Disclaimer: I don't own Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3.
It hasn't been five months! It hasn't! You're lying!

v: end unknown ( april, part five )

Minato barely managed to resist falling asleep in the middle of his Composition class, and only convinced himself to stay awake when Kenji, snoring away behind him, was roused by Ms. Toriumi and told to write an essay for his rudeness. He was to bring in a slice of cake for her, too, and the blue-haired boy found it a little perturbing that he couldn't tell if his teacher was kidding or not.

Once school had ended for the day, and Kenji had taken off, grumbling about his extra assignment, Minato gathered his stuff and made for the door, happy to go home and start his homework rather than hang out. As he passed the windows, a tall student in a jump suit caught his arm.

"Hey," the young man said. He looked nervous but friendly, with a big forehead and short, dark hair; he was holding a stack of flyers in his hands, one of which he gave to Minato. "Starting on the twenty-third, athletic clubs will be recruiting new members—uh, that is, only the kendo, track, and swim teams. The rest are full." He offered the transfer student a shy smile. "You should join one!"

Minato glanced down at the paper in his hand. A large yellow smiley face told him, in big black block letters, all the advantages of participating in sports. Hesitant, he fingered the edge of the flyer, remembering that he sucked royally at things like soccer and basketball. And yet, kendo didn't sound so bad, especially with the workouts in Tartarus that he bound to be doing. "Okay," he said, softly.

The tall kid smiled. "You'll think about it?" he said, and added, "The manager of the kendo team asked me to do this, in case you're wondering. Spreading the word, you know?"

Minato let his lips curve up just the tiniest bit as he shoved the paper into his pocket. "Yeah," he said. "You're in kendo?"

The boy nodded, chest thrust out proudly. "I'm the star!" he boasted, grinning, and extended an arm. "The name's Kaz."

Minato took the proffered hand and introduced himself with a proper smile this time. Afterward, Kaz excused himself and the blue-haired boy found his way to the exit. No sooner had he left the building than he passed a posse of girls gathered by the steps, eyes glued to the door.

"Look!" one shrieked as he passed. "It's Akihiko!"

"Where? Oh, there he is!" another shouted, and Minato turned to see the boxer standing by the door, fairly radiating exhaustion and exasperation. As he hurried down the steps, the ladies fell into place around him, stopping him from going any further. Horrified, Akihiko scratched his head and sighed.

"Have you noticed how popular Sanada is with the ladies?" a familiar voice suddenly chimed in from a spot by Minato's left ear. SEES' young leader whirled around, startled, to find Junpei grinning back at him. "Man, take a look at that!" The tall boy shrugged and laughed. "I didn't use to talk to him much, but now I've got a good excuse. I know he's the captain of the boxing team, but who would've thought he'd be such a chick magnet?"

The two juniors watched as Akihiko tried in vain to get past the ladies, only to be daunted by their screams. "I mean, come on!" Junpei exclaimed, eyeing the silver-haired young man jealously. "You don't even see girls flock like that on TV! I wonder where they're going?"

At last, Akihiko pushed past the girls and noticed Junpei and Minato. Relief flooded his face, and he rubbed the back of his neck. "Hey," he said, shifting from foot to foot in an obvious show of edginess, "are you guys free this afternoon?"

Whistling under his breath, Junpei tipped his hat at the ladies and said, "Hell yeah! What do you have in mind?"

"I want the two of you to meet me at Paulownia Mall," Akihiko explained, looking a bit startled by the young man's enthusiasm. "You know where it is, right? I'll be at the police station. See you the—"

"Th-the police station?" Junpei cut in, disappointment and embarrassment colouring his features. "You mean, we're not hangin' out with your friends?"

Akihiko looked around at the googly-eyed students hanging onto his arms and grimaced. "Who, these girls?" he asked, discreetly shaking a particularly invasive one off of him. "I don't even know their names. They talk so much they give me a headache…" Without waiting for a response from either his fan club or his new friends, the boxer set off towards the gate. "Anyway, I'm going to head out," he called over his shoulder. "Don't keep me waiting."

The ladies stared after him helplessly. "Aww," one sighed, wiping her eyes. "Why can't he be more friendly?"

Her friend hit her lightly in the arm and reminded her, "But that's what makes him so cool!"

The troop nodded to themselves and hurried off in the direction that Akihiko had gone. Junpei watched them go, bewildered. "Man," he said, turning to Minato in disbelief, "how can he not know their names? I mean, seriously! Just look at them!" He threw up his arms in exasperation. "Oh, well. Let's go."

Minato was still a little shaky as to where everything was, so he let Junpei lead the way to the mall; in twenty minutes, they were standing outside of the police station. Through the window, they could see an officer stationed behind his desk, chatting quietly with Akihiko.

"Thank you, Sir," the boxer was saying as the two juniors came in. He didn't turn to greet them, but waved one hand in their direction and said to the man behind the counter, "These are the guys I was talking about earlier." He didn't get a response, so Akihiko turned to the Persona-users, frowning. "I was waiting for you guys," he said, pointedly. "This is Officer Kurosawa. He helps keep our squad well equipped. And," he fished in his vest pockets and pulled out ten thousand yen, "this is from Ikutsuki…"

"R-really?" Junpei said, accepting half. "Sweet!"

Akihiko nodded. "You can't fight empty-handed, so find something you like," he said, jerking his head at the rows of cabinets stacked along the walls. "Officer Kurosawa has connections, but these things still cost money."

"Of course they do," Kurosawa cut in, stern and sudden enough to make Junpei jump a little. "Nothing in life is free."

Akihiko offered him a tired smile. "I realise that," he said, and turned towards the exit. "Well, I'll see you later. Thanks again."

The door shut behind him, and Kurosawa planted his hands flat on the desk, leaning towards the two boys in front of him. "I've been informed about you," he said stiffly. "My job is to maintain peace in this city, regardless of the circumstances. I'm just an ordinary police officer, but it doesn't take a genius to know something strange is going on here." He eyed Junpei, who looked rather afraid of him. "I'm only doing what I think is right."

With that, he led the two boys into the back room. They resurfaced a few moments later, Minato clutching a tiny penknife—the one Yukari had given him not quite two weeks before had been split cleanly in half—and Junpei empty-handed and grumbling.

"Only five thousand yen," he muttered to himself, scowling. "I'm going to take off, since I'm in a bad mood now. Later."

The blue-haired boy nodded and silently held up a hand in a farewell salute, watching as his friend vanished through the nearest exit. He set off for home after grabbing a cup of coffee at Chagall Café, bracing himself for all the homework that was waiting for him.

He had nearly memorised the key mathematical formulas he needed for the test the following day by the by the time he wrenched the front door of the dorm open and hobbled inside, yawning. Mitsuru met him halfway to the couch, one hand extended to stop him from going up to his room. On the sofa behind her, Akihiko was curled up with his boxing gloves in hand, polishing away and looking half asleep. The Chairman sat quietly in the nearby armchair, smiling, his arms folded across his chest.

"Welcome back," Mitsuru said, forcing Minato's attention back to her. "Perfect timing—I'd like to speak to you for a moment. Regarding our exploration of Tartarus, Akihiko is still on the mend, so for now, I'd like you to lead the team."

Minato stared at her in disbelief. She saw this and smiled.

"You never know when a powerful enemy might appear," she explained, waving his unvoiced questions away, "like the one you faced the other day. It's best to be prepared; otherwise you might find yourself in a difficult situation. So, whenever you'd like to explore Tartarus," Never, he thought, immediately, "just let me know, and I'll gather everyone here."

He nodded dumbly, and she lowered her arm. "Well, that's it," she said, backing up towards the couch. Once she was settled down with her book, she glanced up at him, still standing there motionless, and added, awkwardly, "Keep up the good work."

Surprised and flattered, Minato wandered over to the couch and plunked down beside Akihiko, who looked up from his gloves. "Officer Kurosawa doesn't have the potential to enter the Dark Hour," he said, out of the blue. "He's just an ordinary policeman. But he knows about us and helps out when he can."

"How did you meet him?" the junior asked.

To his surprise, a pink tint spread across Akihiko's high cheekbones, and he quickly averted his gaze back to his lap. "He helped me out a while ago." There was a pause, and then: "He's someone you can count on."

The blue-haired boy nodded, not quite satisfied with the evasive answer. But he knew that he didn't know the boxer well enough to badger him, so Minato simply sat back and closed his eyes, running those formulas through his head. No sooner had he done this than the Chairman leaned across the coffee table to tap him smartly on the knee.

"You did very well for your first night in Tartarus," he said brightly.

Minato forced his eyes open and lied, effortlessly, "It was a piece of cake."

Ikutsuki beamed at him. "Why, that's absolutely remarkable!" he crowed. "Would you like to apply to become the next Chairman?"

Minato smiled weakly back, and staggered to his feet. He still had five word problems to work through, and he just couldn't remember the formula that he needed. Hoping against hope that he'd actually bothered to write it down between taking naps in that class, he moved towards the stairs. Mitsuru was up and catching him by the arm before he could get very far.

"I'm sorry to bother you like this, Arisato," she said, gravely, "but I felt this is something that you need to know."

He blinked at her.

"I believe we talked to you about this when you joined SEES, but those who are unable to experience the Dark Hour are transmogrified during that time," the redhead explained, not loosening her hold on the junior's sleeve. "They appear as coffins. Shadows are quite enigmatic—they only attack those who have not been transmogrified—and they feed on the minds of their victims, leaving them unable to speak. We call this Apathy Syndrome, and those who suffer from this incapacitating affliction are know as…"

For one long moment, she hesitated. Then Mitsuru released his arm, stepped back, and finished, "The Lost."

April 22nd, 2009.

Though Minato woke up exhausted, it wasn't because of Tartarus—after politely declining Mitsuru's request to return to the Shadow nest, Junpei (who had obviously been feeling better) had dragged him out to party at Paulownia Mall. They'd spent a small fortune at Game Panic before retreating to Mandragora so they could, quite literally, sing the night away.

When his alarm went off, the blue-haired boy jolted awake so violently he nearly fell off the bed. By the time that he'd washed and dressed, a searing headache had made itself known in his temples, and Minato was rather glad the previous evening could only be recalled in bursts of static and fuzzy faces, pinpoints of white light and loud laughter.

He was slow to make his way downstairs; on the counter, he spotted a cooling cup of coffee and downed the lukewarm beverage in one gulp. His friends' stuff was gone, so it was clear that they'd packed up and left long before he had gotten up. He hoped that was because of Mitsuru's love for being really early and not his own lateness. A glance at the clock on the wall told him it veered towards the latter, and he wound up running all the way to school. A grinning brunet met him at the gate and stopped him short.

"Slow down, man!" Kenji exclaimed, good-naturedly. "The first bell hasn't rung yet."

Minato clapped a hand over his heart, bending over a little to catch his breath. "Yet," he repeated, hoisting his pack into a better position and straightening.

Kenji's smile faded into confusion after a moment as he surveyed the young man in front of him. "So, what's up?" he said. "You're all by yourself?" When the other junior raised a sceptical eyebrow at him, Kenji shrugged and explained, "Dude, I thought the rumour about you and Yukari was true."

Minato shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. "It is what it is," he lied, hoping that Kenji, with his apparent interest in Yukari, would get jealous and shove off. To his disappointment, the brunet seemed mildly intrigued by this.

"Oh, yeah?" he said, before he could stop himself. He quickly turned a knowing smirk into a blank look of disinterest. "Well, it's not like I care or anything."

Good, Minato thought, running a hand through his hair. Good, keep "not caring". Now go away.

Unfortunately for him, Kenji's smile returned to his angular face. "You've sure had some bad luck since you transferred here," he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. There was no response, and he frowned. "You know, all the weird stuff that's been happening—how everyone's been saying they're hearing strange voices." He pointed wryly at the MP3 player clutched in the blue-haired boy's fist and sighed, "Well, I guess since you're always listening to your headphones, you probably haven't heard anything."

The first bell began to sound at that moment, so Minato forced a smile and followed his eager companion inside.

― ¤ ―

After suffering through hopelessly long, boring classes, Minato nodded off at his desk as all the regular students filed obediently out the door. He awoke a few minutes later, acutely aware of the presence standing in front of him. He swallowed a sigh and cracked one eye open, preparing for the worst.

Kenji beamed down at him. Junpei stood a ways behind him, and Minato desperately tried to meet his eyes, make some sort of frantic, silent plea for help. The other boy was too distracted by a girl leaning out the window to notice, and the blue-haired boy slumped down in his seat, avoiding looking at Kenji's happy face.

"Hey, man, I'm going to get some ramen after school," he said. "You wanna come?"

Minato fished around in his bag, pulled out his MP3 player, and set his headphones into place. "Why are you asking me?" he said before he could stop himself, and barely hid a wince at how hostile it sounded.

Kenji rocked back on his heels, a light flush spreading across his cheeks. "Ah, no reason, really," he said hastily, scratching his head in embarrassment. "I just don't have anything to do later, and I thought we could finish our conversation from this morning." A pang of guilt at his recent unfriendliness struck Minato right in the gut, and he ducked his head as Kenji continued, "So, what do you say, man? Let's get some ramen and talk."

The blue-haired boy found himself nodding. "Okay," he mumbled, picking at the buttons on his school jacket. "Okay, sure."

Kenji showed him to a place in the Iwatodai strip mall—a cramped, overcrowded, and overheated restaurant called Hagakure. Some customers were tightly packed into booths, while others lingered by the door or sat on already occupied tables. Still more were hunched over at the bar, slurping noisily from bowls. The loud chatter from all sides was nearly drowned out by the clattering and sizzling coming from the kitchen, which wasn't more than a few big vats and a stove shoved in behind the counter. The lone cook worked tirelessly there for hours on end, while two incompetent waitresses lounged outside, smoking and gossiping.

Minato was shoved unceremoniously onto one of the few free barstools. Kenji almost suffocated him with the menu before perching precariously on his own seat and ordering a heaping bowl of noodles. The blue-haired boy quietly asked for a simple meal, and after the man behind the bar asked him three times to speak up, Kenji just ordered something for him. Both bowls arrived twenty minutes later, piled high and steaming.

The brunet dug into his without reservation, while Minato took it a bit more slowly. After a few moments, however, he was going at it nearly as quickly as the regulars.

"Whew!" Kenji exclaimed once he was done, pushing his bowl away with a sigh of satisfaction. "Now, that's what I'm talkin' about!" His companion looked up from his half-finished noodles warily, drawing a grin from the other boy. "Well, was I right, or was I right?" he demanded. "This ramen tastes great, doesn't it? I bet they put a special ingredient in it—something no other ramen shop uses." He stroked his clean-shaven chin in contemplation, staining it with grease. "It's probably some sort of secret spice."

Minato had no trouble at all seeing how Junpei and Kenji might get along. Muffling a chuckle with a mouthful of noodles, the young man shrugged and rubbed at his own face pointedly.

His new friend coloured in embarrassment and grabbed a napkin. "Oh, sorry. My bad." Giddy laughter escaped him, and he spun around on his barstool, grinning. "I get all geeked up when I eat here."

Minato swallowed the last of his ramen and pushed the bowl away from him as Kenji had done. "I agree with you."

The brunet gaped and pointed at the vats behind the counter. "Really? You do? I mean, you can appreciate the subtle yet distinct flavour of the soup?" He loosened his tie and touched his reddening cheeks. "Wow, you don't look like the type of guy I'd normally hang out with," he prodded Minato's perfectly ironed shirt and pants, "but I guess looks aren't everything, huh?"

To the blue-haired boy's surprise, he found himself smiling and loosening up—he'd expected a hang out session that would bore him to tears, but Kenji wasn't that bad after all, he supposed. "I guess so," he agreed quietly.

Obviously feeling uncomfortable at his admission, Kenji readjusted his tie for the third time in thirty seconds and cleared his throat. "Anyway, about Yukari!" Laughing, he waved at the cook to bring him another round. "Damn, boy, you move fast! I mean, you just transferred here. I can't blame you, though. A man's got to be aggressive nowadays."

Minato raised his eyebrows, and Kenji laughed again.

"Hey, let's hang out after school again sometime," he suggested as another bowl of ramen was slammed down on the counter in front of him. "We'll get some food and I'll tell you about my secret plan—wait 'til you hear it, dude. You're going to flip!"

Minato opened his mouth to agree when a bolt of icy cold buried itself deep in his chest. Again? he thought, heart racing. Another… another Social Link? He glanced out of the corner of his eye at Kenji, who had stopped with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth, and looked bewildered. The blue-haired boy realised that he was bent over the bar, hands clutching so hard at the smooth surface that his knuckles were turning white. He tried in vain to steady himself and swallow the nausea; when that had no effect, he cinched his arms around his middle and shut his eyes.

It was then that he saw the card, spinning so fast he could barely see it.

When it finally slowed to a stop, he found that it was different from the one he saw when he was with SEES—a pair of dark eyes, above two hands that conjured black fire, stared down at him from the card's blue surface.

Thou shalt have our blessing, a voice whispered in his head, the same as before, when thou choosest to create a Persona of the Magician Arcana.

With that, it faded away, as did the card, whipped away as if by a sudden wind. His whole world flickered black and white as things slowly returned to focus. A few moments later, Minato realised his eyes were still squeezed shut, and he was lying flat on his back. He coughed and tried to stand, but two hands held him down, and he forced his eyelids up.

The cook, for once venturing out of the kitchen, was bent over him, looking horrified and confused. "Hey, kid," he said, shaking the junior by the shoulder. "You all right?"

Minato saw Kenji's white, worried face behind him, and tried to smile. He knew it came out strained and sickly from the way the brunet's face paled further. "I'm fine," he choked out, pushing the man's hands away and sitting upright. "It's, uh, it's okay."

"What happened, dude?" Kenji demanded as the cook relented and helped Minato up. "Did you have some sort of weird episode?"

The blue-haired boy laughed as the nausea and cold began to recede. "No, it's okay," he said. "Really. I guess eating all that ramen made me kind of sick."

Kenji frowned suspiciously as his friend swayed on his feet. Without thinking about it, he reached out to place a hand on the shorter boy's shoulder. "If you say so," he muttered, shaking his head in confusion and glancing out the window. "Look, I'm going to go—it's real late and my ma's gonna kill me." He patted Minato awkwardly and stepped out into the evening. "Not to mention I missed my favourite TV show…"

The other young man laughed on a long exhale and joined Kenji in the cool night. Only then did he remember how stifling it was in Hagakure, and gratefully gulped in a few big breaths of fresh air. "I have homework," he said, simply.

"Okay," Kenji agreed, but didn't move, apparently at a loss for what to do. Eventually, he just ruffled Minato's hair and said, "You sure you're okay?"

The blue-haired boy batted his hand away. "I'm fine," he repeated. "Don't worry about me. I'll see you tomorrow."

Comforted, the brunet nodded again and began to back away down the path, towards the stairs that led to the street. "Yeah, I'll see you," he echoed, and with a last wave, disappeared underneath the orange railing.

Even though he was exhausted, Minato waited until Kenji was long gone before he turned in the direction of the dorm with a tired sigh.

April 23rd, 2009.

Minato nervously fingered the frayed edge of the flyer in his hand and eyed the door in front of him. A note tacked to it read, 'Kendo Team—recruiting new members! Fight like a samurai!'

All day, he'd been pondering whether or not to actually join. Now that the moment had finally come to decide, after he'd breezed through his classes half-asleep and preoccupied, he nodded to himself, promptly thought, What the hell, and pushed the door open. A large gym opened up in front of him, with a selection of students in uniform sparring away with wooden swords in the centre.

Nervously, he sidled along the wall to where the coach was mobbed by a few bright-eyed freshmen. He waved them away, didn't bat an eyelash as they stalked sulkily back into the hall, and nodded at the approaching junior. "Can I help you?"

"Uh, yeah." Minato's eyes wandered over to a pretty black-haired girl in a jumpsuit. She smiled at him, and he averted his eyes and got his mind back on track. "I'd like to join."

The coach scrutinised him slowly. "Good timing," he said, eventually, and turned away to call out to his team. Once they were paying attention, he turned back to Minato and said, "I've only got one spot left, and I was saving it for someone worthy. You look up to the task. Name?"

The blue-haired boy answered the older man's various questions as the rest of the kendo team gathered around. Once they had pulled off their protective masks and lowered their swords, the coach landed a heavy hand on Minato's shoulders and wheeled him around to face his new teammates. "This is Arisato Minato. He'll be joining our team," he said, and pointed into the crowd of students. "This is Yuko, our manager."

The black-haired girl stepped up and brushed some nonexistent lint from her jumpsuit smartly. "Hello, I'm Nishiwaki Yuko," she said. "Nice to meet you."

The coach took his hand off of the young man's shoulder and called out, "Hey! Kazushi!"

The boy that Minato had met a few days before—Kaz—removed his helmet at the cry and ducked his head, smiling slightly at the newcomer. "Yes, sir!"

"This is the future captain of this team," the coach said to the blue-haired young man, beaming proudly at his star pupil. "He's a great athlete and scores well in competitions. You two are in the same class, right? Kazushi, keep an eye on the new guy here, okay?"

"You got it," Kaz said, and turned to Minato. "Hey. I'm glad you decided to join!"

Yuko joined them, her curved lips pale in her tanned face. "You two know each other?"

"Nah," Kazushi exclaimed. "I gave him one of the flyers." He gave Minato a quick once over, and seemed to remember something. "Hey, you're the guy who went out with Takeba Yukari on the first day of school, right?"

Minato went a bit red. "Um, sort of."

Kaz smiled. "You're practically famous," he said, and Yuko nodded in agreement. "Well, anyway, I never properly introduced myself." He extended a hand. "I'm Miyamoto Kazushi, and long story short—from now on, you're mine after school. Just because you joined mid-season, don't think I'll go easy on you!"

Before Minato could respond, cold that was almost familiar clamped like a vice around his heart. He had endured it often enough to keep a hold of himself, though only just. Feigning nonchalance, he leaned against the wall and tried to catch his breath as the force of the Social Link made his eyes slip shut. No sooner had his vision dissolved into darkness than a card appeared—

Once it had stopped spinning, he caught an image of a chariot, golden and red, before it was gone again, vanishing along with the voice that whispered those same old words—Thou shalt have our blessing when thou choosest to create a Persona of the Chariot Arcana.

"Hey, you okay?"

Minato wrenched his eyes open to find Yuko and Kaz peering at him in confusion and alarm. He scrunched his cheeks in a forced smile and pushed himself off the wall, swallowing the nausea. "I'm fine," he lied. "Just a little tired."

Yuko still looked suspicious, but let it go. "Well, okay," she assented, and adopted a professional stance. "Since today is your first practise, just have a look around and then call it a day. I'll make sure your uniform is ready for next time."

Minato smiled at her gratefully and allowed Kazushi to show him around the gym and the changing rooms. Once he had exhausted all the nooks and crannies of this unfamiliar place, the blue-haired boy decided to go back to the dorm.

The moment he got in the door, Junpei poked his head over the top of the couch and waved. "S'up, dude?" he crowed, grinning. "I hear you're friends with Kenji now. He said you're a pretty cool guy."

Minato smiled back. "Of course."

Junpei snorted, though his smile didn't fade. "Don't get too cocky, man," he warned, and went back to his magazine. Into its sleek pages, he said, "Yeah, I'm sure you two will get along just fine." Before SEES' current leader could question if that was a compliment or not, the boy on the sofa spoke up again. "By the way, let's go to Tartarus tonight. I hear the Lost are increasing, so we better kick some Shadow ass."

They hadn't gone back since the first excursion, so Minato deemed that fair enough. Before he scampered off to his room, he spotted Mitsuru nodding at him approvingly.

― ¤ ―

Once the moon overhead had taken on an eerie green glow and the whole world around them was populated only by coffins, SEES (this time, sans Akihiko) made their way over to what, in the light of day, was their school. Tartarus stood tall and terrifying, towering up endlessly into the night. Mitsuru, of course, led the way in, talking quietly to Minato all the while.

"As we explore Tartarus," she explained as they passed under the threshold, sweeping one arm out to encompass the mysterious green machine and the grand staircase, then the golden pillar and the blue door that she couldn't see, "this will be our temporary base of operations. I'm counting on you."

Minato nodded and beckoned Junpei and Yukari to follow him up the steps. They did so nervously, gripping their weapons tightly in both hands. Just before the trio ducked through the entryway and entered the labyrinth, Mitsuru's voice once again cut through the stillness.

"I found out something else about Tartarus," she said crisply. "A few floors up, there's a barricade preventing you from going any higher. The tower seems to have a number of these interspersed amongst its floors. I know I told you that the layout changes each day, but these barriers seem to be in fixed locations…" Her brow drew together. "I'd like you to try and reach the first barricade."

Yukari swallowed hard. Mitsuru noticed this and sent a glance that was almost comforting her way.

"Be careful," she said, and Minato nodded and led his friends inside.

The hallway beyond at first appeared empty. It stretched on endlessly into the darkness, unlike the first night that they'd been inside, when it had been a corridor that twisted and turned non-stop. No Shadows came forth, and the silence was so complete that Yukari jumped and gave a little shriek when Mitsuru's voice cut through hers and the other's minds a few minutes later.

"Give me a moment," she said, "and I'll check to see what's beyond this floor." There was a pause, and then a telling gasp. Minato felt his stomach sinking to his knees. "I detect a great source of power above you. It's still relatively far away, but keep your guard up nonetheless—watch out!"

A Shadow had appeared as if from out of nowhere, bigger than the ones SEES had come across so far. It was a massive grey lion, shackled at the ankles by chains and dragging a great iron ball behind it. It roared when it saw the intruders, and impatiently pawed the air, snarling and baring its teeth.

Yukari's grip on her bow loosened. "Oh, God," she whispered, her eyes fixed on the Shadow. "It's—"

Junpei shot her a worried look. "Come on, Yuka!" he shouted, brandishing his sword and grinning at her in a way he hoped was reassuring. She didn't even look at him. "We can handle this, it's just a Shadow! Come on—"

Anything else he had to say was drowned out by the scream of Minato's Evoker.

April 30th, 2009.

Tartarus left Minato tired and sickly for the rest of the week. Despite this, he forced himself to school each morning, enduring Kenji (who endlessly insisted on keeping his plan a secret), exhausting kendo practises after school, a ridiculous assembly for the sake of the principal's ego—nobody could believe he'd ripped off Mitsuru's speech—and, lastly, Minato's acceptance into Student Council.

It was hardly something the blue-haired boy would usually consider, but Mitsuru had asked him specially, and he'd found he couldn't turn her down. He hadn't actually attended it yet, though—he planned on putting that off for as long as humanly possible.

Three days had passed since then, and Minato thought he had noticed Mitsuru giving him the evil eye when she thought he wasn't looking.

Tomorrow's Friday, he thought to himself as he shut the dorm's front door behind him. I think there's a meeting. Might as well go and get her off my back…

No sooner had he waved a greeting to his friends than his cell phone began to buzz impatiently in his pocket. He fished it out and flipped it open, guessing that it was Kenji. Maybe the brunet had finally decided to tell him what his (no doubt idiotic) "secret plan" was.

It wasn't Kenji.

The mysterious caller offered no information, neither number nor name. Bewildered, Minato held the mobile to his ear. "Hello?"

"Hello?" a woman's voice echoed. The junior felt as if he should know who it was, but no matter how hard he tried, no one came to mind. This was promptly remedied when she continued, "This is Elizabeth."

Minato held the phone away from his ear and stared at it. Did the Velvet Room even have a phone? Figuring that she probably had a really good reason to be calling him, the young man struggled to wedge it between his cheek and his shoulder as he deposited his school bag on the floor.

"Please come to the Velvet Room," she continued. "There is a matter we need to discuss. You may use the alternate entrance located in Paulownia Mall."

"In the ma—" he started, bewildered.

"All you must do is find the door," she told him, in a way that didn't invite questions. "I'll see you soon."

Minato heard a click, and then dial tone. He held his mobile at arm's length and chewed what she'd said over in his head. He had to go, that much was obvious.

"Dude?" he heard Junpei say. "What's up? Who was that? A girl, right?"

Minato shook his head to clear his thoughts and shoved his cell back into his pocket. "Uh," he said unhelpfully, and turned back to the entry, still open. "I've got to go."

"Have fun on your date, man!" Junpei called as the front door slammed.

Date, Minato thought as he jogged for the station as fast as his legs would take him. Date with who? Elizabeth?

The idea was both hilarious and a little frightening, and he tried not to dwell on it as he took the fastest train over to Port Island. Once there, it was a bit of a trek over to Paulownia Mall, but he made it there in record time. He didn't want to disappoint Elizabeth and Igor—the thought of what they might do to him was scary enough to have him running all the way there.

The mall was packed for a Thursday afternoon; an old man was curled up on a bench by the fountain. Next to him, a chubby student sat and stared at the tiled floor despondently. Others milled around, popping in and out of shops; two housewives dressed in aprons chatted by the exit.

"Where is it?" he muttered under his breath, racking his brains for any hint that Elizabeth might've given him, one that he missed.

All you must do is find the door.

He'd been in most, if not all, of the stores in Paulownia Mall, so that was pretty much out. The nightclub, Escapade, was one of the few places he hadn't ventured into yet, but it wouldn't open until late, so that was out of the question.

At a loss, Minato wandered through the building, using the pretence of window-shopping should Officer Kurosawa suddenly decide to venture out from behind his desk and arrest him for shoplifting. He wound up standing before an open entryway that led to a shady alleyway. Figuring it was worth a try, he disappeared into it when he thought nobody was looking.

At first, Minato saw nothing. With a sigh, he slouched against the brick wall and massaged his temples, desperately trying to think of other places the door might be. Surely it wouldn't be in the Police Station itself?

Before he could look into that idea further, he became aware of a low hum emanating from the back of the alley. He jerked his head up out of his hands and stared as a blue door slowly materialised amidst the red brick. Once the last traces of burgundy had vanished from the golden doorknob, Minato blindly dug in his pocket for the key and propelled himself forwards.

The door opened before he'd even laid a hand on it.

― ¤ ―

"Ah, there you are," said Igor once Minato was aware of where he was. The blue-haired boy found that he was already seated in the high-backed chair that, he began to notice, was shaped rather like the harp that his Orpheus wielded. A little unnerved, he tried his best to smile at the long-nosed old man. It came out strained, but that only made Igor's smile widen. "Welcome to the Velvet Room."

Minato nodded. "You wanted to see me?" he asked, nervously.

"Yes, yes," the elderly gentleman simpered, straightening the cuffs of his black sleeves absently. He exchanged a brief, knowing glance with Elizabeth before turning back to his guest and steepling his fingers. "I suppose it's time for me to explain what I really do here."

Minato's brow furrowed, but he caught Elizabeth's eyes before he went to speak, and decided better of it.

"It is my job," Igor said, leaning forwards, "to create new Personas." He drank in the junior's surprised reaction, his old face creasing in a satisfied, eerie smile. "But in order to do so, I must fuse your Persona cards together."

This brought Minato back to the very moment in Tartarus a week before when he had defeated the lion-shaped Shadow that had so terrified Yukari. Orpheus had brought it down in one fell swoop, and afterward, a card, like that of a Social Link, had appeared in his mind's eye—on it had been a beautiful faery. He'd seen it for a fleeting moment, not more than the blink of an eye, before the card vanished; at the time, he'd assumed it was some sort of trick done by the deceased Shadow. Later, however, when Junpei had gotten injured and Yukari was too weak to help him, Minato had, somehow, been able to bring forth that beautiful creature, all dark hair and pale wings and one sneaking, ivory smile, to heal him. A name had been revealed, as well—Pixie.

"You, my boy," Igor had said when they first met, "are able to possess multiple Personas, and summon them as needed."

Minato felt a shiver run through him at the thought. It was terrifying and wonderful and altogether too much.

"In other words," Igor continued at long last, his grin widening as his guest's true power finally began to sink in, "I shall merge them into a single Persona; furthermore, the stronger a Social Link, the stronger your Persona." He clapped his hands loudly; in the silence of the Velvet Room, the noise was nearly deafening, and Minato gripped the edge of his seat hard to keep from jumping. "So, as you accumulate cards, please bring them to me."

Shakily, the blue-haired boy went to stand. The thought of discovering new Personas in Tartarus' murky depths made him want to return to the Shadow nest as soon as possible—there had to be more he could find, that he could tame and call his own.

No sooner had he gotten to his feet than Elizabeth stretched one long, thin arm out towards him. Even though he was looking resolutely at his feet, he could feel her golden gaze washing over him, analysing his every movement. "I shall look forward to your next visit," she said, deprecatingly.

Minato swallowed hard, a trifle unnerved, then nodded and backed up towards the exit. Igor and Elizabeth's eyes followed him until he had his hand at the knob. At that point, they both smiled, and the Velvet Room vanished.