Atlus takes, and takes, but what do I get? Oh, right. Anyway, they own everything. Ever. "After the End" stories are designed to be standalone, but they all intertwine. Thanks to user Emmychao for enduring half-formed paragraphs in her inbox. I write these for my wife-but you've probably heard that already.

[XI. Strength] All in the Wrist

(A Magic Trick)

Reiji Kido had barely started high school, and he was already sitting in a police station in handcuffs.

It had been a... well, Reiji used the word "disagreement" when he spoke with the cop, a stuffy new guy called Kurosawa. Some kids had been teasing him, comparing him to his smarter, better-looking stepbrother. So he'd beaten them to bloody pulps. It was nothing to worry about, he argued. The cop looked ready to turn the violence right around to Reiji, which suited him fine.

As his parents were called, he looked down at his fists, which still had traces of blood. Part of him was pleased; the other part decidedly less so.

On the way back home, his parents talked about transferring him to another school. Which was a nice way of saying "get the embarrassment out of their hair." That suited him fine, too. He didn't need them. Let him forge his own path. He'd bust up anyone who got in his way, if he had to.

"Akihiko..." Chie Satonaka ran after her partner, and boyfriend, as he stormed out of the police station. "Hey, wait!" She winced as Officer Sanada punched a nearby lamppost, and made a solid dent in the metal. "Aki, come on, don't be that guy. Talk to me, already."

His shoulders raised and lowered, again and again. She didn't reach out for him; she already knew him better than that. She just jammed her hands into her pockets and waited him out. Finally, he turned and offered her a sheepish smile.

"Sorry. I just... I need some time to think. Alone."

She shook her head. "Partners, remember? This affects both of us."

That might have been the wrong thing to say. He scrunched up his face and looked away. "Give me a few hours. I'll meet you at the beef bowl place tonight at nine, okay?"

That was as good as she was going to get. She sighed.

"Don't do anything stupid, okay?" But he was already in the car and pulling out of the station parking lot.

"Hello, ma'am." Reiji Kido, with an ugly comb-forward haircut and a sour-looking tie, tried to slip his foot between the door and the frame before she could close it in his face. "I'm here to offer you a once in a lifetime opportunity, that's going to change your world forever."

The woman looked at Reiji and stiffened, as though his very aura was knocking her back. "This isn't a religious thing, is it?"

Reiji laughed, poorly. "No, ma'am. Although, when you see what these knives will do in your kitchen, you might just think you've found Heaven itself."

The door slammed hard on his foot. He cursed and pulled his leg back, falling backwards into a bush. His sample case landed square on his nose.

Akihiko drove around for at least thirty minutes, aimlessly, slamming his hands against the steering wheel, before he finally sighed and picked a destination. It was, he supposed, a bit of denial on his part. It had been obvious from the beginning where he would go.

The cemetery looked much as it had the last time that he'd visited—it hadn't been very long. He tried to keep his visits to once a year, the better to look forward, rather than back. But this was different. What he was being asked to do... he felt all the worse for feeling that this moment had been coming for years.

The cold wind was picking up, and Aki actually had to pull on the coat that he was usually toting around over his shoulder. It was then that he noticed that somebody was standing by Shinji's gravestone. It was a man in an ill-fitting business suit. He eased closer slowly. Not that many people would come to visit Shinjiro Aragaki, and he knew pretty much all of them personally.

When the man turned to look at him with a sad smile, he was shocked to find that this, too, was someone he knew. Reiji Kido offered a wavering bow. "Hello, Aki. You've grown up."

"Kido-sensei..." Akihiko gave a long, low formal bow. "I haven't seen you in..."

"A lifetime?" Reiji looked at the gravestone. "I'm sorry about Shinji. I wish I could have..." He let his shoulders droop. "How are you?"

Aki didn't have the words. He looked at Shinji's stone, and back at Reiji. "Do you want to go somewhere?"

...Power is the Reason

Why we all are fighting hard

Control your body, your soul, and heart

Yes, some of us who quit are like lambs to the slaughter

Lets try harder to reach the next stage...

It wasn't long after Reiji's transfer to St. Hermelin before he'd gotten himself in trouble again. This time, the police and the juvenile courts offered him an option to keep his record clean. Service work wasn't exactly Reiji's idea of a good time, but given the choices in front of him, he decided to take the lesser of two evils.

Which is how he'd check in with an officer once a week and bus over to an orphanage and help out. At first, they tried to get him to work with little kids, finger-painting and every other thing. That didn't work out. But a couple of the older kids got a look at his sculpted abdominals on a hot day on the small basketball court behind the building, and asked him if he knew how to fight. Soon, he was talking to the administration to hash out a program where he could do something to help that might not be so bad.

Self-defense was not, exactly, something that the orphanage wanted to promote in practice—some of the boys were too violent as it is—but enough people saw the benefit to providing a positive outlet for aggression that he was allowed to teach an informal class (under heavy supervision). Soon, basic lessons gave way to more formal boxing and wrestling matches, usually with duct-taped and ragged equipment.

It wasn't long before Reiji had two students who stood far above the others in raw skill—and aggression. That was how he got to know the young Akihiko Sanada and Shinjiro Aragaki.

In Akihiko Sanada's last year of middle school, a beautiful girl came up to him and made an offer that he couldn't refuse.

He'd gotten a lot of "offers" since becoming the school's prize boxing champion. But this wasn't like the others, from insipid and callow girls who didn't see much to him besides a pair of arms. This was not an offer to date, or to "hang out," or any other kind of vague suggestion that had to do with their being seen with him in public.

This girl, instead, handed him a gun.

"You said you wanted to build your strength. What you really need is a riskier challenge. And with this, you can challenge 'them'..." Young Mitsuru Kirijo pressed the gun into his palm, flipped her curly hair with one hand, and walked away without giving him a second glance.

Aki looked at the gun for a long moment. It was lighter, didn't feel like he'd imagine a gun would feel. And he'd never thought he'd use a gun in the first place. But when noises down the hall heralded the return of the other students, he palmed the weapon and slipped it into his pocket.

That decision was the first time that he heard the whispered voice, the one that he'd later recognize as Polydeuces. It was a voice that he only barely realized that he'd heard, folding himself back into the crowd of cheering kids and letting them carry him back outside, where a familiar boy was skulking beneath a tree and looking at the stars.

"Hey." Akihiko kicked him, ignoring the other students. "You see that fight?"

"Whatever." Shinjiro shrugged. "You want a real match, you know where to find me."

Aki chuckled, but in the next moment he realized that he now had a secret, burning away in his pocket at that moment, and no idea what to do about his best and only friend.

Akihiko and Reiji stood outside the orphanage, not looking at each other.

"Been a while since I came here." Aki grimaced. It had been rebuilt many years back, after Akihiko had left it behind—this he'd known. That the building looked so similar to how it used to, that he hadn't really expected. It was a ghost place, like Tartarus. Just being near it made him feel small again.

"Longer for me, obviously." Reiji wiped at his nose. "Let's go around back."

The old basketball court was there, still, though it was in, to put it mildly, a bit of disrepair. Aki winced. He should have asked Mitsuru to put some money into the old place, but he'd spent so much time trying to forget about it.

"I'll tell you, back then, I think I hated being here as much as you kids did." Reiji smiled, his tie flapping in the wind. "Now I kind of miss it."

Akihiko had so much he wanted to ask Reiji Kido, about what to do, what to feel. Instead, he just watched the older man nose his way around the orphanage grounds.

"I'd be a pretty big league dick if I claimed that it was all bad." Reiji toed at some weeds peeking up from the asphalt. "But a lot of it's been a waking nightmare."

"I know what that's like." Akihiko approached him, coughing once. "I hate to think what Shinji and I would've been like, though, if you hadn't been here."

Reiji watched as a young Akihiko swung with a loose arm, which Shinjiro easily batted away. The other boy had Aki's Featherman figure, and was holding it up just out of Aki's reach.

"Akihiko." Reiji waved him over. The young boy cast a dark glare at Shinjiro before stalking over to the teenager. "Your punches suck."

"He's stronger than me." Aki muttered it so that his friend (?) couldn't hear. "I just have to get stronger."

"Yeah, he's stronger than you, but Shinji uses his size more than his strength. He doesn't know jack about how to fight, either, but when two people don't know, the bigger guy's always gonna win." Reiji spit in the grass. "Okay, look. You want to be a better fighter, right?" The boy nodded. "Watch my hands."

Reiji took a deck of playing cards out of his jacket, and began shuffling them. The boy looked confused, but settled back and watched obediently as Reiji bridged the cards from one hand to the other, and then cut the deck with only two fingers. Without looking at the deck, he flicked the middle and a card popped out for Akihiko to remove. "Two of clubs, right?"

Shinjiro had come over to watch as well. "You stacked the deck."

Reiji grinned. "Okay, tough guy, you shuffle it yourself." He handed the deck to the boy in the dark beanie cap, who awkwardly shuffled all of the cards together. "Now, Aki here is looking at me like I'm an idiot." The younger boy blushed. "And that's cool, because I could crush him with one hand. But he's doing it because he doesn't know what this has to do with fighting. Do you?"

Shinji shook his head, handing the deck back.

"Then you should pay attention, too, because I'm about to school you both." He shuffled the deck again himself, and then flicked out a card. Shinji took it. "Two of clubs?"

Akihiko frowned. "Wait. You're using math. I saw this on television. You count the cards, or..."

"Do I look like I know math?" Reiji rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay. Fine. One more time. Here." He pointed to the card in Shinji's hand. "Hold on to that." He shuffled the cards, and flicked one out. Aki took it. "Two of clubs?"

"Tch." Shinjiro flicked his card back at Reiji. "This is stupid. What does this have to do with fighting?"

Reiji turned to Akihiko. "Were you watching my hands?"

"Uh." Akihiko looked down at his card.

"Look. You kids are killin' me. I'm tryin' to teach you something, here." He crouched down to meet them eye-to-eye. "There's like forty lessons in here." He sighed. "Okay. Here's the first one: when you're fighting someone, you watch them, and you watch yourself. It's too easy to stop paying attention to that stuff once you start swinging, but a good fighter can see the swing before the arm starts to move. You follow me?" They nodded uneasily. "But that's not the real one I'm getting at here. The point is, you guys saw me punch through boards the other day. But what I'm doing here isn't strength. Do you have to be strong? Hell yeah. But I can move my fingers like a freakin' piano player, and that's because fighting is also about finesse. You've gotta be in control of your every movement."

He grabbed the two boys and rotated them so that they faced each other, an arm's length apart. "Okay, Aki. Punch Shinjiro, but do it really slowly. Like you're underwater, or in a movie." Akihiko slowly raised his fist. "See? You're only workin' your arm. You're not paying attention to the rest of your body and what it's tellin' you." He grabbed Akihiko's arm, and guided it slowly towards Shinjiro, moving the rest of him with his other hand. "Throw your hip and shoulder into the punch, and your whole weight goes with it. Keep your wrist in the right position, or the punch buckles. You see?"

Akihiko's eyes were wide, like a fundamental mystery had been solved for him.

"Okay, now punch the palm of my hand, for real, like you're trying to bust my face open." Aki channeled power into his punch, launching it dead center for Reiji's hand. "Okay, better. Your feet aren't right, I can grab your wrist and topple you over like a clown. But you're getting it." He rubbed at his face and looked at both boys. "Strength ain't anything if you don't know what to do with it."

Akihiko opened his wallet and handed something to Reiji. It was a creased and faded playing card: the two of clubs.

"I didn't get it, then. Not for a long time, really. Shinjiro didn't, either. But I thought a lot about it, after I got out of the orphanage."

Reiji took the card and stared at it. "Jesus. I didn't think you'd kept it."

"Shinji had his, too. It was the only thing I was able to keep, after..." After the fire. When Miki died. "Whatever happened to you, after you stopped coming to see us? We always wondered. You just vanished."

"I wouldn't know how to begin to explain." Reiji tugged at the basketball hoop, testing its strength.

He remembered Masao (that punk, he'd thought) prying him away from the SEBEC bastards at the blockade. The way that their leader had calmly regarded him, like he was under a microscope. And how after hating all of their guts, he wound up joining them anyway, pledging his life with theirs. Masao, Nanjou, Brown, Ayase... it was a group of freaks, and he was the biggest freak of all. Small wonder they became the only ones who cared. Maki, Yukino, they were always calling after him. Making sure he was all right. He wasn't, really. But he'd made his bed, and he had to lie in it.

"Ah, just a sad old story," he finally said, not looking at Akihiko. "I got a girl pregnant, you know? I say 'girl' like she isn't older than I am." He chuckled. "So now I sell knives."

Akihiko wasn't sure what to say to that. He looked up at the orphanage. It was as if the fire hadn't happened. Like history had been wiped away. He thought of the Abyss of Time. "Things aren't over until you die. There's always time."

Reiji chuckled, and turned back to his old student. "Let's 'think positive,' huh? I've heard that before. Why are you out here alone tonight, Aki? What's up with you?"

Aki bowed to Shuji Ikutski with narrowed eyes. He didn't trust him.

His distrust didn't last, of course—how could it? Ikutski's facade was perfect in every respect. He was a creep, but in the way that many adults were creeps. He told bad jokes and crashed his bicycle into things, and what's more, he did it when he didn't think other people were around. Within a month and a half, Ikutski was just "The Chairman," the comedy relief of their three-man team.

And comedy relief was sorely needed. The dormitory was a big, empty building, with only two residents. And Akihiko had no idea what he was supposed to say to Mitsuru Kirijo, the prodigy. In those early days, he was in awe of her. Her focus and her strength of purpose.

Mitsuru had three goals, in order: First, to protect her father. Second, to eliminate the Shadows. Third, to become the best at everything she attempted, so that she could find a place for herself when the first two goals were no longer necessary.

Aki, on the other hand, only had one goal—an ill-defined desire to be stronger. That was how she'd won him over, and it wasn't long before he got his first taste of what it would take.

A small Shadow, what they'd later call a Maya, got loose during the Dark Hour, tearing up product in one of the stores in the strip mall. With Ikutski coordinating them over the radio from his place back at the dorm, Mitsuru and Akihiko went out to subdue. Neither of them were fully adept at using their Personas, yet. Mitsuru had been operating on survival instinct, when she was the only one who was battle-capable. There was a lot that they still didn't understand, and Ikutski suggested trying to capture the small, blob-like Shadow for study.

As much as Akihiko wanted to fight, even he had to agree it was a good play. Better that they know its weaknesses, so they could do some real damage later. He'd been taken to the outside gates of the large tower that formed in place of Gekkoukan High School, and he was itching to prowl around inside.

Unfortunately, whatever weaknesses it was that the Maya had, they were not ice or lightning. Even as Akihiko punched the thing square in its mask, electricity coursing through his arm, its other arms were wrapping around his legs, upending him into a stack of crates. He hit his head on something hard and everything sank underwater for a moment, until he heard Mitsuru's scream. She'd tried freezing the Maya whole in a block of ice, and it had punched right through.

Aki struggled to his feet. Some part of him absently noted that Ikutski wasn't saying anything over the radio. What a big help. Probably dozing with a book over his face. He grabbed a clothes rack and shook the garments free. The rack was built in two parts, and when the X-shaped top was removed, the lower half formed a suitable spear. He hoisted it and jammed it hard into the Maya, which Mitsuru was fending off awkwardly with her sword (a flimsy weapon for sporting and old-fashioned honor duels—useless, he grunted to himself)... but the Maya turned around quickly, and the legs of the stand cracked him in the nose.

He thought back to the lessons that Reiji Kido had taught him. The delinquent had only helped at their orphanage for about six months, but he'd taught Aki and Shinji more in that time than they'd learned from anyone else. Or at least, cared to learn. Watch its motions, predict, act accordingly. Be aware of your whole self. He flipped backwards as the Maya reached out for him, and the metal spear jammed in its side tangled with another display of products, holding it just long enough for Mitsuru to spear it a second time with her blade, which was covered in a thick layer of frost.

It was weakening. They might not be fighting it the right way, but they were still winning. Akihiko grabbed onto the metal debris that had impaled the creature and sent more voltage through it, even as he grasped onto its mask and pulled with all of his might. It grabbed his leg again, but this time he was ready—he was pulling back, and so all the Shadow was doing was giving him more leverage. Soon enough, the monster ripped apart in a mess of black and red ichor.

Blood painted the walls, thick chunks spattered the store's damaged merchandise... and then all of it began to dissolve, until there was nothing left. The store just looked like it had been looted. Self-cleaning... at least one thing worked in their favor.

Akihiko, though, flopped backwards onto his rear end with nothing holding him up, and stayed there, breathing heavily. Mitsuru was on her knees, massaging her wrist, and (if he wasn't mistaken) trembling, just a little.

"Well..." Her voice was hoarse. "Did you get what you wanted?"

He started laughing.

It broke the ice, at any rate. Akihiko started spending more time in the lounge, watching television or attending to his studies. It wasn't long before Mitsuru did the same. The place was too empty, too lonely, to do much else. At some point, Aki realized that he was taking his classes more seriously than he had at the orphanage. It wasn't hard to pinpoint the reason—Mitsuru was top of her class every time, and after that first battle, the competitive lines had been drawn.

But it was more than that, too. They were the only ones there, and the only ones who knew the truth about the Dark Hour. While they were not friends, they were something closer than that. And neither of them wanted to be unworthy of the other.

Akihiko and Reiji sat on a small bench to one side of the old, burnt-out basketball court and listened to the sounds of the city.

"I'm being asked to choose between two impossible..." He frowned and started again. Reiji, perhaps embarrassed by his story earlier, didn't say anything. "There's what's right, and what might be right. But I have people that I... both sides are like family, or moreso."

Is this, he wondered, what it was like for Aigis? He remembered their battle in the arena. He had dodged bullets on that endless day. See the motions, predict, and act in full knowledge of your body. He had lost. But he'd lost to the one who was doing the right thing.

Shinjiro stood with his arms crossed and a downright childish... petulant look. "I ain't leaving."

Aki looked from Shinji to Ikutski in horror as the older man made a "hmm" sound. "Well, he does have the potential."

Mitsuru, who seemed ill at ease, placed her teacup on the table and smoothed out her skirt. "But can he even control it? The tests are inconclusive at best..."

"Could control you with the back of my hand, rich girl," Shinji muttered so low that only Akihiko could hear. His horror mounted. This was... this was a phenomenally bad idea. Shinjiro, though, just stuck out his chin in defiance.

He'd barged in one evening without warning, told them that he was on to them. Said he'd seen Akihiko and Mitsuru battling a Shadow by Port Island Station, and that he wanted in. Akihiko hadn't even known that Shinji could experience the Dark Hour, as he had. He did know, however, that he was only doing this because Akihiko was here.

No, it was one thing for Aki to die in battle, but he wasn't going to risk Shinjiro. He'd voice a protest, and...

"All right. Let's try this out for a probationary period." Ikutski sipped his tea and smiled at Akihiko. "I'm sure that you'll be thrilled to have an old friend on the team."

Years later, Akihiko would wonder at the logic of it. Shinjiro would never, in his years on and off with SEES, ever trust Ikutski. And he'd be proven right, in the end, too late for Shinji to do a damned thing about it. But of course the reason was obvious. He'd had years to win Mitsuru's trust. Having Shinjiro in the dorm was the easiest, fastest way to bring Akihiko to heel. And it worked almost instantaneously.

Shinji threw his few things into another room on Akihiko's floor, and slammed the door without talking to his old friend. Aki wound up going up to the roof and shadowboxing for a few hours to burn off his anger. Mitsuru found him up there, and stared at him for a while with crossed arms before going back downstairs.

They compared photos of their respective live-in girlfriends. Reiji even elbowed Akihiko and gave him an exaggerated wink. There were times when Aki, looking at his old teacher, could sense a darkness that he could not describe. But his Persona had not been an overly sensitive creature—Caesar was made for violence—and Akihiko did not understand that Reiji, too, had a second self, a dark and terrifying one.

Reiji, for his part, could only detect a vague noble aura from his student, and attributed it to Aki being that rare breed, the "good cop."

As Akihiko explained in the loosest and most nonspecific terms the nature of his dilemma, Reiji listened thoughtfully. Aki did not explain that a loose coalition of Persona users had drafted both he and Chie in an attempt to get to the bottom of what Mitsuru and her new boyfriend were up to. He did not explain the efforts that he'd expended for years making sure that he didn't know what Mitsuru was ever up to, no matter how often she asked him to be her confidante. He used euphemisms and talked around himself. Somehow, though, he got his point across, and Reiji sat and considered.

And remembered.

Yukino Mayuzumi's bright yellow Bruce Lee pants crinkled as she crouched down to get a better shot. Her camera clicked a dozen times as Reiji watched her get multiple angles of what looked to be claw marks in the side of a brick building.

"Gee, Yuki," Reiji drawled, "You take me to all the nicest places."

"You've got a great view of my ass from back there, Reiji, so I wouldn't complain." And he did! But he tried to focus on the damage to the wall, instead. It was, without a doubt, the sort of thing that a demon might leave behind.

Yukino had been a yanki—a delinquent—when she was younger, which made her by default one of the people in that group that he could tolerate the best. She knew the streets, she knew what it was to be angry, and she knew that being that way didn't make you less human, like a lot of their classmates seemed to think. When he got spotted coming out of the orphanage one day, it had been Yukino who had caught him (thank God), and she'd kept his secret ever since. They hadn't been friends, but there had been a wary respect.

When the Deva System turned on, though, and the demons and the zombies swarmed in, the group of them had become allies, and awkward friendships tended to form in situations like that. Yukino had been in charge of keeping the school safe, and at the time Reiji had figured it was chumpwork, the easy job for a girl who spent her after-school days working at a convenience store in a stupid red suit. But later he found out about the Snow Queen, and everything that had gone down, and he began to see what the rest of them had in her.

She'd always been the team's damned mother, checking their supply kits and ammo boxes, offering soothing words and all that. But she was a hardass, and that was something that he could appreciate. And when things went down again, a few years later, and everyone had to get together to back up the new kids, and he saw how Yukino had grown up... growing her hair out, ditching the skirt... he'd been very impressed.

But he'd already managed to screw up his life in the interim, fathering a child that he wasn't ready for. And so he kept his distance from her, going to help out Maki with the dirty work. But Yukino singled him out at the reunion, bought him drinks, made him laugh, made him promise to call her.

For the most part, though, these "dates" had been a little small talk—Yukino kept up with most of the others, so she could answer his curiosity without his having to subject himself to abuse from guys like Masao or Kei, or endure swooning and pathological lying from Ayase—and then trips like this, investigating weird stuff that could end up being demon-related.

Usually, it wasn't. But they were in the Yamanote Circle, in downtown Tokyo, and during the Lockdown, everyone had wondered if maybe that event hadn't been "terrorism" at all. This only confirmed it.

Yukino stood up straight, rubbing at her back. She looked at him, and her expression was unreadable. "Kei has been lying to us."

"Eh?" He straightened his tie. "What are you talkin' about?"

She jerked a thumb at the claw marks. "One or two things like this, you can explain away with weird, coincidental stuff. The world's most unlikely truck accident, or whatever. But I've got eight or nine rolls of shots like this, now."

"I thought your camera was digital." Yukino smacked the back of his head. "Ow!"

"Listen! There was a full-fledged demon incident, and Kei pleaded ignorance. And not just to me. You-know-who asked him point blank, and he said no." She pinched her nose. "His damned people were down here. I've spoken to witnesses."

"Er." Reiji rubbed his head. "Okay. But..." He grew silent. Damn, she was hot when she was angry. He held up his hands to calm her down. "Why would he lie?"

"I don't know." She shook her head and, for just a moment, leaned against him. "But I'm worried. Maybe we should all get together and talk about this."

Reiji sniffed once, and looked away. "Hey, yeah, sure. I'll just... you know, I'm so busy with the job and all, but..."

Yukino looked at him with an uncomfortable mixture of shock and disappointment. "Oh... Well..."

He wanted to ask her why she was always calling him out for these little missions. If it was about "business," why not get one of the other guys? Brown Uesugi had cleaned up his act... sort of... and would be down to help out the Team Mom whenever he wasn't filming that awful television show of his. Clearly their leader was still digging around when it came to this stuff. Yukino never asked him how he was, whether he was ready to throw himself in a wood chipper at any given moment, or whether he wondered if the best days of his life had already passed—days when he was a hair's breadth from dropping out of high school, constantly walking stiff because of blows he'd taken in an alleyfight.

He knew the moment the energy had sagged out of him. After the Deva System incident, he'd had hope for the future. And then one night he'd flicked on the TV at home and the news was reporting a fire.

Shinjiro's beanie cap was sitting upside-down on the table in the lounge. Akihiko and Shinji were both trying to flick playing cards into the hat, which had flopped down into more of a nest-shape. Not the cards that Kido-sensei had given them, of course, a fresh pack. Like everything else they used, the cards had a Kirijo Group logo on the back.

Mitsuru was studying on the couch. She had three books open—one in Japanese, one in English, and one in French. She was looking to pick up German, after the exam week passed. Ikutski hadn't been seen in days. She was deliberately ignoring them, because earlier in the day they'd covered everything in her room with fake plastic spiders.

Every day, the three of them would orient into a new configuration. Three was a bad number for groups. Unbalanced. Akihiko and Mitsuru would study together, and Shinjiro would storm around the building slamming doors and smoking indoors. Or Akihiko and Shinjiro would wrestle in the command room, and Mitsuru would throw books at them and tell them to take it outside. Or, and this was the surprising one, Shinjiro would hover over Mitsuru, who didn't understand more than a third of the objects in their kitchen, and point out (in the most sullen and sarcastic tones possible) what she had to do in order to, say, make toast, or fry an egg. She would teach them (through osmosis, mainly—they didn't listen to her lectures) how to pass for gentlemen and upstanding students, and they taught her (also mostly through osmosis) how to converse with another human being without sounding like a robot.

Shinji's grades slowly began to climb, from failing to abysmal-but-passing. Akihiko cleaned himself up, and the girls at school quickly noticed... much to his chagrin. And their diverse fighting styles slowly began to meet in the middle... enabling them to work, if not exactly as a team, then certainly closer to it.


Shinjiro's "oppressed poor man" schtick towards Mitsuru was getting tiresome for both of the other SEES members. What's more, Mitsuru was starting to feel the pressure at being an outnumbered woman in the group. And Shinjiro resented Akihiko's constant studying, his attempts to better himself. He called it "phony" (or, at least more caustic words to the same effect).

Akihiko, for his part, spent half his time terrified for Shinjiro's safety, and the other half angry at his reckless disregard. Castor was hard for Shinjiro to control, and almost all of his tactics boiled down to "brute force." He pounded on the Shadows like a wild animal, and before their remains would dissolve Akihiko was slowly getting used to the image of a Shinjiro covered in thick, slimy blood. Shinji took to wearing a heavy peacoat, to absorb the splashes of alien innards that would wash over him.

And, of course, they were all teenagers, sharing a house together. Alone. It would be stupid to suggest that they weren't all looking at each other in that way, even when they couldn't stand each other. All three of them were too damned good looking for their own good, and it led to stammered apologies and, at least once on Shinjiro's part, a hole punched in the wall of the stairwell. But their unspoken agreement not to make things worse by pursuing each other didn't seem to help cool those fires. After all, they could barely stand anyone else at Gekkoukan—where else were they going to turn?

There was another thing, too, that lingered between Akihiko and Shinjiro. Neither of them talked about Miki anymore. It just happened, like they were daring each other to bring it up first. But the longer it sat and festered, the worse it got. Aki and Shinji had not talked nearly so often after the fire, before Shinji kicked the dormitory door down and insisted he join their secret society. There was too much unresolved.

It was a situation that couldn't maintain its equilibrium for long. Something was going to snap. What none of them expected, was that when it did, someone innocent would get caught in the crossfire.

One day, at random, a young girl came up to Reiji when he was sitting on the bench by the basketball court, pointedly not helping anyone, and asked him to do a card trick.

Without even looking at her, he took the deck from his pocket, shuffled them with one hand, and fanned the cards for her to pick one. He was dying for a cigarette, but he'd get busted bad if he was caught smoking on the orphanage grounds.

The girl pulled a card out, and he shuffled and flicked. "Two of clubs, right?" He nodded to the extended card. She removed it from the deck and held it up. The nine of diamonds. He blinked and looked at his cards. The girl grinned at him (she was still missing one or two baby teeth) and held up her card... or rather, cards, as she'd pulled two from the deck.

Reiji snatched the cards from her angrily. "You're cheating." But he couldn't help but laugh, anyway. "What's your name?"

"Miki." He'd heard that name before... Oh, right. Sanada's sister. He spit to one side, enjoying her scrunched up face.

"Miki, huh? Do Aki and Shinji pick on you?" She blushed. He thought so. Those boys doted on the girl like there wasn't anyone else alive. Which... wasn't that hard to understand, really. The girl was cute, and given everything else... He shrugged. "Tell you what. How about I teach you a couple of tricks, so you can get them back?" She nodded excitedly.

The next time he had a session at the orphanage, Shinjiro was walking around with a massive black eye, and Akihiko was laughing harder than anyone that he'd ever heard before.

"She was, in a lot of ways, the only friend we'd had, and we were the only friend she had." Akihiko was sitting on Shinji's bed. Mitsuru was sitting next to him. The room still had most of his things—the absence of his hidden pack of cigarettes was the only sign that Shinjiro had returned to the room before he'd vanished. "And then, that day, when the building caught fire..."

Mitsuru knew all of this, actually. It had been in Sanada's file, and she'd known it before she approached him that very first day. But this was the first time that he was telling her. She just nodded slowly and let him continue.

"We couldn't do anything. Either of us. I tried to go back in, but the firefighters stopped me before I could. Someone had even held Shinji down so that he didn't try the same thing. We felt so..." Powerless. Weak.

They were both thinking about all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. The rogue Shadow. The desperate chase, and the battle. Shinji had... he'd completely lost it. It wasn't even clear if it was Shinji, or Castor, that was doing it, but the result was the same. Just about an entire wall of that building had collapsed, and a woman had been beneath it. Her young son had been there, too, just watching...

Mitsuru's father himself had been forced to step in. They'd gotten the whole thing written off like a car had slammed through the wall, a drunk driver. The kid was an orphan now. Of course he was—what could be more appropriate?

The noise that the boy had made... Akihiko and Shinjiro had not heard a noise like that since the day that it had been they themselves who made it.

And now Shinji had vanished. In the wake of the accident he'd fled, and Aki couldn't catch him. Shinji knew all of the streets, the places to hide. He was just... gone.

Akihiko found himself, of all things, crying. He didn't think he had tears left after Miki. Didn't think that he'd allow himself again to be so weak. But there he was, bawling like a toddler. After a long moment, Mitsuru, awkward, antisocial ice queen Mitsuru, wrapped her long arms around him, and he clutched her like the mother he barely knew.

And so the long night went on. She wound up putting him to bed (in Shinji's bed, even) and slipping downstairs to open one of the antique cabinets in the lounge. There was a very old bottle of wine squirreled away, one that she'd saved for one of her father's very rare visits to the dormitory. She opened it, poured herself a glass... and threw it against the wall. When her composure finally returned, she took the bottle with her up to the roof, where she swigged from it and, after a long time of staring at Shinji's old ashtray, she pulled a half-smoked butt from the copper tin and lit it up.

"Do you mind if I smoke?" Reiji took a pack from his jacket pocket. "I, uh, I'm not allowed to do it at home." Akihiko shrugged. Reiji took a long drag and slugged his student on the shoulder. "What a pair we make, huh?"

Aki gave him a weak smile. "I guess so, yeah." It was probably a good thing that they were both so lost in their brooding. If either of them realized that Reiji was smoking in the shadow of the orphanage that had burned their lives down, it's entirely possible that the level of angst might have killed them.

That said, Reiji was careful to snuff out the remains of the cigarette with his fingers and carefully transfer the butt to his pocket when he had finished. "So, tell you what. You're gonna have to get back to your girl, soon, and she's probably going to kick your nuts in for jawing about all of this with me instead of her. But here's what I think. No matter how I feel about my life, I am smart enough to know what the right thing to do is. The problem is when you get your head stuck so far up yourself that you forget about it for a sec."

They both stood, and started walking back towards the car. In a high window of the orphanage, a small girl was peering at them through the window. They both gave the girl sad waves, and she gave one back.

"Shinji always reminded me of myself. I was a punk kid back then, so maybe I didn't do so much to help him, like I should have. But he did." Reiji scowled. "Stuff eats you up inside, and all you can do is let it out in the worst ways. But... you and he had the same, I dunno, 'good hearts,' I guess, all that sentimental crap." He made dismissive motions with his hands. "Thing is, sometimes when a friend is doing something to hurt themselves, you gotta step in. Nobody stepped in with me." He paused. "Or maybe they did, and I didn't see it for what it was." Now he had an uneasy smile. "Heh. Damn."


"Ah, it's nothing. Look, if your friend is in trouble, you owe it to them to do what you can whether they appreciate it or not. If you're wrong about them, so what? You can apologize, or knock each other's lights out, or whatever, and move on. And if you're right, then you owe it to them to beat some sense in."

Akihiko pulled at his gloves. "You're probably right."

"Course I'm right, that's why you're carrying my 'business card' in your wallet." Reiji grinned. "Now drop me off with my old lady, so you can get back home to yours."

When he entered their regular restaurant, Chie gave him the glower to end them all. Aki held up his hands. "You were right."

She didn't expect so little resistance, and so there was a delay while she switched tracks. That got Akihiko to the table and into his seat.

"Okay," he said, and despite his resolve he still felt his chest tighten, "Let's talk."

Reiji called Yukino while sitting on his building's doorstep. He and his girlfriend didn't like each other much. At all, really. And to be honest, he was pretty sure she was cheating on him. He knew that wasn't license to run around on her, and even at his lowest, he hadn't done it. For the first time, though, he wondered how it looked from Yukino's point of view.

"Hello? Yeah. Yeah, it's me." He shifted the phone from one hand to the other, and flexed his hands. The calloused knuckles almost creaked with the motion, but when he turned the hand around, a playing card still slid right into his palm. The kid—his kid—loved the magic tricks, which was good, because sometimes it was all he had to offer. "I'm calling to apologize. Hey, don't laugh. Yes, I've apologized before. Shut the Hell up." He was, despite himself, smiling a little.

He hadn't ever really talked about himself, either. Because he'd been humiliated. But she knew him better than that, didn't she? "Look, you're right. If Nanjou's hiding stuff, we should go talk to him, maybe put his teeth on the curb until he stops being such an as... Eh?" He snorted. "No, no. Hey, I wanted to ask you something. You're always dragging me out on your errands. How about next time we get a coffee and talk like people who didn't... yeah, exactly. Plus I could use some advice. Shut up, girl, you sound like Ayase. No, it's... business stuff."

A better career, one where he could support the child. Visit regularly. He wouldn't have to live there anymore. The kid had to be miserable, stuck between two people who didn't talk to each other. Why hadn't he thought about it much these past few years? Because he'd been thinking of himself. His own problems. He thought about how those once-a-week visits had been fulfilling in an unexpected way, and how he could have done so much more if he'd been old enough and wise enough to give half a damn. And maybe that still would have been true a week ago. But there was still time to start doing the right thing.

"When does the boss want to meet? I'll be there. I promise."

It was on the eve of the end of the world, and Akihiko Sanada was wandering the halls of his high school. Many students had bailed—Nyx Cult posters were slapped over notices about sports meets and art showings. He wasn't sure what he was doing. There was so much to worry about, so much to do, but the descent of Nyx was just too big for him to frame properly in his mind. He knew that they'd fight. They would probably die trying. But past that...

He pushed open the back door, onto the practice field, and found that two second years were calling out to a group of jogging... children. They were young kids, using the field during school hours. He walked over, a confused frown twitching at his cheeks.

Aki recognized one of the Gekkoukan students as Yuko Nishiwaki, team manager for a number of the sports clubs. She was respected for a second year, a good student. When she turned to see a third-year student staring at her, she yelped, nearly knocking over her partner, who was balanced on a pair of crutches. Wait, he was familiar too... what was his name... Minato's friend. He'd been on Minato's track team earlier in the year.

"Sanada-san!" She looked over at the kids, who were ending their lap and coming back around to meet her. "I'm sorry! Don't tell anyone! Please!"

He waved her off. "What's going on?"

Yuko bit her lip. "They're fourth graders from the neighborhood. Some sixth graders had been picking on them, and so we've been kind of..."

The other boy piped in with, "Minato helped set us up."

"Of course he did." Aki's face softened. "They're running?"

Yuko blushed. Or blushed again. Or continued to blush. "They're supposed to beat them in a race."

"Hm. That's fine, but... maybe you should teach them how to stand up for themselves, too. If they're being picked on." Aki walked over towards the kids. Yuko and the boy on crutches followed, too surprised to object. He kneeled down to meet them at least closer to their level. He wasn't good with children... he remembered when Ken had arrived at the dorm, following him around like one of the girls at school. But this was something that he remembered very well. "You guys are getting picked on, huh?"

The kids shuffled, a little afraid to admit it.

Aki tried to smile. "Well, tell you what. I want to teach you all a few things." He laid his coat over his lap. "I think... Well, let me ask you. Is there ever a good time to fight?"

The kids looked at each other in confusion. Finally, one of them offered a hesitant, "To protect somebody?"

Aki nodded. "That's pretty much the only good time, yeah. And when you have the ability to fight to protect someone..." He smiled. "...You have to. You really do. But learning how to fight isn't always about fighting. It's about knowing that you can defend yourself—so that you won't be scared." Slowly, the kids started to pick up on it. "Okay. Now, the first rule? Is about watching the hands..."

The two second-year students watched in awe as Akihiko took the young kids through the way to stand, the way to move. Aki, though, was reminded of many things, and looking at the children taking the first steps towards no longer being afraid... he felt like maybe they could do it after all, fell Nyx. Maybe there would always be hope. He'd fight to protect them, just like he was taught.