Tuesday, July 21st, 2009, Early Morning

Twice now, awakening had come for no apparent reason. A vague stirring, a shadow of unease that should be foreign to an existence such as her. Those times, it had been sufficient to rouse her Papillon Heart, to disturb the full standby state she'd maintained for the past several years; yet not sufficient to bring her motor control or other higher functions online.

Now, suddenly, her slumber was broken. The imperative that had disturbed her before had become insistent, abrupt, urgent. The cause was… nearby.

Blue eyes, framed by blonde hair and a metallic headband, eased open with inhuman smoothness. Before them was the same maintenance chamber she remembered seeing before entering standby, a period her fully-reactivated onboard systems informed her now had lasted ten years. A chamber with metal walls, a row of computers banks and monitors on one side, a row of hanging monitors on the other.

In the center of the wall farthest from the entrance, the chair upon which she sat, monitor cables connecting her to the maintenance computers, a the bottom of a circular column hanging over her. A column she knew was prepared to come down and contain her on a moment's notice, if her masters felt the need.

I must evaluate the situation before I alert anyone that I am active, she thought, closing her eyes again. My primary objective… what is my primary objective?

Her systems were fully functional again, but her records were still spotty; evidently that wasn't an effect of incomplete activation, but rather the battle damage her fragmentary records indicated had occurred ten years before. The exact circumstances of her damage were unclear, and she could not find a record of why her priorities had been reordered.

A quick search of her databanks did, at least, inform her of what her current "top priority" was, even if no explanatory data were attached. A fragmentary vision of a boy with blue hair and gray eyes, and a vague imprint of his biometric data.

My highest priority objective is to find this boy, she thought. Why, she did not know; it was not her place to know. She was a weapon. She needed only obey, to the best of her ability. Searching Kirijo Group database now…

She must be cautious. She did not know why, but she knew her actions would not be sanctioned by those running the laboratory within which she was currently housed. Covertly bypassing simple database security, however, was trivial for one such as her; though her algorithms and coding had become obsolete since her original activation, it seemed regular software upgrades had still occurred during the years she was on standby. Infiltrating the Cybernetics Research Laboratory database was swiftly accomplished.

Match found. Arisato, Minato. Member of Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad. Further background data unavailable here. Last recorded location: Yakushima Island.

Here. Her primary objective was on the very same island as herself.

Within her core processing unit, protocols shifted and activated according to new parameters. Had the objective not been so close, much more research and calculation would have been required before she could act, requiring at minimum the acquisition of transportation. Odds of success would have been distressingly low.

As the situation stood, all she needed to do was exfiltrate the CRL, reconnoiter the island, and attach herself to the primary objective. At that point, she was sure, her masters would make no objection. After all, one of them must have assigned the objective in the first place.

Carefully disconnecting from the Lab's database, her eyes opened again, and with a near-silent whine of long-disused motors, she stood. Then, moving with deliberate haste, she began disconnecting physically from the maintenance systems.

Ignoring the sudden sound of alarms, the blonde "girl" dashed toward the maintenance chamber's entrance.


There was something undeniably relaxing about a walk through an island forest, Mitsuru reflected. On Yakushima, there wasn't the background noise of city life, and this far down one of the trails, the only notable sound was the calling of birds, and the occasional rustle of their passage and the wind through the foliage.

Those same trees provided enough shade that it was pleasantly warm, instead of intolerably hot. Just an overall peaceful atmosphere, really-which was probably just what the psychiatrist ordered right this minute, for the members of SEES.

The previous day had been of… mixed results, Mitsuru thought. On the one hand, they'd proven that, under more voluntary conditions, she and Arisato could stand to see each other in a less professional light; their conversation in the evening had more or less cemented that, and in the back of her mind she was looking forward to the opportunity to talk with him some more. On the other hand, there was Takeba.

Arisato's talk with her had obviously helped Takeba a great deal, but it wasn't perfect. That had been a shattering revelation, one that even Mitsuru hadn't known about; whatever good Arisato's arguments had done, it wasn't the kind of thing she was going to completely recover from overnight, especially since not so much time had passed since Mitsuru's original revelations about the origin of the Dark Hour in the first place.

So when she'd suggested that the two of them, and Yamagishi, take a break from the beach today to visit Yakushima's Jomon Cedar tree, the idea had been accepted immediately, yet not without some tension. So far, as pleasant as the walk had been, it had mostly been in silence.

Takeba doesn't seem to be blaming me as directly as she used to, though, Mitsuru mused, looking sidelong at her kohai. I suppose last night was the first time she was really exposed to the Kirijo Group beyond just me; that probably has something to do with it.

I only hope we can all pull through this together. Father's right, we do need to learn to trust each other more. …I need to learn to trust them more.

Yamagishi seemed only slightly subdued, which didn't really surprise her. From what Mitsuru could tell, the tech-savvy girl was extremely sensitive to the mood around her, but once away from her overbearing parents she didn't seem to have any particular issues of her own. She thought something had been bothering Yamagishi for a week or so, but whatever it was apparently wasn't directly connected to the situation at hand.

"It's so nice to be out in the fresh air," Yamagishi said at length, as they made their way down the forest path. "I forgot how refreshing a nice walk in the woods is… You can't do anything like this back in Iwatodai."

Mitsuru nodded absently, vaguely noticing that Takeba didn't even appear to hear the comment. Yes, Iwatodai doesn't have much in the way of greenery… and of course Port Island is an artificial construct to begin with…

Yamagishi bit her lip, noticing the general lack of reaction. "Y'know," she tried again, a few steps farther down the path, "it's probably just as well we can out here by ourselves." She managed a weak chuckle. "The way Junpei-kun was behaving yesterday… I don't know about you guys, but I didn't really know how to react to that! I just hope Minato-kun and Akihiko-senpai can keep him under control."

Arisato, possibly, Mitsuru thought clinically. It's more obvious than ever that he knows how to behave himself, and if anyone can put a leash on Iori, it'd be him. Akihiko? I don't think Akihiko has the slightest idea how to deal with anything like that. The best he can manage with his own fan girls is ignoring them, after all.

The reference to Iori and his lecherous behavior the previous day finally seemed to get Takeba's attention. "Huh?" she said, blinking. "Oh… yeah, I get what you mean. Junpei was being even creepier than usual, at that…"

Before the conversation, tentative as it was, could go any further, Mitsuru's phone rang. Who could that be? she wondered, pulling it out. "This is Mitsuru speaking," she said.

"Uh, hi, Mitsuru," came Ikutsuki's voice. He sounded… kind of sheepish, she thought. "We, um… have a slight problem."

A problem? On Yakushima? Eyes narrowing in confusion, Mitsuru switched her cell to speaker, and held it out so that her companions could hear. "Go ahead, Mister Chairman. What's the situation?"

"Well," he began, "you know there's a Kirijo Group lab her on the island, right?"

Mitsuru pursed her lips in thought. "I do seem to remember that the Cybernetics Division has a facility here, yes. What's happened?"

"Er… It seems a machine that was previously thought to be disabled has activated independently. In fact, it's left the lab entirely."

"A machine?" Takeba exchanged a bewildered look with Mitsuru, to which the senior had no reply. What kind of machine could simply get up and leave entirely on its own? She hadn't been aware of any drone research…

"What kind of machine is it?" Yamagishi, thankfully, seemed to be on the ball, probably because of her own mechanical inclinations. "I'll need some specifics if I'm going to be looking for anything other than Shadows with Lucia."

Interesting… I thought she could do more than just find Shadows and communicate telepathically, but I wasn't sure. …Someday, all of us need to sit down and explain what we're all capable of. It's not even distrust, I think, just simple lack of familiarity…

"It's a combat vehicle," Ikutsuki told Yamagishi. "An old anti-Shadow weapon, more specifically. It was badly damaged during the Incident ten years ago, and repairs never quite seemed to get it operational again. Apparently, something's changed."

"A combat vehicle… Like what, a tank?!" Takeba blurted. She'd gone from withdrawn and moody to startled and a little pale; Mitsuru couldn't decide if that was an improvement or not. "Are you kidding me?!"

That could be a problem. With the possible exception of Arisato, none of us have experience fighting anything besides Shadows; at the least, this isn't something we should be taking on piecemeal. We should gather the entire team for this.

"The group is split up at the moment," Mitsuru reported. "It may take us a little time to meet up."

"…Understood. Still, try to expedite, Mitsuru; we need to deal with this as soon as possible. I'm already on my way, too."

She nodded. "If we're unable to capture the target, do we have permission to destroy it?" Presumably, any machine capable of engaging Shadows on even terms was not the sort of thing you wanted getting loose and potentially hurting innocent bystanders. Whatever this "anti-Shadow weapon" was, it undoubtedly represented a significant expense on the part of the Kirijo Group, but the monetary loss was minor compared to possible collateral damage.

To her surprise, Ikutsuki actually laughed, if a bit nervously. "Oh, I don't really think you'll be able to destroy it, Mitsuru."

Yamagishi stared. "Then what are we supposed to do about it?" she wondered aloud; about as close as she ever got to making a plaintive demand, Mitsuru thought.

Valid question, too. Just what was this thing they were supposed to "capture", anyway?

"I think you'll understand better when you see it, Fuuka," the Chairman assured her. "I'll see you all soon." With a click, he hung up.

At the same time, Takeba was checking her own phone-without much success, to judge from the look of disgust on her face. "All the times," she groused. "Would you believe none of the guys are actually picking up the phone?"

That's not like Arisato. Whatever scheme Iori might've roped Akihiko into, Arisato is more responsible than that. Mitsuru grimaced. Unless, of course, he just forgot his phone today. Let's remember he's not a superhero, shall we?

"There's only so much trouble even they can get in on Yakushima," she said aloud, tucking away her phone. "We can meet up with them later. For now, let's go back to the house and get our weapons; then we can have Yamagishi scan the area." She grimaced. "It is a large area, unfortunately. This could take some time."

"Ugh!" Takeba's fist clenched, earlier depression long forgotten. "Dammit, where could they be?! Now, of all times?!"

Mitsuru turned back the way they'd come along the trail, and began the leading the way back. Inwardly, though, she couldn't completely disagree with her junior. Maybe she was just too used to the field leader being on top of things, but it just seemed strange for him to be out of contact right when the whole team was needed.

He did seem kind of nervous about today, though, she recalled. I wonder why?

"I do not believe this," Junpei complained, staring down at the note that had been left by the spot they'd congregated at the previous day. "'We've gone to see the Jomon Cedar Tree.' Seriously?!"

"I don't think it's a joke, if that's what you're suggesting," Akihiko said dryly. "I'm pretty sure that's Fuuka's handwriting, and since they're obviously not here…"

"But… but…" Junpei sputtered, seeming to have trouble coming up with a coherent sentence. Or maybe just unable to believe that the note really could mean exactly what it said. "But we're at the beach!" he howled. "In the middle of summer! An island resort, dammit! How can they not be at the beach?! That's heresy!"

"Seems to me they've got good reason to avoid it." Minato casually dropped into the beach chair his Senpai had used the day before, and stretched out comfortably. "Now… whose fault was it, again, for things going south yesterday?"

As before, he was covering up his scars with a shirt, and warding off the sun with blue-tinted glasses. Today, though, he'd also brought a book, having kind of suspected that there wasn't going to be much intelligent conversation available at the beach this time. As far as he was concerned, certain behaviors the previous day had but one logical outcome.

Junpei glared at him, not quite dense enough to miss the implication. "Oh, c'mon, Minato," he whined. "I was just tryin' to lighten the mood!" He turned back to the boxer. "You got the point, didn't ya, Senpai?"

Akihiko grimaced, looking away. "I don't want to talk about it, Junpei."

"Feh! Wimps." Junpei tossed the note back on the small table he'd found it on in the first place, and sniffed. "Well, whatever, man! Our girls may not be here, but that's not gonna keep me down. We've suffered a setback, but this battle isn't over yet! If you're running low on ammo, you find more on the battlefield itself!"

Battlefield? Why do I not like the sound of Junpei calling a beach a battlefield?

Perhaps he's mistaken this place for Iwo Jima, Master?

I was thinking Normandy, but that's probably more relevant, yeah.

Minato wasn't alone in giving Junpei an uneasy look. "…Ammo?" Akihiko repeated warily. "Battle? …Do we even want to know what you're talking about, Junpei?"

Junpei threw back his shoulders, chest out. "Basic military tactics, Akihiko-senpai!" he declared. "And we'll call this 'Operation Babe Hunt'!"

The boxer stared at him. "…'Babe Hunt'? As in, picking up girls…?"

The goateed one grinned. "Of course! Whaddya think, guys? With Akihiko-senpai on our squad, we've got it made!"

Minato was forced to agree with him on that point. At least, up to a point. Attracting attention in the first place, he figured, would indeed be easy enough with Gekkokan's champion boxer; he did that all the time not only without meaning to, but very much without wanting to. Making use of that attention… that was iffier.

One thing he'd learned from seeing his comrade interact with Yukari: if there was a way to put his foot in his mouth talking to a girl, Junpei Iori would find it.

He didn't especially like the way Junpei was looking at him now. "Yep, we've got it made," Junpei said again, grinning. "And you, 'Leader', could do with giving it a shot, too! You may not wanna be a 'magnet', but you can't deny you'd be better off with a little companionship now and then!"

Akihiko flinched, obviously expecting an explosion. Instead, though, Minato simply rolled his eyes and picked up his book. "Go and have your 'fun', Junpei. Me, I'm not interested in window-shopping."

"Window-shopping…? Come on, Minato! You can't seriously-"

"Let me put it this way, Junpei," Minato said, not looking up from the book. "You called this an 'Operation', right?"

Junpei's grin shrank a little. "…Yeah…?"

"Fine. I'm field leader, right? One of the first rules of leadership is knowing how to delegate." Minato did glance up now, a very faint smile on his face. "Akihiko-senpai, I'm delegating command of this operation to you. My own presence would be overkill, so I'll settle for getting your report when the operation is complete."

"Overkill?!" Junpei repeated, outraged.

Akihiko stared at Minato. Stared hard enough that if looks could kill, the swordsman would've been struck by a thunderstorm's worth of lightning. "I'm going to get you for this, Minato," he whispered. "I am so going to get you for this…" He ground his teeth, then sighed. "…Fine, then. Let's go, Junpei."

The Man in the Hat turned his own glare on both,, before huffing an annoyed sigh of his own. "Tch! Well, Minato, you'd better not come cryin' to us when you see what we've hooked!"

I give it a one-in-three chance that Junpei is murdered by the end of the afternoon, Minato thought complacently, as the two departed. I'm not prepared to speculate if it'll be by a girl or by Akihiko-senpai, though. Could go either way.

He wondered idly if Junpei's confidence was bravado, or if he really did think he was going to successfully pull off the ladies' man act. According to everything Minato had heard in the months he'd been in Port Island, "Junpei" and "date" had never been used in the same sentence, let alone "steady girlfriend". In fact, as far as he knew, Junpei had never even made any real attempt, so he was slightly confused at how enthusiastically the goateed one spoke of the subject.

Then there was Akihiko. No difficulty in attracting a small legion of fan girls, for that one. At the same time, the Boxing Team captain had apparently never once expressed any interest in any of his fans, and Minato's analysis of his basic personality left him honestly wondering if Akihiko really had the least idea how to go about wooing a girl.

For himself? Minato didn't think of himself as being a ladies' man, either. He wasn't blind to the fact that he had a few admirers of his own, and he was even willing to admit -in select company, anyway- that Yuko, at the least, would probably jump at the chance if he asked her out. For that matter, he wasn't exactly inexperienced, in any relevant sense of the word.

Despite that, "cruising for chicks" wasn't something he expected he'd be very good at, even if he wanted to try. More to the point, he didn't. Even if he was actively looking for a girlfriend just then, he'd never liked the idea of going out looking for one. As far as Minato was concerned, that was something that more naturally evolved from an established friendship, first. After all, that was how it had happened for him, both with Saya, and with…

Minato was sufficiently engrossed in both his thoughts and the Sherlock Holmes collection he was reading that he wasn't at first aware that he wasn't alone anymore. The beach umbrella provided enough shade on its own that he didn't notice any particular change in lighting, either, and he managed not to even hear anything.

Anything, at least, prior to a very distinctive laugh. Not as loud as he'd sometimes heard it in the past, but far from quiet, either; and just abrupt enough to make him twitch noticeably in his chair, as the laugh's owner no doubt intended.

"Ah, Minato-kun! You still don't handle it well when someone really does manage to sneak up on you, do ya?"

Minato recovered his poise and firmly ordered his circulatory system to resume pumping blood instead of adrenaline. Then, with deliberate care, he closed his book and set it to one side, before finally looking up at the intruder into his few moments of peace.

A very attractive intruder, he couldn't deny. The green two-piece she wore was clearly designed to emphasize the fact, showing off more skin than any of SEES' girls. Coupled with a face he could still draw from memory, with her distinctive fang protruding from one side of her mouth, the striking golden eyes, and ridiculously long green hair, there were certainly worse "intruders", and Minato was sure that Junpei would be a blathering, stuttering idiot about now, were he present.

Minato was used to it. He'd seen the girl in less, after all, and dealt with her idea of a friendly greeting often enough. Not to say he was completely unaffected, but he had long since learned to compensate for it.

"I see you still laugh like a hyena, Tsu-chan," he said smoothly, smiling despite himself. "But then, you wouldn't be 'you' otherwise, would you?"

"Nope!" Tsuruya grinned, and flopped into the chair she'd somehow managed to drag up beside his without him noticing. "Sorry I couldn't make it here yesterday, Minato-kun, but things happened, y'know?"

"Oh, yeah," he said dryly, "I know. Probably just as well, though. Yesterday got… complicated."

"Complicated?" Tsuruya raised an eyebrow. "Gots trouble in the team, Minato-kun?"

Perceptive as always. But then, she wasn't president of the Irregulars for nothing. "A few things we didn't know about got aired last night," he acknowledged, leaning back in his chair. "It's… kind of a long story."

"Kinda got that from your phone call the other day." Tsuruya brushed her hair out of her face, and gave him an unusually serious look. Well. Serious for her, anyway. "Sounded to me like we got lots to talk about, Silver-kun. Wanna start?"

Minato still didn't know why she called him that sometimes. The best guess he'd ever been able to come up with was that it had something to do with his distinctive gray eyes, but the one time he'd said so, she'd laughed and told him that was only part of it.

There was also the small matter that it played off his actual name, but as far as he knew she didn't even know that.

And Senpai thinks I keep a lot of secrets. Ha. I learned that from this girl.

"Okay," he said aloud, nodding. "I will. You said you know about 'Persona'. Are we on the same page, or are you thinking more Jung than I am?"

"Persona," Tsuruya repeated slowly, much of her typical humor fading. "My side of things can't quite decide if it falls into our style at all; the closest we can come to classifying it within our rules is as a kind of psychic phenomenon. It's too personal, too instinctive, to be what we'd call 'magecraft'."

Like Minato's own snark and metaphor, his old senpai tended to conceal her true thoughts and feelings behind humor. Most people probably only heard her be serious once in a blue moon; he knew full well that when the laughter stopped, she meant exactly what she said.

And after everything we went through together, that's the first time I've heard her use the term 'magecraft'. That would seem to confirm the link with Edogawa…

"So you're not a Persona user yourself, then," Minato prodded, watching her closely.

"Nope," Tsu-chan confirmed, shaking her head. "I've known a few, but the Association doesn't bother much with them, and they don't have much to do with us. Normally Persona users don't even know about our side of things, but you're… kind of a special case, Silver-kun." She gave him a narrow-eyed, shrewd look. "Let me guess. Your 'school club' is all Persona users, right?"

He debated for a moment how much to tell her, before deciding she was probably safe enough. Anyone who was involved with the kind of things Tsuruya was wasn't likely to blab about it.

"That's right," Minato said finally. "Six of us so far. Mitsuru-senpai is the nominal Club President, but circumstances ended up putting me in field command."

She grinned. "Yep, I figured that might be how it worked!" At his lifted eyebrow, she explained, "I dunno much about Persona myself, but I know you, Minato-kun. I knew from the day we met what kind of power you've got. I don't know how that relates to Persona specifically, but I'd be willing to bet you're stronger than your fellows."

"…You could say that." His eyes narrowed, and, after a moment's deliberation, he decided to broach a subject he hadn't mentioned even to his teammates. "Tsu-chan… have you ever heard of the term 'Wild Card'?"

"Outside of card games?" Tsuruya laughed, then sobered. "Rumors only. Like I said, the Association doesn't deal much with Persona. I checked after you called me last, and we don't know much, except that 'Wild Cards' usually don't get mixed up in the small stuff."

There's been more than one like me, and from the sound of it definitely more Persona users than Senpai had suggested. That's… interesting. And that's the second time she's mentioned an "Association". She never said a word about that when I was with the Irregulars; though now that I think about it, she did indicate there were others like her. A mental snort. Well, duh. Tsukishima didn't exactly appear out of thin air, did he?

Tsuruya was watching him closely, as if following his train of thought. Which, knowing her, wasn't completely out of the question; Minato still didn't know what the extent of her power was, still didn't have the least idea of its nature.

"Well," she said, sitting up and leaning toward him -a motion which did interesting things in the vicinity of her chest, which he tried valiantly to ignore- with a small smile, "I think we really do have a lot to talk about, Silver-kun. So how about you tell me what you've been up to this year, and then I see what I can tell you that I couldn't before. Fair?"

"…Fair enough, Fang-tan." Technically, I should probably ask Senpai before I do this, but I think, under the circumstances, I can trust my own judgment on this one. Who's she going to tell, her fellow witches?

More selfishly, it'll be nice to talk to somebody about this who isn't directly involved.

A thought struck him, and Minato smiled faintly. "Okay, then, Fang-tan," he began, sitting up. "Would you believe me if I were to say that a day consists of more than twenty-four hours…?"

In an office with the blinds drawn against the midday sun, a man in an impeccably-tailored suit and an eyepatch sat before an expensive oak desk. In one hand he held a cigarette; in the other, a telephone, just now reaching to make a call he supposed he might've made some time ago.

Might, Takeharu Kirijo thought to himself, as the phone on the other end began to ring. But I suppose I wanted firsthand observations first. To confirm with my own eye what the "background check" and Mitsuru's reports suggested.

Things were, more or less, as Kirijo had expected. Well. Perhaps more than less, really. When he'd seen the data on the new SEES candidate, back in April, he'd known exactly who and what he was dealing with, and the implications had intrigued him. He had quietly excised any information surplus to the obvious cover story, and waited with interest to see whether the youth would live up to his pedigree.

The actual results, if Mitsuru's reports were to be believed, were far in excess of what Kirijo had anticipated, to a degree he'd frankly found himself skeptical of. Until, that was, he'd seen the young man with his own eye, and observed for himself the keen brain hidden behind the laconic expression.

With a click, the connection picked up, and the voice of an older man came through. "Yes, Shirogane. Is that you, Takeharu?"

"As if you aren't perfectly well aware of the fact, Johei," Kirijo returned, leaning back in his chair. Taking a drag from his cigarette, he continued, "I understand you're on a case in Kyoto? How is that going?"

"Just wrapping it up, actually. A little convoluted, but in the end Naoto found the crucial evidence." Johei chuckled. "I'm not sure whether to be more embarrassed that I didn't see it myself, or proud that she managed to find it from so far away."

"I would say proud," Kirijo told him. "Not that you should expect any less, if your granddaughter is anything like your grandson."

"Ah…" He could almost hear the older man nodding on the other end. "Yes, I rather thought I'd be getting this call soon. I trust Kyousuke has been living up to his parents' legacy, now that he, too, has been roped into the affair?"

"He is," Mitsuru's father confirmed gravely. "Although I think living up to your legacy would be more accurate, Johei. Were you aware that he, too, had the potential?"

"Since shortly after the Incident, yes." Johei didn't bother to prevaricate. His ties to Kirijo were, if anything, older than his grandson's. The active ones, anyway. "I always thought it was something of a shame, really. Before that night, he showed considerable promise following in his father's footsteps, but afterwards… something changed. His talents shifted sharply toward the Kuzunoha side of the family tradition, away from our other specialty."

Kirijo was, as ever, curious about what Johei meant by that comment, but let it pass. He doubted he'd fully grasp any explanation, anyway, if past experience was any guide. "You should give him more credit, Johei. Whatever other 'talent' he may have lost, as a Persona user, he is proving to be quite exceptional. The strongest we've ever seen, in fact."

That was no lie, and no small compliment. It had been over twenty years since the Kirijo Group became aware of Shadows, years before Kouetsu Kirijo ever began his experiments, and in that time they'd studied Persona almost as much as they had Shadow. Especially once they'd discovered that the concept of a controlled Persona wasn't exactly new.

Kirijo was not proud of much of that research. Even now, fewer than a dozen "natural" Persona users were known to the Group, and the experiments into "induced" Personas were something he himself had ordered shut down the moment he became aware of them. Nevertheless, considerable data existed, and "Minato Arisato" broke all the records, and several of the rules.

"I always knew he was strong," Johei mused. "Our family's inheritance is erratic, at best, but his circuits were both numerous and powerful, fully up to the standards of a line as old as ours, before the Incident… changed him. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised it translated into great strength with Persona. …I suppose I should look into it personally, when I have the chance."

"You would be better able to tell than we are," Kirijo conceded, nodding. "We may have quantified it, but we wouldn't have gotten anywhere near as far as we have in developing their powers without your input, back then."

"I couldn't exactly stand by and watch." Johei's tone was dust-dry. "I haven't gone through as many world-threatening crises as I have without learning to judge when to intervene, as well as when to stand back. So," he continued, "Kyousuke is working out as a member of your team, then?"

"I have no reservations," Kirijo assured him, "save perhaps a certain degree of recklessness on his part. Something which, I admit, is mitigated by the fact that he tends to get results. Would you believe that in his first major operation with SEES he went so far as to fight atop a moving monorail train?"

He himself had looked askance at that report. Even if Arisato's hand had been forced, it still seemed like a reckless tactic. It had worked out, though, and similar stunts of his seemed to show it wasn't quite so much lack of sense as having a keen appreciation for what Persona allowed him to do.

Audacious, yes. Bolder than Kirijo was comfortable with, even with the results the youth consistently achieved. But not quite foolhardy.

Johei chuckled again. "Is that so? Hm… Our family always has been blessed with strong Instinct. Perhaps…" He trailed off. "Any other oddities I should be aware of?"

"A few peculiarities of his Persona abilities, which I suspect you are in a better position to evaluate than we are. I'll send you the reports on that later." Kirijo closed his remaining eye, thinking over the reports he'd seen of SEES' recent operations. "Oh, yes… There is one thing we can't quite seem to attribute to Persona. Your grandson seems to have developed the ability to 'analyze' objects at a glance. It appears to be of little use against Shadows, but it did apparently prove helpful during a recent operation. Do you have any insight on that?"

The older man was silent for a long moment. Then, slowly, "I see… That's very interesting news, actually, Takeharu. Is there any physical sign associated with it?"

"According to Mitsuru's reports, his eyes 'glow silver'," Kirijo answered, eye opening very narrowly. "I take it that means something to you."

"Indeed… The Mystic Eyes. It sounds as if Kyousuke does, after all, still have some touch of the family's Sorcery Trait." Johei's voice was very slow, and very thoughtful. "I knew Tsuruya believed there was still something there, but I couldn't quite bring myself to hope. Perhaps Kyousuke still has the capacity to inherit the title of 'Silver' after all."

"…And, as usual, half of what you say makes no sense to me whatsoever."

Despite his mild exasperation, Kirijo wasn't exactly surprised. Old man Johei had done more to advance the Kirijo Group's understanding of Persona than ten years of study, yet every now and again he wandered off into topics that the Group had no knowledge of. It seemed as if Johei's family line had ties to a side of the world even Takeharu Kirijo knew nothing of, and generally suspected he was better off staying away from.

"Well," Johei said after a moment, "I suppose it doesn't really matter at present. Unless and until more of the family traits begin to express themselves, Kyousuke's primary import here is as a Persona user. And you're satisfied on that front?"

"I did say I had no real reservations," Kirijo reminded him dryly. "In point of fact, I completely endorse my daughter's decision to retain Arisato as field commander. He has the intelligence, as well as the power, and despite a few personality clashes he seems to mesh well with the team as a whole." His lips twitched in a faint, very rare smile. "Indeed, he appears to be working quite well with Mitsuru, especially lately."

"Is that so? …I take it you don't take that amiss, Takeharu."

"Not at all," he said firmly, taking a drag from his cigarette again. "Mitsuru's friendship with Akihiko Sanada aside, she's been closed off entirely too long. I don't expect her to suddenly become an extrovert, but there is a reason our family motto is 'Two in harmony surpasses one in perfection'. Whether she retains Arisato simply as a friend, or somehow becomes more than that, I believe nothing but good can come of their becoming closer."

"I can't disagree," Johei mused. "I can't speak to your daughter's side of things, of course, but Kyousuke… The Tsuruya girl did much to heal him after what happened to the Kisaragi family, but his wounds still run deep." His voice turned grimmer, just for a moment. "My grandson needs all the help he can get, with things progressing as they are on 'our' side of things. Nothing would please me more, right now, than for him to find someone he can trust with everything. And as close as he is to Naoto, I believe he and I would both rather keep her out of… certain aspects of family tradition."

"I'll take your word for that last. I believe I'm better off not knowing, either." Kirijo stubbed out his cigarette in the ash tray on his desk, and contemplated lighting another. "I take it, then, that you have no qualms about present arrangements either?"

"None. Dangerous it may be, to be sure, but Kyousuke isn't exactly a stranger to that, and it's not likely to be the last time he faces something on this order. Just… keep me informed, will you? A grandfather worries, you know."

"Naturally. As I said, I'll send you Mitsuru's reports this afternoon." Kirijo nodded to himself. "Always a pleasure, Johei."

"Well, well," Tsuruya murmured, when Minato had finished summarizing the events thus far of his junior year of high school. "You sure have been busy, Minato-kun! No wonder you look sleepy!"

I look sleepy? …Never mind. I know better than to try to guess her mind.

You sure don't need to guess the rest of her, Master! Not with that little-

I'm perfectly well aware of what she looks like without a swimsuit, Pixie, and now is not the time to be reliving that particular incident, thank you.

I thought it was more than one ti-

Shut up, Fae harlot!

"Yes," Minato said, once his Personas had settled down again. "'Busy' describes this year pretty well, actually." He took a quick look out at the surrounding beach, mildly curious as to how much "fun" Junpei and Akihiko were having about then. "Got any insights, Fang-tan?"

The fang in question worried at the edge of Tsuruya's lip for a few moments. "Not much I can tell you about your own adventures, I thinks," she said slowly. "I'd heard a couple rumors about a 'hidden hour', so I guess some of my 'colleagues' can enter it, but I'm not one of them. Far as I know, there aren't any Persona users in the Association at all, so I can't help you there."

He nodded. "Pretty much what I expected," he said. "That's all right. We seem to be muddling our way through well enough on our own." Minato adjusted his shades, and tilted his head. "What about Edogawa? Like I said, some of what he says is remarkably close to how you talk, Tsu-chan. On the rare occasions you stop laughing, anyway."

Tsuruya favored him with a lopsided grin, her fang becoming more evident than usual. "Edogawa I know, at least by reputation," she admitted. "Kind of a weirdo even by our standards. He's been with the Association and Atlas, at one time or another; last I heard, he's freelance."

"So he is 'in the know', then."

"Yep. Like I said, though, he's too weird even for the Association or the Alchemists."

Tsuruya hadn't said much during Minato's explanation of his strange year, aside from laughing uproariously over some of his antics -usually involving Junpei- and making a comment about what he was obviously trying not to say about Shirakawa Boulevard that made his face almost spontaneously combust. She'd looked very thoughtful at points, though, especially when he mentioned Edogawa and his own odder capabilities.

She was also speaking more freely than she ever had when he was in the North High Irregulars. She wasn't even trying to pretend that her abilities were "normal" anymore, nor that she was the only one. Minato still had little understanding of her references to an "Association", and "Atlas" completely baffled him, but it was still more candor than he was used to seeing out of her.

"Actually," Tsuruya mused, leaning back in her chair, "Edogawa could get in lots of trouble for this. We're really not s'possed to talk about that stuff in public; the Association gets kinda cranky." She grimaced. "That's half the reason I blasted Tsukishima. We keep things secret for a reason, and the way he was going, he was gonna slip up and drag Okinawa down with him."

Minato blinked. "That bad? You didn't seem too worried at the time."

"'Course I wasn't worried, Minato-kun!" She laughed, loudly and without restraint. "He was dangerous 'cause he wasn't half as good as he thought he was. Shutting him down wasn't hard at all. Besides," she added with a grin, "the rest of that little excursion was pretty… fun, wouldn't you say?"

If she kept that up, Minato was going to start steaming from the ears. It was all true, sure, but the last thing he needed was one of his teammates overhearing it. Junpei, at the least, would never let him live it down.

And Yukari would either die of embarrassment, or kill me. Akihiko-senpai would laugh his head off, Fuuka would faint, and Senpai… He shivered. Senpai would either also die of embarrassment, or "execute" me. I'm not sure which is worse.

Tsuruya saw the look on his face, and broke out into laughter again. "Oh, Minato-kun, you're way too easy! For somebody who doesn't blink at taking on Wraiths and Apparitions, you're so easy to fluster. Do your friends know you're really a big softie?"

"My teammates know absolutely nothing about my personal life last year," he told her, forcing his expression back to neutral. "I'd like to keep it that way, thank you very much. Now, as to the topic at hand…?"

The laughter continued a few more moments, before her momentum finally ran out. "Okay, okay, if you're sure…" Tsuruya sobered. Well, as much as she ever did, when death wasn't on the line. "Edogawa. Right. He could get in a lot of trouble for what he's doing, but… You say you're the only one who takes him seriously?"

"Far as I can tell, I'm the only one who even pays much attention," Minato confirmed. "Junpei notices a bit, I guess, but he didn't even know what a chupacabra was, so I don't think you need to worry about him understanding it."

"He'd probably be fine, too," she said thoughtfully. "You guys aren't really a threat to the secrecy of magecraft, seeing as you're all more or less considered psychics. And you, well… Yeah. If you're the only one who gets what Edogawa is saying, nobody at the Association will bat an eye."

There it was again. The persistent hints that Tsuruya knew something about him that he didn't. From day one, on the roof of North High, Tsuruya Haruka had known things about him that, as far as he knew, nobody outside his immediate family knew, and over that year had hinted at more. Usually expressed as if she were joking, but not always…

"Tsu-chan," he said, sitting up. "What are you talking about? Really?"

She didn't pretend not to know what he was talking about. For all that Tsuruya played the ditz -hell, really was something of a ditz, he was sure- there wasn't actually anything wrong with the brain hidden behind the hyena-like laughter. Far from it. "Minato-kun," she began, unwontedly serious, "there's a lot of things I still can't talk about. Well. Less 'can't', more 'probably shouldn't yet'. Murky waters, we're talking about."

Minato grimaced. Why is this beginning to remind me of my chats with Igor and Elizabeth? …And if this is similar, she's probably got a point. Dammit. I hate the "you are not ready" speeches.

Tsuruya smiled sympathetically at his expression. "Don't feel too bad, Minato-kun. The way things are going, you'll probably find out in a few months. This is politics here, not 'you'll fry your brain'. Agreements between some very important people on our side of things. And yeah, by 'our' I mean you, too. If it makes you feel any better, it's got nothing to do with the 'Dark Hour' or 'Shadows', so it shouldn't trip you up right now."

"That's reassuring."

"Hey, think about this, Minato-kun: now I get to be paranoid about things I can't fight." She laughed at his suddenly thoughtful face. "Yep! I bet I can take a Shadow easy, in a straight fight, but the way you tell it, I'd never see 'em coming. So how about you worry about your side, and I'll worry about 'ours', 'till you're ready to see the other side of the coin?"

In other words, worry about today, let tomorrow worry about itself? A mental snort. Well, I guess there's sense in that. If Tsu-chan thinks there's nothing in particular for me to worry about from "our" side just now, I'm not about to question her judgment.

"Fair enough," Minato said finally. "But one last thing, before we start talking about the weather or something: can you tell me anything about my eyes?"

"Ah. Those." Tsuruya nodded sagely. "Since you've awoken to those, I can tell ya that much, I guess. Sounds to me like you've inherited the Mystic Eyes of Analysis."

Mystic Eyes? "Inherited?"

She grinned. "What, you think you're the first guy in your family to be a superhero-type? Long line there, Minato-kun, and that's just part of it. That's not Persona-based, either; the Mystic Eyes are close to a psychic ability, but still technically considered magecraft. Some kinds can be induced. The most powerful ones, though, are usually in-born, and yours are hereditary. Er, mostly. Your line has some problems with that… But anyway, that's part of what makes you the Silver."

"The" Silver, he repeated silently. I always thought there was more to it than my eyes, even if the idea of it being related to my name had some… problems. He snorted mentally. Of course, she did just finish telling me it's hereditary. Kind of a clue that she really does know what my real name is.

"So there is a reason you keep calling me that."

"Yep!" Tsuruya said cheerfully. "Nobody's ever been sure whether you'd ever actually live up to the title, but I always had faith in you, Silver-kun! The way you're going, a few more months and you'll really be something!" She laughed, long and loud. "Oh, I just hope I can see the faces of some of those old geezers when your family steps up to the plate again!"

Someday, I have got to find out what the hell she's talking about. …Well, maybe it won't be long, if she's right about… whatever the hell she means about things "awakening" and being "inherited".

"I'm glad you find it all so funny," Minato said, shaking his head. "I think my life was simpler before you dragged me off to that train yard, though."

"Oh, your life was never simple, Minato-kun. You just didn't always notice." Tsuruya grinned again. "So! Now that we got the heavy stuff out of the way, tell me about your friends! I really wanna know about that 'Senpai' of yours!"

I'm doomed.

Doomed? Oh, no, Master, just think of the potential! The two of them, in the same room, without-

Shut up or I'm cutting my own throat, Pixie!

Yes, do be silent, young one, a mental voice Minato didn't immediately recognize purred. Lady Tsuruya is… no longer what our Master needs. His Senpai, on the other hand, you do have a point about… very much so. But do not, child, cheapen it with such crass… no, unsophisticated suggestions.

And you would be…? Minato wondered, with some trepidation.

Why, Master, I am called the Leanansidhe. Let me guide you…

Oh, crud, he thought, blood running cold. I am so doomed.

Junpei Iori had been through a number of humiliating experiences in his life. Actually a fair number of them, since entering high school. Any time exam results were posted, for example, and a couple of… pointed incidents during anti-Shadow operations.

Today, however, just about took the cake, and even ate it. Striking out miserably, almost sealing the deal only to find out he wasn't talking to what he thought he was, getting very seriously hit on by what turned out to be a teacher…

He shuddered. Damn, he thought, as he and Akihiko trudged back along the beach, maybe Minato actually has something there. Is he psychic, or has he done this before? 'Cause damn if he didn't get the better end of the deal today.

Junpei wanted to tell himself that things would've been different if their "fearless leader" had actually accompanied them. After all, much as he'd like to, he couldn't deny that Minato had a way with the ladies, whether he chose to take advantage of it or not; surely if he'd been there, the suave, blue-haired swordsman would've worked something out.

All true, certainly. Problem is, he would've gotten himself a date, and we'd still be left out in the cold. …But, dammit, he coulda done something to help us out, couldn't he?

"Junpei," Akihiko said at length, the first time he'd spoken since their encounter with the Inaba school teacher, "you do realize that I'm going to make you pay for this?"

"Tch." Junpei wanted, desperately, to say something in denial. Unfortunately…

"This was your idea," the boxer reminded him, turning a sour look on him. "We could have just chilled for a while. If you wanted the girls here so badly, they were probably gonna show up eventually. But no…"

"Hey," Junpei snapped, shooting his senpai the best glare he could muster. "It may've been my idea, but you did agree to it!"

"Only when Minato delegated it to me!" Akihiko shot back-then paused suddenly. "Only when…"

The Man in the Hat slowly grinned. "Hey… you're right. There is something we can blame somebody else for!" The thought cheered him up immensely, and the look he exchanged with Akihiko this time was one that promised mutual vengeance against a certain "leader".

That thought kept Junpei warm and fuzzy for approximately two minutes. Right up until the moment the chair they'd last seen their "fearless leader" at came into view. That chair, and the one that had been pulled up next to it.

Both of them stopped, frozen on the spot. "What the hell…?" Akihiko muttered. "Wait, seriously. What the…?"

Minato Arisato wasn't alone. He was, in fact, looking very cheerful, chatting amiably with a green-haired girl, who was wearing something resembling scraps and had a figure that sent Junpei's adrenaline glands into overdrive.

He staggered forward a few steps, mouth working soundlessly. Two hours we spent… two… hours… we struck out… And… and…

The two on the beach chairs were just starting to realize they were no longer alone when Junpei's vocal cords finally overcame their paralysis. "WHAT?!" he burst out, loud enough to startle a nearby flock of birds into flight.

A grimace flickered across Minato's face. "Well," he began, "I was starting to wonder-"

"I don't believe this!" Junpei shouted, overriding the other's comment. "You- You sent us out on a wild goose chase, and- and then you- you-!" His hands clenched into fists, the mightiest glare he could summon focusing right on Minato's eyes. "You cheated, you sunnovabitch!"

Beside him, Akihiko was just starting to figure out something to say, but whatever it was, Junpei never knew. He was still staring in what he would only later realize was comical outrage when the green-haired girl started pointing at him, and burst out into the loudest, most uproarious fit of laughter he'd ever heard. It wasn't brief, either, and soon the girl was doubled over in her chair from the force of her own laughing.

Minato was in the middle of a face palm, and Junpei was beginning to turn purple, when the girl's laughter finally calmed enough for her to gasp out, "F-friends of yours, Minato-kun?"

"Unfortunately," he said, sighing. "Tsu-chan, the calmer one is Akihiko Sanada, a senior at Gekkokan and captain of the boxing team. The one who's turning purple and is about to suffer a catastrophic collapse of his jawbone structure due to hyperextension is Junpei Iori. Guys, this is Tsuruya Haruka, a senior from North High in Nishinomiya."

"Nice to meetcha!" the girl said cheerfully, finally recovering from her fit of laughter. "Minato-kun's told me all about you guys!"

Junpei finally managed to close his jaw, and managed -somehow- a polite nod to Tsuruya (something complicated by the lack of material used for her swimsuit). Then he turned the full force of his glare back on Minato. "You cheated," he hissed. "You let us go out there and make idiots of ourselves, while you went and picked up a chick all by yourself! That's cowardly, that's sneaky, that's-!"

"If I'm cheating, it's by getting a head start," Minato said dryly, rolling his eyes. "By about twelve months before I even met you. She's my ex-club president, Stupei."

Akihiko's eyes widened. "Oh," he breathed. "North High… Right." He looked sheepish, and Junpei's mouth shut with a click.

Then dropped back open at Tsuruya's next comment. "Don't forget ex-girlfriend!" she said cheerfully. "So don't feel bad, guys! Minato-kun's not cheating, just catching up!" She grinned, prominently displaying her fang. "Now, I guess it's true he got a lot farther with me than you guys probably would have today if you had lucked out, but-"

Minato's face palm probably registered on the Richter scale. Certainly Junpei's incoherent yell should've flattened trees clear to the Jomon cedar. Probably including the Jomon cedar.

Minato was prepared to forgive Tsu-chan a lot, based on past association. There was no doubt that he owed her a lot, and privately he was willing to concede he actually enjoyed her teasing to a large degree; if he didn't, he never would've survived dating her, even for a few months.

Cheerfully unleashing the worst-case scenario on him, though, was pushing it. And he had little doubt she'd done it on purpose. Tsuruya might play the role of the ditz, but she was also entirely capable of obliterating him on the spot, and had the brains to match. She knew exactly what she was saying, what she was implying, and exactly what the effect was going to be. She'd have analyzed Junpei in a nanosecond-not that such an analysis was exactly difficult, given the extremity of Junpei's introduction.

The worst part is, I can't even deny it. I'm not that good of a liar. Not good enough to outweigh Tsu-chan's calculated "innocence", that's for damn sure.

Junpei's incoherent sputtering took a few minutes to wind down, Tsuruya laughing all the while at the havoc she'd unleashed. During that time, Minato tried valiantly to think of some way to placate the goateed one, without a great deal of success; all the remotely "viable" ideas he could think of involved violence. While temporarily satisfying, he was sure, the long-term consequences probably outweighed the short-term benefits.

The other was finally starting to wind down -or at least run out of breath- when Akihiko, who'd spent the last few minutes alternately staring and shaking his head, suddenly turned his head toward the water. There was a pier not far away, probably meant for jet skis or similarly small watercraft, and something about it seemed to have gotten the boxer's attention.

"Uh, guys?" Akihiko called, loud enough to break into the last remnants of Junpei's incoherence. "You see that?"

Junpei whipped his head around to glare at the senior, probably annoyed at the interruption, but before he could try and get out a comprehensible sentence, he evidently spotted whatever Akihiko had. "Eh…? Hey… look at that."

Minato turned then himself, and his eyebrows rose fractionally.

Standing on the edge of the pier was a girl about his own age. She was facing away, so he couldn't see her face, but the blonde hair was easy to pick out, along with the odd metal headband she wore; curiously, for someone at the beach, she was covered by what looked like a cross between a nightgown and a sundress, in blue.

At first glance, a striking figure, and which momentarily gave him hope of distracting Junpei. Then Minato's gaze panned downward, and he saw her feet. Or, at least, what should have been feet.

What the hell? he thought, staring at what should've been feet, but more resembled table legs. That's… not normal. Even by my standards.

Bringing his gaze back up, he focused more intently, invoking his Eyes. Under the sight of glowing silver, the girl's image changed completely, revealing no trace of flesh and blood, of brain tissue or normal organs.

Synthetic flesh-analogue, Minato thought clinically. Wires, transistors… hydraulics… a CPU? And… what is that?

Something at the core of the "girl" defied categorization, even by his Eyes. Whatever it was, something inside him recognized it as being central to her, but he couldn't even begin to guess at its nature. The closest he could get was something akin to "soul", but that seemed to make absolutely no sense.

One thing's clear, though: she's not human. She's…

"Okay, then," Junpei said through gritted teeth, drawing Minato's attention back to him. "One last roll of the dice. Minato!"

He looked over at his teammate, wondering just what Junpei could possibly have in mind. He couldn't have seen what Minato had, of course, but a cursory look at the girl's "feet" should've at least-

"Minato," Junpei said again, staring at him with a wild expression, "this is your chance to make up for what you did to us. You see that girl?"

Atone? The whole thing was your idea, genius. "…Yeah?"

"You're the ladies' man here, whether I like it or not. So!" Junpei pointed to the "girl". "You're gonna go over there, and suggest that you've got a friend who's too shy to make a move, but is just great to talk to when the ice is broken. You got that?"

To Minato's surprise, Akihiko actually nodded at this. "Yeah," the boxer agreed, though his expression looked a tad saner than Junpei's. "You've been holding out on us, Detective, so consider this payback."

They've both lost their minds. And which of them, exactly, is expecting to get the girl they don't realize isn't a girl?

When he turned his gaze toward Tsuruya, he saw that she was trying valiantly not to laugh; probably, he thought darkly, both at his comrades' antics, and a recognition of the same thing he'd noticed. "Go for it," she gasped out, starting to lose the battle against her own mirth. "I promise I won't be jealous, Silver-kun!"

Way to pour fuel on the fire, Fang-tan. At least at first you specified ex-girlfriend. …What the hell. There's something strange going on here. That's far enough that they won't hear exactly what I say anyway, so I may as well check this out.

"Fine," Minato said, coming to his feet. "But don't expect this to go according to plan, guys. I think you're missing an important detail here."

"And I think you're just trying to get out of this," Junpei hissed, glaring at him. "Get going, and make it good, 'Leader'!"

"Your funeral." At least I'm wearing a shirt. Like hell do I want to look like… that.

Making his way toward the pier, Minato wished idly that he was armed in some fashion, in case the "girl" turned out to be an evil robot from the future sent to assassinate him or something. As it was, he didn't have a sword or even his Evoker, and his hand-to-hand skills were more or less nonexistent. On the plus side, Tsuruya didn't need weapons to burn something to cinders, but that might be small comfort in this situation.

Look on the bright side. She might actually be a good robot from the future, sent to protect me from the bad one.

Which still implies a gigantic Austrian wearing black leather is waiting to kill you somewhere else, Master. Or perhaps an evil motorcycle cop.

Oh, young Fae, I think the Master is amply covered on that angle. Senpai is sure to be more than skilled enough in that arena…

I'm glad you all find this so amusing. Can the peanut gallery please shut up for a few minutes?

Adding to Minato's trepidation, as he stepped onto the pier and neared its end, was a strange sense of déjà vu. Something about the sight of the girl, be it physically or the glimpse he'd gotten with his Eyes, stirred some kind of instinctive recollection in him. Not an image, or a sound, or even a smell, but a feeling; something he couldn't place.

I've never run into a life-like robot in my life, he reminded himself. It's got to be just the overall sense of unreality. I mean, who does expect to run into a genuine Robot Girl? …Which manga is my life imitating today, anyway? Or is this another Featherman episode?

Strangely, the girl didn't seem to notice his approach until he was within a couple of meters. Up to that point, she was simply staring out to sea, head tracking back and forth as if looking for something. Then, just as he was getting close, she stirred, and turned to face him.

At a glance, if you could ignore the feet, the girl really did look like a normal teenager. The cloth running up from under her dress, covering her neck and part of her jaw before meeting the headband, was odd but not instantly eye-catching. Her ears being covered could be written off as headphones, much as Minato's own were often obscured.

Looking into her eyes, though, Minato could see the difference. They, too, were normal enough in appearance, but gazing into them wasn't like looking at a human's eyes. There was something… alien about that gaze. A sign that the soul behind them simply didn't think the way he did it. It was subtle, impossible to define, but it was there.

He'd once before looked into eyes that were very visibly distinct from human, and what he'd seen that time had frightened him badly, but it had still been comprehensible, however terrible. The unblinking blue eyes looking at him now…

It's almost like looking into cameras, he realized, as those blue eyes evaluated him. Well, I guess that fits. She's not human, and it does feel like I'm "scanned", not truly "looked at".

After a long, long moment, the girl's lips parted. "You are…"

"…Hello," Minato said tentatively, offering a polite half-bow. "Is there something I can help you with, Miss?" Real smooth, he snarked at himself. That's as bad a pickup line as it is a greeting to a robot who may be out to kill you.

Now he was sure he was being scanned, more or less literally. The way the girl's gaze went up and down his body might've been tacky or flattering, depending on the circumstances, from anyone else, but from the "girl" it was very obviously a physical examination, like a machine comparing an image to its records.

That was, he thought, even more disturbing.

She opened her mouth to speak again, but stiffened suddenly, seeing something over Minato's shoulder. "This is not an ideal location," she said, apparently to herself. "I will evaluate the data elsewhere. Initiating evasion protocols."

At that, she broke into a run, arms stretched behind her, and dashed past Minato. Her flight carried her clear past a startled Junpei and Akihiko, as well, and continued on to the path leading into the forest above the beach.

When Minato got back off the pier himself, he was confronted by angry, worried stares from his comrades. "What the hell did you say to her, Minato?!" Junpei demanded.

"Yeah," Akihiko agreed, looking extremely uneasy. "Dammit, Detective, what did you do?"

"I said hello," Minato replied, shrugging. "I told you that wasn't going to work out the way you guys thought it would."

"Forget what we 'expected'!" Junpei snapped, grabbing the swordsman's shoulders. "Do you have any idea what kind of trouble you might've just caused?! You gotta go after her and apologize, dammit, before anything happens!"

Minato shrugged off the grip, taking a quick step back. "Oh, I'll follow her, all right. Because I want to know what the hell is going on." He gestured for them to follow, and took off at a brisk jog. "But I don't think I need to 'apologize' for anything. Did either of you geniuses bother to look at her feet?"

"Who cares about her feet?! That's not important-"

"She's a robot, you idiot," Minato snapped, irritated. Pounding up the path, he snorted at Junpei's disbelieving look. "If you'd bothered to look, you'd have noticed she's got table legs for feet."

Well. The sputtering gasp from behind proved at least one thing to his satisfaction: even Tsuruya couldn't quite manage to laugh while running.

At least there's something that can shut up that hyena. …Now, why did I pick today of all days to forget my damn phone? I think Senpai really ought to be informed that there's a freaking Robot Girl running around Yakushima.

Hell, maybe she even knows something about it. Gr… dammit, that's what I get for letting myself get to distracted worrying about Tsu-chan showing up… not that the worry wasn't justified.

But hell! A robot, today of all days?!

There were some advantages to spending so much of his time fighting eldritch creatures in the middle of the night, in an environment that was inherently tiring: Minato's stamina was a lot better than it once was. Akihiko, of course, was both a boxer and a long-time SEES member, but even Junpei kept up well, and he wasn't exactly much of an athlete outside of anti-Shadow operations.

Tsuruya, Minato wasn't prepared to consider anything impossible for.

So, by the time they caught up with the girl, all of them were at worst breathing a little hard. They had, however, been too focused on the chase to realize where it was taking them, and only noticed the enormous tree when they came to a halt.

The Jomon cedar. How 'bout that.

Somewhat puzzlingly, the SEES girls weren't there, despite the note Fuuka had left them. All that was there was the really big tree, the sign giving information about it, and the blonde "girl" who was mostly hidden behind said sign.

The girl in question seemed to be waiting for them, and once she'd caught sight of Minato again she carefully edged out into view. Once again, she stared at him with eerily unblinking eyes, and he stared right back.

"Identity confirmed," she said after a moment, and stepped out fully. "I have found you."

He felt a chill run down his spine. "Found me?" he repeated. "You were… looking for me?" Minato got a nod in response. "…Why?"

"My highest priority is to be by your side," she announced.

"What?!" Junpei's exclamation wasn't as loud as when he'd first seen Tsuruya, but Minato suspected from its hoarse quality that it was only because Junpei's throat was getting raw from all the shouting. "That's… that's…!"

"That's bizarre," Akihiko breathed, shaking his head. "What is going on here…?"

Tsuruya laughed, stepping up to Minato's side. "Well, well! I always knew you were good with the girls, Silver-kun, but it looks like you've outdone yourself today!"

I'll say. If this keeps up, I'm gonna start feeling like the protagonist of an eroge. What's next, somebody sneaks into my bed?

Ooh! That's a brilliant thought, Master!

Oh, do shut up. Please.

"There you are!" The voice from behind sounded exasperated, and entirely too familiar for the circumstances. "Honestly, where have you guys…! …Been…?"

The group turned almost as one to find Mitsuru, Yukari, and Fuuka coming up from a different fork of the trail. All of them wore Evokers, with Yukari carrying bow and quiver slung over her back, and Mitsuru bearing her rapier opposite her Evoker. They were, for whatever reason, loaded for bear.

Yukari had been the one to speak, and her expression started off as exasperated as her voice had been. Even as Minato watched, though, her face slid from annoyed to surprised, then to a strangely flat look, with narrowed eyes. Her hand even started twitching toward her bow.

It was about then that Minato realized just what the current scene looked like. Tsuruya was already close by his side, and the robot girl had edged closer to him when the other SEES members arrived. Neither Junpei nor Akihiko was close enough for either girl to seem associated with one of them.

With that flat, narrow stare, Yukari uttered an equally flat, "What."

Ohhh, hell. Minato took in Yukari's dangerous calm, then spotted Mitsuru's expression. Hellfire and hoarfrost. I'm dead.

Tsuruya very casually looked over the new arrivals, a small smile playing at her lips. "Friends of yours?" she asked.

"Fortunately," he said, sighing. They might give me a chance to explain myself. Y'know, for old times' sake.

"…Arisato," Mitsuru began, very slowly. "Right now, I'm afraid we have a situation to attend to, so your… friends… will have to excuse you for the moment. But I would like you to explain this at a later time. In detail."

Or maybe they won't.

Salvation, thankfully, was at hand. Salvation in the form of a tan, pinstripe suit, long hair, and glasses with a disturbing tendency to shine, albeit not as disturbing as the puns frequently accompanying the visage.

"It's all right now, Mitsuru," Ikutsuki called out, walking sedately down the trail toward them. "The situation is contained."

"Mister Chairman," Mitsuru acknowledged, turning her attention away from the now-sweating Minato. "What about the combat vehicle? Has it already been located?"

"Not to worry," he assured her, and looked past toward Minato. "Aigis! Come now, you know you're not allowed to leave the lab by yourself."

Not toward me. Toward the robot girl…

Fuuka blinked. "Um…? You mean, that girl is…?"

"She's an anti-Shadow humanoid weapons system," Ikutsuki confirmed. "She was badly damaged ten years ago, and repairs never quite seemed to work… Y'know, maybe we should continue this conversation back at the house." He started to approach Aigis, then paused, looking curiously at Minato's other companion. "Er. Minato, should we be talking about this in front of…?"

The SEES girls returned their attention to Tsuruya, with the attendant splash damage to Minato. "That's a good question," Mitsuru said evenly. "And you are…?"

"No worries!" the green-haired girl said brightly. "I'm an old friend of Minato-kun, and an associate of Master Johei's. I know about lots of this stuff already."

Mitsuru frowned, turning her gaze fully to the swordsman. Her glance was obviously interrogative, but he only turned his own curious look on Tsuruya. "Master Johei"? That's a new one on me. Confirms she knows who I am, but what does that have to do with…?

To general surprise, Ikutsuki nodded in apparent understanding. "Ah, I see. My apologies. In that case, would you care to accompany us, Miss…?"

"Tsuruya," she replied, grinning at the way Mitsuru's eyes suddenly widened. "Haruka Tsuruya. But nah, I'll pass for now. I'll just let you guys sort things out. See you tomorrow, Minato-kun!"

With a cheery wave, she wandered off down the trail again.

Yukari stared after her, then turned back to Minato and Aigis. "Okay, I give up. Will someone please tell me what's going on here?"


Well. At least this should be a calmer meeting than last night.

Back in the parlor wherein they'd learned the truth about the "Incident", the group was mostly arranged the same way they had been then. This time, though, Takeharu Kirijo was busy elsewhere, with Ikutsuki taking his place.

"Sorry for all the confusion," he said now, sheepishly scratching the back of his head. "There was a bit of a mix-up, but everything is under control now. It looks like we overreacted a little bit, that's all."

About what? I still don't know what the problem was in the first place.

Not that anyone seemed interested in enlightening Minato. Mitsuru and Yukari, he thought, were understandable in that regard; he suspected they were both still dubious about what he'd been doing with Tsuruya. Fuuka, though, came as something of a surprise.

Or maybe they're just distracted, he conceded. Even I didn't see this one coming.

"So," Fuuka began, leaning forward in her seat, "the 'combat vehicle' was actually…?"

"That's right," Ikutsuki confirmed. "Come on in, Aigis."

Obediently, the "girl" from earlier stepped into the parlor, moving with mechanical precision. Without the blue dress she'd worn earlier, her nature was much more evident; in particular, the latticework that denoted her joints stood out quite visibly.

"This, as I said earlier, is Aigis," the Chairman said, nodding at the android. "You might say she's a 'mechanical maiden'. Probably the most impressive achievement the Kirijo Group has ever made, to be honest."

"Greetings," Aigis said, her voice as precise as her movements. "I am Aigis, Anti-Shadow Suppression Weapon 007. Effective immediately, I have been assigned to SEES."

Yukari stared at her in open wonder. "Wow," she breathed. "She's a little stilted, but… it's almost like she's actually alive."

Minato couldn't disagree. Visibly robotic or no, mechanical speech patterns or not, Aigis was well beyond any AI he'd ever heard of. It wasn't exactly his area, but everything he'd ever heard suggested that truly sapient artificial intelligence was either decades away yet, or outright impossible.

It's more than a matter of programming, after all. You can't just encode a human mind; we're not built on logical lines ourselves. But then… there was that strange core…

"It's unbelievable," Akihiko said, echoing Yukari. "I didn't think this was even possible."

Junpei sighed, hanging his head. "She's so cute… but she's a robot…"

This just isn't your day, is it, Junpei? I wonder what did happen during your little "Operation". Doesn't seem to have been very fun.

"Anti-Shadow weapons were created twelve years ago," Ikutsuki said, drawing attention back to him. "As insane as the likes of Kouetsu Kirijo may have been, they were still smart enough to make sure they had countermeasures if uncontrollable Shadows appeared." He grimaced, adjusting his glasses. "It was as well that they did. Aigis was the last to be made, and the only one to survive. Several others were destroyed in combat, and the rest when the explosion occurred. Aigis, too, suffered severe damage in the encounter; had she not been enhanced based on data from previous failures, she wouldn't be here today."

Mitsuru examined Aigis with open curiosity. "An anti-Shadow weapon," she murmured. "But the only way to fight Shadows is…"

"Yes," Aigis said, following the train of thought. "I am designed with Persona-use in mind, and am capable of summoning the Persona 'Palladian'."

Palladian. A shield, also associated with Athena, I believe. …What's with all the Greek?

And how can a machine use Persona? No… I know. She's more than that. She has to be. There's something else at work here… and I'm not sure I like it.

"Wait a minute," Yukari said, frowning. "If she's been around all this time, why wasn't she deployed before? I mean, you've been recruiting every Persona user you could find, so if you already had one on hand… It couldn't have taken that long to repair her, could it?"

"It didn't," Ikutsuki said with a nod. "In point of fact, I believe repairs were finished within a couple of months of the Incident. However, for reasons unknown, she wouldn't 'wake up' afterwards, so she's been on standby in the Yakushima lab ever since. In fact, we have no idea why she woke up now." He shrugged helplessly. "But now she is awake, it's to our advantage, don't you think? I hope you all get along!"

Well. Guess I'll have to slot that into the operational planning next time, Minato mused, as the others continued marveling over the android. I'll need to get her specs somehow… Senpai can probably see about that. An inward chuckle. She didn't know about Aigis, either, so I don't think she'll be averse. I get the feeling she's starting to get a bit tired of being left out of the loop herself.

"Hey," Yukari said suddenly, leaning toward Aigis. "I almost forgot… Earlier, it sounded like you knew Minato. What's up with that?"

Y'know, that's a very good question.

Aigis nodded without hesitation. "Yes, of course. It is my highest priority to be by Minato-san's side."

Yukari shot Minato a querulous look, but this time it was his turn to shrug. "Don't look at me," he protested. "My wild past is all about supernatural nasties, not robots. Being haunted would be one thing; John Connor I'm not."

She blinked. "…Who?"

"…Never mind."

Ikutsuki smiled, chuckling at the byplay. "I would wager that it's just a malfunction or glitch in her database," he opined. "After all, we don't even know why she took so long to 'wake up' in the first place. …Actually, maybe she's still just half-asleep!" He shook his head. "It's very interesting, actually, but I don't think it's anything you guys need to worry about. I'll do some digging when I have the chance. For now, I suggest you all remember that you're on vacation! Did you guys know that there's a tennis court here? And a pool table… Oh! There's even a karaoke machine." He grinned. "Would you care to hear me sing?"

Hell, no, Minato thought at once, mentally expressing what he suspected was the general sentiment. No offense, Mister Chairman, but your puns are bad enough.

"…That aside," Mitsuru said, clearing her throat, "there is one matter I'd like to clear up before we all turn in for the night." She turned to look right at Minato. "Arisato. Was that girl who I think it was?"

Suddenly all eyes were on the blue-haired swordsman, and he winced internally. Yukari, in particular, was giving a good impression of a basilisk, and Junpei's intense look by rights should've set him on fire.

"Yes, Senpai," he said, forcing his voice to remain level. "That was Tsu-chan, my old club president."

"Club president?" Yukari repeated sharply. "You never said anything about a girl like that!"

"I told you the club I was in at my last school was a little crazy sometimes," Minato reminded her. "Haruka Tsuruya is pretty much that craziness personified. Rappelling down Tartarus? Sneaking around the school in the dead of night? Enough said, I'd think."

Yukari plainly didn't agree with that, but she didn't get a chance to riposte. "You never said anything about her coming to Yakushima," Mitsuru noted, eyes narrow. "And we did talk about her last night, as I recall."

Minato shrugged uneasily. "To be honest, I was kind of hoping she'd never run into you guys," he admitted, looking away. "Tsu-chan can be a little… Um. Well, let's say she has an interesting sense of humor. I didn't really want to know how that would play out with any of you around."

To his considerable relief, after a moment's consideration his Senpai seemed to accept that. Giving a slow nod -and what looked suspiciously like a small smile- she leaned back in her seat, apparently satisfied. Yukari, to be sure, looked like she wanted to continue the discussion, but seemed to be having trouble thinking of her next question. Fuuka, fortunately, didn't seem very concerned in the first place, and apparently the time since had let Akihiko settle down; he merely smirked.

Might just have dodged the bullet there. Senpai was the one I was really worried about -I know how scary she can be when she's mad- and if she's willing to take it so calmly…

"That's not all he didn't mention," Junpei said suddenly, glaring full-force. "I dunno what Minato told you about that 'Tsuruya' girl, Senpai, but I'll bet he didn't say anything to you about the 'ex-girlfriend' part!"

And a torpedo called "Junpei Iori" strikes the good ship Sanity directly amidships. Damnation and hellfire.

Fuuka gasped, Yukari's eyes took on a quality remarkably akin to lasers, and Mitsuru… Mitsuru's expression was suddenly difficult to define. Minato actually rather thought she didn't know quite how to feel about that revelation, except that she didn't seem to like it.

Fang-tan, Minato promised himself, you are going to pay for that. I know you did that on purpose.

"Y'know, Minato," Junpei continued, still glaring, "for someone who's always gettin' on my case for talkin' about girls… And what you keep hinting about what happened…"

Okay. You know what? I've had enough.

"Junpei," Minato said sharply, eyes narrowing, "did you really think all my past was blood and guts and bullets? Yes. I have had a dating life. Even I have had happy moments. Having had a relationship that was actually normal does not preclude me being annoyed at the way you talk about them, okay?"

"…He's got a point," Akihiko admitted, looking thoughtful. "And the 'Operation' was your idea, Junpei, not mine."

"Forget about the damned 'Operation'!" Junpei snapped; Minato suspected his heat and haste were both due to the looks the girls were now giving him. "Fine! So he's had a normal girlfriend! What about the rest of it, huh?" He snapped his glare back to his 'leader'. "Or did you think I didn't get exactly what she was implying? Minato, did the two of you actually-"

"That," Minato interrupted, returning the other's glare, "is none of your business, Junpei."

Mitsuru looked from one irritated face to the other, her own eyes narrow. Then, finally, she turned to Akihiko. "Would you care to enlighten me as to what they're talking about, Akihiko?"

From the look on the boxer's face, Minato suspected the answer was "Not really". Smart of him, probably, given that he was pretty clearly outmatched in arguments like this… on top of being visibly terrified of Mitsuru's temper.

That temper, alas, was probably the deciding factor, though he tried to at least hedge it. "Tsuruya-san just, ah, made some implications about how 'far' she'd gone with our Detective," Akihiko said, swallowing. "Mind you, considering how little luck Junpei actually had today, I don't think that necessarily means anything…"

I think the only reason Yukari isn't blasting my ears out right now is basically she doesn't quite know which expletives to use, Minato thought uneasily. Not sure what business it is of hers, or any of theirs, what I might or might not have done in my own bedroom months before I met any of them, but…

And what the hell is with that look Senpai is wearing?

Ooh, I know, Master! It's simple, really, she's just j-

Shut up, lecherous figment of my subconscious. Contrary to what you may think, I am not the protagonist of a harem eroge.

"Arisato," Mitsuru said, very slowly. "Is there anything you'd care to add to the discussion?"

He thought about it for a moment. "Yes, actually, there is. I'd like to add… that I'm going to bed. And barring the door. With a tripwire connected to a landmine."

It would never do to say that Minato Arisato, field leader of the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad, swordsman who fought atop moving trains and rappelled down eldritch towers, fled in fright. Nay, he quite bravely made a tactical retreat, exercising the age-old tactic of "living to fight another day".

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009, Daytime

Somehow, Minato had managed to survive the night. He'd slept with his Evoker under his pillow, and while he hadn't actually connected a mine to his door, he had used just about every other precaution his grandfather had ever taught him on both the door and the windows. If anyone had come for him in the night, he'd been fully prepared to escape via the window and make his way to the docks.

From there, he wasn't sure exactly how he'd have made good his departure, but there were ways. If nothing else, he could probably have enlisted Tsuruya's aid, however much additional trouble that might've caused in the long run.

The night had, thankfully, been peaceful, and Minato lived to see the beach once more. Tempers had evidently cooled since the previous evening, and while Fuuka seemed to be the only member of the team willing to actually approach him, no one was outright glaring at him, either.

Not actively, anyway. Still kind of afraid to look in Senpai's direction just now.

The equilibrium of the situation was, of course, rendered somewhat unstable by one unpredictable element. Tsuruya had, indeed, shown up again, though for the moment she seemed content to remain on the sidelines. Mentally kibitzing, if Minato knew her, and watching carefully for something to laugh about.

Much closer to the water than Minato stood right now, Junpei sat on the sand with a melancholy look on his face. "Can't believe it's already day three of the trip," he said with a sigh. "We gotta leave tomorrow, huh… I could stay here for months. Hell, I wouldn't mind living here." He glanced around, taking in the sight of the rest of the team scattered about the beach. Or at least, the female half. "Well, it ain't like the trip wasn't worth it. Saw some cool things here, didn't we, guys?"

"I guess," Akihiko replied dubiously, stretching in preparation for a swim. "I mean, sure, we've had some fun, but it's been kind of crazy, too."

"Sometimes crazy's good, Senpai," Junpei told him, coming to his feet with the start of a grin. "I mean, we even got a new member! Isn't that awesome?"

As if summoned by his words, Aigis wandered over. She once again wore her blue dress -Minato assumed to avoid freaking out the regular beachgoers- and though she still maintained her odd insistence on Minato being her "priority", so far she'd kept her distance today.

Thank heavens for small favors. It's been okay so far, but I don't like the potential implications of an obsessed robot. I don't need a bodyguard. Or a maid, or whatever it means to the "highest priority" of a combat android.

"Do we have a mission at the beach today?" Aigis asked now, attention focused on the Man in the Hat.

Junpei's grin widened. He, at least, clearly had no reservations about their new comrade. "A mission? Nah, we're on vacation, Aigis! Missions are for back in Port Island. All we're here to do today is have some fun!"

Fuuka came up by Aigis' side. "Do you understand the meaning of 'fun', Aigis?" she asked curiously.

Ah. The age-old question: Do androids dream of electric sheep?

Aigis nodded. "Of course," she said, in her usual monotone. "Recreation is necessary for the refreshment of the mind and body."

Hm. Answer so far seems to be: They understand the concept, but don't necessarily grasp it in the "gut". Still better than I might've expected.

What is she, really?

Junpei looked surprised, but his grin returned quickly. "Awright, Aigis! Guess you know more about how humans think than I thought!" He stretched, clumsily mimicking Akihiko's earlier motions. "Okay, guys! One more swim before we go! Everybody in!"

He rushed off for the water-followed closely by Aigis, who seemed to take the enthusiastic exclamation for an order.

Fuuka blinked. "Um, Junpei-kun!" she called. "Are you sure that's safe for her?"

There was no answer, which didn't surprise Minato particularly. At the rate Junpei was going, he was probably already out of earshot, or at least getting his ears too full of water. Typical. Maybe I'll get lucky and he'll be caught in a riptide…

Yukari joined Fuuka by the water's edge, and shook her head in exasperation. "I doubt Junpei's thought about it at all," she said. "But… I'm sure Aigis is waterproof. She wouldn't have followed him if she thought it was a problem." Then, in a mutter Minato only barely heard from his position, "Stupei, on the other hand, probably is getting his brain rusty…"

It was paradoxical, Mitsuru thought, that she actually did feel refreshed and relaxed. Day one of the Yakushima trip had settled her discomfort with Arisato, and later opened things up between them, but in between had come the shattering discussion of the Incident. Day two had featured the chaos surrounding Aigis, and the unexpected appearance of Arisato's old "club president", with addition attendant chaos.

Despite it all, Mitsuru really was feeling the kind of ease she'd come to Yakushima hoping to find. There was some lingering tension in her from the previous day, but otherwise… she felt pretty good, all in all.

She still wasn't sure why she'd reacted so strongly to the implications Iori had brought up, though. What Arisato did on his own time wasn't really any of her business, so long as it didn't occur in the dorm proper. For that matter, anything he might or might not have done with the Tsuruya girl had occurred several months before Mitsuru had even met him. By any measure, there was no reason at all for her to be concerned.

Maybe I just find it out of character for him, she reasoned, settling back into her beach chair. It's a side of him I haven't seen, after all. That it resonates with our… encounter during Tanabata probably doesn't help. She nodded to herself. Yes, that's probably exactly it. It just brought up uncomfortable memories, that's all.

No reason to pay it any mind, really. Especially since Tsuruya had specified she was Arisato's ex-girlfriend, so…

Right. Enough of that.

From what she could see, in her shaded position well back from the water, the rest of SEES was similarly relaxed. Takeba had more or less fully recovered, from what she tell, or at least as fully as she ever was. Akihiko, despite whatever had gone on with him at the beach the previous day -he had refused to give her details, other than to say that it had been Iori's idea- was his usual self. Yamagishi likewise, though that wasn't terribly surprising; Mitsuru had observed that the tech-savvy girl's mood usually reflected that of the team as a whole.

Iori, of course, was irrepressible. His outrage over Arisato had mellowed with sleep, and now seemed to manifest only in that he was totally ignoring the field leader. Right now he was cavorting about in the water, trying to drag Takeba and Yamagishi into things. Somewhat to Mitsuru's amusement, Aigis was playing along, albeit awkwardly.

I'll have to do some digging about her, she mused, taking a sip of the drink she'd brought with her. I didn't know about the anti-Shadow weapons at all… and since Father didn't mention them, either, I have to wonder how much even he knows. I should probably ask him. And if he really doesn't know… Maybe I should set Yamagishi and Arisato on it. Between the two of them, they could probably dig up quite a bit.

It was sobering to realize that the Kirijo Group had depths even she didn't know about, and which even her father seemed less than certain of. All her life, Mitsuru had known the Group was far from pure as the driven snow; leaving aside their "ordinary" less-than-legal activities, the kind used merely for obtaining funds, she knew firsthand what some of their less scrupulous researchers were capable of. Even so, she'd never guessed just how much really was going on beneath the surface.

So far, there hadn't been any revelations more recent than the Incident, but she found herself concerned that there really were things that had lasted longer than that. Probably nothing still active, but she wanted to know for sure.

Fortunately, Mitsuru had both Yamagishi and Arisato on hand, and both of them had demonstrated a willingness to bend the rules in pursuit of the truth. If she could get her father on board with an "unofficial" investigation…

She wasn't sure what alerted her that someone was approaching. The intruder was very quiet, and approached in such a way as to not cast a betraying shadow, but she knew anyway; perhaps some facet of Penthesilea's abilities, however meager they were in that regard. Either way, before any tangible sign had appeared Mitsuru was already looking up and to her right.

Wearing the same -wholly inadequate, in Mitsuru's opinion- green swimsuit as yesterday, there was no mistaking the long emerald hair, or the mischievous expression. Even having only seen her for a couple of minutes, Mitsuru had no trouble at all believing everything Arisato had said of the girl; the grin said it all.

"Now I see why Arisato calls you 'Fang-tan'," she heard herself say, as Tsuruya approached. Not, admittedly, the most inspired greeting ever, but it really was the first thing Mitsuru noticed.

Tsuruya grinned, showing off the fang in question. "Yep, that's why! Fair's fair, though. I call him 'Silver-kun', nyoro." She unceremoniously dropped down on the sand by Mitsuru's chair. "So! You're Minato-kun's new boss, ne?"

"Nyoro"? "I am the club president, yes," Mitsuru said, nodding cautiously. "Arisato handles things in the field, though… which I assume you already know."

"Minato-kun's told me a lot," the other girl confirmed. "Don't worry, though, I already knew about some of it. And it's not like I don't have secrets I don't want normal people to know!"

Actually, Mitsuru wasn't really worried about the girl's discretion. To begin with, she trusted Arisato's judgment. Moreover, she could tell for herself that however ditzy Tsuruya might choose to appear, there was a very sharp brain in there.

"He's mentioned a little about you, too," she noted, eyes narrow. "Something about you being a 'witch', I believe."

Tsuruya laughed. "Well, I had to tell him something back then. He didn't buy the 'shrine maiden' excuse."

Mitsuru eyed Tsuruya's idea of "proper swimwear". "I wonder why."

Another, louder laugh. "Yeah, it wasn't the most believable excuse I ever made. But 'witch' is pretty close to true. Technically, it's 'magus', but I'm pretty good with witchcraft."

Only Arisato would so casually associate with someone who calls herself a witch, with the powers to back it up. But what's a magus?

Tsuruya waved a hand in apparent dismissal. "Ah, don't worry about that stuff. Minato-kun will have to eventually, but right now it's not really important, is it?"

"…I suppose not," Mitsuru agreed, though she wasn't really sure she believed it. "Beyond the fact that you're the reason he adjusted so well to SEES, anyway. I have to admit, I'm not sure how much to believe of his stories about his time in your club. Even by my standards, they're a little far-fetched, and I happen to know Arisato likes to tell tall tales."

"Oh, the ones about the Irregulars are probably all true," Tsuruya said at once, grinning. "He was pretty good, for somebody whose powers weren't working right. Couldn't even lit a candle without a match, but he could see stuff normals couldn't, and, well, you'll have seen yourself what he can do with a sword."

You knew he had "powers"? "You knew he had the potential?" Mitsuru said, eyebrows going up.

"Nope!" the other said cheerfully. "Don't know much about Persona, actually. But with his pedigree? Something was bound to turn up. Only thing is, I'm not supposed to say much until… Well. Let's say he's got hidden depths, and until he knows about 'em I gotta watch my mouth."

I'm starting to see where he gets his secretiveness from. "So," Mitsuru began, changing tack, "the 'Ship in a Bottle' he mentioned happened, as well?"

Tsuruya grinned again, the look in her eyes suggesting she caught what Mitsuru was talking about. "Mentioned that one, did he? But he didn't tell you how it started, or how it ended, I'll bet. Poor Minato-kun gets flustered any time somebody starts to talk about that."

She'd noticed. "I take it there's a reason for that, then."

A mock-solemn nod. "Silver-kun wouldn't forgive me if I gave you the details, but let's say magecraft oriented around spatial compression is… tricky. Especially if you're affected by a part that's designed around organics, and you're wearing synthetic fabric."

Mitsuru had just been starting to take another sip. The implications of that statement made her choke on her drink, leading straight into a coughing fit, accompanied by an outburst of wild laughter from Tsuruya.

It was probably a good thing that they were well away from the rest of the group. It took a little while for Mitsuru to be able to breathe properly again, during which Tsuruya kept right on laughing, and once she had recovered she was fairly sure her face would make a satisfactory nightlight. All in all, not something she wanted the others knowing about.

"Yep," Tsuruya said, when it looked like Mitsuru was going to pull through. "Minato-kun doesn't like to talk about that stuff. Or how we… celebrated the bad guy's defeat." The grin on seeing Mitsuru's reaction to that was a very knowing one.

She… he… they… What?!

The green-haired girl sobered. "You gots nothing to worry about, Kirijo-san," she said, using Mitsuru's name for the first time. "Like I told the guy with the goatee, Minato-kun and I are old news. He's still one of the best friends I've got, but… Well, I was never quite what he really needed for a long-term relationship."

Mitsuru blinked, then shook her head. "Tsuruya-san, I'm not-"

Tsuruya ignored the interjection. "Kirijo-san," she said seriously, "Minato-kun has come a long way from when I found him, but he's not quite back to himself yet. You ever hear him talk about anyone from the Irregulars besides me?"

Thrown by the mood whiplash, it took Mitsuru a moment to compose an answer to that. "Now that you mention it… no, I don't believe I have."

"Thought so. 'Specially when he kept calling the rest of your gang his 'teammates'." Tsuruya sighed. "Not many people he calls 'friend', Kirijo-san. Nothing wrong with being a loner, but Minato-kun… He's got problems trusting people, still. Good reasons for that, good reasons to keep being careful, but he still needs to learn to think of his 'teammates' as friendship material. Not all of 'em, maybe, but more than he usually does."

That… reminds me an awful lot of what Father was saying to me. It hadn't occurred to me that Arisato might have the same problem. He interacts so well with the rest of SEES… but then, he really doesn't talk about himself at all, does he?

"I think he's making progress here, though," Tsuruya went on, gaze turning to where Arisato was now talking with Yamagishi; from what little could be heard at this distance, it seemed to be about Aigis, or at least her physical nature. "Looks like maybe he was right to go back to Port Island." She smiled. "You got yourself a good 'field leader', Kirijo-san. You're ever in a pinch, he won't let you down."

"…I think so, too," Mitsuru admitted quietly. "He doesn't talk about himself, and he still has some friction with Iori, but there's no question of whether he'll back up any of us in a fight."

"Silver-kun's like that." A sad look crossed Tsuruya's face. "Still hasn't forgiven himself for what happened back then, I guess… He's not gonna let something like that happen again." She stood then, and brushed sand off her legs. "You guys are going back to Port Island tomorrow, right?"

"That's the plan, yes," Mitsuru confirmed, again thrown by the change of topic.

"Then I guess I'll be seeing you guys some other time." Tsuruya flashed one more grin. "Minato-kun's a good guy, Kirijo-san. If everything else fails, trust him to have your back." She turned, and began to walk away. "I leave him to you, Kirijo-san. Take care of him for me, will ya?"

Before Mitsuru could think up a reply to that, Tsuruya sashayed down the beach, around a rock, and out of sight.

Author's Note:

And so concludes the obligatory Beach Episode… which, I must admit, wound up a lot different from what I'd expected. I'd always planned on Minato sitting out "Operation Babe Hunt" -on top of personally hating that event, I didn't think this interpretation of Minato would possibly agree to participate- but I did not expect it to make a left turn into Harem Comedy after all.

I personally think the results were decent, but I sure didn't expect it.

Something I feel I should address now, given the chapter's heavy departure from the "normal" world of the story. For all that it makes much reference to a probably-recognizable other series, its inclusion here is more in the way of setup for later material than anything else. It's important to Minato's backstory and to future plans I have for the setting I'm establishing, but it will not be taking over Defiance proper.

So no, in case anyone's worried, Minato is not going to suddenly start flinging around spells with German incantations or hobnobbing with legends. Not during the events of Persona 3 proper, at any rate. This is setting the stage for the future; my original goal of making this story true to the general spirit of the original game remains.

That said…. Actually, I guess that's about all I do need to say, at the moment. Oh, actually, one other thing: I forgot to mention this in the notes for last chapter, but I give full credit for the choice of a first name for Tsuruya to the late Durandall, author of Kyon: Big Damn Hero. May he rest in peace.

So. Next chapter returns to our regularly scheduled Port Island adventures. Got my next set of twists lined up already; hopefully they'll serve to spice things up 'till the next Full Moon Shadow (which, in case anyone's wondering, is currently estimated to show up in Chapter XIV). Till then, let me know if this was hilarious, okay, or somehow totally horrible. -Solid