A/N: Years ago, I outlined the story so that Akihiko could take over Aigis' role in FES, since his Arcana, the Emperor, meant leadership. But after replaying The Answer I decided that he was too focused on the future and that if he became the leader, SEES would use the True Key to escape the Abyss without learning what happened to FeMC. The character who would receive the Wild Card needs to be a balanced individual who can understand the workings of both sides, past and present, protecting everyone while struggling with his or her own inner demons. And that definitely isn't Akihiko. But is it Shinjiro?

As you read this story, I urge both new and old readers of this story to not hold any expectations. Changes have been made to the original plot of this fanfic since three years ago, and my writing style has changed.

[This chapter has been edited 11/30/2015]


Even if my wings turn black from all the dust
Just to reach that place

I wouldn't mind at all

Despite all these hardships and failures for the sake of my dreams
I show in my face that everything's fine and call them "happiness"
If it takes the long route just to make you smile
I act like I'm all right, and call it "happiness"
I know I'm just pretending, but in some ways, I do mean it
So even when things are difficult, I was always smiling
Till that day...

Once I realize my dream
I will come for you

That promise is what keeps me going

- KIMI WO TSURETE IKU ("Taking You With Me"), sung by Abe Asami


March 31st, 2010
Some time before the incident

"Oh, ok then. I'll tell the others," Ken Amada spoke into his cellphone. He was still in elementary, but his skill with the spear more than made up for his short stature. Ken had volunteered to call up some of the other members who hadn't arrived at the dorm for the farewell party yet.

"Right," Akihiko Sanada replied. He was a senior and one of the first Persona users in the group. Together with Mitsuru and one other person, they founded SEES. "By the way… is Mitsuru serious about transferring her back to her room from the hospital today?"

"Yes," Ken affirmed, his tone of voice nostalgic at the mention of their field leader. "In fact, she'll be arriving in half an hour."

"That's good," Akihiko told him after a moment. "Even if it's only for a short while… she'll be home with the others at the dorm, just like before. Just like she promised."

"Sanada-san? Are you sure you aren't going to make it? She would've liked it if you were here."

"…Yes, I'm sure. Besides, I swore to myself last October that I wouldn't let stuff like this get me down."

"All right then," Ken reluctantly agreed.

After saying goodbye, Ken hung up, punched a new number, and was about to press the 'call' button when a thought occurred to him. Why are you awake…while she's asleep?

Ken pressed 'call' and held his cellphone to his ear.

.

.

His cellphone ring tone startled him. Scrambling to answer it, he accidentally dropped it on the marble floor. Muttering an obscenity, he answered with a brisk, "Hello?"

"Um, it's Ken," hesitantly greeted the caller. "Mitsuru-senpai wants to know when you'll be getting back."

Shinjiro Aragaki looked at his watch. "I just have one more thing to buy." It was a small lie. He had already finished his shopping and was just sitting down on one of the benches at the mall, doing nothing. "Why? Did she need me to buy something?"

"Yes. Mitsuru-senpai wants-" there was a pause "-a bag of Pheromone Coffee powder," Ken informed.

"From the grocery or from Chagall?"

"Chagall."

"Hn. Fine. Anything else?" Shinjiro asked, whipping out a piece of paper and a pencil from his coat pockets.

"Hm…Fuuka-san needs black pepper," Ken continued.

Shinji made a mental note to himself to keep an eye on Fuuka Yamagishi while she cooked in the kitchen tonight.

Fuuka was the group's operator. Back then, it was Mitsuru who acted as support for SEES, but the shy computer-tech easily outmatched her. Since the battle with the Emperor and Empress Shadows, Fuuka has constantly fed the group vital information on their enemies, warned them of the presence of Guardian Shadows, cheered them on in battle, alerted them to who was knocked down and needed healing, provided an emergency escape route whenever Death was near, and even played some catchy background music while they explored.

"And, that's all," Ken said. "So! Um… see you later, senpai."

"Right." Shinjiro hung up, put away his cell and sighed. He didn't feel like going back to the dorm anytime soon. What was the point of partying with them, anyways? He didn't have many important possessions in his room at the dorm, aside from some spare clothes.

There were only three people he was really acquainted with among the members of SEES – there was Mitsuru, but it wasn't as if they were best buddies. Akihiko was his "best buddy", if you could call him that. Knowing him, he probably wouldn't even make it to the farewell party – he and Shinjiro shared a lot in common in that regard. But Shinjiro didn't feel like seeing him today, either.

Hell, he didn't feel like seeing anyone from SEES today.

Except for one member. The field leader. The third person he was close to. Her.

He wanted to see her so much, but at the same time he dreaded casting his eyes on her.

Because seeing her in this state – with her eyes closed, her breathing faint, and her skin so cold to the touch it felt like Death himself had dragged her soul away with him…seeing her like this was a constant reminder of his failures. She also had honey brown hair and ruby red eyes – it was the most obvious, yet illogical reason. Shinjiro could name two other pretty, bright, endearing girls with similar qualities….

Miki. Sweet, innocent Miki.

Both he and Akihiko had tried, even getting themselves wounded, to drag the girl's tiny body back to safety. But it was too late. She was so young, and several pieces of glass and debris had lodged into her chest. Miki's last words had been "thank you", as if the boys had done enough.

Then there was Ken's mother.

When the burden of his Persona grew heavy, Shinjiro needed someone to talk to – and Mrs. Amada showered him with kindness only a mother could give. She was almost practically his surrogate parent.

So when Mitsuru detected a Shadow in the residential area where that kind woman lived, Shinjiro was the first one on the scene to destroy it. But in the heat of battle he had lost control of Castor and ended up fatally wounding the person he tried to protect. When he came to, she was almost dead. She had just enough strength to open her eyes a crack and thank him for trying to protect her.

When he rejoined SEES and picked up his Evoker for the first time in two years, he swore that he wouldn't let anyone die because of his weaknesses, and look what happened: yet another fragile, brown-haired girl had smiled at him and given him thanks.

Why did everything get so fucked up?

.

.

Meanwhile, the other SEES members were gathered in the command room.

Mitsuru Kirijo was sitting at the head of the table in a comfortable leather armchair. She was the unofficial "club president" of SEES, and born into wealth. She was also the first known Persona-user with the "natural" potential. What's more, her own family, the Kirijo Group, was responsible for the whole Dark Hour affair.

Mitsuru looked expectantly at Fuuka and Ken for updates.

"Yukari-chan can't make it after all," Fuuka announced sadly, clicking her cellphone shut and taking a seat on the couch next to Ken.

"Sanada-san says that he's busy at the gym; I doubt he'll make it in time, either," Ken added.

Junpei Iori sighed dramatically. "Man, what's up with those two? The dorm's closing down today! We have so many memories of this place. They could at least see it off, right?" Last year, Junpei was the most immature member of SEES. But after all the tough battles they've fought together, all the secrets they've unraveled and the death of Junpei's sweetheart, Chidori Yoshino, Junpei had mellowed and matured. He was more patient now, less selfish. He was braver and stronger, too.

Next to Junpei, sitting on the floor was Koromaru, the unique dog who could summon a Persona just like the others. He seemed to comprehend what Junpei just said because he bowed his head and his ears drooped. He whimpered softly.

Mitsuru smiled at Junpei in understanding. "It can't be helped. Yukari and Akihiko just see things differently. They've both started down their own chosen path, and it's a good thing."

"You're right, senpai," Fuuka agreed, but at the same time her face showed her uncertainty.

"We can hardly blame them," Mitsuru continued, looking pointedly at her teammates. "These days, I seem to get busier and busier. If I didn't need to collect the last of our equipment here I probably wouldn't have made it either."

"So. Today's the day we're finally gonna have to give up our Evokers and armbands, huh?" Junpei eyed the said equipment on the table. "I hate to let them go, but it's not like I got a use for 'em anymore..." Suddenly feeling bored, he idly counted the Evokers aloud. "Let's see… two, four… w-wait, how many Evokers are there supposed to be?"

Suddenly, the Command room door opened, and Aigis, the anti-Shadow weapon they "recruited" last July, entered. Aigis was different than the other models created before her in one important way – she experienced emotions just like a normal human, thanks to an incident at the Moonlight Bridge.

Aigis approached the table with an apologetic look on her face. "Mitsuru-san… I was unable to locate the last Evoker."

"It's alright, Aigis. I actually anticipated that," Mitsuru replied matter-of-factly. "Indeed, I can think of one – no, two people who could have taken it."

Ken scratched his head, confused. "Huh? You have an Evoker too, Aigis-san?"

"No," Aigis answered carefully. Unlike the other members, Aigis did not require an Evoker to summon her Persona – although she developed a human heart, she was still technically a robot – she had a "Persona Summoning Sequence" installed in her. "Mitsuru-san simply allowed me to hold on to our leader's Evoker for safekeeping," Aigis explained to the young SEES member.

Fuuka knew this, of course, but wisely chose not to comment on the matter.

Mitsuru shifted slightly in her seat, aware of the sudden change in Ken.

Ken quickly looked down at his lap in a vain attempt to hide his facial expression from his senpai, pretending to be interested in his hands.

Junpei jerked in his seat, sensing the tension in the air. He cleared his throat a little too loudly and tried to break the awkwardness of the situation by chiding, "H-hey, guys? D-don't get all gloomy again, I mean – c'mon! I don't think that's the way she wants this to end!"

Everyone glanced uncomfortably at Ken, who was still staring at his hands. Ken was one of the three SEES members who was the most affected by the situation their leader was in. Fuuka, who was sitting the closest to the young boy, could see the dark expression that had crept over his face and couldn't help but sympathize. Ken really looked up to their leader. Everyone in their group saw how attached he was. Yukari had even managed to convince Fuuka that he had a little crush on "her", too.

Which was why everyone in the room was slightly surprised when he raised his head to meet Junpei's gaze and smiled in chagrin. "I'm sorry... you're right," he conceded. But then something flickered in his eyes and was gone. "It's just that, I still wonder… why did this happen?" Ken continued, unintentionally revealing one of his deepest doubts to his friends. "The doctors didn't find anything wrong with her afterwards. It just seemed like she fell asleep, didn't it? ...She will wake up, won't she?"

Fuuka considered her words before suggesting, "She probably used up all her power to protect us at that last battle."

Aigis shook her head. "At the moment, it's useless to try and guess at the reasons why. However, I am certain she didn't blame anyone for what happened." She smiled encouragingly at Ken. "Instead of pondering, let us wait for her to wake up so she can explain it to us."

Junpei grinned. "Yeah! Ai-chan's got that right! Our leader's pretty tough, after all. Just watch - one day she'll open her eyes and ask, 'what're you guys doing in my room? What about school?' But, hey – " he suddenly turned serious. "I'm glad to see you're still hanging in there, Aigis. I mean, back then, it was like protecting her was all you could think about, so when the doc told us he wasn't sure if she'd ever open her eyes again – "

"She will wake up," Aigis interrupted determinedly.

At that moment, Mitsuru's cellphone rang. She quietly excused herself, standing up to move next the window.

"Remember - no matter how many times she was knocked down in battle, she always stood back up," Aigis continued.

"Yes," Fuuka agreed, hope returning to her face. "And nobody knows that better than us. With her, none of the Shadows we've ever faced stood a chance."

"Speaking of her, it seems she's finally arrived from the hospital," Mitsuru announced with a smile, making her way back to the group. Ken jumped up from his chair. "Really? Let's go see her!" He yelled excitedly. Everyone else nodded in agreement and stood up as well.

But then, Aigis stuttered something under her breath, making everybody stop in their tracks.

"What is it, Aigis-san?" Ken asked.

Aigis wrung her hands. She looked uncomfortable.

Comprehension filled Mitsuru's face after a moment. She decided to help the poor robot girl. "Aigis is returning herself to the lab tomorrow."

Fuuka brows drew together in confusion. "Huh? The lab? Aigis, are you going to commute to school from there next semester?"

Everyone turned to Aigis for an answer, but she remained silent.

Mitsuru felt she had no choice but to intervene once again. "She has decided that… she won't be enrolled as a senior."

Junpei's eyes bugged out in surprise. He jumped to his feet. "Seriously? Why? Can't Aigis stay in school like before?"

Aigis looked apologetic. "The decision was mine. I'm sorry I didn't mention it sooner…. I enjoyed being with you all, but I need to find my own way of life." Noticing the disappointment on her friends' faces she stopped rambling and said instead, "Oh, but you can come visit me anytime."

"Aigis…." Fuuka whispered.

Mitsuru cleared her throat discreetly, trying to get everyone's attention. "Think of it as a new beginning for her. Anyway… we seem to have gotten off the wrong foot. Today's not meant to be a sad occasion. Shinjiro will be cooking a feast for us tonight, just like last September. I've also ordered excellent sushi for us all. The same as before, actually."

"T-that would be great!" Ken exclaimed. His eyes had this cute, boyish sparkle as he thought of the sushi. It looked like he was feeling better already.

Junpei pumped his fist into the air in victory. "Beef! Pork! Hot soup! Cake!" He cheered, daydreaming about the food Shinjiro cooked last year.

With that, everyone hurried downstairs to welcome their leader home, unaware that tonight would be the longest night of their lives.

.

.

March 31st, 2010
Late Night

You need a good reason to walk around the Iwatodai Strip Mall at night….

Yukari Takeba wasn't an exception. Sure, she was the member of SEES with the best healing arts and the only bow user. Sure, her Garu based skills weren't to be underestimated. Yeah, she was a member….

"So why aren't I partying with the others right now?" Yukari asked angrily, looking up at the dark sky. The sound of the crickets chirping was the only reply.

She already knew the answer. It was so obvious, yet so illogical.

Yukari didn't want to say goodbye. It just didn't feel right.

She faintly recalled what happened at cram school earlier. Fuuka had tried to contact her. Yukari purposely ignored – or, at least, pretended to – the insistent ringing of her cell. Besides, class was in session. She didn't need any distractions, right?

But that stupid cellphone just kept ringing and ringing, all the way until the break period. By then, Yukari had run out of excuses for ignoring her cell, so she reluctantly answered it, knowing full well what Fuuka was going to ask her about.

Yukari trembled slightly and almost dropped her pink duffel bag when she realized that right now she was doing the same thing – putting off going to the farewell party. Cram school ended rather abruptly due to the gas leak in the nearby building, and since then Yukari had been making up all these excuses for why she couldn't attend the party, no matter how trivial those reasons were.

Yukari opened her phone to check the time on its screen. 11:33pm.

She had no more reason to stay away from her friends. Additionally, it was a fifteen minute walk from the Iwatodai Station to the dorm.

She couldn't avoid it any longer.

Slowly, with obvious reluctance, Yukari walked across the street to the Station. While riding the escalator up, she checked her phone for any messages, then on impulse, decided to contact someone at the dorm and tell them she was on her way. But just as she was about to dial a number, she immediately noticed the silver haired teen standing a few ways away from the Station entrance.

Yukari clicked her phone shut and approached him. "Akihiko-senpai," she greeted a little too brightly. In her mind, she was wondering why he, of all people, wasn't at the dorm with the others. Especially since "she" and Akihiko were close.

"Hey, Takeba," he replied, his voice a little strained. "What are you doing out here? I figured you'd be with the others right now. Heck, even she's there. I mean, you're her best friend, right?"

"Well… I had cram school," Yukari explained, suspecting that her guesses were correct. He never made it to the dorm today.

Akihiko's eyebrow arched. "Huh? Isn't it kinda late at night for cram school?"

"No, school ended earlier today. I just had some, um, things to do," Yukari fumbled a bit. Trying to steer the direction of the conversation away from herself, she asked, "What about you, senpai? She would've wanted you there with the others."

"I was at the gym," he said eventually, lamely. His face suddenly broke into a half-grin. "That excuse probably makes me sound like a heartless douche, huh? I mean, what could possibly be more important than this farewell party?" His tone of voice was dry, and his undertones were bitter.

Yukari was confused. He was so open to her, so honest, she didn't know how to react. Usually he was so aloof and calm but now...

All of a sudden, in that exact moment, Yukari felt kinship with him. He was avoiding the party, just like her. Up until this moment, she felt that she didn't really have anything in common with him, but then, in the space of a few seconds, it felt like he was the only person in this world who knew, who really knew what it felt like to be in her shoes.

They didn't normally chat with each other on a daily basis or anything; Yukari felt that talking with him was what he needed. What both of them needed. And no, she wasn't at a loss for topics because there was really only one thing they could talk about on a cold, dreary night outside the Iwatodai Station instead of acting mature and heading towards the party together.

Yukari's next words came naturally to her, as if routine.

"Want to talk about it?"

Their eyes met in silent mutual agreement. They chose a bench not far from where they were originally standing and sat down. At first, they didn't say a thing to each other. Yukari wasn't sure who started it, but suddenly they started talking about things. Lots of different things. About the past year, about SEES, about everyone, and about her.

Neither of them were aware of how much time had passed since they sat down and started chatting as if they were old friends who hadn't seen each other in years. But just as Yukari was sharing a funny anecdote with Akihiko about school, something happened.

The digital watch on Akihiko's wrist counted off the seconds:

11:59:57…

11:59:58…

11:59:59…

SMASH!

As if jolted with electricity, both teens jumped to their feet in alarm.

"The hell?" Akihiko snarled, looking around. The streets were quiet and empty.

Yukari gulped nervously. "Senpai! This feeling, it's-!"

Akihiko and Yukari stood back to back, scanning the area warily for any sudden movements. When nothing happened, Akihiko looked up at the sky, checking the color of the clouds and the moon. "Nope," he said after a moment, his stance relaxing slightly. "Looks like a false alarm."

Yukari whirled around to face him. Strangely, what he just said sounded an awful lot like something Junpei would say. "But! Senpai, you felt it, too, right?"

Akihiko looked back at her. "Yeah, I did. But nothing really happened, right? Although I can't explain it…." He glanced at his watch. Its digital face seemed to be stuck at 11:59:59. "Huh? Did it break or something?" He mumbled.

"I – I hope you're right, senpai," Yukari conceded, folding her arms over her chest. She suddenly felt chilled, and she had the distinct feeling that it wasn't from the night air.

.

.

At the dorm, the situation was bad. And with every passing minute, it was getting worse.

Everyone was sitting around the lounge, reminiscing about the past, when it happened.

At the stroke of midnight, Shinjiro, Junpei, Ken, Mitsuru and Fuuka had jumped to their feet almost in unison, as if jolted with electricity. They had felt it, too. Even Koromaru was aware. He was growling and barking.

"What's happening?!" Ken shouted. "What was that?! And why did the electricity get cut off?!"

"It can't be… is it the Dark Hour again?!" Fuuka cried.

Everyone glanced at one another through the sudden darkness with horror. To think they had finally put that chapter of their lives behind them, and now this happens….

Junpei quickly ran to the nearest window to check. "...Nope, nope! Everything's fine out there."

"Are the streetlights on?" Ken asked him.

"Yup," Junpei replied, coming back towards the group. "I guess it's just the dorm that's cut off."

Mitsuru crossed her arms and sighed. "This building is quite old, after all… since this dorm will be up for sale, I'll need to hire someone to check the wiring and the circuits. I can't have any more problems than necessary."

Suddenly, Fuuka gasped. "Oh, no what about her? Her life support device – you know, the one the doctor showed us? Er, I guess it's still called an ICU… anyways, doesn't it run on electricity? What's going to happen to her?"

"…Didn't the hospital staff also tell us that they set up a sub generator in her room or something?" Shinjiro said curtly. "It's supposed to take over charging up the ICU just in case a power outage like this happens."

Mitsuru nodded her head, pleased someone other than herself could still think things through. "Shinjiro is correct. She'll be fine as long as it's there. Besides, the nurse the doctor sent from the hospital is taking care of her as we speak. In the meantime, Aigis? Yamagishi? I'll need you two to check the fuse box downstairs. Hopefully this brown out isn't anything that requires the work of a professional."

"Wait. We have a basement?" Junpei asked, shocked.

Mitsuru turned to him, slightly amused. "Yes, we do. It isn't surprising that you didn't know. I understand why you weren't aware, in fact." She gestured towards the door behind the dorm's front counter. "The door to the basement is usually locked."

Fuuka nodded. "Sure thing, Mitsuru-senpai. I'll just need to get some flashlights from the Command Room."

"I am equipped with special lenses that enable me to see in the dark. I shall accompany you," Aigis said.

As they left, Mitsuru turned to Junpei. "Iori, I believe there are some candles and matches in the kitchen area. Could you light some for us to use until Yamagishi finds those flashlights?"

Junpei flashed his customary grin at Mitsuru. "Leave it to the fireman!"

"Is there anything I can do?" Ken asked.

Mitsuru shook her head. "No, it's alright, Amada. You've been working hard, helping me all day to arrange this party. I doubt this power outage will be solved soon, so I suggest you retire early. Besides, among all of us, you'll be traveling the farthest. Early tomorrow morning, your relative will arrive to take you to Yokohama."

"Ok, then. Goodnight, senpai." Ken bowed to Mitsuru. He turned and bowed to Shinjiro, too before making his way up the stairs.

At last, Mitsuru turned to Shinjiro with a rare smile.

"You, too, Shinjiro. You've had your share of work today as well. I thank you once again for your wonderful cooking. Although not all of us were able to enjoy it tonight."

He waved off her praise. "You're welcome. The sushi was great, by the way. No wonder Junpei was so gung-ho about it."

Mitsuru's smile faded somewhat. "When I said that not all of were able to enjoy your cooking, I wasn't just talking about Akihiko and Yukari." Suddenly, she stepped towards him and gently placed an understanding hand on his arm. "So, I took the liberty to pour some of your soup into a cup and set it on her bedside table. You know… just in case she decides to wake up and try it."

"…Hn." Shinjiro fell silent.

As he stared at his booted feet, Mitsuru felt herself smile again, even though it was probably the wrong reaction. Akihiko may be Shinjiro's closest, oldest friend, but even he didn't know what was going on. In fact, Mitsuru mused, Akihiko was the worst possible person to tell.

Out of all the members, Ken, Aigis and Akihiko didn't know. Mitsuru wondered briefly about Junpei, and decided that although he acted stupid sometimes, he probably had some idea of what was going on since he was close to her. Yukari and Fuuka noticed a bit as well, but wisely chose not to get involved.

All in all, Mitsuru was the only member of their group who knew, who really knew what Shinjiro was going through right now.

Between Akihiko, Shinjiro… and her….

"I'll be in my room if you need me," Shinji said at last, finding his voice.

Mitsuru withdrew her hand and silently watched him feel his way towards the stairs. After a moment, she flipped open her cellphone to contact Yukari and Akihiko to ask them to take a look around the city, wherever they were. As she checked the screen, she immediately noticed something strange.

A few minutes had passed since the brown out, and yet her phone clock read 11:59:59pm.

.

.

About half an hour later, Shinjiro was lying on his back on the bed, his beanie and boots off, but with his coat still on. He felt too lazy to bother with changing. Who cared, anyway? It was his room.

She would.

Shinjiro growled angrily, willing the voice away. When he was sure that he'd have no more thoughts of her, he allowed himself to finally drift off into a restless sleep.

To his dismay, thoughts of her began to invade his mind, as well as unwelcome memories of his final moment with her.

Even now, it was all crystal clear in his mind.

When he made it to the school roof, it was graduation day for the seniors. Yet he found her lying down on one of the benches with her head on Aigis' lap. Aigis had allowed him to take her place so she could keep on the lookout for the others. Shinjiro remembered thinking to himself how pale she looked as he cradled her close, her eyes half closed, her breaths slow and deep as if falling asleep.

He didn't mean to do it, but all of a sudden he'd let loose all his emotions, all his guilt, and told her how important she had become to him at the same time. About how he'd woken up weeks earlier and how he forgot everything. Everything.

He'd told her, I'm so glad I met you. Because he really meant it.

Back in September, he'd believed that there was nothing left for him, no way out but to die at Ken's hands in order to atone for what he did. But she's given SHinjiro a glimpse of what could have been, what he was capable of achieving, if he just changed his mindset. She taught him that even he could change, that he had a future.

So Shinjiro decided that if by some miracle he ever survived October 4 to see her again, he'd devote the rest of his short life to protecting her. The suppressants weren't doing his health any favors, after all, but he didn't mind dying young if he was devoting those last handful of years to her.

And then he heard her whisper faintly.

Please, let me stay with you like this for a little while longer….

By the time the others had burst onto the roof, their memories returned, her eyelids had closed. She had fallen asleep.

At first nothing was wrong. Everyone was laughing and joking. Akihiko had taken Shinjiro's place and held her in his arms so that Shinjiro could stretch his cramped legs. The sun was shining, and the spring breeze blew pleasantly. It was all so perfect, and they were all so united… so close, chatting with one another as if they never forgot in the first place.

But then she refused to wake up. Akihiko shook her shoulders repeatedly, and Junpei yelled in her ear. She never opened her eyes to respond.

The sun was shining brightly the last time Shinjiro saw her awake; the last time he held her close.

Suddenly, a terrible cough possessed him. He covered his mouth, and it was immediately moistened with something. He checked his hand and found that it was blood. Cursing, he lumbered over to his bathroom, not bothering to turn on the lights before heavily bending over the sink and coughing more blood into it.

On impulse, he reached for the little shelf overhead, feeling around for that familiar bottle of pills, then stopped himself.

Once he was sure that his cough had died down a bit, he raised his head to look at the container of suppressants. It was empty now because he'd sworn off it; he'd tossed what was left of the deadly drugs into the dumpster across the street. The bottle seemed to be mocking him; it was a painful reminder of what little time he had left in the land of the living.

Even though Dark Hour and Tartarus was gone, even though a new chapter the world's history had just begun, even though he'd lost his Persona… in the end, he couldn't do anything.

This feeling of being powerless, helpless…. Was he just going to live with his guilt and despair until his heart finally ceased function?

Could he really continue to live like this?

Shinjiro squeezed his eyes shut as he felt another strong one come over him. Unable to contain it, he coughed more blood into the sink.

He didn't how or when he got back on his bed. All Shinjiro could remember was that after puking out his guts he'd slammed his fist into the mirror hanging above the sink, completely destroying it. His hand was raw and bleeding, but he couldn't feel any pain.

All he could feel was his heart beating slowly, as if it'd stop any minute. And he could hear a voice, telling him that there had to be something out there just for him and for his happiness, and that there was more to him than just waiting to die. And then… and then…

That's when the crystal butterfly had floated lazily into his fuzzy line of vision. Without thinking, he'd reached for the butterfly, palm facing up. Then the butterfly landed gently in the center of his palm, fluttering its wings….

BAM!

Shinjiro jumped out of his bed, suddenly alert and wide awake. He listened carefully and braced himself for any other strong impacts. There were none. On impulse, he checked his table clock. The short hand, the long hand and the hand that counted off the seconds were nearly on the "12" position. It read, 11:59pm.

Huh? The hell? What time did I leave the party? Shinji wondered.

His reverie was interrupted by a loud, frantic banging on his bedroom door.

"Shinjiro-senpai! Are you awake?!"

Moving quickly, he yanked it open. "What's going on?"

"Oh, senpai, it's so hard to explain," Fuuka told him breathlessly, her tone shrill. "The lounge floor suddenly opened up, and Aigis is fighting and-! …A-anyways, I know you don't have a Persona anymore but everyone's trapped and if you have a weapon, you need to help Aigis!"

"Got it," Shinjiro said. With that, he grabbed his axe from his closet and rushed out, with Fuuka following close behind.

By the time Shinjiro got to the lounge, everything was a mess – the kitchen table was thrown to the side with its sheet all torn up and two of its legs broken, and there was a huge trapdoor in its place. Chairs were scattered and overturned. A fire had started in one corner, probably from one of the candles the remaining members lit up.

For a split second, Shinjiro was transfixed by the sight of the red tongues licking the nearest objects and crawling ever so slowly across the carpet. The sight of the flames shook him to the core, giving him a strong sense of dejavu.

"Be careful, Shinjiro! He doesn't seem human!" Mitsuru's warning sharply brought him back to the present.

In front of him. He should be concentrating on what was in front of him, he told himself.

Junpei, Mitsuru, Ken and the dog were huddled in one corner, confused, frightened and outraged at the same time. Aigis was on the floor near the kitchen counter, unconscious. Her red ribbon was undone. And standing a little to the right of the "trapdoor" was a… a human? Was he human?

The intruder slowly turned around. Shinjiro's mouth dropped open, finally seeing this mysterious enemy face to face. He knew this guy! But… it was impossible, right? It couldn't really be him! Maybe he was just a look-alike, or maybe the teen was just half-asleep or something. He was a character from TV, for chrissakes!

…No, he realized. This was real. He was real.

Shinjiro was so shocked he was barely aware of Ken's shrill cry:

"Shinjiro-san, watch out! He's Black Condor! He's a member of Phoenix Ranger Featherman R, and he's really strong!"

"Where is she, Shinjiro Aragaki?" Black Condor asked Shinjiro, reaching up to his face with one hand to adjust his mask. Shinjiro almost immediately noticed that there was a spiderweb crack on the helmet's left cheek. "You're Shinjiro Aragaki, aren't you? Where is she?"

"Who the hell are you, and what the fuck do you want?" Shinjiro snarled, tightening his grip on his axe. Only about four seconds had passed and already Shinjiro was pissed by this guy's lofty attitude.

"I am Feather Condor. I've come to kill the Wild Card," the intruder replied.

"The... Wild Card?" Shinjiro wasn't familiar with the term, but for some reason, it rang a bell.

"If I don't kill her, time won't move on," Condor continued. "It's my duty as a Featherman to set things right. As long as she's here, everyone's safety is jeopardized. The balance of the world is on the verge of toppling over."

"Sorry I'm late. Is everyone okay?" Fuuka's voice suddenly rang out from somewhere.

"Yes! I need you to provide backup for Shinjiro!" Mitsuru commanded.

"Look, that was a nice speech and all, but can we get on with this? Or did you want some other shit for your headstone?" Shinjiro retorted, his axe poised.

Black Condor got into a fighting stance. It looked like he was going to fight with martial arts. "I'm so close," he said. "I've decided that nothing will get in the way of my goal. I won't hold back, even if you are Shinjiro Aragaki. For your sake, and for everyone else's, I'm going to have to force you to back down."