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Lupin-kun

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Life had never been fair to Kazushi Miura. He always found himself in trouble somehow. No matter what he did, the tables turned upside down and everything collapsed on top of him. Like the time when he was still a little kid, and while he waited for his parents to pick him up from kindergarten, he saw a boy kicking a puppy on the street. He tried to save the puppy, but it ended in a fight against the boy, and his parents happened to arrive right when Kazushi had connected a kick to the boy's stomach. The Miuras were none too pleased to see their son hurting someone, and no amount of arguing would change their minds.

Or when Kazushi became an elementary school student and was bullied at school. For a few days, he did nothing, and only endured his schoolmates mocking him and playing pranks. Then they began hurting him physically and stealing his lunch money, and he couldn't stand that situation anymore. But as soon as he reacted, things went downhill. The bullies were quite the apple polishers, and lied to the teacher saying that Kazushi had hit them out of nowhere. The teacher sided with them, and Kazushi got the blame.

"Mrs. Miura, your son behaved very badly today," one of the teachers said when Kazushi's mother came to pick him up at school. "He hit two of his classmates during lunch break."

Mrs. Miura was horrified. She scolded Kazushi on their way home. "Kazushi, what you did today was bad. Hurting people is wrong. Don't do that again."

The first time wasn't so bad. However, it happened again. One of the bullies charged at him. Kazushi tried to defend himself and ended up knocking the boy to the ground. The fact that Kazushi wasn't weak physically didn't help his case at all. The bully told the teacher about it, who told it to Mrs. Miura.

"Kazushi!" His mother exploded during their walk home. "I already told you that hurting others is wrong!"

"B-but..." Kazushi tried to argue, but his mother didn't let him explain himself.

"No buts! Once we get home, you'll go to your room and stay there. Oh, and today you won't get dessert. Hopefully this way you'll regret what you did."

Kazushi was teary-eyed, but his mother didn't pay any mind to him. Since she wasn't likely to listen, he gave up trying to argue. They arrived home. By fear of an additional punishment, Kazushi decided to just do as his mother told him. He locked himself in his bedroom, lay on his bed and cried. He lost track of how much time passed before he fell asleep. And when his father came back from work at night, Kazushi had to endure another scolding session.


This kind of incidents kept happening throughout the years, and Kazushi was never able to defend his points. Either because the bullies lied too well, or because one of them was the teacher's favorite, or because the teacher wanted to close the issue as fast as possible and put the blame on the easiest target... the outcome was always the same. Kazushi was always the one who got the blame, with no chance to defend himself. Sometimes he reacted and it turned into a fight. There was also one time when he endured a beating and did nothing to retaliate, because at that point he had known that reacting would only get him in trouble. But that was no use, either. The mere fact that he got involved in a fight and got home with bruises was enough for his parents to scold him and ground him. He also got into fights trying to help other kids that were being bullied, but of course it didn't go well for him, and the kids he tried to help never said a single "thank you" for his attempts, either.

Kazushi didn't know what to do. He didn't have anyone to talk about his problems to, because no one ever listened to him. His parents began yelling at him much more frequently. The teachers began viewing him as a problem child, and even new teachers looked down on him from day one because rumors of the "problem student" had already reached their ears. He had no friends, either, because his reputation caused other students to avoid him.


By his last year of elementary school, Kazushi was so used to being scolded that people yelling at him didn't even cause him to flinch anymore. And he also began neglecting his studies. His teachers insisted that students needed to apply themselves hard in order to become successful in life. So what? He had to study hard just to become mean and unreasonable adults like his teachers? They didn't seem to have gotten that much "success" in life, either, unless "success" to them meant becoming smart enough to be able to explain things in an utter complicated way so that no one could understand their lectures, then making the students feel miserable by yelling at them and emphasizing how dumb they were. To Kazushi, that wasn't "success." He didn't want to become like that, thank you very much.

But then, he met a teacher that gave him a new insight in life. Ms. Ishihara, his Composition teacher, was everything he wished the other teachers were. Unlike the others, she explained things in a lighthearted way. Her lessons were fun and easy to understand. Instead of going over passages from the textbook first, she started by having the students interpret snippets from some manga, then she would explain the sentences' structure and grammar. She also had the class take part in little games in which they had to form sentences by making up dialogue for the characters. After all that fun, solving the exercises from the textbook was a breeze.

One day, Ms. Ishihara's class ended and everyone left the classroom to go to lunch break. Everyone, except Kazushi. He knew it was against the school's rules to stay in the classroom during lunch break, but he wasn't in the mood to leave. He would be alone and would have nothing to do either way. Outside the classroom was actually worse since it was so noisy and annoying.

"Miura-kun?" Ms. Ishihara called him to attention.

"I can't stay here in the classroom. I know. That's what you were going to say, wasn't it?"

"Huh?" The teacher blinked as though she weren't expecting that kind of reaction. "No, that wasn't it."

"... I-it wasn't?" Kazushi was the one surprised now.

"No, it's just... you seem to be always alone. Don't you have friends?"

Kazushi said nothing. He only stared dumbfounded at the teacher, unable to guess what she was getting at. No one had ever asked him that question, probably because the answer was too obvious. He wasn't going to respond, but she kept staring at him as though she had all the patience in the world. "People rarely talk to me," he said at long last. "Whenever they do, it's only to annoy me or to play pranks."

"They... bully you?" Ms. Ishihara's eyes filled with worry. "Have you talked to the other teachers about it?"

"It's no use. They always take the other kids' side. Even if I don't do anything and only let the other kids beat me, I'm always the one that gets blamed." Kazushi was so desperate to let that out of his system that he began ranting even before he realized it. He gave a bitter chuckle. "Why am I even telling you this? You won't believe me. No one does..."

"Miura-kun..." His teacher looked at him with sympathy. "I believe you. I know how those teachers can get. They look down on me, too."

"Y-you get bullied, too?" Kazushi asked in surprise.

"Yeah, sort of. They don't take me seriously because... you know. I use a 'nonstandard' method to teach." Ms. Ishihara sighed sadly. "You're probably right. It's no use talking to them. What about your parents?"

Kazushi sighed. "They only believe the teachers. They never listen to me."

Ms. Ishihara silently stared at him for a few seconds. "I wish I could help you sort your issue out with the other teachers, but they wouldn't listen to me, either." She forced a smile. "But I could try to help you in some other way! You said you don't have anyone to talk to. If you want, you can talk to me."

Kazushi couldn't believe the miracle that was taking place. So far, Ms. Ishihara hadn't yelled at him. Or at least, not yet. He knew he couldn't count on his luck, but he hoped the miracle would last. "You said you want to help me? ... Why?"

"Because you kind of remind me of myself."

That caught Kazushi's interest.

Ms. Ishihara continued speaking. "I've always studied by transporting the exercises to manga and little games, but I didn't tell anyone at first, and only used these 'techniques' for myself. Only in the last year of middle school, I told my classmates about it. They were performing so badly and worried that they might fail, and I decided to try to help them out. It worked so well that I decided I'd become a teacher and use these techniques to help other people understand the subjects better. But it hasn't been easy. I've always had problems at work because of my teaching methods, and most of my colleagues never took me seriously. Some of them even did some... unfair stuff and managed to get me fired from the first school I worked at. I almost gave up. If not for my family and a dear friend that supported me, I don't think I'd be here now. Miura-kun, I don't want you to give up. Just like my friend supported me, I want to support you. As long as there's hope, there's a way to solve your problems. So, don't lose hope."

Kazushi's mouth opened slightly but produced no words.

And right at that moment, one of the school's workers had to appear and ruin the mood... "Ah, so Miura's here again. Miura, how many times we have to say that you can't stay in the classroom during lunch break? Not only that, but you're also bothering Ms. Ishihara. She needs to go on lunch break, too, you know."

Kazushi-froze. The miracle was probably over. He was sure Ms. Ishihara would side with the worker, and the conversation from a moment ago would prove to be nothing but an illusion.

"No, it's no trouble at all." The teacher waved it off. "I was the one who volunteered to stay and discuss some things with him."

"Huh? Is that so...? Uh, well, I guess he won't cause any problems if you're here supervising him..." The worker muttered awkwardly and left.

Kazushi unfroze and sighed in relief to see that Ms. Ishihara still seemed to be on his side. "It's always like this. To everyone else, I'm just a problem student, nothing more. Or maybe just a problem and not even a student..."

Ms. Ishihara let out an amused laugh.

"Huh?" Kazushi threw her a questioning look.

"I hadn't seen that one coming. If you're cracking jokes, it must mean that you're feeling a bit better." She explained.

"What do you mean? I'm serious."

"Uh, never mind, then." The teacher still had an amused expression. "It must be hard for you right now, but one day I hope you'll be feeling well enough to laugh at your problems."


It was the day after the first exam's results were posted. Ms. Ishihara called Kazushi to a corner to talk.

"Miura-kun, what happened to your grades?"

Aside from Composition, all his grades were in the red. His parents had already yelled at him because of that, but he didn't care. And Kazushi knew it. Ms. Ishihara was going to scold him now, too. The fact that the miracle had lasted a few days was a miracle in itself. "Nothing. They are what they are." He answered simply.

"I can't be so sure. I checked your grades from last year, and they were way better than these."

Kazushi straightened up. "... You checked?" He hadn't expected her to go to the trouble of checking his previous results. Was she going to start looking down on him, too?

"Yeah, I checked. That's why I know you can do much better. So, what happened? Are you having a hard time to grasp the other subjects?"

Kazushi bit his lip. He said nothing for a few seconds. Then, he sighed. "I'm tired."

"Tired?"

Instead of explaining, he threw her a question of his own. "Ms. Ishihara, do you have success in life?"

"Huh?" She seemed confused. "... Well, I'm teaching people, which is what I chose to do. I like what I do, and I like when my students show that they learned what I taught them... but I don't know if I can say that I'm successful. Like I already told you, it's hard when my colleagues don't trust my work just because I use a different method. Maybe I'll feel more accomplished when I overcome this barrier."

Kazushi nodded slowly. "I'm tired of hearing the teachers going on and on about how we should study hard, as though it were the magical formula to guarantee success in life. They don't look any 'successful' to me."

"Hmm..." Ms. Ishihara looked puzzled, as though she hadn't expected an answer like that. She spoke up after a few seconds of silence. "I can see what you mean. It's like they don't know what they're talking about. Studying to have a good basis is important, though. Miura-kun, have you ever thought about what to become when you grow up?"

"I don't want to grow up." Kazushi answered firmly. "Adults are mean and unfair and selfish. I don't want to become like that." Deep down, he was scared that growing up would automatically cause him to lose the little sanity he still had, and he would become like all of them.

"And... what about me?" His teacher seemed hesitant. "You do realize I'm an adult, right?"

"Huh?" Kazushi took a few seconds to think. "Y-yeah. You're nice, though."

"Oh, thanks." Ms. Ishihara smiled. "not all adults are bad. I have some nice friends that are also adults." She placed a hand on Kazushi's shoulder. He startled a bit by the sudden touch, but didn't back away. "Look, Miura-kun. Everyone grows up. You'll eventually grow up, like it or not. There's no avoiding it. It might still be a bit early to decide what you want to be, but I want you to promise me this."

"... What?" He was a bit reluctant to promise anything.

"That you'll become a nice adult, and be a good example to others. So, what do you say?"

That actually sounded like a good idea. He would endure whatever he had to endure, and when the time came, he would show the others how things should be done. "Okay." He finally agreed.

"Good." Ms. Ishihara smiled in approval. "And to start, you have to do something about your grades. If you fail finals, you'll have to attend summer school, and it'll be very boring. I'm sure you wouldn't like that!"

Kazushi grimaced. "Ugh, I guess you're right..."


Kazushi managed to score well on the midterms. Summer vacation came, but not without homework. Kazushi's Composition homework assignment was to read a manga of his choice and write a summary of it. To buy a manga, he had to use the allowance money he had been saving up by not buying lunch. He couldn't ask his parents to buy a manga. There was no way they would believe that it was for school...

This was when Kazushi came in contact with a manga where the main character was a notorious thief named Arsène Lupin III, who managed to do justice by thwarting the plans of criminals that were worse than he was. Despite doing things that were considered wrong, Lupin always got his way somehow. Kazushi enjoyed the manga, but he was envious of Lupin. How come someone doing wrong things could be considered to be righteous, while Kazushi always did everything right and was considered to be wrong? That wasn't fair... but those opinions didn't belong in his homework assignment. The summary should be just that, a cold summary of the manga as it was, and wasn't the place for him to dump his views.

Once classes had resumed, everyone handed their assignments to Ms. Ishihara, and she took a brief look at a few of them. Most seemed to be short, judging from the number of pages.

The classroom burst with students engaging in a discussion about what manga characters they would like to be, which Kazushi didn't join. As the class ended for the day, everyone else left the classroom, and Kazushi found himself alone with Ms. Ishihara again. She was checking his homework assignment.

She lifted her head from the paper and regarded him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. "Miura-kun, do your parents even know you've read this manga?"

Kazushi could tell that something was wrong, but he couldn't put a finger on it. Did his parents have to know what he had read? "Huh? No. They wouldn't believe if I told them I needed to read a manga as a homework assignment."

"That's not the problem!" She seemed worried now. "This manga isn't targeted at kids!""

"O-oh?" Kazushi was taken aback. He didn't check what the target audience was. "It isn't? I-I didn't know..."

"You said your parents don't know about the manga. If you didn't have adult supervision, how did you even get the manga to begin with?"

Kazushi didn't like the look of suspicion that his teacher was directing at him. She might indeed get angry at him this time. But no matter what happened, he would be honest. "I went to a used books store because books are cheaper there. The manga caught my attention, and I bought it. That's all. I didn't even think about checking the target audience. The people from the store also didn't say anything, so..."

"Alright, I'll believe you." Ms. Ishihara sighed. "You're lucky that I also like this manga." Her expression returned to normal. "Which also means you can discuss it with me if you want! But this issue about this manga should stay only between us, okay?"

"Uh... o-okay." It sounded like he had been forgiven. What a relief...

Ms. Ishihara turned her focus to the papers again.

"It's time to go home," Kazushi said. "Do you really need to read that right now?"

She didn't look away from the papers to answer him. "No, but your summary grabbed my attention, and I just can't stop."

Kazushi couldn't see what the big deal was. "It's just a summary."

"A well-written, very detailed summary. From the way it's structured and how the sentences fit nicely together, I can tell that you liked the manga a lot."

Indeed, Kazushi had put a lot of effort into his summary. He spent a considerable amount of time of his summer break debating over what to include and what to leave out, and did a lot of drafts until he was finally satisfied. He had nothing better to do during his summer break. Unlike other kids, he had no friends, and also couldn't go on a trip because his parents were adamant about saving money. So, writing about the manga turned out to be his most enjoyable pastime during summer break, and he made sure to spend as much time as possible on it.

"Very well done." Once Ms. Ishihara was finished, she handed him his assignment back. "Good work, Lupin-kun."

"... What?" Kazushi's eyes widened, and he shook his head vigorously. "No, I'm not Lupin."

"Of course you are. Your disguises can't fool my super teacher eyes!"

Kazushi sighed in annoyance. He wasn't in the mood for playing around. "Ms. Ishihara, please. I'm serious! There's no way I could be Lupin. I'm not even smart, for one..."

The teacher chuckled. "I beg to disagree. Your logic often amazes me."

Kazushi inserted his assignment in his notebook. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said as he struggled to place the notebook along with his other materials in his school bag.

"Your insights are interesting, and sometimes I wonder if I'm really talking to an elementary school student."

Kazushi didn't have any more arguments, because he didn't understand what the deal really was. He only told her his opinion, which he knew no one else cared about. He didn't get what she thought was so special about them.

"And the fact that you managed to buy the manga without adult supervision proves how sneaky you are," she added.

"Ugh." Kazushi had taken his bag and was about to leave the classroom, but his teacher's last statement made him freeze in his tracks. "I didn't know about the audience thing! That was an accident!"

"Tsk." Ms. Ishihara slowly shook her head. "That's what all of them say when caught in the act."

"Uh... but you said you'd believe me!"

Ms. Ishihara laughed. "Yes, I believe you. Seriously, though, be careful about the target audience warning next time. And I hope you aren't also checking other materials that aren't meant for your age!"

"I wouldn't do that!"

"I sincerely hope you won't." Ms. Ishihara retrieved her things and began walking towards the exit.

Kazushi sighed. He didn't like when Ms. Ishihara got like that. It was hard to tell when she was serious or when she was only messing with him.

"How long are you going to just stand there?" She spoke from her position near the door. "I need to close the classroom. Come on, Lupin-kun."

"Stop calling me that!" Kazushi scrambled to leave the classroom, with a flustered expression on his face.


The following day, Kazushi discussed the manga with Ms. Ishihara some more during lunch break. However, he still wasn't able to get across the message that he had reservations against the main character, and Ms. Ishihara addressed him as "Lupin-kun" once again.

"I'm not Lupin!" Kazushi protested. "I don't know where you got that idea. I'm nothing like him!"

But she didn't give up. "Hmm. If not the one from the manga, maybe you're closer to the original?"

"The original? What do you mean?"

"The Lupin from the manga is inspired on another character named Lupin, created by a French writer called Maurice Leblanc." She explained. "The manga actually says that the main character is a descendant of the original Lupin."

"Oh. I didn't know."

"In fact, many manga and movies use elements from literary works, or mythology, or folk culture. Interesting, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Kazushi agreed. "... But still!" He made sure to go back to the matter at hand and try to get his message across once and for all. "I'm not Lupin. Not the one from the manga, and not the original, because the original is the original and no one else can be him, and... yeah, you get what I mean."

"Oh, but your summary earned you that nickname, and it's already stuck in my head." She didn't give him time to continue protesting. "Lunch break is almost over. I have to teach another class now. See you tomorrow, Lupin-kun." And she left the classroom.

Kazushi sighed and covered his face with his hands. Ms. Ishihara was really nice, but her use of that nickname was getting on his nerves. What could he do to convince her that he really disliked it?


Months passed, and despite Kazushi's protests, Ms. Ishihara continued addressing him as "Lupin-kun" when they were alone, and that annoyed Kazushi to no end. He began avoiding talking to her about the Lupin manga to see if she would let it go. When he thought she had forgotten about the nickname, she unexpectedly brought it up again. Kazushi wanted to prove once and for all that he wasn't Lupin, and was actually against Lupin.

At home, Kazushi didn't have anything interesting to pass the time with. He hadn't gotten any new toy since the time he was in kindergarten. He didn't have a video game console. He also didn't have a cellphone, because his parents were against having him spending their hard-earned money on phone calls (not that he had anyone to talk to in the first place...). They also didn't let him take part in school clubs, with the argument that he should prioritize his studies over other activities that wouldn't be useful in his future career, whatever that was supposed to mean... Kazushi didn't have friends to hang out with. All he had for "leisure" were a bunch of books - because his parents insisted that reading was important -, and a TV in his room, where he could watch some anime, movies, news, and music-related TV shows. Not so many options...

Without much better things to do, Kazushi had to use his creativity and make do with what he had. Since he concluded that failing his grade wasn't a good idea, he had to use much of his time for studying. And study he did, but not by normal means. He decided to turn his studies into little games, much like Ms. Ishihara often did. His goal? Stop Arsène Lupin's plans. Math equations became sums of money Lupin intended to steal, or passwords of safes that Lupin shouldn't discover. History and Geography became research about places likely to be infiltrated. Science became information-gathering about artifacts or rare animal species that might be targeted next. Artistic Education became research about valuable pieces of art likely to be targeted, and Physical Education exercises turned into physical training for a possible confrontation.

To Kazushi's luck, the other kids didn't bully him as much that year, even though he got in trouble a few times trying to help other people. His new secret study plan also proved effective, and his grades on the next exam were good, although not perfect. Encouraged by his results, he continued applying his study plan during the rest of the year, and finals came. Once Kazushi had conquered finals, he was exhausted.

Even though Kazushi's results on the finals were pretty good, his parents didn't show any signs that they recognized his efforts, and acted as though he were only doing what was expected of him. This was really disappointing. Kazushi had yet to hear them praise him for something. All he ever heard from them directly was scolding, and he often heard them telling the neighbors how he was a troublemaker at school and got various warnings due to bad behavior. How Kazushi was tired of all that...

It was Kazushi's last day in elementary school. After that, he would move to another institution to attend middle school.

"Spring break starts tomorrow." Ms. Ishihara was talking to him after class. "Enjoy your break. You deserve it."

"I'll have to attend another school. This means I won't see you anymore... doesn't it?"

"Uh... yes, sadly."

Kazushi teared up. "M-maybe I should have repeated the year. This way I could k-keep seeing you..."

Ms. Ishihara narrowed her eyes at him. "I wouldn't approve you repeating the year!" But then her expression became gentle and she smiled comfortingly. "Miura-kun, you still remember your promise, right? About becoming a nice adult and being a good example to others. Repeating the year, on purpose no less, would serve as a terrible example."

"I-I know!" Tears escaped Kazushi's eyes. "But you're the nicest teacher I've ever met... no, the nicest person I've ever met..." He closed his eyes and tried to fight the tears off. "I wish my parents were nice like you..."

Ms. Ishihara took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped Kazushi's tears away, then enveloped him in a comforting embrace. "You're also a great person, Miura-kun. I'll be cheering you on. Just don't forget your promise, and don't ever lose hope in life."

Kazushi let out an affirmative sound, and hugged her back. They stayed silent until Kazushi had stopped crying, then they broke apart. "Ms. Ishihara, uh, thank you, for... everything. I'll always remember you."

"Me too." She smiled. "Goodbye, Lupin-kun. Take care."

"You too." Kazushi smiled back. Only for this time, he decided that he wouldn't complain at her use of that nickname.

But he decided it would also be the last time. On his way home, Kazushi smirked while he pictured watching from the distance as the police handcuffed and arrested a hooded figure. The figure's face wasn't visible, but it was undoubtedly Arsène Lupin. The one from the manga? Or was he the original? To Kazushi, it didn't matter. It only mattered that his plans of researching targets in advance and hiding safe passwords had finally paid off. No one even thanked him for helping capture the slippery thief, but it was okay. What mattered was that Lupin was finally arrested, and Kazushi wouldn't have to think about him ever again.

Chapter Text

The new school was a bit nicer, although it also had its share of troublemakers. By that point, Kazushi had a lot of experience from having observed people's behavior in the previous school. He was much more adept at identifying potential bullies, and managed to avoid a lot of undesirable situations. One of the traits he had observed was that the bullies tended to go after people that looked weak and insecure. So, Kazushi did his best to keep his head high and a neutral expression on his face. That was when he used his savings to buy a pair of glasses. He figured that wearing glasses gave him an air of seriousness and made it harder for others to read his facial expressions.

Even so, a few troublemakers still tried to bully him. Kazushi knew from experience that it wouldn't end well for him if it turned into a fight, and decided to specialize in the art of running and hiding. It was then that he began dedicating himself more to physical exercises in order to train his body. He got into the habit of jogging on his way to school or any other place he went, and at home, for lack of anything better to do, he began using a timer to track his records of running laps around the backyard. It was hard work, but in the end it really paid off. Kazushi made the bullies waste so much of their time trying to catch him that most of them eventually concluded it wasn't worth their trouble and gave up. However, sometimes fights were inevitable. Thankfully, the new school's teachers were more reasonable and usually put the blame on the right people.

Not really "bullying," but Kazushi also faced some other classmate-related issues in middle school. He always got picked by bad students to do group assignments with them, and they forced him to do all the work while they did nothing. Kazushi didn't have much choice if he wanted to get acceptable grades. He eventually began choosing to join other groups before the bad students had a chance to pick him. That proved to work a bit better, although Kazushi's interactions with the group members was only limited to the assignments they did together. Now that Kazushi wasn't labeled as a problem student by everyone in the new school, he wished he could get along with his classmates and finally make some friends, but it didn't work out. Their conversations just didn't flow.

At home, making up games to help him study wasn't so effective as before, though, because it reminded him of Ms. Ishihara and that he couldn't talk to her anymore. Besides, Lupin had already been arrested, and Kazushi no longer had any big objective to keep him motivated. He stopped making up games, and just studied normally. He soon noticed that his parents didn't seem to care much about his grades as long as they were a bit above average. It was as though his parents were disappointed but decided to accept that life wasn't perfect, and that Kazushi would never exceed their expectations. So, Kazushi didn't see any reason to keep stressing himself trying to get perfect scores. He decided he would only make the minimum effort required to guarantee that he would pass the grade. And his years of middle school flew by...


Kazushi graduated middle school and had to enroll in yet another institution to attend high school. His first year of high school didn't pose him much trouble, and his parents didn't nag him as much. It was only that year that his parents gave him a cellphone, though they heavily limited the amount of money he was allowed to spend on phone calls... not that he had many people to talk to, anyway...

However, soon after Kazushi graduated first year, his life took a turn for the worse.

Kazushi was enjoying a walk on a lazy spring night when he heard a woman's voice desperately shouting for help. He got a really bad feeling about the situation. Deep down, he felt it was none of his business and that he should simply ignore it, but his body was already sprinting toward the usually deserted alley where the voice had come from. When Kazushi realized it, he was already at the scene, and he witnessed something he had never imagined he would see in real life.


Things went downhill very quickly, and Kazushi found himself alone locked up in a room in the police station as he went over what had happened. He had become enraged to see the man harassing the poor woman. Kazushi intervened and shoved the man, and the woman managed to run away safely. However, someone had heard the commotion and called the police. The man merely said, "This kid suddenly came running and punched me out of nowhere." The police believed him outright, and Kazushi didn't even get a chance to give his version of the story. Kazushi ended up in the police station, where he would have to stay until the police decided what to do with him. When he tried to argue, the guard simply ignored him and went on and on about how delinquent kids like him made the world a worse place.

Kazushi spent the night sleeping awkwardly on the carpeted floor of the room he was locked up in. That night, he had a weird dream.

X:X:X:X:X

Kazushi found himself in a prisoner uniform, and in a prison where everything was velvet blue. He was sitting on a chair inside the prison cell.

"Now, it is time to begin your rehabilitation. Welcome to my Velvet Room." An old man with an unusually long nose said in a booming tone.

"... Huh?" That place was too surreal. Kazushi didn't know what to make of it. "... Dream?" He muttered.

"More or less," The old man said. "This is the Velvet Room. It is a place between mind and matter, dreams and reality. This place represents the state of mind of the contractor."

"Contractor...?"

"Yes. In other words, you."

Kazushi said nothing. He didn't even know what to say. Neither the place or the man's words made any sense to him.

A door opened, and two little girls appeared through it. They wore blue prison guard uniforms, and from their similar appearances, Kazushi concluded they must be twins.

"My apologies. I still have not introduced myself," the man said. "My name is Igor. I am the proprietor of the Velvet Room."

"My name is Caroline," One of the girls said in an authoritative tone.

"And I'm Justine." The other one seemed much more calm. "We'll be your correctional officers."

Kazushi stared at them dumbfounded. "Huh? But... you're kids..."

Caroline didn't take well to his statement. "Do not judge us by appearance! For your information, we are much older than you! And do not even think about asking by how much!"

Kazushi concluded it was best to not argue. That surreal place could only be a dream, and dreams weren't known for making sense.

"Only those who have signed, or are bound to sign a contract are able to enter the Velvet Room." Igor explained, but it still didn't make any sense at all. "You are here. This means you will get a contract soon enough."

"We are your correctional officers." Caroline reiterated. "If you do not want to suffer the consequences, you must get into line! Do you understand?!"

Honestly, Kazushi didn't understand a thing. Contract? Consequences? What was all that about? Get into line? He didn't even do anything wrong! ... Or did he...? What were those people accusing him of? Was it just because he injured the man? That man was the one wrong and should have been the one punished. Kazushi's actions were for a good cause! But now he was imprisoned, and even his dreams took the form of a prison. What had he done to deserve that?

Kazushi was tired. Tired of suffering injustice. Tired of not being heard, of not being acknowledged for his efforts, of not getting anything good in his life. Everything that he had bottled up during all those years came to the surface at once. He felt anger build up inside him, until he snapped and all sorts of disturbing thoughts flashed in his mind. That was it. Only those who did wrong things got their way, wasn't it? Kazushi never got anything out of behaving well and doing everything right. Then, perhaps he should change his ways. He thought about trying to escape the police station when the guards came to check up on him, and taking the police's weapons to use against them. He thought about stealing from people to finally get everything that he could never have. He thought about taking revenge against that world that hated him so much. He even considered going as far as to kill the man he had punched earlier, the one responsible for putting him in that situation.

Kazushi's vision blurred, and he lost consciousness. Then, he found himself in what seemed to be another dream.

xxx

As bad as he was at communicating with others, he somehow managed to assemble a group of other rebellious people. Together, they did all sorts of bad things.

"They didn't even know what hit 'em!" A teenager boy's voice said.

"That was awesome, Joker!" A childlike voice complimented him with admiration.

"Victory! Yay!" Then, a teenager girl's voice.

Unfamiliar voice after unfamiliar voice spoke at each of Kazushi's successful plans. He no longer regretted doing what was wrong. He was no longer afraid of stealing or harming people. He wasn't afraid of getting caught. Even if he were to continue behaving well and walking the straight and narrow, he would somehow end up caught and punished for something he hadn't done. He would get caught either way. So, he didn't care anymore. He would have fun while it lasted.

The images were hazy, but the sensations were real. The thrill of sneaking into important places and avoiding security, and running away from the police. The satisfaction from the touch of valuable items in his hands...

Different scenarios continued playing. In one of them, Kazushi got in the way of a dangerous organization. Their members subdued him and were ready to kill him. He didn't resist. Living wouldn't make any difference. His life had never been worth living anyway. He was actually surprised it had lasted this long...

But then, that scenario got replaced with another one. Kazushi formed his group like he had done the first time. He couldn't see the figures clearly, but he was pretty sure they were the same people. Kazushi and his group caused a lot of mischief. He got caught again, by different enemies, who also were about to kill him.

Before that could happen, though, a new scenario started once more. Kazushi established his group and they were involved in lots of stealing, destruction, and chaos in general. At the end, once again, someone tried to kill him. And the worst part of all. He was always the only one who got caught. Nothing ever happened to any other member of his group. So, in the next scenario, he wasn't afraid to manipulate his group members, abandon them when he had no more use for them, betray them, or even hurt them. In each scenario that followed, Kazushi changed for the worse, until he was completely unrecognizable from the quiet and gentle person he had once been. However, none of those scenarios ended well for him. The last ones had him actually being punished for having manipulated his group members, with them betraying him and turning him in to the police, or even trying to kill him themselves.

xxx

"Ah!" Kazushi opened his eyes in alarm. His head spun, his heart raced, and he was covered in sweat. Was it a nightmare? No, multiple nightmares in one... no. He realized he was still dreaming, still in the blue prison. His nightmare wasn't over yet.

"Now, you know what you should do. Or rather, what you should not..." It was one of those little guards. The calmer one. Justine, if Kazushi remembered right. "In other words, you've just had a glimpse of your future. Actually, the different possibilities for your future. You saw what will happen if you follow through with those dangerous lines of thought."

Kazushi's mouth hung open.

"You must get into line if you don't want to suffer the consequences." The other one, Caroline, spoke. "Do you understand now?!"

Kazushi understood, and nodded slowly. It meant that if he took the wrong path, his story certainly wouldn't have a happy ending. As much as he was convinced that his life wasn't worth living, deep down, he still wanted to achieve something good. He still wanted to find his place in the world, and a reason to live.

"You are a captive. A captive of fate." It was Justine again. "This is an unfair game that is nearly impossible to win. Your easiest options are either to let others control your life, or follow the temptations leading to the wrong. In both of those options, your path to a good future is completely closed. However, you still have a chance to change that. You have a huge potential, and might be able to change not only your own future, but also the futures of many people around you. You must keep walking into line, and must not lose sight of yourself."

"Not lose sight of... myself...?" Kazushi muttered.

"Exactly." This time it was Caroline. "Soon, you will face your first trial. Then we shall see if you have what it takes... heheheh."

Igor and the two little guards walked away and left Kazushi alone in the velvet prison cell.

Kazushi was utterly confused. When he came to his senses in the velvet blue prison, he had thought he was dreaming. But then he had all those nightmares that ended just as he was about to be killed. A lot of nightmares inside another nightmare. Kazushi was tired, and not in the mood to keep thinking about any of that. All he wanted right now was a peaceful night of sleep. He closed his eyes, in hope that he would at least get some rest before finally waking up.


But when Kazushi opened his eyes again, he was still in the velvet blue prison. Neither Igor or the two little guards were there.

"Ha, ha, ha!" A sudden laugh made Kazushi jump. "You're finally here."

"Wh-what? Who...?" Kazushi turned his head in alarm at the realization that he had company inside the prison cell, but he saw no one...

"Took you long enough to get here, considering that you've always been accused of doing something or another." The voice came from behind him. It was a male voice, and there was something disturbingly familiar about it.

"Who... is there?!" Kazushi asked shakily and stood up from the chair. But before he could turn around to face the person, he was seized by the shoulders from behind. Great. Now he was going to be bullied inside the prison, too.

"Don't you recognize me? How sad..." His assailant spoke in his ear. "But I recognize you. How could I not? You're the one who got me trapped here, after all."

"... What?" Kazushi was puzzled. Why was he being accused of getting that person imprisoned? Kazushi didn't ever do anything to get anyone in trouble! In fact, he was usually the one who got in trouble while the real troublemakers got away. "I-I don't know what you're talking about!"

"Ah. You really forgot..." The person released a disappointed sigh. "After all that work you went through to put me here..."

Kazushi tried to keep calm. If he had to share the cell with that person, Kazushi needed to at least try to be on good terms with him. "Sorry. This must be a misunderstanding. I really don't know what you're talking about. You must be confusing me with someone else."

"No, I'm not confusing you with anyone. I'm indeed addressing you, Kazushi Miura."

Kazushi gulped. "How do you even know my name?"

"I know everything about you. Everything you've done, every injustice you've suffered... I know it all."

"H-how? I don't get it..."

"I saw everything. I was there. And this is because..."

The figure finally released its hold on Kazushi and walked into his view. Kazushi gasped.

"Yes. Because I am you, Kazushi Miura."

Kazushi could only stare with his mouth hanging open. In front of him stood someone that looked exactly like himself. Well, except for the yellow eyes, and the lack of glasses. Also the person's voice sounded like his own, although not in the quiet tone in which Kazushi usually spoke. It was much more firm and powerful, but it was indeed his own voice.

"Hmm? Aren't you going to deny it like you always did?"

"I... always did...?" Kazushi was confused. He didn't understand what that guy was talking about, and didn't know what to make of that situation. "Uh, wait. Basically, you're saying I'm talking to myself...?"

"You don't deny it, then?" The clone's expression relaxed and became more friendly all of a sudden. In fact, the look he directed at Kazushi seemed expectant now.

Kazushi was pretty sure that the velvet blue prison was a dream, and in dreams anything was possible. "I... I don't know what to even think... but it's possible, I guess."

"Great." For some reason, the clone seemed relieved, and flashed a smug smirk very uncharacteristic of Kazushi.

"Do I even smirk like that?" Convinced that his current situation was merely a dream, Kazushi concluded he shouldn't be afraid to throw weird questions around.

"You would, if only you'd let me out."

"L-let you out?"

"Yes. I'm you. I'm your Shadow. The part of you that you've been suppressing until now. The cold and calculating part of you that got stronger with each injustice you suffered, but you were afraid of letting out. The rebellious part of you that desires to do justice even if it's through questionable means, which is coincidentally too similar to a certain fictional character, and that you rejected because you didn't want to admit that the thought of using questionable means actually crossed your mind. And that was why you tried to get rid of me and threw me here in this velvet blue prison." The clone motioned with his hand to the environment around them.

Kazushi didn't understand most of what his clone had said. What was that about a fictional character? "And now you hold a grudge against me or something?"

The clone shook his head. "A grudge? No. I'm not one to hold grudges. I want acceptance, that's all."

Kazushi stared, totally clueless as to what his clone meant by "acceptance." He decided to throw another random question instead. "Um, do you have a name? Or should I call you by my name since you are me?"

His double raised an eyebrow. "Good question. I actually never expected you to ask me this! And yes, I have a name." He smirked. "You may call me Arsène."

"Arsène..." Why did that name sound familiar? "Uh, okay. So... now what?"

"Kazushi, let's make a deal. If you accept me, I'll help you achieve freedom. What do you say?"

"Accept you? How?"

"You have too many things bottled up. Just let loose once in a while. You'll feel much better, trust me."

The offer of help was tempting, but the devious smirk on Arsène's face looked anything but trustworthy, and Kazushi wondered if accepting that deal was really a good idea. Arsène reached out for a handshake. Kazushi hesitated. It felt as though accepting the deal meant that he was making a pact with the devil. But... it was a dream. What was the harm in accepting it, anyway? He would only wake up, and everything would be back to normal.

Slowly, Kazushi also reached out, and shook hands with his double. "Aaaaaaaaah!" Kazushi screamed in pain as he heard a sound similar to shattering glass, and he felt as though something had exploded inside his head.

X:X:X:X:X

Kazushi awoke covered in sweat on the floor of the police station room. He sat up and breathed deeply a few times to try to calm down. What a strange nightmare that was.

"Ah, you're awake." A guard opened the door. "Your parents are here to get you."

Kazushi learned that he was going to be released, but he would have to move to another city to attend a school with a delinquent rehabilitation program. He was against it. He didn't need that! He didn't need to correct his behavior. The people around him were the ones wrong, not him!

His parents came to get him. His father had even skipped work to be able to come. They returned home in a heavy silence. Obviously, his parents were furious. The three Miuras sat down at the living room table to talk.

"Why, Kazushi?" His mother was both angry and frustrated. "Now that we had thought you had started behaving better..."

"This time, you've gone too far!" It was his father. "We feel greatly ashamed of you, Kazushi."

This was the last straw. Kazushi couldn't keep it in anymore. "Why should I care?! Neither of you ever cared about what I feel. Why should I care about what you feel, then?"

His parents gasped in shock at the unexpected reaction. Even Kazushi himself was horrified at the words that had just left his mouth. His tone was cold and harsh, very different from his usually quiet and soft tone. Actually, it reminded him of his double from his dream last night.

"Oh my god..." Mrs. Miura seemed about to cry. "I can't believe it. We took so much care to keep our son in line so that he wouldn't become a delinquent... and he still went and grew into this?!"

"Grew into what?" Kazushi couldn't bring himself to stop. His chest constricted, his eyes watered, and words kept shooting out of his mouth like sharp daggers. "You have no idea what I've gone through! You've never listened to anything I had to say. The countless times I was bullied at school, with the other kids stealing my lunch money or even beating me for no reason at all. Then when I got bruises at school, you didn't even let me explain what happened, and outright scolded me and told me to stay quiet in my room! Some influential bullies spread lies about me to the teachers, and then the teachers told you. So many times I tried to explain the real story, but you only believed the teachers, of course, because your son's words are worth nothing to you." Kazushi spat with disdain. "You never let me buy anything for myself besides lunch. You never talked normally to me, never praised me for anything. All you ever did was yell at me and badmouth me to the neighbors! Aside from letting me live here in this house, you've never done anything for me!"

Mr. Miura slammed his hand on the table. "How dare you say that?! From the time you were born, we've been working hard to save up money to pay your college expenses and to open a department store for you to work at! How dare you say we've done nothing for you!"

"What?!" Kazushi's face flushed in anger, and he glared at his father. "College expenses? A store? What's this about all of a sudden? It's the first time I've heard about any of this! Why are you telling me only now?!"

His parents traded awkward looks, one expecting the other to help formulate a response, but neither of them managed to say anything.

"You know what?" Kazushi stood up abruptly. "I don't need your help! I don't need your store! You never helped me with anything. Everything I've achieved until now was through my own efforts. I never needed your help, and I sure don't need it now!" Kazushi turned his back to his parents and stormed out of the living room.

Kazushi locked himself in his bedroom. He still couldn't believe what he had done. He kept recalling how his voice had raised dangerously, and sounded much like Arsène's voice from his dream last night.

Kazushi plopped onto his bed and tried to fall asleep. Spending the night on the floor in the police station didn't provide him any rest at all. However, sleep didn't come. Kazushi kept recalling how he lost hold of himself in front of his parents, and couldn't avoid thinking about his nightmares where he was violent and didn't hesitate to hurt people. Kazushi was afraid of himself now. What if he lost control of himself and did something irreversible? He didn't want to sleep anymore. What if he had those nightmares again? However, the irony wasn't on his side. When he wanted sleep, it didn't come. And when he gave up on it, it came quickly and took over him with no warning.

X:X:X:X:X

When Kazushi came to his senses, he was seated on the chair in the velvet blue prison once more. Even though he had considered the possibility of having those multiple scenario nightmares again, he hadn't expected to dream about that blue prison.

"Now didn't that feel great?" ... nor to find his double standing in front of him with a satisfied smirk on his face.

"Arsène...!" Kazushi glared at his double. "That was horrible! Are you saying you had something to do with it!?"

"Well, yes. It was you who wanted to do it. I answered your call, and you actually didn't hold me back this time. Being able to let loose was so refreshing!" Arsène had an unsettling crazed expression on his face.

Kazushi didn't share his double's sentiment. He was overcome with guilt and regret for having shouted at his parents. "My parents will kill me..."

"Or they'll finally wake up," Arsène said nonchalantly. "For how many years have you been bottling all that up? You needed to say it, and they needed to hear it."

Kazushi hung his head low in shame. "No, that was wrong. Arsène... please, don't do that kind of thing again." He pleaded in a quiet and shaky voice.

Arsène's expression finally turned serious. He seemed hurt, and it looked like any wrong move might set him off. "You said you'd accept me. We made a deal, didn't we?"

Kazushi nodded, unsure about how to deal with the sudden change in his double's demeanor. "That's not it! I-I didn't say anything about not accepting you. The thing is... I'm scared. I keep remembering those nightmares where I did all sorts of bad stuff. What if I lose control of myself and actually do those things? What if I really begin hurting people, or even..." Kazushi was unable to finish his sentence.

Arsène's expression relaxed. "That won't happen. You're in control. As rebellious as I am, I wouldn't do anything that drastic. Unless you wanted me to, of course. But I know you don't. Those visions were just a warning, because your line of thought was getting too dangerous. But you don't entertain those ideas anymore, otherwise you wouldn't be having second thoughts right now."

Kazushi nodded again. "I don't want to become like that. In those nightmares, I stopped caring. I stopped regretting. Feeling regret like I'm feeling now is horrible, but it means that I'm still sane, that I haven't gone of the deep end. From everything that I've gone through, I learned one thing. I don't like when people humiliate others and cause harm to others. If I were to become someone that does those things, and worse, that feels no remorse for it, I... I'd hate myself."

Arsène had a proud look in his eyes. "That's the spirit. It means that you still have hope. And I believe you made a special promise, too. You promised to become a nice adult and serve as a good example to others, and to not lose hope. Wasn't that it?"

Kazushi recalled the promise, and how fond a memory it was. "Yeah, that's right. From the time I made that promise, it felt like it's the right thing to do. It's a shame that I'd completely forgotten about that."

Arsène shook his head. "No, not 'completely.' If you had indeed forgotten it completely, I wouldn't have remembered it, either. Good thing I was here to remind you, huh?" Arsène grinned.

"Thanks." Kazushi finally raised his head. "Alright. But what now? I said I don't need my parents' help and stuff, but to tell the truth, I don't really have anything to pursue in life."

Arsène placed his hands on Kazushi's shoulders and stared at him with determination. "What are you talking about? Can't you see the opportunity you got!?"

"What do you mean?" Kazushi couldn't see anything good awaiting him.

"You'll be moving to another city, to another school. New home, new life! Your parents won't be there to nag you, and you won't be bound by their restrictions anymore. This means you can live in any way you want!"

Kazushi gaped. He hadn't thought about it that way.

Arsène wasn't done yet, though. "When you were little, you said you didn't want to grow up. Back them, no one took your words seriously because you were a child. You waited for so long, and now you've grown up. Now your words have more weight, and your actions have the power to actually change things. It's your chance! Your life's your own, and you should be the one to decide what to do with it! Don't let anyone control your life anymore. It's time to show what you're made of. Just go and steal back your future!"

"Steal back...?" Kazushi uttered. "That sounds... uh..."

"Dangerous? Risky?" Arsène removed his hands from Kazushi's shoulders and grinned smugly. "Yes, no one said it'd be easy. But it's possible, and I'm totally up for the challenge. You?"

Kazushi was unsure. He didn't exactly understand the suggestion and its implications, but the way Arsène said it didn't sit quite right with him. Kazushi stared intently at his double's face. "You seem so confident..."

"Of course." Arsène puffed his chest, completely full of himself. "I wasn't named Arsène for nothing!"

"Huh." Kazushi still didn't understand what his double was getting at. "Whatever. I only wish I had your confidence."

"You have it. You are me, remember?" Arsène winked. "You just need to lose the fear of showing the hidden part of yourself."

Kazushi chuckled bitterly. "You make it sound so easy..."

Arsène said nothing, and only left Kazushi to his thoughts.

Kazushi sighed. How sad his situation was. He was so lonely that the only person he could confide in was a weird look a like inside his dreams.

"Sounds like someone's coming. Good luck."

"Huh?" Before Kazushi could ask what that was supposed to mean, his dream faded away.

X:X:X:X:X

Kazushi awoke to a knock at his bedroom's door. He rolled out of bed, scrambled to the door and opened it.

"Kazushi..." It was his mother. She looked tired, and her eyes were red from crying. "Um, lunch is ready."

Kazushi felt a pang in his chest when he saw his mother's state.

"Um, you haven't eaten anything today, so I thought..." His mother was hesitant. "But if you don't want it..."

"Coming." Kazushi uttered weakly and followed his mother out of his bedroom.

The family had lunch in an uncomfortable silence.

Once everyone's bowls were empty, Kazushi gathered the courage and spoke up. "Uh, Mom, Dad... earlier, I..." He paused. The words got stuck in his throat. "... I-I'm sorry."

"No, Kazushi. Don't be," his mother said, with pain showing in her eyes.

"You're right. You're absolutely right..." His father added. "We should be the ones apologizing. We really haven't been doing a good job of communicating with you."

"We were too worried about your future, and forgot to pay attention to you while you grew up." His mother sounded ashamed. "We're sorry, Kazushi. We hadn't realized you had suffered so much..."

That was totally unexpected. Speechless, Kazushi could only gape at his parents.

"We know that simply apologizing isn't enough." It was his father again. "We're willing to talk to you more, to listen to you more. Starting with yesterday's incident." He added after a pause, "If you don't want to talk about it now, that's fine. Tell us whenever you're ready. We promise we'll listen this time."

It took a while until Kazushi recovered his speech. Once he did, he nodded and began narrating the story about how he ended up detained. He told them what he saw, what he thought, what he did, what the guards said, and how everything went wrong.

"I know, I was reckless." Kazushi admitted. "But when I heard that woman's cry for help, it felt wrong to just ignore it, and my body moved on its own. I thought that if I helped her, I'd prevent her from being traumatized for the rest of her life. And look where that got me. Now not only she, but I'll have to live with the weight of this incident too..." Kazushi sighed resignedly. "But what was done was done, I guess."

"Kazushi, you've really grown up..." His father looked at him in wonder. "We really failed you. Time passed so fast, and we didn't realize you were growing up. We didn't talk to you much because we thought you wouldn't understand. But look at you now... so mature, so strong, and so determined despite everything that went wrong... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that I was ashamed of you. If anything, we should be ashamed of ourselves."

His mother nodded. "If it were me in your place, I'd have given up a long time ago. You could really have turned into a delinquent. You could have become a lost cause, and could be causing harm or even killing people, and you wouldn't be saying any of these things."

What his mother had just said was right. Kazushi almost gave in to the pressure of all the injustice he suffered during his whole life. His detention was the last straw, and he almost lost hold of himself last night. Kazushi recalled his multiple nightmares again, and he felt his chest tighten. Dreams or not, those warnings seemed real.

His mother didn't give him time to continue thinking about that, though. "But you're strong, Kazushi. You're stronger and more mature than both Dad and me combined. I feel so stupid. Despite having lived with you in the same house during all this time, I wasn't seeing you. I wasn't seeing the person you were turning into..."

"Mom... D-Dad..." Kazushi couldn't hold the tears off.

Everyone stood up. The three Miuras hugged each other and cried together. They stayed quiet for a couple of minutes. When they broke apart, everyone had serene expressions on their faces, and it seemed like a huge weight was removed from their shoulders.

"Um, about the rehabilitation program..." Kazushi spoke up. "I'll really have to take part in it so that I can prove myself to the law, right?"

"Yes." His mother nodded. "I'm sorry that you're being forced to take part in that. We can do nothing about it. The police got the papers filled already. You'll be sent to Tokyo."

"You got assigned to the rehabilitation program in a school called Syujin High School." His father informed. "You'll have to live by yourself, in a big city no less... it won't be easy. We can't help you much with that, but we know someone that owns a cafe in Tokyo. I can see if he lets you stay there."

Mr. Miura left for the living room, where he spent nearly an hour on the phone catching up with his acquaintance and explaining the situation. When he returned to deliver the news, his mood had improved substantially. His talk on the phone had clearly done him some good.

"Kazushi, I talked to the person I mentioned. His name is Sojiro Sakura, and he owns a cafe called Cafe Leblanc. I explained the situation to him, and he said he'll let you stay there as long as you help the workers out. Oh, and he has a daughter one year younger than you. He told me she, uh... doesn't have friends... I hope you'll get along with her."

Out of everything that his father said, one single word stood out to Kazushi. "Leblanc...?"

"It's the surname of a writer that Sojiro-san likes," Kazushi's mother said.

"A writer that he 'Likes?' No kidding. He's obsessed with that guy's works!" Mr. Miura gesticulated to make his point. "A lot of times when we talked, he went on and on about those books about this gentleman thief, how society deals with its problems, and so forth..."

Then, Kazushi remembered. Ms. Ishihara had mentioned that writer, the creator of the "original!" "Maurice Leblanc..." Kazushi muttered.

"Oh, so you knew?" His father was surprised.

"Uh, not really. Only heard about him in passing."

"Then, be prepared!" Mr. Miura said, more amused than his words implied. "If you show any hint of interest in the topic, Sojiro-san will talk about it to no end."

"I think I'm up for that." Kazushi finally allowed himself to crack a smirk of his own.


X:X:X:X:X

During his sleep that night, Kazushi was taken to the velvet blue prison again. Once more, he was in the company of his double.

Kazushi looked at his double with suspicion. "Arsène Lupin, huh?"

The other laughed. "Took you long enough to connect the dots. You'd be a really bad detective if you were to be one."

After so many years, Kazushi had totally forgotten about the character named Arsène Lupin. Kazushi chuckled, and his expression softened. "So, which one are you? The original, or the one from the manga?"

"Neither." Arsène answered. "I'm the one inside you."

"Oh."

Kazushi silently stared at his... his other self. The persona he had created, but had rejected right away because he refused to accept its rebellious nature. Kazushi recalled how Ms. Ishihara addressing him as "Lupin-kun" bothered him greatly back them, and the countless times he had insisted that he was not Lupin. Kazushi had disliked that nickname. He had had reservations about the character because he had been envious of how Lupin always got his way doing questionable things, while Kazushi had always done everything right but had never gotten anything good out of it. He had been envious, and wanted to be better than Lupin. He had created all those study games to pretend to "outsmart" Lupin and punish him for having achieved so much through questionable means. Kazushi had suffered so much injustice, and all he wanted was to get justice. Sometimes the use of questionable means crossed his mind, and deep down, Kazushi wanted to be like Lupin, but he didn't want to admit it.

After a while of silent staring, Kazushi smiled. He stood up from the chair and walked up to his double. "Thank you, Arsène. For the company, the encouragement, everything. And... sorry for having trapped you."

His Shadow grinned. "It's all good. Like I said before, I'm not one to hold grudges. Just like you, I guess. You accept me now. It's all that matters to me. It was what I wanted the most." A pause. "Kazushi."

"Yeah?"

"Since you fully accept me as part of yourself now, you and I will truly become one. There'll be no more distinction between the two of us."

"We'll become one? ... Wait. You're basically saying that you'll disappear? Does this mean we won't be able to talk like this anymore?" As weird as interacting with his double was, Kazushi was getting used to it, and it actually wasn't that bad. "This situation is very weird, with this blue prison and all... but... talking to you was nice."

"I admit. Interacting with you was more enjoyable than I had expected." Arsène seemed relieved. "I was worried that you would keep denying me. Thankfully, it didn't happen. You were more understanding and friendlier than I had imagined."

"You too. It's a bit sad that you'll have to leave. Just when we began getting along..." Kazushi smiled sadly. "I'll miss the company."

Arsène scoffed. "You're so lonely that your only solace is talking to yourself? How depressing..." The Shadow's mockery proved to be only a facade, though. "Well, you're good company, too. Here's hoping that the people from Tokyo think the same and you manage to make new friends. Remember, new home, new life." Arsène placed a comforting hand on Kazushi's left shoulder. "But don't worry. I'm not going anywhere. I'll be always with you." After a few seconds of silence, Arsène smiled and withdrew his hand from Kazushi's shoulder, then looked him in the eye. "It's time. From now on, my thoughts will be your thoughts. Your voice will be my voice. And... in moments of need, call upon me, and I will be your strength. When the time comes, say this word, and I will come to your aid. The word is... ... Persona."

A blinding light enveloped Arsène and expanded until it also enveloped Kazushi, who instinctively closed his eyes. When the light had subsided and Kazushi opened his eyes, Arsène was nowhere to be seen.

"Goodbye, Arsène..." Kazushi shook his head. "No, that's not it. It should be, 'welcome back,' shouldn't it? Let's do our best together. Or, well, I'll do my best, and I know you will, too. After all, I am you, and you are me..." Kazushi muttered to himself as a calm sensation washed over him.

"This was quite interesting." A familiar voice suddenly boomed in the room. "You have succeeded in your first trial."

"Ah!" Kazushi startled. Then he realized that the long-nosed man and the two creepy little guards were back.

"Impressive," One of the guards said. It was the calmer one. Justine? Caroline? Kazushi no longer remembered which one was which. "People facing difficult issues such as yours rarely deal with their Shadow selves that well. People tend to show resistance or to reject their Shadows outright."

"Oh, is that so...?" This raised a question in Kazushi's head. "What would have happened if I were to reject him?"

The same guard answered. "Your Shadow would have gone mad at being rejected. It would have attacked you. Worst case scenario, it might have... killed you."

"... Arsène could have killed me...?!" Kazushi's eyes widened in shock. He hadn't imagined it might have had such implications.

"Yes." It was the more aggressive guard. "In that case, you would have died in the outside world. And ironically, it might have been considered suicide, since it would mean that you would have killed yourself."

Kazushi was speechless.

The long-nosed man, which Kazushi recalled was named Igor, elaborated. "A Shadow self can be said to be an individual's darkest mask, born as a response to external stimuli, and which the individual tends to refuse to show to the outer world. If rejected, the Shadow selves go berserk and attack their owners. On the other hand, if the individuals come to terms with their Shadow selves, said Shadows manifest as these individuals' inner strength. The manifestation of one's mask as his or her inner strength is called a Persona."

"Persona..." Kazushi muttered. It was the word that Arsène had mentioned.

Igor continued. "You do not need to worry about this at the moment. What matters the most right now is that you proved to have the power to change people's hearts. The Velvet Room represents the current state of your mind, and the obstacles you must overcome. You view yourself as being trapped by the rules imposed by society, and this is why you see the Velvet Room as a prison."

"As I said before, you are a captive of fate," The calm guard said. "However, the way you faced your Shadow showed that you have what it takes to achieve freedom, not only for yourself, but also for others. You grew up hardened by all the injustice you have suffered, and now you have the power to take action against further injustice."

"This is the power to change hearts which I spoke of." It was Igor again. "You must use it in order to achieve freedom. You must change not only your own, but also the hearts of others, in order to turn the world around you into a better place. Your action managed to cause a change in your parents' hearts. However, in many cases, changing other people's hearts is beyond dialogue and reasoning, and you will have to take your power to the next level."

It was too much for Kazushi to take in. "... I don't understand..."

Igor chuckled at Kazushi's confusion. "Do not worry about understanding everything right now. You will understand in due time. We will get into more detail at another opportunity. Now, you must wake up in your world. Until we meet again..."

And the Velvet Room faded away.

X:X:X:X:X

When Kazushi awoke, he was surprised to find that it was past ten in the morning. It was no problem since he was on spring break and didn't have any plans for the day, but still, he had really slept a lot.

Kazushi went to the bathroom and did his morning routine. While he washed his face, he kept thinking back on his weird dreams about the velvet blue prison. Once he was finished, Kazushi looked in the mirror.

"Morning, Arsène," Kazushi said, but closed his eyes in embarrassment and chuckled awkwardly at his own stupidity. "What am I even doing?" Even though he was sure his talks with Arsène had been just a dream, Kazushi missed the company already. "I'm so lonely that the only person I can talk to is myself. How depressing indeed." He laughed to himself. He opened his eyes to stare into the mirror again. His reflection stared back, but didn't look depressed at all. It seemed to be in a very good mood, in fact. "Whatever." Kazushi shrugged and left the bathroom.

"Good morning, Kazushi." His mother greeted him when he entered the living room.

"Morning. Or is it afternoon? I slept in really bad..."

"But you seem to be in a good mood. It shows on your face."

Kazushi agreed. That was exactly what he had seen in the mirror. And yes, he felt refreshed. "Yeah, I'm indeed feeling great. I don't remember when was the last time I rested so well."

His mother smiled. "Good. Dad and I slept very well last night too." She began walking toward the kitchen. "I'll prepare your breakfast."

A sudden idea struck Kazushi. "Um, actually, I think I'll try to do it myself." He quickly added, "Uh, not that I'm refusing your food or anything. But since I'll have to live by myself, I'd better learn the basics, right? Eating convenience store bento or fast food every day doesn't sound like a good idea."

"Yes, you're right." His mother agreed. "I can stay nearby and give you some tips if you want."

Kazushi nodded and they headed to the kitchen.

Until that day, Kazushi's experiences in the kitchen had been limited to heating leftovers and washing dishes. He had never really tried to cook. He thought it was a bother, but today he felt willing enough to try his hand at it. With his mother's help, he managed to put together a bowl of rice and a fried egg. Nothing spectacular, but a good start.

"That looks good." His mother commented.

Kazushi began to eat his breakfast. "It's... normal, I guess. Well, it's just rice and eggs. Not much could've gone wrong, could it?"

"You'd be surprised. Not in a good way, I might add." His mother seemed amused. "When Dad and I were dating, I used to prepare bento for him. Even if it were only rice and eggs, it came out totally different every time, and didn't always taste good. Oh, speaking of bento, how about I teach you to prepare bento? Don't worry. Now I know how to make it turn out out good consistently." She grinned mischievously. "And if you find a girl you like over at the new school, you'll be able to prepare bento for her! I'm sure she'll consider it very charming."

"Huh?" Kazushi blinked at the unexpected offer.

"What? Don't you have any strategy to get girls yet? Now I realize you're at an age you might want to be prepared for these things."

"Well, I haven't thought much about that." Kazushi admitted. "I've never had much luck trying to make friends. Getting a girlfriend must be even harder... and if I were to become interested in anyone, I'm sure you know the possible implications. I've always thought you and Dad wouldn't have supported me in those things anyway."

His mother frowned. "Oh, yes, we might not have. But now I'm curious about which kind of girl you might be interested in. If you decide to get into anything serious, you'll need our approval, of course. But remember this. Looks aren't everything. The heart is what matters most."

After his breakfast, Kazushi tried to prepare a bento as per his mother's instructions.

"Good job!" His mother proudly praised him when the bento was ready.

A nice feeling washed over Kazushi. This was the first praise he had heard from his mother in who knows how many years. "Thanks." He murmured and cracked a satisfied smile.

"Ah..." Mrs. Miura heaved a deep sigh, and a dreamy expression took over her face. "I had forgotten how fulfilling it felt to watch you make progress while learning to do something. When you were little and were learning to walk, I cheered at every step you took without falling. It was so heartwarming... but that's all I remember. Along the way, I stopped paying attention to you, and completely forgot that nice feeling. You grew up and was forced to learn everything by yourself, and I didn't even look at you. I feel so stupid... I wasted so much time..."

Kazushi didn't know what to say, but he felt he needed to say something. "Uh... better late than never?"

"Yes, I guess. But it's already too late. In just a few days, you'll be sent to Tokyo, and we'll be far apart. I won't be able to watch your progress anymore."

"I'll keep in touch," was all he could say to comfort her.

Then, his mother's cellphone rang. "Hello? Dear? ... Oh, I see..."

Kazushi could tell that it was his father calling. "What happened?"

"Dad forgot his folder on the desk in his room." His mother informed.

"I can go deliver it."Kazushi offered. He had nothing to do anyway.

"Oh, really? Thanks," she said to Kazushi, then went back to talking on the phone. "Kazushi said he'll deliver it. Ah, alright..."

Kazushi changed into clothes more appropriate for going out, put his glasses on, located the folder on the desk in his father's room, and left the house. He did a deep intake of fresh air. The weather was nice, and the surroundings seemed much livelier than usual. Or maybe he was the one livelier than usual... either way, he felt better than ever before.

Kazushi arrived at the building where his father worked. He talked to the receptionist and stated the reason of his visit.

"Oh, you're Kazushi-kun!" The woman looked at him with surprise. "Wow, how you've grown! I remember having seen you with your father a few times after he picked you up from kindergarten. You've changed so much!"

That was obvious. "Well, it's been more than ten years..."

"Hahaha, yes, yes." The woman was embarrassed. "But it's still a wonder. You know, adults' appearances don't change that much in ten years." She regained her composure and went back to business. "I'll call your father in a minute."

Shortly later, Mr. Miura was there. "Oh, Kazushi. You came all the way here to deliver this to me." He received the folder. "Sorry for the trouble."

"It's no trouble. I wanted to take a walk anyway."

"If you say so. Either way, thank you. I'll go back to work. See you at home."

As Kazushi left the building's main hall, he could catch a snippet of conversation between the receptionist and his father.

"He's so sweet, isn't he?" The receptionist said.

"Yes, he is. He's a good boy." Mr. Miura sighed. "Sadly, I only came to realize it now. During all this time, I was so caught up in work that I didn't give him the attention and support he deserved while he grew up. It's only now that I'm getting to know him. In a few days, he'll move to Tokyo to attend another school, all by himself... I wish I had spent more time with him..."

Kazushi still found it hard to believe how he had managed to sort out the issue with his parents so suddenly. He had never imagined he would be able to muster up the courage to open up to them like that. But in the end, all he had needed to do was to let his thoughts out. His parents came to act so differently after his outburst. It was as though they had had a change of heart.

"What matters the most right now is that you proved to have the power to change people's hearts." Igor's words replayed in Kazushi's mind. "... You must use it in order to achieve freedom. You must change not only your own, but also the hearts of others, in order to turn the world around you into a better place."

That dream was complex. "The Velvet Room," "power to change hearts," "Persona..." even though dreams usually didn't make sense, the ones about the Velvet Room had something special to them, and Kazushi kept wondering whether they actually had any significance. But no matter how hard he thought back on them, he couldn't arrive at any conclusion. Now he was sure of at least one thing, though. His parents were actually nice.


Days passed, and Kazushi had no more dreams about the Velvet Room.

It was the day before he would move to Tokyo. Kazushi stared out of his bedroom's window. He had never considered the view of their backyard to be anything special, but now he found it sad that he had no idea when he would be able to see it again.

He caught the sight of a bird taking flight. It seemed to be enjoying the feeling of freedom and the fact that the sky was the only limit.

"Freedom..." Kazushi murmured, and Igor's words from the dream inadvertently surfaced again.

"The Velvet Room represents the current state of your mind, and the obstacles you must overcome. You view yourself as being trapped by the rules imposed by society, and this is why you see the Velvet Room as a prison."

"Once the rehabilitation thing is over, will I really get freedom?" Kazushi asked to no one in particular. "Will I be able to 'fly,' too?" He chuckled to himself. "Uh, that was kinda weird... what's gotten into me? I wasn't this... poetic before, was I?" No one was there to answer. Kazushi heaved another sigh. "I hope I can achieve something good in my life..."

He began packing up his things to go to Tokyo. Not that he had many possessions to begin with. Mostly clothes, other basic things, and some books. He was going to skip the books, but thought again and considered taking something to read during the train ride.

"Hm?" Kazushi found an interesting item among his books. It was the Lupin manga from all those years ago, and it was mostly intact. "Ah. It's been a while..." Kazushi mumbled as he flipped through the pages and reminisced about the summary he had done for the summer break homework on his last year of elementary school. He remembered about how he managed to buy that manga despite being too young for it. About Ms. Ishihara, and that nickname that had bothered him so much back then. About his promise to become a nice adult and a good example to others. "I wonder if Ms. Ishihara still remembers me... I hope she's found a place where her colleagues respect her." He absentmindedly fiddled with the manga. "Either way, it looks like the time to fulfill that promise is near..."

Kazushi snapped to focus and went back to what he was doing, which was looking for something to read during the train ride. As he stared at the manga in his hands, he realized that his search was over. He would read it again, from a different perspective now that he had grown up.


His parents came to see him off at the train station.

"The time has come..." Mr. Miura lamented. "Just when we were beginning to actually know you..."

"Yeah..." Kazushi shared the sentiment.

"Are you nervous?" His mother asked.

Kazushi shifted the weight of his suitcase. "Yeah, a bit."

The train arrived.

"Good luck, Kazushi!" His father shouted as Kazushi prepared to board the train. "We'll be cheering you on!"

"Take care! Be sure to give us a call when you arrive in Tokyo!" His mother followed.

Kazushi nodded assuringly. He boarded the train and took a seat. Soon, the train was moving, taking Kazushi towards his new life.

Kazushi took the manga out and proceeded to read it. He recalled how Lupin's creative methods had impressed him the first time he read that manga, despite his reservations against Lupin. However, rather than Lupin's shenanigans, what stood out to Kazushi the most this time around was something totally different. Despite each member of the gang seeming to have their own agenda, in times of need, Lupin was always there for his allies and vice versa. This inevitably brought back the memories about how Kazushi manipulated and betrayed his allies in his nightmares. That was it. Kazushi made up his mind. If he ever formed a group to pursue a common goal, he would be there for his allies, just like Lupin did. He would even go as far as to protect them with his life if necessary.

Protect them? Kazushi wasn't sure why he thought that his group would need protection. Maybe it was because they were involved in dangerous activities in those nightmares. Either way, if he came to form a group, he would make sure to support his allies in any way he could, and to not lose sight of himself. The last thing he wanted was to become an evil person and have those nightmares come true.

Tired of reading, Kazushi closed the manga and took a nap. He dreamed that he and some other people had just robbed a bank and were trying to escape. Security guards turned into monsters, and things were pretty messed up. They managed to leave the facility and escaped by riding a strange bus with a cat tail. Nothing bad happened to him or his group this time, although the events were really weird. But again, it was a dream, so...

"Attention passengers. We are entering Tokyo. Our next stop is the Shibuya station." The voice from the speaker announced and woke Kazushi up.

Kazushi sighed. Why did he have to dream that he was stealing things? It was almost as though he and his group were Lupin's gang. The group even had about the right number of people, too. Yes, the Lupin manga was too fresh in his head, and he must have had that dream because of it.

"We are entering Tokyo. Our next stop is the Shibuya station." The voice from the speakers repeated.

Alright! Kazushi thought as he stared out the window. No one could tell by looking at his face, but his insides were flaring with determination. He would do his best in Tokyo and successfully finish his rehabilitation to prove himself to the law. Tokyo, here I come!

Chapter Text

Kazushi phoned his parents upon leaving the train. When he was about to put his cellphone away, he noticed an unfamiliar app icon on the screen. Weird, he thought. Even though he rarely used his phone, he didn't remember ever seeing that icon before. Maybe it came with the new system update?

When he tapped the icon and attempted to run the app, he felt a strange shift in the environment and the scenery around him seemed to freeze. A menacing figure wearing a mask and sporting black wings floated before him.

"The time is coming..." A voice boomed inside Kazushi's head. It was almost like a thought, as though Kazushi had imagined it.

"Huh..." Kazushi startled at the sudden thought that popped up in his head with no warning.

The next thing he knew, the image of the unfamiliar figure had disappeared, and the flow of time had returned to normal.

Kazushi stood there astounded. "What... just happened?" He whispered to himself. He shook those thoughts away. They must be only a figment of his imagination. He must be tired after the trip. That had to be it. Kazushi tried to focus. He needed to head to Cafe Leblanc.


"Oh, so you're Kazushi-kun. Welcome to Cafe Leblanc!" One of the workers greeted him. "Sojiro-san was expecting you, but something came up and he's away right now. He said he'll be back in an hour or so."

"Okay, thanks." Kazushi sat down on a chair, and noticed a book on the table across from him. "Um, I think someone forgot this book here." Kazushi told the worker that had talked to him.

"Oh, that's the book Sojiro-san had been reading while he was waiting for you."

"Ah, alright." Kazushi would let the book be, but the cover grabbed his attention. On closer inspection, Kazushi saw that the book was about... Arsène Lupin, the original! That definitely piqued his curiosity, and he decided to take a look inside to see what the original was all about.

When Sojiro-san returned, Kazushi was engrossed in his reading.

"Hey. I'm Sojiro Sakura, the owner of this shop. Kazushi, right?"

"Huh? Yeah." Kazushi recalled his father's comment about Sojiro-san's fascination with the Lupin books. Kazushi set the book aside and stood up. He didn't know what got into him to make him want to crack a joke, but he bowed to Sojiro-san and said, "Kazushi Arsène Miura Lupin, at your service!"

"Ha ha ha ha ha!" Sojiro-san let out an amused laugh. "I hadn't seen that one coming! Nice to meet ya, kid."

"Nice to meet you too, Sojiro-san."

Sojiro-san glanced at the open book on the table. "I can see that you liked that book. My daughter is into Lupin too, though not the book, but the manga that took inspiration from it."

"Me too." Kazushi admitted. "I'd heard about the books and I was curious to know what the 'original' was all about. It's interesting how Lupin does things that are considered wrong but he doesn't cross the line. He's actually using his abilities for good, and he makes sure that the real bad guys are punished."

"It'd be good if only it were this easy in real life, but things don't work this way." Sojiro-san lamented. "You can borrow the book if you want."

"Thanks." That sounded good. Kazushi was curious to know the rest of the story.

Sojiro-san seemed to be lost between being stern or amused. "I said 'borrow,' got it? No stealing, Arsène Miura Lupin."

"O-of course." Now it was Kazushi who hadn't seen it coming. He hadn't expected Sojiro-san to play along with his joke. And if he had to take a guess, Sojiro-san seemed to be like Ms. Ishihara in the sense that it was hard to tell when he was serious or just playing around.

"Let's get down to business, shall we? Follow me."

Sojiro-san guided Kazushi to the back of the store. They headed to the attic, where Kazushi would be staying.

"Kazushi, I've heard about your situation from your father. You'll have to take part in the rehabilitation program, and you'd better get good grades to keep a good record. Keep your behavior in check and don't cause trouble to others. No picking fights or jumping into others fights, got it? The last thing we need is for you to be detained again."

Kazushi nodded.

Sojiro-san continued. "Aside from that, just help out at the shop when the workers need an extra hand. That's the least I expect from you. Honestly, I hope I won't need to nag you too much. For now, I won't judge you. I'm trusting that you know your place and that you won't cross the line. I'll continue to trust you as long as you don't give me a reason not to, and I hope you won't."

"Yeah, I understand." Kazushi nodded assuringly.

"Good." Sojiro-san was satisfied. "Now you should take a rest. You must be tired from the trip." Sojiro-san stopped near the door. "Ah, yes. About my daughter. Earlier I told you that she likes the Lupin manga, remember? Her name is Futaba. She suffered trauma and became a recluse, and rarely leaves home unless I forcefully drag her out. She doesn't have contact with anyone around her age. I'll bring her here to meet you one of these days. I hope you two will get along."

Sojiro-san left, and Kazushi began unpacking his belongings.

New home, new life, eh? Kazushi thought. Doesn't sound bad so far...


However, Kazushi had thought that too soon. That night, there was a small accident in the kitchen and he stayed up late helping the workers clean up. When he was finished, it was 11:48. Everyone left the store, and only Kazushi remained. He went to bed, but shortly after he fell asleep, midnight struck and he awoke to a strange shift in the atmosphere. The air was eerie and chilly, and everything felt wrong. Despite that, Kazushi managed to doze off again. When he next woke up, everything was back to normal, and he decided to regard the strange atmosphere as only a nightmare.

However, Kazushi had trouble to sleep after that. He only managed to fall into a peaceful sleep when the sun was already rising, and he woke up later than he should have. In other words, he would be late for his first day of school! Great way to begin his new life...

Kazushi didn't even have time for breakfast. He changed into his new Syujin High School uniform, put his glasses on, took his school bag and left. While inside the train, he checked the school's location on the map. Once he had disembarked from the train, Kazushi ran. On his way, he bumped into someone.

"Hey! Look where you're going!" The guy Kazushi had bumped into shouted, clearly in a bad mood. It was a boy with hair dyed blond who wore clothes of unmatching colors along the Syujin uniform, as though he had lazily shoved whatever clothes on and didn't care whether he would look good in them or not.

"Sorry!" Kazushi uttered a quick apology and continued running. A quick glance at the boy's face and posture screamed trouble, and Kazushi concluded it would be best to keep his distance and avoid conflict with that guy. As Kazushi increased the distance between them, though, he couldn't help but wonder. For some reason, he had the feeling that he had already seen that boy before. But he didn't have time to contemplate that. His priority was to focus on arriving at the school on time.


Thankfully, Kazushi arrived at the school just before class started. He found out he was in class 2-D and followed his homeroom teacher to his classroom. He stood beside the teacher at the front of the classroom.

"I'm Sadayo Kawakami. I'll be in charge of your class this year." The female teacher announced to the students. "And we have an eleventh hour transfer student. Please, introduce yourself." She motioned to Kazushi.

Kazushi looked around and took in the students in the scenery, and one of his classmates grabbed his attention. It was a blond, tall, foreign-looking girl. The sight of foreigners was rare, yet Kazushi had that feeling of familiarity again. It was as though he had already seen that girl before. He considered asking her if she remembered having met him somewhere, but as soon as she realized he was looking at her, she looked away.

Kazushi snapped back to focus. Ah, yes, his introduction, right. "I'm Kazushi Miura." He spoke in a neutral tone. "... It's nice to meet you all."

"Alright. As for your seat, hmm... you can stay there." Ms. Kawakami indicated the seat right behind the blond girl.

Kazushi walked over to his designated seat, and once again, the girl looked away when he passed her. It didn't look like his luck with trying to make friends would improve anytime soon.


On lunch break, Kazushi headed to the courtyard.

"Hey!" Someone called, but Kazushi wasn't sure if it was addressed at him and didn't turn around to look. "... Yeah, you!"

Kazushi finally turned in the voice's direction. The boy from that morning walked up to him with a devious smirk on his face. The look on the boy's face was one that Kazushi knew all too well. Potential bully detected.

"What is it?" Kazushi asked, careful to keep his expression neutral.

"You're that guy from earlier. You bumped into me." The boy needlessly reminded.

"I apologized." Kazushi countered firmly.

"Yeah, I heard it." The boy acted as though Kazushi's apology didn't mean anything. "By the way, did you arrive on time?"

"Huh? ... Uh-huh." Kazushi nodded.

"What?!" The boy glared, seemingly in the mood to pick a fight. "We ran into each other on the way to school. How come you arrived on time and I didn't?" He spoke as though his tardiness were Kazushi's fault.

"Huh...?" Kazushi blinked in confusion.

"That wasn't fair. Both of us should've arrived around the same time!" The boy shrugged and his smirk broke into a more friendly grin. "Ah, whatever! I'm Ryuji Sakamoto. Nice to meet ya! What's your name?"

"Uh, it's Kazushi Miura." Kazushi still had his guard up, unsure about what to make of the sudden change in the boy's demeanor. Kazushi decided to voice what had been bothering him. "... Weird... I have the impression that I know you from somewhere. Have we met before?"

"Huh?" Sakamoto thought for a bit. "I don't think so. I don't remember having seen you before."

"Aaaaah!" They heard a feminine yelp nearby. "Let go of me!"

Kazushi didn't think twice before running towards the voice. Apparently, it was the same for Sakamoto. They soon found a girl, who happened to be Kazushi's foreign classmate, being dragged by a rough-looking student.

"Hey! Leave her alone!" Sakamoto wasn't afraid to jump in and pick a fight with the guy.

But Kazushi froze. Memories of the event that led to his detention came back vividly to his mind. He could only watch as things heated up and Sakamoto and the other student began punching each other. Sakamoto's face was red with anger, and he was preparing to deal a huge blow. Kazushi could tell that it wasn't going to end well.

"No!" Kazushi tried to call Sakamoto's attention, but to no avail. In panic, Kazushi took a deep breath and shouted louder. "Sakamoto! Stooooop!"

Thankfully, Sakamoto stopped. In fact, not only him. Everyone froze on the spot. Kazushi's voice came out firm and commanding, the complete opposite of his usually quiet and soft voice. That surprised everyone present there, including himself.

"What is happening here?" One of the school's workers arrived on the scene.

In the end, Sakamoto and the other student got a warning for their violent behavior.

"Uh, Sakamoto, I'm sorry." It was the girl they had helped. "You got in trouble because of me."

"Nah." Sakamoto shrugged. "I'm glad that you're alright." But he couldn't hide his frustration. "Argh. A warning, right on the first day. I'm off to a great start, huh?"

Honestly, though, Kazushi was relieved. "It could have been worse. At least it ended with just a simple warning."

"Yeah, I guess you're right." Sakamoto sighed in resignation.

Kazushi noticed that his female classmate already knew Sakamoto's last name. "Do you know each other?"

"Since middle school." Sakamoto answered.

Kazushi turned to his female classmate. "Uh... Takamaki, right?"

"Yeah. Ann Takamaki." The girl introduced herself. "Thanks for helping me... both of you."

"I didn't do anything," Kazushi said.

"What're you talking about? 'Course you did!" Sakamoto argued. "I'm always quick to lose my cool, and when I realize it, I'm already in the middle of a fight. I almost lost hold of myself there. I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't stopped me. Thanks, man."

"Um..." Takamaki looked at Kazushi and spoke with hesitation. "Uh... Miura. I heard our classmates gossiping about you. They said that you got detained before transferring to this school, and that now you're in the rehabilitation program. I-is this true?"

"Yeah." Kazushi confirmed. As unfair as it was, it was the truth, and there was no point in hiding it.

"What?! It was you?!" Sakamoto seemed disbelieving. "Today I've also heard that we've got a student who was detained before transferring here. I'd have never imagined it was you, though! You don't look like the kinda guy that likes to pick fights. So, what did you do?"

"I only punched someone. That's all."

"That's it?" Sakamoto blinked.

"Yeah. The situation was very similar to what happened just now. I saw a man harassing a woman. I tried to help her, but I injured the man and got detained for it. Sakamoto, when I saw that you were about to deal a violent blow to that guy, I remembered what happened to me, and just couldn't let you go through with it."

"Oh." Sakamoto's expression relaxed. "To be honest, when you shouted and stopped me in that fight, it kinda scared me. It was totally unexpected!"

Takamaki also relaxed and allowed herself to smile. "When I heard those rumors, I got a bit scared too. But you seem to be a nice guy. Thank you for your help, Miura."

Kazushi also smiled. He considered asking Takamaki if she remembered having seen him before, but gave up. At first, it looked like Sakamoto would bully him, and that Takamaki would keep avoiding him, but in an unexpected turn of events, those two were suddenly having a casual talk with him. He wasn't sure how long that friendliness would last, but for now it was more than enough.


After school, the trio didn't go home right away. Instead, they went to the school's rooftop and began talking lazily.

"I'm staying in the cafe my parents' acquaintance owns." Kazushi told Sakamoto and Takamaki. "It's called Cafe Leblanc."

"Leblanc?" Takamaki's eyes sparkled in realization. "Hey! 'Leblanc' equals 'Lupin'!"

"Lupin?" Sakamoto echoed. "You mean the manga?"

"I mean the books! The ones the manga took inspiration from. I haven't read them, though."

"That's right." Kazushi confirmed. "The author's name was Maurice Leblanc."

"Ah, I had totally forgotten about that," Sakamoto said.

"Do you two also like the manga?" Kazushi asked.

Takamaki nodded. "I do."

"The series' been running for so long that I stopped keeping track, but I used to like it." Sakamoto admitted. "It was quite funny."

"I'm kinda surprised to run into people that like the manga," Kazushi said.

"Huh?" Takamaki looked strangely at Kazushi. "Surprised? But the series is very popular. A lot of people like it."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah." Sakamoto rolled his eyes. "How come you don't know? Have you been living under a rock or something?"

"It's probably the 'or something.'" Kazushi joked. "I've been out of the loop for a while. But back when I used to really like the manga, I... well, wasn't the right age for it yet, and had almost no one to talk about it to. So..."

"Oh. Now I get it." Takamaki nodded in understanding. "So, what do both of you find interesting the most about the series?"

"Lately I've been more interested in the group's dynamics." Kazushi gave his opinion. "The way they're always there for one another, despite their quirks."

"Huh? What a weird thing to be interested in." Sakamoto didn't see the point. "I used to be more into the anime rather than the manga, and really dug the car chases! The smart ways Lupin pulled stuff off were awesome, too!"

"Lupin's creativity is great too, of course." Kazushi agreed. "It's what got me hooked in the series back them. But I've been wondering. It must feel nice to have people you know you can count on." Not to mention what happened in his nightmares.

Both Sakamoto and Takamaki became lost in thought for a while. Maybe they also didn't have much luck with people?

Takamaki came back on track, with a cheerful smile on her face. "Lupin's amazing, period! Wherever he goes, he steals the hearts of every girl he meets!"

Sakamoto grinned mockingly at her. "Looks like that also includes you."

"Uh, well..." Her face flushed lightly. "I mean, it'd be amazing if someone like that really existed. I think it's cool that Lupin doesn't look anything extraordinary. He looks totally... normal, unassuming... but in truth it's just an act. He's so smart, so versatile, so unpredictable... and charming! The only one that doesn't fall for his charms is Fujiko, ironically the one person he truly likes... never mind that he acts like an idiot when he's near her, but if I were her, I'd have accepted him already! She'll never find anyone as good as him!"

"So, that's your type, eh?" Sakamoto continued mocking her. "We still can't say anything about the 'smart' part, but I think today we just met someone that fits the bill. You know, someone that looks totally unassuming, but can be really unpredictable..."

Meanwhile, Kazushi was lost in thought. The more he heard Sakamoto and Takamaki talking, the more he became sure that he had met them somewhere before.

"They didn't even know what hit 'em!" The voice of one of his allies from his nightmares resurfaced in his mind. Each second that went by, Kazushi was more sure that it was actually Sakamoto.

"Victory! Yay!" And that girl sounded suspiciously like Takamaki.

Then, he recalled the scenarios where he manipulated both of them to his gain. That was so painful to recall. Sakamoto and Takamaki didn't deserve that. No, no one should deserve that...

"... Right, Kazushi?" It was Sakamoto's voice calling in real life.

"Huh, what?" Kazushi was pulled out of his reverie.

"Seriously? You weren't even listening?" Sakamoto sighed. "Talk about unpredictable..."

When Kazushi looked at the two teenagers, he saw an exasperated Sakamoto and a flustered Takamaki. "What happened?"

"Ah, never mind!" Sakamoto shook his head.

Takamaki also seemed glad to drop the subject, whatever it was.

They spent some more time talking.

"You moved in just yesterday? Then you didn't even have time to take a look around the city, did ya?" Sakamoto asked Kazushi.

"No, I didn't."

Sakamoto grinned. "I know a good ramen place near the school. It has a karaoke, too. How 'bout the three of us go there tonight?"

Takamaki shook her head. "Sorry, today I-I can't." She seemed nervous for some reason.

"Kazushi?"

"A karaoke...?" Kazushi was unsure. His parents had never let him take part in karaoke, much less at night.

"Not confident enough to sing, eh? No worries. I'm not that good of a singer either." Sakamoto admitted. "Let's just have some fun and pass the time."

"... Okay." Kazushi accepted the invitation. He would finally know how it felt to hang out with a friend. Well, he wasn't sure if he could consider Sakamoto to be his friend yet, but...


At around 8:30 P.M., Kazushi met up with Sakamoto and went to the ramen shop. They enjoyed some good ramen and listened to people singing anime songs at the karaoke. Sakamoto ended up forcing him to try singing one song. Kazushi's performance wasn't that great, but he couldn't deny that he had fun.

"Done. Your turn." Kazushi told Sakamoto once he was back at their table. "Honestly, you didn't think I'd be okay with bearing the shame alone, did you?" He smirked.

"Ugh. Fair enough. You asked for it!" Sakamoto stood up and strode over to the karaoke section.

Sakamoto's performance was terrible. He was totally off-tempo and off-key and off-everything. Kazushi couldn't stop laughing. He didn't remember having laughed that much in his life.

Lastly, both of them tried to sing a song together. Kazushi couldn't concentrate thanks to Sakamoto singing wrong lyrics at the wrong time. Everything came out wrong until both of them burst laughing at each other's mess-ups and the song was ultimately ruined.

Kazushi and Sakamoto lost track of time, and it was almost midnight when they left the ramen shop.

Kazushi sighed. "We overdid it. I wasn't expecting we'd go home this late."

"But it was fun, wasn't it?" Sakamoto was still in high spirits. "Yeah, I know it was! I had been feeling down lately, but the karaoke tonight lifted my mood. The ramen was great, too."

Kazushi had to agree. He didn't remember the last time he had had so much fun. "I hope Sojiro-san doesn't get too angry, though. You know, it's only my second day here. I left him a note to tell him where I was going, but even so..."

Then, they heard a yelp, followed by a commanding voice. "Just get in the car and be quiet!"

"Oh no, don't tell me...!" With no warning, Sakamoto sprinted towards the voices.

"Ah! Sakamoto! Where are you going?!" Kazushi scrambled after him in alarm.

"You...!" Sakamoto hollered at a man standing next to a parked car.

"Now now, look what we have here." The man spoke disdainfully. "Students. Isn't it too late for children to be wandering about?"

"Sakamoto! Miura!" A familiar voice came from inside the car.

"Takamaki...!" Kazushi jumped in surprise.

"What did you do to her?!" Sakamoto shouted at the man.

"Only took her to dinner. Right, Ann?" The man spoke darkly.

Takamaki seemed terrified.

"Takamaki!" Kazushi was about to approach the car, but the man stopped him.

"And you must be that transfer student." The man glared menacingly at Kazushi. "Everyone in the school knows this, but since you are new, I'll tell you. If you get in my way, you'll regret it! ... Oh, yes. Too bad for you. It's too late. You are already getting in my way. You saw what you shouldn't, and will suffer the consequences! Tomorrow, you'll have a little surprise. Just you wait!" With that, the man entered the car, started the engine, and the car took off.

"Wait!" Sakamoto shouted, but the car was already disappearing from sight.

Kazushi was stunned. "Who... was that...?"

"Kamoshida, the P.E. teacher. Or, the worst P.E. teacher that you'll ever meet..." Sakamoto said with disdain. "He physically abuses students and stalks the girls. He practically rules over the school. Everyone fears him and does everything he says."

Kazushi was alarmed. "Takamaki is in danger! What should we do?!"

At that moment, midnight struck, and the atmosphere shifted... exactly the same way it had happened last night. The streetlights went out, the sky became a weird tone of green, the moon looked menacing, and the air became eerie. The situation looked like something from a horror movie.

"W-what's happening!?" Sakamoto looked around frantically.

This time, Kazushi was sure that he was wide awake. "I-I don't know. I only know it happened last night, too. I had thought it was a dream, but..."

"Ah! Look! The school!" They were near the school, and Sakamoto pointed in its direction.

"What... what is that?!" Kazushi saw a castle where the school should have been.

They apprehensively approached the castle to take a closer look. Then, Kazushi's cellphone vibrated. He took it out of his pocket and saw that the strange app from earlier had opened. It had some weird icons on screen, and an inscription saying, "Kamoshida Palace."

"What? Kamoshida? Wasn't that the man from earlier?"

"What?! I can't believe this! That Kamoshida...!" Sakamoto was angry. "He threatened you and said you'd have a surprise tomorrow. Since it's midnight, it's already 'tomorrow,' right?! Argh! How come he even got your number!? Creepy bastard...!"

"Huh? I don't think that's it." Kazushi showed his cellphone to Sakamoto. "But it doesn't make this any less creepy..."

The cellphone vibrated again, and the castle's entrance opened.

"What is that?! What's going on?!" Sakamoto's gaze frantically moved between Kazushi's phone and the open entrance. He reluctantly approached the entrance and took a peek inside. "This isn't our school anymore!"

"Hey, Sakamoto, stop!" Kazushi noticed that Sakamoto was going deeper inside. "I don't think entering this place is a good idea!"

A scream from Sakamoto confirmed Kazushi's bad feeling. Kazushi hurried after Sakamoto, and was shocked at what he saw. A masked guard-like monster was attacking Sakamoto, who screamed in pain.

"Sakamoto!"

The monster attacked relentlessly, and Sakamoto had no chance to do anything.

Sakamoto coughed. "N-no... stop... I don't wanna die!" He uttered in panic.

Kazushi was scared. He had never seen anything like that monster in his life. He wanted to go there and help Sakamoto, but he remembered the event that got him detained, and got paralyzed.

When he least expected, the scenery froze again, the same way it had happened on his way to Cafe Leblanc.

"What's wrong? Will you stay there only watching?" It was that voice booming in his head again. That voice that was so strange, but so familiar at the same time. Yes, it was familiar. Because it was his own voice.

"From now on, my thoughts will be your thoughts. Your voice will be my voice..." Kazushi remembered those words from the dream in the Velvet Room, and his eyes widened in shock.

"Was that a mistake?" The voice asked, and brought Kazushi's focus back to the matter at hand.

Kazushi recalled how helping that woman back then ended in him detained and forced to undergo rehabilitation. If he tried to help Sakamoto now, it might end in more trouble for him. He couldn't do anything against that monster. But if he didn't help, Sakamoto might...

"N-no... stop... I don't wanna die!" Sakamoto's previous words replayed in Kazushi's mind.

Yes, that situation was dangerous. Sakamoto might die. And if Kazushi tried to help, he might die as well. The safest course of action would be to run away, and... no, Kazushi shouldn't do that. He remembered his thoughts during his train ride to Tokyo. No running away, and no abandoning his allies. He would be there for his allies, just like Lupin. He would protect them with his life.

With his new resolve, Kazushi took a step forward. An intense pain unexpectedly coursed through his body. "Aaaaaah!" He screamed and contorted in pain. Even though he couldn't see it, his eyes changed to a yellow color. Kazushi felt as though his face were being torn apart. A liquid - could it be blood? - seemed to leak and run down his whole face.

"Good. This is how it should be." The voice spoke again. "I am thou, and thou art I. Thou that dost not look back on thy blasphemies for the sake of the justice thou believed in. The time to awaken thy power hath come!" The voice recited as though it were doing a ritual.

There was no mistaking it. That voice... it could only be... himself. It could only be... "A... A-Arsène...?"

Blue flames engulfed Kazushi. A surge of power coursed through his whole being, and he suddenly felt more confident than ever before. After having suffered so much injustice, he had begun to believe that getting justice in that world was nearly impossible. But now, his doubts disappeared. Kazushi decided. He had enough of being helpless and quietly bowing to injustice. He wouldn't continue waiting for someone to come defend him and do justice for him. It was time to take action. It was a new page in the story of Kazushi Arsène Miura Lupin. He wouldn't let unfair people control his life anymore, and would go as far as to steal back his future if he needed to. He might even use questionable means for that, but he wouldn't feel the need to look back on them because he would be fighting for a good cause. Yes, just like Lupin. He would write his own story, and find a reason to live. If he couldn't find a reason, then he would create one. With that power, he would finally be able to fight for the justice he had always believed in. It would allow him to do justice not only for himself, but also for others that were suffering in that unfair world. He would use it to help others, starting with Sakamoto right now.

By that point, the blue flames had formed black clothes over Kazushi's school uniform, and the liquid that had been leaking out of his face had hardened and taken the form of a bird mask.

"Now, begin!" Arsène demanded.

Kazushi remembered Arsène's words from the dream again. "And... in moments of need, call upon me, and I will be your strength. When the time comes, say this word, and I will come to your aid. The word is... ..."

The time had come, and the keyword rushed to Kazushi's mind as clear as day. He took a deep breath as he savored that sensation of power. Then, he allowed himself a satisfied smirk, ripped his new mask off and shouted with all his might. "... Personaaaaaaa!"

The flow of time resumed and things began happening quickly. Blue flames came out of Kazushi's new mask and materialized as the winged figure from the vision he had on his way to Cafe Leblanc. It was connected to Kazushi by chains, but broke free from the chains with ease and charged towards the monster that had been attacking Sakamoto. One quick slash and the creature exploded into black ooze and vanished into thin air.

The adrenaline rush finally caught up to Kazushi. His heart raced, he felt tired and his body was shaking. The winged figure returned inside him. Somehow, Kazushi was sure that the figure was Arsène's new form. Both the mask and the black clothes disappeared, and left Kazushi back in his school uniform.

"S-Sakamoto, are you alright?!" Kazushi rushed to Sakamoto's side.

Sakamoto's only response was a cough.

"Hey, you!" A childlike voice suddenly spoke.

But Kazushi paid no mind to it. He was more worried about Sakamoto. "Oh no, Sakamoto... what should I do!?"

"Argh! Alright, alright, calm down!" It was the childlike voice again. Its owner revealed itself to be a black bipedal feline creature, and seemed displeased at being ignored. "I'll heal him. Stay back!"

"... Heal him? You can do that? ..." Kazushi was wary of the unusual creature, but once again he had that sensation of familiarity, and decided to trust the creature.

"Come forth, Zorro, my other self! Dia!" The creature summoned a masked figure which cast a bright light over Sakamoto. "Alright. Done! Satisfied?!"

"Ugh..." Sakamoto slowly stood up. "What just happened?!"

Kazushi was relieved to see Sakamoto fully recovered. "Wow, that seemed like... magic."

"Why are you so surprised? It's the same kind of power you used!" The feline creature said.

"Aaah!" Sakamoto glanced in the voice's direction and finally saw the voice's owner. "A talking cat!"

The creature got angry. "I'm not a cat! I'm Morgana! And now tell me. Who are you?"

Kazushi was sure that he had heard that voice before.

"That was awesome, Joker!" ... Yes, that was the childlike voice from one of his allies in his dream!

"... Uh, I'm Kazushi Miura, and this is Ryuji Sakamoto."

"And how did you end up here? There's no one else here aside from the figments of this Palace's creator's mind, and you two are clearly not from here."

"Figments? Mind? I don't get any of this." Sakamoto was at a loss. "Where are we? What's going on?!"

"This is a place born from a person's corrupted desires. I call it 'the Palace.'" Morgana answered.

"Palace...?" Kazushi retrieved his cellphone. "This says, 'Kamoshida Palace.' Does it mean that it has something to do with that Kamoshida guy?"

"This should be it." Morgana confirmed. "It represents how its creator views this place."

"This place? ... You mean the school?!" Sakamoto balled his fists as he looked around at the Palace's walls. "He views the school as a castle that he rules over... makes sense..."

"School...?" Morgana sounded confused.

"We were near the school when midnight hit. The atmosphere warped, and the school transformed into this place." Kazushi explained their situation.

"Hmm..." Morgana regarded both of them curiously. "It's the Dark Hour outside, and no one should be awake. Normally, it's the time where people stay inside coffins. But you two are awake, and managed to enter here... you two must be special! One of you can use a Persona, too!"

"Yeah, I remember now. Kazushi, you had shouted 'Persona' when that thing appeared." Sakamoto observed. "What's that?"

Kazushi tried to recall Igor's explanation, but drew a blank. "... Uh, I don't know how to explain it myself. I made up my mind about helping you, and everything happened at once."

"In short, a Persona is an individual's other self." Morgana explained.

"I don't quite get it, but it sounds kinda cool." Sakamoto was still flabbergasted at the whole situation.

"Hmm, so it was your first time using a Persona... and it was so strong! So cool!" Morgana looked at Kazushi with admiration. "Maybe you can help me."

"Help you? With what?" Kazushi asked.

"I don't remember much about myself. I want you to help me find out what I really am..."

"You're a cat." Sakamoto said matter of factly.

"No!" Morgana made an offended face, but it actually looked very cute. "I already said I'm not a cat! I'm an elegant human being!"

"Really?" Kazushi wasn't convinced. That whole situation was very surreal, but still...

"Y-yeah, o-of course!" Morgana stuttered, not sounding so sure anymore. "... I-I mean, I can't imagine how I could be anything else!"

Sakamoto deadpanned. "I can only see a cat, no matter how I look at you..."

"Grrr!" Morgana grunted in irritation. "I'm a cool and elegant man!"

"Huh? You... you're a guy?" Kazushi blinked in surprise.

"Of course! How couldn't you tell?!"

"Uh, sorry. Your name... Morgana's a feminine name..." Kazushi tried to justify himself.

Morgana angrily shook his head and changed the subject. "... Look, if you take the most valuable treasure from here, you can remove corruption from the Palace's creator and make him repent for all the harm he caused. I don't know much about myself, but I know a lot about how the Palace works. If you help me find out about my origins and return me to my original form, I'll help you explore the Palace and find the treasure. What do you say?"

"Uh, this is too sudden..." Kazushi said.

"Yeah..." Sakamoto agreed.

Before they could come to a decision, though, they startled at the sounds of heavy footsteps approaching.

"More Shadows are coming." Morgana warned.

"You mean more enemies?" Kazushi felt tired and wasn't sure if he could handle more fighting.

"I'll handle them. You two should leave. If you decide to accept my deal, come again tomorrow. I'll be waiting for you!" Morgana darted away towards the enemies and left the two teenagers alone.

Kazushi and Sakamoto didn't need to be told twice. They turned around and ran from the way they had come.

They left the Palace and headed to the train station. To their horror, the streets were deserted, and the train station had a few strange coffins scattered about. Kazushi and Sakamoto nearly freaked out when there was another atmosphere shift, everything suddenly came back to normal, and the coffins turned into people, who walked in the station normally as though nothing had happened.

When Kazushi arrived back at Cafe Leblanc, he was exhausted. His problems weren't over yet, though.

"Kazushi." The lights were on, and Sojiro-san was waiting for him with a serious expression. "You are late."

"I'm sorry..." Kazushi answered tiredly. "I lost track of time."

Sojiro-san stared at him sternly. "You left a note saying you'd be heading to the karaoke. I hope it's indeed where you went to."

"Yeah, it is." Kazushi felt the need to explain. "The one near the school, at the ramen shop. My schoolmate took me there."

"Hmm." Sojiro-san stared Kazushi in the eye for a few tense seconds, then broke his stare. "Alright. I believe you. I know where that shop is." His expression became more friendly. "Did you go to the karaoke often at your previous place?"

Kazushi shook his head. "No. My parents never let me go anywhere. This was my first time singing at a karaoke. I didn't fare too well,, but it was fun."

A reminiscing smile unexpectedly appeared on Sojiro-san's face. "When I was younger, I used to lose track of time at the karaoke as well."

"Oh?" Kazushi's eyebrow raised. He wondered how Sojiro-san's singing was like. "Maybe we should go there together next time."

"Ha ha ha!" Sojiro-san laughed. "Let me warn you, though. I only sing Enka, and the songs probably aren't from your time."

"Sounds interesting to me," Kazushi said honestly.

"You're an odd kid..." Sojiro-san mused. Then he assumed a more serious tone. "Listen, Kazushi. I know that you won't have much time for leisure after school with all the homework, and even less time if you decide to take part in clubs and whatnot. But it's dangerous to be out late. Be careful, alright?"

Kazushi nodded. "Of course."

Sojiro-san seemed satisfied. "This was all. I'm leaving now. Good night."

"Good night. Sorry to have had you wait until this late."

X:X:X:X:X

That night, Kazushi dreamed that he was back in the Velvet Room.

"The Shadow self you had tamed manifested as a Persona." It was Igor speaking. "The atmosphere change you witnessed is a phenomenon called 'Dark Hour.' It is a hidden hour between two days and happens every midnight. During this hour, electronics stop working, time stops for most people, and coffins encase them. The few people outside of coffins are targeted by creatures called Shadows, which are born from negative emotions."

The calm guard added, "The Dark Hour is a phenomenon that happened years ago, and it came to an end. However, it has returned, for a different reason from last time."

"What reason?" Kazushi asked.

"This is the mystery that you must use your power to solve," the aggressive guard said. "You must find the answer by yourself!"

The calm guard continued. "Persona users such as yourself are the only people capable of resisting the Dark Hour's effects and fighting against Shadows. In the near future, you will meet other Persona users, and you must join forces with them to be able to reach the truth. You have the power to change people's hearts. The key to strengthening your power and achieving freedom lies in the bonds you develop. You must make sure to not lose hold of yourself, and to nurture the bonds you form with others."

Igor spoke again. "The answers to the mystery lies in the Palace. I was the one who provided you the special cellphone application that makes your cellphone able to function during the Dark Hour. You will need it to navigate the Palace. However, only the cellphone application is not enough. You will need more specialized assistance. Do you remember when I told you that only those who sign a contract may enter the Velvet Room, and that you would be signing a contract soon? The time to sign your contract is near. You will need to sign it in order to solve the mystery."

"The Palace..." Kazushi muttered as he recalled the conversation with Morgana. If he agreed to help find out about Morgana's origins, Morgana would help him explore the palace. Could that be the said "contract?"

"Now, take this." Igor made a hand gesture. A blue key appeared in the air out of nowhere, and Kazushi scrambled to catch it. "The next time you enter the velvet room, it will be of your own accord, by using that key. Until we meet again..."

X:X:X:X:X

Kazushi awoke on the still unfamiliar surface of the worn-down mattress in his new room. He stayed in bed for a couple of minutes, then got up and went to the bathroom.

"Arsène, do you really exist?" Kazushi couldn't help but ask while staring in the mirror in the bathroom. That action was stupid, but he didn't care. He simply shrugged and scoffed at the mirror.

His reflection did the same, and Kazushi realized how uncharacteristic it was to see himself doing that. Somehow, he had changed a lot those last few days. After that first dream about the Velvet Room and the argument with his parents, he felt less afraid of expressing himself. It was as though something had unlocked inside him. He felt more confident in himself, and more... free.

Kazushi returned to his room. He slowly recalled last night's crazy happenings as he put his uniform on. He was ready to dismiss everything as a dream, but he noticed a glimmering object on the mattress where he had slept. He crouched to retrieve it. It was a key. A velvet blue key...

Kazushi's hands slowly closed around the key and he stared at it in disbelief. He placed the key in his pocket and took out his cellphone. Sure enough, Igor's special app was still there. This made Kazushi come to a conclusion. The Velvet Room, his multiple scenario nightmares, Arsène, Persona, the Dark Hour, the Palace, Morgana... they were all real.


When Kazushi arrived in school, he noticed many students directing apprehensive stares at him. It bothered him, but he tried to shake that feeling away.

Before class started, Kazushi heard his classmates gossiping among themselves, and soon it became apparent why people had been giving him apprehensive stares. Rumors about him had already started, and they weren't good ones. Words about his detention had reached the students, who were making up details to spice up the rumors, and were accusing Kazushi of things he hadn't done. Some said that he was always picking fights, while others said that he had physically hurt teachers from the previous schools he had studied at, or that he had been seen hanging around thugs on the street, or even that he was involved in smuggling alcohol and cigarettes.

Kazushi sighed. He could already tell that it wouldn't be long until his reputation was ruined and the whole school began viewing him as a problem student once more. But he decided he wouldn't let that kind of thing affect him anymore. Let the gossipers gossip, and let everyone think what they will. He was used to being alone and badmouthed. He only needed to endure school like he had always done, and make sure to get acceptable grades and conclude his rehabilitation successfully. That was what mattered the most about school this year.

To Kazushi's relief, the classroom's door opened, and Takamaki entered. She certainly didn't look cheerful, though.

"Takamaki... are you okay?"

"Yeah." Takamaki nodded and spoke timidly. "Um, sorry that I couldn't go to the karaoke yesterday. I had to go out with 'him.' If I disobeyed him, he'd..." She lowered her head and refused to finish her sentence, and quietly made her way to her seat.

Kazushi was worried. He wanted to talk more to her, but the teacher arrived and he had to remain quiet and pay attention in class.


When lunch break began, Kazushi wanted to talk to Takamaki, but she quickly left the classroom and disappeared among the crowd. Kazushi was about to go look for her, but Sakamoto came to talk to him.

"Hey, Kazushi, people are saying a lot of weird stuff about you. It sounds like they're making stuff up to 'spice up' the rumors... but smuggling cigarettes? What the hell? That's too much."

Kazushi heaved a sigh. "There goes my hope of getting along with people in this school... how did it come to this? I didn't do anything..."

"I know how it feels to be treated like a problem child," Sakamoto said in sympathy. "Once our image gets screwed, everyone starts looking down on us even if we don't do anything."

"Yeah, I know. This isn't the first time it happens to me. I went through this on my first school, too. My reputation went down the drain thanks to some apple polisher bullies. The teachers believed them and told other teachers, until it got to the point that the whole school was looking down on me. I can already tell that it'll be the same this year."

"Ouch..." Sakamoto made a face. "That really sucks."

Much to all the students' horror, Mr. Kamoshida decided to show up at the courtyard. All students he passed froze in their tracks. He approached Kazushi, and spoke in a low and menacing tone.

"How did you like your little surprise? I told you that you'd regret getting in my way." Mr. Kamoshida glared dangerously at Kazushi, and purposefully spoke louder for a lot of students to hear. "Looks like we have quite the problem student this year, heh? Don't think you can get your way in here, kid. You have been warned. Cause trouble, and you'll be expelled!"

Mr. Kamoshida didn't wait for a response. He marched away, and paid no mind to the murderous glare Sakamoto had been directing at him.

Sakamoto was angry. "That Kamoshida...!"

"He mentioned his 'surprise...' could it mean that he was the one who spread those rumors!? Now he'll try to blame me for made-up stuff so that he can expel me...!"

"That bastard will pay!" Sakamoto balled his fist. "And where's Ann? If I find out he did something bad to her..."

"She's okay... uh, I mean, okay enough to have come to school, at least. She's quite gloomy. Lunch break started, and I don't know where she disappeared to. I was about to look for her when you showed up."

Mr. Kamoshida had probably done something to Takamaki, and now had threatened to expel Kazushi as well. More injustice again. Even worse than most things Kazushi had seen happen. But now, it was different. Kazushi recalled the last night's events. Arsène's new form, his new power, Morgana's deal... now he had the power to fight for the justice he had always believed in. He would make Mr. Kamoshida repent.

"... Hey, Kazushi." Sakamoto seemed a bit calmer. "About all that craziness yesterday..."

"Huh?"

"Look at this." Sakamoto took out his cellphone, and the special app's icon was also there! "I don't know how, but when I checked the phone today, this weird icon was here. Isn't this the same as the app that was on your cellphone during that creepy hour?"

"Yeah, it is!"

"Ah. It was all real, huh/?" Sakamoto said. "It's hard to believe. I honestly thought I'd die that time! But then you saved me, then that cat thing cured me, and I felt fine as though nothing had happened! That thing you used... Persona? Your other self or something like that..."

"That was Arsène," Kazushi said.

"Arsène? You mean, like Arsène Lupin?" Sakamoto looked in awe at Kazushi. "Hah! I knew it. I knew you were our Lupin! Say, think I have a Persona, too?"

Kazushi remembered how Morgana was surprised to see the two of them awake during the Dark Hour. Igor had also said that only Persona users could resist the Dark Hour's effects. "I think so. Remember how Morgana was surprised that we were awake during that creepy hour when everyone else stays inside coffins? You were awake, and I think this means you also have a Persona."

"Cool. I wonder what my Persona is like..." Sakamoto had a thoughtful expression for a few seconds. "Kazushi, what do you think about what that Morgana cat said? About that place having come from Kamoshida's mind or something. The thing about making him repent by taking a treasure. Could it mean that if we take the treasure, Kamoshida's gonna repent for all the bad stuff he did? Sounds too surreal and too good to be true, but again nothing about that place was normal to begin with..."

Kazushi remembered the Velvet Room guards' words about a power to change people's hearts, and that he would need to use it in order to get his freedom. Might this be what they had meant? "It might be worth a shot."

"What about Morgana? She... er, he... said he'd help us explore that place if we helped him. Do you think we can trust him?"

Kazushi was sure that Morgana was one of his allies in his dream. If those multiple scenario nightmares were really a glimpse into the future, then it meant that he would really form a group with Sakamoto, Morgana, Takamaki and some others. Morgana seemed to know a lot about the Palace, and had also mentioned the Dark Hour. Maybe if Morgana remembered his origins, he might also remember more about the Dark Hour and help them solve that mystery. If Morgana's deal was the contract Kazushi needed to accept in order to solve the mystery about the Dark Hour like Igor had said, then he would have to accept the deal. "I'll trust Morgana. We don't have much of a choice, do we? No one else seems to be awake during that time. Morgana's the only lead we have."

After a few seconds of silence, Sakamoto changed the subject. "... Kazushi, remember yesterday when I asked how come you arrived at school on time and I didn't? Yeah, that has an answer. A very obvious one at that. I simply can't run fast enough."

"Hm." Kazushi couldn't see what Sakamoto was getting at.

"Deep down, I knew it. It's something I don't want to be reminded of, but I can't forget." Sakamoto sighed in defeat. "Before, I used to be really good at running. I was really fast. I was the ace of the track team, and was very proud of it. It felt great to know I was really good at something. I even dreamed of taking part in important competitions and stuff, maybe even make it my career... but..."

"But...?"

"I broke my leg. Yeah. It's all thanks to Kamoshida's abusive physical training!" Sakamoto was angry again. "He did it on purpose! He can't stand seeing talented people. He doesn't admit there to be other talented people that can be better than him. He does everything to cripple anyone he can and impose his superiority. Thanks to that, I can't run nearly as fast anymore. Since then, my dreams for the future are gone. I got fed up at everything. I end up venting my frustrations on anything or anyone nearby, and when I realize it, I'm in the middle of a fight..." Sakamoto sighed again and tried to recompose himself. "Back then, even if I slept in and left home at the same time as I did yesterday, I used to arrive at school on time no problem. Now, I keep thinking that maybe if I continue training, I might be able to run fast again. When I sleep in and leave home later than I should, I try to run faster, and think that maybe this time I'll arrive on time like before... but it never works. in the end, I'm just fooling myself. I'll never be able to run like I used to, and this is the truth. Yesterday when you pulled ahead of me and managed to arrive at school on time and I didn't, I admit that I was a bit envious of you..." Sakamoto laughed sheepishly.

"Sakamoto..."

"When Morgana said we could make Kamoshida repent, it got me thinking. It looks almost impossible to make someone like him repent, but if what Morgana said is true and we can really do it, then I think we should try, and I'm glad you agree! I know it won't fix my leg, and won't sort out the problems of the other students Kamoshida abused, but I thought it might be a nice way to get revenge. I don't know if I can be of much help, but let me come too! That guy screwed my life. I'd do anything to see him repent!"

"Huh?" Kazushi was surprised for a second. In his head, Sakamoto was already coming. There was no need to ask, especially now that he heard about the injustice Sakamoto suffered because of Mr. Kamoshida. "Yeah, sure."

"Thanks."

There was one problem. If going to the Palace at midnight became a routine, though, Kazushi would need to find a way to convince Sojiro-san to not worry about him too much. He sighed and shrugged. He would leave that problem for later. "Alright, then. Today at midnight, we'll be here again."

"Okay. Now, I'll try to find Ann." And Sakamoto excused himself.

Kazushi straightened up and stared ahead with determination. If Persona users were the only ones that could move during the Dark Hour, he needed to form a group with other Persona users, and try to solve the mystery about the Dark Hour together. His allies would be people in the same situation as him. The very few people that awakened unwillingly to the Dark Hour and were forced to deal with its dangers every night. During the Dark Hour, they would have only one another. Kazushi swore to himself that he would be loyal to his allies. He would never manipulate them or betray them like what happened in those nightmares. He would be there for them no matter what, and would protect them with his life. He had the feeling that it would be very dangerous, but he was sure it was possible, and that was all that he needed to know.

No one said it'd be easy, but I feel I can do it. After all, I wasn't named Arsène for nothing, he thought, with a confident Arsène-esque smirk on his face. Then, he went on his way, also intent on looking for Takamaki.


Meanwhile, Igor and the two guards intently watched the current situation from the Velvet Room.

"The first players have assembled, and our guest is about to sign his contract," Justine, the calmer guard, said.

Igor spoke in a somber tone. "The world's current state is not what it should be. As it stands, the world is being overtaken by distortion, and its destruction is unavoidable. However, there are those that desire change and are bold enough to defy fate. These individuals were once called 'Tricksters.' Oh, Trickster. The time for you to take on the distortion's core has come."

"You have a long journey ahead," Justine said contemplatively. "What awaits you? Is it glory?"

"... Or ruin?" Caroline, the aggressive guard, added.

"Only time will tell," Justine said mysteriously.

And so did Igor. "Now, let us start the game..."