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The first time had been an accident.

He’d only just moved to Inaba, was still trying to figure how to live with his taciturn uncle and his painfully shy niece. Chie-san and Amagi-san had walked about halfway home with him, drilling him about city life the whole way. Strangely, no one in Inaba was all that worried about the announcer’s death, much preferring to chat with the new kid about the crazy big city. The murders made for great gossip, it seemed, but none of the gossiping housewives or excitable teens seemed all that bothered by the fact that there was a murderer in their midst. Even Chie-san and Amagi-san would rather listen to his vague stories about city life than hear about the very real murder that had occurred only a few days ago. Maybe it was because none of the people involved were from Inaba themselves.

It was as if a blanket of sleepy calm lay over the entire town.

He’d excused himself early from Satonaka and Amagi's company. They were sweet girls, but Souji still felt as if he were intruding- sure, he was welcome, but he wasn’t particularly needed. Likewise, Yosuke was nice, if a bit awkward, but Souji just couldn’t bring himself to really try. It didn’t matter all that much either way; he was only here for a year. He may as well just focus on his studies. Friends were nice, but not necessary. Moving around so often had given Souji plenty of opportunities to reinvent himself: he’d been a ghost, moving around the school unnoticed, and he’d been a star, hardly able to take two steps without someone begging him for a minute of his time. He hadn't noticed much of a difference either way.

Lost in thought, he’d only noticed the rain when it began to soak through his outer jacket. What the hell, he thought, is going on in Inaba? This weather is ridiculous. He ducked into the closest store, hurrying to get out of the rain. Nanako-chan had said she liked to do the laundry, but he really didn’t want to have to ask an eight-year-old to do extra laundry for him on his second day living in her house.

The restaurant he ducked into was almost entirely empty. It was warm and brightly lit, with a frankly delicious aroma wafting over from behind the kitchen doors. The walls were lined with wood and adorned with nothing but a pattern of blue butterflies who created a path from the doorway towards a set of partially obscured stairs near the back of the restaurant. Souji sighed contentedly, happy to wait out the rain here so long as the food tasted as good as it smelled.

“Table for one?” A bright, pleasant voice interrupted his thoughts.

Souji nodded silently, watching as the server turned and led him to the very back of the restaurant, where she sat him down in a booth. Her eyes were warm where they settled on his face. 

“I’ll be back in a few minutes to take your order. Yell if you need anything!” And with a wink, she was gone.

Souji furrowed his brow in confusion. The girl was vaguely familiar, like a childhood friend found again after years apart. But Souji hadn't had any childhood friends, and he was sure that he hadn’t met this particular girl before. She had a distinctive face, and her strange red eyes were far from common. Not that it was completely impossible. Souji had gotten used to losing people in the endless throng of new neighbours and classmates. Had she been in one of his old schools? No, if she was working at a restaurant, she was definitely too old to have been in any of his classes, and he’d hung out enough with the older students that he would have remembered meeting her if she’d been one of them.

“So, this might sound strange-” The girl was back, hovering over his table with a menu in hand and a smile on her face, “but... have we met somewhere before?”

He looked up, surprised to have his thoughts spoken out loud.

“I don’t think so...” Souji paused, suddenly realizing that he didn't know her name. She'd been moving too fast for him to read the nametag. 

“Minako.” The girl said, and in defiance of the laws of physics, smiled even wider.

 

After that encounter, Souji found himself frequenting the place, when he could.

Minako’s kind but distant demeanor was a welcome change of pace from the rest of his friends. He liked them just fine, but he could see the path of the entire conversation from miles away: what to say, how to say it, when to look into their eyes and when to let them languish in silence. He was never going to see these people again after this year, and he was so bored that dozing off mid-sentence is a becoming a legitimate worry. And his new friends made it so easy, with their borderline worship for the mysterious transfer student who showed up just in time to save the day. Even the other people in the town, from his soccer teammates to the mother of the children he babysits, were so open and needy. They half-hid their insecurities, dissembling only enough to keep it from being public knowledge, but not nearly well enough to hide it from anyone who looks at them for longer than a few seconds. They all wanted someone to notice and help them, without putting in even the slightest effort to ask for help themselves. Which is par for the course, he supposed.

Souji was not without sympathy, but there'd always been something of a disconnect. He could see exactly where a person is coming from, knew exactly how to support and cajole and empower, but he just could never quite bring himself to feel as strongly as those around him did. 

So it was a relief to find Minako, who seemed to be perfectly well adjusted and have no need for any sort of consoling. In fact, Minako seemed to never be perturbed by anything at all. When Saki-san’s mother had burst into tears in the middle of her diner, Minako had swooped in, all comforting smiles and reassuring whispers, staying with her until the old lady had collected herself. Souji had watched as Minako kindly told the woman that her meal was on the house, that she should come visit her more often and teach her how to distinguish good wines from bad, and that Minako was always available if she wanted to talk. left. Only moments later, she’d served him his coffee with her customary blindingly bright smile. 

He'd always been a fan of making lists. In a list, everything was ordered, controlled, framed within his own cognition. He'd begun to make to make a list about Minako the moment he'd walked into her diner. 

Things he knew about Arisato Minako: she came to Inaba from Tatsumi Port Island, she was a great cook, she lived with her boyfriend and their pet dog, and she moved with an almost inhuman grace that made him wonder.

Things he did not know about Arisato Minako: why she'd moved to this sleepy rural town, why she smiled so brightly when there was no reason to, and whether or not her boyfriend really was, as the rumours said, a gang leader with a penchant for setting fire to kids who caused trouble in the area.

He was perfectly fine leaving his questions be. Minako, unlike almost every other person in Inaba, did not seem to need his help. 

Today, Souji had arranged to meet Yosuke and Chie at the diner. Just across the street from Junes, the diner was close enough to be a convenient meeting spot, with the added bonus of being far less suspicious than having a group of kids spending every afternoon at the local department store. That the food was exquisite was simply a final, unneeded, benefit.

Souji looked up just in time to see Chie and Yosuke walk into the store, wearing twin expressions of annoyance. He was constantly amazed by how two people who were almost frighteningly similar could argue so much. Somehow, neither was capable of recognizing their own mix of overconfidence and insecurity in the other. 

Minako quickly intercepted them, grinning and asking if they’d like a table for two. Chie immediately flushed red and shook her head wildly, while Yosuke stammered out an explanation about how they were here to meet Souji. With a shrug, Minako led them to Souji’s regular table at the back.

“So,” she said once everyone had been seated, “What can I get you three?”

“Oh,” Chie said “We’re fine-”

“Actually, uh, what do you recommend?” Yosuke butted in, clearly trying to speak in a husky voice, which mainly made him sound like he had some throat disease.

“Well, most high school students like the coffee. Oh, and our chocolate quinoa cake is pretty awesome.”

“Huh...” Yosuke said slowly. “I didn’t know this was a popular hangout spot.” He glanced towards Souji, who furrowed his brow in response. If other students were liable to overhear them, then they’d need a new meeting spot.

“Oh, it’s not.” Minako admitted easily. “They’re all scared away by Shinji, I think. I was just going off Souji here, since he’s our only repeat customer your age.”

The corners of Yosuke’s lips turned down, and he glanced once more at Souji from beneath his lashes.

“That’s great. We’ll be fine without anything. Thanks.” Chie said, her voice hard.

If she was offended, Minako did a great job of hiding it. She responded with only a smile and a nod, skipping off to the counter. Souji sighed inwardly, already expecting Yosuke’s indignant remarks and Chie’s cutting responses. It wasn’t her fault, he thought. Out of all of them, Chie was the one closest to Yukiko. Sure, he and Yosuke wanted to save Yukiko, but Chie was her best friend. Losing her was probably a recurring nightmare for Chie; seeing it come to life in such a horrific way had to be rough.

Souji buried his head in his hands, trying to block out the noise coming from the opposite side of the table. Ever since that night when he’d summoned Izanagi, he’d become so much more sensitive to lights and sound. He’d blocked out his bedroom window, and spent most of his time with his door shut to block out the noise of Nanako’s shows. The moment he’d called up Izanagi, the moment he’d felt the power, the call, the refrain of fightfightfightthisiswhoyouweremeanttobe pounding in his blood, he’d known there was no way of going back. His every sense had been heightened - colors were bright enough to hurt, and he could hear things he could not before. In the shadow world, it had been an advantage. Out here, it meant he spent half his time wishing everything would disappear.

Chie and Yosuke were getting louder, moving on from arguing about Chie’s demeanor to an in-depth evisceration of Yosuke’s foot-in-mouth syndrome. Suddenly, a hand slammed down on their table. Souji glanced up to see a man with hard, flinty eyes towering over them, a scowl prominent across his face.

“If you plan on yelling,” He said darkly, “you’re gonna need to get outta here.”

Both his friends seemed to have been struck dumb by the man's appearance, leaving Souji to defuse the situation.

“Sorry. We’ll quiet down.” Souji said.

The man stared them down for a few seconds before turning away with a “Tch.”

The three students stared at his back as the tall man stalked away to the kitchen at the back of the store. Did that man really work here? He couldn’t imagine Minako working with someone so surly. Souji waited for a few moments to be sure he was out of earshot, before turning to ask the others whether they knew who the man was.

“I’m surprised you haven’t heard, Partner. I would’ve thought you’d know all the school gossip,” said Yosuke. He leaned forward, eager to tell the story. “He’s a newcomer, just moved in from the city. He’s pretty shady, and from what my dad says I’m pretty sure he has a stick up his ass. I think his name is Aragaki or something.”

“Shinjiro Aragaki, to be exact,” Minako said.  

Souji, Chie, and Yosuke jumped, startled by Minako’s sudden reappearance. Souji could’ve sworn he’d seen her serve a table on the opposite of the restaurant just seconds ago. Just how fast was she? She seemed rather cheerful, despite the rather unfortunate timing of her appearance. To his side, Yosuke looked like he wanted to sink into the cushions and disappear forever.

“Don’t worry,” Minako said “I know he can come on a bit strong at times, but he means well. And, well, yelling at the top of your voice about Amagi-san’s disappearance does make you seem pretty suspicious.”

“Geez, I didn’t know we were being so obnoxious. Sorry.” Chie said, visibly striving to make herself sound normal.

Souji agreed; hearing three teenagers argue about the disappearance of a high class heir to the town’s inn must have been rather alarming. So why did Minako seem perfectly calm, and even a bit relieved?

“It’s alright. And, um-” Minako paused for a moment, as she bit her lip. “You guys should be careful, if you plan on getting involved in things like that. They might seem so important and precious when you start, but... sometimes they just keep getting bigger and bigger until they consume you. ”

She looked up then, straight at Souji. For a moment, she held his gaze, as if she wanted to tell him something. He stared back at her, trying to make sense of the inscrutable look in her red eyes.

Yosuke coughed. The moment shattered - later, Souji would think that he could pinpoint the exact moment when whatever vulnerability Minako had shown was pushed down and locked away. Perhaps it he'd simply imagined it. Maybe there'd been nothing in her expression except his own mix of curiosity and anticipation reflected back at him. He could have sworn that he'd seen Minako frown in his periphery, but he must have been wrong, because when he turned to look at her she was smiling again.

“I read that in a book last week- sounds cool, huh?” Minako said.

She giggled, and twirled away from the table, heading back behind the kitchen. Souji watched her go, well aware of the stares he was getting from both Chie and Yosuke.

“…So,” Chie said, breaking the silence. “I think we’re close to the top of the castle- that has to be where Yukiko is, right?”

“Yeah. I think today’s the day we get her back. We should be careful though- we have no idea what’s waiting for us up there.” Souji said, glad for the change of topic.

Still, Minako’s warning was still replaying in his mind. She might have said she’d been quoting from a book, but the way she’d spoken…

He shook himself out of his stupor; there was no time to ponder the mysteries of an overly cheerful waitress. Somewhere, Yukiko Amagi is waiting for them to save her.

 

When all was said and done, Yukiko’s shadow was more… problematic than he thought it would be.

He’d seen it transform, seen the phoenix and the cage, and known then that this would be harder than he’d expected. With Chie and Yosuke, he’d understood so perfectly everything that had plagued them. Shadows were thoughts, weren’t they? Thoughts that humans could normally only ever think in the dark of the night, the thoughts they’d bury down immediately in the light of the day. How could he battle Yukiko’s shadow if he didn’t really understand it?

A phoenix in a cage. He’d never known much about cages. He’d always been rich, and clever, and handsome, with parents who either didn’t notice him or didn’t care. There’d been very little he couldn’t do, and even less that he wouldn’t. Sure, he could objectively tell that Yukiko felt caged in by her parents’ expectations, but he didn’t understand it the way he had Yosuke’s boredom or Chie’s resentment.

It had been easy then, to anticipate the shadow’s every move. Ideas, even ideas taking the form of a monster about to rip him to pieces, had the disadvantage of being very predictable. Of course, this only applied when he could wrap his head around the idea, which was not much help as he stood there staring at Yukiko’s shadow.

Souji shifted onto the balls of his feet, ready to move. He glanced once to his side and caught Yosuke’s eye. Though he’d worn a worried look only seconds ago, Yosuke immediately brightened up, grinning and sending Souji a thumbs up. On his other side, Chie only had eyes for Yukiko.

There was something running through him, something strong and strange and primal; it felt like a current of lightning running through him. He sensed Izanagi behind his eyes, waiting to be unleashed. Souji took a deep breath, coiled and ready to spring. He let Izanagi's blood lust run through him, turning the edges of his vision red. 

“Persona!” he bellows, lightning crackling through his veins.

 

 

More than anything, Yukiko is tired of the pitying looks.

Both Chie and Yosuke had looked at her with pity, when they’d finally seen her for what she was; a scared little girl waiting for someone to rescue her. She wants a prince, someone to save her and love her enough to let her leave and come back on her own whims.

Her parents are caught between worrying about her and worrying about the inn. She does not begrudge them this; the inn is their child as much as she is, and Yukiko has never had issues sharing. Still, things around the inn are busy enough that they cannot afford her much time off, though they have no similar concerns about school. They were proud of her for trying hard at school, the same way they would be proud of her for pulling off a particularly impressive cartwheel; an accomplishment that is essentially useless. Yukiko does not need to try in school-her future is already set out for her.

And so she is sent off, only days after returning to her parents, to go greet the new restaurant owners in the area in the name of maintaining good business relationships.

The restaurant itself seems unremarkable, distinguished only by the pattern of blue butterflies painted across the wall and the upbeat pop music playing throughout. It's small, tucked in between two other stores, but it makes up for its nondescript appearance with the energetic music pouring out from the doorway.

Yukiko announces her presence with a quiet “Hello?”

She makes her way to the back of the restaurant, looking for any sign of the owners. Passing by rows of plain black tables and slightly worn down chairs, she reaches the back of the diner, which is filled with a series of rather comfy-looking booths. Finally, she spots them in one of the corner booths. They were a funny looking pair: a young girl asleep with her bangs brushed over her eyes, looking like a Raphaelite painting adapted by a moe artist. She was leaning on her companion, a tall man big enough to almost entirely hide the girl, who in turn sat stiff as rod, his dark face looking down severely at a cook book.

Unable to hold in her giggle, Yukiko falls into peals of laughter.

The larger, thuggish looking man immediately flushes, tucking the book into his pocket and drawing himself to his full height.

“Oi!” He whispered, his voice harsh and full of malice, “What the hell are you doing here? Can’t you read? We’re closed.”

Suddenly, the situation seems much less funny. The man is easily six feet tall, and just because he’d been reading a cookbook did not mean that he isn’t very, very dangerous. In fact, what if he’d been the one who kidnapped her? He was certainly frightening enough; she could easily imagine this man stealing her away in the night and dropping her into a TV.

“Shinji?” A small voice called out from behind the man. “Shinji?”

Yukiko peered around the man known as Shinji, getting a short glimpse of the once sleeping girl. She looked so fragile now, rubbing her eyes blearily and looking up at her tall companion, but her skirt was short enough that Yukiko could see the toned muscles of her legs, as well as the scars that adorned them. Her fingers did a strange thing, an aborted motion that looked like she'd wanted to grasp at something before reconsidering. 

The girl stood up, stretching languidly before she latched firmly onto Shinjiro. With her other hand, she waved brightly at Yukiko. Shinjiro did no such thing, only gripped Minako tightly and shifted her slightly behind him, as if Yukiko were the real threat here.

“Oh, hi there! I’m Minako. How can I help you?”

Yukiko had been wearing masks her entire life, had understood honne and tatemae years before she learned the words. Yukiko demure smile and shy eyes were a precious part of the Amagi inn service package. But this girl was like the sun; so bright and warm and beautiful that it hurt to look at. So bright that it burnt out the image she’d seen just a moment ago, of Minako scared and fragile and weak. Surely that could not have been this girl who was all smiles and liquid red eyes?

“I-I’m Amagi Yukiko. From the Amagi Inn.” Yukiko lapses into the sweet sounding spiel that she’d memorized from infanthood, welcoming them to the town and running through what little there is to know about Inaba.

Shinjiro looks at her blankly throughout her speech, while Minako nods and oohs and aws as if it’s the most interesting speech she’s ever heard. When she pauses to take a breath, Minako quickly cuts in.

“And how are you, Yukiko-chan?”

Yukiko, taken aback both by the sudden question and the familiarity with which she spoke, did not respond immediately. 

“I am fine.” Yukiko said, smiling graciously.

"Mmm,” Minako pouted “Still, there’s no shame in needing some time to deal.”

Yukiko’s throat is dry, her mind suddenly blank. What story had Souji wanted her to parrot in these situations? It had been a good one; she’d been duly impressed when Chie had relayed it.

Minako is still looking at her, still wearing that unfamiliar mix of invitation and reassurance. Her eyes reminded Yukiko of a fire moments away from burning out.

“Thank you.” Yukiko said, unable to think of anything else.

She wishes Chie was here with her. Chie, with her warmth and reliability and support. If Chie was here, she would have diverted Minako’s attention, would not have let this strange woman look at Yukiko as if she owed her some explanation.

Behind her, Shinjiro leaned silently against the wall, apparently content to let Minako do the talking.

Minako leans in and opens her mouth to speak. Her eyes are bright now, her entire body focused towards Yukiko. Her fingers, which had been tapping a cheerful tune against the table, curled into a loose fist.

“How was it in there?”

Minako asks questions as if they are dangerous, as if the answer can destroy her. Maybe it could. Yukiko cannot wrap her head around Minako’s strange mix of fragility and steel, of daisies and knives.

It makes her want to protect her and obey her. The effect is heady, like smoke that she can’t quite cough out.

“In that world- Your persona- How was it?” Minako said, her voice sugar sweet and her eyes razor sharp.

Yukiko does not respond. Silence is her last defense.

“Konohana Sakuya.” Shinji said, his gruff voice startling Yukiko. 

Minako glanced at her companion with surprise, as if she hadn’t thought that Shinjiro would care enough to interrupt.

“That’s the name of your persona, right?” Shinjiro asked.

“I-what?” Yukiko gasped, a second too late for it to believable.

“Look, Yukiko, we just want to help. We’ve dealt with something really similar to this, and we think we can help put a stop to it.”

Minako stares her down, sincere and kind. Yukiko can believe it, that this lithe little girl with the dangerous eyes and this strange man with the protective streak have done something incredible. She wants this to be over, though it has barely started. She wants this to be out of her hands.

God, is she still so weak?

Yukiko closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and tells them everything.

Chapter Text

While Akihiko has made some truly regrettable mistakes throughout his life, this one was quickly shaping up to be one of the worst.

It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time; Yukari and Mitsuru’s relationship was still new, and fraught with the types of insecurities that any relationship between two completely different people would have. This was apparently made worse by their first fight, which Junpei assured him was a do-or-die moment in a relationship. Plus, he’d thought, putting himself out there for Mitsuru might soften her up enough for him to ask about Minako and Shinji.  So, after mustering up all the courage he had, (and being offered some liquid courage courtesy of Junpei) Akihiko had taken it upon himself to offer his blessings to the new couple, and then to explain to them that they were fooling approximately no one with their attempts at subtlety.

As usual, his good intentions blew up in his face almost immediately.

He’d opened the door the meeting room, ready to have a calm, reassuring chat with Mitsuru, only to get an eyeful of the couple in question desecrating the conference room table. He’d yelped in surprise, and quickly shut the door.

Though not quite quick enough to avoid Mitsuru’s ire, which was how he’d ended up in his room, nestled under layers and layers of blankets in an attempt to stave off the bone deep chill of Mitsuru’s execution.

Across the room, Mitsuru sits at his desk and stares at her nails unrepentantly.

"Really, Akihiko.” Mitsuru begins, “One would think you’d learn by now.”

"Yes, if only I could learn how to avoid accidentally walking in on you.”

Mitsuru smiles, though it was really more a quirk of the lips.

It was almost as if they were sixteen years old again, just the two of them chatting in his room. She looks much the same as she did at twelve; the same porcelain pale skin and tired eyes. They’d been alone then, recently abandoned by Shinji. Just the two of them against the world.

When he thinks about those times now, he can recall little other than the silence of the common room, the two of them sitting there side by side, night after night, waiting for the dark hour. Most of his memories of that time had been eclipsed by those of the year that came after.

"Akihiko.” Mitsuru calls out as she moves towards the door. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

He turns to look at her. She looks rather small in the doorway, her red hair falling down to hide her eyes.

"The mission to Inaba has been cancelled. There is no longer a need for you to go.”

Akihiko froze, completely taken by surprise. Inaba had been one of their more pressing concerns, ever since the day Fuuka had burst out of her room, running to Mitsuru and telling her about an unnaturally powerful and malevolent persona she could sense in Inaba.

“Just as powerful as Minako’s messiah.” Fuuka had said.

A few months ago, it wouldn’t have been a major concern. The stranger may have a strong persona, but they were more than a match for any idiot with an overpowered persona. Now, all the losses had forced them to treat most every persona or shadow Fuuka sensed like a serious threat.

Two weeks later, the first murder had been committed.

Akihiko had been made leader of the squad assigned to Inaba, since Mitsuru couldn’t trust a mission like this to anyone else. They’d pushed back the mission a few times, since most of the active team had been assigned to another case in Sumaru City. Mitsuru stood stock still in the doorway, her face betraying nothing.

"Why?” He eventually asks.

“An agent has already left for Inaba without my permission. Despite the insubordination, I believe they are equipped to handle it.”

She doesn’t say the name, but it still hangs between them, a single tension filled note.

Minako.

He wishes he could say he was surprised, but to be honest he’d spent the last few days of Minako’s time at the base wondering why she was being so passive. It had been a far cry from her initial angry outburst when Mitsuru had decided to take her off of active duty.

Even Akihiko, who was widely known as Mitsuru’s right hand, had been surprised when Mitsuru had made the announcement.

It had been handled wrong from top to bottom, and Mitsuru’s realization of that fact had shown almost immediately on her face. Minako had been in the cafeteria, playing a friendly game of table hockey with Yukari and Junpei, when Mitsuru had marched up to her and asked for a word. Something in Mitsuru’s demeanor must have tipped Minako off, because her eyes had narrowed, and she’d declined the offer to speak in private.

Akihiko had known then, sitting across the room with Shinjiro, that something had come to a head, though he wasn’t exactly sure what. Ever since S.E.E.S. had expanded, since Minako’s miraculous recovery, tensions had been rising between Minako and Mitsuru. Even the newest recruits had picked up on it; asking if something had happened between the leader and the legend.

Junpei and Yukari had shifted, ever so slightly, into a more protective formation around Minako. It was reminiscent of their days in Tartarus, which made it no less absurd; Minako looked more ready for a fight now than she had at any point since she’d come back. Mitsuru looked stricken, especially at Yukari’s reaction, but went on bravely.

“Arisato,” she’d began “we need to talk.”

Minako tilted her head just so; most anyone would think she looked like the picture of precocious curiosity, but he knew her well enough to pick out the flash of hurt in her expression. The brunette bit her lips and Akihiko knew immediately that it was going to be a bloodbath.

"Yeah? What about, boss?” Minako said, hands folded behind her back.

"You know what, Arisato. You still aren’t at peak condition, and I can’t let you go out in the field in your… condition.”

It was the perfect excuse; there was no judgment on Minako for not being at full strength yet, considering what she’d gone through, and it absolved Mitsuru of any responsibility, since she was only looking out for the team’s most popular member.

It probably would have been much more effective if Minako hadn’t spent the entire morning tossing the newcomers on their asses in the sparring grounds.

The entire room had become unnaturally cold, so much so that Akihiko wondered if it was some side effect of Mitsuru’s nerves. The newer recruits were trying to look inconspicuous, glancing at the two hurriedly, while the original S.E.E.S. members were unabashedly staring at the implosion of their makeshift family.

“Yeah well, some muscle weakness is usually considered a normal side effect of death.

“Arisato, please-“

“So, who are you going to send to Inaba? Are you going?”

“Akihiko will be put in charge of the team.” Mitsuru responded shortly.

 "Then put him in charge and leave me on the team.”

“Arisato, no.”

“Do you honestly think I’d drag the team down?”

“Perhaps not, but that isn’t a risk I’m willing to take. I’d rather jeopardize one mission now, than the dozens we will fail if you-”

“Die? Again?” Minako sneered.

With a bitter chuckle, Minako turned on her heel and left the room, leaving only silence in her wake.

He heard the whispers pick up moments later, murmurs of Kirijo-san is so cruel and but Minako’s been through so much. Akihiko is not an angry person, generally, but he finds that he has little patience for these new recruits that have made Minako into an angel and Mitsuru into a devil. 

Here is the thing: Akihiko’s heart is a small one. There is only Miki and Shinjiro and Mitsuru, and recently Minako. He has never had room for any others. He knows Mitsuru sees Minako as a wild card, someone who she cares about but cannot trust. Someone who reappeared eighteen months after they’d buried her, without explanation, stealing back into their lives as if their worlds were hers to turn.

He knows, also, that Minako is not always the bright, plucky girl who led them through a battle with death itself. He knows that there are nooks and crannies of Minako that are terrifying and cruel and cold. He knows that Minako tries harder than anyone else he’s ever known to be kind. He knows that there is a part of him that only ever sees Minako, and that whatever her secrets, Minako was more or less personally responsible for the continued sanity of the entire team, when they’d been pushed to the brink.

He knows that neither Minako nor Mitsuru can afford to back down from this fight.

“Mitsuru,” he asks in the darkness of his room, “Why did you really take her off the roster?”

“Because,” she says, and the moment she opens her mouth he wonders if maybe he made a mistake in asking, if maybe he wouldn’t be happier not knowing, “Because I’m not sure she can still summon a persona.”

 

 

 

 

At the second official meeting of the Investigation Team, spirits were considerably higher than before.  

Yukiko was saved, and though the second victim (a first-year by the name of Kanji Tatsumi) had already been thrown into the shadow world, they were much better equipped this time around to save him. They’d decided to ask around to see what they could find out about Kanji, but Souji had opted to spend two minutes staring at the sky before he turned around and headed to the diner, which was quickly becoming his favorite place in Inaba. Not twenty minutes later, Yosuke had found him at the booth in the back, laughed bemusedly, and plopped down beside him, saying that if the leader was slacking off then he could too.

Since then, Yosuke had been completely silent, fiddling nervously with his earbuds. Souji had been surprised when he’d shown up today without the customary headphones, but hadn’t commented beyond a raised brow.

“Hey, uh, partner,” Yosuke began “D’you wanna listen?”

It took Souji a second to realize that Yosuke was offering him an earbud, and then another for him to notice Yosuke’s flushed cheeks and averted eyes. Was it such an important offer? He must have hesitated for a moment too long, since Yosuke huffed and moved to turn away.

He reached out and grabbed Yosuke’s hand, holding on for a minute and watching Yosuke’s face redden drastically. He spared a moment to wonder how healthy that was, before smoothly plucking the ear bud from Yosuke’s finger and placing it in his ear.

Souji let the soothing jazz wash over him, as he pretended not to notice Yosuke’s ridiculous grin.

Yosuke played his music loud enough for Souji to have a firm grasp on the type of music he liked: bright pop music for the tedious morning classes, strong bass for the blood and sweat of the shadow world, to block out the frenzied lub-dub of Yosuke’s own heart, and airy, barely-there instrumentals for when the two of them were dozing off at the floodplains. Not once had he heard even a single jazzy refrain carry over from Yosuke’s headphones. In fact, the only time they’d brought up jazz was when Souji had mentioned it was his favorite genre the other day.

In reality, Souji didn’t care much for jazz- Yosuke had asked him what type of music he liked and he’d answered off the top of his head. Dojima-san liked jazz, and Souji didn’t mind it, and so he’d said the first thing that had come to mind in order to get Yosuke to back off. Not that he disliked Yosuke. On the contrary, Yosuke had taken to him so readily and completely that it was difficult not to mirror some of the affection. He can’t even imagine how starved for affection Yosuke must have been that he’d latched onto Souji so completely only days after meeting him. Souji still didn't get the point of calling each other partners, but it keeps Yosuke happy, so he’s goes along with it.

“I’ve been thinking, this one kind of reminds me of those flashy parties you always see in the movies; you know the ones in the twenties?” Yosuke broke into the silence.

“Speakeasies.” He responded.

Across the room, he noticed Chie and Yukiko walk in, their eyes roaming the faces in the room. Yukiko was wearing a red jacket, which when combined with her pale face and long black hair made her look like a porcelain doll.

“What?”

“Those parties you’re thinking of. Speakeasy parties. In the prohibition.”

Yukiko stood at the front of the room for a moment before Minako noticed and rushed over to her. Minako was looking more harried than usual, her hair unkempt and her nametag just slightly crooked. Yukiko flashed Minako a warm smile when they made eye contact, and Minako responded in kind before leading her towards their booth. Had they met before?

“Figures you’d know about that stuff. So, what do you hear?”

“A C minor pentatonic phrase.” Souji responded listlessly.

Yukiko and Chie’s eyes met as they neared the table. They hadn’t been this physically close the first few days they’d walked him home. Even now, it wasn’t an obvious difference, but something had definitely changed between the two of them since they’d faced their respective shadows. Souji was pleased; Yukiko and Chie’s friendship meant he had to spend much less time worrying about whether they were mentally sound enough to keep on the team.

“Ahhh, you're always so literal. Guess music’s not your thing, huh?” Yosuke said, interrupting Souji’s thoughts.

 And therein lay the problem with Yosuke: He was so needy, so hopelessly star struck, that even Souji couldn’t bring himself to brush him off. Yosuke might have thought that Souji was distant and distracted, but the reality was that he’d accidentally been gifted with more glimpses of Souji than most people even knew existed.

As Yukiko sat down, Yosuke’s attention shifted onto the case- and the three of them quickly laid out everything they’d found out. Kanji Tatsumi was a loud, brash boy with a bad reputation and a complex. Nothing they couldn’t have figured out if they’d bothered to sit down for a minute and think it through. Though Souji wasn’t particularly annoyed, more than willing to let them play catch up. There wasn’t much pressure to rescue Kanji quickly- it had taken them two weeks to get to Yukiko, and going by those rules they still had twelve days to save Kanji.

“Actually,” Yukiko said, just as Souji had opened his mouth to speak, “There’s something I've been meaning to tell you. I think we should drop the case.”

“What?” Yosuke whisper-screamed. He’d only lost Saki-san a few weeks ago, still burning with a desire for revenge. Anyone, particularly someone who’d been a victim of the shadow world themselves, dismissing the case was still a sore spot for him.

“I spoke to Minako-san and Shinjiro-san the other day. They’re here to investigate the murders, I think.” Yukiko said. She leaned in closer, and the rest of them instinctively leaned in to match her, the tension mounting.

“I think they’re FBI.” She said.

A profound silence descended upon the table. Yosuke had frozen, visibly caught between his desire to suck up to Yukiko and his natural response to such an outlandish idea.

“Yukiko,” Chie interjected gently “why would the FBI be investigating a murder in Japan?”

The three of them burst into laughter. Souji chuckled too, but turned to look around the restaurant for Minako.

“Really though, I doubt it was anything serious. Minako-chan seems like the kind of person who checks in on her customers, you know? Like a pseudo-older sister or something.” Chie said, as she slung an arm around Yukiko’s shoulders. Yosuke nudged Souji as if to say hey partner, you seeing this? But Souji was too busy staring at Minako’s back.

“Yeah, but why would they ask you about the case?” Yosuke asked. “I mean, sure you disappeared for a few days, but they can’t know that it was relevant to the murders.”

“Mm, but they knew about my persona as well.” Yukiko replied.

What?  Why the hell wouldn’t you say that first?” Yosuke's voice was quickly approaching the higher decibels.

Souji ran his fingers along the edge of the table once, then twice. Those two had been involved this entire time and he hadn’t known. He hadn’t known. Minako had come right up to him a half dozen times. She’d given him that cryptic warning. He hadn’t put it together.

Chie kicked Yosuke under the table. Souji looked at Yukiko with a carefully blank expression. She looked back at him without reserve; she had nothing to hide. She’d told them everything of her own will, probably hoping for them to take over the investigation. This too was an oversight on his part- Yukiko had never drawn on her persona in battle, had never felt the rush of power, wasn’t bound to the shadow world like they were. Perhaps she never would be: sturdy, dependable Yukiko may have dreamt of adventure, but hadn’t chased after it like Yosuke and Chie.

“The easiest way to find out what they're up to would be to ask.” Souji said finally.

He left the table and headed straight towards Minako, who was busy chatting with a group of off-duty nurses. Souji tapped her on the shoulder once, unconcerned about the conversation he was interrupting. Minako turned and looked at him pleasantly, that same damnable smile on her face.

“Souji.” She said. “What’s up?”

“We need to talk.”

“Sure thing. Just give me a minute.”

She finished giving the elderly women their orders and walked off with a wave, beckoning for Souji to follow. Souji followed her through the kitchen doors, unconcerned.

Aragaki was waiting for them inside. So Minako had even known how he would react.

“Oi, make this quick. Food’s on the stove.” Shinjiro said. Most people would have wilted under the weight of Shinjiro’s glower, but neither Minako nor Souji were all that affected.

“Souji, I know you’re probably wondering who we are.” Minako began, “And, uh, honestly I wish I could tell you that we’re to help, but-”

“You’re here for something else.”

“I’m here for the Velvet Room.” Minako said.

The Velvet Room? He hadn’t known that anyone else could go there. Igor had mentioned other guests, but he’d also made it sound like the Velvet Room was for Souji’s exclusive use, at least until he completed his mysterious contract.

Neither Yosuke nor Chie had noticed the doors to the Velvet Room all over town, not even when he’d go over there for minutes at a time, shifting around the personae in his head. It was as if everything in the velvet room happened in between one second and the next. Whatever magic Igor used to keep his home hidden was working, and as far as Souji could tell it was impenetrable.

Which meant that the only way Minako would know about it was if she was one of the previous guests.

“Are you a wild card?” He asked.

Minako grinned at him, pleased. Perhaps she’d been expecting him to be more obstinate, determined to be special and singular. Souji had never been susceptible to delusions of greatness. Souji did not needto be told why he was chosen.  He was less- less everything than everyone. He was the non-manifest; blackness, holes, empty space.

“Bingo. I was Igor’s last guest.”

Was she like him then? Did she also look at the world around her and wonder why everyone cared so much about every little thing? He felt lonely then, as if he’d longed for companionship his entire life, but he knew logically that this was not true. He’d never wanted for company, or praise, or love. He did not want anyone to understand him. He understood everyone else, and look where that got them; he could make most anyone do most anything, if he was so inclined.

This must have been some effect of Minako’s. Or maybe this was just what happened when two wild cards got close, maybe there was some safeguard in his head to make sure they got along.

“So why don’t you go visit him? He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who gets a lot of visitors- I’m sure he’d be overjoyed.” Souji said.

“I’m sure he would be. The problem is, he took something very important from me.” Her words were threatening, but her tone was still light and pleasant. He wondered if Minako was physically incapable of expressing negative emotions, or if she simply saved them for extra special occasions.

“You want me to talk to him for you?”

He was confused, which was not only a new emotion for him but a rather frustrating one. What did she want from him?

“No, I’ll talk to him myself. I just need you to get me in.” She grabbed the chain around her neck and lifted it. At the end of the necklace hung a key, held there like a pendant. Souji recognized it as the velvet key, exactly like the one that he’d tucked into his coat pocket this morning before leaving.

“And what would I get in return?”

Minako and Shinjiro shared a look.

“We might not be here to investigate these murders, but that doesn't mean we can't help you out with them. Trust me, Souji, we're good people to have in your corner.”

Souji looked at her, considering. It was a good deal. Giving Minako her five minutes with Igor would cost him nothing- no matter how annoyed the residents of the Velvet Room got, they could hardly toss him out. And as much as he liked Yukiko and Chie and Yosuke, there was something to be said for the hardened look on Shinjiro's face and tricksy set to Minako's jaw; the shadows had been manageable so far, but Souji would be a fool if he counted on them staying that way. It would pay to have people who had experience fighting shadows. He wondered what their personas looked like.

"Alright," he said as he rose to his feet, mind already spinning in a hundred directions, calculating all the different ways he could make this work, "alright.”

 

 

Thankfully, battling Kanji’s shadow was much, much easier than he'd expected. Kanji’s insecurities were broadcasted so widely and ostentatiously that Souji found himself feeling rather protective of the boy.  Looking at Kanji was like watching a kitten wearing leather run full throttle at a chainsaw. Souji couldn’t help but feel a vague desire to stop this boy, this bundle of complexes and guilt and shortcomings, from getting ripped apart by the world around him.

As was become a habit, Souji found himself limping into Minako’s diner, and headed over to what had become their unofficial booth. Yosuke flopped next to him moments later, closely followed by Chie, Yukiko, and Kanji.

“Man,” Kanji said, his voice perpetually too loud, “Those shadows were freakin’ annoying today.”

It was true; they’d spent more time than usual in the shadow world today, trying to get everyone ready for when the next victim inevitably popped up. For all Yosuke’s teasing, Kanji had proven to be an invaluable addition to the team. He might not have much in the way of magic, but Kanji had, in his own words, “delivered an epic smack down to all those stuck-up shadows!” Souji was unsure when the shadows had revealed themselves to be arrogant, but had long since given up making sense of the things his team yelled in battle.

The other people in the restaurant were giving them strange looks, which was to be expected when a group of boisterous teenagers walked in, closely followed by a strange looking fox. At first, Shinjiro had vehemently refused to let the fox come in with them, grumbling that their mud and sweat was scaring off enough customers, they didn’t need to add wild animals to the mix. That, of course, had been before Minako had been introduced to the Fox, declared him the official team pet, and pouted at Shinjiro until he relented and allowed the fox to come in.

Shinjiro was busy in the kitchen now, but Minako had abandoned her duties as a waitress when she saw them walk in.

“Hey you guys! Long day?” Minako said.

“You can say that again!” Chie was still as enthusiastic as ever, even though her entire body was sweat-drenched from the training in Kanji’s bathhouse.

“Well,” Minako said, “I’ve got just the thing!”

She placed a pack of TaP sodas on the table, winking. Yosuke flashed her a thumbs up in appreciation, and even Souji granted her a smile. Kanji seemed distracted, his eyes roaming around the room. Souji knew he was looking for Shinjiro, who he had identified as a sort of mentor figure, albeit one who was largely monosyllabic and completely aloof.

“Mmm, Kanji? Shinjiro’s in the back. Could you check for me, if he needs any help?”

Souji glanced at Minako, who was ushering Kanji in the direction of the kitchen, then returned his attention to his phone, where he was checking for any messages from Nanako. He’d felt rather guilty abandoning Nanako this morning to go off into the TV, but she’d assured him it was fine. Still, he had half a mind to go home right now and visit. Surprisingly, he’d come to like Nanako, who reminded him of his own childhood years. They made a good team at home; Souji doing the cooking, calmly sweeping the postcards from his parents (these ones featuring grandiose mountains backlit by the sunset) into the trash, as Nanako tidied the house and assured Dojima-san that it was okay for him to miss dinner for the fifth night this week.

Souji looked up when he noticed the troubling silence. Yosuke and Chie were still bickering, and Yukiko was giggling at the two of them. Kanji was in the back, probably trying to strike up conversation with Shinjiro, so who was he- Oh. Minako was zoned out, silently staring at the table where she would usually have been enthusiastically teasing Yosuke or giving Yukiko tips.

She’d gotten along great with the team so far; all of them came to her asking for tips with using their persona, or for a quick spar in the backyard. Chie and Yosuke wouldn’t let up with the invitations to come into the TV with them, but neither Minako nor Shinjiro had come in with them yet.

They hadn’t gone to the Velvet Room yet either; Minako had wanted to wait until the last day of the month, which was when she said her chances of getting what she wanted were the highest. But that was today, and she’d yet to say anything.  

Souji liked Minako in a vague sort of way, which was the only way he ever liked anyone, but even with that it would mean nothing to Souji if Minako forgot forever and never got back whatever Igor had taken from her, except that for some reason his team has become inexplicably attached to her. Yukiko came over all the time now for cooking lessons with Minako, and Chie had found a willing partner for her early morning jogs. Even Kanji seemed to like her, occasionally commenting on whatever cute new outfit she’d put together or helping her take care of the fox.

By far the most dangerous thing about Minako was the way she could make anyone care about her.

He tapped her on the shoulder. It took some time for her to turn around, but he could tell that she knew what he wanted. Her shoulders were tense, her ponytail tied abnormally tight. Her eyes had been dull and unfocused all evening.

“Minako,” he said, “Let’s go.

Minako turned to look at him, and now he could see the tears in her eyes. Not for the first time, he wondered what exactly had been stolen from her. He would have asked Shinjiro, except that Shinjiro had little patience for invasive questions, and even less patience for invasive questions about Minako, which he would wave away with harsh words and an almost unnoticeable blush.

“Alright,” she said slowly, as if she were reassuring someone, “Alright.”

  

 

They left the diner without anyone noticing. The path to the closest velvet door is eerily quiet, as if the entire world had chosen to mirror Minako’s silence.

The door had chosen to manifest in a deserted alleyway, where the light shining through the cracks between the door and the frame were the only things to illuminate the shadows. The entire area was bathed in the soft blue light; it felt like they were standing in a way place between this world and Igor’s home. 

“Are you ready?” Minako asked as she laid her hand against the wood of the door. 

Souji didn’t bother to respond: the question hadn’t been for him. 

Minako took a step in, and disappeared into the blue light. Souji glanced behind to make sure he wasn’t being watched, and followed her through. 

The Velvet Room looked nothing like it had before. Where there had once been smooth leather and clear glass there was now only navy brick, piled so high that Souji could not see the top. They took a few steps forwards, only to reach a branch in the path. Souji glanced at Minako, who shrugged.

He wondered what it meant, that the once mundane appearance of the Velvet Room had transformed into this labyrinth.

Behind him, Souji heard a pair of footsteps. He turned, only to come face to face with what could only be described as an underwear model dressed up as an elevator attendant. He was standing just close enough to be impolite, and his eyes were a frankly disconcerting shade of gold.

“Please,” The elevator attendant said, “Forgive the... disarrayed appearance of the Velvet Room. We were not prepared for your visit.”

“Then you’re off your game. Of course I’d come visit.” Minako said.

“Visit…” Theo repeated slowly, considering “Is that what this is?”

“That’s what I said.” She grinned and offered her arm to Theo with a flourish.

Theo looked at her for a moment before taking the offered arm with a wry smile.  Minako smiled back at him, but Souji could see the anger in her eyes, in the way her free hand was curled into a loose wrist.

Souji considered them for a moment. They were standing close together, but Minako was just slightly too close to everyone, all the time.  

“Thanks, Souji.” Minako said, with a grin.

The two of them walked off, quickly disappearing into the labyrinth and leaving Souji alone in their wake.

 

 

 

This was the problem with the wild cards: Igor had chosen Tatsuya for his ability to fight, he’d chosen Souji for his ability to think, but he had not chosen Minako at all. Minako had been thrown headlong into the infinite gaping maw of ambition, and that was more dangerous than anything else. Minako only wants to live- Souji wants to outthink others, and Tatsuya wanted to fight alongside his friends. Minako was not the first, but she was the hungriest, and for a long time Theo thought this meant she should have been chosen before her brother. Why choose someone who couldn’t care at all for anything or anyone except himself or his sister, when you could choose someone who would try to do the right thing? Now, he understands that Igor, in his own way, was trying to be merciful.

“Minako, as glad as I am to be in your company once more, you must know that I cannot give you what you want.”

She smiles back at him, more a flash of teeth than an expression of joy.

“I’m hearing that all the time nowadays. But I know for a fact that you can help me. And you will.”

“Do you?”

“Come on, Theo. Someone brought me back. The only person I know with enough power to swing that is Igor. And the only reason Igor would bring me back, is if there’s a fight coming.”

“Minako-”

“I need you to unlock my personas. Now.”

“Minako. We did not bring you back. My master could not identify who freed you from the seal, which was why he took the actions that he did.”

She falls silent for a long time. He can see the conflict in her eyes; her refusal to give up her fight warring with the new information she’d just gotten. He’s seen this look in her eyes before, seen her sizing up a particularly large shadow and coming up with a dozen ways to bring it to his knees.

“Theo.” Minako says, less sure than before, some of the righteous anger wiped away to reveal the human girl underneath it. “Please, it’s driving me crazy. I can still sense Thanatos just… just waiting there, inside my skull, but I can’t summon him. You’re telling me that something big and bad brought me back, but you won’t give me what I need to protect myself? To protect the people that I care about?”

“I would if I could.” Theo says, and to his surprise he means it. He knows her well enough to know that Minako is always fighting, has been fighting tooth and nail her entire life because when Minako is not fighting, she is nothing. 

He’d been in love with her once, but then she’d died and come back and all he could think the entire time was that he’d expected more.

“Then do something. Give me something. A name, a mission- anything!”

Theo looks at her now, and beyond her too: where a silent young boy with dark bangs covering one eye lay between Erebus and Nyx, where a young girl sobbed over her brother’s corpse, unaware of the masked man watching her, and then something closer; a cheerful young girl showing him around Iwatodai with a smile on her face and hope in her eyes.

‘For old time’s sake,’ he thinks as leans forwards and whispers a name into her ear.

 

Chapter Text

“Man, where do they get these people?” Junpei says.

Yukari snorts, but does not respond, too busy wrangling a newbie with an out of control persona to the ground. This isn’t the first time this has happened- all their new recruits seem to find it more or less impossible to control their personas. It would probably help if they could still train in Tartarus, but the best they can do are these small pockets of the shadow world still left in Iwatodai. Yukari would prefer Tartarus: at least there she’d gotten used to the setting. Here, the shadow world twirls and changes and transforms before her eyes, never letting her get comfortable. It’s creepy, and certainly not conducive to the sort of calm, informative guidance she knows the newcomers need from her.

“I believe Mitsuru-san finds the new members throughout various intermediaries she has hired to identify teenagers who showcase-”

“Not what he meant, Aigis.” Yukari cuts in, annoyed.

She has no reason to be annoyed at Aigis, except the strangeness of looking at this almost-not-quite human girl, and of course the guilt that suffocates her when she looks at the weapon, even now. She glances at Aigis, half expecting an offended expression, but is met with the same terrifyingly neutral look Aigis always wears now. Mitsuru is constantly telling her that it’s Aigis’ default expression, but Yukari knows this to be a lie; she’s seen Aigis smile, and frown, and even look hurt, as if she were about to cry. Whatever spark of life had been in her before has been snuffed out recently, and it frustrates Yukari to know that she has played a part in it.

Yukari sidles up to Mitsuru, who gives her a subtle smile and winds their hands together. She wants to smooth away the frown lines on Mitsuru’s face, to tell her that none of this is her fault, but the trainees are looking, and she knows how much this operation means to Mitsuru. Mitsuru squeezes her hand once more before heading off to talk to one of the more promising trainees. Yukari watches her leave, then turns to look through the crowd of newbies for a pale face and paler blonde hair.

“Misaki!” She calls when she finds him.

He turns, looking at her with the same bright blue eyes, unfocused as if he were looking through her rather than at her.

“Ah. Takeba-san.”

She forces a smile, and waves him over. He walks over, calm as ever, a curious look on his face as if he doesn’t know exactly what she wants to talk about.

“It’s nice to have you back. We missed you when you were gone.” Yukari says.

“If this is about my leave of absence, I’ve already spoken to Mitsuru-san about it, so…”

Yukari narrows her eyes, trying to get a handle on her annoyance. She’s almost always annoyed these days, but Misaki is more trying than most. She doesn’t like the familiar way he addresses Mitsuru, or the way that he just disappeared for two months and then came back when he felt like it, without suffering any consequences. Mostly, she dislikes the fact that he knows what she’s done. Yukari is not ashamed of her choice; is not attached to “the cause” the same way others are. Really, she just wants to get to the other side with herself and everyone she cares about intact. Still, Mitsuru was having enough trouble leading this team of ungrateful brats without stories of her girlfriend’s involvement in Minako’s defiance going around.

She’d been planning it for months, even before Minako had told her of her plan to run off to Inaba, Shinjiro in tow. Yukari had seen the signs in her lover’s tense shoulders, the way she occasionally wouldn’t meet her eyes, how she sometimes looked like she was seconds away from falling to the ground.

And how could Mitsuru, who stood straighter each morning to better hold the weight of her father’s ghosts on her shoulders, accept Minako? Minako, who laughed at her own ghosts, who waltzed back into their lives when she’d felt like it, who never ever answered a question she didn’t feel like answering. Mitsuru wanted a dynasty and Minako wanted the world, and it all came down (to quote one of Junpei’s crappier western movies) to this town not being big enough for the both of them. By which she meant the world, naturally.

She’d gone to Minako offering her help with whatever she was beginning to plan. She’d tried, as much as anyone could, to contain Minako so that her open defiance would be small enough that Mitsuru could forgive without losing face. Yukari had been the one to get Minako a copy of Inaba’s case file, to distract the field team that day. She’d been the one, two days later, to come clean to Mitsuru and the team.

Originally, Minako had wanted to take Aigis and Ken and Koromaru with her. It made sense, in a way; Aigis had belonged to Minako in a way the others didn’t, and they were all worried about Ken growing up amongst what was effectively a standing army. Yukari had convinced Minako to leave them behind, to leave herself something to come back to. In the end, even Yukari hadn’t been able to dissuade Shinjiro, who’d sat them down one day and calmly explained that there wasn’t a chance in hell of Minako heading to Inaba without him.

Yukari had fought against it. Shinjiro couldn’t leave- he and Akihiko were inseparable, Mitsuru relied on him as part of her original trio, he was one of the only people in the complex who could cook! Still, Shinjiro had remained steady, and Yukari had been forced to relent. It was no easy thing to stay strong against the combined stubbornness of both Minako and Shinjiro.

On the night of, everything had been going according to plan. Which, of course, had been when Yukari turned around, moments after waving goodbye, to see Misaki’s face inside the window.

Misaki had smiled through the window.

‘Oh,’ Yukari had thought, ‘Oh, shit.’

Presently, Misaki coughs uncomfortably, snapping Yukari out of her reverie.

“Right,” Yukari says now, steeling herself, “Well, about what you- mayormaynothave seen back then-”

“Hey guys.” Says Akihiko from somewhere behind her, making Yukari jump about  half a foot into the air.  “What’s going on?”

Yukari moves without thinking, bonking Akihiko on the head.

“Don’t sneak up on me!” She screeches.

“Sorry, didn’t think you’d be so easily spooked-” Akihiko pauses, quickly ducking out of the way of Yukari’s swinging fists.

Ceasing her attempts to flatten him for frightening her, Yukari glances nervously between Misaki and Akihiko. Misaki also looked discomfited. She guessed that Akihiko’s reputation preceded him: the blood knight whose best friends had run off to some nowhere town. Which, come to think of it, was probably why Akihiko was making an effort to talk to her now. They were hardly close back when S.E.E.S. was in action, and the years had done little to remedy this.

Yukari goes to pat him on the shoulder, only to be tugged back. She whirls around, prepared this time to make the offender (probably Junpei) regret they were ever born, only to come face to face with her exhausted looking girlfriend.

“Hello.” Mitsuru says with a tired smile.

“Hey there.” Yukari grins, twining their fingers and stepping closer.

“I hope,” Mitsuru says, “that they didn’t tire you out too much.”

“Barely felt a thing,” Yukari whispers back.

Across from them, Akihiko looks distinctly unamused.

With all the out of control personas brought under control, people are beginning to file through the exit back to the real world. The newer recruits look half-dead, their limbs shaking from exertion and their face contorted in varying expressions of pain, annoyance, and fear.

She tugs Mitsuru towards the entrance, eager to leave the shadow world. Stepping through the portal feels like running through ice cold sprinklers in the heat of summer, and leaves her just as breathless. Outside, the air is warm and humid, bearing down on their tired bodies like a physical weight. On the other side of the road, Chidori is waiting for them next to her car. She strikes a strange picture with her bright red hair and lacy pink dress, her expressionless face against the drab urban backdrop.

Junpei runs across the street to meet her, kissing her cheek and giving her a hand up. Chidori smiles softly and gets in the driver’s seat. The rest of them file into the van, leaving the trainees to be driven back in Fuuka’s car. Awkwardly squished between Mitsuru’s billowing fur coat and the door, Yukari squirms around, trying to find a comfortable position. The atmosphere in the car is similarly uncomfortable, with Akihiko and Mitsuru both completely silent, meaning the only noise in the car is that of Junpei awkwardly flirting with his girlfriend. When the silence becomes too much for her to bear, she roots around for something to say.

“I… I don’t know what we’re going to do with the new guys. The way they are right now, they seem like more trouble than they’re worth.”

The moment the words are out of her mouth she wishes she could take them back. Mitsuru’s fingers spasm against Yukari’s thigh, and her curtain of hair only barely covers her dejected expression.

Next to Mitsuru, Akihiko opens his mouth, pauses, and closes it again. And again. And again.

This is it, Yukari realizes. Her and Akihiko, Mitsuru’s last lieutenants. The guy whose two most precious people just gave their leader the middle finger on their way out of his life, and her, some girl who can’t even make small talk without depressing everyone in a three mile radius.

Luckily, they reach headquarters before Yukari has too much time to dwell on it.

Their new headquarters had once been one of the Kirijo Corporation’s undercover research labs. It was more of a bunker than anything, and even with the complex they’d built for their recruits on top of it, the whole thing had a very military feel to it. Yukari and Mitsuru shared what was, by all accounts, the best bedroom in the entire building, but even theirs often felt like a hospital room they had overstayed their welcome in.

The familiar rumble of an engine just outside the entrance alerts them all to Fuuka’s return. A few moments later, she walks in, chatting with some recruit that Yukari only vaguely remembers. Her white armband identifies her as the support group though, which means she was the one holding Yukari’s things for her in the shadow pockets. Catching Mitsuru’s eye, Fuuka walks towards them, waving her apprentice away with a smile.

Fuuka and Mitsuru walk into the meeting room together, no doubt to compare their depressing results. Fuuka’s team was tasked with keeping an eye on the others, to support the field teams during their training bouts in the shadow world. Across the room, Fuuka’s apprentice bashfully hands Akihiko his phone, blushing so hard that her face blends in with her red hair. Which is news, seeing as Yukari didn’t even know Akihiko had a cellphone until thirty seconds ago. The apprentice (one of these days, Yukari was going to have to learn her name) turns towards her, and squeaks nervously when she sees her watching. Even now, Yukari is still surprised by the fear-respect-awe reaction people get when they see her and her red armband.

The apprentice almost trips over herself in her haste to reach Yukari.

“Ah, Takeba-san- your phone.” She says, pulling Yukari’s thin pink phone out of her bag.


Yukari reaches out and takes it, flipping through her messages. A text from her mother, a funny picture of Koromaru sent by Ken, and… eight texts from Minako?

>> ahhh, srry for the late reply bae, was super busy here in Inaba
>> gotta keep these young’uns on the right path 。◕ ‿ ◕。
>> Me and Shinji r both doing finefinefine xD bit bored, but I think he rlly likes it here
>> how r u guys over there? Give my love to Aki and Aigis, aight?
>> Fun aside, i think im onto smthng rlly big?
>>srry to put this on you, but i rlly need a favour rn: can u look up a name for me? Here, ill txt it 2 u
>> Philemon

 

“Sure, sure,” Yosuke said with the air of someone imparting great wisdom. “Everyone wants to have a dog, but everyone wants to be a cat.”

“Uh, I don’t think so. Cats are really selfish and rude- which I guess explains why you like them, Yosuke.” Chie grinned, leaning across Yukiko to needle Yosuke.

“Hey, that is so not true! Besides, it’s not just me; loads of people like cats, right partner?”

Souji looked up from his place in the corner of the tent. In the darkness, he could barely make out the shapes of his classmates, opting instead to turn his face towards the sound of Yukiko’s giggles.

“I like cats,” Souji said, “They’re quiet… clever things. They’re self-sufficient, don’t need anybody except themselves. Even if they can sometimes be frightening or discomfiting, they do what they do without bothering with shame or waiting on others. And they’re cute.”

The tent fell under a profound silence for a moment. Then, Yosuke piped up.

“I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at once.”

“Mm, I don’t know, I think I remember him saying more when he introduced himself on his first day.” Yukiko said.

“Alright- let’s go to sleep.” Souji said shortly, even as the corners of his mouth twitched upwards.

“How can you sleep? Isn’t it sort of exciting?” Yukiko whispered to him from across the tent.

No. Souji thought, it really wasn’t all that exciting. It had been the same as always: Chie and Yosuke bickering, Yukiko hovering at the sidelines, occasionally interjecting or giggling at a funny joke. Yosuke: glancing at him for approval, needling Kanji when he got uncomfortable with his own thoughts, sharing his earbuds with him on the trek through the forest. Chie with her rousing laughter and infectious enthusiasm. The little looks of gratitude Kanji had tried to hide, the way he relaxed inch by inch with them. And if Souji himself had cracked a smile or chuckled quietly, then it was only a temporary madness brought on by the atmosphere.

By then, the four of them had lain down for the night. Chie at one corner of the tent, Yosuke at the other, and Yukiko and Souji in the middle, having wordlessly agreed to keep the loudmouths as far away from each other as possible.

The sound of hushed voices, students trying to speak quietly through the night away from the teachers’ suspicions, filtered through the flimsy tent flaps. Souji could hear his companions breathing, detect the point at which their breathing evened out and they fell asleep. Chie fell asleep first, having exerted herself the most. Yukiko followed soon after, with no sign except for the lowering of her eyes. Yosuke is the last one to cling to consciousness. Except for Souji, of course. It had been a long time since Souji had fallen asleep with ease. Yosuke turned towards him, drawing in a breath.

Souji didn’t move, or give any other sign that he’d heard Yosuke move. If Yosuke wanted to talk, he would. They shared that moment of silence, a precious thing between them, until Yosuke swallowed harshly and tilted his head towards Souji.

Souji stared at him impassively, even as he was intrigued. What did Yosuke plan to do?

“Partner,” Yosuke whispered “Do you really think we’ll solve the case?”

Souji considered it. They were no closer to a suspect than before, and no one had shown up on the midnight channel for a while. At this point, he had to consider the possibility that the killer was finished or in hiding, in which case they would be stuck. Minako and Shinjiro, despite their promises, were little help. Shinjiro looked tired almost all the time recently, and Minako seemed preoccupied. He wouldn’t have told them his suspicions even if they’d made themselves available; he didn’t trust the way Minako whirled around every time someone walked through a door, or the look in her eyes when she checked her phone. And then there was Dojima to consider, who was becoming steadily more suspicious of them, even as he’d become more open on certain nights at the kitchen table. Souji doubted they’d find out who the killer was. He wanted to, of course. He didn’t like the idea of a killer on the loose, not when Nanako was living here, not in this picturesque and sleepy little town.

“Yeah, I do.” He finally said, because that was what Yosuke needed to hear.

Yosuke breathed out sharply, snuggling lower down under his blanket.

“Yeah,” Yosuke said, “Yeah, we will.”

Another moment of silence passed between them.

“Souji-” He began, then paused, and hastily flipped over.

Oh, Souji thought. Souji was under no delusions about how Yosuke felt. They were partners, according to the sandy haired boy, but every now and then Yosuke would look at him for a beat too long or stand a bit too close. Souji didn’t mind, but he didn’t want to hurt Yosuke. Or, more realistically, for Yosuke to hurt himself on Souji. He liked the boy: he had a mind for puzzles, and was a good ally in the field- balanced enough to cover any bases the others couldn’t. And he was loyal, beyond a doubt, to the team and to Souji.

“It’s okay.” Souji said shortly, in a way that left no room for a response.

Yosuke remained silent. Then, barely perceptible, he shifted closer.

“Oh, come on.” Souji said, reaching out and dragging him closer. When their knees touched, he let go, catching Yosuke’s eye.

“It’s a cold night,” Yosuke huffed, but he couldn’t stop his smile.

It’s okay, Souji thought, again and again and again, until his thoughts lulled him to sleep.

 

The girl on the screen was unknown to him. Not in the sense that he didn’t know who she was; teen idol, bright-plastic-cavity-inducing Rise Kujikawa. He’d seen her before, on advertisements for fizzy drinks and expensive clothes.

The girl across the street from him was unknown as well. She, too, was Rise Kujikawa –the real one this time, not a pixelated version. She might as well have been,Sure, he could tell this wasn’t the real her, but he couldn’t tell what she was, stripped of her masks. He couldn’t even imagine it, really. All he could see was the same plastic sheen that Minako wore- bright and hard and impenetrable.

Maybe Minako was having better luck, he thought. She had the same bubbly demeanor as Rise; maybe there was some trick to it that Souji did not realize. The thought of it annoyed him.

They’d decided to take a slightly more sophisticated approach in their surveillance than they had with Kanji. Dojima was hovering around the tofu shop, keeping an eye out for Rise’s crazed fan, so Souji going in was out of the question. Instead, he’d opted to watch from Minako’s diner, which was conveniently located on the other side of the street. He’d asked Minako to go talk to her in his place, and she’d taken Chie and Yukiko along. Yosuke was hanging around the outside of the shop, looking for any strange faces.

On his part, Souji could see no strange faces. Inaba was so small a town that he could easily recognize everyone on the street. There was Naoki, a little way down, sitting on the curb in front of his family’s store and staring blankly at the ground. Farther north, he could see Sayoko chatting with a flustered looking policeman. And of course, right in front of him he could see the uncle who had taken him in, and his useless partner.

“You keep staring at the store like that and it’s gonna burst into fire.”

Souji turned to look at Shinjiro, who had at some point walked up behind him.

This was a strange sight: Shinjiro, while not shy nor prone to avoiding their group when they were in what was ostensibly his home, did not actively seek them out.

“I’m looking out for suspicious people.” Souji explained.

“Tch.” Shinjiro stepped forwards, joining Souji in his task of watching the street.

The two of them watched in silence as, across the street, Minako charmed her way into the store, Chie and Yukiko at her heels. Adachi stepped up to her, gesturing that she wasn’t allowed to be there, to come back later. Minako giggled, simpering and tilting her head. She gave him a thousand watt smile and neatly side stepped the floundering assistant, quickly heading into the shop. She turned just before she stepped inside, and blew Adachi a kiss.

From here, they could no longer observe. It was up to the girls, and to a lesser degree to Yosuke and Kanji, who were still loitering around the store. Souji gave up on watching– what was the point of looking when you couldn’t see? - and instead settled into watching Shinjiro.

He’d expected a severe frown, a betrayal of his annoyance at Minako’s flirtatious nature and frivolous flourishes. Instead, he found Shinjiro with an amused look in his eyes and a fond smile that changed his entire face.

 

“You’re not me!” Rise screamed, as her shadow grew and burst, twisting and transforming into a more monstrous form.

“Oh,” Yosuke’s voice carried over from where he stood, a few steps behind him and to the side “Oh, great.” He sounded painfully unimpressed.

Souji grimaced, uncomfortable with the knowledge that he was going into this fight blind. He’d known the secrets of the others, whether or not he’d sympathized with them. What did he know of Rise? That she didn’t know who she was? That she felt like others didn’t see the real her? That she was alone, alone, alone?

These things were hardly unique to the monster twirling about on the stage; they certainly weren’t enough to give him an idea of how the shadow would act.

The first blow came as a surprise: a brutal magarula that he only barely managed to dodge. He could feel Thoth shivering anxious in his head, unamused by the threat. Had the shadow known his weakness? No, he thought, how could she? Either way, it was not a problem: he shifted his weight onto his back leg, took a deep breath, and dragged out Seiryu from the dredges of his mind. The world shifted, tilted on its side for a moment, before shifting back into sharp focus.

Seiryu always made him light-headed, as if part of his mind was in the sky next to Seiryu himself.

On the stage, Rise twirled once more, raising her hands to the ceiling and cackling gleefully.

“Ahahah!” She threw her head back in a cackle. “Enjoying yourself? I’ve got a ways to go before I show you my true self… You ain’t seen anything yet!”

Souji threw himself backwards, only barely avoiding a blaze of fire that would have taken him out. Kanji wasn’t as lucky: taking a full blast to the face that threw him face first to the ground. When he stayed down, Souji looked around for Yukiko, trying to find their healer. He found her frozen in the corner of the room, hands halfway cusped around her card –moments away from calling up her persona.

This is it, he realized. He was going to die here in this dreamscape, in this world. That’s okay, he thought.

Tomorrow the sun would rise and Nanako would wake, and somewhere across the world his parents would wake too and know that their son is dead. Maybe it would ruin them. Maybe he was looking forward to it.

Tomorrow, five more bodies would show up in town –six, maybe, but he still didn’t know how Teddie figured into the shadow world- for Dojima and his partner to obsess over. It would be a burden on Dojima. What a pity. Hopefully his hapless partner would keep his head above water.

Tomorrow, school doors will open and kids will file in and stare at the window. Cats will chase mice and the wind will blow across the fields near the floodplain.

Souji would not have minded living to see tomorrow. But this is okay too, he reminded himself.

He should have closed his eyes, but he wanted to see. The Shadow Rise looked right back at him, tilting her head and fluttering her lashes. She blew him a kiss. This was it.

He looked at her, holding her gaze as he waited for the final blow to fall.

Something hard knocked into him, the force sending him careening across the room. He smashed his face on the corner of the stage, stars blossoming in his vision and the sticky wetness of blood spurting from a gash just above his brow sliding down his face.

Kanji was standing in his place, every limb shaking with the effort of keeping himself upright.

What, Souji thought bitterly, couldn’t wait your turn?

“Senpai-” Kanji said, breathing in harsh breaths, “Senpai, you okay?”

It took him several moments to understand the question was meant for him. And several more to respond, because what a strange question, why would that matter?

“I’m fine,” he said as he struggled to his feet, moments before Teddie burst into the fray and everything went to hell.

 

He’d expected Rise to be deadweight, not to hanker down and back them up against Shadow Teddie. What was even more impressive was that she still had the energy to flirt shamelessly with Souji afterwards.

“Mm, senpai!” She squealed, “You were so cool back there!”

Souji bit his lip to hold back a chuckle; not only at Rise’s questionable acting, but also at Yosuke’s scandalized expression from across the room.

Rise had been at it nonstop since he’d first gingerly swung her onto his back after their fight with Shadow Teddie. Every muscle in his body had protested the added weight, still smarting from being tossed around by both Rise and Teddies’ shadows. His healing could make his injuries fade away, but he had no such solution for his fatigue and phantom pains.

“You’re really hamming it up.” Souji murmured to the side, so that only Rise could hear. “By the way, I know you can walk.”

He felt Rise smile into his hair, before dropping down to whisper into his ear. “Ah, you wouldn’t toss this damsel off your back, would you?”

“Besides,” she said, breath hot against his ear. “I’m comfortable.”

Souji fought the urge to roll his eyes, instead slowing down his pace to fall in line with Yukiko and Chie. The two of them were close, leaning heavily on each other. Yukiko was still shivering, despite wearing Chie’s coat on top of her own.

“Are you going to be okay?” He asked, watching Yukiko rub her arms.

“Y-yes.” Yukiko said, not meeting his eyes.

How convincing. He caught Chie’s eye, silently extracting a promise to watch over Yukiko for the night.

“They’re cute.” Rise piped up as he walked away, giggling into his neck.

“Oi. This piggy back ride is for mute passengers only.”

Rise mimed locking her lips and throwing away the key, keeping up the act for half a minute before she pursed her lips and blew him a kiss with a loud “mwah!”

Souji stared at her blankly.

With Chie and Yukiko taken care of, Souji jogged up to where Yosuke and Kanji were arguing loudly. This was hardly a new scene. Tensions always ran high on their journey back out of the shadow world, everyone still keyed up from the battles.

“You cruisin’ for a beatin’ senpai?”

Kanji’s voice was so loud that it echoed, impossibly, across the open field of the dreamscape. Souji furrowed his brows in response to the illogic of it all, but not before glancing around warily for any stray shadows attracted by the loud noise.

“Quiet!” Souji hissed, narrowing his eyes at the quarreling duo.

Just because they hadn’t been attacked on the path between worlds yet didn’t mean they never would be. Didn’t they understand that they knew a grand total of nothing about the shadow world?

This place wasn’t safe.

Suitably chastened, the two boys split up and went their separate ways. Yosuke sent him an annoyed glance before stalking off, probably to complain to Teddie. Kanji kept on walking, picking up speed so that he was several meters ahead of the body of the group.

“Kanji!” Souji called out, “Wait up!”

Kanji faltered, pausing long enough for Souji to catch up to the tall boy.

“I,” Souji began, “That is-” Souji fell silent.

Beside him, Kanji remained silent, hunched over with his hands in his pockets. Probably expecting a thorough verbal lashing. Just get it over with, Souji chided himself.

“Thank you for before.” He said.

Kanji looked at him, confused.

“In the fight. You saved me.” Souji continued when it was clear Kanji had no idea what he was talking about.

“Oh,” Kanji said, the slightest hint of a blush forming across his cheeks. “It was nothin’ Senpai.”

“Maybe not to you…” Souji trailed off, smiling.

“Now hug!” Rise squealed from his back, grinning at the two of them.

Souji rolled his shoulders back, jostling Rise’s shoulders.

“Not too sure about this one though,” He fake whispered to Kanji, “I think she might be a shadow. Can’t imagine any human being this annoying.”

Rise pouted and smacked him on the head, but he’d managed to startle a laugh out of Kanji, so he counted the venture as a success on the whole. He passed off Rise to Kanji who, much to her annoyance, proceed to throw her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Souji left the two to their squabble with a muttered warning to be quiet, secure in the knowledge that Kanji and Rise were taken care of.

With everyone else occupied and busy watching over each other, Souji went back to his place at the front of his group. The bruise on his side was still bothering him.

 


The sudden clamor and bustle of Junes’ electronics department was temporarily deafening. Luckily, no one seemed to have noticed their clumsy arrival except for Minako, who was leaning against a shelf and fiddling with her phone. She broke out in a blinding grin when she saw them, abandoning her cart to run over to where they laid sprawled in a heap on the ground.

“Well,” she giggled when she reached them, “You guys really need to figure out how to stick the landing.”

“Thanks for the input.” Souji said shortly.

“You’re welcome,” Minako said in a similarly somber tone, before leaning down to help Rise up.

Souji moved to untangle himself from the others, standing up just in time to avoid getting strange looks from a passerby. He grabbed Yosuke’s elbow, hauling him up and to his feet.

“Uh, thanks.” Yosuke said, not meeting his eyes and quickly yanking away his arm, though not quick enough for Souji to miss his blushing face.

Excellent. Souji thought. More awkward dancing around each other. Still, he didn’t feel like dealing with it tonight. He’d talk to him tomorrow instead.

“Oh god,” Chie said, pointing to where Rise and Minako were cheerfully chatting away. “There’s two of them now. We’re doomed!” She laughed.

“I agree.” Souji said, with considerably less amusement.

“Where is Shinjiro-san?” Yukiko piped up from behind them.

Souji glanced around. Where was Shinjiro? Had he just abandoned his post? He would’ve expected that from Minako, but not Shinjiro.

“Oh,” Minako began, with the look of someone hard pressed to keep from laughing, “Shinji got intercepted by Yosuke-kun’s dad. I think he thought Shinji was a gangster.”

Yosuke groaned the groan of a man put in this position one too many times.

They found Shinjiro arguing with a harried looking Hanamura who seemed like he couldn’t decide whether to be furious or frightened. To his amusement, the younger Hanamura wore a similar expression.

“Yosuke.” Souji prodded.

“Partner, no.”

“Yosuke.” Souji said, grabbing onto his hand, “Come on.”

Between Yosuke’s stuttered excuses about Shinjiro coming over to teach Yosuke parkour, and Souji’s calm assurances that everything Yosuke said was true, Hanamura finally capitulated and let them go.

“C’mon,” Yosuke said afterwards, “Let’s get you home, Risette.”

“Rise.” The girl in question corrected. “And we can’t. Not tonight anyways, unless you know of a way to get around the paps.”

They all knew there was no way they’d get across; certainly not in their present condition. Souji shifted uncomfortably. It was already ten thirty, and Dojima probably wasn’t coming to the house tonight. Nanako usually tried to wait up for one of them, but they’d both been gone long hours this week. He’d promised to come home and tuck her in.

“Can she stay with you guys?” Yosuke asked Minako and Shinjiro.

Minako bit her lip and looked away, tugging at the bottom of her skirt. To everyone’s surprise, it was Shinjiro who answered.

“Yeah,” he said. “Just for the night.”

Minako, turned to leave in silence, grabbing Shinjiro’s hand and pulling him along. There was no need to slow down for them; they’d all gone to the diner a hundred times (gone there tired, hurt, scared), knew the route there more intimately than the route to school. Rise, on the other hand, did not.

“What is it?” He asked.

“I, uhm. I don’t like them.” Rise said as quietly as possible.

“You don’t need to like them.”

“Uh,” Rise said, blushing, “Could you come with me, senpai?”

Souji narrowed his eyes, unimpressed. Rise was as much a stuttering damsel as he was.

With a sigh, Souji resigned himself to letting Nanako down again.

 

Minako and Shinjiro’s flat was rather unimpressive. It wasn’t particularly large, but the empty rooms made the otherwise nondescript seem rather vast. The walls were painted a pale grey, with the same pattern of blue butterflies fluttering down the paths.

Shinjiro led them silently to the living room, where they pulled out two futons for Rise and Souji. Minako seemed to have deflated somewhat as they went further into her home. Some people looked lighter at home; the burdens of pretense and pretend lifted from their shoulders. Minako looked like a popped balloon- like someone had emptied out her insides.

“So,” she said once they’d all stood there in awkward silence for a few seconds. “Anyone up for truth or dare?”

There was a pregnant pause.

“That’s fine too.” She huffed, rubbing a hand through her hair. Her other hand was stuffed in her pocket, playing with her phone. She turned and left without another word.

Shinjiro watched her leave, looking caught. In as few words as possible, he told them where the kitchen and bathroom was, where to find them if they needed help, warned them against being loud or noisy or troublesome.

“Why am I here?” Souji asked once he’d left.

“Because I wanted you to be.” Rise said, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world.

“Right.” He said, and turned to the window.

Chapter Text

Shogo, Ken, and Takeshi are all in top form, and Eikichi himself is hitting some pretty impressive notes. Across the room, Miyabi sits with their manager and some talent scouts, doing her best to sell them. The party is warm; the crowd screaming their lyrics back at them, the sound system bolstering their voices and making them greater than they are.

Damn, he thinks, Tatsumi Port Island is really one of a kind.

And it is- all day everything has been going perfectly. Students on the street asking for their autograph, the light changing to green the moment they reached it, the biggest venue on the island suddenly asking them to fill in for another band playing hooky.

It reminds him of something, but he can’t quite place it.

It doesn’t matter all that much, he reasons. The night is too perfect to waste time reminiscing.

He gives himself over to the crowd; shuts himself off in that peculiar way he’s learned to over the years.

The people in the mosh pit are dancing, or what passes for it in these underground clubs. They all turn into one mass in the crowd, losing their individuality and sinking into the atmosphere of the club. Eikichi would almost be jealous, if not for the warmth going through him and the perfection of the moment.

‘Look at me’ he’s been screaming all his life, ‘look at me!’

And they were.

Most of the crowd has merged together into a singular being for Eikichi, but for the blank looking girl standing completely still in the middle of the mosh pit. Her big bright eyes, the color of antifreeze, are focused firmly on him.

The song peters out, Ken and Takeshi pounding him on their way off the stage.

“Thanks for such a great night, everybody!” Eikichi yells at them, not noticing that the mic had been turned off.

The girl is still staring at him, still as a statue in the quickly emptying pit. Eikichi glances at the bar, where Miyabi had been waiting for him. He can’t see her, wherever she was. He pouts; he was looking forward to replaying the night with her.

“Excuse me.”

Eikichi starts. The girl had suddenly appeared in front of him, having somehow crossed the several meter distance in seconds.

“U-uh yeah? You a fan?” Eikichi gives her a bright smile. Usually, he was deliriously happy whenever a fan came up to talk, but there was something unnerving about this girl that put a damper on his excitement.

“Yes.” She said slowly, as if she was working through the answer as she spoke. “I am a fan.”

They both nod at each other. Eikichi feels distinctly uncomfortable now, and teeters on his feet, looking for a way out.

“I am interested in your song ‘The Velvet Room’.” She says as she procures a copy of their CD.

Their first attempt at recording a CD had been a failure, producing less than five dozen copies and making them a meager twenty dollars. Eikichi hadn’t expected to ever see the bright blue cover of his efforts again, and certainly not in the hands of a cool looking girl at a club so far out of his league he hadn’t even bothered dreaming of it. Bolstered by the reassurance that the girl really was a fan, he found himself reengaged in the conversation.

“Oh yeah,” he says, “That song was a real labor of love, you know. Wrote the whole thing myself.”

“There is a three-syllable silence at the end. What was this word?” She asks blankly.

Eikichi swallowed. The silence hadn’t been noticed by anyone else. Truth be told, he’d barely noticed it himself. He’d been desperate for a final song to round out to an even twelve, been playing around with different compositions all through the night. He’d no idea how the song had come to him or what it had meant, only that it had been the easiest song he’d ever written. Hell, it had felt more like he was transcribing the song than writing it. And the end, that word; Philemon. It hadn’t meant anything, but it hadn’t sounded right, and Eikichi had liked the way other people looked at him after they heard the song; like he was someone mysterious and interesting.

“Philemon was the word. It was wiped ‘cause of some shoddy technical work.” Eikichi admits.

“Oh.” The girl looks down at the ground, her blonde hair covering her entirely too smooth face. “May I inquire of the meaning?”

“Ah, sorry.” He says, “I’m sworn to secrecy. I’d tell you if I could, but…”

The girl looks at him with wide, interested eyes.

“It is very important that you tell me. I cannot allow you to maintain the secret.”

She steps forwards, and her sleeve slips, showing cool metal where there should be soft flesh. Eikichi yelps in surprise, scrambling backwards to get away from this cyborg-girl-thing.

“Look! I don’t know anything about that word, okay? It just- came to me or something. I just said the thing about it being a secret to be cool, alright?”

The cyborg tilts its head, considering. It doesn’t move at all for several seconds, during which Eikichi did his best to maneuver away from her, it. Then, it turns away decidedly, and marches calmly out into the night.

 

Everywhere around him there was screaming. The corpse's blood had drawn a path to the ground, quickly collecting into a small puddle. Still fresh.

Behind him, the assortment of housewives and other pedestrians gasped in horror, mouths open and eyes wide with terror. Farther back, some teenagers looked at the scene with the sort of bone deep indifference only high school students could affect. Souji didn’t know how he could see that far back, only that he could.

“Ah, Senpai…” Rise began, “Did you know him?”

“No.” Souji said immediately. “He was a teacher in our school.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“No you’re not.” Souji said shortly, already shouldering his way through the crowd.

Rise followed him, unaffected. Minako and Shinjiro were already at the front, no doubt helped by the wide berth all the townspeople gave Shinjiro. To be honest, Souji was inclined to give him a large berth as well. Not out of fear; Izanagi had assured him on multiple occasions that they could handle both Shinjiro and Minako if they had to. It was only that Shinjiro made him uneasy.

Up close, Morooka almost looked like a normal man; his buck teeth hidden behind his lips and the red blood covering his oily skin. With his skull caved in, his features were distorted to the point where he almost looked like a once-handsome man.

Souji had liked Morooka. Ugly face, ugly character. Simple. Easy.

In life, Morooka had made sense. In death… well, he didn’t quite match up. Why had he been hung up like this, right outside Minako’s diner? Why so soon after Rise? Why… why was there so much blood?

What had he missed?

There were unshed tears shining in Minako’s eyes. This too was strange; she’d seemed fine this morning, when she’d awoken them all to tell them about the dead man outside her window. Rise mirrored Minako’s current expression, but Souji had seen the blank curiosity on her face, before she’d covered it with her current wobbling lip and downcast eyes.

Newer shrieks ring through the air as more and more people walk out into the early morning. He could pick out a few choice voices in the crowd; Chie gasping loudly, and Yukiko comforting her in lower tones.

“This doesn’t make any sense.” Shinjiro said.

Souji glanced over at him, surprised as always to hear him speak.

“No,” Souji conceded “It doesn’t. So soon, and in a new spot, just after the murderer established a pattern.”

Shinjiro scoffed. “You sound like your uncle.”

You sound like your father. People had been telling him that his whole life. Souji barely even remembered what his father sounded like. Silence, he supposed. His father sounded like silence. Dojima didn’t sound like silence, he sounded like worry and weariness and anger and love. No one had ever told him that he sounded like Dojima.

“Maybe,” Souji said, “but the point still stands. Someone goes missing: two weeks later, they’re found dead in the shopping district. The killer targets people who show up on the TV. Morooka was a nobody.”

“Mmm.. I don’t see any of that as definitive.” Minako mused, “People don’t run like clockwork; circumstance, emotion, whims- a thousand things could make the killer break his pattern. Maybe the killer could’ve been extra pissed off at Mr. Morooka and decided to finish him off himself. Hell, he might’ve just been in a good mood and decided to give this one a less prolonged death.”

“You think this was him being kind?” Shinjiro asked with a raised brow.

“Or her!” Rise piped up, helpfully. “It could be a her.”

“It doesn’t add up.” Souji said, staring down Minako.

“Not everything has to.” Minako responded pleasantly.

Souji opened his mouth, but paused again when he saw Chie, Yukiko, and Kanji had reached them. The whole team was here, except- except Yosuke.

What was going on today?

“Where’s Yosuke?” he asked Chie when she was close enough.

“There’s a- uh, a situation at Junes.”

“There’s a situation here.” Souji said.

“Yes, well…” Chie muttered, looking from side to side, “You may not believe this, but uh…”

“Teddie came out of the TV.” Yukiko cut in, putting everyone out of their misery.

…Out of the television?

Fuck. That complicated things.

“Is he still a bear?” Shinjiro broke in.

“Of course! Why would he not be a bear?” Chie said desperately, clearly at the end of her rope.

Except that they knew nothing about the TV world at all. Teddie could very well have turned into a human on his way out of the TV. He might not have made it at all.

“That stupid bear…” Kanji muttered under his breath.

Maybe. Teddie had talked about coming to visit last night in the TV, but Souji couldn’t imagine Teddie plunging through the unknown just because he was lonely. It had to be some disturbance in the shadow world, not Teddie making good on his theatrics. Actually… he could see it pretty clearly, now that he thought about it. What a stupid bear indeed.

“Ok. We’ll head to Junes and figure out what to do with Teddie. Rise, can you take care of our friend?”

“Huh?” Yukiko broke in “Our friend?”

Souji glanced at the intersection behind them, where the boy they’d seen with Kanji was loitering and surreptitiously staring at them.

“Oh! Naoto-kun!” Kanji grinned. “I can go talk to him if you want.”

Just to his side, Rise stifled a quick bout of giggles against her arm.

“It’s fine. Rise can do it.” Souji said.

Kanji looked torn. Souji had known about his crush on the mysterious little boy, but this was a little unnecessary. Even Yosuke could tell that the other boy had only cared about Kanji’s involvement in the case. And if he couldn’t interrogate Naoto on his own, then Rise was the next best thing.

“Shinji, you better go with them.” Minako chirped, tugging at Shinjiro’s sleeve.

Betting on Shinjiro to convince Kanji to leave Naoto alone. A somewhat obvious ploy, but judging from Kanji’s grin it was effective enough.

“Fine.” Shinjiro said shortly, already turning to walk towards Junes. “Let’s go.”

 

 

They got to Junes in record time, even though they’d all restrained themselves to a walking pace so as not to attract attention. There were no screams coming from inside the building, so Souji thought it safe to assume that Yosuke had successfully kept Teddie away from the public.

“So where is he?” Chie asked the moment they got into the store.

Souji looked around Junes. To be fair, Yosuke probably knew the store a lot better than they did, but even then a secondary branch of a low quality franchise probably didn’t have too much hidden infrastructure. There were only so many places Yosuke could hide a human sized teddy bear in the middle of the day.

“Let’s split up. I’ll check the staff room, the rest of you check the storage room.”

“I’ll come with you, Souji-san.” Yukiko said, stepping away from a frowning Chie.

They walked towards the other end of the store in a not-quite-comfortable silence. Yukiko wore a blank expression on her face, one that Souji now associated with her trying to hide her thoughts.

“I’m surprised you left Chie’s side.” Souji ventured, as they turned into the cereal aisle. He glanced around, quickly memorizing the area around him. A situation more dire than this could pop up here, considering it was their doorway into the shadow world. It certainly couldn’t hurt to know his way around the store, if only for the next time Yosuke called him, desperate for help at Junes.

“I am my own person.” Yukiko said quietly.

“Are you?” Souji asked.

He liked Yukiko and Chie well enough together. They took care of each other, needing him for support rather than survival. Still, two people who could only see the good in each other…Although perhaps recent events had opened their eyes a little.

They found Yosuke and Teddie inside the staff room, hiding ineffectually behind the sole couch in the room.

Yosuke gave them a panicked look in greeting, gesturing hurriedly for them to come in and shut the door.

“We need to find him a better hiding spot.” Souji said immediately, not in the mood to mince words.

“What?!” Yosuke spluttered. “He needs to go back!”

Teddie remained, for once, completely silent.

It would be easiest to send Teddie back. He’d go back if his beloved sensei told him it was for the best. It would be easier still to keep his promise to visit; Souji didn’t think he could stop going to the shadow world if he wanted to. It made sense.

Still, Teddie sat quietly, big eyes focused on Souji. What did he want from him? And Yosuke, so adamant that Teddie should go back, why hadn’t he just pushed Teddie back in?

He knew it was the right thing to do: there were no benefits to Teddie coming over here. If anything, it would cut off one of their only advantages. Teddie’s near simultaneous detection of disturbances in the TV world was invaluable to them.

But Teddie stayed silent.

Say something, Souji urged him silently. Anything at all.

It wasn’t that Souji was bothered by silence. Sure, it was strange to see Teddie, always full of jokes and enthusiasm, sit so silent and still, but even then the silence was a reward in itself. Souji much preferred people’s silence to their speech. Words, with all their ugliness and hidden meanings and lie and complications. In silence, people had no armor. No, it was not the silence that was the problem.

It was just- just an eleven year old boy quietly making himself dinner in an empty home, just Nanako running to the phone each time it rang. An empty home, an empty world. Not that far away.

“He can stay if he wants to.” Souji said. “It’s too dangerous to leave him alone over there. Teddie, you need to make yourself a human body.”

“How do you even know he can do that?” Yosuke borderline shrieked.

“Why wouldn’t he be able to do that?” Yukiko asked.

Yosuke squeaked in disbelief. “Why would he be able to do that?”

“Because he has to.” Souji said.

He crouched down, so that he was at Teddie’s eye level. Teddie looked back at him blankly.

“Did you hear me? You can stay if you have a human body.”

Teddie pursed his lips, nodded once, and began to hum. It was a low, steady hum, like a laptop left on in the middle of the night.

“I…guess he’s on it then?” Yosuke said.

Souji shrugged, but he couldn’t keep the smile off his face. Yosuke still looked unsure, but the pinched look on his face had mellowed somewhat.

Finally done with the immediate problem, Souji looked around the room. It was small and dimly lit, and smelled like freshly brewed coffee. God, he was so tired. He hadn’t even had time to finish his cup of coffee this morning before Minako had noticed the body and run out to investigate.

Souji was startled out of his thoughts by the screaming hinges of a door. Yukiko was nowhere to be found. Souji looked over at Yosuke, questioning.

“I bet she went to get the others.” Yosuke said.

They fell silent then, with Teddie’s humming the only sound in the room.

“So…” Yosuke said, “Too dangerous over there?”

“It is.” Souji said, only half lying. “Things have changed; Morooka changed them.”

“Huh. Almost forgot about that. I guess Morooka’s out of the picture then.”

“Guess so.”

“It’s funny. I kinda wanted him to be the killer, y’know? I wonder who’s gonna take his place.”

Souji, who had thrown himself down on the couch, tilted his head back to see Yosuke. Yosuke’s hair looked, as always, windswept and sun blown. The darker roots caught his eye, too dark to belong with the rest of his hair.

“I didn’t think I’d care.” Souji said, clenching and unclenching his fists. “I didn’t think I’d care that Morooka was dead, but uh, there was a lot of blood.”

Yosuke sat down next to him with a sigh.

“Why was there blood?” Yosuke asked. “There wasn’t any blood before.”

“I don’t know.” Souji said.

A cacophony of yells and shushes alerted them to the arrival of the others. Yukiko walked in first, flanked by Chie. Kanji tumbled in next, still looking over his shoulders at Shinjiro, who in turn looked like a hapless father left alone with his children for too long. Minako was nowhere to be found, but he was hardly surprised by her disappearing act.

Souji turned around to check on Teddie, only to meet a young looking boy with impossibly blue eyes sprouting from Teddie’s suit.

“Teddie…?” Yosuke ventured.

“MMM~” Teddie pouted, “Yosuke-senpai is so mean! You should be able to recognize my stunning good looks anywhere! ”

Everyone burst into laughter, bursting the solemn bubble that had been hanging over the lot of them. Where once they had all been tight with worry, they now let go of their worries to give themselves over to some sort of mass hysteria. Bent over with laughter, tears in their eyes. Choosing laughter over worry.

It was nice, Souji decided.

Which was why it wouldn’t last.

 

 

Some days, Souji found it very difficult to take the Inaba Police Force seriously.

At first, he’d wondered what a young city detective had done to be dumped in the middle of nowhere. Recently, Souji was less surprised that Adachi had been sent to Inaba, and more surprised that Adachi was still somehow employed.

Telling a bunch of grieving kids about the suspect in the case… it was hard to believe someone could be so idiotic.

Souji hadn’t recognized the name- Mitsuo Kubo. Neither had any of the others, though they’d found it easy enough to hate the stranger, once Adachi had brought him up.

“If he’s missing…” Yosuke said, “If they can’t find him, he’s probably in the TV.”

The others hummed their agreement.

“But why…” Yukiko asked slowly. “Why did he choose us to throw in?”

Yosuke shrugged. “We can’t know that till we go in there and drag him back out. To be honest, I don’t even remember seeing him around school before.”

“Actually,” Chie said beneath a furrowed brow. “I’ve seen him around before. We all have.”

Everybody turned to stare at her quizzically.

“Don’t you remember?” Chie burst out. “He asked out Yukiko.”

The silence around the table proved that none of them remembered the boy.

Minako’s diner was completely empty, the investigation team the only people in the room. Souji wasn’t quite sure if this was because Minako had closed the store, or because Shinjiro was standing just inside the door, looking like a particularly frightening bouncer.

Minako herself was busy wiping down some of the tables in the back, humming a tune to herself. She seemed as perfectly energetic and happy as ever, but Souji didn’t miss the slight tremor in her hand.

“Minako,” Souji called out from across the room. “Do you know anything about this kid?”

“Hmm. Mitsuo Kubo… Yeah, he hangs out here sometimes. Dojima-san was actually grilling me about that when you were at Junes.”

“What?” Yosuke yelped. “He’s been hanging around you?”

“Yup.” Minako popped the ‘p’

From the corner of his eye, Souji saw Shinjiro shift uncomfortably. His own team was all on edge. A boy barely anyone remembered, hanging around both Minako and Yukiko. Souji was less convinced; it was easy to believe Yukiko, but the idea of some kid following Minako around unseen was laughable. Minako was all bubbles and laughter, but wasn’t quite as airheaded as she liked to pretend. She wouldn’t have missed it, and even if she’d decided to let Mitsuo be for her own amusement, Shinjiro would have put a stop to it.

“That’s strange. I’ve never seen him here.” Souji said.

“Yeah,” Minako said, still busying herself with some miniscule stain on the table. “He’s been coming by during school hours.”

So he hadn’t been coming to school. At least that would explain why no one but Chie remembered him. He glanced at Chie, who was slouching in her seat, shoulder to shoulder with

Yukiko. He wondered if Chie had every one of Yukiko’s suitors memorized.

“He was, uh, he was polite. A little strange, but who isn’t?”

Souji turned to Teddie.

“Is that enough for you to find him over there?” He asked.

Teddie sat between him and Yosuke. He tapped his nose twice, considering.

“It’ll be beary hard, but if anyone can do it, its prince Teddie.”

“Dude, please stop with the third person.” Yosuke said.

The entire table burst out into laughter. Souji refrained, but even he couldn’t quite keep the happy feeling out. Yosuke laughed until there were tears in his eyes, and then reached out to nudge Souji, who gave him an amused smile.

They knew each other a little better now, though not as well as Souji knew each of them, and these moments of levity were increasingly frantic and precious.

Souji probably should have reminded them about the severity of the issue, or herded them into the TV to search for Mitsuo, but it was late and the diner was warm. There would be time enough to investigate tomorrow, and he’d never liked Morooka.

Still, he couldn’t stay here.

He got up silently, ruffled Teddie’s hair, and pulled on his coat. He mouthed “Nanako” to Yosuke when he turned to him.

With a few quick goodbyes, Souji was out of the diner and on his way home.

 

 

Going home had recently become a strange experience for Souji.

Yosuke had once told him the Dojima household felt eerily quiet.

Souji wasn’t sure what that meant. His own household (or his parents’ household, depending on who you asked) had been completely silent for as long as he could remember. And silence was- fine. Souji liked silence well enough.

But Nanako wasn’t like him: she wasn’t meant for these stony silences.

As always, the muted, grainy noise of the TV was the first thing to welcome him back. It was followed closely by Nanako: running through the halls to launch herself at Souji’s torso. Souji was startled into laughter.

“Hey there, Nanako.” Souji murmured. “Sorry I’m home so late.”

“It’s fine, big bro. I wasn’t alone.”

Souji tightened his grip around her, completely ready to take down whatever stranger had gotten into the house. He crouched down, ready to spring into the living room when-

“You’re out pretty late, Souji.”

Souji pursed his lips, uncomfortable with the suddenly strong smell of cigarettes.

“Dojima. I didn’t think you’d be home so early. With the murders going on.”

The older man furrowed his brows, levelling a severe look at Souji. Souji, for his part, was busy getting started on the dirty dishes. Faced with Souji’s blank efficiency, Dojima could do little but sit himself down at the kitchen table.

“You know, we haven’t announced that to the public yet. How do you know about it?” Dojima said.

“I was sleeping over at a friend’s. It happened on her street.” Souji said, with what was probably too much stoicism for the situation.

Dojima paused, clearly trying to decide which part of the statement to object to first. Souji looked at him with sympathy. It couldn’t have been easy to reconcile the quiet boy who’d slid so painlessly his home: the boy he probably felt some measure of affection for, and this other boy Dojima suspected him of being: someone duplicitous, someone he couldn’t trust, someone involved with the recent murders.

“Who was she? Your friend, who was she?” Dojima sounded tired, like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Souji wouldn’t have been surprised.

“Minako Arisato.” Souji said. Better not to mention Shinjiro. Dojima was suspicious enough of him already.

“Arisato?!” Dojima sounded scandalized.

Was it her age? Souji wasn’t sure why else he would react like that.

“She’s not that kind of friend.” Souji said slowly.

“W-what?!” Dojima spluttered.

Souji was still confused. He’d been sure that Minako was pervasively well-liked.

“Minako and I are… like siblings. She’s like an older sister to me.” Souji said, in his best estimation of a comforting voice. “I’m very careful.”

“That’s not- I mean…”

Poor Dojima, Souji thought, he’s not much of a parent, but at least he’s trying.

“Look, Souji, I don’t want you hanging around her anymore. Stay out of trouble.”

“I didn’t know Minako was trouble.”

“Well she is. I told you to stay out of trouble when you came here.”

“You told me to stay away from the case.”

Dojima’s eyes flashed.

For a moment, the air was thick with tension.

“Dad! Are you fighting with big bro again?” Nanako called out from the living room.

“No, Honey!” Dojima hollered back. “I’m not.” He repeated to Souji, clapping his shoulder in what he clearly thought was a fatherly manner.

“I know. We aren’t fighting.” Souji parroted.

“Right.” Dojima said.

The Junes jingle burst suddenly through the silence, startling the both of them.

Souji turned back to the dishes. He was half done- he wanted to finish these quickly, so he could go up and fold some envelopes. He couldn’t expect Kanji to keep beating things to death with a desk. Daidara had made them a formidable looking phalanx, but they were also running low on snuff souls, and Yukiko was running herself ragged trying to keep them all alive.

Dojima was still standing in the kitchen, staring at Souji with a strange look in his eye.

“Oh, uh, Souji.” Dojima said, “This one is yours.”

Dojima gestured vaguely towards the table, where a lone cup of coffee was the sole resident. Dojima must have made it right after he’d come home, and left it on the table for hours.

“Thanks.” Souji said, reaching over to grasp the cup.

“Right.” Dojima coughed, and left the room.

The coffee was cold, but Souji drank it down to the last dregs.

 

 

Mitsuo’s dungeon was frustrating, to say the least. After being turned around a half dozen times, even Yukiko looked like she wanted to join Yosuke and Chie in their loud complaining.

Luckily, Teddie had stayed at the entrance with Rise and the others. He didn’t think he could handle Teddie and Yosuke’s bickering on top of everything else.

That’s not very nice, Senpai. Rise’s voice rang through his head.

Get out of my head. Souji thought.

Hey! Souji could imagine Rise’s pout. I had something to tell you, but I guess you don’t wanna hear that, senpai.

Souji glanced around the dungeon. They were lost again.

“Hey partner,” Yosuke ventured “Maybe we should head back.”

“No. We just need to break through this floor.” Souji insisted.

“We’ve been here for ages though. We’re all too frustrated to notice the pattern. If there is even one.”

The shadow worlds were just visualizations of the person in question’s mind. Minds had order, work in predictable ways, most of the time. Mitsuo didn’t seem like the most stable of individuals. He had to consider the possibility that there was no pattern, no motive he could exploit.

“Alright.” Souji conceded. “Let’s go back.”

Rise was waiting for them at the entrance, engulfed in her persona. At her side, Teddie was waddling about impatiently. Only slightly further back, Shinjiro was deep in conversation with Kanji.

Minako stood at an even greater distance away, looking around her with an enchanted expression.  

“What happened, Senpai? Is it time to drag the bastard out of here?” Kanji asked.

“Not just yet. We’re having trouble getting past this floor; there’s some sort of barrier that keeps turning us around.”

Minako jogged up to them, her normally smiling face suddenly sharp and focused.

“What,” she said, “Like a spell?”

“No. It feels more like a feature of his mind, like he just unconsciously carried over his own confusion into this place.”

“Uh, Minako-san?” Chie interrupted, “Where are your glasses?”

Souji turned quickly to Minako. He hadn’t noticed her lack of glasses. She’d been playing around with the joke glasses before, but now she’d been walking around the TV world for over an hour without needing glasses.

“Oh. I guess I don’t really need them. I can see everything just fine.”

Souji narrowed his eyes. The need for glasses had been one of the few certainties they’d had about the shadow world. Minako’s defiance was annoying- a complication he didn’t really have the patience for.

“Can I come with you?” She asked, eyes big and wide and innocent.

No, was on the tip of his tongue before his mind caught up. Minako in battle was hard to imagine. And the image of her hovering unsure, trying to get away from him and Rise, was harder still to forget.

Minako was still, for lack of a better word, a wild card. And all the charm in the world wasn’t enough to make Souji forget that.

Still, her persona ability might be useful. And no doubt having her and Shinjiro along with them would lessen the burden on everyone else. And…

“Alright.” Souji said.

Chie and Yukiko were both exhausted, leaning on each other for support. He took one glance at the two of them, huddled up next to Rise, and motioned for Kanji and Teddie to get ready. Yosuke still stood at Souji’s side, fiddling with his knives.

“Partner.” He said, “Hey, partner.”

“What?”

“You sure this is a good idea?”

“No.”

Yosuke choked on a laugh, grinning at Souji.

“It’s just, doesn’t Minako-chan seem sort of, I don’t know, fragile?”

To be fair, Minako was looking a bit paler these days, and it was hard not to see the bags under her eyes. Her eyes themselves were as bright as ever though, and, well, Shinjiro was still the same towering mass of gruff protectiveness and general contempt as always. The worst case scenario would be Shinjiro having to carry Minako’s dead weight.

Then again, Minako had been a wild card too- at least in this, they were the same. Minako might have answers to some of his questions about the shadow world.

“Yeah, she does. I don’t think it’ll be a problem though.” Souji said

Yosuke conceded with a nod, clearly okay with it if Souji was. Souji knew that sort of bone deep confidence in him was misplaced and naïve, but it warmed something in him nonetheless. He figured it would at least mean the team was united.

 

Their second trek through the dungeon was only barely better than the first.

For one thing, it was more or less silent. Minako, for all her endless chatter, had taken to humming a forceful sort of tune under her breath. Even Yosuke, always prone to nervous ramblings, had traded in his jokes for tight fists and darting glances around the hallways.

Souji and Yosuke were trailing behind their two seniors, trying to keep an eye on them and their surroundings at the same time. In front of them, Shinjiro walked with his hands bunched in his pockets, tight and firm and ready for a fight. Minako showed no such readiness. Instead, she strolled through the blocky paths as if this were home.

Once or twice, Souji was sure he’d caught her turning without even looking, as if she’d taken this route a hundred times before. It was setting him on edge; Yosuke’s silence and Shinjiro’s worry and Minako’s constant, constant humming.

Suddenly, Minako stopped in her tracks. Yosuke, who’d been walking before her, reacted only a moment too late to stop himself from walking into her.

“Ow! What the he-heck?”

Souji chuckled. Yosuke wasn’t the sort of person to hold himself back when he was annoyed.

“Shh. Can’t you feel that?” Minako said.

“Feel what?” Shinjiro asked, just as the shadow rounded the corner.

It was a pack of those hulking man-like creatures. Souji vaguely remembered Yukiko and Chie deciding to call them Steel Gigas, but the name was so silly that even saying it in his mind was difficult.

He and Yosuke fell easily into their battle stances, and Souji drew out his sword, happy to feel the comforting weight of it in his hand. Across from them, Shinjiro cracked his neck menacingly, and Minako had drawn out a knife from the thigh strap under her skirt. Strange, how he’d never even noticed it was there.

It was easier than breathing to charge at the shadow, to slash and block and cut. Instead, he found himself playing support, calling on Ishtar to keep an eye on his party. It was always satisfying to see how his teammates grew, especially Yosuke, who’d been there since the beginning.

Yosuke was as fast as ever: in and out, leaving the shadow man limping and bowed over. Shinjiro on the other hand, was as implacable as a glacier, waiting for the shadow to approach him and… head-butting it. The shadow screamed; a high keening noise, and quickly faded from existence.

If only Kanji was here, Souji thought, he’d be through the roof.

Alone, Minako was dealing with three shadows. She moved strangely; too fast and too smooth, as if she was half dancing, turning and bending and shifting. Her knives never stopped moving, swinging in long arcs that kept the shadows away from her.

She took one down easily, in a wide sweep that cut it off at the legs, and moved up to block the second one. She must’ve forgotten to shift her persona, because when the blow hit she couldn’t quite take it. She staggered backwards, right into Souji.

“They’re weak to lightning.” He whispered at her.

Minako gave him a tense look, nodded, and launched herself back at the shadow. She was faster this time, her knife slicing into the first shadow briefly and then embedding itself into the neck of the last.

They were both dead in seconds, and left Minako standing over them, drawing in deep, stuttering breaths.

“Why didn’t you-”

“Ah, Minako-chan! Sorry, we left you all alone with these three, but, holy cow!” Yosuke burst in, now covered in a thin sheen of sweat. Jiraiya was still hovering over his shoulder, leveling Souji with the same considering gaze as always.

Shinjiro reached them and, with a clenched jaw, barked at them to hurry up and stop wasting time.

“Geez, what’s his problem?” Yosuke asked.

“He doesn’t like it here.” Minako shrugged.

“Huh.”

They went silently to the next floor.

“Well, this is it.” Souji said. “This is the floor with the… misdirection.”

“You spend your afternoons chasing down shadows in a pocket universe, Souji-kun. I think you can say ‘spell’ without bursting into flame.” Minako said.

“Are you sure?” Yosuke said.

“Haha. Very funny.” Souji said, even as the corners of his lips twitched upwards.

 

Minako skipped ahead to where Shinjiro was standing ahead of them. He turned towards her, and she easily slotted herself into his space. Yosuke looked away to give them privacy, but Souji kept his eyes on the couple. Minako was always touchy-feely, but the way she laid her hands against Shinjiro’s face didn’t seem like a romantic touch so much as that of- his nurse, laying his hand against his head as a child, checking to see whether or not he had a fever, eager to make sure that his boss’ kid was okay.

 Souji resolved to drag Minako aside after they found Mitsuo, and to make her tell him everything she knew. There was something worrying about the way she and Shinjiro looked at each other. As if either one of them might disappear at any moment.

 “I think,” Minako said, “that I can remove it.”

 Souji considered this for a moment, turning it over in his head.

 “How?” He said, at the same time as Shinjiro growled a firm, “No.”

 “You’re right. It’s not a spell. It’s… something else. It’s Mitsuo. He’s part of this place, or this place is part of him, I can’t really tell. But I’m part of this place too- it’ll follow my thoughts as well as his.”

 “Wait, what?” Yosuke spluttered. “You’re part of the TV World?”

 “It’s complicated. I’m- there are parts of me that are always here. And there are parts of me that aren’t.”

 No, no. That didn’t make sense. Another pretty lie from her pretty mouth.  At her side, Shinjiro was carefully blank, the way people were when they were trying not to give anything away. There was no way Minako could have left part of herself behind without someone noticing. Shinjiro would have known, and unlike Minako, he wasn’t hidden from Souji.

 What did he know about her? Nothing, was the first answer that came to mind, but it wasn’t quite true. She was a wild card. That meant something. She hadn’t called on her persona once, the whole way up here, not even when she was losing. She looked happy all the time, and even if it never meant anything, the fact that she put the smile up anyways was something. Only once had she lost her smile, in the neverending labyrinth that was the Velvet Room. She looked at Theo like she wanted to tear him apart. Theo had looked at her like she was a ghost.

 And that look she gave him sometimes. Like she was mourning for him already. Like-oh.

 “You didn’t leave anything behind. You just gave back what didn’t belong to you anymore.” Souji said, half inside his body and half out, mind running to catch up with what this meant.

 “No. It was mine. It was me. Tell me, could you stand to watch as someone else summoned Izanagi? Messiah, Thanatos, Orpheus, they were all me. My dreams, my worries, all the parts of me that kept me alive in here. And Igor took them from me. Ripped them out. Because he was scared of me. Of us.”

 “You died, you died.” He said, like a hymn, like a promise. “You died, you died in here.”

 “Briefly.” She said, eyes downcast.

I should’ve known, Souji thought. He’d read all the same stories as everyone else. Here’s your gift, here’s your fight. Here is something bigger than you. Now die for it. He’d read the stories.  

 “Hey! Can we get a rerun for the special-ed section of the class or something?” Yosuke snapped, looking nervous and annoyed.

 Minako and Shinjiro shared a look, communicating something silently, trying to get their story straight. Souji was tired of it.

 “We had our own war to fight, back in Tatsumi Port Island. There was some nasty shit going on, and we stopped it. But in the end, it was just Minako and the big one. Neither of them walked away.” Shinjiro said, looking straight at Yosuke.

 It was the calmest way Souji could possibly imagine someone talking about their girlfriend’s death, which did very little to allay his suspicions.

 “So, what? Did you die too?” Yosuke said, his mouth still hanging slightly open and his brows disappearing into his hairline.

 Shinjiro paused for a second, heaving a sigh.

 What light was left in Minako’s eyes disappeared. Her voice was quiet and sharp. “No. He didn’t die. I was in that boat alone, okay? But I’m here now, and I’m telling you I can get you to Mitsuo. Isn’t that what you want?”

 I don’t know. Souji thought. What’s waiting for me at the end of the tunnel?

“Yes.” Yosuke said, back straight and face taut, “yes. Minako-chan, none of that matters. You’re one of us, right?” He grinned, and though it didn’t quite reach his eyes it was a nice grin. Souji wouldn’t have minded seeing it more often. “So, we gotta solve this mystery too. And then we’ll get you back… whatever it is you’ve lost.”

 There was something admirable about that, about knowing that you cared for someone and that they were in pain, and deciding that nothing else mattered. It was admirable the way that knights fighting for a lady’s favor was admirable; a sweet story to tell yourself and everyone else, but at the end of day someone was still dying.

 “You’re right.” Souji said to Yosuke. He turned to Minako, sheathing his sword. “Mitsuo is our top priority. It’s too late to back out now.”

 She nodded once, already half turning away.

 Souji tried to catch Shinjiro’s eye, but he too had turned from him.

 

With Minako there, the misdirection no longer touched them. It wasn't perfect; they all have to pretend they don’t see the sweat beading on Minako’s brow, or the way Shinjiro stands just a bit closer to her, keeping an eye on her back.

Still, their progress was steady, and the shadows were easy enough to take care of.  

Their moods brightened as they reach the higher levels of the dungeon. Even the personas in his soul awoke, buoying him. He couldn’t discern their individual thoughts, but he could feel their excitement.

Too soon, they reach the door behind which Mitsuo is hiding.

“We’re heading back to Rise.” Souji announced the moment he saw it.

Everyone responded with sounds of surprise and betrayal. Only Shinjiro was calm. Where Minako and Yosuke were both yelling at him, Shinjiro only stood. He looked at Souji once, then at the tall doors separating them and Mitsuo.

 Yosuke took a step forwards, his brows drawn together and teeth bared. “What the hell, partner?! We’re finally here, and you want to go back? The bastard is just-“

 “I know. And we’ll get him. But we need to regroup, get ready for the fight. At the very least, I need to switch up the teams.”

 “Hell. No. No way, after all this time, after Saki, we are not backing down.”

 “Which do you care about more?” Souji asked quietly. “Saving this town or being a hero?”

 Yosuke flushed; brown eyes narrowing, his entire body suddenly tense, like Souji had struck him instead of asking a question.

 With Yosuke’s silence the argument was won. Minako’s fists were clenched, but her face showed no hint of anger. She grabbed onto Shinjiro’s arm, looking at his face for a period, then turning to scamper back down.

 The room was empty now, but for the two of them.

 Souji wouldn’t have minded apologizing, if it had been anyone else. Take it back, let them believe their own lies. Something about Yosuke’s lies bothered him, enough to make him want to prod and pry until they fell apart.

 “Come on.” Yosuke muttered, brushing past Souji as he followed Minako and Shinjiro down the stairs.

 

 

Afterwards, Souji was left with a few answers and many, many more questions.

That hesitation in Mitsuo’s voice, just before he’d gleefully taken credit for all those deaths. The way he’d been confused, if only for a second, when Yukiko had brought up the victims they’d saved. The way Morooka had looked,  beaten and bloody.

He didn’t like it.

The team had alternated between giddy joy and melancholy at having solved the mystery, but Souji found it hard to join in either laughter or sighs. Once again, they’d installed themselves in their customary table at the diner, which was as empty as usual. Souji wondered aimlessly how Minako and Shinjiro stayed afloat.

How could Mitsuo have even gotten to Yamano? There was no way that a reporter under fire from the media would meet just anyone, especially not some nobody teenager.

“Hey, Souji?” Chie leaned across the table towards him, her soft face turned up in a comforting smile. Good old Chie, always looking out for everyone. “Souji, you okay?”

Souji opened his mouth to tell her what he thought, only to stop himself at the last moment. Chie and Yukiko sat together, each of them somehow eating with a single hand. Teddie, Kanji, and Rise were belting out a rather unfaithful rendition of one of Rise’s earlier songs. He was sure that Minako and Shinjiro were probably close together in the kitchen, speaking in the hushed undertones they affected so often. Of all the team, only Yosuke looked disturbed and Souji couldn’t help that.

“It’s nothing.” He said instead. “I’m fine.”

 

Mitsuru had spent a lot of time dreading her trip to Inaba, but it really couldn’t be put off any longer.

Only two weeks ago there had been a half dozen operations that needed her attention more: the incident in Sumaru City had been dealt with quickly by Akihiko and his team, but the cleanup was taking them considerably longer. Aigis, Yukari, and even Junpei had all proved themselves capable enough leaders, but Mitsuru was still responsible for making sure the entire operation ran smoothly. Though the new recruits were progressing as well as could be expected, there was still some time before they were battle ready.

Still, she couldn’t very well avoid going to Inaba, not with recent events. There was, of course, the situation concerning Ryotarou Dojima. Far from remaining  inconspicuous, Minako had apparently gained the attention of one Detective Dojima, who her sources had informed her was looking into Minako’s file. There were a great many questions one would have after looking at Minako’s file, but Mitsuru could not afford for Dojima to find the answers to any of them.

She only wished that was the worst of her problems.

And so she’d set off to Inaba, which was thankfully close enough to Tatsumi Port Island that she could reach there in only a few hours.

The town is glaringly drab, almost offensively bland and empty. Perhaps it wasn’t a good decision to bring the limo. It had been easy to get around the city with it, but she hadn’t considered just how… rural Inaba really was. Even the shopping district is empty, save for a few small stores and some housewives browsing.

She finds Minako’s diner nestled comfortably between two other restaurants. A pattern of blue butterflies adorns the entranceway, and Mitsuru is momentarily amused by the childish elegance of it. They would have looked just at home in Minako’s dorm room.

It takes her some time to muster the courage to step in, at which point she is met by a warm room and somewhat familiar tunes wafting her way. As always, Shinjiro’s cooking smells heavenly, and Mitsuru is sorely reminded that she was too nervous to eat breakfast this morning.

“Really? All those lectures about ‘blending in’, and you roll up to the diner in a limo?”

Despite herself,  Mitsuru is overtaken by a smile.

"Shinjiro. It’s nice to see you.”

"You too, Mitsuru.”

They stand there awkwardly for a minute, unsure how to proceed. They were, neither of them, the most social of people. Even so it was nice to have his company again, after everything they’d been through together.

There is a group of children staring at her from across the room. They all look at her shamelessly, with the confidence of people who are completely at home.

"Mitsuru. You came all the way to visit little old me?”

It always takes Mitsuru by surprise; hearing Minako. She’d been the one to handle all the affairs at the hospital, the only one by her bedside when her heart had flat lined. Akihiko had looked ready to tear someone apart, anyone at all, if it would make her open her eyes again. Shinjiro had had to drag him out to the hallway where the others were waiting for news.

  When Minako had finally given up on them, Mitsuru had been the only witness.

“Minako. It’s… good to see you’re well.”

And it is. Mitsuru has seen enough death to last her a lifetime. Death did not suit Minako.

For her part, Minako forces a smile, but remains silent. She didn’t like being reminded of her weakness, Mitsuru knew.

" Do you have a minute? We need to talk.”

Minako opens the door behind her, gesturing up the stairs. “All work and no play, huh?”

Up the stairs is the flat Shinjiro and Minako shared. It is unnaturally neat, no doubt due to Shinjiro’s influences. The only mess is the piles of books scattered around the coffee table and couch, which is dented where someone had clearly been lying for a long time. In the corner of the room, there is a framed picture of S.E.E.S. Mitsuru looks away from it quickly.

“So, this is my new place. I’d show you around but…”  Minako trails off.

“It’s alright. That’s not why I came anyways.”

“I know.”

“Then perhaps, you’d like to tell me why you’ve decided to start a revolution in our organization.”

" Would you believe me if I said I didn’t mean to?”

“No.”

  Minako giggled, turning to the window so that the moon’s light fell across her face. She looked washed out, pale, and somehow less herself with her colors gone.

"Well, Kirijo-senpai, maybe you just don't know me well enough." Minako giggles.

Perhaps she doesn't. She'd liked the girl from the start, they all had, but she'd never had the blind trust in her that others did. That some still did.

Mitsuru sighs. It had been foolish, Mitsuru decides, to expect Minako to just come clean to a friendly face. Everyone in the world was probably a friendly face to Minako, and the girl was a master at speaking for hours without really saying anything.

“Minako. I’m sorry about what happened. But even so, that’s no excuse for what you’ve done.”

"What I’ve done?” Minako furrowed her brows. “What do you mean?”

Mitsuru steadies herself. Putting it off won’t make it any better.

“Yesterday, at approximately three in the afternoon, the Aigis unit was disabled on grounds of insubordination and illegal data access.”

 

Chapter Text

The rain beats down hard on the roof of the safe house, the thunder almost but not quite overpowering Junpei and Yukari's shouts as they play a particularly vigorous round of ping-pong.

'Really,' Ken thinks to himself, 'they're so immature.'

Aigis sits motionless, eyes unmoving but focused on the game.

Junpei is winning, but only by a single point. Ken is still keeping score, even though the players themselves gave up on counting five minutes into the game. Neither of them seem to care much either way, content to needle each other and channel their frustration into the game.

Playing a game while Mitsuru-senpai and the others were out there fighting for their lives.

Ken might be a child, but he likes to think that he is not childish. He understands perfectly well that the mission was dangerous, and that it wouldn't have made sense to take the whole team all at once. On the off-chance that these new shadows decimate the field team, the Shadow Operatives need to have people left on the outside to mount a rescue.

There had been no need for Mitsuru-senpai's pitying gaze or her patronizingly simple explanations. Ken had understood.

What he doesn't understand was why all the original S.E.E.S. members who weren't out on the field or... banished, had to be carted off to some safe house in the middle of nowhere. For one thing, it would be difficult to mount a timely rescue, if one was needed.

With a sigh of frustration, Ken turns his focus back onto the files he kept hidden inside his jacket. Mission #32, also known as the Inaba Serial Murders Case; the mission Minako had stolen under Mitsuru-senpai's nose. It was hard to make heads or tails of it, except for the obvious shadow influence in the murders.

Such crazy, disturbing murders. Surreal enough to throw everyone off, but just realistic enough to keep the police thinking that it was their sort of case.

Since he'd stolen them two weeks ago during one of the Shadow Operative's midnight training runs to which Ken had pointedly not been invited, Ken had taken to carrying the case files around, poring over them in his every spare moment.

Minako had died once- almost left him behind. He'd promised to stay by her side forever, and he couldn't do that if she was dead. And Shinjiro-san.

Ken owed him.

So far, he hadn't had any luck with a breakthrough. He spent most of his time going through the  Leader’s file, staring at the pictures Mitsuru-senpai's team had collected.  Perfect posture, calm grey eyes, good looking in a nonthreatening sort of way- perfectly nondescript.

"Ken-kun?" Aigis says, interlocking her fingers in her lap.

"Yeah, Aigis?" Ken keeps his eyes on the photo, roaming over information he's already memorized. Age: 16. Height: 6'0". IQ:  160. Strengths: Leadership, Critical Thinking, and-

"How does one feel lonely?"

"How does one feel lonely." Ken parrots, fingers clenching the files. "How does one feel lonely."

He mulls it over.

“Aigis.” Yukari snaps, suddenly focused on their conversation, “Enough. Don’t bother Ken with that stuff.”

“Understood.” Aigis nods blankly, and returns her gaze to the ground.

Ken bites his lip to keep from snapping back at Yukari. He knows that Yukari has a lot on her plate, but Aigis is the only real friend he has left in S.E.E.S. Well, her and Koromaru, but he doesn’t count.

Before it wouldn’t have meant much, just Yukari chiding Aigis for asking Ken something strange, but now it took on a different meaning- an order from a superior. S.E.E.S. had turned into an army, and Ken didn’t like it one bit.

Yukari looks stricken by herself, turning on her heel and leaving the room. Junpei, hot on her heels, sends Aigis an apologetic look on his way out.

Only Aigis and Ken were left in the room, silent where once the both of them had been- more, laughing and smiling and happy, thinking that all their problems were… less, not gone, but less now that they’d found their family.

For a long time, Ken had resented the newcomers, the way it felt they had stolen something from him. Now he was beginning to wonder if there’d ever been anything there to steal.

“Understood.” Aigis repeats, making Ken jump. She’d been so still that he’d almost forgotten she was alive.

Aigis makes a turn, more robotic than she’s been in ages, and walks determinedly out of the house.

Ken, as he’s been doing often these days, resolves to wait until she’s come back. To this end, he makes himself comfortable on the couch, ready to catch Aigis as she returns, and have a real heart-to-heart. It had always worked when Minako did it.

He waits well into the night, but eventually succumbs to sleep.

By the time he wakes the next morning, they, the strangers Mitsuru calls teammates, are telling him that Aigis is gone.

 

It was not that nothing happened after Mitsuo was arrested. Far from it: a great many things were happening, and many more were on their way to happening. It was only that all of the most important things were happening quietly, within the barred cages of Souji’s mind.

The consensus among the team was that Souji had no shadow because he kept nothing from himself. Souji had privately agreed, once, but now knew they were all wrong, because this fear must have been hiding somewhere deep inside him.

In theory, Souji was not afraid of dying. Death led to silence, Souji’s oldest friend, and an end to everything. Sixteen or sixty made very little difference in the grand scheme of things. Still, he found his hands shaking that night, two weeks deep in August, as he struggled to wash blood out of his button-up shirt.

They’d been training later and later, sometimes waiting until Junes was closed to come out of the T.V. The case may have been over, but none of them had been quite willing to abandon the shadow world.

“Seta-kun?” A voice called out from the bottom floor.

Souji froze. The voice belonged to Adachi- Dojima’s idiot partner. Even he would have questions if he walked in on Souji washing an unidentifiable red substance out of his shirt in the middle of the night.

“Coming!” Souji quickly stashed the still wet shirt in a drawer and headed down the stairs.

Adachi was waiting for him in the living room, a passed out Dojima laying on the couch. Something small and silver glittered in Adachi’s hand, and Souji realized as he grew closer that it was Dojima’s phone. He quieted his step as he reached the landing, where Adachi was looking at Dojima’s sleeping form as if it were fragile and precious.

“Long night?” Souji asked, taking in the peculiar curves of Adachi’s face.

Souji had expected Adachi to jump at least half a mile into the air. Instead, he turned smoothly on his heel and fixed Souji with an appraising look.

“Seta-kun. You’re up late.”

“Obviously.”

Adachi’s characteristic nervousness, all consuming in the daylight, was nowhere to be seen tonight. It should have made Adachi easier to read, but instead made Souji feel as if he was the one stripped bare of his defenses.

“How did you get in?” Souji asked.

Adachi must have been thinking along similar lines, because when he shrugged it was all predatory elegance, with none of his usual hesitance.

“Dojima gave me a key.” Adachi said, flipping Dojima’s phone around in his hands. “Thought I might as well have a look around, make sure you’re safe. There’s a killer on the loose, y’know.”

Adachi tossed the phone onto the glass table. It made a hideous clattering sound, then lay defeated on its side.

“I thought you made an arrest.” Souji said, striving for casual.

“Mmm, Mitsuo-kun.” Adachi rolled the boy’s name around his tongue, savouring. “Much thanks to you for that, of course.”

They’d told the police that they’d found Mitsuo wandering around on the roof of Junes. Adachi had seemed to buy it at the time, but there was little doubt now that he’d seen through them.

“Of course.” Souji repeated.

Adachi looked around the room, and Souji let him. His eyes lingered on the corner where the wall met the ceiling. Upstairs, where Nanako’s room was.

“Thank you, Adachi-san, for bringing my uncle home safe.”

Adachi laughed, then wandered into the kitchen. Either he hadn’t seen the dismissal for what it was, or he had elected to ignore it.

Adachi ran his hands over everything, as if he couldn’t be sure if anything was real until he was touching it. The walls, the bread knife, the spice rack Souji had refilled that morning.

“Do you have a long drive ahead of you?” Souji asked.

“Very.” Adachi said, picking up one of Nanako’s woven bracelets.

Souji had to quell the urge to snatch it away from him.

“Well,” He said instead, “It’s only going to get longer.”

“That’s okay. I like long drives.” Adachi laughed.

Souji snuck a glance at the window: there was no car in front of the house. When he turned back, Adachi was nowhere to be seen. Souji rushed forward to find him halfway up the stairs.

“I’ll take your uncle up to his room.” Adachi said by way of explanation, although he was alone and Dojima still lay on the couch.

“How much did he drink?” Souji asked, although it was a useless question. He did not want to let Adachi walk through his home at all, but he most certainly did not want him to do it undisturbed.

“No more than usual.” Adachi turned left instead of right at the top of the stairs, away from Dojima’s room. He dragged his nails along Nanako’s door, tapping once.

“Have you been drinking? You shouldn’t drink and drive.” Souji asked, even though Adachi did not have a car and Souji would not mind one bit if he crashed the car he did not have. He watched as Adachi moved onto Souji’s room, twisting the door open and peering inside.

“No, I haven’t been drinking.” Adachi said, and then; “Your room is so empty, Seta-kun. One would think you’re a ghost.”

If only he were a ghost, then Adachi could not have looked at him like that.

“It’s late.” Souji said, annoyed that he couldn’t say anything else.

“It is. You should really get to bed.” Adachi held the door open, waiting for Souji to step inside.

Souji felt like lunging forwards and throttling Adachi, but only a little bit. Mostly, he felt like running down and shaking Dojima awake, and taking him and Nanako far, far away from this man. Souji felt a little bit like screaming.

He went inside.

“Goodnight, Adachi-san.”

“Good night.” Adachi said, and closed the door on him.

Souji checked to make sure his sword was still hidden in his luggage, and waited for the sound of the front door closing, which never came.

Souji did not sleep that night.

 

Instead, he fell asleep in class on Monday. He dreamt of a girl with a gun in her pocket who sat in a hospital bed, waiting for someone to speak with her. Just as someone was opening the door, Souji was shaken awake.

His bleary eyes opened to a sea of green which led to a pale neck and Chie’s face; twisted with worry. Behind her, students were packing up and leaving the room. The day was over.

“Souji-kun, are you sure you’re alright?” She asked.

Seta Souji was, by definition, always alright. That was the point of him.

“Yeah, I’m just tired. Thanks for waking me.”

She smiled at him, all transgressions already forgotten. Chie was kind like that.

“If you aren’t busy,” she said, “I thought we could train today.”

Souji flitted through his options in his mind. Chie, Ai, Kou. Was Yumi’s father still in the hospital? She was probably waiting for him to visit.

“Sorry,” he said, “I’m busy today.”

Chie did an admirable job of hiding her disappointment, scampering off to grab Yukiko’s elbow. Souji went home and slept.

 

 

On Tuesday, Teddie showed up at his house.

“Sensei! Sensei!” He began to call from more than fifty metres away.

Souji continued to pull at the weeds, waiting patiently for Teddie to reach him. The tomatoes were all turning a sickly yellow, almost swallowed up by the recent infestation of weeds in the garden.

“Sensei!” Teddie clearly didn’t feel the need to stop yelling, even as he stood directly beside Souji. “Yosuke told me you were feeling ‘under the weather.’ What does that mean, sensei? Isn’t everyone always under the weather, all the time? Are there people who are over the weather? If anyone can learn to be over the weather, I’m sure its-”

Souji nodded absently as he focused back on his garden. There were so many weeds, far too many for Souji to be able pull out completely. It was unlikely the garden would ever be pure again. He wondered how his parents’ gardener had even managed it. He wondered who had moved into his old apartment in the city. He wondered how much longer he had to live.

 

His mother called him on Wednesday night.

“Souji.” His mother said by way of greeting. “I’m concerned about your marks.”

“I’m top of the class.”

“Of course, but with the recent… scandals, and your birthday coming up, I wanted to remind you of the importance of your schoolwork.”

“Of course.” Souji said.

“Don’t waste your time, Souji. This year is supposed to be about your studies. The countryside was supposed to help you focus.”

My marks, he thought, were perfect in your house and they were perfect in my apartment and they’re perfect here. We both know that. And next year you will send me even farther, to another state or another country and they will be perfect there too.

He was wasting his time with those thoughts: things he’d always known but never bothered to think before.

“Of course.” Souji said aloud.

“Good.” His mother said. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you.” Souji said, and then he hung up on her.

 

He slept through Thursday. He turned seventeen years old.

 

Friday morning, Izanagi began to speak to him.

Enough. Izanagi whispered in his ear as Souji sat staring at the ceiling, wondering if it would be worthwhile to get up and go to school. This is beneath you.

He got up and left, because the only thing more unbearable than leaving was staying, now that even his head had lost its silence.

 

He hadn't talked to Naoki in a while, and the effects of his temporary abandonment were easy to see. The boy looked tired, and more blank than he had since that first day they'd met.

The last time they'd met, Souji had told off a housewife on Naoki's behalf. It probably would have been better to stay silent, or to have agreed with her to make her leave, but the look on Naoki's face, half guilt and half resentment, had spurred him on when he should have held back.

After their last trip to the TV, Souji hadn't been in the mood to socialize with anyone. He still went to practice, and he was growing closer to Nanako and Dojima, but the idea of forging bonds so he could grow stronger seemed meaningless. Minako had played this exact game, he was sure, and all she had gotten out of it was death.

Souji was smarter than that, and he had little intention of making her mistakes.

Still, he could only avoid everyone for so long.

That day, with Orthrus settled comfortably in his mind, he and Naoki had taken lunch up on the roof, where the sky was hidden by an infestation of grey clouds, with only the faintest lines of sunlight filtering down. Souji's cooking, always good, had becoming somewhat exquisite since moving to Inaba. Having to cook for someone else had motivated him to learn new recipes, where he once was comfortable with a rotating schedule of four or five meals.

They ate in silence, Naoki pretending that he wasn't watching Souji searchingly, and Souji pretending not to notice. He appreciated the silence; all anyone had been doing since they'd dragged Mitsuo out of the TV world was to ask him questions. 'What happens now?' and 'Do you think it's really over?' and most confusingly of all: 'Are you alright?'

Naoki, for one, did not seem  to be okay. The boy had reverted back to his original paleness, bags prominent under his eyes. Unsurprising, considering the local newspapers had gorged on the new revelations, once again dragging Saki Konishi out of the grave and into the limelight. There was a voice in the back of his mind, a perfect recreation of Igor's unnatural tones, that reminded him just how close he could have gotten to Naoki this past week, how much power he could accrue. Souji shoved the thought away bitterly.

He'd been thinking the same thing about Yosuke, who was similarly affected by Mitsuo's capture. Things had been strained between them since Souji had ordered him to back down a week ago in the TV world. Yosuke hadn't called him  'partner' since, and Souji found himself missing the term of address. He wasn't sure why; 'partner' implied an equality that simply was not there, and the mental gymnastics Yosuke must have gone through to simultaneously prop up Souji as the untouchable leader and his partner-slash-bestie were still a source of amusement for Souji.

"I'm glad you asked me to have lunch today." Naoki said, face turned away.

"I'm glad you agreed to have lunch today." Souji returned easily, watching the soft curve of Naoki's brow, the way he loosens at Souji's tacit reassurance that their friendship is still intact.

Silence fell again, but this one was not uncomfortable.

Eventually, Naoki spoke again: "Where have you been recently? I haven't seen you around school too often."

Of course he hadn't; Souji had been busy, between training sessions in the TV and his new job folding envelopes. It hadn't been avoidance, simply a lack of motivation to speak to… anyone, really.

“Around.” Souji said, all casual. “I’ve been busy.”

“Ah. I thought maybe you were considering going back home.” At Souji’s suddenly sharp look, he hastened to explain himself. “Because of how dangerous Inaba’s gotten.”

He’d considered it. Leaving Inaba here to burn, as he knew it would without him. Igor had chosen  him because he was the right tool for the job; the others were brave and clever and kind and alive in ways he could never be, but they could never inhabit that world the way he could.

He should have left. There was nothing here for him in Inaba. There was nothing for him back in the city either, but at least there his chances of dying in some demented gremlin’s war against the human psyche were significantly lower.

“They caught the murderer, didn’t they?”

“Mmm.” Naoki hummed, a non-response. So he wasn’t sure.

The Inaba Police Force couldn’t even make the public feel safe after they’d caught the murderer. Most of the town had accepted the easy truth -that strange kid, did you hear? the one always hanging around the floodplains on his own, no friends, what a freak. We should have known- and only had difficulty believing that the police would be able to stop him in any permanent way.

Souji had his own suspicions about Mitsuo’s innocence, but he had yet to share them with the Investigation Team.  The others seemed to harbor similar suspicions, however, from what Souji had noticed during his brief interactions with them.

“I think-” Souji cut himself off. He’d been ready to reassure Naoki of Mitsuo’s guilt, to throw some poor kid’s name under the bus to give Naoki the reassurance he’d so obviously sought from him. He thought of the way Adachi had said Mitsuo’s name, the way Chie sometimes said the word ‘steak.’

“I think they’ll get to the bottom of it.” Souji  amended, the empty words flitting easily through his mouth. Naoki would have scoffed if it’d come from anyone else, but Souji knew how he saw him. Quiet, but clever, and most importantly honest. The Souji that Naoki knew wouldn’t have said it if he hadn’t meant it.

This child needed you, Izanagi rang throughout his head, Your absence now was inexcusable.

Souji froze. Izanagi’s voice, unmistakable, had been the one to speak to him just now.  Had he lost his mind? Was it even possible  for Izanagi, locked in the niches of his soul, to burst  out and speak as if he were the persona that Souji had drawn out for strength?

I’ve outgrown you, little god. Souji thought viciously, as he flashed a smile at Naoki.

Naoki smiled back; a slow, painful thing, the sun bursting momentarily through dreary clouds.

Souji felt Izanagi’s annoyance, his reluctance to fade away. No matter; Souji had been shutting off parts of his mind for as long as he could remember. A ghost in the machine wouldn’t frighten him- the ghost needed the machine, not the other way around. When he looked down, his hands were shaking.

“I hope so,” Naoki said.

Souji looked up at him, confused, just as Yosuke burst through the roof door.

“Souji!” He yelled, “We have a situation.”

Naoki stared at Yosuke, who determinedly did not look back at him. The tension, suddenly palpable, seemed to freeze both boys in place, a particularly awkward tableau.

“What’s the situation?” Souji said, trying not to laugh at the look on Yosuke’s face.

“I...uhm,” Yosuke stammered. “Rise.”

Souji nodded as if he understood the nonsensical answer. He clapped Naoki on the shoulder as he got up, squeezing hard.

“I’ll see you at tomorrow’s meeting.” He told Naoki as he packed his stuff.

Naoki shrugged, protective shell falling over his face. Souji paused, wondering if he should have said something more, but he knew it would fall on deaf ears with Yosuke around.

“See you.” Naoki muttered.

Yosuke looked between Souji and Naoki uncomfortably, even as the roof door closed behind them.

“Sorry if I ruined your lunch date.” Yosuke said waspishly.

“I don’t feel the need to apologize for you.” Souji said, because that was what Yosuke needed to hear.

“What? That’s not what I meant-” Then he stopped, because it was.

Yosuke looked at Souji, and Souji looked back at him. Yosuke wiped his palms on his jeans, eyes lingering on where a bruise had snaked up from beneath Souji’s collar.

“Dude,” Yosuke said “What’s the point of popping your collar if you can’t even hide one measly bruise?”

“Brand image.” Souji said flatly.

Yosuke’s laugh echoed through the stairwell, and Souji’s responding smile cut his face. But as Yosuke’s laughter died out, so did the moment of levity.

“Which do you care about more?” Souji had asked Yosuke, at the precipice. “Saving this town or being a hero?”

“So,” Souji said once again. “What’s the situation?”

“Oh. I was just walking by Rise’s locker, for no reason at all, when I overheard her and Naoto talking. Sounded like Naoto was interrogating her.”

Souji hummed.

With anyone else, it would have been worrying, but with Rise there was at least the assurance that she wouldn’t slip up and give something important away. Accidentally, at least. Still, it would only be a matter of time before the detective approached the others. He doubted Chie or Kanji be able to field her queries with such grace.

The young detective was getting closer to the truth and, especially now, they couldn’t afford it.

Shirogane Naoto… She’d been shadowing him more and more often these days, particularly when he was alone. He had his ace, knew what Naoto was hiding, but it wasn’t much of a secret to begin with, or at least not one that was worth much. If Souji could figure it out just by looking close enough, then it wouldn’t be long until it came out on its own. He’d left the girl to Rise so far, but if she kept it up he’d have to deal with her himself.

Yosuke’s pacing drew him out of his thoughts. As always, silence unwound Yosuke. He wondered if it was all silences, or his specifically that so unnerved Yosuke.

“Leave it for now.” Souji said. Behind him, Yosuke stood awkwardly at the edge of the first step.

“Are you kidding? It might be fine now, but how do you think Kanji’s going to react to his questions?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll talk to him before he can get to Kanji.”

“What, on your own?”

Souji gave him a look. Yosuke bit his lip in response, clearly holding himself back from saying something.

Souji knew that Yosuke didn’t like it, wanted to know exactly what Souji planned on doing. Souji wasn’t in the habit of sharing information needlessly, but given everything else…

He could barely trust his own thoughts. Could he trust Yosuke?

“Are you walking home now?” Souji inclined his head towards the exit, waiting patiently for Yosuke to follow him.

Yosuke paused, looking at him as if he were a puzzle he wanted to solve.

“Come on then,” He paused, “Souji.”

Souji led the way, ignoring his ridiculous resentment at the loss of his moniker.

Here, too, Izanagi piped up, your absence was inexcusable.

Souji clenched his fist until the felt his nails pierce flesh.

 

“It’s good that you’re coming.” Souji said. “Nanako’s been missing you.”

Yosuke laughed, and the tension was gone, the two of them falling in sync as easy as breathing. The walk home was short, with Yosuke enthusiastically recounting everything that had occurred this week and Souji listening eagerly. He hadn’t realized, but he had missed them, his team.

“Hey.” Yosuke said as they reached Souji’s doorstep. “Did you take the history notes today?”

“What?” Souji laughed, “Did you fall asleep again?”

“I swear Kashiwagi’s voice has some crazy powers. It knocks me right out every time.”

Souji unlocked the door through his laughter, letting the both of them in.

Inside the Dojima household it was cool the air conditioning working hard to keep the home at an acceptable temperature.

Yosuke fit into the home, walking with confidence gained from hours spent here with Souji. He walked into the kitchen, laughing absently at the pile of cat food Souji had purchased for the local strays.

“You’re a real soft touch, huh?”

Souji laughed because he liked that Yosuke thought that way about him even as he knew it was patently untrue.

“I like cats.” Souji said as if that were what they were talking about.

He led Yosuke into the kitchen watching the other boy wrinkle his nose at the cigarette smell. Souji, too had taken a while to get used to it. His apartment in the city hadn’t smelled of anything except cleaning products which hadn’t bothered him, but had unnerved his parents on the few occasions when they’d deigned to visit.

“Sorry about the smell.” He called over his shoulder as he bustled about, making tea and snacks for the two of them. Yosuke hadn’t said he was staying, but Souji knew he would all the same.

Yosuke watched with amusement as Souji worked, fiddling absently with the ashtray.

“You’re a housewife too?” It sounded like an admonishment.

Souji fixed him with a stare, unblinking.

“I’m handy around the house.” Souji said. Most of the time, Yosuke reacted to what the deemed to be Souji’s eccentricities with a half hearted jab and then a whole hearted attempt at acceptance. But this wasn’t Yosuke, or at least not the normal one; this Yosuke was off kilter and wary. Closer to the first Yosuke he’d seen; look at me, i’m above all this. Chasing some dream world he knew didn’t exist, annoyed with everyone and everything that refused to fit in the role they were assigned.

Anyone else, Souji wouldn’t have blinked twice, would’ve given them exactly what they wanted. Seta Souji; everyman hero. Your best bud and the cool guy on the block all wrapped up in a perfect little box with an added component of vaguely romantic undertones he’ll never bring up until you ask him to. Service with a smile.

Souji had spent the last week wondering if he was marching to his death. There’d been plans made and discarded, flurried visits to the diner that only ever ended in an awkward coffee shared with Shinjiro, even an absurd desire to call his mother. And still, Yukiko had sat silently next to him on the bench, and Chie had spent fifteen minutes knocking at his door, and Kanji had bashfully tried to fix the problem, and Teddie had tried to shove snuff souls down his throat, and Rise had sworn herself to him. Even Yosuke, who he’d cut down with words only a few days before, had reached out past his own shame and embarrassment.

It was not enough. Souji knew this; if Minako had hurtled into the centre of the sun, then Souji is being dragged towards it, made slower by the heavy weight of his friends

It was not enough, they were not enough, there was not a thing about Souji that was enough. In the end, it would matter precious little that Teddie had sparkles in his eyes when he looked at him, or that Rise had a smile, small and private, just for him, or that any of them had ever existed.

But it was not nothing, even for Souji, whose entire life was made of nothings. It was what it was.

Such useless thoughts, Souji thought, because they were, and then he reached and grabbed Yosuke’s hand because he felt like it.

Yosuke bit his lip, turned fifteen different shades of red, then flipped his head. He didn’t let go, but pressed back even harder.

“Excuse me?” A voice called from the main room. “Hello?’

The two of them jumped, fingers laced. Souji shared a frantic look with Yosuke, let go of his hand, and turned to greet the stranger.

“Souji.” Dojima’s booming voice brought the house life, the oft-missing piece made all the more precious for its rarity. “I’m home!”

“Welcome back.” Souji called back. Yosuke furrowed his brows at Souji, tilting his head at the door.

Souji opened his mouth to respond, but in that moment Dojima walked in, flanked by the red headed woman he’d seen at Minako’s diner.

“Hello.” She said, voice clear and sharp. “My name is Mitsuru Kirijo. It’s nice to meet you.”

Mitsuru Kirijo had ice for eyes, with all the spiked loveliness of a woman, and was looking straight at Souji. All six feet of her height bore down on him, and he was reminded, as he seldom was, of just how young they must’ve seemed to her.

Dojima was giving him a heavy look, and Souji knew without looking what he was trying to convey. Worry, suspicion, protectiveness. Dojima looked like he always did; bone deep fatigue covering a few dozen layers of gruff annoyance covering a bruised heart. But even Dojima seemed smaller and flimsier than usual, as if Mitsuru stole something from him through her very presence.

“Ms.Kirijo has a few questions she wants to ask you. In a strictly informal capacity.”

Souji wasn’t sure if it was meant as warning or reassurance, and he suspected that Dojima wasn’t either.

“For now.” Mitsuru did not even look at Dojima, kept her eyes fixed on Souji and Yosuke, and the lack of space between them.

Yosuke coughed into the silence.

“I’m sure you’ll find that Souji and Hanamura have nothing to do with your investigation for the… what exactly?”

It was a detective’s question, even if Dojima didn’t phrase it as one. Dojima shot him a look, warm but wary. Prove me right.

“I’ll be the judge of that.” Mitsuru said sharply. “I’d like to interview them alone, if you would be so kind.” She hadn’t so much sidestepped the question as swerved around it all together.

“We’d be delighted.” Souji said, at the same moment Dojima had said; “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”

They shared a look. Dojima frowned at Souji, who frowned at the floor. The thought of Dojima, whose eyes followed everyone in the room, protecting Souji from questioning when any detective worth his salt would have dragged him in months ago, made something go tight in his chest.

“It’s alright, I don’t mind. We’ve got nothing to hide.” Souji said, matching Mitsuru’s stare for intensity.

If he were anyone else, it would’ve been difficult to say that with a straight face. In reality, Souji kept a well-stocked, multi-tier, cross-referenced library of secrets in his mind. The library to end all libraries. He highly doubted anyone’s ability to scratch at even the most unimportant of his secrets.

Dojima put upon a shrug then walked out, lighting a cigarette as he went. The smell of smoke lingered in the room, and Mitsuru wrinkled her nose in distaste.

Mitsuru moved to sit across from them at the kitchen island, and motioned for them to follow her. Under the table, Yosuke reached out and grasped Souji’s wrist.

“Let’s dispense with the cover; I know exactly who you two are, and what you’ve been doing.” She was very polite, in the way that only the rich could be.

“I’m afraid,” Souji said, completely aware of how his voice had become so cordial it could no longer be deemed polite. “That we haven’t had quite the same privilege.”

She nodded, hands clasped in front of her like a headmistress. Souji had spent a significant portion of his childhood locked in a silent, passive-aggressive war with his parents.  He'd long since become immune to that blank, expectant look that Kirijo-san was currently levelling at him.

“I suppose that's to be expected. I am the head of the Shadow Operatives, a team dedicated to dealing with shadow related disturbances.”

“Shadow Operatives…” Yosuke drew out every syllable.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on the situation in Inaba.”

“Minako.” Souji supplied.

Mitsuru nodded in response, red hair falling over her shoulders in the process. Beside him Yosuke shifted uncomfortably, but did not let go of Souji’s wrist.

“So, if Minako-chan is your operative, then why are you here?”

Mitsuru tilted her head, fixing Yosuke with a gaze of intermediate length.

“We have some… questions about her actions, not to mention yours, that we believe you can help us answer.”

And yours. So Minako hadn’t bothered to report in, or at least not to report properly. There hadn’t been any deaths for about three months, but Minako still hadn’t gone back. And then, after three months, another death.

Mitsuru was back to watching him, her gaze not piercing but extensive. He could feel her eyes roving over him, taking in the bags under his eyes, the way he sat comfortably in the chair, the way he rested only one hand on the table top.

“Why not ask Aragaki?” Souji said, brows raised. “Surely he’d be the most obvious choice. He’s one of yours, and he’s close to Minako.”

“Shinjiro was not assigned to Inaba. He came as a-” She paused, lips frozen around a word, “companion. It would be a conflict of interest.”

The bitter note in her voice told him where she expected to end up if such a conflict arose.

“I’m sure Minako has other friends she keeps in touch with that you can ask.”

“Of course. But, as you may well know, Minako inspires a certain loyalty.”

“Not in you.” Yosuke snapped.

Souji was not quite quick enough to catch his unsurprised laugh before it escaped from his throat. Mitsuru went white, brows drawing together.

“I understand how you may think that.” Her words were cut short, like she was rushing to get to the next one before she was done the first. “It is true that we are not on the best of terms. But I do not, I would never-” She stopped herself.

Yosuke and Souji shared a look. Mitsuru wanted information about Minako and the murders, as if the two were inextricably linked.

For all his loyalty, Yosuke was still one of the shrewdest people Souji had met. He watched Yosuke struggle between the two impulses as Mitsuru continued to speak.

“I used to feel the same way you do. My friends were my friends, right or wrong. If they were facing problems, we’d deal with it ourselves, no need for outsiders. I thought we were singular, and in some ways we might have been, but we were children. You think now that your friends are all you need, that nothing else matters so long as you are safe and happy and together, but you’re wrong. We were wrong too, and if we’d grown up faster… we could’ve saved ourselves a lot of scars.”

Mitsuru couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. She’d walked in here, every inch of her distant and superior, towering over even Dojima. She looked a bit like his mother, which is to say she looked like a marble statue. He’d say she’d grown up plenty fast.

“What do you know so far?” Yosuke asked.

Quid pour quo, was the message, except that Souji doubted Yosuke planned on giving Mitsuru anything but half-truths.

“We’ve confirmed that Mitsuo is not the true killer. The first two deaths were matched with extensive signs of shadow involvement whereas the last was not. Granted, since the formation of your… group, it has gotten significantly more difficult for us to monitor individual personas.” And here her eyes lingered on Souji, or inside him, where Orthrus and Lamia and the others twisted together.

“In any case,” she continued, “we have enough doubt that we feel comfortable discounting Mitsuo. How is Minako doing? Is she well?” She said this last part in a rush, one word bumping into another as they escaped from her mouth.

“Minako-chan is great,” Yosuke said kindly.

What a strange thing this woman was. She walked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders, with those eyes, grey and sharp: letting nothing escape her sight. She’d come to Inaba to investigate a case gone too long, and an AWOL agent, and yet the first thing she did once she’d found an in was to ask how Minako was doing.

“She’s still alive.” Souji added. “But she seems tired, and lighter, I don’t know, as if she used to be more than she is.”

Souji did know, actually, but assuaging Mitsuru’s worries would leave him cardless.

“But happy. She’s always laughing, dragging Aragaki around. They take care of each other.” Yosuke said, taking over where Souji had left off.

He’d copped on quick. This was a game of good suspect, bad suspect. Souji to keep her interested, and Yosuke giving her what she needed to keep her from pushing for more.

“What happens to Mitsuo now?” Yosuke asked.

“He’ll be taken to a Kirijo healthcare facility to await the trial. Do you have any current suspects?”

Souji thought of Adachi's fingers, curling around the bracelet. 

“No.” Souji said. “Why are you here?”

“Your uncle was asking questions about Minako that she couldn’t afford to answer.” Clearly not the whole truth, but enough of it. “Does Shinjiro seem to be in good health?”

“He’s fine.” Yosuke said.

Mitsuru ran her fingers, neat and unpainted, across the marble counter top. She nodded to herself.

“What sort of questions was Dojima asking?”

“Questions about Minako’s identity and documentation. Has Minako mentioned any plans to leave Inaba? Any recent crises?”

She was searching for a reaction. Whatever she’d said to Minako that night at the diner, she was expecting a response, and it had frightened her enough to come to them.

“Not that I know of.” Yosuke said, in the way that he did when he already half suspected the answer. “Why would it matter if he wanted to see her files? Why would that be a problem?”

“Because,” Mitsuru said as she rose from her chair and turned to leave, “Minako Arisato died three years ago. Good evening, gentlemen.”

 

He goes to the shrine despite the heavy rain. The fox always seems to be in a better mood then.

Hair matted to his face by the rain, it took Souji a second to recognize the girl playing with the fox. Her fingers curled into the fox's nape, their painted ends blending into the red of its fur.

"Minako." He called out.

She looked up at him, red eyes squinting to make out his form in the distance. He quickened his step, eager to take shelter under the shrine. Her delighted laughter rang through the fog, so that he half thought there must've been someone even further behind him that she was trying to reach. It began to die out as he reached her, her lips settling into an amused quirk.

"Souji-kun." She ran a hand through her hair. "We've been waiting for you."

"Oh? How did you know I'd be coming here?"

A flash of teeth. "I guess I just had a feeling."

The stone was rough where he settled down next to her. He wondered idly which of his personas would be best attuned to her, which would sing through his skin and try to touch her soul.

"So," he began, "How did you know Kirijo-san?"

Minako shifted, eyes fixed on some point far off in the distance. She began to hum a forcefully cheery tune under her breath.

It was strange, sitting alone next to Minako. He'd never seen her alone before, and even now she was in the company of the Fox.

"We were friends. We used to fight together." She said, just as Souji had despaired of ever getting an answer.

"She was on your team?"

"Or I was on hers. It was complicated."

"I bet." Souji said shortly.

Minako's only response was a laugh, as if the mess she'd made of her life was a source of amusement for her.

"She's a good person though. Or she tries to be. She has a lot on her plate."

Souji nodded, letting a comfortable silence fall between them. After that moment on the rooftop with Naoki, he found himself spending more and more time silent. There was so much in his own mind that he almost couldn't find the time to get out of it. The way his personas stretched and clawed inside his mind, the way that Lamia was currently hissing, maybe reacting to Minako, maybe recognizing her, the way-

"How's Rise doing?" Minako said, breaking the silence.

"You don't like her much, do you?" Souji asked, brushing her question aside like she had his.

A look of annoyance flitted across Minako's face, quick enough that most people wouldn't have even noticed.

"A question for a question, huh? Guess I deserve that."

"You do," He said shortly. "For someone who's always talking, you never seem to say much."

"It's a gift." Minako laughed, turning to face him. "But… you're right. I haven't been very forthcoming. And after what happened last time in the TV world…"

There it was, the topic they'd all been dancing around for days. The battle with Mitsuo, and what had happened just moments before.

"You died. You were dead." He said, watching Minako visibly refrain from flinching. He'd be lying if he hadn't brought it up as some perverse form of punishment. She shouldn't have hidden it from him.

"I died." She spat. "I died, and your potential was awoken. A perfect little assembly line of kids for Igor to make into weapons."

Lamia coils around his mind, slipping in between the cracks in his skin. They hurt her like they hurt me. They ripped out my soul and I could not look away. Her words merge together, becoming a single scream, a single thought: I could not look away.

"Anyways," Minako continued, "There's only ever supposed to be one of us at a time. Clearly, it didn't work out that way for us. When I saw Rise…"

"You thought she was the third." Souji said.

It made sense: of all of them, Rise was probably the closest to understanding, the only one who could imagine what it would be like to have hundreds of souls shifting about under her skin.

"I still do. She might not have awoken to the potential, she might never awaken it, but Igor wouldn't put all his eggs in one basket either. He has to have a failsafe."

So Rise was there to take his place if he died. Or maybe when he died. No wonder Igor and Margaret kept looking at him with that carefully empty look, as if he was just a ghost there to visit.

"Do you know any others?" Souji blurted out. "Any others like us?"

"My brother." She said shortly, her clenched jaw leaving no room for further questioning. Really, her silence told him all he need to know. Her brother hadn't made it either.

Minako tugged at the red handkerchief tied around her arm. The stitching had begun to fray, the words faded so that they were unrecognizable. Souji wondered what it meant, why Minako kept this mangled scrap wound tightly around her arm.

He had other questions, ones that he couldn't very well ask anyone else. It irked him, having some part of him he couldn't fully understand without Minako or the Velvet Room. It was easier for him to ask Minako: for all her levity, she was still indebted to him, and they both knew it.

"Are they all so loud?"

"Personas? They get louder the more you become them, or whatever." She grinned at him, revealing a row of straight white teeth. "You get used to it after a while. Hell, I almost miss it. Lucifer was a riot."

Souji couldn't quite hold back the laugh she'd startled out of him. After a moment, Minako joined in his laughter, her higher tones mixing in with his.

"So what's next?" Souji asked.

"I can't-" She broke off halfway through, her voice wavering. "I'm going away for a little while."

"What?"

"I need you to- to stop Shinjiro from coming after me. Tell him I'm safe, and tell him I'll come back when Aigis is safe, okay?"

"No." Souji snapped, reaching out to grab her arm. "No. I'm not doing anything until you explain yourself."

Minako whirled towards him, looking for all the world like she was ready to fight. "They shut her down. Aigis. She was my- my most loyal friend; she was there with when I died. None of the rest were. And because she was loyal to me, she got shut down like a rabid dog." Almost screaming now, Minako's chest heaved with the weight of what she had said.

The realization pierced through him like a knife would; Minako was a loose cannon. A loose cannon to which everyone was tied. She wasn't taking orders from anyone, not Mitsuru, not Igor, and certainly not whatever shadow master pulled strings behind the scenes. How many people would go down with her when Minako fell?

"I- Please." Minako said. "She doesn't deserve this."

Minako, he thought, was a fundamentally kind person. She was  also, as he'd always suspected, a selfish one. She's too close, he thought, too closely intertwined with every member of his team. Cooking lessons with Yukiko and jogs with Chie and laughter at Yosuke's jokes and comfort for Kanji's bruised ego. He needed to talk to Rise.

"I'll come with you." He said.

Head tilted, eyes widening almost imperceptibly. Warm red eyes masked by long lashes, wide set and sparkling. He didn’t trust them, didn’t trust anything about this pale, bright girl.

"Alright." She grinned, and then curve of her lips told him that she didn't trust him either.

 

It was strange, how Dojima dealt with his suspicions about Souji as if they were a physical thing, separate from him.

Souji thought it was this that allowed him to pass the evening on the porch with Souji, even as he eyed him for a role in the murders. It was a skill he envied; he himself had not quite managed to separate his suspicions about Adachi from the rest of him.

They sat in companionable silence, the smoke blanketing Souji comfortably where it had once choked him. Dojima sat holding a cup of coffee, eyes closed and head resting against the wall. Souji copied his posture, relaxed in the protection of the night.

“I’m going to stay over at Yosuke’s this weekend.” Souji said.

“Alright.” Dojima said, “but be careful. That kid is trouble.”

Yosuke was trouble, but only for himself.

“That time with the swords at Junes was a fluke.” Souji said, even as he knew his defense of Yosuke was pointless and suspicious. “And whatever those housewives say about him is bullshit.”

“Don’t swear.” Dojima said automatically, the way Souji imagined a father would. “They have reason enough to hate the Hanamura name. They’ve all got their backs against the wall, every last one of them.”

“Yosuke’s just a kid. He doesn’t have any more fault in this than they do.”

“Hard to remember that when you’re worrying about how to pay the bills or keep your kids fed.”

Souji didn’t respond, because it was too nice a night to argue, and because Dojima was mostly right. Anyways, Dojima had never given the Hanamuras any trouble unless they were making trouble themselves.

It was ridiculous, still, that the housewives felt the need to take out their frustration on Yosuke because they could reach no higher. He knew Minako was friends with most of them, had seen them drop by the diner often enough, but he couldn’t imagine how she could stand it. Even Souji, who had long ago decided not to have an opinion on anyone beyond that of how useful they were to him, found it rather pathetic.

“It’s a nice night.” Dojima said, echoing Souji’s thoughts.

Souji hummed in agreement, then said “We should call out Nanako.”

They did just that, Nanako jubilant at her invitation into the “grown-up corner”, leaping onto Souji's’ lap. Souji thought that he would rather like to fall asleep where he was and never wake up.

“When I was younger,” Dojima said, “my third year on the force, still just a regular cop, there was this case.”

He downed the rest of his coffee with a neat flip of his wrist.

“This young cop, must’ve been my age then, or a little younger, was investigating a series of… shit, I can’t even remember what. Arsons, I think. Eventually these rumours started up that the perp was actually his little brother.”

“Did he continue the investigation?” Souji asked.

“Yep.” Dojima said, popping the ‘p’. “Even dragged the kid in once for questioning, even though at that point we had some other leads. More of a lecture than an interrogation. But this kid, he was well known in the city, even though it wasn’t a tight knit place like Inaba. He was the tough guy on campus, real quiet, always working on this one bike he had. You know the drill; girls wanna be with him, boys wanna be him.”

Dojima paused there, looking over the rim of his cup at Souji.

“Maybe the boys wanted to be with him too.” Souji said, bouncing Nanako on his knees, mostly to see the surprised lift of Dojima’s brows and hear his huff of a laugh.

“Maybe.” He conceded. “Anyways, he keeps trying to prove that he isn’t going soft on his little brother, all the while trying to prove the kid innocent. And this kid, only saw ‘im once or twice, but he had eyes like daggers. He looked like he was trying to pick a fight with the whole damn world.”

“So one day I drag him into an interview, with his brother there ‘course, because that’s the only way you can interview a minor.”

Another heavy glance to Souji. Even less subtle than the one before: Are you getting this down? You’ll need it.

“This kid didn’t say a word, the whole way through, like we were wasting his time. Finally, my boss got so pissed off that he-”

“Do you think I’m the killer?” Souji cut in when he grew tired of Dojima’s thinly veiled lecture. Best to start high and work his way down, see just how culpable Dojima thought he was.

“Would I be telling you this if I did?” Dojima shot back.

Would he still be trying to protect Souji f he thought he was a murderer? They were blood, after all, and he thought that there was probably some hidden, messed up part of Dojima’s mind that equated Souji with his dead wife, and even Souji, in his infinite refusal of attachment, can see that the Dojimas are the closest he'll ever come family.

“No.” Souji said, because it was the truth.

“No.” Dojima said, although his eyes were too soft for for his voice. “I wouldn’t.”

“So. What do you think?”

“I’m a detective. I think lots of things.”

“About me? And the case?”

“I think you know something that you won’t tell, not for a long while. I think maybe you’re waiting for someone to prove to you that they’re trustworthy enough for you to tell them.”

Not as unknowable as you thought, Izanagi hissed in his ear.

Dojima had turned his detective’s eyes on Souji and that was what he had seen. ‘Who was he?’ Souji thought, ‘to think he can know, think he can see me?’ It sounded hollow, even in his own mind.

Souji looked down, to where Nanko was sound asleep in his lap. How many meetings had he cut short, to get here in time to make dinner for Nanako? How many times had he stayed up late to drag Dojima, grim and drunk, onto the bed?

The weight of Nanako in his arms, the sticky warmth of the Inaba summer, even the heady smell of smoke, all felt suddenly claustrophobic.

The Dojimas were changing him, he realized, forcing him into a shape that was not his own. Seta Souji was meant to be shapeless, formless.

“What is it about me,” Souji said, regretting the words even as he said them, “that reminds you of your wife?”

Do you think saving me will make not saving her hurt less?

This second part he thought but did not say, because here at the end he could not bear to break this tentative bond completely.

“Uncle,” he said as Dojima silently put his head into his hands to block out the ghosts Souji had summoned.

Uncle, he had said, except that to his own ears it sounded like Father.

Souji sat in the night some few seconds more, before lifting Nanako up and going inside, leaving Dojima alone with his regrets.

 

Chapter Text

It was no easy thing, being Minako Arisato.

It starts with her jumping awake from a nightmare. Actually, it starts nineteen years ago on an unnaturally warm February day, but to be Minako Arisato is to live in the moment, so it starts with her jumping awake alone in her bed.

There's a phantom hand around her throat when she wakes up, but she has other things to think about: music, children, those creamy cakes Shinjiro had promised to make more of today. Her friends. Her fight. How cold her bed is, how small she is in it.

Lately, waking up has begun to hurt.

She sleeps alone for two equally frustrating reasons. The first is that Shinjiro has the sensibilities of a conservative ninety year old man. The second is that Shinjiro is still clinging onto the delusion that separate rooms will stop Minako from hearing him cough. Minako grants him this delusion solely because he grants most of hers.

Happiness is a choice Minako has to make every day.

There are other choices she's made: to run to Inaba, to keep Souji alive, to rip apart everything until she finds Aigis.

 

She throws off her covers, pads her way over to the bathroom she shares with Shinjiro. The sun filters through the window, bleeding over the pale blue walls, shining like a spotlight onto the stained glass paintings Yukiko had brought over as a thank you gift for the cooking lessons.

In the mirror Minako looks emptied of colour. The circles under her eyes too dark, the hollows of her cheeks too prominent. These are things that can be fixed.

Her face is pale where it once glowed. Whoever had dragged her out of the seal must have left her light behind, but this too can be fixed. Two swipes of red pigment across her lips and she looks like-

Herself, maybe. Minako Arisato.

A child. Messiah's voice is always carefully blank. It reminds her of someone, but she can never remember whom.

Not a child, says Thanatos, whose words always come from a deeper place inside her skull, A knife.

"Mm," Minako hums as she ties her hair back in a ponytail. "A girl."

 

Every morning before dawn Minako goes for a run. It's the only time Inaba is empty enough for her to run through.

The early morning light casts Inaba as a dusty ghost town. It looks like something out of a dream, a crack in the mirror off from the real world. Each house she runs by has a story of its own, reflected in the doorways and windows and walls.

She's always been fascinated by people living their lives.

The streets of Inaba aren't particularly crowded, but Minako wants, as much as possible, to spare everyone from having to see her, the girl who'd once held the world on her shoulders, pant and collapse after a run.

If only she could spare Thanatos as well.

Pathetic. He says, right on schedule, as she makes her third lap around the floodplains. You're a shade of what you were.

'Look who's talking!' She thinks without heat. These wounds are old, and anyways Thanatos has earned his right to think them into existence.

You have the strength of three gods in your bones. And what are you doing with it?

'I saved the world.' She thinks, glancing down to see that her legs are not pumping as fast as it feels like they are. This happens sometimes, where she loses her path to her body.

The past. Only the old and the crippled speak about the past.

It is the past that illuminates the future, Messiah rings through her head.

Thanatos is a thing of power; she can feel him in her bloodstream, curled around the base of her spine, his phantom fingers at the back of her neck. Messiah is a lighter thing- a flash of light she can only ever see at the edge of her vision.

Her legs are burning, forcing her to stop. Once she could run all through Tartarus without breaking a sweat.

By the time she turns back onto her own street, the sun hangs bright in the sky, a wash of warm yellow over the town. The diner is awake too; she can hear her music travelling out from the open window. She's never asked Shinjiro to give back her old player. It means more to him than it does to her.

"Hey!" She says as she goes in, pulling her hair out of her ponytail. "I'm back."

"In here." Shinjiro calls out gruffly, barely audible over the hissing of the kitchen.

She walks around the main dining room once before going to visit him. It's ready for a day of business; Shinjiro must have set it up while she was gone. Already, he was adjusting to her absence. It stings, but Minako has grown used to the sting of being the loved one everyone is trying to move on from. Shinjiro is trying to make room for her again where there once was. She is working to make that enough.

Inside the kitchen there is a cacophony of noise. Her music blares from the windowsill, sandwiched between a vase of daisies and a framed photo of the two of them. Minako grinning at the camera, Shinji trying to escape its frame.

"Are you all packed?" Shinji asks from where he stands in front of the stovetop, gaze resting on a pot of boiling water.

"Nothing to pack," she says, throwing her arms on his shoulders and leaning up, presses a kiss to his cheek. "I just threw my blade into the car."

"You should at least take some bandages."

"Don't plan on needing them."

"No one plans on needing them."

"Mmm."

"I'll put a first aid kit in the trunk." Shinjiro sighs, long and loud and at least somewhat put upon.

She grins, digs a finger into his side, and makes to dance away. Shinji is fast enough to grab her wrist and pull her back into himself.

The kids like to whisper amongst themselves that Shinjiro never touches anyone except to drag them out by their ear, a rumor she knows Yosuke takes great joy in spreading. Minako only lets this go because Shinji himself welcomes the rumors so gladly. Besides, she herself knows that they are manifestly wrong. Shinji is, in fact, a tactile creature: a hand on the small of her back to show support, a tug on her ponytail to indicate amusement, lips pressed to her skin when he’s trying not to tell her that he loves her.

Of everything, Minako finds herself treasuring his hugs the most. They are the rarest of the lot; she can count them all on the fingers of one hand, but when they happen they are slow and sure, hands coming up to cradle those parts of her that need holding.

Every one of Shinjiro’s touches feel like goodbyes –or maybe it was simply the imprint of the first time he’d really touched her, how he’d meant to say goodbye that night and walk off to his death the next morning- but that doesn’t mean she didn’t long for them.

"Hey," she says, the words muffled by his chest. "I'm coming back."

"I know. I know." He grabs her tighter for a moment, then lets go entirely. "Just try not to burn the entire city to the ground."

"No promises." Minako winks, already turning to head back out.

 

She pulls up to the Hanamura’s to find Yosuke and Souji waiting for her on the curb. They’re sitting close together on the edge, heads bent together. Next to Yosuke, all scuffed knees and nervous laughter and bouncing limbs, Souji doesn’t look very real at all. He’s worryingly pale, as always, and he holds himself with his customary stillness, but he’s no longer as separate as he used to be.

The Hanamura home stands out vividly, not quite in sync with the rest of the street. Like the Hanamuras themselves, it is an interloper from the city, its sharp planes and tall walls having little in common with the traditional homes around it. Its brightly colored window frames and doors do not match the muted sensibility of the rest of the homes.

“Souji!” She calls. “Time is a’wasting.”

They both startle, though Souji does an admirable job of hiding it. Souji gets up and drags Yosuke along with him. A grin, a fist bump, then Souji is moving towards her quick enough to count as an escape.

“Did I interrupt something?” She asks as he climbs in.

“Shut it.” He turns his face to the window, as if removing her from his peripheral vision would remove her from his life.

“Not an emotionless statue after all?” She needles.

Souji doesn’t respond, or give any indication that he has heard her.

“Don’t ever change, Souji-kun.” She grins anyways.

He slides his eyes over to her. Cold, always cold, but sharper recently. All of him has been sharper recently, but she's not quite sure how to ask him why.

“Sentimentality is for old women, y’know.” He says.

She laughs long enough for it to turn into a cackle.

“You remind me of one of my friends.”

“Mitsuru?”

“No,” she says, considering. “Not quite.”

He turns his head towards her, lips pressed tight.

She knows what he’s looking for, and she knows what he’s seeing. He glances at her hands on the wheel, looking for white knuckles. She holds the wheel loosely, tapping out a lullaby with the nails she painted a pale pink last night. He watches her face, looking for cracks. She knows there aren’t any.

 

She’d hoped going back to Tatsumi Port Island would feel like going home, but there is no comfort in traveling through these streets.

Souji watches Iwatobi with stead disaffect. She knows from his vague and clipped answers to his friends’ curiosity that Souji grew up in Sumaru City. He looks like he belongs in these streets, a young prince gazing over his domain.

“Where are we going?” He asks.

“Straight into S.E.E.S. headquarters.”

“She let you keep your key?”

“Hah! She did, actually, but if I know Mitsuru then she’s changed the locks.”

“Then…”

“I’ve still got a few friends.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

They turn down an unmarked street that will eventually lead to a large, grey building that she knows all too well. There are people scattered on either side of the road, all wearing their colored armbands. Most are marked by the white of their bands as one of Fuuka’s support team. Minako’s heart does a confusing thing, love and worry, and pride and jealousy.

She finds them loitering next to the entrance gate. Chidori catches her eye first, creamy lace framing doll-like features. Chidori may be small, but she takes up so much room that it's impossible not to notice her. They’re an odd pair. Him; tall and lanky, the top half of his face shadowed by his hat. Her; bright and pink and unforgiving. She wonders if people got the same impression from her and Shinji. If they did, then they were in good company.

“That’s them.” She nods at the couple, watching Souji take them in.

“Huh.” He says. His grey eyes give them a cursory scan.

Minako takes two steps out of the car before breaking into a run and throwing herself at Junpei, pressing him hard against her skin.

“Minako-chan!” Junpei cries, and Minako laughs in response, burrowing deeper into the hug. He grabs her shoulder so tight it borders on painful, but she is glad of the firm grip.

“In the flesh!” She laughs, waving energetically to Chidori over his shoulder.

Chidori nods back, unperturbed.

“Hello. I’m Chidori Yoshino. It’s nice to meet you.” Chidori says to Souji.

“Thanks. I’m Souji.”

“Oh yeah,” Junpei says, as if just noticing Souji, “So you’re the new guy, huh?”

“I am.”

Junpei swallows hard, something changing in his demeanor. Jealousy had devoured him, before.

“My condolences, bro.” He finally says.

They’ve all grown since then.

“Well,” Minako says, “Let’s get started then.”

 

Breaking out Aigis was going to be harder than it had any right to be, especially considering Junpei lived in the building she was held in.

They’d relocated to Junpei’s room, luckily managing to avoid any familiar faces on the way. His room looked almost identical to the one at the old dorms; clothes strewn haphazard on the floor, posters lining the walls. A stack of empty ramen bowls decorated one corner of the room, kept company by a pile of rather suspect magazines. One wall was covered in small paintings, hanging off a thin string. Most of the paintings were landscapes, some of which Minako even recognized as places from around town. There were a few paintings of Junpei, or parts of him; his hats, his shoes, his silhouette running. A single painting of Medea was tucked away in the corner.

Chidori spreads something out on the floor, and Minako leans closer to see it is a complete map of the building, including the lowest, most secret floors. Her brows draw together.

“How do you have this?”

“I drew it.”

“But how did you sketch out these levels? I thought only Mitsuru and Fuuka had full access.”

“Right.” Chidori says, dragging out the word. “She described them as best she could to me.”

Minako breathes in sharply. Souji stills at her side, eyes resting on her.

It’s almost too much, the thought of Fuuka sitting next to Chidori and furtively telling her what she could. This was Fuuka’s home, and S.E.E.S. was Fuuka’s purpose, what she'd dedicated her life to. She does not know what she had done to earn this loyalty.

“I should go thank her.” She says, blinking back tears.

“Mina-chan.” Junpei says. His voice is too soft to be his. “You shouldn’t.”

She opens her mouth to say something, but shuts it tight when she feels her bottom lip wobble. Whipping her head to the side, she lets her hair fall between her and the others as she looks at the mess under Junpei’s bed and tries not to cry.

“This,” Souji clears his throat, pointing to a point in the middle of the map. “This is where Aigis is being held?”

No one responds at first, until Chidori says; “Yes. I walked by the entrance to that level this morning. It was being guarded by two men. I’m sure there’s an alarm as well.”

“The guards we can deal with, but I’m not sure about the alarm. Who does it call? Does this place go into lockdown?”

“There’s no lockdown.” Junpei says.

“Then it calls more guards? How many are there in reserve?”

“That’s not-” Minako pauses, settling her voice into an approximation of its normal cheeriness. “That’s not a problem. We can handle whoever it calls. I want them to see this.”

She catches Junpei’s frown in her peripheral vision. He’s a good friend, she knows. He’s followed her into all her battles, and he’d follow her into this one too.

“You guys should stay here.” She says.

“What? No. Aigis is our friend too, Minako. This isn’t just your fight.”

“If you come with us, that’s it. There’s not going to be any second chances after you help me do this.”

“Come on, Mina-chan. Mitsuru isn’t as cold as all that.”

“Yukari was helping me go through Mitsuru’s files. Aigis must’ve figured out what I was onto because she got caught going through some of Mitsuru’s classified files on the topic. That’s why they took her apart.”

Souji’s brows draw together suddenly. She tenses, not sure how she’d respond if Souji asked, but he doesn’t push the point. It seems wrong, somehow, to tell Souji of Aigis’ nature, though it is no secret. As if Aigis had to be there to offset the word ‘android’ with her smiles and questioning eyes.

“Right…” Junpei says, “So you came all this way just to shut us out?” He doesn’t say ‘again’, but she hears it all the same.

She shouldn't have played favourites, shouldn’t have let Shinji come with her to Inaba. She wants to tell him that he’s still her best friend, that she would have taken them all with her if she could, but the words catch in her throat.

“I’m trying to keep you safe.” She says instead.

“By leaving us behind? I’m coming with you.”

“Please, don’t.” She says, but Junpei laughs like he doesn’t think she means it.

“It’ll be like old times.” He breaks into a smile that struggles to reach his eyes. “Better, even.”

“Old times ended up with me dead, so there’s really nowhere to go but up.”

This is how most of their arguments have ended since she’s come back. Junpei forcing a joke he doesn’t mean, eyes tracking her like a skittish animal. Her, laughing and pretending she’d never meant it at all.

“So it’s decided? We’re all going.” Souji must be confused, but he shows none of it on his face. It had taken her years of imitating her brother to master that skill. She wonders if Souji was born with it.

“Right.” Junpei says. “And we’re all going now.”

Once, before everything, Minako and Junpei had struck upon the golden idea of dragging the entire dorm out to a haunted house that had just set up in town. I doubt everyone will be down for the trip, he’d said to her. She’d laughed, told him to drag out a yes from them and never give them enough time to reconsider. Junpei had nodded, laughing, and learned.

 

The uppermost levels of the building look like someone tried to paint a home onto a military base. Jackets tossed over containers marked as dangerous, paintings of the sky pasted where there should be windows. The stairway they take is surrounded by two cream colored walls, each of which holds a row of mirrors. Light bursts from the wall lamps, burning out all but the most persistent shadows.

They walk single file through the hallways, Junpei taking lead. The high walls and long hallway seem to squeeze closer together as they go on, though she knows logically that their width is unchanged throughout the entire floor. As they round a corner, Minako sticks out a hand and scrapes off some of the paint with a nail. It comes off in flakes, some sticking under her nail, to reveal a pure metal meant to withstand attack.

“Where is everyone?” Souji asks suddenly, as they pass another floor. “Surely there’s at least a dozen of you?”

Had the hallways always been empty? She hadn’t noticed. There’d been people milling about outside, but in hindsight she can’t remember recognizing any of them wearing an armband that would identify them as part of the battle-ready teams.

“Everyone’s out on an investigation right now.” Junpei said.

“All of them?” Minako asks, suddenly interested. “What could be that big?”

Junpei shrugs. “Fuuka detected almost a dozen… I dunno… gateway-thingies, in Sumaru City.”

Sumaru. She’d first heard of Sumaru City a week after she’d come back. Some gate had opened, leaving the shadow world to leak over. A month passed, and the incidents had only gotten worse. More and more people had been dispatched to try and figure it out, but the city was a question they’d yet to find the answer to.

They turn into a hallway lit only by a few dying fairy lights. The support recruits’ dorms- Fuuka always said that it was easiest to focus in the dim light.

“Like gates? To the shadow world?” Souji asks.

“Yep. Only, these ones keep moving around.”

More mirrors. She’s beginning to think it’s some mind game of Mitsuru’s, to make the recruits face themselves.

Chidori, in all her pastel finery, walks by the mirrors without sparing them a glance. Junpei winks at her through one.

“Will there still be someone guarding Aigis, then?” Souji asks.

“I think so. It’ll probably be Misaki, too. Yukari says he gives her the creeps.”

Minako, who had been trying to find something of Messiah in her own eyes, turned away from the mirror. To her memory, Misaki had been a tall, hungry looking man with slicked back hair who had been suddenly and constantly present near the end of her stay. Yukari hadn't seemed to notice him, but to be fair in those early days of her relationship with Mitsuru she hadn't seemed to notice much but herself and her lover. 

They draw to a stop in front of a large, hydraulic door. She looks around, surprised. Even a vital mission in Sumaru wouldn’t justify the lack of a guard in front of the room. 

Souji's sound of surprise mirrors her own thoughts, but Junpei doesn't seem too worried.

“Well,” Junpei says, “This is as far as my access takes us.”

Minako grins, a casual glee bubbling up inside of her.

“No worries.” She winks, and digs out Mitsuru’s keycard from her pocket.

Basking in everyone’s varying looks of surprise, she swipes the card and waits for the doors to open. The crack between the doors falls on her reflection’s face, slowly splitting her apart until she opens to reveal a coliseum of a room. A bright lights burns her eyes as she first steps in.

Looking through the shield of her fingers, Minako thinks for a moment that the room is supported by a dozen pillars, before she sees them for what they are. What she thought were pillars are actually test tubes, and inside them are girls, with their eyes closed and their faces slack.

Not girls, technically. Androids.

“What the hell?” says Souji.

“It’s less screwed up than it seems,” Junpei says hastily. “They’re not real girls, or, they are, but not really-”

“These are androids with the power of persona.” Chidori says.

“Androids?” Souji parrots, brows disappearing up into his bangs.

Chidori raises a brow herself.

“Really? Androids. With souls.” He says.

“You’re a sixteen year old boy who can summon gods and monsters from his head to fight shadows for him.” She says without inflection. “I fail to see how this is beyond the realm of belief.”

For her part, Minako runs immediately to a lowered platform in the middle of the room. There’s a small table, covered in ominous looking tools, a few chairs, and just slightly behind this all: Aigis, floating peacefully in one of the tubes.

Pressing her fingers to the glass, she takes in her old friend. With her bright blue eyes forcibly shut, AIgis looks unnaturally pale. Her lips, usually painted a faint pink by Yukari, are the same unnatural white as the rest of her. There’s no color to her at all, not even her customary red bow.

She wipes her suddenly clammy hands on her shorts as she circles around behind Aigis. Sure enough, there is a single panel open at the back of her neck. And inside, where the most precious shards were held - empty.

“Oh, Aigis.” Something pools at the edge of her eyes, blurring her vision.

“Is she missing a part?” Souji asks, eyes respectfully averted as she dashes a hand across her eyes.

Clever, Souji. Always so clever.

Junpei and Chidori make no secret of their stares. Junpei looks like he’s been hit, stuck in that moment of shock before the anger sets in. Chidori just watches the scene with the same curious detachment she affords everyone but Junpei.

“Her papillion heart. The-” She wills her voice to be even. “Her soul.”

“Why the fuck would they do that to Ai-chan?” Junpei says, voice rising.

Minako bites down on her tongue.

“I’m sure it can be retrieved. Kirijo-san would not allow it to be taken from here.” Chidori says, shifting closer and angling her body towards Minako. Souji and Junpei disappear behind the heaping pile of lace at Chidori’s shoulder. Minako breathes lighter with the weight of their gazes lifted off her, and tries to focus on the gentle press of Orpheus at the back of her mind.

He never says anything, Orpheus, but he’s always there.

“What does it look like? Is it an actual-”

“No, Souji. It’s not an actual heart. It’s like- doesn’t matter, its probably in a container.”

“A container?”

“It’s fragile. Human touch could break it, or leave an imprint.”

“There’s a billion fucking containers here. How’re we supposed to figure out which?” Junpei’s voice is so loud it seems for a second like a physical force.

“Process of elimination?” Souji suggests. He’s already rifling through a drawer, brows drawn together.

Minako drags a hand across the table, runs her fingers over what can only be the tools they used to take Aigis apart. She thinks of the tightness of Mitsuru’s face, the loosening of it when Minako had hugged her goodbye the other night. The cool plastic keycard slotting easily into her pocket as she drew away, Mitsuru none the wiser.

“That’ll take more time than we have.”

“Let’s just take ‘em all.” Junpei snaps.

“And do what?” Souji’s as cool as ever. “There’s a dozen androids here. They all have their own hearts. I doubt they’ll be easy to tell apart.”

Her fingers curl around one of the chairs around the table. She’d been so tired, heaviness pressing down on the edges of her vision, when she’d lain down on the roof with Aigis that day. She’d woken up screaming in the velvet room. “You’ve reached the end of your journey.” Igor had said to her, laying one inhumanly sharp hand on her knee. Her knee itched still, sometimes, where his talons had gripped. She thinks of Aigis, patiently binding her wounds in the dead of night.

“Maybe there’s a code,” Junpei says. “They have to be able to tell ‘em apart themselves. Aigis was, what a-a…”

“7th generation Anti-Shadow Suppression Weapon.” Chidori says.

“7th gen. version, they probably have shit like that on the card or the container or something-”

Minako spun, slamming the chair in her grip into Aigis’ prison. It shattered instantly, collapsing into itself. She tips forwards to grab Aigis, going down with her, landing hard on her knees. The glass digs sharply into her legs, but Minako welcomes the feeling.

“What the hell?” Junpei yells. “What are you doing?”

“Asking for directions.” Minako struggles to her feet, dragging Aigis’ unwielding form up with her. She nods at Junpei and Chidori. “You two should probably get out of here.”

“Mina-chan…” Junpei presses a hand against her shoulder, his eyes glued to a small rivulet of blood sliding down her leg.

It would be sweet if it weren’t so costly.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get her out of here.”

He stands still, even as Chidori tugs gently at his hand.

“Junpei.” Chidori says. “Please.”

“I’m not leaving you alone again.”

An alarm goes off somewhere in the distance. The lights in the room seem dimmer than before.

“Junpei, we don’t have time for this, get going.” She shoves him as lightly as she can, her body protesting the weight pressed against her side.

“I won’t.” He says, squeezing down on her shoulder.

“You never have. Please, you need to leave.”

And then, with a final tug, Chidori leads Junpei out into the darkness of the hallway.

She watches them go, hoping that Chidori can stop Junpei from doing something stupid if this all went bottoms up. She's glad he has her, because of all of them Chidori seems like the most likely to escape unscathed. The rest of them, all of them, even her, were too busy choking on the things they hadn't said. 

Minako takes one deep, shuddering breath, then slides her eyes over to Souji. He stands in the middle of the room, untouched by the destruction around him.

“How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine.” He nods. “Are you?”

What a question.

“I’m spectacular.”

“Is this going to end in a fight? I don’t have my sword.”

She really hoped not. There really weren't very many fight she could win, in her condition, and Souji couldn't make up for the combined dead weight of her and Aigis. Even if they won they'd need to carry Aigis back out without drawing attention, a trial all on its own, which would be made infinitely harder by any injuries they'd sustain. 

“You’ve got Izanagi.” She follows his gaze to the door, the only way in or out. “Don’t worry.”

He scoffs back at her.

A succession of quick steps ring through the hallway, giving them a second’s notice before they burst into the room.

Akihiko darts in quickly, one hand already on his evoker. Behind him, Misaki and a strange looking girl arrive to bar the entrance. 

Their shadow falls on the floor and stretches towards them. It has a heroic lean to it, in the way of cowboys bursting into saloons in the old movies. He'd always wanted to be a hero. The same shadows obscure most of their faces, swallowing up their eyes and making their expressions inscrutable. Souji rolls his shoulders, a habit Minako associates with him trying to control his fight or flight instinct. Akihiko takes a step forwards, sliding out of the shadow.

A silence chokes them, no one wanting to move first. Akihiko’s darting glances flit between Minako, Aigis, Souji. His brows point upwards in indignant betrayal.

“Minako.”

“Aki.” After everything, there’s still a part of her that wants to go and draw him close. “Did you know?”

There lives, in the back of Minako’s mind, a quiet memory that she feels more than remembers. It is: the sun and Akihiko touching her, gripping shoulders as he says, haltingly, that he loves her. He does not know, thinks he is only admitting to a tightness of chest, a haziness when she is near. Next is the air, caught in her throat as she realizes, for not the first time, how acutely dead they would all most likely be in a few months, how acutely dead the last boy she’d loved came close to being. She’d brushed it off; laughed about friendship taking his breath away, thinking with both pain and relief that he’d never know.

She drags this memory into her thoughts often these days, because it is warm and because she was wrong- they are, all of them, alive, and most days she is sure this makes everything worth it.

Today, though, Akihiko looks at her with blank resignation, and Minako can feel no warmth past the cold burn of Aigis’ limbs.

“Aki.” She says, though she knows the answer. “Did you know beforehand?”

He shakes his head. “No one did, I think. Just Mitsuru.”

“And if you’d known?”

His lips twist to the side. She wonders if he even knows the answer, if he can weigh his loyalty to Mitsuru against his loyalty to them, weigh his dedication to the cause against his honor and distaste for underhanded tactics.

She glances at Souji, who shakes his head imperceptibly. He’s right: without their personas, three on two is a tough call, especially when they had no idea about two of the fighters. And though they were all on even footing in the shadow world, there was no question who would win if she and Akihiko went one-on-one in the real world.

“Do you know what she did, then? Why,” She throws her arm out, marking every inch of the room as guilty. Misaki and the girl tense as she moves. “Why all this? She was helping me. I wanted to know. Why I was back, who’d brought me back. What Mitsuru knew that she wasn’t telling us about. Aigis must’ve figured it out, asked a question Mitsuru didn’t want to answer, then kept on asking.”

“Aigis,” He says, disbelief coloring his every word. “Disobey an order?”

“I needed her.”

Souji shifts behind her, standing suddenly straighter. Seth has settled into his bones, the god peering out from between the cracks. She recognizes the God in the peculiar tilt of Souji’s head, one she used to have herself. He won't be able to summon the persona all the way, not in this world, but he’ll feel it in him nonetheless.

“It was me.” She bites out. “The files, the silence from the field, the breaches. They were me, or someone trying to help me. So if you’ve got just about any interest in fairness, it should really be me put inside a test tube for them to poke and prod at.”

“Minako…” Akihiko sighs, a placating arm outstretched. “Listen-”

She can’t. She can’t listen because Minako doesn’t have many regrets, but Akihiko has always been one of them. A sore spot inside her ribs, a reminder of ways she could’ve lived, things she could’ve had.

“Please.” She says, letting her voice break. “Aki, she’s the closest thing I’ve got left to family.”

It’s a low blow, made no less unfair by the fact that she hadn’t meant to say it. His brows draw together, his jaw clenched so tight it was probably painful.

Wordlessly, he reaches inside his pocket and draws out a tiny cubic piece of metal. The papillion heart. He tosses it to her, and she watches it cut through the air in a perfect arc before reaching out to grab it. It sits warm and heavy in her palms, digging into her flesh.

“You had it? This whole time?” 

“I took it when we got intel that you were back in town. How else was I going to catch you for a second?”

He’s right. He would never have seen her otherwise. She hadn’t meant to become this, some ghost who wouldn’t stay gone, a band-aid they could never quite rip off. 

“Did Mitsuru know?”

“There isn’t much she doesn’t know these days.”

“Then... the gates in Sumaru?”

“Weird, but not weird enough to need the whole active membership. I think maybe she was hoping you’d come for Aigis.”

“Huh.” Minako laughs, eyes stuck on a fading bruise on Akihiko’s cheek. “Guess I’m still your wild card.”

His frown softens. “You’ll always, I mean- you’ll never not be-”

He darts his eyes to the side, red joining the purple bruise on his cheek.

“Heartwarming. Technically untrue, but heartwarming.” A voice drawls from behind Akihiko.

Minako tilts her head to bring Misaki into view. He’s laughing silently, golden eyes peering at her from beneath heavy lids.

“Misaki?” She says. From here, she can see what Yukari meant about him being creepy. There's something inhuman about the way he holds himself. 

“I doubt that’s really his name.” Souji’s voice is tight, all the store shelf amiability wiped from him. He leveled a finger at Misaki and the girl. “Look at their eyes. They work for Igor.”

She breathes in sharply, her hand instinctively going to where her naginata should have been. She’d left it in the car on some childish hope that this would still be home territory. 

Akihiko turns too, drawing his right arm back. “Igor’s men?”

“They’re spies, Aki."

Spies. She hadn't thought Igor would have gone to such lengths, had always just imagined him as some silent guardian. Culpable, for the things he'd let happen, but not the type of person who would actively intervene. Not in this world, at least. She wasn't sure how much of anything happened in the shadow world without Igor's permission.

“Indeed. And you are a troublemaker, Arisato-san. Do go home and leave the rest of the players to take their places. Exit right, as they say.”

She scoffs, taking a step towards him. Akihiko shifts immediately into place at her side, just like old times. She hasn’t been in a fight since Mitsuo, but she has a feeling.

“And you,” Misaki jerks his head at Souji, “Igor won’t be happy to hear you’re wasting your time on this. Don’t you have a mystery to solve? You’re nearing the final act, you know.”

Souji shrugs. “Yeah, well, if you get out of our way we can get back in time.”

“There’s no need to be so standoffish, Souji. You’re on our side, after all." Misaki says.

He steps towards Souji, pressing a hand against his shoulder. Souji freezes, for a moment, and his inaction presses a sharp sliver of fear against Minako's throat.

"We can help each other." Misaki says, his voice low and comforting. "You want our help, don’t you? I know he must have frightened you.”

Something closes off behind Souji’s eyes. He takes two steps back just as Minako lunges at Misaki.

They hit the ground hard. She pushes herself up first, Messiah sharpening her sight, and strikes him once, twice.

On the third, he catches her arm and tosses her effortlessly to the side. She tucks herself into a ball and rolls for a few second over the harsh metal floor. She stops to find herself looking at Souji and Aki circling the girl on the other side of the room, herding her in.

She doesn’t expect the kick to the stomach. All the air rushes out of her at once, leaving her gasping. Thanatos’ rage bubbles up inside her.

She swings her foot out, toppling him over. Thanatos’ hand at her back, she throws herself onto him, pinning Misaki down. It shouldn’t be possible: a girl her size and health holding down Misaki, but Thanatos’ limbs press down alongside her own.

“Got you.” She grits out.

He rasps out a laugh.

“You recognize me, hm? This weight bearing down on you?” She bends down to whisper in his ear. “This is what you tried to steal from me.”

“We all have roles to play. You don’t get to throw yours away just because it doesn’t suit you.”

“Oh yeah? And what role are you playing right now? Is Misaki even your real name?”

He laughs, throwing his head back.

“I have no name. I am nameless.”

She scoffs. A glance over her shoulder shows that Akihiko and Souji are still struggling with the girl. She looks back at Nameless.

“You’re only down there because you want to be.” She says.

“I was curious.” He says.

“Fine. I satisfy your curiosity, you satisfy mine. Who is Philemon?”

“Philemon is beyond your understanding, girl. He lives in the consciousness and unconsciousness of humans. Personas live and die on his whims.”

“I thought Igor-”

“Igor is, as all residents of Velvet Room are, a servant of Philemon.”

“So our contracts aren’t with Igor, they’re with Philemon?”

“Not directly. Philemon channels his powers through the Velvet Room, he doesn’t intervene himself.” Nameless lifts himself onto his elbows, jostling Minako off of him.

“Right,” Souji’s voice is as sharp as the knife he has pointed at the girl. She hadn’t known him to carry a knife before this, wondered if Souji had been more worried than he let on. “Why do your job yourself when you can get kids killed doing it for you?”

“Because there are rules.” Nameless hisses.

“Rules?” She laughs bitterly. “What, like in a game?” She shoves him back onto the ground. “This isn’t a game!”

“Minako.” Akihiko says, reaching to grab her shoulder.

“I didn’t mean to-” She starts, when Souji cuts in.

“Fine. If this is a game, then who are the other players? Philemon can’t be playing on his own.”

“There is one other. Nyarlathotep.”

“Who?” She says, checking to make sure her confusion is mirrored by the others. Akihiko gives her a helpless shrug.

“Nyarlathotep.”

“Right… So, Nyarly and Philemon are playing chess in the shadow world, and we’re the chess pieces.”

Nameless smiles, and it is a horrible thing: too wide to be human, akin to a wolf baring its teeth.

“There are forces at play here so powerful that it is beyond our power to name them. It may be a game but it is no trifling thing. These rules are all that protects you from Nyarlathotep. Rules like: the seal stays in the shadow world. Rules like: the twins can never both survive.”

She swallows. He knows.

“I didn’t choose to break the rules.” She says.

“No, but you welcomed the release, didn’t you? Someone tore a hole and pulled you through it, but something like that can’t just be bricked over.” He turned to Souji. “You have even less time than you were supposed to have. And so does he. You all do. And he knows it.”

“Shut up.” Souji says, and punches him in the face.

Nameless’ head knocks so hard against the floor that Minako flinches. His eyes slide shut and his face goes slack.

She blinks, shoves her fear and surprise somewhere deep inside her. “Was that really necessary?”

“Yes.” Souji says blankly.

 

“Getting knocked out in a fight isn’t the same as fainting, Minako. This is brain damage.” Akihiko says afterwards.

“Aki, how is it you never think to apply your surprisingly in depth knowledge of fight safety to yourself?” Minako says.

They’re sitting on the curb, waiting for Souji to come back from the Velvet Room, where he’d taken the girl, Marie she’d said her name was, and Nameless to return them. The sun peeks in on their conversation over the tops of the skyscrapers, dying the world in purples and reds.

“Besides,” she says, “It’s not him I’m worried about. That wasn’t like Souji. Something has him freaked out.”

“That wasn’t like you either.” Akihiko says.

She shrugs.

“I’m not really like me.” She looks down at her legs, mottled with bruises from the fight. Things were so much harder in the real world. “Not since I came back.”

His throat works for a second, words failing him. In this light, Akihiko looks young in a way she hadn’t noticed he’d lost, and Minako realizes with a dull surprise that he looked more like a veteran than a child. They’d all lost that, she supposed.

“Philemon doesn’t seem like a nice guy, but he wouldn’t have brought you back wrong. Not if he needed you.” His words are harsh, but he lays his hand on the curb right next to hers. Not asking or giving; just there.

She shakes her head. “You don’t really believe it was Philemon who brought me back, and neither do I.”

“Minako,” He says, then pauses. “Look. You and Mitsuru need to get yourselves on the same side, and you need to wrap up whatever you’re doing in Inaba. Whatever’s going on with you, we can deal with it. But you need to get yourself back here, and get that kid and his team ready for a real fight. Because Sumaru City is a- sign, omen, whatever you want to call it. Something’s happening, Minako.”

“Yeah.” She says, watching the sun dip lower and give way to the shadows crawling across the street and over the Velvet Door. “Yeah, something is.”

Chapter Text

Igor was very, very old, and he had been Philemon's for a very long a time. Time did not pass in the Velvet Room as it did in the human world; in here time was malleable, so long as Philemon wished it to be. Since Nyarlathotep's first game, Philemon had decided that the Velvet Room would be apart from time, existing only when it needed to exist.

And so Igor waited, as a boy with a pierced ear came and went and one day did not return. In his place came another boy, with a perpetual frown and bone-deep silence and his ever rowdy friends. They'd come close, but not quite. Belladonna had wept for them, for the children who'd lost the mother they'd chosen and then the one they had all followed, but Igor had chided her sternly for her sentiment and gone on to the next.

There was little time to coddle children in the service of Philemon.

The next had been a girl, a girl with a heart and a pulse and a laugh that she had no right to. She was meant to be dead, but the boy's selfishness had kept her alive. Thousands of year's planning destroyed in seconds by some little child. Nyarlathotep is banished, not quite gone but farther off, distanced enough for Philemon to once again turn his gaze from the world.

Nyx grew restless. They took their time, looking for a child to make her receptacle. When they choose, they choose not one but three. First, they find the boy with a yellow scarf. It is a moment's work to hollow him out, to leave in him nothing but what they need from him. Elizabeth had looked away, disgusted, but Igor knew it for the mercy it was. Better them than Nyx, who would burn out whatever precious thing had made Philemon choose him.

Next, they choose the twins. The boy is quiet and separate, the girl warm and central. A good fit, Philemon said: A balancing act. They choose them together but they do not need them both, and so one night Philemon quietly plucks the boy's soul from his body and puts it away for future use. He does not see the girl for many years. There are others to attend to, other wars to be fought.

The girl is not as empty as she should be. He knows this immediately, because her eyes are too bright and her lips are not silent. She grows brighter as the year goes on, even as she realizes what she was, what she'd been chosen for. Theo is charmed by her, mistaking her smiles and warmth for something worthwhile. She fights and dies, as was planned, but does not stay dead, which alarms Philemon but does not surprise Igor. They'd made a mistake with the girl. Easy enough to remedy; without her persona she is just a girl. A child like the rest of them.

And now this boy.

The boy was impenetrable in a way that made Igor very tired. It was hard to guide the boy when he looked at everything with those eyes. Considering, wary.

"You must understand-" Margaret says, trying to bend the boy back into the proper shape.

"I understand perfectly. I'm the wild card, and I fight your wars. You're the attendants, and you stay out of my way."

Igor rests his head on his interlocked fingers, looks at Souji from beneath his nose. He'd wanted to be more careful with this one, to choose someone more pliable. Souji does not seem pliable in the faint blue light. Far from it, he seems like Izanagi made human- back straight, hands folded, a single brow raised in disdain. Igor shifts, prying through Souji's mind. Layers and layers of denial, everything wrapped and placed carefully somewhere it can't hurt him.

No, it is no easy task to guide Seta Souji.

"Enough." Igor says, "You will not do this again."

Souji scoffs.

"You are reaching the end of your journey. You must remain focused if you plan on discovering the truth."

"I do," Souji says carefully, "plan on it."

He is not speaking about the truth of the murders, and the threat hangs like dust in the air.

“Stay out of my way.” Souji says once more, and turns away.

 

 

“Souji!” Dojima yelled. “There’s a girl here to see you.”

Souji dug his way out of the mass of blankets and pillows, blinking blearily at the world around him. The sun had not burst through the sky yet, and as such his entire room was swathed in long, hazy, shadows. As always, his eyes flew immediately to the television, half expecting another victim’s silhouette. Next to the television, his electronic clock blinked irregularly, the tide of light coming and going. He squinted to make out the time. It was four in the morning.

He dragged himself out of bed, immediately missing the warmth. A glance at the mirror revealed that the dark of night had stolen what little color he had to begin with.

“I’ll be right down.” He calls back to Dojima.

He knew without looking that the girl at the bottom of the stairs was Rise. She’d had a strange look in her eye ever since he’d come back from Tatsumi Port Island three days ago.

He took the stairs two at a time, stopping right in front of Rise. He could tell she was frightened, but not from anything so pedestrian as a worried expression or tightness in her body language. Rise, like him, had been born with an ingrained knowledge of what she looked like to others. Instead, what gave her away was her mere presence, the fact that she was here in the Dojima household.

“Let’s talk in my room,” He said to her, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. To Dojima, he said, “Sorry if she woke you up.”

Dojima shook his head. “Nah, I just got in from a long shift, found her outside the door. You shouldn’t be walking around this time of night, Rise. Does your grandmother know where you are? Say what you have to say to Souji, but make it quick, and I’ll drive you back home.”

Souji nodded, swallowing his discomfort. Dojima’s long hours were unfortunate in and of themselves, but were made worse when he saw the disappointment beginning to be etched into Nanako’s features.

“And no funny business!” Dojima yelled as they turned into Souji’s room.

Rise walked around his room, taking it all in. She lingered at his shelf, where a collection of small gifts from Nanako had accumulated. Beside these sat a bookcase, containing a few dozen books shoved next to each other in no particular order. She stopped finally in front of a framed family photo that he had put up only when Nanako had bothered him about wanting to see his parents. She gripped it tightly, standing for a minute in the middle of his room. No doubt she wanted him to ask what was wrong. He let her stand.

“I’m surprised you let him do that, senpai.” She said.

“What?” He said, first in surprise, then in annoyance that she’d managed to surprise him. “Let him do what?”

“Act like he’s your parent.” She flopped down on his bed, patting a spot beside her. “Why do you let him?”

He sat down next to her with some hesitation. The only thing he disliked more than the answer to her question was that it had been asked at all. Rise wouldn’t appreciate the answer anyways. “Why are you here?” He said instead.

“I had a dream.” She admits with a giggle. “It seemed like a big deal when I had it, and I woke up feeling all wonky, but it doesn’t seem like much now.”

“What was it?” He asked.

“I was in my studio, alone, practicing. And there was this song, my song I guess, and I shouldn’t have known the words to it, but I did. I was supposed to be practicing the choreography, but all I was doing was twirling. And all of a sudden there was this butterfly, but there were no doors, no windows, just this blue butterfly, twirling around me while I twirled myself and, and…” She sighs. “It was weird.”

Blue butterflies. He’d seen them painted on the walls of the diner, but he felt like he should remember them from somewhere else. It niggled at his memory, the way Minako’s face had once.

At some point during her recounting of the dream, she’d shifted closer to him. Their faces, only a foot apart before, were now so close that the slightest movement would mean a brush of skin on skin.

She watched him, waiting for a response. He returned her gaze.

“So what do you think it means?” She said, so close that he could feel her breath on his lips.

“Dream interpretations are meaningless unless done by the dreamer.”

She moved back, biting down on her lip. When she looked back up, any trace of discontent was gone. He bit back a laugh. He’d known for a while that they were more alike than they seemed, but every time he was reminded it came with a dash of amusement.

“Where’d you get that from? Was your mom a psychologist?”

“Businesswoman.”

“Your dad?”

“Businessman.”

“Oh,” She said, with a look of realization. “Touchy subject?”

“Not really. I can’t get any more specific because I don’t really know much more.”

“Huh.” She laid a hand on his knee. “So… now’s the part where you tell me what’s been bothering you to comfort me about my own worries.”

He laughed, turning to look at her. “So that’s why you’re here.”

She shrugged. Maybe, maybe not. The dream must have really frightened her.

“You know, I had this line once. I was playing some high school girl, head over heels for this guy she doesn’t know is actually a werewolf. She died. In the end. They wanted to give the werewolf boyfriend someone to mourn, I guess. Anyways, this line, it goes “You know, life’s all about give and take. But you, all you know how to do is take.” Kind of dumb, I know, but it reminds me of you.”

Souji hummed in agreement.

“Yeah. Both of you guys, actually.” At his questioning look, she went on. “You and Minako. All you do is take, and all Minako does is give. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean it in a bad way.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s just. You take it all on. All their worries, their pain, their fears, their love, all of it. Even mine. And that’s fine, it’s good, some of us wouldn’t survive without that. But you give nothing. They all love you, and none of them know you.”

“And they know you?” His first impression of her had been plastic. She made herself into a product, gave people what they wanted. The person they cheered for wasn’t who Rise was.

“I give them something. Sometimes that’s all that matters.” She said.

He bent his head and considered what she was saying. He’d memorized Adachi’s exact path through his house that night a month ago, had been more meticulous than usual in his cleaning, made sure to wipe any invisible trace of Adachi from this home.

He’d only seen him around town a few times since then, but every time he did, this weight on his back got heavier and heavier.

“Rise,” He said. “I have something to tell you.”

 

It had turned out, upon their return to Inaba, that there was more to re-installing the Papillion heart than just putting it back in place and hoping for the best. There’d been a tense couple of minutes where Minako’s lips had twisted to the side and her optimistic words had been a little quieter than usual. Everyone else had taken this to mean that Minako was a little let down, but Souji knew that this signaled that Minako was in utter despair.

Surprisingly, it had been Rise who’d provided a solution.

“That detective guy: Naoto-kun! I know, he’s super into all these gadgets and toy robots. He can probably fix it.”

“Her. And Aigis isn’t a toy robot.” Shinjiro had said sternly.

But it was all they had, so, with near unanimous reluctance, a plan had been made.

 

Three days later, Yosuke grabbed Souji’s hand and dragged him back into the classroom after everyone else had gone.

“Look,” he said, hair flopping in front of his eyes. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“Do you have any other ones?”

“No, but. Bringing Naoto into the fold is a big deal, partner. Are you sure about this?”

Souji bit down a sigh. He didn’t, as a general rule, do things without being sure, but he recognized the possibility for Naoto to become troublesome. He nodded vaguely at Yosuke.

“Look,” He said, noticing without surprise the bags under Yosuke’s eyes. “She’s our best chance of waking up Aigis.”

“And that’s another thing! That android in her room? Is that a real thing? I mean, Minako-chan is sort of spacey, maybe she’s got it all wrong.”

“She’s cheerful.” Souji said. “She’s not a child. And you’re welcome to try telling Minako that you don’t think her friend is worth saving.”

“That’s not what I-” Yosuke paused, rolling his eyes upwards as he considered what he sounded like. “Okay, look, I just think it’s a big risk to take in Naoto just because we’re hoping he’ll be able to fix Aigis.”

“You don’t want to take in Naoto?”

“I just.” He paused, playing with his headphones. “Do we really need him?”

There was the truth, which was to say that Naoto was objectively better suited to helping solve this than anyone else in the team. There was, several miles, away, what Yosuke wanted to hear; that everyone in the team was irreplaceable and that they were complete, no newcomers needed. And somewhere, in the nebulous realm in between, was the answer Souji wanted to give.

He’d missed Yosuke, on Tatsumi Port Island. He hadn’t even realized it until halfway through his fight with Marie, when he’d looked over his shoulder expecting a grin and a thumbs up and only seen Akihiko, brows furrowed in concentration.

“Look,” He said. “Let’s just go talk to him. We need someone to help put together Aigis, and Naoto probably knows more about the police’s side of the case than anyone else we can get to. All right, partner?”

It was a cheap shot, using that name, and the knowledge that Yosuke was being completely irrational did little to alleviate his guilt. How ridiculous, he thought. Everything in his head felt like it was spilling over onto everything else, all the time.

He was just tired, he reasoned, of playing the world’s most protracted game of chicken with Yosuke. Something had to snap, eventually.

 

They found Naoto outside the science labs, idly flipping pages in a rather thick book.

“Uh,” Yosuke said the moment they reached her. “Hi.”

“Hanamura-san. Seta-san.” Her eyes snapped up to them as if only just noticing their presence, though the tense set to her shoulders gave her away.

She scrambled to her feet, obviously wary of giving them any advantage, even in height. Souji wondered briefly if he should’ve brought Kanji along. He’d been banking on Naoto’s poorly concealed wish for companionship to draw her in, but up close her suspicion and natural wariness made that more difficult.

“Naoto-kun. Do you have a minute to talk?” Souji said.

She took a moment to watch them. Souji watched her take them in, sharp eyes flicking between them. His closed smile, Yosuke’s determined jaw. His lidded eyes, Yosuke’s half curled hands.
“If this is about the case, which I suspect it is, I’d be more than happy to talk.” She said. “Shall we walk?”

The three of them set off towards Junes, and Souji fell into step as Yosuke began to relate the story of the past few months to Naoto.

Out here, in the bright summer light, surrounded by dozens of townspeople, it sounded like a ridiculous tale, an obvious lie. He drew up an image of the future, placed himself in his mother’s position in his mind: staring out at some vast and shining city from a penthouse’s floor to ceiling window. Would he convince himself, in a decade’s time, that this had all been the product of the imaginations of a group of bored teenagers?

A quick glance at Naoto told him that she’d already been convinced of that same fact.

“I…see,” She said haltingly after Yosuke finished.

They duck into Junes silently but for Yosuke calling out a greeting to those two schoolgirls that Souji hates.

“Seta-san.” Naoto said, just as they turned onto the aisle with the largest television. “Do you really think this… this fairy tale will distract me from your suspicious involvement in this case?”

Souji huffed a laugh, craning his neck to check that there were no passersby likely to stumble upon them.

“Silence? Is that an admission of guilt?”

“Yeah, you got him.” Yosuke snapped. “He thought, in order to avoid the interrogation you clearly want but will never get because you’ve got no proof, he’d have me tell you this story so you can get him thrown into a nuthouse.”

Naoto colored, and opened her mouth to retort when Souji said “Look,” and thrust his hand into the television.

Naoto’s mouth fell open. She froze for a moment, then leaned over to look behind the television. When she saw no sign of protruding fingers, she came to stand next to Souji, staring at where his arm had sunk elbow deep in the television.

“Where…” She said, brows furrowed hilariously. “Where did they go?”

Yosuke burst into laughter behind them, and Souji turned slightly to throw him his own amused smirk.

“Come on,” Souji said, holding a hand out to Naoto. “I’ll show you.”

 

Yosuke coughed, and Souji caught his eye for a second before looking out the store window. Outside, the sudden shower that had surprised them on their way back from Junes had progressed into a rather fearsome storm. Students ran from the rain, hoisting their bags over their heads as a barrier for the rain, cursing and laughing.

He heard Minako shuffling back towards them, having wiped off all the tables for the third time in the past fifteen minutes. Like the past three times, she stopped in front of Naoto’s booth, and determinedly looked anywhere but at its occupant. She opened her mouth, paused, and turned back to make another round of the restaurant.

Naoto stared blankly at the tabletop, unmoving and silent. Souji couldn’t really blame her; most people would go stock still and shut down completely if Shinjiro was staring them down like he was now, even aside from the lasting shock of being introduced to the alternate world inside of every television set.

Shinjiro was leaning on a wall opposite the booth, arms crossed in front of him and the entirety of his focus concentrated on Naoto, the sole exception being when Minako’s round of the table took her into the area, when he would briefly cast a worried eye over her before returning to his ocular assault on Naoto.

Yosuke cleared his throat. Souji looked at him, then turned his face to the window.

“You alright yet?” Shinjiro said, his rough voice flattening the pitter-patter of the rain.

“Shinji!” Minako muttered from across the room.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s a shock and all, but we really need you functioning right now,” He said, sliding into the booth across from Naoto.

With what seemed like a concentrated effort, Naoto tore her eyes from the table and settled them on Shinjiro.

“Just… to confirm… there’s a shadow world behind every television?”

“Yep. Well, more inside than behind, but more or less.” Yosuke chirped from beside Souji, slightly jostling his shoulder.

“And people who are thrown in there die?”

“If we can’t get to them in time, then yes.” Souji said.

“Right.” Naoto said. “And that hollow bear, he is the steward of that place?”

“Well, we haven’t actually figured out what Teddie is yet.” Yosuke said.

“So, you’re fine now? Good to go?” There was a certain breathy quality to Minako’s voice as she spoke.

Minako swung herself into the booth sharply, pushing Shinjiro over so that she was across from Naoto.

“Can you help Aigis?” Minako stared at Naoto, mouth hanging slightly open.

“The android?” Naoto said haltingly. “I-I can’t be certain, but I can attempt to fix it.”

It must be blinding, Atropos whispered to the inside of his skull, to have every ounce of her attention bearing down on you like that.

‘And what would one of the sisters of fate know of Minako Arisato?’ Souji wondered.

Everything, little boy. I wore her skin, once, as I wear yours now. As I will wear your successor’s, if you disappoint your masters.

“Souji.” Yosuke said suddenly, bumping their shoulders on purpose this time and gesturing at his hands.

Souji looked down to see his nails embedded in the soft skin of his palm. With a concerted effort he drew them back, rolled his shoulders, and willed his body to relax. A bead of blood rolled down his hand.

‘You wear nothing. Outside me, you exist only as a passing thought- toyed with then thrown away.’ Closing his eyes, he began to shove Atropos to the edges of his mind, visualizing a box he could close shut around her.

“Sorry.” He said to Yosuke. “Just leftover nerves.”

“I don’t blame you. Naoto’s freak out is freaking me out too.” Yosuke whispered as Minako and Shinjiro led Naoto up the stairs to where an android laid on their living room couch.

Souji waited until they were on the top step, gesturing for them to keep going when Shinjiro threw them a questioning look over his shoulder.

“It’s not her fault.” He said, tipping his head back against the wall. “The rest of us had weeks to figure out the shadow world from inside, and then even more time to come to terms with it afterward.”

“You didn’t.” Yosuke said with a pointed look he’d come to both dread and anticipate.

“Neither did you.” He pushed off the wall and headed up the stairs, knowing that Yosuke would follow him.

Upstairs, Aigis had been opened up by Naoto, who was tinkering with something inside her neck. Minako hovered above her, alternating between rubbing her hands together and running them through her hair. Shinjiro sat on the opposite couch, chin resting on laced hands.

“So what’s the diagnosis?” Souji asked when it became clear that Minako couldn’t bring herself to.

“It’ll be a few minute’s work to reactivate her… soul, but I’ve noticed something strange in her circuitry.” Naoto said.

“What did you find?”

“Well it looks like most of her motor function has been disabled. A precautionary measure, I assume, in case she happened to wake up. It almost certainly isn’t irreversible, but without in-depth prior knowledge about this system…” She trailed off.

“It’d do more harm than good to just start poking around.” Shinjiro finished for her.

Naoto nodded her assent. “We should consider the possibility that she’s better off… Off. Until we can know for certain how to restore her mobility, at least.”

“No.” Minako said. “No one’s better off like that.”

“Well, it’s up to you, Minako-chan. You knew her best, right?” Yosuke said.

Minako froze for a moment, then tore her eyes from Aigis for the first time to share a look with Shinjiro. Her throat worked, trying out all the words Minako wasn’t quite willing to say.

“Wake her up.” She said finally.

“That’s not a life, Minako.” Souji snapped, surprising even himself. “She’d be transient, a voyeur in her own body. No one can live like that.”

Naoto stopped, already holding the Papillion heart with a pair of pliers. Shinjiro watched him calmly, brow raised, and he could feel the burn of Yosuke’s gaze on the side of his face.

Minako barked a laugh.

“Keep going.” She said to Naoto. To Souji, she said, “We survive what we have to.”

Souji bit his tongue and turned away. The heavy curtains grabbed the sunlight and twisted it into something darker. He tugged his annoyance at Minako for knowing she could survive when he did not, at himself for not catching his frustration on its way out of his mouth, at Yosuke for knowing both too much and too little, into the deep impenetrable center of him, where things went to be lost.

Naoto bent over Aigis, brows drawn together in a sharp downturn, struggled for a moment, then withdrew from Aigis with a sharp click. She settled back and let out an uneven breath.

A moment passed. Two. None of them moved, their gazes drawn to one central point.

And then Aigis opened her eyes.

 

“Hey, Souji.” Chie whispered to him from across the table. “Is there really an android upstairs?”

“Yup.” Souji said, scanning the restaurant and street beyond it for their missing member. “She’s got cannons for arms and everything.”

They’d planned on meeting at six to go over what they knew about the case. Souji had budgeted three hours for Naoto to fix Aigis, but she’d done what she could manage in a little under one. This left them with a large slot of time to fill. Minako had spent this time fussing over Aigis, and Shinjiro had been content to usher them into their customary spot near the back of the diner, take down the sign marking the diner as closed, and head into the kitchen. Left alone, Souji and Yosuke had tried to answer any remaining questions she had until the others began to trickle in.

“Really?” Yukiko leaned in. “Can we go see?”

“It’s not a roadside attraction, Yukiko.” Yosuke laughed, taking Yukiko’s casual separation from reality in stride.

“Besides, I doubt Arisato-san wants an audience right now.” Naoto said.

She’d impressed him. It was a lot of information to absorb, with a good portion of it being objectively unbelievable, but she’d kept up. She’d even reached some of their conclusions before they had.

“We’ll meet it eventually, right? I mean an android made for fighting shadows would be a pretty badass buddy to have in a fight.” Chie said.

“If I succeed in restoring her capabilities, then I imagine she would be, yes.” Naoto focused her eyes on the wooden table, staring as if it were a particularly difficult crossword puzzle.

He assumed Naoto was preoccupied with the same thoughts as his. She was the only member of the team who couldn’t wield a persona.

A cheerful jingle signaled Kanji and Rise’s entrance into the diner. Rise, who always looked nice, now looked like something plucked out of a novel. Shirt cut low, eyes lined, hair curled and strewn around her bare shoulders.

“I got what you wanted.” She said by way of greeting, following Kanji into the booth. “Cops were more than happy to copy some confidential documents over to a cute young girl.”

“Creeps.” Said Chie.

“That they are.” Naoto said, as Rise raised a glass in agreement.

“Did he see you?” Souji asked, though he’d already guessed at the answer.

“I wouldn’t be here if he had.” Rise laughed.

Souji nodded to himself. This was it then. You’ll astound even me, Loki giggled into his ear, If you manage to pull this off. I know tricksters, boy, and your man is one.

“Senpai?” Kanji said, eyes darting between him and Naoto at his side. “What’s this all about? We haven’t had a meet up like this since we closed the case.”

He winced almost immediately after finishing, no doubt due to a sharp kick from Chie. Really, Kanji’s absurd trust in Naoto was almost charming in its persistence.

“Right. You’re right, Kanji, we haven’t. I’ve asked you all here because something’s come up, but first… I know I was acting slightly erratically after we caught Mitsuo, and that I disappeared for a few days earlier this week. I want to thank you all for worrying about me, but I’m fine now. You don’t need to waste your time on that anymore, especially considering…” He paused, waiting for one of the passing customers to walk by and to his own booth, several meters away. “Especially considering the fact that I doubt the case is really closed.”

He’d expected a gasp, or someone’s immediate refutation. Instead, a hush fell on the table, each of them taking in his claim with measured consideration. At his side, Naoto shifted uncomfortably, then opened her mouth to speak.

“I know that Mitsuo Kubo was apprehended for the murders, but there are a number of inconsistencies between Morooka’s murder and the others. Inconsistencies that, in hindsight,” She glanced at Souji from beneath her lashes, “would best be explained by the existence of the shadow world.”

“What?” Chie said. “You told him?”

“That’s another thing. Naoto’ll be helping us with this investigation. He’s got connections in the force, and he’s come to the same conclusion. Mitsuo isn’t the killer.” Souji said.

“So someone framed the neighborhood troubled kid to cover up his own bad behavior.” They all jump at Minako’s sudden appearance. He hadn’t expected her to be down here, not when Aigis was still lying on her couch upstairs.

“There’s nothing to imply he was coerced, Arisato-san.” Naoto said, recovering first. “He killed Morooka of his own free will. He’s a criminal.”

“He’s a kid. Cops had eyes on him way before Morooka. This isn’t just on him.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Souji cut Naoto off before she could retort. “That’s not something we can fix. But we can get the real killer.”

“So what’re we waitin’ for?” Kanji said. “If you know who the guy is, let’s go now and get him!”

Rise and Souji shared an uncomfortable look.

“Do you know who it is?” Yukiko asked.

“No. No, I don’t not really. But I do have some thoughts on the matter. A while back, Adachi stopped over at our house. Some of the stuff he said was… suspect.”

“So he’s a creep.” Yosuke said. “Sorry partner, but that doesn’t prove he’s a killer.”

“Well,” Yukiko said haltingly. “He did point us straight to Mitsuo.”

“Adachi seems a fool, but he is uniquely placed to gain access to the victims.” Naoto said.

Rise searched into her purse and drew out a thin manila folder. She tossed them onto the table and leaned back, looking uncharacteristically serious.

“What’s in here?” Yosuke reached for it first, flipping it open to lead through the papers.

Souji leaned over to look at them, crossing easily into Yosuke’s space. Naoto didn’t move, but he could see her craning her neck to catch a glance.

“They’re the last pages of each of our missing persons cases. Adachi signed off on all of them, but I don’t really know if it’s that important.” Rise said.

“It wouldn’t raise a red flag all on its own, no. But… combined with everything else, it might serve as useful circumstantial evidence.” Naoto said, plucking a few of the sheets from the folder. “But this won’t be enough. We’ll need something more concrete if you want proof that the killer is, in fact, Adachi.”

“It’s just a theory, but I really do think it’s him.”

Yosuke sighed, looking down at the files, and then laughed with bemusement.

“All right. You need proof?” He said, turning to Souji. “Let’s find some proof.”

 

 

Two days later, Souji finds himself crammed onto Rise’s couch along with Naoto and Yosuke, waiting patiently as Naoto tapped away on her laptop, and Rise ransacked her fridge for something to eat other than tofu.

“Anything?” Yosuke asked.

“Nothing more than when you asked me a minute ago.” Naoto said without looking from the screen.

“Anything we can do to help?”

“Do you know the structure of the Police Force database?”

“I… no.” Yosuke admitted.

“Then no.”

Souji stifled a laugh and leaned back so he could keep an eye on both the window and the laptop screen simultaneously. Rise’s living room was swathed in shades of pink and red, and was warm enough to be uncomfortable. On the mantle were a series of frame photos of Rise, one for every milestone in her career.

“I’m in.” Naoto said, just as Rise rounded the corner holding a bag of chips and a single carton of milk.

Yosuke spoke first, addressing the more important issue.

“Are those two,” He gestured to the milk and chips, “supposed to match?”

“No, I don’t see anything immediately indicative of guilt.” Naoto said, eyeing Rise’s offering with clinical fascination.

“What?” Rise’s voice rose. “And don’t act act like you’re any better, Naoto-kun.”

Naoto spluttered indignantly, and Souji took the opportunity to read the screen over her shoulder. It took him a few seconds to wrap his head around the vernacular and the format, but after a moment the screen revealed a painfully average, uninteresting grunt.

He hadn’t been average that night he’d forced his way into the house. He’d been unsettling. When Adachi was in the room, he sucked in everything around him. There was nothing left: no space, no air.

Adachi knew something. Souji was sure of it.

 

Another two days passed. Souji preferred to have a break between meetings: one day to dig, one day to ruminate on what they discovered. He and Yosuke had taken to hashing out possible theories and ideas by passing notes in class. These notes, necessarily vague and coded, were unlikely to amount to much, but Souji appreciated that this was beginning to become the focus for the entire team.

Still, he was surprised when Yukiko had grabbed him by the elbow on his way to soccer practice and gently led him to the roof. Kanji and Chie waited for them there, framed against the spotlight of the sun. They were rifling through the package he’d given them containing everything Naoto could find about Adachi online. They were all combing through them, looking for connections to the victims or incriminating behaviour. Souji had already been through the entire package twice without finding anything useful, but he’d been hopeful that Yukiko’s out-of-the-box thinking or Naoto’s critical eye would upstage him.

“Have you found anything in there we can use?” He said.

“No luck, senpai. Sorry.” Kanji said. “All I can get from his credit records is that he more or less lives off of caffeine and cabbages.”

“Cabbages?” Chie said. “No wonder he’s a murderer.”

“The other investigations haven’t been too helpful either.” Yukiko said quietly.

A sharp note of worry charged through his stomach.

“What other investigations?” He asked.

“Hmm? Oh yeah, we’ve been asking around about Adachi. We figured people would be willing to spill his secrets, since he’s not from around here and we are.” Chie said.

There was a cacophony of thoughts in his head, thoughts running into each other and pushing one another off track. He couldn’t even quantify what his reaction was, or should be. His other souls stirred in the background, as they always did when he loosened his hold on the reins of his consciousness.

Take this apart, he thought to himself. Be objective.

It made a certain kind of sense. A town as small and isolated as Inaba led to the kind of subdued, ingrown community that barred even the most beloved newcomers from entering. There were lines, not strictly observed but deeply ingrained, between us and them.

Dojima was one of them¸but Adachi had been by his side the whole time. It was possible that someone knew something but had been too scared to bring it up to Dojima with Adachi always hanging around.

None of this should have been a realization for him. It wasn’t, not exactly, but he’d never touched the distinction between the Inaba natives and outsiders because, well-

Prioritize, Izanagi chided.

“Can you walk me through everything you heard anyway?” He said.

“Sure, senpai.” Kanji said, always eager to please. “Everyone had ‘bout the same thing to say about the bastard. ‘He’s got his head in the clouds, but he’s a great guy.’ He’s pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.” Souji could practically hear Kanji’s teeth grinding together.
“It’s just a theory so far, Kanji.”

“Right, senpai.” Kanji said, but it was clear he was just humoring Souji. He’d taken Souji’s suspicions on faith and accepted them as inherently meaningful. Souji swallowed down his own gratefulness like bile.

“More or less the same on my side too.” Chie said. “Although apparently he hangs around the shopping district all the time.”

Souji nodded, filing the information away to be torn apart later.

“I also spoke to a lot of people who liked him. But.. those two girls at Junes? Ooh, I always forget their names… Anyway, they told me that Adachi freaked them out.” Yukiko said.

“Those two girls always harping at Yosuke?” Souji said.

Yukiko shrugged. “Sometimes girls can just sense it. Who we should be afraid of.”

“Alright. That’s that.” Souji said, more to himself than to his friends. “Every bit helps. But,” And here he made sure to catch all of their gazes. “This was dangerous. If he isn’t the killer, all you’ve done is add weight to your own reputations for meddling. If he is, and this gets back to him, and it will, you’re all targets. You’ve got to-“

“Don’t be such a worry wart, Souji-kun. It’s alright, we’ll catch him before he has time to do anything. Besides, someone had to do it, and Naoto and them are too new to answers from the housewives around here, and we all know your uncle is already breathing down your neck.” Chie said. “If you’re really that worried, you can thank us with a meal at the diner. Shinjiro-san may be terrifying, but his steak is legendary. Mm, steak…”

“It’s a shame they don’t get many customers. The food there really is excellent.” Yukiko said.

“Huh?” Kanji’s brows shot up. “They aren’t popular? I always hear Ma raving about how sweet Minako-chan is.”

“Minako-chan is plenty popular, but the diner doesn’t have set hours. They open and close whenever it’s convenient. Haven’t you noticed how they always close up after we’ve come back from training?” Chie said.

“Well, I guess it’d be hard to explain to other customers why we’re bringing a fox around with us. I doubt it matters though, since I assume that red headed woman in the fur coat is their patron.” Yukiko said.

“What, like a sugar daddy?” Chie sniggered, grabbing Yukiko by the hand and skipping towards the door.

With a glance back at Souji and Kanji behind them, they disappeared down the stairs, Yukiko’s laughter wafting back towards them.

 

Four hours later, Souji found himself loitering outside of the tall apartment building where Adachi lived. There was at least part of that morning’s events that he’d been unwilling to examine until he was alone; not just alone in the room, but also alone in his head.

Seven months in, it’s not the murders or the pressure or the sheer weirdness of it all that bothers him most. It’s the noise.

He thinks he remembers being afraid of silence once. Remembers some kid screaming in the house just to break the silence. Thinks that kid might even have been him, but he can’t be sure. His memories of everything before Inaba are hazy.

But since then he’s become… not adverse to noise, but certainly not appreciative of it. It had been manageable before, because he’d worn his own silence like a second skin, and if the noise on the outside had ever been too much he could always just lock himself in his head for a little while. But now, the noise was coming from the inside, from impossible things, and it wasn’t like he could step outside of his own head.

So he didn’t think, he just grabbed his coat and walked out, letting his feet guide him. Minako was always griping about how he needed to trust his instincts more. Most of the time, Souji was deterred by the tiny fact of how Minako’s instincts got her killed, but at least she’d managed to do her job.

He hadn’t had a plan when he’d walked out, but now that he was here it was blatantly obvious where this was going to go.

He hadn’t been able to read Adachi that night, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to read him now, but he was sure that if there was anything to be found it’d be in the four walls of Adachi’s apartment.

After all, he knew from experience how hard it was to scrub your home clean of yourself. No matter what, that kind of taint would find a way to manifest.

 

 

He was almost at the door when he noticed the figure in the shadows. With the darkness shielding his face, Shinjiro looked every bit the hulking brute popular opinion made him out to be.

“You shouldn’t be here, kid.” Shinjiro said, his voice straddling its customary line between gruffness and sharp intent.

“Did you know I’d come?” He said.

Shinjiro tucked his hands into his pockets and said: “I was hopin’ you’d be smart enough not to.”

Souji shrugged, satisfied that Shinjiro wasn’t here to get in his way. He went up to the door, jimmying the handle. It resisted, held in place by the lock.

“Someone has to stop him.” Souji said, looking for any nooks or crannies where a spare key could be hidden.

“Someone, sure.” Shinjiro said. “The cops, maybe. SEES, even. Not you guys. Not kids.”

“A few years ago, SEES was just a bunch of kids.” Souji flipped open the mailbox, looking for a glint of silver. There wasn’t any, and there wasn’t any mail for Adachi either.

“A few years ago. Not anymore. And we were never kids like you are.”

Souji laughed. “Maybe, maybe not. But I’m going in either way, so you can help me or you can leave.”

Shinjiro shook his head with disappointment but not surprise. He looked at Souji for a moment, considering. Souji let him look. There were no nooks or crannies to be discovered on him.

The moment passed, and Shinjiro took to a knee with a sigh, fiddling with the lock for a few seconds before it relented and the door swung open with a soft click.

“I told you,” He said to Souji’s raised brow. “I was never a kid like you were.”

Souji bit his cheek, letting his annoyance roll off his shoulder. He followed Shinjiro through the dark and dilapidated doorway, glancing over his shoulder to make sure they hadn’t attracted the attention of some stray bystander.

“Huh.” He said immediately after entering. “This is a dump.”

It was indeed, by most measures, a mess. Clothes were strewn from wall to wall, covered by a thin layer of dust. The far side of the room housed an overlarge red couch that was torn and stained in several places. It didn’t look like a place where a person could live.

Ah, Lucifer laughed, but neither of you are quite people anymore, are you?

True, something must have had to give inside of them to make room for all these impossible things. Maybe not-a-person Adachi had not-a-place. But it didn’t quite ring true, not for Souji. Whatever had been carved out of them hadn’t stopped them from needing a place to call their own.

This place looked uninhabited, more a way station than a home. Clearly no one had ever spent more than an hour at a time in this place.

“Do you think he has another home?” Shinjiro asked. “It’d make sense.”

It would, but it wasn’t what Souji had hoped for. He’d wanted a… doorway, he supposed, a way to step into Adachi’s mind. One place to act as an extension of Adachi himself.

“He probably does. He’d have to throw them in through a private television. Better not take the chances of someone seeing him drag them to his place.” Souji said.

Shinjiro didn’t respond, clearly satisfied with Souji’s answer. He picked his way across the mess to a door on the other of the room, hunching his shoulders to fit through. Souji stayed in the main room and put some effort into prying open a window, looking out into Adachi’s view of a dirty alley and an overflowing trash bin.

“I can’t imagine it, though.” He said, leaning back on his heels. “Adachi scurrying from one shit apartment to another. I thought it’d be fancier in here.”

“This is fancier than a lot of places,” Shinjiro said. There was a sharp noise from the other room, like something heavy had been pried from its place.

“Maybe.” He admitted. He didn’t have much room to talk. His old apartment had towered so high above the city that the sky had swallowed everything but the brightest of lights. “But I figured he’d want to live like a king.”

“That’s probably why he came to the countryside. And why he used to hang around the diner sometimes.”

“What?” Souji asked. He’d gone into the kitchen now, which was almost entirely empty but for a few pots and pans and the fridge, which was giving off an extremely rotten smell. He flung the fridge door open, peering inside to see three energy drinks, a cabbage, and pile of homemade dishes that were far, far past their due date. Souji switched to taking shallow breaths through his mouth, and quickly shut the door.

“Yeah, he came to the diner a few times, but he stopped a while back. Around April, actually.”

“You think he knows?” Souji walked into the bedroom, where Shinjiro was currently picking through Adachi’s measly collection of books.

Adachi’s bedroom looked like the rest of the house; dusty, barely furnished, and broken down. There was nothing in the room but Adachi’s futon, a television set, and one frail looking, scarcely populated bookcase.

“What, that me and Minako are the same as him? Nah, he struck me as the kind of guy who’d think he was the only one.”

“King of his own little world.” Souji sneered. And then he froze.

“What’s up?” Shinjiro said, ever alert.

Teddie sometimes joked about how he was the king of the shadow world, but Souji figured he was some kind of guardian instead. No, there was no king over there, but to Adachi – hungry, tired of playing a game too easy to capture his interest, it must’ve seemed like a kingdom worth ruling.

“That’s where he spends his time.” Souji pointed at the television set. “In there.”

“Huh.” Shinjiro said, eyes shadowed. “Bastard.”

Souji stepped up ready to jump in, only to be stopped but Shinjiro pressing a hand onto his shoulder.

“Don’t be an idiot.” He said.

“Don’t be a coward.” Souji hissed, and tried to shrug the hand off.

Shinjiro dug his fingers in just enough for Souji to feel the force behind them, and let out a sharp laugh.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen you act your age.” Shinjiro chuckled.

“Get out of my way.” Souji drew himself to his full height. Next to Shinjiro, it wasn’t much.

“Yeah, kid, you don’t even know where this TV leads to-“

“To Adachi!”

“Maybe. Probably, even. Still not worth getting stuck over there with no backup for.”

“That’s ridiculous. He’s there, I’m sure of it, and he wouldn’t go over there if there was no way to get back out.”

“You’ve got to do better than that, kid. Go over with your team tomorrow, figure out a better plan.”

Souji slotted his teeth together, felt his jaw jump. It rankled, knowing that for all his power in the other world, over here a fight with Shinjiro could only end in a sound defeat.

“The team.” He snapped, turning on his heels. “Tomorrow.”

“Right.” Shinjiro said, his face a wall of apathy.

 

“How’s it going?” He asked as he reached the top step and turned the door to the apartment.

“Progressing as usual.” Naoto responded distractedly from her place at the desk. She was half hidden behind a tall, teetering pile of books. What little he could see of her was frazzled, her short hair sticking out in every direction, and her hat had slipped off so it was only covering one half of her head.

“Nothing in those books?”

“Not many books have been published detailing the exact method on how to reboot an android. None that I have access to, at least.”

Souji hummed an agreement and headed to the couch. Aigis was, as had become the norm, laid out on the ground with her chest and eyes open. Minako told him that Aigis didn’t sleep exactly, but she did rest, and that she closed her version of eyes when she did. But Souji had yet to see Aigis with her eyes closed, and it was starting to creep him out.

Minako and Shinjiro had given them full run of the house a week ago, with only one warning from Shinjiro not to make a mess. Even Teddie, whose presence usually transformed a home into a ruin within minutes, was sufficiently intimidated by Shinjiro to keep himself more or less in check.

But where the rest of them came up here to hang out with Shinjiro and Minako or to get away from the rest of town, Naoto came to beat her head against a wall.

“You don’t have to do this.” He said, not for the first time. “Minako understands.”

“You’re very familiar.”

“We have the same voices in our heads. That breeds a certain degree of familiarity.”

Naoto ducked her head, as uncomfortable as ever with the mention of personas. It was difficult for her, being the only one without one.

“I have an idea,” she said, “but it won’t be a popular one.”

“The best ones rarely are.” He said, resting his head against the soft plush of the couch. His eyes tingled against the air, lids already slipping to half-mast.

“Well, we need more concrete proof than what we have presently, but we’ve no way of obtaining that, correct?”

Souji didn’t respond.

“… Right. Well it seems to me that the easiest way to prove his guilt or innocence would be to draw him out.”

Souji laughed, already catching on.

“The others I can almost understand.” He said. “But you? You want to risk some random kid’s life on my hunch?”

“You presented it as a legitimate theory, not a hunch. Do you believe in your own words or not?”

“Of course I do. But why would you?”

“Your friends take it on faith.” The words clung to her after she said them. She swallowed imperceptibly, as if she’d given something away.

He rolled his shoulders, fidgeting under an imaginary weight.

“Yeah, I’m not asking about them. You barely even know me- are you really willing to toss someone in Adachi’s way on my say so?”

“Not some kid. I can play bait, and I’ll be prepared for both the killer and the other world.”

He didn’t say anything, or move to look at her. He knew she’d unravel in her own time.

It only took a few minutes before she started up again.

“It makes sense. My voice, my testimony, that is, would hold the most weight, and-”

“And, you’d have a persona.”

“That is not, well, certainly in the case of our failure, it would be beneficial to-”

“People have died in there, Naoto.”

“I know.” She squared her shoulders. He didn’t open his eyes to look at her, but he could imagine the look earnest determination she always wore. “That’s why we have to do this. I’m out of my depth here, but you seem to be… slightly less so. I won’t do this without your support, but if it gets us the killer, isn’t it worth it? Don’t you want to end this, Seta-san?”

Not until I know how this ends.

“Seta-san is my dad.” He said instead. “Call me Souji.”

He leaned back farther into the couch. The scent of forests and moss wafted over from the candles on the coffee table. He waited to hear receding footsteps over the vague background noise of the diner. She didn’t move, and he could feel the weight of her stare on his face.
Finally, she got up, but only to stand opposite him.

“I don’t understand. Yosuke-san said you were determined, resolute. They all speak about you are if you are barely human –hyper-competent, always ready, accepting of anything.”

“I think they meant I was accepting of their quirks, not accepting of ridiculously risky plans conceived entirely because you’re tired of feeling like dead weight.” He cracked one eye open. “They’re right, by the way. I don’t care that you’re a girl.”

“Neither do I.” She snapped, annoyance coloring her voice. “But, you see, I do care that you’re a coward. You don’t hold any real power, and I do not need your permission to do my job.”

“True.” He nodded. “So why are you still here?”

“Because I know you’re holding something back! What are you keeping from us?”

He considers telling her for a moment. Naoto is sharp, sharper than the rest of them, and still removed enough from the team and from him to give a fresh, objective opinion. But he thinks of how cold the Velvet Room was, the raspiness to Igor’s voice, and says something entirely different instead.

“Is it us already?” He cut her off before she could translate her own raised brows and tight eyes into a response. “Bring it up when we all meet here tomorrow. See what the others think.”

She nodded.

“Then you’ll give my plan fair consideration?”

He shrugged, and finally, Naoto turned and strode out of the room.

 

He woke with a start when a pillow hit him in the face. He was half on his feet before he realized where exactly he was, aided in his goal by a tinkling giggle.

“I’ve had gentler wake-up calls.” He groaned.

It was dark out already, the only source of light being the still burning candles on the table. The room, so warm in the evening, was covered in shades of blue and orange, and was cold enough to make him shiver.

Minako stood in front of him, her hair down for once. She was carrying a large mug of tea, clearly ready to turn in for the night. Had she let him sleep here all evening?

“It’s almost one in the morning. Your uncle will be heading home soon, since I think his shift ended a few minutes ago. You should probably get going before he realizes that you’re gone.”

“Oh.” He said, slightly upset. “I’ve left Nanako alone all this time.”

Minako laughed, and gestured for him to follow her.

“Come on, let’s talk downstairs. Don’t wanna wake Shinji up.”

They went downstairs, careful not to make much noise. Not that Shinjiro’s comfort was a priority for Souji, certainly not after what he’d done earlier today, but the world was quiet for the first time in a long time, and he didn’t want to ruin it.

“You’re a good brother.” Minako said eventually, after they’ve both grabbed seats at the counter and she’d poured him a cup of tea.

“Was yours?” He asked.

Minako laughed again, but this laugh was barren. He would’ve broached the topic more gently with anyone else, but he had little desire to play games with Minako.

“Yeah, he-” She paused almost imperceptibly, glancing down at her reflection in her tea. “He was.”

“You don’t seem very sure of that.”

“True, but you don’t seem very sure either, right now. I got an earful from Shinji before you woke up, you know, about being a bad influence on you. And I doubt you know what you’re going to do about Naoto’s plan.”

Souji bit back a sigh. He shouldn’t have been surprised that Minako knew, but he’d been hoping for a few more hours on his own with the idea. Minako no doubt supported the plan, eager as she was for something to be happening.

She’d been impatient, since they’d gotten back. None of the others could see it, but Souji had noticed the tightness around her eyes, the way she’d never sit still for more than a few minutes.

“They’re all getting too reckless.” He said.

“They trust you.” She shrugged. “Both to point them in the right direction and to keep them out of trouble. It’s only natural they’d be enthusiastic to help out. You’re the surprising one, Souji-kun.”

“Am I?”

“Of course. Shinji told me about how you tried to jump in the TV. It’s a bad plan, even I wouldn’t take a risk that big. Maybe I really am being a bad influence on you.”

They were silent for a moment, considering, then broke out into laughter at the same time.

“It was a justifiable risk.” He said.

Something shifted in Minako’s face. She leaned forwards, tilting her head slightly.

“Souji. Listen to me. Don’t think, even for a second, that the shadow world is safe because you have a persona, or because you’re a wild card. If that really was Adachi’s home, and he’s really who you say he is, then the place itself would be out to get you. Not very conducive to your continued survival, and then who would play with Nanako-chan?”

Minako drank the last dregs of her tea, turning to wash her cup in the sink. Souji was silent, staring into his own empty cup.

If he’s who I say he is?” He said.

“What?”

“You don’t believe he’s the killer?”

“Oh.” She said, scrubbing a hand across her tired eyes. “To be honest, I don’t really care. I’m sure you’ll get to the bottom of it.”

It was almost refreshing to hear someone be so uninterested in the contents of Adachi’s mind, but it was worrying all the same.

“So why are you here?” He asked.

“Honestly? First, it was because I didn’t have anywhere else to be. Now, I’m just here to make sure all of you survive the investigation.”

He refrained from asking how exactly she planned to do that when she was just as persona-less as Naoto. In the day, Minako always felt like a physical force, as inevitable and untouchable as the sun. At night, something in her was extinguished, making her look more tired than anything else.

Finished at the sink, Minako smiled at him and headed back up the stairs to her room.

“That’s not what I expected to hear from the kind of person who died to save the world.”

She didn’t even hesitate in her climb up the stairs.

“That was my brother.” She said. “Not me. Me? I died to save my friends.”

Minako was almost gone, turning the knob that would let her into the apartment. “Night, Souji-kun. Let yourself out.”