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Thread: Fate/Reach Out (Fate/Stay Night x Persona 4)

  1. #1

    Fate/Reach Out (Fate/Stay Night x Persona 4)

    Kishou the Badger here again. I've been meaning to share this story here on the Beast's Lair, so I finally decided to do just that so you can all make your own comments. The table of chapter content is going to be the same as the one in Sufficient Velocity. This means this fic is readable on four different sites now. I'm aware this is kind of shameless and ambitious, (at least IMHO), but I'm curious of Nasuverse fans here have to say or think of my story outside of the occassional rec or update on the Rec thread. So, without further ado, here's your favorite Fate/Stay Night and Persona 4 crossover...

    Fate/Reach Out

    by Kishou the Badger and Nameless_Flame

    Arc 1: Fuyuki and Inaba - Chapters 1-3 (below), Chapters 4-6, Chapter 7, Chapters 8 & 9
    Arc 2: The Journey Begins - Chapters 10 & 11, Chapters 12 & 13, Chapters 14 & 15
    Arc 3: "Princess" Yukiko Rescue - Chapter 16, Chapter 17, Chapter 18, Chapter 19, Chapter 20, Chapter 21 part 1
    and part 2
    Arc 4: Golden(-Eyed Tiger) Week - Chapter 22, Chapter 23, Chapter 24, Chapter 25, Chapter 26
    Arc 5: Breakout Idol - Chapter 27 part 1 and part 2, Chapter 28, Chapter 29, Chapter 30, Chapter 31, Chapter 32 part 1 and part 2
    Arc 6: ??? - Chapter 33 part 1 and part 2
    Fuyuki Gaiden: Taiga (April 13 - April 24)​, Rin (May 2 - May 6), Ayako (May 29 - May 31)
    April 1st Specials: 1 and 2

    Chapter 1: An Altered Fate

    -September 2010, Homurahara High School-

    Taiga Fujimura was many things: she was a teacher of English composition and could be counted on to arrive late to her class each morning. She was a woman in her mid-twenties but insisted (and acted) that she was younger than that. She was a feminine and outgoing person and hated being considered otherwise. She was the granddaughter of a yakuza lord and never had to worry about traveling alone at night. She was a champion at kendo and wielded her lucky kendo blade, Torashinai, which for some reason scared everyone whenever she carried it, even going so far as to call it "cursed." She had many nicknames such as "human jet coaster," "yakuza princess," and her most infamous and unfeminine one, "tiger."

    Taiga was all of these things, but she was also an observant older sister even when she didn't act like it. So, while she was rinsing herself in the ladies' restroom at her school during a quiet September morning, she thought long about what she had noticed.

    She had been close with her student, Shirou Emiya, for nearly a decade…

    -Not that way though! More like siblings!

    Anyway, since she knew him for so long, she could read a good number of Shirou's social cues and ticks. She could tell when he was angry, when he was happy, but most of all, when he was sad.

    The first two were easy to read. He always had a short temper and used to get into fights with bullies when he was younger. He also tended to have a big smile on his face whenever he finished a hard maintenance job, or when he was thanked for doing said job.

    As for his sadness, that was far more obscure, and she almost missed it at times, but after a while she began to detect a pattern. It started roughly five years ago; around the time his adoptive father, Kiritsugu Emiya, died.

    Her grandfather personally knew Kiritsugu, though he never stated the specifics of their meeting or friendship. She was fond of the older man though, more like a crush and had often come over to see him while she was still in high school. He in turn allowed her to visit, eat with them, and basically be the sister figure/baby sitter for Shirou whenever he left on his world travels. She was more engrossed in spending time with Kiritsugu at the time, but she recalled that while growing up, Shirou was an excitable and carefree child that had a thing for sports like kendo and archery. He never did win a match against her, but it was all in good fun for both of them.

    Then Kiritsugu died. It wasn't a car crash or gunshot or old age, it just sort of happened without explanation. He passed away while sitting on his porch one night with a melancholy smile. The only people that knew about it were her grandfather's yakuza branch and, of course, Shirou. He was never quite the same after that night.

    He refused to stay after school for things other than 'helping out.' He would work hours at part time jobs just to make ends meet. As long as she and her grandfather had anything to say about that, there was no need for Shirou to work at his age just to cover his living expenses, but the boy wouldn't ease up no matter how many times they told him. Even when he had free time, Shirou would spend hours at end in his shed fixing old appliances, only coming out for school or to cook meals.

    He had a small handful of friends, but even then he didn't go out and see them outside of school and work. He would even let himself be strung along by his friends Issei and Shinji unconditionally to take up random maintenance chores. Students his age should be partying with other guys, trying to date girls and finding more ways to enjoy themselves, not tinkering with tools and odd jobs day in and day out!

    The worst part from Taiga's perspective was that Shirou himself didn't seem aware of any of this. He would just distract himself with his work, his studies, or by fixing things. Whenever he did come into the house for food, he would pass something like a photo of Kiritsugu or the spot on the porch they both sat before he died. Every time he would pause and frown, if only briefly, and then resume what he was doing as if nothing had happened.

    He was still coping with the loss of his father. Or rather, now that she thought about it, the loss of his family.

    It never occurred to Taiga before how much Shirou must have been hurting until now. He was saved and adopted by his step-father, and the two were as close as any father and son of real blood. But now Shirou was alone again, experiencing the loss of family twice, even if he couldn't remember his biological parents.

    Taiga and Shirou's junior high school friend, Sakura Matou, came by every day, at least for breakfast and dinner, and helped with the household chores like they lived there, but at the end of the day only Shirou slept there. They were all close, sort of like siblings, but it wasn't the same.

    Okay, so she just sat and watched as Sakura and Shirou did the cleaning and ate their food because it was delicious and free, but that was beside the point!

    Shirou needed familial connections, legit ones. Like a mother or another father, or even a younger sibling to take care of. The only problem was that both of his birth parents died when Shinto burned down and he had no recollection of who he was prior. It was Kiritsugu who gave him the name Shirou Emiya and he had embraced it. If he had any still living relatives, they wouldn't know if he was alive at all.

    Still… there had to be someone out there that knew his birth parents, maybe even Kiritsugu, out there, right? The trick would be to find them.

    Before he died, Kiritsugu entrusted her to watch over his son. She'd be damned before she failed to live up that promise in any way she could.

    "Leave it to me, Kiritsugu," she smiled to the mirror. "Shirou'll be happy again before you know it!"

    It was at that time the morning bell to class rang throughout the building. The calm before the storm…

    "-I'mlateI'mlateI'mlateI'mlateI'MLATEI'MLATEI'MLATEI 'MLATE-!"

    To anyone in the hallway at that time, they would see a frantic brown-haired teacher with a tiger striped shirt under a light green dress bolt out of the restroom and kick up dust in a mad beeline dash to her classroom. Her speed was said to rival a bullet train that day.

    -???-


    "So this is where you've been hiding."

    "More like lodging. You'd be surprised how spacious and homey this 'Grail' thing is."

    "This is not what we agreed upon."

    "As usual, I can't take all the blame: I act on the wishes of mankind, after all. A little over a decade ago, this thing happened to be stirring and made a wish to bring together all the evils in the world. It was subtle at first, but as the days went on, it would grow exponentially stronger and louder, as if begging to be realized. So I thought, 'what else could I do but answer that request?' And… here we are. While the wish interfered with my banishment, it didn't outright violate it either… though to be honest, I didn't struggle a whole lot out of it."

    "And yet you caused the fire ten years ago."

    "Guilty as charged, but again, I was merely working on one of mankind's truest wishes. I AM the Holy Grail now, for all intents and purposes. Or rather, I'm Holy Grail number 726, but you get the idea. I'm to create an all-powerful wish to one of seven magi. Of course, why just settle with one wish when I can grant ALL of them? Free of charge, no less!"

    "…It appears our war game is once again in motion, then."

    "You could say that, but we're playing by a new set of rules now, one set by the humans no less! I'm sure Servants could count as Persona as well for our purposes, just more human than a projection of the human heart."

    "Which reminds me: that boy there, one of your contestants for your next war... I wish to borrow him."

    "…That one? Eh, feel free. Perhaps having your gift bag thrown in will make this war more interesting."

    "You misunderstand: he is needed elsewhere, and I want you to postpone your war game until after his business there is complete."

    "Asking for favors, eh? What's so important about him, anyway? Any other kid should do just fine, especially
    a mute one."


    "There is another game brewing in a small rural town. This one is not unlike Tatsumi Port Island a few years prior. This boy has a personal connection to that town even if he doesn't know it yet."

    "Sounds more like you're stealing and condemning the brat like that last one who fought Nyx. Afraid I can't allow that: the boy already has a death sentence here, and having him killed over there would be no fun. Neither is acting like a living seal for all eternity."

    "What if I can assure you he'll not only survive, but be able to partake in your game afterwards at a higher level? What if I can prove that his potential can exceed that of what is thought impossible, even amongst magi?"

    "Ooooh? Another wager, is it? Name your terms, then."

    "The boy is to be escorted to Yasoinaba for one full school year, up to the spring of 2012. His power, growth, and decisions will be overseen by the gods of fog, where they may or may not serve as the crucial factor to Inaba's fate. Should he succeed, he will be more than certified as a contestant in your war and return to Fuyuki."

    "Interesting… And if he fails?"

    "The turning point of his arrival would be removed, and he would continue life unaware of his previous actions. In turn, you would still have your contestant and be free to act on this war regardless of his success or failure."

    "…heheheheh. Hehehehehehe! Hahahahaha! HOOHAHAHAHAHA! You certainly know how to make things interesting! Very well, I accept your terms."

    - - - Updated - - -

    Chapter 2: Butterfly effect

    -December 2nd 2010, Warehouse-

    "…and that crosses out the Sakatori family, too." Taiga frowned before setting aside another folder on a pile to her left. While a moderately tall stack, it paled in comparison to the box full of files to her right that she reached into, and she pulled out another one to skim through. It was one of a thousand such boxes cluttered all throughout the building.

    "Taiga," one of her grandfather's men called from his own pile across the room. "Maybe we should take a break?"

    He and three others were rummaging through all past records of Shinto up to the fire, from the family records to the hotels to the citizen identifications. One of the pros of having connections with the yakuza was that there were no limits on how to get information. However, unlike the yakuza princess, they weren't as skilled at speed-reading as she was. They were hired by her grandfather for their muscle, intimidating looks and to have more gun hands. All four of them would rather face a gang war than be forced to read any day.

    Taiga leveled a fierce scowl at them and they all winced. "You already had your break five minutes ago! Keep looking!"

    "But it's impossible!" another whined. "We'll never find anything on Shirou's family!"

    "So you just want to give up on finding who his parents are and maybe figuring out if he has living relatives at all?!"

    "Of course not! Shirou's like family to us too! Isn't that enough?"

    Taiga sighed. "I wish it was…"

    "It's been months since we've started, though," one of the thugs reasoned. "It'll take years to go through all the people that died in that fire and who they were related to, and even then we might not find anything. Some records could have been burned away too."

    Taiga considered this fact bitterly. The fire ten years ago still left its mark in the new central park. No one went near it because the atmosphere around it was just suffocating, like it was still haunted by the event. Central Shinto was gutted, and the fire took hundreds of lives. That Shirou survived in the middle of it all was nothing short of a miracle, really. Kiritsugu used to imply that much as well.

    "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it!" she huffed while paging through another file, hoping to find something about a son or a picture that looked like Shirou. No such luck.

    "All I'm saying is that we might not-"

    "We will find something!" she snapped. "Uncle, grandpa, twice removed cousin, evil twin, WHATEVER! He's just got to have more family members than his deceased parents, everyone does! And the sooner we find something on Shirou's past, the sooner we can solve that mystery!"

    The men wisely kept quiet as they continued their search, moving all the piles of folders and documents to one side of the room as they continued going through the rest. The process continued as it had the previous times: the men would leave first, being mentally unenthusiastic and drained from the thirty or so files they each dug through, while Taiga would stay behind and try to read one file after another hoping something would come up. They would also tell her not to make a mess of the place, but she ignored them.

    Eventually, even the Tiger of Fuyuki's seemingly unbreakable spirit faltered from the constant failure. No matter how many files she poured through, not so much as a single clue that didn't end in the words 'confirmed deceased.' "Argggh!" with a frustrated growl, she tossed aside her 139th file into the air, disregarding the scattering sheets of paper falling out around her. She fell down to the floor on her back, starring at the ceiling lights listlessly.

    A part of her wanted to give up and cut her losses, maybe even admit that this was a waste of time. She was starting to slip behind in grading her students, losing hours of sleep and even Shirou, bless his dense soul, was beginning to suspect she was doing something haphazard to her health. But another part, which kept her going through the last few months since her decision, wanted nothing more than to make Shirou happy again and not end up some emotionless robot.

    "Oh, God," she sighed, raising her hands up in questioning. She wanted something, anything,to prove Shirou really wasn't alone in the world. "Give me a sign…"

    "Do you search for truth?"

    Taiga snapped back up, looking around to where the voice came from. "Eh?"

    "Then you must reach for it."

    Fully alert, Taiga stood up and looked for where the voice had come from. It didn't sound like any of her grandfather's regular flunkies, and she assumed everyone else had gone home already. Her eyes caught sight of a sparkling blue light dancing in a corner of the warehouse. Curious, she slowly walked towards it, stepping over and around any boxes and containers of still untouched material as if in a trance. The light danced further away like a fish lure, tempting the young woman to venture further into the building.

    Taiga continued to stare as she finally got close to the light. It was a glowing blue and white butterfly, no bigger than any other of its kind, yet the way it flew was slow and deliberate… almost majestic actually. It was as if the blue butterfly was leading her to what she was looking for.
    When she started her search, Taiga's plan was to scan through the files in the front of the warehouse and work her way deeper into the warehouse. So far only a fraction of it was done, and it was simply overwhelming to continue forward for everyone involved. The chance of anyone finding anything on Shirou's past within the back was just as likely as it was in the front. It was for that reason Raiga suggested a slow and steady approach despite his granddaughter's eagerness.

    And here she was, following some blue butterfly through a warehouse as if expecting an answer. Just as she was questioning the ridiculousness of it all, the butterfly landed on a specific folder sticking slightly outward in the middle of a particularly towering stack. She paused and waited to see if the butterfly would move, but it stayed there for three whole minutes, lightly fanning its wings. Taiga edged closer, wary of scaring it off after it took her this far. She now stood in front of the stack, reaching for the butterfly tentatively.

    It fluttered off just before her fingers brushed its shining wings, somehow faster than she thought possible. Following its path, she saw the butterfly fly straight towards the moon peeking through the window above and seemingly disappear from her sight like a mirage. Taiga craned her head all about, but couldn't make out where the blue butterfly could have gone.

    Deciding that it was long gone, she turned back to where it had landed prior. It seemed too strange, led by some blue bug to a specific spot in the warehouse, to a specific folder among all the other piles. Not to mention that weird voice. What was that again about 'truth?' There were too many coincidences and not enough convenient explanations.

    'Then again, I did ask for a sign,' she mentally chuckled. At this point, Taiga Fujimura would take anything she could get.
    Shrugging to herself, Taiga took a chance and almost hesitantly, she plucked out the file… just before realizing she caused a tower of information to topple onto her. She briefly glanced up to said teetering tower and comically screamed.

    "GWAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

    A wave of paper sheets, boxes, and folders swallowed her whole. The tower continued to fall even beyond where she stood, papers spreading out thin and wide on the floor while boxes floated on top them like small boats. A few moments passed, and the energetic woman flailed her way out from under the pile with a strangled gasp. Luckily she didn't lose or drop the folder she pulled out, or she might never have found it again from the mess she had just made.

    "Stupid butterfly!" she yelled. "Had to get me to pick some random folder out of everything else?!" Annoyed, she slapped the flap open and skimmed through the pages. "I bet this doesn't have anything either, just ano…ther…"

    She stopped mid-rant, features morphing from rage to shock. In disbelief, she flipped through the contents more deftly and thoroughly. Against all odds, it was right here in her hand.

    She had found it.

    Proof of Shirou's birth family.

    -December 20th, 2010-

    The following few weeks since that fateful night were nearly a blur to Taiga, but she was so engrossed in her search that she barely noticed.
    The file she found was on the Narukami family. Seta and Miya Narukami were hard-working graduates in business and finance, known for traveling abroad constantly to different branches of their company: Harwey Enterprises, a family owned and run corporation with a lot of power in the western half of Europe, and a heavy taste for the medieval lore of knights and chivalry. Their job at the time was to try and help expand the Shinto district. They had brought their son along to live with them after the project was complete.

    A fat lot of good that did them; they were among the five hundred or so people killed when the fire broke out a decade ago.

    She would have discredited the folder as just another dead end if it weren't for a family photo that she was staring at. Three people gazed back at her: Seta, Miya and their son. The father was tall and dressed in a light gray suit, topped with light red hair and thin-framed glasses. His wife wore business clothes as well, but also had a coat over her shoulders offered by her husband behind her. Held lovingly in her arms and sitting on her lap was a little bundle of joy. The little boy was wearing a green jacket and jeans, had bright brown eyes and topped with bright red hair of a familiar shade.

    She had found the late family of Shirou Emiya. And they had never looked so happy. It both relieved and depressed Taiga beyond measure, but she still had work to do.

    After finding the family name, it was a simple matter of looking into connections or relatives of either parent. She tried phoning Harwey Enterprises first about the couple, but it turned out to be a long dull process of playing phone tag with the various offices and automated operators. When she had finally gone over all their hurdles and redirected calls, all they said was: "We're sorry, but the person or persons you are trying to call is not registered in our databanks. If you wish to try again, press 1."

    So much for chivalry. The whole process was enough to make Taiga want to pull her hair out. She slammed the phone and went to Plan B.

    Luckily, the folder also included a copy of Shirou's birth certificate under the name of Yu Narukami. Records said he was missing and presumed dead along with his parents, but Kiritsugu had saved a boy with no memory of his past life. Because of the certificate, she was able to get Miya's maiden name: Dojima.

    Using her connections with the yakuza (which was mostly her begging to her grandfather like any toddler would) she started an underground search for anything on the Narukami and Dojima families (She would have tried for Emiya as well, but her grandfather had assured her that Kiritsugu had no living relatives). After that it was just the waiting game and going on with daily life pretending like nothing was happening. On the outside, she was still the overly energetic teacher people loved to tease but feared to anger. On the inside, she was constantly forcing herself to be distracted else she check up on the others and hear them say various grunts and refusals all meaning "No."

    She was starting to understand Shirou's habit of staying busy. Any time she was simply waiting with nothing to do was driving her insane!
    But again, between the seemingly endless hours of worry and anxiety, it was hard to keep her real feelings in check. At least she was starting to go to sleep on time… minus the tossing and turning.

    Just as she was starting to assume the worst, Raiga called her over and shared what his men had found. It took Taiga five minutes before she pulled herself away from hugging her grandfather, and another five before she finally managed to stop crying. She couldn't help but laugh a bit with her grandfather from the irony of their search once it set in, though.

    Seriously, it's usually the cops finding a yakuza, not the other way around!

    The next few days were just planning now: planning what to say to Shirou, to Ryotaro Dojima, and how to arrange for their meeting. She wasn't exactly sure how Shirou would react to this; there was an equal chance of it being good or bad.

    -Emiya Residence-

    Dinner was becoming increasingly tense for all parties present. Shirou wasn't one to initiate conversation at dinner most nights, and Sakura was a shy person by nature. Taiga was usually the one bringing the discussion and energy to the table during their shared meals, but now she always looked deep in thought and increasingly frustrated. It was becoming apparent to both students that Taiga was hiding something and they were starting to feel uneasy. Taiga being quiet and contemplative was not normal.

    It all came to a head one breakfast at the Emiya household. "Uh, Fuji-nee?" Shirou started a touch nervously. "Are you alright?"

    "Never better," Taiga quickly blurted out, taking a few bites of the food in front of her. The lobster was well cooked and presented, served with a side of fried rice and miso soup. Most would never see such an extravagant meal outside of an expensive, fancy restaurant, but here it was just another handmade dish by her little brother figure. "Delicious as always, Shirou."

    Both students glanced at each other. Taiga usually could tell who cooked just by taste. "Actually, Fujimura-sensei," the purple haired girl murmured shyly, "I made dinner."

    Taiga blinked. "Oh! I'm impressed, Sakura. You've come a long way." The English teacher could still remember when the Matou girl made daily visits to the house a year and a half ago. She came by originally to help around the house cook while Shirou recovered from a shoulder injury. Sakura had become a regular part of the "family" ever since.

    Between cooking, cleaning and laundry, Sakura would make a great housewife one day. She obviously had her eye on Shirou, and the attraction seemed to be mutual at least to an extent. Taiga would even catch the boy looking away from the plum-haired maiden suddenly from time, probably embarrassed by her beauty a few times before. It made plenty of sense: on top of physically blossoming into gorgeous young woman, Sakura had started smiling more and opening up over the time she had started regularly visiting. Taiga said nothing though. The two of them were either too shy or too humble to really pursue a relationship. Frankly, what Shirou needed in his life most was storge, not eros.

    "Fuji-nee," Shirou tried again, "you said those exact words the other day too. And you're eating faster than you usually do."

    "It's just that good!" Taiga reasoned. She loved meal time at the Emiya household, since it was delicious and free. But she was still trying to figure out how to best explain her findings. She wanted to do it when they were alone, but he's always at work, school, or cooking with Sakura. Kiritsugu was still a sensitive topic after all, and bringing it up at the dining table would kill the mood on the spot.

    "Fujimura-sensei, please," Sakura reasoned. "We just want to help."

    "I told you I'm fine!"

    "Fuji-nee-"

    Taiga glared; this was getting ridiculous. "Don't make me get my shinai out again!" If people feared her practice sword for whatever reason, she might as well exploit it whenever she could. Both students flinched at the threat, especially Shirou. The two of them exchanged nervous glances and almost relented to her demand.

    But Taiga had been wrestling with her conscience ever since she had started the search. By now she was dangerously close to the breaking point. Shirou's innocent probing and his now slightly hurt expression just happened to push her over the edge.

    "GAAAAAAAAAH!" she suddenly screamed and threw her hands up, further worrying her students. They wondered if it really was better not to have asked!

    And then, like a deflating balloon, Taiga seemed to collapse, slumping over the table. "I give up! I can't hold it in any longer! I keep trying and trying to put it off, thinking of what to say, but damn it it's hard!" Taiga then looked square at Shirou with an intensity in her expression she rarely showed. "That's it! I'm just gonna say it now!"

    She stood up from the table, pointing at the red-haired teen. "Listen Shirou, what I'm going to say tonight is very important, and I worked my ass off just to find this information! I understand you have a lot of questions as I get into this, but you are to remain silent until your teacher finishes her lecture! Is that understood!?"

    Shirou just sat and stared at her, unsure what to think. All he could manage was the obvious question. "What are you talking about?"

    Taiga took a soft, calming breath and then smiled slightly. "Let's just say I found you an early Christmas present." She then reached into her dress pocket and pulled out a photo, the one she found in the folder weeks ago. "I found your family!"

    - - - Updated - - -

    Chapter 3: Forgotten Identity
    "I found your family!"

    Those four words kept repeating in Shirou's mind like a broken record, the rest of the world suddenly irrelevant. He just sat and stared at the photo like a deer in headlights.

    Family? He had family?

    That word was so foreign to him… all he could remember was Kiritsugu saving him from the fire and adopting him. His fondest memories were spending time with him and vowing to follow his father's dream of being an ally of justice, someone who saves others from harm no matter what.
    But this…

    Who were those two people in the photo holding him? Was that even him sitting on the woman's lap? He couldn't recall anything of that earlier life, yet the picture drew him in all the same… but why? It wasn't as though he saw the picture and knew these people where his parents or anything like that; the fire had stolen even that tiny surety. But… he couldn't bring himself to disregard the image it presented. Maybe they were his birth parents, but what did this all mean?

    Were they still alive? Did he worry them? Did they hold a funeral? Were they close? If so, how close?

    Taiga's next hesitant words broke him from the confused maelstrom of questions for a moment. "I, uh… I'm sure you know that they've been long since recorded deceased because of the fire. You were the only survivor in that event, after all."

    Yes, he figured as much. Shirou instinctively knew his family was gone when he woke up that day in the hospital. Why would Fuji-nee show him that picture though if the memory was pointless now?

    At least he thought it would be pointless, but he did feel a strange sensation of closure hearing this and seeing the picture still in Taiga's hand. He had a family. He wasn't completely alone. That was good… right?

    That still didn't explain why she dug this up now, of all times. Nor did it explain how she even found out any of this or when… or answer any of the thousand questions barreling through his head.

    "But I got some good news!" Taiga quickly added. "This folder I found on your family included this picture and a copy of your birth certificate! Your closest living relatives happen to be your uncle, Dojima Ryotaro and his daughter Nanako."

    Relatives? Did they think he was dead too? Should he even bother talking to them after all this time? What could he say? How would they react? What were they like? Where did they live?

    And, again, why was she telling him this now?

    "It wasn't easy you know, getting all this! I had to ask my grandfather for a… a favor." No one in school save for Shirou knew that his hyperactive teacher was really a yakuza lord's granddaughter, so she was leaving it vague for Sakura's sake. Shirou was able to pick up that subtle hint and let the matter drop there. "Luck would have it that they caught wind of a detective Dojima in Inaba solving a murder case! Sounds cool, huh? He's a local hero, just like Kiritsugu!"

    No, Ryutaro Dojima and Kiritsugu Emiya were vastly different, even if Shirou had never met the other man. Dojima was an ordinary policeman that acted as a public ally of justice, not unlike the criminal dramas he's seen from time to time. Kiritsugu was secretive about his past, and seemed to imply he avoided the spotlight concerning his actions. However, there was no doubt in Shirou's mind that the things Kiritsugu did were of far greater scale than any ordinary cop did. But the man was a magus, and Taiga or Sakura didn't need to know that.

    "Inaba isn't that bad of a place either; real rural country town, lots of scenery, a hot spring inn, and a new Junes department store just opened there recently. Doesn't get a lot of tourism, but from what I read, it sure sounds homey!" Taiga was rambling now. Her wild gestures only filled Shirou with confusion as she continued to lay out the virtues of small-town living.

    She stopped for dramatic effect… or looking earnestly thoughtful of what to say next, judging by her sidelong glance and the hand stroking her chin. "Well, uh… that's the end of my lecture I suppose! Any questions?"

    Both students continued to stare, understandably confused. Sakura recovered first, turning to Shirou with a growing smile. "I-isn't this great, senpai? You have living relatives to your birth family!"

    Shirou hesitantly reached out and took the photo from Taiga's hand. His eyes never left it during her speech. "Do they know?" he asked. His fingers traced the surface of the photo, over the smiling faces of the man and woman kept alive in a wrinkled, forgotten image. "That I'm…"

    "Well… no," she admitted. "Not yet. I was thinking hearing from you first instead of me would have been a good first step."

    "How?" Shirou asked.

    Taiga reached for her dress pocket again, this time producing a small slip of paper with a string of numbers written on it. "Give them a call, silly!"

    "A call?" Shirou parroted. The very idea of contacting these… related strangers… was less tempting and more frankly terrifying. What if they didn't care about him? What if they had forgotten he was their relative? What if Dojima didn't know what he looked like? Would he even be able to feel anything for them?

    Come to think of it, he didn't even know what his uncle and cousin looked like either! "Do you have a picture of them too? Of the Dojimas, I mean."

    "Eh?" Taiga blinked. Then she blushed slightly in realization. "O-oh! Right! I know I have something here…"

    She reached into her dress pockets once more, and then to her hand bag, pawing through it for a moment before perking visibly. With an "Aha!" she handed another picture to her ward, Sakura leaning over his shoulder to see.

    The photo had a black haired, rugged man dressed in a gray dress shirt and black slacks, a jacket slung over his shoulder and walking out to his car. He was turned back slightly, waving to a little girl by the door to the house behind him. She looked the right age for early elementary school, first grade probably, wearing a three-color plaid dress over a white turtleneck, with brown eyes and brown hair in short pigtails. She was waving too, holding a school bag and just closing the door behind her, but she looked rather sad.

    "Where did you get this photo?" Sakura asked. "It looks like they posed."

    "Posed?" Taiga blinked again. "Uh, yeah! Posed! It was, uh… a gift! A friend of theirs wanted a realistic shot so he got them doing this!"

    What really happened was that the yakuza in Inaba were bribed to get as far as the Dojima residence and take a quick photo of them both. Yes, they needed a bribe to do that much: nearly every criminal or mob gangster Raiga's men asked had shit themselves when asked to try and take a picture of Ryotaro Dojima, and wouldn't accept anything less than a down payment for what they considered guaranteed prison time. Not to mention that shortly after someone did get the picture, he exposed himself to the detective because he forgot to turn off the flash. Needless to say, after all was said and done, the photographer's payment was converted to his bail... and new motorcycle.

    Yeah, Dojima was that good.

    Shirou now held two pictures and a phone number in his hand, staring between them before looking at his teacher. His expression looked so lost and hurt. "Fuji-nee…"

    "I know this is a lot for you to take in but-"

    "Why did you do all this?"

    It wasn't a how or a when, but a why. Of all the questions he could possibly ask, that one threw Taiga for a loop briefly. She felt a bit offended by that question, really. "What do you mean why? I'm trying to be a helpful sister, you know? Aren't you glad to know the identity of your relatives?"

    "I-it's not that," he quickly reasoned. "But they have their own lives, and I can't just intrude into their lives all of the sudden-"

    "You've been like this since Kiritsugu died," she bluntly added, stopping his excuse. "You never do archery anymore, you sleepin the shed, you drop everything on a moment's notice whenever someone strings you along for a favor… and you keep putting down the fact that you miss him!"

    To be a magus is to walk with death. That was what his step-father told him as he trained him. Death was another part of their lives, and could come at any moment. Shirou reminded himself of this sometime after the funeral, and devoted himself that much further into being what his father strived in life; to be a super hero, an ally of justice…

    He couldn't tell Fuji-nee that though. Magecraft was meant to be secret from the general public, and his step-father stressed this greatly. He understood the need to accept the fate of magi and move on for the sake of his father's legacy. But he did admit he did feel a pang of bitterness whenever he thought of him, like now…

    "Besides, they need to know you're alive just as much as you need to hear this!" Taiga continued, pointing at the photo. "See that girl? Nanako? That's the same look on your face whenever you hear his name or see his face."

    "No it's no-"

    Before he could finish, she pulled out a hand mirror from her bag and held it up in front of his face. "Kiritsugu." Despite himself, his mouth twitched to a frown and his eyes lowered, almost on reflex. It was a brief moment, but he saw his depressed reflection.

    Damn it, she was right.

    "That's the pain of loss," she said as she set aside the mirror. "She's younger than you were when he died, but I can only imagine what she and her father had to cope with.

    Shirou blinked, and then looked back at the Dojima photo. She said uncle and cousin… but not aunt. "You mean, the mother-?"

    Taiga nodded solemnly. "Passed away a few years ago."

    A tense silence filled the room while Shirou continued to digest this, his expression filled with warring emotions.

    "Um, senpai?" Sakura spoke, reminding the other two she was still in the room. "I know it's rather sudden, but maybe you can just give them a call? They're your family after all, and I'm sure they'd at least like to know you're still alive."

    Shirou stared between the number and the photos again. His eyes lingered mostly at young Nanako's face. How she braved the fact that she and her father lost someone close to them. He knew that pain all too well. Even if he could not remember his birth family even with the photo in his hand, he always had that knowledge that they were gone in the back of his mind. How hard was it for them, who could still remember their loved ones' smiles?

    "Yeah… you're right."

    -December 20, 2010 - Dojima Residence, Inaba-

    He's late again, Nanako thought glumly while the ending theme to her show played on TV. She had hoped that by the time her show ended her dad would come back. Some days he did, other days he came home late, and there were even days where he didn't come home at all. She once tried to keep track or see if there was a pattern once, but couldn't find anything.

    Nanako knew her dad was doing an important job. She felt proud whenever she told her friends at school about how he went around Inaba catching and beating up bad guys. It wasn't so bad either because whenever she played with mom, it would seem he would be home before she even knew it. When she was awake that is.

    But things weren't the same when mom died. Things were tense without her, and she and dad barely talked to each other during dinner. She learned to do laundry, clean up around the house, and sometimes cook when her dad didn't order take-out. It wasn't hard and her dad would at times compliment her on a good job. She still missed her mom though…

    Riiiiing! Riiiiing!

    Jolted from her increasingly morose train of thought, Nanako jumped from her cushion and ran to the phone. Was it her dad? She hoped it was! She picked up the handset and eagerly held it to her ear. "Hello?"

    "Uh, hello," an unknown male voice answered back. "Is Dojima-san there?"

    Nanako frowned as her shoulders slumped a little, feeling her dad's absence again. "No…"

    "Oh," the voice was awkward and nervous, but it didn't sound bad for a stranger. "Who is this then?"

    Nanako remembered what her father told her. "My dad said I shouldn't give my name to strangers," she recited with a bit of pride.

    The voice on the other line laughed lightly. "Your dad's pretty smart."

    "Anyway, dad's at work and mom's…" Dead? In Heaven? "Gone," she settled on.

    "…Oh…" The voice fell silent for a while. Nanako could hear breathing on the line though. "…When will your dad get back then?"

    "I don't know," she answered after a moment's pause. "He's always out at night."

    "Doing what?"

    "Detective stuff," said Nanako. It wasn't too personal to answer questions to this man, right? "He's a detective. Who are you?"

    "I'm uh… your cousin… I think."

    She frowned slightly in confusion. "You think?"

    The door to the house opened. "I'm home!"

    Nanako's eyes brightened and turned to the new voice. "Welcome home, dad!"

    Ryotaro Dojima kicked his shoes off at the front step and hanged his coat before walking up to his daughter. "Who's on the phone, Nanako?"

    "A guy who says he's my cousin, he thinks. He wants to talk to you."

    "'He thinks,' huh?" Dojima smirked slightly before accepting the phone. It was a pretty amusing identity for a prank caller. "Hello? Ryotaro Dojima speaking. Who is this?"

    "Uh, hello Dojima-san," the voice answered with a nervous tick. "This is your nephew; Shirou Emiya."

    Dojima snorted. "Nice try, but I sure as hell don't know a Shirou Emiya for a nephew. Thanks for wasting my time. Goodbye."

    "Wait! Wait!" the voice cried frantically, and Dojima stopped reaching for the receiver. This ought to be good, he thought. "Sorry, I've been called Shirou for so long that I forgot my first name. What I meant to say was… I'm Yu Narukami."

    Dojima's eyes widened. "…Yu?" If nothing else, he would give the guy credit for doing his homework: he did have a nephew by that name at one point, but the boy had died ten years ago. A massive fire had broken in Fuyuki City where his sister was working at the time, all but gutting the urban center of the city. There were supposedly no survivors from the Narukami family. The last she had seen of them was when Yu was a baby, offering to babysit him while they went overseas for work, as usual. It was mostly changing diapers though…

    That being the case, how did this joker find that name?

    But hearing his supposed deceased nephew calling him ten years after the incident sounded fishy to him, detective or not. "I don't believe you." Identity theft was growing increasingly popular as a crime nowadays, so this could very well be someone that dug up his information somewhere.

    "Honestly, this is hard for me to take in myself," Shirou answered… or was it Yu? "I only just found out my birth name today."

    He sounded genuine. Most people wouldn't wait so long to contact their relatives if presumed dead. Unless… "Amnesia, is it?"

    "I think so. I don't remember anything before Shinto burned down, not even my old name. But I know I was there. I still have nightmares about it, really."

    Well, that would check the story out. Anything that would kill several hundred people at once happening right in front and all around you qualified as traumatic in his book too. It would also explain why he didn't call until now, but not why he called now. "If that's true, then how do you get this number? Or know if I'm really your uncle?"

    "Fuji-nee found out."

    "Your adopted sister, I presume?"

    "My current guardian," Yu-Shirou corrected. "Up until recently, I lived with my adoptive father who saved me from the fire, and Fuji-nee would come over because her grandfather was friends with him."

    "Recently?" Dojima asked.

    A brief paused followed. "He passed away… five years ago."

    The detective's brow crinkled in sympathy despite his suspicions. "I'm sorry to hear that."

    "It's fine, really. I'm more concerned of your daughter though, losing her mother so early."

    It seemed his 'nephew' was too well read into his family life. Either he really did care, or was sticking his nose where he shouldn't. "Is your guardian there right now?"

    "Huh? Uh, yes, she-"

    "Put her on." His order left no room for negotiation.

    Yu-Shirou hesitated; his breath hitched slightly on the phone. "Uh… sure."

    He heard brief bickering on the line, most likely between the two people present. He could only make out the "You're ruining everything, you idiot!" before someone spoke directly to the phone. "Hello, Taiga Fujimura here! Alleged sister figure to Shirou Emiya / Yu Narukami! How can I help you?"

    Her voice was laced with beaming innocence and confidence, but Dojima recognized it being the same voice that was yelling during the switch. If he had to guess on first impressions, she was the kind of person that would do anything to get things her way. Feigning innocence and whining consistently were common tactics. However, he noticed that her last name wasn't Emiya. Peculiar: if she took over as guardian, one or the other would change their names to fit.

    "I'm Ryotaro Dojima, and I want to ask you about the legitimacy of my 'nephew's' identity."

    "I assure you that I was able to find legit proof he is your nephew! I've known him for ten years now, and I can say without a doubt he looks just like the little boy if the photo of his birth parents!"

    "How is it you found a photo now and not before?"

    "A lot of stuff on the people that died was kept in storage, especially those working on or living in the expanded parts of Shinto. I just looked through some folders on what was salvaged from the damage on now useless buildings and apartments."

    "You just happened to find the one folder you were looking for?" Dojima asked, honestly surprised.

    "Well, it wasn't easy, I'll tell you that much!" shouted Taiga.

    "I'll say," Dojima agreed. "But how can you be sure if we're related based on appearances? Has he taken a DNA test?"

    The line was silent. "Uh… no?" she admitted.

    Thought so. "Goodbye."

    "WAIT!" she shouted quickly. "I could get one if that's what you want! It would take a while though, maybe a few days."

    "Fair enough," he allowed. "Though I'm starting to get suspicious on how much you know."

    "Your sister's maiden name was on Shirou's birth certificate, also in the folder I found. I used the names Narukami and Dojima as the basis of my search.

    "That still doesn't explain how you know my home number." His voice lowered to a slight intimidating growl. "Or what happened to my wife."

    The silence on her end dragged a little longer this time. "I, uh… know a guy."

    The detective scowled. There were too many convenient excuses and not enough straight answers for his liking. "If that's all you're going to say on the matter, I'm afraid this conversation is over. Goodbye."

    "STOP DOING THAT!" she cried louder. Dojima had to pull the phone out of his ear that time, wincing. "Listen, can't you just see your nephew once in a while? He really needs a family to connect with, and he hasn't been the same since his adoptive father died!"

    The detective frowned; he was going to need a smoke after this. "Even if he is my nephew, and all my years of experience on the field are strongly telling me that he isn't, he has gotten this far without contact with us. I've only seen Yu once as a baby anyway; we'd be total strangers now."

    "Then you can start over fresh!" Taiga reasoned. "And I said I would get the proof!"

    "It's just not going to work out," he said, reaching for the receiver again.

    "Can't you at least do it for your daughter?"

    The police detective paused and waited for her to elaborate.

    "Shirou, or Yu as you've last known him, keeps downplaying the fact that he's lost his dad: the adopted dad, the only dad he's ever known. He just throws himself into work and fixing things, and hardly goes out with people his age. He's already a first year in high school and I'm worried that sooner or later he might be driven to suicide. All he seems to plan for his future is being an 'ally of justice' like his father supposedly was."

    Dojima could faintly hear Yu-Shirou cry out "He was!"on the other line, and Taiga hushing him before continuing. "I can only imagine what your daughter is going through losing her mother, and I think the two of them could really use each other's company, if nothing else."

    He turned to Nanako, watching and listening to his end of the conversation ever since she gave him the phone. "Dad?"

    She had to be hurting even now without her mother here…

    Dojima couldn't stop doing his job. He still needed to catch the bastard that took Chisato from them. But he couldn't leave her alone all the time either. What Taiga just told him sounded rather unhealthy for a boy of any age to go through, and it didn't occur to him that Nanako might go through the same thing. Does leaving a child alone to their own devices too long and lead them to danger? He might never notice the signs until it was too late with how often work kept him away.

    "Well, Dojima-san?" Taiga probed again.

    Dojima sighed. He was still unsure about this, but if she was going so far just to find them and Yu-Shirou was willing to meet halfway… "Maybe we can work something out... but you're going to need a lot of proof."

    If he didn't know any better, he would have sworn he heard her smile proudly on the other line. "Consider your challenge accepted, Dojima-san!"
    Last edited by Kishou the Badger; April 5th, 2017 at 03:40 PM.

  2. #2
    Chapter 4: Final Push

    Taiga took the terms of the "challenge" seriously to the point it seemed jarring for Sakura and Shirou. For the following month, she put Shirou through several DNA and blood tests with different hospitals and clinics, keeping numerous appointments with several different doctors and making sure Dojima did the same. She wanted no excuses from him when the proof hit the table. Copies of the birth certificate, photos, anything she could find from the folder and the results from the numerous medical tests changed hands as she pushed Dojima and her resources to the limit.

    Taiga ignored most of Shirou's complaints about the process. He never was one for doctors as long as she'd known him.

    Dojima cross-referenced everything with his own research and memories of his sister's family to make sure everything checked out perfectly. At certain points he devoted several hours poring over the same document trying to find any sort of hole in the information that would deny possible relations with Shirou and the potential complications it would bring to his and Nanako's life. As the weeks and tests passed, it finally started to sink in. This wasn't some con artist masquerading as his nephew: Shirou Emiya was in fact Yu Narukami.

    He hadn't slept a wink the night he finally accepted it.

    Whenever they talked on the phone, though, the boy made an awkward assertion that he would prefer his new name over his original one, since he was fond of his adoptive father. Considering Shirou had lived for a decade with that name, asking him to change it now when his memories were still gone made no real sense anyway. Dojima had no complaints; at the end of the day he was still his nephew, after all.

    -March 10, 2011 – Emiya Residance-

    "I even got to talk to Nanako again for a bit," Shirou explained at dinner. "She's still a little shy, but I found out that she cooks breakfast from time to time. Maybe we could share recipes."

    "Another cook, you say?" Taiga grinned, delicately cutting her share of roast duck. Of course, considering her love of good food, "delicately" did not mean "slowly" in the least. While she was glad that the redhead was connecting with his family again, she was also making an effort to keep Shirou's attention at dinner.

    Over the last couple of months, the frequency and duration of Shirou's calls to the Dojima household had risen sharply. At first, he would only spend a few minutes about once a week trying to grasp for a topic, but now he would call almost every other day and sometimes talk to his uncle and cousin for almost an hour, sometimes more if he managed to talk to both Ryotaro and Nanako in one night. It was getting to the point that Taiga was starting to feel a little left out.

    'Well, so long as he keeps cooking for me, I can tolerate it for a little bit longer,' she told herself.

    "Your cousin sounds like a sweet little girl, senpai," Sakura added, pausing in her meal to comment. "A shame what happened to her mother…"

    "Yeah…" Shirou agreed solemnly. "She's still learning, but she started cooking for breakfast after her mother died, since Dojima-san is always busy."

    "Well, point is that you're hitting it off with them!" Taiga assured him. "Sooner or later, you might even get to visit them!"

    "Funny you should mention that," Shirou smiled slightly. "Dojima-san and I have been talking about it, and he was thinking about arranging for me to stay with him in Inaba for a while."

    "That's great, senpai!" Sakura offered her support, genuinely happy for her upperclassman. He was finally going to see his family! A day trip once in a while would be great for him, and if needed, perhaps even a week or two to really get to know them. "How long would you be staying?"
    The redhead's smile turned a bit sheepish. "About that… Well, I still have school and I can't set that aside. Between Dojima's job and that, I can't see it working right away."

    Taiga nearly dropped her chopsticks at that. "Eh? After all this trouble you're not going to visit them?!"

    "Think about it, Fuji-nee: it's not as if I don't want to go, but as it stands, the only way it could work is if I either waited for summer break or just bite the bullet and spent my next school year at Yasogami like Dojima suggested. As much as I would like to meet my family in person, it's just not feasible right now."

    If this were any other matter, Taiga would have agreed with the assessment and let the matter drop. This time though, hearing Shirou give up so easily after the months of effort she put into the search and the proof caused a tick in her brow. "Come on, Shirou! What's missing a few days? This is your family we're talking about!"

    "You guys are my family, too, you know," Shirou muttered. He didn't notice Sakura blush a little and missed Taiga fighting down a smile. "I wouldn't have much chance to really get to know them without staying for a long time there, anyway. We're pretty much strangers for the most part."

    The childish teacher pointed at her charge with her chopsticks. She had put in too much money, burned a lot of favors (more accurately, her grandfather had used some of his pull for her), effort and a lot of time into tracking down Shirou's blood relatives and getting them to interact for him to just give up when he was obviously starting to connect with them. "You aren't going to spend your entire life in Fuyuki City! Going over there getting to know your family wouldn't be a bad thing!"

    Shirou shrugged. "Like I said, Dojima suggested that I spend the next school year in Inaba, but that just seemed a little extreme-"

    "If that's what it'll take, then I'll allow it!" Taiga roared.

    Shirou and Sakura's utensils froze with their hands. An eerie silence stretched out between the three in the room, the students staring at the teacher blankly. When it became clear from the stubborn frown that Taiga was dead serious, their expressions morphed to shock. Shirou outright dropped his chopsticks, mouth opening and closing like a gaping fish. Sakura's reaction was more subtle but unmistakable; her soft smile faltered, her eyes were wide with horror, one of them making a slight twitch.

    "What?" Sakura squeaked softly.

    "Are you… serious about this, Fuji-nee?" Shirou finally choked out.

    "That's right, Shirou! I've decided! It's high time you got to meet them face-to-face! If Dojima thinks you would be welcome for a year, than that's what it'll be!"

    "B-but…" Sakura started softly. "Why does senpai have to leave? Can't they just come up here? There are plenty of spare bedrooms here."

    "W-well, Nanako's just starting elementary school and Dojima's a police detective which keeps him from home with odd hours. They have a tough enough time as it is juggling their lives ever since Nanako lost her mother. I couldn't just ask them to drop everything for a day trip out here. Nanako also told me that Dojima gets called in at random, too." Shirou explained, taking a mouthful of rice mechanically.

    As it stood, Shirou's sense of responsibility and desire to inconvenience as few people as possible pretty much dictated how the visit would have to work. He didn't mind waiting for summer, but Taiga's pressure was hard to resist. To be fair, she had put a stupendous amount of effort into reuniting the family, so not going to meet the Dojima family face to face must have been tremendously frustrating for her.

    To be honest though, Shirou felt bad having to leave Homurahara as well. The student council always counted on him to fix the supplies and appliances around the school, especially Issei Ryuudou, a freshman already slated for a council position starting next year. Shirou promised to take some time to repair as many of the old appliances as he could before he left for Inaba for them.

    'Huh. I'm already thinking as though I've already decided to go… Am I really that eager?'

    "Sensei, why are you pushing this so hard?" Sakura pleaded, her hand clutching the table tightly enough to turn her knuckles white.

    Taiga gave the plum-haired girl a disarming smile. "It's not that I'm pushing him to visit, I just don't want him to have any excuses to avoid this. If we let it sit, he'll grow comfortable just talking over the phone and might never get around to meeting them."

    As Sakura gaped at her like a fish, Taiga turned her attention to Shirou again. "That being said, you need to keep that 'super hero' stuff of yours in check; Dojima's a cop, so he'll handle all the crime stuff. Just have fun with Nanako-chan while you're there, and maybe make some new friends at school. Or even hang out at their Junes place. No way can anything dark, sinister or unusual happen over there!"

    "I'll try," he answered, which wasn't a complete lie. He would still practice his magecraft in secret, but he wouldn't expose himself either. A small town like Inaba might very well have a near-nonexistent crime rate, especially with someone like Dojima watching the place.

    Taiga then puffed her chest out in a defiant lecturing pose (while still sitting down). "And for your long-term homework assignment: you are to learn and master all of Yasoinaba's meals and delicacies so you can prepare them for us back here for our enjoyment!"

    Shirou laughed; same old Fuji-nee. "I'll do my best!" Now that, he knew, he could accomplish without fail.

    With that decided, they continued their meal in silence. Sakura just sat and stared at the two them for several minutes, almost unable to comprehend what just happened.

    Eventually Taiga noticed her daze and looked concerned. "Sakura, I understand you're upset, but try to be happy for Shirou, alright? A year's not forever."

    "R-right," Sakura nodded, ignoring whatever dark thoughts circled in her head. "Of course… It's only a year…"

    Only one lonely, long, painfully atrocious year without him…

    - - - Updated - - -

    Chapter 5: The Velvet Room

    -April 11th, 2011, Fuyuki Train Station-

    After months of planning, paperwork, and negotiations with public and private groups, the big day had finally arrived, and Shirou had a small gathering of friends to see him off along with Taiga and her grandfather Raiga. Standing by the train, bags in hand, Shirou still had enough time to say his goodbyes before departure.

    Naturally, being who he was, the first thing he had to say was an apology. "Sorry I couldn't finish all the repairs, Issei."

    Issei Ryuudou shook his offered hand. The monk-in-training was already slated to take the mantle of President of the Student Council in the coming year, and he had taken to the preparations like a fish to water. He had hoped to count on Shirou to assist him from time to time, but he was glad his friend was getting the chance to meet his biological family. He was insightful enough to see that the experience would do Emiya some good. "Think nothing of it, Emiya. I'm rather thankful for all you were able to get done as it is. Homurahara has managed before we had you as our 'janitor' for years, so one year of your absence shouldn't be too painful."

    "I'll be sure to make up for it when I return for third year," Shirou promised.

    Issei smiled. "While that isn't necessary, it is good to know you can be counted on."

    The captain of the archery club he used to frequent, Ayako Mitsuzuri, was also there, almost unwilling to see him leave. "You sure there's nothing I can't say to convince you to stay?" Ayako asked, giving Shirou half-hearted puppy-dog eyes. "Your spot in the archery club is still open," she tempted, the playful smirk on her face slightly melancholy. She would miss him.

    "And I've declined that spot each time you offered," Shirou countered without missing a beat. "I don't plan on joining the archery team in Yasogami, though, if that's what you're worried about."

    "Yasogami doesn't have an archery team. I checked. I won't hold it against you if you join a sports team though; can't waste your potential after all."

    "I'll consider it." Shirou wasn't sure if he was going to try out for any sport, though. As much as they helped him keep in shape, the more he devoted himself to a club the less time he'd have developing his skills as a magus and ally of justice.

    Sakura had come along with Shinji, and held herself back to let her brother to make his farewells first. The dark haired young man smirked and slouched as he patted him on the back. "Oh, changing schools already? I'm almost disappointed Emiya. Couldn't find your calling here?" Shinji's tongue was as cutting as always, but Shirou shrugged it off as more of the harmless snarking that he indulged in.


    "It's not that, Shinji. I'm just making an extended visit with my uncle and cousin."


    "But a whole year in another school?" Shinji's grin grew wider and more mischievous. "Don't play coy with me, Emiya; you just want to find yourself a girlfriend!"


    Shirou nearly stumbled when Shinji slapped his back the second time. "Wha-?!"

    "I don't blame you, honestly. All the girls in Homurahara flock to me instead of you. Sakura is the exception because I can trust her in your capable hands."

    Something about his tone sounded condescending, but Shinji always made blunt remarks about people. Shirou had long developed a tolerance to such things, and he responded in kind. "Well, I'm more concerned about how the archery club would handle without me to always fix the broken equipment. You can fix them though, right Shinji?"

    The subtle stab to his pride wasn't missed by the Matou, nor was it to Ayako. The latter covered her mouth with her hand to stifle chuckles. "I-it's not your concern, really. You're an outsider that quit after all. The archery club will do fine without you as it has been this last year with their best candidate."

    "Ah, true. Though Mitsuzuri might have her work cut out for her this year."

    Shinji barely suppressed a twitch that time, and Ayako didn't even bother holding back her mirth. "Always the kidder, Emiya… but seriously, maybe you'll get lucky over there without me around. Though I wouldn't get your hopes up; it would be a rainy day in Inaba before you could snag someone like Risette, let alone any other babe!"

    Shirou shook his head good-naturedly. "Yeah, I suppose you're right," he replied to placate the volatile teen.

    Sakura chose that moment to speak up, albeit shyly. "U-um… I hope you have fun, senpai."

    "I will," Shirou smiled. "Thanks Saku-"

    "SHIROUUUUUU!"

    A sudden tiger-striped blur latched to his side with the force of a battering ram, and latched on it like a house cat. The distressed school teacher sobbed comically onto his shoulder, making her alleged brother feel very awkward.

    "Shirouuuuuu! Don't goooooo!" she whined with beady eyes. "If you do I'll staaaaaaaarve!"

    "Bu-but you were the one that gave the okay, weren't you?" Shirou pointed out as he struggled to pry the older woman loose.

    "I changed my mind! Don't leave me without your delicious cooking, Shirou!" she wailed childishly.

    "Now, now, Taiga," her grandfather sighed. "No need to be selfish. Let the boy do what he wants. I'm sure his father would want him to start fending for himself."

    Taiga's grip eased slightly. "Which one?"

    Raiga smiled. "Both of them."

    Taiga nodded at that and fought back her emotions with a comically loud sniffle. She suddenly gripped Shirou's shoulders firmly and looked him square in the eyes seriously. "Pr-promise me you'll have fun in Inaba! Don't slip on your education, and make a lot of friends!" She frowned further, ready to burst into tears again. "And learn lots and lots of recipes while you're there, so we can have a big welcome home feast!"

    Shirou was slightly confused as to why Taiga was crying over this. Not only had she been the one to push him down this road, but it was only for a year. It wasn't like he was moving away forever. Really, he would be back before she knew it. Regardless, he wanted to help ease her worries, so he smiled and said, "I promise."

    Farewells and small talk only lasted another minute before the intercom called passengers to board. He quickly grabbed his things and headed inside, watching as the others (minus Shinji) started to wave goodbye.

    "Have fun, Emiya!" Issei waved.

    "Come back soon, senpai!" Sakura added.

    "Bring souvenirs!" Taiga yelled.

    Shirou smiled and waved back, hurrying on to his semi-crowded train. Within minutes, Fuyuki City seemed to fall away, signaling the change in his life. Given the number of stations he had to pass through and the times he'd need to change trains, Shirou guessed he would arrive sometime in the evening.

    Thus began his cross-country ride to Inaba.

    -???-

    Shirou started to stir from his seat. Nothing much had happened as he changed a few stations, other than a few commercials and some celebrity news scandal playing loudly at the last station. He ignored them both, more focused on reaching his destination. The last leg of the trip ahead was far and away the longest, giving him time to doze off from fatigue… and he somehow ended up somewhere completely new.

    He was rolling smoothly down what felt like a newly paved road inside a stretch limousine lined with high-quality blue velvet. The seats, the carpet, the ceiling, all of it was a soulful dark blue color and was as soft as clouds beneath him. Directly to his left, a rack of crystal wine glasses and tumblers interspersed with bottles of liquor added to the air of class the vehicle's interior exuded. In the middle of the rack of glassware a TV screen faced the opposite wall, currently off. Light came from a tiered fixture overhead, filling the space with a soothing blue-white glow. A soft, haunting song came from concealed speakers, a woman's voice singing to the accompaniment of a piano and violins: an operatic aria. The clarity of sensations ruled out a dream in the amateur magus's mind.

    He immediately realized he was not alone in the car, either. Across from him two… others sat peaceably in their own plush seats. The first was obviously not human or at least a mixed breed; he was thin, almost skeletal and clad in perfectly pressed black and white suit with white silk gloves. Hunched over, he was bald save for fringes of wispy white hair on the sides and back of his head. His ears were pointed and almost fifteen centimeters long, and his nose was even longer than his ears, looking more like a flesh-colored beak than anything else.

    The other was a young blonde woman sitting to the man's left, clad in a blue jacket and matching skirt with black stockings. She was pale and her hair was white as new snow. On her lap, her hands rested gently upon a thick hardback book.

    They both looked up and acknowledged Shirou within moments as he came to; the man's eyes were bulbous and bloodshot, while the woman's were an eerie yellow-gold.

    "Welcome to the Velvet Room," the imp-like man said with a smooth, gentlemanly voice.

    To his credit, Shirou recovered quickly enough to accept the man's welcome. If the two were magi or worse his own haphazard skills would be no match against them, so trying to antagonize them wouldn't get anything done. He sensed something odd from them… not hostility, but curiosity. "Thank you, sir."

    "My, my!" the man chuckled. "What fine manners. And it would seem you have a most unusual destiny as well. My name is Igor. I am delighted to make your acquaintance."

    "Likewise," he nodded back. "I'm Shirou Emiya."

    Igor's seemingly perpetual grin widened slightly. "Hmm… I see."

    Shirou gazed around the room of the car, wondering if this was one of those Bounded Fields his father had told him about. Outside the windows, he noticed that it was obviously night and so dark that the car seemed completely isolated in its own little world, his location completely hidden by an impossibly thick fog. "What is this place?"

    "This is the realm found between dream and reality, mind and matter…" Igor answered. "It is a room that only those that are bound by a 'contract' may enter… under normal circumstances."

    Shirou blinked. "What do you mean 'normal circumstances'?"

    "It is nothing of concern. More relevant to your presence here, it seems that you have a peculiar fate awaiting you in the near future..."

    With a wave of a gloved hand, a small stack of blue cards appeared on the table before him. "Do you believe in fortune telling?" he asked rhetorically, before flicking his hand again. For a moment, the cards blurred with motion where they sat, shuffling themselves at astonishing speed. The top cards then rearranged themselves into seven spaces on the table face down. The backsides of the cards all shared the image of a drama-like mask half white and half black, decorated with vines and what seems to be harps at each corner.

    "Tarot?" Shirou was never one to use such an old method of fortune telling, but it made sense that a powerful magus would find some use for the old techniques.

    "Indeed. Each reading is done with the same cards, but the results are always different." Igor chuckled. "Life itself follows the same principles, doesn't it? Let's take a look at what your future says, shall we?"

    Igor motioned his hand in the air as if flipping a card. As he did so, the card on Shirou's lower right revealed a picture of a black tower being sundered by lightning. Shaded figures of humans fell from its heights. Roman numerals were written at the bottom: "XVI". Igor repeated the process again and revealed the identity of the lower left card; a crescent moon with a face outlined in a partially shaded circle, with a lobster silhouette situated between a pair of L-shaped blocks above the moon circle. This card was numbered "XVIII".

    "Hmm… The Tower in the upright position foretells a catastrophe in the near future, and The Moon in the upright position tells of a mystery… very interesting…"

    "What does that mean?"

    "It seems you will encounter a grave misfortune at your destination," Igor explained with a subdued theatrical flair. "And a great mystery will be imposed upon you."

    Shirou paled. "What…?"

    Something terrible was going to happen in Inaba? What did that mean? Considering the supernatural nature of Igor's "Velvet Room", Shirou had a sinking feeling that the catastrophe would be of a magical nature if the reading was accurate. At this point, the redhead was willing to admit that Igor likely had a good reason to involve himself with an amateur like Shirou. Perhaps if he was there while it happened, he could prevent something happening to Dojima and Nanako. "What sort of danger?"

    "You certainly ask a lot of questions, Shirou Emiya," Igor playfully smiled. "But I suppose one more card wouldn't hurt…"

    This time, he flipped the center bottom card, between the Tower and the Moon cards. This one had a rainbow of colors, and five figures within; four at each corner, and one in the center. Silhouettes of a bull, angel, bird, and lion were at the corners, surrounding a figure of a majestic woman mage in center. However, the card number, "XXI", was listed on top instead of the bottom, read as "IXX" since it was upside down.

    "The World, in the Reverse position," the long-nose man noted. "Very interesting indeed…"

    Shirou patiently waited for Igor to explain, but felt very nervous to hear the word "reverse" for some reason.

    "The coming year is a turning point in your destiny… If the mystery goes unsolved, your future, perhaps far more, may be forever lost. That is what the World foretells." With another flick of the wrist, all of the displayed cards vanished from the table. "You will return here after entering a contract. My duty is to help our guests in their journey. Perhaps our aid will allow you to avert the coming disaster."

    Shirou narrowed his eyes and turned the thin man's words over in his mind. He sounded so sure of his predictions. Moreover, he implied that this wasn't the first time he had helped another. While still healthily wary of Igor, Shirou was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and decided to put his trust in the cryptic man's warnings. "Thank you… Uh… But what about her? Is she your apprentice?"

    "In a way, you could make that generalization. But I have been remiss with my manners!" Igor's smile widened as he waved his hand to the young woman. "This is my assistant, also a resident to this room."

    "My name is Margaret," she said in a voice that was clear but cold. No emotion played across her features as she introduced herself. "I am here to accompany you through your journey."

    Still reeling from the numerous questions running through his mind over what was happening, Shirou nodded mutely. What was this disaster? What did they mean by 'contract'? How could they help him? Igor seemed to read his mind, and held up a finger to stop any words from his guest.

    "I understand that you must have more questions," said Igor. "But we shall attend to the details another time. Until then, farewell…"
    Before Shirou could get even one word in, his vision started swimming tiredly and faded to black.

    As suddenly as he had arrived, he was back in the train as it glided towards its next stop. "-aba city and Yasoinaba Station, please go to the other side of the platform. I repeat; we will arrive at the Yasogami terminal in a few minutes. Passengers heading for Inaba city and Yasoinaba Station, please go to the other side of the platform."

    Yasoinaba Station… Dojima sent him a text earlier saying to meet him there at 6, didn't he?

    'A dream?' Shirou wondered for the brief moment before discarding the thought. The sights, sounds and textures of that Velvet Room felt far too vivid for a mere dream. Unfortunately, he had no way of working out what it all meant. All he could do was hurry to catch the next train and try to work out possible scenarios during the last leg of the trip.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Chapter 6: Welcome to Inaba
    -Inaba, Dojima Residence-

    "-The scandal between the two also involves the enka star Misuzu Hiiragi preparing to tour overseas," the news anchorman summed up the top story in a dry tone. "Taro Namatame, a council secretary in the Inaba region whom she married just last year, is now under suspicion of having an affair."

    Ryotaro and Nanako Dojima both sat around their kotatsu set across from their TV. It was more of a common way to pass the time than anything else. The news was one of the few broadcasts they could both watch and enjoy when in each other's company; Ryotaro didn't see much of the appeal in children's anime, and Nanako was too young to watch his favorite dramas.

    Still, it was rather shameless how the news media was raving on gossip nowadays. The whole "top story" was something about Namatame having an affair with TV announcer Mayumi Yamano, and caught in the act of cheating on his wife. The reporters were unnaturally vibrant while working on and sharing this story. They were being far too chipper for something that could ruin the reputations of everyone involved. It honestly left the cop with a bad taste in his mouth, and for once it had nothing to do with his cigarettes.

    The newspaper in his hand wasn't any better; it also covered the recent scandal for the majority of the print with side interviews and where the scene took place in the words of Hiiragi. She was more than a little outraged over the discovery, and from some of the other stories he heard, the two women got into more than just a verbal scuffle.

    Needless to say, Dojima was glad he wasn't in Namatame's shoes.

    Deciding to drone out the rest of the news story, he turned towards the clock hanging on his wall. 5 minutes to 6. "Shirou" should be arriving soon.
    Nanako looked back to him, noting the direction of his gaze. "Oh! Should we go soon?"

    "Yeah, it's just about time," Dojima answered.

    -Yasoinaba Train-

    Shirou snapped his eyes open again. Another dream… he mused to himself while he stretched his somewhat stiff legs.

    This one wasn't as vivid as with Igor and Margaret's introduction; it was more of a general nightmare. He saw a young, well-dressed woman being pursued by a dark being into a corner of a room. The shadow's hands reached for the woman's neck and choked her. The woman struggled and… that was it.

    It happened so fast. Considering how detailed it was, he wasn't even sure if it was a dream. Igor's warning played through his mind before he calmed himself. Maybe I needed this trip more than Taiga thought…he thought as he looked around his current ride.

    The train to Yasoinaba was almost empty. The car he was sitting in had only about three other people in it, and the rest of the train was probably no more crowded than that. He knew Inaba wasn't exactly a tourist destination, but he was thinking Dojima-san was being modest when he told him not to expect much. It would no doubt be quieter compared to Fuyuki city… then again, any place Taiga Fujimura lived was lively, so maybe that wasn't the best example.

    Outside, Shirou could see the mountains and hills that made up the Yasoinaba valley's walls carpeted with green. The scenery was nice, he had to admit; the view of the mountains in particular was breath-taking, and the land looked rich and abundant. To think this town used to get by mining coal.

    "Thank you for riding with us," the intercom chattered cheerfully. "We'll reach our final stop, Yasoinaba Station, momentarily. Please make sure you have all of your belongings before departing the train in an orderly manner."

    Shirou reached for his duffel bag above his seat and let a small smile grace his lips. He was finally here, and going to personally meet his relatives. He was nervous, excited and a touch wary, but right now, he was here and as ready as he could ever be for what lay ahead.

    A few minutes later, the train came to a stop at the destination. "Yasoinaba. Final stop, Yasoinaba."

    So this is it, Shirou thought as he walked out to the station entrance.

    Walking outside, he felt himself further surprised by the simplicity of Inaba. Many of the buildings on the street were built out of wood with tiled rooftops. Telephone cables were rooted near each building and coated the sides of the streets with their web. What really stunned him were the roads, marked and wide enough for traffic like in Fuyuki City. Only…

    "There's no one here."

    His own whisper sounded disturbingly loud to his ears. There were no cars, no bikes… no people. The town around the station, a normally central hub of activity in Japanese cities, was absolutely barren of normal life. In comparison to Fuyuki City, where there was always someone shopping nearby or driving to and from work, Inaba looked like a ghost town.

    Shirou felt more than a little nervous. Did I make a mistake? He thought. Did I get the wrong address? Was Fuji-nee wrong?

    "Oh, there you are!"

    The red-haired teen jumped, surprised to hear a voice coming around the corner. He saw a familiar-looking middle aged man walking up to him from his car. A little girl, likely his daughter, followed close behind.

    The man was taller than Shirou by a small margin despite his slight slouch, with dark hair that was starting to go gray cropped short. His job kept him up for long hours with little time for hygiene, so he had a small shadow of rough stubble on his chin and slightly dark eyes, but his keen mind was evident with his subtly piercing gaze. His clothes consisted of a gray button-up shirt and darker gray slacks that looked well-worn without being tacky. He really looked like the detective he was.

    "You're more handsome than your photo let on," the man continued with a welcoming half-smile. "You've grown so much since I last saw you. I know I said you could come over, but I'm honestly surprised you did."

    Shirou's eyes widened slightly as he recognized the man from Taiga's photo. "Dojima-san?"

    "Hey, now," Dojima smiled. "No need to be so formal. You're my nephew, right?"

    "Ah, that's true," Shirou nodded. "I'm surprised too, actually. Being here, I mean."

    Dojima stared intently at him, as if seeing Yu Narukami as he might have become… if he hadn't became Shirou Emiya. "To think you've survived all this time… I still remember back when I changed your diapers."

    Shirou laughed, awkwardly fiddling with his duffel bag. The image of Dojima changing a baby was slightly amusing. "Well, a lot can happen in ten years."

    "That it can," he agreed, and a tense silence followed. Dojima frowns. "Listen, I'm... sorry to hear what happened with your family… both of them."

    Shirou shook his head. "The fire's not your fault. And dad... well, he went off with a smile at least. I like to think he was content in the end."

    Dojima nodded, satisfied. "Ah, well that's something..." He then turned to his daughter hiding behind him. "Nanako, why don't you say hi to your cousin?" he prompted while gently nudging the tiny girl forward.

    Nanako gradually parted from her father's leg enough to step up in front of the high school student. With her brown hair done up in a pair of short pigtails and in a knee-length pink and white dress, she kept her head down nervously and squeaked out a barely audible "...lo."

    Shirou smiled at her. "Hello, Nanako-chan. It's nice to finally meet you. I'm Shirou Emiya."
    "…know," she mumbled softly. "…we talked afore."

    Shirou tilted his head and crouched down to meet Nanako's brown eyes. "Hmm? What was that?"

    Nanako's face flushed brighter, losing what little courage she had, and hid behind her father again. Her cousin was left confused and slightly concerned. Did I do something wrong?

    Dojima leaned back to look at her with teasing smile. "What's wrong? Is he making you blush?" His daughter stiffened, and then quickly slapped his backside in retaliation.

    "Ow!" Dojima cringed for a moment before laughing good-naturedly, and Shirou couldn't help but join in. Nanako just squirmed further in embarrassment. She was adorable, and her shyness reminded him a little of Sakura. So this is my cousin…

    "Well, no point in standing around here," Dojima shrugged his coat over his shoulder. "We got a lot of catching up to do back home. Is that everything you need?"

    "Yes, sir. Just some clothes, tools and school supplies. I believe Fuji-nee mailed some other stuff to you ahead of time?"

    "That she did, and they're all in their boxes. You'll have to unpack them and set up the guest room to your taste when we get there. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it, though. But first, I need to get some gas in my car."

    -MOEL Gas Station-

    Shirou stood awkwardly by the car, passing time by watching the area. Nanako quickly fled to the bathroom and Dojima was taking a smoke break. Since Shirou still didn't know the area, he settled with looking around to see what the town had to offer.

    The gas station they were at was a full-service affair that sat next to a string of stores that collectively made Inaba's Central Shopping District. It was once fairly popular, drawing the crowds in with all their family-owned businesses and restaurants, ranging from handmade tofu and models to pharmaceuticals and liquor. This apparently changed when a Junes department store was built to the south of the river, effectively choking the life from the area by pulling customers away from the district. Several shops were already forced out of business by the massive chain store. Shirou had heard all this from Dojima and Nanako over the last few months, the latter especially excited whenever Junes was brought up.

    Needless to say, seeing another part of the town just as empty as the train station left Shirou with an unpleasant taste in his mouth.

    "So, you're a high school student?" the gas attendant by the Dojima van asked with a soft tenor voice. He sported the red, yellow and white MOEL uniform with a matching hat over short wavy gray hair. He turned his attention from the car to Shirou, looking slightly interested.

    Shirou was taken aback by his question, but answered politely anyway. "Y-yes." The attendant was fairly friendly and helpful so far, greeting them enthusiastically and telling Nanako where the bathroom was. There was no reason to be rude.

    "I'm surprised to see you come all the way out here. You just get back from a trip?"

    "Well, something like that," Shirou shrugged. "Dojima-san was picking me up from the train station. I'm from Fuyuki City, but I'm staying over here for the school year."

    The attendant let out a low, long whistle, quirking his eyebrows up with interest. "A city boy, huh? Must be a shock to see how little there is out here, huh?"

    "A little, but I'm sure Inaba's not that bad…" Shirou reasoned weakly. "It's… well, quiet."

    "Maybe too quiet," he chuckled. "There's not a whole lot to do around here, and unless you have something to do, like work, you'll be bored out of your mind before long."

    Shirou doubted that; he had been managing to occupy himself with training in his shed back home for some time now. However, he was moving in with Dojima and probably won't get the secrecy, let alone the space, to practice magecraft or fix old appliances. Still...

    "Are there any jobs around I can do?" he asked.

    The attendant looked pleasantly surprised again. "Funny you should mention that. Our station has been looking for some new part-time workers for a while now. Thinking about helping out for some yen?"

    "You would accept a high school student?" Shirou's eyebrows quirked in surprise.

    "Like I said," the older man smiled. "There's not a lot to do around here, and that includes work. If you don't want to, that's fine, but at least think about it…" the androgynous fellow hedged.

    "I didn't say I wouldn't consider it," Shirou answered. "I'm just… surprised. I've been rejected by many jobs before while growing up because I was too young."

    It was a gross understatement: after Kiritsugu died five years ago and Shirou decided to become self-sufficient, he spent quite some time looking for a job but wasn't taken seriously or was flat-out turned away. On top of his age, Japanese schools tended to be strict and only allowed students to hold part-time jobs in certain circumstances, though Homurahara tended to not mind so long as those students kept their grades up. The sole exception to his fruitless job hunt was Copenhagen, a liquor store and bar in Shinto. He had worked there practically ever since. Speaking of which, he hoped the old owner and his daughter Neko-san would do alright without his help for the next year; they assured him they would, and offered him an early going away present of his pay and a meal with them.

    "So you'll do it? Great! Most kids your age would have said no and walked away by now."

    "Well, I've been told I'm not like most kids." A brief image of a scolding Taiga flashed in Shirou's mind's eye. "If you need help though, I'm willing."

    "Perfect," the attendant smiled, and extended his hand. "If more city folk were even half as friendly and upfront as you are, I'd certainly wish they would come down here!"

    "I'll take that as a compliment," the red haired teen smiled and gave a firm handshake. He briefly felt a mild tingle on contact, but passed it off as static. "My name's Shirou Emiya. It's a pleasure to meet you."

    "Likewise," he smiled back. "Just call me Nami."

    "'Nami'?"

    "Feminine name, I know. More of an inside joke, really."

    When their hands separated, it left a sudden sense of numb cold in Shirou's hand. Had Nami been working outside all day?

    "Well, I'd better get back to work! Come back tomorrow evening if you can!" Nami waved as he hurried off. As he rushed back inside the station, the Dojimas arrived back at the car. Perhaps he could convince Dojima to let him start working at the gas-

    Grrk!

    It suddenly felt like his body had caught fire while also freezing, and his head was pounding like a drum solo. It was nothing compared to making a Magic Circuit from his nerves (a process that felt similar to replacing your spinal column with a bar of white-hot metal), but the sheer abruptness of it all had him completely off balance. He slumped slightly and tried massaging his temples to relieve the pressure clouding his vision.

    "What's wrong?" Nanako asked, concern lacing her quiet voice. "Are you carsick?"

    "No, I'm fine." Shirou forced a smile, if only to make her worry less. The throbbing was already fading anyway. "I guess I've just been tired lately." That much was truth at least; he had fallen asleep on train rides twice already. The sheer length of the trip would drain anybody.

    "Maybe you should take a quick walk up the street, get the blood moving. Just don't go too far." Dojima suggested.

    Despite the fact that the pain was almost completely gone already, Shirou had one other thing to check that he couldn't do in the open. "Thanks. I'll be back in no more than five minutes."

    The shopping district was almost like a little slice of home for Shirou: the single street was lined with small shops with the family names proudly displayed on the signs. Each was a two-story building, no doubt harboring the family upstairs and the business on the ground floor, and each was lovingly detailed.

    Unfortunately, even a few meters in, he could also see a number of shops with shutters drawn with notices taped to them despite the hour. It was kind of depressing to see. However, some of the remaining open shops he made a mental note to visit later: Daidara's Metalworks looked to have some interesting odds and ends, and the samurai armor sitting outside its front door all but commanded his attention when he passed it. The smell of the forge inside just called to him like few things could. Marukyu Tofu next door to that was also on the list for when he got around to cooking for the Dojima family like he planned.

    Passing a pair of students arguing about something, Shirou found a decently concealed spot between the tofu shop and a small grocer that suited his needs. The moment he was out of sight and certain no one was listening, he closed his eyes. "Trace On." Prana flowed through the Magic Circuit in his spine and spread through his body at his will, filling his head with information.

    Structural Analysis. The only spell that the redhead could cast reliably was a simple one that had no fancy light shows or secrets to it. It was quite simply a spell that described to the caster the status, structure, and composition of the targeted object. The level of detail it revealed was about the only difference between different magi using this spell. For all intents and purposes, it was considered pretty useless. Most magi would rather use their prana for more productive pursuits, and anything you could learn from the spell could be found easily enough through mundane means.

    However, for an amateur magus without any equipment wanting to check themselves for poisons or magical maladies, it was exactly the right tool for the job. Shirou found he had a knack for it and applied it to his hobby of fixing things, using the innocuous spell to instantly locate problems and weak spots in whatever he was working on.

    Now the spell swept through his body, scanning it for any issues, weaknesses or flaws not there previously. If nothing else, the act of running prana through his Circuit would also shatter any magecraft attempting to get a hold on him. The spell's scan came back clean with no sign of damage or contamination on the physical level, and his Magic Circuit worked just fine, but he would need to remake it when he got the chance. His Magic Circuits only ever seemed to last a week at best, and the last one was shoddy compared to the usual, likely due to his nervousness towards visiting Inaba.

    Of course, there was also the problem that Shirou had no idea what he was looking for.
    With a muttered "Trace Off" and a sigh, Shirou trotted back to the car, thankfully feeling much better. Maybe he was just tired. He honestly hadn't traveled often enough to know if this was normal for him.

    -Dojima Residence, Evening-

    When Shirou first arrived at the Dojima household, he was pleasantly surprised. From the outside, it was a two-story traditional Japanese home with ample space for the Dojima family and himself. The inside was a tasteful mix of traditional and more modern aesthetics, some of the furniture in the kitchen laden with random knick-knacks and boxes. This place felt lived-in, a warm atmosphere pervading the property that spoke of a genuine home.

    Oh, it wasn't anywhere near as spacious as the Emiya estate, but Shirou didn't mind. He never needed that all that space anyway. There were even times when he felt that the place was too big for him. That was probably another reason he would often sleep in the shed in recent years…

    What few belongings Shirou had sent here were already boxed up in what would be his room for the stay, a modest room on the second floor. The fact that it had a small couch and a small TV already in there as well as the desk and chair meant that the place was already more furnished than his own room back home was.

    The next hour or so was spent putting his new room into a semblance order. His futon was unpacked and folded in the corner, the few books he liked enough to take with him were placed on the shelf, his new school uniform was laid out for tomorrow, and his regular clothes were tucked away in the dresser. Shirou didn't own much, but years of tidying up after himself (and more tellingly, Taiga) had given Shirou an appreciation for a clean living space. While he went through and organized the contents of the various boxes, he noted that some of them were odds and ends that Fuji-nee had bought for him. He of course had tried to convince her that he didn't need (or want) so many things for a brief visit, but she wouldn't have any of it, as usual.

    Shortly after he finished with that, the doorbell rang, and Shirou came down to find that Dojima had ordered takeout and sodas for dinner, and was currently setting them on the low table out in the middle of the living room. The teen had mixed feelings about that, but not because of anything missing from the meal.

    "You didn't have to do this, you know," Shirou frowned as he split his chopsticks. "I could have cooked something in a few minutes."

    Dojima smiled and shook his head. "What, and put you to work right off the bat? You just got here. Take your time to get used to things… at least for tonight. Now, let's have a toast." He lifted his can up.

    "To family?" Nanako offered, lifting her own.

    Dojima smiled again. "Yes, to family."

    Shirou hesitated, watching as they both held their canned drinks up already. That word was still such an alien concept to him outside of Kiritsugu, but… Dojima was finally starting to trust him, and Nanako was so strong and independent like him growing up. He didn't want to impose on their relationship, but they allowed him in after Taiga's constant meddling.

    A part of him wanted it though, to have that same connection with these people, his relatives. "To family, then."

    Their cans met with a metal klinkand they sipped to it before eating in earnest. Before Shirou had taken even one bite, Dojima spoke up again. "As you can see, it's just me and Nanako around here, so it'll be nice to have some company. So long as you're here, you're part of the family, so make yourself at home."

    Shirou couldn't fight down the smile even if he tried, so he settled for a nod. "Thank you for that, Dojima-san," he replied earnestly.

    "C'mon, I already told you don't need to be so formal," Dojima laughed and waved his hand dismissively. "You're making Nanako tense again."

    Nanako looked surprised at her father's words, and squirmed in her seat when Shirou turned to look at her in concern, clearly unused to the attention.

    "Well, anyway, let's eat," Dojima decided. "Itadak-" He was interrupted by the telltale ring of his cellphone. He gave a resigned sigh. "Ugh… Who's calling at this hour?"

    He reached for his phone and flipped it open to answer, his voice dropping into a cool, business tone. "Dojima speaking."

    Shirou and Nanako watched him nervously as he silently listened. Dojima's expression grew increasingly grave the longer the one-sided conversation carried on. He eventually stood up and walked away from the table, his back facing the others. "Yeah? I see… so where is it? Uh huh… All right, I'm on my way." He then quietly added to himself, "Guess it's a good thing I decided to skip the booze…"

    "Work, I take it?" Shirou asked, already feeling an unpleasant knot forming in his stomach.

    "Yeah," Dojima answered with a dour note, stuffing his phone back into his pocket. "Sorry about this happening on such short notice, Shirou."

    Shirou shook his head. "It can't be helped, Dojima-san; you can't predict the future. I'll help any way I can here, though."

    "Thanks. Go ahead and eat without me. I don't know how late I'll be. Nanako, help him out if he needs anything, okay?"

    His daughter looked crestfallen, but slowly nodded. "…Okay."

    Dojima then headed out to the door. He opened it and reached for his coat before calling back to the living room. "Nanako! It's raining out! What did you do with the laundry!?"

    "I already brought it in!" she replied.

    Dojima nodded at the answer. "All right. Well, I'm off!" he closed the door behind them. Moments later, the sound of the car engine could be heard starting and driving off.

    Shirou silently watched Nanako frown and sink lower in her seat, before turning to the TV and turning it on. The screen flashed to a news station as the weather announcer was talking.

    "-for this week. Next, let's take a look at the hourly breakdown of tomorrow's weather. With storm clouds moving in from the west, expect heavy rain throughout the day tomorrow in most areas."

    "Itadakimatsu," Nanako mumbled softly, and started eating.

    Shirou couldn't manage a bite in light of Nanako's disheartened attitude. For a moment, he looked around the room, racking his brain for a topic to cheer the girl up or at least commiserate with her enough to soothe her. "Your dad works hard like this a lot, doesn't he?" When she nodded sullenly, he continued. "My dad was like that too."

    Nanako stopped in mid-bite, her cheeks puffed out a little with rice. "Hmmm?" she titled her head in confusion.

    "When he was still alive, my adoptive dad would leave the house too," Shirou explained. "He never told me where he was going, but he did tell me it was something he had to do. He never took me along though, and I never knew how long he would be gone. Sometimes it was for months. I lost count how many times he did that."

    Nanako slowly chewed her food and stared at him. Her eyes seemed to have widened over his explanation, and he thought he saw… something in them. Fear? Shock? Sadness? It quickly passed before he could accurately tell, and she stared at her food solemnly. "I'm sorry."

    "There's nothing to be sorry for," Shirou answered honestly. "I grew used to it after a while, and he always came back."

    "…does it get easier?" she whispered.

    "When you get older, maybe. Your dad's doing good things out there, and he'll be back soon enough, I'm sure of it."

    The silence was broken as the news returned to the subject of the Yamano scandal, explaining more or less the aftereffects of it being revealed. Shirou was drowning out the sound and thinking on what else to talk about, while Nanako looked profoundly bored with the subject.

    "This is boring," she declared.

    "I agree. Feel free to change the channel."

    Nanako needed no further prompting and did exactly that.

    A cheery female voice immediately took over for the droning newscaster. "At Junes, every day is Customer Appreciation Day. Come see for yourself, and get in touch with our products!" Without missing a beat, the woman sang out the store's catchy jingle. "Every day's great at your Junes~!"

    Nanako instantly brightened and sang the song herself, waving her hand like a conductor keeping time. "Every day's great at your Junes~!" She then immediately sat back down and went back to her food, in a noticeably better mood than she was a few seconds ago.

    Shirou stared at her dumbly for a moment. Her singing was a soft soprano as one would expect from a seven-year old, but she was amazingly gifted for her age. He vaguely wondered if anyone at her school had noticed her talent.

    Nanako turned back to him as if she hadn't spontaneously burst into song, confused at his surprised look. "Aren't you going to eat?" she asked innocently.

    "Oh, right," Shirou nodded, and started eating what was on his plate, pushing the matter of his cousin singing store jingles better than the people they hired for the task out of his head.

    Instead, he turned his attention to thoughts of the medium-sized kitchen the Dojimas obviously weren't using regularly. Plans for future meals, shopping trips and ways to maximize his space raced through his mind. Shirou swore to himself that he would make the kitchen a place of wonders once more.

    After dinner, Shirou set to work cleaning the kitchen and clearing space for his "projects," but felt another headache build inside his head. He ignored it for the most part, but Shirou admitted that he was in a new environment dealing with things he had little to no experience at, after hours of nonstop travel. A good night's sleep would do him a lot of good in getting used to the place. With that in mind, he told Nanako he was turning in early and returned to his room.

    Shirou scowled at the sight of the still-packed boxes he hadn't gotten around to today. There was even a shelf for him to assemble that he knew he hadn't bought. "Nothing for it; I'll take care of those in the morning." With a sigh, he shifted the remaining cargo out of the way and laid out the futon.

    His headache was getting worse again. Briefly, he thought he heard a voice whisper in his ear, but he wasn't sure. Was he really that nervous? In the darkness, he briefly glanced at his hanging uniform. Tomorrow was the start of school this year at Yasogami High School. While many would feel intimidated by the prospect with no friends to fall back on, Shirou wasn't one of them. All he planned to do was take up the mantle of "the fake janitor" and help people who needed it.

    He briefly entertained the notion of seeing Igor in the Velvet Room again, but he doubted it; the impish man warned of danger. As he saw it, there was nothing special about Inaba. It was quiet, with small-town problems and far away from any serious danger. He relaxed to the sound of the rain pouring outside pattering against the window, drowning out any other outside noise.

    Yes, Inaba was quiet and peaceful. Safe.

    "A whole year..." Shirou mumbled, his eyes closing. "In quiet, safe Inaba…"

    Oddly enough, just before he fell asleep he felt a pang of disappointment at the thought, as strange as it was.
    Last edited by Kishou the Badger; February 6th, 2015 at 06:30 PM.

  3. #3
    The No Sleep King mAc Chaos's Avatar
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    When I saw the thread title I thought this was going to be another terrible crossover, but it's actually great so far. Everybody feels in character. The first half with Taiga was my favorite part since we got to see another dimension to her.

    My only question is what happened to the real Yu. Or did he just get cut out in this and replaced by Shirou?

    I'm looking forward to Shirou getting embroiled in Dojima's detective mysteries.
    Last edited by mAc Chaos; November 20th, 2014 at 03:08 AM.
    He never sleeps. He never dies.

    Battle doesn't need a purpose; the battle is its own purpose. You don't ask why a plague spreads or a field burns. Don't ask why I fight.

  4. #4
    Shirou is Yu in the verse of this fic. There has been some talk back in Spacebattles thinking of adding Yu alongside Shirou but that would have ultimately shafted Shirou away from the limelight and ruin the point of the story (which is for Shirou to establish bonds with other people and learn to appreciate himself as well). Besides, Yu was meant to be the stand-in protagonist in P4 for any player to jump in and mold a personality somewhat.

    I almost regret the decision of using Ghoul instead of Ikusa in this chapter though. It would have been more symbolic, but on the flip side, it also would have been obvious. I still like the chapter as it is and rather not rewrite it for a small bit, so enjoy.

    Chapter 7: Hazy Dream

    -???-

    "E-eh?!" As with earlier today, Shirou found that rather than simply enjoying a peaceful rest with the occasional distant dream or nightmare thrown in, his consciousness awoke somewhere far more vivid.

    "... Was it something I ate? Either way…" Shirou muttered under his breath while scanning his immediate surroundings. He had no idea where he was: all he could see in the hazy light was a thick white fog. Well, he could see about five meters around himself, but all he could tell was that he was standing on a raised walkway made of large red tiles. The walkway was narrow, barely wider than he was tall, and had no railings. He couldn't tell how far off the ground he was either. There was nowhere to go but forward.

    First things first, though: Shirou turned his focus inward to check his Magic Circuit and found that he would have to replace it soon. While the ghostly stillness that surrounded him offered the chance to sit down and make another Circuit, Shirou was wary to try something that required so much focus and time in an unknown location. He would have to hope his current Circuit held out a little while longer.
    His progress was slow and careful at first, but he felt that he was making about as much progress as he had when he stood still. No matter how far he wandered through the fog, he saw no change for the first hundred meters or so. Unconsciously, he started speeding up. With no warning, a voice echoed from all around him, barely above a whisper.

    "Do you seek the truth?"

    It didn't have Igor's gentlemanly drawl or Margaret's calm crispness. Shirou immediately stopped and looked around, but didn't see any signs of life. He was still alone in the dense fog and braced for an ambush. "Hello?" he called out tentatively. "Is someone there?"

    There was no response, but Shirou could feel that he was being watched. More tellingly, he could hear something echoing from ahead. It sounded almost like heavy stones slamming together, but muffled. Despite running deeper into the fog in an attempt to find the source, he had the sinking feeling that he was going in a circle. Is this one of those Bounded Fields dad told me about? Is it related to that "Velvet Room" from earlier?

    If he was really stuck in a Bounded Field, he could theoretically be stuck here for all eternity in a modified space outlined by the magus or creature that made it. There was always the possibility that this was just a dream, but this didn't feel like one… maybe a nightmare, one that he might never wake up from.

    "If there's anyone there," Shirou shouted between strides. "Tell me: what do you want?"

    "If it's truth you desire, come and find me."

    The voice sounded clearer the deeper he ventured into the mist. Its tone was imperious, like a king addressing a serf. Shirou continued to run, expecting a monster or overwhelmingly powerful magus of some sort. His desire to know what was going on overrode any sense of fear that might have slowed him down.

    He could see it now: at the very edges of his vision, great stone blocks collided from deeper out of the mist, paving the road just ahead of his feet as he ran.

    Eventually the blocks led him to a barrier in the same black and red pattern like the tiles below. Squares encased each other in a red-black-red-black format around a glowing center button. It was almost like a doorbell.

    Cautiously, he placed a palm on the unnaturally smooth, colored stone. As much as he was wary of playing into some sadistic monster's trap, this was the first deviation from the norm and he needed more information. "Trace On." The Aria rolled off his tongue and his Structural Analysis probed the barrier. At the surface, it certainly looked like stone, but the deeper the spell looked, the stranger the information got. The door wasn't truly stone at all. In fact, it seemed to be made entirely of… darkness? Shadows? Wait, was this door alive?

    Just what is this place…?

    Regardless, he knew someone was behind that door. Most likely the taunting voice he had heard twice before… he had come this far already, and the alternative was to sit on his hands and hope the magus was feeling generous and let him leave.
    Judging by the taunting, he wasn't about to put much faith in that.

    Putting the information from Structural Analysis to good use, he reached and touched the center of the door, watching as it slid and opened from the inside out. More fog poured out from with the space beyond immediately, nearly blinding him. Initially, he waited for the fog to settle, but it seemed that the longer he waited, the more poured out. Finally, he took a single, tentative step forward, then another. Even though the fog was so thick he could barely see his feet, Shirou found that the ground continued beyond the door.

    When he glanced back though, he could no longer see the door at all. Definitely magic.

    Standing in the middle of the fog-shrouded space, a vague, human-like silhouette watched him, its features completely hidden. "So… you are the one pursuing me," it hearing it from so close, Shirou couldn't tell if the figure was male or female, or even if it had a real gender; it was just too jumbled and unnatural to make sense of. "Let's see the potential of your power."

    A bright red light emitted from the being's body, and the ground shuddered. With a hiss like an air compressor, a greenish arm ripped its way from below Shirou, forcing him to step back as the humanoid creature emerged from the ground like it was rising from the pits of hell. The creature's hairless body was emaciated to the point that its skeleton was plainly visible against its warty green skin. Its pointed teeth dripped ropes of saliva, and its sunken eyes gleamed with feral cunning. Despite its weak appearance, its movements were sharp and quick, and the mad hunger it exuded was almost a physical force.

    Shirou could feel it: this was a life-or-death scenario. If he didn't kill this thing, it would rip him apart without hesitation.

    "Ghoul," the being within the fog spoke. "Kill him."

    The green demon, now dubbed Ghoul, let out a shrill screech and loped towards Shirou like a ravenous wolf. Its mouth dropped open, hungry for flesh. Shirou managed to evade the first charge by pure reflex, throwing himself to the side and rolling to his feet just in time to see the monster skid to a halt and charge him again!

    "Trace… On!" he almost screamed, not even thinking as he moved. The creature was faster than he was and moved with the agility of a wild cat, and Shirou was unarmed and unarmored. The only thing he knew that had a chance to solve the latter problem was a gamble. He flooded prana through his shirt just as the Ghoul made its pass.

    Shirou felt a split second of relief when the Ghoul's claw-like hands failed to pierce the material in its passing swipe, the cloth as tough as hardened leather. His success rate with Reinforcement was fifty-fifty at best, but it looked like fate was cutting him a break. He had no time to congratulate himself though; the Ghoul had already turned itself around, closer this time, its entire body curling around like its spine was made of rubber rather than bone.

    This time Shirou could not get out of the way in time, and the demon slammed into him and bowled him over. The creature was far stronger than its gangly frame suggested, and Shirou's muscles strained to the limit just keeping that slavering mouth from tearing out his throat. The Ghoul's powerful claws squeezed tighter and tighter around his arms, and for the creature's fetid breath nearly choked the young magus-in-training as it inched closer.

    Is this as far as I can go?

    The moment the thought passed through his mind, fury and desperation welled up in Shirou's body, lending strength to his limbs. He kicked at the thing's stomach, throwing it back. The Ghoul shrieked in a mix of hunger and mad frustration at Shirou's stubborn resistance and stalked around him cautiously.

    I… I still have things to do first! I can't die here!

    Regardless of that thought repeating itself in his mind fervently, Shirou still had no weapon, and the featureless gray plane of fog offered nothing to work with. The magus knew one more spell, but his success rate with it was even lower than with Reinforcement, but the alternative was to let the demon rip him apart piece by piece.

    There was no time to think any further; the Ghoul hurled itself at him, hunger overriding any caution it might have had. Shirou swung his empty hand, envisioning a sword in his mind's eye. A simple katana was all he needed.

    A brief shock passed through his nerves, and instead of empty air, he was holding a weapon, but it wasn't the sword he expected. In his hands was a weapon that was equal parts sword and polearm. The whole thing was too short to be a naginata, the entire weapon a little less than five feet long, with the blade no longer than that of a katana, the rest an overlong handle. A gap ran up the middle of the handle to lighten it, but it was also wrapped in white rough cloth to make it easy to hold. For some reason, Shirou found himself settling into a guard stance that he had never tried before the moment the weight of the new weapon registered in his hand.

    It proved wise: the Ghoul slammed into the weapon and was quickly shoved aside before it could bring its deceptively great strength to bear. With a sweep of his arms, the blade sang through the fog, seeking out the demon's neck. Now it was the Ghoul's turn to retreat, bending its body at an absurd angle to escape the long weapon's range and deeper into the fog. Its hateful glowing eyes were the only sign of its presence, and Shirou tracked the red pinpricks as they circled.

    "Hmm… not only do you have good reflexes, but it seems you could see a little of your surroundings, despite the fog." That imperious voice mused from within the fog somewhere behind Shirou.

    "What's the point of this?!" Shirou called out, not looking away from the demon for even a heartbeat. "What do you want from me?"

    "You seek the truth? Win this battle and find out."

    As if on cue, the Ghoul stood up and ran on two legs, its arms swinging around to tear at Shirou's flesh. Spine searing with the heat of his Magic Circuit, Shirou grit his teeth and stabbed his blade into the right side of the Ghoul's chest, biting deep into the monster's body. With a shriek of agony and mindless fury, the demon retaliated with all of its might, skewering Shirou's shoulder through his Reinforced shirt with its dark claws. Worse, the creature hissed out a purple vapor into his face smelling of rotten meat.

    The stab wound was easy enough to fight through in the heat of life-or-death battle, but the cold sweat and the sickening fire that raced through his veins was not. Tearing his polearm free of the Ghoul, Shirou coughed suddenly as something hot and coppery came up from his throat. "Po-poison…?" Strength drained out of his limbs, and even as he fought to keep a grip on his weapon, Shirou fell to his knees, hacking up rosy blood and feeling his throat constrict.

    The Ghoul shook itself almost like a dog and turned its hungry stare back to Shirou, apparently not bothered enough by the wound in its ribs to pay it any more mind. It slowly approached with its knifelike fingers scraping against each other like a butcher sharpening their tools.
    Shirou could barely move, his vision blurring in and out and his entire body burning with an unnatural fever. With every step the demon took towards him, Shirou felt the poison burn hotter, until it felt like he was once more laying in that burning hell that was Fuyuki ten years ago.

    Maybe this is all just a dream… there is no way this could really be happening…

    For a split second, Shirou saw Kiritsugu's smiling face from that day, and the faces of his family in both Inaba and Fuyuki.

    No, this isn't a dream. If I die here, I'll be dead for sure. But… I can't die! Not yet! Not until I realize his dream! I have to protect them!

    Shirou forced himself to his feet weakly, the fire in his blood fading little by little when he brought a hand forward as though warding away the demon. To his dull surprise an aura of blue surrounded him for a second before something transparent and rectangular appeared before his hand. On instinct he grabbed it, albeit too forcefully. Whatever it was, it shattered like glass, but his hand felt no pain.

    He felt a presence appear behind him, but there was no malice in it, simply power and a sensation like an out-of-body experience. It was like he was looking at the Ghoul from behind his own shoulder. A flicker of motion barely registered in the boy's eye before a lightning bolt dropped onto the Ghoul's head seemingly from nowhere.

    Shirou couldn't believe his eyes. That wasn't really him, was it? Was that… did I cast thunder magecraft? That couldn't be right: he did feel something drain out of him a little, but it wasn't from his prana reserves, or at least didn't feel the same as the sensation of burning magical energy.

    He didn't have time to think about that revelation though, for the Ghoul recovered and glared venomously at him. Shirou still hadn't recovered from the poison, and could only glare defiantly at the monster when it charged him again. He could barely hold his weapon still, let alone fight, but he refused to give up.

    Shirou growled in his throat and struggled to draw upon more of his prana or whatever force answered his need the last time. He felt like his body was about to collapse, but as if in answer to his need, the shadowy figure from before appeared beside him, seemingly no more substantial than the fog around him. It was a towering humanoid figure hovering a foot off the ground. It was also holding something in its hands. Unlike the taunting figure deeper in, this one's presence brought nothing but comfort to Shirou.

    The blade in its hand swept across its body, cleaving the Ghoul diagonally as it leapt forward. Whatever the giant was using, it sliced through the wiry demon like a hot knife through butter: the Ghoul's body split in two from shoulder to hip with terrifying strength. Shirou forced his hand to cover his mouth and nose, expecting to be showered in gore as the two halves separated. Instead, the creature's lifeless body dissolved into so much black and red mist that soon melted into the fog as though it never were.

    Shirou's savior also disappeared, though he felt an aching headache when it did. At the very least, killing the thing had also caused the poison to fade from his system with it. More proof if any were needed that magic was involved.

    "I see… you indeed possess an interesting quality…" the mysterious voice from before hummed, intrigued despite its arrogant tone.

    With renewed strength, Shirou quickly tightened his grip on his sword and slipped into a modified kendo stance, facing the entity warily. "Alright, I've passed your little test," Shirou spat. "Tell me what's going on!"

    "What exactly do you wish to know?" The voice was definitely mocking now. "If what you seek is 'truth', then your search will be even harder…"

    "You said that if I beat that demon you'd tell me the truth! What the hell is going on?!"

    "How naive. You demand things from forces you cannot begin to grasp, foolish one. Did you really believe passing such a minor test meant you had caught up to me?" The being glowed red again, and Shirou quickly tensed, expecting another demon. Instead, the fog thickened suddenly, pouring from the figure's position silently.

    "Everyone seeks what they want to… and the fog only deepens…" it intoned cryptically.

    "Stop talking nonsense!" Shirou called, trying to sweep away the fog with his blade, which only grew harder and harder to see through the thickening vapor. "You're just going to run away after leading me on? Hide in this fog you made after almost killing me?!"

    "If you had a struggle of facing that meager demon, you are only going to hate what's in store for you later…"

    Shirou grimaced, silently cursing his luck. If what the being hinted at came to pass, he would need to become much stronger, and fast.

    "We may meet again at a place other than here, and all your questions shall be answered either by or before that time… Hmhm… I look forward to it…"

    The fog continued to deepen, its smothering blanket turning his vision gray and lulling his senses. It was getting harder and harder to focus… to stay awake…

  5. #5
    I've only seen the Persona 4 anime but so far I like what you've written. Chapter 7 was a bit confusing since I don't remember a similar event happening during the P4 anime but I think your description of how Shirou used his persona accurate.

    I'm looking forward to reading what happens next.

  6. #6
    ジュカイン Lycodrake's Avatar
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    This reminds me of when I had a Persona xover idea I had involving Shirou and a slightly altered Suit of Swords and Futsunushi.
    And I'd say you've done a really nice job here, Kishou, in keeping characters in-character while exploring this crossover.
    Quote Originally Posted by Seika View Post
    Yes, excellent. Go, Lyco, my proxy.

  7. #7
    この世全ての悪 ~ メイドラゴン Renko's Avatar
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    Please let it be a good one this time. I've seen a lot of Persona crossovers and most of them are.....meh.

    "......"

    Quote Originally Posted by Thedoctor View Post
    Why can't we all be as sexually devious as Renko?

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    "I really loathe Fanfictions that are so horrendously horrible, it makes me want to go get my massive NAIL BAT OF RAPTURE and swing it real HARD to any AUTHOR who will dare create such filthy and disgusting piece of literature!"

    "THEY WON'T SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY....THEY WILL SUFFER!"

  8. #8
    死徒二十七祖 The Twenty Seven Dead Apostle Ancestors Magus's Avatar
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    I recall seeing this on another site before.

    Anyways, the fact that Shirou lost his old identity does make it easy to make up that identity for him - in this case, Yu Narukami.
    Not Magus! Magic Emperor Magus!

  9. #9
    Citizen of the World TheInfamousMan's Avatar
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    Glad you posted it here! Hopefully you'll get a lot of in depth analysis with how you are doing with this fic.
    Current Works:

    Just an Unorthodox Thief (Fate/Zero-Lupin III Crossover) [Updated 7/26/2017] TV Tropes Page

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  10. #10
    TATARI Heiress ItsaRandomUsername's Avatar
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    Good to see that this is finally being posted, if only because I think it's easier to read stories on BL than it is on FFN, and now I don't have my inherent dislike of FFN as anything but a platform for authors gaining cross-exposure to hold me back.
    McJon01: We all know that the real reason Archer would lose to Rider is because the events of his own Holy Grail War left him with a particular weakness toward "older sister" types.
    My Fanfics. Read 'em. Or not.



  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by fsnfan View Post
    I've only seen the Persona 4 anime but so far I like what you've written. Chapter 7 was a bit confusing since I don't remember a similar event happening during the P4 anime but I think your description of how Shirou used his persona accurate.

    I'm looking forward to reading what happens next.
    Chapter 7 is actually based on the fight scene in the game, so that's why it's different. Of course, I made it a bit more different by having a Ghoul thrown into the mix. I only regret not thinking of Yomotsu-Ikusa at the time, but I digress. Maybe I can write it up as an omake chapter sometime later, or try to rewrite this one with said Ikusa...

    Quote Originally Posted by Renko View Post
    Please let it be a good one this time. I've seen a lot of Persona crossovers and most of them are.....meh.
    Most of them were P3 crossovers that involved Minato/Makoto in the Holy Grail War, so I can understand how they're really "meh". I also recall "Fate/Stay Masked" where the author was actually inspired by Fate/Reach Out to write something similar. The big difference though is that it involves Shirou AFTER the UBW Good Ending, along with Rin and Saber.

    At first I was flattered, but after reading its chapters, I really wonder what the point of it is other than "to have more hilarity" (paraphrase).

    Quote Originally Posted by Magus View Post
    I recall seeing this on another site before.

    Anyways, the fact that Shirou lost his old identity does make it easy to make up that identity for him - in this case, Yu Narukami.
    It's a common staple, I admit, but it works either way since Yu Narukami is meant to be a placeholder character for the player's vision as a hero.

    Quote Originally Posted by ItsaRandomUsername View Post
    Good to see that this is finally being posted, if only because I think it's easier to read stories on BL than it is on FFN, and now I don't have my inherent dislike of FFN as anything but a platform for authors gaining cross-exposure to hold me back.
    It's also readable on Spacebattles and Sufficient Velocity, and they're all updated within the same time limit.

    Now for the next two chapters (because this thread likes to edit separate quick posts into the same one, hehe)

    Chapter 8: Class of 2-2
    -April 12th, 2011 – Dojima Residence-

    Shirou's eyes slowly forced themselves open, staring blankly at the light fixture overhead. Long-ingrained habit took over from his position in the warm futon, and he glanced at the clock by his futon first thing: it was just after seven o'clock.

    I slept in? That's no good… No way I can do my morning exercises now. Do I have even enough time to make breakfast?

    Shirou considered himself an early riser, and he fully intended to take advantage of that to start cooking breakfast for the Dojimas right from the get go. It was only when he brought his arm up to wipe his eyes that the full weight of last night's "dream" hit him. Much to his surprise, there was no pain, no fatigue in spite of the fight leaving him in incredible pain at the end. He only really felt the disorientation of the change in surroundings and position.

    I'm still alive… he concluded rather belatedly. That's a good sign.

    Shirou also noted that movement was painless as well. As he started to get changed into his uniform, he took a moment to look for wounds. Strangely, not so much as a blemish marred his skin aside from his old shoulder scar, not even where the Ghoul had punched a hole in him on the opposite side. Did he just imagine the whole thing? And that strange weapon… now that he thought about it, was that the first time he had Projected anything that well?

    Everything I tried outside of Structural Analysis has never worked so well before… and I certainly never learned lightning magecraft or how to bind spirits either… so why-?

    The red-haired teen shook his head and cleared his thoughts; today was the first day of school. He could worry about the cryptic dreams he'd been having and startling development of his magecraft later. He could do a more in-depth analysis when he managed to replace his Magic Circuit, a task he couldn't put off for much longer if he intended to keep his skills (such as they were…) sharp.

    While somewhat disappointed that he wasn't able to cook breakfast, Shirou made a point to make himself presentable for class at the very least. A quick shower later, and he was slipping into the school uniform for Yasogami High School Fuji-nee had ordered for him. It was an old-fashioned gakuran-style outfit: the high-collar black jacket was subtly checkered around the cuffs and collar with a houndstooth pattern, giving them a slight shimmer, with golden buttons. The jacket was also lined with white threads in places, making the uniform look patchy but still sleek. This went over his chosen white undershirt and matched the black slacks the school required. It was actually pretty similar to the uniforms Homurahara High used if slightly more traditional in design. It was certainly comfortable enough, especially since he left the top two buttons undone.

    When he finally came down, he nearly jumped when he noticed Nanako placing breakfast on the table. Two places were set, and each plate had a simple meal laid out of sunny-side-up eggs, bacon and toast. "Good morning," she greeted.

    Shirou tensed his jaw to keep it from dropping open; seeing this girl not even half his age cook breakfast for the both of them was not only endearing and sweet, but also unsettling. He was no expert on the subject, but he didn't think girls Nanako's age should be so used to cooking for themselves and to be so at ease with the task. It was like seeing himself years ago as he grew up with Kiritsugu…

    Was this what it was like for Fuji-nee when she first saw him come out of the kitchen with an armload of food?

    Though, in his defense, his father was a horrible cook and resorted to take-out most of the time, so Shirou had to take up cooking for both their sakes. The man could have probably made water catch fire if he put more effort into it. Taking up the mantle of "family chef" was one of the best decisions he made concerning his life, if the heartfelt compliments from Sakura and Fuji-nee were any indication. Once again he promised himself to cook something up for his relatives soon, ideally tonight.

    "Good morning," he finally managed to reply as he sat down. A sweep of the table showed that there was only enough for the two of them, and Dojima was nowhere to be found. "Did your father leave for work early?"

    Nanako nodded. "There was some kind of trouble. He won't be back until late," she explained before starting to eat. She wasn't as clearly upset as last night, but her tone was resigned, as if she had grown used to it.

    "I see…"

    The two of them ate their breakfast in extended silence, managing to simply enjoy the other's company. At least, Shirou hoped Nanako was enjoying it. As it was, he didn't have much too actually talk about with the younger girl, and if Dojima was always out as Nanako implied, she was probably used to the silence of eating alone.

    Taking a few more bites of his meal, he had to admit she was pretty good in making a western breakfast. The bread was toasted to a perfect golden brown shade, mixed with the right amount of butter to avoid losing its crunchiness. The egg was served with little to no burn marks and the yolk intact, and the bacon was very crispy. It looked like she had a lot of practice cooking. Before he could compliment her on the food, the six year old broke the silence. "You start school today, right?"

    Shirou swallowed his bite of French toast and nodded. "Yes, I believe so."

    Nanako gave a shy smile. "My school's on the way, so… let's go together!"

    He was somewhat taken aback by her earnest request, but he had no reason to deny it. Actually, it was a genuinely friendly offer, and it would give the cousins a chance to just get used to the presence of the other. "That's a good idea. Thank you, Nanako."

    His little cousin's face flushed again as she silently nodded before she refocused on her meal. She was starting to reach out to him at least, even if she wasn't completely sure how to act around him yet. Shirou didn't mind. They had a whole year to find common ground.

    After breakfast, the two had checked their bags and gathered their umbrellas before heading out for school. The route was pretty long considering that Dojima lived almost on the opposite side of the city from Yasogami, but Shirou didn't mind. Even small bits of exercise like this would be good for him.

    -Samegawa Flood Plain-

    The walk was, as expected, quiet and faintly awkward for the cousins as they crossed the floodplain. Beside them was the Samegawa River, its banks slightly swollen from the rain, but far from flooding the ditch it flowed through. Shirou also noted the way the hills gave way to a small plain that had a small gazebo standing in the middle of it, offering a view of the city to the north.

    Once the pair reached the end of the plain and back to a proper road, Nanako stopped and pointed towards a paved path leading further up the hills. "You keep going straight from here," she said. "My school's this way. Bye!" With a smile and wave, Nanako walked back the way they came towards her elementary school.

    Shirou silently waved back, not finding the time or words to say back to her. I really need to get better at this "cousin" business. I should have complimented her cooking, maybe offer some lessons or at least encouraging her.

    The magus hadn't even taken a single step when he spotted something from the corner of his eye at the gazebo he and Nanako had just passed. It was a girl about his age: she was about average height for a Japanese girl, with her light brown hair cut in a short bob cut, barely reaching her neck. She stood out from the rest of the girls he had seen on the way to school thanks to her green track jacket with yellow stripes she was wearing over her uniform, a few aluminum badges pinned on one side. Instead of socks, she wore a pair of loose white leg warmers.

    She was pacing restlessly, glaring at the rainy sky as if her irritation would get it to pause. It seemed odd that she would stop there. Then he noticed that she was soaked. Ah. She has no umbrella. Compared to the downpour that occurred last night, the rain had mellowed out into a light drizzle, but for anyone trying to walk today, it was still annoying enough to require some protection.

    With a shrug, Shirou headed back towards the gazebo. It wasn't like him to leave people in these situations without offering a helping hand. "Excuse me? Are you a Yasogami student as well?"

    "Eh?" The girl was visibly surprised by Shirou's arrival. "You talking to me?"

    "There's no one else hiding under here, is there?" he asked playfully with a smile, closing his umbrella as he stepped under the wooden shelter.

    She chuckled and shook her head. "Oh no, I'm just waiting for my friend to show. She's usually good on favors, so she might not mind me sharing her umbrella for today… I hope."

    Shirou cocked his head a little. "If it's no trouble, what happened to your umbrella?"

    The brown haired girl laughed sheepishly. "I uh… saw this action movie the other day where a guy was using an umbrella as a weapon and doing some cool moves with. I tried to mimic them with mine and… accidentally broke it. Punched a hole in the shoji, too…"

    A bead of sweat rolled down the back of the magus' head. Who would reenact kung-fu moves with an umbrella you might still need? Then again, considering his habit/hobby of fixing appliances with the help of magecraft, he couldn't really say anything about strange guilty pleasures. He made no secret that he enjoyed helping as a fake janitor back home, but he made sure no one knew how he pulled it off so easily. He could still recall the stares of disbelief from his peers back at the Homurahara Student Council when he brought a broken heater back to working order in a matter of minutes.

    Still, it wouldn't do well on his conscience to leave this girl alone in the rain betting on the chance her friend does come by and then allow her in. "If you want, you can borrow mine," he offered, holding his umbrella out.

    The girl spluttered at the offer. "Huh? But what about you?"

    "I'll be fine. School's not that much further and you're soaked enough as it is. It's no big deal," Shirou shrugged easily.

    The girl looked at the umbrella fora second before frowning. "I can't do that to you. My friend should be here any second…" the girl's polite refusal was interrupted by a buzzing from her jacket pocket, and she pulled out her phone and checked the text message. "Oh, crap! She's already at school?"

    Shirou brought his umbrella back up. "The offer's still open, if you need it. If you're worried about me, we can always just share it until we get to the gate. It's not that much farther is it?"

    For reasons Shirou couldn't fathom, she blushed at the compromise briefly. "B-but that's… Wouldn't that be awkward?"

    "Why? You don't have your umbrella, and neither of us want to get wet." he replied obliviously.

    With a brief sigh of resignation she stepped forward under his reopened umbrella. "Alright, you win. Just as far as the gate though, got it?"

    "Got it."

    "And… thanks," she smiled cutely.

    For an Ally of Justice-to-be, Shirou felt content with that simple thanks. No matter how small or big the favor, he was willing to tackle it if only for the small graces of thanks from the people around him.

    The rest of his walk was uneventful, and before long they found themselves at the front gates of Yasogami High. The electronic gate was still open and students wandered through with varying levels of haste. If the gate was closed when you arrived, you were tardy on the records or the whole school was closed. The school stood on top of a hill with several Sakura cherry blossom trees starting to bloom on either side of the courtyard, giving a warm greeting to the arriving students. Before him stood a three-story boxy-shaped building, with a smaller two story building connected at the side via two covered walkways, all colored in a slate gray color.

    As the girl thanked him and ran on ahead, Shirou couldn't help but to feel at awe at the place. He hadn't expected much from a high school in a small rural town, but it was actually a good size and well-kept. It was no Homurahara, but that school had its own dojo building dedicated to archery, for goodness sake!

    "Yasogami High, huh?" he muttered to himself. "I wonder what school here will be like…"

    -Yasogami High School – Room 2-2-

    Chie Satonaka couldn't believe her poor luck. First, she had to run through the rain because she forgot to replace her broken umbrella (seriously, you'd think they'd be sturdy enough to take a few good whacks) and was soaked for a good portion of the way over. At least near the home stretch she met someone kind enough to share his with her, awkward as it was. She never got his name, now that she thought about it.

    But to further her rotten day, she, like the other students in this particular classroom, discovered that they were stuck with Kinshiro Morooka for a homeroom teacher. "King Moron" had to be the strictest stick-in-the-ass faculty member of Yasogami High. Rude, ugly and prone to openly insulting anyone under the age of 30 (at least), the man was universally reviled by the students who had his classes. It was a bizarre mix of shame and relief that her best friend Yukiko was in the same boat.

    "Hey, you guys!" A female student a couple rows away told her friends excitedly. "I heard there's going to be a transfer student from the city in this class!"

    It was a nice distraction to King Moron, and the girl's friends started getting into it. "Oh, really? A guy or a girl?"

    Chie had to admit she was interested too. "A transfer student from the city… just like you, right Hanamura?"

    She turned to the student sitting behind and to her left, who was hunched over his desk as if sleeping… or dead. "Are… you alright?"

    "I really don't want to talk about it," the boy moaned, not moving even an inch from his position. Chie exchanged glances with Yukiko, who sat in the seat in front of her, and they both gave confused shrugs before settling back in to wait.

    Moments later, the front-most door slid open with its tell-tale grinding, revealing their foul-tempered homeroom teacher in his trademark pinstriped blue suit and checkered tie followed by a taller boy wearing the school uniform. The students who were still up and talking immediately scrambled to their seats when they spotted the teacher. Morooka seethed at the still talking students unaware of his arrival, and made it known through his loud, almost perpetually snarling voice.

    "Alright, shut your traps!" he bellowed. Every student flinched and silenced themselves on the spot. Despite being shorter than his most of his students and noodle-thin, some said it was his horrendous overbite that scared them into submission, others felt his hideous comb-over was a crime against nature. No matter how loathed he was or how much people groused about him behind his back though, no one was bold enough to argue with him for more than one day before his sharp tongue and threats of expulsion silenced them. He was called King Moron for a reason after all.

    Chie noticed that while their homeroom teacher was talking, the student was writing his name on the blackboard. "Shirou Emiya," if she was reading those kanji right. Wait, he looks familiar… No way! Chie nearly gaped at the sight: it was the same boy who walked with her to school!

    "I'm Kinshiro Mooroka, your homeroom teacher from today forward!" he continued, following up with one of his infamous rants. "First things first! Just 'cause it's spring doesn't mean you can swoon over each other like love-struck baboons. Long as I'm around, you students are going to be pure as the driven snow!"

    Many students rolled their eyes at his ongoing tirade and felt beads of sweat roll down the back of their heads. It wasn't uncommon for King Moron to make such remarks and speeches, treating himself like judge, jury, and executioner on what he deemed indecent, which was basically any form of interaction between people of the opposite sex. It was like he hated the notion of people having social lives in any form.

    After nearly three minutes of expressing his issues with teenagers he finally moved on, still obviously annoyed. "Now I hate wasting my time, so let me introduce you to the transfer student."

    Having finished writing out his name well before Morooka was done ranting, the obviously patient teen immediately stepped forward to address the class with a neutral face. "My name is Shirou Emiya. It's nice to meet you all," he said politely with a bow. Despite his average height, he was actually more exotic than many expected. His hair was a dull red color, and his eyes were almost yellow in the right light.

    Before anyone could say anything, Morooka took over once again. "This sad sack's been thrown out of Fuyuki City out to the middle of nowhere like yesterday's garbage. He's a deserter, no different from a wounded, defeated warrior, so you girls better not get any ideas about hitting on him!"

    He turned to the student, who was standing awfully stiff and tense. He probably wasn't used to being so casually insulted by a teacher before, but it was the common initiation by King Moron; everyone got whipped at least once by him. The student, Emiya, seemed to finally relax and turned to Mooroka with an innocent question: "Isn't that a little self-depreciating?"

    Many of the students blinked, and even the homeroom teacher looked perplexed at what he just asked. "What?" he grunted flatly.

    "You just mocked Inaba as a place in 'the middle of nowhere', so by definition, you would be insulting yourself and everyone in this classroom for living here, wouldn't you?"

    A deathly silence followed after Emiya's words were uttered, almost like a funeral observance. The students were aghast in horror of someone having the guts-nay, the balls- to call King Moron on his hypocrisy. Hanamura, who managed to lift his head in time for the transfer student's casual delivery, spoke the two words that circled everyone's head:

    "He's dead."

    Morooka, for his part, managed to keep his composure aside from a pulsing vein and twitching eyebrow. "Well aren't you the smug little smartass. That's it; you're on my shit list, effective immediately."

    Before Emiya could begin to utter what would most likely be an apology, King Moron pounced on him with no leeway for him to speak even a word in his defense. "Now listen up! I don't know where you got that superiority complex, but you're miles away from your city of perverts and assholes, in more ways than one. So don't even think about taking advantage of some girl here with your sweet talk! City boys like you piss me off; going around banging girls left and right, reading all these damn manga about death-books and drill robots-"

    From her seat in the middle of the class, Chie decided to bail the poor guy out. No one should have to put up with this kind of thing from their own teacher, especially not on their first day. "Sensei!" she raised her hand and boldly interrupted his tirade. "Is it okay if the transfer student sits here?"

    Morooka glanced at the empty seat next to Chie in the middle row, slightly calmed. "Huh? Yeah, sure," he turned back to Emiya as if the last few minutes hadn't happened. "Hear that, city boy? Your seat's over there, so get your ass over there and siddown!"

    "Y-yessir," he muttered quickly, and finally settled into his assigned desk. He let out a slight sigh of a relief before whispering to the girl next to him. "Thanks for the save up there."

    "No problem. I never got to pay you back from back at the gazebo." The relieved smile he gave her at that had a bit of recognition in it. "You better watch what you say here, though," Chie warned quickly, and just as quietly. "King Moron will only make it worse for you if he gets half a chance."

    "'King Moron'?"

    "It's what we call him. He's the worst, isn't he?"

    Emiya shrugged nonchalantly. "I've known worse. Compared to a friend of mine back home, this 'King Moron' is rather tame."

    Now intensely curious, Chie would have asked more but their teacher caught them in the act. "What did I just say to you, city boy?"

    Emiya paled, and Chie couldn't help but to feel bad for him. "Uh, it's not-!"

    "Consider this my first and only warning! I see you hitting on Satonaka again, and I'll personally toss your ass out of here for good!" He glared at the rest of the students, who were gossiping quietly amongst themselves since the transfer student was seated. "And that goes for the rest of you, as I hope you're aware. Now keep quiet while I start homeroom!"

    Thus began the first day of the Yasogami High school year…

    -After school-

    "That's all for today. Normal lectures will start tomorrow."

    A wave of relief washed over the students, and most started packing their bags or gathering in little groups to talk with their friends. Morooka himself was already heading to the door, completely uninterested in what the students did when he wasn't being paid to put up with their 'hormone-fueled stupidity' as he liked to call it.

    He didn't even get a chance to get out the door before the PA system chimed. "Attention all teachers. Please report to the faculty office for a brief staff meeting. All students must return to their classrooms and are not to leave the school until further notice."

    Morooka let out a slight grunt before turning back to his students. "You heard the announcement. Don't go anywhere until you hear otherwise."

    "The nerve of that guy," a female student murmured as soon as he left. "This year's going to suck…" Several others murmured their agreement before settling in for the wait.

    Shirou let out a sigh when the teacher finally left. As strict as he was, he could actually imagine one person that would be even worse if given a position as teacher. After all, if anyone could turn casually lambasting people into an art form, it was Shinji Matou.

    Not even a minute passed before sirens screamed by the school grounds. With no one trying to get his attention and no requests for help on the first day, Shirou walked over the window with a few other students, drawn to the noise. "Sounds like an ambulance," he noted. "But why so close?" He could just make out the red and white lights shoot by before the wall of gray that was Inaba's fog swallowed any further signs.

    "Something big must have happened," an excited student offered. "But I can't see a damn thing. Friggin' fog…"

    "That's Inaba for ya," another shrugged. "When it rains, it fogs right after."

    Fog… Now that he thought about it, Shirou had been completely shrouded by a very thick fog in his dream last night, and the view outside the second-story window was just as covered from view. Anyone else would have shrugged it off, thinking it a coincidence, even as far as dreams went. But as a magus, he was taught to not believe in them. What could it mean? Is a magus, or worse, doing something through the fog?

    "By the way," another student spoke up, adjusting his glasses habitually. "Did you hear the paparazzi lately? They've been looking all over for that announcer."

    The student next to him looked instantly interested and eager at the latest bit of gossip; both failed to notice Shirou's slight frown. "Oh yeah, Mayumi Yamano-san, right? I heard some guys spotted her at the shopping district once or twice."

    "Well apparently, she's been staying at the Amagi Inn for the last few days."

    The gossip-loving student gaped, switching his attention between him and someone still seated at their desk. "Whoa, no joke?!"

    Considering you and the media's unhealthy obsession for her, I can't blame her for hiding out here, Shirou thought. Even one day after hearing about the 'Yamano scandal' was more than enough for him. One would have thought the media would have something else to talk about by now. He was confused as to what the girl had to do with this… and why the gossiper was going over to her.

    Now that Shirou was looking at her, he had to do a slight double-take. The girl reminded him of Sakura for a second, but only so far as their posture went. She was tall and slender with unblemished, pale skin and long black hair held back by a red hair band. Her features were those of a classical Japanese beauty, and she stood out even more with the red sweater she wore over her uniform top. Black stockings covered her legs, somehow adding to her delicate appearance.

    "He better not try to turn it into an attempt at the Princess Amagi Challenge," the knowledgeable student smirked and shook his head.

    Shirou blinked and turned to the student. "Princess Amagi Challenge?"

    After taking a moment to look Shirou over in brief surprise, he replied. "You're the transfer student, aren't you? Best tell you now before you embarrass yourself like a few other love-struck fools." He turned and pointed to the girl, awkwardly talking with the gossiper that walked up to her.

    "That girl over there is the heir to her family inn; Yukiko Amagi," the other student explained. "She's one of the two most popular girls in Yasogami High, up there with Ai Ebihara. She's rich, elegant, beautiful and smart, and is popular with nearly the entire male student body. I heard she has a few female followers as well," the boy couldn't help but grin at that last part before he continued. He paused long enough for them to see the student solemnly walking away, as if his cue to make a point.

    "However, no one's ever been able to date her yet, and she's still single. A lot of people have tried, and they all failed. No one really knows what she wants in a guy because she works at the inn every day after school and is usually bored out of her mind by whoever asks her out. Rumor has it that she would only accept someone as dashing and charismatic as a prince to even think of asking her out. Considering how she's the closest thing our town has to a princess, I'd say it's pretty believable. And then there's Satonaka-san, her ever-watchful guardian. You don't meet with her approval when she's around, she'll kick you out the nearest window, they say."

    "You can't always trust rumors," Shirou countered. It didn't seem right to objectify a young woman into a princess without really knowing her. Does anyone even bother to just talk with her, or do they all just skip straight to asking her out? No wonder they don't know anything about her.

    His chatty classmate student shrugged. "I suppose not. But if you don't listen to what others tell you, then who can you trust?"

    Shirou didn't have an answer for that, nor did he want to think of one. He glanced back and leaned against the fog-veiled window, hoping to see something out there, or at least distract himself from hearing more rumors and gossip. Something about a channel and soulmates, was it? Honestly, Homurahara High never had this kind of problem. Then again, small towns like Inaba were probably starving for things to do and talk about.

    The intercom went off again a few minutes later, but the news wasn't exactly promising.

    "Attention all students," the same female voice from earlier called out. "There has been an incident inside the school district. Police officers have been dispatched around the School Zone. Please stay calm and contact your parents or guardians as soon as possible, and quickly leave the school grounds. Do not disturb the police officers. Head directly home. I repeat…"

    Many of the students started chattering excitedly on the possible meanings of that announcement. Many were even openly making plans to find what was going on regardless of the faculty's warnings. While Shirou was among those wanting to take a look, he was interested for an entirely different reason: If someone was hurt or worse, he wanted to do something to help, whether it was to look for the cause or save a life in peril…

    Maybe if I leave now I can find out what's going before Dojima-san would notice. I need to make time for MOEL as-


    "Hey, new guy!" A loud, energetic voice broke his train of thought. Turning, he recognized the girl from the desk next to his, as well as the one he lend his umbrella to this morning. Unlike the classically beautiful Yukiko Amagi standing behind her patiently, the shorter girl had more of a 'cute girl next door' appearance, brown eyes and a friendly smile on her face.

    Yukiko only glanced at him for a second before returning her attention to the floor. She must have a lot on her mind, Shirou concluded.

    "You're going home by yourself, right?" the more energetic girl asked. "Why don't you come with us?"

    Any guy would jump at the chance to walk home with a pair of attractive girls extending an invitation, especially if it included the most popular girl in school. This fact briefly registered in Shirou's mind and he felt a twinge of worry. Amagi-san was Yasogami's equivalent to Homurahara's own Rin Tohsaka: beautiful, smart, athletic- everything a guy would want in a woman and the school idol to boot.

    "I-I appreciate the offer," he admitted. "But isn't it rather sudden? I don't even know your names." Well, he heard Amagi's name, but Shirou didn't think it would be wise to sound like he was snooping about the popular girls in school.

    The brown-haired girl slapped her forehead in response. "Oh right! Nearly forgot about that! I'm Chie Satonaka, and this is Yukiko Amagi, my best friend."

    Well, as long as they were introducing themselves… "I'm Shirou Emiya. Nice to meet you both."

    "Oh, nice to meet you too," Amagi nodded, seemingly surprised to be included in the conversation. "Sorry this is so sudden…"

    Her friend brushed both their worries off. "Oh, stop apologizing Yukiko. You're making me look bad. I just want to ask him some stuff, that's all."

    A sheepish voice interrupted them. "Satonaka-san?" The teen behind them had messy auburn hair and a set of headphones hanging around his uniform collar, and was slightly taller than Shirou. The boy, Yosuke Hanamura, suddenly bowed at the waist and held out a DVD case as if making an offering. Anyone could see that he was outright scared for some reason.

    "Th-thank you for lending me your movie," he stuttered. "It was really awesome, like how they all moved and stuff… For what it's worth, I'm really sorry, so please spare me your wrath until my next paycheck!" he finished in a rush, forcing the DVD into Chie's hands. Not giving her a chance to say anything, he turned sharply and walked away as quickly as he could get away with.

    "Your next-?" Satonaka blinked, realization dawning almost immediately.

    "See ya later!" Hanamura waved, switching to a full-on sprint towards the door.

    "You bastard! What did you do to my DVD?!" Satonaka all but vaulted over the desks in her way and charged the fleeing boy like a mad bull. She didn't give him any chance to escape, launching a lightning-fast kick just a little too high to simply trip Yosuke up.

    Watching the event like a car crash, Yukiko gasped in surprise while Shirou visibly cringed. In fact, many of the students left in the room cringed with them when they saw the hit. Some of the males surreptitiously covered themselves in sympathy.

    Yosuke simply dropped where he stood, squirming with pain and cradled his family jewels. Satisfied that he wasn't going anywhere any time soon, Satonaka popped open her DVD case to inspect the damage. Rage gave way to despair instantly. "Wha-?! No! It's completely cracked! My 'Trial of the Dragon'…" she almost wept at the loss, and Shirou couldn't help but feel bad for both her and the still whimpering student. If it were the DVD player, he'd happily offer to fix the damage, but repairing a cracked disc was a bit outside his abilities. And Hanamura…

    "I think mine's cracked too…" the auburn-haired teenager wheezed from the ground, barely getting his feet under him. "C-critical hit to the nads…"

    "A-are you alright?" Shirou and Yukiko asked at the same time.

    Hanamura looked up, but only focused the black-haired girl next to Shirou. "A-ah, Amagi-san… Are you worried about me?" he sounded a little hopeful with that.

    "Leave him, guys," Chie huffed. "He'll be fine tomorrow." She marched out of the room, not so much as giving a passing glance to the shakily standing Hanamura. Yukiko looked somewhat sympathetic but followed her friend all the same.

    Dubious about that, Shirou stayed behind for a moment. Yosuke had managed to stand back up, but his knees were shaking a little. "You gonna be alright? Need help to the nurse?" he kindly offered.

    Yosuke looked up at him and smiled weakly. "Thanks, but I think I'll be fine. I'll just walk it off; I'm tough." His voice was obviously strained, and he nearly doubled over again at his slight misstep before clinging to the door handle.

    "…If you're sure…" Shirou muttered, not quite feeling right leaving the guy in pain, but he did look like he was recovering at least. Casting one last look at his classmate, who was already starting to compose himself, Shirou jogged out to catch up with the two girls waiting for him at the staircase.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Chapter 9: Bad News Travels Fast

    -April 12th, 2011 - Samegawa Flood Plain-

    The walk past the floodplain was mostly quiet, much to Chie's irritation. No one was talking or making eye contact, just staring ahead at the road or gazing at the floodplain, in Yukiko and Emiya's cases, respectively. She expected this out of her friend Yukiko, the shy little thing, but not the new guy: Shirou Emiya managed to cast himself as an enigma upon arrival. He was a city boy like Yosuke, but wasn't at all what Morooka predicted or what Yosuke was when he first moved into town.

    Now that she thought about it, he was everything Yosuke Hanamura wasn't: polite, quiet, attentive…? Not exactly a lot to go on, she needed to find out more. Thus, conversation!

    "So, you ever heard of the Amagi Inn, Emiya?" she started simply.

    "A few times," he replied amiably. He didn't elaborate how or when

    "Well, Yukiko's family runs it. It's been going on for generations. It's the pride of Inaba!"

    "Mhm," Yukiko nodded.

    "I see," Emiya followed.

    Chie fought back a twitch; neither one of them were enthusiastic about this at all! She tried again: "Amagi Inn has been in a lot of magazines as a hidden treasure. Yukiko's going to inherit it someday."

    "Mhm."
    "I see."

    "It attracts a lot of visitors in because of its natural hot springs?"

    "Mhm."
    "I see."

    This is getting ridiculous. It's like they were made for each other. Maybe- A sly smile crossed the tomboy's face "…Emiya, Yukiko thinks you're cute."

    "Mhm."
    "I see."

    A second passed after their automatic replies, leading Chie to wonder if they even heard her. Suddenly, they both stopped and exchanged wide-eyed glances and full-face flushes with each other. "What?!"

    She couldn't help it; their faces were just too funny! "Hahahaha! FINALLY, a reaction!"

    Yukiko pouted at her, the blush still fresh on her face. "Chie! That was mean!"

    "Oh, come on, lighten up!" the kung-fu enthusiast smiled. "We have this big chance to talk to someone from a city and you're just clamming up! How do you expect to get a boyfriend at this rate?"

    Turning to the transfer student, she leaned in with her hand beside her mouth to mock whisper. "She's really popular at school, but she's never once had a boyfriend. Can you believe it?"

    "Hey! Stop it, Chie!" Yukiko cried. She quickly but gently pushed her friend aside so she could stand in front of Emiya. "Don't listen to her, Emiya-kun! She's lying, alright? I'm not popular and I never had a boyfriend! W-wait, no! I mean-"

    "I-it's alright, calm down," he said, holding his hands out in a placating gesture. "Everyone takes their own time and pace for relationships, right? Waiting for someone to come along?"

    Yukiko visibly relaxed. "Y-yes, of course! That's absolutely correct!" She glanced away briefly and let her voice trail off. "Just waiting for someone…"
    Chie thought Yukiko looked rather glum for a moment after that statement, but wrote it off as her imagination. She knew her kind-hearted friend too well to believe she could be gloomy. Yukiko and glum just didn't mix.

    "Besides," Emiya continued, having not noticed. "I'm not exactly the best person to ask for relationship advice. Have you asked Satonaka-san? She could help you better than me."

    "Uh, come again?" The other two glanced back at her, confusion abound in their gazes.

    "You have a boyfriend don't you, Satonaka-san?" Emiya asked innocently. "I could be wrong, but you made it sound like you had one already."

    How did he come up with THAT? Yukiko's the school idol, not me. They all don't even notice me half the time. To have a boyfriend before Yukiko… that might take a small miracle, but it might be nice as long as she's around and looking beautiful as ever-

    Chie forced a laugh. "Hahahaha… you're such a kidder, Emiya! I'm afraid I'm just as single as Yukiko, but not because I couldn't find someone." Liar. "Most of the guys are well… intimidated by me." Liar. "I could find someone if I wanted to, though." Liar! "I just don't have the time, really." Liar, liar, LIAR!

    "I see," Emiya nodded. Silence loomed over them and the trio resumed their walk, putting most of the awkward conversation behind them.
    Chie opted to change the subject to draw her mind away from her earlier thoughts. "Soooo, Emiya, what made you decide to come all the way out from the big city to Inaba?"

    "Well, I don't know if I'd call Fuyuki a big city, but I was invited over by some relatives. My uncle and cousin live here," he answered, seeming more open after Chie had all but pried his mouth open earlier. "I'm visiting them for a year and have transferred to school here in the meantime."

    "A year?" Yukiko blinked. "That's a rather long time to visit with relatives. Do your parents mind?"

    When Emiya didn't answer right away, Chie had a sinking feeling Emiya's visit to Inaba was something serious, maybe about recent lost family members or something. Coming over to visit their uncle in a rural town would easily be the one kind of relative most people would hate having to see. She didn't get a chance to ask or probe too deeply though or ask why. The commotion up at the crossroads was answer enough. Police cars had pulled in, traffic cones and barricades redirected traffic, cops worked throughout the scene, and a small crowd of pedestrians stood as close as they could, watching and gossiping.

    "So that high schooler left early and came down this street?" one housewife asked another in hushed tones, but far from quietly enough to avoid being overheard.

    "That's what I heard," the other woman nodded. "But to think something like THAT was hanging by an antenna…"

    "I know! I wanted to see it too."

    "You're a bit late then; the police and fire department both brought it down just a few minutes ago."

    "Still, it sounds terrifying, that a dead body was found up there…"

    A wave of terror washed over the three students. "Di-did she say… dead body?" Chie stuttered."As in… a real dead body?"

    "Hanging from an antenna?" Yukiko added with a mixture of horror and morbid curiosity.

    Emiya frowned, his expression tightening as he scanned the crowd. "Was that what the announcement and the sirens were about?" His heroic tendencies welled up, and the desire to vault the barricade and have a look himself was almost overwhelming. Heck, he might very well have done just that if a familiar voice didn't catch his attention.

    "Shirou?"

    The trio was snapped from their thoughts and fears when a rugged, black haired cop, his jacket slung over his shoulder passed the barricade in front of them. "Dojima-san!" Emiya identified the man with a start.

    "What are you doing here?" the detective asked with a slight edge in his voice. Whatever had happened, the redhead was obviously not meant to see it.

    "We were just heading back from school," Emiya answered. "The announcement didn't tell us what happened, just to head home."

    The cop sighed to himself, face scowling. "I told that damned principal not to let anyone through here…"

    Chie had glanced between the two of them as they talked before her curiosity got the better of her. "Hang on, you two know each other?"

    "Ah, well, he's my uncle," Emiya answered while scratching his head sheepishly. "Dojima-san, this is Chie Satonaka and Yukiko Amagi: they're classmates of mine."

    "Pleased to meet you," Yukiko nodded. Chie followed her example slightly hastily, flummoxed as she was.

    "Likewise," Dojima grunted back. "Well… how should I say this? I hope you both get along with him."

    Chie and Yukiko exchanged perplexed glances, and saw that even his nephew was confused of what he meant. It wasn't like the man was being sarcastic or crude, but he seemed… awkward about it. The moment passed as another officer in a blue suit rushed by, his cheeks green and a hand over his mouth. He barely made it past the students and behind a guard rail before he lost control of his bowels, noisily vomiting into the grass. Whatever happened to the body was not meant for the faint of heart.

    Dojima's expression darkened. "Goddammit, Adachi! If you can't be professional about this, you're going to be sent back to central office!" he snapped.

    "S-sorry," the now-identified Adachi whimpered, attempting to cover his mouth and push down his nausea. He was having minimal success.
    The hard-boiled detective sighed, muttering to himself along the lines of "rookies" and "unfit for the job" before returning his attention to the students. "As you can see, we still have work to do here, so you three need to head straight back home and not wander around. Understood?"

    "Yes, sir!" the trio agreed. It came out slightly delayed in Shirou's case, something that did not escape Dojima's sharp eye.

    "And Shirou? Think you can take care of Nanako for tonight? I have a feeling this is going to be an all-nighter." He sounded resigned with the situation, and from what the redhead had gathered it probably was a pretty regular thing.

    Emiya's face twitched to a slight frown for a second at the thought, but he nodded all the same. "Understood, Dojima-san."

    Satisfied, Dojima walked off and called to the rest of the officers in the area, his commanding tone visibly motivating the officers into action. "All right, boys! We got a lot on our plate, so everyone get moving! Start with the one who found the victim and any known relatives and get us a list of contacts! We're not calling it a night until we find the sick bastard who did this!"

    Hurrying past the scene, the trio of students parted ways at the edge of the floodplain. Once the girls were out of sight, Shirou took off for the shopping district. He had lost track of time at the crime scene, and he still had to make a stop by MOEL before he went back to the Dojima house.
    Even with the school and Dojima telling him to head straight home, he had already given his word that he would start as soon as possible. At least he was only looking for a part-time job, even if it would mean that he would have to settle for late meals. He couldn't afford to be gone all the time and leave Nanako alone, especially with Dojima himself working long hours.

    He hustled through across the floodplain and rushed north. The incident had closed off one of the main routes that led to the shopping district, forcing him to take a longer route than he expected.

    -MOEL Gas Station-

    When Shirou arrived, Nami was the first to notice. He waved him over while he continued wiping the windows on a green delivery truck. "Shirou-chan! Welcome back! I almost thought you weren't going to show!"

    "Sorry about the delay," Shirou smiled sheepishly. "A bit of an accident happened further down the road."

    "Ah yes," Nami nodded. "About the dead body being seen suspended by a TV antenna? Man, murder cases get so complicated these days."

    Shirou couldn't keep the surprise from showing on his face. "You heard about it already?"

    "In a small town like this, word of mouth is the best source of information," Nami explained before waving goodbye to the green-clothed customer returning to his truck. "The people of Inaba share gossip all the time whenever something comes up; considering how quiet it is around here, any real news is gossiped over pretty much the instant it happens and it gets wilder with each telling. It's practically Inaba's official pastime. You should have heard half the stuff they came up when the Junes department store was first built here! Gets me nostalgic just thinking about then. Wasn't even a whole year ago…"

    Sighing whimsically, the attendant gave Shirou a good once-over from head to toe. "Hmm… you look a bit short compared to most boys your age, but you should still fit. You might be more balanced with your weight as well. Can you do manual labor?"

    Shirou nodded. "I'm also very good with my hands; repair work, mostly. I occasionally fixed motorcycles in my spare time for some family friends." Raiga Fujimura would occasionally ask him to fix his favorite bikes and paid him well for the service rather than risk going to a black market dealer or give his personal information to a legal repair shop. Nice guy or not, he was still yakuza. For that reason, Shirou made sure not to give away too much about the Fujimuras, especially near Ryotaro Dojima.

    Nami whistled. "You keep on surprising me, Shirou-chan! We actually have a motorcycle out back that's been on quota to get fixed by tomorrow. Think you can handle it?"

    "Sounds simple enough," Shirou nodded. "Sure, I'll do it."

    "Great! But first you better go see the boss inside. I told him you were helping, and he wants to go through all the official 'paperwork' of your application. He also has a spare uniform you'll need to change into." Nami offered a lopsided smile. The redhead was pretty much already hired anyway; anything resembling official procedure was just an affectation.

    "Thanks. I'll get right on it." Like Nami had said, the station was looking for part-time workers and was alright with anyone willing to come in at least once a week at any time interval. In Shirou's case, the manager asked him to work at least three hours a shift, seeing as he was a student and thus had limited availability. A small town with so little could afford to be flexible like that, a perk Shirou wasn't sure he would take advantage of all that much.

    It wasn't long before Shirou reappeared outside wearing a MOEL uniform that matched Nami's. Sharing a brief cap salute with his senior worker, they made their way to the back of the station and the small garage/shed that held the marked motorcycle.

    "One of our older workers started working on it some time ago," Nami explained. "But he got sick and isn't likely to recover in time to work on it before the pick-up date. Kind of a rough initiation test I'm sure, but do you think you can pick up where he left off?"

    Shirou nodded, his eyes only leaving the motorcycle to check the toolbox and confirming it had everything he might need. "I got it. Just give some time and a little privacy, please. You can check back on me in an hour if you want."

    "You sound quite sure of yourself. Alright, I'll time ya for an hour; got some work up front to take care of anyway. Good luck, Shirou-chan!" Nami gave a quick wave before returning to the front, leaving Shirou alone.

    Shirou let out a sigh of relief. Nami-san probably assumes I'm going to do something delicate. Well, it is delicate, but…

    After one final check to make sure no one was watching him and that there were no security cameras facing his way, Shirou placed his hand on the helm of the motorcycle. He had no idea what was wrong with it at just glance and Nami didn't elaborate, possibly unsure himself. Normally it would take a person some time to figure out the exact problem with so little information, but Shirou had his own personal cheat for that. "Trace On."

    He closed his eyes and focused only on the bike, his magic building a model piece by piece in his mind's eye. Soon, the imperfections that hindered its smooth functioning came together. "…The starter relay's worn out and needs to be replaced… the battery is still good, as long as it's recharged… front tire is flat, but the back one is pumped full…" I'll need some spare tools in the shop to fix this…

    With a slow breath, Shirou brought himself from his mild trance and closed his Circuit. When he opened his eyes, they were filled with a knowing glint. "All right, let's begin." Reaching for his tools, Shirou dove into the machine with a measure of enthusiasm, knowing exactly what to do. He couldn't keep a wry smirk from crossing his face at that. "At least that skill still works outside of dreams… Man, this really is the only thing I'm any good at."

    As much as he loved his adoptive father, sometimes he wished Kiritsugu had managed to teach even a few more spells, or that he had a greater knack for magic in general. As it stood, what few abilities he had were more suited for a handyman than a hero. While his three spells did in theory have the potential for combat as his dream proved, he just didn't have the talent to make it all come together reliably.

    Kiritsugu told him as much while he was still alive; quite bluntly in fact. Other magi didn't need to rely on chance or knowing something so completely to bring about their mysteries. They could focus on the center, the prize: to change the intensity and focus as fast as possible before another could stop them. Anything else was pointless.

    That being said, Shirou still found good use with what little he had in fixing things. If he could use his magecraft, no matter how useless, to better improve, help, or even save the lives of others around him, he would be content with being a two-bit hack for as long as he had to.

    An hour of tinkering and tool changes later, the older MOEL attendant was walking back up to greet him. "So, how go the repairs?" Nami asked, looking intrigued.

    "I think I got it. Let's see if I'm right," Shirou smiled, showing him the starter key and turned the ignition. He was rewarded with the sound of a rumbling, roaring engine and the vibrating handle bar in one of his steady arms.

    Nami gawked for a second before giving Shirou a thumbs-up. "That was fast! You really know what to do with motorcycles, huh?"

    "It helps that I've done jobs like this before," Shirou half-admitted.

    "I can see that. I knew I made the right choice recruiting you! Come out to the front when you've cleaned up here. We'll start with the main building next." The two spent the next hour with simple clean-up around the lot and the building, Shirou taking to the simple tasks with ease.

    "So, I got the name of the person that was found dead up on that antenna earlier," Nami suddenly mentioned as he mopped the storefront while Shirou cleaned to drink rack's glass. "Some people passing by said it was the TV announcer, Mayumi Yamano."

    The red-haired teen stopped mid-wipe and blinked in surprise. "Yamano-san is dead?"

    "I know! What a story! After the alleged love triangle with Namatame and Hiiragi, she ends up fleeing to our own little country town, and is found dead no later than she was found here! It's only a matter of time before the news channel starts sharing what they know!"

    "A story?" Shirou seethed, his clenching fist wringing water from the rag in his hand. "No one's even upset that she's dead? They care more about the story?!"

    "Of course they care that she's dead," Nami assured him, though he looked a little taken aback by the younger man's reaction. "The police are looking into it, of course. People would want to know what this means for the Yamano scandal they've been covering the last few days. The people in Inaba are just getting a little excited that something's happening so close to home."

    "But someone's dead!" Shirou snapped. "How can anyone find that exciting?!"

    "It's an abnormal murder mystery in a town that has constant rain and fog, and inn tourism gets boring after a while. It's as exciting as one would expect to get in this town with not a whole lot to do…" Nami turned to stare fully at Shirou, his expression suddenly neutral. "Although… this murder happened just after you arrived here new to the town. What's to say that you weren't the one who killed that person today?"

    Shirou all but froze on the spot, a myriad of emotions vying for dominance, with outrage and confusion weighing the most strongly, though horror was right behind them. Nami's eyes looked almost red beneath the brim of his cap, cold and piercing. The normally friendly man could have bored a hole in him with his flinty stare. Shirou could only stare back at him wide eyed and gaping, fighting to make his objection heard and failing. "I… I…!"

    Without any warning, Nami's façade cracked, and he all but doubled over with laughter. "Hahahahahaha! Oh, Shirou-chan, you're so easy! Of course you can't be a killer. I don't believe in coincidences, mind you, but you're too sweet and hopeful of a guy to even think of that!" Nami calmed himself for a moment, wiping a tear from his eye. "Though I do fear the kind of man you would become if you ever lost that limitation."

    "That will never happen, Nami-san, I'll always be an Ally of Justice!" Shirou chided playfully. While in his head Shirou was dead serious in his vow, he had long learned that such a dream would only earn him ridicule if he made too much of it.

    "I'm sure you will," Nami smiled cheekily. "Ah, the wonders of youth and their dreams…" Shirou blushed, but said nothing else, moving on to sweeping behind the counter.

    After a few more minutes, Nami broke the silence again. "On a lighter topic… have you heard about the Midnight Channel yet?"

    Shirou stopped, curious. "The what?"

    Nami looked around the store and beckoned Shirou closer. Holding his hand to his mouth, he whispered, "Apparently there's this rumor going around about a special channel you can only see when you meet a specific list of conditions. If you stare at a turned off TV screen alone, in a dark room, on a rainy night you'll see your soulmate."

    Shirou stared and blinked at the attendant. What he told him was so surreal and almost beyond belief. And yet… he believes it?

    "Is it like… magic?" he tested. If he was a fellow magus, he would correct him on the term, albeit subtly.

    "Magic?" Nami chuckled. "Nah, only kids believe in that stuff. Though I guess a little magic would be needed to believe and try this out. Most people these days don't have that in them anymore."

    "You mean you believe the rumor?" he asked again.

    "I kind of want to try it myself just to see," Nami admitted. "It was raining so hard last night so it might have been possible to see who my soulmate was… But I missed it; had an early morning shift today so I slept in. I meant to tell you about it yesterday too but I wasn't sure you'd even come back, honestly. Unless, of course, you saw what happened last night? Can you tell me what it's like?"

    Shirou shook his head. "Sorry, can't say that I have." I was too busy getting lost in a foggy world and trying to fight off a Ghoul.

    "I see," he nodded. "Well, I guess I could check the weather report and see the next time when it'll rain. I think it's coming up tomorrow, actually…"

    Shirou focused back to sweeping, trying to get his mind off of things. He tried to think on finishing his work and going back home to check on Nanako. He tried thinking what to make her for dinner when he would get back. He tried thinking back on the school day he had.

    But try as he might, his mind kept wandering back to the Midnight Channel.

    -Dojima Residence, Evening-

    Since it was only his first day, the manager had him work a short shift before having him sign off. It was getting close to dinner anyway, so Shirou thought this was fitting to end his first day at work before going back to the Dojima residence. He had never told him about his job there, actually.
    Now that he was back in the house, Shirou was almost shoulder-deep in the fridge in search of ingredients for the nth time, and for the nth time frowned at the same results. I guess I can't be too hard on them; Dojima-san always works and Nanako's only six. They probably do take out a lot whenever he does stay home…

    Still, the lack of food made it unlikely for Shirou to cook anything pleasant for tonight. He had wanted to try his hand at tonkatsu again, but he lacked the pork cutlet itself. He kept trying to think of alternate meals to go for, but most of what he found was suited for western breakfasts or snacks. There was a bit of white miso in the back, but there was nowhere near enough to do anything with it for two people. Wait, that's supposed to be red miso…!

    Perhaps he was a little spoiled from cooking big meals all the time, but he felt very unused to having so few options. He wasn't sure what he could possibly put together with what he found, if anything. Fuji-nee herself would probably see that as her worst nightmare if she ever heard those words from him. Speaking of whom, he needed to give her and Sakura a call to let them know that he was settling in after dinner.

    Wait… aha! There they were! Hiding in a corner of the pantry! "Do you like yakisoba, Nanako? I think there's enough for the both of us tonight!"

    "…they're fine," she sighed, not even looking in his direction. Shirou turned to her and felt more than a little sympathy for the poor girl. Nanako sat lonely and dejected at the low table, switching her focus between the table and the TV in front of her. She took the news of her dad working late as well as Shirou would have expected her to: not so well.

    For the sake of the food, he momentarily ignored her and focused his work on the kitchen, though a twinge of guilt still stuck with him. The minutes ticking away were long and quiet, almost painfully so. There was no Sakura Matou to help him cook or Taiga Fujimura to egg him to do it. There was just a little girl watching TV, too shy to bring up her own opinion half the time. The small family home felt cold.

    It was such a stark contrast with how the Dojima Residence felt in comparison to his estate back at Fuyuki, in more ways than one.

    "Dinner's ready," he announced, bringing over two hot bowls of noodles to the table. Nanako was still upset, but accepted her bowl and chopsticks offered to her.

    "Itadakimatsu," they announced and started eating. The atmosphere of the day was not unlike last night's dreariness. In the background, the news anchor droned quietly before a familiar news story drew both Shirou and Nanako's attention.

    "Our top story this evening concerns a bizarre case in a quiet suburb. Around noon today, a woman was found dead near the Samegawa River in Inaba."

    Shirou frowned, being reminded of Nami's words back at the gas station, and decided to listen for once to find out what was going on. The television showed the same image for the last few days; one of a smiling young woman with full makeup and in a white blouse "The deceased has been identified as Ms. Mayumi Yamano, a 27-year old announcer from a local television station."

    Shirou frown grew. Mayumi Yamano… Nami-san was right. But shouldn't they show more concern of losing their TV announcer instead of discussing it like it was, well, the weather?

    "The initial results of the Inaba Police Department's investigation have revealed-" Nanako's breath hitched slightly at the reminder that her father was involved in this. "-that the body was found hanging from a large television antenna atop a local resident's roof. Authorities are uncertain as to why the body was in such a state. With the cause of death also uncertain, police continue to investigate whether the death is an accident or a homicide. A thick fog common to the area has slowed their progress, and plans to fully canvas the area are delayed until tomorrow."

    Nanako frowned as well. "They found her body on a roof? That's scary."

    "Yeah," Shirou agreed. If only I knew about this sooner, maybe I might have stopped it from happening all together… I just hope Dojima-san can find who did this soon. The later parts of the new story were mostly recaps of the scandal again, particularly on theories of Hiiragi's retribution and Namatame's unlikely lucky break from an otherwise unwanted situation and the alibis of the prime suspects. More shameless journalism attempted to keep the story relevant, but all it did was annoy Shirou. I guess the boredom of the town is also alleviated by news media…

    "This is getting boring again," Nanako frowned.

    Shirou was glad that Nanako was mature enough not to fall for the propaganda, though it didn't explain why she would watch it in the first place. The news was normally not something kids her age cared about. He couldn't keep himself from asking.

    "My dad and I always watch the news together. It's the only thing we can watch together." Nanako explained.

    Shirou sensed something about her stressed tone, but said nothing on it. "Well, right now they seem more interested in talking about a dead body and that overdone love scandal story, so it doesn't sound like something a little girl should be hearing, right?"

    "I guess not," Nanako agreed slowly, curious.

    "Also, your father told me he was going to do an all-nighter on this case. He's not going to be back for a while, so why not watch something else in the meantime?"

    Nanako's eyes widened slightly, and turned her head to the clock. She looked slightly anxious for something, but in an instant her gloom returned. "Well… there is one show that's coming on soon. But…"

    The young teen tilted his head in concern. "But what?"

    "You might not like it…" she said sadly. "It's not a show the boys at school like, either."

    "Nonsense," Shirou smiled. "It's your house, and you have seniority rights over me. As long as you're happy, I'm happy. And your father won't even need to know."

    Nanako looked unsure of herself, cutely fiddling with the helm of her dress for a few moments before meekly looking back up at Shirou "…You promise?"

    "I promise."

    And just like that, the little girl started to smile again. She reached for the remote and changed the channel. They caught near the beginning of the Junes commercial playing there.

    "-ry day is Customer Appreciation Day. Come see for yourself, and get in touch with our products! Every day's great at your Junes~!"

    Nanako smiled brighter, and sang the familiar words again. "Every day's great at your Junes~!"

    "You're a good singer, Nanako," Shirou grinned back, happy that her mood was improving so much over these little things.

    Nanako giggled. "Yeah! I'm the best one in the class!"

    "Is that so?"

    The commercial break ended, and Nanako's attention was back to the TV, almost bouncing in her seat. "Oh! It's starting!"

    The show was a foreign cartoon, dubbed over in Japanese. The show's bright colors and cutesy animation went well with the opening tune, and Shirou found it easy to see why Nanako would like the show already. It was definitely aimed at young girls in every sense. The title appeared on screen and Shirou couldn't keep from raising a dubious eyebrow.

    …My Little Pony?

  12. #12
    Chapter 10: The Midnight Channel

    After dinner and Nanako's show, Shirou had one other thing to do before he called it a night. Shirou took a deep breath and picked up the phone. He only needed to wait a few rings before a tired voice greeted him.

    "Hello?"

    "Fuji-nee? Is this a bad-"

    "SHIIIIIIIIROOOOOOU!" the childish teacher yowled at the top of her lungs. Thankfully, Shirou managed to preserve his hearing by jerking the phone away from his ear. Shirou had to switch ears to hear what she said next; her roar had still left his right ear ringing. "Are you okay? Did anything happen? Are you settling in? Do you want to come home?"

    The boy couldn't help but smile at her concern. "I'm doing fine. I had my first day of class today, and I've already met a few people around town. I even managed to get a part-time job-"

    "Shirou…" The Tiger of Fuyuki started reproachfully.

    "I know, I know. This was about connecting with my blood relatives, not taking up time with work and school. It's only part time, and having some extra cash isn't bad while I'm here, right?"

    "That's not as important as spending time with your family." Taiga scolded mildly. "Besides, the news was saying that there was a murder over there. Are you sure you're okay over there?"

    Shirou grimaced. He hoped Taiga hadn't heard about that already. She must have been keeping her ear to the ground about Inaba. "Like you told me, Dojima's a detective. If he didn't think it was safe here, he would tell me. I think I'll be fine as long as I follow the curfew and listen to the police."

    "Please, Shirou, be careful all the same. If you ever feel unsafe, just come home right away," Taiga pleaded far more seriously than normal. Shirou spent a little while simply talking about his time in this new town so far, occasionally having the reassure Taiga yet again that he was indeed fine and that he wasn't out looking for trouble.

    Having said his goodbyes to his guardian, he attempted to call the Matou household, and managed to get a hold of Sakura. "Hello, Sakura. I'm glad I got a hold of you."

    "Senpai?" She breathed a mix of relief and her normal quiet warmth in her voice. "How are you doing?"

    "I'm settling in. It's only been a day, but I think I'll be alright here."

    "That's… that's good senpai. I miss you already," Sakura managed to say, her voice catching.

    Shirou frowned at that. The way the girl made it sound, it was like she wasn't expecting him to come home and that she was miserable without him. "Tell you what: give me another week or so to settle in and learn my way around town, and then I'll see if Dojima-san wouldn't mind having you coming over to visit."

    "Oh! Ah… I would like that, senpai. I'll need to… talk to grandfather first, though." The soft-spoken girl's words trailed off uncomfortably at that, but she brightened when Shirou began describing the quiet town's scenery. Unlike Taiga, Sakura had obviously not heard about the murder, but Shirou quickly ran out of things to say without touching that topic, so he told her goodnight after hearing that Shinji was out, probably with a girl again.

    Once he had hung up, Shirou spent the remainder of the night trying in vain to keep his mind off the murder to no avail. On the plus side, he didn't have another visit to a strange world the moment he closed his eyes like the last few nights…

    -April 13th, School Zone, Morning-

    Shirou walked down the now familiar path to school, trying to forget what happened last night. It wasn't that the show he had watched with Nanako was bad or anything that she feared. The show was well done and definitely entertaining for Nanako, and Shirou was at least able to watch it for her sake. It wasn't even the conversations with Fuji-nee back home.

    No, the strange part was the way last night's dream was influenced by everything: running with Nanako and Dojima through a fog-shrouded Inaba with a pony-riding Taiga hot on their heels and swinging her shinai was just bizarre. At least this time he was sure it was a dream and not a vision like the previous night. This one was appropriately surreal and detached. Still, he couldn't afford to relax while he still had Igor's warning and the… other's 'test'.

    "RUNAWAY BIKE!"

    Jolted from his thoughts, Shirou barely caught the verbal warning and the whirring sound that followed it. He jumped to the side on instinct and watched a black and yellow blur shoot through where he was standing a moment before. The blur kept flying forward without losing speed… right into a trashcan.

    Shirou watched in mute shock as the person's upper body was summarily eaten by someone's upright trashcan before it toppled over with its victim still inside. The only saving grace was that the can was empty, the garbage man having already finished this street barely ten minutes before. Unfortunately for the trapped boy, it wasn't long enough to dissipate the lingering smell inside the can.

    The sight of the student rolling futilely from side to side reminded the redhead of a turtle flipped onto its back. The student's yellow bike skidded to a rough halt further down the road, the crash jarring a few parts loose and sending others visibly bouncing from the bike.

    "S-someone…" the person moaned. "Help me!"

    Shirou didn't even need to be asked, his helpful and generous character kicking in instantly. "Hang in there, I'll help." Taking a firm hold of the trashcan and coordinating their actions clumsily, the two managed to finally sit the trapped student upright and pull the can off his head. The student's brown hair was medium-length and slightly shaggy, made worse by the tumble he had taken. He was dressed in the Yasogami uniform, but he was also wearing large headphones hanging around his neck and the large earpieces resting on his shoulders.

    "Phew! Thanks man, you saved my-" the student stopped, suddenly recognizing the person before him. "Hey, you're the transfer student!"
    Shirou was surprised as well. "And you're… Hanamura, right?"

    "That's me! Yosuke Hanamura!" the auburn haired extended his hand. "Nice to meet you, Shirou Emiya!"

    Shirou nodded and took his hand, pulling upright before bowing slightly in greeting. "Likewise. Sorry about your bike though."

    "What'd you mean about-" Hanamura stopped and turned to it, paling as he saw the handlebars had come completely off the frame: the welding holding the crossbar to the front of the bike had snapped. If he lifted the bike up, the front wheel could slide right out of the frame. "MY BIKE!"

    His earlier good mood was completely destroyed as he cradled the pieces like a fragile toy. "No, no, nononono! Not now! I can't afford to fix you, let alone replace you! I'd been saving for ages to get a motorcycle, and planned to save you until graduation! You can't be totaled now!"

    Hanamura continued his frantic denial-induced rant while Shirou couldn't but help feel for him. He had definitely grown a sort of attachment to his bicycle, and seeing it in a sad state was almost unfair. Looking at the damage… it actually doesn't look that bad, honestly.

    "I can fix that," he said.

    Hanamura stopped, turning to his classmate in surprise and blinking away a few unshed tears. "Wh-what?"

    "I can fix your bike," he said again. "It might take a while, but I think I can make it as good as new." Or better if I can find some stronger metal. Structural Analysis isn't useless if you know what you're looking for.

    "Dude!" Hanamura leaped to his feet and grabbed Shirou's shoulders fiercely and looked him square in the eyes, beaming with gratitude. "You would seriously do that?! You'd so be my hero if you could!"

    Shirou felt his pride swell a bit at being called 'hero'. It was that kind of praise he lived for. "Of course, Hanamura. I'll have it fixed like new before tomorrow."

    "Sweet! Thanks, man! I seriously owe you one!" he smiled; he wasn't asking questions at all and taking his helpful offer at face value. Shirou had no intention of letting him down in the face of that earnest trust.

    Hanamura then glanced at his watch and his eyes widened with horror. "Aw crap, we better get going; class is going to start soon!"

    Yosuke, with some regret, took the front wheel and handlebars while Shirou hauled the rest of the bike frame on his shoulder. Both students were fit enough to run with the extra weight, but it would be close.

    By some miracle, both students managed to sprint their way to Yasogami High before the gates closed, and even managed to beat King Moron to class. Even hauling the broken bike hadn't been enough to hold them back from making it. In Shirou's mind, it was as if some higher power was favoring him this morning.

    <><><>

    -Yasogami School, Lunchtime-

    Shirou Emiya all but bolted from class the moment lunch period started, not that Yosuke could blame him; his ears were still ringing from King Moron's 'philosophy' class. How the spiteful man was still a teacher baffled many students. Some guessed it was because he filled the 'cruelty to students' quota all high schools have by himself, leaving the rest of the faculty to be eccentric in other ways.

    Even if he couldn't get the bike up and fixed in a day like he promised, Yosuke owed it to the transfer student, so Yosuke left in search of his classmate. The least he could do was offer to buy him some steak from Souzai Daigaku. Any guy willing to go out of their way to fix his bike was okay in his book.

    Case in point… when he found Emiya again, he was wheeling his bike into the schoolyard, checking his handiwork with a satisfied smile. Yosuke couldn't help but drop his jaw at the sight: it was like it never crashed at all! He knew there were some tools and stuff out in the practice building, but so fast! Yosuke had all but given up on using his bike for at least a week, and this guy had slapped it back together like magic!

    "Holy crap!" he whooped, rushing over to the bike like it was a new Christmas present. "It looks amazing! I didn't think you would get it done this fast!"

    "How long were you standing there?" Emiya asked quickly. He looked slightly tense; probably from the work he just pulled off. Yosuke guessed that he mistook him for a teacher about to scold him back to the classrooms. With King Moron looming, he couldn't blame him.

    "Just got here," Yosuke shrugged. "I didn't get to see you work, though. How did you do it?"

    Emiya relaxed and grinned. "Trade secret, though it helped I could find everything I needed around here."

    "Phooey."

    With a little trepidation, Yosuke's hands reached the handle bars and turned it left and right. Staying firm so far; that was a good sign. "So, you just moved into this town, right? Think you're adjusted yet?"

    "I'm getting there," Emiya nodded, sighing a bit. "Fuyuki was much bigger than Inaba. The quiet's not too new: the Miyama half of the city was a lot like Inaba, but Shinto was more of a big city. Can't say I was expecting a murder to happen out here, though."

    "Yeah, no kidding," Yosuke nodded. "You heard the news, then? Finding the announcer hanging from an antenna… you think it's some kind of warning?"

    Emiya's eyes narrowed slightly, bunching up in a slight grimace. "Warning?"

    "Well, yeah. I mean, there's no way it could have been an accident. Finding a body up there in the first place is kind of messed up."

    "'Kind of'? Of course it's messed up," Emiya bit out, his grimace growing into a full, angry scowl. "It was a murder. Ms. Yamano is dead. How she got up there or why isn't relevant compared to that. It's not something you gossip about over tea! They need to focus on who did it and find them before someone else gets hurt or worse!"

    Yosuke blinked owlishly. That was… not where he expected the conversation to go. Honestly, now that he thought about it, no one aside from a few creeps claiming that Yamano was their 'soulmate' seemed upset that she was dead and gone. They were more interested in how she died and how strange it was. Yosuke would admit he did kind of get caught up in the idea that something big was going on… but he was still better than most people around town. He wasn't getting all stir crazy and excited because something new was happening in stupid, boring, and good for nothing Inaba.

    "Y-yeah, I guess you're right," he agreed finally. Best for a change of topic… now! "So, you know what our town is best known for?"

    Emiya calmed himself and thought for a moment before answering. "The Amagi Inn?"

    Yosuke cringed: he had forgotten about that place. "Well, yes, there is that, but I was thinking about something else-"

    "Heavy rain, fog and town gossip?" he humored again.

    "Wha-no! I said best known for, not worst!"

    "The skinned rabbit?" Okay: that time was definitely sarcastic.

    "Grilled steak, man!" Yosuke snapped. "Grilled beef steak!"

    "Wait, really?" Emiya tilted his head quizzically. "Isn't that a western dish?"

    "Yeah it is! It's also pretty lame to eat around here, but that's part of the reason why it's so popular! Plus, I know where they sell it for cheap! I owe you one for this, so allow me to pay for you! You know, as thanks for the bike!"

    "You don't have to, though. I do these things all the time-"

    "Then I truly insist!" Yosuke added. "Trust me, it's the least I can do."

    A new voice cut in completely out of the blue, and both boys jumped. "Count me in!"

    Behind Yosuke was a grinning Chie Satonaka, hands in her track jacket pockets. Yosuke scowled slightly. He sometimes felt that the girl instinctively knew when food was being discussed the same way a wolf could smell fresh meat. "I told you I would pay you back later, Satonaka!"

    "And apparently you're paying back Emiya today, when you owed me a new DVD since yesterday." To prove her point, she held out the same DVD case he handed her and waved it in front of his face. "Have you already forgotten about that?"

    "It's not the same!" Yosuke snapped. "Food's cheaper than movies!"

    "So pay me back with food! You said you're getting steak, anyway!" Chie countered, poking the taller boy in the chest with her DVD case for emphasis.

    Yosuke wanted to smack himself for not considering that. That's right; she loves steak… damn it if I had remembered that earlier I would have given her that offer yesterday and saved myself the trouble and the pain!

    Suddenly, he glanced over her shoulder to look for her familiar sweater-wearing friend, but only saw students in their matching uniforms eating lunch. He glanced back to Chie. "Hm? Where's Amagi-san?" Yosuke asked. "It's not often you two aren't together."

    Satonaka frowned. "Yukiko left school early again; the inn's getting a lot of attention lately so they need all the help they can get."

    "Ah, that's right," Yosuke nodded. "The Amagi Inn gets popular this time of year, doesn't it?"

    "Yeah," Chie sulked briefly before giving her taller classmate a smug grin. "Soooooooo, in the meantime, you can make up your debt early by buying me steak after school!"

    The cheerful smile, playful demeanor and jump in her step as she said this did nothing to ease Yosuke's worries… but he knew better than to induce her wrath. His family jewels were still recovering from yesterday… The way Emiya warily looked at her was a nice relief and sign that he wasn't alone in that concern.

    "S-sure," Yosuke nodded. "Though there might be a slight change of plans…" The moment he said that, he felt sweat pour down his body in buckets when her expression shifted to a neutral stare. He hoped to all the gods up there she wasn't planning to kick his ass if he failed to appease her…

    <><><>
    -Junes Department Store, After School-

    Shirou and Chie were obviously surprised when Yosuke led them to Junes, though it wasn't a pleasant one for the girl. After an elevator ride up to the rooftop food court, Yosuke ordered for them, although it wasn't what he had planned initially. Shirou didn't seem to mind but Chie…

    "Hanamura," the kung-fu maniac started calmly. "You said there'd be steak."

    "I did say I was going to offer Emiya some, yeah," he explained.

    "What I'm seeing is not steak," she stressed, still staring at the plate consisting of marinated tsukune topped with fries. A part of her hoped that if she stared at it long enough, it would spontaneously turn into her beloved dish.

    "Well, I could have afforded one steak from Souzai Daigaku, so I had to change plans when you jumped on the freeloader train," Hanamura pointed out with a scowl.

    "It's bad enough that you had to take us to your place, but Junes couldn't even add steak to their menu?!" the tomboy snapped.

    "First of all, Junes' food court is getting by enough without selling steak," he countered. "And second of all, it's not my place!"

    "Do you work here, then?" Shirou interjected, having been snacking on the food in front of him absently.

    "Sometimes," the taller teen shrugged. "My family moved here from another city six months ago, like you. Inaba happened to be the new location for Junes to branch out to, and my dad was assigned as manager. Dad has me working part-time a few days a week."

    The way his classmate said that made Shirou curious. "That's a good thing, right?"

    "For his family, it might be," Chie answered. "Before Junes, Inaba had a very popular shopping district, but all the places have been closing down. I mean, stores like Marukyu Tofu and Tatsumi Textiles are holding out okay, but about half of the others lost business and, well…"

    The implication was obvious: ever since Junes had opened, business at the local and family-run stores was dying a slow death. As a regular to Junes, Chie had the decency to feel some shame at her contribution to that. Yosuke on the other hand tried to look disinterested in the matter, as though it wasn't his problem regardless of what people said behind his back. Shirou was probably still ignorant of Yosuke's position in town, but with the way rumors and gossiping run, he'd hear about it within the week.

    Hanamura's mood brightened instantly when he noticed a female Junes employee with wavy blond hair walk into the food court and slump into a seat a few tables over. "Ah, Saki-senpai! Be right back guys!"

    Without looking back, he sprinted over to the girl and both slipped into light-hearted gossip. Shirou turned to the brunette for an explanation. "Who's that?"

    "That's Saki Konishi, a 3rd year student at Yasogami. Her family runs the liquor store at the shopping district… I think she works here part time though."

    "Hanamura seems very friendly with her. Are they close?" the redhead asked, glancing back at the conversation.

    Chie smirked. "Oh, doesn't he wish…"

    Before Shirou could inquire further, Hanamura and Konishi walked over to their table, with the former making introductions. "You've already met Satonaka, but here's my new buddy Shirou Emiya. Emiya, this is my co-worker Saki Konishi."

    "Oh, the transfer student, right?" Saki said with a tired but gentle smile. "It must be nice to have someone else from the big city to talk to, huh? Hana-chan here doesn't have many friends, nor does he hang out with others."

    Hanamura visibly flinched at the implied insult. "Th-that's not really-"

    "Hana-chan's a good guy," Saki continued, a touch of mischief coming to her smile. "But he can get nosy sometimes. You gotta tell him right to his face when he starts to annoy you. Other than that, I hope you get along with him."

    "He's not that bad," Emiya replied with a shake of his head. "Hanamura's a good person."

    At once, Yosuke visibly relaxed at the compliment while Saki's smile widened a fraction. "Oh, I know, I was just kidding."

    "S-senpai, that wasn't really funny you know!" Yosuke groused.

    Turning to leave, Saki Konishi either didn't hear what Yosuke said or didn't care, waving back to the table. "Well, break's almost over, so I better get back to work. Later!"

    "Oh, uh, senpai!" Yosuke tried calling out to her again, but to no avail. With a slight sigh, he sank back into his seat.

    "Is Konishi-san alright?" Emiya asked. "She looked worn out."

    Yosuke shrugged. "I tried asking her about that, but she wouldn't tell me aside from saying she was tired. She treats me the same as her little brother, so she wouldn't want to tell me what's up, I guess."

    With a catlike smile, Satonaka mock swooned. "Ohhh, you don't want her treating you like a brother, huh? I thought as such; the daughter of a local family-run liquor store and the scion of the invading chain… The flame of forbidden love!"

    "Dude, it's not like that!" Hanamura snapped with a hint of a blush.

    Satisfied she had embarrassed her classmate enough for now, Satonaka finally cut him a break and changed the subject. "Oh, really? Well, I have just the thing for that troubled heart! Have you guys heard about the Midnight Channel?"

    Both of them looked at her with (in her opinion) lackluster reactions; Hanamura was somewhere between bored and annoyed, while Emiya looked startled but not in the same way she expected. While not the same look of confused interest she wanted, they were listening. "You're supposed to look into a TV that's switched off, alone, exactly at midnight on a rainy night. While you're staring at your own image, another person will appear on the screen, and they say that person's your soulmate."

    "You actually believe that childish garbage?" the shaggy-haired Hanamura frowned.

    "What do you mean childish?!" Satonaka snapped. "Don't you believe it too? Or want to?"

    "Of course not, but I guess I can see why you would be into it. Ironically, it's your problem of why you can't get a boyfriend," Hanamura needled with a smirk.

    "Wh-wh-what was that?!" the girl seethed darkly, glaring at Hanamura as he innocently looked away. Flashes of Satonaka's lightning-fast kick to the groin had Shirou paling, but he said nothing. Hanamura was digging himself a hole; if it set Satonaka off, it was his own fault. Though he was interested in what the headphone teen was implying, since she had said she didn't actively look for a boyfriend…

    "I mean, using a rumor to find your soulmate could solve that problem, but your best bet of finding someone would be fresh meat like Emiya-san right here," Hanamura elaborated.

    Shirou stiffened at his sudden inclusion. "Wait, what? I think I missed something here."

    Chie's expression just grew sinister, grinding her teeth together and clenching her fists. A popped vein at the side of her forehead was starting to beat repeatedly like a drum.

    Still not bothering to look at the girl, Yosuke continued with a smug grin, "And he'd have to be an idiot to even conside-"
    CRUNCH.
    "-OOOOH GOD!"

    "Say that again to my face! I dare you!" Chie growled dangerously.

    "I-I'm sorry! I said too much! Mercy! Mercy!"

    Shirou didn't know what his green-clad classmate was doing exactly, but he wasn't sure he wanted to find out. Considering her ruthless treatment of Hanamura just yesterday, his imagination filled in the blanks. As it was, she was simply grinding her heel into Hanamura's foot after drop-kicking it.

    When she was satisfied with Hanamura's pain, Chie relaxed and continued her story. "Anyway, I checked the weather report and it says it's raining tonight, so if you two can, try it out tonight! What have you got to lose?"

    "Possibly a good amount of sleep, especially if we're to face another King Moron lecture tomorrow," Yosuke answered blithely. The girl's annoyed glare kept him from saying anything more.

    "This isn't the first time I heard of this rumor," Shirou admitted. "But I guess it wouldn't hurt to try it out." It was also his first chance to figure out if this was somehow tied to Igor and whatever fog-shrouded world he had visited.

    Chie smiled. "That's the spirit, Emiya!"

    "Besides," he added. "It's arguably better than what's been going off in the news lately."

    "Speaking of which, what do you two think of the 'incident' yesterday? Was it really murder?" Yosuke's smile started to look sinister. "What if the culprit is under our very noses? Hehehehehe-he…"

    His laugh lost effect when seeing how they reacted. Chie sighed to herself and ate what was left of her food. The redhead, on the other hand, twitched once and his expression darkened noticeably. Yosuke took that as his cue to drop the subject, and Chie decided not to pry. He probably heard enough about the case from his uncle, the detective.

    In his mind, Shirou was fuming. He talks down a rumor he's never even proven himself before, yet gets all excited talking about the murders like the news media does. Now who's acting childish?

    <><><>
    -Dojima Residence, Evening-

    After finishing his meal with Satonaka and Hanamura and parting ways, Shirou lingered to buy groceries with the spending money Fuji-nee left him as one of her going-away presents. He still had to watch his spending though; the Dojima's weren't broke, but they weren't living the high life, either. There wasn't enough space for him to stock up the same way he could back home, especially since the family had their own snacks and ingredients to store.

    In hindsight, it was a good thing that Shirou had gone to Junes; their grocery selection was second to none for a single store. Even if Fuyuki could compare: you couldn't find this much all in one spot. There were certainly perks to having a large department store in a small rural town, and Shirou saw no reason to scorn any of it.

    Speaking of space, he still hadn't figured out what to do in the weekend considering a makeshift workshop. The Dojima house didn't have the necessary space or privacy even an amateur required. Shirou's room didn't have a lock, and he lacked the skill in hypnosis and Bounded Fields to prevent someone from finding out if he worked on his magic inside the actual house. There wasn't a convenient storage shed, either. As it was, his training would be extremely limited until he found or built a suitable place away from prying eyes.

    Thankfully, he had long grown past the need to scream or thrash when making his Magic Circuit. He could probably get away with that much if he waited for Nanako and Dojima-san to fall asleep.

    The need to keep his magic under wraps was one of the main reasons he fixed Hanamura's bike early. He needed to find the best points to make his repairs with Structural Analysis repeatedly, and even that innocuous spell was more magic than normal people should ever see in their lifetimes. Better to do it when everyone was distracted rather than risk someone stumbling on him working later.

    When he got home, he took command of the kitchen and got right to work. Dinner tonight would be fried chicken with soy sauce, miso soup and rice. He hadn't asked Nanako what her favorite food was yet, but she seemed receptive enough of his choice. In fact, she was pleasantly surprised by the taste and thanked him in her shy way. Unfortunately, it was another night without Dojima... it felt disturbingly like looking in a mirror whenever he saw her downcast like that.

    I was always upset whenever my old man left home on random occasions. He never even said what it was for or how long he would be gone, but it was always over a month. Nanako at least knows her dad's still in town and that he comes home every day, if only to sleep and leave early the next morning. Not that it makes it any easier for a child… poor Nanako.

    "Your dad will be home before you know it. Don't worry." Shirou attempted to comfort the little girl. Nanako simply nodded slowly and continued to eat in silence.

    The silence, and Nanako's mood, were both broken by the sound of the front door sliding open. "Oh! He's home!" she chirped.

    Ryotaro Dojima waded in to the living room and all but collapsed onto the couch. "Whew… what a day…" he sighed raggedly.

    "You were late again," Nanako frowned.

    "Are you alright?" Shirou asked.

    "Sorry; been busy at work with the new case. Turn on the news for me, will you?" Dojima asked softly, sounding even more exhausted than he looked.

    Nanako nodded and clicked the remote just in time for a new story to appear on the newscast. "Next, more details in the developing story on the incident in foggy Inaba. Announcer Mayumi Yamano's dead body was found hanging above a house in this isolated rural town. It is confirmed that Ms. Yamano had been involved in an affair with Taro Namatame, husband of enka singer Misuzu Hiiragi."

    "Are they seriously still going over this?" Shirou frowned. "I thought they had explained all that last night."

    "Sometimes people just want to know everything," Dojima answered drearily, "even when it's not important. I'm pretty sure you know by now, but this town doesn't have much going for itself, and everyone here loves to gossip."

    "The police plan to investigate this relationship and question any personnel involved with them. In addition, we now bring you an exclusive interview with the local student who found Ms. Yamano's body."

    "An interview with a kid?" Dojima frowned. "Where did they find her?"

    The screen changed to a reporter on the scene with a female student with blond hair. Her face was blurred and the camera tilted to show the bottom half of her face and shoulders. The reporter next to her sounded far too excited and did nothing but make his subject even more nervous.

    "What went through your mind when you saw it? Could you tell she was dead? Did you see her face?" the reporter fired question after question, barely giving the girl time to breathe between them.

    "U-Umm…" Her voice was distorted and face was blurry to keep her identity hidden. At least the news media cared that much for her privacy…

    "Don't you think it's scary that someone was killed on a foggy day?"

    "Huh…? She was killed?"

    The interview, if it could be called that, kept going back and forth with the reporter trying to engage conversation. He could only get so much from the student, who answered back with halfhearted remarks like she was distracted. Nanako looked to where her cousin was sitting, watching Shirou's face war somewhere between realization and anger. "What's wrong?" she asked timidly.

    "I… think I recognize that student," Shirou admitted. "I met with her just today while at Junes-"

    "You were at Junes?!"

    Shirou and Dojima both jumped at Nanako's shrill cry. Even the little girl felt embarrassed of her outburst and forced herself to regain composure. She couldn't help but to pout at the end, though. "No fair…"

    Remembering how much she loved the song, Shirou realized she always wanted to go herself. "I can take you sometime if you like," he offered.

    Nanako looked back at him with wide eyes. "R-really? I can go?"

    "Of course," Shirou nodded. "There's no real age limit to who can or can't go, last I checked. Every day's Customer Appreciation Day over there, after all."

    Feeling excited already, she turned to her father for his answer. "Hey dad, can all three of us go?!"

    "Hahaha, sure, sure," Dojima laughed tiredly. "When we have time. But keep it down for right now; I'm trying to listen to this."

    The interview was fortunately done, moving back to the anchorman in the studio. "-A tragedy that occurred near the shopping district. Many storeowners are raising concerns about losing customers as a result…"

    "Perhaps if you didn't constantly talk about the murder that happened it wouldn't affect things there…" Shirou bitterly remarked.

    Dojima let out a small chuckle from his head. "Oh, if only…"

    "It really is a bizarre case, isn't it?" A commenter added. "I mean, hanging someone upside down from an antenna… I'd have to say it's a warning or a sign from the culprit."

    Shirou's frown grew; those were almost the same exact words Hanamura had told him back at school.

    "Yes," said the announcer. "But so far, no one has come forward to take credit for the crime."

    "So the cause of death is still unknown? And they don't have a single suspect yet? Taxpayers' funds are going to a police force who can't even figure out if this is an accident or a homicide?"

    Dojima said nothing to that. Surprised that the badmouthing wasn't even so much as getting a grumble from him, Shirou looked back to find that the hardened detective had nodded off completely. Shirou wanted to trust his uncle in handling the situation, but he was starting to realize that maybe this wasn't such a simple murder case, bystanders' reactions notwithstanding.

    He focused on his dinner again, hoping to put this long day behind him. The first two days I'm here and I walked right in the middle of a murder mystery happening practically across the street. I hope they get a suspect soon…

    He pushed down the urge to start hunting the villain down right away, knowing that Dojima wouldn't stand for it and he didn't know where to start looking, let alone how to go about catching the killer.
    <><><>

    In his dark room, Shirou peeked out through the window curtains. Inaba's rain was rather chilling to watch at night now that he took the time to look. Black clouds loomed overhead, rain falling and pelting the rooftops in a steady drone, the water distorting every light source and giving the night a hazy air… yet it was easy to drown out the sound from within his room. He probably wouldn't even notice had he looked outside.

    "Well, it's definitely the right weather for it," the red-haired teen said, letting the curtain close. Turning around, he walked to the front of the TV. The clock on his wall read one minute to midnight. The monochrome clicking of the clock was loud and heart-pounding… almost taunting him with its rhythm.

    "Am I really doing this?" he asked himself a touch incredulously. It was one thing to hear a silly urban rumor from Nami-san, a gas attendant. But from Satonaka, a high school student, as well? Was it really that popular? "I never even got to ask them where they got this crazy idea in the first-"
    The minute hand clicked into a new position. Midnight.

    Turning to the TV, Shirou stared at his reflection, almost ready to laugh it off as a silly concept, when the TV released a blue glow and a warping whine like the reception was poor.

    Shirou gasped; he couldn't quite see what was going on, but he could see flashes of images flicker in the pale blue screen. It was too quick to see but… he thought the person being seen in the TV –a young girl– looked familiar.

    "I art thou…"

    Wh-what-?

    "Thou art I… Thou art one who opens the door…"

    Shirou all but ground his teeth together and tried to breathe deeply. It was impossible to focus: a familiar ringing was going off in his head. The pain alone was enough to force him down to his knees and bite back a scream of agony. The pressure, pain, and ringing wouldn't stop though. If anything, it was reaching a crescendo loud enough to make him want to beat himself unconscious to just shut out the infernal shriek.
    And yet it finally faded to nothing after what seemed to be an eternity… or at least a full minute. He stared at the TV in front of him, now blank and off. The clock in his room read 12:01; the time window for the Midnight Channel was quite short indeed.

    But… "opens the door"… does it mean… the TV?

    It was crazy, but what else could that voice mean? It spoke up just as the channel went on, as if reacting to the weird magecraft that had to be involved. It was magecraft that had happened, right? It had to be…

    Against his better judgment, and almost like it was a compulsion, Shirou reached his hand out to touch the TV. Not a moment later, he found it seeping through the surface, leaving the glass rippling like water around his fingers.

    "Wh-what the-AAHH!"

    Without warning, his hand was forcefully pulled in. His body slammed against the TV stand shoulder-deep, the screen too small to drag him in any deeper, yet he could still feel an immense pull trying to suck him in completely. With a heave and a surge of prana through his Magic Circuit, Shirou kicked himself free with a surge of Reinforced strength …

    …hard enough to fly clear of the TV stand, lose his balance and slam the back of his head on the edge of the table behind him. Forcing himself upright, he rubbed his head gingerly, pain blasting through his skull. "O-ow…"

    When he had regained control of his breathing, Shirou stared between his hand and the now blank TV screen. His mind was reeling with the impossibility of what had just occurred, but the paranoia all magi shared gave him a sinking feeling that it was all connected to the rumors and the recent death that had happened in Inaba.

    "Just what the hell is going on…?" he asked aloud, to no one in particular.

    One thing's for sure… no one would ever believe me if I told them that I was almost eaten by my own TV…

    - - - Updated - - -

    Chapter 11: Backside of the TV
    -April 14th, Yasogami High School-

    By this point, Shirou was finding out that the small town of Inaba was far stranger than his hometown. Even if you took out the obviously supernatural aspects, the people here were much different than the citizens of Fuyuki. He doubted he would go a single day without being surprised by something.

    Case in point, his history teacher Ms. Sofue insisted on carrying a shortened shepherd's crook and wearing an Egyptian headdress throughout the lesson.

    That said; he wasn't surprised by the discussion that happened the moment students started gossiping. Rumor had it that the person who had found Ms. Yamano's body was none other than Saki Konishi.

    So much for the media protecting her privacy, he mentally snorted.

    He spent more time thinking about the Midnight Channel than the lectures at times, and when Satonaka and Hanamura joined him at his desk when school got out, Shirou dreaded the inevitable conversation.

    "Yo, Emiya," Hanamura greeted with a half-grin.

    "Did you both remember to watch it?" Satonaka asked immediately, though a tinge of nervousness was in her voice.

    "Yeah, of course! Still can't believe it works… freaky stuff. What did you see, Emiya?"

    Shirou nearly gulped audibly in front of the others, but fought it down. "N-nothing," he said. "Nothing at all."

    Both students looked surprised yet unconvinced. "Nothing?" Satonaka prodded while quirking an eyebrow.

    "I… can't quite remember," he admitted. Truthfully, who he saw in the TV took a backseat to the fact that the screen tried to drag him into it. And what he saw on the screen, or rather did to the screen, was pure magecraft. He couldn't tell them about it even if he wanted to.

    "Can't remember…" Hanamura started coyly, "Or don't want to?"

    Shirou blinked. "What's that supposed to mean?"

    "You tell us, Emiya," Satonaka shrugged, a cat-like smirk working its way onto her face. "We can't be too sure if you really did it or not if you don't fess up."

    "Maybe he saw a hot girl and is too shy to admit who?" Hanamura guessed as he threw the transfer student a cheeky grin.

    "Or maybe it was a teacher!" Satonaka added. "Why, that would put the Ms. Yamano scandal to shame in comparison!"

    "Guys," Shirou sighed, not liking being teased over something like this.

    "Or even worse," Hanamura grinned. "He saw an ugly old dude and is ashamed of it!"

    "Oh the horror!"

    Remembering Nami, Shirou suddenly had an idea, and he narrowed his eyes in a glare. "That's a bit presumptuous, don't you think?"

    Both Hanamura and Satonaka blinked at him. "H-huh? What you mean?" Truthfully, the intensity Shirou could put behind his eyes was rather unnerving.

    "Who's to say the 'ugly old dude' was you, Hanamura, and I was merely keeping my peace to spare my humiliation… and yours?"

    The two of them were silent. Satonaka stared blankly between both bright-haired students while Hanamura paled as if walking through death's door.

    Shirou's glare held for all of fifteen seconds before the façade cracked. "…Pfft-! Hahahahaha!" Watching his classmates all but shut down at his implications, Shirou couldn't help but laugh, knowing the relief would make them all but forget about interrogating him further.

    They both caught on right away and Satonaka quickly joined in with a full belly laugh. "Ahahahaha! Good one Emiya! Oh man, Hanamura's face. BWAHAHAHAHAHA!"

    For his part, Hanamura tried to let out a chuckle, but ultimately the headphone-wearing student couldn't get out more than a stilted wheeze. "Heheheh… heh… you guys suck."

    For Shirou, his thoughts sped along even as he tried to keep his classmates distracted. What did it mean that he could place his hand into the TV? It was shocking enough for him that the Midnight Channel even existed; adding another aspect to the story would only make matters worse for anyone following the rumor. Truthfully, the magus-in-training still wasn't even sure the last bit really happened. It could have all been a dream.
    It didn't look like the other two heard any strange voices or were pulled into their TV sets, either. He kind of doubted that the rumor mill would miss something like that. Perhaps these two heard voices as well and were questioning the reality of it like he was. No one wanted to come off as going insane, and Shirou hadn't felt like himself when it was happening.

    When Hanamura finally got around to describing his experience with the rumored Channel, both Shirou and Satonaka gaped. His description of the girl jogged Shirou's memory, and Satonaka gawked as her own memories confirmed the image.

    "Wait, that sounds familiar. That was the same girl I saw… I think," Shirou said, dropping into deep thought.

    "But if we all saw the same person, does that mean we all have the same soulmate?" Satonaka sounded scandalized by the notion.

    Shirou couldn't blame her; he would have been uneasy if his supposed soulmate was a guy, let alone shared by multiple people. "I don't think so. Just because there's truth behind the rumor doesn't make the whole rumor true," he speculated out loud.

    Hanamura dropped himself lazily into his chair. "Emiya's got a point. Maybe we're not seeing our soulmate, just someone random?"

    "That's no fun!" Satonaka pouted slightly at that. Despite her assertion, it was more likely than the Midnight Channel being anything like a modern mystic matchmaker. She suddenly perked, remembering something. "Speaking of TVs, our family's been looking at upgrading."

    Just as suddenly, Shirou perked, his interest piqued. If her family's TV was broken, perhaps he could take it off their hands for cheap. His shed back home was filled with random junk along those lines, and trying to repair them with the aid of magic was good practice for both his mundane and magical skills.

    Admittedly, the lack of space for a proper Workshop at the Dojima home would make things more difficult, but Shirou hoped to gather one or two appliances to tinker with all the same. Truthfully, Shirou was starting to realize that he had been a little spoiled for space and storage on his father's estate.

    Now back in tune with the conversation, Shirou focused on Hanamura's reply. "That right? We just got some of the new flatscreen models. Want to take a look on the way back?"

    "Yeah! My family doesn't know a thing about electronics, and I just gotta see my kung-fu movies on the big screen!" Satonaka's enthusiasm for her movies would be cute if it weren't for the fact that she apparently practiced what she watched. She even struck a stance in her excitement. "You want to come, Emiya?"

    "To Junes, right? Sure. I can do some shopping for dinner while I'm there." If nothing else it would give him the chance to snag any specialty items and widen his options in the kitchen. Cooking was one of the skills he was proud to have, and having people appreciate it always brought him joy.

    <><><>

    -Junes, Electronics Department, After School-

    Junes was an increasingly common department store throughout Japan, famed for selling at least average products and usually good quality ones at reasonable prices. Their penchant for making massive stores and having a little bit of just about everything in them from fresh produce and meats to clothes and toys made them popular one-stop shops, even if their variety in the departments was rather limited compared to specialty stores. Electronics were no exception.

    But…

    "Whoa, this is huge!"

    …why would anyone need a TV this big? Stand it up on some legs and it could be used a replacement for the Dojima family's dinner table. If you laid this monster flat on the floor, I'm pretty sure Nanako could sleep on it with room to spare!

    Staring at the monstrous TV serving as the centerpiece for the TV section, Shirou couldn't help but gape. He and Satonaka both nearly choked on air after they read the price tag, too. The redhead honestly didn't think anyone in Inaba could reasonably afford the behemoth. As it stood, it was going to just sit there forever as a pretty display piece.

    "Not exactly in my family's budget." Shirou all but gagged. "If by some miracle we could afford it, I don't think we'd ever use it for fear of breaking it."

    "Yeah, that's way too many zeroes, Hanamura." Satonaka added. "Got anything cheaper?"

    Hanamura just laughed and led her to another, notably smaller TV. He cleared his throat and started to talk like a stereotypical salesman, grinning all the while. "Well, Miss, might I interest you in this one here? It's our newest model, just released this spring…"

    While Hanamura attempted his sales pitch, Shirou mindlessly tuned him out and turned back to the giant screen before him. Last night's events were still hazy to him, and part of him desperately hoped that his experience with the TV was just a dream.

    He took one last glance at his classmates and scanned for passing clerks. For the moment, they were alone in the department. Maybe it was the uncertainty getting to him, perhaps he was under the influence of extremely potent but subtle magecraft, or maybe he was just feeling a little crazy. Regardless of the reason, Shirou found himself reaching out to the screen.

    As a magus, he knew he should have waited to try something like this from the safety and seclusion of his Workshop, but he didn't have one. Even if he did, he lacked the skill to set up the numerous standard defenses associated with such a sanctuary. The only thing that Shirou was certain of was that he had this gnawing need to know the truth of what happened last night.

    Just a tap. Timidly, he poked the screen.

    His finger only met cool, solid glass. Encouraged, he pushed the screen very lightly with all of his fingers, and found the piece solid and unyielding.
    Releasing the breath he hadn't realized he was holding, Shirou felt the tension that had been gnawing at him melt from his shoulders…

    "Eh!?"

    His mind froze. The moment he had relaxed, the solid barrier between him and whatever space beyond the screen seemingly vanished and his hand passed clear through.

    Just like last night, the glass had faint ripples of light emanating from where his hand disappeared through what had been a solid barrier a second ago. Unlike the powerful pull from before though, there was instead a gentle tug, just enough to keep him from pulling his arm out without a fight.

    "By the way Emiya, what kind… of… T…" Hanamura's voice trailed off, and Shirou turned to find both of his classmates staring at him speechless.
    Shit.

    Hanamura was the first to regain his voice. "Is- is his arm… in the TV?"

    Both jogged over to him even as Shirou tried to pull his arm out. The gentle tug from within turned out to be quite deceptive: while it wasn't trying to pull him in all that strongly, it was doing a fine job of keeping him from pulling his arm out. He wasn't about to try using his other hand as leverage or pull too hard lest he might unbalance the whole set on top of his head.

    Now Shirou was starting to sweat. Magecraft of any kind was never supposed to be seen by anyone who wasn't a magus or a part of their world, and now two ordinary people were witnessing unknown magic with no one around who could make them forget it. Shirou, not for the first time, wished his father had taught him more or that he had more talent in hypnotism.

    "Whoa… You gotta be kidding me! How did you do that?" Satonaka gaped as she tried to peek behind the TV, gawking that Shirou's hand wasn't behind the giant TV.

    "You mean this isn't a standard feature?" the trapped teen tried hopelessly.

    "No way, man. That is some magic trick! What's your secret, Emiya?" Hanamura almost stuttered as he quickly scanned the department.

    Shirou started to panic. The last thing they needed was for him to rush off looking for help. "How should I know? I'm not even using my magic circuits!" he blurted out.

    He immediately felt like punching himself for that. There was pretty much no way to salvage the situation as it stood now. The best he could hope for was that his words would be taken as a lighthearted joke.

    Both of his classmates looked even more confused; an impressive feat. "Wh-what?"

    The redhead released a calming breath, for what little good it did. "Forget it. Help me out here, I'm a little stuck."

    "How can you be stuck?" Satonaka asked, doing an admirable job of keeping her voice down in spite of her frantic energy making her twitchy. "And what's this about circuits?"

    Hanamura then began to dance around in a telling manner that any human could easily recognize. "Aw man, this is too much for my bladder!"

    "You can't be serious," Shirou deadpanned. "Didn't we pass a restroom on the way here?" More importantly to him, he was still stuck doing something impossible by normal humans and needed them to stay focused if he planned to get out of this.

    "Hey, I didn't exactly expect to see you- Shit! Customers!"

    Damn, damn, damn, damn!

    "Hurry up and pull me out!" Shirou hissed urgently, fighting to keep his panic in check and losing. On the other side of the TV, his fingers clenched and unclenched, finding nothing to leverage his hand against.

    His two classmates were too panicked to think straight and ran about the area for a few seconds like headless chickens. Then, without warning, both slammed into Shirou hard enough to make them all tumble-

    "W-Whoooooa!"

    -right into the TV screen.

    The moment the magus-in-training lost his balance, the TV seemed to eagerly grab a hold of them and pulled, taking all three of them through an oddly spacious white zone.

    There was no way to tell where they were going; there was no difference in any direction aside from a pull towards what was assumed was down. Black rectangles framed as they fell like they were tumbling through a tunnel.

    They could not have fallen for more than a few seconds before the sea of white parted, dropping them all into a sea of fog.

    <><><>

    -???-

    The three students found the ground beneath them too suddenly to do more than grunt in pain and flop onto their backs when they hit. Shirou shrugged off the rough landing easily enough. Compared to making a Magic Circuit, a little impact like that wasn't even worth addressing. "Is everyone alright?" he called, sweeping his eyes around cautiously.

    He couldn't see much. The air was cool and slightly clammy, but not outright uncomfortable. It reminded the magus of the brisk fall mornings back home when he thought about it. No, the strangeness came from the blanket of fog that smothered everything. Shirou couldn't see more than half a dozen meters in any direction. In spite of the golden light trying to pierce the fog from what looked like spotlights hanging overhead, everything was covered in a dull gray haze.

    After scanning the space for threats briefly, Shirou paused, his eyes darting from side to side. He wondered if he had hit his head; the edges of his vision were colored a little strangely and fuzzy in a way that looked vaguely familiar.

    Is is... Static?

    "We're alive… I think…" Satonaka replied.

    "I think my butt's cracked," Hanamura groaned. Neither Satonaka nor Shirou were amused by the attempt at levity.

    The three stayed close and tried to get a look around. More details slowly came into view as their vision adjusted to the strange half-light. The spotlights overhead were all attached to complex scaffolding, wires twining in bundles through the metal framework. Between the lights and the color of the paint on the walls, the stage they were standing on was surrounded by an eerie yellow glow through the fog.

    "Where are we? Is there a studio like this in Inaba that you two know of?" Shirou asked. He honestly doubted this was anything mundane, but he had to be sure.

    "Hell no. But look at this place… it's huge." Hanamura muttered.

    "Yeah… and what's with this fog? Or is it smoke?" Satonaka added.

    "It's fog." Shirou confirmed with absolute certainty. Fire and smoke were Shirou's earliest memories and filled his nightmares. He knew smoke when he smelled it. "Come on, we need to find an exit. Stay close."

    Despite his sure tone and the way his classmates followed his advice, Shirou never saw himself as a leader. If anything, his penchant for helping people meant he was far more used to following directions than giving them. However, as the only one with any experience with magecraft among them, Shirou felt it was necessary for him to put what experience he had to use. He would bet the Emiya estate that magic was behind this.

    More importantly, I need to take the lead for their protection. I can't abandon my classmates to their own devices here.

    Shirou glanced back at his classmates, confirming that he was the most level-headed one present. Satonaka was on the verge of breaking down, the disorientation and impossibility of what was happening was already getting to her, and Hanamura, though showing less outward signs was still undoubtedly close to a panic attack.

    "Is there really a way out of here?" the kung-fu fan murmured as she caught up to the magus.

    "There has to be," Hanamura affirmed. "If there's a way in, there's a way out. Let's just cross our fingers."

    Shirou bit back the urge to correct him. If they really were inside a Bounded Field like he feared, escape may genuinely be impossible without outside interference. Regardless, the place was enormous: if this was a bounded field, it was far and away the largest example he had ever seen or heard about.

    Though, what he had seen and heard on the subject didn't amount to much. His father had told him about the possible scales Bounded Fields could work at, but the only one Shirou had any exposure to was the alarm array that surrounded the estate.

    They trio walked cautiously for a long time, their steps slow and careful. So far, the only thing of note they found was that Shirou could see the furthest through the fog, though that wasn't saying much. Twice Shirou had to pause and let them catch up when he drifted a few meters ahead and they lost sight of him completely. Shirou silently guessed that his innate magical abilities were the cause of that.

    Now that they were moving, Shirou noticed that the air was absolutely brimming with mana. It was almost dizzying how much magical power seethed through the air, creating a sensation not unlike extremely strong spice in his nose. Any magus with real skill would thrive in this place. Unfortunately, the teen's lacking magical education meant he had little to no idea how to take advantage of this energy, let alone have any ways to use it that could help them escape.

    Somewhere along the way, they realized that they had left the studio at some point. Now it looked like they were walking across a raised walkway. "Anything here ring any bells?" Shirou asked.

    Hanamura leaned over the side of the railing next to them and clucked his tongue. "Not really. We're in some kind of building but… I can't see a thing out there. This damn fog's too thick."

    "Are you sure we're not just wandering farther away?" Satonaka asked, her voice uncharacteristically shaky, not that anyone could blame her. Hanamura's knees were practically knocking together.

    "We can try doubling back, but there's no guarantee we'll be any better off," Shirou explained. "As long as we keep track of which direction we're moving at all times we should be alright. Why don't we go this way for a little longer before trying another direction?"

    Hanamura nodded. "Alright, lead on."

    None of them could tell how long they continued through the fog before they entered a new room that suddenly seemed to form around them, thankfully filled with less fog. Briefly, hope flared in Shirou's chest before he realized the room had no exit; they were no closer to escaping than before.

    The room actually looked… vaguely familiar to Shirou. Unlike the studio, this place looked ordinary. Then it hit him.

    It looked like a room from his house, a traditional Japanese room with the addition of a low bed. There was a bookshelf on the far side of the room, magazines and books mixed together. The potted plant looked jarringly out of place, the hazy atmosphere tainting whatever color it might have added to the room with a sickly pall.

    "No reception. What a surprise," Hanamura groaned as he flipped his phone shut. Shirou and Satonaka checked theirs and found the same thing.

    "What's with this room?" the tomboy finally asked as she circled the room's perimeter. She was looking pale, her normally outgoing posture hunched inward timidly as she focused on something behind the boys.

    Shirou turned quickly, half expecting an attacker, but what greeted him was disturbing enough. Hanamura was fidgeting as he looked up at the light fixture overhead. Or more accurately, what was hanging from it: a noose made of a length of rope and a scarf. A chair sat beneath it. Wait, was that even there a second ago?!

    "This arrangement is never a good sign," Hanamura asserted shakily.

    Two of the walls were covered in posters and colored splotches of what looked pink and red paint. While the boys walked closer to them, Satonaka was inching her way back to the door.

    "Check out these posters," he added. "They're all missing their faces."

    "You're right. Who do you think this is?" the magus wondered. The posters were all over the place. Some were obscured by paint; others had simply been cut out, while others…

    …others looked like they were slashed by large claws.

    "Who cares?!" Satonaka finally snapped, stomping her foot to drive her point home. The hollow thump from that nearly gave her classmates heart attacks. "Why the hell do you guys want to play detective all of the sudden?! Let's just turn around and go back; I'm sick of this place!"

    "No arguments here. I still need to find a bathroom!"

    With a roll of his eyes, Shirou nodded and peeked out of the room, dubbing it clear before stepping out. Despite his classmates desperately wanting to go, Shirou refused to rush into the fog, keeping himself on point as they backtracked their way to the studio where they started.
    When they finally made it back to that bizarre studio, Shirou took a good look at his classmates. "Are you two alright? You're both looking pale." He himself had a slight headache. The disorientation from the fog, the persistent static at the edges of his vision and the mana-heavy air were all to blame, but Shirou ignored them all in favor of his companions. The best he could do for himself right now was take note of his condition and watch for if his symptoms got any worse.

    "Now that you mention it, I'm not feeling too hot," Hanamura admitted.

    "My body does feel heavy…" Satonaka mumbled. However, she saw something out of the corner of her eye and pointed to Shirou's left. "Wait, what's that?"

    "Oh, what now?" Hanamura whined.

    Considering his upbringing as a magus, Shirou thought he was prepared for whatever monstrous denizens inhabited this foggy place. He recalled his father's stories of the paranormal and the horrors that hid themselves in the shadows - magus bedtime stories, really. He was expecting animated corpses or animalistic familiars to rush forth and attack. If they were really, REALLY unlucky, a vampire would walk right up to them and kill them all at its leisure, but Shirou was at least aware of those possibilities. What trotted out of the fog never even crossed his mind as an outcome.

    It was an oversized bear mascot.

    Its eyes were absolutely huge, staring at them with a crease like a scowl on its brow. Its nose was tiny and mouth crunched up in a comically small frown beneath it. Blue fur covered its dome-shaped head except for its white face. It was "dressed" in a red and white suit, and a zipper ringed its neck like a collar. Its stubby limbs were covered in blue mittens and tiny blue shoes.

    "What the heck?" was the extent of the three students' thought processes for a few seconds.

    Then it opened its mouth and talked, and their brains needed a few more seconds to catch up.

    "T-that's what I wanna know! Who are you guys?" it demanded with as much bluster as it could muster. In a strange way, Shirou felt cheated. He was expecting whatever appeared in this place to be either dangerous or powerful, but this… creature… didn't give either impression. If anything it was even more afraid of them than they were of it. This was a bizarre twist compared to Kiritsugu's stories of the inhuman.

    "What are you? You wanna fight?" Satonaka snapped back.

    Shirou almost lunged in front of the shorter girl, half-expecting the bear to turn into a monster and dispense with the pleasantries and then their lives, but again his expectations were shot down. The bear brought its hands over its head and visibly cowered. "D-don't yell at me like that…"

    Now feeling almost like a jerk for his assumptions, the redhead stepped forward and held a hand in front of Satonaka. "Relax, we're not here looking for a fight. I'm Shirou Emiya. Who are you? What is this place?"

    To Shirou's pleasant surprise, his good manners did the trick and the bear visibly relaxed. "This place is what it is. It doesn't have a name. It's where I live."

    Shirou couldn't help but give the bear a flat stare for that one. How delightfully vague.

    "If I were you, I'd hurry back to the other side. Someone's been throwing people in here," the bear elaborated without preamble. For a moment, all three students were again stunned into silence, this time by the cryptic statement rather than the fact that the bear was still talking.

    "Say what? Throwing people in here? Why?" Hanamura demanded when he fully processed the concept.

    "I don't know who's doing it! That's why I asked you! Whoever they are, they should really think before doing that!" The bear fired back.

    "Argh! You're not making any sense! Quit yelling at us and tell us what's going on!" Satonaka joined in, causing the bear to run behind the more civil-minded Shirou and cower away from the increasingly furious pair.

    The magus's headache now had nothing to do with the air. No one was going to get anywhere pointing fingers like children. "Alright look, we can all agree that we want to leave, and you want us to leave, right?" Shirou tried to remain calm, but his teeth were grinding halfway through. "Do you know how we can get out?" he asked the bear directly.

    "I was trying to say I can let you out!"

    Shirou blinked. Huh. That wasn't what I expected. Again.

    "Wha- really?" Hanamura was in the same boat as Shirou, apparently.

    The bear tapped its foot against the floor twice, and with a puff of smoke and a popping sound, a stack of old-style TVs appeared between them all, an antenna crowning the stack.

    "What the…? Where did these TVs come from?" Satonaka yelped in surprise.

    With one problem handily solved by the surly but helpful mascot, Shirou decided it was time to address the others before they left. "Okay, now what was this about peop-HEY!"

    "Okay, go on, get outta here, I'm a busy bear!" The bear shoved them rather suddenly, causing the teens to tumble into the screens and once more being pulled through by that unseen force.

    Shirou tried to resist, to ask for more about the idea of people being tossed into this oppressive realm, but was too off-balance. "Wait, hang on a second!"
    "Stop pushing!"
    "Watch it!"

    And then we were flying through that white and black tunnel again. And again, the trip ended with a sudden "thump" on a hard floor.
    <><><>

    -Junes Electronics Department, Evening-

    The next thing they knew, Shirou, Satonaka and Hanamura were all back inside Junes' electronics department in a heap. The sounds of people walking and pushing carts just outside was a strange thing to take comfort in, but none of them were about to complain about it.

    On the plus side, the sheer strangeness of the events had taken his classmates' minds off of Shirou's slip about magecraft. If either of them asked about that world, he was just in the dark about it as they were. It was like dodging a bullet.

    "Did-did we really make it out?" Satonaka breathed out disbelievingly.

    "I think so. Is everyone alright?" Shirou replied, hauling himself to his feet. He felt dizzy, but his classmates looked outright queasy.

    "I feel like hell," Hanamura admitted, his face pale and his movements more sluggish than Shirou. Satonaka was not much better off.

    Shirou glanced at his watch and blanched. They had been stuck in the foggy TV-world for well over two hours. He was hoping to have been home by now and cooking dinner. As it was, he didn't even have time to shop for ingredients before he normally had dinner. "Crap, it's getting late. Do you guys want me to call for a ride?"

    The tomboy shook her head. "Thanks, but I'll be alright. I just want to go home, lie down and forget the whole thing happened."

    "Same here. That was too much for me," Hanamura agreed with a weak smile. "I'll see you guys tomorrow. Right now I just want to sleep this off." The shaggy-haired teen shambled off to finally find a bathroom and head home.

    The magus turned his attention to the girl next to him. "I think you both have the right idea. See you tomorrow, then?"

    "Yeah, see you tomorrow," the short-haired girl murmured before parting.

    For Shirou, the worst part of the mess was that they had spent so much time trapped in the TV that he didn't have time to get much shopping done. Just like his first day here, he felt ill enough to decide to just go straight home. He figured that prolonged exposure to the other world must have caused it.

    Nothing of note really happened that night other than eating ramen with the Dojimas when he finally got home. His sluggishness was obvious enough that Dojima had all but sent him to bed to recover.

    In the interest of being social, Shirou opted to stay at least for a little while despite the headache pounding his temples. He mostly tuned out from the news playing in the background when it went off about the murder case again. He thought he heard Saki Konishi's name again, but he didn't hear anything specific when he focused on the story.

    His mind was still reeling from today's events. Focusing on anything else was almost impossible. I haven't asked them to keep quiet about my magecraft… chances are they've forgotten all about it in the panic of being in there. I somehow doubt that'll be the case for long; I was the one that got us stranded there in the first place after all. Even if they don't blame me for it, it doesn't change the fact that it was my fault. At least that bear was friendly enough to let us out. But… what did he mean about throwing people in? Another magus experimenting? What is that world supposed to be?

    …Well, no point in worrying about this now. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

  13. #13
    Chapter 12: Never believe in Coincidences
    -April 14th – Hanamura Residence, Evening-

    Lying on his western-style bed, Yosuke tossed his sheets aside with a groan and sat up. Even though every muscle wanted to relax and recover from today's ordeal, he couldn't get his mind to quiet down enough to find any relaxation. Every time he closed his eyes, he couldn't help but wonder about the Midnight Channel.

    He never said this to Emiya or Satonaka when they discussed it, but he thought he recognized the person he saw on the Midnight Channel the previous time. While the image was too blurry to make it out for sure, something in his gut put a face over that silhouette for him: Saki-sempai.
    Sure, many girls in school and in town had wavy hair, but… he couldn't shake the feeling that it was her. He knew the rumors almost as well as Satonaka now, how Mayumi Yamano had appeared on the Midnight Channel the night she was… was murdered.

    He looked into the darkness of his room towards his desk. Even though he couldn't see it, he had found a poster that rattled him to his core. He would show the others tomorrow, but if he was right about his growing suspicions… It gnawed at him. That place inside the TV was dangerous.
    It was raining right now, too. According to the weather report, it would let up by morning with a fog warning going into effect for until afternoon. In short, tonight was another night he could see the Midnight Channel. In fact, it should appear in another minute.

    Maybe it would show a different face tonight. If that was the case, he could breathe a sigh of relief and tackle the issue with a clear mind. One way or another, he wasn't going to leave this alone.

    A world inside the TV… that's got to be the most interesting thing to happen out here in the middle of nowhe- out in the country.

    The clock next to his bed changed to show that it was midnight. Sure enough, as he stared into the blank screen, it lit up and began to sharpen with a barely-audible warbling. The picture became clearer and clearer….

    "Saki-sempai…?"

    <><><>

    -April 15th – Dojima Residence, Morning-

    Shirou stepped off the stairwell to see the Dojimas already at the breakfast table. It was somewhat a strange, pleasant surprise to know they were both early risers as well, but this meant he truly had no opportunity to practice magecraft in their house. He hadn't done his usual exercises in days, and had the feeling his current circuit was bound to break down on him soon. But those thoughts were for later.

    "Good morning, Shirou," Nanako greeted from the sink. It was the first time she ever called him by name, and it was spoken with slight unfamiliarity.

    "Good morning," he greeted back, moving over to the spare chair sitting in the corner. His uncle and cousin regarded him oddly as he pulled it up to them.

    "What's wrong?" Shirou asked.

    Nanako head sunk along with whatever good mood she had and focused on cracking eggs. "That's mom's seat," she whispered.

    The red head was immediately self-conscious of his decision. A few days here and already I'm making things difficult. Maybe coming over wasn't such a good idea after all. "Maybe I should just eat by the kotatsu-"

    "It's alright," Dojima assured them. "You're part of the family, so you're going to sit and eat with us. That chair has only been collecting dust lately, so I'm sure she wouldn't mind you use it, would she Nanako?"

    Her father wasn't asking about Nanako's opinion, but her late mother's, who he knew she was close to. Most of her life growing up was basking in Chisato's loving care, after all. The young girl reluctantly nodded at a moment's pause. Her cousin, seeing it as permission enough, allowed himself to be seated and eat the food she prepared for him.

    "I look forward to your cooking again, Nanako," Shirou smiled. "I meant to tell you before, but I really enjoyed the breakfast you made the other day."

    Nanako blushed and nodded in thanks, directing all her attention to her station.

    Dojima chuckled. "Haha, if you're good as you say as well, perhaps you are my nephew with heredity cooking talent on Chisato's side."

    Shirou nodded. "It seems so. I understand that Nanako only started recently, but I feel she can become a professional chef in no time. I'm a bit worried she'll be better than me in a few years."

    At more embarrassing praise, his daughter's face grew brighter as she pretended that she wasn't hearing the conversation. It also gave Dojima a swell of pride. "And school has been going well so far?" he asked.

    "I haven't done much out of school other than work and seeing the Junes store, but it's better than what I do every day back home."

    "Oh? What are your other hobbies again?"

    "I, uh…" Shirou's mind went blank, searching for an answer. He couldn't tell his uncle he practiced magecraft, for secrecy's sake, and he had enough jeers and laughs from people to know that that proclaiming to be an "ally of justice" wasn't what they considered a serious answer. Dojima looked like he wanted a serious answer.

    He said the first alternative that popped into his head. "Fix stuff."

    Dojima blinked. "You… fix stuff?"

    "Mostly electrical appliances and such," Shirou offered. "I even fixed the Homurahara school generator one time."

    It was sometime early in his freshman year when a thunderstorm nearly overloaded said generator to a total shutdown. The method of how it was done was secret (as it should be, involving magecraft), but his selfless act cemented himself as the 'fake janitor' in the eyes of many students, even though he had long grew that reputation prior in rumors and other odd jobs.

    "That's-" the detective scrunched in thought, trying to find a fitting word but failing. "…unique."

    And just like that, an invisible force of pressure was built over them. The awkward silence was not unlike the breakfast with Nanako two days prior: no one had an idea what to talk about. It seemed easier to share talks on the phone last winter, where they didn't see each other's faces or expressions. Shirou being a relative to the Dojima family was an established fact since last year, but the realization hadn't fully sunk into any of them yet.

    "So…"

    Shirou turned to his uncle. "Yes?"

    "You…" He started again, trying to come up with anything else to talk about.
    "I…?"
    "…yeah."
    "O-okay."
    "Good."
    "All right."
    "Fine."
    "Yep."

    They stared at each other, unable to pull away despite the awkward tension they were facing. They were barely aware of Nanako nervously glancing back between the two of them, but paid her no mind.

    Briiiiiing!

    "Phone's ringing!" Nanako announced.
    "I'll get it!" Dojima shot up.
    "You do that!" Shirou encouraged.

    And just like that, the tension was gone and everyone let out mental sighs of relief.

    Composing himself, the detective walked to the phone stand, read the caller ID, and answered it. "Dojima speaking," he said, keeping his voice and expression neutral.

    A short one-sided discussion later, Dojima's face grew grim and an feeling of uneasiness returned to the room. "I see… I'll be right over."

    It didn't take Shirou and Nanako much to put two-and-two together. "Good luck/Good bye," they said to him respectively.

    The grizzled detective gave them both a brief nod as he reached for his coat. Just like that, barely breaking stride, he left for work. He was very dedicated to his job. Still, It was disturbingly vague… and the last time he left early on a call was the night when Ms. Yamano was found dead on a telephone pole. Shirou had a sinking suspicion that someone else was found the same way.

    He earnestly hoped he was wrong…

    -Yasogami High School Assembly Room-

    The first sign that today was off for the students of class 2-2 was their teacher being late. King Moron had never seemed to miss a chance to torment his students before in the time that they had known him. After nearly fifteen minutes without the foul-tempered philosophy teacher, the school intercom called for an immediate class assembly. No explanation was given, but everyone followed protocol and stood in line and rows ready to hear what the faculty had to say. To Yosuke, the faculty looked somewhat hesitant, restless. Even Morooka looked solemn for once, or at least attempting to remain civil to an extent even while he commanded the students to remain quiet.

    Satonaka made a quick text with her phone before flipping it closed. "Yukiko had to leave early again, but she's going to make it back in time for lunch."

    "I see." Emiya had wondered where Amagi had disappeared to. "Any idea what this assembly is about?"

    "Not a clue. How about you Hanamura?"

    They both glanced back to the auburn haired student to Emiya's right. He didn't respond right away, staring at the announcer's podium with a haunted look. Yosuke barely spared them a side glance before looking away again. "It's nothing…"

    Emiya and Satonaka could only blink at his reluctant answer, looking to each other for a clue before their history teacher led the principal up to speak. His voice was soft and quiet, even with the microphone by his lips, which were covered by his long white mustache and beard so completely that it looked like he had no mouth. It made the next words he spoke somewhat easier to bear, but not by much.

    "I… regret to say that I have a terrible announcement for all of you," he started. "One of your classmates, Miss Saki Konishi of Class 3…"

    Please don't be true, please don't be true-

    "…has passed away."

    There was a collective gasp by many students and then the droning murmur of gossip and whispers between them. Emiya and Satonaka exchanged shocked glances, and noticed that Yosuke looked almost physically ill from the news… like he was somehow aware of this before the principal even said a word.

    It was just like in the Midnight Channel then…

    "Ms. Konishi was found deceased early this morning," the principal continued. "The police are still looking into the cause of this tragedy. Now I assure you she wasn't a victim of bullying of any kind, so please do mind what you say to others or to the police, especially when they ask for your cooperation…"

    The announcements went on and on, but Yosuke could care less about the stream of bullshit. He knew what had happened, and by God he was going to do something about it when school got out.

    <><><>

    -First Floor Hallway, Lunchtime-

    School eventually returned to normal for the most part, with the only difference being a new topic of discussion in Konishi's death. Most of it was just talk about the kind of person she was and wondering who was responsible, and these were for the most part normal.

    However, some talk came from guys claiming her to be their 'soulmate' before getting into a fist fight about it, while the rest came from girls that were more than amused at a Saki look-alike being attacked on the Midnight Channel.

    Needless to say, both Shirou and Satonaka were furious.

    "This is why I hate gossip," Shirou all but growled to the short-haired tomboy as they watched a pair of girls walk off laughing. "It's so easy for anyone to throw those theories around and mock others without being personally involved. It's nothing more than verbal bullying behind one's back."

    "Makes you want to go right up to them and smack 'em, huh?" Chie bit out, cracking her knuckles ominously.

    "I don't hit girls," Shirou replied, though from the look on his face, it was clear he was debating the merits of suspending that personal rule in this case. The only girl he would even consider hitting under most circumstances would be Fuji-nee in a kendo match, but as it stood, she was still far too good for him to even touch, let alone worry about hitting cleanly.

    Hanamura walked up to them from around the corner, his steps slow and twitchy. "Hey guys," he waved weakly.

    "Hey, Hanamura," Shirou waved back. "Are… you alright?"

    "No," he sighed. A brief silence passed before he spoke up again. "Listen, did you either of you… check out the Midnight Channel last night?"

    Out of all the questions he was going to ask, that specific one threw them off for a loop. "Of all the times you plan to talk about that-!"

    "Just hear me out, alright?" the headphone student snapped, cutting Satonaka off with uncharacteristic sharpness. "Ever since we came back from that TV world, something's been bugging me, so… I watched it again last night. And I think I saw Saki-senpai… writhing in pain."

    "…A few students said they saw the same thing, actually," Shirou admitted, crossing his arms and mulling over the meaning.

    "And Saki-senpai was found the same way as the announcer a few days ago, right?" Hanamura continued. "She also appeared on the Midnight Channel too, when that one guy claimed her to be his soulmate. They both vanished and come back dead. It can't be a coincidence."

    "Hold on…" Satonaka paled. "Are you trying to say-?"

    "That people who show up on TV die?" Shirou finished the morbid thought. As horrifying as it was to consider, it was easy to see the logic Hanamura was going with, and it did fit with what they knew.

    "I also found this hanging all over Junes," Hanamura reached in his jacket and pulled out a small poster. He unrolled it and showed it to them.

    "That's… Misuzu Hiiragi?" Satonaka blinked, and then paled as recognition dawned.

    Emiya's eyes widened. "That's the same as the posters in that room we saw yesterday," he realized, a chill running down his spine. "You think the murders could be connected to that TV world, too?"

    "There's no other explanation!" Hanamura declared. "They both must have ended up there at some point!"

    "I see what you mean, but you're not going in there, Hanamura," Shirou bluntly told him. It was obvious what he intended to try, and he wasn't about to let him.

    "W-what?" Hanamura recoiled as though he had been struck. "Why not?"

    "Hanamura, if you're right, two people were murdered in there. You'll need weapons to defend yourself and going in there alone might as well be suicide," Shirou blandly told him. He had refrained from mentioning that he was already considering diving into the TV himself once he got a hold of a decent weapon.

    Satonaka nodded in agreement. "That's right. This isn't a job for us. Let's let the police handle it!"

    Peculiarly enough, both Emiya and Hanamura turned to her and blurted out in unison, "No police."

    Their strange agreement had Satonaka stuttering in confusion before Yosuke explained. "Think about it, Satonaka. How could the police solve this? Someone is tossing people into TVs, and then their bodies are found suspended on telephone poles. Who in their right mind would believe us, especially if they can't go in like we did?"

    Chie fell silent at that. Yosuke had a point: telling anyone what they experienced would only make them sound either crazy or sarcastic… by word of mouth anyway. "But we can prove it to them! We just need them to see Emiya putting his hand into the T-"

    "NO!"

    Both of Shirou's classmates flinched at his barked tone. The threatening sneer on his face only made them more nervous, like they were invoking the wrath of King Moron himself. Chie in particular looked hurt and very scared at where the conversation was going.

    As quickly as it came, the red-haired student's rage passed with a tired sigh. "No," he said again, regarding them both with a serious glare. "No one is to know about the existence of magic. By all accounts, you two aren't supposed to know about it. It's… I can't explain but it's very important this stays secret."

    Shirou quickly glanced from side to side, his shoulders briefly slumping in relief when he saw the three of them were alone for the moment, and that his yelling didn't draw unwanted attention. "You haven't told anyone about what happened yesterday, have you?"

    Both of them shook their heads quickly, unnerved by this side of the normally easygoing redhead once again. "Not me," said Chie.

    "Who the hell would believe us?" Yosuke added.

    Shirou hoped that his classmates had forgotten any mention of magecraft so his secret was safe on that front, but the fact that they were officially aware of the existence of magic meant that he needed to take responsibility and make sure they didn't say something that would bring an Enforcer to silence them. "I can't say too much here, but I want you both to promise that you won't tell anyone under any circumstance that doesn't already know about it."

    "Don't worry about that Emiya; I'm not exactly looking to get tossed into an asylum," Yosuke grunted. "You know more than you're telling us, don't you?"

    "Not about that world, no, but I'll explain what I do know later," Shirou promised.

    "I'll hold you to that, Emiya."

    "I think we're all forgetting something here," Chie reminded her classmates. "That bear warned us that the world over there was dangerous. I mean, it was creepy enough on its own, but it made it sound like there were monsters in there!"

    "It's because of what that bear said why I have to go in there and do it quickly. If the police can't do anything, it falls to us unless you want to just ignore that people are dying." Never letting up on his glare, Yosuke persisted.

    Shirou's fist clenched tighter, the magus barely restraining the urge to punch his classmate in the mouth for insinuating that. For Shirou, ignoring people dying or suffering when there was even the slightest chance of saving them was outright evil. "I'm not saying what you're planning is wrong, but why do you want to go so badly?"

    Damn it, Emiya, you aren't going to be the hero all the time, Yosuke thought for a split second before continuing. "The police had at least half a week to look for Ms. Yamano and now she and Saki-senpai are both dead! I can't just leave it alone!"

    "We know all that already," Shirou growled before calming himself. "But… why are you telling us this?"

    The taller teen looked out the window at the cloudy sky. "Because after what we've seen and what I thought about, I can't put this down even if I wanted to. Besides: for some reason, you can enter the TV. I tried putting my hand in a TV last night and it didn't work. You're the only one I can ask to help me, Emiya."

    A tense silence followed as Shirou weighed his words. He was asking for his help… knowing full well of the danger but still going to know what happened to Saki Konishi and Mayumi Yamano. His reasoning was sound too, on how the world behind the TV might be dangerous if left alone…
    A soft sigh escaped his lips. Sorry, Fuji-nee. I know you said no hero impulses, but… "If you're serious, we're not going in empty-handed..."

    Chie's shock kept her silent for the rest of the school day aside from variations of "this is a bad idea."

    -Junes Electronics Department, After School-

    "How many times do I have to tell you guys that this is a bad idea?!"

    Once again in front of the ridiculously oversized TV with the two boys, Chie couldn't believe either of them; it was one thing for Hanamura thinking of some half-baked plan like going back, but she would've thought Emiya would talk him out of it. Instead, he was convinced into going along for the trip!

    It was days like these that she would spend time hanging out with Yukiko, but as luck would have it, her friend was drafted back into hotel duties right after class. Chie honestly didn't know what to do without Yukiko: she was her friend, her partner in crime, her crutch, and they always shared secrets most of the time. Hell, she was willing to tell anyone about what happened in an attempt to prove she wasn't crazy or thrown in some sort of supernatural horror story, but the guys were right in that no one would honestly believe them. The only reason she came along was to try and convince them against this stupid idea of theirs.

    As it was, Emiya was holding the closest thing Yosuke had been able to provide as a weapon for him: a metal golf club with a heavy wooden head.

    "Sorry about the golf club," he told Emiya. "You had a smart idea looking for weapons, but it's not exactly easy to get a hold of swords on short notice. I'm taking a pair of old wrenches, myself." He assured him by patting his jacket, with the tools tucked inside. At least they weren't going in completely unarmed.

    "Well, it's no shinai, but it'll do," Shirou stated before closing his eyes and seeming to sink into a slight trance. After a second, his expression tensed, like he was having trouble focusing.

    Satisfied, Yosuke rummaged through the small first aid kit he had found in the store earlier, making sure it had everything they might need for their expedition. On his shoulder was a long coil of heavy-duty rope with the aforementioned pair of wrenches concealed under his uniform jacket. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than trying to walk around with it in the open. "Okay, I think we got everything. Ready when you are, Emiya."

    Emiya didn't reply for a few seconds. When he opened his eyes, he regarded the golf club somewhat dubiously before looking up at the taller boy.

    "Alright, I'm ready."

    "Guys, listen to me!" Chie all but pleaded, managing to draw both their attentions to her. "Do you have any idea what's in there? What if you can't come back?"

    "We were able to make it back the first time," Hanamura countered as he tested the rope around his waist again. "If we go in through the same TV, maybe we'll see the bear again."

    "'Maybe' isn't good enough!" Chie cried. What was wrong with these two?

    "I understand your concern, Satonaka," Emiya reasoned. "But this isn't something either Hanamura or I can pretend has nothing to do with us."

    "But it doesn't have to do with us!" she tried again. "This isn't some anime like Kenichi! We're high school students, not superheroes!"

    Emiya shook his head sadly. "Not yet, anyway," he muttered under his breath before looking back at the tomboy.

    "Huh?"

    Completely forgoing explaining his strange comment, Shirou simply tied a length of the rope around his waist. "This isn't a problem that can be solved by covering our eyes and pretending it never happened. If not us, then who else would even hope to discover the other world? As long as I have something to say about it, I'll get to the bottom of this."

    He took another glance around the store. They were the only ones in there right now. The last thing they needed was for someone to spot them just as they leaped into the TV. Last time was far too close for comfort. "I'm not sure how this all works, but I think we'll be alright as long as we're careful. I may not look it, but I do have some experience with the supernatural," Shirou explained cheerfully.

    He was already theorizing that his status as a magus was why he could enter that TV world and the others couldn't. If anything, he was a little excited with the notion of saving others already.

    "But-!"

    "Don't worry," he winked. "Hanamura will be alright as long as I'm around. I promise."

    Chie could only stare with a mix of awe and disbelief. How could he be so okay with going back to that creepy, foggy place when it might get them killed?

    "Thanks, man," Hanamura smiled. "Glad to know I can count on you. Partners?"

    Standing next to one another, the headphone wearing teen held up his fist to him, knuckles facing forward. Emiya returned the smile and bumped the fist with his own, before clasping their hands together. "Partners."

    Now visibly more at ease, Yosuke turned to Chie. "Just to give you some reassurance we will get back, and partly because I don't want to accidentally break the merchandise here for being makeshift anchors..." He extended his hand out. "Satonaka, I'm leaving you in charge with this."

    She looked down at Hanamura's offered hands and saw the end of the rope tied to their waists. "Wait, a lifeline? Seriously?"

    "Don't worry," he insisted before handed the remaining coil over. "Just hold on to the rope until we get back."

    "W-wait a minute!" she didn't ask to be their anchor for this suicide mission! She didn't even want to be here, let alone have anything to do with this!

    "We'll be back soon, Satonaka!" Emiya called back as he placed his fingers against the screen, once more distorting the glass with waves of white light.

    "Remember, don't let go of the rope!" Hanamura added as he climbed over the edge of the frame and into the TV, still gripping his partner's hand.
    Just like that, the red-head and orange-head students walked through the TV, with white lines ripping over their bodies. Chie felt completely helpless as they vanished, an agonizing sensation that caused her stomach to twist in knots. The rope in her hands continued to uncoil with agonizing slowness while nightmarish possibilities played through her head. Most ended with their bodies hanging on telephone poles like the last two victims.

    She should have kicked them unconscious when they weren't looking. Well, maybe just Emiya. He was a nice guy, but she was starting to see that he was as stupid as Hanamura in some cases.

    Wait, was that a tug?

    She tried both ends to be sure, and felt a strong pull back… a little too strong.

    Wh-what's going on?

    Chie felt her shoes skid across the surface. It wasn't obvious at first, but the friction and squeak gave it away. She looked down and saw her body was being pulled towards the TV. Or rather, the rope she was holding.

    "No," she gasped and paled in horror, almost immediately pulling back. "no… NO! No no no no no no no no-!"

    She knew it was just the rope, and if she let go then maybe she would be safe. But it was Hanamura and Emiya's lifeline! Her only sure way of knowing they were in there alive! She couldn't lose it!

    Okay, calm down Chie. You can do this! This is just like... like fishing at the river! You just got to keep your footing and pull like hell!

    The kung-fu enthusiast did just that, wrapping the rope around her arms and pulling on the line with all of her strength with her legs bent. She had watched and emulated enough movies like Trial of the Dragon to get her own posture down right. It was for naught: Chie felt the rope burn her hands and continue to slip into the TV at the same rate. It went in like a chain through a winch, winding monotonously and rapidly. In no time, she found herself just in front of the TV with only a portion of the rope left coiling around her arms.

    As if karma suddenly had an inkling for the electronics department, she could see customers entering the room. Despite all the worries and anxieties of her two classmates, being caught in a "no-magic taboo" that Emiya warned against convinced her otherwise. It was then, with great reluctance, that she started bundling the rope in her hands and shoving it inside like it was on fire.

    "I knew this was a bad ide-AAAAH!"

    To her surprise and growing fear, Chie's arms were actually pulled into the screen as well, and far deeper than she had hoped they would. On impulse, she tried letting go of the rope and pulling them out, but her hands were stuck firm in the now liquefied surface. Having overstepped in thrusting, her arms were nearly shoulder-deep inside, and gravity has starting to take effect.

    Emiya wasn't kidding! The TV is pulling me in!

    In a vain attempt to break away, she leaned her body back in another attempt to pull herself, but lacked the footing to balance herself. There was nothing she could do as the rest of body was dragged inside… and then fell in like a rock.

    -TV World-

    Both students had a less than graceful landing into the other side, much like what happened yesterday. They were at least prepared at the notion of crashing down after a jump inside, but not controlling their landing or spinning yet. In fact, their attempt to try and land feet first resulted in Shirou and Yosuke identically sprawled on their stomachs with their faces firmly planted on the ground.

    "Owowowow…" Yosuke groaned as he moved his cheek parallel to the ground. "I hope this doesn't happen every time we jump over…"

    Shirou shrugged off the pain quickly, glancing around the area, the golf club held in a guard stance Fuji-nee drilled into him. "It's the same area as yesterday. The TVs really are connected from place to place."

    "No fooling?" Yosuke perked as he stood up. Looking around, he saw that Shirou was right. "Great! Maybe that bear will come back and we can find out what happened to Saki-senpai!"

    "We better wait here, then," Shirou suggested with a frown. "The TV-stacked gate from before isn't here, and this is the only place we know the bear might appear. I'm not sure if we can wander very far this time because of our lifelines, either."

    "Good plan," his classmate nodded. "But I wouldn't worry about our rope. It's a Junes specialty, measuring over a mile long."

    "A mile? Isn't that exaggerating it a little?"

    "Look, don't worry so much," Yosuke winked as he tugged the rope. "We have more than enough to cover the area and memorize the place: I packed some map making tools for the trip as well. As long as this holds, we have nothing to-"

    The rope in his hand, once tight like a bowstring, drooped and slid like it had been unanimously undone. Shirou and Yosuke exchanged confused glances between each other and the rope in his hand, fear slowly creeping in.

    "Was it… supposed to do that?" Shirou guessed, almost afraid of the answer.

    The headphone student looked unsure what to say to that. His slight worry was whisked away a moment later, as his brow crinkled in confusion. "Wait… do you hear that?"

    Shirou blinked and listened. Now that Hanamura mentioned it, he could make out something high pitched. Was it a mythical beast, or perhaps a familiar? He looked up to the foggy sky for a clue, but all he saw was their lifelines falter and drop. It was almost as if-

    "-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!"

    Hanamura recognized it first. "Satonaka!?"

    Damn!

    He completely disregarded the fact that Chie fell through the same way before, and all of them survived a tumble through the TV screen once or twice: her scream of terror cried for help, and as an ally of justice, Shirou was bound to answer.

    Quick as a whip, he dropped the Reinforced golf club and shot towards the sound of the scream. He could see her falling through the fog and braced himself under where she would land and held his hands out. He thought about Reinforcing himself, but if he screwed that up he could end up ripping himself apart, and this wasn't the time to take such a risk. Luck was on his side though, and he caught her bridal style. The force of catching her as normal caught him off guard and forced him down to his back, but the smaller girl was still safe in his arms.

    Satonaka stared at him with wide eyes and her cheeks flushed. Shirou paid it no mind, focusing first and foremost of her safety. "Are you alright, Satonaka?"

    She stared open-mouthed and gaping, almost unresponsive for several seconds. Then her face twisted into an angry scowl and she screamed, "YOU IDIOT!" before punching him square in the chin.

    Completely blindsided by the reaction, Shirou let go of Satonaka and fell back, rolling his jaw. Da-damn! Her punches are almost as lethal as her kicks-!

    "Satonaka!" Hanamura rushed over to them. "What the hell was that-OW!" Hanamura's words were cut off by several coils of the heavy rope slapping into his chest, knocking the unprepared boy down.

    The smaller girl loomed over the prone boys and glared at both of them, shaking with fury and fear. "I told you! I fucking told you this was a bad idea! But did either of you listen? NO! You two just had to ignore the damn bear and come right back! You guys suck!"

    "N-now Satonaka," Yosuke weakly reasoned. "Let's just take a breather-"

    "Oh, and by the way: Great idea using a lifeline! At least that way I would know if your bodies were eaten or not, but all sorts of hazards could have happened that I wouldn't know about: poisoned to death, induced to a coma, turned to stone, but hey! Getting sucked right in with you idiots works just as well!"

    Shirou nursed his bruising face tentatively, but noticed that the green sweater-wearing girl, in spite of her growing rage and tantrum, was cracking her voice and on the verge of tears. This promptly made him forgot about his pain and concerned for her. "S-Satonaka…" he tried, but she wasn't listening.

    "And now we're all trapped in here! No food, no contact, no way back, no lifeline..." she paused to give a mock-search around the studio. "And absolutely no, stupid, frigging... BEAR!"

    Her last word held the most power, as it carried an echo effect throughout the room, and reminded all of them that they were indeed in another world. By the end of her rant, Chie glared and huffed at the two shocked boys, unable to say anything in response. A tense minute of haggard breathing passed, and the chestnut haired girl fell to her knees, emotionally drained before breaking down to tears.

    "I'll never see anyone ever again!" she wailed. "I want my parents! I want my dog! I want Yukiko! I-I… I want to go hooooooome! Waaaaaaahahahaaaaa!"

    The two boys awkwardly exchanged glances. It wasn't often someone like Chie Satonaka would cry about anything. In fact, Hanamura didn't think he had ever seen her cry, period. She tended to kick anything that upset her rather than tear up.

    Shirou had honestly hoped that she wouldn't get dragged back in here… quite literally in this case. Seeing her cry felt like he was being stabbed with every sob, and Hanamura seemed to share the feeling. "We're sorry, this wasn't supposed to happen," Shirou told her a touch awkwardly, arms outstretched in an easing gesture.

    "Y-yeah! We'll get out of here before you-" Hanamura started to say before a familiar, high voice caught the trio's attention.

    "You guys came back?" it asked, squeaking steps heading towards them from within the fog. Its eyes were comically wide with surprise, its pupils shrunken into pinholes. It was certainly expressive. It suddenly glared, stomping a foot and pointing a mitten-covered paw at them accusingly. "I get it! You three were the ones behind all this!"

    "Wh-what?" Hanamura gaped for a minute before pointing an accusing finger right back. "Wait a minute, how do we know you're not the one killing people after they get tossed in?"

    "Hey! I'm a nice bear! You three, however, are beary suspicious coming back after I let you out yesterday!"

    Here we go again… Shirou grumbled a bit before looking over his shoulder at the two. "Could you two stop pointing fingers for a minute? We can work out theories when we all have more information," Shirou offered, more concerned on other matters. "Satonaka's very upset and needs to calm down-"

    "I-I'm fine, Emiya," she sniffled. "Just… give me a minute, okay?"

    The bear took full notice of the female student now and looked surprised. "Is she alright? Why is she crying?"

    "We're stuck here and…" Hanamura sighed, holding up the rope tied to his waist. "Well, the lifeline plan we came up with backfired on us."

    "If it's not too much to ask," Shirou added. "Could you open the way back for Satonaka?"

    The bear frowned, tapping its "chin" in thought. It glanced at each of them and then put its hands behind its back, trying to puff out its chest defiantly. "No."

    Shirou shot to his feet, eyes wide. Any calm he might have had evaporated instantly, and he finally realized that he had left his golf club on the ground a ways off when he caught Satonaka. "What?! Why?!"

    The girl still on the ground had gone completely still, shock rendering her numb as she stared at the short mascot with horror.

    "You have the damned nerve to call yourself a nice bear!" Hanamura shouted, fishing for the wrenches in his jacket. "Last time you practically kicked us out! Now you're keeping us prisoner!?"

    "That was before I knew who you guys were," the bear huffed. "And until I'm convinced otherwise, I say you three are the ones behind what's going on!"

    "Behind what, exactly?" Shirou asked civilly enough, though he was making sure to circle slowly back towards his only weapon and worked to keep his body from trembling with every step. "At least tell us your side of the story."

    The bear assumed a thinking pose as it explained. "Lately, I can tell that someone's been throwing people in here before the fog lifts. It's only been two so far, but the world's already getting messed up!" It then glared at them. "You came here two times, after each incident no less, and have done so by choice! That's beary suspicious, if you ask me!"

    Shirou had to admit, the bear had good logic. But did it say very or berry? "The first time was an accident, honest. We did come here by choice because we wanted to check something."

    "Check what?"

    Yosuke took over Shirou's line of thought easily. "You said 'throwing people in', like yesterday. Those people that were tossed in died shortly after."
    Shirou nodded grimly. "I doubt whoever did this is unaware of the consequences. They are killing people using magecraft, plain and simple."

    Yosuke nodded, before blinking and turning to his classmate in confusion. "Mage-what?"

    "Not the time, Hanamura."

    The bear's mouth crinkled into a small frown. "You still haven't said why you're back here."

    "It's pretty simple. We're-" Shirou looked back to Chie, who was now on her knees and taking slow, deep breaths, "well, most of us, are here to investigate this world's connection to the murders and try to prevent any more deaths."

    "All we know is that when they get thrown in, they reappear dead in the morning hanging from a high point," Yosuke elaborated quickly.

    Despite being hostile, the bear took their words to consideration. "Hmm… was it foggy on the morning the first one reappeared? Like today?"

    Shirou blinked in realization. Exchanging glances with Yosuke, he realized the same thing and they started to ease on their battle stances. "Come to think of it... yes."

    The bear mascot dropped a fist into its other palm in understanding. "Oh! That could be a part of it. When it gets foggy on your side, it lifts here."

    "Wait a minute," Shirou interrupted, not following the bear's logic. "What does foggy sides have to do with dead people suspended on power lines?"

    "When the fog lifts here, the Shadows get violent," it shook slightly, seemingly not caring that no one but it knew what it was talking about. "That's why I had to get you three out! It was about to lift in this world and they would have killed you!"

    "Shadows?" Shirou and Hanamura repeated, exchanging glances again. This TV world wasn't anything either of them expected.

    "Are they like… monsters?" Shirou guessed. The bear simply nodded.

    "Though maybe I'll let them go after you!" it suddenly glared. "It'll be a sure way to handle the culprits that messed this world in the first place."

    "Look, we're telling you-!"

    Shirou didn't get to finish his rebuttal before Satonaka finally moved; her face still a little red, but back in control of herself. She snapped back to her feet and stomped over to the mascot. It flinched when she stopped a short distance in front of it and pointed at its face.

    "Listen, bear!" she growled. "You go around accusing us when you don't even know us, claiming us to be suspicious! Frankly, you're the suspicious one going around in that costume of yours!"

    "Wh-what?" The bear was honestly surprised.

    "I agree," Hanamura glared. "You keep talking in circles and tell us nothing to make us believe you're innocent. How about you show us your damn face!?"

    The two students jumped the bear that hardly put up a fight in its wailing struggle. As Satonaka pinned it down, Hanamura reached for the zipper behind hits head and pulled it. The head was tossed aside with its face frozen in a blank state of fear. When they peered into the body…

    "AAAAAH!"
    "Wh-what the hell?!"

    -they both scurried back in fear from the headless mascot. Chie leaped away while raising her arms in reflex, as if it might lunge at her. Yosuke, having fell onto his hands after a few steps, continued to crawl away backwards. Even Shirou was left gobsmacked at the sight before him.

    "He's… hollow?"

    The bear's body was completely empty, the insides lined with a black material, yet its arms were still moving. Despite his experience with magecraft, Shirou had no experience dealing with any branch that could produce a creature like this moving mascot, at least not with this level of autonomy.

    "Just what the hell is that bear?!" Hanamura paled. No one had an answer for him.

    Eventually the arms found its head and put it back on. Immediately, the face reanimated, showing an angry scowl on its cartoonish features. "I couldn't be the culprit! Why would you accuse me of that?"

    Shirou frowned, already forgetting the out-of-head experience he just witnessed. "Well, to be fair, you blamed us first."

    The bear looked humbled at that. "Oh… point taken. But really! All I want is to live peacefully here!"

    Chie tilted her head to the side confused. "Peacefully?" she repeated.

    "In this creepy place?" Yosuke added between glances. "I find that a little hard to believe."

    It flailed its arms again, sounding defiant yet desperate, even to the verge of tears. "W-well, it's true! And I'll have you know that this place wasn't always 'creepy'! The more people that get thrown in, the worse it gets! I don't want my home to be a complete mess; it's the only home I know! That's why I have to find who the culprit is before my home's ruined! If I lose it then… then I… wa-waaaaaaah…" it finally started crying in earnest, much to the shock of the Yasogami High students.


    "Is this thing serious?" Yosuke whispered. "Talk about overly dramatic…"

    "Still, you'd have to feel sorry for it," Chie soothed. "Losing its home… Poor little bear…"

    Shirou thought deeply of the situation, considering everything that happened the last few days. The sudden murder of the announcer, and then the follow-up of a high school student; the rumors centered around them just before the deaths occurred; the magic window of the Midnight Channel both Nami-san and Satonaka told him about; the TV world where a lone talking bear resided. There were too many coincidences, and his father had taught him that magi never believe in coincidences.

    Then there was also Igor's words from almost a week ago:

    "It seems you will encounter a grave misfortune at your destination, and a great mystery will be imposed upon you... The coming year is a turning point in your destiny… If the mystery goes unsolved, your future, perhaps far more, may be forever lost. That is what the World foretells."

    Though honestly, even without considering all that, Shirou knew his answer: a hero always heeded the call for help. "I'll help you."

    In an instant, the bear's face brightened and his classmates gaped. "E-Emiya!"

    The bear looked up hopefully, eyes sparkling rather comically. "Really? You'll help?"

    "Consider me an ally of justice, and an ally of justice always helps those in need," Shirou smiled. "Even talking bears."

    "Then I'm one lucky bear! Oh, thank you thank you THANK YOU!"

    Chie glanced down to the floor, mumbling to herself. "Ally of justice…"

    Yosuke glanced between the bear and magus before sighing in defeat. "So the bear practically guilt-tripped the magic expert into helping it, and he falls for it. Ah well, I guess that means I'm in. After all, we came here to find out what's going on."

    "Thanks, Hanamura," Shirou gave him a grateful smile.

    "BUT!" he quickly interjected before the bear got too excited. "We're completely innocent in this. If you want our help, you'll have to agree to let us back out when we're done. Got it?"

    The bear, more than happy to have help in preserving his world, nodded with gratitude. "You have my word!"

    "I'll help too."

    The guys glanced to Satonaka in surprise. "A-are you sure? I mean, you had a breakdown just a while ago and-" Hanamura started before the tomboy cut him off.

    "I thought about what you two said, about not letting this go," she answered. "I… I guess I was just trying to ignore it and hide. I still think this is a bad idea, but I really don't want anyone else to die here, especially not someone like Yukiko. If finding out what's going on here will prevent it, then I'm game!" she finished and punched her open hand, a little of her natural spunk back in her eyes.

    "Then it's settled," Shirou nodded, even if a part of him was uneasy about letting them get caught up in a magical conflict. "Why don't we introduce ourselves then? As I said before, I'm Shirou Emiya, and these are my friends: Yosuke Hanamura and Chie Satonaka."

    "Nice to meet ya!" Yosuke waved.

    "What's your name?" Chie asked.

    The bear smiled widely. "I'm Teddie Kuma!"

    A silence passed between them as the name sunk in, and all three students felt sweat roll down the backs of their heads.

    "…Somehow, I feel we should have seen that one coming," Yosuke deadpanned.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Chapter 13: Awakening
    -TV World, Shopping District-

    After getting acquainted, Teddie made his first show of sincerity by taking them to where he claimed to have detected the last human appearing. A bit of cross-referencing revealed that the creepy inn room they found had appeared a few days before that, further suggesting that it was connected to Miss Yamano. What the room itself symbolized no one wanted to speculate.

    As Teddie led them to the newest area, Shirou noticed that the place was oddly familiar. The ground beneath him was concrete, and he could see the silhouettes of buildings through the fog that reminded him of the shopping district.

    Wait. This is exactly what the Shopping District looks like…

    Stepping closer to the buildings, he recognized the Marukyu Tofu shop, though the colors were too dark and muddled. The street lights were on and he could see some kind of light through a few of the windows, but the place was completely devoid of human life and every building was closed up tight. Now as he listened, he realized that the place was unnaturally silent aside from the muted conversation between Teddie and his classmates.

    "Now Teddie," Hanamura asked as they passed the old pharmacy. "Are you sure this is where you saw Saki-sempai?"

    "I don't know the person's name," Teddie corrected, "But I do know that the last person that came into this world ended up around here."

    "Is it just me or does this place look like the Shopping District?" Shirou asked when he rejoined the group. "It's hard to tell in this fog, though."
    His classmates and Teddie looked at him for a moment, and the teens looked around, reminding the magus that he was the only one aside from Teddie that could see any reasonable distance through the haze.

    "Oh, I knew I forgot something! Give me a second…" How a creature with hands like mittens could snap their fingers like he did baffled Shirou, especially now that he knew Teddie didn't have actual fingers to begin with.

    It clapped its hands twice, and a puff of smoke appeared when he cupped them together. Stacked on top of each other in his paws were several pairs of glasses, each with different color and designed frames: white, yellow, and orange. Each pair was actually well-made, and looked somewhat stylish in their own way.

    "Projection magecraft?" Shirou muttered, slightly awed by the casual use of the technique.

    "Here, take your pick and put 'em on!" Teddie offered. "They'll help you see through the fog."

    The trio of students exchanged perplexed glances, but Shirou shrugged and chose first. The bear was being helpful in their search so far, and it had promised its guidance and support. There was no reason to doubt its word yet. Besides, if it really wanted their help, it was best not to antagonize them given that the creature was almost comically weak.

    When he put the robust-looking white pair on, Emiya blinked in surprise at seeing the fog completely filtered out of his vision. This feeling must be like when people wore prescription glasses for the first time: everything was so clear!

    …Though, given the eerie warping background of black and red bands covering the sky and the subtly distorted, dark scenery of the imitation shopping district, he almost wished he couldn't see quite that far.

    "Amazing," he said simply, prompting the other two to take their own glasses; Hanamura picked the orange pair and Satonaka the yellow one. They were just as surprised by the results.

    "The difference is like night and day!" Hanamura breathed, testing between flipping the lenses over and away from his eyes.

    "Yeah! It's like the fog isn't even there anymore!" Satonaka added. "How did you do that?"

    "It's sort of a talent I got," Teddie beamed. "I like making things, and I make all kinds of things! Balloons, toys, costumes, the whole shebang!"

    "Is it like magecraft?" Shirou asked, genuinely curious of how he was able to create three pairs of glasses. "Does the mana in this place make them last longer?"

    Teddie blinked again, and crossed his arms in thought. "Magecraft? Mana? Sounds familiar, but that's it. I've always done this sort of thing so I can't quite help you there."

    Yosuke gave a quick cough, drawing their attention. "Ahem! As much as I would like to know what the heck you're both talking about, we still have a job to do." He reached for his phone and pulled up a picture of her. Konishi was in her Junes uniform and serving drinks, glancing at the camera and giving her familiar tired smile. "This is the girl who was… found dead… earlier. Just to be sure; Teddie, was this girl the one around here?"

    The short mascot gave the picture a quick look and nodded as firmly as his strange body allowed. "That's her all right." He turned and pointed further up the road as Yosuke pocketed his phone. "She disappeared into that flat building up ahead."

    "That's the way to the Konishi liquor store if this place is anything like the real world," Hanamura noted. He rushed ahead, and the rest jogged in place to catch up until they were all together.

    "Is it like our world?" Shirou asked himself. This place still had too many unanswered questions for them to run off like this, and he was hoping the friendly bear could shed some light on the subject. "Kuma, what exactly is this place?"

    "I told you, this world is what it is," the bear replied between breaths as it struggled to keep up. "And feel free to call me Teddie."

    "Well, what about the shopping district?" Satonaka offered. "Has this always been here?"

    "No, it just appeared recently, like that one place that looks like an inn."

    "Well, why are they so different then? Why make an inn room and then recreate the shopping district?" Satonaka tried, growing frustrated.

    Teddie frowned. "How should I know? They're both realities for the people who've been there."

    The two of them sighed, disappointed. He's being vague again. Shirou bitterly thought. Worst part is he probably doesn't even know he's doing it. Either that or, worse case scenario, he's a devious little bear and likes talking in circles around us. Still, was he always this content with everything before?

    "Well, what about that place you found us at?" Satonaka asked. "It looks like a TV studio. Is the Midnight Channel filmed from there?"

    Teddie blinked. "Filmed? Midnight Channel?"

    "What she means is," Shirou explained for the mascot's benefit. "Have there been any people using cameras and stuff around here?"

    The bear looked more confused than ever. "I don't know filming or cameras, but this world has always been like this."

    "What do mean 'like this'?"

    Teddie scowled a bit at them. "I told you already! The only ones that live here are me and-!"

    A gargled growl echoed through the air, and Teddie immediately froze in his tracks. The students didn't like the sound of it either; both Satonaka and Shirou staggered to a stop the moment they heard the ominous sound, but they couldn't tell what it was or where it came from.

    "W-what was that?" Shirou gulped, levering the golf club into a basic kendo stance.

    "-Shadows," Teddie finished with a whimper. The sheer terror he laced his word with managed to send goose bumps down their spines. They could all hear strange sounds dancing around the edges of their senses: groans, burbling laughter, slopping fluids, and insect-like skittering.

    Satonaka started bouncing from foot to foot, waiting for the cue whether to fight or flee. She was confident in her reflexes, but wasn't stupid enough to pick a fight with unknown monsters without good reason.

    Shirou held the golf club in his hand, sending prana into it and trying to Reinforce it as much as he dared. He had used Structural Analysis back in their world, and it looked like the precaution helped: the magic settled into the weaknesses in the club, strengthening it until it could hit like a sledgehammer with a fraction of the weight.

    Teddie cowered between them, whimpering and holding his head in his hands.

    Hanamura….

    "Wait, where's Hanamura?" Shirou asked, eyes widening when he realized that his taller classmate was nowhere to be seen.

    "WAAAAAAAAAH!"

    Satonaka recognized the screamer and paled. "HANAMURA!"

    "The Shadows are after him!" Teddie cried.

    Shirou didn't bother thinking about what he might be getting into. He bolted ahead, sending prana through his struggling Magic Circuit tentatively as he ran. Reinforcement of the body was difficult at best and suicidal at worst, but every second he spent hesitating left Hanamura in danger. Strangely, the spell came easily, and every step was a little faster, a little more efficient. Despite this, Shirou made sure not to enhance his body too recklessly, wary of blowing out his legs before even reaching Hanamura.

    At least the mana of this place wasn't causing any issues with his magecraft so far. If anything, it readily responded to his need. That was one less thing to worry about.

    With his enhanced speed, he reached the base of the small hill leading by the shrine in seconds and spotted Hanamura falling back on his hands, narrowly evading the… thing… that was attempting to tear him apart with its teeth.

    That's a Shadow?

    Three hovering creatures unlike any in the real world bobbed through the air before him. Each was a bloated sphere almost as wide as a car and colored in wavy stripes of black and pink. A mouth that cut almost halfway into the sphere, framed by bizarrely large and full red lips hung open and tongues as long as a man was tall lolled out from between rows of flat, brick-like teeth. One floated and turned away from Shirou, revealing a small, blue, frowning mask staring lifelessly outward from the back of it. The mask was small enough to fit a human's face, looking tiny compared to the floating mouth's bulk.

    Despite their comical appearance, the creatures violently tore at anything they got their mouths around. One tore a chunk out of a nearby lamppost when Yosuke dove away from its charge, biting into the metal with a shrieking groan. The thing spat out the ruined metal and turned its slavering jaws back towards Yosuke.

    Naturally, Hanamura cowered and tried protecting his head in a blind panic. "WHAAAAAAAAA!"

    Shirou slid to a stop and smashed the Reinforced golf club into the floating mouth's side, the Shadow's spongy bulk catapulting away and dragging a trail of drool along the road down the hill. The other mouths turned to their fallen kin swiftly despite the lack of eyes or any sensory organ aside from their tongues. With a gurgling growl, the Shadows refocused on the two boys. The third used its long tongue to push itself back into the air and released a watery cackle, floating back up to join its fellows.

    Not taking his eyes off the monsters, Shirou hauled Yosuke to his feet with one hand, keeping his weapon ready. Yosuke gained a little bravado with the added help and steadied himself.

    "Thanks for the save, partner. Ready?" The boy pulled out the wrenches he had brought with him and held them out like they were a pair of short swords. He only just kept his hands from shaking with a white-knuckle grip on them.

    The magus shook his head. "Hanamura, we need to get back to the others."

    Completely caught by surprise at the decision, Yosuke nearly stumbled where he stood before regaining his footing. He gestured past the three killer mouths at the squat building all but looming over them. "B-but Saki-senpai's store-"

    "-isn't going anywhere. Those Shadows, however, mean to kill us. So move!" Shirou shouted, falling back at his normal speed, keeping pace with Hanamura. The taller boy was naturally quicker than Shirou, but Reinforcement compensated easily.

    As Shirou expected, the floating mouths pursued them at a relentless pace. Hanamura pushed himself to run faster and faster, desperately trying to keep ahead of the Shadows and their impossible flight, stumbling at times, only just keeping his balance. Shirou surreptitiously fell back slightly behind him. If Hanamura was only able to get away while he held the Shadows off, he would stop and fight. Thankfully, it looked like the creatures were not quite fast enough to close the gap.

    With the Shadows almost literally gnashing at the sprinting teens' heels, Emiya and Hanamura spotted their classmate waving to them from a dark doorway. Satonaka and Teddie had opened one of the look-alike buildings for shelter: the abandoned toy store, to be specific. "Come on!" she called out, "Hurry up!"

    "Don't let the Shadows get you!" Teddie encouraged, his arm waving in the window.

    "No need to tell us twice!" Yosuke gasped as he dove through the door, with Shirou right behind him.

    They ended up bowling over Teddie and all three took a tumble on the floor. Satonaka had wisely stepped aside long enough to let them fly by before she slammed the door shut and flipped the deadbolt. She didn't have time to even breathe a sigh of relief before the three mouths slammed into the door hard enough to send her staggering back. The watery babble and slavering tongues slapping at the door had the four teens holding their breath.

    Finally, the sounds retreated from the door before going entirely silent. As one, the humans and the bear released a long sigh of relief and all but collapsed where they stood, panting like dogs. Shirou and Chie recovered fastest; the former thanks to his magus training and archery breathing exercises taking over, and the latter with her self-taught kung fu breathing techniques. During this moment of calm, Shirou took in the room before them.

    The toy store was small, only consisting of three aisles of toys ranging from building sets to dolls and balls. The entryway was the only open space, and even that was interspersed with small tables and the cashier's desk. The entire thing was only about five meters wide but over fifteen deep, half of that the aisles.

    Shirou turned towards Hanamura. "Are you alright?"

    In hindsight it was a stupid question: they were stuck in some magus's sick amusement park that took the form of a parody of Inaba while under siege by monsters with only a pair of wrenches and a golf club between them. They were screwed if they couldn't escape. Shirou knew that a magus walked with death, and Shirou used that truth to keep his mind clear… or at least clearer than the clearly panicking Kuma.

    Hanamura ignored him, staring at the door with wide, twitching eyes. From the look of it, the auburn-haired teen was running on almost pure adrenaline right now. He was shaking in terror by this point, and probably soiled himself more easily than their last venture. Shirou couldn't blame him. "What were those things?!" he cried.

    To everyone's surprise, their guide had an answer for them. "Slipping Hableries," Teddie shivered. "They're one of the weaker Shadows, but I didn't expect to find any around here yet!"

    "Those mouths have names?!" Satonaka gawked. "And there're stronger ones?!"

    As if to emphasize her shock, the entire building rattled from the creatures making another attack. Instead of backing away again, though, they could see small wedges dig through the door and wood groan and splinter, bits of the wall and door coming away in sections.

    The damn things are chewing their way in! Shirou realized, sorely wishing he had something with a point or an edge to use. "We can worry about that later! Teddie, how do we stop these things?!"

    "They should go away if you hurt them enough, but the only thing that can defeat a Shadow for good is another Shadow or something related!" the bear blurted out, cowering behind a shelf.

    "You're meaning to tell me we're all dead unless those things decide to resort to cannibalism?!" Hanamura's voice cracked as that sank in.

    More chunks of wood fell away from the door, enough for one of the now-identified Slipping Hableries to stick its two-meter tongue into the building, groping for them while the others continued to tear through the walls. Their gurgling cries grew more incensed with every inch of progress they made.

    Shirou's mind reeled. Teddie's too scared to fight, and Hanamura and Satonaka are defenseless against them. If I can at least distract them for a chance to escape!

    Shirou stepped forward, hefting the golf club into the stance Taiga had all but beaten into him. "Everyone, head to the back of the store; I'll hold them off!" With his enhanced club in hand and his self-Reinforcement, he was certain he could buy them a little time and work something out.

    "Way ahead of you!" Teddie declared as his squeaky shoes retreated towards the back of the building before he realized the students weren't following him.

    Both students, however, hesitated. "Are you nuts, Emiya?! We can't just leave you here!" Satonaka shouted.

    "She's right partner, I got your back!" Hanamura declared shakily while he braced for a fight.

    "You're both out of your minds! We have to-" Satonaka's words were interrupted by the cacophony of the Shadows finally ripping their way through the walls and door, screeching as they homed in on the trio.

    Shirou moved immediately forward while the others staggered back in terror. With people to protect behind him, the magus refused to hesitate, strengthening himself further and smashing the lead Hablerie with a sweeping strike that threw the orb-like Shadow into the second, sending both crashing into a pile of building blocks. He barely reacted in time to avoid the third taking a bite out of him as it launched its own attack.

    "There's no more time! RUN!" Shirou roared to his classmates as he tracked the last Shadow's movements.

    The Shadows recovered far too quickly for getting hit like they did, their tongues pushing them back into the air. They faced each other briefly as if surprised and then swept outward to surround the magus, gurgling all the while. Two launched themselves at Shirou at the same time while the last suddenly turned and charged Satonaka and Hanamura, mouth wide.

    Shirou didn't even bother to think. He spun on his heel and pumped more prana into his legs, putting himself between his classmates and the Shadow's open maw and jabbing the club into the thing's chin, completely ignoring the other Slipping Hableries as the swooped after him. The Shadow yelped in pain as it bit its own tongue before floating back… revealing the other two Shadows.

    The first slapped him with its tongue with enough power to throw him to the ground and the second slipped behind it to make another attempt at Satonaka and Hanamura. It barely made it an inch past Shirou before he seized its trailing tongue and pulled with all of his Reinforced strength, slamming the thing back into the floor. The third Shadow dove back into the fray with a cackle, gnashing its teeth while Shirou struggled to keep up with the tangle of teeth and tongues. Several times his arms were caught by the edges of those teeth, tearing at his sleeves and leaving him with small cuts, and his shirt was soaked by their saliva. It was a dirty and almost feral struggle.

    To Yosuke and Chie, the sight was a whirlwind. Shirou was all over the place, somehow diving, spinning, striking, jumping and grappling the Shadows every time they made a move. In fact, the speed and strength he was displaying exceeded anything they had seen before. He seemed unstoppable and kept the Shadows tenaciously occupied, but it was three on one. The strain was starting to show in his face and eyes. They couldn't move to help though, entranced by the insanity before them.

    Yosuke's hands were shaking from holding the wrenches so tightly, and he seemed to be fighting with himself for each inch he made himself move. He wanted to leap into the fray, but was too scared to. He didn't want to abandon Shirou after everything he was doing for him. Despite that, he was stuck rigid in the back with Satonaka and Kuma, feeling an unsettling combination of fear, dread, and humiliation. Move god damn it! MOVE! Why can't I move?!

    Shirou finally managed to regain his feet, teeth bared in a snarl as he braced himself against the Slipping Hableries' relentless attempts to get past him. The Hableries made another attack, two tearing towards him while the third tried to hover outside Shirou's range.

    Shirou jumped over the flailing Shadows and let them collide with each other. He turned towards the third, raising the club into a perfect head strike Taiga had beaten into him during their lessons. And then, a sensation like magma roared through his spine, his strength vanishing mid-stride.

    His Magic Circuit, pushed well beyond its limits, had finally broken down completely, taking with it his body's Reinforcement.

    He stumbled, his muscles suddenly feeling like boiling liquid inside his skin. Then, without warning, his throat constricted itself, choking him, and he quickly covered his mouth and what felt like a cough… or regurgitation. He knew what was in his hand without even looking at it: his blood. Dammit! Not now!

    The Slipping Hableries circled him during his pause before they charged him again. Shirou could still react quickly enough to defend himself, but he lacked the strength to repel the Shadows on his own. The first bit down on the club, unable to quite break the rapidly-weakening haft, but wrenching the magus to the side while the second bowled him over, twisting the club out of his grip. The first Shadow then simply spit the club out and left Shirou to its fellow, aiming for the other two teens.

    The last Shadow dove towards Hanamura and Satonaka unmolested, and Hanamura finally moved as self-preservation instincts kicked in. He desperately backpedaled into an aisle while the Shadow pursued him. "Crap, crap, crap, crap!" he repeated as he tried to fend the Shadow's swooping dives with his wrenches with mixed success. Apparently, getting bashed with a golf club had made the Shadow wary of being hit with them even if its mindless aggression kept it from leaving. "Emiya! Now would be a REALLY good time to use some magic on these dentures!"

    Satonaka fell back on her training as the last Slipping Hablerie reached her. Her foot shot up in an axe kick that slammed the Shadow's mouth shut, and it screeched with pain. The Shadow's long tongue wrapped around her ankle and yanked her into a spin, tossing the tomboy into a table before diving in for another bite. "Aaaaah! Someone HELP ME!"

    Further back, Teddie crouched under a table; his eyes squeezed shut and mitten-like hands covering his ears. "Oooooooh, I don't wanna be eaten!"

    It was happening too fast: Shirou could barely hold the Shadow on him from ripping him open, but he needed to save his classmates! Is this all I can do?! Think! I can't let this happen! I WON'T!

    As if answering his plea, his sense of time and perception slowed. He was suddenly alone in his thoughts… before a strong, defiant voice echoed in mind. "I am thou… thou art I…"
    …! That voice!
    "The time has come… open thine eyes, and call forth what is within!"


    A brief spike of pain shot through his temples, coupled with images blurring by so fast he could make them out. The ones that stood out most vividly to him were of Igor and Margaret in the Velvet Room, a glowing sheath surrounded in darkness, and a girl standing in an open green meadow. As soon as they had appeared, the images were gone, as was the pain.

    In the duration of that flash, something had appeared in his left hand. Glancing warily at it, the magus saw that he was now grasping a blue card. The face side was blank, but the bottom of the frame held a single number: zero. It looked eerily familiar to the Tarot cards that Igor used in his dream.

    Except… it wasn't a dream after all, was it? The Shadows all paused and looked at him, Shirou found the strength to rise back up to his feet and hold the blue card up. Without his Magic Circuit, he couldn't even perform Structural Analysis on it, but his sensitivity to magic all but screamed at him with the intensity of its untapped power.

    This… power…!

    It was warm and welcoming like a flame, barely more than a small ember. But even he, an incompetent magus, knew that it was so much more, and could grow into that of an inferno in time. It was complex, yet simple. It was mysterious, yet lucid. It was weak, but full of potential. And it was all his.

    He remembered this feeling. It was just like in his dream battle with the Ghoul, but even stronger.

    Teddie Kuma, watching this all safely behind an aisle, was dazzled by the glowing aura of the red-haired teen. The bear couldn't place its paw on it, but it felt very familiar… Perhaps it was one of those magic things he told him about earlier? "Woah…"

    A small smile graced Shirou's lips, as he said the one word that suddenly entered his mind and demanded it be spoken aloud. His lips moved slowly. "Per…"

    The Shadow before him seemed to panic, shaking and releasing a wild cackle. The other two ignored their helpless prey and rallied to its call.

    Yosuke Hanamura followed his would-be eater to the light show ahead, and his classmate standing dead center in it. If this was some sort of magic trick he was pulling off, it was big, and made Emiya look like some shouen hero or something. Needless to say, he was shocked. And jealous. "What in the-?"

    "-…so…"

    Chie Satonaka, briefly rubbing her bruised and possibly swollen ankle for relief, watched with a mix of horror and awe as Emiya simply glowed with some fighter's aura. The horror set in when she realized that he was about to face the triple threat of piranha faces. She prayed to god that he knew what he was doing… she didn't want to lose him. "Emiya…!"

    The Shadows, daring not to take any changes, lunged as one.

    "-…na!"

    He crushed the card in his hands, the sound of glass shattering echoing throughout the room. Blue flames roared from between Shirou's fingers, wrapping around him without harming him and causing the Shadows to hover away in surprise.

    Something inside Shirou fell into place, sending out a torrent of power from deep within him, a power he had felt only once before, finally released from its resting place. His classmates saw something phase into existence like an illusion becoming real from within the blue fire. When the flames receded, the phantom was clear for all to see.

    The towering entity hovered over him like a ghost, yet it was obviously solid and tangible. Almost seven feet tall and hovering a foot off the ground, its body was clad in a long, high-collared black and gray jacket lined with silver buckles. The jacket was closed at the torso, but flared open at the waist and around its neck. The figure's legs were clad in armored greaves that ended in skate-like blades under its feet, and the tips of each of its gloved fingers were covered by steel talons. In one of those clawed hands it held a weapon like a wide-bladed naginata as long as it was tall, its hollowed handle wrapped in white bandages along most of its length. It stared down upon the Shadows with glowing golden eyes, the rest of its face concealed by an ornate, sectioned mask of steel. Two belt-like tails of red cloth that matched Shirou's hair clipped into the back of the matching band it wore around its head and fluttered slowly in its turbulent aura. Its appearance and posture granted it a regal, powerful and dangerous air.

    Shirou stood in front of it as the flames receded, his hand still clenched before him. Somewhere along the way his jacket had been torn open completely and it flared outward almost to match the giant behind him. Despite his battered state, he looked no less powerful and intimidating than the masked being… and he certainly felt heroic right about now. I hope you're watching this, old man.

    "Wh-what is that?" Chie whispered.

    "I don't know," Teddie admitted from his hiding spot, staring at the giant in awe. "But it feels the same as the Shadows!"

    Yosuke gulped uneasily at that. "Well… it's on our side… right?"

    The Shadows were only still for another second before they lunged forward again. These Shadows seemed so small now, partly because of the power he felt coursing through him and his guardian, and partly because he could see through the giant's eyes as easily as his own. His protector was quite a bit bigger than the Slipping Hableries. Shirou narrowed his eyes contemptuously behind his glasses and swept his hand out. "Get out of my way!"

    The astral figure behind him clasped its weapon in both hands and flew over Shirou's head, sweeping the long blade with immense strength. Unlike Shirou's golf club, the giant's blade cleaved through the Shadow's body like a hot knife through butter, splitting it in two. Almost instantly it exploded into a cloud of black and red muck that dissolved on the spot. That's one…

    The three spectators gawked at awe at the display of power. "Yeah, it's on our side," Hanamura decided.

    The remaining Shadows released enraged gurgling shrieks and charged the giant, one attempting to bite its head with bone-crushing force, and the second locked its jaw around its sword arm. Shirou winched, blood suddenly bursting from his arm and the pressure of the Shadow's bite squeezing his arm and head and forcing his head to tilt back like the giant's. So we're connected… we share senses, pain and injury in exchange for this power. No… it's deeper than that. We're…

    "Emiya!" Satonaka screamed when she saw blood starting to peek through his skin.

    The red-haired teen didn't falter though; if anything, the attack only made him angry, and he reached towards his head, clawing at the air in front of him. "Damn you!"

    The swordsman repeated his action, digging metal talons into the Shadow's flesh and ripping it from its face and hurling into a shelf hard enough to shake the entire aisle. The second was flung away with similar power straight down, right next to Shirou. Even though the golf club was across the room, Shirou could feel his protector- his Persona- solve his need for a weapon with a snap of its fingers. "Tarukaja."

    A burst of orange light surrounded him, and he felt new strength suffuse his entire body and his muscles seethed with energy. It was like Reinforcement, but without the guesswork that spell had. Better yet, it didn't require a Magic Circuit; it drew from a different well of strength, and his Persona had its own powers for him to call upon. He didn't need a weapon for this anymore; that one mystery had turned him into a weapon. "HIYAAAAH!"

    His empowered fist plowed straight down into the Hablerie's body, bursting the body like a water balloon, dousing Shirou in the strange sludge that filled it. Just like the other Hablerie, the sludge dissolved into nothing, not even a stain left on Shirou's clothes or skin in a second. His Persona turned its golden gaze towards the final Shadow, gripping its naginata like a long-handled sword at its side. Two down, one to go.

    The last Slipping Hablerie apparently decided to not charge mindlessly at the giant and turned towards easier prey: Hanamura and Satonaka. The Persona raised a single hand in sync with Shirou, blue fire once more burning around them.

    "I am thou…"
    "Thou art I…"

    As one, they opened their outstretched hands, and the fire dissipated at the unison of power. "Zio!"

    A single blue bolt of lightning fell from above with a roar despite being inside a building. The Shadow convulsed in agony and dropped to the floor, twitching as it continued to spark. Unlike the Ghoul he had used that spell on in that fog-filled dream, the Slipping Hablerie was far more vulnerable to the lightning blast, and it couldn't so much as scream when the Persona lunged and impaled it cleanly, leaving it to burst and dissolve.

    And that makes three.

    Shirou took a single cleansing breath and allowed the Tarukaja to drain out of him, leaving him with a burn not unlike a good workout. He looked up to the towering swordsman as it glided to his side. It-no, he, hovered before him and gazed back down. He nodded to him and Shirou returned the gesture. Then, with a whoosh of a flame being snuffed, the Persona faded away in a wave of blue light, leaving behind only a flittering card caught by his outstretched hand. The once blank face of the Tarot card displayed a holographic image. One image showed a black figure of a man carrying a bundle-tied stick over his back, followed by a dog, and was stepping outside of a small box proportionally smaller to the card outline. When exposed to light at a certain angle, as he just tested, the image changed to reveal the astral being that just fought alongside him a few moments ago.

    With the Shadows dealt with, Shirou refocused on his friends. He completely ignored the wounds scattered on his body and was more concerned with the fact that they were frozen and gawking at him. "Is everyone alright?" he asked politely. They all nodded mutely.

    It took a few attempts of gaping like a fish, but Satonaka found her voice first. "Th-that was… amazing!"

    "Yeah…" Hanamura agreed. "But who -or what- was that?!"

    "Izanagi," Shirou answered with a slight smile on his face. The card in his hands, to the surprise of his friends, faded away in a blue flame, and his body emitted a dull blue hue: a sign to him that his Persona was returning into a sea of the unconscious within his mind. "He's one of the creator gods of Japan, as well as my Persona. We're one and the same: I'm him, and he is me."
    Last edited by Kishou the Badger; September 18th, 2015 at 11:47 PM.

  14. #14
    Chapter 14: Shadow of the Conceited Self
    Hanamura gaped at Shirou yet again and then shook his head to clear it. "So, let me get this straight: you're not only a wizard-"

    "Magus," Shirou corrected automatically.

    "-magician, but you're some kind of avatar to a GOD now?"

    "Uh, no, nothing like that," Shirou denied, confused. If he had some kind of divine ancestor, he was pretty sure he or Kiritsugu would have figured it out long ago. From the man's lessons, people with divine ancestry would often display an inhuman mindset, ingrained knowledge or have a specific talent tied to their divine nature that exceeded human ability.

    Shirou had considered himself as talentless and mostly ordinary, and Kiritsugu had found nothing truly amazing about him during their training.

    "I'm not sure of the details, since my Persona is new even to me," Shirou admitted, wincing as he clutched his bleeding arm. It seemed that whatever high his powers had given him was wearing off, and the pain was starting to remind him that he had been almost literally chewed up and spit out not two minutes ago. "Can one of you get the First Aid kit?"

    "Per…sona?" Yosuke repeated the foreign word slowly. Unfortunately, in their awe and excitement, neither Hanamura nor Satonaka made any move to patch up his arm until he gestured to the bag slung over Hanamura's back.

    "Ack, sorry Emiya!" The taller teen quickly popped open the kit and fiddled for the bandages, never looking away from Emiya for long, like he was trying to figure his power out just from looking long enough.

    "Well, whatever it was… that Persona thing was awesome! Do you think you could teach me?" the tomboy on the other hand was almost vibrating with excitement –or more likely from the adrenaline from nearly getting killed, it was hard to tell with her right now.

    Emiya glanced back between them nervously even as Hanamura started patching up his arm. "Uh, w-well…"

    "Yosuke, Chie-chan, calm down! You're troubling Sensei!" Teddie suddenly toddled over to them, his face scrunched up in a scolding frown. It looked rather silly, actually.

    The Yasogami students all stopped what they were doing and turned to the bear in confusion. "Sensei?" they all echoed.

    Teddie ignored their confusion and looked up to Emiya with stars in his huge eyes. "Gosh almighty, you were amazing, Sensei! You had me worried for a minute when fighting those Shadows, but that power! You sent them packing in a flash!"

    Emiya rubbed his head shyly with his good arm, the start of a blush on his face. "I-it was nothing, really. I just reacted, is all."

    "But you were a natural at fighting!" Teddie insisted. "Even before summoning your power like that, you were holding them off all on your own!" The bear gasped in sudden realization. "No wonder you three managed to get here; you're able to bring other people into this world!"

    "Wait, able?" Emiya blinked.

    "How did you know that?" Satonaka asked.

    Teddie's arms flailed in his excitement. "It has to be the case! It's like… he has a part of himself that allows this world to open to him: that Persona! Man, this is really something!"

    "I'll say," the magus nodded, idly finishing wrapping his arm in medical tape. Tensing his arm, he deemed it usable, ignoring the pain with ease. "If you're right, then maybe the culprit has the power of Persona, too."

    Satonaka tilted her head slightly. "So the culprit would be a wizard like you?"

    "Magus," he corrected her with a sigh. "And maybe… To be honest, I'm not sure how it all fits together. The last time anything like this happened was in a dream earlier this week." With an uncertain frown, Shirou stared at the ground. "I'm… well, all I know is that my Persona is a part of me. Not like my Magic Circuits, but it's definitely bound to my soul, so it's kinda similar, I guess."

    Teddie blinked. "Circuits?"

    "We can discuss your hidden talents later," Yosuke reminded them. "Now that the Shadows are gone, let's hurry and check out Saki-senpai's liquor store."

    Satonaka turned to him with the most enraged look on her face, stomping over and screaming in front of his own. "Are you out of your mind?! We all nearly died just now, and Emiya was even bitten by one of those slippy-whatevers! He lost his club and can't even lift his arm right now!"

    "Satonaka, I'm fine," Emiya said, waving his bandaged arm for emphasis.

    "See?" Yosuke gestured casually to him. "He says he's fine."

    "And I've got Sensei's sword!" Teddie called, having put his nose to use in finding the club where it had landed. 'Sensei' accepted it gratefully, and was once again with a weapon. Honestly, Shirou's body was stiff and already throbbing with pain, but he stubbornly ignored the aches and examined the club closely.

    The haft was a bit pockmarked by the Hableries' molars and the Reinforcement was broken, but it was still serviceable once he re-applied the mystery. "Now that you mention it though, would you mind waiting for a few minutes? My Magic Circuit broke down and I need to reset it."

    "Say what?" Yosuke barked, his temper starting to flare a little at the seeming constant delays.

    "My Magic Circuit, the channel that lets me use magecraft, stopped working in the middle of the battle there, which was why the Shadows caught me. It shouldn't take long to reset, and every little edge we can get will help." Shirou explained.

    Satonaka raised an eyebrow. Honestly, she just wanted to get out of here, but the boys were too stubborn; best let them see what they came for quickly and get out. Just being in this creepy place made her uneasy, fog-filtering glasses or not. "What about just using your Persona? That guy kicked those Shadows around like nobody's business."

    "It's… tough to explain, but neither my Persona nor my magecraft is an infinite resource. I don't exactly have a fuel gauge on them either, so I'm trying to maximize my resources in case I run out of one power source or we get in too many fights."

    "Do you have to?" Yosuke needled, tapping his foot agitatedly. "We don't have time to sit here and do nothing! We should keep going."
    Satonaka huffed. "What is wrong with you? Do you honestly expect to find Konishi-senpai's ghost here or something? What if we meet more Shadows? At least let Emiya get his magic thingy up and running before we get moving; it's only fair."

    Teddie stood beside Satonaka and clasped his hands behind his back. "If Sensei says it's smart to recharge, let him do it. I don't know about you, but I'd feel much better with Sensei's Persona backing us up at full power."

    "I'm sorry, Hanamura. Really. If I was a better magus I'd happily Reinforce your clothes before we moved on, but if I mess up, they'll just break instead. I can at least do a little boost to your wrenches, though."

    Hanamura fought down the urge to curse, noting that Emiya was already sitting cross-legged on the floor, taking slow breaths. "Fine," he bit out angrily. "At least we'll be better armed."

    "Thanks, I mean it. Keep an eye out for Shadows, and don't hesitate to run if it comes down to it," Shirou nodded to them with a slight smile before closing his eyes and furrowing his brow as he muttered his Aria. "Trace On."

    Immediately, there was a change in the air. Shirou wasn't glowing or chanting like the teens half-expected, but they could see the air ripple around him like a heat haze… in fact, they couldfeel heat rolling from him after only a minute.

    "Emiya?" Concerned, Chie almost reached out to her classmate, but stopped when she felt the heat surrounding him intensify. He was sweating now, too.

    Yosuke stood with his arms crossed, antsy to move on, but unable to bring himself to so much as leave the building while he watched the windows and wrecked door. "Hey, Satonaka, we might as well do something useful. Help me put some stuff over this hole."

    Taking one last look at Emiya, Satonaka slapped her cheeks and squared her shoulders. "Good idea. Let's try to keep it quiet if we can. Last thing we need is for more Shadows to show up because we made a racket."

    There was plenty of debris for them to use thanks to the battle, and even a few rugs were draped over the small front windows to hide them from prying eyes. All the while, Hanamura continued to fume.

    Damn it, I came here for a reason! This sucks… here we are waiting on the hero. The real hero should be… Hanamura's train of thought was derailed when he noticed the strangely intense stare Teddie was giving Emiya, who occasionally flinched as heat continued to radiate from him.
    The empty costume's face was not the adoring gaze from minutes ago, but one that was a mix of confusion and a touch of horror. "Something wrong, Teddie?"

    "Sensei's doing this bear-y wrong," the suit mumbled with as much fear as when the Shadows were stalking them.

    That got the teens' attention. "What do you mean?" Hanamura asked immediately, turning back to the magician.

    "I don't know why, but I can tell Sensei's hurting himself to make this work," the mascot shook its head with a frown. "But we can't stop him right now or it would kill him."

    "How do you know that?" Satonaka asked worriedly, her eyes darting between the bear and the sweating magus.

    Teddie opened his mouth, froze, and then slowly scratched his domed head. "I… dunno. I just know."

    "That doesn't make any sense," Yosuke groaned.

    "Does anything make sense in here?" Chie countered flatly with a frustrated stomp of her foot.

    The three fell into silence after that, twitching towards every sound while Emiya continued his meditations silently. Occasionally they heard the slopping of Shadows crawling nearby and even the rattle of a chain at one point, but nothing came close to the door and faded from hearing. Both teens almost felt ill from the helpless tension the dark atmosphere exuded, even if their glasses cut away the fog and shielded them from that unearthly weakness from last time.

    Teddie continued to watch the magus with worry, only relaxing when Shirou slumped forward, exhaling one last breath. "Sensei! Are you okay?" The mascot toddled over and tried to help Shirou stand, but his empty body had no real strength. "You're burning up!"

    Shirou forced a smile, wiped his brow and pulled at his shirt, which was sticky with sweat. "It's fine; I'm all right. It'll pass in a minute." Forcing himself to his feet stiffly, the magus plucked his golf club from the floor and held it before him. "Trace On," he incanted again, moving a trickle of prana into the club carefully. Magecraft might work more easily in this world, but that did not mean he couldn't screw up. It didn't help that there wasn't a way to tell when he was about to go over an object's limit. Still, the fact that he could Reinforce his weapon so easily was a blessing he was happy to take.

    "That was bear-y dangerous, sensei! You almost died there!" Teddie admonished.

    Shirou levered the re-Reinforced club to his shoulder. "'A magus walks with death' is the first rule of magecraft. I appreciate your concern, but I've had plenty of practice with this." Completely shrugging off Teddie's concern, he turned towards Hanamura. "Do you mind letting me see those wrenches? I should be able to make them at least a little stronger."

    "You sure, partner? You look like hell right now," Hanamura pointed out. "These things are pretty tough anyway." While he appreciated the offer, Hanamura couldn't afford to put the entire burden on Shirou's shoulders, especially if it was as dangerous as it sounded. "And what's this about walking with death?"

    Shirou completely ignored the last part. "I'll be good for a while. The Magic Circuits I make tend to last at least a full day during training. I think I'm finally getting better at it. That last one almost made it a full week."

    The tomboy fidgeted nervously at the sight of the magus's slightly shaky hands. "Emiya... if this is really as dangerous as it's starting to sound, maybe you should hang back and regain your strength."

    "If you're that concerned," Hanamura interjected. "Then you should have brought something to fight with, like Emiya and I did."

    "I didn't bring anything because I was dragged in here, remember?!" The school girl snapped. Hanamura huffed annoyed, but Emiya had the decency to look guilty again.

    "B-but I still want to help!" she quickly amended with a softer tone. "I normally use martial arts anyway, so you can buff my shoes and then hang back if you want."

    "I'll Reinforce your shoes if that's what you want, but stay behind me if a fight breaks out. Even this Reinforced club barely phased those Shadows."

    "And why should I? I've got good reflexes, and Hanamura's armed, too." Satonaka growled again, her face falling back to a dark scowl she had from her last outburst.

    "It's not that you're weak or anything, but this isn't a simple case of strength against strength here. When I hit those Shadows with the Reinforced club, the most I did was annoy them. But when my Persona awakened, it felt like I could actually hurt them. There must be a connection between this power, this world and the Shadows, like what Teddie said about being able to bring people here."

    "That's right, Sensei!" Teddie nodded proudly, his entire body wobbling with the motion.

    The other two students exchanged shocked and confused glances. Satonaka seemed to shrink into her coat slightly as the facts sank in. "Bu-but… there's got to be something we can do to help. Otherwise you could… die…"

    For some reason, Yosuke saw the wizard (magus?) blink in honest confusion at the girl's concern. Was he really that surprised that they wanted to help? Nobody here wanted to see the others get hurt, after all.

    Before Emiya could formulate a response, Teddie interrupted him. "U-uh… I could help next time," he offered.

    The other students turned to the bear, silently urging him to continue.

    "I-I got no muscles to show, sadly, so I'm afraid Sensei will still do most of the fighting. BUT! I can offer moral support from a safe distance!"

    "Peachy," Satonaka groaned and rolled her eyes. "And what does that even mean?"

    "I can scan Shadows for their weaknesses and strengths and let you know what I find! You'd be surprised how often Shadow battles end when they get hit by something they really don't like. Like that Zio spell Sensei hit that Slipping Halberie with!"

    Hanamura nearly dropped his wrenches at that. "Why didn't you say anything before?!" he shouted.

    "I-I was scared," Teddie admitted and cowered from the angry teens. "It all happened so fast, and Sensei said to hide in the back, so…"

    Sensing the impending tirades from his classmates, Emiya lifted his hand and tried to talk them down. "It's alright, Satonaka, Hanamura. He was just as scared as we were, probably more. It all worked out in the end, too." He turned to Teddie with a smile. "Of course, as long as you stay out of danger, I'd greatly appreciate your help."

    Teddie nodded enthusiastically. "Can do, Sensei!"

    Emiya's smile faltered a bit. "One quick thing though; could you call me Shirou instead? I'm too much of a student to be called a teacher in anything as I am."

    The bear nodded again. "Can do, Shirou-Sensei!"

    At that, Shirou's smile faded and a rather large bead of sweat rolled down his head. From the heat of his Magic Circuit or exasperation he couldn't say, but he shrugged it off with a sigh. "Close enough, I guess."

    "Well then," Yosuke smiled. "Now we have a plan; Emiya fights, Teddie supports, I investigate, and Satonaka…" he paused as he stared at the lone girl of their party. "Well, try not to get kidnapped, alright?"

    "Ha-ha, very funny," said lone girl deadpanned.

    "Anyway, as long as we're this good, we should be able to handle the rest of the place no problem." He turned heroically towards the door and pointed outward, ready to march. "To the liquor store!"

    Chie still wasn't convinced. "B-but Emiya really should-!"

    "Hanamura, we're going as far as the liquor store tonight, right?"

    It was an odd but fair question from Emiya. "Well, it's our first and only lead so far. We'll see how it goes from there when we get there."

    He nodded, squaring his shoulders. "Sounds good."

    "Don't be stupid, Emiya!" Satonaka cried. "Do it tomorrow if you have too! You need-!"

    "Don't worry; Hanamura will be fine as long as I'm around. You and Teddie, too. I promise you'll be alright."

    Damn showoff. The thought popped into Yosuke's mind before he realized it, but seeing how easily he calmed Chie down with, the words didn't feel quite right to him.

    Teddie was also moved, it seemed. "M-me too, Shirou-sensei?"

    'Shirou-sensei' nodded. "Of course. I said I would help your problem with the culprit after all, and that's what I plan to do."

    "R-really? You promise?"

    "Of course I promise. You have my word."

    Yosuke coughed slightly and hurried out, hoping his action would distract them from Teddie's little happy dance and cheer. They had a murder case to solve, damn it!

    Stop hogging the spotlight already, Emiya!

    <><><>

    The hike back to the store was luckily less dangerous than the first attempt, but the group still moved slowly and cautiously, jumping at every (mundane) shadow. Emiya took the lead by several paces so his Persona Izanagi could fight off whatever Shadow came their way without involving the others, with Teddie behind Yosuke and Satonaka in the rear. The taller boy tried to get as close to the lead as possible, but Emiya would always stop him so the others could catch up before charging ahead. Such a damn boy scout.

    When they reached the door to the Konishi liquor store, they noticed it was wide open. Instead of the inside of the store though, the doorway was filled by a spiraling red and black portal similar to the sky above. It was nothing like the abandoned store they took refuge in. This one had "Shadow territory" written all over it.

    "Well, that doesn't look ominous at all," Satonaka sarcastically remarked.

    "So Saki-Senpai disappeared in here..." Yosuke said. "Okay, let's-!"

    Before he even took a single step through the portal, voices suddenly echoed from all around them. Emiya immediately stepped in front of the others, holding his club out and the other hand raised, a spark of blue flame flickering over his palm. The others fell into battle positions facing out in every direction. Even Teddie brought his hands up in an attempt at a karate stance.

    Yosuke didn't like what the voices had to say at all…

    "I wish Junes would go under…"
    "It's all because of that store…"


    "Are these… memories?" Emiya guessed as the voices ebbed and flowed like a tide.

    "Rumor has it that Konishi-san's daughter is working there."
    "Oh my… How could she, with her family's business suffering like it is?"
    "I heard their sales have gone downhill because of Junes."


    Satonaka was just as confused. "I-I always knew the people at the shopping district were bitter, but…"

    "That poor father… to have his own daughter working for the enemy."
    "What a troublesome child…"


    Wh-what the hell is this?! Yosuke mentally screamed. "Ted," he called to the mascot bear between gritted teeth. "You said that this place is reality for those that are here, right!? So... does that mean this was Senpai's reality when she wandered in here…?"

    Teddie looked around, and shook its head. "I… only know what goes on over here, not there."

    Yosuke snorted. "Fine then, we'll figure out what's going on inside then!" Not daring to hesitate, Yosuke bulled through the gateway, vanishing into the portal with barely a ripple.

    The portal took Yosuke into the liquor store, but the dimensions were off. The front of the store was normal for such a place, with cold fridges lining one wall and a check-out counter to the right of the doorway. Beyond that though, the building expanded into an impossibly huge warehouse packed with liquor. Kegs of beer and spirits formed towers stretching higher than most houses, and crates of drinks were stacked into veritable fortress walls further back. It was chilly in the expansive room; mist from the coolers had fogged over every glass panel in sight and wreathed the floor in places.

    Just after Yosuke had taken in the sight, he could hear the rest of his group enter the room behind him. They didn't have time to scold him for running ahead or take more than a passing glance at the scenery before the voices started again. "Dammit, not this again-!"

    The first was an older man, his tone frustrated and angry. "Saki, how many times do I have to tell you!?"

    Yosuke gasped. "Is that…?"

    "Konishi-senpai's father?" Satonaka finished.

    "You know what the neighbors say about you, right!?" the voice continued. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself? You're the eldest daughter of a family who's owned this store for generations! Is it the money? Or did you meet some guy there? Just tell me why you have to work THERE, of all places!"

    "I never imagined that tensions between Junes and the Shopping District were this bad…" Emiya muttered, looking around the store as the voice faded. Was Fuyuki like this at some point as Shinto was built up?

    "I… I can't believe this," Yosuke whispered, his fists clenching and trembling slightly. "She always looked tired and distant, yeah, but she seemed like she was having fun at least. She never even told me about any of this…"

    "Hanamura…" Satonaka frowned, looking as if she felt sorry for him. Yeah right.

    "Are you trying to tell me," he began, his voice growing into an anguished cry. "Was that THIS was how Saki-senpai saw things?!"

    "Hanamura." The others saw Emiya standing by a table of assorted photos, all of them cut up in small pieces. "There's a photo of you here," he said slowly, his expression a mix of confusion and wariness.

    "Huh?" Walking over to the collection of photos, it was easy for Yosuke to find the pictures of himself amidst the other familiar faces. "These… are all copies of the photo we took the other day with all the part-timers at Junes. But… wh-why are they all cut up like this?"

    The table almost looked like it had been a part of an arts and crafts class for preschoolers learning to use scissors. Each picture was cut a different way, a different angle, cutting edges or corners of the copies. Only the center of the photos, where Saki stood, appeared undamaged in all of them.
    He was really fond of the photo when it was taken; everyone was smiling, even Saki-senpai. He happened to be standing close to her, just being friendly. He had hoped at some point he would offer her a date at a movie, but…

    "I… never had the chance to say it…"

    Yosuke's head snapped up to the ceiling, recognizing the voice echoing all around them. "S-saki-senpai?"

    "I always wanted to tell Hana-chan…"

    "H-huh? Me?" He suddenly felt hopeful. If his Senpai admitted he had feelings for him as well, then maybe he could move on and accept her death more easily-

    "…that he was a real pain in the ass."

    And just like that, that little flare of hope died like a candle flame …wha-?

    "I was nice to him just because he was the store manager's son, that's all," Saki's voice reasoned bitterly. "But he takes it completely the wrong way and gets all enthusiastic. I can't even remember the number of times I wanted to tell him to fuck off or slap that stupid grin off his face."

    Yosuke had long since dropped the photo fragment in his hands, slipping through his slightly numbed fingers. His eyes were wide with horror and confusion, and his mouth had parted since he heard the four words uttered. "Pa-pain in the ass…?"

    No one said anything as they glanced at the auburn-haired teen, noting how painfully cracked his voice was just now. Yosuke was barely aware of their sympathetic gazes of pity on him at this point, to drawn in to the voice above him.

    "Who cares about Junes, anyway? Because of that store, our business is ruined, my parents hate me, the neighbors talk behind my back… Nothing's going to make it better. I wish everything would just disappear."

    A long moment passed, and the voice was gone. A tense silence followed as the gravity of the words settled in. "Hanamura…" Chie finally said, as if in concern. Yeah, right.

    "It-it's a lie…"

    Yosuke felt Emiya's hand on his shoulder. "Come on, Hanamura. There's nothing left here-"

    "It's a lie!" he snapped brushing his hand off, before falling to the ground and holding his ears. "It's all a lie! It has to be some… some sort of Shadow trick! Saki-senpai would never say things like that!"

    A sharp laugh broke off within the store, mocking and eerily familiar in spite of carrying a warped echo behind every word. "HAHAHAHAHAHA! How sad! Oh, woe is me! I feel so sorry for myself! But seriously, I'm the one who thinks everything is a pain in the ass!"

    From the shadows cast by the towers of barrels, a figure sauntered into view, staring directly at the headphone wearing student with a wide, malicious smile. Yosuke felt like he was staring at a mirror… and for all intents and purposes he was. The figure was an exact copy of himself, from the school uniform to the headphones, with golden eyes and a sinister looking blue aura around him as the main differences. The others recoiled, gasping at the doppelganger's appearance, who just smirked back at them.

    "Isn't that right… 'me'?" it asked rhetorically. The tone and voice it carried sounded like Yosuke, but had a dark, resonating echo and a touch of cynicism that the same time couldn't sound like Yosuke.

    "Wh-what the?" Satonaka gawked.

    "Two Yosukes?!" Teddie cried. "But that means-!"

    Emiya's eyes shifted between the two Yosukes, his club held in a defensive posture, but he said nothing. This was still completely out of his depth.
    Yosuke gulped and tried asking in a trembling voice; "Wh-who are you…?"

    "I'm you, of course," The other Yosuke replied, his tone still oozing dark amusement. "I'm all your frustrations, all your thoughts, all your dirty, little, S-E-C-R-E-T-S." It stressed each point made through his fingers like making a list, while tapping the air in front of him spelling the last word. The smirk was still there. "And I know you don't give a damn about Junes and the shopping district, let alone this stupid hick town."

    Yosuke felt his blood run cold. "How did you-? T-that's not true, I-!"

    The other Yosuke started pacing around the room, circling around the tense travelers. "You put on a good show of being carefree and happy-go-lucky 'cause you're so terrified of being alone. You surround yourself with people to block out the pain of isolation." The lookalike stopped and pointed to Emiya. "That's why you started hanging out with this loser here!"

    "Huh?" Emiya was honestly confused. Yosuke didn't like where this was going. Every word felt like a knife to the gut, and the clone was only just getting warmed up.

    "He may be a hotshot city boy, but he's such a chump! An all-around nice guy, doing favors for others with no strings attached because he believes in helping others like a good little boy scout. Who else would take the time to fix someone's bike like that? Seriously! You had him pegged for a sucker the moment he helped you. And if that wasn't good enough, you found out he was a friggin' wizard! Not some poser birthday magician, but the real deal! You latched onto him like a leech after that!"

    Yosuke glanced between Emiya and the lookalike, having the awful feeling of being cornered. "Stop it! Shut up!"

    "I know the real reason why you came snooping here. You wanted a little excitement in your life! A whole new world inside a TV-that's only the kind of stuff you see in anime, but now you could live it! Not like there was anything else to do in this shithole. You had no real reason coming here other than you were bored out of your mind!"

    "I said shut up!" Yosuke cried again, his legs shaking and his vision seeming to tunnel until it was just him and… him. "I… I came here because I wanted to know what happened to Saki-senpai!"

    "Ah, the girl you were so sweet on," the other Yosuke cooed, giving an exaggerated shrug. The Shadow-Yosuke stepped forward, unhurried and never once taking his eerie eyes off of the original Yosuke. "Her death was the perfect excuse of coming here, really. You saw the parallels of what happened with the announcer, and thought that maybe this was all connected." Slowly, he picked up the photo that had fallen from Yosuke's limp fingers and smiled wickedly, waving the fragment in his counterpart's face.

    From his position in front of Satonaka, Emiya involuntarily flinched when the photo fragments started jumping off the counter of their own accord. The copies of Yosuke and Saki Konishi's faces danced about like they were caught in a windstorm, carried to circle over the two Yosukes.

    "But you heard her just now. That's how she really thinks of you. You're such an annoying brat you blew any chance you had of anything meaningful! You've always been that way!" With deliberate slowness, the Shadow tore the small portrait of Saki down the middle and tossed the fragments behind him, his expression still the same sadistic sneer. The cavernous room was filled with the sound of harshly tearing paper as the whirling photo fragments overhead also split in similar fashion, bisecting every face and raining down on the people like confetti.

    "In the end, you didn't give a damn about the murder cases," it continued, turning around and leering at the other students. "You just needed some believable excuse so Mr. Magic Hero could be strung along to bring you back. If all went well, maybe you'd save his loser ass once or twice just to feel awesome." It then leered at Chie, who recoiled at its gaze. "Having Satonaka dragged along as a damsel in distress is always a plus, too!"

    "Stop it!" he clapped his hands over his ears in an attempt to drown out his mocking voice. "That's not true! None of that's true!"

    The other Yosuke's smirk grew, staring back the real one. "Of course it is. It's just like I told ya; I know everything about you, 'Yosuke Hanamura'. After all, I'm you... your Shadow."

    That revelation surprised everyone in the room. "Th-that's a Shadow?!" Satonaka cried. "What's going on here?!"

    Yosuke, having snapped his eyes open at the word "Shadow", glared at the glowing gold eyes of his fake twin as he felt something of an epiphany come to him. That was it. It was a Shadow. It was only a fake, a ploy meant to confuse him and divide the group. The words hurt, but there were nothing but BS mind games from a Shadow. He wasn't going to fall for it, and would make the thing pay for mocking him and pissing him off. "No… you're… not me…!"

    Emiya and Satonaka flinched again at the sudden murderous tone of their classmate. "H-Hanamura…?" Satonaka timidly asked.

    The Shadow tilted his head with a raised eyebrow, as if not believing him. It leaned closer and held a hand to its ear. "Ooooh? Speak up, 'Hana-chaaaan'! Can't quite heaaaar yoooou!" Yosuke barely noticed the sudden spike of its surrounding aura, but honestly didn't care.

    Emiya's eyes widened at the sight, his senses assailed by the gathering dark surrounding the clone. Every instinct at him screamed that something horrible was about to happen. "Hanamura!"

    Hearing Saki-senpai's nickname in that mocking tone was too much; how dare this thing say all that with his face, and try to mimic Saki-senpai's voice no less! Yosuke snapped and reached for the monkey wrenches in his back pockets, holding them as weapons. "You're not me… you're nothing like me!"

    Teddie shouted, suddenly more animated and worried than before. "Yosuke, no! Get away!"

    He charged at the Shadow, ready to beat the thing to a pulp. "YOU CAN'T BE ME, YOU SON OF A BITCH!" With a leap, Yosuke held both magic wrenches over his head, ready to smash the Shadow's teeth down his throat.

    And he did. The sound of reinforced metal smacking against the skin echoed throughout the store, and the lookalike's face snapped away from the hit.

    Yet there was a strong sense of foreboding. One that Yosuke realized something was very wrong with him…

    "Heh… hehehehe…" The Shadow started to chuckle, turning its head back to stare at his mirror. A slight bruise was marked on its cheek, but it didn't seem to notice or care. The manic eyes and still smug smile strongly hinted on the latter, and made Yosuke step back in worry.

    "Hehehehehe!"
    Soon the Shadow stood back upright, the insane sounding giggle growing in volume as the aura around it grew darker.

    "Oh no…" Teddie squeaked. "Not again!"

    The magus didn't like what the bear was implying, but had no time to question or ponder the meaning of its words.

    "HAHAHAHAHAHA!" Shadow Yosuke spread his arms and laughed in earnest, the darkness erupting around him and throwing the stupefied original to the ground with a wave of power. "Damn right I'm not you. And now I'm my own person!"

    Light surged from within the blackness, blinding the four explorers. Satonaka and Emiya could barely see the streams of blackness twining together into a new shape, but they couldn't see any details until it faded away, leaving them gaping all in shock. Yosuke could only stare in dim horror and numbing heartbeat, despite his senses screaming at him to run.

    Where a human once stood, a towering… creature was in its place. Its lower body was like a giant camo-patterned frog with black feet, a golden V-shaped blade in place of a mouth, jagged lines carved in the plate to resemble teeth and a pair of malicious red eyes on black stalks peering over it. Jutting up from the center of its back was a largely featureless elongated humanoid figure that moved like it was made of black rubber, easily as tall as an entire person by itself. A long red scarf wrapped around its neck, and large yellow gloves covered its massive hands. The 'eyes' were simply four-starred shuriken embedded on the blackened face, appearing to double as ears.

    Yosuke stared at the towering frog-riding monster raising one of the frog's front legs to stomp him into paste. A single thought crossed his mind:

    I'm going to die.

    "Hanamura!" In a burst of speed that left Emiya lagging behind, Satonaka suddenly tackled him out of the monster's path.

    Emiya was right behind her, putting himself in front the others quickly. "Stand back, all of you!" he lunged at the monster, jumping and swiping at the rubbery torso, only for it to bend out of the way easily.

    The Shadow's body shot back upright and glared at the red-haired teen despite its nigh-blank face. "You're not going anywhere either, Emiya!"

    "Wasn't planning on it," he countered as he landed, holding his golf club steady. "Now, who are you really?"

    "I am a Shadow: the true self! I'll crush everything that bores me… starting with you, Hero!" The Shadow swung its frog-like arms down on him, and the magus dove to the side.

    Shirou winced as the power of the blow made the ground tremble slightly under his feet. Even as he pulled himself upright from his roll, he raised his bandaged arm and reached for the fire burning just beneath the surface. The familiar tarot card appeared over his palm, and he crushed it without hesitation. He felt the strength of his Persona suffuse the atmosphere in a wave of blue fire. "Izanagi!"

    This time the masked warrior erupted forwards from the flames, his charge blindsiding the Shadow and making it backpedal away from the teens. Izanagi spun his body under the Shadow's startled jab and kicked at the Shadow's face with its bladed foot, carving a gash into its hastily raised arm. With a tremendous heave of its four legs, the Shadow opened the distance and landed further back in the cavernous building, Izanagi rocketing after him.

    With the giant Shadow distracted, Emiya backpedaled himself several steps to keep guarding his classmates. Chie draped Yosuke's arm over her shoulder and hauled him to the back corner of the store, behind Teddie and Emiya.

    "Satonaka, stay back and watch Hanamura," Shirou quickly ordered. "Teddie, I'll need your support."

    "Y-yes, Shirou-sensei!"

    "Alright, what's this Shadow's weak point? Anything I should watch out for aside from its raw strength?" The redhead could see through his Persona's eyes even in spite of the distance between them, the strangely helpful nature of the powers he was using allowing him to comprehend the twin viewpoints with unnatural ease. He could see the frog move with unbelievable agility, and one strike from either its fists or feet all but disintegrated the crates and barrels it struck.

    Teddie sheepishly rubbed its head. "Uh… to be honest Shirou-sensei, it's not quite that easy. Until I see it get hit by something, I can't tell what it's weak to. On top of that, that big Shadow is made of a lot of little Shadows fused together by Yosuke's Shadow. It's not normal, so I haven't seen any like it before. At least it isn't super tough against physical attacks."

    Emiya couldn't keep his frustration off of his face at that. Satonaka obviously shared his sentiments. "You wait until now to tell me this?!" he snapped.

    "I'm sorry, Shirou-sensei! I really am!"

    Yosuke barely kept track of that conversation, knowing that he was lucky to be alive and saved by Shirou Emiya… again. He should feel glad, amazed, or even a tiny bit bitter about that but… surprisingly he felt nothing but a big black hole inside him. Everything felt muted, like his emotions were drained out of him, leaving him listless and numb to the world. It was like the moment the Shadow had changed shape that his heart was plucked from his chest. What's wrong with me…?

    "Hanamura, Hanamura!" Yosuke barely felt any desire to respond when Satonaka shook his shoulder. "Come on, stay with us!"

    Shirou suddenly clutched his stomach and several crates exploded from the battle deeper in the store. The Shadow had gotten a clean hit in, swatting the Persona into some Konishi storage boxes, and he felt it quite acutely. "Everyone, take cover! The Shadow's coming back this way!"
    Izanagi suddenly skid to a halt at the edge of the storage space before them, his foot blades carving trenches and making sparks in the floor. He just managed to ready his pole-arm when the Shadow pounced towards him, its arms shooting forwards far beyond their natural length in a flurry of powerful punches. Izanagi parried the blows and forced himself between Shadow Yosuke's arms, slicing another gouge in its green hide as it did so. All that seemed to do was make the creature more determined to kill him.

    As his friends moved behind the protection of the sales counter, the magus took a single breath and raised his golf club overhead, recalling the powers of his Persona. "Tarukaja!" The Persona invoked his master's will with a snap of his fingers. With a shout, Emiya charged into the fray himself while Izanagi continued to exchange blows with the Shadow's many limbs, smashing the golf club into the Shadow's flank with all of his might. Stumbling, the Shadow howled in pain as Izanagi took the opening to cleave his blade across the Shadow's chest.

    Despite its injuries, the Shadow wasn't slowing down at all. It powered its body straight up with all four legs, nearly taking it to the ceiling. Its gloved hands clapped together into a position reminiscent of a ninja hand sign at the apex of its jump. "Not bad, 'hero,' but how long can you survive THIS?!"

    The air around Shadow Yosuke's body took on a pale green tinge, howling like a tornado as it descended. Izanagi and Emiya scattered, but it wasn't enough: the moment the frog-ninja hit the ground, the green winds roared outward in a shockwave, upending everything it touched and shredding furrows in every direction. Even the sales counter was smashed to pieces, the trio behind it blown into the wall behind them from the force.

    Izanagi and Emiya fared far worse. The winds powered through Izanagi's guard like it wasn't even there, sending it spinning into the corner and imbedding it, there while the feedback nearly paralyzed Emiya with pain midflight. It felt like he was hit by a sandblaster! Even after all of that, he forced himself to look towards his friends. "Is everyone alright?"

    "I've been better," Satonaka winced. Yosuke coughed, too weak to say anything else.

    "Be careful, Shirou-sensei!" Teddie cried as it rolled to its feet. "This one is much stronger than the Slipping Halberies, and it knows a wind-element spell! Your Persona is bear-y weak to wind!"

    "I noticed," he grunted, climbing to his feet around the same time Izanagi plucked himself out of the wall. "Well then, you want to try magecraft?"

    "Zio!" Izanagi invoked in reply with an outstretched hand, the blue bolt streaking down between the Persona and the charging Shadow, sending it straight to the floor like it was hit by the fist of God. Arcs of electricity sizzled across its body, and every limb twitched painfully. Even the rubbery black body looked like it was having trouble moving after that blast.

    "There!" Teddie pointed. "Right there! That's its weakness!"

    "Perfect!" Emiya exclaimed and held his hand out. "Again!"

    Shadow Yosuke screamed in agony as another blue bolt smote it from above.

    "Again!"

    But before the third bolt crashed down, the Shadow forced its legs under it and tensed. "You…"

    Pushing off the ground hard enough to crack the floor, the Shadow flipped aside a split second before the third Zio bolt could connect. "-are such a…"

    Shadow Yosuke jumped again, spinning in midair to face Emiya's back, the golden blade on its front looking like nothing more than a fiendish smile behind him. The magus turned with wide, shocked eyes just as the frog body's massive paw lifted to crush him into a pancake. "-pain in the ASS!"

    STOMP!
    "EMIYA!"
    "SHIROU-SENSEI!"

    Even through the haze plaguing him, horror managed to well up in Yosuke when saw that Shadow thing slam its leg down like crushing a particularly irritating bug. Nothing could be seen because of the cloud of dust that kicked up around the force of its attack. The implication was clearly there but… "No… please be alright…"

    The dust cleared and the others were relieved to see Emiya bracing the golf club against the Shadow's foot, forced down to one knee and visibly straining.

    "I never expected you to be so interesting," Shadow Yosuke taunted. "But the fact is you're too interesting, having all this power and playing the hero. It pisses me off, so do me a huge favor and JUST DI-AAGH!"

    It was at that moment that Izanagi returned with another brutal haymaker to the Shadow's head, forcing the frog to stagger away from Emiya. The magus winced as his injured arm throbbed, blood starting to leak through the bandages. His wounds were bleeding again from the strain he was putting his body through.

    For an instant, the black body looked limp and dazed, but it quickly clenched its fists and faced them. It then slapped its hands together like before, but this time instead of green magic wind, raw magical power gathered around the Shadow, suffusing it with crackling energy. "That's it! I'm seriously pissed now, Emiya! If you just won't lay down and die, I'm gonna crush you with everything I got!"

    Shadow Yosuke once more jumped straight up, a nimbus of green light roaring to life around him. This time the storm was powerful to rattle the windows just from its formation. The Shadow's descent, made even faster as it started spinning, was marked by what sounded like a jet engine. "GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!"

    Teddie's eyes shrank to comically small dots as it panicked. "SHIROU-SENSEI!"

    Shirou saw it coming too, and turned to Chie and Yosuke. "TAKE COVER!"

    "WINDS OF OBLIVION!"

    BOOOOOOOM!

    Charged by far more magical energy, the shockwave Shadow Yosuke created on impact was an order of magnitude greater than the previous, tearing the entire Konishi liquor store building apart from the inside. The hurricane-gales sent debris flying in every direction and blowing a few of the surrounding buildings apart, caving in walls and folding the houses over. Every window within a block in the mock-district shattered from the force. All anyone could see was a blinding green-white light from the force of the hurricane.

    And then there was silence.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Chapter 15: The Magic Words

    Lying still where he had landed, Yosuke mindlessly stared at the red and black sky overhead, his hearing still shot from the howling winds that had nearly torn him apart. Every inch of his body ached, and he wasn't motivated to move and check his condition. He could in fact be bleeding from a thousand cuts, and that muted feeling that continued to plague him might be keeping him from noticing for sure.

    Nevertheless, some emotions were still strong enough to make their way through the haze, including confusion at the fact that he was obviously alive. That last hurricane should have stripped the skin from his bones, or at least smashed him around hard enough to twist him into a pretzel.
    He heard someone moving to his left, groaning as they did. Turning his head, he saw Satonaka forcing herself to her knees. She was remarkably unharmed for the most part, though Yosuke figured that she was going to be covered in bruises later even if she had been saved from the worst of it. Behind her, he could see several chunks of debris littering the area, bits of wood and metal falling around them.

    "Oooh…" she moaned a bit before looking up at something further out. "Oh my god! Emiya!"

    Saved again, huh? The boy forced his head up to look in the same direction, and a sharp stab of horror managed to work its way through his brain, surpassing even the stabs of pain from his battered body protesting his movement.

    Its arms spread wide; the towering black and silver warrior that was Shirou Emiya's Persona hovered only a few meters away. Izanagi had obviously guarded the two of them from the winds with its body, and the damage was obvious to all. Smoke-like ribbons of blackness drifted out of several gashes up and down the length of its body, and its coat was tattered heavily. Between Izanagi and the other students lay Emiya, his body motionless and covered in a tapestry of rashes, cuts and bruises, his uniform shredded in several places and blood leaking from a dozen wounds.
    No sooner than the girl had called out to him that Emiya's Persona slumped, flickered like a faulty TV signal, and winked out.

    "Emiya! Hang on!" the tomboy called repeatedly as she scrabbled to her feet and rushed to the battered boy's side.

    Yosuke didn't really care that she largely ignored him. Emiya had saved their lives from the looks of things, and paid the price in blood. He supposed he should feel grateful for that, but nothing entered his mind, not even bitterness at being ignored or grief that his classmate might be dying a few yards away. Slowly, he forced himself to his feet, his every motion feeling heavy and tired. Of course, he doubted lying on the ground all day would help him if that Shadow-thing came back, and that was enough to get him moving.

    He barely took two steps before another voice caught his attention. "S-someone help!" Teddie cried out, still wobbling where he had landed. Being a hollow suit, he had bounced around more, but had taken less damage overall, having no bones to break or blood to lose.

    Tiredly, Yosuke walked over and helped Teddie up before trudging up to his classmates. All of his desire to investigate this world had dried up long ago, and he finally agreed with Satonaka's desire to get out of here. Who knows how small a window of opportunity they had before they had to outrun that frog-thing again? "Is he alright?"

    What a stupid question… Emiya was an absolute wreck, and was barely breathing even as Satonaka tried to rouse him. Come on, you gotta make it out of this, Emiya… He genuinely wanted the redhead to live; two deaths out here was enough, and losing someone willing to protect them all like Emiya did would eat at him until the day he died.

    "Satonaka, come on," he tried again, walking up to her. "Let's get him out of here-"

    The sudden glare she sent him nearly knocked him back on his butt. She was absolutely furious! If he was even a foot closer to her, she'd probably have kicked his teeth in! "You… you… YOU IDIOT!" she screamed. "THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT, YOU KNOW!"

    This time Yosuke found himself taking an involuntary step back as her words stabbed into him. His emotions were starting to flare up, and it felt almost physically painful. "Wh-what are you-?"

    "What that Shadow said was all true, wasn't it? About how you just came here for fun instead for Konishi-senpai's sake?! You just wanted Emiya to take you back because you wanted some adventure! Of all the stupid, selfish things I've ever… Emiya almost died because of you twice now!"

    Yosuke shook his head in denial. "N-no, I-"

    "Don't deny it again! That's what started this mess in the first place!" Satonaka snapped, not noticing that the boy in her arms was stirring.

    "That thing came from you, Yosuke. Shadows come from humans," Teddie added, his tone more somber.

    "But there's no way he came from me!" he reasoned desperately. "I mean… I never wanted any of this to happen, I swear!"

    "Oh, sure you didn't! But it did anyway!" Satonaka continued, her entire body shaking with rage and fear.

    Before the girl's lambasting of Yosuke began again, a weak voice brought her to a halt. "Satonaka…"

    The redhead's whisper brought the three back together, all thoughts of blame and denial pushed aside. "E-Emiya?"

    In spite of the blood, bruises and dirt marring his body from head to toe, the magus smiled genuinely. "Don't put the blame all on Hanamura. He means well, I know it… If anything, I should be the one to blame."

    Yosuke's brain almost short-circuited at that. Satonaka and Teddie were just as baffled. "Wh-…what?"

    "Your Shadow… it sounded like a lot of it came from how you envied me, right?" Emiya asked. "Because of whom I am and what I can do… I'm sorry for that. I was glad to have been your friend though, really." Still smiling, the magus slowly forced himself to his feet, hunching over tiredly as he did so.

    Yosuke felt a strange spark of warmth at the apology, but that was quickly crushed as the implications of his statement sank in. "'Have been?' What are you-?" Emiya's back was to him, but as Yosuke watched him force his back straight, the redhead's intent clicked. Oh god, no. Don't start thinking that, Emiya. Don't!

    As if to spite his mental pleas, Emiya simply turned his head to Teddie, who was starting to shake. "Teddie, I need you to do me a big favor."

    "Wh-what is it, Shirou-sensei?" the bear asked.

    "Take Hanamura and Satonaka back to the entrance where we met up and let them out. You know the way back, right?"

    "Y-yeah, but what about you, Shirou-sensei?"

    Emiya simply scanned the wreckage, having lost his grip on the golf club during the last attack. Stiffly, he walked over to a pile of rubble and drew out a dented but still solid steel rod, probably a remnant of the ceiling struts. "That Shadow is still out there somewhere; I'll keep it busy as long as I can. Just get them out of here."

    Yosuke's mind reeled. The seemingly random transfer student he had barely known for a week turned out to be someone far different than anyone he had ever heard of. Superpowers, generosity to the point of idiocy, and he was using both to cover their backs even if it got him killed. Who does that for strangers?

    "What?!" Satonaka shouted back, all but marching up to him to drag him out physically if she had to. "Are you absolutely insane?! We can't just leave you here!"

    "I said I would make sure you're all safe, and I intend to keep that promise." Emiya smiled. It was a serene one, like he had already accepted this as good and correct in the face of death.

    The sight snuffed Satonaka's fire instantly, leaving her on the verge of tears. "B-but you'll…"

    He was planning on being their martyr. And it pissed Yosuke off to no end. What kind of-?!

    "What kind of bloody bullshit are you blabbering about?!" A familiar, unwelcome voice ground out angrily as if completing Yosuke thoughts. It probably was, actually.

    The group tensed as Shadow Yosuke's monstrous form reappeared from deeper in the rubble-strewn street and took threatening steps towards the others. Its gloved fists were shaking with rage. While Teddie, Satonaka and Yosuke backpedaled, Emiya simply put his sword arm forward and bared his teeth.

    "You really don't give a damn about your own life, do you?! Condescending bastard! Thinking you're better than me because you see yourself a hero?!"

    "I don't care about any of that!" he shouted back. "I swore I'd keep them safe, and I will with everything I have, including my life!"

    "Let's test that, then!" The frog-beast lifted a massive foreleg and brought it down on the wounded teen. Blue flame sputtered to life in his left hand even as he tried to roll away from the blow. Even as the card formed within the fire, the force of the Shadow's fist kicked up another spray of debris in all directions, peppering the magus with stone and wood shards.

    Izanagi rose once more to face the Shadow head-on, Emiya struggling to his feet while his Persona hacked furiously at the Shadow, who leaped out of reach with one powerful bound and then stretched its fists in a furious barrage that left the masked warrior struggling to even move aside from furiously defending.

    "I'M supposed to be the star here, dammit! ME!" Shadow Yosuke cried between attacks. "So stop acting like you're better than me and just DIE!"

    Emiya, ignoring his enemy's tirade, turned back towards the others. His muscles were tense in getting a rigid guard in front of him. "GET OUT OF HERE! HURRY!" Not bothering to see if they were taking his advice, Shirou threw himself into the fray with a howl.

    Despite the situation, they each found themselves rooted to the spot as their friend struggled to strike the giant Shadow. Each one was torn between fleeing for their lives and wanting to help him before he was killed in the futile battle.

    The sight, while seeming heroic in a grim way, sucked out all the strength in Yosuke's legs, and he fell to his knees. How can someone just toss his life away, especially when one of the people he was dying for was the cause of the whole disaster to begin with? If only I hadn't used Saki-senpai's death as an excuse!

    "GAH!" Shadow-Yosuke suddenly flinched as if struck, his barrage stopping long enough for Emiya to stab the jagged tip of the steel pipe deep into the giant's side while Izanagi closed the distance and brought its polearm down hard on the black body, cleaving an arm nearly halfway through.

    Even as Yosuke watched, the Shadow recovered and slowly regained the upper hand, its seemingly limitless endurance wearing Emiya down with each exchange. I was so jealous of Emiya that I wanted him to fail just so I could be the hero. I'm such a pain in the ass!

    One of Shadow Yosuke's arms briefly flickered, causing a devastating haymaker to pass through Emiya harmlessly. "What the hell?!" The Shadow barely managed this statement before Izanagi, seeing a window of opportunity, struck with a heavy overhead slash that nearly took one of the frog body's eyestalks clear off.

    As another wave of dust and debris washed over the trio, Satonaka decided it was time to seek cover, even if she didn't want to leave Emiya at all. She dropped down and hauled Yosuke to his feet. "Snap out of it, Hanamura, move already!" she snapped. She was still furious with him, but no way was she going to let that get someone killed. If she thought it would do any good, she would charge in and fight the Shadow herself.

    To her surprise, Yosuke dug his heels in and slipped out of her grip. "No… No, I can't leave. I… have to take responsibility."

    "What are you talking about, Hanamura? This isn't the time to try and act cool!" Satonaka gripped his shoulders, but he shrugged her off.

    "I have to do this, Satonaka. This is my fault, like you said."

    "But-!"

    "I knew the Shadow wasn't lying, but I was so ashamed of what it said I didn't want to admit it." Yosuke forced himself to look at the stricken Shadow-beast. "I honestly hate how dull this town is compared to the city I grew up in, but I wanted to make it work. So I changed how I acted around people to fit in… even though I thought I was being stupid at times…"

    Emiya was startled when the Shadow's attacks paused for a third time, and this time the thing took its attention away from him completely, turning towards its former host, shock somehow coming through despite its blank features. The magus could hear Yosuke's solemn words in the mostly still street, and he couldn't help but feel a smile pull at his mouth before he refocused on the task at hand.

    "What the hell are you saying?! You think just talking big will make everything better?! Y-you're just a worthless pile of shit!" the Shadow roared, disregarding Emiya entirely and began rumbling towards Yosuke. Emiya and Izanagi rocketed after the frog beast, the Persona impaling the creature's foot hard enough to nail it to the ground while its master stabbed a leg and then grabbed another pipe from amidst the debris to take its place. "Son of a-!"

    "Even with all that though, my feelings for Saki-senpai were real." Yosuke forced himself forward, his gaze never looking away from the Shadow even as he the Shadow thrashed mere feet from him. "No offense, Emiya, but I'm pretty sure my envy was real, too."

    Emiya, bloody, battered, dirty and exhausted, managed to smile briefly at him. "None taken, Hanamura."

    Returning the smile with a brief, weary one of his own, Yosuke turned back to the Shadow. "You're right. I am a pain in the ass looking for adventure, and it nearly got the people around me killed. When you get right down to it, all of this is me; the good and the bad."

    The moment the admission left his mouth, the Shadow's entire body began to convulse violently, its hands clasping its head as if it was in more pain than ever. As it flailed, its body began to flicker and blur as though it was a TV image losing reception. "Sh-shut up! Shut up shut up SHUT UP you stupid brat! JUST DIE, DAMN YOU!" With a wet squelch, it ripped its foot free from Izanagi's blade, splitting it in two as it jumped, its hands flying into another hand seal.

    Teddie reacted immediately to the sight, popping up from behind his cover, arms flailing. "Sensei! It's about to use that wind attack again! Hit it before it's charged up!"

    With a sharp nod, Emiya lifted his hand towards the ascending Shadow, his Persona ripping its blade from the ground and doing the same. "Izanagi!" The magus's body released a ripple of blue flame, and the Persona voiced Emiya's will.

    "Zio!" Blue lightning shrieked through the air, striking the Shadow in the side and sending it into a wild spin towards the ground. Screaming in agony and rage, the Shadow's twitching body couldn't even bring its legs under itself before Izanagi slammed into it, stabbing his glaive into the Shadow's upper body and driving the Shadow to the ground. The two skidded several meters before Izanagi leaped clear of the flailing Shadow.
    Shadow Yosuke was barely on its feet when Izanagi made another pass, sweeping a foot clear off the frog body before skidding to a stop a short distance away. In desperation, the flickering Shadow launched another arm-stretching punch, though this one was far slower than the barrages that had nearly beaten Emiya and Izanagi to death minutes before. Izanagi simply shot forward, ducking under the blow and drew its polearm back.

    "Cleave!" A light burst of mana surged along the edge of the blade, acting on a more physical sense of energy from Shirou's body. The reinforced blade made a perfect horizontal slash across the arm, cutting it just as easily as a Slipping Harbelie from earlier. The blade continued to make its crescent mark to the Shadow's head.

    "Damn you to hell!" it barely managed one final cry before the masked warrior's glaive finally bit into the Shadow's throat, decapitating the monster.

    Through his Persona's eyes, Emiya watched the monstrous body burst into a cloud of red and black mist, revealing the yellow-eyed clone of Yosuke, unharmed but oddly still as it dropped to the ground limply. The moment the battle was over Izanagi faded away, and took with it every ounce of strength in the magus's body. It seemed that he needed to be careful with this new power; the heady rush had him pushing his body way harder than it was wise to in his condition, and he barely noticed until now. As it was, the fact he was still standing was a miracle rivaling a True Magic.

    Yosuke couldn't help but feel a bit of pity for the- make that his- Shadow when he caught sight of it laying there. In the end, it was a part of him, and he knew how rough it was getting beaten up when you're down. "Satonaka, could you go help Emiya? I think he's done more than his fair share today." Not bothering to listen to her reply, he walked slowly up to his Shadow.

    The closer he got, the more the haze on his heart cleared. He knew he was doing the right thing as he lowered himself to his Shadow's side. Those formerly terrifying eyes were now simple lights; nothing to be afraid of. "You had it right the first time…" He found himself recalling the words he heard Emiya used describing his Persona; they seemed fitting. "I am you… and you are me."

    The Shadow smiled and nodded, a look of what could only be described as relief passing over it briefly before it vanished in a flash of blue flame. In front of Yosuke, hovering over where the Shadow had been laying, a new being regarded him calmly. The figure was as large as Izanagi, clad in a white bodysuit and black shoes. Its hands were like the feet of the Shadow's former frog body, save that each palm held a golden shuriken. The blade that was once its grinning mouth was now a chest guard, and its head had gained the short eyestalks, though it was otherwise the same black, shuriken-eyed ball from the Shadow. The red scarf still wrapped around its neck, blowing in an unfelt wind.

    In Yosuke's opinion, it actually looked pretty cool. It reminded him of the heroic characters he used to idolize as a kid and still liked the designs of today.

    With a whoosh of a snuffed flame, the figure vanished, replaced by a slowly spinning card that fell slowly into his waiting hand. He took a single good look at the figure on the card before it dissolved, becoming a part of him as much as his own heart or mind. "My… Persona," he said in wonder. Like Emiya, he had a power of his own now, the Persona Jiraiya.

    The act of accepting the Persona signaled the end of the ordeal, and Yosuke felt his exhaustion return twofold. He let himself slump onto a slab of concrete. A moment later, he noticed a pair of shoes enter his vision. Looking up, the shoes belonged to Emiya, who was being supported by Satonaka. "Are you alright, Hanamura?"

    "Y-yeah… I'm just tired. I should be asking you that though: you look like hell."

    Emiya simply chuckled before clutching his ribs with a wince. "Well, it hurts to laugh, but I'll be okay."

    "You're insane," Satonaka chided. "Both of you! I swear, men these days…" She trailed off into indistinct grumbling for a moment before looking around the rubble-strewn fake shopping district. "…So is it really over?"

    "Yeah, I think so. At least, my Shadow's no longer going to be a problem," Yosuke replied with a tired sigh. He didn't even do any fighting, but he felt like he had run a marathon. "…Damn it. It hurts to face yourself…" This was especially true when "yourself" tried to tear you apart limb from limb.

    "We ought to get you all out of here. Even with the glasses, this world isn't meant for humans. Best for you all to go home and sleep in your own beds," Teddie chimed in, a concerned frown on his face.

    "Yeah," Emiya nodded. "Home sounds good right about now. Though I'll need to find a change of clothes first." He gestured vaguely to his tattered uniform and the blood staining several parts of his body.

    "Sorry, Emiya, everyone…" Yosuke smiled sadly. "I've been a real 'pain in the ass,' haven't I?"

    "You sure have," Satonaka agreed bitterly.

    "I forgive you all the same," Emiya nodded.

    Yosuke could only smile. "Good to know."

    -TV World Studio-

    The First Aid kit was completely depleted of its disinfectant and bandages to cover Emiya's numerous wounds and patch up the occasional scrape on the others. Despite being a hollow suit, Teddie had remarkably escaped the entire ordeal with only a little dirt on its fur, something that the bear still treated as a travesty worth attention.

    "Next time I'll remember to bring more painkillers and bandages…" Hanamura mumbled, half-supporting, half-being supported by, Emiya as they walked. Satonaka stayed ahead of them both by a few steps with her eyes alert for danger, and Teddie brought up the rear.

    "A lot more," Shirou agreed. "Sorry about losing the golf club, though."

    "Ah, don't worry about it. I'll just pay for it out of my next check and that'll be that. Saving our bacon is a good enough trade-off."

    The walk back to the studio-like entrance was fortunately without incident. The abrupt shift from the red-tinted world of the false shopping district to warm yellow lights and walls of the studio was jarring, and the weirdest part was that the transition between the two was completely unnoticed until they were walking on the metal scaffolding leading to the center stage. "Well, here we are," Teddie announced as the gang found themselves back in the studio. "Any last requests before we 'shove off'?"

    "More like a question," the redheaded magus admitted; he had been thinking about it since seeing the Konishi store and Yosuke's Shadow. "Teddie, you said this world is the reality of people who enter here, right? Like the shopping district and that hotel room from yesterday… did they form because Konishi-senpai and Yamano-san came here and made those their realities?"

    Teddie's confused blink was his only response, but luckily Hanamura translated for him. "I think what Emiya is trying to ask is… Did those places form because of the people who entered this world?"

    The bear appeared thoughtful, but shook its head. "I don't know. Up until the first person was pushed in, this never happened before. But I can say they were probably in those places when the Shadows attacked them."

    "Wait, so it was the same for them as it was for Hanamura?" Satonaka asked.

    "The fog lifts in this world when it gets foggy in yours. The Shadows get violent when that happens." The bear fidgeted a bit. "I usually get scared and hide those times, but I could tell the last few days were different when people came in. They disappeared after the fog in here lifted…"

    The Yasogami students exchanged uneasy glances with each other. "So, let's see if we got this straight," Emiya started. "Konishi-senpai and Ms. Yamano were thrown in here, and wandered around without a way out."

    "After a while, their Shadows come out," Satonaka continued. "And when the fog lifted, they go crazy and kill them…"

    "Which leads to their bodies reappearing on the telephone lines by morning," Hanamura finished. Teddie nodded, and another thought crossed his mind. "So… if I'd been here when the fog had cleared in this world-"

    "You guys were lucky," the bear said simply. "The fight would have been much tougher on Shirou-sensei if the Shadow fought you without the fog around."

    "How so?" Emiya wondered. That fight was tough enough. He couldn't figure out what factors would change just because the fog was gone.

    "You saw it: when a Shadow goes crazy, a strong one draws others to it, and the big mass of Shadows kills the host. If the fog was gone, hundreds more, maybe thousands, might have added their strength to Yosuke's Shadow," Teddie explained ominously.

    Hanamura summed up the trio's feelings on the matter. "Dammit."

    After a moment of uneasy silence, Satonaka spoke. "So, that announcer lady and Konishi-senpai… they were stuck here all alone…"

    "No one could have saved them at all," Emiya clenched a fist, eyes narrowed. "If only I'd figured this out sooner…"

    Teddie glanced to each of the students, noticing their quiet and upset reactions. "G-guys, listen! They disappeared after the fog lifted, but they were safe before that. No Shadows attacked them."

    "But they attacked us," the magus reminded the mascot bear.

    "I guess they knew we were snooping and saw us as enemies," Teddie reasoned. "But between Shirou-sensei's power and Yosuke's, we can fight them! We might even be able to save people!"

    Emiya and his classmates were rendered speechless. It was the magus-in-training's dream to be a hero, an Ally of Justice. He had hoped to one day use his magecraft to save others, but no matter how often he trained, he just couldn't seem to even get close to realizing his father's dream.

    But now, in this world, being aware of a conspiracy to kill people through their own dark, repressed thoughts, and with the Persona Izanagi to fight and stop any future kidnappings…Save people…? With this power in this world… yes, yes I think that's possible!

    Hanamura found his voice first. "W-wait a minute… Are you saying if anyone else gets thrown in here, we can save them before they disappear? Like with my Shadow?"

    Satonaka considered for a moment. In all honesty, given her vehement desire to stay out of this world, the boys were expecting her to demand they leave this impossible situation behind and go back to their normal lives. Instead, she mulled over the idea. "And if we can figure out who's behind this, we can catch the culprit too. We might be able to stop this whole thing ourselves, or at least get enough evidence to let the police finish the case."

    Emiya's confidence was soaring as the whole thing started coming together in his mind, but not at Teddie's sudden downcast frown. "Huh? What's wrong Teddie?"

    The bear shook its head. "Oh, it's nothing, really…" His fidgeting told a different story however.

    "You look like you want to ask us something though," Shirou encouraged.

    "Well… is it alright if I can?" The students, while confused, nodded. "…if Shadows are born from people, then what was Teddie born from?"

    They blinked and exchanged perplexed glances. "You're kidding, right?" Yosuke asked immediately. Teddie shook its head, the frown growing.

    "You… don't know your own past?" Shirou asked slowly.

    "You said you live in this world, right?" Chie remarked. "Shouldn't you know everything about it, at least about yourself?"

    Teddie nodded. "I know how this world works and can tell when something happens in here. I never knew much about myself, though..." the bear lowered its head. "Actually, I never thought much about it until now."

    Emiya considered this with a touch of pity. Huh. Well, that explains why we could never get a straight answer from him before. If he really is the only thing around here aside from Shadows, he must feel lonely in here…

    "You guys will come back here… right?" the bear added timidly.

    very lonely, he amended. "Of course we will," Shirou smiled. "We promised to help with this case, after all."

    "R-really?"

    "Yeah. A promise is a promise. Though… well, even if we wanted to leave…" Hanamura jerked his thumb back to the center of the studio. "We don't have a way to get back yet."

    The bear's eyes briefly shrunk comically and blinked in embarrassment. "Oh! Th-That's right! Okay, I'll let you out. But there's one thing you gotta remember; we need to meet up in the same place every time if you guys want to get back. Right here's a good spot, really."

    "The same portal inside Junes, you mean?" Shirou guessed. It was a good thing the TV at Junes was so prohibitively expensive then: it would be an issue if someone bought that massive TV and left them floundering on the either side.

    The bear nodded. "Because of your power, you could come in from any other TV, you just wouldn't end up here, and I wouldn't know where to find or get ahold of you very fast. So keep consistent and come to this spot… or else you'd be doooomed." Teddie stressed out the last word ominously, though coming from him, it only sounded comical at best. "Got it!?"

    Hanamura nodded, as did his classmates. "Got it; thanks for the warning, Ted."

    "Can we go home now?" the green sweater girl sighed. "I just want to take a bath and go to bed."

    "You and me both," Hanamura nodded. "I need to get home, soak in the shower, and sleep a lot." A small smile crossed his lips. "I think… I'm gonna sleep well tonight."

    "You sure?" Satonaka asked. "I mean, with Konishi-senpai and your Shadow-"

    "Yeah. I have… closure, at least."

    He's taken this better than I had thought. You're a stronger person than you realize, Hanamura. Shirou nodded back to their guide bear. "Teddie, if you do the honors?"

    "Roger, Shirou-sensei!" the bear saluted. "One exit comin' right up!"

    With the same two taps of his foot, the familiar stack of TVs appeared, similar to the ones from yesterday. The trio of students walked around it, hesitant to go through and cause a scare.

    The magus examined the screens for a moment. "Alright, before we leave, I should check that no one's watching. Magic has to remain secret, and I'm pretty sure this place qualifies as magic. Teddie, is there any way you can show me what's going on out-Huh?"

    Teddie cut off Shirou's plan as he got behind all three of them and pushed, just like last time. "Come on, come on, come on! Go go go! Squiiiish!"

    "HEY! Don't touch there you little-!"

    "Stop squeezing- Aw man, here we go agaaaaaaaaaaa-"

    -Junes Electronics Department-

    WHAM!

    Would anyone be walking by the aisle, they would have seen three students flat and on their stomachs lying on the store floor. It would be nearly half a minute before any of them pushed themselves from their heap.

    "I'm really starting to hate that bear," Hanamura grunted as he rubbed his stomach.

    "It better not had intended to touch me there," Satonaka cursed. "Or I'd be kicking that bear straight to the moon next time I see it!"

    "Is there a moon in that world?" Emiya asked innocently.

    "For that bear's sake, there better not be!" she groused before gently pulling the redhead to his feet. "Wha-? Hey! Your clothes!"

    Confused, the boys looked and found that, amazingly, his uniform was undamaged, if a little dusty. The blood-soaked slices and torn sections were whole and unblemished. For an instant, Emiya wondered if his wounds were also healed and the implications of those injuries only existing in that world before a twinge of pain raced through him. "Damn," he muttered irritably, rolling up his sleeve to see the blood-stained bandage wrapped around the bite marks there. "I'll have to keep these out of Dojima's sight…" His entire body was still covered in wounds, many of which only just stopped bleeding. Stretching wrong would re-open them.

    "Yeah, good idea. No way you'd be able to explain all those cuts and bruises anyway," Hanamura agreed. "At least you won't need to order another uniform. That uncle of yours would flip." The smirk he wore looked bone weary at that, and he finally took off his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose, tucking them into his pocket. "Thanks, Emiya. For everything. I'll see you at school tomorrow."

    As much as that thanks filled him with a sense of joy that eclipsed anything he had felt in years, Emiya still had to fulfill his sworn duty of helping others. "Are you sure you're alright? I can at least see you safely home."

    "Nah, I don't live too far from here. I'll be fine. See ya both tomorrow." With a wave to his new (genuine) friends, Hanamura forced himself to walk out of the department without slumping from exhaustion and pain. Maybe it was the fact that a lot of the weight in his head and heart was gone, but he felt lighter and his head clearer in spite of the numerous bruises.

    The three parted ways, the tomboy and the magus heading in the same direction for the residential areas beyond the floodplain. With a fresh wave of rain pattering the streets, Chie made sure to stay close in case Emiya's wounds troubled him too much and he needed her support. At the very least, she could repay him for the consideration of sharing his umbrella the other day.

    A quiet voice in the back of her mind whispered poisonously. That's all it is. Riiiight.

    -Samegawa Flood Plain, Evening-

    Yukiko let out a soft sigh of relief. She had been working so long the last few days that she barely had any time of rest. And to top it off, she was made their temporary new manager while her family and inn staff worked themselves to the bone to take care of the tourists. The school was considerate of her situation at least and postponed any assignments she had to do. Family came first… unfortunately.

    Sitting under the dry gazebo, she soothed the fabric of her pink floral kimono and watched the rain fall. She allowed herself this small break, for as soon as she returned home she would be forced to cater for her guests and help the staff. It'll be the same thing from now until the day I die.
    She would have been there sooner but the news media happened to pull her aside to ask them some questions… mostly about her inn and appearance. She couldn't even get a word in edgewise during the whole interview. Not that I have anything else to say about my inn that everyone else gushes over.

    "You're Yuki, right?"

    Yukiko was startled from her thoughts by the voice behind her. A student still in his school uniform walked up to her left from behind a pillar of the gazebo. His uniform wasn't from Yasogami, likely from a private school at the other end of Inaba. What unnerved her was the way he looked at her. His eyes were wide and dull, almost lifeless and unblinking like a fish's, and an empty smile. He was soaked to the bone, his messy black hair and his uniform plastered to his skin by the rain. How long had he been waiting for her?

    "I thought I recognized you in that amazing kimono. You look nice all dressed up," he started with a breathy mumble.

    Yukiko shifted uneasily in her seat. "U-uh…"

    "You wanna hang out?" he asked. "I know a good movie that's showing tonight."

    It wasn't that it wasn't a nice gesture, but… his presence bothered her, gave her an uneasy feeling. She saw desperation in his eyes and demeanor, probably on the line of stalker. The way he said Yuki like a pet name was also disturbing: he didn't even know this person's name, and he was already talking like they were old friends. He was worse than that reporter a while ago. He's no prince.

    "I-I have to get back to the inn soon," Yukiko tried to deflect. Perhaps he would nod and accept her excuse like the other boys at school.

    "-Th-then maybe a quick bite at Aiya's?" he offered quickly. "They're doing that rainy day special thing tonight. My treat."

    The heiress frowned. "I'm afraid not. Sorry."

    He looked visibly put down, and she hoped he would respect her decision and kindly leave. But then he forced a smile that sent shivers to her spine. "Come on, Yuki, it's just one bowl. You'll be back before you know it."

    Yukiko was reaching for her red umbrella even before the alarm bells were ringing. "I don't have the time-"

    "Then we'll make time. Just one bowl at Aiya's, maybe talk a bit..."

    "I said no," and with that, she started rising from her seat-

    Only to find him gripping her hand rather tightly. "It'll be fun, Yuki. Trust me."

    Yukiko struggled a bit from his hand, but found no strength, helplessness overtaking her thoughts. Someone, anyone, help me! "I said no!"

    He started to sneer. "And I said-!"

    "Hey! Back off, jerk!" a sudden shout brought a stop to the teen's actions, and Yukiko caught sight of her best friend all but thundering towards her, and coming up behind her at a slower pace was the transfer student, Shirou Emiya.

    Yukiko was relieved to see her friend. "Chie!" My hero!

    "I'll give you to the count of three to let Yukiko go or so help me I'll make you!"

    Tightening his grip on Yukiko's wrist angrily, the teen stepped forward threateningly, "Mind your own business!"

    Chie was not in the mood to put up with someone antagonizing her or hurting her friend after the mess in the TV World, and she snapped her leg up, striking the boy's forearm with perfect accuracy. It was light and fast, forcing him to let go of Yukiko and stumble back with his arm stinging, but not enough to actually do any lasting harm. Furious, the hunched teen brought his arms up like he planned to turn this into a full-on brawl. "You bitch! I'll-"

    "Excuse me."

    Emiya had finally arrived, his gait slow and purposeful. Yukiko was surprised he saw none of the pleasant, quiet demeanor from what she saw from the first day. In its place a cold fury took its place, the redhead's golden-brown eyes were flinty and intense. She could see several bandages all over his face and hands too, making it look like he had wrestled with a wild dog. If anything, he looked less like a student and more like a fighter.
    She couldn't blame the other male student for feeling intimidated at the sight; she was starting to feel the same thing.

    "Emiya, I got this," Chie said, still glaring at her offender.

    "Just give me a minute, Satonaka. That's all I need." Oddly enough, Chie complied and let him by.

    The villainous stalker collected his wits during this and snapped at the heroic student. "Who the hell are you?"

    "I couldn't help but to overhear your discussion with Amagi-san," he said slowly. "I won't hold it against you for asking Amagi-san out, but she said no. Twice. So let's just leave it at that. You're going too far."

    The student sneered and pointed at him. "Hey! I saw her first, bastard! Don't think you can just step in and take her for yourself!"

    "This has nothing to do with 'first' or whatever you believe," Emiya shot back coldly. "It's a matter of principle. If you truly care for her feelings, then you would respect her decision and leave her alone. If you keep harassing her, I don't think I could stop Satonaka from beating you within an inch of your life."

    Next to him, the girl in question offered the black-haired boy a faux-peppy smile and cracked her knuckles rather ominously.

    The stranger's eyes darted between the both of them for several tense seconds, only broken by the sound of the pounding rain and the rushing river nearby. "…Fine!" he finally shouted. "But don't think I'll forget this!" With a bitter, wounded look at the girls, he ran off.

    The three watched him carefully until he was out of sight before letting the tension leave their bodies. The change in Emiya was so dramatic it looked like he deflated. When he turned to her, Yukiko felt a twinge of surprise that his expression was just as concerned for her as Chie's. Is he a samurai or…?

    "Did he hurt you at all, Yukiko?" Chie immediately asked her, interrupting her train of thought.

    The black haired girl shook her head. "No, just wouldn't leave me alone. Thank you for stopping him."

    The red haired teen waved his hand dismissively. "It's no trouble. Though, shouldn't you be at your inn if you're dressed like that?"

    "Well, my parents sent me on an errand and I don't have the luxury to change back into anything else while on the clock. Does it surprise you to see me dressed like this?"

    Emiya scratched a bandage on his cheek awkwardly and averted his eyes. "No…It really suits you."

    Yukiko felt conflicted at that; she didn't like the image of being a little inn heiress to everyone, but Emiya's hesitation and shy compliment seemed more earnest than anything else she heard come from a guy's mouth. Was he embarrassed in seeing her in a kimono? Well, it's better than a lecherous stare. Perhaps chivalry really isn't dead yet.

    "Aha!" Chie smirked, pointing accusingly at him. "I knew it! You do think Yukiko's cute!"

    Emiya's eyes widened and his subtle blush brightened tenfold. Chie only grinned wider as he attempted to explain. "N-no, I-…it's just she's naturally beautiful, and the kimono brings more of her refinement out and, and… wh-why am I even telling you this?!"

    Feeling embarrassed by Chie as well, and wanting to spare poor Emiya from further humiliation, Yukiko changed topics. "You two seem to be getting along well now. I always leave early, so I was a little worried."

    "Are you kidding?" the brown haired girl elbowed Emiya playfully in his abdomen. "This guy's the best! You can always count on him when you need a helping hand!"

    "Satonaka," the transfer student groaned and rubbed his stomach. Yukiko didn't notice her friend wince guiltily as she realized where her elbow had grazed him.

    "I'm glad to hear that," Yukiko smiled. "Chie's really supportive too, Emiya. She's always helped by giving me the extra push I need from time to time."

    She giggled at recalling an old memory. "We had the same homeroom last year as well. I still remember the times we'd cut classes…"

    Chie blushed in alarm. "H-hey!" she waved her arms frantically. "Don't tell him all that!"

    "Consider it payback for making me look like a fool the other day," Yukiko smiled wider. Chie could only grumble in response and Emiya glanced between them in confusion.

    "By the way, are you getting used to our town and school yet?" she asked. "I would only imagine how dull it is around here compared to Fuyuki City." It sounds like a much better place to live, really.

    Emiya looked startled at her question, but considered it. "Huh? Well… I think so. In fact, I kind of like Yasoinaba."

    Both girls were honestly surprised. "Wait, what?" Chie couldn't keep the shock out of her voice.

    "But," Yukiko said. "It must be so difficult moving from your old home to a place you know nothing about! I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like transferring schools outside of Inaba." Though it would be nice to try at least once…

    "Well, I admit coming here was no easy decision," said Emiya. "But the transfer is only for a year, and it's to see my uncle and cousin who live here. From what I've seen of Inaba, it's nice and quiet. I mean, the rumor mill is more active than I'm used to, and the murders…" he trailed off briefly before smiling. "But, my family is here, and I think that's enough."

    Chie seemed satisfied with this. Yukiko, however, stared blankly at him for a moment. "I… see…" FAMILY? Is he actually serious?!

    Shaking her head to cleat it, Yukiko reached for her umbrella and opened it. "Anyway, I should get going; I need to make tomorrow's arrangements with our head chef. The inn can't function without me."

    "Well, see you at school then!" Chie waved. Emiya did the same.

    "Yes, at school…" Only if the inn stops bringing in customers…

    -Dojima Residence-

    Dojima-san's out working, Nanako's feeling upset, and the news channel talks about developing murder case… I feel this has happened before.
    To his chagrin, Shirou forced himself to listen to the news with Nanako tonight; Yosuke's Shadow admitted that he was grasping at straws in trying to connect the murder to the TV world in an attempt to get back in. But as harebrained as the idea was, Shirou could see the possibility of it being true. When the Yamano scandal went live, people claimed to have seen her on the Midnight Channel before her body was discovered. The same case happened with Saki Konishi when she merely found the body. Speaking of Konishi…

    "Police are proceeding under the assumption that this may be a serial murder case related to the death of Mayumi Yamano," announced the reporter. "The coroner's report has established Ms. Konishi's time of death at around 1:00 A.M. last night. The body went unnoticed until this morning as a result of the heavy fog blanketing the area."

    1 AM… It's like what Teddie said. She was safe before, and then killed during the Midnight Channel. There was a small transition between the rain and the fog that night too…

    Nanako's sigh broke out his mental monologue. "Another case. Dad'll be late again."

    …Hanamura's right; the police can't be counted on this. If not to do this to save others, than I at least should do it to make sure her father comes home on time. "It'll get better soon, Nanako. I'm sure of it."

    "Thanks," she said. "But I'm used to it. Though do you think you can help me with stuff around the house?"

    She's very mature for her age, Shirou thought as he nodded.

    The news continued on "…Amagi Inn, located upstream of Samegawa River, is the town's oldest historical landmark."

    Wait, what?! Shirou froze mid-step and turned to the TV.

    "Vacationers are known to travel surprising distances in order to visit its open-air, radium-rich hot springs. After the incident with Ms. Yamano, the manager has stepped aside, leaving her daughter Yukiko to fill her shoes."

    Yukiko appeared on the TV, wearing the same kimono from earlier. It looked like this was recorded earlier in the day, given that it wasn't raining in the scene.

    "In other words, she's a manager who's still in high school," the on-scene reporter finished excitedly. "Now that has a nice ring to it. Let's see if we can interview her. Excuse me!"

    Amagi was quite reasonably taken aback by the overzealous reporter all but cornering her. Worse, they did nothing to protect the poor girl's privacy. "Hm? Um… are you speaking to me?"

    The reporter didn't even bother introducing himself or asking permission to interview her, talking over her excitedly. "We heard you're the new manager of the Amagi Inn. Is it true that you're still in high school?"

    "Well… I'm only filling in temporarily," Yukiko tried to deflect the reporter. From the look on her face, she would rather be getting on with her day rather than put up with the man.

    "Someday though," the reporter reminded. "That aside, wow! You look gorgeous in that kimono! That must bring in a lot of male visitors."

    "Wh-what?"

    Hearing the distress building in his shy classmate's voice set Shirou's teeth on edge. This guy…

    "And your inn's hot springs are all natural, yes? I recall you sometimes allow co-gender hours for the romantic couples. What times do you prefer, new manager?"

    "I-is this really an interview?" The magus was wondering the same thing at this point. It was bordering on harassment!

    "Of course!" he insisted. "Your inn's traditional setting and well managed catering has made it a more desirable place to rest than most hotels in the country! There's just some untold secret about such a place that brings all sorts of people to it. Unless you're willing to tell your secrets to the rest of-"

    CLICK.

    Nanako turned to her older cousin, noticing his tightly clenched hand on the remote and his intense stare. "Are… you alright?" she asked timidly.

    Shirou let out a long sigh before turning to Nanako and forcing a smile. "Yeah I am. Sorry about that… let's get started on the dishes, all right?"

    Relieved at her quick nod and dash to the kitchen, Emiya stared back at the blank TV once more before following her. Thinking about it now won't do him any good. All he had to do was focus on housework. Anything to get his mind off that "interview"…

    Several hours later after taking a bath to soothe his battered body and apply fresh bandages (he considered buying his own supply to keep Dojima from noticing, but that would come later), Shirou found himself in his room making a mental checklist. Lights off… flick the power switch. Check. Raining outside… a quick check out the window confirmed this, as well as watching the weather channel just moments prior. Check. In position in front of TV… just a few paces to the center and- Check. Midnight… only a few seconds away.

    To think I'm actually doing this again… I'll never see rain the same way again if it indicates the life or death of someone. Who would tell Satonaka or Nami-san about this 'channel' anyway? Some sort of message like Hanamura indicated? Is there a magus watching me right now?

    The clock on his wall clicked midnight.

    And just like two nights ago, the screen came to life. Guess we can watch this as many times as possible when meeting the right circumstances… wait…

    The screen wasn't exactly vibrant like when Saki Konishi was on the channel. Instead it showed a fuzzy silhouette of a feminine figure wearing a kimono, all color washed out by the white haze behind the figure. Without any details, he couldn't identify the woman, but every instinct told him he had seen her before.

    Teddie said that the TVs in our world all linked to different places. Maybe… On impulse, he reached his hand into the TV, but only felt a familiar, weak tug from the other side. The image was washed out by his intrusion, but returned when he pulled his arm back out, the TV releasing him more easily than before. The picture wouldn't last much longer though; there was only thirty seconds left before 12:01.

    I can't reach her and don't have time to find another TV! I just have to try and force myself into this one!

    Completely ignoring his aching body and Teddie's warning on the dangers of just jumping into a TV at random, Shirou fumbled for his glasses. He wasn't about to let anyone die if there was even the most remote chance he could prevent it. It never crossed his mind that his prana reserves and pool of strength from his Persona were both dangerously low. On top of his injuries, to step into the TV World now was a death sentence.

    He pushed his head in first, almost surprised at when it worked. He grunted as he tried fitting one of his arms in next, but stopped and gaped at the vision of the world inside.

    Spreading out below him was a wide, lonely hill, devoid of grass or any other life. The sky was an eerie twilight of flowing purple and orange lines from one end of the horizon to the other. At the very edge of his vision, he could faintly make out a sparse number of markers on the hill, but as he focused on them, they became clear. They were-

    Swords? Wh-what is this? A hill of swords?

    He had never expected to see such a place in the TV world, but maybe this was why Teddie was so upset about the new worlds coming in. If the world was naturally peaceful, then anyone who warped it with their presence, their "reality" was only agitating the Shadows with these alien landscapes. Whatever the TV World looked like originally, he doubted disturbingly dark shopping districts and maliciously decorated inn rooms were a part of it.

    Shaking his head sharply, he resumed scanning his head through the TV. Come on, where are you? He couldn't see the kimono girl anywhere on the hill or the surrounding area.

    A chilling thought had Shirou pull his head from the TV and clutch his aching chest. What if a magus was warping that world and using humans as test subjects for Shadows? What if the culprit planned to empty Inaba of life for their research?

    He glanced at the clock. It was 12:04. The Midnight Channel ended three minut-no, wait… 12:05 now. Four minutes ago.

    So her silhouette was there… but not her? Shirou shook his head in defeat. Best sleep on this. I'll tell Hanamura and Satonaka after school; maybe they've noticed something I didn't.

    With a tired sigh, Shirou gingerly lowered himself onto the futon and stared at the ceiling. Today was a wild day. He had gained the power to save people and used it in a way that had saved three lives, an indescribable feeling. Despite the madness starting to churn beneath the surface of Inaba, the magus felt that, all things else, he was making a huge jump towards his dream of being an Ally of Justice. He wondered if his father was proud of him. He still had a long way to go, but every step forward was worth something.

    He wasn't sure how long he spent thinking about it, but he finally felt himself drifting off to the pattering of the rain outside.

  15. #15
    Chapter 16: The Magus Fool and the Foolish Magician

    Velvet Room

    Shirou had only just drifted off when his eyes opened again. Rather than laying on his futon, he was sitting upright in a familiar blue seat. Before he could even consider moving, he realized he was not alone: two others were in this velvet-lined place with him. Wait, this is-

    "Welcome back, Shirou Emiya." Igor greeted with that same fixed grin and piercing eyes.

    "Igor-san?" Shirou blinked at the long-nosed man and his assistant next to him. "Is… this another dream?"

    "Not precisely," he replied, folding his hands delicately. "You're still fast asleep in the real world. I have merely summoned you from within your dreams."

    Shirou's blood chilled slightly. Whoever or whatever Igor actually was, he was undeniably powerful to reach him like this. As a magus, he tended to believe anything was possible, but the idea of someone reaching through the veils of dream and reality to hold a conversation never crossed his mind. Although… "You mean you could have called me back here at any time?" Why didn't he?

    This time, it was the woman who answered. "Until now, no. This is a space that only those who have, in one way or another, entered into a contract may enter," Margaret explained. "In your daily life, you subconsciously heard the call to awaken, and you chose to follow the destiny of your inner voice, thereby enacting your glorious awakening to your power."

    "Izanagi…" He could feel it even here: the wisp of flame in his heart that waited for his call.

    "Indeed," Igor's smile widened. "With the awakening of your Persona, Izanagi of the Fool Arcana, you chose to establish a contract, and thus are an official guest to this Velvet Room." A blue light flickered in front of Shirou's eyes, dropping a small object onto his lap. The magus picked it up and examined it; it was a silver key the size of his palm, with a cross-like milling and an image of a half-white and half-black mask on both sides of the head.

    "This key shall allow you to return here whenever you so choose," the long-nosed man explained. "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."

    Shirou frowned, expecting the worst. There were lots of horrible things Igor might ask for, or perhaps force him into complying with.

    With great gravitas, the mysterious entity stated his terms. "You must abide by your contract and assume responsibility for all decisions you may make."

    The red-haired teen stared at the key at his hand, considering the entity's words. On the surface, it wasn't much of a price for him, but that could change if the situation put him in a sadistic choice or if his actions led to the secret of magic leaking. On the other hand, he might very well need Igor and Margaret's help. He looked back at his time in the TV World. He felt so powerful fighting that first wave of Shadows with Izanagi… But not twenty minutes later Yosuke's Shadow nearly killed him. Without a teacher, he would be grasping in the dark even more than he was when it came to magecraft.

    Closing his hand around the key, Shirou looked back at the impish man and his assistant. "Could I use this power to save people?"

    "The decisions regarding your power are made by you alone," Margaret answered. "Our goal is only to help you reach your potential, no matter what you decide."

    That was fair; they were giving him resources but they weren't dictating his actions. The choices he made and their consequences according to this agreement could serve as punishment enough, up to and including his own life or the lives of others. "I accept."

    And beneath him, he felt the car pick up just a little more speed.

    "Very well," Igor nodded, refolding his hands. "Now then, the Persona you've acquired… It is a side of yourself that shows itself when you face the world around you."

    "What do you mean? Like a mask?"

    "The term I prefer is 'a façade of determination you wear to face various difficulties in life', but the idea is quite the same. However, your Persona is different from others you may later encounter because you possess a special ability; The Wild Card."

    Igor snapped his fingers, and a Tarot card appeared in his gloved hands. "This…" with an eerie smile, he revealed the face to Shirou, showing a picture of a man's silhouette walking with a slung bag over his shoulder and a dog following behind him. The number under it read "0". "…is your card."

    Shirou's brow furrowed as he leaned closer to the card. "The Fool?"

    "It is like the number zero… empty, yet holding infinite potential from within."

    For some reason, the words "empty and "infinite" resonated with Shirou, simultaneously unnerving and thrilling him. "So… right now my power's weak… but it can become stronger in time?"

    "Indeed. The Persona ability is the power to control one's own heart," Igor clarified.

    That must be why using Izanagi keeps me from feeling fatigue or crippled by uncertainty: I'm controlling my "heart" to keep them at bay in favor of doing what I need to… This new power amazed the magus in training. It was unlike anything Kiritsugu had described. And it can grow even stronger?

    Igor seemed to know exactly what he was thinking, either by reading his mind or Shirou just being that transparent. "The heart in turn is strengthened through bonds. As you form bonds by becoming involved with others, your own Social Links will gradually develop. The power of these Social Links is what will determine your Persona's abilities."

    Shirou had to be dreaming right now. "Wait… Are you saying… my Persona power can only get stronger… by making friends?"

    The idea was unbelievable, running counter to everything he thought he knew about becoming a hero. Just making friends didn't spontaneously make a person stronger, did it? Getting too close to others put them in danger, something no hero should allow. On top of that, he was a magus, an inherently lonely existence by its very nature. And yet, what if these "Social Links" really were key to mastering these new gifts? What role did the heart play in this?

    "Not just friendship," Igor corrected, "but all kinds of bonds; rivalry, companionship, lovers, family, all of these bonds hold power within them." The last one in particular struck the teen as odd and filled him with mixed feelings.

    Being closer with Dojima-san and Nanako could make me stronger too? But-

    "That's wrong," Shirou shook his head, to the slight surprise of the other room guests. "I can't… just make 'connections' if all I'd be doing is using them to gain power. If I'm to be an Ally of Justice, I have to do things within my own power, not twist their feelings!"

    "You misunderstand," the blond assistant answered. "Social Links are necessary for more than just strengthening your Persona. They can light the way to the truth you are searching for. In addition, a Social Link is not something only you will benefit from: to form and grow a Social Link requires your personal investment as a person as well as genuine reciprocation. It is not possible to form a true Social Link and then abuse it for power."

    "Margaret is correct, Shirou Emiya," Igor added. "The power of Social Links is evident in everyone; you are merely fortunate enough to receive the boon of the Wild Card's power."

    "I… see," Conflicted by the pair's words, Shirou changed topics. "Was there a Wild Card before me, then?" he asked.

    Both residents nodded; Margaret's was slightly hesitant though. "Yes. She is living proof that even the most impossible of miracles can be granted through the power of bonds," Igor said with a nostalgic air coming to his smile.

    "Miracles?" Shirou repeated the word confusedly. Is that truly possible?

    "This is very interesting; you seem to show genuine care to those around you, even if you are reluctant to acknowledge your potential…" Igor smiled between chuckles. "I wonder where the awakened power of the Wild Card will take you, Shirou Emiya."

    The magus felt his vision blur again, his dream-self parting from the room. He heard the long-nosed resident speak one last time. "I look forward to accompanying you on your journey…"

    -April 16th, Dojima Household, Morning-

    Opening his eyes back in his bed and seeing his room's ceiling, Shirou was once again struck by the oddity of the Velvet Room, but decided to put it aside for the moment when he saw his clock. "Grk!" Yesterday's fight had apparently left him so drained that he ended up sleeping in late, failing to have any time to do his usual morning exercises.

    On top of that, he had next to no space in his own room, so he was forced to abstain from training his magecraft and making Magic Circuits since he arrived. About the only saving grace was the fact that he had managed to set a fresh one in his spine while in the TV World. He really needed to look for a suitable place to set up something like a proper Workshop. The question was where.

    Resigning himself to the fact that Nanako had made breakfast for the family again, he stretched and slowly reached for his spare winter uniform, wincing slightly at the lingering aches of his bandages pressing against his injuries. After washing his face in the bathroom, he got changed. He had just started closing the buttons of the uniform jacket when he paused, glancing at the mirror and taking himself in.

    The uniform he wore last night should have been tattered and bloodstained after fighting those Shadows. Between the Slipping Hableries trying to chew him apart and Shadow Yosuke's wind attacks, he was sure the outfit was a write-off. Yet when he passed through the TV portal back into this world, it was back together as though he had never left. To be on the safe side, he put it aside to be washed and/or analyzed in detail.

    Looking at himself in the mirror now though, he felt that something was subtly off with the way he looked. He wasn't sure what it was, though. Maybe one of his injuries was throwing something off? Well, since I have a moment…

    After making sure his door was locked, Shirou took a slow breath and intoned his aria: "Trace, On."

    Just as he had in the shopping district, the ever-reliable Structural Analysis mystery passed through him. Everything physical appeared normal, damage tally notwithstanding, but the moment the spell pushed deeper into his spirit, it found something in the right side of his chest. The moment he focused on it, his mind's eye was suddenly awash with information. In fact, it was so clear it was almost like the "screen" was right behind his eyelids, clear as day.

    He could see an image of his Persona Izanagi standing regally, as if waiting for his command. Beside the image was a veritable wall of symbols and data that he had never seen before, but it soon almost interpreted itself into clear ideas and facts. He thanked his Structural Analysis for that. After a few moments, the original data "screen" was reformatted into something a bit easier to comprehend, even if it wasn't in words, per se.

    Izanagi of the Fool Arcana. It was a straightforward warrior with no weaknesses physically, though anything attempting to "cut" him would find his body able to resist injury somewhat. Magically, Izanagi was slightly more complicated. While its power over electricity protected it somewhat against that element, the Persona was vulnerable to wind spells and powers (certainly explained why Winds of Oblivion tore through him so easily), and was otherwise neutral to the other elements of fire, ice and holy power. Most interestingly, it was completely immune to any form of dark magic, though he wondered what such a thing really meant.

    If someone were to push Shirou to describe Izanagi's overall abilities aside from "superhuman," he could say with certainty that the Persona was extremely sturdy first of all, with the power of its magecraft exceeding its great physical strength. That said, he would also say that the power it had right now was not even the barest hint of its potential. It was actually almost frightening to think how strong Izanagi and he could actually become one day if he was interpreting the information right.

    Lastly, the powers his Persona could wield appeared before him, including Cleave, the empowered sword strike, Zio, the lightning bolt (and something told him it was considered a weak bolt!), Tarukaja, the spell that granted Shirou his boosted strength in the TV World, and…

    Was that last one there before? Sometime after his fight with Shadow Yosuke, a new spell had appeared to Izanagi. Rakunda apparently was a nasty curse that cut through its target's defenses, weakening an enemy's armor and skin against future attacks for a short time. He also could see that just beyond that was a spell he could learn with some more experience with these powers, a reversal of the Rakunda, Rakukaja.

    Taken all together and looking at the mental screen for a few more minutes to make sense of it all, Shirou could only shake his head in wonder. "It feels like I'm in some sort of video game…" He wasn't sure if he felt stronger after fighting the Shadows like it was starting to hint, but just from those two fights alone he felt like he gained more power in that one day than he had after years of self-training in magecraft. He had a feeling he would only get stronger from here.

    Opening his eyes back to the real world and staring at the mirror before him, Shirou rolled his shoulders experimentally. His head was clear after a good night's sleep, and he could feel his reserves of energy restored for his Persona, and his Magic Circuit was in good condition for the moment. His injuries were healing steadily; even the deep bite marks on his arm had stopped bleeding and the pain reduced to an insistent but ultimately ignorable ache. But something else nagged at him as he looked himself over. With a sigh, he started unbuttoning his jacket to get a better look.
    His hands stopped after the final button.

    With wide eyes at a sudden epiphany, he examined himself in the mirror once again. With the jacket open, the ends fluttered at the slightest turn of the arm, and the gap revealed his white undershirt to the public eye. It reminded him slightly of his battle-scarred appearance back at the TV… as well as his spiritual alter-ego Izanagi.

    It was unusual for Shirou since he always wore the prior Homurahara uniform buttoned up. However, Yasogami was more lax on school customs (Morooka notwithstanding). Alterations to the school uniform weren't unheard of, as Satonaka wore a green jacket and her friend Amagi wore a red sweater over their own. And if the magus was being honest with himself, he kind of liked his uniform this way. It made him look confident, strong, brave… heroic.

    Shirou smiled at his reflection, almost teasing his coat like it was some sort of cape. Funny how a change of clothes, or how they're worn, can make anyone feel different.

    His musing was interrupted by his cousin's call from downstairs. "Breakfast is ready!"

    "I'm starting to miss being the one saying that," Shirou said to himself with a rueful smile. Straightening his jacket for good measure, he left his room for the ground floor. Nanako was in the midst of putting a share of two plates down before noticing his change of clothes.

    "Your jacket's unbuttoned," she pointed out.

    "I decided to go to school like this from now on," Shirou smiled, extending his arms out. "What do you think, Nanako?"

    The brown-haired girl tilted her head to the side. Her expression showed a level of thinking above most kids her age. "You look… different," she decided. "But you're also happier. Did something happen, Shirou?"

    Happy? It was true he felt this way, as it was because he was able to save his classmates just yesterday. It was rather elevating. But he couldn't tell her any of that, considering magecraft and murder was involved.

    So he shrugged and gave a half-truth before walking over to the table. "I just meet some good people, Nanako. That's all."

    Nanako stared at him for a moment longer before nodding and smiling. "I'm glad!"
    Breakfast was another silent, lonely event between the cousins, but for once it was met with enthusiasm.

    -Samagawa Floodplain-

    Yosuke had done a lot of thinking after his little "episode" with his evil twin. When he had first met Emiya, he had to admit that yeah, he had him pegged as a boy scout. He heard a few rumors of him working at the MOEL station, and he was suspicious of his talents ever since he miraculously fixed his bike. He was riding it right now to school and it seemed sturdier than ever.

    He had initial judgments of him as well; he first thought of Emiya as some super introvert badass since calling out on King Moron, but it turns out he was just stupidly blunt and honest to a fault. He also thought of him as some flirt since he hanged around with Satonaka and Amagi at one point, but either he didn't have a thing for either girl or he was just clueless about the opposite sex.

    But never in his wildest dreams did he think to consider him as some wiz-erm, magus.

    It was just unfair in Yosuke's opinion. He wanted to be special and unique in some way. But along comes a guy like Emiya, who had it from the start, and he wasn't keen on sharing it. He had hoped that going to the TV world again would awaken his potential, like in those same shows, but it went to Emiya instead. It was like the world itself was laughing behind his back.

    Still, as jealous as he was of the guy, he never wished Emiya harm. The guy risked his neck to save them twice, even when he was the outright cause of the danger! And even if he got the same power in the end, it was almost too much of a personal cost in the end… quite literally.

    Yosuke sighed and stopped his bike: he had enough experience to know that he couldn't think and pedal at the same time. Not with something this deep anyway. "Just what am I supposed do, anyway? Roll up to him before school starts and say 'Yo! Emiya!'?"

    "Yes?"

    "Gah!" the orange haired teen flinched and squealed uncharacteristically loud like a girl, nearly tripping himself over on his bike. He relaxed to see the redhead in question, albeit a little confused. "Whew, you startled me," he tried to laugh it off, clutching his chest for emphasis. It was then that Yosuke noticed his jacket. "You look a little under dressed there, man. What's the occasion?"

    "Well, there's no real dress code about changes or accessories," Emiya smiled before he continued walking. "You wear headphones to class every day, for one."

    "Point taken," Yosuke smiled back, rolling his bike along the path. "Though I gotta admit, you seem to pull off the open-coat look pretty well. Almost like a badass hero, or something."

    It would be lying if Yosuke didn't feel disappointed that it wasn't him, but this magi guy deserved to dress the part for saving his ass. He'd find a kickass look of his own sometime; maybe a scarf? He must have put a bit of bitterness or melancholy in his tone because Emiya was already frowning and looking guilty. "Hanamura, I-"

    "It's fine," he said quickly. "Really. It was all my fault, anyway. I mean, figuratively speaking, I got my dose of therapy by beating you senseless until you beat me to my senses. And I got the same power as you do now. After what you put up with yesterday, I'm sure as hell not complaining."

    "I'm just glad you and the others got out of it alive," he said.

    "Same for you too, partner," Yosuke added. He didn't want to think too much about his friend's martyrdom after the fight. At least not right now when class is starting soon and there were other things to get out of the way first. "Speaking of power, I can enter TVs now."

    Emiya blinked in response, his expression becoming slightly more serious. "Really? I thought only I could do that."

    "So did I, but it must be because of the Persona I have now; name's Jiraiya, by the way. I tried it after seeing the Midnight Channel from my home TV. Not sure what I was thinking at the time since I felt like I was dissected and put together wrong, but I managed to get my head in. All I saw was some Sentai-like observatory station fashioned from the Junes building. Talk about weird."

    "I tried that too, actually," Emiya nodded. "All I saw was a hill of swords. Who would conjure those places?"

    "Beats me. But I'm surprised you got the same idea as me."

    "I actually tried putting my hand in the TV once before. The night Satonaka first told us about it, I mean."

    Realization dawned in Yosuke's eyes. "So that's why you were so shifty the other day! Why didn't you tell us bef-" He stopped himself when seeing Shirou Emiya's incredulous, deadpan look directed at him. "Right. Secrecy thing. Never mind."

    "Did you at least recognize the girl on the channel?" Shirou asked.

    "No. I tried calling Satonaka and hoped that she had something but I couldn't reach her. I'm worried though; someone could have ended up in the TV just after we figured out what happens to them, and turning out to be a murder case."

    Shirou's face grew grim. "It might be argued that it's the Shadows themselves that commit the act, but the fact remains that someone, magus or not, is weaponizing the TV world for their own plot. It's unforgivable."

    Yosuke nodded sternly. "Damn straight it is. The police are out of their league with this one, and it's up to us to stop the culprit."

    Seeing his friend's honest conviction left Shirou torn. He felt he could trust Hanamura with his life if needed, but was vastly put off against that option. Hanamura's trust might be part of what Igor and Margaret told him about "Social Links" in his dream. To gain power through his connections of others, depending how close they were…

    To be friends with Hanamura, it would mean to share the inevitable trials that wait in Teddie's world. He didn't want Hanamura, or Satonaka, or anyone, to be any part of this. He would save Inaba on his own terms, alone if necessary.

    "Hmm? What's up?"

    Emiya had stopped walking since Yosuke's last comment. After a few tense moments, the red-haired magus sighed and stared at Yosuke straight in the eyes.

    "There's no 'us,' Hanamura. I'll stop the culprit alone."

    Shirou watched as Hanamura stare back at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. He was utterly serious in taking this case all on his own, and would do so if to prevent some unforeseen consequence on the lives of his classmates. It might prematurely end their friendship here and there, but he was willing to bite the bullet for this.

    He thought he had succeeded, too. But then Hanamura gave a sly, knowing smirk that could rival that of Shinji Matou. The likeness was unnerving, actually. "Oooooooooh no, Emiya. I see what you're trying to pull. Don't think the selfless hero card can work on me this time! It sure as hell didn't work on my Shadow, you know!"

    Shirou flinched; while his new friend didn't have Shinji's graceful silver tongue, he certainly had the sting that came with it. "Hanamura, you've seen what happened in that world. The Shadows are dangerous!"

    "Could've told me that when you were lying in a pool of your blood," he sarcastically countered. "And call it a hunch, but I only think it'll go downhill from here in terms of danger. Best resort to strength in numbers."

    "I don't want you or Satonaka to get any more involved than you have to!"

    "I think I'm already involved since I have a Persona, but Satonaka? That part I can get behind. Because unless you're willing to tell how you got your Persona that didn't come with a golden eyed clone, I really don't want to fight a Shadow Satonaka."

    "I… don't even know how it happened." Shirou admitted. "I just heard a voice and then the Tarot card was in my hand."

    Hanamura just shrugged. "Regardless, we want the same thing; to catch the TV killer. So being adamant about putting me in danger is moot if you plan to do the same thing. I wasn't lying when I said I couldn't put this case away if I tried. Besides, I can enter TVs too. I'd come running even if you tried to stop me!"

    "But-!"

    "Furthermore, we're partners in this-" Hanamura stopped himself, shook his head and considered his next words. "No, we're friends. And friends don't let other friends go out into danger without some backup."

    It was such an alien feeling to Shirou. He couldn't remember the last time he heard someone willing to do something for him for the sake of friendship. As close as he was to Issei and Shinji, it was usually him helping them and them being grateful, not the other way around. In some ways, he should feel proud and glad to meet someone so willing to fight with him, in spite of being exposed to the world of magic in the least favorable fashion. Hanamura wasn't just willing to accept his status as a magus, but was willing to help him in spite of having nothing but his Persona.

    Though, considering how powerful those were, that was still quite the tool.

    He only had one question reeling in his mind to this revelation. "Why?"

    Yosuke smiled in earnest. "Because you're the guy who apologized to me for making me go crazy when it should've been the other way around. At the very least, I want to make it up to the guy who saved my neck."

    He walked up and extended his hand. "So like it or not, I've got your back… Shirou."

    If the steadfast will to help him didn't surprise the magus, the use of his name did. In less than a week he had come to Inaba, he'd stumbled across a magecraft murder mystery, discovered a world inside the TV, and awakened a power that was beyond anything he'd accomplished in years of self-training.

    He had also earned the trust of a fellow classmate to such a degree that he was willing to call him by his first name instead of formally referring to his family name. And he had just been proven he couldn't change his mind about fighting with him.

    Shirou gave a defeated sigh, but decided that this was a good thing rather than a bad one. Smiling, he returned the classmate's handshake. "Fine, you win… Yosuke."

    If Yosuke was willing to drop formalities between them, Shirou was more than happy to oblige. The grin growing on his classmate's face showed he was glad too. "Between the two of us, the killer doesn't stand a chance!"

    The magus nodded, and felt a numbing sensation like yesterday. In his mind's eye, balls of light gathered to form a familiar blue Tarot card before turning to the face. A black flame was centered between black hands holding it at the bottom and a pair of eyes looking beyond it: it was like an image of a mage conjuring fire. Blue lines waved next to the flame, an infinity symbol was placed up top above the eyes, and the number of the card read "I". He then heard a familiar voice recite what sounded like a poem.

    Thou art I, and I am thou.
    Thou hast established a new bond.
    It shall bring thee closer to the truth.
    Thou shalt be blessed by Personae of the Magician Arcana.


    The card image faded as the words finished. If Shirou had any doubt about what he saw was an illusion (which he didn't), he felt a new sensation in his heart just… bloom into being. All he could tell as it was some sort of spiritual link with Yosuke Hanamura.

    It was a weak one, representing how the two finally had come to terms of their position together, but Shirou knew it was similar to when he first held the Persona card. It would grow in time to be an unstoppable force.

    As the two of them broke their handshake and hurried on to school, Shirou mused that maybe the Wild Card power wasn't as heartless as he had thought.

    -Junes, After School-

    Chie almost didn't go to school today.

    When she watched the Midnight Channel last night, she knew right away it was Yukiko; the two had been friends for years and she could recognize how flawless she looked in a kimono just from a silhouette. Recalling what had just happened to them in the other world, Chie grew frantic. That stalker they chased off didn't do this in retaliation, did he? He couldn't have.

    Trying to keep all the bad stuff out of her mind, she sent an email to Yukiko before turning in. She lost sleep after the first one or two nightmares of Shadows chasing and killing the poor black-haired girl. She never returned the email, either.

    She considered going to the police, or back to Junes, or do anything else except sit through school doing nothing but listen to lectures. She only went on the hopeful chance that she would be there. But she didn't, and the brown haired girl nearly had a panic attack. Why did Yukiko have to get herself kidnapped like this?

    Emiya and Hanamura were shocked and worried when she told them that Yukiko was gone, but the former surprisingly kept a cool head and suggested she tried calling her cellphone again. She only got voicemail. Hanamura pointed out she was probably still at the inn. As it turned out, Yukiko answered when called there.

    Chie immediately felt relieved hearing her voice, but decided not to worry her (pretty little head) about the kidnappings yet. She had been down and tense lately with the rush of customers, anyway.

    Still, this disproved one of their theories that the Midnight Channel didn't show Yukiko being in the TV; it was just a silhouette. Or it could have been someone else that looked like her. In any case, the trio decided to check on Teddie after school, and see if anyone was over there yet.

    The rest of the school day felt like it went on forever, in more ways than one. Whenever Chie wasn't feeling worried about Yukiko, she found herself side-glancing at Emiya. She only had a few select number of male friends, small enough that she could count them on one hand (including Hanamura), but Emiya stood out in the short time she knew him, especially after saving he-…everyone. The experience must have changed him too, because he seemed a bit more confident and charismatic than she remembered. Not to mention that open-coat look he's flaunting. Rrrwoar!

    She chose to ignore whatever devil-voice was telling her such things, her facial expression betraying any sort of mental conflict between Yukiko or Emiya. And when the school day was finally over, Chie all but dragged the guys back to the Junes electronics department, intent to get to the bottom of the situation.

    Her determination faltered when seeing the electronics store flooded with customers. It was a full house too, not just a small group wandering around. There were people by the radios listening to their favorite bands, people lounging in the electric massage chairs. Even by the TV they fell in, there were people watching other turned on TVs playing the same movie at once.

    "Again?!" she cried. "This is the third time in a row this place got crowded!"

    "Oh, that's right," Hanamura frowned, scratching the side of his head. "I forgot there was a sale on electronics today."

    Emiya walked towards the big screen portal, a relieved smile on his face. "At least Teddie's TV is still here."

    The Junes heir shrugged with a smile as well. "I wouldn't worry about the TV there," he assured. "With the price on that baby, it'll probably sit there as a pretty center piece for a long time."

    "That better not jinx it," Chie warned. "But besides that, how will we get in without being noticed?"

    "We don't need to necessarily get in," Hanamura answered. "We just need to signal him, if he's really waiting at the same spot."
    Emiya stared at the TV with his hand to his chin. "I think I have an idea. Yosuke, Satonaka. Huddle with me."

    Chie almost missed the fact he called Hanamura by his first name. The whole "saving his life" thing must have made the guys really respect and trust each other.

    She and Hanamura walked close to the TV, forming a small half-circle around the TV with Emiya in the center. The intention was suddenly clear to her, as it was to Hanamura. "I get it," he smiled. "We stick our hands in this way while keeping ourselves discrete."

    Emiya nodded, and moved his hand into the screen. Hanamura pushed his in as well, causing the ripple effect to double in size. Chie nervously looked around the store, wary of getting caught with such an obvious display. "Are you two sure this is a good idea?"

    As if to tempt her, a loud chomp ran out just in front of them. The red-haired magus stiffened and let out a startled grunt. He immediately pulled his arm out (a little too suddenly in his own opinion) and examined it. There were evident square-shaped indents half-way past the palm, and looked like it was throbbing a bit. Both his classmates looked between his hand and tense face in alarm.

    "D-did he really just bite you?!" Chie gawked. "Are you okay?"

    Shirou winced but still smiled. "It's nothing. I'll be fine."

    Yosuke smirked. "If you ask me, it doesn't even look that seri-"
    CHOMP!

    "YEEEOOOOOOOOOOOOW!" Hearing Yosuke's yelp, Shirou immediately forgot his own pain and pulled his friend back from the TV.

    Chie almost scolded him for screaming (and causing nearly everyone in the general area to stare at them before moving on), but thought better of it when seeing the damage. Compared to Emiya's hand, Hanamura's hand was bulging red and double in size. It sported the same set of square marks, so the culprit was the same. She could swear the guy was holding back tears too.

    The TV screen started to ripple again, even though no one's hand was in it. This time they went off like sound waves, going by the speed of the voice calling in instead of a slow water effect. The voice was a familiar one, for better or worse. "Hey! Yosuke! Shirou-sensei! Are you guys there? Did I win? Huh? Did I?"

    "At least it's there," Shirou sighed before addressing Teddie. "We're not here for games, Teddie. We just came to check if there was anyone else in there."

    "Hmmm… nope! Just me here! A lonely little bear as always… in a bear-en world…"

    The three students were locked rigid but could feel large beads of sweat roll down the backs of their necks. As the seconds passed, Shirou turned to Yosuke and eventually broke the silence with an uneasy voice. "Did… did Teddie just make a pun?"

    "Well, to be fair," Yosuke shrugged, blowing on his sore hand. "His name was a dead giveaway. Or its name. Whatever."

    "Teddie," Chie hissed as loudly as she dared, partly trembling at the bad joke and partly to keep her temper in check. "Are you absolutely, positively sure that no one else is in that world?"

    "O-of course I'm positive!" Teddie's voiced cracked. "My nose hasn't lied to me yet!"

    "Well, I guess that's all we can get for now," Yosuke said. "Thanks Ted. Let us know when you do find someone."

    "I'm on the case!" The bear declared jovially and the voice behind the screen receded.

    Chie knew she could trust Teddie; the bear helped them when they needed it most, after all. A part of her still felt uncertain about the whole thing. "I'll go warn Yukiko, just in case." Can't let her leave without my say, anyway. "I think she'll be fine for the weekend because of the inn."

    "You'll walk with her to school on Monday too, right?" asked Yosuke.

    "Of course." She's that important to me.

    "At any rate, let's all be sure to check the Midnight Channel too," Shirou reminded. "It's the only lead we have on who the victims are, so maybe there'll be another clue."

    "That reminds me," Yosuke dug into his pocket and flipped his cell phone. "Shirou, mind trading numbers? It'll be easier to call each other right away after the Midnight Channel."

    "Good idea," Shirou reached for his phone as well. It was an outdated flip-phone model that had a very basic plan, but it still worked and was more rugged than those "smartphones" he saw popping up recently. He never had much use for a mobile phone before, but Taiga bought one for him a couple years back in another hare-brained scheme to boost his social life. Considering the case he would now take part in, it was an investment he was glad his guardian made.

    After adding Yosuke's number, he recalled the other member of the group. "Satonaka, could I get your number as well?"

    Both his classmates stared at him. Yosuke's jaw slacked at his nonchalant request for a girl's number. Granted Chie was a tomboy, but… given how much she was blushing and stuttering, he figured she was just as shocked as he was, if not more. "Wh-wha-? B-but I-! You just-"

    And then Shirou, in an amazing bout of cluelessness, had to ruin any chances of playing cool and be completely serious. "Amagi is your friend and you're in the know, so being able to stay in contact could be vital to the case."

    Unknowing to either party, Yosuke blinked bewilderedly before slapping his not-sore hand to his face. "Idiot," he muttered.

    Chie felt relieved (and a tad disappointed) that those were his only intentions. "Oh, right… the case. Yeah. Sure, sounds good." Even as she exchanged numbers, she once again ignored the dark thoughts that lingered within. I'm going to get you before Yukiko does.

    -???, Midnight-

    "Good evening, everyone! Princess Yukiko is here with a special announcement!"

    At the stroke of Midnight, on the screen of a certain number of TVs, the fair Yukiko Amagi appeared, speaking energetically to her hand mic that read "Mayonaka TV". Her choice of attire was not her school uniform or even her inn kimono. No, she wore a princess dress fitting of her perceived standards: pink lacey gloves that covered up to her mid arm, a golden tiara like crown on her head, and a pink-white dress stylized with roses at the helm of her chest and the cage frills. For the many viewers of this channel, they were ecstatic to see her in a beautiful costume.

    But for three students that have seen her, there was nothing short of gaping disbelief at her wearing such a dress.

    "Tonight I'm going to score myself a hot stud to be my new prince! That's right: it's 'Not a Dream, Not a Hoax: Princess Yukiko's Search for Her Prince Charming'!"

    As "Yukiko" got further into her speech, a pink ribbon with glowing letters magically appeared before her reading the last thirteen words she uttered. For the many viewers, they were excited and hoping to be in such a position of her Prince Charming.

    But for three students that knew her, they were more than a little concerned about her shameless way of talking.

    "And for such a hull, I came prepared! I brought my lacey unmentionables on and everything! Oh, it gets me hot just thinking about it!"

    Just for emphasis, "Yukiko" rubbed her crotch not-so discretely and pushed her arms against her modest bosom. For the many viewers, they were excited to see some of their fantasies of the inn heiress come to light.

    But for three students that knew her, they were now really concerned abouther shameless way of talking… and acting.

    "My heart is a special part of me, and I only require a special man to please me! But to make sure that happens, I'm off to catch a whole harem of the best dressed, stocked, and lovely princes out there! Well, wish me luck everyone! Here I go!"

    The channel ended as she fled into the regal looking castle with the swirling red gate behind her. To the many viewers, they were put off of seeing it die when things were getting exciting.

    But for three students who knew the connection to the channel, they could utter one word that summed up their fear and confusion, and with unaware unison.

    "…what?"
    Last edited by Kishou the Badger; November 20th, 2014 at 06:13 PM.

  16. #16
    This might look fast, but I'm just uploading chapters that have already been written.

    Chapter 17 – Be Prepared for Anything
    -April 17th, Inaba Police Station, Afternoon-

    Ryutaro Dojima sat at his desk, reading the open case file of the recent murders happening in town. He believed himself to be a good cop, but years on the field told him that there was no such thing as an easy case. Some could be solved with time and thinking, finding patterns or certain clues left behind, but others could lead to dead ends and eventually become a cold case. As a personal rule, Dojima always sought to finish a case he was assigned to and see it through to the end. In his entire career, there was only one case that he failed to resolve, and much to his annoyance and fear, he was starting to see another one take form.

    In just one week, two women disappeared only to be later found dead and suspended on telephone wires. Mayumi Yamano was found first shortly after her scandal was made public. Saki Konishi followed almost immediately after, presumably simply for finding the body. Considering the timing of the (supposed) homicides, one would think it had something to do with said scandal. The only problem was that both Hiiragi and Namatame, the two most likely suspects with motive were busy with work at the time of Yamano's death; they had eyewitness testimonies from several sources each. Their alibis were airtight.

    The Konishi girl's death made even less sense: killing her to keep quiet about something seemed like a weak motive. It happened after she reported the body anyway, and she had no other connection to Yamano. It could mean anything, like another student was going to be kidnapped. Taiga Fujimura back in Fuyuki had actually called him last night because she was worried about Shirou getting killed and wanted him back home. A part of him didn't blame her for being overprotective, as he felt the same for Nanako.

    And if that wasn't bad enough, another high school student disappeared the very night they were finishing round-ups at the site where Konishi died. It wasn't much, but it did offer some loose connection: the missing girl, Yukiko Amagi, went to the same school as Konishi and her family ran the inn that Yamano was staying at up to her disappearance and subsequent death. It might be something, but in a small town like Inaba, coincidences were pretty commonplace.

    The only thing that could be certain was that the killer was still in Inaba, and probably wasn't planning on leaving any time soon.

    "Dojima-san?"

    The experienced cop spared Tohru Adachi a quick glance. The blue-suited cop had been recently transferred to Inaba, and was still as green as one could get in the force. He was enthusiastic at least, something a lot of the force lacked these days. They were assigned together in the Yamano case when it first came up, but with the way it was going, he'd probably see a lot more of Adachi. He wasn't sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing yet.

    "What is it, Adachi?" he grunted, turning back to his file. He barely noted that the rookie looked more uneasy than usual, but brushed it off as him making another mistake like misplacing his wallet the other day. He wasn't in a mood to help him with his mishaps right now.

    Adachi scratched the back of his head, a sure sign of nervousness. "You know that nephew kid that's staying over at your place? Shirou Emiya?"
    Dojima's eyes hardened ever so slightly. Not even the police station was immune to the rumor mill of town, and him having a "ghost nephew" come to visit made the more superstitious ones think he had a hand in the recent murders. Adachi was one of them that had offered such "theories": he and the others were quickly reprimanded for that. He may not know Shirou well enough, but family was still family. "What about him?"

    "He's, uh… well, he just got arrested."

    Being a veteran cop on the field got you used to a lot of unpleasant surprises, some more gory and gruesome than others. But there was always the unexpected fear you'd never be prepared for, and such was a fear Dojima was experiencing.

    Adachi had never seen Dojima look so scared before. It was quickly replaced with the most enraged look he'd seen on the cop (also a first), which made his incredulous cry all the more cringe-worthy.

    "WHAT?!"

    <><><>

    Ten minutes later, Dojima found himself in an interrogation room with Adachi, a cop who was stationed at Junes, and three minors; two of which he recognized as his nephew and one of his friends. They were all wearing casual clothes for their day off: Shirou wore a simple white-blue t-shirt and jeans, unconsciously tugging on the neck of the shirt out of either nervous habit or to fight off the stuffy air. The brunette, Satonaka he recalled, wore a yellow-green jacket over a blouse and striped shirt, and a pair of shorts that looked too small in the detective's opinion. The third minor, the Hanamura family's kid, wore a white jacket over an orange shirt and green cargo pants. Both he and Satonaka looked everywhere but in eye contact with the police, fidgeting with their fingers and feet respectively.

    The table between them had "evidence" of a blunt katana and a ceremonial nodachi, no sheaths. Both of them had fake blades and were more likely to be used for cosplay fun than random acts of violence. The room was silent and filled with tension on either side.

    "So they were seen at Junes armed with these?" Dojima asked, lifting the nodachi for emphasis.

    "Yes sir," the cop nodded. "One of them was swinging them around in the Junes food court, at the risk of everyone in the area. When apprehending him for questioning, he attempted to assault me with the weapons."

    "No I didn't!" Hanamura snapped. All eyes turned to him and he quickly lost confidence. "I-I mean, I didn't mean to. They were just in my hands, you know? I mean, did you REALLY have to go and arrest us? Couldn't you just have taken the weapons, given me a lecture, and called it a day?"

    "In case you've forgotten," Dojima said, putting the nodachi back down. "We have a serial murderer on the loose. The media isn't doing us any favors fanning the flames, and neither are you three, distracting us from our work with your stupid antics."

    The minors lowered their heads in shame. "We're sorry," they chorused.

    "Can I at least ask why you brought fake weapons to the Junes food court? You made a lot of people nervous, you know."

    Hanamura paled considerably. "Uh, w-well, you see-!"

    "It was my fault, Dojima-san," Shirou interrupted. "I asked Yosuke to show me his sword collection, and had him show them there."

    It was obvious from his friend's facial expression that it wasn't the case. The look of surprise was more of sudden confusion than relief. Dojima refrained from commenting to see where their story went. "I didn't take you as the type to be fascinated with swords," the detective observed.

    "Blame Fuji-nee. She insisted I learn some Kendo when I got old enough. I got interested through her," Shirou replied with a reminiscent smile. That statement was at least partially true, judging by how the redhead relaxed. Still not the whole truth, but the lie was buried deep.

    "We were thinking about making a project with them!" Satonaka added. "Something with… Kung-Fu stuff! Hanamura provided the weapons and camera, Emiya and I would fight. Not for real of course!"

    "Y-yeah!" Yosuke grinned. "Just a silly little project that we won't be doing again!" He kept the façade up a while longer before adding, "…please don't keep us here."

    Dojima stared at each one of them before letting a soft sigh escape his lips. "Since this is your first offense, and one with no actual harm involved, you three are free to go." The students perked up at that.

    The other two cops were just as surprised. "Are you sure, Dojima-san?"

    "The Hanamura kid made a good point for just confiscating the weapons. It would be a reminder to anyone else not to make the same boneheaded stunt. We're supposed to keep our heads cool out there, not jumping at every shadow. Besides, we have bigger problems to worry about other than throwing some kids in juvie."

    Adachi brought his hand to his chin, pondering in thought. "Oh yeah, the Amagi's daughter was kidnapped last night, wasn't she?"

    The slip wasn't missed by the students: they all looked horrified. Trust the rookies to let their mouths run off without realizing that they're scaring civvies.

    Trying to keep his tone soothing despite the urge to throttle his partner, Dojima quickly answered their silent pleas. "Don't worry about that: we're investigating everything we can about your classmate, but nothing points to kidnapping of any kind yet. Just go home and don't do anything like this again. Understood?"

    "Yes sir," Hanamura said for them, and they all rose up to leave. The relief of not being thrown into jail was keeping them from all but bolting out the door.

    A last-second thought prompted Dojima to address his nephew before leaving. "Shirou, you stay here. There's something we need to talk about."

    For his part, Shirou didn't look as scared by the implications as his friends were. "Go on ahead, guys. I'll meet you outside."

    Shirou sat back down to his seat, watching almost curiously as the other two cops led his friends outside. When the door closed, the veteran cop spoke, "Your guardian called last night."

    Shirou blinked, suddenly somewhat nervous. "Fuji-nee? What did she want?"

    There was no easy way to say this so Dojima decided to be as blunt as possible. "For you to pack your things and move back to Fuyuki."

    Reasonably, Shirou was shocked. "What? But… but why? Is something wrong back home?"

    "I know we thought a year here would do us all good," Dojima said. "But the timing couldn't be worse than what's going on now. She talked to you before about Yamano, right?" Shirou nodded. "She heard about Konishi too, and was worried that you would be next."

    "But that doesn't even make any sense," Shirou argued. "Why would she think that?"

    Dojima raised an incredulous eyebrow. That's the first thing his nephew asks about? What kind of guardian wouldn't be worried about their kid being targeted by a murdering psycho? "If I had to guess, it's because a student from your school was the second victim. We have no clue on the perp's M.O., but Fujimura's pretty certain that you'll draw attention to him at some point. She's also convinced that you'll most likely become a vigilante to try and stop him because of that hero dream of yours."

    Shirou's head dropped to the desk with a dull thud. "She told you about that last year, didn't she? Nearly forgot about that…"

    Dojima nodded. He still recalled the first talk with Taiga, and how she begged him to consider taking Shirou in because of his late father and how seriously he wanted to take his mantle as an "ally of justice". Sometime after the heritage was confirmed, he talked to her more about that goal of his to at least understand why he wanted to be a superhero. It was a nice dream, but as a high school student, there was no realistic approach to that except for law enforcement. In that perspective, it made sense that Taiga wanted him to come down here in the first place.

    The redhead groaned slightly before picking himself up. "But what about Nanako?"

    "What about her?" Dojima growled. He felt a tinge of anger that the redhead was shifting the topic in that direction. He didn't want his daughter to be a part of the discussion and bring up his own fears.

    "How many nights will she have to spend alone while you're chasing this monster? This is probably the best time for me to be here and keep her company." The fact that he would defend his cousin with his life was left unsaid, but the message was clear.

    Dojima was briefly taken aback by Shirou's intensity, but before Dojima could reply, a loud noise broke outside the room, followed by shouting. Their discussion forgotten, Dojima and Shirou bolted from the room to find several officers staring at the Satonaka girl, who was only barely restrained by Hanamura. She was glaring daggers at Adachi, who was pressed back against the wall and sweating in terror. If he wasn't paralyzed with terror, he would have probably bolted.

    "I-it's just a theory!" Adachi weakly reasoned. "It isn't likely to be true, but it IS a possibi-"

    "Yukiko isn't like that, you bastard!" Satonaka shouted, completely drowning out the disheveled detective. "She's a victim here, dammit! Not a suspect!"

    "Pipe down!" Hanamura hissed, straining to keep the fiery tomboy from dragging him forward. "We just got out of being arrested! Don't piss them off more!"

    Shirou quickly jumped between the girl and the cop, his hands slapping squarely on the girl's shoulders and looking her in the eyes. "Satonaka. Calm down." Something passed between them, and her anger broke, leaving her to slump weakly in the boys' grips.

    "Yukiko isn't like that!" Chie cried despondently. "She isn't!" Innocent little Yukiko wouldn't think that defiantly, anyway!

    "Don't worry, Satonaka," Shirou whispered quietly enough for only his two friends to hear. "We're going to save her. Trust me." His words earned him a nod of thanks. Yosuke smirked confidently behind her and let her go.

    Watching the remarkably close exchange with a quirk of the brow, Dojima decided to let the moving plans wait for another day. If the Amagi girl turned up dead, he'd play it safe and send Shirou back. For now, he'd just keep investigating the disappearance and hope that things weren't going to get worse. Regardless, he was going to have a little talk with Adachi. The guy just had to open his big mouth again, didn't he?

    "What did you tell her?" he finally asked when the teens were out of sight.

    Adachi looked away, airing out his collar sheepishly. "N-nothing you'd like to hear, I'm sure, sir."

    -Shopping District: Daidara's Metalworks-

    Between Shirou and Dojima's intervention, the scene at the police station fortunately didn't get any more awkward. After that, the trio quietly left the police station and walked back towards the old shopping district. None of them were exactly in a talking mood, and Yosuke focused his thoughts on the nightmare puzzle playing out around them.

    The whole day had been a train-wreck from the start. The worries over Yukiko ending up in the TV world were realized after watching the Midnight Channel pass itself off as some low-budget program, and the Amagi Inn had only just realized that their daughter was missing during the breakfast rush. The trio ended up playing a bit of phone tag to coordinate, but Yosuke assured the group that he had a plan to go in prepared for the TV world this time.

    Needless to say, he would never bring weapons to the food court again. Heaven knows Satonaka wouldn't let him hear the end of that blunder.
    And then there was that Adachi guy with his "theories". He seemed loose-lipped enough, so Yosuke didn't think much of asking him what he meant back in the detainment room. It turned out that Mayumi Yamano had been staying at the Amagi Inn up until her death, but bitched out on the hostess, Yukiko's mother, until she ran herself ragged. The cops were thinking this to be the connecting factor between Yamano's death and Yukiko Amagi's disappearance, and the latter was now "laying low" after Konishi died too.

    That was all they got out of the guy before Satonaka freaking tackled him to the wall and he had to practically pick her up to keep her from throttling the cop with her bare hands. That girl was freaking strong. The trio left the building shortly after, more motivated than ever to rescue Yukiko.

    The problem was they were still weaponless. Oddly enough, the now calm tomboy had the answer, and led them to Daidara's Metalworks. Trust the Kung-Fu nut to know where to hook them up on that front.

    Shirou recognized the store entrance from when he first came to Inaba, but had never found the time over the last couple days. It looked quaint enough on the outside, with a suit of red samurai armor mounted next to the door as the only thing making it stand out.

    The inside of the building on the other hand was nothing short of a true middle-aged smithy: cold stone floors, a burning hearth in the back complete with bellows and various tools, and weapons of all kinds filling up the cluttered shelves and armors of all kinds sittting on racks and stands. How this store wasn't one of the ones that closed up like many other stores in the area was baffling to the students, but they weren't going to complain about a blessing in disguise.

    "Looks like your Kung-Fu movies paid off big time," Yosuke teased, admiring a stand lined with ornate, decorative lances.

    "Nah, I just heard about this place from some guys at school the other day," Chie said, glancing away at a Chinese long sword. "I only went here a few times before out of curiosity. You know, window shopping."

    "Almost feels like a magus' workshop," Shirou noted quietly, tempted to touch one of the swords on display. "The only problem is getting these into the electronics section without getting noticed again."

    "We'll figure something out," Chie shrugged, walking over to the gleaming steel breastplate displayed up by the front desk. "Maybe we should just stick with armor this time, though. They're easier to hide under bulky clothing than swords, and Shirou can do that thing he did last time on some tools."

    Yosuke and Shirou exchanged uneasy glances. Chie continued to examine the display armor, unaware of their concerned expressions. "Uh, when you said 'we', do you mean… we?" Yosuke started carefully.

    "Yes, we. Us. You, me, and him? I'm going too, isn't that obvious?" Stepping into the corner of the shop with the two boys, Chie planted her hands on her hips defiantly and silently dared them to say otherwise.

    Ever the risk-taker, Shirou cleared his throat. "Maybe… you should sit this one out, Satonaka."

    Chie looked like she had been slapped, her disbelief leaving her stunned for a second before she glared at the boys. "What?! How could you even say that? I have to go!"

    "No, you don't. You're not right in the head for this," Shirou observed clinically. Amagi meant too much to Satonaka for her to throw herself into a rescue that might kill her before they reached their goal.

    "Yes I do, and yes I am! Yukiko's in there and she needs my help!" Chie was almost shaking in anger and frustration.

    "See, that's what we're talking about!" Yosuke countered. "You're too emotional about this and will only draw in Shadows. I know how you feel but-"

    "You don't know shit about how I feel!" Chie snapped, stomping on the store floor for emphasis and startling the two much like the time at Yamano's room. "My best friend is stuck in that place, likely to die like the other two, and you jerks are telling me I can't even help her?!"

    "We were nearly useless in there last time, remember? Shirou barely managed to keep us alive! The only thing that hurts them is a Persona, and last I checked, you don't have one!"

    Chie bit her lip hard enough that it looked like she might draw blood for several uneasy seconds. Finally, she took a deep breath and visibly forced herself to calm down. "It's just my Shadow you're worried about, right?" Chie asked in an even tone. "I just have to accept it before it grows then. It's not like I have an ulterior motive for my own selfish needs to enter that place anyway."

    She felt awkward making that comment. It was uncharacteristically bitter of her (even if the idiot had it coming) and the pained wince Yosuke wore told her he was still sore about the event. But she'd be damned if they were going to brush her aside from this when it had everything to do with her!

    "I don't care what you two say! I'm going back there to save Yukiko and that's final!"

    It was one thing to see Yosuke's conviction, but Satonaka's as well? As much as Shirou was amazed by his fellow classmate's willingness to help, he refused to see any of them get in harm's way if he could do something about it. Yosuke was an exception because he had a Persona of his own now, but Satonaka was liable to get herself killed; more so because of her erratic behavior and fear for her friend.

    "It's just too risky to bring you back this time!" Shirou snapped back. "That world is no place for a girl!"

    Time stood eerily still as soon as those words were uttered. Yosuke stared at his new friend in a mix of horror and bewilderment, silently questioning his intellect. Shirou, having said his piece (but feeling like he might have perhaps worded it a touch off), wasn't certain why the words caused this reaction, but knew they were the direct cause. And Chie…

    She just stared at Shirou blankly, jaw slightly open and all traces of rage gone. "A girl," she repeated in a complete neutral tone.

    "Yes!" Shirou nodded, oblivious. "It's not about whether you're capable or not. That place could kill any ordinary person at any time, and it would help me feel better that you're out of harm's way by staying here. I promise we'll get Yukiko back to you."

    Chie's head lowered, and her hands were distinctly trembling. "But, Yukiko…"

    "Oi! What's with the commotion?"

    The three students jumped at the new voice addressing them as a figure emerged from the back room behind the counter. The swarthy man looked to be in his late forties, wearing a sweat-stained white shirt with matching pants and a brown work obi tied around his waist. He wasn't a particularly large man, but his thin frame was corded with cable-like muscles. His scowling face was less than welcoming, an 'X' shaped scar running squarely between his eyes and above his nose. He was bald on top, with red hair forming a ring from around his ears to blend into his mustache, and a lit cigarette jutted stiffly in the firm line of his mouth. A twisted white towel tied around his head in a makeshift sweat rag, the only thing that softened his fierce image.

    The man blinked once he saw the three students, particularly Chie. "Oh, it's you again, Chie-chan. Come to admire my art again?"

    "Not today," she replied, suddenly chipper again and walking up to the counter. "I was thinking about getting some armor and weapons. Been saving up, you see."

    "Have you now?" the man smiled. "Well, what will it be?"

    "Wait a minute, hold up," Yosuke interjected, before he and Shirou joined up at the desk. "You're the shopkeeper here?"

    "Aye," he nodded. "I'm Daidara, and this is my shop. Haven't made anything unique in a while, but what I have made are top notch works of art." The man's grim demeanor softened and his chest swelled with pride as he turned an eye back to the racks of weapons and metal works around them.

    "And you're willing to sell them to us?" Shirou asked. He'd expected that weapons and armor would cost more, even the cheaper scraps, to keep young students like him from purchasing them or at least to reflect the man's pride and hard work. It wasn't like he had an ID to prove he was of a legal age to buy these either. Though easier to attain than guns, weapons of any stripe were tightly regulated in Japan.

    "I don't see why not," the shopkeeper smiled. "I only do this for the art of metal-crafting, and a small town like this doesn't get to appreciate it as much as your little friend there."

    "So you'll get us cool weapons?" Yosuke smiled, struggling to contain himself.

    "So long as I have made them, I'll sell them. I don't do custom orders without charging extra," Daidara declared sternly.

    Shirou glanced back at the racks of weapons and found his answer. "If you have a long sword that you think suits me, I'll take it," he decided.

    "Twin blades!" shouted Yosuke, raising his hand eagerly.

    "Chain whip!" added Chie, doing the same.

    Shirou and Yosuke turned to their classmate with incredulous looks at her choice. Yosuke expected a sword or a staff, and Shirou expected her to simply buy gauntlets and greaves. Why a chain whip? Yosuke in particular looked terrified at her choice as a chilling thought occurred to him…

    "What?" she asked. "They're perfectly acceptable in Kung Fu and Wushu, and I can't just rely on my hands and feet all the time. They cover range, are versatile, and can even work with the movements of just the feet."

    Deciding to go with her logic, as well as ignoring Yosuke's whimpering, Shirou pointed to the set of armor Chie stared at earlier. "We could also use some armor: lightweight but durable."

    "I'll have to look through my wares, but off the top of my mind, I think what you want is some chainmail. Those cost 10,000 yen per set." Noticing the students' surprised and horrified looks, he chuckled a bit. "I didn't say I would give them to you cheap: I need to make a living, ya know. Things haven't gone smoothly here since that Junes building popped up."

    The three students just about choked. That amount of money wasn't exactly easy to come by for a trio of high school students. Shirou had some money handy to buy several pieces, but that was still a pretty big bite out of his savings. For the other two… "How the hell are we going to afford everything?! The armor alone is 30,000 yen for all three of us!" Yosuke gasped out.

    "I guess we just have to pool our resources and hope for the best," Shirou offered. Chie nodded in agreement.

    Yosuke sighed, more upset than convinced. "Looks like I'll have to put off that motorcycle license for a bit longer…"

    <><><>

    The trio left the store with their purchases: three identical shirts of chainmail, a five-sectioned chain whip for Chie, a pair of simple hunting nata for Yosuke, and the functional but cheap katana for Shirou. Each of them carried an oversized, unmarked brown bag to hold their choices.

    Between Chie's allowances, Yosuke's wages from Junes, and Shirou's entire wallet spending cash, they were barely able to pay for the merchandise with pocket change to spare, and that was only because of the whim deal Shirou made.

    Intent on avoiding another police sit-in like this morning, the students asked the shopkeeper Daidara if he had small, concealable weapons and armor that they could hide easily. Much to their surprise, he was actually enthralled by their request. It was apparently a bit of the inspiration he was missing, and he was willing to help in exchange for a discount. He only asked that they bring him materials that he could use to modify his designs. Being the helpful fellow that he was, Shirou accepted without much forethought.

    "Where the hell are we going to get him materials?" Yosuke asked incredulously. "Find tabs from vending machine drinks?"

    "I might have some stuff he can use," Shirou said. "But they're all the way back at my shed in Fuyuki. I like to fix things, so I have a bunch of scraps and parts of all sorts of things. I might have to ask Fuji-nee to send them over."

    "Wait, 'Fuji-nee'?" Yosuke blinked. "I didn't know you had a sister. Then again you did mention her back at the station. Is she single?"

    Before Shirou would awkwardly answer the question, Chie beat him to it with a growl. "Hey! Talk about girls later! Yukiko's in danger, remember!?"

    Seeing her loud and eager again told them that she was still serious about going, and didn't take their words for merit. Whether they liked it or not, she was going to follow them unless they knocked her out; Shirou didn't have the heart in him to do it, and Yosuke didn't have the guts to risk her thrashing him. They exchanged knowing glances and finally relented.

    "Fine," Yosuke groaned. "You can come, but stay behind us. You can be in charge of medicine."

    Chie frowned at being given medic duty, but nodded in thanks. Suddenly she paled and touched the side of her face. "Oh crap! I forgot my glasses!"

    Glasses? Shirou blinked. He almost commented aloud that she didn't wear glasses, until it hit him: Teddie's fog-filtering glasses from the other day. In the rush of getting over to the food court and seeing Nanako going about her day alone, he forgot to take them with him too.

    "Looks like we all did," Yosuke said, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "We might need to make a habit of carrying those at all times. Okay, so now we have to go home and pick up our glasses."

    An idea suddenly came to the magus. "And change into our uniforms."

    "What? Dude, it's Sunday! Won't a group of kids wearing school uniforms on a Sunday stick out?"

    Shirou lifted his bag for emphasis. "No less than a group of kids walking around with huge bags concealing weapons. The uniforms are baggy enough to hide your knives and the chain whip and maybe even our chainmail. I also might have a kendo bag to hide my sword. And if anyone asks, say we're from cram school."

    Chie and Yosuke exchanged surprised glances. "Can't argue with that logic," she shrugged.

    "Yeah, sounds good," Yosuke agreed, before quickly making a plan. "Let's meet up the food court in an hour from now. If we all don't meet up at the same time, we go to the Junes food court and sit by one of the tables."

    "All right," Chie nodded. "I'll be sure to get some medicine too. See you then."

    They watched Satonaka leave, and began moving in the opposite direction. Yosuke took another look back to see her disappear around the corner and out of earshot. Immediately after, he smacked the back of Shirou's head with an annoyed expression.

    For his part, Shirou quickly recovered before falling face first to the road. "Ow! What was that for?"

    "'That world is no place for a girl'?" Yosuke repeated in an incredulous tone. "Are you sexist, or just stupid?!"

    "Satonaka didn't seem upset," the magus reasoned.

    "Are you kidding? She was pissed; biding her time for the appropriate comeback for your screwed-up logic. If that clerk didn't come in when he did, she probably would have given you an earful, or worse! Just me, I've been there; my nads are still sore from the other day!"

    "I didn't mean to hurt her feelings! I just don't want her to die!"

    "I get that, but that comment was still uncalled for. You tried talking me out of this just yesterday too, but that time you didn't say anything remotely as demeaning." The auburn haired student then pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "Look, just… don't say that again. Like, ever."

    "Fine," Shirou sighed, vaguely mulling over his classmate's words, and the two continued their walk. It was again interrupted by a brief flash of light. The next thing Shirou knew, he saw something in his peripheral vision and nearly gaped at the sight greeting him and how other civilians were walking by it without as much as a glance.

    "Dude? You okay?"

    "That depends," he answered. "Do you see a glowing door over there?" He pointed to an ethereal stained glass door in a blue-hue aura that appeared in the alleyway next to the weapon shop. He knew for a fact that it hadn't there before, and its sudden appearance was akin to magecraft.

    Yosuke frowned, staring between the allegedly empty space and the redhead in confusion. "Uh… no?"

    "Then I might be hallucinating," Shirou weakly reasoned. If Yosuke couldn't see the door, it might be more magecraft-based than relating to their Personas, or at least connected to him alone on some level.

    Suddenly remembering his dream the other night, he reached to his pocket and pulled out the Velvet Key. It glowed dimly in his hands as if reacting to the door. It must be the gateway to the Velvet Room.

    "Seriously Shirou," his friend asked. "What's going on?"

    Shirou considered lying to him, but he was never good at lying, and Yosuke already knew the existence of magecraft to a degree. Not that he knew exactly how to tell him about Igor and Margaret, let alone his magecraft, but it wasn't like he needed to explain everything at once. There was no rule against telling or not telling his friends about the Velvet Room, was there?

    Well, the fact that no one but him could see the door probably simplified matters as far as discretion went. Still, Shirou felt he owed his friend an explanation.

    "Long story short, I'm being called by my-" he paused, trying to think of the appropriate term. "-benefactors. They're willing to help me develop my Persona powers."

    "Benefactors, huh?" Yosuke had mixed feelings about Shirou getting extra attention. On the one hand, any help getting clues to the case, or more power to stop Shadows was okay in his book. On the other, it was Shirou's help that further drove the point that he had been chosen for something. Had he heard this before Shadow Yosuke, it would have added more fuel to the fire.

    He was over the worst of it, but still had the nagging sense of envy inside him. Change doesn't come easy, after all.

    "You go on ahead, Yosuke," he heard the magus say. "I might take a while."

    "Alright," his friend shrugged, already walking ahead. "Don't forget: an hour at the food court." He gestured and pointed to his wrist for emphasis, even though he wasn't wearing a watch.

    "I won't," Shirou replied, walking up to the door. He stopped just in front of it to notice the finer details, like how it looked more like a stained-glass window or painting than a door. There was no knob or keyhole anywhere on the surface, and it gave the mixed implication of being fragile and sturdy. It was unlike any door or portal Shirou had ever seen.

    Just as he considered using Structural Analysis to find a way in, the Velvet Key shone even brighter. The door cracked away, revealing a gap of light into the unknown. Shirou hesitated for a moment, to check if anyone in the area was watching him, before steeping fully inside the gateway.

    Had anyone been watching, they would have forgotten there was anyone there to begin with.

    -Velvet Room-

    Despite entering it consciously this time like he would any other room, Shirou found himself sitting in the exact spot as he had in each prior visit without ever physically doing so, and saw the limousine-like room before him. Just as well, the long-nosed man and his assistant were sitting just across from him, mysterious as always.

    "Welcome to the Velvet Room, Shirou Emiya," Igor greeted with his ever present smile.

    "Glad that I'm not dreaming this time," Shirou quipped. He didn't mean to make it sound bitter, but he would prefer that his dreams be less ominous from people he'd never met before, even if they were friendly. It earned him a slight chuckle from the frail-looking man, which he hoped was actual humor.

    "Yes, quite. Now, I understand you have questions for us?"

    Shirou nodded. "This danger I'm facing… who or what is it?"

    "That's a question we all would like to know, isn't it?" Igor pondered, tapping his fingers together and looking distant. "Your journey is to discover the source of the calamity and stop it, as you promised your friends."

    Shirou frowned. Either Igor honestly didn't know what he was facing or just didn't want his "journey" to be a straightforward one and was withholding the answer. It appeared all he could count on Igor for was lending the power to fight it.

    "You're not alone in this endeavor," Margaret reminded. "The Social Links you'll make, just as the one you've made with Yosuke Hanamura, will be there to guide you. My master and I are also here to facilitate your potential."

    "How?" Shirou asked.

    "I am able to create new Personas," Igor said with a touch of pride. "It is most appropriately called 'fusion', as I can transmute multiple Persona cards into a new, stronger form. This is the main boon of your Wild Card, for any Social Links you've made will grant a power to a Persona of the corresponding Arcana, like The Magician for example. However, just as your own gifts must be honed and controlled carefully so too must you build the strength of those Personas. I can only fuse a Persona as strong as your heart and bonds allow, so don't get ahead of yourself!"

    Not that the magus planned on cheating Igor's system (and he was still questioning the moral merits of Social Links), but he was confused at the idea of using multiple Persona. "But, the only Persona I have is Izanagi," he explained, before a thought crossed his mind. "Unless, you're implying I should fuse with Yosuke's-"

    "That won't work," Igor kindly interjected. "Yosuke Hanamura has not established a contract with this room, and will not likely make one in this year's duration. As I've mentioned in our first meeting, only those that have made a contract may enter, let alone see, the Velvet Room, with some exceptions. Your friend isn't an exception."

    So that explains it. At least Shirou didn't have to worry about the secret of this room being discovered by the public or passing magi and risking the exposure of magecraft. "If that's true, how can I get more than one Persona?"

    "As you may realize, Personas and Shadows are one and the same: the light and darkness of the human heart," Igor explained. "When you defeated the Shadow of your friend, it changed into a Persona, did it not? The same principle applies to the other Shadows you'll see in this world.

    "When you defeat them, there is a possibility that it will revert to a Persona, without an anchor to the human that formed them. They may be hard to grasp, and it is entirely your decision to avoid them. But should you wish to obtain their power, you must master your fear and reach out for them."

    "I too shall help in managing your collection of Personas," Margaret added, gesturing to the thick tome on her lap. "Any and all data on the Personas you'll find and fuse will be recorded here, in the Persona Compendium. Feel free to ask me to assist at your leisure."

    The redhead nodded, almost missing the mischievous gleam in Igor's bulbous eye. "Anything else you wish to tell me?"

    He chuckled and smiled, but was still serious. "Do you remember the reading of the Reverse World card?"

    I couldn't forget even if I wanted to, he thought bitterly, but instead he solemnly repeated the words Igor told him a week ago. "'The coming year is a turning point in my destiny. If the mystery goes unsolved, my future, perhaps far more, may be forever lost. That is what the World foretells.'" The quote was almost seared into his memory, constantly goading him to action even as he struggled for a clue on what he needed to do.

    Igor nodded. "I meant every word. Do understand that while defeat in battle is always a risk, it isn't the only unfortunate end to your journey."
    Meaning that unless the case is solved, Inaba will face more than just serial murders in the future. It was an ominous thought, but it wasn't going to deter the magus hero-to-be from helping others. Yukiko Amagi was in need of help.

    "I best get going then," he rose from his seat, heading for the limousine door to his left. "Amagi-san isn't going to save herself."
    The long-nosed man gave a short wave in response as he left. "Until we meet again… farewell."

    -Junes – Electronics Department-

    An hour later, the regroup at the food court was brief, as everyone wanted to avoid attention from the police again. After a quick drink of soda, the group headed down to the electronics department, trying to avoid being conspicuous as uniform wearing students could be.

    Chie was the last one to arrive. Earlier, Yosuke briefly considered that the two of them should just head over on their own before she did. Shirou voted against that, if only for the trust in their friend, but he understood Yosuke's intention. He was worried that she might be going in for the wrong reasons as he did the other day and end up creating a Shadow that would hinder their search. He almost pushed away Yosuke in this investigation, only to fail because he was serious about the case.

    The same could be said about Satonaka because of how she willingly wished to go back despite hating the last two visits. This was especially personal to her with her best friend now in such danger, just like it was for Yosuke losing Saki Konishi, as one-sided as that infatuation was.

    "Well, we're here," Yosuke announced, standing before the giant TV that was looming almost ominously before the trio once again. The afternoon sales were dying down, and there were less people wandering around Junes for a few hours. The electronics department in particular was barren again, and they were going to take full advantage of this fact.

    "Not too late to change your mind, Satonaka," Shirou offered as he reached for his white glasses. Just because he wasn't going to push her away didn't mean he wouldn't be concerned about her safety.

    He flinched when the brunette glared daggers at him through her lenses. Apparently she was mad at him, and still is. "I'm going," she all but growled. I'm not going to be denied by anyone. Not again.

    Yosuke threw his arms up in defeat after putting his pair on. "Alright, fine, have it your way. Man, I hope I'm wrong about this…"

    The last bit of words was uttered to himself even as he climbed inside the TV. Shirou held his hand out for Chie, who hesitantly, maybe even timidly, took it.

    "Hold on," Shirou said before they jumped inside. Chie nodded, only because she didn't trust her voice the moment her thoughts ran out.

    "I never let go of what's important to me, Shirou-kun," the tiny, almost hissing voice seemed to brush across her thoughts.

    TV World – En Route to Yukiko

    The group found Teddie "deli-bear-ating" in a corner about its nature. Apparently it had been doing that since yesterday. It did live up to its word in looking around, catching a whiff of something shortly after their Junes visit. After spending the day looking, it came up with the location but refused to go in because of the Shadows gathering around it. Teddie also didn't know how to contact the gang about his discovery, so it pondered about how to accomplish that. That line of thought led to it pondering its skills, which became asking why it could smell directions so well, and then question, once again, the bear's very being.

    Not that Chie was in the mood of listening to its philosophical debates and wanted to save Yukiko now. With that goal in mind, Teddie dubiously lead them to where it had claimed they would find Yukiko. The mascot bear trekked ahead of them, with Shirou staying a few paces behind. Yosuke brought up the rear, his eyes darting around to cover their backs. Chie was behind Shirou, keeping watch for danger on the sides and holding the bag of Shiroku brand medicine slung under her shoulder. Without a Persona, she would have to largely rely on the boys in front and behind her. Yosuke took the rear guard, carefully watching over his shoulder in case a canny Shadow tried to sneak up on them. Thankfully there were none so far.

    It was during the long walk through dark spiraling skies and distorted landscapes that Yosuke eventually broke the silence. "Say, Shirou?" he called up to the front, tightening their formation a bit.

    "Yeah?"

    "Now might not be a good time to ask, and I've been wondering about this for a while. How exactly does your… whatsit called work?"

    "My magecraft?" Shirou guessed.

    Chie blinked. "Mage-what?"

    "Not the time, Chie-chan!" Teddie blurted from ahead. "We need to find this Yuki-chan of yours, right?"

    "Why not talk on the way, since it's far?" Yosuke shrugged before glancing back to Shirou. "Besides, you did say that you owed us an explanation. It's a big secret, so what better way than to tell it where no one can hear us?"

    Shirou winced slightly. He did promise them both an explanation, didn't he? Yosuke brought up a good point though: this place was probably the most secret place one could ask for. He stared up at the black and red sky that seemed to roll in the same direction they were walking, as if it were watching them and pondered the risks. He wanted to keep his word, but it would be another step into a world that was as dangerous as it was powerful.

    Then again, this world within the TV was pretty much the same thing in that regard.

    "Alright," he finally breathed. Yosuke pumped his fist slightly at having finally dragged the matter out of his tight-lipped friend. Chie also perked up, interested despite her worries over Yukiko.

    "I guess I should start with the basics of the basics. Magic and magecraft are two separate things: magecraft is using magical energy to accomplish something that science can do, regardless of time or effort involved. You with me so far?"

    "Sounds simple enough to me. So if you tossed out a fireball with magi-magecraft, a normal guy could do that with an aerosol can and a lighter," Chie still almost fumbled on the term, but it was a simple enough principle to understand.

    "Right. Magic is something else, though. True Magic does something science can't do at all right now: things like making something from nothing, hopping into other universes or time travel. You can kinda guess that people who can do that are extremely powerful and rare," Shirou continued. "That's why I'm so insistent on calling myself a magus instead of a magician or Sorcerer. They mean different things to the magical community."
    Let it never be said that Yosuke wasn't intuitive. "So there're whole cabals or groups who study this stuff? Do they rule the world from the shadows or something?"

    He almost gulped when Shirou didn't reply at first. Shirou didn't notice, simply trying to reach back to Kiritsugu's lessons. "Well, there are organizations, but I don't think they do anything like rule the world, given that most ordinary pursuits don't interest magi. Dad told me that most of them are academics, even if they're powerful and organized. Also, magecraft has a flaw: the more people who use it and understand it, the weaker it gets. Mystery has power. On top of preventing mass panic, that's the main reason magi punish people who blab the secret carelessly so harshly. I'll warn you again. You can't tell ANYONE about this or they might get you and those around you killed."

    "'Cause that makes sense," Chie snorted, but then, magic or magecraft, being what it was, probably didn't need to make sense. It just had to work.

    "Hang on, doesn't that mean our Personas will get weaker too?" That was just plain bad news in Yosuke's mind. They needed every edge they could get.

    "I don't know for sure, but the benefactors I mentioned told me that they'll get stronger, not weaker. Personas don't seem to work like any magecraft I'm familiar with. We'll need to wait and see, I guess. Anyway, the last thing is how magi work their thaumaturgy."

    "Thauma-wha?" came two simultaneous confused voices.

    Shirou simply chuckled. "Thaumaturgy. It's basically a word that magi use to describe the act of casting spells. Don't ask, I didn't invent the term. Anyway, there are two sources of power that magi use: the outer source, mana, which is drawn from the planet, and the much smaller inner source of personal energy, called od. That energy has to then be processed into a form that can work magecraft, so it's processed using Magic Circuits."

    "I remember you saying something about that last time. You said yours broke? And you had to replace it?" Chie's eyes squeezed shut and a frown showed how hard she was trying to recall that event in the midst of the more violent ones.

    "Yeah. I'm a third-rate magus at best, and not even a proper apprentice, so I only have the one I set at any given time, and they only work for about a week before they burn out and I have to do it again. Real magi can have several dozen at once, but they have generations of breeding behind them. I have to basically align my spinal cord to my od's flow and convert it into a channel for my magical power. It hurts, but I'm used to it. The first rule magi learn is 'a magus walks with death.' A lot can go wrong in magecraft, and it's a pretty unforgiving lifestyle."

    Good lord! From the heat he put out last time he must be pretty much setting himself on fire every time! No wonder he could shrug off getting pummeled! Yosuke couldn't help but gawk. "So why do it at all?"

    That was an easy one for Shirou. "Magecraft might be dangerous, but one day it'll give me a way to help others like it helped us last time we were here. Besides, what's life without a little risk?" he finished with a cheeky grin. Turning his eyes forward again, he finished with a warning: "I want both you to keep an eye out, though: not every magus sits back and studies quietly. My father told me that there are rogues who don't care what they do so long as the magecraft organizations don't catch them. Considering this place, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if our killer was a rogue magus. Watch for things like strange symbols, eerie feelings or odd rumors like the Midnight Channel. It might not mean anything, but magecraft leaves a mark if you know where to look."

    The exact details of things like Sealing Designations and the like were ultimately unimportant at the moment, so Shirou left the nuances for later if they were still interested. From the looks on their faces, it would take a while to digest all this anyway, and the gist was there. Details were more important if they wanted to study the art, and Shirou doubted that the risks would be worth it for them in the long run. Even if they did have their own Magic Circuits, they had no real support or experience to help get them anything meaningful.

    Maybe Igor had some ideas…

    "Wait a minute," Yosuke broke the silence again, a thought occurring to him. "You just said 'your father' warned you about rogue magi? And earlier, your 'dad' told you that magi are usually just a bunch of scholars?"

    "Yes," Shirou nodded. "What of it?"

    "That means your old man is also your magecraft teacher, right?"

    Shirou was starting to get an idea of Yosuke's question, and felt more than a little nervous. "Well, yes, but he-"

    A wide smile grew on the teen's face at his discovery, unaware of his friend's unease. "Then that means we can call on an expert adult to help us, right?!"

    Chie brightened at the idea as well. "Hey, yeah! We can't contact the police for obvious reasons, but we can still get help from your dad! After we rescue Yukiko, maybe you could call him over and help find the killer!"

    Shirou winced, not looking or feel as thrilled as his classmates. "I'm afraid that's not possible."

    The nervousness of his tone wasn't missed to either of them. He sounded like he was hiding or avoiding something. To Chie, it reminded her of the first day when they were walking with Yukiko. Come to think of it, he never said anything about his parents. Could it be that those magecraft rules he just told them prevented his dad from helping or something?

    "Hey guys!"

    The tense confusion passed and the group looked up in surprise at Teddie. The bear, after calling their attention, pointed down over the hill it stood on and to a regal, baroque castle.

    "We're here!"
    Last edited by Kishou the Badger; November 20th, 2014 at 09:19 PM.

  17. #17
    Damn. Cliffhanger.

    Ah, well. I'm getting hyped to know what's going to happen next.

    By the way, are you planning to let Shirou know that the way he uses his spine as artificial Magic Circuits are wrong?

  18. #18
    Chapter 18: The Castle​
    -Yukiko’s Castle, Front Gate​-


    The quartet walked down the wide path of stone tiles leading directly to the large castle towering over them. Stone fences taller than they were lined either side of the path, dividing it from the green gardens for visual’s sake. Statues of rearing horses made of white marble faced the road at regular intervals. Up close, the central keep loomed tall and lined with so many red-tinted windows that it was hard to tell where the roof ended and the red and black sky began. The castle was actually of a Western baroque design rather than the Japanese style. The outer wall before them kept them from reaching the keep without passing through a partially open rolling portcullis and the all-too familiar color-changing portal just beyond.​

    “Well, this certainly looks like the place we saw last night,” Shirou noted. “Good job, Teddie.”​

    Satonaka looked around with a frown. “I don’t see any cameras. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Whoever filmed this place probably packed up and ran after the ‘show,’” she spat. She looked like she wanted to kick something.​

    “Again with this ‘filming’ thing?” Teddie asked bewilderedly. “I already told you that there’s none of that here.”​

    “You’re absolutely sure there’s no one else here?” Yosuke asked the bear dubiously.​

    The doubt apparently struck a nerve, and Teddie flailed its arms angrily and gnashed his teeth. It almost gave Shirou the sense that he was channeling Taiga… almost. “YES! How many times do I have to repeat myself?! The only things that live here are me and Shadows! It’s been like this since the beginning, and I never sensed anything different until people were dropped in a week ago!”​

    “That still doesn’t make any sense!” Yosuke argued. “’Since the beginning’ of when?”​

    “How should I know?! I’m a bear, not a clock!”​

    Shirou hummed, trying to ignore the escalating fight between man and mascot at his side. “I doubt there’s any real filming involved for this. Most magi have a rampant dislike towards anything electronic when they can use magecraft to do the same thing. Though it could still mean the culprit is in the minority if he was studying the Midnight Channel and its ties to TV.”​

    “But Yukiko was on the channel before was kidnapped,” Satonaka reminded. “What does that mean?”​

    “It could mean anything, but we’ll have time for that later. We can ask Amagi-san herself if she knows anything after we rescue her.” Shaking off the questions with no answers, Shirou turned towards Yosuke and Teddie, both almost nose-to-nose and growling.​

    Chie nodded, ignoring any and all impulse to just rush on ahead while Shirou calmed the others. She feverishly wanted to find Yukiko now, but Yosuke did the same thing the other day looking for the Konishi store and nearly gotten them all killed by a bunch of Shadows for his trouble.​

    Awkwardly fiddling with the rolled-up chain whip at her waist and the bag over her shoulder, she calmed herself with deep breaths. She had to believe that everything would be alright.​

    Unfortunately for her optimism, the whip might not do as much as she wanted: in order to make it more portable, she had Daidara make it shorter, something he had no experience with. A five-section whip was less deadly than the traditional nine-section one, but at least the tip was still sharp. The image of her using it effortlessly to save Yukiko from Shadows and Shirou watching was a helpful motivator, or so she told herself.​

    <><><>​
    -Yukiko’s Castle, First Floor-




    The inside of the castle was just as regally appointed as the outside. Brilliant red carpets with golden linings were laid out in center of the hallways and placed over red and gray checkered tiles of glossy stone. The walls and ceiling were all tall, with the same colors seen on the floor. Vast windows framed by red and gold curtains towered over them, though they could see nothing through the blanket of red-tinged fog outside. The walls towered so high it was impossible to see the ceiling in areas, though high arches periodically stuck out from the shadows from which crystal chandeliers hung. Doors they passed by or walked through were of gold-plated wood, and had a somewhat mystical chink to whenever they swung open. The more the explorers saw the castle, the more they were convinced it had some sort of magical grace to it.​

    There was also a thicker bank of fog inside than out. The glasses filtered away what was right in front of them, but even these couldn’t pierce the fog more than a dozen meters before everything blurred into an impenetrable haze. Every sound had the quartet freezing in place, ducking behind pillars in case Shadows roamed the halls. None of them wanted to fight if they could avoid it right now, especially with Yukiko somewhere waiting for them.​
    Teddie again proved his worth by guiding the trio through the maze-like building. Whether just from having a good sense of smell or something more supernatural, he only needed a few sniffs to guide them away from Shadows and dead ends, and he remembered each turn they took unerringly. He even “smelled” someone on the floor above them, all the more prompting Chie to egg him and the boys to hurry.​

    It actually looked like they were going to slip through the entire labyrinthine first floor without issue until they came to yet another sharp turn in the hallway. “Wait,” Teddie squeaked, stopping and sniffing quickly. “Shadows at 3 o’clock.”​

    Yosuke smirked. “Oh, so you are a clock after all.”​

    “Yosuke.” The warning tone from his red haired friend quickly diffused any growing argument with Teddie on the spot. As quietly as they all could, the four crowded at the corner of the wall and peeked around it.​

    Some ways down were two different kinds of Shadows: one was similar to the Slipping Hableries in appearance but with a zebra striped pattern and black tongue in contrast to its pink lookalike. The other took the form a spiraling length of paper-like ribbon with several fins sticking out so that it resembled a fish. The body had small rune-like letters that would glow red and fade away periodically. All the fins (the tail, head, and sides) appeared to be made of stained glass, and a feminine noh mask marked “II” was placed in a way that looked like its eyes and face towards the fish’s “head.”​

    Most frustratingly, just beyond the milling Shadows there was a staircase leading higher into the castle.​

    “A Lying Hablerie and a Calm Pesce,” Teddie whispered. “I think the first one is similar to the Shadows you fought the other day, Shirou-sensei, right down to the weaknesses. But you might have trouble with the other one.”​

    “Is there no other way around?” Satonaka asked.​

    “No. The stairs are just past these Shadows, and I know this Yukiko-chan girl is higher up in the castle.”​

    “Guess it’s a good thing you have me around then,” Yosuke smiled. He looked a bit excited at the idea of a fight… too excited.​

    “Wait, Yosuke-!”​

    He ignored Shirou’s warning and jumped out of the corner, pushing the play button on his MP3 as he did so. A power-up theme song was what he needed for his first big entrance. Then he gave a loud whistle with both hands to call their attention. When they both turned to him, he cupped his hands and yelled at them. “Hey! Lockjaw and Flounder! Mark this image in your heads before you die!”​

    “What the hell is he doing?!” Chie cried from her hiding spot.​

    Ignorant of their worries, Yosuke calmed himself, closed his eyes and held his hand out. This was it; his big moment. Shirou was a magus, but if he could manage to summon his Persona, so could he. He knew the power was inside of him. Hell, he could feel it, just waiting to be released, and he was going to show these Shadows he meant business.​

    Right… “Per-”​

    About… “-So-”​

    Now! “Na!”​

    His hand clenched to… nothing. Slowly, he opened his eyes and kept opening and closing his hand, starting to realize something was off. No floating card, blue glow, no ninja-frog-man, no swell of power… He did it right though, right? Then again, how the hell did those shonen heroes do stuff like this in the first place?​
    The Shadows exchanged brief glances at the slightest turn of their bodies, showing their confusion in dull reaction. The students and bear were just as baffled. “He’s… doing it wrong, isn’t he?” Satonaka finally asked.​

    “Yep,” Shirou answered. It never occurred to him that he didn’t teach Yosuke how to awaken his Persona until now, either, so he felt partly to blame.​

    Ignoring the blank looks from both his friends and the Shadows he swaggered, Yosuke calmed himself and tried again. “COME, JIRAIYA!” This time he outstretched his hand high above his head, finger wide and hoping something would fall or fill into his palm. Still nothing.​

    He clapped his hands together, forming a popular hand-seal he saw on a show once. “Persona Release: Jiraiya Jutsu!”​

    When the silence continued, he drew his nata and crossed them to an X shape. “Bakunetsu Tenkyoken!”​
    In a panic, and unaware of the growing sweat rolling the present faces of everyone (even the Shadows), he spouted more words and did more stances, each more ridiculous than the last. “Fang Blade! Bankai! It’s Hero Time! I Choose You! Kaioken!”​

    Teddie blinked at the last phrase. “Kai-oh-what?”​

    “And he has no idea what he’s doing,” Satonaka said, pinching the bridge of her nose.​
    “Nope,” said Shirou, solely tempted to mimic her expression.​

    “PERSONA!” Yosuke shouted, going back to the original phrase with different octaves and swinging open to the air for a card that wasn’t appearing. “PersoNA! PerSOOOna! PER-sona! Persona! Persona! PersonapersonapersonapersonapersonapersonaPERSONA! ”​

    It was this final attempt that the Shadows lost patience and charged him. The floating mouth reached him first, opening its maw so comically wide the bottom and upper lips nearly touched the mask on the back of its body. The tongue of the growing darkness lashed out to bind Yosuke place just to make the full body bite accurate.​
    Fortunately he saw it coming, but had nearly wet himself seeing the pitch-black void of the mouth with wide eyes and shrunken irises. “YIPE!”​

    He only intended to hop back a short distance away, but instead he found himself propelled all the way to the wall as if launched there. He slid down to the floor, confused at his speed while the Shadow painfully crunched on its own teeth.​

    “Whoa…” He never felt so nimble before in his life!​

    It was at this point that Shirou decided to step in, and properly showed how it was done. Without a word, he marched by the corner, held out his hand, and crushed the Izanagi card. The Persona materialized right by his side, hovering beside him and mirroring Shirou’s movements exactly.​

    Before the large-mouthed Shadow could recover, man and Persona struck as one with their blades piercing flesh. It was still strange to see himself both using his own katana and Izanagi’s naginata at the same time through their connection, even if the nature with his power letting him handle the information smoothly. Shirou and Izanagi pulled back their blades to strike the finishing blow but failed to notice the fish-like Shadow swim through the air behind their backs. He turned just as it was half-way into a backflip, intending to club him with its heavy tail fin. He hesitated in surprise, and was sent flying by the blow.​

    “Emiya!” Satonaka cried.​

    Yosuke broke out of his stupor from his brief moment of superhuman reflexes in time to see the two Shadows corner his friend. Like the other day, a sense of fear nearly rooted him rigid to the floor. It quickly passed, as if his desire to fight back was answered by the inner spirit in him (whether it was his Persona or just adrenaline, he didn’t know or care). “Not while I’m here you won’t-!”​

    Before he could even think about what he was doing, he sprinted forward until he was up to the flying fish and drew his knives. The moment he reached the Shadow, he slashed horizontally with the first knife before bringing the second down on the startled creature’s back and dropped into a crouch. Winding up, he brought the first knife back up in a rising uppercut that sent the Calm Pesce spinning into the air before it flopped to the ground.​
    Yosuke was the center of attention once again by all parties, and even the auburn haired student couldn’t believe what happened. He knew there was no way he was that fast or strong in the real world.​

    The pause quickly passed as a thunderclap went off and a blue bolt struck the Lying Halberie from above. It flinched as if emitting a voiceless scream as electricity crackled around its body before it slumped to the floor with its kin. Izanagi stood in the distance, hand outstretched towards the fallen creature. Shirou, still on the floor, had his hand out in a similar gesture as if guiding his Persona.​

    Remembering himself, Yosuke went over and pulled him to his feet. “Thanks for the cover, man.”​

    “Likewise,” the magus smiled.​

    “Guys!” Teddie called out. “The Shadows are down, but they’ll recover soon! You have to finish them off before they get back up!”​

    The students looked at the downed Shadows: the Calm Pische was on its supposed belly as if washed up on a beach, but its fins were already pushing against the floor as it attempted to lever itself back into the air. The Lying Halberie was lying on the side of its mouth, tongue lolling on the carpet and staining the carpet with its drool even as it started trying to curl the slimy appendage under itself.​

    “Should we focus our attention on the fish first before the mouth?” Shirou suggested as he shouldered his sword while his Persona readied its weapon for another attack.​

    Yosuke stared at the Shadows a moment longer before smirking. “I got a better idea. Shirou, follow my lead!”​

    “What le-“​

    “DOGPILLLLLLLE!”​

    As he shouted, Yosuke charged again and started hacking at both Shadows while staying on top of them. Shirou hesitated for a second before joining him, stirring the fog into a whorl around them as they continued to hack at the Shadows alongside his Persona. Any movement was met with brutal hacking and kicking to keep them pinned down as they ripped them apart.​

    From Teddie and Chie’s perspective, the fight was obscured by the cloud of disturbed fog their friends were making and the various sounds of battle. They thought they could make out a few swords, arms, fins, and other parts popping partly out amidst the chaos, but it was all too fast to get a clear picture. When the fog finally settled, Shirou and Yosuke were sheathing their weapons, and Izanagi faded into his owner’s body. The only thing left of the Shadows was a single mass of black-red ink slowly dissolving.​

    “Wow!” Chie whooped, rushing over to them. “You guys make fighting Shadows look easy!”​

    “That’s because it was easy!” Yosuke winked. “Though to be fair, they looked stronger the other day at the fake Shopping District.”​

    “Small Shadows like those can swarm together, but are easy to beat if you take advantage of their weaknesses,” Teddie explained. “There’re a whole lot of them in this castle though, so fighting non-stop could get exhausting by the time you run into a big Shadow, like Yosuke’s.”​

    Or Yukiko’s, thought Chie. If her friend was thrown into a world that had their own emotions kill them, it was only a matter of time before it showed up to do just that. I have to save her. Only I can save her. Or so she told herself.​

    Chie had tried to ignore the sense of hopelessness in watching her classmates fight. As expected, Emiya made use of the sword better than the golf club, with Izanagi following like a dance partner. Hanamura screwed up on his first big summoning (something she would probably tease him about if she wasn’t so tense) but had managed to jump right back into the fighting. In a way, it was brave of him to fight the Shadows without knowing how to call his Persona, and a massive improvement from back at the distorted shopping district.​

    The guys looked about ready to move on, but Shirou stopped and stared at a blob of black that resembled the Lying Hablerie. “Emiya?”​

    “Come on, partner. Let’s go.”​

    “Don’t worry Shirou-sensei; the Shadow is dead and nothing else is going to pop out from it.”​
    Shirou ignored them, instead walking closer to the dissolving Shadow and, to his friends’ vocal dismay, touched it. Idly casting Structural Analysis, he saw that the majority of the remains read as made of shadow just like the door in his dream with the fog and the Ghoul. But he could also make out a few flickering lights inside, each brimming with an untapped power: one was white and dull as glass, with a shattered image at the center. Another looked like a dark and red X with as much foreboding feeling as a Shadow. The third looked like a yellow-orange glow that had some power inside it, and vaguely reminded him of a regular Tarot. And the last one was a blue flicker, with a picture of a small winged girl shown.​

    Then he recalled what Igor said to him earlier today, on how Persona and Shadows were one in the same. “When you defeat them, there is a possibility that it will revert to a Persona, without an anchor to the human that formed them.”

    As his hand neared the lights, they started dancing faster, going in their own orbits and threatening to erode faster in the Shadow’s remains. Shirou had a feeling he could only grab one of the lights before the others disappeared, and that he did not want to accidentally get the black-red X light.​

    “They may be hard to grasp, and it is entirely your decision to avoid them. But should you wish to obtain their power…”​

    The magus watched carefully on the blue light, circling further and slower than the other lights. He eased his hand to make the right timing, ignoring the possible consequences of catching the wrong card or extending his time limit.​

    “-You must master your fear and reach out for them.”

    With Reinforced reflexes, he snatched it in his palm and closed it tight. Similar to when he summoned Izanagi, the sound of glass shattered echoed from his hand and burst into light that briefly blinded the hall. The darkness subsided immediately, the other lights disappearing with it. “WHOOOOA!”​

    Yosuke slowly lowered his arms from his face, prior rising to block out the sudden flare. Chie and Teddie did the same. “What just happened?”​

    “I think… Emiya summoned his Persona inside that muck?” Chie guessed.​

    Teddie blinked, noticing Shirou and the new guest in front of him. “But… was Izanagi always a small winged fairy?”​

    Shirou himself was surprised. He didn’t exactly know what would happen when he would catch the card, but hovering before him (as well as the others) was a small red-haired girl with teal-colored wings. He could barely make out her smaller features, as she was about the size of his palm, but he could see her blue leotard and matching arm gloves and stockings.​

    The fey took a look of her surroundings before staring back at Shirou. “So you’re the one who freed me.”

    The students and bear gaped at the fairy-like creature’s words. “I-it… she talked!” Chie cried.​

    “Of course I talk!” the fairy huffed, turning to her. “Just because you don’t see us Pixies all the time doesn’t mean we don’t exist or don’t know how to talk!”​

    “Pixie?” In his mind, Shirou gulped. Magi had stories about faeries, and whether you survived an encounter with your body or mind intact was basically a coin toss. It was unknown if this was Persona or an actual faerie masquerading as one if that was possible. Again, he silently wished that he was a more knowledgeable magus.​

    The dubbed Pixie nodded back to Shirou. “Yep yep! And I need a new home to get my strength going. Let’s see…”​
    She took a quick glance around the group, and settled her eyes on Yosuke. “You!” pointed the Pixie. “Your energy is closely related to mine, so you’ll be a good vessel!”​

    “V-vessel?!” Yosuke paled, tempted to simply run away from the manic little sprite. It sounded ominously close to being possessed, and like hell he was going to let that happen! Too bad she was flying faster than he expected.​

    “Heeeeere I gooooooo~!” she sang, making a beeline for Yosuke’s forehead…​

    BONK!​

    …And, accompanied by a sound akin to two coconuts knocking together, the fairy and the human collided and fell backwards onto their backs. Pixie recovered first, sitting upright with tears in her eyes and a big red bump on her head. “Owwie… I thought he looked empty, but his head’s already full: someone beat me to it. No fair.” Despite the situation, it was hard to be angry at the tiny pixie as she rubbed her head with a confused pout.​

    Yosuke, also sporting a red bump, was barely coherent from the head butt. He was currently seeing a swarm of Pixies flying around in circles over his eyes. “Whoz uppdee haded?” he slurred from on his back.​

    Chie and Teddie quickly went to Yosuke’s side, propping him upright and trying to rouse him back to awareness, leaving Shirou to pick up the Pixie. However, he did so up by pinching her wings, which caused her to yelp and squirm away not even half-way up.​

    “OWOWOWOWOW!” she snapped, beating her small hands against his fingers. “Watch the wings, buster!”​

    “Uh, sorry.” Shirou, nonplussed at hurting the possible Persona, let go. She caught herself before she had dropped a few inches with a flutter of her wings.​

    Pixie frowned and crossed her arms, staring at the magus intently from top to bottom. “Hmm…” She flew up to Shirou’s head and knocked on his forehead softly. “Looks like you’ve got more room than him, but there’s something already in there… weird.”​

    She drifted slightly away for another once-over. Apparently satisfied, she smiled. “You’re not exactly my type, but you did save me. And you seem to be connected to your idiot friend over there.”​

    “Hey! Yosuke isn’t that bad,” Shirou defended instantly without a second thought.​

    Pixie giggled. “See, that’s what I’m talking about! Keep that up and I’ll be charged up in no time!”​

    The magus blinked. He had no clue what she was going on about… although… maybe the Social Link he established with Yosuke yesterday? Before he could ask the Pixie about it she added, “Is it okay if I tag along? I’ll help out anyway I can!”​

    Seeing a chance, Shirou immediately took it. “Then, could you help us find someone?” he asked, hoping the former Shadow had more information than they did. “A young girl named Yukiko Amagi.”​

    “Name doesn’t ring any bells, but sure, I’ll help! Just call out my name – Pixie – and I’ll be there in a flash!”​

    She flitted back an inch or two, and then sped forth into Shirou’s head. This time she disappeared in a veil of blue light and Shirou felt the Pixie’s energy seep into his own, settling right next to Izanagi deep inside. It was not as strong a sensation as his first Persona, but he could tell she was inside him, at least.​

    “Ooooh… “ Shirou turned to the sound of the groan. It came from Yosuke, who had just managed to get himself back to normal by means of vigorous shaking from Chie and a few slaps from Teddie. “Where’d that Pixie-thing go?”​

    “Uh, I guess she became my new Persona… sort of.” The students and bear blinked owlishly at his vague answer, which left Shirou himself honestly confused. Luckily before it got any more awkward, Satonaka shook her head as if dispelling the odd images in her head.​

    “Ugh, never mind. Let’s just put that aside for now; at least until after we save Yukiko.”​

    The collective nods approved of her vote and they hurried onwards.​

    <><><>​
    -Yukiko’s Castle, Second Floor​-


    For his part, Yosuke ignored the ecstatic praise Teddie gave to “Shirou-Sensei” on the fight earlier: calling him a natural and how great he was. Shirou was being modest about it, but it was clear he was in the limelight as far as Teddie was concerned. The whole Pixie thing made them forget about his earlier screw up, and while he wasn’t too keen on being butt of the joke all the time, he was thankful for it happening this time.​

    Yosuke didn’t know why Shirou could easily summon Izanagi from the get-go while he couldn’t do the same with Jiraiya. He knew he had a Persona and felt some of that power flow through him when swinging his blades, but it was no hovering swordsman throwing thunder bolts. He considered asking Shirou for tips and pointers, but Satonaka was constantly egging them to hurry on and find Amagi. That was more important right now: this was a rescue op, and if they were lucky and found her, maybe they wouldn’t have to fight a giant Shadow version of the inn heiress. Those Shadows down below had been utter chumps in comparison to his own inner demon.​

    The quartet quickly reached the flight of stairs, seeing a short hallway and a large set of gold-gilded doors. Again Teddie stopped, sniffing intently in front of him. “I smell… a human on the other side! I think it’s that Yukiko-chan girl!”​

    That was all the encouragement Chie needed before she bolted past the others and threw the doors open, completely ignoring her classmates’ startled cries. It led to another hallway… and a black haired girl in a pink ballroom dress walking away from them sedately deeper into the castle.​

    “Yukiko!” Chie cried, running further ahead to see her with a surge of relief and joy. Yukiko was safe! Her best friend was safe! And I’ll make sure she’s never in harm’s way again!

    She stopped just a short distance from her, wanting nothing more for her to turn around so she could hug her face-to-face. “Yukiko, it’s me, Chie! Don’t worry! Everything’s going to be okay now!”​

    “Chie?”

    A cold chill running down her spine nearly tore the smile off of Chie’s face. It was Yukiko’s voice, wasn’t it? Then why did it sound like it had some sort of cheap voice modifier over… Why did it sound like Yosuke’s…?​

    Her fears were realized as Yukiko turned around gracefully. She had the same black hair, the same high cheek bones, the same soft, pale complexion, and obviously the same princess dress she wore last night on TV. This time though, the girl’s bangs shadowing her face highlighted the glowing golden eyes replacing her normal brown ones, and, now that Chie was close enough to see it, a faint dark aura surrounded her, billowing like flame.​

    In that brief pause, Shirou, Yosuke and Teddie caught up to the girls and skid to a halt as they spotted the obvious differences from the normal Yukiko. The eyes alone were all the evidence they needed to know what they were looking at.​

    ”Shit,” Yosuke bit out.​

    The Shadow was unaware of their apprehension: in fact she was ecstatic and clasped Chie’s hands into her own, a wide, warm smile lighting up her face. Oh it is you! I’m so glad you decided to come! I was getting worried that I wouldn’t find anyone in a large castle like this, and here you are, right as rain!

    “Amagi-san?”​

    She looked up to Shirou and the others, her smile growing. “And you brought guests! Are they suitors as well? Not quite what I was expecting, but I could always use a new stuffed bear!”

    “Wh-what are you talking about?” Chie finally squeaked.​

    Princess Yukiko giggled. “Why, my search for Prince Charming, of course! Didn’t you see my special last night?”

    The chestnut haired girl broke her arms free, stepping back to fully pull out her whip. While she knew the moves used in the movies with this weapon, she had no experience drawing it or setting her stance. She almost clumsily fished it out and ran her hand along its length to straighten it between her hands. “Where’s the real Yukiko?!”​

    “I am Yukiko,” she answered innocently, seeming to not understand the question.​

    “No you’re not! The Yukiko I know is sweet and shy and would never go off trying to ‘score hot studs’ wearing frilly dresses! You’re just some monster trying to kill her!”​

    “Yukiko” recoiled as if stung. How could you say that?” The Shadow asked, and held up either side of her skirt helm slightly. “Don’t tell me it’s the clothes? I know they’re a bit too bright on the pink side, but I thought of you when I picked them.”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?!”​

    “You said red looked good on me.”

    Chie flinched, and her chain slackened in her hands. “Huh?”​

    The Shadow stared off to the side with a sad expression. “Yukiko: how I hated that name. Yukiko means snow. Snow means cold, melting, transient, worthless… and all those describe me perfectly. All I have going for me is inheriting an inn and even that…”

    As if remembering a bitter memory, Shadow Yukiko trembled. When it passed she smiled, clasping her hands together as she turned back to her friend. “But just like that, you found a silver lining in my life and said I looked good in red. You’re always so strong and cheerful, never afraid to do anything you set your mind to. My life was worthless before I met you and yet you always protect me. I could never thank you enough for all you’ve done, Chie.”

    From the sidelines, the guys watched on with worry for a breakout that might happen. For now, the Shadow seemed civil and calm around her friend, speaking out her mind as if not knowing or caring they were within earshot. “Are these really Amagi-san’s thoughts?” Shirou asked aloud.​

    “Speaking from personal experience?” Yosuke shrugged. “My Shadow told me exactly what I was thinking deep down, and we heard…” Yosuke paused there for a brief moment, swallowed and continued. “We heard Saki-senpai just before that too. Amagi-san and Satonaka are practically inseparable, so I don’t see why they would lie to each other anyway. Unless if each Shadow is different, or they can lie to other people but not themselves. What do you think Ted?”​

    The bear was too engrossed in his own thoughts, complete with a furrowed brow and a hand scratching his “chin” pose to hear. “Score hot studs…” it repeated cryptically, with a slight note of yearning.​
    For the students, it was the first warning of what was yet to come from the bear.​

    Meanwhile, Chie stared back at the Shadow with wide eyes. Never in her wildest dreams did she believe she made Yukiko feel important. If anything, it was the opposite. And to hear it almost encouraged the little devil half of her conscience to take advantage of it.​

    No, she wouldn’t play on those desires, but she wouldn’t deny what she heard. Not like Yosuke. “Yes… I do protect you, because you’re Yukiko too,” she slowly slipped her hands out of the Shadow’s hands, still fixed on her gentle Yukiko-like smile. “And it’s why I need you to tell me where the other Yukiko is and bring you back home.”​

    Shadow Yukiko’s smile dropped slowly, morphing to a confused look. “Back?” she muttered softly. Almost so soft the distorted amplifier wasn’t there, and it gave Chie hope.​

    “This place is dangerous, Yukiko! That’s why we came in here to save you – both of you! – before something bad happens! Everyone back home is worried sick, especially your family at the inn-“​

    “NO!”

    Streams of flame suddenly roared out and raced along the walls of the hallway, sending the would-be rescuers scrambling in shock at the literal eruption. Worse, the fires were no mere illusion or metaphor: the heat flashing across their faces was very real. Teddie’s puffy tail very nearly caught fire, and only a quick roll had spared the mascot from any serious damage.​

    It was far worse for Chie, who had witnessed the flames rage outward directly from the Shadow itself. The blast of heat had formed a searing aura around the Shadow that refused to singe it in spite of the heat, and the force was nearly enough to send her flying. It was still burning around her, a visual representation of her anger.​

    “I’ve wasted enough of my life slaving away at that ‘hot spot’ eyesore!” Shadow Yukiko scowled darkly, her voice nearly unrecognizable. “I waited years for a chance to finally get out of it, and I’m not about to throw it away because they miss their little heiress doll.”

    The Shadow turned like a noblewoman would, complete with a lift of her chin. “If you want to help me get away, you’re more than welcome to join me. If not, you can go back and tell everyone I’ve happily eloped with my soon-to-be-Prince, and will never be coming back!”

    “E-elope?!” Chie gaped. The very idea of that was ridiculous, and completely not like Yukiko. Did she seriously mean to run away from home?! From me?!​

    Then she remembered this was a Shadow, not the real Yukiko, and if Yukiko didn’t accept it, she would die. If the Shadow was this angry over something Chie had never heard from her friend before, then death was almost a given should they meet. “That’s it! You’re going back into Yukiko’s head and back home to your worried family right now!”​

    “I’m NOT going back, Chie,” the Shadow growled, marching away without looking back at her.​

    “It isn’t up for discussion!” she snapped back, charging forward while twirling her whip to put her in her place.
    Realizing that Chie was no longer thinking straight, Shirou bolted forward to stop her from attacking. “Satonaka, stop!”​

    Shadow Yukiko strode over to a gargoyle ornament hanging by the side wall, trailing her hand over the head as she passed by it… and then “accidentally” turned the head a perfect ninety degrees to the left. “Oops.”

    With an ominous thunk, the hallway floor suddenly collapsed on itself beneath the magus and the tomboy, sending them tumbling into the darkness below. “Whaaaaaaaaaah!”​

    The section of missing floor filled the entire width of the hall and covered nearly ten meters in length. There was no way across to pursue the Shadow. Yosuke and Teddie ran over to the edge and lost sight of their friends.​

    “Shirou!” “Chie-chan!”​

    The Shadow simply laughed haughtily and walked deeper into the castle, the event literally behind her.​



    <><><>​

    -Yukiko's Castle, First Floor-


    When they finally hit the ground, they did not land in the center of the room beneath them. The trapdoor dropped them into a large open room, like a ballroom or forum. Rows of empty benches lined the perimeter of the room for visitors to watch a debate or watch a show. Pillars dotted the space at regular intervals, each with a red and gold banner draped down one side. Two rugs were placed in center at an angle to each other, with an ornate golden chandelier illuminating the space directly over the center.​

    Shirou forced himself to his feet, lightly shaking his ringing head while checking his hip for his sword and adjusting his glasses. Satisfied he could see and he was still armed, he quickly spotted Chie some distance from him on her hands and knees.​


    “Are you alright?” he asked as he walked off the aches, lending a hand to help her up.​

    Chie remained hunched slightly on the floor, not even noticing her classmate. “-she really-“​

    Shirou blinked at her muttering. “What was that?”​

    “Does she really… hate Inaba? So much that she doesn’t want to go back? I get that the town’s boring and all, but I never imagined she was putting up with so much.” She looked up to the magus, frowning. “Does she hate me too, you think?”​

    “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But if she really hated you, her Shadow wouldn’t have been so cordial, would it?”​

    “Maybe? I don’t know…”​

    “Well, let’s find out then. We came here to save her, didn’t we?”​

    Shirou offered his hand again, smiling in encouragement. Chie sat and stared for a moment longer before returning the smile. “Yeah,” she nodded, and took his hand.​

    Whatever peaceful moment there was between the two of them died the moment a third voice filled the room. “Yeah, she better not hate me! After all I did for her!”

    Chie paled and turned behind her. From behind a pillar, a Chie-lookalike stepped into view with the familiar tells: a subtle blue-black aura, golden eyes, and a twisted facial expression from a cynical smile.​
    “Yo-you’re… you’re-!”

    "We are talking about THAT Yukiko, aren’t we? You know, the little princess who says I protect her?” The Shadow asked incredulously, almost breaking out with laughter. “She actually believes that she’s useless without me! Oh, that’s rich, coming from her!”

    Chie glared at the accusation. “Excuse me?!”​

    Shadow Chie walked around the balcony, purposely swaying her hips and brushing her hand through her hair. “Everyone knows that Yukiko’s the pretty one: long black hair, meek mannerisms, flawless skin, and a sexy figure that guys droll over.”

    Her tone grew annoyed and bitter as it trailed off with the last thought. “How many times did I have to stand by and listen to boys ask her out without even noticing me? Or the fact she turns them down willy-nilly? She doesn’t know how damn good she’s got it, and I’m never given a chance as even a rebound suggestion! She gets all the attention. All of it.”

    Those words… they were-​

    “Satonaka, calm down.”

    Emiya’s calming voice managed to break Chie out of her trance, and she immediately started slowly breathing to center herself. Her Shadow’s words were so hurtful, so real, that she couldn’t brush them off as simply as she expected. She had thought that after seeing Hanamura go through this she was ready for it, but all it took was a single minute to almost tear her apart.​

    Turning back to the redhead, she felt a wave of relief seeing him looking at her with concern even as he kept a sharp eye on her Shadow. He wasn’t judging her on this. Hanamura and Teddie wouldn’t either, she knew it. This is me. She is me.

    With a clearer head, she let out a long breath and turned back to her Shadow. “Yeah, you’re right. It hurts.” The Shadow stopped walking, the smile falling away to be replaced by a confused frown.​
    “I was jealous of Yukiko, and how all the guys followed her. Yukiko was the only one who noticed me, and it was a relieving feeling. It only grew knowing she feels the same as me. That envy… it’s a part of me I hated and wanted to forget for her sake. You’re a part of it, and I’m sorry for ignoring that all this time. You’re me… and I’m you.”​

    For a long while, the two Chie stared at the other’s mismatched eyes. A sense of calm filled the room, dwindling by the second. The relieved tension gave the students a sense of hope that they would walk out of this without a fight.​

    Then the Shadow broke into a knowing smile. “Ooooooh, I get it now~! You don’t really accept your flaws. You’re just saying that so you can get the kind of power Shirou-kun and Hanamura have and fight monsters. To be stronger, to keep precious Yukiko safe, and keep your leash on her with it.”

    Chie flinched, especially at the mention of “Shirou-kun”, but remained undeterred. She just had to keep herself open. “I… might have thought along those lines, yes, but-!”​

    “But nothing!” Shadow Chie pointed. “You thought that if you can’t get away with being as pretty as Yukiko, you might as well be strong enough to protect her. And you can’t even do THAT anymore, not like the guys and their Personas. Your confession isn’t genuine!”

    “Yes it is!”​

    “No it’s not! You just want to accept me and pretend everything’s fine before I tell you the ‘real’ bad stuff: like the Junes-sized crush you’ve been picking up on Shirou-kun.”

    Chie’s face paled. Her Shadow wasn’t really going to go there, was it…?​

    Shirou’s reaction was just as bewildering, and didn’t help at all for her emotional roller coaster. “Cr-crush?”​


    “Yes, crush.” The Shadow smiled softly, striding over to the magus. “A crush on a new student who offers an umbrella to a wet stranger under a gazebo. A crush on a level-headed boy who isn’t swayed by Yukiko’s very presence. A crush on a magus who took control of an otherworldly situation like a leader. A crush on a hero who would give his life to save the people around him, just because he wanted to.” By the time she finished her list, she was up in front of Shirou and giving him a quick once-over. “I would’ve preferred a guy a little smarter to help me out on study dates too, but I’ll take what I can get.”

    Both students didn’t know what to think at the Shadow’s confession. For Shirou, he was surprised to hear anything remotely towards a crush aimed at him when he did nothing extraordinary to earn it. Chie, on the other hand, felt an odd mix of horror and shame hearing the Shadow blab about her most private thoughts.​

    Shirou recovered out of his stupor first, seeing Chie close to hyperventilating at the unintended reveal. “N-now Satonaka,” he regarded the Shadow, doing his best to avoid stepping away. “I’m flattered, really, but I’m no one special. Hell, I’m a third rate magus at best. I’m sure Yosuke would be more than cordial if-“​

    “Your naivety is only cute in small doses, Shirou-kun,” the Shadow cut him off. “And I don’t want Hanamura. I want you.”

    Between his own surprise and Chie’s growing panic attack, he could only stammer a weak reply. “B-but-!”​

    “’That world is no place for a girl’!” The Shadow mocked his tone. There was more surprise in the words she used than the tone in them. “That’s what you said to me. I kind of hated the fact of being branded as some useless damsel. But I can’t remember the last time any boy called me a girl before so protectively. It made me… happy.”

    The Shadow smiled seductively, lightly pulling his shirt closer to her. “Yukiko can get her harem all she wants: I’ll reel her in for myself later. I’ve always supported her, protected her, and no one’s ever thought of doing that for me; except you, Shirou-kun. You’re mine, and not even Yukiko gets a say otherwise.” Her head leaned forward with parted lips to a stunned magus, while her other-self watched with wide, fearful eyes.​

    Fortunately, Yosuke and Teddie just barged into the room and saw the others. They were too far away to see the real action, but could tell that Shadow Chie was too close to Shirou for anything more than a verbal beating. “Get away from him!”​

    On a later date, Yosuke would look into his instinctive summoning and wonder at how he just knew how to call Jiraiya properly upon seeing his friends in danger. But as it was, he was too focused in punching the Shadow away to think of anything other than the means to do so. So it came as an instant surprise to everyone but him that he swung his nata, slashed a card that just appeared in front of him, and his Persona vaulted across the room with a rotating star on his pulled back hand, open for a palm strike. Shirou barely had time to pull himself away before Jiraiya was within striking distance.​

    WHAM! The metal cracked to her face, leaving a large, star-shaped bruise on her cheek. The force of the hit also sent her flying, crashing against the far wall hard enough to leave an impact mark sunk into the stones.​

    “Booya!” the headphone student cheered, raising his fist triumphantly in the air. His Persona quickly mimicked the action. “Satonaka’s Shadow is down and out on the first strike! Who’s the man? Who’s the man?!”​

    “Yosuke!”​

    “That’s right! It’s-Oww! Teddie, what-?” His cheering stopped when an annoyed Teddie bopped him with his hand. It took him a while to realize that he called his name in scolding, and that he could be at least a little threatening with that mean scowl when he wanted to be.​

    “Yosuke, you idiot!” the bear cried. “You hurt Chie-chan!”​

    Shirou was just pulling himself up from overstepping his retreat, and almost missed Teddie’s critique. In worry, he looked around and saw Chie sprawled a ways away from where she was standing a second ago. There was a star-shaped mark on her cheek just like the one on her Shadow, and her. Immediately he ran to her as Yosuke stared in horror.​

    “B-but I hit her Shadow!” Yosuke defended, rushing over to her. “I know I did!”​

    “Her Shadow is still a part of her as long as she doesn’t reject it!” Teddie explained, also running to her. “You can’t kill it without killing Chie-chan too!”​

    Yosuke gulped, starting to realize how massive a blunder that would have been if his attack had been fatal. In the end, he couldn’t do anything unless Chie rejected the Shadow… and he might have unintentionally made it worse by hurting her.​

    Chie literally didn’t know what hit her: one moment she watched as a small, lithe version of Shadow Yosuke spring forward to attack her Shadow, the next she felt a sickening, invisible force sock her across the room. Her head hurt, it felt like the room was spinning, her mind and emotions were running wild… and seeing Shirou running towards her made her panic again and attempt to crawl away. “NO! Get away from me!”​
    Shirou stopped in concern, as did Yosuke and Teddie as they caught up. “Satonaka?”​

    “Do-don’t look at me! None of this is real! It’s NOT ME!”​

    “Quiet, you idiot!” Yosuke seethed. “Don’t make the same mistake I did!”​

    “I can’t do anything right on my own!” Shadow Chie mocked, pulling herself out of the wall and walking back to the group. Her aura was growing larger and more visible. “I can’t win as a girl. I can’t win as a protector. I can’t even win against myself! How can I live with myself if all I’m just second best at EVERYTHING?”​

    “That’s not true!” Shirou snapped at the Shadow before turning back to the real Satonaka. He wasn’t going to let her tear herself down like this. “Satonaka, you came back here because of Amagi-san, right? You came back to save her even at a disadvantage. You’re much stronger than you give yourself credit for, I know it!”​

    Chie seemed to ease at his compliment, looking back at him with a bit of surprise. His words, however, also encouraged the Shadow, who smiled affectionately in response. “Awww, that means so much coming from you, Shirou-kun!”

    Chie paled again. Shirou stuttered. Teddie and Yosuke glanced at him in surprise. The latter pointed to the Shadow while asking, “Did she just-?“​

    “SHUT UP!” Chie cried, huddling closer to ground. “EVERYONE JUST SHUT THE HELL UP!” Why, oh why did more people have to hear about this too!?​

    The boys flinched back, glancing between the hyperventilating girl and her growing Shadow. “This is beary bad!” Teddie shivered. “Chie-chan’s Shadow looks about ready to burst!”​

    “Isn’t there anything we can do?” Shirou whispered. He knew trying to calm her down would only add fuel to the fire (especially with Yosuke and Teddie around), but he didn’t like standing by before something happened.​

    “You can’t keep denying me!” Shadow Chie snapped. “At the end of the day, I’m Chie Satonaka too, and I’ll scream to the world until I get what I want!”
    Chie pulled herself up, glaring at the double-ganger with growing hatred and ignoring the others. “Shut up, you, you-!”​

    The Shadow threw her arms wide and glanced up to the ceiling, emulating her world-wide proclamation. “I want Yukiko! I want a boyfriend! I want security and power and everyone to be my BITCH!”

    The words came out before she could stop herself. “YOU’RE THE BITCH, YOU FAKE!”​

    A deathly silence followed, not unlike the other day. Chie clasped both hands over her mouth, staring with wide, worried eyes at her Shadow. Shirou and Yosuke tensed their hands over their weapons, waiting for the fight to start like on a Western shoot-off. Teddie cautiously stepped away from the two, warily watching the scenery as dark particles suddenly started filling the room.​

    “There’s one thing,” Yosuke finally answered, as Jiraiya floated behind him. “Get ready for a fight.”​

    “I was afraid of that,” Shirou grimaced, but all the same summoned his Persona card in his hand.​

    The Shadow grinned wildly even as flecks of darkness flowed from the air and into her growing aura. “Man, are you stupid! All that preparation and all those fancy speeches, and you still manage to screw it up!” It threw back its head and laughed joyously as its form was increasingly obscured by darkness. “Don’t worry though! When I’m done, I’ll get what I’ve always wanted: what you were too scared to take!”​

  19. #19
    Notice me, Father! ZidanReign's Avatar
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    A thread I can actually subscribe to again.

    Nice.

  20. #20
    死徒二十七祖 The Twenty Seven Dead Apostle Ancestors Magus's Avatar
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    Oh, you have a soundtrack for this too!

    Next up: I'll Face Myself

    And good reaction on Shadow Chie's part when Chie tried to "accept" her without really doing so.
    Not Magus! Magic Emperor Magus!

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