuru said, taking a sip from her glass. "In the confusion, she forgot to take it with her."

"What's the point? We certainly don't need to find Adachi anymore," Souji said before closing his eyes and scratching his head. "Never mind, that was a stupid question. The accomplice. Sorry, I'm not quite awake yet."

"It's no problem," Mitsuru said.

The room suddenly felt awkward, and Souji was not sure why. Mitsuru usually had a way of easing into silence like it was warm water, but the quiet they currently stewed in was neither comforting nor familiar. Souji was about to go against his own nature and break it when Mitsuru beat him to it.

"I dislike always being the person who asks questions like this, but do we have a plan? I would like to have some idea of how to proceed."

Souji crossed his arms over his severely crinkled shirt. "I could make up something inspiring if you'd like, but I've honestly not had time to think about it. I suppose – I guess I should have yesterday. I tried, honestly I did, but every time I thought about what was going on in the other world, I thought about Adachi, and every time I thought about Adachi, I thought about his final words. About his new world. But it was weird. Every time I got there, my mind turned slippery. It would glance off of his words and ideas and…it's dumb. I don't know what I'm talking about. Suffice to say, I haven't given our game plan much thought."

"No," Mitsuru said, and Souji marveled at the way she somehow managed to sound both hesitant and firm at the same time. "Tell me what you were going to say."

"Mitsuru, I just woke up. I was saying words without a filter-"

"Fine. Then hear what I have to say," she said, eyes hard, and Souji rubbed his face wearily, still feeling more than a little scruffy, before nodding for her to continue. "I…" and just like that, her resolve seemed to melt, leaving her looking lost, small, and so completely not the Mitsuru he knew, in every way Souji could imagine. He was so stunned that he did not speak, choosing instead to wait for her to continue. "I-I…lord, I do not know how to deal with you," she said at last, shaking her head. "When I look at you….sometimes I see you for what you really are, but, other times, I realize how impossible that statement is. I don't know to whom I'm talking right now. How does Akihiko make this seem so effortless?"

"Akihiko can be pretty dense sometimes, but, on occasion, it works in his favor," Souji said, mustering a smile.

Mitsuru tried to smile in response, but it fell flat. "To whom am I talking?"

Souji closed his eyes and shook his head. "I don't blame you. Half the time, I don't know the answer to that question."

"Then…if that is the case…can I request…may I speak with Souji as opposed to…well, you understand."

Souji chuckled deeply, dark, weary amusement turning his words low and rough. "Sure. Go for it."

This seemed, miraculously, to put Mitsuru at ease. She straightened, determination seeping back into her gaze and posture. "Right, then. What I would like to say boils down to this at its heart: clearly, you are special. For whatever reason, you are unique, and I think it is safe to assume that, in some way, this situation revolves around you. In the past," she said, her eyes growing distant before they sharpened once more, "we knew little of the plot we were entrenched in, but we were blind and young, and we wielded ignorance and arrogance as a sword and shield. On most occasions, this turned out to be a remarkably effective strategy. We were so…cocksure, that we ended up displaying power we, truthfully, only pretended to hold. What I'm saying is, if you want to invade the other world with torches and pitchforks and claim superiority, I do not blame you, and I will stand at your side, but before we do that, we should make sure that we have exhausted all of our other resources."

"And you think I am an untapped resource, right?"

"Inelegantly put, yes," Mitsuru said. "You are different, and in more ways than the obvious. Akihiko told me that you thought it was odd that Adachi could enter the TV realm, but according to him, you were also able to reach into the other side before you awakened to your Persona. Something must have roused that side of you. Can you think of what that could have been?"

The words were familiar, so familiar, and they clawed at his mind like an itch he could not scratch. The answer was there, right there, but as soon as he came close to locking onto it, it slithered out of his reach, burying itself deeper and deeper, until he had to say, "No, I have no idea," even though that was not really true at all.

Mitsuru sighed. "Nothing?"

"No," Souji said, and hated how it felt like lying. "I can't think of anything that could help. It feels like I knew something about the Midnight Channel before Chie told me about it, but my memory's too foggy to recall what that something was."

"I see," Mitsuru said, displeased. "Well, I suppose there is nothing that can be done in that case. What should the team do in the time being?"

"Let's not go back today. Akihiko will argue that he's fine, but we should give him at least a day to recover. As far as our attack strategy goes, I say we could do worse than to go in there, guns blazing. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but, really, what advantage did thinking about our battle with Nyx for a month give us? We know how to fight, and we know how to fold when our hand looks bad. I don't think we can leave this be, even though it's risky."

"I don't disagree," Mitsuru said, slowly, "but I would like to hear your explanation as to why. You wanted to rid the world of a killer, and you did so."

"I know," Souji said, "but I've got a serious problem with leaving things unfinished. I need to know the truth, and I can't leave the other world as it is right now. Anybody could come along and use it and abuse it, and Ryoji has been warning me about that since he showed up, but I ignored him in favor of solving the obvious problem. Well…problem solved," he said, sullenly, "but…if there really is something else over there, something worse than a shadow, then we can't leave it be until we know the world is safe."

"You would poke the bear with a stick simply to prove that the bear will not wake up and maul you? That seems poorly thought out."

"I'd poke the bear with a stick while aiming a high caliber rifle at its head. We aren't untrained children. If the bear gets it in its head to bite, we are more than capable of wrestling the hell out of it," Souji said, frowning. "I'm dropping this metaphor. My point is that we fought Nyx. We held off Erebus. Whatever it takes, and I mean that, we need to see this through."

Mitsuru smiled, cold purpose rimming her eyes and the edges of her mouth. "I have never had a reason not to trust your judgment," she said.

Souji grinned. "Now who are you talking to?"

Mitsuru scoffed lightly. "I suppose trying to keep track is an exercise in futility."

"Well, I have an idea that might make things a bit easier," Souji said, standing and attempting to knock a few wrinkles out of his uniform. After a moment, he gave up, striding towards Mitsuru and standing before her. "Hi," he said, bowing lightly. "I'm Souji Seta. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Mitsuru smiled, closing her eyes in an overdramatic display of exasperated fondness. "The pleasure's all mine," she said, and Souji grinned back.

After standing by her side for officially too long to be strictly comfortable anymore, Souji cleared his throat, glancing down at himself in the process. "Well, I should probably head out," he said. "I need to change out of these clothes and prepare for tomorrow," he said, turning towards the door. "Would you like to join me later for lunch? I mean, I am already playing hooky…"

Mitsuru's eyes brightened even as she shook her head. "I'm afraid that I will have to pass. I have a class at eleven that I must attend via webcam, and I'll need to call into the company this afternoon."

Souji smiled in understanding and took two steps towards the door, but as he reached out to slide it open, he hesitated, hand stilling in midair.

"You still haven't seen him," Mitsuru said, quietly. "Why don't you go in there before you leave?"

Souji kept his back to her as he huffed out an unsteady breath. "Honestly? I was all set to check on him and be a good best friend and all of that, but I really, really don't want to, Mitsuru. That probably makes me a bad person, but-"

"I loathe these types of things as well," Mitsuru said, gently. "I could never complete the sitting-by-the-bedside routine properly. I do not believe that the unconscious can hear me, and though the aim is to comfort the waiting, I have always preferred action to personal solace."

Souji grinned, placing his hand on the door. "Thank you," he said, sliding to door ajar. "He's going to be fine, you know. I truly believe that."

"I hope so," Mitsuru said. "Junpei deserves a little…do you hear that?"

Souji did, his ears humming with static and laughter. His soft grin unfolded into a full-on smile, and he beamed at Mitsuru as he waved goodbye. "I think I should head to the shopping district. There's an idol there that's recently discovered the world's most convenient stalking technique, and I think I should talk her down before she looks at something she'll later regret. Or I'll later regret. Or the world will later regret."

And with that, he left the inn and the ailing and returned home with, if not a light heart, then at least a steeled one. He had a plan of sorts, and, within plans, he could thrive. His tactics probably were laughable, but despite, or perhaps because of, the events of the previous day, Souji felt liberated. The murders were solved. There would be no more investigations, no more half-baked theories or impulsive decisions. All that remained was one final charge against the unknown, and if the smallest thread of unease and twisting snarl of doubt still rested within his mind…well, that was to be expected, wasn't it?

After a quick shower and a few bites of leftovers, Souji left his house and made his way rapidly towards the shopping district. The skies were dark, and the air buzzed with the beginnings of a storm as Souji hurried by the bookstore and up Marukyu Tofu's stairs, ducking through the doorway just as the wind began to stir.

"-ouldn't know it about her, but she's such a total diva. I know she puts forward that laid back, ex-indie vibe, but I met her when I was on a tour a year or so back, and she was such a snob-"

"I'm sorry, but I can't believe that. Perhaps she was having an off day, but you can tell a person's heart from their music, and I cannot believe somebody with such soul could be stuck-up like you say-"

"Trust me, Feathers, she's about as deep as a - Souji!" Rise said, smiling radiantly, and the shadow lounging on the counter matched her exuberance. "You must have noticed me poking around, huh?"

"It was difficult not to," Souji said, crossing to the display case and leaning against it carefully, wary of marking it with fingerprints.

"So I probably shouldn't get any ideas about checking up on you, huh," Rise said, grinning unapologetically. "But, don't you get how cool this is?"

If Souji were honest, he had not much considered the application of Rise's newly expanded abilities, but now that they were in front of him, the possibilities began to look almost…endless.

"I didn't sleep at all last night," Rise said, smiling. "I kept thinking about one thing and then the next, so, in order to distract myself, I focused on remembering how amazing summoning Kanzeon in that alley had been, and then I started thinking: I can use this. Being able to scout in the other world always felt…sometimes I thought that I had gotten the short end of the stick. I mean, yeah, being able to see the way I do is pretty neat, but when you guys got hurt, I had to stand in a corner of the room, and all I could do was yell at somebody to 'heal her!' or 'heal him!' or 'kick his sorry butt, Kanji' or whatever, but it was never enough. I've…but that's so not the point. The point is that now that I can see the real world as clearly as I can see the TV world, I feel like I can do almost anything."

"We're almost done, though," Souji said, softly.

"Who cares? I'm not talking about the murder anymore or even necessarily the TV world. Ryoji, you can explain it better than I can."

"Shadows are always going to exist," Ryoji said, resting his head against the wall and swinging his legs slowly back and forth off the edge of the counter. "They…we are reflections of mankind. In a way, humans want shadows to exist, because that means that people are still human and whole. So, no matter what we do here, shadows are not going to stop forming. I've been doing a lot of research into mythology and folklore since I first showed up here, and while fascinating, I found the study to be mildly terrifying in its way. I started by researching Nyx in order to see what humans believed her to be, and I later looked into Izanagi, since he is your Persona and, in a way, your patron god. You realize that both figures are significant parts of two separate creation myths, right? Nyx is ancient Greek and Izanagi is Japanese, but they both feature prominently in their respective origin stories."

"Which means?" Rise prompted.

"Do you two have any idea how many creation myths there are out there? Almost every culture has one. So let's say that only half turn out to have any sort of validity to them. That still leaves a staggering number of creatures out there in the world, and while some may be dormant or harmless, many probably aren't. I believe there is reason in being on the offensive, and, better yet, watching the world so that the guardians in the Velvet Room don't have to cook up another Wild Card."

Souji stared at the strength in Ryoji's face and shook his head, bemused. "What if all of that is speculation? You're basing that off of Izanagi, but he isn't what we're fighting. We don't even know what's in there."

"I have a fair idea, actually, but it's of little consequence, since I know what your attitude is going to be," Ryoji said, and his words were weighted with a heavy apology that left an old part of Souji reeling.

"There's no sense in taking the easy way out," Souji said, quietly.

"So I've been told," Ryoji said, smiling softly.

"So where does that leave you?" Souji asked, turning to Rise.

"I decided to go back into the industry, remember," Rise said, smirking proudly. "The life of an idol is tough, you know? You wake up every morning in a new city. You travel all over the world."

Marvelous, Souji thought, a smile broadening on his face. Oh, that was clever. "Rise, that's brilliant," he said, smiling. "You would keep your eyes open and contact us once you found something."

"I'd call whoever wanted to be a part of it," Rise said, practically bouncing in the light of Souji's positive response. "My shadow was so caught up in me denying parts of myself and obsessing over where the real me lies, and I thought: wouldn't it be really crappy if I completely denied Kanzeon as part of me after everything we've been through? She's a piece of who I am, and it's impossible to define myself nowadays without taking our investigation and our battles and things into account. I don't want to stumble into that pitfall again. Kanzeon is a part of me, and I don't want her to…oh what's the word…?"

"Atrophy?" Ryoji said, helpfully.

"Yeah, that one's perfect. She's like a limb. I've got to work that baby out once in a while," she said, grinning.

Something inside Souji, something wound so tight that he almost hadn't noticed it, began to slacken. He was not the only one who…there would be life after tomorrow. The last year would not vanish, and he would not drift off in his sleep. Rise had plans. Even Ryoji was making plans. It was okay to think that they would come back from whatever awaited them the next day, and, when they did, his new life wouldn't force him to ignore everything that they had done.

"Rise, that is ridiculously cool," Souji said.

Rise practically glowed.

The rest of the day passed with an almost astonishing lack of action. Souji, Ryoji and Rise spent most of it strolling through town and dodging away from anybody that would report their absences to the school. The three bundled up in their respective scarves, purchased steak skewers for lunch and sat on the steps outside of the shrine as they watched the storm roll in.

"This year has made me really mindful of the weather," Rise said, leaning into Souji's side. "I never used to pay attention to it, and I certainly never checked the weather online or anything. I would walk outside in my sleeping clothes every morning, and if it was hot, I'd dress for hot. Once I became a celebrity, people made those calls for me."

"Back in California," Souji said, nibbling on the steak-flavored stick that was all that remained of his lunch, "my family lived on a hill overlooking a golf course, and we had a covered back porch that gave us an amazing view of a couple of the holes. Every once in a while, these storms would hit, and my dad would sit with me out back and watch the lightning."

"That sounds gorgeous," Rise said.

"It was," Souji said, blinking at the clouds.

When the rain arrived, the three moved back to Rise's home above the tofu shop and, after flipping channels absently for a few minutes, settled on watching reruns of a show that had been canceled a couple of seasons ago.

And the day passed, afternoon fading slowly into evening. Though the rain had let up somewhat, a steady drizzle continued to beat down upon the pavement outside. Rise loaned Souji and Ryoji umbrellas, and they began to make their way home, picking up takeout along the way since neither was in the mood to cook.

As they crested a hill, Souji decided to ask something that had been bothering him for a long time. "Ryoji?"

Bright blue eyes darted his way.

"What are the shadows on the other side? Not the human ones, but the monsters."

Ryoji fiddled with the handle of his umbrella. "What are you asking exactly?"

"I know that shadows are reflections of humans, but with the yellow-eyed ones, that makes more sense than with the others. They are direct representations of the human that formed them, but where does that leave the mayas and the gigases and the bambinos? Are they general mirrors of humanity, or are they…?"

Ryoji nodded, his mind seemingly settled. "You want to know if we're killing people's shadows when we fight off the monsters."

"Well…what if we had killed Rise's shadow before she could manifest it? Is that how it works?"

Ryoji hummed. "Have you ever actually killed a person's shadow?"

Souji thought on that. No matter how much they threw at the yellow-eyed shadows, they never actually fell. They might revert, but there was always something that held them together, kept them alive and kicking. "No. I guess we haven't."

"They are a part of their human. Could you kill Yosuke's insecurity with lightning or freeze Akihiko's stubbornness out of him? I don't think it works that way."

Souji frowned. "So the monsters are universal representations of humanity, but where does that put you and Ted?"

"I'm…not like normal shadows, Souji. We both know that I can be killed, but only in very specific circumstances. I'm not sure anyone but Minako could have ended me properly. Geez, I don't even know what I'm saying, really. It's just…I don't think there's a simple answer." Ryoji said with a stiff smile.

"There rarely is," Souji said.

And that really was the end of that.

That night, Souji prepared to checked the Midnight Channel. He wasn't sure what he expected to see, but it was raining, and habit was difficult to break. As he turned off his TV and stared out at the rain, a firm fist rapped against his door.

"You two up?" said Dojima's muffled voice through the door.

"Yeah, come on in," Souji said, sitting down on his couch as his uncle opened the door.

"All those reports said that some weird channel came on at midnight on rainy nights," Dojima said, sounding supremely unsure, and Souji smiled gently, gesturing to the other side of the couch.

"We were about to watch it ourselves," Souji said. "Be warned, though, I doubt anything is going to show up. Nobody's on the other side."

The seconds counted down, and as the hand struck twelve, white light began to glow from the TV screen.

"What is that? It's empty and white," Dojima said, squinting.

"It's white," Souji said, prowling towards the screen, "but it isn't empty."

The scene was familiar somehow. The screen was filled with white smoke-like fog, but in the center of it, he could almost make out a stone pathway that snaked its way back into the haze.

"Wasn't the other world yellow?" Dojima asked.

Souji nodded, and after a few seconds, the image on the screen flickered out.

Ryoji frowned, leaning back against his unrolled futon. His eyes kept darting to Dojima and then to the screen, and his cheek was caved in where he was biting it.

Dojima stood with a huff, his shoulder's squared. "I guess you kids'll be going back in tomorrow, won't you?"

"Probably. Yes," Souji said.

"What are you looking for?" Dojima asked, and for the first time that evening, he seemed truly present in their conversation, rather than just an observer.

Souji smiled reassuringly. "An answer, I guess," he said, and though he knew how lame of a response it was, he could not bring himself to change it.

Dojima growled, scowling deeply, and left the room.

"You can't blame him for asking," Ryoji said, flopping back over the roll of his futon so that he was bent strangely.

"You've said from the beginning that there was something else in there," Souji said. "Yosuke told me that it was one of the first things you said after they'd met you, that there were worse things than shadows out there, so we're going to go in and get it. End of story."

"I know. Souji, I'm not disagreeing with you our doubting you or any of that. The rest of the team is behind you on this. The only one that seems to be doubting you at all is yourself."

"Ryoji-"

"What's the matter? Do you not think we can find what we're looking for, or are you scared?"

Souji's eyes thinned. "I'm not scared."

"Then what?"

"Why do you even think something wrong? Nothing's wrong."

"Because I know you. For most purposes, I am you. So what's the problem?"

Souji shrugged. "A variety of things, really," he said, thinking it would infuriate Ryoji, but when he caught his shadow's eyes, they were steady, calculating.

"We don't have to go in, you know," Ryoji said. "We were talking a pretty big game with Rise earlier, and I know you're determined, but you don't have to. We have a choice."

Souji snorted. "You know how you sometimes run into choices, and you just know that they're going to be important somehow? Like, they are breaking moments, and no matter what choice you make, you're different because of it?"

"Yes."

"Well, I don't feel that way."

"What do you mean?"

Souji sighed, turning on the couch so that he could prop his legs up on one of the arms. "I feel like I've already made this choice. Like, maybe there were options once, but they're gone now."

Ryoji had nothing to say to that. After a time, Souji said, quietly, "You've seen all my memories, right?"

Ryoji nodded.

"Do you remember a field in the mountains? By a lake of some sort?"

Ryoji shrugged. "The Arisatos never really traveled, so it would have to be one of Souji's memories. Why?"

"Cause I can't remember where it's coming from, and it feels important somehow."

Ryoji looked skeptical. "A field's important?"

"I'm not saying it makes sense. It's just…before I remembered…before Tartarus, I mean…I used to hear voices, snippets of thoughts and ideas that they felt were important, and even though I didn't remember their lives or their faces, they were able to tell me things."

"Like, they gave you warnings?"

"Not warnings. Not really, but things they thought I should know, that they…I was ashamed to have forgotten."

Ryoji sat up more fully. "Are you hearing those voices again?"

Souji shook his head. "No, but…I'm having these moments where my own voice is telling me what an idiot I'm being, but I don't know what I'm referring to."

"And part of that included a vision of a field," Ryoji said.

Souji smiled softly. "Yeah. It was nice, really, but I don't know where it came from."

"How long has this been happening?"

"Only since yesterday," Souji said, his smile dropping into a frown. "Since…since that thing that came out of Adachi looked at me. It felt like it was rifling through my head, and it left everything scattered when it disappeared."

"Do you think it could have planted information in your mind? To lead you astray or something?"

"No. The thoughts are mine. I just wish I knew where they came from. And why."

Ryoji stared hard at Souji, his blue eyes searching. Souji watched as his brow creased before Ryoji clenched his eyes shut in annoyance.

"Are you okay?" Souji asked.

Ryoji grunted, darting his gaze to the side. "I know there's something waiting for us inside. Something old and bitter. She didn't much like it when I interfered with her world, and I got a fair taste of her when she tried to push me out, and you'd think that would be the end of it, wouldn't you. Go in, kill the monster and get out, but…"

Souji grinned sourly. "I know. It's like in monster movies. The monster is thrilling and even terrifying when you don't see it, but the second it comes into full light, it's always a bit disappointing."

"That's not what I meant, actually. It's more than that," Ryoji said, eyes hooded in contemplation. "I don't think the point of a monster movie is ever actually the monster, because, honestly, who cares? It's just a mess of CG and puppetry in the end, right? But I…I like monster movies, actually, because while the alien or the ghost or the or the demon always gets the oohs and ahhs, the point isn't the gore or the special effects, it's the why. The conspiracy surrounding the thing. The invasion plan. The history. And I can get behind that."

"Yeah. That's what's bothering me the most, I think," Souji said, laying back down on the couch and staring at the ceiling. "That thing was in Adachi, so it must be involved, and you say it's got power over the world, so I'll believe that. But why TVs? Why push people to murder. Why confront people with their shadows? I don't get it. What the point?"

Ryoji chuckled softly to himself. At Souji's questioning look, he shook his head. "If our shadow queen's anything like the movies," he said, grinning smugly. "I'm sure she'll tell us."

Souji breathed a few laughs and hoped that knowing, in this case, wasn't half the battle.

By four o'clock the next day, Souji had come to, at the very least, know what the image on the Midnight Channel had been. After sitting through the unimpressed scorn of his teachers all day, scorn that he found frankly inappropriate considering his previously perfect attendance record, the team left the school as a unit to walk to the food court. The rain from the previous night had faded early in the morning, leaving the stairs wet and shiny as they climbed their way to the covered pavilion. Akihiko and Teddie had already been there waiting for them, Ted buzzing with excitement and Akihiko grinning with wrapped wrists and a heat plaster on the side of his neck.

"Mitsuru is bailing on us," Akihiko said, eyes flashing. "The idiot came around an hour or so ago, but he's spacey as hell and he's got a headache that makes mine look like a walk in the park. She called in one of the Kirijo group's doctors and a shadow expert just in case."

"Damn," Yosuke said, frowning. "That's a shame. She's a pretty intense healer."

Souji frowned. "That…is disappointing, but I'm glad Junpei's at least conscious-"

"I'm sorry I'm late," called Mitsuru as she ducked under the covered table.

"Mitsuru?" Akihiko asked, his eyebrows crawling up towards his hair line.

"The doctors requested that I leave so that they could give Junpei a full check. It seemed foolhardy not to join you."

"Well, I'm sure glad," Chie said brightly. "Gosh, am I the only one that's excited? I've been thinking about it all day."

"I'm pumped to kick some ass, man," Kanji said, teeth bared in something resembling a smile. "Let's take this thing down."

"You tell 'em, Kanji!" Rise cheered, her fingers clutching the evoker at her side.

Souji didn't know what it was, but there was something in the air, and the team glowed with it. Once Rise had located the entrance to what she was snarkily referring to as 'the matrix,' they set out together, falling naturally into their groups from two days previous. However, when the yellow fog broke, everyone was forced to pause for a moment in impressed silence.

The world was…beautiful. Serene and calm, and the white fog that had blurred the picture on the Midnight Channel settled around their feet like vapors from dry ice, swirling and kicking as the team began to slosh their way along the spiraling hallways and steep, sky-wards ramps.

"This is gorgeous," Yukiko said, her breath stirring wisps of cloud and light so that they danced around her face.

"I…yeah," Kanji said, looking almost dazed and doppy as he stared up at the backlit clouds above them.

There was music to the place, Souji thought, distressed by the way the droning swells in the air affected his breathing, by the way the air would feel low, slick and slow as he looked out over the sea of mist before building, rising, and he could hear his heart and the blood in his veins as his breath dropped out, waiting for the wave to crest and fall back down again.

No, this world was not like the others. There was no hammering base or over sold steam here, only peace and soundless music, and Souji felt lost in it.

It reminded him of being blind, of striking at a foe he could not see or even imagine.

Some foes could be imagined, though, and as the team pushed their way along the mindless paths, they dispatched the shadows that reared their heads with cruel abandon.

"Shouldn't this thing we're after be antagonizing us?" Yukiko said, shattering a tarot card with a casual flick of her wrist and calling a blaze down around a pair of floating dice. She shrieked as it rebounded, the flames crackling around her feet, and she patted roughly at where they had caught on her skirt.

"The way I see it," Chie said, bouncing on her feet as the dice spun in mid air, "big bads fall into one of two roles. You've got your – ha!" she broke off, dodging one die and smashing the other towards Kanji with a wild high-kick. "Oh, how was that? Get him, Kanji! Anyway, you have your super villains that like to talk your ears off, and then you have your end-of-movie monsters that you don't see until the last fifteen minutes of the film, and they don't talk at all. I mean, sometimes they spit a bit, but I don't think that counts."

Yukiko's face was dark when she responded, "Well, one down, one to go, I guess. I hope that shadowy thing doesn't drool, though."

"I know, right?" Chie said, grinning as she shattered one of the die's faces.

Souji had set a pace that no one was used to, and he was not sure why. Logically, it made sense to take their time with this dungeon, to conquer it over the course of days rather than hours, but something in Souji's head sniffed at the idea. He could make the climb in a day. Easily.

Still, climbing up to the ninth floor caught everyone by surprise. Staring down the long, empty stretch of the final hallway, Souji realized something, something he should have caught earlier in the cocky set of Chie's shoulders and the glint of steel in Mitsuru's eyes.

The team was scared. He was scared, and the adrenaline that had been making them giddy on the lower levels was now settling in and making them twitch. What were they even doing here, Souji thought, and his heart hammered erratically.

"There's something at the end of this path," Rise said, staring at the large arch that arced over their heads. "I hope we're ready, guys, because this is it."

Souji inhaled deeply, and looked back at the others. Akihiko popped his knuckles, a manic shine in his eyes. Yosuke grinned weakly, while Yukiko stood proud. Naoto and Mitsuru's faces were cold and collected, the complete antithesis to Teddie and Chie's fiery exuberance. Kanji and Ryoji nodded at Souji, gesturing him onward, and Souji grit his teeth, closed his eyes, and began to make his way towards the large stage at the end of the pathway.

"I congratulate you on making it this far," a voice said, husky, feminine and doubled like a shadow's, "though your methods leave much to be desired."

The room beyond the gate was set up like a sprawling theater ringed with towering columns, and the cloudy twilight of the sky blurred seamlessly with the haze that still hugged the ground. Six feet above the stage, a figure flared into life. A woman smiled down at them, her red eyes flashing.

"Are you what was possessing Adachi?" Yosuke shouted, the white light reflecting harshly off of his glasses.

The floating woman's smile turned condescending, "Beginning with the issues of most import, I see. The specter you saw was only one of my many faces. Ameno-Sagiri, the god of fog. I had him watch your world, that he might gather the information I so desired."

"So it was you," Kanji said, growling. "What did that shadow-thing do to him?"

"Oh, how little you know," the woman said with a throaty chuckle. "You know not whose presence it is in which you stand."

"You're Izanami, aren't you? Wife of Izanagi?" Ryoji asked, softly.

Her red eyes widened. "An unexpected player. I have seen you before, winged one. Tell me, shadow: who are you?"

"I don't think it matters. If you're Izanami, then you probably have some sort of beef to settle with Souji, so why don't you go ahead and explain that so that we can get on with things? I think we'd all appreciate a monologue about now."

"How dare you," Izanami hissed.

"Do you know this woman, Souji?" Naoto asked.

Souji stared, stomach dropping.

Oh. Of course. Of course he knew her.

"It was you," Souji said, harshly, and the woman smiled in response. "You offered me a job."

"And you've worked valiantly in the position I hired you for."

"You gave me this power," Souji said.

"Indeed."

"To what end?" Naoto asked, striding forward. "What is the purpose of all of this? The Midnight Channel, the murders, the shadows. At first, they all seemed to be independent problems, but there is no doubt in my mind that they are connected."

"I felt you," Ryoji said, "when I was waiting at the top of this world's Tartarus. I was not part of your plan, and you fought against me."

"I did. Is that what you believe my role to be? To fight you?" Izanami asked, smiling.

"Answer my question-" Naoto began before Ryoji spoke over her.

"You planted that thing inside of Adachi-"

"And inside me," Souji said, softly. "You shook my hand."

Ryoji nodded. "You have power here. Power you can give and take. You're the puppet master."

"And if I was? What is it that you all seek to gain by confronting me? I am what you all want, what you all need. I am humanity's desire. Why do you come here wielding blades and spite?"

Ryoji hummed. "Oh, I get it," he said, smiling, but there was darkness in his eyes. "Well, that why's a bit disappointing. It's all about giving people what they want, huh."

"I see. Thus the Midnight Channel. You made it so that people who became famous showed up on TV because those were the people others wanted to see," Naoto said, calmly.

"And your end game is, what?" Ryoji said, frowning fiercely. "Adachi spoke of a new world, of forcing a change. What did he mean?"

"My only goal is to give humanity what it wants," Izanami said, calmly.

"You just want to watch as the world rots," Ryoji said, his voice smooth and venomous as a viper bite. "Souji, I thought I'd care about what she had to say, but I was wrong. This is pointless. She doesn't understand anything. She's been stuck in this pit so long, she's lost track of what's what."

Izanami went rigid, her eyes burning with something like hate but impossibly hotter. "You insolent-" she spat, lunging off of her stage, and as she streaked towards them, she stopped resembling a human woman. In an instant, she loomed over them, a soaring creature of white, red and black.

She was terrible. And she was beautiful. Like the world, Souji thought bleakly, and he didn't understand her any better than he had understood the white and the fog that had led to her.

"Izanami was a goddess, right?" Yosuke said, squeaking as he looked up at the deity above them. "What was she-" he cut off as several careening blasts of air tore their way away from the goddess, knocking the unprepared backwards and almost off their feet.

"Fight me, children. I gave you your powers, so use them. Prove to me the strength of your wills. You fight for all of humanity."

"What the hell?" Kanji bit out, ducking his head against the blustering air currents. "I don't get what she's even talking about. What happens if we lose?"

"Let's assume that people die," Yosuke yelled over the wind, snarling, before he called out Susano-o, and with a hiss of power, the gales calmed. "So let's get the bitch!"

Orpheus Telos was out of Souji's mind almost before he was able to call him, his beautiful two-toned voice melodious above the din as he set the theater alight with wicked flames. Konohana Sakuya was by his side, her fires joining his, but the goddess waved, and the blaze extinguished. With a shout, the air began to crackle, and Souji dropped into a defensive posture, gritting his teeth as the spitting burn of electricity rolled through his body and onwards to those next to him. Yosuke cursed in pain, but Akihiko and Kanji pushed through it, launching themselves towards Izanami and slamming into her side. Naoto spat, lifting her hand and firing three times, the bullets hitting the goddess's chest one after the other.

"Don't aim for her chest," Ryoji said. "Two of those shots went through her ribs. Aim for somewhere more substantial."

"More substantial than her torso?" Chie said, the air freezing around Izanami's side, "Like where?"

"Her non-corpsy parts," Ryoji said, exasperated.

"Non-corpsy - agh!" Yukiko cried as Izanami knocked her off her feet. "Ow ow ow!"

Mitsuru twitched her foil and her Persona swayed to life, raining cool healing light down over their heads.

Ted snarled. "Don't you dare hurt Yuki-chan," he said, launching forward and ripping into Izanami, his claws raking her side, but the goddess did not bleed. She hovered above them, utterly unruffled, and smiled even as pillars of electricity fell upon her and Izanagi's spear buried into her side.

"Humans only see what they want to see," she said, pulling the blade out of her gut with disinterest. With a look, their skin burned. With a smile, their bones froze. Yukiko, Mitsuru and Teddie retreated, firing healing spells at the rest of the team incessantly, but no blade marred the goddess's skin and no magic even stirred her.

"You know not the truth. Indeed, I fear you do not even seek it."

"Rise, are we doing anything?" Souji snarled. "Tell me what's going on,"

Rise whimpered. "I'm sorry, I don't…she…I can't see her. I can't see anything. For all I know, you aren't doing anything at all."

"In blindness, you shall all fall," Izanami said. "Take solace in the thought that you die at a goddess's hands."

"You're not a goddess," Ryoji said, snarling. "You're a rotting carcass."

"Ryoji, what?"

"Can't you-" Ryoji said, eyes widening as he looked up at the being above them.

"Let the lies drag you under," Izanami said with absolute serenity, and the floor opened beneath them.

Phantom claws ripped into Souji's calves, slicing through muscle and tendon, and only experience caught his scream in his throat and refused to let it go. He danced backwards, slicing frantically at the arms and hands that reached towards him, but despite their very real ability to inflict pain, the groping limbs had no true substance. Souji's blade passed right through, and panic made him jerk his leg away.

Barbed claws caught in the thick muscle on the back of his leg, and as he tugged, they ripped through him like he was made of tissue paper, and this time, he really did scream.

Someone must have cast a healing spell, because though he was slick with blood and high on pain, when he tucked his shredded leg beneath him, it held and he skittered away from the hell gate, narrowly dodging out of the grips of two more phantom arms.

Breath heaving and his heart loud in his ears, Souji looked around and felt his blood run cold.

The gates had opened beneath the rest of his team as well, and numbly, Souji realized that the ringing noises in his ears, stifling his thoughts, were Rise's screams begging them to hold on even as they were pulled under. Yukiko was almost completely submerged, her shoulders and neck torn and bleeding as the hands pulled her down. Yosuke seemed to have been trying to help, but claws dug into his ankle and then his hip, and he lost his balance, tumbling down into the pit beside Yukiko.

"Don't let them get you, Partner," Yosuke said, his voice shattered, and in seconds, he dissapeared below.

Akihiko's silver eye's blinked through a thick slime of blood as claws tore at his cheek and chin.

A green-sleeved arm flailed, the elbows ripped out by shadows' claws.

And then, the other combatants were gone as well, leaving Ryoji and Souji at Rise's side.

"Where-" Souji asked, his voice wrecked.

"She's trying to make them like her," Ryoji said, the blue of his eyes ringed with white and darting like a horse's. "She wants to leave them in the pit like Izanagi left her."

Souji stared imploringly at Ryoji, and his shadow's face dropped further.

"You can't see," he said, looking lost.

"See what?" Rise asked, begging.

He couldn't see. He couldn't see, and something must be missing, something important, something he'd lost along the way or maybe he had never been offered at all.

And maybe there was an order to things, a rhythm and flow, a sequence life needed to happen in.

He couldn't see the truth. He hadn't been allowed.

But…

"But you can," he said, desperately, and after a moment of silence, Ryoji nodded.

"Yes," he said, breathily.

A gate tore open beneath them, and Rise shrieked as Souji grabbed at her side, fumbling with her holster before pushing her back away from danger. Claws buried in his back and shoulders, and hot blood slid down his arms and turned his grip slippery as he fought off the one that had embedded itself in Ryoji's wrist.

Ryoji knew him too well to fight him off, to tell him to save himself, so instead he ripped the claws out of his wrist, cursing nastily as he staggered away from the pit and watching brokenly as Souji was pulled under.

Souji tore one arm free and tossed Rise's evoker in Ryoji's direction. Ryoji caught it effortlessly, his eyes never leaving Souji's.

"Use it," Souji said, and with the last of his strength, he tore open all the walls his mind had built around Thanatos, ripping them to pieces and allowing the death god to leave him completely.

As he slipped beneath the surface, he realized that he must have released more than Ryoji. In the dark, the scattered pieces of thought and idea that Ameno-Sagiri had pulled free began to fall into place, and, silently, he began to remember.

He remembered chaotic streets and blood red skies. He remembered despair, a letter and car chases in the rain.

He remembered Heaven. He remembered a god and a goddess and a train leaving town in the sun, and as his consciousness faded, Souji wondered silently how any of this was better.

Chapter Text

The misty white void came as no surprise.

"It's good to see you again," a voice, sweet and smooth as honey, said, and Souji's eyes darted to his side, up into Margaret's warm face. The blue-clad woman sank to the ground, flipping her dress out from under her and settling comfortably into the swirling, hazy fog. "Come. Sit with me. There is much that you should know."

"Yeah," Souji said, growling around the dryness in his throat. "No shit." Even in his subconscious, he was sore and tired, and he climbed wearily to his feet, swaying just enough to throw out his balance, in order to make his way over to Margaret. With a huff, he collapsed by her side, his eyes sliding sideways to take in her slight profile and silver-blonde curls. "I thought you had left me," Souji said, and he knew how petty it sounded, but at the moment, he really couldn't give a damn.

"My master knew that you would have questions, questions that he could not answer. We concluded that it was better to let you make your own choices."

"Yeah, and look how well that worked out," Souji said, dragging a hand down his face. "I don't understand, Margaret. We defeated Izanami last time. I summoned Izanagi-no-Okami. The other world reverted back to its natural state…we won. I don't- did something happen on that train?" he asked, voice dropping and skin turning clammy. "I…I remember saying goodbye to everyone and getting on the train, but everything after that is gone. Did I…what happened? Did the train crash, or-"

"Nothing happened on the train," Margaret said, her head tilted slightly so that she could take all of Souji in. "The train arrived in Tokyo just as it was scheduled, and you disembarked at your destination, perfectly safely."

"Then, why-?"

"Humans are…fleeting. In everything they do. During your last attempt at defeating Izanami, you used the strength of your bonds to convince her of your sincerity and of the power of your faith, and she believed you, and made a pact with you. For as long as you truly believed in your convictions, she would believe too. You left Inaba and the Velvet Room, and you proceeded to live your life."

"Are you saying that I stopped believing? I would never think that the world isn't worth saving, no matter what happened."

"It is human nature to adapt one's beliefs, Souji. You live life, and over time, the world changes. I will not tell you of the future, but I can tell you that it is folly to believe that your opinions are carved in stone. You are human, and because of that, you are capable of greatness, but even if you held onto your ideals for the entirety of your life, at most that would buy the world eighty years."

"Before I died," Souji said, softly. "God, that's why-"

"Yes. You did not destroy Izanami last time. You talked her down from the metaphorical precipice, just as many did before you. This cycle has repeated itself again and again throughout history. For as long as humans have spun ever-expanding lies through creation, have painted and sung and written beautiful falsehoods in order to show the desires in their hearts, Izanami has risen up, each time to give humanity what it wants."

"Every fifty years…"

"Approximately, yes. Souji Seta, you were a marvelous guest, and you were the first and only wild card to appear in this cycle, which made you unique, but in the end, you are mortal, and no matter how strong you are, you will eventually fade from this world. It is a difficult truth, but a truth all the same. You bought the world several decades, but it was borrowed time."

"So what happened? If this has been going on for so long, wouldn't it have continued?"

"It should have," Margaret said, and Souji had never seen her in anger, had never witnessed the way it turned her eyes sharp and cool like cut amber, but the effect was bone chilling, "but things did not go they way they were planned. The next group of Izanami's chosen…underperformed."

"Did they not-"

"Suffice to say, they failed in any effort to pacify the goddess. They treated this world as though it were a game, all three of them, and things spiraled out of control."

"And you didn't interfere?"

"We could not," Margaret said, regret painted across her face. "We do not choose the Wild Cards. We cannot play with the world at will. Such is outside even my master's ability. We can only intervene when somebody special already exists."

"So you had to watch. Was it like Adachi described?"

"Fog flooded the world. It started in Japan and crossed mountains and oceans alike, spreading relentlessly until the entire world was consumed. Some fought against it in much the same way your friends faced their shadows, but over time, all resistance proved…futile."

Souji buried his face in his hands, massaging his brow with his thumbs. He didn't want to hear this. Hell, he could hardly stomach it, because if Margaret's words were true it meant…

"Then every choice we've made, every person we've lost, every battle we've fought was for nothing?"

"No, not nothing," Maraget said, eyes earnest. "You protected all of your loved ones. You fought for yourselves, and you saved yourselves. There is much to be said for that."

"You make us sound so selfish," Souji groaned.

"Much of what drove you on was selfishness," Margaret said. "I do not see that as a fault, simply as a fact."

"Shit," Souji said, scratching at his temple.

"And so, we were forced to be abstract. Creative, if you will. My siblings had been looking for you for…quite a long time, at that point. Of course, they knew where you were, but they had no idea how to free either Arisato without endangering the world, let alone both. However, as you might imagine…"

"That stopped being a problem, once there were no more people to save," Souji said, bitterly. "But how could I - they- help? If humans aren't the answer, then what was the…oh god. Oh, Margaret, I-I am the most self-centered, egotistical…it was never…"

"About you? I think that is oversimplifying things. Had my younger brother and sister not cared so much about you and had they not been looking for a way to save you, the thought of…well, really, undoing much of their best work would never have occurred to them. The Seal was very effective at what it was made for, but the fact that Nyx's avatar willingly trapped himself within it as well, keeping him controlled and docile? It was almost perfect."

A part of Souji raised its hackles at this description.

"But with humanity no longer fueling Erebus, there was no need for the Seal, and it was possible to take the three of you down, and by that time, my master, my siblings and I had developed a plan. There is a key that can be used to move through time. After each previous failure, we reset time, which led to the creation of completely independent timelines, but bringing Death back along with your other two incarnations while still maintaining the Seal required that we revisit a history that had already happened. We did not want to change the lives or the choices of the Arisatos, but we could not relocate Death without bringing them with him, so we used the key to-"

"I'm sorry, but hold up for a second. You're trying to tell me that your master plan was to pit Nyx against Izanami in some…monster death-match?"

Margaret sighed. "It would be best if I didn't skip around during this story."

"I get it. It had to be me, Souji, because I was the last Wild Card to be involved. I was the only point that you could change, so you dropped all your baggage on me, because it was convenient, and while that pisses me off, that's not what I'm concerned about. You aren't rushing me like last time, which means…the battle's long over, isn't it? It's..." Souji said, trembling as the fear that comes with certainty washed over him. "Ryoji's…he's…"

"Death is not human, Souji," Margaret said, and at Souji's poisonous look, she laid a gentle hand against his cheek. "No, listen to me. He is not human, and, you must realize, neither am I. That does not mean that we are evil or incapable of trust and love and all of the things that you humans value, but it does mean that we think differently. As I said, human opinions are transient, and because of this, they would never be powerful enough to convince a goddess for long. For those of us, however, whose lives have neither a clear beginning nor an obvious end, our worldviews might as well be carved into the mountains and chiseled into the ground like canyons. To change our opinions…it requires events of such magnitude that they could never be predicted, and that is what makes both Izanami and your friend, Ryoji, so remarkable.

Izanami was a goddess of creation, and she gave birth to the goddess of the sun and the god of the moon. It was not until the one that she loved with all her heart betrayed her that she became a creature of malice and revenge, craving only death for all that holds life. The opposite is true of Ryoji. He is death, yet he desires life. He loves the world and longs for its endurance despite everything that he is. The years he spent with you rocked him to his core. The fight between the two was not so much a battle as a negation. A positive negative against a negative positive. Their powers being equal, they simply canceled each other out."

"Yeah, and for you guys, it was like killing two birds with one stone," Souji said, furious. "You permanently got rid of both Nyx and Izanami."

"I suppose," Margaret said, tender regret woven into her words. "I must point out that you had the same idea."

Souji glared. "Like hell I did."

"Then why give him your evoker, if not to unleash the monster that you knew lay within him?"

Souji's stomach churned. The worst part was knowing that there was no way to deny it. He drew his knees up to his chest and leaned over them, arms crossed.

"What gave you the idea?" Margaret asked.

Souji sat quietly for a moment. "His wings," he said at last. "At first, I thought he might just be plain, old Ryoji, without being the Appraiser and all of that, but none of Ryoji's forms had wings. Thanatos didn't, and the image of Death that Aigis described from that night on the bridge didn't either, but…"

"Nyx did. Or, at least, her avatar possessed them."

"Yeah. I just thought…if we were all going to die, anyway, it was best to drag that witch down with us," Souji hissed against his knee.

A warm hand rested gently on his back, and Souji leaned into Margaret's comforting embrace.

"On principle," Margaret said after a while, "We of the Velvet room do not believe in saving individuals when the greater good is at stake, and we are not supposed to see small victories as successes, but you might find comfort in some of what I have observed."

Souji said nothing, waiting for her to continue.

"I heard your thoughts as you arrived here, and you believe this time to not be any better than before, but I feel you are not seeing things clearly. Because you caught the primary killer before you targeted Taro Namatame, your cousin and uncle were saved a great deal of pain. Then, there are your friends from SEES. I do not enjoy speaking of a future that will no longer come, but I can assure you that giving Sanada his thirst for life back will drastically alter his remaining days, and taking a bullet to the shoulder might have been the best possible outcome for your Magician, Iori. You have renewed links that had faded and corroded, and in them, you bring vitality to those who had lost it. Do not think of this path as a rough alternative to what you had. This is the truth, now, the truth that you sought, and you have a chance to live within it."

"So I'm not going to die on the train?" Souji asked, sullenly.

Margaret chuckled. "I guarantee that your train ride away from Inaba will be a safe and pleasant one."

Souji huffed against his knees.

"In time, you will understand," Margaret said, rising smoothly. "And, luckily, you have plenty of that to spare. If you ever want to talk, come and see me."

When Souji looked up, Margaret had offered him a hand, and he took it, noting the cool shape of a key that pressed against his palm as he was pulled to his feet. Margaret smiled, smoothed his hair back and, in a breath, was gone.

Souji stood in the void, turning the faintly glowing key between his fingers. He wished he could hear his Social Links talking, egging him on, but he knew they would not speak, because, for this, he did not need them.

And yet, it was times like these where he almost missed the not-voice. As annoying as it had been, it had served the very important job of telling him when he had done something right or something wrong. In the quiet, the part of him that was Minato shrugged his shoulders and the part of him that was Minako straightened her back, and while Souji hoped this was meant as a sign to urge him forward, but he missed words, even the abstract ones. Words could push him, goad him, and without them…he…

He really didn't want to go back.

Even as he thought it, the fog around him began to clear. His feet, which had appeared to be resting on nothing, sank into earth that gave easily beneath his weight, toeing through tall grasses as the first glimpse of blue shone through the cloud cover. The dense, white fog dissolved into low hanging wisps of cloud that hugged along hilly edges of the valley in which he stood. A stream chattered on either side of Souji, plowing down the slope between rocks and greenery to crash brightly into the large lake that pooled between the hills and mountains.

"The fog's all gone," Teddie said, breathily, and Souji jumped, turning in place to see his friends crowded on a rocky outcropping that stood a bit above him between several tongues of the stream.

"It's…pretty," Chie said, eyes wide as she looked out over the lake and to the side where tall trees cast one of its banks in shade. "It feels kinda…nostalgic, don't you think?"

"Hey, Partner!" Yosuke called, catching everyone's attention, and they all turned to look at where Souji stood, various shades of relief coloring their faces. "Holy hell, do you have any idea how worried we've been? When we all came to, we were still at Izanami's stage thing, but you weren't anywhere to be seen. We thought-"

"I'm fine. Are you all okay?" Souji asked, clambering up the rock-face so that he stood with the rest of his team.

"Yeah, fine," Akihiko said, gruffly. "That gave us all a bit of a scare, though. So, that's…what? Four out of four times now that I've been knocked silly in here? I swear, I should have just retired while I was on top."

Yosuke chuckled. "Well, in your defense, we all got sucked into that hell hole. Did they get you?" Yosuke asked, turning to face Souji.

"Yeah," Souji said shortly.

"Then why are we alive?" Yukiko asked. "Unless…did you somehow make your way back and defeat her, leader?"

"Ryoji did," Rise said, her voice small, and Souji had not noticed that she was standing apart from the rest of the group, her shoulders hunched and her gaze glazed, but the moment he did, he understood.

"She never got you," Souji said, and Rise flinched. "You were there for the whole thing, weren't you?"

Rise seemed to draw into herself, her muscles flexing and her jaw tightening, and when she turned to look at the group, her eyes were bright, almost crazed. She nodded, crossing her arms across her middle and hugging her waist.

"Ryoji took that chick on all on his own?" Akihiko asked, his expression sagging.

Rise nodded slowly, flicking her eyes forward. "Souji gave Ryoji my evoker before she got him, and then it was just me and…and Feathers…and he looked up at her and then looked at me, and…and he looked so sad. Like…blue eyes swimming, and everything was still. All in slow motion or maybe that's just how I'm remembering it. He swallowed, and his eyes never left me as he raised the…the…to his chin and…he told me to get back, please, and…to-" Rise bit off, tears rolling silently down her cheeks, "to close my eyes. To not look until everything was quiet. But I didn't look away, and he knew…and he fired and I watched as his eyes…they went red and hollow and then the red faded to black…and his wings…and his voice…"

"Nyx," Mitsuru said, her voice shuddering.

"He was all I could see, even without my Persona," Rise said, sniffing, and brushing a thumb along her cheek which did not so much clear her tears away as it did spread them. "Whatever. It doesn't matter. It doesn't…"

"Rise," Yosuke said, gently.

"He's gone. I'm sorry, Souji. I'm so sorry. I couldn't do anything. They kept fighting, and he kept talking, and even though he was huge and scary, he was so…tender. Calm. Like he was trying to teach her something."

"He was," Souji said, sitting down with his back to the group and staring across the lake. "It's okay, Rise. There was nothing you could do."

Rise hissed furiously. "Yeah, thanks leader. I figured that out pretty quickly all on my own."

"Rise, that's not-"

"She didn't even bother dragging me under. I wasn't worth the time," Rise said, eyes glistening and rimmed in red. "Ryoji…"

"It's over," Souji said, staring at the dappling of light that made its way through the trees on the lake's far bank. "For now, that's all that matters."

"Dude, what-" Yosuke began before Souji cut him off.

"You know, this is what this world used to look like, before people's hearts became cloudy."

Everyone stood silently for a moment, not sure of how they should react.

"Yeah," Teddie said at last, waddling his way over so that he could sit beside his sensei. "This was home, for me. I had forgotten, but it's nice now that I remember. Everywhere used to look just like this."

As if they had all been given the same silent orders, the rest of the team settled, either sitting down or leaning against the cragged wall. Akihiko flopped down on Souji's other side, closing his eyes and leaning against his clasped hands.

"Akihiko?" Souji asked, and though Akihiko's face colored, he did not open his eyes. "What are you doing?"

"Just…" Akihiko said, embarrassed. "Hoping for a miracle. For what it's worth."

Souji's chest hurt. "I don't think that's going to work this time."

"I know," Akihiko said, flicking his eyes open and towards Souji's grey ones. "But, it's worth a shot."

Souji hummed noncommittally, closing his eyes against the wind.

Chapter Text

Souji shoved open the front door, sidling into the hall and hanging his coat up mechanically. It was always difficult to judge time in the other world, but after the long climb towards Izanami and the team's extended break in the valley, Souji found himself returning home so late that it was almost morning. He shuffled blindly towards the fridge, not really hungry but more acting on autopilot, and completely missed his uncle's presence until it grumbled its way into his space.

"What kept you out so late?" Dojima said from his seat at the kitchen table, and Souji didn't even have the energy to be properly startled. Instead he turned jerkily to face the hunched and lightly frowning form at the table, and he sighed, not at all in the mood for a confrontation.

"We had some things to finish up," Souji said, opening the fridge and leaning his head against the wonderfully cool shelves. "It took us longer than expected. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."

"How can you know that?" Dojima said, knocking his knuckles against the table in agitation. "How much longer is this going to go on, Souji?"

"I said," Souji said choppily, "it's over. So leave it."

Dojima seemed ready to snap back when he noticed that nobody was following Souji in through the door. "Where's the kid?"

Souji flinched and said nothing.

"Souji," Dojima growled.

"He left," Souji said, closing the fridge without removing anything. "He was here, because he had a job to do, and he did it, so he left."

"He just up and left," Dojima said, flatly.

"Yes," Souji hissed.

"The unfailingly polite kid that's been living here for the past two weeks left without saying thank you to me or saying goodbye to Nanako."

Souji almost whimpered, because, god, this hurt.

"Yes," Souji repeated, turning to head for the stairs.

"I'm assuming he left in a way that's going to prevent him from visiting again, right?" Dojima said, a jagged kind of pity replacing the sharpness in his voice. "I'm sorry. He was a good kid."

Souji nodded.

"Are his parents going to be asking about him?"

Souji shook his head.

"Okay," Dojima said, scratching at his scruff. "So, it's over?"

A nod.

"We can have a service this weekend, if you want. For now, get some sleep," Dojima said, and Souji took that as permission to leave. He trotted up the steps, pulling open his door and collapsing sideways along the couch. The door slowly slid shut behind him, and Souji blinked wearily at the tattered, yellow scarf that hung limply off the hanger on the back of the door. Oh yeah. He'd forgotten that Ryoji left that there.

As he stared at the battered ends and ripped stitches of the long, yellow swath of cloth, a weak laugh bubbled its way up out of Souji's throat, and, though he was horrified, they kept coming until he was giggling weakly on the couch. How ridiculous, how utterly, painfully absurd, was it that a kid who could vanquish a goddess, who could bust up robots and call down the moon, couldn't even fix his scarf? What the hell kind of world was it that time jumps, split personalities and goddesses could no longer surprise him, but a scrap of ripped cloth could send him into hysterics? What kind of world…

If there were tears rolling down his cheeks, the first sense he found the TV world and long, long overdue, Souji paid them no mind. So, he hadn't been enough. So life was granted only to be ripped away. It didn't matter. It wasn't all that surprising, really.

In a moment of lucidity, Souji froze, saltwater trails searing his face, and realized hollowly that Margaret had been right about him after all.


The glass-like chime of an incoming text woke Mitsuru long before she would have liked. She was a light sleeper by habit, but when she loosely picked up her phone and checked the time on the screen, she mentally groaned, wishing she could have simply slept through the intrusion.

Nov 15, 2011 06:10 AM – Seta

'Could you do me a favor?'

Nov 15, 2011 06:12 AM – Mitsuru

'That depends. What do you want?'

Nov 15, 2011 06:13 AM - Seta

'There's a loose end to tie up, and you're better for it than I am. There's a politician I need you to talk to. He's the accomplice to the murders, but he's not a bad guy. Just an idiot and disillusioned, and he needs to be dealt with.'

Nov 15, 2011 06:15 – Mitsuru

'A politician? I won't ask for details yet, but what do you want me to say to him?"

Nov 15, 2011 06:16 PM – Seta

'Taro Namatame. Tell him we know and to stop before we have to MAKE him stop. Scare him if you have to. We couldn't prosecute him if we tried, but I don't want him doing anything stupid again. Can you help?'

Nov 15, 2011 06:17 PM –Mitsuru

'If I must.'

Nov 15, 2011 06:17 PM – Seta

'Thank you, Mitsuru.'

Mitsuru put her phone on the table with a small sigh. Stretching, she got out of bed and began the long process that went into making her the very image of power.

A few hours later and after a few more quick texts with Souji, Mitsuru had enough information to track the ex-politician down to a small apartment hidden in the outskirts of Inaba. The building was small but well maintained, well-lived and well-loved, if its door was any indication, and Mitsuru waited there in silence, standing squarely in front of its peep hole as she firmly pressed the buzzer. After several beats, and several clearly audible rings of the bell, the door cracked open, revealing the sullen eyes and mussed hair of the fallen politician.

"Taro Namatame," Mitsuru said, no question in her voice. "I would appreciate it if you would let me in. We need to talk."

"Who exactly are you?" Namatame said, pulling the door open fully, but not moving aside.

"Mitsuru Kirijo, of the Kirijo group. I head a special task force, sir, and your actions have drawn our attention."

"Actions? I don't…" Namatame said, backing up slightly. "What do you specialize in?"

Mitsuru smiled as she stepped forward, straight-backed and dripping with confidence. "Oh, I think you know, Mr Namatame, and if you don't want to suffer the full wrath of the Kirijo group, you will let me in."

Namatame barely hesitated a second before he stepped aside.

"Good choice."

Namatame's apartment turned out to be a dark, clean studio with a decently sized kitchen tucked into one corner and a large desk and computer set neatly next to a rolled futon. In the center of the room was a collection of chairs and a deep brown, plush sofa, and Mitsuru strode smoothly towards one of the armchairs, sinking into it while she tried to retain as much of her professional posture as she could, all the while staring hawkishly at Namatame as he prowled cautiously over.

"Now then, Mr Namatame. Is there anything that you would like to say to me?"

"I don't know what you're here for," Namatame said, his face straight. "I don't know what you want."

"I hear that you have quite the hero-complex," Mitsuru said, smiling smoothly but with sharp, searching eyes.

Namatame stared at her, a myriad of emotions flicking across his face before he settled on a strange mix of hope and disdain.

"If you know that much, you know it isn't a complex. I've helped those people."

"I'm afraid 'those people' see things a bit differently. Have you been on the other side?"

"The other side?"

"Don't play coy. The other side of the TV. Have you seen it for yourself?"

Namatame laughed, shaking his head.

"I can't believe other people actually believe in this. I figured that everyone else would think I was mad if they ever heard what I've been doing. I thought I was alone."

"No, not alone," Mitsuru said, trying to relax her expression into something firm but approachable. "Merely less informed than some. Have you seen it?"

"No, I haven't, but they all come back, safe and sound, so it must be a good place."

"Actually, two people have died there in this last week alone," Mitsuru said, and her smiles were gone. "Did you know that?"

Namatame stared bleakly. "Nobody's shown up on the channel. It's looked different than usual, but no-one's appeared."

"Mr Namatame, I'll be frank with you. The other side can be seen as a form of hell. It pits people's worst fears and secrets against them, and Saki Konishi and Mayumi Yamano were consumed by it," Mitsuru said, knowing Yamano's name would catch the politician's attention but pushing on before he could interrupt. "Your vigilante actions have caused a group of children no end of grief, and you unwittingly forced civilians to act as soldiers. You never followed up on-"

"No! No, I saved those kids," Namatame said, lurching to his feet. "I saved them. They would be dead if it wasn't for me, strung up on a wire somewhere for everyone to gawk at."

"No, they would be dead because of you," Mitsuru said calmly. "They are alive in spite of you, and now that my team has been called in, you will stop. The magic in this town has dried up, but you have strength on your own, and we think that you are a liability. Are you willing to cease your foolish actions, or will we be forced to deal with you directly?"

Namatame stood eerily still, nothing but his eyes moving. "You can't do that," he said at last.

"You are right, in a way. The force of the law would have little effect on you, seeing as few would believe the events that conspired here. That said, there are those in high places that are aware of the kind of magic that you've witnessed, and they are more than powerful enough to make your life difficult if you were to choose to continue. The Kirijo group is but one of those."

Sweat beaded along Namatame's brow. "What do you want from me?"

"Only for you to stop, Mr Namatame. If you promise not to attempt to save people any more, and your actions seem to corroborate that claim, we will let you live your life normally. We might even help you back into the political sphere, seeing as your fall from grace was partially due to these strange circumstances. However, if you lie to us, to me, Mr Namatame, I'm afraid that I will not be able to be so kind. Do you understand?"

Namatame stood frozen for a few long moments before he jerked his head in a nod.

"Very good. You'll be hearing from my people, I expect," Mitsuru said, standing in calm, easy manner and turning towards the door.

"The two people that died-" Namatame said, his tone clipped but insistent.

"You were not the cause," Mitsuru said, forcing a smile onto her face.

Hearing Namatame's ragged exhale behind her shoulder, Mitsuru left the building, walking smoothly to the street and out to the waiting car. As she slipped into the passenger seat, she let her smile fall, closing her eyes and leaning back into the cool, leather seat with a sigh.


"I swear, I'm going to kill every one of you if you don't shut your traps," Junpei groaned, burying his face in his nest of cushions and pulling a stray pillow over his head and around his ears in annoyance.

"I'd like to see you try," Akihiko said, not looking up from his computer as he typed away, the soft click of keys echoing in the large, wood paneled room. "Stop being a brat and suck it up."

"Dude, shut up," Junpei said, jutting his chin out so that it lay flat against his nearest pillow. "You have no idea how much this hurts."

"Actually, if anyone understands, it's Sanada," Yukiko said, patting Junpei's shoulder gently. "Now, will you roll over? I'm not sure whether I can help or not, but sitting there moaning is the worst thing you can be doing."

"And who put little miss priss here in charge," Junpei said, though he flipped onto his back despite himself.

"Just leave him," Akihiko said, scratching at his eyebrow distractedly. "The only thing I found that made it better was actually summoning my Persona over there. Since he's not dead, I'm assuming he's fine. Once he decides he's man enough to drag his ass out of bed, we can take him over and get him sorted out."

"I woke up last night from my brain exploding, boxer boy. I have just cause to bitch, thank you very much. And, you shot me. Nurse, he shot me," he said, wailing at Yukiko. "Are you going to let him bully me, too?"

Yukiko giggled, but did not take sides.

"I wouldn't have had to shoot you if you hadn't run off on your own, you dumbass," Akihiko said, looking up from his screen for the first time to glare at Junpei.

"Well, if you had told me what you were up to-"

"-You didn't make things like that especially easy-"

"-you always treat me like some loser kid-

"-whose damn fault is that?"

"A little support would have been nice, Sir. I'm sorry for asking for so much-"

"Boys," Yukiko said, cutting the bickering couple off. "Please be quiet. Iori, how much do you remember?"

"Junpei, please," Junpei said, grinning boyishly despite the purple bruises under his eyes. "And, not much, really. I jumped into TV land, and, you know…one thing led to another led to me turning my Persona into a brain eater slug from hell…you know, same old, same old."

"Junpei," Akihiko said, growling.

"Was that the last thing you remember?" Yukiko said, her words overlapping Akihiko's. "Using the Evoker?"

"Uh, no. Not quite. Shit, how do I explain this without sounding like some sad sap?"

"You're way past that point," Akihiko said, turning back to his computer. "Just talk."

Junpei smiled sharply. "Fine," he said, his words brittle and crisp. "So, like, Chidorita and I used to be totally in sync, you know? When she, uh, saved me and Trismegistus was born, we were on the same wavelength. Of one mind, if you will, but I guess…somewhere along the lines, we started to slip, and her thoughts didn't so much back up mine as they did layer over them."

"We saw that," Akihiko said, his voice taking a more gentle tone. "Your Persona looked less like the Trismegistus I knew and more like Medea if she decided to play dress up with Hermes's armor."

"Yeah, I don't know, man. My head's all in different places, but…the overlap's gone. I mean, there's plenty of annoying shit in its place, but I feel like I'm thinking more linearly or something. Dude, I don't know. My head hurts. Leave me be. Did I mention that you shot me?"

"More than once, I'm afraid," Akihiko said, smirking lightly and starting to type again.

"What are you actually doing, Sanada?" Yukiko said, settling onto the floor and crossing her legs at the ankle.

"Filling out applications," Akihiko said. "I had a long chat with Officer Kurosawa last night after we got back. I…well, he thought I sort of over-performed on my assigned task to track down any examples of malpractice going on in the Inaba division, but I told him that it would be best if he kept anything he heard about Adachi to himself."

"Why? Wouldn't you get points for accomplishing your task?" Yukiko asked.

"Well, yeah, but I'd also be drawing attention to Adachi, and then they'd start looking for him, and there's no way that can end well. I'd rather go back empty handed than turn people's sights on Inaba and, more specifically, you all."

"I guess that makes sense, but what about your job?"

"Yeah, man-friend. You were, like, this close," Junpei said, holding his thumb and forefinger together in demonstration, "from quitting last time we chatted. Are you just going to go back to being a grunt?"

"What are the applications for?" Yukiko asked.

Akihiko grinned. "That's the right question. I…I think I really needed this. This whole trip's been…maddening and painful and…and so damn amazing, and I don't think I've ever failed so fully at anything in my entire life. I mean, here's hoping that I can find something I'm better at than this, because I'm screwed if everything's downhill from here," he said, chuckling. "I think I wanted to take the short route towards being a cop because I thought it would give me a taste of…well, of this. And it didn't. I wasn't happy, so I'm not going back. For now, I figure I might as well go back to college and major in something different. Honestly, I have no clue what I want to do," Akihiko concluded, but the smile on his face was soft and bright.

Yukiko returned it, warmly. "I'm there with you," she said, her eyes going distant. "At the beginning of this year, I was so sure that I wanted to leave this inn and make a life for myself out there. I've been wavering back and forth on it, and I'm not sure I've made up my mind. I think I want to travel, maybe go to school somewhere far away when I graduate. I…part of me really wants to be a doctor since I've had so much experience healing over the last year, but why use scalpels and stitches to fix things when Evokers exist? I want to keep helping people, but I think I want to do it my own way. Not with great customer service or with medicine, but with my own skills, my own self. I'm just not sure how to do that. It's just…after Adachi and Ryoji…I'd rather be doing what I love for the time I have, if that makes any sense."

Akihiko leaned back in his chair, his smile fading. "I should have learned that earlier," he said, shaking his head. "I had plenty of chances, but I never quite got the message."

"Why do you know Ryoji?" Junpei said, interrupting the conversation.

Yukiko blinked, but Akihiko cut her off before she could begin to talk. "Minato, Mitsuru and I told everyone about him. We figured it would make an impression."

"Wha-" Junpei said, his eyes widening. "What the hell, man? You aren't speaking sense."

"I've never heard you actually call Souji Minato," Yukiko said, frowning. "You aren't going to start, are you?"

Akihiko blushed. "No! I just…I don't really think about it. If he's acting like Souji, he's Souji. If he's acting like Arisato, he's Arisato. Is that weird?"

"Dude," Junpei said, fuzzy panic glinting in his eyes. "Talk. Now. Dish the dirt. What the hell have I been missing?"

Akihiko shook his head, smiling wanly. "More than you know."


Yosuke collapsed under the gazebo that sat on the hill above the floodplain, his arms tossed carelessly over the back of the bench.

"Come on, Partner. Sit," he said, flapping a hand in insistence.

"I should probably head on home," Souji said, hesitating outside of the circle of shadow that the gazebo's roof cast. "I explained some things to my uncle last night, but my whole family's a little shaken."

"We're all shaken," Yosuke said, his sales-person smile falling to show the cloudiness underneath. "Please sit? We haven't talked in a while. Not for real. I feel like we've done nothing but fight lately."

Souji sighed, settling heavily down on the bench beside Yosuke. "I didn't mean to fight with you, Yosuke."

"No, no, I know, man. You've had a lot on your mind, and I didn't get that until it barely mattered anymore. I was so caught up in being stupid and jealous that I didn't even think to help. I'm sorry."

"There's no need to apologize."

"Yeah, there is," Yosuke said, his eyes searching, pleading. "You know, you've changed."

Souji clenched his eyes shut. "Yeah, I'm aware."

"Not like that, Partner," Yosuke said, realizing that he was using his title for his friend almost as a life line, trying to hold himself together. He swallowed and continued. "I mean, I always thought…Souji, I've never had all that many friends, and I was never super-close with the few I had. I always thought that it was because nobody got me, right? Except…then I met you, and I got to know the others, and I thought, 'how cool is it that real friends take all of you, the good and the bad'. I don't have to change for these people."

"That's what friends are for," Souji said, placidly.

"Except," Yosuke said, his voice higher than usual. "Except that's not right. I mean, yeah, friends are supposed to stick by you through thick and thin, but…but you changed, and Kanji changed and Naoto changed…and I really sort of loved watching it happen. 'Cause, while it sucks to feel like the people you care about are moving on without you…change doesn't make you stop liking a person. It's just new…and sort of scary, right, dude?" Yosuke laughed weakly, raising a hand to wipe the beginnings of a nervous sweat from his forehead. "I've been thinking a lot over the past couple of days. I think…I wish I could have faced my shadow later. I think it would have been better that way. Sure, it would have been embarrassing, but…I kept thinking, 'hey, I've already faced my shadow. It's gone. I'm totally in the clear.' And that was crap. I never killed my shadow. It never went anywhere. It just changed its attitude, but it's always there, waiting behind Susano-o. I couldn't get rid of it if I wanted to, and the more I ignored it, the more it seemed to come back. I think I might have understood that if I hadn't been such an early bloomer," he said, smiling.

"Yosuke-"

"Anyway, I just wanted to say that I'm sorry I've been such a crappy friend. You're my best bud, and I don't want to ruin that-"

"Yosuke, hold up-"

"-Cause I'm capable of growing up, and there's still a couple of months before you leave, and I was thinking that, yeah, Akihiko and Mitsuru are probably going to take off soon, but there's still college, and I'm not great at math and literature, but I could totally study psychology and folklore and look into the history behind all of this shadow stuff-"

"Yosuke," Souji said firmly.

Yosuke's voice shook. "Yeah, sorry. What?"

"Your shadow isn't gone?"

"Uh, no. He's still around, in his way. We, uh, talked about this before, remember? I don't think you can truly destroy shadows. Not permanently."

Souji stared at the ground, his brows knitted, and Yosuke could practically hear his mind whirring.

"Uh, Souji?"

"I have to go," Souji said, standing quickly and jostling back.

"Where?"

"I have to go talk to somebody. I thought I understood before, but I was missing a piece," Souji said, something warming in his face and voice and chasing away the gloom that had settled over him like a shroud. "Literally. I've been trying to tell myself the truth this whole time, but I was too stupid to listen."

"Souji?"

"Yosuke, look at me for a second," Souji said, waiting to continue until Yosuke had caught his eyes. "You can be an idiot sometimes, but you're my best friend. You told me so yourself, remember?"

Yosuke rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed but pleased. "I..yeah. That I did."

"So we're going to be cool no matter what. If you want to change, not for me or for anyone else, but for you, I'm behind you all the way, but that choice is yours, and you have plenty of time to think about it and act on it. Don't act like a kid and say 'I'm going to change' without having something to back yourself up. There's no rush. Anyways, I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yeah, okay. I…see you, Partner."

Souji laughed, the sound warm and genuine, before jogging down the road towards the shopping district.


Souji stood in front of the door to the Velvet Room for a long moment, gathering his thoughts. He wanted to be clear. He wanted to be concise. He wasn't sure how much room for error there was, but for the first time, he felt like he truly understood the full breadth of things. He could see the last year laid out before him, and the longer he looked, the more he began to see the little clues and subtle hints that had been given to him along the way, pointing to the best possible conclusion. They were all there, waiting for him to see them, but the one truth Souji knew was that, if he didn't act on them, nothing would happen.

So, he had to ask. He had to show that he understood what had been told to him point blank. Souji took a deep breath, inserted the Velvet key into the faintly glowing door, and turned.

In a rush, his mind flew away from the lightly dusty streets of Inaba, careening along tangents of thought and fancy until he was dropped comfortably into a seat in the Velvet Room.

The room had changed. It was neither an ever climbing elevator nor a stretch limo. The room was narrow with long, cloudy windows, and the whole space rocked back and forth as Souji got his bearings.

Three pairs of cat-yellow eyes glowed back at him, one pair fond and bright like sun through scotch while the other two gleamed with barely-contained exuberance.

"Elizabeth," Souji said, heart hammering and a smile slipping effortlessly onto his face. "Theo."

Theodore's eyes crinkled, and Elizabeth rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet, grinning madly.

"Thank you," Souji said, unsure how to fully express himself. "All of you. Thank you so much for saving me. I don't think I'll ever be able to fully explain how much I mean that."

"It was our pleasure," Theodore said, raising a hand to his chest and cocking his head back proudly.

"We are glad to be of service," Elizabeth said, smile bright and almost wicked.

"It's good to see you feeling better," Margaret said, and Souji nodded slowly to her before turning to the room's only quiet occupant.

"Not so much better as more focused," Souji said, bowing slightly to Igor, whose ever-present smile seemed unusually forced around the edges.

"That is good to hear," Igor said, leaning over his interlocked fingers. "What can we do for you today?"

Souji leaned back into the plush comfort of his chair, looking around the cabin.

"Why a train?" Souji said, turning back to Igor.

Igor's crooked smile turned genuine. "This room reflects the state of your journey and the balance of your mind. It seems you no longer seek a method by which you can climb ever higher or with which you could move comfortably through the fog. Now, I would say that you wish for a way to move quickly from one point to the next. Or, perhaps, you desire a system that would allow you to change tracks, switch trains and still arrive on time. Of course, this is merely conjecture. It is your mind, after all, and with matters of the mind, things are rarely so clear."

Souji nodded, staring out of the empty windows as he let the jostling of the carriage soothe him.

"Igor," Souji said, eyes tracking languidly from the windows to Igor's bulbous eyes. "I don't like the idea of a person being given life for no other reason than to lose it."

Igor nodded, his smile dropping. "Yes. It is a tragedy, but then, one could say that of all life. When looked at on a large scale, all life exists only to end. Is it not better to have purpose during that time?"

Souji shook his head. "I'm not saying that I don't understand. The problem is that I do. I can see the reason behind every move you made, and I'm flattered by the trust you put in my decisions, but I can't bring myself to like it. I thank your residents for saving me from the Seal and giving me a second chance to live, but I cannot agree with you. However, if they end up working, I'll acknowledge that the choices you made were the only possible solution."

Igor rubbed his fingers together casually, the movement causing his gloves to creak and whisper. "Is that what you came here to talk about today?"

"No," Souji said, firmly. "Actually, I came to say goodbye."

Souji did not have to see them to hear the three siblings stiffen, the hush of their starched, blue suits silencing as they stilled.

"Despite the change in décor, I figure that this is probably the last time that I'll be invited to the Velvet Room. I did what you wanted, and, in my experience, that usually means that we're going to part ways, in one sense or the other. That said, since you let me back in, there are preparations that I would like to make. I don't plan on facing the rest of my life meekly, and if I have to go it on my own, there are some Personas that I am going to need. One in particular, as I'm sure you realize."

Vitality burst to life suddenly in Igor, and though he kept his smile even, there was glinting pleasure in his eyes. "Would you care to explain?"

"I didn't have a shadow," Souji said, smiling thinly. "And then I did, and, according to every source I've asked, you can't kill a shadow."

"And what does that mean for you?" Margaret said, and Souji could see satisfaction in her face and her poise.

"I'm missing pieces," Souji said. "That's part of being a wild card, I think. I have to have enough space in my head to make way for all of the gods and goddesses that call me home, and I lose track of what's mine and what's not. I end up giving away pieces of myself when I don't fully mean to. I am Izanagi, and I am Orpheus, but when Ryoji dismissed all of my Personas and left me with what he believed to be my bare bones, he forgot a piece, and I'm not me without it."

Igor hummed in thought. "What if I was to tell you that the price for that particular Persona has changed?"

"I would ask you to name your price. I'll meet it."

"Careful," Elizabeth said, smiling slyly. "We are a business, and desperation is so easily exploited."

Souji shrugged. "As far as I'm concerned, I've racked up enough credit to keep me safe."

"What about your friend, the Magician? Did you not learn from him that good intentions and powerful links between people can only take you so far?"

"Actually, in my experience, they can move worlds," Souji said.

"True," Igor said with a smile that was almost smug.

"Besides, I am not Junpei and my shadow is not Chidori. I am not a person, I'm people, and I'm missing a piece."

"What do you plan on doing once you have gained what you seek?" Margaret said, gently.

Souji smiled, pulled out the Velvet Key from his pocket and held it across the table towards Igor. "I don't need a businessman and a fancy book to do what I feel is right."

Souji expected subtle disapproval or even scorn, but the utter warmth coming from everyone in the room caught him off guard.

"Souji Seta," Igor said, reaching his long, spindly fingers across the table and closing Souji's hand around the key. "You will always be a welcome guest in the Velvet Room. You truly are remarkable."

The lump in Souji's throat also surprised him, and he swallowed, unable to speak.

"Margaret," Igor said, turning to the oldest sibling. "Give the boy what he asked for."

"Of course, Master," Margaret said, opening her large book and turning to the middle. As she turned the pages, she said, "Understand that with this, you will be getting the good and the bad."

"I've been told that's what makes a person," Souji said, reaching forward to grab one of her hands. She looked up at him in surprise.

"Thank you," he said, simply.

Margaret smiled. "You know that this is not the end, correct?"

"Yeah," Souji said, settling back into his chair. "I know. It sort of feels like it though."

Theodore and Elizabeth moved to stand on either side of his chair as Margaret found the page she was looking for. Gingerly, she pulled a single, tall tarot card free of its binding, setting it down on the table so that its glinting thirteen faced up.

In a roar and a flash of bright blue light, Margaret activated the summoning, and, briefly, a dark shadow filled the room, catching in the corners and towering above the crowd.

In the din, something shifted inside of Souji, and a new Persona took up residence in the sea of his soul.

Souji breathed. Smiled. And was whole.