I thought this was going to be another school year, when April 4th rolled around. Another year of being a nobody...
Honoka was but one among the faceless masses at the otherwise illustrious Hanataba Academy, winner of Japan's 'Most Beautiful Academy' for years running. An elegant high school nestled in the snowy mountains, its mix of stone gothic architecture and more modern, crystal-clear buildings leaving no question to its pedigree.
The academy's stand-out students were called the All-Aces, who together formed the most popular clique at school. As Honoka and the rest of the students walked through the front doors, it was almost impossible to miss them, their presence made the other students part like the Red Sea.
Sakikabara Azuma, Head of the Drama Club. The school's elegant and poetic 'noble prince', his dark-red wavy hair and tall, slender figure made the female students swoon. To complete the image, he even had a rose in his lapel.
Maeda Kikuko, Head of the Tea Ceremony Club. A traditional Japanese beauty from a family who, Honoka had heard, could trace themselves back to the Heian period. Ever demure, she was bowing before a teacher as they had a little discussion.
Melissa Lilian (Western order), the gorgeous strawberry-blonde American exchange student, fashionista, and cheerleader, and from a rich industrial family too. She hadn't been in Japan long, but had seriously made an impact. Not that she wasn't having some trouble adapting, it looked like she was in a nasty argument with one of the hall monitors, who'd she gotten two of the female followers to flank.
Tsutsuji Eitaro, the cool, stoic star Athlete, Captain of the Archery Club and stand-out football (soccer) player, a towering figure with jet black hair. Despite being surrounded by adoring fans, he barely acknowledged anyone and kept silent, but Honoka guessed that's what people loved about him.
Aoyagi Himawari, the pretty and perky stand-out singer in the School Choir, with long, pastel pink hair. Her cheerful self, waving to everyone she could, was seemingly the only one of the six to even consider socialising with others.
Momoi Gakuto, the 'cool nerd' of the All-Aces. Head of the Computer Club and pro gamer, with light blond scruffy hair, glinting glasses and distinctive green sweater, already apparently occupied with something online.
All her life, Honoka could never imagine having anywhere near their level of popularity, being merely some gangly, auburn-haired wallflower, barely noticed by anyone most of the time.
Yet as she headed to her first class, she was suddenly stopped and cut off by no less than... Melissa Lilian, of all people.
"Hey nerd, I'm only gonna say this once so listen up, wontcha?" she began as she suddenly pinned Honoka to the wall, "Today's your lucky day, we figured we're gonna let you in our little club, if you can pass our... Initiation Rite". As she said that, a flaming blue tarot card flashed for a second in her hand; was it some kind of rare hologram tech she had access to?
"Come on, we're gonna be late!" one of Honoka's friends called to her from the door to their class, not having looked back to see just who it was she was with.
"Urgh, just come to the Prized Pupil Lounge after class, we'll finish this talk then. Better be there, beyotch" Melissa snarled as she strode away, already a gaggle of fellow teen girls and smitten boys flocking around her.
Part of Honoka froze, feeling this was exactly like a dream come true!
But another part of her, regardless of any elation, did have to wonder: Isn't this a bit sudden, a bit suspicious? Why only now would the All-Aces take notice of me, much less want anything to do with someone like me?
So, Honoka sat in her homeroom class, the windows still lightly dusted with the last of the old winter's snow. This was her second year at Hanataba now and, with the All-Aces being third years, she honestly started squirming at the thought.
Stuck thinking so much about her invitation, she didn't notice her friend trying to get her attention. "Hey Honoka, you okay in there?" came the scratchy voice of her longtime pal, Suzakuin Keiko, a freckle-faced girl with long, shaggy brown hair, part of which she'd dyed bright blue. People would say Keiko could use a makeover, but that's if she could even afford one.
"What? Oh yeah, sorry, had a lot on my mind" she said on reaction, trying to snap out of he thoughts.
"Well, it's our first day back at school, so there is a lot of pressure" came the warmer voice of a boy with neater brown hair, Ito Yuya. Honoka had known him almost as long as she had Keiko, and while both her parents and relatives had jokingly called the two 'childhood sweethearts', there'd never been anything serious between them. True, Yuya was no Sakakibara Azuma, but still, a girl like Honoka had to consider herself lucky to even know someone like Yuya.
And that was about it for her friends, as despite this being her second year, they were really all the people Honoka had any real connection with Hanataba. Up till now, it seemed, if her fears weren't true and this wasn't some prank by Melissa.
Speaking of which "Urgh, fuck Melissa. I saw that stuck-up princess trying to accost you in the hall," Keiko groaned, leaning back in her chair, "Just 'cause she's some bigshot foreign blonde she thinks she can just come to Japan and walk all over us" she snarled.
"Ooh yeah, 'fuck' Melissa" some douchebag creeps wolf-whistled in the corner.
Honoka ignored them and thought back to that encounter, and well, she wouldn't call it an 'accosting' really. Still, she decided to stay quiet about this, er, 'arrangement' to Keiko and Yuya, kinda worried she'd blow this million-to-one chance by casually blabbing about the All-Aces' invitation.
Keiko and Yuya also didn't dignify those wolf-whistlers with a response, though Keiko had to admit "I mean, I can't say against anything Azuma though, he sure is dreamy..." she sighed, holding her chin in her hands.
"Okay, fun's over people" came the dead cold voice of Honoka's homeroom teacher, Tanizawa Ryouko-sensei, as she made her way in without even glancing at her students. "Now you're all here, everyone better shut it and make their way to the Start of Year Assembly, got that?" she intoned, getting students' attention by tapping her desk with the chalkboard pointer.
Honoka promptly lined up and headed out, no questions needed, but as she entered the hall one of her classmates, who'd been skulking in the shadows before so had slipped her mind, approached and asked, "My my, Honoka is it?" the owner of the whisper-thin voice being a lightly smiling girl, with raven black hair and her uniform modified to be longer and frillier, "My wandering eyes couldn't help but spot that you had an invitation you were fiddling with, all the more interesting given your prior chat with Melissa.
Oh, am I intruding? I take it this is a private affair" this girl gasped, as she could see Honoka glaring at her.
"Yeah, I'll say it is" Honoka stated bluntly, pressing down on her own pocket with the invitation even more closely. Keiko and Yuya were right next to me yet never even saw this letter, so how did... whoever this is see it? that though pulsed through her.
"I see, I never truly learned to mind my own business" this girl sighed, shaking her head. "But I've taken enough of your time, so it's only proper I introduce myself. I go by the pen name Colette Claudius, and I'm Head of the Occult Club. If I may say, we're always on the hunt for new members, and we can sure promise a better time than, ahem, those All-Aces" she huffed.
"Y-you seem to have something against them..." Honoka asked her.
Colette just chuckled "Oh it's nothing personal, I just have little patience for the 'in-crowd'" she told her, adding in a hushed tone "I know who my real friends are. Ah, look at the time, we should really be at Assembly!" she then cut herself off, swiftly waving goodbye to Honoka as she scurried away.
The principal tapped the mic and cleared his throat, beginning with "Students and Staff of Hanataba, once again our renowned institution is graced with another year". Noticing nobody was paying much attention, he quickly switched a more casual "Uh hey, we all excited or what? Best years of your lives, y'know?" with a tug of his tie. That hardly got that much more of a response, other than maybe a distant facepalm.
"Er, anyway, as we say at our fine school-" he then tried to go on, but just sighed and said, "Please welcome to the podium our own Azuma Sakikabara, third-year and Head of the Drama Club, not to mention our highest-ranked student in the popularity polls".
The whole room exploded with awe as the dark yet dashing Azuma made his way onto the stage. Brushing his hair aside and taking the mic, he began with "Thank you Dear Principal, perhaps too flattering an introduction. Now, fellow students, I would say the most important lesson you learn in Theatre is that storytelling and performance are hardly limited to the realm of fiction. All of us, teenagers more than anyone, either choose to play a role or are bestowed a role to play, and at Hanataba we expect no less than for those roles to be played to staggering applause. It is what makes our school... what it is," he smirked, before leaning in closer to the mic and saying, "For even if there is nothing beneath the mask, then should that mask not be crafted to perfection?" Having finished, he bowed and then tossed a rose cavalierly into the crowd, students scrambling to catch it.
Turning to he left, Honoka could see Keiko gushing over Azuma's 'poetry', even though she figured if it was anyone else saying the same thing, Keiko probably would dismiss it as 'flowery bullshit'.
Weird thing was, though she was all the way at the back of the looming Assembly Hall, Honoka could swear that she felt Azuma make direct eye contact with her for a second. What, no, probably just my paranoia talking, she thought.
The assembly over, the moment she got any free time at all Honoka headed straight to the Third Floor, unthinkingly brushing off Keiko before she could say something.
And there it was, at the end of the corridor up the stairs, the rose-patterned, card-studded, burgundy door amongst the usual pink and gold wallpaper. The All-Aces' Prized Pupil Lounge.
Honoka's legs wobbled as she slowly made her way towards it, and after a moment that felt like eternity she gingerly rang the doorbell, only to be met with someone she didn't expect.
"Hi there, welcome to the All-Aces Club! What can we help you with?" came the bright and bubbly voice of a Japanese girl whose looks reminded Honoka a lot of Melissa, her hair dyed platinum blonde and her skin a deep tan.
"Ahem, I believe I'll be doing the introductions, Reina" the more familiar voice of Melissa barked at this girl, pushing her to the side. Staring down at Honoka now, Melissa went on "Sorry, you know how hangers-on are like- Oh wait, no you wouldn't. So okay, you're 'Haruka' right? Good, knew you'd show up pronto, though let's face it, it's not like you're in any position to do otherwise".
Before Honoka could reply at all, Melissa then dragged her by he tie into the club lounge. he first thought upon finally seeing the inside of this place was Wow, this looks more like a penthouse suite than a school room!
The walls were coloured a rich cream, the arching window-frames a deep burgundy, one large enough to cover a whole balcony, and the carpet a mix of glittering gold and deep bronze. Honoka stood on a little platform, with short oaken stairs either side leading her down to where the rest of the All-Aces were waiting, sitting on delicately carved chairs around a circular table. Azuma seemed engrossed in a poetry volume, Himawari was already pacing, Kikuko was sipping tea by herself, Eitaro was tapping his foot, and Gakuto was fiddling with his laptop.
"Er, okay Melissa, ma'am, I guess I'll just get going" the Reina girl gulped as she tried to slink away, but Melissa grabbed her by the collar and spoke directly at her.
"Oh no, Reina, we've still got a job for a Jack like you" Melissa flashed a sharp grin, before turning to Honoka and saying, "Oh, a Jack is what you'll be now, at least for the foreseeable future. Come on, did you honestly think we were going to make a total nobody an Ace right away?".
"Melissa, you could stand to be nicer to her, y'know" the pretty young singer Himawari Aoyagi raised her otherwise tender, as she then ran up to Honoka and smiled, "Oh hey, you'd be Nakamura-san? It's a pleasure to meet you, though I'm sorry if some of our terms can seem, ahem, a bit arcane".
"Allow me to elucidate," came the dulcet tones of the green-clad, pale-haired computer master Momoi Gakuto, "The six of us here are the Aces, my industrious self the Ace of Wands, the striking Melissa the Ace of Coins, dear Himawari the Ace of Hearts, Azuma the Ace of Spades, Eitaro the Ace of Cups, and the delightful Kikuko the Ace of Swords".
Honoka began counting on her fingers trying to remember this all, playing cards not her forte, but said "Right, think I've got that".
"It's a genius terminology, one you'd rightly expect one like me to have come up with. But alas, I must credit Azuma as who we have to thank for bestowing us our titles" Gakuto then turned and gave a hand to the Drama Head, who just chuckled and smiled.
"All cool? Right, so a 'Jack' one of our personal posse, anyone else we deem to let in this room with us, but who still couldn't cut it as an Ace. Like Reina here, and of course, hmhm, you" Melissa smirked and prodded Honoka right above her chest. "Ya hear that, Reina? I want you to start accompanying er, Honoka, teach her what the duties of a Jack are".
"Oh, of course, aye aye ma'am!" Reina gave a salute.
"Whether Ace or Jack, to even be seen with us, proper grace and etiquette are essential," the almost doll-like Kikuko stood up and focused her scarlet eyes on Honoka, "For you though, we cannot have you dress like a peasant, for are you not in the company of nobles?".
"Though it's not like we are who we are just for how we look," Eitaro gruffly muttered, resting his hand on his chin, "Willpower, discipline, and diligence are a must, even a Jack can't afford to slack off in our group. Never forget, we are the best of the best".
All this, t-then why did you even want me in the first place?! Honoa thought so strongly she almost said that out loud, grabbing her mouth just in time.
"I suppose then you're curious as to why exactly we scouted you out" Azuma said, almost exactly in sync. "It's a long and complicated reason, but I'll start by saying, well honoka, this isn't the first time we've met, and not just at this school either..."
"W-what?" Honoka gasped, Wouldn't I have remembered meeting someone like Azuma before? I mean, my memory isn't the best, and he certainly speaks with more authority than me...
"Anyway, let's address your appearance, that'll probably be the quickest thing to deal with" Gakuto cut in, changing the topic to something simpler. Using a hologram projector he flashed Honoka's own social media profile, one she hadn't bothered to curate in quite a while admittedly, right up in front of everyone, making her jump back.
"I'm one of the boys, so I was hardly raised in the art of makeovers, but I definitely know a thing or two about digital image editing" Gakuto explained, as he asked "Well then honoka, what shall your updated appearance be?"
Biting her lip, Honoka just pointed at the picture of a scarlet-haired, mysterious beauty.
"Alright, good choice" Gakuto smugly grinned as he made some random-fire adjustments to her photo avatar. Before, the picture had been pimple-stained, with Honoka's hair its usual dull-coloured mess as it drooped all over her face. Now her face was all cleared up and her virtual hairstyle had been neatly tucked and trimmed.
"Ooh, you know what this means!" Reina excitedly hopped up and down.
"Yep, get in here, newbie" Melissa flashed a sharp-toothed smile as she dragged Honoka over to a conveniently curtained changing room, Reina and Himawari tailing along after her.
Within, Honoka's head was immediately dunked underwater, and she felt several hands scrubbing some rather pungent kind of shampoo and conditioner all through it. Once she was pulled up for air, the other girls smothered her in towels, followed by Melissa yanking on her no longer greasy hair with a brush, snipping her fringe with scissors, and fixing any part that stuck out with scrunchies.
"Ow, geez you guys, you don't have to be so forceful-" Honoka tried to say, but it was then Melissa and Himawari began putting makeup all over her face, starting with a glossy foundation, tweezing her eyebrows, lathering on the mascara and eyeshadow, and pinkening her face with blush and lipstick. After that was the most painful change of all, as Melissa, noticing some flab on Honoka's stomach, tightened her bra and shoved her into a corset.
Honoka was spun around like a tornado in her chair, until she landed in front of a mirror. "Ta-da!" Reina and Himawari each said and smiled in unison, while Melissa just had a lively smirk on her face, slowly clapping at her own work.
It was, well, hard for Honoka to imagine what she was even seeing in the mirror, she blinked her eyes and rubbed the glass to make sure her eyes weren't playing tricks on her. The person was staring back at her was certainly pretty, but Honoka was still having trouble processing that she was... me.
"I, I don't know what to say," she gulped "I never imagined looking like this".
"Better start imagining, dearie, 'cause we've still got work to do if you're gonna hang with us" Melissa said back, pushing back out the curtain into a club room, with Honoka suddenly face to face with Kikuko.
"I told you, you need to sharpen your graces," she spoke down at her, almost sounding like she'd been listening into Honoka's prior conversation "Firstly, shoulders up, spine straight, hands together" Kikuko told her as she pulled Honoka up and smoothed her skirt.
"Well, that certainly took a while. But anyway, here's where Azuma and I come in," Gakuto then said from across the hall. "It's been said that nobody has a good online bio, but looking at yours, it is simply more dreadful than the norm. Friggin' dull, like you've lived in this corner of Hokkaido all your life, have the most obvious taste in film, TV and games, and have been through barely any life-changing events to speak of".
"Therefore, we're giving you a chance to rewrite your own history, to play the part you were born to play, so to say" Azuma knelt and took Honoka's hand.
"Wait, wouldn't that be, y'know, lying?" she had to speak up.
"Well, that's social media for you" Gakuto quipped, adjusting his glasses.
"Besides, people will always take a thrilling story over a dry reality. I'm in Theatre, I should know" Azuma chuckled, before he pulled out what looked like a collection of scripts. "I understand inventing an entirely new past for yourself may seem a daunting task, so I've gone out of my way to write up several backstories for you on your behalf, each approved by us All-Aces. Take your pick".
'I ran away from my aristocratic but abusive birth parents, leaving behind my childhood friend Sakakibara Azuma. My fantasy is to find true love. My interests include singing, dancing, and animals.'
'My loving parents died when I was young, leaving me to be raised in an orphanage owned by the Sakakibara family. My fantasy is to find out I'm a princess. My interests include acting, writing, and reading.'
'I fell in with a bad crowd and had my life fall to pieces, tearing me away from my childhood friend Sakakibara Azuma. My fantasy is to have a dashing hero sweep me off my feet. My interests include poetry, photography, and fashion.'
Honoka paused, hesitating to ask "Why do all of these have you as my childhood friend?".
Azuma smiled and held her, "Because I was, that part is at least true, don't you remember?".
Honoka started shaking, even sweating, "Um, er, I guess my memory isn't the greatest..."
"Come now, don't you remember growing up with a brown-haired young boy there in your life?" Azuma, looking undaunted, asked her.
"Oh, you mean Yuya?" she blurted out.
"Itou Yuuya, second year? Ah, I see where the confusion comes from" Azuma sighed and muttered something to himself, before explaining, "I'm afraid you must've gotten the two of us mixed up. Oh, not to put any blame on Yuuya, when you called him your childhood friend, he must've been too polite or too anxious to correct you, and simply played along. Either way, I'm glad we've gotten that sorted".
"Yeah, now if you're done talking, it's about time we got down to the real reason why we brought this girl here" Eitaro spoke firmly, as he whipped off the cloth from the circular table, revealing what looked like some sort of Gameboard on it.
To Honoka, this Board resembled a weird cross between a hexagonal chessboard, a jigsaw puzzle, and a Monopoly board but with the squares all throughout instead of just along the edges. A good chunk of the board was blank, but she could see at least six bursts of colour on the board, each taking up several Spaces.
"Now this is what makes you an All-Ace" Eitaro proclaimed, "On this Board we play the Persona Game, the toughest competition this, or any other, school has to offer".
"That is one way to put it," Azuma laughed, stepping up to the board, "Each of the coloured spaces you see on the board are called Empires, a cognitive manifestation of the influence, the authority, the power a person wields here at Hanataba Academy. Most students, even teachers, don't have a status grand enough to declare their own Empire, so their Pieces survive the game by clinging to the Players who do".
"Naturally, All us Aces have an Empire, but you, well you're a weird one, Honoka," Melissa started proudly but then her voice dropped "We've spent ages trying to see if you had a Piece anywhere, but nope, nothing. Obviously, someone like you couldn't dream of having an Empire, but with no Piece, that can only mean you're a Player, like us! Somehow".
Now that she mentioned it, Honoka could see on closer inspection how each occupying Empire on the Gameboard did kinda reflect the personality of each All-Ace. The Theatres covered in roses and vines were unmistakably Azuma, the Colosseums were sporty enough for Eitaro, the brilliant lantern-like pagodas made Kikuko's heritage clear, the crisscrossing wires and Tron-like grid reminded her of Gakuto, the Mega-Malls ringed by desert were American enough for Melissa...
But the last major Empire didn't even feel the slightest thing like Himawari, looking like a tangled sprawl of slums and alleyways, drenched in rain and smog. Ah, maybe I'm just getting these mixed up, Honoka thought.
"Er, you said it took forever to find whether I had a Piece or not, but um, the Board honestly doesn't look that big. Maybe the Pieces are in a box or something?" Honoka asked.
But her query was only met with laughter from the All-Aces, Azuma at least trying to restrain himself.
"Oh no no no, you haven't even seen what makes the Persona Game, well the Persona Game!" Melissa grinned, as she conjured up that same Tarot card she'd had that morning, and grabbing Honoka's arm caused one to suddenly appear in her hand too. She then slammed both your hands down on the Gameboard, and suddenly Honoka was overcome by queasiness as her whole world started to spin.