Atlus owns everything. I've got nothing but the Playstation. These stories "After the End" (and thus, spoilers) are each complete and separate, but are in the same world.
I wrote this for my wife. She needed a happier ending. Though, we all do.
[0. Fool] The Eagle and the Butterfly
(You Are Who You Are)
Souji Seta chose not to flinch when the crumpled ball of paper hit the back of his head. Yosuke wanted his attention, but there was something about this "Integrative Learning" teacher that spooked him; better to keep his head down, take the notes, and get the Hell out. If they could survive the day, they had free time that night and the following day to explore the big city, and after the conflict with Mitsuo Kubo's shadow, everyone could definitely use a break.
This teacher, though... they'd already had Mister Edogawa for a class once today, in which he'd deviated from his already bizarre lesson plan to give them a lecture on Japanese mythology. Apparently, however, one of the other teachers at Gekkoukan High had been unavailable-this apparently happened a great deal, some of the kids were whispering in the halls about a "Ms. Toriumi"-and he'd been called in to sub.
"Well, since we'd gotten on to the subject of myth, and of the gods warring over the fate of mortals, in our previous session... let's go back to that. Eeeheehee." Edogawa rubbed the back of his neck. "While we're all familiar with our own legends, like the one of Izanami and Izanagi, other ancient cultures had some pretty fascinating stories as well. Greek mythology, for instance, is another favorite of mine." He looked upwards and mumbled something about "Thrice-Great Hermes."
"Is this guy for real?" muttered Yosuke behind him, and Souji slumped in his seat a bit.
"Now, are any of you familiar with the stories of Prometheus and Pandora?" There were a couple of scattered hands-Yukiko, naturally, was all over this one. "Now, one important fact is that before the writings of Aeschylus, these two stories were often part of the same tale, but ever since, they've been riven from each other permanently in the minds of scholars and worshippers. Which brings us back to the discussion of curses..."
Chie was trying to spin her pencil by its point on her desk. Souji wondered how Kanji and Rise were doing.
"Prometheus was a brother to Atlas, who held the world upon his shoulders. Now, Prometheus is known for stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to man. He did this, actually, because Zeus had taken fire away-Prometheus had tricked Zeus by changing the guidelines for what constituted appropriate sacrifice to the gods, which angered Zeus... in return for that, Zeus had sent Pandora to earth as the first woman-and so the story of Pandora's Jar serves as a parallel to the Christian concepts of Eve and Eden."
Souji's own pencil broke, and he sighed. Yukiko handed one back to him without looking, while he tried to amuse himself wondering if Kanji's family had any history with Tatsumi Port Island.
"The important part of the story, of course, is the same as in the modern tellings-while Prometheus is chained to a rock and tormented eternally for his attempts to save humanity, Pandora manages to shut the jar before hope escapes along with the evils of the world, making her mankind's savior, as well, despite what she had been intended for."
Yosuke kicked Souji's ankle. "When are we ever going to use this stuff?"
He had nothing left to scream with. Pain was the entire universe, blood his only voice. He couldn't open his mouth, felt his agony move outwards and on into time, felt the world crumble to dust, and still the pain grew. There were claws, and teeth, and things with no name. For a moment, he was convinced that his body itself had been separated from him.
But then the beast retreated again, and sensation began to return. And he knew that he had held, for one more day.
He wasn't sure if he was glad for it. It only meant that it would come for him again. And the pain was never so bad as the despair.
"How about you sit with me?" The silver-haired man offered him a soft, weak smile. Minato slumped into the bench beside him, no strength left for anything else. "Ah! Then let this bench be our meeting place!" The other man seemed happy.
Happy, and healthy. Akinari was, for lack of a better word, pretty-his long hair was swept back, and his strong arms were lightly crossed, and Minato knew that this was the Akinari that could have been, that he was, buried beneath the cancer and whatever else he had suffered.
"Did I ever thank you, by the way?" Akinari smiled. "For the book, I mean... getting it published."
"I didn't do that." Minato let his body quiver, as it always did after the beast had come. "It was Ken. He became... no, will become, a journalist... always so concerned with how the truth never came out... he'd found your notebook in my room. I guess he thought I wrote it. Mitsuru probably helped him with it." How did he know that?
"They kept my name, though... perhaps they thought you were embarrassed by it." Akinari looked up, let the warm sun touch his whole face. "They would do anything for you." He turned to Minato, who was staring at his hands, as if expecting the stigmata to appear. "You gave such strength to everyone."
"I can't keep doing this..." Minato's tears were silent, feeble. "It hurts too much. I want to come down, now."
"You know that you can't do that." The other man shook his head slowly. "You made a deal, and... some things are, well, just inevitable, you know?" He grinned.
Minato looked at the smiling Ryoji, who was nodding to him, so serenely comfortable. It would be better this way, for everyone. He had to make this choice. Nobody would suffer. He placed the empty shell of the pistol to his temple, felt his index finger trail along the barrel of the evoker until it reached the trigger and began to pull. "Perso-"
Nyx cast down savage spell after spell, as his friends fell one by one, until finally he was knocked back with such force that he knew, he knew, all he'd have to do would be to let his head loll to one side... just accept what Nyx was bringing to the world, let the warmth of finality envelop him forever, ignore the pulsing sound coming from the blue door just past his line of sight...
The Universe card pulsed within him, as Nyx forced death upon him again and again, as his friends called out for him... he could still stop, could still step back, could still go back... let it come...
NO, DAMMIT, NO!
There was a rustle from the other man's heavy peacoat as he leaned against the wall. Minato didn't turn.
"How ya doin', tough guy? Hungry?"
The sound of an infant girl squirming in Shinjiro's arms, however, prompted him to look back. Shinjiro was balancing her in his arms, rubbing her back gently.
"Heard you were whining. Didn't sound like you, man. You were always the, what, the 'quiet one,' right?"
Minato couldn't stop looking at the little girl. "Who...?"
"Huh?" Shinjiro was deliberately playing dumb. "Oh. Right." He shifted the girl's weight in his arms, and she looked out at him with wide, bright eyes. "Her name is Miki."
Shinjiro glared. "I made a promise. Last I heard, the one damned thing our 'team' was any good at, was keeping promises."
The girl playfully slapped at Shinjiro's face, and pulled at his old knit cap.
His flesh peeled, his bones splintered, his fluids boiled.
Sometimes he could see the beast, but its shape was fluid. It was every regret he'd ever had, every sour thought and longing.
He would choke and suffocate, and though he couldn't shift his gaze, he knew that his gag was a yellow scarf.
He wasn't sure of time anymore. It was almost funny, how important the calendar had seemed to him. Finding time to go out with friends, to visit different places in the city, to study and sing Karaoke. He'd begun marking "days" by the shift between visits from the beast, and visits from the people he knew were dead. But he knew that they weren't real days, that he might have spent a thousand, thousand years within the Great Seal, and had already gone too mad to tell.
One day, though, was different from the others, in that he didn't think his visitor was truly dead.
She didn't speak; it didn't seem like she could. And her familiar blue uniform was missing-she wore something like a dressed-down school uniform, and somehow he knew it was partly to make him comfortable, and partly something else, something sadder. She had bags under her eyes, which he never could have imagined.
Her hands caressed his cheeks, and he saw that she was crying. But when her fingers slid back to the rear of his head, he realized that she was clipping on his old headphones.
He couldn't move, couldn't speak, not even a shifting of his eyes was possible to thank her... but she was already gone.
Souji grimaced as he heard Yosuke snoring behind him.
"Many myths consider Prometheus to have shaped man from clay - which would make him a sort of father to Pandora, as well, even though she was created by Zeus. Of course, that's only speaking metaphorically... Eeeheehee... They say Prometheus was chained in the Caucasus, which is of course a real place-it's from where we derive the term 'Caucasians,' and it includes places like Armenia... but it's also said that it's one of the places settled by survivors of the fall of the great Tower of Babel..."
Something from without awoke him, then, forced him to turn his burnt and hungering senses downward, in that way that he could without moving.
"...This is his life essence." He didn't know that voice. "As you can see, this is what happened. He himself became the Great Seal. But relinquishing one's life essence means death for a human... He must have already found it... His own answer... to life." Whose voice was that? It sounded a little bit like...
"The answer to life..." Aigis. It was Aigis! Just below him! His cheek could still feel the surprising warmth of her mechanical legs as he drifted into sleep.
And then... one voice after another. He could hear them below... Mitsuru and Akihiko, Junpei... Fuuka, Ken, and Koro-chan...
Oh, Yukari, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.
He could hear the growl of the beast coming around again.
Run, guys. Run. Don't do this. Please.
"Why the hell is it after us!" Junpei crying out as the others recoil in horror from the beast.
"...It wants my sister! She has the same power as the one who created the seal..."
Oh, no. Please, no.
He heard Yukari. "I won't let myself run this time... He's watching us, and I won't let him down!"
He tried so hard to scream.
The music in his ears changed tracks.
"Oho! Clever." Hidetoshi regarded his move, and placed down a white stone to counter. "I would never have thought you'd be this good at the game."
Minato looked at him with an agonized expression, and Hidetoshi's face softened, as he'd rarely seen.
"Yes, I know. 'It's not fair,' and all that. Drunk driving is an unconscionable sin, as you of all people are aware." He pursed his lips. "It was quick, for all that's worth, and the offending party is receiving quite the sentence. I hear that infernal club at Paulownia Mall has stopped serving drinks entirely now. Just as well, if you ask me."
Minato shook his head, unable to speak, and placed another black stone on the board.
"I should admit something. After all you'd done for me, it's only fair." He nodded to Minato's headphones. "You were always wearing those things at school. I hated it. I wanted to cite you for the infraction so many times, but... well... you know."
To one side, Akinari was watching the game unfold with a serene expression. To the other, Shinjiro was sullen, supporting little Miki in his lap.
Somewhere, he knew, they were fighting for him. He couldn't see it anymore, couldn't hear it.
Hidetoshi turned over a large block of stones.
"I am surprised at myself," he said, "As I find myself unable to hate the man for what he has done. Isn't that strange? I find myself thinking about my father. And about you, naturally."
Shinjiro was bouncing the girl on his knee.
"Not that many people came to my funeral, you know? I had regained a lot of respect, but friendship was slow in coming." He watched as Minato took back some of the board. "Fushimi-san came, which surprised me-your doing, I'm sure-and our student council president made a brief appearance. A few of the teachers. And my family." He placed a stone. "And yet, I feel at peace." Akinari placed one hand on the man's shoulder. "Do you understand?"
Minato took a long time to nod, but when he did, Hidetoshi offered a smile, a real one. Shinjiro snorted.
"But really... it wasn't because you were 'the chosen one' or anything. It was because of the way you felt." Yukari's beautiful voice was cut short by a small chuckle, and then: "You really never do stop thinking about him. We all wanted to protect him, but out of all of us... you must've felt the strongest. If there wasn't a seal... the world would soon yearn for Nyx again... That's why he's here. For us. Even if we went back to before the last battle, the world wouldn't be saved unless he did the same thing." She laughed. "I can't believe I didn't see it before. If there was an easier way, he would've taken it."
The pain was gone. The beast, rebuffed.
"It's still sad, but... If I think of him as protecting us, forever... it helps a lot."
In his mind, he was blowing her a soft, sad kiss. Live your life, and be true to it, Yukari. And maybe, I really can do this for you.
Aigis was watching him; and for a moment, it was almost as if she could see him, the real him, beneath the seal. And then she was smiling with their friends, and there was a familiar blue light as they left him forever.
"How are you feeling today? Groovy? Not groovy?"
Naoto Shirogane ignored the idiot and walked up the stairs to Club Escapade's second floor, where reserved seats were set into the wall, and a railing offered the best view of the entire location. She found herself thinking of a book in her grandfather's study.
Naoto was a good detective, but she knew that she had nothing on her grandfather, who had been solving the unsolvable for so very long (he had always joked that he was a hundred years old, perhaps even a little too insistently). That was why when she found the document tucked into a dusty collection of Aeschylus, she knew that she could not have stumbled upon something that he hadn't intended for her to one day find. She may, however, have found it earlier than he predicted-if she dared be that arrogant. Ever since that day, the document's contents had clawed at her. It was a remit, part of what appeared to be a tangled legal case involving a young boy's government-sponsored care.
Her grandfather's notes were all over the margins, and it bore his signature and other signs of his heavy personal involvement, and there was a part of her that was strangely jealous of this phantom boy.
How strange, to be jealous of a boy she'd never met. And there was a dark, locked-away voice deep within her that murmured that it was yet one more reason that it would have been better if she'd been a boy, herself.
She'd come to inspect this club as part of a private investigation, one that had nothing to do with her current case-or perhaps it did, tangentially. One of her schoolmates, one of the youths who had disappeared and returned with alarming regularity since the "Hanged Man Killings" (as one occult-loving television reporter had coined them) had begun, was a former pop idol who had performed at this club on the night in question. Or was supposed to, before the power went out. Whispers, rumors, and circumstantial evidence suggested similar irregularities to her current case, but not enough for the Detective Prince to take seriously. Naoto had no taste for the supernatural, besides a fading nostalgic taste for the old takusatsu shows.
No, there was a part of her that knew that this investigation was spurred as much as anything by the fact that the boy from her grandfather's document had transferred to school in this city, had attended the very site of their planned school trip, and during the same time frame as Rise Kujikawa's canceled performance.
And then vanished entirely.
She had a folder kept in a pay locker at Okina Station, and it was full of poorly-reported incidents, internet gossip and disreputable cultist website dogma, and a few clipped or printed news articles related to the public split of the Kirijo Group from the equally wealthy and distinguished Nanjo Group, both of which seemed to make old farmer's wives out of the populace, to judge from the overabundance of rumors.
The final page in the folder, beneath the remit from her grandfather's study, was a prized childhood memento; a newspaper record of a violent car pile-up on the famous Moonlight Bridge that connected the artificial Tatsumi Port Island to the mainland (another victim/suspect in the killings was "Kanji Tatsumi"-was that why he unsettled her so?). It was the accident that had claimed the lives of her parents, brilliant detectives in their own right, who were supposedly in the middle of a major case breakthrough when the accident cut their investigation, and Naoto's childhood, tragically short.
She willed the pieces to connect, but every time she had the beginnings of a solid shape to the thing, it sifted out through her fingers.
Seta and his crowd would no doubt find their way to this club with Kujikawa in their coterie; Naoto resolved to wait them out, and find out for sure what it was they knew. Souji Seta was a blandly attractive upperclassman, but there was something very dangerous in his eyes, and if she understood little else about the Hanged Man Killings, her intuition that they knew more than they let on surely had to be correct.
"I have two siblings."
Elizabeth had returned in a slightly better state, though her uniform was still missing. She reclined as if relaxed, though Minato could tell that there was something heavy weighing down her shoulders.
"I am not sure if I ever mentioned them before..." She hugged her arms, such a human gesture. "My brother is young, naive perhaps. Which is to say, like myself. Theodore is kind, except by accident, which is all the crueler. We're too different now, because of you." She didn't sound angry at that, just tired. He had thought the days and nights of Elizabeth had been a dream, real dreams beyond the ones of Igor's summonings. Bottomless yen and bottomless questions about life. A night that passed like a fever, and waking to find no trace of her. Guilt around Yukari for a week or more.
But now she looks away, and there is real sadness. "My older sister hates me, now. She thinks I am mad, delinquent, and she has taken my role from me."
There was no way to comfort her, from his place in chains.
"Margaret was always the smartest. And my master's favorite, I think, though he was so kind to us." She dabbed her eyes a little. "But I made my choice, and I will honor my vow to you."
He felt warm and cold in turn.
"I will return. And I will keep returning."
The pain, the recurring prowl of the beast, was gone. But the thing about the worst thing in the world is, you can't believe how bad other things can be until it's gone.
Silence, for one. Silence stretching on into infinity. Oppressive, oceanic silence.
Or loneliness. Conjuring his friends took strength that felt like a rapidly dwindling supply.
Or "What if" questions. Those might be worst of all.
Ms. Ounishi's class was the last of the day's lectures. Yosuke looked like the walking dead, but Souji couldn't help but sit up a little, as the teacher was incredibly beautiful.
"Now, who here is familiar with the butterfly effect?" Chie, excited to be following along for once, shot her hand up so fast that she almost fell out of her seat. But Ms. Ounishi didn't bother calling on anyone, just continued to lecture. "As the story goes, the flap of a butterfly's wings can effect changes a world away. It's a metaphor to explain how chaos theory works, the idea that there is 'sensitive dependancy on initial conditions.' It's what makes very complex systems very difficult to predict. Take, for example, the weather. Nobody can predict the weather with a 100% accuracy rate. Or the behavior of husbands, that would be another good example."
A few girls tittered. Yosuke snorted. "I don't remember the last time a weatherman got it wrong, in Inaba."
Souji thought, for just a moment, that he saw something blue in his periphery, but then it was gone.
For just a moment, Minato thought he saw a man directly before him. He was slender, dressed in white, and wearing a porcelain mask. Just as quickly, the man, who seemed to occupy the former space of the beast, was gone.
He was surely going insane.
Naoto was reviewing documents on her phone, published articles from members of the Kirijo team expounding on the Nanjo Group's work in theoretical physics and quantum mechanics. She didn't understand enough of it. She could never understand enough of everything, she knew, it was a physical impossibility, but it never stopped frustrating her when she found an area where her knowledge gave out.
It was only when she looked up from her phone that she saw the butterfly, a brilliant blue one even indoors in the cheap haze of the nightclub, flit past her and away into the lighting mounts in the ceiling. It was beautiful, and sad, and for some reason just a little scary.
His MP3 player had reached the end and cycled back to the beginning of the playlist. The first song was by a pop star that he'd always sheepishly enjoyed, one who'd come to their city to perform. He hadn't had quite the level of courage to go buy a ticket, not then, but when he'd passed by Cascade in hopes of working up the nerve, he could have sworn he'd seen Shinjiro there, trying to blend into the crowd.
...Now I face out
I hold out
I reach out to the truth of my life
Seeking to seize on the whole moment to now break away
Oh god let me out
Can you let me out
Can you set me free from this dark inner world
Save me now
Last beat in the Soul...
What had that other voice, the one that had sounded like Aigis... what had it meant? "The answer to life?" He had done what he thought he had to... but... everything still hurt. Even without the beast visiting him each "day," the hollow feelings caused by his questions and his loneliness just wouldn't cease.
The dark void in which he lay, in which the seal held strong, was changing. There was a constant haze over everything, almost as if a summer fog had rolled in.
His next visitor was a bear.
At least, that was the closest equivalent. It looked a bit like a monkey, as well, and it was dressed up in a white and red clown suit. But not even the exaggerated squeaking of its steps could mask the sound of crying, of awful, grief-racked sobbing the likes of which Minato had not heard since the night Chidori had died. It's, his, paws were over his giant cartoon eyes, and it appeared that he was paying no attention to where he was going.
"Are you okay?" Minato was sitting on Akinari's bench, and he held out a hand to the strange creature. "Why are you crying? What's wrong?"
"I-It's all my fault..." The bear wobbled in place. "Nana-chan died because I couldn't even protect her..." He gasped for air. His fur was all mottled from the damp of his own tears. "How could I ever promise to protect anyone? I... I don't even know what I am!"
"Come here, sit, it's okay." The bear sat on the bench. They were ostensibly at the shrine, but the fog was so heavy that Minato couldn't see far beyond his arm's reach. "What's your name?"
For the first time since he raised his finger in the air towards Nyx, Minato smiled a little.
"Of course it is. Teddie, if you know that you're Teddie, then you know what you are, right?"
"I..." He rubbed at his nose. "That... that sounds smart, but..."
In the midst, Minato suddenly caught a glimpse of Shinjiro, holding Miki's hand. They were both looking at Teddie with something close to... he turned away, unable to bear their faces. Shinjiro, he'd always had an angry side, a darker side, but to see that sweet little girl's rage towards this bear was too much to handle.
"Y-You sound a little like Sensei..." Teddie sniffed. "How could I go back to him now that Nana-chan is... is..." He started to cry again. Teddie looked, as strange as it was to think, just a little familiar. Minato put his hand on what was an approximation of the back of the bear's neck, and his fingers found the cold steel of a zipper. "D... Do you think..." Teddie turned to him, and with Minato's fingers in the hook of the zipper, it opened slightly.
The end of a yellow scarf flopped out.
Minato's silent scream as he tried to move, tried to do or feel anything from his place on the cross, felt like drowning in sea of insects. He couldn't even see, the fog was so heavy. A knot of tension within his core snapped violently, as he tried to exist, tried to be real for even a second...
It had been foggy that night, as well, on the Moonlight Bridge.
The Shiroganes had only intended a quick passing by of the Kirijo Group facility. Reconnaissance, nothing more. They weren't even going to get out of the car. That was why the two children were buckled in the back seat. It even assisted with their cover story. The parents would never have willingly endangered the children.
They had no way, not even with their prodigious skills, their intellect and intuition, of predicting the explosion, the emergence of the creatures, or the pitched firefight that erupted in their direction. There was a flash of black, and then one of white, and while the father tried to keep the car under control, it flipped on its side and collided head on with that of a beloved Gekkoukan teacher named Kitamura. Everything erupted in flame.
The two children were separated when they crawled free of the wreckage. The boy passed out atop a plaque noting the time capsule buried beneath. It was then that the figure in white, whose battle was at a standstill, laid hands upon him.
Minato's hand was over his mouth. Teddie, whose insides held not Ryoji Mochizuki but a blond-haired boy in a lover's tuxedo, wiped at his eyes.
"I remember, now." Teddie was biting his lip. He looked away, flipped the bear's head back over his own, and zipped it shut. "I know what I am." He sounded as if he was still crying. "Oh, Sensei... will you ever forgive me?"
"Teddie." Minato held out his hand. Shinjiro closed his eyes and shook his head. But who could blame him? Minato understood now what Teddie was. He tried to picture the reactions of his other friends, and shivered. "I..."
There was a purring sound from one side, and both he and Teddie turned as one to regard the vehicle that was approaching through the fog. It was an incredible limousine, of a dark blue that faded into black. Its engine was almost silent, and its length seemed at once normal and stretched back through infinity, as if it had driven through something besides space. There was a part of Minato's mind that could not resolve the vehicle's presence in this construct of what was supposed to be the shrine, by the playground, and yet he knew how little reality had purchase here.
The driver's window rolled down, and Minato saw a fair-haired man, with a blue cap. It was his eyes, however, that were a giveaway. Never having met him, Minato still knew him instantly.
"Teddie, that's your ride."
The class was over, and Yukiko was glancing over Chie's notes from the day's series of lectures. "Chie... There's no 'U' in Atlas."
"Are you sure?"
Souji and Yosuke were chatting when the classroom door slid open and Mister Edogawa slipped into the classroom. He winked at Souji and went to speak to Ms. Ounishi.
Yosuke shook his head. "She is a fine-looking woman, I'll tell you, partner."
Souji squinted. "They're married."
"What?" Yosuke shook his head. "No way, bro. No. Way."
"No, they are. Look at their... I don't know, their posture."
Yosuke rolled his eyes. "How you read people, dude, I'll never know."
Souji was quiet for a long moment, then approached the pair of teachers. "Mister Edogawa?"
"Yes?" The man shifted his glasses and tilted his long, skinny neck.
"I'm sorry, but..." He wasn't sure why he was asking this question. "About your lectures today." He put one hand in a pocket, shifted his stance. "There's... I had a question." Ms. Ounishi was peering at his silver hair with curiosity. "Well, both of your stories ended with hope for, for people, I guess, humanity... but not so much for the gods, or the myths. Is there... hmm." He looked down, trying to figure out what it was that he cared to ask. Usually, it seemed like all he had to do was choose what to say, not make it up. But somehow he found he had an important question that he could not phrase.
"Eeeheehee..." Edogawa rubbed his neck. "Well, they say that the great hero Heracles was the one to free him."
"I don't... Souji shook his head. "I don't know much Greek..."
"Oh, Heracles is a popular one. A mortal who could take on the Gods. Strength, courage, and beloved, very beloved, by man and woman both. He enjoyed games and played with children, too. He's known for his many heroic feats, like tricking Atlas into re-shouldering the world, or wrestling Thanatos." Edogawa looked thoughtful. "He has his origin in shamanic rituals involving trips into and out of the underworld, which I suppose puts him on a plane with Izanagi, or Orpheus... everyone's interpretation is different. Aeschylus wrote that Prometheus knew of a way to take down Zeus, usually a particular coupling that would sire a child that could destroy Zeus. So there was a lot invested in keeping him chained, Eeeheehee..."
"So... but he does get free?"
"Well, it depends on the interpretation, as I said." Edogawa made scales of his hands and tilted them back and forth. "Some versions of the story have him trapped there eternally, in torment."
Souji felt oddly sick to his stomach, and wondered why he cared. "Thanks..."
"Oh, no problem at all." A passing cloud cast Mr. Edogawa's face in shadow.
He realized suddenly that the man in the mask had returned. He was closer this time, no, suddenly he was right there in front of him, tilting his head slightly in question.
They regarded each other for what felt like an eternity in silence, and then the man in the mask pressed a single fingertip against Minato's forehead.
Hamuko Arisato shouldered her bag as the thumping music from her headphones drowned out the sounds of the Port Island Station. Her first night in her new city... she only looked up when the darkness rose.
Hamuko Arisato blushed-but only a little!-at the kindness of her goofy classmate Junpei Iori, offering to be her first friend.
Hamuko took her first tentative steps into the cavernous depths of Tartarus, gently swinging her naginata in an arc before her and trying not to look scared.
...Been a little while but I'm still battling
Moving fast while you's just prattling
No time for me
Hit you in the spot with no angle and...
Hamuko joined the school health association, even if Mister Edogawa creeped her out just a little.
She tried to ignore Yukari's smile and glance in her direction every time Shinjiro's name came up. It wasn't what she thought, Hamuko just... wanted to know what his deal was, that's all. Really.
She looked at the floor guardian, tried to remain stoic, and pulled the trigger on her evoker.
She giggled at Junpei's ghost story.
She tried to get Akihiko, sad Akihiko to take her seriously, so that she could be there for him.
She rescued the cookies before Fuuka could take their innocent lives.
She snuck out for karaoke, or the arcade, at night, when the others were slumped in the lounge seats and dreading the approaching full moon, just for a chance to forget, even a moment, how much they needed her.
She jabbed her pencil into her forehead as she looked over her final exam.
The beautiful blue sky of Yakushima was so bright...
Aigis scared her a little sometimes, but there was something fragile there, a heartbroken look that tickled her memory. She truly belonged with their family of outcasts.
She lugged home another bag of drugs from Paulownia Mall, knowing that nobody would remember to thank her, worried that the druggist was viewing her with suspicion.
A Sunday night home in her room alone, watching Tanaka's awful show, feeling tired.
I don't understand.
Saori, in between sobs, tells her about the dishonest reporter.
Mutatsu offers her jaded advice.
Yukari wants to be her friend, but she worries that Yukari wants an ally more.
He's always there now, hanging around by the back door, leaning against the wall.
Rio and Yuko, splashing around with her in the Amagi Hot Springs.
He offers to help Fuuka cook.
She's spending all her nights with him, it seems. That is, the nights not spent climbing.
Junpei occasionally looking at her with an envy and a resentment that would send her up to her room to hide.
Little Ken guzzling milk by the gallon.
Walks with Koromaru, the only one who didn't ask anything of her.
Bracing herself as he leans in to pierce her ears.
The Samegawa rolled quietly on as Souji Seta and Rise Kujikawa spoke quietly. He tried not to look at that expression of hers, almost worshipful, tried to pry his feelings apart from the tangled mess of the last few months.
"Senpai, have you ever thought that you're pushing yourself too far, or that you were just acting?"
Souji made a vague gesture with his hand. "All the time." He knew that some of the others, Yukiko and Chie particularly, were concerned that his time with Rise was... what? Ego padding? Indulgence? The way Japan's favorite pop idol gazed at him, and with her looks to boot, who wouldn't suspect his intentions? He did sometimes, himself. And yet...
She giggled. "Really...? Then you might even be a better actor than me." She told him about coming to Inaba, about being a regular person again, about a bullied childhood. "After a while... I realized something. The person everyone likes, the one they say 'hi' to on the street? That's not the real me. Risette is the one everyone likes... the fictional character they sold to the public... It's the same with you, isn't it? You don't have to deny it... I won't be mad."
He'd been dreading this question, and the consuming inevitability of it. "...I don't know."
"W-Wow, I'm kinda surprised..." She tilted her head back, just a little. Her neck was so softly curved. "You project this image of strength, so I didn't expect you to say that..." She smiled just a little. "But I see... you're just a year older than me, huh? I never thought of that..." She smiled sheepishly.
"It's... it's not just that." Souji watched something float past in the river. It looked almost like a doll, but then a large fish just barely crested the water, and the doll vanished into the depths. Whatever it had been, it was lost to the Guardian of Inaba, now.
She held his head in her lap. Clockwork was strewn across asphalt. His hand brushed her cheek.
Souji flexed his hand, as if he was crushing a Tarot card in its grip.
"Sometimes I feel like..." He shook his head. "You said something, after your shadow..." Rise winced. "Right, well... you said that there wasn't a 'real you.' That's... I'm afraid of that more than anything else in the world." She reached for him, and he just put up his hand. "No, let... let me finish. I..."
He could hear Igor's voice in his head. "You possess the Wild Card..." For such a creepy old bastard, he had a deceptively soothing voice; almost velvet, like his limousine's apholstery. Which was the "Room" named after? "Think of it like the number Zero..."
He glanced over at Rise. "Sometimes, I feel like... I don't have a real self, either. Like I change my personality with each person I talk to. Like I spend so much time making everyone else happy, trying to help everyone else, that there's nothing left for me. All I do when I go home is fold envelopes, read trashy literature, and go to sleep. I feel like I don't have a real life anymore, past this damned..." He waved his hand. "This murder mystery." He lolled his head. "I keep thinking about what you said to that detective. The boy in the hat. About it not being a game." He could feel Teddie's glasses in his shirt pocket. "If it's not a game, then what is it, you know?" He looked her in the eyes. "I think I'm going crazy. And I can't talk to the others about it. Yosuke, or Chie... even Kanji, they need me. Everyone needs me for something."
He looked back to the river. "When you look at me like you want me, it makes me think maybe there's something there to want. What would my shadow look like?"
The tragedies began to happen one after another, so quickly that she didn't have time to feel anything but empty.
Ikutski, with his horrible puns and placating smile, the monster.
And then Chidori, and Junpei's agonizing scream. She'd begged him to fight for her.
Akihiko grew stronger with time, only for Mitsuru to take his place, numb and insensate.
She found perhaps her only reprieves in Theodore, in his childlike wonder at the world.
And then Ryoji.
The man in the mask released his touch, and Minato gasped inwardly as the void reclaimed him.
Rise took Souji's hands. "When I got back to school after my debut, no one bullied me... I was happy at first, with people I didn't even know talking to me... But they weren't suddenly interested in Rise Kujikawa... They wanted to hang out with Risette. The bullying stopped, but... I felt like none of them saw the real me. In my heart, I've always thought... 'this isn't the real me...' Funny, huh? I was the one who wanted to change, and..."
Her hands smoothed down her tight capri pants. She was looking at him, and he knew that she wasn't just talking about herself.
"But none of that matters now! I'm done being Risette! Now I have people who know the real me. Plus, I have power that can help everyone... I love that!" She held up his hands, so that they were right in front of his face. "We have that power together, Senpai... that's what matters first. And... being the person that would help all of these people every day, the person you are... that's as real as it gets." She blushed. "You're Senpai... Souji-kun. If you know that, then you know who you are."
"Rise..." Souji's eyes lowered.
"And this time, I'm going to change into a Rise that everyone can like!" She smiled. "Keep an eye out for her, Senpai!" She stood. "And come walk me home."
Hamuko Arisato stood tall even as her friends had fallen around her. With the light and the heat of Nyx before her, she raised her finger...
Minato rubbed at his face, while Akinari doodled in the sand with a stick.
"I beat it. If that's the word." He looked at his hands, which he'd never have thought as "manly" or "rough" before, but compared to her gentle, graceful... "I did better even than I did before... I saved Shinjiro. I saved him!" He was breathing far too heavily. "Kenji found who he really belonged with this time. Yuko helped Kaz without me. And, and I hadn't even known how Saori was hurting, the first time... but... I lost Nozomi..."
"And in the end, you made the same choice." Akinari was drawing animals. The alligator from his story, and a few others. They were like the doodles that had been in his notebook. One bear, though, looked familiar in a different way.
"Yeah... yeah, I did..."
"I think he gave you a gift, Minato-kun." As always, Akinari's smile was beatific. "I think you should treasure it."
"Do you remember when we fought?" Elizabeth looked cold. "It was a glorious battle."
Somehow she understood when he thought the word No.
"It happened. It..." She tried to form a shape with her hands, but failed. "Time is hard to explain to you. There is a you with very little difference to you now, but had fought with me before you met Nyx." She smiled. "Do not be alarmed... I asked you to do so. It meant a great deal to me. There is, I think, another you, who fought with my sister, as well." She looked out into the Void. "There are many of you, and only one of me. Perhaps that is what humans call "being greedy?"
Which one, he tried to ask her, is the real one?
She shook her head. "All of them are real, all of them are you. Some of them are very different. In some, you are not you. This is harder to explain...
Maybe not, he sent out to her. I just thought... she might have been my sister.
Elizabeth looked... sheepish? Or was that the wrong word? "Not as such. Not as you're remembering."
Naoto stood on the roof of Yasogami High School and watched the fog roll in. She was scheduled to meet with the others-the ones who, and she was still having a bit of trouble with this part planned or no, had saved her-she would meet them tomorrow. Tonight, though, she was trying to keep her hands from shaking. It wasn't from the cold, though the rains had only let up a short time ago and her cap was still dripping. It was knowing that as that fog rose up, it was dissipating in that other world, the world of the other Naoto, inside the television. If she had still been in there tonight, she would be dead. And no amount of ingenuity would have saved her. Nothing her grandfather had taught her, nothing that she had picked up from years of experience. She would be dead, unquestionably.
But that was only part of what bothered her. The other part, the part that she knew she still couldn't tell them when they met at the Junes food court (their "secret headquarters," which sounded so much like the "secret base" that she had formed for herself within the television that it made her a little ill)...
Why had the shadow, her shadow, said nothing about the mysterious boy who haunted her grandfather's study? Why had that last painful and confusing fact been held back?
She was still adjusting to the possession of her persona. Small, with blue wings... it looked like nothing so much as a butterfly.
There was a figure stalking through the fog below. She looked down and found herself looking eye-to-eye, even from the third-story roof, with Kanji Tatsumi. It was a quick moment, and then the tall boy in the leather jacket broke the look, hunched up his shoulders, and all but ran away.
Minato was sitting with Shinjiro. Neither of them spoke, but Minato was worse off, because he couldn't even turn to look.
Time passed. All time did was pass, forever and ever. Minato was probably a trillion years old.
Or maybe not. Because one of the only blessings that he'd been afforded so far was that he hadn't once seen Koro-chan.
Of all the things to feel, since becoming the Seal, he'd never expected awkwardness.
"Hey..." Minato croaked out. "That time... on the full moon... when you knew about the club's power outage..."
"...Are you a Risette fan?"
Naoto and Souji are eating at Aiya's, discussing the case of the Phantom Thief.
Tell him, her heart cried, maybe he could help.
Don't be a fool, her head whispered, and her head always won.
That day, at Club Escapade. A wisp of a girl in a Gekkoukan uniform came and found her, brave shell over brittle, and despite her innocence and her femininity, Naoto saw a disturbing mirror image of herself in the student council president, who handed her a letter at the behest of her predecessor.
It was a lot of florid language, and some legalese to boot, but Naoto understood it well enough: "Stay out of it if you know what's good for you."
She crumpled it in her fist and was storming out when Souji and his nakama bustled in, all but blocking her exit.
She told herself that case was unrelated to their current one, their real case, and that what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them. And she told herself, as she always did, that she didn't need anyone else's help.
Though this was the first time that she'd begun to wonder if perhaps someone needed her. Not as an investigator, but as a...
Souji was saying something in between mouthfuls about "Kanji-kun," and her musings tilted, like a ship making a too-quick correction of course. She moved to change the subject.
Time passed. Again. And always.
Yosuke grabbed Souji's shoulder and held him back as the the rest of the group went on towards the love hotel that was serving as their accomodations for the duration of the school trip. "Hey, partner... you okay?"
Rise and Yukiko were babbling semi-drunkenly, Chie was consulting a tourist's map (without a lucid Rise to guide them back) and Kanji had Teddie slung over one shoulder as they walked, their backs all receding into the distance. Naoto, he knew, was lingering just a little, slowing just enough to hear. "I'm fine."
"Dude, c'mon, it's me, all right? You've been a little zonked since the..." Shapeless gestures. "...The lectures, or whatever they were. I swear, that whole King's Game, you're like a zombie."
"Ever feel like someone's walked over your grave?" Souji's eyes were trained on the back of Naoto's head. The "boy in the hat" was still a little hard to trust, even if Souji had known what to say to his best friend.
"Yeah, once. But you bailed me out." Souji turned and looked at him, and the innocent smile on Yosuke's face almost killed him.
Elizabeth had returned. This time, for the first time, she was smiling. Really smiling.
"I'm impressed." Hidetoshi was standing with his arms crossed. "I can't imagine what she had to do to figure it out."
The fog had dissipated completely.
Minato looked at his shoes. "But what if it doesn't work? What if it makes things messed up all over again? I mean, there are rules."
Hidetoshi crouched down so that he could look Minato in the eyes. "Break them."
Souji looked at the picture, and his finger lightly slid along Rise's smiling face, before he put it back in his pocket. The train was already lulling him to sleep...
"Excuse me..." There was a gentle voice, and Souji opened his eyes to see a boy, a man, in the vicinity of his own age, gesturing towards the seat across from him. "Is this seat taken?"
"No, go ahead." He rubbed at his eyes as the other man sat down. The man was dressed in a black school uniform, with a logo that Souji found vaguely familiar. He tried to smile, but the pain at leaving Inaba was still just a little raw, and he looked instead towards the window.
The other man, whose eyes kept slipping away beneath his bangs, put his hands in his pockets and hummed along quietly with whatever was playing in his headphones, which only reminded Souji of the best friend he'd left behind. At Souji's look, however, he unclipped his headphones. "I'm sorry, am I bothering you?"
"No, it's all right." Souji shook his head. "I'm just... distracted. It's not your fault."
Mr. Headphones nodded silently, and looked out the window himself. "It's beautiful. Is that your hometown?"
"No..." Souji rubbed the bridge of his nose with one finger. "But it's home." He blinked. "Sorry, I didn't..." He offered a slight bow. "Souji Seta."
His traveling companion returned the favor. "Minato Arisato."
Aiya's Chinese Diner. Naoto swirled the meat around her plate with one chopstick.
The farewell party, such as it was, had been hopeful to a point, but when the train was out of view, and Rise and Nanako couldn't hold back the tears any longer, Naoto had faded into the crowds. That the first sprinklings of rain followed soon after made it all the easier to blend into the night. Now she was regarding a meal that she hadn't actually wanted to eat.
The door jingled and someone entered. "Gimme the Rainy Day Meat Dimension." Naoto made a futile attempt to pull her hat further down over her face and leaned into her plate, but he had already seen her. Kanji tugged at the bottom of his leather jacket for a moment before approaching slowly, as though she would draw her pistol any moment. "Uh, hey."
She gave the briefest nod.
"They, uh, they wondered where you..." He looked away. "Anyway, not my business, I guess."
"Thank you." Her face felt warm, and she wondered with panic whether she was...
"Order's up!" Aiya's owner placed the world's largest beef bowl on the counter, and Kanji turned.
"Oh, uh, I guess I better..."
She sighed. "Oh, just sit here, already. It's asinine to pretend that we don't notice each other."
"Oh... kay." He collected the large bowl and placed it on the table, sliding into the seat opposite her. He stared at the bowl. "...The Hell was I thinking?"
She risked a glance upward at him. "I thought your appetite was well-known."
"Yeah, well, you know..." He nodded to her own plate.
"I see. Right." That her mental state was so obvious only provoked further embarrassment, and she looked back down.
They sat in silence.
"So... where are you headed?" Souji crossed his legs.
"Back home... I think." Minato looked up.
Souji felt the familiar buzz of a person hiding an issue that they already knew how to solve. "You think?"
"I've... been away for a couple of years. And... I'm not sure if it won't be more confusing. For me to be back in their lives." He looked sheepish. "You know, I was always the one they looked to, but... I always needed them more than they needed me. And they've had a chance to move on. That sounds pathetic, doesn't it?"
"No, not really." Souji's hand drifted to his pocket, where instead of a pair of glasses, there was a single photograph. "The people you love, though... you need each other. And you don't ever forget each other. Even if you go away for a long time... they'll always be there when you come home."
Naoto and Kanji could not look at each other, and they could not eat. Some of the other patrons were beginning to eye them curiously. Finally, Kanji rubbed at his neck and looked away. "Yeah, uh, this was stupid, entirely on my part, so I'm sorry, I know I bothered you, maybe I should go..."
She looked up, and it was out of her mouth before she could stop it. "I have a brother."
...I tried hard but where did we go wrong?
I hope we could
But I won't start all over again...
He wasn't sure how he knew where to go, but there he was. He saw the two names on the intercom, and for a moment he was dizzy, before he realized that Aigis had taken his last name all that time ago, to get into school. But those two last names together suggested a history that he'd never gotten to have. Or one, maybe, that he still could.
He pressed the buzzer, and heard Yukari's voice a minute later. "Hello?"
"..." His throat caught.
"It's..." Would she know his voice? "It's Minato."
He waited for a response.