Time never waits.

It delivers all equally… to the same end…

You, who wish to safeguard the future,

However limited it may be…

You will be given one year;

Go forth without falter,

With your heart as your guide…

Monday, April 6th, 2009, Afternoon

It was noisy. People everywhere, a hundred conversations all around him. Outdoor shops, street entertainers, and hundreds of ordinary pedestrians. A typical day, on the path to the monorail station in Tatsumi Port Island.

He paid no attention. For him, it might as well not have existed.

There was nothing extraordinary about the young man in the black school uniform. Not at first glance, anyway. In this day and age, even his dark blue hair attracted no comment, nor his cool gray eyes; and if it had, he still wouldn't have noticed.

Making his way through the crowds, a duffel bag over his right shoulder and a walking stick resting easily on his left, the youth was lost in the music in his headphones, and the memories of days gone by.

Iwatodai, he mused to himself, letting the music insulate him from the world. It's been… Man. Has it really been ten years? Time sure flies… Guess I'll have to visit the Moonlight Bridge while I'm here.

Ten years… ten years since his parents died in a car crash, leaving the youth amnesiac about the entire event. Now, after living with other relatives for so long, he was coming back. He couldn't quite say exactly what impelled him to return, but it seemed like the right path to take in life.

Can't forget to write home, though, he reminded himself with a small smile. Naoto was hard enough to placate just for leaving; if I forget to keep in touch, she'll kill me…

Nearing the monorail station, he glanced up at the sky. Whoops; didn't realize the time. Guess I'll be getting to the dorm pretty late. He shrugged; no help for it now.

Stepping into the station, though, he couldn't help but feel that this trip wasn't going to be quite what he expected. Iwatodai… a place of beginnings and endings, in a sense. Born there, his parents had died there, and now he was going be completing his high school education there.

What the hell, he reasoned. It's as good a place as any to start something new.

Late Night

Yep, the blue-haired teen thought, over two hours later. I'm late. …Do trains run on time anywhere in the world?

Had his music not still been playing, he might've heard the voice over the PA system. "We apologize for any inconvenience caused by the delay…"

Even if he had, though, he wouldn't have cared much. He was tired, it was almost midnight, and he just wanted to get to the dorm and get some sleep. It'd been a long day, and he did have his first day at a new school the next morning.

"Iwatodai, Iwatodai,"the PA system droned, as he stepped out into the station. "This is the final train bound for Tatsumi Port Island. Please make sure you board in time for departure…"

The youth paused on the platform, reaching into his pocket, pulling out a note. His headphones blocked out the noise of the crowd -substantial even at this hour- and now was as good a time as any to reconfirm the dorm's location. The last thing he wanted was to get lost at midnight. Let's see… it was…

"Iwatodai, Iwa-"

The clock struck midnight.

His music died… and so did everything else.

"Huh?" He twitched in surprise, realizing his MP3 player wasn't the only thing that had suddenly shut off. The clock above the platform was frozen at midnight, the monorail had fallen completely silent, and even the lights had gone out, leaving the station lit by an otherworldly glow.

It was about then that he realized the crowd had gone silent, too, and he turned his attention to his fellow human beings at last.

Or tried to.

"What the…?" he breathed. "What the hell is this…?"

He wasn't surrounded by people anymore. In their place, there stood dozens, perhaps hundreds of red-tinted black coffins. In the surreal lighting that now enveloped him, it somehow seemed even creepier. Not that it could get much creepier than people transforming into coffins in the middle of a bizarre blackout.

Tentatively taking a step forward, it also occurred to him to wonder why he hadn't transformed, too. And what was going to happen if he was the only person around still mobile.

He hesitated a moment longer… then sighed. Naoto would be looking for clues already, and telling me to get moving. Fine… might as well head for the dorm, and worry about what to do next then.

Walking out of the station, he discovered he was wrong: it could get creepier than humans transforming into coffins in the middle of a blackout. Just to start, the moon seemed much larger than it should, and was glowing an eerie yellow.

Even worse was that all the water he could see had transfigured into blood. And as creepy as this is already, it's probably human.

He shivered, but figured his first idea had been right: there was no sense just standing around doing nothing.

He did, however, shift his walking stick to his right hand, before resuming the -hopefully short- walk to the dorm.

Without a functioning watch, the youth couldn't tell exactly how much time had passed, but he estimated it to be nearly an hour before he finally found himself in front of the dormitory. In the strange green light that now bathed the world, the building seemed ominous, imposing… The fact that he was standing in a puddle of water-turned-blood didn't help the impression.

The trip probably hadn't needed to take so long, he mused, looking up at the dorm's entrance. It wasn't truly that far from the monorail station… but then he hadn't exactly been moving very fast, either. Being on the lookout for eldritch threats tended to slow one's pace.

Shrugging, the youth adjusted his bag, shifted his grip on his walking stick, and climbed the handful of stairs to the double doors leading in.

Gently swinging one of the doors open, he paused just inside, took off his headphones, and glanced warily around. The dorm's lobby seemed normal enough; a reception desk off to his left, a common area to his right, and a dining area straight ahead. Entirely normal, about what he'd been expecting.

The strange thing was that, unlike everything he'd seen since leaving the train, the lights were on here. His MP3 player was still silent, his watch still dead, but somehow this place was still functioning.

"You're late."

The youth twitched, startled. Behind the reception desk, there now stood a young boy, watching him; the first person he'd seen since the world turned strange. More confusingly, the boy was suddenly right in front of him, with no apparent transition, holding what the youth presumed to be the dorm's register.

"I've been waiting for a long while," the boy went on, gesturing with the paper. "Please sign here."

The youth took it warily, and noted with indefinable unease that it was not, after all, any kind of sign-in sheet, but rather some sort of contract. "…What's this?"

"Don't worry," the boy said. "All it says is that you take full responsibility for your actions. You know… the usual stuff."

Actually, I don't, the youth thought. But… it seems harmless enough. I'll ask about it later. Setting down his duffel bag, he tucked his walking stick under one arm, pulled a pen from his pocket, and bent to the task.

Arisato, Minato, he wrote neatly, and handed the sheet back to the boy.

"Thank you," the boy said… and promptly added to Minato's sense of unreality by making the paper disappear into thin air. "I'll trust you to remember this… and one more thing: no one can escape time. It delivers us all to the same end. You can't plug your ears and cover your eyes." He smiled. "And so it begins…"

Eerily, the boy seemed to fade even as he spoke, darkness enveloping him. When his last sentence finished, so did his disappearing act.

And with his disappearance, the dorm was suddenly shrouded in the same eerie green light as everywhere else.

Okay, this is officially disturbing, Minato thought. Either I'm asleep, or something is profoundly wrong here. And I don't think I'm lying in bed right now…

"Who's there?!"

Minato's gaze snapped away from where the boy had disappeared, and his eyes widened. Near the stairs leading to the upper floors of the dorm stood a girl, looking about his age, wearing a school uniform. He took only peripheral note of her brown hair and eyes; he was more concerned with the frightened look on her face.

And the fact that her hand was hovering near what looked very much like a holstered pistol.

Startled gray eyes met frightened brown, and Minato released his walking stick from under his arm, catching it in one hand; breathing fast and uneven, the girl simultaneously took hold of the pistol, starting to draw it from its holster-

"Takeba, wait!"

The girl -Takeba?- spun, and Minato's eyes focused over her shoulder. Standing there now was a redhead, wearing a uniform different from the first girl's but similar enough to be from the same school; and like the brunette, she wore a holstered pistol at her waist, and a red armband reading "SEES". Unlike the brunette, she looked quite calm, a fact which relieved Minato immensely.

Almost getting shot was not quite what he'd expected of his first night at his new dorm, even with all the insanity that had already occurred.

The brunette, though visibly calmed by the other's arrival, remained tense a moment longer… and then the strange green light passed away. Normal lighting returned, Minato's MP3 player came back to life, and the tension drained out of the room.

That's why she was freaked out, Minato realized. Same reason she startled me: I wasn't in a coffin like everyone else. Which means they know something about what just happened… Okay, Minato, let's play it cool, like always.

Straightening from the half-crouch he'd fallen into, Minato flipped his grip on his walking stick, placing its tip on the floor. "Sorry if I startled anyone," he offered.

"That's all right," the redhead told him, smiling faintly. "We just didn't expect you to arrive so late, that's all. The train was delayed?"

"As usual," he agreed.

"I'm not surprised." She folded her arms. "I'm Mitsuru Kirijo, one of the students who live in this dorm."

"…Who's he?" the brunette asked, face toward Mitsuru but glance turned sidelong at Minato.

"Minato Arisato," he said, bowing slightly. "I'm a transfer student, just in from Nishinomiya."

Mitsuru nodded in confirmation. "Right. It was a last minute decision to assign him here; he'll eventually be moved to a room in the boys' dorm."

I'm surprised I wasn't already. Full, notice of my arrival came late, or something else?

The younger girl's eyes turned back to her upperclassman. "…It is really okay from him to be here?" Her tone was… odd, not quite what Minato would've expected, taking the question itself at face value.

Something else, he decided. This is obviously a coed dorm, or I wouldn't be here in the first place. Which means she's nervous about something I don't know about yet… maybe something related to them being active during that bizarre hour, and why they were surprised I was, too?

"I guess we'll see," Mitsuru murmured, thoughtful look helping to confirm Minato's suspicions. She turned her full attention back to Minato himself. "This is Yukari Takeba," she explained, gesturing at the brunette. "She'll be a junior this spring, just like you."

"…Hey," Yukari offered, still looking a little off-balance but far more relaxed than just a few moments before.

Minato considered asking the obvious -why would a high school student be carrying a gun, and why had she almost shot him with it- but quickly discarded the notion. Sometimes there were better ways of obtaining information than the obvious.

"Nice to meet you," he said instead, offering a small smile.

"Uh, y-yeah." Yukari returned the smile, visibly regaining equilibrium. "Nice to meet you, too."

Introductions taken care of without any casualties, Mitsuru gestured toward the stairway. "It's getting late," she said, understating the matter in Minato's opinion. "You should get some rest. Your room's on the second floor, at the end of the hall. Your things should already be there."

"I'll show you the way," Yukari offered, smile much more natural now. "Follow me."

"Thanks." Minato shifted his walking stick back to his left hand, picked up his duffel bag, and followed the other student up the stairs to the first floor of actual dorm rooms.

Glancing unobtrusively about along the way, Minato noted there seemed to be a dearth of occupied rooms, which only added to his puzzlement about the situation. Gekkoukan High School presumably had a normal compliment of students, given that this wasn't exactly a small town… Yet if his suspicions were correct, this dorm wasn't even half full.

There's definitely something weird going on here. I wonder if it has anything to do with the club those two belong to? SEES… I'll have to look that up tomorrow. Discretely.

"Here we are," Yukari announced, stopping beside the last room on the right side of the hall. "Pretty easy to remember, right? Right at the end of the hall, and all." She winced. "Oh, and by the way… Don't lose your key. You'll never hear the end of it."

From the look on her face, Minato suspected she knew that from experience.

"So, any questions?"

Minato could think of several, given how utterly bizarre the evening had been, but decided on only one of them. "I was wondering if that kid lived here, too," he said casually.

Yukari blinked. "…What kid?"

Well, that pretty much confirms that contract had nothing to do with signing into the dorm. Hm… that makes two things to confuse me already.

"Never mind," Minato said, shaking his head. "Just my imagination… Was there anything else?"

She hesitated. "Actually… On your way from the station, was everything all right? You didn't run into problems?"

Aside from all electronics shutting off, the moon turning yellow, people turning into coffins, and, oh yeah, water transmuting into blood? "Everything was just fine," he told her. It was even the truth, after a fashion; weird as that hour had been, he'd still made it to the dorm without a hitch.

Pursing her lips, obviously unconvinced, Yukari nonetheless seemed to accept it. "That's good, then. Um… I should get going; we both need our sleep for tomorrow, I think. First day of school and everything… Good night!"

"Good night," he returned, and stepped into his new room while she headed down the hall, presumably to her own room.

Closing the door behind him, Minato set his duffel bag down near the boxes containing his other possessions, and leaned his walking stick against the room's desk. Deciding to unpack after school the next day, he walked over to the bed and gratefully sat down, suddenly exhausted.

Despite his weariness, he smiled. I thought this was going to be just another year of school, boring as ever… Instead, the first night I'm here, the world goes haywire and I meet two very… odd fellow students, plus some kid they don't seem to know is here. Not a bad start, not at all.

There were at least two mysteries in Tatsumi Port Island. And Minato Arisato liked mysteries.

Yukari Takeba did not like mysteries.

She also did not, as Minato had anticipated, head straight for her own room. Instead, she made for a higher floor, where Mitsuru was waiting in a room with a wall of monitors. When she arrived, her senpai was just unbuckling her gunbelt, the evening's danger having passed.

"He's tucked in for the night?" Mitsuru asked without preamble.

"Yeah," Yukari confirmed, moving to sit on of the nearby chairs with a relieved sigh. "That, um… wasn't quite what I was expecting, Senpai. I assume he was assigned here on purpose?"

"Mm," the other affirmed. "Though I wasn't expecting that, either. It was one thing for him to possibly have the potential; for him to just walk in here during the Dark Hour… He's the first potential user I've seen do something like that." Mitsuru glanced at Yukari's holster. "I don't blame you for reacting like that."

Yukari shivered. "I just… didn't expect something like that. The only other people I'm used to seeing around during the Dark Hour are the Chairman and Akihiko-senpai; for the new guy to just walk in in the middle of it like there was nothing wrong?" She shook her head. "I thought at first he was some kind of weird Shadow or something."

"Mm." Mitsuru slid into one of the seats in front of the wall of screens. "I don't blame you, but it's a good thing I arrived when I did. Things might've gotten ugly, from the way he was reacting."

"Huh?" Yukari looked at her in surprise. "What do you mean, Senpai? I mean, yeah, my using the Evoker would've been bad, but…"

"That's not a walking stick he was carrying," the redhead said quietly. "Did you see the way he shifted his grip on it when you almost drew on him?"

Yukari thought back. Now that Mitsuru mentioned it… Rather than trying to run, or plead, or any other reaction she might've considered normal, Arisato had stood his ground, and done… something with the stick he was carrying, almost too fast for Yukari to follow.

"Arisato has had some kind of training," Mitsuru went on, seeing Yukari's dawning understanding. "With a sword, if I'm not mistaken; from the way he was holding it, my guess is that his 'walking stick' is actually a bokken, made in that shape to avoid drawing attention. And judging from how smooth his actions were, he's had a lot of practice with it."

Yukari's eyebrows went up. "That's… weird. How many people really know how to use a sword in this day and age?" When Mitsuru raised an eyebrow her own, the brunette flushed, but persisted. "Besides you, Senpai. You're into fencing, not kendo; and what I mean is, how many people are so into it that they actually put it to practical use?"

"Not many," her senpai conceded. "Which makes this all the more interesting." She glanced up at one of the monitors… showing Minato Arisato asleep in his bed, apparently completely untroubled by the evening's strangeness. "His background check was clean, so I'm not worried. It may just make him all the more suitable for SEES."

The younger girl couldn't deny that. She herself had had nothing to offer SEES when she first joined save for the basic potential the group required; even now, she was very much a novice with her style of choice. Given Mitsuru's own duties, that meant only one member of the team was truly ready for operations.

Adding someone who not only seemed largely unaffected by the Dark Hour but was also evidently skilled in more prosaic fighting as well… Yukari knew that would be a priceless asset.

If Arisato agreed to help, when they got around to asking him. And if he didn't flip out on learning they'd been spying on him in his sleep.

Speaking of which…

"You should get some sleep, Takeba," Mitsuru advised, picking up on her weariness. "The new term starts tomorrow, so we should all get some rest."

Yukari nodded gratefully. "Okay… See you tomorrow, Senpai." Suddenly aware of just how much the night had taken out of her, Yukari hauled herself out of the chair and made her way to her own dorm room at last.

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009, Early Morning

Despite the lateness of his arrival the previous night -and the sheer weirdness of it- Minato was feeling reasonably well-rested. Taking things in stride and not panicking, he decided, had been just the way to go; looking and thinking like a zombie on the first day of school wouldn't have been a good thing.

Especially his first day at a new school.

Now Minato stood by one of the windows in the monorail car leading to Port Island proper, Yukari to his left. As usual, the crowding was a nuisance, but one he could tune out. In Japan, you got used to crowds or you lost your mind… and he had other things on his mind. Should I be feeling nostalgic? he wondered, gazing out at the waters around Port Island. Ten years… it's hard to believe I was ever here at all.

"There it is," Yukari said, breaking into his reverie. She pointed out the window, drawing Minato's attention to the island coming into view as the monorail sped around a curve. He leaned closer, interested in seeing what had become of his childhood home.

His memories of that time were hazy, partly from time and partly, he thought, from the car crash. Nonetheless, Minato could tell that Port Island had changed a lot in the decade since he'd been there last; its construction barely finished ten years before, there was a thriving shopping district now, and more. The technical dream had become a genuine city.

After ten years, this would again be his home.

Catching sight of the building he realized must be Gekkoukan High School, Minato hummed to himself. First day of school, and a mystery to investigate… I wonder how things will go?

Seeing Gekkoukan up close didn't disappoint. Tatsumi Port Island might be new, but that also meant it was modern, and the high school that would be taking up so much of Minato's time for the foreseeable future looked to be as modern and up to date as the monorail he'd ridden to reach it.

It also made the question of the mostly-empty dormitory even more peculiar, but Minato wasn't about to complain.

He did admit to some minor unease over being the new guy. Anybody would be insecure entering a new student body; it was only natural, even for someone who'd walked through the peculiar green hour of blood and coffins with aplomb. At least he wasn't completely alone…

"Thanks, Yukari," Minato said quietly, inwardly grateful for Mitsuru's foresight in having the other student accompany him for the first day.

"Hm?" Yukari blinked, distracted from greeting a classmate she knew from the previous year, then smiled. "Oh, no problem! I know how it feels to be the new kid on the block. I just transferred here myself last year." She stepped out ahead of him then, just outside the gates of the school. "So, what you do think? Welcome to Gekkoukan High School!"

Somewhat to Minato's surprise, she seemed genuinely pleased, and he smiled in return. "Thanks."

He was still sure something was up, he reflected as he followed the brunette into the school, but he was also getting the feeling it wasn't malicious. Hard to picture someone like Yukari being a violent criminal or something.

Of course, he thought, as they reached the shoe lockers, I could be wrong. For all the stereotypes about loners, it does seem to be the outgoing ones that you have to worry about. But… it's not likely. She may've been freaked last night, but considering how weird that was, I can't really blame her. Yukari probably just knows more about what's going on than I do.

Tucking her outdoor shoes into a locker and closing it, Yukari turned back to Minato. "You should be able to find your way around from here, right? You seem to be pretty street-smart."

"I can take care of myself," Minato allowed, nodding.

She nodded back. "Okay, then. You should go see your homeroom teacher first, find out what class you're in." She gestured toward the hallway branching off from the left of the school lobby. "The Faculty Office is right over there. First door on your left down that hallway." Yukari turned back, smiling. "And that concludes the tour; you should be able to find everything else easily enough."

"Yeah," Minato agreed. "By the way, what class are you in?"

"Me?" Yukari blinked, momentarily surprised by the question. Of course, she thought, Mitsuru-senpai and I are the only people he actually knows here, so I guess it makes sense. "I don't know yet," she admitted with a shrug. "I haven't checked the classroom assignments yet."

"Oh, right…"

Okay, Minato thought to himself. Find the classroom assignment, get settled in… and do a little discreet research. From the looks of those armbands, "SEES" is some kind of school club, so there ought to be public records of it I can check without anybody noticing. And… I think I'll check the shopping district after school, see what I can find with watches…

"Hey," Yukari said, breaking into his thoughts. Looking up at her again, Minato noticed her expression was more serious now. "About last night… don't tell anyone what you saw, okay?"

He raised an eyebrow. That was the first time the girl had even acknowledged anything odd had happened, beyond asking him if he'd had any trouble getting to the dorm the previous night. If it weren't for the fact that it seemed far too strange for even his imagination, Minato might've almost thought he'd simply dreamt it all.

"I wasn't planning to," he said after a moment's thought, and smiled crookedly. "Besides, who'd believe me?"

Yukari smiled back in visible relief, both at his cooperative response and the casual way he was taking the whole situation. "Okay, then. See ya later!"

Watching the brunette head off, Minato took a moment to look around the lobby, slid his hands into his pockets, and ambled over to the bulletin board standing by a staircase. A number of students were already looking it over, suggesting it had the class assignments.

He was right, he found, edging carefully between other students to get a closer look. Of course, that fact didn't help him if he couldn't find his own name on it… which, at first, he couldn't. About to simply give up and check with the Faculty Office, a second glance brought a small note to his attention. Minato Arisato, it said, Class 2F.

Well, that's one thing done, Minato thought, edging back through the crowd. Now… the Faculty Office. I hope my homeroom teacher is actually sane this time…

Stepping into the Faculty Office, Minato was mildly relieved to find it mostly empty. He had legitimate business there, of course, but he'd known enough oddball teachers over the years to know the meaner ones wouldn't care. Nice to be able to take things slowly while he got a feel for this school's faculty.

Giving the room a quick glance, he saw nothing out of the ordinary -not that he expected anything to be; if anywhere in Tatsumi Port Island was likely to be normal, it was here- and quickly spotted an adult he presumed to be a teacher perusing records off to one side. A thirty-ish brunette, Minato noted she at least looked normal enough. A good start, at least; I remember that one that had rainbow hair and perpetual sunglasses a few years back…

The teacher soon noticed him in turn, and quickly came over. "Ah! Would you be the new student? I thought we had a transfer student starting today."

Thought? …Well, it's a busy school. Probably can't keep track of all the details.

"Right," he confirmed with a polite nod. "Minato Arisato, grade eleven."

The teacher smiled. "That's what I thought." Looking down at the clipboard she carried, she flipped through until she found the appropriate records. "Arisato… Hm. I see you've lived a lot of different places. In fact, up until ten years ago, you were here, huh? Let's see, that would've been 1999, right? And then… your parents…"

She trailed off, inhaling sharply, and winced apologetically. Minato wasn't surprised; he'd seen the reaction before.

"I'm sorry," she said contritely. "There's been so much going on, getting ready for the start of the term; this is the first chance I've had to look over your records."

Minato shook his head. "It's all right. It's been ten years, I don't really think about it that much myself anymore."

It really wasn't a very sore subject for him. He'd lost his parents so young, and his grandfather had always been supportive… And Naoto. Anyone with Naoto by their side can stay strong through anything… even if she does try too hard sometimes.

"Well," the teacher went on after an only slightly awkward pause, "I'm Ms. Toriumi, the Composition teacher here at Gekkoukan. Welcome to our school."

Minato smiled in thanks. "Nice to meet you," he said honestly. Yep, so far, this one seems sane.

Toriumi chuckled, unaware of the private joke. "Wow, such enthusiasm! Anyway, I take it you've checked the classroom assignments? You're in 2-F, which is my class. We'll be seeing a lot of each other over the next year." Pausing, she glanced at her watch. "First, though, we need to go to the auditorium; the Welcoming Ceremony is about to begin. Follow me."

Nodding again, Minato fell into step behind the teacher, maintaining his quietly cheerful demeanor. In truth, though, he was considerably less than enthusiastic; he'd been through this routine before. School as a whole was at least tolerable, if only because it was genuinely informative. This school in particular was quite promising, what with the truly bizarre events he'd already experienced.

But the Welcoming Ceremony? Minato knew what those were like. Speeches he found boring at the best of times; the kind of speeches the average principal liked to give out were nearly coma-inducing.

"As we begin the new school year, I'd like each of you to remember the proverb, 'If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well.' When applied to student life, this means…"

It took all of Minato's willpower not to yawn. He'd expected the speech to be boring, and in terms of content his expectations had been right on the money so far. What he hadn't counted on was the principal's truly magnificent ability to take dry delivery above and beyond the call of insomnia curing.

The auditorium was large, befitting the spacious, top-class school Gekkoukan was. Excellent acoustics, seating arranged just right for a clear view of the stage from any position. Absolutely perfect to take full advantage of the principal's talents.

Minato was quickly becoming convinced that the principal could turn the most inspiring speech into a perfectly adequate substitute for sleeping pills. Indeed, the man could've been spouting random obscenities, and almost no one was likely to notice. If one student in twenty was actually managing to pay full attention to the speech, he would've been astounded.

His estimate was probably close to the mark; and he wasn't sure whether to be annoyed at the intrusion or grateful for the distraction when a classmate sitting behind him tapped him on the shoulder. "Psst!" the other teen said, quite unnecessarily in Minato's opinion. "You came to school with Yukari this morning, right? I saw you two walking together."

"Yeah?" Minato muttered, trying to keep his responses as low-key as possible; bored he might be, but looking to get told off for talking he was not. Of course, he could hear a fair bit of murmuring around him as it was…

"I have a question," the other student said, cementing in Minato's mind that he had a firm grasp of the obvious, if nothing else. "Do you know if she has a boyfriend?"

A number of possible responses went through Minato's mind, ranging from the obvious to the sarcastic. In the end, however, he settled for a simple shrug. "Beats me," he murmured. He suspected she didn't, but had nothing but his gut to back up the idea, and in any case he somehow didn't want to make this guy too hopeful.

The student blinked. "Huh. You came to school with her, so I figured you'd know her at least that well…" He paused, thought for a moment, and started to speak again, but what he would've said next, Minato never knew.

"Quiet!" Toriumi hissed from several seats away. "You're going to get me in trouble!"

The other student quickly leaned back in his own seat, and Minato smiled faintly to himself. He frankly doubted anyone in particular was going to be singled out for talking -they'd have to put half the school in detention, from the sound of things- but he wasn't exactly complaining about the conversation being cut off.

He rather thought he'd prefer to be lulled comatose by the principal's rhetoric than discuss the love life of someone he barely knew with someone he knew even less.

Now, if he could just manage to avoid snoring…

After School

Minato stretched, stifled a yawn, and leaned gratefully back in his chair. So far, it hadn't been a half bad day; school was no more interesting than normal, but he counted himself fortunate in that regard. The principal might be duller than a box of hammers, but he at least wasn't malevolent, and his homeroom teacher appeared to be sane for a change.

Not too shabby, he judged. Boring but decent principal, at least one sane teacher, and so far, no intolerably wacky classmates. Nobody's tried writing weird messages in huge letters on the school grounds yet, anyway, and nobody talked about aliens. I'll take it.

Stretching again, he finally hauled himself out of his seat, musing that now would be good time to start his discrete investigation into the previous night's oddities. Before he could move more than a couple of feet from his desk, though, he came face to face with another student, grinning widely.

"Hey, dude," the other said cheerfully. Wearing an open jacket, untucked shirt, and a ball cap, he was far from the strangest student Minato had ever seen… which, to be fair, didn't necessarily mean anything. "How's it goin'?"

"Not half bad," Minato judged, lifting an eyebrow. "Aside from nearly being bored to death this morning. And you're…?"

If possible, the hat-wearing student's smile widened. "Name's Iori, Junpei Iori. And you'd be the new guy, right? I know what that's like; I transferred here myself when I was in eighth grade, so I've been the new kid on the block myself. I know how tough that can be." He stuck out his hand. "So. Figured I'd come over and say, 'Hey'. See what a nice guy I am?"

Almost despite himself, Minato smiled, shaking the proffered hand. Junpei was weirder than a first glance suggested, but in a good way; and certainly not as weird as some guys he'd known back in Nishinomiya. At least I wasn't the weirdness magnet back there. No wonder that other guy was the only guy I knew snarkier than me; sarcasm was probably the only way he stayed sane, with the crew that hung around him.

"Minato Arisato," he said aloud, suspecting Junpei might have trouble with names. If his classroom attention span was any indication, at least. "Just in from Nishinomiya, but I lived here when I was a kid."

"Hey, no kiddin'? What brought you back to town?"

"Just felt like the old neighborhood was as good a place as any to wrap up my education," Minato said with a shrug. "Nostalgia, I guess? Something like that. Seemed like the thing to do, anyway." Absently, he stuck his hands in his pockets, adopting a casual pose he'd practiced to the point of reflex.

The two engaged in small talk for a few minutes, Junpei energetic and eager to learn more about the new transfer student, Minato figuring this was as good a way as any to start getting a feel for how the city had changed since he'd last lived there. Not a bad way to kill a little time, and he did have some to spare before taking care of his private errands of the day.

Approaching footsteps broke up the light conversation, and Junpei turned his megawatt grin -Minato wondered briefly what the albedo of Junpei's teeth was- on the brunette walking toward them. "Hey, it's Yuka-tan," he greeted cheerily. "We're in the same class again? Cool!"

Was that pun on purpose? Minato wondered. …Nah. Probably not; something tells me geography isn't Junpei's favorite subject.

Yukari, for her part, merely sighed, familiar with Junpei's habits. "At it again, I see. Y'know, someday you're going to run into somebody who doesn't like having their ear talked off at first meeting. What'll you do then?"

Junpei blinked. "Whaddya mean? I was just bein' friendly, introducing myself to the new guy. You know, showing him the ropes."

"Which ones? The ones working the pulleys and gears in your skull?" Yukari shook her head. "Whatever. Anyway," she said, turning to Minato, "it looks like we're in the same homeroom."

"Looks that way." Minato smiled faintly. "Fate, I suppose?" he suggested.

His tone was jocular; inwardly, he wondered if it really was a coincidence. He'd already come to the conclusion that his dorm placement was due to something going on behind the scenes. Something similar being at work here wouldn't have surprised him.

Yukari's reaction, though, suggested otherwise. "Fate?" she snorted, smiling a little herself. "Yeah, right! …Still, I am a little surprised. Pretty amazing coincidence, isn't it?"

On third thought, maybe something is going on, and she just doesn't know either. …And maybe I'm just reading too much into things. With as many weird things as there are here, I guess not everything can be part of the mystery.

Minato gave an inward, rueful shake of the head. He was reminding himself too much of Naoto; usually she would've been the one to be so serious about it all, with his role to be to advise taking it easy. Apparently, it was time to take his own medicine.

"Hey, guys?" Junpei called, waving his hand in the air. "I am standing right here. You forget that I'm in this class, too?" He pointed at the desk next to the one Minato had just left. "Right next to… Ah, forget it. Y'know, I heard the two of you came to school together this morning. What's up with that, huh? C'mon, gimme the details!"

The blue-haired student mentally face-palmed. Am I going to be hearing about this all the time?

Yukari apparently hadn't yet. "Wh-what's that supposed to mean?" she demanded, blinking in surprise. "We live in the same dorm, that's all; he just got in last night, so I played tour guide, that's all." She looked warily at Junpei. "Why are people even talking about it? Now you've got me worried…"

"Just live in the same dorm, huh?" Junpei's tone was skeptical. "C'mon, that can't be all of it, right?" He turned to Minato. "Right?"

"Wrong," the other said dryly. "Like Yukari-san said, I just got here last night; a senior at our dorm asked her to show me the way, that's all." Mind you, I think there is something more going on here, but not what you think, Junpei.

He could tell Junpei was still a little skeptical, but he could also see Yukari was thinking more along the lines Minato himself was. "Hey," she said quietly, deciding Junpei's inquiries had received all the attention they deserved. "You haven't said anything to anyone about… well, you know, have you?"

No, but if you keep talking about it in a classroom that still has several other students around, somebody is going to notice.

"Of course not," Minato assured her. "I already said I wouldn't, didn't I?"

She sighed in relief. "Right, sorry… I should've figured you wouldn't. It's just, seriously… It'd be a bad idea to let anybody know about what happened last night. I'm just a little-"

The sound of Junpei stumbling back into a desk interrupted her, reminding her the two of them weren't exactly alone, and prompting a wince from Minato. Junpei had almost fallen over, eyes bugging in surprise, confirming Minato's expectation that an uninformed ear would completely misunderstand the comment.

"L…last night?" Junpei stammered out. "Wait, I thought you said-!"

Yukari realized the implications, and almost stumbled into a desk herself. "Wait a minute!" she protested. "Don't get the wrong idea, Stupei! I told you, I just met him yesterday, never saw him before that; there is nothing going on between us!"

"Oh, yeah?" Junpei was more than "a little" skeptical now. "Then what's this stuff about 'last night' that you don't want anybody to know about, huh?"

"Just a slight misunderstanding that would be completely misunderstood by anybody else," Minato interjected, before Yukari could dig herself any deeper. "As your reaction suggests. It was nothing, Junpei, just a little embarrassing."

"Right!" Yukari confirmed, shooting him a brief, grateful glance. The glare she turned on Junpei immediately afterward was one Minato wouldn't have cared to have directed at him. "Anyway! I've got to go take care of a couple things for the archery team, so I'll see you guys later. But you better not start any rumors, Stupei, or I'll know who to 'thank' for it!"

Somehow cranking another megawatt or two into the death glare, she turned on her heel, gave a brief smile toward Minato, and walked quickly out of the classroom, eager to be away from any more potential innuendo from Junpei.

Well, that was exciting, Minato mused. I wonder what the encore will be?

"What's with her?" Junpei wondered, doing a good but not quite perfect job of hiding the effects of concentrated death glare from a woman scorned. "I mean, c'mon… Who believes rumors anyway? Man…" Shaking his head, he turned back to Minato. "She's just paranoid. But hey, you're making quite the impression already, and it's just your first day!"

"I'm not sure I like the sound of that," Minato said, eyeing him sidelong. "What kind of impression?"

"Oh, come on!" Junpei gestured toward the door their brunette classmate had just left through. "She's pretty popular around here, y'know? You da man!"

Does he believe the rumors that are apparently already starting, or is he just congratulating me on making friends with a popular student on my first day? …On second thought, I don't want to know. Now, or ever.

Junpei, completely oblivious to Minato's inner debate, was back to grinning. "This is gonna be a fun year," he said, chuckling. "Really fun year. I can just feel it! Great things are coming to us this year, buddy!"

Smiling a little himself at the other's enthusiasm, Minato nodded. "Yeah, I got a feeling you're right about that one, Junpei. It's looking promising." Stretching one more time, he started heading for the classroom door. "I've got some errands to run -first day in town and everything- so I'll see you later."

"You got it!"

Sliding open the door, Minato stepped out into the hallway, thoughts already turning from Junpei and Yukari's antics to his self-assigned tasks for the afternoon. Let's see… Stop by the Faculty Office on my way out to look up this "SEES" group, then head for the shopping district. Somebody's bound to have the kind of watch I'm looking for…

He pulled on his headphones, started up his MP3 player, and set off on his private investigation, already relishing the coming task.

Mitsuru Kirijo frowned at the documents in her hand. The top page featured a photo of a certain blue-haired youth, and some basic physical statistics; the rest had a short summary of biographical information, and other bits of miscellanea that one would expect to come up in a background check. She'd been through it several times already, and probably would read over it several more.

Slowly pacing the "command room" of the dorm occupied by the student organization SEES, Mitsuru reaffirmed that there was nothing out of the ordinary in the report. Nothing to show anything special or unusual about Minato Arisato, transfer student from Nishinomiya.

Which was exactly what bothered her. Twenty-four hours earlier, she'd simply been pleased there was no reason to expect problems with the new student; after his very unusual arrival after midnight, she found the sheer ordinariness of the background check results both puzzling and frustrating.

There is nothing ordinary about someone who can function during the Dark Hour, Mitsuru mused, and glanced over at the wall monitors. Mostly blank now, one showed feed from a camera concealed within a certain dorm room. Currently no activity there -Arisato evidently had yet to return from school- but it would doubtless be very informative come nightfall… and midnight.

Nothing ordinary at all. I grew up with knowledge of the Dark Hour, and even I had problems adjusting. Akihiko is so comfortable with it now that he just thinks of it as another way of training, but he was as disoriented as anyone at the start. And Takeba… Last night showed how she still feels about it.

This one, though… The middle of the Dark Hour, with all the departures from normal reality that implies, and he just walks into the dorm as if it was perfectly normal. Being so calm when experiencing that, presumably for the first time, is not normal. And then there's what happened afterward.

Walking over to the monitors, Mitsuru called up footage from the cameras in the lobby from the previous night. There was a brief, puzzling gap between Arisato's arrival and Takeba becoming aware of his presence, but after that, things were crystal clear; she watched again as Takeba spotted him, started, and reached down for the pistol-like device at her waist. And she watched the more interesting part: Arisato's reaction to what, to him, must've seemed an attempt to shoot him.

Slowing down the playback, Mitsuru watched Arisato intently. Saw his face tighten minutely with tension, but not outright fear. Saw his eyes take in the threat, and grip shift with startling speed and fluidity on the end of his walking stick. Saw the way he examined her when she arrived to break up the incipient encounter, and only then ease the tension in his face.

They were, all in all, not the reactions of a normal high school student who had just walked through a bizarre, warped transformation of the normal world. It was evident he was perplexed by the situation, but perfectly capable of functioning within it; it was also evident he had some knowledge of how to react to being threatened by someone with a firearm.

Mitsuru's trained eye recognized the stance Arisato had briefly assumed as being some manner of sword style, and that he was taking the time to analyze the situation, not just reacting blindly. Those traits would be of great use if he could be brought into SEES, yet they also concerned her. The background information she held in her hand did not include anything that suggested Arisato was capable of what his reactions hinted at.

Of course, on closer inspection they also indicated portions of the record had been excised before the report even reached her, which presented its own puzzle. She'd received the documents directly from her father, so she wasn't worried by the omissions, but still…

"You know, Mitsuru, reading those a dozen more times still won't make them tell you what you really want to know."

She glanced over at the door to the hallway, where a gray-haired senior with a red vest and boxing gloves, holding a uniform jacket over his shoulder, was just entering. "Akihiko," she greeted, unsurprised. "I didn't expect you back so soon."

Akihiko Sanada shrugged. "The guy I was going to be sparring with twisted his ankle this morning. I'll make up for it with a little hunting tonight." He nodded at the playback still running on the monitor. "Still wondering about that?"

"Aren't you?" Mitsuru countered. "What's your take on this?"

"Hard to say," Akihiko admitted. "I haven't actually met him yet. For what it's worth, I'd say that recording supports your suspicions, but it's not really a lot to go on. Looks promising, though, as far as SEES is concerned."

"True enough." She shook her head. "It definitely makes him a promising candidate. His functionality in the Dark Hour, when apparently experiencing it for the very first time, suggests unprecedented potential; at this point, I'd be more surprised if he turns out not to be capable of summoning a Persona. Still… I'm not entirely comfortable with not knowing why, Akihiko. The potential is one thing; the training he seems to already have, despite no sign of it in his background…"

"Your father is a pretty smart guy, from what I know," the boxer pointed out. "Those papers wouldn't have gotten as far as here without him knowing there was information missing. In fact, he may well have edited them himself; so if it's bothering you that much…"

"I'm not going to ask," Mitsuru said firmly, setting aside the files. "If my father arranged things that way, and didn't tell me, he must have his reasons. I'm just…"

Akihiko lifted an eyebrow. He knew the SEES team leader had some issues from her past; at the most mundane, there was the fact that she was heir to the Kirijo Group, which he strongly suspected to be a -admittedly fairly benign- Yakuza organization. The implications of that would be enough to stress any high school senior, and explain her awkwardness with casual social encounters.

Couple that with whatever it was that had brought the Kirijo Group into the whole Dark Hour mess -Akihiko didn't know, and frankly didn't care enough to pry- and it was no wonder Mitsuru was often quiet and aloof, pondering matters that he himself could really care less about. This, however, was somewhat… unusual.

"I think you're worrying too much," he said at length. "Arisato hasn't even been here a full day yet, and all you have to go on personally is that recording. See what Yukari has to say about him when she gets back, and play it by ear for now. I'm sure we'll know more in a few days; if his arrival is any indication, he's going to get himself involved in the Dark Hour somehow soon enough."

Considering that for a moment, Mitsuru finally nodded. "You're right," she said, sighing. Shutting off the monitors, she turned toward the door. "He's unusual, but it's too early to draw any conclusions as to why. We'll see how he is when the Dark Hour begins tonight."

Still, she thought to herself as she left the command room, there's something… I can think of several ways Arisato could've gotten that evident training without it showing up in a normal background check, but that doesn't explain the edits to the documentation. And either way, he did react very unusually to experiencing the Dark Hour last night.

This is one to keep an eye on.


Trying to see as much of the island as possible on foot after his first day at a new school, Minato admitted to himself, might not have been the best idea. Walking through the dorm's large double doors, he was exhausted, out of breath, and had sore feet; he made a mental note to pick up inserts for his shoes if this was to become a habit.

"Welcome back, Arisato," he heard as he came in, and Minato glanced over to see Mitsuru occupying one of the armchairs in the lounge's common area. "I trust your first day back in Port Island went smoothly?"

She knows I'm from here originally, huh? Another clue… "Reasonably, Senpai," he said aloud. "No complaints. It was… productive."

"So I gather from how long you were out," Mitsuru remarked. With that cryptic statement, she turned her attention back to the book in her lap, seeming to pay the younger student no further attention.

Raising an eyebrow briefly, Minato shrugged inwardly, and walked over to the dining area. Exchanging a quick nod and smile with Yukari, who had evidently returned well before him, he crossed to the small refrigerator and extracted an energy drink; after his after school excursion, he needed a bit of a boost.

Productive is the word, he mused, cracking open the can. Man, this place has changed a lot in ten years… It's like what happened back then was just an illusion. The Moonlight Bridge is still the same, but everything else…

Taking a sip from the energy drink, Minato settled into a chair at the dining table, opposite Yukari, and reflected back on the day's research. So. The "Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad", huh? A mouthful of meaningful words with no apparent sense, and no clue at all what it's actually about. Mitsuru-senpai is the leader, Yukari-san is a member, and another senior -Sanada, wasn't it?- rounds out the group.

And their advisor is the Chairman of the School Board. If the weird name and maybe-guns weren't enough already, that would be enough to tell me something strange is going on. Whatever SEES may be, it definitely isn't just another school club. They've got access, they've got gear… and like me, they didn't turn into coffins during that bizarre hour last night.

Which reminded him: setting aside his drink for a moment, Minato reached into his pocket and fished out the object that had originally set him on his sojourn throughout town in the first place. Seeing it, Yukari perked up, curious. "A pocket watch?" she said, surprised.

Minato smiled, opening the watch's lid. "Call me old fashioned," he said, studying the face of the visibly aged timepiece, "but sometimes nothing beats an antique. High tech is all well and good, but the old stuff sometimes has its own uses…"

Over in the common area, Mitsuru discretely watched the two make small talk, Minato carefully winding and setting the antique all the while. Well, that's interesting, she thought. That explains part of what he was up to today, though not why. A wind-up watch? And an expensive one at that, if I'm any judge. It looks like our new candidate has a taste for the finer things in life, and an eye for quality.

Of course, that doesn't account for being gone so long today. I would've expected him to come back as soon as that errand was over; considering how late he came in last night, he must need the rest.

She quickly turned her attention back to her book before Minato could notice her study. She was beginning to think he was being as observant of her and Yukari as she was of him, and preferred not to draw attention to her own inspection.

Although it would probably be more surprising if he wasn't. You don't have to be unusually curious to want to know more about things like last night, especially after Takeba almost drew on him. Best to be cautious, I think, until it's time to bring him into SEES.

I wonder, though, if that's really all that is. Arisato… just what are you up to?

Mitsuru didn't notice Minato's eyes occasionally glancing up from the watch, nor his attention drifting momentarily from his conversation with Yukari to her.

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009, Evening

Definitely shaping up to be a… unique year, Minato mused, strolling down the sidewalk toward the dorm. Hands tucked in his pockets, music filled his ears and insulated him from the surrounding city noise, making it easier to think. And there was a fair bit for him to chew on, this time.

On top of his deliberate investigating into the circumstances surrounding the dorm itself, he'd picked up a fair bit of gossip from students at the school. Much of it was just idle chatter, the usual hijinks of a typical high school, but some things brought to mind news reports he'd caught snatches of, and piqued his curiosity.

Apathy Syndrome, Minato thought. I'd heard rumors, but I hadn't realized Port Island was the center of it. A wakeful but near-catatonic state, with no clues yet found as to cause, let alone cure. Not even any solid conclusion as to whether it's a physical or psychological issue…

And I can't help but wonder. That's four mysteries I've found in just two days; it's already obvious that SEES is somehow involved in that strange hour, and that strange boy almost certainly has some connection to one or the other. Is Apathy Syndrome also somehow related to the nighttime weirdness?

Climbing up to the dorm's entrance, Minato was at least sure of one thing: this year was not going to be boring. School would be a relatively simple matter, he was sure, but that would merely leave his attention free to investigate the fascinating situation he found himself in. With so much going on, he was confident this puzzle would not be solved quickly.

He liked it better that way.

Stepping through the door into the lobby, Minato was abruptly confronted with another piece of the puzzle. In the common area to his right, Yukari was speaking with a sophisticated-looking gentlemen in a tan suit, with shoulder-length hair and glasses. Hm? And who might this be?

The man in the suit had his back to the door, so it was Yukari who first spotted the new arrival. "Yeah," she was saying, "if it's anything like yesterday, he'll probably be out until around- Oh!" Breaking off, she quickly stood up. "Just who we were talking about. Over here, Minato-kun."

Minato obligingly took off his headphones and made his way over. "Evening, Yukari-san," he greeted. "Sir," he added respectfully, nodding at the unknown man.

The man smiled, also coming to his feet. "Ah, then you'd be our new guest. Minato Arisato, I believe?" He held out his hand. "I'm Shuji Ikutsuki, Chairman of the Board of Gekkoukan High." Shaking Minato's hand, he chuckled. "Ikutsuki… Kind of a mouthful, isn't it? Even I have trouble with it sometimes. I don't like introducing myself; it's embarrassing to mess up my own name."

Speech impediment, or a weird sense of humor? Minato wondered, not quite grasping what was so difficult about the name. Either way… So this is the advisor for SEES? Probably sharper than his speech troubles suggest.

"Pleased to meet you," he said simply.

"Likewise," Ikutsuki said, and gestured toward the common area. "Please, have a seat." Once Minato had joined Yukari on one of the couches, and the Chairman had resumed the chair he'd previously occupied, his expression turned apologetic. "I'm sorry about the confusion with your room assignment. You know how bureaucracy is, right?"

"Paperwork," Minato said dryly, thinking back on some of his grandfather's complaints. "Red tape. Takes three months to authorize something that takes five minutes to actually do."

Yukari and Ikutsuki both laughed. "Yes, that's about right," the older man agreed. "Your transfer came at a bit of an awkward time, and I'm afraid it's going to be at least a few more days before things get straightened out."

"That's all right," Minato assured him. "I don't mind."

I also don't believe it's just paperwork. A dorm that has hidden cameras in the bedrooms doesn't get anyone assigned to it by accident. What are you looking for, I wonder? Or waiting for?

"I'm glad to hear it." Ikutsuki gestured vaguely. "Anyway. Since I'm here, are there any questions I can answer for you?"

Probably several dozen. But I'll settle for what an ordinary, unsuspecting student would ask. "I'm kind of surprised the Chairman of the Board would be visiting a dorm like this," Minato said casually.

"It's only fair to give you an explanation in person," Ikutsuki replied, making a self-deprecating gesture. "And to welcome a new student, regardless. But it's true I did have other business to attend to… Speaking of which," he said, turning, "where is Mitsuru, Yukari?"

"Upstairs," Yukari said, pointing toward the stairwell. "Studying, I guess."


"As diligent as ever," the Chairman mused, adding to Minato's suspicions. "Though I would've thought it wouldn't hurt to say hello, at least… I gather you've already met her, Minato?"

"Right after I got here," he confirmed. "Are Senpai and Yukari-san the only other people staying here?"

"There's another senior here, actually, Akihiko Sanada. Captain of the school boxing team. I understand he keeps odd hours, so I'm not surprised you haven't seen him yet." Ikutsuki stood. "Well, much as I'd like to stay and chat, I do have work to do." Making for the stairs, he added over his shoulder, "You're probably tired after everything; only your second day here, after all, so you should probably get some rest. After all, 'The early bird catches the bookworm!'"

Chuckling to himself, the man headed up to the higher floors of the dorm, leaving Minato to give his back a strange look.

Next to him, Yukari heaved a long-suffering sigh. Shaking her head, she rolled her eyes and turned to her companion. "Sorry about that. The Chairman likes puns… but isn't very good with them. You'll get used to it soon enough."

"I've seen weirder," Minato said honestly. "Remind me to tell you sometime about the kind of teachers I've ended up with before. And the classmates, for that matter. Bad puns are pretty mundane next to some of the things I've seen in school before."

"Is that so?" Yukari raised an eyebrow, curious. "Anything in particular? I know your last school was in Nishinomiya…"

Minato chuckled quietly. "Well," he said, leaning back, "Nishinomiya wasn't the only school full of oddballs for me, but it did have an unusual concentration of them. I was fortunate enough to be a bystander; this one guy I knew managed to attract all kinds of strangeness, including one girl I always half-suspected of being a space alien or something…"

Late Night/Dark Hour

Well, Mitsuru mused, he may be aware of the Dark Hour, but he obviously isn't very concerned by it.

Alongside Yukari, she sat before the monitor station in the command room, observing their newest tenant via well-concealed camera. Having been otherwise occupied the night before, she hadn't had a chance to see this for herself before, but it was, so far, matching up with her expectations.

The Dark Hour was on the way, but Minato Arisato slept like a log. By now he had to know it was a nightly phenomenon, yet he'd gone to sleep as if he hadn't a care in the world; in some ways, Mitsuru thought, a remarkably trusting attitude from someone who seemed very much aware of his surroundings.

He knows things turn strange at midnight, and he knows there are those of us who can move freely when the rest of the world is frozen in time. Considering his reaction to Takeba the first night, I'd expect him to be more cautious. On the other hand, he's probably realized Takeba's actions were due to a misunderstanding, and he presumably isn't aware yet of the Shadows…

"Diligent as ever, I see," a voice interjected into her thoughts. "Keeping an eye on things personally, Mitsuru?"

Mitsuru turned toward the approaching Ikutsuki. "It seems prudent," she said. "Considering how… unusual Arisato's behavior has been."

"Yes, Yukari informed me of that," the Chairman said thoughtfully. "I know I wasn't that calm, the first time I experienced the Dark Hour, and I at least had some idea of what was going on." He looked over at the monitor. "So, how's he doing?"

"He went to bed shortly after you left earlier," Yukari offered. "I guess he'd had a long day; he's been asleep since then."

"Not surprising," Mitsuru noted. "Judging from how long it takes him to get back to the dorm after school…" She glanced back at Ikutsuki. "Mister Chairman, do you think he's…?"

She herself was mostly convinced of it by now. After everything, she believed it would be more surprising if he did not possess the talent they were looking for; to be strange in so many ways, yet normal in the one that mattered…

"We'll know soon enough, I think," Ikutsuki told her, settling onto a nearby stool. "In the meantime, the Dark Hour will be upon us soon, and I'd like to see his reaction to it myself."

Nodding, Mitsuru turned her attention back to the monitor. For the moment, waiting as the clock ticked away the final minutes before the world turned strange, she occupied herself examining Arisato's vital signs; what could be told while he was sleeping was somewhat limited, but still informative.

Athletic, she mused, to judge from heart rate and respiration. That fits with how he handles that "walking stick"… and, come to think of it, might explain how long it takes him to get home from school. If he's spending that time wandering the city, that kind of exercise would explain a lot.

It still leaves the question of why, of course, but then that's the crux of this whole matter. And he probably wonders the same about us and the Dark Hour.

Mitsuru was lost in thought, but it would've taken Zen levels of concentration not to notice the transition to the Dark Hour. The room's main lights winked out, the world became tinged with green, and an eerie silence, devoid of the usual noise of a city, came over the world.

Only the command room's monitors remained functioning, completely unchanged. Including the images they showed.

"He's still sleeping," Ikutsuki said unnecessarily. "Just as you reported." When the two students turned toward him, he nodded at the screens. "As I'm sure you'll recall, an ordinary person doesn't truly experience the Dark Hour; they're Transmogrified into a coffin, kept in a form of stasis until the Dark Hour passes. Safe, and oblivious."

Yukari glanced over her shoulder at the display. "Which means Minato-kun must be…"

"Indeed. Minato is still asleep; he may be passing the Dark Hour unknowing, but he is still physically affected by it. Still in human form, we could, if necessary, wake him up, and he is not secured against outside contact by a coffin."

"The only question, then," Mitsuru mused, "is whether or not he actually has the potential. But then if he didn't, by now the Shadows would've gone after him; one night of luck I could see, but not three."

Yukari shivered. "I sure hope so. Being able to experience the Dark Hour, but not actually defend yourself during it… That's a scary thought."

"Very," Ikutsuki said wryly. "Which is why I try to make sure I'm around one of you guys when the Dark Hour begins." Chuckling at the look on Yukari's face -the other having forgotten that detail- he turned his attention back to the sleeping student. "In any case, let's continue watching Minato, at least for a few more days. I think we'll have our answers soon enough."

"Yes, Sir," Mitsuru acknowledged. I was intending to anyway. Takeba fit the pattern Akihiko began, but Arisato is defying all expectations. Seeing how he performs if -when- he manifests a Persona should be very interesting.

A sigh from Yukari caught her attention. "I feel kinda bad," the junior murmured. "We're spying on him, and he doesn't even know it…"

"All for a good cause, Yukari," Ikutsuki assured her. "And once we're sure he can take care of himself, there'll be no more need to. For now, we're just keeping him safe." He chuckled. "Not as if there's anything going to happen to him while he's tucked into bed, of course, but better safe than sorry."

Dark Hour?

The elevator was ascending rapidly, hurrying toward the floor of his destination; when it would arrive, well, who could say.

Something about that thought seemed odd to Minato, but it took him a few moments to figure out why. Wait a minute… Elevator? Wasn't I just in bed…?

Minato gradually became aware of his surroundings. An antique elevator, several times larger than he thought such an elevator was likely to actually be. Open air barely visible through gaps in the walls; and lots of blue on the inside. Blue velvet, he rather thought, though it was hard to be sure.

He himself sat in a straight-backed chair upholstered in the same blue velvet, wearing his school uniform (odd, considering he distinctly recalled changing into something more appropriate before going to bed). In front of him was a table covered in what appeared to be white silk, and beyond that…

Where the hell am I?

"Welcome to the Velvet Room, my dear young man," said the entity sitting on the other side of the table. A spindly, hunched old man with the longest nose Minato had ever seen, wearing an old-fashioned suit with a handkerchief tucked into his vest pocket. Standing to the man's left was a young woman in a blue dress of some sort, and she somehow unnerved Minato even more than the beak-nosed man.

Pale skin. White hair. Peculiar yellow eyes. Minato had the distinct feeling that whatever she might look like, she was not human in the same sense he was.

But the old man was speaking again, distracting him from the other oddities of his location. "My name is Igor," he said, gesturing at himself. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance, young man. And this," Igor went on, waving at the strange woman, "is Elizabeth. We are both residents of the Velvet Room, and bound by the duties that entails."

The woman -Elizabeth?- smiled at him, a strangely charming expression coming from someone so peculiar. "A pleasure to meet you," she said, tone strange but somehow not quite frightening.

Okay… I'm pretty sure this is not a dream. Or if it is, it's simply a medium for something that is actually occurring. All things considered, probably best to be polite to entities of presumably supernatural origin, at least until I found out what they're up to and where I stand relative to them.

"I'm Minato Arisato," he said, pleased that it came out with only a slight hitch. "The pleasure's mine."

The smile Elizabeth bestowed on him this time did unnerve him, but he was -perhaps fortunately- not given time to dwell on it.

"No doubt you're wondering about the nature of the place you find yourself in," Igor remarked, pulling Minato's attention back to him. "This is, after all, very different from the reality you experience in your waking life." He made a sweeping gesture, encompassing the room at large. "This is the Velvet Room, a place existing between dream and reality, a room that it between the construct of the unconscious mind and the matter of the waking world."

Clear as mud. But I suppose it confirms my hypothesis. I'm asleep, but if this is a dream, it's still very much real.

"It's been years since we've had a guest," Igor continued, smiling in a way Minato could not decide was friendly or predatory. "So long has it been since someone of your… potential talents has come to our attention, since my master found a cause worthy of his intervention."

Master? If there's something above this guy, do I even want to know?

Igor waved a hand again, and something resembling a hotel register materialized on the table between them, flipping open to the first page; Minato recognized it as the document he'd signed the night he arrived at the dorm. The one held by the mysterious boy no one else seemed to know about.

Hm. So what I'm experiencing now isn't yet a fourth -or is it fifth now?- mystery, but something connected to one of the first. That's useful to know.

"The Velvet Room is only accessible to those who have signed the contract," the beak-nosed man said, nodding at the document. "As one of those who have, you are henceforth welcome here, young Minato. The talent you have is quite unique, and one that you will need to hone if you are to succeed in the events that are to come. My role… is to assist you in that task."

Minato glanced down at the contract, then turned a wary gaze back on Igor. "A unique talent… I suppose I'll find out what you mean soon enough. As for your assistance… what's the catch?"

Igor smiled benignly. "None whatsoever, in the sense that you mean, young Minato. Assisting the one who has signed the contract is the role assigned to me by my master, after all. All that is expected in return is that you abide by the terms of the contract, and assume responsibility for the choices you make and the consequences thereof."

Minato snorted lightly. "Contract or not, I intended to do that anyway." He glanced around once more, taking in the elevator that apparently wasn't, whose destination was still unclear. "I don't understand everything you just said, but if the way things have been going so far is any indication, I probably will soon. But I do have one question: is this a dream?"

Another smile, this one approving. "It is exactly what you suspect it to be, my dear young man. This is the Velvet Room as your subconscious draws it for you, using the imagination of your unconscious mind as a medium to communicate with you; in the real world, you remain in your own bed, fast asleep." He raised his hand, and something began to appear in the air before Minato. "You will, however, come here of your own accord soon enough, and this will be needed."

The object finished materializing, and dropped into Minato's hand. A key, he quickly realized, of the same blue as the room around him. It didn't take someone with his deductive talents to figure that sooner or later he was going to find a physical door leading into this place.

Even as he took stock of that, though, he realized the room was beginning to fade; in the real world, he was probably beginning to wake up. The last impressions he had were of a cheerful farewell from Igor, and that strange smile from Elizabeth…

Thursday, April 9th, 2009, Early Morning

If the plot thickens any more, this will be more convoluted than one of Professor Moriarty's schemes. Add in a dash of Cthulhu, maybe. There's so much weirdness going on here I'd almost think I've fallen into a novel.

Naoto would love it.

Walking down the final stretch to Gekkoukan High, Minato shook his head in bemusement. He'd thought at first that the previous evening's addition to the mystery had merely been an extremely vivid dream; certainly that was more plausible, even with the bizarre changes Port Island underwent at midnight. That comforting thought had lasted all of thirty seconds after awakening in the morning, however.

The discovery of the key "Igor" had given him lying in his hand had been fairly strong evidence that his experience had been no mere dream.

It's starting to come together, I can feel it. It won't be long now before whatever plot I've fallen into gets into motion; somehow I can tell that the pieces are on the board, and the stage is set. Now I just need to wait for the curtain to rise…

"Yo!" Junpei called energetically, awaiting Minato at the school's gate; as ever, he wore his blue ball cap and a smile that could've been used as a shaving mirror. "Hey, Minato, what's up? Looks like a perfect day, huh? Great weather, we're in the prime of life… What more could guys like us ask for?!"

Minato grinned to himself. I don't know, a volume control, maybe? "You're full of energy this morning, Junpei. Just how many energy drinks do you start the day with? Or do you just hook yourself up to a car battery and get it direct?"

Junpei laughed. "Nah, nothing like that, man. 'Course I'm excited! After all-! Ah, right, I'm not supposed to say anything." He chuckled. "Sorry, dude. But hey, who cares! You've got me for a friend, what else do you need?"

The blue-haired student couldn't think of a reply that didn't include perhaps excessive amounts of sarcasm, so he simply shrugged, smiled noncommittally, and followed his energetic companion into the school grounds. Note to self: always make sure to get enough sleep before school. That much energy being directed at me too early in the day and I might do something drastic.

Still, could be worse. At least he's reasonably normal…


So far, classes at Gekkoukan had been refreshingly normal, one of the few "typical" school experiences Minato had ever had. The principal was only slightly more boring than usual, and his homeroom teacher was reassuringly sane. Alas, that trend was now to come to a halt.

The teacher standing before the class now looked normal enough. In fact, he looked so incredibly average that Minato doubted he'd be able to recognize the man in a crowd, with his plain suit and nondescript appearance; nonetheless, there was a quality to him that Minato found… disquieting.

The man cleared his throat, attempting -with some success- to capture the attention of the students. As with any classroom, a certain percentage of the population ignored him completely, but -by Minato's estimate- a respectable majority deigned to pay attention.

Though they might have quickly come to regret it.

"Ahem," the teacher said, clearing his throat a second time. "I'm Mister Ekoda, and that means I'll be your Classical Literature teacher this year. That's right, here's where you'll be learning about the works of literary art from good old Japan herself." Ekoda shook his head. "So many people say Classic Lit isn't relevant to modern, everyday life. I say they're crazy. Why, what is the present built on if not the works of the past? Nothing could be more… Hey," he said sharply, "are you even listening to me?"

Not particularly. You lost me at "Classic Literature"; apparently we have a competitor for Most Boring Speaking Manner In An Educator, with the finals likely to come down to a close race between Mister Classic Lit Is Awesome and Principal Insomnia Cure…

Minato actually did have a taste for classical writing; with his upbringing, it was probably inevitable. Hearing about it in a classroom environment, however, from someone of Ekoda's oratory "skill"… that was a completely different story.

Well. Time for Boring Speaker Ploy. Could be worse; no need for Half-Crazy Asylum Refugee Teacher Ploy… yet.

He'd dealt with this kind of situation before. So, maintaining an air of studious concentration -and taking a few moments to mentally review his classic literature knowledge in case called upon- Minato turned his attention back to the mysteries of Port Island.

All in all, a much more rewarding topic to spend his time on, and very possibly more important. Much of what was going on seemed fairly harmless… but Minato had not forgotten Yukari's reaction to seeing him in that strange hour.

Nor how water had turned to blood for the duration.

Dark Hour

"…So, what's the situation?"

"The same as last night. Nothing unexpected."

"Except for the fact that it's happening this way at all, of course." Shuji Ikutsuki gazed thoughtfully at the command room monitor. "I've been thinking about what you've said about Minato, particularly his arrival that first night. Even those with potential have several distinct symptoms upon first experiencing the Dark Hour."

Mitsuru nodded. "Memory loss, disorientation. Generally somewhat unstable, at least for the first few nights."

"Not this guy, though," Yukari said, shivering a little at the memory. "He just walked right in as if it was nothing, and from what little we talked about it the day after, I think he remembered it perfectly well."

That fit with Mitsuru's observations, as well. Minato Arisato was admittedly a very self-possessed person, likely in part a side effect of the martial arts training she was convinced he had; nonetheless, she didn't believe that accounted for the entirety of his equanimity. At the very least, he seemed entirely immune to the usual detrimental effects the Dark Hour had on the psyche.

Which made him all the more puzzling… and intriguing.

Yukari shifted uncomfortably, pointedly not looking at the screen. "…It still feels like we're treating him like a guinea pig."

"Only for a little longer, Yukari," Ikutsuki assured her. "And though I hate to say it, the stakes are high enough that we don't have much choice. It's imperative we recruit new members if we're to take any effective action at all. Besides," he added with an encouraging smile, "wouldn't it help to be working with someone in your own year?"

She blinked. "I… guess so, yeah…" Yukari had to admit she hadn't quite thought of it that way; but then, she hadn't had a chance to talk much with Minato yet. He'd spent much of his time outside of school going about business of his own, and seemed to be playing his cards close to his chest for the moment.

Of course, he has to know something is going on. Maybe he'll loosen up once he knows the truth?

Yukari hoped so. Having someone besides her senpai to talk to would be nice.

Any further discussion on the topic was forestalled by a chime from the command console, prompting Mitsuru to frown and tap a key. "Command room," she said into a microphone. "I assume that's you, Aki-"

"No time for that," Akihiko interrupted, sounding out of breath. "Damn it, this thing is huge!"

Ikutsuki and Yukari exchanged alarmed looks, and Mitsuru's frown deepened. "Akihiko, what's going on?"

"I don't have time to chat," the boxer replied, breathing heavily. "It's chasing me… Look, you'll see for yourself soon enough! I'm almost there!" The signal cut off almost before he finished speaking.

Yukari stared at the now-silent console, face white. "Is he bringing that… that whatever it is here?!"

Mitsuru spun to face Ikutsuki, face taut. "We'll cease observation for now; I think that may have just become a moot point. Mister Chairman, we'll prepare for battle!" Nodding sharply at Yukari, she snatched up her gunbelt from a nearby table and strode quickly to the door, already strapping it on.

Yukari swallowed. Is this it? Oh, man, I don't know that I'm ready for this…

Hands shaking, face drained of all color, she picked up her own gear and followed Mitsuru out into the hall.

By the time the trio made it down to the eerily-lit lobby, Akihiko Sanada had just closed the front door behind him… and slumped down against it, clutching his ribs, breathing hard and unevenly.

"Akihiko!" Mitsuru called, showing a degree of concern Yukari found surprising, and hurried to the boxer's side. "What happened?"

Yukari saw the blood starting to stain Akihiko's shirt, and gasped. "Senpai! You're hurt!"

He waved away the concern with the hand not occupied with his injury. "I'll be all right," he bit out. The claim didn't have much credibility, considering his appearance, but there wasn't time to question it. Surprisingly, he even managed a tight grin. "You guys have a surprise coming. It wasn't far behind me…"

"This isn't the time to joke!" Mitsuru snapped, aplomb beginning to crack. "What the hell is going on, Akihiko?"

"Is it one of them?" Ikutsuki interjected urgently, face as tight as any of the others. As well it might be, Yukari thought, considering he was the only one present without any way of defending himself, even potentially, from the probable threat.

And he's got a good grip on the obvious, she thought numbly, not realizing it was probably exactly what Minato would've been thinking had he been there. What else would it be, anyway?

"It sure is," Akihiko confirmed, grimacing as he tried to pull his legs under himself. "But this one isn't like usual. It's bigger, and-"

A loud thump, like a very heavy footstep or perhaps something banging on the wall of the dorm itself, interrupted his explanation, and almost made Yukari jump out of her skin. Mitsuru, though also startled, simply drew the pistol from her belt and turned to Ikutsuki.

"Mister Chairman, I suggest you head for the command room! Takeba, get Arisato up and head for the back door! Make sure he's armed! He'll probably have that staff, but if not-"

Yukari swallowed. "What about you and Akihiko-senpai?"

"We'll hold it off." Mitsuru glanced over at the boxer. "You led it here, Akihiko, so you'll have to help me take care of this mess."

"Like I had a choice!" Akihiko said irritably, but he hauled himself to his feet anyway, hissing in pain yet not letting it stop him. "Now get going, Yukari! There's no time!"

Yukari nodded choppily. "R-right!"

Whirling, she took off for the stairs at a dead run. She didn't like leaving Mitsuru and an injured Akihiko, but she had no illusions about her own likely contributions; she still had difficulty using her power at all, and would probably just get in the way. Not to mention I left my bow in my room… No time to get it now.

Yukari sped toward the second floor, and placed her hope in the mysterious potential of their newest acquaintance.

Minato almost catapulted out of bed at the first thud. He tended to sleep lightly during the period when the world went strange, and on previous nights had woken at the slightest sound; this one was anything but slight, and set his more primal instincts screaming.

Much as he liked to think things through, in this case he figured his instincts were probably right.

He was already dressed and pulling on his jacket -having gone straight for his school uniform in his haste- when someone started pounding on his door. "Minato-kun, wake up! I'm coming in!"

Good thing I was already up, Minato thought inconsequentially, just as his door clicked and swung wide open, admitting a very harried Yukari. "What's the problem?" he asked, forcing his voice to remain calm in spite of his suddenly racing heartbeat.

"No time to explain!" she said, visibly trembling. "We've got to get out of here, now!"

Minato took about two seconds to digest that, remembered there was some reason Yukari and Mitsuru carried weapons -which, indeed, Yukari had belted on now- and snatched up his walking stick. Without further ado, he and Yukari charged back out into the hall and toward the stairs.

He had no idea what was going on. Yukari, however, apparently did, and if she thought haste was in order, he wasn't going to argue. Although I may break my neck, he thought, reaching the stairs and descending them at a rate not generally recommended for those interested in long-term survival.

"Back door," Yukari gasped out, when Minato glanced at her again. "Mitsuru and Akihiko-senpai are holding it off, but we need to get out of here, quick!"

Minato nodded, and together they rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs, cutting through the dining area to the back door leading behind the dorm.

Skidding to a halt just in front of the door, the two took a moment to catch their breath. "Well, this is exciting," Minato muttered, not bothering to keep his sarcasm internal. "What's the encore, a pole vault competition?"

Yukari gave him a weird look. "A what…? Never mind." She took a deep, shuddering breath. "We should be okay now; our senpai should have it contained out front, and we only need to last until-"

A beeping interrupted her, along with a brief burst of static from the headset Minato now noticed she was wearing. "Takeba, do you read me?" Mitsuru's voice said.

Yukari twitched. "Y-yeah, Senpai. Loud and clear!"

"Watch out! The one we're dealing with is not the one Akihiko warned us about! It could be anywhere!"

The brunette's lost some of the color it had begun to regain. "What?!"

What little color remained vanished entirely a moment later, and Minato's hand clenched on the stick, when a series of harsh pounding noises resounded against the door they had just been about to escape through. Something was clearly on the other side… something unfriendly.

"I don't think we want to go that way after all," Minato said conversationally, heart now imitating a jackhammer. "Any bright ideas, Yukari-san?"

"Up," Yukari replied, pale as a sheet. "I don't know where else…" She trailed off, and took off for the stairs again.

Minato followed close behind. He didn't know what the hell was going on, but it was quite obvious that it wasn't good.

On the plus side, I think I'm finally going to get some answers. The trick is to survive the process.

The pair stumbled out onto the roof, and Yukari slammed the door shut behind them, locking it. This wasn't where they would've preferred to end up, but the sounds following them up had made it clear any lower in the dorm wasn't safe… to put it mildly.

By now, Minato was tensely tightening and loosening his grip on the length of wood in his hand, wondering if he was going to have to use it… or if he even could use it. He had no idea what the threat was, nor if it would be affected by ordinary weapons.

"W-we should be safe for now," Yukari gasped out, leaned her head against the door. "At least long enough for our senpai to finish things."

"I hope so," Minato said, bracing the walking stick on the roof and himself on it. "Tell me something, Yukari-san: what in the Nine Circles is going on here? What's coming after us?"

"The full explanation will have to wait," she replied, struggling for breath. "Too complicated. But the thing right now is-"


Yukari jumped a foot in the air, and Minato fared little better. "What the hell was that?!" he hissed, snapping his stick back up. "Yukari-san-!"

"This isn't happening," she whispered, eyes wide and dilated. "This isn't happening…"

Slowly, both of them turned to look toward the edge of the roof, and Minato had his first glimpse of eldritch horror.

Black hands were coming into view. Pure black, clearly the very structure of the hands, not some kind of gloves. Many black hands, too many to be any creature of the world Minato knew. Worse, hands were all he could see… until an eerie blue mask came into view, held up by one of the hands like some kind of periscope.

Perhaps that's exactly what it was. The moment the mask's "eyes" were turned on the pair of trembling humans, something else frightening happened: a number of the freakish hands suddenly produced knives. Very sharp ones, if Minato was any judge.

Yukari's hand dropped, trembling, to the grip of the pistol at her waist. "Those monsters," she bit out through a mouth gone bone dry. "We call them Shadows." She shook visibly, barely managing to stay on her feet now.

The "Shadows" had now climbed over the edge of the roof, and were advancing. To Minato's intense, primal discomfort, all they consisted of were hands, some of them gripping knives, one of them the mask; no other trace of anatomy could be seen. "Monster", he decided, was a pretty apt description.

Yukari's fear-spawned paralysis snapped suddenly, and she yanked the pistol from its holster. To Minato's surprise, she pressed the barrel directly to her head, breathing impossibly becoming more ragged still. "What the hell are you-?!"

She pulled the trigger.

Rather than her head exploding the way he would've expected, there was a flash of blue, and spikes of what looked like compressed air sprang up from the roof, stabbing around the Shadow. They missed, though, and the Shadow kept advancing, its gait disturbingly similar to a giant arachnid.

Panicking now, Yukari pulled the trigger once more, sending off another wave of air spikes, but they, too, missed, and then a knife lanced out at her.

Yukari fell to one side, sprawling on the rooftop. The pistol flew the other way, landing in a puddle of water-turned-blood at Minato's feet.

He didn't know if Yukari was hurt, or even if she was still conscious. Yet at that moment, Minato's own fear left as though someone had flipped a switch; instead of near-panic, he felt eerily calm. His gaze fell toward the pistol at his feet, then lifted to gaze at the shadowy horror still advancing on him.

For a brief moment, his vision went white, with the boy he'd seen the first night standing before him. "Go on," the apparition urged, smiling a strange smile.


His heartbeat was in his ears, slow but very strong. Bending slightly, Minato set the walking stick aside, and picked up the fallen pistol.


Cradling it in his hands, he flashed back to Yukari's use of it, pressing it against her head as if preferring suicide to whatever the Shadows might do.


She hadn't died, though, had she? Instead, a strange power had been invoked…


Breathing deeply, Minato lifted the pistol to his head, pressing it against his right temple. Only now did he tremble even slightly.


The trembling stopped. Minato's eyes closed, and his mouth twisted into a smile. The word came to him easily, though he knew not why.




Minato pulled the trigger.

A hammer blow resounded through his head, forceful yet somehow not painful. Shards of blue ice exploded out where the bullet might've exited, had the pistol been normal, and as Yukari came to her senses enough to watch, more shards rose up to spiral around him, an unseen wind billowing his jacket.

A voice from the strange vortex boomed out. "Thou art I," it said, in a voice eerily similar to Minato's own. "And I am thou. From the sea of thy soul, I come forth." A shape was taking form now, spindly, inhumanly proportioned. Its face, like its voice, resembled that of the one who had summoned it, and it bore a harp on its back. "I am Orpheus, Master of Strings."

Yukari Takeba stared at the apparition. We were right, she thought numbly. Minato does have the potential. Wow… he summoned it so easily, like even putting a gun to his head was nothing…

She thought she'd never felt so relieved in her life. Two seconds ago, she was about to suffer a fate possibly worse than death at the hands of a Shadow; now survival seemed not only possible, but probable, with Minato Arisato on hand. He just stood there in the shadow of his Persona, grinning, Evoker still in his hand-

Then he let out a cry, doubled over, and clutched at his head, prompting Yukari to draw back herself in something akin to horror. The newly manifested Persona, Orpheus, had let out a scream of its own, a terrible sound of agony.

It wasn't difficult to understand why: something else seemed to be clawing its way out of Orpheus' guts.

Minato and his Persona howling in concert, that something tore free of Orpheus, ripping out to freedom. Casting aside the tattered remnants of the first Persona, it bared itself to the moonlight: skeletal, made up of grays and blacks, its most notable features were its metallic, beak-like head, and the eight "wings" chained together behind it. Wings that, on closer inspection, looked entirely too much like coffins for comfort.

Before the appearance of this apparition fully registered on Yukari, the reaper-like entity spun toward the Shadow, swinging the long, katana-like sword it held in one hand. Bits of Shadow went flying, sliced as cleanly as with the sharpest razor; another cut, and several knife-wielding hands scattered off into the night.

Like something out of a samurai movie, the Reaper spun and cut and sliced at the Shadow, swiftly reducing it to a mass of dark shreds. The execution was effortless, brutal; something Yukari had never seen from her own Persona.

Perhaps three seconds after the Reaper began to attack, the encounter was over. It clutched one of the black hands in its own grip, still struggling, but that was all… and with a disturbing squish, even that remnant of the Shadow had been removed from the world.

The Reaper hung in the air, silhouetted against the green moon, for a moment longer, and Yukari could've sworn it was laughing eerily. Then, with a flicker almost like radio static, it was gone, Orpheus once again in its place.

An instant later, Orpheus too vanished, and Minato fell to his knees.

Yukari shakily drew herself to her feet. "It… is it over?" she whispered. "Hey, Minato-kun! You okay?"

A scrabbling noise answered the first question, unpleasantly so: two more Shadows, similar to the first but thankfully smaller, pulled themselves up onto the roof. But the second question, too, had an answer, with Minato pulling himself back to his feet with only minor difficulty.

"I'm okay," he said, voice rough but strong. "I'll handle this." He tossed the pistol back to Yukari, who fielded it awkwardly, and picked up his "walking stick" again. "Time to finish this."

And to Yukari's surprise, he placed his left hand around the middle of the length of wood, pulled with the hand near one end… and withdrew over two feet of gleaming steel from its hiding place in what was now revealed to be a wooden scabbard.

Tossing the scabbard to Yukari as well -the latter managing slightly better with this catch- Minato advanced on the Shadows, not hastily, but also with no trace of hesitation. Holding the katana-style blade in a grip even Yukari recognized as one born of formal training, he skittered forward, moving to flank the Shadow on the right. He had not intention of being caught between them, and every intention of dealing with them as expeditiously as possible.

The Shadow closest to him lashed out the moment he was close enough, and Minato weaved back, the knife passing just inches away from his face. Then his sword came up, parrying another knife, and kept on going; a quick twist of his wrist, and the limb holding the blade went flying, disintegrating as it went.

A quick sidestep took him out of the path of another attack, and then two steps more made Yukari think her friend had made a terrible mistake: his strafe around his target had put him in exactly the position he had avoided at the start, directly between his foes. Yet Minato knew exactly what he was doing, and his blade was already moving before he'd finished his lateral movement, slicing down with startling speed directly at the mask at the center of the Shadow.

Driven by trained muscles Yukari hadn't even realized her classmate had, the sword cleaved straight down through the mask, bisecting it less neatly but just as effectively as his Reaper-like Persona had.

The Shadow dissipated into mist, and Minato whirled, spinning blade lopping a knife hand off the other Shadow as it attempted to gut him like a fish.

Watching the totally unexpected display of martial talent, Yukari now abandoned all doubt she may have had regarding Mitsuru's judgment of Minato Arisato. And, watching another limb go flying, felt intensely grateful her senpai had arrived in time to prevent anything precipitous from happening that first night. Whatever other talents Minato might have, he clearly knew exactly what he was doing with that hidden sword of his.

Wrapped up in these reflections, she almost missed the moment when the remaining Shadow, already deprived of its limbs, went up in a puff of otherworldly ichor.

The only thing left standing was Minato, who was breathing hard and sweating. The exertion hadn't been more than mild exercise for him, but the stress… that was something else entirely. He'd started this whole mess by being dragged out from a sound sleep, and wrapped things up by shooting himself in the end and killing a pair of eldritch abominations in single combat.

"A coffee break for Sisyphus!" Yukari distinctly heard him utter.

Just before collapsing in an unceremonious heap, narrowly avoiding impaling himself on his own sword.

Yukari stumbled back to her feet and rushed to his side. "Hey, are you okay? Minato-kun! Answer me!" Only peripherally aware of the sound of Mitsuru and Akihiko finally arriving on the rooftop, she took hold of Minato's shoulder. "Come on, wake up! Please! Minato-kun!"

The blue-haired student heard nothing. Exhaustion had taken its toll, and his mind was now on its way to visit another.

It had begun. Events set in motion a decade earlier had come to the forefront; that which had been begun by errant scientists would now be brought to a close by those with a unique power. The fate that Minato Arisato only dimly glimpsed was at hand.

Author's note:

Normally, this would probably be the part where I make some kind of semi-poetic statement leading into the next chapter. This being my first experience with this particular 'verse, however, I'll just cut to the chase.

This story has been over a year in the making, something I knew I wanted to do from the moment I first watched the ending of Persona 3. To put it simply, it was just about my favorite RPG ending ever… right up until the last thirty seconds or so. More, my forays into P3 fanfics have shown a decided lack of stories that are actually faithful to the game. Novelizations, I should say; a number of one-shots fit with it, but none of the attempts at a written adaptation have been quite what I'm looking for.

Every attempt I've seen has taken liberties with the basic concept, to a greater or lesser extent. That has its place, certainly, but something closer to a straight adaptation is something I feel this game really does deserve. Which is not to say I won't be taking a few liberties of my own; I suspect it's not hard to figure out one common fan theory that is incorporated into this fic, for starters.

And the ending. Let me say now that if you're looking for a story that follows the ending right to the end, you might want to look elsewhere. The initial impetus behind this fic was giving it a more upbeat conclusion, and that's what I'm going to do.

Also, I realize chunks of this have dialogue taken verbatim from the game. I ask that people bear with me on that for a little while; I'm still feeling my way into a proper balance between faithfulness to the game and enough differences to make it interesting. Though there are a couple of scenes I specifically intend to be near-direct copies of the game versions -certain aspects of Mitsuru's Social Link come to mind- the proportion of such scenes should go down as I get a handle on what I'm doing.

Anyway. That note is probably a bit long, so I'll leave things at that for now. I can't promise a rapid arrival of the second chapter -those who follow my other stories will know my situation IRL is somewhat chaotic at the moment- but I'll do what I can. In the meantime… -Solid