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Thread: Persona: The Beautiful

  1. #41
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLI. The Scourge Jormungandr

    That giant serpentine space-worm from the asteroid belt had shown up again, one of its fins slicing through the string above, and it opening its maw wide open looking to swallow this falling moon whole. Taking a stand against it this time was still impossible, especially as you were now separated from Kikuko. Needing that speed, you were inspired by Astolfo to switch to Orlando, whom with you promptly ran like Hell. As you kept running along this inner curve of this moon, little green aliens who you didn't have time to analyse popping out of it.

    Once again, you found another one of those space guns at the other tip of this moon, inserted right below the surface of that tip. Not knowing what else to do, you slotted yourself into the space gun's barrel, and only then noticed it was already loaded and ready to fire.
    You switched to the Gun-immune Hideyoshi and braced yourself, as you were then fired along with the bullet out into the distance, thankfully just before the star-worm could devour that moon whole.

    You then splashed down into what seemed like a river, a river floating in the middle of space, somehow. You could see little glowing star-stones bobbing along on top of it, so you hoisted your soaked self up into one and looked down to see Kikuko again having done the same... below you, standing upside down at the bottom of the river.

    "Kikuko, you okay? Er, why are you upside-down?" you called down to her.

    She furrowed her brow, "From where I stand, you're the upside-down one", which made you flinch on hearing that.
    "Anyway, some Shadow stopped by me and offered to guide me to you again, looks like he was being truthful" she then said, which made you turn around and see there was indeed another Shadow floating above you, er, below you, whatever, gravity was hard.

    This Shadow had tiny, pearly clouds floating just above him, and hellish flames emerging from his feet. He wore a white toga that glimmered and glistened like the Milky Way, as if it'd been made out of the same substance. He had no less than a twenty-sided die for a head, which may've explained why he was hiding his face behind a book cover, and a laurel wreath on top.
    You had PITT scan him, which told you this Shadow was Fortune Virgil, who resisted both Bless and Curse... but other than that his elemental affinities seemed to be random, though at least weakness to Physical wasn't among them.

    This wasn't the extent of Virgil's surprises, as the Shadow then condensed into the form of...
    "Hotaru?" you exclaimed.

    "Well, I'd still be 'Jack of Pentacles' here," Hotaru's Shadow said, before he waved and dissolved into a haze of velvet blue mist, a tarot card flickering briefly in your hand. This moment so distracted you... that you didn't see this river in the heavens was about to reach a waterfall.

    A bizarre waterfall at that, given that it seemed to swirl inward like a black hole to... somewhere. As you and Kikuko were too late to not get sucked into it, who else but that giant space serpent burst out from within it.

    Luckily, you instead fell on the outside of it, your hands grabbing onto one of its giant fins. Although you had to wonder if being swallowed by it would've been for the luckier, as at least in its innards it wouldn't be able to knock you off back into the void.

    <<BGM: World of Warcraft - Nightsong>>

    "Honoka!" You then heard Kikuko call out to you, her now standing on the other side of this fin, "I've had enough of being chased by this creature, it's past time we stood and fight!"

    "What?" came your first reaction, "You seriously think just us two can take on a Shadow of this, this size?!" Of course, it looked like Kikuko would rather die than retreat or whatever, so you sighed and just called on PITT to analyse this thing.
    "Okay, Judgment Jormungandr, absorbs Nuclear, immune to Ice. Wait, it's specifying the thing's gills?" you read out but then took a step back, realising PITT was only listing the health and power of a single part of this monster.

    "Good enough for me!" Kikuko roared, having Tsuruhime unload a shrapnel volley right into one of Jormungandr's gills, before hacking at them with her sword. You yourself realised you'd need something with AoE attacks what with PITT showing multiple parts to this monster, so you switched to Orlando, had them trumpet out a War Cry to weaken Jormungandr as much as you could, before you then cast Megido.

    Kikuko's and your combined assault did since to get a reaction out of this monster, as it roared and shook the both of you off into the void. Your helpless fall upwards into nothing was prevented though when Astolfo suddenly returned to catch, before helpfully throwing you back onto Jormungandr. Kikuko seemed to get similar support from a dark-skinned star-riding woman Shadow who caught her in a rope and lassoed her back.

    You then returned to attacking that fin of Jormungandr's while Kikuko assaulted its gills, but you soon found that the sheer force of its size was not the only thing this serpent had going for it, as it lifted up some of is scales to spout forth an irradiated poison wave at you. You had to switch to Octobriana to take this toxic deluge, but the force of it still sent hurting hurtling back along the serpent's body, leaving you hurriedly casting fire spells to leap back to where you were.

    Kikuko meanwhile was actually making progress, as she finally sliced this set of gills right open, the resulting eruption from inside its body shot out several chunks of asteroid, and what you figured were also pieces of that moon. As Kikuko jumped between all those, she then hopped in a space cannon that'd emerged from Jormungandr's guts, which she then used to fire itself right towards of the serpent's eyeballs.

    As for you, you approached this ripped-open hole to peer into Jormungandr's insides, which looked like a whole river of radioactive ooze. Breathing deep, you then entered inside this monster with Octobriana's radiation immunity, making your way across the stomach sludge until you climbed aboard a fragment of the exploded star ocean liner. It looked like you'd have to move fast, as a Decarabia parasite or antibody, you didn't stop to check, was gaining on you.

    Using what remained of your SP to propel the ship with Octobriana's fire spells, you rocketed all along Jormungandr's innards until you reached his mouth. Hearing Kikuko hacking and casting at his eyes above, you decided to turn your attention to this thing's tongue. Remembering what you knew about Jormungandr from mythology, you used up all of your SP by having Gretchen shock the tongue with Zionga. That was enough to do the trick, as it then left the serpent howling in pain, you having to hook yourself with your tonfas onto the tongue as he recoiled.

    But your grip was only so strong, as you then found yourself falling upwards... onto what looked like the other side of Jormungandr's other eye. Not having any more magic, you instead opened fire with every single bullet you had onto it, and when you'd run out of ammo, continued to strike at the inside of the eyeball with your tonfas, Bastet's strength and speed supporting you.

    Both its eyes being struck out of their sockets was at long last the final blow to Jormungandr, as his jaws crashed down on a lone, Voyager-esque satellite. You and Kikuko both hopped off onto it as the entirety of Jormungandr gradually dissolved into darkness.

    Entering the airlock of this Bakelite satellite, both you and Kikuko couldn't help but see that each of you was completely covered in eyeball gunk. "The moment we're off the Gameboard, your first task will be to give me the most thorough bath possible" Kikuko shuddered.

    You then saw that this satellite came equipped with an escape pod, even though it otherwise looked unmanned. the pod was positioned at a ringed gas giant, which you guessed was your way further into this Empire, but the door to the pod wouldn't budge. Stepping back, you almost tripped over two prone puppets that had apparently been spat up on the satellite by Jormungandr, one a wooden carving of Mary Queen of Scots again, the other of Virgil.

    "-Virgil-," came the creaky voice of the Mary puppet, "For your services to the Student Council, you've more than earned the title of Jack of Pentacles".

    "Er, thank you -Mary-, but really it was nothing," the wooden Virgil said, "I just was acting like any helpful student would".

    Kikuko then pointed out something else in this satellite, an old-timey screen who static shifted to a sepia new report. "This just in, folks, there's been a murder at Bouquet Academy, a murder I tell you! That dastardly Student Sheriff," it panned to an image of Hotaru, "Has murdered the lovely Council president!" it flashed to show Rin's corpse being carried out in a coffin, "We'll give you the whole story later tonight!" The screen then switched off.

    Kikuko was then quick to declare "So Rin's murderer was none other than Hotaru all along. Plenty of students were quick to blame him after her death, but until now there was no actual evidence to back that up".

    "Hold on, there still might not be," you had to speak up, "I mean, if people enough thought that, this being a cognitive world you know, then that report could just be broadcasting what all those students think happened, not what did".

    "Or maybe it is in fact broadcasting the inner truth that lay concealed" Kikuko shot back with.
    Not that you had much more time to ponder here, as your entire field of view then, out of nowhere, started breaking down into static...

    * * *

    When you came to, you'd appeared straight back in the Velvet Room. "Where's Kikuko?" you blurted out, seeing her nowhere.

    "Not to worry, you'll find her again the moment you return to the physical world. For now though, my attendant has requested an audience with you," Igor said.

    "Thank you, Honoka," Lauryn then said, "With the defeat of Jormungandr, one of the great Scourges that has festered within my Empire is defeated. I cannot thank you enough".

    You sighed, "Yeah, he really took a lot out of us. But ugh, now Kikuko's thinking Hotaru was the one who killed you or something", you seemed hardly reassured.

    "...I find that very unlikely," Lauryn then said, "I cannot think of a single motive for him, and if he was acting out on some dark emotion, I would've spotted it within him sooner. Well, rash impulses aren't unlike Kikuko, so it's something I can see her leaping to".

    "What happened we came across some news report in your Empire, out of nowhere too," you explained, "Which accused Hotaru of being the killer".

    "Hmm, well the Empires didn't spring up from the Aces' minds, they come from everyone's perceptions of them too," Popo then spoke, "So I reckon what 'appened was all those thoughts about Hotaru being the killer got all mixed up in Lauryn's Empire, hence well, that guff you saw".

    "So, Honoka, has delving into my Empire... changed your own perceptions of me any?" Lauryn had to ask, a shiver running through her as she did so.

    "No, not really, mostly I now know that you had to put up with a lot of the same crap I did," you ultimately said, "I did already figure that from what the other All-Aces are like, but only now did I see confirmation of that, what with those clockwork dolls. Also, er, no offence, but Jormungandr kinda got me wondering if you had an undiagnosed tapeworm or something before you died?"

    Lauryn just winced at that, saying "Er, pretty sure the Scourge symbolised something else. Regardless... you've now seen right into my memories, huh?" She then took a step back, before she coughed and continued "Guess I can't help but be embarrassed, even though you did help me out a lot just now".

    You tensed, "Sorry to say this, but even with Jormungandr gone, your Empire does seem to be falling apart. Like, you've got spaceships exploding, the Milky Way or whatever falling into itself, and of course that black hole at the centre's still slowly sucking everything in" you went over.
    "Oh wait, I'm not gonna have to jump into that black hole or something at the end of this, am I?" you suddenly exclaimed.

    "...I think you'll see when you get there," Lauryn cryptically stated, nervous at telling you the answer.

    "So that's a yes, then?" you had to say.

    "Anyway, Miss 'Onoka, your venture into the inky beyond has netted you quite the Personae," Popo then said, "And phwoar, these two are some real big lads, scary lads too I'll add".

    I am Fortune Virgil, the imperial poet," Hotaru's Shadow then manifested, "With I as your guide through the Inferno, you need not leave your fate to the dice alone.Virgil
    [Fortune X]

    Elements: Resist Curse and Bless, all other resistances and weaknesses randomised (except Physical)
    - Strength: |
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: ||||
    - Endurance: |||
    - Agilao, Bufula, Garula, Zionga, Psio
    - Fortune Bonus: Makakaja

    I am Judgment Jormungandr, the serpent encircling worlds," rasped that titanic Scourge, "On the last battleground shall both our sagas conclude.Jormungandr
    [Judgment XX]

    Elements: Null Nuclear and Ice, resists Curse, weak to Electricity
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: ||||
    - Mafreila, Mabufula, Stagnant Air, Poison Breath, Cruel Attack

    [ ] Select Virgil
    [ ] Select Jormungandr
    [ ] Select both
    [ ] Store both
    [x] Fuse both? (Tower Heracles)
    [ ] Write-in

    If selecting:
    [ ] Write-in Persona(e) to exchange

    I am Tower Heracles, god of ancient heroism," bellowed a giant man with a lionskin cloak above a girdle, a quiver of snakes for a feather-stained bow, a bracelet of bull horn and boar tusk, a bronze or brass belt buckle, and a necklace of five dog heads, "You face a trial beyond strength? Hah, intriguing tale, sister.Elements: Null Physical and Bless, resist Electric and Curse, weak to Nuclear and Psy
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: ||||
    Skills: Power Charge, Herculean Strike, Mazionga, Bolt Shot
    - Inherit: Makakaja, Stagnant Air
    - Tower Bonus: Poison Arrow, Tetrakarn

    "I suppose it's not you I should worry about seeing my Empire, but rather Kikuko..." Lauryn then started muttering.

    "Um, yeah, well I only brought her along because, ah, she's my Ace now, so I felt I kinda had to," you then told her, "She kinda went ballistic when we stumbled upon an old conversation you had being replayed, and wrecked a bunch of your clockwork dolls. Er, sorry about that".

    Lauryn simply sighed at that, but she then added, "Yeah, I recall you saying Himawari got expelled... something I have no idea how could ever happen. Still, form your words, she seemed a much better fit for you than Kikuko".

    "Oh yeah, Himawari's expulsion. Guess that had a lot to do with Nightshade," you said, "Still says something when even her 'criminal' side is still the nicest of the surviving Aces".

    "Nightshade?" a confused Lauryn had to ask.

    "Right, er, that may take some explaining," you said, with you now wondering if Nightshade has come about as a result of Himawari processing Rin's death.

    "Either way, you'll be waking up soon, so I'll have to cut this meeting short," Lauryn then said, "But all the same, thank you Honoka, and once you return to my Empire, you should find the way further in opened. That said, you'll want to wait until you head deeper, conserve your energy, as it'll be no smoother sailing past that satellite".

    - Death has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    * * *

    "Nakamura... Nakamura, wake up!" you could hear loud and clear Kikuko shouting at and shaking you.

    "Okay, okay, I'm up!" you said, fortunately just back in the Lounge that same night, and not having woken up in the sick room the next day again.

    Kikuko just nodded at your recovery, but then had to say "Empires remain after death, as one's legacy lives on though they themselves may be gone. We weren't just exploring the shattered fragments of Rin's psyche... those were the scars left on our, the Aces', own minds that we witnessed and fought in. You could've never known Rin, so I have no clue what everything there meant for you".

    You kept quiet on knowing Rin, and instead said "I think I got the gist of it".
    "Oh wait, I've gotta give you a friggin' bath now or something, right?" you then realised.

    "Do not dismiss the godliness of cleanliness, Honoka. We have just been through the legacy of a dead girl made manifest. After coming that close with death, purification is a necessary" Kikuko was swift to state, "I would usually do so beneath a waterfall... but right now, I think an onsen would be easier on you".

    All this talk with Kikuko did remind you of one thing. "Oh yeah Kikuko... I guess you would've prepared that new place I'll be moving to by now, huh?"

    "You guess correct. We'll need an auspicious date for your relocation to happen thought," Kikuko then said, "Hmm, the 1st of June, also being the first of Summer, I feel would be a natural choice".

    "That's this Wednesday, huh?" you reacted, which on top of the move, also got you thinking about what to prioritise next week:

    [ ] Drama Club, you should stand up to Azuma.
    [ ] Tea Ceremony Club, you'll be seeing a lot of Kikuko anyway.
    [ ] Class Rep duties.
    [x] Rehearsing for Nightshade.
    [ ] Keeping on with Cricket Club.
    [ ] Studying with friends.
    [ ] Seeing what's with Computer Club.
    [ ] Doing your part-time job at the tabletop store.
    [ ] Taking that part-time job at the sweets shop.
    [ ] Maybe doing that modelling thing.
    [ ] Training yourself physically.
    [ ] Traversing the Gameboard without needing to sneak in.
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<BGM: Silent Hill 2 - Theme of Laura (reprise)>>

    "One more thing, before we leave," Kikuko then said, "Have you heard the name Yoneyama Ikue anywhere around?"

    You nearly froze, but then said, "Er, kinda. Heard she's a skier who was offered a position as All-Ace, or at least a Jack, but turned it down".

    "Good, you have been keeping alert of the goings-on at our school," Kikuko nodded, before she explained, "We assumed that pretend European had been pushed into disgrace and obscurity after refusing us, but I've heard mentions of her name increasing around school since the Sports Festival.
    As my Jack, I am giving you the responsibility of eliminating her Shadow," Kikuko proclaimed, sending a chill through the air, "Hermit Skadi, that is its name, a former subject of Eitaro's Empire now claimed by me. I will give you to the end of June to execute her Shadow, that should be generous enough, take any longer and I shall have to step in".

    Sheesh. Well, best case scenario is I'll have a new Persona waiting for me, out of this, you glumly thought, only saying, "Fine, I'll see to her".

    "Also, as Ikue now has the shame of being on the cricket team, that reminds me. I've also heard their batter is a silver-haired girl. If you will, find out more about her and execute her Shadow too," Kikuko said to your amusement.

    Well, that was something of a ray of sunshine, learning your disguise had worked. "Yep, alright then, I can totally kick her loser arse," you replied, hiding your internal laughter.

    "Do not mock me," Kikuko stated, before you two left.

    * * *

    Talking with Megumi in your flat that morning over instant coffee, one of these last days it'd be 'your' flat, you decided to bring up the good news to them first.

    "Hey, Gumi, you know that whole 'get a date' thing we were talking about?" you began with, as you flicked through your phone until you found a picture of you with Colette, "Well, here she is! Her pen name's Colette Claudius, we've known each other a while but we've only just started dating".

    "Oh, I remember her! That goth girl from when we went to see Nightshade," Megumi smiled in recognition, "I mean, after all this Ace stuff and your low Sports Fest turn-out, it's good to hear something's finally going right in your world".
    "We're gonna have quite the start to our relationship too, our plan's to try and get all the way down to Tokyo for the day, probably via a train and, ugh, plane combo," you went on.

    "Wow. Normally I'd make a crack about rent, but well, you're being 'relocated' so I guess that's no longer an issue for you," Megumi's expression shifted to being downcast.

    "Yeah, about that," you then had to address, "Kikuko hasn't said anything about me forking over money for my new place, but I definitely know the All-Aces demand payment in, er, other ways," you gulped. "Oh, guess I should bring this up. First of June, that's when I'll be leaving".

    At first, Megumi only nodded, but then said "At least you don't have to worry about me being lonely here. Ryouko was having troubles at her place too, you can tell by the extra jobs she was working, so we've arranged for her to move in here. I mean, I suppose a high-schooler and a college student sharing a place always looked a little weird".

    "Hey c'mon, don't say that," you told them, "And like you said, I know where you like to hang out, so this is hardly the end for us".

    "And on the bright side, I also shouldn't have to have to worry about those Aces snooping around here anymore," Megumi leaned back and grinned, "So um, what's Colette like? What makes you totally into her?"

    You bit your lip, "Wow, that's quite the question. Hmm, I suppose it's..."

    [x] -How she exudes confidence, even when the world should've otherwise beat her down".
    [ ] -How she noticed I was going through grief and was there for me, at a time when most students would've said nothing."
    [ ] -That, while others look up to me or I look up to them, Colette and I see each other as equals."
    [ ] -Okay, to be shallow, I love how her aesthetic sense, how she looks and what she's into"
    [ ] -Um, does it have to be any one specific thing? Can't you just like someone?"
    [ ] Write-in.

    Megumi didn't say a word, but still smiled along.

  2. #42
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLII. Abyssa and the Lady Devils

    "Seriously, we have a Cricket Team?"

    "-God, Mid-Term results are in. Please, be gentle."
    "That was, er, an odd cheer routine at the Sports Festival-"
    "-Wait a sec, a Jack scored higher than an Ace?"

    Entering school again to check the publicly posted exam results, you indeed saw that you'd landed in the top 200, more than above-average given the Hanataba student population of around seven-hundred, and probably the highest you'd ever scored in one of these exams. Azuma and Kikuko had predictably scored leagues ahead of you, but you did see you were the highest-scoring Jack, just ahead of Shinsuke... and even ahead of Melissa, who'd come in at about 300th, and this was after you'd intervened from her changing her score.

    "No way!" one of the tanned blonde kids here exclaimed, "Melissa was outscored by Honoka?"

    "Honoka? Oh, I know her, that redhead who hangs out with the All-Aces," another student near you said.

    "Well, then she's gotta be an Ace herself! Cause like, what else could she be?" was a comment you'd particularly picked up on.

    You felt the need to step in. "Ah, you guys are all talking about me, right? Yeah, I'm Nakamura Honoka... and no, I'm not an All-Ace," In more ways than one, "Just some Jack," you clarified, smiling and shrugging.

    "Come on, Honoka, no need to be modest," Suzako then came up and smiled at you, "You did pretty good, if not great. But hey, Yuuya and I both got past the halfway mark, so even if we could've scored higher, we're proud of that".

    "Okay, what the Hell is everyone talking about, that Honoka beat me or something?" Melissa was quick to storm in after hearing all the hubbub.

    "Ah, er, we were just talking about test scores," you were quick to explain.

    "Ugh, I need a sec to process this. Okay, so Honoka here did better academically than me... and people are liking her for it?" Melissa said, having to clutch her head.

    "Well, yeah, people respect you for scoring well on tests," Yuya entered and told her, "Kinda thought that'd be obvious".

    Trying to move on and not make more of a scene of yourself, you were soon thwarted in that as a crowd of students started following you, whispering their impressions of you all the while.
    "You're a Class Rep too?"
    "That red hair of yours is really striking!"

    You felt so relieved once you were in class away from that crowd.

    * * *

    Hurrying out at the end of that school day, the only thing on your mind right now was finally getting around to meeting up with Nightshade again.
    Calling her up on your phone, you nervously began with "Ah, hey there Himawari! Hey look, I'm sorry, I've really been meaning to catch up with you, see how, y'know, you've been getting along..."

    "Oh Honoka, hi there! And please darling, you can just call me 'Nightshade' now, that's who I've been 24/7 since all that shit went down," you heard the voice of indeed her as Nightshade, "You're still up for rehearsal though, right? Your bass thumping hasn't gotten rusty on me since, has it?"

    "Yeah, 'course I'm up for practice," you told her, "But really, you haven't been 'Himawari' at all since? Like, wouldn't that make stuff like conversation, um, difficult?"

    "I don't know what you're talking about, last I checked it still said 'Aoyagi Himawari' on my birth certificate, I haven't jumped bodies or anything," she said with a wink, but then got more direct, "I get it, what you mean is whether I've acted like a spineless little good girl like school made me do? Hell no, 'cause now the world has to accept me for who I am, and they can't do a thing about it!
    Like, yeah okay, objectively my life's not looking good right now," she did have to admit, "But personally, I've been feeling great since having to ditch that school!"

    As that sank in for you, the two of you then agreed to meet up back at the garage beneath your apartment block... which was another thing you'd have to talk with her about.

    Entering your old rehearsal space and setting up your bass and amp, Nightshade then approached, with you seeing for yourself that her vibrant neon twintails weren't a wig anymore, and said to you, "Prompt as always, Honoka. Colette says she'll be arriving soon, but uh, for Ryouko..." she then bit her lip, "Yeah, um, I've had to let her go".

    "Huh, whaddya mean?" you then shot up.

    "Hey, nothing against her, like she was one of the few people to stick up for me that day, save me from prison," Nightshade began, but sighed, "It's just, her rep's gonna be in the gutter if people hear she's been hanging out with an expelled girl, so I can't drag her through all that just for my own sake. I tried to warn Colette of that, but heh, she said she couldn't care less. Well, least I've still got my rhythm section, eh?"

    "Yeah, I guess," you murmured, "Well, I suppose I should fill you in on all the crap that's been going down at school, right?"

    Nightshade tilted her head at you, then folded her arms and crossed her legs. "Ugh, I'd rather not be reminded of that dump... but I suppose you're gonna tell me anyway, huh?"

    "Heh, I'll keep it short. The main thing is that I was made to choose another Ace, and er, I settled on Kikuko, but only because of who the alternatives were" you put it simply.

    Nightshade couldn't help but snarl. "Whatever, like, if you're anyone's Jack you're mine, no matter what anyone says," she put it bluntly.

    "But anyway, I should really be asking how you've been going," you said to her, "I mean, it can't be easy be expelled and all. Part-time jobs have to be a problem too, since well, er, no offence but-"

    "-Most places won't accept employees with dyed hair, that what you were gonna say?" Nightshade filled in for you, before she chortled and said, "Believe me, there's still opportunities if you know where to look".

    "Oh God, don't tell me you're a dealer," you said on impulse.

    Nightshade just laughed at you and said, "What? Oh God no, it's not drugs or anything," before she came clean, "I've been doing sex work, dominatrix stuff and that, like I am of legal age after all. It's probably the highest paying thing for someone like me, and I mostly stick to online stuff too, if you're like super-worried. Who knows, maybe I can graduate to hostess if I work hard enough or some shit".

    "Right, I can see," you just mumbled.

    "Ah hello, I hope you can forgive me for being fashionably late," Colette then said as she arrived, "Oh Nightshade, Honoka and I were planning to make the long trip down to Tokyo this weekend, I do hope that doesn't conflict with your schedule".

    "Hey, that fits perfectly!" Nightshade then grinned, "Like, I've already booked us in for a show in Hakodate on Saturday, don't worry, it's at a fancier venue than the one in Susukino, so we could squeeze the two in together".

    "Err, think that'll be a bit little tight, but... okay," you muttered, hardly thrilled at being booked to perform somewhere before you'd even gotten back to rehearsing, "But er, Nightshade, there's um, something about me and Colette you should know..."

    As you became lost on how to break the news, Colette stepped in for you and said, "Well, I first thought to keep this a secret, given they say, like work, that romance should be kept out of bands... but I admit it'd be simpler to be open about this. Honoka and I," she beamed and threw her arm around your shoulder, "Are now dating! True, only since yesterday, but that Tokyo trip is to be our first real date".

    Nightshade was taken aback, but then said, "Oh, er, yeah, that's cool. And like, y'know, between my lead singer duties and, er, other stuff, I'm gonna be drowning in genitalia anyway. But hey, Honoka, the two of us can still be like... friends with benefits, can't we?"

    You blushed bright red as she said that. You looked to Colette expecting her to be fuming, but instead your new girlfriend just looked amused, stifling a giggle.
    "Er, sure, if you insist," you sighed, before you added unenthusiastically, "Maybe a threesome too, who the hell knows?" Nightshade still took that better than you were worried she would...

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 6! -

    "Great!" Nightshade smiled, as she hugged the two of you. She then said, "Uh yeah, so I did tell Colette that we can't have Ryouko around anymore, which is a total shame. Yeah, she had zero guitar skills, but that's just how I liked it, ya know? Anyway, um, does mean we're gonna have to get a new guitarist quick..."

    "More like a new drummer," Colette interjected, "If there's another instrument open, I'm taking it".

    [ ] Colette can have guitar, and you'll just get a drum machine.
    [ ] You'll do guitar, Colette can have bass, and a drum machine will do for now.
    [ ] If Nightshade likes zero skills, can't she just take guitar?
    [ ] Teach Nightshade bass, shouldn't take long, and you'll do guitar.
    [ ] Doesn't Megumi play music or something?
    - [ ] Get them on guitar.
    - [ ] Get them on drums.
    - [ ] Get them on keyboards even.
    [ ] Er, Reina's not doing much, and she likes music and hanging around Colette:
    - [ ] Write in instrument.
    [x] The Sakurazuka family did say Tomomi needed to get involved in society more:
    - [x] Write-in instrument: Tomomi on drums and Colette on guitar
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Oh, and I guess my band should have a name," Nightshade then said, "I mean, it's been weird just referring to you as the 'backing band', so hmm, how about Nightshade and the-"

    [ ] Arcanettes.
    [ ] Arcanoids.
    [ ] Street Demons.
    [ ] Flowers of Brimstone.
    [ ] Chain Girls.
    [x] Lady Devils.
    [ ] Apocalettes.
    [ ] Goddess Reincarnation.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Wait, Azuma's sister?" Nightshade had to flinch.

    "Oh come on, you've met Tomomi before, you should know she's nothing like him" you told her, then had to mutter, "She can keep to herself for starters".

    "Indeed, we had a slumber party together, with... others. My point is, I can confirm these two apples fell on different sides of the tree" Colette added on.

    "Hmm, okay, if you say so," Nightshade shrugged, "Your judgments are the most trustworthy I know. I just don't want goddamn Azuma of all people snooping in on our rehearsals", she crossed her arms.

    "Oh, believe me, if Tomomi's with us, then Azuma's gonna be too disgusted to even look our way," you had to smile, before you then brought the other thing up.
    "By the way, Nightshade, er..." you slowly began, "Since I'm Kikuko's Jack now, that means she wants me to move in under her roof".

    "Ugh, yeah, I figured," Nightshade spat out, "Reason I didn't offer you the same is that, well, I seriously didn't want to put you through introducing you to my parents" she shuddered.

    Colette seethed upon hearing that, "The Aces just have to keep on confirm all my worst suspicions about them, don't they? On top of that, I suppose this means we'll have to relocate our rehearsal space".

    "The Sakurazuka Mansion's got more than enough room, but eh, I don't think Tomomi's folks will be the easiest to convince" you said, "Little out of the way too".

    "Well this garage wasn't the only option we had back when," Colette brought up, "The abandoned temple, the town hall, the record store, the space behind the game store, these were all options we considered".

    "Game store's out. If we're trying not to drag Ryouko into this, we can't drag in Hotaru" you had to say.

    "Wait, the Student Council President works at a gaming store?" Nightshade couldn't help but give a devilish grin, "Wow, I always took the guy for a spineless wimp, and I guess he still is, but I wasn't expecting that. Gotta compliment him on even having space for a part-time job, what with all the Student Council shit.
    But yeah, anyway, where to rehearse?"

    [x] The abandoned temple.
    [ ] The record store.
    [ ] The town band hall.
    [ ] The Sakurazuka manor.
    [ ] See if that local bar, Darkest Desires or whatever, makes room for rehearsals too.
    [ ] Your parents are pretty open, maybe you can practice at their place?
    [ ] Write-in.

    After that, you were left practicing all day, using a metronome for a beat right now. On Tuesday though...

    God you did not feel comfortable being back in the Sakurazuka manor so soon, but the problem with Tomomi was that she wasn't exactly easy to get a hold of. Luckily Shinsuke came to personally escort you to her room, you'd been dreading Azuma for a second there, with you then knocking on her door.

    "What?" was all Tomomi said through the door.

    "Hey there, Tomomi, it's me Honoka. Himawari and Colette are with me too, 'cause we kinda need your help something," you tried to get through to her.

    "Himawari?" Nightshade hissed at you.

    "Look, she doesn't know about your whole identity thing, we can go over that later," you said back to Nightshade.

    Slowly Tomomi opened her door, and mumbled, "Wow, okay, what did you drag yourselves all the way out here for?"

    "Hmhm, why don't we really introduce ourselves?" Nightshade smirked and strutted up, "You can call me Nightshade now, and I want you to join the Lady Devils".

    "Oh cool, didn't know you were into LARPing," Tomomi just went along.

    "What? Er, look, Nightshade's a singer and she's asking you to join her backing band," you had to explain, "We were hoping for a drummer, actually, but we'll settle for a guitarist".
    Colette outed at you for that last line.

    "God, kinda don't know anything 'bout either," Tomomi had to tell you, "Like, I was made to go to music lessons as a kid, cello and oboe and stuff, definitely not drums. I did sneak over to bang on the timpani when I could, so er, I guess that counts? What kinda stuff you play?"

    You selected the recording on your phone you had ready and then held it up to Tomomi's ear. She gradually started nodding along with it and said, "Okay, yeah sure, I'll help you out. My wrists will hate me for it, but eh, it's not like I've got anything else going on right now".

    "Great, all taken care of!" Nightshade grinned, then said, "Alright, we now hold rehearsals at-"

    "Quite some nerve you have, showing your face around here," Azuma's voice was swift to interrupt Nightshade, as he strolled over, "You and Colette, but let's focus on you for now, Miss Aoyagi. I'd honestly forgotten you were even still around, I had to remind myself you hadn't died along with Eitaro and Gakuto," he laughed.

    "Get off her, Azuma. Nightshade's no longer at Hanataba, you have no power over her," Colette raised her voice.

    "Y-yeah, that's right. Plus I've got one thing you don't, Honoka actually wanting to hang out with me," Nightshade steadied herself and rubbed that in.

    Azuma hissed a little at that, before he looked you straight in the eyes and pleaded, "Honoka, I beg you, what does Himawari have to offer you? Drugs, crime, and the low life may appear glamorous in their own way, but are far more interesting for the spectators than the performers. Head down her path, and you may well be destined for an early grave".

    "Drugs and crime? Woah, sounds friggin' badass," Tomomi had to pipe up.

    "You realise you're sounding like an after-school special, don't know?" you had to say to him.

    "Also, Himawari..." Azuma then went onto say, before he suddenly grabbed her by the shoulders, and said to Tomomi and Colette, "Ahem, I would prefer if us Ace-affiliated persons could have the following conversation in private".

    Colette just snarled, while Tomomi just shrugged.

    "Good. Now, as I was saying..." Azuma said, leading you away, "About having 'no more power over you', Himawari, I beg to differ. Last I checked, the remains of your Empire are still very much on the Gameboard in our Lounge. While it is there, it's now ours to do whatever we'd like with".

    Nightshade stood up and snarled, "You wouldn't fuckin' dare!"

    "Oh, but Kikuko, Melissa, and I would. Also, while you're here, 'Nightshade'," Azuma said as he gestured finger-quotes, "Drop the rebel act, would you? Your actress abilities wouldn't convince a Second Tree role, let alone me. For beneath all your bluster, I can tell you're still the same scared little girl I've always known you as".

    Nightshade took a step back for a second, but then roared, "How dare you... you're asking to settle this with a Duel, aren't you, huh?!"

    Azuma smiled and shook his head, "Your Empire now counts as dethroned, Himawari, I'm afraid that's not possible. You're out of the game".

    As opposed to me? you instantly thought.

    "Yeah well, I've still got Anastasia, and my own two fists!" Nightshade raged. Before she could say anything more, she was interrupted by yet another voice.

    "Oh. My God. What the Hell is that 'Colette' skank doing in here?" Melissa suddenly emerged, apparently having just finished meeting with Rurina, before she set her eyes on Nightshade. "Wow, okay, apparently someone didn't tell me it was a whole skank parade in here right now".

    "Er, Nightshade, Colette, and I will just be going right now," you then said before tensions could escalate even further, taking Nightshade by the arm, And before the Principal or whoever suddenly shows up here.

    "We ought to seriously start looking into some better security around here," Azuma snarled on seeing Melissa, "This isn't exactly a public space".

    * * *

    "Well, we've told ourselves not to think of this goodbye, right?" Megumi said to you, at least helping move your stuff.

    "Yeah, I still plan to keep in touch," you tried to give a smile, "Despite how some people say I should act".

    They gave one last wave to you as you entered into the All-Aces' limo, with you looking back at your old apartment for as long as you could, and being silent the rest of the drive there.

    <<BGM: Okami - Sei-an City (Aristocratic Quarters)>>

    "Er, we're here!" Na-rae at the wheel said once you pulled up near the slopes of Mount Yotei, it being no surprise that Kikuko would base herself by the foot of the most Fuji-looking mountain in Hokkaido.

    Kikuko's place was pretty much what you expected, an old townhouse that looked like it'd been air-lifted straight from Kyoto. "Huh, didn't know they built machiya this far north," you had to remark, as it did look like a nice place... if you could ignore who lived there.

    "Actually, this residence was recently constructed to my demands, after I planned my transfer to Hanataba years back," Kikuko then said, her suddenly appearing right next to you the moment you got out of the car.

    "Okay, okay, rub in how rich you are why don't you?" you mumbled, as you then asked, "Er, so where will I be staying?"

    Kikuko just pointed to... one of the earthen storehouses? "I have set you up there as part of your learning experience. I've stored many great artifacts of culture in that shed, it would pay for you to get acquainted with them" she then told you.

    A storehouse? you thought, but just said, "Ah, okay then..."

    "It is quite trusting of me, truly, to give you that room. I don't place just any random object in there," Kikuko went on to say, before instructing, "Yomogi, help my apprentice with her luggage".

    You entered that storehouse, your new room, with Na-rae to set your all your things up, unfolding a futon alongside. Well, you could see Kikuko was at least honest when she said there was some real historical stuff in there. A lot of cracked tea ceremony equipment and ornate scrolls mostly, but what stood out the most were all the weapons. Not just swords and muskets, but spears, naginata, daggers, bows, war fans, tetsubo clubs, and so on. There was even a set of old armour lying around.

    "...Some place, huh?" was all your feeble self could say to Na-rae.

    "That it be, Miss Honoka. Um, a mere maid like me knows a top place like this doesn't exactly feel like home to most people, but believe me, we'll- I'll do my best ta make you feel as welcome as possible here," Na-rae smiled at you.

    "Hey, thanks," you smiled back, with you then saying, "It's great to know I can still find a friendly face all the way out here. But, um, 'Tsubasa'," you took a deep breath before you continued, "Now that we're both Jacks of Grails, well, there's something I ought to let you know".

    Na-rae had to take a step back, "Jeanie Mac, Miss Honoka, whatever do you be meaning by that?"

    You sighed. "I know your name's not 'Yomogi Tsubasa', it's Seol Na-rae. I learned that from Kikuko," you revealed, that last bit technically being true.

    Na-rae stumbled back all the way to the wall after you said that, "...You know? B-but, that does sound unlikely, Miss Honoka, that Mistress Kikuko would tell you somethin' like... that," she stuttered out.

    "Saw it in her room at school," you improvised, but you had too snarl, "I've learned people take names quite seriously around here, so what right does Kikuko have to do that to you? I mean, you're her servant, not her slave".

    Na-rae crouched down, hugged her knees and said, "That's true, my name is Seol Na-rae... no matter what anyone says. Like, just two years ago, I would've been sixteen, I had an online 'job' being an ulzzang over in Busan, posted some fitness pictures and the like, guess you could tell from the gym. Got a fair bit o' attention too, but 'fifteen minutes of fame' employment like that's awful precarious, Miss Honoka. So when I got a job offer working for the wealthy Maeda, I had to accept, but then..." she buried her face in her hands and started crying, "I learned the only reason they wanted me was because they could pay a Korean worker less than a Japanese one".

    You then knelt down to try and help her up, and you said to her in an embrace, "Look, Na-rae, it's okay. You don't have to feel ashamed for you are, not now, not ever".

    Na-rae then looked at you with her tear-strewn face and said, "Thank you, thank you so much, Miss Honoka," before then correcting herself, "No, Mistress Honoka ma'am. If I have ta be anyone's servant, I'd rather be yours, even if I have to say I'm Kikuko's in public and to her. Like, I can set you up with a fitness routine, I'll drive you anywhere, you name it!"

    Er, think you're getting a bit carried away, you thought, but said "Hey, thanks" as you two hugged again.

    - The Hanged Man has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    "Honoka!" Kikuko called to you from outside, "Your lessons are to begin immediately! We shall start with equestrianship".

    "Oh good Lord, horse-riding's not easy on first-timers," Na-rae muttered.

    "Eh, how hard can it be?" you tried to add some cheer.

    * * *

    Turns out, pretty hard actually, as you swore you could still feel the chafing days later. Right now you were backstage at a venue in Hakodate called Sixth Heaven, still trying to pick out a costume for Tomomi. Well, you were, Colette had to change a broken string.

    "Eh, I'm fine with whatever" Tomomi muttered, not really helping.

    [x] How about a vampire girl? Might as well take advantage of being Azuma's sister.
    [ ] Hokkaido's real snowy, so maybe the blue wig and the white yukata of a Yuki-onna?
    [ ] The name of this backing band is 'Lady Devils', so maybe some styrofoam horns, wings, and sharp facepaint?
    [ ] She's your drummer, so why not a bunch of lightning marks to look like Raijin?
    [ ] You're kinda Harlequin-y, so maybe she could be a Pierrot sad clown?
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Okay, you girls ready?" Nightshade burst back in, having finished setting up all the 'effects', and grinned, "Since you're all dressed, then -ahem- as your Queen, I demand you perform your last rehearsal before the show, er, bloodbath!"

    The second Colette had her new guitar all fixed up, the three of you immediately shuffled into formation and went through your opener.

    <<BGM: Falkkone ft. Rena - Splatter Party>>

    "Ah, right, good job there. satisfactory enough for peons, I would suppose," Nightshade smirked and put her hands to her hips. "Ooh, one last thing, I was thinking when I introduce the band, I could give all you stage names. Like, it's gonna look weird if I go 'I'm Nightshade Queen of Hell, and here's Honoka, Tomomi, and Colette', you see?"

    "Uh, did you have to make us decide at the last second?" you had to question her, before you got into a huddle with Colette and Tomomi over this new development.

    [ ] You'll be Jesterca, Colette will be Eclipse, Tomomi will be Imperatrix.
    [x] You'll be Abyssa, Colette will be Volta, Tomomi will be Chronomena.
    [ ] You'll be Fiend, Colette will be Aliceph, Tomomi will be Yuriko.
    [ ] You'll be Tarocchi, Colette will be Zodia, Tomomi will be Bones.
    [ ] Just 'the Lady Devils will' do.
    [ ] You'll let Nightshade decide, it is her band after all.
    [ ] You'll let the others decide.
    [ ] Write-in.
    "Great, then let's get out there!" Nightshade exclaimed.

    As she pushed the three of you out onto the stage, she herself entered in what looked like a spinning iron maiden prop, bags of fake blood squeezed inside. Nightshade then cartwheeled up to the mic and cried, "People of Hakodate, your hearts, your souls, your darkest secrets, are all forfeit to me! Hit it!"

    After plowing and fumbling all the way through your setlist carried over from back in Kuchinashi and Susukino, you then got a chance to launch into the number you'd just practiced, as Nightshade roared to the crowd, standing up on an amp, "By my command, you shall bow down before my fellow noblewomen of the night! The Lady Devils, Volta on guitar!" she gestured to Colette, who didn't know what else to do but bite into the strings, "Abyssa on Bass!", you gulped and sweated on being called up as you tried a little slap-bass routine, "and Chronomena on Drums!" Tomomi just shrugged and did a rimshot.

    As you later headed backstage, you assumed you were all done, with there being a bunch of other bands booked to play that night... but the Nightshade took a hold of you again and said, "Oh no, we're not done yet, we're being called for an encore!"

    "Oh, an encore. Great" you muttered, as you got back out on stage once again to practice a number Nightshade had reserved specifically for this moment.

    "...We're all addicts, in a way," Nightshade then said to the crowd, "All of us damned souls here are. So, for those dead hearts who know the sweet thrill and bitter aftertaste of desire, this one's for you".

    <<BGM: Falkkone ft. Rena - Full-Course for Candy Addicts>>

    You felt just about ready to collapse now, your hands now had more blisters than normal skin. As you stumbled back into your dressing room, you then spotted Nightshade talking with someone which, as you approached, soon escalated into arguing.

    "Ah, yeah, you think you Sendai girls with your friggin' gun-guitars can just waltz up here and take over our music turf!" Nightshade then burst out, "Your drummer couldn't even keep a waltz time!"

    "...What the Hell is this?" you could only mumble.

    "Pathetic. You're on the frontlines, maggot, this ain't the place to be playing dress-up parties!" said that militia-dressed singer who Nightshade was in a shouting match with.

    "Apparently this girl's the lead singer of Corpse Corps, a war-themed band who mainly sing about historic battles" Colette explained to you as she approached, "Not personally what I would listen to, but at the same time, I don't really see Nightshade's sudden problem with them".

    "I see," you nodded, before you turned to grab Nightshade, "Okay now, time to go, Nightshade. We'd like to do some sightseeing around Hakodate before it gets too dark, y'know".
    Once you were in private, you then groaned at Nightshade and said, "You just got expelled you know, is now really the time to be getting into another fight?"

    "Grr, that girl accused me of lying about my expulsion to look tough!" Nightshade exclaimed, before saying, "Yeah, well, whatever. Their music still sucks though" she folded her arms.

    "Oh, some band vs band rivalry? Yawn, whatever, I'm going to have groupie sex while you little girls have your tantrums," Tomomi mumbled as she walked on through.

    "Er, okay, you do that," you said, before looking back at Nightshade.

    "Hmhm, I'll say you hadn't stopped me there, my little 'disagreement' with Corpse Corps would've gotten real nasty. I'd be throwing amps and instruments at them and everything, see how they do in a real showdown" Nightshade kept smirking.

    "Wait, oh come on. Wouldn't that only get us kicked out of the venue?" you asked with a raised voice.

    "That's exactly the point!" Nightshade chirped and grinned, "It'd be perfect for increasing notoriety, 'No Nightshade' signs and all".

    "Nightshade..." you facepalmed, "If you're gonna keep acting out like this, couldn't you at least target your rage at something that genuinely deserves it? I've had enough of that petty shit from Kikuko and Melissa, I really don't need it from you".

    Nightshade then hesitated and bit her lip for a second, but ultimately said, "You're a real killjoy, you know that Honoka? Ugh, what I am saying, I know I know, you're just trying to look out for me..." she breathed out and slumped against the wall, "And I guess I should be grateful at least someone is".

    "God, Nightshade- Himawari," you then said sternly, "I know you're not trying to hurt me, or Colette, or anyone else... except yourself. Admit it, this is all some elaborate form of self-harm, isn't it?"

    Nightshade sighed, then slowly said as tears started trickling down her face, "Couldn't have said it better myself. Damnit, where is my wretched little life going?"
    She then breathed out and said, "When I was a little girl, I saw, well, a lot of old paintings of pain and martyrdom. Beheadings, old-time firing squads of archers, barbed wire across the tongue, you name it. I think that scared me- scared Himawari, out of her mind, conditioned her to be the polite little good girl she is. At the same time though, it sure as hell gave me a lot of inspiration for stagecraft and lyrics, so y'know, you take the good with the bad".

    "...What are we going to do with you?" you had to chuckle.

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

    "Honoka..." Nightshade breathed in, then said "Remember what I said about being friends with benefits? Well, I know officially you're with Colette, but while it's just us tonight..." she started to purr and fiddle with your collar, "You wanna make love? Oh, I'm not asking you to cheat on Colette or anything, I wouldn't do something like that, you can tell her beforehand if you wanna get down with me, I don't mind.
    Oh, and Himawari doesn't mind either, if you're worried about that, in fact she's quite excited," Nightshade started nuzzling you.

    [ ] "Er, sure, Colette's pretty understanding."
    [x] "I'll ask Colette first, but I'm okay if she's okay."
    [ ] "Yeah no, it's too soon to do that do Colette. I'm sorry..."
    [ ] "Even if Colette's okay with it... I don't really think I'm up for it personally. Sorry, Nightshade."
    [ ] Write-in.

  3. #43
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLIII. Tokyo Trip

    "Ah yeah, I see," Nightshade nodded, drawing back to give you some space to speak with Colette.

    Gulping, you slowly approached Colette and said, "Er, hi there, Colette. Ah, kinda have something I need to talk to you about..." you bit your lip and started twirling your hair.

    "Hmm? Go on," she had to prod you.

    "Well, you know how Nightshade kinda let out that she wouldn't mind doing 'friends with benefits' stuff with me?" you began, starting to quiver, "Yeah, that. But we both thought we should ask you first, if you're okay with me being, uh, intimate a little with her? D-don't worry, I assure you, you're still the number one girl in my life!" you stuttered out.

    Colette stared at you blankly at first, but then had to laugh and said, "Ah, so you'd like to experiment with polyamory, then? By all means, go ahead, and personally I find it, well, empowering you could say, knowing that the object of my affection is also desired by fellow women. Although, I do have one condition," she raised her hand.

    "Ah, okay then. Uh, w-what would that be?" you asked, relieved but still anxious.

    "That, should I desire, you will be reciprocal in letting me simultaneously pursue others as well" she told you, before smiling and clasping her hands, "Do not fret, I am not particularly interested in anyone else but you at the moment, but you never know".

    "Oh yeah, okay! Uh, I wouldn't really describe what Nightshade and I have as a 'second relationship', this was just supposed to be casual and stuff. but sure! That seems fair," you said, letting yourself breathe out.

    As Colette curtseyed and left you be, you looked back and nodded at Nightshade. A sultry grin spreading across your lead singer's face, she sauntered up to you and began stroking your face with her nails.
    "Whenever you're ready, Honoka," she rasped.

    * * *

    <<BGM: Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia: Volcano Cave Mix>>

    You had to wake up early to catch the ferry that sailed over to Mount Osore, well technically over to Cape Oma, the northernmost point on Honshu, and then catching the bus up to Osore, specifically the Bodai-ji Temple by Lake Usori. So yeah, quite a lot this early on.

    You then stood with Colette and Nightshade upon the bridge over the Sanzu, staring down into the acidic volcano water. "So ah, reportedly one of the gates to the underworld, huh? Er, how does it compare to Jigokudani back home, Colette?"

    "Hmhm, well it's certainly taller," Colette remarked, staring up, "Older too, given Bodai-ji here dates back over a millennium. Guess we're used to most of our buildings being only a century or two old back in Hokkaido, huh? Well, the Ainu would have much older constructs, but uh, yeah, we kinda destroyed most of those, didn't we?" she had to twitch.

    "Still, I have come up to Osorezan before, hmm, although that still leaves at least Yomotsu-Hirasaka to visit," she then changed the topic, "Though that's quite the journey, being all the way down in Chugoku".

    "All the doors we have to Hell, huh?" Nightshade had to remark, her hair let down but still dyed pin, "Really puts perspective on things, doesn't it?"

    Too much fucking perspective, you thought, leaning your head on your raised hand, willing yourself not to come up with a pun on the word 'fucking' given last night.

    "Oh, but I would recommend you visit Yomotsu-Hirasaka someday, even if that day is the one of your passing," said a voice belonging to a grey-haired woman wearing a white yukata, leaning on the bridge's opposite railing, "Hmhm, do forgive my little joke".

    Noticing this woman's yukata was folded the wrong way around, an amused Colette had to smirk and joke back "Ah, would we have a phantom in our mist? It would make this outing perfect if we did".

    You had to stared at Colette, before groaning "Oh God, you can't just ask people if they're dead, Colette".

    "Actually, your friend is correct," this woman then said, you thinking she had to be seriously bluffing, as she introduced herself, "I'm currently employed as the Sanzu Ferrier, my card", she then produced a blank business white card with four coins embedded into it.

    Seeing this, you hesitated before saying to this woman who had to be employed for the tourists, "Oh, well then, er, do the names Rokudo Rin, Tsutsuji Eitaro, and Momoi Gakuto ring a bell?"

    "Why yes they do. I can confirm both Tsutsuji and Momoi have passed to the other side, wherever that may be given the last judgment upon them. Rokudo however has eluded my grasp, there's still quite the tether tying her to this world" this woman in white said, making you take a step back.

    "Er, okay, enough of that! Ah, been nice meeting you, but we've gotta get going" you rapidly said, taking Colette and Nightshade by the arms and shepherding them away, regardless of their thoughts on this woman.

    One last thing, that woman said, you turning pale as you realised she was communicating with you without speaking, If you happen to run into my gun-toting associate, he simply calls himself 'the Reaper', do take caution.

    As you still had a bit of time here, despite your words, you stopped at the local hot springs at Nightshade's insistence. Your own hair fully down and Colette's extensions unclipped, Nightshade had to lean over ask you, "So, our Honoka, after last night, which of us would you say is the better in bed?"

    You immediately turned beet red as you were left quaking at that question. "Well, um, that is, um, I really don't know what to say in regards to that-" you kept stumbling over your words.

    You were still worried to Colette would react, but instead your reaction just put a sly grin on her face. "I am still pre-op, so I assume that'd make a difference, wouldn't it?" she then asked, playing along with Nightshade's game as she watched you squirm.

    "Okay, maybe too, how do I say, piercing a question?" Nightshade then had to admit, but then asked instead, "Okay, something more primal, which of us two has the best body? Be honest, I'm sure neither of us will mind your answer".
    Utterly embarrassed, your dizzy self eventually fainted right there, collapsing into the onsen pool as your two bandmates then had to drag you out.

    * * *

    A little while later, you were on the plane to Tokyo, Nightshade and Tomomi having gone back to Kuchinashi to leave you two on your date. At least this time you weren't forced to sit by the window seat, Colette nobly taking it for you.

    Colette naturally had quite a few books already packed for the domestic flight, freeing you from the agony of choice a little. She'd brought along both Clive Barker's Books of Blood and a tankobon of The Poe Clan, with you having just enough time on the flight to read a good portion of both of them, nodding along with Colette's tastes.

    "Reading literature though does raise an issue I've... had on my mind a little while," Colette then said, sighing, "My pen name's 'Colette Claudius', but other than that I'm 100% Japanese. Well, maybe I have some Irish ancestry, what with how many people over the world do, but anyway. I did never intend for my pen name to ever be anything else, especially with how many times I've had to keep explaining that it is my pen name, but..."

    "You're still having trouble choosing what you want your actual name to be, right?" you picked up on.

    "Why yes, nailed it! It is quite a momentous choice, after all," Colette smiled at you, then added "I won't pressure you for ideas right now. Think it over if you will, I certainly have," she giggled a bit.

    <<BGM: SMT Nocturne - Large Map Real Universe>>

    The plane finally touched down in Haneda Airport, with you noticing it was coming up to midday. The Airport on its own had enough outlets that you felt you could've spent the rest of the day here if you wanted, but that would've been a bit of a waste given everything to do in this city.

    Pulling up an electronic map, you went "Okay, so Destinyland's to the northeast, although that may be going a bit over-budget, while Tokyo Tower's some distance straight north of here".

    "Tokyo Tower? Please, like I have any patience for that Eiffel wannabe school trip-bait," Colette brushed that idea off, before pointing to a district just northeast of the Budokan, "If anywhere, Kanda-Jinbocho is the place I had in mind, the beating heart of Tokyo's literature scene, containing books I could only ever order online, if find at all, back in Hokkaido. Let's go!"

    You did have a quick stop in Ginza as it was on your way up there, but given the area's notorious prices, you were pretty much stuck with window-shopping. Not that much of the clothes were exactly to Colette's liking, Ginza not quite being Toyo's Gothic Lolita hub, but you certainly had to fantasise about trying more than a few of the Parisian trenchcoats and ballgowns on.

    Being way too late for the nearby Tsukiji fishmarket, you did sight see at both the Kabuki-za theatre and Godzilla statue while you were there, which then made you think that Lake Toya could have its own Deathdemona statue, heh. Your last side-trip before reaching Kanda Jinbocho was Taira no Masakado's grave in Otemachi, as naturally Colette would want to visit a grave on your date together.
    Masakado was of course one of the first samurai and the first known rebel leader against the Japanese government, which had ended with his head being sent down the river to what would become Edo then Tokyo, so naturally the capital would move here. He was deified out of it, so maybe it wasn't a complete loss for him. You did fell a... strange sensation while you were there though, but you then asked Colette about it and she said she felt nothing.

    At last, you reached the neighbourhood Colette was so obsessed with, you could see her almost jumping with joy. there was certainly a selection here, with Japanese bookstores specialising in the US and UK, Western bookstores specialising in Japan, bookstores where you could also perform music (might be a good place to sneak in some extra practice), and on and on.
    "Hmm, looks like you'll probably spend most of your money here, so maybe I'll do the honours of getting coffee and tea" you said to her, neither of those being in short supply in this book district.

    "Ah, why thank you, Honoka," she did another curtsy.
    Colette soon returned from one of the shops, Nagiuri Bookstore, straining as she tried to hold the sheer number of books she was now carrying. You quickly grabbed a hold of the pile and moved them onto a table before Colette could lose her balance. She then smiled at you as she straightened herself up, dusting her flowing dress, as she said, "Well Honoka, as a privilege of our first date, you are free to peruse any one of my latest purchases during our time here. I trust you well enough to not get coffee stains and biscuit crumbs on the pages".

    [ ] The Heart pierced by the Black Rose: An Epic Romance, 1st Edition. [+Perception]
    [ ] A History of the 19th Century. [+Etiquette]
    [x] A Psychological Analysis of Occult Systems. [+Education]
    [ ] An Anthology of Horror's Greatest [+Resolve]
    [ ] Write-in.

    Afterwards, Colette's formerly delighted expression suddenly turned to frustration, then gloom, as you stepped up to ask "hey, what's wrong?"

    She sighed, covered he face with her hand, and with the other pointed up at a nearby publishing house. "Shikigami Books, the first publisher to ever reject one of my manuscripts. Sorry, but it simply stings to see the place in person. Yes, I've been rejected many times after, as is typical for an author, but well, the first cut is the deepest, as they say".

    "Oh, I see then," you mumbled.

    "Well, time is fleeting, so let's move on before my self-pity consumes me, hmm?" Colette said, gently pushing you further along the street, "I've certainly spent enough time hogging our date so far, but now, Tokyo is all yours, at least for the afternoon. So, where are we off too, then?"

    - The Moon has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

    [ ] "If you weren't impressed by Tokyo Tower... how about the Skytree then? We can pass through the old town and Senso-ji too"
    [x] "They say Shibuya's meant to be the centre of youth culture, don't they?"
    [ ] "Lotta stuff in Shinjuku, isn't there? Kabukicho, Nichome in our case, oh, and I guess the train's probably gonna pass through its station anyway"
    [ ] "Aren't girls like us usually recommended to go to Ikebukuro?"
    [ ] "Kichijoji's meant to be the number one place in Japan, according to statistics anyway. Might as well see what all the hype is about"
    [ ] "Kinda hard to choose, really. How 'bout we just stroll about, see who we run into? Think that's recommended for checking out a city"
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<BGM: Shin Megami Tensei I - Law Theme>>

    While you were in the Kanda area though, you did at least stop at the Holy Resurrection Cathedral though. Apparently, the old priest had recently been replaced with a relatively younger man, and by 'younger' you guessed he'd be in his forties, named Yoshio.
    Colette certainly had to admire the aesthetics of the place, but said she personally wasn't into any of the outright religious stuff like confessions. You however, well, felt you had a lot of sins weighing you down, which you explained to Colette as just you being around the All-Aces (technically true). As you sat in the booth though, your otherwise not-that-religious self delved more deeply.

    "...Father, I- I feel I ended up with the completely wrong crowd. Like, I kind of had no choice but to join them, being pressured into it, yet at the time I also felt ecstatic, like I was finally being noticed. Until..." you drew a deep breath, "People started dying around, they did nothing, and I ultimately felt responsible for all it, even though I didn't know what I was doing at the time."

    "I may be jumping to conclusions, but it sounds to me like you got coerced into a criminal gang," Father Yoshio assumed, "Then again, I myself once had a friend in the same situation. His name was, well I'll call him 'Waruo', he felt like he wasn't strong enough to face the world, and so to feel more secure about his place on society, started to associate with increasingly more brutal people for protection. Yet I turned down the same temptation, so my long belated point is, do not ever feel like you have no way out, that you're beyond redemption".

    "Wait, so do you still meet up with this 'Waruo' guy?" you had to ask of Yoshio, "Ah, sorry for telling you how to do your job, but being a priest it's your responsibility to help sinners out, right?"

    "Hmm, our relationship is... complicated. Of course, friend circles change over time, the people you once thought closest to you can drift quite far away. Though I suppose that may be a positive in your situation, given the dregs you say you've fallen in with," Father Yoshio skirted around the answer.

    You had to sigh, before telling him, "That's the thing though, the people who've been a bad influence on me aren't the dregs of society, they... pretty much are society".

    There was stillness in the air a moment longer, but Yoshio did reply with, "Well, that complicates the issue".

    * * *

    You had one last encounter on the train to Shibuya Station, as you and Colette found yourselves sitting next to an occidental-looking woman with a reddish-brown pixie cut who wore a dark blue yukata with little wing designs, who sat beside a black-haired man wearing a hoodie over his business suit. They were certainly eye-catching, but it wasn't until you could see some strange tattoos flash for a second on the man that you took real notice.

    The red and blue woman, clearly the more social of the two, was first to introduce herself, "Oh hi, guess I should say something to break the silence, huh? I'm Yosei-Kashima Kushiko, and this here's Naoki," she grinned, patting him hard on the back, with her husband more casually giving his name.

    "Nakamura Honoka," you bowed your head "I'm, ah, currently wondering what I'm doing with my life, just come back from confession after all".

    "Hmhm, and I'm Colette Claudius, charmed I'm sure," your now girlfriend stood up on her seat in order to curtsey.

    This Yosei had to giggle a little, but explained herself with "Ah Nakamura, it sounds like you're in a very similar situation as my Naoki here. Though in my beau's case, he probably spends a bit too much time thinking about what he could've done differently, how things could've been".

    "Ah, the most useless of thoughts," Colette put a bit too bluntly, but said, "Granted, being a high-schooler I'm somewhat biased in that case. Still, I take it you've heard of the Many Worlds Theorem, of course it's everywhere in pop culture these days? Who knows, perhaps your Naoki did do things differently in another reality, and perhaps still felt regret?"

    Yosei had to grin at that, "Whoo, neither of us are exactly quantum physicists, though my Naoki does have some interest in the field, but you could say we're more than well acquainted with Multiverse theory, aren't we, Naoki~?" she nudged him.

    You talked a little longer, her Naoki spending most of your chat in his own thoughts, before you got off at Shibuya, the other couple going on to Ginza.

    <<BGM: The World Ends with You - Deja Vu>>

    You soon felt overwhelmed with things to do here, likely because Shibuya may be one of the most overwhelming parts of an already overwhelming city. Of course, once your head felt clear enough, your first instinct was to check out a few of the fashion stores here, which made you regret not bringing Reina or Suzako along, even if this was meant to be your date with Colette. On the plus side, at least you weren't being dragged around here by Melissa, though you imagined Ginza was more her scene.

    Of course, Shibuya had far more than a 'few' fashion boutiques, as your choice to go clothes-shopping was still near-paralysis through choice, what with 109, Omotesando and Takeshita Street. You and Colette did narrow things down by coming to the agreement to only check out independently owned stores, though at times it could be hard to distinguish what was independent and what was a chain.

    Ultimately you did come back with something of a haul, to the point where you had to start worrying about your plane fare back to Hokkaido:

    [ ] What looked like a Gothic Lolita take on a Jester's uniform, with a lot of diagonal checkers and a free marotte.
    [x] A cutesy fairytale-looking dress, decorated with half-bitten 'poison' apples, thorns, and 'mermaid' scales.
    [ ] Something more androgynous, with epaulettes, sharp trousers, a double-breasted jacket, and neckerchief.
    [ ] A neat-looking school uniform, which was apparently what was worn at a nearby academy called Shujin.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Colette though, while coming back with a haul of her own, had an odd, somewhat melancholic expression on her face.
    "Feeling the overload?" you had to ask her.

    "Well yes, I'd be lying if I said all the stimulation wasn't affecting me, but also," she sighed and looked around her, "I figure you've already noticed more than a few girls dressed like me, haven't you? I suppose this should make me feel like I belong, and it does, but in a bittersweet way. Back in Kuchinashi I was one of the few who dressed like this," she said tugging at her skirt, "And because of that, I stood out. Which yes, led to a lot of harassment, or at least telling glances, but at the same time... did make me feel like an individual. Here though, I'm but a grain of sand on the shore".

    "Well, ah, don't look at it like you're losing your individuality or anything," you tried to tell her, lifting her chin up, "Think of it like you may have a community here, beyond just the Occult Club, people who've likely gone through the exact same things you have, and can talk just as passionately about what you're also into".

    Colette's mood lightened, with her then saying, "Thank you, Honoka, it does help hearing that. Though I certainly don't think I'll ever make the money to move to Tokyo or anything, being on an author's wage and all".

    You were then interrupted by some impromptu fashion taking place in an open store. With you both having to squeeze through the crowd to get a good view of anything going on, you could see this was mainly advertising men's fashion, mainly aristocratic wardrobes, butler uniforms, and er some oddly boy-like outfits with puffy breeches that more androgynous models were showcasing.

    "Oh my god, I'd love to meet a man as elegant and gentlemanly as that!" a girl in braids right next to you blushed furiously.

    "...Er, you sure about that?" you were driven by instinct to comment, before coming forth to explain to her "It's just that, well, I actually do know guys like that, an actor actually, and well, their treatment of women is just as Victorian". Of course, Azuma probably only qualified for the gentleman aesthetic and speech patterns.

    "Yeah yeah, I know," this girl sighed, "But hey, for the moment, just let me dream and have my fantasies, y'know?"

    * * *

    You couldn't stay the whole night as you had to be at school tomorrow, which meant an evening plane, but while you were in Shibuya and exhausted from wandering, Colette and you did book yourselves into a love hotel for a couple of hours. On the more spiritual side, you did feel this stay might help replace that... one time with Azuma in your mind.

    At first you were gonna let Colette choose the room, but she insisted you have your pick instead. Curiously, the place did have enough gothic-themed rooms to give the both of you options:

    [ ] A plush, dark-red vampiric chamber with a large coffin bed.
    [ ] A moonlit werewolf room with bed posters like gnarled trees, furry blankets and, er, dog collars.
    [x] An Egyptian tomb with a sarcophagus bed and bandages to wrap around each other, plus some wandering cats.
    [ ] A 'black lagoon' room complete with fish tank and deep sea wallpaper.
    [ ] Write-in.

    After all that, you time came to an end as you got on the plane back to Hokkaido. Colette at least had brought more than enough books to read on the flight back, and you also found yourself sitting next to none other than that Japanese businessman you'd briefly talked with back in Vladivostok.

    "Oh, what a surprise meeting you again here," he reached out and offered his hand and card, "Nanjo Kei, the #1 Man in Japan, of the Nanjo Group naturally. I was just bound for Sendai myself".

    "Ah, I'm Nakamura Haonoka, er, Jack of a bunch of Aces, Vice-president of Occult Club, and batter on the Hanataba Cricket Team" you said after thinking how you could ever respond to that. "Er, Nanjo Group you say?"

    Nanjo had to sigh, "Yes, I am fully aware our business is... not as illustrious as it once was. I can't deny the departure of the Kirijo Group and the Okumura scandal wasn't a serious blow, even all these years later," he muttered.

    "My, is that why some CEO like you is stuck in economy class with the rest of us workers, hmm?" Colette had to tease him.

    "What? Oh no, not that all. My principle as Head of the Nanjo Group is not too segregate myself from the common man, I've even slept on some quite cramped trains before!" he had to smile, adjusting his tie.

    "I see," Colette mumbled, not entirely buying it.

    "Wait, from what I remember back in Vladivostok, you know Kikuko's fath- er, Maeda Iemitsu, right?" you spoke up, "I, ah, was just curious to know, um, what he's like".

    Nanjo had to laugh, before frowning, "I can certainly see why his daughter didn't just tell you herself, Teradaya's Iemitsu may possibly be the man I most regret ever having to work with," he scowled. "He's basically everything I ever feared becoming, although, well, I will give him that the death of one's wife is surely quite the blow for any husband..." his angered expression turned to a sigh.
    "Still, some of my associates in Russia I suspect have mafia ties, and I will confess I've had to negotiate with yakuza types before, so that should tell you something about old Maeda" he felt the need to add.

    Sheesh, imagine him finding out about Personae, you had to think of Kikuko's father, Hell, imagine the yakuza and bratva finding out about Personae.

    "Just one thing, would your group happen to have ties with any publishing houses?" Colette asked, handing him one of her manuscripts.

    As Nanjo flipped through it, he went, "Er, I have spoken with them in the past, then again I've spoken with basically every major company. I must warn you, I'm hardly that skilled in pitching any book that isn't a management guide, but hmm, I'll see what I can do," with him then saying, "Anything to help an associate of Maeda's daughter, Lord knows you need a bone thrown your way".

    That's putting it mildly, you thought.

    * * *

    As you at last got off the train to Kuchinashi, your fortune came to a head when you ran into yet another familiar face from Russia.

    "Huh, Kujikawa Rise?" you exclaimed, as you saw you'd gotten off the platform with her, "Um, what brings you here?"

    "Who?" Colette had to ask, before promptly apologising.

    "Oh hi there, you're the girl who crashed my dressing room, right?" Rise said with nevertheless a bright smile, "Well er, I felt a little gross having to play the hits for a bunch of Russian oligarchs, so while my career's... er, on hold, I thought I'd really get back to my roots by doing a little investigating! My cover story's is that I'm the new Choir and Concert Band teacher around here, of course".

    "Investigating?" you shot up with.

    "Ah yeah, well whenever I'm not idoling, crime and amateur sleuthing are, ahem, something of side-interests of mine, teehee. A dear detective friend of mine told me about, well, all the alarming and curious deaths that've been happening at a high school called Hanataba, so I thought I might try to crack the case!" she beamed.

    ...This isn't a game, you thought, but politely offered to her, "Er, well what a coincidence, both Colette and I attend Hanataba, so maybe we can help you out?"

    You then immediately regretted that offer when she said, "Oh, you will? You'll be like my junior detectives? A-ha, finally, I've been Naoto's assistant so long, now finally I'm giving myself a promotion!" hyping herself up.

    - Rebirth has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    "Well, I can certainly tell you'll be quite the ray of sunshine in our drab little school," Colette then said, Rise missing her sarcasm.

    Oh yeah, you should probably start making plans for how to spend your next school week. Hmm...

    [ ] Drama Club, you should stand up to Azuma.
    [ ] Tea Ceremony Club, you'll be seeing a lot of Kikuko anyway.
    [ ] Class Rep duties.
    [ ] Rehearsing for Nightshade.
    [ ] Keeping on with Cricket Club.
    [ ] Studying with friends.
    [ ] Training yourself physically.
    [ ] Seeing what's with Computer Club.
    [ ] Doing your part-time job at the tabletop store.
    [ ] Taking that part-time job at the sweets shop.
    [ ] Maybe doing that modelling thing.
    [x] Traversing the Gameboard without needing to sneak in.
    - [ ] Azuma's Empire.
    - [ ] Eitaro's Empire.
    - [ ] Gakuto's Empire.
    - [ ] Himawari's Empire.
    - [x] Kikuko's Empire.
    - [ ] Melissa's Empire.
    - [ ] Rin's Empire.
    - [X] Write-in: First Makoto, now Rise? That's two people you randomly met who are now at Hanataba investigating the murders, and that's too much of a coincidence. Bring them to the Lounge and drop the word 'Persona', see if that gets a reaction. Maybe they'll be the help you need.

  4. #44
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLIV. Phantom Investigation

    "Yeah, the deaths of three elite students in quick succession is eyebrow-raising, I'll give you that, but I'm surprised that news about our high school is spreading so quickly around Japan- Oh, that's right, that friggin' documentary thing!" you then realised.

    "Huh, what documentary?" Colette had to ask.

    "Oh right, you weren't there that week. Don't worry, that was a blessing in disguise," you sighed out to Colette, "An NHK documentary crew came over to film for an upcoming look at high schools, us being the designated Hokkaido school. It basically was a whole week of stage-fright and 'just act natural' on our part. Then, y'know, Gakuto died immediately after, but I guess they thought they had the footage anyway..." you figured.

    "That's basically how Naoto, detective friend of mine, found out about what's going on here," Rise told you, "It made watching that whole documentary feel a lot eerier than normal, I'll say. So I figured I oughta get up here before the cops close the place off to everyone else".

    You meant no disrespect, but still had to restrain yourself from laughing, "No need to worry about that, our Principal's been bribing the police 24/7 to look the other way, lest our beloved's school reputation, and attendance numbers, go kaput. Though it sounds like word's getting out anyway" you put it.
    "You aren't the first new teacher to show up because of the All-Ace deaths though, I'll say that. Probably the biggest lead I can give you would be to check out their personal lounge, but I guess that'd naturally be one of the first places you'd look... so what I just said was kinda pointless, I guess," you mumbled out.

    "Oh no, not at all, every little bit of help counts, definitely when it comes to, ah, matters like these," Rise knelt down to smile at you, "So, ah, since I'll be your Music Teacher, do you sing at all?"

    "Ah, not really," you gulped, recalling the last few times you'd done karaoke, "Just some backing vocals. Oh, I do play bass though".

    "Guitar," Colette was quick to smugly insert herself, before she grumbled, "Oh right, drums too I suppose".

    "Oh yeah, and Tanizawa-sensei, my homeroom teacher's, also plays guitar," you added, Well, she moves her hands over it at least. "She's out of a gig right now, so hey, maybe you'd get along?" Hopefully better than she did with Makoto.

    "Hey, that's still great to hear! Although, um, I did hear the Choir's Leading Singer got, well, you know, so I guess they probably a lot of recovering to do," Rise went on, her bright tone fading at the end.

    "...Yeah, she was our friend, too," you spoke up and looked down, "And since you're gonna find out anyway, yeah, she was an All-Ace though. Still perfectly alive, so hey".

    "Okay, I guess I'm taking up quite a bit of your time, but you don't mind me asking one last question, right?" Rise piped back up, leaning in a little closer, "Have the deaths been punctuated with any, like, strange disappearances beforehand?"

    "Nope. Okay, Gakuto's a little, but that was just for like the morning," you said.

    "Huh, I see," Rise muttered, stroking her chin, "Well, I guess investigating that lounge tomorrow's the only lead I have right now, but I'll take what I can get. Hey, big thanks to the both of you, see you tomorrow!" she gave one last smile to Colette and you.

    "Huh, these deaths elude me too, yet even I worry that our new teacher has no idea what she's getting into," Colette had to remark upon rise leaving, hand on her hip.

    "I know, but... can't you have a little faith in her, Colette? She used to be a nationwide celebrity, so she's probably had to handle much bigger egos than the All-Aces," you came to Rise's defence.

    "Hmm, I'll just say that I hope for the best... but have to expect the worst," Colette was frank with you.

    Her words also did remind you, maybe she did have the right to know by now about the Gameboard? If you had to tell anyone out of the loop about its true nature, Colette made the most sense, having one foot in the occult world herself, and her own Shadow having once been targeted on it.
    That still didn't mean you knew how to break the news about it at all to her...

    * * *
    <<BGM: Nick Holder - Summer Daze>>

    "Another new teacher this soon? Kinda suspicious-"

    "She's cute though. Hope she really is that perky and doesn't turn out like Himawari..."
    "Hey, that documentary finally came out, at like, the most inappropriate time-"

    "-Oh boy, just found out the girl who attacked Gakuto's back. Way to honour his memory."

    You were now dressed in your more streamlined, white summer uniform, the choice of colour to reflect the heat you assumed. Despite yet another new face in the faculty the day progressed as normal, like it was still the season before.
    One thing you noticed though was Ryouko coming off as oddly put out, like there was just something bugging her all the time with the way she kept muttering.

    "Hey, Tanizawa-sensei, you're not bothered by something are you?" you asked her once the rest of class had left. "...This isn't about you being let off the band, is it?"

    Ryouko didn't say anything then, but did nod. Eventually she came out with, "Yeah, like I can get why Nightshade did it, wanting to make sure I still had a teaching career after this. It's just, well, it's not like I was ever super-invested in teaching anyway..."

    That definitely made you take a step back, but you at least had to ask, "Hey wait, aren't you like, at least grateful for some of the students you've had? Like Suzako, or Colette," You tried not to look self-centred by saying 'and me'.

    Tanizawa-sensei laughed a little at your words, then said with a smile, "Yeah, maybe I am getting a bit carried away. Like, I could do musician stuff I guess, but that's hardly stable, so I'm forced to admit..." that defeated tone of hers crept back in, "If not this teaching job, well, I'd probably have nothing now".

    That did make you think, with you then saying to her, "You know, as a student I kept hearing about 'education should be fun' programs and stuff, especially when I was little. But like, they're always talking about how the students feel, not the teachers, then again I guess school is there for the students above all- Ugh, I'm getting tongue-tied".

    "So, you're basically wondering how to make school 'more fun' for me, is that it?" Ryouko tilted her head and grinned at you. "Hey, Honoka, I appreciate the concern, though I'm afraid you'd have to pull off something real special to accomplish that for me," she chuckled again.

    "Hmm, although, Tanizawa-sensei, have you met Rise-er, I mean Kujikawa-sensei yet? She's more than upbeat, and you do have some shared interests, so I think maybe you'd get along?" was your offer.

    "Oh, the new Music Teacher, right? It's a bit soon for me to really say anything about her, though at least she sounds less uptight than Niijima's been. Eh, who knows?" Ryouko shrugged, "Fail to see how she could make things any worse".

    "Yeah, while she's friendly and all, I gotta admit I still don't know much about her," you said, "Like, I dimly remember she used to be a big star, but that's long past now, at least in pop music time, so I don't think we'll get many students going 'Oh my god, our teacher's Risette?!' or whatever. Still, she does kinda remind me of, well, not who Himawari... Nightshade actually is, but rather what people thought she was like. Oh, except Kujikawa's older, so I guess it's the other way around?" you awkwardly finished on.

    "Ah, well I totally bet my music tastes are way too intense for her," Ryouko gave a devilish grin, as then said snuck out her guitar from beneath her desk, plugged it in where the projector would otherwise go, and gave a windmill strum.

    "Er, don't you think that could wait till after school?" you had to flinch.

    "Hah, thought I was the teacher here," Ryouko smirked.

    Been a while since you had a heart-to-heart with Tanizawa-sensei like this though, despite your Class Rep duties...

    - The Priestess has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    * * *

    Once you got some free time at school, you soon found Rise was too busy that day, it being her first day there. Peering to the music lessons she was giving just to check up on her, you did pick up on a bunch of students sighing "Man, 'hip' teachers are always so out of date". You could see that comment didn't escape Rise's ears either from her split-second flinch, though from there she tried to act like she hadn't heard that.

    You were able to get a chance to talk to Makoto though, with you two arranging to meet up in the Prized Pupil Lounge once the All-Aces were busy elsewhere. Sitting down on one of the plush chairs there, teacup in her hand, Makoto had to gawk at the opulence of the place. "Wow, it's just at my old school, we would've never spent this much on students, it'd be an extravagance. On the teachers, maybe," she took it all in.

    "Well, the All-Aces as an institute here fund a lot their stuff privately, given they mostly come from wealthy families. It's one of the reasons why the Student Council can barely touch them" you told her, sitting down opposite, trying to resist the temptation to spin around on this one chair.

    "...That bad, huh?" Makoto muttered, but then brought up, "You know, I've been hearing all these positive things about your All-Aces from the moment I got here, yet every word you've said about them has been downcast. Then again, maybe I'm the one projecting my personal experiences onto them... or not, I'll give you that Lilian's been insufferable every time I've met her," she laughed a little at her words, you smiling along with her.
    What stopped your smile though, is when she said, "Sakurazuka Azuma though has been quite courteous, like I think he's been the second guy in my life to compliment me on my beauty".

    You could've froze up, but instead said, "Yeah well, appearances can be deceiving".

    "...I see. That, and perhaps I gush too easily, being flattered like that. I mean, growing up it felt like my Big Sis was the one getting all the guys' attention, though true, she mostly seemed exhausted by it," Makoto went on.

    You felt like groaning. "You look perfectly fine, Niijima-sensei," you had to tell her straight up.

    With you standing up, you were now close enough to the circle around the Gameboard, that the burning blue tarot card flashed in your hands.
    "Wait, was that a tarot card?" Makoto exclaimed.

    "You were able to see it?" you gasped back.
    Eyeing the Gameboard, Makoto stood up and moved closer to it, with your eyes widening as a tarot card flared up suddenly in her hand too.
    "The Priestess..." you read out.

    Makoto nodded, then peered down to see what Arcana you had... the instantly took a step back. "Yours reads Fool so, God, does that mean-?" she put her hand over her mouth.

    "You- you know about the Wild Card?" you asked, as several other Arcana shuffled themselves out from behind the Fool.

    "More like I know about a Wild Card," Makoto said, "The point is, you can use Personae, but where? In my experience, you can't summon them just anywhere".

    You pointed straight down at the Gameboard, as you told Makoto, "Lay your card down on the board, and I'll show you where".

    Within seconds the two of you had appeared in No One's Land, with Regalia of Makoto's own appearing on her, as a red scarf wrapped around her neck to extend into an entire flowing cape, a silhouette chitin-like corseted black silhouette fitted itself onto her body, sleeves cut off to show her musculature, and an iron insectoid goggle-mask covered her eyes.

    "My suspicions really were true," she stated, looking down at herself to then say, "My outfit's changed a bit, but I suppose I can't wear the same clothes forever after all, even cognitive ones".

    "Well, we just call this place the Gameboard," you said to her as you threw out your arms, gesturing at this dark expanse, "I've heard a whole bunch of explanations about what it's supposed to be, but you know the phrase 'this town ain't big enough for the both of us'? Yeah, it's basically the collective unconsciousness embodiment of that".

    "Like... an arena where humanity's strongest wills are set to clash?" Makoto got the impression.

    You shrugged, "I guess that sums it up. Don't know if I'd call the All-Aces 'humanity's strongest wills' though, well maybe around here they are," you gave it some thought, "Each of them has an Empire, even the dead ones still do, the incarnation of not just their willpower, but the power their will has on others".

    "Even the dead ones?" Makoto took notice of those words, "You're saying a person can die and they'd still have a Pala- er, Jai- er, Empire?"

    "Well yeah, like there's historical figures who've been dead way longer, yet still influence us. guess it's the same concept here" you figured.

    "Hmm, well I have come across one situation like that before, on the complete other end of Japan though" Makoto remarked.

    "The thing about this damn Gameboard is, only one Empire can hope to rule all of it at a time, for what prize I don't know," you snarled, "You wanna know what's been causing the murders? That's basically it". Well, not 'basically', but anyway.

    "Huh, didn't expect to get something of an answer so fast," Makoto folded her arms and grinned, "Would've made my old job much easier if they, er, Shadows we fought were all at each others' throats instead of ours".

    "Shadows?" you caught that word, "I mean yeah, there's Shadows on the Gameboard, but all the Empires are held by Persona-Users. Er, were held, in the dead ones' case".

    Makoto suddenly went quiet. "Each of these Imperials have their own Persona? Well, ah, that complicates things..." she got around to saying.

    <<BGM: Persona 5 vs Justice (pluffaduff) - Last Surprise vs Phantom>>

    Speaking of Shadows though, one of them immediately swooped down from high above, bursting out into a sphere of flame as it neared the ground. You were now confronted by a crow with wings of smoke, its furthest feathers still on fire, with a beak and talons of coal, white dotted patterns adorning its body, and flickering stars for eyes. rather than swoop at you directly, it instead flew around you two in a circle, creating a ring of roaring flame.

    A quick scan from PITT showed this Shadow was Magician Wahn, and you'd have little success using Fire and Wind. "Okay, so not the Morrigan, though I can't rule out her being involved" you noted.

    "Morrigan? Well okay, that can wait, let's just deal with whoever this is first," Makoto spoke up before, rather than drawing any kanji in the air, instead just removed her mask, "Anat!"

    One second you saw a motorcycle appear, the next it'd unfolded into a flaming blue mech whose limb movements synced with Makoto's. Rather than attack immediately, Makoto cast a red Marakukaja barrier upon you and her, which proved helpful as the crow Shadow tried to divebomb her with his beak, her blocking the attack with two spiked bracers around her hands.

    With you ready to move, you then switched to Theodora to Sukunda Wahn, the Shadow then not able to dodge an oncoming left hook delivered by Makoto, knocking it back up into the Gameboard's 'sky'. The burned crow then started casting Garu spells down, not at either of you, but at the fires to feed them. You had Personae who could let you walk through the blaze, but you couldn't say the same for Makoto.

    So you then had Theodora cast Megido upon Wahn, the raw power of the spell sending the crow into spiral, leaving it free for Makoto to play target practice with it after drawing her revolver. Switching to Octobriana let you run through the fiery ring, drawing your tonfas to strike back at Wahn in person.
    However Wahn, taking one last look at the two of you, then fled through unleashing a heavy smoke cloud, leaving no trace of itself upon vanishing other than two flaming talon-marks.

    "You really are a Wild card then, huh?" Makoto muttered, before she strode up to you and said, "You were about to say something about a Morrigan?"

    "Oh yeah, the Morrigan. I'm told sees the one who oversees this Gameboard, the judge and referee you could say. She's also where the All-Aces' and my Personae came from, through her messenger anyway" you told her.

    "Hmm, fascinating you learned the name of the entity behind this already," Makoto observed, "Perhaps she's more careless than... others, or she feels less of a need to hide herself".

    You paused as her swords sank in, but you then said, "Don't know about that, I feel she would've shown up already if the latter was the case. Niijima-sensei, you make it sound like you got your Persona from elsewhere... so maybe that's why she or one of her subordinates sent that Shadow after us, as a scout".

    Makoto smirked at that, "So she thinks I'm an invader, huh? Well, a little alarming to know I was spotted so quickly then," she said, before bringing something else up, "But the way, even if I'm not with my usual team, I have a request. While we're here, rather than 'Niijima-sensei' or 'Makoto', I'd like you to call me by the codename Queen. Helps draw less attention to me, from my experience".

    "Er, okay," you shrugged, "Guess I'd be Jack then. Or 'Jack of Hearts', which isn't my current title, but I'd take it over Jack of Swords for, er, reasons and stuff. It's complicated," you said.

    "You 'guess'?" Makoto smiled, "It's simple I'll give you, but it looks like you'd prefer a different codename".

    You hesitated, but you then came up with:

    [x] Mirror.
    [ ] Dragon.
    [ ] Saint.
    [ ] Lancea.
    [ ] Shroud.
    [ ] Marotte.
    [ ] Actually Jack's fine.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Alright, so do you have any plans heading forth?" Makoto then asked, before groaning, "Ugh, also looks like we're gonna have to walk all the way on foot here".

    That comment flying over you, you said, "Well, everyone at Hanataba has a Piece, a Shadow usually, on the Gameboard, except us Persona users, we're 'Players' or whatever. What Kikuko, the All-Ace I'm assigned to, wants me to do is beat up this girls' Shadow to 'neutralise' her, basically a hit, and if I don't do it by the end of June, she will. yeah, so obviously I'm not going through with that, but I will try alerting her Shadow about all this instead. She's all the way in Kikuko's own Empire though, so well, I wasn't planning to go there with just me and another".

    "Ah, you want to increase our numbers first, is that it?" Makoto picked up on.

    "Yeah, like there's one other teacher here I'm beginning to suspect might have something to do with Personae, she's clearly trying to solve the murders at least," you explained.

    "I know someone who, well, doesn't exactly have a Persona, but she's certainly got a strong Shadow," Makoto had to say.

    [ ] Wait till you can recruit Kujikawa Rise.
    [ ] Find out who Makoto's referring to.
    [x] Maybe both? Safety in numbers.
    [ ] Maybe bring Nightshade in, though that's not easy to do in a school week.
    [ ] Actually, you reckon Makoto's tough enough that you can take on Kikuko's Empire already.
    [ ] Write-in.
    Of course, finding a time that week when Rise, Makoto, and whoever Makoto had in mind could all be in the Lounge at once while the All-Aces were out, er, was not easy. Still, you were eventually able to arrange something.

    "Okay, so we're all here to solve the mystery! Woo, already making great progress, gang!" Rise beamed, spinning around in one of the All-Aces' chairs.

    Makoto's older sister Sae, however, was certainly in a less cheery mood.
    "Kujikawa, is it? Would you mind acting like a professional, or at the very least your age? This isn't one of your concerts or whatever we're throwing, lives are on the line here," she hissed.

    Rise's eyes twitched, with her retorting, "Hey, I've been in life-or-death situations before y'know. And I also know how what an emotional toll they can take on you, so forgive me for at least trying to cheer people up", she crossed her arms and looked to the side.

    Makoto groaned, as she said to you on the side, "Knew something like this was going to happen. Don't get me wrong, I can't deny the talent Big Sis has in legal affairs, but... ugh, you can see she's not exactly a people person".
    She then turned to her big sister and Rise and asked, "Ahem, perhaps you two would like to inspect this little antique board game they have in here? With Nakamura's assistance, I've managed to uncover some, er, telling marks on it".

    "Hmm, I don't really see what a board game could possibly have to do with the string of deaths, but I do suppose we can't rule out any evidence" Sae said and approached.

    "Well er, I've seen heaps of things used to kill people with, oh boy that came out wrong," Rise said then tensed, "So I wouldn't say a board game is too out of the blue".

    The two froze as they approached, with the requisite burning blue cards appearing in their hands, Rise's reading Lovers VI and Sae's reading... Judgment XX.
    "Alright, awesome!" Rise exclaimed, before she then took her card and crushed it in her hand... only for nothing to happen. "...Funny, that usually works," she mumbled.

    You had to facepalm for a second, "Try laying the card down on the table," you stated.

    * * *

    The four of you then warped down onto the Gameboard, with the usually resolute Sae sent clutching her head at the shift. You also noticed she was still in her regular outfit.

    "Huh, I thought she'd be used to leaping into cognitive worlds?" you asked Makoto.

    "Er, not exactly," Makoto had to admit, "She was more, how do I put this, involved through second-degree".

    Rise however now donned a fur-lined red robe with a golden crown on top of her head, her holding a microphone stand like a sceptre and dressed in a black, pink-frilled flamenco dress beneath. "Yes, woo-hoo, this is comeback tour material!" she exclaimed, but quickly correcting herself with "Er, not getting all excited due to the deaths and stuff like that, just getting to use a Persona again. That's all".

    "Huh, I've only heard of these things you call Personae, yet even I suspected their presence here," Sae deduced.

    "Uh yeah, so we might want to get going, before the Morrigan gets alerted again and sends another of her scouts down to us," you said, looking around.

    It turned out you didn't have even that long, as already a figured had swooped down right in front of you. This new Shadow looked like a cross between a woman and an airplane, a cross between organ and exhaust pipes decorating her hair and legs, though some of them mounted on her shoulders you could see were brass instruments. She held up a lily in her right hand, while in her left she brandished a giant mask like a shield.

    <<BGM: Persona 4 - Reach out to the Truth (Eurobeat Remix)

    "Okay, let's do this! Kouz- er, Kouzeon?" Rise flinched as she saw her Persona mutating right above her, her telescope becoming a planet-smashing laser rifle with the head of a dragon, her skin now made of stars and clad in a blood-red gown, the solar system around her now a Milky Way, and her now riding atop a blazing orange eagle-like phoenix using wispy cloud-reins.
    "No, I know you... Jiutian Xuannu," she realised, before she said, "Okay, Analysis now".

    "That's strange," Makoto mentioned, "Anat came forth same as always for me..."

    Sae meanwhile clutched at herself and collapsed on her knees; a spiked helmet having materialised on top of her.
    "Hmm, it looks like something is has at least loosened that mask's grip on you, compared to, er, before," Makoto observed, before she bit her lip and said, "...Forgive me for this, Sis, it might hurt a little".

    Makoto then wrenched that helmet right off of Sae, her face now cast in shadow and her eyes glowing gold.
    "I art thou... thou art I," you could hear her reciting, before she stood up again and proclaimed "Sovereign!"

  5. #45
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLV. Dead Hand

    Above Sae manifested a Persona wielding six red swords and six red crosiers, its torso and arms made up of innumerable interlocking wheels and silver hair like a more feminine judge wig streaming behind it. Its legs were joined with two silver motorcycles, wearing them like one would war rollerblades.

    Sae herself became armoured in black, fishnet-laced leather, spiked plates like tire treads covering her shoulders and torso, a double-ended scarf patterned like justice scales now flowing behind her, and her legs encased in shiny steel greaves stained with blood.

    "All analysed. Our opponent's Death Gabriel, Ice and Light will do no good, and it seems to have Dark covered, ooh, but we might have a chance with Nuclear," Rise announced, before screaming and ducking as Gabriel tried to shoot right at her, "Hey, no fair attacking the Naviga- oh yeah, to Hell with that. Kick her arse, Xuannu!"

    Her new Persona then blasted back at Gabriel with pulsing Psy-waves, zipping across the battlefield like a laser light show and crochets danced around. Gabriel though responded to this by casting her own Mabufula iceberg on the four of you, freezing where you stood.

    "Yeah, freeze our bodies, but you can't freeze our minds. Go, Anat, nuke her into oblivion!" Makoto called out, trapping Gabriel in a sky-scarping atomic blast. You switched to Octobriana to follow up on her, with the noticeable less major blast you pulled forth.

    All the while Sae was still going over all this to herself, "Heh, I tried to stay on the side of law, yet the Phantom Thieves just kept pulling me in. Alright, you're- I'm Sovereign right, if I've understood this. Well then, Sovereign, if you're me, then you won't hesitate to go full force!" Sae rasped as she had Sovereign deal a crushing swords-strike below to the ice, shattering the entire spread.

    Her eyes turned to the downed Gabriel, at which she said, "Eviscerate her!", Sovereign promptly blasting the Shadow with the pure power of Megido.

    Like Wahn, Gabriel had to swiftly retreat too, soaring back into the heavens, despite being the more powerful of the scouts. Then again Wahn only had to deal with two Personae at once.

    Sae, helmet back on, was now glancing down all over herself and muttering, "This feeling of power, that I am alone am my supreme authority. Heh, I can definitely see why this appeals so much to you, Makoto," she gave a sharp, chuckling grin.
    Makoto then gulped, and said waveringly, "Yeah, good to see you've taken so quickly to it, Sis. Just... y'know, try not to get all Power Trippy on me, would you?" she winced.

    "Spoilsport!" Rise then pulled her eyelid down at Makoto, before saying, "Let her have fun, it is her own self she's summoning".

    "And I do guess without an Empire, she could only do so much harm here," you had to point out.

    "...Empire? Would this be similar to your Palaces, Makoto?" Sae questioned.

    Makoto then said, "Well, I think I'd best let Mirror explain that, she does know the most about this Gameboard, after all".
    You were silent, but then thought Right, that's me.

    "Okay, doing this again. Walk far enough here and you'll come across an Empire, the manifestation of the power a person's will and vision of the world has on others. The All-Aces, the most influential students at this school, all have Empires, and the one Mako- Queen and I had our sights on was Maeda Kikuko's," you explained that all again "And the Morrigan's, well, whoever's overseeing this whole place".

    "Queen? Oh right, I remember you Phantom Thieves gave yourselves codenames," Sae said.
    "Phantom Thieves?!" you and Rise exclaimed in unison.

    Makoto chuckled, "Yeah, Sis had to go and out me like that. But true, I was one of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts you probably heard so much about... and I still am I guess, whether I mean to be or not".

    "Hoo boy, even I'm feeling star-struck," Rise said, before picking up on, "Wait, you mean we get code-names now? Sweet! Okay, if you're Queen, ooh, nobody's called dibs on King, have they? Good, so that'll be my name then," Rise smugly grinned.

    "I could possibly see the practical side of picking a code name, but still, the whole idea still reeks of criminality," Sae muttered, folding her arms. "Hmm, Judge, Order, Courtier, Gavel, Executioner, oh, I like Adversary," she hit upon.

    "Nah, too long-winded, needs to be snappier, y'know?" Rise said, a sudden authority despite having only just picked out her own name.

    "I'd pick Satan for you personally," Makoto grumbled.

    "Wait, Nakamura? You're called a Jack here, aren't you? Hmm, in that case... Accuser, no, J'accuse! I've got it!" Sae then said.

    "Er, okay then," you took that all in, before asking "Queen, King, J'accuse, about time we actually tackled this Empire then?" My own Ace's Empire, "There's a certain Shadow, Skadi, I've got to track down before, er, the Ace there does".

    * * *

    <<BGM: Sengoku Basara 3 - Kanegasaki Dream Battle>>

    Heading up near the cliff overlooking Kikuko's Empire, a lake of pagodas floating like lanterns, Makoto turned to you and asked, "Okay, do we have a plan-of-attack in mind?"

    "Er, not really, I'll admit it's my first time coming to this Empire too," you had to shrug.

    "Why would you need like a strategy or something for just walking around? Like back in the day when my team tackled places like this, I just scanned the area first, then we charged in," Rise had to say.

    Makoto groaned, "King, if you have a background in navigation, shouldn't you all of people know better than to just head into a hostile area?"

    "Well hey, we kinda had to, you know? Floors in the other world kept changing their layouts," Rise pointed out.

    "...I've got something of an idea," you then said, "When one of those, ah, pagodas floats close enough to this cliff, I should be able to leap onto it with a Wind spell, maybe with another if I cast Magarula. Queen's the fastest and I'm the most versatile, so I guess we're best to scout ahead. Meanwhile, J'accuse packs the most punch while King's the flashiest of us, so they'll be best suited to occupying her foot-Shadows' attention".

    "Hold on," Sae had to speak up, "First off, I don't appreciate being described like a brute. Secondly... would someone tell me why us adults are now taking orders from a teenager?"

    Makoto hissed "Knew this was going to happen if I brought her along. Ahem, Mirror's been around this Gameboard much longer than any of us have. So like it or not, when it comes to this one scenario, she is technically our senior" she stated.
    "I believe she said she hadn't even been to this Empire," Sae retorted, "Some 'senior' she is".

    "Hey look, that pagoda's coming around, we don't have much time to argue," you told them, "Queen and I can take the rooftops, J'accuse and King, we'll need your help in clearing out the ground floor Shadows. Okay, we're good to go?"
    Either way, a Magarula cast with Prospero let you launch you and Makoto over to the nearby roof-drain, Sae sighing as she started climbing down the cliff to where the Empire's 'proper entrance' lied, while Rise stayed long-range began to set up a... speaker and amp system atop it.

    "Okay, let's make some noise!" Rise proclaimed from the clifftop, Jiutian Xuannu's spells helping to provide a lightshow, meanwhile Sae readied herself for the oncoming wave of Shadows.

    Meanwhile, you looked at the next rooftop along, only to mutter, "Damn, it's too far to jump".

    Makoto chuckled and said, "That's where I have Anat handy, she's normally a mech in battle but possesses, hmm, transformative capabilities," her then manifesting her Persona as a motorbike, "Not much room on her though, you'll have to hold onto my shoulders".

    You gulped, not exactly liking the sound of this plan. As you awkwardly tried to piggyback onto Makoto, you did look behind you once to see Rise's swingin' performance, you guessed she must've started getting into jazz as she got older, which had successfully attracted a lot of ashigaru-styled shadows for Sae and Sovereign to pummel, Xuannu blasting any stragglers at long-range.

    You had to scream as you sped along the side of the roof atop Anat, leaping all the way across the water until you came skidding to a halt on the opposite rooftop. You gasped for breath as you got off, with Makoto having to look at you and say "Well it worked, didn't it?"

    On the upside, it did seem you were pretty near what you figured was your destination, with you setting your eyes on no less than an iceberg further ahead, a ship from straight out of the early samurai days crashed up against it.

    "Okay, you can... motorcycle jump across if you want, Queen. As for me though, I'll handle this my own way," you stated, leaping off the edge of the roof and using Prospero's wind to slow your fall, then having him freeze the waves in front of you before, switching to Theodora, you Sukukaja'd yourself to gain enough mobility to skate on and jump right across.
    Makoto making it to the iceberg easily enough on her own, you both stared up at the Shadow you'd come here for in particular: the blue giantess Hermit Skadi, skis and bow in hand.

    "Do we attack?" Makoto at least asked first.

    "...No, we just need to talk, tell her not to let Kikuko dominate her mind," you made clear.

    Makoto twitched a little, "Communicating with Shadows tend to be... rough, from my experiences. Like, they'll ask you for a Life Stone then suddenly vanish, like that. But I can certainly respect you wanting to try to get through to her" she said.
    As you headed up the iceberg, or tried to head up given how steep and slippery it was, you then became aware it wasn't just you, Makoto, and Skadi here. A plague of rats started scurrying out of the ship and into water as another Shadow stepped out, a man with nine golden fox tails, massive sheets of paper for a robe marked with a five-pointed star, and five elemental forces swirling around him.

    [x] "Ikue, look, don't let Eitaro or Kikuko run your life".
    [ ] "Ikue... focus on the sport who love, not the people you hate"
    [x] "Ikue, I'm batting for you, y'know, and not just on the cricket field.
    [ ] "Ikue, ugh, can we talk in private, away from this other Shadow?"
    [ ] Deal with this Shadow together with Makoto first.
    [ ] Write-in

    Saying a combination of both of those, you did make the Skadi Shadow look down from her perch atop the iceberg for a second. Following up, you told her, "Believe me, you made absolutely the right choice not to join the Aces, no matter the crap everyone else put you through. You don't need to spend time thinking on what could've been, once you're out of school anyway, you'll know you made the right decision".

    As you said that, Makoto was being made to deal with this new, fox-star-wizard Shadow, not helped by him just shrugging off one of her Frei-class spells. He then added a timer to the battle when called forth flames atop this iceberg, causing the whole thing to start melting beneath you. Acting quickly, Makoto reached for her revolver and opened fire, which at least had somewhat more of an effect when the Shadow was left clutching his bullet wounds.

    Your words getting through to Skadi, she joined in after Makoto when she drew her bow of ice and struck the fox mage with a piercing arrow. Him left staggering back by now, clearly more suited to the magical arts than the physical, Skadi then jumped off the tip of the iceberg to pounce on the mage with her skis skewering him.

    That mage Shadow wasn't done though, as being knocked into the water made him cast electricity over it, heralding an electrical end for you once the last of the iceberg melted. However, upon Makoto trying seemingly a last desperation move, her own Persona started to fully feel the effects of the Gameboard, with her exclaiming as it then transformed.
    One to regain her composure quite quickly though, Makoto called out to her now mutated Persona, "Santabarbara, open fire!"

    Said Persona had gone from bike to mech to nuclear rocket, from which it then rearranged itself horizontally to resemble an armoured train. A giant claw was attached to its front, guns were mounted on its sides and a rocket launcher where the headlight would be, and instead of a chimney there stood the silver figurine of a woman on top of it.

    Makoto jumped on the stairs attached to it and dramatically hung with one hand on the railing. At her command, all of Santabarbara's artillery aimed and fired at the enemy Shadow, finishing him off. Looking down, you could also make out another train sunken deep, relatively more normal-looking than Santabarbara. You felt it'd take more than that to transform a Persona, but it was still something to keep in mind.

    His defeat got rid of your electrified water problem, but still left the iceberg about to sink. That's where Skadi came in, as skiing out she created her own ice bridge, one leading all the way back to the shores. Of course, you and Makoto had to move fast along it, as those pagodas were to set to float over and crash right into it, making you reluctantly grab a hold of Santabarbara's other railing, after Makoto's previous vehicle antics, as you sped off.

    Reaching the other side, yeah, you could tell Sae and Rise were getting pretty overwhelmed by the waves of Shadows, even if they tried not to look it. Some of them had even made it up to where Rise was 'making some noise', which left her trying to whack them off by swinging around on her mic stand.

    Sae too mostly made use of her feet by delivering sweeping kicks that could strike multiple shadows at once with their arc but, you and Makoto both also having firearms, Sae had also cobbled together no less than a minigun from the artillery dropped by her enemies, Sovereign granting her more than enough Strength to wield it. Rise on the other hand, er, mostly preferred to overcharge her speakers for ranged physical damage.

    After ploughing into a horde of Shadows with Santabarbara, Makoto soon joined her sister in pummeling the Shadow legions.

    "Your Persona, it changed?" Sae had to ask in the heat of battle.

    "It's done it before," Makoto was quick to explain in-between punches, "Plus it's been a couple of years, I'm not exactly the same person I was back then, though I still think this place has got something to do with it".

    She then turned and grinned to her sister, "Bet you wish you got to do this in court, huh Si-er, J'accuse?", she winced at not keeping her codename straight despite her insisting on them.

    "Hmm, well a couple of times," Sae had to admit.

    At the head of these Shadow armies though you could spot what looked to be their leader or at least figurehead, a Shadow resembling a little porcelain doll of a royal child, water leaking from its eyes like tears, pinned to a scuttling crab palanquin by an old sword glowing green.

    You would've switched to PITT to analyse it, but with Rise around there was no need, as she had Jiutian Xuannu confirm for her, "Yep, that Shadow's called Antoku, and wow, I've only seen so much of it, but this place is hiding some dark stuff..." Rise's tone went surprisingly more somber as she laid eyes on Antoku, "Anyway, he reflects Wind, Light and er 'Nuclear' won't do much either, but we can get him with Ice and Curse".

    You breathed in deep, thinking Let's put him out of his misery fast then, as you switched to no less than Carmilla, starting things off heavy by casting an amplified Eiga onto Antoku, then once he was downed, following that up with a Deathbound evisceration.

    The Shadows swarming the shores now having lost their lead, Rise tried to finish them off with no less than a stage-dive attack right into them. That did succeed in finishing off a crowd of stragglers, but left a face-planted Rise groaning "Ugh, nowhere near as fun as normal...", her slowly picking herself up.

    "I take it we're all done here then?" Sae asked rhetorically, hands on her hips.

    "Pretty much. Mirror did accomplish the mission she had in mind," Makoto confirmed, going on to explain, "If I understand this right, Maeda Kikuko, the All-Ace in charge of this Empire, was going to have a girl's Shadow here killed, for 'being a threat' or something. But with some convincing, we got her to move away from this part of the Gameboard, so I believe we're done".

    "Yeah, basically describes things," you nodded along.

    "Huh, I'd suspected it before, but I do feel one of these All-Aces is the guiltiest candidate for the murders here, at least for Rokudo," Sae surmised, arms now folded, "If it was a suicide, it could've specifically been to escape a life of mental ruination, if the Gameboard isn't capable of worse".

    Don't think that was anything I hadn't worked out, but it's kinda validating to hear an adult say that, you had to think.
    "Alright, so we can just get the remaining Aces to come down to the station, and we should be able to suss out the perp, right?" Rise chimed in, "Pity though, that Azuma's kinda cute, certainly compared to other killers I know".

    "...Yeah well, you can't judge a man by his looks" you muttered in response.

    "Huh, sounds like I something I'd say," Sae picked up on, "Afraid it won't be that easy though. Sakurazuka's father is a Living National Treasure, Lilian's heir to an Oil conglomerate, and I've even been hired by Teradaya Shipping before, so I can confirm firsthand that they're ruthless. Identifying the killer here may be just the battle, convicting them will be total war, and that's if we're right in suspecting the Aces".

    "Might I suggest a different approach?" Makoto then offered, "With all our leaping over rooftops, we've still only seen so much of this Empire. Maybe there something deep within each Empire that we can use to defeat them, or at least make them confess?"

    "...Not to my knowledge, sadly," you had to say, "There does seem to be an Arena at the heart of each Empire, but that doesn't really have much outside of Duels".

    "Duels?" Sae instantly asked.

    "Dispute resolutions, usually real violent ones," you explained, "Hmm, well maybe the Arenas will have more evidence of the deaths, at least?"

    "Well, it's as good a plan as any," Rise then chipped in, before something clicked in her, "Hmm, if we're all giving ourselves codenames, how about we have our whole little group a name?"

    "I don't exactly see how that'll be necessary," Sae shrugged, "It's likely we won't even be pulling this joint operation much longer".

    "Still, there are social benefits to assuming a group identity," Makoto interjected, "Mirror, what are your thoughts on this?"
    You bit your lip, being put on the spot like this, but you then said, "Okay, how about...
    [ ] The Black Hand.
    [x] Dead Hand.
    [ ] The Resistance.
    [ ] The Rebel Vanguard.
    [ ] The Curse of Hokkaido.
    [ ] Persona Royale.
    [ ] Actually, yeah, don't see the point."
    [ ] Write-in

    * * *

    Before leaving the Gameboard, you told the other three that you, er, just had to make a stop somewhere, wouldn't take long.

    "Velvet Room, huh?" Makoto asked.

    Your eyes widened, "You know about it?"

    "Well, er, not that much, but I've worked with a Wild Card before," Makoto said, "Hope they've had the place, er, cleaned out by now".

    You soon saw that the Velvet Room may've been coming to you, as Popo flapped his way over to you and said, "Oh, Miss 'Onoka, the Morrigan and I may've got a meeting sorted for ya".

    "Oh, ah, okay. Um, what day though?" you asked.

    Popo hesitated for a second, then said, "Well you see Miss, 's not really a matter of when as of where. The Boss Lady says yer free to pop in anytime you fancy, but er..." he paused, "She says she'll be waiting for ya at the very deepest point of a dead Empire. She's gracious enough to let ya choose which one you'd like, however".

    You sighed, knowing that couldn't exactly be anytime soon. Himawari's Empire was probably your safest bet, given Rin's wasn't easy going in the slightest, and you really would rather not find out more about Eitaro and Gakuto.

    "So you work for the Morrigan, the 'entity' in charge here, huh?" Sae glared at Popo as she strode over to him, picking him up by his neck, "I have more than a few questions for you concerning the running of this Gameboard, and in particular if you can report any deaths, which I trust you'll do so truthfully".

    As Popo started gagging from her hold, Rise rushed over and snatched him out of Sae's grip, "Oh, knock it off, will you? Yeah, we've all got questions, but why take it out on this poor little guy?" she said, patting Popo's back.

    "Well, er, 'fraid that's the thing, Miss...?" Popo didn't have her name
    "Oh of course! I'm Kujikawa Rise, and these are the Niijima sisters, Makoto and... Sae," Rise's expression hardened, "We're past Persona users investigating just what exactly is up with this Gameboard".

    "I see. Er, you mind puttin' me down, please Miss Kujikawa?" Popo asked, Rise reluctantly letting him go.

    "Oh, by the by, Miss 'Onoka," he then called out to you, "Lady Morrigan's been kinda... odd honestly, about you inviting more people onto the Gameboard and whatnot. Take it you've met with Wahn and Gabriel, 'aven't ya? Er, she appears right with it for now, but is warning that ya might be pushing matters a little".

    You couldn't say you were surprised, really. "Yeah, I get it" you said back to Popo before entering the Velvet Room.
    Still, at least you'd gotten an answer to a question you'd had now for a while. The meeting with the Morrigan was happening it was just a matter of getting there.

    - The Tower has Journeyed to Rank 6! -

    As for the Velvet Room, Igor greeted you with, "Ah, our tenant arranged quite the collection of Personae for you before he headed out, although you'll have to store or few quite a few of them to fit your capacity. In addition, Star Abeno-Seimei has been made available as a Fusion result".

    [ ] Store Hanged Man Antoku (Wind and Bless)
    [ ] Store Lovers Jiutian Xuannu (Psy and Gun)
    [ ] Store Judgment Sovereign (Physical and Almighty)
    [ ] Store Priestess Santabarbara (Nuclear and Gun)
    [ ] Hanged Man Antoku + Lovers Jiutian Xuannu = Sage+1 Merlin (Curse and Psy).
    [ ] Hanged Man Antoku + Priestess Santabarbara = Death+4 Gabriel (Ice and Bless).
    [ ] Tower PITT + Tower Heracles = Tower+6 Parashurama (Physical and Electric).
    [ ] Judgment Ammut + Judgment Sovereign = Judgment Asherah (Gun and Almighty).
    [ ] Magician Orlando + Magician Prospero = Magician+6 Eshu Elegbara (Bless and Curse).
    [ ] Moon Carmilla + Moon Mayasura = Moon+7 Astolfo (Fire and Wind).
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Justice Gretchen = Star+4 Abeno-Seimei (Magic).
    [ ] Justice Gretchen + Fortune Hideyoshi = Emperor+3 Dahaka (Curse and Nuclear).
    [ ] Justice Gretchen + Devil Anastasia = Fool+7 Galahad (Bless and Physical).
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Fortune Hideyoshi = Rebirth+5 Aleph (Gun and Physical)
    [ ] Leave as is.
    [X] Write-in: Hanged Man Antoku + Lovers Jiutian Xuannu = Sage+1 Merlin (Curse and Psy), Judgment Ammut + Judgment Sovereign = Judgment Asherah (Gun and Almighty) inherit Counter/Counterstrike, Justice Gretchen + Fortune Hideyoshi = Emperor+3 Dahaka (Curse and Nuclear) inherit Claim Stake, Star Octobriana + Magician Orlando = Priestess+3 Circe inherit Hellfire

    I am Priestess Santabarbara, breaker of the bullet chain," said Makoto's new Persona, "We shall collapse the tower and tunnel through to salvation"

    "I am Priestess Circe, sorceress of the golden skies," said a radiant redhead in male captain's garb, steering a floating island with a wheel of boar tusks, "Trespassers will be reduced to animals before us."

    "I am Emperor Dahaka, Dragon King of Evil," intoned an Iranian lord strung up like a puppet at the shoulders by two dragons as strings, "The fires of truth shall be extinguished in our kingdom."

    "I am Judgment Asherah, this world's divine matriarch," said a pattern-engraved towering cavewoman, "Unruly children will be made to honour their creatrix.

    Elements: Absorbs Nuclear, blocks Gun, resists Electric, weak to PsyStats:
    - Strength: |||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Freila, Mafreila, Triple Down, Rakukaja, Evade Bless
    Priestess Bonus: Nuclear Boost


    Elements: Absorbs Wind, blocks Nuclear, resists Bless and Curse, weak to Psy and Gun
    - Strength: ||
    - Cognition |||||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: ||
    Skills: Garula, Magarula, Psio, Rakunda, Tarunda
    Priestess Bonus: Makakaja
    Inherit Bonus: Hellfire, Megido


    Elements: Absorbs Curse, blocks Nuclear, resists Psy, weak to Fire and Bless
    - Strength: |||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: ||||
    Skills: Stagnant Air, Makouha, Mafreila, Wage War
    Emperor Bonus: Blade of Fury
    Inherit Bonus: Claim Stake, Diarama


    Elements: Null Bless, resist Fire and Wind, weak to Ice
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Megido, Grand Tack, Maragion, Samarecarm, Mazionga
    - Inherit: Counter, Counterstrike, Gatling Gun

    * * *

    You assumed everything was over for the week after exiting back into Hanataba, until out in the corridor you saw Sae getting into a something of a confrontation. "Look, um, no offence, but our school is certainly well-equipped to deal with the, er, strange events which've been occurring lately," the Principal gulped in front of Sae, "It'll really help us out if you kindly accepted this cheque and went on your merry way, this school's the light of community after all, so best to keep people thinking that".

    Sae fumed at this, swiftly tearing that cheque in two. "You must be out of your mind if you think you can bribe a lawyer of my calibre," she hissed at him, making the Principal stumble back. "Misinformed too, I mainly handle defence these days, but for usurers like you I may make an exception".

    "You couldn't accept a good deal when you had it, huh?" Fujino Teruko, Vice-Principal and Martial Arts instructor, scowled at Sae, "Since our 'soft power' approach didn't work, I'll just say if you think you can tear down this school, don't think we can't hit you back harder".

    That uncomfortable stand-off over, once the staff had left, Sae hissed and punched a nearby locker.
    "Hey, er, it's okay," you tried to say to her, "I mean, I applaud you for not taking the money, my finances are so iffy that I probably would've accepted it".

    Sae walked back and sighed, "Thank you for words, Nakamura. This... isn't the first time someone's tried to buy me off, but it doesn't sting any less," she muttered.

    She then chuckled to herself, "I was wavering back and forth on how committed I was to this case, but that weaselly little bribe just convinced me, I'm not going anywhere," she grinned.

    - Rebirth has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    As Sae left for the evening, you turned around and gasped to see that Kikuko had been watching the whole thing.

    "I recognise that woman," she said, "Niijima Sae, Tokyo Attorney, no stranger to my father's business. Even still, what right does she think she has to besmirch Vice Principal Fujino like that?" she then burst out, even gripping her sword's hilt.
    You flinched. You knew Kikuko did look up to the school's Vice-Principal, but you didn't know it was to the point where she could get that riled up.

    "Grr, never mind. Enjoy your free time, Honoka, but I won't hold back with your training," Kikuko hissed.

    Oh yeah, Sunday was coming up. You'd kinda forgot with everything going on, but you thought you could spend the day hanging out with:

    [x] Reina.
    [ ] Suzako.
    [ ] Yuya.
    [ ] Colette.
    [ ] Tsubasa.
    [ ] Megumi.
    [ ] Hotaru.
    [ ] Takako.
    [ ] Mum & Dad.
    [ ] Koyomi.
    [ ] Nightshade.
    [ ] Or sneaking onto the Gameboard
    [ ] Write-in.

  6. #46
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    May 2012
    In-Between Days
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    XLVI. A 'Normal Girl'

    Thinking you were overdue to meet up again with Reina, after your talk with each other on the train, you then called her up while sitting in the darkness of that warehouse Kikuko had you in, and began with a simple "Hi there, wanna hang out today?"

    Reina hesitated, but she then said, "Er, sure! Like, I was originally going to talk with Colette today, but she said she was busy with writing and haunted house planning and stuff, so yeah, guess that leaves me free. Um, you have anywhere in mind?"

    "Well, I was kinda thinking that clothes-shopping takes up a bit too much of our time together. I'm not knockin' it or anything, just saying we should maybe vary things up a little. Like y'know, other stuff you're into, karaoke maybe, er food?" you instead said to you.

    You could hear Reina humming on the other end of the phone, before she whispered conspiratorially, "Hey, you know what I wanna do? Something Melissa would never allow!"

    You had to smile at that, before saying, "Oh boy, have to imagine that covers a lot. Okay, so I'm guessing like, reading? Watching complex movies? Non-mainstream fashion shows? Karaoke of too obviously Japanese songs".

    "Ooh, all cool ideas!" Reina chirped up, "So, ah, if you've got nothing else to do today, how 'bout w head on down to Sapporo for those?"

    "...Yeah, I should have time today" you confirmed, but did think, Unless Kikuko comes in and suddenly drags me elsewhere.

    Luckily you were able to easily get on over to Sapporo, likely helped by Kikuko's place being slightly closer to the city. Reina was quick to smile and hug you at the train station, but then had to back away a little, blushing and fidgeting.
    Your first instinct was to head on over to a decent karaoke booth, despite the honest fact that neither of you were the best singers, or good singers at all really. That said, you couldn't accuse Reina of not trying, especially with her sudden choices in... rather dramatic songs that were composed with screaming out one's lungs in mind.

    Once you exited the karaoke room and sat down for some early lunch, you did have to ask her, "Reina, um, is there something you wanna talk about? Like, anything eating up at you?"

    "Well, um, since I've been hanging out with Colette, I'm trying to get more into the stuff she likes," she began, looking down, "But er, though she tries to be nice to me, like, I just can tell she's embarrassed by me" Reina then slumped down, burying her face in her arms.

    You sighed and tried to tell her, "Look, it's not so much that Colette is embarrassed by you. More like, well, she wants you to find your own style, not try to copy what you think is someone else's".

    Reina sat still for a second, but then admitted, "Thing is, well, I'm not sure what my 'own style' even is, or if I ever had one. Before Colette, Melissa was my whole world. And before I saw her, it was whatever other girls were into".

    You sighed a little at that, worried you were now back at square one, as you then said, "I'll be blunt, Reina. You're still not over Melissa casting you out, right?"

    Reina went silent, almost stiff, before she suddenly burst out crying onto your lap at those words. You then helped her back up and looked into her hands.
    "Reina, look, if you can't think of the sort of girl you're naturally like, then... think of that sort of person you thought Melissa was, not who she actually is, and then be the Melissa you thought existed, because she herself clearly isn't," you told her, but then had to bite your lip and said, "Okay, that was kinda spur of the moment on my part, I have no idea if that's good advice. But... if Melissa's still leaving that sort of mark on you, I think that's probably the best route".

    For a second Reina didn't know what to think, but then smiled at you and said, "Thanks, it's still great you were here to tell me that. Hey, er, maybe after that we should cool off with a movie, since we are all the way over in Sapporo after all?"

    That could've brought up the question of whether now to go see a movie Melissa would never watch, or more philosophically, one the ideal her would watch. Of course, it also depended on what the cinema actually had playing, which in this case turned out to be the German meta-fantasy Endless Tale, about a kid entering a fantasy world built on imagination... then taking it over before getting kicked out by its inhabitants. Huh.

    It mostly didn't seem it was really Reina's thing, especially that one scene with the horse, so you figured maybe you should've taken Suzako. Still, it seemed the film did have some overlap with her interests, as there were certainly plenty of eccentric fashions on display, like elaborate hairstyle or gowns of crystal.

    Speaking of which, you both knew there was a more underground fashion show being held in Sapporo today, but that'd be more than a little later on. So for now, you figured you'd look into that whole 'reading' thing Melissa couldn't stand and head to the nearest decent library. That said, you didn't plan on borrowing anything, Colette had recommended you a whole heap of books to sift through, and even some poetry volumes and manga courtesy of Suzako, but you could still look.

    Hmm, you got the idea that maybe you should borrow a book for someone else. True, they could easily borrow it themselves, but it was the thought that counted, right?
    [ ] Ryouko.
    [ ] Yuya.
    [ ] Suzako.
    [ ] Koyomi?
    [ ] Hotaru.
    [x] Na-rae.
    [ ] Rin?
    [ ] Megumi.
    [ ] Himawari.
    [ ] Mum.
    [ ] Dad.
    [ ] Takako.
    [ ] Write-in.

    You mostly found Reina staring at travel books, and also noticed she needed glasses to read. you saw an old gothic novel and the book version of the film you saw strewn out near her, but you personally had to doubt how much attention she'd paid to those.

    "Travel, huh?" you muttered, sitting down beside her, seeing she'd had books out on everywhere from the US to Brazil to the UK to France to Thailand and so on. "You know, I've been over the sea to Russia once, that's about it, though given... who I still have to hang out with, I could maybe see being dragged to the US one day".

    Reina smiled and looked at you, "Yeah, California, Hawaii, well, I guess I'm more fantasising about them than anything, really. Probably just gonna disappoint myself..." her tone deflated.

    "Eh, disappointing or not, at least you can say you've been there," you told her, before remembering, "Oh yeah, speaking of Russia, I keep forgetting to give you this ribbon, heh. I ran into Takamaki Ann while I was there and asked her to sign it for you, hell, met Kujikawa Rise on the same trip! Though er, guess that's not so special now she's our Music Teacher".

    "No, it's great, thank you!" Reina beamed upon finally receiving the ribbon, before stiffening and saying, "Wait, hold on, Risette's our music teacher? I, I had no idea...".

    You looked away for a second, "Well, she was last famous about five years ago. I don't think that's too long, but still, guess they thought her faded star didn't warrant too big of an announcement?" you figured and shrugged.

    "Hmm, hey Honoka, I... don't mean to rub this into you," Reina looked at you, "because I know Himawari was your friend, so I'm really not trying to make light of her getting expelled. But, ahem, I'm thinking I might start seriously trying out Choir, with Risette teaching and all. There is a vacant spot now for its solo singer".

    "Hey, that's a good idea. And don't worry Himawari wouldn't mind you saying that," you smiled at Reina. Melissa though, God, I don't know if she'll try anything if Reina gets popular again... "Oh, one thing about travel again. Um, are you okay with flying?"

    "Course I am!" Reina perked up, "I totally love the feeling of flying! Only ever flown domestically though, but still!"

    ...That makes one of us, you thought.

    That just left the underground fashion show to attend and yeah, you had to figure quite a lot of the stuff you saw there was way beyond Reina's tastes, or your own even. A lot of the more leather-y stuff reminded you of that Hellrazor movie Colette was a fan of, though in this case even her fashions usually stayed modest.
    Some of the models all dressed up as animals though, you had to admit, were kinda cute, like the girls in wolf and fox suits.

    Well, that was that day over. Maybe not as an ideal as it could've gone, but you and Reina had fun anyway.

    At the station though, Reina did have something to say to you. "Hey, er, Honoka, about that whole confession thing. I've been thinking," she then took a deep breath in and out, "Maybe, like, what I should do is, rather than ask you out, maybe I should make myself more desirable as a person, like seriously work on my singing and fashion, that you'll be the one who wants to ask me out".

    You bit her lip, but soon turned that into a smile, as you told her, "Hey look, that's... nice, Reina. But hey, you're already 'desirable' enough, well, you just need to put yourself down less, but that's all".
    It wasn't a confession on your part yet, but for now, you did lean down to offer Reina a kiss on the lips.

    - The Magician has Journeyed to Rank 6! -

    The two of you drew away after some time, hearing the faint rumbling f the train in the distance. You didn't say anything then, but Reina smiled with the rosiest blush.

    That little island of joy over, you now faced the week ahead:
    [ ] Drama Club.
    [x] Tea Ceremony Club.
    [ ] Occult Club.
    [ ] Cricket Club.
    [ ] Band duties.
    [ ] Class Rep duties.
    [ ] Checking on the Computer Club.
    [ ] Checking on the Tsutsuji Dojo.
    [ ] Part-time at the Tabletop store.
    [ ] Part-time at the sweets store.
    [ ] Keeping an eye on Melissa, dragging Yuya and Suzako into this.
    [ ] Internet 'research'.
    [ ] Touring colleges.
    [ ] Household maintenance.
    [ ] Gameboard
    [ ] Write-in.

    When you met Na-Rae next as she was sweeping up the warehouse, you looked around to make sure Kikuko was nowhere near in sight, before you whispered to her, "Hey, um, I borrowed a little something for you from the library. Guess it's not much, but whaddya think?"

    You handed her a travel guide to South Korea, which she looked over and then gaze at you, eyes wide, "Oh, th-thank you Miss Honoka! I, um, am reasonably familiar with the layout of my home country, but you could say I am indeed in need of a refresher, so my thanks again. Just worried that Mistress Kikuko will find it, she's quite eagle-eyed ya know?" she said to you.

    You shrugged and said, "Eh, personally don't think Kikuko's quite as meticulous as you say. Although, I think I have something that may help," you then reached over to one of your bags, "Ah yep, here we go, old textbook cover of mine. You can use this to hide what you're reading from Kikuko. Um, no idea if it'll work, but better than nothing I guess".

    Once Na-rae had slipped the cover on, it wasn't that long until Kikuko came through the door, the book luckily small enough to quickly be squeezed out of sight.
    You saw Kikuko had brought one of her horses along at the door... the horse she usually gave you to ride on, Oniwaka. Wait no, but it's just before school, this can't mean-? the thought sunk into you.

    "Nakamura, I have graciously given you equestrian lessons, when in the past an ashigaru like you are now wouldn't have even been able to afford a horse," Kikuko stated, her arms folded, "This morning, I now instruct you to display what I've thought you by riding Oniwaka all the way to school".

    That little command of hers froze you to the spot. To think you actually liked horses before Kikuko started insisting you ride them, with little more instruction than a stern gaze and a 'Don't fall off'.
    Walking over to the steed picked for you, Na-rae there to help you on, you had to keep steadying yourself to get into position while Kikuko was there perched side-saddle. You so desperately wished she would've just stuck to teaching you calligraphy or something, true your hand was unsteady as anything, but at least there was no falling off.

    Oh yeah, and the fact that the way from the Maeda manor to Hanataba was mostly downhill, that really didn't help your balance as Oniwaka picked up speed. As you yanked on the rains in a desperate attempt to make sure the horse actually stopped at the school and didn't barrel past right to the bridge, your body lurched back and forth to the point where, once you finally got off, you felt like retching.

    With you walking into school alongside Kikuko, her only giving one look at you before dismissing your nausea, you stopped to think, ...How did this girl ever get so popular at our school anyway? Was it honestly just her looks, her lineage, her... grades and kendo skill?
    Okay yeah, there is a lot then
    , you had to admit and, looking around to see Kikuko also barely acknowledging what other students were here at this early hour, you felt you hit on the answer, Oh right, because she rarely interacts with anyone, so they only see her image from afar and hear her accomplishments.

    "Hey, Kikuko- Maeda- Ace of Swords, whatever you want me to call you," you then said as you walked back over to her, "You told me you can have fun, on that plane ride back from Russia, remember? Can you just, y'know, strike up a conversation with another, random student, that's not an Ace or someone you have to interact with doing Tea Ceremony stuff?"

    "What would be the point?" she titled her head looking at you, "I would have nothing to gain, and at worst could sully myself."

    To show you're not a friggin' iceberg, that thought seethed through you, but out loud you only said, "Public relations, aren't you like taught that by your family's business?"

    "The All-Aces already have a strong-" Kikuko tried to say as you suddenly shoved her out and into the path of an approaching student, some random brownish-black-haired boy who then stumbled back.

    'Go on, say something to him' you mouthed to her from the side.

    Kikuko then gulped being put on the spot like this, but then said, "Good morning to... you. I am Maeda Kikuko, daughter of Teradaya Industries' Head, Maeda Iemitsu" almost like she was reading off cue cards.

    'Say something about your interests' you tried to encourage her.

    "I serve as Ace of Swords. I am also the Head of the Tea Ceremony Committee here at Hanataba Gakuen, where we instruct other students in the proper appreciation of..." Kikuko then paused when the boy you'd made her talk to went into a dizzy spell, his brain trying to process that the most popular girl in school was actually talking to him.
    Kikuko then went back to glaring straight at you, hissing "What did you make me do that for? You can see now why your little scheme didn't work; we are clearly from separate worlds!"

    You stepped back on fearful instinct, as you slowly said, "Y-yeah, well, I couldn't have known that was gonna happen. And like, 'different worlds'? You're talking like an alien or something, when you're just from an old family".

    Rather than actually respond to you, Kikuko then shifted tact with, "You know something? Why am I even taking social advice from the girl who spoke to hardly anyone before we took her in, anyway?"

    That left you silent for a second, but you then retorted, "Hey, c'mon, that's who I was at the start of the year, I've had to do a whole bunch of socialising since. So I thought hey, if I have to learn a whole bunch of stuff from you, why shouldn't you from me?"

    Kikuko went pale, paler anyway, as she seethed out, "Need I remind you who is the apprentice and who is master here?!" She then added, "Huh, you've just reminded me why I cannot stand social climbers. The minute we do anything generous for you, you naturally disrespect who made who you are. You're lucky you even have that Wild Card of yours, we would've long cast you out for your insolence otherwise".

    Like that'd be such a bad thing, you had to think, before you told her, "Y'know Kikuko, it's kinda hard to feel sorry for you ranting about social climbers. Like, you're still friggin' rich, get over it.
    God, if you're gonna keep getting aggressive like this, do you just wanna work your anger out in kendo or something?" you ended up saying.

    Kikuko suddenly started laughing at that offer, her saying "What, too scared to challenge me on the Gameboard?"

    Moving on, you said, "I know, we'll use guns with blanks instead, that way I'll also be using a weapon I actually have experience with".

    "I believe that is your fault for not diversifying your weapon training," Kikuko bluntly told you, crossing her arms and looking away, "But a duel with blanks, that can be easily arranged. Although, as per our tier system-"

    We're honestly talking about tiers in a tea ceremony club? you thought.

    "-You'll have to face Yomogi first, before moving onto me. is that clear?" she finished saying.

    "...Yeah, crystal," you simply muttered to her.

    * * *

    The following day in Jidai Geki LARPing, er, Tea Ceremony Club, you stood in the middle being pushed into a gun duel with Na-rae first. And ooh boy, were you sure to check every inch of the gun beforehand, as even though you were using Airsoft muskets, you had to make absolutely sure there really were genuine bullets in here, since by now you couldn't put anything past the All-Aces.

    You sighed with relief to find there wasn't, but still wavered as you and Na-rae took two paces back before turning around to aim at each other, her looking no more comfortable with this than you.
    While you recalled that Na-rae had adept quite adept with the sword way back when, likely because she had to be to even be accepted by Kikuko, it seemed here she wasn't as adept with guns, with you swiftly landing the decisive airsoft shot on her. Na-rae smiled at you, but was still left clutching her shoulder.

    As part of you was thinking it'd be less awkward and more fun if you did with this paintball instead, you then looked up to see it was now Kikuko's turn to fire at you. Trying not to also think of the entire rest of the Tea Ceremony club who were here watching this as part of what should've been the normal extracurricular routine, you fumbled with the trigger as Kikuko was more than ready to aim.

    However, as a click emerged from Kikuko's gun when there should've been a shot, you got the chance to fire on her before she could, ending the lowercase-d duel. Your surprise victory sent the entire club into a whispering frenzy amongst each other, as Kikuko, having no idea how to process this, slowly walked over to you and offered her hand.

    After you headed somewhere more private to talk, you had to ask, "So, er, what I do get for winning then? Because I did have something in mind..."

    Kikuko gritted her teeth and just said, "What?"

    "I want you to make good on your offer to have some fun. We'll go out on the town this evening, just hang out and stuff," you said, keeping implicit You know, like how normal girls do. "Oh, and I get to choose your wardrobe, get you in the right mindset".

    Kikuko went silent, but eventually said, "A duel won is a duel won. Fine".

    "Great, meet up with you soon then," you grinned at her, as she just walked off for the time. While things seemed to be going your way for now, you of course had to find out to that this private spot wasn't private.

    "So, our Honoka, did you appreciate the favour I did you with my plan to sabotage Kikuko's gun?" Azuma asked, stepping out of the shadows.

    "What the-" you sputtered out, but did remember back to Kikuko's gun being jammed, which made you just mumble, "Ah, right, thanks".

    "Hmhm, glad to see some gratitude. Of course, I'm no gunsmith, so when I learned you two would be having this stand-off, I called in Melissa to rig Kikuko's weapon," Azuma went over.

    So you want credit just for 'thinking' of the idea? "What, did she ask to go on a date with you in return?" you had to bring up.

    "Thankfully not, as she seemed delighted with the idea as it was," Azuma said.

    "Yeah, I guess you've already seen right through her plan to make you think Yuya's her boyfriend or whatever," you felt the need to bring up.

    "Hah, from the effect she's clearly had on the Ito boy, she's made me even more grateful that my relation to her is merely being in the same institute," Azuma chuckled at the thought. "Is my own mother apparently not enough for her desperate self?"

    "Oh yeah, almost forgot about that whole, er, Melissa and your Mum thing..." you muttered, then slowly said, "Though like, I bet that isn't the strangest thing rich kids do to each other".

    "I have seen more peculiar, true," Azuma had to admit, "Honestly my mother... unfaithfulness doesn't surprise me. This long after her faded star, she'll take any appreciation she can get.
    Oh, one parting word, Honoka," Azuma then looked into your eyes, "Forget about trying to make Kikuko into a 'normal girl' or whatever it is you're aiming for, unless it's in fact part of a plan to make her lose control of her Shadow". He then strode off, leaving you to your 'won' time together with Kikuko.

    * * *

    "I have to wear... this?" Kikuko shivered as she came out in the clothes you'd picked for her, not telling her they were some of Reina's spares.

    "Of course! Don't worry, you look absolutely fine," you told her, I mean, you're dressed in what any normal Japanese girl would wear, so really, what is your problem?

    "Yes, the oufit truly compliments you, Mistress, er, I m-mean, Nakamura," Na-rae, also dressed in normal gear outside her maid outfit, told her, though still hesitant to say Kikuko's first name without the 'Mistress' beforehand.

    "Ugh, why was it somehow part of your insistence that I not refer to my own maid as my maid?" Kikuko rasped at you.

    "Well, er, because this is just supposed to be a casual thing, bringing servitude into this kinda, er, makes it lose that aspect" you tried explaining to her, "For the moment, try not to think of- Tsubasa as your maid, just as a girl you know who's with us right now".

    Kikuko's mood didn't improve as you headed out onto the town, your first stop being an appropriately 'normal' place, a konbini store. You sort of had to drag her through it, her not exactly familiar with the layout, the clerk just watching you but not saying anything.
    Being summer, you thought it might be a good idea to lead her over to the ice cream section, where she at the very least expressed some interest in the watermelon bars with chocolate chips for seeds... if only to make it look like she was somewhat invested in this.
    She still ripped one out of its package, despite not having paid, and took a bite, then another, and before long she'd finished and did the same to another. When the three of you eventually left the store, Na-rae having looked at the small Korean section for a second while Kikuko hadn't, Kikuko was rapidly devouring a whole bunch of those watermelon bars.

    "Er, yeah, how's about we hit the gym to burn all that off, huh?" You then said to her.

    "I am in perfectly good shape as it is," she told you in-between mouthfuls, "...But I suppose it couldn't hurt".

    At said local gym, Kikuko received more than a few comments on her physique from onlookers, which she acted typically for her as if it was nothing... until she overheard Na-rae's physique getting just as many compliments. You had to spend the rest of your time there watching Kikuko like a hawk to make sure she didn't tamper with the treadmill or weights while Na-rae was using them.

    Afterwards, you then took another cue from Reina and tried getting Kikuko into a photobooth. You and Na-rae acted predictably cheerful in there, even if you had the biggest shit-eating grin in your case, but Kikuko at most could only muster an awkward smile.

    Your plan then had you finish up the night with some dancing, but since it was on the way and you had time, you asked Kikuko, "Hey, how's your singing voice?"

    Kikuko flinched for a second, and rather than give an actual answer, instead raised another question, "You're planning to take me to a karaoke booth, aren't you?"

    "Pretty much. C'mon!" you said as you ushered her in there. In fairness to her though, you at least picked a traditional enough sounding tune to ease her in:

    <<BGM: Hakuoki - Yume no Ukifune (instrumental)>>

    You could now definitely say that Kikuko's voice was better than yours, even though her clear lack of practice in this scenario meant that, unlike her powerful speaking voice, she was still restrained here by nervousness. Na-rae though seemed perfectly adept to this situation, her voice sounding naturally expressive.

    That experience over, you now had no idea how Kikuko would do on a nightclub dancefloor. You then thought a different tactic would be needed in order to make her fit into the environment, so you decided to tell her, "Maeda, you have the obligation to be the best dancer on that floor, got it? It wouldn't do for you to lose face in front of that crowd, you hear?"

    You actually had success, as Kikuko nodded and even saluted at those words of yours. The dancefloor wasn't actually that crowded, this still being Kuchinashi, but as Kikuko tried to groove to completely alien music to her, well, she still embarrassed herself frankly, but it at least looked like she was putting in effort this time.

    ...Not that your own moves were really that better, this being more Rise's and Nightshade's field if anyone's, although Nightshade's moves were, er, interesting. Na-rae was by far the best dancer on the floor... mainly be default, but now you her beginning to worry about her constantly matching or showing up Kikuko, even if this was possibly the only time she got to do so.

    The hours having passed, you eventually made it back to Kikuko's manor with a whole box of ramen takeout in tow. To end the experience, you turned to Kikuko and asked, "Hey, um, I do hope you had a good time".

    "...Are you trying to taunt me?" she asked flat-out, "I thought this was all for your benefit, to pound in your victory over me".

    "What? No, of course not, I was just trying to show you how people like me have fun, that's all," you said, before you had to admit, "Okay, not me per se, I'd probably just spend a night like this inside if someone didn't drag me out, but you get my point. The whole idea was for you to have fun, Kikuko, just... in a different way than your usual one".

    "I truly think I'd have liked the 'inside' idea better," Kikuko muttered, before saying, "I'll need a full week of calligraphy, flower-arranging, and waterfall meditation to detox from... that. However, well, I suppose it is nice to know that, whatever that was, you did mean it for my benefit. I... I thank you for that, Honoka".

    - The Empress has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    As said week went by, you soon Sunday approaching again, which raised all the usual Sunday options of hanging out with:

    [ ] Reina.
    [ ] Suzako.
    [ ] Yuya.
    [x] Colette.
    [ ] Na-rae.
    [ ] Megumi.
    [ ] Hotaru.
    [ ] Takako.
    [ ] Mum & Dad.
    [ ] Koyomi.
    [ ] Nightshade.
    [ ] Or sneaking onto the Gameboard
    [ ] Write-in.

  7. #47
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLVII. Kikuko Confrontation

    Whispers around the school through the remainder of the week about you having beaten Kikuko in an airsoft duel certainly caught your ear, with you also not being surprised to hear some students insist that the whole thing had to be rigged. Which they weren't wrong about, admittedly, which gave you some thought as to whether to come clean by placing the blame rightfully on Azuma and Melissa. Then again, while maybe you could get away with accusing Melissa, you had no idea if people would believe you, if not turn on you, if you accused Azuma.

    So you decided to stay silent and bask in the burst of adoration you got from having people think you genuinely beat Kikuko at something. Of course, you weren't the only person who'd suddenly gotten a helping hand from a figure in power (oddly, given that was how you got into this very mess), so you now thought to meet up with Colette again to see how the process of her book being published was coming along. It'd been what, about two weeks since your Tokyo trip?

    * * *

    Ringing Colette up, you asked her "Hi, er, you feel like going anywhere today? Like, er, I had Hakodate on the mind, city's got a lot of festivals and stuff on, and we didn't have much time to walk around while we were there last". You didn't immediately leap to the book deal, which you figured was the smart move.

    "Hmm, funny you should ask that, as I do believe the Mt. Io Festival is being held in Kaminokuni today. While its famous torchlight procession is hosted during the day, for the most spectacular view we must simply come at night," she said to you, but admitted, "Of course, the two is about two hours from Hakodate, let alone here, so I can understand your apprehension".

    "Hey look, it's cool, I can manage that," you were quick to say, eyeing the time and trying not to think about that curfew Kikuko had set for you, "Um, though maybe we can meet in the middle and make it more an evening thing, that sound good?"

    "Ah yes, perfectly reasonable," Colette chirped, but then sighed, "Of course, I don't believe Kaminokuni even has a train station, so that does place another hurdle..."

    "You think there'll be a bus or something, given the town has a festival going?" came your first thought.

    "Well neither of us can drive, so that's probably our best bet," Colette went over, before brightening back up with, "Either way, let's convene at the station".

    It was on that train ride down to Hakodate that you thought you should probably bring up that book deal already. "So, er, Colette, any word on your book getting published by now?" you tentatively asked.

    You could see Colette scowl for a second, but she was swift to shift to mere disappointment. "I've received no word back yet, but of course I must remind myself that the publication world moves slowly. That Nanjo did admit that publishing wasn't his field, to give him that" she said in a restrained tone.

    "Ah, okay, I was worried about that," you mumbled in response, "Strange thing is though, I don't think you've even told me anything about this book, even though you've got the manuscript all written and everything?"

    At your words, Colette haughtily grinned and said, "Ah, I figured I'd keep its contents a surprise for you until publication. Of course, that's publication even happens," she then muttered. "However, I could happily share some of my other stories with you if you so desire".

    "Oh wow, that's great," you smiled, "I'd love to hear them".

    "Not here though," Colette said in a swerve, "I'd figured we'd visit Hakodate's Higashiyama Cemetery, that would be a much more fitting site to recite my writings to you".

    You were a little taken aback, but you could at least understand Colette's logic. She was usually fastidious about setting a scene, hence all your work preparing the Occult Club.

    While it was a little too late for the Morning Market, and more than a while to the night-viewing on Mt. Hakodate, you did the bell chimes from the Haristos Orthodox church, and the star-shaped, former fortress of Goryokaku Park was easily accessible on your way to the... Cemetery.

    Sitting on a bench there under a blossomed tree overlooking the moat, there was another, more uncomfortable question you did feel the need to bring up with Colette. You at least did so with some food to ease the tension, Colette having ordered the blackest of squid ink ice-creams, and since the seafood in Hakodate didn't stop after the morning market, you had:

    [ ] A squid ink ice-cream, the same as her. [+2 Perception}
    [x] Red caviar. [+2 Etiquette]
    [ ] The snow crab, which you were well aware of by reputation. [+2 Education]
    [ ] That 'dancing' squid. [+2 Resolve]
    [ ] A salt ramen dish littered with seafood. [+1 all]
    [ ] Write-in.

    So, while relaxing with the food, you brought up with Colette, "Er, more personal question. Um..." you kept hesitating.

    "It's alright, best to say it sooner rather than delay," Colette told you.

    "You've been on HRT for years now, right? Because, oh God, I should be safe from any risk of-" you began mumbling and losing your words again.

    "Ah, you're worried I may have impregnated you, is that the issue?" Colette straight-up asked.

    You slowly spoke "...Yeah. but like, I guess it's wrong of me to assume that, I mean it's not like I've been showing any signs of pregnancy or anything, so it's probably just some stupid worry".

    "Indeed. As I am, I would have to spend three months off HRT if I ever wished to produce an offspring, and I have no desire to do either of those," Colette confirmed, "If I ever do have time for a child, adoption would be my preferred method".

    "Yeah, me too," you smiled at her, having sighed with relief.

    Colette then formed a cat-like grin on her face, "My, I take it you raised this question as you've been gripped by the urge to make love to me again?"

    You didn't technically say anything in reply, but you did blush a bright red and even began sweating.

    Colette was left giggling, but she picked up on you and said, "Ah, I have the perfect thing. Since we were heading to the cemetery here, why don't we consummate again there? Hmhm, no need to worry, the place is bound to be deserted at this time of day".

    You had almost no idea what to say to that, but you managed "Er, if you're absolutely certain no one will be around... sure".

    "Delightful!" Colette smiled at you, but still brought up, "Honoka dear, I can... completely understand your concerns over becoming pregnant. So, know I wouldn't have minded if you breached the topic with me on our first night together".

    "Y-yeah, well the thing was-" you started saying, but cut yourself off with just an "Um, thanks".

    * * *

    Having indeed gotten lucky in that cemetery, in more ways than one, you were now leaning against a tree having exchanged shirts with Colette, although this was way too elaborate to simply be called a 'shirt'. Stiff too, you imagined Colette could only move around in this thing due to being long experienced with such clothes.

    "The thing about cemeteries is, you almost always see the graves divided into groups," you then felt the need to bring up, "For example, local ones will usually delineate us from foreigners, and even among Japanese we'll be separated by wealth and occupation. Overseas though, I've heard they're mostly divided by religion.
    Thing is though, like, when you're dead... should it really matter who you're buried with? I mean, you're not gonna know," you finished on.

    Having paid attention close attention to your words, Colette remarked, "Ah, quite thoughtful of you Honoka, as I'd expect. Regrettably though, while the people here may be dead, their relatives and descendants may certainly be alive to raise a fuss. That said, would you not want your relatives to place you without care if you died?"

    "Yeah, true," you sighed, "Just that I wouldn't care which class I was buried with, that's all. Oh yeah," you then had to change the topic, "You said you were gonna share one of your stories now, weren't you?"

    "Why, indeed I was," Colette said, as he then scrolled through her phone to a certain page and began reading to you.

    The little piece she showed you was called Mortui Sanguis, and was set in the 19th century, or at least a 19th century world, with Vampires roaming around and using their blood to bring back historical figures as Ghouls. The main story began when Dr. Gavriel Trevelyan, the manager of a Bedlam-like institute, decided to run an experiment on whether a patient thrown in there, for being neither man nor woman in that world, could become a dhampir and fully resurrect historical people?

    You did have to think that premise was a little convoluted, almost like it had been two stories mashed together, but it was... definitely Colette, and you felt you could see where she was coming from with certain things.

    You two also had time for Colette to tell you about another of her stories, which concerned Emily Bronte after death becoming sucked into a world of glass she'd help create in childhood. However, she wasn't the only one, as for some reason for authors from history were getting sucked into this same world. This was much more obviously a draft, which may be fitting given its source material.

    "I haven't done much with this, I admit. It's hard to find info on the Brontes' creation of Angria and Gondal, even here in Japan, given what little of their childhood work survives" Colette confirmed your suspicions. "Er, well regardless, what did you think?"

    [x] "Sounds great, actually"
    [ ] "Hmm, interesting"
    [ ] "Look, to be blunt with you..."
    [ ] "Think I'd need to know more"
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    It was a tight squeeze for time, but you were able to catch buses back and forth from the town of Kaminokuni to watch the torch procession for the festival, which looked simply spellbinding in the soft purple evening. It was once you'd come back to the Hakodate station for the train back to Kuchinashi though, that a real incident reared its head.

    "So, here you are," Kikuko snarled, as she stood atop a flight of stairs glaring down at you, half-shrouded in shade. "I was aware you had headed out of town, Nakamura, but to find you disobeying my orders beyond just curfew..."

    You froze on the spot, as the very thing you dreaded would happen since Russia, was happening here and now, as Kikuko had Colette in her sights as well.

    However, Colette was at least one of the more fortunate on Kikuko's list to be caught with, given how she clearly hadn't taken Gakuto's abuse lying down. Going up against Kikuko though, her being armed, would require more tact.

    "What right have you?" Colette spoke, standing firmly between you and Kikuko, "You are neither Honoka's parent or guardian, you are not her mayor or any political authority, nor are you Hanataba faculty, and you are certainly not her slave-driver or some nonsense. I'll ask again, what right have you to control her like this?"

    Kikuko hissed on being challenged like that, before she said, "I am her Ace, her senior, the Head of Tea Ceremony Club, her economic superior by far, and she has agreed to be my apprentice. Just ask her, I may have the most authority over her that anyone ever has!"

    "'Her Ace'?" Colette focused in on that first one, "Be honest, Kikuko, how many people honestly recognise Jacks and Aces as valid terms beyond the confines of Hanataba, and maybe Kuchinashi? Ask anyone around here, for instance, and they'll think you're just referring to playing cards".

    You could see Kikuko start to tremble, having to try to remain composed, "I was sent to your school, all the way across this country, for its very prestige. Who are you, a suspendee and Head of the least reputable Club in school, to question the authority I have?" she seethed.

    It was then you had to speak up, "Kikuko, how of much of an area does the Gameboard cover? The world, Japan, Hokkaido? Not even our town, it's mostly just our school. Face it, how limited your power is goes beyond just Colette's words, we've got cosmological proof of it".

    "Gameboard?" Colette quickly whispered up at you.

    "...I'll tell you about it one day," was all you said back.

    Kikuko began breathing rapidly in and out, as she muttered, "The Gameboard... it can't just be Hanataba, it's too powerful for that. A-and even if it was just this school, it would still be my solemn duty to master it to my utmost without retreat, to win or die trying! You have no idea of the stakes in it, holding no Empire of your own!" she spat that last part out.

    "Hah, listen to your own words, Kikuko," Colette then said, "As an author, I have the task making clear to my reader what is truth and what is fiction. You, however, believe you can spout out utter nonsense and treat it as total fact. And to think you dare claim mastery over Honoka".

    Now hyperventilating, Kikuko was on the verge of screaming, as she then drew her sword right in front of the two of you in rage... only to then realise that everyone at the station had seen her do so.
    "This- this is an honest misunderstanding, I can explain," she tried to tell everyone there, while Colette and you just quietly slipped past her as she felt more and more people's stares.

    Upon you arriving back in Kuchinashi again, you stared at Colette and had to ask, "...Was that part of your gambit? To get Kikuko so riled up that she'd completely lose face in public?"

    Colette chuckled, then said "Well it worked, did it not?"

    'I mean, yeah it did, but..." you groaned, "Did you have to nearly risk our hides to do so?"

    "Hmhm, don't think I didn't notice you joining in on it too," Colette did point out, "Besides, it was relatively less of a risk than punching out an All-Ace as I did before, so I admit my perspective may be skewed".

    "Yeah, but well... Gakuto was barely able to fight back, at least not physically anyway. Kikuko, on the other hand..." You sighed.

    It was then Colette had to confess something. "I will admit, Honoka, there are times I have been frustrated with you for not taking more of a stand against the All-Aces. But... I'd like to apologise for that," she then changed tone, "I now realise I was indulging in the exact kind of victim-blaming I despise. You are right, perhaps I was too hasty in aggravating Kikuko like that... but you could argue desperate times call for desperate measures. No, forget that, I am sorry".

    Does 'being responsible for two of their deaths' count as taking a stand? you had to think, but you then looked at Colette and said, "You did have a point, originally. It was better, relatively anyway, that you took a stand there, that whole situation could've gone even worse if you'd said nothing... So, er, thanks for that. Hey, see you at school tomorrow, um, I love you".

    Colette had to smile, and blew you one last kiss for the night.

    - The Moon has Journeyed to Rank 8! -

    As for school tomorrow, and the final week that could be called 'relatively uneventful':

    [ ] Drama Club.
    [ ] Tea Ceremony Club.
    [ ] Occult Club.
    [ ] Cricket Club.
    [ ] Band duties.
    [x] Class Rep duties.
    [ ] Checking on the Computer Club.
    [ ] Checking on the Tsutsuji Dojo.
    [ ] Part-time at the Tabletop store.
    [ ] Part-time at the sweets store.
    [ ] Keeping an eye on Melissa, dragging Yuya and Suzako into this.
    [ ] Internet 'research'.
    [ ] Touring colleges.
    [ ] Household maintenance.
    [ ] Gameboard
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Part of you honestly felt like, even out of school, you'd become stuck in your role of class representative, given that seeing to other people's problems seemed to be most of what you did. Granted, you did seem to be genuinely helping, and them helping you in turn beyond just granting more Persona power, but, well, you just had to wonder.

    But speaking of class rep stuff, getting to look over Class 2-C's did have you noticing that, while Colette had gone back to going strong and you were still doing decent, Yuya's and Suzako's grades were in fact slipping. Staring at their results, you naturally began wondering if this was intentional sabotage on Melissa's part, or simply a side-effect of now being forced to do Jack stuff for her.

    After class, you had your two childhood friends group together in a huddle and asked them, "Hey, like I've been doing Jack stuff for various Aces since the start of the year, so... if Melissa's been putting you through any shit, please, don't hesitate to tell me".

    The two were silent for a while, but eventually Yuya spoke up with, "She essentially wants me as a doormat and Suzako as a punching bag, or at least as someone she can keep outshining".

    You tried to look into Suzako's eyes, difficult as her gaze had sunk downwards. Having trouble getting through to her, you instead looked back at Yuya and asked "Hmm, does she demand you appreciate for letting you only be her fake boyfriend, even though you don't want a girlfriend to begin with?"

    Yuya let out a sigh on hearing you ask that, and nodded his head.

    "Melissa once told me that students get good grades are, of all things, shunned in American schools. I have no way of verifying that, but was it something she ever tried to press upon you?" you then brought up.

    Suzako shrugged, "I don't think she even cares about our grades enough to bring it up".

    Even after your talk with your two friends, which ended up feeling more like a class rep intervention than just you three talking, you still found yourself sitting in your desk, head held in a slump, trying to think about what you could possibly do about this situation.

    The day after, you went to have a personal talk with Ryouko about, well, this whole All-Ace thing. "Hey, Tanizawa-sensei... question. The whole All-Aces thing, like the Jack system and stuff, like, don't you as teacher have the authority to intervene?" you attempted to ask her, despite knowing it was likely to be in vain. I mean, if any teacher here could've actually done something about the All-Aces, wouldn't they have by now? Okay, Rise and Makoto sure, but they're... exceptions.

    Ryouko just groaned on hearing those words. "Look, after seeing the way they've been treating you, treating Colette, and everything I've heard second-hand from Megumi, believe me, if I could've done something about them by now, I would've. Alas..." she broke into a groan, "The title of 'All-Ace' has been a thing at this school almost since the place was founded. That, and like every All-Ace is from a super-influential family, whereas I'm renting on a teachers' salary. But hey, look, is there any specific reason you've come to ask me about them?"

    it took a little while for you to vocalise it, but in the end you said, "It's basically Melissa, namely how she made two of my friends Jacks too just for an excuse to torture them, that and use Yuya in some go-nowhere scheme to make Azuma jealous. Like, can't you at least intervene in the whole friggin' Jack thing?"

    Ryouko looked at you a second, then had to ask, "Well, it's good to see your concern over your friends, but... I'm wondering why you're asking this only now, given you've been Jack quite a while? This despite the fact that really the only positive words you've said about them have been half-hearted ones, well, Nightshade aside anyway.
    Oh yeah, that must be it," Ryouko hit upon, "She was the only thing making you want to stay a Jack, right?"

    You had to think about that, but you settled on, "Well, Nightshade was the only reason I was staying willingly, I'll say that. Really, I think it mostly comes down to money and status, like you said, I just can't afford to tell the All-Aces I want out, monetarily or socially. That, and Kikuko tried to pull a sword on me the other day, so there's that". You figured that was probably the most accurate explanation you could give, without the sheer disbelief incurrence that'd come with bringing up the Gameboard.

    "Huh, I still don't get it. I mean, well, no offence Honoka, you're great and all, but... why did they single you out? Like, all of the students to suddenly make a Jack out of nowhere, let alone what the Aces' motive was for doing so in the first place," Ryouko was forced to admit.

    Now that was a really hard question to answer without mentioning the Gameboard, but you ultimately settled on, "I think it's because I was essentially an Anti-Ace. I wasn't hated or anything, but that's because back then I wasn't even noticed at all. Keiko and Yuya were the only ones who really knew me, and even then I had no idea if we were on a course to drift apart or not. This meant for the All-Aces, especially Azuma, I could basically be their little pet project to mold into whatever they felt like, a... a friggin' doll" you let out.
    That started a bit of a rant from you, "Kikuko's apprentice, Azuma's pretend romance, Eitaro's punching bag, Melissa's lackey, Gakuto's... God I don't even want to think what" you then collapsed and screamed into your hands.

    Ryouko bit her lip, then said, "Only thing I can think to do is petition for the board for a new principal, since they'll be no getting through to the All-Aces with Junichiro still around. Even then though, given their lineages, it's likely if the All-Aces go down, the whole school will be dragged with them, especially with them... dying. Little faculty secret for you, we've already seen enrolments for next year slowly dropping".

    So, is the only way to stop Azuma's advances, to stop Kikuko's domineering, to stop Melissa humiliating my friends... really just for them to die in Duels? that thought seized you, and not for the first time.

    "Hey, well, I have got some bright side stuff for you," Ryouko then tried to change the mood, "Like, about music, er, Rise says it's okay if I accompany her on guitar sometime. Just for a little jam session or something, even though I think she just sings. And hey, there's a cello and double-bass in our music room, I don't think she'd mind you joining in".

    You did have to smile at that, especially to see Ryouko getting along with at least one of the newcomer teachers. "Yeah, that'd be great. Probably a change from the Nightshade repertoire too".

    Talking with Ryouko at least made the wait till the weekend a little smoother. Like as little as she could do against the All-Aces, at least your own classroom felt like something of a haven from them. True, it had its share of jerks too with some students, but none of them All-Ace levels of influential.

    - The Priestess has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    And about that weekend, you could blow off some steam with:

    [ ] Reina.
    [ ] Suzako.
    [ ] Yuya.
    [ ] Colette.
    [ ] Na-rae.
    [ ] Megumi.
    [ ] Hotaru.
    [ ] Takako.
    [ ] Mum & Dad.
    [ ] Koyomi.
    [ ] Nightshade.
    [x] Or sneaking onto the gameboard:
    - [ ] Rin's Empire.
    - [x] Himawari's Empire.
    - [ ] Eitaro's Empire.
    - [ ] Gakuto's Empire.
    - [ ] Azuma's Empire.
    - [ ] Kikuko's Empire.
    - [ ] Melissa's Empire.
    [x] Write-in: With Nightshade

  8. #48
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLVIII. Criminal Empire Dethroned

    "H- Hi, Nightshade," you gulped as you began your phone call with her, "Um, I guess you'd be wondering what's been going on with your Empire after you... left, huh?"

    "Yeah, well, I kinda thought that I'd done my job in thoroughly torched any last goodwill the school had of me, so... I was kinda suspecting it didn't exist anymore, or at least barely," she answered.

    "No, I've still been seeing it on the Gameboard," you told her, before twitching, "True, er, not sure if you're gonna like what's become of it. But still, you're alive yet your Empire's 'dead', so hey, thought that may be cool to check out".

    "Hah, now I wonder why you didn't bother contacting me about it sooner?" Nightshade asked.

    "Ah, mostly had like a whole bunch of other stuff happening. Friggin' Russia trip, Mid-terms, Sports Festival, all that," you went over.

    "Right, Megumi told me about that. Sheesh, all outta nowhere too," Nightshade muttered, "Oh, when it comes to sneaking into the school, sure, I can easily still do that. Done it before after all, and it's not like they can do any worse for me, they're too chickenshit to put the school's reputation on the line".

    That sorted out, you convened at the school, Nightshade's usual swagger faltering when she looked upon it again after all this time, and got to work sneaking in up through the vines and the window. Huh, to think she was one who first showed you how to even get into this place, all those months ago.

    It was upon heading back into the Prized Pupil Lounge that you could see Nightshade really starting to get dizzy, even clutching her head.
    "Bad memories, huh?" you tried to get through to her.

    "Ugh, yeah well... at least some good ones too, y'know," she did have to say, "Though most of them came at the expense of the people in this room, heh".

    That by now it had essentially become tradition to break into the other Aces' private rooms while sneaking in, it occurred to you that Eitaro and Melissa's rooms were the only ones you hadn't seen yet, even though for Eitaro you expected his would be mostly cleared out by now.

    It was due to this that Eitaro's was easiest for you to open. There wasn't a password or lock or anything. but strangely not even a doorknob, just a whole load of force on you and Nightshade's parts needed to push it open. That sent the two of you crashing down along with it, but once you'd picked yourselves up you could see that the place was expectedly spartan, though without even the historical flair that characterised Kikuko's room. Of course, the whole death thing probably didn't help here.

    It was more a private gym than anything, with a treadmill and everything, and on the far wall a whole archery target with photos of various people, rival archers and football teams, weak players on Eitaro's own team, even... you, used as practice. At least he had the grace to not outright shred them up like Azuma.

    "Huh wait, who're these?" you asked, pointing to a photo of a man and a woman with features and hair colour close to Eitaro's, the man in a JSDF uniform and the woman in a suit. "Eitaro's... parents?"

    "Can't say much about them, but yeah, the guy always got pissy when they were brought up, so we made a habit of not trying to. Well except Kikuko, who kept mentioning them just to prove her own authority over Eitaro," Nightshade delved into, "Not that I can blame him, given my own folks, although heh, I almost wish mine were divorced like his, it's not like there's any love between them. Of course, Eitaro being left with his Dad meant his Grandpa ended up being his real parent".

    "...I see. Well, maybe we'll try squeezing our way into Melissa's little chamber now?" you tried to move this along, figuring there wasn't really anything more to gain from Eitaro's room, given the most prominent feature of it now was dust.

    Melissa's was harder to break into, given the security system she'd installed was a lot more elaborate than Eitaro's 'just bash it down'. You mainly resorted to Nightshade using both her overgrown nail and a spare guitar pick to gradually loosen the lock, and as it finally clicked open, you half expected a series of lasers to pop up.

    Making it into her room at last, you immediately found it hard to move around it there, given she'd stuffed it with so much stuff, clothes changes (at school?), furniture, car models, old trophies, photographs, various indigenous paraphernalia you'd doubted she knew the significance of (well, neither did you, but at least you admitted it), perhaps this was the real second layer of her security system?

    One possession that truly caught your eye was a padlocked pink notebook, overly cursive thin gold handwriting reading 'My Diary' on it. Your first thought was why Melissa didn't just have a blog or an extra social media account instead... until you remembered Gakuto's prior existence, which likely explained why.
    "Well, shall we lever it open?" Nightshade grinned.

    You took a while to answer that question, torn between strategic advance, bile curiousity, and... well, not paying awful to awful, but you eventually said:

    [ ] "We'll take it with us, try opening it later"
    [x] "What, no? I can't do that to her... even if she probably would to me?"
    [ ] Write-in.

    Either way, there was one loose page that fell on her desk, which from what you ended up glimpsing of it anyway seemed... strange. You expected it'd just be some hateful rant against whoever she didn't like, but that turned out to be only half-true. Instead, it mostly looked to be a back-and-forth list of insecurities:

    Honoka's grown so much... yet doesn't give me any credit.
    Eitaro knew the value of hard work... yet ignored how much I've suffered.
    Azuma's so dreamy... that he can't see a real girl in me.
    Kikuko's the only girl I can call my equal... so why's she always so drab and gross?
    Adriana's so stylish... yet thinks she can replace Mom.
    Daddy looks after me... like I'm a possession.

    You put it down, more than getting the gist.

    "So yeah, Gameboard, let's get you back to your Empire," you leapt at the chance to talk about anything else, before realising in your head, If it even counts as yours anymore...

    * * *
    <<BGM: Rule of Rose - A Love Suicide>>

    Well, er, finally seeing Himawari's Empire again after her 'fall', you could see something had been doing a lot of renovation work.

    The crooked and dirt that'd defined much of the houses and alleys in her old Empire was now gone, with neat, orderly lines everywhere, the blacks, purples, and reds that'd been the main colour scheme around her now replaced with pastel pink and inoffensive white.

    Predictably, Nightshade was seething. "What's next, flower-patterned wallpaper? Jesus, how can you not call this vandalism?!" she spat out.

    You practically had to heave Nightshade forward to get her to go further in, her too sickened to see how much her Empire had fallen. Your first stop was that exclusive nightclub you'd all been invited to after your, er, first Duel, but once you got in, you saw it'd been replaced with an... old malt shop, like what you'd seen in Americana stuff from decades back.

    The plush red seats and polished checkerboard floor were typical, but what wasn't were all the party decorations strewn about, banners and balloons, though instead of reading something like 'Happy Birthday' they read 'We're Free!' and 'The Queen Is Dead!'

    Heading in slower, you went around to where that stage had been, the place where she performed. It seemed empty, but you then glanced up to see a crucifix hanging over like you'd in in those Christian schools. A crucifix with a figurine of Nightshade nailed onto it.

    Gasping, you turned around only to see Nightshade running away, only for her to find the path blocked off by an extensive set of roadworks, you figured yet another part of the renovations.
    Nightshade in typical fashion not caring, she called on Anastasia to blast her way through them with ice, you trying now to keep up with her, until you both found yourselves in a broad street lined with even older architecture, like from back before the first World War.

    Slowly marching down this old-timey street was a whole parade of what you recognised as the Shadows Jack Frost and Pyro Jack, each singing merrily yet each slightly off-key, with stiff movements and at unnaturally high pitches. Suddenly, one of them got left behind in the parade, then suddenly burst out in a surge of darkness and began gobbling all the other Frosts and Pyros up.
    Soon enough, Nightshade and you now found yourself facing a purple, red, and black animatronic automaton, still giggling 'Hee-ho!' with its rusted mechanical voice, the bells on its jester's cap chiming coldly.

    "I'm Black Frost! I'm like you, hee-ho, I can't stand this niceness any longer. The Queen is dead but not gone, so I'll finish the job and obliterate her and her knight! Hee-ho"

    [x] This thing's a Jack Frost, right? It should still be weak to Fire, shouldn't it?
    [ ] This is Nightshade's journey through here, stick to buffing and healing her.
    [ ] Stay back, guard and analyse, see what this Shadow does.
    [ ] Can this thing be reasoned with, if its 'just like you'?
    [ ] Just make a break for it, there should be more than enough room to dash around and escape.
    [ ] Write-in.

    You brought out Santabarbara to start shielding Nightshade with Rakukaja, whilst Black Frost predictably started by trying to freeze the whole of this main street. While that did sting you, Nightshade via Anastasia was able to very easily shrug it off, but it turned out just pelting her with ice wasn't quite what Black Frost had intended.
    The animatronic dark Fae then used all the ice on the ground to speed itself up, wind its fist up like a windmill, and deliver a star-inducing 'Miracle Punch' onto her, making that Rakukaja certainly a good call.

    You switched to Dahaka to cast Diarama on her, as she took advantage of the frozen floor to give Black Frost a taste of his own medicine, sliding right up to him and having Anastasia hit below the figurative belt with a Kidney Smash.
    However, like many Shadows, Black Frost seemed insured against his own tactics. Anastasia had dealt a little damage to him, but nowhere near enough to make him lose any balance.

    Since you were acting as Nightshade's support right now, you decided to get off the frozen street and up onto a higher ledge, preferably a rooftop. However, Dahaka not being quite the fastest Persona, Black Frost was suddenly able to hit you with an upsurge of flames, making your weakened self collapse all the way onto the ground into the skin-searing heat.

    Having suffered a major blow, Black Frost then tried to seriously finish you off with a total Mamudoon eclipse. However, his ingenious scheming ran out there, as it barely scraped Nightshade and outright fully healed you instead, due again to Dahaka's affinities. Using an area of effect spell on him may have been overkill, especially on your SP reserves, but you had Dahaka bust out a radiant, all-basking Makouga anyway, barraging the darkness with light.

    That finally scored a serious hit on Black Frost, with Nightshade then stepping in with a flurry of throwing axes. As a coup de grace, you two struck as one and pounded Black Frost into the ground in a cloud of dust. Black frost wasn't finished yet though, as the moment he got another chance to attack, he struck Nightshade with a final fiery surge, finishing her off.

    "Himawari!" you used her given name on pure instinct, making the switch to Asherah. Black Frost was able to get off another attack as he then landed a Miracle Punch on you but, as much of a blow as it struck, you suddenly became able to hit back in an instant thanks to Asherah's inherited Counter skills, dealing an aggressive physical blow right back at him that somehow bypassed his normal resistances.

    "Hee...ho," Black Frost wheezed out his last words, as he at last fizzled, blew out, and collapsed right back into darkness.
    You had enough time to cast Samarecarm on Nightshade, completely reviving her, though with the side-effect of reducing your SP to nothing. Not that you didn't have items to get around that, like weird cooking from your Mum or teas from Kikuko and Colette, however you could only carry so much on you at once.

    Nightshade sighed with relief and grinned wide at you, "T-thanks, don't you what I'd do without you, heh" she tried to make light.

    "Yeah well, I appreciate it, but we're gonna have to stick to stealth for the rest of our time here," you said on instinct, "If that Shadow's any indication of the sort that's taken over your Empire. Or not, maybe we just got unlucky and he was just some exception, who knows?" you shrugged, but still said, "Couldn't hurt to assume he was the former though".

    "Stick to stealth?" Nightshade raised her voice, having trouble admitting, "Like, I get your point, but this is my Empire, why the hell should I stoop to doing that?"

    Was your Empire, you thought in an instant.

    From there you were able to spot a few clean cafes of minimal design, fancy enough for your liking but admittedly scrubbed of any character or flair. Chain cafes too, if the logos on them were any indication, though you had no idea who'd be running a café chain on the Gameboard. Melissa?

    Further down this street you came to a large warehouse which, looking inside atop a stack of crates, you could see was filled with more animatronic marching dolls, Jack Frost and Pyro Jack included but also weird variants like a Strawberry Frost, Lemon Frost, Melon Frost, whatever a 'B. Hawaii Frost' was, and even a giant 'King Frost' float. "Hmm, this place ever appear in your old Empire?"

    "Yeah, but not as storage space for any Destinyland parades or whatever," Nightshade scoffed, "Place was where I kept a lot of my gear, y'know like amp towers, PA systems, lightshow rigging, that sorta thing".

    There were still some instruments kept here, but they were decidedly much closer to marching band stuff like sousaphones, strap-on glockenspiels, and the like. In a way, they did remind you of a heavily cutesified version of the Terracotta warriors you'd expect to find in Eitaro's Empire, although them being mechanical instead of sculptures made you wonder...

    You switched to Heracles and cast Mazionga through the opened window, taking control of the animatronic marchers as well as opening the warehouse door. You soon saw the Frost animatronics picked up speed as they paraded, with their presence slowly covering the ground in ice. This eventually led to them spreading out and crashing into various golden gates and covering up the roadworks that cut off much of this dethroned Empire, opening up whole new sections that'd once been locked.

    In particular, it led to you and Nightshade reaching what had once been the dueling Heart of her Empire, the concert grounds which, due to renovations, were now entirely indoors, and all the ice sculptures melted into a series of little fountains outside. The place was coloured pink and white like a dollhouse, and on the far wall was a mural picturing both Himawari and 'Nightshade' in chains, each extending from an anchor bound to sink into the breaking ice.
    On the whole this new hall looked much closer to a place for classical orchestras then what you associated with Nightshade's style of music, so naturally you expected her to burst into rage. Instead, that mural seeming to really get to her, her hair then started reverting back to her bluer, more natural tones, with the more respectable dress she wore to attend your Duel with Eitaro spreading back over her rebel outfit.

    "Honoka," she said as she looked at you, "Heh, it's only now occurred to me, after all this time..."

    "W-wait, what's occurred?!" You blurted out, fearing the worst for a second.

    "You've always performed with Nightshade, but I don't think you've ever accompanied me when I was, well, just Himawari," she explained, looking into your eyes, "Er, the Gameboard may not be the safest place to do so, but I feel this concert hall presents the opportunity to finally do so anyway. Maybe any Shadows around will be pacified by my singing, who knows?"

    "Oh," you said and stared, not really expecting this, "Y-yeah sure, I can do that. Like, you've kinda done that sort of thing before, granted that was when this place was under your control..."

    "Under Nightshade's control, you mean," Himawari sighed, "this Empire, even Anastasia as a Persona, was always hers, not mine".

    Come on, is that really true? you thought, feeling for a second Himawari was being too harsh on Nightshade, and herself.
    Still, Himawari and you both headed up on this new, refurnished stage anyway. As she started clearing her throat, you looked around for a bass or any other instrument yet found nothing... except a baton, to which a chorus of invisible instruments and backing voices suddenly reacted from nowhere when you gave it a wave.
    Okay, um, conducting's mainly about keeping time and indicating dynamics, right? I think I've got this... you shuddered.

    Whether you could or not, you were thrown in the deep end anyway as Himawari started singing:
    <<BGM: DECO*27 - Coward Montblanc>>

    You almost looked ready to collapse after conducting through the entire song, but the weird thing was happened to the Empire once you'd both finished. The dollhouse-like concert hall took itself apart once you'd finished, letting you gaze upon an Empire filled with Shadows, still very much undefeated, but definitely appearing pacified for the time being.

    Himawari smiled at the sight, saying, "Wow, Honoka, our first real performance together! True, Colette, Tanizawa-sensei, and Tomomi couldn't be here, but well, I'm not sure if that was exactly their kind of music anyway. Eheh, you know for a second... I felt I could almost see Rin in the audience, smiling at me. But again, just for a second".

    You kept the thought to yourself, but you had to doubt that, as you felt you definitely would've noticed Lauryn showing up here. Then again, your back was turned to the orchestra this while time, so maybe Himawari was onto something?

    A gentle snow then began falling over the whole of this dethroned Empire, turning it to something of a 'winter wonderland'. A blushing Himawari then approached you and hesitantly asked "...Honoka, once we get back to the school, if there's nobody checking the Prized Pupil Lounge, I... well, it's tricky to explain. When we... made love last time, I was okay with it, but it was Nightshade in control at the time. So once we're back, ah, would you, um, since Colette's okay with it, do the honour of-"

    "Yeah, of course!" you grinned at her, before she then changed the topic to something else, something you'd been fearing.

    "I've decided, Honoka, that the last time I'll perform as Nightshade... will be the last. It's gonna be quite the occasion though, as what I wanted to do was record a whole album as her, as I feel she deserves at least one to commemorate, heh, even immortalise, all our work together before I, um, retire her," she came out with.

    You didn't say a word to that at first, but you gradually managed, "Ah, okay. Er, did you have anywhere it mind to record this album?"

    "Eh, well that's the part I hadn't quite figured out yet, hehe," Himawari twitched.

    [ ] Record it on some computer, technology makes that more than possible these days. It'll also preserve Nightshade's 'rawness', plus will be way cheaper.
    [ ] Try to get the money for a studio, like the money Shadows give is surprisingly decent.
    [x] Why not a live album, to package it with one final concert for her?
    [ ] Write-in.

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 8! -
    * * *

    You woke up fairly late, having had quite the dream about a Himawari snowwoman and a Kikuko fire-elemental tugging on your arms to pull you towards them as you all floated in the air. You then expected Kikuko to barge in and yell at you for sleeping in late... but she was nowhere around. Granted, her estate here was of a decent size, so there was always more places to look, but still...

    Na-rae being happy to drive you down to Hanataba, with you taking advantage of Kikuko suddenly vanishing to not have to ride a friggin' horse again, you then got the strange notion of whether hormonal teens sticking their genitals in snowpeople was something they ever did in say, America? Sounded like the sort of thing you'd regret soon after.

    Arriving Hanataba, you stumbled back when you saw Azuma right there at the gates, eyes fixed on you.
    "Well, Jack of Swords," he unusually greeted you with, since he tended to just use your name or some flowery epithet, "I'd advise you head to our Lounge pronto, as your Ace is in quite the situation there".

    Flinching for a second, you did as he said and headed straight for the Prized Pupil Lounge, even though you should've been in class by now, to find... what otherwise seemed normal, Kikuko and Melissa both being in a heated argument.

    "Oh, don't you lie to me, you little bitch! Who else would've broken into my room yesterday? You did the same thing before to Gakuto, remember?!" Melissa spat out.

    "I bear no responsibility for this," Kikuko hissed, arms folded, "I was quite occupied yesterday with training, studying, and the precise arrangement of my stone garden. Not to mention, why ever would I care for the contents of your private room?"

    Your urge was to step in and clear this up... but even if you did convince Melissa, you were afraid all her anger would just be placed onto you, along with everything she could do to you.

    At that point anyway, it became about more than merely yesterday, as Melissa burst out with, "Do you have any idea how much easier my life would be with you were just... gone, Kikuko, like if you never existed? You've never had a single nice thing to say to me since I came here, since we even met back in Honolulu as kids. Then you make me look like an idiot to everyone at the sports festival, you get more boys than me then rub it in my face, you turned me into your freakin' maid, you definitely vandalized my Empire, and when I helped you out against Azuma's sister, you treated me like shit! Argh, do I have to dye my hair black and put on a kimono for you to even respect me at all?!"

    That was... eerie. While not quite how you would put it, more than a few of Melissa's complaints could've easily been yours.

    "Perhaps that would be a start. Lilian, you want to know why I show you no respect?" Kikuko said as a tarot card materialised in her hand, her then, as you feared, throwing it to the ground, "Because you've done nothing to earn it. Rin's death set our school back enough, the last thing we needed was for her t be replaced by a shrieking harpy. but fine, I'll do the honours as you've so clearly been begging for this: Melissa Lilian, I challenge you to a Duel!" Kikuko then drew her sword, "Given our usual week's wait, how curious you'll die on your national holiday".

    Melissa, don't-! you immediately thought, but before you could say anything-

    "You are. So. Freakin'. On!" Melissa seethed at Kikuko, rolling up her sleeves and throwing down her own card.

    Neither Kikuko nor Melissa even noticed that you then slumped to the ground, head in your hands. True, it's not like this came out of thin air or anything, but still...

    You figured for now the only thing you could do was focus on what you could control. Namely, what you had in store today after class, this Monday rather than next.

    [ ] Occult Club.
    [ ] Drama Club.
    [ ] Being Class Rep.
    [x] Recording the debut, and final, Nightshade album.
    [ ] Studying [+Education].
    [ ] Eating out:
    - [ ] Somewhere new [+Resolve].
    - [ ] Somewhere fancy [+Etiquette].
    - [ ] Somewhere local [+Perception].
    - [ ] Write-in.
    [ ] Part-time at the tabletop store.
    [ ] Part time at the sweets shop.
    [ ] Tidying with Na-rae.
    [ ] Gameboard:
    - [ ] Azuma's Empire.
    - [ ] Eitaro's Empire.
    - [ ] Gakuto's Empire.
    - [ ] Himawari's Empire.
    - [ ] Kikuko's Empire.
    - [ ] Melissa's Empire.
    - [ ] Rin's Empire.
    [x] Velvet Room (can be taken with other options).
    [ ] Write-in.

  9. #49
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLIX. First Album, Last Concert

    Entering back into the Velvet Room again, Popo piped up the very second with a "Greetings, Miss 'Onoka, we've got quite the Persona gent comin' your way, so I'm figuring you'll be wanting ta make some room for this one".

    "Oh hey, Popo, Lauryn. Igor," you tried to smile but nearly stumbled, "So yeah... we've got another Duel happening already".

    An aghast Popo covered his face with his wings and skidded back, before slowly opening one to mumble, "Oh d-d-dear, please don't tell me..."

    "Well, least I'm not involved this time," you said, before later stating, "Not directly anyway. It's between Kikuko and Melissa, er, the new Ace who came in after you... left, Lauryn".

    "I am aware of her," she told you, before she muttered, "I'm not surprised to hear that Kikuko's involved, in fact given her... temperament I'm surprised she didn't get herself involved in this sooner. But not 'directly', ah, I do recall you telling me you were her Jack now, right?"

    "Yep, though really only because she was the lesser of the three evils," you admitted, "So hey, on the bright side Popo, that means I can guarantee you'll still be seeing me again after this week, well, I think I can guarantee anyway. Still though, I think I should at least be doing something to stop this, but... then again I don't really know what I can do other than finally meet the Morrigan".

    "Well, the Missus hasn't quite made herself easily available, I admit, hmmm, but like, Mister Azuma's the one right there pushing this whole Dueling idea, 'e always has been. So I think the most immediate solution would be to get through to him but, er, that itself's a sticky subject. Plus, Mistresses Kikuko and Melissa seem to have taken to the whole idea like ducks to a pond, so even gettin' through to Mister Azuma may not necessarily get though ta them" Popo went over, finding himself back at square one.

    "What would make getting through to someone like Azuma even possible?" you hissed, clenching your fists as you said, "Seeing his Social Link through? Yeah, like I wanna spend any more time with the guy than I already have to. And as for Kikuko, yeah, forgive me if I don't wanna make nice with the girl who pulled a sword on me and my girlfriend at a train station".

    "I'm no supporter of Duels either, but it seems to me," Lauryn spoke up, "That for you, All the remaining Aces killing themselves would be the best-case scenario. At least, from the way you're making it sound, you don't like it, but you think it'd be the simplest solution".

    You were about to protest, but Popo beat you to being your defence first, "M-Miss Lauryn! I can assure you, that is absolutely not what Miss 'Onoka would consider ideal! Every word she's ever said in this room only backs that up!" he exclaimed.

    "Are you sure that's true? I'm- I'm not trying to accuse Honoka, well okay, in all honestly maybe I am, but my point is she seems so disillusioned by the All-Aces that," Lauryn stopped to turn and address you, "Would you really care if they all finished themselves off, and are you just saying you wouldn't to appear moral?"

    "What the- the Hell are you implying?" you shot up upon hearing, but then backed down and said, "Look, regardless of how shitty the All-Aces are, your All-Aces are remember, doesn't mean I want them to die, but... as much 'cause I don't want anyone to die".

    "...I suppose it was wrong of me to drag you into this little ethics debate," Lauryn admitted, "Regardless of your intent, what would proving it or otherwise even accomplish for me here? Or for you, really, other than giving you yet another thing to think about?"

    Popo did turn to you again and tried to say, "Look, cheer up, 'Onoka. I suppose to you this whole mess would've seemed awful far-fetched from your first day, but well, if it seems completely out of the blue for you, then I assume somethin' just as unlikely as a solution to this has to be out there too, right?"

    After all that you smiled and said, "Hey, thanks Popo, it was... good to hear that".

    - The Tower has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

    "Right, new Persona, comin' up," Popo then got to business, as the monster fairy animatronic from Nightshade's Empire appeared.

    Hee-ho! I'm Devil Black Frost, black sheep of the frost family-hee," he icily ringed out, "I get to be-hee your mask too, hee-ho!Black Frost

    Elements: Absorbs Ice, Nulls Curse and Fire, resists Physical, weak to Elec and Bless
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: ||||
    - Endurance: |
    Skills: Mamudoon, Mabufula, Maragion, Miracle Punch, Bufudyne
    Devil Bonus +8: Resist Nuclear, Resist Psy

    (Black Frost exceeds capacity, store or fuse a Persona. Current Capacity: Fool Theodora, Priestess Santabarbara, Priestess Circe, Emperor Dahaka, Sage Merlin, Devil Anastasia, Tower PITT, Tower Heracles, Moon Carmilla, Judgment Asherah)

    [ ] Store Black Frost.
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Sage Merlin = Hierophant+4 Yurlungur (Null Magic)
    [ ] Sage Merlin + Priestess Santabarbara = Rebirth+5 Izanagi (Elec and Almighty)
    - [ ] Switch Circe for Santabarbara
    [ ] Emperor Dahaka + Devil Anastasia = Justice+5 Fariedone (Physical and Fire)
    - [ ] Switch Black Frost for Anastasia
    [ ] Emperor Dahaka + Tower PITT = Star+4 Barnumbirr (Wind and Bless)
    - [ ] Switch Heracles for PITT
    [ ] Emperor Dahaka + Sage Merlin = Death+4 Gabriel (Ice and Bless)
    [ ] Priestess Circe + Priestess Santabarbara = Priestess+4 Baba Yaga (Curse and Wind)
    [ ] Emperor Dahaka + Sage Merlin = Lovers+2 Helen (Physical and Psy)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Sage Merlin = Chariot+4 Huitzilopochtli (Physical and Nuclear)
    [ ] Priestess Santabarbara + Tower PITT = Hanged Man+3 Faust (Psy and Curse)
    - [ ] Swap in Circe.
    - [ ] Swap in Heracles.
    [x] Special Fusion: Empress Tsuruhime + Emperor Richard III + Hierophant Octavian + Chariot Qin Shi Huang + Strength Anjou + Devil Anastasia = Fool+7 Albion (Physical and Almighty)
    [x] Write-in: Store Priestess Circe

    "Wait, Lauryn, one last thing," you then asked her, "Er, Himawari tried to give a performance in her dethroned Empire yesterday, but said she saw you there. Is that, um, the case?"

    Lauryn shook her head, "I'm sorry, I don't recall being there anytime soon, you must be seeing things".

    "Although, it is not unheard of for our Staff here to still spend time in the outside world," Igor said, "However, I can confirm our Lauryn with in here the whole time".

    "Y-yes," Lauryn then said, "I... sort of don't know how I'd handle going back to school, let alone the Gameboard, or how other people would handle the sight of me, more to concern".

    "Figured you say that," you muttered.

    * * *

    "I can't believe I'm doing this..." you muttered later that day, as you stood in that abandoned temple trying to get the power to work for the amps and a laptop, so that your recording device wouldn't be limited to you phone that could cut out at any moment, what with the reception out here.

    You had gathered a whole bunch of people you knew, and could presumably still trust to not immediately rat you out for still associating with Nightshade, on rather short notice into the temple to be there at Nightshade's 'farewell' performance and solitary album, solitary live album at that, including Reina, Suzako, Yuya, Megumi, the Occult Club members, Takako, Kaneto, and so on. The more antique-loving Colette was admittedly stumped by most of the electronics you'd been asked to wrangle, but at least tried to give you a helping hand.

    Honestly, that you were mostly performing in front of people you knew, while giving you some reassurance, also made you more nervous in a way, given they'd now know what you looked like in full rocker regalia. Then again, it's not like some of them hadn't seen you in more embarrassing costumes before.

    Well, it finally came time to head out on stage, though from the looks of it Nightshade wasn't interested in performing much of her on-stage antics, having more an air of 'let's get this over with' than a last hurrah.

    "I've got a soul-scarring, black-hearted confession to tell you all," she began oddly, having at least smeared some fake blood on her forehead, "They say if you're gonna die young, then you might as well not die quickly. So, ah, you could say I'm performing a human sacrifice here tonight," those words made you flinch, "That I, Nightshade of- of the Lady Devils, am going to die, so that the girl Aoyagi Himawari may live. But I'm going down on my terms! Ah, what the Hell, hit it! 1-2-3-4!"

    <<FalKKone ft. Rena - The Fox's Wedding (Symph-Metal cover)>>

    After that number, Nightshade introduced you all one last time, "On guitar, Volta! On drums, Chronomena! And on bass... Abyssa", with each of you playing a solo in turn. "There's one guitarist of ours who couldn't be here this day, so we're dedicating this one to her!"

    You then ran all the way through your regular setlist, and even a few old numbers as well. Finally, the end was upon you... and you dreaded to think of what Nightshade had planned to get herself to go out on.

    As she stood in the centre, an all-shrouding blast of blood red smoke was released, her being nowhere to be found once it had subsided. Well, at least this meant you wouldn't have to do encores.

    "Colette! Tomomi! We've gotta find Himawari quick," you whispered to both of them as the entire audience started looking around, "Of course she'd pull something like this for Nightshade's 'farewell'."

    "Wait, hold on, what you do mean by 'farewell'?" Colette gasped, "I was absolutely not aware this was part of the arrangement!"

    "Huh, figures she'd bail on us, in more ways than one," Tomomi muttered.

    "Y-you mean she didn't tell you?!" you stared blankly. Like, was she expecting me to do that, or did she just not get around to it?
    "Look, let's search for her first, then we can discuss what the Hell's going on," you just told the two.

    As Colette quickly and Tomomi more sluggishly went to either end of the old temple, you started looking for Himawari out in the woods. Fortunately, you didn't take long to find her, as you spotted her kneeling into a waterfall pool, trying to wash all the dye out of her hair.

    "Oh hey, Honoka. Um, yeah, I'm sorry to pull something like that on you, but I was just thinking like, what would Nightshade do? Er, I dunno I don't think I was really able to give her the send-off she deserved, I think I got nervous and just couldn't conjure up the inspiration".

    "Hey, look, you did fine, we did fine," you insisted, but sighed, "Just, y'know, even as Nightshade, you could've laid off the whole friggin' suicide imagery. Yeah, you did some really unhealthy, regrettable things as her, but y'know, two wrongs don't make a right".

    Himawari gave an awkward smile, before drawing a pair of scissors out of Nightshade's outfit, "Er, Honoka, while I'm fortunate I didn't dye my hair to my roots, there's still, er, a whole bunch of places where I can't get the dye out, mostly the ends. So um, could you help by cutting them off for me?"

    You cautioned her with, "Ah, you know I'm not a barber, right? Like, I dunno..."

    "Hmhm, it's okay, I'll make it easier for you," Himawari giggled as she put her hair up in tails much like as Nightshade, leaving you to more easily cut them off in, er, admittedly a few snips more than you expected.

    Himawari, now with straight, neck-length hair framing her face, still smiled and said, "Thank you, Honoka. I- I wanted this to be the end of Nightshade, but I don't know. I still need a break from her, to start performing as myself, but... I guess there's other people out there who'd still want to see her, who wouldn't want her to just go away- Oh God, now I don't know want to do" she cupped her face with her hands.

    Taking hold of her and looking straight into her eyes, you smiled and said, "Hey, it's okay. I mean, I guess either way you go, you've got me with you no matter what", you blushed at those last words, before you and Himawari leaned in for a kiss.

    Giggling and blushing, she then asked, "Perhaps you'd like come swim in this pool with me, Honoka? The water's crystal clear, and don't we deserve a little fun as part of Nightshade's, er, 'retirement'?" You coming in closer, she slowly started helping you undress.

    "Ah, there you two are. You'll be pleased to know that the recording process went mostly without a hi-iitch..." Colette then ran up to you but stopped when she saw both of you in the forest pool together.

    Even if you knew Colette was okay with this sorta thing, that didn't stop you from being utterly embarrassed being seen like this.
    Himawari however took it surprisingly well, as she just smiled at Colette and said, "Oh hey, that's good to hear! Hmhm, care to join us, Colette?"

    * * *

    The moment you'd gotten back to the temple to see the audience off, you got some, er, odd stares.

    "Er, oh hi Honoka, ah, I guess it's 'Abyssa' here," Yuya tried to start with, "It's... kinda strange, I've known you really my whole life yet, well, I never knew you were into as extreme music as... that".

    "Hey, y'know, more power to you, Honoka! I mean, my parents are mostly cool and all, yet they'd probably freak if they knew I was at this sort of concert," Suzako chimed in.

    "Well, ah, this was just as much about helping out a friend as it was the music," you told them. Perhaps not the most integrally artistic thing to say, but honest enough.

    "Oh yeah, I totally get that," Reina piped up, "Like, usually this sorta thing wouldn't be for me, but knowing you and Collette were performing, I had to be here!"

    "For someone actin' all modest now, you sure put a ton of energy inta your performance," Takako told you, "And hey, ain't that what really matters?"

    You had to smile at all compliments, amongst the confusion, coming your way, topped off by Megumi then saying, "Hey, that was Nightshade's farewell performance, wasn't it?
    Okay, I get her not feeling up to this anymore, that sorta thing happens. But like, Honoka, where are you gonna go from here?" they asked.

    You shrugged and said, "Well, I did tell you a... while back now, that I couldn't really a future in this for me, so I kinda saw this coming, really. Plus, Colette's got her writing and Tomomi her parents' money, so I think we'll all be fine".

    "Yeah, still kind of a dick move though," Tomomi grumbled as she walked in, "Oh by the way Honoka, how'd your threesome go?"

    You gasped and blushed beet-red, before hissing at Tomomi, "Do you have to bring that up in public?!"

    "Eh, whatever, figured stuff like that wouldn't be too surprising in this business," she mumbled, before asking, "Oh, by the way, Colette and, ah, Himawari are asking you if you had any thoughts on the album name?"

    You hesitated upon hearing that, before answering:
    [x] "Alpha and Omega? Y'know, first and last performance and that?"
    [ ] "Something crazy like 'Queen of the Fifteenth Hell'?"
    [ ] "Hmm, instead of Live, maybe 'Undead' or 'Undying'?"
    [ ] "Just 'Nightshade' will do. Maybe stick 'Live' on"
    [ ] "Nightshade and the Lady Devils, like it was a team effort in the end"
    [ ] "Eh, can't really think of anything, so I'm fine with your ideas"
    [ ] Write-in.

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 9! -

    Well, after a concert like that:

    [ ] Maybe get to studying, as a counter to it?
    [x] Head out with Megumi for the night, since they're here and all.
    [ ] Hit the Arcade or something fun like that.
    [ ] Go for Karaoke. Seems redundant, but your music career might not end here.
    [ ] Na-rae will probably be serving Kikuko dinner, assuming Kikuko just doesn't go hunting for it.
    [ ] Sneak onto the Gameboard
    [ ] Just get to bed, that took a lot out of you.
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<BGM: Tokimeki Tonight - Opening Theme>>

    The concert over, it was Megumi you then turned to and asked, "Hey um, long time no see, I guess. Ah, how've things been?"

    While Megumi was smiling on the outside, it looked like they were stuck pondering exactly how to answer that question, "Hmm, well actually living with Ryouko's kinda cool, and she's a lot more, how do I put it, 'livelier' a roommate. Not saying that to be against you or anything, just an observation, y'know," they got around to answering. "As for studies, well, I think the worst of my essay-writing is over, for now anyway, still waiting on the results though".

    "Oh, er, what was your essay about?" you asked out of habit, perhaps dragging up some unpleasant memories for Megumi. Though come to think about it, you'd never asked them much about their studies, presumably because Megumi never really liked mentioning them.

    "Eh, economics stuff mainly, course might as well be called 'How Supply and demand justifies Corporate Bullshit," Megumi just said, eyes looking side to side, "Important to note that it was a course I only took 'cause a future accountant job would be 'respectable' enough to get my parents off my back".

    "Yeah, it's not exactly ice-skating, is it?" you had to remark.

    Megumi cocked an eyebrow and then asked, "Huh, you seemed to have weirdly zoomed in on that one childhood dream thing I said way back, haven't you?"

    "Well, it's... er, charming," you tried to say to them, holding your hands up to the sides, "And like, it's an actual plan for the future you might like doing. I mean, who dreams of being an accountant, right?"

    "Ooh, I dunno, maybe I could be banker or financial manager if I work hard enough," a rolling-eyed Megumi said with a shit-eating grin, before asking, "Hey, um, an abandoned temple's a weird place to be discussing college and jobs, wanna go somewhere more casual?"

    "Oh yeah, like how about the Arcade, that could be fun?" you brought up.

    "Eh, not exactly what you'd call appropriate either, but what the Hell," Megumi went along with you. Of course, them not having a car and their bike not exactly built for two meant that it was quite the walk all the way back through the forest into town, so along the way you had time to discuss a couple of other things.

    "Hey, y'know it's not like I can just snap back in to doing ice-skating stuff," was the first thing Megumi brought up, "I was never the most athletic kid back in school, hell the exact opposite. And you know how much practice just about any sport can take, let alone skating".

    "C'mon, you've still got your entire life ahead of you, you could have plenty of time to practice" you chimed in with.
    "Yeah, well, have to spend that life eating and sleeping, y'know, and I can't just do that by practicing," Megumi retorted with, "Though hey, I don't see you bringing up your dream job around me much".

    You froze for a second, but then said, "Well, Ryouko might've told you that I told her that I didn't really have any plans for the future. Except maybe Nightshade's band, but well, you can see why that's not gonna be happening. I mean hey, I'm still in second-year, so I figured I could put off deciding all that next year, like most students".

    "Like most students? Yeah, touched a nerve there," Megumi then grinned at you, "I told you ice-skating was mostly a childhood dream job, in high school on the other hand I had no idea what I was gonna be, er, job-wise anyway. I told you doing an Economics course, on top of a bunch of other things, was a way to placate my parents, and that's true. But I also thought on a whim that I could use what I learned to make some money, to the point I could just do whatever I wanted... heh, you can guess how well that turned out," they laughed.

    When you both reached Kuchinashi's old Arcade, most of whose machines were held over from the 90s or even 80s, one you figured was even late 70s, you briefly saw flickering images appearing on random screens, most of which were tinged with see-through green. Shaking the sensation off, but also making a mental note of the whole thing, you pointed out one of the dance pad machines to Megumi.

    "Er, okay then, if you'd like? What, are you planning to stealthily help me practice figure-skating?" they chuckled, "But sure, I get enough comments on my legs regularly, could put them to some actual use".

    You'd certainly run around back and forth enough on the Gameboard to ensure that you could still move swiftly enough here, but of course these dance games were just as much about hand-eye coordination and memory as they were speed, so... you didn't exactly make it through without hearing a few harsh buzzes of failure.

    Megumi on the other hand shocked you, them being almost a natural at this, which was weird since you never thought of them as especially agile, thought they did bike around a lot. When this round was over, Megumi actually came in slightly ahead of you, despite all your training on the Gameboard.

    Afterwards, the both of you treating yourselves to a tub of popcorn, the local cinema located nearby, a now exhausted Megumi had to ask you, "Oh yeah, er, didn't wanna ask this too soon, but how's Kikuko treating you?", trepidation in their voice.

    It didn't help that all that dancing had arguably taken more out of you than Megumi, even if the whole thing at least proved they acrobatic talent wasn't so much a pipe dream. Anyway, as for Kikuko, "Oh god. I guess a step up when it comes to facilities, but a step down when it comes to everything else, not just personality but also location. Well, at least it means I get to live with Na-er, Tsubasa by extension, the maid who came to our place one day, she's pretty nice, so that helps" you gave a rough summary.

    "Also, Kikuko keeps forcing me to do a bunch of random crap 'proper ladies' apparently do, like horse-riding may be the worst, er no disrespect to the horses," you also had to bring up, clutching your knees.

    Megumi had to restrain themselves from laughing at that, but it was help to help given your expression. "Ah, I can see where you're coming from. Honestly, not having to worry about all that gender shit anymore was a load off my mind, internally anyway, much as parts of society look at me funny for it. Though yeah, I lived with you long enough that I can tell that's not your path, but one good thing that'll come with you graduating is that you won't have to put up with all these aristocratic All-Aces anymore," they went over.

    "Hmm, even before graduation, they'll all going to college soon won't they, being third years," you observed, which made you wonder, "No idea if the school's gonna usher in a whole new bunch of Aces or what, I mean the ones I know have hardly been the first generation" Also, what they're gonna do if the Gameboard goes from their possession, if they haven't 'won' it by then, a dark thought came to you.

    "Hey Megumi," you then asked, "The next time we meet, maybe you could show me around your university? I mean, I'd planned to go to Sapporo and yours is down in Hakodate, but it can't hurt for me to see the other options, can it?"

    "Ah ah, oh boy, were I more cynical I'd tell you not to worry. As long as the college in question has a good ranking, then from there it doesn't really matter which on you go to," Megumi spoke bluntly but still kept their spirits up, "Nevertheless, not that having you around the campus wouldn't be cool, I could show you all the- er, interesting places, hehe," they were quick to finish that "Yeah, I can arrange it".

    "Hey, good to hear that, especially since, er," you mumbled as you looked down at the time, "I've gotta get going, if I'm not back for dinner a second time in so soon, Kikuko'll freak. But thanks Gumi, and au revoir!"

    "Gesundheit," they smirked back and waved.
    - Temperance has Journeyed to Rank 5! -
    [x] Tea Ceremony Club (Empress).
    [ ] Cricket team (Sun).
    [ ] Hang out with Reina (Magician).
    [ ] Meet with Himawari (Devil).
    [ ] Class rep duties (Priestess).
    [ ] Part-time at Tabletop store (Fortune).
    [ ] Part-time at Sweets store (Lovers).
    [ ] Train at Tsutsuji Dojo (Chariot).
    [ ] Gameboard.
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    [ ] Write-in.
    [ ] Megumi's College (Temperance).
    [ ] Studying.
    [ ] Internet.
    [ ] Arcade.
    [ ] Karaoke.
    [ ] Stick around Kikuko's place.
    [x] Gameboard (sneak-in).
    - [x] Write-in Empire: Melissa's
    - [x] Write-in Party: Kikuko
    [ ] Write-in.

  10. #50
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    May 2012
    In-Between Days
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    L. Melissa's Arena

    You groggily got up and rubbed your eyes, only to hope you were having a nightmare as you saw Kikuko standing right over you, gazing down.

    Quivering, you froze in public, but then Kikuko knelt and told you, "I assure you, Nakamura, I am simply here to warn you, not to apprehend you". She then sat down right beside you, her eyes level with yours, and said, "Azuma has made no secret of his possessiveness towards you, and it is clear to me that Melissa desires you too, if only for the Wild Card you hold. So, ahem, I do wish to express my... gratitude in you choosing to become my Jack, to reassure you that you chose right, and not merely out of impulse.
    Oh, do not think I'm blind to you only choosing me as the 'lesser evil'," Kikuko then rasped, before breathing in and out and resuming in a normal tone, "But I am and have always been the best of the Aces to prepare you for an actual future in this world. I do call you my 'apprentice' after all, which implies graduation. Whereas under Azuma or Melissa's wing, you could only hope to be a follower or possession".

    Prepare me for the future? Yeah right, when you're the most stuck in the past person I know, you thought but didn't say, though did make a mental note of that for later.
    "Kikuko..." you did have to ask, "Like, you're still pretty strong. Has Azuma, er, ever come onto you?" you breached an uncomfortable topic. True, Gakuto had known not to toe Kikuko's line, but Azuma did possess more tact.

    "Hah, no, he's always known a clear threat when he's seen it," Kikuko said, "He's never come after Melissa either, which exhibits some taste on his part, though her being first to join after Rin's passing has never helped her case. He once showed... 'affections' for Himawari, they were in the same class after all, but obviously he'd now deny those ever existing".

    You'd already figured that for Melissa, but God, you flinched when you heard that about Himawari. You had to wonder why she'd never brought it up, then again, she had every right not to bring it up, and it'd make sense if she'd repressed that.

    "Er, also Honoka, are these lodgings to your liking?" Kikuko had to ask; you could even see her twitch a little. She then got defensive with "I mean, this is one of the antique storehouses of the Maeda lineage, after all, so I would assume the answer would be no less than yes. But, um, I can acknowledge it may not be the, er, most expected place for a bedroom..." she calmed down.

    When you'd moved here, you honestly hadn't expected anything more. "A little jarring maybe, but eh, I've been managing," was what you ended up telling her, before you got hopeful with "Oh, did you have another room in mind?"

    "Not particularly," Kikuko's reply came as expected, "But, er, I did feel it was my duty as your Ace to check up on you, that was all".
    It then turned out to not be all, as Kikuko suddenly clasped your hands and looked directly into your eyes, "The remaining Aces both want you as their own, but I won't let them get their hands on you, am I clear?!" a suddenly more unhinged, less composed Kikuko hammered into you.

    "Okay, okay, got that," you replied on instinct, trying any to get Kikuko's nerves back to normal. With that seeming to work, you then said, "Hey, um, you wanna like, go patrol Melissa's Empire again today? Sounds like something we should do, what with, er, the Duel coming up and all".

    "Ah yes, of course," Kikuko nodded, back to normal for now again, "I do have my duties as head of the Tea Ceremony club beforehand, but I can easily arrange a late-night stay at school".

    All that over with, you started the trip down to school, where you were soon asked one of the more normal questions by your otherwise abnormal history teacher since the Mid-Terms.
    "Okay then, who can tell me which of the following is not associated with the Wars of Roses?"

    [ ] Henry VI.
    [x] Sir Thomas Wyatt.
    [ ] Andrew Trollope.
    [ ] John Neville.

    Come the afternoon it was onto the Tea Ceremony Club, and um, the fact that you'd beaten your club captain in a gun duel (however fairly) certainly got most of the club's eyes staring at you.
    Not that there were that many eyes, the Tea Ceremony Club being one of the strictest about admission in the entire school. Kikuko had told you that the personal, intimate air of the Tea Ceremony would be compromised by having too many people around, but given that under her management the club was more the 'Bushi reenactment brigade' than anything else, you had to question that logic.

    "Hey there! Pretty impressive ya know, totaling our Club Leader like that the other day," a smiling robe-clad girl with a brown pixie cut and a red headband said to you, "Oh geez, my parents would freak if they saw I'd forgotten my manners in front of you. I'm Tsugaru Shion, and well I already know you'd be Nakamura Honoka, I mean you're Jack of Swords now and all," she gave you a thumbs up and winked.

    "Yeah, think I can remember briefly seeing you all the way back when I first, er, checked this club out," you said you her, "Um, guess I really embarrassed myself the first day here, huh?"

    "Ah, don't worry, you've really improved since then," Shion stayed upbeat, "Yeah, guess I should explain, I'm the heiress to probably the oldest Samurai clan attending Hanataba, second to Kikuko's of course. Her clan's remained way more relevant though what with business stuff, but eh that's okay, we've always been okay to just chill out rather than keep insisting we're still hip and all," she went on.

    "Nakamura," Kikuko interrupted the two of you without the slightest regard to aristocratic manners, "I require you to undertake the privilege of pouring the tea. Understood?"

    "Oh, er of course. Loud and clear, Kikuko," you said back to her, before thinking, Huh, I sounded kinda like Na-Rae there. "Er, sorry, I'm being called, though it's weird we're actually getting to do tea stuff here" you told Shion.

    "Heh, no need to apologise, that's a sure sign Kikuko trusts you and everything" Shion kept grinning at you.

    "On second thought," Kikuko turned around and said, tossing both you and Shion sets of tonfas from her weaponries, "Perhaps you would like to demonstrate to Tsugaru the very extent to which you have improved, wouldn't you now?"

    You had to hesitate a little at this sudden development, but Shion seemed all for it. "Tonfas, huh? not the usual weapon choice, but that's cool with me. Ooh, I'm guessing you have some experience with them? 'Cause so, that was cool of Kikuko".

    "Uh, 'some experience'? Yeah, you could say that," you gave a very understated reply.

    <<BGM: Danganronpa 2: Objection -CROSS SWORD->>

    Kikuko then ushered the both of you into the centre of the clubroom, where with a wave of her hand she commanded you both to fight. Your muscle memory failing you for a moment as it occurred to you these tonfas did not have a gun compartment, something you now had to wonder if was even possible outside the Gameboard, Shion caught you completely off guard as she held the tonfa by the shaft of all places, using what was normally its handle to hook and pull you to the ground.

    Okay, maybe you were a bit rusty with your tonfas since the Eitaro duel, especially since the keep-your-distance Gakuto never gave you much incentive to get better with them, plus you had your Wild Card and all. Still, it hadn't even occurred to you to hold them like that... or maybe Shion hadn't been shown how to properly wield them so had to improvise.

    Either way, being down near the floor like this, you certainly were able to land a strike right up at her in the stomach, succeeding in knocking her back for a second. Free of her hook, you were quick to stand back up, but she instead had switched her tonfas around to, ah, a reverse grip, though at least now she was holding them by the handle.

    Said reverse grip helped give her some mid-range distance on you, as she delivered a swipe up at your cheek with her right tonfa, followed in a second by a hit to your side with her left. Her attack barrage made you hold your arms sideways to form some makeshift blockade in front of you, but Shion by running around you before you could react and striking you in the side, followed by another hook downward, both tonfas in different positions.

    You now sprawled out on the floor, Kikuko sighed and muttered "Victory for Tsugaru".

    That made you think Kikuko didn't have much of a reason to be let down, Like, I figured her plan would be that if I lost, she'd get to rub in that if I couldn't beat Shion, what chance I did have in a real Duel against her?

    "Woo, who's the best?! Oh hey, get up Honoka, you handled yourself pretty well just then," a beaming Shion helped you get back up.

    Then again, my loss does mean Shion's clan now has something on Kikuko's, if only a little, you then considered. "Yeah, um, good fight, Shion. I ah, feel you taught me something just then" you gave a slight bow to her.

    * * *

    Later that day, you following Kikuko out of the clubroom and around the school to make sure she was the only All-Ace still here, you then had to wonder about something. "Hey Kikuko, er, you were pretty quick to pull Shion and me into a fight just then" you had to bring up, if not make your concerns immediate.

    "Your point?" she put it blunt.

    "Well, er, I was wondering if you were using our fight to prove something. Like, I couldn't have been for just training, right?" you ended up asking.

    "I'd say if anything was 'proved', it was how you still barely know in the ins and outs of your own weapon," Kikuko hissed.

    "Well hey, I can't just go around all reverse grip unless I wanna risk accidentally shooting myself," you had to protest.

    "Hah, this is why I'm an Ace and you're stuck as a Jack, such clumsiness would not even be a possibility with us," she retorted, "Besides, most physical skills on the Gameboard consume stamina anyway, I hardly see your problem".

    Sheesh, forgive me for actually caring about gun safety, you thought, before that thought shifted to something else. "Hold on, speaking of clans and all that... do you have siblings? Like, I kinda thought so, the Maeda clan would want to ensure its continuation or something, and felt I had to ask after meeting Tomomi".

    You saw Kikuko come to a complete stop and snarl, though you weren't sure if her restrained anger was due to Tomomi or her siblings, "I'm the eldest of four, and the only daughter".

    "Oh wow. True I'm an only child, but I have to imagine that can't be easy," was your first thought, before you then supposed, "So, that'd make you the inheritor of your zaibatsu, if I'm thinking right?"

    That... may have been the wrong thing entirely to say to Kikuko, as she then started shaking violently. "My... uncle is next in line as per my father's will, followed by my first brother, the eldest s-son," her words steamed off of her tongue.

    Taken aback by the news, you felt it best to change the subject as quickly as possible. "So ah, what're we hoping to find further in Melissa's Empire then?"

    "I'd figured we should settle things with this Arachne, depriving Melissa of her armourer would be a crucial step. Also, ensuring the destruction of that 'food court' of hers, depleting your enemies' consumables is a key strategy in a siege," Kikuko seemed much more at home in saying.

    "Er, don't think that'd really matter in a Duel," you had to bring up.

    "You honestly want your enemy to be able to stock up on healing items beforehand?" Kikuko spun around to ask you to your face, "Though as for the Duel, my intent is ultimately to reach the arena in her Empire's heart, it would not suit me to do battle in unfamiliar geography".

    Given the mercury flood and the floor deletion Eitaro and Gakuto had pulled, you could see where she was coming from. Still, your instinct was to reassure her with, "Oh, don't worry, I've had Duels in places I'd never been and I turned out... fine".

    "Yes, but you have a Wild Card," Kikuko had to remind you, "Hmm, that does remind me..."

    "Er, remind you of what?" you shivered a little, feeling off about where this was going.

    "While for now we should indeed concentrate on Melissa's Empire, I am personally curious about those teleporters in Gakuto's," Kikuko then said, "Last time their body-switching, ahem, capabilities crept up on us from behind, but I've been giving some thought as to what tactics we could implement if we used them intentionally".

    Oh right, those, you remembered regardless of whether you wanted to, before saying, "Er, far as we know they can't switch Personae, so I still think any of us would get found out quickly. Oh Lord, you're not planning to use me as a body double?!"

    "In a Duel? Absolutely not, it'd be utter cowardice, and if you were slain I'd remain trapped in your body. I was merely thinking we should take into account the possibilities these things could afford" Kikuko made clear.

    Well, this showed she did have some concern for you. Still, you felt the need to mention, "Well, Gakuto's Empire is all a bunch of glitches now, so who knows if those teleporters are even still around. Plus, with Gakuto gone, should we really be fiddling with his stuff without us able to force to put things back to normal?" Especially given how little you know about tech.

    "Again, consideration of possibilities," Kikuko repeated.

    At the very least, today had seen you make a few inroads and learn quite a few things about Kikuko, all before you'd even set foot on the Gameboard, though you weren't sure how much were exactly, well, that positive.

    - The Empress has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    Per the usual Gameboard entry and No One's Land sojourn, you arrived over the dunes once again at the giant revolving door outside Melissa's mall chain.

    "Okay, so we've charted out a route through the car park-" you tried to go over, but Kikuko cut you off.

    "The Duel shall soon be upon us, we have little use for stealth anymore. So, I stationed backup," Kikuko told you.

    One of her Empire's Shadows, who you recognised as Zorya from the assault on Gakuto's Empire, hovered forth in her stellar splendour, as she cast a Nuclear blast upon that revolving door before shattering it in half with her solar blade.
    Of course, that gave away your location immediately, as two more Shadows you seen previously while with Melissa, Lemminkainen and Austeja you recalled their names being, were swift to appear and block your way inside.

    "At least this appears a more traditional fight, no insane car or anything," Kikuko had to grin, as you would rather have gotten in without any fight.

    [ ] Take on Austeja.
    [ ] Take on Lemminkainen.
    [x] Both Kikuko and Zorya should have this, charge in past the two shadows while the occupy them.
    [ ] Take on both, and analyse them to find an element resisted by neither.
    [ ] Take on neither, stick to support.
    [ ] Write-in.

    You cast Sukukaja on yourself in preparation for switching to Albion, then made your way straight in as both Lemminkainen and Austeja swing their blade and jabbed their pincer at you, only for you to just shrug both off as they unknowingly healed you to full.

    While they did so, Kikuko had time to sneak in a Power Charge via Tsuruhime, and struck out with a Heat Wave on both Shadows. Neither however seemed to mind the heat much, but the sheer physical power certainly got to them. You having got the sense that Zorya would probably want to deal with the flying foe first, the stellar Shadow blasted the killer bee with a magical Nuclear explosion.

    As for you, you were successfully inside the mall, now gazing down at the multiple floors of stores below you. You did have to wonder whether Melissa even had the time for all these shops of hers, as much as she'd likely insist she did.
    You figured wherever her Empire's heart was, if that swimming pool wasn't it, it was probably at the lowest level of this mall. or maybe Melissa wanted everyone to think that by drawing the eye downwards, then snuck it up top or something out of spite? No, this place reminded you almost as much of nuclear bunker as a mall, so if Melissa wanted to defend it, she wouldn't stick it right near the entrance.
    Of course, this all raised the question of whether Melissa had any control over her Empire's layout, or if the Gameboard did it all for her, as you guessed was the case with the other Aces? Though Gakuto was able to change his Empire's 'genre' at a whim- Ugh, you should get going already.

    You started on the first escalator downwards... and that was your first mistake, as from up above, what looked like a golden idol came crashing down, with enough force to shatter the escalator beneath you. the entire thing promptly fell a whole storey, crashing into the next escalator lined up below. Albion's affinity with raw physical power meant that you ended up hurt far less than you would be, but it didn't stop you feeling any less disoriented after falling from such heights.

    You were stopped from plunging all the way down when a spider's web was slung down to you, enabling you to stick onto one of the circular walls of a storey's floor. Glancing up, you saw that spider-woman, the Shadow Arachne, had slung this web down to you... but also that you weren't the only one hanging onto the sides of the mall like this.

    That golden idol had now attached itself to the other side of the ring-wall by melting her hand and foot into it. You quickly had Albion Analyse her, seeing that this idol, more a golden princess statuette rally, was named Zoe Kalentoula of the Fortune Arcana, and that using Physical attacks would be useless, and Electricity wasn't going to work either.

    A situation like this, web-swinging off walls and everything, required a more mobile Persona... and only then did you realise that none of your Personae right now had more than above-average speed. You settled for the next best thing as you called on Theodora to cast another Sukukaja, but all the while Zoe had fired off a Zio-line bolt headed straight at you.
    Acting fast, you kicked off the wall and to the side before you could get electrocuted, swinging around and landing vertically on the ring below.

    It was then Arcane leapt into the fray as she fired off another web, pulling herself onto the floor above this time. You had to wonder what exactly this spider Shadow had planned by jumping away from you, until you noticed the lines over the pit both webs made.
    Breathing deep, you then ran back and leapt across the pit, clutching onto that strand of web as Zoe kept firing lightning bolts at you, before you landed again vertically on a pillar this time. With great force, the Zoe Shadow pushed herself off the wall and shot towards you... only to end up stuck by now in a web both you and Arachne had made across the pit.

    With that you switched to Asherah and, given what you knew about metal, cast Maragion to set the entire web on fire. This left Zoe entangled in a sticky, fiery cage as she fell along with it all the way down to her crumbled heap of escalators.
    Zoe seemingly finished, Arachne then approached you by dangling down from above. Familiar blue flames started flickering up around her, as the Shadow from her faded and you could now see none other than Reina, or rather her cognitive self, dangling from above, if having gotten herself completely tangled up in her own webbing.

    You tried to think of something to say to Reina as you had to Suzako and Ikue, anything to finally get her out from Melissa's grasp. Fortunately, by now you didn't seem to need you, as a dangling Shadow Reina smiled at you before vanishing into velvety mist, leaving behind a Magician tarot card that faded into our hand.

    Reina... was all you thought at first, looking at a remaining strand of web she'd given you, presumably to abseil right down to the bottom with. Then you looked back up, and a whole different thought arose, Wait, how am I supposed to get back in contact with Kikuko, when she's probably still all the way up there and I'm down here?

    Attaching the cobweb rope to the wall and letting it fall to the lowest floor, you then made a brief side-trip to the elevator first, a Zionga courtesy of Merlin able to let you get the thing working on your own. Going right back up to the top with it, and noticing the lift itself had no button to head to the bottom floor, you soon got out and were able to run back into Kikuko.

    "Er, hey, how did the fight with those two Shadows go?" you tentatively asked her.

    "They posed little threat, I've had Zorya stay outside to keep dealing with Melissa's first line of defence," Kikuko went over.

    "Yep, uh huh. Anyway, while all that was going on, I think I may have found a route down to the lowest floor," you then told her, trying to keep quiet about the part with Reina's Shadow helping you out, for her own safety, "I've figured that'll likely be where her Arena is. Probably be something like a swimming pool, or a catwalk, hell maybe a wrestling ring".

    After heading back down in the elevator, you then had some difficulty convincing Kikuko to trust the web-rope you'd found, still not wanting to give away Reina. "Er, it's a bunch of unravelled clothes I found in a fashion store, which I then fastened together," you tried to sway her over.

    Seeing no other way forward, Kikuko sighed and ultimately agreed to abseil with you down to the lowest floor. Not that either of you saw much special about this floor, other than all the crashed escalators of course, it was mostly the same types of shops found everywhere else here. Well, there was something of a car show, but you hardly felt the need to potentially run into Chris again.

    You finally stumbled on something when a sliding glass door let you both into what you guessed was the pool. Er, the keyword turned out to be was the pool, as the whole place, you guessed as some kind of defensive measure, had been frozen over to the point where it now doubled as an ice-skating rink.

    Kikuko acted first, as an impulse Agilao form her melted a hole upon the rink, with something then sending the resulting water rushing down. You then switched to Heracles whose sheer strength assisted you in getting rid of all this ice with a Power-Charged strike with your tonfas. Maybe with too much power, as your force launched a huge chunk of ice straight up to the ceiling.

    It wasn't long before you saw the reason the pool had drained, since a vent near the deep end that usually would've been closed was now opened. You both made your precarious way down there, a wind spell from Merlin helping slow your fall, as you and Kikuko then removed the last of this vent.

    This Empire still having further down to go, your route forward had you walking through a bunch of storm drain pipes, until you came to a set of iron bars that Kikuko's fire spells were able to melt down, unblocking the path into an underground grotto.

    Stepping forward, you saw that this was no mere cave, or even a dragon's lair as you predicted for a second, but an entire subterranean cathedral that made you feel like ants in comparison. Well, 'megachurch' might've been the more appropriate term for Melissa. The surrounding pews, both above and below, were made from stacks of dollars bills fused together, the altar being a giant solid gold bar, and above the pulpit there stood a flashing, neon dollar sign in the place of a cross.

    "Wow, if this isn't Melissa's Arena, I don't know what is," you mumbled at the sight of this place. "But, even then, aren't churches and stuff supposed to be the opposite, 'no fighting on holy ground' and that?"

    "You're honestly asking the wrong person," Kikuko told you, before she added, "If anything, I was taught that sacred sites were supposed to be austere".

    "Well, if you're basically treating wealth and God as the same thing," you observed, "I don't think you're gonna be too concerned with frugality".

    The Duel still being a few days away, there wasn't really much for either of you to do here, Kikuko surveying the area for any hidden switches or traps but not seeing anything.
    "Well, we've still got her food court to smash up... if we can even get back up there again," you muttered.

    "You have electricity spells this time, don't you?" Kikuko was swift to ask.

    "Yeah, of course, what were you- Oh," you realised, "You're gonna have me magnetise up all those escalators, aren't you?"

    "Do you have any better ideas?" Kikuko said, if not for her usual tone it'd sound like a line from an action movie.

    "Fine, okay," you sighed, switching to Heracles.

    * * *
    You riding back up on all those magnetised escalators had the side-effect of you accidentally sending them crashing forward. However, as you were able to get them to smash into the food court, you counted that as two birds with one stone.

    Your objectives all ticked off, you eventually exited back into the Prized Pupil Lounge, where you had to reflect on seeing Melissa's Arena for yourself.
    "I always knew Melissa was full of herself, but... I never would've thought it reached hubristic levels. Like, my money is God stuff, or whatever that was meant to be," you went over, before adding, "I know from Himawari that Christian priests are supposed to be God's stand-ins on Earth, well depending on denomination or something, and since it's her Arena yet we didn't see any preacher- pastor- whatever there, does- does she honestly think-"

    "You're worrying too much," Kikuko spoke up, "You even called it what it is, hubris, nothing more. From what I've seen of Anjou, she has no attacks that could hit Tsuruhime's weakness, so I can fully believe that I'll walk out of this Duel fine".

    "Yeah well, you're not exactly packing Psy spells, are you?" you had to bring up, only to twitch as Kikuko looked at you.

    "Is that an offer?" Kikuko asked, calling to mind Theodora's element. She then however stated, "Hah, simply jest. Don't worry, I assure you this will be remain one-on-one, if I have to resort to you, after all, how can I say I triumphed over Melissa purely through my own ability?"

    "It's not about 'triumphing', it's about not dying," you whispered, but Kikuko seemed to pay no attention.

    To sum up, Himawari had a music festival, Rin now had a black hole, Eitaro had a Colosseum, Gakuto had some Battle Grid, now Melissa had a Church, one you'd seen the inside of before the Duel too. You shuddered to think what Kikuko, let alone Azuma, had at their hearts of their Empires, given you'd seen much more of Melissa than you felt comfortable with...

    - Strength has Journeyed to Rank 6! -

    As you headed back home, you had some time to think about what you'd get up to tomorrow:

    [ ] Drama Club, per Azuma's 'challenge'.
    [ ] Computer Club, to observe what scars Gakuto had left.
    [ ] Seeing what Himawari had planned next.
    [ ] Catching up with Suzako.
    [ ] Catching up with Yuya, at that Sweets Shop probably.
    [ ] Class Rep duties.
    [ ] Training at the Tsutsuji Dojo.
    [x] Part-time at the Tabletop Store.
    [x] Velvet Room (free action), with Arachne and Zoe in stock.
    [ ] Gameboard:
    [ ] Write-in.

    Then in the evening:

    [x] See how Na-Rae's been holding up.
    [ ] Head to Megumi's College.
    [ ] Do Karaoke.
    [ ] Head to the Arcade.
    [ ] Get to studying.
    [ ] Get to sleep.
    [ ] Sneak onto the Gameboard.
    [ ] Write-in.

  11. #51
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    May 2012
    In-Between Days
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    LI. Jacks In A Box

    It was at school that next day, with the All-Aces fortunately having done nothing to switch you and your friends' classrooms around, that you tried to get a word in to Suzako during a lull in the lesson.

    "Ah, Suzako, I've been wondering," you began with as you looked at her, "Are you into like, ahem, tabletop games at all? 'Cause I've got a part-time job down at a game store, and thought you might be interested in tagging along".

    Suzako instinctively looked to her left and right, even though nobody was passing by outside, before she said to you, "Hey, sure, that sounds great. But, well, it's just y'know, if Melissa finds out I've been doing those sort of activities..." she gulped.

    You had to smile, even if that wasn't the smartest move, for you were quick to explain, "Don't worry, I've got a solution to that which seems to work, and one that'd suit you perfectly. Put on a disguise, it fools Kikuko, and since you've been getting into cosplay, you'd be a natural at it".

    Suzako went silent for a moment as she had to consider some things, but slowly edged towards you and whispered, "Okay, I'm up for it! Helps that cosplay's the one hobby of mine Melissa's even okay with, so she probably won't notice me going to change clothes".

    You did have to think why Melissa would take such issue with what Suzako liked to do, other than well, just to be Melissa. Hadn't you been told by like a dozen or so thinkpieces that traditionally more geeky behaviours were all the range nowadays? Then again, Melissa was an oil heiress after all, so you doubted the schools he had before this one were exactly 'hip and happening'.
    "Alright, that's great. Well, see you there" you grinned at Suzako. When the bell rang though, you personally had one extra thing to attend to before heading over to Tumbling Dice.

    Making a stop at the Velvet Room, Popo was swift to produce two new Personae for you.

    I am Magician Arachne, first of spiders and rival of the gods," said the Shadow who, true to your theories, had turned out to be Reina's, "As I was struck down, Honoka, you now have the power to strike back
    -Magician I-

    Elements: Absorbs Gun, Null Curse, resists Psy, weak to Ice and Wind
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: |||||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Rakukaja, Sukukaja, Stun Needles, Mazionga, Poison Arrow
    Magician+6 Bonus: Kougaon

    I am Fortune Zoe Kalentoula, the daughter turned to gold," spoke that princess made into a golden statue, "Inside this metallic frame, life stills beats
    Zoe Kalentoula
    -Fortune X-

    Elements: Absorb Electric, Null Physical, resist Ice, weak to Psy and Curse
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: |
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: |||||
    Skills: Ziodyne, Lightning Smash, Heat Wave, Regenerate 2, Fast Heal
    Fortune+2 Bonus: Dekunda

    And, as always, the question of what space you needed to make for them:

    [ ] Fool Theodora + Sage Merlin = Hierophant+4 Yurlungur (Null Magic)
    - [ ] Swap in Fool Albion
    [ ] Sage Merlin + Priestess Santabarbara = Rebirth+5 Izanagi (Elec and Almighty)
    [ ] Emperor Dahaka + Black Frost = Justice+5 Fariedone (Physical and Fire)
    [ ] Emperor Dahaka + Tower PITT = Star+4 Barnumbirr (Wind and Bless)
    - [ ] Switch Heracles for PITT
    [ ] Emperor Dahaka + Sage Merlin = Death+4 Gabriel (Ice and Bless)
    [ ] Emperor Dahaka + Sage Merlin = Lovers+2 Helen (Physical and Psy)
    [ ] Priestess Santabarbara + Tower PITT = Hanged Man+3 Faust (Psy and Curse)
    - [ ] Swap in Heracles.
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Judgment Asherah = Sun+3 Gawain (Physical and Nuclear)
    [ ] Fool Albion + Judgment Asherah = Sun+3 Mug Ruith (Nuclear and Electric)
    [ ] Magician Arachne + Fortune Zoe = Justice+5 Cordelia (Physical and Bless)
    - [ ] Swap in Prospero
    [ ] Magician Arachne + Emperor Dahaka = Rebirth+5 Izanagi
    [ ] Judgment Asherah + Moon Carmilla = Fool+7 Seth (Wind and Curse)
    - [ ] Swap in Mayasura
    [ ] Sage Merlin + Judgment Asherah = Devil+9 Ravana (Physical and Curse)
    [ ] Sage Merlin + Fortune Zoe = Judgment Surt (Fire and Physical)
    [ ] Magician Prospero + Magician Arachne = Magician+6 Maui (Nuclear and Psy)
    [x] Write-in: Emperor Dahaka + Tower Heracles = Star+4 Barnumbirr (Wind and Bless) inherit Tetrakarn, Fool Theodora + Judgment Asherah = Sun+3 Gawain (Physical and Nuclear) inherit Counterstrike , Sage Merlin + Priestess Santabarbara = Rebirth+5 Izanagi (Elec and Almighty), resummon Fool Theodora

    I am Star Barnumbirr, the morning light that pierces through the nether," said a dark-sinned, feather-clad woman riding on a shooting star, twirling a rope stitched together from zodiac signs, "We sing the song that leads from death to the origins of life."

    "I am Sun Gawain, the thrice-blessed champion," said a redhead knight with shimmering armor like the sun, a leaf-woven belt wrapped around him, a giant shield in the Virgin Mary's image with five glowing points, and an axe sticking out of his neck, "Our virtues form the Sign of Solomon, to shield us from certain doom."

    "I am Rebirth Izanagi, life-giver to the formless world," said a figure in a black coat and grey iron mask with white tassels, wielding a weapon halfway between a spear and a sword, "We shall erase the deathly corruption from your eyes and soul.

    -Star XVII-

    Elements: Reflect Bless, Null Wind and Curse, resist Fire, weak to Ice and Electric
    - Strength: |||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: ||||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: ||
    Skills: Sukukaja, Maragion, Garudyne, Mamudoon, Kougaon
    Inherit: Tetrakarn, Claim Stake
    Star Bonus: Samarecarm

    -Sun XIX-

    Elements: Absorb Nuclear, Null Bless, resist Physical, weak to Psy and Curse
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: ||||
    Skills: Tarukaja, Rakukaja, Deathbound, Freidyne, Regenerate 2
    Inherit: Counterstrike, Sukukaja
    Sun Bonus: Holy Wrath

    -Rebirth XIII-2-

    Elements: Null Electric and Dark, weak to Wind
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Zionga, Cross Slash, Rakukaja, Rakunda, Tarukaja
    Inherit: Mind Charge, Triple Down
    Rebirth Bonus: Null Physical

    (Current Personae: Fool Theodora, Fool Albion, Priestess Santabarbara, Emperor Dahaka, Sage Merlin, Devil Black Frost, Tower P.I.T.T., Tower Heracles, Moon Carmilla, Judgment Asherah)

    * * *

    It was at the school gates that you met up with a girl in some sort of plasticky armour that, having to stop for a second first, you realised from her gestures and the way she walked was Suzako wearing a disguise.
    "You, er, certainly went all out, eh" you felt the need to comment.

    "Yeah, well," Suzako said, looking side to side again, "I wanted to be extra sure, so that Melissa couldn't have a chance of telling it was me. Plus, y'know, thought this costume shouldn't be too out of place at a gaming session".

    "Well, makes sense, it's just..." you sighed, "Are-are you sure you have the money to afford all that just for a get-together? I mean, we're usually not all in cosplay get-up, okay maybe Hotaru is a little with his tassels".

    "Oh yeah, Melissa does pay me an 'allowance' for Jack stuff," she said, but naturally added, "Just as long as I use it to buy what she 'approves of'. But y'know, some stuff I can't resist and all, so I sneak it in when she's not looking- wait a minute, did you say 'Hotaru'?"

    Oh that's right, you'd forgotten that the Student Council President also running a gaming group wasn't common knowledge at your school, maybe an 'open secret' at most. "Yep, Morikawa Hotaru, same guy," you confirmed, hesitating to add He's about as effective a GM as he is a SCP. "He actually helped arrange a job for our English teacher" you went on instead.

    "Okay, neat. Ah, would not have called that, heh" Suzako said, as you then lead her down the streets and to the store in question.

    Hotaru waved to you as you met up with him at the door, but did flinch at the sight of someone in tacky armour trailing behind you.
    "Right, the toku armour thing. It's okay, Suzako, should be safe by now to take like your helmet or something off" you told her.

    Suzako's once carefully reworked hairstyle now a mess of helmet hair, she gave a little bow to Hotaru and went, "Wow, um, kinda didn't expect to see the Student Prez here, but cool the way worked out and stuff. I'm, ah, Suzakuin Keiko, but I thought like it'd be more fun if people in class started calling me 'Suzako' now, little more fun and casual, heh".
    From the way she stood unsteadily that, you did have to wonder for a second if she was actually intimidated being in Hotaru's presence, which given you actually knew the guy, and that the All-Aces arguably had more power over the school than he was meant to, you personally found kinda silly.

    So, covering the other bases, you then reassured Suzako, "Don't worry, if Melissa coerced you into doing anything bad, Hotaru understands that's on her, not you. Wait, oh no, don't tell me you didn't pick up on those rumours about Hotaru..." you twitched.

    "No! Absolutely not! J-just wanted to make a good first impression, that's all" Suzako then tried to insist.

    "Ahem, Honoka, I'm aware you meant well, but could you, y'know, not bring that sort of thing up in a casual setting?" Hotaru coughed.

    "Right, right, sorry" you gulped.

    "Well, if I may introduce myself, I am Morikawa Hotaru. But hey, since the bell's rung, I'm not really Student President right now, so there's no need to be too formal" he said, smiling and holding out a hand to Suzako.

    Introductions out of the way, you headed in with a now giddy Suzako, you coming to the conclusion that meeting an actually nice student in a position of authority was, well, what she'd been expecting otherwise out of the All-Aces. even before actually introducing her to the gaming group, she was already eager to check out the RPGs on display.
    Already carrying a stack of manuals, she looked up for a second and stumbled back, seeing the school's English Teacher suddenly show up, "Mr. Muir, I- er, do r-remember being told you'd be here, like that you had something to do with Hotaru and-" she started mumbling out.

    "'Mr.'? Eh, Hotaru got me that teaching job mostly because I couldn't find any other way of getting employment around here," Damian quite bluntly admitted, "Oh yeah, you're that brunette girl in the front row, I think I remember you. Called yourself after a phoenix or something, right?"

    Suzako just nodded along with all this, until you stepped in and broke the ice with, "By the way, Suzako, I think I told you we were playing Tears from the Veil here, right? Hey, maybe you could sit in a session, or even join in, like how in console RPGs you get more party members as you go?"

    That most definitely getting her attention, you and Hotaru showed her around to the back where games were commonly held. However, he definitely wasn't prepared for what sort of character Suzako came up with.

    "So, ah, you want to be a half-angel?" he stated, scratching his head.

    "The proper term is Nephilim, but essentially yeah" she said.

    "Well, uh, I do know you are new to the game and all, and it's a lot to take in so quickly... but you see, the point of the characters here is-" Hotaru began, but you felt the need to cut him off.

    "Hey look, Melissa's been putting her through a ton of shit lately, plus we don't know if she'll be back another session, so I'd say cut Suzako some slack, just for now" you said to him.

    "Ah, hmmm... okay, I guess I can understand that" Hotaru ultimately said.

    "Oh, so the newcomer gets to play who she wants, meanwhile I-" Torashi started off on a rant that none of you paid much attention too.

    As it turned out, some half-angel Nephilim of all things was just the power you needed, even if they were weak to Curse as a side-effect, to take down the monstrous beast threatening your small town, in-game that is. Hotaru as GM told you that this demonic beast was in fact a Chimera, created when the local chapter of the Phantom Society tried fusing far more of the local demons together than it could handle at once, your characters being tipped off that is was the Phantom Society by a squad of mystery men in black, pinstripe suits patrolling the area and muttering something on their 80s mobile phones.

    "Oh, so nothing that out of the blue?" Damian shrugged.

    "Hey, this was the end to Honoka's first campaign, and Suzako's first time here, so I had to like, give them a normal game first before getting all subversive," Hotaru explained himself.

    "It's okay, I had fun anyway," Suzako beamed "Due to Melissa, I don't think I've gotten the chance to do something like this in a long time!"

    "Yeah, for the end of my first campaign, I'd say was pretty good," you shrugged.

    It wasn't long before you slowly started leaving, but Hotaru did feel the need to stop you beforehand to talk.

    "Sheesh, Honoka. I get you were trying to reassure your friend, but... did you really have to bring up the whole murder suspect thing?" he asked you, making direct eye contact.

    "Yeah, I...I wasn't thinking," you had to admit, "Sorry, I guess I just had it on the mind since, well, Kikuko brought it up once. I mean, the thought of you, er, killing Rin to become Student President sounds like, completely stupid and unreal". Well, from you it does, from some others...

    "Completely unreal, yeah, though I guess I'm a biased party," he sighed, before looking down at his dice, "Like, we're raised to believe, whatever our religion, that the world has rules, right? That everything happens for a reason, be it gravity for physics or norms and etiquette for society. But then, probably the most capable president our school's ever had dies, I get blamed for it, and then... this year. Everyone I've talked to has completely forgotten one of my closest friends even exists, and then two of our top students die again, and another's expelled.
    I think what I'm getting at is, some things really are just arbitrary, a roll of the godforsaken dice," he paused for breath, before apologising with "Sorry, didn't mean to get all philosophical".

    "Heh, think that just shows why you got made Student Pres in the first place" you smiled at him.

    - Fortune has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    "Oh, one last thing," he then said, "Did you have any thoughts on what system we should take a look at next?"

    [ ] Dragon Record. Basic Fantasy setting, Elves, Dwarves, Warriors, Thieves, Mages.
    [x] Slime: The Genesis. Er, apparently you play as blob-people. Tragic and serious horror game though.
    [ ] Atomspire. Hybrid fantasy setting with nuclear power in it, drawing just as much on 50s America and other Atomic Age stuff.
    [ ] Loathcrypt. Much more low-powered, well the player characters are anyway, RPG about retaining sanity in the face of the indescribable.
    [ ] Phoenix Ranger Featherman RPG, might be Suzako's thing if she shows up again.
    [ ] "Really, I've got no strong thoughts either way".
    [ ] Write-in.
    Gaming Group stuff wrapped up for the afternoon, you went outside with Suzako and then had to twitch and freeze a second when you saw Na-Rae heading around in the area, presumably looking for you. The issue of course wasn't Na-Rae herself, but rather, what Kikuko could've sent her there for.

    "Oh yeah, isn't she one of the other Jacks?" Suzako was quick to notice her, before saying, "Kikuko's, right? Ah, you see, Melissa told me to not hang around with who she called 'those people', saying she'd get really mad if she saw me with them and all".

    "Bullshit," you were ready to hiss by now, "Suzako, don't you remember, you hate Melissa? That she forced you into being her Jack just to 'buy you out' is the only reason you have anything to do with her! Come on, I'll call Na-Rae over, we can hang out like normal," you said as your resolve flared up.

    As you approached Na-Rae, knowing she wasn't the type to just rat you out to Kikuko, you and your fellow Jack of Swords caught sight of each other as she spoke, "Oh, M-Miss Honoka? I-I wasn't expecting to see you here. Um, that is, Mistress Kikuko sent me down here in order to retrieve a package being mailed in from Nagoya, and-my, I see someone else is with you," she said, curtseying in Suzako's presence.

    "Wow, I mean like I knew Kikuko had a maid, and I guess I've seen her over at the Jacks' cafeteria table, but it's... something completely different to have her talk to me," Suzako said over to you, "You see, the only maids I've ever met are the ones at cafes.
    Erm, hey there, I'm Suzako, and thanks for your courtesy, I'm not usually used to that sort of thing," Suzako had to blush a little as she turned to Na-Rae, quickly bowing back, "Ah, I was told your name was Na-Rae, right?"

    On hearing her real name from someone other than you, Na-Rae gasped and stumbled back, almost dropping that package of hers.
    "Wait, hold up, I can explain!" You sweated as you tried to tell Na-Rae, having gotten used enough by now to calling her that, you'd forgotten she was 'Tsubasa' to everyone else, on Kikuko's orders, "I just got my names confused for a second, but don't worry, I've known Suzako all my life, she's definitely not the type to rat you out. Nobody else knows".

    Breathing deep, Na-Rae slowly got back into her normal stance and said, "...Right, of course, I'll be taking yer word for that, Miss Honoka. Well then, ahem, Suzako, I apologise in turn for not having formerly introduced myself before despite this whole business being a Jack and whatnot. I am-" she paused, but found her words again with, "I am indeed Seol Na-Rae, but officially and in public I'm Yomogi Tsubasa. Pleasure to meet ya!" she extended a hand.

    "Okay, I'm getting it. Ah, you're free to call me Suzakuin Keiko, but I like shortening it to Suzako," your friend smiled at her, "Ah, is your name a case of the same thing, that you like being called by it better?"

    "The opposite, actually," you felt the need to say, "Kikuko changed it for her, her birth name was 'too Korean' for her tastes".

    "What the-? That, ergh, like I thought Kikuko might not be that bad based on that one time she spoke to me, despite everything Melissa says about her. Then you tell me she did something like that..." Suzako snarled.

    That was me speaking to you, you thought, but had absolutely no idea how to express.

    "But yeah, I'm not exactly flush with cash, so y'know, this is my first time talking to an actual maid," Suzako beamed straight at Na-Rae, "Ah, if I may ask, what's working for Kikuko like? Gotta be better than being with Melissa, I take it".

    You tensed at those words, but Na-Rae handled it rather gracefully with, "The Mistress is who she is. Though ah, I do oughta confess, Miss Suzako, I admit I haven't had as, how shall I say, 'glowing' words as yours said ta me since, my, all the way back in my ulzzang days".

    Suzako then gasped and said "Oh cool, no way! Hey, um, I've noticed though, like I'm already hearing a bunch of interesting things about you, and yet you... don't seem the most certain of yourself, from the way you talk and stuff".

    You were starting to sense that Suzako, not really knowing Na-Rae and being under no pressure to watch how she interacted with her, was pretty much saying the first things that sprung to her mind with her.

    "Na-Tsubasa's been through a lot, and definitely as of late" you felt the need to step in and explain, using her 'Japanese' name else anyone overhear, and trying to save Na-Rae a session of stammering out.

    "Right, yeah, maybe it'd be better if I didn't ask that," Suzako gulped, but tried to keep making light by switching the topic, "Okay, you did ulzzang stuff? Cool, like I do cosplay, especially at this themed café down in Sapporo. Er, that your sorta thing, or not really your scene?"

    Na-Rae did have to smile a little, as she said "Well, folks are oft quick to assume that I'm in costume-play myself, so perhaps I have a knack for it that's just gone over my head. And, forgive my manners, but you are most peculiarly dressed yerself".

    "Wow, we are totally in sync!" Suzako said, having taken no offence to that and all, "Um, if I do say so myself, anyway. Anyway, yeah, I am kinda worried now about Melissa seeing us together, since, well, I guess you already know how she feels about Kikuko," Suzako then mumbled out, but brightened back up with, "So, how about us three make arrangements to meet up again sometime, hmm?"

    "Afraid that'd be a might difficult, Mistress Kikuko is quite particular about the schedule she insists on fer me" Na-Rae sighed out.

    "Hey look, I can arrange something," you tried to assert yourself, "I know you both pretty well after all, so not meaning to brag, but I'm probably the best person to make a thing like that happen, Er, eventually" Well, the best people would be Melissa and Kikuko after getting over themselves... but let's be realistic here.

    "You see? It'll work out. For now though, this first meeting's... been a lot of fun, Na-Rae," Suzako grinned as she looked at her, before waving goodbye. "I'll see you then. And hey, thanks Honoka, for this opportunity, with both Na-Rae and Hotaru".

    - Justice has Journeyed to Rank 6! -

    "Farewell, Miss Suzako, blessings with you!" Na-Rae tried to bid her goodbye, with a phrase that made it sound like Suzako had sneezed.

    "You know, Na-Rae, it occurs to me," you then said, "You had a following as an ulzzang, Suzako was gaining popularity when Melissa started trying to control her, Kaneto was a rising local sports star, Reina could've easily gotten popular on her own... Are the Aces all about cutting down on and controlling any competition? Like by now I wouldn't be surprised if Shinsuke used to be some budding young actor himself" And Koyomi's supposed to be no less than the friggin' 'ideal woman'.

    "Ah, those would be some fighting words there, Miss Honoka. I can disprove on thing though, Ohtsuka Shinsuke's always been with the Sakurazuka family, he was practically born into their service," Na-Rae commented.

    "Jesus, poor guy, unlike maybe that means he got to grow up with Tomomi," you said, before switching to "By the way, what's in the package? Or is that confidential on Kikuko's part?"

    "Weapons and armour, mainly," Na-Rae told you, "Antiques all the way from Kyoto, just been repaired reportedly".

    Knowing what was coming up Monday, that gave you the image of Melissa ordering a new chainsaw from all the way across the Pacific, or trying to smuggle another shotgun into Japan.

    Noticing the time, you went, "Ugh, Kikuko's probably expecting us back again. But you know, Na-Rae," you told her, "I have plenty of other friends at school, more than ever nowadays. So ah, if you'd ever like to socialise with more people than just me and Kikuko, just say so and I'll try to introduce you".

    "Why, Miss Honoka, that's... most thoughtful of you," Na-Rae said, "But, well, I'm not sure how Mistress Kikuko would react ta that, worst case scenario we may all attract her ire. But I am honoured you thought of me".

    Well, someone has to, you could only think.

    - The Hanged Man has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    "Y'know, right now I'd prefer to eat out for dinner somewhere, but I'm sure Kikuko already has plans" you did say. Of course, that didn't you stop making plans for tomorrow:

    [ ] Computer Club.
    [ ] Tea Ceremony.
    [x] Cricket.
    [ ] Part-time at the Tabletop Store with Hotaru.
    [ ] Part time at the Sweets Shop with Yuya.
    [ ] Class Repping for Ryouko.
    [ ] Checking on Melissa's state before the Duel.
    [ ] Gameboard:
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Approaching the school gates, early as Kikuko had been insisting of you these past weeks, you could see her still fretting about something at the school gates, pacing back and forth.

    "Guess you'd have a lot on your mind before the Duel, huh?" came your initial assumption, "Only five days left, and all". This thing's bad either way... but is it wrong to say I'm relieved it's not me in the crosshairs for once.

    "It's more than simply the Duel," Kikuko stated, "Something's, or someone's, tampered with my Empire. Just... how do you lose an entire iceberg, with a ship on it and everything?" she lost her composure for a second.

    That did make you go silent for a moment, but you then said, "Well, your whole Empire's on water, isn't it? Stuff's bound to move around, not be arranged neatly," Unlike your usual demands of people, you had to think.

    "it's 'on water' because my family has made its current name in shipping," Kikuko was quick to insist back.

    "Oh yeah, um, it's a touchy subject, but you reminded me of something I oughta bring up before the Duel," you then said.

    "...Okay, but made it quick. I can't risk being late to class, after all," Kikuko pressed on you.

    "What happens if you die? Like, both Eitaro and Gakuto died in their Duels, and Rin's been dead a while, so you'd have to consider the possibility at least," you managed to ask, "I mean, it couldn't hurt to be prepared, right?"

    "Ridiculous," Kikuko predictably brushed that off, telling you "I doubt I've reason to worry about that up against Melissa's lack of grace, and a technique limited to ramming, shooting, and blasting. However, in some sense, you do raise a good point.
    Centuries ago, those of my class were taught that a warrior life meant death could come at any time. Remaining ever aware of that was simply good form," she lapsed into a dream-like state, before lapsing right out of it as she glared at you, "Though I suspect the real reason you're asking is because you assume you're due inheritance?"

    You bit your tongue. Your first instinct was to firmly tell Kikuko that wasn't the case at all, but you had to wonder if she'd even believe you.

    However, she then did say "If, Honoka, if I do die... what I'd want to leave you is my duty, that the name 'Maeda' demands. That is, for you to inherit the disciplines I've strived to instill in you".

    On one hand, you thought little of Kikuko and her 'disciplines', but on the other, well... those words were possibly the sincerest thing she could bring herself to say to you. "Thank you," was what you settled on saying.

    * * *

    As Kikuko talking about the iceberg reminded you of Ikue, you definitely thought to attend Cricket today. Right now your Ace seemed so occupied with Melissa and whatever had happened to her own Empire, that oddly she didn't even you sneaking off without even needing your disguise.

    Takako was first to greet you with a "Hey there Honoka, glad you could make it! Like, I kinda thought everyone'd be raring to go after the Sports Festival, but no... not really. Guess enthusiasm died a little once we didn't really have a big goal like that to work up to", all at once.

    Okay, that was kind of a mouthful, but still. You had to respond with, "Sheesh, I'm not even Captain and I can already tell how much that stings".

    "Hey look, like I had to imagine everybody would have a whole bunch of stuff on, and 'sides, no one's like said officially that they ain't comin' anymore. I... think things are gonna work out fine," Takako tried to keep cheery.

    "Well, is Ikue here at least? I had been meaning to talk with her after, er, some things I heard went down with her" you said after wondering how to phrase something like that.

    "Huh, people have been saying stuff about moi?" Ikue's voice spoke up from behind you, her strutting her way in. Luckily she soon smiled, "I've never felt better, truly, almost as if a weight's been lifted off my psyche!"

    "Wow, that's great to hear" you said on the surface, but did have to think to yourself ...I still altered your mind without consent though, but it was to cheer you up, right? So it wasn't that bad?

    "I felt I came to a resolution, that I simply never needed the All-Aces after all. I know I'm fabulous, so really should that not be all that matters?" she smirked and pointed her hand at herself.

    "I probably wouldn't have stated it quite like that, but yeah, essentially," you said back.

    "Heh, I'm kinda worried I needed the opposite," Takako then said out of the blue, "Like, I dunno 'bout the rest of the school, but I was feelin' pretty proud of the team and myself after the sports fest, but I kept getting a really nasty thought. Like, all of this was possible 'cause of Eitaro's death, he was the one keeping Cricket Club from being recognised. So... was I celebrating his death without knowing it, in a way?"

    Oh Jesus, I did not come to Cricket Club to think about that, you winced. "Er, would it make you feel less bad if you knew there could've been another way to resolve that with Eitaro? Because..." you started on a thought, but now had no idea what to say next, "Maybe one of us could check his family's Dojo one day, get a different perspective on him or something?"

    "Oh yeah, I've been there once! Kind of a way outta town, and near a volcanic vent of all things, but Eitaro's grandpa is real nice," Takako had to say.

    "Hmm, the apple must have fallen seriously far from the tree," Ikue snorted and crossed her arms.

    "Right now though, if your mind's feeling weighed down, maybe a game could give us something else to focus our attention on?" you offered.

    "Ah yep, can't believe I almost forgot!" Takako beamed, polishing the ball.

    By 'getting your mind on something else', that turned out to mean 'trying to remember the exact rules as you went up to bat', despite the fact that you'd played a game of cricket for no less than the Sports Festival. Ikue appeared to be going through the same thing, despite having been on this team longer than you, as she kept having to remind herself to hold her arms completely straight when bowling.

    Still, after having to prepare and play for the Sports Fest way back when, just playing a game without that shadow hanging over you was somewhat of a relief, a chance to have a normal afternoon for once with Takako and co. Helped to learn Ikue was back to normal, through whichever means.

    - The Sun has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    "Whew, good game team! Say though, it's getting late. Ooh, we could get take-out again!" Takako said on instinct.

    "Oh please, as an athlete, don't you have your weight to watch?" Ikue had to ask.

    "Hey, I exercise a whole bunch, like I did so just now! But okay, if you think you know better, dinner's on you!" Takako grinned as she pointed her finger at Ikue, making her teammate stumble back a little.

    "Er, okay, could I order the-" You began.

    [ ] Takoyaki, the cities around here are known for seafood. [+Perception]
    [ ] King Crab, it's highly regarded and all. [+Etiquette]
    [x] Green chili curry, I've never tried it. [+Resolve]
    [ ] Write-in.

    That still left the whole evening ahead of you:

    [ ] Check in with Na-Rae for the night.
    [ ] Take up Megumi's University tour offer.
    [ ] Get to studying, might need to internet search this one.
    [x] Investigate the Arcade, after those weird flashes you saw with Megumi.
    [ ] See if the Tsutsuji Dojo's still open at this time.
    [ ] Check if Melissa's on a late-night shopping spree.
    [ ] Get to sleep, who knows what dreams may await...
    [ ] Sneak onto the Gameboard before you leave school:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    [ ] Write-in.

  12. #52
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    LII. Possibility of Promotion

    Green flashes on screens, hmm, the only thing you could think of was the A.I. of Gakuto's, Koyomi, and... how she'd killed him. Granted, that was technically her Shadow, so maybe she herself would never have done it, but given what Shadows inherently were, she would've deep down have thought about it.

    Like, you could barely name a single good thing Gakuto had done, and what little you could think of, like him getting you and Kikuko back into your correct bodies after the teleporter malfunction, he had to be coerced into doing. Still, did that justify at all the fate Koyomi's Shadow had dealt him?

    Looking around Kuchinashi's local Arcade, you decided at first to keep a low profile and just hit up a couple of cabinets, waiting for any sign of this static image to show up. Your first choice was a taiko-style rhythm game, which you figured from all that time you'd spent practicing and playing bass you'd be a natural at, but you soon were shocked at how much the rhythm speeded up, forcing you to drum so much that your hands ended up throbbing red messes.

    So er, you tried to find something less physically intensive for your second game, and you figured you may have found it. Taking a turn left past a crane machine and an old space shooter, you located a quiz game that, thanks to all those hours you'd spent studying you guessed, you were able to get a pretty high score on, even if one question seriously stumped you:

    Input how many islands there are in the Philippines:
    [ ] 5,500
    [ ] 6,400
    [ ] 7,200
    [ ] 8,100
    [x] Write-in: 7,641

    After enough just hanging about though, you finally got a glimpse of what you were looking for, as the cabinet behind you suddenly hissed with static. Turning right around, you approached the enigmatic black cabinet with barely any details about what game was played on it, and had Aimoto Koyomi flash up on screen.

    "What the-what are you doing here?!" you tried to keep your voice low.

    "I was curious," Koyomi put bluntly at her regular speaking volume, telling you, "I wished to observe the outside world, as my time had mostly been spent limited to my creator's personal computers. But with him having not logged on in almost two months, I came to the conclusion that he would not notice if I expanded my horizons".

    "Yeah, it's well, great you get to do, it's just-" you looked all around you, "Can't we talk about this in a more private place?"

    "Sensors indicate that there are few people within the current vicinity," Koyomi stated, which did make you notice that the Arcade was indeed clearing out, before she continued, "However, I can certainly go somewhere more secluded with you, if it will assist in easing your concerns."
    You then fumbled back and gasped as Koyomi downloaded yourself into your phone, as her ever-electronic voice chimed "We can now speak outside, if that would suit you".

    "Uh yeah, it would. Just... it wouldn't hurt if you warned me next time that you were gonna do that," you groaned.

    Heading outside to find a nearby grove secluded enough, Koyomi then projected herself out of your phone as a hologram and intoned, "Would this be a suitable enough location to converse?"

    "Yeah, it would, but... Ahem, is the robot talk really necessary?" you felt yourself needing to ask, "Like, please don't tell me that was the way Gakuto programmed you to speak".

    "I-I'm not sure," Koyomi hesitated, "Without his direct input, I find it difficult to say what part of me is me, and what part was as my creator coded".

    "Come on, there has to be some part of you that's, well, you," you tried to get across, Like I highly doubt Gakuto programmed you to kill him.

    "The best course of action would be to go ask my creator, if anyone around here knows, it would be him," Koyomi had to say, which sent a shiver down your spine.

    "Uh yeah, er, I hate to be the one to tell you this, Koyomi," you gulped, before breathing out and saying, "But unless we can find a spirit medium anywhere around here, ah, that ain't gonna happen".

    "You mean to imply he's d-d-d..." Koyomi started crackling and fuzzing out, as only then did you remember that Gakuto, for whatever utopian reason, had not bothered to program in a concept like 'death' to her. You kinda assumed that, given what her Shadow had done, the concept would've seeped into her cortex by now.

    "Look, the point, we can't get in contact with him," you told her firmly, And frankly, you wouldn't want to get in contact with him. "I dunno, maybe we can get you to his old Computer Club if you need anything? But the point is..." you paused as you tried to think of how to explain death to someone unfamiliar with the concept, like you were... every parent ever "When humans get put through too much, whether its age, injury or, in your creator's case, high voltage electrocution, they... stop working. They're gone".

    Maybe that was too tactless, like you needed to work on your etiquette more, but you had no idea how else to explain it.
    Koyomi almost glitched herself to pieces processing what you'd said, but ultimately did regain her composure and told you, "I- I believe I can understand what you mean".

    "I'm, er, glad we got that out of the way," you tried in vain to smile, before you said, "Hey, you said Gakuto ordered you to stick to just his computer, right? Well, ah, I'm not like that, if you wanna take a break from rooming in my phone and wander around the town's, er, internet, feel free to". Would probably help me save on data too. "Just, y'know, try to be careful out there, like I've got no idea how folks around here would react to finding out humanoid A.I.s exist".

    "The students of Hanataba believed I was a 'ghost', is that right?" Koyomi remembered, "In that case, if anyone asks, I shall simply tell them I am a spectral apparition".

    "Uh, yeah, you do that," you had to restrain yourself, "Hmm, I could actually give you a tour around town someday, even show you down to Sapporo and Hakodate, the big cities near here. Right now though, Kikuko probably wants me bac at her manor before curfew or whatever, so I've gotta head there. You know Kikuko, that girl I was with the first time we met?"

    "I am highly aware my creator was apprehensive about her, most of his notes on her detailed arranging her into combat with someone else," Koyomi went over.

    Well Gakuto, you finally got your wish, just a bit too late, you could only think. "Anyway, I have to get going, so goodnight Koyomi. Er, you see 'sleep' is when-"

    "It is powering down but for biologicals, yes I am fully aware," she said, glaring somewhat at you.

    "Good, glad you're up to speed," you smiled at her to diffuse things, though did see her perspective, as you didn't like it either when people explained what you already fully knew about.

    It turned out your first one-to-one meeting with a killer A.I. had gone surprisingly well, all things considered.

    - The Hermit has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    Looking at your phone, you figured you might want to plan your schedule for Friday tomorrow... the first of July, the day Ikue would've otherwise been destined for a mental shutdown. Actually, maybe you could ask Koyomi to program it in for you now, save a little time on typing?

    [ ] Occult Club.
    [ ] Drama Club.
    [ ] Tea Ceremony.
    [x] Checking in on Reina.
    [ ] Class Rep duties.
    [ ] Part-time at the Tabletop Store with Hotaru.
    [ ] Part-time at the Sweets Shop with Yuya.
    [ ] Velvet Room (free action, Skadi awaits)
    [ ] Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    [ ] Write-in.

    And in the evening:

    [x] Cleaning with Na-Rae.
    [ ] College tour with Megumi.
    [ ] Around town with Koyomi.
    [ ] Studying.
    [ ] Getting to bed.
    [ ] Karaoke.
    [ ] Bushwalking.
    [ ] Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Arriving at school that morning, still dreading what Kikuko would say when she found Ikue and that 'silver-haired girl' still very much cognizant, you later saw the first All-Ace to approach you, right there at the school gates, was not Kikuko, nor even Melissa.

    You narrowed your eyes, "What is it now, Azuma?"

    "Is that truly how you react to someone who's arranged a great favour for you?" He laughed you off, before clearing his throat and announcing, "I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that, after this Monday's Duel, we most likely will be down one Ace. In that case, I've arranged something with Kikuko, though naturally I had to prod her constantly to convince her. It is no secret that, under our tutelage and influence, you have blossomed from mere wallflower to a dazzling, if obstinate, rose".

    "Get to the point," you told him straight.

    "Obviously you being in our vicinity has done wonders for your popularity, but with the additions of you surpassing Melissa in test scores and defeating Kikuko in single combat, though with assistance I may add, your star now burns ever brighter. See for yourself," Azuma said, not getting to the point as you requested, but instead pushing you out in front of a crowd.

    Immediately a whole herd of your fellow students surrounded you, saying "Oh God, isn't that Nakamura right in front of us?", "Yeah, the girl who went from zero to thirty", "She gives me hope", "She gives me fantasies".

    Azuma then immediately dragged you back, upon which he told you, "So Honoka, should another Ace fall come next week, your time as a Jack shall finally pay off, for we shall have no choice but to promote you to Ace. Of course, whether or not the Gameboard grants you an Empire is beyond our control, but privileges you shall have nevertheless. Your own private lounge, the ability to appoint your own Jacks, and so on".

    You paused, having no idea how to process that. On one hand, it meant you wouldn't have to take orders from Kikuko, or Azuma or Melissa, anymore, you'd be equal to them rather than their lackey. Plus, it could come with the opportunity to exact some serious change at this school.
    On the other... knowing you'd now hold the same position as Azuma, Kikuko, Melissa, Gakuto, and Eitaro couldn't help but repulse you, especially knowing another would have to die for that to even happen, the exact thing you hoped you and Dead Hand would be able to stop.

    "As for your 'Ace of' title, well, we already have our own ideas, but you are entitled to your say," Azuma smiled at you, "Naturally, let us first see how this Monday proceeds".

    * * *

    Azuma's words that morning only made you rush to the music rooms the minute the bell rang to track down Rise, as despite you having little love for either Kikuko or Melissa, you were determined to stop this needless Duel with all the help you could get.

    Before getting to talk with Kujikawa-sensei though, you had the fortune to run into Reina again, who had just come out of the music room after having apparently stayed for an extended time. "Oh, hey there, Honoka," she was quick to beam at you again, "Ooh ooh, Kujikawa-sensei said today that my singing certainly was something!" she jumped up and down a bit.

    "Er, yeah, technically I said that," Rise tried to feign a smile.

    "Hey, I've got the greatest idea," Reina kept smiling, oblivious to Rise's hesitance, "If Kujikawa-sensei's free after school, maybe us three could all go down for karaoke? I mean, it would've been a dream come true for younger me".

    "Well, ah, maybe I can convince her, if she has time? Right now I do need to talk to her a little in private though," you made clear to Reina.

    "It's okay, I've got, well, nothing really much going on anymore. Sure, I don't think I've actually done Karaoke in a while, it kinda would've been redundant," Rise came out with, before she ushered you in, "So, Honoka, um, what exactly was it you wanted to talk to me about?"

    Reina giving you two some privacy, you took a deep breath and said, "I know when the next Duel's gonna be, and who it's gonna be between. You know Maeda Kikuko and Melissa Lilian, right? Yeah, them, on no less than July 4th, Melissa's Empire".

    Rise then had to say, "That's this Monday. Wow, er, I don't mean to make light of this, but it's something when you know straight up when a killing's gonna take place. When I first got my Persona, we had to do a whole bunch of detective work to find who was being targeted and where they'd be, while you just get told flat-out. Then again, you've got a much tighter deadline then what I used to have, so I'm definitely not gonna say that you kids have it easy these days".

    "That putting it mildly," you yourself put mildly, before you asked, "Hey, Kujikawa-sensei, what was it you did 'back in your day'? Like I know you were a Persona-user and got involved in Persona stuff, but other than it had something to do with crime, that's all I know?"

    "Hmm, the same thing really as you're doing now, stopping Collective Unconsciousness-assisted murders before they could happen. Okay, kinda simplifying it, like we had TVs instead of board games, but you get where I'm coming from," Rise summed it up.

    "Yeah, but like, who were you surrounded by? Your fellow Persona-users?" you had to ask.

    "Ooh boy, it'd take ages for me to sum my old friends up. If I had to keep it short, I'd say they weren't what you call paragons exactly, but still I wouldn't have traded them for anyone," she smiled on remembering.

    Lucky you, that thought seared through your brain.

    "Funny thing is, you even kinda look like me when I was in high school. Okay, maybe that's kind of a stretch, like my twin-tails were a little more pronounced, yours are more wispy, and your expression's a little more dour, and-" she kept going on.

    "Ahem, shouldn't we get heading out with Reina now? Like I've given you the lowdown on the Duel thing, and we've kinda kept her waiting a while," you felt the need to point out.

    "Ah yeah, suppose you don't wanna listen to a veteran reminisce," Rise sighed, but then came with you and Reina out of the gates and down to the closest karaoke venue.

    All the way through the streets and into the venue, Reina could barely contain her excitement, but once you were in the booth, Rise looked dumbfounded once she saw the song list. Not wishing to rain on Reina's parade, the once Idol leaned over and whispered to you, "This... may be a problem. I barely recognise any of these tracks".

    You didn't know what to say, though weren't really surprised, so tried to reassure Rise with, "I think a lot of them are regional, stuff that was all the rage in Sapporo, but never really made it down south".

    "Kinda strange titles for Hokkaido hits, but okay," Rise said, your cobbled-together explanation not really soothing her worries.

    Rise then tried her best to keep up with some of Reina's favourites, despite them being unfamiliar territory for her, with you mostly speak-singing in the background hoping not to be noticed. Eventually though, Rise had to ask, "Hey, I know this one's like ten years out of date, but... you mind if I put it on?"

    Reina seemed all for it, her eyes and grin widening as she said, "Really? Oh yes, oh please oh please oh please!" as if this were exactly what she'd been waiting for.

    <<BGM: Persona 4: Dancing All Night - Shadow World (Kozuka Remix)>>

    Both Reina and Rise equally at home, the train of good feelings and bonding got brought to a screeching halt as Reina then looked right at you and asked, "Hey Honoka, I don't think you've chosen a song yet?"

    You could've frozen right there, but got some direction when one song in particular caught your eye. Is that... one of Nightshade's? And an original too, not one of our covers either, though still not one of the songs I'm proudest of, you got to thinking, but on instinct went with it anyway.

    That... may not have been the smartest idea, as once it'd finished your friend and teacher just looked at you dumbfounded. "Ah, forgot for a sec that you were into that genre of stuff, Honoka," Reina tried to speak up.

    "I admit I'm a little biased here, since it's one of my band's, which somehow ended up here," you told them. Then again, what other acts are in this town?

    "Ohmigod, I remember your band. That song was one of yours?" Reina's expression went back to high energy.

    "Well, backing band technically, and it's more that I was. We lost our original guitarist, then our singer went through a bunch of stuff and decided she needed a change in direction. So yeah, less some miracle happens, our future's kaput really," you broke the news to them.

    "Kinda makes me look dumb, getting all worried about being washed-up," Rise then had to say, "I ought to remind myself that I'm one of the lucky ones, that most acts don't even get off the ground, and I may have only done so 'cause I had connections".

    Heading back out onto the streets, your luck took a turn for the worse when the three of you rain straight into Melissa.
    "Like, seriously Honoka? You're hanging out with my freakin' leftovers?" she snarled at you, "Oh. My God. And with a teacher too, the has-been singer slut at that? Jesus Honoka, I've put in so much effort trying to pass you off as cool, but no, you have to keep jeopardizing yourself, don't you? You are so lucky I'm not exactly on speaking terms with Kikuko right now, else I'd totally rat you out".

    "Melissa," Reina then said with an uncharacteristic snarl, "If you have anything to say about me, you say it right to my face, leave Honoka out of this".

    "Really? You of all people trying to act tough, Reina? Besides, do you realise how much your flings risked damaging my good name, that you could've ruined my whole reputation by association? How would I have been able to explain your little harlot lifestyle to the school, to my parents, to my future college?!" Melissa shouted down to Reina as she loomed over her.

    "Lilian," Rise spoke quite firmly, "Back off, or I'll have you suspended".

    "Oh yeah, like some old bag who's barely started teaching has a hope of convincing the board to suspend an heiress like me," Melissa smirked at Rise, "On top of an aging has-been like you probably only teaching here to perv on high-schoolers. But fine, I can tell when I'm not appreciated".

    "Yeah, don't you have someone's Mum to fuck?" you hissed at Melissa. As Rise raised an eyebrow at you, you turned to simply tell her, "Er, long story".

    Melissa gone now, Rise did have to reflect on herself and say, "Huh, I sounded like a real teacher there. Never thought I'd ever need to channel King Moron one day".

    "King Moron?" you had to ask her.

    "Morooka Kinshiro. Bully at my old school, except he was a Philosophy teacher rather than an exchange student," Rise told you, "There was also a girl called Hanako, but well, nobody really liked her except one teacher, not like Melissa. Nobody liked Morooka at all, then well, he died..." she was reduced to mumbling.

    You then approached Reina again, knelt and said, "Reina, please, don't let her get you down. You standing up to Melissa was probably the most remarkable thing you've ever done, more remarkable than any of her actions".

    "Th-Thank you, Honoka," Reina smiled, "Yeah, you're right, there's no real reason why she should get me down. I've got my friends who genuinely care for me now, and um, awkward as it was, I got to meet and sing with my childhood Idol. I'm- I'm not as popular at school as I once was, but otherwise, my life's been better than ever!"

    Unable to resist the moment, the two of you leaned forward and hugged each other.

    "Ah, kinda feel like I'm coming in late on something, but hey, you're one of my most... eager students. So if you're happy Rei, I'm happy!" Rise beamed.

    Reina did feel the need to pick up on something. "Huh, 'Rei', nobody's ever really called me that before," she muttered.

    "Er, don't know where I got that, must've been a slip of the tongue, eh heh," Rise blushed a little.

    Being a teacher now, Rise only had so much free time, so as she left, Reina thought it'd be a good time to part ways too. As you all said goodbyes for the day, you couldn't help but feel that chance meeting with Melissa earlier had been eerily fortunate. Considering what was coming up on Monday, it may have been for the best that Reina was finally able to get some closure with her, especially as Rise had given her someone she could finally look up to.

    - The Magician has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

    * * *
    Afterwards, you made a quick stop at the Velvet Room, to finally pick up a Persona you'd been reminded to once you'd seen that burden removed from Ikue.

    "I am Hermit Skadi, Ice Giantess of the Northernmost Lands," the icy yet strong voice of Ikue's Shadow stated, "The harshest of tundra we shall cross, the harshest of beasts we shall hunt".Skadi
    [Hermit iX]

    Elements: Absorbs Ice, Null Gun and Curse, weak to Fire
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: ||||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: ||||
    Skills: Hailstorm, Masukukaja, Tetrakarn, Bufudyne, Heavy Shot
    - Hermit Bonus: Ice Amp

    [ ] Write-in Persona to store
    [x] Store Skadi
    [ ] Write-in Personae to fuse

    Once that was finished, you started the long trek back to Kikuko's mountainside manor, where walking around the front yard, you heard shouts and cries coming from Kikuko's personal dojo.

    Heading in, you saw your Ace quite furiously wailing on your fellow Jack, as Kikuko dressed in armour and flowing trousers hacked forth at Na-Rae, dressed more normally in her gym clothes and desperately parrying but making no real moves forward. You were at least relieved that they were both using wooden swords.

    Of course, your sudden entrance ended up throwing both of them out of whack, leaving a frustrated Kikuko to storm out. Na-Rae then came up to you and said, "Ah, Mistress Kikuko was rather on edge, as she was training for something quite important just then".

    Hearing that, you took a deep breath before you asked, "Er, did she tell you exactly what she was training for?", fully knowing the answer.

    "Oh no, Miss Honoka, much of an Ace's activities are quite confidential, doubly so in Mistress's case," Na-Rae gave the expected reply.

    You had to groan, wondering how to break the news of Kikuko's possible death this Monday, let alone the Gameboard's existence beyond an antique, to Na-Rae. Finding no words, you instead brought up the other big piece of news today, one which may hopefully allude to what was really going on.
    "To change the subject, some good news came in, well I think it's good anyway," you mumbled, before clearing throat and saying, "Next Tuesday, I may be getting promoted to being my own Ace. That's, ah, certainly something".

    Na-Rae had to take a step back, "My, that is something. Naturally though, Miss Honoka, I suspected 'twas only a matter of time. Congratulations!" she smiled, "Ooh, I suppose I may have to call you 'Mistress' too now?"

    "Yeah, hmm, about that," you then cautioned, "If I do become Ace, there's a risk Kikuko will go from seeing me as an 'apprentice' or whatever, to an outright threat. Like, you saw how she got along with Himawari and Melissa".

    "Aye, she can be like that," a now downcast Na-Rae shuddered, "Er, well, to focus on the bright side for now, have ya picked out an Ace title for yourself? That is, um, assuming they gave ya the option to choose".

    "Yeah they did, but... I don't know, I feel like right now I've got so many thoughts about the 'promotion' swimming in my head, before we get to what I want to call myself," you told her.

    "...I take it if you do get made an Ace, you won't be living with us anymore?" Na-Rae had to ask.

    "Not likely. Guess I'll be able to get my own room in the Lounge," you said, before taking a good look at Na-Rae and saying to her, "You know, with you dressed in your fitness gear and your hair in a ponytail, I don't think anyone would even guess you're a maid if they didn't know otherwise".

    "Ah, what you do mean to imply?" Na-Rae asked.

    "You know what? Nothing," you lapsed back into mumbling, head in your hands, before you looked up and said, "At least with Kikuko, if we do become enemies, I think I can trust that she wouldn't force me to go through you first. She's not Melissa, it's not her style".

    "Miss Honoka, I..." Na-Rae began, then said, "I don't think I could ever bring myself to truly fight you, at least I could never imagine having any desire to".

    "It's not whether you have the desire," you intoned, "It's whether you'll be able to say no to Kikuko". To be your own woman.

    As uneasy as this conversation was, you did feel like you'd at least breached new ground with Na-Rae, confronted her to an extent about a fear you'd had, and may possibly not need to have.
    "Well, should my stay here end, I can say, Na-Rae," you looked right at her, "That you've been the best thing about my time with Kikuko".

    Na-Rae's smile grew wider, tears forming in her eyes.

    - The Hanged Man has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    Well, that left tomorrow as your last free schoolday, half a schoolday anyway, before the Duel:

    [x] Occult Club.
    [ ] Cricket.
    [ ] Computer Club.
    [ ] Catch up with Suzako.
    [ ] Class Rep duties.
    [ ] Gaming store with Hotaru.
    [ ] Sweets store with Yuya.
    [ ] Seeing your parents.
    [ ] Try tailing Melissa.
    [ ] Gameboard.
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    [ ] Write-in.

    And tomorrow evening, with half the day off:

    [ ] Show Koyomi the sights.
    [ ] Meet back up with Megumi.
    [x] Spend more time with Na-Rae.
    [ ] Get around to the Tsutsuji Dojo.
    [ ] Sleep.
    [ ] Study.
    [ ] Gameboard.
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    [ ] Write-in.

  13. #53
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    May 2012
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    LIII. Shadow Kikuko

    After a rough sleep due to Kikuko constantly pacing all night throughout her grounds, you groggily made your way to school, where it didn't take long before the first notable event of the day occurred.

    You saw a student in the girls' uniform staggering out of the front door, with you having to take a second look to realise this was actually Yuya.
    "Oh wait, God, don't tell me Melissa forced you into the girls' uniform as some prank or punishment?" you facepalmed.

    "Actually no, the opposite," Yuya stood upright and said to you, "With help from Kei-Suzako, I came to school in the girls' uniform to try and protest Melissa. It's a long story, but while she was dragging me out clothes-shopping, I... expressed a lot of interest in the women's section, not for how they looked on Melissa, but for how they looked in general. As a result, well, Melissa got mad and called me a creep".

    "Okay, great, I get it now," you smiled at your longtime friend, before telling him, "Hey, I hang out with trans-people, er, most of the time really, so like, if you're wondering about-"

    "No, it's not that," Yuya then told you, blushing, "Like, I'm not sure how to put this, if you asked me if I was a guy I'd still say yes. It's just, well, I also don't mind dressing more feminine, if that makes sense.
    Well, either way," he sighed, "Melissa got me kicked out of school for the day anyway, like there's been no violence so I'm not sure if I'll be suspended for the month like, sorry to bring this up again, Colette was. But still, yeah..." he muttered out, reflexively looking around.

    From Yuya's description, that'd make him more a crossdresser, but more just in person than for any career. Most of the crossdressers you knew from like TV and comics were, to say the least, pretty loud, goofy, and flamboyant people, which wouldn't lie was basically your image of them for a good chunk of your life... so basically the exact opposite of Yuya. This made you, well uncertain of how he'd now be treated, but like, how many people paid that much attention to a confectioner's wardrobe, right?

    "Well, I guess on the bright side, this means you won't have to put up with Melissa anymore, like I take it you're not her Jack?" you then brought up.

    He sighed, as "No idea really, for all I know she'll drag me straight back in the moment she thinks it could be convenient for her," came out of him.

    Well, one other thing this talk with Yuya did remind you of was to check up with Colette and the Occult Club in general again. Entering the clubroom later that day, you did have the chance to quickly talk with Colette again before the others arrived.

    "Hi Colette, ah look, there's been something I keep trying to get around to telling you..." you awkwardly began, stepping back a little while Colette finished arranging a series of pale, antique dolls in a row on the windowsill, "It's about a thing the All-Aces do, and a weird one".

    "Hmm? From your tone of voice, it sounds like something you've been meaning to say for a while," Colette observed, taking a seat and looking into your eyes... before the rest of the Occult Club inadvertently cut you off by coming in.
    "Ah well, that may have to wait until after club activities are over," Colette had to change track, as she ushered Hitoshi, Masaomi, and Ibuki in.

    "Oh, Colette! Your book's gonna be published, right?" Hitoshi was quick to speak up.

    "Well, ahem, not necessarily. I've had a few calls from the publisher since, but alas, they said they have no date in mind," Colette had to say, "But on the plus side, I did show some of my previous work to our Honoka, and she was simply ecstatic about it. So, I do have a good feeling overall," she then smiled.

    This afternoon's Occult Club session started off with a simple Tarot card reading, with you blindfolded drawing forth the:
    [ ] Magician (Agidyne)
    [ ] Empress (Bufudyne)
    [ ] Fortune (Garudyne)
    [ ] Emperor (Ziodyne)
    [ ] Priestess (Freidyne)
    [X] Hermit (Psiodyne)
    - [X] Fool Theodora

    Following that, the five of you then went on to mapping out your haunted house for later that summer, in time for the Obon festival or, failing that, at least the Culture Festival in November. Of course, Ibuki did make the mapping a little weird by suddenly saying, "Hmm, I know, why don't we use hexagon as our tiles?"

    "Well, they do tesselate, so it's not out of the question. But squares are more likely to fit the shape of the overall room," Colette explained.
    Having no clue about architecture yourself, you simply nodded along, while Masaomi seemed unfazed either way.

    "Ah, but for another subject, I believe I have brought up the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai before, have I not?" Colette then said, "The issue is, it is simply too reasonably long to host in a single club session, as short as we may keep any stories. Luckily, inspiration has struck!" she beamed, before clearing her throat and saying, "For I have devised an alternative, and I have these Tarot cards to thank. What if one evening, we told five ghost stories each, all twenty of them responding to one of the Arcana? I'll keep the Fool story in reserve, and we could simply say The World would be the sum of all our short ghost stories. How's that sound?"

    Ibuki and Hitoshi as always seemed all for it, and Masaomi again looked fine either way, while you said, "I suppose it'd definitely be more manageable than trying to tell a hundred ghost stories in one night. No idea what I'd tell though..." Not that I don't have any ideas.

    With plans for the next meeting in motion, it wasn't long until the others had left and you and Colette were the only ones in the room again.
    "So, Honoka, once again the Aces rear their ugly heads. Well, ugly in spirit, anyway," Colette approached you.

    You sighed and said, "Actually, it's about something they've been doing since the start, way before I was even with them. Er, Colette, have you ever seen the inside of their clubroom?" you started by asking.

    "Hmm, only once, when I sneaked a peek out of bile curiosity," she told you.

    "Then you'd know there's a circular stone table with a cloth on top of it, right?" you made sure, "That's the Gameboard, and like- well I think it's gonna be easier if I just show you," as you made the Fool Arcana tarot, along with the Magician, Fortune, Rebirth, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, and Sun, all flare up in your hand.

    Colette had to step back, saying, "Honoka, I... this would seem more than sleight of hand, wouldn't it? I would've known if you were taking illusionist classes".

    "Yeah, well I can't make my Personae manifest themselves in the 'real world', but I can at least do that," you went over.

    "Personae? Latin for 'masks'?" Colette picked up on.

    "They're, what's that word you used once? Thoughtforms," you explained to her, "Aspects of your psyche that you can summon. Well, some can, I only vaguely know what governs who can or can't".

    Colette was silent for quite a while, but eventually said, "I once told you, some time ago, that I was a skeptic despite my appearances. I'd only believe something once I saw it with my own eyes, and well, looks like I'm seeing it".

    "The only place I know where Personae can actually be used, though it looks like it's not the only one, is the Gameboard. That thing the All-Aces jealously guard, it's some pocket dimension nightmare land, where they're the Players and everyone else at school are their 'Pieces'," you went over.

    "A-ha, so that explains the hold they have over the school!" a wild-eyed Colette came to the conclusion.

    "Yeah, if only it were that simple," you said, head drooping, "No, most of the students, and quite a few of the staff, fawning over the All-Aces had already started before they knew anything about the Gameboard. In fact it's why the board, or rather the power behind it, chose them. Not like they didn't abuse their power once they got it though, you know them, and I can confirm the Gameboard being involved in every single murder that's happened here lately," though you didn't specify who by.

    "I see. One question, what am I supposed to do with all this information?" Colette inquired.

    "I'm not sure really. Once your book comes out, we'll take the money then use it to move to the other side of the world. Eh, that's probably the best case scenario," you muttered, "Fortunately, the All-Aces and I aren't the only ones with Personae. Himawari still has hers, and you know our new Librarian and music teacher? They're both Persona users too, as is our Librarian's lawyer big sister. So... if any another student gets shadowed out of memory, or straight-up killed, you've got more than just me to report to".

    "This is, well, certainly something I can't investigate lightly," Colette fell into a slump, before she picked up on something completely different, "I'm aware this is off-topic, but... did you really mean that about us moving away with each other?"

    You shrugged and said, "Eh, well after high school, I don't really see any other alternative for us. I mean, I don't think you could stay in the orphanage, while I've been doing the roommate shuffle. So hopefully your book does well enough for us to get a place somewhere, otherwise, well my parents' place isn't exactly roomy".

    "Hmm, it is a romantic notion. However, for all our, ahem, issues here, do you truly desire to leave Kuchinashi? Once I would've taken off for Tokyo, but our trip, lovely as it was, did make me have second thoughts. And I couldn't imagine leaving Hitoshi, Masaomi, and Ibuki behind like that," Colette had to say.

    She did bring up a good point, like as awful as the Aces were, did you really want to leave everyone else behind? "Maybe we could compromise, like just move to Sapporo or Hakodate? Either will probably be where I go to university anyway," you brought up.

    "That may be for the best, perhaps," was the note Colette ended your talk on, before saying, "Well, the night approaches, so we should get going before they close the school, as... intriguing as a night stay here would be".

    - The Moon has Journeyed to Rank 9! -

    * * *

    That night, you found Na-Rae quite busy cleaning out the storehouse that was doubling as your bedroom. Fortunately though she wasn't so busy to not stop and talk with you a while, in fact she actually asked the first question. And an odd one at that.

    "Er, Miss Honoka, you wouldn't happen to have a, well, 'thing' for maids, would you?" she quivered while she asked.

    You looked dumbfounded at her for more than a second, before asking bluntly "Why you do ask?"

    "It's that, ah, I am not so naïve as ta not be aware that a few sorts see us as more than a housekeeping service," Na-Rae came out with, "Well, that phrasing makes them sound like a bad lot, and I'm sure that's not the case for all o' them. But ya see, not meaning to be accusative, Miss Honoka, but I couldn't keep myself from wondering... if you were among them?"

    It took you even longer to think up a response for that, but you did say, "You're definitely attractive, if that's what you mean. However, I'm not sure if being a maid would have anything to do with that, like I liked you just fine when you were, ah, in different outfits.
    Point is, I feel better seeing you when Kikuko's not forcing you to be submissive, ah nom that came out wrong..." you found yourself going back on your words.

    "Ah, I take it you just would like me to be happy, not be such a worrywart all the time, guess that's what you're saying?" Na-Rae asked.

    "Well, no, because of how Kikuko acts and stuff, I can't exactly blame you or anything for being a 'worrywart'," you told her.

    "Hmm, I should say another reason I'm bringing all this up is because I have to wonder, if I were your maid instead, what sort of work would you assign me?" Na-Rae kept delving deeper.

    You found that question just made this even weirder. "Cleaning and stuff, I guess. Probably with a few more days off, of course. But like, I'm not trying to demean the housekeeping industry or anything-" you began.

    Na-Rae looked uncomfortable for a second, before saying "Er, go on".

    "-But why would you fantasise about being someone else's maid? Like, isn't the goal to earn enough money that you don't have to be anyone's maid?" you spoke up.
    Na-Rae looked to the floor and sighed, "Well, ideally. But I do feel these days that it's wisest to limit my fantasies. Ooh, though you give me an idea".

    Being honest with yourself, you thought, Agh, why did I even think, even say out loud, that Kikuko would even be generous enough to give Na-Rae that sort of wage? I was not thinking straight there.

    Following Na-Rae out into the nearby private dojo, you'd found she'd changed into her physique-displaying gym outfit and was brandishing one of the swords. "I 'spose this is how you'd like to think of me as, right Miss Honoka? Ah, should I even drop the 'Miss' when talking to you like this?"

    You blushed, and only later eventually said, "Look, Na-Rae... are you coming onto me? Is that what this is about?"

    "Ah, well, I do admit I was rather nervous about saying so outright, Miss Honoka," Na-Rae soon went back to her usual mannerisms.

    "Because like, you have tried to at least look for alternatives first, right?" you had to bring up, "Plus, well, I do already have a girlfriend. But like, she's cool with me having flings with other people, it's just... I don't think you and her have met, so maybe I should make sure everything's okay with her first".

    "Look for alternatives? Thing is, Miss Honoka, I'm not sure if I'd even get the chance to, what with finding someone that'd meet Kikuko's standards and all," Na-Rae brought up.

    "Oh, right, Kikuko, ugh. I forgot," you moaned.

    "And also, well, I did begin this conversation with you by raising my... concerns about whether people would like me for me, or just because I'm a maid," Na-Rae reminded you of.

    "What? No, it's okay, look," you felt the need to tell her, "I won't lie and tell you that there aren't any creeps out there, or worse, people who'll freak once they find out you're Korean. But I'm certain, with your personality, there'll still be plenty of people out there who'll like you for you. I mean, I do".

    Attraction or no, you and Na-Rae couldn't help fall into an embrace with each other Testing the waters, the two of you did try a first kiss, and well, she was no worse than any other kisser you knew.

    "Thank you kindly, Miss Honoka," she embraced you tighter.

    - The Hanged Man has Journeyed to Rank 6! -

    Well, for your last day period before Kikuko vs Melissa:

    [ ] Visiting your parents.
    [ ] Hanging out with Yuya.
    [ ] Hanging out with Suzako.
    [ ] Hanging out with Reina.
    [ ] Going to the Cinema, they're showing Scene Girls again.
    - [ ] Write-in who to go with.
    [x] Sneaking onto the Gameboard:
    - [x] Write-in Empire: Melissa's
    - [x] Write-in Party: Dead Hand
    [ ] Write-in.

    And in the evening:

    [ ] That tour around town with Koyomi.
    [ ] Studying.
    [ ] Sleeping early.
    [x] Going over things one last time with Kikuko.
    [ ] Trying to go over things one last time with Melissa.
    [ ] Sneaking onto the Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *
    Melissa Duel Tomorrow

    After a few calls, you met up that morning at the front of the shut school with both Makoto and Rise... but no Sae.
    "Sis had to catch a plane down to Tokyo for a high-profile case, but she did try to make up for it by getting these for you," Makoto said, handing you a pair more professional, steel tonfas, "She had to confiscate these off a Sapporo officer, and thought they should be put to some use".

    You gave them a few twirls around, and some practice jabs with standard and reverse holds. They did lack the gun compartment your regular, All-Ace set had, but on the whole not bad.
    "Hey, thanks. And yeah, definitely beats a mic stand any day" you beamed.

    "Come on," Rise grumbled, "I'm not exactly used to this whole 'front line' thing you know? Okay, that one night in Inaba, but that's like it".

    "Moving on, I assume we have an initiative?" Makoto asked.

    "Er, roughly, yeah. One of the All-Aces' Duels is due tomorrow, taking place in the Arena in Melissa's Empire. I've been there once before, and I know we should do something about it, since most likely the school will end up with another dead student... but I don't know what. I thought we could maybe block it off, but Empires shift around on the Day of the Duel, so I don't know if that's possible. But I can at least show you there, that's a start," you went over to them.

    "Geez, I mean I've actually been in a Persona-on-Persona tournament, but nobody died. And whoever did use the Shadow World to kill people usually did it through subterfuge, not open combat," Rise had to reminisce.

    "Oh believe me," you had to point out, "There are definitely ways to rig a Duel. mostly it involves siccing a horde of Shadows on someone when you've agreed to fight mano a mano, or pulling weird shit with your Arena".

    "Hmm, Nakamura, were there any valuables around this Arena, since you said you went there yourself?" Makoto picked up on.

    You shrugged, "There was certainly fancy stuff, like a golden crucifix shaped like the American dollar. What are you getting at?" you had to ask, hand on your hip.

    "The idea is, if we can steal what's in the fortress of her mind, it'll alter her cognition. It is something you have to be careful about who you do it to, but desperate times I suppose," came Makoto's explanation "Normally you have to make the target in question vulnerable in the real world first... but I think being challenged to a duel's already accomplished that".

    "Uh, okay? I guess that may not want to make Melissa saw Kikuko in half, but I don't see how that's gonna prevent her from getting stabbed. Unless we also steal something from Kikuko's Arena, which I don't think sounds likely on the same day," you had to bring up. "Plus, er, Melissa's Empire has gotten real smashed up in the past, yet other than maybe making her bitchier, it hasn't really changed who she is. But yeah, we don't exactly have any other plans".

    You'd gotten used to climbing up the vines by the back window by now, and Makoto raced up them like it was no problem. Rise however, while not normally unathletic, was clearly not used to physical activity like this, you knew she was a trained dancer but that was it. To save time, Makoto had to hoist her up before any of the guards could spot her.

    "Um, we are teachers y'know? Couldn't we have just asked to be let in or something?" a panting Rise upon picking herself up.

    "I'm, ah, used to doing it this way, and it seems Mirror is too," Makoto tried to justify while you inputted the code to the window lock.

    Inside, the three of you looked down at the Gameboard from above, with you pointing out Melissa's Empire and saying, "Right, so there's two ways in, that I know of anyway. The first is through the front door, the second is in through the parking lot. Both are well, kinda problems, but from memory going in through the parking lot will attract less Shadow attention, relatively.
    Once you're in the mall proper, you have to go all the way down to the bottom, even below the floor and into the sewers, to find what we're after, the chapel that is her Arena," you told them, "So yeah, you can see it's super involved, especially since some routes, like the elevator, only work for Melissa".

    "Well, it might not be that bad. I'm sure I can still pick up some easier route through scanning the area. Reasonably sure Jiutian Xuannu can still do that," Rise figured.

    Looking around the Prized Pupil Lounge, Makoto then asked, "If it's mostly downwards, is there anything we can use to abseil down there?"

    "There's a bunch of clothes stores in the Empire, I'm sure we could probably find enough fabric laying around to make a rope. All else fails, I've still got Wind spells to slow our falls," you offered.

    <<BGM: Rose of Versailles - Magical Rose>>

    Warping down to Melissa's Empire proper, the three of you already noticed the front door was wide open already. True, you'd broken it in half the last time you were here, but you'd figured it would have been repaired by now.

    Looking to the side, you also saw that the garage gate had been ripped open too, and sure enough, that monster car from down in its depths was now on the loose. However, as the smoke-spewing automobile sped right at you, Makoto stepped in to summon Santabarbara and have her ram right into it, blocking the car Shadow's path.
    Still, Santabarbara clashing into it at full force, while delaying the car, did little if anything to actually damage it. Makoto however ramped things up by casting possibly the strongest spell in her Persona's arsenal, Freidyne, to send the car Shadow rocketing upwards in an atomic blast, sending the demonic automobile spinning away into No One's Land.

    Meanwhile, you and Rise had rushed into the mall proper, with a quick look around the area letting Rise point out, "I sense a particularly strong Shadow coming from that... VHS store over there. Wow, have not seen one of those in a while. But anyway, I'm oddly not detecting anything hostile coming from it, well, directed towards us anyway.
    Funny thing is, I actually had my own cognitive dungeon once," Rise had to point out, "But I definitely couldn't customise it like the way Melissa has. The place existed against me, not for me, although it's not like I couldn't try my hand at running a nightclub".

    Part of you was interested in what Rise had to say... but another part of you had to resist the urge to go, Yeah grandma, keep going on about how back in your day...

    Walking around the main ring and approaching the old video store, the whole place bathed in an eerie blue, you indeed saw a humanoid Shadow there, and a very familiar one... though not of who you quite expected to see here.

    "Kikuko?" you said as you approached this Shadow, completely letting your guard down. Not that she was completely out of place in Melissa's Empire, given that the Shadow wore much more Western attire, with only her facial features recognisable as Japanese.

    "Well what did you assume was the point of you helping my fleshbag self break in here, a sightseeing tour?" Kikuko's Shadow snickered at you, before telling you, "As said fleshbag doesn't have me on Persona duty right now, I'm finally free to give you download, Jack. You might want to take one last good look at that airhead's Empire, because the instant I'm in command and have cemented my right to this land, things are going to change around here."

    "Er, what? You're gonna make this place more Japanese?" you let your first thought slip.

    "What? Nothing of the sort!" Shadow Kikuko spat out at you, "You honestly think I like all that Tea Ceremony, Zen meditation, Rising Sun shit? Hah, I only pretend I'm into that to assimilate into high society here. No Jack, an ambitious woman like me has new worlds to conquer, and not just Melissa's Empire. Gakuto's virtual tech, Eitaro's raw power, even the scraps off Himawari's table. Hmhm, and of course, with all of them gone, there'll be nothing to stop me plucking every petal off the last rose..." She'd reverted into a smug grin.

    "I've seen Personae revert back to Shadows, but I honestly find it difficult that Kikuko, from what little I know about her, ever accepted you," Rise got the urge to point out.

    "Especially when you're basically Melissa but with a bigger vocabulary," you mumbled.

    "Silence, Jack! Don't dare you think I'll tolerate such insolence!" Shadow Kikuko snapped at you, drawing her musket and ordering you to "Fall to your knees, Jack, you too you has-been strumpet. I will have it be made absolutely clear, I am everything that blonde, fake-tan tart merely dreams she could be! No, beyond, Melissa cannot even conceive of the likes of me, Jack!"

    While the sight of that musket made you drop to the ground, Rise just remained standing, "A King doesn't kneel," she then said to Shadow Kikuko, glaring right at her, "Especially not when I've faced a whole ton of Shadows just like you".

    Before you or anyone could react, Kikuko's Shadow simply fired straight at Rise, making her collapse.
    "As you wish," Shadow Kikuko snarled, before calling to two other Shadows either side of her. "Star Zorya, Hanged Jeanne, let's leave these two to grovel," she called to the same alien warrior woman you'd seen before, and a female knight with a wheel-like halo, her holding two crosses, one like a sword, one like a spear with a banner attached.

    As they strode forth, that knight taking one last look at you before being yanked away by Shadow Kikuko, you summoned Barnumbirr the instant they were out of sight to cast Samarecarm on Rise.

    "Thank you Mirror, I'll confess I was pretty reckless there," Rise smiled while biting her lip, "But you gotta admit, I looked kinda cool back there for a second".

    It was then Makoto came in, her observing, "A... video store? Well, it's not a safe room, but I'll take it, since we should be able to use all the tape here as a rope to get to the bottom floor".

    "Wait, is VHS alien to you or something? You don't remember places like this from when you were young?" Rise had to ask.

    Makoto sighed, "I am perfectly aware what a VHS is, King, Betamax too. My childhood was just, well, very up and down- Wait, why are you clutching your heart like that?" she turned to ask Rise.

    "Oh, ah, well I kinda got shot actually" Rise sheepishly explained.

    "Honestly, I'm occupied for like one second and that happens? Well, who was the enemy?" Makoto asked.

    "Shadow Kikuko," you told her straight.

    "Huh? Hold on, isn't this Melissa's Pal-Jai-Empire?" Makoto looked nonplussed.

    "Shadows from one Empire can invade and conquer others. I mean, it's in the name," you told her.

    That over, the three of you got to work assembling a makeshift rope from all the VHS tapes around. While you did so, you all had to notice some of the... strange titles they sported.

    "'Literal Motherfuckers: XXX'?" Makoto read out, scratching her head, "I mean, I do not wish to shame people for their tastes, but... let's just say I'm glad we didn't bring Sis along".

    "'Trophy Wives and the Families they Wreck'? 'Makeovers for Fugly Moochers'? 'Secret Lives of Asian-' eurgh, I'm not gonna read that last word," Rise cringed, before shrugging and saying, "Well, at least this makes me feel less bad about dismantling all these VHSes".

    'Daddy Disappointment', 'My High School Hell', 'Why Won't my Dream Guy Like Me?', you read out a series of completely different tapes in your head.

    Finally making that rope and descending to the lowest floor, with a few scares though as VHS tape wasn't the sturdiest material (at least you had Gawain's Rakukaja handy). Finally down there, you said to Makoto and Rise, "Okay, so last time the path to the sewers was down through the swimming pool, er, ice rink, it depends. But," you then said, looking down at some loose tiles that had been hidden by the fallen escalators last time, "I think we can get in another way".

    Makoto casting a Nuclear spell to blast them off for you, you soon uncovered a path straight down into the sewers, Rise looking uncomfortable for a second but pressing on. You then saw that there was a new barrier put up in front of the chapel entrance, in the form of a tortoise Shadow, with a, er, bowtie and pith helmet.

    "Okay, I'm getting it's called Hanged Man... Bert the Turtle?" Rise stopped for a second to consider what she was saying. Before Makoto could confront it, Rise chimed in "Ooh sorry, it reflects Nuclear. Also, it resists, ah, almost every single element".

    This Bert the Turtle wasn't making any attacking moves, but was taking every second it had to cast another Rakukaja on itself, even throwing the mirror sheen of a Tetrakarn in for good measure.

    "Don't worry, I think I've found its weakness," Rise said, as she had Jiutian Xuannu cast a Psy spell of her own on Bert. The power of the mind-boggling rings flipping the turtle onto its back, with you finishing him off with a new Psiodyne courtesy of Theodora.

    Well, with that last speedbump out of the way, the three of you proceeded straight into that underground chapel which served as Melissa's Arena.

    "This is it," you muttered, seeing the thing for a second time, "Not really sure what we can do here, other than smash the place up".

    "I will say, it is unusual to explore to the core of a cognitive world in a single run. Then again, it's a testament to you having scouted this place out already, Mirror" Makoto smiled at you.

    "Yeah, my old team usually ran out of SP a few floors in and had to recharge," Rise said.

    "...You didn't have curry on you?" Makoto had to ask.

    "Er, don't see how curry would help?" Rise looked oddly back at her.

    "Hey look, can we stick to the whole Duel-stopping thing, y'know, what we came here for?" you had to intervene.

    [ ] Keep casting Nuclear spells till you cause a cave-in, then get right out of there with an Escape Route. then again, isn't nuclear Melissa's element?
    [ ] Ask Makoto and/or rise if they can keep watch here overnight? Shadows usually don't come into an Arena when not in use.
    [ ] Just take that crucifix as Makoto suggested.
    [ ] Mess around with that organ, maybe it's more than just an instrument?
    [x] Have you and Rise keep casting Psy spells to find anything to might've missed.
    [ ] Just leave a warning note.
    [ ] Write-in.

    After this though, what are you going to tell Kikuko, especially knowing about her Shadow?

    [ ] Try to convince her Melissa wouldn't be a worthy opponent.
    [ ] Try to convince her Melissa's not worth the anger, that even fought she's not worth killing.
    [ ] Question the whole purpose of fighting for the Gameboard to her.
    [x] Be honest and tell her you met her Shadow.
    [ ] Invite her to your talk with the Morrigan, if she promises to let this Duel, or killing anyone, go.
    [ ] Offer to Duel Melissa in her place, at least you'll be in control of the battle.
    [ ] Write-in.

    - Rebirth has Journeyed to Level 6! -

  14. #54
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    LIV. Melissa Duel

    Both you and Rise casting Psiodyne, not an efficient use of your SP but you were about to warp out of the dungeon anyway, but didn't notice much... until you cast one downwards and hit what you could only describe as 'nothing'.

    "Is there, ah, no more ground or earth below this chapel?" Rise had to ask, having detected the same thing.

    Makoto ushering you to stay back, she promptly had Santabarbara blast through the ground below with Freidyne. The three of you looking down at the hole, you saw only "That the same white void I saw in-I saw in, Azuma's Empire" you stuttered out, peering at the same stark whiteness.

    "Maybe we've just, er, run out of Gameboard?" Rise offered, but comforting neither of you. "Like, we just went past the 'Arena'".

    Makoto experimentally picked up loose stones off the floor, then dropped them in... only for them to just keep on falling. "It would appear, ahem, to be a dead end. Maybe it would serve to leave this pit as a warning of the dangers here, maybe, but it would appear this sudden white void is just that, a white void".

    "In that case, we should definitely get going," you had to say, "A powerful Shadow sprung up out of the Gameboard the last time I ran into this void. Like, maybe it's where the Gameboard and its Shadows first spring into form or something, I don't know".

    "Hmm, I believe I can take a 'powerful Shadow', but do you have a point, Mirror, we shouldn't be getting into needless fights," Makoto had to say.

    "For tomorrow though, we've all gotta get to Hanataba early if we're gonna intercept Kikuko and Melissa. Kikuko's usually there first thing, Melissa not so much, but I can see her making an exception if it means getting to saw Kikuko in half" you went over with them.

    "Empires shifting on the day of the Duel really does spoil our plans, but I suppose coming down here today was better than nothing," Makoto admitted.

    "Yeah, same. Hey, you know Makoto, it almost feels like I'm back working with Naoto when I'm with you," Rise smiled as she added.

    "Oh, Shirogane Naoto, I think you mentioned him once. They were that, ah, prodigy Detective from a while back, right?" Makoto asked, for some reason hesitant to use the phrase 'Detective Prince'.

    "Yeah, I met her as in high school, and kept doing a bunch of assistant work after that, undercover of course" Rise went on.
    This conversation did have to be saved for later though, what with the whole 'Shadow from the void' thing looming over you, as you called on PITT to teleport out of there with an Escape Route.

    * * *

    Quite a while later, back at Kikuko's mountainside townhouse replica, you headed indoors for it to especially strike you that, other than for meals, you'd rarely been in the house proper. This especially stood out as, by this time tomorrow, you may not even be living here anymore.
    Nevertheless, you headed up the narrow wooden stairs, having to keep checking exactly where you were placing your feet in the darkness, until you reached Kikuko's bedroom. Gently tapping on the door, it came nearly flying to the side as Kikuko pushed it open and simply said "What?"

    "Ah, I was just wanting to talk about the Duel tomorrow, that was all" you gulped and shuddered.

    This answer pleased Kikuko for the time, her nodding and saying, "Good, keeping up with your duties as a Jack as you should. I expect you to be right there in Melissa's Arena with me tomorrow as I run over my strategy with you".

    You mean you'll just tell me what you're gonna do and get mad if I contradict you? you thought at that. Steeling yourself, you breathed in before telling her, "No, Kikuko, what I meant to tell you was, oh God, I ran into your Shadow when doing a last-minute run of Melissa's Empire".

    Kikuko continued to stare at you, before saying, "I fail to see how that would even be possible. I have gone through the process of attaining and maintaining my Persona, and last I checked could summon Tsuruhime fine".

    "Isn't a strong will or something needed to maintain a Persona? I don't think getting suddenly angry on and off is a sign of that," you spoke up in a fit of resolve to her, "Listen, you could be in danger of Tsuruhime going berserk on you".

    "Well what else am I meant to do?!" Kikuko burst out, unknowingly proving your point, "You'd ask that I just run away and hide? Even if my Persona is about to go out of control as you seem to think, so be it, it will only assist in taking Melissa down".

    "Kikuko, listen to yourself," you said to her, staring firmly back, "You're about to risk your very life for something that doesn't even extend beyond the bounds of high school! You're a friggin' schoolgirl, not a soldier or whatever you insist you are, and neither were Eitaro or Gakuto".

    "Then how will be able to face the world?" Kikuko then yelled back at you, "How will I be able to face my family, when I'll spend every waking moment knowing I ran away, I gave in to cowardice? That I surrendered, and to Melissa all of people!" you could see tears starting to form in her eyes.

    "Kikuko, if this sort of thing is what your 'family' is pushing you to do, just for acceptance," you told her firmly, "Then maybe it's time to start thinking about who your family actually is".

    "The-The Maeda name goes back as far as the samurai caste does," Kikuko then hissed at you, "And continues its legacy today. If I am not that, then, then who even am I?"

    "You're alive," your met her with your eyes, "That's all you should need. But you may not be if you keep on with all this Duelling. Besides, I've learned from History that some clans took another's name to make their legacy seem longer, like the Hojo, something you should know. Are you honestly sure that you're from the same line as those names we hear in textbooks, Toshiie, Matsu, Kenji?"

    That... probably wasn't the smartest thing to say to her, given that you'd seen evidence of her losing control of herself. Hearing that idea expressed, Kikuko seethed "I've heard enough!" before retreating back into her room.

    Fearing this had all been hopeless, you began your slow walk back downstairs, but could then hear the sound of Kikuko still crying, alone in the privacy of her room.

    Hesitantly, you stepped straight into that room, where you spotted her weeping over her bed. Not knowing what to say, you instead slowly approached her and reached your arms out.

    Looking up at you, rather than retaliate like you feared, a weeping Kikuko just jumped up and accepted your embrace without a word, as she continued to cry on your shoulder.

    To think that, back in April, you wouldn't have dared say a word like that to Kikuko out of fearing her, yet now this. You had to hope that, in the end, you did have a chance of getting through to at least someone, before only one was left standing over the Gameboard...

    - The Empress has Journeyed to Rank 6! -
    * * *

    Day of the Duel

    You were off your futon the first thing that morning, racing by Na-Rae as you speeded through your morning routine, before going back to her to ask her to drive you.
    "M-Miss Honoka, whatever's the rush?" Na-Rae exclaimed.

    Your Mistress's life, you thought, but only told her, "It's confidential, but basically I need to be at school quick".

    Na-Rae did have to look at you oddly, but sure enough drove you down as requested. When you arrived though, you soon saw that you still may have been too late.

    This time, you didn't even have to reach the Gameboard before utter chaos unfolded. All over Hanataba you could see that every student to ever support Melissa, the yankii, the kogal crowd, the occidentalists, the desperate guys, was currently engaged in an all-out slugfest against every student, the Tea Ceremony club, the kendo practitioners, the traditionalists, who backed Kikuko. Basically what Melissa had pulled back at the sports festival, but on a larger scale.

    You tried to approach Makoto and Rise, but soon found they had their hands full trying to split students who were currently throwing cafeteria dishes at each other and smashing faces into lockers. Makoto took one look back at you and said, "Nakamura, I'm-I'm sorry, but as teachers here now, we can't come with you until we sort... whatever this is out".

    You stood still, but then nodded in understanding, before you then headed straight to the Prized Pupil Lounge, having to dodge a few thrown chairs and trays in the process. Before the Gameboard, who else did you find but Azuma, at whom you immediately asked at high speed, "Did you see Kikuko or Melissa come through here?"

    "Melissa yes, Kikuko not yet," Azuma stated you, before he titled his head and said, "Perhaps you were worried that you'd missed the fireworks? Even so, they at least had the courtesy to have others put on quite the show outside".

    "Don't you taunt me," you hissed at him, before saying, "Azuma, this Duelling thing can't go on, do you honestly want to see another student, and one of those closest to you, get killed?"

    "And leave the Gameboard's work incomplete? Have the deaths of Rin, Eitaro, and Gakuto be for nothing? What on Earth do you even think would convince me otherwise?" he said to you.

    Oh God, I am seriously going to regret doing this, but if it'll get him to friggin' listen for once in his life, you thought, before breathing deep and clenching your fists. Looking behind you to make sure Colette was nowhere around, you then walked slowly up to Azuma, sprang forth and immediately kissed him.

    As you then pulled away, wondering what the hell you'd just done, Azuma stared at you and said, "You truly believe I of all people can't tell acting when I see it?"

    Even if it meant you'd made no progress, you were grateful in a way that he didn't take the kiss as genuine, who knew what issues you may have gotten into in the long run if he did?

    So you resorted to a plan you much preferred, as you then elbowed him swiftly in his ribs, knocking Azuma to the floor for long enough for you to dash past him and onto the Gameboard.

    For the fight that'd been incited in the school itself, at least Melissa hadn't pulled the same shit Gakuto had with her Shadow-subjects on the actual Gameboard. Even if you weren't supposed to be taking part in this Duel, you now found the elevator in Melissa's mall took you straight down to the cave corridor leading to the chapel.

    Not that you didn't have one last obstacle on the way there, as you came to a screeching halt upon seeing Shadow Kikuko standing right before the entrance.

    "Poetic isn't it, Jack? That Melissa's psyche may be all glittering lights and fabulous fashions on the outside, but damp, dark, and miserable at the core?" she said and smirked.

    "Kikuko, no..." you muttered, "Melissa, please don't tell me you've finished off Melissa already?"

    "Much as I would've loved to, no, Melissa's indeed in the room ahead," Shadow Kikuko told you, "I could go in there and confront her personally, do the job myself to make sure my fleshy side doesn't ruin it for me. But then I came up with a much more fun idea, that when flesh Kikuko's delirious from the heat of battle, why don't I surprise her myself, the moment her mental state is at its weakest?"

    Fuming, you then had to ask her, "How can you even materialise as her Shadow anyway, I thought Kikuko accepted her Persona years ago?"

    "Accepted. Past tense. Besides, the more you train your Persona, the greater its power should you lose control," Shadow Kikuko grinned, "Of course, you were handed the Wild Card, so you wouldn't even know how a Persona awakening even goes on the Gameboard.
    Awakenings vary depending on the situation, I presume you know at least that, but the common theme is that you must face something about yourself. Deepest secrets, place in society, your death, or in the Gameboard's case, coming to understand just how much power you wield," she glared down at you as she explained, "And right now the extent of that power's finally beginning to overwhelm poor little corporeal Kikuko.
    Anyway, I hear the approach of my fleshy self, so for now, if you wish to continue onto Melissa, by all means." Shadow Kikuko said as she suddenly disappeared into, well, the shadows.

    Rushing forth, you saw all the lights had come on within the chapel, revealing the extent of this very cavern and how high and far back the rows and rows of pews went.

    At the altar, you could see Melissa right there in her queen bee prom dress, pacing back and forth. "Grr, what is keeping Kikuko? Y'know, in a few minutes more, I'm totally gonna declare myself the winner anyway, seeing as that poseur is clearly about to forfeit".

    "Being a bit hypocritical, aren't you? Weren't you the very one who set up that fight outside to slow her down?" you stood up to Melissa.

    "Huh, fight outside?" Melissa stared at you, "Look, whatever my followers have pulled, it's got nothing to do with me".

    "Not much of an empress then, are you?" you muttered.

    "I heard that!" Melissa roared out.

    "Look, while we're waiting, mind explaining what the point of this whole church thing is?" you confronted her on.

    With a sharp grin, Melissa moved to the pulpit and took the mic there, "It means God has bestowed on a chosen elect beauty, wealth, and power, and has bestowed on others the duty to keep their mouths shut!"

    <<BGM: Kamen Rider Ryuki - Alive A Life>>

    Jumping off the pulpit, Melissa pulled out her chainsaw and yelled out, "Well, if Kikuko doesn't even have the courtesy to show up, I might as well take it out on her Jack in her place!"

    "What the-?" you gasped, before sighing and promptly switching to Albion. "Big mistake" you told her.

    As Melissa lunged to shred you in half, Albion was able to absorb her blow entirely, as you then performed an uppercut straight to her jaw with your left tonfa. Her reeling from the blow, you grabbed your other by the shaft and hooked her in with it. You swung to pound her in the stomach as you held her in position, but before you could she blasted you in your own stomach with her shotgun.

    As you were then sent reeling back in pain from her bullet, Melissa free of your grasp was now about to blast you with magic. Trying to stand back upright, you heard her call out...

    "Inanna-Ishtar!" she roared, conjuring forth a horned goddess, desert-brown skin and hair in a long blonde braid, clad in jewels that'd been crafted into swords, arrows, spears, and maces upon her back, her raised heel pressing down on top of a winged lion she'd reined in.

    T-That's not Anjou, came your first reaction, and you'd quickly have to think of another if you were able to handle this new Persona at all.

    [ ] Strike back quickly, before she could strike at you.
    [ ] Be on guard, you didn't come here for a fight, quite the opposite.
    [ ] Take off running, you might as well duck behind one of these pews.
    [ ] No matter how she is, try to talk her out of this, you're not the one she wants.
    [x] Do something to distract her, you don't think you'll be able to make a move otherwise.
    [ ] Write-in.

    It was Black Frost you then summoned to cast Mabufula, not on Melissa, but on the floor, making her lose her balance on the now frozen ground. Switching to Gawain, you then cast a searing Tarukaja on yourself as you prepared to ice-joust into Melissa with a reverse-grip tonfa.

    However, Melissa then had Ishtar fire off a nuclear blast, not aimed at you, but so as to propel her way up into the air, from which she then had Ishtar keep raining projectiles on you with a Myriad Arrows spree, knocking you to the frozen floor, as she then landed on the other side of you and fired off a Grand Tack.

    All that had you scrambling to switch to Arachne, to let you now heal up from any more bullets Melissa could send your way. Of course, Arachne hardly had anything to hit Melissa back with aside from an Electric spell, as the Aces' 'homefield advantage' often negated Bless and Curse spells, though at least she had some buffs handy with Rakukaja and Sukukaja, especially important as you remembered Melissa only had debuffs. Well, Anjou did.

    Scrambling to think of another plan, you resolved to get to as high a ground as possible, as you really didn't want to cede it to Melissa with her guns and nuclear blasts. You could vaguely make out some stalactites hanging overhead, but while Arachne's mobility skill let her create long and strong webs, you had no idea if they could reach as far as those stalactites, given the size of this cavern.

    But for Melissa, they were easily in range, her noticing them from looking at you looking up at them. With a wave of her hand and a fang-baring grin, she cast Freidyne on the nearest one, sending it falling to the floor. You managed to skate away from it, but the fallen stalactite still had the effect of shattering the frozen floor into countless shards, leaving you to quickly switch back to Black Frost to take such a hit.

    However, Melissa was able to channel Inanna-Ishtar's pure physical strength to smash right into that stalactite with her chainsaw, forcing you to quickly web-sling away onto another stalactite, this one not fallen... until Melissa cast another nuclear blast at it, leaving you keep swinging away.

    Having to head from stalactite to stalactite as Melissa kept firing off blasts, you ended up swinging to and grabbing onto one of the pipes of the church's massive organ. Having secured the high ground, you then had to wonder how you were ever supposed to get back down, presumably through having Barnumbirr or Prospero work overtime on the Wind spells.
    While holding on you switched to Gawain in case Melissa tried firing another Freidyne at you, but while her shotgun had limited range, Ishtar's Ranged skills were another story. Switching back to Arachne would just leave you open to nuclear spells again, bringing you back to square one.

    As you were hanging there in one place, you heard Melissa say from below, "I was the one who personally delivered that invite to you in the first place, remember? Hah, I knew bringing you in was dumb even then, but oh boy, if I only could've known you'd end up like this..."

    Her casting Dekaja on you, she then had Ishtar ready another Gun skill. Clenching your teeth, you took the only route out and let go of the organ pipes, having Barnumbirr cast Garudyne on yourself just before you landed, as another Grand Tack from Ishtar fired overhead.

    You ended up landing right on top of the organ's keyboard, letting out an almighty cluster of notes that caused the entre cavern to tremble. As Melissa then ran straight up to you with her chainsaw, you had Barnumbirr cast Sukukaja to let you quickly roll out of the way. This left Melissa charging into the organ herself, where she then screamed in pain as you heard a sharp searing sound.

    "You bitch!" she roared down at you, hiding the burnt half of her face with her hair, "You think you can play dirty by casting fire to superheat that organ!"

    "I cast nothing on that organ!" you tried to stand up to protest.

    "...No, that would be me," came a third voice, as Kikuko swooped down to slash at Melissa, knocking her into the superheated pipes for a second time. To add insult to literal injury, Kikuko had done this wielding a wooden sword, of all things.

    Kikuko then held Melissa by the back of the head up against the heated metal, but someone as stubborn as Melissa would not go down so easily, as getting her hand free she gestured to Inanna-Ishtar to cast Freidyne, launching Kikuko right off her.

    At the same time, this had the organ produce the loudest noise it could, making the entire cavern shake. You yourself quickly rolled off that organ as you saw whole chunks of the cave roof now falling to the floor.

    "Kikuko, for the sake of your own sorry life, why can't you just accept I'm better than you?" Melissa shouted down to Kikuko as the latter got to picking herself up. "Even as kids, it was obvious every adult was more charmed by me than your sullen self, When I got to this school, I snared every boys' heart, while you only stayed popular with the creeps who didn't want to admit you'd been outshone!"

    You could see Kikuko was trying to ignore those very words, as she cast an Agi spell on her own wooden sword to set the entire thing alight. Roaring, she began to lunge directly at Melissa, only for the Ace of Coins to blast her full force with her shotgun the moment the Ace of Swords got in range, followed up by another Freidyne.

    Melissa then strode over and grabbed Kikuko by her neck, before a sinister smile crept across the golden girl's face, "I'll tell you what, Kikuko, call this whole Duel off and I won't harm another hair on your head. Oh, but of course, on the condition that you now become Jack of Coins, which includes handing over your Empire to me!" she whispered in her ear.

    No, you idiot! You're gonna call out her Shadow! was the only though that pulsed through your head.

    "Never!" Kikuko spat out, as you could see her eyes flash an eerie gold. As her Shadow took over her, she began to scream as her skin was turned porcelain, a row of muskets began jutting out of her ribcage, each of her fingernails grew rapidly to become swords, and her hair turned to cascading flame as sparks kept flying out of her mouth. Each of her ship-like armour plates was replaced with a fanged demon mask.

    <<BGM: Kamen Rider Gaim - Just Live More>>

    "I am a Shadow, Rokujo-Aoi, the true self!" her voice shrieked out, "Melissa, you and your plastic Empire will all burn to the ground! Only fire can cleanse the corruption you've inflicted on this sacred land!"

    As Shadow Kikuko let out a fiery breath that spread to burn down any nearby pew, Melissa floundered her way back in panic to you. Seeing her expression, any hint of her prior arrogance had been broken, leaving her staring at you with an expression of pure fright.

    "H-Honoka, please, help me! You're her Jack aren't you, you've gotta do something, she's gonna kill me!" Melissa screamed as she held onto you.

    "Oh, but aren't I a bitch? A total nobody?" you said to her, "Didn't you say I should just keep my mouth shut? I saw how you treated Reina and used Yuya and Suzako, what reason have you ever given me to stand up for you, a fucking pool party?"

    Still shaking over, Melissa nevertheless found time to laugh at this situation. "I knew it, Honoka, I knew all along," her mocking voice trembled, as her sunken face rose to look at you, "Don't give me any shit about how Eitaro's death was an accident, or how you had no responsibility for that AI killing Gakuto. You're a killer, Honoka, you freakin' revel in it, and you owe us everything for giving you the very tools of murder you needed!"

    You gasped, unable to believe what you were hearing. With Shadow Kikuko now having cut off your right and left side with flames, your gaze didn't leave Melissa. "If what you're spewing has any truth to it, then it was you Aces who made me like that!" you snapped.

    As Melissa then used Ishtar's strength to lift you up by your collar, she said, "Either way, you know what happens to murderers when they die? They get to spend eternity in hellfire!" She then tossed right over towards Shadow Kikuko, with her then running onto that higher ground.

    You were now directly in the path of Shadow Kikuko to Melissa, so couldn't delay in your actions:
    [x] Switch to a Persona who the flames can't touch.
    [ ] Get an Electric persona out.
    [ ] If this is Hell, run like it.
    [ ] Have Arachne web-sling you upwards.
    [ ] Have Arachne web-sling you over to Melissa.
    [ ] Say something to get through to Kikuko, that you're not the one she wants.
    [ ] Yell something over to Melissa to get her to face Kikuko.
    [x] Call out already for Makoto and Rise to get here.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Much as you didn't want to risk Shadow Kikuko, or Melissa honestly, being alerted to you getting your teachers in as reinforcements, once you switched to Black Frost for Fire immunity you tried calling them in anyway.

    "King! Queen!" you tried calling out, voice echoing throughout the cavern, as Shadow Kikuko engulfed you in fire before realising you had an immunity set up.

    It turned out you'd been partly successful, as you then heard Rise's voice contacting you through her Persona. "Mirror! We're still being held up, we got in here only for this whole place to start falling apart. But Yamijo's picking up that Bless and Curse won't work here, and you want to stick to Electric for that Shadow, and Psy for the other target!" she give you her scan.
    That... didn't really tell you anything you didn't know already about Kikuko and Melissa, though getting confirmation that they still had their same weaknesses helped a little, and it especially helped to know that both Rise and Makoto were on the Gameboard. Still, that did leave you stuck here 'entertaining' the two Aces in the meantime.

    Black Frost didn't have too much to strike back at Kikuko with, but as Shadow Kikuko swiped at you with intersecting slashes from her sword-claws, you thought that wouldn't matter too much as your current Persona was able to endure them adequately, and if she kept attacking like this you could switch to Albion for the unintended healing. Your goal was to outlast both Kikuko and Melissa, not fight back, you were never supposed to be part of this Duel.

    Yet for all Black Frost's resistances and more, he didn't have any defence against Gun shots, as the muskets and miniature cannons fused into Shadow Kikuko's body opened fir upon you. The barrage pierced you in both your legs and torso, leaving you stumbling back as shadow Kikuko shot straight past you, almost through you, to begin her chase after Melissa. You weren't her top priority here, after all.

    With Melissa beginning to get cornered back near the golden pipe organ, her own strategy changed to having Ishtar set off atomic blasts aimed at the cave floor, creating pits into the white void right between her and Shadow Kikuko. But Kikuko didn't simply go around these void pits, but rocketed right over them as her whole body propelled itself over the gap via her flames and gunpowder.

    "Honoka, hey look! Please!" you heard Melissa, pale-faced and scrambling up to the altar, screaming out to you, "Y-You have to give me an Analysis, a Zio spell, something! I-I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die!"

    You looked and saw Melissa in the process of nuclear bombing her own altar apart in a last-ditch attempt to strike back at Kikuko or at least get her off her, at best only causing the further crumbling of her cave floor into the void. Even more of the cave ceiling started falling in as Melissa backed into the organ again, now sending the pool water and lakes of caffeine from the mall above pouring down in.

    Melissa's words did make you at least consider switching to Arachne or Zoe Kalentoula for the electrical power, as combined with the downpour it could give you the power to finish off Kikuko... but wouldn't that leave you with another dead body on your hands, the very thing you were here to prevent?

    Either way her words did get you running back over to the organ, though unlike Shadow Kikuko you had to be careful in dodging around the pits and waterfalls. When you did make it past this unwelcome obstacle course...
    ...You saw you were too late, that another dead body was exactly what you had.

    Shadow Kikuko having faded away, or rather burnt herself out, Kikuko's regular self was now standing atop the organ, having crucified Melissa upon her cross of gold, with her sword through the Ace of Coins' chest and bullets in her wrists. And if the killing blow was struck by Kikuko as a human, that meant Recarm had no hope of bringing Melissa back.

    "Hey nerd, I'm only gonna say this once so listen up, wontcha?" she began as she suddenly pinned you to the wall "Today's your lucky day, we figured we're gonna let you in our little club, if you can pass our... Initiation Rite". As she said that, a flaming blue tarot card flashed for a second in her hand; was it some kind of rare hologram tech she had access to?
    "Come on, we're gonna be late!" one of your friends said from the door to your class, not having looked back to see just who it was you were with.
    "Urgh, just come to the Prized Pupil Lounge after class, we'll finish this talk then. Better be there, beyotch" Melissa snarled as she strode away, already a gaggle of fans flocking around her.

    Melissa Lilian, the Ace of Coins, the glamorous US exchange student, heiress to Sole Star Petroleum, and the girl who'd first given you your invitation into the All-Aces... was dead.

    Kikuko, observing what she'd just wrought, then stepped away to leave Melissa's pale corpse to fall upon the floor. Down to the last two Imperials, once the next fell, that'd be it, the Gameboard won.

    "Mirror! Can you hear me, Mirror?! Look, we're not sure if we'll be able to get to you, the sewers have collapsed in upon themselves!" you could hear Rise's voice surge and crackle through your mind.

    You used Theodora's Psy synergy to scan around for any paths still left out of this collapsing cavern. Finding a way up along the falling stalactites and escalators, one however that would require Arachne to sling fast, you took last look at Kikuko and hissed, "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't leave you down here, beyond you being my Ace".

    It was then Kikuko sighed out, "Honestly, I don't think I can," even though you expected at least something about say leaving the gameboard to Azuma. Turning around to look at you with her empty eyes, she then said "Except this. Could you even be able to?"

    Having no idea what to even say back to that, you groaned and reluctantly offered Kikuko your hand. Having then Arachne propel you, her, and Melissa's lifeless body up out of there, you eventually made your way back to the main court of the Mall.

    <<BGM: bodyline - Castles in the Air>>

    While said mall was still intact, despite what had just got done down in the chapel beneath, the place was almost completely shrouded in darkness, every single neon light that once lit it up having flickered out, with only what light came in from the outside world as the sole illumination, and many once open shops now gated shut.

    As you ran over to Rise and Makoto with Melissa's corpse in your arms, Kikuko had to raise her voice to say, "Wait, what are those teachers doing on the Gameboard?"

    "Oh, that's your concern right now?" you shot back at her, before you then told the three of them together, "Okay, gonna have to call us an Escape Route out of here, I'll... I'll explain everything once we're back in the school".

    * * *

    Melissa's lifeless self lay prone atop the Gameboard, as you muttered to Rise and Makoto, "I'm- I'm sorry. I couldn't save her".

    "Honoka, it's just- look," Rise tried to say, before admitting, "I may not be the best person to address this. I only saw one person I knew be killed like this, and well, it was a teacher none of us were that close with. But, well, you did try to stop this, and I imagine quite a few people wouldn't have tried even that".

    Meanwhile, Makoto silently fumed at Kikuko, before finally saying to her, "Don't think you can trust your Daddy to bail you out of murder. My family's been in law for generations".

    "It was my Shadow who killed her, not me!" Kikuko snapped back.

    "...Nakamura, can you confirm this?" Makoto looked right at you.

    "Yeah, Kikuko's basically telling the truth," you mumbled, before adding, "Even if her Shadow had subsided by the time Melissa died. However, well, your Shadow is you and all..."

    "More specifically, the parts of your psyche you try to keep suppressed," Rise then spoke up with, before it occurred to her, "Man, I was only ever involved in amateur detective stuff, not the courtroom. Can, can you even be tried for something your Shadow did, since they are you?"

    "Ah, wouldn't that sort of thing fall under mens rea?" you then asked, "Or is that an American thing? I dunno, I'm no legal scholar".

    "My family's been in law for generations," you heard a mocking voice repeat, as of course Azuma stepped out of the shadows, "Even if you can try someone for the actions of their Shadow, how are you, fired from the force, going to explain what a Shadow even is? Do you realise how out of your mind you'll look when the Gameboard is presented as evidence? Unless you have your own little Persona Court, but what legal authority could they possibly wield?"

    "Oh how little you know. And in a normal court, she can certainly be convicted for a stabbing!" Makoto burst out with.
    Azuma sighed and shook his head, "Niijima-sensei, Kujikawa-sensei, I am going to tell you this humanely at first. Do not try to obstruct the Persona Game, for have you not seen what the Gameboard is capable of firsthand?"

    "Persona Game?" Makoto seethed, "Funny, because Nakamura told me she doesn't even know what you're fighting, and dying, for".

    "We have more than enough to make an educated guess," Azuma told you all, "On its own, the Gameboard can take a human mind and construct entire lands from it. So imagine what one will be capable of once the board in its entirety is under human control".

    "Nothing that should be going to you!" you spat out at him, "Or Kikuko, or anyone".

    "And you would just have it sit there?" Azuma asked you, before scoffing, "Honoka, I'll be frank, the reason you still lack an Empire is due to more than your Wild Card. It's because you lack the Vision".

    You then scowled, "Do you at least have anything to say about Melissa being dead?"

    "I'll say we all gave her every warning we could," Azuma pointed out, "Yet still she insisted on claiming the board for herself. She knew full well what she had embarked on".

    "...Don't take it out on Azuma," Kikuko then looked at you, "Whether you blame my Shadow or I, Azuma was not involved at all. But you were, weren't you Honoka?"

    You flinched at hat, before saying, "W-what do you mean?"

    "You were plenty responsible for provoking Melissa before I showed up. You, a Jack, ran straight into her Arena without the company of your Ace. The battle, one I never asked to be fought for me, was well under way before I ever showed up" Kikuko spoke.

    Those words stinging you, you told her bluntly, "I was trying to stop that Duel from happening at all in the first place!"
    "Really? Because we only have your word for that," Kikuko said back.

    Covering her face with her hands and screaming into them, Makoto then looked back up and asked, "Do we at least know who's responsible for starting that fight in the school earlier?"

    "That was entirely on Melissa's and Kikuko's fanbases," Azuma said, "Or so I'm told, but having seen how ravenous followers can get myself, I'm inclined to believe that explanation".

    Shuddering, you then exited the Prized Pupil Lounge to see your school had been completely trashed by that fanbase-fight. Hotaru and the rest of the Student Council were still hard at work getting the place back to normal, with the more egregious of Melissa's and Kikuko's followers being made to clean the place up themselves.

    Given they were all still dealing with this, how were you even going to break the news of Melissa's death?

    Well, as you were Class Rep, you then headed over to Class 2-C only to find the door bolted. After knocking, Tanizawa-sensei saw it was only you and let you in, where you then saw that Suzako and Yuya had in the meantime constructed a makeshift fort with the desks at one end of the room, shielding all the students trying to not get caught in the crossfire.

    "Hey, Yuya, Keiko, you're all right" you tried to smile through everything else that'd happened.

    "You are too, that's great! We-we feared the worst when you didn't show up to class," Yuya stuttered out to you.

    "See, I told you Honoka would be just fine!" Suzako beamed, before asking, "So, er, how's it like out there?"

    Having no idea how to break it to them, you just said, "Well, I'll just say you won't have to put up with Jack of Coins duties anymore".

    Checking the class next door, you couldn't see Reina anywhere around. Gasping, you then tried the Occult Club, where upon opening its door... you immediately got doused in tea.

    "Oh my, Honoka! I am so sorry, we'd rigged boiling tea to automatically pour on any intruders while we hid here during the fight," Colette apologised and explained, "Fortunately, that tea would've long cooled by now, so you'll only have to worry about a trip to the laundromat".

    Looking around the room, you also saw Hitoshi, Masaomi, Ibuki, and finally, much to your relief, Reina. However, from a scar she now had on her cheek, it did appear someone had attacked Reina on her way here, even though she'd long stopped associating with Melissa.

    "A-Are you alright?" you asked her, kneeling to her level.

    "Yeah, I'm fine. Colette brought me in to shelter me while... everything was going on," Reina mumbled out.

    God no, if Melissa's death was hard enough to explain to Suzako, Yuya, and Hotaru, how were you ever going to break it to Reina?

    At a complete loss for words, you instead nodded before leaving to go check on Takako. Being one of the more physical of your friends, it looked like Takako had a good job along with Ikue of defending themselves out on the field, with quite a few of Kikuko's and Melissa's followers knocked out to show for it.

    You slumped down on the closest bench, losing yourself in the thought of what would happen to Hanataba now? Three of its top students all dead before the year was even half over, the latest of them being heiress to a multinational company.

    And if even someone as beyond redemption as Gakuto still didn't deserve death, what did that say about Melissa? Her redeeming features were few and far between, doubly so for how she treated her friends, but she at least wasn't as far gone as Gakuto. Her face, rightfully frightened for her life, kept flashing in your mind, as did one of her last assertions.

    That was Eitaro's death really an accident, was Gakuto's death entirely incidental? Were you who she claimed you to be?
    In a fairer world, you thought, Melissa's death would be the final straw. No, in a fairer world, the last straw would've been long ago. But her death was to be in vain, regardless of anything Azuma said, as this whole stupid fight over the Gameboard was still not finished.

    If you had any last words for Melissa Lilian, they'd be:
    [ ] "I don't know what you deserved, Melissa, but it wasn't this."
    [x] "You started me on this path, Melissa, so I'm gonna finish it."
    [ ] "You should've been made to atone, to make up to Reina, to Suzako, to Yuya. That'd be the most ideal ending I can think of, not his."
    [ ] "Goodbye, Melissa Lilian. I was there through the last days of your life, whether you or I liked it or not."
    [ ] "If you do go to your Heaven, Melissa, I hope there you'll find no reason to hate, to just be happy."
    [ ] Nothing, just silence.
    [ ] Write-in.

    - Strength has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

    Oh yeah, and there was going to be that stupid ceremony tomorrow. Three students dead, but hey, you'd get to say you were now an Ace for it~. Bloody hell.

    You expected that'd take up a good chunk of tomorrow, but you at least hoped to get in a talk with some others while you could that following day:
    [x] Reina.
    [ ] Kikuko.
    [ ] Takako.
    [ ] Himawari.
    [ ] Ryouko.
    [ ] Yuya.
    [ ] Hotaru.
    [ ] Write-in.

  15. #55
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    May 2012
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    LV. Ace of Fools

    You figured once you were finally inducted as an Ace that most of this day would be spent moving all your stuff from the storehouse outside Kikuko's place all the way downhill to Hanataba Academy, which again made you feel bad for Na-Rae since she'd most likely be the one saddled with carrying and moving everything. then again, it wasn't like you exactly had too much stuff.
    Once you were ready that morning, Kikuko and Na-Rae both met you by the verandah to make your move out of their house official, Na-Rae bowing to you there while Kikuko simply gave you a respectful nod.

    "I would not say I had the time to instruct you in all I could," your soon-to-be-former Ace said, her steely gaze meeting yours, "But I do trust you will take all you have learned from me and put it to good use, as befitting the image an Ace must uphold".

    Hahaha, no, that thought crossed your mind, but you did tell her, "Well, I will definitely be keeping my image in mind. I mean, the eyes of like every student in school will be upon me".

    "You at least appear to understand the magnitude of your position," Kikuko observed.

    Na-Rae still seemed at a loss for words, you figured she was thinking of what to say that wouldn't make Kikuko immediately suspicious of her. Finally she said, "Ah, goodbye, Miss Nakamura. B-but I'm sure we'll still meet up again, and we shall certainly be seeing each other in the Lounge, just well, in a different relation to maid or fellow Jack, that'd be all".

    Yourself not really knowing what to say back to her either, you ended up smiling and saying, "Hey, thanks".

    Later arriving at school, the students gathering around all erupted into whispered conversations or silent, eager stares as you stepped in. To your knowledge, your induction as an Ace was meant to be a private affair, at least until the 'ceremony' was complete, but the reactions of your fellow students had you wondering if the news had been leaked. Then again, Azuma and Kikuko hadn't outright said that the induction wasn't private, you just kinda assumed that, and being an All-Ace meant you'd have to be a head-turner anyway, especially without your own Empire.

    As you walked to class, entered, then sat in your usual seat, you still couldn't help but think that, with or without the Persona Game, this still felt... wrong. Unreal. Like, you couldn't be some gorgeous elite, a celebrity on even a school-wide scale, all your memories until this year were of everyone but Yuya and Keiko not even caring about or noticing your existence.
    You then froze, as another thought came to mind. What if all those students were staring because they thought you were behind Melissa's death, or Gakuto's or Eitaro's, since you were the connecting factor in all the deaths this year. People had suspected, still suspected, Hotaru killing Rin for less, and with you they wouldn't be entirely wrong either.

    Your head darted around to look at Yuya and Suzako, since even thought of you being blamed for Melissa's death made you afraid they could be too. Suzako in particular had gone from hating Melissa, to challenging Melissa, to suddenly being her Jack, to now this.

    At least class proceeded as normal, but then came the bell, and therefore the summons to the Prized Pupil Lounge. You headed all the way up to its door again, feeling like the longest it had taken for you to walk there since the day of Eitaro's duel, or even when you were first summoned there, except this time you knew there'd be none of Reina's cheer waiting for you in the other side.

    Na-Rae and also Shinsuke were there at least, both bowing in sync to you as you passed through, with it just hitting you that they were also the last two Jacks, unless you started making appointments of your own.
    Azuma and Kikuko were standing either side before the Gameboard, having raised their blades, Azuma's whip-sword and Kikuko's katana, to make an arch. You assumed you had to walk through their arch, but before you could they lowered their swords.

    "Nakamura Honoka," Azuma began, "You are now the first student here to be appointed an All-Ace without having an Empire of your own, since before the secrets of the Gameboard were discovered. Of course, over the past few months you have proved yourself capable of much without one, to where your appointment couldn't be ignored. Nevertheless, without an Empire, know that as an Ace you shall only soar so high".

    "Nakamura Honoka," Kikuko continued, "Know that you step over the bodies of the slain to arrive here. Know that your path forward may be no less violent. And know the eyes of this academy shall never stop watching you. And, never forget who made you what you are".

    After all... that, the two lifted their sword-arch back up again, you stepping and shuddering through. On the other side, the three of you turned around to look at each other again, with Azuma saying to you, "Congratulations, that only leaves you to proclaim your title as All-Ace. Quite something that the wallflower daughter of a bohemian and a salaryman now stands as equal to the scion of Japan's most honoured theatre family, and the daughter of generations of aristocrats stretching back a millennium", seeming to forget Eitaro was also a commoner.

    [ ] "Ace of Diamonds". What with all you'd endured, that the 'diamond in the rough' symbolism spoke for itself.
    [ ] "Ace of Hearts". Himawari on your mind, what else could you choose?
    [ ] "Ace of Clubs". Probably the one that made most sense for a school.
    [ ] "Ace of Pentacles". You take it the title has been long up for grabs, and it certainly could unnerve the others.
    [ ] "Ace of Cups". As a reminder of the one death that, be it self-defence, really was by your hand.
    [x] "Ace of Fools". If that's allowed.
    [ ] Write-in.

    - The Fool Arcana breaks, the Mirror shatters piece by piece -

    "Thou art I, I art Thou...
    Thou hast seen how bonds may change
    How Imperial Wonders are fated to Dust
    How Infinite Potential is a Herald of Doom
    Thou heads into the Night of the Lust Arcana, the true form of the Fool..."

    - The Lust has Journeyed to Level 8! -

    <<BGM: Silent Hill 2 - Theme of Laura (Reprise)>>

    Clutching your head, you murmured, "That's it, then?"

    "Welcome, Nakamura Honoka," Azuma grinned, "To your new Domain".

    * * *

    The next thing apparently was that you had to announce your appointment to Principal Oguri and Vice-Principal Fujino, which yeah, you weren't looking forward to exactly.
    "Nakamura Honoka? Oh, of Class 2-C, that'd be Tanizawa, right?" the Principal said as you were made to approach him, "Oh yes, from memory you were quite associated with the expelled girl, weren't you? That's certainly troubling, especially as you'll be representing our school and all, but I don't recall you getting in trouble since. So well, chin up, and remember you're on your best behaviour from here out".

    Funny, thought the whole point of becoming an Ace was you got to be on your worst, that thought seethed in you.

    "I trust Maeda's and Sakurazuka's judgment," the Vice-Principal glared down at you, "But don't think I've so easily forgotten the Aoyagi girl. So be it, but you're on thin ice".

    Leaving the faculty office, you immediately sighed with relief that the meeting was over. Scary thought though, that when people would think of Hanataba, they'd think of you. Well, probably still behind Azuma and Kikuko though.
    You hoped at least one advantage of becoming an Ace was you'd no longer have to take orders from the others, but knowing what Azuma and Kikuko were like, and them knowing way more about you than you were comfortable with, even that may be denied you.

    This began the less glamorous process of trying to fit all your stuff into your new private room next to the Lounge. It didn't help that, unlike with all the other Aces, this would be your room period, no other elsewhere unless you moved back in with Mum and Dad.

    You naturally picked to move into Himawari's old room, which had been long cleared out anyway. Sitting down on your bed as it was able to finally be fit in there, you gave some thought as to who else to even talk to about all this. Like, ordinarily you'd be ringing everybody to tell them of you inheriting a position such as this, but with everything you'd seen on the Gameboard, well, the matter had completely changed now.

    Eventually you decided to call up Reina, hopefully she hadn't left for home yet, since you had the foggy memory of saying you could install her as Jack if you were ever promoted to Ace, and well now...
    "Hey, Reina. Er, you mind coming over to, uh, the Prized Pupil Lounge?" you slowly started off.

    "Oh Honoka, hey, how's it- What?!" you heard her gasp through the phone, before saying, "Ah, of course, be on my way right there!"

    Heading back into the main lounge, as Azuma and Kikuko both stared at the former Jack of Coins suddenly re-entering the room, you spoke up and said, "Hold on, she's with me.
    Hi there Reina, er, got a lot to discuss," you turned to her and gulped.

    Sowing her to your new private room as the news became clear, she exclaimed, "Oh my God, Honoka, y-you're one of the Aces now?"

    "Yep, my Jack days are over," you told her, but your smile then flipped to a frown as you had to break it to her, "Thing was, well, reason I now got the position was due to a vacancy. Melissa, she's, well she's-"

    "Dead," Reina bluntly finished for you, "Yeah, I heard. I- I still don't know how to feel about it. I mean, you brought up what if someone I knew or looked up to died, way back on that train. Now it's happened, and even that talk still couldn't prepare me for the real thing. Ah, no offence".

    "Look, none taken," you tried to smile, tried to lift spirits, "I don't even know what I was saying back then, like I think I was just fed up and stuff at the time. But, er yeah, I also have no idea if this is a good time or not to bring this up, but- but I said I'd make you a jack again if I ever did become an Ace, right?"

    Reina had to twitch a little hearing that, before she explained herself, "Ah, hey look, you don't have to feel pressured into choosing me or anything. Besides, um, from memory it's a little more complicated than just going 'Hey, you're a Jack now'. Melissa never told me much about the behind-the-scenes process, but I think you have to get the other Aces to allow and analyse your pick. Unless you're like, a really long-term Ace like Azuma, then you can just appoint anyone you feel like".

    "Oh, I see," you mumbled, "Still, I can't exactly bring Himawari back in, and I know Colette well enough that she'd take being made a jack as an insult, even if it might ease a lot of the stigma off her at school".

    "I heard in her, er, last days, that Melissa made your friends Jacks for... some reason, I dunno, and they had a really nasty time. So like, I do guess it'd be cool to be Jack again, but yeah, you should definitely ask around first. Them especially, like you've now got the power to give them a better time of it," Reina came to tell you.

    "Okay, and thanks for understanding. Still though, about Melissa's death..." you muttered, "Guess this question could still cut a little deep, but well, Reina, how would've you have seen things ideally ending between you and Melissa?"

    "Oh, yeah, that is a question," she mumbled, biting her lip, "Uh, hopefully something nice, like she'd just see how mean shed been to me and apologise. I, I hope that wouldn't have been too much to ask".

    It shouldn't have been too much to ask, you had to think.

    Then Reina had to ask, "W-what about you, how would've you have liked things to end with her?"

    You now supposed you shouldn't have asked a personal question you were unable to answer yourself. After umming and aahing a bit, you just sighed and said, "Not like this, that's for sure".

    That did raise some questions with you. Geez, would we have to travel all the way to America for Melissa's funeral? The flight to Russia already felt long enough. And I can see Kikuko already writing out a will, but Melissa?

    You felt you had to change the subject. "Hey look, Reina, whether you become my Jack or not, do you- do you wanna sleep over tonight? Like, celebrate me moving in? I mean, God I'm so exhausted so right now from all he moving I've been doing today," you said as you yawned.

    "Wow! That sounds great, sure I'd be up for it, but, uh," Reina then blushed, "There is only one bed in this room after all. Did you wanna, ah, did you wanna m-make love to me tonight?"

    Blushing yourself, you were quick to say, "Ah, hey look, only if you're okay with it. Listen, I was never trying to make you do anything you didn't want to-"

    "Hey, Honoka, it's okay. I want to!" Reina smiled at you, holding your hands and gazing into your eyes. "Like, I know your heart belongs to Colette, but still, I'm happy if I just get to be with you a little while".

    Neither of you having any more words beyond that point, the two of you both leaned in for a kiss.

    - The Magician has Journeyed to Rank 8! -

    Being an Ace though meant there was a whole bunch of stuff you'd probably have to talk about tomorrow, on top of Melissa's death:

    [ ] Break it to Suzako.
    [ ] Break it to Yuya.
    [ ] Break it to Ryouko.
    [x] Talk with Himawari.
    [ ] Make sure things are still good with Na-Rae.
    [ ] Confront Azuma at the Drama Club.
    [ ] See what's with the Computer Club.
    [ ] Talk about things with Hotaru.
    [x] Check up on the Velvet Room, especially with Popo (Inanna-Ishtar and Bert the Turtle await, free action)
    [ ] Get back to the Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Then in the evening:

    [x] Get to that town tour with Koyomi.
    [ ] Break the news to Megumi.
    [ ] Get to studying.
    - [ ] Write-in study partner.
    [ ] Get to sleep.
    [ ] Get back to the Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    You woke up groggily with Reina beside you that morning, the glare of the sunlight streaming in and searing your eyes due to the curtains not being put up yet. Given that Reina, in the middle of squeezing her pillow to the bone, was looking to be a pretty deep sleeper right now, you instead took the meantime to slowly get showered and dressed, right into your school uniform.

    That did get you thinking, where exactly were you supposed to get breakfast? There were naturally vending machines and the school cafeteria around, but while you'd frequently made use of said machines, the cafeteria... less so, it was hard to imagine any of the other All-Aces, your fellow All-Aces it crept up on you, doing so.

    Luckily you soon had an answer, as there came a knock on the door. "Er, coming!" you shouted out, as you did one last check on Reina only to see that she'd gotten out of bed by now, and was presumably showering herself.

    Coast clear for now, you opened the door to find that Shinsuke had wheeled in what was basically a whole buffet for you. "Your first meal as the Ace of Fools I believe, Mademoiselle Honoka," he bowed before you "For the morning, we have prepared a selection of king crab, caviar, Kobe beef, and kaiseki garnish. Please, enjoy".

    Your first meal as All-Ace had actually been a leftover chocolate bar, but you were pretty thankful to Shinsuke anyway, and bowed in return. Of course, he had to step back and politely say, "Really, please feel no pressure on your part to bow, you are my superior now after all".

    As you just nodded at that, you then joined by an eager Reina, much more energetic than the snoring log she'd been a couple of minutes earlier, who stared wide-eyed at the smorgasbord Shinsuke had brought out. Since it was probably more than you could ever eat for breakfast, you happily gave her permission to also chow down.

    In the Lounge that morning, you got more than a few stares from a risen early Kikuko, who has you had to expect whispered, "You know Nakamura, upon becoming an All-Ace, the least you could do is not continue to associate with a departed Ace's reject".

    You'd be lying if you claimed those words didn't sting, but at the same time, it did in a roundabout way remind you that Kikuko, now being your equal or at least equal-er, no longer had the authority to control who you did and didn't hang out with. That was a... plus.

    You definitely weren't prepared though for walking out of the Lounge to find yourself suddenly swarmed by your fellow students, a few of which you reminded yourself were even in the grade above. And of course, it wasn't just shouts of praise and disregard for your personal space (not that Hanataba couldn't be packed in tight on a normal day), but also some of it was, well, less than congratulatory.

    "Oh, I thought someone special was gonna be the new Ace, but it's just that Jack who's been leeching off them"

    "Seriously, did Azuma lose his mind? I never got what he saw in this girl"

    "Don't tell me Melissa died for this. Hanataba's Golden Age is over"

    In the midst of all these people, Azuma then strolled through and was easily able to get them all to stand back from you.
    "Ah, how quaint. I see you are still getting used to the crowds," he smiled down at you as he guided you through, "No need to worry, you'll have more than enough opportunity to acclimatise to them".

    In response, you just nodded at him before ducking into Class 2-C. But even there, you felt the eyes of the whole class upon you.

    "Huh, new Ace in my class, don't know whether I should be, ahem, honoured or not. Either way, back off people, you're still dealing with the same old Honoka, no need to start treating her like she's from Saturn or wherever," Tanizawa-sensei had to speak up to get everyone to settle down.

    Even as class returned to normal, Suzako still kept staring at you for a few seconds longer before she returned to her textbook. Yuya on the other end just sat still for a while, not looking like he was quite able to process this, before eventually starting schoolwork.

    You could only imagine what the whole Melissa dying and you being the new Ace thing had to look like from outside. True, you could just ask Suzako and Yuya, but obviously not in the middle of class.

    You then thought if there was anyone you could ask about becoming an Ace, it'd have to be Himawari and Lauryn, the two least Ace-like of the Aces. Then again, one was expelled and another dead before you even met her, but even that was still a step up on the likes of Azuma and Kikuko, and Kikuko particularly probably had a lot of her own baggage she needed to sort out.

    * * *

    Entering into the Velvet Room, you again were faced with having to break the news to Lauryn and Popo about another Ace's death, on top of the maybe-good-news-maybe-not of you now being an Ace, though one still without an Empire.
    "Hey there, um, how's things?" you tried to start off with, before sighing and saying, "Yeah, another Duel, another death. Melissa this time".

    There was silence in the Velvet Room, before Lauryn outright said, "I never knew Melissa, she came in after I'd died, but at the same time, oh God. To think all this is really gonna end the way Azuma and Kikuko wanted it..."

    "Miss 'Onoka," Popo then whimpered, before having to admit, "I always assumed that Mister Azuma yapping about Duels and even dying was just him tryin' to shape the Gameboard to fit his own designs, but... maybe it's on me. Maybe I really did just listen to the Boss Lady and obey without really thinking on what she said, that fightin' and killin' was what the Gameboard was all about all along, and I kept on telling meself it couldn't be.
    I've met Mistress Morrigan, I know she can't be that bad a person but, agh, if she does confirm that is what the board's really about when you meet her, then... then I don't think I can go on doing all this, being the Emissary. But if I can't, w-what will I do? Like, what am I without the Gameboard?" Popo kept murmuring, spiralling further and further into his own thoughts.

    "Look, Popo," you tried to say, "First thing you have to do is not beat yourself up that". That may have been perfectly sound advice normally, but when you then considered that Popo's very existence may hinge on his alliance to the Gameboard, those words now didn't seem so reassuring.

    So you instead tried to approach him and said, "Hey, if Azuma's idea of what the Gameboard is were completely true, then I don't think it'd even have you as its Emissary in the first place. If it did, why would it have given you the ability to doubt it like this, hmmm? Wouldn't some unfeeling machine have been easier on its part?" You hoped Koyomi hadn't come with you on your phone into the Velvet Room to hear that last line.

    Popo stopped cowering in the corner and then said, "That's right, Miss 'Onoka, I did say I know the Boss Lady and all, so even if there's a bunch of stuff I don't know about her and her vision, I'd wager that goes the exact same for Mister Azuma too!", straightening himself.

    "To be honest, and well, please don't tell the Morrigan I said this," Lauryn had to say, "But if the gameboard really were meant to be that violent, to pit people against each other, it wouldn't have changed how I handled it and my Empire. The opposite really, I'd just become even more determined to act against it, regardless of the Morrigan".

    You took all that in, even wishing a bit that you could've been brought into the All-Aces a little earlier, to have the role model you, er, still did but not in the same way. Ah, what you were saying?

    Popo didn't appear exactly comfortable with Lauryn's stated defiance of the Morrigan, but did at least have to say, "Don't worry, Miss Rin, yer secret's safe with me".

    "The Velvet Room is and has always been a neutral party, of course. My attendant's chance to speak up against the Gameboard's Overseer has long faded, but in return, her safety from her within this room can be guaranteed," Igor felt the need to go over.

    That seemingly resolved, for now, you thought to move on to the next topic in mind. "Well, guess being down to only two Aces made Azuma and Kikuko feel a little well, exposed. So despite all their exclusivity, they decided it was finally time to, well, promote me to Ace. Ace of Fools specifically, came up with the title myself," you broke the news, but had to mention, "Still, no Empire to show for it, but hey, they don't have the Wild Card".

    Popo only had so much of a window on school politics so wasn't sure how to respond, but Lauryn had to pause to take that in. "It's not as cushy as it looks, I'll say that much, but Honoka, ah. The students of Hanataba may seem, well, petty and cliquish, but I'd say that's always been a top-down poison. They need someone to set a good example for them, someone I don't think they've had in a long while. If you can be that person Honoka, well, then I can say some good came out of all of this".

    Well, that's something, you had to think. "Thanks, Lauryn".

    "The Gameboard is almost won, huh, it is strange and whatnot to think it's happening," Popo then started mumbling, before pleading, "I've got no idea what Miss Kikuko has in mind for it, but as for Mister Azuma... Miss 'Onoka, you have to stop him, i can tell for certain nothing good will come of him claiming the board!"

    Popo didn't have to tell you that twice... but how would that even be possible? The best option would be to somehow get both Azuma and Kikuko expelled at once, which'd be nigh impossible given their families' status. Challenging either of them to a Duel was also off the table, as that'd just give the gameboard to the other. Maybe you could Duel both at once, but even if that was even allowed, would both of them ending up dead really be anything other than a last resort?

    "I will, Popo," you ended up telling him, "Somehow".

    - The Tower has Journeyed to Rank 8! -

    "Ah, it would seem our guest's Persona capacity has increased," Igor commented, "You should now be able to stock twelve Personae at once, beyond some... exceptions, of course".

    "Oh right, that reminds me Miss 'Onoka, you've got two more Personae right now linin' up," Popo went over.

    There was a Turtle by the name of Hanged Man Bert, and Bert the turtle was very alert;' a chorus from nowhere started singing as that one Shadow guarding Melissa's Arena appeared, 'When danger threatened him he never got hurt, he knew just what to do...Bert the Turtle
    [Hanged Man XII]

    Elements: Reflect Nuclear, Weak to Psy, Resist All other
    - Strength: |
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: |
    - Luck: |||||
    - Endurance: |||||
    Skills: Rakukaja, Marakukaja, Tetrakarn, Makarakarn, Regenerate 2
    - Hanged Man Bonus: Amrita, War Cry

    This was followed by a more normal Persona introduction.

    I am Strength Inanna-Ishtar, the volatile line between Love and War," said what had been Melissa's evolved Persona, "I will not miss this war's final battle for anything.Innana-Ishtar
    [Inverse Strength XI]

    Elements: Absorb Nuclear, resist Physical and Gun, weak to Psy
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: ||
    Skills: Freidyne, Grand Tack, Myriad Arrows, War Cry, Gigantic Fist
    - Strength Bonus: Dekaja, Samarecarm

    With the increased capacity, there was no pressing need to fuse anyone, but the option was always there:

    [ ] Fool Theodora + Magician Arachne = Death+4 Hades (Curse and Fire)
    - [ ] Switch in Albion
    [ ] Strength Ishtar + Fortune Zoe = Rebirth+6 Nyarlathotep (Curse and Almighty)
    [ ] Magician Arachne + Moon Carmilla = Lovers+2 Galatea (Physical and Almighty)
    - [ ] Switch in Prospero
    [ ] Fortune Zoe + Sun Gawain = Star+4 Vainamoinen (Psy and Ice)
    [ ] Strength Ishtar + Sun Gawain = Moon+9 Dokuganryuu (Physical and Gun)
    [ ] Magician Arachne + Magician Prospero = Magician+8 Verdandi (Bless and Almighty)
    [ ] Rebirth Izanagi + Hanged Man Bert = Devil+9 Erlik (Curse and Nuclear)
    [ ] Hanged Man Bert + Magician Prospero = Empress+6 Echidna (Fire and Ice)
    [ ] Hanged Man Bert + Fool Theodora = Tower+8 Susano'o (Wind and Electric)
    [ ] Strength Ishtar + Hanged Man Bert = Temperance+5 Lugh (Bless and Wind)
    [ ] Leave as you are
    [x] Write-in: Strength Ishtar + Fortune Zoe = Rebirth+6 Nyarlathotep (Curse and Almighty) inherit Ziodyne, resummon Ishtar, Strength Ishtar + Sun Gawain = Moon+9 Dokuganryuu (Physical and Gun) inherit Counterstrike, resummon Ishtar, Magician Arachne + Magician Prospero = Magician+8 Verdandi (Bless and Almighty), resummon Arachne, Fool Albion + Magician Arachne = Death+4 Hades (Curse and Fire) inherit Mazionga and Diarama, resummon Arachne

    Well met. I am Rebirth Nyarlathotep, the deepest darkness behind all faces," said a being akin to a stitched together cross of Maeda Iemitsu, Patrick Lilian, Sakurazuka Munehiro (or at least him when younger?), and... your own father, "The game is afoot, so why not place your wager on Chaos?
    Elements: Absorbs Curse, resist Fire, Ice, Wind, and Electric, weak to Psy
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: |
    - Luck: ||||
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Megidola, Eigaon, Mamudoon, Mind Charge, Shadow Kill
    - Inherit Bonus: Ziodyne, Myriad Arrows
    - Rebirth Bonus: Debilitate

    I am Moon Dokuganryuu, the undefeated samurai," a samurai clad in the scales of a blue dragon, brandishing a heavy nodachi, miniature turrets on his shoulder-plates, a crescent moon adorning his helmet, and half his face lost to festering illness, "This azure crescent will not be outshined by any sun!
    Elements: Null Electric and Physical, resist Gun and Bless, weak to Nuclear and Wind
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Tempest Slash, Grand Tack, War Cry, Ziodyne, Power Charge
    - Inherit Bonus: Counterstrike, Dekaja
    - Moon Bonus: Stagnant Air

    I am Magician Verdandi, one before whom gods tremble," said surprisingly what was otherwise a normal-looking Scandinavian woman, with a cream-coloured double-breasted trenchcoat, a flowing scarf, and bobbed red hair, "Do not dwell on the past or be intimidated by the future, there is only now.
    Elements: Reflect Bless, null Psy and Curse, resist Wind and Gun, weak to Nuclear
    - Strength: |
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: |||||
    - Endurance: ||
    Skills: Hamaon, Kougaon, Diarahan, Psiodyne, Makakaja
    - Inherit Bonus: Sukukaja, Mind Charge
    - Magician Bonus: Megidola

    I am Death Hades, king of all beneath the Earth," said a man with his face behind behind an iron canopy, donning a spiked red, black, and purple robe, holding six fruits in one hand and a two-pronged spear in the other, "The colour of pomegranates shall wash out the stain of your past life.
    Elements: Absorb Curse, Null Fire and Ice, weak to Nuclear
    - Strength: |||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: ||
    Skills: Eigaon, Mamudoon, Agidyne, Tetrakarn, Makarakarn
    - Inherit Bonus: Mazionga, Diarama
    - Death Bonus: Vile Assault

  16. #56
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    LVI. The Judgement Arcana

    Your arrangement to meet up Himawari again was made somewhat awkward by a competing schedule, as you caught up with her at Café Okumura with, er, the lead singer of Corpse Corps, that war-themed band that Nightshade had gotten into an argument with back in Hakodate.

    "Oh hi there," that girl said to you in a cheerier voice than last time, "I'm Ayanami Yaeko, frontwoman of Corpse Corps, and you're Abyssa, right? Hey look, I really wasn't clear with Nightshade the last time we met. Like, I've got nothing against her, that whole 'band rivalry' was just meant as a publicity stunt but, well, we kinda ended up getting carried away."

    "Ah, okay, well stuff like that isn't unheard of," you muttered back.

    "Yeah, I'm embarrassed I didn't pick up on that," Himawari grinned awkwardly, "Oh, I should say that it's Himawari and Honoka offstage".

    "Yep, got that. Reason I'm here is I heard your debut album, wow, and a live one too. That can't have been easy," Yaeko spoke up, "I mean, sound quality is, er, not promising, but I'll be charitable and assume that was what you were going for. All stuff that could be fixed with your next album anyway, but I guess it's too soon to be talking about that, huh?"

    You and Himawari had to look at each other, at first saying nothing, before Himawari broke it to Yaeko, "Er, you see, the thing is... There's not gonna be a next album. Nightshade and the Lady Devils are, well, basically over".

    Yaeko had to do a spit-take at that, before going "Wait, why? You were like, on the cusp of breaking through! I mean, breaking through would mean you'd have to deal with a bunch of arsehole fans, like we went with the war theme 'cause I liked machinery, but man does it bring out some weird creeps- ah, guess I'm rambling".

    "For me it's, um, hard to explain," Himawari began, staring down "Way back, I like being Nightshade way more than being me because I thought, well, Nightshade could do anything, stand up to anyone. But the more I performed as her, well, the opposite happened. I started doing a whole bunch of stupid, self-harming things because I kept thinking it's exactly what Nightshade would do. I needed her to stand up to people, but... I couldn't stand up to her".

    "So, um, you're gonna keep performing, right? But like, just as Himawari?" Yaeko had to ask, with you dreading that this meant the end of Nightshade altogether.

    "Yes and no," Himawari surprised you by saying, "Like, if some small town Catholic girl like me can be a dark devil queen or whoever on stage, then I figured, I could be anyone on stage! Like, these are just off the top of my head, but I could be a singing gynoid, a witch's catgirl, the cosmic rockstar Symphonie Metallique, the possibilities are endless! Just as long as I'm the one who has the final say, and remember I don't have to be any one thing.
    That's not to say I'll never be Nightshade ever again," Himawari then said, "She's a part of me, I could never get rid of her... just that I feel it's time to give another part of me the stage, they've been waiting a long while".

    That made you feel relieved, and Yaeko had to smile too. She said, "Well, that's cool to hear. Ah, I kinda have to go now, booked to perform in Sapporo and stuff, but it was great I got a chance to clear things up with you. Looking forward to what you do next, Himawari!"

    As Yaeko smiled and turned to leave, Himawari looked up at you and said, "Oh yeah, that reminds me. We mostly put our album up online, but I did personally print off a few physical copies. Here's yours, Honoka, and um, would you mind giving these three to Colette, Ryouko, and Tomomi?" she handed the copies of Alpha and Omega: Nightshade Live ft. The Lady Devils to you.

    You smiled at her, saying, "Himawari... thank you. Ah, speaking of which there's been a lot going on in my world too, recently, stuff I kinda had to talk with you about alone. Melissa, well, she's..."

    "Dead?" Himawari quickly filled in, "Sorry, I guess with the Gameboard that's what I've been trained to assume".

    "No, you got it right the first time," you confirmed for her, "And well, giving all the absences, Azuma and Kikuko felt they needed to appoint a new Ace, and well, that left me by default. So yeah, I'm Ace of Fools now, er, so I was hoping for some advice".

    "This, well, may be a bit irresponsible of me to say, but I guess no longer having to deal with the greater Persona Game was one definite upside to being expelled," Himawari began, before she mumbled, "I felt like I barely knew Melissa really, like she was the last of the Aces to join, before you, then I got expelled, and now she's gone too. I wanna say something like 'If only things had gone better'... but I've got no idea how that could've happened. Oh, what advice then did you need?"

    "Basic stuff, like decorum, dealing with constant onlookers, how to pick a Jack, y'know, all that," you went over.

    Himawari seemed to struggle coming up with a reply to that, "I don't think the crowds around you, sycophants, stalkers, or people with a grudge, ever got any easier for me, I sort of just tuned them out and let Nightshade deal with them, at least in my head. An well, there were some girls in Choir who could've been my Jacks, as you can tell they cut off contact with me after my expulsion, hehe, but the only Jack I had was you, and you chose me.
    Look, maybe I'm the wrong person to ask, but then again, what other option do you have? But you don't need me to tell you that being an Ace never worked out for me" she finished on.

    "Yeah, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to ask," you sighed, before asking something else, "Hey, um, look, it's great that you have a future in mind for you singing, but... ah, what about those yakuza? Like, they kinda seem too big a detail to overlook".

    "Oh, don't worry about them," Himawari laughed, "They abandoned me soon after my expulsion. Obviously, not that they're opposed to criminal behaviour, but they're definitely opposed to embarrassments, which is, well, what I was to them. It's my parents that are the issue," she mumbled, "Even if I've gone back to being a 'good girl', well, they still won't accept me. I'm now their ultimate disgrace no matter who I am from here."
    Nevertheless, she then smiled, "Still, I know not everyone abandoned me after I was expelled, you, Colette, Tomomi, even Ryouko, I mean, I was the one who abandoned her, er, you could say. My point is, because people stood up for me when I was at my lowest, and still do... I just know I'm gonna be fine in the end!"

    <<BGM: Persona 5 - Swear to My Bones (Guitar Cover)>>

    You could then see a blue aura glowing around Himawari, as Anastasia and another, glass-like, Persona rose up above her and were fused together in a blinding flash, combining into a glittering female knight with flowing orange hair and a belt of souls, pairs of wings made out of shields wrapping around her, carrying a lance like a giant icicle and a sword like a baton in her hands, sitting side-saddle atop a ghostly wolf.

    "I am Devil Brynhildr, the valkyrie that heralds the end," her voice resounded, "The one who was Anastasia and Antoinette. Our voices in harmony shall sing the swan-song of the world."

    She wasn't the only voice resounding in your head:
    "Thou art I... I art thou
    Though thy kingdom fall, thou hast gained a champion who shall not leave thy side
    We bestow upon them a piece of thy crown,
    And on thou, the road to Ahriman, Ultimate Persona of the Devil Arcana"

    - The Devil Journeys Anew at Rank 10! -

    You then heard the sound of a gate unlocking far in the distance, and one last ethereal voice saying, "Ace of Fools, I'm waiting. All secrets shall be revealed..."

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Judgment Arcana"

    "Hey, Honoka, everything okay? You kinda spaced out there for a second," Himawari said, her eyes meeting yours.

    "Oh, yeah, sorry about that," you just said, "Had a whole lot to think about. So, er..." you paused a little, "Before the stress of all this career-resuming stuff starts, mind one last jam session, maybe?"

    "You're on!" Himawari and Nightshade beamed.

    * * *

    "You're taste in music is... intriguing. It does not otherwise match your appearance" Koyomi went on to tell you, you only realising to late that she'd probably stumbled onto your whole music gallery, on top of the jam session.

    "Yeah, well, actually I don't think I have any taste in music, really," you had to admit, even after all you'd been through with Nightshade, "People with much more opinions on it, like Himawari, Colette, and now Rise, kinda dictate what I listen to, even if I don't mean to.
    Of course, at times I don't think that's such a problem. Like I wonder if feeling really strongly about music in turn means you feel really strongly about all the music you don't like, and that ends up making you both angry and miserable," you mused on.

    "I was about to say that's one way in which I am fortunate, but not really," Koyomi remarked, the hologram leaping out of your phone, "I was not programmed to feel sadness, anger, or any other such emotion, there are not written in any of my ones and zeroes, and yet I have often felt them regardless".

    "Dunno. Like, I'm not a neuropsychologist, even less a programmer, but it's like, er, if you can think and interpret stuff, then emotions are gonna come your way anyway," you tried to put your thoughts into words.

    Kuchinashi being a mountain town meant there was only so much ground you could cover in an evening's walk, but Koyomi already familiar with your school, you thought you could at least fit in a good walk along the main shopping street, most of it old buildings perched along the river.

    "So like, Kuchinashi's a mix of old Japanese architecture and western influences, like a lot of Hokkaido towns built around the 19th century," you gave your attempt at being a tour guide.

    "The category of 'Western' is quite broad. Perhaps you could narrow it down, say to French, German, Italian, Canadian, or suchlike?" Koyomi had to ask.

    You shrugged and went, "No idea, even though I've lived here all my life. Ah, come on, think we went over this in school... uh, English and American, I guess? Okay, we do have a local history museum- oh wait, the place has like, the most irregular times, I'm betting it's shut right now," you groaned.

    Tumbling Dice was already shut for the night, but you still could at least show Koyomi where it is. Well, she probably could use GPS or something to just find it herself, but it's the thought that counted.
    "Okay, so this is where I sometimes work. Ah, guessing Gakuto told you all about games, right? 'Cept these aren't video games, they're-" you began, but Koyomi cut you off.

    "Tabletop RPGs, yes, I have now downloaded all the necessary information," Koyomi spoke, before telling you, "Towards the end of my creator's, ah, lifespan, he personally felt overwhelmed by how far his backlog of computer games had grown. So as to remain current with the gaming community, he would often have me algorithmically complete most of them to the fullest percentage, including disseminating their coding, while he used titles he was more familiar with as a way to destress".

    "Oh, right then. Er, I at least take it he paid you, somehow, for doing all his work for him?" you had to ask.

    Koyomi remained silent at first, before saying, "He didn't see why I'd need to be paid, computer games are intended as entertainment, so I felt it was a privilege I was even getting to play them".

    "Figures," you mumbled, before at least trying to lighten things with, "Ah, so what was your favourite out of all of them?"

    "Favourite?" Koyomi paused, "What criteria in this case are we using to determine 'favourite'?"

    "...Nevermind," you just let out.

    After at least showing her where the town history museum was, closed as expected, you then showed her over to the town sweets shop where you knew Yuya worked... only to remember to late that AI don't eat.

    "Consuming this food brings you pleasure, then? A pleasure I suppose I am inherently unable to experience," Koyomi sighed out.

    "Yeah, well, holograms get to do cool stuff like phase through walls, so I'd say it evens out," you tried to cheer her up, before pointing to the window, "Confectioners can still put a lot of effort into the design of their candies, so you've still got that. Especially since most of these storefront candies are fake, being ads, so I can't eat them either. Hmm, think most of these fake foods come from the one town near Nagoya, forget the name though".

    "Gujo-Hachiman," Koyomi was able to tell you after a quick search.

    "Right, yeah, that place," you mumbled along.

    Since she already knew the Arcade too, the last place you checked out were the clothes shops you'd frequented with Reina.
    "Yeah, take it you can just alter your appearance whenever, but us fleshbags have to buy outfits, wigs, makeup, all that stuff if we wanna change how we look" you told her.

    "I would not say places like these are useless to me, they can still serve as inspiration. For example," Koyomi looked at a yukata on a mannequin in the window, and within seconds had materialised it on top of herself.

    Wait, you stopped to think, Is, is what she just did theft? I mean, the actual clothes are still there on that mannequin, so I guess not, but she has that outfit without paying for it, and- ugh, I'm probably just thinking too hard about this.
    "Okay, this is hard to explain, but like, human legs can only walk so far before getting exhausted, and- well I guess you kinda have the same thing, but like you have to watch out for range instead, right?" you instead brought up a different topic with her.

    "It can be an issue, but I can see you'd need to rest, and I ought to review security on my creator's computers. But I do feel positively about us having this experience," Koyomi said to you.

    - The Hermit has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    "Er, yeah, me too" you just said back.
    Well, tomorrow you felt you should get around to:

    [x] Checking up on Kikuko at the Tea Ceremony Club.
    [ ] Taking Koyomi in to the Computer Club.
    [ ] Practicing Cricket.
    [ ] Class Repping for Ryouko.
    [ ] Giving the Sweets Shop a proper visit.
    [ ] Starting that new RPG at Tumbling Dice.
    [ ] Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire
    - [ ] Write-in Party
    [ ] Write-in.

    And in the evening:

    [ ] Checking out Megumi's university.
    [ ] Going over your room with Na-Rae.
    [ ] Seeing what more you can show Koyomi.
    [ ] Studying.
    - [ ] Write-in study partner.
    [ ] Sleeping, and dreaming.
    [x] Gameboard:
    - [X] Meet the Morrigan at the heart of Himawari's Empire.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Meeting with your now fellow All-Aces that morning, all two of them, there was of course the issue of explaining away Melissa's death, plus her upcoming funeral.

    "Already taken care of," Azuma smirked and leaned back, "Having what was essentially a gang war between cliques that day, plus several blades already stored in the Tea Ceremony clubroom, turned out to provide the perfect cover for explaining away the Ace of Coins' death. As for the funeral, it was her request to hold it in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Hollywood Hills".

    You paused to take that in. "Not, er, Texas State?" you asked, basically the only Texan Cemetery you knew of, and even then only after an Internet search.

    "It is not uncommon for the elite to be buried in cemeteries far from their homes, Jim Morrison in France for instance," Azuma commented and shrugged.

    "It's a wonder Melissa even took the time to consider her death before our Duel, perhaps she put the slightest thought into it after all," Kikuko had to say, making you flinch at her words.

    "Oh come on, you never heard me shit-talking Eitaro after our Duel," you had to protest her, "Show some respect for the dead at least".

    "You saw how Melissa fought. She faced death completely without dignity, like a coward," Kikuko sneered, folding her arms, "Why should I respect her?"

    "Well er, well y-you're one to talk, your Shadow did most of the work for you," those words came out of mouth in an instant, and you immediately going "Oh God, s-sorry, I shouldn't have said that," afterwards did little to calm Kikuko.

    An unstable looked almost ready to draw her sword on you, before Azuma sat her down and said, "Come now, our corporeal Lounge isn't the place for settling disputes".

    You had to facepalm. Yet another reason why you should've watched your mouth, that trying to interrogate Kikuko would then provoke her, thus playing directly into Azuma's hands.
    "Right, er, does this mean we're gonna have to fly all the way out to America? 'Cause like, isn't it twelve hours flying to LA?" you had to bring up, changing the subject pronto.

    "Already arranged. We will be leaving at 9AM Saturday, then returning Monday, giving us an entire day in Los Angeles" Azuma explained, "I imagine it's not every day you get to go on a trip like this, Honoka, and of course it'd be most courteous of you to show up, so I trust you'll consider it?"

    Okay, more time off school was at least tempting, especially since you were eagerly awaiting Summer Holidays at the end of next week. But other than your usual issues with flying, there was also that this was all happening over the weekend, the only time your parents were free enough for you to visit them. Yeah, your skeptical self felt that couldn't be a coincidence on Azuma's part, to the point where you started getting paranoid, wondering if he knew of and was trying to control your Social Links.
    True, you could always call your friends and family while in the States, even though international phone calls were, well, y'know.

    [x] "Okay, I'll go with you"
    [ ] "No thanks, I'm staying here"
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Definitely feeling the need to keep your eye on Kikuko, you followed her down to the Tea Ceremony Club that afternoon to talk to her about, well, things.

    For most of the club's allotted time though, it seemed like she was just giving you random tasks to keep you distracted or something. 'Highlights' included sticking you on bonsai-pruning duty, then having you practice precision calligraphy on paper thin enough that it'd rip if you tried to go back and correct anything. At least all that time spent rooming at her place meant that you'd at least had training in these fields, but then came the tea preparation.

    This being the first time you'd ever brewed, er, or 'steeped' tea, you kinda stood there with no idea what exactly to do beyond your basic method for making coffee. It didn't help that the normally perfectionist Kikuko had given you next to no instructions whatsoever, almost as if she automatically expected you to know this stuff, being a fellow Ace and one time apprentice, yet would likely yell at you if you so much as messed one thing up.
    Like, is she trying to get me back for me questioning her this morning, dueling Melissa first, or can she just not stand another Ace being in her Club? that though went through your head.

    Fortunately, while Kikuko wasn't looking, Shion sided over to you and asked, "Heya, just got off sword-polishing. Need any help?"

    You instinctively turned your head side-to-side to check Kikuko was still occupied, before saying, "Yes please, I could really use it".

    "Okay, so you see, it looks like these are gyokuro leaves, wow did Kikuko go all out. Okay, so with leaves as fine as these, what you wanna do is steep it with the temperature turned down and just for a little while, but here's the thing, you gotta do it in multiple spurts. Got that?" Shion went over.

    You were silent for a second, before saying, "Yeah, shorter and cooler, but multiple times. I think I can remember that, thanks," you nodded and smiled.

    "Oh, by the way, it's hard not to take two steps around school without hearing you're the new All-Ace. Awesome, so what's that like?" Shion beamed at you.

    You had to sigh. "It's really not as glamorous as it looks. Like, I guess 'cause I was only just made All-Ace, the other two still treat me like shit, even though I'm technically their equal," you let out.

    Shion at first didn't know how to take that in, but she then whispered to you, "Huh, that does sure sound like Kikuko. Hmm, I guess I can kinda understand now why Ikue ultimately turned them down, the way you put it. Ah whoops, gotta go, but hey, it looks like you've got this!" Shion gave you two thumbs up before ducking out of there, just as Kikuko was about to glance over.

    Later once you got the chance to serve the tea, your clubmates seemed to like it fine enough, there wasn't any gagging or 'Excuse me's. True, the tea itself was only one part of the ceremony, but given that everything in it was closely analysed, getting even one part right was something of a relief.

    "Hmm, the tea itself isn't bad, Nakamura, quite impressive for your first try," Kikuko complimented you.

    Yeah, no thanks to you, you had to think.

    "However, your pouring of the tea, and the stance you take while serving it, could clearly use work," Kikuko was quick to mutter, though since you'd barely spilled anything, you had to wonder what she was talking about. She then had to add, "I could let this slide coming from a Jack, but it's uncharacteristically poor form from an Ace".

    "Hey, like your form is any better, Maeda," you could hear one of your clubmates murmur.

    "Look, I'm no Ace insider," Shion finally had to talk some sense into Kikuko, "But have some respect, won't you? Honoka's your equal now".

    Even Na-Rae had to react to this. While not saying anything, she still glanced knowingly at you.

    Feeling the gazes of at least half the club turn on her, Kikuko, trying to keep herself composed, then said, "Anyway, it is close enough to the bell. Perhaps it would be prudent to suspend activities here for the day".

    You were surprised to see that many people question Kikuko back, Wasn't like a third of the school fighting for her sake on Monday, including most of this Club? Or no, that could explain otherwise, that maybe all that stupid fighting, plus Melissa's death finally got people to start being wary of her?

    Either way, you waited till everyone else had filed before you had to speak with Kikuko in private.
    "Kikuko, look, you lost control of your own Shadow. Like, I know from Niijima-sensei and Kujikawa-sensei that there is a greater Persona-user community out there, I've even seen books on Cognitive Psience. I'm telling you, you need to seek professional help, for your own sake! You've got more than enough money for it" you looked straight at her as you told her.

    "Are you insisting I'm weak?" she hissed at you.

    "I'm insisting you're gonna end up a vessel for your own Shadow if you keep going down this route! Like, do you wanna hand Azuma the Gameboard on a platter?" you kept pressing on her, before saying "What you're doing, planning to charge back into battle like nothing's happened, that's not courage, that's basically suicide! Please Kikuko, take it from your former Jack".

    Kikuko just stood there seething for a minute, before she had to say, "Fine, I'll meet with those teachers on the way out, see if they have anything to say about the subject".

    She was soon able to contact Makoto and Rise and have them meet with you two in the Prized Pupil Lounge. Both of them looked kind of awkward accepting refreshments from Na-Rae and Shinsuke, them being a maid and butler after all, but Makoto kept professional as she asked, "Alright, Maeda, I take it there's a reason you brought us here?"

    Kikuko didn't know what to say at first, but eventually mumbled out, "You've been told I lost control of my Persona, right? given you have contacts to the greater Persona community, I was hoping you could put me in touch with a professional Cognitive therapist".

    Makoto hesitated a little, but then said, "I do know one name back in Tokyo. I did hear something your group going all the way over to Los Angeles for Lilian's funeral, perhaps you could stop by his practice on the way, assuming you have time?" she then wrote down his number and address for you.

    "I know quite a few people who could count as cognitive therapists, well, none of them do it professionally, but still. While we still keep in touch, we're kinda scattered all over Japan right now. What's important is our main piece of advice," Rise said to Kikuko, "That, well, at the heart of things, all you have to do is accept your Shadow for who you are, then it'll accept you too. Do that, and you'll have Persona back like that".

    "Hoo boy," you had to let out, "Kikuko accepting her Shadow would mean her admitting she's basically Melissa in denial, a person she hated enough to stab. Yeah, you can see the problem there".

    "That's..." Kikuko began, leaving you trembling at what she was about to say, "Not even the full extent of it. I don't know what exactly my Shadow said to you, Honoka, but its source of power is proof it comes from more than just whatever I may feel for Melissa".

    Makoto groaned at this backtracking, before saying, "Well, that therapist I know is certainly well-versed in his field, I can ensure he'll at least do soemthing".

    Kikuko just nodded at that, before calling her maid with, "Yomogi, we'll take our leave now. Niijima, Kujikawa... I do at least appreciate your support".

    The easiest thing for Kikuko would be to just not touch that board anymore, you thought, but naturally it occurred to you, Of course, her pride means that's easier said than done. Plus her Shadow's still going off to run around on there, meaning Azuma or anything else could still target her.
    I can't put off meeting with the Morrigan any longer, now that the door in Himawari's Empire is open. It may be the only way to get out of this without further deaths...

    - The Empress has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

  17. #57
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    LVII. The Morrigan

    Once everyone had left, you then rang up Himawari for a quick talk. You were now heading into her Empire without her, using it to finally meet with the Morrigan, so you felt getting her approval first was only right.

    "Ah, hey there, Himawari!" you began, before taking a more serious tone, "Listen, have you ever heard of The Morrigan, ah, in relation to the Gameboard?"

    "...I think I have, vaguely," she mumbled over the phone, "Think I heard Azuma bring her up once or twice, I was eavesdropping on him at the time though".

    "She's reportedly the one behind the whole Gameboard, and I managed to arrange a meeting through Popo with her. Thing is, she'll only meet me at the deepest depths of an Empire, and the only one of those I even have access to is yours," you explained "On top of that, she told me I have to come alone".

    "Oh wow, that's... probably the best news I've heard about the Gameboard in a while. Sure, go ahead," Himawari said, "I mean, I don't think any of the other Aces would've ever asked my permission for something like, well maybe Rin but, y'know. Besides, you've already seen basically every side of me already, so hmhm, why not?" she then purred.

    "Eh, thanks, you've really helped me out," you smiled, even though you were over the phone, "We may be able to resolve the Persona Game without another death... hopefully, anyway".

    You then headed into Himawari's Empire, which blanketed by snow looked almost like a town out of a Christmas special. You first made your way over to her Arena, her dethroned Arena, which having unfolded from its concert hall self the last time you were there, now resembled a quaint town square with a bunch of snowmen and ice sculptures, each of which resembled Nightshade, Himawari normally, and all those new alter-egos like Symphonie Metallique she'd brought up, and a rotunda in the middle for a band to perform on.
    Right in the middle of this rotunda was a pitch-black iron gate with a dark purple aura, which you inspected the other side of only to find it seemingly didn't lead anywhere. As you approached this gate, the Devil Tarot card flashed in front of it and caused it to unlock itself, revealing...

    You gasped, as right through this final gate was that same white void you'd seen in both Azuma's and Melissa's Empires. Your knees were left shaking, but a voice then entered your head and told you, 'Come now, don't be shy. This is the very meeting you've been waiting for, correct?'

    Not knowing what else to do, you took a deep breath and then charged blindly into that white void. A way inside your eyes did open again, to see you weren't the only thing in this void. Both that cave-chapel and the mirrored theatre span around you in the blankness as images, and peering further you could also glimpse Gakuto's AI graveyard, and Eitaro's 'library' of burning books.
    A little further on, you ran into none other than Melissa, Gakuto, and Eitaro themselves, though with their faces completely blanked out, all their remains could do was float on past you.

    <<BGM: Rayman 3 - Land of the Livid Dead medley>>

    Having to catch your breath, having no idea how long or far you'd been running in here, you felt your foot step down on something solid. You turned around to see you'd arrived at what looked like the cobblestone entrance to a vine-strewn café, almost straight out of Paris or Buenos Aires, although with the sign above it written in what you estimated was Irish Gaelic. This wasn't anywhere you'd been to before; the closest thing was maybe a very idealised version of Café Okumura.

    Entering, you looked around to see that all the other customers and staff you, er, all Shadows you'd seen before on the Gameboard. For instance, you could see Forneus and Decarabia huddled around a table deciding what to eat, Berith and Eligor riding around to take customers' orders, and Atalanta employed working the coffee machine.

    You nervously sat down yourself to look at the menu, having to wait a little for it to translate itself magically or psychically from Irish to Japanese. Once you did, you almost wished it hadn't, as every single item on the menu involved corvids in some way. Raven wings, magpie breast, blue jay omelets, even the coffees and teas all had these birds' eggs cracked into them. Granted, you had heard countries like Sweden and Vietnam did put eggs in coffee, but still..

    'Kept you waiting, didn't I?' that voice said again, before suddenly a whole murder of crows flew in and flocked together, merging into a suit of spiked, gothic armour like you'd expect a Dark Lord to wear. Raising their visor, they revealed themselves to be...

    "T-Tanizawa-sensei?!" you exclaimed.

    What appeared to be your homeroom teacher then removed her dark helmet, before having to giggle. "Hmm, yes and no, Honoka," she started with, before looking down at herself and saying, "Sorry, looks like I'm really inappropriately dressed for a café setting, kinda embarrassing. Hold on a second, won't you?"

    Spared the sight of watching your 'teacher' change clothes in front of you, her outfit automatically morphed with a click of her fingers into a sleek red coat with a white blouse, jet black skirt and knee-length boots. Most strikingly, her hair from a straight black to a wavy silver.
    "Congratulations of making it this far, Nakamura Honoka," she said with a distinctly more Celtic brogue, "Pleasure ta finally be meeting my most accomplished warrior without having to hide behind false identities. Indeed, I am Mor-Rioghain Macha, the High Queen of this Gameboard, as you call it. Hmm, suppose I should probably explain what the whole business with myself being Ryouko, shouldn't I?" she smiled and extended her hand.

    "I'll say" you mumbled, while trying to keep smiling and accepting her handshake.

    - Judgment has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    "It was no coincidence that Tanizawa Ryouko, the mortal form I take when dormant, first started teaching at Hanataba around the time the All-Aces discovered what my Gameboard truly was. My connection with Ryouko is a little more mystical in nature than being alters like Himawari and Nightshade are. I am fully aware of being her, yet she has no knowledge of being me, or of the Gameboard at all beyond it being some antique in the Aces' possession. Far as she knows, a mere high school teacher with a guitar hobby and a would-be ice skater lover is all she is. If I am to watch over the All-Aces in the corporeal world as well as on the Gameboard, this is the only fair arrangement." the Morrigan elaborated.

    All the memories you had of Ryouko came flooding back, each of them now in a whole new light. "Wow, and Nightshade still had to drop you from the band." it came to you.

    "Oh, I don't blame her, she likely has enough reasons ta be resentful of me," the Morrigan chuckled, then said, "Of course I know full well that's hardly the only question ya have, but hmm, maybe we could do with a change of setting? Since now I don't think a cafe's the best place for a tell-all".

    The café you were in disappeared back into the void, before you found yourself sitting at your desk in class. Looking around, you all the other desks each had a crow perched on them, and while Tanizawa-sensei was by the blackboard as normal, the drawing on it, that of a Gameboard with some writing again in Irish, definitely wasn't.

    "Step on up, Class Rep. You had a question to ask?" 'Ryouko' sent chills down your spine just by speaking in her usual voice.

    "Er, yeah," you mumbled, your moment having finally arrived, "Okay, since I've grown a lot more popular at the school, ah, how come I still don't have an Empire?"

    'Ryouko' had to laugh at that, before she told you, "I can see you haven't done your homework. No Empire? Come on, Honoka, you've been building up an Empire since you got here, even if it's admittedly not as obvious as the others." She then tapped the board and explained, "As you've ventured into each Empire and triumphed over their respective All-Aces, you have conquered swathes of each under your own banner. Unlike the other Empires, you don't command it to conform to any one image and are content, intent, to let your subjects be themselves, for yours is an Empire that values Possibility and Acceptance".

    You bit your lip, as the weight of those words flooded into you. Rather than follow up on that, you instead asked something else, "Okay, another. Why was I chosen to carry the Wild Card then?"

    "Because no other Arcana would suit you better," 'Ryouko' told you, "Well, guess I could think of a couple of others, but my goddess intuition in the end decided a Fool was what you were the most. In Mirror Form specifically, because well, I'd already gone to the effort of awakening each Aces' Persona and didn't want to see that work go to waste. Okay I had Poe do it, but still.
    But I suppose you're wanting to know why I even gave you a Persona in the first place, let alone the Wild Card?" she shifted topic, "Simply put, each All-Ace being locked into a particular vision may be what gives their Empires such power, but it is also what stops them from ever changing, from adapting. As Players on my Board, I felt it only best that a new player be introduced to burst the bubble the Aces had blown up around themselves, to make them interact with and acknowledge people outside their chamber for a change".

    It was then the classroom broke apart like a dollhouse being disassembled, as you found yourself standing atop a windswept grassy moor, clouded but without rain, with you surrounded by menhirs. In front of you stood the Morrigan back in her proper form, now clad in the dark gown of a Celtic noblewoman, a raven having perched on her shoulder while another nested in the folds of her dress.
    "Well now, Ace of Fools, you see me for who I truly am, an Aspect of Death. But a beautiful, poetic death, which is probably the best one to have, wouldn't you say? Hmhm, I did want you to see me like this before I left, I do have quite the amount of paperwork as Tanizawa-sensei in your mortal realm," the Morrigan smiled at you.

    "W-wait, hold on! I still have questions!" you shouted, before you stuttered out with, "W-what are we fighting this whole Persona Game for? What happens when you win the Gameboard?!"

    "Rule of All," the Morrigan simply stated, more cryptically than she had before, though she was pressed for time, "If you still desire to know more, you know now where to find me. Oh, and also, I have a little favour to ask. Do give my regards to Gumi, for even if I've had many lovers over my existence, they are still such a dear".

    The next thing you knew, you were back at that little pavilion in Himawari's Empire. As you got your bearings, you then saw Popo flutter up to you, landing on a wooden rail, and say, "Ah, well, so how did it go, Miss 'Onoka? The meeting, that is".

    You sighed out and said, "I think better than I expected it to go, but still, boy was that a curveball".

    - Judgment has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    After that, you had no idea how things could go back to normal. Still, you had Friday coming up, which offered:

    [x] Occult Club.
    [ ] Drama Club.
    [ ] Hanging out with Reina.
    [ ] Class Rep duties for... Ryouko?
    [ ] Part-time at the Tabletop store.
    [ ] Part-time at the Sweets store.
    [ ] The Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    - [ ] The Morrigan.
    [ ] Write-in.

    And in the evening:

    [x] Meeting up with Megumi.
    [ ] Cleaning with Na-Rae.
    [ ] Inspecting Gakuto's stuff with Koyomi.
    [ ] Training at the Tsutsuji Dojo.
    [ ] Studying.
    - [ ] Write-in study partner.
    [ ] Sleeping.
    - [ ] Write-in sleepover call.
    [ ] The Gameboard.
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    - [ ] The Morrigan.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Trying to resume your regular morning routine in your new, most irregular private dorm, you then headed out of the lounge and tried down take the stairs down to Class 2-C as normal, even if being in that class would never feel normal again.

    You weren't pleased to see that, on your way there, you were stopped again by Azuma as he said to you, "Good morning, Ace of Fools. To make light conversation, have you had any thoughts about anointing a Jack yet?"

    You clenched your teeth as he asked you that. You knew Colette was out, you couldn't do that to her, and part of you honestly didn't want to bring anyone further into the All-Aces period. But your thoughts did keep coming back to:

    [ ] Reina.
    [ ] Suzako.
    [ ] Yuya.
    [ ] Takako.
    [ ] Hotaru, if possible.
    [ ] Ikue, if she'd even accept.
    [ ] Mamiko.
    [ ] Shion.
    [ ] Colette. Yeah she'd hate it, but it might be for her own good, improve her image at school.
    [x] Nobody. If Himawari was in no rush to pick a Jack, why should you be?
    [ ] Write-in.

    Even still, you felt uncomfortable telling Azuma about your pick, as your mind automatically went to all the ways he could use that info for his own ends. So to him you just said, "No, not yet really," and tried to walk on.

    Azuma then grabbed your arm, making you shudder all over. "Honoka, pleasantries over, there is something I've been meaning to tell you. I told you I'd arranged for you to become an Ace due to your ever-rising popularity. That is true, but it's not the whole story.
    As Jack of Swords, Kikuko was training you in the way of the warrior, was she not?" he rhetorically asked, "Calligraphy, horse-riding? Well, I presume you'd also be familiar with wakashudo from your History classes, hmm?"

    That left you silent for a moment, before you told him, "Yeah. I mean, my roommate, ah, former roommate's X-gender, so of course I'd know".

    "It was my deduction that, had I not gotten you out of her grasp, Kikuko would've eventually used you for her sexual gratification," Azuma told you outright, "Notice I did not use the term 'romantic'. I've been acquainted with Kikuko three years now, so I can confirm that 'love' is a feeling she is simply unable to comprehend. But she comprehends power perfectly, hence her desire for a dynamic where she rules over you".

    "...Yeah, speak for yourself," you muttered beneath your breath, before saying more clearly, "Er, well thanks for doing that, I guess," Assuming you're telling the truth at all, "Gotta get to class now though".

    "Why naturally, it wouldn't do for a newly-risen Ace to be tardy," Azuma had to laugh.

    Sighing with relief to get away, you walked into Class 2-C and on meeting your teacher again, immediately embarrassed yourself with "Oh hi, er, Good Morning Morr- ah, I mean Ryou- sorry, I mean Tanizawa-sensei!" you bowed deeply.

    "...You feeling alright, Honoka?" your teacher asked staring blankly at you.

    * * *

    You sat in silence throughout your classes, ashamed of yourself for almost revealing something of that magnitude. But at least you had one non-Ace person at school you could talk about Gameboard stuff with.

    <<BGM: Rozen Maiden - Noble Dolls>>

    At Occult Club that afternoon, Hitoshi and Ibuki beamed at Colette, Masaomi beaming as much as he was able to, as they said "We've finally got our Haunted House design finished!"

    Inspecting the blueprints they had for it, Colette smiled and said, "My, it's quite inspired. Of course, there is the matter of actually constructing it, but we could all use a pastime to fill up our Summer vacation. Great work, all of you!"

    You did have to ask though, "Er, what doing your book tour and stuff? Oh wait, uh, guess I shouldn't have brought that up, I don't know if your book's even published yet", you looked down.

    Colette chuckled to herself, "That is where you're wrong, my Honoka," she then smiled as she pulled out copies of her first published novel, Sisters of the Blood Moon, "Here you go, my children of the night, a signed copy for each of you. The cover isn't personally what I would've gone with, but I suppose it gets the atmosphere across".

    As you took your copy, you noticed Colette had also slipped in a bookmark along with it, in the form of a Tarot card:

    [ ] Judgment (Ragnarok)
    [x] Death (Niflheim)
    [ ] Fortune (Panta Rhei)
    [ ] The Tower (Narukami)
    [ ] Temperance (Megidolaon)
    [ ] The Sun (Atomic Flare)
    [ ] The Hermit (Psycho Force)
    [ ] The Hanged Man (Riot Gun)
    [ ] The Hierophant (God Hand)
    (Available Personae: Arachne, Ishtar, Black Frost, Carmilla, Mayasura)

    While so far it was all good times at the Occult Club, mostly spent listening to Colette reading the first couple of chapters, once you had some alone time with her, things took a less sunny tone.

    "Honoka, there's- something I must make clear to you," Colette sighed out, "About my book, while it's now out in stores, the publisher told me it's not selling up to the standards they'd projected for the release. Of course, I'll try to keep my spirits up, perhaps it's simply a late bloomer? Or I'll have better luck with my next book?"

    Feeling a little pained to hear that from Colette, you did try to comfort her with, "Hey, I went from total nobody to one of the most popular kids at school, so hey, I ought to know a thing or two about late bloomers," as you smiled.

    Colette's expression did slowly pick back up hearing that, as she then said, "Well, it appears you and my clubmates certainly have taken to it, so for now, that really should be all I need to hear".
    Spirits having lifted, the two of you leaned in for another kiss. Colette however then had to say, "Well, given your troubles with this 'Gameboard' of the All-Aces', as well as the indignity of now being one yourself, I suppose troubles like this must now seem awfully petty to you", she then chuckled.

    Smiling and taking her little joke, you then said to her, "Perhaps you'd like me to show you around the Gameboard? I know it's layout pretty well, so I should be able to take you to all the safe zones on it. Have to be careful the Aces don't catch me sneaking you onto it though".

    Colette grinned from ear-to-ear hearing that, saying, "Ooh, how scandalous! With you, of course I'd love to see it for myself, such a sightseeing tour could in fact put to rest the thoughts I've said since I was first exposed to the All-Aces".

    It didn't exactly help though that, as you and Colette walked along the hallways, you attracted quite a bit of attention from the other students, who started whispering amongst themselves.

    "Wait, isn't she that creepy girl who got suspended for punching Gakuto?"

    "Hold on, if the new Ace is cool with her, maybe... she's not so bad?"
    "She definitely has style, I'll say that"

    "Heard something about a student here having a book published..."

    You sighed with relief hearing some of those words, knowing there was a chance that Colette's unfair reputation at school could finally be improved. Helped you hadn't heard a single nasty whisper about her gender.

    Approaching the All-Aces' Lounge, Colette flinching with disgust on seeing that door, you could confirm the coast was clear for now. You walked right up to the Gameboard with Colette, as your right hand held her left tightly, while your card materialised in your left, which you then placed down.

    With a rush and a blur, the two of you had appeared right in the centre of the Gameboard, with Colette becoming incredibly dizzy as this was her first time. Once she'd gotten herself back together, she gasped with awe.
    "So, so it was true. There truly is a pocket dimension right here at Hanataba Gakuen," she exclaimed with excited energy, before mumbling, "Though no surprise that the All-Aces had to hoard it for themselves.
    Well now, ahem, as an outsider to this board, I take it there are only so many questions I can ask about this place?" Colette then looked at you.

    You shrugged. "No, ask anything you like. Honestly, I still don't know all the secrets of this place myself", you told her.

    As you two started walking, yourself grateful that the Morrigan wasn't sending any Shadows specifically out for Colette, she asked off questions rapid-fire, "What is the purpose of this place? Who is behind it? How did it end up at Hanataba?"

    "Whoa hey, like I know you're excited, but slow down," you had to say to her, before you breathed deep and then explained, "The Gameboard is, er, don't think there's a non-convoluted way of putting this, a realm manifested from human willpower. the more influence you have, the bigger your own personal realm here, or 'Empire', grows. So yeah, that's why the All-Aces came to rule the roost here. Thing I thought might be up your alley is, even when you die, your Empire can live on as long as your influence does. Like, Rin's Empire is still here, though I definitely wouldn't recommend casually going there".

    Speaking of dead Empires, having walking carefully through No One's Land you'd started climbing up the steep hill that led to your first. The crumbled remains and shattered strength of Eitaro's Empire lay spread out before you, its walls broken through, its monuments split in twain, even its mountains dissolving in a series of landslides. The Colosseum that stood at the heart of it was now wracked with the dust of ages, even though it looked brand new at the start of this year.

    "Nothing beside remains round the decay," Colette had to quote upon seeing it.

    Walking back down to show her next dethroned Empire, you then started upon the subject of the Morrigan with her.
    "The Morrigan, well it's her title technically, her name proper is Macha. Anyway, she's the Overseer, or 'High Queen', behind this entire Gameboard, an Aspect of Death and War. Even though this entire place is built around conflict, she's a pretty nice person, weirdly enough, if maybe a bit too cryptic," you rambled on. "You've actually met her Colette, she's someone you know quite well, just not by that name".

    "Really, who?" Colette leapt to asking, pulse pounding.

    "You're not gonna believe it. It's Tanizawa-sensei," you revealed to her.

    Colette did have to look at you funny for a second, saying, "Really? Hmm, I feel that raises more questions than it answers".

    "Well, you see, the Morrigan knows she's Ryouko, but Ryouko doesn't know she's the Morrigan, her memories are sealed off when she's in that form," you put it the quickest way you could to her, "Says she does it to make the competition between the Aces more 'fair' or something, while still overseeing them in the corporeal world. Yeah, I don't get it either".

    Worming through a trench, you then came to the glitchy mess that'd been Gakuto's Empire, which you figured Colette would be especially interested in.
    "So goes the lands of the Phisher King," Colette had to remark, "Though were I a subject in a land one with Gakuto, I'd move out immediately, in fact you could say I did. Yes, I know he's dead," she then sighed, "So even after everything he pulled, perhaps it's not polite to be speaking of him like this. I'm still proud of that pun though".

    "Thing about him being dead is, you can say whatever you want about him really, and he's not gonna mind," you instead told her, "Besides, if you died and he lived, do you think he'd sincerely say anything nice about you?"

    "Ah, good point," Colette responded.

    Melissa's Empire was next, as Colette then started asking about how the Gameboard come into existence, and how it'd come to Kuchinashi of all places.
    "Absolutely no idea," you put it to her bluntly, "But if I had to guess, it seems like it's been around since forever really, or at least as long human wills have come into conflict with each other. As for what it's doing here, the likely explanation is some rich guy, maybe a one-time All-Ace, came across it in the antiques trade or whatever and stashed it at his alma mater".

    Over the rolling dunes, you then reached the dead, lightless chain of malls that was Melissa's Empire. "Hmm, I'm beginning to notice a theme with these Empire," Colette said, "They all appear stuck in the past. Whether it be Eitaro's mashup of various ancient architectures, or more recently Gakuto's and now Melissa's being right out of the 1980s. Guilty as charged of course, given my dress sense".

    "Well they're all from like traditional families, I'd be surprised if these places weren't a little old-fashioned," you figured. "I can confirm that motif holds up for the remaining Empires too, though not sure about my own exactly".

    "Wait, so you also have an Empire?" Colette exclaimed, "Well why have we not visited there first? Hmm, perhaps you're saving it for last?"

    "How to explain... I did show you my Empire. All this, well the parts of the Gameboard we've been checking out so far, apparently all are my Empire, or so the Morrigan tells me. The thing about the Aces that I guess you know already is, they insist everyone and everything conform to their vision. Me, on the other hand, I'm cool with mostly anything, if I do say so myself, so my Empire leaves the constructs here as they are," you told her, "Downside is it's a little more invisible though, like oh God, how many people need to be told that they have an Empire, huh?" you giggled with Colette.

    Walking back over, Colette asked you, "If the All-Aces are duelling each other, then what's the grand prize at the end? I imagine there must be one, for all this seems excessive for just rule of the school, or is this really all stress relief for them?"

    "The answer I got was just 'Rule of All', which yeah, could use clarification," you muttered out, "Like, what 'All'? All the school, all the world, all the friggin' universe? Yeah, some answer".
    You made your last stop on the board at Himawari's dethroned Empire, as you explained to Colette, "Because all these Empires are based on your influence, it's possibly to lose yours without dying. That's what happened here, as Himawari getting expelled meant her reputation took such a hit that her own Empire went kaput. Shame though, as you would've really liked the place before it got dethroned, but who knows. Himawari's looking pretty good right now, so maybe she can get her old Empire back?"

    "Indeed, here's hoping," Colette said, before she turned to you, "I take it time doesn't exactly stand still o this Gameboard, does it not? So we'd have to be getting back soon, huh?"

    "Yeah, but one last thing," you said, before summoning Theodora over you. "I told you I can use more than one of these Personae, right? And that Shadows and Personae are basically the same things? Well," you then switched your Persona over to Carmilla, "This here's your own Shadow, Colette. She, you helped me out a lot when Gakuto was trying to invade Himawari's Empire, so I thought you two should finally meet".

    At the sight of Carmilla, Colette smiled, then rushed over to hug you.

    "Thou art I... I art thou
    Though thy kingdom fall, thou hast gained a champion who shall not leave thy side
    We bestow upon them a piece of thy crown,
    And on thou, the road to Aradia, Ultimate Persona of the Moon Arcana"

    - The Moon Journeys Anew at Rank 10! -

    "Well, guess we should be going, huh Colette?" you then said.

    "Oh please, 'Colette' is my pen name," she giggled, then said, "You, my love, can call me Tsukiko. Or Miyabi, like I did tell you it wasn't easy to pick a name, I am leaning more towards Tsukiko though. Though my last name's going to be a whole other issue, no way am I keeping 'Koizumi'".

    "How about Nakamura?" you then had to say, before laughing and asking, "Sorry, too cheesy of me?"

    Colette just embraced you again.

  18. #58
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    LVIII. The Counselor

    Materialising back in the Prized Pupil Lounge, Colette then said, "Well Honoka, that was quite the excursion. But alas, it is perhaps time to retire for the night".

    <<BGM: Umineko - The Candles Dance>>

    "What is she doing in here?!" you could hear Kikuko's voice roar out the instant she spotted Colette by the Gameboard.

    Shit, you'd forgotten about being spotted upon leaving the Gameboard. "Leave her alone, Kikuko, she's with me!" you told her directly.

    "Ah, thank you, Honoka. I do believe it'd be best to see myself out though" Colette had to say for her own safety, as she scurried out of the room while Kikuko glared right at you.

    "Insolent brat! Have I, have we taught you nothing? Is this how you respect the solemnity of the All-Ace title, by bringing the lowest of the low straight into our sanctum?!" she hissed at you.

    "Huh, you know you Aces have a habit of doubling down on your awfulness the moment it looks like you're finally improving," you hissed at her, "As for the 'solemnity of the title', listen to yourself, Kikuko. You're part of some high school clique, that's all you're not world-leaders or anything, no matter what the Gameboard tells you. The second you graduate, all this All-Ace shit won't matter anymore.
    Besides, I'm your equal now, whether you acknowledge it or not. Therefore, if I say something's appropriate for an All-Ace, it is so," you spat out at her.

    Kikuko drew her sword and almost screamed out, before Azuma quickly leapt between you two and told her, "Not here. We have protocols for matters like these, remember?"

    Kikuko then paused and took a breath, then said to you in a colder tone, "That's right, there's nothing else for it. Eitaro was a mere commoner, yet upon rising to the rank of Ace he knew to show respect. You, however, have displayed every single trait I despise in social climbers".

    "Maybe if any of you ever gave me a reason to respect the title, I would," you retorted.

    "That does it!" Kikuko seethed, doin the one thing you hoped she wouldn't but feared she would. She called on her Empress card and threw it in front of you, saying "Let's finish this. Nakamura Honoka, I stoop to challenging you to a Duel!"

    Aghast, you only gradually said, "Kikuko, you-you moron. Can't you understand this is exactly what Azuma wants? Like, Duel him if you keep insisting on Duelling anyone, that way the Gameboard can be yours or at least won either way. What the hell do you have to gain from duelling me, other than risking your life twice?"

    "You're aware I'm right here, aren't you?" Azuma had to speak up.

    "It's not only about strategy," Kikuko snarled at you, her sword pointed near your chest, "It's about my goddamn dignity. Whatever world comes about at the conclusion of the Persona Game, it would be an insult for ungrateful vermin to live to see it," she sheathed her blade then strode off.

    You could've collapsed. Your only hope right now was that this cognitive therapist Makoto knew would be able to talk some sense into Kikuko, getting her back to a state of mind where she'd realise how stupid this whole Duel was. If only.

    "Next Friday, I believe your duel will fall on," Azuma said, "How convenient, it's the last complete day before the summer break. And when Tanabata falls too, fancy that".

    You couldn't head over to Megumi fast enough, you need anything to get your mind off this.

    Kikuko, please... snap out of this.

    - The Empress has Journeyed to Rank 8! -

    You probably needed to eat dinner first, like if you were hanging out with Megumi again, maybe you could go for something while you were out together.

    [ ] Ramen, help you prepare for college life. [+Perception]
    [ ] Cake and ice cream, double as dessert. [+Etiquette]
    [ ] Sea urchin, you know summer's the season for it. [+Education]
    [x] Let Megumi decide. [+Resolve]
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<BGM: The 88 - At Least It Was Here (Piano)>>

    As it turned out, the community college Megumi attended over in Hakodate had at least enough funds to come with its own café, which was a relief on your part given Megumi's built-up tolerance for the most bargain-bin of konbini foods. They'd gotten themselves a coffee despite it being the evening already, you figured their studies had them pulling another all-nighter, while you'd just gone with a salted serve of squid.

    "Oh God, oh no, you're one of those Aces now?" Megumi sounded deflated as you broke the news to them, their hand briefly in their hands, "Well, at least being their official equal means that they'll treat you better... oh wait, forgot for a second who I'm talking about".

    "Yeah, I got yelled at a couple of hours ago for bringing Colette into their Lounge, so your second guess is correct" you sighed. Plus some... other stuff.

    "Yeah, figured," they quickly revised their observation, "They're all traditional types, right? Like back in feudal times, sure samurai might've been super-loyal to their retainers, but between equals, hoo boy, it was backstabbing-a-plenty. Okay, I really only remember the Sengoku Jidai from History, but still".

    Oh, you don't know the half of it, you had to think, before you segued into, "Kinda had to expect that, but I definitely wasn't expecting how the regular students would react. Yeah, the crowding and adoration I did see coming a bit, but what got me was the sudden nasty stuff I caught people saying behind my back. Y'know, leech, Aces' pet, stealing Azuma away, murderer, crap like that. I guess becoming an All-Ace painted a bigger target on me for those remarks, or maybe the title's been tarnished enough already, but like, I've barely seen any other Ace go through all that".

    "I imagine you'll know you're in trouble when people start giving you shit for having a boyfriend, even though you were only just talking to some guy," Megumi picked up on.

    You then looked back down at your food and had to ask, "Hey, about Ryouko. Er, not meaning to pry, but have you noticed her eating a lot lately? Like, y'know, eating for two?"

    Megumi twitched at that, then replied, "Yeah, how'd you know? But hey, I don't judge her for it, she's one of those girls who can keep on eating without it making any real impact on their weight, you know the type. Not me though, wasn't till college that I started slimming down, and even then I ended up going too far in the opposite direction. Back to Ryouko, have to add I don't appreciate having to run to the store twice as often though," they grumbled.

    "Ah yep, that checks out," you nodded, before you smiled, "Kind of a funny coincidence that we'd end up in the same flat by chance, yet both hit it off with goth girlfriends, huh?"

    That comment made Megumi tilt their head at you, "Erm, what are you talking about? I wouldn't say Ryouko's that goth, well besides that latex nun costume while she was with Nightshade, but that was months ago".

    Biting your lip, you quivered as you replied with, "Oh yeah, must've had that costume on my mind from all that rehearsal time, that's all". Haha Megumi you are banging my Overseer.

    Dinner done with, you walked around this community college some more, Megumi having already shown you the stark white lecture hall. Next up was the glass-paneled library, and while not having the collection Sapporo's did, let alone the bookstores in Kanda, there was at least some local history and course-related stuff that did catch your attention, like a book on the 1512 Ainu Rebellion.

    "Any books on Los Angeles?" you suddenly broke it to Megumi out of nowhere, quickly saying, "Okay, sheesh, how to explain? Guess you heard about Melissa's death, right? Yeah, tomorrow I'm being flown out to the US to attend her funeral, and oh man I am not looking forward to eleven or so hours in the air".

    "At least they gave you something of a heads-up this time," Megumi had to say, "And honestly LA just makes me think of traffic more than anything else, and I haven't even been there. Wouldn't mind checking out the Pacific Northwest if I could, or San Fran if it had to be somewhere in California".

    "Yeah, I remember Colette saying that the US wouldn't be her first choice of country, but if she went there, either Massachusetts or Louisiana would be her priorities," you added, "I was in Tokyo with Colette a little while back, so I'd say I've had training for the traffic".

    "Wait, thought Melissa was Texan? Why's her funeral being held in California?" Megumi then asked.

    You paused to think exactly why, before coming up with, "I think the cemetery in question, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, may have a lot to do with it. Quick Internet search told me a whole lot of celebrities are buried there, in both Glendale and Hollywood Hills, the latter being Melissa's pick. Also know that Melissa's relationship with her father and stepmother was... strained, so I guess she'd want her final resting place to be a fair distance away from them".

    Megumi winced at that. "Boy, I can relate. Well, not so much with the funeral thing, but I can more than understand wanting to be away from your parents. That is part of why I went flat-hunting in Kuchinashi, well that and prices being cheaper, think I told you that last one," they went over. Checking their phone, they then said, "Well, looks like this Forest Lawn place is in a good location, y'know, for the dead. You've got Universal, Warner Bros, and Disne- er, Destiny Studios all nearby, plus the LA Zoo, Mulholland Drive, even the friggin' Hollywood sign. Beats Texas State I guess".

    Walking outside and down an avenue, the two of you came upon the college's swimming pool. "Yeah, was surprised we even had one. Technically it's closed for tonight right now, but I could sneak you in easily enough if you fancy a dip. Don't think anyone on campus, staff or student, would really care," Megumi told you.

    Shrugging and going along with them, since neither of you had brought swimwear of your own you had to made use of the reserve pool uniforms kept in a closet there. Naturally this pool was nowhere near the size of the one in Melissa's Empire, and unfortunately for Megumi probably couldn't double as an ice rink (or maybe it could, given the Hokkaido weather), but hey, at least this time you'd be sharing a pool with someone you could actually stand.

    You and Megumi had another one of your competitions while there, to see how many laps you could do. While you managed more in the end, Megumi came surprisingly close for an out-of-shape college student, though then again you had seen their dancing skills. After Sakhalin though, there was no way you were getting on the diving board, so that was uncontested territory for Megumi at least.

    Drying yourselves off later, you did have to tell Megumi, "Er, wanted to say, while being out of Kikuko's storehouse is great, mostly, the private dorm I'm now in, plush as it is, does kinda lack that more homely feeling".

    Megumi had to chuckle at that, "Honoka, please, my apartment's a cramped mess, there's really no need to get nostalgic for it. Plus, this way you save a bunch on travel time".

    "Well, y'know, it's not so much the apartment itself," you specified.

    - Temperance has Journeyed to Rank 6! -

    "Yeah, I get what you mean," Megumi smiled at you, "Though like, we're seeing each other right now, so you don't have to get all misty-eyed on me". They then yawned and said, "Well, I still have a bunch of stuff to study up on or whatever, but I 'spose you should probably be getting back to your dorm, though of course you could always get some sleep on the plane, you'll have time to".

    Both of you dressed once again, you then left the campus, you both having gone into a pool you weren't meant to probably contributing to your swift exit.

    * * *

    Your plan for not being reduced to a quivering wreck on the plane that day was just to not drink caffeine, which was easier said than done given the impact it had on your mood. You also spend what little free time you had that morning on the morbid activity of looking up the statistics for deaths via plane crash versus deaths via car crash, reassured by the much lower numbers for planes.

    Before the marathon flight from Japan to LA, the only stopover to your knowledge being Honolulu, you had the warm-up of the flight down to Tokyo. You had mixed feelings about being sat in-between Na-Rae and Shinsuke, as while you preferred even Shinsuke to Kikuko or Azuma, you had to factor in the symbolism of the other Aces seating you with Jacks.
    Reflexively, you dismissed that thought from your head, you didn't need to start thinking like an All-Ace.

    You spent a good while chatting with Na-Rae, not just talking about each other, but you also bringing up Suzako to her. Namely how, from memory, Suzako's room was a total mess that could use a maid, even if she couldn't afford one.
    You also picked up on Shinsuke's odd mannerisms as he was served food, rather than serving it himself, as you could tell it was something he wasn't used to.

    Touching down in Haneda, you had little to no time to go sightseeing again in Tokyo. What you, or rather Kikuko, did have though, was a chance to meet up with that cognitive therapist Makoto had recommended her to, even if it was in a secluded enough spot in the airport lounge rather than his practice proper.

    <<BGM: Persona 5R - Ideal and the Real (Lo-Fi Mix)>>

    "Oh, hello there, please, sit down. My, certainly not every day my patient is from as distinguished a name as Maeda," the brown-haired therapist smiled and chuckled at Kikuko, after finishing up a juicebox, "My name's Maruki Takuto, but you can call me Maruki, that'd be fine. Oh, I take it you'd be hungry after that flight, would you like some snacks?"

    Kikuko just glanced back at you, "This is the therapist? Why does he insist on talking to me like a child?" she hissed.

    "Er, think that's just the way all psychologists talk, from experience" you tried to answer her.

    "My apologies, I definitely never intended to make light of your situation," Maruki said, "That you were for a time consumed by your Shadow is no laughing matter, and the standard process of acceptance is no easy feat. My intent was to start by setting a cheery mood, as I doubt an atmosphere of negativity, well, would solve anything really.

    Hmm, Maeda, I'm aware we have limited time, but let's focus first on what makes you happy, or say how you ideally see yourself," he then said.

    You had to laugh, "Kikuko? Happy?!" you spurted out on pure reaction, having later to regret it.

    "Honoka, I must question why you are even overhearing this?" Azuma stared at you, "Shouldn't we give the Ace of Swords some privacy in this matter? Come, I can certainly find much to keep your interest within the meantime".

    "Oh no, I have no issues with you or Nakamura Honoka overhearing this," Maruki reassured, "Naturally, it should be Kikuko who decides though whether she's comfortable having others around, but it seems to me like this affects all three of you, Sakurazuka... Azuma..." Maruki all of a sudden lost focus on saying Azuma's name, as well as getting a close look at him. Hmm, you supposed Maruki and Azuma did look kinda alike, though you could already tell Maruki's personality was the exact opposite.

    "Hey, Azuma's a common enough name, and there'd be a few Sakurazukas going around. Maybe you're just getting him mixed up with someone else?" you had to speak up.

    Azuma, possibly reacting on instinct after you called him 'common', had to confirm, "My parents are no less than Living National Treasure Sakurazuka Munehiro and the film star Benibara Rurina, so yes, my name indeed has such gravity to it".

    "Oh, to explain," Maruki said, "I actually knew your father way back when, he was invested in my research as he had theorised a link between the art of acting and cognitive psience, what with Persona meaning 'mask' and all. My partner was personally quite the fan of his before, well, things happened. Deathdemona, oh sorry, Benibara Rurina I know had contact with some of my fellow cognitive researchers, though what her interest was I can't say".

    And yet Azuma's parents still have no idea about the Gameboard, you thought, Well, not to my knowledge.

    "Fine, Honoka and Azuma can stay for now," Kikuko said, having to draw attention firmly back onto her. "It is correct to say this concerns them too. I fail to see how talk of happiness would solve this Shadow issue, but if I must give an answer..."

    Kikuko then suddenly went silent, before the words left her mouth, "I, I honestly don't know. The closest thing I can think of is living up to my image in society, but I would say that more makes me 'content'".

    Maruki flinched. "Ah, that is certainly an issue. However, I assure you it is not an issue you alone face, overbearing parents or high expectations being something many of your fellows face. Hmm, although I've been told you are quite devoted to traditional customs at school, would you at least these bring you some joy?"

    Kikuko was silent even longer, before she brought herself to say, "No, no they don't. I devote my energies to perfecting our nation's customs, because, because it is what I've been ordered to do from birth. Because it is what's demanded of the Maeda name... the same name that says I'll never inherit it, no matter what.

    I can't get inside Melissa's head, no, I don't want to get inside Melissa's head... but from what I observed of her, she too followed her nation's expectations of a girl like her. Yet, she seemed to genuinely enjoy performing that role" Kikuko then stated.

    "Maeda, Kikuko," Maruki then surmised, "I have another question, and I apologise if it's quite a cutting one. Among your peers, is there anyone you would call your friend?"

    "No," was all Kikuko said.

    "Then maybe this can help. Whenever you see someone you know, try to train yourself to associate the word 'friend' with them, as much time as it may take. If your sense of self-definition is impaired, then investing yourself in another's happiness may help a great deal in discovering your own happiness," Maruki smiled.

    Well-intentioned as his words were, you weren't entirely sure. Expecting the worst, you didn't need Kikuko obsessing over your every move, Azuma alone was enough.

    "I can see what you're getting at," Kikuko said, before sighing, "I'm just... worried that it may be too late for that".
    "Well, guess I doesn't help that we've certainly met at an irregular time," Maruki had to say, "If we met at my office, we'd likely see even more productive results. But still, it does look like we've made some progress here. I assure you, Maeda Kikuko, you're on the first step to recovery".

    - Rebirth has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

    Maruki then suddenly looked down and said, "Er, it appears I'm all out of snacks", which made Kikuko start to slowly inch away.

    Nice as that little session was, knowing the big flight was right ahead did little to console you. You did get to thinking though about who you'd call once you reached LA, and what you'd even do there around the Hollywood Hills area... if Azuma let you.

    [ ] Phone your parents.
    [x] Reina.
    [ ] Suzako.
    [ ] Yuya.
    [ ] Megumi.
    [ ] Ryouko.
    [ ] Hotaru.
    [ ] Makoto.
    [ ] Rise.
    [ ] Takako.
    [ ] Well, you have Koyomi right in there.
    [ ] Write-in.
    [ ] Check out the views, especially from along Mulholland Drive.
    [ ] There's a whole bunch of Hollywood Theme Parks right in the area.
    [ ] There'd be a whole bunch of Studio Tours.
    [ ] Maybe head past some celebrity houses, like Heath Ledger's, Jack Nicholson's, or houses that are celebrities unto themselves, like whatever a Chemosphere is.
    [ ] Sunset Boulevard might be more your thing than Mulholland Drive.
    [ ] Griffith Observatory, might help you ace science classes when you come back.
    [x] Despite being the city, you know there's a lot of wilderness to hike around, canyon parks and such.
    [ ] You're mainly thinking about the restaurants, if anything
    [ ] Write-in.

    Your eyes widened, for if there was one way to tempt someone onto a plane, a private lounge was certainly one way to do it. Well, not a private lounge for you personally, but for the All-Aces in general, one of the first times you felt you were actually being treated like one.

    Still didn't make you any less nauseous during take-off though, especially knowing Azuma's and Kikuko's eyes would still be on you the whole time, but still better than the regular seats anyway.

    Though here was where the other shoe dropped, as naturally the main reason for the other Aces having you in here would be to put the pressure on you. "Well Honoka, we can presume by now you would've had enough time to select a Jack of your own, are we right?" Azuma said staring at you from across the cabin.

    You at first just flinched and didn't say anything, given that was a decision you'd not only been putting off, but had been wanting to put off. Gradually you were able to tell them, "Ah, well I figured that if Himawari didn't have a Jack until me, like a year or two after she became Ace, I had to assume I was in no real rush to choose anyone. So yeah, I wasn't planning to".
    "So you say," Kikuko rasped, before leaning in to hiss to you, "Or more likely this is more proof of your contrarianism. This would not be the first time you have chosen to disrespect our traditions while still attempting to reap the benefits" she glared and crossed her arms.

    "What? No! It's perfectly in line with your friggin' 'traditions'. Like I said, Himawari didn't immediately choose or anything" you stood up to protest.

    "Honoka, if I were you I'd refrain from repeatedly using Himawari of all people as an example of what is standard procedure for an All-Ace," Azuma told you firmly, "Given she was your first direct Ace, I can at least comprehend using her as your reference, but are you blind to the issue of holding up an expelled student as a paragon?"

    More a paragon than any of you are, that thought boiled in you.

    "Besides, there were numerous students clamoring to be Jack of Hearts from Day One. In fact, you weren't even Himawari's first Jack," Azuma then dropped, "Although you are the first she would want to acknowledge. Early on, one of her fellow choirgirls filled that role, but they soon drifted apart and she ultimately transferred away. In hindsight, the reasons why seem all too clear".

    It was then you had the strange thought, "Was this girl's name Ayanami Yayoi?"

    "Huh? No idea honestly, as we were given little reason to remember her" Azuma sighed at you.

    Okay, that may've been a long shot, you thought, before you tried to tell the two, "Look, I am 'honouring your traditions'. Don't you think actually taking the time to select a Jack would show more respect to the 'role of Ace' than just rushing into it?"

    "You'd assume, but part of being an Ace is already having a well-established presence at Hanataba that ensures a gathering around you, something I should have no need to tell you by now" Azuma stated.

    "And isn't it obvious your intent isn't to select a Jack in time, but not select a Jack at all, in direct defiance of us?" Kikuko muttered back.

    You then had to tilt your head at her, before bluntly saying, "Oh as if you care about traditions, Kikuko. You admitted that yourself in front of Dr. Maruki, that you just follow them because it's what everyone expects of you, not anything you'd ever give a shit about personally".

    For a second Kikuko stood up and fumed... but then she just slumped back down again, tears beginning to leak out of her eyes. "How dare you say that," she then spoke below her breath, "I should've never let you listen in on that conversation, t-that was my innermost thought I expressed there, and f-for you to take it and use it as a c-cheap shot like that!" she then had to cover her face with her hands for the tears.

    The next second though she snarled, "If I had absolute say, I would now have you rejected from the All-Aces! Ahem, however, as our decisions are made unanimously, I would need Azuma's approval for that".

    Huh, to think earlier the prospect of the Aces letting you go would've been nothing but a relief. yet now though, it was almost like you needed the title, in order to ensure the access to the Gameboard you needed to stop these Duels. If I am rejected here, er, what're they even gonna do, throw me into the Ocean? Also, 'unanimously'? Yeah right.

    "Calm yourself, Kikuko, don't we owe a great deal to Honoka for accelerating the Persona Game and breaking our little deadlock? On Friday, do whatever you will with her, as you've requested. For the time being though, the Ace of Fools remains so" Azuma talked down to her.

    You did... not know how to feel about that. On one hand, Azuma was sticking up for you, wasn't he? You had to respect that, but such would be the case for anyone doing the same, not Azuma in particular. On the other, well, it was obvious his reasons for doing so weren't the least bit noble, no matter how he phrased them.

    "Very well," Kikuko put simply, before she eyed you, "Is it too much now to ask you, Honoka, that you would show some gratitude in exchange for Azuma's favour?"

    Depends on what you would define as 'gratitude', you had to think, but you did say, "Yeah, thanks for that".

    There was silence a mite longer, before Kikuko stated, "Acceptable".

    - Lust has Journeyed to Rank 9! -

  19. #59
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    LIX. Los Angeles

    <<BGM: Pokemon Sun and Moon - Hau'oli City (Remix)>>

    After all that, it wasn't too long before you touched down in Honolulu's Inouye International Airport. There wouldn't be any time for sightseeing though, but at least enough time for a quick lunch while there, along with a phone call that felt almost like the one call you were allowed in prison.

    [x] Poi, an ancient Hawaiian porridge made from taro (kalo locally) and breadfruit. [+Etiquette]
    [ ] Malasada, a deep fried doughnut of Portuguese origin. Well, it was tempting, but hell on your arteries you imagined. [+Resolve]
    [ ] The loco moco, two eggs in gravy over a burger. You'd heard about Hawaiian cowboys, and the dish itself was quite the protein hit, apparently originally being invented for a sports team. [+Education]
    [ ] Lotta spam here you noticed, Takako had told you the same went for Okinawa. Still, it looked like Hawaii had had time to spice it up a little, for instance teriyaki spam. [+Perception]
    [ ] A Plate Lunch so you're not forced to choose. [+1 All]
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Hey Reina, calling you pretty long-distance now," you then said over your phone.

    "Oh yeah, I remember. Like, I know the All-Aces are rich enough to make a bunch of trips a year, but like, Melissa never really invited me on any..." Reina started cheery but then slipped back into a funk. Shaking herself out of it, she then asked, "Sorry, got too wrapped up in myself, I should be asking where you are now?"

    "Hawaii actually, but like, just until our flight resumes, which shouldn't be long. After that, it's all the way to Los Angeles," you told her.

    "Wow, LA? really? Oh my god, that sounds awesome, I- wait, I get it, it's for Melissa's funeral, isn't it?" Reina rose but sunk back down again.

    "Yeah, she arranged to not have it over in Texas due to... er, reasons," was all you said then.

    "And I wasn't invited, right?" those words left Reina's mouth as you anticipated.

    "Hey, if I was even allowed to, I definitely would've brought you along if I could," your instinct was to insist, "I mean, having the All-Aces drag me around everywhere, often with little if any warning, isn't exactly my idea of fun, so I definitely considered staying home with you and everyone else. But, well you know, LA and all, hard to turn down an offer like that and- ugh, I'm sorry".
    To break out of this awkward lull, you then asked Reina, "Hey look, is there anything you'd like me to bring you back from the trip, souvenirs and stuff? Or even somewhere you would've liked to visit in LA if you'd gotten the chance?"

    Part of you came to regret saying that a little, upon Reina on cue rattling off a whole list of places she'd love to go and things she'd love to do in LA. "Ooh ooh, and I'd like to see the Hollywood Sign, and the Santa Monica Pier, and Venice Beach, and the Universal Studios Tour, and Destinyland, and Rodeo Drive, and the Walk of Fame-"

    "Okay okay, slow down," you had to say, before explaining, "The thing is, we're only there one day really, and a lot of that day's gonna be okay taken up by dealing with traffic and, well, the funeral. So what I did was just look up the Hollywood Hills area, like I saw that's where Griffith Park and the Bronson Canyon are, so I figured it should be a good place for bushwalking and photos".

    "Uh yeah, I can see the appeal, but it's kinda weird that your first thought on going to LA is the nature trails. Like, isn't that more something you'd think of on heading further out in California and all?" Reina asked, "I mean, it's your time and all, guess I shouldn't be lecturing you on how to spend it like a jerk".

    "Actually, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area-" you read off a window you also had open, "Is the world's largest urban national area, so yeah, nature's still a thing there. But hey, point is, I can certainly bring you some stuff back, especially since you've given me, well, more than a few options".

    "Alright, awesome!" Reina cheered back up, before mumbling, "Ah, Honoka, do ya think some day we could ever go anywhere like that? Er, it doesn't have to be LA specifically, like if you're worried about traffic and stuff, but like, y'know, somewhere?"

    "Course we can!" you said maybe a bit too generously, given that you had no idea if you'd even live past the next week, "Once we've no longer got school and Aces and stuff to deal with.
    Oh, been meaning to ask, how're your singing lessons coming?" you then brought up.

    A sudden silence from Reina showed that may not have been the best question to ask, as she then said, "Well, Kujikawa-sensei is always polite to me and all about it, but... yeah, she has been giving off hints that, ah, she's secretly not impressed. I mean, geez, I gotta wonder if this some balance of luck thing I've paid for meeting my childhood idol, that she doesn't really like my own singing..."

    "Hey look, I know Rise, hmm, not super-well, but well enough to say that if you just ask her what issues she has with your singing, she'll be constructive about it, she's not gonna just yell at you or anything like that, that's not her" you tried to console Reina.

    "Yeah, of course, guess it was hasty of me to doubt Kujikawa-sensei like that. Thanks a bunch, Honoka!" Reina beamed.

    - The Magician has Journeyed to Rank 9! -

    "Anytime! Oh um, look, I probably gotta get going by now, and I definitely don't want Kikuko to get on my case about being late. But it was great that I got this chance to talk with you, Reina, and I'll sure bring something back" you bid goodbye.

    "Bye, Honoka!" Reina said, "And er, hope Azuma and Kikuko are nice enough to let you have some fun over in LA".

    * * *

    It was basically the dead of night when you made your way north from LA International and arrived at your hill-nestled hotel, The Parthenon. The All-Aces appeared to have picked an odd one this time, an elaborate old mansion that your jetlagged self had been told was once the estate of some tycoon in the early 20th century, having been converted into a hotel sometime after his death. At least you had some nice statues to look at as you walked, or stumbled given how tired you were, past the garden pool.

    You learned as one of the three All-Aces that you'd all be sharing a single, floor-spanning suite. Weirdly, given this suite's black wallpaper and red carpeting, it felt almost like home in a weird way. So much for that ocean-spanning flight.

    Thinking about what speech you should give, if you even got the chance to make one, at Melissa's funeral tomorrow was a thought that kept you tossing and turning throughout the night. However, you did feel your thoughts leaning towards:

    [x] Be honest. "Maybe I should've tried to reach out to Melissa, to see more where she was hurting..."
    [ ] Be gentle. "Melissa always stood out at school, and there were a great many reasons for that..."
    [ ] Be brutal. "Melissa may've been a good-looking bully, but she was still a bully. And all you here wouldn't care for her if she wasn't loaded..."
    [ ] Keep it short. "I didn't know Melissa the most, so I'm not sure how much I should say..."
    [ ] Write-in.

    Part of you thought of making another call tomorrow, but knowing who'd come along with you, another part also wanted to make some contact with the others right here:

    [ ] Phone your parents.
    [ ] Suzako.
    [ ] Yuya.
    [ ] Megumi.
    [ ] Ryouko.
    [ ] Hotaru.
    [ ] Makoto.
    [ ] Rise.
    [ ] Takako.
    [ ] You should still be able to get Koyomi on your phone out here.
    [x] Invite Kikuko along for your nature walk.
    [ ] Spend time with Na-Rae now you're both on vacation.
    [ ] If you're checking out the food here, maybe Shinsuke could help?
    [ ] Write-in.
    After getting up the next morning, you thought to have a little look around this hotel suite first, now that you weren't utterly jetlagged and were bright and ready for... the funeral, since you and the other Aces seemed to have the whole floor basically to yourselves.

    Uh yeah, you could tell from the bar and the gambling table that this suite wasn't exactly designed with high-schoolers in mind. Given that nobody was looking, you did try taking a swig from one of the bottles there, only to have to immediately spit it back out, wondering despite the label what the hell you just tried to drink.

    There were also more portraits at looked 19th century at the earliest, marble busts of some composers or artists or other, whoever originally owned them didn't appear to feel any need to label them, and to compliment them a sizable grand piano... that was roped off with a 'do not touch' sign hung around it, a quick glance over and the yellowed keys and strained strings showing its age.

    You also got to see there was a rooftop pool, which would be tempting if not for the other people you were with here. As you were in such a rush that Saturday morning that you'd forgotten to pack extra clothes, you found yourself having to settle for an outfit the Aces had already picked out for you. You shuddered knowing it was likely Azuma behind it, being too Western-looking for Kikuko, but the 19th century dress didn't look too bad on first glance.

    Until you actually tried it on, and Jesus, Is there an in-built corset in this thing or something? The dress was so stiff and uncomfortable that you had to stand still and take multiple deep breaths simply to adjust to it, if even then.

    "Do you like it?" of course Azuma's voice said from behind you, "This may be unflattering, but that dress was one of Tomomi's. But don't let that put you off, I can confirm the dress compliments you far more than it ever did my sister".

    "Did she hate it as much as I do?" you whispered. At the same time, you figured there had to be some kind of tactical incentive behind giving you a hand-me-down to wear to a funeral, even if you weren't sure what it was.

    While the suite kitchen was probably stacked enough for you or Shinsuke to cobble together breakfast yourselves, you instead chose the simpler option of heading down to check out the lobby buffet, at which you promptly got carried away adding just another croissant or cake slice to your plate along with pouring coffee after coffee. Then again, it wasn't like part of you felt especially guilty using up the All-Aces' budget.

    However, even your own breakfast splurge was tame compared to the constant devouring of another in the room with you right then. "N-Nadezhda?" you called, peering over your shoulder.

    "Huh? Oh, y-yeah, you're Honoshka, aren't ya?" the Russian heiress's eyes widened, "Ooh, I remember you from the Far East Vacation and that Sports Carnival or whatever".

    "Yeah, that's me," you mumbled, the sight of Melissa's crucifixion immediately lodging itself in your mind. "Er, I can already see how you're handling, ah, stuff, Nadezhda".

    "Ah, you were Melissa's companion, weren't you?" Azuma, having shown up in the lobby, strode towards Nadezhda and told her, "Have you been informed that we have now appointed Nakamura Honoka our new Ace?"

    "W-what?!" Nadezhda blurted out, spilling crumbs everywhere, "W-when? No, please, don't tell me you did it just after Melissa d-died?" her eyes began to well up.

    "The day after," Azuma smiled and put simply, "Ace of Fools specifically, so do not fret, it's not as if we're simply handing down Melissa's title or such," he had to chuckle, "You see, Nadia was it? It's important for institutions to keep up appearances in times of hardship, I'm sure you as company heiress can understand".

    You expected those words would do little to settle Nadezhda, and sure enough, she continued to stuff bacon and waffles into her mouth while she glared at you. "L-listen here you *gulp* little brat! You aren't even half the woman *munch* my girl Melissa was!" You then felt it best to back off as Nadezhda angrily ripped a sourdough roll with her teeth.

    Once everyone was ready, you having found Kikuko trying to balance atop one of the marble statues in the lawns, it was time to head over to Forest Lawn Cemetery for the funeral. You spotted a whole crowd of businesspeople while there, and among them Melissa's stepmother Adriana and, at the other end of the crowds, a woman who closely resembled what you imagined Melissa would look like had she lived to be middle-aged. Feeling it would be too personal to ask, you assumed this was her birth mother who, despite having been divorced by her father the moment she got too old, wasn't that bad-looking actually, in that middle-aged sort of way.

    Speaking of which, you couldn't spot Patrick anywhere around, the funeral host soon confirming that he was currently occupied at a business meeting in Nevada. Er, on a Sunday? you had to think. Kikuko's father Iemitsu wasn't anywhere around either, though even if he wasn't aware, you still felt it would be poor form for a killer's father to attend their victim's funeral... even if the stabber herself was there.
    One All-Ace parent you did spot was none other than Sakurazuka Rurina nee Benibara, currently kneeling down and crying by the burial pit, with you wondering if the people gathered here knew anything about her acting career beyond what they'd been briefly informed about beforehand. Given that Azuma wasn't even paying attention to his own mother, you figured it fell to you to go over and talk to her.

    "Hey, um, you alright?" you tried to begin by asking.

    "Huh? Ah, you'd be one of Tomomi's, Azuma's, and Melissa's friends, wouldn't you?" Rurina said as she looked up at you, drying her eyes with a handkerchief. "I, I suppose it's obvious I'm a lonely woman, but even I wasn't naïve enough to be blind the young Lilian's more, well, monetarily-inclined motivations. Still, in the dark chambers of my later years, she was still something of a new light in my life, a change in routine. Now she is gone, I, I can't help but miss her..."

    At the same time, Adriana was called up to the mic to deliver her eulogy for her stepdaughter, which she began with: "Ahem I... suppose in Melissa's eyes I was the evil stepmother, no matter how I treated her. Every time I tried to reach out to her, she kept pushing me away. I guess I can now see I was the wrong person at the wrong time in her life, given she has been taken from us, that I didn't have the strength to reach out to her. Melissa, I'm... so sorry I could never be the mother you deserved".

    That Melissa's birth mother was up next made things all the more awkward. "My own memories of my daughter are somewhat biased, her father basically threw me out of her life too soon," she said, choosing not to mention her old husband by name, "She was always on her best behaviour around me, and I never saw the woman she grew to be without me. I've heard all sorts of things about her since, but whatever people say, to me she'll always be that sweet, sunny, and eager child who loved her mother most of all".

    Then another mother was called to the podium, Sakurazuka Rurina. "I came quite late into the young Lilian's life, her being invited over to our manor by my son, her friend. Despite our countries and ages, we son found we had surprisingly more in common than would be assumed. If I may go off on a personal tangent, I feel the vibrant if hectic days of my prime have given way to stillness and darkness, up there in those solemn halls. Though she never told me do so directly, I feel Melissa has given me the inspiration to take a needed step forward in my life: that once my son Azuma graduates high school, I'll be getting a divorce" she then announced.

    Those words caught Azuma completely off-guard, sending him stumbling back as Shinsuke had to catch him. Hearing 'Melissa' and 'divorce' in the same sentence also piqued Melissa's mother and stepmother's notice. You did feel this at least explained some of the push for Tomomi to get out of the house.

    "To clarify, it is not my intent to shame my husband as of now, Sakurazuka Munehiro. He has been a dear for as long as I've known him, it's just... I know there's a world going on beyond him, a world I have to see for myself. But to bring this back to why we are gathered here, um, thank you, Melissa Lilian," Rurina concluded.

    Azuma being called to take the stage right after her hardly settled things down. It took him longer than normal to start speaking, though you could pick up on a scowl across his face, but he then said, in accomplished if a little stilted English, "At our school, Hanataba Academy, Melissa and I were part of an elite gathering of students known as the All-Aces. While not part of our original group, Melissa took the title to heart and carried it to the utmost. Anything that would dare taint this prestigious title, she would swiftly cut out of her life. Anyone who dared challenge her rank, she would confront without hesitation. While some would say otherwise," he quickly eyed Kikuko, "Melissa took full stock of our land across the ocean's hierarchical customs and structures, and that is why, in her last years, I feel honoured to have known her".

    That eulogy almost reminded you of something Kikuko would say, except not really, given you couldn't imagine her saying much if anything positive about Melissa. Speaking of which, who else but her was called up next?
    "I will do Melissa the courtesy of not sugarcoating my statement about her, for were our current positions flipped, I can tell she would do the same," Kikuko oh-so-promisingly started on, having no flowers convenient for her to eviscerate, "Do all of you gathered here know that I lost my virginity to Melissa? I suppose we were both in an impassioned mood that night, that our hatred of each other turned to not at all love, but certainly desire. I will give Melissa that, in her fleeting life, she seemed to find a contentment in her luxuries, in living up to her nation's image of what a girl should be, that has so far eluded me, but from my time with her I can tell she did envy me in return. Ultimately I must acknowledge that she is now free of me, whereas I, for the rest of my life, shall never be free of her".

    Well, er, that was a speech, was your only reaction, though the fact that Kikuko needed an interpreter up there reassured you that maybe the worst of what she'd said had been filtered out.
    You then tried to walk up to the podium yourself, only for Nadezhda to then push past you. Yet funnily enough, once she got up there in front of the crowd, she quickly froze up, before bursting into tears as she leapt off the stage to glomp onto Melissa's open coffin before it could be lowered, two security guards having to wrench her off it.

    That freed you up for you to deliver your eulogy, as looking out over the crowds, you then said: "Maybe I should've tried to reach out to Melissa, to see more where she was hurting. Azuma mentioned us All-Aces before, and I feel like some impossible ideal has been pushed onto every one of us. Melissa's attitude was that she had to be number one, that her not having something was an insult to her, and that every other girl who wouldn't grovel before her was a threat," you twitched, fearing you might be getting too carried away here, "But like I'm one to talk, I bear some of that blame myself, don't I? Like, before she in person invited me into the All-Aces, that same impossible ideal was exactly who I thought she was. My entire world blinded me and everyone else to who Melissa truly was and all we should've asked her to be, just another high school student like me. Goodbye, Ace of Coins, and please, be at peace".

    - Strength has Journeyed to Rank 9! -

    And that was it, Melissa's coffin then being sealed and lowered into the earth. Back down off the podium, you could see Adriana having started a conversation with Melissa's actual mother, which from what you picked up seemed to be going surprisingly well. You guessed them both having to put up with the same shitty husband gave them a lot of common ground.

    Meanwhile, Azuma had to confront his mother about her sudden news, "Mother, do you not realise what you've just said?" he exclaimed at her, "Well, it's obvious Melissa truly did make an impact on you. Have you no consideration for the dignity of our family's names, be it Sakurazuka or Benibara? Your little impulse talk of freedom could well see our reputations dragged into mud!"

    Rurina was backed into a corner by her son's sudden fury, before she breathed deep, stood upright, and said, "Azuma, if you care so much now about our family, then tell me, is that any way to talk to your mother? Your own friend is dead, so you should now be aware that death can still strike even in youth. So when I die, I made up my mind that I want it to be in the sunlight of the world, not in the cold darkness of the manor".

    The usually eloquent Azuma couldn't find any words to this, and just snarled and walked away. Then again, you felt, he has the Gameboard in his grasp now, so if anyone can afford to turn on their family, it's him.

    * * *
    <<BGM: Phantom Planet - California (Remix)>>

    While LA had several Japanese-dominated areas, it being the 'home of the California Roll' (which you still had no desire to try), the language barrier still being a thing meant your chance to explore this city of eighteen million, you vaguely remembered that was the number, was limited.

    Still, you figured you had to get at least one thing here to bring back to Reina, with you deciding on:
    [x] A glittering dress fresh off Rodeo Drive.
    [ ] Some music equipment you were told had been preserved from the '60s.
    [ ] A self-taken snapshot of the Hollywood sign.
    [ ] Some vintage animation cels from Destiny Studios.
    [ ] A dinosaur plush souvenir from a store around the La Brea Tar Pits.
    [ ] A Malibu surfboard.
    [ ] A skateboard and pads sold at Venice Beach.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Fortunately, language was no barrier when it came to taking in the environment, as you started your trek into Griffith Park and surrounds. Given the... mood she was in back at the funeral, you thought to invite Kikuko along with you, though while she'd accepted, she still had to question you about this.

    "I still don't understand your reasoning. We are enemies now, Honoka, though not like we were ever on good terms. What is your intent inviting me along on your hike?" she had to ask, narrowing her eyes at you.

    "Er, do I really have to have a reason?" you said back to her, "You like nature a lot, don't you? Meditating under waterfalls and stuff? Since I was already interested in a hike like this, especially to avoid the traffic and get some tranquility, I thought that hey, wouldn't this be right up your alley?" As you asked that, you had to notice how her hiking gear showed off her physique in a way her uniform and kimono didn't.

    "You have something of a point, for I've only been here a day yet already I'm tired of this city," Kikuko then said, "Given how its modern comforts have left it to choke on its own smog, finding any last preserve of nature here is like an oasis. Its desperate attempts at recreating my homeland's culture have only rubbed salt in the wound".

    "Um, aren't most of those attempts by our own people who migrated here?" you had to bring up, but Kikuko just shifted topic.

    "My point was, what do you now seek to gain by inviting me out here?" Kikuko asked you, "Our Duel this Friday is happening regardless, so are you trying to convince me to hold back?"

    You were about to reply, but then had to stop and reconsider, "Yeah, okay, I'll admit that's part of the reason. But specifically I'm trying to convince you not to kill anyone" Including yourself, "Like, beat me up sure, but does Hanataba, hell do we, need another death on our hands?"

    "Hmm, shouldn't I be asking you that?" Kikuko glared at you.

    "Hey, last I checked you dealt the final blow to Melissa," you blurted out, before reining yourself back in and saying, "Look, Kikuko, people don't always have ulterior motives when it comes to hanging out with others, beyond just liking their company. I mean, that's just part of being friends, y'know, like Dr. Maruki said you needed". You kept silent on the possibly hypocrisy of that statement, given the mechanics of how Social Links worked.

    "And do you honestly consider me a friend?" Kikuko said back.

    That- that did make you stop to question yourself. Like, given how she treated you, could you honestly say that?

    [ ] "Yeah, I would. You're my friend, Kikuko." (Truth)
    [ ] "Yeah, I would. You're my friend, Kikuko." (Lie)
    [ ] "It's... complicated."
    [ ] "Well, I picked you as my Ace back then for a reason."
    [ ] "No, not really, I confess."
    [x] No, we're not. Just as you've decided. (Storyteller write-in)
    [ ] Write-in.

    Giving your answer, you then felt it didn't matter what you said, as Kikuko stayed silent at that regardless.

    Heading further through a canyon, you then resolved to bring up to Kikuko, "Hey, look, I said before that, if you have to go after another, it should be Azuma, not me. Well, to add to that, um, I should tell you he did try to smear your name the other day. Er, you know about wakashudo, right?" you gulped and quivered, "It's just, he told me that's what you wanted to do to me, back when I was your Jack. J-just thought you had a right to know".

    "He was right," Kikuko flat-out told you, "Wakashudo was a time-honoured tradition, so back when you were apprenticed under me, inducting to into it was always in the back of my mind, as part of my duties as your master. So when you were suddenly made a full Ace I, felt I had you taken from me. When speaking of Azuma, that is well within possibility".
    Kikuko then looked straight at you and said, "I've seen the way you look at me, Honoka. Do not deny that you are, to whatever extent, attracted to me".

    "Well, ah, y-yeah, like I mean you are considered probably the most attractive girl in school" you then said, before you composed yourself and asked her, "B-but this is just about you wanting to dominate me, isn't it? Hell, you could say that's the whole point of this Duel, you just wanna assure yourself you're the one on top, don't you?"

    Kikuko sighed, "What does it matter now? You by technicality have become my equal, only a single year putting me over you," she could've collapse, before exclaiming to you, "Don't you see, my lineage and birthright was denied to me! No matter what I do, I'll never officially be head of the Maeda household, but... but I can be Universal Ruler, with every Shadow on the Gameboard, something my father has no power to take from me! So, is it clear to you now, how much this Duel matters to me?"

    You muttered, "Yeah, loud and clear".

    - The Empress has Journeyed to Rank 9! -

    As twilight fell, your thoughts turned to the one person you wanted to see the moment you got back home next evening:

    [x] Reina.
    [ ] Suzako.
    [ ] Yuya.
    [ ] Megumi.
    [ ] Ryouko.
    [ ] Hotaru.
    [ ] Takako.
    [ ] You don't even need to get home to talk to Na-Rae.
    [ ] You don't even need to get home to talk to Koyomi.
    [ ] The Morrigan.
    - [ ] Write-in questions.
    [ ] Write-in.

  20. #60
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    LX. Rule of All

    Los Angeles obviously wasn't somewhere you could get to fully experience within a day, so when you were hurried to the airport the next morning, there was quite a list of stuff you'd had no chance of getting around to doing there. There was also the matter of, while the idea of being on the other side of the Pacific Ocean with the All-Aces was never anything you'd been comfortable with, the thought of getting pulled back to the Gameboard the same school-week as your Duel with Kikuko, and even your Duel with Azuma if things really went south, provided only trepidation.

    Honolulu again came and went, you getting the plate lunch there this time just to be quick, your discomfort again rising when Azuma strode over to you while Kikuko was distracted with whatever.
    "Honoka, I have a deal you may be interested in," he began with, "As the upcoming Duel clearly worries you, then I can offer my services in convincing Kikuko to call it off, or at least I would duel her in your stead".

    That first part sounded maybe plausible, but the second you felt would just make the situation even worse. "Okay, and what are you asking in return?" you asked, "I mean, you shouldn't be asking anything really. You realise that if another student dies at Hanataba, that's it for the school's reputation, right? Being from 'that school where the top students all died' is gonna haunt you through your adult life, y'know?"

    "Well with the death of a petroleum heiress, I must admit, I assumed Hanataba's image was sadly done for," Azuma stated to you, before handing you... a ring? "I am asking for your hand in marriage, Nakamura Honoka. Think of it, for all the finances we may provide you now, have you not thought how to maintain them during your adult years? Of course, this would come with co-rulership of my Empire, even co-rulership of the Gameboard should Kikuko cease to be an obstacle".

    "Fuck no!" you instantly yelled out, swatting that engagement ring away. "By that logic, why don't you and Kikuko just marry each other? That way this whole Gameboard thing is instantly solved, plus who knows, you could actually work as a couple given how awful you two are!"

    Silence fell in the airport, broken by Azuma finally saying, "Be grateful I am even giving you the chance to reconsider," before he turned away.

    You did soon find out what had caught Kikuko's attention so, apparently she had stumbled across the spot where she had Melissa had first met as children, Na-Rae filling you in on that despite her not meeting Kikuko for years later. With no more time to waste, you began the rest of your less than comfy return trip to Tokyo, given everything that'd gone down between you and the remaining All-Aces.

    You had a little more time to spend in Tokyo than you did last time, though still barely enough time to head outside the airport. While getting coffee, which went against your usual 'no caffeine' strategy for flying but eh, you were almost home and kinda headache-y, you soon ran into a familiar face who you could've used a while back.

    "Oh, Niijima Sae, hi there," you smiled at her upon spotting and hurrying over to her in an airport café, "Er, suppose you would've heard about what's been going on up at Hanataba, right?"

    "Indeed, my little sister's told me all about it," she sighed, before seething and banging her table, "Of course there'd be another death the moment I was away for my job. Not to diminish my sister's efforts to stop it... but having to deal with a whole 'gang war' at your school on top of that? Well, do we at least have some idea who's responsible for the latter?"

    "Er, not really, but I have my guesses," you said, "If neither Melissa or Kikuko was behind it, since they've both claimed they know nothing about it, that leave Azuma as the most likely inciter. Well within his capacity too, head of Drama Club and all. Either that, or Melissa's and Kikuko's respective fanboys are to blame, or..." you hesitated before you said this, "Somehow a Shadow was behind this, Kikuko's I'd assume. I mean, she had a whole session with a cognitive therapist the other day about losing her grip on her Persona".

    "I see," Sae took that in, before telling you, "Honoka, I can assure you the perpetrators of this little fight club that's tried to rope you in will not escape with their crimes... despite how much money there is behind the Maeda and Sakurazuka names. With Cognitive Psience as an established field, I assure you that courts exist to tackle crimes related to Shadows and Personae. Helps that they don't, could not, operate the same as standard law courts".

    You bit your lip before saying, "Thanks, but I think what worries me is whether we'll all even live to see a trial in the first place. Oh, but not that it's all been bad news, I finally got to meeting with the Morrigan".

    "Hmm, that is something. Er, given you're still here, I presume the conversation went well?" Sae inquired.

    "Yeah, certainly better than what I was expecting," you had to smile a little, "Though I still didn't get every question I had answered, but it sure seems like she's open to reason. I mostly found out what the whole deal with me on the Gameboard was, and got, er, something of an answer for what the prize behind this all was, though still pretty vague. 'Rule of All' she said". You didn't tell Sae about the link between Ryouko and the Morrigan, as given Ryouko had no knowledge of her true identity, you didn't see how saying that now would help accomplish anything but getting Ryouko interrogated on something completely beyond her.

    "Well, that's a start at least," Sae muttered, "Of course, the issue with the Persona trial is who'd be the prosecutor? I've told you in the past I'm a defense attorney now, so I can certainly defend you if the Aces try to pin the blame on you, but I've no idea who could convict them..."

    It seemed this conversation with Sae had mostly just gone around in circles, but still, how could you not be grateful for that offer? A much better offer than the one earlier that day too.

    "No idea really myself, but hey... thanks," you smiled at her, "It means a lot to me hearing you'll defend me, J'accuse".

    - Rebirth has Journeyed to Rank 8! -

    This sudden bonding continued as Sae was able to arrange that you sit next to her on the flight back to Sapporo. Conservation admittedly was somewhat stilted on the flight home, given the age gap and you being an only child, but the decades-back on-flight movie Velma & Lorraine did help break the ice between you, and you obliged when Sae asked to have a look at the Like A Dragon movie, her being curious about it as it was a favourite of Makoto's.

    * * *

    That evening, it didn't take long for you to meet up with Reina, as phoning ahead the two of you had arranged to meet in Sapporo. You soon met he right at the airport, as she ran up and hugged you at the first sign of you. Upon pulling apart, you grinned at her immediately going into, "Hey, I got you something all the way from America! Right off Rodeo Drive in fact, even if it meant dealing with queues. Like, you helped me pick out clothes a lot, so I thought I finally should return the favour".

    You then took out the dress for her, making her go wide-eyed, gasp, then hug you again. She then went into a flurry of "Oh thank you thank you thank you!" before realising "Ah, yeah, now that you've taken the dress out, I guess I've gotta find somewhere to like, put it on in private. Er, be right back!"

    After she did so, you beamed and complimented her with, "Hey, it looks great! Knew it would look perfect on you," Keeping up the positive atmosphere, you also spared her the details about getting it through customs.

    Not that the positive vibe lasted much longer anyway, as Reina then had to ask, "Er, yeah, so um... how about Melissa's funeral go?"

    You weren't quite sure how to respond to that, but you finally said, "Yeah, it was, well, pretty intense. At least it was relatively more respectful than Eitaro's funeral, but given stuff like Nadezhda breaking down and hugging the coffin," Or, ahem, some stuff Kikuko said, "I can't really say how you'd have handled it".
    It was then another thought occurred to you that you'd rather wouldn't have, but still you asked "Reina, ah, you know how when Rokudo Rin died, people at school made up a bunch of bullshit about Hotaru being her killer. Well, it's just that I was kinda worried if..."

    "If people have been pinning Melissa's death on me?" Reina jolted up hearing that, but then told you, "No, it's okay, I don't think anyone's ever said something like that to me, from what I've heard anyway. Honestly, I kinda think the school in general forgot about me after, er, after I stopped being a Jack".

    "Yeah, and like, given we were talking about me making you a Jack, before you said that like I didn't have to, well," you went over, "I've decided then I'm gonna hold off on the whole Jack thing for now, like I remember the pressure of being forced to pick an Ace, and yeah, I kinda don't wanna put someone else through a similar experience. Besides, the other main pick I had for a Jack I know would immediately turn the role down, so like, I don't see why I should be pressured again to choose". If us All-Aces even survive, anyway.

    "Wow, so like a 'If not you, then nobody' kinda thing?" Reina had to ask.

    "Well, uh, I wouldn't put it that dramatically, but along those lines," you told her.

    "Okay! Er, so, I've got some news, and I think I'll get the big one out of the way first," she said, before taking a deep breath then getting into, "I told you how, way back, I was... assaulted, right? Well, I spotted in the papers recently that the man who did it has now gotten arrested. True, apparently it's for tax fraud, not sexual harassment, but it's still something". It looked like a great burden had just been lifted off Reina's shoulders.
    "Ahem, so the easier thing to talk about is that I had a real discussion with Kujikawa-sensei about my, er, singing," Reina then switched topics, "And yeah, she had to be honest with me that... I'm not any good. However, she then admitted that she was looking at me from a Top 40 perspective, saying that she had to wonder if my voice would be better suited to like something more niche. Not sure what though, like, idol music like hers was most of what I listen to..." she shrugged.

    "I think she was trying to tell you that it's okay if you don't fit in, that like, the world's big enough that you'll fit in at least somewhere. Point is, you're not 'singing wrong', or like your 'wrong' voice is still your voice" you said to her, telling her what Nightshade possibly had known from the beginning... and how all this was something you should maybe bring up with Suzako.

    "Ooh, I think I get it now. Yeah, she was just trying to help me out, just like I imagined my childhood idol would!" Reina smiled, and you hoped that smile wouldn't be completely wiped off her face when Kikuko approached.

    "Ace of Fools, why do you keep insisting on spending time with rejects?" Kikuko said to you, "All this time and you haven't realised, or rather refuse to, that the list of undesirables I drafted up was for your own good".

    You immediately stood up to Kikuko, "That's no longer your concern, Kikuko. Besides, you hated Melissa, and Melissa turned on Reina, so by that logic, shouldn't you actually appreciate Reina, hmm?"

    Kikuko twitched at that, before setting her eyes on Reina's bright blonde hair and Western clothes as the Ace sneered, "You'd honestly ask me to appreciate a race traitor?"

    "Hey, at least she's free to dress like that, to be her own person," you then told Kikuko, "Unlike you who, let's face it, had your Daddy pick all your clothes for you".

    Gritting her teeth, Kikuko almost drew her blade, but stopped herself as she came up to you and whispered, "Consider yourself lucky our standards prevent me from stabbing you right here, on the Gameboard I won't be so merciful".

    As Kikuko stomped away, Reina's face brightened again as she looked at you and said, "Thanks for sticking up for me, Honoka, but um, I actually wasn't that hurt. Like, I've had that nationalist rhetoric frown in my face so much since the day I started hanging out with Melissa, that hearing it from even another Ace doesn't really hurt me, it's just another person saying another mean thing".

    Those words brightened you up to, before you said, "I'm glad to hear that, especially since I've seen mean words really tear some people down. But yeah, what Kikuko says shouldn't matter, I mean, her idea of Japan's rooted in centuries past anyway".

    "Oh yeah, since you gave me that dress, I wanted to give you something too!" Reina then said, as she took out a Ruby Brooch and handed it to you, "When Melissa kicked me out of the Jacks, that was the only possession of hers she let me keep, but probably 'cause she'd forgotten about it by then. Thing is, I really don't need to keep holding onto it, I've got like other stuff in my life right now, so I'm cool with you having it".

    You felt honoured, in a way. "Hey, thanks Reina," you just told her.

    "Thou art I... I art thou
    Though thy kingdom fall, thou hast gained a champion who shall not leave thy side
    We bestow upon them a piece of thy crown,
    And on thou, the road to Zarathustra, Ultimate Persona of the Magician Arcana"

    - The Magician Journeys Anew at Rank 10! -

    "But hey, I known you just got off a long flight, but since we're in Sapporo, is there anything you'd like to do here while we're in town?" Reina asked.

    "Hmm, I can think of a few things," you continued to smile at her.

    On top of that, also a few things you ought to get around to tomorrow:

    [x] Tea Ceremony club.
    [ ] Cricket.
    [ ] Class rep duties.
    [ ] Hanging out with Suzako.
    [ ] Part time at the tabletop store.
    [ ] Part time at the sweets shop.
    [ ] Training at the dojo.
    [x] Velvet Room (free action)
    [ ] The Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    - [ ] The Morrigan (write-in questions).
    [ ] Write-in.

    And in the evening:

    [ ] Megumi.
    [ ] Na-Rae.
    [ ] Koyomi.
    [ ] Phone your parents anyway, they ought to know about this trip.
    [ ] Studying.
    - [ ] Write-in partner.
    [ ] Hold a sleep over.
    - [ ] Write-in invite.
    [ ] Velvet Room (free action)
    [x] The Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in Party.
    - [x] The Morrigan (write-in questions).
    --[X] What is her reason for running the Gameboard, especially for rebooting it with the All-Aces?
    --[X] What about Popo?
    --[X] Is there any way for us to reliably boot people out of the contest without killing them.
    --[X] What exactly does 'Rule of All' mean.

    [ ] Write-in.

    The next day at Tea Ceremony Club, Kikuko started the session by suddenly moving everyone out into the school gardens. "Yomogi, if you will," she then said, as she had her maid distribute Airsoft guns to the entire club. The Ace of Swords then gazed directly at you and said, "Nakamura, I want you to display the influence you wield over this school as an Ace, by pitting your followers against mine, especially in a controlled environment like this after that riot. If you are truly worth of your title, then forming your own personal army to match mine I doubt will prove an issue. By the way, I did inspect all the guns beforehand".

    "Controlled environment?" you had to spit out, before sighing with your hand on your hip, "Oh yeah, like the club you're in charge of, sure, no bias there~" Also, if this is supposed to be a warm-up match before the Duel, why drag everyone else in?

    Yet to your surprise, quite a few of the club members walked over to you to take your side, including Shion and, your eyes widened, Na-Rae.

    <<BGM: Sengoku Basara 3 - Kawanakajima Frozen Land>>

    "Yomogi Tsubasa, get back here!" Kikuko hissed.

    "Pardon me Mistress Kikuko, but ya did say it was each club member's choice," Na-Rae brought up, as she huddled closer to you.

    Not that the scales weren't weighed against you, given that most of your experience in combat was with only a couple of other people at most, not a whole 'unit', especially since the Wild Card only let you use one Persona at a time. This left you trying to remember your History lessons for any battle plans that'd been brought up, though Shion at least tried to help out with "Why don't we flank 'em? Like, have a decoy group up front, then some of us off to the sides? Pretty basic stuff".

    "Okay, but I'll go with the decoy group then," you offered, "I mean, she never said we were playing chess here. Alright, Na-Tsubasa, you take the left, Shion, could you take the right?"

    "My pleasure".
    "Aye aye".

    Kikuko meanwhile had her side line up in three rows, each spread out to cover the widest area. You winced, knowing this'd leave your two flanks having to run quite a bit to, well, flank. Kikuko herself was on the front lines but right in the centre, which you figured meant that her gunmen either side would close in on you if you tried to target her. But, since you were using airsoft guns, you then figured Why charge in?

    "Okay, I got it. Let's spread ourselves back to bait them forward, like I don't think airsoft guns have too much reach, while Shion and Na-Rae get them from the sides," you whispered to your personal unit.

    The moment battle began, your team ducked down while Kikuko's front line opened fire, while your two flanks swerved to the sides. To prevent you charging in, not like that was even your plan, Kikuko's first line ducked down to reload while her second opened fire... only for them to be shot in the sides at either end as your flanks closed in, making sure to also target the waiting third line.

    With Kikuko's units having to now defend from the sides, it was then your personal unit advanced, cornering them from three directions. It all ended when Kikuko was shot, but not by you.

    You could see Na-Rae had her gun pointed at the hit Kikuko, leaving the Ace staring at the maid with her jaw agape. "Y-Yomogi? You... I should've known," she hissed.

    "Mistress Kikuko, well, I figured you wouldn't have wanted me to back down in a situation like this," she told her.

    Shion meanwhile smiled, patted you on the back and told you, "Hey, good job! You did great for your first time".

    You shrugged and told her while trying to stay vague, "Well, maybe commanding a unit beyond like three other people is new to me, but I've definitely had a ton of practice when it comes to one-on-one".

    Later upon the dismissal of the club, Kikuko immediately came up to you and muttered out, "I suppose the bonds you have built up do speak for themselves. Even still, in a one-on-one Duel, your friends won't come to save you".

    "Don't you get it?" you had to ask her, "The Wild Card's whole strength comes from those very bonds. Without them well, I'd probably be stuck at one Persona like all the Aces". You also would've said that you could always ignore Ace customs had bring Dead Hand into the Duel anyway, but you didn't want to give your game away to Kikuko just like that.

    "Are you calling me socially stunted?" Kikuko took that as, before saying a line that resembled her Shadow's way of talking more than her, "The most popular girl in school, remember?"

    "Yeah, but can you call your connection with any student more than admiration, at most?" you had to ask, "How many people here feel like they truly know you? Right now, it's just me, maybe Na-Rae, and that's it".

    Kikuko suddenly began to shake, ""D-don't use that name in front of me!" she roared out.

    "Why shouldn't I? It's the name she wants to be called," you protested, before taking a deep breath and saying, "Listen, Kikuko, if anyone Azuma's your enemy, not me, I don't want this Duel, so stop insisting on it".

    "So you say, though from you've acted since you got here, what proof do I have you're telling the truth?" Kikuko sneered, before a crooked smile donned her face, "I can assure you, we are enemies, Honoka. Here's a little fact I can confirm is the truth; who do you think killed Rokudo Rin, the girl you brought up when you first entered the Tea Ceremony Club?"

    <<BGM: Xenosaga - Albedo>>

    "What? Rin was more than just some girl! Student Council President, Ace of Pentacles, you should know," you spoke up, "But look, if you want my thoughts on whodunnit, I'd have to say Azuma, judging from his actions and behaviour this whole time. Definitely not Hotaru, that's for sure".

    "Close, and yet so far," she stated beneath her breath, before she walked up and whispered to you, "Azuma wishes that he even got the chance to lay his hands on Rin. I killed her, Honoka, and this Friday I'll do the same to you".

    Your jaw could've fallen, your eyes could've burst, as you swiftly stumbled back. "Wait, w-what? That doesn't make sense, unless maybe your Shadow did it or something?! Look, Kikuko, I know at least you're not the type to kill anyone outside a Duel".

    "My one regret in this case," she sighed, "I slew her in a fit of rage, giving her no chance to prepare or even react. It shames me like killed her like an upstart assassin rather than a true warrior. I do have Azuma to thank at least, he was instrumental in covering up her death".

    You just stared coldly at Kikuko, before muttering, "Yeah, guess I should've known all along. See you in the Arena then, since you're unwilling to settle this any other way".

    "I look forward to it," Kikuko said, "It may be the one chance I have to prove to myself that being born to a warrior bloodline was no twist of fate".

    - A Blade slices the Empress Arcana in twain. This Social Link is Broken. Will you ever Journey again? -

    "Yeah, why not?" you snarled at her, "Let's crash and burn this school whole's reputation because your Daddy was a dick".

    * * *

    Being back at school, your first thoughts were to hop onto the gameboard again and immediately get more answers from the Morrigan. Before that though, you felt you should at least stop by the Velvet Room first, originally thinking you should report back to Popo after your first meeting with Morrigan, but now having to tell Lauryn quite a bit after, well, what Kikuko had just said.

    Turned out you didn't even have to enter the Velvet Room to meet with Popo, as he fluttered up to you just outside it. "Oh, Mistress 'Onoka. The Boss Lady told me 'bout how the two of you met up, right? Blimey, sure is a relief to me eras that the meeting went well".

    You did have to say, "Hmm, perhaps not as well as I would've preferred, since she could be a little vague for my liking at times, but that's why I plan to meet her again later today. Though yeah, still a lot better than what, well, you can understand I'd been fearing, like we just sat and talked and she seemed friendly enough, no fisticuffs or anything. That said, what I did learn was... certainly something, like I do kinda sorta have an Empire, and that apparently Ryouko and her are the same in this roundabout way, it's confusing".

    "See? Knew it'd work out all well and good," Popo smiled.

    You then had to sigh before saying, "That's the good news, anyway. For the bad, well, I've been challenged to another Duel already, and one that looks like it's gonna get lethal, no matter how much I try to hold back".
    Popo didn't say anything to this at first, as seeing the devastated look on his face, you doubted he was now in any state to even speak.
    "Hey, um, don't worry. I'll try talking things out with the Morrigan, to find out more about how to dethrone people without killing them. I do know from Himawari's experience that it can be done," you were quick to say.

    Popo sighed with relief, before saying, "Miss 'Onoka, um, was it wrong of me to assume from your words that this next Duel of yours is with... Miss Kikuko?"

    You groaned, "Yeah. Which reminds me, I've got quiet the something to tell Lauryn, once I get inside".

    "Oh, 'course Miss, didn't mean ta obstruct your person," Popo nodded, yet added, "You've, no, we've been unlucky with these 'ere Duels three times in a row, but our luck's bound ta turn 'round eventually, innit?"

    You tried to smile and nod, but could only think, Yeah, but your Arcana isn't exactly Fortune, is it?

    - The Tower has Journeyed to Rank 9! -

    Inside the Velvet Room, Igor actually was first to speak up, as he said, "My, a Broken Social Link, have we? Given the Arena of life you find yourself in, I must still commend you for making it this far before such a thing happened. Regardless, I'm afraid to inform you that you will neither be able to fuse or use personae of the empress Arcana until such time when this Link is repaired".

    Given that you were Empress Persona-free at the moment, this news at least wasn't as devastating as it could've been, nor particularly unexpected, but that it happened just as the link was about to be maxed still stung.
    "Er, Lauryn, hey. Got, ah, quite the piece of news for you," you then went to tell her. "I-I think I may now know who killed you".

    "You seem awfully hesitant for some reason, but please, do go on," Lauryn nodded, but did have to narrow her eyes a little.

    "Yeah, Kikuko lost her temper and told me it was her," you finally had the chance to say, adding, "Even though I had to figure it was Azuma this whole time, but no. Still wouldn't rule out him being indirectly involved though".

    Pausing to reflect, Lauryn said, "I do recall being slashed in the back. The... phantom pain, you could say, has risen in me again, and I can confirm it feels like a single gash, not like the serrated wounds you'd expect from Azuma's whip-sword. Kikuko... from memory, while she was usually composed and doll-like, she was capable of great anger when challenged.
    However, I definitely don't remember her being one for sneak attacks," Lauryn did add.

    "Yeah, she told me she lost control of herself, and that if she could redo events, she'd have killed you in a proper Duel," you could confirm.

    Lauryn stared down for a second, before muttering, "I guess that settles it. Er, I take it you have some fusions to see to before this battle, right Honoka?"

    [ ] Special Fusion: Devil Anastasia + Devil Black Frost + Devil Erlik = Devil Ahriman
    [ ] Special Fusion: Moon Camazotz + Moon Carmilla + Moon Mayasura + Moon Dokuganryuu = Moon Aradia
    [ ] Special Fusion: Magician Prospero + Magician Orlando + Magician Arachne + Magician Verdandi = Magician Zarathustra
    [ ] Strength Ishtar + Death Hades = Hierophant+4 Chiron (Gun and Psy)
    [ ] Strength + Rebirth Nyarlathotep = Star+4 Quetzalcoatl (Wind and Electric)
    [ ] Strength + Tower PITT = Rebirth+8 Izanami (Curse and Almighty)
    [ ] Strength + Star Barnumbirr = Moon+10 Lycaon (Physical and Curse)
    [ ] Death Hades + Rebirth Nyarlathotep = Fool+9 Aiwass (Bless and Curse)
    [ ] Death + Tower PITT = Sun+4 Karna (Gun and Nuclear)
    [ ] Death + Star Barnumbirr = Sage+1 Bodhidharma (Physical and Psy)
    - [ ] Tower PITT + Star Barnumbirr = Sage Bodhidharma
    [ ] Tower PITT + Rebirth Nyarlathotep = Death+4 Sedna (Curse and Ice)
    [ ] Rebirth + Star Barnumbirr = Temperance+6 Vairocana (Bless and Almighty)
    [ ] No thanks, you're good.
    [x] Write-in:Special Fusion: Devil Anastasia + Devil Black Frost + Devil Erlik = Devil Ahriman (inherit Bufudyne and Null Physical), Special Fusion: Moon Camazotz + Moon Carmilla + Moon Mayasura + Moon Dokuganryuu = Moon Aradia (inherit Ziodyne), Special Fusion: Magician Prospero + Magician Orlando + Magician Arachne + Magician Verdandi = Magician Zarathustra (inherit Diarahan), Fuse Death Hades + Rebirth Nyarlathotep = Fool+9 Aiwass (Bless and Curse), Fuse Strength Ishtar + Tower PITT = Rebirth+8 Izanami (Curse and Almighty), resummon Devil Black Frost, Moon Dokuganryuu, Magican Arachne, Strength Ishtar and Tower PITT

    <<Persona Fusion Results>>"I am Devil Ahriman, False God of Darkness," hissed a demon with shoulders like horns, tendrils spilling out of his legs, transparent wings like a cape, and his 'armour' bulging with veins, "When the fires of truth are all extinguished, only then will this game be over."
    Elements: Reflect Nuclear, Absorb Curse, weak to Fire and Bless, Resist all other Elements
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Dark Baptism, Lamentation, Hell's Call: Physical, Hell's Call: Magical
    - Inherit Bonus: Null Physical, Bufudyne, Ice Boost
    - Devil Bonus: Hell's Call: Modifier

    "I am Moon Aradia, Messiah of Witches," said a human-butterfly hybrid, whose wings alternated with with patterns of blistering white and all-devouring black, her riding a crescent moon like others would a broom, "On Walpurgis's night shall we gather and be free."
    Elements: Absorb Curse and Bless, weak to Fire, Null all other Magic
    - Strength: |
    - Cognition: |||||
    - Agility: ||||
    - Luck: ||||
    - Endurance: |
    Skills: Megidola, Almighty Boost, Almighty Amp
    - Inherit Bonus: Ziodyne, Analyse, Life Drain, Marakukaja
    - Moon Bonus: Megidolaon

    "I am Magician Zarathustra, Prophet of the Magi," proclaimed a dragon forged from gold, with vast feathered wings and a raging flame with an unburnt book in its centre, "We shall kindle the flame that blazes with righteousness."
    Elements: Reflect Bless, Absorb Fire, weak to Curse and Nuclear, Resist all other Elements
    - Strength: ||
    - Cognition: |||||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Kougaon, Agidyne, Mahamaon
    - Inherit Bonus: Diarahan, Mind Charge, War Cry, Sukukaja
    - Magician Bonus: Heat Riser

    "I am Fool Aiwass, Minister of the Aeon upon us," muttered a deep-voiced figure who wore a royal Middle Eastern robe with a Tree of Life design0, but with only rising clouds of incense-smoke where their face and hands should've been, "Every man and every woman shall conquer and be crowned."
    Elements: Null Bless and Curse
    - Strength: |
    - Cognition: |||||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: ||||
    - Endurance: ||
    Skills: Kougaon, Eigaon, Mahamaon, Mamudoon, Megidola
    - Inherit Bonus: Debilitate, Tetrakarn
    - Fool Bonus: Invigorate 3

    "I am Rebirth Izanami, death-bringer to the formed world," said a silver-haired woman like who you'd met at Mt. Osore, numerous skeletal arms emerging from her white kimono, "We met once before by the River of Death, we meet again here, and we shall meet once more at death's door."
    Elements: Reflect Curse, null Electric, weak to Fire
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: ||||
    Skills: Ziodyne, Eigaon, Dekunda, Dekaja, Fury of Yasogami
    - Inherit: Escape Route, War Cry
    - Rebirth Bonus: Die For Me!

    * * *

    For the end of the day, that just left the Morrigan, and your first visit to her had only raised more questions.

    Stepping through that stark white void no less comfortable this time around, this time you emerged not at a café or schoolroom... but on stage in front of a screaming audience, dressed as Abyssa and holding your bass.

    The Morrigan walking in front you holding Ryouko's, that is her, guitar, she sprang into a solo much more fiery and riveting than well, anything Ryouko in her human form was probably capable of, before she turned around and stared right at you, the crowd chanting your name.

    Gulping, you tried playing the best bass solo you could muster, Nightshade always calling for you to do one even though you were quite happy just doing the low notes. The moment you opened your eyes again after performing it, you saw that the stage had vanished, leaving you in a messy trailer with the Morrigan lounging lackadaisically on the tattered couch in front of you.

    "Er, what was that all about?" you had to ask.

    "Hmm, is that your first question?" the Morrigan smirked at you, "I've been overseeing this Gameboard for quite some time, so I do have to find ways of keeping myself occupied. Plus, what Ryouko dreams, I live, that is 'our' arrangement. yet as I live out my fantasies with the gameboard, it's unfortunately she, I as her correctly, shall never know. But perhaps one day... Following this, I naturally wanted to check you'd been keeping up with your guitar practice".

    "Ah, um, sorry, that question just kinda came out of me," you said, before asking, "What I meant to ask was, what's your reason for running the Gameboard, especially this particular contest with the All-Aces?"

    She moaned and turned over onto her back, her booted legs going back and forth in the air, "You would've picked up by now that 'Mor-Rioghain' is my title, Macha being my actual name, correct? Although I pride myself on holding the position the longest, even with how time functions on the Gameboard, naturally there was a Morrigan before me, as there shall be after. Though I now operate the Gameboard, I did not create it or its mechanisms, the name of the one who did has been lost to time, and that's if it had any one creator at all. Could very well have sprung forth pre-made from the Sea of Souls.
    That's the backstory out of the way with. The reason I run the Gameboard is because I won it, all the way back in the mists of time, and with your All-Aces' ambitions in its proximity, how could I not issue Personae to the ones with potential for Empire?" she finished, before she stood up and headed over to a mirror on a dressing table.

    "Wait, so you had to win the Gameboard, and there'll be a Morrigan after... Is-is that what 'Rule of All' means? Is the prize of the Persona Game getting to be the next Morrigan?" you gasped.

    "Got it in one," the Morrigan grinned as she started applying lipstick and makeup, her look a little trashed after her concert, "I love it when I don't have to just give my students the answer, but when they work it out on their own".

    - Judgment has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    You crashed down on that couch as you took all of that in. You finally knew why this stupid game you'd been forced to play since the school year began was even being played to begin with. And honestly, part of you wished you'd remain ignorant, given the thought of Azuma or Kikuko as essentially gods.

    Breathing out, you then asked, "Look, I know there's ways to dethrone people off their Empires without killing them, I've seen it happen with Himawari, our band leader, remember? So there has to be a non-lethal solution to all this".

    "Well how would you dethrone a ruler in corporeal life?" the Morrigan again had to answer with a question, "Killing them is the most apparent answer, but then there's forcing them to abdicate, disproving their crown legitimacy, or turning their own people against them. That last one's basically the fate inflicted on Himawari," she then sighed, "Possibly the one Player I've ever regretted drawing into this. While her heart was full of love, it lacked strength, hence her turbulent times with Nightshade. Perhaps if I invited her in now she'd be much more equipped to take on the Gameboard, but with her reputation as it is, that's sadly not an option".

    A metaphorical lightbulb went off in your head, though it could've been physical given how cognitive realms worked. "I know, I can dethrone Kikuko by proving to everyone she killed Lauryn!" you leapt up and said, but then stopped, "Then again, if all it took was checking for fingerprints or testing Rin's blood, wouldn't she have been found out ages ago?"

    "From her thoughts that linger here, you and her are right, Kikuko is to blame," the Morrigan said, before with a snap of her fingers the scenery shifted again, this time to a catwalk. As the Morrigan strode out into a swarm of camera flashes as you stood behind the curtains, she called back to you and said, "I'll admit though, I would've assumed it was Azuma if I didn't know better".

    "Eurgh, hey Morrigan - Ryouko, could you stop acting like a Barbie doll for one second?!" you called out, as everything shifted again to the desolate top of a crumbling tower, everything surrounded by storm clouds. "Okay, uh, sorry about that. Er, but since we're here, mind also filling me in on what's with Popo?"

    She glanced side-eyed at you, saying, "Popo, Poe correctly, has already told you what he is, the Gameboard's Emissary. Ugh okay, I admit, that isn't the full story, as with most things about the Gameboard. You've heard about Pinocchio right, specifically his cricket companion? That's what Poe was designed to be, the Gameboard's conscience, the voice in its figurative head that halts its true potential for destruction. Of course, that falls under my duties as well, but it never hurts to have a second opinion".

    You nodded, that seemed to check out, especially with Popo's opinion on Duels. You then asked, "Okay, alright, well coming back to my first Question today, what's with rebooting the Gameboard for the All-Aces? Like, you don't seem mandated to hold these Persona Games, given you said you've been Morrigan the longest, so I take it there's a reason on your part?"

    She sighed, "Yes, yes there is, and it's to do with why I even have a dual life as Ryouko in the first place. As the Gameboard involves the lives of humans, and their inner emotions in the case of Shadows and Personae, a human perspective is needed to oversee it. I'm... worried I've become desensitised to all the violence, all the rage, all the death that comes with the Gameboard. Taking on the mantle of Tanizawa Ryouko was meant to address this, and yet, it only convinced me even more that it was time the Gameboard and I parted ways. And yet, I can't just leave it without a Morrigan, much as I am tempted to, so it was my decision to hand the title off to a new generation".

    "That's..." you sighed, before telling her, "That's all I wanted to know for now. Though eh, chances are I'll probably be back tomorrow with a bunch more questions".

    "But of course, come back anytime," the Morrigan smiled at you, "You are possibly my best student, after all".

    - Judgment has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    Back in the Prized Pupil Lounge, you began to gather your thoughts on tomorrow:

    [ ] Drama Club.
    [ ] Computer Club.
    [ ] Hanging with Suzako.
    [ ] Trying to be normal again around Ryouko.
    [ ] Sweets shop with Yuya.
    [ ] Tabletop store with Hotaru.
    [X] Gameboard
    - [x] Write-in Empire: Kikuko's
    - [x] Write-in Party: Dead Hand
    - [ ] The Morrigan (write-in questions)
    [ ] Write-in.

    Then in the evening:

    [ ] Megumi.
    [x] Na-Rae.
    [ ] Koyomi.
    [ ] Phone your parents.
    [ ] Studying.
    - [ ] Write-in partners.
    [ ] Sleepover.
    - [ ] Write-in invites.
    [ ] Late night Gameboard:
    - [ ] Write-in Empire.
    - [ ] Write-in party.
    - [ ] The Morrigan (write-in questions)
    [ ] Write-in.

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