A/N: I like writing alternate villain AUs. Here's another, to test the one-shot setup. One-sided Yosuke-Souji, a few hinted pairings. Rated for violence, language. Character death. Warning: not a pleasant story.

[the goddess]

Things before Inaba are hazy, but you remember the first day. Your uncle stops at a gas station, your cousin follows him inside and you're left standing on the forecourt, chatting with the attendant.

"Welcome to Inaba," she tells you. When she grabs your hand, an ice-cold shiver shudders down your spine.

That night you dream of a woman in white, but the dream isn't important. You already know what she needs. What matters is what follows.

[the first]

The detective - your spare - has already begun. He's sloppy. A vanished celebrity is bound to draw attention and a body found draped over an aerial attracts even more. Now all eyes are on Inaba, the spare's half-drunk with power, and when you see a girl in the midnight static you know she'll be his second.

So you move first. It's breathtakingly easy. Junes has televisions lining the walls and you've got a smile that could charm the devil - and when April fifteenth dawns blood-red and purple, the police find Saki Konishi hanging from a telephone pole near her parents' store.

[the magician]

But a game requires participants, so your collection begins with the magician. If you were different (softer, weaker) you might regret it. But he's damaged from the start; you're merely speeding up the process.

You wield her name almost casually at first - Saki-senpai this, Saki-senpai that - like salt and lemon in a still gaping wound. Hanamura talks big, rants about vengeance and putting things right, but there's guilt shot through every word.

Later you tone it down. You keep her for special occasions, like each time the Channel shows a new victim: we have to get it right this time, not like with Saki. Or each time the team brings someone back: we should have saved Saki too. Then you sigh, slap his back and twist the knife deeper in his chest.

But there's something peculiar in the way Hanamura hangs on your words to begin with. He looks to you for approval. When he beats down a shadow, when he heals up Satonaka in battle and even when he manages to not fail his exams, his eyes flicker straight to you.

After a while you notice he's always watching. You indulge him a little. Touch his arm, sit with him at lunch, hug him by the river when he's sobbing over Saki. Simple things. When Tatsumi joins, Hanamura's the first to joke about his Shadow, the one who seems almost offhand in his homophobia. As the weeks pass, though, his laughter grows forced, particularly once you join in. By July you realize he might just be in love with you, and that's the biggest joke of all.

[the chariot]

Satonaka and Amagi only count as one, so you deal with them both in the same manner. As always it's the Shadows that provide the clues and Satonaka's couldn't be more obvious. No need for a costume or props. There's just resentment and need.

But the Shadow goes down easily, and when you pull Amagi from her own Shadow's cage Satonaka's overjoyed. Her and Amagi talk each other up for hours: prince this, princess that. Hanamura rolls his eyes and you share a grin.

Truth is, Satonaka storms and blusters to hide her weakness. There's no part of her strong enough to reshape the landscape inside the television; just a dull clone tucked away in Amagi's sprawling, spiraling castle. The prince doesn't always hold the strings. So you tell Amagi how pretty she is in her kimono, how beautiful and ladylike she is when she smiles, but only when you know Satonaka's listening.

[the priestess]

It makes no sense to separate them. They're tangled in a way even you can't unravel, so you've learned how to twist the knots a little tighter.

It's a gradual process. When Satonaka's there, you sell Amagi a pack of lies. So beautiful, so delicate, so elegant. The rest of the time you ignore her. She calls to you in the school corridor, shoots you smiles across the table at Junes, and you stand oblivious.

Within a few months she's practically throwing herself at you. Turns out dainty Yuki-chan has a masochistic streak. But she's caught up with Satonaka too; when one breathes in, the other breathes out. Satonaka thinks she'll never be good enough because she isn't Amagi, who considers herself a failure because she isn't like Satonaka.

It barely requires your input. You just throw in the occasional word, the odd well-phrased compliment, and they take care of each other. Can't separate a prince from her princess, after all.

[the emperor]

Tatsumi's a poser. You run from him with the others in the shopping district but you've already seen what's behind the mask: a scared kid who pushes everyone away. Might be gay, might not. Hanamura's convinced, which is telling, but you suspect he's something less easily labeled.

Still, outward appearances are what matter and Tatsumi's been crushing on a boy for weeks. It's absurdly obvious the boy's no boy at all - and that's another riddle in itself - but by the time anyone else notices, the damage is already done. Hanamura virtually carries this one by himself.

Your role comes near the end. Months later, Naoki Konishi (who doesn't have long left at all) lets you in on a secret. Tatsumi's been making dolls for his mother's store and for a kid down by the river. You follow him there after school; watch him pull a stuffed rabbit from a bag and give it to a boy in a blue shirt. The happiness on Tatsumi's face is pathetic. Then he sees you, walking down the riverbank towards him, and thrusts the bag behind his back.

You tell him you saw the dolls. Isn't it a little creepy? A little feminine, maybe a little bit gay?

Tatsumi's face crumples into a scowl and he throws the bag to the ground. Later you tell Hanamura too. His casual cruelty is attractive enough, but the bruises on his face a few days later are exquisite. Tatsumi stays away from the river after that and next time you pass his mother's store the dolls are gone from the window.

[the second]

High on success after rescuing Tatsumi, the others never consider that the television might hold more than one person at a time. That's their second mistake. The third is assuming the Midnight Channel always chooses the victims.

A narrow view of the world leaves a man blind to his options. You've been making friends at school, meeting people in town, working hard at your part-time job as a janitor - wish more kids were like you, Dojima says - and keeping your eyes open. When the fog rolls in at midnight on June 5th, Tatsumi's been tucked safe at home for a week. Sayoko Uehara, dangling from the gutter on the hospital roof, isn't so lucky.

The next day Hanamura and Satonaka spend hours railing at the walls, then each other. When Amagi begs you to make them stop, you shrug and think of their first mistake: trusting you.

[the lover]

Kujikawa drives you half-insane at first. She's as much a slut as her Shadow and a tease with it. Flirts with you constantly, dips her fingers below your shirt collar, plays the trivial mind games she thinks she's mastered. You play along, of course; smile when she speaks, blush when she grabs your hand. An idol's used to getting what she wants - and within a month what Kujikawa wants is you, desperately.

But what you thought was a dichotomy turns out to be far more fascinating. It's not Risette vs. Rise. It's the whole being devoured by a tiny facet, starting from within, and underneath Kujikawa's charm and manipulation is a sheer terror that leaves you breathless.

After that it's simple. When she shows off a dress bought on her latest trip to the city, you say you liked the outfits Risette wore better. You buy Kanamin's album and tell Hanamura it's fantastic, making sure she's in earshot. It's so simple you almost slip up. You forget that Kujikawa's an actress and the nature of her gift.

"I know you," she tells you one day, just a hint of hesitation in her eyes. "You're playing games, you're lying about something. And I'm gonna tell the others."

Turns out she doesn't, not after she hears you're screwing Ai Ebihara on the side, because she thinks that's the lie. Jealousy can be blinding. You fuck her against the wall in the school bathroom, two days later, and every breath says Risette.

[the star]

A shadow of a shadow has no right to exist, meaning there's more to the bear than he or anyone else realizes. At first you find this intriguing. You poke and prod, trying to find some interesting little weakness; something you can tear open and use to pull him inside out. Meanwhile he smiles, calls you Sensei, visits Nanako and brings her candy. Everything about him is utterly trivial, even his beautiful, shallow human form.

It's too simple with the bear, that's the problem. He has no secrets, just the dull certainty that he isn't human and never will be. The lack of depth bores you, so you leave him be. Besides, he makes your cousin happy.

[the void]

You're offended that anyone could believe Kubo responsible for tying his own shoelaces, let alone orchestrating a series of murders. His attempt at replicating the crime scene was pitiful. Reading through the notes you stole from Dojima's briefcase, you're convinced that Inaba's police department is staffed by idiots.

Then Kubo appears on the Midnight Channel one night. The picture's clear, meaning he's already inside. Adachi, obviously. Namatame wouldn't have known to 'save' him.

So you go inside with the others and run through a ridiculous, low-tech parody of a video game. Kubo's at the end, railing at a figure opposite him, and it's hard to tell human from Shadow.

"Nobody thought of me after the first three people!" he yells. "That's why I went for the fourth!". If the others hear the mistake, they stay silent.

Kubo's shadow is pathetic and tedious, much like his inner world. It goes down without trouble and under his denial it vanishes completely. I have nothing. I am nothing.

You take him back to Junes and hand him in to the police. After that there's nothing left for you to do. Kubo's already empty.

[the wheel]

The lonely little half-prince is the final addition. Half-boy, half-girl, half-human, half-machine - and oh, she just might be the easiest of all. Practically a gift. A catalog of insecurities and you know exactly which buttons to push.

She wants to be useful, wants to be needed - so when she finds you at school and asks to join the team, you tell her there's no room. You tell her that girls shouldn't be on the front line. Shirogane twitches slightly, opens her mouth to speak - then stalks off.

Three days later she returns. All but begs to join you. Insists that she's useful, she knows how to defend herself, she even has a Persona. Fine, you tell her. But she won't need her gun. Girls aren't supposed to fight.

After the pageant, you and Hanamura call her Miss Yasogami for a week; prettiest girl in the school, Nao-chan, everyone says so. Later you ask why the police haven't called her back to the reopened investigation - because she did a good job, didn't she? The officers must've liked her.

Shirogane's always halfway there and reaching and that's what makes her so simple. Wouldn't be nearly as easy if she didn't try so hard. Under your control she becomes silent, more guarded - and more reckless inside the television.

Naturally this bothers Tatsumi, which Shirogane soon notices. In mid-November, somewhere inside your cousin's castle in the sky, you catch her watching him on the other side of the room, and for once the look in her eyes is clear as glass. You sidle over to her - wrap one arm around her shoulders, making sure Tatsumi sees - and you whisper, "He only liked you as a boy."

[the third]

Of course, Shirogane's efforts were pointless. There was no need for bait; the body that appears on the next foggy day rules out Kubo as the killer quite decisively.

This one's painful in its irony. You and him went from mutual dislike to a gentle, brittle sort of friendship - and one day, after dinner at Aiya, he invites you back to his house to see his parents' new flatscreen television. They bought it as a gift - as if it could fix anything, he says - and you wonder where they found the money, given the stiff competition their store faces from Junes. The thought doesn't hold your interest long. Shortly before dawn on October fifth, his parents report him missing - and an hour later, the police find Naoki Konishi hanging in the same place as his sister.

It wasn't personal. The opportunity simply presented itself.

Tatsumi's the one yelling at the walls this time. Their mothers were friends; they grew up together. He returns from the funeral tired and fractured and in December he'll shatter completely - but for now you watch Rise wrap her arm around his waist and Satonaka pat his back, Shirogane standing silent a few feet away.

[the pawn]

Namatame's too broken to talk. He stares unseeing at the hospital ceiling as you sit beside his bed. The weakest of the three, without question; even Adachi was able to pull his strings. But he still took your cousin, and he's the reason she's lying comatose in a room down the hall.

Hands wrapped around the bars of the bed, you lean down to his ear. "A savior who kidnaps children. How does that make sense?"

There's no response beyond the steady rasp of his breath. You're certain he still hears you.

"You didn't save anyone. That was us. You just took children from their homes, Namatame."

He rolls his head to look at you, eyes hollow and wide in their sockets.

"What would Mayumi think," you ask him, "if she could see you now?"

[the innocent]

But the words you have are worthless, because none of them help your cousin.

The sun melts into night and as the doctors offer up a litany of apologies you and the others stride the hospital corridors to Namatame's room. The decision is swift, silent and unanimous. You don't even need to tell them to throw the bastard in.

The group filters away from the hospital one by one. Hanamura rests his hand on your shoulder as he leaves, offers to walk with you, but you return to your uncle's house alone. When you break down on the living room floor you can't tell if the tears are real and you're not sure it matters.

[the spare]

And you blame him, that idiot in a cheap suit, because he was the one who started Namatame on his crusade. Being a detective's nephew has its benefits and you're able to leave a message on his desk at the police station. No childish anonymous notes. This one is signed and dated, and asks him to meet you at the river that night.

"You got the others, right? Uehara, the Konishis?" Adachi's smiling even at gunpoint. "Clever bastard."

You nod and gesture for him to kneel on the sand. He obliges.

"Knew you were one of us," he adds, and his expression turns hard. "But I was her first. Always will be."

A snake can't trump the devil. Adachi's damaged on a fundamental level and his horizons extend only as far as revenge and misogyny. You see the world.

"You were only ever the spare," you tell him - and the look on his face is so beautiful, you almost regret pulling the trigger.

[the fourth]

But Shirogane's more persistent than you thought, and more stupid. She followed you to the meeting, which means she's been tracking you for days, perhaps weeks, without your notice. Frankly, you're astonished. Perhaps not so much as Shirogane, though - who keeps her pistol pointing at your head as she steps over Adachi's body.

"I know what you've done, Seta," she says, trying to force her voice low. It sounds faintly ridiculous.

You step closer, talking her down. Naoto, Naoto, you don't want to do this, let me explain, we can fix things. She keeps her gun trained on your head but the tremble in her hands says you've already won - and in the split-second between you yanking the pistol from her fingers and smashing it against her skull, her eyes hold nothing more than resignation.

She's alive but barely conscious. Shooting her would be simple. But you're still pissed, and your uncle's house is empty.

From there, things move rapidly. The town's been covered in fog for weeks and the television gives up its dead the same night. Morning finds Adachi lying in a pool of blood by the river and Shirogane hanging from a water tower, body casting a twisted shadow against the concrete below.

The official announcement doesn't come until noon but the media are all over the school before the first bell. Kujikawa is crying, of course, and the cops arrest Tatsumi for answering a reporter's question with his fist.

At lunch, Hanamura finds you on the roof, Satonaka and Amagi beside him. The three of them corner you against the ledge. Satonaka's shoulders are tense, Amagi's face is streaked red with tears and Hanamura is expressionless as he steps forward and hands you a piece of paper. In Shirogane's neat and careful handwriting is an explanation of where she's gone, why she went - and, in case she doesn't come back, what's happened to her. It's thorough, precise, and completely accurate. You'd congratulate her if you could.

There's a final, surprisingly untidy scrawl at the bottom. If this doesn't work - I tried. I'm sorry.

Hanamura's voice cracks. "Tell me you didn't, Souji. Tell me."

All you have to do is smile and his world shatters.

[the world]

Castles, dungeons, secret labs. None of them were real, but reality's a subjective thing. You found it in Saki's choked scream; Naoki's stuttered confusion; the fragments of skull around Adachi's head; the dazed terror in Shirogane's eyes as you pulled her across the living room floor. You see it in Hanamura's expression too, and the four faces flanking him as you stand inside the television, and you can't suppress a smile. Betrayal's always been beautiful.

"Bastard," Tatsumi spits. Satonaka and Kujikawa hold him back.

Hanamura's shaking. "Souji, I need to know why. Please."

He'll never understand. It isn't about malice; it's about blood and fire and dead gods. It's about the voice that whispers at the edge of your hearing and tells you this one, that one, more. It's about choice.

You stare Hanamura in the eye and shake your head.

There's a choked noise, a cry caught in his throat, and he looks away. "I love you," he tells you. "But I'm not sorry."

Your hands fall to your sides. Hanamura lifts his knives, runs forward, and the others follow.