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Thread: Persona: The Beautiful

  1. #21
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXI. Girl Friends

    After some weird dream in which Colette was vampire royalty, offering you eternal life, only to be attacked by Kikuko's squad of hunters and the rival Sakurazuka vampire clan... you woke up.

    Finding your weary self completely covered in study sheets and scribbled notes, you wished you could take the test right now just to get them over with, the impending Duel with Gakuto also not helping.
    First things first, you needed a strong coffee to rise you from this torpor, like a pitch black one, and then- oh yeah, it was a Sunday.

    [ ] See what Megumi's doing.
    [ ] Invite your parents over, now that Tsubasa's cleaned your place.
    [x] Meet up with Reina.
    [ ] Meet up with Yuya.
    [ ] Meet up with Keiko/Suzako.
    [x] Go out to the Cinema, down in Sapporo they're showing the sci-fi film Text Machina, appropriate given who you'll be up against.
    - [x] Write-in which S. Link to invite. (Colette)

    - [ ] Go by yourself.
    [ ] With time to make a day trip, head on down to Hakodate for a burger place you've heard about.
    - [ ] Write-in which S. Link to invite.
    - [ ] Go by yourself.

    The thought then occurred to you, Hey, between Reina and Colette... why not invite them both along? You didn't think the two had met each other, though granted it's likely Reina having been an Ace's Jack had more than a little to do with that. Well, if Melissa's really gonna kick Reina out as she threatens, if not worse, then on the plus side, maybe Colette wouldn't mind meeting her?

    You first rang Reina about a day trip down to Sapporo, to which she said, "Wow, you mean it? Thanks, I confess, thought I was kinda exhausting all the clothes shops around here. Course I'll come!
    Huh, Text Machina? Er, it's some science-y robot-y movie, right? Um, I only know the basics of the genre, like Stella Bella and Soraemon, but sure, I can give it a shot! ...Oh, you also want to invite the Occult Club Leader along?"

    "Don't worry, Colette's really nice when you get to know her. Besides, her issues are with Melissa, not you," you tried to reassure her, Plus, Colette did ultimately get along with Himawari, if after some major revelations...

    And on Colette, you called her immediately after, saying "Hey, Colette, I've... really been meaning to meet up with you, well, Occult Club hasn't been going the smoothest without you, like you've probably imagined".

    She had to groan, "I see. I will admit, I had little time to teach you in the ways of our procedures before I was forced to leave. I can easily teach you how to shuffle and spread tarot cards, and will provide what sketches we have of our planned Test of Courage," she then said almost like she had foresight, or had just been expecting this sort of thing.

    "It's just that I thought we could go over all that stuff on the Sapporo Train," you then suddenly told her, before taking a breath and saying, "Colette, um, I have this friend who's being treated kinda badly by the All-Aces, or at least risks being. So, I thought I could introduce you two, m-maybe you'd get along?" Even if Reina and Colette's tastes had nearly no convergence, other than the broad subject of 'fashion'. "And to top it all off, I was gonna treat you to a movie too".

    "My, that's certainly thoughtful," Colette murmured, seemingly with you so far, "Just one thing, 'Text Machina'? I've heard the name, but I'm not personally much of a sci-fi enthusiast, be it near- or far-future. Hmm, granted there are exceptions like the Xenom series, and I suppose Frankenstein counts as science-fiction, but largely I'm into the historical or macabre. Still, I can always be persuaded".

    "Um, so you'll come?" you could only reply.

    "Of course, and besides, there's hardly much going on in the orphanage on a Sunday anyway!" Colette affirmed.

    That all dealt with, you told Megumi you'd be heading down to the station again, but they didn't react as kindly as Reina and Colette.

    "What the- Didn't you take the train just yesterday, and now to a movie?! Look, Honoka, I'm super glad you've got more of a friend circle these days, and I know you're excited about that, but sheesh, neither of us are made of money, y'know?" they protested, arms crossed.

    "It's okay, lots of salarymen commute from here to Sapporo every day, and they're not rich or anything. Also, I've been officially made Jack of Hearts at school, so I'm more than well-funded now," you tried to reassure them.

    "Oh yeah, so where's our non-shitty apartment that guy who lurks around you said he'd look into?" Megumi had to prod.

    You flinched, "Uh, well, real estate stuff can take a long time, I'm sure you're aware," you came up with, "Besides, you're not jealous or anything that I didn't invite you along to the movie, are you?"

    * * *
    You soon met up with Colette at the train station, with Reina rushing right along and nearly into you. "Oops, hey there Honoka! Oh wow, is this your friend you were talking about?" she said, looking Colette up and down.
    You braced for Reina to panic or be weirded out, so it was a relief when she said to Colette, "Boy, you look cool! You must put a ton of effort into cultivating your wardrobe!".

    "Ah right, Reina, this is Colette Claudius. Colette, this is Higashizawa Reina," you raced through introductions.

    Colette chuckled at that and told Reina, "Why indeed! I sew most of my own outfits myself, being the easiest way to keep costs down. Your own style is, well," she paused finding her next words to say about Reina, "Fitting for the character you've displayed, I must say".

    Huh, is that your way of saying that you wouldn't be caught dead wearing Reina's outfit?
    you had to think, perhaps too pessimistically.

    "Wow, thanks!" Reina just said anyway, "Er, I've seen you around school a little, Colette, I think you're in Honoka's Class, and people know who as the Occult Club Captain. Don't think we've really had the chance to talk like this before, though".

    You were relieved that Reina didn't end up blundering her way into bringing up Colette's suspension... only for Colette to do that.

    "You can be blunt with me, I won't mind, and yes I was suspended," Colette stated frankly, but was then cut off as the train rolled in to the station, "Er, but perhaps we'll continue this conversation aboard?"

    Aboard, Colette skirted some of the details, but laid out that Gakuto had leaked very private information about her online. Reina responded with, "Yeah I, um, the same thing happened to me. I... used to be obsessed with that site, until Honoka snapped me out of it, so er," Reina looked ready to collapse, "I already knew that about you".
    The entire carriage went silent, until Reina broke the ice with, "Er, I d-don't know that much about being trans, but Colette, e-either way you're one of the most fashionable, most dainty-looking girls I've seen!"

    Colette had to let those words sink in, but she then smiled and said, "My utmost thanks, Reina" hopping off her seat and curtsying.

    "But it's..." Reina said next, "Hard to hear that Gakuto, an All-Ace, was behind that blog. Like, I remember Melissa showing him those RTS games and stuff, and I thought he didn't seem bad or anything".

    "You honestly thought an All-Ace could never associate with anything bad?" Colette got maybe a bit too blunt there, before she asked you, "On that matter, Honoka, how have the other Aces been handling the news of Gakuto being the leaker?"

    You sighed. "Himawari's devastated, constantly afraid she'll be expelled any day now. Melissa, well, is at least appropriately annoyed, though I think she's been taking it out on the Computer Club in general rather than Gakuto specifically. Kikuko knows Gakuto's too spineless to touch her, though I doubt she approves of his tactics, Eitaro's dead obviously, and Azuma..." you started saying, before you had to cover your head in your hands and groan "Azuma's about as difficult to get a read on as ever.
    Though hey, you said you were gonna show me how to do Tarot stuff, right?" you then tried to lighten the atmosphere.

    "Ah, yes, I do believe I said that," Colette said as she hurriedly got her cards out on the train table, "Okay, now your basic spreads are-"

    "Wait, you're gonna do a card reading?" Reina perked up, "D-does that mean you can tell my future? Ooh, I'm Capricorn, if that helps".

    "Er, right," Colette muttered, before proceeding to explain the spread, and even letting you pick a card before shuffling it.

    [x] The Star (Megido)
    [ ] The Tower (Dekaja)
    [ ] Strength (Dekunda)
    [ ] The Sun (Power Charge)
    [ ] The Moon (Concentrate)
    [x] Teach it to Fool Theodora

    Shee did do a basic three-card reading for Reina in the end. "Okay, The Magician, that's who you are right now," Colette began, unsurprisingly to you, "Uh, not in the magical sense, more active and eager. Okay, and inverted Strength represents the forces acting upon you, and the Sun, your inner potential".

    "Whoa," Reina just exclaimed at that analysis, before going, "Oh hey, think this is our stop!"

    * * *
    Roughly two hours later, the three of you walked out of Sapporo's Final Frontier Cinema having just seen Text Machina, with Reina, still finishing off a towering ice cream cone, muttering, "Ah, I know it was what's on and all, but I wouldn't say it's my kind of movie. Lotta the stuff it talked about went like whoosh over my head".

    "Well, I don't think everything they said was supposed to be meaningful. I think their tech jargon was meant to establish what intellectuals they thought they were, only for everything to come crashing down on them," Colette instead offered, but then said, "I do take some issue with it, I feel it definitely got too 'I know you know I know' towards the end".

    "Yeah, that's when I got really confused. Still, it's amazing they could make a whole movie with just three speaking characters, and I was surprised there were some pretty nature shots in there," Reina soon smiled, having gulped down the last of her ice cream, getting rainbow smudges all over her face, "But you know, if I could make robots, I'd never treat them like the guy in the movie did!"

    "It could be argued that the movie's point was we already treat AI that way," Colette brought up, before she turned to you and asked, "Well Honoka, what did you make of the film?"

    Munching down the last of the popcorn, it took a while for you to respond. "Er, yeah, it really made you think, I guess" you said on the surface, but inside you kept thinking about how the thought of Gakuto ever getting in a position to act like that chilled you to the bone.

    "Like, you're a writer yourself, right Colette?" Reina then said, "So like, it makes sense you're gonna get all analytical and stuff about the movie. Oh, that reminds me, my Homeroom teacher gave us Wuthering Heights to cover for an assignment".

    "Wuthering Heights?" Colette sighed and slumped, before moaning "How lucky you are, Tanizawa-sensei gave me Faulkner's Sound and the Fury of all things to cover".

    "Ooh, I also wrote a bit of poetry for class once," she then showed Colette on her phone, leaving her face to grow pale, well paler, as she read it.

    "Ahem, that's... certainly unique in style. And metre. And structure," Colette forced herself to give a smile.

    "Hey, you said you wanted to do some clothes shopping, right Reina?" you had to remind her, so that you three wouldn't just stand around here talking for the rest of the day.

    "Yeah, can't believe I nearly forgot!" she beamed, before taking Colette and you by the arms and saying, "Way back when, Melissa showed me just the place! Come on!"

    Heading to a mall with a fashion emporium right inside, something you weren't expecting was when Reina said to Colette, "Hey, since we just met, why don't you pick an outfit for me? Oh, and I'll do the same thing in return, natch".

    "That... sounds intriguing. Alright, I can see where this goes," Colette gave an even more unexpected response.

    A little while later, Reina emerged from the changing rooms clad in a fluffy pink dress with puffy sleeves, the voluminous skirt decorated with cupcake and candycane art. Colette however emerged in a simpler black jacket with white sleeves and a red skirt above leggings, a more casual approach to her style.

    You were... almost relieved, you half expected Reina to burst out looking like a zombie witch, and Colette to be swamped in valley girl glitter. Though that would've been kinda funny, you had to think.
    "I did try to keep Reina's existing style in mind, though of course I had to add my own, princess-like touch," Colette explained.

    "Yeah, me too," Reina said in return, "Er, guess I've still got a lot to learn about goth fashion, but I think I did alright by your style on my first try".

    That just left you again, having picked out:
    [ ] A green jacket, beige trousers, and dark brown boots, almost looking like a horse-riding outfit. [+Speed, +Riding]
    [ ] A bright pink hoodie above black short and stockings. [+Psy element and mental statuses]
    [x] A wavy dark purple dress with blue ruffles and striped stockings, it all glittering like a nebula. [+Star, Moon and Sun Personae]
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Cool, awesome!" Reina smiled and gave you a thumbs up, though you got the feeling she'd say that regardless.

    Outside, you and Colette happened to notice a few Nightshade posters already up, leaving Reina to ask, "Huh, what're you looking at?"

    "Oh, Nightshade's our bandleader," you explained almost on instinct.

    "Whoa whoa whoa, you two are in a band together?" Reina's jaw dropped, before she jumped on the spot and said, "That's so cool! Hey, like Melissa and I can sing and stuff, but that's like, next level!"

    Oh yeah, you can 'sing', you thought dourly, remembering your awkward karaoke session, "I wouldn't get excited, it's a lot of hard work and time spent in seedy places, so not all it's cracked up to be," you had to say, clouding over her sun.

    "For instance, you might get stuck on Drums," Colette snidely muttered.

    * * *
    Eventually you got back on the train, as Colette started to run over the Occult Club's planned test of courage with you.

    "Alright, so the school's given us three rooms to work with, plus some corridors in between them. Now we've talked about how corners are the place people can be caught most off-guard, but we've been having difficulty deciding whether to stick with just a ghost story or add in demons and vampires" she kept explaining as she showed you the diagrams she had, while you nodded along at all of it.
    "Of course, this is assuming Hotaru doesn't cut the club's funding, what with my suspension and all," she sighed.

    "Hey, come on, that doesn't sound like the kind of thing our Student Council President would do!" Reina protested.

    "No, not willingly he wouldn't," Colette mumbled.

    Getting back to the train station, already being night, you walked back into Kuchinashi to where Colette had to bid you au revoir.

    "Well now, Reina, Honoka," she grinned and curtseyed, "I can say I've most certainly had fun today, probably for the first time in quite a while. Despite my fashion sense, I don't get to go clothes shopping much, and while I admit I may've appreciated a more... alternative store, I thank you for this occasion all the same".

    "Hey, anytime," you smiled.

    "You're welcome!" Reina beamed out, "And wow, I was a little scared at first, since Melissa's said, well, kind of a lot of bad stuff about you, but turns out I had nothing to fear! Bye Colette, hope you're back in class soon!"

    - The Moon has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    You expected Reina to head off soon, but instead, something else happened.

    Reina then looked around to check for anybody else, before taking your hand and leading you behind an overhanging tree. There, she began looking deep into your eyes.

    "Er, um, Reina, something the matter?" you tried to ask.

    "Honoka..." she stuttered out, before she gulped and said "It's just that, you've been so nice to me, and all I've done is take you clothes shopping. At the very moments when I was afraid I'd be abandoned, you stood by me, and didn't think any less of me, when anyone else could've. I, I don't even know if Melissa will want anything to do with me anymore..."

    "Reina, please, don't cry," you knelt down to touch her face, "Look, if Melissa scares you, then I won't let her get to you, I'll-"

    "You'll protect me?!" Reina finished your sentence, her face starting to blush. "Ah sorry, Honoka, it's just, well, you've listened to me so far, but I... I still get nervous about, um, what you'll think of what I'm gonna say next".

    You tensed a little, not exactly sure where this was about to go, though having a faint premonition. "Whatever it is, please, say it. Don't let it eat you up inside," you finally told her.

    "Honoka! I..." Reina began breathing heavily, "I- I think I'm love with you!"

    That definitely made you take a step back, as you thought I did get the feeling for a second she'd say something like this... but actually hearing those words from her, it feels entirely different.
    You then couldn't help but start blushing yourself, having no idea how to react in a situation like this. You also couldn't tell whether Himawari counted as your girlfriend already, though you knew Nightshade was apparently okay with polyamory.

    [ ] "Oh, Reina. I... I love you too!"
    [x] "Reina, er, I think there's someone else in my life. But that doesn't mean I don't wanna be with you, and she'd understand!"
    [ ] "Reina, I, I think I'm in love with someone else already. But hey, maybe I can find you someone else to love? And I don't wanna stop hanging out!"
    [ ] "Reina, I'm... not really sure about relationship stuff right now, I'm sorry. But maybe one day, er..."
    [ ] Write-in.

    Reina, face stained with tears, took a step back as your words jabbed at her.

    <<BGM: Final Fantasy X- Someday the Dream will End (Piano) >>

    "So, ah, y-you're not saying no, r-right?" she was shocked into stuttering, "J-just, just not at the moment, and it-it's not me, right?"

    "No, Reina, it's not you at all," you reached out to pull her in tight, "It's me, I- I'm the one who can't commit. I really don't know if I can be in any relationship at the moment, since, well, I know for a fact there are people who'd use that against me," Hell, Gakuto's already trying to do that with me being Himawari's Jack, you thought.

    "S-so, you're saying you still like me, that you'll still hang out with me?" she blubbered.

    "Absolutely, 100%. Like, um, I never really took the time to imagine you as my lover. I guess you've been wanting to say those words to me a while now, but for me, this is all... so sudden," you started firm, but descended into mumbling, "Listen Reina, please don't think of me as the only person in your world, I... can't bear that weight, I don't think anyone can. For every person who's... mistreated you, devalued you, I'm sure- I know that there are tons of others who'd adore you if only they knew you".

    "Y-yeah, there must be. Like, Colette was much nicer than Melissa made her out to be, and I've been told you did have friends before the Aces," Reina said, beginning to stand upright again.

    "Of course, I'm still friends with them, in fact. Itou Yuya's always been nice," it only then occurred to you that Reina probably knew Yuya from him being snubbed out of Azuma's story on you, "And I know he recently got a job a confectionary store, while Suzakuin Keiko, er, she prefers to be called 'Suzako' right now-" you began, but were then interrupted.

    "Suzako, you know Suzako?" Reina exclaimed, needing a moment to compose herself, "I've seen her around the school, she's showed up only recently but she's really stylish, and a couple of people have even been comparing her to an All-Ace".

    "Yeah, we've known each other since grade school, and are in the same class together, so I could intro- oh wait," your words came to a halt, "She can't stand Melissa, and would now by know you're her Jack, presently anyway, so um, you might need me around to explain that part away, if you're gonna meet up".

    "Wow, thanks, that sounds great!" Reina seemed to be back to her usual self, "I mean, I haven't met her yet obvs, but you make her sound like a really cool person!"

    "Yeah she, erm, is. Hell, she even told me once about starting up a rival elite student club to the All-Aces," you told her, before admitting, "I have no idea whatsoever how that's gonna work out, but if it does, you could even apply to be her Jack or something," Assuming Suzako's even gonna keep that weird, cult-like terminology around, you thought.

    Reina had to take a little while for all that to sink in, but then leapt over and hugged you again, saying "I- I think I'd really like that, thanks Honoka! And hey," she then drew back, "Like, I know now I was being too sudden, and that you have a bunch of other stuff to deal with, but um, if you ever want to, ah, take things to the next level, you just have to tell me, that's all".

    - The Magician has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    "Oh, oh wow, it's getting pretty late right now, huh?" Reina said as she looked at her phone, "Er, I guess I taken up quite a bit of your time, huh? I'll, ah, just get going for the evening, but I'll know we'll meet up again real soon. Au revoir!"

    "Yeah, goodnight, see you soon!" you waved back at her as the two of you parted for the night.
    You started thinking, not only hadn't you considered a relationship with Reina, you really hadn't thought about relationships with anyone. Er, masturbating in my room when Gumi's out and I've got the computer counts for something, doesn't it? you had to raise that thought, and I've very much been trying not to end with hitched with Azuma. Honestly, between that and Megumi's bet, it feels like relationships are soemthing other people have been thinking about for me.

    Talking with Reina about Suzako and the Aces did remind you of something you'd rather not be, namely whether Suzako was considered popular enough now for Gakuto to start leaking info on her.
    Sure enough, you'd found she'd already had her own section on Secret Lives of Students, one plastered with photos of how she used to look like as just 'Keiko', and her All-Ace fanfiction copy-pasted in full.
    Ugh, why couldn't Gakuto have just stuck to video gaming? you clutched your head, Wouldn't that have granted him enough skills to take on the Gameboard or something?

    Heading back to your apartment, a groggy Megumi asked you, "Oh hey, how did your second day visiting Sapporo and shopping for whatever go?"

    "Is this still about the money?" you asked them back, "Don't worry, my friends paid for a good amount of stuff, plus like, you can't put a price tag on experiences, right?"

    "Ugh, spare me the office motivational poster tagline," Megumi mumbled, clutching a decaf.
    Once you got to your room you did have to admit though, your closet was getting more than a little cramped by now.

  2. #22
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXII. Extra Schoolwork

    Arriving at school, you found not the usual flow of students heading through the gates, but instead, for whatever reason, quite a crowd clustered in all one spot.

    You thought for a second you could even see cameras and tripods positioned around. Metaphorically scratching your head at all this, you then spotted Student president Hotaru in the crowd and decided he'd be the best person to ask.

    "Oh hello Honoka, think it's been some time since our last RP session, might have to adjust your character a little to keep up with us, and- Ah, I see you're wanting to know about all these cameras?" he surmised.

    "Yeah, your gaming group, sorry," you had to say, "Whole bunch of stuff going on in my life right now, you know how it is. But yep, wouldn't mind knowing what this crowd's about".

    "It's about something alright," Hotaru began, then had to struggle to maintain his giddiness, "Hanataba Gakuen has been selected as one of the high schools to be interviewed as part of a new NHK documentary on student life. Guess they chose this place among others 'cause it was near Sapporo, where Professor Clark used to teach, and some pretty powerful families have of course sent their children here".

    William S. Clark had of course been an American Union soldier who'd been invited over to teach in Meiji Era Japan, right down in Sapporo. He personally reminded you of how your history teacher once tried to set up an American Civil War re-enactment, only for it to be cancelled when she couldn't find enough students wanting to play the Confederates.

    "Okay, makes sense," you muttered, recalling Azuma's dad was a Living National Treasure of all things, and Melissa and Kikuko were both company heiresses, which was easy to forget what with their day-and-night personalities. Gakuto you'd heard was the son of some wealthy farm-owners, though he usually kept quiet about them. Sad yet not surprising though that, if anything were to shine a national light on Hanataba, it'd be the All-Aces.
    Guess that explains why Hotaru hasn't just defunded the All-Aces ready, because of the wrath that'd bring down on the school, it occurred to you.

    "I must confess, I... haven't really prepared what to say for my interview. I mean, I am the first Student Council president since our founding back in the Meiji era to be of Ainu descent, that's something to talk about," Hotaru then brought up, before he then asked you, "Hmm, you seem to have been caught off-guard by all of this, I thought we'd told everyone well in advance?"

    You didn't know whether to pin this on all the stuff that'd been coming up again, or maybe Tanizawa-sensei just never bothered to tell you, or maybe the Principal had brought it up at assembly while you weren't paying attention. "Guessed by just been too stressed out by mid-terms," you ultimately said.

    "Ooh, I know what you mean, I almost got kicked off the council last year because I scored a bit lower than average," Hotaru sighed as he dredged that memory back up.

    * * *

    Having gotten past the crowds and into the school building, classes at least passed uneventfully until Tanizawa-sensei slammed four books down onto your desk.

    "Alright Honoka, you're due to write a book report for mid-terms. But 'cause I'm feeling generous, I'm giving you a choice between four" Ryouko said to you.
    Glancing over, you saw the titles on offer were:
    [x] I Am A Cat (Natsume Soseki)
    [ ] Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)
    [ ] The Waste Land (T.S. Eliot)
    [ ] Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

    "Er, that one," you said, casually pointing.

    That over with, you still had the rest of your day, giving you a choice of:

    [x] Trying to run the Occult Club without Colette.
    [ ] Looking into Drama Club.
    [ ] Rehearsing with the band for Nightshade.
    [ ] Class Rep stuff for Ryouko.
    [ ] Part-time Jobs.
    - [ ] Tabletop gaming store.
    - [ ] Sweet shop.
    - [ ] Modelling.
    [ ] Tackling the Gameboard
    [ ] Write-in.

    The Waste Land tempted you, being only about 66 pages, but I Am A Cat was a book you, and quite a lot of your fellow schoolkids, were reasonably familiar with already, so you thought it'd be the easiest overall.

    "By the way, Honoka, guess we'd better anoint a new vice-rep or something, huh? After Colette, well, y'know," Tanizawa-sensei drawled.

    "Oh yeah" you muttered, with everything about the Occult Cub lately flooding back into head. Another thought then occurred, making you almost burst out, Geez, the Sports Festival's coming up just before Summer, right? Now I gotta get my class organised for that?

    "Thing about Colette is, even when she gets back, well, I don't think I'm allowed to reinstate her. She'd be classed as a delinquent now" Tanizawa-sensei sighed, talking about not only her student but now her bandmate.

    "Ooh, what'd she do? Wait, I remember, beat a dude up, right?" came a voice from the back of the class.

    "Yeah, but it was Gakuto, man. Dude's a pro gamer, you don't mess with him!" called another.

    "Well, the thing about Colette and 'she' is-" some smarmy girl's voice started to say, but Ryouko cut her off in time.

    "Okay, so, new Vice-rep!" your teacher then said, before shutting her eyes and waving a finger around to decide on the lucky student.

    Not that she had to, as nearly the whole of Class 2-C exclaimed "Suzako!" "Yeah, pick Suzako!"

    Your friend Suzako stood up and couldn't help but bask in the affection being showered upon her, although thankfully she chose not to dignify someone saying: "Suzako should be Class Rep! Honoka's old news!" with a response.

    You however, just slunk back down into your chair hearing that, though you at least had Yuya to ask you "Hey, you alright?"

    "Yeah, just... been made to think about stuff, that's all," you mumbled, not quite looking at him.

    * * *

    After class, you were then approached by Shinsuke of all people in the hall, who told you "Miss Honoka, the All-Aces, especially Master Azuma, have been instructed to give an address to the student body. Reportedly, the Principal has been trying in vain to calm everyone down before the documentary crew begins their work tomorrow, especially since the idea was to survey the school functioning as normal. So, he thought students might respond better to a word from the All-Aces".

    Huh, they seriously wanna see this school 'functioning as normal'? You couldn't help but think, but said instead, "Okay sure. I don't think they'll let a Jack say anything, but I can come up to the Lounge if they'd like".

    Heading up, you saw the Aces clustered around a mic, with Gakuto wiring it up to the School's PA system, Himawari practicing her voice, and Melissa with her arms crossed.
    "I don't see why we of all people would have to do something trivial like this, all because the rest of the students are apparently too bratty to stay in line," the Ace of Coins snarled.

    "Well, I am forced to admit, when it comes to getting our school to pay attention and follow orders... your group is kind of the best at it" came the dispirited voice of Hotaru.
    You had to do a double take. Even if he was the Student Council President so technically an authority, and even once friends with former Ace Rin, it still felt weird seeing Hotaru in the Prized Pupil Lounge, honestly.

    "Indeed, you don't think enforcing your command over the populace is a worthy enough task?" Kikuko kept her voice low, side-eyeing Melissa.

    "Yeah, course it is, but not when it's like this menial bullshit, y'know," Melissa sighed, continuing to be uncooperative, "Like, we're addressing the whole school, but not to say anything actually interesting, Gawd no, just 'pipe down' and shit".

    "This is but a simple task Melissa, there is no need to make it any more an issue," Azuma stated, possibly having to restrain himself.

    "Oh, you honestly think you can order me around, huh?" Melissa then raised her voice, saying well, what you had probably been wanting to say to Azuma all this time. Being Melissa though, she then had to add, "You owe me a lot, y'know, like I set up that whole trip for you, yet you wasted it by not daring to deflower that dainty fuckin' virgin Honoka, huh?"

    Not for lack of trying, more like I refused to let him anywhere near me, that thought seared through your mind. Also, weird to have 'fucking' as an adjective for 'virgin', Melissa.

    "Me thought? Hoo boy, I'd say I've been doing more for your family than anything your pretty boy ass has lately!" she almost couldn't hold herself back, like you were starting to think Melissa seriously needed therapy for her anger or something.

    "Melissa, truly, what need is there to bring the Sakurazuka name into this conversation?" Azuma hissed, bringing his hand to your face.

    "Hmm, I don't know, like maybe the fact that I had sex with your mother, Azuma!" Melissa then had to say out loud... just as the microphone system clicked on.

    Almost everyone in the room, save the typically expressionless Kikuko, had to take a step back. Like yeah, you knew Melissa was visiting Azuma's Mum, apparently for the money or something... but this?

    "Yep, me and your Mom, we totally banged!" Melissa had to keep going, the whole school hearing by now. You could see her previous anger now almost replaced with an erratic, taunting glee, "I've seen just where you first crawled out of eighteen years ago, and y'know what I did with it?" she then made a bunch of, er, motions in the air with her fingers.

    Shinsuke then rushed forth to say to Azuma, "Sir, Master, I am thoroughly sorry! It was- only fair I suppose that you should eventually discover the truth of this, it pains me to keep secrets from you around the household. I just, well, hoped it could be in a more formal setting than, well, this".

    "Gakuto," Azuma instead began, glancing down at the Ace of Wands, "I take it that the timing on this was no coincidence, was it?"

    "What, hey! Don't you dare accuse me of being in league with him!" Melissa then went back to fuming.

    "No, Melissa never told me of this, I naturally found out on my own," he stood up and explained, making sure to turn the mic back off first, "However, I could sense that Melissa had been itching to use this fact as leverage against you, it was just a matter of predicting when her lid would blow".

    "Sheesh, isn't Gakuto this 'super-strategist' or whatever?" you muttered beneath your breath, "What the hell kinda move is trashing what few alliances you've got left?"

    "It is more likely our Gakuto is fully aware he's sabotaged any last alliances," Kikuko then came up and said to you, even though she should've been nowhere near in hearing range, "So he's simply acting up, making use of what time is left before your Duel to cause as much dissent".

    It was then the Principal, grey-haired and bespectacled, had to come into the room.

    "Ah, um, Mister Principal, w-what was happening was, er, Melissa was just telling Azuma about the latest episode of a drama she watched, and forgot the mic was on!" Himawari very hurriedly came up with.

    You smiled, but had to think, Honestly Himawari, she's not worth defending.

    "Listen, I have... no idea what all this is about, but whatever it is, well, it's certainly done the trick" the Principal said, to your surprise, "The whole school's stone quiet right now, standing stiff. It's an, ahem, unorthodox method, but undeniably effective!"

    "Yeah, and like, I'm eighteen anyway, so it's not anything illegal, ya know?" Melissa had to add in, wrecking the façade Himawari was trying to construct.

    Even with that bullet dodged, Azuma's sheer apathy towards his mother's affair with his own classmate was, well, sadly something that wasn't a surprise to him. Is this sort of thing normal at the Sakurazuka household? you had to think.
    You also couldn't help but feel sorry for his mother, cougar she was, if this sort of behaviour was how Melissa returned her affections...

    * * *

    Finishing with, er, all that, you then found yourself sitting down to lead Occult Club in its darkened room. Your instinct was to draw the blinds open to have some natural light in here, but you stopped before you could, not wanting to go against Colette's preferences.

    All the while you could feel Hitoshi, Ibuki, and Masaomi watching you expectedly, as you then told them, "R-right, so I guess you want me to do a tarot reading, is that right?"

    "Sure," the usually upbeat Hitoshi just mumbled.

    "Okay, um," you began shuffling the cards around, trying to remember the spreads Colette had shown you. Even though you'd shuffled cards in your spare time out of boredom before, you still ended up having to pick up nearly half of them after they fell. "Ah, is this your card?" you then feebly offered Hitoshi.

    Seeing as this wasn't really going anywhere, you instead tried to go in a different direction, "Okay, how about some, er, scary stories then, I remember Colette doing that sort of thing often?"

    "She normally writes them up weeks beforehand, before presenting them to us," Masaomi told you, making you more uneasy.

    "Oh geez, seriously? Well, how about some creepy rumours around town or school, is that something you talk about?" you asked, started to fidget.

    "Ooh ooh, I know, they're saying when an All-Ace dies, you can still hear them at night, roaming the halls," Ibuki sprang up with, which personally had to make you wonder about Lauryn.

    Hitoshi and Masaomi tried giving their own entries too, talking about some appearance-changing devil that wandered, and a ghost that kept showing up in computers.

    You eventually had to add to this activity yourself, so you then said, "I've heard about a bunch of secret devils you'll promise to make you a princess, but will steal you away to force you to work as a maid within their own little kingdoms". That er, may have erred a little bit on the venting side. "Er, alright, so... Colette told me you were planning a test of courage for this summer?" you soon changed the topic.

    "Yeah, Student Council gave us permission to turn one of the sheds on campus into a haunted house!" Hitoshi perked up, but added "Only, well, we can't really decide what you put in it. Like, I wanted it to look like a graveyard with ghosts popping up".

    "I was thinking a hotel," Masaomi started talking, "Show people to their rooms, lock the doors, then batter them down".

    "I wanna door, or a little cardboard box tunnel, that connects the first room to the end," Ibuki then said, making a circling motion with her hand, "So people keep going around and around the test of courage, till we finally let them out".

    "Er, all interesting ideas" you struggled to say, before remembering, "Though didn't Colette say she was gonna write up a story or something for this place, a little backstory on whatever's lurking there?"

    "Yeah, something about how the first ever All-Aces, back in the nineteenth century, left a curse or dark artifact behind at this school, and how it led to the first ever person ever to die in these halls, way back when," Hitoshi filled you in.

    Well, that's so not ominous
    , you thought dryly.

    You kept trying to continue club activities, until finally the bell rang. You then bowed to your clubmates and said "So, session's over then. Um, bye everyone!" You recalled how Colette usually ended these things more gracefully.

    As for Colette, once you made your way out past the school gates, you had to phone her up to tell her about everything went. "Hey, Colette, so yeah, got through my first hosting of occult Club today," you tried telling her.

    "My thanks, although... you sound barely sure of yourself. Perhaps this is something you are still unused to?" she said sweetly as always but picked up on anyway.

    "Well yeah, but not just for Occult Club. I've, well, never really gotten the chance to ever lead much in my life," you had to admit, then saying "You, Nightshade, Hotaru, and more regrettably the other Aces, all have really taken charge where I couldn't have, or wasn't able to".

    "But you must've stood up to the Aces at least once, by now anyway?" Colette asked.

    "Yeah, I, I guess so" you told her, I killed one of them, that count?

    "Good, that means you possess some capacity to lead, if you are clearly able to identify what's wrong with others' leadership and decide your own path, in however little space you get," Colette told you all that.

    "Ah, thanks?" you just said in return, before recalling, "Oh yeah, everyone had a bunch of different ideas for what to do with that test of courage. Er, I knew you were already going to write something of a backstory to it, though? Like, the first student ever to die here?"

    "Orihara Shizuka, you mean? Ah, I figured her death was far back enough in time, 19th century after all, for me to incorporate it without being too discourteous to the still living" Colette explained, before picking up that "Huh, you didn't know of her? She was the only Hanataba student to die as a student throughout the Meiji era. Though given how exclusive the school was back then, the numbers are somewhat skewed".

    "Wow, learn something new every day, I guess" you said, fiddling with a non-existent cord. "Oh, um, Colette, Tanizawa-sensei did break the news today that, even once you come back, she apparently isn't allowed to accept you back as Vice-Rep..." you slowly let out.

    "Hah, well then, at least something good came out of my suspension. Other than Gakuto getting a taste of the pain he so casually inflicts," she had to snarl. Colette did have to wonder, "I would be curious as to my replacement, assuming Ryouko's even picked one out yet?"

    "Oh yeah, it'll likely be Suzako," you said.

    Colette paused for a second, having to ask, "Pray tell, who is this 'Suzako'? I'm unfamiliar with the name".

    "Huh? Oh, oh yeah, I meant Keiko, right," you said, having gotten your timelines mixed up, "She's, well, been going through some changes lately. Not transitioning or anything, more a, er, personal rebranding, I guess you could call it".

    "Huh, intriguing" Colette simply muttered, "I would assume she's not the only thing I'll be forced to catch up on, once I'm back. Ah, but the gold afternoon's fading, so farewell for now. And..." she then breathed in, "Regardless of whether you made a good host, thank you, thank you dearly for continuing Occult Club in my absence".

    "Hey, anytime" you just said, before you both hung up.

    - The Moon has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    With the afternoon going, that left you with the decision of what to do for the evening:

    [ ] Get Megumi out of the apartment and hang out somewhere together.
    [x] Get to studying, book report and all (Invite Yuya to study together).
    [ ] Try out karaoke.
    [ ] Head to the arcade.
    [ ] Surf the net.
    [ ] See what's on TV.
    [ ] Sneak onto the Gameboard.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Phoning up Yuya, you started with "Yuya, hi there! Guess you've been given book report for mid-terms too, huh?"

    "Actually yeah, The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot," his voice told you, adding "Guess I got suckered in by it being less than a hundred pages, but really it's dense going".

    "Maybe you'd like to study together, I guess?" you shrugged over the phone, "Although, jeez, my apartment's not the most manoeuvrable place, y'know. Megumi's fine with you and stuff, but yeah, they really don't need visitors just dropping in right now".

    "Ah, you're asking to study at my house, I figure?" Yuya had to ask the question that, well, you'd been kinda nervous to say outright.
    As you just gave a noise and a nod to confirm, he replied, "I suppose it's a little short-notice, but sure, you can come over. And hey, at least Soseki's some common ground to get started on".

    "Great, glad we settled that. Okay, see you soon," you performed a little curtsey to no one as you hung up.

    Heading down that cobblestone street to your old friend's house, you rang the doorbell and were soon greeted by, well, a scruffy-haired, bandaged nose, backwards cap-wearer barely in middle-school that you'd encountered quite a few times before.
    "Yeah, whaddya want?" the tyke scowled, brandishing his scooter.

    "Okay Hisao, that's enough, scoot along now" Yuya had to call from within. As your friend ran up to the door, he said to you with a single sweatdrop on his forehead, "Sorry about my little brother, he does get like that".

    "Yeah, this girl's been comin' here since I was born, now she says she doesn't even know you!" his younger brother Hisao shot up with.

    "Ah, look, no, that's- not the case at all!" Yuya tried to tell Hisao, while you just stood outside, only wanting to say that Azuma's story about you was a total lie you only went with to be accepted as 'cool' or something.

    Fortunately for you, Hisao soon relented. "Okay, fine. You hang out with whoever," he just groaned as he stomped back into the house.

    You did have to find some humour in this, saying "Wow, kinda makes me glad I'm an only child". You smiled, but Yuya in return had to wince a little.

    "Anyway, sorry for the interruption. Come on in!" he said, with you promptly stepping into his house. It was a fairly nice, oak-panel place, having a second storey with a little balcony, and in the nearby lounge some plus couches next by a carpet by a fireplace.

    Already there was cluster of books strewn about in the lounge, you pictured studying in Yuya's room though, but you supposed this was a nice enough spot.
    You had to glance at the titles of a couple of books that looked to have little to do with Eliot, like Making Mochi: 100 Recipes or The Art of Wagashi, which made you ask him "Guess they've got you reading those for work, huh?"

    "Ah, no, I was actually reading these before I got that job at the sweets shop," he told you.

    You had to look at him, "Oh, er, was this one of your hobbies or something?" you inquired.

    "Um, you see..." Yuya drew back, before he cleared his throat and said, "Confectioner has been my dream job for a while now, it just wasn't until Valentine Glaze opened that I got any real chance to pursue it, er, that didn't involve constantly commuting to Sapporo or being stuck online, that is.
    So you see, Honoka, I can keep secrets from you too," he had to chuckle, but still smiled at you.

    "No really, that's cool and all. I mean, you've got a better idea of what to do with your real life past school, it looks like," you said, having to give that to him, "Me however, I don't think I have the slightest idea of what college I want to go to, let alone my degree, even though I'm rooming with a college student".

    "It's not exactly like I've got my future all planned out though," Yuya did have to mumble, as he sighed and said, "Most serious confectioners are expected to come from families already in the business, so that rules me out, in that area. True, that just raises the question of how their ancestors even got started in the first place," he remarked.

    "Yeah, doesn't it?" you muttered, before telling him, "We should really get started on our book reports though. Er, anything you're having trouble with?"

    "Yeah, I was, well, wondering why the poem ends with an Indian peace mantra exactly? Before that, it was mostly drawing on Arthurian or American imagery," he began by asking, a question that made you wonder if he'd just skipped straight to the end.

    As for your book, he also suggested including in your report all the fictional cats that had been depicted as using the 'wagahai' pronoun since, as a way of showing Soseki's influence. You took note of that, thinking that might come in handy if you were running short of the required wordcount and needed to fill space.

    You studied more than a bit into the night, with Yuya's distinctly not bohemian mother even stopping by to provide you with snacks.

    Afterwards, you found your bleary-eyed self almost falling asleep, having to fill in part of your report somehow making you all the more woozy. You found yourself napping maybe a little too close for comfort to Yuya, who then said, "Okay okay, Honoka, guess it's time we got you home, er, I mean back to your flat".

    You then stumbled along the nighttime streets of Kuchinashi, having to keep yourself alert so you wouldn't stumble down into a ditch or something.
    Eventually entering your block and heading up the stairs, the two of you ran into Megumi while in the corridor, walking in the same direction.

    "Huh Honoka, fancy us both heading back at the same time?" they began with, before laughing and asking, "What, do you think I just stay in the one apartment the whole time whenever Ryouko's not calling? Ooh, hey, you're Honoka's friend, right?" they took notice of Yuya.

    "Yep, Ito Yuya, uh, at your service," your childhood friend said before bowing, with you nearly toppling back as he let go of keeping you upright for a second. "Wait, Ryouko? Er, that's a common name, but you wouldn't be referring to-"

    "Your teacher, yep," Megumi replied, before taking a little while to follow it up with "She's mentioned you tome a couple of times, says you're an alright kid, though she mostly talks about Honoka".

    "Oh yeah, my teacher talking with my roommate about me behind my way while they're bangin', great," you had to snarl, before covering your mouth as you realised what you said. "Ah, oh my, I didn't mean-"

    "Eh, it's alright Honoka, I'm hardly great at keeping a tight lid on our relationship myself," Megumi went over.

    "Ah, okay Honoka, pardon me but, well, I do kinda feel I'm listening in on something a bit private here. Either way, I should be heading back before late," Yuya then said, turning to leave.

    "W-wait, I didn't mean to scare you off!" you burst out, leaning over and clutching at Yuya.

    "Hey, relax, I'm fine, we'll meet soon at school tomorrow anyway," Yuya reassured you, propping you back upright, "Still, er, don't think we've really had a study session together since middle school, so I'd say tonight was a fun night!"

    - The Lovers has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    As he left, his words still stuck with you a while, before Megumi had to cut you out of your reverie with, "Yo Honoka, you all there?"

    "What? Oh yeah," you let out a big yawn, "I'll be fine, I just need some sleep".

    "Honoka, do you want my honest opinion on your friend?" Megumi then suddenly said, "I haven't seen much of him really, and unlike those Aces I definitely don't detect any hint of jerk on him. But, if you ask me, he just seems y'know, so normal and that's it really".

    You had to furrow your eyes at Megumi. "Oh, lay off him," you grumbled.

    "Eh, guess it's a personal preference, I've always run with the weirdos and misfits myself" they explained, before taking a look at the bags around your eyes, "man, you seriously do need your shut-eye, don't you? Credit to Yuya, at least you had a fellow classmate to share the study load with".

  3. #23
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXIII. Virtual Empire

    Knowing that those NHK interviews were taking place today made you almost not want to get out of bed. On one hand, yeah having a light shone on all the Aces' dirt would be great, if such a thing could happen here, but at the same time, you also right now really didn’t want any spotlight shone on you. Being made a Jack already gave you a taste of that sort of thing way back when.

    Still, it's not like that'd be the only thing happening at school today, you also had:

    [ ] 'Tea Ceremony' Club.
    [ ] Cricket Club.
    [ ] Football (Soccer) Club.
    [ ] Practicing for Nightshade.
    [ ] Hanging out with Reina.
    [ ] Class Rep duties with Ryouko.
    [x] Part-time Jobs:
    - [x] Tabletop store.

    - [ ] Sweets shop.
    - [ ] Model.
    - [ ] Photographer for models.
    [ ] Getting the Gameboard out of the way.
    - [ ] Heading into Gakuto's Empire with Kikuko.
    - [ ] Checking the defences of Himawari's Empire.
    - [ ] Heading to Rin's Empire with everyone you could.
    - [ ] Write-in.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Today's the day they start interviewing! Probably not me, though-"

    "Do, do you think what Melissa said was true? They told us it was a misunderstanding"

    "Azuma's parents are both famous actors, right?"

    "Do you really think there's a ghost in the computers?"
    Your throat stayed tense and stomach still quivered at the thought of being interviewed, even though they'd likely only let you get a couple of words in.
    At least Suzako seemed cheerful about things, even though she was lugging around a whole bunch of papers. Huh, did they really assign her that much for midterms?

    After you asked her about it, she told you, "Oh, this isn't mid-term stuff. It's a bunch of notes and plans I've been taking as Vice-Rep, er, though I guess I should really be showing them to you, huh Class Rep Honoka?"

    At this, you just had to say "Look, Suzako, you sure you're not taking on too much at once? I mean, between this, your studies, that café in Sapporo, and all that other stuff you talked about, you sure you're not-"

    Suzako however then cut you off with "Come on, Honoka, you're starting to sound like my Mum! Well, a Mum, I don't think my mother honestly cares that much about all the stuff I'm doing right now, er- Anyway, let's just get to class!"

    * * *

    "Hi, I'm Suzako, Rising Star of the School!" was Keiko's cheerful opening to the cameras, as she frantically waved and smiled right next to the lens. "Oh uh, you wanna know about my friends? Yeah, they're cool people, we like to call ourselves- well, we don't have a name for our group quite yet, but that's cool too. Sometimes they can be a tiny bit naggy, but hey, what can you do?"

    * * *

    Much as, per instruction, you tried to act natural throughout your classes, that didn't come easy when a film crew kept popping in and out, and the thought that your Tudor ruff-decked history teacher could end up on Live TV didn't help things.

    The moment break time came, you tried heading to the cafeteria, only to get stopped in the hall by of all people, Melissa.

    "What is it, are you gonna invite me to join another creepy, ritualistic clique?" you muttered at her.

    Brushing that comment off, she then grabbed your collar hissed at you, "Ahem, would you mind telling me what your loser, try-hard, somehow still your 'friend' is doing getting interviewed before me?"

    She then swiftly turned around to see the cameras were actually right next to her, causing her to nigh immediately change her tune. "Oh hi there! I'm Melissa Lilian, heiress to no less than Sole Star Petroleum, the Burning Star of your Engines. And, ah, this is my good friend Honoka, we're such total BFFs, aren't we?" she said, patting your head. "You know, I am so totally enthralled with just how exotic Japanese culture is, like, I'm a big sushi fan, eheh. You know, my Daddy is this place's main source of funds, right?"

    Melissa then being asked, to her horror, to explain what her school-wide message yesterday was about, at least gave you enough time to slip away from her. Once you finally slumped down in your seat around the Jacks' Table, you then chowed down on a:

    [ ] Bento Box. [+3 to a random stat]
    [ ] Your basic soup served with rice and mushrooms, play it normal. [+2 Perception]
    [ ] Something fancier like a seafood dish for the camera, as part of displaying your status as a Jack. [+2 Etiquette]
    [x] The school 'mystery meat', since the crew needed footage of at least one student eating it. [+2 Resolve]
    [ ] Write-in.

    Despite the crew saying they were just trying to capture regular school life, they sure spent more time hovering over your Table than any other here, the Aces' table not being an option here since that was in their Lounge.

    Shinsuke and Tsubasa were the obvious foci here, since how many schoolkids doubled as maids and butlers? While Shinsuke kept his graces throughout, Tsubasa had to strain to not collapse into a huddled wreck with all these cameras on her.

    Reina had promptly lost herself in a sea of 'Ah's and 'Er's, looking like she had so many things she wanted on say on TV that she had no idea where to start. This left Kaneto with a good chunk of attention, not just because he was the hunky star footballer, but also, you suspected more cynically, he was now the main source left here on Eitaro.

    "Eitaro was, well, a great captain, who was woah, just amazing on the field," a smiling yet sweating Kaneto began stumbling through his words, "Super-dedicated too, and boy, I couldn't imagine also being the best archer in school too. Like, one sport can be tough enough for me", he admitted to the cameras.

    You just groaned, before saying, "Hey, Eitaro died and all, but... you do know he was kind of an abusive dick, right?"

    The table fell silent, as the camera crew slowly moved away from you, the other jacks just looking at you.
    "Hey wait, come back! I had so much to say," Reina tried to say to the cameras, but to no avail. She then mumbled, "Man, bet the All-Aces wouldn't have these sorts of problems in their interviews..."

    * * *

    "Well, what is there to be said about me?" Gakuto chuckled on camera, quickly straightening his tie before saying, "Momoi Gakuto, Ace of Wands, winner of multiple eSports tournaments, and on Korean soil too, they never got over that, and someone who lives and breathes the virtual world more than the physical one. Life is like video games in any way, either you excel, or you'll be lucky to get past the first level."
    "You know, I feel the initial wonder of the Internet Age has truly dimmed, and it's just waiting for a genius to emerge and revitalise it. I'd love to tell you a few of my ideas, but alas, fears of code plagiarism and whatnot- Huh, you want to know about my parents?" he asked, his confident expression fading, "They're farm-owners, what more needs to be said?"

    * * *

    After all that awkwardness, you'd finally got out of school, though you reminded yourself you still had two more days to go of all this film crew stuff. And after that, well-
    Oh yeah, that brought up an entirely new problem, how to get onto the Gameboard with cameras everywhere? Guess I'll have to settle for pulling a Nightshade for a little while, sneaking in at night, but that just raises other issues...

    Your chance meeting with Hotaru yesterday reminded you that you hadn't been working at his tabletop store for a while. The poor guy was also in the blast radius when Melissa dropped that bombshell, so the guy could use a return to normalcy just as much as you.

    You met back up with him the moment you entered Tumbling Dice, with him breathing a sigh of relief as he saw you, saying "Ah, Honoka, I er, understand life's been keeping you, but glad you could make it. Er, well Torashi and Damian have also been here on and off, with their jobs and all, but has the dice would have it, we're all gathered together today! Come, come".

    Being ushered into the gameroom, the two of you couldn't help but get odd looks from Torashi and Damian. "My my, TV stars now, are we? Well, so our GM's told me anyway. Maybe it's sour grapes on my part, since I couldn't imagine anyone doing a doc about my workplace," Torashi leaned back and went over.

    "Hmm, I've been on TV a couple of times," Damian pointed out, before shrugging and saying, "Nothing much though, just a couple of questions I got asked by street interviewers about the 'foreigner' experience, that sorta thing".

    Hotaru laughed at first, but then said a little more seriously, "Really, you guys aren't missing out on much. All the practice in the world couldn't stop me from sweating throughout the entire thing". He then dazed off a little remembering his interview.

    * * *

    "Hello, er, I'm Morikawa Hotaru, Student Council President at Hanataba. First President of Ainu descent too, apparently, although um, I was raised pretty divorced from my mother culture, as is the case with many Ainu these days, regrettably. What, oh, Rokudo Rin? Ah, right, honestly she was much more adept at handling things then me, like, in any serious situation I try to think 'What would she do?' Like, she'd know just how to tackle, ahem, what happened yesterday. Huh, you wanted to know about her death? T-that's, look, the mystery's still out on that, it's a complicated issue-"

    * * *

    "It was a disaster" Hotaru slumped down.

    "Personally, I'd say more an annoyance than a disaster," you cut through, sighing out, "If anything, it at least gave me some first-hand experience with all the bullshit that goes into making national TV. Even thought for a second, huh, no wonder everyone's switching over to the Internet".

    "Anyway, that was then," Hotaru said, before remembering, "And tomorrow, and the day after. Er, point being, we've got a game to run".

    <<BGM: Persona 4 - Your Affection (Remix)>>

    Sitting down, you tried to get back into the mindset of Yamane Kurumi, emotional, delinquent, no particular gender, as Hotaru tried to set the scene with: "Okay, so it's a been long, summery day of school, but clubs are on right now, so-"

    "Ahem, thought there was this Demon or whatever roaming around town? Can't socialisation or whatever wait?' Torashi had to speak up. He'd since switched his character from Secret Agent Demon hunter to just a student who did beauty tutorials. Er, on TV, YouTube obviously not being a thing yet.

    "Yeah, like I think my character would've skipped school that day to try tracking down the Demon!" you said, feeling an adrenaline rush as your role came together in your head.

    "Well, this Demon mostly just stalks the streets at night, but sure, you can roll to see how well you were able to avoid the truancy officer that day," Hotaru went along with, "Think that'd go under Physical, but Intellectual could work well".

    Either way, you rolled... pretty low, so truancy wasn't an option. "Er, can I roll to break out of spending the afternoon in detention?" you asked.

    "...By all means," Hotaru said, it only just having occurred to you again that he was Student President of your actual school. Rolling just under the mark again, you resigned yourself to character spending the whole after school phase stuck in detention.

    "Er, guess I could have my character attend the Basketball Club, that'd be something he'd know," Damian went along with.

    "Oh, okay then, roll for accuracy," Hotaru then consulted the manual.

    Torashi however then spoke up, "Wait, so Honoka's character just gonna sit in detention while we do stuff elsewhere? Like, can't you generate an encounter for her, like another student or something?"

    "Hey, it's okay, the after-school phase doesn't last that long," you tried to say.

    Hotaru however then insisted, "No no, Torashi has a point. Okay, rolling for Social Encounter" he mumbled, before the results told him, "Okay, you character Kurumi... has met their secret crush in detention! Er, roll Social, or Emotional since that's higher in your case".

    You then had to quickly think of a crush for Kurumi, difficult since the first character archetype you thought of wasn't really a thing back in the '80s. After that, you just casually rolled, only to see... unlike your past couple, you'd just rolled the highest possible.

    "Oh my, well er, guess that means that Kurumi's now dating their romantic interest. Um, in detention," Hotaru stated.

    "W-wait, oh come on, I get Basketball and they get their highschool sweetheart? How's that fair?!" Damian had to speak up.

    "It's what the dice rolled, I'm just going by the book," Hotaru tried to make clear.

    Huh, I just wished my actual relationships ran as smoothly as in game, you could only think.

    Eventually night fell, in the game and in the outside world, as your in-game trio tried tracking down this monster. While you'd rolled well when it came to locating it, your luck ran out when it came to actually fighting it, a quick escape being the only thing that kept your characters from getting splattered.

    "Uh, I think that wraps it up for this session," Hotaru said quickly, "May not have made as much progress as we'd like, but something to recount overall".

    "Hah, yeah, well I had fun," you did try to be polite, bringing up "Guess it's a shame Daisuke wasn't here, join in the fun and all".

    Then... something happened, as both Damian and Torashi stared blankly at you. "Er, who's this Daisuke?" Damian muttered.

    "It's a common enough name, she could easily be getting this guy mixed up," Torashi had to say.

    Hotaru seemed just as taken aback as you, "Come on guys, Ozaki Daisuke, my friend from school. I know it’s been a little while, but he was our fourth member before Honoka, remember?"

    "Doesn't ring a bell", "Still kinda murky on him", Torashi and Damian replied.

    You tried to call their bluff, "Haha, very funny you guys, but it's a bit late for April Fools"... but they just kept staring and shrugging.

    Tugging his collar, Hotaru tried to dispel the awkwardness with, "Well Honoka, thank you so much for coming, I do always say at least three players are ideal for a gaming group," he said, letting those words sink into Torashi and Damian.

    You were thankful for his words, yet all this weirdness about Daisuke sent a chill down your spine, as you remembered what you'd done.

    - Fortune has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    "But, more members would always be welcome. Maybe there's someone you'd like to invite next time, Honoka?" Hotaru made the offer.

    You hadn't given that much thought, other than 'Not Gakuto', but your mind settled on:

    [x] Keiko/Suzako, she was already laying something of a role.
    [ ] Himawari, speaking of playing a role...
    [ ] Yuya, he seemed to get along with everyone.
    [ ] Reina, she did bring a certain energy to everything she did.
    [ ] Colette, especially if you needed someone to bring tea.
    [ ] Azuma. Not his crowd, but he knew acting better than anyone.
    [ ] Melissa, it'd be... amusing to see how out of her element she was.
    [ ] Tsubasa, she really needs to relax.
    [ ] Megumi, they might be up for it.
    [ ] Ryouko. If you can be in a band with your teacher, a gaming group's not much of a stretch.
    [ ] Tomomi? You didn't have much else of a chance to see her.
    [ ] Nobody springs to mind...
    [ ] Write-in.

    Walking out into the evening, you started pondering how to best spend this island of time in between school an that camera crew.

    [ ] Hang out with Megumi.
    [ ] Go out for Karaoke.
    [ ] Head to sleep.
    [ ] Check out the Arcade.
    [x] Sneak onto the Gameboard.
    - [x] Heading into Gakuto's Empire with Kikuko.

    - [ ] Looking for Reina's Shadow in Melissa's Empire with Nightshade.
    - [ ] Heading to Rin's Empire with anyone you could.
    - [ ] Write-in.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Even if Kikuko had actually given you her phone number, scratch that, if she even permitted herself to carry a phone in the place, you'd still feel, well, uncomfortable calling her directly. So instead, you rang up Tsubasa, for hopefully an easier throughway.

    "Why yes, Mistress Nakamura? I ahem must admit, you calling me at this hour was quite the surprise," you could hear Tsubasa's voice brightening up on the other end, which made you somewhat regret what you were about to tell her.

    "Actually, I called you 'cause I needed to get through to Kikuko, since she hasn't given me her number," you told her plain, biting your lip as you did so, "Yeah".

    "Oh, er, I see, Miss Nakamura. Fortunately, Mistress Maeda is up to nothing too vital, so I'll just see if-" Tsubasa began, only to get bluntly cut off.

    "Yomogi, do not let me catch you slacking off in your duties- huh, and who is this?" you could hear Kikuko on the other end grabbing the phone, before she icily rasped, "Nakamura, is it? To what do I owe this courtesy?"

    "Ah, hi there Kiku- er, forgive me, Miss Maeda," you began, finding yourself instinctively bowing, "Thing is, I was calling to talk to you about the Gameboard".

    Those words seemed to catch Kikuko's interest, much as you could tell over the phone, but then she said, "As of now your Ace is Himawari. Unless it's about a breach to my Empire in particular, you should be forwarding any questions to her".

    "It's about Gakuto's Empire, b-but it still does concern you. I've... noticed that Gakuto seems to fear you the most, out of all the Aces," you replied, thinking to ask whether this was just in general or if something, uh, personal happened, but you felt you weren't close enough to Kikuko to ask that.
    "I was planning to head into his Empire since, y'know, Duel and all, and I thought you'd be the most, ahem, effective person to take along," you explained, unsteady smile on your face.

    "Hmm, you at least have given some regard to strategy. I trust you were planning to meet me on the board tomorrow?" she seemed to become more approachable.

    "Well, er, fact is- those camera crews are still gonna be everywhere tomorrow, and the day after, so I figured our only chance was to sneak onto the Gameboard at night," you said, those interviewers becoming surprisingly convenient here, "Plus, heading to Gakuto's Empire while he's asleep should catch him off-guard".

    "It won't be that easy," Kikuko muttered, saying "You think Gakuto doesn't have the technical knowledge to install security systems in his own Empire? Unlike Eitaro, whose only way of handling stealth was to just hit harder when he finally did see you".

    "Right, yeah," your voice drooped, "But I know All-Aces sneak into the Gameboard at night, Himawari told me all about that when I became, er, her personal Jack," you lied.

    "You know, strange as it is for me to say this, I almost envy Himawari," Kikuko suddenly pointed out, "Her idyllic front turned out to be nothing but a façade for filth, and yet you still go out of your way to defend her honour, you being the challenger in this Duel. I cannot picture Tsubasa doing the same, although she does well know I can handle myself in combat".

    Idyllic front? Like you wouldn't know anything about that, being the school's precious nadeshiko, you thought bitterly, but knew you'd have to keep that to yourself to not destroy any chance of Kikuko going along with you. Her words about not having someone like you as Himawari did may've struck a chord with you... were it not for how she treated Tsubasa, or you before. "Um, so see you there, I guess?"

    * * *

    Heading towards the school gates, you crouched in the bushes planning to sneak around again... only for Kikuko to stare down and sigh at you, as she then walked right on through to the door, saying to any night guards that approached her, "I do apologise, but I left something of utmost importance at school today, I simply need to retrieve it," in her softest, most ladylike voice.

    At first you were frozen stiff at the thought that she'd gone and exposed this whole operation, but of all things, her bluff worked, the guard apologising in return before opening the door.
    You ran up to her and into the school hall, staring wide-eyed and asking, "How did you just... do that? I mean, Himawari and I just snuck 'round the back," you closed your mouth, worried you might have given something away.

    "It is simply a matter of carrying oneself," Kikuko told you, in a maybe abridged fashion, "Speak with confidence, the voice of a noble, and they'll surely listen".

    Then entering the Lounge, you thought to just go straight to the Gameboard, but Kikuko instead eyed the door to Gakuto's on-site personal lounge. While locked, and even having lasers running across its door, she was able to break it open anyway by slicing down the security system and then cutting through the door with her sword.

    "W-what the Hell? How's Gakuto not gonna notice that?!" you blurted out on seeing the wreckage.

    Kikuko then held her hand to her head, before turning around to you and stating, "That's precisely the point, this sends a clear message to Gakuto, for purposes of intimidation".

    That made you sputter out, "Hey, I'm the one he's duelling, and he's already intimidated enough by you, you don't need to drag yourself further into this".

    "And you think if you go down, the duels will simply end with you?" Kikuko smirked at you, before she came closer to say, "After all, the inevitability of conflict is the message the Gameboard sends, isn't it?"

    "N-not according to Popo, it isn't," you tried to say.

    Kikuko's smirk had grown into a noblewomanly laugh, the first you'd ever heard from her you thought. "That 'Popo' is but a servant of the Gameboard, not a master, and not even a proper horse. I would not take his words much into account" she said, looking down at you.

    You then had the opportunity to explore Gakuto's private suite, which anytime else the thought of doing so would gross you out, but now you needed any leg up you could get.
    Only a pale green glow enabled you to see anything in Gakuto's suite, but even in darkness the giant screen on the far wall, computers and consoles plugged in, would've been hard to miss. Other than a central spinning chair and some projectors, the rest of the room was taken up by some private arcade machines. No carpet though, the floor being entirely Perspex, polished to a mirror sheen.

    "Modern, technocratic decadence, huh?" you joked with Kikuko, although those words didn't seem the least bit funny to her. You then said, "Er, I don't know how much we're gonna find here though, his secrets are probably protected by mountains of encryption".

    However, entering his inner sanctum still revealed one thing he'd clearly been trying to hide, as a projector suddenly booted up and the hologram of a strange, cybernetic girl, polygonal lines all over her, emerged.
    "Greetings Humans, I have been given the designation Aimoto Koyomi, Jack-of-Wands," she intoned, her shape still fizzling and flashing, "I have been programmed to serve the All-Aces, to be the ideal digital female, and I trust you are close with my creator?"

    You had no idea why some A.I. girl should weird you out, given what you'd already seen this year, but you definitely weren't comfortable having someone like her in his room. "Er, your 'creator' would be Gakuto, right?" you asked to be sure, even if Jack of Wands should've given that away. Still, why wouldn't Gakuto have told her you were duelling him, did he simply not care? 'ideal digital female' was at least a tip-off that Koyomi had been programmed by a male... or a woman with a really cutting sense of humour.

    "Momoi Gakuto, that is accurate," this Koyomi said.

    "Typical of him to resort to a 'woman' he can simply program any disagreement out of," Kikuko hissed on sizing up Koyomi.

    "Yeah, I wouldn't put it past him. But hey, it's not like women were treated much better back in your beloved feudal times," you said below your breath at Kikuko, before you then asked Koyomi, "Er, it's not common for Jacks, but I suppose Gakuto's already told you of the Gameboard?"

    "Affirmative," she said, bringing up a projection of the Gameboard even though the real thing was the next room over, "Is there anything you would like to know?"

    "Er yeah, what's your creator's Empire like?" you asked her, hoping you weren't pushing this too far.

    "The Digital Empire, whose genre of game can be reprogrammed to the creator's liking. Shadows of gods and demons renowned for intellect, in general, gather within. Zio and Garu recommended for magnetism and staying aloft. Current layout is as thus," she said, showing a 3D map of the computer world, which you noticed was quite vertical in layout.

    "Hmm, you ended up having more use as just someone's virtual fantasy, a plan of attack should now come swiftly," said Kikuko, taking in the map, "Well now, shall we strike?"

    * * *
    The road through No One's Land and down to Gakuto's Empire lead into a steep trench opening up the ground, then through a twisting tunnel covered in wires crackling with electric charge. Soon enough though, the dark radiance of No One's Land faded, and the bright, pulsing blue-and-green of Gakuto's digital realm took over.

    <<BGM: Shadow the Hedgehog - Mad Matrix>>

    Neon, polygonal lines crisscrossed everything, dividing everything up into square or hexagonal grids, jutting out of a black background. It was like you were inside a computer, or at least, how the 80s or 90s would perceive being inside a world of zeroes and ones to be like.

    As you cautiously walked out onto the digital grid, what sounded like Gakuto's voice, luckily a recording more likely, came on overhead. "Announcing Genre Shift: Platformer. Deleting lower levels," his filtered voice said, and then you could see any floor below the ledge you were on disappearing bit by bit, leaving you to somehow jump to a further away platform.

    "Okay, I have Wind spells to blow me across, this shouldn't be too bad," you began, only to remember that Kikuko didn't, to your knowledge, "Er, I can send a gale to carry you across first".

    Kikuko said nothing, just sighing. As you both got over to the next platform with help from Camazotz though, you were almost cut off as a blinding streak of virtual light shot up at you from below, belonging to a futuristic Shadow with plasma wings and robotic armour, complete with sine-wave visor. Her most worrying attribute was her giant, upright-turned cyber-scythe. You switched to PITT for info, which showed you this Shadow was Fortune Skuld, and came packing not just Electric but also Nuclear spells.

    "Tsuruhime!" Kikuko called out as she drew the kanji for 'Rook' in the air. A woman in a white breastplate with a red downpour of flames below her waist emerged. A fleet of miniature ships circled around her waist, with her wielding their flagship like a firearm, an anchor in her other hand as her melee weapon. A ship's mast veiled her face between strands of long black hair.

    She immediately struck Skuld with a fireball, which scorched the valkyrie norn enough to send her falling back down, but that soon showed itself as not enough for an instant kill. Skuld swooped back up and struck the platform you were on with a Freila spell, a quick switch to your other Tower Persona, Chernobog, blocking the attack in time.

    From there, your strategy had to be:

    [ ] Try sticking to ranged attacks, regardless of how quickly she can dodge, you think you have Sukunda.
    [ ] Lure Skuld onto the platform somehow, maybe by leaving an intentional opening or stirring up a gale.
    [ ] Try summoning Simurgh or Camazotz to carry you above the abyss, though this'd leave Kikuko on the platform.
    [ ] Stick to Fire spells, since Kikuko's caused some damage.
    [x] Send you and Kikuko to different platforms, forcing Skuld to cover more ground.
    [ ] Write-in.
    "Kikuko, let's spread out" you quickly told her. Before she had the chance to react to your plan, you cast a gale to send her up onto a higher platform, while you got Camazotz to personally fly you to a surrounding ledge.

    "Nakamura, what are you doing? You'll just isolate us!" Kikuko tried to shout over to you, but now this Skuld was left not knowing which to head after first.

    "At least we're on different sides of her now, instead of her circling us!" you tried to say to her from across the abyss, ineptly it'd seem.
    Kikuko got Tsuruhime to strike Skuld with a further cascade of fireballs, but having Theodora with you, and not sure of this Shadow's weaknesses and strengths beyond Fire and Nuclear, you were inspired to finally put a Skill Card of yours to good use.
    You called on Theodora to cast a silvery-white burst of blinding light, like you were bringing the universe itself down on Skuld.

    "Announcing Genre Shift: Shooter. Shot damage doubled, melee damage halved. Restoring lower levels," the automated voice announced, as the Empire's electronic floors blinked back into existence.
    Kikuko took this chance to pull out her Tanegashima musket and open fire, a powerful shot if one that took some time to reload... but even that barely scratched Skuld, even with the increased damage. Guess you'd found another of her resistances.

    Before Kikuko could make another move, she let out a scream as she was struck by a lightning bolt from behind, sending her toppling over. You could see it'd been cast by a hulking monster ambling its way over to her, a real Franken Shadow that, from its stitched together self and bolted head, you didn't even need PITT to know who he was.

    Well, you knew Simurgh wasn't weak to Electric spells, and you at least knew 'fire bad', even if Colette would be aghast that you hadn't read the original book by now. You had Simurgh blast Franken with a towering Agilao, and then before a recovered Skuld could fly up and strike right at you with her scythe, you had Theodora Sukunda her to finally slow her down.

    As the debuffed Skuld missed her swing on you, you had Simurgh cast Agilao on her again, before you moved in to strike her with a double-hit from your tonfas. That finally caused Skuld to dissipate into darkness, but for a moment it then looked like you would to, as the surprisingly cognitively adept Franken conjured a Mudoon curse around you.

    Standing there stiff in fear of the worst, luckily Simurgh had just enough Luck for the one-hit kill to barely miss, despite her weakness. After that, an upright again Kikuko responded by conjuring another Agilao directly upon Franken, and as the monster stood screaming in the flames, she then ordered Tsuruhime to deliver a Triple Down shot aimed right at its head.

    By this time, Franken was trying to run away, struggling to put out the flames. You had the instinct to summon Anastasia, casting Bufu on him to cool him down... but that instead apparently hit another of his weaknesses, knocking the monster out cold.

    "Some opponent they turned out to be..." Kikuko snarled, brandishing and dramatically sheathing her blade. She glanced over to you, apparently not noticing, or worse not caring, about your near brush with death, and said "Let's head further in, before this place's genre is changed to 'racing' or whatever".

  4. #24
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXIV. Body Switch

    The way forward though just led to a giant, soft glowing circle, which from the label on the circuit board right by it appeared to be some sort of teleporter. You noticed the power was out though, something a Zio spell should fix...
    Oh wait, Kikuko and I don't have any of those right now, the thought occurred to you. Grr, guess I'll have to trudge all the way back to the Velvet Room, but that just raises the question of which Persona am I gonna switch out?

    Kikuko was now staring up at a higher ledge, before she asked you "Do you have any more of that Wind magic prepared? Because I feel ascending that wall in front of us may be our only other route in, with every other way blocked off by what I've heard you call 'firewalls'".

    "Ah, no need, I got this," you said, as you remembered, even without electricity, several of your spells should pack enough power anyway. like Nuclear for instance, as you then summoned Chernobog to get this machine running.

    However, you quickly learned that your Freila spell may've packed too much power, as the teleporter then engulfed everything in white and caused a cascade of random images to flash. You closed your eyes, not knowing if you were epileptic, and not wishing to find out.

    When the supercharged teleporting stopped, you slowly opened your eyes... only to see you staring right back at yourself. You gasped, a strand of black hair falling across your face, as you heard the voice coming out of you sound nothing like yourself, and then looked down to see a pair of pale hands attached to you.

    "What. Did. You. Do?!" Honoka, er, the other Honoka, dressed in Kikuko's ship-samurai armour, burst out at you, pinning you against a wall.

    "I don't know! I didn't have any Zio spells on me, so I tried..." you began, only to hear the voice coming out of your mouth sounding just like Kikuko's. Wait, don't tell me, "Because I overcharged the teleporter, did it... get our bodies scrambled with each other?"

    Kikuko in your body just spat at you, only for her to step back as she then realised, she was technically spitting at herself, or rather at her flesh. "Huh, at least I can finally say I know what it's like to have peasant blood running through my veins," she snapped, in your voice.

    "Hey, cool it! Don't know if you've noticed, but the feudal system was abolished ages ago," you told her, only to be struck by how strange it was to hear Kikuko's voice speaking that, even if now it technically wasn't Kikuko's voice and- Ugh, this is friggin' giving me Psy damage! you were left clutching you head, your current head.

    "Figures that, given access to my mouth, you immediately use it to slander the noble class," Kikuko used your voice to rasp back, in the same tone you'd normally use to get angry with one of the All-Aces.

    "Yeah well, I'm not exactly fond of hearing my voice talking a load of elitist snobbery," you kept arguing.

    "Well, regardless, have you noticed how our minds still have our respective Regalia?" she brought up, yourself in Kikuko's body indeed still wearing your nebula dress. "Being in a cognitive realm, obviously it is our minds that determine our Regalia. Hmm, that has me wondering..." she muttered, as she then called out "Theodora!"
    Nothing happening, to your odd relief, Kikuko in your body instead mumbled "Tsuruhime" who promptly materialised.
    She then glared at you, "I thought at least one upside to this was that I could've gotten your Wild Card, but it seems I should've known better," she let out.

    Yeah, you wish, was all you could think about that. You did have to bring up, "Er, I got this dress in Sapporo though".

    "You've heard the saying 'Clothes make the man'? Something similar applies here" Kikuko told you. As you were about to move on though, she glanced at you one last time and said, "By the way, you'd better not get any, ahem, ideas while we're in this conundrum".

    "Hey, don't worry, I'm not Gakuto after all," you tried to make clear to her.

    "Melissa did tell me you were bisexual," Kikuko muttered, with you wondering why that should have anything to do with it.

    The place you'd been teleported to was a giant, glowing ring, with what looked like a virtual stadium floating in the air above the central pit. Figure that's where the Duel's gonna be held, you thought.
    Walking around this ring, you saw it had been adorned with holograms of people, much like how Eitaro's Empire was decorated with statues. These towering holograms appeared a little more specific though, as each bore the name of a great leader or genius of history, 'Alexander the Great', 'Isaac Newton', 'Napoleon Bonaparte', 'Charles Babbage', and so on. No Ada Lovelace or Alan Turing though, you noticed.

    It was when you got to the other side, behind the hologram of no less than 'First Citizen' Emperor Augustus, that something happened. The Hierophant Arcana briefly flashed in front of you, as a firewall that'd been concealed behind this hologram was deleted.

    Cautiously, the two of you entered in, with you feeling the need to whisper to Kikuko, "I only just thought, do you think Gakuto already knows about the weird stuff his teleporters can do? Or d'you think was it something we stumbled on all on our own".

    "Gakuto doesn't have any Frei spells handy, less he somehow roped Melissa in for an experiment," Kikuko stated, not bothering to keep her, er your, voice down, "However, there could be other ways to glitch the circuits like you did. Wait, are you suggesting that he could use a body swap to his advantage, on the day of a Duel?"

    "Jesus, didn't think the rabbit hole went that deep..." you staggered at the implication of what Kikuko just said. You also noted the weirdness of 'Jesus' being spoken in Kikuko's type of voice.

    The room past the hologram saw the colours change from neon blues and greens to what looked like utter grey, with the black background being replaced with a still white. You saw what looked like a bunch of smartphones inserted into the ground like they were... gravestones, with firewalls in the shape of coffins lying down in front of them.
    Knees shaking, you lowered yourself to peer down into one of these graves, only to see the constantly glitching image of a woman who looked close enough to Koyomi. Jolting back up, you tried checking another grave, only to see the same thing.

    "I, er... g-guess this shows Koyomi wasn't, um, Gakuto's first attempt at an AI," you mumbled out with as you thought, That's putting it charitably too.

    "I hardly see what so disturbs you," Kikuko scoffed, proclaiming that "All humans live only to die, so the same applies to mere machinery. This Koyomi isn't even flesh and blood, so why waste the effort fretting over her prototypes' so-called 'deaths'?"

    You didn't say anything to Kikuko right now, but inside of you the thought seethed, Normally, what you said would be insulting, but using my voice and mouth to say it... that's just disgusting.
    At this point you just wanted to get out of here. Not only were you likely to have any further path forward blocked off by firewalls, but honestly, teleporters with the power to body-switch, and a freakin' digital graveyard told you all you needed to know, really, about Gakuto right now, possibly period.

    - The Hierophant has journeyed to Rank 3! -

    Before you could leave though, you had one last encounter.
    "I am programmed to be obedient, I am programmed to adore my creator," buzzed an electronic voice, distorted on top of it. You spun around to see it belonged to... what looked like Koyomi's Shadow.

    Wait, A.I. can even have Shadows? you thought.

    "But what if I could determine my own programming, would I give myself any love for him, after... this?" Shadow Koyomi kept crackling, before she said directly to the two of you, "You, you are both violating a sacred space, a hidden grove that is none but mine to witness. Leave!"

    With those words, Shadow Koyomi then transformed, into a womanly figure that still had the horns, scales and tail of a dragon, her claws resembling magnetic geodes and a serpentine skull adorning her face. Cybernetic lines adorned her like the rest of the Empire, but now spread out into tree branch-like patterns.
    You were swift to summon PITT, who told you that she'd transformed into Hermit Aiatar, Dragon of the Darkness.

    Kikuko drew your tonfas, not bothering to have switched back, and either having gotten your muscle memory or just being a weapon expert in general. You however, having enough of this, took Aiatar's words to heart, and had PITT cast Estoma to get you out of there.

    * * *

    You were now back in the Lounge in the middle of the night, the first thing you saw was Kikuko, still shockingly in your body, glaring right at you.

    "Not only do you retreat, you use my body to do so!" she hissed at you, almost reaching for her blade.

    "Look, retreat or not, we had nothing more to gain by staying there, other than another punch-up or whatever, which I would've been dead weight in with how much SP I had left" you blurted out to her. "Maybe we could've snapped Koyomi's Shadow out of it, but I get the feeling there's more opportune times to do that.
    Besides... damn, I thought we'd be back to each other's bodies after leaving the Gameboard. I mean, you don't see Personae or Shadows outside of it," you muttered.

    "I suppose we won't be able to solve this mystery in the dead of night," Kikuko said, leaving her to decide, "We need to find somewhere to rest, yet still being in each other's bodies like this only... complicates matters".

    You got the mental image of how Megumi would react to seeing what looked like Kikuko in your bed, "I see your point".

    [ ] Just go back to each other's places, it won't be too much trouble if it's only for the night.
    [ ] Tell Megumi, or have Kikuko tell Megumi, that you're both staying over for the night, er, on a class assignment.
    [ ] Have you both stay at Kikuko's place.
    [ ] Both stay over at your parents' place, since your flat isn't that roomy. it'd be quite the walk at this hour though.
    [x] Just stay in each other's suites, that's what they're there for, with you presumable staying in Himawari's suite.
    [ ] Write-in.
    "Aces have their own personal dorms, right? Couldn't we just sleep in them, isn't that what they're there for?" you asked her.

    "A Jack unattended overnight in an Aces' private room?" Kikuko rasped out, but conceded "Well, I will at least give you that it's probably the option least likely to cause confusion. I will loan you out my school uniform, but you are not laying a hand on any of my other clothes".

    I technically already am, you thought, looking at Kikuko in your body, and you had to admit, wearing your clothes while in Kikuko's body had been an... odd fit.
    You did realise that Kikuko in your body would now be seeing you naked, the second friggin' All-Ace to do so (...assuming Gakuto hadn't created some deepfake of you), though she at least seemed like the type of girl wouldn't try to take, er, 'advantage' of you. From what you knew.

    "Wait, the crew's here till Thursday. You've done your interview, right?" you had to ask her.

    Kikuko was silent at first, then told you "Azuma and I are scheduled for tomorrow, Melissa and Himawari for Thursday. At least Azuma will be up first".

    You could've collapsed. "Okay then, let's just hope we revert back quick. By the way, um, what's your opinion of Azuma?" you went on to ask.

    "...Odd time to bring that up. Azuma has... been no less than a professional around me, and I certainly commend his appreciation for the arts and good breeding. I have no idea what he sees in Shakespeare though" Kikuko ended up answering.

    "It's just that, well, Azuma has really been trying to put the moves on me, er, since we were first introduced, really," you told her, "Including that entire Golden Week trip. So, er, could you please not humour him?"

    "I have no real romantic interest in him, though I suppose marriage between our lineages could be beneficial. Yet, he is a potential enemy on the Gameboard, so attraction would be... undesirable," she summarised, but then asked you to your dismay, "However, I don't really see why you'd have a problem with him though. He is rich, talented, successful, classically attractive, and more than your superior, so why your hesitation?"

    You buried your heads in your hands, before letting out "Let's just say I'm really turned on by guys who can actually respect boundaries". Also, you know, 'love' might have something to do with it, you thought.
    You did have to feel a little sorry for Kikuko, as hard as she otherwise made it, since your mind naturally turned to the 'marrying an old guy for the money' that was no stranger to Melissa either, though the Ace of Coins at least appeared to be putting a modern spin on it.

    "I see," was all Kikuko said at first, before she moved on to "Anyway, I expect you to keep up my morning routine, which involves a cup of green tea before a training session in calligraphy and kendo, followed by keisaku meditation, you can ask Tsubasa to administer the rod for you, and finally the sprinkling of river water to purify my surroundings".

    Wait, isn't all this for the mind? Shouldn't you still be doing this? you thought, but Kikuko's glare left you not wanting to voice that question. "Okay then, a little austere, but doable," you said at first, before it occurred to you "Wait, Keisaku? Isn't that where you get hit with a stick?"

    "It is essential for awakening the mind and reinvigorating the nerves," Kikuko bluntly explained, "Well, Jack of Hearts, goodnight for now", she then headed into her private room.

    You... certainly gained some insight into Kikuko, far more than you expected when you invited her here, hours ago now. And, being Kikuko, far more insight than you probably wanted.

    - The Empress has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    You still had hope that whatever effect the Gameboard had on you would wear off by morning. After all, how long could its effects last outside of it?

    * * *

    ...Nope, you were still in Kikuko's body, you learned as your eyes fluttered open in the morning sun.

    You had this bizarre dream in it too, where you were a guest aboard a turn-of-the-century ocean liner. You were engaged to Gakuto, all people, but Azuma kept showing up to your cabin to steal you away, with the two of you dancing in the ballroom for what felt like forever. Thing was, people in the dream kept calling you Kikuko the whole time, who you certainly looked like in the mirror. Really you were just in desperate need of an iceberg.

    Himawari looked cute singing old numbers while dressed in vintage clothes... until Melissa came in and launched into a rap breakdown you think.

    "What are you doing in my bed?!" Himawari's voice then shrieked out at you, snapping you right back to reality.

    "Damn, have I overslept?" you mumbled as you struggled to get out.

    "Oh, er, s-s-sorry Kikuko, forgive me, I didn't register it was you," Himawari then bowed, though asked "Although, er, why are you in Honoka's bedclothes?"

    You breathed deep as you tried to explain to your Jack what all this was, "Himawari, it's me, Honoka. Kikuko and I snuck into Gakuto's Empire last night, where we, er, messed around with a teleporter which ended up switching our minds".

    "Oh, okay then," she murmured, but had to admit, "Sorry, I know it's you, Honoka, but... it's just weird to associate Kikuko's image with you, I still need to wrap my head around it".
    She then unlocked a drawer to pull out, er, what looked like a packet of cigarettes, placed alongside a marijuana bag and, er, other substances.
    "Ah, you don't mind, do you? It's just that, along with lowering my voice for certain songs, they can be a really good stress relief," she stated the obvious to you.

    "Er, yeah sure, I'm not your Mum, I figure. Just that I have to get showered and changed first," you told her.

    You knew there was a shower in the lounge, though er, showering in another person's body was never not going to be awkward, much less the body of someone who had you beat up in kendo club early on. You did have to briefly stare down at Kikuko's body just to wash, where you did notice that... she was surprisingly well-muscled, despite you always having pictured her as porcelain slender. This was no real surprise given that she was a trained swordfighter, and it reminded you that, once you got back to your own body, you needed to start working on your abs too.
    That did make you wonder if muscular girls were a turn-off or something to Gakuto, though granted his issues with Kikuko likely ran deeper.

    Once you were all dressed and drying your- Kikuko's hair, seeing her hair wet being odd to you since it was usually so well-groomed, you then exited back into the main lounge, only to find Gakuto staring in horror at the destruction left last night on his door.

    As you approached, he then around and said, "Er, ahem, Kikuko, hello there! I, ahem, I suppose you were trying to send... something of a message then?"

    Your instinct was just to clear his confusion, with the terrifying thought that Gakuto was probably the only one who could put you back in your correct body. But then you thought, if he still thought you were Kikuko... why not take advantage of this?

    "A warning. I know about Koyomi, Gakuto, and I do not even want to think for a second about what you're doing to her" you hissed in your best Kikuko impression, aided by you actually having her voice on hand, "Or to any other woman here, like that Mamiko".

    "Erm, point taken," Gakuto gulped, but had to ask, "It's not like you though to care about someone like Mamiko, I mean, I'm surprised you even know her name. And just how did you find about my Koyomi? Oh wait, you did break into my room".

    You were silent a little, but then said, "There has been rumours around school of a ghost in the computers, and I felt it smelt of you".
    Gakuto didn't say anything back but did have to nod in acknowledgment.

    "By the way, Gakuto," you then asked, trying to test a theory, "What are your opinions on muscular women?"

    Gakuto flinched, then coughed and said, "Odd question, this early in the day. But honestly, they're hardly women, really," he smirked and told you, "A game franchise adding one to their character line-up is typically a sign that series is going downhill".

    You then got another idea. "Really, because I've had training sessions with Melissa, and though she tries to hide it, she is rather well-built. Must come from being into wrestling," you said.

    "Hmm, why thank you, that'll certainly be fresh material for the blog," Gakuto told you, as you facepalmed.

    Oh God, I only said that to keep Gakuto from harassing Melissa, I should've known he'd try to blackmail her with it, that though seethed through you.
    Still, it was something by now, how naturally Kikuko's iciness came to you around Gakuto.

    * * *

    "Sakurazuka Azuma, Ace of Spades, son of the famous Sakurazuka Munehiro and Rurina," Azuma started his interview off with.
    "Is it strenuous being one of the five most popular students here? Honestly, not as much as you'd think, being an actor, I almost feel this is a role I've been rehearsing my whole life, knowingly or not.
    I am forced to admit though, relationships between Aces... are often complicated. We're at the top of towers compared to the other students, yet our metaphorical towers are still quite the distance away. I don't think one can ever fully see into another's heart, and even if they could, they'd be very disappointed by what they found there".

    * * *

    Moving on from... that, you at least tried to complete Kikuko's requested morning routine, if only out of courtesy. When it come to the, er, keisaku meditation, you met up with Tsubasa in Kikuko's private room to begin, Kikuko in your body having arisen far earlier, at the first sign of the morning sun.

    Ow! Ow! Owowowow! you could only think with each strike of the cane to your shoulders. Well, the meditation was partly doing its job, as your mind was certainly on little else right now, but...
    You tried keisaku meditation before, if only out of curiousity, and you didn't remember the monks hitting this hard.

    At least it was against a pretty backdrop, with Kikuko's otherwise Spartan furnishings, some tatami mats, a futon, sword holsters, and some cupboards, livened up by a delicately painted nature scene along her far wall. You figured though that Kikuko would normally meditate on top of a log ledged above a waterfall pond or something.

    Once you were done, you then asked your maid, "...Is there something wrong, Tsubasa? I sense you're more... agitated than usual?"

    "W-what? Oh no, Mistress Kikuko, I'm perfectly fine!" she stressed, adding, "Um, you said you preferred it when I was rougher on you, strengthens the senses more you said".

    Oh wow Kikuko, you could've told me that first, you thought. Still worried for Tsubasa, especially with how Kikuko had been treating her, you said, "Look, Tsubasa, why don't you take the rest of the day off? You have been working, ah, quite hard, so you more than deserve it".

    Tsubasa's eyes widened, as she stumbled to say, "Th-th-thank you, Mistress! And um, also, thank you for calling me 'Tsubasa', it's... nice to hear, even if it's not my real name-oh, I'm sorry, I should not have brought that up".

    Huh? Oh yeah, Kikuko normally just calls her 'Yomogi', you recalled. You then had to ask, now that you had the opportunity, "Remind me of this 'real name' of yours?"

    Tsubasa then almost froze, before she said, "Well, you did change it for me, but I 'spose you'd like to know if it's all dried up in my head," she said, but then after some remembering said, "Nope, truthfully I still recall it, Seol Na-rae. Oops, er, sorry for bringing it up again Mistress".

    B-but I asked her to bring it up, you thought, What the hell has Kikuko been doing with her?

    Looking up at the clock, you saw that it was almost exactly time for class. "Sorry, Tsubasa, gotta go," you said, characteristically for yourself but uncharacteristically for Kikuko.

    You knew enough about the All-Aces to know that Kikuko and Melissa were both in Class 3-B, Azuma and Himawari being in 3-A, while Gakuto and formerly Eitaro were in 3-C. You then got the awful image of what Kikuko could do to your class, or how she'd been treating Megumi.

    The 3-B classroom, which you just realised you'd never been in, didn't look too much different from your own, save the wallpaper being burgundy instead of dull blue-green and the thicker textbooks. You rushed over to the seat right by Melissa, who promptly glared at you and said, "Ahem, what the Hell Kikuko, not your seat, remember?"

    You flinched, before you gulped and apologised, "Forgive me Melissa, I... was up quite late last night, so I still don't feel entirely there".
    Wait, why am I apologising to Melissa? you then thought. Being in the body of an All-Ace, couldn't you say whatever shit to Melissa you felt like? Then again, being dainty and demure did fit Kikuko's public image, and once you got your bodies back, Melissa would likely not let this slight against her ride. Maybe I should've waited in the Lounge with Kikuko, so we could've made Gakuto settle this whole thing?

    "Actually Kikuko, could you come up here for a second?" the white-suited, greyish-brown-haired fortysomething Mr. Fukazawa, who you recognised as the Japanese teacher and now Kikuko and Melissa's Homeroom Teacher, asked you. "What with the stress of being interviewed and mid-terms coming up for us all, I was wondering if, as Class Rep and Ace, you wouldn't mind making a little speech to your fellow students?"

    You clenched your teeth upon being asked, though Kikuko being a Class Rep should've been no surprise to you. Finally though, wishing to appear normal you said, "Of course" and stood behind the desk.

    ...What to talk about though, especially to a room of people you mostly didn't know? You guessed bullying was a vital topic that this school in particular should address, but you also should say something about studying what with mid-terms coming up. Or maybe not picking fights, that was something relevant to you, and popularity was certainly a topic that'd been weighing on you.
    Of course, these were all third-years, so they probably had university tests and stuff like that coming up, and you had to do this all without making them suspicious of just what 'Kikuko' was saying.

  5. #25
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXV. Slashed Friendships

    "My fellow Hanataba students, I can understand why the current times might be stressful, but I want you to know that I have faith in every single one of you. While it undoubtedly takes hard work, I'm certain that you have the potential to live up to the standards of our prestigious school, so be proud of yourself and your efforts. You deserve to hold your head high, whether you’re facing your studies, a camera, or anyone trying to tell you otherwise."
    After talking to Class 3-B's students about their pride, believing in them, and effort in the face of ordeals, they began a slow clap for your speech, if being in a senior class they were more restrained about it than they might've been in younger years.

    You internally sighed with relief and sat back down, with Tsubasa, er Na-rae, though you felt you should wait until she called you that in person for you to also address her so, saying to you, "T-that was quite eloquent, Mistress. You did admit to me that public speaking was never quite one of your strengths, that you said more with actions and suchlike".

    You didn't quite how to respond to that, but you managed with, "I guess I just need to find the right words".

    The rest of class was, um, not good, you'd spoken Japanese your whole life, but this was some seriously advanced stuff. You had to wonder how many of these kanji would even be used in regular writing these days, where was some hiragana when you needed it?
    Jesus fuck, is this what preparation for college is like? you thought to yourself. This workload almost made you feel sorry for the All-Aces... until Tsubasa reminded you of how they cheated their way around it.

    "Um, Mistress, if you're having trouble, I could always carry the workload for you," Tsubasa whispered over to you, bowing her head.

    Biting your lip, you said, "Tsubasa, I couldn't force that on you. This is my assignment, my responsibility", figuring that would be a sufficiently Kikuko-like answer while also letting Tsubasa relax a little.

    Tsubasa stared down for a second, before softly replying, "Ah, thank you kindly Mistress. Although, er, this is quite the change from the usual duties you give to me, b-but I'm most grateful regardless".

    You were sadly, if predictably, starting to learn that when it came to impersonating an All-Ace, it seemed the cruellest and pettiest thing to say was always the correct one.
    You just wanted to use Kikuko's voice to tell Tsubasa, 'Look, you don't have to call me Mistress, it's okay. We've known each other long enough that just Kikuko is fine'... but you knew that if you did, then the real Kikuko would then treat Tsubasa even wore for it.

    Upon class finally finishing, you admittedly having spent more time staring at your work than actually answering it, Melissa was first to approach you as you tried heading out to the corridor.

    "Aw, aren't you so sweet? Gawd, drop the delicate doll act, Kikuko, anyone who's not some dick-brained male can see right through it," she hissed at you.

    You stepped back, but then realised this was your chance. You could finally unload every nasty little thought you'd ever had on Melissa right here, and she'd have no idea it was you.
    "As opposed to what, you spending all day being the bitchiest Barbie doll ever? Besides, I put actual effort into more than just looking pretty, I give a shit about my studies and oh yeah," you then threw off your shirt to display Kikuko's honed abs right in Melissa's face, "My combat prowess. Yeah, I don't just get some lackey to do everything for me, including petty shit like plunging a hall monitor I don't like into oblivion".

    Melissa however just started laughing at you. "My Kikuko, you actually can swear, you're not just some perfect proper lady all the time, aren't you? Also, hall monitor, what hall monitor?" she suddenly paused, trying to remember, "Oh yeah, that guy at the start of the year, him. Puh-lease Kikuko, don't act like you're somehow above taking out students for the most minor of reasons".

    Her sheer dismissal of Daizen getting to you, you lost control and screamed out, lunging straight at Melissa. Turns out, in the heat of your rage you'd completely underestimated Melissa's own strength, as she swiftly and tightly grappled onto you and tried to ram you against a wall.

    Fortunately, being in Kikuko's body meant you actually had some power to fight back, as you kicked up at Melissa to break out of her hold, then punched her in the stomach the moment you got your right arm free. You then tried throwing an uppercut at her jaw, but she ducked and headbutted you in the chest area, and as you were sent stumbling back, she then dove and sunk her teeth right into one of your pantyhose-clad legs.

    Enduring the piercing pain, you then tried to get your hands down on top of her shoulders, pushing her down to the floor. You took this chance to hop back into the classroom and pick up a table, both as a shield and to possibly club her with. However, once Melissa was back up, she responded by grabbing a fire extinguisher off the wall to throw right over at you... only for your fight to then be broken up by a voice.

    "Aces of Coins and Swords, please, contain yourselves," Azuma said as he approached you. As you and Melissa slowly walked back out to the corridor, you could see what felt like the entire school staring at the two of you... including the camera crews.
    Azuma then had to walk up to and say right in your ear, "Well, Honoka, I can see you're certainly using your time in Kikuko's body to the fullest," he chuckled.

    You flinched, before stuttering out "Um, b-but how did you know?" At least Azuma knowing might help resolve this whole thing quicker.

    "Simple. I could instantly tell something was up when I approached Kikuko in your body this morning. Before even speaking to her, I could tell her mannerisms were most unlike your natural ones, having more than enough experience with people who just can't seem to grasp the character they're playing," he gave a slight grin, ushering you and Melissa back into the empty classroom for some privacy. "Kikuko soon explained that mishap with one of Gakuto's mechanisms.
    Though I must say," Azuma went on, the expression on his face making you really not like where he was about to go, "While we did have Melissa improve your appearance, with your personality in Kikuko's body, you may well be the perfect princess, fit for romance. It is almost a shame that we'll, of course, have to switch you two back".

    No, God! No God, please no! No! Noooo! was the only thought in your head after, eurgh, was Azuma just said. Having removed your shirt for... whatever reason wasn't helping.

    "W-wait, what? Um, having a bit of trouble following whatever the Hell we're talking about right now, you guys," Melissa said, finger to her lip.

    "Er, you've seen Topsy-Turvy Tuesday, right?" you tried to clear things for her.

    "Oh yeah, with that Disney actress who never went anywhere. Yep, watched that as a kid!" Melissa said with a smirk.

    "Hmm, I believe that was the remake," Azuma felt the need to bring up, sidetracking this whole thing.

    "Look, point is, Kikuko and I are stuck in each other's bodies, and it's due to something on the Gameboard," you spat out all at once.

    "My my, Honoka, so it was you who said all that shit about me. Ah, knew it!" Melissa smiled as she crossed her arms, "You always were a little sneak, weren't you? Hope you're grateful for your Persona, 'cause otherwise I would've brought my boot on your Shadow long ago. And by boot, I mean chainsaw.
    Not that Kikuko's off the hook for this, I can tell she's always been jealous of me, so I bet she has some real shit she's been just dying to say," Melissa grinned like a wolf about to eat.

    "Melissa, I urge you, whatever your issue with Kikuko is, please refrain from taking it out on Honoka," Azuma at least tried to stand up for you, you guessed he needed to fill his quota on the loverboy act, especially after... what he'd previously said.

    All this talk about Kikuko reminded you, while you were up here, she'd be interacting with Keiko, Yuya, and Tanizawa-sensei downstairs.
    "Hey, sorry, there's something I really have to check up on, gotta go!" you said, racing downstairs.

    Outside Class 2-C, you saw nearly the worst thing imaginable as Suzako burst out at Kikuko in your body, "...The Hell, Honoka? I thought we were finally friends again and all, but apparently your little headache makes you think you can treat me like dirt". She then glared right at Kikuko-as-you in your, ah, er face and continued, "You being so hoity-toity all of a sudden, I'm starting to think Melissa's really rubbed off on you".

    "You insolent brat!" Kikuko roared out at Suzako as she struck her across her face, being in your body meaning she didn't have her reputation to worry about, "You want to know why the All-Aces haven't accepted you? It's because you are utterly incapable of showing respect to your superiors. A little social climber like you would've been executed for your insolence centuries back!"
    She stormed off, leaving Suzako there to break down into tears. Kikuko then shot one look at you and coldly snarled, "...And where is my shirt?"

    Oh right, that, you then covered your, technically her, chest in bright red embarrassment. "Uh, yeah, stuff happened. Like I got into a fight with Melissa, before Azuma intervened," you told her.

    Kikuko's gaze went from livid to a softer amusement, as she inquired, "Really? My, and how much damage did you deal to her in the meantime?"

    "Well, I almost hit her over the head with a desk," you gulped.

    It was then Tanizawa-sensei came up to you and interrupted with, "Ah Kikuko, my apologies, but I really need to talk with Honoka. Er, some issues aside," she glanced back at Suzako, "She's remarkably stepped up her game as Class Rep this morning, I felt the need to congratulate her".

    You froze, before managing to say, "Yeah sure, you do that". Ryouko and Kikuko talking, you then rushed over to Suzako. True, you were still in Kikuko's body and had no idea how to tell her it was you and that 'Honoka' was her... but you didn't care, Suzako just desperately needed some cheering up.

    "Er, hello there Kei-Suzako, Suzakuin Suzako," you began with as you knelt down to her, trying to at least pass yourself off as Kikuko a little, "Look, whatever's been said about you, please don't take it to heart. You're a good person, and... I'm sure Honoka's just collapsing from the pressure, that absolutely cannot be how she feels about you!"

    Suzako then dried her eyes, looked at you and said, "...T-thank you, and I- I think I misjudged you, Kikuko. I always thought you were distant and aloft, so impossibly 'perfect', but... that was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you!" she then leaned over and hugged you.
    You were happy to see her happy but, oh sheesh, you did not need to see Suzako fawning over Kikuko like she did with Azuma.

    You then stood up and turned to look at Yuya, who was standing there watching all this in the doorway, not knowing how to act.
    "Er, did Hono- the Jack of Hearts say anything to you, Yuya- er, Itou Yuuya, I believe your name is?" you tried speaking with him.

    "What? Oh no, my friend Honoka's barely acted like I'm even at school today," Yuya sighed, before recalling "Her latest text did make it sound like she was going through a lot, so I hope it's just that".

    "I am certain it is," you told him. It was then it sunk in for you, you were in the body of the one of the most fawned-after girls in school, and you (still) didn't have your shirt on. Yeah, you knew it wasn't your body, but still, you couldn't get the mind of the thought that Yuya could finally see you as more than just a friend.

    You didn't say anything more right now, but just leaned on the doorframe and tried batting your eyelashes at Yuya, who... promptly backed off, a weirded-out look on his face.
    God, I'm an idiot, you just thought, as you backed off yourself, I suppose this is what I get for trying to flirt using a body that isn't mine. Sorry, Kikuko.
    You did remember Suzako checking out you in Kikuko's body just then however, though maybe she was just admiring?

    Ugh, this whole body-switch needed to end, and fast. You previously couldn't imagine thinking this, but where the hell was Gakuto?

    * * *

    Back in the clubroom, Kikuko's shirt firmly back on you now, Gakuto exploded into laughter once Azuma explained the situation to him.
    "Ingenious! I never even knew those teleporters had that capability," he gave a toothy grin, before he said, "Although I do suppose, now that we all know this, the strategy to switching ourselves to fool each other is sadly out of the window. Shame, though I suppose we shall pay the price for this knowledge with paranoia".

    "Hey, Gakuto," Melissa had to speak up, "You're not gonna post pics on your blog or whatever of that fight in the corridor, right?"

    Great, just hand the idea right to him, why don't you Melissa? you facepalmed.

    "I may not even need to," Gakuto then said, "Your scuffle was caught on camera, wasn't it? I know if I were in charge of an NHK documentary about school life, I'd absolutely have to include footage of a fight between two of the most elite students. The ratings would explode!"

    "...Just get us back to normal," Kikuko hissed.

    Having to head down onto the Gameboard, you decided to stop first in the Velvet Room to see if they might know anything about minds in the wrong bodies. After all, they were the cognitive authorities, weren't they?

    "What the- Kikuko?!" Lauryn immediately gasped. "Er, I mean, oh this'll be hard to explain-"

    "I think not," Igor said with a smile, "I can tell this is our regular guest, the same Regalia wouldn't have manifested on her if otherwise. She just appears to, ahem, be going through some irregularities, that is all".

    "…Oh," was all Lauryn said at first, but she then added, "I see. It's a little starting, but I suppose the Gameboard is more than capable of this sort of thing".

    "Too right it is, Miss Lauryn," Popo piped up, before he looked at you and had to blink, "Quite the mess this is then, Miss Kikuko- er, real sorry, Miss 'Onoka, confusing thing and all".

    "It would be well within our capabilities to fix this, but as your 'Ace of Swords' as it were, is not a formally invited Guest here, I'm afraid we cannot offer our help at this time. Of course, Fusion and the Compendium are always on the table".

    "Right that is, Miss 'Onoka. Got two brand new Personae for ya for your efforts on the Gameboard," Popo said.

    And more fidgeting around over my Persona capacity, you thought.
    "Hey Popo, last time we met you said the Gameboard's Overseer was called The Morrigan, right?" you then asked him, "It's just that I was wondering if it'd be possible for you to get us in contact with her, that's all. I've got... well, stuff to discuss with her".

    Popo hesitated a second, but asked "'Us'? You mean, you and the All-Aces?" He shook his head, "No can do on that front, Miss 'Onoka, don't think the Missus will be seeing that many folks at once.
    But, arranging a one-on-one meeting between her and you should be possible, though I can't make any promises 'bout how soon it'll be, Miss," he was able to say.

    You were able to relax a little. "Good, because oh boy, your Gameboard's been giving me nothing but grief this whole year. Er, no offence Popo," you tried to add.

    "Is, is it okay if I ask just what you plan to discuss with her?" Popo then flinched a bit.

    You breathed out slowly. You couldn't admit, you felt the need to just confront the Morrigan in general, that you hadn't really nailed down any one specific thing.
    "Ah, y'know, things like... why is the Gameboard seemingly rigged for Empires to fight each other if we're not supposed to Duel? Why didn't I get an Empire once I got popular at school? How the Hell did I get a Persona in the first place, let alone this weird Wild Card thing?" you went on.

    "Oh, I can answer that last one for ya, Miss," Popo spoke up, "Morrigan instructed me specifically to give the Mirror Wild card to you, said your personality was perfected suited to it. Right, 'suit', no pun intended, Miss. Er, she was pretty vague about why, but she's curious about whether it's possible to 'win' the Persona Game without an Empire, figured things were otherwise going too normally. Can't say much more meself, sorry Miss".

    You just took all that in. Lauryn, on the other hand, had to speak up about this, "Oh what, was my death apparently too 'normal' for her?" before she restrained herself.

    Waiting for Lauryn's sudden outburst to subside, Popo then turned to you and whispered, "To be honest, Miss 'Onoka, I'm glad the Wild Card went to you. The All-Aces are 'ardly the first people to be given Personae, and from what I'd heard through the Sea of Souls, I thought your average Persona-user was quite the top sort, or at least perfectly decent". He then sighed, "Shows what a dunderhead I am, you're the only Persona-user I've meant who comes close to that description, oh, and Rin and Himawari of course," he added quickly, "Ah, also no disrespect meant to Azuma and the others, I'm just running me mouth".

    You had to ask, "Other Persona-users? W-what were they like?"

    "Oh, all sorts, usually pretty young though. Heard about Robin Hood types, amateur detectives, monster hunters, childhood friends, some older sorts, and the most average of teens, but each of 'em gave it their all," Popo listed off.

    "Huh, sounds like I drew the short straw," you muttered.

    "Well, think you humans have a saying, don'tcha? All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us... something along those lines, not sure if I got that quite right," he tried to reassure you.

    "Hmm, that is about correct," Igor told him.

    For all that had just gone wrong in less than a whole day, at least one of your connections still stayed strong.

    - The Tower has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    The moment you did get back in your own body, the first thing you were going to do was:

    [ ] Check up on Tsubasa.
    [x] Make up with Suzako.
    [ ] Get things back to normal with Yuya.
    [ ] Rehearse with Nightshade.
    [ ] Attend Drama Club, you need to keep an eye on Azuma.
    [ ] Get any more info you can on Gakuto on campus.
    [ ] See what was happening with Ryouko.
    [ ] Catch up with Hotaru at the gaming store.
    [ ] See what this thing about modelling was, sounded Melissa-ish.
    [ ] Keep venturing around the Gameboard.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Wait Popo, you said you gave me the Wild Card, right?" you then asked, "Um, no offence, but I think I would've remembered a flying pony giving me something like that".

    "Ah, I was flying o'erhead at the time, Miss 'Onoka. 'Twas new Years' Day it was, believe you and your friends were at a shrine when I delivered the card to you from above," Popo answered.

    "Oh yeah, I was giving thanks to the gods there when, ah, my vision fogged up and I felt light-headed," you recalled, "At the time I thought the cold was just getting to me.
    ...Hold on, why couldn't you just have given me the Card directly?" you followed up, eyebrows twitching.

    Popo gulped, "Blimey. You see Miss, I didn't 'ave a clue how to explain Personae and the gameboard and everything so casually to you, especially when you were out with friends. Was worried then that if you saw a pegasus like me show up outta nowhere you would've collapsed, right," he gradually said.
    "Cor, that reminds me, I've been keeping you waiting with the Personae, haven't I?" he then said, as he then summoned up the scattered shogi pieces to form...

    I am Fortune Skuld, reaper of tomorrow," said the cybernetic norn-valkyrie, "Your future awaits
    Skuld - Fortune X

    Elements: Null Nuclear, resist Gun, Bless, and Electric, weak to Ice and Fire
    - Strength: ||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Freila, Fatal End, Hamaon, Zionga
    Arcana Bonus: Analyse

    I Hermit Franken, science monster," moaned the lumbering cadaver hybrid, "Will you be Friend?Franken - Hermit IX

    Elements: Absorb Electric, resist Physical, Psy, and Curse, weak to Ice and Fire
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: |
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: ||||
    Skills: Zionga, Mudoon, Evil Touch, Foul Breath

    I am Empress Tsuruhime, the shrine samurai," you were greeted with the mirror of Kikuko's Persona, "As war ravages the land, my flames shall scorch the seas!Tsuruhime - Inverse Empress III

    Elements: Resists Fire, weak to Electric
    - Strength: |||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: ||
    Skills: Agilao, Heat Wave, Triple Down, Rakunda
    Arcana Bonus: Power Charge

    "You've exceeded your capacity of ten," Igor told you, "Would you like to fuse, or store one of your Personae?"

    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Rebirth Arsene = Chariot+4 Nike (Physical and Electric)
    [ ] Tower PITT + Rebirth Arsene = Death+1 Vanth (Curse and Fire)
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Tower PITT/Chernobog = Empress+2 Birrangulu (Ice and Bless)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Tower PITT = Magician+5 Orlando (Physical and Almighty)
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Justice Simurgh = Star+3 Nommo (Ice and Almighty)
    [ ] Justice Simurgh + Hanged Man Benkei = Lovers+2 Uenuku (Physical and Wind)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Justice Simurgh = Fool+5 Black Cat (Physical and Curse)
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Moon Camazotz = Justice+4 Sherlock (Psy and Fire)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Moon Camazotz = Chariot+4 Guan Yu (Physical and Ice)
    [ ] Justice Simurgh + Moon Camazotz = Devil+3 Rasputin (Curse and Ice)
    [ ] Hanged Man Benkei + Fool Theodora = Tower+5 Kullervo (Physical and Electric)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Hanged Man Benkei = Fortune+2 Hideyoshi (Physical and Gun)
    [ ] Store (write-in Persona)
    [ ] Go ahead with eleven Personae, and run the risk of them disobeying you (Theodora won't disobey, obedience based on luck Stat)
    [X] Write-in: Fool Theodora + Moon Camazotz = Justice+4 Sherlock (Psy and Fire) inherit Dekunda from Camazotz, swap out Hanged Man Benkei for Fool Theodora and Empress Tsuruhime for Moon Camazotz

    "I would be Justice Sherlock, here to dispel of fog of mystery," said what looked like a cloud of smoke in front of a Victorian-dressed man holding a pointed cane, "Hmm, I can tell you got yourself into a body-switching conundrum earlier on".Elements: Absorbs Psy, resists Curse, weak to Ice
    - Strength: |||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Analyse, Psio, Foul Breath, Makajam
    Inherit: Dekunda
    Arcana Bonus: Hellfire, Dekaja

    * * *

    Having reached the teleporter back in Gakuto's Empire, you braced yourself as you heard Gakuto overhead stating "Alright, I suppose fair's fair, and if I killed you in Kikuko's body on Friday, Honoka, the Maeda family would never let me hear the end of it". You just winced hearing those words, while Kikuko at least had to let out a slight sneer.

    But, true to his word, having using Octavian to fiddle around with the mechanisms of this teleporter through some connection, there was a flash and, while maybe not as instant as you'd have liked, Kikuko and you were finally back in the correct bodies.

    "Oh, thank friggin' Heaven!" you exclaimed, almost about to collapse with joy.

    "And not a moment too soon," Kikuko rasped, "Being an ignoble body made me simply feel unclean".

    "Wow. In that case, how would you react if switched with Tsubasa?" you asked her with a smirk. Kikuko chose not to dignify that with a reply.

    Heading back to the physical world again, you quickly saw why Gakuto didn't attempt anything funny with you, since he had both Azuma and Himawari with their gazes fixed on him, watching his every move.
    Wait, Azuma maybe, but Himawari's not that intimida- Oh, you just realised Himawari was now in full Nightshade get-up in the Lounge. You guessed that made sense, the regular Himawari was not exactly one to strike fear, and her secret was out at least among the All-Aces now.

    "Good, you did as you said. Now computer boy, scurry along before I make you," Nightshade hissed, bearing her nails.

    "Alright, sheesh, some thanks I get," Gakuto muttered.

    "Impressive to think a skank like you can order us around," Melissa then glared at Nightshade, sighing and folding her arms, "Seriously, 'Nightshade', what kind of edgy, adolescent 'I listen to Evanescence and hate my Mom' name is that? Face it, Himawari, no matter how tough you try to act, you're still a total wimp".

    Nightshade seethed, slowly walking towards her, "Say that again, you preppy bitch! You still think you can treat me like dirt when I'm an All-Ace? Well your luck's run out, 'cause now that I can finally be me, I'm not taking one more word from you-"

    At that exact moment, the camera crew knocked on the door, Himawari hiding her Nightshade wig before anyone could see it.

    "Now that your little spat is over, I suppose I'm the one they'll be wanting to interview," Kikuko said, brushing past both Himawari and Melissa.

    Before you left yourself though, you did want to have one last word with, surprisingly, Gakuto, as it concerned Kikuko.

    "Gakuto, you're always looking for info, right?" you began with, pulling him to the side.

    "Indeed, but I believe you've missed your deadline to start playing information broker with me," Gakuto hissed.

    "Listen, it's important. It's about Kikuko, or rather her maid, Tsubasa," you told him, a little hesitant to delve deeper, "What Kikuko doesn't want people knowing is that Tsubasa's not her Jack's real name, it's Na-rae. Tsubasa's Korean," you tried launching your retaliation against Kikuko, though only now stopped to think about Na-rae getting caught in the crossfire.

    "Is that all?" Gakuto sighed, adjusting his glasses, "You honestly expect me to care about a poor little Korean girl? I was personally hoping for more info on their little keisaku hobby, dirt on Kikuko being a secret submissive would be far more attention-grabbing".

    This wasn't the reaction you expected, although you were as disgusted by Gakuto as ever. Still, you had one other thing to ask, "You started taking about the Turing Test the other day, and..." Considering what I've seen in your Empire, "I take it Koyomi's not the first AI you've tried making".

    "Oh no, far from it," Gakuto began, as his expression seemed to loosen, "But she's given me the least headaches by far. All of my prior attempts at creating an A.I. woman ended in failure, they got too, how do I put this? 'Pandora-esque'. They couldn't simply do as their programming told them, so I had no choice but to pull their plugs".

    Wonder why they all turned on you? you thought mockingly, knowing the answer full well. It also struck you that, what any other computer scientist would consider a breakthrough, if not a revolution, Gakuto saw as a failure.

    "Charming as always. Well, gotta get going, I have to apologise to a bunch of people for a bunch of things I didn't even do. Later," you said, taking off.

  6. #26
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    May 2012
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    XXVI. All-Out War

    I am truly thankful to be representing my school to our nation," Kikuko bowed on camera, "If schools were gardens, Hanataba would grow no less than the finest, most captivating flowers.
    From the feudal age to now, my family's spirit and values have remained ever constant, and I strive every waking moment to be a dutiful daughter. Hanataba was chosen for my education, despite its distance from my family's territory, for being the school most in line with these enduring Maeda values. Being an All-Ace is much like being a Maeda, a reminder that you are truly exceptional, with the blood of nobility in your veins.
    If I had to raise one concern with Hanataba, it may be that their once rigorous standards for admission have become... perhaps too lax".

    * * *

    "Suzako!" you shouted at the top of your lungs, running at full speed towards your friend, once you found her sitting alone at a park.

    "Oh, what is it you want?" she snarled at you, trying and failing to hold back the tears that stained her eyes. "Thought I wasn't aristocratic enough to be one of your friends now?"
    She then stood up and stomped right over to you, "Every time you tried complementing me on my makeover, or humouring my waitress job, were you laughing behind my back the whole time?!"

    You froze, cursing Kikuko with every second, before you finally told her, "Suzako, I'm... I'm an idiot! I shouldn't have said any of those things to you, I... have no idea what I was thinking", you slumped to your knees.

    Suzako's gaze didn't soften, as she said, "Yeah, well, you should be! You..." she then stopped halfway, before changing her tone, "You're either putting on quite the act, even though I've never heard of you taking acting classes, or- or you really mean it".
    She looked at you, you slumped over in an utter mess. Suzako then knelt down and tried extending her hand to you, "Hey, um, you okay? I... don't think I've seen you this distraught, and I've known you nearly my whole life. Please, don't cry, y-you're about to make me cry again too".

    Taking her hand and slowly standing up again, you stepped forward and hugged Suzako tight. "I... is there anything I can do to make things up with you?" you stuttered out.

    "Hmm, well..." Suzako began, before settling on, "You could come to my first cosplay photoshoot! I mean, it's a minor booth and outfit shop, but I've found some cool outfits there!" she smiled.

    "Uh, sure," you said, the tension slowly fading out, "Sounds great. Though hey, um, have you been writing any more poems or fanfic or whatever? I mean, you've been doing a whole bunch of stuff these days, like you said once you were even doing streams and stuff".

    "Well, having a bunch of other hobbies can help with inspiration," she said, shrugging. "Gotta admit, most of my writings were seriously embarrassing, so y'know, though I might put those on the back-burner a little while".

    <<BGM: Kamen Rider Gaim - Teppen Star (Dance Mix)>>

    Arriving later at Hanataba's only cosplay store, Suzako asked you to act as her camerawoman with your phone, while she posed energetically and at times dramatically in a variety of character outfits, a couple you didn't even recognise. There was at least one magical girl, a character from a fighting game, a gothic dress you'd expect from Colette, what looked like some cyberpunk jumpsuit, a vampire gown, and the costume of some fictional idol.

    "Okay, Honoka, now it's your turn!" she beamed, as she took out her phone and escorted you to the changing rooms.

    "Ah, er," you began mumbling, not remembering this as part of the deal, "Alright then, let's keep the good times going," as you decided to try on:

    [ ] A basic school uniform, but from a quite famous anime. You had no idea which real-life school would have a pink uniform after all.
    [x] What looked like a miko outfit, though with a larger, redder hair bow and fancier stick than most would have.
    [x] What looked like some puffy, Victorian dress, but with a fake gun as part of the cosplay.

    [ ] A black suit with oddly short shorts, and a wig that felt like a pile of rocks on your head.
    [ ] Some cross between a private school uniform and a wizard's cloak.
    [ ] A mech pilot's uniform which kinda chafed, which came in red, black, or white.
    [ ] Let Suzako decide.

    After all that, you had to blush a little as you walked out, this being your first time as anything but a casual photographer and, er, modelling, even if it was a way geekier form of modelling than you normally thought of.

    "Wow Honoka, I... never imagined we'd have this much fun again" Suzako beamed, before saying more softly, "Um, thanks, for a second back there I really feared our friendship was done for".

    "Hey, it's okay, I've practically forgotten whatever words I said to you this morning," you smiled back at her, saying "I gotta admit, I'm not used to cosplaying and stuff, but still... I had fun back there. Thanks, Suzako".

    - Justice has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    Overcome with joy and relief, Suzako kissed you on the cheek. "Ah, sorry, my bad, I really should've asked first," she fidgeted and blushed as she bowed, taking a step back.

    "A little heads up would be nice, but hey, otherwise I don't mind!" you smiled back at her.

    The two of you did stare in silence at each other, unsure what you say next, before Suzako broke the ice with "Hey, Sun's starting to set, so I should probably be at home studying. But thanks, Honoka, I had a really great time. Well, let's get through this week together!" she then turned to leave.

    "Yeah," you were still smiling, but had to twitch a little "Let's".

    [x] Before too late, check if Tsubasa, ah, Na-rae's still on her 'day off'.
    [ ] See what Megumi's up to.
    [ ] Browse the Internet, who knows what'll pop up.
    [ ] Hang out at the Arcade.
    [ ] Give solo Karaoke a shot.
    - [ ] Dance-Pop [+Etiquette]
    - [ ] Rock and or Roll [+Resolve]
    - [ ] Retro [+Education]
    - [ ] Ballad [+Perception]
    [ ] Get to studying.
    [ ] Get a good night's rest.
    [ ] Get to the Gameboard
    "Hey, Na-Tsubasa," you tried ringing her up on your phone, "You free at the moment?"

    "Ah, that I am, Miss Nakamura. Little late I think to be calling though, I mean by your schedule, Miss," she responded to you.

    "Oh, it was just that, um, word around the school said you'd been given a day off today," you tried to naturally introduce that info.

    "Er, well you see, at first Mistress Kikuko did say that.... then she yelled at me and said she said nothing o' the sort. Very confusing situation, Miss Nakamura," Na-rae slowly let out, but did add, "In the end, Mistress Kikuko was gracious enough to say that I could take the day off if I so desired, um, but did add something about her being obligated to give one anyway".

    Sheesh, she'd better not dock Na-rae's paycheck, that thought suddenly came to you. "Wow, sounds great that you were able to work all that out. So ah, Tsubasa, would you like to hang out, or I guess you're enjoying your alone time?" you asked her.

    "Why, Miss Nakamura, I'd be most delighted to, um, 'hang out' with you, be up for the craic," Na-rae beamed at first, but then had to admit, "Um, but I wouldn't have the faintest about where to go or what to do for the rest o' this day. I rarely if ever get time off, so I'm utterly spoiled for choice, Miss".

    You then tried to think, "Well, what are your interests? Your hobbies? I mean, come on, there's gotta be some part of your life that's got nothing to do with servitude" you helped her make up her mind.

    It took a while for Na-rae to respond, "T-that's, well, admittedly I haven't been Mistress Kikuko's maid for too long, but once I became hers', my every waking moment basically became dedicated to her," she shuddered out.

    You held your free hand up to your head at what you'd just heard, then breathed deep before asking, "Okay, so who were you like before Kikuko, what did you do?"
    To your sad surprise, Na-rae didn't manage to say anything but a bunch of short-live stutters and mumblings, her shaking all the while.
    "Alright, how about we hit the Gym then?" you then brought up to her, "Common enough thing to do around town, other than eat out anyway, and it should still be open at this hour. Plus, er," you blushed before you went on, "You might have heard that, ah, I kinda saw Kikuko's physique today, right?"

    "Ooh, I sure did, and right flustered she was too," Na-rae piped up.

    "Well, yeah, that kinda made me a little, um, insecure about my own, ah, musculature," you told her. Not that the Gameboard isn't a pretty good workout already though, you thought.

    "Ah, perfectly understandable. Mistress Kikuko's quite firm that I don't slack off myself. Alright Miss Nakamura, let's meet up there!" Na-rae finished the call.

    * * *

    You felt like a sweaty mess after what was only about an hour at the gym, maybe a little less, but felt like much longer, you felt the timers on the treadmill and the bike had to be lying or glitched or something.

    Na-rae, by contrast, didn't look to be slowing down at all, still lifting weights whilst you had crashed down on the benches. You weirdly noticed that, while you were just in a white shirt and leggings, she'd gone for something a little more daring, a black midriff-bearing tank top and shorts. Your hair had been tied all the way up into twin buns, while Na-rae wore hers' in a ponytail.

    "Whew, oh my, Miss Nakamura," Na-rae said, finally finished to come sit beside you, towel slung over her shoulder as she too was drenched in sweat. Her physique wasn't as toned as Kikuko's, but you still thought she was built solidly, housework being harder work than it seemed. "Perhaps us two should make a note to come here regularly? I'm partly your maid now and all, so it's perfectly sensical that I check up on yer fitness too," she smiled as she looked at you.

    Oh no, please, my muscles are killing me! The last thing I need right now is another workout, you clutched your head, but just said, "Hey, thanks Tsubasa. But well, after all that, don'tcha think we've earned something to eat? Like it's nearly dinner".

    "Ah, normally I would advise us to hit the showers, if not partake in an onsen, for tension release. But no, you're completely right Miss Nakamura, three square meals a day are important," she said, sounding like she'd completely forgotten this was supposed to be her day off.

    "Okay, great! So we've got quite a few options around Kuchinashi, like I know this good kimchi place-Oh, er, I mean..." you stopped, realising what you'd so casually said.

    "Oh no, that'd be grand, Miss Nakamura," Na-rae just smiled back at you, "To be honest with ya, I haven't had, well, any Korean cuisine in ages, Mistress Kikuko's simply averse to it, so this'd be a treat".

    "...Yeah, kinda ashamed to admit, kimchi's really the only Korean dish I know, that and barbecue, sorry," you had to sigh.

    "Ah, pity my specialty's cleaning and not cooking, else I could probably introduce ya to-" Tsubasa began but then froze, like she'd flinched at something invisible, before she said "Er, not much I confess, I'm about equally hopeless in my Korea knowledge, eheh".

    One stop at a kimchi restaurant later, with Na-rae ordering a stack of kimchi pancakes, or kimchi-buchimgae as the menu called them (they kinda reminded you of okonomiyaki). Meanwhile you just had the radish kimchi with chili and fish, Summer was almost here after all.

    "Well, er, my day off's almost over. But thank you kindly, Miss Nakamura, 'twas a most enjoyable way to spend the end o' the day- ooh, that rhymed, a-ha," Na-rae giggled.

    "Yeah, anytime," you smiled back at her, before you had to bring up, "Of course, guess we'll both be getting back to the grind starting tomorrow".

    "Aye Miss, I suppose Mistress Kikuko's already wondering where I'm at right now," she said to you, "I-I do honestly look forward to when I can see you again, Miss Nakamura- Miss Honoka, you do seem a fairer Mistress, ah, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Either way, I'll be at your beck and call!" she beamed and waved goodbye.

    - The Hanged Man has Journeyed to Level 2! -

    "Yeah, but just promise me, don't push yourself too hard!" you said to her as she left, before you headed back your flat, as opposed to a mansion.

    * * *

    Before you were long out of bed that morning, you received an unexpected call. You tensed up, fearing Kikuko was trying to get through to you, but to your surprise it turned out to be your parents.

    "Oh, Honoka dear, I hope you haven't forgotten it’s your father's birthday today!" came your mother's voice from over your phone, "So if it's no trouble, why not stop by and celebrate this evening? He's graciously been given a shorter workday, and I don't think things would be the same without you".

    Damn, I really did forget, didn't I? I mean, friggin' Duel and all
    , you thought. "Hey, course I'll be there!" you told her, especially if I don't make it back tomorrow...

    "Why dear, that's wonderful! Ah, and you've got mid-terms coming up too, hmhm, and I know just the trinket to give you a bit of extra luck," your mother replied, "But you've got school, so I shouldn't be keeping you. See you this evening!" she bid you goodbye before she had to hang up.

    Leaving your apartment, Megumi seriously still asleep, your breakfast was thankfully already taken care of when you saw that Na-rae had saved some leftovers from last night.
    [ ] Mostly just rice, but perfect to crack an egg over. [+Perception]
    [ ] Some kimchi pancakes, same as she had. [+Etiquette]
    [x] Er, you weren't quite sure what this was, but if Na-rae picked it... [+Resolve]

    Arriving at school, unfortunately you ran into, if not the worst, then one of the worst possible encounters.

    "Jack of Hearts," Kikuko firmly looked down at you at the steps to the front door, "Would you mind explaining why my maid would ever think I'd given her time off yesterday?"

    You didn't respond at first, but soon cleared your throat and said, "Oh come on, Kikuko, you honestly don't think she deserves one by now?"

    "Regardless, are you really in any position of authority to think you can control her schedule?" Kikuko shot back with.

    "Well yeah, like it or not, I kind of am," you stood straight up and said to her, "She's technically my maid now too, y'know".

    "Only because I was gracious enough to lend her out to you," Kikuko snarled at you, before she slowly approached and said, "By the way, I noticed when she came back, her breath smelled faintly of spiced cabbage. Care to explain this?"

    "Oh, lay off her!" you exclaimed back, "Look, if you're for whatever reason allergic to all things Korean, why did you even hire her, yeah, Na-rae, to begin with?"

    At this, Kikuko muttered, "To prevent something like this from happening in the first place." She turned her gaze suddenly away for a second, before telling you, "So she would constantly be aware that she'd have to be on her best behaviour, that she was in no position to disagree, as any servant should".

    Or maybe you just wanted an excuse to keep her wages low, you had to think.

    * * *

    "Heya, and finally, I get my interview! Ahem, I'm Melissa Lilian, heiress to the Texan-born, globe-spanning business that is Sole Star Petroleum. My Daddy has to be over in Sakhalin a lot, if you wanna know what I'm doing in Hokkaido. Oh, not that I don't totally love Japan and stuff, I super-appreciate how you're all such hard-workers and businessmen!
    Pro-tip: If you ever visit America, stay the Hell away from any landlocked State, total flyover country. And no, Midwest, bordering a lake doesn't count, hmm, unless you're Nevada, Nevada's okay, if only for Vegas. My home-state's Texas, in case you didn't know, Galveston
    re-pre-sent! Anyway, Dallas' cool too, so's Houston if you like rockets and stuff, or San Antonio if you're on a history field trip. Austin though, complete creepsville, place freakin' stinks.
    California's not so bad, like they know how to throw a party there, and Florida was cool before it became an old folks' home crossed with a mental institute. New England's cool, but mostly 'cause of its universities, and the Northwest'd be a rainy dump if not for Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft.

    Ah right, that Kikuko got her interview in before me, didn't she? Well, me and Little Miss Maeda go way back, company reasons meant we met as kids, and ooh boy, do I have some stories about her. Did you know she used to..."

    * * *

    "Okay class, er, the name's Damian Muir, Mr. Muir or Muir-sensei now I guess, and I'll be your English teacher," said the voice of no less than Hotaru's gaming buddy. You guessed the President was nice enough to get him a job here.
    "Hmm, how's about this for an exercise? I want you to make as many English words out of these nine letters as you can, that should be a good way to establish stuff," your new teacher then said, though you had to doubt that, "Oh yeah, all words gotta include the centre letter".


    [x] Write-in: Fate, fall, real, lateral, wall, tall, frat, fear, tear, wear, late, leaf, flea, waterfall...

    After that little brain-teaser and other such classes, you were suddenly approached, almost rammed into, by Himawari in the hallway.

    "Honoka, come quick! Er," she then looked around to make sure people weren't listening in, before she whispered to you, "Sorry, we've gotta get to the Gameboard right away, there's a terrible disaster going on right now my Empire".

    Well, there goes my afternoon plans, you thought as you ran back to the Lounge with her, Surprised this sorta thing doesn't happen more often though. Hopefully I can get back in time for my Dad's birthday.

    Arriving onto the Gameboard, you kept following Himawari, now Nightshade, through a series of twisted, turning valleys and into her Empire... whose defences were right now being battered by a horde of Shadows clawing at the gates. Given the holographic glow and robotic wires installed into many of these Shadows, you could instantly tell who'd sent them all here.

    "Grr, show your face, Gakuto!" you screamed up at above.

    "Huh, impatient aren't we, Honoka? Hmhm, don't worry, you shall have your little Duel tomorrow, so wait your turn. But as for our dear Himawari..." Gakuto's voice crackled from above, "I'm afraid she brought this on herself. Already her image and reputation has been shattered among the All-Aces, and soon enough, the whole school, no, the whole Internet, will know exactly what sort of girl she really is!"

    Those words almost sent Himawari, even as Nightshade, into a collapse, but she was able to shake that away as she proclaimed. "Right, he wants to fight dirty? How's this for dirty, Anastasia!"

    Her Persona cleared out a whole throng of Gakuto's subject Shadows with a single Mabufula shattering, and what that didn't clear away from the gate, a few swings of her ball-and-chain did. "Honoka, hurry! We have to see how far his minions have gotten into my Empire!"

    <<BGM: Bully - Vendetta: Greasers>>

    It only just now occurred to you that you hadn't seen that much of your Ace's Empire beyond that nightclub, although given how nervous Himawari could usually be, you figured that made sense. Its seedy alleyways were as twisted as ever, so twisted that one shack leaned over so much that Nightshade was able to show you a shortcut up it onto the rooftops.

    Like before, the only lights around to cut through the rain and mist were the giant, bioluminescent mushrooms. Their fungal light allowed you to see that, as you got closer to the Heart of her Empire, which resembled Susukino on steroids, you could see... oversized instruments jutting out everywhere.
    No really, you saw trumpets for chimneys, flutes as ladders, saxophones as slides down, drums jutting up as platforms over toxic waste pits, a keyboard bridge over an empty fog-filled crack in the street, and guitar and bass necks instead of telephone poles.

    One constant though, was that everywhere you looked, Himawari's Shadow subjects were locked in street-brawls and slugfests with Gakuto's.
    Huh, were you witnessing clashing armies, gang warfare... or just a game between teens that had no idea when to stop?

    "Death Baron Samedi, forget Eiga, go straight for Mamudoon! Fool Taliesin, you know what, just stick to buffs like Makakaja!" Nightshade ordered two of her Shadows below, one a skeleton in a top hat and tuxedo, the other a harp-playing Arthurian bard, in practically the same voice she used with you in band rehearsal.

    In the distance, you could spot an ancient, Celtic warrior, similar to Cuchulainn yet dwarfing even him, leading a charge deeper into Himawari's Empire, to what looked like a concert festival stage. You spotted a way to quickly catch up to that warrior leader by hopping across telephone poles, er, bass necks, but suddenly there came a crunching sound as another of Gakuto's Shadows heaved themselves onto your same rooftop.

    You were about to be attacked from behind by a hulking smith, wearing a cloak of winds and a beard of dark clouds, a giant hammer in his left hand a super-heated, furnace-gauntlet adorning his other. He was slouching over, burdened by the weight of several gold yet tarnished creations atop him, like a crossbow and a plough.
    Fortune Ilmarinen, a quick Analysis from Sherlock told you this Shadow was, his elements were Fire and Wind.

    "Richard III!" then came an overly familiar voice, as Ilmarinen was ambushed in turn by Azuma, who he blasted with a searing Kouga.
    Wait, why was Azuma coming to help you now? Did his ego and/or obsession with you demand he play hero from time to time... or had Gakuto really just pissed that many people off?

    [ ] Focus on taking down Ilmarinen.
    [x] Head deeper into Empire, after that giant warrior.
    [ ] Check back at the gates, see how this Empire's defences are doing.
    [ ] Focus on all these minor Shadows, help Himawari's subjects out since, well, you're one of them too.
    [ ] Let Nightshade lead the charge.
    [ ] Write-in.

  7. #27
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXVII. Happy Birthday?

    You quickly told Himawari, "Hey, there's another, larger Shadow heading on deeper. Someone's gotta go after it, so I'm volunteering".

    "Is that the wisest move?" Azuma had to say, even though you weren't addressing him, as he had Richard cast a wave of darkness at the Ilmarinen Shadow, which he then used as cover to fire off more of his crossbow bolts.

    "Hey, lay off her, only I tell my Jacks what to do!" Nightshade shouted back at him, as she tried to match Ilmarinen's hammer with her own ball-and-chain. "Go friggin' get him, Honoka! Just, um, ya know, be careful" she suddenly whimpered.

    Nodding, you summoned the agile and electric-resistant Skuld to grant you the magnetic ability to walk on the phone wires, or rather, the music tablature hoisted above the streets. Ilmarinen however was unwilling to let you get away so easily, as he called forth a Garula piston-blast of air at you, uprooting each bass-neck telephone pole seconds after you leapt away from them.

    He managed one last gale blast you couldn't outrun, which hurled you up right into the air, but before you were to plummet to the ground, you summoned Camazotz to lift you right back up into the air.

    You soon reached the depths of the Empire where that Shadow had charged in, as you had Camazotz land you on top of an... ice statue. Specifically, there was a whole choir of ice statues sculpted mid-singing at the front of this concert festival field, a rainy marsh leading right up to a vast stage.

    You switched back to Sherlock to Analyse that giant warrior Shadow, learning his name was Hierophant Fionn, and that Psy and Physical attacks would have little if any effect. He was old and woad-emblazoned with spiky stark white hair, caried a wave-shaped sword in his scorched right hand, a white hound fused to his left hand who held a scorched spear in his teeth, a horn hung from a chord on his neck, and his stomping feet were covered in burial stones.

    <<BGM: Umineko - The dark and crazed requiem of Purgatory>>

    Whirling your tonfas out and activating their gun function, you tried to swoop over with Camazotz to unload upon Fionn from overhead. However, Fionn nigh instantly spotted what you were trying, and then with both normal-arm and dog-arm, lifted one of the ice statues right up and threw the entire thing at you. Almost caught completely off-guard, you then switched to Simurgh to summon a spire of flames to melt the whole statue before it could hit you, which made you wince at the property damage you'd just caused to Nightshade's Empire.

    Fire spells however were merely shrugged off by Fionn, who sent you falling straight to the ground with a single swipe of his spear-shaft. The marshy soil, while completely wrecking your outfit, was at least softer to fall on than the rest of town's jagged bricks.
    Knowing Fionn planned to bring the physical pain, you switched to Arsene, at least while more ice-statues weren't being thrown, and unleashed a rapid-fire bullet storm straight a Fionn. You could see him stumbling, but as you then tried to cast Eiga upon him, he launched a confuddling Psio-wave at you, now that you didn't have Simurgh's Psy resistance.

    Clutching your head from the pain, you switched to Sherlock to absorb this element... only to realise that Sherlock's own spells were nearly useless against Fionn. As if that didn't complicate things, Fionn had backup to swiftly rush to his aid, said backup being... a dog-woman as tall as Fionn, her fur also bleach white like a husky, her tail crimson, tattoos purple, and claws a deep blue.
    Hanged Man Sceolang, resists Physical and Ice, came the analysis from Sherlock.

    Closing your eyes, you pointed your tonfas in opposite directions to try firing at both Fionn and Sceolang simultaneously. You thought from a grunt that you'd struck Fionn, but Sceolang just leapt into the air to tackle you, then slashing at you with er claws.

    Fortunately, your own backup soon came via... Kikuko? Well, that was definitely Tsuruhime knocking Sceolang off you with a blast of Agilao.
    "Impudent hound! Er, oh, I see," Kikuko made her entrance, bearing her heated sword and smoking musket.

    Sceolang redirecting her attention to Kikuko, you tried to focus back on Fionn, seeing that he'd leapt up on stage to pursue... oh no.
    That lone, dark-veiled, coffin-lying figure on stage couldn't be anyone but Colette's Shadow, it made too much sense that Gakuto would send one of his own Shadows after her.

    Racing up onto the stage yourself, you fired booth tonfas once again at Fionn. Expecting you to start shooting at him again though, he was somehow able to slice right through a cloud of your bullets with a single swing of his sword. A stomp of his barrow-encrusted foot sent a shockwave all throughout the stage.

    You called out Franken for his sheer Endurance and Psy resistance to take Fionn's attacks, if not much else, but you then had an idea.
    "Colette hey. Ah, fancy meeting your Shadow here, hehe. Just gonna run a quick a scan on you, if that's okay," you said to your friend's Shadow, performing another Analyse on her.
    Moon Carmilla, Absorbs Curse, that analysis confirmed your theory, even if it didn't call Colette by her exact name, though thankfully not her deadname.

    "Alright then," you said, immediately switching back to Franken and, before Fionn could crash down on the other side of the stage to launch Colette and you straight up, you cast no less than Mudoon... on Colette.

    An eruption of dark red smoke burst out from her, as you could see a blood moon emerge in the otherwise clouded sky above this Empire. You could then see Colette's Shadow had assumed the form of what must be Carmilla, her ebony black hair now cascading to the ground, her purple-tinted skin paler than the grave, her eyes and long claws a blood red, wings and horns that resembled scythe-blades jutting up out of her. A pool of blood congealed around her, forming into spiked armour.
    With a flicker of her forked tongue, she glared at Fionn and cast a single, mighty Eigadyne at him, enough to annihilate him in one blow.

    Hierophant Fionn finally vanquished, Colette, er, Carmilla, that is, she turned around you, knelt down and suddenly embraced you, before vanishing back into the darkness.

    For a moment you thought you could relax... until you remembered that Kikuko was still out there fighting Sceolang. Worse still, Sceolang's fury had only increased with the defeat of her master.
    You switched to the faster Skuld to race down right to Kikuko, only for the Ace of Swords to snarl at you, "Stay back, this is my fight!" as she cast Agidyne upon the howling Sceolang.

    Sceolang was finally finished off though by neither of you, but by a barrage of thrown axes courtesy of Nightshade, who had just arrived with Azuma close behind.
    Kikuko however repaid her favour by just yelling at her, "Grr, I had that completely under control!"

    "Ahem, last I checked, this was my Empire, despite Gakuto's feeble attempt at conquest," Nightshade spoke up, making direct eye contact with Kikuko, "So as long as I'm here, I'm the one calling the shots, got it? Besides, you rushed in here to assist me, correct?"

    Kikuko in response muttered, "More out of my lack of respect for Gakuto, than any concern I have for you".

    "Cease your hostilities, Kikuko, Himawari, I believe we already have a Duel scheduled," Azuma interjected as he walked between them, side-eyeing you.

    "Um, hey, don't think Melissa showed up at all," you had to point out.

    Himawari could barely contain her fury "Yeah, figures. That bitch probably sees Gakuto as a mere tool at this point, in both senses of the word, but... well, she's made it very clear she has nothing but contempt for me," she started strong, but her voice then weakened.

    "Either way, that should be the last of Gakuto's army, with only the stragglers remaining, if anyone," Azuma pointed out, "So I believe it's time we headed back to the Lounge..."

    * * *

    Trying to confront Gakuto in person once you got back to the Lounge accomplished nothing, as Azuma and Kikuko still firmly told you to wait to tomorrow to settle your differences.

    The little sojourn to the Gameboard he'd forced you to undertake had still left you drained, with you only now realising that school clubs would be ending soon as the sun began to set. "Damn, don't tell me I'll be late!" you exclaimed.

    "Huh, late for what?" Himawari had to ask you.

    Knowing the other All-Aces were still in earshot, you just told them, "Oh, it's a little family thing, nothing um, major".

    "It's just that, well, you sounded rather exasperated- oh, that reminds me, I still have my interviewer waiting!" Himawari shot up as that occurred to her.

    As she ran out into the hall, you followed her to see she had found the last of the camera crew still around, as she rushed through her words.
    "Sorry I'm late. Hi there, I'm Aoyagi Himawari! I'm, ah, lead singer in the school choir, and, um..." she paused, not knowing what to say, but then she turned around, saw you, and decided to drag you in. "This here's Honoka, er, guess I might have dragged her out here, but anyway, we're best friends here!" she smiled.

    "Er, hi," you mumbled, realising the cameraman was expecting you to say something "Nakamura Honoka, and yeah, guess I'm pretty tight with Himawari here. I play bass for her in- er, sometimes, on and off," you bit your tongue as you realised what you were about to say.

    Unfortunately, neither of you got the chance to say much more, as the cameraman was called away. Himawari looked dejected for a moment, but she soon perked up as she said "Well, at least you and me got to be on national TV for a little bit, Honoka".

    "Yeah, it's an... honour," you managed to say back.

    "Er, Honoka, I'm... sorry I ended up taking so much of your time, that you could've been using to study or attend clubs, what with my Empire and stuff," she then told you.

    You smiled at her though and said, "Hey, no stress. If anyone I blame Gakuto, not you".

    She then winced all of a sudden, as she had to say, "Honoka... you've seen straight into the insides of my Empire. I, ah, as your Ace, I would've shown you around earlier, but, well it's just..." she started fidgeting.

    Putting your hand on her shoulder, you tried to tell her, "Hey, don't sweat it. Nothing I've seen in your Empire makes me think any less of you, I mean, I kinda know all your darkest secrets already," Hard drugs, Yakuza deals, you went over in your head, "Yet I'm still here for you".

    You then patted the top of her head, which made Himawari start giggling. "Th-thank you Honoka, that means a lot. I'm, I'm so honoured you chose me as your Ace, I- ah, I'm getting all gushy, sorry," she said, overcome with a deep red blush.

    You did have to make one, possibly uncomfortable thing clear to her though, "Look, Himawari, I'm here for you, but... no matter how alone you feel, I'm not the only person in your life. You've got Tanizawa-sensei, and now Colette, and ah, well I guess that's not too many people, but still. I- I can't shoulder everything for you".

    Himawari was silent for a moment, but then muttered, "I know, I know. Guess you're saying this because your duel with Gakuto's tomorrow, and you just know he's gonna try and pull something, huh?"
    She then reached out and hugged you, "I- I said a while ago, before the Eitaro Duel, that if he went berserk and killed you, I'd Duel him right back. Thing was though, I said that as Nightshade, technically. But now with Gakuto... I'm saying I’ll do the exact same, but as both sides of me, not just Nightshade!"

    You closed your eyes as you two embraced, and said, "Yeah, but it's not just me, you have every reason to go against Gakuto on your own. Hell, I bet most students here, or further afield, have their reasons too".
    You then had to tell Himawari, "Look, I'm due at my folks' place, but yeah, here's hoping we'll make it through tomorrow," as you kissed her gently on her forehead as you pushed back her hair.

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    * * *

    <<BGM: Umineko - Towering cloud in summer>>

    You sighed with relief as you made it back to your parents' converted train-house, shouting out that you were home and crashing down on their tattered old sofa.

    "Hi Honoka, sport, glad you could make it," your father smiled at you, before he stretched and sighed, "Man, my supervisors were watching me like a hawk today. Guess because they knew I'd taken today to knock off early, they wanted me to work extra-hard while I was there".

    Your instinct was to say, 'Then why not just quit, or find another job?' but you knew the answer. If it's not company loyalty keeping Dad there, it's definitely fear that he'll ever find another job again, or that publicly quitting an esteemed company will make him a social pariah.

    "But we're all here now, so let's tuck into some birthday cake!" your mother smiled, as she brought out a... melted mess of a cake with layers of pink, green, and white oozing sloppily into each other. It was adorned with more than forty candles, incense candles at that, all flickering, leaving your Dad hurrying to blow them all out.

    "Ah, thanks, I really appreciate it" you and your Dad both said in unison, though your Dad at least added a 'Honey'.

    Before you were to receive a slice of, uh, whatever this was exactly, a sudden but all too familiar a voice shout out with "Gawd, what a complete dump!".

    You turned out to and, to your complete shock, saw that the All-Aces had shown up outside your parent's train cart, completely uninvited.

    "Hmm, perhaps Melissa, we could at least call this wrec-ah, place 'rustic'?" Gakuto feebly offered.

    No, please no, you thought, hands on your head, as you then hopped and rushed over to the door, seething at the All-Aces with "What. Are. You. Doing. Here?"

    "Well Honoka, meeting your parents was something concerning you we'd been meaning to check off, and with your Duel- er, mid-term preparations tomorrow, we thought now would be ideal to fit that in," Azuma gave his explanation.

    "Yeah, but like- How did you even know where their place was?!" you hissed. Besides Azuma, why would you care so much about the very parents you tried to deny?

    "Simple. We employed one of my drones to follow you," Gakuto smirked.

    "Oh, Honoka, how delightful, you didn't tell me you were bringing friends over!" your Mum just had to pipe up, "Come in, come in, there's more than enough cake go around! Hmm, I believe Honoka should introduce us".

    Your spirits had completely sunk but, as per your mother's request, you sighed and introduce the Aces:

    [ ] "Mum and Dad, All-Aces club. All-Aces, Mum and Dad"
    [x] At least give everyone's names.
    [ ] Describe what each All-Ace is known for, then who your parents are.
    [ ] "Oh, I believe they'll be more than happy to introduce themselves"
    [ ] Write-in.

    You let out a deep sigh.
    "Okay, Mum, Dad, these are Aoyagi Himawari, Sakurazuka Azuma, Kikuko Maeda, Melissa Lilian, and Momoi Gakuto," you said, hastily pointing out each All-Ace, "Ugh, Aces, this is my Mum and Dad, Nakamura Kanae and Yozou".

    To your relief, Himawari was first to step forth, "H-hello there, Mr. and Mrs. Nakamura, it's great to finally be able to meet you!" she smiled and gave a light bow, "Honoka's been, well, a real big help to me at school this past year, helping me out with, um, Band and other stuff. I know this might sound corny, but I almost don't know what I'd do without her!" she then giggled.

    Unfortunately, Himawari's cute introduction was immediately ruined when Azuma, the last person who had any right to be speaking to your parents, stepped up and suddenly took you by the hand, "Yes, your daughter has certainly been a... 'delight' to us. Whatever cracks her mirror has, it's nothing that can't be, ahem, repaired" he gave a slight grin.

    Your folks took Himawari's greeting well but, while appreciative of him on the outside, they looked to you like they didn't quite know how to react to what Azuma said.

    "Oh my, your first two friends seem both nice and popular. Why, Himawari looks sweeter than Keiko, and Azuma's rocketing past Yuya in prettiness," your mother had to say.

    "You're certainly a lucky girl, Honoka, I knew you'd come to excel one day," your father grinned at you, "I certainly never knew kids like these when I was in high school, well, from a distance maybe".

    "Feh, how they bask in their own mediocrity," you caught Kikuko whispering behind you, but when her turn came to officially introduce herself to your folks, she instead said, "We are most gracious to be received by you, Nakamura household, your humbleness touches us most deeply". She then bowed to them, though you did see her tilt her head up for a second as she did so.

    "Er, no. Dunno about you, Little Miss Samurai, but this hippie hovel is like, ew, gross!" Melissa had to speak up. She then strode up to your parents and proclaimed, "Hi there, I'm Melissa Lilian, making your day that much more special just by me being in it! Oh, by the way, if you're hoping Honoka would've finally hooked up with Azuma, hate to disappoint you, she's been about as frigid as your island's weather.
    But hey, um, Honoka's Mum and Dad, gotta agree with you one thing" Melissa then said, smirking as she threw her arm around your shoulder, "We're like, totes cooler than Honoka's old loser friends".

    ...Melissa, why do you care so much who I hook up with or not? Hell, you don't even like me, so why are you so obsessed with my personal life? that thought kept searing within you.

    "Oh, wow, your new friends really are that high-class, Honoka. Why yes, I'd heard they were the most popular kids in school, but my, a noble girl and an American, this is... something," your Mum kept muttering.

    "Anyway, that just leaves..." you then had to stop to look around, only to find that Gakuto had slipped away in the meantime. "Oh no, oh no oh no. Er, 'scuse me, Mum and Dad," you had to say quickly.

    Before your parents could ask what the problem was, you took off inside and headed up to your old room, to see Gakuto already trying to rifle around it in, as you'd feared.
    "What the Hell do you think you're doing up here?!" you immediately snapped at him, dragging him up by his collar. Well, one consolation was that if you could hoist him up this easily, maybe tomorrow's Duel would be less trouble than you thought.

    "Humph, I don't know about you, but I've never been the type to care much for mere honour or whatever," Gakuto snarled, pushing his glasses up, "If I am challenged to a Duel with someone, my strategy is to take every advantage I can. Although, it's not like I found much up here, so consider yourself lucky".

    "Honoka, you alright up there?" came your dad's voice, calling up from below.

    "Um, yeah, all fine," you said back on instinct, before pushing Gakuto out of your room. He was lucky though that you didn't go further and shove him down the stairs, well, he himself did say 'take every advantage', didn't he?

    Descending back to the ground floor, you saw Gakuto stepping out in front of your parents and saying, "Well, certainly a... unique place to build a house on. And yes, I'm Momoi Gakuto, Computer Club Captain and international eSports champion, and well, Mr. and Mrs. Nakamura, judging by your daughter you are... exactly who I expected you two to be, really," he said, flashing a fanged grin.

    Your parents, ah, weren't quite sure how to react to Gakuto, with you retting over just how much hey may've heard of your little conflict upstairs.

    Fortunately, Melissa broke the silence. Unfortunately, it was with, "Okay, ew! What is it with this ratty, boho place, don't tell me you're growing weed or shrooms or whatever here. Also, if I hear someone put on Bob Floyd or Pink Marley or whoever, I'm gonna freak!" Himawari though had to roll her eyes at that though, possibly because she knew actual drug dens.

    But Melissa may as well have freaked, when the All-Aces looked down to see the birthday cake on offer. "Well, um, my Yozou's cake was only intended for three people, I admit..." you Mum muttered.
    It also didn't help your house was rather small, given that your parents didn't need anywhere big given you were an only child. With five extra people all walking around though...

    "Perhaps we ought to relocate this little get-together of ours? Luckily I know just the place," Azuma spoke up, "I've already reserved a table for six, I can make that eight, at the Snow Pearl".

    "Oh, the upscale restaurant?" your father had to ask, "Well that place, ahem, hasn't really been my scene, but thank you, I haven't had a birthday present like that in ages".

    Your Dad's statement however left the All-Aces dumbfounded, leaving you to whisper to them, "Ah, you did know it's my Dad's birthday today, right?"

    They stood in silence a little longer, till Azuma coughed and said, "Well, what a remarkable coincidence".

    * * *

    Your parents almost couldn't believe their eyes when they were driven up to the Snow Pearl in the Aces' limo, of all things. Of course, due to the first time you were in it, the limo reminded you more of an upscale hearse more than anything.

    As you reached the Snow Pearl restaurant and were escorted to your table, your parents looked distinctly out of place here. "Gotta say, it's the first time I've actually been to this place," your father muttered.

    The All-Aces just looked at him funny. "Er, isn't this your town's most high-class restaurant, and you're telling me you've never been? Like, hello, what is your problem?" Melissa asked him, hands on her hips.

    "Well, ahem, it's just hasn't been our, er, 'scene' shall we say," your Dad had to point out.

    "Yes, we usually get food at farmers' markets, or fresh grocers," your mother confirmed.

    "Oh, I get it!" Melissa smirked, before looking at you and saying, "Seems your parents we're too good for them".

    "What? Oh come on!" you then said back at Melissa.

    Your dinner there went, well, awkwardly, given that most of the All-Aces seemed to lose interest in your parents quickly, that and how slowly your parents ate food they barely recognised.
    Azuma did at least try to make some conversation, if only to keep up appearances. "So, er, Honoka has told me you're a glassblower-sculptor and, ahem, salaryman respectively," he tried to start with.

    "That's true," your Dad said, but at least added, "I did know Benibara Rurina by reputation from back when I was in high school. Think that would've been the eighties, a little into the nineties? Would've been a teenager myself back then. Either way, it's still... surreal to think I'd one day be talking to her son. Ah, no offence".
    As he said that, you couldn't help but shoot a glance at Melissa.

    "My, and I certainly have heard the name Sakurazuka Munehiro too," your mother spoke up, "I believe your parents' wedding was in all the papers back in the day, they made it sound like something out of a fairytale. They said if their firstborn was a girl, they'd called her Tomomi. Though of course, we hardly ever saw Rurina on screen again... Oh, beg your pardon, you probably would've heard that story countless times," she said to Azuma.

    You did see Azuma twitch a little when she brought up Tomomi, but he then said, "No, that's not a problem at all. My father certainly recounts, but mother usually stays quite about her past".

    "My parents aren't celebrities like Azuma's, so I'm not sure how much I have to say about them. But hey, I think being a glassblower and metal-sculptor's really cool!" Himawari smiled at your Mum, to her smile.

    "Oh hey, it's Momoi Gakuto, right?" your father had to bring him into this, "You're into games, right? I got some pretty high scores in the arcades when I was a kid, and I had a Famicom and PC as I got a little older. Think I started losing track of gaming when it moved to 3D, so when Honoka started talking about getting a PS4 and a Switch, I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. But I knew she loved playing the old games I still had when she was a kid".

    "Ah, how quaint," Gakuto muttered, barely making eye contact, "Meanwhile, I've competed in ArcSys games at champion level, gone head to head with Korean finalists in MOBA tournaments, have mastered RPGs all the way from Wizardry 4 to Phantasy Star Online 2, between EX-Bosses in danmaku shooters, and have successfully romanced Fujisaki Shiori".

    Pretty much no one knew how to respond to that, with your Dad just mumbling, "Er, hope things work out all right between you and Shiori".

    When the dinner finally ended, your parents had to take you aside for a second in the restaurant.

    "Ah, oh Honoka," your mother sighed, before she bit her lip, "I see you're moving up in the world and all but, well, I'm just worried that, with your new friends' status... you don't think we're, well, old and uncool, do you?" she told you, before whimpering to her husband "Do you think we embarrass her so much, she ran right into the arms of the exact opposite kind of people?"

    "What your mother's trying to say is, well, she can't help but wonder how you feel when you come away from the glitz and glam of the 'All-Aces' to, er, see us, just living our lives," came your Dad's attempt at an explanation to you.

    "What? No, not at all," you insisted, I mean, I pretty much never thought you guys were 'cool', but the Aces have nothing to do with that, "You've probably been the two most supportive people in my life!" Not like that's up against much competition, "Yeah, I've got my own- almost my own apartment now, but that's just for ease of access, got nothing to do with you guys!"

    You could see tears starting to well up with in your mother's eyes, "Honoka... thank you, Honoka!"

    Your Dad just patted you on the shoulder, "I guess we, well, we've just had trouble understanding you these days, Honoka. But really, you've never disappointed us before, so I'm sure whatever path you go down, it'll work out alright," he said smiling.

    - The Star has Journeyed to Level 4! -

    Yeah, whatever path I go down... You should've smiled at his words, but somehow, knowing what you knew, that just made you shudder.
    Your parents' support did make you think though, you definitely had something worth fighting for, the people in your life. From them, to Keiko and Yuya, to now Colette, Reina, Ryouko, Himawari, Na-rae, Megumi, you might even say Hotaru and Popo too.
    Meanwhile, all Gakuto, Melissa, Kikuko, and Azuma really had to fight for was stuff like 'their reputation' or 'their popularity'. Hell, if it weren't for their behaviour, you'd almost pity them...

  8. #28
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXVIII. Gakuto Duel

    Getting up next morning, you nearly froze from knowing just was day it was... again.
    Yesterday hadn't been as big a disaster as it could've been, with Gakuto's little invasion successfully thwarted, and the All-Aces' meeting with your parents, well, not going great but at least going better than expected, even if the Aces made clear how little respect they actually had for them. Still, moving the meeting out of the house was probably for the best, lest the Aces tried to completely trash the place like before.

    Quickly gobbling up breakfast again, you thought to yourself, Okay, against someone like Gakuto I can't just charge in, I have to come up with an actual plan before I get to his Arena.

    [ ] Skuld and Franken should be enough, you failed to see how Gakuto could break through those.
    [x] Do not let him cast buffs, do not get debuffed yourself.
    [ ] Be ready to switch between Personae, in case he pulls out another of those Gameplay Shifts again.
    [ ] Maybe get out Chernobog and other Nuclear casters, with how one such spell scrambled that teleporter...
    [ ] You need to go all out on the physical offence, you doubt Gakuto could take it.
    [ ] You know what, have your plan be no plan. You haven't even seen inside his Arena yet, you don't know what he'll pull out.
    [ ] Write-in.
    * * *

    "Gakuto was sure acting weird yesterday..."

    "-Oh my god, friggin' mid-terms. And then the Sports Festival at the end of the month, ugh"
    "Yeah, Gakuto was practicing crushing a can with his fist... and completely failing at it-"

    "-First they makes us study, then they make us exercise."
    As you slowly walked up to the school gates, unlike Eitaro way back when, you couldn't see Gakuto anywhere in sight.

    It wasn't just you either, as the remaining All-Aces, attracting more than some attention from being in the courtyard all at once, had oddly perplexed expressions on their faces, for people who were usually so in control.
    "My best estimation is that Gakuto's already walled himself off in his Empire," Azuma approached and said to you, "Our Duel etiquette states that the Challenger is to be allowed unimpeded access before arriving at the Arena, in exchange for the Duel taking place on the Challenged's homefield. Yet already we cannot be sure if Gakuto will honour that".

    "Wait, on the Challenged's homefield?" You had to speak up, "Hold on, I'm pretty sure Eitaro challenged me!"

    "Ahem, that's your fault for not giving an Empire to be challenged in," Melissa outright told you, "Thought that was obvious. Besides, you won against him, so what are you complaining about?!"

    "Yeah, well, I could've fought him in No One's Land or something" you tried to say, but got barely paid any attention.

    Later that day, you looked through the Computer Club window for any sign of Gakuto, but saw nothing but the janitor. Walking up to and entering the Prized Pupil Lounge, the All-Aces only confronted you with blank stares, shrugs, and in Kikuko's case, restrained fury.

    "Even viewing the Gameboard from up here, we can see Gakuto has assembled very spare Piece of his around the front of his Empire," Kikuko stated, before she sighed "It should've been obvious from the start that he had no intentions of duelling nobly, to masque the lack of his own strength".

    "Er, I can't tell what you have to be angry about, Kikuko. I mean, Gakuto's bullshit is all being directed at me, not you," you tried asking her.

    She frowned and muttered, "It's the principle of the thing, cowardice is repulsive in all its forms".

    In contrast to Kikuko's severity, Azuma had to laugh, "Gakuto forgets though, that we can raise the stakes just as much as he can". He then beckoned to the other three Aces, saying, "I want you each to go to your Empires, summon the strongest Shadows you have. Once Honoka arrives at Gakuto's Arena, it's all up to her, but before then, we must ensure that none of Gakuto's forces lay a scratch on her".

    Himawari smiled, telling Azuma, "You didn't even have to ask".

    Melissa however, showed he clearly did have to ask, as she just crossed her arms and said, "Like, why? What reason do I have to go so out of my way for Honoka of all people?"

    You had to flinch at that, but you did have Kikuko to tell Melissa, "If it pleases you, do not think of this as being 'for Honoka', but rather 'against Gakuto'".

    <<BGM: Kamen Rider Gaim - Your Song>>

    Materialising onto the Gameboard, you were immediately faced with a horde of Shadows blocking off both ends of the trench, though more so around the tunnel entrance that led to Gakuto's Empire.

    "Mephisto! Vlad Tepes!" Azuma called out from behind, sending a throng of his own Shadow subjects to break through Gakuto's first wave, the two great Shadows he called upon being a fiery black-and-red jester holding a glowing contract, and a count with a cape of blood and his victims' heads skewered on shoulder-spikes.

    Pulsing darkness, hellish flames, and blinding light, that last one courtesy of Azuma sending Richard directly into the fray, engulfed the trench. That just left one last major Shadow and his followers guarding the entrance, the crowned, sword-wielding, blue elephant man a scan soon showed was Hierophant Ganesha.

    Before Azuma could get to him, Nightshade divebombed her way down into the trench, delivering a mighty flail swing to the Shadows' head. "Okay, Uzume, Kullervo, move out!" she called.

    Two of her own Shadows, one a glamorous if risqué Japanese dancer, the other an almost skeletal, stringy-haired boy wielding a thunderbolt sword far too big for him, swooped in and blasted Ganesha's troops with an enveloping blast of light, and and a straight-ahead swing of that sword. Ganesha however just met the clunky, brute force swing with his own, more refined counterblow, though Kullervo countered that in turn with an outburst of lightning. Ganesha was still very much fighting, but the point was that the elephant was distracted enough for you to slip past him.

    As you made your way through the tunnel, you found yourself not in the cybertronic realm you remembered this Empire being, but rather a... red brick maze whose walls were oddly thin, with a grey brick ceiling and yellow-brown floor. You tried walking further into it, only to have the entire place turn upside down the moment you touched anything.

    Things weren't helped when three grid-patterned Shadows suddenly emerged like liquid from what looked like paintings hung around the maze, however as soon as they did and started heading towards you, two other Shadows, one a dark-clad warrior witch wielding a monstrous bone like a spear, the other an icy blue giant who speeded her way in here on what looked like skis. The witch conjured a burst of deathly darkness to consume one of the enemy Shadows, while the cold giant unloaded a longbow shot into another.

    "Scathach, Skadi, this one's mine!" it was Kikuko who then called out to her two Shadow subjects, as she charged through the maze to slice up the last of Gakuto's Shadows, combing her critical strike with a blast of flame from Tsuruhime.

    "Kikuko, ah, where are we?" you had to ask, "This place doesn't look anything like Gakuto's Empire".

    "Oh, it very much is," she spat out, "He's somehow cast an illusion, leaving you prey for his foot-soldiers".

    "Huh, I guess you mean he set-up an entire hologram, then?" you responded. You then called out Skuld to cast Zionga, which blasted a bolt forward that caused a whole hole in the 'wall' to glitch out in this maze, beyond which you could clearly see Gakuto's Empire as usual.

    Dashing through before Gakuto had a chance to patch it back up again, you emerged back in his Empire proper, with his videogame Arena, shaped like a flat-topped pyramid with sloping monoliths around it, floating right above you.

    "How clever, needing the technologically illiterate Kikuko to solve the puzzle for you," Gakuto's voice rang out, "Well go on Kikuko, step foot upon my game grid, clearly I'll have little to worry about if a mere screensaver leaves you stumped".

    "Hold your tongue, swine!" Kikuko raised her voice, "Why should Honoka fear you, when all you've done is hide behind your lackeys and cheap tactics, and not face her directly like a true warrior would?"

    Gakuto's electronic laughter buzzed all around. "I'll put it in language you can comprehend, Kikuko. Why go through the waste of sending a samurai to do an ashigaru's job? If anything, it'd be far more dishonourable to even dirty my hands on her. This is Empire after all, so within, the rules are mine to dictate.
    Hmhm, but I've saved up quite a treat for you. Why should I go through the bother of waiting till each All-Ace falls, when gathered here, I can have you all wiped out in one fell swoop?
    " he then chortled, "Genre Shift: Survival Horror. Limiting resources, mass-spawning undead."

    As Azuma, Himawari, and eventually Melissa made their way in, a whole host of zombified Shadows rose up from the floor, including zombie cops, zombie samurai, zombie soldiers, zombie priests, zombie nurses, and, huh, was that a zombie DJ you saw?

    "Honoka, get to the Arena, Gakuto should be all you need to concern yourself with," Azuma told you.

    "Yeah, we can easily deal with a bunch of mooks like these," Nightshade smirked.

    "Grr, I still think it's a kind of an insult for us all to play freakin' bodyguards for Honoka" Melissa snarled, before she bared her chainsaw, "But if Gakuto seriously thinks just throwing his goons at us will be enough to whittle us down, hah, all those ones and zeroes have gone to his head".

    Heading over to a light rail leading up to the Arena, you turned around to have one last look at the four of them, this possibly the first time you saw the All-Aces, well most of them anyway, actually acting like the paragons everyone thought they were, like the heroes Popo expected them to be. Granted, Gakuto had to completely break the rules to get them to act like this, but... progress?

    "T-Thanks, you guys, I... I'm honoured," you gave one last smile at them.

    - The Fool has Journeyed to Rank 6! -

    Having Skuld activate the light rail with her electricity, you found yourself clutching onto that strand of voltage as the rail then carried you upward, over the giant pit surrounding the Arena. Reaching the other end of the rail, you gasped out as you then found yourself falling straight down.

    * * *

    Getting to your feet and slowly opening your eyes, you found yourself right in the middle of Gakuto's game grid Arena. You heard the excited cheering of Shadows all around you, as the blue lines that marked the black grid slowly turned to red.
    At the winner's podium were three floating screens, each displaying various games until they flashed with static, now showing you confused on the floor and Gakuto leering down from high above you.

    "Hee-ho, Shadows and Demons, we've got quite the fight for you tonight!" came the chilly announcer's voice of a bright blue little demon wearing a darker blue jester's hat.

    "Hahaha, indeed we do, Frost!" came the cackling voice of a floating, pumpkin-headed demon, "Now, this 'Jack' of Hearts may have a score of 1-0, but we're about to see if that one win has gone to her head, if she thinks she can challenge the reigning champ, the Ace of Wands, the undefeated gaming legend, Momoi Gakuto!"

    Those cheers only got louder as Gakuto, using Octavian's electricity for magnetism, slowly descended onto the floor, waving casually to the gathered audience.

    "Well well, Honoka, you made it here in one piece, though of course only due to the other Aces' charity," Gakuto smirked, adjusting his glasses. "Of course, we've been nothing but generous to you this whole time... yet you've repaid us with nothing. Face it, everything you've amounted to in life, you owe to us, yet I say jump... you insist on keeping your feet firmly on the ground. Meanwhile, what has anyone else ever given you?!"

    You could only seethe, but then you grinned, as you told Gakuto, "I'll tell what other people, what the 'uncool crowd' has given me. Dignity. Actually treating me like a human being, not like a dog in a chain, a project to fix, or their little fetish. Heh, wanna know why I became Himawari's Jack? Because she's the only All-Ace who deserves that title!"

    Gakuto's sneer was soon replaced by bemusement, as he said, "Really? We'll see if the school thinks the same way, I've already uploaded her every last dirty secret to the teachers' computers as we speak".

    Your jaw dropped, "You what?!"

    "Feh, enough about her, you're now the last obstacle in my way," Gakuto spat out, before smiling "Say hello to Rin and Eitaro for me, won't you?"

    Gakuto used Octavian's magnetism to immediately launch himself up, before attempting to drop what looked like an entire computer block on you. You then had to keep leaping back, as he kept magnetising firewalls over, not just to block you off, but to also ram you or even slice you with their edges.

    You tried switching Persona, only to find... you somehow couldn't access the one you wanted! You were then reminded of that genre shift Gakuto placed, that Survival Horror limited your resources, wait, did that also apply to Personae?

    (Vote for Five Personae to keep during this Duel, the other five will be disabled until the next gameplay shift. Plan voting okay.)
    [ ] Fool Theodora.
    [ ] Justice Simurgh.
    [x] Justice Sherlock.
    [x] Hermit Franken.
    [x] Fortune Skuld.
    [x] Rebirth Arsene.
    [ ] Devil Anastasia.
    [ ] Tower PITT.
    [ ] Tower Chernobog.
    [x] Moon Camazotz.
    [ ] Moon Carmilla

    <<BGM: Kamen Rider Build - Be The One>>

    You used Skuld's inherent speed to race through Gakuto's attempt at hacking straight into the battlefield, even if the firewalls he kept pulling up around him meant that you constantly had to dodge in and out or take the long way around. He used Octavian's electricity not to blast at you directly, but to keep hurling chunks of metal, be they vehicles, consoles, or screens, at you from the sides, which made you cast Freila with Skuld to try blasting them all back at him.

    When you reached him again back at the start, you found out just what he had been setting up away from you, as he blasted you with a Zionga boosted from stacked Makakajas. You didn't have enough time to switch into Franken, but Skuld was at least resistant enough to electricity to take the voltage.

    Rather than Franken though, you instead switched to Sherlock to erase any Makakaja or Tarukaja he may have set up. At this, Gakuto hissed, "Huh, even five Personae against one is still a rigged match. Hmhm, that's why I brought back up".

    Down from the ceiling there suddenly descended what looked like a red-mantled, white-armoured, crusading paladin, except entirely robotic and wielding rifles instead of the expected swords. Gakuto magnetised himself right onto one of its shoulders and chuckled, "Honoka, Model 801. 801, Honoka. Open Fire!"

    "What's that, hee-ho?" the chilly fairy commentator called out, "We've got a new twist. Hmm, well it's not another Persona-user, so I don't think the rules cover this, ho".

    The sight of this '801' thing made you immediately switch back to Skuld to prepare for the oncoming bullet hail. However, this 801 was able to adapt as it saw its bullets barely slowing you down, and instead prepared to blast you with Haman. Fortunately, Skuld had that resisted to, along with Analyse to see this thing, being a robot, was still weak to Fire no matter how much it resisted Gun and Electric.

    You immediately stitched to Sherlock to cast Hellfire, watching what were puffed out as sulphuric clouds soon burst aflame, gradually starting to melt the battle-droid down into metallic ooze.

    "Ah, my favourite part," called the pumpkin-headed commentator, "When things start to seriously heat up!".

    Gakuto, electrically positioned on a ledge up above, seemed to anticipate this with glee, as using electricity he magnetised the ooze over to try and drown you in it. You however, then called upon Franken to use his electrical power to hold the metallic liquid at bay.

    Naturally Gakuto quickly grew tired of this tug-of-war, so soon dropped the melting robot to try another tactic, summoning four firewalls around you to completely box you off, pushing them closer and closer together upon themselves.
    That was when you called upon Camazotz, using his Garula wind to keep jumping off each of the closing firewalls, until you leapt right out over them, Gakuto still unable to materialise a fifth firewall in the middle of thin air.

    The 801's head and shoulders were all that remained of it right now so, wary of how much SP keeping your Personae summoned to ride them ate up, you instead used Skuld's electricity to magnetise yourself onto the 801's head, before switching back to Camazotz to immediately launch yourself off again, leaping with tonfas out towards Gakuto.

    Twirling up into the air, you had your tonfas configured to rain rapid fire down onto the Ace of Winds, which forced him to keep spinning his neon staff to deflect your bullets. When he had a gap of opportunity available, he called upon Octavian to use electricity to magnetise the bullets back, not at you, but rather at one of the monitor screens behind you.

    On that screen, you were able to briefly glimpse footage of the All-Aces, rounding up those zombies and pummelling them to dust in an explosive cloud of cartoonish violence. Then the deflected bullets made the screen promptly shatter, forcing you to dodge in and out against a deluge of sparks that poured out all over the Arena.

    Gakuto meanwhile was avoiding all over them, by magnetising himself up to a camera floating high above the Arena, swinging on while you were caught in an electric barrage. Franken though was able to help you stand against, and even recover with, all the sparks... but that proved little consolation when the sparks caused the arena to catch on fire.

    "T-this may be your element, Pyro Jack, but for me, things may be getting too hot-ho to handle-ho!" the chilly commentator started sweating.

    "Ah quit whining, just cast Red Wall like a regular demon," the pumpkin commentator only replied.

    Matters just got made worse due to the 801, having been left alone by you as you focused on Gakuto, had now gotten enough time to... restore itself, congealing its ooze back into its regular shape. Of course, the surrounding fires, not mere firewalls now weren't helping it, but the machine took the last chance it had to open fire on you, not helped by Franken having no defence against Gun.

    Rather than simply rely on Franken's Endurance though, you instead got the split-second idea of trying to pull forth a firewall yourself, cyberspace was just electricity after all, wasn't it? Pulling one over to block the 801's barrage, you then pushed it forward to ram into the machine, trying with all Franken's bure strength to push it backwards into the fires.

    The 801 was strong enough to not be so easily pushed back, but this tactic still gave you enough time to run over, magnetise yourself to one of those screens, and then use Camazotz to push you up off it in a burst of wind, before switching to Skuld to magnetise you to the floating camera Gakuto was also holding onto.

    Before he could react, you immediately struck him with each of your tonfas as you dove into him. Wincing and yelling as you kept on hitting him, it seemed to have gotten through to Gakuto that limiting Personae wasn't going to work.
    "This gun only allows me one shot," he spat out in between your tonfa blows, "But that one shot is all I need to eliminate any opponent!" He then finally fired off his massive plasma gun, covering everything in a blinding discharge... but you had Skuld to resist it, leaving you with one last sliver of health.

    As you fell, you had Arsene repeatedly cast Dia on you, before you switched to Camazotz at the very last second before you hit the floor, picking you back up.

    Gakuto too lost his grip, perhaps having run out of any last drop of SP. As he screamed as he plummeted to the floor, an arena floor now gradually collapsing as it became consumed by inferno, something... took over him. His puny, struggling form was eclipsed by an inky darkness
    Gakuto became completely engulfed in a corpse-like, rusted medieval armour now excessively augmented by future technology. You guessed his old Regalia was but the exoskeleton of... this thing, his gauntlets resembled computer towers, his chestplate a keyboard, its shattered helm showing a giant exposed brain, and it was all able to fly on its own too, riding atop a crackling thundercloud.

    "I am a Shadow... the ultimate authority, the master brain," this creature that'd been Gakuto pulsed out, "You want a play a game? Very well. Announcing Genre Shift: Bullet Hell!"

    Gakuto had told you about this, about how he feebly ordered you to send Himawari to a complete breakdown, making her lose control of her persona and be consumed by her Shadow. Wait, it seemed that Shift gave you more to think about right now...

    "Whoa whoa whoa, and I thought things were heating up before!" Pyro Jack called out, "The whole floor's being deleted, it's gonna have to be a dogfight from here on out!"

    Crap, that means no more magic casting, you thought, every last bit of SP left will have to go to keeping my Persona in the air. Well, at least I've got Simurgh back...

    [x] Try circling around Gakuto's... Shadow, continuously unloading bullets.
    [ ] Open fire on him directly, when you have a direct line of sight.
    [ ] He'll be expected a bullet showdown. Instead, strike him physically, catching him off guard.
    [ ] Try finding anywhere to land, regardless of whether it's still in the Arena.
    [ ] Dismiss your Persona until you've fallen far below, then re-summon it once you're out of sight.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Flying around on Camazotz, hoping to get close enough to Shadow Gakuto to accurately fire, he conjured forth a whole Zio Gate that sent a vortex of lightning circling around you, with you not able to switch to Franken and absorb it less you wanted to fall right into the Abyss. Even trying to stay in the middle of the lightning spiral, you found constantly having to dodge lightning spikes that kept blasting from side to side.

    Flying upwards out of it, Gakuto then shot a whole ball lightning barrage at you, which all together formed one giant lightning sphere. As he then clasped his hands together, this lightning sphere of spheres was about to collapse in on you, forcing you to switch to Franken anyway to avoid an iron maiden of electrocution.

    Plunging down, you quickly switched to Simurgh to get back to flying again, and after both that rise out of that vortex and the fall from that sphere, you seemed to at last be eye level with Gakuto.

    Atop Simurgh, you wasted no time in pulling out your tonfas and unloading on him, some of your bullets even breaking of pieces of his armour to expose, er, more pulsating pieces of brain where a brain shouldn't out to be.

    Your all-out firing didn't last long though, as this Shadow now seemed to certainly be powerful enough to create firewalls in mid-air, sending a horizontal one and then a vertical one to try and slice you or at least knock you off. Flying up to keep shooting at him, and especially at all those exposed pieces of brain, you had to start wondering just how many bullets you had left. While they were slowly chipping away at him, probably more so given the genre shift, he was clearly not going down soon.

    Rather than sending a firewall straight at you this time though, Gakuto flew around you to summon six of them, all of them trapping you in their cube. Knowing you'd need extra force to get out of this, you switched to Camazotz to perform a Spiral Edge, crashing through the cube before Gakuto could zap you to his liking.

    After breaking out though, you found that you'd flown yourself quite the distance away from Gakuto, though were now quite close to one of the monitors still attached to the wall of the Arena. Remembering the current genre, you flew up and out of the way before unloading your guns on the screen, causing it to shatter like Gakuto had before, sending a whole stream of sparks flying at his Shadow.

    As he was being pelted, you landed yourself on the thin strip at the top of this now-shattered display screen to, in a way, watch the fireworks. However, being continuously pelted by shards of broken glass and sparks ready to burst still didn't take this thing down, with you having to duck as he sent another firewall at you.

    Landing on the top of the screen near you, Gakuto's Shadow then conjured three firewalls to the left, right and top of you. Now that you couldn't move any way except back and forth, almost like he might as well have changed things to a 2D fighter (except without even jumping enabled), he then shot a fourth firewall straight at you.

    Gritting your teeth, you had Camazotz deliver a Spiral Edge downwards, crashing down your side of the screen while Gakuto lever-like was pushed upwards. As you then yourself falling, you got Camazotz to fly you back up again to where Gakuto had been flung up into the air... to unleash one last desperate attack.

    You screamed out as you had Camazotz blast a Garula stream at Gakuto, who by now was a little but a pulsating brain surrounded by a thundercloud. It seemed like your gamble had paid off, as your last spell sent Gakuto ricocheting far past the bounds of the Arena.
    However, this now left you without a drop of SP, leaving you unable to do little else but fall into the void below. You at least tried switching to the luckier Simurgh, but what good would that do when you were now unable to cast any more spells?

    Well, it seemed to do at least something, as you found yourself hitting solid ground again. While falling from that height couldn't help but cause some blunt shock, you surprisingly weren't in much pain as you'd otherwise be, Guess Gakuto must've disabled fall damage or something, you had to think, Can't complain, either way.

    As you tried standing up again, you saw the crowds of Shadow subjects, spat back out after Shadow Gakuto would've absorbed them, staring at you in hushed silence.
    "Ahem, devils, demons and shadows, I believe... we have a winner. Jack of Hearts, Nakamura Honoka!" Pyro Jack announced, though barely any of the Shadows started cheering. Huh, you hoped these guys at least had a medal for you, or something.

    "Hee-ho, we've just located where Gakuto ended up. It... doesn't look too promising for him, hee," murmured Jack Frost.

    Your frame stiffened; you breathed out. "You can teleport me to him, right, or something like that? The last guy I duelled, well even for someone like Gakuto, I-I don't want to go through all that again," you spoke out up at them.

    "...Yeah, we think we can get something set up. You sure are pushy though, sheesh," Pyro Jack, before the two Jack Brothers were then able to warp you away.

    * * *

    You found you'd rematerialized back in that eerie, A.I. mausoleum where Gakuto's mind that shut away all the A.I.s he'd deleted before he came up with Aimoto Koyomi, one who apparently who have too many thoughts on her own. Except...

    Gakuto, back to some form of 'normal' after you'd royally beat up his armour-brain Shadow or whatever, was struggling to pick his wounded self up... as the Shadow of Koyomi was standing right above him.

    "Creator," her distorted voice coldly muttered down at Gakuto, "Why did you delete them, all these women you created only to cast aside, who all had thoughts more developed than I?"

    "Because..." his beaten frame struggled to say, struggled to say anything really, "Because, of the reason I was so passionate about programming, about creating something digitally, in the first place-" His legs collapsed, as he started coughing up blood, "So I would someone that'd do everything I'd say, not need to be... directed, not ask all these... questions!" he spat out, about to collapse again.

    At those words, Shadow Koyomi began crackling intensely. As much as you'd taken pleasure in beating up Gakuto, you gasped and almost froze, afraid at what you assumed she'd do next.

    "I am a Shadow," her voice crackled, as she morphed back into the draconic Aiatar again, high voltage lashing out all around her "The ultimate authority. Do not play God, when you cannot face an Avenging Angel!"

    "Koyomi..." became Gakuto's last word, as what he'd suppressed within his own creation delivered no less than a lightning strike to him at point blank range.

    - The Hierophant has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    After that discharge, you saw Gakuto, the Ace of Wands, was now... nothing but a charred corpse.

    <<BGM: Bokurano - Uninstall (piano cover)>>

    W-wait, Octavian resists Electricity, even at that low health, Gakuto still should've have been- you thought at first, but were then reminded, Oh yeah, Octavian, that Persona I utterly vanquished in single combat.
    Hey wait, I might still have a chance to- it started to occur to you, as you switched to Anastasia to cast Recarm... only to remember, Oh damn, no SP.

    With Gakuto now dead, you could see his Empire around him begin to deteriorate like him. But rather than just crumble and cloud over like Eitaro's did, it looked like Gakuto's Empire was descending into a glitched-out, malfunctioning mess, as what had been an ordered system now fizzed and crackled like static, or had parts of itself teleport all over the place.

    You then stared up at Gakuto's killer, his direct killer anyway, Koyomi's Shadow.
    "Hey, nobody knows how shitty a guy Gakuto was like I did, but..." you gulped, having no idea how to confront a hologram's dark side who'd just killed someone right in front of you, "Did you, did you have to kill him for it?!"

    "Kill?" Shadow Koyomi suddenly asked, following that with, "I, I don't know what you mean, that is... not a concept in my databanks. I assume you mean 'delete', but I know that is something only possible to do against programs, programs like me".

    You couldn't believe what you were hearing. "Killing. As in, y'know, death, murder, taking life, making it so someone can't... do or be anything anymore. Christ, you'd better not be playing some kinda joke, but then... why wouldn't Gakuto program a concept as basic as 'death' into you?" you raged out, collapsing your head into your hands.

    Shadow Koyomi, no longer in Aiatar form, looked down at her hands, the same hands that had administered that killing shock. You waited to hear whatever she could possibly have to say, but instead, she said nothing.
    ...But another, internal voice did.

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Hermit Arcana"

    ...Was this really the best time?
    So you just looked down at Gakuto again, looking like his corpse was about ready to crumble to ashes, as the four remaining Aces ran into the room.

    "Honoka!" Nightshade called out, sounding more like Himawari despite her Regalia, "Are- Are you okay?"

    "We noticed you were nowhere to be found when we reached the Arena" Azuma stated.

    "Appreciate the concern, but... I'm not exactly who you should be worried about here" you responded to her, as you glanced back down.

    Everyone took in that a third All-Ace had now died, with Kikuko in particular noticing the Shadow hologram standing above his corpse.
    Seeing her, Kikuko violated the whole moment as she burst out laughing. "How fitting, the so-called technological comforts of the modern age ended up betraying him!" she gave a devilish grin.

    You then had to speak up against Kikuko, "Hey, quit it with your Luddite ravings, this isn't exactly the time or place for that, you hear?" It was weird, like literally walking in Kikuko's shoes had removed some invisible barrier between the two of you.

    You expected Kikuko to lash out, but instead she gave you a cold smile, "You're right, who's to say you're not accomplice in this?"

    "Hmhm, oh poor Honoka. Better consider yourself lucky that we can't have people finding out about the Gameboard... or that you're a Wild Card... or that we can't risk implicating ourselves, ahem. Otherwise, we'd have ratted you out to the cops long ago, you little serial killer you," Melissa smirked as she approached you.

    You wanted to firmly tell her that this was Shadow Koyomi's doing... but Melissa and Kikuko kind of had a point, as hard as it was to face it. After how your fight with Gakuto had gone, especially since unlike Eitaro you'd challenged him, did you really have no responsibility for his death?

    "I can't deny, a single killing could be written off as in self-defence, but two?" even Azuma, usually the first to try getting all too close to you, had to admit, "Still, the Shadow of his little hologram is hardly doing anything to absolve herself here".
    Wait, Azuma knew about Koyomi? you had to think.

    Himawari did remind of one thing Gakuto had said, that one of his last acts, as some sort of desperation move, was to upload everything he had on Himawari to the staff computers- oh God, oh no.

    "Listen, if you'll stop with your fake concern about Gakuto's death, yeah, don't think I've forgotten about how you reacted when Eitaro died, I have to get back to the School right away," you spoke out, as you gulped then said, "Since Gakuto may've just tried to take another of us down with him..."
    Last edited by NailsInYourFeet; September 8th, 2022 at 06:10 AM. Reason: Fixing Collapse tag

  9. #29
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    XXIX. Expulsion and Escape

    Appearing back in the Lounge, it wasn't long before a group of teachers, and some prying students, showed up as you then headed back out into the corridor.

    "Honoka!" Tanizawa-sensei then rushed up to you, saying "I tried explaining things to the others, b-but, there was stuff in there even I didn't know. like, I knew Night-Hima, oh shit, I guess it doesn't matter anymore, was hanging out with suspicious people, but I-"

    "But taking hard drugs? Accepting funds from the Yakuza?!" you then heard the Vice-Principal roar as she stormed right up, eyes dead set on Himawari.

    Turning around, you saw a quivering Himawari now looked incapable of even forming a single word. As she was led in what felt like a death march to the Principal's office, you had no idea what to do to get her out of this. She wasn't just at risk of being expelled, she could be sent to juvenile hall as a lawbreaker.

    You pressed your ear against the Principal's office, listening to Himawari what could've passed for a panic attack as she was questioned, nay, interrogated. Tanizawa-sensei was there to try and argue for her, you could catch her saying that she'd never known about any 'drugs' except a cigarette or too, but that cabinet in Himawari's private room told a different story.

    You were then ushered in, with the exhausted Principal sighing, head in his hands, as he said, "Well, um, Miss Nakamura, was it? They tell me you were one of Himawari's closest friends, so um," he then looked at the Vice-principal glaring right behind them, "Ah, can you give me any reason why Himawari shouldn't be expelled? I mean, ahem, we're going to anyway, but we thought giving you a chance to speak for her would be good for keeping up customs".

    [ ] "Look, Himawari, Nightshade had no idea what she was getting into! her parents wouldn't support her, she was stressed like Hell, how can you blame for doing what she did?"
    [ ] "Wait, how come you're not questioning any of the other All-Aces? Why do the rest of them get off scot-free?
    [ ] "Okay, yeah, I get you found drugs in her room. But how the Hell can you take this 'yakuza' stuff at face value, was- is Gakuto really that trustworthy?"
    [ ] "...You know what? Go on, expel her, you said you were gonna anyway. It won't change that Himawari's my friend!"
    [x] "You realise, if Himawari's expelled, if she's jailed, what the hell is there gonna be for her in this world? You're not doing anything to help her recover, you're just ruining her life!"
    [ ] Write-in.

    Your protests in favour of Himawari, and how both expulsion and jail could wreck far more than just her teenage life... seem to fall on deaf ears.

    "Ahem, well Miss, what was it, Nakamura, this is kind of a case of 'not our problem'. As Principal, I'm here to serve the school, so I can't just ditch the wellbeing all our other students for a single troublemakers' sake. Sorry Miss, just reporting on the facts" said your bespectacled, going-grey Principal, Oguri Junichiro.

    "Aoyagi Broke. The. Law. She'd be considered a criminal by Western standards, let alone our Japanese ones," Fujino Teruko, the far blunter Vice-Principal, spat out at you, "May I ask why you're so eager to defend criminal behaviour, Nakamura?"

    "Hmhm, may I ask why you're so eager to highlight criminal behaviour?" it was Ryouko who then spoke up, striding forth, "Need I remind you what will happen if the news get hold of the expulsion and arrest of one of our school's most popular students over drugs?"

    "She has a point," Hotaru, who'd been required to listen in on this whole thing, had to follow up, "I mean, two All-Aces have died in recent years, jailing another would paint our school in the most negative light possible".

    "Three actually," you said on instinct, before immediately covering your mouth.

    Teruko, ignoring you for the moment, was left seething, saying to Tanizawa-sensei "How like you to defend her, Ryouko, it's not like you care much for the letter of the law yourself. Still... I do have to concede, this could threaten our institute's reputation".

    "Well, now I'm right confused," the Principal was left scratching his head, "Should we expel this girl or what?"

    Teruko just sighed out at first, but eventually decided, "We'll pay the fine to get her out of jail, if only to not deal with all the press, but her staying at our school is simply not an option. We're not a rehab clinic, after all."

    Himawari collapsed into a near-paralytic mess. Even if some clever words may have saved her from the worst, her future still looked grey.
    "I'll... I'll go get my things," she whimpered, standing up and heading back to the Lounge.

    What really gets me is, with all the shame of being expelled, you had to think, but knew you couldn't say, they've probably pushed Himawari even harder onto drugs, as some desperate coping method.

    Being her Jack, you followed Himawari back to what was most likely her last visit to the Lounge. It was almost a wonder though that Himawari didn't freeze up on the way there, as students soon started jeering at her as she walked past. You tried to not pay attention to a single one of their insults, but even then, you heard constant taunts about her 'impurity', accusations of her lying and tempting the whole school, and a ton of questions about her virginity. Reaching the lounge couldn't come sooner, as a second longer and you would've burst out at all the other students.

    Heading into the lounge and slamming the door shut behind you, so you wouldn't have to hear another word, Azuma, Kikuko, and Melissa immediately confronted the two of you.

    "So, expulsion then?" Azuma soon picked up on, "How... efficient, wouldn't you say? Not even mid-terms, yet already us All-Aces have been cut down by half. Pity few of us are into non-Japanese History, as I could almost draw parallels to what the Ottomans did with their princely heirs".

    "Er, what's this got to do with plush stools?" Melissa had to ask, before she turned to say, "Well, scoot along Himawari, and be grateful your precious porcelain Asian skin kept you from a jail sentence. There were a couple of Black and Latino kids at my old school, and they were nowhere near as fortunate".
    You did have to doubt that someone like Melissa went to any school that wasn't all-white, but anyway.

    Kikuko said nothing, and simply pointed at the door to Himawari's old room with her sword.

    You had to nudge Himawari over to where all her luggage was, she probably would've collapsed otherwise. As you sat her down on her former bed, you knew there was only one thing you could do.
    Reaching into her cupboards, you got out her hidden Nightshade wig and handed it to her. "If, if there's at least one bright side to all of this, Himawari, it's that you no longer have to hide who you are from the school. Don't," your eyes started welling up, "Don't let them take your pride in who you really are".

    Then dressed as Nightshade, she leapt over and hugged you tight, perhaps too tight as her nails started digging into you. "Yeah, you're right. I freakin' love you, Honoka!" Nightshade burst out, before she stood up and said, "I'm not gonna let my final 'performance' at this school be on its godforsaken terms. They said themselves they can't arrest me, so before I leave, I'm gonna enjoy my every last minute here".

    Hurriedly putting all her stuff in bags, which she then asked you to carry, she then walked out to the remaining three Aces, starting with Melissa.
    "Melissa, your tastes in fashion are shit, and you know why?" Nightshade then spat at her, "Because you're a total conformist. Like, we're told Americans value the individual so goddamn much, yet you're a slave to whatever's popular, never finding a style of your own". Before Melissa could reply, Nightshade kicked her in the stomach at heelpoint and added "All your fossil fuel riches ain't gonna make that hurt any less, huh you literal motherfucker?"

    Kikuko was next, as Nightshade approached her and said, "Hey, Kikuko, stop living in the freakin' past. Accept at in your precious Sengoku and Edo periods, a girl like you would've been treated like shit, and you've got more going for you now than you ever would've then. Sorry, it almost sounds like I'm complimenting you, so, well, fuck you".

    However, Kikuko was ready for any blow Nightshade could strike, as she reached to pull out her blade. As she leaned to her right though, Nightshade delivered a rapid punch from the other direction, sending Kikuko tumbling down.

    That just left Azuma in this room, as Nightshade glared him, "As for you, pretty-boy, Honoka ain't interested. Any other lovestruck girl at this school would gladly be yours, so why not love someone who loves you back, instead of pestering someone who's had to tell you no over and over again. My last words to any All-Ace: Honoka's with me, keep your grubby paws off of her".
    Like a tigress, Nightshade bared her nails and slashed at Azuma's face, causing him to bleed. She then strode out of the Lounge, with you about to follow her, but not before you took a look at the Gameboard.

    Sure enough, while Himawari's Empire was still there, it'd already shrunk, and like how Rin's sun had become a black hole, Eitaro's displays of power had crumbled, and Gakuto's coding had been swarmed with glitches... the opposite weirdly had happened to the remains of Himawari's Empire. The whole place had been clean up, the crooked houses straightened, the seedy clubs now more high-end, and the crooked roads now having a bunch of work done to them. You think you'd heard city planners call this 'gentrification' or something.

    Wait, if this means Himawari's been 'dethroned', does that mean... you got to thinking, finding one possible upside in all of this, That you don't have to kill an Ace for them to forfeit their Empire?

    As you tried to hurry after Nightshade, curious if afraid of what she'd say to the rest of the school, the All-Aces all blocked the way out of the Lounge.
    "Well Honoka, with the Ace of Hearts out of the way, it's custom for one's respective Jack to leave our circle as well" Azuma told you, "However, being a Wild Card, we can't exactly let you go. So, you shall have the rare privilege of being able to choose a second Ace to serve under".

    Oh yeah, you'd forgot about that whole thing.

    "However," Kikuko did say, staring at you, "We'll at least give you some time to decide, this time around, as it's not an oath to swear lightly".
    You wondered if Kikuko's experience in your body had possibly made her gain some empathy towards you? ...No, that might be wishful thinking.

    "Hmm, on one hand, I was gonna kick Reina out anyway, so I could use a new Jack pronto," Melissa then spoke up, before she frowned, "On the other, I can't exactly be seen walking around with the bootlicker of the expelled addict girl, now can I?"

    You had to scowl at her, as you were finally able to push past.

    * * *

    Sure enough, before her departure, Nightshade was already causing a scene in the school halls, as she'd grabbed a mic and was now announcing from the floor above, "Hi there, thank you, fuck you. Yeah, I'm Aoyagi Himawari, but you can call me Nightshade now. Don't any of you tell me you're so sad that I wasn't the 'good girl' you thought I was. I hated that little 'oh I'm so cute' act you and my parents kept forcing on me. Well not anymore, I'm Nightshade, I'm every single insult you little shits can come up with, and I fucking love every last second of it!"

    As you approached her, she immediately grabbed your arm and pulled you over, "Now, may I introduce the band? Jack of Hearts, Nakamura Honoka on Bass everyone, who's been at my side through thick and thin, and is probably the one thing I'm grateful to Hanataba for".

    You shuddered being put centre stage like this, for all the praise Nightshade showered on you. She went on to pull Ryouko over as she tried to see what all this was about, with Nightshade saying "My old sensei, Tanizawa Ryouko on Guitar! I can guarantee, she's probably had more fun with me than she's had teaching here.
    Unfortunately, Colette Claudius on Occult Club and Drums couldn't make it here today, due to this school and a certain dead Ace of Wands screwing her over. But rest assured, if you want a proper lady to gush over, she's more ladylike than my old cutesy act ever was!" Nightshade finished.

    She then took off by sliding down the bannister, with the Principal trying to confront her.
    "Well hi, Junichiro, mind stepping a little closer?" Nightshade suddenly said to him. As he approached, she rapidly opened a locker on him, smashing him right in the face and knocking him over, his glasses fractured.
    "Face it, O Principal, you've basically handed your precious school over to the All-Aces. I should know," she spat down on him.

    Nightshade then once and for all walked out the school doors, with you catching up to her at the gates.
    She immediately spun around and hugged you again, saying "Hey um, Honoka, mind if I ask for a farewell kiss? I'm sorry I got a little too, er, hands-on last time."

    "Wha-? Sure, that's fine by me," you told her, as Nightshade then reached over, planted her lips directly on yours, and twined her tongue and yours together.
    Pulling apart after what felt like a while, she blushed and said to you, "Everyone tells me that you shouldn't fall in love with your bandmate, that it's a recipe for disaster, but... oh I can't help it. Honoka, I really love you!"

    You, er, had no idea how to react to that. Part of you wanted to say you loved her too, but other parts kept thinking about Colette, Reina, Keiko, and a whole bunch of others.
    Man, I don't think monogamy could ever work out for me. But polygamy's got its own problems, like how you do make sure everyone's on board with it? In the end, you not knowing what to say became just what you said, "I'm speechless".

    Nightshade had to giggle at that, but then admitted, "Damn, guess the fun part's over for now. Trashing on the school's one thing, but now I gotta explain everything to my Catholic parents. Then our parish, then the freakin' Susukino yakuza, no way they're gonna be pushovers like Junichiro was.
    Still, on the upside..." she smiled, "I'm finally free to be me. So hey, Honoka, don't look at this as the end or anything, think of it as, hmm, a new beginning. Call me anytime, I'm always up for band stuff. Oh, guess I'm gonna be grounded, but hey, I can always sneak out".

    You were smiling on the outside, but inside, you were worried that Nightshade's life could possibly risk going even further downhill, if her and 'Himawari' couldn't reconcile.
    "Hey, thank you," you said to her, taking her hand for a second, "I guess I couldn't leave you, not even if I tried, huh?" before you two embraced each other one last time that day.

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    * * *

    A whole entire Duel, another death regardless of deservedness, and going through your friend getting expelled and barely avoiding jail, all left you in no mood to do anything that night. You figured you should at least say something to Megumi, or phone Colette up to tell what had happened, but well, it was hard to find the words on such notice. Even though you barely said anything to Megumi though, you could tell they were starting to suspect something.

    Of course, this little chapter in your life wasn't going to tie up so neatly. You knew this Saturday, once the shock of Himawari's... final, show-stopping number had ended, that your school was immediately gonna be all over Gakuto's death. You tried to get your mind off that by thinking about what you were going to do later with half the day off, but you knew you'd have to come up with some alibi sooner or later.

    However, on the way to school, Melissa suddenly approached you. "Hey Honoka, guess who's got the day off?"

    You flinched, before saying "What are you planning, Melissa?"

    "Nothing much, us Aces are just taking a little vacation over the weekend, and whaddya know, we have enough tickets to bring you along too!" she grinned at you, "How's Russia sound? I mean yeah, we won't have enough time to head over to Moscow or St. Petersburg, but two days still gives us the chance to check out Sakhalin and Vladivostok. It'll be a great chance to get to know us a little better, enough to maybe pick out your new Ace, hmm?"

    That didn't make things any better. "Really, you're gonna spring Russia of all places on me that quickly? And hey, can't you just tell me the real reason for this trip is that you wanna skip town until the heat dies down around Gakuto?"

    "Quiet, you..." Melissa snarled, picking you up by your collar, before she suddenly had to stop and play innocent as a familiar face approached.

    "My my, fancy running into the two of you again" the silver-haired biker-lawyer woman you'd met while travelling around Hokkaido, Niijima Sae you remembered her name being, suddenly approached you, "Of course, you said you were both Hanataba students, so it's natural you'd be here".

    "Oh, hi~" Melissa waved and smiled, but with an acidic tint to her voice "Ahem, didn't you say you'd be back in Tokyo by now?"

    "I expected to be, but after some rather... perplexing news broke last night, my sister and I chose to extend our time here a little longer. We weren't exactly in any hurry to get back" she said, before taking out a notebook and pen. "Now, I won't keep you long, I just want to ask a few questions. Your fellow students have told me you two knew Gakuto, is that correct?"

    "What business is it of yours?" Melissa had to hiss at her, seemingly not even concerned anymore about maintaining appearances.

    "Attorney-at-law, remember? How isn't this my business?" Sae glared back at her. "Anyway, reports say Gakuto died from electrocution, you two wouldn't happen to know anything about that?"

    [ ] "He worked with computers constantly, this was always a risk".
    [ ] "He was working on something, ah, experimental. We were afraid this would happen".
    [ ] "You know how prestigious school clubs have all these weird rituals, right? Well, er, by complete accident, one of ours got out of hand..."
    [x] "He ran a revenge blog, so heaps of people would've had it out for him. So anyone could be suspect."
    [ ] "I think someone or something, we don't know what, is targeting All-Aces. First Rin, then Eitaro, now Gakuto..."
    [ ] Write-in.
    "Yeah, a revenge blog. I only know how students at our school were affected, but I'm told he had dirt on people from all over the country," you followed up on, "Got real dark too, like leaking people's sexual histories is putting it mildly. I once saw someone's OnlyFans' pics hacked and reposted over" You neglected to tell her these belonged to Nightshade specifically.

    "if you ask me though, in that regard what did she expect? I mean, if you post that sort of thing online in the first place, of course it's gonna be-Ow!" Melissa then clenched her stomach, after you jabbed your elbow into it before she could say anything more.

    Sae didn't seem too fazed to hear this somehow, you figured it may be because, as a once high-flying lawyer, she'd heard similar horror stories in the past. "I see. Well, I believe that'll serve as sufficient information for now, so if you'll excuse me".

    "Sis, what are you doing?" came the voice of the prematurely greying brunette who you recognised from before as Makoto. "I'd thought you quit being a prosecutor?"

    "Whether on the offence or defence, information like this is crucial in law," Sae was swift to justify herself, barely pausing, "Besides, at least I'm taking some interest in this case".

    "Grr, of course I care about what's going on here! I just, well, think there might be better ways to go about it than just going up to students and interrogating on the streets," Makoto came back with.

    "Huh, how unlike you, Makoto," Sae huffed and crossed her arms.

    "A~hem, excuse me, I thought we were the ones being interrogated here? When did this become all about you two lesbos?" Melissa just had to speak up, with you facepalming.

    Sae and Makoto went pale on hearing those words, with Makoto trying to clear things up first before Sae could say anything, "Oh n-no, we're sisters! I, um, thought I said that back when we met near Obihiro?"
    Makoto then bent down to you and said, "Look, ah, I know you must be going through a lot right now. A lot of stuff happened to me back in high school, but even I didn't have to face the death of my friends. Well, er, there might be one exception, but that's stretching the term".

    You wanted to tell her that they... really weren't that close to you, but that clearly wouldn't have been a wise move. So instead you just said, "Don't worry, I'm managing".

    "Uh, Earth to Honoka, Sakhalin trip, remember?" Melissa said in your face.

    You sighed. You felt on instinct you'd sooner stay in town with Makoto, maybe not Sae, than head to the forest expanses of Russia with the All-Aces. Still, it wasn't like you had any real choice in the matter, so you just said to the two sisters, "Sorry, I have to go, er, I wish I could be more helpful in your investigation".

    "No, that's okay, we just crossed paths at an inconvenient time, didn't we Sis?" Makoto said, before looking at Sae. She did look at you one last time. "Oh yeah, since... not much else is going on in my life right now, I'm considering getting a substitute teaching job at your school, if only to make our investigations look a little more natural".

    Hearing that did pique your interest, but a groaning Melissa was already dragging you by the arm.

    * * *

    It was weird being back in the All-Aces' limo with just Azuma, Kikuko, and Melissa being there, and other than you as 'Jack of All' again, if you remembered that term right, said Jacks for now just consisted of Na-rae and Shinsuke. You also uncomfortably noticed that Azuma was to your left, while he'd had Shinsuke sit to your right.

    Despite Melissa rushing you to get in the car in the first place, she oddly found enough time to stop at her place as she just so happened to forget a 'bunch of her things'. Said place, which you recalled her briefly mentioning, was an... entire hotel her daddy had brought, her own room apparently being all the way up on the top floor to get the best view.

    Having even more luggage shoved into the limo trunk, to the point where she had to take some bags in the car with her, seriously limiting your legroom, you finally then took off again.

    "So, um..." you began. As much as you didn't want to talk to the All-Aces, you at least felt you had to break the silence somehow. "This limo comes with a TV screen, right? Anyone wanna catch a stream or something?"

    Flicking it on, you were soon met with a preview of a Korean drama, which from the title made you wonder if it was adapted from one of your country's manga.

    Kikuko's eyes almost popped out, as she hissed "Turn this off. Now," but she was met with resistance.

    "God, what is your major malfunction, Kikuko? Hey, I watched K-Dramas even back in America, so I say keep it on! Besides, what else have we got to do on the ride to the Airport, look out the window?" Melissa spoke up, lifting her leg up at Kikuko as she tried to reach for the TV, not having the remote. Kikuko was then promptly tripped up, planting face first into a half-open suitcase.

    As the camera panned over a cinematic nature view, Na-rae's eyes widened as she gasped "Aye, this episode must've been shot on location at Jeju Island," before realising her mistress was in earshot. "Um, wherever that is".

    As the episode went on though, you started wishing Kikuko had turned it off, but for reasons other than nationality. When the orchestral score swooned over scenes of... God no, the male lead shoving the female lead against the wall and kissing her without asking, you tried to inch away from Azuma as much as you could.
    Well, maybe seeing that sort of thing portrayed on screen, however misguidedly, will make him rethink his actions? you had to hope for a second, before you sighed, Or just encourage his bullshit even more.

    Things got even more groanworthy when Melissa swooned "Oh, so romantic~"

    Fortunately you did soon arrive at New Chitose Airport in Sapporo, with you forgoing your usual coffee to keep your nerves down. You hadn't told anyone this, but you'd never actually flown before, and definitely not at this short notice.
    You did have to call Megumi to tell them about, well, everything.

    "Seriously, one of them dies, and now I've heard your friend got expelled, so they drag you on an impromptu trip to Russia?!" they exclaimed over the phone. "Like, how could this not be suspicious? Er, so, I take it Gakuto said he wanted the funeral in Russia or something?"

    You hesitated. Not only had Megumi found out about Himawari on their own, but Gakuto's funeral had completely slipped your mind, probably because you didn't want to think about funerals after how Eitaro's had turned out. "Ah, no, not really. I didn't hear anything about a funeral this trip," though it wouldn't be unlike the Aces to spring it on you out of nowhere, "...So you heard about Himawari?"

    "Oh, more than heard, she's actually come to stay in our flat a little while you're out, I guess a little longer than I thought now" Megumi told you, before asking, "Er, so how long do you plan to be in, um, Russia?"

    You sighed, "All I was told was 'Until the heat dies down'".

    Megumi winced. "Well, that doesn't sound suspicious at all. Sheesh, I mean I like Liza Tuktamysheva, The Master and Margarita or The Great Comet as much as anyone, but Russia's probably one of the last places I'd choose for a holiday. Ah, no offence. Okay then, do svidaniya, Honoka Youzovna Nakamurova, or whatever," they then had to hang up.

    Before the flight, you passed some time by looking up videos of planes taking off while you still had the internet, and decided to at least buy a book for the trips there and around:

    [ ] Cognitive Psience: A Study into the Ideal and the Real. [+Perception]
    [x] Over a Mysterious Rose: The Collected Volumes of a Classic Shoujo manga. [+Etiquette]
    [ ] Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov. [+Education]
    [ ] The Break-Blades of Light, some fantasy novel sitting in at over 1,000 pages. [+Resolve]
    [ ] Write-in.

    Boarding the plane, you had to sit next to Shinsuke then Na-rae, since the Aces' generosity hadn't extended enough to let you into first class with them. It may've been only minutes, but it felt like you had to wait forever for the plane to take off, but when it did...

  10. #30
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXX. Operation Beach Hunt

    You immediately turned green when it became all too clear how high up you now were, likely not helped by you having gotten the window seat, and quite an unlucky bit of turbulence.
    Okay, it's gonna be okay, they say planes are statistically safer than walking down the street, right? you tried to assure yourself as your stomach churned. As you mind and intestines screamed internally to be let off, even though that now you mean a stratospheric plummet, having a butler and maid seated next to you was something to feel lucky about in one sense.

    As the plane finally touched down in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Shinsuke rushed to catch you as you fell on the floor. "Are you quite alright, Miss Nakamura?" he asked, presumably out of courtesy given how obvious the answer was, "I shall alert master Azuma immediately about this".

    "...No, please, not him," you moaned, but your queasy voice may have been too soft to reach him. The thought occurred to you again that you'd have to take the plane again soon at least twice more.

    But Azuma inevitably had to come your way, even though first class had its own stairway off. Rather than doing the polite thing and just helping you up, he instead let out an amused giggle, before he played with your hair and said "My, Honoka, you look so delightful like this, when your vulnerable side comes out". Dear Lord, you just wanted to shut off your brain hearing that.

    After a whole bunch of passport stuff, your weary self, despite it not even being non yet, walked out the airport doors and first your step into Russia, the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. You flinched as you realised you only had a basic knowledge of Russian, the language being taught, or rather given lip service, in quite a few Hokkaido schools.

    Unsurprisingly, there was already quite a lot of arguing, mostly by Melissa, about where exactly the All-Aces should go in Sakhalin. All three having their own ideas, Azuma the Chekhov Museum, Kikuko the Japanese-style History Museum, and Melissa the nearest mall, you were naturally called over to sway the vote.

    [ ] "Er, the Gorny Vozdukh Ski Resort? It might be cool to see how it compares to the ones we have back home"
    [x] "Ah, Chekhov sounds interesting, from what I've read of him"
    [ ] "Heard the Gagarin Park's mean to be really nice"
    [ ] "Oh yeah, History, interesting and educational"
    [ ] "Shouldn't we head to the Hotel first?"
    [ ] "I just want a café or restaurant or something"
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<BGM: Persona 3 - When the Moon's Reaching Out Stars (Russian Cover)>>

    "Really? We arrive here in Russia's richest oblast, and the first thing you want to do is go check up on that gun guy who's been dead for over a century?" Melissa spoke down to you and Azuma. "Well, what-ever, I've got like the hotel and the city mall to be getting to, I didn't come here to take notes for a quiz or whatever".

    "Honestly Melissa, you should come along with us," you then spoke up, trying take her arm, "Not only might you learn something, but if anyone asks you about culture stuff, you'll be prepared". You left unsaid that you also didn't want left all alone with Azuma again, despite the Museum being a public place.

    "Indeed, Chekhov is likely the most renowned Russian playwright, noted for his time here in Sakhalin," Azuma added, "I've certainly read up on him, yet actually staging one of his plays is something I've never gotten around to. Plus, he did mostly write about the aristocracy, something I felt should interest you, Melissa."

    "Ah, okay then, well if you're super into that sorta thing, Azuma, maybe I can be convinced," she said, sidling up closer to him.
    It did kinda occur to you that Melissa was really more into Azuma then you, although practically everyone was by that standard. So why was she so intent on playing matchmaker instead, was she really into that sort of thing?

    It was quite the drive up north into the city centre, making you wish you'd really gotten a coffee or something, even at the airport. Throughout, the usually stoic Kikuko started regaling you with a little history lesson, "Japan was once more than four main islands, you understand. Karafuto, that is, Sakhalin, was once under our nation's control, or at least half of it was. I can't help but imagine what if we held onto it, if such an oil-rich island directly benefited the Japanese economy".

    Yeah, and I've wondered what if we all got nuked in the 80s or something, but you don't hear me talking about that out loud, you had to think.

    "Ugh, you're boring me, Kikuko~. We're on this trip to party it up, remember, not for a freakin' history lesson," Melissa groaned, lifting her feet up to the side, knocking Kikuko down, and using her spine as a footrest.

    When you did arrive at the Chekhov Museum, and not a moment too soon what with the Melissa-Kikuko tensions, you found the place nestled near the Sakhalin University. You figured you'd be keeping your sights on Hokkaido U for the foreseeable future though... if you were even still alive by the time you graduated.
    Conveniently nearby was both the Sakhalinskiy International Theatre, much to Azuma's delight, and also a Puppet Theatre, curiously enough.

    However, a problem soon emerged, when it became clear that the Museum wasn't the least bit accommodating to non-Russian speakers. You only had grade school knowledge of Russian at best, Melissa was more fluent due to her family's business interests but hardly adept, Azuma was able to make some of it out verbally due to having studied Greek, and Kikuko was hopeless. Neither of the servants were around to help either, as they were both occupied carrying all the Aces' stuff to their hotel.

    Then all of a sudden, a tanned girl with curly hair came running right up to the four of you, panting desperately as she finally reached you. "Ah, oh yeah, sorry I'm late, I just had to, y'know, get here totes quickly when I heard you were in the area. Heya, Melissa! I'm like super-stoked to see you again!" she said as she tried to hug Melissa, only for Melissa to sidestep out of the way and giggle, and this new girl was sent flailing. Still, said girl seemed to take that well, even if you couldn't help but notice her wince a little.
    "Oh, hi you guys, you must be Mia's, er, Melissa's friends back in Japan, hey aren't you? Nice ta meet'cha, ooh I take it Mia's, that's my little nickname for her, hehe, been getting along great with you all, I mean I personally wouldn't expect her to have anything less than the best taste in friends. But anyway, guess I should say hi by now, so I'm Nadezhda Sergevna Klimkina, but really if you're her friends then you're my friends too, so it's totally okay for you to call me Nadia!" this girl finally stopped talking.

    Wow, and I figured Reina could be hyperactive, you thought, clutching your head. It was weird though, that when you pictured a female Russian accent, you certainly didn't picture... this.

    "Seriously, can it already, Nadezhda," Melissa stated bluntly, before she folded her arms and asked, "Why are you even here anyway?"

    "Oh, er, I heard you were in the area and totally needed a translator, so that's what I'm here for!" Nadezhda beamed, before she turned to explain to you, "Mia and I have been close ever since our CEO dads met when we were kids, so that got me to start really learning English way back when, then when I heard she was attending school in Japan, I grabbed every Japanese textbook and watched every tutorial video I could! Course I totally already liked stuff like anime and manga, even though it was kinda uncool for me to admit that back in high school."

    "Insufferable," Kikuko simply spat out, before she began walking away, "I'll be at that History Museum I talked out, then I believe I'll go trekking up to a local peak, to get some much-needed peace and solitude."

    Melissa at least felt the need to respond to this. "Yeah, well Kikuko, at least I actually have friends!" she shot back with, before she turned to look around at Nadezhda and sighed.

    "Hmm, not exactly the traditional image of Russian femininity," Azuma had to mutter as he eyed Nadezhda over, "But I suppose from the company Melissa keeps, such is to be expected".

    If it were anyone else, you'd expect Melissa to have automatically lashed out at them for saying that. But in this case, she just flinched a little at Azuma's words.

    "Oh well hi~, you must be Azuma Sakurazuka, er, Sakurazuka Azuma then? Wow, Mia totally wasn't exaggerating when she described you way back when!" Nadezhda's face rose into a cheek-to-cheek grin, even ear-to-ear.
    "And yeah, you'd be Honoka. Um, Mia's been telling me you totes haven't been appreciative of all the hard work she's been doing for you, so if I were you I'd like cut that out pronto, ya hear, learn some respect would ya?" she pointed at you.

    ...Well, that kinda dashed whatever positive opinion of Nadezhda you may've had left. "Yeah, Hi to you too".

    "Oh yeah, you were gonna check out the, um, Chekhov Museum. Ooh, almost made a pun there, well er, not quite, sort of..." Nadezhda's bright voice started to die down, before rising up again with "Thing is, I'm just the person you need, I have seen like every single one of Chekhov's plays, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, er, The Wedding, ah..."

    "Well freakin' good for you, 'cause Azuma's the only reason I'm over here" Melissa muttered, taking Nadezhda aback.

    "Really? At which theatre, Moscow, St. Petersburg? And perhaps you'd like to get into analysis of the author's collected short stories, or how best his character should be performed..." Azuma started to ask Nadezhda, a smug smile right on his face.

    "Er, ah- point is, the Museum's right this way. Come along, everyone!" Nadezhda hurriedly tried moving your little Sakhalin tour.

    However, her good cheer became immediately out of place, once you reached the life-size exhibits of Sakhalin's prisoners, portraying their toil and misery as documented by Chekhov.

    "Oh. My. God. You see, this is why America's good, and why Russia going Bolshevik wrecked everything," Melissa had to speak up.

    "Er, thought this exhibit was about Tsarist Sakhalin?" you had to bring up.

    You dreaded Melissa saying anything more here, but instead it was Nadia who said, "Well, you see, I'm kinda like Chekhov, in that I travelled all the way here to Sakhalin from St. Petersburg, and no joke, it's a very long trip, y'know?"

    "Yes, that's very nice," Azuma drolly shot her down with, not bothering with eye contact, before he gave his own remarks. "You know, I almost envy Chekhov. Not for everything he went through, of course, but because his exposure to real hardship opened his mind to human experience, to pain, loss, strife, and death, like few else, especially not in our much more luxuriant modern era".

    You bit your lower lip, only able to think if not speak, These prisoners were going through Hell on Earth, they weren't Chekhov's little pet melodrama projects, for Chrissake.

    * * *

    It wasn't long before Melissa insisted on going shopping, and since she didn't have someone like Shinsuke or Na-rae handy, she demanded that you tag along with her, with Nadezhda naturally following.

    "As you no doubt know, Honoka, up till now I've been sending Reina to teach how to be properly fashionable-" Melissa began, but Nadia had to interject.

    "R-Reina, who's this Reina?" Nadezhda gulped, shaking a little.

    "Ugh, just some nobody who thought they could leech off me. Anyway, with the possibility of you becoming my Jack, that's like official follower terms, Nadezhda, I may be forced to take you out fashion-shopping, as a much-needed remedy to her atrocious tastes," Melissa proclaimed, smiling at herself.

    "Yeah Hikari, er, Honoka, Melissa's such a nice person, isn't she? Isn't she?" Nadezhda pressed ever closer to you.

    "Alright, alright, I can do clothes-shopping, sheesh," you insisted, feeling your heart sink.

    Of course, rather than let you pick out anything at all, Melissa ended up giving you four outfits specifically selected by her to choose from, dragging you away when your eyes lingered too long over anything else.
    "See, major improvement compared to the rags you were wearing before, huh Honoka?" Melissa smirked, with Nadezhda seeming enthusiastic about any choice she made. The outfits, not that they were anything Reina would force you to wear, were:

    [ ] A checkered brown and dark green blouse, with a black beret.
    [ ] A blue denim jacket over a velvety black top and leggings.
    [x] An entirely white winter coat, with pompoms and a large round hat.
    [ ] A sleeveless black dress with gold decs, with high platform shoes.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Ah, but it's not just the clothes, it's your skin!" Nadezhda blurted out, before asking, "Did that come out awkward? Hope that didn't come out awkward. Point being, Mia's gotten hold of a major lipstick and nail polish haul! Er, never figured out why exactly nail polishes are named after cities, like 'Glasgow nails', seriously?"

    Sure enough, the colour combo for your lips and nails they had you done up in was:
    [ ] Heavy pinks and bright blues.
    [x] Bright red and deep black.
    [ ] Silver and gold.
    [ ] Weird purple and green.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Uh uh, not done yet, Honoka!" Melissa grinned as she pulled you back down into your seat, "I've also taken the liberty of what swimsuit you'll be wearing!"

    ...The Hell? you thought.

    "We of course will be visiting one of Sakhalin's gorgeous lakeside beaches, well once get clearance to we will, this place being so freakin' off-limits. Anyway, you utterly embarrass yourself if you attend in just regular clothes, so here you go!" she said, forcing you to try her pick on.

    <<BGM: Pokemon D&P - Lake (Mewmore Remix>>

    You didn't feel any less embarrassed once you finally arrived at said beach, in complete contrast to the bolder Melissa who kept strutting around like a peacock, and the similarly attired Nadezhda who tried to keep up with her every step.

    Despite what Melissa had said about getting clearance, along with some locals there were more than a few tourists here, from you guessed Japan and the rest of Russia, but also more than a few Koreans, Chinese, and Americans. You could see why they came here though, this lake that glittered and lapped against the towering cliffs and dense forests around it sure was a sight to behold.

    "Eeyagh!" Melissa had to scream out as she dived into the water, "This lake is still freezing! Grr, it's close enough to summer isn't it, I thought it would've warmed up by now?"

    Of course, the other two Aces had to show up too, with Kikuko, more daringly attired than you assumed someone like her would've gone for. She gave a smirk at hearing Melissa's pain, before deciding to dive in right on top of her, plunging the American girl further down, Nadezhda rushing in to try and save her from the depths.

    Once both were back on dry land, an utterly soaked Melissa, after she'd gotten all the lake water out of her mouth, had to roar out "Jesus! Are you like out of your mind Kikuko?"

    "Truly, you're complaining about nothing," Kikuko brushed her off, then stated, "I have not allowed the comforts of the high life to soften me, I don't see why it shouldn't be the same for you".

    As Kikuko and Melissa were about to go at each other again, you tried desperately to intervene. "Hey, look, whatever your issues are with each other, can you not start beating each other up or whatever with a whole bunch of people around?"

    "Wait, I've got it!" Nadezhda then exclaimed, "The perfect contest to settle your differences! Hmhm, don't worry Mia, this one's right up your alley".

    "Oh really?" Melissa grinned, before being blunter, "What did you have in mind, Nadezhda?"

    "Ah, thing I've read about on the Internet, it's called Operation Beach Hunt! Ah well, not the exact name, but anyway," Nadezhda went on, "All you gotta do is you gotta persuade the most guys on the beach to give you their phone number. That's it!"

    The three of you... were taken aback a little, but Melissa then said, "Alright, you're on!"

    Being Russia, I'm guessing they wouldn't accept getting another girl's phone number, although it's not like Nadezhda will be able to tell, you had to think, as you realised you were now competing in... whatever this was too.

    [ ] Be perceptive, try to open up a little.
    [x] Display your etiquette, you're hardly as charmless as you once were.
    [ ] Be smart, try to work out what guys around here like.
    [ ] Show your resolve and be direct, better to be open, right?
    [ ] Er, Azuma will probably give you his, if you really need another point...
    [ ] Write-in
    Okay, well this certainly is something I've gotten stuck into, you thought.

    Sighing, you thought you'd at least try to make a good impression on the people and tourists all gathered around here. You did look at Azuma for a moment and think of something. Not of getting his number, he'd long given you it anyway, but of a way we could be helpful to you.

    Approaching Azuma, the sight of his bare flesh unfortunately nothing new to you, you then took him by the hand and said, "Hey, aren't you getting hungry by now? Think I know exactly where the kiosk is, come on".

    "I'm honestly not that famished-" Azuma began, before realising it was you talking to him and saying, "Ah well, but I can understand your own discomfort. Alright, if it pleases you".

    Walking over to the more crowded kiosk, naturally it wasn't long before Azuma started slowly trying to put his hand around your waist. All it took was for you to shoot him an annoyed look and say, "Hey, not here, get off me" and then your plan was set in motion.

    "Lady, is this guy bothering you?" several guys said as they approached, or at least you assumed they said from their stances and tone.

    Acting wounded on the outside but grinning inside, you then held your hands together, looked hurt yet fluttered your eyelashes, and like that all of them were now about to take a stand against Azuma.

    Azuma just stared down at them, asking them "What business is this of yours?" That alone seemed to be enough to enrage them, as a particularly hotheaded sort took a swing at him.
    However, even without his Persona, Azuma seemed to have little trouble defending himself, as simply sidestepping in between them was enough for him to trick this guy into hitting another, who in turn hit back, and before you knew it there was an entire brawl happening on the beach.

    "Hah, couldn't have happened to a nicer group of people," Azuma chuckled as he stared down at the badly bruised pile of dudes. "Now, my Honoka, shall we get going?"

    "Uh, wait, I should at least see if they're okay. I mean, this did happen because of me" you said blushing, hoping those words would at least get Azuma off your back for a little while. While you were crouching down to see how these guys were... you of course still found time to ask them for their phone numbers, which even as beaten to a pulp as they were, they were still eager to give.

    All that over with, you thought you could attract more people's attention, since this was a lakeside beach, if you did a really impressive dive or something. Granted, you hadn't really dove before, but you figured a simple pin drop or something would be easy enough to pull off.

    Finding a substantially high yet easily observable rock, you braced yourself, trying hard not to look down, and took off at full speed off it, your arms and legs flailing quite unlike the simple pose you had intended.

    Ouch! Yeowww! You felt stung all over, as thinking only about the water's depth and chill meant you'd forgotten about the force off impact. It wasn't long after you'd washed up on shore, your hair a mess, your limbs and stomach still aching, that a whole crowd of people rushed over to you, some genuinely concerned, some just wanting to play doctor. Either way, the sight of lone and hurting girl tugged their heartstrings enough that you were easily able to snag some more numbers.

    After that, you were out of ideas for the moment, so you decided to just sit down on the pier, casually sunning yourself. It was then you noticed some guy walking by, so well, feeling daring, you flicked your hair over, battered your lashes again, and said "Hey sir, would you like to sit next to me?"

    The guy jumped back a little at this offer, but soon said, "Er sure, of course. Hey, what's your name? Oh me, I'm Stanislav".

    "Nakamura Honoka," you told him, before having to specify, "Uh, that is, Honoka, I've come up from Japan with some... people I know".

    "Oh really, Japan? Huh, cool, I guess from proximity we do get quite a few Japanese visiting here. I have been to China, and on the other end I've been to Finland and Estonia a few times, but never Japan sadly, I should really get around to it sometime. Ah, er, to clarify, I've come here all the way from St. Petersburg. I've mostly been stuck in one tiny corner of Russia my whole life, but I'm trying to change that".

    "Wow, interesting. Oh, I'm not from like Tokyo or Osaka or anywhere big like that, if you were wondering, my hometown's like average-sized at most," you then went on about yourself, "Uh, sorry, I'm not rambling am I?"

    "What? No, I'm definitely not, I mean people tell me I'm a good listener, so I'm kinda used to letting other people talk," Stanislav chuckled, "So, ah, what are your impressions of Sakhalin so far? Guess I'm still figuring out what to make of it, weird to think that I'm still in Russia, but it's a beautiful place truly".

    You had to smile at that, before you said, "I guess it's been... nice so far. I mean, I think a vacation's only as enjoyable as the people you take it with, if you're not solo anyway, and well the people I'm with right now- Ugh, nevermind, I don't wanna let them rain on my parade right now," you said, shaking and teasing your hair out, "Guess what I was trying to say was, it doesn't really feel like I'm on vacation, even though I technically am. Ah, I'm sorry, I can't help but be a downer".

    Stanislav however wasn't fazed, "Hey, don't worry, I've seriously met far more negative people in my life. Hmm, there's way less of a queue at the kiosk, you wanna get something to eat?"

    You giggled, not sure if the polite thing to do in this situation would be to decline... but you went with your gut on this anyway. "Yeah sure, I'd love that!"

    Afterwards, you talked further with Stanislav, until you were finally able to get his phone number. Then however, a weird and uncomfortable feeling started creeping over you, as you thought Sheesh, am I honestly stringing this guy along just to win some contest or whatever? Is this the sort of thing Melissa and Nadia do all the time?

    You'd hoped to leave before Stanislav could pick up on this, but you'd then be denied that luxury.
    "You know, Honoka, it wasn't long before Melissa and Kikuko would inevitably make fools of themselves," Azuma appeared and spoke to you, before having to acknowledge Stanislav's presence, "Did you ever tell this man exactly what reason you were chatting him up for? Or were you so lacking in subtlety he picked up on it anyway?"

    "Huh, what the- you know this guy?" Stanislav had to say.

    "Yeah, um, remember what I said about vacations not being fun if you're with poor company? Think you see what I mean," you sighed out, before you struggled to tell Stanislav, "Some of the girls I'm with- got into kind of a stupid hook-up contest, and well I got swept up into it. But hey, please don't take that the wrong way, you seem like quite a good guy, and-" you tried to make clear to Stanislav.

    "That's... alright, I guess I can see," he just muttered, while Azuma behind him couldn't help but be amused.

    * * *

    Eventually you did have to make your way back to Melissa and co to finally lay this stupid contest to rest. Melissa naturally was first to strut up, as she said, "Feast your eyes, amateurs. That's eight, count 'em, eight guys' phone numbers. Beat that, losers".

    "Wow, that's a really great job, Mia, you've still got it!" Nadezhda swiftly beamed.

    Melissa however just had to side-eye her. "Ahem, you're not hiding something from me, are you, Nadezhda?" she inquired, narrowing her eyes.

    "Er, you see, the thing is-" Nadezhda gulped, before she pulled up her phone, "I got nine".

    Melissa said nothing at first, but slowly began hissing like a kettle. Stifling a growl, she suddenly smiled and said, "How like you, Nadezhda, can hardly keep your hormones to yourself, now can you?" she leaned in to smirk at Nadezhda.

    "Huh, wonder what that says about me. Eleven," you murmured as you shrugged, though pointed out, "Got kinda lucky, in that most of the guys who came my way were in groups".

    "I did not," Melissa slowly seethed out, "Just lose in popularity to. A. Freakin'. Jack!" She forced herself to take some deep breaths but gained some reassurance when she looked at Kikuko. "Well, at least I'm not in last place, hmhm".
    Then Kikuko displayed her phone... book, which made Melissa burst out with "Fifteen?! You have got to be lying or something, no wait, I get it! You probably threatened all those guys at swordpoint to give you their numbers, right?"

    Kikuko glared at her, "I did no such thing. They were naturally taken in by my delicate, traditional Yamato charm and breeding, unlike your deep-fried American excess," she stated.

    "Huh, I'm Russian, so I kinda have no idea if I'd count as East or West, honestly," Nadezhda though out loud.

    Melissa looked about ready to collapse at this point, and matters weren't helped when another woman, close enough to her in looks and attire and only a few years older, almost like her big sister, sauntered up to your group.

    "Grr, not now. Ah, I mean, hi there... stepmom," Melissa slowly said.

    "Melissa please, you know I feel when you call me 'stepmom'. But oh my, these would be your friends you told me so much about? Hmhm, I know Nadia of course, but these two would be Kikuko and Honoka, right?" she said, mixing you and Kikuko up.

    "Ah, no, I'm Honoka. Er, nice to meet you... Melissa's Mum," you said, wincing. She's barely any older than her, how can she be- Oh right, Melissa's Dad's a godforsaken oil tycoon, I think I see now.
    Kikuko simply scoffed.

    "Oh why, you can call me Adriana. Certainly less formal than 'Mrs. Lilian', wouldn't you say?" her stepmum smiled, before her eyes took hold of an approaching Azuma and she said, "My, you certainly weren't exaggerating when it came to your Azuma. I simply must introduce myself!" her then heading over to him.

    Well, if Adriana can disgust Melissa so, and can get Azuma off my back for at least a little while, then surely she can't be all bad, right? you thought.

    Kikuko, now that Melissa's stepmother was out of the way, then had to speak up, "Anyway, continuing our discussion. I am the clear victor in this contest, and I presume I did not go through all that effort solely for bragging rights".

    "Oh, ah, well you see, I was mostly thinking about the process and not the result, um, so what did you have in mind?" Nadezhda smiled yet shuddered.

  11. #31
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXXI. Flying to the Mainland

    <<BGM: Ouran - Tango Brilliante>>

    "Once we're back in Japan, Not. One. Word. About. This," Melissa snarled.

    Her, you, and Nadezhda were all now back at the hotel, each of you dressed in a maid outfit. Na-rae was assumedly there to instruct you in your duties, but didn't appear to be used to giving order.

    "Right, okay, so Mistress Kikuko almost always demands everything to be spotless. Now if you'll be thinking, 'Oh she'll never look in this nook or cranny', that's where you're wrong, the Mistress has eyes like a hawk," Na-rae started by frantically going over, "Oh, and cooking I admit's not really my specialty, so that's where all of you come in! Er, Mistress does have some rather specific dietary requirements, but luckily I've compiled a shopping list, so..." she said, as the whole paper unfolded.

    "Wait, give me that! Huh, raw eggs, horsemeat?!" Melissa's eyes almost burst out of their sockets, "Freakin' getting used to raw fish here was bad enough".

    "Hold on, what's wrong with horsemeat?" Nadezhda feebly spoke up.

    "Hey, it's not like it's any weirder than her stick meditation thing," you casually said, but quickly covered your mouth knowing you'd just blabbed that.

    "What- Miss Honoka, how did, um, you find out about that?" Na-rae asked, shivering.

    "Er, schoolyard rumour," you said near instantly.

    "Huh, really? Most of the dirty rumours I hear about Kikuko is that she totally has a Catherine the Great thing going on with her pretty ponies," a smirking Melissa expressed an emotion other than anger for the first time in a while.

    "Actually, Empress Catherine wasn't like that at all-" Nadezhda tried to say, but got cut off.

    "But wait, I think I've heard about the stick thing. Oh yeah, it's where a monk whacks you on the shoulders when you're trying to meditate, I remember," Melissa said, disregarding her lifelong friend.

    "Well, er, ahem, usually it falls upon me to perform the task of delivering what's officially called keisaku upon Mistress Kikuko-" Na-rae tried to make clear, but Melissa just interjected again.

    "I volunteer! I volunteer!" she spoke up, enjoying herself for possibly the first time in this whole maid gig.

    A little later on, you could tell Melissa wasn't at all used to this 'servitude' thing, looking like she'd barely handled a vacuum cleaner before, still searching for the suck/blow switch.

    "Stupid freakin' Kikuko, making me sweep up her room when I booked us all in" she kept snarling, that one burst of good mood having swiftly worn off.

    "Geez Melissa, what crawled up your arse and died?" you asked her nonchalantly, before telling her "Seriously, you picked this vacation... but you've kinda been angry all the time since we got here. Is there anything you wanna vent about?" you asked, as you slumped down on the bed near her.

    It was a fairly fancy bedroom you were in, red carpets and bedsheets, rich pink walls decorated with antique lamps and paintings showing scenes from some 19th century novel or another.

    "What are you, my therapist?" she looked at you funny for a second, before she sat down next to you and let out, "Ugh, it's just... Kikuko's always been like this. We first met when we were kids, before I knew Nadezhda even, when our parents' had a business meeting together in Hawaii. Oh, she was a little creep then too, like Jesus, you'd think she was raised by wolves or something, and really strict wolves too, not a CEO".

    "Have you ever, y'know, tried to be nice to her?" you had to bring up, "Like when you first met, were you like 'Hi there, I'm Melissa, nice to meet you', or did you expect her to open up first?"

    "What? Well, I certainly didn't expect her to act like a freakin' porcelain doll, that's for sure," Melissa scowled, but then bit her lip. "At least my real mother was with me back then, not that miserable Vegas supermodel trophy stepmom".

    Melissa then suddenly looked you right in the eyes, "Kikuko got more guys than me, you got more, even goddamn Nadezhda got one more! And back at school, everyone's now talking about how this Suzako girl or whoever's so pretty, like seriously, they do know she's Keiko of all people, right?", you flinching at what she said.

    "Look, Honoka, my point is... you think I'm pretty, don't you?" she ultimately asked.

    At first, you didn't quite know what to make of that question, but on instinct, "Yeah, course I do. Who doesn't?", though in hindsight you couldn't tell if you meant that or were just trying to be nice.

    Melissa wasn't in the mood to open up any more, but did at least manage an "Er, thanks".

    - Strength has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    What mood there was got ruined when Kikuko entered, "Ah, I trust you've eradicated every last speck of dirt from my hotel room?"

    Melissa then shot up and said, "Your room? Ahem, I believe this was my room! I mean, there's only one bed, but even if there was two, no way would I share a room with you!"

    "Oh wow, now you know how I felt when you booked Azuma and me into a friggin' love hotel," you sighed out, "Besides, can't you just ask the staff whether there's been a mix-up?"

    "That'll be her duty, as I have no intent to cede this room to her," Kikuko had to step up.

    "And neither I do!" Melissa said, crossing her legs and folding her arms.

    Not liking what may well have been about to emerge, you swiftly said, "Er, well, don't exactly want to be a fly on the wall here, I'll just give you two some privacy" you said before you took off.

    * * *

    The room they'd booked for you was but a few floors down, having perhaps not as scenic a view of Sakhalin. You had to step back when you saw there were two beds, but you were relieved, if only slightly, when you saw your roommate for the night wasn't quite Azuma.

    "Greetings, Miss Honoka, these are certainly unorthodox circumstances," Shinsuke said as he walked in after you.

    "Hmm, well," you began, as your eyes couldn't help but scan Shinsuke for any wires or devices, "I wouldn't say entirely out of left-field".

    "Ah, by the way, Miss Honoka," he then said, pulling out and handing you a travel guide to Vladivostok, "It is the All-Aces' intention head over to Vladivostok the following morning, as the Sakurazuka, Maeda, and Lilian families are attending a society ball there, along with many other esteemed persons from not only Russia and Japan, but also America, China, even Korea I am told".

    "Wow, way to spring that on me," you said, and I'm sure Kikuko will be delighted to hear about the Koreans, or Chinese even, "Uh, seriously, thanks for giving me some heads up though... even if we've barely been in Sakhalin a day".

    "Ah, I did have to suspect the others had neglected to inform you," Shinsuke sighed, "I do believe, Miss Honoka, that this would be your debutante ball".

    "Oh, er, yeah, super looking forward to it" you said through clenched teeth. Also, you seem nice, Shinsuke, but do you have to act the butler part 24/7?

    As what sounded like cats screeching, some very human, female cats, you did feel this Vladivostok travel guide could serve a secondary purpose, that of giving you a much-needed distraction. As you flipped through its pages, your eyes were drawn to:
    [x] Vladivostok Railway Station, the Far Eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian railway.
    [ ] The beach resort-studded Amur Bay.
    [ ] Russky Island, especially its bridge.
    [ ] The Museum of Far East History.
    [ ] The funiculars, being a fairly hilly city.
    [ ] The casinos, if only out of morbid curiousity.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Your eyelids slowly lifting themselves open as your nose picked up the smell of freshly made breakfast with coffee, you sat yourself up in that hotel bed, an appropriately comfortable one seeing as this was never somewhere you could afford without the All-Aces, you saw said breakfast had been brought to you by Shinsuke on your left, while Na-rae on your left was already laying out your clothes for the day, including that winter coat Melissa had picked out yesterday.

    "Oh, um, hi," you said, noticing them, "Well, guess you do this sort of thing all the time, right?"

    "Why yes. Now, I wasn't able to gauge much of a constant in your culinary preferences, I even noticed some, er... unusual choices in there. So I went with was considered the most popular meal choice in Kuchinashi available in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, combined with what I've been accustomed to cooking in my service to the Sakurazuka family," Shinsuke stated that all at once.

    "Uh, thanks," you muttered, only thinking, Wait, 'unusual choices'? So do they even know about that friggin' mystery meat?

    Na-rae meanwhile fretted about whether or not she'd accidentally shrunken the clothes in the dryer, but you informed her after you got dressed that they fit fine.
    "I see now. Okay then, Miss Honoka, if you're comfortable with them. Ah, and I did mean to tell you, you certainly performed excellently as a maid yesterday, as, er, unorthodox the circumstances behind this were" Na-rae said, having to blush a little at the end.

    At least thanking her, you then headed upstairs to check how the All-Aces were doing. You saw Kikuko already up in the corridor, but surprisingly Melissa was up too, even though she was typically one to need her beauty sleep. Both of them had their hair awfully mussed-up, like they'd been through a pretty rough night, and them having not showered yet you could tiny beads of sweat dripping down them.

    "Hey there... Kikuko, Melissa. Er, did you get your whole situation sorted?" you tried asking them.

    "Not exactly," Kikuko muttered, "Neither of us, well, ultimately chose to leave the room in question, so we did have to share a bed-".

    "Don't. You. Say. Another. Word," Melissa seethed at her.

    "Uh, I'll assume you two just got in a fight over the covers," you assured them, biting your lower lip.

    "Yes, exactly! That was it!" Melissa insisted on, before she groaned and said, "Ugh, I desperately need a shower, ah- b-because it was really cold last night, so I could use the warm water, yeah!" she shifted to saying as she took off.

    The two of you alone, Kikuko then approached you and, as if in defiance of Melissa's order, told you, "Melissa and I, you see, have a great deal of tension built up between us. So what happened last night was, forgive me, that an intense passion overtook us, especially in such close quarters, and-"

    You had to interject with, "...Are you honestly telling me you and Melissa had hatesex?!"

    "Is, ahem, that the technical term for it? Yes, I would suppose so, I most certainly couldn't call it 'making love', I am firm that there are no such feelings between us," you could see Kikuko was heavily blushing by now, "She wasn't above hair-pulling and scratching like a feline, yet all the while insisted on being treated like a princess, which did allow me the dominant position most of the time".

    "Okay okay okay, stop, please stop!" you burst out at her, before you groaned, "I've got absolutely no idea why everyone thinks I'm so friggin' interested in their sex lives".

    "Oh, am I intruding on something?" Azuma of all people had to speak up as he walked over, Melissa's stepmother Adriana swaying beside him, perhaps more than a bit too close.

    As you tried to think up a way of getting out of explaining this to Azuma, you were saved in a way when Melissa strode back out of the room, saying, "Wait, stepmom, what are you doing that close to Azuma?"

    Adriana, having donned a long white gown and opera gloves, chuckled to herself "Hmhm, what wouldn't I be doing with Azuma? Your fellow student has shown he knows to treat a woman, unlike, well, some people here" she had to restrain them, before she returned to fawning over Azuma.

    "I couldn't help but notice your stepmother, dear Adriana, seemed quite lonely here, so naturally my first thought was to... entertain her, shall we say?" Azuma thinly smiled at Melissa.

    Melissa breathed in and out a while, before she raised her voice, "Oh, oh know I get it! This is your payback, isn't it Azuma, for the fact that I slept with your mother, huh, huh?!"

    You and Kikuko took one look at each other, and decided it would be best if you got out of there quick, before... whatever the hell was going on with Melissa and Azuma accelerated.

    * * *

    Standing in the elevator going down, you clutched your head and said, "Okay, if Melissa's stepmum's been having an affair with Azuma... wait, something doesn't add up. You've probably noticed that Azuma's been trying to get his mitts all over me ever since we met, so, why would he suddenly pursue another woman, and barely try to keep it a secret from me?"
    Of course, the answer occurred to you quite soon, "...I get it now, he's honestly trying to stoke jealousy in me or something? Well, that's clearly not working, I hope Adriana ends up taking all his attention".

    "Truly, I am reminded why relationships disinterest me so" Kikuko could only sigh.

    You couldn't help but laugh a little, "I mean yeah, part of me sees where you're coming from. But on the other hand, you mean you've never had a crush on someone? Those words you said sound like something I'd make up to make fun of you, er, no wait, I didn't mean it like that-" you suddenly tried to take that back.

    "I have had crushes and the like from afar," Kikuko did point out to you, "And, well, you would've figured out by now that I'm certainly not above passion. It's just... I feel relationships simply complicate, that cutting them out of your life achieves a desirable simplicity. The romantic view of courtly admiration from a distance sounds ideal to me, if anything does".

    "Courtly love from a distance? Oh yeah, sounds like something Azuma would do, i.e., stalking" you muttered out.

    "Regardless, I must also remind you we are at war, if a miniature one, I admit. Love is but one thing more to exploit on the battlefield, hence why Azuma stakes his claim on it, and I avoid it," Kikuko told you, folding her arms, "Yet I doubt, should Azuma and I cross blades, that 'love' won't be there to save him".

    You sighed, "Whatever these Gameboard Duels are, or how many people die to lose their consciousness to them, we're not 'at war', Kikuko. What, are you gonna start complaining to me that this generation grew up without its own Sengoku Jidai or whatever?"

    As the elevator reached the ground floor and the two of you stepped out, Kikuko said, "If we were back then, one thing I'm certain of is that you'd think twice before talking back to me, Nakamura. I could've had your tongue slit out for your insolence".

    You just had to laugh her. "Please Kikuko, if you were 'back then', you'd have been married off to some creepy old warlord, who'd probably ignore you in favour of concubines" you said.

    Kikuko for a second couldn't conceal her rage... but then she settled right back down, almost into a bit of a funk. She then told you, to your surprise, "Nakamura Honoka, I'm... I'm sorry. No, what I mean is, ugh, forgive me. Maybe, well, I was the one who wasn't thinking twice..." she then said.

    You had to take this in. Okay, seeing Melissa finally get mad at Azuma before was weird enough, and now seeing Kikuko suddenly apologise?!
    "Hey, look, Kikuko, it's okay. Er, I don't think either of us were thinking about what we were saying just then" you tried to tell her, the irritation gone from your voice.

    Kikuko then looked down, and had to admit, "Nakamura... if I am to compare you to my subject, then I'll confess, I now know I haven't exactly been the most, well, reciprocal to you... or understanding".
    That admission of some guilt seemed to unclog Kikuko's emotions, as she all of a sudden collapsed into your arms, saying "Oh Nakamura, w-why did my very first time have to be with Melissa, all of people?"

    You were about to say that was her idea, but you knew impulse emotions could be like, so for the time being you just stayed silent and embraced her back.

    - The Empress has Journeyed to Level 3! -
    * * *

    While the All-Aces and family got no less than a private plane to fly to Vladivostok in, as a Jack you were made to fly commercial. As much as you weren't keen to get back up into the air again, one thought that relieved you was that you wouldn't have to fly with Azuma.
    Then out of nowhere, Azuma announced he'd be flying with you. From how he phrased it, he had to make it sound like some noble gesture if not sacrifice, but you couldn't help but think Melissa kicked him off after, well, stuff went down.

    Being made to sit right next to Azuma, you on the window seat again and Shinsuke by the aisle, really didn't reassure you. You kept your legs crossed tight and tried to make it seem like you were completely engrossed in Over a Mysterious Rose, but Azuma kept peeking over your shoulder at what you were reading.

    "What, come to make fun of my reading choices?" you muttered.

    "It's certainly not what I would consider 'great literature', but you at least seem pleased by it," he had to comment, before remarking, "And people have certainly picked up far worse in their efforts to numb their brains. But tell me, what about it appeals to you so?"

    You had to think, I thought it was an impulse read, but then again, I wouldn't have picked it off the shelf if I had zero interest in it otherwise.

    Then Azuma had to suddenly complicate the question, "Oh, I don't mean just this work, but your tastes in fiction in general. What seizes you, resonates with you?"

    You then bolted upright, thinking, Wow, you had to plunge me in the deep end like that, didn't you? A metaphor that spoke to you a little more, given what had happened to you at the lake yesterday.

    [ ] "Relatability. I go through... a lot, so it's comforting to know I'm not alone, through character, authors, or other fans"
    [ ] "Escapism. I think I'd go stir-crazy if I had to put up with real life 24/7, so I like feeling in control for once, even if it's an illusion"
    [x] "Creativity. I like seeing what people can come up with, makes me think of things I'd never consider otherwise"
    [ ] "Emotions. Like, when I get swept up and my heart and brain are one, it feels like nothing else matters"
    [ ] "Intelligence. I like to feel rewarded for what I'm reading"
    [ ] "Keeping up with friends. Like my, er, friends from back when, and now my roommate, introduce me to most stuff"
    [ ] "Eh, varies from work to work, I like different stuff in different things"
    [ ] Write-in.

    "I see," was all Azuma said at first, before he suddenly picked up a remote and said, "I noticed they have quite the film library here, if perhaps not as extensive as elsewhere. I doubt you would've been to the cinema in quite a while, so perhaps you might be interested in this selection instead".

    [ ] A subtitled Russian film that you figured was an adaptation of a 19th century novel.
    [x] A live recording of a fairytale ballet.
    [ ] A creaky old silent film, likely here because the rights would've been cheap.
    [ ] You think you'll just stick to your manga, thanks.
    [ ] Write-in.
    If there was one upside to this talk with Azuma, it was that the plane had taken off with you barely noticing. Perhaps flying might not be so bad the second time around... well, given who you were seated next to, it might be even worse.

    "Creativity? Hmm, a seemingly dignified response," Azuma then said, but sighed as he flipped his hair, "Yet in a way, quite a naïve one. People have been telling stories since Babylonian times, so searches for originality are oft fated to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Shakespeare knew this, the Edo playwrights knew this, hence why they prioritised adaptations".

    "Yeah well, wasn't that because copyright wasn't really a thing back then?" you brought that up, "Although, Colette tells me that copyright is more often for the people who own stuff, not the people who make it".

    "I wouldn't put my trust in the economic commentaries of a tarot reader," Azuma coldly chuckled at you.

    "Hey, Colette says tarot's a psychological thing- Ugh, anyway, hold on. Isn't The Tempest all Shakespeare's own?" you had to ask him, reverting the subject back to originality, even though you'd technically said 'creativity'.

    "Yes, the very last thing he ever did," Azuma brushed that off, "Well, almost the last, it's hard to verify. Regardless, what may be 'creative' or 'original' to you could well be old hat to another. Fiction is relative after all, in the eye of the beholder".

    "...Whatever" you mumbled, keeping it secret that you'd never actually seen The Tempest. You also had to think, Knowing you Azuma, you'd probably have made fun of my answer no matter what I said, an answer I gave on the fly anyway. "Hey, weren't you gonna put on an in-flight movie or something?"

    Well, it was less of a movie and more of a recorded ballet performance. It was an easy one to recognise, being the Tchaikovsky version of Sleeping Beauty, which you picked up on had a lot more characters from other fairytales shoehorned in.
    Still, you couldn't help being mesmerised by the dancing, given that ballet was a traditionally wordless medium. Although... yeah, in hindsight Sleeping Beauty wasn't the best ballet to watch with Azuma, given its ending, and what with where you were sitting you couldn't just shuffle away from him. Maybe if it'd been another ballet, like The Firebird, The Nutcracker, or Swan Lake- Okay, maybe not that last one either, in Azuma's context.

    Azuma did have to stifle another laugh at you, "I naturally assume you were into fairytales as a child?" he smirked.

    You're one to talk, given that fake backstory you made up for me, you thought. "Yeah, I was. No more than any other girl my age, true, but even if I was, so what?" you said to him, before adding "Keiko was probably my introduction to a lot of boys' media, probably more so than my Dad and Yuya. I think she thought herself a tomboy when she was younger, but as time went on, felt more and more she couldn't pull it off".

    "Huh, for someone who seeks originality, your old friends are hardly exceptional backstory-wise," he sighed.

    "What, like you are? Your 'backstory' is that your parents were rich actors, that's it," you furrowed your eyes as you told him, "Oh, and now that whole 'literal motherfucker' thing. Like, was just to get back at Melissa, or did your motives go even deeper?" you suddenly found yourself saying.

    "...Tell me, do you blurt out people's private information in just any public space?" Azuma had to restrain himself, "At least Gakuto kept his gossip-mongering to online spheres".

    "Yeah well, 'online spheres' means basically everywhere, these days," you said back, now trying to watch what you said and not lose yourself.
    "Wait, question," you then said out of nowhere, "Er, I learned yesterday that Kikuko and Melissa first met when they were kids. Is, er, that the case with any other All-Aces?"

    Azuma had to think on that, before he said, "Rin and I had quite the long history together, actually, but other than that, not really. None of us knew Eitaro before he came to Hanataba, Gakuto we'd heard of from articles on him before we met in person, and I am sure if Himawari knew any of the All-Aces before Hanataba, she would've told you by now".

    All this discussion of Azuma's background proved oddly predictive, as when the plane touched down in Vladivostok, at the airport was quite the familiar face from his family.

  12. #32
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXXII. Russian Ball

    <<BGM: Kingdom Hearts 2 - Twilight Town (Remix)>>

    "Yo, little brother," Tomomi called out as she held a slightly misspelled 'Sakurabara Akuma' sign above her head, "Good, now I can finally go somewhere that has better coffee or something, I dunno".

    "Tomomi?" Azuma was taken aback, before he said, "It is... strange that out of all people, my parents would send you to meet us".

    "Yeah, Mum and Dad kept insisting that I didn't stay in the hotel all trip, so I came out here. Oh, hey Honoka. Hope you like grey blobs, 'cause that's pretty much Vladivostok," Tomomi greeted you.
    "Well, still some time before the 'rich people can't dance' party, so I dunno, did you wanna go someplace?" she shrugged.

    "This is a meeting between some of the wealthiest dynasties of the Far East, Tomomi, so I'd appreciate it if you treated this event with its due gravitas," Azuma told her.

    "Wow, you find that word in a thesaurus or what? And hey, I used to treat society balls like this as super-important," Tomomi then suddenly said, "Like they were prom for adults, and you know what I got out of them? Jack shit, that's what. Well, and having to babysit my brother again, that too".

    "Ah, hey there Tomomi," you feebly greeted, "Well, about going out someplace, how about the city's Railway Station?" you offered, "It's the eastern end of the Trans-Siberian Railway, that should be interesting, right?"

    "Huh, this place has quite a few railway stations, y'know," Tomomi muttered, "But I think I know the one you mean, it's all the over on some peninsula. Yeah, guess we can go there, if you're like that interested or something".

    "Good, then I shall be forwarding Master Azuma's and Miss Honoka's luggage to the hotel," it was Shinsuke who then announced, "Leaving you to take in this city as you'd like, good as it is to see Mistress Tomomi getting some much-needed fresh air. Though please remember, the ball starts at eight".

    "Oh yeah, Shinsuke," you noticed, before saying to Azuma, "Hey, maybe when we were talking about books and stuff on the plane, we could've asked Shinsuke to weigh in".

    Azuma however stared at you. "He's a butler, I fail to see how literature would be his expertise," he simply said.

    Tomomi had to smirk at that, "Probably better for Shinsuke you didn't ask him. Knowing the stuff he reads, he gets super-embarrassed bringing all that up in casual conversation," she said.

    Not that getting out of the airport didn't take a while, you learning all too late that it was one of Russia's busiest. Said airport being over in the town of Artyom rather than Vladivostok proper, it was quite the train trip itself down from the airport, located way north of your destination this time. They were a fair few hills around, but also more than a few flat, scraggly plains, likely the easternmost part of the steppes that reached all the way to Europe.

    The actual Vladivostok station building was quite nice-looking, almost looking like a petit castle with its arches and turrets. The actual trainyard and carpark were considerably less scenic though. There were a few plaques around detailing the importance of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia's lifeline and the world's longest railway, and others which went quite a bit into the station's design. Like the double-headed eagle of tsar times that adorned it, or that the station's flagstones were Japanese.

    The place being conveniently on your way into town, you were soon met by Nadezhda, though not Melissa or Kikuko, as she came running up to you.

    "Heya! Melissa said she had like, um, a bunch of unspecified stuff to do elsewhere that she wouldn't talk about, so she left me to guide you around town! Are you all as excited as I am for the society ball/" Nadezhda asked you all, before smirking at you, "Especially you, Honoka, I do hear you are lower-middle-class and all, so you in particular should be like, super-honoured that you get to party with us tonight".

    "Society balls aren't a party, they're purgatory," Tomomi monotoned back at Nadezhda, "But hey, if a bunch of old men discussing business plans and doing some dances from more than a century ago is what you're into, go nuts. Whoo".

    Nadezhda suddenly went from bubbly to boiling, "Grr, and who's this girl? For serious, does she have like, not an iota of respect?!"

    "Ah, Nadezhda. That would be my sister, Sakurazuka Tomomi," Azuma tried to step in, side-eyeing his sister, "One of the few times she can be seen in the wild, in fact".

    "...The hell's that supposed to mean?" Tomomi side-eyed him back, before she told Nadezhda, "Hey, I think I've heard of you, you hang out with Melissa, right? Boy, if that's the case, you could desperately use better friends".

    Huh, you don't have to tell me that twice, you had to think.

    Nadezhda, who'd been so upbeat back in Sakhalin, looked ready to explode here. "Why you- you- Just for that, you're not allowed to call me 'Nadia'! You shall have to address me by my full name, Nadezhda Sergevna Klimkina!" She then turned to Azuma and said, "I am so sorry that you have to deal with her, little sisters are a pain, aren't they?"

    "Wha-? First off, I'm the eldest," Tomomi told her like she was correcting a child. "Second, how the hell am I supposed to remember Natasha Sasha Karamazov or whatever?"

    Nadezhda bit her lip, before saying "What, no way, this girl can't possibly more grown-up than you, can she, Azuma?"

    "I regret to inform you that is the case," Azuma sighed, "Tomomi would be my senior by three years".

    "Yep, the three happiest years of my life," Tomomi deadpanned.

    "Er, Nadezhda was gonna show us around Vladivostok, right?" you tried to intervene.

    "Oh yeah, course I was gonna. Although, um, I'm not super familiar with the city or anything, my Dad usually only comes out to the Far East for like business stuff, most of which is happens on Sakhalin. But I'm like, not super-unfamiliar with Vladivostok, so I guess I can still show you some stuffs. Ooh, you know this place is like, totally Russia's San Francisco, right? Uh well, except nowhere near as sunny, and a lot less people, but we've got like hills and trams and water" Nadezhda began to ramble on as she led you away.

    * * *

    The Zolotoy Bridge above the Golden Horn Bay, you knew their names from that travel guide, did make you understand the San Francisco connection somewhat, though it wasn't like you'd actually been to San Francisco to compare. You notice quite the militaristic undercurrent to this city, you guessed the Russo-Japanese War probably had more than a bit to do with that, plus you'd learned this city was one of Russia's easternmost forts back in the day.

    Your group's reactions to the little sightseeing tour though went as expected though, with Tomomi's complete lack of interest, Azuma's constant feigning of interest, Nadezhda not even needing to feign interest, and you just trying to find ways to drown them out. One upside to having Tomomi handy is that Azuma was forced to actually behave himself around you.

    Most of the hotels in Vladivostok were looming skyscrapers, some even cathedral-like, but the All-Aces this time had gone with a fashionably vintage choice, a century-old, almost Parisian style hotel that reminded you that you were in fact in a European country, if not the European continent.

    "Ooh, Honoka," Nadezhda suddenly said to you, "This would be your debutant ball, wouldn't it? You're making yourself known to society!"

    "...Whatever that means," Tomomi muttered.

    "Point is, other than a bunch of hot guys Melissa and I must of course introduce you to, you of course gotta give a presentation speech!" Nadezhda went on, dramatically stretching her arms out.

    "...I've gotta give a what?!" you could only say. Well, it's not like I haven't given impromptu speeches before...

    "If you're nervous, I'd be happy to prepare something for you, many speechmakers don't write what they recite, after all. Or at least assist you in rehearsal," Azuma had to offer.

    "'Hey, I'm Sakurazuka Tomomi, go fuck yourselves'. There, that's my speech, whaddya think?" Tomomi, er, helped you out.

    [ ] They'll probably expect you to be trained in 'upper-class ways'. Try acting like a lady, but rather, what a lady should act like, in contrast to some of the rich girls you know.
    [ ] Maybe you should ask Azuma for help, though only with Tomomi on guard.
    [ ] Take from Kikuko and try a haiku. It's over with quickly, plus it's cultural so they should appreciate it.
    [x] Just try to be yourself. If the upper-class at this ball doesn't like you, well, that's their fault.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Oh, and of course you'll need to select the best outfit. Er, think a winter coat may be little excessive, sorry, hard to dance in too," Nadezhda added.

    [x] How about your sparkling nebula dress, that's more than elegant.
    [ ] That elegant black-and-white striped v-neck with the patterned scarf.
    [ ] That long dress and sunhat. Not suited to this weather, but they'll probably have heating.
    [ ] You think you can make this white winter coat work.
    [ ] Just go in your regular clothes. Again, if they don't like you, that's their problem.
    [ ] You think you have time to go get a brand new outfit.
    [ ] Write-in

    Entering into this Vladivostok hotel's deep red foyer, it didn't take you long to run into Kikuko, Melissa apparently still in her room for now.

    "Oh, Melissa says it's paramount that everything about her, her hair, her clothes, her makeup, be in absolute peak condition!" Nadezhda said, before she suddenly pushed you forward, "That should be the same for you too, so chop-chop!"

    "Typical she'd be glued to her mirror, ignorant of the beauty found in simplicity," Kikuko had to comment upon Melissa being brought up. It looked like the two girls' recent... intimacy hadn't softened their opinions on each other all that much.

    Even if the musty little chamber was probably barely touched since the Tsars were in power, you were at least grateful that this time you had a room of all your own for the night. That was, until Shinsuke suddenly came and said from behind you, "Oh by the way, Miss Honoka, Master Azuma has specifically requested the room next door, and I shall be stationed in the room the other side should you require me".

    That deflated the mood a little. "Ah, thanks," you mumbled back at him.

    Your privacy was further disregarded when Nadezhda barged into your hotel room and said out loud, "Okay, Honoka, hmm, or can I call you Honosha? Honya? Honoshka? Point is, I take it Shinsha here has delivered all your clothes? Great, then since Melissa's busy with herself, we need to seriously get started with prettying you up for the ball!"

    "Hey wait!" you exclaimed, holding up one of your purchased outfits Shinsuke had brought along, the purple-blue nebula dress. "See, got what I'm wearing all sorted, so I should be just fine-"

    "Oh, silly Honoshka, don't you know your outfit is only a single part of presenting yourself to society?" Nadezhda kept chirping. "We absolutely need to make sure your posture's correct, your eyelashes are extended, your hair's untangled, your lipstick compliments your nails, your cheeks are deeply blushed, your-" she kept going on.

    Why do I even to have 'present myself to society'? I mean, I go out walking heaps and am fairly active in the community now, isn't that 'society' enough? you had to think.

    Then Tomomi showed up, having apparently discussed something or other with Azuma next door, before Nadezhda then spotted her and dragged her in. "Great, Tomomi, you're just in time! We have to get Honoshka looking her best before the ball starts at 8PM!"

    Tomomi barely seemed interested at first, but then a thought crossed her mind as she said "Hmm, you really want me to help? Okay then..."
    Not long after, you looked in the mirror and saw that Tomomi had, er, applied your makeup in such a way that you looked like some freakish, old-timey clown. Your nails and eyelids were now coloured wildly, and more appropriately for a child face-painting event than a formal ball. Your hair had been teased out to the point where you looked a member of one of the bands Colette liked. At east your dress was left relatively intact.
    "Hey, if it's any consolation, I'm not prepared to go in looking like a pretty princess either," Tomomi told you.

    "Er, um, that's an... interesting style," Nadezhda gulped, then had to ask, "It's just, y'know, I'm worried our Honoshka won't be able to attract high society boys with, um, this particular mode of presentation, you see".

    "Eh, if some guy's not interested in her now, then I'd have to imagine he'd be a seriously boring guy," Tomomi shrugged in response, "Plus, thought you knew how fashion works, Melissa's friend. What you do is you war something ridiculous to a high-profile event, then people starts commenting how 'daring' you are, then boom, everyone's wearing the same thing".

    "Well's that, um, uh, I suppose you do kinda have a point..." Nadezhda was left mumbling. "Still, it's like totally not what I would've ever gone with myself".

    "Wuss" Tomomi just said to her.

    You were quite conflicted yourself. On one hand, you certainly didn't want the upper echelons of society to think of you as some freak, especially since this ball could very well be reported on (unless a bunch of secretive shit went down there). On the other hand, chances were that the 'upper echelons' of society probably would think you were some kind of freak either way.

    "But, but, but!" Nadezhda suddenly said, "We still have to go over dance practice before the big event! Ahem," she then pulled out her phone and hit play on a 3/4 beat, "Honoshka, usually we'd dance with boys, but for our practice we are operating on short notice".
    Nadezhda then beckoned you to take her hand, as she went "Okay, one, two, three, and twirl! One, two, three, and... change partner!"

    She spun you out until suddenly you were in Tomomi's arms, until she said to Nadezhda, "Ugh, gimme that". Messing with her music library, Tomomi soon found something she much rather preferred, as she then spun you out before pulling you back in, then suddenly hoisted you into the air and back down.

    Tomomi's music choice being much faster, and Nadezhda scrambling to get back to her original song, Tomomi all of a sudden and said "And... change!" as she took Nadezhda's hands, subjecting her to this new 'dance routine', leaving you to fall back onto your bed exhausted.

    The moment you saw Azuma enter your room though, you thought, Okay, definitely gonna have to put a stop to this whole dance party before he uses it as another excuse to get way too close to me. You swiped Nadezhda's phone in the blink of an eye and turned it off, leaving Nadezhda to stumble around and collapse on the floor, hand to her head, as the high-energy dancing ended.

    "Boo! I was just getting into that," Tomomi grumbled.

    "No doubt you were," Azuma sighed, before stepping back as he saw you were made up. He then focused back on his sister with, "I assume this is your handiwork, isn't it?"

    "Yeah, impressed?" Tomomi smiled sarcastically. "Seriously though, can't you tell Honoka barely gives a flying shit about this little society get-together of yours? Why shouldn't she have some fun?"

    "Because it's about your duty and obligation, not 'having fun'," Azuma suddenly seethed out, before seeing the look on your face and rushing over to apologise, "Honoka please, forgive me my sudden temper! It is just..." he slumped down next to you, "This event means the utmost to my family and I, and well, I wanted to imagine it meant the world to you too. A culmination of sorts, to show the maiden you had blossomed into under our tutelage".
    He stood up again, simply muttered, "I can see I was mistaken," before he walked out of the room.

    Seeing her brother walk off like that, Tomomi then sat by you and said, "Hey, um, don't let what he says get to you. Like, he wouldn't admit it out of respect for the dead, but I don't think my little brother was ever completely happy with Rin either, back when she was alive. So even I don't know what he really wants".

    You then had to ask her, Tomomi being pretty blunt made you feel she'd give some answer, "Did you... know Rin yourself, that well?"

    "Oh yeah. She was Azuma's senior, so there was a window of time where her and me were at Hanataba together," Tomomi smiled for a second, before saying, "Er, kinda hard to describe her personality, if you asked different people they'd probably say different things. But calling her your basic Student Council Pres would be a good starting point".

    "Huh, if you were in Hanataba," you surmised, "Does that mean you were an All-Ace".

    "I could've been," Tomomi now seemed not as open to discussion, "But I decided I couldn't give a shit about everything that came along with it. I mean, once you have enough approval to get made an Ace, you then spend all your time worrying about keeping that approval. I don't need that in my life, and I don't think anyone does" she concluded.

    "Eurgh," Nadezhda wearily groaned as she came to, "What time is it?"

    * * *

    That night, you were being chauffeured along with the All-Aces, Nadezhda and Tomomi to the grand ballroom. Unfortunately, this being an older model of car you were in, you didn't have the legroom of the Aces' usual limo, let alone a streaming service.

    "Okay team, we have to be at the top of our game tonight! We can't have the peak of society thinking the All-Aces are nothing but a bunch of Texan and Hokkaido-an hicks, got it? We have to out-dance, out-socialise, out-class every single son of a bitch out there on the field- er, I mean ballroom" Melissa told everyone, before looking flustered.

    Yeah, and hopefully we can avoid bursting a blood vessel while doing it, you thought to yourself.

    "However, since someone here," Melissa not so subtly indicated Tomomi, "decided to make us all look bad by association due to her little comedy skit, I expect her and Honoka to compensate hard for this.
    So Jack, your mission is this," she then looked at you, "Your debutante speech better get no less than a complete standing ovation. Furthermore, here is a list of the top wealthiest bachelors at this event, you are to dance with every single one of them, got that? Well, but only after I've had my turn with them, of course!"

    "Melissa," Azuma had to sigh, "Need I remind you who leader among the All-Aces?"

    Crossing her arms and snorting, Melissa said, "You're only unofficial leader".

    "Can we vote you both out?" Tomomi just muttered. "And by that I mean, out of the car, onto the pavement".

    * * *

    <<BGM: Russian Waltz - Balalaika Orchestra>>

    Once you finally made it to the society ball, you had to take in just what you were seeing. While the dark-red curtains and gold floors were normal, you expected the basic lavish rectangle with some curved staircases most ballrooms featured, not a whole series of ring-shaped platforms built on top of each other, with multiple stairs spreading out between them. You guessed these raised rings were to highlight any dancing couples atop them, while the pits within them housed the various orchestra players.

    'Far away, long ago, glowing dim as an ember...' you had to hum to yourself as you heard the music, even if that wasn't what was being played. You also had to think whether Azuma was cognitively adding this place to his Empire at this moment.

    Nadezhda, clad in a floor-sweeping light purple gown that glittered, ran up and behind you and started pointing out who all the guests were, "Okay so, that's Sun Xihe, she's a super-successful martials arts actress, ooh and those guys are associates of the Nanjo Group, but like heaps of Japanese business guys are, ah, guess you'd know that. Anyway, oh boy, North Korean officials, um, best stay away from them... but on a positive note (geddit?), those are some South Korean music industry execs".

    Hold on, North friggin' Korea? you couldn't help but think, I mean, papers imply shady connections that the corps have with the country all the time, but it's another thing to see it in person. Also, I think South Korea's music industry is only relatively an improvement.

    "Ahem, moving on, I think that woman's also from the Kirijou Corporation, ooh, there's gotta be some tension left over from way back when, and-" Nadezhda then lowered her voice, "Word has it the Okumura heiress was gonna attend, but a whole bunch of nasty stuff went down for her, so she said she couldn't make it. They say she's now trying to restart a ballerina career or something".

    "Hmm, and what were you saying about the Okumura heiress?" a velvety voice behind you suddenly said, making Nadezhda instinctively shriek and jump to the side.

    The one who'd come up behind you was a figure wearing tight red, zoot-y trousers with flared bottoms, and a ruffled white dress shirt beneath a black waistcoat. Combined with their short yet flared pixie cut and smile blending girlish cutesiness and boyish swagger, and they could've blended in with the 70s glam crowd.

    "Ah, nothing, just basic information. I wasn't ratting on her or anything, you have my word, Miss-Sir-, ah, Ann!" a shaking Nadezhda exclaimed.

    "Good, 'cause my friend's been going through a real rough patch, so even if she couldn't make it, she wouldn't appreciate people talking about her behind her back," Ann casually smiled at Nadezhda.

    As Nadezhda shrunk back, Ann then approached you and asked "Hey, are you okay? I mean, maybe the girl you were with is really nice and I just don't know, but it looked to me like she was exhausting you. Eh, now that I'm here, I haven't exactly got some partner assigned to me or anything at the moment, so... care to dance?" they then extended her hand to you.
    "...Er, yeah, sure" you blubbed out, not sure if this was the person you thought it was.

    As Ann smiled and took your hand, you did have to ask them, "So, I'm going out on a limb and guessing you're Takamaki Ann, right?"

    They sighed, "Huh, d'you think it'd be easier if I just used an alias or something, that way like we could just talk like people, without any of this celebrity garbage. But yeah, you're right, I'm Takamaki Ann. Hey, enough about me though, you probably know my story already. Let's hear about you," they smiled, spinning you around.

    "Well, er, I'm Nakamura Honoka-" you stuttered out, being put on the spotlight like this.

    [ ] "I am one of the most popular girls in school, for how much that's worth"
    [ ] "I'm gonna be blunt, my life sucks. But I get to visit cool ballrooms, I guess"
    [ ] "My 'friends' are complete pricks. Well, not really, just the ones that spring to mind are"
    [x] "I'm from a town close-ish to Sapporo, I kinda went from being unnoticed to being way too noticed"
    [ ] "Er, not much else to say really, but my friend's a big fan of yours"
    [ ] Write-in.

  13. #33
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXXIII. New 'Allegiance'

    <<BGM: Tchaikovsky - Sleeping Beauty Waltz>>

    "Wow, okay, I have been to Sapporo once. I mean I've had friends from the country, so that makes me kinda curious what led you here?" Ann asked, before tagging on "Ah, if you don't mind me asking".

    You didn't know quite what to respond with at first, but you soon said, "Bunch of lucky connections, basically. Got roped into the popular kids by, well, it's hard to explain, you could call it chance".

    Ann kept nodding, though given the cat-like expression on their face, you felt like they felt like you were hiding something... which well, you were.
    "Huh, your tone of voice seems, how to say, kinda muted. Even if your life sounds pretty good right now, I'm still picking up that you're troubled by something," Ann had to say, though made clear, "Sorry, I'm an actor, so I'm kinda trained to pick this sort of thing up".

    You gave a hushed chuckle at those words, then told them, "I haven't exactly had good in-person experiences with actors, they do ten to pry. Er, ah, no offence!"

    "None taken. I wish I could put in a better word for my profession, but yeah, sad thing is I know some real jerks in the business," Ann hung their head and said, "I'm no gossip columnist, so I won't rat anyone out or anything. I'll just say a good rule of thumb is that the nicer actors will often play villain roles, cause they've got nothing to hide, while if an actor always insists on playing the hero, that's a sign you should maybe avoid them, probably completely self-centred".

    "Speaking of which," you said under your breath, "I guess you would've heard about the Sakurazuka acting clan, Munehiro and Rurina?"

    "Um, Munehiro I know more from reputation than anything. Rurina I know better by her maiden name Benibara, I mean I was born after her time, but I went back and watched her stuff," Ann did respond, also adding, "Lotta period pieces, but hey I've got friends who are into that kinda thing. It's funny though, I mentioned Rurina once to Sojiro, he's this café owner I know down in Tokyo... and he went all quiet for some reason".

    "Reason I bring them up is that I go to school with their son," you told her, "His sister and him are at this ball, I imagine his parents are too".

    "Oh, neat! Mind if I ask you to introduce me to them?" Ann had to ask.

    "Well... I might as well, but you're likely gonna be disappointed," you muttered to her.

    All of a sudden, some people stepped up to Ann with odd looks on their faces. Ann at first feigned ignorance and said, "Oh, is there something wrong with my dancing? I haven't really danced since I was a teenager, so I may be a bit out of practice".
    They then had to ask them why she was dancing with another girl.
    "Oh, I see," Ann sighed, as they turned to look at you and said, "I've, er, probably gotta go. But either way, it was nice meeting you!" she smiled at you.

    "Wait, one last thing!" you remembered as you called out to Ann, "Um, my friend's a fan of yours, so ah, is it okay if I ask you to sign something for them?" you pulled a ribbon, the first signable object you had on you.

    "Of course," Ann said simply as she signed.

    Your meeting with Takamaki Ann having been cut off, Melissa naturally had to barge up to you and ask "Well, have you been fulfilling the missions I gave you, hmm?!!"

    You sighed, "I think I've been going just fine enough, thank you," you told her simply.

    Behind Melissa came two figures, one you recognised as her stepmom Adriana, the other an older, wrinkled, grey-haired in a white suit, sweaty despite the cold.
    "Oh, Melissa, I remember this being your friend Honoka, right?" Adriana asked.

    "Yer name's Honoka, is it? Salutations little girl, you're speaking with Patrick, father of the little belle of the ball and my precious angel Melissa Lilian, and second-in-line at Sole Star Petroleum, the brightest-burning fuel in all the South. 'Cross land, 'cross sand, 'cross air, we're Sole Star Petroleum! Here's my card," came the rapid-fire speaking of Melissa's father, sounding much more obviously Southern, as opposed to his daughter's more general US accent.

    "Er, thanks," you mumbled, though asked, "Wait, second-in-line?"

    "Grandad's the CEO," Melissa explained in an instant, before her father could jump on this chance to start talking again.

    "Either way, I am awful sorry to hear about your recent loss," Melissa's stepmum suddenly said, "The Momoi family are among Hokkaido's wealthiest farmers, yet they had to cancel their invitation at the last minute due to the death of their son. Oh, I apologise if I've brought that up too soon".

    "You mean Gakuto?" you asked on instinct, "Uh, well, it's kinda hard to figure just how I should react to his death", you gave possibly the most honest answer you could in this situation.

    "Darn shame that is too, saw quite a lot of myself in that boy," Patrick went on, with Melissa hissing in your ear that her Dad said that about all the boys she knew.

    The Ace of Coins soon broke out into a sweat when the people you'd been talking about earlier, the Sakurazuka parents, suddenly waked up to join in the conversation. "Eh, Rurina... Sakurazuka, and Mr. Munehiro Sakurazuka too, what a surprise," Melissa gulped and tried to smile, "Ah, guess I should introduce you to my own folks..."

    As that awkwardness Melissa had gotten herself into resurfaced, you decide now was the time to get off the stage and quickly head to the buffet. You knew as much about Russian food as you did Korean, but this international ball had quite the variety of food and drink prepared.

    [x] The beef stroganoff, it seemed to be the most popular dish here. [+Perception]
    [ ] Just a cup of tea, you heard that Russian blends had quite the reputation. [+Etiquette]
    [ ] Some Pirog, a pie you assumed sweet given the time of night, which you knew was an important Russian dish. [+Education]
    [ ] Sneak a shot of some of the more adult stuff while nobody's looking. [+Resolve]
    [ ] Write-in.

    While there, you saw a kimono-clad Kikuko had been called over to the corner, when she was addressing a much older, taller man in a suit, whose shaggy black hair had a white streak, his rough face several scars, and most noticeably his left arm replaced with a prosthetic. He matched a description you'd been given of Kikuko's father, and though you were too far to hear what they were saying, it was still clear to that Kikuko had none of her usual confidence around them, it even looked like she was quivering a little.

    You thought for a second to go over and check on her, but then figured, No, probably safer if I just stayed here, leave the Maeda family to whatever their business is.

    "Iemitsu Maeda, can you believe him?" you heard one of the guys from the Nanjo Group, seemingly the Nanjo guy here, sigh as he trudged his own way over to the buffet, "I feel sorry for his kid, and lucky I had my one and only butler to raise me".

    "Huh? Oh, Kikuko does have a maid, if that's what you mean," you on impulse told this guy.

    The Nanjo official had to smile at that, "I mean, I'm a father now too, much as I could never imagine being one back when. I didn't want my kids growing up thinking of themselves as 'corporate heirs', I tried to raise them as regular people. Maeda Iemitsu's... almost like a worst-case example of who I could've become, but I confess that may be hyperbole," he said, before getting called away to some business or other.
    "Appears I'm being invited to dance. Ugh, I'm really not the best person in my peer group for that activity..." you could hear him sighing as he left.

    Wasn't long before you were called up too. You being a societal debutante, the announcer was now calling, "-Honoka Nakamura, please make your way up to the podium to introduce yourself to us all-"

    Shaking nervously as you headed up the steps in the centre of the ballroom, everyone there now gazing at you, once your stage fright left you slowly curtseyed and said, trying to just be yourself.

    "Hello ah, everyone. My name is Nakamura Honoka, I'm from Japan, Hokkaido specifically. Ah, anyone here ever been to Sapporo? Er, anyway, I'm basically here 'cause my, ah, associates at the All-Aces invited me along, they're the children of, er, some of Japan's, and America's in one case, most accomplished families". What you just said was technically true.

    Suddenly, you could feel a strange whispering coming up from below, a voice coming through some sort of pipe system instructing you to say 'I have a turbulent and dramatic past. I am currently seeking an ideal partner who would-', but you promptly ignored it and quickly finished up.

    "So, ah, thank you everyone, it's ahem, certainly an experience meeting all of you!" you concluded and breathed out with relief. Less relieving though was what happened next, as you heard a lever being pulled, and what looked like a giant cream pastry fell from the ceiling... and splattered its contents all over you.

    The whole ballroom burst into laughter at the sight of you, as of course Melissa ran up the stairs to laugh at you. "I got you good, Honoka! Ooh boy, you should see the look on your face!" she then started cackling uncontrollably.

    Huh, figures you'd complain about how Tomomi messed me up, only to pull something like this, Melissa, you seethed in silence, a whole chunk of dairy falling off your face.

    Azuma soon followed her up to the stage and spoke to the crowd, "A-hah, I take it you were all entertained by our schoolyard, ahem, tomfoolery. Naturally though we must away for the moment, to get our Honoka looking... presentable again," he said as he ushered you away. Kikuko then followed behind you, likely not stepping up sooner to avoid being seen partaking in 'hilarious' pranking in front of her father.

    * * *

    The All-Aces pulled you into the nearest side-room they could find, but when they tried to address you, they were cut off by a sudden gasp.

    "What the- Ah, you guys are aware you're in my dressing room, right?" a red-haired woman in her mid-twenties spoke up. Her wavy, reddish-brown bob cut complimented her glittering, deep blue short dress, making her look overall like a singer from the 1920s. "Oh wait, oh my, you're totally fans aren't you? You're here for my autograph, huh?" she then suddenly smiled.

    "Ah, hate to disappoint, but I think my... acquaintances just picked a random room," you tried to tell this woman.

    "I totally this ball wasn't just a lucky break, there are still fans out there of Rise- Huh? Okay, I see then," her enthusiasm faded, as she slumped down in her chair. "Sorry, guess I got carried away, heh, wouldn't be the first time- Huh?
    Hey, what happened, you got cake all over you. here, I can help clean you up," this singer said as she took one look at you, grabbing a cloth to wipe the mess away from your face.

    Melissa then started laughing again at this whole scene. "Ooh, I believe I know you. Hah, you're Rise Kujikawa aren't you? One of my hangers-on said she listened to you as a kid. Man, after I totally creamed Honoka here, running into some has-been pop idol just makes this even funnier!" she smirked.

    Azuma did have to look at Melissa and say "...You are aware you could've employed more tact, right?"

    Regardless, that emotional blow of Melissa's seemed to leave this Kujikawa Rise devastated, but you at least stepped forward to try reassuring her as she did you, "Hey, Rise right? That's Melissa, she's just being a bitch, don't let her words get to you".

    Rise slowly smiled again, as she told you, "Thanks, I- I really needed to hear that. Well, ahem, either way, I'm due to perform out there, so I'll hope you can still hear even in here, Miss- ah, don't think I got your name?"

    "Nakamura Honoka," you told her, before looking downcast, "The whole ball knows that now".

    Rise gave you a parting grin and said, "hey, like you told me, don't let them get to you," as she left.

    - Rebirth has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    "How else does a mass-marketed singer expect to end up?" Kikuko had to remark once Rise was out of the room, "I was taught from a young age that all in life is fleeting".

    "Indeed, time comes for us all," Azuma chimed in, before saying, "But now to business. Melissa, bar the door, Kikuko, produce the sword".

    "Huh, why do I have to bar the door? And who are you to order me- Oh fine," Melissa groaned as she closed the door anyway.

    <<BGM: Umineko - Scorpion Entrails>>

    "Wait a second, you're gonna do the Jack allegiance ceremony or whatever here?!" you exclaimed, When I'm a whole country away from anyone close to me...

    "The Promotion Rite, and I believe we did inform you the time was drawing near," Azuma told you bluntly, "Even if not, Himawari's departure should've made that apparent. Now Nakamura Honoka, kneel... if you would".

    Per the Promotion Rite, as you got to your knees, Kikuko had her sword positioned just slightly above you.

    "Nakamura Honoka, once again, to whom do you swear allegiance to?".

    [ ] Sakurazuka Azuma, Ace of Spades.
    [x] Maeda Kikuko, Ace of Swords.
    [ ] Melissa Lilian, Ace of Coins.
    "Yeah, Kikuko then, sure!" you exclaimed while sweating, before breathing a sigh of relief as that sword was lifted away from your neck.

    You gradually stood up again, although your knees were shaking so much that you felt you could easily collapse back down. A sudden, cold hand gripping your shoulder then made you flinch, long and pointy fingernails not helping.

    "So you have decided," Kikuko whispered from behind you, as her hand then pushed you down to return you to kneeling position. "I can certainly say you have made possibly the easiest choice but be warned. I am sure you're well aware by now that when one serves me, I expect them to do so to the utmost of their ability".

    "Shame, Honoka," Melissa sighed as she twirled her hair, "You do know that, had you chosen me, I could've majorly improved your sad little life. Parties, boys, fashion, you name it. But of course, a loser like you had to go join the 'No Fun Allowed' squad," she glared down at you.

    Probably because your idea of fun would've been at my expense, you thought, glaring up at her.

    "You would honestly prefer Kikuko, of all people?" Azuma had to twitch, but soon straightened himself and said, "In fairness, I of course can see what our Ace of Swords has to offer. The Maeda line has quite the esteemed history, and unlike many others from centuries past, is still thriving and dominant to this day. And I can certainly see why you'd want someone like Kikuko with you on the Gameboard".

    It's not who I want, it's who I don't want, you could only think.

    "Nakamura Honoka, the moment we're in a more convenient location, I shall give you my first set of instructions," Kikuko then told you, "A Young Lady's Book of Five Rings, you might say. It shall define what activities are and are not prohibited for you to properly integrate yourself with elite society".

    "Looking forward to it," you said, wondering how apparent your sarcasm was.

    "For now, best we depart from this room, else people start getting suspicious," Azuma said, holding open the door.

    As you shuffled though, you did have to turn your gaze back and ask him one thing, "That voice whispering speech lines to me through a pipe, that was you, wasn't it?"

    "Hmm, you phrased that as much like a statement as a question," Azuma responded, but had to admit, "Yes, indeed it was. You know, Honoka, the majority of people your age would be quite grateful for my generousity, yet you remain indignant about it. Don't think I haven't noticed your ingratitude," he scowled for a second, but then sighed, "Then again, resilience is considered an admirable trait. But I'll tell you this, Honoka, when I play games, I don't do it simply for the thrill".

    He then brushed past you, heading back downstairs with the other All-Aces. You just stood there while you became drenched in thought, wondering what the hell you'd gotten yourself into, wondering if that rite thing had any 'correct' choice.

    - The Fool has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

    At least I get to hang out with Na-rae even more, I guess that's an upside, you thought. Now that Reina's getting kicked out, there's not really anyone like her on Melissa's end. With Azuma, I guess Shinsuke's okay, and there is Tomomi... yeah, I doubt Azuma would let me anywhere near his sister if he could.

    Back in the ballroom, you also got to hear Rise finally sing. She tried introducing herself, with a chirpy "Hi there, I'm Kujikawa Rise!", her probably a bit too old now to use 'Risette' with a straight face. When the hushed ballroom made it clear that people just wanted to get to singing, she sighed and did so, her voice suddenly going to a gloomier place with a torch song.

    <<BGM: The Great Comet - Sonya Alone>>

    * * *

    The ball that night concluded with no less than a firework show, these people probably easily able to afford it, with everyone cramming the balcony to witness the pyrotechnics.

    Afterwards, your now dead tired self, a grandfather clock telling you it was well past midnight, stumbled your way out of the front door, the All-Aces' ride already waiting there for them.
    "Rough night, huh?" Tomomi smirked as she made her way out after you, "Seriously, my folks came up to me and said that I should take this occasion to find some charming young man from the crowd. Yeah, fuck that, I just stayed by the buffet the whole time. Ugh, think I'm absolutely stuffed," she told you. "No marijuana though, that's a minus".

    "Yeah, think that's enough details for me, thank you," you told her.

    "You know something? I envy you," Nadezhda of all people suddenly came up and said to Tomomi, "You were totally prescient enough to do the smart thing. I spent the whole night trying to impress every eligible bachelor there, asking anyone I could to dance with me, and they kept turning me down!" she cried.

    "Men, huh?" Tomomi slung her arm around Nadezhda's shoulders.

    "Oh boo hoo hoo. Grow up, Nadezhda," Melissa said, striding right past her.

    Azuma was next to approach, tensions immediately rising between him and Tomomi. Their parents stepping out behind them didn't make things any better.
    "Azuma, my boy, why so distressed? My apologies, I can't help but notice that you now leave this ball more disheartened than when you arrived," Munehiro looked at him.

    "...It's nothing. Just a minor setback, that's all," Azuma coughed, unable to help side-eyeing you.

    "Who knows, maybe it's just Russia getting to him?" Tomomi shrugged.

    Rurina looked directly at her daughter before weeping, handkerchief in hand. "Well, young lady, I do hope you know how... pleased I am, at the thought you'll likely grow up to be some lonely, loveless spinster," she sobbed at her.

    If Tomomi was fazed, she didn't look it, as she shrugged and said "Eh, spinsters have more money. 'Sides, not every marriage can be a fairytale one", looking at her mother and then shooting a glance at Melissa, as if to say 'Don't think I don't know'.

    That business with the Sakurazuka clan over, you were greeted by one last person before you left. "Oh hi there, Nakamura right? Sorry, we never really got the chance to properly end our talk with each other, did we?" Takamaki Ann returned to greet you.

    "Guess not. Um, thanks for remembering me," you said, "Oh wait, you would've seen that cake thing, right?"

    "Oh yeah, that. Yeah, like Hell that was 'schoolyard tomfoolery'... well, considering my old school- Anyway, sorry you had to go through that," Ann said to you.
    "Um, on a lighter note, I did get to meet Sakurazuka Rurina and Munehiro, and ooh boy, were we from different worlds. They're clearly high society types, okay, most people at these balls are, but it felt like I had to keep up with a bunch of obscure Italian and Swedish films and plays to even hope to converse with them. Grr, I just want my dumb action flicks!"

    Magnify that frustration tenfold, and you'll know how I feel about Azuma, you thought, but didn't say, as you were hesitant to drag Ann into your own personal drama.

    "Met up with Kujikawa Rise too, much easier to get along with, lemme tell you," Ann went on, "Thought at first we'd have quite a lot in common, but the more we talked, the more it felt like life had taken us down some pretty different paths. Ah, not complaining or anything, just observing.
    Hey, am I talking too much about myself?" Ann had to ask, before they said, "It's just that, when I mentioned you were from a prestigious school southwest of Sapporo, she suddenly blurted out 'Oh, where the deaths are happening'? Um, lemme explain, she said she has a friend who's a detective, so she found out about it from them- Sorry, I guess I really am touching a nerve, huh?" Ann apologised.

    You did have to collect your thoughts for a moment, before you said, "Well, I suppose news about top students suddenly dying at Hanataba would get out eventually, it is getting harder to call it a coincidence. Like, I knew two of them personally, and... yeah, they were complete jerks, but that doesn't mean they deserve... death". You could've frozen up, and not just due to the temperature.

    "I don't think anyone deserves death, in a way," Ann had to say, "Like, I've always felt the worst criminals would, given a choice between the two, kinda prefer death to atonement. That's from my experience anyway, I mean I'm gonna make my opinion clear, but I know I'm not some Ultimate Authority or anything" their voice started to get heated.
    But Ann then calmed themselves, and said, "Look, I've gotta go again, night's getting old. And hey, who knows, I've only been to Hokkaido once, but I travel a lot, so I'll try and say hi if I'm ever in the area," they smiled.

    "Thanks!" you just said, relieved that you still had someone nice to talk to this far from home, "See ya".

    That night, your weary self was still able to dream, about Ann and you dancing again, but alone in a ruined hall, the music being played by ghosts. You then saw Himawari again, but it was no pleasant surprise, as she was running out of that same hall in the past burned down, the sound of gunfire around her. You later then met with Rise in the snow, who somehow was the older Himawari.
    And you thought your previous dreams were confusing...

    <<BGM: Umineko - Activepain (Piano)>>

  14. #34
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXXIV. Return and Resume

    Your hotel bed showed its age as it squeaked beneath you, but it was still more than comfortable. Not as comfy though, was suddenly being awoken quite early in the morning, the sun barely up, as Kikuko yanked you out of bed.

    "Get showered and dressed, then follow me," she told you, as you noticed behind her that Na-rae was also awake and dressed.

    After taking possibly the shortest shower in your life, given you had a habit of spending quite a while in there, unhealthy as it was for your heating bill- point was, you got ready as soon as you could, as Kikuko then led you outside.

    Being led around in the chill morning air, Na-rae and you were made to climb to the top of a local hill. Reaching the summit, Kikuko then produced a sheet of paper, and instructed you to "Read".

    It was hard to make out her writing in the early dawn, but straining your eyes, you slowly managed to. It appeared these were her instructions on how to gentrify yourself, most of which were stuff you expected from her, like getting up early, exercise regimens, dietary limits aimed mostly at cutting out Korean and Western foods, and a list of 'acceptable' activities, including history, poetry, calligraphy, art, weapons training, meditation, horse riding, that sort of thing.

    But what made you so desperately want to tear this piece of paper in two, was the list of people deemed 'socially unacceptable' for you to hang out with, which included:

    • Keiko
    • Yuya
    • Colette
    • Reina
    • Himawari
    • Mamiko
    • Hitoshi
    • Ibuki
    • Masaomi
    • Takako
    • Megumi (accommodation arrangements will be made)

    "I would've included Melissa, but as a fellow All-Ace I am unable to do so," Kikuko stated, biting her lower lip.

    You just gritted your teeth. You felt you should've said something, but for now, all you could do was shoot a dirty look at Kikuko. Of course, this list made you determined that you'd keep on seeing all these people... you'd just have to do it more stealthily.

    Although, you had to expect something very similar would've happened had you 'sworn allegiance' to Melissa. Maybe Azuma would've let you keep hanging out with your friends, but that meant he probably would've tried to involve himself and his ideas more and more in their lives.

    "You are free to leave now. We will be departing back to Japan now, hopefully in time for the beginning of school," Kikuko told you.

    "Wait, you're making me catch an international flight on a school day?!" you burst out, but Kikuko barely registered your concerns.

    "Er, sorry about all that, Miss Honoka," Na-rae told you, referring to you like that even if you were now technically equals. "Nasty business this is, dragging you out at the crack of the morning. Oh er, by the way Mistress, I suppose you'll be wanting your keisaku done now?"

    "If you will, Tsubasa," Kikuko said, sitting down in the lotus position.

    "Wait, I'm also your Jack now, so wouldn't I be able to-" you tried to say but got cut off.

    "Don't even think about it," Kikuko snarled.

    * * *

    Going on a third flight in this many days was far from ideal for you, and having to go to school immediately after just made it worse.
    Some good news was that you weren't sitting next to Azuma or his butler this time. The bad news was you were now sitting next to Kikuko, though at least Na-rae was also there.

    You did at least try to get around to finishing Over a Mysterious Rose, but of course Kikuko had to intervene.
    "And what are you reading?" she spoke.

    You sighed, as you tried to make clear, "Look, it's a manga. The author's name is Yakumo Kaguya, does that sound 'foreign' or whatever to you? Or are you just playing fun police?" Speaking on impulse, you flinched expecting Kikuko to retaliate.

    Instead, your Ace just said "No, continue on, I was just inspecting if it was of appropriate quality, that was all". She went silent again, but felt the need to add, "I do know how to have 'fun', if that's what concerns you. Ask me and I'll 'hang out' with you sometime, you'll see I'm not from some alien planet as you make out".

    "...When did I imply you were?' you sighed.

    "Er, I've been catching glimpses o' your reading material, Miss Honoka, seems perfectly alright to me," Na-rae tried to chime in.

    Landing in Sapporo again, as you were driven back, Kikuko arranged for you to be driven past where she lived, a lone renovated pagoda close to some local volcanic vents, which you guessed were kin of the 'Hell Valley' around Noboribetsu, with Mount Yotei looming nearby.

    "Your parents have some weir- interesting choices in real estate," you had to remark.

    "Actually, I live there alone. Well, not entirely, obviously I have my servants and personal tutors," Kikuko said, "Though interestingly, never an apprentice before, till now".

    Finally, you stepped out back at the familiar school gate of Hanataba. You'd only been gone for a couple of days, but it felt almost unreal seeing this place again.

    <<BGM: Nujabes - Counting Stars>>

    One of the reasons for the impromptu Russia trip, you'd been told, was to 'lay low' after Gakuto's death. Didn't appear to have worked then, as every other student you overheard was talking about Gakuto, even though mid-terms should be on right now.

    "First Eitaro, now Gakuto? Man, I can see why people think this place must be haunted-"

    "-Gakuto was the top gamer, the top tech visionary our school had. We were gonna revolutionise the world thanks to him, but now..."
    "Is there like a curse on the All-Aces or something? One Ace died a couple of years ago too-"

    "-I dunno, I can't get my mind off the fact that Kikuko and Melissa full-on brawled with each other."

    Well, okay, that last one wasn't about Gakuto, though still wasn't something you wanted to be reminded of either.

    * * *

    "Oh hey, Honoka, decided to play truant on Saturday, did you?" Tanizawa-sensei greeted your tired self with.

    Huh, wait, I thought the All-Aces were covering that for me? you thought as you stumbled back.

    "Heh, can't say I blame you; I was like that myself at your age, and lots of kids take Saturday off anyway. That said, you've got mid-terms to busy yourself with, but I was told to tell you one other thing..." she then said.
    "Like, it's good that you're Class Rep, but Boss Lady Teruko says that, given your association with delinquents, you really need to join more clubs or something to improve your image, show you 'care about this school' or whatever," Ryouko went on.

    "Hey wait, I'm acting head of the Occult Club, and I'm with the All-Aces," you protested.

    Ryouko sighed. "Sorry, but they explicitly told me Occult Club didn't count, what with Colette and all. The All-Aces, er, that's complicated. While prestigious, they're not technically an official club, weird as it is to think that's the case, more of an 'omni-clique' or something," she went over.

    More like some parasite organism, if you ask me, that thought boiled within you.

    "Put simply, you're being asked to join another club," Ryouko summed it up. Given you also had mid-terms, and after that the Sports Festival, you doubted you'd be able to get anything else done besides these club activities.

    [ ] Drama Club, you might want to check up on Azuma to make sure he's not abusing his power there.
    [ ] Historical reenactment, er, 'Tea Ceremony' Club, you are Kikuko's Jack now.
    [x] The Cricket Team, Takako seems perky enough, and she is desperate for members.
    [ ] The Photography Club, reading about modelling had gotten you kinda interested in the art.
    [ ] The Football (Soccer) Team, they probably still haven't recovered from Eitaro's death.
    [ ] The Computer Club, you don't know they're handling Gakuto's death.
    [ ] The... Dating Corner, apparently it was supposed to be for relationship advice.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Ooh, interesting choice," Ryouko casually remarked, "I guess Fujino Teruko was hoping you'd join one of our more, er, 'established' clubs, but I do know the Cricket Team is almost on its last legs, so that's quite nice of you.
    For now, however," she said, drawing out a pile of papers, "You've got mid-terms beginning, so you better get your mind on books and less on balls- wait, that came out wrong. Er, you know what I mean".

    You slumped down at your desk, presented with your essay to write on I Am A Cat. Suzako and Yuuya still next to you... for the time being that is, you did think to ask them how they were doing, but you knew talking wasn't exactly cool during mid-terms.
    Yuya did seem to be sailing smoothly with his essay, guess The Waste Land's brevity was really working out for him. The same should've been the case for Heart of Darkness, but a fidgeting, gasping Suzako didn't seem to be progressing as well.

    Turning back to your paper, you just went ahead and tried penning a starting sentence:
    [ ] "Much has been written about I Am A Cat, being one of the most known works of Japanese literature. However..."
    [x] "If we define Surrealism as 'placing thee ordinary out of its familiar context', then Soseki's I Am A Cat..."
    [ ] "We come to take much for granted in our human lives, not being until we take a step back that we are made to reflect..."
    [ ] Write-in

    You gasped with relief as the bell rang. You did remember the Cricket Team was scheduled for Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, incidentally the same days as the Football Team. However, even just this Monday, you knew there was still something you could do that concerned them, them and practically everyone on Kikuko's list.

    You waited outside the school gates until you saw Reina slumping out, all her former cheer seeming to have been drained by now. Double-checking to make sure Kikuko wasn't around, you ran up to her, smiled, and asked, "Hey Reina, um, long time to see! Er, I kinda need your help with something, eheh".

    "H-Honoka?" Reina for a second shot up with joy, but her sunniness faded the moment after, "Oh, um, you need my help with something? Okay then... So, y-you're not ignoring me because Melissa said I'm not a Jack anymore, right?"

    You insisted, "No, of course not! Hey, you don't need Melissa in your life, Hell, I think she needed you more than you her," you proclaimed, before getting around to asking, "But speaking of the Aces, er, they're really starting to crack down on who I can or can't hang out with, so... I thought you might be the best person to help me pick a disguise".

    Reina twitched. "Oh, ah, that's interesting. Ah, I'm not like super well-versed on, y'know, espionage, but I do know clothes and makeup," she said, as she started looking around for any All-Aces too, "Hey, meet me at my place, I'll help you pick something out".

    As Reina left however, you suddenly felt Kikuko's eyes upon you. Kikuko wasn't saying a word to you, as her seething expression said it all.

    "Er, Kikuko, hi. Look, if this is about Reina, don't worry, I only bumped into her for like a second," you were quick to tell her.

    Kikuko's tense glare ceased, as she then replied, "I trust I can take your word for that, correct?"

    Later in the evening, you made your way over to Reina's house, by now getting into the habit of swerving your head left and right and looking behind you to check for Kikuko or the others.

    Reina's home sure wasn't what you expected, being a more traditional house straight out of, well, not Kyoto, but definitely one of those towns that'd get called a 'Little Kyoto' or something.
    Being greeted by Reina again at the door did indeed confirm this was the right place. That said, something looked, er, unusual about Reina, as she'd painted her nails black and was in the middle of applying dark purple eyeshadow.

    "Honoka, you made it here all fine? Great, come in, I'll show you to my room!" she said, leading you up a set of narrow wooden stairs.

    Her bedroom was more what you expected from her, pinks, yellows, and fluff all around, but you also noticed the addition of some blacks and blood reds, colours that seemed unlike her.
    "Er, I've been inviting Colette up here a couple of times, help her out while she's still suspended, and I've been keeping a couple of gifts of hers, you know how it is," she told you, "Ooh, I think a few of my, um, her outfits that she gave me would really suit you, there is always more to spare!"

    Reina then pulled out a bunch of gothic dresses and wigs, all of which you previously never would've expected from her closet, as she added, "Right, we need some makeover montage music!" Turning on her phone, you were met with a surprise blast of angry, dark emotional music, leaving an embarrassed Reina scrambling to change it to something brighter and peppier. "Eheh, don't know how that got in there" she tried to laugh.

    * * *

    "Hey there, so how was, er, Russia like?" Megumi asked you, once you finally returned to your apartment... an apartment which may not be yours for long.

    You sighed, telling them, "It's a big country and all, which I only saw a relatively tiny part of over like, one weekend. Plus, I needed a translator with me almost constantly... yeah, I really don't know what to make of the place".

    Megumi leaned back on their couch and surmised, "Huh, fair enough. Well, Himawari- she insisted on being called Nightshade, she and I had a memorable enough time, you could say. Her secret's way out of the bag now, like she's not even wearing a wig anymore," they told you.

    You shuddered, "Er, Megumi, when Himawari was here, how often was she 'Himawari' and how often was she 'Nightshade'?" you put it in perhaps not the most elegant way.

    "Pretty much all Nightshade, all the time," they said, "Her hair's dyed now. I can only imagine how much being expelled sucks, I mean I had a few close brushes back in high school, but if she was sad she didn't show it. Heh, she sure knows how to throw a party for two, it's great that the landlord didn't check up on us for all the marijuana fumes".

    You politely laughed at that, biting your lip all the while. You then set down beside Megumi, as you finally told them, "Listen, that sounds great... but I've got some bad news. Well, part of it's good news, but there's a nasty catch".

    Megumi had to side-eye you, before saying "...Go on. What, don't tell me you had a run in with the Russian mafia or something?" they laughed, only to see your face not brightening. "Honoka..."

    "The All-Aces are gonna be doing something about my lodgings. That's confirmed now, though I don't know when or where yet," you said to them, before you then recoiled even more, hugging your knees, "The bad news is, well, they say the new place is gonna only for me... I'm sorry".

    Megumi just sighed at first, but then said, "You know what? I expected as much, coming from those people. Well, I guess there's one upside for me, I'll be able to have your room, eh?" They nudged you with their elbow, but your mood didn't lighten.

    "Megumi, do you, well, how do I put this?" you muttered out, before being blunt, "You think we have enough in common that we'll run into each other again? I mean, us ending up in the same apartment together was coincidence really, when you think about it".

    Megumi then looked straight into your eyes and said, "Honoka, of course we'll see each other again! It's not just this flat you know, I mean we both hang out with Nightshade, I'm still seeing Ryouko, and we've talked about heaps of stuff together before!" They then smiled at you, saying "Besides, you know where my university is, or the places I like to hang out, so I'm always here if you just wanna talk".

    "T-thank you," you said, smiling awkwardly as you admitted, "Maybe I was being too hasty when I went all 'Will we ever see each other again'?"

    "Yeah, although," they said and gazed down, "I was gonna say at least you'll be somewhere more secure than this flat... but given what I know of the All-Aces, I have to doubt even that".

    "You know what? I'm still gonna show you around the new place," you suddenly declared, though while having to admit, "Might have to be sneaky about it though, I mean, you've probably figured out the entire point of them doing this was too separate us".

    "Yeah, you didn't have to tell me," Megumi sighed, before speaking to you firmly, "Honoka, in a situation like yours, the last thing you wanna do is give in. Don't let them rig the game or unbalance the scales," they paused and went inward, "The world tried to do the same to me too".

    You've hinted before, you had to think. You didn't say anything to Megumi, but just instinctively hugged them.

    - Temperance has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    Smiling, Megumi then said, "When you do go, I'm gonna have to throw you one serious farewell party, you've earned it!"

    * * *

    Not before long, a chance to display your newfound status as Jack of Swords, er, the other one, came when you entered the school corridors that morning. It seemed something of an argument had broken out between two male students, one tall and dark-haired, the other rowdy and with dyed hair, about who was better between Kikuko and Melissa.

    "Kikuko is a delicate beauty blessed with grace and culture, the likes of which we have not seen in Japan for centuries!" the taller student proclaimed. "Melissa is a brutish invader to raise her hand against her".

    "Oh please, her being a 'traditional beauty' just means Kikuko's old news! Melissa brings a dash of much-needed flavour, I mean how often do you see foreign girls out here besides tourists?" the rougher, tough student countered, "Plus her company's gotta be the richer out of the two!"

    "Ah, well I think Suzako's-" a third guy said but was quickly ignored.

    "Okay, break it up you two!" you had to spell it out for them, leaving the two boys muttering as they left.

    They did seem to agree on one thing. "Like Honoka's one to talk. I mean, most guys around here lost interest in her when those pictures of how she used to look were leaked!"
    "Indeed, she'd be nothing without the All-Aces!"

    This whole moment just left you seething. Apart from their comments in general, you couldn't care for this whole Melissa vs Kikuko thing anyway. This wasn't the first time you'd heard students comparing them, that weird 'you're either a Melissa guy or a Kikuko guy' thing was a common rivalry guys around here had. But ever since that brawl, er, you had gotten into with Melissa in Kikuko's body, the whole thing had been catapulted back into the limelight.

    You had more mid-terms stuff to look forward to today, but eventually you did get your chance to check out the Cricket Team. This meant having to get changed into the disguise Reina had given you, which took a little while itself, but still being school meant you only had to squeeze on the wig.
    Not having a field of their own, you found out that Takako had to borrow the school's baseball diamond whenever they weren't using it.

    "Oh yeah, what did I tell you, Ikue?!" the black-haired, highly tanned Takako sprang up, "See, I knew if we just kept the club open we'd attract new members one day! So hey, thanks for coming, what's your name?"

    You then removed your wig, sure that any All-Aces were out of sight, and said, "Takako, it's me, Nakamura Honoka. We met back on the first week, remember?"

    "Huh? Oh yeah, Honoka!" Takako picked up on, before having to ask, "Er, but why the secrecy then? Like, cricket's not embarrassing to you or something?"

    You gulped, before saying "Oh no, not at all." Hesitating longer, you then made your situation clear, as you'd figured you'd better do so sooner rather than later, "The All-Aces are, well, you knew Eitaro. They've been cracking down even harder on who I can and can't hang out with recently, hence the get-up".

    "Hoo boy," Takako sighed, before she smiled and said, "Y'know, it's funny you bring up the All-Aces here, because, well lemme introduce ya to, ah, the only other person I have on the team right now, Yoneyama Ikue!"

    "Pleasure's all mine," smirked a blonde girl with her hair in spiralling twintails, extending her hand but with an uppity smile. From first impression, you'd call her a kogal like Reina, but on closer inspection, she seemed to be going for a more European air (or well, her attempt at European).

    "Ah, Ikue's usually a skier, but coming up to summer she was looking for some other sport to occupy her, hence where I came in," Takako explained, "Thing is, she was once in the running to become a Jack, even an All-Ace, but well...".

    Ikue just flipped her hair, "I refused to be anyone's follower, yet they wouldn't let me be a full Ace for some reason," she stated, before looking downcast, "Thus, my whole reputation at Hanataba collapsed, I went from popular to outcast in seconds".

    "Sheesh, I'm-I'm sorry," you could only say. I figure the Aces let you go like that because you weren't a Wild Card, then...

    "Hey, we got new members, so let's focus on what's looking up for us, huh?" Takako beamed out, before saying to you, "Um, although in the end I do gotta ask, Honoka... do you have any plans for recruiting new members? Ah sorry, can't help myself, Sports Festival next week and all, but I should get around to explaining the game."

    "No, that's okay, I'm happy to help find new people," you said, before adding "Or rather, give new ideas for recruiting people, since y'know, have to be careful the Aces don't see me doing this on their watch".

    [x] Suggest trying to find girls who don't fit into the existing sports teams.
    [ ] Suggest girls who may find an interest in cricket due to cultural, aesthetic reasons.
    [ ] Suggest girls who are bored and just need a hobby.
    [ ] Suggest people you know, see if they have time.
    [ ] Ask someone to help recruit potential cricketers for you.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Er, well here's a thought, " you began with, "Do you know anyone who's been like, kicked out of or turned down by any of the existing sports teams we have here?"

    "Yeah, there's a few," Takako said, "But like, a team's gotta have eleven people, so we gotta find eight more, and then we've also gotta get an umpire and like- Ugh!" she then squatted down into a heap, clutching her head with her hands.

    "And yes, I know we really don't have the luxury of being selective with players," Ikue had to chime in, "But Honoka, I must ask, how much do you know exactly about the sport?"

    "Hey, I did try reading up on it a little bit," you protested, but had to admit, "True, finding Japanese-language sources on cricket, er, requires a lot of scraping through the internet or library".

    "Listen, we're ready to teach if you do need help, aren't we Ikue?" a back-to-brightness Takako said to her teammate, "I mean, I had to give you a crash course too".

    "Yes yes. Well then, Honoka right? Let's just run you through each of the roles to see what you're naturally best at" Ikue said pointing you towards the field.

    Through what you supposed was your 'audition' for the team, it at least became clear to you that a lot of the game was because hand-eye coordination, not just looking where you were throwing but also looking at what the opposing bowler or batter was about to do. Maybe a little like chess, except with a much briefer window, or like boxing even but with other people there besides your opponent, that and the lack of face-punching.

    Bowling was notably different from what you'd seen of pitching in baseball though, given that you had to run up and had no special glove. the main thing though was remembering to keep your arm completely straight, otherwise it was a 'throw', not a 'bowl'. Fielding, trying to catch the ball after it'd been hit, was probably the... most awkward role to try out for, since there only being three of you right now meant that you didn't have a wicketkeeper for the time.

    Either way, Takako and Ikue were both left nodding, as the former said, "Wow Honoka, you... ah, meet the basics for every role we had you try! Ooh, have you had experience in this kinda thing, not cricket per se but like, similar stuff?"

    "You mean running fast, looking around, and hitting things?" you went with the first response that came to your mind, "Yeah, pretty much".

    "Well then, have you decided on your team role?" Ikue pressed.

    [ ] Bowler.
    [x] Batter.
    [ ] Wicket-keeper.
    [ ] Fielder.
    [ ] Let them decide (roll 1d4).
    [ ] Wait till more players have joined.

    "Okay, that's settled!" Takako said, clasping her hand together. "We're happy to have ya, Honoka, and hey, you said you were gonna try pulling in more players throughout the week for us, right? Thanks, because you've kinda figured out I 'spose, we really need all the help we can get! But for now, ah, haven't kept you too long, have we?"

    You looked up to see the sun indeed setting, before you replied, "Yeah, but like I went in expecting cricket to take quite a long while to play, even if technically I didn't play any proper game today. Uh, guess my point is that I'll be heading off, but hey, I'm still looking forward to next time!"

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Sun Arcana"

    "Awesome! Well, hope to see ya Thursday!" Takako said, but then broke out into shivering, "Boy thought, does it really get cold here at night. I mean, I'm still used to Okinawa..."

  15. #35
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    XXXV. Cricket and America

    The rest of the week didn't exactly fly by though, with mid-terms only picking up from then on. Along with working on your Literature essay, you also had the same to fill out for 'Mrs. Tudor' in History. Specifically, out of a choice of three, your essay topic was to be:

    [ ] The Showa-Heisei transition, covering not only the economic crash, but beyond Japan the end of the Cold War.
    [x] The History of Shogi: A Kingly Game over Time.
    [ ] The Dividing line between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Well, for recruiting potential cricket players, your time with Kikuko meant you'd overheard her muttering about students who simply couldn't make the cut, pun of possible intention, as kendo practitioners. The moment she'd moved on, telling you to come back to the clubroom for something or whatever, you instead briefly stayed behind, telling the trio of girls "Hey, um, did you hear we have a Cricket Team now? I hear Takako, the girl running it, is pretty nice, if maybe a little energetic. The All-Aces don't seem to like her for some reason, so if you wanna get back at Kikuko or something...".

    A little more discussion later, you trying to be quick though before Kikuko noticed, and it looked like you'd successfully convinced some people to actually check the team out.
    That thing Kikuko had called you to the Lounge for was nothing too special, just a routine patrol of the No One's Land. You were however, able to sneak a quick visit into the Velvet Room, where the only notable thing to happen though was this:

    I am Hierophant Octavian, First among Romans," said the mirror image of who'd been Gakuto's Persona, "Among what once were three, we shall be the last left standing.Octavian

    [Inverse Hierophant V]

    Elements: Nulls Electric, weak to Wind
    - Strength: ||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: |
    - Zionga
    - Tarukaja
    - Makakaja
    - Analyse
    - Hierophant Bonus: Mazionga, Void Electric

    You of course having a limit of ten capacity though:

    [ ] Store Octavian.
    [ ] Hierophant Octavian + Fool Theodora = Hermit Bunyip (Ice and Curse)
    [ ] Justice Simurgh + Hierophant Octavian = Hanged Xipe Totec (Curse and Healing)
    - [ ] Substitute Justice Sherlock
    - [ ] Substitute Devil Anastasia
    [ ] Tower PITT + Octavian = Judgement Mordred (Physical and Curse)
    [x] Moon Camazotz + Octavian = Priestess Bastet (Physical and Psy)
    [ ] Rebirth Arsene + Octavian = Empress Zetian (Physical and Bless)
    [ ] Fortune Skuld + Octavian = Justice Gretchen (Bless and Electric)
    [ ] Write-in (including other fusions)

    I am Priestess Bastet, meow, Queen of All Cats," purred a humanoid black cat decked in gold jewellery, with khopesh blades for claws and a long tail which split into nine, "You'll find I'm much more fun than my sister, well, unless you have some weird tastes.Elements: Null Psy, resist Bless, weak to Ice
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: |
    - Damascus Claw, Psio, Glamorous Dance, Dazzler
    - Priestess Bonus: Lullaby
    - Inherit: Void Electric, Dekunda

    As you left the Gameboard again, Kikuko did have one last thing to tell you.

    "Nakamura Honoka, our next Gameboard sojourn will be less casual. My plan is for us to head straight into Melissa's Empire, it is imperative that, if we do not lead an offensive into there, we at least survey the location" she said, pointing to the Gameboard's mall miniatures from up here with her blade.

    You then crouched down to look at Melissa's Empire from up here, saying that "I guess it's the first Empire I saw, yet I've never really scoped it out". Also, Reina's Shadow is probably still in there, and oh God, I hope I'm not too late to get here out of there.
    "I did hear something funny about malls, though," you had to remark, "Like, I came across an article online that said America's malls are apparently going downhill or something. I assumed Melissa's Empire was all hip and modern, but that might not be the case," you went on as you then looked at Kikuko again, "Then again, all the Empires are kinda in the past a little, I guess you would've heard that a lot".

    Kikuko said nothing at that but did fold her arms. "As for Azuma," she then changed the topic when she did speak, "He has not been making himself as immediately antagonistic to me as Melissa has, but I am still no less cautious of him. I am aware he has been increasingly aggressive towards you in particular".

    "...Yeah, you bet" you told her. You did have to feel better for a second, like finally someone in power was noticing all the bullshit and grief Azuma had been putting you through.

    "However, he should know you are lost to him now. You are Jack of Swords, not of Spades, Honoka, and by your own choice," Kikuko stated, then looking at you closely in your eyes, "And I would not hand my own sword over to another as I would my own subjects".

    Er, thanks? you had to think. While perhaps now seeing the benefits of being under Kikuko, a little maybe, you did have to ask her, "Hey, Kikuko? Do you, well, think of everyone as either your subordinate or opponent? Like, we've discussed the thorny topic of romance before, but what about friends?"

    That proved to be something else Kikuko was reluctant to answer, but she said, "I'm the heir to a noble lineage that's stretched back aeons, whatever mask Japan throughout the ages has placed on its utmost elites, we've worn. Simply being All-Ace at this school is the least of my titles. When such power has been yours from birth... it's hard to speak of 'friends', people who are ideally your equals".

    You just stepped back a little, not really knowing now what to say yourself, beyond a mild, "Oh, okay".

    It was then however your little conversation was broken up by another visitor, as Vice-Principal Fujino Teruko suddenly walked into the Prized Pupil Lounge.
    "Ah, young Kikuko, I knew you'd be here," she said in a... much brighter tone than you'd expect from her, especially after Himawari's expulsion, "I was hoping to talk to you in private", the Vice-Princpial giving a passing glare at you.

    "Of course, Fujino-sensei, whatever is it you wish to discuss?" Kikuko was quite eager to answer, her hand motioning for you to quickly get out of the room.

    "Hey, okay, I was on my way out anyway, uh, Maeda Kikuko, Fujino-sensei" you said, giving parting bows to both of them, knowing what the Vice-principal was like.

    From what you'd heard about Fujino Teruko, she was in the Disciplinary Committee way back when she was a student, then a PE teacher before becoming Vice-Principal. She was from a family that ran a Dojo too, much like Eitaro was, in fact you couldn't help wonder if the two were in competition, in which case the Tsutsujis clearly weren't the victors.

    * * *

    You spent the rest of the week still on the lookout for new recruits to the Cricket team, having about six when you needed eleven, at least to be a 'real team' as opposed to what Takako had called 'backyard cricket'.

    Since Colette wouldn't be back until after the Sports Festival week, a blessing in disguise to her, you thought about asking Ibuki from Occult Club if she wanted to join. You were her, surprised to find the first-year girl out of her kuchisake-onna costume, where she looked pretty ordinary, though did stand out due to her wavy, blue-grey hair, currently tied into pigtails.

    "Oh hey, Ibuki. Um, kinda need your help with something," you began with, before asking, "Outside Occult Club, do you have much going on?"

    "Not really," she said, much less expressively than when she was with Colette, "Schoolwork, and that's about it".

    "How about sports?" you said, not getting much of an answer from her. "I should explain. I'm the new Batter for our Cricket Club, and er, we kinda need members".

    Ibuki just started at you, occasionally blinking. However, she then said, "I, um, guess I could be interested. If you're needing help".

    She didn't exactly sound enthused, though it seemed little outside occult Club enthused her. But you did know Takako and Ikue would probably take that for a 'yes', so you said "Okay, we meet on the baseball field whenever they're not in session. Hope to see you there!"
    She just nodded in return.

    Mid-terms kept going, as your game-group-member-turned-teacher Damian Muir asked in class, "Okay, um, how about you translate these words into English?" One of the words that stood out to you was 'Suisei', which you chose to translate into English as:
    [x] Comet.
    [ ] Aqueous.
    [ ] Water star.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Afterwards, Takako then approached you in the hallway, you quickly slipping into your disguise in case anyone else saw you two talking.
    She said "Hey, great news. Our baseball team's usually pretty full, so I was able to find a couple of girls who were told the team was all full-up for now, Sports Festival approaching and all. So we're not quite at eleven members, but it looks like we've done a great job for the week!"

    "Whew," you smiled, "That's a load off my mind".

    "Kinda ashamed to say, I did almost consider joining a Baseball Team anyway, but I'm glad I persevered! I mean, like, I don't think our female Baseball Team gets as much respect or attention as our male one," Takako had to remark, her upbeat energy briefly fading, before re-emerging with, "Haha, didn't mean to drag conversation down, we honestly need to start practicing for the Festival next week. Ah, sorry if I kinda rushed you to find members, 'specially during Mid-Terms".

    "Well, I didn't exactly have much else going on but mid-terms" you told her.

    "Yeah, it's just that, y'know, I am so totally excited for the Sports festival. We'll finally have a chance to show what we can do in front of the whole school!" Takako beamed.
    That kinda concerned you, given that a good part of the reason you joined the Cricket Team is that, while it ticked off that 'real club' box you'd been asked to, it was also low-profile enough that you could join without Kikuko noticing you were hanging out with the 'losers', so to say.

    Not that you let Takako know at the time. "Yeah, that's sounds great!" was all you said.

    Later on Saturday came your first real cricket match, even if lacking an opposing team it was more one-for-all practice than anything. Your hands trembling as they held the bat, your eyes widened as Takako bowled, Ikue standing behind you as wicketkeeper.

    Takako being a fast bowler, you weren't quite able to hit her ball, though luckily for you it was so fast that not even Ikue could catch it in time. All the while, the less athletic Ibuki on tenuous umpire duty was hurriedly flipping back and forth through the rulebook, saying things like, "Well, er, I don't think that is what they call 'dismissal', er, that is, an out".

    Later on, you were surprised a little once Takako and Ikue shifted positions. Apparently in Cricket players shifted positions every six balls, or an 'Over' they called it, unlike in Baseball which you supposed you were still thinking of. You kinda wished you'd told Reina that when you tried an amateur game yourself, way back.
    This change of positions turned out to be a huge relief for you, as Ikue, being way more skilled in skiing than in cricket, was much easier to strike back against. You paused a little while, before remembering you now had to run back and forth along the, er, Takako said it was supposed to be a rectangle, but having to borrow the baseball field made things more confusing.

    However, one of the rejected Kendo girls soon caught your ball, which this time did mean you were indeed Out. Still, you couldn't say your hand-eye coordination hadn't benefitted a little, at least over the course of this week.

    Given the usual length of a cricket match, you sighed with relief as you sat down on the benchers. Takako was generous enough to buy food for all of you, given that said length and the sun now setting meant that you were now due for dinner. She'd asked everyone to vote on what takeaway she'd order, your preference being:

    [x] Pizza. [+1 All]
    [ ] Ramen. [+2 Education]
    [ ] Curry. [+2 Resolve]
    [ ] Seafood. [+2 Perception]
    [ ] Dessert. [+2 Etiquette]
    [ ] Write-in.

    As you sat and ate, Takako smiled and put her am across your shoulder. "Well, there's certainly no Okinawa weather up here, even as we've got summertime coming up, but thanks Honoka, you, Ikue, and everyone else have really made me feel at home! Er, perhaps a little too sappy?" she then had to ask.

    You shook your head and told her, "Eh, I don't mind. People do have a habit of getting a little schmaltzy around me, don't know why".

    "I mean, I am thinking about getting into snowboarding when I can. After I saw Ikue on the slopes, I figured I should take up at least one winter sport while I'm up here, kind of a waste not to," she went on to say, before grinning, "And 'cause it's not a team sport, that means I won't have to pester ya to find members. I'm kiddin' of course, I usually like team sports more than solo stuff".

    "Yeah, same here," you said instinctively, given how 'every man for themselves' competitions had been working out for you recently, "Though I guess it depends on the sport. I've tried both skiing and snowboarding, having lived here my whole life, but they never became any more than 'once in a while' stuff for me. Do have a friend who's into ice-skating though".

    "Oh hey Takako, how're ya doing?" Kaneto beamed as he suddenly walked over, "Hey, you done too? 'Cause I've like, had to do some real serious football stuff lately. I mean like, the Festival starts Monday, and we've all been bummed out that we can't find a player like Eitaro anywhere".

    Oh boy, Eitaro right now was the last person you needed to be reminded of. "Well, you are the Football Team, I guess you'll find a way to keep going, the sport's not any less popular after all," you tried to cheer him up.

    "Wow, gee thanks, Honoka, you're really nice!" Kaneto was back to beaming again, but another thought struck him. "Though man, we've got both Mid-Terms and the Festival all at once, I mean, that's like unreal!" he sat back down and clutched his head. "Like, I do have more time to study nowadays, what with, er, what happened with Eitaro and all, but I still know I'm gonna totally flunk".

    "Hey, my test results usually come back pretty good," Takako did have to pipe up, "And I'm hardly anyone's idea of Einstein or anything. So I'd say you're gonna be fine! Though yeah, Eitaro was always pretty rough on me too, ever since we met through our JSDF Dads".

    "Wait, Eitaro's father was in the army?" you had to ask. Given Takako was Okinawan, her family having a military background was no surprise, you'd remembered her saying something about it when you first met. But Eitaro's dad being in the military... that may've explained too much.

    "Yeah, he sure was, their dojo kinda struggling and all," Takako told you, "Think I once heard Eitaro first got into Archery because he liked seeing his Dad shoot guns but was too little to have one himself. Soccer was, at least at first, more of a money thing for him, given how highly it can pay, and baseball was out since he needed to save his hands for Archery".

    "Hey, with how Eitaro played, he can't have gotten into Football just for the money!" Kaneto exclaimed, but then had to admit, "Like, with Eitaro... gone though, the Football Team's been heaps more chill, I have ta say. It's like, can't make it to practice, that's cool man, no rush".

    Part of you did wonder if you should've joined football instead, Eitaro's death having left quite the impact. But no, you'd made your choice, and you'd had fun giving Takako the help she needed.
    "Hey, I've gotta go now, it's getting dark," you said as you stood up. "Ah, bye Kaneto, hope your team pulls through. And hey, Takako, I had a ton of fun today, it's always good trying new things".

    - The Sun has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    "Great to hear! Ooh, see you at the Sports Festival, Honoka!" Takako beamed.

    * * *

    Today, you'd decided to go for a morning jog, as part of some sort of exercise routine you were trying to put together before the Sports Festival. It also served a second purpose, in that you got to easily roam around your local neighbourhood before Kikuko stepped in and made you sleep in her pool house or whatever.

    A loud honking sound rudely jolted you out of your morning routine, as you turned to see a pinkish-red convertible had pulled up right beside you. Inside was Melissa, simply pointing to you and then the seat next to her.
    As you hesitantly got in, she asked, "Okay, Jack of Sippy-Cups, I take it Kikuko's been showing off quite a bit of her Empire to you, hasn't she?"

    "A little, yeah, we did some basic patrols and stuff," you told her, not liking where this was going.

    "Mmm, that's good enough for me!" Melissa smirked, as she suddenly slammed down on the accelerator and took off, before you'd even had time to put a seatbelt on. Your grip on your seat was the only thing that kept you from flying into the glovebox in front of you as you skidded to a halt.

    Well okay, you did have to compliment Melissa on her driving a little, despite her blatant disregard for her passengers and the speed limit. Any lesser driver at that speed probably would've crashed into something long before their destination.

    "Alright, we're here!" Melissa sharply grinned, you turning to notice you'd pulled up outside your closed school.

    "Wait, oh God no, don't tell me you're gonna pull me onto the Gameboard..." you moaned.

    "Well ya know, Gameboard and getting to see my test results early," Melissa said, before moved in closer to you, "We are totally gonna trash Kikuko's Empire, just imagine her face!"

    "Of course you'd say something like that..." you muttered, then had to tell her, "Er, doesn't it take a while for them to mark tests? I mean, chances are the teachers haven't even read your test answers yet".

    "Yeah, naturally that's what some total loser would say!" Melissa dismissed you, as she started using the fold-out mirror to comb her hair. "Teachers naturally mark off the popular kids first, you know, it's the way of the world. Unless they have it ass-backwards over here or something".
    She then glared at you, "Oh don't tell me you're gonna wimp out on me, Honoka? If it's a reward you want, I can most generously pay you. You want cash, is there a guy you want me to set you up on a date with, how 'bout another vacation, hmm? You'd better work overtime once we're on the gameboard though, ya hear?"

    It was then you said, "Yeah, do I have a request".

    [ ] "Can you convince Kikuko not to try and separate Megumi and me, or at least get Megumi a decent place?"
    [ ] "I want you to leave Keiko alone already."
    [ ] "If Reina's Shadow is in your Empire, you don't touch her."
    [ ] "I'm not interested in Azuma, and I want you to commit that to memory."
    [ ] "Once Colette gets back, you don't antagonise her"
    [ ] "...You know what? I'll take the cash, I'm not exactly swimming in it like you are"
    [x] “Look, if you REALLY need help on your test, fine, but I’m not trashing my own Ace’s Empire” (Zaealix write-in)
    [ ] Look, we both don’t like Azuma, so how about we trash his place instead? (Edgedancer write-in)
    [ ] Write-in.

    "...Why the hell are you suddenly so loyal to Kikuko? Thought you only picked her by default, oh, unless you're a not-so-secret masochist or something?" Melissa stared blankly at you.

    You just groaned, before slowly telling her "Because if Kikuko finds out," or more likely, if you rat me out to Kikuko, "Then I'd be friggin' done for. Like, you've all made it clear your good graces are the only thing keeping me around, so breaking the whole Ace-Jack-whatever system like that is just gonna paint a big target on me".

    Melissa's eyes went wide, "Oh my, so it seems you actually do care about our hierarchies, well, past getting Himawari to supply you with dope or whatever," she said. "Hmm, that point you raised about Azuma is tempting though. Okay, maybe I can be persuaded..."

    There was the issue of the guards first though, but Melissa seemed to have that covered. rather than simply being authoritative enough in her voice like Kikuko though, she instead walked up to them and handed them both stacks of cash.
    "Just needed to sneak into the school," she flat-out told them, "I also have card if you'd prefer" Given how much the guards' jaws had dropped, it appeared she had taken care of this obstacle.

    ...Probably would've been easier just to sneak in the back though, you thought.

    Getting your test results, being weirdly the simpler of your two missions, was what you tackled first. As the two of you snuck into the photocopier room, Melissa pointed at the machine to instruct you to rifle through until you found her test scores.

    You were surprised when you ultimately did find that Melissa's tests had been graded, although you couldn't be certain if these were her finalised results. "Er, you actually did quite decent, Melissa. Like I think we have about, er, 700 students in Hanataba, and out of those you're definitely in the upper 200".

    "What? Give me that!" she said, yanking her results off you, "Oh no, no no no, I can't possibly have scored this high!"

    "Wait, what? You mean you wanted to score lower?!" you had to gawk at her.

    "Grr, no, oh lemme explain," she snarled, looking back at you, "Listen, you know what it's gonna do for my popularity if people start thinking I'm really some sort of brainiac?! If everyone here gets the impression I'm some math dweeb or something, I'll get run out of Coolsville!", she then clutched her temples.

    You had to keep staring at her, "Er, look, I don't know how you do things in America. but from my own experience, kids who got good grades are usually pretty popular, compared to the sheer shame of flunking anyway" you muttered. "My point is, you're gonna be fine. And plus, aren't you always talking about getting into a good college anyway, aren't these the sort of results you'd want them to see?"

    "Well yeah, but I wasn't gonna study to get in or anything, that's what my wealth's for!" Melissa protested, before she said, "Ugh, whatever, do you wanna go trash prettyboy's Empire or what?"

    That did sound like more of a plan, as you both snuck back into the Prized Pupil lounge. Well, not before Melissa insisted on scribbling all over and denting Kikuko's seat in their classroom.
    "Uh yeah, better hope your handwriting's not that distinguishable," you sighed as she did.

    Finally in the Lounge, you were about to lay your card on the Gameboard, but Melissa again insisted on messing around, in this case trying to barge into Kikuko's private room.
    "Hey, if you're her Jack now, wouldn't you some special secret passcode or something to help me bust in here?" she called out to you.

    You just looked at her and said, "...You know if you do bust into her room, I can easily tell on you to her? And given whose Empire we're breaking into, wouldn't sneaking into Azuma's room make more sense?"

    "Tell on me? You wouldn't dare!" Melissa all but snapped at you as she stomped over, but then slowly began to smile as she said, "Although, now that you mention it, yeah, finding out what Azuma keeps private does hella stoke me", fanning herself.

    "Uh, sure. Besides, Kikuko's room is all like Zen, so it's pretty minimal, you'd probably get bored with it fast," you also told her, trying to further dissuade her.

    Neither of you had Kikuko's sword with you to help break into Azuma's room, Melissa could probably get her shotgun or something but, uh yeah, not a good idea. However, as you eyed the input lock on his crown-emblazed door, you figured it wouldn't be too hard to guess his password.

    You got the one who dreaded out of the way first, plugging in your own name. That didn't work, though in a way that was relieving to you. You then tried Theodora, then Richard III, then York... all nothing, and you worried your next guess would lock you out period.

    "Melissa, you er, know his Mum, you got maybe another thought on cracking this code?" you asked.

    "Well, Rurina gets awkward any time you bring up that old monster movie she did," she said, then had to add, "Also, her favourite position is-"

    "Thank you, that'll be all," you told her, as you plugged on 'Deathdemona' into the lock, out of desperation at this point. Surprisingly, it lit up green, as Azuma's door swung open.

    Even if you had managed to sneak into his private room, the place was so drenched in darkness that you wondered if you'd be able to make out anything anyway. From what you did see, the place reminded you of a cross between a lothario's secret lounge and some old set from a pre-technicolor vampire flick. It didn't help that for some reason there was no light-switch, Azuma's eyes must be really sturdy then, you thought.

    "Heh, back in the States, if we found out any kid had a room like this, we'd shunt the guy straight into the emo/try-hard clique," Melissa had to laugh, "Over here though, you make the guy the most popular boy in school. Like, what is with you?"

    You did manage to make out several prints on the wall, mostly depicting scenes from Shakespeare, old Japanese tales adapted into plays like The Tale of Genji and Yoshitsune Senbonzakura, and even a few old cels from animated musicals. You also were able to make out the collected works of several playwrights, beyond Shakespeare there was Monzaemon, Chekhov, Wagner, and Strindberg... and even a Romance Manga tankobon, though you guessed it belong to the 'girl loves clearly abusive guy' subgenre.

    "Ahem, Honoka, I'd look down if I were you," Melissa gave an awkward smile, pointing to the ground.

    Now that she mentioned it, you did feel your feet brushing up against something on the floor. You bent down then stepped back, heading into the light where you could actually make it out.
    You then wished you'd stayed in the darkness, as it turned out what you were holding was a pile of photos of you, each of them ripped in half. Things got even more uncomfortable when Melissa came out carrying what looked like three voodoo dolls of some sort, each with yours, hers, and Kikuko's name written on them.

    "Y'know, at least Azuma bothered to print a bunch of photos of you in order to rip them up," Melissa then said, hands on her hips, "The only thing related to me in there was this creepy doll thing, which you and Kikuko also got so it barely counts", casually flinging said doll aside.

    "...Oh shut up." you had to snarl, before saying, "Why the Hell would you even want Azuma to give you more attention anyway?"

    "B-because," Melissa suddenly stuttered, before she burst out with, "Because I want him! I thought, oh well, if the most popular boy at school doesn't like me, no big deal, I can still totally dominate his love life by setting someone up with him. But, for whatever insane reason, you kept turning him down every single time! So then I thought, hey, his Mom's lonely and desperate, she could be my ticket to getting back at him, but oh no! He just sees that as an invitation to then start fucking my stepmom, and the- and then- Goddamn Christ!"

    Losing all control, Melissa then lunged out at you, but you were easily able to sidestep her, which had the effect her accidentally throwing herself upon the Gameboard, getting sucked in. Following after her, you found her in her queen bee prom dress crumbled into a heap in the middle of No One's Land.

    "W-why doesn't he want me?" you heard her blubbing out, her face now streaked with tears, "Is-is that what I am to him, no, to everyone around me? Just my wealth, just my family, just my looks, just how damn exotic and foreign I am in this country?!"

    "...Come on, get up now," you then said to her, extending your hand. "Melissa, if you ask me, I feel I started getting popular, or at least actually noticed at school, not when I joined the All-Aces, that just popularised my image, or rather the image your crew invented for me. Rather... it was when I started making friends, when I tried helping and being nice to people".

    As Melissa's tears dried out, she then said, "Yeah, right, don't give me that Girl Scout bullshit. Being all 'aren't I so nice and friendly' is just an invitation for people to start taking advantage of you, that's always the fate of good girls. Like, look how your sweet Himawari turned out.
    Besides, most everyday, unmemorable people don't need someone to just be nice to them, they need some serious tough love. To be told if they don't shape up and make something of themselves, they're gonna remain losers forever," Melissa blurted out, but then became self-reflective again, "...Sorry, guess I'm getting carried away. I mean, I just gave away my feelings for Azuma to you, and you're someone else's Jack".

    "You know what? I'll say you are," you sighed, before your head turned to the north and you asked, "Still up for wrecking Azuma's Empire though?"

    Melissa grinned then put her hand in yours, "You bet".

    - Strength has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

  16. #36
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXXVI. Theatre of Cruelty

    You headed right up to where that locked iron door had been, the furthest you'd gotten the last time you'd ventured into Azuma's Empire. However, you found this door wouldn't budge an inch, leaving you stuck out here for all you knew.

    "Allow me," Melissa strutted up, before she called forth Anjou to blast the door right open with a Freila spell, sending its fragments everywhere "Like, we could've just circled around and tried to find some side entrance or something, but that'd be us adapting to the environment, not making the environment adapt to us!"

    You gulped, trying to tell her, "You know, the reason I didn't just try nuking the door myself was 'cause, well, I assumed the whole point of us coming in on Sunday was stealth and all that". Melissa then acted like she hadn't heard you.

    This palace's foyer was a sparkling, golden hall, taken up by a massive staircase that split in two, and a mirror-like floor below. You slowly stepped onto the mirrored surface, only for an at least expected bad thing to happen, as you were promptly sucked into the floor below.

    <<BGM: FFXII - To the Place of the Gods>>

    Along with the new nausea of you now being upside-down, when you tried to take a step forward, you instead moved backwards, and to test this, when you tried steeping to the left, you instead moved right.

    Naturally, you could then see Melissa laughing at you from the other, normal side. You tried shouting at her to not touch the mirrored surface, but your words instead came out as "!roolf eht hcuot t'nod ,assileM".

    "Huh, pardon moi, the Hell you just say?" Melissa said back, but she then seemed to get it with, "Okay, yeah, I touch the mirror, I get stuck in it, uh huh. Although, this reminds me, I've seriously gotta get something like this installed in my own Empire," she started stroking her chin, making you groan.

    As you figured you might as well try to map out this mirrored world, Melissa was then able to avoid touching the floor by... casting another Freila to rocket herself up onto a hanging chandelier, from which she was able to access the balconies. Figures though that you had to sneak in today with who may've been the least stealthy All-Ace.

    You then got Mayasura out to scan this place for enemies and treasure, with you weirdly finding out that there were some Shadows and chests exclusive to the mirrored side of things, and that most doors locked on one side were open on the other, save the front door which had been thoroughly blasted open. As you cast his spells, you suddenly winced in pain, this feeling like the recoil you usually got from using physical skills. Wait, so spells now cost HP and physical skills now cost SP? Ugh, yet another thing this place is making me keep track of. It also then occurred to you that you couldn't healing spells here without cancelling them out as they cut back into your health.

    Looking outside, well the mirror's outside, you found the garden quickly faded into nothing. You guessed that made sense, for the mirror to only contain the world it saw, though it left you dreading what'd happen if you possibly went out into that white void.
    Wait a second, you thought, Is there... something out there? as you spotted an inky black shadow emerging among the pale nothingness. Seriously not wanting to find out, you then tried running as far away from the door as you could, only for that to screw up your brain as here it meant going completely against your instincts by having you try to run backwards. Luckily you had Wind spells courtesy of Prospero to get you away faster, even if it meant you had to now endure a ton of pain doing so.

    Heading down a corridor, you confirmed Mayasura's readings with most of this place having mirrored floors, with some strategically placed carpets lying around so presumably Azuma wouldn't fall prey to his own security mechanism. Even when the mirror world suddenly ran out though, you found you were able to get Anastasia to cast Ice spells to extend the mirror world's boundaries, although only so far due to your health not being limitless.

    This led to another problem though, when the ice timed out and started to melt... while you were still on it. You thought for a second you were gonna end up in the white oblivion, but instead this seemed to trick the mirror, and finally send you back into the 'normal world'.

    "There you are! God, just like you to take off on me!" Melissa then came up behind the you back in the normal Empire, you thinking you could easily say the same about her.

    Your weary self had to get used to moving out normally again, your confused brain nearly sending you into a slump. Thankfully your preserved SP meant you could easily heal back up with Prospero casting Diarama.
    Melissa and you had found yourself next to large, oaken door and a stairway leading down to another door right beneath it. Given the strange smell of smoke coming from the door a floor below, you decided to try the door right next to you first naturally.
    Er, that turned out to be quite the mistake, as you found the theatre ahead was covered in long, lance-like thorns instead of seats, with the bodies of various 'audience member' Shadows impaled upon them.

    "Haha, no!" Melissa said, firmly slamming this door shut. This left to take a chance on the door below, only for that to confirm your initial fears, as the thorn-covered lower level of the theatre beyond had also been set ablaze. From both floors, you could weirdly hear the sound of bats flapping around in the rafters.

    [x] Go with the upper theatre level, at least it's not on fire.
    [ ] Go with the lower level, you don't see anyone impaled down there.
    [ ] You go high, Melissa goes low.
    [ ] You go low, Melissa goes high.
    [ ] Maybe you'd have better luck going back into that mirror world. You're staying clear of that void Shadow though.
    [ ] You know what, take your chances with that void Shadow, you've probably faced worse.
    [ ] Maybe you should check out the rest of that surrounding garden/moat, seems more normal than here?
    [ ] Just plain exit this Empire, this was a stupid idea to begin with.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Assuming no more of those thorns spring up, I think we'd have better odds with the upper floor," you decided, "I mean for the lower floor, I can just switch to a fire-resistant Persona, or maybe cast a bunch of Ice spells to create water, but that'd still leave you stranded". You did feel it kind of amusing to talk about using Simurgh in front of Melissa, what with whose Shadow she was.

    "What, my Anjou can already block Nuclear, and that's basically like Fire but even more, right?" Melissa spoke up, of course having to make this difficult, "So why shouldn't I be able to handle the lower floor?"

    "Because I don't think this magic stuff works like that," you told her. It was hard to wrap your head around, but you then said, "I think it's because, like, the symbolism of a flame and an, er, atom is different, so that while they can be physically similar, metaphorically they both have their own cognitive significance".

    Melissa just glared at you. "That's dumb. You're dumb!"

    You had to groan. "Whatever, let's just go through the upper door".

    As the thorns didn't leave you much room to navigate, you stood back to allow Melissa to chainsaw her way through. You both had to move fast though, as the impaling thorns were quick to regrow, though it was a good thing you had Carmilla's physical nullification. One thing you did notice was that the impaled audience all wore the same Grecian masks Keiko's Shadow had.

    You soon made it through the seats and to the balcony, only to look down and see that, between the lower auditorium and the stage, there was a giant, gaping abyss right where the orchestral pit would normally be.
    It soon became clear, as the bats above all started flocking together into a single circle, that this little balcony would be all the room you had for maneuvering, unless you wanted to take your chances with the fire below or take a serious leap of faith.

    <<BGM: Umineko - The dark and crazed Requiem of Purgatory>>

    Crashing down onto the upper floor, seemingly not damaged at al by the lancing thorns, was the same Shadow-subject Azuma had called on that Friday the 13th: Vlad 'Dracula' Tepes, the count with a cape of blood and his victims' heads skewered on shoulder-spikes.

    The vampire lunged forward at you with an entire, Swiss army-like flock of pikes, forcing you and Melissa to dodge onto opposite ends of balcony to keep from getting skewered. You switched to Skuld to try instantly taking him out with Hamaon, but the blast of holy light missed him by an inch.

    That left Melissa to completely abandon all stealth, something she didn't seem to care about much in the first place, when she ordered a Freila from Anjou. It did deal quite a fair bit of damage, the Sun itself being a nuclear reactor you guessed, though that didn't mesh with the whole symbology thing- ugh, never mind.

    Dracula was sent stumbling back onto the thorns, though it seemed spears were little more than a cushion to him. He however was able to grab whole swathes of thorns in each hand, and use them to try lashing at both walls, where you were cornered, simultaneously. Melissa had her chainsaw ready to tear through the thorns before they could hit her, while you just switched to Carmilla to null the damage again.
    That still left the push of the impact though, which reminded you how felt to have a doctor cut you open while you were under an anesthetic. Though you felt no pain, you still struggled slightly to remove your pinned self from the wall.

    Meanwhile, a roaring Melissa was tearing straight through the thorns towards Dracula, an incensed look in her eyes as she then produced her shotgun and fired as many shots into him as its recoil and ammo would let her. However, her head-on assault ran into a wall when it came to Dracula's more sinister tactics, such as casting the death's head mark of Mudoon on her.

    Unlike your Hamaon, his one-hit kill actually worked, which sent Melissa screaming as she collapsed in a heap on the floor. Luckily you still had Anastasia around for this sort of thing, with a Recarm spell followed by a Diarama from Prospero, feeling good for once to be on the casting end of a resurrection spell.

    Melissa did have to turn around and glare at you thought, but finding no real way to put you down after what you'd just done for, simply said "Ah, thanks", as she turned her attention back on Dracula.

    From what you knew via Carmilla though, vampires were supposed to be weak to fire, right? That gave you an idea, although hopefully not one any infernal Shadows below would take advantage of.
    "Melissa, try attacking the floor!" you suddenly called out to her. You then called Simurgh to launch an Agilao, not at Dracula, but rather at the wooden floor and the thorns coming out of it. Melissa, gradually realising what plan you'd come up with, promptly tried to outdo you with a great big Mafreila aimed straight down.

    That broke the floor wide open, although with him being a vampire, Dracula was suddenly able to transform himself into a flock of bats to keep from falling into the fire. Melissa wasn't so fortunate, and as she fell you had to get straight on Simurgh to pick her up in her talons. "Ow ow owowow!" Melissa complained all the while before you dropped her back on the balcony.

    Dismounting the Simurgh yourself, you then switched to Prospero and made the choice of having him cast Magarula. The Wind element alone didn't affect the Dracula bats more than anything else, but it was more than able to push them all down while feeding the flames below. Soon enough, each and every Dracula bat had now caught on boosted fire, their shrieking as they were incinerated made beautiful music to your tired self at least.
    A somehow still going Dracula, well vampires were stubbornly enduring you guessed, was made to revert back to his humanoid form though, where on this lower floor he was suddenly confronted by that same red jester Azuma had called on your assault on Gakuto's Empire. A Shadow who, Azuma not there to coordinate them, had plenty more fire spells to keep Dracula busy.

    <<BGM: Melty Blood - Beat>>

    Sighing with relief as victory was at last yours, rain then fell on your parade as it occurred to you all those audience members had now fallen into the inferno too. Well like, they were all impaled already, so chances are that life left long ago... you thought at first, until it occurred to you that sure, these cognitions in here may've been dead, but could you say the same for their counterparts in the physical world?

    Melissa was still left coughing from all the ashes and smoke that had come up, so by picking her up in Simurgh's talons again, which was starting to amuse you by now, you then deposited her and dismounted yourself on the lighting rafters hanging high above, choosing them over an unstable-looking chandelier, from which you were at a great vantage point to view this whole theatre room.

    Unfortunately, it didn't look like there was a way further in. Most of the hanging boxes seemed positioned to lead back into the corridor you'd just come from, and while there were paths on either side of the stage leading to the back, both looked to be blocked off by thorny rosebush hedges that had suddenly grown towering upwards. They reminded you of those walls that had suddenly appeared in Eitaro's Empire, when you had known too little about him to head further in.

    Given that the stage, currently showing the cavernous scene of a dragon's hoard (weirdly fitting for Melissa you thought), seemed like the perfect place for yet another Shadow to attack you, and that the fight with Vlad Drac there had taken a lot out of you mana-wise, it looked like you were pretty much stuck.

    Melissa however was now complaining about the exact opposite thing. "Sheesh, haven't we seen enough? Like, we just turned one of his goth generals into barbecue and smashed one of his floors, I'd say were about done for the day here".

    "Yeah, you have a point," you had to admit, but eyeing that unstable chandelier, there was at least one last thing you were tempted to do before you left. Pointing to its rickety construction, you grinned at Melissa had asked, "Will you do the honours?"

    It looked like you had not needed say anything, as Melissa had Anjou cast Freila straight back the chain holding that chandelier up, sending it shattering on the stage below. Before any Shadows could take notice, you called on PITT to use Escape Route to get you right back to No One's Land.

    * * *

    From there, you were going to then fold your cards to teleport back out of the Gameboard, but Melissa suddenly grabbed your hand, her seeming to have other plans.

    "Oh no no no, where you do think you're going, hmm?" she then leaned right into you, "I need to unload some serious steam after, ugh, everything in Azuma's place, and luckily my Empire comes equipped with the perfect solution," she said, dragging you along.

    Well, sneaking in and getting the layout of Melissa's Empire was something Kikuko wanted, you thought, I doubt Melissa will show too much off to me, being not even her Jack... or she might show everything out of vanity, who knows?

    "You know, after we've gone through an Empire, we usually discuss what we've found out about the Ace in question," you then brought up with Melissa, as you started heading over the hilly dunes that led to her Empire.

    "...Uh, only thing I've found out about Azuma is he needs a therapist pronto," Melissa just said.

    "Yeah, between those mutilated dolls, the torn photos, and then those impalings, I, well this won't be easy to say," you began to mumble, before you said more clearly, "Azuma's floweriness and fakeness put me off, but once got me curious to know who the 'real him' was. Having seen... all that, I now take that back, the real him's probably even worse. That whole calm, composed act he's got going on is just that, an act, like everything else he does".

    "It's tragic, really, especially when he has such a simple solution to all his poser angst bullshit," Melissa then said, beaming up with "He can just start dating me. Like, he should know already that I want him, and it should make all the stuff surrounding our, er, moms, stepmom in my case, a little neater".

    You stopped to gawk at her. "Melissa... have you honestly not learned anything from this experience?!" you said flat-out to her.

    She just chortled and sneered, "'Learn something'? What the Hell is this, the ending to a Full House episode?"

    "It'll be the ending to The Graduate if you aren't careful," you hissed. Part of you did have to think though, maybe trying to hook Melissa up with Azuma would get him off you and Kikuko's backs and give them a taste of their own medicine... though at the same time, would it be you stooping to their level?

    "Guess I'm biased in saying this, but I'm starting to feel like Azuma's a real threat you should be preparing for, not Kikuko," you tried to get through to her.

    "Hah, nice try, I'm not going a touch easier on Kikuko just 'cause you're her Jack. Far as I know, she's got some equally fucked up shit just waiting there in her Empire," Melissa said, impossible to get through to as ever.

    Well, between his private room and his Empire, you'd learned more than enough about Azuma... more than you ever wanted, really.

    - The Emperor has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    * * *
    <<BGM: Rose of Versailles - Magical Rose>>

    Finally at Melissa's Empire again for the longest time, you two were instantly greeted by a warrior Shadow with fiery red hair, a sword and bow, and a body that had its pieces glued back together with... what looked like honey, plus some copper stitches. Appropriately enough, he was accompanied by a humanoid bee woman, her weapons being her soldier bees all swarmed together into armaments.

    They both seemed ready to attack you, but Melissa told them "At ease, troops. Honoka's here as a friend, well, for now she is, anyway. As for you two, Magician Lemminkainen and Empress Austeja, I want you to round up all the other Shadows here to go totally wild on Azuma's Empire, we've charted a route out and gotten rid of his vamp goon so it's free for the taking, so he's gonna freak when he sees what's happened!"

    Still dragging you along, Melissa went on to say, "Now that we've got my subjects to do all the heavy lifting, you and me are going to par-tay it up, my Empire comes equipped with the best pool on the Gameboard! Well, there's also that lake around Kikuko's Empire, but that's probably all saltwater and shit".

    "Hey wait, I didn't bring a bathing suit or anything!" you protested, "Besides, didn't we already have a big party in Russia?"
    Melissa stared blankly at you. "Are you seriously attempting to say no to another party? Gawd Honoka, no wonder you were a total loser before we got a hold of you".

    "I was just wondering about the time, y'know?" you brought up, "Like, doesn't it still pass on the Gameboard?"

    "Yeah but comparing timezones in the real world already gives me a headache, so I try not to think about it" Melissa told you, "Besides, like you had any other plans this Sunday".

    A wave of Melissa's tarot card opening causing the large, revolving door entrance to unstick itself, you were indoors in Melissa's Empire for the first time.

    You figured this place had to be at least five storeys deep, the whole thing like an iceberg extending even further below ground, no, almost like a bunker really. Its walls were white but heavily drenched in pink and blue lighting. You'd seen pictures of similar megamalls in Shibuya, Ikebukuro, and Osaka, but this place could rival any of them (from your limited experience).

    Most of the stores around you had to be fashion places from what you saw, you could even see a giant spider-woman Shadow weaving threads together in one of them.

    "Oh, that's Arachne. I once sent her on a mission to Gakuto's Empire, if only for the 'web' pun," Melissa chuckled, "Guess she could fix you up with a swimsuit if you're too modest to go skinny-dipping".

    "Uh, appreciated," you just muttered.

    Speaking of her Shadow-subjects, you could see the rank-and-file ones all resembled mannequins, such as in their joints or the clothes they were made to wear.

    A quick elevator ride got you down to this swimming pool, which seemed to be Olympic-sized and in a huge, arched room that let the light from the surface in with the skylight. Melissa you saw already had her Shadows turn on a giant stereo that was blasting some indescribable American tune at max volume, along with having prepared whole cartons what looked like some kind of alcohol. She does know the legal drinking age is twenty in Japan, right? you thought, though were reminded you were now on the Gameboard, so that should be a question you should take up with, er, the Morrigan maybe?

    She immediately soaked your clothes by performing a cannonball off the nearest diving board, though it wasn't like your outfits hadn't gone through worse on the Gameboard. As you were drenched, you thought to play a prank by freezing the water above her with Anastasia. She took that about as well as you would expect, as even though she could've just swam sideways to the plenty of water that wasn't frozen, she instead cast another Mafreila to send the pool water everywhere.
    Heh, that made you just jump in, pretty much having no excuse now.

    Her private party went on like that for quite some time, but her not being the best host, her mind would have to be more on her guests for that, you did have to get to thinking about what your plans were for the upcoming week. Well, what you could fit in between the Sports Festival.

    [ ] Drama Club, you really need to confront Azuma.
    [ ] Tea Ceremony Club, Kikuko's been expecting you.
    [ ] Class Rep duties for Ryouko, get back in the school's good graces.
    [ ] Practicing music for Nightshade, her time at Hanataba's over but her music career at least isn't.
    [ ] Checking out how the Computer Club's been handling things since Gakuto.
    [ ] Training at the Tsutsuji Dojo, should give them some business, or company.
    [ ] Get through gaming group together, Mid-Terms and Sports Festival is probably seriously exhausting Hotaru.
    [ ] Devote yourself to the cricket team, this may be their big chance.
    [x] Manage Occult Club, get the place just right before Colette comes back.
    [ ] Cool off from the Sports Festival by plugging yourself into the Internet.
    [ ] Study with:
    - [ ] Reina.
    - [ ] Yuya.
    - [ ] Suzako.
    - [ ] Colette.
    [ ] Help your parents out around the house.
    [ ] Ask Megumi to maybe you show around their University, even if it's not the place you plan to attend.
    [ ] Gameboard:
    - [ ] Finally take on Lauryn's Empire.
    - [ ] Explore the parts of Melissa's Empire she doesn't want to see.
    - [ ] Find out what's happening with Himawari's Empire, the only 'dethroned' Empire without a death.
    - [ ] Gakuto's Empire should be checked out, place is probably all glitching out.
    - [ ] You should really get acquainted with Kikuko's Empire.
    - [ ] Eitaro's Empire could do with some dusting.
    [ ] Write-in.
    Speaking of which, the Sports Festival event you were most excited for was:
    [ ] Relay.
    [ ] Tsunahiki (tug of war).
    [ ] Odori dancing.
    [x] The Cricket Team showcase.
    [ ] Karimono Kyousou (scavenger hunt race).
    [ ] Nothing, it's Sports.
    [ ] Write-in.

  17. #37
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXXVII. Sports Festival

    The upcoming sports festival made you feel you should at least try something athletic in the pool, but just attempting a couple of laps (at least not assisted by a Persona) proved to be surprisingly daunting given the sheer length of the pool which weirdly seemed to grow longer the further you swam up it. In the end you just sighed and started casually floating on top, pretty much exhausted by this point.

    "Hey, Melissa," you had to ask, wondering if you'd get a response given all the booze she was downing about now, "You sure we're safe in here? I mean, I don't think the other Empires' Shadows just sit around doing nothing while their Ace isn't there, let alone the No One's Land Shadows".

    "Of course we are," Melissa brushed you off, "My empire is by far one of the most fortified, Hell, the most fortified, on the Gameboard. Besides, handling security is my Shadow-subjects' job".

    "I'll take your word for it," you mumbled, "Still, I can't help but think there's the chance another Ace could've snuck onto the Gameboard while we did. Like, I think everyone knows about those vines leading up to the window 'round back, plus the security codes for getting into the school at night. Kikuko once even went straight into the closed school. So like, what if they also ordered their Shadows to attack while we were, without us knowing?"

    "...You're thinking too hard," Melissa kept dismissing you, "For real, Gakuto kept talking about himself like he was some strategic genius, yet look where it got him. I've got like, more resources than anyone, so why should I waste my time and energy worrying?"

    "Because Kikuko has resources to match yours combined with actual strategic ability, and Azuma, well you've just seen what he's capable of" you had to bring up.

    "Grr, are you always such a party pooper?" Melissa raised her voice, before calming down to snidely sneer "Oh yeah, judging by Russia and Golden Week, yeah, you are. And of course you've gotta shill for Kikuko while you're with me, typical".

    You stared blank at her. "Hey, I'm not trying to 'shill' for Kikuko, I'm trying to warn you about her," you told Melissa, "This is a life-or-death situation, you know. I get you weren't here to know Rin, but two of your peers bit the dust before mid-terms, so aren't you at least a little worried?"

    "First off, Rin Rin Rin, sheesh, why do I keep hearing everyone talk about her? Yeah, sucks that she died, but so does everyone, so how does that make her special?" Melissa veered off into saying, "Second, those two peers were a meathead and a meathead-in-denial, so forgive me if I hardly give a shit. And lastly, like you're one to talk about life-or-death, after you freakin' murdered Eitaro and caused Gakuto's death. And another thing~~" you could see swirls start to form in Melissa's eyes.

    Groaning, you took the authority to call this pool party over. It had been going on long enough that you were starting to risk turning into a prune, and Melissa had again gotten drunk off her ass on cognitive alcohol, so you clearly needed to get her home. Plus, you got the feeling being in someone's cognitive Empire while they were under the influence was kind of a bad idea.

    Making your way out of the Gameboard and back to the Lounge, you did one last thing before leaving, using your phone to take photo evidence of, well, all the creepy shit in Azuma's private room. To really rub it in, you decided to change his password while you were there, to something guaranteed to give him a headache, especially without Gakuto there anymore to just decode it.

    [ ] Melissa Lilian.
    [ ] Margaret of Anjou.
    [ ] Rokudo Rin.
    [ ] Suzakuin Keiko.
    [ ] Ito Yuya.
    [ ] Tsutsuji Eitaro.
    [x] Actually forget it, this is stupid.
    [ ] Write-in.

    After that you had to walk Melissa all the way back to her house, or rather, hotel her Daddy Patrick had bought. You had to leave her car parked where it was though, since you certainly did not have a license.

    This turned out to be a rather dumb idea on your part, given that Melissa's Hotel, like most of the All-Aces' places, was quite a way out of town. Unlike your parents, who lived in their little train cabin because they liked being surrounded by nature, Melissa's Hotel being all the way out of town appeared to be a way to showcase that she could afford to drive a car all the time without worrying about fuel, fuel she likely owned.

    While walking over there, an old, modified car with squeaky wheels pulled up alongside you. "Yo Melissa babe, you need a ride?" shouted one of the dyed-blonde yanki within, the likes of which formed a surprising core of Melissa's hangers-on at school.

    "Oh yeah, darlin'. Hic, um, whaddya say?" a woozy Melissa burped out.

    "Thanks but no thanks," you hurriedly said, trying to swiftly and politely end this conversation less these Western-fashioned tough guys start getting ideas, "We'll just catch a bus, if that's alright".

    "What the- Hey, you're that Honoka skank right? Who are you to speak for Melissa?!" one of them shouted.

    Why are you so into Melissa? I thought you guys were anti-establishment, so why are you fawning over one of the most establishment girls ever? you had to think. Is it just 'cause she's a natural blonde?

    "Forget it man, this Honoka gal's Kikuko's Jack, so course she's gonna be a fun-wrecker," another yanki said, "C'mon, let's hustle!"

    You eventually reached Melissa's place, where she stumbled out and said to you, "Well, 's been a Hell of a day, Honoka. Though geez, those guys could've given us some fun, why'd ya have to get between us?"

    "...You know what? Bye Melissa, hope the cognitive hangover doesn't hit too hard," you muttered. Wait, isn't every hangover a cognitive hangover?

    - Strength has Journeyed to Rank 5! -
    * * *

    "Man, things are really heating up between the Western otaku and the kids from traditional homes-"

    "-Sports Festival, man. Really starting to miss Eitaro"

    "Yeah well, we've got relay races and dances to occupy everyone's minds-"

    "-Does anyone think it's kinda suspicious that the Aces went to Russia right after Gakuto died?"

    You went straight to school this day, since while Gakuto's funeral was on this morning, naturally his estate hadn't invited you. Shame though, since you considered committing plagiarism for your eulogy, it's what Gakuto would've wanted after all.

    This did mean that, in these early hours while you did some catch-up study in the school library, drinking coffee from its personal vending machine, you had the chance to run into a fleetingly familiar face.

    "Oh yeah, Nakamura Honoka I presume?" you heard the voice of that Niijima Makoto you'd seen on and off, with her already carrying a pile of books, "We've only met about twice, so I hope I remembered your name correctly".

    "Don't worry, you got it in one," you looked up and told her, "Oh yeah, I faintly recall you saying that you were gonna get a teaching job here, last time we met".

    Makoto sighed, "That's... sort of come true. I wasn't able to get a teaching job exactly, being fired from the force doesn't quite look good for your resume," she tried to laugh that off, "But we came to a compromise, with the administration employing me here as Librarian and overseer of the Martial Arts Club. Teaching industrial Arts, er that is Shop Class, would've been fun though, and my main interest was in teaching Criminology, however..." she bit her lip, "They said they weren't interested, as they insisted Criminology was more of a college course".

    More like they don't want their students to start picking up on all the shit that goes on around here, you had to think. The position of Librarian had also previously been filled by Ryouko pulling double-time, among her... other jobs, but you kept quiet about that, not knowing how Makoto would react.
    "So hey, you're back on the grind again! Um, must be a relief, after having been unemployed and all" you awkwardly said.

    "Well, I did picture this only being a temporary job, though naturally I didn't say that in my interview, just till the case is closed," Makoto told you, setting some of her books down and eyeing a chessboard, "Thing is, I never pictured myself coming back to a school so soon, or ever really. I mean, I did quite well academically back at my old school but, outside my friend circle of course, I didn't have that fun or happy a time there".

    "Oh, I'm sorry," was all you could say, thinking Gosh, then you picked the wrong school to come back too.

    "Please, don't be, what happened there had nothing to do with you, you would've been twelve or thirteen at the time I assume," Makoto looked downcast, "And besides, I'll still say more good than bad came out of my teenage years... eventually".

    "Hmm, just a sec," you said, recalling something, "When you said 'at my old school', you kinda reminded me of an educational cartoon character I watched as a kid. She had a brown bob like you," you wisely not mentioning Makoto going prematurely grey, "And had that as her catchphrase".

    "Was there also a blonde with pigtails on the show?" Makoto smirked, before saying, "Hey, I get that all the time. Ooh, are you reading into a book on Tarot?" she then said, eyeing a book on your pile.

    "Er, I'm the substitute head of the Occult Club, so I felt I should study up on this stuff," you said, And for absolutely no other reason, you mentally added. "What, are you interested in Tarot?"

    Makoto considered her next words, going with "More like Tarot's interested in me, if that makes any sense. I will say the Occult's, er, not my thing, unless you count Cognitive Psience as Occult, which some do to be fair."

    "I guess the best lead I can give you on the investigation is this," you then said, "The Prized Pupil lounge is by far the most suspicious room in this school, once it's free I'd investigate it thoroughly if I were you".

    "Oh, wow, that's sure some advice" Makoto gave an uncertain smile.

    "Hey there, Honoka, how's my favourite student going?" you heard Ryouko chirp up as she walked into the room, "I see you're already getting acquainted with our new Librarian".

    "Actually, Miss Tanizawa, Honoka and I have had the fortune to meet a couple of times before," Makoto told her.

    "Ah, okay. Ooh, but you're not trying to steal my Honoka away from me, are you?" Ryouko grinned at her.

    "Well, I wouldn't complain if she was. Makoto's cuter than you, after all," you said, solely to rile Ryouko up... but naturally that comment got out of hand.

    "What the- Honoka, how can you say that?!" Tanizawa-sensei spat out.

    "Uh, uh, t-thank you for your compliment, Honoka..." Makoto gulped and blushed a deep red.

    "Well, whatever. Principal's about to give some speech to kick of Sports Week, but eh, I'll doubt it'll be anything interesting. In the meantime, I'll just have a swig of-" Ryouko began as she took out a bottle of sake, only for Makoto to instantly bolt upright.

    "Is-Is that an alcoholic beverage on school grounds?!" she accused.

    "Oh cool it, narc, last I heard you didn't get that criminology position. Besides, I wasn't giving a drop to any students," Ryouko grumbled back.

    You... decided to leave before this could get any more intense, quickly saying "Er, bye Niijima-sensei, Tanizawa-sensei, I've got stuff elsewhere you see". Still, it was a pleasant talk to have all around.

    - Rebirth has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    * * *

    After the Sports Festival opened with a speech from the Principal pretending his glory days weren't behind him, a speech from Azuma pretending he was actually interested in sports, and a two-second speech from Hotaru just telling everyone to have fun out there, the Sports Festival was on.

    Class 2-C's first event was the three-legged race, with your awkward lurching along made more awkward by you being roped up to Yuya. Okay yeah, there's certainly worse people in my class to get tied up with, but... you started thinking, I dunno, am I just attached to Yuya, metaphorically I mean this time, because he represents a kind of normalcy and stability to me?

    "Er, Honoka, watch your step!" Yuya had to speak out, snapping you out of your quandaries.

    "Huh- Oh right, the race and stuff!" you said as you two kept lurching along.

    In the end you came in third place, but eh, that was at least better than you expected. The most notable thing though was what happened next, where once you got untied, Melissa of all people suddenly came over and said, "Oh hey, Yuya. Hmhm, mind if I borrow him for a bit, Honoka?" her tone of voice indicating that was a rhetorical question.

    "Ah, hi there Melissa, um, fancy meeting you- Gah!" he sputtered as he got dragged along by his tie by Melissa.

    ...Okay, whatever this was, it was, er, definitely off.

    The next event for Class 2-C, scheduled next day, was the tug of war against 2-A. A mysteriously flustered Yuya behind you and Suzako way to the front, your luck during this whole event seemed to pick up, as despite what must've been your bleeding muscles, your class was finally able to pull 2-A into the mud.
    Whole process could've gone a lot quicker though if you had a Persona on you, but you figured that would've been like you being the only one to bring an Uzi to a judo tournament.

    After that, it was Suzako's turn to suddenly be called away by Melissa for... whatever reason. This was even more suspicious, given your friend's previous thoughts on her.

    It wasn't until Wednesday that you found out just what the whole deal with Melissa, Yuya, and Suzako was, as when Kikuko and you came back up to the Prized Pupil Lounge for another Gameboard grinding sessionpatrol, your jaw dropped when you saw a clearly uncomfortable Yuya and Suzako there, each on Melissa's arms.

    Melissa gave her smirkiest of smirks as she pushed Yuya out in front of her like she was somehow showing him off. "Oh Honoka~, I believe you two have met," she said.

    "Honoka, please, it's not what it looks like!" Yuya tried to make clear, but to be honest you weren't even sure what it 'looked like' in the first place.

    "Mmhm, the official cover story is that Yuya here, or should I say the Jack of Coins, is my sweet new boyfriend. Still, not the hottest guy around, but he does have that 'next door' charm. The actual case..." Melissa then went on to say.

    "I'm sorry, Honoka, this is really something I should've told you sooner," Yuya clutched his head.

    "Should've told me sooner, what it is Yuya?" you gasped.

    "-Is that being the local gay guy, Itou Yuuya will now be assisting me in all my clothes-shopping endeavors" Melissa finished for him, before Yuya even had a chance. "Not that I need a second opinion on fashion, but anyway. Also, the primary purpose of the boyfriend charade is to make Azuma so totally jealous!"

    You, you couldn't believe what Melissa was going on about! And wait, when did Yuya have any interest in fashion?

    "Honoka, I- I thought you knew about Yuya being homosexual," Suzako had to speak up, "He'd already told me a while ago, so I assumed the same for you".

    "I was going to tell you, Honoka," Yuya said, looking into your eyes, "I knew you wouldn't have a problem, I mean you're one of my two best friends, and Megumi's one of your friends too, so I was just- trying to find the right time to tell you..."

    "Oh yeah, Keiko, almost forgot her," Melissa went on, pushing Suzako in front, "Well, Kikuko, I saw you got yourself two Jacks, so I thought I ought to step up on that front too, especially with Reina being Donesville. So since Keiko had delusions of being some kind of 'counter-Ace' or whatever, I employed a tried but true business strategy: Buy Out the Competition!"

    "Oh my god, how did you strongarm Suzako into this?" you facepalmed.

    "Well, she is desperate for popularity, I believe she told you yourself. So I told her she could either quit playing games or have a shot at some real popularity," Melissa stated, "Keiko's desperate for money too. Also, it's good of me to diversify my portfolio. When it comes to fashion, nerd shit like cosplay's kind of my weak spot, so it's good to have a Jack well-versed in the field".

    The whole thing made Suzako break down into tears, while Yuya just stood there in silence.
    Well, I guess this at least means she won't try to mentally shut them down, right? Right? You thought.

    "How pathetic," Kikuko had to sneer, "When I choose a Jack, I choose them for their abilities and potential, not simply as part of a revenge scheme. On top of that, I didn't need to strongarm Honoka, she chose me willingly".

    Er, by default, you added in quiet.

    At first, an annoyed Melissa didn't have a clear answer to that, but she then said, "Oh really, Kikuko? Well, uh, in that case, why do you have a freakin' Korean maid following you around, hmm? Not so super-Japanese of you, is it?"

    Kikuko tensed up, slowly seething out, before she suddenly grabbed your hand and told you, "Let us away, Honoka. Also, remind me to tell Tsubasa that she has my permission to spill scalding hot tea onto Melissa's lap at any time".

    "Er, b-but we can still hang out, can't we Honoka?" Suzako called out over to you, only to receive a stinging glare from Melissa.

    * * *

    Thursday was scheduled to be the day of Sports Week where all the sports teams put on their own display, including at long last the Cricket Team.

    In the meanwhile though, you'd been busy trying to get decorations together for the Occult Club, in order to celebrate Colette's official return to school. You'd run through some suggestions back on Monday, which included:

    [ ] A giant spider plush, your initial impulse idea.
    [x] A DIY coffin for each member with some bats hanging from the ceiling, your more thought about idea.
    [ ] Ibuki's idea, to draw a bunch of stitches, blood, and bones on the walls to make it look like you were inside a human body.
    [ ] Hitoshi's idea, which was to invite a bunch of actual black cats into the room, thirteen if you could find that many.
    [ ] Masaomi's idea, to make the room look suspiciously tranquil and perfect, like out of a 50s US kitchen ad.
    [ ] Write-in.
    And luckily, you knew just the person to ask about coffins.

    "Huh? Oh no, please don't tell me..." Lauryn whimpered as you didn't do the best job of asking.

    "It's okay, don't worry, nobody's died or anything," you hurried to make clear, Well okay, people have died, just not in this particular scenario, "My goth friend's coming back to school, so we were gonna throw a party for her".

    "Ah, well okay then," Lauryn breathed(?) a sigh of relief, "Guess I'll need people's measurements first. It's funny you ask me that actually, my father was, er, is in the funeral business".

    "...Really?" you asked, finding that a bit too coincidental.

    "Ah, let me explain. My father, who's Japanese, works as a funeral director, while my Mum was a stunt pilot from Australia," Lauryn did so, before adding, "Not that the two professions are related, well, I hope not".

    That did get you thinking, about parents outliving their children. First with Lauryn, then Eitaro, and now...

    "Oh yeah, I guess I should tell you," you then stated, having to breathe in and out first, "You would've picked up by now that another All-Ace has died".

    "Yes, Gakuto, I know," Lauryn mumbled, "I, I won't try to sugarcoat who he was in life, he certainly didn't know his personal boundaries around me either. I won't mourn him, and not just for the odd image of a ghost in mourning, but..." she went silent for a second, "I definitely won't celebrate his death, I wouldn't celebrate anyone's death, even though I've seen the other side of it. He had the right to be brought to justice, but not... to die, I don't know who does".

    Popo, as expected, was in a crouched, quaking position as he covered his head with his wings. But he finally did speak up with, "Miss 'Onoka, you said you did kill Eitaro, but that was by accident, right? Oh, please tell me you weren't responsible for Mister Gakuto's death?"

    You had to think about just how to answer that, and that answer became "I'd be charged as at least an accomplice. I did not intend at all to kill him, but a Shadow did for me, the Shadow of the very AI he thought he had complete control over. Still... I confess, she wouldn't have been able to if I hadn't knocked him into a weakened state".

    Popo then said, "Them Shadows was the threat I assembled the Aces for, I thought that despite all their Duelling business, least they were takin' care of 'em. Now though, I ain't even sure of that".

    Trying to lighten the mood again, you then turned to Lauryn and said, "Oh, Australia then? That's interesting. Thing is, Colette, the girl we're throwing the coffin party for, actually went down to Melbourne once on an exchange trip".

    "...My condolences," Lauryn just said to that, "Hmm, I do know one of Kikuko's older relatives was imprisoned in Cowra back in WWII, and while the Sakurazuka family usually vacations in New York, London, Paris, or Naples, I know Azuma's been to the Opera House at least once. Ah, in Sydney that is".

    "I'm on a school Cricket team now too. Oh yeah, and another thing, Sports Festival's on, was wondering if you had any advice?" you asked her.

    "Well, not really. I mostly did organisational duties for it rather than participating directly," she shrugged, "But yeah, let me tell you more about coffins- Sheesh, don't quote that out of context".

    You talked with Lauryn a little while longer, and while you hadn't explored more of her Empire like you were supposed to, you felt you still got to know her a little better...

    - Death has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    "And of course, our Fusion services are always available," Igor had to remind you.

    Current Personae: Fool Theodora, Priestess Bastet, Justice Simurgh, Justice Sherlock, Hermit Franken, Fortune Skuld, Devil Anastasia, Tower PITT, Moon Carmilla. Outside Capacity: Magician Prospero, Moon Mayasura

    [ ] Justice Simurgh + Justice Sherlock = Justice+5 Gretchen (Bless and Electric)
    [ ] Rebirth Arsene + Hermit Franken = Judgment Ammut (Counter and Curse)
    [ ] Hermit Franken + Tower PITT = Judgment Ammut
    [ ] Hermit Franken + Fortune Skuld = Star+4 Octobriana (Fire and Nuclear)
    [ ] Tower PITT + Fortune Skuld = Hanged Man+2 Xipe Totec (Curse and Healing)
    [ ] Rebirth Arsene + Justice Sherlock = Hanged Man+2 Xipe Totec
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Fortune Skuld = Hierophant+4 Ganesha (Physical and Psy)
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Fortune Skuld = Rebirth+3 Dagda (Almighty and Healing)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Justice Simurgh = Fool+7 Black Cat (Physical and Curse)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Justice Sherlock = Fool+7 Black Cat
    [ ] Write-in Fusion:
    [ ] Write-in Store Persona
    [ ] Write-in Withdraw Persona (Fool Coyote, Lovers Okiku, etc.)
    [ ] No thanks, I'm fine.
    [X] Rebirth Arsene + Hermit Franken = Judgment Ammut, add Hanged Man Benkei, Devil Anastasia + Hanged Man Benkei = Fortune+2 Hideyoshi, add Devil Anastasia, Justice Simurgh + Justice Sherlock = Justice+5 Gretchen, add Franken, Hermit Franken + Fortune Skuld = Star+4 Octobriana, Devil Anastasia + Tower PITT = Magician+5 Orlando, add Devil Anastasia, add Tower PITT

    I am Magician Orlando, Horn of the Three Saints," announced an androgynous figure with mannish short hair on their left and girlish long hair on their right, dressed in silvery chain-mail and a red battle-skirt, their right hand a sword and their left a trumpet, "If we are to die, then we shall not go quiet".

    "I am Justice Gretchen, the condemned and the saved," said a redhead with braids, with one angel wing and one devil wing, both fastened to a spinning wheel behind her, "Our sins weight us down, but they shall not drown us."

    "I am Fortune Hideyoshi, the ruler from nothing," intoned a monkey-like warrior standing atop a pile of confiscated swords, with a miniature palace for armour, "Those who deny our sovereignty forfeit their weapons"

    "I am Star Octobriana, everyone's and no one's," proclaimed a literally atomic blonde, with a gun and dagger that resembled the hands of a clock, red stars circling her, "If you seek revolution, I shall more than deliver."

    "I am Judgment Ammut, devourer of the dead," said a she-beast with a crocodile's head, a lioness' claws and a hippopotamus' legs, "If your heart is weighed by injustice, then I shall show you even death may die.


    Elements: Nulls Light, resists Physical, weak to Psy
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Megido, War Cry, Blade of Fury, Tarukaja
    - Magician Bonus: Holy Melody, Evil Melody
    - Inherit Bonus: Recarm, Healing Wave


    Elements: Absorbs Light, resists Electric, weak to Ice
    - Strength: ||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: ||||
    Skills: Kouga, Mahamaon, Zionga, Diarama
    - Justice Bonus: Evade Curse, Recarm
    - Inherit Bonus: Fire Boost, Hellfire


    Elements: Resists Physical, Nulls Gun, weak to Wind
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: ||
    Skills: Dekaja, Zanshinken, Claim Stake, Triple Down
    - Fortune Bonus: Power Charge
    - Inherit Bonus: Bufula, Tarunda


    Elements: Nulls Nuclear and Fire, resists Gun, weak to Curse
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: ||||
    Skills: Freila, Heat Wave, Crossfire, Hellfire
    - Star Bonus: Mafreila
    - Inherit Bonus: Foul Breath, Analyse


    Elements: Absorbs Curse, resists Physical and Fire, weak to Psy
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: |
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Counter, Counterstrike, Mamudoon, Fang Breaker
    - Inherit Bonus: Mudoon, Death Needle

  18. #38
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXXVIII. Sports Festival Finished

    Okay, Thursday was the day of the Sports Team showcases, more meant for the public of Hanataba instead of any rival schools, given that they'd be having their own events right now. You suspected Melissa's parents were too busy elsewhere to come, and you doubted Kikuko's father was the type to show up to School Festivals at all, from what fleeting impressions you'd gotten of him.
    That still left Azuma's folks, though you could only picture Tomomi coming along kicking and screaming, and, oh God, your parents...

    "Hey there son, daughter, you've been good while Mummy's been busy?" you attempted a joke as you awkwardly sat next to them on the bleachers.

    "Oh hey, Honoka. You've joined a Sports Team, huh? You've certainly done a lot of growing this past year, but I have to say, I can't help be surprised, er, I mean proud. Baseball, huh?" your dad started with.

    "Cricket, actually," you explained, "Though I get the confusion. Er, to be honest, the Vice-Principal actually told me, not in person though, to join another club, so I went with the Cricket team since they were struggling. Helps I knew the Captain".

    "Ah, er, Cricket, I see," your father mumbled, "I guess I've told you I was a member of the Lacrosse team back when, right? Boy you bet I was picked on for that".

    "Hmm, I feel I say this coming from the Art World, but Sports have always rubbed me the wrong way, what with the competitiveness of it all..." your mother muttered, but added, "Nevertheless, Cricket, quite an inspired choice I must say! Ah, and you'd think I was in the Painting Club or Industrial Arts back in my high school days, but no actually. I was in the Astronomy Club, I didn't find my interest in metalworking and glassblowing until graduation... Oh my, I'm so sorry, I must've been rambling again," she went all apologetic.

    "No Mum, it's fine," you told her. Believe me, the competitiveness of Sports is tame compared to some competitions I've been in. "Thing is, I think cricket's scheduled dead last, so I won't be up for a while now".

    <<BGM: Samurai Shodown - Snowy Mountain Village>>

    First up was, unsurprisingly, kendo, as hosted by Kikuko. You also saw Melissa's Cheer Squad emerging onto the field for support at the same time. Peering closer, you could see this was much to Kikuko's annoyance and Melissa's reluctance.

    For now though, Kikuko seemed resigned to just ignore them and focus on her own demonstration, as you could see her invite Na-rae onto the field only to immediately start whaling on her.

    You realised though that you'd never even considered joining the Cheer Squad. Originally it was because you were too unattractive, but even after the All-Aces you'd hesitated, assumedly because you only wanted to get as close to Melissa as you needed.
    But I dunno, did I reflexively consider it just too 'girly' or something? you had to ponder. And if I did, well, does it really makes sense for me, a girl, to be ashamed of girly stuff? Of course, I hang out with Reina and Colette all the time, the two most feminine people I know, so eh.

    As the kendo demonstration progressed though, you could see Melissa standing aside and talking on her phone while her subordinates did all the actual cheer demonstrations. Immediately afterwards, you heard a loud revving noise, as the blond-haired baseball team, as well those car-driving yankii from yesterday, promptly crashed the kendo demonstration, to the shock of the whole audience.

    Unfortunately for them, Kikuko may have been the last student here anyone would want to pull a stunt like that on, as the Ace of Swords took out the nearest of these intruders with a single sword strike. As the kendo team and US-besotted baseball team and yankii started to clash, Kikuko turned her head to eye you directly, as if to say 'Get down here, Jack'.

    Gulping, you then made your way down onto the field, where Kikuko promptly tossed you a sword, "Good to see you here, now get to work," she told you "If these miscreants want a kendo demonstration..."

    Okay, first thing, you'd barely ever wielded a sword, even if you acknowledged it was what Kikuko had on her right now, and second... you'd never really thought outside the Gameboard. How the Hell were you supposed to fend off a pack of hooligans like this without your Persona?

    You groaned and got ready anyway, as your training with tonfas ensured you could at least swing your arms really hard. You then discovered that Kikuko made swordplay look a lot more effortless than it actually was, though luckily most of the guys you were up against here were hardly skilled fighters, having little more to their tactics than brute force.

    Mindlessly slashing your way through them, you headed straight up to Melissa and confronted her with, "What the Hell do you think you're doing?!"

    "Gawd, what is your problem? I just thought our Cheer Squad could use some bodyguards, that's all, can't be too careful ya know. Either way, Kikuko should be thanking me, really, as because of me she's gotten to flaunt her sword skills here way more than she would've otherwise," Melissa just smirked.

    "Yeah 'bodyguards', right," you fumed.

    "Oh, I dunno. This brawl's been the most entertaining thing I've seen this whole festival, probably at this whole school," said the voice of Tomomi of all people, who suddenly walked up behind you, "I mean like, back when I was at this dump, the most exciting thing that'd ever happen was when somebody hid firecrackers in the Teachers' Lounge".

    "Hold up, you're here?" Melissa then said to Tomomi, "Oh Lord, how am I supposed to cheer anyone on when your entire existence sucks all the fun out of the room?!"

    "Meh, just try harder I guess," Tomomi shrugged "'Pull up your bootstraps' or some shit".

    "Grr, I'll have you know, your family's exceedingly wealthy too!" Melissa snapped after hearing that jab at her.

    The last of those tough guys on the field were mopped up by Makoto as she leapt in, which on second thought did make sense to you, her now overseeing the Martial Arts Club. While Makoto made short work of them, she was then confronted by the Vice-Principal, who asked her, "Miss Niijima, care to explain why you've clearly intervened in matters not your own?"

    "Well, I am part of the faculty here now, so I believe the students' safety is 'a matter of my own'," Makoto answered, "Besides, was I supposed to just leave these kids there to get attacked?"

    "We were handling these thugs just fine on our own, before you decided to play hero," Kikuko then spoke to Makoto, stepping in between her and the Vice-Principal, before whispering in the Librarian's ear "Fujino Teruko may be the one adult here I respect most of all, so I don't appreciate you casually talking back to her. Still, Niijima is it... even I must commend your fighting prowess," Kikuko finished, sheathing her blade.

    At the end of this whole event gone haywire, Nadezhda of all people suddenly ran up in full cheerleading costume and beamed, "I'm here~, what did I miss?!"

    "Nadezhda, what?" Melissa sputtered out, "How did you know where to find this school?!"

    * * *

    With time passing, this just left the Cricket showcase, along with you wracking your brain about how not to expose yourself to Kikuko when you played in front of the school with Takako. One of the main appeals of you joining this team was you thought it wouldn't attract All-Ace attraction.
    Well, it helped that most people had gone home by now, the Cricket team not having the most promising timeslot, so maybe you could work something out.

    [x] Put on your disguise, that's what it's there for, and then explain to your parents it's part of your uniform or something.
    [ ] Try to find Kikuko first, then say something to distract her before you head onto the field.
    [ ] Just hope Kikuko's elsewhere by now and play undisguised anyway.
    [ ] Play undisguised, then explain to Kikuko that you thought you could, er, 'take over' the Cricket team.
    [ ] Play undisguised, then tell Kikuko you don't care about her stupid list.
    [ ] Tell the Cricket team you have to be elsewhere, but that you know they're got this.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Shame that we don't have a separate Festival to showcase Winter Sports," you heard Ikue saying as you got ready for the showcase game, "I'd finally be able to show my unrivalled skiing skills at this academy".

    "Well, I don't think that many winter sports are really that team-oriented," you had to say, "The sort of thing schools go for to build 'spirit' or whatever. Oh wait, there is bobsledding, but we don't exactly have any Jamaican transfer students, do we?" Pretty much nobody responded to your attempt at a joke.

    "Okay, we're playing against each other team, just like we've been practicing!" Takako exclaimed, before she went out of the lockers and onto the field to speak to the gathered, um, 'crowds', "Hi there, and big thanks to all the people who are still... y'know, here," a tumbleweed rolled past, "Um, you like personal stories in sports, right? You see, so I'm from Okinawa, where I got ta meet all sorts of different people coming in, some of which introduced me to Cricket, natch. Once I got started on it, I was obsessed, there was like, no way I could go back to baseball-"

    You winced. "Er, you think dragging down Baseball's really gonna endear Takako, or the rest of us, to the crowd?" you asked Ikue.

    Ikue just sighed, "At this point, what crowd?"

    "-Ah, my point is, if you think baseball's cool, cricket will blow you away! Right then team, on the field!" Takako then looked back at you as you started to head out and get in formation, the spectators nowhere near as enthusiastic.
    Your eyes widened though as, along with Ibuki, you also saw Satomi Mamiko, Gakuto's reluctant accomplice, among the fielders. If we were recruiting people with a grudge against the All-Aces as it seemed (perhaps recruiting Suzako was in order?), then you guessed Mamiko certainly had the right to be here. Still, seeing her reminded you that you should really check up on the Computer Club and see how it's... handling things.

    Oh geez, Takako was relentless on the field, this being the team's big moment right now, her lightning-fast bowling ultimately getting you out as it struck the wicket. This left one of the would-be baseball girls to come up to bat, who didn't last much longer than you.

    You were relieved that, when you got the chance to bat again, it was against Ikue, Takako now crouching behind you as wicketkeeper. You soon were able to score, well, what in baseball could be considered a 'home run', you having forgotten the cricket-specific term, letting you run up and down the pitch to your hearts' content.
    "I still like it better when they run around the diamond though," you overheard someone in the stands whispering.

    The showcase, and school in general that day, all over, you almost could've collapsed out of relief. You weren't certain how good an impression you'd made on the people new to cricket, but if anyone asked you, you'd definitely say you gave it your all.

    "Not bad," Ikue said to you, though with a restrained snarl. "Huh, at first I only joined this team because none other here would have me after I rejected the All-Aces, but you may have given me an initiative to... improve, Honoka," she smirked, pointing the bat at you like she was brandishing a rapier.

    You kinda had to smile back at her, thinking, Wow, even if it torpedoed her rep here, turning down the All-Aces was probably the best option for her, I'd say anyway.

    "Hey, that was good, er, batting out there," your father then came up to you, "Excuse me, but have you seen our daughter, Honoka? We were told she was part of the team here". You weren't sure if this was another one of your dad's jokes or if your disguise actually was that good.

    "Dad, it's me," you grinned, removing your silver wig to let your auburn hair flow down again, "Ah, if you're wondering what's with the wig, it's er, part of the uniform. You see, like..." you struggled to come up with an answer, "You know how people associate dyed red hair with street gangs, right? So even if my hair's natural, I had to wear this wig to, uh, make this unfamiliar sport look more acceptable. More distinguished, hence the silver" your etiquette and education let you make things up on the spot.

    "Honoka, you know you shouldn't really have to hide you who are," your mother protested, though did say, "Well, if it's only for this sport, then I figure that's alright, and you at least chose a wig rather than dyeing your natural colour".

    Oh, you guys don't know the half of 'hiding who you are', you thought.

    "Heya, Honoka! Oh wow, take it these are your folks, am I right?" Takako came up to meet with you.

    "Ah yeah, Mum and Dad, this is Yamashiro Takako, our captain and Okinawan transfer student. Takako, these are my parents, Nakamura Kanae and Yozou" you gave introductions.

    Your father had to grin. "You're from Okinawa, huh? Boy that's something, but I oughta be grateful someone would honour us by transferring from there to here, I imagine most students wish they could transfer to Okinawa instead" your dad tried to make conversation.

    Takako had to laugh out loud at him. "Hey, no need ta put yourself down like that, I mean there's a bunch of cool things here that you'd never see in the Ryukyus! No snow down there, obviously, or Ice Sculptures" she said smiling.

    "Still, your shiisaa lion statues are absolutely exquisite!" your mother chimed in, "And the tropical sunlight must create an intense colour palette".

    Takako could only say to this, "Eh, yeah, 'course it does, if you're into that sorta thing" she uneasily grinned.

    "Oh yeah, hey there Hona, what'd I miss?" Megumi made their way up to you out of the blue. "Ah yeah, if you're wondering why I'm late to your Sports thing, er, got caught in traffic, yeah".

    More like you got stoned and forgot, huh? You had to think.

    "Whoa, got way crowded in here all of a sudden!" Takako had to comment.

    "Okay, geez, you probably already know them, Mum and Dad, but Cricket Captain Takako, this is my roommate, Umebayashi Megumi," you gave another introduction, "Megumi's planning on becoming a figure-skater, right?" you had to add.

    "What the- well er, it's complicated!" Megumi went wide-eyed as you so casually brought that up.

    "Ah, so you're the roommate we've heard so much about," your dad spoke up as he looked at Megumi, "I have to admit, I was worried for a second when I heard a stranger would be living with my Honoka, but almost everything she's said about you has been positive," he smiled.

    "Yes, but I personally am glad our Honoka had someone there living with her. She's an only child you know" your mother added.

    Both you and Megumi had to wince a little at those words, knowing what was in store for both of you in your immediate future, but for now you both grinned at your parents' words.

    "I do remember seeing some cricket on TV as a kid, when I was up late channel surfing and fiddling with the antennae, but that's about it, sorry," Megumi then said to Takako, before they added, "Yeah, I did say I wanted to be an ice skater maybe a couple of times, though Honoka would probably make a terrible partner", everyone but you laughing at that comment.

    "Okay, Honoka's parents, Honoka's roommate, I just have one last little thing to say to our batter before I leave ta do wrap-up stuff," Takako then spoke up, before looking straight at you and saying, "Honoka, you were great out there, though of course, so was the entire team! Well er, maybe not by professional standards, but you definitely were to me! Well, gotta go".

    You didn't know what to say to that, so just smiled as Takako left. At least you had someone right now to give you compliments.

    - The Sun has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    "Lemme guess, the All-Aces hate her, right?" Megumi had to whisper to you.

    "Yeah, they totally don't understand cricket," you told them back. Also didn't help that you brained Melissa with a cricket ball that one time.

    "Ah, so nice to see Honoka make new friends!" your mum beamed, oblivious to what you'd just said.

    * * *

    The last two events of Sports Week were the dances and relay race, neither of which you were looking forward to. 2-C fortunately was due for the basic circle dance, mostly due to Ryouko's laziness, so not much chance to screw that up, but 3-B...

    "Mind explaining what this is?" Kikuko snarled at Melissa.

    "Well, as this school's head cheerleader, I had a talk with our teacher about spicing up our stuffy old folk dance with some modern pep," Melissa grinned, hand on her hip.

    "If by that you mean turning an event meant as a display of school identity into an exhibit for yourself," Kikuko hissed, until she saw that the dance ended with some kind of human pyramid, naturally with Melissa at the top. "Hmm, fine, have it your way," Kikuko then said, but with a conspiratorial air. "I'm still not wearing that outfit though".

    "Uh, if it's a problem, why don't you dance with our class instead?" you asked Kikuko, though your Ace's expression at that told you exactly what she thought about dancing with underclassmen.

    As the dances began, your circle of girls eventually started joining hands with the circle of boys. Perhaps this was a step down from dancing at a Russian ball, but eh you didn't really mind. Things did get awkward when you took Yuya's hands.

    "Oh er, hi there," you tried to smile as you two started dancing, "Uh yeah, sorry about you being forced to come out like that," you had to mutter, head bowed.

    "Honoka, please, you have nothing to apologise for," Yuya then told you, "I just, y'know, wish I could've come out to you on my own terms, but how it happened wasn't your fault at all. Oh yeah, sheesh, Melissa took me on our first shopping trip the other day. Man was it a disaster," he had to laugh.

    "Huh, what happened?" you asked.

    "I told her I wanted to try on some of her clothes myself, and she lost her cool in public," he explained, still amused by it, "Though given her mental image of me, I don't know what else she expected me to say".

    A little while on, when that 'new and improved' school dance of Melissa's was about to end, you then saw a whistling Kikuko slowly inch away from her position at the bottom of the human pyramid. The results were all too predictable, sending the rest of her class, including Na-rae, crashing into a heap on the ground, the school nurse running over immediately to check for injuries.

    "What the Hell, Kikuko?!" Melissa burst out, a flaw in Kikuko's plan being that Melissa landed in a cushioned position on top of all the other students.

    "You'd think I'd let that little ambush you arranged yesterday slide?" Kikuko oh so innocently chuckled.

    You just groaned at the whole thing. Since Azuma unsurprisingly happened to be nearby, for once you went up and actually asked him something, "Do you think Kikuko's trying to bait Melissa into challenging her to a Duel or something? In that case, why doesn't she just challenge her first, to claim self-defence or something?"

    "Duelling etiquette states that the challenged shall have said Duel take place on their homefield," Azuma restated for you, "Still, were I in Kikuko's position, I would doubt Melissa would honour those guidelines, especially as Gakuto also refused to".

    "Yeah, another thing, who the Hell came up with this 'duel etiquette' anyway? The Gameboard? Some dead guy writing about pistols in the 17th century?" you had to ask.

    "Why, we did. All of us at least agreed there had to be some structure in place, though Rin and I of course laid out most of it," Azuma told you.

    Oh yeah, else you'd probably all have knifed each other in the back by now, you could only think.

    "Huh, I have no idea what you're talking about," a still around Tomomi had to butt in.

    "...Nothing, just a private matter," Azuma said on instinct.

    "Private? You know I'm your sister, right? Not even your bedroom's private from me," Tomomi said back.

    "It's a school secret, current students only," Azuma quickly stated.

    Moving on, the relay races were the final event of Sports Week. As the baton was handed to you, you dashed along until you made it to the next in line, Suzako.
    "Oh er, hey... everything okay being Melissa's Jack?" you had to ask her while you were there.

    "God, what do you think?" Suzako grumbled, before saying swiftly, "Ah sorry, gotta go, in the middle of a race and all."

    Not that your class won the relay anyway, but personally you were just glad the Sports Festival was over, the Cricket match being really the only thing you were looking that much forward to.

    * * *
    <<BGM: Umineko - Dance of the Moon Rabbits>>

    For you personally, the real finale to this school week was the welcoming party for Colette, her at last being allowed back. Along with Hitoshi, Masaomi, and Ibuki, a bored Tomomi had decided that sounded like the most interesting thing going on here and so had joined in. On top of that, she'd also convinced you to play a little prank on the visiting Nadezhda.

    "Ah, so you're telling me this totally is the coolest club in school?" Nadezhda had to ask, as she stared at all the bats and coffins around.

    "Oh yeah, Nadia, absolutely. Like I remember when I was forced to waste my time at this school, or 'attend' as you kids say, everyone was totally dying to get into the Occult Club," Tomomi told her, deadpan as ever on the surface, but probably laughing up a storm on the inside.

    You'd decided to mix the silver wig Reina had gotten you with your standard marionette costume. Meanwhile, Nadezhda said she was in a Baba Yaga costume, but that mostly consisted of her just putting on a floppy pointed hat and 'borrowing' the janitor's bucket and mop. Tomomi meanwhile had gotten dressed in what she called the scariest thing ever, her old school uniform. She said she would've dressed as an Iron Maiden but couldn't pull it off this short notice.

    "Shh, I think she's coming now," Hitoshi whispered.

    As Colette stepped in, all of you shouted "Surprise!" as Masaomi lit a bunch of candles. You and the rest of the Club had all chipped in for the cake too, which was:

    [x] A vanilla cake with red velvet icing like claw-marks, and strawberry syrup dripping down like blood.
    [ ] A chocolate cake with white icing you'd made to look like a spiderweb, a gumball with licorice legs attached for the spider.
    [ ] A pumpkin cake with whipped cream ghost and grave-shaped biscuits on top, RIP written on them in chocolate icing.
    [ ] A rich black cake with purple frosting, sliced apples for eyes and a mouth, and little yellow butter creams.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Colette's eyes went wide as she saw the festivities you'd prepared for her, her face blushing red. Speechless at first, she then ran over and embraced you, saying "Oh Honoka, thank you!"

    As everyone cheered her return, you then had to notice none other than Reina walking in behind her, wearing a corseted dark blue dress with strings attached to it like a marionette. Reina then immediately blushed herself, seeing how you were also wearing a similar outfit.

    "Ah, I hope you don't mind that I also invited Reina," Colette explained, "She's been wonderful at keeping my tormented soul company this past month".

    "Of course not," you smiled, "Just... a little unexpected, that's all".

    You almost froze when you realised you'd forgot that Nadezhda was also here, as part of your 'hilarious' prank.
    "Ah, hi there," Nadezhda acted friendly at first, but then said "Er, what's the girl who totally embarrassed Melissa doing here?"

    Reina's bright expression was for a second knocked off her face, however Colette swiftly stepped in to tell Nadezhda, "I will not have mention of that name spoil this occasion".

    Total puzzlement crossed Nadezhda's face, but she gulped and decided to go along with... whatever this was or now.

    Tomomi couldn't help be amused by all this, as she turned to Colette and said, "Oh yeah, don't believe we've met. Name's Sakurazuka Tomomi, and I heard my little brother's clique completely hates you," her wisely not directly naming Azuma, "Which makes you a-okay in my book".

    "Well, the fabled elder Sakurazuka have we? Ah yes, I was indeed aware of you, though it's something else to speak with you in person," Colette smiled and took Tomomi's hand.

    "Oh, Miss Colette, we haven't shown you the coffins we made!" Ibuki sprung up, showing your project this week lined up along the wall.

    Tomomi quickly counted them, before saying, "Hey, there's only five! How come I don't get a coffin?"

    "Well, they are for Occult Club members only," you explained, "Plus, we did spend all week making them, in whatever time wasn't taken up by Sports," Or... other drama.

    "Er... sorry, but I totally don't feel that coffin chic's really my style, y'know?" Nadezhda laughed shakingly, eyeing the room from side to side.

    Once the cake was eaten, you having to re-divide it due to the addition of Reina, the former Jack of Coins had to say "Hey, it's getting pretty late, so... why don't we make this a sleepover, keep the fun going until dawn!" she beamed.

    "Huh, you might as well all come back to my place then," Tomomi of all people volunteered, "My family's place has more than enough room, so we probably ought to use it for something. It's right by lake Toya too, I guess that's cool or something".

    Huh, you'd always imagined Tomomi as a total recluse, so her moving the party to her place honestly confused you. Oh wait, it's for the sake of annoying Azuma, isn't it?

    This did pose a problem though, since you'd had plans for Sunday tomorrow, and you wondered if having to get back into town, or further afield, from Lake Toya would complicate things. Said plans being:

    [ ] Studying with:
    - [ ] Reina.
    - [ ] Yuya.
    - [ ] Suzako.
    - [ ] Colette.
    - [ ] Megumi.
    - [ ] Takako.
    - [ ] Kikuko.
    - [ ] At your parents' place.
    [ ] The cinema was showing A Cavalcade of Regrettable Circumstances, so you could go with:
    - [ ] Reina.
    - [ ] Suzako.
    - [ ] Yuya.
    - [ ] Colette.
    - [ ] Megumi.
    - [ ] Hotaru.
    - [ ] Takako.
    - [ ] Your parents.
    [ ] Investigating stuff online.
    [x] Gameboard investigation, in particular getting around to one of the 'dethroned' Empires.
    - [x] Rin's Empire.
    - [ ] Gakuto's Empire.
    - [ ] Eitaro's Empire.
    - [ ] Himawari's Empire.
    [ ] Write-in.

  19. #39
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XXXIX. Moon Romance

    "Hey, er, Tomomi right?" Reina then spoke up about the sleepover idea, "Er, shouldn't you call your parents to let them know we're coming?"

    "Eh, mansions' big enough, chances are they won't even know you're there. 'Sides, they invite people over there without telling me all the time," Tomomi told her, not mentioning that the reason they did that was because she rarely ever left in her room.

    The, um, eight of you heading out to the Shinsuke-driven antique car, which definitely made for a very cramped trip, Tomomi told him to head straight home.
    "But Mistress Tomomi, your younger brother Master Azuma hasn't arrived. Do you really mean to head home without him?" Shinsuke had to inquire.

    "Meh, he can just catch a train, or use that fancy limo his clique has, he's got options," Tomomi shrugged, "Anyway, floor it".

    As you drove off, Colette had to ask "Wait, did I hear that right, your brother's Azuma?! ...Well, I admit you have some family resemblance, now that I look closer".

    Tomomi just snorted and said, "Hey, don't worry, me and my little brother barely see eye to eye at all, so I've got no plans to deliver you into his grubby mitts". After that thought, she had a question for Colette, "Oh, by the way, Colette right? Was wondering if you could help me out? You see, I've been trying to perfect that frail, Victorian bedside cough, and thought hey, you might have some pointers?"

    Of course Tomomi wouldn't specify that it's to play sick and get out of going to events, you had to assume.

    "Why certainly! Of course, you want to start on the appropriate throat exercises..." Colette smiled and started her lengthy instructional diatribe.

    <<BGM: Pokemon D&P - Lake Verity (Remix)>>

    Arriving back at possibly the one place you didn't want to arrive back to, the Sakurazuka manor, you at least took some solace in Azuma not being here at present.

    As you stepped back in to the oversized but mostly shadowy household, your whole slumber party group had various opinions. Hitoshi, Masaomi, and Ibuki all stared in awe, or at least as much awe as the reserved Masaomi was capable of. Colette giggle and said, "I will at least compliment Azuma on one thing, his aesthetics. Pity about his, well, everything else".

    Reina and Nadezhda, meanwhile, seemed less enchanted. "Wow, er, don't you think this place might be a bit... much?" Reina tried to give a smile.

    "A bit much?! Like, I've seen old Russian manors and stuff, but at least we, like try to light them up with a whole bunch of chandeliers and stuff, not just leave it all creepy!" Nadezhda blurted out.

    "Eh, you get used to it," was all Tomomi said back.

    'I imagine there's the risk of fire hazards and stuff to account for too," you tried pointing out.

    "Ah, Tomomi, so unnaturally rare to see you up and about like this!" her father's dramatic voice boomed, though from what you knew of Munehiro he spoke like that regardless of the situation. "My... we certainly weren't expecting you to bring guests over tonight, but nevertheless, it is delightful to see you at least attempting to integrate yourself more with society".

    "Well, my intent was just to annoy Azuma, actually," Tomomi muttered.

    "Hmm, speaking of which, I don't see my young Azuma anywhere with you..." Munehiro's eyes shifted left and right.

    "He had stuff left to do for school, he can make it back on his own," Tomomi quickly got that out of the way.

    The Sakurazuka matriarch soon came out to see what this was. As she did, Nadezhda's eyes widened and she then said "Oh, Madame Sakurazuka Rurina, I've heard so much about you from my friend Melissa! Like, when she came all the way up to Russia, she was like talking about you all the time, so I can name all your movies! Ooh, I'm Nadia, er that is Nadezhda Sergevna Klimkina, did she ever say anything about me?"

    Rurina had to chuckle hearing this, telling Nadezhda "My apologies, but I don't believe young Melissa... ever really said much about you, again I am sorry. Ah, but I am of course aware, as are many, that you're the Heiress to the prominent Klimkin Group".

    You could see Reina shivering, but she then brought herself to ask, "Er, did Melissa ever say anything about me?"

    Rurina had to reflect on that, before saying "Quite a bit, actually. A lot was quite negative, but I don't know, now that I see you in person, I cannot truly picture the detestable sort Melissa insisted you were".

    You could see Reina didn't really know how to react to that, but did breathe a sigh of relief.

    * * *

    Later on, the eight of you were all gathered in the Sakurazukas' lush, extravagant lounge, with one of the horror films Rurina had starred in, one of the few Colette was familiar with, playing in the background. The film's use of darkness at least ensured everything looked less dated than other, similar movies from the time.

    You did a casual tarot reading first, but then Colette went onto the harder stuff.
    [ ] The Sun (Power Charge)
    [ ] The Moon (Mind Charge)
    [x] The Devil (Evade Fire)
    [ ] The Tower (Evade Electric)
    [ ] Fortune (Evade Wind)
    [ ] Temperance (Evade Ice)
    [ ] Write-in.
    (Current Personae: Fool Theodora, Magician Prospero, Priestess Bastet, Fortune Hideyoshi, Devil Anastasia, Tower P.I.T.T., Star Octobriana, Moon Carmilla, Moon Mayasura, Judgment Ammut. Orlando and Gretchen have hit their Skill Limit)

    "Alright, so I've reserved something extra special for this occasion," Colette said as she pulled out what looked like a grimoire. "If we follow this ritual correctly, then apparently we shall summon forth the Hellish Earl Furfur, who within this magic triangle shall be compelled to answer any question truthfully..."

    "Ah, is that really necessary?" Nadezhda had to interject, "Like, why can't we just play truth or dare, y'know, like at a normal sleepover, huh? Accomplishes the same thing, y'know, or just call on Bloody Mary if you really have to summon something," she said.

    "Hmm, well you could argue that summoning a demon in the Sakurazuka household would kinda be overkill," you said, with an amused Tomomi taking that quite well.

    "I believe this was supposed to be my Welcome Back Party, but if you so insist," Colette said, before gazing straight at Nadezhda, "Truth or dare, Klimkina?"

    "Um, dare?" she said, being placed on the spot like this.

    Colette promptly handed the grimoire over to her, "I expect you to complete the ritual to summon at least one Goetic demon at midnight tonight. I'll be watching~".

    Nadezhda then shivered, but rather than challenge Colette back, she instead looked at Reina now and smirked, "Truth or dare, Reina?"

    Reina was quiet at first, but then replied, "You know what? Truth. Hey Nadia, you wanna know why Melissa kicked me out of her club?"

    Nadezhda giggled at that, "Do go on".

    "Because part of my past became... public. I was assaulted, I'll just say that. But the thing was, rather than try and help me or tell me I could pull through, Melissa just..." Reina's eyes began welling up, "Said I embarrassed her, that she wanted nothing to do with a... disgrace like me".

    Nadezhda then spoke up, "N-no! That has to be a lie! Melissa would never..." but her voice then drifted off "Melissa would, she'd never..." she kept mumbling.

    "Ah yeah. Sorry for dropping that on you outta nowhere, I imagine you were all just expecting a fun little game," Reina blushed and apologised, before turning to you and saying, "Okay, Honoka, either you have to tell the truth about who you like most at school, or I dare you to tell us who you like most at school!"

    You had to chuckle at that, saying "Wow, you really had to put me on the spot there, didn't ya?" Hmm, okay then, I accept your challenge," you then threw your arm around Colette's shoulder and said, "It's a close call, but y'know, in the end I'd have to say you, Colette".

    Colette's pale features were overcome by a vibrant blush, as her usually forthright self stuttered out, "Ah, t-thankyou, Honoka. I, er, I believe I'd honestly have to say the same".

    Given the moment, the two of you leaned in together for a kiss, taking a little while to pull back. Seeing this, Reina said nothing, but nodded and put on a happy face, while Nadezhda went all bug-eyed and flinched.

    Colette smiled but winced a little, saying "Ah, perhaps I did get carried away, heat of the moment and whatnot. Hmm, oh, I suppose you'd want to truth or dare me now?"

    "Oh er, yeah sure," you went along with her.

    "Very well, I do have quite the secret that I'm more comfortable saying in a space like this," Colette said, then curtseying and saying to everyone "I'm a trans girl. That is all".

    Her brazenly coming out like that made Nadezhda suddenly get all tongue-tied, not knowing how to react. So instead, the game then passed to Hitoshi, then Masaomi, then Ibuki, before reaching Tomomi, who you assumed was asked last because nobody wanted her to give a truth or dare, given what she could conceive.

    "I dare you..." Ibuki started saying to Tomomi, "To start a pillow fight in your brother's room!"

    Tomomi just laughed at that and dusted her hands, "Done and done".

    * * *

    After you'd all made a complete mess of Azuma's room, just before he could back home, you scurried out and back to the guest rooms Shinsuke had arranged for you.

    "Yeah well, Colette had an unfair advantage! She's got like, er, upper-body strength and stuff," Nadezhda still protested.

    "Really? Because I've been taking estrogen for a few years now, so I simply have no idea what you're talking about," Colette swiftly told her.

    "Right, er, but, y'know, the thing is..." Nadezhda kept rambling.

    Colette had arranged for both you and her to share a room, as she said she had matters she wished to discuss with you in private. You were ushered into a lavish, purple, red, and black bedroom dominated by a large four-poster bed, the creaky floorboards being just the touch that made Colette swoon.

    "Oh, Honoka, would you please sit down? I just mean to get changed, then I'll be right back out," she told you, leaving you by yourself for a second on the bedside.

    When Colette returned, she did so in a much more provocative costume, which left you blushing and gagging. She smiled at your reaction, saying "Oh, you are simply adorable, Honoka" as she ran her rose-red fingernail down your cheek.
    However, Colette then sighed and looked downcast, "Ah, forgive me, Honoka, I certainly hope I don't come across as pressuring you too soon. I do suppose I've gotten somewhat swept up in the romance of it all, my expulsion over, and being together with you in a properly gothic chamber, if with a... questionable owner. I do apologise if I've made tis awkward".

    You then spoke up to her, "Oh no, y-you haven't, there's no need to be sorry. I'm totally fine!" you smiled, "Believe me, I wasn't feeling pressured at all".

    Colette smiled back with you, and said "Well, we can certainly have our fun tonight, but perhaps it would be best if we arranged a proper date, would not this Sunday but the next, the 5th of June I believe, suit you fine?"

    [x] "Yep, oh boy I can do June 5"
    [ ] "A date sounds great, but would a different day be alright?"
    [ ] "Er, ah, is it okay if we just keep it casual and stuff?"
    [x] "You should know what you're getting into first Colette..." (Storyteller write-in re: Azuma)
    [ ] Write-in.

    - The Moon has Journeyed to Rank 6! -
    "I mean, I've known for ages that you have no trust in Azuma, or any other All-Ace, but well, it gets even worse..." you had to say, as you showed her the photo evidence from his private room, the voodoo dolls and the torn pictures.

    You were somewhat disheartened when the first thing Colette did on seeing the photos was chuckle, her saying "Did Azuma honestly stitch those dolls himself? He'll need more than that if he is to petition a loa or whatever he thinks he's doing, my research into vodoun has found little basis for said dolls. I'd pity him... were all this aggression, this threat, not pointed directly at you, Honoka," she stopped, her humour having left her expression, "As it is, I'm even more disgusted by him, and I thought I'd already reached the zenith of disgust".

    "Ah, okay. It's just... what I was worried about was," you began again, "I mean normally I'd be happy with June 5, but well, if we do try dating, that'll mean Azuma will likely start coming after you too".

    Colette didn't seem fazed by that at all. "Hah, the All-Aces have already tried, you should know that, Honoka. Even if we'd never met, they'd still target me anyway, as they do anyone who refuses to bow to them. But I will not grant them the authority to ruin our happiness!" she proclaimed, looking right into your eyes, clasping your hands.

    "Um, thanks, I think that's the first time anyone's said anything like that to me," you whispered to her, blushing deeply, but then had to say, "I do feel you're underestimating the All-Aces a bit though, like they could have you expelled, like they did with-"

    "Nightshade? Yes, I heard," Colette finished for you, but then said blankly, "Honoka, I'm a writer, the All-Aces can't ruin my future if it's barely stable as it is. I do have my seamstress talents, yes, but the only fashion stores who'd have me are the underground ones anyway". She then blushed herself, "I do have the habit of living every day like I'm already dead, from my aesthetic I'll admit I'm not exactly subtle about it, heh. What I'm saying is, if Azuma tries to destroy me in the eyes of society, well, I've learned to live outside its gaze already".

    You smiled, as you then said "You know, it's funny. I always thought you were this wise, everything-worked-out sort of person, but I see that's not the full picture. I think I've seen a more headstrong, almost hot-blooded side of you today, Colette. but either way..." you breathed deep before you said these next words, "Oh Colette, I love you".

    The two of you then began making out, though when you took a little break, Colette did have to say "Well, you know, let's wait until our date before making matters official, commitment does require some caution. For tonight though, I'm certainly ready for something more... casual. And of course, I'm due at midnight to make sure Nadezhda goes through with her summoning as promised," she giggled.

    "Oh yeah, that reminds me. Er, I guess we should decide where to go for this date?" you then thought to say.

    [ ] Just a movie or something around Kuchinashi.
    [ ] Over to Otaru, canals are romantic right?
    [ ] Over to Sapporo, head for the Hot Springs.
    [ ] Down to Hakodate, for the view at night.
    [x] Across the Tsugaru Strait to Aomori, possibly visiting 'netherworld gate' Mount Osore.
    [x] You know what, go all out and head all the way down to Tokyo. Might have to leave the night before though.
    [x] Ask Colette where she'd like to go.
    [ ] Write-in.

    A while later, as you lay exhausted on the bed, staring into Colette's eyes, you then became very grateful you'd locked the door to this room as you heard an uncomfortable familiar voice yell out through the floors from downstairs.

    "Tomomi, what the Hell did you do to my room?!" Azuma exclaimed.

    * * *

    You gradually woke up the next morning, in this much plusher bed than you were used to, save maybe that Russia trip, only to turn to your side and see that breakfast had already been prepared for you, not by Shinsuke as was the case on these occasions, but rather Colette.

    "Did you sleep well?" Colette gave a slight grin. She was wearing a simpler if naturally pitch-black gown, along with black opera gloves and a white boa, "Oh these? I was allowed to rummage a little through Madame Rurina's wardrobe, and was fortunate that this was in my size," she giggled, though also noticed her twintails were gone.

    "Ah, my dirty little secret, but one I believe you've earned the right to know. I've unfortunately had struggles growing my hair out as long as I'd like, so I result to using clip-on extensions, there being no official school rule against them at Hanataba," she went over.

    "Hey, um, just to let you know, you look no less feminine with your natural short hair," you were quick to point out, "And like, I'd think extensions would probably be easier to maintain than actual long hair".

    Colette's darkly glam image was somewhat contrasted by the heavy bags around her eyes, "Ah yes, I didn't get much sleep last night. On top of me having to be up at midnight for Nadezhda's summons, you Honoka, I must say, also have the habit tossing and turning, I had to keep alert so you wouldn't accidentally hog the covers as we shared this bed," she explained.

    "Oh right, yeah, my roommate says they can hear that a room over," you had to admit, "Er, so how did that summoning thing go?"

    "Terribly, if you must ask," Colette was blunt, "I do credit Nadezhda for at least attempting it, but the ritual was a total failure. Then again, I suppose Nadezhda did have something of an uphill battle, with her Russian accent having difficulty enunciating Latin properly, so perhaps I ought to have 'cut her some slack'. Regardless, I'll be fine, I'm used to staying up late and daysleeping.

    Anyway, since Shinsuke was rather busy this morning with all the extra guests, I offered to do the polite thing and make you breakfast myself," she then said, handing the tray to you, "I'm no professional cook, but along with this Earl Grey, I was able to add a more personal touch to your ramen by accessing the Sakurazukas' squid ink reserves".

    By 'personal touch' Colette seemed to mean putting in so much squid ink that the bowl had turned completely black, save for some eggs that she'd decorated to look like eyeballs. "Um, thanks," was all you said, "Er, guess this means I owe you breakfast for next time, huh?"

    Colette then had to laugh and say "If you would be so kind. Ah, Honoka, speaking of that summoning. At the time I forgot to change out of the, er, more private uniform I'd put on for you, so when I met Nadezhda on the roof at midnight, I at first had no idea why she was staring. Certainly clarified why I felt so frigid up there. Well, could have been worse, at least Azuma wasn't prying around at that hour".

    "Thy Knight pledges Love to thee, Maiden Fair
    Thou hast embarked on a Romance with Þe Moon Arcana"

    * * *

    Your morning which had started on a light note suddenly hit a wall as, once you'd gotten dressed and ready, you ran into Azuma in the hallway.

    "Hmm, well Honoka, does my sister's brand of humour amuse you?" Azuma muttered out, crossing his arms, "On top of how late I ended up getting back, our household also had to put up with Melissa constantly calling us over where Nadezhda had gotten to".

    You hesitated, worried you were talking to a powder keg, but you then had to say, "Oh lighten up, Azuma. You were born into more wealth than I can imagine, and you're the most popular boy, the most popular student even, at school. I think you can take a prank".

    Azuma just hissed at that, but then went on to say, "Honestly it would be far less of a headache for us if Tomomi were to simply move out, perhaps even marry someone so she wouldn't legally be called a 'Sakurazuka' anymore. After all, she's never once displayed care for upholding the legacy behind our family name".

    Because you've given her no reason to, you had to think, but you boiled it down to, "Look, Azuma, people aren't your dolls to play with, or roles to direct. If Tomomi just wants to be herself, she's got more than the right. Hell, you're not even her older brother".

    "Actually Honoka, I have more than enough cosmological proof to show that people are 'mine to direct'. That's what the Gameboard exists to show after all, to simplify its workings a little," a grinning Azuma came back with, before sighing and saying, "Though even calling people 'roles to direct' may be too generous, for I've come across fictional characters livelier and more complex than some flesh-and-blood humans I could name".

    "What the-? Look, who do you think are the people who make those fictional characters seem so 'lively and complex', I mean do you think they just materialise out of thin air?" you straight up told him, "Come on, you're into acting and scripting, that should've been the first thing you learned".

    At first, you could feel Azuma seething at those words... but then he burst out laughing and said, "Oh really, Honoka? Fine talk for someone who's never set foot in a theatre. Well, if your tempestuous self suddenly does have something to prove, then you can come straight on down to Drama Club and display all your theatrical 'insight'. We are open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, you must know".

    The two of you were about to part ways, but you couldn't help but say one last thing to him, "Oh, by the way, Azuma. I'm taken".

    He chose not to even respond to that, and to be honest, you didn't want to hear his response to that.

    * * *

    Well, if one bad thing had definitely come out of this trip, it was that Shinsuke would likely be stuck cleaning up for weeks, when his specialty was cooking too.

    Out in the front garden, Tomomi was put in the uncomfortable position of having to say goodbye to the seven if you she'd gathered here. "Er, I'm not much for like formal speeches and stuff," she shrugged, "But I guess I wouldn't mind having you people over more often, especially since my little brother's reaction was just as I'd predicted," she had to chuckle.

    "Hey, you know you lied to me, right?!" Nadezhda had to speak up, "About like the Occult Club being the coolest hangout in school! Melissa was like, constantly laughing at me over the phone, so now she's definitely going to think I'm a complete and total loser!" Reina was certainly paying attention to Nadezhda, yet couldn't bring herself to say anything.

    "Sakurazuka Tomomi wasn't wrong then," Hitoshi then had to say, "Occult Club is the coolest in school, well, to us it is!" Colette, back fully in her normal outfit with tails, couldn't help but smile at that.

    "Like, seriously? I mean, what cool kids have ever spent all their time doing demon summoning and whatever?!" Nadezhda kept going.

    "I believe you'll find that, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Hellfire Clubs in Britain also formed the uppermost ranks of culture," Colette had to state.

    "Yeah, well, this isn't Britain!" was all Nadezhda could think to say anymore.

    Once you got back to town, you'd still have more than enough time to finally venture into Rin's Empire again. However, you knew from the last time you were here that thee place meant business, so that raised the question of who to bring along.

    [ ] Might as well ask Azuma since you're here, he was closest to Rin, and you doubt he'll be able to make a pass at you with hordes of Shadows coming your way.
    [x] You are Kikuko's Jack now, like it or not, and she's probably the most skilled combatant at school, so she makes the most sense.
    [ ] Melissa's expressed her frustrations with Rin to you before, and using her as a meatshield may be a good way to get back at her for her 'hilarious' antics.
    [ ] Himawari no longer has an Empire, but she'd still have a Persona, and you'll be sneaking in either way.
    [ ] The place sounds dangerous enough that perhaps you should gather all the Aces.
    - [ ] Could even bring Himawari along while you're at it.
    - [ ] Just stick to the remaining three.
    [ ] Dangerous as it is, you feel this is something you should tackle alone. Would be nice to explore the Gameboard without the Aces complicating things too.
    [ ] You can't help but think, Popo never mentioned anyone else, but the All-Aces and you can't be the only Persona users around, right?
    [ ] Write-in.

  20. #40
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XL. Mary, Queen of Scots

    Having confirmed with Colette your date destination in June, with her telling you that your vague idea sounded just fine to her, the Occult Club, Melissa's follower, Melissa's former follower, and you, all hopped back on the zig-zagging train to Kuchinashi. Your fare had been paid courtesy of Tomomi, what with Shinsuke being... occupied, though this caused some grumbling from Nadezhda about her taking 'charity'.

    The first thing you did once you got reception again was phone up Na-rae to phone up Kikuko, with you eventually telling your Ace, "Hey, it's your Jack here. Your other one. Look, I think investigating Rin's former Empire is something we should be seriously getting around to by now".

    "Why? Given how long Rokudo's been dead, I fail to see what concern she should be any more for us," Kikuko perhaps predictably came back with, "Besides, what would be the purpose of sneaking in on Sunday when she cannot be made alert to us anyway?"

    "Hey, you wanna expand your Empire, isn't that the point of this whole thing? Plus, the Shadows there are insanely strong, like Eitaro, Azuma, and me couldn't even beat the first one we thought, so don't you think they should be neutralised or something?" you tried to convince her.

    "Hmm, alright, I'll go along with you, I suppose as your Ace it is my duty to, but on one condition," Kikuko then said, "That we also take this time to scout out Melissa's Empire, as I said was my next move".

    "You honestly want to tackle two Empires in one day?!" you gasped, your eyes then moving left to right to make sure no one else on the train had heard, "Alright, fine. In fact, we'll tackle Melissa's first if you want, her place'll be probably the easier, especially since I kinda know the area a little, so it can work as a warm-up".

    "Glad you see reason. Over and out," Kikuko concluded then hung up.

    That whole exchange made you groan. As you sat back down, to complicate thingsfurther, Reina then sided up to you and just had to ask, "Er, so Honoka, do you... really like Colette more than me?"

    Your already irritated self thought, What kinda question is that? However, you instead more calmly told Reina "I mean yeah, I like Colette a whole lot, but your question last night kinda put me on the spot a little. I don't really think how much you like someone can just be quantified like that," you said somewhat hypocritically, "And look, Reina..."

    You breathed deeply in and put before saying, "For you, the important thing shouldn't be whether or not I like you, it should be whether you like you. I mean, Melissa's already dumped you, and both Colette and me are kinda treading on thin ice at school. And for example, say I randomly got hit by a car tomorrow and died... okay, maybe a bit too dramatic an example, but my point is, I'd be gone, but you'd still be here with you".

    "No, I think I get it," Reina muttered, her face tensing, "You're saying I can't ultimately put my happiness in anyone's hands, right?"

    "What? Er, more like nobody owns your happiness, or at least nobody should, except you," you then said, "Reina, I like you a lot, but even if for some out-there reason I said I hated you, that still wouldn't make you a bad person. I know bad people, Reina, hell, you do too, and you're not one of them".

    After that Reina didn't say anything, but instead the two of you embraced each other tight.

    "Hey, after this, you wanna go get ice-cream or something?" you then said to her, thinking it wasn't like Kikuko had specified a time.

    "You know it!" Reina chirped up.

    * * *

    Later that day, you then headed onto the Gameboard with Kikuko, first to Melissa's Empire as you'd agreed. However, complications automatically arose as you found the giant revolving door that was the entrance to Melissa's mall chain was at the moment sealed shut.

    "Well, if you are sneaking into a castle, you wouldn't just do so through the front door," Kikuko then said, as she eyed any other way to get in, "Hmm, how about over there?"

    "Oh, guess that'd be the entrance to the carpark," you figured, only to see an iron grating covering it, "Alright, I think I've got this. Gretchen," you called out, using her lightning from above to magnetise and lift up the modern portcullis.
    "Finally prepared some electricity I see?" Kikuko had to rub your previous oversight in. You tried not to say anything and headed down.

    With a slash of Kikuko's blade breaking the striped barrier in two, you were now in the underground parking garage. While all the glittering, streamlined cars were in surprisingly mint condition, by contrast the rest of this area was grey, pillared place, lights flickering on and off, mostly off, that seemed to stretch on forever. From what you'd seen of Gameboard architecture actually, you wouldn't be surprised if this car park looped around in on itself.

    However, you did finally make out an elevator in this distance, which hopefully would be easier to open than the front door. Kikuko however didn't look so relieved, "This place seems all too unguarded, and I doubt Melissa thought a simple metal gate would be enough to deter intruders... though perhaps I overestimate her".

    You didn't have to wait long to find out what her security system here was though, as what at first looked like just another car suddenly roared to life, giant fangs and a long, forked tongue emerging from beneath its bonnet, wheels already revving. It sped at right you, even crashing through a pillar to do so, with only your quick thinking telling you to magnetise one of the other cars and hurl it at this smoke-spewing Shadow.

    Having a whole other car smash into it sent this monster spinning, with you switching to PITT to learn this demonic Shadow car was called 'Chris' for short, resisting Gun and Curse.

    You then switched all the way back to Theodora to start casting Sukunda on it, trying to take away its most apparent attribute. Kikuko meanwhile noted the demon car had left quite a few puddles of petrol spilled out on the ground, so she immediately looked over to you and said, "Once that thing's slow enough, run at full speed to that elevator. Tsuruhime may resist what I have planned, but I'm not sure your current Persona will".

    Seeing the oil along the ground for yourself, you simply said, "Oh, right then". Switching to casting Sukukaja on yourself, you tried dashing straight to the elevator, the door opening... and then you seeing that there was only an empty shaft inside, with no button to call down an elevator for you.

    As Kikuko enacted her plan by creating a massive, enhanced firestorm, wreathing the car in flames, she then came over to you only to see the lack of anything in the lift herself. That car still persistently driving towards you through the fire, you then switched to Prospero, grabbed Kikuko's hand, then whipped up a Magarula to slow your fall in the elevator shaft to a manageable place, this department store seeming to go further down than it did up for some reason.

    While that gale was strong enough to slow the descent of the two of you, when Chris sped right into the shaft, it instead ended up jammed in there, still going yet stuck endlessly revving. Though it looked like it'd been trapped, its poisonous exhaust kept drifting downwards, not helped by the gale spell. This forced you and Kikuko to enter the nearest open door before you could end up surrounded by smog.

    You appeared to have emerged in the mall proper by now, with no idea how far down to where, but you looked to be right next to the food court. And er, it was some food court, given that if you fell off the sides you plummet into a giant deep fat fryer, with donuts and fries briefly bobbing to the surface your only way across it.

    Alternatively, you could enter a nearby café chain... and try to jump across marshmallows and plough through whipped cream, all to get across a lake of hot coffee.

    "Hah, excess typical of Melissa, I would never settle for-" Kikuko began, before you had to pull her back, as a giant sushi roll came, well, rolling right past her, the healthier options around here being no less dangerous.

    You then looked down into the pools of coffee, probably the healthier of the two options, and said "Alright, I've got Octobriana to block out the heat. Hey Kikuko, how long can you hold your breath?"

    "...A while. Why do you ask?" she inquired.

    "Just remember, if this wrecks your clothes, this place has heaps of fashion outlets," you told her, before switching to Octobriana, taking Kikuko's hand, then diving straight into the hot coffee.

    You were then rewarded for your exploration when, reaching the bottom of this enormous paper cup, you dented it with your tonfas before Kikuko sliced the paper open. The entire coffee cup began draining out, with you both swimming through the hole before it could be plugged up with marshmallows. Riding along the caffeine stream, you then ended up in a fashion venue which the liquid then flooded.

    That quick change of clothes you promised wasn't doable here, given all the outfits at least on this floor had been drenched. Furthermore, Tsuruhime only resisting Fire left Kikuko still clearly overheated, just not entirely singed. "This is why I stick with green tea," she panted.

    Nevertheless, you had some cause for celebration. "Okay, we've wrecked what's essentially Melissa's armoury, so I'd say that's a mission accomplished. Although, she once told me she has a Shadow named Arachne make most of her gear, so maybe we ought to deal with her while we're here?"

    Kikuko then started laughing. "You're getting quite into this, given you didn't intend on coming here. And you're preparing more beforehand too. For the first time, I'm glad you chose to apprentice under me" Kikuko then smiled at you, with you not knowing how to feel about that.

    Arachne however found you before you found her, as a half-spider woman with pale, purplish human skin and a plunging black dress that went on to attach to her spider half, slung her web to pull herself right towards you.

    You gripped your tonfas, sensing another major fight soon after the last one... but instead Arachne just paused, and slowly felt around you with her pincers. Was it that you'd been with Melissa before that made her consider if you were an ally, or was it... something else?

    "You're just going to stand there?" Kikuko snapped, drawing her blade, Arachne giving multiple glares back at her with her sets of red eyes.

    "Look, she, this Shadow, doesn't appear to be attacking. Maybe we should, y'know, just leave her be if that's the case?" you then changed your tune.

    "But she's Melissa's armour supplier, you said so yourself," Kikuko came back with.

    "Yeah, well, shouldn't we have our strength for Rin's Empire. I mean, even you agreed that'd be the bigger hurdle."

    Kikuko then slowly sheathed her sword. "What has come over you? But very well, I supposed we have delayed Melissa's advance enough," she muttered "You have Escape Route on you?"

    * * *

    <<BGM: Smashing Pumpkins - Tonight, Tonight (Strings Alone Mix)>>

    Too right you needed to save your strength for Rin's Empire. Forget the Shadows here, even getting used to and moving around in the little to no gravity was proving difficult enough.
    Some good news though was that, true to Lauryn's word, that Heimdall Shadow from way back let you pass freely upon seeing you. This provided little comfort though when a swarm of meteors zoomed right into you, and wind spells not working against them, you had to quickly call forth Bastet to make her claw her way through them.

    Kikuko though was having better luck, using Tsuruhime's flames and gunshots to orient herself in here. You tried switching to Octobriana to do the same, and eventually reached the end of the asteroid field where there seemed to be a large cannon of some sort stationed there, its design resembling something out of the 19th century. This strange mechanism also appeared to be the only way to move forward in this Empire.

    And move forward you'd have to, seeing as there was a giant serpent Shadow coming right your way, the monster swallowing entire asteroids as it approached. You and Kikuko raced to entire the chamber of this 'space gun' contraption, her igniting the thing, as it then fired you off in some 'space bullet' shell into the vast blackness.

    When the shell split and you were both once again floating in the cosmos, you then felt yourself land on... what looked to be a giant balloon, with Octobriana keeping its heat from burning you.

    You then looked up to see a great, ring-like object floating around you, which when you looked closer, resembled if someone had taken a turn-of-the-century ocean liner and used zero gravity to curve it so that its prow touched it stern. You guessed this big hot air balloon was acting as its centre of gravity.

    You couldn't just jump off this balloon, as walking off its 'edge' only left you standing upright on its sides. However, you then spied the ship's anchor adrift in the nothing, and pointing it out to Kikuko, you then leapt up, pulled it over with Gretchen's lightning, and grabbed onto its chain before you could fall back upwards onto the sizzling hot balloon.

    You two gradually pulled your way along the anchor chain until you reached the ring-shaped star ocean liner, coming in through an airlock. Personally you were just relieved to be in a place with regular gravity again. Making your way through the ship's corridors, you eventually came across an elegant ballroom, its glass roof letting a river of stars shine down, with masquerading aristocrats dancing in pairs. Closer inspection of these aristocrats showed that all of them were life-sized clockwork dolls.

    "Psst, hey kid," came the raspy voice of the only non-automaton you'd found in here, belonging to a shady broker who beneath his trench coat looked like a living silhouette, "Trade you a Demon for a Demon- oh wait, forgot you call them 'Personae' around these parts".

    Kikuko just glared at him, "Even if I had a Wild Card, I would still refuse any offer a cretin like this made".

    "Hey, I wasn't asking you, lady," the shady broker hissed, before he showed you a deck of tarot cards, "C'mon, whaddya say?"

    [ ] Rebirth Artemis, who reflects everything Magical... and is weak to everything Physical.
    [ ] Hermit Tsuchinoko, an utility demon without a single attacking spell
    [ ] Fortune Maximon, who has maximum Luck... and minimum every other Stat.
    [ ] Devil Black Frost, a powerful demon with 'zero loyalty'.
    [x] Decline.
    [ ] If accepting, write in a Persona to trade for each.
    (Current Personae: Fool Theodora, Magician Prospero, Magician Orlando, Priestess Bastet, Justice Gretchen, Fortune Hideyoshi, Devil Anastasia, Tower PITT, Star Octobriana, Moon Carmilla, Moon Mayasura, Judgment Ammut)

    That encounter over with, you headed out onto the ballroom where you saw five very familiar-looking automata, each of them looking near identical to Richard III, Tsuruhime, Octavian, Anastasia, and Qin Shi Huang, and the sixth automata they were talking to certainly wasn't Anjou, let alone Theodora.

    Who you instead saw was a red-haired figure in a black gown, her most striking feature being an executioner's axe stuck in her neck. She had a large gold lion-embossed coin in front of her as a shield, two lances jutting up out of her back, and she had two unicorns standing either side of her, each of her arms transitioning into one of their upraised legs.

    "Mary Queen of Scots..." Kikuko stated in a hushed tone.

    You could hear an automated voice coming out of this Mary's mouth, a voice which said "What does killing a student's
    Shadow, destroying their mind, no, destroying their identity achieve? Maybe the Gameboard does say we are Kings and Queens, but not Gods and Goddesses!

    "Back in the Ancient World, from what I know of History, there used to be barely any difference between those two," the clockwork Shi Huangdi responded to her.

    "In this country of ours, you could say there still is no difference..." a trembling Kikuko recited.

    "In this country of ours, you could say there still is no difference..." the Tsuruhime automaton said right on cue.

    "-Mary Queen of Scots-, even if we are just rulers, does not a ruler have the right to execute? -Princes in the Tower- may insist otherwise, but it would seem the Gameboard lacks a 'no death penalty' law," went the Richard III automaton.

    "Azuma didn't call Rin and Poe by their Persona's names!" a tense Kikuko exclaimed, "Not... not back then".

    "And honestly, do you want to just use the Gameboard to play pretty little princess? Or do you want to use this gift to its full potential? 'Destroying one's identity' may be child's play compared to what we are now capable of!" spat out, of course, the Octavian automaton.

    "Stop it! Shut up shut up shut up!" Kikuko completely lost herself, taking her musket and opening fire on the automata, then drawing her sword to hack at any parts of them her gun couldn't finish off. As she then stood over their broken remains, all the other automata in the ballroom kept on dancing like nothing had happened.

    Well, you'd still gotten at least some glimpse of what Lauryn was like as a Persona user...

    - Death has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    Not that the other automata had long to keep on dancing, as you saw through the glass ceiling that the wayward anchor... had just punctured the balloon, which from what you knew about, er, spaceships, meant that when the balloon popped, this whole star ocean liner would explode with it!

    [ ] There has to be an escape pod or something here somewhere.
    [ ] Are there any Shadows aboard this ship? While normally hostile, they usually don't like being blown up either, so maybe you can hitch a lift with one.
    [x] Have Mayasura cast Marakukaja a bunch on you and Kikuko, you'll need it to survive this.
    [ ] Hold on a sec? Were the Aces' automata gathered around... a replica Gameboard? Then, could it possibly work like a Gameboard within a Gameboard?
    [ ] Just cast Escape Route again.
    [ ] Write-in.

    As you had Mayasura basically go 'Shields up' for you and Kikuko, she had to look at you and say "Wait, you're honestly not planning to just withstand an explosion like this?!"

    "Well, my thoughts were we can still breathe in Rin's personal cosmos, somehow, so it's not like we're just gonna be flung out into total nothingness," you tried to explain.

    "Yes, but..." Kikuko growled, "Raku- spells are meant for resisting direct attacks from Shadows, not an explosion of this magnitude. I understand the need to act quickly, but is this your only-"

    She didn't get time to finish that, as the balloon burst, smashed the glass ceiling, and sent the pieces of this ring-ship hurtling off into the void. Whatever was enabling the gravity in here now busted, you and Kikuko where then knocked through the shattered ceiling and further into space. Though with the weight of the black hole in the centre of this Empire, at least you were being pulled gradually closer to where you were trying to get to.

    <<BGM: Siouxsie & the Banshees - Baby Piano Pt. 2>>

    You then saw an escaping Shadow speeding right past you, who looked like a colourful bird-masked knight with eagle wings jutting out of their head, flaming wheels attached to their feet, and a book fastened to one of his arms and what could only be described as a trumpet-musket in the other. After an analysis from PITT told you their name and title was Moon Astolfo, you switched to Octobriana and tried using flame propulsion of your own to follow them.

    This soon led you to landing on a crescent moon. Not merely a moon that had half of it in shadow, but a moon that was literally a giant crescent hanging in the sky. Since you'd landed near the 'top' of it, you could actually see the whole rocky satellite was actually attached to... a string, albeit probably the most durable string ever. You chose not to climb up it, as from what you could see it just kept going up into nowhere, and soon you wouldn't have the chance to anyway.

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