Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010, Early Morning
Walking toward the gates of Gekkoukan High, Minato Arisato took the time to take a deep breath, and savored the crisp spring air. He'd never before appreciated spring properly, he realized now. This year, he intended to enjoy every moment of it.
Amazing how much things have changed, in little more than a month, he thought, looking over the street leading to the school. No fliers announcing the imminent Apocalypse, no graffiti declaring the same… not even any of the Lost, lying around half-dead.
It's all back to normal. I never thought how weird that would feel. I got so used to the dreary atmosphere, that last couple of months, it's disconcerting for everything to be so peaceful again. …Or maybe I'm just tired.
He had been, a lot, since that final night. As if what he'd done to end it all had taken a physical toll on his body that went deeper than just the loss of the power he'd held, for those brief moments.
Still. Tired was hardly the worst thing he could be. Minato considered a long convalescence a small price to pay for the victory they'd brought about.
Would that that was the only price we paid.
Just inside Gekkoukan's gates, Junpei jogged up to him. "Yo, Minato!" he called, flashing a bright grin. "Brr! Cold, ain't it? I know it's barely spring, but damn… Still, somehow I can't bring myself to care. Feels like the springtime of our youth, doesn't it?"
"That's one way of putting it, sure," Minato replied, amused. Though I could do with it being a bit warmer… I hadn't realized just how much I'd come to rely on other measures to deal with cold. I thought I was going to freeze to death, the morning after…
"You just take everything in stride, don't you? Well, it'd be weird if you didn't." Junpei shoved the hand not holding his book bag into his pocket, matching Minato's stride as they headed up Gekkoukan's courtyard. "So! Year's almost over, huh? Went by in a flash. Now we're practically seniors already, how weird is that? Hey, you think anything interesting will happen this year?"
"Oh, I'd say there's a good chance of it," Minato told him, smiling crookedly. "I'm still here, Junpei. Nothing is ever boring when I'm around."
The Man in the Hat glanced at him sidelong. "Oh, yeah? Then how come last year is so much of a blur I can barely remember it even happened? You ask me, I'd say it was that crazy school you went to for freshman year that was really nuts. Don't give yourself that much credit, Minato!" He paused. "Come to think of it… feels kinda like I'm missing something. You know what I mean?"
Minato shrugged. "If it's important, you'll remember, Junpei. Don't sweat it."
"If you say so, man."
You'd better remember, Junpei. We all made a promise. We're all alive, so there's no excuse for skipping out. If I have to beat some sense into you, I will.
"Hey," Junpei said suddenly, stopping in his tracks. "You see that girl over there?" He pointed off to the left of the path leading up to the school's front doors, where a head could just barely be seen poking around a tree. "Is it me, or is she looking at us?" His brow furrowed. "And how come I never noticed a girl that cute before?"
Minato winced inwardly. And that's another thing, Junpei. You—all of you—need to remember, soon. This… this isn't right. This isn't fair.
Before he could think of a reply that wouldn't simply confuse his friend, another voice beat him to it. "Seriously, Stupei? She's in our class. Heck, she lives in our dorm! How did you not notice something like that?"
Junpei's eyebrows went up, and he turned to face Yukari as she slipped through the crowd of students to join them. "Really?! How about that! …So, uh, who is she?"
She shrugged. "I dunno. I never caught her name. I think she's a foreign exchange student, or something?"
"Her name's Aigis," Minato broke in, before Junpei could make the irritable retort he could just see on the other teen's face. "She transferred in last summer. And no, she's not Japanese."
I think. …Come to think of it, I never did figure out exactly how the Kirijo Group pulled that off. For all I know, her soul might be… Nope, not going to think about that. Old Man Kouetsu's legacy is probably going to give me nightmares for the rest of my life as it is.
"As expected, of Gekkoukan's amateur detective," Junpei said dramatically, rolling his eyes. "Well, okay, that's cool, but don't expect the rest of us to keep up with Mister Best-Grades-In-Class. 'Sides, it's crazy lately with the dorms anyway, people moving in and out. Hey, speaking of—well, you've probably heard this already, but Sanada-senpai, the captain of the boxing team? He's moving out soon."
"Oh, yeah, I've seen him around." Yukari pursed her lips. "I've never really talked to him, though. He's kinda aloof, y'know? But I'm not surprised. I mean, all the seniors are leaving soon, even Kirijo-senpai. And she practically owns the dorm."
"Right, the Student Council President." Now Junpei nodded sagely. "Hard to forget her, with that big speech she gave at the start of the year… But you'd know that better than us, right, Minato? You're the guy she picked to keep the Student Council in line."
Not for the first time, in the past month, Minato had to take a moment to think through what he was going to say. What people remembered, since that night, had turned out to be a little hard to predict. The human mind handled gaps in memory by trying to connect the dots on its own, which sometimes had odd results.
He counted himself fortunate in just how much had been remembered. As it was, the remaining gaps had almost gotten him in very serious trouble more than once.
"We don't really talk that much in school, Junpei," he finally settled on. "Remember, she brought me in because she was too busy as it was. Student Council's a job, not an after school club."
"Heh. 'Spose so. Sucks to be you, huh?" Junpei flashed another grin. "That's what you get for doing a good job, Minato: more work. You should be like me! You'd be happier that way!"
"Happier slacking off? Please. Don't try and drag Minato into your bad habits, Junpei." Shaking her head, Yukari turned back to look at Aigis. "Um, hi?" she called. "Did you need something from us?"
Aigis froze, looking much like a deer caught in headlights. "Um… no, no, it's nothing. I'm sorry." Ducking her head, she turned and ran off.
"Huh. She didn't look happy." Junpei frowned. "Was it something we said? Or… maybe she's got a thing for one of us? Ow!"
Yukari lowered her hand from smacking him on the back of his head. "Don't get any stupid ideas, Junpei. And stop checking out every girl you see! You've got a girlfriend, remember?"
"She's not—well, not exactly, yet—oh, you know how it is, Yuka-tan!" Junpei rubbed the spot she'd hit, aggrieved. "C'mon! You know I wouldn't do anything like that, not for real. I'm not gonna cheat on Chidori. I was just makin' a joke, that's all."
"Yeah, sure you were…"
At least that was one thing that had survived intact. Probably not even really set back, from what Minato could tell. Now Junpei and Chidori were more or less even—though he still wondered exactly how Junpei thought they'd originally gotten to know each other. He hadn't wanted to cause any trouble by asking, but he suspected it wasn't anything like the truth.
The way Junpei thinks the world is now, I doubt he remembers an attempted ax-murder. Though I bet he has interesting dreams…
He suspected most of the others did, really. The question was, did they think of them as mostly pleasant dreams, like Chidori had after her revival? Or were they vague nightmares? His own, he couldn't even call vague.
"…Hey, Yuka-tan? Can I ask you something?" Junpei's quiet question dragged Minato back to the present; he looked up in time to see his fellow junior frowning. "Do you… Nah. Forget it, it's a stupid question anyway."
Yukari lifted one eyebrow. "Aw, come on. The only stupid question is the one you don't ask—right, Minato?"
Minato raised his hands. "Hey, don't drag me into this… But yeah, okay. Come on, Junpei. It's not like you to be the timid type. What's on your mind?"
"Well… I guess this goes for you, too. Now, don't take this the wrong way!" Junpei added hastily. "It's just, I got to thinking about how much of a blur this last year was, so I was wondering… do you guys remember how we ended up as friends? I mean, Minato here somehow convinced me to join Kendo Team, and, well, you and I didn't exactly hit it off that well when you transferred in, Yuka-tan."
It was a good thing he'd had a month to get used to the memory gaps. Between that and living under an assumed name for a couple of years, Minato was able to hide his wince at the question without too much difficulty.
"Well, there was hitting involved, Stupei," Yukari said playfully. Then she sobered, touching one finger to her chin in thought. "I dunno… It's not like we're that close. Between the same class and the same dorm, it was either get along or get at each other's throats, I guess? And I think you went to Minato for help with your grades a few months back…"
"Trying to impress a girl," Minato put in laconically, falling back on the tried and true tactic of shielding lies with a bit of truth. "Yoshino-san had you beat artistically, so you went for brains over ability."
"Hey, I resent that." There was no heat in Junpei's voice, though. He shot Minato a mock glare, before going back to a frown. "Okay, that kinda makes sense. But still, there's something…"
"Now that you mention it? Yeah. I guess it is kinda weird." Yukari's finger tapped lightly at her chin. "I mean, if it was just the 'same class and dorm' thing, then that girl—Aigis, was it?—she should be—"
The ringing of the school bell interrupted her, making even Minato about jump out of his skin. "Aw, hell!" Junpei blurted. "We're gonna be late!"
Normally Minato enjoyed running. Not so much when it was "get to class or else", and even less when he felt so utterly wasted. I have got to get more sleep. I guess I'm just not used to sleeping alone anymore…
It was strange, seeing the dorm lounge so empty. In the months since Minato had begun living there, it had gradually become a place for an entire, growing team to hang out. Rare was the night that no one was relaxing there, either around the main table or in the kitchen area. Especially after Shinjiro's death, and almost all of the team's secrets were out in the open.
Now Minato found himself the only one around, sitting on one of the couches and listening to a news report on the TV. At this point, instead of a team they were mostly a bunch of strangers, with little reason to spend any time together. Even Yukari and Junpei had headed up to their rooms pretty much as soon as they got back.
It kind of surprised him how much it bothered him that Ken was acting like a stranger, since that night. Instead of a close comrade and friend, as far as the young lancer was concerned Minato's family had simply taken pity on an orphan they'd stumbled on during an investigation. Ken was kind of skittish, now.
And I have no idea what's going on with Aigis, Minato thought, leaning back in the couch as a news anchor droned on about the abrupt end to Apathy Syndrome. If anybody would remember the truth, it'd be her, and she's definitely been acting weird. But why won't she just come and talk to me?
He sighed. Everything was safe again, yet it had all gotten so complicated in other ways. With Graduation Day coming up, he hoped that things would settle soon.
"Is this seat taken?"
That voice was enough to bring a smile to Minato's face, despite the circumstances. Looking up, he said, "Not at all, Mitsuru. I think we're the only ones still up."
"I should hope so," Mitsuru replied with an answering smile, settling down next to him on the couch. "I doubt Sanada would care, but the others… Well. It would still be… inconvenient… if anyone found out about our engagement. At least until Graduation Day is past, and I've moved out of the dorm."
You don't know the half of it. He still wondered what she'd thought when she inevitably found some of his clothes in her closet. Given that the memory reset had apparently removed her memory of them sharing a room, he was kind of afraid to ask.
Aloud, he said, "Not to worry. Nobody here can sneak well enough for me not to notice in time."
"Present company excepted, I should hope." Cautiously, she leaned into his shoulder. "I'm sorry we haven't had much time together lately. The exams… well, you know how it is."
"Yeah. Just a bit." Minato had looked over some of her study material, when she'd had a spare moment, and it had left him more determined than ever to study for high school tests. Being a year behind as it was hadn't done him any favors. "How'd you do?"
Mitsuru tsked playfully. "How do you think? They haven't posted the results yet, of course, but I have no doubt at all that I passed. Soon enough, I'll be a university student. …Fortunately."
He knew that tone all too well, after the past few months. "Trouble in the Kirijo Group?" he asked, shifting to drape an arm across her shoulders.
"Unfortunately, yes," she sighed. "The Group may look strong to outsiders, but as I'm sure you'll recall, we're more frail than we'd like to let others see. With my father's passing, we really can't afford to stumble now. I… have to stay strong."
"You always are." Maybe it had taken a pep talk or two, to get her fully back on her feet after her father's death, but Minato remained impressed by how well she'd kept it together. When he'd been through similar things, it had taken him years to even start to come back from it, not months. "You know I'm here to help, however I can."
"Of course I know. And sometimes that's all that keeps me going." Mitsuru let more of her weight rest against him; a clear sign, he thought, of just how tired she was, if she was willing to risk it in the lounge. Still, when he looked down at her, she was smiling again. "A shoulder to lean on means more than I'd ever imagined. …And of course, your skills at, ah, negotiation help me stay in the Board's good graces."
That was one of the more polite ways to describe what he'd done to scare off Tabata Heavy Industries, he thought with some amusement. But the Kirijo Group are respectable criminals, after all. Politeness is just another weapon.
Of course, when politeness didn't work, he himself favored fire. He supposed that was a habit of which he'd have to break himself, if he was going to continue working with the Kirijo Group. Arson was a fine tool against supernatural monsters, not so much organized crime.
"I find myself wondering, though," Mitsuru murmured against Minato's shoulder, breaking into his thoughts. "If you hadn't come into my life… would I have just gone along with what the Board wanted, and accepted whatever match they chose for me? Or would I, one day, have simply snapped, gotten on my motorcycle, and ridden off into the sunset, never to return?"
"Heh. That sounds more like something I'd do."
"Yes, I suppose it does." She looked up at him, lips quirking in a smile. "I wouldn't think you'd consider that a bad thing, with the company you like to keep, Minato. …But seriously. What do you think?"
Idly tangling his fingers in her hair, he leaned back into the cushions with a thoughtful frown. "I think, Mitsuru," he said slowly, "that in the end, you'd have done whatever was right for yourself. If I know you—and I'd like to think I do—I think, maybe, you'd have gotten everything in the Kirijo Group running smoothly—and then gone off on a journey of self-discovery."
"Is that so? Hm." Mitsuru chuckled. "Do you know, Minato… that doesn't sound like such a bad idea? If only for a little while. Tell me, where does a detective go when he doesn't want to be found…?"
Nights were lonely, now. Mitsuru had pointedly gone to bed ahead of him, what with the rest of the dorm suddenly completely unaware of their relationship. Minato was left to return to his room completely alone—more alone than he'd been in very nearly a year.
Sitting at his desk, he took a moment to look over the Evoker currently tucked into a drawer. He wondered what the others thought of the gun-like devices they'd presumably found in their own rooms, after that night. An odd toy, maybe, placed as part of some elaborate prank.
To Minato, the Evoker was nothing but a symbol of loneliness. The friendships he'd built up over the past months had faded or outright evaporated—and the voices that had been in the back of his mind for those months had fallen forever silent.
Why, he wasn't entirely sure. He remembered almost everything, except for the last moments of his confrontation with Nyx. He remembered thinking that destroying outright a physical force probably wasn't a good idea, yet what option he'd taken instead he couldn't fathom. All he knew for sure was that it had taken a great deal of power, using up everything he'd gained in that last visit to the Velvet Room.
Since that night, his Evoker had been nothing but a useless gadget. Just as he no longer had the passive strength his Personas had granted him, the Evoker no longer conjured up active power.
Minato hadn't lost all trace of power. Though it was weak, and he knew almost nothing about it, the abilities he'd been told were the other half of the Shirogane lineage had begun to flicker to life. But masks he'd worn against the monsters in the dark—those were all gone.
Nights were getting just a little hard for him, after a month of silence.
Two more days, he told himself, pushing the desk drawer closed. Two more days, and then… well, we'll see. If the promise is kept, then I won't have to be alone anymore.
Standing, he let his gaze linger briefly on the group photo they'd taken the night they'd first thought everything was over. The night Takeharu Kirijo had been murdered. At the least, whatever else had happened, they'd redeemed that night. Shuji Ikutsuki's mad plan was over.
Right, then. Two days. That won't get here any faster if I don't get any sleep—
There was a knock at the door.
Minato stood utterly still for a moment, frowning. Mitsuru wouldn't have risked coming to see him so late at night. Yukari and Junpei weren't that close to him, as things stood. Ken was still wondering why the heck Minato's family would've taken him in. Fuuka and Akihiko barely acknowledged his existence…
Maybe Aigis finally decided to talk? It's about time.
Warily, the back of his neck tingling, he walked over and opened the door—and found absolutely nothing.
Hairs well and truly standing on end, Minato peered out into the hallway. There was no sign, in his quick inspection, of anyone to the left. Directly across was Shinjiro's room, and while he wouldn't have put it past the gruff delinquent to have shown up as a ghost, he didn't think Shinji would've played games with him.
There wasn't even anything to the right, by the firmly-closed window.
Huh. That's… weird. Frowning, he very gently closed the door, and turned back to finish getting ready for bed—and almost levitated clear into the ceiling.
A heavy wooden box was on his bed, placed there by a green-haired girl in an emerald longcoat. Her fang was in evidence; her typical laughter very much was not.
"Long time no see, Silver-kun," Tsuruya said evenly. "We need to talk."
Friday, March 5th, 2010, Early Morning
Damn… I overslept.
Rubbing sleep out of his eyes, Minato rolled upright and batted his alarm off with his other hand. It had been going off for close to an hour, which he thought really said something about just how tired he really was. To think he'd deliberately set it early, this day of all days, and slept through it anyway…
No help for it. He was going to be late for the graduation ceremony, but that was okay. Just so long as he got there before it was over. I just hope Mitsuru isn't too worried. This fatigue… I'll just have to hope Tsuruya is right. I'm going to be very unhappy if I lived through the Promised Day only to keel over a month later.
Fighting off that bitter weariness, Minato pulled on his school uniform with as much haste as he could muster. His book bag, he decided didn't matter. Regardless, this one time he only had one reason in mind for going to school at all, and classes had absolutely nothing to do with it.
He was less certain about his armored coat. On the one hand, if ever there was a day he felt was appropriate for looking the part of the conquering hero, this was it. On the other, Strega was gone, and his own physical strength was questionable at best. He wasn't at all sure he was up to carrying several kilos of extra weight.
That question was still on his mind when there was a quiet, almost hesitant knock at his door. "It's me, Aigis," came the low voice on the other side. "May I please come in?"
Draping the heavy coat over his desk chair, Minato crossed to the door and pulled it open. "About time you showed up," he said, without heat. "You know, Aigis, I've spent the last month wondering if you remembered me at all."
Eyes downcast, the gynoid stepped into his room. "I'm sorry. I just… Honestly, I didn't know what to say. Everyone else seems to have forgotten everything, and I wasn't sure if you had, too."
"I remember, Aigis," he told her, closing the door behind her. "Mostly. I'm missing the last few minutes of the battle that night, but I remember everything else. The Shadows, Nyx, and you." He quirked a crooked, half-smile. "I know how you feel, though. It's been kind of frustrating, nobody else remembering much of anything. I'm lucky Mitsuru remembered our relationship, and with everything else… well. Even that's been a bit awkward."
Aigis nodded slowly. "I see. I suppose… my distance didn't help, either." She bit her lip; a very human gesture, that. "…I'm sorry, Minato-kun."
"For what?" When she didn't answer, Minato reached out to grip her shoulder. "Aigis. Tell me what's wrong." Though I can guess.
She finally looked up at him, and he was startled to see tears in her eyes. He'd thought she wasn't even physically capable of crying. "…I thought you were dying," she whispered. "Every day, you looked so tired, and I… I was afraid that one morning, you just wouldn't get up. I… I couldn't face that. I'm sorry, I know it's cowardice…"
Hell with this. He pulled her into a hug. "It's not cowardice, Aigis," he said into her hair. "It's human, and you still don't have the experience to know how to handle that." He took a deep breath. "Honestly? I'm pretty sure there is something wrong with me, Aigis. But I'm not going to just drop dead at any moment. Whatever's wrong, we're going to fix it."
Somewhere in there, in Aigis' metal and polymer shell, within the so-called "Plume of Dusk", he was sure there was the soul of a living girl. The tears, the quiet, hitched breathing—those weren't the habits of a machine. Nor the trembling, with a body that should have moved with mechanical precision.
Someday, he was going to find out how she was created. And if it was as monstrous as he suspected, anyone who still survived from the process was going to with they hadn't. But right then, Aigis herself was what was important.
"…You promise…?" she whispered into his shoulder.
"Absolutely." Minato patted her back. "I've got too many things to live for, Aigis. I didn't fight off Nyx just to die anyway. …Now come on." He pulled back, just far enough to reach for his coat. "We're already late for school. Why don't we go crash the graduation ceremony?"
Waiting just offstage in Gekkoukan's auditorium, Mitsuru was more nervous than she cared to admit. Not that she expected the speech ahead to be particularly difficult, of course. She'd known it was coming for a long time, and it was hardly her first time addressing the student body as a whole.
"…The time has finally come," she heard the student currently at the podium say, over the low murmur of dozens of bored teenagers. "Though this is our last day together, we want the senior class to know that you've truly earned our respect. We wish each of you good health, happiness, and prosperity. On this auspicious occasion, I bid you all a fond farewell on behalf of the student body."
No, the speech she expected to go well enough. What concerned her was that Minato, as far as she could tell, hadn't shown up for school at all. She'd been bothered as it was by his increasing fatigue, the past few weeks, but had theretofore written it off as relating to the final exams.
Missing school outright isn't like him, though. …First thing after the ceremony, I'm going to check on him. And drag him to see a doctor, if I have to.
"Next, a word from the valedictorian," the Classic Literature teacher, Ekoda, announced. "From Class D, Mitsuru Kirijo."
That's my cue, then. Let's get this over with, shall we?
Confidently, Mitsuru strode onto the stage. "Thank you, Sensei," she said, taking Ekoda's position at the podium. She allowed herself a moment, then, to look out at the student body. In the years she'd been attending Gekkoukan, especially as a senior, she hadn't gotten to know nearly as many of her classmates as she probably should have. This would be her last chance to see most of them.
There were some genuinely familiar faces, of course. Odagiri and Fushimi from the Student Council, naturally; and she recognized most of the Kendo Team, if only from how closely she'd watched Minato's performance in the tournament. Then there was Akihiko Sanada, who'd come into contact with the Student Council from time to time in his capacity as captain of the boxing team. He'd proven to be much of an intellectual sort than his athletic hobbies tended to suggest to her.
She found herself frowning, just a little, when a handful of others caught her eye. Juniors, she thought, a couple of them from… 2-F, if she remembered right. …Ah, of course. Minato's classmates. They live in our dorm, too, don't they? Maybe one of them knows why he isn't here.
Pushing that aside for now, Mitsuru cleared her throat. "This last year, I accepted an important responsibility, as Student Council President. When I first addressed you all from this podium, I spoke to you about seizing opportunities while you had the chance… Well, it must have been fate that intervened and gave me an important reminder of this… As many of you may know, my father unexpectedly…"
She trailed off, feeling something nagging at her mind. As if the point she was about to make… wasn't quite right. Wait… what happened to my father…? Oh, of course. How could I forget, even for a moment?
Mitsuru shook herself. "He unexpectedly passed away, from a sudden illness, just a few short months ago…" Again, though, that jabbing in her mind, almost physically painful this time. Putting a hand to her head, she found herself repeating, "Sudden… illness…?"
No. No, that wasn't it at all… Father wasn't ill! That's not what happened!
Out in the crowd of students, as some of them began to murmur at the interruption of her speech, she saw Akihiko abruptly stand up. He headed off toward the students from 2-F—but she hardly noticed, as a memories of blood, betrayal, and crosses under a huge yellow moon rushed back into her mind.
Not illness—a gunshot! Ikutsuki, his plan, all of it… The Shadows…!
"I remember," Mitsuru said slowly, quietly, more to herself than to the audience. "Yes… with my father's death, I lost my sense of purpose, my reason for living…"
Yukari Takeba abruptly sat up straight, as if someone had just hit her with a taser—or a Zio spell. "Wait," she whispered, her words carried to Mitsuru by suddenly-sharpened ears. "Today… wasn't I supposed to…?"
Akihiko reached her then, and Junpei Iori beside her. The boxer simply yanked the junior to his feet; Mitsuru couldn't help but smile at his yelp—a smile that grew when Yukari and Fuuka Yamagishi nodded to each other and stood.
"But I am lost no longer," she said into the microphone, growing in confidence again. "I once again have something to live for, a future to strive for! I will face it head on, carrying on my father's will! I am resolved, and without reservation."
Most of the students, to say nothing of the teachers, were in obvious confusion now, looking around and whispering in voices that might as well have been shouts to her. They had no idea what was going on, utterly baffled by the scene she was causing by deviating so completely from her prepared speech.
She didn't care. Her friends were coming up toward the stage now—and way at the back, the auditorium doors were swinging up, pushed by a presence even her limited senses could feel.
"Hey! Sit down, you're interrupting the speech!"
"Have you all lost your minds?!"
Mitsuru ignored Ekoda and Toriumi. They didn't matter at all. "I owe it all to my invaluable friends—and to the man who taught me never to lose hope, no matter what tomorrow might bring."
A bold declaration. Someday, she'd have to live it down. But just then, she didn't care. She didn't care about anything, even the microphone toppling over as she stepped quickly to the very edge of the stage, and jumped. Jumped with a sense of pure elation, and absolute confidence.
Minato, battered and burnt coat swaying behind him, caught her.
His bright smile sent a thrill of relief through her, even as their friends gathered around them. "Sorry I'm late, Mitsuru," he said wryly. "I overslept."
"You're forgiven, for the dramatic entrance. I should've known you'd be fashionably late." Squeezing his arms, Mitsuru looked around the others. "Everyone, thank you. I'm sorry it took me so long to remember."
"We're in no position to talk, Senpai," Yukari assured her. "Now, come on! We made a promise, didn't we? I'm sure Aigis is waiting for us up there!"
"Yes, I'm sure she is. Let's go, everyone! To keep the promise we made that night!"
"Hey!" a stern, sputtering voice called out behind them. "What do you kids think you're doing?! The ceremony isn't over yet! Get back here!"
"Aw, stuff it up your—" Iori began, only to break off in a yelp as Yukari's heel landed on his foot.
Laughing, Mitsuru took Minato's hand in hers, and led the others in running off out of the auditorium. This once, she could only delight in the confusion they left in their wake.
Minato had spent a lot of time on Gekkoukan's roof, in the year he'd been attending the school. This was the first time, though, that he climbed up there with the entire team. Always before, it had been one-on-one meetings, dealing with the personal crises of one or another of his acquaintances.
Or most of the team, anyway, he thought, stepping out into open air, still holding Mitsuru's hand. Now it's all of us… and I don't think I'm even going to ask how Koromaru got up here.
Waiting for them, accompanied by Ken and the dog, Aigis turned away from the view of the city with a smile. "Hello, everyone!" she called. "It's good to see you all again."
"Likewise, Aigis," Mitsuru said warmly. "I'm sorry we all forgot for so long. I know we suspected that might happen, but I don't consider that an excuse."
"Please, don't be concerned." Aigis' eyes were shimmering, but she was still smiling. "I'm just… so happy we're all here together, after everything. Even when Nyx was defeated, I was afraid. Afraid that… that not all of us would be able to gather together like this again."
"Hey, now, Aigis," Junpei said, walking over to grab her hand. "We all made a promise, didn't we? That even if we forgot, we'd all meet here today? No way any of us were going to miss that. Heck, I bet anybody who didn't make it would've come back from the dead for this!"
"Don't even joke about that, Stupei." There was no real heat in Yukari's voice, though she looked frustrated he was out of stomping range. "It didn't happen, so let's not think about it, okay? Today, we're supposed to be celebrating."
That we are. By unspoken consensus, they all gathered by the fence guarding the north edge of the roof. It was the best view from the top of Gekkoukan, giving them a clear line of sight over most of Port Island and across the bridge to Iwatodai. A view that Minato had seen many a time, while meeting with others, yet had never been able to truly appreciate. Not like he could today.
"It's like a whole different city," Fuuka said softly, resting her hand on the fence. "Most people never knew what was really going on, but looking down from here, feeling it with Juno… everything feels more relaxed. With Apathy Syndrome gone, even normal people feel brighter now."
"I've noticed." Akihiko had a pensive frown on his face, looking out over the city. "Even though I didn't remember what had really happened until a few minutes ago, I still found it weird how the Nyxist cult just disappeared overnight. It's like Nyx really had some kind of hold on their minds."
"I wouldn't be too surprised by that." Minato thought back on the two months the world had faced Nyx's approach, and found himself grimacing. "On the other hand, it might just have been Takaya's death. You'd be surprised how quickly a cult can fall apart when their 'charismatic' leader disappears on them. The kind of people who join a cult in the first place tend to be pretty weak-willed. Without the central figure holding it together, they're off to find the next fulfillment for their empty lives."
"That's pretty cynical, Aniki," Ken protested. Then he sighed. "But I guess that's how Nyx was called in the first place, wasn't it."
Minato nodded silently. The scary thing was, Takaya Sakaki had been almost entirely correct in his reasoning and conclusions. In the end, the only ways Minato's own viewpoint had differed from the pale-faced murderer were in whether or not that was a good thing—and whether or not a handful of people could overcome the will of all humanity.
We did it, though, he thought, watching Port Island's power windmills lazily turn in the breeze. Because, in the end, the will to live is by nature stronger than the will to die. Those who have accepted death don't even have the will to fight for that end.
It took everything we had. But in the end, even a candle holds back the dark, just by existing.
"It's funny," Aigis whispered. "My entire purpose for being was to defeat Shadows. I was afraid that I wouldn't have a reason to exist, if the Dark Hour was ever destroyed. Now that it's all over, though, I feel… free. Alive." She chuckled; the first time Minato could remember her doing so. "And now? I have no idea what to do with myself. Though I suppose, in the end, the Kirijo Group has the final say…"
"Absolutely not, Aigis," Mitsuru said at once, putting her free hand on the gynoid's shoulder. "The only thing the Kirijo Group is going to do now is make arrangements for you to have a proper legal identity. You're going to be your own person now—and while I won't say the Kirijo Group won't offer you a job, you'll be completely free to make your own choice."
"My own choice…" Another chuckle. "I'm truly grateful, Mitsuru-san. But, um… I think I'll have to ask for some help, for a little while. While I've managed to fit in here at school, I honestly have no idea how to function in normal human society."
"Of course we'll help, Aigis!" Yukari told her, moving to clasp Aigis' hand with a smile. "You're one of us! And besides," she added, with a sidelong glance at Minato, "if we didn't all chip in, who knows what bad habits you'd pick up. Your sisters are already spending all their time with Minato's family, and we know what they're like."
"We're supposed to take offense at that, Ken," Minato said, looking over at his adopted brother with his best solemn expression. "That's an insult to the honor of the Shirogane family."
"Robot Rasputin, Aniki?"
"…The Shirogane detective line is only supposed to dig up inconvenient facts about other people, Ken."
Minato couldn't really begrudge the ribbing, though. Seeing SEES talking and joking like that, after everything they'd been through to reach this point… It was nice. Even if it did remind him all too much of the last time they'd celebrated together, and how that night had ended.
That was only a false victory, though, he reminded himself. In hindsight, we had no evidence at all that defeating the Hanged Man would end things, and we hadn't found Takaya or Jin's bodies. If we'd bothered to think about it, we would've realized something wasn't right.
Now… now we watched Takaya and Jin die, and the Dark Hour hasn't come back since that night. This time, it really is over.
From the bittersweet smile on her face, he suspected Mitsuru's thoughts were along much the same lines. After all, there was one person missing from that last celebration, one whose absence he knew pained her.
Yet she was strong, and she'd learned to move on. Now, on the roof of the building that had once transformed into the Tower of Demise, she turned to face the group as a whole, and raised a hand for attention. "I'm sure we'd all like nothing more than to spend the day celebrating," she said. "And something tells me Minato's probably done something like booked an entire ramen shop for us—"
"Delivery tonight," he said, deadpan. "I thought we'd all prefer to celebrate at home, where we don't have to hide what we're talking about."
"—But first," she continued, acknowledging him with only a small, fleeting smirk, "there's something I need to say to you all. Something that I wish my father could be here to say, but in his absence the duty falls to me." She paused to clear her throat. "As of this moment, gathered as we all are here and now, our unsung war is over. The Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad is hereby disbanded. Mission… complete.
"Thank you, my friends, for everything. Thank you all."
Thursday, April 1st, 2010
If I never have to deal with temporal mechanics again, it'll be too soon. Can you say, longest Wednesday of my life?
Not that Junpei Iori had really kept track of exactly how long that endless Wednesday had been. It was bad enough thinking about all the bad memories it had dredged up, for the whole gang, without trying to work out how many times the clock had hit midnight and flipped back to the start again.
He knew one thing, though: after seeing what Minato Arisato considered "Hell", he was counting his own blessings. The loss they had in common was one Junpei had managed, by some miracle, to reverse, and he had no intention at all of taking that for granted.
That was why, first thing after school, he headed straight for Tatsumi Memorial Hospital. He needed the reminder of normal reality, after the mind screw that had been the Abyss of Time.
"Good afternoon, Iori-kun," the receptionist at the front desk said with a smile. "Here to see Yoshino-san, I'm sure?"
"That obvious, huh?" Junpei filled out the usual forms mostly on autopilot. He knew them by heart after so many times. "Y'know, I could be here 'cause I needed a doctor myself, once in a while."
She chuckled. "When you and yours friends need a doctor, Iori-kun, it tends to be kind of obvious. I'm glad that hasn't happened in a while…" The receptionist paused. "Although… you do look a bit rough today, Iori-kun. Have you been staying up too late again?"
About as close as anyone in the Kirijo Group was likely to get to talking about the Dark Hour, these days. Junpei had noticed it was kind of spotty, who had and hadn't remembered; he figured the hospital staff did mostly because of their most unique patient.
"I had kind of a long day yesterday," he said, signing the last form with a flourish and handing it over. "It's complicated. I'll be all back to my usual self once I've seen her, not to worry."
"That's good. Yoshino-san doesn't get any other visitors—and we don't want you getting into any more trouble yourself, Iori-kun!" she added, mock-stern. "You've come in here with stranger injuries than even Arisato-san, and given his medical history that's saying something!"
It was Junpei's turn to chuckle, as he took the visitor's badge she handed over. "You don't know the half of it, believe me…"
As he headed off along a well-remembered route through the hospital, though, he couldn't exactly say she was wrong. For all Minato's habit of getting into weird trouble, most of the injuries he'd gotten in Port Island—at least, that the hospital staff knew about—had been pretty mundane. The kind of thing they might've expected to see from street fighting.
Hatchet chops nearly taking my arms off? Yeah, even with Persona healing the worst of it, I bet that raised some eyebrows. Mitsuru-senpai prolly had to invoke the name of Kirijo to get that one through without any questions.
That he was, at that moment, on his way to a friendly chat with the person who'd inflicted the injury in question was an irony he didn't exactly miss.
When he reached the room he was aiming for, he reminded himself to stop and knock. He'd forgotten that part one time, and it… hadn't ended well. "Hey, Chidorita!" he called. "Can I come in?"
"Only if you stop calling me that," came the swift reply. Junpei couldn't help but grin. She sounded exasperated, but that was way better than her reaction the first time he'd called her that. He was still kind of surprised she hadn't tried to strangle him with her bedsheets or something.
Opening the door, he found her pretty much exactly as he'd expected: sitting up in bed, curtains open to give her better lighting. She was drawing in her sketchbook, a habit he'd been delighted to see her take up again. After everything, he'd thought that was the best sign she was starting to recover.
Now Chidori Yoshino looked up from her sketching, and gave him a warm smile. "You don't have to come quite so often, Junpei-kun," she said. "Honestly, sometimes I think you're still worried I'm going to drop dead at any moment. You do know I've been healthy for over a month now, don't you?"
"Well, yeah." Junpei crossed over to the chair by her bed with a sheepish grin. "But, y'know, I still can't help but worry. After… well. Everything."
"You would. Really, though, I'm fine. The doctors even say I should be able to leave the hospital soon. Even the psychiatric ones." She smiled at the look on his face. "Oh, come now. Don't think I didn't realize what a couple of them were really doing. Amnesia, on top of having once had some kind of special powers? Of course they were going to be worried about my mental state. We both know perfectly well I was healthy enough physically to leave over a month ago."
"…Okay, you got me there." At least she doesn't seem bothered by it. Lots of people wouldn't be happy to know they were seeing a shrink without anybody admitting it. "That's great, though, Chidori. Really great," he said earnestly. "It's about time. But," he added, with a grin, "I'm still gonna worry. Especially until you get a place to live and everything."
"If you say so." She set aside her sketchbook, and looked at him more closely. "But you shouldn't be overdoing it. Right now, you look like you're worrying yourself half to death. Did something happen?"
He shrugged uneasily, not sure exactly how much to tell her. Chidori knew that she'd once had special powers, and was at least vaguely aware that her "friends" in SEES still did. Trying to explain to her about the Abyss of Time, though—or that he'd left a piece of his own soul behind, after the battle at the Great Seal—wasn't something he was sure was a good idea.
Not sure how to explain any of it, really. Damn, but now I know why Minato was so cryptic about some things. That was damn weird.
Chidori sighed, rolling her eyes in a way that reminded him pleasantly of how she'd been before her temporary death. "All right, let me make this a little easier for you, Junpei-kun. I know something happened yesterday. I don't have the power to know exactly what anymore, but even I tell something was off. Tell me, did it have something to do your friend? The one who always felt like Death?"
"Well, you could say that," he admitted, scratching the back of his head. "Okay, yeah, Minato had… kind of a problem, and it ended up…" He trailed off, suddenly realizing exactly what she'd said. "Wait. Chidori. The 'one who always felt like Death'…?"
"Minato Arisato, I believe is his name?" She smiled. No, Junpei corrected himself, smirked. "He's rather memorable. I never encountered anyone who could simply walk right through Mudo spells."
Junpei stared at her. "Chidori," he choked out. "You… you remember…?"
"Everything," she answered, still wearing that smirk. "It all came back to me last night, as a matter of fact. Which is another reason I'm quite sure something unusual happened." She patted the edge of the bed. "So, Junpei-kun. Tell me what I've missed, since I died. Tell me what Takaya and Jin were really up to, and what happened yesterday." Her smirk softened into a real smile. "And then… we can talk about what we're going to do from now on. Together."
April 29th, 2010, Daytime
For all that Akihiko Sanada thought of himself as a fairly cosmopolitan sort—his focus on physical fitness aside—he did have to admit he wasn't particularly well-traveled. There'd never really been much point, in his life, not with sheer strength having been his priority for so many years.
Nishinomiya was definitely not a place he'd ever been. He'd barely even heard of it, until a certain detective had started sharing stories. Certainly Akihiko had never thought he'd ever have any particular reason to visit, and indeed for some time had thought doing so would be a spectacularly bad idea.
Stepping off the train in that very city was definitely not how he'd expected to start Golden Week. Nor deliberately meeting the person waiting for him just outside.
"Hey there, Aki-kun!" Haruka Tsuruya called, waving energetically. She was wearing the same emerald longcoat he'd come to associate with her being "on the job", and flashing the fangy grin he'd always associated with trouble. "How was the trip?"
"Aki-kun?" …I'd think the Detective was a bad influence on her, but she's probably the one he got it from in the first place.
Choosing not to make a fuss about her address, Akihiko simply shrugged. "I've had worse," he said, adjusting his jacket as he walked over to the green-haired lunatic. "I'm probably going to have worse, in a few minutes. I still don't know how the Detective talked me into this."
Chuckling, Tsuruya led him over to a sleek black car, next to which stood a dark-haired youth in a sharp black suit. Miso, if Akihiko remembered right. Another of the North High Irregulars, and just as deep in their own brand of supernatural weirdness as the rest.
After Miso had put Akihiko's luggage in the trunk and let him and Tsuruya into the back seat, the Detective's ex said, "The way Silver-kun told it, it was your idea, Aki-kun. Something about needing to make sure you're still in fighting trim?"
"True enough," he admitted with a grimace, as Miso pulled them out into traffic. "After what happened last month, I do need to find out if I lost anything important. And there's not many people I can think of who can help me with that. Still… somehow I have a bad feeling about this."
It was a meeting Akihiko had honestly been dreading—indeed, actively trying to avoid—for months. He'd originally agreed only in an impulsive moment, when the rest of SEES' teasing had finally plucked his last nerve. After the battle with Erebus in the Abyss of Time, though, and the price they'd all paid to keep Minato alive, he had a practical reason for going through with it.
He hadn't lost nearly as much as Minato had in creating the Great Seal in the first place. That much he was sure of, if only because Caesar was still at his beck and call. But he knew he'd lost something, and he needed to know exactly where he stood. While the threat of Nyx may have been over, at least for his lifetime, he had a feeling his days punching supernatural threats in the nose weren't done yet.
"Aw, it'll be fine, Aki-kun! It's all in good fun. She won't hurt you." Tsuruya grinned again—if she'd ever stopped, which come to think of it he wasn't sure she had. "Only thing is, if it's flashy enough, Ginrou and Dyne might want to have a bout or two, too."
"…If it helps me stay in shape, I can live with it." Akihiko glanced out the window, watching Nishinomiya's skyline flash by. He had no idea where they were, now that he thought about it, and suddenly wished he'd asked Minato for more details about the city.
No chance of that right now. When he says he'll be out of contact, he sure means it. Well, I guess I can't blame him. He's going to be recovering from the Great Seal and the Abyss longer than any of us.
"So, where are we going, anyway?" he asked. "I can't imagine there's many places in a city like this where people like us can just cut loose and not be noticed. Especially if that firebrand is as reckless as the Detective always says she is."
"You'd be surprised," Miso said calmly, from the front of the car. "Don't worry. I've taken measures to keep the match from being noticed by anyone not involved in that side of the world."
"Arson can be pretty obvious, magical concealment or not," Akihiko pointed out. "Especially if it starts to spread. I don't know if you've ever seen a Persona user fight, Miso-san, but between the two of us… it could get pretty flashy, if we're not careful. And I'm not sure of my own strength just now."
"Don't worry 'bout that, Aki-kun," Tsuruya said, waving a dismissive hand. "We got that covered. Somebody else I want you to meet. They'll be on hand in case things get too hot." She laughed. "Remember, we taught Silver-kun to rely on fire. We know a few things about keeping it in check."
Oh, great. Somebody else from this crew that I haven't heard about? …Strange. I would've thought the Detective would've mentioned if there was anyone missing when these guys showed up for the Kendo Tournament last year.
All things considered, Akihiko wasn't too surprised when the car eventually veered into Nishinomiya's warehouse district. If there was anywhere in town where supernatural fighters could cut loose, he supposed that was it. He was even less surprised when they pulled up next to a particularly beat-up warehouse, the kind any upstanding citizen would've stayed far away from.
And probably some of the less-upstanding ones. Just looking at it, I'd have thought the Kirijo Group owned the place.
For all he knew, come to think of it, maybe they did. Minato had helped set up this whole meeting, after all.
The car pulled to a stop just outside, and Miso set about getting everything in order. "You sure you're okay with having the match even before you get unpacked, Aki-kun?" Tsuruya raised an eyebrow. "We could drop by my house first, get settled in."
"No. I want to get the worst over with right away." Akihiko patted the right side of his jacket, where his Evoker currently sat in a shoulder holster. "Besides, something tells me keeping her waiting wouldn't be a good idea."
A burst of laughter from the green-haired lunatic. "Fair enough, Aki-kun! Ah, it's too bad you weren't here for the good old days! You'd have fit right in."
Why do I get the feeling I should take that as an insult?
Walking into the abandoned warehouse, which was pretty much one big, empty space on the inside, Akihiko got his answer. Along with it, he got the biggest shock he'd had since walking into another, flaming warehouse inside the Abyss of Time.
In the center of that open space, he recognized the t-shirt, shorts, and electric blue hair of Hino. The Irregulars' hyperactive pyrokinetic was utterly unmistakable; he'd sometimes seen that face in his nightmares, after she'd announced her intention of having a spar with him someday. She was stretching, clearly preparing for a fight, and her hands and feet were already shimmering with blue fire.
That wasn't what bothered him. What really set his nerves jangling was the realization that another girl stood off to one side, wearing a navy blue coat. And an identical face.
No way. There's two of her?!
Suddenly Akihiko wasn't so sure he wanted to go through with this. He'd been waffling as it was, remembering how enthusiastic Hino had been about the idea from the moment he'd first met her. Discovering that somehow she'd been duplicated turned it from "bad idea" to "oh hell run".
He almost did, but the Hino he recognized chose that moment to notice his presence. "Akihiko-san!" She finished her stretch, grinned, and bounded over. "Awesome! Y'know, I wasn't sure you'd actually come, you've been avoiding me for months, and Silver said you were kind of shy—hey, what's wrong?" Her rapid speech screeching to a halt, she leaned forward with a frown. "Um, Akihiko-san? You look like you've seen a ghost!"
Tsuruya, the troll, started laughing then, but it was the other Hino who spoke next. "You must've given him your usual first impression, Hino," she said calmly, stepping forward. "And then forgot to mention me entirely, right?" She didn't quite roll her eyes. "Though some of this, I suppose, falls on Silver. Clearly he didn't say anything either."
You're damn right he didn't. I'm going to have words with the Detective when he and Mitsuru get back. Clearing his throat, Akihiko first nodded to the Hino he knew. "It's good to see you again, Hino-san," he said, not exactly sincerely. Then, turning to the calmer girl, he gave a short bow. "I'm Akihiko Sanada. May I ask…?"
"Hina," she replied, returning the bow. "Hino's sister. Don't worry, I'm not going to be involved in the fighting. I'm just here in case Hino gets… overzealous. Again." She waved a hand at her twin, and Akihiko was fascinated to see a ripple pass through Hino's flames, accompanied by a wave of cold. "At any rate, it's a pleasure to meet you, Sanada-san."
Hino pouted. "Overzealous? C'mon, Nee-chan, I'm not that bad!"
"You've set more buildings on fire than Silver," Hina retorted. "At least he does it on purpose. Usually."
At least somebody here has some sense, Akihiko thought, starting to feel more at ease than he had since deciding to come to Nishinomiya in the first place. Maybe this won't be so bad.
"On top of that," Hina continued, conspicuously stepping back toward the far wall, "Silver informs us that you have a fondness for lightning, Sanada-san. I for one will be very surprised if this building doesn't need renovation by tonight."
…Now that's just uncalled for, he thought, finding himself in the disturbing position of being in obvious agreement with Hino. I can't possibly be as bad as the Detective! Shinji would've told me—oh. Come to think of it…
Detective, when you get back, I'm going to haul you into the ring for a few rounds. You've made the entire world go mad, and you're going to pay for it.
"Anyway," Hino said then, pointedly turning her back on her sister. "Maybe I can be a bit… overenthusiastic. But seriously, Akihiko-san, it's been ages since I had a good spar. There aren't many street fighters out there who can handle a little fire in the mix."
"I know what you mean," Akihiko told her, grateful to find a least a little common ground. "Plain old boxing just hasn't been the same since I learned how to work Persona into my fighting style. And as for fire?" He grinned, cracking his knuckles. "I've known Minato Arisato for a year. I think I can survive things getting a little hot."
"For your sake, I hope so, Sanada-san," Hina called, from right up against the farthest wall of the warehouse. "I think you'll find my sister doesn't care much about the rules of a fight. Like when to start—"
The flaming dash-punch might actually have hit him, without the warning. Akihiko liked to think he was sharper than that, though, and either way he was already whirling to one side before Hino's fist could reach. Mid-spin, he flung his coat aside, and brushed the punch aside with the gauntlet he'd been wearing under his sleeve.
She seemed determined to keep the initiative, unleashing a flurry of punches that would've set his vest on fire if even one had hit. He managed to sway and duck away from most, before finally catching her left hand with his right—only for a flaming kick to catch him in the jaw.
Hot. Probably going to leave one hell of a bruise later, too. From the impact, pyrokinesis wasn't Hino's only trick. But Akihiko knew enhanced punches well, after sparing with Minato. He took the hit, turned with it, and smashed a backhand across her face in turn.
That might've ended the fight right there. Would have, with any normal opponent. When Hino swung back upright, she was grinning. She wiped blood away from her lip with one arm, and then pulled back to cup both hands together.
Wasn't hard to guess what that meant, even before fire whirled in her hands, red to blue to white. It was Akihiko's turn to grin, even as his hand went for his Evoker. This was a real fight. No limits, not even the laws of physics, and nothing more on the line than bragging rights.
Time to show her what I'm really made of! "Caesar! Zionga!"
April 30th, 2010, Daytime
It had been a long time since Yukari Takeba had been to Kyoto very much. It was where she'd been born, where she spent the first few years of her life—and also where she'd been when her life was turned completely upside-down. What was left of her family had been forced to move, only months later.
This marked the third time she'd been back in only a few months, yet those times were the first in ten years. This was also the first time she'd been able to bring herself to come back to this spot since.
A cemetery, on the edge of Kyoto. A simple headstone, which bore signs of old vandalism. A simple name: Eiichiro Takeba.
"I honestly never thought I'd come here again," the woman next to Yukari remarked softly. "After what we'd been told happened, after how everyone around us reacted… I never wanted to see his grave again. It hurt too much."
"I know, Mom. I felt pretty much the same way." Being told her father had been responsible for a massive explosion. Dealing with the bullying, made all the worse by the fact that none of the kids involved had had family anywhere near Port Island at the time of the incident.
Dealing with her mother's coping mechanism.
Don't think about that now. It's over with, she's turned over a new leaf… just let it go. We all saw in the Abyss of Time what happens when you hold on to old wounds too hard.
Not that Yukari thought anything like that was likely to happen again, or to most people at all. But still. A world made up partly of regrets, one of which had tried very hard to kill them? If nothing else, Minato's living memory of a burning warehouse in Inaba had been an object lesson in the hazards of not letting go of the past.
"All right, Yukari," her mother said then, looking up from Eiichiro Takeba's headstone. "I think I can handle it now. What exactly happened ten years ago? What did your father do? What was he trying to stop?"
Yukari hesitated for a long moment. Ever since their meeting back in January, when they'd begun to reconcile, she'd been wondering exactly how to handle this very conversation. How much she could risk telling, how much her mother would believe…
Now, the wind keening through the otherwise deserted cemetery, she'd decided.
"There was… an experiment," she said finally, turning to meet her mother's eyes. "Mitsuru-senpai's grandfather, Kouetsu Kirijo, had discovered—well, call it a new branch of physics. A way to affect time."
She'd more than half-expected her mother to shut her down right there, to insist it was all nonsense. It would've been the logical response, even Yukari was ready to admit. But her mother only frowned thoughtfully, and gestured for her to go on.
"I don't know all the details," she admitted. "Some of it I don't want to. Some of it is just science that's way over my head. But I do know Kouetsu went crazy—if he wasn't already—and changed the goal of the project. He… well, he tried to bring about the end of the world."
Silence, for a long moment. Yukari wondered if that was too much—yet her mother still wasn't looking at her as if she was crazy. "Do you think he could've done it, Yukari? Really ended the world."
"Believe me, I wish I didn't," Yukari said grimly, shivering at the memories that were being stirred up. "Yeah, Mom. If things had gone the way Kouetsu meant them to, we wouldn't be having this conversation. We got lucky. We…" She swallowed, remembering the video—the real video—she'd seen, of the final moments of that horrible project. "We had Dad there. He realized, finally, what Kouetsu was really doing. Too late to stop it completely, but in time to disrupt it. He did destroy the original school building, yeah. If he hadn't, though, it wouldn't have been one school that was lost. It would've been everything."
"Everything," her mother repeated. She slowly shook her head. "You know, Yukari, that sounds completely insane. If it were anyone else…" She sighed, glancing back down at the headstone. "But I remember Eiichiro saying that there was a breakthrough, something that would change the world. He sounded excited about it, then."
"Well… it did change the world," Yukari admitted, surprising herself with a wry smile. "Just, not the way he hoped. Luckily for us, it wasn't the way Kouetsu wanted, either."
"It did, did it?" The elder Takeba raised an eyebrow. "And do I want to know how? Or how you know that?" There was a silent young lady on the end of that; Yukari supposed her mother thought she didn't quite have the right to go that far, after everything. "Now that I think about it, Yukari, the last time I saw you, you said Eiichiro gave people 'a chance to fix things'. It didn't end that night, did it?"
And now for the hard part. Listening to the mournful whistling of the wind, Yukari wished Minato and Mitsuru were with her again, if only for moral support. But sometimes, I have to just do it myself. Can't count on a team to help me fight all my battles, right? Especially with SEES disbanded.
"It's a long story," she said at length. "A very long story. Kouetsu Kirijo's plot was only delayed, not stopped. Let's say… there were things only certain people could see, and only a tiny handful could fight. A war in the shadows." She closed her eyes, remembering Takeharu Kirijo. Remembering Shinjiro Aragaki. Shuji Ikutsuki, and Strega. "People died. But in the end, just this past January, we finally ended it."
Wholly inadequate words, she thought, for what had really happened. The uncertainty, the fear, the grief and horror. How many people had been killed by Shadow attacks over the years, she didn't think even the Kirijo Group knew. She knew the losses SEES had suffered along the way, and the terror of a supposedly inevitable Apocalypse.
The terror of losing the youth who'd become her best friend, a loss only barely averted in the end.
"'We'." If they hadn't been estranged for so long, the elder Takeba would almost certainly have been promising to ground the younger for a very, very long time, judging from her expression. "Yukari, were you doing something dangerous?"
Oh, that's the understatement of the century. "I was," Yukari admitted, raising her chin defiantly. "Because someone had to. Because I didn't believe Dad was really the bad guy—and no way was I going to sit out finishing what he started if I had any way to help."
Her mother had opened her mouth as if to angrily interrupt. That last sentence seemed to take the wind right out of her sails, and her shoulders slumped. "I… have no argument against that," she admitted quietly. "And I'm certainly in no position to scold you for things you've done in the years we've been part." She took a deep breath. "Dare I hope it really is over?"
"Yes," Yukari said firmly. "January Thirty-First, we stopped the Apocalypse Kouetsu Kirijo started, and Dad interrupted." Her mind flinched, even now, from the memory of that long, grueling battle. She had no intention whatsoever of explaining to her mother just how much the team had been hurt during that—or that they'd been forced to kill two human beings during it. "We stopped that, and at the end of last month, we…"
The Abyss of Time. Meeting Elizabeth, and learning of Minato's "contract" with the mysterious Velvet Room. The terrifying discovery he was dying, from whatever he'd done to stop Nyx, and he couldn't remember what he'd done. The mad time loop, a labyrinth eerily similar to Tartarus, through which they'd had to fight to find the answer.
Old memories, stirred up and shown to the entire team. One of them, a burning warehouse so real they'd walked right into it, despite Minato's warning that what awaited them was "Hell". The charnel house inside, Minato's duel with the Shadow of himself that was no Shadow at all.
Erebus. The Great Seal, made from so much of Minato's own soul that his body couldn't sustain itself. The sacrifice they'd all made, so that they could all live and come home alive.
"I'm sorry," Yukari whispered, when the silence had grown too deep, and her mother obviously worried. "I'm not ready to talk about that, yet. But yeah, Mom. It's over. It's finally over. And…" She swallowed. "There's something I want to show you, Mom. Something a friend of mine, Fuuka, managed to dig up.
"The real last message Dad left."
For a long, long moment, her mother only stared at her. Then, tears shimmering in her eyes, the older woman nodded slowly. "I'd like that, Yukari," she whispered. "I'd like that very much."
"You, girl, are a sight for sore eyes, you know that?"
Watching Natsuki Moriyama drop gracelessly into the seat across from her, Fuuka Yamagishi couldn't help but giggle. "Oh, come on, Natsuki-chan. It can't be that bad. You had time to come all the way back to Port Island, didn't you?"
"Yeah, sure," Natsuki replied, waving a hand dismissively. "For a couple of days in Golden Week. You maybe noticed this is the first time I've had a chance to come back? Aside from that time in January, when you were the one too busy to meet up? Yeah, it's been that bad, Fuuka."
"Well, then, tell me all about it, and we'll see just how bad you've had it."
The two of them were in the Wakatsu Restaurant, overlooking the street by Iwatodai Station. Fuuka had thought about cooking lunch herself, for the first time she'd been able to see Natsuki in months, but in the end decided it wasn't such a good idea. Though Minato had been helping her with her cooking, she still didn't think it was quite good enough to share.
At least it qualified as food these days. Minato had always been very polite—evasive, even—but she'd been able to tell well enough her earliest efforts were about one step up from poisonous.
Natsuki waited until their food arrived, took a few bites of rice, and jabbed her chopsticks at Fuuka. "Okay, first? I totally get now why you ended up moving into the dorm. Used to be my mom and dad didn't care much about my grades, as long as I wasn't failing. Then Dad was sick, and Mom was busy taking care of him. Now? Now Dad's condition is looking up, and the whole thing scared them half to death. And that got them worried about me."
Fuuka nodded, knowing exactly what her friend was talking about. The same kind of thing had driven her to the point of making her sick from the stress, before the bullying had started. "They're putting pressure on you about your grades, huh?"
The tanned girl groaned. "Oh, man, you have no idea. Or, actually, I guess you do. Bad enough when I was getting stressed out about Dad. Now I've gotta be stressed out about test scores? I tell ya, Fuuka, I miss Gekkoukan more every day. My new school has, like, an entire faculty of Ekoda…"
Fuuka listened to her friend vent about her circumstances—school, parents, the universe in general—with an expression of deepest sympathy. Inwardly, though, she couldn't help but be happy to hear about it all. Not that she wanted Natsuki to be stressed out, of course, and she'd do all she could to help the other girl out. It was just… it was helping her slot back into "normal".
She hadn't had much normal, the past year. She'd thought she was finally getting it back after Graduation Day, only to have the Abyss of Time suddenly pop up and turn everything upside-down again. Even after a month, she was still settling down from that.
There wasn't much chance of her life ever being truly "normal" again. If it was, she was pretty sure she wouldn't be satisfied with it. Yet she did still want more of than she'd had since awakening to her power, and Natsuki was a precious tether to that side of her life.
"Enough about me, though," Natsuki said at last, halfway into her second bowl of beef and rice. She arched one eyebrow, and gave Fuuka a serious look. "Give me the scoop, Fuuka. You look as tired as I am. Don't tell me your parents have been giving you trouble again?"
"No, actually," Fuuka said, shaking her head. "Actually," she went on, smiling, "I think I've got that handled now."
Natsuki blinked. "Really? How? …Don't tell me you've decided to be a doctor after all, Fuuka, 'cause that's just not you at all."
"Not a doctor, no," Fuuka assured her, chuckling. "Though to be honest, my parents were pretty skeptical, until I mentioned the right name… You remember who Minato-kun turned out to be, right?"
"Grandson of the current Kuzunoha, yeah." Natsuki kept her voice low, and quickly looked around as if to make sure no one else in the restaurant was trying to listen in. Fuuka appreciated the consideration. Though most of Gekkoukan's student body had apparently forgotten most of the details, it was still better not to take chances. "What about him? Pretty sure I remember hearing he's taken, Fuuka."
Blushing, Fuuka quickly shook her head again. "No, no, it's nothing like that, Natsuki-chan. Actually… he offered me a job. You see, for… well, personal reasons, he's not going to be the next Raidou, so he's branching out on his own. Actually, he's asked a couple of us from the dorm to work with him…"
It promised to be an interesting challenge. She'd known for a long time that she didn't want to be a doctor, if only because her parents' pressure had soured her on it, yet detective work had never even occurred to her before. Going out and looking over crime scenes sure wasn't her kind of thing, after all.
Minato, though, had made a good case for her research skills—he'd specifically reminded her that she'd been the only member of SEES to figure out who he was without being told. More, her power with Juno gave her an advantage that would be invaluable in interviews, even if she never asked a single question herself.
Her parents hadn't been too keen on the idea, at first. Then Fuuka had mentioned the name Kuzunoha, and that the proposed agency would be working extensively with the Kirijo Group.
That her parents' sudden approval was probably partly from being able to brag to the rest of the family soured things only slightly. Fuuka was just glad to definitively have them off her back.
"Well," Natsuki said, when she'd finished explaining the basic plan, "I can't say I ever expected you to end up as a private eye, Fuuka. But y'know what? I think dealing with mysteries suits you. You gotta introduce me to the rest when it gets going!"
That prospect made Fuuka just a bit anxious. If only because introducing the agency's "consultant" was something nobody did lightly—or could predict what would happen during the introduction. The chaos in the Abyss of Time had explained a lot about Minato's knowledge of Persona, and even more about why he'd never wanted to talk about it.
Elizabeth-san is… different. I can only imagine what Minato-kun's conversation with Mitsuru-senpai about her might've been like.
"Well, whatever." Natsuki pushed aside her bowl, and leaned forward to rest her elbows on the table. "That can wait. If that's not what's got you so tired, Fuuka, what is?" She propped her chin on her hands. "C'mon, you can tell me. I know something big went down at the end of January, and it doesn't take a detective to notice Apathy Syndrome disappeared right after. You won that night, right? You beat… whatever it was causing all the trouble."
It was Fuuka's turn to glance around. Not that she thought any of the other patrons would understand a word of any of it, but one never knew. One or another of them might actually have remembered that last Dark Hour, when the whole world was brought into it.
"We did," she said finally, keeping her voice low. "We put a stop to what was behind Apathy Syndrome. We even… stopped… the people who killed Shinjiro-senpai."
From the look in Natsuki's eyes, the other girl had a pretty good idea of what Fuuka meant by "stopped". If it bothered her, though, it didn't show. "Knew you'd pull through, Fuuka. But… that was three months ago. Don't tell me you're still all worn out from that?"
"Not that, no." Fuuka hesitated. "The truth is… things weren't quite finished, that night. What Minato-kun did to end it had consequences. At the end of last month, there was another incident…"
Ken Amada had never actually seen the Shirogane estate in Kyoto before. The last time he'd been to the city, all he'd seen specific to the family had been the gravesite of his newly-adopted siblings' parents. It just hadn't seemed the right time, with the battle against Nyx coming.
Now, during the first real break since the end of the crisis and recovering his memories of exactly how and why he'd been adopted into the Shirogane family… now, he thought, was the right time. Finally, for the first time since his mother died, he had a home to go to during holidays, instead of having to stay at a dormitory.
Not alone, though. The Kirijo-owned car that stopped at the gates on the northern edge of Kyoto let out not just Ken, but Koromaru and Aigis. As had been the case for him, they had no place to call home, so Minato had suggested the two of them also stay at the Shirogane estate.
Really, Ken was grateful. He was still coming to terms with the idea that he had a family again, and felt more than a little overwhelmed by the idea of "going home" all by himself. The key he used now to unlock the gates was his, yet it still didn't feel natural. The familiar company of the Shiba Inu and the robot girl steadied him more than he really wanted to admit.
I wish Aniki was here, he thought, leading the way up the long driveway with as much aplomb as he could project. But I guess I can't blame him and Mitsuru-senpai for going off by themselves for Golden Week. Sure, we all went through a lot last month, but they had it worst.
He tried not to think about the Abyss of Time too much. It had been overwhelming, and it had dealt with a lot of old trauma too personal for even friends to be comfortable knowing. Though at least he'd come out of it understanding his new brother and future sister-in-law better.
Perversely, what Ken thought he wanted most from his new home, at least for now, was a bed. The price they'd paid for Minato's survival was one they'd all be a long time recovering from.
The sight waiting at the front door of the Shirogane house—if "house" was the right word—surprised him. The blue-haired girl a few years his senior was one thing. The other girl, hair a blue several shades paler than the first, wearing a neat black suit, was something else.
Another Anti-Shadow Weapon? …I knew they were working with Shirogane-san—Grandfather—but I didn't expect to see one of them here.
"Ken," Naoto Shirogane said, with a warm smile, distracting him from the puzzle. "It's good to see you again. Welcome to your new home."
"Thank you, Naoto-nee-san," Ken replied, with an awkward bow. "I'm glad to be here."
"Now, now," she said, shaking her head. "No need to be so uncomfortable, Ken. We're family now, remember? I know it will take come getting used to, for all us, but please, relax." She chuckled, reaching up to adjust her hat. "I'm not that much older than you are, anyway." Naoto turned her attention to the others. "And welcome to you as well, Koromaru, Aigis-san. Please, make yourselves at home."
Koromaru perked up at being directly addressed—Ken had the odd feeling that his new sister realized the dog was more than he appeared—and barked cheerfully. At least he doesn't have any worries about being here. Sometimes I envy dogs.
It was Aigis' turn to bow. "Thank you, Shirogane-san," she said. "I'm glad to meet you again, under happier circumstances than last time."
"Likewise, Aigis-san. I expect we'll have much to talk about. But for now, shall we go in?" Naoto gestured to the door. "Tethys, if you would please take their luggage?"
"Of course, Naoto-sama." Tethys opened the door, carefully took Ken and Aigis' bags, and led the way into the house. "I will show you to your rooms later," she said over her shoulder, splitting off to head upstairs.
Ken couldn't help but shiver. Though he'd never heard any of the Anti-Shadow Weapons—besides Aigis, of course—speak, he'd certainly met Tethys before. The last time he'd seen her, she'd just hit with the flat of a very heavy sword. Of course, that had been with Ikutsuki controlling them. Still…
Naoto glanced back, caught his expression, and smiled wryly. "I'm aware you have something of a history with Aigis-san's sisters, Ken, and I admit it's taking some getting used for me as well, having them around. I assure you, however, that you're in no danger."
"I know," Ken said, and meant it. Naoto, from what he'd seen of her, was probably the most cautious member of the family—even if he was pretty sure Minato's sister had to have some kind of reckless streak in her. "It's just, um…"
"I know," she said. "There's a lot going on that's going to take time for all of us to adjust to. In the end, though, I believe it will turn out the best for all concerned."
Shortly, they arrived in what Ken thought was a sitting room of some kind—not that he'd spent much time in fancy houses before, but that was the term he'd heard on TV. There was a tea set waiting at a table, along with a dish on the floor for Koromaru.
"I apologize for not having anything out for you, Aigis-san," Naoto said then, gesturing for them to sit. "I'm afraid entertaining androids isn't something I've done before, and Tethys is still somewhat, ah, reserved. I assume you don't eat, but what alternative you might use…?"
"It's fine, Shirogane-san," Aigis assured her, carefully settling into one of the chairs as if afraid of breaking it. "I've been adjusting to social situations for some months now. You don't need to worry about me." She paused. "If I may ask… how are my sisters doing? Truthfully, I've been afraid to ask after them before now."
Naoto shrugged. "Grandfather usually has Rhea and Labrys running errands, though less so the last couple of months. As far as I can tell, they're doing fine, if not nearly as well-adjusted as you seem to have become recently. Tethys, Grandfather abruptly left here at the end of January, ostensibly as domestic staff. So far she's actually settling in quite well. If anything, I'd say she seems shy."
A shy robot. Not even a year ago, that would've sounded very strange to Ken. Even after meeting Aigis, really. After seeing her develop, though—especially after her confrontation with Ryoji Mochizuki—it seemed only natural that Aigis' sisters would have much the same problems.
Worse, probably, he thought, cautiously sipping at his tea. Aigis-san at least had some time around us for awhile before that. Tethys and the others… from the sound of it, they've only even been "awake" since Ikutsuki activated them to use against us.
"I can see that Tethys isn't the only shy one around here," Naoto observed, breaking into his thoughts. Startled, he looked up to find her looking back at him, one eyebrow raised. "Ken? Are you all right?"
"Um, yeah, of course!" he said quickly, hurrying to take another sip.
Her other eyebrow went up.
Right, Aniki's sister. Of course she'd see right through me. "I'm just… It's weird, having a home again," Ken confessed. "It hasn't even been three years, but ever since my mom died, I've been living in dorms. I never even had much family to begin with, and what I've got left, well, didn't seem to want anything to do with me."
"So I've heard." Naoto set her teacup down, clasped her hands together, and frowned thoughtfully. "Truthfully, Ken, I don't know quite how you feel. I was too young to notice much when my parents died, and of course my grandfather took in my brother and me right after. Kyousuke might have a better perspective on it, he was there and took it rather badly.
"Of course," she continued, "he's gone off somewhere with Kirijo-san, and likely won't be back until Golden Week is over. That being said, I do have some experience with being alone much of the time."
Ken blinked, surprised. "You do?"
"Of course." Sighing, Naoto leaned back in her chair. "Grandfather is still active as a detective, and so has been gone frequently my whole life. Nii-san spent much of his childhood running from one place to another, from the trauma when our parents died, and of course Saya-nee's death… well. You likely know the details of that by now."
Did he ever. He was kind of surprised Minato had ever come out of his shell again, having seen the aftermath with his own eyes.
"I don't blame either of them, really," she went on, closing her eyes. "There are things only Grandfather can do, and Nii-san's reaction was certainly understandable. Even so, I've got a keen understanding of what it is to be lonely, Ken. So this is my promise to you."
Naoto's eyes opened again, and she met Ken's gaze with an intensity that surprised him.
"I've never been a big sister before," she told him. "But I'm going to do my best from here on. You're family, now, and this is your home. And from now on, Ken, you will never be alone."
A home, hm? And family. I wonder… just what that's really like.
Standing on a second floor balcony, Aigis leaned on the railing and looked up at the stars. It was almost midnight, now, and a part of her was still feeling the old anticipation. Three months, and it still felt so strange to no longer spend evenings getting ready to fight.
Strange, but… good, she thought. Even if she didn't yet know exactly what it was to "live", she still shared her friends' relief at the crisis finally being over. There was time, finally, to think about how else an Anti-Shadow Weapon might exist in the world.
Aigis did wonder how her sisters were taking it all. Rhea and Labrys had apparently more or less officially become Johei Shirogane's assistants, while Tethys was seemingly a family attendant. Or possibly a direct aide to Naoto, she wasn't quite sure on that point. Either way, her sister had so far seemed hesitant to talk with her at all.
"Shy," Aigis murmured, indulging in the human habit of voicing her thoughts to no one. "I suppose that's normal. Still… I can't help but hope we can act as real sisters, someday…"
"I'm sure you will, Aigis-san."
She almost jumped, startled by the unexpected voice, and chided herself for being so distracted she didn't even notice another's approach. "Shirogane-san?" she said, turning to face the newcomer.
"Naoto, please, Aigis-san," the girl said, bowing slightly. "My apologies for startling you. May I?"
"Oh, of course." Aigis shifted over, making room for Naoto at the railing. "After all, this is your home, not mine."
"As long as you're here, Aigis-san, any friend of my brother's is welcome to treat this as their home, as well." Naoto rested her elbows on the rail, gaze turned out toward the city lights. Kyoto's skyline was much lower than most cities its size, by law, but was still bright enough at night. "As I was saying… I believe, as your sisters become accustomed to living, you'll be able to connect with them."
"I hope so." Aigis turned to follow the human girl's gaze. To look at the lights that signified the society humanity had built, the connections formed between people. "Though I have a soul of my own, I still haven't had much of a chance to 'live'. From what I've seen, having a family is an important part of that. It's just…" She sighed, as well as a being that did not breathe could. "I see them so seldom, I don't know that there's anything on which to build connections."
"Mm. I understand what you mean. But, Aigis-san?" Naoto turned to meet her eyes. "As I told Ken earlier, my brother and I spent much of our younger years apart. Even so, we still have a strong bond as siblings. I know that if I ever need him, he's there. Whether I need someone to talk to, or someone to rescue me, he's always been there. I think, if you do what you can for your sisters when you can, you'll be an excellent big sister for them."
"A… big sister…" Aigis repeated. "Hm…"
She wasn't sure how to do that. Truthfully, as hesitant as Tethys apparently was to meet her, Aigis wasn't much better off. The only time she'd ever interacted with her sisters to any notable degree was when Shuji Ikutsuki had tried to use them all to murder her friends.
I still have to try, though. For them, and for me. Minato-kun wants me to work with him, and I want to live in human society, I need to understand humanity better. If I want to be something more than an Anti-Shadow Weapon—a weapon whose purpose is finish—I have to.
"Speaking of your sisters, Aigis-san," Naoto said at length, looking back toward Kyoto. "I assume, like yourself, they're all Persona users?"
"In theory," Aigis confirmed, glad for a topic on which she was on firmer ground. "They never used Persona against SEES when under Ikutsuki's control, and I haven't heard of them doing so while working with your grandfather. Fuuka-san's belief is that they hadn't had a chance to gain enough of a sense of self…" She trailed off, realizing what she was saying—and what her companion had said. Turning to look at the other girl, eyes wide, she said, "Naoto-san? You…?"
Naoto gaze met hers, accompanied by a distinctly smug smile. "Nii-san isn't quite as good at keeping secrets as he thinks he is, Aigis-san. He didn't notice me listening at the door, the last time he spoke with Grandfather here—and it didn't occur to him I might ask your sisters. Though Grandfather might have thought of it, one never knows what he might be up to… Also. I remember January Thirty-First."
Aigis winced. Minato had never spoken to her much about his family, but she did know he didn't want Naoto involved in the supernatural world if it could possibly be helped. Though it was of course impossible to hide her own robotic nature, her intent had been—if asked—to play up Naoto's apparent assumptions about "cyberpunk".
…I suppose I shouldn't blame myself. Or Minato-kun for being careless. If Naoto-san remembers the Promised Day, there'd be no way to hide the truth any longer, anyway.
"What do you know, Naoto-san?" she asked warily.
"I believe I have a rough understanding of the concept of Persona," the other girl replied, turned around to lean back against the railing. "Including, from a remark my brother probably should have known better not to make, that I likely have unrealized potential myself. I know that our parents were killed by a 'Shadow', apparently directly connected to the entity I assume manifested three months ago, and I have a working knowledge of Shadows themselves. Thanks to your sisters, that is."
"…I believe Minato-kun is not going to be happy, when he finds out," Aigis said, resisting the urge to indulge in a human "facepalm". "He's very protective of you, Naoto-san."
"I know he is, and I understand why. But frankly, any problem he has with what I've learned is his problem." There was steel in Naoto's eyes, to go with the smug smile. "I know why he was kept in the dark for so long. Unlike Kyousuke, however, I'm not so insane as to deliberately rush into things when I lack the power to defend myself. Also unlike him, it has occurred to me that such things might come after me, simply because of his and Grandfather's connections. I, for one, would prefer to have a better idea of when I should simply run away."
Logic. Aigis couldn't deny Naoto's argument made sense—especially since Minato's connections had once come to harm her, as SEES had so recently learned. She wasn't sure Minato would see it that way—he clung to secrets tightly, albeit with some reason—but the truth was the girl had a point.
The cat, as a human might say, was well and truly out of the bag. If Aigis was any judge, Naoto now knew enough about the supernatural world to potentially put her in further danger, yet not enough to properly avoid it.
Well. To 'live' is to make one's own decisions, not just rely on others for orders. I suppose this is my first chance to act on my own judgment. …And if Minato-kun complains, I'll tell him to take it up with Naoto-san.
"All right, Naoto-san," she said at last. "What do you want to know?"
"A lot of things, to be honest," Naoto replied immediately. Then her eyes narrowed. "But for a start? I want to know why my brother sounded so tired for weeks after that strange night, and why he was so much better when he passed through here yesterday."
"That's… something of a long story, Naoto-san. And, truthfully, an ugly one." Aigis met the human girl's gaze soberly. "Do you want the truth about Saya Kisaragi's death? Because that's an important part of how your brother's life was saved, after he nearly sacrificed himself to save the world. That truth is… disturbing."
"I'm sure it is, Aigis-san." Naoto didn't flinch. "Kyousuke is my brother. Saya-nee was like a sister to me. Whatever the truth is, I want to know why she almost killed him—and what that could possibly do with him 'saving the world'."
Aigis sighed. Minato-kun isn't going to be happy with me, is he? …At least I've thought of something to help one of my sisters find a place, though. "All right, then. Though after we're done here, I'm going to have a talk with Tethys. Minato-kun wouldn't forgive me if I didn't at least make sure you had a bodyguard, at least until he's finished panicking about it."
"Oh, that should take a few years," Naoto murmured. She sounded more amused than anything else, though. "I suppose I can live with having a battle android on hand, if I must." She chuckled; then quickly sobered. "Aigis-san. Please."
"If you insist." The gynoid turned to look up at the stars again—at the moon, which had not so long ago itself been her enemy. "You know that your parents were killed by Death, by the Appriser. Three months ago, the being it heralded, Nyx, awoke and attempted to bring about the Fall. We—SEES—fought her, and in the end Minato-kun succeeded in sealing her away.
"That victory was… costly. A month ago now, the aftereffects were still taking their toll on him, and events came together to bring us all to a place called the Abyss of Time. SEES, Tsuruya-san, and a woman by the name of Elizabeth had no choice but to delve into that Abyss, to learn the truth and save Minato-kun's life…"
April 30th, 2010, Daytime
Two days before Graduation Day, Mitsuru Kirijo had asked where a detective went when he didn't want to be found. At the time, it had been more a playful flight of fancy, her memories still clouded from the shock of the Dark Hour's disappearance. In all honesty, she hadn't meant much of anything by it, what with the burdens of her continuing education and responsibilities toward the Kirijo Group.
That was before she'd remembered the truth, and just how… adventurous… she and her detective could really be, when the mood struck.
After the chaos and stress that had been their foray into the Abyss of Time, Mitsuru had quite firmly made the decision that a vacation was in order, as soon as possible. Golden Week, therefore, had seen the two of them drop by Kyoto, where she'd taken the time to inform the local Kirijo Group branch—and through them, the Board of Directors—in no uncertain terms that she would not be available for several days.
Which was how she now found herself on her old motorcycle, dressed in her riding leather, pressed tight against Minato Arisato's coat-protected back. He hadn't actually answered her question, when she'd first asked, and he still hadn't told her as of when they'd set out that very morning. She could see, though, that they were speeding down a coastal road, by now far from any major city, at speeds that weren't exactly legal.
They'd passed at least three police cars without being noticed. Mitsuru was fairly sure Minato was invoking some manner of arcane power to ensure that—not that she had any intention of asking. In all honesty, she'd been feeling rather bold lately herself.
Very bold, she thought with some amusement, as Minato whipped them through a series of curves as a speed she was fairly sure his sister would not have approved. It's just the two of us, after all, and Minato promised there wouldn't be anyone else at all where we're going.
It's been far too long since it's just been the two of us.
Minato had promised her a surprise, when they arrived. Mitsuru rather thought he'd enjoy the one she had for him, in turn.
Cheerfully ignoring the flush the thought brought to her face, she pressed herself closer against Minato's back. "So, Detective," she said playfully, glad that Artemisia could still carry her words despite the loss of his Persona abilities. "Still not going to tell me where we're going?"
"Wouldn't be much of a surprise if I did," he replied, not missing a beat as he whipped the bike around a semi truck that wasn't moving fast enough for his liking. "It's going to be peaceful and quiet, though, I'll tell you that. I think we both need that, after so much time in the city, fighting monsters."
"Mm. I won't deny that. Though to be honest, I almost expected you to take me up to Inaba, in that case."
Not something she would've expected just a month before, of course. Minato had very good reason to shy away from the rural town, as she'd seen firsthand in the Abyss of Time. But he'd made his peace with the ghost inside him at last, so she'd honestly been curious if he wanted to show her the sights from his childhood.
"Nope, not this trip," he said, with a calm he definitely wouldn't have had just that month before. "My family does have a nice place out there, up in the mountains, that I want to show you sometime. But that was someplace I spent a lot of time with Saya. For our first outing together, I thought something new would be better."
Well. She couldn't say no to that, now could she?
Especially with him sounding stronger than he had for too long. Minato was still obviously not in top fighting condition, yet he was getting stronger by the day, no longer growing more tired every morning, sustained only by an arcane concoction. Better, much of the bitterness that had sometimes clouded his expression, when he'd thought no one was looking, had gone.
A fresh start. For both of us.
A bit after lunch, they finally pulled into what Mitsuru thought was possibly the smallest town she'd ever seen. It seemed to consist of little more than a single intersection, a dirt road leading out to some farms—and a small marina.
"Full disclosure," Minato said, when they'd slowed enough to be heard over the bike's engine. "I did kinda get this idea from an experience with Tsu-chan. But this is not the same boat from back then. That one was too big for one or two people to handle properly, and had to be scuttled after anyway, so… Well. Anyway."
Realizing quickly just what incident he had to be referring to, Mitsuru found herself blushing again. "That's all right, Minato," she said, as casually as she could manage. "I will say Tsuruya-san's adventurous streak seems appropriate, just now."
She really wasn't jealous over it. Not at this point. That worry was one she'd left behind in the Abyss of Time, with the closure she and Minato had both found in that place.
Somehow, she wasn't too surprised when Minato carefully rolled the bike right onto the docks and from there—very gingerly—up onto a six-meter sailboat's deck. "I suppose," she said, when they came to a complete stop, "that I should've realized you had something like this in mind when we reached the coast, Minato. You do realize this is a little crazy? Just the two of us, when I don't know much about sailing and I doubt you have that much experience, either?"
Pulling off his helmet, Minato turned to grin at her. "Are you complaining?"
She doffed her own helmet, replaced it with a pair of aviator sunglasses, and smiled back. "Perish the thought. I wish I'd thought of it myself. …I trust you do know how to, ah, cast off?"
"Well enough," he said, helping her off the bike. "Here, tie the bike down to the deck, and I'll get us untied and moving. If all goes well, we'll be off and tucked into a deserted shelter by the end of the day. Nobody around for kilometers."
"Mm… that sounds good to me." Following his instructions, Mitsuru took the coil of rope Minato pulled from his bag and wrapped it securely around the bike, tying it tightly to rings set in the deck. At the same time, he untied the boat from its mooring, then set about getting the sails into shape.
Just before actually going to the wheel to get the boat into motion, Minato moved to the center of the deck, knelt, and pressed his hand against a strange symbol drawn there. What it was, Mitsuru had no idea, though Artemisia carried to her a faint sense of power at work. Not Persona, she was sure, but power nonetheless.
She was more certain when a not-quite-visible wave rippled out from the symbol, passing through her with enough power to make her shiver. It was very similar, she thought, to something she'd noticed Miso of the North High Irregulars once doing in her presence.
"And that was in honor of…?"
"It'll make sure no one notices us," Minato told her, standing. He headed over to the wheel, but paused halfway there to squeeze her shoulder. "Where we're going isn't even on the regular charts, but who wants to take chances? I don't want to see anyone—or be seen by anyone—for at least three days. This is just about us."
"Yes," she murmured, watching appreciatively as he dropped his armored coat—the same, battered one he'd worn to fight Nyx—on the deck, revealing a t-shirt tight enough to show off the muscles of a professional monster hunter. "Yes, I'd rather not be observed for awhile either, Minato…"
Smiling, Mitsuru fingered her jacket's zipper, and waited for Minato to take them out to sea. She couldn't say she was completely without regrets. She still wished they could have saved Shinjiro Aragaki, even if, in the end, he'd been doomed by his own actions regardless. That her father hadn't lived to see the final end of their family's sin was something she knew would eat at her for the rest of her life.
But in the end, she thought, as the boat eased away from the dock, this is an outcome I can live with. We saved the world, however much it cost, and lived to celebrate our victory. In an imperfect world, I can hardly ask for more.
Sailing wasn't something Minato Arisato had had cause to do very much. Really, he was an amateur at best, and if he and Mitsuru hadn't both had paranormal means to protect themselves if something went wrong, he wouldn't have risked going out, just the two of them, at all.
But he had taken classes, as part of one of Tsuruya's harebrained schemes, after the Ship in a Bottle incident. He was, unofficially, qualified, and both he and Mitsuru knew how to swim. They were probably safer than many certified sailors would've been.
Regardless, as he guided the boat his grandfather had procured under circumstances he didn't care to know farther out to sea, Minato was happy. Happier and more relaxed than he thought he'd been in a long, long time. This was the first chance he'd had to appreciate the crisis being over at last, after all.
Nyx's defeat had led to his friends forgetting the bonds they'd forged. Recovering from that had hit at about the time he'd discovered he was dying. Fixing that had been traumatic and cathartic in almost equal measure, and right on the heels of the Abyss of Time had been the start of the new school year. He hadn't quibbled for a moment when Mitsuru declared they'd be taking Golden Week off.
And I'm going to enjoy every moment of it, he thought, taking one hand off the wheel to finger the scars over his heart. Saya… thank you, for everything. I won't waste what you've given me. I promise.
"Thinking deep thoughts, Minato?" Mitsuru called, from where she'd been setting up—and tying down—a wide chair on the deck. "Good ones, I should hope?"
"Just glad it's all over," he answered honestly, smiling at the simple sight of his fiancé in riding leather. He didn't get to see that nearly often enough. "I'm done with the whole dying thing, and I've still been dead tired from everything else we've been doing. I'll be glad to have all the serious stuff off me for a few days."
"I certainly won't argue with you there. Very well, no business talk out here. Just… fun." Finishing with the chair, she straightened, looked out over the bow, and frowned. "Is that our destination ahead?"
"That would be it."
A small island had risen on the horizon, and gradually grew larger as Minato steered the boat more directly toward it. Vaguely "C" shaped, with cliffs easily high enough to both conceal their little boat from view and protect it from the worst of the weather. There was nothing else around for kilometers, and from Minato's research it was well away from any shipping lanes or common fishing locations.
"Very nice," Mitsuru mused. Turning back to him, she lifted an eyebrow. "So. Do I really want to know why this island is uncharted? We're not that far from the Home Islands."
"I don't know for sure, to be honest," he said with a shrug. "Grandfather apparently had a case here, a few decades back, and all he'll say about it is that it left traces of 'spooky' that should be harmless to us but aren't something the normal world ought to know about. Whether he made arrangements with the people making the charts, or the government, or did something spookier, I have no idea."
She was silent for awhile, while he guided the boat into the waiting safe harbor of the island. "I suppose that should bother me," she finally said, just as he brought them to a careful halt (after bumping, very gently, against the nearest cliff face). "But after fighting Nyx, it takes a bit more than 'spooky' to really worry me."
"Yeah," Minato agreed, leaving the wheel to get the boat securely anchored. "Just the stuff since New Year's has really put everything else in perspective, hasn't it? I bet Yukari doesn't even blink at ghost stories anymore."
Mitsuru chuckled. "Oh, I think that would take a bigger miracle." That eyebrow rose again. "So? Are we secure, Minato?"
"We are now," he said, and dropped the anchor over the side. "I think. If I'm wrong, we'll know when we wake up in the middle of nowhere."
"I'll take it." Looking back out to sea, she smiled. "Alone at last… the most alone we've ever been, I think."
Yeah. The sun was beginning to set, red scattering across the waves. Minato hardly noticed, distracted as he was by the sunset's effect on his companion. Mitsuru's red hair took on a sheen like the fire he knew so intimately; when she pulled off her sunglasses, her eyes flashed like flames of their own.
She was the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen. Everything he'd been through since first walking into the Dark Hour, he thought, all the pain, all the times he'd nearly died… they were all worth it. For this moment, he'd go through it all again.
He didn't realize he'd started toward until she turned to look back at him, narrowed her eyes, and smiled a sultry smile that sent his heart racing. "Well," she murmured, fingers gliding up to the tab of her jacket zipper. "Here we are at last." She pulled it down, ever so slowly. "Alone. Finally."
Mitsuru's jacket fell open, and Minato stopped abruptly, transfixed. For a few endless moments, all he could do was stare. From the look on her face—what he could see of it, from the angle of his gaze—she'd expected exactly that, and was quite pleased with herself for it.
"Mitsuru?" he said at length. "Where's your shirt?" He paused. "And your bra?"
"Oh, I probably have a set buried in my bag somewhere," she said airily, waving a hand in casual dismissal. Then she folded her arms under her breasts, only slightly concealed by her open jacket. "I thought I'd just borrow yours, for this trip." She licked her lips. "If, for some reason, I needed one."
Minato thought he really ought to have been used to things like that, with how his life had been the last few years. From Mitsuru, he found himself completely blindsided—though he wasn't at all sure he minded. "…Aren't you cold?"
Now Mitsuru rolled her eyes. "I haven't been cold since I obtained Artemisia's power, Minato. A little time letting my skin breathe won't bother me at all, just as I'm sure you've taken measures of your own. But," she added, lowering herself into the deck chair, "if you're still worried, we'll be warmer if we share."
Not an invitation he had any intention of declining. In moments he was beside in the chair. Rather, partially under her, as she settled into the crook of his left arm and draped herself partly across his chest. That she was spilling out of her jacket didn't seem to bother her a bit.
"Much better," she breathed. "We've been so busy lately, with no time to ourselves, I'd almost forgotten what this was like."
"Bolder of you than I'm used to, Mitsuru," he commented, shifting so that he could stroke her hair with the hand she was trapping. "Out in the open like this…"
"Where no one can see us anyway, if all goes well," Mitsuru pointed out, leaning into his hand. "But yes," she conceded. "Not too long ago, I don't think I could've done something like this. I think… I think I left that part of myself behind, in the Abyss of Time." She chuckled, the motion causing interesting sensations across his chest. "Maybe that's the part of me that joined the Great Seal… Are you complaining?"
"No," Minato said softly. "No, I don't think I am." Impulsively, he leaned down, cupping her chin in his free hand, and kissed her.
When they broke for air, a small eternity later, Mitsuru laughed, low and warm. "That's more like it. This… this is what I survived Nyx for." And she pulled him back in, twisting so that she was lying directly on top of him.
An assertive Mitsuru wasn't something Minato was used to. In the rare moments of coherent thought he had for the next while, he determined he would need to arrange secluded vacations as often as possible, and hang the Kirijo Group.
Some uncounted time later, late enough that the sun was slipping beneath the waves, Mitsuru settled back into the crook of his arm again. "This time last year," she mused, at length, "I don't think I would ever have imagined that I'd be here, like this."
"I hope that's not a complaint," Minato teased, raising his own eyebrow this time.
"After that? Hardly." She chuckled, then sobered. "No. No, it isn't. We all paid a steep price to make it this far, and I will always regret that my father didn't live to see our victory. But after a lifetime of living with the Shadows, a decade of the Dark Hour with no clue to an end? I could never have imagined that just a year later I'd be engaged to the man I loved, celebrating the end of my grandfather's ambitions on a sailboat at an uncharted island." A lazy smile. "How strange life can be."
"No argument here. On any of it."
"Oh?" Eyes half closed, Mitsuru craned her neck to look up at him. "Funny. With your tales, I'd think this pretty normal, for you, Minato."
"Not crazy enough," he said, deadpan. "My 'normal' would have us out here fighting mutant sharks or something. Cuddling at sunset? That's weird for me. In a good way."
"A very good way, if you ask me." She snuggled closer. "So. What's next for you? I know you've been talking with your grandfather again, but we haven't had time to touch base lately."
Minato's eyebrows went up. "I thought we agreed no business?"
"My duties with the Kirijo Group are business. Your ambitions as a detective are pleasure." She smiled up at him again. "Am I wrong?"
"I can't argue with that logic, no…" True, for both of them their prospective careers were family businesses. That was basically where the similarities ended, however. The Kirijo Group was a large-scale corporation/organized crime syndicate, with a Board of Directors causing their own issues, and an overall focus on pure profit. The Shirogane family was a line of—admittedly well-paid—detectives who did their jobs as much for the sheer thrill of the mystery as out of any sense of obligation.
"Besides," Mitsuru said wryly, "we both know you'd go crazy without a little chaos in your life. That much certainly hasn't changed, whatever else may have since the Abyss."
"Well. Yeah." Minato chuckled, acknowledging the hit. "Fine. I've been consulting with Grandfather about getting my own detective agency set up. A bit early, yeah, but… well, I think we can agree that I've got a bit more experience in the field than most people our age."
"That, Detective, is probably the biggest understatement you've ever made. And with you, that's saying something." Another chuckle of her own. "You said 'agency', so I take it you're not content simply being on retainer to the Kirijo Group."
"As appealing as that sounds," he said dryly, "I think that would be a waste of my talents. And Naoto would hurt me if all I did was help ninkyo-dantai find loopholes… Speaking of whom, no, I'm not looking to bring her into it. She's definitely too young, and has nothing to protect her in the kind of cases I want to specialize in."
Minato was very much afraid it wouldn't stay that way, admittedly. Shirogane inheritance of certain traits could be spotty, but it was a virtual certainty she'd gotten at least some of it. If and when her own powers awakened… well. He was hoping to put that off as long as possible. She'd already been in enough danger in her life, whether she remembered it or not.
"It's Fuuka and Aigis I've been sounding out on it, actually," he went on after a moment. "Koromaru, too; we could use a good nose to help out. Maybe Ken. Eventually," he added quickly, when she turned an arch look up at him. "Not for several years, obviously. In the meantime, the three of us should be enough, so Grandfather and I are looking into establishing the Silver-Eyes Detective Agency by about this time next year."
There was, after all, a niche he wanted to fill as quickly as possible. His grandfather handled mundane cases for high-profile clients at least as much as he did anything else, and in any case he was only one man. Minato wanted to take on the supernatural cases Raidou Kuzunoha had no time for, or would simply be too overt.
Tsuruya had gotten it right: he couldn't stand not being where the chaos was. If that was the case, he wanted to make the most of it. After all, it worked out in Port Island, didn't it?
"Ready to jump right into the next crisis, aren't you, Minato?" The sun was well and truly down now, but Minato's eyes were more than good enough to see Mitsuru's rueful smile by moonlight. "Let me guess: you're already accepting any leads that come your way."
"Well… not just any lead. But it's true, I've had a couple of contacts." Shifting awkwardly, Minato reached over to pull a pair of envelopes from his discard coat's pockets. One of them was a crisp white, sealed with an arcane symbol in wax. The other was deep blue, and unadorned.
Mitsuru took them with obvious interest. "Hm… If I were to guess, one of these is from the 'Association' Tsuruya-san works with. And the other… ah. The Velvet Room?"
He nodded. "The Association apparently wants me as an observer for some kind of major event next year. I'm going to ask Tsu-chan and Grandfather about that before I do anything rash… And Elizabeth has apparently decided waiting for the next 'guest' is boring, after my contract, and wants to play confidential informant. I'll be meeting her sometime next week; she didn't want to talk about it in a letter, I guess."
"Mm. That sounds like her."
Somewhat to Minato's relief, Mitsuru hadn't been at all jealous when finally introduced to Elizabeth. If anything, she'd recognized pretty quick that Minato found her as unnerving as she did, and took it more or less in stride. The fact that the specter of Saya Kisaragi had also been put to rest during the events within the Abyss of Time, he thought, had probably also helped.
"Well," Mitsuru said now, lifting her arms to stretch, "that does sound like business, so that's the last we'll say of that tonight. I do believe it's getting late, Minato." She pushed herself up and out of the chair—and in the middle of another long, lingering stretch, let her leather jacket slip away and fall to the deck. "I think it's time we turned in, don't you? We're out here to rest, after all, so we should get right on that… eventually."
Favoring him with a half-lidded gaze and another sultry smile, she stretched in just the right way to emphasize her chest, and slipped through the hatch into the boat's small interior.
Well. That was hardly an invitation Minato Arisato was going to refuse. Hauling himself out of the deck chair, he paused only to take the time to stow his coat and Mitsuru's jacket safely in a locker—along with the two letters he'd received, which he suspected heralded the next round of conflict in his life.
"To the heir to title of Silver: you are hereby invited to participate, as a neutral observer, in a ritual to take place approximately ten months hence. At the appropriate time, travel details to Fuyuki City will be provided…"
"My dear Minato. Though our Contract has been fulfilled, it seems there are certain loose ends that yet remain. As my sister has recently returned to the Velvet Room, I find myself free to provide some measure of aid as a free agent. If you have the time, I would ask your permission to visit at your family's home, early next month. We have much to discuss. Until then, take care. -Elizabeth"
Ominous. But Minato had defied Fate and Death themselves to get where he was, and he wasn't going to let something so comparatively minor ruin his vacation. At that moment, the most important thing in his world was the redhead in his bed.
Smiling to himself, Minato tossed the letters in with his coat, along with his phone, and headed belowdecks. After all, the two of them really did need sleep… eventually.
Well, comrades, here we have it: eight years and six months after the posting of the first chapter of Persona: Defiance of Fate, we have finally reached the conclusion. To all who stuck with it to the end, thank you.
(First, important note: that's not a weird time loop or a typo, when April 30 goes back to Daytime. Just exigencies of formatting and narrative.)
I suppose, at this point, a bit of reflection is in order. To begin with, I apologize for parts of the epilogue being a bit weak, especially some of the team member "Where Are They Now?" scenes. Truth be told, I somehow didn't even think of doing the individual scenes until just before I needed to write the first one (Akihiko's was written first, for the curious, with the order rearranged afterward). A grievous oversight on my part, which doubtless contributed to them being a bit rambling and aimless. If ever I have the energy and inspiration for it, I'd like to touch up one or two of them. Especially Akihiko's.
Speaking of lack of energy, I must again apologize for not fully detailing The Answer's events. It was always intended to be kept separate from the main body of the fic regardless, due to heavy reliance on the understandably controversial crossover elements, but its absence from the main narrative does leave some fairly obvious and abrupt gaps. I did my best to at least provide the most pertinent details here—with a couple glossed over to preserve the surprise for if/when I do finally write it properly—but the awkwardness remains.
As to my views, here at the very end, of the story as a whole? I'll be the first to admit that it didn't turn out quite as I had originally intended. I do stand by my decision to give Minato a history with the supernatural, both because any character who is not merely a plot device has a past and because his canon calm when first entering the Dark Hour is not normal (and the game's canon does not in any way support the movies' assertion he'd been dealing with the Dark Hour all those years). That being said, the execution was distinctly flawed, with multiple contradictions early in the fic before I settled on a firm, cohesive backstory. (Note he claims at one point to have never joined a school club before, only for it to shortly be established he hunted ghosts with one at his old school. Oops.)
Also, the crossover elements. They were originally intended as merely throwaway gags, not to be taken seriously. I fully admit they got… a bit out of hand, eventually, which is why in the latter half of the fic I placed much less emphasis on them. A lot of it was intended to set up for possible sequels, since I'd planned from the start that Minato would lose his Persona abilities at the end, but they got away from me, and very much distracted from my original intent: to write a story that hewed close to canon, because every novelization of Persona 3 I'd previously encountered had taken what I considered unacceptable liberties with the game's core spirit.
I still think I pulled that off better than any other, quite honestly. Just not as well as I had intended.
On the flip side, in many other respects I was too close to canon. I relied heavily on a game script at first, as I was feeling my way into writing the characters, but my hope and expectation was that I would eventually not need it any longer. Unfortunately, between considerable stress in my life and various other factors, I never did become quite familiar enough with the game to take creative liberties properly. It is thus my own personal opinion that where I did best was with scenes either not present in canon at all, or unavoidable so different from the game that the game script was useless anyway.
The aforementioned stress, of course, dragged out the writing process as a whole, and truthfully I ended up quite burnt out several chapters—and about two years—before the end. Were I to name another specific factor, though, it would be the aforementioned "too close to canon" moments. To be precise, I was greatly enjoying my rendition of Minato and Mitsuru's developing relationship—right up until Takeharu Kirijo's death, and my subsequent use of Mitsuru's canon Heroic BSOD in the wake of it. That forced me to essentially throw out all the development I'd done, start from scratch, and do things the game's way.
That bored me. Utterly. From that point on, there were very few Minato/Mitsuru scenes I truly enjoyed writing, and much of it was extremely awkward. Considering that their relationship was another key reason I began the story—Minato/Mitsuru fics having been extremely uncommon at the time—that did not help my burnout. At all.
For what it's worth, I intend to eventually remedy that with an alternate ending, splitting off from midway through Chapter 28. Don't expect to see it anytime soon, I'm so insanely burned out on this I'm surprised I finally reached this point, but I do intend to do it eventually.
So. Here we are. Eight years, six months, and a number of days I don't feel up to counting after staying up 'til five in the morning trying to finish this. At the least, I accomplished my three primary goals: the fic is closer to the spirit of canon than most if not all others—if not entirely in the way I hoped—it is a complete story pairing Minato and Mitsuru, and Minato got to live. The moment I saw his death in the original game is the very moment I determined to write this fic, and finally I've accomplished it: an ending where the hero bloody well gets to live and enjoy his victory.
For the future? Like I say, don't expect anything at all soon. I'm burned out, and I have extensive plans in other fandoms. But I fully intend to write the alternate—even happier—ending, and hope to properly write out The Answer, as well. Genuine sequels? …I have plans. Have had plans, almost as long as I've been writing this. But again, severe burnout. So… maybe someday.
Once again, let me thank those of you who have stuck with this story for so long. It wasn't quite what I intended, and I'll be the first to admit it has way more typos than it has any right to—and trying to fix all of those, or even all the continuity issues, would be a nightmare worthy of the Tower of Demise itself—but in the end… I think I've written worse. And a big thank you to those who pointed out when I'd genuinely screwed up, most especially Erebus13, without whose advice this fic would be much the worse and might never have gotten past a few nasty trouble spots.
Thank you all, for putting up with eight and a half years of delays, and a monster that ended up closing in on three quarters of a million words. It's been a blast. -Solid