The first time he ever entered the Velvet Room, Souji Seta could remember sitting in the fine leather seats. It didn't occur to him at the time, as he believed it was nothing more than an incredibly vivid dream. The results of an exhausting month of preparing and packing, of sending whatever pieces of his life that could fit into cardboard boxes and two-day shipping to a far-off corner of the world. And while he could rarely remember his dreams in such detail, he could vividly recall the velvety blue interior of the limousine, the strange hook-nosed man and the beautiful blonde woman holding a thick tome.
The coming year is a turning point in your destiny… If the mystery goes unsolved, your future may be forever lost.
My duty is to provide assistance to our guests to ensure that does not happen.
By the second time he entered, he was more accepting of the idea that this was not a dream or, at least, not entirely a dream. Between making a pact to solve a murder with a teddy bear-mascot... thing, and fighting a walking manifestation of his new friend's bitterness in a twisted version of a liquor store through the use of...
What was the term he called out again? In the midst of battle, as the intoning chant of Thou art I, and I am thou rang through his head, while surrounded by the floating balls of teeth and tongue the bear called "Shadows"...
With a force bubbling in the back of his mind that went by the name of Izanagi, and being forcefully shoved through a TV for the third time in less than a day, he was a lot more accepting of the idea of being in a dream-limousine alongside the most elegant woman he had set eyes on and contrasting, the most bizarre-looking man he had ever seen. He sat on the soft leather seat, this time palming the thin card in his hand and flipping it over and over, his own excitement over the day's events still gnawing away at his mind.
Your destiny will require you to hone your power, and for that, you will inevitably require our help.
There is but one price for this assistance…
It certainly fit with the agreement he just made with Teddie and Yosuke just a few short hours ago. Between arguing about the possibility of being the true killer and that devastating moment in what remained of Saki's 'reality', for lack of better description. And, true to his word, Souji Seta abided by that agreement.
For every battle, he was the one who would maintain the group's funds and the gear. He would work four jobs and collect what scraps he could scavenge from the remains of the Shadows every battle. For every conversation, he'd try to find some lead to bring to the table or, in times where the case would stall, some new view point he could offer. He would study every night, to keep his mind sharp and his reasoning as high as possible. After all, he was the one who had made the contract and, more importantly, been deemed the leader by the group.
It was certainly an... Odd feeling, being selected as the leader. As far as Souji could say, he had never been responsible for other people.
Then December 3rd hit.
You must abide by your contract and assume responsibility for all decisions you may make.
For a moment, Souji was so still that even Igor wasn't sure he was still alive. He was slumped over in the back of the limousine, his face obscure by grey hair, his hand still tightly clinging to a cellular telephone. Even with his long bangs obscuring his eyes, he could see the thin stream of tears running down his cheeks, as suddenly his shoulders began to shudder, as Igor could hear the boy's quiet chant.
"I'm sorry... I'm sorry..." His voice was cracked and hoarse, before it erupted into a near shriek of grief. At this point, the boy was deep in hysterics and barely at the edge of sanity. For a time, the three just sat in the limo, listening to the quiet drum of the motor and to the boy's frayed, cracked sobs.
Out of all the things he was expecting his nephew to bring, gifts were not on the list.
Souji smiled sheepishly, handing the larger of the brown paper bags to Nanako first. "I'm sorry it's not wrapped. I didn't have time to wrap it properly, and it seemed really dumb to pay for another bag just because it looked nice. I hope you like it."
Nanako paused for a moment, looking up to Dojima in confusion first, as if to check first and make sure taking the bag was alright. It was... Odd, but not something he could regard as suspicious, at least not yet. After all, his sister Sumire had said before her boy was always a little strange, a reserved and quiet boy with the tendency to bring home strays and treat expiration dates as something that happened to other people. "Go ahead, it's alright." Dojima said gently, patting the back of Nanako's head as he spoke. She took the bag and glanced inside, before smiling brightly.
"A stuffed platypus?" She said, pulling the small doll out of the bag. It was a little doll, roughly the size of a man's fist, and filled with something more like sand or beans than fluff. Still, she clung onto the doll swiftly, looking intently at it's plush face, "I've never found one of these before! Not even Junes has them!"
"It's a little last minute. I would've gotten a better one, but I was already was at Okucho, and if I left the station to find a toy store then I would've had to take a much later train than I would've liked." He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.
Nanako looked up at him shyly, still petting the platypus. "It's fine..." She said, quietly, "I like this one. Thank you."
Souji turned to Dojima, before handing him the second brown paper bag. "I got you something as well. It didn't seem polite to get something for Nanako and not bring you anything as well." Dojima took the bag, blinking in surprise for a moment before pulling out a metal cigarette case.
The older man smiled wryly. "I'm pretty sure when your mom complained about my smoking habit, she didn't mean you should encourage it."
"I didn't think you'd like e-cigs, and you ha-" The boy stopped himself for a moment, noted Dojima. Souji bit his lip lightly, before he finished, "You probably have a tendency to crush them. I mean, cigarette boxes are so thin, and with your job as a detective, I imagine you'd probably like something to keep them nice and fresh."
Dojima stared at him for a moment, not one of his on-call glares reserved for one of the delinquents that had been popping up around town with more frequency, but an extended glance. It was certainly a lot of assumptions that Souji was making right now. And, the actually unnerving point, he was making a lot of correct assumptions.
Souji stared evenly back at Dojima, his face blank. Not with confusion, or even annoyance, but just blank. "Is something wrong?" He asked.
Dojima gave it another beat. "No, it's nothing." He said, pulling out a slightly crumpled pack of Marlboro's. "You just caught me off guard, is all."
"Please excuse me." Souji said. For a moment, his face flashed a surprisingly deep sorrow, not run of the mill sadness, but a stark gloom that didn't fit the moment at all, before shifting back to the prior neutral expression, the blank mask he had become accustomed to seeing in the yearly family holiday photos. "I'm just a little excited. After all, Nanako's never met me, and you haven't seen me since I was a baby, isn't that right?"
After the sobbing subsided, the silence was pronounced. Igor's hands remained steepled below his nose, his eyes remained thin slits. He glanced over to Margaret, maintaining her ever-vigilant position by his side. Even now, he could see her knuckles whitened by the grip she kept on Le Grimoire, the tightness of her face, and the slight flush of anger under her skin. She did not approve of Souji's recent... reaction.
Meanwhile, the boy had finally calmed down. While he still leaned forward, almost curled into a fetal position, he was no longer shaking and mumbling incoherently. Of course, he was still distraught; Igor wasn't a fool, he was aware of the toll the events had taken on the boy's mind. But even distraught like this, they still needed to come to an answer. Everyone had gone for too long without an answer, and the cost of silence was too devastating to continue onwards.
"It seems," Igor said, as he readjusted his hands, "We have come to an impasse."
Souji looked up, choking back a second wave of sobs. "Y-yes?" He said, barely a whisper. Even now, the damage to his throat was done, after so many months of silence. His throat was raw from sobbing, from finally gaining use again, if only in savage, guttural cries.
"As of this time, the fog of deception has become beyond our scope." Igor said. Souji winced, specifically at the mention of the fog. "What had once been a possible path through the fog has been overridden, and to an an extent, even worsened as a result of indecision."
The Velvet Room fell back into a tense silence. Souji bent down, his arms curling over his head, as he clasped his eyes tightly shut.
"Do you have anything to say?" Igor said evenly.
"I'm a failure."
It just figured that she'd end up with King Moron as her homeroom teacher, Chie thought somewhat darkly. Of course, the start of school was never something she looked forward to anyway. But between Yukiko being tied up with the inn for most of the vacation and Yosuke dodging her for days, only to collapse at his desk as soon as he arrived with no mention about how he enjoyed Trial of the Dragon... Ugh. Of course she, and the rest of the class, would be stuck with the biggest jerk teacher in this entire school.
"Now I hate wasting my time, but I'd better introduce this transfer student." Morooka stopped in the midst of his tirade about how the entire class was nothing but whores and assholes, and motioned to a grey-haired and kind of dazed-looking teen boy standing at the front of the class. For a moment, it seemed like he was staring straight at Chie, but she shook it off. "This sad sack's been thrown from the big city out to the middle of nowhere like yesterday's garbage. And he's just as much of a loser here as he was there, so you girls better not get any ideas about hitting on him! Tell 'em your name, kid, and make it quick."
The teen snapped out of his daze at that last comment, and glanced over to Morooka. "Wait a minute," he said, "You're calling me a loser? You, of all people?"
King Moron bristled, as the class chuckled or gasped in surprise. "That's it, you're on my shit list, effective immediately", he snapped, before kicking off into another rant, the second of what Chie was assuming was going to be a year full of rants. The grey-haired kid stared at Morooka in frustration and began rubbing his temples, "Now listen up! This town is miles away from your city of perverts and assholes, and maybe if you actually paid attention to this instead of rolling your eyes, you'd be learning something! And you better not think about getting involved with any of the girls around here, let alone abusing them..."
Chie looked at the empty desk beside her. She certainly felt bad for the new guy, already taking the brunt of King Moron's attention and being chewed out for something stupid, and he hadn't even had a chance to sit or say much of anything. And really, anything to cut this rant short would be a good idea. "Um, excuse me!" She said, raising her hand up. "Is it alright if the transfer student sits here?"
"Huh?" Morooka said, jarred out of his complaints about how terrible the new guy, and for that matter all of the students, were. He motioned dismissively at the seat, "Yeah, sure. Hear that? Your seat's over there, so hurry up and siddown already!"
The grey-haired guy walked over and took a seat. He glanced at Chie, a surprisingly tired and sad look in his eyes, but he still smiled gently. "Thank you," he said.
"Wow, he's got you that down already?" Chie said, "Hate to say it, but it's only gettin' worse from here. He's the worst."
"Oh no," the new guy said, "I've learned how to tune him out already. It's just... You remind me of someone I knew, is all."
Chie paused for a moment, thinking about how the new guy responded. It sounded weird but was probably nothing, after all this guy probably had hundreds of asshole teachers from the city, so he obviously learned how to tune out yer a bunch of losers and whores and yer gonna get teen pregnant or stds and die miserable bluh bluh bluh from there. "So, you've got a lot of jerk teachers in the city?"
"I suppose you can say that."
"I just... I stopped. And I stopped for a long time. You sent me to solve the mystery before the answer was lost in the fog, and I did nothing." Souji said, the last word dripping with disgust. It wouldn't have been as bad if he had taken an option, said something when he had the chance. But when Nanako... When she... Even thinking the phrase, even the idea, made his mind lock up and his throat burn. And how did he respond to it?
Freezing up entirely. Saying nothing, doing nothing. It wouldn't be as shameful if he had made any choice, even if it had the same result. But now, sitting in the back of the limousine, in the company of Igor and his obvious disappointment, Margaret and her seering anger... All he could think was how he did nothing.
Igor gave Souji a heavy stare, before shutting his eyes. For a moment, the limousine descended into silence again, before Igor spoke. "Well," He said, "Now we'll just have to make a decision at this point."
"I don't..." Souji said, before taking a moment to pause. It really didn't seem to matter anymore, at this point. Even if he solved it, Inaba was still dead. Everyone, everything... Still... "Understand." Souji completed, rather stiffly. "I don't understand what you mean."
Igor half-smiled, "Even now, we have certain options available to us for our journey. You might not believe everything is lost at this point, but I can do one of three last things, if only to resolve our current dilemma."
It was this that broke Margaret out of her muted anger. She looked at Igor, "Master?" She asked, one of the few times even she could remember as even questioning Igor's decisions. Of course, she knew the choice well, something Elizabeth had talked about with her before Elizabeth started her own journey, but to offer it to now? To this boy?
At first, Yosuke found himself thrashing in the trash can in frustrated, pointless rage. Getting out? He wasn't getting out any time soon, he was stuck in the damn thing. He already knew he was stuck because he got stuck in the same trash can less than a week ago. And even when he did get out, he was going to be smelling like garbage for the rest of the day, which was bad enough but going to school smelling like garbage?
Damn garbage can for being just out on the street where anyone can crash into it. Damn shitty bike breaks, as well. In fact, damn Inaba too, with it's rocky streets that destroy bikes within six months, it's million housewives and bored students that didn't have anything to do but bitch about him, his family and Junes, and it's lack of anything at all to DO.
He flailed around, the first few kicks just because he was pissed and he wanted to just kick something, even if it was another trash can or the air. The last one was an actual attempt at kicking the can off though. It was getting hard to breath in the stupid thing, and it was rank as hell to boot. Stupid goddamn trash can. Stupid goddamn bike. Stupid goddamn Inaba.
The can came to a sudden and fixed stop. For a moment, he guessed he got himself wedged against a tree or a wall, but he heard a voice call out, "Hold on, is there any trash left in the can?"
"Nah," Yosuke replied, "I think I knocked it all out when I first hit." For a moment, he considered if it was meant as a stealth insult, but that particular thought went out the window when the can suddenly shifted straight up and knocked him on his ass. "Hey! Watch it!"
"Sorry." The voice said sheepishly, "But it's easier pulling the can off like this. Don't move, I've almost got it."
As the can was tugged straight off, the morning light was blinding. The fresh air was a relief at least, especially compared to the smell of the can. He looked up, catching the grey haired kid from his class placing the trash can back in place. The grey haired kid looked back at him and gave a gentle smile. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah, thanks to you. You're a real lifesaver, man!" Yosuke said, as he scrambled to his feet.
The grey hair boy rubbed his arm awkwardly at that, looking away. He looked... Oddly ashamed, almost. Or maybe self-conscious. Probably self-conscious, why would someone react with shame to being complimented? "I-It's no big deal. Really, you'd do the same for me."
"Now, the first of the options" Igor said, steepling his hands below his nose once again, "is simply to surrender. We can accept this loss, and from this point, your story would be at an end.
"Your second option I can offer would be to go back in time a short distance, the span of a week." Igor said, "This would allow you to keep all of your current Personae available at your discretion, as well as keep you at the full level of strength you are at now."
Souji blinked wearily, his mind blearily processing the two options. Had he known… Had he known, he would've ran to the Velvet Room right away, instead of shutting down so thoroughly, to the point where he wouldn't even leave the house, where he wouldn't even consider approaching the glowing blue door beside Daidara's. "W-Why didn't you say anything b-before?" He asked, his voice slightly louder, but still cracked and damaged from lack of use.
Igor closed his eyes and said, "It's always been a failsafe in case the fog was to encroach, such as in this unfortunate time. While the events that have beseech you have been tragic, there would have been nothing we could've offered, at least until this point" The long-nosed man frowned deeply, as he continued. "However, it's an option that I find you'll be less willing to take. Tell me, my guest, do you think a single week will be enough for what you seek?"
Souji's mouth pressed into a thin line. He was right… A week? Jumping back a week wouldn't even bring him back to Inaba. A week ago, he was just arriving in Hokkaido, just in time to receive the text about Dojima, the simple call me right now… It would be too late for anything, even if he did have his Personae at his disposal. What purpose would that serve? Igor was completely correct.
"Of course," Igor's face hardened as he spoke, "The third option I can offer is an extension of the prior offer. I can push back further, going back as far as the first time we met. Of course, there's a hefty penalty with this option."
Back to when they first met... April, 2011. Long before the TV, long before the fog, December, and everything else that had gone so drastically wrong. A step back entirely, although one with a catch. He held his tongue, to let Igor explain.
"You will lose all of your boons you have earned through your time in Inaba. Your Personae, your strength, whatever progress you made with your social links, it will all be reset. Whatever progress you have made towards breaking through the fog of deception will have to be retread, for you will only start with your memories of this time and nothing else."
Souji waited. It was less considering his options, and more allowing Igor to explain the negative effects of the last option. The loss of the Personae... "This... This includes Izanagi too?"
Igor nodded, "As further warning, I cannot guarantee when you will be able to use him again, or even if you will use him again. While your abilities with the Wild Card will always be with you, you have changed, and changed drastically at that."
Souji felt the pit of his stomach drop.
At 2:48 PM, the Inaba Police Department received the call regarding the discovery of the remains of Miss Mayumi Yamano.
A 3rd year student, Miss Saki Konishi, was the initial witness in the investigation, having discovered the body dangling from a telephone poll down by the intersection between the suburbs and the old Inazaki farm stead. Later in the day, the coroner's reports would list the cause of death as unknown, with no signs of physical trauma on the remains.
No DNA evidence would be found, thanks to what the coroners and investigators would attribute to the scattered showers throughout the day prior to the discovery. Any useful evidence, including finger prints or epithelials, was effectively washed away before the investigation could take place. Not that it mattered in this podunk backwater; quite frankly, the fact this department even had the means to even process DNA evidence sometime within the decade was a shock to Tohru Adachi.
The rookie detective stared at the corpse, bleary-eyed, confused and frustrated. Quite frankly, the case of Mayumi Yamano always was the most disappointing portion of the game. He couldn't even enjoy the first act, until the confirmation about the lack of DNA evidence left him in the clear. Initially, he couldn't think of anything but the cuffs and the cell. Especially as a cop, he knew what prison held for him. Convicts were rather... unkind to former cops.
He took a swig of his scalding hot coffee.
Adachi started to walk back to his partner, holding the two coffees he had initially been sent to retrieve. Already, he was finding himself in the role of Tohru Adachi, Rookie Detective and Dojima-san's Personal Bitch, much to his chagrin. Perhaps, as soon as he got a chance, he'd be adding a personal 'seasoning' to Dojima-san's strong, black coffee. Probably. Later on. For now, the worst he would get is cold coffee.
As he walked back to his 'superiors', Adachi stopped in mid-step. Dojima's nephew was here, him and two of his little flunkies, the angry little lesbian and little miss Princess Amagi. Well, seems the boy makes friends quick, doesn't he? Of course they were here, gawping like the slack-jawed yokels they were. Dojima's nephew though... He looked tense, standing in front of both girls. Oh. Oh, the boy was looking back and forth expectantly, perhaps trying to scope out his uncle.
Adachi waved over to the boy, " Hey!" he shouted in an annoyed voice, "What are you doing milling around for? Can't you see this is a crime scene?"
The girls definitely looked unnerved, at least. He couldn't make out what they were whispering to each other and to Dojima's nephew from this distance, but there was no doubt that it was definitely panic and worry. He walked up to the group, "Look, a bunch of school kids like you should be heading home at this point, so run off. I'm sure you've all got homework you need to do or something better than hanging around at a crime scene."
The loss of any other Persona was already terrible, losing that representation of himself. It wasn't a simple matter of losing his favorite Persona, as if it was something as trite a preferred candy bar or a pair of socks. Izanagi was him, or at least a part of him, no less real than his arm or his voice.
There was still no doubt in his mind of his choice though. Had Igor requested his arm in return, he would've held it out and waited for the ax. Had he requested his voice, Souji would've torn his vocal cords out himself. It was a price, one that made the tightness in his chest and abdomen twitch harsher, but wasn't it a worthwhile price?
Didn't he want to save everyone?
Didn't he want Nanako to live?
Igor smiled enigmatically. Even without saying, Souji was sure the man already knew what he was going to say.
As the Bisai Line Express roared out of the tunnel, Souji was blinded by the bright, dazzling sunlight. He winced his eyes sharply, taking in a choked gasp of air at the brightness. The scenery they were passing was vivid, sharp greens and richly hued reds and pinks popping through the fields and on the cherry blossom trees as the train careened past. The interior of the train itself was as sharp, as bright as the outdoor fields with the worn blue padding on the seats a blazing cerulean, the sounds of gossiping travelers a raucous din, and even the smells of a food cart pushing past with re-warmed snacks for sale intense and highly perfumed. For a second, for a minute, for a long time, Souji was stunned by just how ALIVE everything was.
It was April 11h. Even without needing to check his phone, he knew it was April 11th. His mind felt... Empty, the weight of his Personae missing. Even the familiar anchor of Izanagi, the 'man-who-invites', was missing.
For a moment, his shoulders began to shudder, but Souji bit his tongue. No, even with all of the sensations coming back so strong and bright and almost maddening, even with his Persona gone and his sense of self shaken, he was fine. He was going to be fine. Wipe away those tears, still that breathing. There wasn't time left to cry and panic any more. In three stations, he would be in Inaba again, and he would get a second chance. One more chance to save everyone, all of his friends, his uncle, and his little cousin, and everything was going to be okay as soon as he could calm down and start breathing normally again.
Okucho station was coming up. He dimly remembered they had a gift shop available, and he had a few minutes before the Himawari-Sen train would to take him to Inaba. It seemed like the perfect time to get Nanako a gift.