Author's Notes: Hello all. No fanfare this time. Just more awesomeness from your favorite Persona writer.

Tracer28: Nope, no pressure. Just save the world, take a lunch break, and save it again before dinner. It's good to hear that Pharos is coming across well, too – he's a lot of fun to write.

Guest: Nope. I never tire of hearing how awesome I am, so thanks for the reminder. And thanks for the well-wishes – I aim to make the story go how I want it to, and I hope everyone likes where it goes. Thanks for reading.

Armeh: I'm happy you like it. It's not every day that my writing's given such a description, but I appreciate the sentiment, and I hope that you like what's to come. Welcome, and enjoy.

Xoraan: I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but making Strega more dangerous and real is one of my goals in this fic. Details will be shown in the chapters, but I don't plan on tossing them to the wayside just because. As to Aigis, I can't comment on her without giving things away, so we'll just have to see how things pan out in future chapters. Glad you like it, and hope you enjoy this chapter.

Bru022345: I can ask for nothing more. Thanks for the commentary, and I hope you like what's next. As to the funnier things, I won't spoil anything. Suffice to say, Enact and I have discussed it and there will be some funnier stuff in the future.

tarratolla: Thanks for reading! Mitsuru and Minato working together like they do was a blind spot, in my opinion, that the game missed out on, so exploring those possibilities has been a blast so far. It's pretty awesome that others agree, so thanks again, and hope you like the chapter.

Hoshiro Raider: Writing character for a 'blank slate' is always fun, especially when I can make all those traits tie together. Glad you're liking Minato and Mitsuru so far – I always felt like they deserved more screen time than they got.

j: Glad to hear it, because here's another one. Enjoy!

Erebus13: Going through the S. Links one at a time would be a colossal undertaking, to put it lightly, and I don't think we need to be reminded of every little thing that happens in the game. It's an awesome game, of course, but there are some details that can be left where they are. Glad you're liking it so far, and it's good that you like Strega – they aren't going away anytime soon.

jimbobob5536: That would be pretty cool, I agree. But I make no promises on who it is. We'll just have to read more to find out.

Guest: I might. I make no promises, but I might do an after-story piece for them. It really depends on whether it's warranted or not, so we'll see. Glad to have you along, and thanks for the comment!

Emeraldfireblade: There are some game mechanics that make good, honest sense. Others can't be mentioned in the same room as 'makes sense.' I suppose someone could've written in an awesome 'katana cuts the tank plating apart' scene when they took on the tank, but I feel that there are some situations that call for intense violence and loud, flashy, terrifying destruction. Showing the genuine threat of a Shadow-possessed vehicle made a lot more sense to me, so I ran with it. Glad you liked it, and thank you for the comments on the descriptions. It's always assuring to hear that the details work well. As to who was fighting the Shadow before, I'm a jerk for saying it, but we'll have to wait and see. Thanks again, and enjoy!

beatlesfan931: Glad you like the build up – I like to think that the payoffs, and there will be more than one, will all be worth it. I appreciate the concern, and I'll make sure that the chapters are of the quality you've seen so far. It'd feel like an insult to the source material otherwise.

charizardatemymathteacher: Welcome, and thanks for reviewing. Glad you like it, and hope the next chapter is as good as, or even a little better than, the last ones.

Chapter 7 – Balestra

Voices. They'd kept him up half the night, cost him any kind of proper rest for the past week, and they were the last thing he needed when he woke up that morning, glaring through cat-thin eyes at the sun and wishing it had an 'off' button. Curtains and burying his face into his pillow did nothing to cure his wakefulness, however, and it sounded like there was a meeting going on in the first-floor foyer. Right beneath his room, as luck would have it.

Minato rubbed his face with a disgusted growl and pushed out of bed, throwing his clothes on and pushing his hair into a measure of order while cursing the thought of a before-breakfast strategy meeting. He went down the stairs with a tired 'Good morning' and would have gone to the kitchen if the lack of an answer from the full room hadn't caught his attention. None of the team was that impolite, after all. Groaning inside, he turned to see what the problem was.

Akihiko-senpai and Junpei were leaning against the dinner table, talking quietly but looking at Aigis, who was standing at attention near Ikutsuki and talking to Yukari. Fuuka glanced toward Minato but didn't meet his eyes, and Mitsuru-senpai was reading on one of the couches while glancing at the others with an unreadable expression. Ken was nowhere to be seen.

"Arisato," Ikutsuki began after clearing his throat. "I'm glad you're here. We should discuss the matter of Aigis, given the incident last night. Akihiko gave me the details already, so I'd like your input on this situation."

Minato stifled a yawn and cracked his arms and hands with a slow twist. "Are we locking her in her room? Shutting her down when there's nothing going on?"

Yukari and Ikutsuki looked a bit surprised at his bluntness, and her eyes narrowed a bit while the dorm administrator kept his tone steady. "Aigis doesn't 'shut down,' actually. She sleeps and recovers, but she's not a machine with a power switch."

"Or a working command prompt," Minato noted, widening his stance a little after he rubbed his eyes. "What are you doing about that, by the way?"

"She's not the only one who needs to a behaviour check," Yukari snapped. "She might be different from us, but that doesn't make her less a part of the team. You don't get to tell her off or slam a door in her face because she makes a mistake."

Her voice grated on his growing headache, for once not because of his Personas, and Minato's eye narrowed. "Can I come into your room during the Dark Hour then? Let myself in and stare at you while you're sleeping without asking first?"

Yukari instantly turned as red as she'd been in the hotel a few months back. "W-what!? Of course not!"

"Then keep Aigis out of my room," he replied shortly, "because I don't like it either."

There was a faint creak and whir of gears as the mentioned member turned to him. "It was not my intent to cause discomfort. If my actions have affected team cohesion, I deeply apologize."

"No one asked," Minato snapped. "Especially not if your apologies don't keep you in your room at night."

"Give her a break already," Yukari told him, coming forward. "It's what she does to make sure you're safe. I get that this is unexpected, but she's trying to learn how to be more human. And if it's something familiar for her, then you could be a little bit understanding about she feels."

"This is getting out of hand," Akihiko-senpai told them, which only ground Minato's teeth down harder. "The situation with Aigis needs work, and we'll try something else until we get it right. Until then, we don't need anyone to fly off the handle. We don't know why she's got a thing for you, but that's how it is."

"No," Minato spat back, turning his glare to the senior and feeling his ire twist and build on itself. "No, that's not how it is. We have a walking tank with a Persona living here and we don't even know why. She woke herself up, she found us, she doesn't have the limits on her weaponry that we do, and no one's giving us any answers to the obvious questions. Why are you okay with this? Because she hasn't broken into your room yet?"

Akihiko-senpai looked a bit surprised by Minato's tone, and his face set into a cold stare. Junpei backed away with his hands up in a 'not my problem. Leave me out of it' gesture, and Fuuka had turned her back to them, her hands twisting together.

"I suggest we calm down and rethink the situation before we start saying things we don't mean," Ikutsuki told them, stepping forward and halting Yukari and Akihiko-senpai's words with an outstretched hand. "It's a unique set of circumstances, and we have calls into people who are working at it. It's unfortunate that you feel that you're being singled out, Arisato, but please try to be patient."

"I don't 'feel' like I'm being singled out," he stated slowly, trying to keep the venom out of his voice. "I am being singled out, and I want to know why. Same as I want to know everything we haven't been told so far. What is her mission? To protect SEES? If Aigis were following the group leader, why hasn't Mitsuru-senpai gotten any late-night visits? I haven't heard of her in Fuuka's room, so obviously being a friend isn't part of the criteria either. What is the reason behind all this? Has anyone returned our calls?"

"The files on her have been difficult to find," Ikutsuki replied with his hands out in a shrug, "and what we have shows nothing on why she's attached to you. There was a lot lost when the Shadows broke out ten years ago, so it might be that we don't have the answers you're looking for."

Minato looked expectant, waiting for more to the answer, but nothing came. "And no one bothered to try and recover that data?" he demanded. "No one inquired about the human-looking weapon sleeping in the basement? What about the other one that broke out a few weeks ago? Where is it?"

"She," Ikutsuki corrected. "She's a similar model to Aigis. And she's not relevant to our operations right now, so we don't have that information."

"It's an Anti-Shadow Weapon," Minato pointed out, slowly stressing each word as cold incredulity chilled the air around him. "It is relevant to us. If the Group isn't going to treat us like we're on the same team, then why are we on the front lines in the first place?" Mitsuru-senpai gave him an unreadable look, but Minato had the bit in his teeth. "Or is the answer to that one missing too? What else doesn't anyone know? Maybe this other robot will have a car-sized sword and do our job for us so we can get some sleep at night."

"You're acting like a little kid now," Yukari noted. "The situation's weird, sure, but that doesn't mean that it's got anything directly to do with you."

Her words earned her an eye-roll and a flat, sardonic look. "That would be a first, wouldn't it? But it raises the question: if the Kirijo have all these killer robots with Personas, why are we even here? We're not machines; some answers would be nice." When he thought of it that way, Shirato's offer wasn't looking too bad. Searching for answers whenever he wanted was sounding a lot better than not having them at all.

"We're looking into things, Arisato," Ikutsuki told him, patience wearing thin. Yukari's ire was still present, but she'd curbed her reply and looked a bit troubled from Minato's words. "There's more to the Group than what happens here."

"You're looking," Minato parroted. "And so far you haven't found anything. What's the hold-up?"

"Enough," Mitsuru-senpai told them, rising from the couch and walking forward until she was standing between them, create an area around her that no one pushed into. "This is getting us nowhere. Arisato, meet me outside."

Minato went quiet for a second, surprised at her interference, then grit his teeth and shot back. "Don't you dare brush this off, Senpai."

"I'm not," she told him with a direct, don't-screw-with-me stare. "You're angry and you look like you didn't sleep at all last night. Yelling about this isn't going to change anything, though, and we don't need an incident like this getting in the way of our operations. Team cohesion comes first. Now, meet me outside."

He wanted to keep going, to vent all the frustrations that had plagued him, from Tartarus to Aigis. But she was, and always had been, in his corner, and he wasn't going to mess that up. He nodded to her, bit his tongue, and headed for the door without looking at the others. He heard her address the trio before he made it to the shoe mat.

"Until we can find the answers to Arisato's question, she's to be contained at night," she told Ikutsuki over the immediate objections. "I don't care how useful she is. Arisato's questions are valid, and pertinent to what's going on here. It's a disgrace that we don't have those answers yet, so find them. Speak to my father if you have to."

"Minato-san's protection is my primary objective," Aigis told her. "I will not compromise on any of my directives. To be restrained from that duty is to put him in danger."

"He can look after himself. Until we get some answers, my decision stands." Aigis tried to protest, but Mitsuru-senpai's voice hardened. "I'll pack you up and send you back to the labs in a crate if I have to. Do not argue with me."

Minato choked down a laugh, his mood immediately lightening as he laced up his shoes and pocketed his wallet. Much as he wanted to hear what else she had to say to Yukari and Ikutsuki, it would be juvenile if he stood there and watched her berate them like a child sticking his tongue out from behind his mother's skirts. After pulling his sunglasses on and stepping outside with a faint 'See you guys later' to the others, he waited at the edge of the sidewalk, facing the door and wondering when Senpai would arrive. Then he looked down at his tossed-on shirt and slacks and grimaced – he was hardly dressed for any special occasion.

A few minutes later he turned when a familiar gas-powered growl rolled in from around the corner, a leather-clad Mitsuru-senpai astride her motorcycle, approaching him in first gear. She looked over at him, her head bare, and handed him a helmet that matched the one on her lap. "I had to guess at your size, but the shop owner was very confident that this would fit you," she told him as she straightened her leather jacket.

Minato took the helmet and used the moment to look her over. Unlike before, she wasn't wearing her leather suit. Instead her jacket was separate from her leggings, and when he glanced down to the seat of the motorcycle, he saw dark blue denim continuing from the ends of the chaps, rocking back and forth as she scooched forward to give him room.

He'd never have thought that Kirijo Mitsuru owned a pair of jeans, let alone would wear them on a hot summer morning. How wrong he was.

"It's good to see that you got it repaired," he commented as he looked over the bike. If he hadn't known it had been bent like a paperclip by half a tonne of Shadow, he never would have guessed.

"We go back a long way," she told him, patting the side of the gas tank affectionately. "I wasn't going to leave her in pieces." She pulled her hair back and got her helmet in place, indicating behind her. "Get on."

"Do you have somewhere in mind?" he inquired as he followed suit, carefully mounting behind her and adjusting his feet and legs, getting used to the vibration underneath him.

"It's a secret," she told him as she turned back to look at him. "You'll have to hang on; where we're going is a fair ways away."

He blushed as he hesitantly nodded, looking at her and wondering where he could put his hands. Her familiar smell mixed well with the scent of her leather, and he was reminded of their sparring match and how close she'd gotten. He could still feel her hand on his arm from that day, and worse, he remembered in vivid detail how she looked and felt while wearing her two-piece swimsuit. "Right," he told her unconvincingly.

She picked up on his hesitation, and he thought he could hear a smile in her voice. "Is this your first time?"

"Yeah. I usually walk or take the train."

An understanding nod. Then she reached back and took his hand, bringing it to her side and placing it firmly on her hip. "You're going to want to hold on tight," she advised, moving his hand around until he got a good grip. "We'll be going on the highway, and I don't want you getting hurt."

He nodded and set his other hand on her hip, sweating a bit at the feel of her under the leather. He focused on the sound of her voice as she told him about keeping balance on the bike, leaning into the turns, and, of course, holding on. "I think I've got it, Senpai," he told her after he repeated a few of the points back to her.

"Good," she told him, kicking the shifter down and setting them in motion as she settled forward.

It was slow going as they rode through the city, catching a few red lights where she taught him about stopping and how he could react to the changes on momentum. It didn't take long for him to get the hang of it, though, and it was easy to see why she liked riding: the freedom was invigorating. When they got to the main drag and the bridges leading out of town, she firmly patted his hand to make sure he had a solid grip. Then she geared up and proceeded to fly through traffic, weaving between lanes and leaning into the turns at a speed high enough to make him press against her.

He didn't talk to her, didn't distract her, and just let the road fly by beneath them, and sky above and the water around them were nothing but a blur of blue. The wind whipped around them as they danced from point to point, the machine under her complete control. It was terrifying and exhilarating, and part of him didn't care if they crashed – going this fast and having his blood up was well worth it.

It was with a tinge of disappointment that he noticed they were slowing down, taking side roads and pulling into a small gravel parking lot. He waited until Mitsuru-senpai pulled to a stop and nodded for him to get off. Once he was, she joined him after standing her bike and killing the engine, patting the handlebars affectionately before taking off her helmet and nodding to a narrow stone path through a copse of trees.

Minato followed, pulling off his helmet and catching a heavy whiff of the sea, hearing the tides nearby. "Where are we?" he asked, the sound of his footsteps lost in the clicks of her boots.

"My little secret," she replied, standing out of the way so he could take in the view.

And what a view it was. The whole of Tatsumi Port Island could be seen, from the mall to the school to the dorms and the restaurant strip malls. They were on a hill overlooking the city, the farm of windmills the only thing to hinder the scene. Minato's hair was brushed to the side by the heavy breeze that pulled at his clothes and whistled along his skin. The sun was dazzling, reflected on the water in shards like the pieces of a broken mirror, and he felt the memory of his headache fade away. Even the argument he'd had less than an hour before seemed like a distant memory. "It's beautiful," he told her, turning to see her sitting back on a wooden bench.

"This spot has the best view," she told him, legs stretched out and a look of content relaxation on her face. "There's no place quite like it."

She was right. The roof of the dorm, the trains, even the high-rises and offices that he'd been in; none of them had a view this open and liberating. "You come here often?"

"When I need to think and the dorm's too busy," she supplied. "This is the first time I've been able to come here since my bike was repaired though."

"Thanks for bringing me, Senpai," he told her as he sat at the other end of the bench, leaning back and looking skyward. "It helps."

"I'm glad to hear it. Are you feeling better?"

He let out a long breath and gave her a nod. "I think so. Doesn't change everything that's piling up, but then, I can't think of anything that would help in that arena."

"Is it the Shadows again? I understand that Aigis bothers you, but is there anything else you want to talk about?" She leaned forward, looking genuinely interested as her hair rose and fell in the wind.

Minato smiled at her offer. It was reassuring to know that she was serious when she'd told him to talk to her. Then again, she was rarely not serious. But when he thought of the things that were bothering him, he decided to keep Pharos to himself. The kid was a little too close to home to bring up with anyone. And she already knew about his problems with their monthly guests. "I met someone who seems to know about the Shadows and us hunting them," he told her, hearing her leather creak as she snapped forward and turned to stare at him. "A Persona-User." He told her about Shirato and the offer, the hints at something bigger on the horizon and the implied secrets that the Kirijo Group kept.

That last one really got her feathers ruffled. "Something else to talk to the records department about," she muttered. "I thought I knew about everyone tied to my grandfather's experiments." She pursed her lips thoughtfully and gave him an inquisitive look. "Do you think they were responsible for the interference we experienced during the last operation?"

"I was thinking that myself, and I don't know. He sounded like he was working with a group, so it is possible."

"Be careful if you do see him again. If he hates us as much as he seems to, there's no telling what he'll do in the future." Her eyes were narrow and he could see the possibilities and options weighing against the odds. He knew that she'd get to the bottom of the questions of Shirato and Aigis, no matter how many managers she had to threaten.

"I will." Minato felt bad about ruining her mood after her efforts to cheer him up, so he changed the subject. "You said that this was your favourite place. Is there some history behind it?"

Mitsuru-senpai looked a bit surprised at the shift in topic, and gave him a long look that he nodded in return to before she curved her lips up in a smile. "I take your point. We didn't come here to discuss work." She turned and looked out over the waves, to the steadily-turning windmills that shone in the sun like polished sword blades. "We used to come to the island when I was a child," she began. "My father would be busy with his work and his associates so my mother would show me all the places she knew. Airi-san learned about this place and told her about it. Picnics, homework, sometimes we came here just to spend the day. My mother loved the windmills and the view."

"She sounds like a wonderful person," he told her, noting the nostalgic and loving smile on her face as the memories surfaced. It was an image that stirred in his heart, imagining her in a white sundress with her hair in braids while her mother watched from where they were sitting.

"Yes, she was," Mitsuru-senpai agreed with a sigh. "I love her and miss her, and when I come here I feel like she's just bringing lunch from the car or about to call me back." She chuckled and nodded toward the sea. "The smell's the same here as it is in Yakushima, and she loved it there too. This will sound silly, but what reminds me of her the most is the feel of the wind. Mother had soft hands, so being here feels like she never left in the first place." Comfortable silence settled between them and she gave a small laugh after a few minutes. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't drop all this on you."

"It's no trouble at all," he assured her, feeling honoured at hearing something precious and personal. "It's a beautiful memory. Thanks for sharing it with me."

She nodded in reply, then continued with a shrug. "Either way, it's not something I talk about very often."

"None of us do," he told her with a chuckle. "If there's anything we could talk about outside of work, it's how little we want to talk about our parents."

"If you don't mind my saying so, you seem the most well adjusted of the others," she observed. "Iori and Takeba won't talk about their families, Akihiko's background at the orphanage is not a secret, and Yamagishi changes the subject when it comes up. I'm glad that you've come to terms with it."

He tilted his head to the side. Well adjusted? "That's a word for it, I guess," he told her after thinking on it for a few seconds. "I haven't really thought about it. They died, the Group took me in, and that's that."

Mitsuru-senpai tilted her head, silent for a few seconds while she looked at him with curiosity in her eyes. "I thought you said you had a sister. Yamagishi talked asked about her before."

"I did. Minako."

"Weren't you close?"

"Of course we were," he replied with a smile. "She helped me with my homework and beat the crap out of the kids who pushed me around when I was in third grade. Our parents worked six days a week, so we spent a lot of time together. Not to the point of her dressing me up in her clothes, but you get the idea."

"But… you said that their deaths didn't bother you. Didn't you grieve?"

Minato blinked at the question, not knowing how to answer. He had to have grieved at some point. There had been a funeral, and his family's grave plot was right in town, not having any extended relatives to handle the remains. But grieving for 'Nako and his parents? He must have. He didn't feel sad or hurt about it, so he was sure that he'd just come to terms with it. "I did," he replied a bit uncertainly. "I think it was after I joined the Group. Or a bit before. It's hard to tell."

She looked at him without moving, the questions clear in her rich red gaze, but she didn't say anything. The silence between them became awkward, on edge instead of the previous comfort and calm. "I see. Well, either way, it's good that you have worked it out as well as you have." She got up and stretched, looking out to the windmills.

"Yeah," he replied evenly, blinking a few more times as he looked for the answers to her questions, and couldn't find them. He shook them off a moment later. "Have you eaten yet?"

Mitsuru-senpai looked a little puzzled by the question, but shook her head. "Ikutsuki caught us before we could make anything, so no."

"I know a place that would serve as a good addition to your education in restaurants," he told her, smiling at how cheesy that sounded. Her smirk and surprised look showed that she felt the same way. "One of the seniors at school mentioned it as a 'place of prime and cultured cuisine," he continued in a high, assumed pitch of Suemitsu's voice, "and if you're up for going out, I can give you the directions. It's my treat."

Her first answer was a long stare like she was trying to figure out the moves needed to complete a Rubik's Cube before even picking it up. Then she closed her eyes and shook her head. "You never run out of tricks, do you Arisato? But it would be rude to turn down such an offer. Is this place far?"

"It's not far from the dorm," he hedged, "but I don't think that will be a problem for your bike. You like Indian food, right?"

After being assured that she had nothing against a good plate of curry, Minato followed her back to her bike and gave her directions after they mounted up, thanking his foresight to have cash in his wallet for once.

Mitsuru-senpai took to the highway turns and city streets with the same speed as before, and by the time they made it to their destination, Minato's blood was rushing through him as fast as it had during their last fight with the Shadows. "It's exhilarating, isn't it?" she asked when she saw the smile he couldn't keep down. "My father made me pay for her myself, but she's been worth every yen."

Minato laughed as the adrenaline thinned a little, and walked her to the restaurant Suemitsu had bragged about a few weeks ago, holding the door open and nodding to himself at the heady aromas and the half-full tables. They were seated quickly, their table by a window overlooking the street and the nearby store fronts. Minato was beaten to her chair, robbed of the opportunity to pull it out when she did it herself, and he took his own seat to glance at the menu.

His concentration was yanked upward by the sound of a heavy zipper being undone, and he was treated to the sight of Mitsuru-senpai pulling her jacket back and working her arms out of the sleeves. And if Minato thought that her wearing jeans, still under her chaps, was unusual, the t-shirt she had on almost dropped his shoulders and jaw in disbelief. The t-shirt itself rode up a bit as she raised her arms and worked the jacket off, revealing a thin strip of her tanned tummy to his eyes. He'd seen her in less when they were at the beach, but the toned slice of skin seemed like it was teasing him, tempting him to touch it. Then the moment passed and her shirt fell back over her waist, and his eyes were brought to the real shocker.

It was a deep golden colour, complimenting her hair and skin perfectly, and plastered on the front of it was a Chinese girl with her hair in odangos while she wore a cheongsam, a full ramen bowl taking up the rest of the shirt.

So simple. So casual. And so utterly unexpected for the Student Council President and honour student of the Kirijo family. "Ajisen Ramen?" he asked when he could find his voice and she'd put her jacket on the back of her chair. "Really, Senpai?"

She blushed a little and smiled at his attention. "It was a joke from before you joined us. I lost a bet, and the others bought me this and told me I had to wear it at least once a year. I hated it at first, but now it seems like I don't get to wear it enough. I was in a rush when I changed this morning, so here it is."

Minato shook his head again, but smiled at the story. If the students in his class hated him for being close to her before, they would have been screaming for his head if they knew he'd seen her so dressed down. But the odds were good that they'd never believe him in the first place. "I can't imagine you losing a bet, Senpai."

She laughed a little and opened the menu. "Like I said, it was a while ago. Things were different back then."

"You don't have to answer, but the people you mean were Akihiko-senpai and Aragaki Shinjiro, right?"

She quickly looked up at him, surprise in her eyes. "Where did you hear about Shinjiro-san?"

"Akihiko-senpai talked about him in a really indirect way a few weeks ago, and your father mentioned him at Yakushima. I'm sorry if I mentioned something I shouldn't have; I was just curious."

Mitsuru-senpai shook her head with a forgiving upturn of her lips.

"It's nothing to worry about. Akihiko would disagree, but then he grew up with Shinjiro-san. I have to say, though, you have a gift for learning the things we don't talk about."

"It's a curse. Now then, have you had Indian food before?"

He brushed off work and the Shadows for good that time and proceeded to build on her education in restaurant dining. He talked about the different dishes and introduced her to lassi, which she demanded the recipe for when he identified some of the ingredients, and she blew his mind by putting away an entire order of spicy curry with a smile at the end as she cleaned her plate off with naan bread. She'd offered to pick up the tab as thanks, but he beat her to it and followed her outside, proud of how easily she was smiling and glad that his fatigue was nowhere to be found.

This was becoming a welcome habit, eating out with her. As they walked by some of the store fronts and kiosks, he tried to put together how he felt about how easy it was to be around her. "Thanks again for this morning, Senpai. I appreciate it." There was no response, and she was missing when he turned to look at her. Left, right again, and then back he looked, only to see and hear her stepping quickly to his side.

"Sorry about that," she said quickly, a light blush on her cheeks. "Something caught my attention. Shall we go back? I'm sure the dorm has calmed down by now."

She wasn't breathing hard, and it couldn't have been ten yards that she'd crossed. Was she blushing because it was hot? Or was the curry getting to her? When he looked at her questioningly, though, she glanced over at him only for a second before walking back toward her motorcycle without another word. Minato lengthened his stride to keep up and abandoned what he was going to say, but now he was curious. What had caught her attention? And why didn't she want to be seen looking at it?

"This should surprise me," Minato muttered to himself less than a week later as he pulled back on the dog leash and stopping at a red light. "I think when I first got here it actually might have."

"Is something wrong, Senpai?" Ken asked from next to him, eating some warm yakisoba bread and handing a pinch to their newest addition, Koromaru, before drinking some green tea from the container in his other hand.

"I thought it was weird when Aigis joined us," Minato explained, scratching his cheek and letting out a heavy breath. "Finding out that a dog can do what we do was the last thing I would have expected. But it's so not strange anymore – none of this stuff makes any sense anyway."

Ken chewed thoughtfully and looked up at him. "I think there's a Chinese saying about that, isn't there? I can't remember how it goes, but I always see it in fortune cookies."

Minato nodded, switching the leash to a different hand and wondering if he was pulling on it too hard. Koromaru didn't seem to mind, and as far as dogs went, he seemed the sort to let Minato know if something was wrong. That said, it was completely new to him. He'd lived in an apartment for most of his childhood, and as much as 'Nako begged for a puppy from their parents, it was an unfulfilled dream with their schedules and responsibilities. Minato was glad they hadn't gotten a dog, but it left him in the unenviable position of having been 'that kid' in school who knew very little about cute, furry pets. "I think you mean 'May you live in exciting times," he told Ken. "It's meant to be a curse or a cautionary phrase, I think. Certainly applies to us."

Ken nodded as they started across the street when the light turned green, nibbling on his bread and drinking his tea.

Despite his misgivings on Ken's concealed reasons for joining the group, Minato had to give the kid credit: for all the weird crap that had been going on, he'd stayed remarkably stable. No creeped-out looks at Aigis, no incredulity when they recruited a dog and built a collar with a built-in Evoker, and no uncertain questions when he'd heard about the argument at the dorm a few days before. Minato had accompanied his apology with a ramen lunch (which Akihiko-senpai had taken advantage as soon as the offer was made) and suspected that Ken might have been uneasy about the friction surrounding his idol. But no, he'd adjusted to everything with a few questions and an acceptance that impressed the girls and made Minato glad there wouldn't need to be any pep talks or extended explanations.

Whoever his parents were, they must have not fought in front of him. Or if they did, they explained it every time when they made up.

"Senpai?" Ken asked when they'd reached the park and let Koromaru off the leash for his daily run, a responsibility that SEES had taken to rotating among the members for variety and 'team-building,' as Ikutsuki put it. "What are our Personas?"

Minato glanced around, impressed a moment later when he noted that Ken had waited for the other people to leave or become occupied before asking the question. "Akihiko-senpai and Mitsuru-senpai could answer that question better than I could," he replied as he rested against the nearby balance beam. "I never got the technical explanation, and I don't know if it's something that has a clear-cut definition."

"I did ask them," Ken clarified, tossing the crushed wrapper of his bread into the garbage and looking up with serious eyes. "What they told me was pretty confusing. Things about 'other selves' and the 'masks we wear.' You've had your Persona for a while right? How does it feel to you?"

That pulled a smile from the older student. The kid was sharp, too. Minato reached into his pocket and pulled out Koromaru's ball, tossing it across the park and sending the dog flying after it. "About the same time as Junpei. My situation's a bit unique, but I'll explain it as best I can. They told you about the Shadows, right?"

"Yeah," Ken confirmed, "and Akihiko-senpai showed some to me when we found Koromaru."

"That makes it easy then." Minato let out a breath to get his thoughts in order, recalling what he'd been told from SEES, what Igor and Elizabeth (whose recently-discovered fascination with manholes had required that he hold her wrist until they reached the takoyaki stand, and he'd kept his fingers crossed until she realized how little money she needed to spend this time around) had passed on through their strange conversations, and what he'd picked up on his own. "The way I see it, a Persona is a weapon and a shield at the same time. It's our best tool when fighting the Shadows, and it's the only thing keeping us alive when things go sideways. The others have Personas unique to them, and I'm sure yours is the same. I have no idea where they come from, but they seem to be the opposite side to the Shadows. Like we're in control of the power the Shadows have, and that's a Persona."

"The way Ikutsuki-san explained it, it sounded like it's a part of us," Ken mentioned after thinking on it for a few seconds. "Like they come from inside us when we've gone through something difficult and have to work hard to get over it."

"You mean a stress response," Minato replied, throwing the ball for Koromaru again. "We all go through it, and that's when our Personas come out or become stronger. That's the other way that they're a shield – it's easier to handle the things we deal with when using them. In my case, I become more focused, moving and fighting are easier, so on and so forth. But our potential seems to come from how strongly we feel about the fight."

There was a spark of realization in Ken's eyes that grew into understanding with remarkable speed. "Then would they grow when we do? Like if we decided not to fight anymore, or if we learned something important, do you think our Personas would grow too?"

"I'm not sure. My situation's different from Akihiko-senpai's, for instance, so I don't know if his Persona's changed since it awakened or not. It's possible that they would, though, if the theory about them being the other half of our selves is true. I know that Junpei's gotten stronger since he joined us, and I think that's from practice and experience. Whether they change more than that, like if we deal with something that's been bugging us for years, I don't know."

"It would be nice if we didn't have to use Evokers," Ken told him, glancing away for a moment. "Maybe if we had collars like Koromaru, or a trigger inside us like Aigis-san, it would be easier to use them and understand them. I don't like guns much."

"None of us do at first," Minato assured him, throwing the ball as far as he could and watching the white blur run and bark after it. "There's nothing easy about having a Persona, really. It would be nice if we didn't need the Evokers, but that doesn't really get rid of the real problem, does it?"

"I guess not. I was thinking about it, this thing inside me, and I wonder if things would be different without it."

"They let us do things we wouldn't be able to otherwise. Whether it's worth the price is up to you. Depends on what you're fighting for." He'd made the comment on purpose, wanting to see what Ken would do or say given his reticence last time.

And like before, Ken went quiet, looking away and turning inward. It wasn't hard to guess that whatever he was carrying with him was what had his attention now. And just like before, he was set on carrying it on his own.

It was an odd sight, seeing a kid with the hard, aged look of someone who couldn't go back. Someone else might have said that Ken was too young to bear that kind of a burden. But all of us are, Minato thought with a brittle smile. Yukari or Fuuka would have argued that the kid shouldn't be fighting with them, but all Minato saw was a new candidate with raw potential. Ken was set on his path, and trying to lock him in a closet wouldn't make him feel any better.

"It's really scary," Ken told his senpai, looking up with eyes that were frightened, determined, and wounded all at once. "I think of those things and my hands start to shake. But I have this power for a reason, so I have to do this. I want to do this."

Minato nodded, looking out over the park and letting out a long breath. "You have to do the things you believe in and fight for what you want. No one else is going to do it for you."

"I wouldn't want them to in the first place," Ken asserted quickly. "And I think you're right, Senpai. It's a hard decision to make and it's scary to go through with it, but that's how I know it's the right road to take. Because if it were easy, it probably wouldn't be worth it."

The older of the pair looked down with a sharp exhale. "You're too young to be thinking like that, even if you are one of us," he told the kid. "Whatever's bothering you won't let you go, and I get that. But don't forget to have some fun while you can. You've got a long life to figure all this stuff out, so don't expect the answers right away. Just take it easy, alright?"

Ken was quiet for a few seconds before nodding and giving a small smile. "I'll try, Senpai. Thanks for the talk."

"Any time. Did it help?"

"I think so." Ken was looking out past the park the same as Minato had, far away despite being right there. "There's a lot of things to take care of first, but I think I'll know what to do when the time comes."

Blood, burnt tar, and gunpowder. The sidewalk was caked with the splattered pieces of the Shadows that had attacked them. Beasts, he thought. Less than wild animals. The larger ones were a worthy challenge, attacking with the cunning of predators. These, however, were rats trying to be lions. Rats that hadn't been smart enough to run.

Takaya, spattered in black Shadow muck, snapped the cylinder of his revolver open and emptied it of spent shells before loading it, one round at a time, as he looked up at Tartarus. No matter where they were on the island, the Tower of Perdition, the Spire of Condemnation, glowed like a lighthouse in the night. No matter how often he stared at it, regardless of how long, it always drew the vestiges of a smile from the cracks of his soul. When he closed his eyes and focused on it, he could hear the screams of all the Lost in a continuous, overlapping symphony. A glorious rising hymn. The only way it could have been better was if he could hear those who'd died making it as well.

"They're getting antsy," Jin commented, pocketing a grenade and wiping his Evoker off with a dirty rag. "Feels like they were being pushed by something, like animals in a storm."

"Don't they usually get like this the closer we get to a full moon?" Chidori put in, trying to clean off her axe blades. "It hasn't made them any more of a threat. They should have learned by now to avoid people, whether us or the Kirijo."

"They're like deer," Jin noted with a smirk that looked like a grimace. "The ones that learn not to stand in front of cars end up as road kill, so there's no one to teach the others. That fine though. It would be boring if they did stay away."

"It does keep things from being dull," Takaya noted, glancing over to the pair and illuminated in red by a nearby coffin. "Even filth like this has its place."

Chidori gave a quiet 'hm.' "That may be so, but the effort to kill them is–" Her eyes flashed wide and her breath caught. "Takaya, look out!"

Her warning came after the sound of approaching wings, and Takaya ducking didn't spare his shoulder from being raked by passing talons. His blood ran red, and a smile spread across his face. Here were the lions.

Four winged Shadows swooped and struck, silent as owls. Jin pulled out his Evoker while Chidori spun her axes in hand, eyeing the enemies for a throw. Takaya reached back and touched the wound, trembling in delectable agony that prolonged when he felt the blood on his hands. Moros flashed into existence, catching one of the Shadows as it passed and hammering it into the ground until it stopped moving. Quiet even in death. Chidori dodged a swooping attack and caught the second one with her axe, tearing its wing open and approaching as it bled and writhed on the ground. Its thrashing stopped a few moments later, and more of the street was painted black.

The last two circled Takaya, and he left his gun where it was. No need to draw it. One swooped, then the other, and Hypnos arose to meet them. One turned away from the Persona's claws, but the other was caught and eviscerated by skeletal wings, sending Shadow blood and little bits across the road. When the last one dove for him, Takaya moved under its claws and wings at the last minute, feeling its snapping jaws pass him by, before turning and sending out a blast of lightning that shattered the air around them. The shadow banked hard, half its body immediately burnt or destroyed, and a nearby coffin was knocked over as the beast bounced on the ground.

"A valiant effort," he commented as they looked around and the wound on his shoulder slowly pulled itself back together. Hypnos wouldn't let its host be brought down so easily, after all.

They had turned and were about to leave for the alleys when there was a frightened whimper and a scream from behind them. All turned to see a girl, a high school student, perhaps, looking around frantically, backed against another coffin. Pale skin, wide, terrified eyes, and sputtering words that were cut off two syllables in as she tried to understand where she was.

"Unexpected," Chidori commented, head tilted but her face otherwise expressionless.

"I've heard that the coffins can be broken instead of just opened," Jin replied. "There's something on them that keeps the Shadows from eating the people inside, but once the seal's broken, it's fair game."

"Where am I?!" the girl demanded, shaking like a rattle in a child's hands. "Where's Daisuke-kun? Wh–what… what… oh God, what are those? Where is this?!"

Takaya's eyes narrowed and he smiled while holding his arms out grandly. Shattering illusions had been his sole reward of Jin's assassination request service, and watching the reality of the Dark Hour sink in was a thrill without equal. "This is the world around you," he explained. "The world without your blinders on, with the façade of light and health stripped away and the truth right before your eyes."

"Th–there's no way," she protested weakly, slowly coming to her feet and looking around, approaching one shaky step at a time. "This is wrong. It's a nightmare. I'm dreaming, aren't I?"

Jin and Chidori were silent, not replying except to step aside for Takaya to approach the girl. "No," he continued, a fire in his voice that had been absent for too long. "Your life has been a dream. This is the heart of people: rotting, dark, and wonderful when you see it for what it is. What you knew was a lie, and what surrounds you now is the truth. The way the world is, and what is coming is–"

She rushed up and grabbed his arms, shaking them with growing fervor. "Send me back," she pleaded with tears running down her cheeks. "This… this is wrong. All wrong. You're human, so you can help me. What do I have to do? Just send me back."

Takaya frowned. She'd interrupted him. And she wasn't realizing what was going on. There was no fun to it this time, no satisfaction.

"Help me," she whimpered. "Please, I don't know you, but help me from those things. Help me wake up."

Noise. Pointless noise. Her fear would have been welcome if he could enjoy it, feel it build up before breaking the mind that tried to hold it back. But this, this was incoherent. Her terror was muddled by her babbling, a directionless desperation begging for life that took the sweetness of the wine he'd savored in the past and left him with lemon juice.

"Please," she begged, eyes wild and dilated. "Help me, I beg you, I'll do–"

Takaya's hand flashed out, bony fingers biting into her shoulder as he held her in place. Her cry of surprise was strangled off when she felt the end of his revolver's barrel under her chin, trapping her mouth closed. She cried wordlessly, squealing and trying to get away, reaching up to beat his hand away. Still so terrified and misdirected, blind to the world around her and only wanting to escape. Still a moving, squirming mass of noise. An expendable annoyance. "Quiet," he ordered before pulling the trigger.

Blood and chunks of skull and brain rained on the sidewalk, mixing in with the black of the Shadows. The body dangled in his hand, just another corpse. Takaya let it fall, deaf to the sound of it hitting the ground as he frowned. He'd just reloaded, and now he'd have to do it again.

Nearby, Jin was cracking his knuckles and checking the clips on his suitcase. Chidori rubbed at a smattering of blood that had gotten on her dress. Neither gave a glance to the body on the ground.

"We need to make a decision regarding Arisato," Jin told him after checking the corners and alleys for any other disturbances. "If we give him any more time, he won't take us seriously, regardless of what he chooses."

"Regarding that," Chidori brought up, "I have information that may explain their way of operating. I've met a guy on their team who claims to be the group leader."

Jin looked over, intrigued. "It's hard to believe that it's not Arisato. Do you mean Sanada?"

"His name is Iori Junpei," she supplied, expression not changing. "He tried to be subtle about it, but failed quite admirably. The details he gave were too precise to be a coincidence, but I don't know if he's telling the truth about being in charge. It seemed strange to me, especially since Arisato or Kirijo are the most likely candidates."

"They are," Jin asserted with a snort. "The rest are hanger-ons and cannon fodder. And Iori's pretty unremarkable, from everything I've heard, so he was probably showing off."

"It's unlikely that they would assign a nobody as a leader," Takaya added, reloading his gun and slipping it back into his belt. "Especially given their argument at the hotel. If Iori was the one Arisato was fighting with, then it makes no sense for him to be their leader."

"I thought the same thing. But why is Arisato leading them in the first place if the Kirijo girl is part of the team?" Chidori persisted. "For them to hand the reins over to a newcomer seems out of character. And if that's so, then perhaps Arisato wasn't always the leader. Perhaps Iori lost his place and that was the cause of their argument. Maybe he wasn't before but is now. Whatever the options, he's not someone to overlook."

"Arisato leads because of his importance," Takaya murmured. "He is unique. The others are irrelevant."

"Keep an eye on this Iori," Jin told Chidori. "Maybe the Kirijo are changing their methods. Get more out of him if you can. If we can break them from the inside, then this is a perfect opportunity. And if not, then they'll lose someone regardless."

Takaya brushed off their discussion. Jin would handle it. Such was the role of a second-in-command. Arisato, though, had yet to make a move. He had been silent all this time, without a call or an inquiry. Was he content to stay under the hold of the Kirijo? Did he not take Jin seriously? Or was he taking the long view and biding his time?

"There's also the matter of Yamagishi," Jin continued. "If Iori will talk to you about her, then learn what you can. The sooner we deal with her, the easier this gets: that little stunt at the bunker was cutting it close."

What if Arisato saw nothing at all? Didn't he see the chaff that was around him? Did he choose to ignore it? He was a transfer student, but why was he here in the first place? Takaya flexed his shoulders, the wound throbbing in a macabre thump that left him smiling. A drumbeat of mortality, the seconds of life and death warring with each tick.

"Did she know they would show up as quickly as they did?" Chidori asked, straightening out the ruffles on her dress. "She retreated from the Shadow as soon as they arrived. I thought she would have tried to contact the Kirijo machine."

"Who knows what she wants," Jin replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I doubt we'll hear from her again, and anything the Kirijo make is bound to be a few bolts short of Frankenstein's Monster." Then he turned to the reticent Takaya. "Are you sure you want to focus on Arisato this much? Yamagishi's the one we need to get rid of, sooner rather than later. Unless you know of a better way to bypass her abilities."

Hypnos whispered when Takaya thought of Arisato. That power spike, the bond he felt so many weeks ago that left him in cold, delicious shivers. Suggestions of what to do entered Takaya's mind, and by the end he was leaning back languorously and looking up at the tower in the distance, the glowing spike that pierced the sky.

Plotting and planning were reaching their half life. Results were needed. Everything was flowing in the same direction, and he could feel the current speeding up around him. Events were unfolding, and he needed answers. Answers he wouldn't get by waiting.

Perhaps it was time he spoke to Arisato in person.