Monday, April 20, 2009, Dark Hour


Normally, stepping through a door was a fairly mundane experience. Even entering Tartarus' entrance foyer had adhered to that rule, with the outer door leading, as expected, into the interior, its threshold crossed with an ordinary stride.

Going from the foyer to the true interior was a completely different story.

Minato's foot came down, and he started in surprise. After stepping into the darkness beyond the doors of Tartarus' foyer, the scene around him changed completely; not only had the darkness before him been replaced by light, but the very door he'd stepped through, and the foyer behind him, had vanished completely.

Yukari and Junpei, both a pace behind him, seemed to materialize from the air to either side. "W-what the hell?" the latter blurted. "Where'd the door go?" He paused, taking in their surroundings "Hell… where'd we go?"

"Good question," Yukari agreed uneasily, slowly sweeping her gaze around. "I wasn't expecting this…"

Me either, Minato thought, tightening his grip on Eurydice. But only the transition was really a surprise. The décor… that's no weirder than what I've already seen of this "Dark Tower".

The door they'd passed through was gone, and by extension the entrance foyer. In its place was a long corridor, branching in places, with simple checkerboard flooring, occasionally broken by ornate circles. The walls were only slightly odder, occasionally having the appearance of windows; Minato suspected he didn't want to know what was on the other side.

By now, the occasional pools of blood on the floor were almost reassuring. That much, at least, he'd come to expect from something born of the Dark Hour.

Minato sniffed at the air, half-expecting the distinctive smell of death. Whatever Tartarus was, it wasn't something that belonged in the living world.

The team had barely had a chance to take in the corridor's appearance when static crackled, prompting Junpei to almost jump out of his skin. "Can everyone hear me?" Mitsuru's voice said, out of thin air.

"Whoa! That's a neat trick!"

Minato ignored him. "Loud and clear, Senpai. Interesting ability there," he added.

"Thank you," she said dryly. "Penthesilea's primary talents lie elsewhere, but this has its uses. Thanks to that, I can provide you with audio backup from here."

Junpei whistled. "Not too shabby! Ya mean ya can actually see inside here, Senpai?"

"Penthesilea is more suited for combat overall, but she does have limited observational capabilities," Mitsuru confirmed. She sighed. "I'd like to accompany you, but unfortunately Tartarus' layout changes on a day to day basis. With such unpredictable architecture, outside support is critical."

"This castle is a creature of chaos," Minato murmured. "It may take many incarnations…"

There was a brief hesitation on the other end, during which he could almost see the look on Mitsuru's face as she tried to puzzle out the comment. Apparently giving up, she continued, "You've now entered the true main structure of Tartarus. Therefore, you can expect to encounter Shadows very soon now, so be on your guard. They shouldn't be too tough this low in the tower, however; I suggest you take this as an opportunity to practice your skills."

"Usus magister est optimus," Minato remarked, spinning Eurydice, keeping his wrist loose.

Mitsuru chuckled. "Exactly. Now, let's begin; for tonight, start by eliminating all the Shadows on the first floor. Good luck."

Junpei grinned. "You got it, Senpai. Say, Minato," he added, turning to the designated "leader" of the team, "you play Castlevania, huh?"

Minato shrugged, already beginning to move forward. "When I have the time. I like the ambiance…"

"Heh, heh, that's just like you…" The other student poked his oversize katana around a corner, following it with his head a moment later. "But say, what was that thing you said after that…? Ursus something?"

"Usus," Yukari corrected with a sigh; she was following a few paces behind the boys, keeping between them. A better position, she figured, for an archer. "Ursus would be a bear. He said 'practice makes perfect'." She shook her head. "You and Mitsuru-senpai seem to understand each other pretty well, Minato."

"Nah," Minato demurred, leading them around a corner. "Similar education, mostly. Right now, we're playing cat and mouse, sparring for information…"

He trailed off, and conversation lapsed. They'd ventured some meters from the place they'd entered from; even Junpei recognized the need to keep a closer eye on their surroundings now. Contact with Shadows was doubtless only a matter of time, and probably not much of it.

They proceeded in silence for a couple of minutes. The atmosphere inside Tartarus was not as oppressive as might have been expected, but it was definitely eerie; Minato had a perpetual feeling of otherworldliness from his surroundings. The architecture wasn't as bizarre as he'd expected, at least in terms of layout, but there was still something wrong about it, something alien.

This place is not of this world, he thought, ghosting along with soft, even footsteps. A Dark Tower… a Demon Castle. I don't think I'll be surprised if we do find Dracula in here somewhere.

Improbably, Minato smiled. The world of the Day has become mundane, over the last few centuries. It's the Night that still holds mysteries… still holds challenges that are worth taking on. This is why Naoto is the true heir to the family, not me… Mysteries of the mundane just can't hold my interest.

The quiet of their exploration was broken by another burst of static. "Be on guard!" Mitsuru said sharply. "I'm detecting Shadows a few meters ahead of you… Two or three, I'm not entirely sure. Watch yourselves!"

"On it, Senpai," Minato acknowledged… just as an arrow shot past his right ear.

Yukari's preemptive strike hit dead center, impaling the middle of three Shadows a little ways down the corridor they were in. Much like those that had attacked the dorm the previous week, these were masses of blue-masked black, wielding knives in their too-many hands.

Well, two of them were. The third was gurgling, bleeding smoke, and clutching at the shaft impaling its mask.

The brunette nocked another arrow, but held off from releasing it; her companions were already heading in, leading with their weapons. Minato's stance, as before, was practiced and professional. Junpei's… managed to avoid knocking his own head off somehow, despite his reckless advance.

Minato whipped his head to one side just as he got within reach, letting a knife skim past. A flick of his wrist batted a second aside, and then he was jumping over a third attack. The Shadow thrust up with a fourth, aiming for his groin; a hasty balance shift took him out of danger from that, and as he landed, his sword came down ahead of him, stabbing at the Shadow's face. He missed, striking instead what passed for the creature's neck, but a quick yank fixed that; Eurydice ripped up and out through its mask.

Like Yukari's target, Minato's dissolved into smoke, but he had no time to admire the process. Catching a flash of metal out of the corner of his eye, he hastily ducked, evading the errant blow headed for his neck; a grunt of pain from Junpei suggested what had happened.

Turning, he saw Junpei flinch back from a shallow but painful slice across his face. To his credit, he didn't let it stop him, and his revenge was a swift horizontal slash with his katana. For all that the blow looked remarkably like an attempt to hit a homerun, it did its job, lopping the Shadow's "head" clean off; the blue mask flew free, crashed into a wall, and shattered on the floor.

"Woo-hoo!" Junpei cried, shaking a fist in victory. "Got one!"

Minato thought back on Junpei's… less than expert attack, and opened his mouth. Glancing back at the broken, fading mask fragments, though, he shut it again. What the hell, he decided. So it's not kendo. Well, these monsters ain't professional swordsmen, either. If it works, why worry about the details?

"Excellent work," Mitsuru interjected. "That's a good-"

A noise off to Minato's left interrupted her, and he drew his Evoker on pure instinct. "Orpheus!" he snapped, twirling the pistol up to rest against his temple. "Burn it down!"

The Evoker barked, and the musician Orpheus complied with the instruction, unleashing a burst of what Minato instinctively knew to be Agi fire against the Shadow attempting to sneak up on them. Lighting the knife-wielding abomination on fire well out of blade range, Orpheus' wrath made short work of it.

"…Well done," Mitsuru said after a moment, prompting a quiet snort of amusement from Minato. "…As I was saying, that's an excellent start. Now… Somewhere on that floor, you should find a staircase leading to a higher level. I don't want you using it this time, but find it anyway, and keep it in mind for your next visit."

"Roger that."

Yukari trotted over to rejoin the melee fighters. "Whew," she said, releasing the tension on her bow. "Well, at least now we know we can do it."

"Hell, yeah!" Junpei agreed, grinning. "Hey, Minato, next time gimme a chance to try my Persona, huh? That fireball was cool!"

Minato allowed himself a smile of his own. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Yeah, it was…"

He didn't remark on the shallow cut on Junpei's face. It didn't really occur to him to. This is what I've been looking for. It's mysterious, it's alien… and it's dangerous. Those knives they've got are as real and as deadly as a Yakuza's blade in the Daylight world.

It's perfect. After all, a challenge that doesn't put your very life on the line isn't worth taking on at all. A man is most alive… when he's staring Death in the eyes.


The next few minutes went with little incident, the trio of SEES members making their way through Tartarus' hallways with growing confidence. The architecture may have been chaotic overall, but Minato was relieved to find it at least didn't seem to change during a given trip through one of the tower's floors. The décor might have been strange, but it wasn't actively shifting on them.

And Junpei's proving more capable than I'd feared, Minato noted, watching the other finish off a Shadow with a burst of Agi flame. His swordsmanship is crude, but effective… and he's doing better at summoning Hermes than I expected. I wonder if his attitude toward all this is just… different enough from the rest of us?

"Not bad, Junpei," Yukari allowed, lowering her bow again; she looked mildly nonplussed. "I guess we all might pull this off after all."

Junpei laughed. "'Course we will, Yuka-tan! The three of us, and Akihiko-senpai when he's ready for action, won't have any trouble tearing these guys apart!"

Minato yanked his blade free of a Shadow, and shook his free hand. It was still tingling a little, courtesy of his introduction to the concept of elemental attacks and weaknesses; being blindsided by a lightning bolt hadn't made his evening. Still. I'd be suspicious if this were too easy…

He was just lowering Eurydice and turning back to his teammates, preparing to move along, when he felt a strange sensation in his head; almost a feeling or sound of shattering glass, like some kind of barrier had been broken down…

Master…

Junpei and Yukari both turned at the sound of solid objects hitting one another, just in time to see Minato bounce off the wall he'd jumped back into. "Hey! What happened?" Yukari demanded, starting to rush to his side.

He held up his hand. "Wait. I'm okay, just… just a little surprised."

The other two exchanged a nervous glance. Minato had reacted with aplomb to being thrust into the Dark Hour unexpectedly, handled his first encounter with Shadows with panache, and after his initial surprise at the appearance of Tartarus seemed to be genuinely enjoying their current mission. For him to react so visibly with shock -to something they couldn't even see- was… discomforting.

Minato ignored them. Thanks, he thought. I needed that heart attack… Let me guess: you're another Persona?

Thou art I, and I am thou, the voice in the back of his mind replied, seeming amused. As Orpheus answered your call, Master, so have I. I am Pixie, and I am at your command. Let me sooth thy wounds, my Master…

Well. The plot thickens… again. I can't say I'm especially surprised, though, after what happened the first time I summoned Orpheus. You know anything about that?

That one… Pixie's mental tone went from amused to strangely reserved. That facet of your soul… I don't understand his appearance that night, Master. A sane mind has something resembling order to it, Master, and accordingly something like him shouldn't have awakened yet. Shouldn't have appeared without even being called.

Hm. Fair enough; I'm you, you're me, makes sense you wouldn't have answers I don't. Fine. I'll ask Igor next time I see him. In the meantime…

By now, his friends were starting to look at him uneasily. "Um… Minato?" Junpei said carefully. "You sure you're all right, buddy?"

Minato shook himself. "Yeah, sorry. I was just having a chat with an unexpected guest."

"Unexpected guest…?" Yukari repeated, anything but reassured. Then, "Wait a second. Orpheus wouldn't be unexpected… but there was that thing that took out the first Shadow you faced. Was that…?"

"Not him," he said, shaking his head. "New one. Just a second." Setting aside Eurydice for a moment, Minato lifted his other hand, concentrated, and a pair of cards right out of a Tarot deck materialized in his grasp. Shifting the card bearing Orpheus' likeness behind the new card displaying Pixie, he promptly banished them again.

Junpei whistled, eyes wide. "You've got multiple Personas, Minato? No way! That's… awesome!"

"Maybe more than you think," the other swordsman said wryly, reaching for his Evoker. "That cut on your face still bothering you?"

"Huh?" He blinked at the apparent non sequitur. "Uh… yeah, it kinda stings. Why…?"

You weren't just being metaphorical, I take it?

A giggle. Allow me, my Master.

Minato drew the Evoker, put it to his temple, and fired, summoning the insubstantial, winged form of Pixie, much as he'd called Orpheus before. But instead of the burning flames he'd conjured in battle, Pixie sent a wash of cool energy over Junpei's body.

The shallow slice taken out of his face by a Shadow's knife faded, knitting itself together as if it had never been wounded in the first place.

Junpei touched the place where the cut had been in disbelief. "Whoa…" he breathed. "Cool…!"

Yukari stared at Minato, wide-eyed. "Switching Personas just like that, and healing powers…? Minato, you…"

"That's a great discovery," Mitsuru said, speaking for the first time since their primary exploration had begun. "Takeba's right, Arisato. The implications of this…" She paused. "We'll discuss it more thoroughly at a later time. Right now, the Dark Hour is approaching its end, and I'm sure all of you are getting tired. There seem to be fewer Shadows than usual tonight, as well… So. There should be an Access Point somewhere on that floor; it's a device that will teleport you back to the entrance. Find it, and return here."

"Got it, Senpai." Minato picked up his sword again, and pushed away from the wall. "Okay, let's go. I hear my bed calling me already."

"You and me both," Yukari sighed, shaking her head. "I've had about enough excitement for one night."


The transition back to the entrance foyer wasn't nearly as jarring, despite being fully as abrupt as their entry into Tartarus' interior. Both were some form of teleportation, but it seemed to Minato that jumping from one place to another without physical movement wasn't quite as strange as the world changing from one step to the next.

"Welcome back," Mitsuru said, once the team had materialized. "Good work, all of you." She looked at Minato. "So, how was it? Your first controlled experience in the Dark Hour, that is. Are you comfortable leading a team under these conditions?"

He nodded, sliding Eurydice back into her scabbard. "I think I can handle it," he said. "Leadership is a little new to me, but it's nothing I can't deal with… And I'm pretty confident of my ability to handle the fighting."

She nodded thoughtfully. That fits. We already knew he could fight, and I had a feeling his level head would help him deal with Takeba and Iori. Looks like Akihiko made the right choice to lead the team…

"That's probably the best result we could've gotten from the first expedition, then," she said aloud. "Knowing that you're all up to the task, we can begin proper exploration of Tartarus over the next few nights."

Junpei grinned. "All right, I like it! Man, what a rush… We rocked!" Sheathing his big katana, he leaned back against one of the support pillars, some of his enthusiasm rapidly dissipating. "But… whew. I never knew I had that kind of power inside. It's great and all… and now I'm bushed."

Yukari, tucking her bow into a carry bag, shook her head. "Bouncing around like a kid will do that, Junpei. Not to mention how you went off at those Shadows with wild abandon."

He snorted. "You don't look very lively yourself, Yuka-tan."

"…I am still trying to catch my breath," she conceded. "That trip took a lot out of me, too, I guess."

"It's the effect of the Dark Hour." Akihiko straightened from where he'd been leaning against another pillar, dozing. "Don't know why, but it has some kind of effect on the human body; you'll become fatigued more easily during this time. You'll adapt, though, once you've spent enough time fighting through it."

Suits me, Minato thought. Between playing detective and fighting abominations from the netherworld, this year should be pretty damn fun.

Mitsuru chuckled. "They did surprisingly well for their first time, you have to admit. At this rate, they'll catch up to you, Akihiko."

The boxer snorted. "Yeah? We'll see about that when my injury's healed."

"At any rate," Mitsuru said, turning back to the field team, "we'll head back to the dorm soon. I just need to pack up the instruments; I suggest you all rest for a few minutes while I do that. Oh, and Arisato," she added, "tomorrow after school I'd like to discuss tonight's developments with you."

Minato nodded. "Got it, Senpai."

And in the meantime, he mused, as the others' attention drifted away, I'll see about finding some more information on my own. Time for a little investigating…

Glancing casually about to make sure no one was paying attention, Minato ambled over to the other side of the room, as though stretching his legs after the exertion. Along the way, he pulled a small object out of his pocket, and had it ready in his hand when he reached the object of his interest.

He'd noticed the free-standing blue door on first arrival, along with the fact that he seemed to be the only one who could see it. Putting together the color with its oddity -even for Tartarus- and it wasn't hard for him to figure out what it probably was. A hypothesis easily tested by fitting the Velvet Key he'd obtained over a week before into the door's lock.

The door swung open…


The now-familiar backdrop of the Velvet Room greeted Minato's eyes on the other side of the door. Still ascending to its unknown destination, there still remained the table, the chairs, and the inhabitants. Igor and Elizabeth were in their accustomed places, as if waiting for a guest.

No mystery there.

"Welcome back, my dear young man," Igor greeted, with his usual smile. "I've been waiting for you."

"You did say I'd be coming of my own volition soon enough," Minato said wryly, crossing to the chair opposite the long-nosed man. "I'm beginning to see how some of this works, at least… None of the others seemed to even notice the door leading here."

Elizabeth cleared her throat. "Naturally not. The Velvet Room is open only to guests, those with… special characteristics. Only the guests can see the door, and enter through it. You need not fear them noticing your absence," she added. "Time passes in this place, but not in the same manner as in your world; a short visit here will scarcely be noticed."

That's reassuring. This is one thing I'd really rather not try to explain to Mitsuru-senpai just now…

"Well," Igor said, bringing the conversation back on point, "I see the time has come. You've finally begun to put your power to use… and begun to see the mysteries at the heart of this matter."

Minato leaned back in the hard-backed chair. "Indeed. Like this 'Dark Tower'. What is it, anyway? Where the hell did it come from… and why? I don't think something like this is random; the universe isn't that disorderly…" He raised an eyebrow knowingly. "You're not going to answer those questions, though."

"You are indeed a perceptive guest," Igor said approvingly, clasping his hands on the table. "You are correct: those are questions I cannot answer. Some things, my dear Minato, are meant to be discovered by one's own will… some answers are not meant to be simply handed out. Alas, you are not yet capable of finding those answers yourself, but you have set foot on the road that will lead you to them, in time."

"Good enough." I don't want the answers handed to me on a platter anyway. Where's the fun in that? There'd be no meaning to my being here if things were that easy.

Easy answers aren't worth anything. That which you do not struggle for has no meaning… and challenges that do not test your strength do not test your limits, either. Without struggle, there's no growth, and with no growth, you can't protect what matters…

"There is one question I have," Minato said at length, "that perhaps you can answer."

"About your power?" Igor replied, smiling. "Yes… you've noticed it by now. You, my dear Minato, possess the Wild Card, the rarest of Persona abilities. Your power is much like the number zero: empty by itself, but representing infinite possibility. You, alone of your group, have the power to summon multiple Personas, and summon them according to your need."

Minato nodded. About what I thought. Nothing new there… So. Orpheus, whatever the hell that thing the first night was, and Pixie… Not a bad start.

A giggle in the back of his mind. Why, thank you, Master…

"Your power is still in its infancy," Igor mused, gaze taking on a faraway quality. "You already know your bonds with others will affect the growth of your power; continuing to test your limits, physically and mentally, will also play a role. As you face your enemies and grow stronger, other facets of yourself will awaken within your psyche, and come to heed your call."

"I noticed that, during the exploration of the Tower. Disorienting, but nothing I can't get used to… and valuable, I'm sure." Minato tilted his head. "I've been meaning to ask: do you know anything about what happened to me the night I first used Persona? The second entity that appeared…"

Igor slowly shook his head. "There are some questions, my boy," he said quietly, "that I not only cannot answer, but truly do not have the answer to. You, and you alone, know the depths of your own psyche. Anything that is born of you will be yours to grasp the nature of."

"…I see." Just as well. It'd be damn creepy if Igor knew that much about what went on in my head. This just means I'll have to seek answers elsewhere… perhaps converse with other Personas as they awaken.

Heh. Good thing I haven't been to a shrink since just after… I don't really want to know what they'd say about me talking to anthropomorphic representations of portions of my own subconscious. Especially the implications of apparently having so many disparate entities in there…

Igor cleared his throat. "Unfortunately, my spare time will soon be scarce; I have other responsibilities, as a resident of the Velvet Room… But, feel free to come here again, of your own accord. When the time is right, I will inform you of my true role, the way in which I can best assist you."

Minato nodded, and pushed himself up. "I am grateful for your assistance, Igor," he said formally, bowing slightly. "Till next we meet."

As he made for the door back to Tartarus, Elizabeth's quiet voice gave him pause. "My master may soon be busy," she said, smiling softly, "but I may be able to assist you in his place, from time to time. Remember that, should you feel the need to return here."

That enigmatic smile was, as usual, the last thing Minato saw as the Velvet Room faded from his sight, and gave him no more answers than usual.

That woman… she always has to have the last word, even if she doesn't actually say anything…


As Elizabeth had suggested, no one noticed Minato's absence, nor his return from the door only he could see. Mitsuru was still packing up her instruments, and the others were still generally resting as they waited.

Minato casually ambled back over to Yukari and Junpei. "Well," he said quietly, "I think we had a productive first trip here, eh?"

Junpei grinned. "Hell, yeah. We rocked. Y'know, I was a little worried at first… I mean, we were walking right into the monster's nest, all by ourselves. But we can totally take this place! Those Shadows ain't gonna stop us!"

Yukari gave him a dubious look. "We did well tonight," she conceded. "But… I wouldn't count on it being like that all the time." She exchanged a look with Minato, remembering the Shadow that had attacked the dorm. His second Persona had flattened it, but they both knew it would've been much more difficult had the "Reaper" not intervened.

"It's a start," Minato said after a moment. "Proof of concept, let's say. We start at the bottom, and by the time we're at the top, we'll be strong enough to handle it."

She pursed her lips, then nodded. "You're probably right. And we did find out a couple of important things tonight, like you being able to control which Persona you use… and that Personas can heal. That could be the most important result from this trip."

She's probably right about that. I heal better than anyone I've ever known, but even I don't heal instantly… and I doubt they're as good at it as I am. Considering the hazards this Dark Tower undoubtedly has, being able to heal injuries without resorting to lengthy hospital time will be invaluable. Minato cast a glance at Akihiko, still favoring his injured side. We can't afford more incidents like with Akihiko-senpai, I think.

A click broke into his thoughts. "All right, then," Mitsuru announced, closing the case with her instruments, "that's it. We should head back to the dorm now." She favored the team with a small smile. "And good work tonight, everyone."

Her gaze followed them on their way to the door… or rather, followed one of them. Minato Arisato, Mitsuru mused. Now I know for sure. It's not just your background that's mysterious… and I have a feeling your "special power" is going to be important.

I just wish I knew what lay ahead that will require it.


The journey back to the dorm wasn't as unified as the departure; with the Dark Hour passed and their objective for the night accomplished, it was less conspicuous for the SEES members to drift apart somewhat. There weren't many wandering the Port Island night, but it wouldn't take much for rumors to start.

That suited Minato just fine. He was entirely confident of his ability to handle himself if anything untoward happened, and he found the darkness and cool night air helped him think. All in all, he mused, a productive evening. Fun, too. I still don't know what the hell is going on here, but… it's a start. He glanced over his shoulder at the place he'd left, once again an ordinary school instead of a twisted riot of alien architecture. The Dark Tower… I sure called that right.

A soft expression of amusement echoed in the back of his mind. Pithy, Master, Pixie remarked. Dark Tower, creature of chaos… You seem to have a clever remark for everything.

And you talk a lot, Minato shot back, stuffing his hands in his pockets. Any particular reason I haven't heard anything much out of Orpheus?

That one doesn't seem much of a talker, Master. Considering what that facet of you -or should that be us?- is named for… I suspect you understand what he represents.

He grimaced. Paging Doctor Freud… Yes, I see your point.

The silent conversation lapsed, Minato sinking into more private reflections; the quiet sound of his footsteps along the street was an adequate accompaniment. He was beginning to think that the more he figured out about himself, the more answers he'd have about the situation as a whole. Persona was somehow central to it all, and Persona was but a facet of the user's mind.

Thump. Igor. Thump. Elizabeth. Thump. The Shadows. Thump. Persona. Thump. The Kirijo Group. Thump. The collection of souls that had been gathered into SEES…

Tell me what you think, Minato thought at length. You know as well as I do the trauma in my past. Yukari lost her father to… something… in this town. Akihiko-senpai seems to have his own baggage, and Mitsuru-senpai is damn well hiding something she doesn't want to talk about. That's four Persona users with dysfunctions. Am I alone in seeing a pattern here?

We don't yet know anything about Junpei's background, so there could be something with him that disproves it. Conversely, he could also be the exception that proves the rule. He had the mental impression of a thoughtful nod. Persona ability being related to having a messed-up psyche? Could be. Nothing we've seen directly contradicts the idea, and Igor -whatever the hell he is- could almost be seen as evidence in favor.

Minato repressed a smile at the Persona's curse. He wasn't sure what it said about him that a fragment of his psyche had a female self-identity, but he supposed it was no worse than having multiple such self-aware fragments in the first place. At the least, Pixie had a sense of humor, and these entities gave him something to talk to.

And bounce ideas off of. Well, we've got time to figure things out. Sounds like all this began several years ago; I don't imagine we're going to run out of time just yet.

Just as well. Means you've got time to figure out how much Mitsuru knows you know she knows. And how much she knows, in general. And various other things about her…

I have enough trouble on that subject from Junpei, thanks, Minato thought, torn between annoyance and amusement. But overall, I second that. I've had experience with her family's organization in the past, but I had no idea they were involved in something like this. He took a deep breath of the crisp night air. Oh, well. That just makes it all the more interesting.

Just so long as you don't get so "interested" that you forget to study, Pixie snarked, and retreated from his immediate awareness.

The remainder of the walk was quiet, both audibly and mentally. Minato thought it healthier not to dwell on his Persona's parting shot.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009, Early Morning


The contrast between the Dark Hour and the daylight world was even more noticeable to Minato now, making his way to school the day after his first visit to Tartarus. Previously, the changes, while disturbing, hadn't had a profound effect on the surroundings.

Okay, sure, he thought to himself, approaching Gekkokan's gates, the whole water turning to blood thing, and people turning into coffins, was pretty damn eerie. But at least the physical world remained essentially the same. Walls were walls, streets were streets, buildings didn't suddenly change into things out of nightmares…

Seeing the school as its normal self in the morning light felt strange, after exploring its transmuted form in the green depths of the Dark Hour.

"Morning, Minato!" Yukari called, waiting for him by the gates with a cheery smile. "Did you sleep well?"

After last night's weirdness? Minato finished mentally. "Yeah," he replied, matching her stride onto the school grounds. "It's going to take a little getting used to, but I think I can handle it."

"Me, too," she agreed. "I was afraid I was going to have nightmares after actually going inside, but I guess I was wrong. I mean, we did handle things in there pretty well."

"It's easier to cope with frightening things if you know you can fight them," Minato said sagely, remembering nightmares of his own, from years before. "The difference between being powerless and having power can be a big one."

Yukari looked at him sidelong. Though she wasn't as active in trying to ferret out the truth, she actually was just as curious as Mitsuru-senpai was about her new friend's past. He was, among other things, entirely too calm about having to fight monsters in the dark; while Junpei's enthusiasm could be written off as simply not thinking too deeply into it, it was clear to her that that was not how Minato Arisato operated.

If anything was clear about the quiet student, it was that he didn't do anything without thinking it through. In that light, his own clear enthusiasm for battling Shadows suggested either strange or dark things in his past. Maybe both.

And now I'm thinking too much about things, Yukari thought, sighing. I've only known him a little over a week; of course I don't know much about him yet.

"Well," she said, as they approached the doors into the main building, "there's one thing today that we're going to be powerless about."

Minato glanced at her, eyebrow raised. "Yeah?"

"School assembly this morning. Speech from whoever the new student council president is and all."

"…Crud."


Minato was beginning to think of school assemblies as proof that there was a demonic entity out to get him, personally. One that knew the absolute best way to make him suffer -other than various attempted murders- was to induce terminal boredom.

On top of trying to adjust his sleeping patterns to account for Dark Hour excursions, trying to remain awake through this was becoming a useful exercise in self-control.

"…That concludes the main portion of today's assembly," a third-year student was saying from the auditorium's stage. "Next we'll have a word from the Student Council…"

Oh, joy. Apprentice bureaucrats, probably just as boring as Principal Windba…

"…Please welcome the new President, Mitsuru Kirijo from Class 3-D."

Minato straightened out of his habitual slouch. …On second thought, maybe this won't be so bad after all.

"Thank you," came the familiar voice, and Mitsuru walked into view, moving to the podium.

"So she did get elected," Minato heard Yukari remark quietly behind him. "Can't say I'm surprised… she's probably the most popular girl in the entire school…"

She didn't seem to understand that, and while Minato disagreed, he could see where she was coming from. But with my background, I can't say I'm entirely surprised. She's not exactly approachable, sure, but look beyond that, and…

Not that Yukari was especially likely to. Minato was well aware by now that Mitsuru Kirijo was not Yukari's favorite person.

"You got that right," Junpei muttered in reply to Yukari. "There's something about her, like this aura you can almost see… 'Sides, her family's company owns the school, doesn't it?"

Yukari grimaced. "Thanks for reminding me…"

"As I begin my term as Student Council President," Mitsuru said, capturing Minato's attention, "I'd like to share with you my vision for the coming year."

This I'd like to hear. Your opinion, Senpai, is bound to be more interesting than that blowhard principal's…

"It is my firm belief that each one of us should bear the responsibility for bettering this school. However, change cannot occur without sustained effort and an unprecedented level of commitment."

Hm. True enough… though possibly not the most effective message to try on a school full of teenagers.

"That is why we must restructure our daily lives, to better accommodate this lofty goal. I'd like each of you to reach deep inside, to tap into your well of motivation, reevaluate your goals and convictions… To see what is truly important. To imagine a bold new future without losing sight of the present reality around you… That is the key."

Apologies, Senpai, but asking that of high schoolers is a tad unrealistic. If we had a school full of clones of my sister, you might get it… but hell, even I don't fit the mould you're looking for.

"I'm certain all of you have your own visions of the future; I want you to share them, so that the whole that is produced from that will be the sum of the best of us. For us to reap the full benefits of our education, your visions of the future, your dedication, and your participation… All are essential." Mitsuru swept her gaze over the audience of students. "Thank you."

"Dang," Junpei said, under cover of what Minato considered a surprising amount of applause. "That was… actually pretty freaking amazing!" He paused, turning to look at Minato. "So… can you tell me what in the world she just said?"

"Depends," Minato said dryly. "How are you with big words?"

"…Yeah, that's pretty much what I thought." Junpei shook his head. "Sure didn't sound like something a high schooler would say. If it were anyone else, we'd just be laughin' ourselves sick. But hey," he said, grinning suddenly, "you didn't say you couldn't explain it. You actually understood it, eh?"

"That surprises you?"

"Not a bit! But y'know, I'm startin' to think it's a shame you're in different years, Minato." Junpei's grin widened. "And that you're, y'know… not quite in her 'class'."

Minato sighed, even as Yukari smacked the hat-wearing idiot over the head. It is not like that, buddy. And for your information, she and I aren't actually that different, socially speaking; I just like to keep a lower profile.

Still. I have to admit I'm kind of disappointed in Senpai this time. That speech was all well and good, but it's really wasted on this audience. Most of 'em are typical teenagers, more concentrated on their dating lives than "bettering" themselves, much less the school. And me… for all that I think education is important, it's not something I'm that dedicated to. It's the extracurricular challenges here that I'm interested in.

Naoto might take that speech to heart. Me? I'm just looking forward to my next battle with the forces of darkness. I wield the just sword… I will purge the Shadows in the fires of destruction. That… is what I find worth doing.

Along with practicing your melodrama, apparently, Master.


After School


Minato couldn't quite suppress a yawn, departing the school with Junpei. "Damn," he muttered. "I can shoot myself in the head without a qualm, fight eldritch abominations in the Dark Tower during a time no one else can see and turns things into the local equivalent of the Spectral Realm… but ten minutes in some of these classes are almost more than I can bear."

Junpei grinned. "Don't feel bad, man, it ain't easier for me, either. Although…" He frowned. "Hey, I saw you sleeping during Toriumi's class! How the hell do you manage to get top grades when you let yourself do that?"

"Studying," the other said dryly. "On my own time. Textbooks can be dull, but not as sleep-inducing as some of our teachers."

"Tch. You need to get out more, Minato my man!" Junpei clapped him on the back. "Hang out with the guys, find yourself a girl! Y'know, that kind of thing!"

Minato flinched. …Easy for you to say, Junpei. Real easy.

Now, now, Master, he is unaware of what happened to you back then…

True enough. Doesn't make it any easier to hear, though. Especially from Mister Enthusiasm. I swear, he must guzzle energy drinks the way an alcoholic does beer.

"Oh, look, there he is! It's Akihiko-senpai!"

The high-pitched, almost squealing voice jolted Minato out of his dark reverie. Glancing up, he spotted a group of girls toward one side of the school's courtyard, all of them looking -somehow- even more excited than Junpei tended to be.

"Where?" one of them demanded excitedly. "Where, where? Oh-! It's him!"

Indeed, the boxer with the red vest, jacket slung over his shoulder, was approaching from the athletic side of the school. He saw the girls coming… and, raising his stature in Minato's estimation, didn't seem entirely pleased to see them. He actually winced, and didn't break his stride as they gathered around him.

Junpei whistled enviously. "Damn, Minato… look how popular Akihiko-san is with the ladies! Take a look at that!" He grinned. "I didn't use to talk to him much, but now I've got a good excuse…"

To try and get close and take advantage of his aura of manliness, I suppose? Junpei, you're a human being, not a scavenging fish.

"Pretty impressive, I gotta say," Junpei went on, shaking his head. "I mean, even for the captain of the boxing team, being this much of a chick magnet is damn incredible!"

"I suppose so," Minato said noncommittally, expression carefully neutral.

"You 'suppose'?" the other said incredulously. "C'mon, Minato, you don't even see girls flock like this on TV! Akihiko-san's skills are right outta this world!"

And as far as I'm concerned, they can stay there. Being popular with bits of decorative fluff isn't all it's cracked up to be, Junpei.

Junpei grinned -again- seeing Akihiko and his crowd of admirers approach. "You guys free this afternoon?" the boxer asked without preamble, ignoring his fans entirely.

Impossibly, Junpei's grin got even wider; Minato began to fear for the integrity of his comrade's face. "Hell, yeah!"

"…I've got no plans," Minato said warily, eyeing the fan girls. "What've you got in mind, Senpai?"

"I'd like you two to meet me at Paulownia Mall." Before Junpei's expression could cause him injury, Akihiko went on, "You know the place, right? Meet me at the police station." He nodded at Minato, while the enthusiasm drained from Junpei's face with astonishing speed. "You can show him the way, right, Minato?"

The swordsman nodded with a small smile, acknowledging Akihiko's insinuation. Not that I'm trying to hide that part anymore. They know I'm looking for clues everywhere… Heh. At least this means…

Junpei, to judge from the look on his face, had reached the same conclusion. "The… police station…?" he said slowly. "Why of all places…? You mean we're not gonna hang out with your friends?"

Akihiko was honestly confused for a moment, before realizing who the younger student was referencing. "Friends?" he repeated. "What, you mean these girls?" He rolled his eyes. "I don't even know their names. They talk so much, it gives me a headache…" The boxer shook his head. "Anyway. I'm gonna head there now; don't keep me waiting."

"Awww," one of the girls groaned, watching him leave. "Why can't he be more friendly? Oh…"

"But that's what makes him so cool," another of them said dreamily. "Stoic, aloof, dangerous… What more can you ask for?"

They trotted off, leaving Minato and Junpei to exchange bemused looks. "He doesn't even know their names?" the man in the hat muttered. "Come on! Just look at them!"

"…I don't blame him," Minato said quietly, turning to leave as well. "Not a bit."

"Say what?" Junpei hurried to catch up. "But… but… Come on, Minato, you can't tell me you aren't envious! Having that kind of luck with the ladies…!"

"I don't call that luck," Minato said, voice unexpectedly cold. "You think they have any idea, any at all, what Akihiko-san is actually like? You think they see anything but the 'stoic, aloof, dangerous' boxer?" He snorted, lengthening his stride. "They're fan girls. Superficial. And if he did choose one, how do you think that would go? How would the other girls take it?"

Junpei flinched at his friend's uncharacteristic vehemence. "Minato… hey, man, what the hell's gotten into you all of a sudden?"

Minato started to make a sharp retort, then forced himself to pause, taking a deep, calming breath. "…There's more to happiness than being popular, Junpei," he said, more calmly this time. "And there's more to a relationship than what's on the surface. Being popular with the girls the way Akihiko-san is might be flattering in the short term, but in the long term…"

Easy, Master. Junpei hasn't seen the things you have. He's ignorant, not deliberately insensitive.

I suppose you're right. And hopefully, he never has to experience firsthand what I have.

Minato's agitated walk slowed to his usual, sedate pace a dozen meters out the school gates, letting Junpei catch up. "Damn, Minato," he said, breathing hard. "Sorry, man. Did I hit a nerve…?"

"…It's nothing, Junpei," Minato replied, gazing at the sidewalk beneath his feet. "Just… reminded me of something from a long time ago."

There was silence for several steps. Minato wasn't sure if he'd frightened Junpei, or if the latter was showing more sensitivity than usual. Maybe a bit of both, he thought, with a mental wince. I got a little carried away…

Then, a couple of minutes down the road… "Hey, Minato?"

He didn't look up. "Yeah?"

"…If you ever wanna scare the hell outta somebody, try doing that with a trench coat or something. That'd be awesome."


The Police Station, huh? Hope nobody I know got transferred here; that'd blow my cover pretty damn quick.

Your grandfather presumably looked into that before you left, Master. I think he would've warned you.

Hm. Point.

Minato wasn't sure whether to be surprised or not that the local police station was both small and, at the moment, seemed to have only one officer in view inside. On the one hand, for all that Port Island was a young community, it was rapidly growing; on the other, there was the small matter that it was virtually owned, and certainly run, by the Kirijo Group. They very likely had considerable influence in local police affairs.

And I of all people know the Kirijo Group would be… disinclined toward excessive police activity on their turf. Even leaving aside the supernatural stuff going on here.

Akihiko was already there when Minato and Junpei arrived, speaking quietly with the officer at the front desk. "…Thank you, Sir. I appreciate it." He glanced over at the door. "Ah, there you are. It's about time you guys got here… These are the ones I was talking about, Officer."

The cop gave the two an appraising look, visibly sizing them up; Minato wasn't sure he liked the way the man's gaze seemed to linger on him, but he admitted to himself it was possible he was being paranoid. Remember, "Arisato", you are not the center of the universe. At the moment, Mitsuru-senpai is very probably the only person digging into your background.

"This is Officer Kurosawa," Akihiko said after a moment. "Officer, this is Minato Arisato, and the guy in the hat is Junpei Iori. They're the newest members of our team."

"I see," the policeman said noncommittally.

Akihiko didn't seem surprised by the man's attitude. "Officer Kurosawa is the one primarily responsible for keeping our squad well-equipped. After all, weaponry and body armor aren't the easiest things to acquire without… connections." He smiled faintly. "Of course, it still isn't exactly free…"

"Naturally," Kurosawa noted, a very faint trace of amusement in his own expression. "Nothing in life is."

Ah. That explains the ambivalence; this could, looked at from a certain point of view, be considered bribery. Not to mention black market weapons deals… Of course the good officer would be cautious.

"Of course," Minato said aloud. "TANSTAAFL."

Junpei looked at him blankly, but Kurosawa nodded in slow approval. "I see you understand, Arisato-san. Good for you."

Akihiko glanced between them, mildly bemused, then shrugged; whatever it was, it wasn't worth exerting himself to find out. "Considering our circumstances, you may find yourselves putting a lot of wear and tear on your weapons, so keep this place in mind if you need any replacements. And I suggest you pick up some body armor, too; it may come in handy…" Wincing, he pressed a hand to his still-healing wound, waved his other hand, and left.

I really should do some experimenting with… what was that called, anyway?

A Dia spell, Master.

Right, that. Need to experiment with that some more next time we're in Tartarus. Akihiko-san is going to be out of the fight for another couple of weeks at least because of a relatively minor wound; we can't keep dealing with that sort of thing if we expect to be an effective force.

"Kinda surprised a cop is helpin' us out like this," Junpei remarked, glancing at the rack of weapons behind the counter. "I mean, I can imagine the Kirijo Group could pull some strings, but still…"

Kurosawa shrugged. "I've been told about the two of you, and I already know about SEES' activities. My job is to keep the peace, no matter the circumstances, so ordinarily I should probably be arresting your entire group… but while I may be just an ordinary police officer, I'm not stupid. There's something going on here that the police can't deal with, so the way I see it, my duty is to support the people who can handle it."

Minato raised an eyebrow. That was a more unorthodox line of thought than he'd expected from an average cop. He knew from personal experience some would bend the rules when necessary -he was only still alive thanks to a detective's off-the-record assistance- but this was even beyond that incident.

But then, Dojima-san wasn't seeing stuff like Apathy Syndrome first hand. It really doesn't take a genius to realize that isn't normal…

"Huh," he heard Junpei murmur. "Kinda surprised there aren't any guns here…"

Kurosawa snorted. "Guns are a lot harder to deal with 'off the record' than antiques, Iori. They're also more dangerous to the untrained. And, to top things off, I understand you're already using a device with a similar structure, in a way that would be really bad if you got them mixed up."

"Just as well," Minato said, turning to his companion. "I can't hit a building if it's falling on me with one of those things."

Junpei blinked. "You've got experience with guns, Minato?"

The blue-haired swordsman arched an eyebrow again. "I didn't get a hole in my shoulder playing checkers, Junpei."


Evening


By the time Minato arrived home at the dorm, he was wearing a set of light body armor under his school jacket, having chosen a vest of some Kirijo Group-made composite in lieu of anything heavier. His own fighting style was predicated more on avoiding being hit in the first place, so he accepted a compromise of protecting his vitals without negatively affecting his mobility.

When he'd left the police station, Junpei was still contemplating acquiring a new sword, one more suited to actual combat. Minato hadn't even bothered looking at the selection of weapons; he would wield no blade but Eurydice.

Probably a good idea for Junpei, though, he conceded, ascending the steps to the dorm's doors. That monstrosity of his is pretty decent for a mass-produced replica, but I wouldn't care to bet my life on it long-term…

Pulling open the door, Minato stepped into what was becoming a comfortingly familiar setting. The dorm's lounge, like the rest of the building, was proving to be the most comfortable place he'd lived since leaving Hinamizawa, several years before; the company, even he conceded, didn't hurt that at all.

At that particular moment, said "company" consisted of Ikutsuki in one of the lounge's armchairs, perusing paperwork; Akihiko, on one of the couches with a bowl of instant ramen; and Mitsuru, sitting across from Ikutsuki. Like Ikutsuki, she seemed to be examining papers of some kind, but in a rather more abstracted fashion.

"Evening, everyone," Minato greeted quietly, shutting the door behind him.

Mitsuru looked up from her documents. "Ah, Arisato," she said, with a small smile. "Welcome back. I understand Akihiko introduced you to our supplier earlier?"

"Mm," he confirmed. "Picked up a little body armor. I'm comfortable with the gear I've already got, otherwise."

She wasn't surprised. Having personally examined the youth's sword after his collapse, Mitsuru knew Eurydice was very carefully maintained, and Minato had shown considerable familiarity with the blade in combat. It -she, she corrected herself mentally, recalling his exchange with Yukari the previous night- was also a very high-quality blade; it was unlikely Minato would switch to another weapon.

"Good," Mitsuru said simply. "Now, then… if you have a moment, there are some things I'd like to discuss with you, Arisato."

"Of course." Minato walked over to the common area and slid smoothly onto the couch across from Akihiko; the boxer gave him a brief nod and salute with his chopsticks. "I assume this is about last night?"

"Indeed. The results thereof, to be more precise." She nodded at the boxer. "Akihiko, as you can see, is unfortunately still recovering from his wound, and obviously I'm going to have to continue as support for the foreseeable future. As such, I think the best arrangement for now is for you to continue acting as leader of the field team. I don't think I have to explain why."

Not really. Leaving aside my ability to switch between Personas, I'm fairly sure I recognize your reasoning for not wanting either of the others in charge. Junpei, good heart though he has, is a tad -okay, more than a tad- impulsive, and doesn't have quite as much experience as I do, while Yukari… She may be more experienced than I am, but it's obviously not by much. And it looks like she has some trouble keeping it together under pressure…

Mitsuru could make a pretty good guess as to what was going through the swordsman's mind, and she smiled faintly. "Exactly," she said dryly. "And, as you've probably also surmised, I believe your ability to summon multiple Personas will add greatly to your tactical flexibility. Since no one knows what they're capable of better than you yourself, you're in the best position to decide how best to employ that ability in battle."

Minato nodded. "I'm still learning about it myself," he admitted, "but I'm getting the gist of the implications already."

"Good. Because we're going to have to ascend Tartarus now, to find out what's going on… and as the incident the night you manifested your Persona proved, we can't be sure when an unusually powerful Shadow will appear. Therefore, I'm going to want you to take your team into Tartarus regularly, as much for training as for exploration."

Train like you fight, so you can fight like you trained, Minato mused, nodding slowly. Classic training doctrine. Well, ain't like there's any other way to train for fighting in the Dark Tower; there's not really any way to simulate those conditions…

"I think I can handle that," he said after a moment. "If we take it slow and steady, we shouldn't have any problems."

"Excellent. Now…" Mitsuru glanced again at Akihiko. "In last night's expedition, we confirmed that you can switch between different Personas at will, and also became aware of the capability to heal wounds using Persona ability. I understand it was a minor cut to Iori's face?"

"Relatively," Minato confirmed. "It might have required stitches normally, but it wasn't anything serious."

"As I thought. The possibility, however, exists for such spells to handle more serious injuries. Obviously," she said dryly, "I don't want you going out of your way to test that; that isn't a risk worth taking. If the event does arise, however, we need to find out if it can be done. I have the feeling that the situation may be starting to escalate, so we can't afford more incidents like with Akihiko. If such wounds can be healed without days or weeks of rest, we need to know."

"Y'know, you could just test it right now," Akihiko interjected, an annoyed expression on his face. "I mean, we're all right here and everything…"

Mitsuru shot him an exasperated look. "We can justify it in Tartarus because of the risk of not being at full-strength there, Akihiko. It isn't something we want to be experimenting with if we don't have that imminent need. And besides, you could do with learning a little patience."

"Tch…"

Akihiko went back to his ramen sullenly, and Minato couldn't say that he blamed him. I know I was pretty anxious after what happened to my shoulder… Even without everything else that happened that night, I don't think I would've been happy waiting. I was just fortunate that I heal so fast…

"At any rate," Mitsuru said, turning away from the boxer, "that's how it is. Your priorities regarding Tartarus are physical training, experimentation with your unique abilities, and of course exploration of the interior. Being as you also need to keep up your studies, it's going to be a fine balancing act… so I'm giving you permission to leave the dorm after the normal curfew, if need be."

Minato blinked, actually surprised. "You trust us to do that?"

"I trust you not to abuse it," she corrected, the implication clear. "That said… try not to do so too often. The Dark Hour will be enough of a drain on your strength as it is."

"True enough." Stretching, Minato stood. "Anyway, Senpai, if that's everything, I think I'll be turning in. Sounds like I'll be needing the rest."

"Good night, then, Arisato."

Watching him go, Mitsuru frowned. Yes, the Dark Hour saps our strength… but you hardly seemed to notice it yourself. I think now that you don't have any more answers than we do, Arisato, but there is definitely something strange about your reaction to the Dark Hour. It's incredible how calm you were that first night, and you showed no particular signs of fatigue then, either.

And then there's your unusual Persona gifts. Arisato… what are you?


Thursday, April 23, 2009, Early Morning


Minato was finally starting to get the hang of his new schedule. The trip from the dorm to Gekkokan was becoming a familiar course, life at the dorm itself was settling into comfortable routine, and after a couple of trips to Tartarus, even balancing that with school was looking to be a task within his means. All in all, even with the weirdness going on, the awkwardness of the first weeks in a new town was fading already.

Which means, of course, he mused, that something's going to upset that routine soon. I know my adventure stories: as soon as you think you know what's going on, something happens to turn the world upside down again.

Did anyone ever tell you that you're paranoid, Master?

Lots of times. Then I got shot.

Touché.

"…seems like there's lots of creepy people around these days," Minato heard, as he approached the school gates. "More and more acting all weird, y'know? Kinda pasty looking, vacant stares…"

"Apathy Syndrome," another girl said knowledgeably. "Yeah, I've got a neighbor who has it; really creeps me out. I hope it's not contagious… Sometimes I kinda think I've got it myself. Really depressing stuff…"

"Tell me about it. But y'know, maybe you just need exercise? That Apathy Syndrome stuff… half of 'em are probably just lazy. Hey, the athletic teams are accepting new members! Maybe we should join?"

The voices faded with distance, the two gossiping girls outpacing Minato's leisurely stroll. He frowned, realizing he was running a bit later than usual, and started to pick up the pace himself when he heard another, closer voice.

"More and more people are talking about Apathy Syndrome, huh," Yukari said, hurrying to catch up with him. "Morning, Minato!" she added, smiling. "Listening to the gossip, huh?"

Minato chuckled. "Actually, yeah," he admitted, falling into step with her on the way through the gates. "You know me, I just can't pass up a chance to get some info… And yeah," he said, catching the look on her face, "I know gossiping school girls aren't the most reliable source of information. But whether they get their facts right or not, they make a good barometer for what people are thinking."

"Not a bad idea," she conceded. It had never occurred to think of it like that, but then she wasn't an amateur detective who seemed to spend all his waking moments absorbing knowledge like a sponge, be it pertinent to the situation or just the bits of pop culture he occasionally quoted.

I guess we're not all that different, Yukari thought, not for the first time. I'm not as good at it, but I'm trying to find out what really happened to my father ten years ago… Maybe I should take some pointers from Minato.

They were climbing the stairs to the school's entrance when Minato broke the silence again. "It's interesting to hear what people think of Apathy Syndrome," he remarked quietly. "Even if it is pretty far off the mark."

"Yeah," Yukari agreed. "It's kind of funny, really; as bad as it is, people like those girls are making it out to be even worse; the idea of it being contagious…" She shuddered. "That would be… bad."

"Very."

The two arrived at the shoe lockers, and began swapping footwear. "On a lighter note," Yukari said, "you heard about the athletic teams looking for members, right? You thinking of joining any of them?"

"I might go for the kendo team," Minato admitted. "I don't really have a good sparring partner right now; Mitsuru-senpai is a fencer, and Junpei, well…"

She laughed. "Yeah. You'd have to give him a crash course before he could take you on without getting smashed. Heck, you'll give the kendo team a run for their money."

"Not necessarily," he said thoughtfully. "I'm not actually that familiar with tournament rules; my kendo training is more focused on practical use, which isn't quite the same thing. In a real fight, you might let yourself take a minor hit if it meant taking out your opponent. In a match, it's the touch that matters, not how much damage it would realistically do."

"Huh. Never thought of it that way."

Yukari wondered -again- what had prompted Minato to learn swordplay if not for tournaments, and once again shelved the idea of asking. She wasn't sure if he kept silent out of a genuine wish not to speak of it, or if he was playing some kind of game, trying to get his friends to think outside the box and figure it out themselves; either way, he was unlikely to answer.

We've all got our demons, she reminded herself. If he ever does want to talk about it… I'll be here.

"C'mon," she said aloud. "We'll be late for class."


After School


Parting ways with Yukari and Junpei after class, Minato did not himself head for the exit the way he usually did. Making his way down to the first floor, he instead turned toward the hallway leading to the athletic wing of the school, a path he'd ventured down only once before, during his initial exploration of the school.

Unusual for you to be doing something like this, Master, Pixie remarked. You didn't bother joining any clubs at Nishinomiya, after all…

That's partly because the only one that interested me got co-opted by that weird girl and her pet weirdness magnet, Minato replied off-handedly, by now accustomed to interjections from voices only he could hear. Besides, I need to get out more.

Because of how your power is dependent on your connections to others?

Partly. If that were all of my motivation, though, I don't think it would even work. If you're only getting close to people for power, I somehow don't think that kind of connection is strong enough to empower my supernatural abilities; true bonds with people are deeper than that. And, he noted, thinking back to a past he'd once thought buried for good, I actually did use to be more outgoing. You're part of my subconscious, you can see how things were before I left Inaba.

True enough. He had the impression of a smile from the mischievous entity. It'll probably be good for you, Master.

So glad you approve.

Striding down the hallway between the club rooms, Minato found the door he was looking for, and checked the notices on it. As he'd hoped, the Kendo Team was one of the clubs looking for new members; and with the feeling of crossing a personal Rubicon, he knocked…


"Okay, people, listen up," the Kendo Team coach was saying a few minutes later. "Say hello to the new guy."

A half-dozen students in practice uniforms, carrying masks and shinai, gathered around, joined by a tanned young woman in a P.E. uniform. Some were indifferent, a couple appeared curious, and the girl, somewhat to Minato's relief, looked actually welcoming; he'd wondered about his "reputation" around the school ever since Junpei first mentioned the attention he was getting, and it looked like the Team was a macrocosm of the school's opinion.

"Name's Minato Arisato," he said now, smiling politely. "It's a pleasure."

"Yuko Nishiwaki," the tanned girl said in reply, extending her hand. "I'm the team manager." She smiled as he shook the hand. "You're a junior too, right? I've heard about you."

"Base libel," Minato declared, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Whatever it is, I haven't done it."

Yuko laughed, and the other members chuckled. "Even if it's something good? Anyway. We're in the same year, so you can just call me Yuko."

Perhaps your boxing senpai isn't the only chick magnet around here, Master. Very impressive.

Oh, shut up.

The coach shook his head, hiding a smile. He, too, was familiar with Minato Arisato's reputation, and knew -whether the student himself did or not- that snagging the mysterious new transfer student would be quite the coup for the Team. People were watching him with interest.

Time to find out what the kid can do, the coach decided. "Kaz," he said, nodding at one of the swordsmen-in-training, "you're in the same class, right? We've all heard things about Arisato, here; some say he knows what he's doing with a sword, so why don't we find out what he can do with a shinai?"

"You got it, Sir." Kazushi grinned. "I'm Kazushi Miyamoto. C'mon, Minato, get your gear and let's see what you've got."

Five minutes later, the rest of the team had scattered from the training mat, allowing Kazushi to face off with Minato, newly equipped with borrowed gear. The latter tested the heft of his new shinai carefully; he was more accustomed to the bokken, closer to a live blade than a shinai. Combined with his relative unfamiliarity with tournament rules, he was looking at a situation where he had to hope his reflexes could compensate for his shortcomings.

Kaz grinned at him. "I've seen you in class. You're the guy who went out with Takeba on the first day of school, right? Instant celebrity, man."

Minato groaned. "Please, Miyamoto, I get enough of that from Junpei Iori. Yukari and I just live in the same dorm, is all."

"Make it Kaz." He pulled down his face mask. "And how's this: you win, I don't say another word about it. Deal?"

Minato lowered his own mask, and lifted his shinai much as he might've Eurydice. "Deal. Bring it, Kaz."


"Point!" Yuko called out. "That one's to you, Minato! Nice work!"

The combatants stepped back, saluted each other, and rather hurriedly pulled off their masks. Fifteen minutes, and both were sweating and breathing hard… but after a hard-fought match, Minato had pulled out a victory. He was more winded than after an hour of fighting Shadows, but he'd done it.

"Whew!" Kaz breathed, fighting to catch his breath. "Not bad, Minato. Knew there had to be a reason everybody was talking about you, but I didn't expect you to be this good. You must've been part of your last school's team, too, right?"

Minato discretely coughed, and allowed himself to sink onto the mat. "No, actually," he wheezed. "I'm not used to tournament rules, to be honest; I used to be, but that was years ago. I was taught combat rules by a family friend."

I notice you don't mention that was because people wanted to kill you.

Nah. No need to scare them. 'Sides, I don't want them thinking I'm a delinquent or anything; a little air of mystery is good enough.

The coach laughed aloud. "Ya hear that, people? Arisato hasn't done it by the Book in years, and he still pulled out a win against Kaz, our future team captain!"

Minato glanced away, a little embarrassed; the mutterings from the other team members, sounding suspiciously like agreement, did not help. "I just got lucky," he muttered.

Kaz snorted. "Lucky, hell! You won the bet, Minato, but I warn you: from today on, you're mine. I'm not goin' easy on you!"

My own personal rival/drill instructor. Nice; check that off the list of life's ambitions…

"Fine," Minato agreed, and hauled himself back to his feet. "I'll just have to stay ahead of the game, then." He grinned. "Having a target will help."

Yuko shook her head at the banter. "At least you're getting along with the team, Minato… Okay, since this is your first practice, you should call it a day now. I'll make sure you've got a proper uniform for next time." She smiled. "Welcome to the team, Minato. With you joining us, I think we'll go far."


Evening


By the time Minato returned from his walk about town, he was well and truly bushed. Damn glad we don't go to Tartarus every night, he groused to himself, climbing the stairs to the dorm's front door. By the end of the year, I'll either be in the best shape of my life, or dead of terminal exhaustion.

"Yo!" said a far too cheerful and energetic voice, as he came in the door. "Been makin' news again, eh, Minato? I heard you joined the Kendo Team today!"

Minato closed his eyes, counted slowly to ten, and turned slowly to Junpei, seated before the lounge table. "News travels fast," he said. "Nice to know I've got so many eyes on me."

"Don't worry about it," Akihiko advised before Junpei could reply; he was seated across from the man in the hat, examining a pair of boxing gloves. "You're just the new big thing, that's all; they'll find someone else to spy on soon enough."

"I hope so." Minato crossed to one of the couches, and dropped gratefully onto its cushions.

Luxuriating in the chance to rest his weary feet, he didn't even notice that Mitsuru was sitting directly across from him, reading a book; the reverse, however, was not at all the case. The redhead glanced up from her reading, and gave Minato a curious once-over.

He's been busy, she decided. I don't think he looked that tired after his first visit to Tartarus… Perhaps it's starting to catch up with him?

"I hadn't actually heard the news, myself," she said aloud; her comment was addressed generally, as she could see Minato was already half asleep. "I take it his first practice was… energetic?"

"I heard from Yuko that the coach had him try out against Miyamoto," Yukari offered, from the dining area. "They were at it for a while, apparently."

"But Minato won," Akihiko noted, smirking. "I guess our new leader is good at fighting more than just Shadows."

Minato cracked open one eye. "New big thing," he muttered sleepily. "They'll find someone else to spy on… yet you guys all seem pretty interested, too. What am I, a reality show?"

He promptly passed out before he could receive a reply, and Mitsuru hid a smile behind her book. Well, she thought, at least everyone here likes him… Get some rest, Arisato. It looks like you might be the team leader for quite some time…


Akihiko was no longer particularly surprised to find Mitsuru in the Command Room late at night, perusing files. It was, however, beginning to exasperate him, and he saw no reason to hide the fact.

"Come on, Mitsuru," he said quietly. "You've been over the background check a hundred times now; it's not going to tell you anything new by now. Either confront the guy, talk to your father, or give it a rest, why don't you?"

"Hm…?" Mitsuru glanced up from the papers. "Oh, Akihiko… No, you've got it all wrong. You're right: there's nothing more to be learned from the background check… but that's not what I'm doing." She extended the papers toward him. "Take a look."

Frowning, he looked them over, and realized they were not, as he had assumed, the files from Minato Arisato's background check. Instead, they were forms of some kind, related to matters at Gekkokan High…

Akihiko's eyebrows went up. "I see… What brought this on, Mitsuru?"

She shrugged, taking the forms back. "You know I've been looking for a deputy for some time now; I can't do everything myself, and Hidetoshi, well…"

"A bit overzealous, yeah." The boxer nodded. "His heart's in the right place, but he could use some people skills."

"And you're too busy with other matters," Mitsuru agreed. "And, frankly, while there's no one I'd rather have by my side against Shadows, your talents aren't really suitable for this kind of thing. Arisato, on the other hand, is cool-headed, smart, and apparently popular."

"He is that. He made his entrance with style, and kept right on going." Akihiko chuckled. "I think it's the whole 'mysterious transfer student' thing. Minato's quiet, never talks about himself, and polite to boot." He frowned thoughtfully. "You think he'll go for it, though?"

"We'll see, won't we?"


Monday, April 27, 2009, Early Morning


Days had passed uneventfully, with a couple of visits to Tartarus and another grueling encounter with Kazushi; by Monday, Minato was sore, but in a good way. His aches were those of a body breaking itself down to rebuild better than before, and teasing about his love life aside, he was feeling good.

Something will be along to mess me up soon, of course, he mused, approaching the school gates, but until then, I'm going to enjoy it. I'm on top of the world, today…

"Ugh… I so hate Mondays… never have any energy…"

A sigh. "Didn't you say that last week, too? And maybe the week before that? …And there's a special assembly this morning, too. Grr… Why today? We just had one last week!"

Why do I have a bad feeling about this…?

"Remember Kirijo-senpai's speech? It was great, wasn't it?"

"Well, yeah. I didn't understand it, really, but it sure sounded awesome… Wait, what does that have to do with anything?"

The other voice lowered conspiratorially; Minato, to his regret, managed to catch every word anyway. "The way I heard it, it was so good that the principal got jealous. Apparently, today's speech was scheduled so he could steal some of Kirijo-senpai's thunder back!"

"Seriously? You mean we gotta suffer for his ego? Not fair!"

I knew it. I freakin' knew it! I'm going to be dead of boredom before the day is out!

In the back of his mind, Minato could hear Pixie laughing.


Minato knew just by looking at the teacher on the auditorium stage, and the expression on the face of the principal standing next to him, that his worst fears were coming true. The thing he feared more than any Shadow, more than the blade of any Yakuza swordsman, more than death itself…

"Good morning to you all," the teacher began, smiling blandly at the assembled students. "Welcome to this morning's assembly. We'll begin with a word from the Principal; please, give him a warm welcome."

"What's going on with this assembly?" Yukari muttered; she and Junpei sat in the row ahead of Minato. "We just had one last week… Could this have anything to do with the recent incidents?"

Minato grimaced. Apathy Syndrome cases had been on the rise for the past week, along with minor, "unexplained" injuries and apparent vandalism; it was, he knew, all related to the Dark Hour, but inexplicable to authorities or not, it was something they noticed.

"Tch." Junpei slouched in his chair, utterly unimpressed. "Maybe, but it doesn't matter. The Principal doesn't know anything about Shadows or the Dark Hour; he won't say anything worth listening to. Bah… I just hope he doesn't take all day…"

Yukari sighed. "Yeah, his speeches always take forever, don't they…"

The teacher had vacated the podium now, and the principal took his place. "Ahem," he began, clearing his throat noisily. "Today I'd like to tell you about my, um, vision for this new school year. As you are aware, strange incidents have been reported on the news lately…"

Huh. Sounds like Junpei and Yukari are right on the money…

"It is my firm belief that none of you are involved."

Hey, thanks for the vote of confidence. Of course, you don't actually have the slightest idea what goes on in the head of your average student, but hey, it's the thought that counts, right?

"However, if we want to better our school, we must all take responsibility for change."

Yeah, yeah… Hey, wait a second…

"Dig deep down inside, and tap into your imaginations… But don't lose touch with reality! As they say, 'There's no use crying over spilt milk'. That's the key to reaping all the rewards education has to offer…"

Can you get any more cliché? C'mon, the speech you're plagiarizing was at least original!

Minato wasn't the only one who noticed something… off… about the principal's speech. "Wait a second," Yukari hissed. "Doesn't this sound like Mitsuru-senpai's speech? Almost word for word…!"

"Yeah," Junpei agreed, frowning. "The hell's up with that? Bad enough we gotta sit through this, but if it's just the same stuff Senpai said, but with the Principal's idea of 'inspirational words'…!"

Minato grinned to himself. For all their differences, at least he found himself in accord with Junpei's obvious outrage.


Afternoon


He found it hard to concentrate on math class later that day. After recovering from the near-terminal boredom inflicted by the principal, he'd been hit at lunchtime by a request from Mitsuru to speak with him about something important after school.

A "special request", she said… What the hell does that mean?

Minato wasn't exactly worried about it or anything; he was sure it would be nothing he couldn't handle. It did, however, vex him to no end that he had no idea what it was. It was the first time since he'd begun to puzzle out the events of the night of his arrival in Port Island that he'd been completely and totally clueless about something that was going on.

Because of that, he almost missed it when Ms. Miyahara, Gekkokan's eccentric in charge of math class -the eccentric part really went without saying, of course; every member of the Gekkokan faculty was more than a little strange- starting going even further off the track of logic than usual. Almost.

"…Then round up, so… The answer is X equals one… Wait, it isn't? Oh, right, this becomes eleven, so… I'm sorry, you're right, X equals two. Er… is that right? Bah! Your assignment is to figure that out! Anyway, isn't that incredible? Even with a difficult problem like that one, X still equals one. Or two. Whichever."

Um. As weird as most of these teachers are, they usually at least know their own obsessions reasonably well. Mister Ono might not know much else about history, but he knows the Sengoku Era like the back of his hand. Considering how obsessed with numbers Miyahara is, you'd think she wouldn't trip up like that…

She does seem to focus more on the aesthetics of the numbers themselves, Master. Whatever that means.

True.

"Anyway, that's not the point," Miyahara was saying now. "The point is that math is fun! Don't you agree? Hm, let's see… Ah, yes. It's the Twenty-Seventh, so the math works out to… Minato. Your turn."

Mildly uneasy, Minato stood, waiting for the question. He was, as with most of his subjects, not too shabby at math, but it definitely wasn't something he enjoyed. And even I have trouble managing difficult equations on the fly; I'm more of an intuitive kind of guy.

He would almost have preferred something difficult to what he actually got.

Miyahara nodded at him. "All right, Minato, here it is: what's one plus one?"

Minato was so flabbergasted by the simplicity of the question that he almost forgot to answer it. "…Two…?" he hazarded, half-convinced it was somehow a trick question.

She smiled. "Exactly right! It's a simple question, so the fundamentals are obvious. No matter what you may be counting, one plus one will always equal two. Atoms, students, if one joins with another, it will be two. That's math for you. Isn't it amazing?"

He slid back into his seat, mentally shaking his head. Good grief. Yeah, yeah, fundamental, basic truth, blah, blah, blah… We kinda know that, Sensei. We're high school juniors, not first graders.

Not for the first time, Minato wondered about the quality of teachers hired at Gekkokan, and considered the possibility of some deep-seated Kirijo Group plot, or bizarre experiment by the same. Certainly it made more sense for such an eclectic bunch to have been hired deliberately than for them to have gathered by sheer coincidence.

What we have here is the faculty equivalent of the class I was in at Nishinomiya. Yare, yare…


After School


Wow, Minato thought, gazing out through the fence bars. Quite a view up here…

He wondered idly why Mitsuru had requested that he meet her on the school's rooftop. Probably, in his estimation, for privacy; a classroom wasn't exactly the best place for a discrete conversation, a point he rather wished Junpei would learn. Whatever the reason, though, he had to admit he wasn't exactly complaining.

Minato had seen a lot of Tatsumi Port Island since his return, but this was the first time he'd gotten this kind of view of the city. Gekkokan High was situated in such a way that it gave an absolutely breathtaking vista of the island, showing very clearly the place he now called home… and a rather sobering view of what, exactly, he was fighting to protect.

"Sorry to keep you waiting, Arisato," he heard, concurrent with the roof door opening. "And I apologize for the perhaps… cryptic nature of my request."

He turned to face the emerging redhead. "Not at all, Senpai," he assured her. "I'm sure it's important."

"Well," Mitsuru conceded, walking over to join him by the fence, "I have to admit it's not as vitally important as our midnight operations. But education is still important, even with our other responsibilities, so it's significant in its own right."

Minato raised an eyebrow, idly slipping his hands into his pockets. "Education?" he queried.

She nodded. "Yes. I'll get straight to the point, Arisato: I'd like you to join the Student Council."

He blinked. Okay, he admitted to himself, I wasn't expecting that one. I've only been back in town about three weeks, one of them spent mostly comatose. I've hardly even been to this school yet. Isn't this kind of… unusual?

Isn't everything, where you're concerned, Master?

"…Why me?" Minato asked at length, when introspection failed to produce any answers.

Mitsuru smiled faintly, inwardly pleased at having scored a point against her junior's deductive skills. "Simply put, Arisato, your leadership skills are looking to be quite impressive. Despite some initial hesitance on Iori's part, you've settled into the position of SEES field leader quite nicely. Here at school, you've also proven to be quite popular; take your reception at the Kendo Team, for example."

See, what'd I say before? My life is a reality show to the team. Next thing you know, Junpei will be going around with a camera.

Taking Minato's silence as a positive -even if he was confused, at least he wasn't objecting- she continued, "To be honest, I've been looking for some capable assistance. My responsibilities as President are quite time consuming, and the aid of someone I can count on would be invaluable; the other members of the Student Council do their best, but none of them have your particular qualities."

"You need a deputy, then," Minato mused, turning back toward the rooftop edge. "…The other members of the Council won't object to having a stranger basically brought in over them?"

Mitsuru brushed a few stray locks out of her face. "No," she assured him. "My nominative second, Hidetoshi Odagiri, is too professional for that. And as for the others… As I said, you're popular. I don't believe there will be any problems."

Huh…

Minato was silent for some time, considering it. He had to admit, he was a little unsettled by all the attention he was getting; at his last school, he'd been perfectly content to stay in the background while the resident weirdness magnet got the spotlight. The last time he'd been the center of attention, there'd been a lot of blood and more than a few corpses involved.

But…

Hell. Sometimes I hate having a conscience.

Senpai needs your help, so you'll do it, eh, Master?

I almost wish chivalry was dead.

"…Okay, Senpai," he said at last. "If you think I can be of help, I'm at your service."

Mitsuru allowed a small smile. "Thank you, Arisato. I knew I could count on you." She paused. "…I must apologize for having already made the arrangements with the Faculty, but…"

Well. Someone is already getting a handle on how I think. "No problem, Senpai," Minato said, and turned to her again. "I'll drop by the Faculty Office on my way out, then, and get the details taken care of."

"Excellent." Mitsuru turned to head back into the school. "In that case, Arisato, I'll introduce you to the Student Council at our next meeting. I'll see you later."

Minato watched her go. A reality show, I tell ya. Naoto will never let me hear the end of this.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009, After School


True to her word, Mitsuru turned up the next day after class to show Minato to the Student Council Room. Naturally, he already knew perfectly well where it was… though he found it somewhat odd how it happened to be within just a few steps of his own classroom.

Convenient, though, he acknowledged to himself, following Mitsuru in. Probably a legitimate coincidence; even in my screwy life, not everything is part of some grand conspiracy.

There were four or five other students inside already, around a U-shaped table arrangement. Minato recognized two of them, having noticed their particular quirks already; the others, as far as he recalled, hadn't any actions or mannerisms notable enough for him to have paid much attention. In a life as weird as his had gotten, you had to be somewhat unusual for him to really notice.

Mitsuru cleared her throat. "Ahem. Everything, this is Minato Arisato, the second-year student I've been telling you about recently. He's agreed to join us on the Student Council."

The existing members of the Council looked at him curiously, and Minato noted particular scrutiny from one of the two he'd recognized, a senior with a yellow armband. Minato had seen him around before, and had already started to hear rumors about his habits.

"Hm…" The other looked at him speculatively. "Well, Arisato. I'm Hidetoshi Odagiri, head of the Disciplinary Committee."

The blue-haired swordsman nodded. "A pleasure."

The other student Minato was familiar with, a girl with long brown hair and glasses, bowed, looking decidedly nervous. "I'm Chihiro Fushimi," she said, managing a small smile. "I'm the Treasurer. Um… I'm a first-year… and I'm, um, still learning the ropes, so… please be patient with me, Arisato-san."

Minato bowed in return. "I will," he promised. "A pleasure to meet you, Fushimi-san."

Chihiro flushed -unsurprising, from what Minato had heard about her- while Hidetoshi seemed to be observing his manner. Approvingly, apparently, because he promptly smiled. "Well, well. You must be something special if the President hand-picked you, Arisato. She's been looking for someone to fill your spot for a while now."

"I try…"

A short round of introductions with the other members of the Student Council followed, and then Mitsuru nodded to herself.

"I think we'll just leave it at introductions for today," she said, glancing at her watch. "It's getting late, and there's no pressing business just now." She turned to Minato, smiling slightly. "Thank you for joining us, Arisato. We'll be counting on you."

"Indeed we will," Hidetoshi chimed in with his lopsided smile. "There's been a number of issues in need of attention, Arisato, and now it looks like we'll have the means to deal with them."

Well, well. You are popular, aren't you, Master?

Tch. I'm starting to think I know how that guy back in Nishinomiya felt…


Evening


After a quiet, relaxing meal at the Hagakure -Minato was firmly of the opinion that no food beat a good bowl of ramen for unwinding- he trekked back to the dorm, his spirits in good shape. He'd gotten shanghaied into another set of responsibilities, but the detective in him rejoiced at even the more mundane issues a "Student Council Deputy" would likely be involved in.

A little helping of the mundane, Minato thought, slipping into the lounge, to help offset all the craziness. And, he thought with an inner smile, something I can tell Naoto about without her thinking I've gone completely around the bend!

"Hey, dude!" he heard as he closed the door, the voice instantly lowering his spirits. "I heard Mitsuru-senpai got you onto the Student Council!"

Minato raised an eyebrow in Junpei's direction. "I see the grapevine is as quick as ever," he said dryly. "It's only been a couple hours."

"Hey, you're practically a celebrity around here, remember?" Junpei snorted. "You sure you're up this, Mister Leader?" Without waiting for a reply, he turned to Mitsuru. "Hey, Senpai, you really sure you want to let this slacker in?"

Mitsuru, occupying one of the lounge's armchairs, didn't even look up from her book. "He exhibits few signs of distress from the Dark Hour, learned most of what we had to tell him before he joined SEES, and out-pointed the school's kendo star in his first match. I don't intend to burden him with many extra responsibilities here, Iori, but I'm confident he'd be able to handle even more, if he had to."

"Well… I suppose."

Now she did look up, eyebrow raised in a manner eerily similar to Minato. "Why, were you interested in helping too, Iori?"

Junpei coughed, looking away. "Uhhh… that's okay, Senpai. I think I'll pass. Uh, thanks for the offer, though."

Smiling faintly, Mitsuru returned to her book, while Minato moved to the couch opposite Junpei, plunked himself down, and picked up a book off the table. Quickly dismissing both Junpei and his senpai from his attention, he quickly lost himself in the old tales.

Unnoticed by any of the three, Akihiko, sitting in the other armchair, had followed the conversation with some interest. Well, well. I guess Mitsuru's finally deciding to just wait and see. That's good… we don't need her too distracted. He smirked. It's funny, though, how she's gone from trying to figure out if he's really trustworthy, to actually making him her deputy on the Student Council.

Then again, with Junpei as the comparison…

Glancing at Minato's book, he was unsurprised to see that it was a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. Just about the first thing SEES had discovered about the youth was his keen eye for detail; if it turned out he had some detectives in his family tree, Akihiko would not be at all surprised.

Which reminds me, he thought with a sudden frown. I've already got Shinji looking into things… Maybe I should get Minato looking into it, too. If anybody can find out anything about Yamagishi, it's him. Think I'll run that by Mitsuru later…


Friday, May 1st, 2009, Early Morning


"Mornin'!"

The morning routine, the regular monorail trip and subsequent walk to Gekkokan, was comfortingly normal, Minato had to admit. It meant getting too little sleep after Tartarus trips -like last night, he reflected, wincing at a fresh bruise- but it was worth it for the link to normal reality. It reminded him that he was just an ordinary student, when he wasn't fighting heartless monsters in the Dark Tower.

And the company isn't half bad, he mused. "Morning yourself," he said, turning to Yukari as they reached the school gates. "How's your leg?" She'd taken a nasty slash to the thigh the previous night; Minato's back was still sore from knocking her out of the way before the Shadow could open her femoral.

"Good as new," she replied cheerfully. "Persona really is a handy power… You really ought to use it, too, if your back's still bothering you."

"Not worth it," he said with a shrug. "Besides, I've had worse since we started this."

"Yeah," Yukari agreed. "Hard to believe it's already May… Almost a month since you got here, huh? And it's getting pretty warm, too."

"Tell me about it," he said ruefully. "I spent a week of it in a coma, so it's even weirder for me." He glanced at his watch, and gestured toward the school. "A lot's been happening, that's for sure."

She fell in step with him, heading for the entrance. "Sure has," she agreed, sighing. "And the cases of Apathy Syndrome seem to be going up… They were down for a little while, but I guess that was just a fluke." Yukari fell silent for a moment. "…We're the only ones who know what's going on, the only ones who can actually do something about it. We should keep training, I guess… especially in case something like that comes up again."

Minato nodded silently. He knew just what she meant: the unusually powerful Shadow that had been his introduction to the monsters. Even now, he didn't know how things would've gone if he'd fought it personally. He'd bagged the two that came after it, but the big one had been summarily slaughtered by the strange, ominous Persona he'd manifested that night.

He thought he could take such a thing, given the opportunity. But then, he'd thought he could do something he really couldn't before, and still had the scars to prove it, physical and otherwise.

"I need to, especially," he heard Yukari murmur. "I don't want to be a burden on anyone…"

Minato glanced at her sharply. She still hasn't quite gotten over what happened that night, he thought. Damn… Sure, she froze up, but hell, that thing put Akihiko-senpai on the bench for a month. And he'd fought them before.

"You're not a burden," he said, quietly but firmly. "Whatever may have happened that night, you've proven yourself since then. Something that big shows up again, I know you can handle it."

Surprised, Yukari shot him a quick glance. "…Thanks, Minato. That means a lot."

"Don't take it too seriously," he advised. "We still have to make it through school, too."

She groaned. "Yeah, I know… I'd rather spend a week in Tartarus than deal with another of the Principal's speeches…"


After School


No insanity for once, Minato mused after the final bell had rung. Nice change…

He was working intently on a piece of paper, still seated at his desk, when Junpei wandered over. "Whatcha got there, Minato?" the ball cap-wearing one asked, glancing down at the paper. "Don't tell me you're workin' on something for extra-credit. I mean, come on." Junpei rolled his eyes. "You're already the top student in the class, for cryin' out loud."

Minato's pen slashed through a quick signature, and he proceeded to fold up the sheet, slipping it into his pocket. "Nope," he said quietly. "Just an order form." He smirked. "I should thank you, Junpei, for giving me the idea."

Junpei blinked. "Um, what? …Never mind, I probably don't wanna know." He snapped his fingers. "Oh, yeah, did ya hear Akihiko-san's at the hospital again? Another checkup, I think."

"Should be almost the last," the other remarked, mentally calculating the time since the boxer's injury. "For a couple of broken ribs… yeah, he should be almost back in fighting trim."

"I don't wanna know how you know that, either. But anyway, he called me earlier, asked me to bring him something." Junpei grinned. "Oh, yeah, Akihiko-san knows who he can count on, you bet. Ya need it, the Iori can get it."

Well, there's nothing wrong with his ego today, I see.

Is there ever?

Before Minato could formulate a properly sarcastic reply, verbally or otherwise, a snort interrupted them. "Yeah, sure, Junpei," Yukari said with a roll of her eyes, crossing the classroom to join them. "Or maybe it's cuz you don't have any clubs or anything. You don't have anything better to do, do you?"

Junpei gestured sharply, glaring. "Hey! I've got a life, too, y'know! It ain't all about the school clubs."

Yukari giggled, waving a hand. "Sorry, sorry. I was just kidding, Junpei."

I'm not. But, who's counting?

"So what is it he needs?" Minato asked curiously, his love of knowledge outweighing his love of sarcasm.

Mollified, Junpei smirked… but only briefly. "The class roster for 2-E, actually," he admitted with a shrug.

Yukari exchanged a puzzled look with Minato. "2-E's class roster…?" the archer repeated. "What would he need that for?"

Even Minato had to confess confusion this time. "Good question," he admitted. Considering how little Akihiko seemed to care about socializing -or most other human beings in general, come to think of it- even Minato was stumped as to why he might want the roster for a class that was neither his nor, as far as Minato knew, in any way connected to SEES.

Unless… Nah. We'd have heard about that by now, wouldn't we? Or… maybe not. I haven't been with them long enough to know how they handle that, except for one very unusual case.

Yukari mused on it for a few moments more, before finally shrugging. "Guess it doesn't really matter. Anyway, I don't have practice today, so I might as well go with you." She cocked an eyebrow at Minato. "You're coming too, right?"

"Sure, why not? I need to mail something, anyway."

Junpei frowned. "H-hey, wait a minute-"

"Is there a problem?" Yukari asked sweetly. Minato immediately decided he never wanted to cross her when she sounded like that.

"Well, it was me he asked…" Junpei, he observed, was willing to challenge it.

On the other hand, it was a trio that left the school minutes later…


Walking into the hospital's lobby, Minato wondered idly just how familiar this place was going to get for him. In years past, he hadn't been in hospitals much; he healed so well on his own that it was seldom necessary. Now, however, he was engaged in a conflict outside normal human experience, and would very likely be dealing with even more unusual injuries over the coming months. Even Persona healing abilities, he was sure, had their limits.

And considering that this place is owned by the Kirijo Group, fully in on the secret of the Dark Hour, it's probably used for researching the Dark Hour's effects on the human body. I'll have to keep that in mind.

After finding out Akihiko's room number from the receptionist, the three students crossed to the elevators. Approaching one just as it opened, still distracted by his idle detectiving, Minato almost walked right into the person coming out.

"Oops, sorry," he said, dodging quickly to one side. "My mistake."

The woman he'd nearly bowled over, a young lady with purple hair and a reddish-brown business suit, flashed him a quick smile. "I wasn't paying attention either, don't worry about it." Waving a black-gloved hand, she slipped past, heading for the exit.

Junpei and Yukari exchanged a glance. "What the heck was that about?" Junpei wondered, turning to Minato. "Anybody you know?"

"Never seen her before in my life." Minato shoved his hands back into his pockets and stepped into the elevator. "Probably nothing."

But still… I felt… something…


The rest of the trek to the indicated room was uneventful, right up until the moment they entered the room itself. Standard hospital fare, perfectly ordinary décor; a little too much white for Minato's peace of mind (reminding him entirely too much of times past), but nothing unusual.

Also no Akihiko Sanada. This was not, however, to say that the room was completely empty, and even Minato felt the hair on the back of his neck stiffen at the sight of the lone occupant.

Sitting in a chair beside the room's bed, the teenager wore a dark gray hat, a maroon trench coat, and a dour expression.

Minato was tense. Junpei was literally rocked back on his heels, and it took him several moments before he could form coherent speech. "Er…" He paused, cleared his throat, and tried again. "E-excuse me, is… is Akihiko-senpai…?"

The tough-looking teen noticed them for the first time. "Huh?" he grunted, glancing up.

Junpei managed a nervous grin. "…In this room, by any chance?" he managed to finish.

The youth in the coat did not reply, seeming instead to size them up. Under that inscrutable gaze, Yukari looked increasingly uncertain, Junpei seemed to be contemplating fleeing the room, and Minato began to wonder if he'd have been better off bringing Eurydice with him.

Before the atmosphere could reach stiflingly lethal levels, the door opened behind them, and footsteps clattered in. "What are you guys all doing here?"

The three students turned, relieved, to find Akihiko standing there, jacket slung over his shoulder as usual. "We came to see you!" Yukari told him, grinning giddily. "But, um… it doesn't look like there's anything wrong with you…"

Akihiko snorted. "Nothing at all. It's just a checkup, that's all."

The teen in the trench coat abruptly stood, drawing attention back to himself. "Is that it, Aki?" he asked, voice surprisingly quiet.

Akihiko nodded, an odd expression on his face. "Yeah… thanks."

The youth grunted. "Tch. I don't have time for this garbage," he muttered, and made his way to the door; the three Gekkokan students hastily made way for him, and then he was gone.

Okay. That was officially weirder than that thing with the girl in the elevator. Scarier, too.

Yet, there was something about the other youth that Minato found familiar. Something about his attitude reminded him of… himself…

Once the dour one had gone, Junpei shuddered in relief. "Who the heck was that?"

"A… friend from school, you could say," Akihiko told him, gesturing vaguely. "I had him look into something for me. You know how the Apathy Syndrome cases are increasing? He… gets around a lot, so he knows a few people suffering from it. I was just asking him about it." He shook his head. "Nothing to worry about. Anyway, Junpei, did you bring the roster."

Junpei grinned, eagerness displacing lingering tension. "You bet, Senpai." Pulling a sheet out of his pocket, he handed it to the boxer.

Akihiko took it, examined it briefly, and nodded to himself. "All right, thanks." He tucked it into his own pocket, and, grimacing, rotated his left arm few times.

Yukari winced. "Senpai, I thought you shouldn't be moving your arm. Your injury…"

"Tch. This is nothing." He smiled tightly. "I've wasted enough time as it is. I need to get back to training."

Yukari frowned uncertainly, but Minato saw his point. That much downtime can play havoc with an exercise regimen, especially for a fighter. I remember how things were for me, after I was shot. And I heal faster than Senpai does…

Junpei was grinning. "Oh, yeah! Gekkokan's golden boy, born to be in the ring!"

His fellow juniors joined their senior in giving him strange looks. "…Sometimes, I really have no idea what you're talking about," Akihiko remarked, shaking his head.

Junpei, predictably, was unfazed, if slightly puzzled.

Yukari cleared her throat. Stupei, she thought. "Anyway, Senpai… why boxing?"

Akihiko glanced over at her. "You mean, why'd I choose that sport?" He smiled. "Well, to be honest, I don't really care much about the sport. I just wanted to learn how to fight." The smiled disappeared. "I… know what it's like to feel powerless… and I don't ever want to experience that again." He looked over at Minato. "You know what I mean, eh?"

The swordsman nodded slowly. "Yeah. Sure do." There was enough blood and regret in his past to know exactly what his senpai meant.

The smile returned. "Besides, I wanna know just how strong I can get. It's like a game, except my opponent is none other than myself, and my own body."

"That's… an interesting way of lookin' at it," Junpei admitted, looking unusually thoughtful. The impression was promptly spoiled by a cocky grin. "Y'know, I'm into games myself."

"Yeah," Yukari said, in unison with Minato, "video games."

The two glanced at each other, at Junpei's half-surprised, half-wounded expression, then back at each other. The only appropriate response was, of course, to laugh themselves silly.


Author's note:


I'm not entirely happy with that scene as the ending point for this chapter, but it was quite literally the first remotely decent place I could find, with the next being too far away to be practical.

Yes, the Solid Shark is back, and he apologizes profusely for the delay. Simply put, this has been the year from hell for me, four months of which were spent without home internet access, three of those without even electricity, so the delay was kind of unavoidable. Particularly frustrating as this chapter was about ninety percent complete as of when the real chaos started.

Apologies to anyone I've neglected to reply to; it's been a little hard to keep track of things, with internet access so sporadic. I'll do my best to keep up, now that I'm back online.

As for the chapter itself: a couple of mysteries introduced here, and it begins to codify certain aspects of the story. Please be aware that later uses of Persona are likely to be somewhat inconsistent with their portrayal here; now that I'm following the Persona 4 anime, I'm going to be integrating its portrayal of Persona use to some extent. Bear with me while I get that figured out.

I think that's everything for now. Let me know if the chapter was worth the excessive wait. -Solid