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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.

Chapter Text

The seniors waste no time getting Makoto to the only Dark-Hour-equipped hospital in town – and one of their own, who apparently sustained an arm injury of some kind in the downstairs portion of the night’s fun, and maybe also a cracked rib. Minako’s not really clear on the details there, since she’s more focused on her brother’s condition. She does notice there’s a kid around this time, though, but everyone else is talking to him so he’s probably not whatever kid Makoto saw the other night.

(Seriously, who dragged a grade-schooler into this.)

The doctor insists on looking Minako over too, since she’s there, but she gets a clean bill of health and orders to go home and sleep; she’d rather be glued to Makoto’s side, but as far as they can tell, he’s just exhausted and should be fine. Staying won’t wake him up any faster, so she does go home, and sleeps like the dead as soon as her head hits her pillow.

She wakes up, way past the time she’d need to leave for school, to a knock on her door. “Shiomi? You should come downstairs and eat something. Shinjiro made lunch.”

“I’ll be out in a minute.” Somehow, Minako was not expecting Mitsuru-senpai to skip school herself, but that was definitely her, and she’s still in the hall when Minako gets dressed and heads out. “And seriously, just use my given name, it’ll make things easier when Makoto’s better. Any word on him yet?”

“He’s still asleep. The doctor said he could recover anywhere from this afternoon to two weeks from now, and we should continue as normal until then. As for Akihiko, he’ll be home this evening – it turned out he didn’t suffer anything worse than sprains, but he’ll still need to rest.”

“I’ve been here for three days and I can already tell that’s gonna go over about as well as asking me to pretend everything’s normal for two weeks.” Still, at least they’re in the same town this time, and Minako’s pretty sure she’ll be the first to know when Makoto does recover. “What are you even doing here? I figured you’d be right back to school.”

“Three people under my care were hurt. That’s the sort of thing I take seriously.”

Minako can’t really argue with that, so she doesn’t.

Lunch smells delicious, looks even better, and tastes amazing; Shinjiro-senpai waves off Minako’s compliments to the chef, but he’s smiling. Weird as it is that this dorm doesn’t seem to have any official adult staff, if he does this kind of thing regularly, they probably don’t need it.

“I’d been hoping to debrief you both at the same time,” Mitsuru-senpai says, as they finish eating, “but there’s little sense in making you wait weeks for answers, and it seems I don’t need to explain quite as much as I usually do. How long have you and your brother been aware of the Dark Hour?”

Minako shrugs. “We were kids – sometime around the accident that killed our parents. At this point I couldn’t say if the change happened right away or not, but we thought it was just us for a long time.”

The seniors trade a look she can’t make sense of, before Shinjiro-senpai fixes his gaze on her. “What about his color vision?”

“That was definitely the night of the accident. He spent the next day complaining that everything looked weird, but we’ve never figured out who’s on the other end. All I know for sure is it’s definitely not me.”

“Huh.” He goes quiet again, eventually grabbing the empty lunch dishes and heading for the kitchen, and Mitsuru-senpai fills in some of the gaps in Minako’s knowledge of the Dark Hour. The weird sky, coffins, lack of electronics and distended passage of time aren’t new by any stretch; even the monsters aren’t exactly a surprise, even if last night was Minako’s first real encounter with them. Personas, though – those are new. (And a little disturbing, now that she’s actually thinking about the summoning mechanism; last night she was less worried about ‘shoot yourself in the head for fun and profit’ and more worried about helping her brother out of a jam.

Maybe, given the whole ‘exploding harp robot’ thing, she hadn’t needed to be.)

“So what’s the deal with the kid?” she asks, then pauses. “Both kids, really – the one who’s definitely here and the one who’s apparently only visible to Mako.”

“Amada lost his mother in a Shadow attack,” Mitsuru-senpai says. “He is the same age I was when I first summoned my Persona, and with that precedent, we felt it best to let him make the attempt. So far he hasn’t been a formal member of the group, but as it looks like our activity levels are about to increase, we’ll be moving him into the dorm this weekend. As for your brother’s mystery guest… your guess is as good as mine.”

“Your friend said he thought it might be travel fatigue, but I’m not sure if he was trying to play it off as normal or what.”

“Shinjiro has never been one to tell a pretty lie when an ugly truth will do. If he suggested travel fatigue, then he truly cannot think of a more plausible explanation, though it may later turn out that there is one.”

Minako nods; that does stack with what she’s seen of the guy so far. “So, what, is your usual recruitment strategy to move people in here under false pretenses and then throw monsters at them after a couple nights?”

“Standard protocol does call for at least one overnight observation,” Mitsuru-senpai says, but she at least has the good grace to look sheepish. “I should have listened to Shinjiro when he said you both got here in one piece during the Dark Hour, but Ikutsuki-san insisted on the observation window being upheld. Believe it or not, the giant Shadow wasn’t intentional – we’ve never seen one that big before, and thought it would stay at ground level, where our most experienced fighters were. That said, it’s true that we need more members on our team, and we’d be very glad to have you both.”

“I’m not committing to anything until Makoto’s awake. We don’t like keeping secrets from each other, so it’s both of us or neither.” She can’t really see her brother saying no, for completely different reasons than his girl problems – the Dark Hour’s unsettled them both for nearly a decade now, and they’d be happy to see the back of it. If they can help get rid of it, so much the better.

“Understood. I’ll keep you apprised to his condition as I get updates from the hospital.” Mitsuru-senpai excuses herself and heads upstairs, on that note; after a minute or so, Minako gets up to see if she can help clean up the kitchen any. It barely looks like lunch for three was just made at all, but she does pick up a towel and start drying dishes.

“So why did you stay here?”

“Didn’t feel like sitting through all the useless teachers today,” Shinjiro-senpai says, in a show of blunt honesty that makes Minako laugh. “Besides, somebody had to make sure you two got a good lunch.”

“There’s food here. I’m sure I could have managed something. Not that I actually mind a little pampering, though.” Halfway through drying a glass, she realises she has no idea where the dishes actually go in this kitchen yet; fortunately, there’s enough clear counter space to set it down and move on to the next one. “Why’d you ask about Makoto’s color vision, anyway?”

“It’s just been me and Aki and Mitsuru for a while now. Someone else mentioning a color detail stood out. Cabinet next to the fridge.”

The last sentence throws Minako for a loop until she figures out what he meant – it must be where the glasses go, and sure enough, there are several others there when she takes the two dry glasses to put them away. “Fair enough, but at this point, if we ever figure out who his other half is I’m gonna be very surprised. Or other… two-thirds, I guess?”

“He ever mention only having part of the spectrum?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Other half, then. He’d know if some of it was missing.” Shinjiro-senpai wipes down the counter, washes his hands, and steals Minako’s towel to dry them off. “Anything else you didn’t wanna ask Mitsuru?”

“…You’d understand if I asked for help finding whatever the hell it is they were using for the ‘observation’ in my and Mako’s rooms and making it go away before he’s out of the hospital, right?”

Shinjiro-senpai smiles, there and gone in a flash. “First thing I did when I moved in was put a towel over the fucking camera. You got it.”

***

Ken’s kind of a weird kid. Minako thinks it’s a good kind of weird, but the fact remains that he’s way too serious for a ten-year-old. Then again, she could’ve said the same thing about Makoto, when they were ten; when she looks at it through that lens, Ken seems a lot less weird. He’s already been through a hell of a lot.

On her way into school the next day, Junpei catches sight of her and flags her down. “Hey, welcome back! Where were you yesterday? For that matter, where’d your brother disappear to?”

“Oh, he came down with the Port Island Death Plague.” Minako’s fighting to keep her face deadly serious, and manages to keep from laughing for a good twenty seconds, just as Junpei’s starting to splutter his way through a response. “Man, your face! Mako just managed to completely wear himself out – might be related to the move out here. He’s sleeping it off at the hospital.”

“Dude, don’t yank my chain like that! I thought something was seriously wrong for a second there!” Junpei’s smiling, though, so Minako’s pretty sure he’s not really upset. “Hey, wanna go grab some ramen after school? If you don’t have to go to the hospital.”

“Ramen sounds a lot better than watching my brother sleep.” And Mitsuru-senpai’s planning to be there, if she has the time. And Junpei looks about ready to burst at the seams over something, so it’s probably a better use of everyone’s time if he gets to get it off his chest. Makoto won’t begrudge her a chance to make some friends just because he Persona’d himself unconscious.

(How would she even begin to explain that, anyway? She’s a little surprised she managed to talk around what exactly happened the other night so smoothly.)

When they walk into Hagakure after school, the scent practically wallops Minako upside the head. She hasn’t been here since she was five – their dad took them out for a Golden Week treat, if she remembers right. Funny, how she can barely recall the sound of his voice anymore, but the smell of a ramen shop instantly pulled something forward.

“God, I’ve missed this place,” she says, instead of talking about any of that heavy stuff.

Junpei grins. “Girl after my own heart. Hey, I’d like a special and… what do you want?”

“Make that two specials and a gyoza plate.” She’s starving, all of a sudden – maybe it’s pushing past that sudden onslaught of nostalgia and grief.

They’re halfway through their food when Junpei stops marveling over Minako’s stomach capacity and pauses, like he’s finally working up to whatever it is that’s got him so antsy. “So I’m moving to one of the dorms next weekend.”

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

“Well, I haven’t really wanted to be at home for a while now. And, uh.” Junpei goes quiet again, stirring the last few noodles around his bowl with his chopsticks. “I’m not really supposed to talk about this, but… something really weird happened the other night.”

Minako has to fight back a possibly misplaced surge of hope. She wouldn’t wish the Dark Hour on anyone, but now that she can share this secret with someone other than Makoto, she kind of wants to. Besides, if it’s a different ‘something really weird,’ that’s probably going to be a complication they don’t need.

“Weird how?” she says, trying to play it casual.

“Dude, I don’t even know how to describe it. I went out to get a midnight snack and suddenly everything was—”

“The moon got weird, the lights went out and you were in the company of coffins?”

Junpei drops his chopsticks, gaping at her. “How did you know?”

“Welcome to the world’s suckiest club, my dude. Mako and I thought we were the only ones for the longest time.” Minako can’t contain a grin. “So I bet I know which dorm you’re moving to, too. You need any help packing?”

“Nah. My room’s a wreck, and… I don’t wanna inflict my dad on me, never mind anyone else.” He looks so glum that Minako nearly presses the point – but only nearly, since Junpei almost immediately brightens. “Wait, you’re saying your dorm’s headquarters for all this stuff? So I get to move in with Yuka-tan?”

“I mean, if you invade her room it’s on your head, but in general, yeah. Her, me, Makoto whenever he wakes up, three seniors and a random grade-schooler. If anyone else turns out to fit their criteria, they’ll probably get moved in too.”

“Sweet! Akihiko-san didn’t say it was a co-ed dorm.”

Minako rolls her eyes. “He probably didn’t think it was important, never mind that all three of the seniors hang out in Mitsuru-senpai’s room a lot.” She really doesn’t know how the school hasn’t picked up on how close the three of them are, but maybe Mitsuru-senpai goes and scares the hell out of anyone who pries into her business.

“Damn, seriously? I woulda looked into the dorms a lot sooner if I knew they came with that kind of gossip. Don’t tell Yuka-tan, though, all right? If she hasn’t heard yet, I wanna see the look on her face when I roll up with all my stuff.”

“Deal.” Minako holds out her hand to shake on it, and Junpei takes it – and they’re immediately derailed by the ramen shop bursting into color around them. So that’s what it looks like. She can’t quite read the way Junpei’s staring at her, but he’s just girl-crazy enough that she knows she has to nip that expectation in the bud, so she gives voice to the part of her that’s a little dismayed.

“Oh, no, I am way too gay for this.”

***

Damn, but Minako knows how to kill a mood.

At the same time, though, it’s a relief. Junpei’s always been vaguely terrified of actually finding his soulmate somewhere out there; the way people talk about it, that’s a level of commitment he’s not sure he’s ready for. It’s a level of commitment he’s not sure he’s ever seen in action, considering his dad. What was going to happen if he found his soulmate and she expected to be basically married from the word go?

But here she is, saying she’s not at all interested like that. He wants to be disappointed. Instead, he finds himself laughing. “What, you gonna ask Yuka-tan out yourself?”

“I would, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t swing that way. Not that you can always tell after three whole days’ acquaintance, but.” Minako shrugs. “If the right girl comes along, I’ll know. If not, I have plenty of time. I just hope she doesn’t get sidetracked by my brother.”

“Is he really that much of a chick magnet?”

Yes! I don’t get it at all! He ends up with like five girlfriends because he doesn’t know how to tell any of them no and somehow they don’t blame him or each other for it! He needs to leave some for everyone else!”

She’d told her brother that last part on the first day of school, but Junpei’s seeing it in a whole different light now. He also hasn’t stopped laughing yet. “I dunno, man, sounds to me like he’s living the dream.”

“If by ‘the dream’ you mean ‘a life of constant terror that one day all his girlfriends are going to maul him,’ then sure.” Minako spears the last of the gyoza platter with a chopstick – seriously, how does she still have room for more food? – and takes a bite of it before adding, “Even he doesn’t know how he’s such a charisma bucket. It’s not like he’s any of their soulmate or anything.”

“It isn’t?”

“Nah, he bumped into someone when we were little. We still don’t know who. I guess I was still holding out hope for a romantic connection despite that example, but… looks like the world had other ideas.”

“Yeah, looks like.” Junpei sighs. “Man, tonight’s gonna be weird as hell, isn’t it?”

“No kidding. Are you sure you don’t want help packing up at your dad’s house?”

Dammit, he thought he’d gotten away from the topic of his dad. On the other hand, that was before they shook hands, and there’s genuine concern on Minako’s face; he probably owes her a straighter answer than the one he already gave her.

“I’m sure,” he says. “Dad’s… probably drunk already, and I have no idea how he’d react to me bringing a girl home. I mean it when I say no one deserves his crap. Besides, if I pack on my own he’s less likely to notice until after I’m gone.”

“Fair enough, but if things get hairy you let me know. If you don’t think it’s safe for me to go there, I’ll send one of the guys to loom at him – between the star of the boxing club and his best friend, I think we got you covered.”

“Not recommending your own brother? That’s cold, Mina-tan.”

“First,” Minako says, leaning over to poke him with the clean end of her now gyoza-free chopstick, “don’t ever call me that again. Second, Mako may not be back on his feet when you’re moving – I sure as hell hope so, but the doctors said it could be as long as two weeks. Third? He’s really not physically intimidating. If you need someone to stave off assholery, you do not need my brother.”

“Okay, other than objecting to my clearly awesome nickname stylings, you got a point there. Or two.” It’s funny – he doesn’t feel as shitty as he usually does when he thinks about his dad, or has to acknowledge the man’s existence. Minako’s not lingering on concern or pity, or getting all morbid and asking exactly what his dad gets up to when he’s drunk, but she’s not expecting Junpei to be capable of handling the whole thing alone, either.

He can’t remember the last time someone understood this well.

“My brother has exclusive nickname rights, unless and until I get a girlfriend. We should probably get out of here.”

“Let me walk you back to the dorm?”

Minako rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling. “Oh, all right.”

They take the long way back to the dorm, and Minako is good enough not to comment on it, filling the walk with chatter about school, her brother, what she thinks of the dorm’s other residents so far, and how glad she is to be back in Port Island. (He doesn’t realise until later that she avoids talking about family other than Makoto as carefully as he usually avoids any mention of his dad.) They both pause more than once, having read about color but never seen it before, finally putting things in their proper context.

When they can’t stall any longer and approach the dorm, Minako sighs. “Thanks for the company today. It helped keep my mind off the hospital.”

“No problem, dude. Even if it got more dramatic than I expected.”

“I don’t think anyone actually expects that drama. Oh, and Junpei?”

“Yeah?”

“You don’t deserve your dad’s crap, either.” With that and a faint smile, Minako disappears into the dorm; Junpei half feels like he’s been slapped, and half wants to cry with relief, and entirely can’t wait to get moved into the dorm already. The weird thing is, now it’s only a little bit about getting to play hero during the Dark Hour.

***

Other than the dream about the weird blue elevator and the weirder old man with one hell of a nose, Makoto has a lot of dreams about the night his parents died. He knows they’re dreams because the whole thing plays out in vivid color, which it couldn’t have done at the time. He didn’t even notice anything had changed until afterward, when the ambulance got there.

He was too busy trying to shield Minako from… he doesn’t even remember what. That doesn’t stop his mind from playing the accident out over and over again.

The last time, Striped Pajamas Kid is sitting on the wrecked hood of the car, swinging his legs without a care in the world. He looks right at Makoto and says, “It’s all right. I don’t understand the significance of this day yet, either. I’m sure we’ll find it together.”

Then he wakes up, in what is clearly a hospital bed, with a raging headache.

“Jeez, how much sleep do you need? It’s been a week!”

Makoto blinks. Takeba sounds worried, he’ll give her that much, but he can’t think why she’s in the chair next to his bed and not his sister. “Where’s ‘nako?”

“She’s in the hall. I wanted to… apologise, I guess. For going along with not explaining anything before now. It wasn’t fair to either of you.”

Most of Takeba’s ensuing explanation goes in one ear and out the other, but Makoto does his best to nod along. He doesn’t want to upset her by admitting he can’t handle an infodump right now, and Minako will make sure he actually processes anything important. She does mention Personas and Shadows, which mostly stands out because the long-nosed guy did the same. Otherwise it’s a wash.

“…my dad’s gone too,” she’s saying when he finally feels like he can tune in. “Apparently he died in the accident that caused the Dark Hour, but… a lot of people blamed him for the explosion, and I’ve never believed it. I’m hoping that if I stick around I can find out what really happened.” Takeba sighs. “It felt weird, knowing so much about your past when you didn’t know anything of mine. I wanted to get us on a level playing field as soon as I could.”

“Okay.” Makoto’s really not sure what else to say to that, but Takeba doesn’t seem to be insulted by it, at least.

“We’ll explain everything tomorrow.” She gets up, smoothing her skirt on the way up. “I should get going, but you should be able to come back to the dorm now.”

As soon as Takeba’s gone, Minako bursts through the door, all but throwing herself on the bed. It’s a good thing Makoto’s not hooked up to any IVs or anything, or she’d have just ripped them right out of his hand.

“Hello to you too,” he says. “Do you know what that was all about?”

Minako shrugs as best she can while still hugging the stuffing out of him. “I dunno, it seemed like she really wanted to get that off her chest and she’d be hanging around all awkwardly if I didn’t let her go first. Do you need anything?”

“Something for this headache would be nice.”

Minako nods and sits up to hit the nurse call button, and mercifully doesn’t say anything else until after Makoto’s been given some aspirin and a glass of water. The placebo effect of just having taken the aspirin, never mind that it hasn’t had time to kick in yet, helps him reclaim some of his concentration.

“So,” Minako says, “how much of Takeba-san’s stuff did you actually process?”

“Something about her dad, mostly.” And the Persona part, but then he’d have to explain the blue elevator dream, and he’s still not sure how to do that. Minako looks at him like she knows there’s something he’s not telling her, but nods and lets it drop for now.

She’ll probably corner him on it at home.

“Well, good, that means she didn’t snipe the good part. We’re not the only ones in the after-midnight club of suck after all, and for the low, low price of shooting ourselves in the head on the regular, we can help disband that club for good.”

So he didn’t make up the part with the gun. That’s… Makoto’s not sure if that’s a good thing or not, really. Who came up with those things? On the other hand, the Dark Hour is nothing if not unsettling, and he’d be just as glad as Minako to see the back of it.

“Sounds fun,” he says, and Minako grins.

“I was hoping you’d say that. Mitsuru-senpai will probably want to talk to you about it in more detail – maybe also Ikutsuki-san, since he’s officially the adult oversight, but most of what he’s done when he’s been around is crack bad jokes. So far it’s us, the three seniors, Takeba-san, a random grade-schooler they just moved into the dorm, and Junpei’s moving in later this week, but don’t tell Takeba-san that.”

“You’ve been busy.”

“Yeah, it’s been a… colorful week.”

If Minako didn’t already have his undivided attention, she would now. She just smirks when he looks at her, clearly leaving him to puzzle it out for himself. It can’t be Takeba, or she wouldn’t be sticking to her family name. The grade-schooler seems unlikely at best, as does the adult oversight. The seniors, at least in the day or so he had to interact with any of them, came off as pretty tight with each other. There’s a chance it was someone else at school, but Makoto thinks she would have mentioned that.

Of the people she did mention, that leaves Iori, and they certainly hit it off well enough on the first day of school for Makoto to have no trouble believing it. “I’m sorry, ‘nako. I know you were hoping for the grand romance.”

Minako shrugs. “You keep yourself from hogging every girl in the school and I can still have one of those. Come on, brother dear, let’s get you out of here. I have an invisible kid haunting the dorm to grill you relentlessly about.”

***

The twins fix Ikutsuki-san with matching flat looks when he asks if they would believe a day consists of more than 24 hours. Mitsuru would have mistaken it for disbelief herself if she hadn’t already discussed matters with Minako.

“Several years ahead of you,” Minako says. “Skip to the part about helping make it go away.” Shinjiro snorts; Akihiko elbows him in the side (and promptly winces, because that was his injured arm – does she need to sit on him to get him to rest properly?); Ikutsuki-san falters for a moment, but moves on to hauling out the Evokers prepared for the twins.

“On paper, we’re classified as a school club, and I am its advisor,” he says. “But in reality, we’re dedicated to fighting the Shadows. We have one more new recruit moving in tomorrow, and after that, I think we’re more than ready to begin further explorations of Tartarus.”

“Fucking finally,” Shinjiro mutters. “Be nice if we can get past the same four goddamn floors.”

Iori moving into the dorm takes up most of Sunday afternoon; Takeba is none too pleased to see him, but Minako looks positively delighted, and immediately starts helping him set up his room. By the time dinner rolls around, both of them look far too tired to stand up to Tartarus for long, and the important thing about the early expeditions will be catching the new members up before the next full moon is upon them, so Mitsuru delays the Tartarus trip for a night.

Shinjiro joins her in her bedroom after dinner, stripping down to his boxers and settling into the bed next to her. She can’t deny there are times she wishes he had a more present sex drive, and she knows Akihiko feels similarly, but at least he doesn’t mind physical affection. Her imagination is quite capable of filling in the blanks unless and until such time as he expresses interest. Either way, he’s the glue holding the three of them together.

“You’re worried about Tartarus,” he says without preamble.

“I am, a bit. Sooner or later – probably sooner, frankly – I’m going to reach the limit of Penthesilea’s scanning abilities, and those are crucial to making any headway.”

“Ain’t a problem now, we at least know that much. And we probably won’t make it that far until after the next full moon anyway. You ever figure out that barrier floor you mentioned?”

“I haven’t, unfortunately. Hopefully more exploration will provide us with some answers.” Mitsuru sighs. “I’m also not sure who to send in as field leader. Ordinarily I’d say Akihiko, but if he doesn’t take more time to recover now, he’s going to do himself permanent injury. You’re perpetually uninterested, I have to provide support, and I don’t want to ask them to take orders from Amada. He knows what he’s doing by now, but it would be an awkward dynamic.”

“Have one of them do it, then. One of the twins, since we at least know they can summon on demand – Yukari’s barely there and we haven’t tested out the other guy yet. They’re the ones who need all the practice anyway.”

“It’s not a bad idea, provided none of them choke up under less stress than last week.” She’d still prefer to send them in with one of the more experienced members of the group, but there may not be any convenient way to do that – and Shinjiro does have a point. He, Akihiko and Amada have been stagnating on the floors available to them for some time now.

“If they do, me and Ken will handle it. You really think they’re gonna make it past the first floor on their first try? Now stop worryin’ about it so damn much and get some sleep.”

He doesn’t really mean sleep, and they both know it; she hasn’t managed to get to sleep before the Dark Hour passes since she was twelve, and Shinjiro’s no better at this point. But she allows him to hold her and change the subject, and it does help her get her thoughts more in order.

The twins are the best candidates for temporary field leaders. Takeba’s reservations are likely as not to get the better of her; Iori, so far, seems nearly as hot-headed as Akihiko, but with considerably less direction. That may also make him likely to protest at being pushed aside for someone else, but she can find some other way for him to show his value to the team. After all, he wouldn’t be here if he had none.

Which of the twins should take point is still vexing her the next morning, so Mitsuru settles it by asking them to meet her in the student council room over lunch, so she can put the question to them both.

“Well, if you’re that sure you want one of us, it should be Mako,” Minako says. “I got all the social, but he’s more level-headed.”

Makoto nods. “I don’t mind.”

“Very well, then.” Mitsuru hesitates before continuing, but decides the concern is worth airing. “It may come to nothing, but I suspect Iori won’t like this decision much.”

Minako smiles like she just heard a funny joke. “Don’t worry. I’ll handle Junpei.”

And she does, dragging Iori to one side of Tartarus’ lobby while Makoto wanders off to the other side and stares into space for a while. Mitsuru can’t make heads or tails of Makoto’s choices, but when Minako and Iori return to the group, Iori looks a bit less upset about being passed over. After Makoto wanders back, the four new members head up the stairs and into Tartarus, and Mitsuru settles into providing support and walking them through the basics of battle.

The twins’ Personas are… confusing. Mitsuru has never seen one that doesn’t match the classification system all Shadows fall under; in theory, yes, that system is a bit bigger than sees common use, but she wasn’t aware of any that deviated from the Magician-Hanged Man range, even the two notable successes of the robotics program. (Well, one success and one possible success, as Labrys was deactivated before anyone bothered to confirm why she deviated from her programming.)

And yet, Minako’s Persona is registering as Star, and her brother’s seems to be Fool. One of them is at the far end of the possible range, and the other’s cut the line to drop in at the very beginning. Either anomaly alone would stand out, but not to the same extent as both of them together.

And then Makoto changes Personas during a battle, and Mitsuru finds herself even more confused. She may have to ask her father if he knows of any older research that may explain things. In any case, the change doesn’t distract him from the battle – if anything, it’s a decisive factor in the field team’s victory – and there’s no sense in complaining about being handed a clear advantage. Equally importantly, Takeba seems to have shaken off the worst of her reluctance to summon, and Iori, backing up her thought that he’s not dissimilar to Akihiko in some regards, doesn’t hesitate from the start.

When the four return from a thorough clean-up of the first floor, exhausted but triumphant, Mitsuru’s prepared to call the expedition a success.

Chapter Text

Tartarus is exhausting, but there’s no denying they’re getting better. At the end of their fourth visit, Mitsuru-senpai says she thinks they’ve explored an entire block of the place - granted, she doesn’t know how many blocks there are and it might turn out she’s wrong whenever the pile of school desks blocking the stairs clears up. It still sounds impressive, though.

Mitsuru-senpai calls a meeting two days before the full moon, and says that if there’s trouble - the ‘if’ honestly sounds a lot more like a ‘when’ - she’s going to expect the newer members to take point on dealing with the threat. The seniors exchange a series of pointed looks that Minako doesn’t know how to read yet, and Makoto nods, all nervous tension under the surface.

At least they have a little warning that trouble’s probably coming for them, this time. If she can avoid being rudely awakened by that stupid siren again, Minako’s all for it - especially now that she knows what Makoto means by the Dark Hour’s color scheme. Really, it was already disconcerting enough.

Even with the advance warning, they still start their work from the dorm’s command room, which seems silly - especially since the Dark Hour knocks out all unmodified electronics, so they’re going to have to walk to wherever the Shadow is, if one appears. On the other hand, it’s safer than trying to guess, ending up in the wrong place, and still being in danger.

“There’s something big near the monorail,” Mitsuru-senpai says, after a few minutes of scanning. “We should head out now; I’ll be able to give you more details when we’re there. Juniors, you’re taking the lead on this operation. If you find yourselves in trouble, let me know immediately, and Shinjiro and Amada can come back you up.”

It still seems simple, when they get to the station; a large Shadow has set up shop in one of the monorail trains, and they’ll need to board the train to deal with it. So naturally, it all goes right to hell as soon as they get on the train, with the Shadow starting the engine somehow (taking them away from any hope of backup) and Junpei, in his infinite hero-complex wisdom, chasing after a small-fry Shadow on his own.

Minako’s going to have to have a word with him about that later.

Makoto sighs. “Let’s go get him.”

“I’m gonna kick his ass as soon as we’re done with the Shadow,” Takeba-san mutters as they move to the next car. “Honestly, what was he thinking?”

Their best guess is that killing the big Shadow - and she sure is big - will stop the runaway train before it crashes into the next one up the line. But of course, it’s not that simple, and even Makoto freezes at the prospect of messing with the engine’s controls. Doing her best to ignore the coffin perched in the… driver’s seat? Cockpit? Whatever you call it - Minako glances at the control layout, takes her best guess, grabs a lever, and yanks it toward her with all her strength.

The train stops.

“Ohhhhh my god.” Takeba-san slumps against the wall of the train car. “Let’s never ever do that again.”

“I don’t think we’re gonna get a choice about the Shadow part,” Junpei says, “but I hear you on the runaway train. Hey, Minako, how’d you know which lever was the right one?”

The adrenaline that’s been coursing through her, with nowhere else to go now that they’re out of danger, comes out in a slightly manic-sounding giggle. “Um. Women’s intuition?”

Makoto facepalms. Even as Takeba-san expresses her doubt, Minako counts the moment as a win - she made her brother laugh.

Junpei shrugs, and then stretches, waving his sword around in a way he really shouldn’t do in such close quarters. “Man, now that it’s all over, I’m starving. Wanna go get something from the convenience store on the way home?”

“Sure,” Makoto says. “Once we leave the train.”

“And once the Dark Hour’s over and we can actually buy something,” Takeba-san adds. “I hope we didn’t stop over the water.”

They didn’t, it turns out - just barely, but the last car’s still over land - and when they reunite with the others, Mitsuru-senpai congratulates them on a job well done.

***

Junpei’s offered to be a wingman once Minako finds a girl she wants to pursue, but so far she’s not having any luck. It’s not that there aren’t cute girls aplenty in this school; it’s that there’s something crossing each and every one of them off the list. Mitsuru-senpai’s spoken for twice over. Yukari (who insisted on given names pretty quickly, after the monorail incident) seems so boy-oriented she’d probably fall into the ‘crushing on a girl is childish’ trap.

If it’s childish, Minako doesn’t plan on ever growing up.

She and Makoto both join student council at Mitsuru-senpai’s behest, and the girls there are all right, but none of them really catch Minako’s eye. Well, Chihiro-chan’s pretty cute, but she’s also terrified of practically everything, and Minako’s not sure she wants to date an underclassman regardless. Saori-san on the library committee is gorgeous, but it’s clear by the end of Minako’s first day on the committee that she’s also a complete doormat. She needs someone who’d push back. Nishiwaki may or may not be falling into Makoto’s orbit, and certainly sees more of him anyway, as the boys’ track manager.

The volleyball team’s her best port of call right now, but most of the team are boy-crazy and willing to flake off everything else for it - and then there’s Rio. She’s very cute. She can push back when she really wants something; the fact that she scared off the rest of the club because no one told her they were skipping out for a group date (in Rio’s eyes, not taking the club anywhere near seriously enough) is testament enough to that. But she seems married to her sport, so that’s a probable no.

That probable no crystallizes into a ‘definitely not’ right after midterm exams, when one of her classmates breezes through looking for the club supervisor. (Why he’s looking there, neither of them know; Kanou-sensei openly admits she doesn’t know the first thing about volleyball, and doesn’t bother showing up to practices.) He leaves with stars in his eyes, sounding like he’s planning a date with one of their teachers, and Rio stares at the door he left through.

“I don’t get it,” she says.

“Don’t get what, why he’s chasing after a teacher? I can’t help you with that one. He has to know it’s going to end badly.”

“No, Kenji’s always been into older women. He’s been like that since middle school. I just… why chase after anyone in the first place? I know I don’t hang out with him as much as we used to, but isn’t there something else he could be doing?”

Minako shrugs. “Some people are just that desperate for companionship, I guess. It’s like the group date thing.” She agrees that the rest of the club could have at least said they had other plans for the day, but if they want to go on a group date, more power to ‘em.

“Why, though? Spending time with people is great and all, but - I just - am I broken?”

“What - no! You’re not broken!” Nishiwaki storms over and takes the words right out of Minako’s mouth. “You’re totally allowed to not want a boyfriend. Especially if you think your best prospect is prying Tomochika away from his ramen.”

“I don’t pry him away from the ramen, I go eat it with him. The fact that he thinks a teacher would date him without taking advantage of him is… concerning, but I’m not jealous either. How long have you been eavesdropping, Yuko?”

“I wasn’t eavesdropping, I was waiting for a good moment to ask if you guys have any spare tape. Our last order for the track team hasn’t come in yet. But this does explain why you got so pissed about the group-date thing, and why everyone else got pissed at you in turn.”

Rio sighs. “I wouldn’t have cared if they’d just said they were all planning to ditch practice. I just don’t understand why that was their priority.”

“And they don’t understand why dating isn’t yours,” Minako says. “Nobody’s wrong, really. If you decide later you want to date someone, then cool. If you don’t, also cool. ‘No’ is a good word when it comes to this stuff. Someday my brother might even learn it.”

Nishiwaki frowns. “What do you mean by that?”

“Mako… has always struggled with refusing people. Which is how he ends up with like, five girlfriends at a time and friends he doesn’t stop from making terrible choices.”

“Good to know. I really don’t want to be in that position again - but this is about Rio, right now. You don’t have to understand the rest of the club, and they don’t have to understand you. You just have to respect each other a little better. You do get kinda intense about the club, but they shouldn’t be giving you crap about not dating anybody.”

“We could make it to nationals if we tried,” Rio says, but she’s smiling again - shaky, but she looks less on the verge of tears. “Sue me if I got inspired by the Olympic gold last year.”

Minako rolls her eyes. “Come on, that was the men’s team. We’re all here to have fun, but nobody’s stopping you from getting a gold medal of your own, eventually.”

“...No, I guess they’re not. Thanks, guys.”

“Any time,” Nishiwaki says. “Now, about that tape.”

Now they just need to get the rest of the team to come back, but Minako figures that’ll come with time.

***

“Troublesome child,” Fuuka’s mother says, as she leaves the room. Fuuka’s pretty sure she wasn’t meant to hear that. Rather than protest, she closes the door (when did her parents stop respecting her privacy like that?), returns to her bed, and stares at the ceiling.

She wants to say it wasn’t always this bad, but maybe she just couldn’t see it. But there was a relative peace in the house that’s gone now. She’s never really enjoyed school (even before attracting the unwanted attention of Moriyama and her friends), but she does like studying, which kept her grades high enough to please her parents, and her father was happy to have her help tinkering with broken music equipment on his evenings off.

Then her grandfather died in January, and everything came crashing down.

That he died wasn’t a particular shock; his health had been spiraling downward for nearly as long as Fuuka can remember, accelerated by her grandmother’s death three years ago. The funeral, though, was downright unpleasant. Her father is the only child of five who doesn’t work in the medical field, and the open disdain in the air as they all placed her grandfather’s bones in the urn turned Fuuka’s stomach more than the remains themselves.

It followed them home. Her father has stopped his off-the-clock repair work entirely. Her parents have both made it clear that she’d better become a doctor or, failing that, marry one - Fuuka may be good at math and physics, but she’s downright terrible with chemistry and much more inclined to working with artificial life, if such a thing can be said to exist. But suddenly that doesn’t matter; nor does the burgeoning tech industry. She must do what they cannot, and it’s completely ruined her escape from the bullying at school.

She’s tormented at school for being awkward and easily startled, and because she reads technical manuals for fun. She’s tormented at home for failing to meet expectations that were never explicitly placed on her before. Her grades are slipping under the pressure - she knows she didn’t fail any of her midterms, but she’s utterly certain her parents won’t be happy with the results, since she’s definitely not in the top ten. Her appetite has flagged and she isn’t sleeping well, both of which combined with her growing anxiety to land her in the hospital around Golden Week.

She still doesn’t know what possessed her to tell the doctor about the odd dreams she’s been having, once her parents were chased out of the room. They’re certainly not helping her mental state, and they’ve been picking up steam since about February. In some of them, she goes to the kitchen for a glass of water, only for something that looks closer to blood to come from the tap; in others, she looks out the window and sees coffins propped upright in the street. In one particularly chilling one, she felt the need to check on her parents, and found a pair of coffins laying on top of their futon. All of the dreams are united by a growing sense of dread, and the ambient light from outside being off in a way she can’t describe.

For some reason, where the doctor seemed ready to dismiss Fuuka’s anxiety and lack of appetite as stress that would abate after the coming exams (they haven’t), he grew completely serious when she explained the dreams, and said he wanted to book her for a sleep study. Her parents refused to consider it before midterms were over, so she only just did it last night. It got her one more day out of school, at least, but it also means she’s been a captive audience to her mother’s lectures all afternoon.

Not for the first time, she idly considers buying a bottle of sleep aids at the pharmacy and taking the whole thing. (She doesn’t like considering this, but the notion’s been dogging her steps all spring.)

A restless night bleeds into a miserable day at school; she feels nearly as brain-dead as the people around town with Apathy Syndrome look. When classes let out, she goes to the library to stare at books in peace until they turn the power off, then takes herself to Wakatsu to at least try to eat something. She gets through maybe half a plate, which is better than she’s done some days lately, and keeps listlessly poking at the rest with her chopsticks rather than go home. You’re not supposed to avoid going home at all costs, right? And yet, here she is.

She’s stirred out of her malaise when her phone buzzes. hey yamagishi, the first alert reads, and Fuuka sighs - she’s tried to block Moriyama and her friends, but they keep getting around it.

She knows it’s a bad night when opening the texts to see what they want sounds better than going home and hearing another lecture from her parents.

we found your stupid manual. it’s in the gym. come get it.

Fuuka doubts they found it so much as decided to give it back without admitting one of them stole it, and she doesn’t know how they got the gym open this late at night anyway, but she goes. The other girls are all smiles as she passes them to peer into the darkened gym - and then one of them shoves her inside, and the door slams shut on their mocking laughter.

Before she really has time to process what just happened, the floor lurches, and the next thing Fuuka knows she appears to be several stories up - possibly several dozen. How that happened when the school only has three floors to its name, she has no idea whatsoever. The view of Iwatodai and Port Island would be breathtaking, if it weren’t also incredibly foreboding.

For the first time, she wonders if maybe she hasn’t been dreaming, the last few months. Is that the sort of thing the sleep study would pick up?

She has no idea what’s in here with her, but she’s not alone, and whatever they are, they could destroy her easily. And it would be easy, to just let one of them bowl her over and--

None of that, she tells herself (she thinks she tells herself). Letting them win will accomplish nothing. You do not have to be anything other than what you are to thrive.

Fuuka can’t fight the monsters, but she can hide from them, and make sure she’s not where they are. She also has no way of tracking the passage of time - has she been here for hours or weeks? - and can’t seem to find an exit, which is going to be a problem sooner or later. There are stairs, but they only ever lead upward, and then she can’t find the ones she took again.

Hopefully, someone knows what’s happened to her, and can lend her a hand.

***

The crowd at the back alley expanded, around the beginning of May. Chidori was the one to tell Shinji they’re Gekkoukan girls who were smart enough to show up out of uniform and talked a badass enough game to be allowed to stick around. They seem to like talking shit about their bullying victims.

That would play well with these punks. Shinji just perfected a menacing aura before he hit middle school, and the couple of punks who’ve had run-ins with Aki know better than to test his best friend.

The weekend before the June full moon, the punk group is very nearly back to its original size. Of the dozenish Gekkoukan girls who wormed their way in, only three are left, two of them panicky and the third stupidly distracted for someone hanging out here.

“What’s their deal?” he says to Chidori, once he’s sure the punks are ignoring them like usual.

“Haven’t you heard? Apparently, they’re being picked off one by one, by the vengeful spirit of one of their victims.” Chidori sounds way too amused by that, but she’s always been kinda morbid - and if they are being haunted, Shinji can’t say they didn’t earn it.

It also sounds naggingly familiar, but he can worry about that later. “That so.”

“Their numbers have been steadily dwindling since last week. I believe they locked someone in your school’s gymnasium, and she’d disappeared by the time they thought better of themselves.”

Before he can say he doesn’t like where this is going, one of the punks calls out, “Hey, check out those rags! They’re from Gekkou High!” and the night gets worse. Apparently, Yukari’s idea of ‘investigating the ghost story’ escalated to dragging all four of the juniors out here; it’s a small miracle Aki didn’t get in on it. If he doesn’t step in, Yukari’s bravado is gonna get them killed.

Shinji sighs. “Fuck’s sake. Gimme a sec.”

Chidori nods, and Junpei still manages to get himself socked in the stomach before Shinji gets over there. He doesn’t look badly hurt, which may not mean anything but is promising for the short term, at least.

“That’s enough,” Shinji says. “They didn’t know what they were getting into. I’ll make sure they leave.” If he’s glaring directly at Yukari when he finishes, well, he thought she fucking knew better.

The punk turns on him, but that’s better than laying into the others. “Oh, you want some too?” He’s one of the newer arrivals to the gang, Shinji thinks, and he proves he doesn’t know Aki’s reputation (or its knock-on effects) by taking a swing and choosing a night in the hospital for his trouble.

Aki wins all his fights cleanly. Shinji wins by breaking all the rules. Dumbass was asking for a head to the stomach, really.

The punks scatter, and with an alarmed-sounding “Hinata?” the Gekkoukan girls do, too - and Junpei, proving he’s probably all right, immediately starts gushing. “Oh man, senpai, that was awesome!”

“What the fuck were you guys thinking coming down here?”

Junpei and the twins all turn to look at Yukari. She has the good grace to look sheepish, at least for a second. “We’re researching the ghost story. The best leads were that the victims have been hanging out here.”

“And next time you wanna know something from here that bad, ask me. They put up with me and I can take care of myself.” Still, as long as they’re here, it won’t hurt to let Yukari take the info back to Mitsuru. “But they were, yeah, talkin’ shit about their bullying. Apparently they locked someone in the gym last week and she hasn’t been heard from since.”

“Last week?” Shinji thinks this is the most emotion he’s heard in Makoto’s voice to date. “Do you know who it was?”

Minako frowns. “If we haven’t heard anything, her extended absence wouldn’t necessarily be out of the ordinary. I mean, you’d think someone would’ve kicked up a fuss by now, but…” She trails off, eyes going wide. “Wait. That possible recruit Akihiko-senpai heard about at the hospital, didn’t you say she’s out sick a lot, Yukari?”

“Yamagishi-san? Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard.” Yukari sighs. “So much for the ghost story. Ekoda-sensei’s the homeroom teacher for 2-E, right? Why hasn’t he said anything?”

“Ask Mitsuru.” If anything good comes out of this mess, Shinji thinks, it’s that Ekoda’s finally going to get what he deserves, if he’s covering up a missing student. “Now go the fuck home before those dumbasses come back.”

“You shouldn’t stay out too late either, Shinjiro-senpai.” But Yukari doesn’t protest any further than that, and the four split.

“Friends of yours?”

Shinji doesn’t physically jump, but he does damn near have a heart attack. He’d almost forgotten Chidori was even there; she looks like a ghost when he turns back around, her white dress almost glowing in the low light.

“Somethin’ like that. Dipshits didn’t tell anyone this was what they had in mind.”

“Good thing you were here to come to their rescue, in that case. But perhaps they’re right. We shouldn’t stay out too late, should we?”

She leaves before he can ask why she’d say that, which he mostly wants to do because she’s right. This is the last place Shinji wants to be stuck when the Dark Hour starts.

***

Minako intends to savor the memory of Ekoda’s face as he realises he maybe possibly definitely screwed up by failing to report a missing student in favor of protecting her bullies’ reputations. Maybe if he treated his classes with something better resembling respect, she’d have more sympathy for him, but he dismissed everyone as Clearly Not Caring on the first day of classes, so screw that.

Mitsuru-senpai insists the bullies’ ringleader, the only member of the group who hasn’t turned up unconscious, spends the night in their dorm, to try to keep her out of trouble tonight; then they adjourn to the student council room to figure out the rest of their strategy. There’s a non-zero chance Yamagishi-san is still alive, but they have to figure out how to find her when she’s already inside Tartarus and Mitsuru-senpai’s scanning abilities have started to give out.

“What if we go in the same way she did?” Minako says. “You know, minus the bullying. Start the search party in the school and the support crew comes in the normal way, so you can still work from the lobby.”

Akihiko-senpai frowns. “It’d be risky, but with no guarantee Mitsuru could find her by scanning, it may be the best bet we’ve got. Ideally, we could send up two search parties, but that’d leave her unguarded.”

“In the lobby,” Yukari says. “Shadows never come down to the lobby.”

“They have before, and they might again. It’s not worth the risk.” Mitsuru-senpai sighs, folding her arms across her chest. “I don’t like the thought of entering Tartarus this way, but I think you’re right that it’s our best chance. Makoto, are you comfortable leading the field team again?”

Makoto nods. He still looks pissed off about this whole ‘lost a student for a week and a half and didn’t tell anyone’ situation, but Minako’s not sure anyone else can read him well enough to see it yet.

“Very well. I’ll leave team composition to you, but for now we should all return to class. I’ll update Shinjiro and Amada later.” Weirdly, it’s only then that Minako notices Shinjiro-senpai didn’t join them; he’s probably fine, but she wonders if he came to school at all.

On their way out of school after classes let out, Junpei swings by the gym to unlock a door. “For later,” he says, when Minako asks.

“You sure it’ll still be unlocked later?”

“That’s what makes it so good. It’s always locked, so no one ever checks to make sure it’s still locked. We’ll be able to get in no problem.” Junpei sighs, his good cheer apparently flagging somewhat. “You think your brother’ll let me be in the field squad tonight, after last month?”

“You’ll have to ask Mako. I don’t think he’ll shut you out just because of that, especially since this month’s gone pretty smoothly in Tartarus. But you need to sort out whatever bug’s up your ass about him being the field leader before it gets you in even deeper trouble than running headlong into an ambush.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I just… Some days it feels like this is all I’ve got, you know?”

Minako sighs, thinking of every time her family’s brushed her aside in favor of her brother. “Oh, believe me, I know. If I didn’t know for sure he was on my side I’d have one hell of a complex. He’s probably on your side too, or will be if you calm down and let him.”

Makoto picks the search party over dinner: Minako, because he’s not ready to face one of these things without her yet, Junpei, because he apparently came up with a genuine apology after they got home, and Ken-kun, because he’s been eager to get in on one of the big fights and they’ll need a healer in each squad, just in case. It feels like it takes forever before they roll out, but when they finally get to school, Junpei’s gym door is indeed still unlocked.

“Before you go in.” Akihiko-senpai hands a spare Evoker to Makoto. “Just in case Yamagishi wants it.”

“Good idea,” Makoto says, pocketing it… somewhere. Minako’s honestly not sure where he’s managing to stash half the stuff they use in battle.

Yukari frowns. “Are you sure that’s not… well. Not jumping the gun?” She immediately winces at her own Ikutsuki-level pun, as does everyone else (even Makoto’s grimacing). “It’s just that we have no idea if she’ll actually want to join us.”

“Better to have it if she needs it,” Shinjiro-senpai says. “We can fill her in on the rest later, and figure out what she wants when she’s not in trouble, but if worse comes to worst up there, there’s no point in her bein’ defenseless.”

“That’s true. We don’t need a repeat of the dorm rooftop.” Yukari doesn’t look completely at peace with the spare Evoker, but she doesn’t protest any further, hanging back with the reserves as Minako and the rest of the field team head into the gym.

They can’t see the clock in the darkness, and Minako gave up wearing her watch at night years ago, since it’s digital. She’s not sure an analog watch would really keep up, either. The upshot is that it feels particularly sudden when the Dark Hour sets in; one minute they’re making the best of hanging out in the dark, with Junpei busting out the occasional ghost story as entertainment, and the next she’s in Tartarus, alone.

(Is someone there?)

At least the latest naginata Makoto got for her makes cool lightsaber noises to go with its bright white LED edge. It helps break up the monotony of being stuck who knows how far up here by herself, giving her something other than her footsteps and a couple garbled transmissions from Mitsuru-senpai for company.

(Who is this? Are you human?)

She finds Makoto first, and they agree with a shared glance that they’re never coming into Tartarus like this again. As a pair, they attract more attention from Shadows than Minako did alone, but it’s nothing they can’t handle, and they find Junpei and Ken-kun not too long afterward.

(Please answer me…)

“By the way,” Junpei says, “anyone else hear a weird voice up here? Sorta like--”

“Who’s there? Are you human?”

“Like that! Except that was a lot clearer.”

Minako’s the first of them to turn around, to find a girl half hidden behind a corner in the hallway. She looks more than a little out of it, but if this is Yamagishi-san, Minako can’t really blame her. (She’s cute. Oh no.)

“Yamagishi-san?” Makoto says, which is when Minako realises she’s been staring. But from the way the other girl startles, they were both staring, which is… maybe promising?

“Yes, that’s me. How long have I been here? And… how did this place replace the gym?”

***

Fuuka’s not sure how she feels right now.

There’s a lot to sort through - vindication that there are, in fact, monsters in this tower; alarm the first time they run into one and one of her rescuers puts a gun to their head; bafflement that firing said gun doesn’t end in tragedy; uncertainty that one of her rescuers is a grade-schooler, if a very mature one; relief that she’s talking to other people for the first time in, apparently, days. Under that, somewhat uncharacteristically, she finds a simmering rage.

It’s been ten days, outside of this tower. Her rescuers’ going theory seems to be that she’s only experienced around ten hours of that time, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s been away from home for a week and a half and her parents evidently couldn’t be bothered to look for her. That Ekoda-sensei chose to cover for Moriyama and her friends is no surprise; after all, he’s covered for them every time so far, citing a need to look out for their futures.

Never mind that her own future was starting to look pretty short, the rate things had been going. Still, she would have thought her parents would have at least contacted the school, when she didn’t come home several nights in a row. Do they really care that little?

Her annoyance keeps her from panicking too much when Makoto-kun hands her a gun of her own. “It’s not a real gun,” he says, which doesn’t help as much as he seems to think it should.

“Are you sure I’m going to need one? You guys seem to have the combat part in hand.” Besides, Fuuka’s never liked the idea of fighting, or she probably could have put an end to the bullying problem months ago, if only by bricking their phones.

Minako-san shrugs, with a smile that adds ‘butterflies in her stomach’ to the complex cocktail of Fuuka’s current emotional state. “You’ve been monster-dodging this long, which suggests you’re capable of doing what we do. Even if it’s just support, we’re not half as good without strong backup.”

“I see.” She thinks she does, at least. In any case, Minako-san’s smile is contagious - or maybe it’s just that the melon bread her brother gave her is the first thing Fuuka’s eaten in ages.

“You’ll get the full explanation later,” Ken-kun says, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if you need to spend some time recovering in the hospital. I had to stay overnight after - well, as things were starting up for me, and Makoto-senpai was there for a while, too.”

“I can’t say the rest wouldn’t help, but - could one of you do me a favor? If I do have to stay there… I don’t want my parents coming in to see me, if I’m not awake when they get there. I doubt I’d get a chance to ask why they didn’t look for me, otherwise.”

Ken-kun nods, looking stricken; the twins frown. “Is that a thing normal parents do?” Minako-san says. “I mean, we’ll absolutely make sure the staff know that, but Mako and I haven’t really had a good frame of reference in years.”

Junpei-kun shrugs. “Don’t look at me, dude, I don’t think Dad’s noticed I moved out yet.”

Before Fuuka can do more than wonder how that would even work, a garbled transmission interrupts them, and then Minako-san’s all but dragging her toward what turns out to be a teleporter. Under normal circumstances, she’d want to stop and examine the thing, figure out how it works and how widespread its applications might be - but seeing as it’s part of the tower that ate the school gym, it’s probably not mechanically-based.

They land in a lobby, somewhat better lit than the area she’d been lost in, and are greeted by a frustrated, “You fucker, that worked last time! Stop that shit!”

Three seniors (she recognises Kirijo-senpai, of course) and another junior are facing off against two absolutely gigantic monsters, one so top-heavy Fuuka’s surprised it hasn’t fallen over on its own and the other its opposite in weight distribution. Her rescuers rush over to see what they can do to help, leaving her the only witness to a door slamming open.

“What - Moriyama? Go home! It isn’t safe for you to be here!”

“Fuuka? I have to say I’m sorry.” Moriyama doesn’t sound like herself, and somehow doesn’t seem to be moving under her own power. She is, however, moving right toward the monsters, heedless of the fight going on around them.

In that moment, she knows what she has to do.

Fuuka grabs Moriyama’s hand to pull her away from the fracas (the light changes, but she can worry about that later), places herself between her hopefully-former bully and a fate no one deserves, brings the not-a-gun to her own temple, and pulls the trigger. It’s easier than she thought it would be, which should probably be more concerning than it is - but now she can see.

Lucia will help her get them all out of this mess.

Chapter Text

Fuuka wakes up in the hospital, as Ken-kun had predicted. Sunlight is streaming in through the window; there’s no one else sharing the room with her. She feels completely exhausted, but considering she’s only had a melon bread in the last week and a half… well, that’s not really a surprise, either.

The doctor she talked to over Golden Week pokes his head in the door, only coming in after confirming she’s awake. “Ah, good. You’re awake.”

“I am.” Fuuka hesitates, then decides she might as well go for the million-yen question; the Kirijo Group owns this hospital, after all, so there’s a good chance they know enough to answer some things. “I don’t suppose last night was connected to that sleep study?”

The doctor smiles faintly. “You caught us. Considering the possible dangers, it’s important for us to be aware of who might be conscious during the Dark Hour. I don’t know much, but I believe Kirijo-san was planning to come by after school, and I can fill in some details for you in the meantime.”

They settle into a discussion of the technical details of the Dark Hour; as the doctor said, it’s not terribly in-depth, but it gives Fuuka enough to start filling in some blanks. She wasn’t dreaming all spring after all - it just felt like she was, thanks in part to the fuzzy memories that accompany early experiences.

The doctor eventually leaves when a nurse brings in lunch. She’s maybe halfway through her meal when there’s a knock at the door.

“Yamagishi?”

Fuuka sighs. She’s not really looking forward to this conversation, but they can’t skip it either, and who knows - maybe Moriyama will surprise her. “Come in, Moriyama.”

She does, and sits down heavily on the other bed. “How’re you doing?”

“Tired, but otherwise fine, it seems. How are you?”

“They’re gonna let me go home when Mom’s off work, so there’s that. But I wanted to talk to you before then.” Moriyama sighs. “I don’t… really remember what happened last night. Not all of it. But I remember you saved me, when I’ve given you no reason to do that over the last year at all. So thanks. And I really am sorry for all of it. It was easier to pick on someone else than think about how much my own life sucks, but that doesn’t make it right.”

“No, it really doesn’t.” Still, she seems genuine about the apology, so Fuuka’s inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. “Thank you for saying so.”

Moriyama shrugs, looking down at the floor. “It doesn’t seem like anything worth thanking me over. You could’ve just let me join the unconscious bullies club and I would’ve deserved it.”

That’s the thing, though - she couldn’t have. Fuuka’s non-confrontational to a fault, but she also doesn’t want to see anyone get hurt. She didn’t expect to gain anything from helping Moriyama, but at least she didn’t lose what little faith she still has in herself.

“Anyway, I’m gonna tell Maki and the others to knock it off. They probably won’t listen, but - well, maybe I deserve better friends than them too. And if I wanna try to do better, I can’t keep talking to them. Maki and Hinata are still here and they don’t get it at all.”

“It doesn’t really bode well for the others,” Fuuka agrees, glancing at the window. She can’t look out of it for very long, but the sunny weather does remind her of their other unfinished business from last night. “And then there’s the other thing.”

“What other - oh, right. The colors thing. I mean, I’m not into girls.”

“I…” Fuuka pauses, not sure if she can really say she isn’t either (what she’s definitely not into is forgiving Moriyama quite that much, yet). “I don’t think that’s a requirement, strictly speaking. I haven’t read much on the subject, but I think it’s only true that we have a connection other people won’t understand as easily. There’s also the fact that it’s not a closed circuit yet.”

Moriyama frowns. “How can you tell?”

“The leaves on the trees outside. Biology went on long enough about chlorophyll and how it makes them green, even though most of us wouldn’t know what ‘green’ is yet, so if it were a complete circuit, they would have changed too.”

“And they haven’t. So… what’s that mean?”

“Other than there being someone else out there? I don’t know.” For once, Fuuka wishes she’d read more on the topic of soulmates, but everything she’s found so far was fixated on the romantic aspects, to the effective exclusion of the technical aspects.

“Well, I can tell you what I do know. I deserve better friends, you deserve a friend, and we have a place to start from. I know it’s not really ideal, and if you don’t wanna try I can’t really blame you, but…”

“I’m willing to try. If nothing else, the colors thing suggests it won’t be a complete disaster.”

Moriyama grins, laughing in a way Fuuka’s never heard before - with no trace of mockery. “You got that right.”

***

Kirijo-senpai does come by after school, bringing with her one of the other seniors and a more detailed explanation of what exactly happened last night. Then she surprises Fuuka by offering her a place on their monster-fighting team.

“You want my help?”

“If you’re willing to give it,” Kirijo-senpai says. “Tartarus’ internal structure changes every time it reassembles itself, so we need someone in the lobby monitoring the layout, enemy locations and other potential dangers. I suspect your Persona’s scanning ability is considerably stronger than mine, which would be invaluable as we progress up the tower. You would have to move into one of the school dorms, for greater ease of coordinating missions. You don’t have to answer today, but I’d appreciate it if you gave the matter some thought.”

And Fuuka does, over dinner and when the hospital goes nearly dead silent during the Dark Hour. Even if she’s not taking part in combat directly, she’d still be putting herself in some danger - last night made that much very obvious. If it’s half this exhausting every time, she’d be likely to sleep through more than a few classes, which wouldn’t be the best news for her grades. Her parents would never approve of the distraction.

On the other hand, Kirijo-senpai and her friends are the first people who’ve shown actual concern for Fuuka’s well-being in years. She could help them, and she wants to. She won’t be able to ignore the Dark Hour no matter what she does, so she might as well do something useful during that time. As for her parents, the fact that they have yet to visit her at all speaks volumes; moving out of their house earlier than she’d planned wouldn’t exactly be a hardship.

She’s just about made her mind up when the hospital discharges her two days later - which is also the first time she’s seen her parents in two weeks.

“How dare you run off like that,” her mother says, once they’ve packed her into the car. “We were worried sick about you.”

“Were you really?”

“What was that, young lady?”

Fuuka sighs; she hadn’t meant to ask the question out loud. Still, if they insist on doing this now, she’ll oblige them. “I said, were you really? Did you ask where I was? Did you contact the school, or wait until someone realised Ekoda-sensei was covering for my bullies again?”

“Again?” Her father, she can see in the rear-view mirror, is frowning. “You never mentioned any problems before.”

“I did. Several times. You told me it was nothing. You told me to toughen up and get over it. And that’s when you weren’t calling me troublesome for not fitting a mold you imposed on me after Grandpa died. One of the people who locked me in the gym asked how I was doing the day after I was found. Where were you?”

An icy silence settles over the car, and lingers until well after they’re home. As soon as she gets to her room, Fuuka grabs her school bag and stuffs it as full of things as she can, leaving her actual books to one side to carry separately. In the end, her bag holds two changes of clothes, pajamas, her toothbrush, her laptop, a repair kit, and an MP3 player she’s been trying to fix in what little spare time she has.

She has a story planned for her exit - Kirijo-senpai gave her directions to the dorm the group who rescued her calls home, and said the group is on paper as a Gekkoukan school club - but finds it telling that neither of her parents make that story necessary.

Her arms are aching by the time she makes it to the dorm, even having taken the train part of the way. Instead of knocking, she ends up kicking the door; several moments later, Minako-san opens it, and greets Fuuka with a bright smile that makes her feel better almost instantly.

“Hey! Mitsuru-senpai said you might be…” Minako-san’s smile fades as she takes in Fuuka’s armload of books. “Coming. Is everything all right?”

“It’s…” Fuuka can’t figure out where to start, now that she’s faced with actually explaining her family’s circumstances. “Kirijo-senpai said there was a place for me here, if I wanted it.”

“Well, this looks to me like you want it. Here, give me some of those books, your arms must be about to fall off. I have no idea if there’s a clean spare room, but absolute worst case we have comfy couches, or we can set up camp on my floor or something.”

Fuuka’s books end up deposited on the front desk. Somehow, she gets through the meeting with Ikutsuki-san - a mere formality, after Kirijo-senpai gave her the details the other day - without losing her composure, even after learning there isn’t a clean room she can call her own yet. It wouldn’t feel like home without most of her stuff anyway, so maybe it’s just as well.

“You are not going back to get the rest of your stuff alone,” Minako-san says, as she lays out a makeshift futon on the floor in her bedroom. “If your parents rattled you that hard - no. Not doing it. I don’t have anything else to do this weekend, and I can grab Junpei if we need manual labor.”

“I - I appreciate it, I really do, but you don’t have to.”

“And you didn’t have to save our butts the other day, and you don’t have to keep helping us now. I want to.”

At that, Fuuka can’t keep from crying any longer, but it feels more like relief than anything else.

***

Edogawa-sensei is filling in for classic lit again, which of course means it’s less classic lit and more ‘screw it, let’s do magic.’ Minako’s not sure how exactly the guy still has a job - he’s not much of a substitute teacher and he’s not that good of a nurse, either, from what Mako’s said about his idea of a health aid - but it’s a definite improvement over Ekoda’s pompous disrespect.

She’s not sure if she dares hope Ekoda’s gone for good just yet, but this is a promising sign, if nothing else.

After classes let out, she bows out on practice (thankfully, Rio has the rest of the team back to put through their paces), and she and Yukari head back to the dorm to start on cleaning out a room for Fuuka. Minako loves having a ‘camping’ buddy, but Fuuka deserves her privacy, especially since it sounded like her parents weren’t really giving her any lately. Besides, she’s not going to figure out if this crush is worth pursuing if they’re constantly in each other’s space.

“Why isn’t Mitsuru-senpai helping with this?” Yukari says as they head upstairs.

“Student council stuff. Mako’d know more about it than I do, but something about class funds going missing.” He somehow broke through Chihiro-chan’s terror of men, at which point Minako mentally sighed and added another chalk mark to her brother’s unintentional harem. At least she seems to’ve spared Yuko the trouble.

And then they get the door to the earmarked room open, and Minako has second thoughts about how quick the job will go. “Good gods. Was mine this bad?”

“No. Neither was Makoto’s, from what the guys said. I don’t think we could’ve had two rooms ready for you guys on such short notice otherwise.” Yukari sighs. “It looks like they just… shoved everything left over from renovations to the dorm in here to make it someone else’s problem.”

“And now it’s ours. Lucky us? I dunno about you, but I’m changing clothes before I go in there.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Fuuka says from behind them. When Minako turns, she’s peering around the doorway, almost an exact mirror of when they found her in Tartarus. (She’s adorable. She’s so adorable, and Minako’s so, so screwed.)

“What - no!” Yukari says. “You just got out of the hospital yesterday. Tartarus exhaustion is no joke.”

“If you’re sure. I just… don’t want to make any trouble.”

Minako rolls her eyes. “You’re not the one who decided this was a better solution than actually finding a dumpster. We’ll handle the heavy lifting and let you know when we’re ready to set up your stuff, such as it is.”

Fuuka drops the idea of helping, and after they both dig out some workout clothes, Minako and Yukari dig into the junk pile. Thankfully, there aren’t any bugs - but then, they would’ve spread to the whole dorm by now, and Shinjiro-senpai definitely wouldn’t tolerate anything that’d move in on his kitchen - but it’s dusty as all hell, and they have to haul all the trash down three floors, out the back door and to the dumpster behind the dorm. By their second water break, she’s sore enough to veto Tartarus for the night, which Makoto accepts with his usual eloquence.

Maybe tomorrow night, too. She half wants to find whoever left everything here and drop some of it on their head.

Shinjiro-senpai stops them for dinner, at which point they’re done with the worst of it and can have the room liveable by… well, by the time anyone will actually be able to sleep, anyway. Before the Dark Hour kicks in, which is the important part. After dinner they do let Fuuka in; most of her stuff is still at her parents’, but she can tell them things like where she’s going to want the bed.

Minako straightens up from shifting said bed into the far corner of the room, turns around, and finds Fuuka climbing up on top of the desk. She’s about to ask why, until she spies a screwdriver in Fuuka’s hand - and sure enough, she goes right for the security camera.

“Careful,” she says instead. “I don’t know if the wires are active right now.”

“I always assume they are,” Fuuka says, more focused on her work than the conversation. “I just don’t want this on and facing my bed.”

“Like any sane person, really.”

Fuuka leaves the camera dangling from the wall, then climbs down from the desk. “There. That’ll work until I can be sure the power’s off and remove it safely. What are those even for?”

“Observation,” Yukari says. “When someone new comes in and we’re not sure if they’re aware of the Dark Hour yet, mostly. The system has a key, up in the command room, but I don’t think we’ve really needed it the whole time I’ve been here. Shinjiro-senpai and I are working on getting them out of the bedrooms, at least, but Ikutsuki-san keeps saying they’re still necessary for some reason.”

“And yet you were spying on me and Mako anyway.” Minako keeps her tone light; she got the apology she wanted for that out of Mitsuru-senpai already.

“It wasn’t my idea!”

Fuuka laughs - still small and fragile, but she’s had one hell of a couple weeks, so Minako figures any laugh is a good one right now. “Thank you both for your help, but I think I’d like to try to get to bed early tonight. Being back at school won’t help much if I just sleep through class.”

“That’s true,” Yukari says. “Let us know if you need anything else tonight, all right?”

“I will. Goodnight.” She smiles at them both as she ushers them out into the hall, but Minako could swear Fuuka looks at her a little longer than Yukari.

She’s doomed.

***

Told you he was fine,” Shinjiro-senpai says, out of frame. Anything else he has to say, or Mitsuru-senpai has to say to him, is cut off when she closes the door and Iori starts lamenting his luck.

As the random recording ends, Makoto turns to look at Minako. “‘Malfunction,’ she said.”

“Malfunction my ass, that’s more like an invasion of privacy. I’ll get Fuuka on it before it gets any worse than this. Junpei’s at least laughing about that now, and… whatever Ikutsuki-san was going on about between the bad jokes is what it is, I guess. But those things are trained on our beds for the most part.”

“I guess they have to watch people sleep somehow.”

“Or at least see if someone’s a coffin, but still.” Minako sighs. “This is gross. Or at least potentially gross, which is almost worse than whoever’s taking pictures of me in PE.”

“Iori having any luck with that yet?” Makoto’s only staying out of it because Iori seemed to have the investigation under control, or at least as under control as he ever has anything. He’s not remotely happy about some creep doing that to his sister either, but if her friend’s invested in helping, who is he to say no?

“Well, he’s ruled out Tomochika and the photography club, so that’s something. Only most of the rest of the school to go. I’d say it’s probably not someone in our class, since the teacher would wonder why they weren’t participating.”

“That doesn’t really narrow it down either.”

“Not really, no. But it is what it is, and if I find ‘em first I’ll just kick their ass for it.”

Makoto smiles - that’s his sister all over - and they lapse into the kind of comfortable silence they’ve been good at from birth. No one else seems to want the command room for anything tonight, and even if they do, he doesn’t think Minako’s going to give up the armchair at the head of the table for much of anything.

“Mako?”

“Yeah, ‘nako?”

“What do you think Ikutsuki-san meant by ‘it’s finally begun’?”

Makoto shrugs, even though Minako’s not looking at him. “No idea. Pharos seems to think the world is ending, but who knows if they’re talking about the same thing.”

“Pharos?”

“Striped Pajamas Kid. I got a name out of him last week.”

“Oh. That’s… good, I guess.” Minako sounds uncertain, but Makoto can’t really blame her. She had an easier time digesting the concept of the Velvet Room than ‘there’s a kid here that only one of us can see.’ “Like, not that he thinks the world is ending, but that you have a better name for him than what he’s wearing.”

“He did say I… make it less certain? So that’s something.”

Makoto’s still not sure how that works, only that if something is trying to prevent Minako from having a meaningful future, he’ll do what he’s always done - anything he can to protect her.

***

Mitsuru-senpai has told them everything she knows about the Dark Hour. Ikutsuki-san says there are twelve of the big Shadows that like to show up on full moons - four down, eight to go. But Yukari still can’t help feeling like they’re missing something.

It’s not that she distrusts the seniors, even if she thinks Akihiko-senpai maybe didn’t ask enough questions about the situation before jumping in headfirst. Shinjiro-senpai has proven to be a surprisingly good friend, which she never would have guessed from his scary demeanor, but he’s usually right there with her in having reservations about things like the security cameras. She wouldn’t even say that she distrusts Ikutsuki-san (one of the few points where she and Shinjiro-senpai disagree, but he just doesn’t seem to like anyone in a position of authority).

Something just… doesn’t feel complete about their understanding of the situation, and she can’t help but worry that sooner or later, it’s going to get them all hurt. Still, they can only work with what they know, and what they know is there’s a full moon tonight, so Fuuka’s scanning for trouble from the relative safety of the command room.

“Found it,” Fuuka finally says. “It’s in a building on Shirakawa Boulevard.”

“They’ve been finding the Lost in pairs lately,” Ikutsuki-san says. “Now I understand why.”

“Why, what’s on Shirakawa Boulevard? I’m not familiar with that area.”

“Love hotels,” Makoto says. Yukari winces a little at his bluntness, but it’s probably better he explains it than Junpei; Fuuka apparently gets so flustered she can’t keep Lucia present, but they know where they’re headed now.

Yukari pushes aside her reservations about - well, everything, but particularly about setting foot inside a love hotel when the Shadows will do who knows what with the place. “Well, I want a piece of the action this time. Who’s going to be field leader?”

“I see no reason to change field leaders at this stage,” Mitsuru-senpai says. “Makoto, the rest of the party is up to you. Let Yamagishi know when you’re ready.”

Makoto nods. “Well, I know who’s not in the party. I’m not taking my sister or the grade-schooler into a love hotel.”

“This time, I’d say no if you asked me, Mako,” Minako says. Ken-kun looks equally relieved, where he’s usually anxious to prove his usefulness.

Shinjiro-senpai snorts. “I’ll pass. That shit’s probably weird enough in the daylight.”

Makoto nods again, and looks at the last three members of the group for a long few moments. “Senpai?” he finally says. “Both of you.”

Junpei groans, then yelps as Minako stomps on his foot.

Despite the location, the fight is pretty normal, even if the Shadow likes to throw around electricity and Yukari spends a lot of time on her ass. (She’s been spending way too much time talking to Shinjiro-senpai.) But then they can’t leave, and there’s something strange about the large mirror in the bedroom, and the next thing Yukari knows she’s getting out of the shower.

***

Secondary-team duty is boring as shit, and Shinji can’t completely blame Junpei for being upset about it. But they can’t all pile into the main fight, even if they wanted to. Enough small-fry Shadows have popped up around the big ones that they can’t leave whoever’s on support alone. If nothing happens, good, but a boring hour is better than losing a navigator.

“The Dark Hour has to be more than 60 standard minutes,” Minako says, while Fuuka’s trying to figure out what the fuck happened to everyone inside the love hotel.

Junpei eyes her. “Why d’you say that? I mean, it’s called an hour.”

“But no one’s been able to measure it, have they? Even analog watches grind to a halt, never mind digital. Besides, look at tonight. We had to scan for the Shadow, walk all the way over here, fight the thing, get trapped in a void, probably fight a second one and then walk home. The only time we ever start where the fight is is when we go to Tartarus.”

“Well… yeah, but wouldn’t it end at the same time every night?”

“We’re already outside of normal time,” Ken says. “I don’t see why it couldn’t behave however it wants to.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Fuuka bursts out - she must’ve managed to contact someone inside. “Are you all right?”

“I think so,” Makoto says; it’s muffled by Lucia’s shield bubble, but plenty audible and not nearly as scratchy as someone replying to Mitsuru could be. “I don’t - Takeba, put your clothes on! I don’t think anything… untoward happened. Whatever put us in here sure wanted something to happen, though.”

“I’m so sorry, it never occurred to me there might be a second Shadow in there. I think it’s in the same room where you fought the other one, but it’s sealed the door somehow - you’ll need to regroup with the others and figure out how to get to it. Senpai? Are you two all right?”

Aki’s voice comes through next, and Shinji relaxes a little. “Well, if anything did happen, it’s nothing we haven’t done before. We’re on our way downstairs.”

That was more than I ever needed to know about their private life,” Junpei mutters. Shinji just rolls his eyes. It’s his private life too, but he doesn’t feel like pointing that out and spending the next eternity dealing with Junpei’s brain sputtering to a halt.

Still, now he’s really glad he didn’t go in there. If that’s something he decides he wants, he wants to remember it happened for sure after the fact - and, you know, actually decide he wants it.

“All right,” Fuuka says, after talking the group inside through breaking the seal and fighting the second Shadow. “I don’t detect any more - for real, this time. Come on back down and let’s go home.”

Minako makes a beeline for her brother as soon as he emerges from the love hotel, and hugs Yukari while she’s at it; Shinji waits for Aki and Mitsuru to do the same to them. He doesn’t miss how they both melt into it. They need some time alone, and soon - the dorm’s so crowded now compared to last year.

“Good work, everyone,” Mitsuru says. “Especially Yamagishi, for your solid support, and Makoto, for withstanding the enemy’s attack.”

Fuuka smiles. “I’m glad I could be useful.”

As they turn to leave, a flash of white in Shinji’s peripheral vision catches his attention, but it’s gone by the time he turns to face it. He shakes his head and turns his attention back to where they’re headed, but it’s too much to hope no one noticed.

“Shinjiro? What’s wrong?”

“Thought I saw something. It was probably nothing. Let’s go.”

Mitsuru nods, frowning like she doesn’t quite believe him. But Shinji doesn’t even believe himself, so he can’t really blame her. He just refuses to drag Chidori into this until he’s sure whether that was actually her or not.

Chapter Text

The Dark Hour comes to an end just as the group returns to the dorm. Mitsuru’s even more bone-weary than usual; she’s not sure if it’s a factor of being relatively out of practice with combat, if two major combat engagements in sequence have more to do with it, or if that… interlude might have involved more activity than it appeared.

She’ll have to pull on some connections to get some oral contraceptives for herself and Takeba, just in case. It may seem probable that nothing ‘untoward,’ as Makoto put it, happened, but some risks are not worth taking.

“Come upstairs?” she says, as the others trudge to their own rooms; Shinjiro nods right away.

“I want a shower first,” Akihiko says. “I’ll do that on the second floor and then come up, so you can get one in too.”

Mitsuru nods. They did try sharing a shower in her en-suite bathroom once, but that was enough to tell them it’s a highly impractical venture. And while Akihiko did technically have a shower at the love hotel, she’s never been able to discern whether Dark Hour water merely looks like blood, or is replaced by it. Even without the second fight, she can’t blame him for wanting another.

Shinjiro follows her directly upstairs, and as she’s getting out something to change into after her shower, she decides to ask her earlier question again. “What is it you think you saw as we were leaving the combat site?”

“‘Combat site.’ You ever listen to yourself?” Mitsuru barely catches Shinjiro’s fleeting smile before it’s gone again; if anything, he looks even grimmer than usual. “I’ll tell you when I know for sure. If it was really nothing, I don’t wanna make a big stink over nothing. If it’s something, I wanna know exactly what kind of ‘something’ first.”

“Is it something we should be concerned about?”

Shinjiro is quiet for far too long for Mitsuru’s comfort, which answers the question by itself. “I don’t know,” he finally says. “I really fucking hope not, but I don’t know, which is why I wanna figure out more before I explain it. Go shower, Mitsuru. I’ll get one in in the morning.”

Halfway through her shower, Mitsuru realises part of it: Shinjiro must think he saw a person, or he wouldn’t be nearly so cagey about this. No wonder he wants to determine the exact nature of the potential threat, if he can, before giving everyone else something to worry about. There are too many possible avenues at play without further information.

It’s enough for her to decide to let the matter be until Shinjiro’s ready to discuss it. She doesn’t like leaving the loose thread dangling like that, but there’s nothing more to be done. Besides, by the time she’s dressed, Akihiko’s come up, and he and Shinjiro seem to be good-naturedly arguing about something.

“We need a break, we ain’t gonna get it with six other people in the dorm, and besides, Okina’s what, three hours away? Not like we can’t make an overnight trip.”

“What’s in Okina that’s not here?” Akihiko sounds baffled.

“People who have no idea who you are, for one thing.”

“...Oh. No, that’s fair. Probably fewer people who’d think there’s something to gain from interrupting Mitsuru’s free time, too.”

Mitsuru leaves the bathroom and finds the boys next to each other on her bed, already in their pajamas. “Why are you suggesting a vacation, Shinjiro?”

“Because we could all fucking use it. We got that stretch of days off right after Marine Day, or we could just wait for the real summer break to kick in. I bet we could cover the whole thing with Tartarus money, too, so we don’t even have to dip into yours if you didn’t want to.”

They all know she’ll foot the bill regardless, especially for the three of them to do something together, but Mitsuru can’t say she doesn’t appreciate the thought.

“I’m not against it,” Akihiko says. “I was just wondering why you thought we should go that far away. What do you think, Mitsuru? Vacation in a week and a half?”

Mitsuru opens her mouth to agree, then thinks better of it. “Yes,” she says, “but maybe not this one.”

“What do you mean?”

“My father is prone to taking vacation time around Marine Day, and we have a family property on Yakushima. I think… I think it’s time to introduce him to the other members, so they can learn the full story as he knows it. As for our vacation, most of the sports clubs have regional meets and fellowships in the first week of summer vacation, so the twins and Takeba won’t be terribly available for Tartarus exploration regardless. It would be a more efficient use of our time to travel separately then.”

Shinjiro nods. “Makes sense. You gonna call him tomorrow, then?”

“If I haven’t by the weekend, make me do it then.”

***

“Hasegawa Saori of Class 2-C, please report to the faculty office. I repeat, Hasegawa Saori, please report to the faculty office.”

Saori looks up toward the PA speaker with a frown. “What could that be about?”

“Who knows. Want some backup?”

“I appreciate it, Minako-chan, but it’s really not necessary. I’ll be right back.” With that, she heads out of the library, leaving Minako to reshelve books by herself for a while.

It’s a longer while than she expected, and when Saori comes back, she’s pale and shaking, clutching a magazine and on the verge of tears.

“Saori? What happened?” She almost asks if someone died, Saori looks that badly off.

“It’s - I don’t - I don’t know how…”

“Okay, sit down before you fall down and breathe, first of all. Deep breaths, okay? The last thing you need is a trip to the nurse’s office on top of whatever happened. Just breathe. If you can’t say it, show me the magazine.”

Once Saori’s backed off the edge of a panic attack - still pale, but not hyperventilating - she hands over the magazine. Minako’s eyebrows go up at the headline, not to mention the photo of Saori. It’s obviously her, even with the black bar over her eyes; she might be the only student in the school with a beauty mark on her cheek.

“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say you didn’t grant this jerk an interview about ‘rampant sexuality,’” she says. “So how’d he get a photo of you to go with it?”

Saori mumbles something as she dabs at her eyes with a tissue. When Minako doesn’t respond, she says, “I posed for it. One of the girls… said I’d be doing him a favor. He said the article was about - well, not that. He even paid me for the photo.”

Minako sighs. “Friends of those idiots who thought setting you up to get slapped was a fun time, I bet.”

“I don’t know. I just wanted a friend, and now…”

“First things first, are you in any trouble here?”

Saori shakes her head. “Ounishi-sensei wanted to hear my side of the story before anything happened. I think she’s going to try to find the person who wrote it, but I don’t know if he goes to this school or not. I don’t know if she can do anything about the girl who set me up for it, either. But… there’s no way my parents won’t find out about this and they’re going to kill me.”

“Shouldn’t they at least hear your side of the story first, too?”

“They won’t. They haven’t believed me since I was eight. They’ll just assume I was out to stir up trouble again and pull me out of school and send me away to be someone else’s problem, like they did last time.”

Minako really wants to ask about ‘last time,’ but she’s pretty sure that’s a story for literally anywhere but in the school library. “Well, if they’re going to kill you anyway, then going out for some food will be the least of your transgressions. We’re going to Wakatsu, my treat, and we’re going to figure out a plan for this, if we can.”

“You don’t have to - I don’t want to drag your reputation down, too.”

“My reputation is not as important as you needing a friend right now.”

Saori gives her a watery smile. “Well, if you’re sure.”

Minako regrets wondering about ‘last time’ the instant Saori tells her what happened, but it does make it abundantly clear that there will be no reasoning with Saori’s parents; whatever conclusion they jump to, and it’ll most likely be ‘our daughter is terrible,’ is the one they’ll act on. Saori’s not even sure if she’ll be able to convince them to let her come back to Gekkoukan for the fall term, given the timing.

“They probably won’t pull you out before exams,” Minako says. “I mean, what would be the point? If they want to get rid of you they’ll at least want something that looks good on paper for whoever they send you to to see.”

“That’s true. And I’m above the legal age of majority in most of the countries they’d consider, so I could always just… not come back if they try to send for me again.” Saori sighs. “I really do think this will be the last straw for them, though.”

“Maybe, but nobody said you have to be the one to break it for them. I’ll take the magazine home. Don’t bring the subject up. They’ll get to it when they get to it, and there’s no point in forcing an argument you’ll only lose anyway. If people at school start talking, we’ll figure out how to clear your name there. And if your parents kick you out before we can really do anything… that won’t stop me from being on your side.”

Saori tears up again, but at least this time it seems to be out of gratitude. It’s an improvement over blind panic.

***

“What if I told you that those twelve Shadows are the cause of everything?”

Junpei’s… not sure how to feel about that, honestly. Like, objectively, the fact that they could get rid of the Dark Hour in another six months tops is a good thing, sure. But what’s he supposed to do with himself after that? They can’t even take credit for their work, since literally nobody else knows the Dark Hour even exists.

Is anyone even going to need him for anything after they don’t have the Dark Hour anymore?

“Is that true?” Fuuka says.

Ikutsuki-san smiles. “There’s evidence to support it.”

Shinjiro-senpai frowns, bordering on a full scowl for some reason. “What evidence?”

“Yeah,” Yuka-tan says. “Did you bring that evidence with you? Can we see it?”

“Ah. Well, I don’t have it on hand today, but I’ll make sure it’s provided over your vacation.”

That gets Junpei’s full attention. “Vacation? What vacation?”

Mitsuru-senpai smiles. “I just finalised the arrangements this morning. It’ll be next week, after exams. My father is one of the few survivors of the incident that created the Dark Hour, and it’s past time you all learned what he knows about it. We’ll be visiting a family property on Yakushima.”

“Man, we get a free beach vacation? Sweet! Hot sand, cool breeze, babes in bikinis--”

Minako elbows him in the side, hard. “Hold it right there, Junpei. Mitsuru-senpai’s taken, I’m gay, and Yukari will put an arrow through your shoulder if you objectify her. Behave yourself and you’ll have a much better chance at actually landing a girlfriend.”

“Sheesh, sorry. Ow.” Junpei rubs his side. “You’re gonna send me to the beach with a bruise.”

“No, I’m gonna send you to finals with a bruise. By the time we get to the beach, the only thing that’ll still be healing is your ego.”

“Hey!”

***

Shinji doesn’t realise the extent to which he’s lost track of time until the sky’s green and there are three Shadow blobs headed right for him.

Fuck.

Everyone else went to Tartarus for the night, to blow off steam after finals, which means they’re already inside and he’s not sure he can get hold of them, or that anyone could help if he did.

Double fuck.

Oh well. He doesn’t leave the dorm at night without his Evoker, especially since carrying an axe around town would be a great way to get arrested. As long as he can handle this quick - and he can, especially if he lands poison on them - he’ll be able to get home safe.

Of course, the poison doesn’t stick. And of course, the blobs aren’t weak to physical attacks. Triple fuck. Is he gonna have to pull a bus stop sign out of the ground or something? He probably could, if it comes to that. It’d get passed off as a car accident.

“Medea!”

Three balls of blinding white nuke-spell light land on the Shadows and obliterate them. When Shinji can see properly again, he turns around to find Chidori standing behind him, hiding something in the folds of her dress.

He’d bet Mitsuru’s proposed vacation budget it’s an Evoker. “Answers that question, I guess.”

“I suppose it does,” Chidori says. “I’m sure you’ve been wondering at least as long as I have.”

Shinji shrugs. It’s definitely possible - neither of them are stupid, and they’ve both dropped conversations to eavesdrop on people talking about Apathy Syndrome - but that part’s not what matters to him. “Are your friends here?”

“They’re on the other side of town, dealing with something from Takaya’s website. And yours?”

“Not here.” Of course her friends are behind that fucking revenge site. But before he can ask about that, or even decide if he wants to, Chidori throws him for another loop.

“Did they experiment on you, too?”

“No. None of us.”

“We should all be so lucky.” Chidori sits down on a step, like more Shadows couldn’t possibly sneak up on them any second. “I was seven. Takaya was nine; I think Jin was, too. There were dozens of others, but they all died, either because they weren’t in very good health when they were taken or as a result of the testing. In the end, it was just the three of us, and even we were written off as failures.”

“What were they even trying to do?” Shinji’s not sure he wants to know, but he needs to ask. He already has a shitton more questions than he thought he would for Yakushima; might as well get the whole set.

“Create Persona users without having to wait for someone to awaken to one naturally. All three of us can call one, but not… reliably. Medea’s tried to kill me more than once. After the first time one succeeded in killing its host, they developed suppressants, but those take a heavy physical toll. I don’t think Takaya’s body remembers how to be cold anymore. We all get sick easily. I suppose the risks of replication outweighed the benefits.”

“You think?” Shinji can’t shake the feeling that he and Aki got off real fucking lucky. How close were they to ending up in the same hellhole? He had enough trouble convincing himself Castor wasn’t going to flip out on him - what if that control had just been impossible in the first place?

Still, he can definitely see where those three ended up with a soulmate connection. No one’s going to understand what they went through like they do - anyone else who might’ve is dead.

“My turn for a question. What are you and your friends doing?”

“We want the Dark Hour fucking gone. What else would we be doing?”

Chidori looks mildly surprised, which Shinji figures means she’s actually pretty alarmed. “Why? Why would you all so readily walk away from your power? Without the Dark Hour, you won’t have your Persona anymore, either.”

“Wouldn’t be the end of the world if I couldn’t use it. Besides…” The good news is Mitsuru has talked about this some before. The bad news is there was a lot of technical jargon involved, and technical jargon is not Shinji’s strong point. “There’s other shit like the Dark Hour that isn’t bending time outta shape. There has to be, or they wouldn’t have known what Personas were to try and make people who could use ‘em. The Dark Hour is hurting people, even if they don’t know it. We’re trying to keep everyone safe.”

“Life hurts people. You can’t save everyone.”

“No,” Shinji says, trying not to think of how brutally he learned that lesson. “You can’t. But that doesn’t mean trying won’t save someone.”

“Takaya and Jin aren’t going to like it, you know. That you want to end the Dark Hour.”

“Sucks to be them, then.” Mitsuru’s going to be pissed that the Kirijo Group’s fuckery runs this deep - assuming he and Chidori meant the same ‘them,’ but Shinji doesn’t know who else it would be. Good thing he can get some answers in a couple days. “You know I’m gonna have to tell my friends about you guys, right?”

“I’ll be doing the same. Besides, Takaya’s planning on a proper introduction soon. In the meantime…” Chidori pauses for a while, and the street lights flicker back to life. “You’ve given me a bit to think about.”

She gets up and leaves without another word, and Shinji sighs and starts back toward the dorm. If he’s lucky, he’ll beat everyone back and not have to explain himself to the whole group.

He’s not cracking this can of worms open until he hears what Mitsuru’s dad has to say for himself.

***

“I do not expect all of this to be new information to you,” Kirijo-san says. “However, some of it will be, as there was no means to act upon it until now.”

Sure enough, while the part about what Mitsuru-senpai’s grandfather was trying to do by experimenting on Shadows is news - and really alarming - to Yukari, the seniors don’t look too shocked by it. They must have heard about it before now, and she can just picture Shinjiro-senpai asking who’s defining ‘unwanted events’ that need to be undone.

Then Kirijo-san turns on a TV, and dims the lights with the same remote. “This is the only existing footage of the accident, recorded by a scientist who was at the scene.”

That’s all the warning Yukari gets.

She sits bolt upright before the recording is more than three words in - she’d know her dad’s voice anywhere, even after this long - and only distantly hears Shinjiro-senpai say something about it. She can’t believe what she’s hearing. She can’t look away, either, even though she really, really should have before the end (that’s going to haunt her nightmares now, great).

When the TV goes dark, she tears her eyes away from it and looks at Shinjiro-senpai. “Did you know?” she manages to say, and barely recognises the sound of her own voice.

“Never saw that before tonight.” She believes him; the longer she’s been in the dorm, the more she’s seen how much he fights for everyone to be on the same page, if he thinks they’re not.

As Kirijo-san explains it to the others, Yukari gets up, moving on autopilot, and just… goes. She walks out of the room, out of the house, onto the beach, nearly to the water. She needs to think, if she can get her brain to stop going in circles, and that’s not going to happen inside right now.

When she asked if they could see the evidence behind Ikutsuki-san’s theory, this was the last thing she was expecting.

She feels stupid, like she shouldn’t have had any faith in her dad in the first place. That just confirmed what everyone else believed the whole time - that he caused the explosion. That he was the problem. That it was his fault. But it doesn’t add up, either. She can’t see her dad doing something like that for no reason, research or no research. She doesn’t think Mitsuru’s father would lie about something like this, and the video basically amounts to a confession, but it doesn’t feel right, either.

She knew her dad, or at least thought she did.

“Well, you were six,” Makoto says, and Yukari yelps.

“Sorry.” He doesn’t look all that apologetic, but Minako’s definitely the more expressive of the twins. “You were mumbling to yourself.”

“Yeah, well. He told you what kind of bombshell that was for me, right?”

Makoto nods. “We didn’t think you should be out here alone.”

“That’s… probably true. Sorry. I just needed to think. I believed in Dad for so long, and this is what I get? Was I stupid to have that faith?”

“I don’t think so. Adults think they know what kids can and can’t handle knowing about. Kids trust their parents to be good people.”

“I guess. I just…” Yukari sighs. “I don’t know what to do anymore.”

“Would you like a hug?”

“...Yeah. Yeah, I think I would.”

Makoto hugs her, and doesn’t complain when Yukari starts crying all over his shirt.

***

Shinji can’t say he’d exactly expected last night to go well, but that video made it even more of a shitshow than he would’ve guessed. Makoto at least got Yukari back inside before the Dark Hour set in, and considering all the girls have already left to have a look around the island, she must be feeling at least some better.

Not that he can blame her for being upset in the first place. He’s still a little surprised Ikutsuki actually had evidence to back up what he said about ending the Dark Hour, but Yukari having to hear it from her dad’s mouth was probably even worse.

With nothing better to do, Shinji’s at the beach with the other guys. Aki and Ken are building a sand castle; Junpei and Makoto went off to make fools of themselves, as far as he can tell. Long as they don’t try to drag him into it, he doesn’t really care.

When they’re still halfway down the beach and Aki’s getting more wet sand for the castle, Shinji spots someone out on a rickety old pier - a blonde girl in a loose blue sundress. She’s staring at the ocean, which is fine, but he’s not sure when the last time that pier saw maintenance was, so he heads over.

“Careful you don’t fall in.”

The girl barely turns to acknowledge him. “This structure is sufficiently stable to support my weight.”

“Well, whatever floats your boat, then.”

“I do not possess a boat.” The girl turns back to the water. “The visual anomalies I reported before deactivation have persisted. This is highly irregular.”

Okay, so she’s a weird one. But no one in the group can really claim to be normal. Since she doesn’t seem to be expecting a response, Shinji shrugs and leaves her alone.

Of course, it gets weirder when Junpei and Makoto spot her, which leads to her running off into the woods, the girls coming to find them because Ikutsuki said they have to find a missing ‘tank,’ and the blonde hugging Makoto and calling him her highest priority. Then Ikutsuki says the blonde is the tank, which answers one question and raises about a million more.

They get the explanation that evening. Aigis, it turns out, is from the last wave of the robotics program. Ikutsuki says she’s the last remaining robot period, but that can’t be true, unless someone destroyed the one that sort of went rogue. Since there’s not much prying her away from Makoto, even if she doesn’t seem to understand why she’s so attached herself, she’s coming back with them. Why not.

“Was she built with color receptors?” Shinji asks. That ‘visual anomalies’ thing from the beach is sticking out to him.

“Of course not,” Ikutsuki says. “Color vision is hardly required for fighting Shadows.”

Shinji frowns, and he sees Minako’s eyebrows go up, but he doesn’t pursue the conversation. Everyone is distracted by Aigis, which makes it a perfect opportunity to find Mitsuru’s dad and ask him a couple pointed questions.

It looks like Kirijo-san brought some work with him, but he looks up when Shinji approaches. “Did you need something, Aragaki-kun?”

“Got a question for you. Did the Kirijo Group ever try… well, anything other than the robots as far as trying to make Persona users?”

Kirijo-san sighs. “We did, yes, in the early days of the Dark Hour. The robotics program had the luxury of hypotheticals on its side, but with the Dark Hour’s inception, the need to combat Shadows directly became more urgent. We recruited human volunteers for some experimental trials, but all of the trials ended in failure, and so we had to wait for someone to awaken to the ability naturally. I still regret that Mitsuru felt the need to shoulder that burden so young.”

“Yeah, well, if you’re anything to go by, it runs in the family. Volunteers, huh?”

“Of course. I never would have approved the trials, otherwise. Unfortunately, Ikutsuki-san reported that none of the volunteers survived. Why do you ask?”

Shinji frowns. That’s at direct odds with what Chidori told him, but - thankfully, for his trust in the one adult he’s ever thought earned the respect they all demand - it doesn’t sound like that’s Kirijo-san’s fault. “Just tryin’ to get a better understanding of everything.”

This is such a goddamn mess he doesn’t even know where to begin. He can’t put off telling Aki and Mitsuru, at least, for much longer, but they’re gonna have a better idea of how to handle this with the group as a whole than he does, and he doesn’t want to risk anyone else overhearing before they’re sure of what to do.

He’d bet Chidori’s friends are waiting for the next full moon to make their grand entrance, so there’s at least time to do that, even if he waits for their private vacation.

Chapter Text

“Let’s go get dinner. Just the two of us.”

Shinji raises an eyebrow, but if he realises Akihiko has more in mind than just a date, he doesn’t say anything. He just nods and puts his homework away, grabbing his wallet as he gets up.

It’s not that he doesn’t mean it as a date, either. It’s been a while since they managed to snag some time alone, and even with their mini-vacation with Mitsuru coming up, Akihiko figures it’s good to get back to basics every now and then. With him and Shinji, that’s always meant getting some ramen and then just shooting the shit on one of the benches near the station late into the night (if they don’t start punching each other, anyway).

But he also means it as a fact-finding mission, and he manages to stretch out their normal conversation until it’s very nearly the Dark Hour.

“You’ve been cagey all month, Shinji. What are you not telling us?”

Shinji sighs. “You’ll find out this weekend.”

“Why not now? Keeping secrets isn’t like you.” And it stings, a little. Akihiko thought they were past keeping secrets from each other.

“First, I didn’t know I was keepin’ a secret until a couple weeks ago, so stop panicking. Second, you and Mitsuru will find out this weekend so we can figure out what the fuck to tell everyone else. I’m not bringin’ this up where someone might overhear and freak out before we can control it.”

“Shit. It’s that bad?”

Shinji goes quiet, which has always said plenty on its own. “Probably,” he finally says. “Some of it might be worse than that.”

Okay, now he’s really worried. But pushing Shinji harder will probably just get Akihiko punched in the face (or the gut, since Shinji fights dirty), so he tries to let it go. It helps when Fuuka’s Persona-communication line kicks in, though he can’t think why she’d be calling them.

“Senpai? Are you two still out?”

“We are,” he says, before Shinji can answer. “What’s up?”

“I picked up the presence of a Shadow near Naganaki Shrine. It’s not a big one, but since it’s outside Tartarus…”

“We’ll have a look,” Shinji says.

“Thank you. Let me know if you need any backup.”

Sure enough, when they get to the shrine, there’s a Shadow lurking by the gate - two of them, a pair of those creepy headless-dancers things. They’re moving like they’re attacking something, but Akihiko can’t see what.

A dog howls, and then the Shadows are engulfed in darkness, the pitch black of some kind of Curse spell just visible against the greenish gloom of the Dark Hour. When the spell fades, the Shadows go with it, and the only thing by the shrine’s gate is a white lump.

Shinji freezes. “Fuck. Koro-chan?” Then he puts on the kind of speed Akihiko hasn’t seen him use in years and bolts toward the gate, even though they don’t know whether there are any more Shadows in the area.

When Akihiko catches up, Shinji’s already kneeling next to the white lump - which, sure enough, is the dog that lives at the shrine and still walks the route his last owner took him on. Koromaru wags his tail weakly when he sees Akihiko, but doesn’t lift his head.

“Looks like the fuckers got a few hits on him,” Shinji says. “On his belly, too, that’s gotta hurt.”

“We should… do something to stop the bleeding.”

Shinji gives Akihiko a flat look. “Something like, I dunno, healing him? You’re the one with the Dia track, dumbass. If Koro-chan got rid of the Shadows, then we can patch him up without prying a vet out of their coffin.”

Akihiko wants to say they can’t be sure about that, but there’s no reasoning with Shinji when it comes to animals - never has been, just look at the time he snuck a kitten into the orphanage - so he pulls out his Evoker. Fortunately, the healing spell does seem to help Koromaru out a little; they might still need to find a vet and get him stitches, but at least he’ll hang on that long.

“Senpai? Do you need any help?”

Oh. Right. Fuuka. “Well… the Shadow’s already been dealt with,” Akihiko says. “But I think you guys should probably see this.”

***

With the fellowship game done for the day, they have free rein to explore Inaba… not, as Minako discovers, that there’s much to explore. There’s an empty lot for sale not too far from the school; something about the site is foreboding, but she doesn’t know what and isn’t going to poke around on vacant property when she’s not a local.

In small towns, not being a local is enough to draw suspicion. She’s not eight anymore; she knows better than to press her luck.

The riverbank is pretty, but it’s so quiet as to be boring, and she’d prefer not to be lulled to sleep in a strange place and wake up to a sunburn at best. On the other side of the river is a local shopping center, which is promising. She wants to get a souvenir for Makoto, if she can find a good one, and maybe a present for Ken-kun.

And something for Fuuka. Minako thinks - she hopes, anyway - that her crush is maybe possibly reciprocated, and it’s a good way to test those waters. If she’s wrong, Fuuka still gets a cute present.

The bookshop turns up one of Makoto’s favorites that he lost in one of their many childhood moves - and the latest book in a baseball manga Junpei hasn’t shut up about for weeks, which makes for a nice bonus. She considers checking out the metalworks shop, but coming home with actual weapons would be… complicated at best, so she decides against it. The electronics shop looks to be using its position as the only game in town to drastically inflate its prices, so that’s a bust. The Chinese restaurant reminds her that she’s starving after all that exercise this morning; after that, she swings through the model-kit shop and finds one of Ken-kun’s favorite Featherman figures.

After that, though, she’s almost out of stores. There’s a shrine, which isn’t going to help her much; a bike shop, which would be impractical to take home even if she knew Fuuka wanted one; a liquor store, which seems to be doing well but isn’t somewhere she can shop; and a textile shop. Minako thinks about it, and decides it’s better than nothing. In the worst case, she can always try the bookshop again, before taking the bus back to where the team’s staying.

There’s no one in the front of the shop when Minako steps in, so she contents herself with looking at the work on display. The fabric is obviously hand-dyed and crafted, and it’s all gorgeous. If only she had the budget to grab something big for Bebe as well; he’d love anything, she’s sure, but he’d be thrilled to get enough fabric for his grand kimono plot.

(He’s more Makoto’s friend than hers, to the point where she’s not sure if her brother’s unintentional harem is going to finally end up with a guy in it. But being the new kid in school is hard enough when you haven’t left your native country, so she pokes into Fashion Club every now and then.)

“You need something?”

Minako looks up from the display table. There’s a kid sticking his head out of the back of the shop, younger than she is; it must be his family’s place.

She smiles. “Hi. I was just looking at the scarves - they’re beautiful.”

“Yeah, well. Ma knows her-- her stuff.”

“Could you tell me how much a couple of these are?”

The kid nods and comes out into the front of the shop - he’s already several centimeters taller than Minako, which she can’t help thinking is kind of unfair. “Sure. Which ones?”

“These two for sure,” she says, pointing out a couple of near-identical green scarves. “And the orange one - right. With the dark border and the flowers.”

But the kid’s already reaching for the scarf Minako meant before she corrects her description, which is interesting. As soon as he unfolds it, she knows it’s the right present for Fuuka. The edging and flowers are dark blue embroidery, popping against the orange background in a way she thinks would even look good in grayscale.

“That one’s 5000 yen,” he says. “The embroidery takes the price up. 1500 each for the green ones.”

Minako half suspects he’s lowballing the prices a little. Even with that, after everything else she bought it cuts deeper into her Tartarus budget for the month than she’d planned, but she thinks it’ll be worth it. (Besides, after her idiot brother let President Tanaka swindle him out of 40,000 yen, he doesn’t have any room to complain.)

“Okay. I can’t get all three, but I’ll take the orange one and… this one,” she says, pointing to the green scarf with a higher contrast to the underlying white fabric.

“Cool. Lemme ring you up.”

As he does so, folding the scarves and putting them in a small paper bag, Minako looks around the shop again. “It’s really too bad Bebe’s not here.”

“She a friend of yours?”

“He’s more my brother’s friend than mine - he’s an exchange student at our high school. He’d lose his mind with joy over an authentic Japanese textile shop.”

The kid freezes in the middle of counting out Minako’s change. “...Oh. I shouldn’t’ve… it’s just I get a lot of shit from people about--” He shakes his head and starts counting the change over again.

“What, you live in a craft shop and people think you’re not gonna like crafts? Screw that. You like what you like, and you clearly know somebody who gets that about you.”

“What good’s that do me if I’m never gonna see ‘em again?”

...Ah. Now that sounds familiar. “Moved out of town?”

The kid nods. “They got better stuff to do than come back here just for me.”

Minako’s not sure if he’s talking about more than one person or just being vague because he doesn’t want any crap for it, but it really doesn’t matter. “Never say never,” she says. “I’ve had to move around a lot, and I managed to go back to my hometown for the first time in a decade this year. You might not be as out of luck as you think.”

“Maybe.” He doesn’t sound convinced, and she really can’t blame him for that, not when there were times she didn’t think she’d ever see Makoto again. “Here’s your change. Thanks for shopping with us.”

“Thank you for your help,” she says, and takes that as her cue to get out of the kid’s hair. Hopefully she helped more than she didn’t, or at least gave him something to think about.

***

Okina frankly barely qualifies as a city, but it’s still good to be out of Iwatodai and away from the rest of the group. SEES is a good bunch, but Shinji’s been feeling crowded lately. He got used to there only being the three of them in the dorm.

There’s a two-screen movie theater (they’re the only ones in the showing, so they make comments on the movie at full volume), a clothes shop that’s too upscale for Shinji’s tastes, a Chagall Cafe of all things - he hadn’t realised it was a chain - and a couple of restaurants. Not thrilling, but it’s a good break, and Mitsuru relaxes a lot over dinner.

Too bad he’s going to have to ruin it when they get back to the hotel for the night.

They managed to get a room with one giant bed without more than a couple funny looks from the hotel staff, and it’s not until after they’re all changed for the night that Mitsuru gets down to business. “All right, Shinjiro. You promised Akihiko a story while we were here, and I confess I’m curious as well, after all this build-up. What is it that you don’t want to talk about in the dorm?”

Shinji sighs. “There’s two parts.” Now he has to figure out the best place to start, when there’s so much ground to cover. “You know how I go and get information out of the rough crowd sometimes? They hang out in that alley near where Ken’s house was.”

“Takeba did mention seeing you there when she took it upon herself to investigate the ghost story, yes.”

“Got… well, kind of a friend there. I think she trusts me about as much as she trusts anyone, at least. We’ve both dropped conversations when people start talkin’ about Apathy Syndrome. The night Yukari decided to be a dumbass, she told me to make sure I don’t stay out too late.”

Mitsuru’s eyes are wide. “Is she who you saw on the roof across from the love hotel?”

“Wait,” Aki says, “you saw somebody? Why didn’t you say so then?”

“Because I wasn’t sure if I’d seen her or not yet. But yeah, turns out it was her - she saved my ass a couple weeks back.” Now for the - well, the first hard part. “Her friends are behind that stupid fucking revenge website.”

Aki leans back against the headboard. “Well, that explains a lot about that. If they have the cover of the Dark Hour, pretty much no one can catch them in the act, never mind stop them.”

“Is your friend part of that operation?”

“I didn’t ask,” Shinji says, but he really can’t blame Mitsuru for the question. “They weren’t with her, and from shit she’s said before, it sounds like they see her as a tag-along more than an actual partner. If she’s helped ‘em, I’d guess it’s because she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.”

“I see.” Mitsuru frowns. “What did you tell her about us?”

“Not much she didn’t already know, I don’t think. She said her friends are plannin’ on a ‘proper introduction’ soon, so I’d bet we’re gonna be interrupted Thursday, and that they’re gonna be pissed we want the Dark Hour gone. They think it’s the only place they could use their Personas.”

“I mean, it’s probably the easiest one to get to. But we can’t let it keep wreaking havoc just so a few people can feel special.” Aki leans forward again; Shinji’s pretty sure the only reason he’s not up and pacing is they’re not at home, and he doesn’t want to stomp around over a stranger’s head. “How’d they even awaken to their Personas in the first place? I thought we were keeping tabs on everyone with the potential.”

Shinji sighs, which he’s expecting to do a lot tonight. “For one thing, we can’t keep tabs on people who beat us to the punch - maybe all of us except Mitsuru, maybe even her too, I dunno the timeline on it. Besides, they weren’t… they didn’t, not the same way we did.”

“What does that mean?”

“She asked me if we were experimented on too.”

Mitsuru goes pale. “The Strega initiative?”

“The what?” Aki says.

“Father’s only ever mentioned it in vague terms around me, but I first remember it coming up around the time the Dark Hour began. Within two years it was deemed a failure, and then they gave me permission to make the attempt. In hindsight, between the timing and the lack of return to the robotics program, I was able to assume it was an attempt to… induce Persona abilities within humans. He never mentioned the initiative as having any surviving participants, though.”

“Well, he wouldn’t have.” Shinji’s really not looking forward to having to rip off this bandage, but this is also why he didn’t want to talk about it in the dorm - not when Fuuka’s still working her way through dismantling those fucking security cameras. “That’s part two. Ikutsuki’s been fucking lying to us.”

“That’s a big accusation to be throwing out there, Shinji.”

“Ain’t an accusation if it’s true. Even without this I’d be wondering why the hell he said Aigis is the only robot they got left - fuck if I know why nobody wants to dust off Labrys, but she’s still there. Besides, I asked Kirijo-san about this while we were on Yakushima. He said Ikutsuki told him he got volunteers and they all died. Considering I know a survivor who told me she was kidnapped when she was seven, I think I’m gonna take her word for it.”

“It’s also not the kind of statement Shinjiro makes lightly, even with his distrust of authority figures.” Mitsuru still looks and sounds shaken, but Shinji doesn’t expect that to let up all night. “If anything, I’m surprised you took the time to ask Father about it at all, but given that he somehow earned your respect where most adults have not…”

Shinji nods. “Had to be sure. Anyway, he’s not the problem - he’s been willing to tell us what he knows this whole time. The problem is that what he knows ain’t necessarily the truth, because he thought he could trust the person tellin’ him shit.”

Before he can make this even worse, Mitsuru does it for him. “If Ikutsuki-san was willing to lie to his superiors about the exact parameters of the Strega initiative… what else did he lie about?”

“At this point, I’m assuming ‘everything but the stupid fucking puns’ unless we can prove he didn’t.”

Aki finally gives in, gets up and starts pacing. “But - what would he even gain from lying about that much? I’m not saying I don’t believe you, I just… I don’t understand. Besides, we know he didn’t lie about the big Shadows and ending the Dark Hour.”

“Do we? He froze up when me and Yukari asked to see his ‘evidence.’ Not sure he was ever plannin’ to show us.”

“Kirijo-san knew about the video, though. He could’ve shown us anyway.”

“He could’ve. And he probably would’ve.” This part is admittedly the biggest stretch as far as Shinji can tell, but - well, he meant it about not believing anything that comes out of Ikutsuki’s mouth is genuine if it’s not a pun, at this point. “But that doesn’t mean any of us saw the original video. We don’t know who found it first. And no, Aki, I don’t know why he’d do that, I just don’t think we can take Ikutsuki’s word for a damn thing.”

“I don’t - there’s still a difference between that and the stuff you can point to contradictions on. The video thing just sounds paranoid. What do you think, Mitsuru? You’ve known Ikutsuki-san longer than either of us.”

“I have,” Mitsuru says, almost too quiet to hear. “But that’s not necessarily bringing me any comfort right now, as he’s the last Kirijo employee who was brought on by my grandfather.”

Aki stops pacing. “Shit.”

Shinji thought, going into this, that he was ready for how bad it could get, but now he kind of wants to throw up. Mitsuru’s grandfather, who was definitely the kind of sick fuck who would’ve thought Evokers needed to look and function like guns. Mitsuru’s grandfather, who she and her dad are both actively trying not to be like. Mitsuru’s grandfather, who thought nothing of using Port Island as testing grounds for the experiment that made Tartarus or finding out whether robots can be traumatised (answer: yes, apparently) for shits and giggles.

If anything, Aki understated it. Shinji wants to be wrong about the video thing, he really does, but if Ikutsuki’s trying to finish whatever the hell it was Mitsuru’s grandfather started, that explains why he’d bother altering it. Honestly, the only reason he’s sure it wasn’t faked entirely is Yukari’s reaction.

“What do we do now?” Aki says.

Mitsuru tries to collect herself, but it doesn’t look like it’s working very well (not that Shinji blames her in the slightest). “First, we wait for the other Persona users to contact us and see what the two Shinjiro doesn’t know are like. We should at minimum warn everyone else that we may be followed or interrupted Thursday night. If it looks like we can find a common goal, we’ll move forward from there.”

“If not, I can probably talk at least one of ‘em out of total idiocy.” Shinji hopes so, anyway. Chidori deserves better friends than the ones she’s been stuck with since the experiment ended.

“As for Ikutsuki-san…” Mitsuru lets out a shaky breath. “I really don’t know the best course of action. It may depend on how much progress Yamagishi’s made with dismantling the security cameras by the time we get back. What I do know is that we can’t just ignore the full moon Shadows either way. They’re putting people in danger and cannot be left unchecked. If it turns out that’s not enough to eliminate the Dark Hour…”

Aki sighs. “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. We can’t just… not tell the others anything, though.”

“No, but we have to be delicate about it. You and I are capable of being polite with people we can’t stand, and Shinjiro will hardly be treating him any differently, but I don’t know if the juniors or Amada have that presence of mind.”

Shinji snorts. “We do this wrong and Yukari’s gonna use Ikutsuki for fucking target practice. I don’t think it’s worth bringin’ up the video until we know for sure. No point getting her hopes up if it turns out that was the original.”

“No, then she’d be using us for target practice.” Aki sits back down on the bed. “We may not even want to go into specifics, at least to start. Just… tell everyone we’ve noticed inconsistencies in what he says, and be careful what you tell him.”

“Ain’t gonna hide it if anyone asks what inconsistencies.”

“You never do, Shinjiro.” Shinji barely looks over in time to catch Mitsuru’s fleeting, fond smile. “I can also set Father into looking into the matter from the company’s perspective - he knows how to be discreet. But I think that’s all we can do. I don’t--”

Her voice catches, and she doesn’t resist when Shinji reaches over and pulls her into a hug. Aki settles on Mitsuru’s other side, and they stay like that until well after she’s cried herself out.

***

Jin gives the control mechanism for the bunker doors a solid kick, which somehow jars the thing to life despite the Dark Hour’s usual distaste for electronics. “Have fun in there!” he calls over his shoulder.

Chidori sighs. Takaya had told her to wait to one side, so her friend - though he’d said it like he doesn’t believe she made one outside of their circle - wouldn’t be sidetracked by her presence. She’s not sure what good it did, other than allow the other two to make fools of themselves.

“What good does locking them in the bunker do?” she says, when the racket finally dies down.

“If they really want to stumble around in the dark, then let them. Maybe the Shadow they want to fight so badly will kill them and save us the trouble.”

“Considering how easily they dealt with the last pair, I wouldn’t count on it.”

“If they escape, then we’ll deal with them another time.” Takaya sighs, but there’s no genuine emotion to it; Chidori sometimes wonders if the experiments broke that in him along with his ability to feel cold, or if he was always like that. “Such a pity that our goals are incompatible.”

Yes, Medea grumbles, how dare they not wish to watch the world burn as much as you do.

Chidori agrees with her, which is why she doesn’t say anything aloud.

Takaya and Jin are already ignoring her again, wrapped up in whether there’s any website business tonight, and what to do if there isn’t. She could leave right now and they probably wouldn’t be any the wiser until they discovered she’d beaten them home.

Shinjiro has made it clear, without ever saying so directly, that he thinks she deserves better than this. At first, she didn’t see the point; she’s known since the day Medea awakened within her exactly how long she has until she dies, and that time is closer than ever. Why change everything, why completely upend her life, for comparatively little gain?

But now, she thinks she’s beginning to understand. If Shinjiro and his friends succeed in eliminating the Dark Hour and Takaya’s still alive to see it, he’ll just find some other way to make everyone suffer as much as he is. There’s nothing Jin won’t do to help him. Her personal lack of attachment to life or the world means she doesn’t care what others do with it… but they should at least be able to choose that outcome for themselves.

Takaya believes that because the choice was taken from him, he has the right to take it from others.

Chidori has just over three months left to her to decide how much she agrees with that philosophy.

Chapter Text

The more Yukari tries not to think about Yakushima, the harder it is to think about anything but that.

She’s not sure if she should be thankful for the week of the full moon providing a lot of other things to think about, considering the things on the table. Koromaru actually joining the group is a good thing, but it’s really the only good thing, between Mitsuru-senpai signing everyone up for summer classes and…

Well, and everything the seniors had to say a couple days before Thursday night’s operation. The fact that there’s another group of Persona users out there, confirmed during the operation by the jerks trying to lock them in an underground bunker (how did they even get that door to work?). The fact that Ikutsuki-san might not be telling them everything.

She and Shinjiro-senpai have taken Koromaru for an evening walk to the shrine. It’s partly a distraction tactic - the other seniors considered cooking dinner for Shinjiro-senpai’s birthday, though Minako was able to talk them down to just tackling a cake, which she feels better equipped to help them with. Yukari’s job is to keep him out of the dorm until they’re done. Just as well, since the reason she agreed to that was to ask questions they can’t talk about in the dorm.

(Those stupid cameras. She can’t wait until Fuuka’s done taking them all down.)

“I can’t believe you’re friends with those guys from the other night,” she says, while they’re both perched on the climbing bars and Koromaru’s running around the shrine. It feels easier to start there and work up to the rest.

“Not those two assholes, I’m not. Dunno if Chidori wasn’t with ‘em or if they just kept her out of sight or something. I hadn’t met them before, but…” He sighs. “They sure lived up to everything she said about ‘em.”

“Not in a good way?”

Shinjiro-senpai shakes his head. “From the sound of things, they treat her like a third wheel at best. She deserves better, but they’ve been through some fucked-up shit together. I just hope we can convince her.”

It has to be messed up, if that pale guy would rather let the Shadows keep tearing the city apart just so he can run around shooting people or whatever during the Dark Hour. The seniors’ warning about the other Persona users explained more than Yukari ever wanted to know about that stupid revenge request site.

“Well, if you don’t, at least you tried.” She sighs. “How did you… how did you figure out Ikutsuki-san wasn’t telling us everything?”

“Aigis, for one thing. You know how he said she’s the last of the robots?”

Yukari frowns. “Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“One of the things Mitsuru told me and Aki about when we first joined was the robotics program,” Shinjiro-senpai says. “She didn’t know much about it, mostly that it existed but got called off around the time the Dark Hour started. So when Kirijo-san came by and told us we could ask him anything, I asked him about the robots.”

It’s funny; Yukari’s only ever heard Shinjiro-senpai use honorifics for two people, and one of them is the dog. Considering he glares at all of their teachers like he expects them to be terrible, Kirijo-san must have really earned his respect.

“What did he say about them?”

“He said most of the robots they had got completely wrecked in the explosion, or tryin’ to deal with the Shadows that escaped. There were two left after the dust settled - Aigis and one from an earlier model series. She wasn’t activated for the explosion.”

“Why not?”

“They thought she was defective for some reason, fuck if I know why.” Shinjiro-senpai watches Koromaru for a few moments. “From the sound of things, they were trying to make a robot with enough personality to use a Persona and got all surprised when they made a robot with more personality than ‘I am a fighting machine.’ Dumbasses. Anyway, Labrys is still around, so Aigis isn’t the only one.”

“And Ikutsuki-san has his fingers in enough of the Kirijo Group’s pies to know that, even if they never turn her back on. It doesn’t take much to get your suspicion up, does it?”

“That wasn’t the only thing. It’s…” Shinjiro-senpai hesitates, which just makes Yukari wonder what he’s not saying. It’s not like him to hide things from her. “We don’t know for sure how deep this hole he’s digging is, but at this point I’m not trusting a damn thing that comes outta his mouth except maybe the puns.”

“Jeez.”

“No shit. Anything else you wanted to grill me about?”

Yukari barely catches Shinjiro-senpai’s brief smile, so at least he’s taking the interrogation in stride. Then again, as often as they’re the two with reservations about things, he was probably expecting it. “Yeah, actually. What happened to your Persona?”

“Oh, that. I dunno. Probably wouldn’t know anything had happened if we hadn’t needed to take down both parts of that damn tank at the same time.”

“You do tend to just bash things with your axe when you’re on the Tartarus squad.”

Shinjiro-senpai shrugs. “It works, usually. I still only got the one Persona, so it’s not whatever the hell Makoto does. Mitsuru’s asking her dad if he’s ever heard of anything like this happening before.”

“So what, it just… changed on you? Because that was definitely not Castor Thursday night.” The black horse looked the same, except there were two of them, pulling a blindingly bright chariot with a person (no spear through his chest anymore, thankfully) standing in it. They all just kind of stopped for a minute, until Aigis reminded them they had a pair of Shadows to destroy.

“Sure wasn’t. It’s Helios now. Don’t think Castor’s coming back again.”

“Huh, weird. Well, if Kirijo-san finds anything out, tell me what you learn, will you?”

“We’ll be tellin’ everyone,” Shinjiro-senpai says. “No reason it couldn’t happen with anyone else, after all. I really don’t think I’m that special.”

Yukari laughs. “If it is just you, I know two people who’ll tell you they told you so. Should we head back?” It’s almost dark, but she thinks she’s given the others long enough to hopefully not burn any cakes.

“Yeah, probably.” Shinjiro-senpai jumps down from the climbing bars instead of taking the long way. “Come on, Koro-chan, we’re headin’ back.”

There are two cakes waiting for them at the dorm - a sheet of marbled chocolate and white cake with strawberry frosting, and a more elaborately frosted round cake that Minako calls a blue velvet cake (“It’s like red velvet cake, but… you know, blue”). Something about the blue cake makes Makoto actually crack a smile, which Yukari thinks might be a first since the twins moved into the dorm.

Shinjiro-senpai tries a slice of each and declares them both ‘not bad.’ Yukari’s pretty sure she’s not imagining the relief on Mitsuru-senpai’s face.

***

Mitsuru-senpai calls a meeting the evening after the summer courses finish, and opens it by calling her father and putting the phone on speaker.

“I’ve been looking through our records for anything similar to Aragaki-kun’s incident last week,” Kirijo-san says, and Shinjiro-senpai snorts.

“‘Incident.’ You make it sound like somebody got hurt. Guess you found something?”

“Indeed I did. There are a few older records that indicate other Persona users affecting a change to their main Persona, but those changes appear to have been deliberately invoked, in part. Given that you were all taken by surprise, I doubt that was the case in this instance.”

Makoto frowns. That almost sounds like these other people Kirijo-san’s talking about had access to the Velvet Room; he sure doesn’t see how anyone could deliberately change a Persona anywhere else. But he’s only bothered explaining the Velvet Room to Minako, and that was only because she wouldn’t stop pestering him about it. It’d throw things off to bring it up to everyone else right now.

“In part?” he says instead.

“Yes. The other factor appears to have been a measure of personal growth or resolution. I won’t pry for details, but I imagine Aragaki-kun can think of something that qualifies.”

Shinjiro-senpai leans back into the couch, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Yeah,” he says, after a few moments. “Think I know what did it. Huh. Is it likely to undo itself?”

“I do not recommend losing sight of your resolve now that you’ve found it, Aragaki-kun.” Kirijo-san sounds amused in a deadpan kind of way that Makoto’s very familiar with from his own life. “Other than that, there is the possibility that a lack of regular use can see a Persona reverting to its original form, but I don’t think that will be a concern for the near future.”

“Probably not,” Yukari says. They all leave the rest unsaid - there may only be four of the big Shadows left, but they have no idea what’s going to happen after that. “So this is something that could happen to any of us?”

“I find it unlikely it will apply to me,” Aigis says. “I was designed for efficiency in combat, not personal growth.”

Shinjiro-senpai rolls his eyes. “You weren’t built for color vision, either, and here we are.”

“Aragaki-kun is correct, Aigis. I wouldn’t be so hasty to rule it out, even for you,” Kirijo-san says. “Rest assured that it is nothing harmful, and may even provide benefits in combat that we have no records of.”

“Understood.” Mitsuru-senpai picks up her phone. “Thank you for the information, Father.”

“Of course. Before I go, I have begun looking into the other matter you raised with me, but it’s slow going. It’ll likely be some time before I have any concrete information.”

“I expected that to be the case.” Mitsuru-senpai takes the phone off speaker before saying her goodbyes.

“‘Other matter’?” Iori says; he looks as confused as he sounds. “What’s he talking about?”

Minako gives the command room’s console a pointed look at the same time as the seniors. No one wants to talk about Ikutsuki-san in the dorm, to the point where the seniors told them what was up by unlocking the school and using the student council room.

“I should have the cameras fully dismantled by the time the fall term starts,” Fuuka says. “All the third-floor bedroom cameras are down. I need to coordinate times with everyone on the second floor but Shinjiro-senpai, and I think I’ve tracked down all of them on the first floor. Koro-chan spotted a couple on the landings that I’d missed.”

“Excellent. Thank you, Yamagishi.”

With that, the group scatters, but Mitsuru-senpai gets Makoto’s attention before he leaves the command room. “May I have a moment of your time?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“I was wondering if I could prevail upon you to escort Aigis at the summer festival tomorrow.” She glances toward the other seniors, who look like they’re waiting for her. “I’ll be otherwise occupied, but I don’t want to leave her out of the experience entirely.”

Makoto has to think about it for a minute, just to make sure he won’t have any probable scheduling conflicts. Chihiro’s gotten a lot less clingy since the class-funds debacle got sorted out, and Yuko doesn’t seem to have warmed up to him to the point of wanting to go on a date (Minako must have told her about his habit of attracting a lot of attention; he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but that ends up being the problem). Yukari probably would’ve asked by now, if she wanted to ask.

If Bebe calls, he’ll probably be thrilled to meet another of Makoto’s friends, and also won’t bat an eye at how weird Aigis is.

“Should be fine,” he says. “She’d probably come find me anyway.”

Mitsuru-senpai smiles. “We certainly can’t rule that out. Thank you, Makoto.”

***

Akihiko waits until the three of them are settled in Mitsuru’s bed for the night before bringing up the idea that’s been in the back of his mind since their vacation. “We should… let’s stay for the fireworks this year.”

“Are you sure, Akihiko?”

“I think I’m ready. I think maybe I should stop running from it.”

Shinji snorts. “I was wonderin’ how you were planning to punch the next fire you had to deal with.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“Fuck me yourself.”

“Tell me when you want it and I will,” Akihiko says, and Shinji laughs. “Anyway, I just - I at least want to try sticking it out.”

“All right,” Mitsuru says. “If it’s too much to bear - for either of you - just say the word, but I’ll be there with you as long as you want to stay.”

“Thanks.” Akihiko’s not sure if that’s more for the offer of support or for making sure Shinji won’t bolt and sabotage his resolve entirely. But as long as he can actually stick it out, he’s not sure it matters.

He’s been thinking about a lot of things, since Shinji told them about the other Persona users and Mitsuru said they were created by a Kirijo Group project. What if they’d come to the orphanage looking for test subjects? Some of the adults there would’ve seen it as a great chance to pare down their overcrowded numbers and make a few kids someone else’s problem. Would they be dead? Would they be just as convinced as that Takaya guy that the Dark Hour is worth keeping around?

What if Shinji hadn’t been so determined to refine his control of his Persona? Would Akihiko have just lost him anyway, after going to all this trouble to be able to protect him? It’s not that Shinji can’t protect himself, then or especially now, but - well, that fire left a scar that Akihiko does his best to ignore, and it still informs most of what he does.

He’s thought for most of the last decade that if he just worked hard enough, he could control any problem that came his way. But Shinji’s right - he can’t punch a fire. He can’t stop every little thing that might go wrong.

By trying to control everything, what is he failing to control?

Miki would probably call him silly for even trying to control everything, if she understood what he was doing. And he’d deserve it. He’s deserved it every time Shinji tried to tell him he was being a dumbass, which is why he’s never going to admit Shinji was right. He doesn’t want to be hearing about this when they’re both retired. (He probably will anyway, but a guy can hope.)

There’s no reason Akihiko can’t do everything within his power to deal with whatever life throws at him. But he can’t actually do that if he’s too busy looking back to see what’s coming. It’s not like he can change the past anyway.

The best thing he can do - for himself, for Miki, for Mitsuru and Shinji, for the others - is look forward.

Something shifts in his mind, and he has to wonder for a second how Shinji missed that feeling entirely - then again, the last few weeks have been ridiculously busy, for summer vacation. Maybe he just didn’t stop to think about it.

Aigis confirms it the next morning, when Akihiko comes back from his pre-breakfast run. “Akihiko-san, it seems your Persona has undergone a metamorphosis since last night.”

“You can tell?”

“Yes. I noticed no such anomalies with Shinjiro-san, which suggests that he reached the necessary epiphany before you all came to Yakushima.”

“I’ll have to ask him what happened later, then. Thanks for the heads-up.”

Aigis nods. “You are welcome, Akihiko-san. It would be unwise of us to allow the change to distract us from our mission in Tartarus or on the next full moon.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” They’d recover quickly enough, if the last full moon is anything to go by, but she’s still probably right. With that, Akihiko goes to the kitchen to see if Shinji’s made anything for breakfast, or if he’s going to have to figure that out for himself.

***

There’s nothing to be nervous about. Nothing at all. It’s just the summer festival. It’s about as low-stakes as you can get when it comes to going somewhere with someone else.

Minako’s been trying to tell the butterflies in her stomach that all morning, but they’re not listening. She knows Fuuka’s not going to be rude about it, even if she’s not interested in going on a date with Minako. She knows she can keep being friends with a crush object who doesn’t reciprocate, thanks to middle school. The worst that can happen is that Fuuka says ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and she wanders around the festival on her own.

Maybe the stakes feel so high because she wants this to work in a way she hadn’t in middle school.

Minako sighs. If she doesn’t stop dithering, Makoto’s going to give her no end of hell about this, she just knows it. Not that he has any room to talk, what with his unintentional-harem problem, but still. She steels herself and knocks on Fuuka’s door.

“Who is it?”

“Just me,” she says. “Do you have a second?”

“Oh! Of course, Minako-chan!” There’s a brief scramble on the other side of the door before Fuuka opens it; she’s pulled a bathrobe on over her pajamas. “What did you need?”

“I was just wondering if you wanted to go to the festival with me tonight. As - as a date if you want, or as friends if you don’t want it to be a date. I mean, I’m going to get dressed up either way, but…”

Fuuka’s blushing furiously by the time Minako trails off. “I’d love to go with you,” she says, and goes even redder. “As… a date.”

“Really?” Minako grins. “Great! What time do you want to head over?”

“Eight? That should give us plenty of time to see the attractions before the fireworks start.”

“Okay! I’ll see you then.”

Minako feels like she’s floating all afternoon, but manages to float back down to earth long enough to dig out her yukata. She sent pictures to Makoto while she was buying it, so he could tell her what color things were, but now she can see the orange flowers against the white base fabric for herself. The sash is a deep reddish-purple that she thinks offsets the yukata itself nicely.

Once she’s dressed, she goes down to the lounge to wait for Fuuka. She doesn’t have to wait long. Fuuka also chose to dress up for the occasion; her yukata is a blue gradient pattern, nearly white at the shoulders and proper midnight blue at the lower hem.

“I’m a little out of practice walking in geta,” she says, “but it didn’t feel right letting you be the only one dressed up. I’m ready, though.”

“It’s not a problem - I’m out of practice too. Let’s go.”

Minako hasn’t been to Iwatodai’s summer festival since she was five. She remembers the crowds - they seem a little thinner this year than she remembers, but she’s not sure if that’s because of Apathy Syndrome, because of the heat wave, or just because she’s taller now - and the masks and the takoyaki. It all feels brighter knowing she’s here on a date, though. She and Fuuka pray at the shrine, split some takoyaki and candied apples, and win goofy prizes at the lucky draw.

It’s perfectly normal, but it’s also impossibly special.

As they find a good spot to watch the fireworks, Minako remembers that she brought something for Fuuka. “I keep forgetting to actually give this to you,” she says. “I got it in Inaba, while I was on the volleyball fellowship. I hope you like it.”

When Fuuka unfolds the scarf, her face lights up. “Oh, it’s lovely. Thank you, Minako.”

They end up holding hands all through the fireworks, and all the way home.

***

Ken almost doesn’t go to the festival at all. He doesn’t blame the seniors for wanting an evening to themselves, especially since there are so many people in SEES now that they aren’t getting those regularly anymore, and he’d never ask them to call off their date… but they’re the only people who really understand why it’s so painful.

But then Yukari-san finds him after lunch and asks if he’s like some company at the festival. “Not because I think you’re too young to go by yourself or anything, but…” She sighs. “My dad used to take me to the festival, and it’s hard going back without him. I thought it might be easier with someone who gets that there with you.”

Ken blinks. He doesn’t know why he hadn’t made that connection before, but now that Yukari-san says it, it’s obvious. “I - all right. I don’t know if I’ll want to stay for the fireworks, though.”

“That’s fine. I don’t stay for them every year, either.”

Yukari-san doesn’t go out of her way to dress up, which is a relief; Ken never replaced his old yukata after he outgrew it, and he’d feel awkward about her being the only one. As it is, he’s only not completely panicking because most people will already know he has older friends. Otherwise he’d be too worried about how it might look to function.

After saying their prayers and buying some takoyaki, they sit down on the steps near the street. If Ken wants to stay for the fireworks they’ll still have a good view, and if he doesn’t, all they have to do is get up and leave. It’s a very considerate seating choice on Yukari-san’s part.

“How’re you holding up?” she says, just loud enough for Ken to hear over the noise of the crowd.

“All right, I guess. I keep thinking about… what happens when we’re done.”

Yukari-san nods. “I’ll hopefully have all the answers I came for by that point, so I’ll be satisfied. But you started this because of what happened to your mother, didn’t you?”

“It’s officially listed as an unexplained accident. I know why, but Mom deserves the truth, and since I can’t give her that, I decided to help keep it from happening to anyone else. But if we get rid of the Dark Hour…” This has been weighing on Ken’s mind since those Strega guys said they’ll have to give up their Personas if they actually end the Dark Hour. He’s not sure that’s how it works, since the Kirijo Group already knew what Personas were before the Dark Hour even existed, but it’s what started him thinking anyway.

“This is going to sound really childish, but - you know that one Featherman arc that they based off an American movie? Where Condor only joined the group because there was personal vengeance in it for him and he didn’t know what to do with himself after he got it?”

“Yeah, I know the one. You probably shouldn’t pursue a career in piracy once we get rid of the Dark Hour, though.”

Ken ducks his head, hoping Yukari-san can’t see how much he’s blushing. “I wouldn’t! But that’s how it feels, when I try to think about what comes next.”

“I get it. You’ll have a chance to be a normal kid, at least.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t any good at that before Mom died.” And he’s lost so much that there’s no getting that state of mind back now.

“Look at it this way - at least you’re in good company. I don’t think any of us were really normal kids, except maybe Junpei and Fuuka. And that’s a pretty big ‘maybe.’ We can help you figure it out while we’re figuring ourselves out.”

“I guess.” Ken sighs. “I just don’t even know where to start if I’m not avenging Mom.”

“Would she want you to do that and nothing else?”

“...No. No, she wouldn’t.” She wouldn’t want Ken following her into death, either, though that urge mostly went away when Akihiko-san started giving him combat lessons.

She died trying to protect Ken, so he could have a future even if she wasn’t there to see it. Getting caught up in vengeance might have kept him moving up to now, but it isn’t really living.

He’s not sure he knows what really living looks like anymore, but he owes it to his mom to figure it out.

“Let’s stay for the fireworks,” he says, and Yukari-san nods.

She doesn’t say anything about Ken crying during the entire fireworks show, which is nice.

***

It is officially too hot to think, but Junpei’s too restless to stay in his room, and he doesn’t want to hang out in the dorm’s common areas, either. Then people will start pestering him about his summer homework, and - it’s fine. He’s got it under control. There’s a whole week and a half he can do his summer homework in.

On his way to the manga cafe, since that’ll at least be an air-conditioned destination where no one cares about his academic life, he sees someone interesting - a girl with bright red hair and a full loli-Goth getup. She’s drawing something, but he can’t figure out what, and that makes him too curious to stay away.

“Get out of my way,” she snaps, without even looking up. “I can’t see. Move.”

“Oh, uh, sorry.” Junpei moves around behind her, and then can’t figure out why she got on his case. Her sketchbook’s open to some red and black abstract hellscape that, far as he can tell, has absolutely nothing in common with the station.

“What do you want?” The girl still hasn’t looked up from her work. How the hell did she know he was still there?

“Uh, nothing. My bad.” He leaves her to it, but can’t stop thinking about her for the whole rest of the day, and not just because he doesn’t understand what she was drawing at all.

He mentions it to Minako that evening, and she laughs. “You’re not supposed to understand abstract art, Junpei. It’s about feelings, not the picture itself.”

“Yeah, but why’d she tell me I was in her way if she wasn’t even drawing anything real?”

“Oh, you met Chidori?”

Junpei about jumps out of his skin. He hadn’t realised Shinjiro-senpai was nearby, never mind listening in. And then he processes what he said.

“Shit, that was your Strega friend?”

“Unless there’s more than one redhead loli-Goth artist in this town, which I really doubt.”

“Oh. Well - how’d you get her to talk to you?”

Shinjiro-senpai raises an eyebrow. “Did you try askin’ questions and waiting for her to answer them yet, or did you just stick your nose in her business?”

Junpei groans, and Minako just laughs at him, the traitor.

When he’s getting ready for bed, he realises there’s a bigger problem: If she’s with those Strega jerks, she already knows about SEES. And he already knows about her friends. If she does want to talk to him, what should he even say? Should he play dumb? Should he take advantage of talking to someone who already knows about the Dark Hour? Is that even a good idea, when her friends don’t want the Dark Hour to end and his friends very much do?

It’s over a week before he sees Chidori again, but the Dark Hour doesn’t come up. She does actually respond to him better, which Junpei takes as a win. And he really would like to see her drawing when she’s done, even if he’s pretty sure it won’t make any sense at all.

Then he sees her again the day before the fall semester starts, and it feels like he’s talking to a brick wall until he notices-- “Holy shit, you’re bleeding! What happened?”

“Why can’t you mind your own business?”

“Because you’re hurt! You should really see a doctor for that, make sure it’s not infected.”

Chidori sighs. “It’s under control. Why are you in such a panic?”

“Are you kidding? Anyone would freak out over this.”

“The others never do. You’re weird.” But she does smile, faintly. “I’m almost done with this picture. I doubt you’ll understand it, but if you want to see it, you know where to find me.”

She is seriously weird, and the worst part is, Junpei kinda digs it.

***

“I’m sorry, Inoue-san, but I can’t promise another power outage won’t happen. I’ve checked the control panel in the basement multiple times, but I still haven’t been able to find the source of the problem. We’re going to have to cancel Risette’s concert…”

Shinji’s really not sure why Escapade’s owner is taking that call outside, but whatever. It’s none of his business, and probably won’t matter in the long run. What does matter is the latest ebb and flow of Apathy Syndrome cases.

Since about June, from the sound of the back-alley gossip, the drop-off in cases after a full moon hasn’t been as steep, and the uptick in new cases approaching the next full moon keeps setting new records. This month isn’t any exception, to the point where Mitsuru and Ikutsuki are both harping on it. Shinji still doesn’t trust Ikutsuki’s concern to be genuine, but he knows Mitsuru’s is, and it is worrying. At least the heat wave is marginally dying down, so there’s less chance of the Lost dropping dead of heat stroke because they don’t have enough presence of mind to drink water or stand in the shade.

Still, there’s only so much they can do about that, and any drop-off in Apathy Syndrome cases is a good drop-off. They already know how to make that happen, and they can’t let the big fuckers keep causing chaos regardless.

Ikutsuki’s there before dinner the night of the full moon, so after he’s eaten Shinji heads upstairs rather than spend time in the same room as him. The command room is quiet, and he half considers taking a nap until it’s time - someone would wake him up when they’re ready to start planning the night’s mission - when he thinks he hears something on the roof.

There shouldn’t be anything on the roof. Shinji sighs and heads to the stairs to check.

“I was wondering whether it’d be you or your friend who keeps pestering me lately.” Chidori’s doing her best ghost impression again, and Shinji takes a moment to wonder how the entire fuck she got up here in the first place.

“You know, if you wanted to talk to someone, you coulda just come in through the front door.”

Chidori scowls. “Not on a night your ‘sponsor’ is here, I couldn’t. Besides, it wouldn’t have helped my cover story. As far as Takaya and Jin know, I came here to find your field leader and convince them to call off the full moon missions.”

So those two assholes still think the Dark Hour is a good thing. Shinji wishes he could say he was surprised. “What’d you really come here for, then?”

“I want out.”

Chapter Text

“What’d you really come here for, then?”

“I want out.”

Chidori has to screw her eyes shut to actually spit it out; when she opens them again, she’s greeted with one of Shinjiro’s fleeting smiles.

“I was hopin’ that might be it,” he says, before pulling out his phone.

“Why didn’t you ever say so?”

“Had to be your choice, or it wouldn’t be any better than the shit your friends pull.”

She can’t argue with that point. If Shinjiro had ever pressed the issue, Chidori probably would have refused to consider his points on principle - after all, he knows nothing of her shared experiences with Takaya and Jin except for what she’s told him. Instead, he gave her the time and space to think.

It’s odd, thinking that she has options beyond resigning herself to her death in November. She still can’t envision a world in which that doesn’t come to pass, but that doesn’t mean she has to spend the next two and a half months being ignored.

“Who are you contacting?”

“Everybody knows I was here for dinner, so I gotta be back downstairs at midnight. Junpei wasn’t, though, so he can sit up here with you and we can figure out the rest after the fight.” Shinjiro puts his phone back in his pocket. “And Mitsuru.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“When I told her about you, I also told her Ikutsuki’s been fucking lying to us. She’s not gonna tell him a damn thing. She’ll probably have to tell her dad what’s up, but he’s not gonna tell Ikutsuki a damn thing either.”

Chidori sighs. “You know who hurt us.”

“Yeah, I do. Kirijo-san never woulda signed off on the project if he’d known Ikutsuki was kidnapping kids for it. He thought it was all volunteers. Asked him myself. Besides, where else are you gonna go?”

“Fine, but if anyone tries to keep me in a hospital, I’m breaking out and coming after you first.”

Shinjiro shrugs, but Chidori doubts it’s because he doesn’t believe her. They’re fellow pessimists; maybe, if he’s that certain he hasn’t jeopardised her safety, she should take his word for it, for now. “Fair. You got your medicine with you?”

“Barring a major emergency, I should have enough, yes.” She doesn’t think it’ll occur to Takaya or Jin to check the supply until it’s too late, either. The stock is overdue for replenishing, but Takaya just shrugged the last three times Chidori mentioned it, so she let it be.

“We can probably skip the hospital, then. Might have to shuffle shit around, but it should be fine.”

Then there’s a clatter on the fire escape. “Senpai, you better still be up here, what the hell--” Her new friend from the station trips over his words, but thankfully not anything else, when he manages to look over the roof line. “Chidori!”

Chidori raises an eyebrow. “Have you been giving away all my secrets, Shinjiro?”

“He was the one who wouldn’t shut up about your art. She wants out of her friends’ bullshit, Junpei, but I gotta go back inside and we can’t figure out the logistics until Ikutsuki’s gone. You stay up here with her, I’ll figure out what to tell everybody else.”

She can’t give Shinjiro nothing, after all this trouble. “This month’s target is underground in Paulownia Mall. Since I’m here to interrupt, in theory, Takaya and Jin will probably leave you alone.”

Shinjiro nods. “Got it. Thanks.” And with that, he disappears back into the dorm.

***

The problem with Shinjiro-senpai going back inside is now Junpei’s gotta carry the conversation on his own. And sure, he likes Chidori - possibly even like-likes her - but they barely know each other and they’ve basically been on opposite sides of the Dark Hour this whole time. And it’s dark, so asking about her art is probably out of the question right now. So where does he start?

“So, uh. What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” He regrets it almost as soon as it’s out of his mouth, but oh well.

“Do you use that line on every girl you’re interested in?”

“What - no! I just…” Junpei sighs. “I’m not very good at this. And I do wanna know what’s going on. You just heard all the explanation I got.”

“That’s fair enough, I suppose.” Chidori sits down on the edge of the roof like she’s not remotely worried about toppling over the side. At least she’s near the fire escape, so the others won’t see her when they’re heading out.

“I’m going to die in November.”

Junpei blinks. He can’t have heard that right. “What? What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m going to die in November. On the 22nd, to be precise. I’ve known that since the day Medea was given to me. I don’t know if Takaya and Jin have similar knowledge, but we had no one else to turn to after the experiment was called off. Takaya wants everyone to suffer like he has suffered, Jin will do anything for him, and neither of them really have time for me, but they understand like no one else can. So I stayed.”

“Then why leave now?”

“Because Shinjiro has been indirectly pointing out for the last two years that I deserve better than the pair of them, and I don’t want to spend the last two months of my life miserable if I don’t have to,” Chidori says. “There’s also something to be said for the fact that you keep pestering me, though I don’t know why you’re bothering. Besides, if there’s a chance I’m wrong about dying in November - and I don’t think there’s a very good one - Takaya and Jin don’t care about finding it.”

“We’ll find a way,” Junpei says, with more confidence than he feels. “I’m not gonna just sit here and let you - no. Not happening.” He hesitates. “Is… that why you had that cut the other day?”

“Sometimes I want to be sure I can still feel something other than numbness. Sometimes it’s the only way to keep Medea from attacking me. Sometimes, even that doesn’t work, and it’s only the suppressants that keep her quiet enough for me to survive.”

Right. The seniors mentioned something about that. Junpei still doesn’t get why she’d cut herself at all, but he does get the ‘feeling weird and wanting to feel any way other than weird’ part.

“Shinjiro-senpai thinks Ikutsuki-san has been lying to us,” he says instead.

“Considering he didn’t mention us to you, he definitely has been. There are multiple reasons I don’t want him to know I’m here.”

“Well, yeah, but… about more than that. About whether taking out all the big Shadows will actually end the Dark Hour or not.”

“Ah.” Chidori goes quiet for a while. “I can’t say that would surprise me. He’s where Takaya picked up ‘the Tower of Demise’ from, and that’s hardly a name with good implications for anything. If you do end the Dark Hour, Takaya will find another way to make people suffer. He enjoys it too much to quit. If you don’t, he’ll take advantage of the situation any way he can.”

“And we can’t just leave those big guys runnin’ around, either. The first one I was here for nearly crashed the monorail. It just… I dunno, it kinda sucks that we can help people, but only with a really short time limit.”

They’ll run out of big Shadows in December at the latest, and then… who knows what’s going to happen, but sooner or later they’re gonna get rid of the Dark Hour and then he’ll have nothing to fight for. Nowhere to feel needed.

“What else do you do that makes you feel alive?” Chidori asks, out of the blue.

“Uh. Breathing, I guess?”

Chidori huffs out a quiet laugh. “Fair enough.”

***

“Wait, where’s Junpei?”

Shinjiro shrugs, which Mitsuru finds very interesting. She’d been wondering how he planned to explain tonight’s subterfuge. “He said somethin’ came up.”

“That idiot,” Takeba says. “He knows tonight’s the night!”

“Never mind that,” Ikutsuki-san says, far too unconcerned for Mitsuru’s comfort. “You’re all young - sometimes you just get in one of those moods. Fuuka, do you detect a Shadow?”

“It’s near Paulownia Mall… I think. For some reason, I can’t quite pinpoint its location.” Yamagishi dismisses Lucia. “I’m sorry. It should be easier for me to tell what’s going on when we get closer to the area.”

Makoto shrugs. “Don’t apologise. We’ll figure it out. Let’s go.”

Paulownia Mall is nothing short of disturbing in the Dark Hour, the fountain not helped at all by the water taking on the appearance of blood. It’s far from the first time Mitsuru has been out here to see it, but the sight never improves.

“Chidori said it’s underground,” Shinjiro says, when they arrive. “Might help you narrow it down a little.”

“I see. Thank you, senpai.” Even with that hint, it takes Yamagishi several minutes of intense concentration before she makes any progress. “Some kind of… webbing? Maybe?”

“Perhaps it has something to do with the old power cables underground,” Aigis says. “They were left in place after the island’s construction was completed.”

“Oh. Thank you, Aigis, I understand now - the cables themselves have been possessed by the Shadow. But it must have its own body. Let me see if I can find it.”

Takeba groans. “It’s the monorail all over again! How are we supposed to fight it if we can’t get to it?”

“Look on the bright side,” Minako says. “At least this time we’re not going to crash into another train if we screw it up!”

“That’s not exactly comforting.”

“I’ve got it!” Yamagishi says. “It’s here in the mall. A rectangular chamber, so I’m assuming it’s in a man-made room of some kind.”

Shinjiro snaps his fingers. “Escapade. Heard somethin’ about the power acting up there. Bet it’s in their basement.”

“It’s positioned itself well to use electrical attacks,” Mitsuru says. “Makoto, I strongly advise you to take that into consideration when choosing your team.”

Makoto nods, but doesn’t say anything until he chooses his team. “‘Nako, Ken-kun, Koro-chan. Let’s go.”

After the field team heads inside, Mitsuru sits down on one of the benches by the fountain. There’s a small chance of regular Shadows putting in an appearance as well, but they certainly won’t appear from within the fountain.

Shinjiro sits down next to her, and sighs. “Hopefully this won’t take ‘em too long.”

“Now that they know where to look, I suspect they’ll be fine. Will your friend be needing any medical attention?”

“Don’t think so. And she said she’d kick my ass if I let anyone trap her in a hospital room anyway, so if she ever does we’re gonna have to be careful about it.”

Mitsuru nods. “That would make it far too easy for Ikutsuki-san to find out she’d come to us for help in the first place. You’re sure this is genuine on her part?”

“Absolutely. She has more reasons not to bother changin’ shit now, but she did it anyway. Besides, she said this thing was underground while I was talkin’ to her tonight. She had no reason to say that if she didn’t mean it.”

“Understood. Well, at least we have a spare room on the third floor, since Aigis’ charging station is in the command room.” They keep the door closed anyway, so that alone won’t draw suspicion, and Yamagishi’s finished removing the security cameras from everywhere in the dorm, confirmed by Koromaru. Chidori would have to stay quiet when Ikutsuki-san comes to the dorm, but somehow, Mitsuru doubts that will be a problem. “Do you think she’ll be willing to talk about what the other two are up to?”

Shinjiro shrugs. “You’ll have to ask her yourself.”

***

Saori is gone at the start of the fall semester. She barely had time to leave an email address with Ounishi-sensei, and express instructions to make sure Minako got it - but she’s gone, and over that stupid, stupid magazine article to boot, just like she’d predicted.

Minako’s not in the habit of wishing death on actual people, but Saori’s parents could shuffle themselves off this mortal coil and she wouldn’t think the world really lost anything of value.

Then Aigis decides she wants to go to school, and Mitsuru seconds the idea, and Ikutsuki-san makes it happen, and - well, Minako can appreciate that it’ll keep her reliably on everyone else’s schedule, but she’s not sure how well this is going to work in the long run. Or why Ikutsuki-san thought leaving “humanoid tactical weapon” on Aigis’ enrollment papers would be funny, but who knows why he finds anything funny, really.

She can’t help a sigh of relief when Chidori gets moved into the dorm with not a word spoken of trying to get her into Gekkoukan. That’d be one transfer student too many, and someone would probably start asking where they’re pulling all these people from. (Besides, Chidori doesn’t want Ikutsuki-san to know she’s there, and that would definitely give her away.)

“It’s not that I wouldn’t like to go,” she says, when Minako asks her about it - Junpei likes her, and Shinjiro-senpai gets along with her well enough, so she wants to try to understand what’s going on in Chidori’s head. “But none of the three of us have ever been enrolled in a school. We got some lessons while we were in the hospital, between experiments, but that’s it. Even if it were advisable, I’d be hopelessly behind.”

“Did you teach yourself to draw?”

Chidori nods. “It was a good outlet, and very easy to convince them to leave notebooks in my room.”

The Friday after the full moon, she finds Fuuka lingering outside her classroom after school. “Hey! What’s up?”

Fuuka smiles, blushing a little. “Well… I was wondering if I could get your help with something.”

“That depends on the something. What do you need?”

“I’ve been wondering for a while now how I can give something back to the team. You’ve all been so supportive of me, and I can’t exactly contribute in combat.”

“The hell you don’t,” Minako says. “Mitsuru-senpai’s backup was good, but she doesn’t have nearly enough range to help us in Tartarus anymore - her signal was crapping out when we found you, and we’re closing in on a good hundred floors past that.”

“Still. I wanted to do something for everyone, and I was thinking of cooking something, but I don’t really have any experience. Could you help me?”

“Sure! And let’s see if we can rope Shinjiro-senpai into it, too. Make a proper club out of it. Besides, he’s a cook and I’m a baker - you’ll have both your bases covered that way.”

Fuuka laughs. “All right. Are they really that different?”

Minako shakes off the creeping dread that statement brings on, and grabs Fuuka’s hand to go find Shinjiro-senpai. He’s dubious about the idea at first, but Minako tries her best puppy eyes on him, and somehow it works.

“Fine,” he says, “but you two are helping me make Aki’s birthday dinner, in that case. We got a week and a half to plan the menu.”

Fuuka, it turns out after they lay claim to a Home Ec classroom, is a terrible cook. Minako’s too busy staring in horror to step in and stop this travesty; Shinjiro-senpai seems content to let Fuuka make her own mistakes, though more than once it looks like he’d really rather just take the mixing bowl away from her. On the other hand, she handles the oven with no problems at all.

All told, they finish with three perfect plates of omurice, a pretty good tin of muffins if Minako does say so herself, and a baking tray of slop that they’ll be lucky if even Koro-chan wants to eat.

Fuuka looks miserable. “I knew I didn’t have much experience, but… maybe I’m just no good at this.”

“No, you’re just doin’ it all wrong,” Shinjiro-senpai says. “You take those cookbooks home and read ‘em like you would a computer manual. Take ‘em exactly as seriously. You don’t know what you’re doing, so you shouldn’t try to experiment yet. You can get to that later, when you do know what you’re doing.”

“Yeah. I wasn’t any good when I started out, and I bet Shinjiro-senpai wasn’t either. We’ve both been doing this for a while, so we have more practice. But you’ll be fine if you apply yourself to figuring it out.” Maybe this first round wasn’t inspiring, but Minako almost got banned from cooking at her aunt’s house when she started a kitchen fire. She figured herself out, so she’s sure Fuuka can too.

“Okay.” Fuuka takes a deep breath, straightening her posture. “I’ll do that. I promise I won’t let you down for Akihiko-senpai’s birthday.”

***

A typhoon makes landfall the weekend before Aki’s birthday.

Mitsuru’s annoyed that the school’s culture festival is probably canceled because of its timing; Yukari and Aki are more put out that it’ll fuck with their practice regimens. Shinji’s just baffled that this is the first rain he can really remember falling all year - sure, summer was hot, but wasn’t there supposed to be a rainy season before that?

Nobody’s complaining about the surprise five-day weekend, though, least of all Junpei. He’s been spending as much time in Chidori’s room as she’ll tolerate (she rarely leaves, unless she’s looking for food or the bathroom, just in case Ikutsuki turns up unannounced), and doesn’t even seem too upset when she kicks him out for the day. But he is getting a lot of useful information about that stupid revenge site out of it, so nobody’s upset.

Takaya apparently figured out a way to pull Transmogrified people out of their coffins, which is disturbing as fuck. He had to get people out of the things to actually shoot them somehow, Shinji guesses, but… disturbing as fuck. Jin built the request site to Takaya’s specifications, and after the first couple hits, Chidori told them she wanted no part of it.

Makoto’s the last one home on Friday, and completely drenched by the typhoon. He’s out cold before the Dark Hour kicks in. Minako spends the weekend quietly panicking, since her brother’s barely waking up enough to eat and use the bathroom; Fuuka seems to have Minako covered, though, and it’s not like Aigis is going to let anything happen to Makoto, even if none of them know why she’s so attached to him. He’s back on his feet on Monday, at least.

Ken agrees to keep Aki busy on Tuesday, and Shinji drags Minako and Fuuka along on a shopping trip. Fuuka still needs to learn how to buy ingredients, and that the top quality isn’t always what you want; he can just hand Minako part of the list and send her off, though, and he knows she’ll come back with the right shit.

“I’ll probably also grab stuff for dessert, if that’s not already on your list,” she says. “Any pointers?”

“It ain’t. Aki’s not big on sweets, so don’t go too sugary.”

“Got it. Good luck, senpai.”

Shinji’s not sure what Minako meant by that until Fuuka starts taking notes on his pointers in the middle of the damn store. After the fifth time she repeats something out loud while writing it down, he sighs. “Put the damn notebook away, it feels like you’re gonna write a news story about this later or some shit.”

“Oh! Sorry, senpai. I just - wanted to be able to refer to it later.”

“And that’s fine, but it’s more likely to stick in your head once you start actually doin’ it.”

“I’ve always needed to take notes first.” Fuuka does, at least, put the notebook away. “But I’ll try to compile them later, if I can make sure I’ve got it all right.”

“Yeah, sure.” Better that than her deciding to completely wing it again.

When Minako comes back, she has everything Shinji sent her to get, eggs, brown sugar, and a shitton of bananas that look like they’re more bruise than fruit at this point. “Banana bread,” she says, without being asked. “I figured that’s dessert-like without being overwhelmingly sweet. Plus it keeps better than cake, if we have leftovers.”

“Cool. Think he’ll like that.”

After they leave the store, Minako hefts an armload of bags up to look at the full list. “Ramen, huh? Interesting choice for a birthday dinner.”

“Told him and Mitsuru I could probably make Hagakure’s specialty flavor once. Figured I’d give it a try.”

“You wouldn’t be doing this for his birthday if you weren’t sure, though, would you?” Fuuka says.

Shinji shrugs. “Maybe.” But he’s been to Hagakure often enough, and doctored enough instant ramen to match the taste, that he’s pretty confident.

Minako pulls Fuuka into helping her with the banana bread, leaving Shinji to his own devices on the ramen. He’s fine with that, though. Fuuka can’t split her attention between two dishes yet, and Minako’s way more patient with her note-taking. It means Shinji has the space to make sure he’s getting this exactly right - and to think about whether this is Aki’s only birthday present or not.

That, he’s probably not gonna know until after dinner. But the fact that he’s thinking about it at all is enough to call it a maybe. He hasn’t even mentioned the idea to Mitsuru yet - no point in getting her hopes up if he changes his mind. At least with dinner, he can back up his promise no matter what.

By the time the smell finally lures Aki downstairs, it’s nearly done. “Huh. I didn’t know Hagakure did take-out,” he says from the lounge.

Shinji can’t help laughing. “That’s ‘cause they don’t, dumbass. Happy birthday.”

“Well, if they don’t, then why does it smell like--” Aki finally comes around the dividing wall between the dining room and the kitchen, and stops dead when he sees the pot on the stove. “You - you made it?”

“Told you I probably could, didn’t I?”

“Well, yeah, but that was two years ago! I didn’t think you remembered!”

“And there’s banana bread for dessert,” Minako says. “Fuuka and I made it!”

It’s not too long before everyone else swarms the dining room. It’s a rowdy dinner - almost too rowdy, for Shinji’s tastes, but Aki seems to be enjoying himself anyway.

“Damn, senpai, that was delicious,” Junpei says, as he polishes off his third bowl.

Makoto nods, spreading butter on yet another slice of banana bread. “The bread too. You guys outdid yourselves.”

Minako beams. “Thaaaanks, brother dear. And I’m sure you and Junpei and Yukari would be happy to do the dishes, right?”

“Aw, come on!” Junpei starts coughing right after that, like the last of his ramen broth tried to go down the wrong pipe. “Why’re you volunteering us like that?”

“Fuuka and I helped cook. Ken-kun paid his dues on distraction duty this afternoon. Chidori doesn’t know where anything goes. Koro-chan may be the smartest dog on the planet, but he’s still a dog. I don’t think any of us want to find out how waterproofed Aigis’ hands are the hard way. And it’s Akihiko-senpai’s birthday, so I’m pretty sure he’s gonna kidnap the other two upstairs for a while.”

Yukari rolls her eyes. “Come on, Junpei, it won’t be that bad. And it’s the least we can do after letting everyone else do the hard work, right?”

“I will assist with returning the dishes to their proper locations,” Aigis says. With that, everyone scatters. Junpei gets herded into the kitchen by the other juniors, Chidori disappears upstairs again after a quiet thank-you for the meal, and Ken goes to get Koro-chan’s leash. Minako and Fuuka attach themselves to Koro-chan’s nightly walk pretty damn quick.

And then it’s just him and Aki and Mitsuru in the dining room. If not for the complete chaos still on the table, it’d feel like this time two years ago.

Shinji’s not all that surprised when Aki comes around the table and hugs him. “That was amazing, Shinji. Thank you.”

“Yeah, sure.” And then he makes up his mind. “But that wasn’t everything.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that you told me to say when I was ready, so I’m sayin’ it. Fuck me yourself.”

Mitsuru’s eyes go wide. “Shinjiro - you’re certain?”

“I’m as ready as I’m gonna be. Can’t promise it won’t get weird partway through, but… let’s try it. If this is ever gonna make sense, it’s gonna be with you two.”

Aki kisses him, hard, before all but actually dragging him up the stairs and into Mitsuru’s room.

It doesn’t get weird partway through. Shinji’s still pretty sure he wouldn’t want to do this very often, but it doesn’t get weird. He also definitely still doesn’t understand why other people are so hung up on sex, but that’s their problem, not his.

They untangle from each other long enough to get cleaned up and then pile back into bed, Aki boneless in the middle. “So? What’d you think?”

Shinji hums, something Yukari’s taken to calling a verbal shrug. “It was all right.”

For some reason, that gets Mitsuru laughing. “Shinjiro, you’re impossible,” she gasps - but she leans over to kiss Shinji when she finally catches her breath.

***

It’s not until the weekend that Akihiko thinks to check the calendar for the date of the next full moon. When he does, he swears.

October fourth. Of course. Of fucking course. Clearly the date is cursed, at this point, so why wouldn’t it be the next full moon?

He goes to Ken about it first, but Ken only nods, looking glum. “I realised it was going to be close after the last one,” he says. “At least we know ahead of time, this year.”

“Yeah.” Akihiko sighs. “I know you’ll probably feel better about going on the mission, but if that changes, make sure you let us know, all right?”

“I will.” But the steely look in Ken’s eyes is enough to tell Akihiko he’ll be going on the mission, whether it’s a good idea or not.

Shinji won’t stop grumbling about it under his breath, so of course the juniors ask what the big deal is; he and Mitsuru explain it so Ken doesn’t have to. Chidori only makes it worse when she points out that her old friends will probably come looking for her, on top of everything else.

“Well, at least we can be prepared for a potential interruption,” Mitsuru says. “And we know he’s both armed and capable of using a Persona, so we can plan accordingly. Do you know what his elemental affinities are?”

“Psychokinetic skills and the ailments that make them hit harder. If he has a weak spot, it’s probably nuclear.” Chidori glances away. “He’s more likely to just shoot someone, though.”

Shinji snorts, but doesn’t say anything. Akihiko just hopes he’s not planning to do anything stupid.

By the night of the operation, the tension’s spread to pretty much the whole group. It doesn’t help that Ikutsuki-san’s there - and he seems even more cheerful than usual. Akihiko kind of wishes he’d just tell them whatever it is he really wants already, even though he also doesn’t want to know.

“This will be the tenth,” he says, too brightly for anyone else’s mood. “But let’s worry about them one at a time.”

“Assuming they come one at a time,” Yukari mutters.

“Yukari-chan, how did you know? I sense two of them,” Fuuka says. “They’re on the plaza in front of Iwatodai Station.”

“Really? Me and my big mouth… at least they’re not hiding this month, I guess.”

Mitsuru nods. “All right, let’s move out. We’ll determine our formation once we arrive.”

Once they reach the station, Makoto eyes the pair of Shadows for several moments. “Yukari, Akihiko-senpai, Shinjiro-senpai,” he finally says, and Akihiko grins. Maybe the day is cursed, but at least he’ll get to vent his frustrations on a couple of deserving targets.

The fight’s a pain in the ass. One of the Shadows cloaks the other, so they can’t attack it until the first one’s gone - but that doesn’t stop it from attacking them. Well, sort of; instead of actually lashing out, it drops damned carnival wheels and makes them decide what it’s going to do.

“The blue spaces will benefit us if they’re triggered,” Fuuka says, after the first time it does that. “And I think you can reliably time it to hit those, but I’ll know more after it gives us another.”

“Got it,” Makoto says, already summoning a Persona for his next attack.

After the second wheel, Fuuka determines they take about half a rotation to come to a complete stop, and from there, the fight settles into a rhythm - Yukari patches them up when they need it, Akihiko casts debuffs, and they all beat the hell out of the Shadows until they’re both gone.

“Good job, everyone,” Fuuka says, after the second Shadow finally dissipates.

Makoto rubs his temple, about where his Evoker usually hits. “The bird’s-eye view of those roulette wheels was useful, but it was also really disorienting.”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t think of another way to show you the wheel in the moment.”

“It’s fine. I’m just getting a headache.”

There’s sarcastic applause behind them, followed by the voice Akihiko’s been dreading hearing all night. “If you’re in pain, I can make a few recommendations.”

“Sure you could.” Shinji sighs. “The fuck do you want, Takaya?”

“I want to know what you did to Chidori. Is that not obvious?”

“He didn’t ‘do’ anything to her,” Junpei says. “She got tired of you all by herself.”

Takaya sighs - and draws his goddamn gun. “Be that as it may, we can no longer ignore your meddling. There is one like Chidori among you, is there not? And that is how you have managed to locate and defeat those we wish to protect. Which one of you is it?”

“Why should we tell you anything?” Shinji’s put himself between Takaya and everyone else. Fuck. Akihiko tries not to panic. Shinji must have some kind of plan that isn’t just throwing his life away. He’d damn well better have more of a plan than that. If he ends up dead because of this, Akihiko’s going to fucking well throttle him.

Makoto and Aigis step up to flank Shinji. That looks a little more like a plan, at least, but Akihiko still doesn’t like it.

“It - it’s me!” Ken blurts out. “That’s the only reason they let me join!”

Shinji groans. “Ken, no, don’t give him anything to go on.”

“I suppose that does explain why you’d tolerate a child among your ranks.” Takaya smiles, clearly hoping for some carnage. “Very well. I’ll remove the thorn from my side now. Rest peacefully.”

A lot happens at once. Takaya fires at the same time as at least two Evokers go off, and Takaya drops to the ground under the force of the strongest nuclear spell Akihiko’s seen yet. That was apparently Makoto’s doing; he follows up with another, and another, until Takaya slumps over. When the blinding light fades, Shinji’s kneeling on the ground, and for a moment Akihiko fears the worst.

“Son of a bitch, that hurt,” Shinji says, and Aigis helps him back to his feet.

Makoto nods. “Let’s go before he wakes up.”

On the way back to the dorm, Yukari asks the question that they’re all probably thinking. “Not that I’m complaining, but how the hell did that not hurt you? Worse, I mean.”

“Shinjiro-san’s Persona nullifies piercing attacks,” Aigis says, and damn if she doesn’t sound smug about it somehow. “Since I also resist that type of damage, and Makoto-san is able to build Personas to suit any circumstance, we agreed to a plan after Chidori-san told the seniors that Takaya-san might intervene tonight.”

“It does?”

“It does now,” Shinji says; he absolutely sounds smug, the bastard. “Probably gonna have a bruise the size of my fucking ribcage, but it was worth it for the look on his face. Makoto made himself somethin’ that could put Takaya on his ass without getting hurt himself.”

“Is…” Fuuka trails off for a few moments. “Is he dead?”

Makoto shrugs. “Probably not. I just didn’t want him following us.”

“I mean, who would?” Minako says. “So was Ken-kun part of that plan, or what?”

“No.” Ken sounds - Akihiko can’t quite put his finger on it. Miserable and relieved and tired all at once, maybe. “I panicked. I’m sorry, everyone, I just - I thought if he believed it, I could at least take him on in a fair fight.”

“Maybe,” Shinji says, “if Takaya believed fair fights were a thing. Just don’t go chasin’ the fuckface on your own.”

“I’m not that stupid, Shinjiro-san.”

They fall into more normal chatter until they reach the dorm, and only tell Ikutsuki-san the barest details - the two Shadows are gone, one of Strega’s members turned up again, none of SEES are the worse for wear after the encounter. Ikutsuki-san definitely looks gleeful about the Shadows being defeated.

It doesn’t bode well for next month at all, but Akihiko doesn’t see how they can get around that problem without going through it.

He waits until Ikutsuki-san is gone and everyone else has scattered, then pulls Shinji into a fierce hug; Mitsuru’s quick to join it. Akihiko knows he’s crying, but the other two will just have to deal with it.

“Don’t you ever, ever pull a stunt like that again, Shinji. What if it hadn’t worked?”

“Unlike some people I know, I didn’t forget it’d be the Dark Hour, dumbass. Besides, if it kept you two safe it would’ve been worth it.”

“No it would not have been worth it,” Mitsuru says, sounding just as raw as Akihiko feels. “But… thank you, Shinjiro. You put your life on the line more than usual tonight, and I won’t let that go unacknowledged.”

Chapter Text

In the week after the full moon, Apathy Syndrome cases skyrocket.

It’s deeply alarming no matter which set of data Mitsuru looks at - the week alone, with its sharp spike, or the month-by-month comparisons, where the peak of new cases gets a little higher and the recovery rate gets a little lower every time. In the moment, any recovery seemed worthwhile; now, it looks like a false victory.

The pattern was there the whole time, she knows, but it became more pronounced after April - after the first anomalously large Shadow appeared and was defeated. They still don’t know where those came from, other than the fallout of the accident that created the Dark Hour.

She’s not comforted in the slightest by the fact that her father is also alarmed.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, either.” They don’t have time for more than a phone call, but it’s better than nothing; Mitsuru’s trying not to carry this load alone, and trying not to let her father shoulder the burden himself, either. “We’re doing our best to help the hospitals keep up with the influx of patients.”

“I don’t doubt that. How are things at the office?”

“Ikutsuki is the only person who doesn’t seem troubled by the news. He’s acting like this is an expected turn of events, perhaps even a welcome one.”

Mitsuru frowns. “Father, what - what were they trying to do by the end of the experiment? All I know is they dropped the time-manipulation aspect before the explosion.”

“I wish I could tell you, Mitsuru.” Her father sighs. “Your grandfather stopped giving me details when he realised I wasn’t in favor of the original project, then stopped talking about it entirely when the goals changed. Whatever it is, I suspect we’ll be entering uncharted territory after the full moon in November.”

“Most likely.” There’s only one large Shadow remaining, and they cannot leave it to wreak havoc on the city - whether eliminating it will truly end the Dark Hour or not. “I think it would still be good for everyone’s morale to celebrate successfully dealing with all of the large Shadows, even if that may not solve the problem of the Dark Hour.”

“That will indeed be an achievement worth celebrating. I think I can make time to join you all for it, as well.”

Mitsuru can’t help a smile. “We’d be glad to have you, if you can. I’ll be sure to plan accordingly.”

***

“The biggest bitch in the school is transferring out and you feel sorry for me?” Natsuki laughs. “Only you, Fuuka.”

“You’re not that bad. Not anymore.” Fuuka sighs, folding her arms across her chest. “But… why didn’t you say anything sooner?”

“Why? It’s not like it would’ve changed anything. You already know about how Dad’s been doing lately.” They’ve talked about it a few times, since Fuuka - apparently she has the patience of a saint, honestly - was actually willing to talk to Natsuki about why she fell into being a bully. Home was falling apart and she didn’t want to be there, and picking on people gave her a rush that let her forget her problems for a little while.

Now, she can’t believe she was ever that stupid.

“Hey, Fuuka? Your house is nearby, and from what you’ve said your parents are pretty normal. So why don’t you talk to them anymore?” It’s the one thing she’s never mentioned, and Natsuki’s curious - and she’d rather ask in person, while she still can.

Fuuka doesn’t answer for a while, looking at her feet, the planter and its dying flowers, the ocean view - anywhere but meeting Natsuki’s eyes. For a moment, she’s worried there actually is a really bad problem under the surface. Finally, Fuuka says, “You asked how I was doing after I went missing before they did.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m not. They didn’t take me seriously when I said there were problems, and when I went missing, they never called the school. They didn’t even come to the hospital until I was discharged. You had no reason to believe I’d want to talk to you, and you still checked in on me before they did. I don’t know how to come back from that.”

Natsuki sighs. “I was gonna say maybe you should patch it up while you have time, but… maybe you’re right.”

“They probably want me to apologise, and I’m not going to. I’d like them to apologise, but I don’t think they’re going to. And I think they’d still expect me to give up what I want to do in favor of what they want me to do.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I’m still trying to figure out how to articulate it,” Fuuka says. “I’ve been so afraid of people not liking me that I’ve put myself aside to try to please everyone else for - I don’t even know how long.”

“If people don’t accept you for who you are, then screw ‘em. You helped me figure that out, you know.”

“Really?”

Natsuki can’t help rolling her eyes. “I mean, duh, you met my old friends, even if we both wish we hadn’t. They liked someone I was being just to get a little attention, and they don’t like me anymore because I stopped. You like me. And I like you… even if you don’t like yourself.”

“Natsuki-chan…” Fuuka looks like she’s about to cry, and Natsuki knows that if Fuuka actually starts crying in front of her, she’s doomed. But she’s not really sure how to keep her from crying, either.

“Anyway, I gotta pack still, so I won’t be in school next week. I’ll let you know if I have time to meet up for lunch or something, but… this is probably goodbye.”

“No!”

“We have these little things called phones, you know? Even if we’re apart, we’re still connected.” The irony that Fuuka used to keep blocking Natsuki, and Natsuki kept finding ways around it to bug her more, and now they want that connection, isn’t lost on her. “We’ll be fine. I’m gonna try to figure out what I want, now. You let me know when you figure out how to say what you want, all right?”

Fuuka nods, like she can’t find her voice.

“Well, I better get going. I’ll see you around, okay?” She leaves before Fuuka can start crying, since that’ll only end with them sobbing all over each other, and texts Fuuka as she heads back down from the school roof. Might as well drive the point about staying connected home while she’s thinking about it.

She doesn’t know what it’s going to be like in Okina, but at least she doesn’t regret everything she did here.

***

“So. Tomorrow’s the day.”

Everyone’s sitting in the lounge, even Chidori, but Makoto wouldn’t call it relaxing - not when he could’ve cut the tension in the room with his sword before Fuuka said that.

“Yeah.” Yukari sighs. “We’ve been through a lot the last six months.”

“Beats doin’ nothing, right?” Iori says. Makoto shrugs; he’s not wrong.

Ken-kun has been chewing on his lip since dinner; he bites it again before seeming to catch himself. “Do you guys think this will really end the Dark Hour?”

“Honestly, probably not,” Shinjiro-senpai says. “But we can’t leave this thing free to tear up the town, either.”

“Takaya’s going to be waiting for you,” Chidori says, without looking up from her sketchbook. “Given the circumstances, Jin will probably tag along. It’s their last opportunity to stop you.”

“That is very true.” Mitsuru-senpai frowns. “What can you tell us about your other friend’s fighting style?”

“If he has his briefcase with him, he’ll probably throw grenades at you. His Persona has fire attacks, and Curse, though I’ve only ever seen him use the ones that take out a target entirely.”

Makoto nods. He can stop by the Velvet Room before they roll out tomorrow and make sure he has something ready for the situation - it’s a holiday, so he won’t have anything else to do. “Aigis, Shinjiro-senpai, if those two do show up we’re doing the same plan as October. Yukari, you’re on deck for healing duty. Iori, ‘nako, Ken-kun, you three swap in when it’s time for the big Shadow.”

He’s not exactly thrilled with the Shadow’s choice of spawning point - he’s been avoiding the hell out of the Moonlight Bridge since he and Minako got back to town. It helps that neither of them can drive, but still. He could’ve gone his whole life without returning to the scene of the accident. Minako doesn’t look pleased either, but she shrugs it off when Fuuka confirms Takaya and Jin are also there.

Those two don’t go down without a fight - Makoto sort of wishes they would’ve, but also hadn’t really expected them to - and then decide the best possible response to a sound thrashing is to jump off the damn bridge.

“What the hell were they thinking?” Iori says, but Shinjiro-senpai just shakes his head.

“They’re like fucking cockroaches. If we’re lucky, they hit the rocks, or the water too hard, but I doubt it. But they’re out of our hair for now and we can do what we came for. Let’s get this show on the road.”

Makoto could call the fight grueling, but even to him, that feels like a vast understatement. It’d help if the damn Shadow didn’t keep hiding behind minions (all of which have different weaknesses, and some of which it can rig to explode). Tonight alone would be enough to sell him on Shinjiro-senpai’s theory that the Dark Hour is longer than 60 minutes, if he hadn’t already believed it based on other nights.

Finally - after what feels like two hours in its own right, never mind walking out here and having to deal with Strega - Minako lands the killing blow, and the Shadow disintegrates.

“Makoto-san, I believe a celebration is in order,” Aigis says. “What will be our victory cheer?”

“Let’s eat.” Maybe he shouldn’t drop sarcasm on Aigis just yet, but it’s not entirely sarcastic - he feels like he could eat an entire cow right now.

“One, two, three - let’s eat!”

“Let’s… eat?” Yukari says, sounding extremely confused.

“I will be ordering sushi for everyone tomorrow,” Mitsuru-senpai says. “Whether this has truly dealt with the problem of the Dark Hour or not, defeating all twelve of these Shadows is an accomplishment worth celebrating.”

Makoto can’t argue with that, but he wishes they knew for sure whether things were truly over.

***

Minako wakes up a good fifteen minutes before her alarm goes off. Great, just what she wanted the night after an exhausting Dark Hour boss fight. Try as she might, though, she can’t get back to sleep.

She might as well make it her brother’s problem. It’s been a long time since she has, even though she’s been able to all year. They’ve been able to carve out enough sibling time that she hasn’t felt the need, and as for her lacking sleep, she can always catch up on that in class. Not like their math teacher gets the answers right herself, so it’s better to study on her own.

She gets dressed for the day, slips out of her room and down the stairs, and is just about to Makoto’s room when she hears someone talking in there. It’s not Makoto; it’s no one she’s ever heard before. It sounds like a kid’s voice, saying something about a new day and knowing their role and--

She nudges Makoto’s door open, and freezes. That’s a kid, all right. Striped pajamas, bright blue eyes. Just like the one Makoto said he saw the night they got here.

“I shall treasure our conversations always,” the kid says, apparently not having noticed the door. “Even if today is the end, the bond between us can never be severed - remember that.”

“You’re not - I can’t see you anymore?” Makoto actually sounds a little upset about that, to Minako’s ears.

“It was fun while it lasted. Farewell, my dearest.”

After the kid disappears, Minako says, “Okay, what the hell.”

“Oh, hi.” Makoto looks at the space where Striped Pajamas Kid just was, still a little forlorn. “That was Pharos.”

“I thought he only showed up during the Dark Hour? And what was up with that ‘my dearest’ thing?”

Makoto shrugs. “He started doing that in August. As for the first part, your guess is as good as mine.”

All together, though, it means she can’t sleep in math class like she’d kinda wanted to. This feels like a glaring red flag that nothing’s over after all, and she can’t stop herself from worrying about it.

***

Just before dinner, there’s a knock at Chidori’s door. “Hey, Chidorita?”

Don’t call me that.” She opens the door anyway, though, to see what it is Junpei wants.

He grins at her, completely unapologetic about the nickname. “We’re havin’ sushi for dinner tonight. Wanna come join us?”

“Sushi?” That seems oddly celebratory in nature, but she supposes they’d count eliminating all of those large Shadows as enough cause for a party. “That depends. Is your ‘sponsor’ there?”

“What, Ikutsuki-san? Nah, he swung by to grab Aigis for some kind of software check, said they probably won’t be back until tomorrow.”

“And you’re just taking his word for it?”

Junpei sighs. “Well, no, but what’re we supposed to do about it? Not like we have a car here to chase after him or anything. Besides, the party’s also an excuse to stay up till midnight, just in case.”

Chidori’s fairly certain no one in this dorm would actually fall asleep before midnight regardless, but she nods. “All right. If they’re willing to have me at your party when I didn’t really contribute anything, anyway.”

“You’re here, aren’t you? You didn’t stay with your old friends. I think that counts.”

And no one protests when they enter the lounge together, so Chidori assumes everyone else must think it counts, too.

The sushi is fantastic; Chidori mostly talks to Shinjiro and Junpei, when they’re available, but the others don’t treat her like she’s an outsider. It’s… warm, in a way she didn’t know was lacking until she stopped trying to tolerate Takaya and Jin just because they understood her childhood. No one here knows what it’s like to be experimented on, but they treat her like a person just the same.

After she’s eaten her fill, Shinjiro approaches her, with an adult in tow - and that’s unusual enough to have Chidori on guard immediately. “What’s this about?”

“Kirijo-san said he wanted to talk to you while he’s here,” Shinjiro says. It doesn’t make Chidori feel any better.

“Me? Why me?”

The man looks at her for a moment with his one good eye, then drops into a deep bow. “I owe you my sincerest apologies, Yoshino-san. I should have known what was happening in my company, and I would have put a stop to the project if I had known. I’m sorry that we failed you so utterly.”

Chidori’s breath deserts her so thoroughly that Medea has to remind her to inhale again. “I - apology accepted.” He’s not forgiven - there’s little chance of that happening now - but she genuinely never thought anyone responsible for ruining her life would acknowledge that they did so.

When he straightens up, he smiles faintly, and hands her a manila folder. “This is a copy of the patient file kept on you during the Strega initiative. I don’t know if it’ll contain anything relevant to your current situation, but you deserve to have these records for yourself.”

He walks off before she can say anything, which may be just as well; she’s not sure what to say.

“Well, shit,” Shinjiro says. “Kinda figured he wanted to apologise, or I would’ve kept him the hell away from you, but I wasn’t expectin’ that. Maybe something in it’ll help.”

“Maybe.” Chidori still doesn’t have much hope that she won’t be dead in three weeks’ time, but Junpei, at least, will want to see if the file can be useful. After everything he and Shinjiro have done, she won’t deny him that much. “Not tonight, though.”

“We don’t have time tonight.” Shinjiro says it like he’s fully expecting the fragile peace in the lounge to fall apart - but she can’t blame him for that thought. Midnight’s drawing ever closer, and she doubts taking down the large Shadows actually stopped a damn thing, if it was what Ikutsuki wanted them to be doing.

***

Aigis is here to perform a task. Her task is to subdue the targets and prepare them for sacrifice. (That is incorrect. Her task is to subdue and eliminate Shadows.)

Use of her override remote has ceased the visual anomalies that have recurred since the incident that created the Dark Hour. (Why did Ikutsuki-san need to use her override remote? Why is she unsettled by the absence of color?) Aigis is here to perform a task. Her task does not require visual anomalies. (It never did, but the visual anomalies spontaneously developed anyway.)

Other humans arrive after the Dark Hour sets in, summoned by the bells. (Tartarus did not have bells before, except perhaps the very first night.) They are the targets. (They are her friends. They were concerned about a betrayal. One of them is… important?)

Ikutsuki-san tells them of his plans; one of them mutters about him picking a fine time to start telling the truth. (Aigis did not like his plan, but he holds her override remote. Why was it necessary to use her override remote?) The targets (her friends) are not surprised by his betrayal, but they are surprised by his plans. Aigis is here to perform a task, not to have an opinion about his plans. (His plans are vile. She does not wish to see humanity ended.

And if he did succeed, what would Ikutsuki-san rule over in the aftermath?)

He altered available information to manipulate the others into doing what was necessary. (Aigis will not be surprised to learn, in the coming days, that obtaining her father’s true final message precipitated the evolution of Yukari-san’s Persona.) He has chosen the best path for humanity. (He certainly believes that; Aigis does not.) Aigis is here to perform a task.

She subdues the targets and prepares them for sacrifice. She has performed her task. (This is not her task.) Another human arrives, and she moves to subdue him as well. (Kirijo-san does not deserve this, either.)

Ikutsuki-san gives Aigis another task, and she falters. Her task is not to kill humans.

He has given her the task of killing this human.

That is not her task.

“Hey, Aigis!” one of the others calls from where they await the sacrifice. “What color is my brother’s hair?

Aigis freezes.

She knows the answer; of course she knows the answer. Her ability to know the answer has been as fascinating as it is frustrating. Anti-Shadow Suppression Weapons were never built with color receptors, and yet she developed them anyway. Makoto-san’s hair is a deep blue-black. Her task is to subdue and eliminate Shadows.

Her highest priority is Makoto-san’s welfare, for reasons she cannot yet comprehend, but that are possibly connected to her spontaneous development of color receptors. (She does not remember meeting Makoto-san before this summer, but humans start out much smaller and grow larger bodies over time. Anything is possible.)

As she hesitates, a canine growl announces Koromaru-san’s arrival - he steals her override remote from Ikutsuki-san before hiding behind an outcropping on this floor of Tartarus - and Kirijo-san wrests himself from her grip (she does not fight it). Then she turns her attention to her friends.

She put them up there. The least she can do is get them down. With a hail of gunfire, she does so (her auditory processors pick up on two additional gunshots behind her).

“You damned defective machine,” Ikutsuki-san snarls, proving he learned nothing at all from her sisters. Aigis carries their data in her memory banks. In order for an Anti-Shadow Suppression Weapon to successfully wield a Persona, she must first have a personality. (In that sense, Labrys was the greatest success of the program.)

Koromaru-san must have judged the situation safe enough to emerge from his hiding place; he drops the override remote in front of the others. Makoto-san stomps on it, hard enough to break it, and color seeps back into Aigis’ field of vision just as the others realise Ikutsuki-san and Kirijo-san are both injured.

Neither of them are Persona users. The party could perhaps make use of healing spells, but it would be a partial fix at best, and most likely only delay the inevitable. Shinjiro-san tells someone to try anyway, sounding annoyed that he cannot do so himself. Yukari-san does, but not until after Ikutsuki-san stumbles off the edge of the tower. From this height, he cannot survive the fall.

Mitsuru-san screams over her father’s body, and Aigis does not know what to do.

***

Aki scoops up Mitsuru and carries her over to the nearby teleporter, and Shinji sighs. “Hey Junpei, come help me out.”

“What with, senpai?” Junpei says, but to his credit he’s already coming over. Shinji just gestures at Kirijo-san’s body - Junpei grimaces, but he doesn’t question it. There’s no point in leaving him here. He doesn’t deserve it.

Ikutsuki can fucking rot, wherever he landed. Shinji had really, really wanted to be wrong.

They go to the hospital first, concocting a story on the way there; there are a few Dark-Hour-aware employees, since it’s a Kirijo-owned hospital, but that doesn’t mean they know enough of the truth to buy what really happened. Mitsuru nods agreement when the twins suggest an accidental discharge, so they go with that. At least it means they don’t have a body sitting around in the dorm, and if by some miracle there’s something to be done for him, it’ll be done.

Shinji’s not that inclined to hold his breath, though.

The hospital staff tells them to go home, and Shinji starts worrying in earnest when Mitsuru doesn’t fight it. Maybe she feels like she said everything she had to say before they left Tartarus, but still. If her will to fight has drained this much, it might take something just as big to snap her the fuck out of it. Maybe if the Dark Hour really had left with the big Shadows it’d be fine, but it didn’t.

The lights flicker back on as they walk back into the dorm, and Yukari asks the question that Shinji’s thinking (that they’re all probably thinking). “Well… now what?”

“I’m gonna go talk to Chidori,” Junpei says. “At the very least she deserves to know she doesn’t have to hide upstairs all the time anymore.”

“That’s a good idea, Junpei-kun.” Fuuka glances at the door to the downstairs office Ikutsuki kept. “I should see if Ikutsuki-san left anything here that might be useful, before someone comes to clean out the office.”

“We should…” Minako gestures at the remnants of their party, which already feels like it was forever ago. “We should get this cleaned up. Senpai, you three go upstairs.”

Shinji nods, nudging Mitsuru toward the stairs - Aki let her walk back from the hospital under her own power, but she still looks ready to collapse any second. They head right for her bedroom and all climb into the bed, with Mitsuru in the middle.

“I don’t know how he compromised Aigis,” Mitsuru says, after a long while. “I should. I should take her for a diagnostic when I go to the head office tomorrow.”

“You actually think I’d let you do that alone?”

“What? Shinjiro, no, I have to--”

Shinji gives her a flat look, for all the good it’ll do in the dark. “Like fuck I’m gonna let you go deal with those sharks on your own. I know you can do it alone, but you’re grieving. You got a funeral to plan and a business to take over. You are not fucking doing it alone.”

“It could take as long as a week to get everything in order. You shouldn’t be out of school that long.”

Aki snorts. “Like that’s ever stopped Shinji before. Let him help you - I’ll stay here in case the others want to go to Tartarus. I don’t think we actually reached the top, even if it looked like it last time.”

“...Very well.” She sounds fucking exhausted, but Shinji can’t blame her for that. This has managed to be an even worse night than he’d been bracing himself for.

***

On Friday, Junpei pulls Chidori, the twins, and Fuuka up to the command room.

He’s pretty sure Chidori’s just humoring him - he knows she doesn’t expect anything to come of this - but he doesn’t care. She got her medical file from the Strega project, so it’s worth seeing if there’s something in there that can keep her alive past the end of this month. He asked Minako to help dig through it, and she suggested Makoto and Fuuka come too, on the grounds that more people looking at it is better.

“I wish Shinjiro was here for this,” Chidori says as everyone sits down around the coffee table.

“I know.” Junpei hands her a soda from the vending machine downstairs. “But he and Mitsuru-senpai are probably gonna be busy for a while, and that’s time we don’t have. If we don’t find anything now, you can ask him when he gets back.”

Chidori nods. “I probably will either way.”

Junpei forgot one crucial thing before setting up this meeting: Medical records are boring as hell. Well, he didn’t entirely forget it, since that was one of the reasons he bought sodas for everyone who’s helping. But he forgot it enough that the file gives him a headache before he’s even three pages in.

“Huh,” Makoto eventually says. “That might be something.”

“Let me see?” Minako takes the page Makoto was reading, raises an eyebrow, and passes it to Fuuka. “Yeah, it might be. What do you think?”

“What? What is it?” Just because Junpei’s completely lost the thread of this stupid file doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to know what’s in it, or help.

“The fact that Chidori’s Persona was given to her,” Fuuka says as she reads. “She didn’t awaken to Medea naturally - Medea was brought in from the outside.”

“We knew that,” Chidori says.

Minako sighs. “Yeah, but we didn’t really think about what that means. If Medea was given to you, maybe you can also give her to someone else.”

“Or just turn her loose,” Makoto adds, which makes Chidori roll her eyes.

“Then she’d kill all of you. We won’t be doing that. I’ll… grant that it’s a possibility, but I don’t know how to do that. Not short of a life-or-death situation that would end up killing me anyway.”

“We’re not killing you,” Junpei says. If it happens anyway, he’s going to be so pissed.

Chidori just shrugs, which doesn’t make him feel any better.

“I’ll ask Elizabeth,” Makoto says, with no explanation of who Elizabeth is or how she might be able to help. “Otherwise, I think we just have to take things as they come.”

Fuuka frowns at the file page she’s still holding. “Based on everything we’ve learned over the course of this year, you’d probably lose your knowledge of the Dark Hour. And… it may hurt you enough to put you in the hospital, despite your wish not to be.”

Chidori shrugs again. “Ikutsuki can’t find out I’m here by asking the hospital anymore. Just get me out as quickly as you can, if it comes to that. I don’t have to remember the Dark Hour to know that I loathe hospitals.”

It’s not much of a plan - he can’t even really call it a glimmer of hope. But it’s something, and Junpei will take that over sitting around waiting for Chidori to die.

Chapter Text

“All right, class, settle down. We have another transfer student joining us today, which makes - no, Aigis-san would’ve been the hat trick, wouldn’t she?”

Minako rolls her eyes as Toriumi-sensei’s joke falls flat before she’s even done telling it. Half the school was gossiping about the latest transfer, torn between thinking four new students in the same class in one school year is bad luck, wondering why someone would make their kid change schools in November, and not caring because he’s supposedly super cute.

He’s all right for a guy, Minako guesses. If someone’s into ‘deathly pale and uses way too much hair gel,’ anyway. His hairstyle reminds her of the one and only time Makoto tried gel last school year (he said he felt practically naked, and that it took way too long to wash out).

“He and his parents have been living overseas until now,” Toriumi-sensei continues, “so he may not be familiar with all of our customs. Please make sure you explain them to him.”

For all that, the new guy still pulls off a passable bow. “My name is Ryoji Mochizuki. I’d be grateful if you showed me the ropes.”

Minako loses track of the conversation after that - it’s just Toriumi-sensei displacing yet another absent classmate from their seat because the new kid needs one; Tomochika lost his to Aigis back in September for the grave sin of oversleeping - when she catches sight of Mochizuki’s name written on the board. By itself, she wouldn’t think anything of his given name. By itself, and without the context of this school year, she probably wouldn’t think anything of his family name, either.

She wants to be overthinking it, but his family name as written means ‘full moon.’

***

Aigis has felt uneasy since she and the others arrived at school this morning, and she does not know why.

Her sensors indicated the presence of Shadow activity the moment she set foot on campus, but she has not seen anything unusual. She has not mentioned it to the others; they would likely attempt to reassure her that Shadows cannot escape the containment of the Dark Hour.

And yet, Shadows existed before the Dark Hour, or the experimentation that led to the creation of Aigis and her mostly-lost sisters would not have taken place. Her purpose is to subdue and eliminate Shadows; she cannot bring herself down from high alert until the problem has been identified and dealt with.

Her sensors only grow louder when the new transfer student is introduced to the class. Otherwise, Mochizuki-san seems perfectly normal, so far as Aigis is any judge of ‘normal’ by human standards - but she is certain that he is the source of the disturbance.

His assigned seat is one row in front of Aigis, across an aisle. That is good; she can position herself between Mochizuki-san and Makoto-san if necessary.

She knows she ought to hold her tongue, but as he sits down she still snaps out, “You are dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” Mochizuki-san blinks at her, as though he had not considered the notion of himself posing a threat to someone else before. “I haven’t even asked you on a date yet!”

For the first time, Aigis finds herself wishing she could blink. “A… date?” She is aware of the custom, from the others talking about it - most often, the senior members of SEES attempting to carve out private time for themselves, or Junpei-san talking about places he would like to go with Chidori-san - but she does not understand how it applies in this context.

“Aigis, what’s wrong with you?” Yukari-san asks. It is an excellent question.

Mochizuki-san only laughs. “Rejected from the start, huh? You’re an interesting girl.”

The compliment does nothing to ease Aigis’ mind.

***

Makoto takes a quick walk around the school when classes let out for the day. It’s partly to see who’s got free time, but mostly…

He doesn’t know. There’s something weird about Mochizuki and he can’t quite put his finger on it. Aigis calling him dangerous at the slightest provocation doesn’t help, either. It’s not that he doesn’t trust her instincts, but - there’s got to be more to it than that. He seems pretty normal. Maybe Makoto’s just on edge after everything that’s happened in the last week.

He gets back to the classroom and hears Iori say, “Seriously, man, what do your parents even do that they moved you to a new country this late in the year?”

“My mother works nights. She doesn’t care what I do with my free time, so long as I make it home when I’m supposed to.”

“Oh, that sucks, man.” Iori glances up, and brightens when he sees Makoto. “Hey, Makoto! You been properly introduced to the new transfer student yet?”

Makoto shakes his head. Obviously, the whole class knows Mochizuki’s name - the whole school probably does by now - but it’s not the same.

Iori takes that as his cue to do the honors. “Makoto and his sister transferred in back in April.”

“Oh, I see. It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

Then Makoto makes the mistake of making eye contact, and it’s like he can’t look away. He could swear this isn’t the first time they’ve met, but it’d be impossible for them to have met before now--

“Guys? What’re you two gaping at?”

Mochizuki breaks the spell first. “Oh, I just - I just got the strangest feeling. Have we met before?”

“Dude, shouldn’t you save that line for the girls?” Iori’s laughing, and for once, Makoto can’t entirely blame him. It does sound remarkably cheesy. Except for the fact that he was thinking the same thing.

“That’s - not how I meant it. Well, whatever. I hope we get along.” Mochizuki offers Makoto a handshake, and he can’t see a good reason not to go with it.

Time stops for the nineteenth time, but establishing a new social link doesn’t settle Makoto’s nerves as much as it has before.

He’d been wondering where the Moon link was.

It doesn’t help that Minako grabs him after dinner and pulls him up to the command room. “Something’s up with Mochizuki,” she says.

Makoto sighs. “Not you too. Aigis is being weird enough for at least three people right now.”

“Well, excuse me for thinking something’s up with Full-Moon-san after the week we’ve had. I’m not saying don’t talk to him at all, just… be careful, Mako, okay?”

He nods, since that’s easy enough to promise - and social link or not, he’d be talking to Mochizuki more anyway. There’s a mystery here that he feels like he needs to get to the bottom of.

***

Mitsuru has been staring listlessly at the same form for at least fifteen minutes. Probably longer; it’s not like her to lose track of time so thoroughly, but it feels like the pile of paperwork associated with her father’s estate and the Kirijo Group will never end.

She sighs. “What am I even doing?”

“Makin’ sure some asshole who thinks like Ikutsuki doesn’t take over,” Shinjiro says from the bed. He’s been a tremendous help through the last several days, helping to fill her father’s urn when she’d thought she’d have to do the job herself and glaring at the board members when they stepped out of line.

She should be able to do that herself. She can do that herself, normally. But her father would have been the first to tell her that this is far from a normal time. At least she can safely break when they retreat to bed for the night.

“That’s true, I suppose. I just… I can’t see the point of it right now.” She can’t see the point of much of anything. Intellectually, she knows there are very good reasons to do all this paperwork now, to keep trying to figure out what Ikutsuki was up to and how Tartarus is tied to it, to make sure Strega really won’t be causing them any more trouble… but her motivation has been lacking since Wednesday night.

“You should talk to Yukari when we get back.”

“Takeba? Why her?”

“Because I wasn’t even three yet when I got sent to the orphanage,” Shinjiro says, “and Aki and I were four when we met, so he probably can’t help you either. The twins never talk about their parents. Dunno how much Ken’s dad was ever in the picture, but it’s his mom he was closer to. And if Chidori’d had anyone in her corner she wouldn’t have been dragged into the Strega project. Yukari’s the one who’s been where you are - and if Ikutsuki’s fucking fake video is anything to go by, she’s been there recently, too.”

“You have a point there, I suppose.” If anyone can understand Mitsuru’s struggle to find her resolve, it’ll be Takeba - and it’s not that Shinjiro doesn’t understand at all, or he wouldn’t have made that suggestion in the first place.

“We’ll have to go back tomorrow,” she continues, more thinking out loud than expecting Shinjiro’s input. “Student council will need my approval to finalise plans for the school trip, and… I don’t want my mental state to lead to the whole thing being cancelled.”

Shinjiro nods. “Then I guess you better get your shit together on that paperwork, huh?”

Mitsuru almost cracks a smile at that. He’s right; the more of this she gets done before they leave, the better. If she cries herself to sleep for the sixth night in a row afterward, Shinjiro isn’t going to mind.

***

“The ocean is so blue, isn’t it?”

Makoto jolts out of his early-morning doldrums when Mochizuki speaks up next to him. He didn’t know they’d made it onto the same monorail car this morning. He also doesn’t know how Mochizuki got so close to him without Aigis raising the alarm, as quick as she’s been to step in every other time they’ve been within five meters of each other.

But he’s not exactly wrong, so Makoto nods. The monorail over the bay is easily the best part of the commute to Gekkoukan. But then he actually thinks about it, and frowns. “You already picked up color?”

“I don’t remember not having color vision, actually. It didn’t even occur to me it was anything significant until I heard other people talking about it. What about you?”

Makoto shrugs. “I was a kid. We never did figure out who it is.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sure you will someday. --Oh, we’re almost at the station. Maybe we should go somewhere after school, if you’d like to?”

“Maybe.” He’s not going to commit to anything this early in the day, but it’s a good option to have in his pocket, and Mochizuki doesn’t seem bothered by his vague answer.

In the end he takes the invitation - and they’re promptly swarmed by girls as they’re trying to leave school. A few of them say hi to Makoto, but mostly they’re clamoring for Mochizuki’s attention; he laughs it off with the most gentle letdown Makoto’s ever seen (he wishes he knew how to do that, but at least this year hasn’t been as bad in the accidental-harem department as last year was).

“I’m sorry, ladies, but I’ve already made plans for today - tell you what. I’ll make sure I see you in your dreams tonight, how about that?”

As the girls are busy swooning over that line, Mochizuki grabs Makoto’s hand and pulls him through the swarm. By the time they notice he’s gone, the two of them have made it off school grounds.

“Aren’t you supposed to be showing up in my dreams?” Makoto says, without really knowing why.

“I mean, if you really want me to, I can try to pencil you in.” Mochizuki goes to run his hand through his hair, only realising when he drags Makoto’s along partway that they’re still holding hands. “Oh, sorry.”

“I didn’t mind.”

“Well, that’s good to know, but Aigis-san might actually kill me if she sees that.” He sighs, looking more than a little forlorn for once. “I feel like I know her, too, but - it’s like it’s on the tip of my brain and I just can’t remember it.”

“You’ve been living overseas, though,” Makoto points out. “I don’t know when you would’ve met either of us.”

“I don’t either, but… I just can’t shake the feeling. I wonder why.”

Makoto shrugs. If Aigis and Minako are right, they’ll probably find out eventually, but he’s not sure any of them are going to be happy about it. “What did you want to do today?”

Mochizuki musters a smile again. “Oh, right. Could you show me around the city? I want to see all the places you like to go to.”

***

Some of the students have been complaining about Kyoto being the school’s default trip destination, with some of them calling it one last screw-you from Ekoda (especially this year, since even now that he’s gone the other teachers couldn’t agree on another destination in time to make the arrangements). Yukari doesn’t mind, though. It’s kind of like a homecoming, especially since her mother’s moved away again.

Maybe most people wouldn’t think of their own parents like that, but most people’s parents probably spent more time paying attention to their kid than trying to paper over their own grief. Still, just because Yukari understands better now doesn’t mean she’s ready to mend the bridge.

She’s a little surprised when Mitsuru-senpai approaches her in their downtime on the second day and asks to talk. They’re hardly close, for all they’ve been living in the same dorm and working together this entire school year.

Once they’re settled on the riverbank, away from potential eavesdroppers, Yukari says, “So… what’s up?”

“Shinjiro suggested I talk to you, actually. I’ve had a difficult time finding my resolve again after the events at the beginning of this month.”

Oh. Suddenly this makes a lot more sense. “You were just trying to protect your father this whole time, weren’t you?”

“And look where that got me. If not for Shinjiro’s friendship with Chidori-san, I would’ve been completely blindsided by that betrayal - and even with forewarning I fell right into his trap.”

“I mean, that was mostly because the trap was something we would’ve done anyway. The big Shadows were a problem, even if they didn’t solve the problem of the Dark Hour like we thought they would.”

Mitsuru-senpai sighs. “Still. I just wanted Father to be able to live with himself again. Ever since the incident, he looked like he was dead inside.”

“Oh, like you have for the last week?”

Mitsuru-senpai recoils, like Yukari had actually slapped her (to be fair, she’d been considering it).

“I know it feels like this was all for nothing right now,” Yukari continues. “That’s how I felt back in July, when we saw the fake video. But we don’t know that for sure yet. What I do know is my dad fought to the end to try to fix his mistakes, and yours did, too. I want to eliminate the Dark Hour and fulfill my dad’s final wish. What do you want to do?”

“...You’re right. Nothing has been decided yet. For the sake of those who passed the torch to us, we need to see this through. Yukari - will you stand with me until the end?”

Yukari grins. “You know it, senpai.”

***

“Kyoto was so much fun.”

They’re at Chagall Cafe again, at Ryoji’s insistence (and Makoto isn’t sure when they reached given-name basis, but they definitely have). Makoto can’t tell if they’re surrounded by couples again, or if that only ever happens when Ryoji points it out - but it’s happened twice in a row now, so he wouldn’t be surprised.

(“Why you, I wonder?” Good question, Ryoji.)

Makoto shrugs. “It was all right. Would’ve thought you’d at least regret getting caught in the springs by the girls.”

“It was a new experience, along with the rest of it. Besides, it’s not like there was a clock in there. How were we supposed to know we were out of time?”

It’s probably not worth pointing out that Shinjiro-senpai managed to keep track of the time, even if he only actually rescued Akihiko-senpai from getting into trouble.

“Oh, did you see this?” Ryoji holds up his hand, showing off a thin ring with a stone Makoto doesn’t recognise set on it. “I got it from one of the souvenir shops.”

“Where’s mine?” Makoto says, and immediately has to fight the urge to facepalm. Why does he keep saying this stuff to Ryoji?

Thankfully, Ryoji only laughs. “Next time. I just… wanted something as proof that I’d been there, you know? Something to tie to my memories of the trip. It already feels as natural as if I was born with it.”

“I hear jewelry’s like that.”

“It’s like rings bind memories to the person that wears them.”

“Maybe they do.” Makoto sure can’t think of a good argument against it.

“I hope I can collect more treasures like this as life goes on. I’m sure I will, if I’m with you.”

Either that or they’re all going to be completely miserable. Makoto can’t shake the feeling that whatever truth they’re dancing around is going to be fucking devastating. But it’s too late - Ryoji’s carefree smile swept him off his feet before he knew it was happening.

For once, he doesn’t want to say no.

***

Tonight’s the night.

Shinjiro agreed that the plan the others came up with was as sound as any plan gambling with Chidori’s life is going to be. She’s still not sure they’ll have a chance to put it into play, or that it’ll work at all, but part of why she gave up on Takaya and Jin was so that she had a choice other than resigning herself to her fate.

She’s not scared; she hasn’t been scared of this moment in years. She doesn’t want to lose the few true friends she’s got, but if she dies anyway, so be it. At least they tried.

The Dark Hour sets in without any other incidents preceding it. Chidori had half expected as much. She heads to the command room and finds Yamagishi has beaten her there.

“What sort of scanning range do you have with your Persona?”

“Most of the city,” Yamagishi says. “It’s easier if there’s a particularly large Shadow, or if I have detailed information about the person I’m looking for or know them very well already, but we haven’t had someone in the group leave my scanning range yet.”

Chidori nods. “Look for Takaya and Jin. They know the significance of tonight. They’ll be out somewhere.”

Yamagishi frowns, but she summons her Persona readily enough. Chidori can’t blame the others for hoping Takaya and Jin actually managed to leap to their deaths at the beginning of the month, but she doubts they were so lucky.

She’s not surprised in the slightest when Yamagishi picks up their presence near Tartarus.

“Have you tried a communication channel at that distance?”

“Not quite that far, no, but I don’t know of any reason it wouldn’t work. You - you can’t possibly want to tell them you’re coming?”

Chidori shrugs. “They’re already expecting me, so I might as well. Open the channel and I’ll do the rest.”

She’s running on instinct to speak through Yamagishi’s Persona, but once she has the channel, she rests her hand on the Persona’s shield bubble and focuses on breaking through to the two people who know what she’s been through like no one else ever will - and yet, they never understood her in the slightest. “Long time no see. I can’t stand the sight of you two anymore, so I’ve decided to do something about it. Wait for me.”

“You’re not going alone,” Junpei says, from the command room’s doorway.

Chidori snorts. “As though I thought you or Shinjiro would let me. And where you two go, the others are likely to follow.”

“Of course we will.” Yamagishi sounds like she thinks it’s obvious; it isn’t that clear to Chidori at all, but she won’t protest.

Try not to sweep in and be a hero, Junpei. I know how to handle these two.”

When they get to Tartarus, Takaya and Jin are waiting. Takaya even smiles. “It is good to see you again. Surely you understand by now that there is nowhere else for you to--”

She lashes out with her axe before he can finish the sentence. Chidori does have somewhere else to go, and she found it without his help.

The fight that follows is short, but intense. Chidori’s out of practice, and Takaya’s capable of hitting her weak spot - but she’s just as capable of hitting his, and Jin’s no trouble as long as she remembers to watch for his grenades. She can at least keep them from interfering with the others.

“Oh, Chidori. I see that it is too late - they’ve poisoned you.”

“You’re the only poisonous one here, Takaya. Was jumping off bridges not interesting enough for you?”

“Fate permitted me to live, even though I was not attached to life. You might say I was… chosen.”

Too late, she sees that Takaya’s drawn his gun.

Too late, she sees Junpei diving in front of her.

There’s only one thing she can think to do. Medea’s Spring of Life has sustained Chidori to this point, but if Junpei has it, then he can pull through this. Maybe it won’t work like they’re hoping it will, but she has to try.

She takes Junpei’s clammy hand and wills Medea to go to him - and he wakes up, the wound in his stomach closing as she watches.

“She’s yours now,” she says, not sure if even Junpei will hear it. “Take good care of her, and if I do survive this…”

She doesn’t know how to finish the thought, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Junpei will live to see tomorrow, whether she does or not.

Her mind strangely silent for the first time in years, Chidori lets unconsciousness claim her.

***

The next day, Junpei goes to the hospital and sits by Chidori’s bed. “Hey. I know you said you hate hospitals, but, well…”

She can’t hear him right now anyway, probably. Maybe. There’s stuff that says unconscious people do hear people talking around them sometimes, but Junpei has no idea how anyone would prove it. But he’s not going to leave her here alone, with a bunch of beeping monitors for company.

(They are beeping. That’s a good thing. Maybe their stupid plan worked.)

“Might skip Career Experience and just come here instead. I mean, I don’t need to experience how boring work is, they’re just looking for free labor and convinced the school it’ll make ‘em look good.” And he’d feel better about being here. He probably can’t get away with skipping the whole week, but he can sure as hell try.

“We kicked their asses for you. Well, you did a pretty good job of that yourself, but Shinjiro-senpai and I made sure they couldn’t follow us.” Junpei sighs. “They’re still not dead, because that would be too easy, but Takaya sure thought you were. He should at least leave you alone now.

“Medea and Hermes kinda… joined together? Makoto said they ‘fused,’ whatever that means. Still dunno why you gave her to me, of all people. I mean, I’m not really worth it, am I?”

It could’ve just been that he was there, and keeping Medea would’ve probably guaranteed Chidori’s death, the way she was so sure about dying. But he doesn’t really think that’s it. He thinks she wanted to, and that’s - well, honestly it’s kinda terrifying. How could Takaya call that meaningless?

“Takaya seems to think he’s on some kind of ‘mission’ now, like we didn’t have enough to worry about. But that’s not really any different than the Dark Hour still being around and us having no idea how to stop it now, I guess.”

Junpei runs out of things to say, but he can’t bring himself to leave yet. He just sits there, holding Chidori’s hand and listening to the monitors beep, until a nurse comes by and kicks him out for the night.

Minako surprises him the next morning by falling into step next to him on his way out of the dorm. “What’re you - I’m not going to school,” he tries to say, but she just grins.

“Oh, I know. I’m not either. If I wanna experience a career, I’ll go pick up a shift at the movie theater or Chagall Cafe and get paid for my trouble. Chidori needs you, and you need me.”

***

Minako ends up picking up a couple shifts at Chagall Cafe, partly to appease the teachers for skipping a day of Career Experience and partly because the whole week is less irritating when she’s at least working somewhere familiar. Makoto’s stuck at Wild Duck Burger for the whole thing, and all he has to say about it after the first day is that the trash is unbelievable.

She’s wrapping up the last shift of the batch when Makoto comes in, apparently done with his own work - but before she can catch him, Mochizuki waves him over to a table. Minako doesn’t set out to eavesdrop, but she doesn’t try to avoid their conversation, either. (She’s trying not to worry about Mochizuki too hard, but… it’s not easy. She just wants Mako to be okay.)

“Is Junpei-kun all right?” Mochizuki says. “He skipped most of Career Experience, and the one day he was there, he was really distracted. I tried asking him, but I’m not sure if he even heard me.”

“He’s… a friend of his is in the hospital. It’s still pretty touch and go. He’s been worried about her.”

“I see.” There’s a clink and a slurp before Mochizuki continues. “But… people die. It happens all the time, and you just have to accept it.”

Minako risks a look at the table, and sees Makoto staring at Mochizuki, with a faint frown that speaks volumes to her.

“What is it? Do you think I’m being too cold?” (He absolutely is, in Minako’s opinion, especially since Chidori’s not even dead and Junpei’s just worried about the chance she’ll die anyway, despite their best efforts to save her. But she’s not the one having this conversation.)

“Not necessarily. That just sounds like something someone else told me recently. The same as the blowing of the wind?”

“I - maybe? That sounds… familiar. I think.” Now Mochizuki sounds like he has a headache or something. “I’m sorry, can we change the subject?”

Makoto must have shrugged or something, because Mochizuki keeps talking. “Do you think there’s anything I can do to help Junpei-kun?”

“Don’t take that angle when you talk to him again, for one thing.”

Mochizuki laughs. “That’s fair. It’s not very supportive, is it?”

***

Makoto’s not sure what it is about Ryoji, still, but… he’s starting to form a theory.

He doesn’t like it at all, and Minako’s probably going to kill him, and Aigis is probably going to kill both of them. He doesn’t want to be right, but the things Ryoji says just sound so much like Pharos sometimes that--

He doesn’t even know how that would be possible. But frankly, it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen this school year, which says a lot about how Makoto’s standards have changed in the last seven months.

In any case, he can’t bring himself to stay away. Not when Ryoji suggests they sneak onto the school roof on a Sunday afternoon. Not when he comes up with things like ‘the fact that tomorrow will come scares me.’ Not when Ryoji says Makoto is more precious to him than his own life.

Minako’s definitely going to kill him. His inability to say no is setting him up for heartache all over again, but - Ryoji’s important. So is Aigis. If she could stop seeing a threat where there isn’t necessarily one, he bets Ryoji and Aigis would be important to each other, too.

On Tuesday, the day before a full moon Makoto’s trying like hell not to think about too closely, Ryoji comes over to the dorm. It’s something he’s been doing for the last couple weeks, mostly to hang out with Iori, but this time he makes a beeline for Makoto’s room.

He pauses in the doorway, frowning. “This… is the first time I’ve been in here, isn’t it?”

Makoto shrugs. “I don’t know. Is it?”

“It must be. I don’t know, maybe I just wanted to see it so badly it came to me in a vision.”

“Smooth.”

Ryoji laughs, but then they both sit on Makoto’s bed - Makoto up near his pillow and Ryoji perched at the foot - and Makoto has such a strong sense of deja vu it damn near gives him vertigo.

“I think… did I get this wrong? If we were just friends, would it hurt so much to be here?” He musters a smile before Makoto can answer, and adds, “I’m glad I met you, either way.”

“Me too.” Because he is. Despite Minako’s reservations, despite whatever it is that has Aigis so paranoid around Ryoji, Makoto can’t help but be glad to know him.

“You shouldn’t give so much of yourself to me, Makoto. I’ll probably just make you sad.”

“It’s worth the risk,” Makoto says, and he hopes he’s not wrong.

Ryoji falls silent, fiddling with the ring he got in Kyoto. He looks - Makoto isn’t sure. Conflicted? Miserable? Resigned to something? All three?

“Touch me, Makoto,” he finally says. “Make me feel - make sure we both know I exist.”

Touching Ryoji turns into kissing him, which turns into things no one else he’s dated has ever asked for - but that’s all right. Makoto was about to ask for them himself.

***

Aigis has yet to comprehend her reaction to Mochizuki-san.

He still registers to her sensors as dangerous. Minako-san agrees that they should be cautious around him, and Mitsuru-san and the other seniors do not disregard Aigis’ statements. But Junpei-san has already come to consider him a close friend, and Makoto-san…

Makoto-san and Mochizuki-san have become very close. Aigis is more concerned about that than anything, frankly. But even Minako-san says there will be no convincing Makoto-san of things he does not come to see on his own.

She does not know what instinct drives her, on the afternoon preceding the full moon, to plug herself into the command room console and review some content in her memory banks. Perhaps it is the looming anniversary of the Dark Hour’s creation. Perhaps it is desperation on her part, to see the truth, to understand what is happening.

She is a machine; she should have no need for desperation.

But she is a machine capable of wielding a Persona, and this would not be the first time the Kirijo Group research team failed to account for all variables within its robotics program.

She disregards the memory files inherited from her sister units. Someday, perhaps, if they have time, they should look into what exactly happened to Labrys and see if she can be restored to normal function, rather than left deactivated and gathering dust in Yakushima - but today is not that day. Her own memory files of her testing phase are not very detailed, and Aigis finds she prefers it that way. (Another thing she should not have: preferences.

Preferences, desperation, color vision… the list of things that set Aigis apart from other machines, even from the intentions of her creators, keeps growing.)

She can likewise disregard the memory files created since she awoke on Yakushima and knew immediately that a person of the highest priority was in the vicinity. Those will not be useful to understanding her current situation, and if for some reason they are, she will not need to review them the same way. The few conversations she had with Ikutsuki-san when he came to the lab to work, and the times she was tasked with cleaning the lab, are irrelevant.

That leaves the night of the accident that created the Dark Hour.

The file begins with a greyscale explosion, so recorded because her visual receptors did not gain color until later in the night. Flames overtake the facility, and a dark shape emerges from the wreckage, heading in the direction of the city.

No one ordered Aigis to pursue the Shadow; she had simply known that it was her purpose to do so. This was, quite literally, what she and her sisters were built for - but none of her sisters joined her in pursuit. She did not learn until after the fact that the rest of the seventh generation of Anti-Shadow Suppression Weapons were obliterated in the explosion, or caught in skirmishes that damaged them beyond repair.

The first oddity of the memory file sets in shortly after Aigis catches up with the Shadow on the Moonlight Bridge. The moment she makes contact with the Shadow and engages it in combat, the night sky takes on the greenish cast associated with the Dark Hour. Given that Aigis had been in the midst of attempting to subdue the Shadow, she did not pause to take note of the visual anomaly.

She notices, watching it now, that it is only partial color vision. It is difficult to tell in the low light, but she recalls several blue cars frozen in place on the bridge, and the blurs of them in the background of the combat are simple grey.

The combat draws to a stalemate near the wreckage of a car that had apparently careened into the side of the bridge as the Dark Hour set in (Aigis is not sure how that was possible, but it did so nonetheless). Two small children have emerged from the wreck; she can make out mangled coffins in the front seats.

The Shadow was released from confinement by the explosion, and Aigis knew at the time that it was a mere fragment of its whole. It had stood to reason that the Shadow could be confined again, but there were only two suitable vessels nearby - and one, recognising her motions as a possible threat, moved to protect the other, as if on instinct.

Makoto-san and Minako-san were so young. Aigis still struggles to understand the human aging process, but she can see the resemblance in their faces. Makoto-san’s hair takes on its distinctive blue tones in the file as her hand, and the Shadow, make contact with his tiny body.

That… that explains a great deal.

Her purpose is to subdue and eliminate Shadows. She knows what she must do tonight.