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If your heart skips a beat (stay on your feet)

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Yukari doesn’t get much mail, but she still checks her mailbox at the dorm every day before she heads to school. She fell into the habit in middle school, when it turned out to be easier to get rid of stuff from her mom while she was out during the day than in the dorm, where someone else might ask why she never wants to talk to her own mother.

She pulls a thick envelope with her mother’s current return address out of the box, scowls, and shoves the letter into the bottom of her bag as she slams her mailbox shut. Great, wonderful, perfect. Just what she needs – a whole day to look forward to another guilt trip about how her mom’s just trying to move on, almost an entire decade later. Yukari would rather never have a soulmate, at this point.

Not if this is what happens when you lose them.

She all but bites Junpei’s head off when he tries to ask her what’s wrong; at least he’s learned sometime over the last couple years not to follow up with a ‘that time of the month’ crack, or she’d seriously consider putting an arrow through his shoulder. (Later, she thinks he probably didn’t deserve to be snapped at, for once, but this is not her most rational of mornings.) She doesn’t open the letter until after archery practice, where she obliterated one of the older targets to the point where it can’t be salvaged – but better the target than Junpei’s shoulder, probably.

There’s an envelope inside the envelope, one that’s been opened once already, and Yukari’s breath deserts her when she sees the to my family on the front. Even after so long, she knows her father’s handwriting; this must be the letter he put in the Moonlight Bridge time capsule. She’d nearly forgotten about that, but it was a ten-year capsule, wasn’t it?

You’re so small right now, but in ten years, you’ll be sixteen. You’ll be in high school.

Yukari brings her hands to her mouth, stifling a laugh. ‘To his family,’ huh? She hasn’t even made it out of the first paragraph and it’s practically all about her. That must be why her mother sent it along.

I swear to you that nothing is more important to me than you and your mother… No matter what happens in the next ten years, I hope you’re happy.

Well, she could be happier. He could still be with them. Someone else could have been blamed for the explosion that took his life. Her mother could be less of a nervous wreck dishonoring her dad’s memory by hooking up with any guy who’s nice to her for five consecutive minutes. But the letter does make her smile, like he’d hoped it would when he wrote it – even if Yukari has to spend a good half an hour fighting back tears so she can focus on her studying for finals.

Even then, her mind keeps circling back to one line in the letter: Kirijo-san appointed me Head Researcher. Any other year and she might not think anything of it, but there’s a member of the Kirijo family at Gekkoukan this year – and she’ll be there next year, too. Maybe that’s her way in. Maybe, if she plays her cards right, she can learn more about what really happened the night her father died.

The next day, Yukari heads for the student council room after school. They’re not having meetings, with finals so close, but it seems like her best chance of catching Kirijo-senpai without either of those two guys she’s always with. This is going to be hard enough without witnesses biased against her.

It pays off; Kirijo-senpai looks up from an array of textbooks and notes when Yukari opens the door. (Any other time she’d feel worse about interrupting someone else’s studying, but not now.) “May I help you?”

“I think so.” Yukari takes a deep breath. “My name is Takeba Yukari. I think my father used to work for your family?”

For her trouble, Yukari gets the rare sight of Kirijo-senpai being caught off guard the moment she hears Yukari’s family name. “The group did employ a Takeba at one time, yes. I’m sorry for your family’s loss.”

“Thank you, but that’s not why I came to talk to you. I want to know more about the project he was made head researcher on before… before the accident.” She knows he was blamed for the explosion – and so began her mother’s odyssey across Japan in search of comfort – but that can’t be the whole story. It doesn’t make sense that her dad would’ve been anything more than a convenient scapegoat, because how is a dead guy supposed to say he did or didn’t do something?

“I see.” Kirijo-senpai is quiet for the longest minute of Yukari’s life. “True understanding will require you to take a step into the unknown, and it isn’t one you will be able to look away from. Are you prepared for that?”

“I’m going to have to be if I want some answers, aren’t I?”

“That you are. I’ll need to make some other arrangements before we can discuss the matter further, and that will have to wait until after exams. I’ll let you know when everything is in place.”

After exams, it turns out that what needed to be in place was an invitation to spend the night in another dorm entirely. Yukari doesn’t understand; she understands even less when she gets there and finds Kirijo-senpai and the two guys she’s always with hanging out in the lounge. They sit Yukari down in one of the armchairs, and give her dinner (it turns out the scary-looking guy is one hell of a cook), and keep her talking, and before she knows it it’s midnight.

Her world immediately turns on its head when the lights go out and something about the darkness outside shifts. One of the guys (the one on the boxing team, she thinks) explains the Dark Hour, but Yukari only half processes it.

“…Is this what Dad was researching?”

“No,” Kirijo-senpai says, after a long-feeling pause. “The Dark Hour is the result of the research your father was a part of going wrong, somehow. I don’t know all of the details myself, but I do know that retaining consciousness during the Dark Hour is the first step to potentially being able to help put an end to it.”

That helps center her again. She could help stop this. She could clear her father’s name. She could be useful. She doesn’t have to turn her back on her dad’s memory.

“Count me in.”

***

Minako has never experienced the Dark Hour the same way as her brother.

That isn’t to say she’s never experienced the Dark Hour; they’ve both been aware of it since they were kids, no matter where they were living, even for the two horrible years they had to live in different prefectures. But something happened around the time they noticed it.

Before the accident, everything was normal. After the accident, they had no parents and Makoto complained about everything looking weird. Minako has no idea what her brother means when he says the night sky turns green for a while at midnight; he didn’t even have words for it himself for ages, and they’ve never met anyone else who knows what’s going on at night to ask them.

At least she can agree that the Dark Hour makes water look like blood, even if she doesn’t know what Makoto means by ‘red,’ either.

They’re going to have to move again at the end of the school year. Their grandmother’s health is failing, and she’s said outright she’d rather see them go out into the world and succeed than put their energy into caring for her. Of course, the rest of their extended family seems to have other ideas and won’t take them back. They’re not even sixteen yet – they shouldn’t have to worry about whether they’re going to be homeless within the next two months. Among other things, the situation’s making it difficult to concentrate on finals.

On the next-to-last day of exams, Makoto finds her after school with a decidedly uncharacteristic spring in his step. “I think I found something for next year. Want to go back to Iwatodai?”

Minako nearly drops her bag. “We could go home?”

“Gekkoukan has good scholarships and plenty of dorm space. We’d be on our own, but… well, the best I’ve heard from the family is that I could move in with Uncle Saburo again, but he’d expect you to stay here and take care of Grandma.”

Makoto’s not a very expressive guy; he never has been. But Minako’s not his twin sister for nothing, and she can see the little tells on his face, the set to his eyes and very faint scowl, that say he considers that option to not be an option at all. She knows he’d sooner stay and take care of their grandmother himself than ask her to throw away her future for a dying woman who’s already given them both her blessing to leave, but seeing it still makes her all but sag with relief.

“Yeah, screw that. I don’t want to be separated from you again if we can help it, and frankly, going home sounds like the best news I’ve heard in ages. Let’s do it.”

Confirmation of their enrollment in Gekkoukan for the next school year comes in on their birthday, which Minako finds incredibly fitting. Maybe it’s weird that she still thinks of Iwatodai as home after so long, but it’s not like they’ve ever really settled into things anywhere else. Sure, it won’t be the same without their parents there, but what has been the same without them?

The end of the school year and spring break seem to fly by, and before she knows it they’re on the train to Iwatodai. Delays have it running late enough that Minako finds herself unable to stop bouncing her feet, peering out the window for the change in lighting that comes with the Dark Hour. To everyone else it probably looks like Makoto’s zoning out with his headphones on, but his worry shows in his shoulders.

Fortunately, the train only rolls to a stop because they’ve reached their destination, but they still agree with nothing more than a shared glance as they grab their bags to walk to the dorm they’ve been put in for the time being (supposedly a temporary arrangement, but neither of them can figure out why). Their grandmother sent them with more than enough money to grab a taxi, sure, but…

Well, they’ve already been in one horrible accident on account of a car’s driver suddenly being a coffin. Minako’s in no hurry to repeat the experience, and she doubts Makoto is either.

The Dark Hour justifies their paranoia by sweeping over town when they’re maybe halfway to their destination. Makoto pulls off his headphones with a sigh; Minako would be right there with him, if she’d bothered trying to distract herself with music that she knew would give out sooner or later.

“Home sweet home, huh,” Makoto says.

“Just when I thought this couldn’t get any creepier.” There’s a giant tower dominating the skyline, one Minako doesn’t remember from their childhood – or five minutes ago, for that matter – but it’s well out of the way of where they’re headed, and she’s not about to suggest any detours they don’t need to take right now. The key to being outside at this time of night is to stay out as little as possible, so they’re better served if they keep moving.

“We’ll be fine, we’re almost there.”

It’s only a few blocks, but doing just about anything at this time of night feels like it takes an eternity. They reach the dorm and let themselves in without incident, and then Makoto promptly spaces out, moving toward the dorm’s front desk like he’s listening to someone and… signing the desk register? Minako has to shake his shoulder to snap him out of it, which is almost more worrying than the stupor itself.

“Minako? Are you all right?”

“I should be the one asking you that, Mister Stare Into Space.”

“Sorry.” Makoto scrubs a hand across his face. “I just thought it’d be rude to ignore the kid, is all.”

“What kid?” Minako asks, and jumps when someone else asks the same question at nearly the same time. There’s a big guy with a beanie at the foot of the stairs, watching them both carefully.

“Are you sure you didn’t see him? He was right there.” Makoto waves a hand at the very empty space behind the front desk. “Striped pajamas, dark hair, bright blue eyes – well, not that you’d know from blue.”

The big guy frowns a little – thoughtful, not menacing, if his lack of expression is anything like Makoto’s. “Nobody I’ve seen before. Maybe it was just travel fatigue.”

“Maybe,” Minako agrees, but she’s not sure she believes it. Still, she’d rather press Makoto on what exactly happened in private.

“Senpai? Who are you talking—” Someone else comes down the stairs – a girl in a cardigan – and cuts herself off with a gasp. “How did they even get here?”

“We walked,” Makoto says; the big guy snorts.

“That’s not what I meant.” Before the girl can explain, the dorm’s lights come back on and the distant hum of the refrigerator kicks in. Minako starts to relax, and then sees what the girl’s carrying.

“Is that a gun?”

“Uh.” The girl shifts her hands (and the gun) behind her back. “No. No, it’s not. Who are you?”

“They’re the transfer students,” the big guy says. “Ikutsuki claimed this was gonna be a short-term thing until he could straighten shit out with the other dorms.”

“But… is it okay for them to be here?” Minako wonders what this girl’s problem is, and finds herself hoping they do get to stay here for the rest of the year. Having to live in a different part of town than Makoto wouldn’t be as bad as being halfway across the country, but this is obviously a rare co-ed dorm, and she’d like to be in the same building if she can.

“Got here in one piece, didn’t they? Take her upstairs, Yukari. I got the other one.” The big guy taps Makoto on the shoulder and leads him upstairs, leaving Minako alone with Yukari.

“Honestly, Shinjiro-senpai, would it kill you to at least introduce yourself?” Yukari sighs. “We’re on the third floor – I think the room Mitsuru-senpai cleared out for you is at the end of the hall on the right, so if you need anything, I’m across and to the left. She’s directly across the way, but you might want to wait until you’ve been introduced, and definitely don’t go in without knocking.”

“I don’t, usually.” Not unless she’s barging in on her brother, and even then, Makoto’s apparent inability to tell girls no has slowed her down there.

“Good,” Yukari says, with the look of someone who’s seen a lot more than she ever wanted to. By that point they’ve hit the third floor; she opens the door at the end of the hall, and smiles. “I was right! Here you go. Oh, and… tomorrow, don’t mention anything you saw tonight at school, all right?”

Minako shrugs. “No one’s believed us about the weird stuff before. I really don’t think they’d start now.”

Yukari blinks. “Um… right. Well, goodnight.”

With that she leaves, so Minako heads into her room, shuts the door, fishes out a pair of pajamas, and flops into bed. She should probably shower, but the last thing she wants to do after all that travel is stand up any longer.

More people who can see the Dark Hour, huh? This year’s going to get interesting fast.

***

“So, how’s the new kid hook two cuties on his arms on the first day of school? You gotta let me in on your secret, dude.”

Emo Haircut – what’d the teacher say his name was? Makoto? – blinks at Junpei like he didn’t understand a word he just said. Before he can say anything, the new girl cracks up.

“We’re all in the same dorm and he’s my brother. Besides, there’s only so much room on that monorail, like half the school comes to school together.” Then she grins, a spark of pure mischief in her eyes. “Takeba-san is pretty cute, though, I gotta agree. It’d be a coup for both of us if she wasn’t just making sure we got here in one piece.”

Yuka-tan splutters, something about not encouraging him, but Junpei’s too busy grinning back. Oh, he likes her already. Finally, someone around here who might actually appreciate his jokes. (Finally, someone around here who might want him around, god knows nobody else does.)

“He always this quiet?”

“Usually, yeah. He likes to say I talk enough for both of us. As far as I can tell, the secret to his success is a chronic inability to tell girls no – not a tactic I recommend picking up.”

Emo Haircut sighs. “Minako, please. I know how to say no.”

“And yet, you never seem to. Try to leave a few girls for the rest of us here, brother dear, will you?” Junpei can’t read the look Emo Haircut gives Minako in response to that line, but she doesn’t seem too bothered by it. He can’t be too upset, then.

“Anyway,” Junpei says, “I’ve been the transfer kid myself, so if you two need anything around school just say the word, okay? I got your backs.” That gets him a nod (Makoto) and a more effusive thank-you (Minako), before Yuka-tan takes off to archery practice and the twins leave to have a look around town. Get re-acclimated, Minako calls it.

Upshot, though: Junpei’s alone. Again. Fuck.

Gekkoukan refuses to consider a baseball team, for some stupid reason. He’s not really into any other sports, none of the cultural clubs have ever caught his eye, and he loathes studying with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. The benefits of joining student council (staring at Kirijo-senpai all meeting) are vastly outweighed by the drawbacks (Odagiri’s complete lack of chill, and also, Kirijo-senpai is scary). He only sticks around on cleaning duty days because he has to. Kenji wouldn’t shut up all spring break about how he finally had a plan to date one of their teachers, and even Junpei’s not that desperate.

There’s nothing for him to do at school, and going home means dealing with his dad, and his dad hasn’t been worth the time of day since Junpei was in grade school. He just wants to not have to think about things for a while. He just wants to matter, make a difference, leave some kind of mark on the world, feel alive and not like he’s just going through the motions.

He ends up holing up in the manga cafe for the afternoon, then getting a burger at Wild Duck before going home. His dad’s already incoherent-drunk, too busy ranting at the evening news to notice Junpei coming in, so that’s one bullet dodged tonight. He’ll be passed out by the time Junpei goes to bed.

He does actually look at his textbooks, but there’s not really much in the way of homework yet – not in the first couple days, when they haven’t had the full rotation of teachers yet and the teachers are still spelling out their expectations for the year – and he’s not about to do more than a cursory glance anyway. He tries a video game, but for some reason it’s not holding his attention like it usually does, and he gives up after the third time he dies on a level he shouldn’t have any problems with.

It’s after eleven, but fuck it, he needs to get out of here before he does something he’ll regret. The last thing he wants to do is turn into his dad; trashing his room (well, more than it’s trashed by his everyday life) would be the first step on a slippery slope. Fortunately, his dad’s passed out in front of the TV, which has moved on to late-night comedy programming. All the better for him to slip out of the house.

His whole relaxation plan goes right the hell out the window when he walks out of the convenience store, something in the air shifts, and suddenly the people loitering outside the store have been replaced by coffins. Junpei’s not ashamed to say it completely freaks him the hell out, especially when he can’t get the store’s automatic door to budge.

He’s halfway to hyperventilating when something grabs his shoulder, which only freaks him out more; he swats the thing away from him, and it says, “Ow. Hey, just breathe, okay?”

Wait. That’s not a thing, it’s a person – and he sounds vaguely familiar. Junpei opens his eyes. “Sanada-senpai? What’re you doing out here? How are you not one of those coffins?”

“It’s kind of a long story,” Sanada-senpai says, “but the short version is, you’re not alone. And if you’re awake now, you might be able to lend us a hand.”

“Lend you a hand? You’d want my help with something? Oh, man, count me the hell in.”

That gets him a quick smile. “All right then. It might take a few days to get everything ready, but I’ll let you know when everything’s all set. In the meantime… it’s normal not to remember much about the Dark Hour at first, but if you do, don’t talk about it at school, all right? It’d just cause a panic.”

Sanada-senpai insists on making sure Junpei gets back to his house in one piece, for some reason. The lights and TV are off, and he very carefully doesn’t look at the couch. When he flops onto his bed, he starts crying again, but this time it’s out of relief. Maybe, just maybe, he’s finally found a place where he can belong.

***

This is such bullshit.

Aki went out to run another test on the full-moon theory; when Shinji said he shouldn’t go alone, Aki said he’d grab Ken on the way, which is not what Shinji meant. But Yukari still can’t manage to put her Evoker to her head, and Ikutsuki’s insisting on monitoring the twins overnight, so Mitsuru’s stuck in the command room, and Shinji’s pretty sure, for some reason, that the dorm is where he needs to be. At least Ken’s there to be picked up, and now they can work on getting him moved into the dorm so he’s left out of less.

“How are they, Mitsuru?”

“The same as last night, sir.”

Shinji sighs. “Coulda told you that. Oh no, wait, I did tell you that. They got here during the Dark Hour the other night and they were just fine, so why are you still doin’ the surveillance bullshit?”

“I’m with Shinjiro-senpai,” Yukari says from the console’s second chair. Shinji wasn’t really expecting the backup, but hell, he’ll take it. “We shouldn’t be treating them like guinea pigs, especially if you have reason to believe something might happen tonight. We should be preparing them for that chance, not watching them sleep.”

Mitsuru doesn’t say anything – she doesn’t even look away from the console – but there’s a slight shift in her posture that Shinji would bet is her kicking herself for falling back on protocol just because Ikutsuki said so.

“Ideally, the observation period helps us determine how suitable a candidate is,” Ikutsuki says. “And after all, it’s imperative that we recruit new members.”

“First, observation doesn’t mean shit until you get ‘em in a fight. Second, worst case, they say no and that guy Aki bumped into the other night doesn’t pan out, we still have five people now. That was your goal, wasn’t it?”

Yukari turns in her seat, frowning. “Wait, what guy?” Before Shinji can answer, though, the console pings with an incoming message, which Mitsuru takes.

“Akihiko? What is it?”

“You’re not gonna believe this – this thing is huge.” Aki sounds half winded, but the constant thud of his footsteps says he’s still on the move. “No time to talk, but we’re almost there. I wanted to give you a heads-up.”

“You’re bringing it here?” Yukari, to her credit, is already out of her seat.

“It was that or it destroys someone’s house,” Ken chimes in – he sounds even more winded than Aki. “At least at the dorm we all know what’s happening.”

“Ikutsuki-san, you’ll be safest here,” Mitsuru says, already falling into battle mode. “Shinjiro, Takeba, you two collect the twins and get them to safety. I’ll join Akihiko and Amada downstairs.”

Shinji nods, grabs his axe and one of Mitsuru’s spare swords, and heads down to the second floor after making sure Yukari’s got something to hand off to Minako. He’s not exactly fond of this division of labor, but Aki, Mitsuru and Ken can take care of themselves, and it makes sense – absolute worst case, Yukari and the twins will need someone who knows what they’re doing on hand.

He only has to knock twice before Makoto opens the door (the alarm Mitsuru set off before heading downstairs probably helped that along, though); Makoto blinks like he’s still half asleep. “What’s going on?”

“Aki brought some trouble our way. Take this, we’re going to the roof.” He passes over the sword, and Makoto blinks at that too, but follows quickly enough.

“Minako says the roof is never safe in movies.”

“This ain’t a movie, but it probably won’t be much better. What d’you think the sword’s for?”

“Shinjiro, Takeba, be careful!” Mitsuru cuts in – Shinji still doesn’t really understand how she uses her Persona to do that. “The Shadow we’re fighting isn’t the one Akihiko and Amada saw!”

Fuck. Come on, kid.”

Yukari and Minako reach the access door not far behind them – apparently, Yukari tried to go out the back door first, and changed course after Mitsuru updated them. They have about two seconds to catch their breath on the roof before a positively huge Shadow blob that’s more hands than body crawls up the side of the building.

“I can do some damage here, but I can’t take it on alone,” Shinji says.

Yukari takes a deep breath. “I… I can do this. No problem.”

Except it is a problem; she hesitates so long that the Shadow manages to take a swipe at her, knocking her Evoker out of her hands. It clatters to a stop at Makoto’s feet, and in a fucking stupid show of faith, considering no one’s bothered to actually explain Evokers to the twins yet, he picks it up, puts it to his own head, and fires.

Makoto gets a robot with a harp for his trouble, and he and Shinji tag-team the Shadow for a while. It swipes at Makoto next, and he’s not battle-ready enough to keep his grip on the Evoker – but his sister turns out to be just as brave. Or just as stupid, Shinji’s not sure. Minako’s Persona, a feminine figure with oak leaves in her hair and a viper twining around her leg, joins in on the fight as easily as the first time Aki summoned Polydeuces.

Then the Shadow turns on Minako and knocks her down, and Makoto’s harp robot explodes. It’s the only way Shinji can think to describe it, considering something rips its way out of the Persona and then tears the Shadow completely to shreds – the Persona recovers its original shape afterward, so whatever the hell that was, it doesn’t seem to have been a big problem.

In the silence that follows, Yukari says, “Well, now I feel really useless.”

Shinji sighs, and passes her his own Evoker. “Patch us up if you can, and we’ll call it even.”

It turns out she can patch them up, which is good. Shinji’s never picked up any healing crap, which means everyone else who can is all the way downstairs, and who knows if they’re still busy.

“’nako?”

“Crap, that hurt.” Minako hauls herself back to her feet. “I’m right here, Mako, don’t panic.”

“Oh, good.” And with that, Makoto collapses like someone just cut his strings.