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Thread: Persona: The Beautiful

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    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    Persona: The Beautiful

    <<Author's NoteSo er, been a while, hasn't it?

    I haven't been on Beast's Lair in almost a decade now, but discussions I've been in on Fate properties recently along with new ideas I've gotten for Servants and Fate fics have reignited my interest in the franchise, so trust me that I'm not back again just to promote my Persona fic on another site~

    Persona: The Beautiful was originally run as a Quest over on Sufficient Velocity, where I went by the name of Lapin Lune and now Arlequine Lunaire. Because of that, some Quest-isms like the second-person POV will be present, the votes I've chosen to intentionally keep as homage to the original voters and for new readers to see alternate routes this story may have gone down. There will however some changes from the original, most of them minor though

    Persona: The Beautiful

    I thought this was going to be another school year, when April 4th rolled around. Another year of being a nobody...

    You were but one among the faceless masses at the otherwise illustrious Hanataba Academy, winner of Japan's 'Most Beautiful Academy' for years running. An elegant high school nestled in the snowy mountains, its mix of stone gothic architecture and more modern, crystal-clear buildings leaving no question to its pedigree.

    Hanataba's stand-out students were called the All-Aces, who together formed the most popular clique at school. As you and the rest of the students walked through the front doors, it was almost impossible to miss them, their presence made all you lessers part like the Red Sea.

    Sakurazuka Azuma, Head of the Drama Club. The school's elegant and poetic 'noble prince', his dark wavy hair and tall, slender figure made the female students swoon. To complete the image, he even had a rose in his lapel.

    Maeda Kikuko, Head of the Tea Ceremony Club. A traditional Japanese beauty from a family who, you've heard, can trace themselves back to the Heian period. Ever demure, she was bowing before a teacher as they had a little discussion.

    Melissa Lilian, the gorgeous strawberry-blonde American exchange student, fashionista, and cheerleader, and from a rich industrial family too. She hadn't been in Japan long, but had seriously made an impact. Not that she wasn't having some trouble adapting, it looked like she was in a nasty argument with one of the hall monitors, who'd she gotten two of her female followers to flank.

    Tsutsuji Eitaro, the cool, stoic star Athlete, Captain of the Archery Club, and stand-out football (soccer) player, a towering figure with jagged hair. Despite being surrounded by adoring fans, he barely acknowledged anyone and kept silent, but you guessed that's what people loved about him.

    Aoyagi Himawari, the pretty and perky stand-out singer in the School Choir, with long, pastel hair. Her cheerful self, waving to everyone she could, was seemingly the only one of the six to even consider socialising with others.

    Momoi Gakuto, the 'cool nerd' of the All-Aces. Head of the Computer Club and pro gamer, with light blond scruffy hair, glinting glasses, and distinctive green sweater, already apparently occupied with something online.

    All your life you could never imagine having anywhere near their level of popularity, being merely:
    [ ] The Average, with nothing that bad about you, but also nothing outstanding.
    [X] A Wallflower, barely noticed by anyone most of the time.
    [ ] A Wannabe, desperate to adapt to the latest trends and styles to fit in.
    [ ] Write-in.

    As you headed to your first class, you were suddenly stopped and cut off by no less than... Melissa Lilian, of all people.
    "Hey dweeb, 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.

    Part of you froze, feeling this was exactly like a dream come true!
    But another part of you, regardless of your elation, did have to wonder: Wasn't this a bit sudden, a bit suspicious? Why only now would the All-Aces take notice of me, much less want anything to do with someone like me?

    Well, you at least quickly signed the card Melissa had given you, as 'Nakamura Honoka'.

    * * *

    <<BGM: Nujabes - Counting Stars >>

    So, you sat in your homeroom class, the windows still lightly dusted with the last of the old winter's snow. This was your second year at Hanataba now and, with the All-Aces being third years, you were honestly kinda intimidated.

    You were stuck thinking so much about your invitation that you didn't notice your friend trying to get your attention. "Hey Honoka, you okay in there?" came the scratchy voice of your longtime pal, Suzakuin Keiko. She was a freckle-faced girl with long, shaggy brown hair, part of which she'd dyed bright blue. People would say she could use a makeover, but that's if she could even afford one.

    "What? Oh yeah, sorry, had a lot on my mind," you said on reaction, trying to snap out of your thoughts.

    "Well, it's our first day back at school, so there is a lot of pressure," came the warmer voice of a boy with neater brown hair, Ito Yuya. You'd known him almost as long as you had Keiko, and while both your parents and relatives had jokingly called you two 'childhood sweethearts', there'd never been anything serious between the two. True, Yuya was no Sakurazuka Azuma, but still, a girl like you had to consider yourself lucky to even know someone like Yuya.

    And that was about it for your friends, as despite this being your second year, they were really all the people you had any real connection with Hanataba. Up till now, it seemed, if your fears weren't true and this wasn't some prank by Melissa.
    Speaking of which, "Urgh, fuck Melissa. I saw that stuck-up princess trying to accost you in the hall," Keiko groaned, leaning back in her chair, "Just 'cause she's some bigshot foreign blonde she thinks she can just come to Japan and walk all over us," she snarled.

    "Ooh yeah, 'fuck' Melissa," some douchebag creeps wolf-whistled in the corner.

    Ignoring them and thinking back to that encounter, well you wouldn't call it an 'accosting' really. Still, you decided to stay quiet about this, er, arrangement to Keiko and Yuya, you were kinda worried you'd blow this million-to-one chance if you casually blabbed about your All-Aces invitation.

    Keiko and Yuya also didn't dignify those guys with a response, though Keiko had to admit, "I mean, I can't say against anything Azuma though, he sure is dreamy..." she sighed, holding her chin in her hands.

    "Okay, fun's over, people," came the dead cold voice of your homeroom teacher, Tanizawa Ryouko-sensei, as she made her way in without even glancing at her students. "Now you're all here, everyone better shut it and make their way to the Start of Year Assembly, got that?" she intoned, getting students' attention by tapping her desk with the chalkboard pointer.

    You promptly lined up and headed out, no questions needed.
    However, as you entered the hall one of your classmates, who'd been skulking in the shadows before so had slipped your mind, approached and asked you something.

    "My my, Honoka is it?" said a whisper-thin voice belonging to a lightly smiling girl, with raven black hair and her uniform modified to be longer and frillier, "My wandering eyes couldn't help but spot that you had an invitation you were fiddling with, all the more interesting given your prior chat with Melissa.

    Oh, am I intruding? I take it this is a private affair," this girl gasped, as she could see you glaring at her.

    "Yeah, I'll say it is," you said, then pressed down on your pocket with the invitation even more closely. Keiko and Yuya were right next to me yet never even saw this letter, so how did... whoever this is see it? you thought.

    "I see, I never truly learned to mind my own business," this girl sighed and shook her head. "But I've taken enough of your time, so it's only proper I introduce myself. I go by the pen name Colette Claudius, and I'm Head of the Occult Club. If I may say, we're always on the hunt for new members, and we can sure promise a better time than, ahem, those All-Aces," she huffed.

    "Y-you seem to have something against them..." you asked her.

    Colette chuckled, "Oh it's nothing personal, I just have little patience for the 'in-crowd'," she told you, then added in a hushed tone, "I know who my real friends are. Ah, look at the time, we should really be at Assembly!" she cut herself off, and swiftly waved goodbye to you as she scurried away.

    * * *

    The principal tapped the mic and cleared his throat and began with, "Students and Staff of Hanataba, once again our renowned institution is graced with another year". Noticing nobody was paying much attention, he quickly switched a more casual, "Uh hey, we all excited or what? Best years of your lives, y'know?" with a tug of his tie. That hardly got that much more of a response, other than maybe a distant facepalm.

    "Er, anyway, as we say at our fine school-" he then tried to go on, but just sighed and said, "Please welcome to the podium our own Azuma Sakurazuka, third-year and Head of the Drama Club, not to mention our highest-ranked student in the popularity polls".

    The whole room exploded with awe as the dark yet dashing Azuma made his way onto the stage.
    Brushing his hair aside and taking the mic, he began with, "Thank you Dear Principal, perhaps too flattering an introduction. Now, fellow students, I would say the most important lesson you learn in Theatre is that storytelling and performance are hardly limited to the realm of fiction. All of us, teenagers more than anyone, either choose to play a role or are bestowed a role to play, and at Hanataba we expect no less than for those roles to be played to staggering applause. It is what makes our school... what it is," he smirked, before leaning in closer to the mic and saying, "For even if there is nothing beneath the mask, then should that mask not be crafted to perfection?" Having finished, he bowed and then tossed a rose cavalierly into the crowd, students scrambling to catch it.

    Turning to your left, you could see Keiko gushing over Azuma's 'poetry', even though you figured If it was anyone else saying the same thing, Keiko probably would dismiss it as 'flowery bullshit'.

    Weird thing was though, though you were all the way at the back of the looming Assembly Hall, you could swear that you felt Azuma make direct eye contact with you for a second. What, no, probably just my paranoia talking, you thought.

    * * *

    The assembly over, the moment you got any free time at all you headed straight to the Third Floor, unthinkingly brushing off Keiko as you did so before she could say something.

    And there it was, at the end of the corridor up the stairs, the rose-patterned, card-studded, burgundy door amongst the usual pink and gold wallpaper. The All-Aces’ Prized Pupil Lounge.

    Your legs wobbled as you slowly made your way towards it, and after a moment that felt like eternity you gingerly rang the doorbell, only to be met with someone you didn't expect.

    "Hi there, welcome to the All-Aces Club! What can we help you with?" came the bright and bubbly voice of a Japanese girl whose looks till reminded you a lot of Melissa, her hair dyed platinum blonde and her skin a deep tan.

    "Ahem, I believe I'll be doing the introductions, Reina," the more familiar voice of Melissa barked at this girl, as she pushed her to the side. Staring down at you now, Melissa went on, "Sorry, you know how hangers-on are like- Oh wait, no you wouldn't. So okay, you're er 'Haruka' or whatever, right? Good, knew you'd show up pronto, though let's face it, it's not like you're in any position to do otherwise".

    Before you could reply at all, Melissa then dragged you by your tie into the club lounge. Your first thought upon finally seeing the inside of this place was Wow, this looks more like a penthouse suite than a school room!

    <<BGM: Rule of Rose - The Attic >>

    The walls were coloured a rich cream, the arching window-frames a deep burgundy, one large enough to cover a whole balcony, and the carpet a mix of glittering gold and deep bronze. You stood on a little platform, with short oaken stairs either side leading you down to where the rest of the All-Aces were waiting, sitting on delicately carved chairs around a circular table. Azuma seemed engrossed in a poetry volume, Himawari was already pacing, Kikuko was sipping tea by herself, Eitaro was tapping his foot, and Gakuto was fiddling with his laptop.

    "Er, okay Melissa, ma'am, I guess I'll just get going," the Reina girl said as she tried to slink away, but Melissa grabbed her by the collar and spoke directly at her.

    "Oh no, Reina, we've still got a job for a Jack like you," Melissa flashed a sharp grin, before she turned to you and said, "Oh, a Jack is what you'll be now, at least for the foreseeable future. Come on, did you honestly think we were going to make a total nobody an Ace right away?"

    "Melissa, you could stand to be nicer to her, y'know," the singer Himawari Aoyagi raised her otherwise tender voice. She then ran up to you and smiled, "Oh hey, you'd be Nakamura-san? It's a pleasure to meet you, though I'm sorry if some of our terms can seem, ahem, a bit arcane."

    "Allow me to elucidate," came the dulcet tones of the green-clad, pale-haired computer master Momoi Gakuto, "The six of us here are the Aces, my industrious self the Ace of Wands, the striking Melissa the Ace of Coins, dear Himawari the Ace of Hearts, Azuma the Ace of Spades, Eitaro the Ace of Cups, and the delightful Kikuko the Ace of Swords".

    You counted on your fingers trying to remember this all, playing cards not your forte, but you said, "Right, think I've got that".

    "It's a genius terminology, one you'd rightly expect one like me to have come up with. But alas, I must credit Azuma as who we have to thank for bestowing us our titles," Gakuto said, then turned and gave a hand to the Drama Head, who just chuckled and smiled.

    "All cool? Right, so a 'Jack' one of our personal posse, anyone else we deem to let in this room with us, but who still couldn't cut it as an Ace. Like Reina here, and of course, hmhm, you," Melissa smirked and prodded you right above your chest. "Ya hear that, Reina? I want you to start accompanying Honoka, teach her what the duties of a Jack are".

    "Oh, of course, aye aye ma'am!" Reina said, then gave a salute.

    "Whether Ace or Jack, to even be seen with us, proper grace and etiquette are essential," the almost doll-like Kikuko stood up and focused her scarlet eyes on you, "For you though, we cannot have you dress like a peasant, for are you not in the company of nobles?"

    "Though it's not like we are who we are just for how we look," Eitaro gruffly muttered and rested his hand on his chin, "Willpower, discipline, and diligence are a must, even a Jack can't afford to slack off in our group. Never forget, we are the best of the best".

    All this, t-then why did you even want me in the first place?! you thought so strongly you almost said that out loud, grabbing your mouth just in time.

    "I suppose then you're curious as to why exactly we scouted you out," Azuma said, almost exactly in sync. "It's a long and complicated reason, but I'll start by saying, well Honoka, this isn't the first time we've met, and not just at this school either..."

    "W-what?" you gasped, Wouldn't I have remembered meeting someone like Azuma before? I mean, my memory isn't the best, and he certainly speaks with more authority than me...

    "Anyway, let's address your appearance, that'll probably be the quickest thing to deal with," Gakuto cut in, changing the topic to something simpler. Using a hologram projector he flashed your own social media profile, one you hadn't bothered to curate in quite a while admittedly, right up in front of everyone, making you jump back.

    "I'm one of the boys, so I was hardly raised in the art of makeovers, but I definitely know a thing or two about digital image editing," Gakuto said and then asked, "Well then Honoka, what shall your updated appearance be?"

    Biting your lip, you just pointed at a picture of a scarlet-haired, mysterious-looking beauty.

    "Alright, good choice," Gakuto smugly grinned as he made some random-fire adjustments to your photo avatar. Before, the picture had been pimple-stained, with your hair its usual dull-coloured mess as it drooped all over your face. Now your face was all cleared up and your virtual hairstyle had been neatly tucked and trimmed.

    "Ooh, you know what this means!" Reina beamed and hopped up and down.

    "Yep, get in here, newbie," Melissa said. She flashed a sharp-toothed smile as she dragged you over to a convenient curtained changing room, Reina and Himawari tailing along after her.

    <<BGM: Ouran HSHC - Tango Brilliante >>

    Within, your head was immediately dunked underwater, and you felt several hands scrubbing some rather pungent kind of shampoo and conditioner all through it. Once you were pulled up for air, the other girls smothered you in towels, followed by Melissa yanking on your no longer greasy hair with a brush, snipping your fringe with scissors, and fixing any part that stuck out with scrunchies.

    "Ow, geez you guys, you don't have to be so forceful-" you tried to say, but it was then Melissa and Himawari starting putting makeup all over your face, They started with a glossy foundation, tweezed your eyebrows, lathered on the mascara and eyeshadow, and pinkened your face with blush and lipstick. After that was the most painful change of all, as Melissa, noticing some flab on your stomach, tightened your bra, and shoved you into a corset.

    You were spun around like a tornado in your chair, until you were in front of a mirror. "Ta-da!" Reina and Himawari each said and smiled in unison, while Melissa just had a lively smirk on her face, slowly clapping at her own work.

    It was, well, hard to imagine what you were even seeing in the mirror, you blinked your eyes and rubbed the glass to make sure your eyes weren't playing tricks on you. The person was staring back at you was certainly pretty, but you were still having trouble processing that she was... you.

    "I, I don't know what to say," you mumbled, "I never imagined looking like this".

    "Better start imagining, dearie, 'cause we've still got work to do if you're gonna hang with us," Melissa said, pushing back out the curtain into a club room, with you suddenly face to face with Kikuko.

    "I told you, you need to sharpen your graces," she spoke down at you, almost sounding like she'd been listening in your prior conversation, "Firstly, shoulders up, spine straight, hands together," Kikuko told you as she pulled you up and smoothed your skirt.

    "Well, that certainly took a while. But anyway, here's where Azuma and I come in," Gakuto then said from across the hall.

    "It's been said that nobody has a good online bio, but looking at yours, it is simply more dreadful than the norm. Friggin' dull, like you've lived in this corner of Hokkaido all your life, have the most obvious taste in film, TV and games, and have been through barely any life-changing events to speak of".

    "Therefore, we're giving you a chance to rewrite your own history, to play the part you were born to play, so to say," Azuma knelt and took your hand.

    "Wait, wouldn't that be, y'know, lying?" you had to ask.

    "Well, that's social media for you," Gakuto quipped and adjusted his glasses.

    "Besides, people will always take a thrilling story over a dry reality. I'm in Theatre, I should know," Azuma chuckled, before he pulled out what looked like a collection of scripts. "I understand inventing an entirely new past for yourself may seem a daunting task, so I've gone out of my way to write up several backstories for you on your behalf, each approved by us All-Aces. Take your pick".

    [X] I ran away from my aristocratic but abusive birth parents, leaving behind my childhood friend Sakurazuka Azuma. My fantasy is to find true love. My interests include singing, dancing, and animals.
    [ ] My loving parents died when I was young, leaving me to be raised in an orphanage owned by the Sakurazuka family. My fantasy is to find out I'm a princess. My interests include acting, writing, and reading.
    [ ] I fell in with a bad crowd and had my life fall to pieces, tearing me away from my childhood friend Sakurazuka Azuma. My fantasy is to have a dashing hero sweep me off my feet. My interests include poetry, photography, and fashion.
    [ ] Write-in.

    You paused, hesitant to ask "Why do all of these have you as my childhood friend?"

    Azuma smiled and held you, "Because I was, that part is at least true, don't you remember?"

    You started shaking, even sweating. "Um, er, I guess my memory isn't the greatest..." you said.

    "Come now, don't you remember growing up with a brown-haired young boy there in your life?" Azuma, looking undaunted, asked you.

    "Oh, you mean Yuya?" you blurted out.

    "Ito Yuya, second year? Ah, I see where the confusion comes from," Azuma sighed, muttered something to himself, before he said, "I'm afraid you must've gotten the two of us mixed up. Oh, not to put any blame on Yuuya, when you called him your childhood friend, he must've been too polite or too anxious to correct you, and simply played along. Either way, I'm glad we've gotten that sorted".

    "Yeah, now if you're done talking, it's about time we got down to the real reason why we brought this girl here," Eitaro spoke, as he whipped off the cloth from the circular table, revealing what looked like some sort of Gameboard on it.

    To you, this Board resembled a weird cross between a hexagonal chessboard, a jigsaw puzzle, and a Monopoly board but with the squares all throughout instead of just along the edges. A good chunk of the board was blank, but you could see at least six bursts of colour on the board, each taking up several Spaces.

    "Now this is what makes you an All-Ace," Eitaro proclaimed, "On this Board we play the Persona Game, the toughest competition this, or any other, school has to offer".

    "That is one way to put it," Azuma laughed, then stepped up to the board, "Each of the coloured spaces you see on the board are called Empires, a cognitive manifestation of the influence, the authority, the power a person wields here at Hanataba Academy. Most students, even teachers, don't have a status grand enough to declare their own Empire, so their Pieces survive the game by clinging to the Players who do".

    "Naturally, All us Aces have an Empire, but you, well you're a weird one, Honoka," Melissa started proudly but then her voice dropped, "We've spent ages trying to see if you had a Piece anywhere, but nope, nothing. Obviously, someone like you couldn't dream of having an Empire, but with no Piece, that can only mean you're a Player, like us! Somehow".

    Now that she mentioned it, you could see on closer inspection how each occupying Empire on the Gameboard did kinda reflect the personality of each All-Ace. The Theatres covered in roses and vines were unmistakably Azuma, the Colosseums were sporty enough for Eitaro, the brilliant lantern-like pagodas made Kikuko's heritage clear, the crisscrossing wires and Tron-like grid reminded you of Gakuto, the Mega-Malls ringed by desert were American enough for Melissa...

    But the last major Empire didn't even feel the slightest thing like Himawari, looking like a tangled sprawl of slums and alleyways, drenched in rain and smog. Ah, maybe I'm just getting these mixed up, you thought.

    "Er, you said it took forever to find whether I had a Piece or not, but um, the Board honestly doesn't look that big. Maybe the Pieces are in a box or something?" you asked.

    But your query was only met with laughter from the All-Aces, only Azuma at least tried to restrain himself.

    "Oh no no no, you haven't even seen what makes the Persona Game, well the Persona Game!" Melissa grinned, as she conjured up that same Tarot card she’d had that morning, and grabbing your arm caused one to suddenly appear in your hand too. She then slammed both your hands down on the Gameboard, and suddenly you were overcome by queasiness as your whole world started to spin.

    <<BGM: Umineko - Activepain >>

    * * *

    Author's Note: Persona: The Beautiful is a completed story, but I'll be uploading it bit by bit on Beast's Lair to allow breathing space for discussion.

    Persona: The Beautiful on Sufficient Velocity
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    Last edited by NailsInYourFeet; August 13th, 2022 at 04:16 AM. Reason: Making music links take up less space

  2. #2
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    II. The Gameboard

    Your whole world then vanished, replaced by a giant corrupted-looking chessboard stretching off into the distance. "Where are we?!" you immediately exclaimed.

    "Duh, on the Gameboard, where else?" Melissa said, having appeared right next to you. You then saw that somehow her entire outfit had changed, with her now wearing a glittering silver-white gown that reminded you more of a Hollywood celebrity than a student and carrying a... chainsaw.

    Before you could even ask, from right behind you a looming fish or stingray-like crowned monster emerged, causing you to nearly fall off balance.
    "Teehee, a Shadow already? Wow Honoka, you really are breezing through Initiation," Melissa devilishly grinned, revving up her a chainsaw while simultaneously using a quill to write the kanji for 'Gold' in the air. "Anjou!" she called.
    From out of Melissa's soul arose a floating spirit woman clad in deep ruby gemstones for armour and with pointed fleur-de-lys shaped steel spikes jutting off her like a cactus or rose thorns, her swiftly casting an explosive blast of light resembling a miniature nuke at the 'Shadow' monster.

    "Oh right, forgot about you. Guess you need a weapon then, fine," Melissa moaned as she nonchalantly tossed a-

    [ ] Spear
    [ ] Sword
    [X] Tonfa pair
    [ ] Chakram pair
    [ ] Write-in

    -at you.

    "Honoka, can you hear us?" you swore you could hear Gakuto's voice speaking to you from above.

    "Listen, a Piece on the Gameboard manifests as a demonic Shadow. But you can counter, it, place it under your control, if you summon your Persona," it was Azuma speaking now "Write the kanji for 'Lance' in the air to call it forth, and speak, Persona!"

    Nearly panicking, you did as Azuma told you, and in a great flashing light, there came a woman's voice:

    "I art thou... Thou art I"
    [ ] "Hold true to what you know, hold true to who you are, and we shall not be crushed by invading kingdoms. I am Cleopatra!"
    [X] "They placed a ceiling of solid rock over us from birth, but our ladder to heaven shall climb through any earthly firmament. I am Theodora!"
    [ ] "We've been played like puppets on strings, but in this new life, no one but us can determine our destiny. I am Oichi!"
    [ ] "You're a diamond in the rough, don't let them ever try to stain you. Let's enjoy what time we have to the fullest! I am Antoinette!"
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<Persona 3 - Invocation >>

    Above you emerged, from millions of tiles swarming together into one being, a woman clad in a long, flowing cloak of purple, with a sparkling gold crown and mantle, and shimmering silver pearls for strands of hair. Behind her was attached a giant solar disc, embroidered like the wheel of a massive chariot, or like the eye of God.
    [Inverse Fool 0]

    Elements: Resists Psy and Bless, weak to Curse
    - Strength: |||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |||
    - Endurance: ||
    - Psi
    - Sukukaja

    - Hama

    With an extended hand and a swish of her cloak, your Persona Theodora cast a great blast of eye-bending, multi-coloured circles upon the Shadow you faced, sending it reeling and its essence scrambling for sense. You somehow instinctively knew, likely because this 'Persona' was after all you, that you had just attacked, not with explosive force like Melissa, but with the pure power of the mind itself.

    "Alright, you're finally starting to pay back our good generosity," Melissa whooped, but her smug tones soon came back with, "You're still the new kid on the block though, let a real pro show you how it's done". After slashing straight across the Shadow with her chainsaw, Melissa seized the opportunity and had her Persona Anjou (the only figure you knew by that name being the historical Margaret of Anjou) call forth another blazing blast of radiating energy.

    It was then you looked down at yourself, only to notice that your clothes and completely changed! Your school uniform no longer in sight, you instead now found yourself wearing-
    [ ] A frilly dress that looked like a pastel princess with ballerina shoes and tights, with long bright red ribbons flowing off the back.
    [X] A golden-bronze set of armour that came with a pleated skirt and wing-like designs.
    [ ] A checkered white, red and black set of tights, jingling bells attached, with your face turned pale but heavy dark makeup around your eyes.
    [ ] Write-in

    The fight you'd gotten yourself into hadn't gone on for long, but luck would have it that this Shadow was far from the cream of its crop. Steeling yourself and channelling your adrenaline, you raced forth, leapt up and dealt two concussive blows with the tonfas you'd been given, knocking the royal fish-like Shadow straight out.

    Wow, never knew I could be that athletic, you thought, and that developed into Was it just the heat of battle? A surge of power that comes from having this 'Persona'? Or maybe I just never made the effort before?
    That rush to your head wasn't subsiding though, as your knees started wobbling, your vision started blurring, and you now couldn't help but feel awfully dizzy.

    "Aw sheesh, why in Hell are you suddenly turning to Jell-O now?!" Melissa barked at you "Seriously, this 'Oh I just got my Persona' bullshit again?"
    Her words from that point became a jumbled mess to your eyes, as you then collapsed to the ground.

    * * *

    When you came to, you found yourself in yet another unfamiliar place. Is this another part of the 'Gameboard'? Opening your eyes further, you could see every was bathed in an eerier blue light, and that this place took the form of a:

    [X] Zeppelin cockpit.
    [ ] Games room.
    [ ] Trophy room.
    [ ] Sports commentator booth.
    [ ] Mausoleum.
    [ ] Write-in

    <<BGM: Persona 5 - Aria of the Soul (Lo-Fi Mix) >>

    "Welcome," said a voice belonging to a young yet unnaturally thin silver-haired man, wearing a tailored black suit and speaking in a creaky voice that sounded much older than he looked, the only thing distracting about his looks being his sinister expression and extremely long nose, "-to the Velvet Room, a place between dream and reality, life and death, and even beyond the bounds of the Board your grand tournament is held on. This is a place only those who have signed a contract may enter, and when you offered yourself as a Jack to a Hand of Aces, well, you in essence did".

    In his hands flashed a Tarot card you recognised as the Fool, with him saying "You have embarked upon a momentous journey, yet already-" he shuffled his deck to produce Fortune, "-there has been a twist in the tale, a most rare occurrence. You possess what can only be described a mutant Wild Card, enabling you to copy any Persona or Shadow you come across, though with Theodora the only Persona truly your own". In a flash of fire, he then produced the Devil and Tower "normally, one's connections with another would be the lifeblood of Persona-users, but unfortunately the people around you seem poised to tear you down".

    "Wait, you're talking about Personae?" you spoke up, yet at the same time somehow not surprised about his cryptic warning, "T-then do the All-Aces also know about this place?"

    "I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say," Igor rebuffed you, as suddenly you were interrupted by a... blue coffin lined with gold propped up next to him creaking wide open.

    "Ah, it would seem Lauryn has taken heed of our new arrival," Igor turned his gaze, for within the coffin lay the corpse of a woman, her skin turned blue and her hair gone pale, as her golden eyes suddenly flashed open to gaze right at you, making you flinch.

    "Wandering souls end up stuck between this world and the next, hence how Lauryn came to wait here, working as you would say 'part-time'," Igor explained, but complicated things again with "What our work exactly is I'll elaborate on next time, when you find the door back to our Velvet Room on your own volition. All I'll say for now is the services we offer you will be... different from our usual since, if I may be blunt, we aren't accustomed to working with such an... odd case of a Wild Card as yourself".

    Before you had any chance to respond, this room flashed a bright white, as you awoke to find yourself on a hospital bed.

    * * *

    Groaning as you lay staring at the blank ceiling, the silence was soon broken when a familiar blonde girl burst into the room, although not the first one that came to mind.
    "Honoka, you're alive!" came the piercing voice of Reina as she ran up and hugged you tight "You were unconscious a whole day, we were all totally worrying about you".

    "Sheesh, fainting on your first day of school, we almost had a publicity nightmare on our hands," you heard Miss Tanizawa's voice, and turned your head to see her leaning on the doorway, arms crossed. "I kid, I kid, after all I'm not one to let any of my students get hurt while I'm around," she tried to give a smile.

    "T-thanks, I appreciate it," you murmured. You were sadly not surprised to see that none of the All-Aces were here, thought were a little hurt that neither Keiko or Yuya appeared to have stopped by.
    Honestly, I'm betting everything with the All-Aces was just some weird fever dream I had after the pressure of school got to me, you thought, Gameboards, Personae, hanging with all the cool kids, it just feels like a total fantasy- Wait, that wouldn't explain how Reina knows me though?

    "Huh, I see you've been seriously getting into makeup and hairstyling, eh Honoka? That 'Colette' was in here earlier, she said that you looked almost angelic all dolled up." Miss Tanizawa then went on, "Yeah, she sure has a weird way of complimenting people, doesn't she? Well, hopefully higher self-esteem will mean higher grades for you".

    Wait, 'all dolled up'? your eyes shot right open, as you tumbled out of bed and grabbed the bedside mirror. No mistake, staring back at you was not your pasty, background-blending past appearance, but the you after you'd been given an extensive, not to mention painful, makeover. Okay okay, so my time in the All-Aces Lounger happened, but that Persona stuff's gotta be a hallucination, right?

    "Wow, you're already back out of bed. See, knew you'd recover soon!" Reina cheered for you, giving a bunny-ears-like salute with two of her fingers. "Still, y'know, be careful, wontcha?"

    "Oh yeah, Reina," you said, looking at her, "Have the All-Aces said or done anything while I've been unconscious?"

    "Um, well ya see..." Reina started umming and aahing, "I'm a Jack so they only tell me so much. Azuma's been pacing back and forth, though has insisted he's fine, and like Gakuto made, er, a few jokes about unconscious bodies, but I know he hasn't tampered with your social media accounts any further. Eitaro, ah, I don't know what came over him, he got real mad and called you a weakling, but Kikuko said that 'going through such hardships are only to be expected in your training'. Himawari's been worried sick about you, though!"

    You felt at least little relieved from that last one but had to ask "...And Melissa?"

    Upon you asking, Reina's teeth started to chatter, and you see tiny sweat beads forming on her, but she gulped and said, "Melissa, she, she just laughed and said, 'Well what did you expect?' Look, I'm sure she was just blowing off steam, or trying to lighten the mood!" Reina's voice suddenly grew strained, even if she told you exactly what you expected.
    "Hey look, Melissa told me to teach you how to be a Jack, so whatever happens. I'm there for you!" Reina suddenly brightened up, anything to lift the mood.

    "Gee, thanks," you slowly began to smile, "I, I really appreciate it-" But then your train of thought was derailed, as a mysterious voice resounded within your mind.

    <<BGM: Persona 5 - The Spirit] >>

    "I art thou... Thou art I
    Thy anoint a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Take up the mantle of the Magician Arcana"

    That strange voice made you stumble back, with Reina rushing to ask, "Honoka! Are you okay?"

    "Ugh yeah, fine, just fine..." you muttered, clutching your head.

    "So, all done in here? Then good to see you're ready to go, and meanwhile I have a class to teach," Miss Tanizawa's grin turned cat-like as she ushered you out of the room.

    Back in the school corridors, your first instinct was to scramble around trying to find where Keiko and Yuya were, to get some normalcy back into your life.
    As you did though, something very abnormal for you happened, you all at once felt the eyes of all the students around staring at you, almost like you were one of the All-Aces. Already you could hear girls muttering amongst themselves in your presence, and some guys were even catcalling you, which you could now say how creepy it was first-hand.

    "Oi, leave her alone!" you then heard Colette Claudius bark out towards one of the catcalling students, glaring fiercely at him.

    "Tch, whatever, freak," the catcaller snarled as he turned away. It was weird to think this, but you had to thank Colette for that.

    Your eyes darting around, you were soon able to spot Keiko's shaggy self at the cafeteria, sitting down with a bento box. You rushed over to her, but for some odd reason she didn't notice you.
    "Er, hi, what can I help you with?" she said, some food still in her mouth.

    "Keiko, what are you talking about? It's me, Honoka!" you tried to tell her, but it took a second for her to register that.

    "Oh wow, Honoka! Hey, glad you're back, er, though I guess I didn't recognise it was you at first," Keiko admitted, looking down at her bento, "Like, there's something seriously different about you".

    Wait, wouldn't Keiko already know about my changed appearance from visiting me? you thought, but that thought got worse, did she just... not get around to seeing me while I was in a coma? I'd ask, but, well it's a touchy topic...

    You then looked around to see Yuya, who according to Azuma barely really knew you, at a nearby bench. Unlike Keiko, the look on his face told you he knew it was you right away, but he seemed... oddly intimidated.

    [ ] Talk some more with Keiko, get some confusion sorted out.
    [ ] Talk to Yuya, even if he's not a childhood friend, he's still your friend.
    [X] Talk to Colette, you owe her one after she stood up for you.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Awkwardly giving a "Well, catch you later!" to Keiko and Yuya, you stepped away only to soon bump into Colette again.
    "Oh hey, Colette. I, um, have to hand it to you there, I mean I haven't had stick up for me in, well, a little while," you fidgetingly gave a smile.

    Colette laughed and said, "Oh please, it was effortless for me. Still, you seem awfully perturbed, is there something on your mind?" she inquired.

    You gritted your teeth and looked behind you, "Hey, erm, yeah there is. But, y'know, mind if we talk about it in private?" you asked, tugging on your collar.

    "Ah, I know just the place!" Colette beamed and clasped her hands together, before she took your sleeve, "We're still setting things up in the Occult Club right now, in preparation for our grand opening this year, and my tired hands would much appreciate someone to help carry the boxes".

    Walking up the Hall to the Occult Club, the two of you were stopped halfway by Himawari, of all people.
    "Honoka, I knew you'd be alright!" she beamed, raising her hands to her chin, "I mean, it's normal to faint after-" she then stopped, having seen Colette was also there, "After, er, everything that's happened, so don't feel bad, and it looks like you're all okay now".

    "Wow, thanks," you said, taken aback, "Far as I know, you're the first All-Ace to come and check up on me".

    Himawari's words seemed to have less effect on Colette. "What is it you want, pretty girl?" the goth snarled.

    The bright expression on Himawari's face started to fade, "Sheesh Colette, why do you always have to be like that?" she said through gritted teeth, before she turned back to you to hand you an invitation, "Melissa asked to give you this".

    You picked up the invitation, which read: Good, you're ready to really get started. First thing tomorrow at school, we're giving you your first real mission to prove you didn't just get lucky. Better be there!

    "Strange they wouldn't just get one of their 'Jacks' to deliver this to you," Colette said, "Unless of course, they decided to demote you on a whim, Himawari".

    It took a while for Himawari to have any response to that, but she eventually said "No, of course not. Besides, that'd be quite the formal process, it's not something they'd just do behind my back". Colette had to roll her eyes at that though.
    "Anyway, see ya tomorrow, Honoka, we're looking forward to... things" Himawari gave one last grin and wave before heading off.

    "Well, with her gone, the Occult Club now, hmm?" Colette leaned up to you.

    * * *

    <<BGM: Rozen Maiden - Noble Dolls >>

    You grunted as you heaved a stack of boxes around, not having been told exactly what was in them, but you thought you see dangling spiders and hear heavy books and a crystal ball sliding around within. The almost total lack of light in the Occult Clubroom didn't help, and when you tried to clean a cobweb out of the way, Colette had intervened to have it kept there.

    "Okay, just put it down there and... perfect!" she smiled at you, hands clasped to the side, before she sat down on a rickety chair, with a second chair set aside for what looked like an old stuffed rabbit, one of its eyes missing, and offered you tea, "It's Kashmiri Chai! Oh, and don't tell anyone, but I used to have a horrid coffee addiction, and I'm afraid that wouldn't fit with my image. But anyway, I believe you said something to talk about?"

    "Uh, yeah, well I'm trying process... that my friend Keiko didn't come see me when I was in the hospital room, for like an entire day. I just, ah, don't know how to feel about that," you finally found the words.

    "Ah, I see," Colette murmured, idly stirring her tea, "I suppose you could look on this positively, that Keiko was so worried about you that she became scared to even see the condition you were in, most noble of her. However-" her good cheer faded, "More cynically, and I suppose you could tell I'd say this, but it's just as likely that one of the All-Aces ordered Keiko to go nowhere near you. Cutting you off from your previous contacts is a common tactic used by hierarchies to keep their subordinates in line, after all".

    You almost feel out of your own chair upon hearing that. "What? Oh, come on! Like, most of the school friggin' adores the All-Aces, so there'd be a huge scandal or something if they really did act like that," you said.

    "Oh, how nave, that's what good PR is for," Colette giggled at that, then said in a low tone, "I've seen this happen before. And think, was the makeover they gave you just to make you more respectable in their company? No, it was also about controlling you, about telling your mind that your identity is theirs', not your own".

    You were left stuttering, wanting to say something but not finding the words.

    "Not I'm saying you look bad now, quite the contrary. I will at least credit Melissa her beauty know-how, even if it's not a look I'd ever go for myself," Colette at least had to add.

    You anxiously then raised your phone, opening that social media profile that'd been edited. "They had my online bio changed, making me lie about who I am and who I've been, said they had to erase my dull, normal life. I guess this would... only support your case," you muttered.

    "Huh, I ran away from my aristocratic..." Colette began reading, but in the end had to laugh, "This is Azuma's work I take it? Hah, people may swoon for his performances, but as a scriptwriter he's still a novice. So, I take it you never really did know him until you came to Hanataba?"

    "Well, he says I did, that I just got him confused for another guy I know," you blushed, having to rethink everything.

    "My, dearie me," Colette said, dipping a biscuit in the last of her tea, "Afraid the bell's about to toll, but Honoka, if you ever need an ear to talk about your problems, please know you can confide in me. After all, disturbed if not broken souls are typically attracted to the occult, so I've had to play Agony Aunt for quite a few of my clubmates in my time," she patted you on the back.

    "Oh, er, t-thank you," you said, only to hear that throbbing voice in your head from before:

    "I art thou... Thou art I
    Thy anoint a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Moon Arcana"

    "The Occult Club opens on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays, so please, feel free to, hmhm, embrace your dark side," Colette said, grinned, then stood up to curtsey.

    * * *

    The bell for the school day's end soon came, and you headed out the front gates for the first time as a second-year student, though of course it would've been the second time if not for, well, your coma.

    <<BGM: DSK - Winter Lane >>

    Hanataba was in Kuchinashi City, a pleasant enough place nestled in Hokkaido's mountains, and for trade and tourism it made a convenient halfway stop between Sapporo and Hakodate. Despite its distinguished air, like many Hokkaido cities it was relatively recent by Japan's historical standards, only dating back to the 19th Century. You could tell this from not just its more vintage European-style building that lined the main streets, but also its grid-like street layout. You wondered if that might've played a part in why Melissa chose to transfer here.

    While Hanataba Academy was clearly what the town was most known for, it's not as if there weren't other points of interest. There was a food arcade where the wafting aroma of steamy eel, miso and udon was balanced with the sweet scents of mochi and ramune, there were several good nature-walks on the outskirts, if perhaps not the most stunning Hokkaido had to offer, and of course your basics like cafes, izakaya, a cinema, a town library, a video arcade, a local museum, and so on.

    Honestly though, you didn't feel up to any of that right now, your thoughts were largely occupied with just getting back your place, as you desperately needed to relax after everything you'd gone through. Said place being:

    [ ] Your parents' house, and they were very much your birth parents unlike that fake bio. Good thing they didn't tend to check your social media accounts.
    [X] At a little apartment you'd started renting.
    [ ] At your aunt's place.
    [ ] At Keiko's place, which made your earlier encounter all the more awkward.
    [ ] At Yuya's place, which it'd be better if Azuma didn't find out about.
    [ ] In the room above a part-time job you had (write-in said job).
    [ ] Write-in.

    There was one last event that came up before you could get to where you were staying, when you noticed Kuchinashi's Local History Museum had a strange side door in it that had never been there before, to your knowledge. the door glowed a translucent blue, and you could see a glimmering butterfly slowly fluttering around.

    Biting your lip yet unable to take your eyes off it, you gently pushed it open only for your whole self to become shrouded in a deep blue haze. Next thing you knew, you were back in that Velvet Room, just like Igor had invited you before.

    "Ah, glad you could make it," he began, clearing his throat, "Now as promised, it is time I divulged to you this room's purpose. You wield the power of Persona, the mask you wear from within to face the blunt force of the world, but you in particular face the uphill battle of defining your psyche by others, and in turn having them define you. It is likely that this is what has resulted in your aberrant Wild Card, the power to pull forth mirror images of the Personae and Shadows you encounter".

    From behind you, a tiny little creature stepped up, resembling a:
    [X] Pegasus Pony.
    [ ] Cartoon Pig.
    [ ] Plump Pigeon.
    [ ] Write-in.
    - its face covered in soot, and said, in a squeaky yet scruffy childlike male voice "Hello there Miss, my name's Popo! My usual residence is out on the Gameboard, but Mr. Igor says he permits me to visit his Velvet Room.
    You might be wonderin' why I popped me head out? Well, granting folks Personae happens to be my thing, so since you can, if you'd like to use any of your friends' or enemies' Personae, just ask me and I'll have it in a jiffy".

    It was then Lauryn stepped up, having gotten dressed in a pilot's scarf, goggles over her head, and a stewardess uniform. "But your friends' didn't get their Personae last night, they've had a while to train them, so replicating them at the same level of power is unlikely. But that's how I can help, I can Supercharge a Persona by revving our Engine capacity here, our Airship acting as a lightning rod".

    "Of course, said energy has to be generated somewhere," Igor followed on, "If you desire these more powerful Persona, you must embrace the world around you to form Social Links with others. It is from these such cognitive acceleration must be gained".

    That definitely took you aback though, "Wait, you mean socialise?! Okay, I really think you've gotten the wrong person for this".

    Igor had to laugh, "'Gotten the wrong person'? It is you who chose to step into this room. As for socialisation, have faith in yourself, and surely your Fool's Journey won't remain at Zero".

    "Alright, Miss," Popo started up again, "It looks like you've already got two Personae queuing up and waiting for you". The winds around him then blew a stack of shogi pieces together, congealing to form a copy of Melissa's Anjou, and that fish-like Shadow you'd faced earlier:

    I am Strength Anjou, let us stain the gardens of war with red!Anjou
    [Inverse Strength XI]

    Elements: Strong to Nuclear and Gun, Weak to Psy
    - Strength: |||
    - Cognition: |
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: |||
    - Frei
    - Snap
    - Tarunda

    I am Emperor Forneus, we shall arise from the depths!Forneus
    [Emperor IV]
    Elements: Strong to Ice, weak to Elec
    - Strength: ||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: |||
    Skills: Bufu, Mabufu, Rakukaja

    "If you would seek entirely new Personae though," Igor went on, "I will offer my service, to fuse two or more Personae, separate parts of yourself, into one. Of course, you have yet to have the chance to wield the Personae you've been given, so perhaps next time?"

    With the words 'next time', the world around you began fading again, until you were standing back in Kuchinashi, just outside that History Museum.
    What the- you thought, Ugh, better just get back to my place.
    Last edited by NailsInYourFeet; August 19th, 2022 at 04:21 AM. Reason: Don't need in-profile descriptions

  3. #3
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    III. The Fool Arcana

    The apartment block you were staying was a somewhat austere building, built from now moss-stained red timber and with
    basic white door and window frames.

    <<BGM: Night in the Woods - Mae's House >>

    "Hey Megumi, I'm back," you called out, upon walking up the stairs and throwing open your door. The apartment wasn't much, being small, cramped, and thanks to your roommate Megumi, quite messy, though at least there was enough space for a little balcony.

    "Oh hey, new girl," said roommate nonchalantly replied, lying on the couch, and flicking through streaming services when there were a bunch of assignments piled up around them. They did have to turn to you to say, in a softer voice, "Sheesh, heard you were out cold for a day. That must've blown, especially on your first day back, hope you're feeling better. Course I'm in college, so I understand what it's like to get seriously conked out".

    Umebayashi Megumi was a stick-thin young adult who still hadn't changed out of the suit they wore to college, though they'd rolled their trouser legs up all the way past their thighs. They'd told you they honestly couldn't care about gender, you remembered they'd cited several anime and manga characters to explain being non-binary to you, but honestly their long, flowing dark green mane of hair was easily more glamorous than many women you knew (despite being somewhat tangled due to neglect).

    Admittedly, you were nervous a couple of days ago when you found out your roommate was already in college, but so far they'd been a nice enough person, even being okay with you sleeping in the apartment's one bed while they took the couch, though you could joke about how they barely moved from said couch.

    "Yeah, thanks," was all you said in return, sitting down beside them while they chuckled at some old sitcom they had on.

    "You hungry? Want any of these chips? They're caramel-flavoured" they said as they passed you the bowl, before thinking "Oh, know what, I should totally order in pizza tonight! No wait, maybe tacos, hmm, whadda you think 'Hona?"

    "Well," you began, wondering how much money Megumi exactly had left, "I guess pizza, since it was the first one you said?"

    "Cool, and ooh, you okay with anchovies?" Megumi piped up, you just nodding in return. You reminded yourself Megumi was like this even when sober.

    "So uh, other than going comatose and stuff, how was your first day, er days, back?" they then asked, that question really sending you scrambling for an answer.

    Not good, I've fallen in with a really bad crowd, and my friends have been driven away! "Fine, just fine" was the difference between what you thought and what you actually said.

    "Man, I'd be fine with 'fine', compared to the shitload of work my professors' have been given me," Megumi sighed, "I guess being a community college they seriously feel the need to compensate".

    You spent the rest of the night chatting about nothing much in particular, Megumi only getting in like a paragraph of their essay, and as you later chowed down on the pizza you were grateful you were having takeout over Megumi's own recipes. they could cook you guessed, it's just that their tastes and sense of what foods worked together were... bizarre, to say the least.

    And then you saw what Igor had said about building social bonds:

    "I art thou... Thou art I
    Thy anoint a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Temperance Arcana"

    * * *

    The next morning, your arrived at school early, perhaps conscious about the classes you'd missed yesterday, only to find that when you walked in the front door you'd immediately run into the same hall monitor, with neat black hair and a few freckles, who Melissa had been arguing with the other day.

    "I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-" you began, only for the monitor to just smile.

    "Ah, Miss Nakamura, no need to fret, in fact I appreciate you coming to school so early," he said before sighing, "You wouldn't know it from Hanataba's reputation, but we get more than a few latecomers, if not truants.
    Oh, and on behalf of the school, I of course apologise for your fainting spell yesterday, something like that should not have happened on our watch, especially on the first day back," he then bowed deeply.

    "No really, it's alright," you tried to tell him, "I'm... fine now, that's what matters".

    "Really? Why, that's good to hear" the monitor was relieved, "Well, I expect to see you around, oh, and you may refer to me as Ozaki Daizen, makes things easier," he waved goodbye.

    Wow, he's actually a lot nicer than I pictured, you thought, I guess Melissa must've done something really bad to rile him up back then.

    Your first class proceeded as normal, a standout question Miss Tanizawa asked you out of nowhere being "Okay Nakamura, now you're back in action, name the author of No Longer Human."

    "Ah, what? Er..."
    [ ] Natsume Soseki
    [X] Osamu Dazai
    [ ] Yasujiro Ozu
    [ ] Write-in

    Of course, when the break came, you automatically knew the All-Aces would be expecting you.
    Quickly scarfing down the leftover pizza slices you'd taken with you, you then made the trek up to the Prized Pupil Lounge. However, it turned out they'd came to you, as you were approached by Melissa directly by the stairway.

    "Okay newbie, time to really prove yourself to us," she flashed a sharp grin.

    * * *

    The two of you entered the Lounge, where the rest of the All-Aces were already waiting. Come on, are they in here all the time? Don't they have Clubs and stuff to run, food to eat?

    "Alright, your first real mission, straight from me" Melissa spoke up, pointing to the Gameboard "Guess you know how everyone here, well everyone except us, has a Shadow on the Gameboard?"

    At your nod, she immediately went on "Well, there's a guy who's been a real shit to me lately, so you and I are gonna track his Shadow down and remind him who's boss around here".

    "It is imperative we as All-Aces maintain our influence over the student body, that's the role we've been given, after all. You see, plays need directors, stories need authors, and subjects need a monarch, so any would-be rebels should be stamped out swiftly," Azuma monologued.

    "Can't have some little upstart upsetting the hierarchy, can we?" Gakuto smugly chimed in.

    You tensed, already expecting the worst, "And who does this *gulp* Shadow belong to?"

    "Hey, we didn't bring you in here for you ask questions," Eitaro stated bluntly.

    "Yeah, you seriously need to know his name? Okay, fair's fair, it's that Hall Monitor narc Daizen Ozaki". She then cocked her head, "What are you worried about? It's not like we're gonna kill him or anything, we're just gonna get him to shut up a little".

    Himawari had something to say "I mean, if he has a Shadow, then he's clearly hiding something. Like, those monsters are someone's inner darkness, a genuinely good person would never manifest one".

    You instantly looked back at the door, you'd be ready to bolt if it weren't for Melissa's grip on you, or if you didn't lack the Resolve. So you just stood there, quivering as you looked down on the Gameboard, letting it sink in that even if you told Melissa no, that the All-Aces' status and influence was enough that they could turn the whole school against you if you refused, get you expelled, hound you through town...

    "Fine, I'll do it," you snarled beneath your breath, as a deeper voice echoed within your head:

    "I art thou... Thou art I
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Fool Arcana"
    * * *

    <<BGM: Baten Kaitos - House of Cards >>

    The Great Gameboard's checkered hexagons weren't as featureless as they first appeared, the landscape ascending and descending into rolling hills and deep valleys, and forming staircases that went all over the place.

    "We call this neutral territory No One's Land," Melissa said, eyeing you closely, "And your job is to help our Empires fill it in," she then gestured to the neon malls in the distance upon the word 'Empires' .

    It was right there, at the border of Melissa's Shopping Empire, where you saw the very Shadow that'd been described to you. Ozaki's Shadow looked like a mutant peacock strutting around, but with a host of actual eyes on stalks instead of tail feathers, a searing visor where its eyes usually should've been.

    [X] Overwhelm the Shadow with Theodora's radiance.
    [ ] Go for a double-Anjou beatdown.
    [ ] Freeze it in its tracks with Forneus.
    [ ] Write-in.
    "Argus, the Watcher. Typical a Hall Monitor would keep their eyes glued to everything. I'm not so brutal as to try ripping its eyes out myself, but hmhm, that's just me," you heard Gakuto's voice come crackling from above.

    And with that many eyes, ambushing Argus the Shadow was right out, it immediately setting its gazes upon you. It was quick to send a wave of blinding light your way, with Theodora able to negate the damage by floating down in. You mentally ordered your Persona to retaliate with her own psychedelic eye waves, the multi-coloured flash sending the Shadow's eye-feathers into disarray.

    Okay, going good so far, you thought, until you heard the clattering of armour behind you. Swerving around, you saw that while you'd launched your first blow on Argus, a second lumbering Shadow dressed in what looked like Greek or Roman armour, History wasn't your specialty, had approached you, a single great eye poking out from within, about to swing a giant club right down at you.

    "-The Hell?" Melissa exclaimed, her eyes widening as she looked up at this attempted ambusher "Like, I was gonna stay back and let you prove you could hang with us, but then this creep tries crashing our party. Grr, I'll deal with him, you just stick to the first Shadow I like told you, capiche?" she barked, whipping out her chainsaw and calling for Anjou.

    But with that Cycloptic Shadow behind you, sending out AoE shockwaves with a strike of its club on the ground, and the beams of light emanating from Argus' eyes, it was hard to come up so fast with another plan of attack. Being on the edge of Melissa's Shopping Empire though, you noticed a flashing neon sign pointing in to it, likely advertising one of her cognitive malls or hotels.

    Pointing your left tonfa at Argus, you got Theodora to send another psychic blast at it while you tried to climb up the railing around the sign. Meanwhile, Melissa tried sawing off the Cyclops' legs while she got Anjou to try blasting it in its eye, but this Shadow proved quite enduring physically, as it swatted Melissa away along the ground with a strike of its club.

    Hauling yourself up to the top of the billboard, your arms already aching, you reached the part of the sign where the big neon arrow was attached. Hoping Melissa could be persuaded to overlook what you were about to do, you struck the joints connecting the neon arrow twice, kicking it over as it creaked. This proved enough to send it crashing down, and with Argus having tried to fly after you, the Shadow was in the perfect position to get struck down by the falling advert, getting slammed back to the ground.

    Speaking of Melissa, while her face had been bloodied and her hair messed up, she'd gotten back on her feet and, this time, tried sawing along the gaps in the Cyclops' bronze armour, followed by her suddenly switching to carry a double-barrelled shotgun as she went and blasted the Shadow right in the eye. Anjou then double-teamed it by shoving one of her many spikes into its exposed spine, sending it roaring and toppling.

    Both Shadows struck down, each dissipating into dusky spores, you yourself almost could've collapsed from exhaustion. It didn't help that Melissa, rather than congratulating you on your victory, instead went "Oh, I see, you think you can just cause property damage to my Empire! Why I... oh, you singlehandedly beat the Shadow I assigned you to," her raging tone slowly deflated, as she then cleared her throat and had to admit, "Yeah, good work, maybe I was kinda quick to doubt you. Damn, I'm not used to giving compliments," she hissed at herself.

    The mood still tense, you tried to laugh a little and said "Well, guess having that Cyclops thing barge into the fight really threw things out of whack".

    That however made Melissa stare at you "Ugh, I shouldn't expect a newcomer to know this, but that was no random Shadow. The armor it was wearing is exactly what the Shadow pieces in Eitaro's Empire all wear. So, either he's so cognitively deficient that he can't keep his own Pieces in line-"

    That doesn't sound like Eitaro, you thought, leaving you to gulp at the other possibility.

    "-Or, and let's put this nicely, he still isn't 'convinced' by you, and that resentment's showing up on the Gameboard" Melissa just crossed her arms, but shrugged and said "Or, maybe he sent that Shadow to help out, but it was so dunderheaded that it attacked the wrong people?"

    "Yeah, if only," was all you said.

    "'Kay then, let's just get back to the lounge. After that brute beat the shit outta me, I'll probably have to spend hours in the makeup chair before I can get back to looking presentable," Melissa groaned.

    [ ] "Er, I'm sure you'll be looking prettier in no time!"
    [X] "Really? You look barely that bruised right now, honestly..."
    [ ] "Actually, the battle-scarred, blood-stained fighter look kinda suits you..."
    [ ] Write-in.

    Melissa didn't know what to say at first "...Thanks, I guess."

    You didn't know how to feel. On one hand you heart raced a little, as you thought Did I just have an actual conversation with her, with one of the most popular kids in school, and not just her barking at me? On the other, Wait, why the Hell am I seeking approval from Melissa, of all people, what with how she and the other All-Aces have been treating me?
    Either way...

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Strength Arcana"

    "Daizen the Hall Monitor had better turn out alright, in the end, after all this..." one final thought came to you.

    * * *

    Appearing back in the Prized Pupil Lounge, you on impulse blurted out "Where's Eitaro?!"

    The first to stare at you was Gakuto, "Ahem, what's the need to know?"

    "One of his Pieces had the bright idea to ambush us while Honoka was trying to complete my mission!" Melissa snapped, glaring down at Gakuto.

    "Ah, I see the confusion," Azuma spoke up, stepping in between Melissa and Gakuto, before he looked your way "You see, Melissa here is the newest of the fully-ordained All-Aces, so it'd seem she hasn't had time to adapt to... a certain custom of ours.
    We don't just use the Gameboard to ensure that every Piece within our beloved School remains in its place, but also, in the spirit of competition, as a means of settling any disputes that arise between us Aces, without having to resort to shouting matches or more brute force," he finished explaining.

    "Indeed, when you gather multiple great minds within a single room, tensions... are inevitable" Gakuto followed on, but then had to sigh "Of course, so far it's also been inevitable that either Azuma and Kikuko will win every single Persona match. Huh, and I thought I was supposed to be the Pro Gamer".

    Kikuko coldly laughed "Typical that Gakuto would be unable to distinguish videogame combat from the pressure of battle in the real world. Hah, the coddling of modernity".

    "Yeah, well, I still have the High Score on Featherman Dance Spectacular" he hissed, pushing up his glasses.

    "Right, so back to our original question, hmm?" Melissa came back with.

    "Ah right, Eitaro and Himawari have been sent to do crowd-control, clearly the school will need the reassuring words of its Top Idol and Sports Champion to not descend into hysterics at the second fainting spell within a week," Gakuto replied.

    "My congratulations to you, Honoka, we didn't even need to check the Gameboard to know you had succeeded in your mission," Azuma slyly smiled at you.

    "Don't get comfortable, an elite's path requires constant vigilance and ceaseless discipline," Kikuko gave you an icy glare, sheathing a katana even.

    "Still, we must reward you, we aren't slavers after all," Azuma said more warmly, though you guessed anyone's voice was warmer than Kikuko's right now "Here, take this, I assure you Honoka that money is no object" as he handed you 100,000 Yen.

    [ ] "Wow, thank you!"
    [X] "Uh, thanks" Guess it'll help with my expenses...
    [ ] "Know what? Keep the change" I don't need your pity money...
    [ ] Write-in.

    - The Fool has Journeyed to Rank 2 -
    * * *

    Gritting your teeth, you dashed down the stairs in fear of the worst. Sure enough, a whole crowd of students had gathered around the main hall, all of them gazing downwards.

    Pushing through the throng, you went pale as you looked down to see the prone body of Daizen Ozaki, his eyes utterly expressionless and the rest of him not moving an inch.

    "Students of Hanataba," you heard Eitaro speak up from the foot of the stairs, "Please remain calm, we assure you this is a situation that will be taken care of. This young man will be swiftly escorted to our medical wing, so keep strong in your hearts and know all is well".
    As expected, Eitaro's public speaking voice sounded little like his snarling private one, something much more appropriate for the school's famed Sports Champion.

    'Young Man'? He was only a year younger than you, you fumed internally.

    "So, let's see some smiles, hmm? With all your best wishes, I'm sure Daizen will be better in no time, and there'll be no more weird fainting attacks," Himawari put on a cutesy smile and fist-pumped the air.

    You could've gone up to Eitaro right now, pulled his collar, and asked him why the hell he sent a Shadow at you for... But yeah, like I have the resolve to go up to the toughest guy in school and tell him to quit his bullshit.

    Well, at least you had Clubs to look forward to. Honestly, the Occult Club, even if it was only helping unpack, was probably the first school club you attended in ages, other than the Go-Home Club of course. So, um, in the spirit of this 'Social Links' deal, you guess you should check what else was available:

    [ ] The Drama Club.
    [ ] The Football (Soccer) Team.
    [ ] The Kendo Club.
    [ ] The School Band.
    [ ] The Computer Club.
    [ ] Er, Miss Tanizawa's hosting a cram session in the Library.
    [X] Ah, just find Reina, you could use a friendly face right now.
    [ ] Find Keiko, you're not gonna let the All-Aces say who you can and can't hang out with.
    [ ] Find Yuya, you felt wrong just leaving him there the other day.
    [ ] Write-in.
    You thought to just quickly check on how Daizen was doing as he was carted by his classmates off to the sick ward, it was only, well, fair of you. You didn't have much time to look at him though before the sickbay's doors were closed to you, but what you did notice was that the colour hadn't returned to his eyes.

    "It's a shame," you heard a voice behind you say, turning around you saw that it was none other than Morikawa Hotaru, Student Council President here at Hanataba, a greasy brown-haired boy recognisable by the Stetson and star badge he wore, "Daizen was a big help in keeping the school orderly, I'm gonna have a whole lead on my plate without him".

    Other than his feeble cowboy attire, Hotaru was probably most known for, well, becoming SCP after the untimely death of the previous one, so having a bunch of fainting spells was the last thing he needed on his hands.
    Said death happened a year before you started high school, so all you knew about the former President was her name, Rokudo Rin, and that she'd been no less than an All-Ace, though you doubted the surviving All-Aces would divulge that much info on her to a Jack.

    "I, well um-" you stuttered out, finally managing an "I'm sorry".

    "What? Oh no, don't be, you had nothing to do with this, after all" he told you, words that really made you wince. "Well, it's just-" he tried desperately to sound authoritative, "You stay, ahem, safe out there, won't you?"

    You just nodded and walked away, right now you needed almost anything to take your mind off things.

    And then you thought, Well if the All-Aces are done with me today, how 'bout I go meet with Keiko this time?

    At the end of next class, after the History Teacher dressed like a Tudor noblewoman asked you "Okay Honoka, you’ve certainly blossomed haven't you? Now, which of these four was not an Australian bushranger?"
    [ ] Ben Hall.
    [ ] Mary Ann Bugg.
    [ ] Captain Thunderbolt.
    [X] Lenny Sharp.

    -you immediately spoke to Keiko before she could leave "Hey, Keiko, really sorry I haven't spoken to you more often. Do, do you wanna hang out again sometime?"

    "Huh?" Keiko slowly turned around to face you, "Oh, you mean that, Honoka? I... saw you were now hanging out with the All-Aces and thought 'Guess Honoka probably wouldn't have time for Yuya and me anymore'. But yeah, if you wanna, 'course we can hang out!"

    "Wow, thanks a bunch," you smiled, finally relieved to have that weight off your chest "I'm, well I kinda have to say, I don't think being around the top clique in school is really my sort of scene," That's putting it mildly.

    Keiko had to laugh at you "Are you serious? Most students here would friggin' kill to be part of the All-Aces, hell, even just to spend a day with them," she sighed "Like with Azuma- Hey, that reminds me, could you set up a meeting with Azuma for me? Oh please!"

    You had to take a step back, "Er, hate to crush your dreams Keiko, but ahem, you know how they say never meet your-" you began, but looking into her pleading, watery eyes, you then groaned "Okay, I'll see if I can arrange something. I'm still what they call a Jack, so I can't make any guarantees".

    "Oh thank you thank you thankyou!" Keiko exclaimed, before she coughed and tried to calm herself down "I mean, I guess joining the Drama Club would've been the most obvious option I had, but nah, I'd make a lousy actress, just don't have the right cognitive- well, whatever, to see myself with a different personality and place".

    "Oh I don't know, can't say till you've tried," you offered a wry smile.

    "Y'know actually," Keiko then crossed her arms "I think I can see why you'd be so dispirited. I forgot you'd also be dealing with Melissa all the time, man that must be a headache!"

    "Melissa, well she's..." you began, but for a second weren't sure how to continue, settling for "She's complicated".

    "I'll say," Keiko muttered, before she looked to both sides and then leaned towards you to whisper "To be honest, I was afraid for a second that she'd roped you in to pull some kind of prank on me, try and get me to lower my guard".

    You twitched when Keiko said that you, but then tried to smile and shake your head "What? Of course not!" If Melissa wanted to get back at you, she'd probably try to wipe your brain or something.

    "Oh good, good to hear," Keiko said before checking the clock "Eheh, bit short on time, but you know me Honoka. My workload's a bit heavy, but I'm available Wednesdays and Saturdays, and of course free on Sunday, same as last year!"

    "Okay, that's great," you waved goodbye to her, thinking to yourself, Boy, good thing we broke it up before one of the All-Aces could see us together. When I meet up with Yuya again, it'd have to be on the complete other side of town from Azuma.

    As Keiko headed out, that voice rang in your head:

    "I art Thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Justice Arcana"

  4. #4
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    May 2012
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    IV. The Jacks

    As soon the school bell rang, you walked out the front door only to see Reina in the crowd.

    You both spotting each other, she ran up to you and said, "Oh hey Honoka, sup? Melissa was talking 'bout me taking you shopping, says a Jack needs to have an up-to date wardrobe, so like, awesome huh?!"

    You just giggled and thought, I could use some cheering up, and Reina seems the right girl for that, "Sure, lead the way" Though I'm not doing this at all because Melissa wants me to.

    "Cool, I know just the place!" Reina smiled and took your hand, adding "I 'spose Melissa would probably drive you down to Sapporo, even fly you down to Harajuku, to get ya somethin' totally fancy, but um, that'd be a little short notice of me personally".

    You ended up heading out into town to stop at a local department store, rummaging through what clothes shops it had. "Er, perhaps we could just find an online catalogue on our phones, I mean it's what I usually do when I need to buy clothes," you spoke up.

    "Yeah, but you can't immediately try them on that way," Reina said, adding, "Like, I know there's apps and stuff so you can see how you look, but you can't feel the fabric or sniff the fragrance like that".

    After a montage of various outfits she placed on you, some too small, some too loose, some too gaudy, it finally came time to pick your style, "Okay Honoka, time you made the call on what to stack in your wardrobe. Don't worry, this first time's on me!"

    "Er, okay, if you say so..." you muttered.
    Your sense of style was hardly the best, before this you'd just worn the plainest, most practical clothes, or kept lunging around in your school uniform. Why the hell would the All-Aces even care what I wear outside school? But well, you sure didn't want to disappoint Reina, she seemed genuinely into this, so you perked up and went with:

    [ ] Something cool and rebellious, leather jacket, ripped jeans, that sort of thing.
    [ ] Something cute and girly, with a frilled skirt, puffed sleeves, big bows, and a pink and blue colour scheme.
    [X] Something classy and elegant, a neat tweed waistcoat, black-and-white striped v-neck, dark leggings, patterned scarf.
    [ ] Something quirky and mismatched, like a skirt over trousers, sandals, a beret, turtleneck, a pink-and-black colour scheme.
    [ ] Ah, Reina's having fun and seems to know fashion, let her decide.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Cool, looks great!" Reina smiled and gave a thumbs up, though you got the feeling she'd have said that no matter what you picked. "Still, we're not done yet, oh no! Next, we gotta sort out your makeup and perfume collection!" she continued, grabbing your arm and dragging you to another aisle.

    The perfume brands you got introduced to mostly just reminded you to brush up on your French and German, you'd mostly just stuck to deodorant before, and as for makeup you barely knew a thing beyond foundation and a little bit of eyeshadow and lipstick. "Ugh, guess we can't ask for too much progress in one day. Still, here's a neat tip, do you know you can use lipstick as nail polish, and some people will be totally fooled?!" Reina said, only allowing herself a pinch of unenthusiasm.

    You then sat down at the food court and slurped miso soba and a latte, Reina was cautious about having too much at first, but couldn't resist herself and begun piling various topping onto a hot dog, coupled with a thickshake.

    When her mouth was free of enough food and cream to form complete sentences, Reina said "Gotta admit something to ya, Honoka. While I learned fast, if I do say so myself, I'm kinda newer than you'd think to this whole fashion thing".
    She started flicking through her phone till she got to a picture from a few years of a rather plain, black-haired Japanese girl. "Believe it or not, but that's me! Like, I knew I had to start trying new styles sometime, but it wasn't until I saw Melissa that I thought, yep, I know who I wanna look like!" she beamed.

    Really, Melissa, you serious? you thought dourly, but just said "Honestly, your past self looks better than I used to. You should know, you helped with that, ahem, makeover the other day".

    "Wow, you mean that? Still, didn't really stick out from the crowd at all" Reina said, but then deflected with "Um, look, I'm totally not like obsessed with Melissa or anything, I've got heaps of other style icons. Like there's, er, Kujikawa Rise-"

    "Who's she?" you had to ask.

    Reina could've spat out her drink, "C'mon, you mean you didn't grow up listening to Rise? I mean like, yeah, her peak of fame was a few years back, and I guess only dedicated fans really listen to her anymore and, oh God, I keep picturing her as a teen girl but she'd be like mid-twenties now".

    "To tell the truth, I don't think I'd really developed a music taste back then," you said, muttering, "Hell, I still haven't".

    "Okay then, here's a newer name, Takamaki Ann!" Reina came back with.

    "Oh, the model and actor who came out as non-binary," you immediately picked up, Think they also had something to do with those Phantom Thieves a few years back, "Yeah, that really caused an uproar, I guessed because everyone thought of them as peak feminine. I mean, my roommate's non-binary, but the worst they had to go through were a few arguments with their parents." Also nowhere near as snazzy a dresser, sorry Megumi.

    "Yeah, but like sh-they still look great! I mean, was kinda sad when they cut off their twintails, but they can really rock the pixie cut and red-and-black suit, plus they still dress feminine sometimes." Reina said, "Plus, because of her I know 'Anne' can be a boy's name in some languages, like Dutch and stuff".

    "Studios keep casting them in female roles though," you sighed, Still a way cooler actor than some people I could name.

    Upon noticing some shops around were starting to close, Reina then blurted out, "Oh geez, it's getting late. I should really get going, 'specially since Jacks don't get their homework done for them. Guess photobooth stuff'll have to wait till next time. See ya soon!" she smiled and waved goodbye.

    "Hey, thanks for, um, paying and all," you returned the wave, knowing you should really get going, but not before hearing that voice again.

    -The Magician has Journeyed to Rank 2-

    * * *

    Back at your apartment, Megumi greeted you with a casual "Yo, what shakin' sis?'

    [ ] Spend some time with Megumi, you do have a clothes haul to show off.
    [ ] Phone your parents, their work should be over now.
    [X] You should really be studying.
    [ ] Get to bed early, you could use the energy tomorrow.
    [ ] Watch some TV, it looks like Megumi's found something good.
    [ ] Surf the net, you might wanna hunt for part-time jobs.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Sorry 'Gumi, gotta study." you said, dragging yourself onto the table for two you were even able to fit in apartment. It was littered with crumbs and pizza sauce stains too, being where you also ate. You plopped some algebra books down along with an early 20th-century novel and got to reading, or at least trying to read over the TV.

    "Okay cool, I'll be with my shows instead," Megumi said, at least bothering to turn the volume down a little. You were tempted to sneak a peek and watch anyway, but you kept pinching yourself as a reminder to focus on your homework.

    With modernist sentence structure and trigonometry signs swirling around in your head, you slowly opened your eyes to find your head lying down on the table, the morning sun already seeping in through the blinds.

    "W-what the?" you said out loud, jolting yourself upright, "D-did I seriously fall asleep while studying?!"

    "A simple 'good morning' would've sufficed," Megumi groaned, lifting their barely awake self off the couch.

    "W-what's the time?" you stuttered out, looking frantically around the room, "I've gotta have breakfast, I've gotta pack my bag, I-"

    "Sheesh, little advice, Hona," Megumi said, resting their hands behind their head, "If there's one thing I've learned in spite of college, it's that Ps get Degrees, so don't stress, else you'll end up all grey-haired and wrinkled before you know it".

    You stopped to catch your breath and nodded along with Megumi, "Right, I see. Still gotta have breakfast though".

    [ ] Just crack a raw egg over heated rice.
    [ ] Check to see if you've got any ramen cups still around.
    [ ] Grab some take-away as you head to school.
    [X] Stop in at a local eatery, you do kinda need to unwind.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    It was shockingly cold that morning, so much that when you glimpsed the door to the Velvet Room on your way to school, you chose to duck in as much as to get out of the cold as for Personae.

    "Miss Honoka, didn't expect to see you this early," Popo immediately piped up, before he continued, "Oh right, got two fresh new Personae all done for you, and cor these are a fright".

    When all the shards came together with the wind, you were presented with the two Shadows you'd struck down the other day.

    <<"I am Hanged Man Argus, Watcher of All," came the voice of the many-eyed peacock that was once Daizen's Shadow, "None shall escape our sight".Argus (Panoptes)

    Elements: Resists Wind and Bless, weak to Psy
    Strength: |||||
    Cognition: |||||
    Agility: |||||
    Luck: |||||
    Endurance: |||||
    Skills: Kouha, Sukukaja, Garu, Analyse, Magaru

    <<"CHARIOT CYCLOPS, LONE EYE," the hulking, ambushing giant was far more blunt, "NOBODY RESISTS".Cyclops

    Elements: Resists Physical, weak to Wind
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: |||||
    - Agility: |||||
    - Luck: |||||
    - Endurance: |||||
    - Tarukaja
    - Bolt Strike

    "By the way, Popo," you then asked him, "Is there, well, anything more you can tell me about the Gameboard, like what it is exactly, or where it came from?"

    "Uh, those are some quite hefty questions, Miss, no offence but it'd be like asking you where the Earth came from," Popo was taken aback a little, but the tiny pegasus soon cleared his throat and said "Quite right, I can see why you'd be wonderin' and all. Okay, to the best I can explain, human wills come into conflict all the time, right? Like, everythin' from little arguments to big whoppin' wars, law and chaos fightin' for dominance, right? So with human psyches all crashin' into each other in everyone's, ahem, Collective Unconsha- Unconsho- Unconciousness, all of the debris gets mixed up together, and that's how we get the Gameboard".

    You had to pause to take that all in, before you asked, "Er, okay, so how does something apparently as important-sounding as that end up at some high school in Hokkaido?"

    Popo however just looked down. "Um, sorry Miss, can't say. I woulda been on the Gameboard when it got moved there, so my guess's as good as yours. Prob'ly some posh bloke found it and decided it'd look like in the real fancy school, like Hanataba's supposed to be a pretty top place, right?" he came back with.

    "Yeah, so they say. Okay, you gave every All-Ace a Persona, correct? Is there anything you can tell me about them?" you asked instead.

    That however just made Popo go wild-eyed, as he started fluttering backwards, "N-no Miss, it's not right to pick sides, Miss, Gameboard doesn't like it. Um sorry, but if you're friends with the other folks with Personae, I'm sure you'll find out in no time".

    "If I may interject," Igor spoke up, "I can at least confirm that you're the first Guest we've had in here for, hmm, at least some time, as you calculate time that is".

    So I'm the only one with multiple Persona? you thought, in that case, I can kinda see why the All-Aces sought me out, though how could they tell all that?
    "Well, as I calculate time, I ought to be at school by now," you then said turning to leave out, "Though hey, there's really no need to freak out, Popo".

    "Right, so sorry, Miss," Popo said and bowed his head, "Promise it won't 'appen again, Miss. Just that, y'know, Gameboard Empires ain't something to be 'aving a chortle about, and all. Ah, so long Miss, I'll have new Personae in soon!"

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Tower Arcana"

    "Oh Honoka, one more thing," it was the pilot-stewardess Lauryn who now spoke up, "The All-Aces sometimes give you missions, don't they? I was curious if I could make a request?"

    You paused, before you said, "Uh yeah, sure, but you're not gonna make me brainwash my friends or anything, are you?"

    Lauryn was silent at first on hearing that, but then giggled and said, "What? Oh no, nothing like that. On the Gameboard, if I'm correct, there should be a Galactic Empire among the Empires. I was just going to ask if, in your free time, you could check up on it, give me a status report if you will".

    'Galactic Empire' didn't match the description of any of the six you saw, well maybe Gakuto's digital tech empire but only if you really stretched things. "Er sure, I'll keep an eye out," you said before leaving.

    * * *

    "Wow, two comas this soon back-"
    "-But man, is Eitaro handsome."
    "Big game comin' up, whole school's on edge-"
    "-So wait, Takamaki Ann's what now?"
    As you headed in the front gates, you suddenly spied Yuya fiddling with something. Looking a little closer, you could see it was... an armband?

    "Oh hey, Yuya!" You called out as you ran up to him, "Um, sorry I didn't come see you after I got up from that coma, the other day".

    "What? Oh no Honoka, there's no need to blame yourself, like I should've said something and came up to you, really," Yuya responded, shrugging and smiling. "Um, but I hear you're still in contact with Keiko, so that's cool".

    "Yeah, like I wouldn't just up and leave my two best friends, would I?" you perked up back at him, though inside your head you didn't feel so perky. Looking down at his new armband, you then spoke out, "Wait, you're a Hall Monitor now?"

    "Well they were short-staffed, and uh you can understand why the other students might be... hesitant to apply for Hall Monitor so soon," his smile kinda faded a little, "So I'm just helping out till Daizen's back in action, being, er, kind of in a vegetative state right now, and Hotaru's stressed enough as it is."

    Oh Yuya, you're just too nice to be a Hall Monitor, you could only think, though the words that left your mouth were, "Okay, well we'd better be getting to class and-"

    "What. The. Hell. Honoka?" came Melissa's seething voice from behind you, her grabbing your arm, "Apparently Reina didn't drive it through that thick skull of yours that, as a potential All-Ace, that means no going around talking to dweebs!
    Little lesson, if a guy's not at least 7/10 on the hot or not scale, you don't get within three feet of him, got that?" she hissed right in your face.

    You turned around, only to see Yuya had backed away into the school building. On the bright side, at least it wasn't Azuma who saw me with him, things could've gotten really awkward then...

    * * *

    "Alright, Little Miss Colette, you seem a clever girl, name Pi to its fifth decimal place," your Maths teacher pointed at your classmate and asked.

    "Oh why of course, that would indeed be- Damn, I'm into Literature, not Maths" Colette started softly but then hissed, before her eyes wandered over to you "Honoka dear, if would be so kind".

    [X] 3.14159
    [ ] 3.14156
    [ ] 3.14519
    [ ] Whether you know or not, telling her'd be cheating.

    After morning classes had ended, you started heading down to cafeteria to have lunch, assuming the cafeteria wasn't now 'too plebeian' or whatever for even a Jack, when... you were almost hit by a rubber ball that rebounded off the walls out of nowhere, just barely catching it in your hand.

    "Wow, now that was some Fielding!" came the excited voice of a girl as she raced around a corner, picking the ball out of your hands, Her skin was a remarkably deep tan, more authentic-seeming than Reina's, her short, scruffy hair was a deep black, and regardless of the weather she wore a tank top with her jacket tied around her waist. "By the way, I'm Yamashiro Takako, pleasure to meetcha! Transferred from Okinawa, if ya can't tell".

    "Ah yeah, sure," you shook her hand, only to say, "Hey, do you really have to play baseball indoors thought?"

    "Pfft, baseball?!" she almost spat out, her cheery demeanour vanishing in an instant as she held up a flatter bat, "I'm a Cricketer! And 'sides, it's not like any teachers were around".

    "...You're an insect?" you could only say.

    "Oh jeez, cricket the sport. Y'know, ducks, Bradman, Tendulkar, Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun," she leaned into your face, before pulling back and sighing "Okay, I don't blame you for not knowing the game, not many others in Japan do. I mean, I only heard of it 'cause my family had friends in the Australian navy who used to stop in Okinawa. Been a total pain tryin' to find people here to fill out the team".

    "Wow, that's, uh," you struggled for words, "Unfortunate".

    "Anyhow, been lookin' for my friend Noto Kaneto, you seen him anywhere?" she just as quickly went back to bright and perky again, "Tall guy, brownish-blonde hair, freckles. Oh, and Vice-Captain of the Football Club and, ahem, 'Jack of Cups' to Tsutsuji, oughta mention that".

    "Er, think I recognise the name, but can't say I've met him," you said, "Guess I can show you to the All-Aces Lounge, if he's not on the field then that's my best bet".

    Leading this Takako up there, as you approached the room you suddenly heard an outburst of angry yelling. Hopefully that was just Gakuto ragequitting some game.
    Afterwards, out of the door to the Lounge there excited a boy that matched Takako's description, who as fitting a football player was also quite large, broad-shouldered and thick-thighed, yet despite possibly being Peak Jock he otherwise had a very warm, gentle expression on his face... despite a rather serious bruise on it.

    "Yo, Kaneto!" Takako beamed and ran up to him, only to notice the bruising, "Oh shit, that looks nasty, maybe we should get you to a doctor?"

    "Huh Takako, oh, yeah the bruise," Kaneto said, only now seeming to notice it.

    "...What was all that yelling about?" you had to ask.

    "Er, um, that was Eitaro, like he got kinda mad at me," Kaneto said, rubbing where it hurt, "My Mum's worried I'm coming home from practice too late, and my grades are real bad but it's hard studying, so asked Eitaro if we could end practices a bit earlier, and, well, he started yelling 'bout how 'Compromise is a weakness!' and 'If you want to win, you practice every second you can, no complaints!'"

    "And then he hit you?" you asked.

    "Uh, yeah he did. But um, Eitaro's gotta go back to normal soon, I mean, he gets really scary when he's angry..." Kaneto whimpered.

    "Wow, that's... totally not how I pictured Eitaro," Takako gasped, "I mean I always thought he was some cool sports champion, but that sounds like some two-bit drill sergeant. I should know, I grew up around them.
    Anyway, Kaneto and I oughta get going, was gonna practice, but that bruise could use some major medical attention," Takako took Kaneto with her "But see ya 'round, Honoka".

    "Oh yeah, Nakamura Honoka, think I heard you were one of the other Jacks!" Kaneto brightened up again, "Good to finally see ya, then".

    You bid both farewell. Normally such people would be too sunshine-y for you, but man, Kaneto kinda needed all the sunshine he could get, with what it sounded like he was going through, something you wouldn't past Eitaro. He did sic a Shadow on you, after all.

    Oh right, Clubs. Let's see, Football... probably wouldn't be the best idea right now, but Thursday should also have:
    [ ] Computer Club.
    [x] Kendo/Tea Ceremony club.
    [x] Ryouko said she's holding Class Rep auditions, that might fit a Jack.
    [ ] Might want to check up on Yuya, Hall Monitor sounds like a lot.
    [ ] Ought to go out Job-Hunting, apartment won't pay for itself, as Megumi's reminded you.
    - [ ] Sweets shop assistant.
    - [ ] Board/Tabletop Gaming shop assistant.
    - [ ] Local Museum guide.
    [ ] Gameboard:
    - [ ] Eitaro's Ancient Empire.
    - [ ] Melissa's Shopping Empire.
    - [ ] Azuma's Theatrical Empire.
    - [ ] Gakuto's Silicon Empire.
    - [ ] Kikuko's Traditional Empire
    - [ ] That 'Criminal Empire'
    - [ ] This 'Galactic Empire', wherever it is.
    [ ] Write-in.
    * * *

    You then headed back to your classroom despite it still being free time, as there'd been something you'd been pondering about doing. Your teacher would be holding auditions for Class Rep right now, and perhaps you could get the All-Aces, mostly Melissa, to stop hounding you if you got a position fitting of a Jack.

    On top of that, you're hardly a social butterfly and would likely collapse in front of a crowd if asked you speak publicly, so maybe this role could be the confidence boost you so desperately need?

    Wow, you know it's been one out-there week when I'm genuinely thinking of running for Class Rep, you thought as you headed back, I never would've even considered it last year, huh, and this week's not even over yet. A meteor could hit the school as it'd be as probable as anything else that's happened...

    Entering your class, you saw that, er, you were the only student who'd bothered to show up. The long-haired, bare-legged Tanizawa-sensei, sitting on top of her desk and slowly kicking against its side in rhythm, hopped down to the floor and looked straight at you.

    "Well, this sure makes my job way easier," she laughed, then took and shook your hand "I originally thought I'd have to sit a bunch of half-hearted, or way too full-hearted, auditions by a bunch of wimpy kids, ah no offence. Then I'd have to somehow get the whole class interested in actually voting for Rep, having to sift through a bunch of hi-larious votes for Satan or whatever. But congratulations Honoka, thanks to you I can cut the crap and just appoint you, so welcome aboard!"

    "Er, thanks, Tanizawa-sensei," you muttered, then drew a deep breath, "But I haven't, y'know, actually done anything yet".

    "I know my class," Ryouko retorted, not bothering to make eye contact with you, "Trust me, it's all downhill from you. Knowing some of the other students, they would've showed up to audition stoned or something".

    "Miss Tanizawa," you trembled at what you were about to say, but your teacher was laid-back enough that she'd likely just laugh it off, "You, um, don't seem to like teaching much, do you?"

    "Hah, you're only now just noticing that?" she grinned, before explaining "Look, it's nothing personal, it's just, well you see, being a teacher wasn't exactly my dream job, as you can imagine. Hell, I'd hate to meet the poor soul for which it was.
    I mostly took the job because I wanted to teach Japanese overseas to meet hot foreign guys easier".

    "Oh, really?" you said, relieved her response had been nothing at all harsh, "Okay then, so what would your dream job be?" was your attempt at conversation.

    "Pfft, dunno really," she sighed, holding her head in one hand, "My specialty is Modern Literature, so um, writer, journalist, lyricist, critic, something along those lines. All I know is not teacher, or at least not a teacher stuck in Hokkaido of all places. You got a dream job, kid?" she asked, one eye looking at you.

    That wasn't easy to answer, to say the least, with you eventually coming up with:
    [ ] "You're right, it's too hard to think of one"
    [x] "I don't see why I should have to decide when I'm only in high school"
    [ ] "Yes" (Write-in)

    "Heh, good answer," Ryouko replied, thought you had the feeling she'd react like that regardless of what you said.
    "Oh right, you're Class Rep now," she said, finally remembering why you were here, as she handed you a stack of papers "Right, basically you'll be resolving any problems that come up in class, updating the Student Council on how our class is going, and organising events and fundraising for them. Got all that?"

    Honestly sounds like I just became Substitute Teacher, not Class Rep, you thought, "Ah yep, all got".

    "Wow, at this rate I should be clocking off in no time," Ryouko smiled, tossing her hair back, "But seriously Honoka, I'm kinda proud of you. Like you've seriously stepped up your game in the first week alone, got picked by the All-Aces, taken much better care of your appearance, gone from quiet kid at the back of the class to Class Rep, if you were my daughter I'd be weeping with joy for you. Er, not that I'm old enough to be your mother, let's make that clear".

    Yeah, of course it looks like I'm going great from the outside, you internally seethed, but just said "Haha, it's nothing really".

    "Like at the rate you're going, you'll be Principal here before you even graduate. Oh by the way, as your first act as Class Rep, you got any Vice-Rep picked out yet?" Ryouko then asked.

    Hearing that, at first you just muttered "Er, you see..." I can't pick Keiko or Yuya, much as I'd want to, the All-Aces would throw a fit.
    [ ] "How about Colette? She could probably use more socialisation" Yeah she hates them, but I doubt the Aces even care about her.
    [x] "Shouldn't we leave this up to a class vote?"
    [ ] "I don't think our class is big enough that it needs a Vice"
    [ ] "This sounds like something I should be given more time to think about"
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Great, that all over with, I'm off," Ryouko then scooted to the door and picked up her coat, "Look forward to working with you, Honoka. Well, much as I look forward to anything here really, heh. I'd offer to drive you home, but I only have a bike, plus I guess you'd still be interested in some of the Clubs on going right now".

    "Yeah, I was thinking of checking out the Kendo Club," you told her.

    "Huh, Kikuko eh?" Ryouko said, before she started giggling like someone way younger, "Look forward to getting your arse thrashed by Japan's own Miss Perfect then. Er, anyway, see ya Honoka!"

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Priestess Arcana.
    Last edited by NailsInYourFeet; August 15th, 2022 at 04:18 AM. Reason: Adding collapsed Persona profiles

  5. #5
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    V. The Galactic Empire

    You found your way over to the Gymnasium for the Kendo Club. Or Tea Ceremony Club? You guessed the two were from similar enough disciplines to be combined into one, either that or Kikuko had just taken over both of them.

    I mean, I really don't want to have to associate with the All-Aces any more than I already have to, you thought, but had to admit, still, guess I should be keeping an eye on them though, especially people like Kikuko who I really don't know anything about, other than what everyone else in school knows. Unlike Eitaro, at least she's in a club where beating up your classmates is what you're there for.

    Opening the door to the gym, you then got worried you may've come a little late, as from the numerous shouts of battle and clunking of bokken against bokken, the club looked well underway.

    "Oh, oh, Miss Nakamura is it?" you heard a girlish voice suddenly come up to you, at which you spun around to see a... maid approach you. She had purplish black hair in little drills to either side, wore her apron over a kimono, and like the rest of the room had a bokken sheathed at her hip.
    "My apologies, must not have introduced myself," the maid's cheeriness turned to shock and she rapidly bowed, "I'm Yomogi Tsubasa, Jack of Swords, and I attend this school as maid to Mistress Kikuko. I knew you'd been appointed as a Jack, although Mistress was, ahem, terse as usual about you".

    You had to laugh a little, "Sounds like her. And wow, huge flex on her part bringing a maid to school, although yeah, guess I should expect that sort of thing from the All-Aces," you replied.

    With one last thud, you turned to see Kikuko standing atop a hill of her clubmates she'd struck down. Like it was nothing, she then walked over to you, making direct eye contact.
    "Thank you Tsubasa, but I'll take things from here," she brushed off her maid and then intoned to you "So Jack, have you given thought as to Alliances?"

    Alliances? you could only think, wondering what Kikuko was even talking about, but afraid of her snapping back at you if you admitted this. "I- I just came here to check out the Kendo Club, that was all," you managed to say.

    Kikuko just sighed but looked back all the other students gathered. "This is a conversation best had once the two of us are alone. Also, this is properly the Tea Ceremony club, but I organised kendo sparring sessions to strengthen people's appreciation for the art".

    <<BGM: Samurai Shodown - Snowy Hokkaido Village >>

    "So Jack, Honoka, you choose to audition for this Club?" Kikuko asked, before whipping out a blade that looked too metallic to be a bokken, pointing it right between your eyes and saying "Think you have what it takes to challenge me?"

    "N-no, of course not!" you shrieked, your forehead already caked in sweat.

    Kikuko chortled "Good answer," as she then sheathed the blade "You at least seem to have a realistic assessment of your abilities. Still, if it's an audition you want..." she muttered as she pulled you into the centre of the Gym, taking a random bokken and throwing it your way, "We have time for one last fight. Yomogi, over here".

    Her maid then came over to face you in the ring, unsheathing her own bokken, "Right Miss, ahem, your Ladyship," she stuttered.

    Readying the blade you'd just been given, you burst out "W-wait! Aren't we supposed to put protective gear on first?" But with the sudden beat of a taiko drum, the fight had already begun, as Tsubasa rushed at you ready to strike.

    Not having a Persona around to empower you, and using a completely different weapon than before, you amazed yourself by not immediately getting knocked out. Instead, you reacted in a heartbeat to block Tsubasa's blade with your own, before pushing back against her and almost scraping her shoulder.

    However, Tsubasa quickly proved she was Kikuko's maid for a reason, as she struck you in the side and sent you floundering to the floor. The victor was clear.

    "As I expected," Kikuko snarled, looking down at you, "Perhaps try auditioning again once your Resolve has strengthened, or at least develop some blade Etiquette".

    Huh, shows what you can get away with, being an All-Ace, you thought coldly, trying to pick yourself up, If I acted like you just did, Kikuko, I'd be expelled.

    "Oh, M-Miss Nakamura, I'm so sorry! Here, let me help you up," Tsubasa the maid cried out, lifting you to your feet, "I must've misjudged my own strength, oh I'm so embarrassed".

    "Feh, don't be," Kikuko sighed, "What Honoka here just went through is nothing. The Maeda lineage prides itself on far stricter training".

    Wow, remind me never to meet your parents, you fumed from within. Your gaze softened as you looked at Tsubasa, saying "It's okay, my legs are fine now, I can stand just fine". The gazes of all the other students around on you though, not so fine.

    The sun soon began to set, and at the very least you got to have green tea before Club activities ended, a tea that was certainly a stark difference from the more Western blends Colette had served you.

    When it was just you, Kikuko and Tsubasa left in the Gym, the Ace of Swords turned to her maid and said, "This is a conversation I wish to have with Honoka in private. Tsubasa, have my ride home prepared".

    "Aye aye, your ladyship," Tsubasa bowed before exiting the room.

    <<BGM: Rozen Maiden - Alice Game >>

    With it just the two of you, Kikuko immediately glared and seethed, "You mean to tell me you're still ignorant about Alliances?"

    Hey, I haven't been here that long, y'know, you thought, but just said, "I take it they have something to do with the Persona Game?"

    Kikuko laughed coldly, "They are the Persona Game". She sighed and went on to explain, "While matters may be cordial among us All-Aces for now, the Gameboard is arranged so that only one Empire may conquer it in its entirety. You would've heard the term 'Jack of Coins', 'Jack of Cups', 'Jack of Swords'? Well, it's about time you started thinking whose Jack you are".

    Seriously? I thought was joining the popular kids, not a fight club, you thought yet kept quiet, or a cult.

    Her tea finished, Kikuko then stood up from kneeling position and began walking to the door. Before she left, you swiftly got up to ask her one last question.
    "Wait, Kikuko, w-what can you tell me about Rokudo Rin?" you called out across the Gym. You would've asked about that 'Galactic Empire' thing but were worried Kikuko would just demand to know where you found out about it.

    Kikuko only slightly turned her head, "Of what concern is she to you? She died before you even came to this school," she muttered.

    "W-well, as a Jack, I figured I had an obligation to learn about the All-Aces' history," you told her.

    A faint smile emerged on Kikuko's lips "Heh, I can at least respect that. I'm afraid though you'll have to ask Azuma for all the details, he was closest to her after all. She was certainly a moral person though, as befitting Student Council President, though appropriately rigid in her ethics. They ruled her death a suicide, although none of us can say for certain. Unsurprisingly, the Student Council descended into disgrace immediately following her death. That is all I believe a Jack needs to know," she told you, before making her exit.

    Or you got all too carried away with your Persona Game, you thought, following Kikuko outside.

    Upon exiting out onto the street, your eyes could've fallen out of their sockets in surprise. You expected Kikuko to be in a car or on a motorcycle or something, not on a friggin' horse! I mean, Popo's the only horse I know, and he'd probably be flattened if I tried to ride him, you thought, as Kikuko galloped away on her chestnut stallion, mare, whichever.

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Empress Arcana"

    * * *

    "Hey, Hona, woah you look shaken," Megumi spoke up as you got back to your apartment, "Tough day at school, huh? Like, I never went to anywhere as fancy as Hanataba, but yeesh my high school years were Hell".

    "What, someone threatened to slice your face open with a sword too?" you laughed, but not with much humour behind it.

    "Hmm, yeah about. Metaphorically speaking anyway," Megumi replied, before changing the subject in a split-second, "Anyway, you been looking at part-time jobs? Sorry for pressuring you, but I seriously don't need that old leech breathing down my neck again about the rent".

    "Yeah yeah, I've been meaning to find something, but it's not like jobs grow on trees," you groaned.

    "They do if you're a gardener," Megumi chimed in.

    "Urgh, besides, I've... had a lot of stuff on my mind lately," you muttered out, slumping down on the couch.

    [ ] Talk some more with Megumi, they're a breath of fresh air after Kikuko, and you kinda need to vent.
    [X] Phone your parents, their work should be over now.
    [ ] Get to bed early, it's been a long day.
    [ ] There's always studying.
    [ ] Surf the net, you might wanna hunt for part-time jobs.
    - [ ] Sweet shop worker, guys think it's cute, mochi-pounding's good exercise you guess.
    - [ ] Traditional Gaming (Board and Tabletop) shop assistant.
    - [ ] Local Museum Guide.
    - [ ] Record store assistant.
    - [ ] Model? Well, you guess Reina could give you tips.
    [ ] Head out on the town, see what's open this late.
    - [ ] On your own.
    - [ ] Ask Megumi to come with you.
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<BGM: Umineko - Haruka >>

    Giving Megumi some privacy, you headed into your bedroom, which had no room for anything else but said bed and a closet, took your phone out of your pocket and dialled your parents for the first time this year.
    "Hey Mum, Dad," you muttered, "Er, so how it's been?"

    "Honoka!" a woman's voice pierced through the phone and throughout your room "Oh thank goodness, you look absolutely alright. We were worried sick about you but knew everything would be alright for you".

    Er, kinda sending a contradictory message there, Mum, you thought. Said mother of yours being Nakamura Kanae, a woman who you'd been told once had a standard job but threw it all away to pursue her dreams of being a sculptor, mostly glass-blowing with some metalworking in there.
    Speaking of which, "Oh, how's the sculpting coming along, Mum?" you asked.

    You may have touched a nerve there. "Right, about that. I've barely had any buyers for the past few weeks, like oh, I get it, this town's tastes are too traditional, are they- Um, sorry about that. Yeah, it's going great," your mum gradually calmed herself.

    The video camera on at their end, you could see the cluttered old house you'd grown up in. Your mother had converted it from an old train carriage, with it located on a forested ridge on the road out of town. Idyllic as the surrounding scenery were, living there meant you had to walk miles to school back in the day, with how hilly Kuchinashi was not helping. Hence why you'd moved to this apartment.

    "Okay, ahem, hi there Honoka, school treating you well?" came the more reserved voice of your Dad, Nakamura Yozo, still clad in a business suit and with bags around his eyes.

    "Er, well..." No, absolutely not, help! is what you would've said, but your resolve wasn't that strong, "Things are looking up for me in certain ways, I guess. Like, I've been talking with people more, shown more interest in clubs, became Class Representative even," you tried to focus on the positives, even if your brain immediately added, by default, to that last one.

    "Wow, and all that this early on," your Dad remarked, "Hey, be careful not to tire yourself out, I learned that lesson the hard way after too many hours overtime". You remember the only thing Dad liked about his previous job was the sake brand it introduced him to.

    "Really? Oh Honoka, that sounds wonderful!" your Mum exclaimed back, "By the way, you don't seem to have your camera on, did you just forget or-"

    "Ah, no, I'll ahem, turn it on right now," you muttered. After seeing how your friends barely recognised you due to your new appearance, you'd gotten nervous about how your parents would react.

    The camera on your end clicked on, and your mother's face widened, "My Honoka, you've certainly grown. Oh, people always called you a plain child, but I knew you'd one day blossom into a beautiful woman, a 'glow up' as I believe you kids call it! Finally, you're getting to express who you truly are," she beamed.

    Who I truly am? Yeah, after getting dragged into a torture session called a 'makeover', you thought "Uh, thanks Mum".

    "Er yeah, I have to admit, if not for your voice I wouldn't even have recognised you as, well, you," your dad stumbled with his words, but added, "Your posture's looking better too, it used to be that every time I saw you you'd be slumped over or crouched into a corner, but now you're standing up straight and confident. Heh, I'm dreading all the boyfriends you'll be bringing home".

    "You know what? You kind of remind me of the girls at my old school. Not the ones I hung out with, but the ones who were always prettier and more popular than me, who I swore I'd one day be like, but that day never came," your mother started rambling on, "Well, not for me at least".

    Sheesh, my hair got styled and I had a bunch of makeup slathered on me, why is everyone making such a big deal out of this? that thought oozed inside you.

    "Still need to redecorate your new room though, it's awfully bland so far," your Mum muttered, "Hmm, guess that's landlords for you".

    "Oh, and about boys, how're things going with Yuya? And your friend Keiko too?" your Dad then spoke up.

    "Keiko and Yuya, um," you hesitated, not quite sure what to say, "Well we thought we hit a rough patch, but I think we've smoothed it out," you came up with.

    "Oh, and you have a roommate now, Megumi right?" your Mum chimed in, "Are you two getting along? Are they treating you well".

    You snuck a peek out the door to see Megumi snoring on the couch, a whole load of textbooks and empty chip packets sprawled over them.

    "Yeah, 'Gumi's cool," was all you said about them.

    "Right, well it sounds like you've got everything sorted out, probably more so than us in fact," your Dad said, smiling to lift the sting of that last line, "Be sure to take a break every once in a while, come visit us some time maybe?"

    "Yes, and if there really is anything bothering you, know you can always talk to us about to it," your Mum piped up, "If it's a problem for you, then it's a problem for us too".

    "Ah, t-thank you, I appreciate it," you told them, You sure you're not just saying that though? 'Cause I could go on for days. "See you soon, love you Mum & Dad!"

    "Goodnight, angel," your parents said in unison as the call ended.

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Star Arcana"

    You slumped back down on your bed, Well, that was a little ray of light, wasn't it? you thought. Sorry Mum and Dad, but I'll be descending back into the darkness.

    * * *

    "Drama Club's still deciding what play they're gonna put on-"

    "Hey, who's the new girl, the redhead? Really, that's Nakamura Honoka?!"
    "You've gotta go see Nightshade! She's a new singer around town, and man she's intense!"

    "Okay, been having some trouble getting a gaming group together. What, not eSports, tabletop"
    Trudging back into Hanataba again, whatever this 'Galactic Empire' you'd missed on the Gameboard was probably what most occupied your mind right now. But before all that, you had to stand in front of class to introduce yourself as Class Rep.

    "Okay, Class 2-C, I don't wanna see you move from those chairs. Now, let's give a warm welcome to your new Class Representative, someone who's really putting herself out there, so you better not make this any harder on her, ya hear?" Tanizawa-sensei had to bark at the room, before smiling and gesturing to you as you walked in.

    "Hello, everyone," you waved sheepishly, feeling everyone's stares upon you, Keiko and Yuya's being possibly the heaviest. "You may know me as Nakamura Honoka, and-" You hadn't exactly prepared any notes for this.

    [X] "-I can see people don't think of us as the school's, ahem, most respected class, but I believe our talents can truly amount to something if we all work together" you clasped your hands angelically. [+Perception]
    [ ] "-I am ever so proud to be your new Class Representative, I do look forward to working with you all" you curtseyed. [+Etiquette]
    [ ] "-I shall endeavour to raise this Class's standards to achieve utmost realised potential in our school system" you would've raised your glasses if you had any. [+Education]
    [ ] Ah what the hell, have some fun with this. "Woo-hoo, Class 2-C rules! Can I get a hell yeah?!" you pulled out your scrunchies and shook your mane, then kicked a spare chair over and somersaulted over the teacher's desk. [+Resolve]
    [ ] Write-in.

    Either way, the entire class... just stared dumbfounded at you. Beads of sweat forming on your forehead, you quickly finished with, "Er, please be sure to vote for Vice-Representative this afternoon. Okay, thank you".

    "Wow, Azuma has weird taste in childhood friends," you could hear a student mutter.

    Later that day, you began slowly making your way over to the Prized Pupil Lounge, though you didn't even have to go that far to run into one of the All-Aces.
    "Well well, Honoka," the lofty voice of Melissa Lilian rang in your ear, as she strode up to you in the hallway, "So, how's things with Azuma and you going?"

    "Azuma?" you could only ask, before stating, "Haven't really caught up to him since I was last in the Lounge".

    "What? Oh you hold it right there!" Melissa hissed, swerving around you to look you directly in the face, "Have you seen how Azuma acts around you? Guy's head over fuckin' heels for you! You have the chance to hook up with the most desirable bachelor in school, and you're just sitting there doing nothing?! Christ, you're nearly a grown-ass woman, yet you're still acting like boys have cooties," she harrumphed.

    Yeah well, being weirdly obsessive and trying to cut you off from your friends aren't exactly turn-ons, you thought, but just said "I guess he's cute, but y'know, still think he's kinda out of my league..."

    "Okay look, I can see you're in dire need of someone to play matchmaker, so..." she then tapped her phone until it brought up a picture of Hokkaido's southern cape. "Did a little research about romantic getaway spots on this island, and they say Cape Erimo's the place to be! I can arrange Azuma and you a date there just in time to catch that cherry blossom-viewing thing you do!" she squealed with delight. "Hmhm, my family's loaded of course, so it's all on the house, financial worries are for poor people. Now aren't I just so generous?"

    "Uh, okay, thanks," was all you said in reply, knowing that she'd probably keep forcing you into this if you'd said no.

    "What the hell are you two talking about?!" grumbled the approaching Eitaro.

    "It's called Love and Romance, Eitaro. Meatheads like you wouldn't understand its complexities," Melissa brushed him off.

    "Feh, you don't know how often I've had to break up players' relationships on the football team" he snarled, crossing his arms, "Some people can't understand that if you want success, you have to cut out any distractions".

    Well, that over with, you entered the Prized Pupil Lounge and glanced up to see portraits of Aces past hung up near the ceiling. The All-Aces went back pretty far it seemed, the oldest portrait dating back to the Meiji era, right around the Hanataba's founding, Kuchinashi's founding even.
    There were so many portraits that it took you a while to finally get to Rokudo Rin's, but when you did, you immediately took a step back. Her hair hadn't been bleached from, er, death, and no aviator gear, but that was clearly Lauryn.

    Lau-Ryn. Ro-Rin. Rokudo Rin. Those names echoed in your head, Igor had even called his assistant a lost soul looking for an afterlife.

    "Pray tell, is something the concern?" Azuma's lilting voice snapped you out of your daze.

    "What? Oh no, it's nothing-" you muttered, but then crouched down to see... there was another Empire on the Gameboard’s underside. You could see glinting stars in a hazy blue void, so was this that Galactic Empire?

    "Er, hey, who's that Empire belong to? Thought there were only six All-Aces," you spoke up.

    Azuma froze for a second, but slowly said "...That was Rin's". He went on to explain "How can someone dead still have an Empire? Well, a person's legacy does not cease upon death, in fact one's death often only boldens their impact. Hence how our human imagination dreamt up ghosts, to describe how it feels for a person's presence to still be there, even when they're gone and buried".

    "What a coincidence, Honoka was asking me about Rin, our old Ace of Pentangles, just yesterday," Kikuko spoke up, "Said she felt as a Jack, she had an obligation to find out about her".

    "Aw, isn't that sweet? Like, I'm Ace of Coins, and I felt no need to brush up on some girl who died before I even got here," Melissa remarked, before she tried to say, "Now, about this date I've booked for you and-"

    "Still, I see no need to care about a Dead Empire," Eitaro butted in, "Lingering presence or not, Rin's out of the game. Not like she ever had the strength of will to win, as her death showed us". Azuma gave Eitaro a swift, piercing glance for that.

    "Ah ah ah, you're forgetting about loot," Gakuto brought up, spinning around once in his chair, and wagging a finger, "With its throne vacant, Rin's Galactic Empire is free for the raiding. Of course, if you're planning to go there, I'll stay here for now, smartest thing for me to do would be to have someone else scout out the area".

    "Hmph, my family taught me to respect suicide over capture," Kikuko said, "Tell me, Ace of Wands, would you have looted Honnoji after Nobunaga's death?"

    "Probably," Gakuto said, "Could make a real killing on real Honnoji salvage on eBay or Instagram. Or, er, on the feudal era equivalents of those".

    "Alright then, I'll come with you, Honoka," Eitaro suddenly said, "Oh don't get me wrong, this isn't about Rin or any loot. I just can't understand why the rest of the Aces are so fixated on you, so I figure I should at least see you in action".

    "I too shall come," Azuma was quick to speak up, saying "I was the closest of all of us to Rin before her passing. It would be wrong of me to leave her Empire unattended".

    "Sorry, but I- I can't," Himawari said, tears starting to form in her eyes, "I just can't bring myself to look on Rin's Empire after she's- after she's gone. It's too hard for me, being reminded that she's... gone", she'd begun to slump on the floor.

    "Oh, and bring me back a Deathstone, won't you?" were Gakuto's parting words to you.

    With that, all that was left was to lay your playing cards down, if this time on the underside of the table.

    * * *

    <<BGM: The Smashing Pumpkins - Tonight, Tonight (Strings Alone Mix) >>

    "Gahh! What the-" you gasped. Maybe you leapt into the Galactic Empire too soon, because you soon found yourself floating in zero gravity!

    You eventually scrambled your way onto a nearby asteroid, wondering how you were even still breathing in a place like this.
    "What the hell is your problem?" Eitaro snarled, looking right down from above you.

    Like you in your shining armour and Melissa in her queen-bee prom dress, you saw Eitaro's outfit had changed too, into what looked like Bronze Age battle gear with hefty shoulders, spikes around his headband and boots, and fittingly for ancient times, a plated skirt, though maybe he'd prefer the word 'kilt'. It was a stretch to call his uniform armour though, since he was also completely shirtless in this get up, with only a single leather strap across his chest.

    You had the rest of this Empire to stare at too, and it was quite something. Around you were alien planets with swirling atmospheres, moonbases, ring-shaped space stations, spaceships that... looked like they belonged more in the Victorian Era or Taisho period from their rusted or Bakelite designs, and a giant crystal sphere encasing the whole Empire.
    Oh, and instead of everything orbiting around a sun, there was instead a black hole at this Empire's centre instead, being one way to remind you its Empress was dead.

    "Wow, Rin certainly had a strong imagination," you gasped.

    "Not imagination, beliefs," you heard Azuma's voice behind. He was now dressed in certainly more formal attire than Eitaro, looking straight out of a vampire movie with his flowing scarlet cloak, black trousers, maroon waistcoat, ruffled white tie, and dark rings around his eyes.
    "Honoka, I have a question," he then said, gesturing to the world around him, "Charisma. Ancestry. Wealth. Genius. Passion. Might," he nodded at Eitaro for that last one "By what principle do you believe our world should be governed?"

    You just stared at him, eventually saying, "I... don't see how that's relevant right now".

    Azuma laughed, "Why, when you play the Persona Game, that is the most important question of all. It's the basis from which our Empires are built on.
    Still, I understand how weighty a question it is, so feel free to take your time before you give your answer" he said, before sighing and muttering "Rin's was Morality, a fitting theme for a Space Opera".

    You barely had time to ponder though, before something crashed down onto this asteroid, sending the three of you floating back upwards. You looked and saw it was a looming, colossal Shadow in some sort of space armour, with a visor on its head scanning all around, a club that turned out to be a giant horn and, in contrast with how serious it was, had donned a glittering cape all the colours of the rainbow.

    "Alright, I see this place doesn't mess around," Eitaro flashed a grin. "Get out on the field, Qin Shi Huangdi!"
    Eitaro's Persona was a black-and-orange-robed imperial figure with a terracotta dragon-headed wall wrapped all around him. Said wall didn't just serve as armour, but as a restraint to keep a seething silver slime from spilling out of him like an ooze monster. His face was hidden by a curtain of beads drooping from a rectangular hat, and he wielded two spiked wind-and-fire wheels made from dragon scales.

    "Take the stage, Richard III!" came Azuma's cry in turn. His Persona looked like a great haunting shade beneath its cloak and Late Medieval hat, except for his eyes and boar-like tusks which glowed the brightest white. He swung two giant roses around like bolas, one white, one black, and both their stems being completely covered in thorns. One of his legs was instead replaced by a sword to walk on, broken in the middle.

    As for your move:
    [X] Theodora, with the power of mind.
    [ ] Anjou, for the explosive power of war.
    [ ] Forneus, with freezing ice.
    [ ] Argus, to match this Shadow's gaze.
    [ ] Cyclops, for sheer brute strength.

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

    "Theodora!" you called out, having your mosaic Persona arrive to blast the Shadow with raw psychic energy. Following her, you tried to flip around in zero gravity to get within range of that Shadow, but maneuvering yourself in the void of cognitive space wasn't the easiest.

    Azuma had it better in this regard, as he pulled out what looked to you like a bladed whip or segmented sword and lassoed it around an outcrop of space-rock. But this Shadow was having none of that and, shrugging of the Psy waves through force of will, threw the three of you back upwards again with a Magarula gale force strike.

    "Ah good, we're finally through, can you hear us?" Gakuto's voice crackled from beyond, "You're up against Heimdall, of the Justice Arcana, the rainbow theme and horn should've made that clear. Good thing for you there's no sound in space, otherwise he could launch a nasty concussive sonic attack. Oh, and forecast warns against using Wind and Ice Spells".

    We've got both wind and breath in this 'space', along with a crystal sphere. I doubt we'd be safe from sound blasts, you could only think in response. "Okay, so movement's clearly an issue here. Theodora, let's speed up!" you ordered, your Persona casting a bright green Sukukaja glow around you.

    "There's no breaking this defence!" Eitaro roared, as Qin Shi Huang conjured three red, searing Rakukaja rings around him, helping shield him from a swift battering by Heimdall wielding his horn like a club. Eitaro then tried casting the same spell on Azuma, though didn't proceed to cast any protective barrier around you.

    Azuma at least came through with healing, then stated, "Let divine mercy shine down," as Richard III cast a shining Media on the party. Eitaro however then promptly ignored Gakuto's advice and had a Garu spell cast, but not directly at Heimdall, but rather to direct his longbow's arrows towards the Shadow. Azuma responded in turn by suddenly pulling out a crossbow, shooting bolts that ricocheted off the floating rocks towards Heimdall. Eitaro then used his wind currents to head in directly for a flying kick, only to then be knocked back when Heimdall pierced him with a Bufula icicle lance.

    With Eitaro now struggling to get his foot free of the ice, you at least felt that Heimdall had now moved close enough for you to attack head-on. Casting another Sukukaja on yourself for good measure, you somersaulted upwards to deliver a cross chop with your tonfas. You scored a direct strike on Heimdall, but only for him to batter you away with another crushing swing of his horn, making you land with a thud onto the asteroid surface.

    "Honoka!" Azuma called out, attempting to reach out and slash Heimdall with his whip-sword, only for Heimdall to freeze it along its entire length then break the ice, causing multiple frozen shards to be launched at Azuma, sending his now wounded body hurtling into deep space.

    Eitaro, finally smashing the ice that had held him, roared and responded with a longbow arrow aimed directly between Heimdall's eyes, but Heimdall was easily able to use a conjured gale to redirect that arrow back around towards Eitaro. Piercing right into Eitaro's stomach, he almost fell unconscious.

    For you, at least picking yourself back up again was relatively easy in zero gravity. This time, you shouted, "Lets end this!" and cast a blinding gold Hama spell around Heimdall to just finish him off already... but no such luck. The shadow then casted Diarama upon himself to heal to full, before readying to send you flying with another icy gale.

    Except, your world instead started to rewind, as scenes of the past fight flashed before you, till you suddenly found yourself back in the All-Aces' Lounge.
    "What the hell? Who pulled us out?!" Eitaro was first to speak up.

    "That was me," Azuma said, "It was obvious we were clearly in over our heads, so I employed an item called a 'Goho-M' to save us from being pounded into oblivion".

    Eitaro could only sneer. "Pathetic. I easily could've dealt with that Shadow myself, if it weren't for-" he turned to look at Azuma, but only able to meet his gaze for so long, instead turned to you, "-That Jack you keep insisting on bringing along to the gameboard, a damn second-year who can't even build her own Empire! Humph, so much for 'proving your worth', a single Shadow is all it takes to make you retreat".

    "Excuse me?!" you then spat out, about to reach the breaking point with these people, "You have Azuma to thank for getting us out of there, not me! Take it up with him, unless you're too chicken-shit to go against your King. Besides, you a match for that Shadow? He was tossing you around like a ragdoll!"

    <<BGM: Umineko - The candles' dance >>

    The whole room, Aces and Jacks, went silent, but Eitaro finally hissed, "Azuma was only made to retreat because you were too weak. Yet you think you can talk smack to me?!" Eitaro leaned in close, pointing right between your eyes, "Let's just see if you can back up those fighting words. Tomorrow, my Imperial Colosseum, I'm challenging you to a Duel".

    Lacking any gauntlet, he instead conjured that flaming blue Tarot card and threw it on the ground. The gasps of all the whole room were upon you.

    "Tsutsuji Eitaro," Azuma spoke up, "If you insist on this, at the very least give Honoka ample opportunity to prepare herself! Tomorrow is too short notice, even for a full-fledged Ace".

    "After all, what accomplishment is there in striking down a foe who is clearly not at full strength?" Kikuko approached, making the offer, "How about this Monday, then she will have had the whole weekend to train herself?"

    Eitaro glared down at you, "Alright, fine, have your little training session, for all the good it will do you. Just don't make me wait any longer than that," he spat before storming out of the room.

    Well, that certainly was the most open with his feelings you'd ever seen Eitaro...

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Chariot Arcana"

    Wait, what in the world?! you thought. Well, you guessed 'duelling opponent' was technically a connection...

    "Honoka..." Azuma muttered, "My apologies, I should've known, Eitaro's boiling wrath was clearly getting out of hand. Still, I believe I made the right choice in inviting you to the Gameboard, that willpower you just showed was far greater than any other student at Hanataba. Few people I know would ever stand up to Eitaro like that" he put his hand on your shoulder and smiled down at you.

    "...Thanks," you muttered. "I admit, I'm scared about this coming Monday, but on the bright side," you then said, clenching your fists together, "Oh boy, I can't lie that if anyone here needs a real thumping, it's Eitaro. That jerk thinks he can just treat everyone around him like shit, even abuse his own Vice-Captain. At least this is a chance to give him a taste of his own medicine!
    Just, er, one thing," your bravado then faded, as you asked, "Er, this Duel, it's not going to be, well, to the Death, is it?"

    It took a while for anyone to respond, but finally Gakuto ahemed and answered, "Well, I'm sure if you asked Eitaro later in court, he'd probably plea it was in self-defence or an accident or something. Guy's not exactly known for holding back, though".

    "Er, I can't join the fight with you, our Rules say all Duels are One-on-One," Himawari said, but tried to perk you up with "But I'm definitely gonna be cheering on you, Honoka! Oh, you will to, won't you Melissa?"

    "Hmm, hard decision honestly," Melissa then said, "On one hand, Eitaro is a total beefcake, nice change of pace from all the skinny boys around here. But on the other, I don't want that Cape Erimo trip I booked for you and Azuma to go to waste".

    You already went and booked it? that thought rang out in your head, your face going pale.

    "Hold on, I don't believe I've been informed of this," Azuma spoke up.

    "Well, you've clearly been putting the moves on Honoka, but she's being an ungrateful little bitch by not reciprocating. So, I thought what you needed was a little getaway, a chance to really get to know each other!" Melissa ginned and clasped her hands, "If she survives, of course".

    "That's..." Azuma began, but after some consideration said "...rather generous of you, Melissa. I couldn't exactly turn something like that down".

    "Ahem, if we're done with all the lovey-dovey talk," Gakuto raised his voice, "I'll have to take the Switzerland route on this Duel. Who knows, might set up a betting pool? Although Honoka, if it's information on your foe you require, I'm always available for, let's just say, a price," he nudged his glasses, "Of course, the same goes for Eitaro, though he'll likely insist he knows all he needs to".

    You flinched, and simply said, "Er, lemme get back to you on that". Lemme get back to you all on everything, you thought, Well, at least I know one place to go to prepare.

  6. #6
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    VI. Nightshade

    Popping out of school to enter back into the Velvet Room, you said to Lauryn, "Well, investigated that Galactic Empire like you asked. Sorry, but I couldn't find much, got thrashed all over by the gatekeeper there," you shrugged, "There was this black hole in the centre of everything though, take it that wasn't there before?"

    "A black hole?" the aviatrix gasped, "Well, thank you all the same, I didn't expect it would be an easy mission for you. Um, so you would've seen the portraits hanging above the Gameboard, right?"

    "Yeah," you replied simply, before finally voicing out "...You're Rokudo Rin, right?"

    Lauryn didn't even speak, only nodded.

    "It is a most strange occurrence indeed," Igor spoke up, "While guests within our Velvet Room have gone on to great heights, not many so far have taken up the role of assistant here. Yes, Lauryn had her own Journey, one which even after death is not yet over. For her to truly reach the end however, another may have to finish what she began".

    "So er, well there's no easy way to put this," you mumbled, before you took a deep breath and said, "Um, they say you committed suicide..."

    "Suicide?" Lauryn raised her voice, "No, I would never! I'm, well, I'm not sure how I died" she snarled and looked down, "I was asleep at the time, but to my knowledge I was perfectly healthy".

    You froze, finally moving your lips, "You're, you're saying you were murdered?!"

    "I, I don't know of any other explanation," she could only say.

    That was, well, certainly a confession you got out of Lauryn. At that moment, you saw the entire Velvet Room light up, like the storm outside had unleashed a bolt of lightning.

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Death Arcana"

    "Well well, two Social Links within this very Velvet Room," Igor grinned, "Although Popo here isn't an official resident, but regardless".

    Speaking of Popo, that's right, you'd be due new Personae now.
    "Right Miss, coming right up," the pegasus pony chirped.

    Reflections of the Personae of those who had ventured with you into the Galactic Empire soon emerged:

    <<I am Emperor Richard III," whispered the shadowy king, "What is done cannot be now amended.
    Richard III

    [Inverse Emperor IV]
    Elements: Resists Bless, weak to Ice
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: |||||
    - Agility: |||||
    - Luck: |||||
    - Endurance: |||||
    - Kouga
    - Eiga
    - Dia
    - Media

    <<I am Chariot Qin Shi Huang, King of All under Heaven," boomed the terracotta tyrant, "My legacy will last till the world's end!Qin Shi Huang

    [Inverse Chariot VII]
    Elements: Strong to Wind, weak to Gun
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: |||||
    - Agility: |||||
    - Luck: |||||
    - Endurance: |||||
    - Garu
    - Makanda
    - Rakukaja

    "Wait, no Heimdall?" you spoke up.

    "It seems your aberrant Wild Card only works when it comes to Shadows you have either bested, or Personae who've come to your aid," Igor replied, before clenching his hands tighter, "Moreover, we have another problem.
    At present, it seems your psyche can only hold up to six Personae, any more and you will become burdened with immense mental strain," he explained, "Fortunately, we have ways of getting around that. Either you simply leave a Persona's card here with us in storage, or we can have two or three of your Personae fuse".

    The fusions recommended to you were:
    [ ] Chariot Cyclops + Chariot Qin Shi Huang = Chariot Cuchulainn (Physical and Wind)
    [ ] Emperor Forneus + Emperor Richard III = Emperor Seiryu (Ice and Healing)
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Hanged Man Argus = Tower Lancelot (Physical and Ice)
    [X] Fool Theodora + Strength Anjou = Death Santa Muerte (Curse and Gun)
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Chariot Qin Shi Huang = Moon Yutu (Nuclear and Healing)
    [ ] Chariot Qin Shi Huang + Hanged Man Argus = Fool Coyote (Psy and Fire)
    [ ] Strength Anjou + Hanged Man Argus = Temperance Clementia (Healing and Psy)
    [ ] Write-in Fusion
    [ ] No fusion, just leave a Persona here (write-in)
    "I am Death Santa Muerte, Lady of Holy Demise," intoned a black-haired woman you couldn't tell if was painted like a skeleton, or if she just was a skeleton. She wore a black trenchcoat, carried a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other, had ammo belts stocked with hourglasses, and owl wings on her back, "Vaya con Dios".

    "If you ever need an old persona returned to you, I can summon it again using this Persona Compendium," Lauryn told you, holding a book.

    "Until next time," Igor said, bidding you farewell.

    And since you'd been kicked off the Gameboard quite quickly, and your Velvet Room visit hadn't taken that long, there should still be some after school clubs still operational. Let's see:

    [X] Occult Club's on, Colette will be pestering you about that.
    [ ] There's Drama Club, maybe you owe something to Azuma.
    [ ] Why not hang out with Reina again?
    [ ] You can join Kendo Club, but is your resolve really that strong yet?
    [ ] Ryouko probably needs some assistance...
    [X] There's still part-time jobs:
    - [X] Tabletop gaming store.
    - [ ] Sweets shop.
    - [ ] Record store.
    - [ ] Local Museum.
    - [ ] Modelling.
    [ ] Write-in.
    * * *

    You didn't have to go far to run into Colette again.
    "Well well, Class Rep now are we?" she giggled in your presence, pulling a mock curtsy. "We haven't interacted much since the week began, have we? Still, from what I've been observing, those All-Aces don't seem to have gotten to you much, but nevertheless, you do have some explaining to do" she huffed and crossed her arms.

    "Explaining?" you cocked your head, "Over what, not paying enough attention to you".

    "Oh don't pretend like you don't know," she sighed, before spelling it out to you, "About leaving the position of Vice-Rep up to a class vote. Humph, I can finally see why Socrates hated democracy, as the will of the people decided it'd be a fun little prank to play by electing me 2-C's Vice-Rep!" she seethed.

    You almost couldn't believe what you heard. "Wait, you're my Vice-Rep now?" you just had to giggle, but tried to lighten things with "Hey, on the bright side, hanging out with you more may be the antidote I need to the All-Aces' poison. Besides, maybe you weren't voted in because of a prank, maybe it was because the Class genuinely looked up to you?"

    Colette's gaze turned cold, "Have you even met the rest of our Class?" she stated, before breathing deep and explaining, "I believe I've made it clear to you I'm quite happy on the fringes of society, being pushed into the spotlight like this most displeases me".

    "Really? 'Cause you sure seem to push yourself into the spotlight around me whenever you can," you smirked at her.

    Colette gritted her teeth as she said "I'll choose to interpret your words charitably, as if you simply need someone you can be open with, after having to keep a tight lip around the All-Aces today".

    That just made you laugh. "Yeah, about that," you spoke up, saying "I finally told the All-Aces, Eitaro specifically, how I really felt today. I may have put my life on the line because of it, but I'll take my victories where I can," you grinned.

    Colette was almost speechless a second, but then said "Y-you mean that? Why Honoka, that does sound like quite the tale to be told! But of course, not out in the halls obviously, let's head to Occult Club immediately".

    <<BGM: Umineko - Golden Shadow >>

    Sitting back in the darkened room, Colette began flicking through a collection of vinyl LPs she had on the shelves, "Have to set the appropriate atmosphere, you know," she said to you, "But I'm practically paralysed with choice".
    You took a look at her music collection, even if you had to squint in the dark to make out some of the names. Hmm, The Doors, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, Nick Cave, Dead Can Dance, Malice Mizer, Voltaire, Rasputina, Kanon Wakeshima, Lingua Ignota, the names kept going on, you kinda lost track a little. You did feel like you had more insight into what Colette was like.

    "Oh, just never mind," Collette sighed, "The other club members will be here soon, so it's best you just tell me while we still have a little privacy," she said, proceeding to light some candles so that the room wasn't a total black blob.

    "To make it quick, I told Sports Ace Eitaro he could stuff it," you put simply, folding your arms, "That he should stop calling others weak to hide his own failures. And..." you paused, a lump in your throat, "Then he challenged me to a Duel".

    "Oh my!" Colette had to giggle, "What kind of 'duel'? Cards, chess, archery, fencing, pistols at dawn?"

    "With Personae," you muttered, the humour in your voice gone, "On the Gameboard. At the Heart of his Empire".

    Colette stared blankly, wincing as she said "Er, sorry, I honestly have no idea what any of those are," then after more silence, "I would say it sounds awfully poetic, but... from your expression, I can tell this is something dead serious, pardon the pun".

    "Yeah, I could be dead this Monday," you said, looking down, guess this is what I get for assuming Colette was aware of all this.

    "Well, whatever those terms mean, I'm not surprised that those as aristocratic as the All-Aces would be engaging in some absolutely 17th-century behaviour," Colette said, but the lowered her voice, "I have no evidence linking them directly to Rin's death, I mean she died before we even started coming here, but I'm beyond surprise at this point.
    Still, you're up against Eitaro, right? Well that meathead probably knows no strategy other than brute force, so at least you've got someone easy to counter," she said, before looking around, "Ah, that'll be the rest of the club. Come in, come in!"

    You were soon joined by three more students, a scruffy-haired boy with cat ears and two tails, a skinny boy wrapped in bandages with his hands in a meditative position, and a girl with wavy hair and with the lower half of her face completely covered.

    "Honoka, may I introduce you to Hitoshi, Masaomi, and Ibuki, my fellow delvers in the dark," Colette smiled and gestured to them.

    "Nyan~!" Hitoshi purred, winking and extending a paw towards you.

    "Greetings," Masaomi stoically spoke, bowing at you.

    "Do you think I'm pretty?" Ibuki whispered in your ear.

    "Er, what the-" you stuttered, before saying "Yeah sure, you're alright-looking".

    Ibuki giggled and then uncovered her mouth, showing what looked like two long scars either side of her mouth, "Do you think I'm pretty?!" she repeated.

    "Eeyah!" you burst out, stumbling back almost over a chair "Alright alright, you're friggin' drop-dead gorgeous, okay?!"

    "Relax Honoka, the three of them were simply getting into character," Colette grinned, helping you back on your feet, "Oh, to clarify, Hitoshi's a nekomata, Masaomi comes as a sokushinbutsu, while our Ibuki is the kuchisake-onna. And I'm the doll, of course".

    "You always get to be the doll," Masaomi muttered beneath his breath.

    "Ooh, that reminds me. Since you're new to the club Honoka, we haven't picked out a costume for you yet," Colette started pondering.

    You replied:
    [X] "I'm feeling more and more like a marionette these days"
    [ ] "Creepy jester maybe? Feels like I've had some mean jokes played on me"
    [ ] "Er, witch? Most obvious one I can think of"
    [ ] "Er, zombie make-up should be easy" Plus I could be dead soon anyway.
    [ ] "Can't I just come as I am? If anyone asks, say I'm the 'Final Girl'."
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Why, an ingenious idea!" Colette beamed, before she stood back and cleared her throat, "Now, you all know why I've summoned you here today".

    "Brewing potions!" Hitoshi spoke up.

    "Preparing coffins," Masaomi droned.

    "Bargaining with demons!" Ibuki flashed a wild smile (though not like she couldn't).

    "Er, don't we serve tea here?" you only offered.

    "Well yes, of course tea!" Colette answered "In fact, we have a lovely serving of Melbourne Breakfast ready, even if of course it's long after breakfast. I even stayed in Melbourne once, as part of an exchange program. I was afraid the sun would be insufferable, but has luck would have it, Melbourne's quite the delightfully gloomy, rainy city.
    Ah, but I'm getting sidetracked. No, the real reason is-" she then pulled out a needle and thread, "Sewing lessons! A necessary skill for keeping up with the latest in gothic fashion. With how expensive it is these days, DIY's really the only way to go for those of us who aren't drowning in lucre".

    Well, sewing certainly did train you to be precise, not to mention refined. You still kept missing the needle most of the time though...

    Sometime later, Colette groaned, "Unfortunately, the Occult Club has to abide by school rules and close up for the evening. Shame, it would be most intriguing to explore our school deserted at night, but regardless".

    Oh, that reminded you of one last thing, "Hey Colette, you know how you were talking about music earlier? Have you heard of this 'Nightshade' singer around town?" you asked, "Like, I only really know the name..."

    "Nightshade? Ah, but of course, I was planning to attend a performance of hers tonight!" Colette said, writing down the place's address to you, "It's not exactly an All-Ages venue, but a little etiquette and right word choice can get you in anywhere, I feel. If you ask me, most musicians around Kuchinashi could likely only get applause from their mothers, but nightshade, yes, she is indeed the exception! Very, ahem, expressive."

    "8:00 PM huh?" you read, "Well that's... manageable, and Tanizawa-sensei I don't think is the type to mind students oversleeping. Okay, you're on, I'll try to make it!" A concert sounds like just the thing to tale my mind off... everything.

    "Ah, perfect!" Colette grinned "Our paths shall next cross there, then".

    - The Moon has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    * * *

    Before you entered your apartment, you dialed up Tumbling Dice, the local gaming store for everything except video games, though you had to admit that sweet shop job was tempting, and maybe modelling now if you were desperate enough.
    "Hello there, Nakamura Honoka here, noticed you were looking for-" you began your call, but soon stopped when you recognised the voice on the other end of the line "Wait, Hotaru- ahem, Student Council President?"

    "Honoka, hey. You're that girl with the All-Aces, right?" you could hear Hotaru's voice come in, "Oh, you're 2-C's Class Representative too, I remember. But hey, that's all school stuff, right? You were calling to help our store out, right?"

    "Uh, yes," you nodded, despite being on the phone "So, er, family business?"

    "What? Oh yeah, I wish. Nope, I've been frequenting this store for about a decade now, Student Council's pretty hectic, so it's nice to kick back and escape sometimes," he explained, "Anyway, you're pretty accomplished yourself Honoka, from what I've heard, so why not come in to apply? This Saturday sound good to you?"

    "Er, of course, I could squeeze that in. See you then, bye!" you hung up, before walking into your apartment to say, "Hey Megumi, how's that for a job interview, hmm?"

    "Hey, careful now, they haven't accepted your application yet," Megumi just mumbled from watching Phoenix Rider in a daze, "But a gaming shop, huh? Yeah, sounds fun".

    Heading into your room, you got changed into the elegant get-up you'd picked out with Reina, before lifting Megumi by their arm.
    "Hey, Megumi, kinda need your help tonight," you told them, "You know that singer Nightshade, right? Well, I'm heading to one of her performances, but based on the place, it kinda sounds like I need an adult with me to get in. You up?"

    "Oh yeah, Nightshade," Megumi said, "Well, guess I didn't need my eardrums anyway. Sure, I can come with you, it's not like I had anything else planned tonight, honestly".

    A little while later, you'd hopped into the passenger seat of Megumi's motorbike, and soon sped off downtown. The nightclub in question, Dark Desires, at least didn't take long to find. It was a pretty cramped place, its neon lights constantly short-circuiting and cables everywhere on the floor, though with how much room the stage took up, at least Nightshade would have plenty of space to perform. So far, seemed the only 'desire' around here was for a better club.

    Before this Nightshade could come onto the stage, you ran into someone else, er, someone you really weren't hoping to encounter here.

    "Honoka?!" exclaimed Ryouko, with her dressed surprisingly stylishly in ironed black trousers and a white waistcoat.

    "T-Tanizawa-sensei?" you sputtered out, before desperately thinking of anything to change the topic.

    Luckily, something came up. "Hmhm, well now Honoka, aren't you going to introduce me to your friend now?" Ryouko suddenly purred.

    You flinched. "Who, Megumi? Oh okay, er they're my roommate, they're doing a college degree right now," was all the info you could offer.

    Megumi laughed warmly, them now dressed in a sparkly black-green dress with white shorts underneath, and said to Ryouko, "Umebayashi Megumi. I've heard about you from Honoka, Miss Tanizawa".

    "You know," Ryouko's smile widened as she flicked her hair, "I'm fond of the androgyne style myself, if you hadn't noticed".

    "Well, for me, it's more than a style, but still, I appreciate your interest," Megumi giggled, before turning to bartender and asking for "Your best red wine, please. Oh, and Miss Tanizawa, may I call you Ryouko? What will you be having?"

    Geez Megumi, first you're worried about making rent, now you're splurging on wine? you could only think. Come on, when's Nightshade gonna start? My teacher flirting with my roommate is frankly not something I needed to see.

    Your chance to slip away then came though, as you could hear Colette calling out to you from the other side of the room. "Honoka, over here!" she waved to you, still dressed in the same dark, frilly clothes as before.

    Sighing with relief and sidling over to her, Colette then told you, "By the way, turns out they're quite lax about letting minors in here, just as long as we stick to Oolong tea. Which suits me just fine".

    "Wait, so you mean I didn't have to watch our teacher and my roommate chatting each other up?" you gulped.

    "Au contraire Honoka, I'd say they're simply adorable together- oh wait, show's starting," Colette said as the lights dimmed, intentionally this time.

    A scarlet spotlight then shone on a girl with pitch black contact lenses with red pupils, her wearing a blood red corset, short pleated black skirt, and purple lacy thigh-high socks, though most stunning was her bright pink hair. "Alright peasants, bow before your Queen! Let's rock this godforsaken joint!" she let out a banshee screech, as the music came on and she began to sing.

    <<BGM: Heathers - Dead Girl Walking (Symph-Metal cover) >>

    Other than her screaming her lungs out, Nightshade's act was, er, certainly something. Other than multiple instances of what looked like her humping her mic and the floor, there were even instances of her pointing a replica gun near her head, running a blade near her tongue, and smearing herself with what better have been fake blood.

    She... also looked weirdly familiar, and not just from the posters either. Unfortunately, you weren't perceptive enough to know where your deja vu came from.

    But your teacher certainly was. "Excuse me, I'm just... such a fan of Miss Nightshade that I absolutely must meet her backstage," Ryouko said quickly, heading to the dressing room.

    "Wait, huh?" Colette muttered, before she turned to you and tugged your hand, "Well, why should only Tanizawa-sensei get to meet Nightshade in person? Allons-y!"

    With Megumi choosing to respect Ryouko's privacy, or maybe just too wine-drunk to notice she was elsewhere, that left the three of you to meet Nightshade in her dressing room.

    The costumed singer turned to look at you and smirked "Sorry, due for an encore, so if you want autographs you'll have to sit your arses down".

    "Oh no, you better sit your arse down," Ryouko approached, pulling off Nightshade's wig, to let long, deep bluish hair cascade down, "Miss Aoyagi!"

    Nightshade, no, Himawari then started panicking, promptly running around to hold the door back out firmly shut as her black contacts fell out. "M-Miss Tanizawa! Honoka! P-please, you can't tell anyone about this, I beg you-" she began, before she took back her pink wig and growled out "Seriously, what the bloody Hell are you trying to pull? Oh, you think you can waltz in here and cut my career short, can you? Well, this ain't school anymore, Ryouko, so if you wanna throw down..."

    Huh, this sure explains that 'Criminal Empire', you thought.

    "Oh no, I'm here to congratulate you," Ryouko laughed, "This is certainly an impressive stunt you're performing, Himawari, I never expected this would be the legacy of Class 2-C. She was my student last year in case you weren't aware," she whispered that last line to you.

    Nightshade gave a fanged grin, "Oh no, Ryouko, I don't 'perform'. This is who I really am, love me or leave me".
    She then began to snarl, "Every single person in my life, my parents, my teachers, my classmates, they've all been pushing me to be this innocent little good girl, never giving a shit about what I feel, never thinking that I'm only a goddamn human being!". Her composure returned, as she flashed a wicked smile "Face facts, Aoyagi Himawari's dead, long live Nightshade!"

    She then however removed her wig and whimpered, "But, um, please don't tell anyone. If anyone in my life found out, it-it scares me how they could react..." her eyes started welling up.

    "Of course we shan't" Colette promised, "There always seemed something... fake about Himawari, but this night has proven, Nightshade, that you're far more than just another All-Ace. Plus, you're the best singer around, without you Kuchinashi's music scene would be a lost cause".

    "Listen, Himawari or Nightshade, you're still one of the highest-scoring students 2-C ever had, so I can't just turn on you," Ryouko took her hand.

    Himawari blushed, before she looked right at you. "I'm sorry for deceiving you, Honoka, about who I really am" she muttered, before the wig came back on and she said "Tell me, Honoka darling, hmhm, what do you think now that you've gotten to know the real me?!"

    [x] "You do seem a lot happier, a lot more comfortable with yourself..."
    [ ] "Er, you see, I do miss the old Himawari just a little"
    [ ] "You're not even out of high school, how can you tell if you've found the 'real you'?"
    [ ] "I, ah, might still need more time to process all this"
    [ ] Write-in.

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Devil Arcana"

    "Haha, knew you'd come around," Nightshade grinned, before leaning in closer and saying, "Seriously though, if you tell anyone at school about this," she then mimed a finger across the throat.

    "Ah, but interacting with fans bores me," she moaned, "I am overdue back on for an encore, don't want the crowd to tear this entire place down in frustration, after all. Grr, still stuck using backing tracks though, I really need to get a backing band together, but I can't ask any of my schoolmates".

    It was then Colette stood up, "You can ask this schoolmate, I'm a great appreciator of music, from Classical to Contemporary. Admittedly writing and sewing are more my specialties, but you could say that means I'm skilled with my hands, hmhm," she giggled.

    "Er, I've barely touched an instrument, but still, being in a Visual Kei girl band sounds way cooler than teaching. So I don't mind," Ryouko stepped in, before admitting "Plus, guess I owe you for, y'know, exposing you earlier".

    The three of them then turned to look at you, so you just said to Nightshade, "Er, could we talk in private, please?"
    The two of you walked to the side, where you went in and whispered, "Don't know if you've forgotten, Ace of Hearts, but your unhinged clubmate is threatening to kill me this Monday. I don't exactly have time to be practicing music".

    Nightshade however only beamed widely at that, saying "Okay babe, why don't we make a sisterly Soul Pact? You back me up on stage, and if Eitaro really does fricassee you, then I'll Duel him to avenge you".

    That didn't quite convince you, "What, are you going to hit him with your mic? Challenge him to a dance-off?"

    "You dare underestimate my Anastasia?" Nightshade haughtily chuckled, "Oh, and as for my weapon of choice, try a ball-and-chain and throwing axes".

    "Wow, okay then. So ah, do the other Aces know about you being Nightshade?" you had to ask.

    That made Nightshade pause to think, before she said "I haven't told them, but I'm worried some of them may've figured it out on their own. Plus, my Gameboard Regalia is, well, not very subtle about it. Did think to ask Melissa to join me, but she'd just try and make the whole thing about her, then rat me out if I ever told her to shut it. The Jacks should be totally clueless about me though.
    Oh, and if you're getting ideas about that, sorry, can't promote you to Jack of Hearts, people would just ask about the specific connection,
    " she said.

    "Why? Can't you just say we're like, friends or something?" you asked.

    "First, we've known each other like, a week, and second, being a personal Jack is more about than just being friends," she said as she licked her lips, "You're basically asking to become my slave, little Honoka," she ran a nail along your skin.

    "Ah, so yeah, I'll join your band," you quickly finished the conversation, as Nightshade and you could already feel Colette and Ryouko starting to stare you.

    "Okay yeah, encore time, gotta go," Nightshade said as she headed back to the stage, "I'll let you decide what instruments you're gonna pick, sounds like you're equally hopeless at most of them, really".

    <<BGM: K/DA - Villain (Symph-Metal cover) >>

    "So, instruments. Right then..."

    [ ] Yourself: Guitar, Colette: Bass, Ryouko: Drums.
    [ ] Yourself: Guitar, Ryouko: Bass, Colette: Drums.
    [ ] Colette: Guitar, Ryouko: Bass, Yourself: Drums
    [ ] Colette: Guitar, Yourself: Bass, Ryouko: Drums.
    [x] Ryouko: Guitar, Yourself: Bass, Colette: Drums.
    [ ] Ryouko: Guitar, Colette: Bass, Yourself: Drums.
    [ ] Write-in.

    * * *

    Back in your apartment, you had to now deal with your teacher and your roommate making out in the doorway.

    "Oh my God, I had such a great time tonight," Ryouko moaned, fingering the top of Megumi's blouse.

    "Same," Megumi just smiled, holding Ryouko's hand and receiving her kiss.

    Ew, gross gross grossgrossgross, was what you'd been thinking the whole time.
    "Okay, freakin' break it up you two," you yelled out, pushing Tanizawa-sensei out of the door.

    "Argh, seriously Honoka?" Ryouko complained as she thumped on your now locked door. "Ooh, I am so going to dock your grade for this, young lady!"

    "Sheesh, did you really have to do that?" Megumi frowned at you, "I did get you into that nightclub, y'know. Besides, contrary to popular belief, it's not easy to find dates in college".

    You sighed, "Look, if you want, you can totally see my teacher whenever. Just... not while I'm in the room, please," you whimpered.

    Megumi just had to laugh, sidling up to you and saying, "You're not jealous, are you?"

    You then sprang back "...Jealous? W-why would I be jealous?" you tried to smile.

    "That an overworked college student like me can at least still get a date," Megumi smirked at you, "Well okay, it is your first week back after all, so maybe that's unfair. Still, only took one night for Ryouko to come home with me".

    You stared at them, as you slowly sputtered out "Oh come on, I can get totally get a date! My popularity at school's shot way up since I started hanging with the All-Aces!" It's gonna go up even further once I'm dead, high school tends to be like that. "I just, ah, haven't found the time, that's all".

    "If you say so," Megumi muttered, before saying with a flick of their hair, "Take a little advice from the 'lovemeister' here though. Seek out common interests, 'cause if you can't find them, all your conversations are going to be non-starters. For example," they picked up a figurine, "You know Phoenix Rider, right? Way better than Featherman, I'd say. Point is, being a popular series for decades now, it can also serve as a good starting topic".

    "Er, well I haven't really kept up with the show for years, but I get your point," you said, thinking a little, "I know from childhood that Yuya's a fan, and Keiko even more so. Though er, why'd you think it's better than Featherman?"

    "Eh, there's always a bunch of Phoenix Rangers, but a Phoenix Rider is forced to stand alone. being outside the gender binary, that really gets to you," Megumi began, but had to admit "Okay, that's truer for earlier seasons. But Phoenix Rider had a Season themed around friggin' Candy, has Featherman ever had a season about that?"

    "Oh yeah, I remember that" you nod, "It was about a girl escaping from the cult that abducted her as a child".

    "Ahem, yeah. Kinda think we've gone off-topic a bit though," Megumi said, before standing up off the couch, "Point is, Nakamura Honoka, I'm challenging you to a contest. Find a date by your mid-terms, end of this year at the very latest, or you'll have to, er, well I'll think of something later".

    Heh, I might not even have that long, you thought as you slumped down.

    - Temperance has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    They suddenly shut the door to your own bedroom. "For cutting off my make-out session with Ryouko though, you're sleeping on the couch tonight. Deal with it," Megumi said through the door.

    "What the- Oh come on!" you called out, thumping on your own door but to no avail.
    Last edited by NailsInYourFeet; August 15th, 2022 at 04:12 AM. Reason: Adding collapsed Persona profiles

  7. #7
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    VII. Tumbling Dice

    Hey, you heard about this new gossip site Secret Lives of Students? There's some nasty stuff on there -"

    "- Wow, I thought Eitaro was cool and tough, but he's been getting really agitated lately"

    "What? You mean there's a Maid and Butler as students here? Oh, they're Jacks, guess that explains it -"

    "- Wait, imagine if that gossip site dug up stuff on the All-Aces?"
    "Ah Honoka, perfect timing" you were suddenly met at the school gates by Gakuto, all of people. A small crowd of students had even started to crowd around.

    "What is it?" you muttered, "I'm not exactly flush with cash, if you still wanna sell info on Eitaro".

    "Oh my no, I'm more than loaded, so no yen required" Gakuto smiled, before suddenly leading you behind a tree.
    "In exchange for every little speck of dirt I have on our Ace of Cups, I have a more... specific request," his smiled stretched out to a wide, thin grin as he pushed up his glasses "Send nudes".

    You would've immediately taken a step back, had you not been back up against a tree "-The Hell?!"

    "Preferably of Himawari, although Melissa I wouldn't mind if possible, but I could settle for disrobed pictures of you. Not Kikuko though, I'm no daredevil, I don't wanna risk getting my testicles sliced off," he said, before noticing your pulsing glare, "Okay, I can see you're not convinced. Look, I'll sweeten the deal, send me regular pictures and I'll just edit them to make deepfake porn, how's that sound? ...What about upskirt shots then?"

    Not holding back, you swiftly kicked him right in the groin. "Drop fucking dead, Gakuto!" you roared.

    "Gyaaargh!" he groaned and whimpered, before he hissed at you, "You're lucky I've declared myself neutral in this Duel, else I would've sold every scrap of info I could find on you to Eitaro for that!".
    He started laughing like a hyena, "Whatever, I've got this whole Persona Game in the bag. I'll just pit everyone against each other, then swoop in and finish off the last, weakened contestant".

    "Yeah, you keep telling yourself that," you snarled.

    Walking back to the school door, those students started whispering amongst themselves, stuff like, "Did, did she just seriously kick an All-Ace in the crotch?", then opposing views like "How dare she do that?" and "Wow, she's badass!"

    * * *
    Sitting in class, you could feel Tanizawa-sensei's eyes fixed on you, as she slowly said, "Okay then, Little Miss Vag-Blocker, how 'bout a question?"

    Jesus, did you have to bring that thing with Megumi up in front of class? you thought as you sweated.

    "Which of the following is not an Agatha Christie novel?"
    [ ] A Daughter's a Daughter
    [ ] Hallowe'en Party
    [x] Poirot Investigates
    [ ] The Clocks

    You gave your answer, but she hardly seemed that impressed anyway. She did have to turn around to admit to you, "Good job standing up to Gakuto back there though. I had him in my class last year, guy was a douche back then too".
    Well, that was something.

    Being Saturday, you were off school fairly early, so took the opportunity to head down to the game store you'd been on the phone with, Tumbling Dice, to more formally apply for a job there.

    It wasn't the best looking or most spacious store, and the musty green wallpaper wasn't the most stylish, but it still had a very decent collection of board and tabletop games all stacked up, at least a decent collection to your knowledge. The scaly, medieval framework along its window was a nice touch.

    It was then you were approached by the star-badged Student Council President himself, Morikawa Hotaru.
    "Great, you've found the place, I was beginning to worry. Come in, come in! Er, duties here mostly just revolve around stacking boxes, also recommending games to customers based on their preferences, but that's about it really," he said before sighing.

    "Wow, that really was you on the phone then," you had to giggle, "So I wasn't talking to a surprisingly good voice impersonator".

    Hotaru didn't know how to react to that, but then went, "Oh yeah, huh, cool. Anyway, what I really needed help with was finding another member for our gaming group, especially since Daizen, well, you know".

    You didn't say anything to that, but just nodded. Yeah, I know, you thought.

    "And I'm glad you came Honoka. From everything I've heard, it sounds like you'd be prime player material. Like, I checked your social media profiles, basic employment requirement, and it sounds like you've already got quite the backstory," Hotaru grinned.

    You remembered that little fanfic of you Azuma wrote, "Oh yeah," That.

    "Of course, before all that, we of course have to decide what game we're playing" he said, ushering you into the store's darkened back room where two other guys were at sitting at a table. One fairly normal-looking, with slippery black hair and a suit on, almost like he hadn't had time to change out of his salaryman clothes, and the other a foreigner with greasy red hair and freckles.

    "Torashi, Damian," Hotaru introduced the two, "This here's Honoka, she's gonna be our new member, right?"

    "Uh yeah, sure," you mumbled, "Why not?"

    "Okay, hi. So, we've settled on Dragon Record, right?" Torashi went on to say.

    "Dragon Record, really? Come on, there's more interesting stuff out there, like why not Atomspire?" Damian spoke up.

    "Look, Dragon Record gets way more interesting if you go beyond the basic setting," Torashi argued.

    "Er, okay, so..." Hotaru gulped, "As Game Master here, I've got the final say, but I'd be interested in what you think, Honoka, you are the newcomer here after all", he said as he took a pile of six games and dropped them on the table, "We're probably not gonna get much more than character creation done this afternoon though".

    [ ] Dragon Record. Basic Fantasy setting, Elves, Dwarves, Warriors, Thieves, Mages. Makes sense for your first time.
    [ ] Slime: The Genesis. Er, apparently you play as blob-people. Insists its a tragic and serious horror game though.
    [ ] Atomspire. Unusual hybrid fantasy setting with nuclear power in it, drawing just as much on 50s America and other Atomic Age stuff.
    [ ] Loathcraft. Much more low-powered, well the player characters are anyway, RPG about retaining sanity in the face of the indescribable.
    [ ] Phoenix Ranger Featherman RPG. Title kinda says it all.
    [x] Tears from the Veil. You play as high-schoolers, wow, big change there, but you go around solving mysteries about weird machines in the countryside.
    [ ] Write-in.
    "Alright, I've settled on Tears from the Veil," Hotaru announced over the table, "It's Honoka's first time coming here, so how about we do her a favour, hmm?"

    "Tears from the Veil? Oh, that's the Goonies-like game with the weird art, right?" Damian asked, before he said to Torashi, "Oh, The Goonies was-"

    "80s Spielberg movie, yeah, I've seen it," Torashi cut in.

    "Okay, but first we should set the music," Hotaru spoke up, starting to scroll through this phone to find a fitting playlist. Took him a while, but he eventually settled on something. "Well, that should be atmospheric enough," he said, as he then handed you the Players' Manual, "Alright, I'll set the scene. It's near the end of the Showa Era, just before the economy plummeted, and you're a growing teen who's getting bored of their small hometown of, er," he quickly brought up a map of Japan on his phone and went, "Inaba, small town of Inaba, north of Mt. Fuji".

    <<BGM: Twin Peaks - Main Theme (Vaporwave) >>

    Teen bored of their country town, wow, escapism, you thought dully.

    "Oh, the Showa Era was-" Torashi began.

    "20s to the 80s, yeah, got it," Damian cut in.

    "Anyway, you're growing up in a time where a bunch of new computer technology is being rolled out. You see, new computer programs have been made accessible that allow kids to conjure up Monsters through code, and with your parents all working for Omoikane Computer Labs, you're one of the first in your town to get access to these," Hotaru went on, "Just one problem though, you've been hearing of a rogue monster stalking the streets at night. Okay, got that?" he finished, as he started passing around character sheets.

    You stared at yours, twirling your pencil around as you did so. For what you heard would be a fairly close-to-home, coming up with a character on the fly proved surprisingly strenuous, you could see why Hotaru said it could take all session. Ultimately you settled on:

    [ ] Kitagawa Hitomi
    [ ] Kidou Akinori
    [x] Yamane Kurumi
    [ ] Write-in

    [ ] Popular
    [x] Delinquent
    [ ] Academic
    [ ] Ordinary
    [ ] Write-in

    [x] Emotional
    [ ] Social
    [ ] Intellectual
    [ ] Physical
    [ ] Balanced

    "Right, that seems pretty reasonable," Hotaru muttered as he looked over your character sheet, "Now, Damian, hmmm, yeah I kinda expected you to play as a foreign student, but that's okay, guess it's what you know and... Torashi, what is this?"

    "Well, I thought my character concept might bring a bit of variation to the game, thinking outside the box a little," Torashi tried to explain.

    "Torashi, you've written in your bio that your character is the reincarnation of an ancient feudal warlord, beat up multiple yakuza gangs before high school, and is a top undercover agent of the Secret Demon Strike Force," Hotaru told him point blank.

    "Hey, this is already a supernatural setting clearly, so I don't see how my character bio could honestly be so unworkable by the game's logic," Torashi huffed, crossing his arms.

    "Listen, the core concept of Tears from the Veil is mundane students suddenly coming into contact with mysteries far beyond them," Hotaru tried to keep cool, "Whereas if your character is clearly more than mundane from the very get-go, the initial impact of the supernatural world upon is nowhere near as-"

    Damian and you just sighed and looked at together as Hotaru and Torashi's argument continued on, "Hope this isn't what his student council meetings are like," you whispered to him.

    Your Game Master, at the point of collapse, eventually exclaimed out, "Okay, fine! Just... maybe leave the whole secret agent stuff till later in the campaign, how 'bout that?! Okay, are we good to go?"

    "Er, according to your door, it's about time you started closing up shop" you pointed out.

    "What? Oh, er, right, yeah that" Hotaru put his hand to his head, "Right, so next session we should be ready to officially start the game.
    By the way, Honoka," he then said, "Feel free to invite other people along, if you'd like. I know you hang out with the All-Aces, so I thought it'd be really cool if you somehow got Gakuto to join us here".

    Er, no. No. Nonononono! you instantly thought, but just said, "Think Gakuto's been pretty busy recently, I mean he's got like gaming and computer stuff to do on top of schoolwork. But sure, I could always invite someone else I know here," I mean, I've been suddenly drowning in contacts anyway.

    "Great, so we'll see you soon then," Hotaru smiled, as you began to leave.

    "Oh yeah, bye," Torashi feebly waved, as he then said to Damian, "Still surprised Hotaru was able to bring a girl in here".

    "Would you quit it?" Damian sighed, "I've been in heaps of gaming groups with girls in them. Even some I didn't know were girls till after they came out through the gaming group".

    As you and Hotaru exited the store, you had to turn to him and ask, "Er, Hotaru. Did Rin ever come here?"

    At first Hotaru didn't know how to respond, but after some stifled mumblings he at last said, "Yeah, a couple of times, back in the day. I mean, she was always occupied by a whole bunch of stuff, probably even more so than I am right now. She did seem to be taking a bit of interest, RPGs getting her talking about group cohesion and everything, but then, well, you know," his words came to a stop.

    You didn't say anything, only nodding. And in the silence:

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Fortune Arcana"

    "I should be heading home, but yeah, I had a nice time," was all you eventually said.

    "Oh, ah, thank you," Hotaru said in return, giving you a thumbs up "Oh, and consider your job application here a success!"

    * * *

    "Hey, Honoka," Megumi said to you the instant you got home, "Got some questions to ask".

    "Wow, that's a blunt greeting," you muttered, "Not a 'Hello Honoka, how was your day?'"

    "Listen, I've been reading your social media," they started, which made you instantly flinch, "And I'm, er, surprised you never said anything about this. Like, you mean the folks who live in the train carriage aren't your real parents, and you're some sort of aristocrat? And wait, when have you ever been interested in singing, dancing, and animals? Come on, I've got way better dance moves than you, and you call that monotone drone of yours 'singing'?"

    "Yeah but well, who doesn't love animals?" you offered, before breathing out and coming clean, "Okay, I had to lie about my past to impress the cool kids, they said my actual life story was too dull. Like, that bio you just read was written by Azuma, not me".

    "Who's this Azuma?" Megumi cocked an eyebrow.

    "Sakurazuka Azuma, the most popular guy in school," you smugly smiled, that expression soon fading, "Well, at least my parents will probably never read his little made-up story, and yeah, Nakamura Kanae and Yozo definitely are my real Mum and Dad, unless they've got some major dirt they've been hiding from me".

    "Is this all to get a guy?" Megumi spoke up, before sitting down again, "Look, I'm sorry about pressuring you to find a date-"

    "Oh, it's okay, all this went down long before our little dare," you explained, "On my first day back at school, actually".

    "Wasn't this the day you also fell into a coma?" they questioned you.

    "Hey, that happened by accident," you started, but were made to admit, "...Okay, the Aces could've warned me about messing around with it first. Oh, the All-Aces is a special school club, a clique made out of the kings and queens of all the other cliques".

    "Honoka, I haven't met any of these All-Aces, but it sounds like they're the exact sort of hoity-toity nobs who won't amount to anything the moment they leave school," they sneered, but then sighed, "I should know, I spent way too much of my high school years trying to impress the exact same sorts, lying to them and myself about who I really was, and they still never gave a shit about me".
    The two of you sat in silence for a while, before Megumi started laughing, "Shit, from the way I've been talking to you, it sounds like I'm turning into my Mum and Dad".

    You smiled at them, "Hey, thanks for caring about me either way. And I could never imagine turning into my parents, I'd have to go all bohemian to be my Mum, but I get what you're saying".

    Well, the night was still young:

    [ ] Go to the arcade and blow off some steam.
    [ ] Go on a bushwalk, you could use the exercise.
    [ ] Go instrument-shopping, see if Ryouko and Colette can come.
    [x] Go see a Saturday Night movie, they're showing the supernatural high school film Sonny Shadow, and invite:
    - [ ] Megumi.
    - [x] Keiko.
    - [x] Yuya.
    - [ ] Colette.
    - [ ] Hotaru.
    - [ ] Reina.
    - [ ] Mum & Dad.
    - [ ] Himawari.
    - [ ] Azuma.
    - [ ] Melissa.
    - [ ] Just go by yourself.
    [x] Sneak into school, if there's anywhere you should be training, it's on that Gameboard.
    - [x] Get Himawari to come along, for the 'bad girl' she is, she's still the nicest of the All-Aces.
    - [ ] Get Melissa to come along, she does want to see you live till that Azuma date she arranged, right?
    - [ ] Get Kikuko to come along, it doesn't sound like she'd miss the chance to get in some training.
    - [ ] Get Azuma to come along, guy has a weird fixation on you anyway, might as well take advantage of it.
    - [ ] Go it alone, the Aces are, well, the Aces.
    [ ] Just do some studying.
    [ ] Hang out in the apartment with Megumi.
    [ ] Phone your parents again.
    [ ] You know what? Head straight to bed.
    [ ] Write-in.

    You were conflicted, I should really be inspecting Eitaro's Empire, but like I just want to catch up with my real friends already and destress for once. I mean yeah I hung out Hotaru's gaming group, but talking about Daizen, Rin and Gakuto made the whole thing awkward quickly, that thought seeped out of you.

    Well, the night's still young, and they're only showing the regular edition of Sonny Shadow, not the extended one, so I think I'll have time to squeeze both in, you came to the conclusion.
    You then texted Keiko, -Hey, cinema's on, and we shouldn't have to worry about those Aces outside of school, so wanna go?-

    Her response took a little while, but you eventually read, -Thanks loads for not ditching me. Sure, I'll be there!- That was... certainly a reply.

    Since you'd been interacting with Yuya even less than you'd been with Keiko lately, you decided your meagre invitation to him should be a little more personal. You went into your room and called him up personally.

    "Ah, hi there Yuya. Yeah, er, I'm really sorry I haven't been catching up with you much this first week..." you started by mumbling.

    "Huh? Oh no, no, that's not your fault, like we both had a bunch of stuff to do. And hey, it looks like you've been having a really good time in school so far, whereas, well, I couldn't even pass the Hall Monitor auditions," Yuya sounded lively at first, but his voice soon withered.

    "Yeah, I guess its been... something so far. And geez, sorry to hear that. But hey, how 'bout you, Keiko and I go see a movie together?" you tried to raise spirits, "Just like old times, huh? Especially since things have been so, well, different lately".

    "Wow, you mean that?" Yuya said, his voice lifting, "Sure, that'd be great, I'll try to make it. Um, see you soon then".

    That having gone mostly smoothly, you let out a sigh of relief. At least my old friends and me can have this one moment. But with the fun all sorted, now for business...

    "Hey, Himawari, ah sorry, Nightshade," you said in a hushed tone, "Great, you're there. Anyway, I need to know how to sneak into the Lounge at night. Say about, er, two hours from now".

    "Huh? Oh right, um, I think there's the wall outside the clubroom's all covered in vines, and there's at least a drainpipe nearby," she murmured as if in a daze, "Er, if you want me to sneak in with you, I think I can elude my parents, but they're gonna be real mad if they do find me gone," she whimpered.

    "Come on Himawari, you spilled blood all over yourself on stage, I think you can certainly sneak out fine," you said sighing, "Like, we were up pretty late in that bar the other night".

    "Well, y-yeah, but that was different then," she blurted out, but said, "Ah, okay okay I'll meet you then".

    You sighed, Guess I can see why Nightshade's so fed up with her.

    * * *
    <<BGM: Tears For Fears - Head Over Heels (slowed) >>

    A while later, you then headed out of the cinema, not as fancy as the ones down in Sapporo but it'd do, with Keiko and Yuya, the former pondering what it was they just saw, while the latter offered feeble explanations.

    "That was bizarre! Like, he's from the future but also the past, but like, is he supposed to be Jesus or an alternate reality- gah!" she clutched her head like she had brainfreeze, even though she'd just stuck to popcorn while in the theatre.

    "I don't know, but maybe Sonny Shadow was just trying to convey how, like, confusing the world is when you're a teenager, I think," Yuya mumbled, holding onto a chicken wing.

    "I don't know, multiple worlds, teens with powers, cryptic animal people, psychological issues, film felt pretty normal to me personally" you shrugged, to the stares of your friends.

    "...If you say so, Honoka," Keiko threw up her hands, before she said, "Good thing I happen to live pretty close, so you two will have plenty of time to catch up by yourselves, especially with how long a walk it is back to your places, heh, Well, see ya!" she waved as she headed over to her, ahem, rather run-down house.

    "Yeah, you two!" you waved back at Keiko, hopefully, as you turned to Yuya, "Hey, why don't we stop by your place first?"

    Yuya titled his head for a second and asked, "Huh, but isn't your flat closer?"

    "Uh, yeah, but this whole thing thing was my treat to you, so I should do the honours," you said, grabbing his arm.

    The two of you headed over a bridge lit up by old lampposts, a gentle spring snow falling down around you.
    "So, um, Yuya, been a while since just us two talked together," you started, but fumbled on how to continue, "Other than on the phone just then, anyway. Ah, so being a Hall Monitor didn't work out, then?" you said anything just to make conversation.

    "Well, uh, no. Hotaru told me I just didn't have the right personality for it, and well, he's used to Daizen, so I see his point" he sighed, with a short silence descending before he brought up, "Oh yeah, I er, heard you well, ah-"

    "Hey, what is it? C'mon, you can tell me," you said, looking him in the eyes.

    "I heard you kicked Gakuto in the crotch earlier today," he said straight-up.

    "Oh that? Yep, you heard right!" you had to smile at that, "Guy was being a complete creep".

    "Really? Wow," Yuya had to stop to take that in, "I mean, I think at Hanataba we kinda assume that joining the All-Aces is the ultimate goal, that it'll solve your life's problems and make you royalty. So it's, er, a shock to hear that. Hopefully it's just him who's that way though".

    On the outside you smiled, but within you thought Oh Yuya, how nave you are.

    "Oh yeah, speaking of the Aces, er, so you were childhood friends with Azuma, right?" he had to bring up, "I don't remember him at all, but I guess you knew him before you knew Keiko and me".

    If your resolve was stronger, you would've said No I didn't, that was just some weird lie he made up!

    "And I... never knew you were from aristocrat stock, or that Yozo and Kanae weren't your real parents," he just had to go on, "But I can see why. It sounds like that would've been really tough for you to bring up, so," he then looked into your face "Um, yeah, maybe I shouldn't have brought it up myself. Sorry".

    You gritted your teeth and sighed, but luckily this awkward conversation had little time to continue any longer, as you'd reached the fairly ordinary, middle-class Itou Residence along a cobblestone street.

    "About memories Honoka, do you remember when we used to play along here? I knew Keiko played Phoenix Rider Scales, you were Rider Zero, and I was Rider Heart I think? we got into mock fights over which of us could win in a fight, think I always kept losing though," he said, gazing across the street.

    "Oh yeah, we were watching Rider vs Rider reruns at the time, right?" you spoke up, having to laugh, "Think we kinda missed the point of that season in hindsight".

    "Haha, yeah," Yuya chuckled, before turning to say "Hey, I really had fun tonight, let's hope we can still see each other when we can, okay?"

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Lovers Arcana"

    "Yeah, let's..." you gave an uncertain smile as the two of you parted for the night.

  8. #8
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    VIII. Ancient Empire

    Before you headed to Hanataba, there was one last thing left on your checklist. Stopping at the Velvet Room, you switched out Forneus for Theodora again, and combined Cyclops with Qin Shi Huang to get:

    << "I am Chariot Cu Chulainn, Hound of Ulster," said a white clad figure lined with purple, wielding a seven-headed spear, "My spear strikes true to the bitter end".>>Cuchulainn[Chariot VII]
    Elements: Resists Wind and Curse, weak to Electric

    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: |||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: ||||

    - Torrent Shot
    - Killer Wind
    - Mamudo
    - Inherit: Makanda
    - Inherit: Resist Physical

    Heading around to the school gardens, careful to duck out of the way any time a night guard shined his torch anywhere near you, you soon reached the vine-covered wall Himawari had told you about.

    You saw the Ace of Hearts, crouched and shaking in her red pajama dress right by the wall, "Honoka, oh there you are," she looked and stuttered out, then saying "Er, hope this works out, I mean if I'm caught I could get suspended or expelled or-"

    "You'll be fine," you groaned out, perhaps without really thinking. Jesus, why couldn't she have come as Nightshade? "Anyway, let's get up there".

    Pulling yourself up along the vines, Himawari panting after you, she then held an All-Ace Emblem up to window, which then swung inwards for her.

    "We had this recognition system installed, in case we ever did need the Gameboard after hours," she whispered.

    "Wow, you guys really do get everything," you muttered.

    Heading into the Prized Pupil Lounge, which weirdly felt less eerie at night now that you knew nobody else was here, you said to Himawari "Okay, you've might've guessed we're heading for Eitaro's Empire. I have to get a layout of what the place is like if I'm gonna be, er, duelling there, and the moment he least suspects, the better".

    "Aw, and I was planning to show you my private room here," Himawari said out of the blue.

    "Huh, you get your own rooms here?!" you had to ask.

    "Oh yeah, all us Aces do," she said, "Though I've only seen the inside of mine, personally".

    "Right, okay then," you just said, before six cards materialised in your hands, all of which you laid down on the Gameboard.

    After a spinning flash, you found yourself back in No One's Land, staring up a sudden incline in the Gameboard, where its hexagonal tiles stretched upwards to form something of a mountain.

    "You'll find that jerk Eitaro's Empire at the top," came the snarling voice of Himawari, no, Nightshade.

    She wasn't in the wig or costume she wore the other night, but her gameboard regalia instead felt like a much more realised version of that. Nightshade was instead dressed in mostly black attire, leather and spikes all over, with a frilled collar and violet lipstick and nail polish putting you in mind of a fairytale evil queen, if not a demoness. Her hair though was in the style she had as Himawari, but now with a silvery-white sheen. As she'd said, she was now wielding a ball-and-chain flail and an axe-thrower.

    "Do not bore me, peasant," she huffed in an even more authoritative tone of voice than the tone she'd had in the nightclub, pointing down so you'd get on your knees. "If you can't find some Shadows for me to shred into soon, I may have to take my-" she giggled, "urges out on you," she said as she rested a high-heeled boot on top of your face.

    As soon as she let you move again, you chuckled a bit but gulped in response. Starting the climb up this chessboard mountain, you felt the air get thinner and thinner, until you found yourself walking onto a brickwork road, gasping for breath.

    BGM: Tales of the Abyss - A Place in the Sun

    You looked ahead to see the Empire Eitaro believed he could rule, a land of high mountain crags and jagged, monolith rocks, some left natural, some carved by unseen hand into figures of strongmen, athletes and thunder gods. Or maybe seen hand, as you could see some Shadows hauling stone blocks up the slopes, like they were in some 50s Historical Epic.
    The landscape was crisscrossed with dragon-patterned walls, with the tops of said walls being the only clear roads in sight. Monasteries dotted the highest peaks, while at the centre of it all, surrounded by five rings, was a looming colosseum hewn out of a mountain.

    "What an insecure ruler. I'll give Eitaro sheer power, but his empire simply lacks any, what's the word, style," Nightshade said, then added, "Azuma's practically the opposite, his rose-strewn theatres are nothing but elegance".

    You trekked further along the wall until you came to what looked to be an observation deck or waypoint. Thinking it was somewhere you could finally rest, the opposite proved to be true, as a whole team of shadows sprang forth around you. While a couple were wearing the same bronze armour as Cyclops before, most were clad in what looked like terracotta.

    You stumbled back, but Nightshade just chortled and said, "Finally, the moment I've been waiting for. Come out and play, Anastasia!"

    Nightshade's persona was a bleach-blonde girl with skin made out of snow, wielding a giant spiked bat made of ice, and with what looked like Faberge Eggs sown into her winter cloak, squatting down in what reminded you of a sukeban dress.

    Okay, probably gonna need someone with crowd control, you thought, before summoning:

    [ ] Argus the Many-Eyed Watcher.
    [x] Cuchullain of Ulster.
    [ ] Richard III of the White Rose.
    [ ] Santa Muerte of Holy Demise.
    [ ] Theodora of the Imperial Shroud.

    The Shadows soon revealed themselves as a pack of red Oni, along with paper Momonofu soldiers also out of old Japan. And yet the one among them leading the charge was a furred lioness-like woman clad in bear skin, and wielding a longbow made from attached boar tusks, her fingernails resembling full claws.

    "Cuchulainn!" you cried out, summoning the spearman who then turned said spear upside down to form a blade, which somehow set a rushing Killer Wind bursting up from all around, nearly knocking the Momonofu over like cards, and causing the huntress to misfire.

    "Not bad, but allow me," Nightshade smirked as she had Anastasia use a Bufu or even Mabufu spell to freeze the ground around her. The Oni, more heavy and lumbering than agile, struggled for a while to maintain their balance on the now icy floor. She then slammed her flail into the ground, causing a cloud of ice shards to be knocked upwards and swung around in the wind.

    Several of the Oni then began trying intentionally to crash themselves into the ground, trying to sink this one watchtower down into what looked like valleys below. Nightshade then used was what left of the ice on the floor to propel herself right into you, her sudden tackle getting the two of away in time before the platform you'd been on could fall and collapse.

    But the fight wasn't down yet, as the huntress shadow had managed to speed away from the tower and further along the wall, from which she started firing off a stream of arrows at you.

    You kept calling on Cuchullain to deflect these arrows, but the huntress kept speedily dodging any you sent back her way. As her arrows kept getting blown away though, she instead dashed up to you, grabbed your arm... and threw you off the wall, sending you falling down past the cliffs.

    Oh no, not now- you began to think, before a sharp surge of pain hit your body. The next second however, you found yourself back on top of the wall just fine, though with a white halo shining then fading around you.

    "Consider yourself lucky Anastasia knows Recarm," Nightshade said, before she said her Persona strike the huntress Shadow right atop the skull with her frozen bat.

    "Wait, Personae can, they can resurrect people?" you stuttered out.

    "Grr, I'll explain later," she seethed as Anastasia's ice-bat and the huntress' bow wielded like a club clashed together.
    You noticed, while Anastasia wasn't able to break the huntress' guard, she was succeeding in pushing her ever so slightly to the edge. Taking this opportunity, you had Cuchulainn step in to spear the foe with a Torrent Shot flurry, at last sending the huntress off the wall herself.

    She wasn't quite down yet though, as with her claws she was clinging onto the edge. Nightshade however simply finished things by slamming her flail right down onto the Shadow's fingers, sending her truly falling.

    Wiping your brow with relief, you then asked Nightshade, "So, ahem, about that resurrection thing? Could it- could it bring me back if Eitaro really does-"

    "Don't get your hopes up," she said and crossed her arms, "Recarm spells and the like only work after attacks done by Shadows, and even then, only when there's a faint scrap of consciousness still in you. We're not miracle workers".

    You stopped silent. After clearing your throat, you said, "Sheesh, if I can't even beat his welcoming committee on my own without dying, what am I supposed to do in a duel against him?"

    "Like I said," Nightshade grinned, "The pact we made was, if he 'loses control' and kills you, I kill him right back".

    Yeah, 'ppreciate it, but that still doesn't keep me alive, you kept that thought to yourself. You then tried walking further along the wall, only to soon have your progress blocked by another, emerging wall, made from bricks rapidly assembling themselves on top of each other.
    "Oh come on!" you said on impulse.

    "Only if you truly know a person's full self can you access the entirety of the Empire," Nightshade recited, before she shrugged and said, "Or so Azuma says anyway. I suppose that makes sense, people naturally wouldn't want to show their whole psyche to just anyone. Hah, I should know".

    "Well, I'm lucky it's just more wall, I was worried for a second this place was gonna take all the air left in my lungs or something," you said.

    Looking around, Nightshade said after a little hesitation, "I wouldn't give Eitaro any ideas, little girl, we're still inside his psyche you know".

    "But so what, this is the end of the road already?" you asked, staring at her.

    Nightshade however turned her head upwards to a nearby mountain peak, "Oh, I think there might be another way in".

    Approaching this peak, the path quickly became too narrow, and you started grunting as you began rock-climbing. Somehow, Nightshade was seemingly effortlessly making the ascent, despite wearing less practical clothing than you.

    "Hey, Hima- Nightshade," you said the moment you found a ledge wide enough to rest on, "You said you couldn't explore a whole Empire till you knew everything about that person, right? But, well, I don't think any person really fully knows themselves, at least not their own. Like if they did, wouldn't they be enlightened or something?"

    Nightshade squinted at you, "Are you suggesting there's parts of even my own Empire I haven't seen?" but then gave that some thought, "Huh, that's certainly... something to wonder about".

    The two of you then came to an unusual sight, a monastery built hanging right off the clifftop. The ledge not offering any other way forward, you slowly stepped in, hoping the whole place wouldn't immediately fall into the ravine.

    Passing through the foyer, you walked into what must be some sort of Dojo, though large enough to be an indoor sports field, with a giant gong teetering in the background. Standing in front of it, you saw two wispy Shadows, still in human form. one was a boy being whacked by a floating cane, with what looked like sunlight coming out where blood should be. The other was a girl trapped in a little jail cell behind what looked like cricket stumps.

    "K-Kaneto? Takako?" you said at the sight of the Shadows, only for Kaneto's to then run away deeper into the monastery's passages, that cane trailing behind him.

    Suddenly there was a loud shattering, as from behind you two demonic knights, one in dark blue on a red horse and the other in bright red on a dark blue horse, galloped down and began playing some polo variant a gigantic, spiked ball.
    "I'll deal these two!" Nightshade shouted out, "You go and track down that kid's shadow".

    "What? No, I'm not gonna leave you here alone," you exclaimed back at her.

    "Fine, suit yourself," she snarled, then said "I'm still an Ace, I'm telling you I've got this". Nightshade then had Anastasia bat that spiked ball straight back, only for that dark knight to light the ball on fire as it came his way again.
    You tried to intervene by having Cuchulainn blow the flaming ball out of the way, only for the wind to just feed the growing fire, leaving Cuchullain, and by mental connection you, to be hit directly by it.

    While you were reeling back in pain, yet were still somehow resilient enough to keep moving, Nightshade lived up to her boast by having Anastasia strike the fiery Shadow knight with an icicle blast, sending his steed beneath him stumbling over to collapse.

    As she personally led an assault on that knight with her flail, you meanwhile had to switch to Richard III to heal up. However, that left the other Shadow knight to come up right behind you, lashing at you with a razor wind now that you no longer had Cuchulainn, before leaping up to try trampling on you.

    Still conscious, you switched back to the spearman of Ulster to better take this hit, but then Nightshade at the idea to toss an axe up at the ropes holding up that gong. The gong first fell straight on its side onto the floor, creating enough of a clang to have the leaping knight's horse lose focus, making it misjudge their jump and miss you. After that, the gong started leaning over forward, with the knight turning around to charge away, only to find that spiked ball just behind him.

    Nightshade had Anastasia bat the ball once again into the red knight, leaving him sandwiched between it and the falling gong. That left you to try getting Takako's Shadow out of her cage, only for you to soon find that no force worked against it.

    "Her name's Takako right, our Cricket Club Captain? Hmm, Eitaro's been blocking her piece from advancing it looks like, probably because the lunkhead didn't understand a thing about cricket, so kept trying to shit on any of her attempts to start her club so he could enforce the status quo," Nightshade surmised, "At least it sounds like a real Eitaro thing to do, jerk can't let anyone but him be the star when it comes to sports, any sports".

    You let that all sink in, as you said, "I only met Takako once, but she seemed to trust Eitaro. Seemed to".
    It was then you could smell something burning, even though that ball's fire had been put out. Running further into the monastery, you came across what would've once been a library, but now with its books all burning. The smoke clogging your lungs even worse than the thin air outside, you ran through nevertheless to chase after the wispy, bleeding form of Kaneto's Shadow.

    Seeing his wounds, you tried using Richard III to cast a healing spell on him. It seemed to be working, the gashes slowly closing, but then your shortness of breath finally got to you as you collapsed...

    * * *

    Your eyes shot awake in the Prized Pupil Lounge, the time now surely past midnight.

    "Are you okay, Honoka?" Himawari took you by the hand, her face and voice definitely no longer in Nightshade mode, "I got you out of there when I could".

    "I see, thanks," you slowly smiled, but had to ask, "So, did you come save me as Nightshade, or as, well, you?", not knowing how else to word that.

    "Nightshade, she... Nightshade is me," Himawari looked at you befuddled, "I'm Nightshade, so there's, ah, really no need to make the distinction".

    Nightshade herself sure does, you chose not to voice that, just saying "Ah, okay then".

    "Er, so, that was Eitaro's soul you just saw right there," she stated, before gulping and asking, "Did it, er, change or clarify your impression of him?"

    "Oh boy," you murmured, with you giving your opinion:
    [ ] "Guy's real insecure, like violence is the only language he's been taught"
    [x] "He seems afraid honestly. Like now he's finally on top, he thinks he has to keep everyone down so they don't climb after him"
    [ ] "Hah, he's achieved so much, by high school standards anyway, yet still feels the need to prove himself to... whoever"
    [ ] "...What's there to get? Dude's a dick"
    [ ] Write-in.

    With that answer, you felt a strong ringing in your head, even if Eitaro was nowhere around:

    - The Chariot has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    "That's, um, quite the summation" Himawari said, though you got the feeling she would've said that regardless of what you answered.
    "I'd be so nervous to show anyone my own Empire myself, but..." she pondered, "I feel, if you make it through this, that I owe you one, so maybe we could celebrate then with me throwing you a concert or something, that sound good?".

    You laughed, but also smiled, "That kinda reminds me, I still need to buy an instrument to play in your backing band. I was, er, thinking bass, less strings to keep track of, and cheaper than a drumkit after all".

    She giggled, "I'm honoured you'd still be thinking of that at this hour. But, y'know, we should really be getting you home, you need all the hours left in the night to sleep".

    Heading out of the All-Aces' Lounge by sliding down the drainpipe outside, your tired self stumbled your way back to your apartment, those night guards on their break or something.

    As Himawari helped you through your front door, you expected Megumi to be fast asleep by now... but that turned out not to be the case at all.
    "Oh my God, Himawari!" they exclaimed, their bleary-eyed self stumbling up to promptly hug you, "I was seriously starting to worry about where you were. Although, I do guess staying up this late helped me catch up on studies. Huh, is she one of your classmates?" they looked at Himawari.

    "What? Oh no, I'm actually Honoka's senpai, even though I may not look it," Himawari giggled and then bowed, "Um, I do have to be going, but I do I have to be going, ah," she paused, not sure to how address Megumi.

    "Just call me Megumi. Umebayashi Megumi," they shook Himawari's hand, "And hey, it's good to hear Honoka has someone senior at school to look out for her. From how she described them, I always got the impression her peers were a bunch of arseholes".

    Himawari flinched. "Ahem, yeah, I can see that. Well, nice meeting you," she curtseyed before saying goodbye, leaving Megumi to help you back into bed.

  9. #9
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    IX. Secret Lives of Students

    After last night and the past week, you felt like sleeping in this Sunday as long as you could. But then just lying in bed doing nothing got kinda boring, so you slowly got up and headed out of your bedroom.

    Not wanting to take too long preparing anything, you made up some raw egg on rice and began thinking about to spend possibly the last free day you had left.

    [x] Visit your parents in person.
    - [x] By yourself.
    - [ ] With Megumi.
    - [ ] With Keiko and Yuya.
    - [ ] With Colette.
    - [ ] Write-in.
    [ ] Hang out with Keiko.
    [ ] Hang out with Yuya.
    [x] Hang out with Reina.
    [ ] Hang out with Megumi.
    [ ] Hotaru's gaming group should be meeting up.
    - [ ] Go by yourself.
    - [ ] Bring Keiko.
    - [ ] Bring Colette.
    - [ ] Bring Azuma.
    - [ ] Bring Himawari.
    - [ ] Bring Megumi.
    - [ ] Write-in.
    [ ] Go instrument-shopping with Colette and Ryouko.
    [ ] Get some more training in on the Gameboard.
    - [ ] Team up with Nightshade again.
    - [ ] See if Azuma can be swayed.
    - [ ] Tell Melissa that your and Azuma's relationship will be on the line if she doesn't come.
    - [ ] Ask Kikuko to come, if only for her firepower.
    - [ ] Get Gakuto to act as a meatshield.
    - [ ] Go it alone.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Dragging yourself over to the door, you opened it... and stared blankly at who you saw, your legs feeling ready to bolt.

    "Oh, Honoka, hello," came the voice of Gakuto, him straightening his tie and saying, "Just a little home inspection by us, to ensure this, ahem, place of dwelling is at least befitting a jack".

    "Grr, out of the way!" Melissa shouted out, pushing right past Gakuto, leaving him to the fall to the ground. "Listen, Jack, if you're gonna be seen with us, we can't have you embarrassing us if your place turns out to be Satan's own pigsty! Got that into your pretty little head of yours?"

    "Yo Honoka, what a wake-up call," Megumi mumbled, rubbing their eyes and saying, "Hey, could ya warn me before you're going to have guests over?"

    "I didn't invite any of these people" you whispered in a hushed voice back to Megumi.

    "Um, and who would this balls-less, college-looking weirdo be?" Melissa leaned over and asked you.

    "Her roommate," Megumi interjected, "And way hotter and more stylish than any California gurl, I might add. Don't you have a manicure you need to be getting back to?".

    "California? Why you- I'm from Galveston!" Melissa snapped, "That's in Texas by the way, for your information".

    "Er, I'm sorry, Honoka," Himawari then slipped in, her expression wobbling, "The rest of the All-Aces kept insisting on making a housecall, as part of your, ahem, 'integration into higher society'".

    "And good thing too!" Melissa said after going to check out your room, "This place is little better than a Hooverville".

    "Hmhm, I don't know," Gakuto, now bac on his feet, chimed in, "I've been to several gaming and tech conventions, so I've definitely seen places far more wretched than this".

    "Well yeah, guess it's technically clean and stuff," Melissa replied but crossed her arms, "But it's so fuckin' bland, we're talking like zero flair and style!"

    "Wait, you said the All-Aces?" you cut through and asked Himawari, "So, does that mean-?"

    "Nakamura Honoka," Azuma's voice glided through as he stepped in, "I must apologise for being so, well, short notice, but you would of course know, being one of us isn't merely about who you are at school. It's a mindset you must apply to every facet of your life, a role that must be rehearsed, you could say".

    So that explains why you people won't leave me alone, even at home! you fumed internally.
    "I, er, I don't see why what my place looks like would really matter, since I've got that Duel tomorrow and everything" you at least said.

    "Nice to hear that hasn't left your mind," Eitaro just had to arrive.

    "Well, think of it this way," Gakuto said to you, "You know how they say 'leave a good-looking corpse'? If our Eitaro, ahem, 'misjudges his strength' tomorrow, then the same principle applies to your demesne. Especially since the press will likely be all over this place like vultures next week".

    "At least there's nothing frivolous or anything here," Eitaro muttered, leaning on a wall, "Still, you show a lack of any strength of character. Well, if our Duel won't be interesting, it'll be short anyway".

    "Ahem, mind telling me what the Hell this 'Duel' crap is?" Megumi spoke out.

    "Butt out, you freak", Melissa glared at them, pushing them back down to the couch, "Didn't your mommy ever tell you it's rude to eavesdrop?".

    "Oh, so that's your limit for rudeness?!" Megumi shot back up.

    Melissa was barely containing her fury by this point, so he hissed, "Oh Eitaroooo, there's someone here who needs a little lesson in manners!".

    "Heh, I'm on it" Eitaro rolled up his sleeves and approached Megumi... only for them to pre-emptively counter by swiftly kicking Eitaro in the shin and then elbowing him in the stomach.

    "People, please!" Azuma called out, "This was simply meant to be a home inspection, we truly don't need talk of Duelling at this moment, let alone casual violence".

    "Shame, this was actually starting to get interesting," Gakuto sighed, before he looked at you and said, "Quite a roommate you've got in her, Honoka, never knew you had a thing for fut-".

    Oh God No! you facepalmed at Gakuto's choice of words, if you had a pillow you'd scream at peak volume. At least Megumi didn't hear.

    "Indeed Azuma, I've finished my own analysis of this abode," came Kikuko's chilling voice, before she spat out "This place has been tainted with Western infestation. I would you advise you, Honoka, to remember and pay due respect your heritage as Japanese. Yomogi!"

    At her voice, the purplish black-haired maid, Yomogi Tsubasa, you'd met at the Tea Ceremony Club came stumbling in, "Y-yes, Miss Kikuko, ahem, beg yer pardon, Madamoiselle Maeda?" she sweated and shook.

    "Rid this dwelling of anything too Occidental" Kikuko ordered.

    "Yes ma'am, right away ma'am!" Tsubasa said as she took out a broom, "Sorry to be a blaggard, Miss Honoka, but I'll try and save as much of yer stuff as I can when the mistress isn't looking" she then whispered to you.

    "Anything Occidental? Huh, any chance you could throw her in the trash while you're at it?" Megumi muttered, eyeing Melissa.

    "Alternatively," Azuma instead said and ushered someone else in, a butler with slick-backed grey hair, despite young age, even in a waistcoat and carrying a dish.

    "Hey, you do know regulations say there's only meant to be seven people in here at once-" you tried to say but were ignored.

    "May I introduce myself? I am the Jack of Spades, Ohtsuka Shinsuke, personal assistant and dresser to Master Azuma" the butler bowed to you "On top of costuming, I have also been regarded for my culinary skills".

    "Feh, we can't loan out two Jacks to another," Kikuko protested, "Nakamura, either you choose Shinsuke or Tsubasa to renovate your home and lifestyle. Actually, loaning out either may be too generous due to your Duel tomorrow, so we'll give you time to think".

    Sheesh, do I want Azuma's closest follower having his eye on me all day, or a girl shackled to a sword-happy onna-bugeisha LARPer? you thought.

    "More importantly, your games collection," Gakuto spoke up, his hands already rifling through them, "I knew I was in for an underwhelming experience the minute I saw Animal Crossing. Let's see, your only fighting games are Smash Bros, the latest Street Fighter, and a licensed Phoenix Rider title. Most of your collection does not predate the PS2 era, latest releases are mostly limited to the new Mario and Zelda, Tokimeki Memorial Girls' Side and its sequels are your only visual novel acquisitions, and the sole FromSoft game you own is Bloodborne of all things".

    Opposed to what, the deep complexities and intricate characterisations of friggin' Gacha games or whatever? you thought.

    "As for your computer library-" he then quickly hacked into your streaming service account, "My my, looks like you haven't touched any of these in quite some time".

    "Hey, what the hell, are you in my account?" Megumi spoke up again.

    Could be worse, you considered, at least he isn't trying to dig up and critique any porn or anything.

    "I believe now would be the best time for us to leave," Azuma had to intervene, hoisting Gakuto off, "Farewell for now, dear Honoka, and well, we shall see how Monday plays out".

    "Oh yes, we should be going" Himawari smiled, but then whispered to you "I'm... sorry about all this".

    - The Fool has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    The All-Aces and their servants all gradually shuffled out, with Eitaro the last to leave. "Honoka," he muttered, crushing a drink can in his fist "If you try to bail on me, well..." He then left, with that sentence still hanging there.

    * * *

    After that, you thought to just chill out and have some fun. As you ran into Reina along the shopping arcade, her eyes immediately sparkled.

    "Honoka, hiii!" she squealed out, saying "Oh my, you're looking so cute in casual get-up. Hey I know, how about," she held that last syllable, putting a finger to her lip, "We head straight to a purikura booth! I think I was planning to take you there last time, but ya know, life caught up and stuff".

    "Sure," you shrugged, "You only live once, am I right?"

    Getting dragged, Reina stood out the most in the booth, flashing multiple hand signs, sticking out her tongue and pulling down an eyelid, and pressing up to you and winking, while you mostly just stood there and let her move you into various poses.

    When your went out and got you photos though, you flinched at what you saw. "Reina, ahem, you didn't check to see what sort of photobooth this was before entering, did you?" you asked.

    "Oh er, I thought this was one I already knew, why?" she said, taking a lot at your pictures... only to see they were all covered in pictures of skulls, cobwebs, and dripping slime. "Ooh, guess we stepped into a creepy-themed booth, huh? Well hey, it's an experience, right?"

    "Oh yeah, that it is," you muttered, before musing, "Y'know, Colette may actually like this place". You automatically closed your mouth, knowing you just may've slipped your link with her through Reina back to Melissa.

    "Colette? You mean that weird girl who runs the Occult Club?" Reina flinched, but admitted, "Well, I say that, but maybe I'm being kinda judgy? I've never really spoken to her though, but Melissa seems to really hate her, don't know why".

    "Well, Colette isn't so bad, she can actually be pretty nice once you get to know her. She even stood up for me one time" you told her.

    "Wow, okay then, but then why would Melissa-" Reina began, but then said, "Nah, it's gotta be something private between them. Don't wanna disturb, and that sorta thing. Still, strange that Colette has a Western name, but she's Japanese".

    "Oh that? It's just her pen name," you explained, before smirking, "besides, you're hardly dressed in a kimono and black hair yourself".

    Reina seemed to take your joke pretty well. "Yeah, guess I was totally hypocritical there. Hey, our next stop should be a karaoke sesh, whaddya say?!"

    "Lead the way," you murmured, before getting pulled along again.

    <<BGM: ChungHa - Stay Tonight (Instrumental)

    You were soon reminded why Himawari/Nightshade was the singer among you, as you just monotoned your way through the whole song Reina chose while she kept going for the highest pitch on every note. Still, at the very least you gave it a shot.

    Leaving the karaoke parlour, you sat down to a lunch of fried eel, as Reina brought her phone up to you and said, "But the way, you've heard of the Secret Lives of Students blog, right?"

    "Er, I overheard people talking about it on the way to school, that's about it," you mumbled between mouthfuls.

    "I, well, I know it's not a site I should really be looking at, gossip column and all. I mean it doesn't even have much of a social media presence, like 'cause it'd get flagged if it did, but..." she winced, coming out with "But I just can't stop reading it! Oh look, they've got a folder on our school!"

    Well, at least this sort of site may help give me a leg up on Eitaro, you thought. The stuff you found on him was accurate enough, detailing his abuse and threatening of underclassmen and detailing every time he'd lost a match, but nothing you felt crucial. It also detailed Melissa's habit of shoving people into lockers and, er, family's connections to the Russian mafia?

    "Ah, um, Melissa did tell me her grandparents founded an Oil Conglomerate, so they go to Sakhalin a lot. That's why she's at school here in Hokkaido," Reina said.

    The site also listed, Oh Jesus, Melissa's measurements and cup size, along with Himawari's, though it did detail Eitaro and Azuma's, ah, genital lengths, if only to appear egalitarian. On Azuma, it detailed every seduction technique he had, some more than a little gaslight-y on his parts, while for Kikuko it went into her oddly comprehensive Yukio Mishima collection, along with, er, an off-colour joke that reminded you of what people'd made up about Catherine the Great.
    You weren't the least bit surprised that Gakuto got off the easiest, the site mostly just listing a few of his ragequits and games he'd never gotten around to finishing, along with his fairly extensive H-game library. Also, nothing about Himawari being Nightshade, thankfully.

    It wasn't just the All-Aces it documented though. Keiko and Yuya weren't anywhere, but you were surprised to find Colette was mentioned, though just with 'Real name: Koizumi Kentaro'. Wait, but that name's for bo- oh, oh no!
    Shivering, you then scrolled down to your own entry... and what you saw written about you just made you want to vomit. "Take this, I don't wanna read this- this thing anymore!" you exclaimed as you handed the phone back to Reina.

    "Wow, they even have an entry on me!" her eyes widened, only for her to read what was there, and...
    Reina shot up, and immediately ran away crying, tears streaking down her face and into breeze.

    "Reina, hold on!" you called out, running over to her as she collapsed in a nervous wreck by the park, hugging her tightly and consoling her.
    "I'm sorry, I don't know what it was you read, and I don't want to know! If it made you cry like that, I'm so sorry" you held her in your arms.

    She sniffed, and then hugged you back even tighter. "Th-thank you, Honoka. I, I never wanted anyone to know what- what it said about me, b-but you'll stick by me, right?" she tried to dry her eyes.

    "O-of course" you said to her.

    - The Magician has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    Reina smiled back at you, "I'm so- so happy to hear that. Y'know I was trying to eat light today, but Hell, how about we go out for ice-cream to get our minds off that?!"

    "Sounds great!" you said.
    * * *
    After saying goodbye to Reina, it occurred to you that, as possibly your last day off, the one you should do more than anything is see your parents in person.

    It was quite the journey back to their place, as you walked your old school rout for the first time in quite a while, as the ridges started to climb up, the houses thinned and the trees thickened.

    Finally, you came to that old, detached train carriage with the assorted glass and wire sculptures out front. Your mother, her artist apron drenched in rust and smudging, wasted no time in rushing straight up and hugging you "Oh, my Honoka, you're home!"

    "Hey there Mum," you smiled, "Just thought it was right to visit, you know, after my first week back".

    "Glad to hear that," your father smiled, standing by the doorway, "Well, come on in, even this early on you must have quite a lot to talk about, I'd imagine".

    "Yeah," you just said, "You could say that".

    Indoors, the lower floor of the carriage was the loungeroom and kitchen, while your old bedroom was on the upper floor, separated from your parents' by a bead curtain, the bathroom off in a small side-cart. Mum's workshop was in a tin shed just outside.

    But before you could see your old room again, you first sat down to talk with your parents. Your mother offered you a drink of herbal, er, something, while your Dad just had to finish answering a sudden call from work.

    His call ended, he turned to you and asked, "So Honoka, how's your first week back at school been?"

    Well, that's the billion-yen question, isn't it? you thought. You definitely didn't know how to tell them about the Gameboard, but you could at least say-

    [ ] "It's... been going great so far, I really think I'm moving up in the world".
    [x] "Some good, some bad. I've made some new friends, and also, well run into people I really wish I hadn't..."
    [ ] "Hate to say it, but things aren't going so well. I've never been treated this crappily this much in my school life"
    [ ] "It's school, nothing much new to say really. So anyway-"
    [ ] Write-in.

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

    "Ah, um, well then," your mother tried to begin, "Let's hear about your friends then, first".

    "Well, I'm still trying to keep up with Keiko and Yuya when I can, they seem to be going, hmm, as well as ever, least from what I know," you started off, "Haven't really changed at all.
    Oh yeah, I told you I got made Class Rep. That more me in contact with my teacher, Tanizawa-sensei, who's cool I guess," you muttered, before sighing out, "Though she seems about as interested in teaching as I am in, well, most things. Then there's my Vice-Rep, and also head of the Occult Club. She goes by the pen name Colette, and er, she's been nice enough to me so far. Kinda kooky though" And has some creep going around exposing her deepest secrets, your thoughts simmered.

    "My, they certainly sound like interesting people," your Dad made conversation, "Perhaps you'd like to invite them over sometime?"

    Oh God, you thought, saying "Er, I'll see if they're free one day.
    Anyway, me being class Rep also put me in contact with Hotaru, our Student Council President, though we didn't really get to know each other the way you'd expect," you went on, trying to swallow down your mother's herbal concoction, "I met him through his gaming circle, when I went to apply for a part-time job at a local board game shop".

    "Gaming group? Ah, I remember when I was in one of those! Though of course, that was all the way back in high school, haven't really kept up with the hobby since," your mother smiled.

    "Still, hanging with the Student Council President must really be something," your father grinned.

    You twitched a little, and decided on saying, "You'd think so, but not really, I kinda forgot he even was when I was talking with him".

    "Ah, so he's a man of the people, then?" your father raised a glass.

    "Er, yeah, you could put it like that. Hmm, Reina's my other remaining friend from school, she's as, well there's no other way to put this, girly as you can get, but she's really nice!" you said, unlike some people.
    Only then did you remember, "Ah wait, There's also Nightshade. She's a singer around town and she's, um, real intense actually. Still, she does need a backing band, so I thought hey, I could help out there. It'd be interesting at least" you finished.

    "My, you're really putting yourself out there!" your mother patted you on the back, but had to ask, "I don't remember you doing all that well when you tried out for Choir and Symphonic Band all those years ago though? Regardless, it's good to see you're getting into artistic expression once again".

    "You did say you were having some trouble at school though. Please, we're here, you can fill us in on whatever's bothering you," your Dad said, leaning closer.

    It took you a while to respond to that, but the words finally came out, "There's, there's this school club called the All-Aces, made up of the most popular kids at school. But like, they've seriously let their popularity go to their heads, and while people's backs are turned they do some really fucked-up stuff. Hell, even when people's backs aren't turned, some of them will still be bullying arseholes".

    Your parents gasped at what you had to say, your father being the first to respond, sighing as he said, "To be honest with you, I sadly expected this would happen. I wish we could've found you a school that doesn't have a bullying problem, but quite frankly I doubt one exists, at least anywhere near here".

    "Oh honey," your mother reached down and hugged you again, "It's okay, I know what you've gone through. Look, the important thing is to keep being yourself, no matter who pressures you, and to just... stay away from those sorts of people".

    "Thanks, I owe you a bunch, Mum. But..." you gritted your teeth and looked down, "I'm not sure if that's possible. I mean, this makeover I got, that was because one of the All-Aces kinda forced it upon me. Not to be nice though, but because they said they couldn't stand someone as plain as I was being around them".

    Your parents seemed to struggle in how to react to that, but your mother eventually said, "Well, we're still here for you, and from what you've told us, so are your friends, old and new".

    "And hey, I remember being put through hell back in high school, but I made it through alive. So no matter how much they get to you, Honoka, know that you have a future beyond them" he said, smiling at you. He wrecked the moment though by mumbling "Not like work's much better though..."

    Still, you smiled back, stood up and said, "That's great, you... didn't know much I needed to hear that". Mum, Dad, just... hope I don't come home from school in a coffin tomorrow, you added in your mind.

    While you were still at your parents' place though, you headed up the stairs just to check out your old room. Okay, you hadn't been gone that long, but you were surprised to see it'd been kept basically the way you left it:

    [ ] Mostly kinda featureless admittedly, but with a fairly large and stuffed bookcase. Now that you remember, you might take an old one back to the apartment with you. (+Education)
    [ ] Girly enough that it could pass for Reina's room. Pink everywhere, pictures of cute boys, magazines, large stuffed animals, actually you might take one of them to the apartment with you, there's probably space on your new bed. (+Etiquette)
    [x] A fairly hi-tech room with a fancy computer (probably still a step up from Megumi's) and sound equipment, and several paintings up on the wall. Would've cost a lot to build this all up, and now you'd left it all, but it reminded you that you were once dedicated to things other than just, er, surviving. (+Resolve)
    [ ] You'd basically just let your room design it without caring yourself. Naturally, there was a pile of incense and candles, a mandala on the wall, a bunch of shrine tags for ghosts, and potted plants, which your apartment could use since you couldn't keep pets. At least Mum knew her scents. (+Perception)
    [ ] Write-in (pick one social stat)

    You hadn't planned to stay much longer, but a distinctive odour wafted up from downstairs that alerted you dinner was being made, also reminding you how long you'd been out and about.

    "Ah Honoka, if you'd come here on longer notice, we could've prepared a special dinner. But for now, how about durian curry?" you mother beamed as you came back down, holding a bubbling, bursting pot with green spiky chunks melting in it.

    "Er, great. Ah yeah, I can stay," you told them. Dubious as the food looks, it may be the last ever dinner my Mum makes for me.

    "That's great! Well, eat up," she said, holding out a spoon.

    - The Star has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

  10. #10
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    May 2012
    In-Between Days
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    X. Eitaro Duel

    Heading back home, er, to your current home, your thoughts turned to seeing if you could sneak in to the Gameboard again. Two problems arose though, the first was trying that tactic two nights a row, you'd already gotten lucky the first time. The second was that you were up past midnight last night, and in an area where you struggled to breathe for most of it, so tonight you needed all the sleep you could get if you didn't want to be fatigued and drowsy when Eitaro confronted you.

    That said, you at least made one final stop before going home for the night. Heading into the Velvet Room, you told Popo you had some Personae due.

    "Ah, 'course missus, comin' right up missus," the pony said, as he used his shrouds of shogi pieces to call up both:

    "I am Devil Anastasia, the last jewel in Winter's Crown," came of the voice of Himawari's, or rather Nightshade's, Persona. "They try to execute us, we'll go down swinging".Anastasia
    [Inverse Devil XV]
    Elements: Resists Ice, weak to Fire
    - Strength: ||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: |||
    - Bufu
    - Bash
    - Recarm
    - Devil Bonus: Mabufu

    "I am Strength Atalanta, lion-huntress of boars born of bears," said of the voice that lion-bear woman with a tusked bow you'd fought in Eitaro's Empire, "We'll outrace the wind, we'll outrace light".Atalanta
    [Strength XI]
    Elements: Nulls Gun, resists Wind, weak to Psy and Electric
    - Strength: ||||
    - Cognition: |
    - Agility: ||||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: ||
    - Twin Shot
    - Swift Strike
    - Masukukaja
    - Strength Bonus: Arrow Rain

    "Popo," you then asked the tiny pegasus, "You're meant to be from the Gameboard itself, right? Then you could explain what's with this everyone conquering each other thing, or all these Duels?"

    Popo just gasped, trotting slightly backwards. "W-what ever do you mean, missus Honoka? The Gameboard is born from clashing wills, yes it be, and 'course Empires can expand and incorporate others and whatnot, but sorry miss, I haven't the faintest what a 'Duel' is".

    "What?" you shot up, "You know Eitaro, right?"

    "Er, yes miss, Qin Shi Huang's user. He's with All-Aces, ain't he?" Popo slowly replied, with a gasping Lauryn also leaning in on the conversation.

    "Yeah well, he couldn't handle not winning all the time, or showing weakness sometimes, so naturally he blamed everything on me," you muttered, crossing your arms and slumping back down, "He challenged me to a Duel starting tomorrow, right in a big colosseum smack dab in the middle of his Empire. It's not supposed to be to the death, but..." you sighed.

    "Oh, oh no!" Popo burst out, putting his hoof to his head, "I, I never meant for Persona-users t'be fighting each other! They were s'posed to keep people safe from Shadows, that was the whole point!"

    "Eitaro was, I admit, never the most peaceful person..." Lauryn bit her lip, then said, "But this! This is behaviour I never would've tolerated as Ace of Pentacles! Even though," she froze for a second, "Even though, I do admit, the question of what would happen if a single Empire won the whole Gameboard was back then still something we thought about".

    You breathed deep before you said, "Okay then, what does happen if someone conquers the whole Gameboard?"

    Popo shrunk back, ducking his head, "We're- we're not sure miss. I'm just an emissary after all, don't really have the authority to be knowing somethin' like that".

    "We can assume it involves the hearts of the whole school all following the one person," Lauryn stated, "But beyond that, who can say? I had possibly the largest Empire at the time, and even I never learned the answer".

    "Oh great, you mean to tell me Azuma's running this whole fight club for a prize he knows nothing about?!" you spat out.

    "Azuma isn't like that!" Lauryn suddenly shot up, but cleared her throat and said, "My apologies, I got carried away there".

    "Um, Miss 'Onoka?" Popo whimpered, "P-please don't die out there. We- we haven't known each other that long, b-but I'd be... really sad to see you go".

    You knelt down to look Popo in the eye, "I'm sorry, I, I can't promise anything. But I will fight back against him as hard as I can, for you, for everyone," that speech flowed out of you.

    - The Tower has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    "Oh, Miss," Popo's voice then brightened up, "Ah, I do got some good news 'ere. Looks like you've got better with personae, to the point where you can now hold up 8 of 'em".

    "Ah, all this has reminded me," Igor spoke up, having finished his phone call with, er, someone else, "I once knew a Querent such as yourself, a young maiden who also felt her world had been lost, as those who should have been her companions instead fought against, and you'll be pleased to know, she also found an answer at the end of it all. Of course, you are flesh and she was steel, but details, details".

    "Um, thanks," you mumbled.

    After the Velvet Room you headed straight home, too sleepy from yesterday and today to go out anywhere else, plus you knew you had to save your strength for tomorrow.

    You slumped down on your bed, hugging your pillows and burying yourself in your blankets. However just outside your door, you heard Megumi coming back into the house, talking with... oh no, Tanizawa-sensei.

    "Mmhm, I had a wonderful time, it was great we could catch up again," your teacher purred outside your door.

    "Hey, anytime," you could hear Megumi chuckle, before the two began, oh Jesus, kissing and making out, making you promptly bury your ears into your pillows.

    Your doorknob rattled, before Megumi said, "Huh, guess Honoka's already in, sorry about that".

    Ryouko kept on giggling, "Well, we can name do. I know a few good love hotels in the area," she said before kissing them again.

    Good, they're not doing it right next to me, you thought. You meant no ill will, it's just that... your teacher's sex life was seriously not something you needed to know, much less happen one room over from you.

    * * *

    You at least felt all rested and relaxed, stretching your arms wide as you woke up. Heading into the loungeroom, you could see Megumi wasn't anywhere, you guessed still with Ryouko at this hour. Shame, as you'd really liked to have talked to them one last time.

    You tried to eat as heartily as you could for breakfast, which wasn't easy given your cupboards weren't the most stocked, though having some of that durian curry packed by your Mum as leftovers was... something.

    Arriving at school shortly after, you met with Eitaro waiting for you by the school gates. He said nothing, just gave a cold glare and snorted, before walking in.

    Once you got to class, you found one other plus to getting a good night's sleep was being able to stay alert through the teacher's lecture. Tanizawa-sensei did try to appear professional, but you could still spot some lipstick stains on her, and that her tie was slightly loosened.

    After that, well, you knew what was next. Heading into the All-Aces Lounge, you saw all six of them waiting for you. Eitaro naturally was first to speak up, "So, you snuck into this place at night?"

    You gasped, and stuttered out, "H-how did you know?"

    "He has me to thank for that," Gakuto grinned, "I was just inspecting our security system records, and out of the goodness of my heart I gave Eitaro that information free of charge".
    He then sidled up to and whispered "Of course, if you still want crucial info on Eitaro, it's not too late, provided you're willing to pay up this time..." You just brushed past him, not even entertaining the thought.

    "Well, at least I can appreciate going the distance to get some extra training in," Eitaro muttered, before his Tarot card appeared in his hand. "I'll be waiting," he said, before slamming the card on the gameboard, vanishing within.

    "Yo Honoka, one last thing," Melissa grinned, holding up your tonfas, "Got a little present for ya! Well, actually it was Azuma and Himawari who kept nagging me to do this, so you'd better be grateful, got it?"

    "Huh?" you mumbled, "Grateful for what?"

    "You might've noticed each of us also carries a ranged weapon," Azuma began, "So for this Duel, we only thought it fair and you too should be handed one".

    "Melissa says she got her people to modify your tonfas, so not only can you hit stuff with them, they can also double as guns. Pretty neat, huh?" Himawari piped up, and you never thought you'd see her with this personality talking about firearms like that.

    "Oh yeah, I'd kinda forgotten you'd all been bringing guns and stuff to school," you smiled on the outside but snarled on the inside, "Boy, you All-Aces can get away with anything".

    "Hey, they're for like, gameboard shit and stuff!" Melissa snapped, before she told you, "Anyway, you'd better select which ammo you want like, pronto!"

    [ ] Standard (hits six time before reload, average damage)
    [x] Rapid (hits multiple times, low individual damage)
    [ ] Heavy (hits once or twice, high individual damage)
    [ ] Scatter (hits a range of foes, uses up more bullets)
    [ ] Sniper (high precision and long-distance, little use close up)
    [ ] Dynamite (high damage, chance of friendly fire)
    [ ] Laser (high damage, cognitively draining)
    [ ] Write-in

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

    Entering onto the Gameboard, appearing straight at the start of Eitaro's Empire, you felt a rumbling all around. It was then you saw parts of the walls below you break open. Emerging out of the holes were whole of legions of... corpses? The dead bodies started floating up into the air, before all being pulled together by some strange force to form a bridge, stretching from the watchtower you'd appeared on and down to the Colosseum.

    You gingerly tried stepping onto the zombie bridge, only to be immediately repulsed by the sheer stench wafting up from them, as well as, obviously, dead tissue.
    "Oh, stop complaining," Kikuko huffed, effortlessly walking over the dead bridge. You did follow after her, though holding your nose the whole way across.

    "Have to say, tonfas combined with guns?" she laughed, brandishing her katana and also a Tanegashima arquebus, "I believe I'll stick with the more tried-and-tested weapons, thank you".

    That bridge thankfully crossed, you tried desperately to get any gunk of your shoes, before you stopped to look up at the looming Colosseum, with its rings and rings of what inside would've been seats, all of it carved right out from a mountain. You entered a long tunnel leading inside, and other than the ends the only light came up piles of burning books.

    "Well now, Honoka," Kikuko then asked you, "Have you decided on a strategy?"

    "Yeah," was all you told her, though on the inside your brain scrambled to come up with a plan.

    [ ] If Eitaro's mostly a physical guy, that means I'll need Rakukaja and Tarunda on my side, plus healing if possible.
    [x] The guy's an archer and football star, that means I'll have to stack on Sukukaja if I'm to outspeed him.
    [ ] I'll blast with him Magic! Well, before he starts casting Makanda anyway.
    [ ] I'll go full on offence! But with some healing of course.
    [ ] I can't be sure exactly what he'll do, I'll have to dodge and guard while I figure out his pattern.
    [ ] Write-in.
    "Is that so?" Kikuko muttered, and then said, "You have put some thought into this, but still, will that alone be enough?" before she headed forwards.

    Twitching, you slowly stepped into the vast Colosseum at the Heart of Eitaro's Empire. On the stone seating above were a multitude of masked Shadows, all moving up and down in anticipation of what was to come.

    "May I announce to you, the first persona Duel of this school year!" Azuma spoke up above the crowd, "Tsutsuji Eitaro, Ace of Cups," an unearthly cheer rose up from all around, "-versus Jack-of-All, Nakamura Honoka", said cheers died down. "Whoever emerges the victor, it will be... interesting either way".

    You could see each spectating All-Ace was up on their own reserved platforms, each having changed into their Regalia. You'd already seen Melissa's, Eitaro's, and Azuma's, but Kikuko, already up on her platform, was wearing what looked like a cross between standard samurai armour and what looked like ship parts and armaments attached onto it. Gakuto meanwhile was in no less than a mech exoskeleton, with a series of cybernetic augmentations inserted into him.

    "So, anyone still taking bets?" Gakuto asked the throng of subject Shadows behind him.

    Himawari wasn't in the exact Regalia you'd seen her in before, but instead a modified, pastel version of that outfit with the spikes replaced with frills and hearts instead of skulls. She was solemnly singing 'Kimigayo', the national anthem, while Melissa, now dressed in a black-and-yellow cheerleading outfit instead of her usual prom dress Regalia, brought in a boombox and started blaring out dance music.

    And there, right across the arena from you, was Eitaro. He scowled, "'Least you made it on time".

    "Eitaro, what the Hell does this have to with anything?!" you shouted at him, "How does fighting your own teammates help at all in keeping Shadows under control?"

    "Bah, trying to get out of the fight even now, are you?" he snarled, his grasp tightening around his heavy longbow, "Okay, I'll tell what this has to do with that. If the Gameboard is to have a ruler, a Universal Monarch, then that ruler will be one who cannot abide weaklings! You've been dragging everyone else down, Jack, so it falls on me to cut the weak link".

    <<BGM: Kamen Rider Kiva - Circle of Life>>

    Before you could respond the fight was on, he instantly launched himself up into the air, about to land on you with a flying kick. Calling upon "Theodora!", you willed for her to get you of there. Her casting a green aura around you, you were able to speed to the side to avoid contact with Eitaro's boot, though you were still knocked back a bit by the resulting shockwave.

    Grunting, Eitaro dashed right at you, ready to ram into you with his spiked headband. Casting Sukukaja again before he could hit, you quickly slid downward with your tonfas, bowling his feet over. As Eitaro was flipped up into midair though, he cast a Magaru gale all around you, the wind scraping at you and preventing you from running outwards.

    "Cuchulainn!" you immediately switched, allowing you to steel yourself and walk out through the conjured tornado.

    "That... wasn't Theodora," Eitaro muttered, before he glared at you, "That was your strategy, concealing other Personae from us?! You little sneak... although what does it matter, when a whole flock of Personae will fall to a single, mastered one," he said as he fired five arrows at once, then got Qin Shi Huang to cast a gale directing them all straight at you.

    You knew wind would do little harm to Eitaro, but still you had Cuchulainn's blade call forth a Killer Wind to keep the arrows away from you. But that wind wasn't strong enough to hold back Eitaro, who ran in and kicked you right in the chest, the spikes on his boot piercing near your heart.

    You lay fallen on the floor, struggling to pick yourself up as you bled. But with no wind and Eitaro standing over you, you gripped one end of your tonfa and flipped a trigger, unloading a rapid round of bullets straight into Eitaro's shins.

    "Woohoo, go Eitaro! Er..." Melissa cut off her cheer when she saw the blow Eitaro just took, "Uh, yeah! Whoo! Go... Honoka? Well I did arrange that whole date for you," she hissed.

    "Gah!" Eitaro grunted through the pain, but clearly could not get over it so quickly. So he tried another tactic, summoning a gale around him to lift him up right near the imperial seat. He drew more arrows as he spat down at you, having the wind spin them around in a circle that was slowly closing in on you.

    "Atalanta!" you called, switching to the human lioness, as under her protection you were able to have all the arrows before you crumple upon contact. You then called on her to fire back at the perched Eitaro, but it seemed he'd had Qin Shi Huang already set up a wall of wind to deflect any projectiles aimed at him.

    "Hoo boy, our little Jack is not so easily going to get out of this one!" Gakuto commentated from above.

    So instead, you ran over to the large podium below Eitaro's imperial box, and called upon Atalanta's nigh herculean strength to rapidly and furiously attack the structure. Eitaro, already feeling the stand beneath him was about to break, pulled a lever at the last second before jumping down.

    Swapping to Richard III to heal, you then heard the noise of floodgates being opened up all around, sending a deluge of water rushing down into the arena. Thinking quickly, you switched to Anastasia, with whom you froze a circle of water around you, letting you ride this ice floe all the way to the top of the flood, right next to the surrounding seats.

    Washing up right by the crowd of Shadows, you looked down to notice, er, that wasn't quite water there. The newly made lake seemed contaminated with, if not entirely, some kind of oozing, liquid metal.
    Eitaro meanwhile was now standing atop what looked like a Norse longboat, that must've come out of the floodgates along with all that ooze. His arrows were now coated in that liquid metal, and he stirred up a gale around the boat to have the metal splash upon you.

    With all the speed spells you'd cast upon yourself, you were able to run to the side and have Anastasia freeze the waves coming at you. Jumping up to your makeshift frozen bridge, Eitaro kept shooting arrows to break the ice beneath your feet, but you leapt over them with a single jump, firing bullets down upon him as you somersaulted over.

    Until one of his arrows did hit you, making you fall down and only be saved from falling into that watery metal by a lucky one-hand cling onto the side of the longboat. Eitaro then walked over to step on your hand, so you raised a tonfa to fire on him again, only for him to anticipate that and hop back.

    You quickly strained to pull yourself up before he could try to knock you off again. Standing on the longboat deck looking straight at him, you tried to open fire... but only found you'd run out of bullets.

    At least now you'd gotten a general sense of how he fought, so how to react?

    [x] You still have Ranged skills though, this is what you need Atalanta and Santa Muerte for.
    [ ] Go all out offence, he can't keep holding out! This is what you need Atalanta and Cuchulainn for.
    [ ] You haven't attacked him directly with magic much yet, so he hasn't been using Makanda. You'll need Theodora and Anastasia to blast him with.
    [ ] Keep healing as much as you can, once is never enough in a fight like this.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Atalanta!" you called forth, but not with the instruction to attack Eitaro. Rather, you ordered her to swiftly strike the deck below you, breaking the boat right in two. With Atalanta's speed and Theodora's enchanting, you were able to run up the dragon's head at one end of the boat, then bracing yourself, leapt with such great strength and speed that you cleared the metallic pool below and landed back on the surrounding seats.

    You breathed with relief, thinking Eitaro would have no easy answer to that... but it turned out he did. You saw that, calling a Magaru wind field up from below, he was able to land right on the other side of the seating.

    "Haha, oh man, Eitaro just doesn't go down!" Gakuto commented over the action, "Hence why we keep him around".

    You felt the shadows around you, his subjects, about to close in and grab you, but Eitaro of all people intervened, firing a warning shot up into the air and shouting across the arena, "Leave her be! I don't need anyone else to take her down for me!" Well, that explained it.

    Eitaro instantly fired a string of five arrows at you, but staring coldly, you no sold each one with Atalanta's assistance. You in return called down a whole shower of arrows from above, Atalanta firing them all off in an Arrow Rain. Eitaro, not yet having the chance to re-raise his aero wall, got promptly barraged by them, pinning him to the ground, an extra stock of Medicine on him keeping him fighting.

    Standing back up, his eyes pulsing red, gradually picking each arrow out of his body, he bellowed "Qin Shi Huang!" for his Persona to raise a violent Garula burst. Catching the gale, Eitaro sprang right across the oozing metal pool to deliver a high-flying kick coming right your way. In desperation, you called out "Santa Muerte!" and had your skeletal Persona open fire with every gun she had upon Eitaro.

    The bullets being able to reach him, the force of both them and the localised tornado he'd conjured sent him rocketing back down. At the same time, you were dodging from side to side to avoid the liquid mercury from crashing up over you, but you soon didn't have you.

    All of a sudden, the toxic metal pool was draining back down into the Colosseum. When finally it had all subsided, you hopped back down into the now dry arena, a Garu spell helping to slow your fall. You then saw what had made the mercury levels go down, a giant hole in the surrounding wall that had been created, where you could see as you approached, the prone Eitaro now lying.
    "I... mustn't have known my own strength," you gasped, nearly out of breath, "M-my Persona was strong enough to knock Eitaro into all that ooze and through a wall. Does- does this mean I-I've won?!" you raised your voice, but didn't seem to hear many cheers in return.

    "It would appear you have," Azuma spoke, fell back into silence, but then finally smiled, "I cannot deny, you have shown today that we were right to lift you up into our cadre. Good showing, Honoka".
    Only at Azuma's command did the surrounding Shadows burst into applause, with strange, confetti-like sparkles raining down from the sky.

    Gakuto, having almost fallen out of his chair, then gritted his teeth and tried to feign a smile, "Ah-ha, well you certainly showed us, Honoka. I had a lot of money betted against you though, you know" he then snarled.

    "Y-you won, a freakin' Jack of all people... won," Melissa stuttered out, before shaking her head and saying, "Like, have I gone to Crazytown or something? Some loser rat girl just kicked the quarterback's ass, just ob-lit-erated the toughest guy in school!" she nearly exploded.

    "Well, at least you can now look forward to that Erimo trip you set up me and Azuma on," you called up to her, before you flinched and thought, Wait, no, I did not just say that in front of everyone!

    "Cape Erimo, hmm?' Gakuto immediately took notice as you knew he would, "My my, so you've arranged a little romantic get-away for two, have you Melissa?"

    "Oh you stay out of it!" she burst at him, Azuma just shaking his head through all this.

    "Er, okay, um anyway, I knew you could do it, Honoka!" Himawari said as she made her way down and gave you a peck on the cheek, "And speaking of arrangements, I still have that little concert to throw you in my own Empire".

    "Wait, you were gonna throw her a concert?" Melissa seethed, her eyes locking onto Himawari, "Ahem, and why wasn't I informed about this?!"

    Because you would've tried to make the whole thing about yourself, you bitch, you thought.

    Then inevitably came Kikuko's reply, "Your technique is still quite rusty, if not for more than a few lucky breaks, you would've been lying dead under a hail of arrows. Still, I admit you did show some strategy and a fair amount of fighting spirit out on the battlefield, and a power no less than having more than one Persona certainly helped rig the Duel in your favour".

    "Oh yes, multiple Personae," Gakuto spoke up, adjusting his glasses, "I pride myself on, among other things, being well-informed, but even that I didn't see coming. I didn't think much of you at first Honoka, in fact I still don't, but I can now understand Azuma's interest in you".

    "And before Melissa inevitably complains it's unfair," Azuma interjected before the Ace of Coins could fume, "It should be noted this power above even your fellow Persona-users has come at a cost, the inability to manifest your own Empire".

    "Yeah," you muttered, you don't need to remind me. "Wait, shouldn't Eitaro have gotten up by now?" you then asked.

    None of the Aces giving you a reply anytime soon, you rushed over to where Eitaro lay in a crumpled heap and removed some of the bricks on top of him. His face not waking up and having grown sickly pale, you slowly down to feel his pulse.

    "Recarm spells and the like only work after attacks done by Shadows, and even then, only when there's a faint scrap of consciousness still in you. We're not miracle workers".
    No, no! Fearing the worst, you then felt his heart. Nothing.
    You looked up again to see that the once clear skies had grown stormy, and that the statues and buildings of this Empire, which when you first saw them appeared in top condition, now looked like they'd been decaying for aeons.

    You no saw the All-Aces standing right in front of you, which made immediately shiver and collapse on your knees, "No! I- I didn't meant to-" you broke out into tears, "Yeah, he was a jerk, b-but he didn't deserve... to die".

    "What you 'meant' won't change what is," Azuma put simply.

    "After all, you hit him with a bullet stream he was weak to, down into liquid mercury and through a wall. What did you expect would happen?" Kikuko stated.

    "Ohmygawd he's dead?!" Melissa gasped, "B-but he was too hunky to- hmm, actually I can get a pretty good view of his abs with him lying down," she then said.

    "Er, Melissa?" Himawari gulped, "Y-you're aware you're checking out a corpse, right? Oh no, please don't get your phone out," she whimpered.
    Seeing Melissa was a lost cause, Himawari approached, putting a hand on your shoulder, and said "Look, Honoka, please don't blame yourself! You were acting in self-defence, he challenged you, remember? And you didn't know your own strength, we heard you saw that yourself".

    "The important thing right now is not that Honoka killed Eitaro," Gakuto interrupted, gesturing wildly, "The important thing is that, because she killed Eitaro, we're all suspects now! And being one of us All-Aces, he was hardly low-profile, now was he? Oh sure, we could just hide his body out here on the Gameboard, but people are going to start wondering where he is, and then what?!"

    You spoke up, "Your friend's dead, and the first thing you can think of is a cover story?"

    "I'm doing a favour, Honoka, us all a favour really," Gakuto snarled and crossed his arms, "You don't want to spend the rest of young life, hell the rest of your life, in prison now do you?"

    Well, not much different from spending the rest of my young life around you people, you could only think back.

    [x] "We'll say he suffered too many injuries in his obsessive football and archery practicing, yet was too stubborn to get them checked"
    [ ] "He was done in by a stray arrow, jealous rival archer"
    [ ] "He got into a fight with some yakuza guys, it'd explain why he's riddled with holes"
    [ ] "He was suffering from an illness that he kept refusing to tell people about"
    [ ] "He committed suicide without a note, felt he was under way too much pressure"
    [ ] Write-in

    - The Chariot has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    Wait, what the Hell? you thought, How can a Social Link advance, even still be a thing, when the guy's dead?! Yeah, there's Lauryn, but... I don't know anymore.

  11. #11
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XI. Happy Continued Existence

    "Okay, good enough for me," Gakuto said, before a sinister smile crossed his face, "I suppose it's no surprise Eitaro was first this year to die, with his brawn and his fury, he simply made himself too big a target. Anyway, with him gone, dibs on his Empire!"

    "Ugh, you? Nonono, I was closest to him, you're on my turf now!" Melissa shot back at him.

    "What do you mean 'closest to him'? He'd kept spurning your advances, as I recall," Gakuto chuckled, to Melissa's rage.

    Lauryn's Empire's still around, I guess it makes sense Eitaro's would be, you got to thinking, Azuma did talk about, if you're so great and spectacular, then your will influence will last, even grow, after death.

    "You know what?" you then raised your voice, "Maybe I should claim this Empire, yeah, and take responsibility for Eitaro's death!" Since none of you seem to know what that word means.

    "I'm afraid it's not that simple," Azuma told you, "You must first have an Empire to claim another".

    "What?" you spoke, "S-says who?"

    "Says the Gameboard," he replied.

    "Besides, who gets who's Empire is decided not by mere words," Kikuko snarled, drawing her sword "But by combat!"

    "Ahem, and speaking of Empires," Himawari swiftly stepped in front of Kikuko before the latter could act, "How about we all head over to mine right now? I did promise a Honoka a private concert, after all!"

    "Much as I don't keep up with your style of music, Himawari," Azuma said, "I do indeed agree we could all use a tension releaser, especially after, ahem, preceding events".

    "Wow, I'm probably the only, y'know, killer ever to get a concert thrown for her," you snarked, clutching your head in your hands.

    "Hmm, well actually there was the time that guy performed 'Tell Me Why I Don't Like Mondays' at Live-Aid," Melissa pointed out.

    "Hey, I want to stress this is not for killing Eitaro," Himawari said, "This is for you surviving, this is for you still being with us".

    * * *
    Himawari's Empire, well more Nightshade's Empire you supposed, was a ramshackle collection of jagged slums and grungy speakeasies, with cobblestone streets, constant night, rain and mist, and because of that giant, luminescent mushrooms had sprouted up everywhere instead of lampposts.

    BGM: Danganronpa - Negaigoto Ensemble

    You'd been shown into one of many nightclubs within, though this while tiny at least looked like one of the fancier ones, the whole place decked out with red velvet lounges, plush cushions, and glittering crystalline glasses at the bar. Basically on the exact other end of the spectrum from Darkest Desires, though you thought you could see some... BDSM equipment stashed away in the darkness.

    Speaking of the bar, "Woo-hoo!" called out Melissa, her Regalia changed again into a slinky red dress, as she slurped up another round of sake, "Y'know Kikukiko, hic, your unique and exotish culture really, hic, makesh the best booze!"

    "You are aware that's cognitive sake, right?" Kikuko said in return, before speaking louder, "You're serious getting drunk off illusionary rice wine!".

    "Hey, you aren't my Mom! Hic," Melissa burped again, "B-but you're shtill my friend, r-right Kiko? Oh wait, show'sh starting".

    The curtains parted, revealing a banner that read 'Happy Continued Existence, Honoka!' as Himawari, still dressed in her lighter, less obviously Nightshade dress, strode on stage.

    "I'd like to dedicate this one to, well, someone very special to me," she went with, before launching into a more chart-friendly tune than Nightshade's fare, you guessed still not wanting to blow her cover, with her own Shadow subjects on keyboards.

    Well, Gakuto at least seemed to like it, as did Melissa, but at her point you guessed she would've applauded over anything. Kikuko just, well, she just sat there, but Azuma... you couldn't see anywhere. You figured he must've slipped out, but why? You sure didn't think her singing was bad or anything.

    You soon found Azuma in an alleyway outside, then again most of the streets here were alleys. He was talking to, wait, Popo?

    "Well met Poe, it's been a while," Azuma began. Wait, these two knew each other? You guessed that was plausible, Popo did say he was from the Gameboard, not specifically the Velvet Room.

    "Azuma sir, I..." the pegasus pony gulped, "I gave that there Qin Shi Huang to Eitaro like I gave all of you Personae, and now he's, he's dead?!" he said. "I-I know all you have arguments and that, b-but what on Earth are these here 'Duels' for? You were 'sposed to support each other, not kill each other!"

    "Poe, Eitaro was one of the few closest to me, so I can confidently say this is exactly how he would've wanted it," Azuma stated, "He was... afraid of ever becoming the weak link in the chain, yet it appears he was. Being removed from the equation is what he would have wanted".

    "Is that really true, Azuma sir?" Popo tried to stand up, "B-because I don't believe anyone's a 'weak link'".

    "Your very Gameboard so far seems to have been saying otherwise," Azuma muttered. He then headed back inside, but got asked one last thing.

    "Please, Mister Azuma sir, you gotta promise, no more o' these 'Duels'," Popo shouted.

    Turning around, Azuma sighed and said, "Oh if it were so easy. It's a nice little fantasy, I'll grant you, but you underestimate just how brightly my fellow All-Aces' emotions can burn. Well, till we meet again".

    With Azuma back inside, you headed out to Popo and asked him, "Popo, if you gave them Personae, why don't you just take them back from the All-Aces?"

    "M-miss Honoka? Er, 'fraid it ain't that simple, like there's a diff'rence between giving someone a Persona and taking it away. Your Persona's part of you, no, it is you, so it's not gonna come quietly..." the pony whimpered, almost collapsing, "Especially when you've got 'em Empires with you".

    "Oh you, come inside," you said, then picked up and carried Popo in.

    And inside, you could see Melissa had utterly collapsed on the floor in a stupor, Himawari having rushed over to help her up.
    "Ah, so er, pretty good concert, wouldn't you say? ...Guess we should call it a wrap for the night," she sighed.

    - The Fool has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    * * *

    Heading out of school, having dropped Popo back in the Velvet Room before you left the Gameboard, you were approached by Colette at the gates.

    "My, Honoka, you do appear to be troubled," she spoke up, before she crossed her arms and said, "Is this over something those All-Aces put you through?!"

    "You could say that," you muttered.

    "Say no more. Well, as your Vice-Rep," a position Colette suddenly cared about now, "and Occult Club leader, and your soon-to-be-bandmate, it should be my duty to see how you're going". She then fell silent, before she grit her teeth and said, "I- I would give anything to get you as far away as I could from those All-Aces, but... I acknowledge I'm not in much of a position to seriously do something about them. I'm, I'm sorry".

    "Colette, please, don't be," you tried to tell her, "You shouldn't be blaming yourself for anything here, really".

    "I suppose you're right," she said, "Only so much use pondering what could've been. Ahem, Honoka, is it... would it be okay if I walked you home?"

    "Uh, sure," you said, "I mean, my apartment's not that far, but you're welcome".

    "Hmhm, perfect, thank you," Colette smiled and curtseyed, "Now Honoka, perhaps you would be interested in a discussion of the finer qualities of gothic literature-"

    Getting back to the block of flats before you knew it, it was there Colette said, "Well, I suppose I must take my leave here. Shame, it was a wonderful discussion we were having. But farewell Honoka, and remember," she took a deep breath before saying, "I am assured, for all their success, there's something special about you that no All-Ace could even dream of. Don't lose hope".

    "Th-thank you," you said, bidding Colette goodbye.

    Heading back up to your place, you only Megumi an exhausted greeting before you slumped down on your bed.
    I'm alive, Eitaro's dead. By my hand, technically. This is... something I didn't think I ever saw coming, you thought. You only now recalled at that Eitaro had, as an All-Ace, been one of the most popular kids at school, though it was easy to forget that, when you knew the real him. My God, how's everyone gonna react when news of his death finally gets out? Am... am I really gonna be thrown in prison?

    * * *

    Your plans for the following weeks were as follows:
    [X] Class Rep duties.
    [X] "We'll say he suffered too many injuries in his obsessive football and archery practicing, yet was too stubborn to get them checked"
    [X] Practicing music for Nightshade.
    [X] Doing stuff for Occult Club.
    [X] Seeing Reina.
    [X] Seeing Mum and Dad.
    -[X] Invite Colette.
    In trying to continue on through your second year, you thought it'd be a good idea to get busy with some form of schoolwork, in order to get your idea off, well, things, and try to re-establish a sense of normalcy in your life.

    Oh yeah, you'd have a whole bunch of Class rep duties to take care of, wouldn't you? If you just lay low and act like a responsible little citizen, people wouldn't suspect a thing... would they?

    Of course, that quickly backfired when it turned out that one of your biggest duties as Class Rep this week was, perhaps naturally, breaking the news of All-Ace Eitaro's death to your classmates.

    Before class that Tuesday, you took your Vice-Rep Colette aside in the outside corridor, leaned down, and whispered to her, "Listen, you're into, well, gothic stuff, so I was gonna ask for help in breaking the news of someone's death".

    Colette stopped to ponder that a little, but soon said, "I honestly wouldn't say there's one effective, surefire way. Despite how it may seem, I've been fortunate to not have anyone close to me die, though I confess there are precious few close to me, but I've known a fair few people who have. It'd depend whose death it is too".

    "It's Eitaro," the words bluntly left your mouth.

    "Oh," was all Colette muttered on hearing, but then cleared her throat and continued with, "I see. I have little patience for any All-Ace, but... I certainly never would have wished death upon any of them. Like, ideally I'd just want to see their reputations be ruined and have them expelled or whatever. Okay, I'll admit, were I in your position, I'd be as blunt as possible about just who Eitaro really was... and yet, it's your call. If you wish to reinforce the sugar-coated view this school had of him and still has of his peers, well, that's your right".

    You just nodded, before you slowly walked into your homeroom.
    "Er, hello everyone," you said, giving a light bow to the rest of the class, "As your Representative, I've been asked to break the news of an, um, unfortunate happening at our school". You'd begun to shake and sweat, while the rest of class just seem as unenthused as ever.

    "Hey, you guys know that Eitaro kid?" Tanizawa-sensei spoke up ahead of you, groaning as she did, "Schools sports star? He's dead".

    Now that made the class pay attention. All the students began mumbling amongst each other, and from what you could see, the main look on their faces was utter disbelief.

    "Wait, no, I can't believe this," one of the sportier kids spoke up, "Guy was tough as steel, what, what in Hell could've ever killed him?"

    "Ah, the official statement from the All-Aces is that Eitaro died from untreated injuries, sustained during excessive practice," you said all that in a hurry, side-eyeing your teacher to make sure she wouldn't butt in again.

    "Oh, oh God," you then heard Keiko mutter as she buried her head in her hands, "It- it never even occurred to me that an All-Ace could, well, die. I mean, people had told me about Rin, but she was before I even got here. Oh no, if Eitaro can die, what does that mean for Azuma?!" she almost panicked, with Yuya having to step in to calm her down.

    "Er, I guess I still don't know how to feel about all this," he then said to the rest of the class while clutching his head, "Hearing someone died only this soon back, and that it was one of the toughest guys in school. Like I've heard the phrase 'Memento Mori' and, yeah, that's all I can think really, hearing about this," his voice then pattered out as he slumped back down.

    "To play History Teacher for a moment," Colette then spoke to the class, "When the Black Death struck Europe, it inspired an art theme called the 'Danse Macabre', which showed nobles and peasants alike joining hands with death. The message was simple, it doesn't matter who you are, death comes for us all. But ultimately, it's the one thing that also unites us all," she finished, looking like she expected a standing ovation for what she said... only to get no response but a few coughs.

    "Sensei," you turned and said in a hushed tone to Ryouko, "W-why did you cut me off like that?"

    "Look, Honoka, sometimes you need to be blunt about these sorts of things," Ryouko sighed, leaning back and crossing her arms, "Sorry if I sound harsh, but in my experience it's often the only way. Plus, I figured if I said nothing, you'd just keep umming and aahing the whole time".

    You didn't have a reply to that, you were just left thinking how you could possibly console anyone further, being Class Rep and all.

    * * *

    As the week went on, you were reminded of Eitaro's death nearly every time you went out in the corridors, where the crying and bewildered voices of mourning students never let you forget it, Himawari the only All-Ace out there trying to comfort people, or when you tried to order in the cafeteria.
    Speaking of the cafeteria, you were apprehended in there by Melissa one time, as she took your arm and snarled, "I'm sorry, are you forgetting what I taught you?".

    "O-oh, is this about Eitaro?" you gulped, shrinking back.

    At first she just stared at you, but then said, "What? No, not that now. I meant how to conduct yourself as one of our Jacks".

    "What, I can't go to the cafeteria anymore?" you then stepped up, gritting your teeth.

    "Not necessarily, you just can't keep mingling with the riff-raff," Melissa told you, stepping forth in return, "Jacks have a special table in the cafeteria allotted specifically to them. Aces of course get to eat in our Lounge," Melissa grinned, before having to admit, "Gakuto gets crumbs and energy drink spilt everywhere though..."

    You were shown over to a table with Reina, Tsubasa, and Shinsuke, that butler and dresser who serviced Azuma you met the other day. It did look like he'd prepared something good for the four of you though, a steaming plate of roast pork.

    "Hey, wait a minute, where's Kaneto?" you spoke up, looking around, "Oh, don't tell me-"

    "His Ace's dead, so technically he's not a Jack anymore," Melissa stated.

    "I perhaps would've put that more delicately, Mistress, but that is indeed the case," Shinsuke sighed.

    "O-oh yeah, Eitaro's dead," Reina stuttered, "It feels so, so weird to say that. I think they call it, like, 'phantom pain', y'know when you can still feel something there, even though you know it's gone".

    "It's, well, it's a complicated business, right?" Tsubasa said, you guess she felt she had to contribute to the conversation somehow.

    "Hey guys," came the surprisingly cheery voice of Kaneto, as he sidled up, "Er, guess you guys forgot to invite me here, that's okay, people forget and stuff. Weird thing just happened, like I got told I'm now Football Captain! Okay, but er, what happened to Eitaro then?"

    Oh my God, how can you not know? you could've facepalmed, but your thoughts turned to how to break this news, again. "Eitaro, you see he's-"

    "He's dead," Melissa cut you off, "Shame too, without him Azuma's the only hot guy we got in the All-Aces. Well, Gakuto's not that bad looking I guess, but like there's so much shit about him, don'tcha know? Point is, with him gone, that means you're not Jack anymore".

    Kaneto's face turned to resemble that of a sad puppy. "He- he's dead?!" he whimpered.

    The guy treated you like complete crap, you thought but kept silent, I didn't want the guy to die either, but seriously, is it really worth getting torn up on hearing about the death of your abuser?

    "Gawd, and I thought Reina could be a total airhead," Melissa said aloud in front of her Jack "Anyway, you're not Jack, so that means you don't get to sit here anymore".

    "Hey, he was still a Jack for years before this, he deserves to sit with us at least one last time," you then stood up to Melissa.

    The Ace of Coins looked at first like she was about to explode on you, but then calmed herself and snarled, "Whatever, do your own little thing for all I care, my own meal's probably getting cold as we speak," she then took off in a huff.

    Finally getting to sit down for lunch, Kaneto getting to join you, as you later walked back to class you saw Tsubasa and Shinsuke approach you.
    "Aye Miss Honoka, those were some fighting words you had for Mistress Melissa," Tsubasa smiled at you, miming a punch, "It's something to admire, like I could never dream about ever standing up ta, well, Mistress Kikuko or the like".

    "You indeed possess tenacity, Miss Honoka I suppose that is deserving of applause, even if it takes the form of going against your superiors," Shinsuke had to remark, "But I should have expected this, my Master Azuma indeed knows exceptional people when he sees them".

    "Thanks I appreciate it," you smiled, think you're getting a little carried away though.

    After they left, you then confronted by Ryouko.
    "Ooh, got into a scuffle did we?" she giggled, before adopting a slightly more serious tone of voice, "In all honestly, thank you for your work as Class Rep this week, while it's still early in the year so nothing major needs to be planned yet, you've really been putting in the work... and I've been meaning to apologise for interrupting you telling the class a couple of days back".

    "Oh that?" you said, "No, it's okay, I guess you had a point, I was taking ages to break the news, really".

    "Yeah, but..." Ryouko sighed and said, "It should've been obvious to me that, like, telling a whole bunch of students the school's star just died, and all on your first serious week as Class Rep, I, I really should've gone easier on you".

    You thought about it for a while, but then said, "You once admitted to me that, basically, you weren't much of a teacher. So it's okay you feel you've fucked up, we're both in the same boat for not really knowing what to do here."

    Ryouko could only laugh at that, "I'll say, you sounded more like the teacher just then. Of course, not like I'd ever recommend this job to you once you graduate, but still," she shrugged.

    "I'll... take that as a compliment," you blushed, before asking, "Er, I'm kinda curious then, how did you go about breaking the news of Rin's death, those years back?"

    "Well, you sure ask the hard-hitting questions, now don't you?" Ryouko mumbled, but replied with, "I'm lucky I didn't really have to, it was something pretty much everyone knew about almost immediately. Her death happened in my first year of teaching too, so I guess it was for the better that I didn't need to break the news to anyone. Man, from what little I saw of her, she seemed like a sweet girl..."

    Wow, that's not something anyone will just casually tell you, you thought, Guess I've been really getting through to Tanizawa-sensei...

    - The Priestess has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    "Anyway, how 'bout something lighter?" Ryouko then piped up, "Hey, you know that band offer we got from Hima- er, Nightshade? "Cause I was thinking, fuck it, I'm gonna go all out and pick up the guitar. Have some fun, while I can".

    "What? Oh that, yeah," you'd almost forgotten about being in a backing band, what with all the Class Rep stuff and, well, Eitaro's death. "Suits me fine. I was gonna pick bass anyway, four strings shouldn't be too difficult. That does leave Colette with drums, I wonder how she's gonna react to that?" you muttered.

    "Eh, if she wanted her choice of instrument, she should've spoken up earlier" Ryouko shrugged, "Oh yeah, before you head home for today, there's a couple of your classmates in need of some tutoring. How about it?"

    You thought, Well, if I'm really throwing myself into a Class Rep role this week, "Sure, I've got time".

  12. #12
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XII. The Funeral

    As you woke up that morning in your apartment, the only thing you could think was, Oh geez, they're holding a funeral for Eitaro tomorrow, aren't they? Boy will that be awkward.

    You really needed someone to cheer you up from thinking that, and luckily you knew just the person.

    After a quick breakfast, you texted Reina with a simple <You there?>.

    Reina naturally was quick to call you back, saying "Oh hey there Honoka! Cool you wanted to hang out, but I can't really think of anywhere to get but like clothes-shopping, so where do you wanna go? I usually drag you around everywhere, so like it's only fair you get to choose this time".

    [x] "Clothes shopping sounds fine".
    [ ] "How about we eat out? Like there's a cool sweets shop in town".
    [ ] "Guess you gotta exercise to look good, right? How about we go walking in the mountains?".
    [ ] "Wanna just hang out at the arcade?"
    [ ] "How about a movie? Think they're showing Scene Girls"
    [ ] "You know what? Let's head all the way down to Sapporo, we can easily make it back within the day".
    [ ] "You know what, it's some distance, but how's Hakodate sound?
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<BGM: Wicked - Popular (Instrumental)>>

    "Okay, cool. Ooh, Melissa told me that you'll be going on a little private vacation with Azuma by Golden Week! Wow, that sounds really romantic, um, kind of the sort of thing I'd love to be able to do someday... Uh, yeah, so that got me thinking, how 'bout we get you a special outfit for the occasion?!" she kept chirping over the phone.

    "Yeah, sounds great," you smiled at her over the phone's camera, but inside just thought, Cool, some expensive dress I'll probably never wear again 'cause it'd be a nightmare to wash if I wore it casually.
    "Should probably get something to eat first, though. Hmm, what do you think about meeting up at-"

    [x] "-Cafe Okumura" [+2 Education]
    [ ] "-Shiro Usagi Confections" [+2 Etiquette]
    [ ] "-Spice'n'Steam Ramen" [+2 Resolve]
    [ ] "-That fast food joint you like" [+2 Perception]
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Awesome, see you there!" Reina beamed.

    After eating, the first thing Reina wanted to do was discuss what exactly you were going to wear on your trip.
    "Hey look, you don't have to jump into this sort of thing immediately," you tried to say to her, sitting down on a park bench, "Like, can't we just talk and stuff? I mean, I'm not here right now for Azuma or Melissa, I'm here for well, you," you said that last part slower than normal.

    At first Reina didn't have a response, but said, "Hmm okay, how about you don't think of it as buying an outfit to impress Azuma, but to exhibit your style in the wider world outside Kuchinashi? 'Course, I don't know why you wouldn't want to impress someone like Azuma, but point is, would thinking that help you out?" she asked.

    You had to smile at that. "Yeah, sure. I think Melissa's plan is for us to go down to Hakodate for the night view there, then across the bay to Cape Erimo, right by the Pacific, where from what I know it's super windy, so I'll have to keep that in mind when picking out clothes. After that we're gonna head back through Sapporo, catching the cherry blossoms along the way, so maybe something like a yukata would be appropriate for that?"

    "Er, don't know where we're gonna find a super wind-resistant yukata, but okay! I was thinking of checking out a Hiking and Mountain Gear shop for all the wind, but eh, they usually don't stock clothes suitable for dates, unless your beau's into bushwalking. Ooh, and I do know the nicest little traditional clothing store... which is also seriously expensive, but hey, this is a special occasion!"

    [ ] Go with a fancy, traditional Japanese outfit.
    [x] Go with a more dainty Western outfit, like a long dress and sunhat, with trousers beneath for the wind.
    [ ] Go with a more modern, stylish outfit, like a sparkling black dress and a (fake hopefully) feather boa.
    [x] Forsake elegance and go with an outfit more suited to Hokkaido's terrain.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Hmm, well I'm not quite sure that's what Melissa would go with, but okay!" Reina perked up, "Like, she told me I was 'sposed to groom you into the All-Ace aesthetic, but really I think it's best if I help you develop your own style, right?"

    "Oh, ah, thank you," you replied. You got thinking, That's... not something I expected to ever hear Reina say, honestly. She said otherwise once, but I was kinda under the impression she based her whole style around Melissa's.

    "Before we go shopping Reina, one last thing," you then said, though you did hesitate a bit in continuing, "Ahem, er, so I take it you're no longer poking through that Secret Lives of Students site?"

    Reina froze at your words, before she spoke in a much more deflated tone, "No, that was the last time I ever went anywhere near that site. B-because of what it dug up about me, I-I've had some real mean looks in school, a-and I'm lucky that I haven't been disqualified as a Jack. I'd tell Melissa but... to be honest, I'm scared how she might react".

    "What is it, Reina? Come on, you can tell me," you knelt down and spoke to her, "On the other hand, I get it if it's something you'd really don't want to bring up again".

    "N-no, I've made up my mind, it's best to tell you," a trembling Reina spoke up, but looked from side to side and said, "Somewhere more private though, y'know, though I guess all the info's up online anyway".

    She ushered you away from the park and behind an old brick wall where, looking side to side once again, she tried to speak with you, tears welling up in her eyes, "I-I'm not a virgin".
    She then took a deep breath and elaborated, "I-I used to go out on, ahem, 'compensated dates' with older guys. I told them I was just there to talk and have fun, maybe cuddle, b-but there were... some who wouldn't take no for an answer".

    "And that blog then told everyone about it," you surmised, before you embraced Reina and told her, "Reina, I... I don't think any less of you for this, you're still my, my friend. If Melissa boots you out should she hear about this, then... if ever become an Ace myself, first thing I'll do is appoint you as my own Jack".

    "Y-you mean it?" Reina whimpered, before she reached out to tightly embrace you back. "Thanks Honoka, you're the best!"

    - The Magician has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    You stood there for a while, but then Reina stepped back and sniffed, saying "I'm glad I have finally have someone I could, um, talk to about all that. Okay, with that out of my system, let's get back to shopping!"

    * * *

    Finding, fitting, and purchasing the Golden Week outfit you had in mind, with Reina constantly complimenting you on it, you hugged as you said goodbye upon heading back to your apartment.

    "Hey there, have fun out there?" Megumi asked upon your return, hunched over their own laptop busying themselves with what looked like some online quiz, only to then catch sight of your new clothes, "Wow, you've really gotten into fashion hauls lately. Hey, not saying it looks bad or anything, but y'know we're not exactly made out of money. Or packing infinite closet space".

    "No problem, those All-Aces at least pay me regularly for doing, er, club activities," you muttered.

    "I see," Megumi muttered.

    "Besides, this outfit's for a special occasion. I'm going all the way down to Cape Erimo for Golden Week," you told them.

    If Megumi was drinking coffee right now they'd immediately spit it out, "W-wait, why wasn't I told about this earlier?" they stared blankly at you.

    "Well, the whole thing was kind of an, er, awkward arrangement," you put it, explaining "Melissa, that exchange student with the Aces, went and planned out a whole trip for me and Azuma, the top-ranked guy in school and that theatre kid who came in here. She's loaded, so at least you won't have to worry about me bursting the bank".

    Megumi kept staring at you, but then sighed and had to admit, "Guess your school's been going through a rough spot, with that athlete dying right after the first week. That little vacation should help take your mind off that".

    "Wait, how did you know about his death?!" you shot up.

    "How could I not know? It was in the papers all over town," Megumi said, before reflecting "Not that I blame people around here for being weirdly obsessed with your school, its class and prestige is the main thing keeping Kuchinashi from just being some stopover town between Sapporo and Hakodate. I mean, when I think prestigious, I sure don't think my community college".

    You sighed, "It's just that I've been invited to attend his funeral tomorrow. We... kinda knew each other, I mean when our place got crashed the other day, he was one of the people there".

    "In that case, sounds like he was kind of a jerk, while he was alive anyway," Megumi muttered, "Though you wouldn't have got that impression from the papers, they were absolutely glowing about him. Still though, 'jerk' doesn't warrant death".

    "Least I also have band stuff to also look forward too, something on my own terms for once," you then changed the subject to something lighter, "Planning to get real stuck into that next week, when I can".

    "Band practice?" Megumi asked, "Like, you're joining the school's concert band?"

    "Er, not exactly. You remember Nightshade, right?" you started with, "Well, she said she's tired of having to rely on backing tracks, so myself, my Vice-Rep, and my, er, homeroom teacher are gonna be her backing band".

    "Teacher? Oh, Ryouko, wow!" Megumi's eyes widened, "That just makes her hotter, I didn't know she was also a musician!"

    "Um well, that's 'cause she kinda isn't," you had to break it, "But she's fine with giving it a shot".

    "Okay then. Well, I guess a little more in the future, we'll have even more stuff to bond over. I'm no pro, let alone virtuoso, but I've dabbled a little in music," Megumi flashed a grin, "How about you, you play anything?"

    "...Not really," you let out, "Thought of picking up bass though, 'cause it's easy, right?"

    "Yep, figured," Megumi said to themselves and sighed, "Be cautious though, Nightshade's music from what I've heard sounds pretty technical".

    "Ah, I'll get the hang of it, was all you said, finishing the conversation.

    * * *

    You had one last place to stop for the night, no less than the Velvet Room.

    "Oh, Miss 'Onoka, thanks for being me back here the other night," Popo piped up, "Unfortunately, don't really got any new Personae for ya right now, Miss".

    "Well, it's not exactly a new Persona I'm looking for right now, but rather, well, a new person," you then said, before looking at Lauryn, "Rin, I'm... I'm guessing you would've already heard the news".

    "About Eitaro's death, yes," she winced, slowly saying "If only I was still there, I could've... Oh, what's the point? I can't go back and stop it, whether I ponder what I could've done or not".

    "Thing is, you died but ended up here," you pointed to her, then cleared your throat and said, "So, I was wondering, could Eitaro showing up here, still be possible?"

    The Room fell dead silent, before Igor said "I'm afraid it's not as simple as that. Lauryn's case was indeed exceptional, I told you when you first that she was a Lost Soul, caught between worlds, hence how she came to be here. While we'd have to scan the entire Sea of Souls to confirm, this would not appear to be the case for a second time so soon".

    You stood there as those words sank in, "Guess I should've known".

    "D-don't feel bad, Miss, you only acted in self-defence. Here, I've got somethin' I've been meaning to give ya," Popo then sighed, as he summoned what looked like two chained together schoolboy dolls, both wearing a large hat that looked like a stone stair. "It's me own Persona, Miss, named P.I.T.T. Er, acronym that is. He's not much at all for a scrap, but whenever you're in trouble with some Shadows, call on his card and I'll give you a heads up on 'em".

    "Oh, thank you, that... helps out a lot" you started to smile. "I mean, we do have a Navigator with Gakuto, though I think his Persona can actually fight. Problem there he's, well, Gakuto".

    "I get what you mean" Lauryn sighed.

    Popo showing you his own personal Persona, even letting you partly use it, is certainly something, you having just literally seen into Popo's soul...

    - The Tower has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    * * *

    The day had arrived for Eitaro's funeral. Seconds after you'd finished breakfast, you heard a knock at the door.

    Opening it, you saw both the butler Shinsuke and maid Tsubasa there. "Miss Nakamura, you have been invited to accompany the All-Aces in their personal vehicle to young Master Eitaro's funeral" Shinsuke stated and bowed.

    "It's a sad business, Miss Honoka, and I understand it's an awful lot to go through just a couple weeks into the school year-" Tsubasa began.

    You however just said "I'm ready", walking out your door with them.

    One thing you at least expected the All-Aces to do was ride in style, and the burgundy-black limousine that was parked by the apartment certainly had that, looking awfully out of place in these surroundings.

    Being escorted in by Shinsuke and Tsubasa before they head to the driver's seats, you sat down on the velvety lounge surrounded by the remaining All-Aces.

    "Hmhm, what do you think?" Melissa smirked, running her hand along the limo seating, "As if I'd ever be anywhere near a school bus".

    "I would've happily rode my steed," Kikuko snarled, "I would've much preferred the mountain air around me".

    "Ugh, just wind down a window, if that's what you want," Melissa said back.

    "Wow, there's something kinda, ah, erotic almost about these shiny seats," Himawari began, but quickly corrected herself with, "Ah, n-not that I'd know p-personally, b-but I'd imagine there'd people who'd be into this sort of thing".

    "Anyway Honoka, have you got your eulogy prepared?" Gakuto then leaned in to ask, "We all have our own prepared, but if anyone should be reading out some parting words at this funeral, it'd be you, wouldn't you say?"

    What? Oh no, they didn't say anything about that, that thought stabbed into you.

    "Wait, where's Azuma?" you spoke up, not seeing him in the car.

    "He went on ahead, having more interest in overseeing the funeral," Gakuto casually replied.

    If only you did too, you thought, not the least bit comfortable with Gakuto being the only guy in the passenger's lounge. At least you had Kikuko there to keep an eye on him.

    For all the limo's comforts, it couldn't make the ride down the mountain pass any less twisty and turny. You found yourself clutching to the sides of the couches, there not being any seatbelts for some reason, though the All-Aces barely seemed bothered by the rocky drive down.

    When you finally got to Eitaro's funeral, no less than a sendoff at sea, you stumbled shaken out of the limo to taste the salty air of Uchiura Bay, where Arctic chill mingled with Pacific calm.

    Already there was quite a crowd gathered on the stony beach, some you could see in school uniform, some you recognised as staff, but also a fair few you didn't recognise at all, possibly family relations or family of friends?
    A whole hedge of flowers, mostly azalea, was piled up near Eitaro's open coffin, his corpse's expression at least baring none of the anger that'd so often marked it in life. A priest stood up, bowed, then began slowly chanting sutras over the coffin.

    Afterwards, Eitaro's fellow All-Aces were invited to say a few words, with Azuma as the most verbose of them getting to go first.
    "When Tsutsuji Eitaro first ascended into our circle, I thought of him as one of the lucky few. Unlike the rest of us All-Aces, who were born into wealth or at least more than respectable backgrounds, Eitaro came from nearly nothing, the heir to a once prominent but now crumbling dojo. A dojo we ought now to pray for, since their last hope has now been extinguished.
    I was... afraid there was something like a demon eating away inside Eitaro in his last few days, a demon of Wrath. This Wrath would not permit him to forgive, not only others, but himself. And yet, do not look down on him for this, for after all, are we all not vessels of Sin? Lust-"

    Gakuto twitched and had to adjust his glasses.


    That made Kikuko take a step back.


    A sharp glance from Melissa made her lipstick get smeared right across her face.


    Himawari suddenly broke out into a sweat.

    "-and Sloth."

    You felt his eye on you. Oh yeah, and what does that leave you with? you thought back.

    "In theatre, the curtain falls when the playwright deems it so, or in unfortunate cases when the audience deems it. In life though, it can fall whenever, and it is to our great shame that it fell so fast on Eitaro. Rest easy, friend, you need not pressure yourself anymore" Azuma gave a deep bow as he finished, to the applause of his school.

    His eyes then fell on you, as he said "Nakamura Honoka, you were there when Eitaro died, did you not say? Well then, perhaps you'd like to come up and say a few words," he beckoned on you.

    It was only a couple of steps to the podium, yet it could've been a hundred with how your trembling legs felt. Going pale as you looked right out over the crowd, you gulped and got the words out of you all in one go:

    "Eitaro's death was unfortunate and only made worse by being entirely avoidable. I can't help but ask myself if maybe he'd still be alive now if I paid better attention, or if anyone close to him told him it was okay to show weakness from time to time," you gasped out, before breathing in again and speaking more firmly, "Eitaro has shown us that even the strongest of us can still be fragile. I think we should make sure to remember that and try to give people the room they need to be comfortable, and not push them to live up to an impossible ideal. Hopefully that way we won't lose anybody else the way we lost Eitaro".

    You could've collapsed right then and there, but you were surprised to hear that applause erupt again, if maybe not as loudly as it had for Azuma.

    "Well spoken," Azuma came and smiled at you, taking you by your shoulder.

    That left the rest of the All-Aces to give their speeches. Kikuko was first, as she recited:
    "The mighty oak tree,
    Its branches catch the wind till
    They lose strength and break"

    She then had Tsubasa bring her a tray containing flowers and bonsai trees, one a cherry blossom, one a chrysanthemum, one a peach tree, one a lily, one a sunflower, one an azalea, and one withered and leafless. With a slash of her sword, she cut down the azalea, before walking off stage.

    Up next was Gakuto, who straightened his tie and said "Words cannot describe how the Hanataba student body felt when they lost their Sports Ace. Words never are adequate in the face of senseless tragedy. I want to tell you a few things I learned from Eitaro, during three distinct periods, over the years I knew him. Theyre not periods of years, but of states of being. His full life. His injuries. His dying. Eitaro worked at what he loved. He worked really hard. Every day. He was the opposite of absent-minded. I will not insult the privacy of your memory of him a privacy he sought and treasured by trying to describe him whom you knew to you who knew him. In our memories of him, he remains alive and not only a shadow on the school or a glamorous personality".

    As Gakuto walked off, all you could think was, Wait, haven't I heard something like what he said in English class? ...Oh God no, did Gakuto honestly just plagiarise for a eulogy?

    Then came Melissa, who started with, "Well, um, total yikes, right? I mean, Eitaro was easily the studliest guy in school, and now dead and gone, y'all. Like, the school's not completely uggo-town yet, we still got some major pretty boys, but there's a certain je ne sais quoi that just went kaput. So, thought and prayers everyone! For a real man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps until, well, he couldn't pull anymore..." Melissa then finished, having lost track of her analogy.

    That just left Himawari out of the All-Aces, who waved and said, "Um, hi there. My wish is to make people happy in life, so I'm, er, really not used to handling sad situations like these. But even when I'm making people happy, I still get stage fright, obviously... but I know now, if I really should've been afraid for anyone, it'd be for Eitaro. There are some people who are so confident in this world that it seems like they can do anything, and... I feel that's who I should've been for Eitaro, yet just couldn't be. Er, I believe I could express the rest of my farewell to him through song, if I may" she held the mic close and began to sing.

    <<BGM: Bokurano - Uninstall (Acoustic)>>

    As you took your seat, you saw that your school's own cricket captain, Yamashiro Takako, was placed right behind you.
    "Oh hey, you're Honoka, right? Don't think we've spoken for, er, a while. I'd ask about your thoughts on cricket Club, but well, looks like now's really not the time".

    "I'd heard Eitaro had tried to get your Club shut down," you said maybe a bit too hastily to her, "Like he feared another athlete stealing his spotlight or something. Er sorry, probably shouldn't have brought that up".

    "Uh, yeah, he did," she confirmed, but then said, "But I always thought I could just... work something out, y'know. Like yeah, right now finding enough players is or biggest issue, but... did Eitaro really have to die for it to be that way?".

    "If you ask me," you said, letting out, "I don't think anyone 'has' to die, more than ever after now. But, well, what we can do once they are gone? Though sheesh, I didn't even know he came from poverty until Azuma said so".

    "Yeah, first ever All-Ace to do so, I've been told" she nodded, before she leaned back and said, "I'm gonna need a lot to take my mind off this. Like, I'm gonna need a hot cocoa, and a lot of spicy food. Yeah, we have that back in Okinawa, but man, I didn't know how much I needed it until coming up to Hokkaido".

    "I've been told it's better to eat cold foods in colder climates, and hot foods in hotter climates, actually," you remarked, "Supposed to adjust your body temperature accordingly, no idea if it actually works though".

    "Shh, I think the ceremony's about to end," Takako whispered.

    The Student Council President finished things by saying, "First Rin, now Eitaro, I... I'd like to hope we're through the storm here, but I get the feeling there may be dark times coming." Hotaru then looked down at the coffin, "Well, Godspeed".

    Weird to think how a person's death can make you see them in a whole different light...

    - The Chariot has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    Social Links after death though are never not going to be weird, however.

  13. #13
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XIII. Band Practice

    That afternoon, you headed to one of the few local instrument stores, Soundwaves, where you found Ryouko and Colette waiting for you at the entrance.

    "So, um, hey, first day of band huh? Well, backing band, but anyway," Ryouko began, coughing a little, "To get things straight first, I'm taking guitar, Honoka's playing it cool with bass, which leaves-"

    "Drums?!" Colette spoke out, before lifting her hand for inspection, "Do these delicate features honestly look like they're made for bashing and crashing on stretched-out skins?" she snapped.

    "Well, you know anyone else?" you shrugged at her, "Besides, this is only gonna be while Nightshade's starting up, so maybe in the future you could switch to, well, whatever you'd like. For now though, we really need a drummer".

    "Besides, you don't have to bash and crash, although I don't know why you wouldn't," Ryouko said, "You could be like, er, one of those jazz drummers, aren't they usually a lot more precise or something? Plus you do sewing, right, so your fingers could be perfectly suited to holding the sticks".

    Heading into the musty store, rows of instruments held up on wire frames against blue wallpaper peeling to brown. While Ryouko kept pacing over which shiny guitar exactly to get, you just settled for the first, most passable-looking and sounding bass guitar you could see. It did sound awfully muddy at first, but then a clerk told you that you were supposed to mute the other strings. You also didn't expect the frets to be that far apart.

    Colette, meanwhile, seemed to be checking out everything but drums, looking over the violins and lone cello, the flutes and clarinets, having a try at the piano, and even looking at guitars on her own. When she saw your eyes upon her though, she hurried back to the drums blushing. She did seem to take to the deep sound of a timpani though, before the owner told her that was too much noise.

    "So, you all showed up," you then heard the voice of not Himawari but Nightshade, in the same outfit she had from back in the club, as she strode into the store. "Oh, don't worry about costs, I can easily cover that," she smirked, brandishing a wad of notes, but added, "Although, if you don’t practice and end up making me look like an idiot this Saturday night, I'm selling them all back, or at least keeping them for myself. That clear?"

    "Yep, all clear," you said.

    "Normally I'd mark you down for talking to a teacher like that... but we aren't in school right now so, yeah," Ryouko started but trailed off.

    "Teehee, that's right Miss, I'm the one wielding the cane here," Nightshade grinned like a shark, "Er, the metaphorical cane, that is".

    "Well, with a winning personality like that, I'm sure you'll be fending off legions of fans in no time," Colette said, but only through gritted teeth.

    "And I want you to practice till your fingers bleed, you hear me? A Queen demands no less from her subjects, after all," Nightshade said, ignoring Colette's last line, before having to add "I mean, I'm booked to perform in Sapporo on Saturday, my first time doing so outside Kuchinashi. It's not that large a venue, but still.
    Anyway, I guess you're not ready for the overly technical stuff yet, so I'm gonna assign you some hardcore punk to start with. You better be able to keep up though, ya hear?"

    "Er," you mumbled, "Think I've thought of a problem. Ah, where exactly are we gonna rehearse? My apartment's a no, way too small, we'd get evicted for noise complaints. And we definitely can't perform at school, or at Nightshade's family home," And we're definitely not bringing Colette and Tanizawa-sensei onto the Gameboard just to practice.

    "My residence is an orphanage, so ahem, that may go down awkwardly," Colette told you.

    Wait, but I thought Colette said she personally hadn't known death? That'd mean either her parents run the orphanage, or... you thought, or she was left there.

    [ ] That still leaves Ryouko's place.
    [x] The block where you live does have a garage though, built just underground.
    [ ] Maybe the gaming store can spare the back room when Hotaru and co aren't using it?
    [ ] There's an abandoned temple out in the wilderness. Yeah, you'd be sneaking in, but it's not like anyone's there.
    [ ] Wouldn't this very store have a rehearsal room?
    [ ] There's a hall the town band performs in, hopefully they won't mind lending it a little.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Most of the rest of you afternoon was probably lugging Colette's new drumkit all the way over to the basement garage in question, since Ryouko didn't own a car due to preferring bikes, trains, and buses.
    As you heaved and groaned your way down into floor B1 of your apartment block, your next challenge came in finding the right spot to rehearse in this garage without risking being run over, though granted only a few of the block's residents ever bothered with this damp, grey garage.

    Finding a space by the stairs that seemed to pedestrians-only, and a power outlet conveniently nearby, you knew you had a space to set all your amps and kits down. You began quickly setting up, though when you and Ryouko both plucked your respective strings, the oddest noise came out.

    "...You do know about tuning, right?" Nightshade groaned as she put her hands to her hips.

    "Er, yeah, course we do," Ryouko mumbled, but had to admit "Shit, we forgot to buy a tuner back at Soundwaves".

    "Alright, just keep plucking, and I can tell you by ear when your all strings are playing the right notes. One-time offer though, so if you don't get yourself a tuner by tomorrow, the you're up shit creek aren't you?" Nightshade rolled her eyes and looked down on you, "Oh, by the way, we're in Drop D, I mean pfft, who plays in standard?"

    Slowly adjusting your pegs, you kept distracted by constant drum rolls and cymbal clashes courtesy of Colette. Oh, so apparently you're okay with drumming the instant you find out how you can annoy us with them? that thought boiled inside you.

    Having only four strings to worry about and basses staying in tune better, at least you were ready faster than Ryouko. Huh, and to think your teacher originally wanted an 8-string, but Nightshade said even she wasn't shilling that much money out for someone still auditioning.

    Oh yeah, 'Ryouko'. To think she wasn't your sensei here, but just one of the band, with even a musical illiterate like you knowing there was some debate as to whether guitar or bass was more important. Then again, you had to admit, it's not like she was ever that much of a sensei.

    "Okay, here's the setlist I've prepared for us down in Sapporo this Saturday. Mostly covers yes, but we are just starting out after all," Nightshade handed you a stack of tablature sheets, "I'm not asking for pitch perfection, a few wrong notes are fine by me, and discordance all the better. However, what I demand is 100% effort, I still want you three to play like your lives are on the line!"

    Fun fun fun, you thought as you frowned.

    It was then Nightshade pulled out and lit up a cigarette, with Ryouko and you stepping back in shock. "Whoa, what the Hell, are you even legally allowed to touch that sort of thing?" Ryouko spoke out at her.

    "Wow, I smear blood over myself on stage, yet a cigarette's too controversial for you?" Nightshade coughed, "Besides, I assure you, it's for purely artistic purposes. I'm on the verge of adulthood yet my voice is still too high and girly, so I'm trying to get it down to a contralto, or at least a mezzo-soprano, especially for growls and stuff".

    "If you say so..." Ryouko muttered.

    "Honestly though, if you're going to take up drugs, couldn't you at least pick something more romantic, like opium for instance?" Colette then said, the three of you staring at her, "Hmm, or is it just called heroin these days? Ah, there's always tea, caffeine being a drug too, or is that too legal for you?"

    "...Let's just start on the song," you muttered.

    The timing was at least not as much of an issue as your feared it'd be, but that's mostly cause Nightshade had just set the tempo to maximum, so as you long as you as fast as you could you were in sync. Even on bass though, you missed more than your fair share of notes. And he less said about Ryouko's playing the better, since it seemed she'd yet to learn that distorted guitarists stuck to power chords for a reason.

    "Grr, alright. Still six more days to Sapporo, so you three had better be down here on every single one of them, understand?" Nightshade pointed at you, "Also, Colette is at least in the ballpark, but as for you, Ryouko and Honoka, you'd better start checking out outfits with some serious spiked grit to them".

    Well, at least Reina could never say no to more clothes-shopping,, you thought wearily, "You know Nightshade, between being bossy and talking about our clothes, you're starting to sound like Melissa really".

    "Bears repeating, she is still an All-Ace..." Colette chimed in.

    Nightshade froze when she first heard you words, but then simply sneered, "Hah, Melissa would freak if she saw some of the crowd I run with, or at least complain that we turn that racket down or whatever. Anyway, I want this place looking like the BDSM dungeon from Hell when I get back tomorrow!"

    "Wouldn't the BDSM dungeon from Hell be a really shitty BDSM dungeon?" Ryouko had to ask.

    "That might factor into the BDSM," Colette pointed out.

    "To put it short, I want bruises on your fingers and blood on the walls! Got that?" Nightshade ended with.

    "Oh great, now we have to carry the drums all the way back to Colette's place..." you moaned.

    * * *
    "Wow, you're in a band?" Reina gasped as you walked with her.

    "Backing band technically, but yeah, I'm gonna play bass for Nightshade," you told her, "She's that new singer around town, although I don't imagine her genre is the sort of thing you're into. Anyway, she insisted I needed a darker 'image' if I'm going to be playing for her, though I don't see the point myself, like who's gonna look at the bassist?"

    "Aw, don't say that!" Reina came back with, "Ooh, does that mean you'll be joining the School Concert Band, or starting up a Light Music Club?"

    "Er, that might make things a bit awkward," you gulped, "I mean, that is, it's not exactly the same sort of music, eh heh".

    "I mean, well, I guess you've heard my singing voice, so that's not gonna be me anytime soon..." Reina drooped, but did say "Oh, maybe you could teach me an instrument, once you get real good yourself!"

    You weren't sure how to respond, but went with "I'll see what I can do".

    The more spiked-collar, leather-jacket, living-on-the-edge styles weren't really Reina's specialty, but you soon were able to narrow down a selection of costumes:

    [ ] Go all the way, leather corset, collar, torn fishnets, that sort of thing. (Grants Curse resistance)
    [ ] Do the goth thing, but keep it feminine like Colette would. Flowing and frilled black dress, striped socks, pastel colours mixed in with the black. (+3 Etiquette)
    [ ] Keep it simple, just denim jeans, a black cap, and a striped shirt. (Doubles magic defence, halves magic offence)
    [ ] Just toss a trench-coat on over yourself. (Increased dodge rate against Gun attacks)
    [x] Maybe ask Colette if you can use your Occult Club marionette costume? (Auto-boost to Fool and Moon Personae in battle)
    [ ] Write-in.

    After that came more rehearsals, day after day, with Nightshade only bothering to show up for half the time. one time she did show up though, she had a weird string of veins popping out on her arm, though when you asked about them, she just said they came from working hard or something.

    Ryouko's outfit choice did raise some eyebrows, when she showed up dressed as a leather nun with a pentagram instead of a cross. "Well, whaddya think? I thought it was appropriate," she said.

    Colette and you however immediately burst into laughter, with you even adding, "Does Megumi ask you to wear that?"

    "Y-you look like Maria von Trapp's bitch!" Colette said with an uncharacteristic profanity.

    "Yeah well, you're the rhythm section, so-" Ryouko then pulled down an eyelid and stuck out her tongue.

    "I like it," Nightshade of all people stood up for her, "My family's Catholic, so they'd freak if they saw it, which I'd say just makes it all the better".

    As schoolwork piled up on top of rehearsal continuing, Ryouko developing a nasty habit of breaking and needing to replace strings, the day finally came.
    * * *
    Colette, Ryouko, and you, having just gotten off the train, were now standing out in the chilly evening air in front of a club called The Swords-Dancer in Sapporo's notorious Susukino district. Nightshade was meant to be inside discussing her scheduled performance, leaving you face to face with some glaring bouncer. Well, you presumed he was glaring behind those sunglasses, at night.

    "'Kay, you're in," Nightshade finally said to you, beckoning the three of you inside. You'd noticed she'd been talking with a couple of looming, red-suited gentlemen with their eyes furrowed and foreheads like bricks, who you took were just the club's owners.

    You doubted this was the most high-end place Susukino had to offer, or that it even surpassed the club you'd been to within Nightshade's Empire, but it was definitely a step up from Darkest Desires back home, you gave it that much. The place took flashing neon lights to an uncomfortable extreme, and at times it was hard to find the room to move between the crowds of customers, a few foreigners among them you saw, already gathered there. Colette had her hands full keeping her teacher away from the drinks counter before the performance, and you even saw an old 'Vote Hyodo' flyer nobody had bothered to take down.

    After stopping and waiting in the dressing room for when it was your time to come on, you asked your new bandmates, "Um, you two aren't nervous, are you?"

    Colette simply giggled. "I fail to see what these people could do to me, I've had far worse insults thrown my way over my, er, 'appearance', then anything a room of angry drunks could come up with".

    "I teach hormonal teens like you every day, you think stage fright is the most of my worries?" Ryouko smirked.

    It was then Nightshade strode in through the curtain, already looking a little bleary-eyed but nevertheless saying, "Yo band, we're up. Remember, volume and tempo to max!"

    You stepped out onto the cluttered stage, trying to keep your eyes on your bandmates instead of the audience.

    <<BGM: Night in the Woods - Pumpkin Head Guy>>

    "Woo-hoo, Sapporo, yeah!" Nightshade began normally, but went more than a little off-script with, "You're all ants, and me, I'm the magnifying glass, bitch! Our songs shall be louder than all of Hell's tortured screams! Hit it!"
    In the end you were only on for about forty-five minutes, would've been a half-hour if not for all the encores, but that was definitely enough music for you to last through the rest of the night, possibly all of tomorrow too. Still hey, at least encores were positive feedback, if further Hell on your fingers.

    Backstage, Nightshade approached you to say, "Er, well, I'm not the best with compliments, if you hadn't noticed, so..." she then removed her wig. "Great job you guys, I'm so proud!" Himawari beamed and hugged you, and while you didn't say anything, you felt weird for a second time about seeing Himawari dressed in Nightshade' get-up.

    However, you saw those two suited guys earlier approaching from around the corner. Noticing them, Himawari rushed to put her full Nightshade ensemble back on and said, "Hey you three, go out for ramen or something, I've got, er stuff to finish discussing".

    "Er, okay," you mumbled, while Colette tensed and Ryouko began to cross her arms and glance side-eyed.

    Of course, being the Susukino district, Ganso Sapporo Ramen Yokocho, the famous Ramen Alley, was fortunately pretty close by, you just had to follow the thick, warm scents. You soon found yourself slurping up and devouring a bowl of miso ramen, as Ryouko kept ordering bowl after bowl, while Colette just stuck with some green tea and some biscuits.

    "Ah, Colette, you write stories and stuff," you said, trying to get a conversation going, "Do you think Sapporo or at least Susukino could be enough to inspire something?"

    "Possibly, but I would like to believe you can find inspiration anywhere, if I may say so," Colette said, but had to admit, "Well, admittedly some places don't inspire the imagination as much as others, I doubt I could find much to write about our hometown, for instance".

    Huh, I bet I could find way too much to write about my hometown right now, you thought. "Hmm, what about Nightshade, don't you think there could be a store about a character like her?" you asked.

    "Oh, most definitely. Not that my account would be the most flattering depiction though," Colette remarked, looking down, "Plus I'm concerned Nightshade may, er, not take kindly to it".

    "Heh, I already 'don't take kindly' to those old Gothic romances you read, Colette," Ryouko gave a fanged grin.

    Colette nearly fumed, "Oh, as opposed to your dull-as-ditchwater 'Modern Literature'? I swear, I've never been as bored as when I read James Joyce," she snarled, before whispering "Okay, Orlando wasn't that bad actually".

    Before this back-and-forth could become any more heated, Himawari soon approached, fully dressed again in her regular outfit. "Sorry I took a while, hope I didn't miss anything you were talking about," she chirped.

    "...No, you didn't really," you told her.

    Himawari went with same miso ramen as you, though tried to eat it a little more delicately.
    The four of you were soon on the night train home, when a barely awake Himawari sidled up next to you murmured, "Honoka... thanks for being there".

    Unsure at first, you then said "Hey, no problem. I mean, it's the least I can do after you helped me sneak in once, or threw a private concert for me," Or were the only All-Ace to take my feelings seriously. You would've continued, but you soon found Himawari asleep against you.

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    * * *

    After stopping off at Himawari's house, a seemingly nice enough little place with a flowery lawn and a quaint picket fence, you eventually got back to your apartment, where Megumi inevitably asked you "So Honoka, how do you feel being in a band, having just performed and all?"

    [ ] "Great, in fact!"
    [ ] "Nightshade's a harsh mistress, but it's worth it".
    [ ] "I think before long I'll be treating it like just another job"
    [x] "It's not really my thing, but I'm happy to help"
    [ ] "It's fun right now, but it's kinda weird to picture myself doing this in the future"
    [ ] "Some, er, details kinda concern me..."
    [ ] Write-in.
    "That bad, huh?" Megumi joked at you, but then said, "Well hey, at least bass should be easier to practice in a block like this, not being the volume hog guitar and drums are. Oh yeah, that Cape Erimo thing still happening this Friday?"

    "Well, it's not exactly easy to worm my way out of, so yeah," you mumbled.

    "One upside is that at least you have plans for Golden Week. I guess being in college, my schedule's different so Golden Week doesn't really stand out for me like it used to. Probably just spend it watching streams or something" Megumi said, "Or maybe old TV and movies, I mean we start off with Showa Day after all. Yeah, not really what that day's supposed to be about, but eh".

    Here's hoping you don't have my teacher move in with you then kick me out, you thought, but only said, "Okay, nighty-night".

  14. #14
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XIV. Suspension

    Today's breakfast of egg ramen felt pretty underwhelming after that Ramen Alley miso dish you'd had. Still, at least you'd set your sights today on Caf Okumura for a special get-together.

    You'd figured that eatery would've been the best compromise between your parents' tastes and Colette's, who were you planning on introducing to them today. Tea, cakes and pastries suited Colette, a good caffeine jolt would be what Dad needed, and well there was probably enough weird plant stuff to suit Mum. Besides, you had no idea how Mum and Dad would react to Colette and vice versa, so it was likely imperative to find some middle ground first, especially so Colette wouldn't have to trudge all the way back to their place.

    You phoned both up for the get-together, with your parents seemingly always eager to meet back up with you. Colette however turned out to be hesitant.
    "Oh, meeting your parents? Well, ahem, I suppose that's definitely doable," Colette started muttering.

    Wait, damn, how could I forget? you thought as you facepalmed, Colette said she lives in an orphanage right? Ugh, I should've thought about that.

    "Caf Okumura then? Hmm, I'm usually not one for chain stores, but I suppose it's certainly a more respectable choice than Big Bang Burger Bar or whatever," Colette went on to say, "Alright, around eleven-ish sounds reasonable. Bis spter!"

    You decided to pass by Colette's orphanage on your way there, and saw it as an old, slanted, run-down two-storey property, with dark drooping curtains, a wonky chimney and dry brown grass covering the lawn. You wondered if such a Dickensian place influenced who Colette was today, or if Colette had been able to do the place up to match her aesthetic.

    "Ah Honoka, right on time I see," Colette called out as she soon made her way down, "Was just touching up my eyeshadow and straightening my petticoats, you know how it is. Er, I am aware my residence isn't the most chic, but it's home to me as much as anywhere".
    <<BGM: Persona 5 - Beneath the Mask (Expansion)>>

    You headed back into town to Caf Okumura again, for the second time in not so long. Supporting a local caf probably would've been the better option, but this place was the first you could think of. The Okumura interior was often described as a 'Japanese-Western fusion', though you personally thought it looked most like pictures you'd seen of cafes in Buenos Aires.

    "Oh, I remember hearing the owner of this chain happens to be from Sapporo, is that not?" Colette spoke up.

    "No, she's a Tokyoite," you shrugged and replied, "Think the confusion comes from her spending a lot of her youth there, way back when. I mostly knew her for people getting my name confused with hers though," you admitted. She's also, well, not the owner anymore, got bought out, you kept that to yourself, not wanting to bring down the mood.

    A husky, Arabica aroma filled the shop's interior, you always liked the smell of coffee possibly just as much as the taste. You sat down on the lime-green cushions on one side of a brown, oaken table, and while waiting for your parents to arrive ordered a-
    [x] Caramel latte. [+Etiquette]
    [ ] Flat white. [+Education]
    [ ] Cuban espresso. [+Resolve]
    [ ] Staff recommendation. [+Perception]
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Honoka, there you are!" came the voice of your mother as she rushed up to sit opposite to you. "Now, you said you wanted to introduce to your friend- oh. Okay, not quite the type I was expecting, but clearly an artistic spirit, in her own way. It's just, er, how do I put this...?" she started biting her nails.

    "You heard the name Colette and expected someone a bit more foreign, didn't you?" Colette cut through, but then leaned back and said, "That's perfectly understandable, that confusion happens around me a lot. It's a pen name".

    "So, Colette then. Heard you're a Club Captain right? Pretty impressive," you Dad chuckled, scooting over next to your Mum. "Um, so would said club be Literature? Art? Music? "

    "Occult," she answered simply, smiling as her tea and croissant were brought over.

    "Ah, well it's good to hear you have a niche in this world to express yourself!" your Mum beamed, before saying with less passion, "I remember it not being easy finding a space to be myself back in high school, the closest thing was the Art Club but they mostly stuck to just painting".

    "I guess I did have a space, just nothing to express back then," your father mumbled, hands behind his head, "Wasn't until I became a crusty old adult that I seriously got into gardening".

    "I would like to imagine your parents are proud to you!" your Mum just had to say to Colette.

    Oh, you just had to go there, didn't you? you thought.

    "No, I'm an orphan," Colette said without beating around the bush, only slightly looking up from her croissant, "Oh my parents are alive, last I heard, they just, well..." she slumped back, "Don't really appreciate me for who I am".

    Your Mum fidgeted in her seat, mouthing out, "Oh dear, I see".

    "Hey look, don't let it get to you," your Dad reached out to comfort Colette, "I... never got along the best with my own parents either, when I even saw them. It's why I resolved that I wouldn't be like that around Honoka".

    That was, well, certainly more poetic than you were used to from your Dad, a tear was even welling up in your eye.

    "Hmhm, well it looks like I'm not the only blessing Honoka has in her life," Colette smiled back at him.

    "I admit, I do think of my life right now as a little... idyllic," your mother confessed, "Perhaps I just wrapped myself in too happy a bubble?" she pondered.

    "..It's okay , Mum, You made an honest mistake," you tried to tell her.

    "Ah, yes dear, you're right" your Mum said, soon cheering back up again, "So, er, Colette, what sort of activities do you do at, ahem, Occult Club?"

    "Lot of sewing, actually. People are oft surprised to hear that, but it's so my clubmates can wear appropriately aristocratic attire without breaking the bank," she told her, "There's also tarot readings, 19th-century poetry readings, hopefully getting around to doing a Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai- oh yes, and also preparing to set up a test of courage this Summer for Obon".

    "Whoo, sounds like you really have your work cut out for you there," you Dad muttered, wiping his brow.

    All of this reminded you that you really needed to show up to Occult Club more often. Regardless, there was something i how taking Colette to meet your parents let you view them in a different light...

    - The Star has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    "Wait, you're in a band with Honoka?" your Mum's face widened.

    "Hehe, well it's nothing serious, we've only performed once really," you had to chime in.

    "They stuck me on drums," Colette grumbled.

    Throughout all of this, you thought about bringing up the All-Aces, as Colette would certainly have shit to say about them to your parents. But with the convivial mood back on track, you didn't even want to think about them at a time like this...
    * * *

    So starting your showing up at the Occult Club more, you sat down to take in a Tarot reading courtesy of Colette.

    "Oh oh, Miss Colette? Are you going to tell us our futures?" Hitoshi excitedly piped up.

    Wait, you use 'Miss' to refer to your club leader? you could only think.

    "Haha, I'm afraid not," Colette chuckled at the idea, "You see Hitoshi, Tarot Cards don't necessarily tell the future, they help define your psyche, inform you about who you are. Or play games with".

    "...But we know who we are," Masaomi just muttered.

    "Huh, never took you to be a skeptic, Colette," you had to say.

    "Hmhm, I do base my beliefs on empirical evidence, though in my case, I've indeed seen quite a lot" Colette gave a sly grin in your direction, before laying a five-card spread for you.
    "Now what do we have here? Hmm, The Fool, in the reverse position. You've gotten yourself into quite a pickle, haven't you?" she leaned towards you.
    "Second, The Hermit. I am aware you were a lot less social before, and I do imagine you keep quite a few of your thoughts to yourself" Colette surmised, her analysis almost cutting into you.
    "Next, the Wheel of Fortune. Well, you certainly have gone through quite a few changes lately," she remarked, before moving on to the "Hanged Man. Incapability, self-contemplation, and sacrifice. Could this be a warning about where your upside-down Fool's Journey may lead?
    Lastly, we have... oh my" she gasped.

    "Ooh, what it is Miss?" Ibuki giggled, worming her way in.

    "The Tower," Colette pronounced a tad melodramatically, "Arguably the most troubling card in the deck. And I thought the hanged man was a warning," she crossed her arms.

    That all honestly made a little too much sense to you. Still, out of curiousity, you drew a card from the deck, only to find one blazing a transparent blue, that none of your clubmates had seen by now. An image then came from it, almost resembling a spell cast by a Persona.

    Select your Skill Card (can be taught to any Persona, but only once):
    [ ] The Magician (Agilao)
    [ ] The Empress (Bufula)
    [ ] The Emperor (Zionga)
    [ ] The Chariot (Heat Wave)
    [ ] The Wheel of Fortune (Garula)
    [ ] The Hermit (Psio)
    [ ] Temperance (Dekunda)
    [x] Judgment (Freila)

    The next day, you knew Occult Club wouldn't be on for the rest of the week, but still had the urge to help out Colette, perhaps talk her over some Vice-Rep stuff, or discuss plans for that test of courage of hers.

    Of course, there was the matter of that Secret Lives of Students blog... and the info it had posted about Colette. Something that serious you really should've brought up with her earlier, but well, How am I supposed to break that sort of thing to her?

    Approaching Colette in the hall, you started by saying, "Eh, hi there Colette! Um, there's something I've been meaning to talk about with you, but in private".

    Colette tilted her head a little, but then said "Why sure, what ever could it be?"

    "Well, it concerns you... have you ever heard of Secret Lives of Students?" you asked.

    Colette sighed and shook her head, "Really, what do you take me for? To think I'd care about some gossip site".

    "Unfortunately," you paused, "You may have to. They, um, have some quite nasty stuff on you", you then showed her your phone.

    "Huh, Real Name?" Colette flinched, a lump growing in her throat, before her fists started clenching tight. "I am going to make whoever wrote this wish they'd never been born" she hissed, then her eyes started welling up, "This-this was, the first school where I thought I could be open as who I am, without anyone knowing..."

    She then stormed off, with you calling out to her, "Colette wait! You have no idea who posted this!"

    "Oh, I can make a very educated guess," she snarled.
    Colette then burst right into the Computer Club room, stating as coldly as ice, "Which one of you fine young gentlemen runs that Secret Lives of Students blog?"

    Gakuto soon stepped forth. "Why, we haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about! Now, would you kindly scamper before I call the Disciplinary Committee?" he chuckled, before noticing you, "My my Honoka, so this is the company you keep, the likes of transvestites? Well now, good thing indeed that Azuma picked you out of the crowd when he did".

    "You leave her out of this," Colette seethed, before glaring at Gakuto, "And you, don't you dare lie to me!" she shot out as her dainty hands promptly struck Gakuto straight in the jaw, sending him toppling over.

    You then felt a presence behind you, as you turned around to see a couple of teachers and more than a few students looking right at this scene. You gulped, you and Colette could've froze right then and there.

    "Ah yes, how ladylike of you," the prone Gakuto snarled.

    * * *
    "What have I told you?" Melissa glared straight at you, after having dragged all the way up to the Prized Pupil Lounge. "I thought you'd finally got it in that tiny little head of yours to not keep hanging out with freakin' pond scum!"

    "Why should you even care?" you croaked below your breath, "I thought you had that precious Gameboard of yours to attend to, shouldn't that be taking up more of your time then you giving a damn who my friends are?"

    "Friends? You consider that little creep your 'friend'?" Melissa hissed, edging up to you.

    "Oh we most certainly do care what company you keep," Gakuto muttered, still rubbing his jaw, "When they turn out to be trigger-happy little psychopaths".

    "And it must be stated, the Gameboard and the material realm are intricately intertwined, what happens in one affects the other," Azuma remarked from a distance, "As above, so below".

    "Oh Azuma, darling, you remind me. We have that Erimo trip ready for the two of you this Friday, just what our Honoka ordered to get away from that weirdo she's been hanging around," Melissa flashed a sharp grin. "And of course, that freak getting suspended ought to help with that too".

    "What?!" you shot up.

    "Well, it would have been an expulsion, but inconceivably, someone in a high position apparently stood up for that occult creep," Melissa groaned, "Mitigated the sentence".

    You could see Himawari shake a little in the background, though she didn't say anything in response.

    The instant you got out of the All-Aces clubroom, you ran over to the Occult Club, only to find Colette packing her bags.

    "Colette, I-I heard..." you tried to say.

    "Apparently my suspension lasts for a month," she straight-up told you, "It was only by an inch, and with well, help from a bandmate, that I wasn't expelled. It's okay, if everyone looks at me odd when I return, that's okay, I'm used to that sort of treatment".

    "Colette!" you heard Hitoshi, Masaomi, and Ibuki cry in unison behind you, before they all rushed in to embrace their captain.
    "Is-is it true what they're saying? P-please don't leave!" Hitoshi burbled out.

    "It's okay, I'll be back before you know it," Colette knelt down to comfort her clubmates, "I've... decided to leave Honoka in charge till I get back. I know she hasn't been there that long, but she has demonstrated she's more than capable of having others best interests at heart.

    This is... all so sudden, you thought, I mean, others' best interests? Is that, well, really me? you thought, but only said "I-it's an honour, Colette. I'll er, try to keep things running smoothly here".

    "Good," Colette smiled for the first time in a while, "I expect this place to be in cobweb-covered, creaky rotting shape when I get back!"

    - The Moon has Journeyed to Level 3! -

    * * *

    Oh right, that friggin' Erimo trip alone with Azuma's today, you thought as you struggled to get up. I feel I should just lie in bed and get Megumi to tell them I'm not here, if they come looking.

    You sat up, but then thought, Oh what's the use? Suppose I'd better get packing.

    Obviously you had to bring a change of clothes and basics like a toothbrush and comb, but you also thought about squeezing in a few other things.

    [ ] Your smartphone. You wanted to detox from it on a trip like this, but being alone with Azuma you felt you were better safe than sorry.
    [ ] A bunch of makeup products, but to look good for yourself, not Azuma.
    [x] Some reading material, in case you needed a distraction.
    [ ] An old handheld, to try and make you think of good times again.
    [ ] Write-in.
    Slowly shuffling everything into your heavy red bag in a last-minute strain to get ready for the days ahead, you twitched when you a sudden knock on the door. Megumi curled up on the couch and still a snoring mess from last night, you edged your way over and peeked through the tiny letter flap.

    You immediately sprang back, stuttering out "A-Azuma?!"

    You heard a faint chuckling from the other side, as you quickly opened the door only to sharply turn your head left and right making sure there were no other All-Aces right outside. They didn't appear to be.

    "Ah, perhaps I arrived too early?" Azuma then asked, before smiling, "After all, you didn't quite make it clear exactly when you wanted to go".

    Um, how about never? you thought, but only said, "Er, sure, I guess we can head off right now, if-if you want. Just y'know, lemme wake up Megumi first, don't wanna just leave them cold".

    "I understand" Azuma simply nodded.

    You shook Megumi awake, with their bleary-eyed self mumbling "Ugh, hey, why'd you do that?"

    "Megumi, I'm er, heading off my Golden Week trip now," you tried telling them, "Thought you should be told beforehand".

    "What? Oh yeah, that," they muttered as they tried to wake, only for their eyes to jolt open the instant they saw Azuma at their doorstep. "Oh no no no, I remember you!"

    "Ahem, Umebayashi was it? I assure you, I have no intent to be staying long," Azuma said unfazed by them, "Nor do I plan to bring any of my associates back to your dwelling anytime soon.
    Honoka, I take it you haven't eaten yet?" he then turned to ask you, "Rather than have you wait till we reach Hakodate, I thought it'd be more courteous to treat you to somewhere local first, Melissa having generously paid for much of the trip herself already. How does The Snow Pearl sound?"

    You took a step back. You'd passed by the Snow Pearl Restaurant quite a few times but had never entered, as it was possibly the most high-price eatery in town. "Y-yeah, sure, I'd love to go" was all you could say.

    "Oh, you're eating out for breakfast?" Megumi furrowed their brows, "Of course, bet I'm not invited".

    For the first time that day, a grin began to creep onto your face, "Oh no, I'm sure our dear Azuma will happily treat you, Gumi. Isn't that right, Azuma?" you leaned in and fluttered your eyelashes at him.

    The usually in-control Azuma was taken aback for a moment, but soon resumed his natural state and said, "I suppose that's easily done".

    Having donned your sunhat and dress, not having to head up any particularly troublesome slopes just yet, you arrived at the glass-panelled, tree-thronged Snow Pearl restaurant, with Azuma still twitching awkwardly at having Megumi strolling right by you to wreck any possible privacy.

    Said privacy was further intruded upon as you soon spotted Keiko running an errand nearby. The first thought that came to you was how she wanted to meet Azuma, and now that none of the other All-Aces were anywhere around, this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

    "Keiko, over here!" you waved and called out to your messy-haired friend.

    She spun around and waved at you, but had to say, "Oh hey, Honoka, Megumi! Er yeah sorry, but I don't exactly have time- W-wait, is that...?" her jaw gaped.

    "My friends' a big fan, she'd appreciate it if you said hello to her!" you then pushed an otherwise inattentive Azuma out into the front.

    "Well then, you would be Suzakuin Keiko, I take it?" Azuma said, neglecting to look Keiko straight in the eye, "Your dear friend Honoka has certainly brought you up before, almost as if you never quite left her mind..."

    "Um, oh gosh oh gosh, I really don't know what to say right now," Keiko began blushing a deep red, but then held up a volume of poetry, "Ah, w-would you please autograph this for me, that is, um, if that's okay with you..."

    Megumi almost could've laughed in the background, as they mouthed out 'Honey, he's not worth it'.

    "Consider it done" Azuma gently told her, taking out a quill-like pen and jotting his signature down. Leaning a little closer, you weren't surprised to see that Azuma's handwriting was so ornate, your plebeian eyes could barely make out the thing.

    "Oh, thank you thank you thank you!" Keiko squealed out as she jumped up and down with joy, "Ah, I've er, been wondering. That stuff Honoka wrote about you being her childhood friend, and how she ran away from her aristocratic real parents, is... is that really true?"

    What do you mean, 'I' wrote?! you fumed within.

    "Why, the whole and nothing but," Azuma nodded at Keiko, "Although naturally, it was hard to make Honoka come to terms with that, the trauma involved having weighed on her mind so heavily".

    "Oh, okay, I see. I'm sorry, I didn't know. And apparently that means Yuya's..." Keiko slunk back, muttering something to herself, before saying, "Well, um, you and Honoka are back together, so I guess that's what matters! I'll, I'll see you around then".

    "Keiko, wait!" you ran up to her, "Hey look, just because I had a bunch of stuff change around me, doesn't mean that were not friends anymore! And hey, d-don't think Yuya's to blame or he's a bad guy or anything-"

    "It's okay, Honoka, I think I get it," she muttered, before slowly turning to look at you, "Some people get lucky, really lucky, others don't. You got that, Honoka, someone came along, looked past who you were, and saw the beauty you could be. I... was just one of the 'others', I guess. Or maybe I just didn't put in the effort".

    Lucky? You think being constantly treated like shit, told what you can and can't do or who or can and can't be with, then being forced to kill a guy because he tried to kill you is 'lucky'?! that thought exploded all at once in your head... but you had no idea how to convey any of that to Keiko, especially the stuff about Duels and Personae.

    "You're going on a trip, right?" Keiko muttered, "See you when school starts back up, I guess".

    That meeting... really could've gone better, especially since you hoped Azuma could do some good by cheering Keiko up, but that seemed to only reinforce the divide between you even further. Still, you couldn't deny Keiko had just admitted quite a lot to you.

    - Justice has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    "Sheesh, Golden Week started out rough for you, huh?" Megumi then walked up and put their hand on your shoulder, "Seeing your friend beating herself up like that, huh?"

    Azuma then sighed, "The Snow Pearl's doors won't remain open forever, I trust you are aware?" he'd began tapping his foot.

    Azuma's disregard right then nearly made your fist clench, but you did have to see his side... just a little bit, in that he probably dealt with girls asking for autographs all the time.

  15. #15
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XV. Cape Erimo

    A place as classy as the Snow Pearl naturally served both Japanese and Western delicacies, with Azuma ordering a kaiseki plate, you trying out the coffee along with fluffy pancakes served with fried maple leaf, and Megumi, despite having repeatedly promised to start going vegetarian, tucking into a plate of jingisukan mutton. "I mean, today's a special occasion, I can risk it," Megumi tried to justify.

    Probably the most stunning thing about The Snow Pearl was its vast window and balcony, whose view overlooked a steep mountain descent. Azuma had even managed to get you seats on this balcony, which was being graced with a slightly chill wind that felt oddly refreshing this early in the morning.

    "So, lemme get this straight," Megumi said in between mouthfuls, "You're headed to Hakodate, then all the way over to Cape Erimo of all places, then you're gonna scoot up through the mountains till you get back to Sapporo, then Lake Toya, then back here?"

    "To simplify things, yes," Azuma told them, eyeing the table to make sure the butter and grease from your respective dishes wouldn't stain anywhere near him.

    "Hmm, guess that's not too far, I mean if I had money like you do I'd probably go all the way down to Hawaii or something," Megumi grinned, "Still, guess that's not a bad route, and probably best you don't go too far on your first time together. then again, ahem, that Melissa," a sudden snarl came over them, "Was the one who planned your trip, right? Guess I should be thanking them then. Heh, my plan was just watching old shows, 'cause you know Showa day, like getting to experience early Featherman and stuff".

    "I thought you said you preferred Phoenix Rider?" you asked, brows twitching.

    "Hey, Featherman's been around a long time, so by sheer number, a couple of its seasons ain't that bad actually" Megumi cleared up.

    "Well Honoka, I do believe it's best we get going," Azuma then said, his meal finished, as he pretended to check his watch then pushed in his seat, "Hakodate may not be far, but there's only so much time in a day, you see".

    "Er, bye Honoka. See you when you get back", Megumi said, seemingly caught off-guard.

    "Yeah, I'll be home before you know it," was what you came up with to say to them, Azuma already having paid for your meal.

    On the way to Hakodate you stopped at Onuma Quasi-National Park, which you'd been told was Hokkaido's smallest 'national park'. Built around and over Lake Onuma, you and Azuma walked across a red timber bridge with cherry blossoms falling all around you, taking in all the tiny little islands scattered across the water, the blue-green Mount Hokkaido-Komagatake off in the distance.

    "I feel Kikuko would probably have something to say if she were here," you had to remark, "This scene just feels so... her" Well, her in a good mood, anyway.

    "She'd likely comment on how the fleeting nature of the cherry blossoms corresponds to the frailty of human life," Azuma chuckled at the notion, "It's not unlike her to think us mortals are put on this Earth only to die, and that dying gloriously is the best we can hope for. Probably explains why she took to the Gameboard so quickly.

    As for me, I can't help but be reminded of a play I've been intending to put on. Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, I imagine you would've heard of it?" he asked you.

    "I at least know Yoshitsune from History class," you mentioned, "Oh, and a few video games have him in it, like that one with the massive crab".

    "Of course, for Japanese classic theatre, I've had great difficulty deciding whether to stage it or The Love Suicides at Amijima, Banchou Sarayashiki following shortly behind," Azuma went on.

    "Oh right, the Okiku play, gotcha," you went along with him.

    You then reached Hakodate, its Morning Market having long closed and leaving you to wait till next morning, before the boat.

    The two of you started by strolling around the Motomachi district, it's elegant old Western-style houses seeming to soar above you.

    "Er, this place get you thinking about any old Western plays?" you tried to make conversation.
    Suddenly Azuma had to laugh. "I'm mostly reminded of that time we attempted to stage Macbeth last year, went about as well as you'd expect" he said, "I have been meaning however to look more into 19th Century Theatre, be it Byron, Shelley, or Wilde".

    "You know, if I have to be blunt, I've kinda noticed that you and the other Aces don't seem to have that much in common. Like, you don't see Melissa talking about computers, Gakuto's hardly into plays, and Eitaro probably didn't care about fashion. Yeah you're popular and rich, hell not even that last one in Eitaro's case, but... that's about it" you felt you had to say.

    "Hmm, bold words," Azuma began, "But I suppose I can see your point. Although, I would certainly add that the Gameboard certainly has a way of giving us common ground, if not necessarily bringing us together" he tried to point out.
    Before you could respond, an elderly couple caught an eye of you, with the old woman cooing about, "My, you two do look like quite a delightful couple there!"

    You just froze and bit your lip, finally attempting to say "Ah, um, you see, that's not really the case, look we're just-" Oh God no, this better not get any ideas in Azuma's head!
    Meanwhile, Azuma chose to say nothing, but nevertheless grinned and closely observed your reaction.

    <<BGM: Heathers - Freeze Your Brain (Karaoke)>>

    Later on as night fell, you headed up via the Mount Hakodate ropeway to probably the most famous sight there was in the city, the glistening view of all the streetlights across its narrow peninsula.

    Standing up there in your mountain clothes, still needing to bunch yourself together for warmth, Azuma had to smile at you and say, "It is a near enough and certainly well-known enough sight, so I do apologise if you've already been up there a hundred times before".

    "No, not really," you mumbled, foggy breath leaving your lips, a squid ink ice cream cone in your hands for dessert, "I don't actually get the time to come down here that much, so I guess this view hasn't worn out its wonder for me".

    "Why, I'm delighted to hear you say that," Azuma moved closer to you, "People tend to grow cynical as they age, and obviously you're still quite young, but it's good to see some the world's magic through the eyes of a child hasn't been completely wiped you by now".

    You smiled and giggled at those words, unsure of what next to say. It was hard for a girl your age not to notice though how close Azuma's face, the face of the most popular boy in school, was to your own-
    Wait, what the Hell am I thinking? you thought, a shiver coming down you all over, especially in front of all these other people! Still, though... just this once, while I'm here, may not hurt. Sheesh, why can't my libido start acting up towards nicer, more normal boys?

    [ ] Reach out and accept Azuma's kiss.
    [x] Hold back and step away slowly.
    [ ] Maybe try to compromise with a hug or something?
    [ ] Write-in.

    Pulling away, the two of you just stared at each other awkwardly, as the people around you continued to aww and aah at the Hakodate lights at night.

    Finishing your squid ink ice cream, you tried to think something to say to Azuma to alleviate the tension, "Yeah, um, felt I got kinda carried away there. Like, I know that was why Melissa arranged this whole thing to begin with, but really I'm just not sure yet" you managed.

    Azuma didn't say anything, but seemed to least nod respectfully, the lights of Hakodate now shining from behind him.
    The two of you were able to quickly find a shio-ramen stand for some dinner, though you didn't want to eat too much in preparation for visiting the Morning Market at dawn. You soon started back down the mountain to your hotel for the night... only to discover why it was in fact a bad idea to let Melissa plan your whole vacation.

    Oh no, she just had to! that thought seethed through your mind as you buried your head in your hands, after you saw that the co-ordinates given too you led straight to a Love Hotel.

    "Hmph, I at least trusted that Melissa would book us somewhere more prestigious, she can certainly afford to," Azuma muttered, as if that was the main problem here. At least he seemed to indicate he wasn't behind this.

    Well, you'd at least heard from Megumi that Love Hotels valued privacy, and while they weren't really meant for overnight stays could certainly offer it.
    Looking all around first to make sure nobody was in turn looking at you two, you slowly slipped in and were grateful that the low-hanging grates around the counter meant that the staff couldn't see you. The room you'd been given at least seemed pleasant enough, with a lot of bright pinks, hearts and frills, hell the (one) bed was heart-shaped and there was even a pool.

    You lay awake staring at the ceiling for what felt like all night, occasionally tossing and turning but watchful to ever get to sleep, not helped by the streetlights making it quite bright outside. When the gentle shaking of Azuma's hand on your shoulder did you wake you that morning, your eyes were bloodshot and ringed with heavy bags, and your hair had almost gone back to its old, frizzled mess.

    "Ah, I take it the glare from outside and the... odd experience overall gave you trouble sleeping?" Azuma softly chuckled into your ear, "Well, you'd best be up now, if you want to experience the Morning Market before our boat leaves".

    Despite your sleepless night, you immediately sprang up and headed for the bathroom, going straight for the shower, shampoo and conditioner, and trying not to look at any of the other 'products' there.
    Hastily wrapping a towel around yourself, you opened the door back out only to see Azuma right in front of you, er, presumably on the way to the shower himself and currently not in clad in... ah, anything right now.

    Letting out a shriek as your face turned red, you immediately ran out then pushed him into the bathroom, pressing the door closed on the other side of him. After you'd gotten dressed in your mountaineering clothes in preparation for Erimo's infamous winds, and Azuma had put on a fur-lined burgundy jacket above a black silk shirt, you felt... uncomfortable walking back out onto the streets of Hakodate. You kept having to remind yourself not to look directly at Azuma, as you felt like a complete perv every time you saw, given you now knew what he looked like naked.

    "Is something the matter, Honoka?" he tried to get through to you.

    <<BGM: Pokemon Ranger - Pueltown>>

    Fortunately, a seafood breakfast was quite quick to come by on a salt-tinged Hakodate morning. Heading through the markets, smelling the crackle and fishy aromas, you saw possibly every kind of seafood you could imagine, even tanks full of live crabs and squid, which you almost thought of taking one home if not for your apartment's stance on pets. You knew there was a restaurant here famous for 'dancing squid', where soy sauce was used to cause some sort of reaction in a cut-up squid.
    Azuma, hardly to your surprise, settled on a dish of red caviar, while you ultimately went with the:

    [x] Squid.
    [ ] Sea urchin.
    [ ] Crabmeat.
    [ ] Tuna.
    [ ] Salmon.
    [ ] Sushi.
    [ ] Write-in.

    After that and a good amount of coffee, you then spent a little bit of time wandering through Goryokaku, a moated park in town shaped like a five-pointed star, before you gradually started heading eastward to the private motor boat Melissa had arranged. She'd even gotten a Westerner to sail it for you, you guessed he was one of her family's employees, with him asking, "Er, was told I was supposed to be meeting an 'Azuma Sakurazuka' and 'Honoka Nakamura' here?" he read slowly.

    "Yes, that would be indeed be us" Azuma grinned and bowed at him, before he turned to you and held out his hand, "To Cape Erimo then, shall we?"
    The boat sped out past the peninsula east of Hakodate, kicking up foam all the way, and the moment neither Hokkaido nor Tohoku were in sight but only blue skies, you knew you were now out on no less than the world's largest ocean. The awe of the moment was somewhat ruined though by the sheer noise of the speedboat, making it nigh impossible to hear or be heard over it.

    By the time you reached Cape Erimo, any possible amazement was ruined as you'd been going green with seasickness, leaving you to stumble out onto the dock, Azuma trying to keep you steady. Unfortunately, you were then given the usual Erimo welcome when you were both hit by a huge gust of wind, which almost knocked you right back into the seawater. Maybe you should've remembered to equip Cuchulainn or Atalanta?

    You then walked out along the Cape, which while famed as a romantic getaway, got by far the bulk of its crowds back in January, when people came up for New Years' Day to watch the first sunrise. By April the crowds had thinned, which for you and Azuma may have worked in your favour, well in his favour anyway, as it gave more alone time together, though there were still a few other tourists here to check out the cherry blossoms.

    "Honoka," Azuma then said as the two of you stood right on the end-tip of Hokkaido, a lone Shinto shrine nearby and windmills catching the gale, "What is your philosophy on love? I assume you pay little heed to the notion of 'love at first sight', but is the notion of 'true love' one that carries weight in your mind?"

    Oh my God, is that his version of a pick-up line? you shuddered, then gulped and tried desperately to come up with an answer, "I, I don't really know what my thoughts are on this, I mean, it's a pretty big question to be asking so suddenly. Er..." you then bit your lip, "I don't think I really believe in 'the One' or anything like that, like, only last year if I tried to look for romance I would've been laughed at. I know I don't like the idea of tying all my happiness to one person, because well anything could happen, and I don't want to be forced to choose which person to go with and then have to tell everyone else to turn away..."

    "Well, I can see you're not a traditionalist, in that sense" Azuma muttered, before he got to pondering, hand to his chin, "I beg your pardon, what that perhaps too adult a question, so your mind simply panicked and retreated to childhood comforts? Or was it the other way around, too childlike a thing to ask, which just made you feel the looming spectre of adulthood even more?
    Either way, do not think you answered 'incorrectly' or anything," he then said, taking your hand, "I'm sure many others would've reacted the same way, had I asked".

    God, I'm in a scenario just about any other girl in my school would die to be in, yet I'm doing nothing, you couldn't help but think for a second, but you then consoled yourself with, Oh yeah, because the girls in my school would probably think quite differently if they knew the All-Aces like I did. I mean, I can't blame them, I once thought that way too...

    "Er, well then, um," you stumbled, having no idea really what to say, "W-what's your 'philosophy of love'?"

    "Hah, I could practically write whole tomes on that subject!" Azuma laughed, but his tone then lowered, "Perhaps we have fiction to blame, Murasaki, Shakespeare, Monzaemon, all of them, for creating a vision of love in all its splendour and heartbreak that, most often, it seems the real world cannot possibly match it, but oh it can. If there is a higher power that controls, one which we are fools to deny or defy, well, this emotion called Love may very well be it".

    Heh, it would've been too perfect if the wind picked up and had the tide crash dramatically against the rocks, but a rare lull had hit so no such moment came. You had no idea if that was what Azuma really meant or if it was just another performance by him, but if he had scripted it out beforehand and he'd said it without a line flub, then maybe he did believe that somewhat...

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Emperor Arcana"

    Well, guess one of these for Azuma was eventually going to pop up, you sighed internally.

    Unfortunately for Azuma, what did indeed ruin this 'performance' was the revelation that you two weren't as alone as you thought, as you then heard the muffled sound of whispering coming from behind some rocks.

    Approaching the strange voice, you then peeked over to find-
    "Aiiee!" you heard Melissa scream as she tried to scurry away, only to walk right into a splashing wave of sea foam that utterly drenched her.

    "Hmm, you certainly have an unorthodox definition of 'private getaway'," Azuma said, crossing his arms and looking down at her.

    "What the- how long have you been tailing us? Since Hakodate?!" you raised your voice at her.

    "Hey, it's a free country, I can go where I want!" Melissa, her face covered by her thoroughly soaked hair, snapped right back at you, "Plus, I'm so kindly paying for your entire vacation, so I do believe I have to right to, ahem, see how it's going. Though ugh, for that reception you just showed me, you almost make me wish Eitaro really had turned you into a pincushion back then, Jack!
    Ahem, but anyway, now that you two know I'm here, we might as well address what's really important," Melissa had to grin.

    Oh no, please don't ask what I think you're going to, you shuddered.

    "Have-you-two-done-it-yet?!" Melissa hammered those words into your head as she promptly prodded you.

    Luckily, you were able to think of a suitable answer quite quickly. "Whether we did or not, what makes you think we'd tell you?"

    "Ah, touch," Azuma had to remark.

    "Hello~, paid for this whole trip, remember? I can totally leave you stranded here in the Middle of the Pacific Nowhere if I felt like it!" Melissa hissed out, hands at her hips, but she soon had to acknowledge that she just wasn't going to get the answer she wanted.

  16. #16
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XVI. Familiar Faces

    You stayed that night in a local ryokan, before you started heading north along the Hidaka Ranges. in a hired care Melissa had ready, you left Erimo by taking the 'Golden Road' that tunnelled through the mountains, so named because of how expensive it had been to carve out.

    Cherry blossoms in bloom outside your windows, you snaked your way along the mountain roads, heading up to the city of Obihiro. You decided to stop for a break in a quiet grove along the lonely roadside, laying down a picnic blanket... only to soon find that this roadside wasn't as quiet as you thought.

    <<BGM: Persona 5 Dancing - The Whims of Fate>>

    "Oh hi there. Er, sorry if we're intruding, but we honestly haven't seen anyone in a while, as this area appears quite deserted," came a voice belonging to a woman who looked just out of college, having grown out long, brown hair with a braid or headband over the top, wearing a blue jacket over a black shirt, biking shorts and long, stitched-up boots. Focusing in a little, you could see that despite her being not too much older than you, the ends of her hair were starting to go gray, though naturally you kept quiet about this.

    "Makoto, is there really a need to introduce yourself to random strangers?" another voice said from behind her, belonging to a woman in a winter coat who didn't even look thirty yet, but whose cut shoulder-length hair had gone entirely silver, standing by two parked motorcycles.

    "I'm just trying to be polite, Sis," the brown-haired biker mumbled, before she tried to smile and say "Besides, they look pretty harmless. I mean, what's the worst a gaggle of teens could do?" she said, trying to stifle a laugh.
    "Ahem, sorry I didn't introduce myself earlier. I am Niijima Makoto, and this is my older sister, Sae. In fact, you may actually recognise her from TV a few years back, she's a pretty renowned lawyer," the stranger went on to say.

    "Oh, a lawyer? Pffft, that's nothing, my Daddy can hire like twenty of those," Melissa smirked and brushed her off.

    "Melissa, when making new acquaintances, a little courtesy is always appreciated," Azuma had to tell her.

    "Ah, okay, well anyway. Sis and I have been on a road trip up through Tohoku and Hokkaido, since it's been a couple of years since either of us last got away from it all. We just came up from Sapporo, where one of my friends visited a lot when she was a kid, and heard there were some impressive trails around Obihiro, what with Rally Japan being based around here" Makoto kept on explaining.

    "You needed to get your mind off things too," Sae then spoke up to her little sister, "The police having just fired you".

    Makoto's calm face was suddenly overtaken by barely restrained fury, as she slowly turned around to seethe out, "Sis, how many times do we have to go over this? I wasn't 'fired', I quit!"

    "Oh great, now we're being held up by a bum," Melissa moaned, "Let's get this clear, no I do not have any spare change on me".

    "Please, Melissa, now is not the time," Azuma sighed out at her, before he bowed deeply towards the Niijima sisters and said, "That rough start of ours aside, it is indeed a pleasure meeting you. The roads around here are indeed isolated, yet the scenery is stunning, is it not? I am Sakurazuka Azuma, latest in a long line famed for our theatrical productions".

    "Melissa Lilian, heiress to no less than Sole Star Petroleum!" she smugly grinned and gestured to himself, "My two classmates have me to thank for this lovely romance-filled road trip I've provided for them, as I've had to drill into their heads several times by now" her good nature faded.

    "Um, okay then," Makoto muttered, before she knelt down to speak to you, "Hey, noticed you haven't gotten around to introducing yourself yet. Yeah, sorry if these two have been speaking over you, I'm no stranger to the same experience," she told you.

    "...I'm Nakamura Honoka," you got the chance to say, "I er, guess I don't really have that much to tell you about myself, other than things have been a bit all over the place for me lately," you said as you felt the two All-Aces in proximity to you, "One of my school's top students just died, that happened".

    "Huh, we've barely met, yet I can already tell you've had it rough," Sae confided with you, "Now, of what causes did he die?"

    Makoto flinched. "Sheesh, don't you think you may be asking too personal a question to people we just met?" she had to ask.

    "We figured it was from untreated sports injuries," you told the two anyway, having no idea how to explain the exact truth to them.

    "This is indeed quite a cutting subject. But yes, Tsutsuji Eitaro, local sports champion and fellow All-Ace, the elite club Melissa and I belong to, indeed passed away just after his first week back this year" Azuma said frankly.

    "Real shame too. Without a hunk like him, we've mostly just got prettyboys left as the only option," Melissa moaned.

    "I see, and what school is this?" Sae kept asking.

    "Hanataba Gakuen, the most prestigious high school in southwest Hokkaido, if not all Hokkaido," Azuma said with an air of school pride, "The entire academy, students and staff, were left in a deep state of shock afterwards".

    "Man, and before the school year could really begin," Makoto said, slumping down, "I used to be Student council President, and even I don't know how I would've handled something like that so early on".

    "Yeah, our President has basically had no idea what to do but play tabletop RPGs," you mentioned, before hesitating to add, "Probably doesn't help a close friend of his fell into a coma".

    "Hanataba Gakuen," Sae began muttering to herself, "The name's familiar, mostly as the place I've heard Hyodo Mariko attended when she was a student, several decades ago now. I take it the institution has quite the history?"

    "Oh yes, dating back to the Meiji Restoration," Azuma responded.

    "Regardless, I assume you've got places to be, so we should only hold you up so long" Sae then said, before pulling something out that you briefly mistook for an Arcana, "My business card, sounds like you two, ahem, 'All-Aces' can already pay quite handsomely".

    "Hmm, any reason why Honoka here doesn't get to be an All-Ace?" Makoto leaned in.

    "The position isn't one just any student can acquire," Azuma explained, "It is reserved for who our school deems the elite of the elite."

    "Yeah, it'd ruin everything if we just let the riff-raff in," Melissa said, "Our whole lounge would probably go to tatters".

    Makoto didn't respond at first, but then said, "Huh, I think I get it. If we had something like that at my old school, I don't think I could ever qualify. I did say I was Student Council President, but I wasn't exactly Miss Popular, most of the other kids just thought I was a buzzkill.
    Er, I suppose I should also hand out my business card, but well, you may've picked up that I don't really have one anymore" Makoto went on, before waving "It was definitely... interesting meeting with you though. Who knows, maybe our paths will cross again?" you thought she looked ore at you as she said that last line.

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Rebirth Arcana"

    * * *

    Having finally gotten back to Sapporo again, the first thing you wanted to check out was:

    [ ] The Sapporo Teine skiing slopes.
    [ ] The local food, like Jingisukan lamb.
    [x] The Historical Village of Hokkaido.
    [ ] The local parks.
    [ ] The Jozankei Onsen.
    [ ] The TV Tower.
    [ ] The Sapporo Factory shopping complex.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Hey, I don't think I've been to the Historical Village since an elementary school trip," you remarked, as Melissa caught your eye, "They do say it's a must-see if you're in the area, and hey, it could really be an educational experience for you, Melissa".

    "Oh, I get it, you're saying I'm just not cultured enough, is that it?" Melissa huffed, crossing her arms, "I'll have you know I already went there on my very first time in Sapporo, in fact! Still... ugh, it's not like I can exactly think of anything else to do right now, especially since the Beer Museum kicked me out, so fine," she let out.

    "It would be best though to dress appropriately for the occasion," Azuma remarked, before saying, "Luckily, I do happen to know an antique costume store nearby, one who has even supplied the Hanataba Gakuen theatre in the past. Plus, Honoka's... choice of fashion so far, while sensible for Hokkaido's terrain and climate, has hardly been flattering," he had to say.

    That was kind of the point, you answered back in your head.

    Azuma soon had you decked out in a pink kimono with a blue-green sash, while he himself went with one in purple with a red sash. Melissa was originally fitted for yellow kimono with a black sash, but after she kept complaining about it choking her waist, Azuma groaned and instead got her a Gilded Age petticoat.

    Passing through the Old Sapporo Station and into the open-air museum, you first entered into the basic 'town' portion. "Wait, hold on, so like Japan had its own '49er-style Gold Rush?" Melissa asked a question she should've already known.

    "Many places worldwide did at that time, presumably due to that era's technological advances," Azuma smiled and explained, "Australia and Siberia being two other examples".

    "Yeah, I don't think people honestly paid much attention to Hokkaido before gold was found, I mean Tohoku would've been the 'wild frontier' before then," you sighed, before quickly remembering, "Er, oh yeah, except for the Ainu, of course".

    "The Ainu?" Melissa just said.

    "You mean you don't know? Oh, oh God," you clutched her head, "So, you know how in America you have the Native peoples, right? Same thing in Japan with the Ainu, sorta. Hokkaido was kind of their last stronghold".

    "Sheesh, don't get all apologetic on me," Melissa brushed you off with.

    The snow having just melted, the three of you were too late to catch the horse-drawn sleigh around the museum, but fortunately you were around just the right time to start catching the horse-drawn tram around instead.
    Passing by the old Otaru Newspaper Building, you then reached an old white house edged in dark green.

    "Ah, this may be of interest to you, Melissa. The Kaitakushi Industrial Office was where many Americans came to Japan to teach about the then latest technologies," Azuma pointed out.
    You immediately wished he hadn't though, seeing as that info about American tech teachers went straight to Melissa's head.

    "Hmhm, what else would you expect? Though they seemed to have more respect for our country back then, as they tell me the only teaching jobs really available to us Americans nowadays is English," Melissa huffed out.

    Her interest just seemed to fade further once you got to the Farming Village, though Melissa tried to sneak n a few compliments like "Aw, how... quaint". When heading into one of the agricultural sheds though, she was caught off-guard and nearly panicked when she saw someone suddenly move.

    "That would be an animatronic, or maybe a reenactment actor," Azuma had to confirm for her, "I'd say I've advanced too far in my profession now to take up such a role, but nevertheless, I do suppose everyone must start somewhere".

    It was then you had a particular thought, "Okay then, but if it like, it was the only role offered to you at the time? How would you perform it then?"

    That did make Azuma stop to ponder, but he then said, "Well, blending into a background I assume would be an important quality for a peasant role. That he made Melissa jump out of nowhere is perhaps a sign has this man's technique could use some work".

    "I don't know much about theater, went to Shakespeare in the Park like, once," Melissa began, "But like, if they offered me a peasant role in a movie, you can bet I'd raise my voice about it until I was given a more perfectly prominent role".

    Moving on, the Mountain Village did make you twitch a little with all the logging equipment around, though you supposed methods back then were still more sustainable than anything Melissa's family would've gotten up to.
    "Oh, sustainable energy?" Melissa heard you bring up, "You mean that thing I pretend to care about on social media?"

    Finally, the Fishing Village mostly reminded you that by now you were seriously overdue for some food, as you'd kinda forgotten that the Historical Village was considered a full day trip. So upon leaving, you immediately turned to where to eat, though Melissa didn't seem to bothered by this.
    "Ahem I do need to watch my weight, after all," she insisted despite her reasonably slim frame, though you then saw her clutching her stomach too.

    <<BGM: Persona 5 Strikers - Sapporo>>

    You'd remembered stopping for ramen here only recently with Nightshade and the band, so this time around you thought about maybe going for some Jingisukan (Genghis Khan) barbecued lamb instead, one of Sapporo's specialties, and something you'd been seriously thinking of getting around to again after you'd seen Megumi trying some out at the Snow Pearl.

    Stopping in and sitting down at a grill place, you told the chef there, "I'll have the Jingisukan, please", which then made Azuma shudder, possibly remembering the grease from Megumi's order.
    He himself ordered a select portion of Kamchatka king crab, while Melissa took what felt like hours deciding what exactly to get, but eventually she admitted defeat by asking for the chef's recommendation.

    In the end, Melissa barely got any stains or grease on herself, yet still felt the need to rush to the bathroom upon finishing her meal to hastily clean herself up. While there, you went in after her since, while you were nervous about how she'd react, you nevertheless had a pressing question for her.

    "Melissa, I've been meaning to ask you something," you hesitantly began, gulped, then continued with, "I asked Azuma this before, but... er, the All-Aces don't exactly seem to have much in common, besides popularity anyway".

    Melissa turned and looked straight at you, "What the hell do you mean by that?"

    "Well, Gakuto's not much into acting, Eitaro wasn't much into singing, Kikuko's not up with computers, that sort of thing," your tried to explain.

    "Course we've got stuff in common! Like, er, Empires and Personae, hmm, ooh I did introduce Gakuto to those Real-Time Strategy PC games, which don't seem to be much of a thing here in Japan. Also gave him some copies of those old Sierra Quest games, but those just sent him into a rage," she began firmly but started to lose track, "Oh, and I'm into Sports a bunch, being a cheerleader, and honestly I'm a way better singer than Himawari could ever hope to be! I... don't think I'm as good at acting as Azuma is, but like we're into different styles of acting, so you can't really compare us anyway".

    "Hmm, I see," you muttered, only to ask further, "So, how come I'm only hearing about all this stuff from you now?"

    Melissa at first just glared, but she then took a breath and said, "Because, as Jack you are only entitled to know so much, or at least at an Ace's digression," she looked down at you, but then thought of something "Oh yes, that reminds me...
    Something to consider, Honoka, hmm, or Veronica maybe?" she then said, "We actually had something in mind for you. With Eitaro gone, we've been on the lookout for new All-Aces, so we thought about giving some peeps a test run by making them personal Jacks. I'm so thoughtful, so I'll give you some time to think on this, but you soon may have to decide whose Jack you're going to be in particular".

    - Strength has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    Melissa then gestured to herself, "Of course, I'm only interested in you being another Jack of Coins so I'll have someone to do more stuff for me, but anyway".

    "Wow. Okay then," you muttered and drew back, but had to ask, "Um, I thought All-Aces were decided by their popularity amongst the students?"

    "And how do you get popularity? That's right, a marketing campaign!" Melissa gave a wicked grin, before admitting, "Of course, much as we've prettied you up and made you generally a better person, I still don't know how in hell we'd go about advertising you as a new All-Ace".

    "Still, I guess it is something that you'd even think of me, even for a second, as your Jack..." you had to remark on, Plus one upside would be getting to hang out with Reina more.
    "Oh man, I just thought, with you telling me and all, just us two in this cramped bathroom does make it kinda, um, intimate in here..." you then found yourself saying.

    [ ] Reach out and kiss Melissa, you don't know what's come over you.
    [ ] Reach out and kiss Melissa, just to see her reaction.
    [ ] Reach out and kiss Melissa, to show Azuma you're not his plaything.
    [x] Don't kiss Melissa, I mean, this is friggin' Melissa after all.
    [ ] Maybe you can just cuddle?
    [ ] Write-in.
    "Ah, forget it, don't know what came over me," you said, quickly pulling away Melissa, who now just stared at you with eyes furrowed.

    You then tried to open the door back into the restaurant, only to find a girl standing right outside as you tried to do so, her ear having been pressed up against the wall no less. She immediately took off though, letting you see she was a fairly mousy looking girl with a dark brown ponytail. Different hairstyle aside, she did kind of remind you of how you used to look.

    "Hey, wait, it's okay," you tried to call out to her, only for Melissa to push past you glaring at the girl.

    "Wait, I know her. She's one of those Computer Club geeks!" she snarled, before she promptly took off out of the restaurant on her tail "So like, after her!" she turned around once to yell back at you.

    Wait, if she's in the Computer Club, a dark thought occurred to you, God, I don't wanna how know Gakuto's been treating her.

    The two of you managed to corner her in an alleyway where, still clutching her phone, she collapsed to her knees as Melissa approached. "Alright alright, I'm sorry!" she cried out, "G-Gakuto said he'd digitally lower my exam results if I didn't go out and find info on Azuma and Honoka this week".

    "W-what the...?" Melissa muttered, before saying "Oh sure, so that's your excuse!"

    "Oh no, given what Gakuto gets up to, I fully believe her," you spoke up in her defence, asking of Melissa "I assume you would've heard about that Secret Lives of Students blog?"

    "Yeah, read it all the time. Pays to be up to date on all the latest goss" Melissa smirked, but had to admit, "Er, even if I've kinda been hesitant to check out my own entry..."

    "Well, you'd better start reading it," and not just for your classmates' dick sizes, you held up your phone screen to her, displaying her entry there, "'Cause soon enough, all the school's gonna know everything about you that you'd rather keep hidden".

    "Grr, give me that!" Melissa yanked the phone right off you, before she froze over at what she read. She then mumbled out, "H-hey, my cup sizes that aren't that small, because y'know, they're not! And don't you freakin' believe this 'Russian mafia' shit, or family only deals with their oligarchs!"

    From my understanding, those are basically the same thing, you kept to yourself. "However, notice how Gakuto's entry is relatively mild in comparison, and how the blog has a lot of info on even the non-Ace students in our school. Who do you think this narrows its author down to?"

    "Non-Aces? Oh hey, Reina has an entry," Melissa then said as you flinched, damning yourself for accidentally leading Melissa to that, "Oh. My. God. I am going to have a serious mano a mano chat with her as soon as I can, I absolutely cannot have some little slut hanging out near me".

    Reina, I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry, you clutched your head.

    "But okay, fine, this site's a bunch of shit, I'd never read such trash anyway!" Melissa burst out, "But that doesn't mean it's Gakuto specifically, like you've still got the entire Computer Club as suspects".

    "Yeah, but even if it's another member, wouldn't Gakuto still have found out about it anyway, given he's such a computer whiz?" you countered, "Since he hasn't done anything about it, this shows he's at least okay with the blog's existence".

    "It-It's actually a bit of both..." the caught girl stuttered, "All of us go out and dig up info, but on Gakuto's orders, and he keeps rejecting most of our milder finds for not being 'juicy' enough. So yeah, its his site in the end".

    "Sheesh," you reacted, before you knelt down to talk with her, "If I know Gakuto, he may even try to have you expelled if he found out you said that, so hey, you're very brave for speaking out against him. Hmm, I also don't think I caught your name?" you asked.

    "S-Satomi Mamiko..." was all she said, "uh, my friends call me 'Mimi'".

    "Okay then, I'm Nakamura Honoka, but I guess you already knew that," you smiled at her, holding out your hand.

    "Ugh, why in Hell are you trying to side with this little sneak? She's still Gakuto's accomplice, ya know?" Melissa spat out, crossing her arms.

    "Hey, she was forced into this, she had barely any other choice than to go along!" you said back to her.

    "Pfft, her fault for being so weak-willed then," Melissa just snarled.

    "I do beg your pardon, but you both took off from the restaurant so suddenly. I trust that everything's okay?" Azuma then entered at the entrance to the alley.

    "Ah, yeah, everything's fine, we're just catching up with a girl from school," you hastily hold him.

    "That's reassuring, but I do believe we ought to start heading back to our hotel," he told you.

    "Oh yeah, of course!" Melissa grinned, swiftly taking Azuma by the arm, "Come along, I booked us only the finest!"

    "Er, wait, what about me?" you had to speak up.

    Melissa gave a devilish grin back in your direction. "Well, you little skank, for not just following orders and behaving like a good girl this vacation, you'll be staying somewhere... 'budget', you could say. Toodles!"

    You soon found out what her words meant, that she'd booked you into a capsule hotel on the edge of the Susukino district, forcing you to spend the night surrounded by a bunch of drunk salarymen. Well, at least your tiny, wall-inserted bed still came with a TV.

  17. #17
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XVII. The Mansion

    <<Pokmon D&P - Lake Verity (Mewmore Remix)>>

    For breakfast in Sapporo the next day, you ordered a Kinotoya Bake cheese tart at a local bakery alongside an iced coffee this time, before Azuma came to tell you that your final destination before returning home would be Lake Toya.

    "Wait, Lake Toya? Don't you have a house around there?" you asked, recalling something from the back of your head.

    "That is indeed where the Sakurazuka family manor is located," he gently grinned, raising a cup of black tea to his lips.

    Driving down there, you stood on a lookout to take in the view of the Lake, with mountainous islands rising out of its crystal clear waters, volcanic craters and outright volcanoes surrounding it. This view was nothing new, having lived nearby your mother had taken you out here while she went and got inspiration' many times, but you tried to appreciate it all the same.

    The Sakurazuka manor was close by, being nestled just off-road on a misty precipice overlooking the lake. Inside a set of golden gates, the mansion's stretching front lawn was covered in towering cherry trees and beds of roses, before you got to the house itself, a three-storey Western-style manor whose roof rose to form peaks at both ends' wings.

    Ohtsuka Shinsuke, Azuma's personal butler as Jack of Spades and fellow student, bowed and greeted you at the entrance. "Master Azuma, so good to see you back from your travails. I trust you had a pleasant time?" he began with.

    "Well, I can't say it went... ideally, but it was a memorable few days all the same," Azuma told him, having to chuckle a little.

    "And Mistress Honoka, I trust you are well?" he bowed before you, "I understand that the Master has selected me as a candidate to be your assistant also, in housekeeping and culinary activities. I of course would be honoured to take the position, though of course, I am sure young Tsubasa would feel the same were you to select her".

    'Young' Tsubasa? Aren't you two like, the same age? you thought to yourself. "Er, thank you, it's an honour, really," you smiled and bowed back.

    "Ahem, I believe you are forgetting someone!" Melissa said, holding out her hand.

    "Ah, but of course," Shinsuke quickly said, kneeling down and kissing Melissa' palm.

    "Hmhm, that's right," she smirked over him.

    Stepping inside, you could see the mansion's foyer was dominated by a seemingly endless staircase, rimmed in gold and carpeted in an absorbing reddish-purple. Vases, antique furniture, rose and cherry bouquets, and family portraits were placed all around. With its tiny slit windows and the chandelier out it was awfully dark in there though.

    Huh, if there was any justice in the world, this'd be Colette's place, while Azuma or Melissa or Gakuto would have to hang out in her orphanage, you had to think.

    Your eyes were then drawn to a portrait of the Sakurazuka family ten or so years ago now, it featuring a pinstripe waist-coated thin man with curly brown hair and an angular goatee you presumed to be Azuma's father, and an umbrella-carrying woman with orange-brown hair done up in a loose braided bun beneath a fascinator, which by that logic would be his mother.
    Then that little, smartly-dressed boy would've been no other than Azuma as a child, which you made wonder what the Hell he grew up into. But there was a slightly older girl right by him resembling almost a female Azuma, with straight red-tinged dark brown hair and a doll-like dress.

    Her older self showed up in several other portraits, some done with Azuma more recently and some solo, leaving you ask to, "Er, Azuma, you have a... sister?"

    Him not taking that question, Shinsuke instead spoke up to confirm, "Yes, Mistress Sakurazuka Tomomi, the firstborn, and who I was assigned to before Master Azuma. She, if I may say so... doesn't get out much these days".

    Huh, it was hard for you to imagine Azuma as anything but the eldest sibling.

    "Azuma my boy, it's great to see you back!" came a wiry yet somehow booming voice from all the way at the top of the stairs, belonging to that same man you'd seen in those family portraits. Leaning on an ebony cane, he was obviously older now, his hair all a greyish-white and his face more wrinkled, but he still appeared more than active "And my, you've brought company, I take it these are your fellows from school? Come now, we must introduce ourselves!"

    "Ah yes" Azuma nodded, before gesturing to you, "Father, may I introduce Nakamura Honoka, my junior at Hanataba and... dear friend, along with the Ace of Coins Melissa Lilian, American heiress to Sole Star Petroleum and fellow Prized Pupil. Honoka, Melissa, this would be-"

    "Sakurazuka Munehiro, lifelong actor and National Living Treasure, and my it is a pleasure to finally meet the girl my boy's been telling me so much about!" his father grinned from ear-to-ear as he shook your hand.

    Telling you so much about?! you had to shudder at that thought, but nevertheless smiled back and said, "Hi there, er yeah pleasure. I'm indeed Honoka".

    "My, and such a dainty one you are too," came another, more womanly voice, belonging to that same older woman from the pictures, who'd aged more invisibly, "Well well, so this is the girl who's so captured my little Azuma's attention. I'm Sakurazuka Rurina, though perhaps you'd know me by another name, Benibara Rurina. I too was a famed actress in my youth, though on the screen more than the stage, and quite a fine enka singer I may add, but of course..." she sighed, "All that is far behind me now".

    Huh, so far Azuma's parents seem, well, fairly kooky but friendlier than I imagined, you thought. You did try to figure out where you'd heard the name Benibara Rurina before, maybe your parents would be better equipped to answer, but one old flick came to mind.
    "Oh yeah, you were in Godzilla versus Deathdemona, I remember!" you said.

    That made Rurina wince though, "Ahem, well yes, that is true, although I'm more renowned for my Jidai Geki filmography," she stated, flapping a fan.

    "We'll happily loan you some Blu-Rays of her most esteemed works, if you'd like," Shinsuke offered you, "The young Master and Mistress frequently sat down to watch our old tapes of them growing up".

    "Ahem," Melissa ahemed again as she cornered Azuma, "How come Honoka gets top billing over me during introductions?" she hissed.

    "And you'd be Melissa! We've... also heard a fair amount about you," Munehiro said, if with noticeably less showmanship this time, "Well, it would certainly be interesting to meet your own parents, although I take it they're quite the busy bees".

    "That reminds me," Rurina lapsed into melancholy again, "My career never really could find a foothold in the States. Oh well, I'd like to think I still accomplished a lot. And my, you certainly are a radiant young flower of Occidental beauty," she then smiled at Melissa.

    "Er, 'Occidental', isn't that like a slur?" Melissa had to ask, leaving you to facepalm.

    "Now, perhaps our Azuma would like to give you a little tour of our home sweet home? I know that is traditionally the butler's job, but Azuma is your friend after all, plus I believe Shinsuke's worked hard enough to deserve a break for now," Rurina went on to say.

    "But of course. Honoka, if you'll follow me up to the East Wing," he held out his hand to you, "Melissa, why don't you accompany my parents? My dear mother in particular could use another person to talk with these days".

    "Why, how thoughtful of you, Azuma" Rurina smiled as she took Melissa's hand, before Melissa had any chance to respond, "Come along, we have so much to discuss".

    You then headed with Azuma up the long stairway before taking a sudden turn towards the East Wing. Down its looming corridors, which while narrow stretched up so high that the ceiling was completely shrouded in dark, to your relief he didn't immediately show you to his bedroom. Instead, you visited a high-stacked private library, a trophy room, a games parlour, a personal theatre set up in-house, and what looked like a whole room turned into an ancestor shrine, incense burning and Sakurazuka family portraits going back generations.

    You then were met with a glaring, red-eyed brunette in a frilled burgundy dress you could only assumed was Sakurazuka Tomomi.

    "Oh hey, little bro, you mind giving me a heads up before bringing your pals over? I could use my peace and quiet, just sayin'," she drawled in an utterly monotone voice.

    "I was under the impression that you could always use more company, given just how much time you spend locked up in your room," Azuma had to say, his arms folded.

    "Meh, whatever. Y'know Azuma, you're not on stage right now, you don't have to keep talking all flowery. Oh hey, so you're Honoka, right?" Tomomi, voice still lifeless, leaned in to look at you, "You seem... fine. My bro hasn't been getting all up in your space, has he? Yeah, hate to break it to you, but he's pulled that kinda shit before, he used to be all over a girl named Rin before... before she died and all" you caught the slightest hint of emotion in Tomomi's voice.
    "Well, later, I'll be in my room. Don't call me till dinner," she finished on before casually slamming her door.

    "Er, this may be a... personal question, but your sister's not like, ah, seriously ill?" you had to ask, having noticed how pale, scrawny and unenergetic she was.

    Azuma had to laugh at that. "Are you referring to the image of the bed-ridden, frail Victorian girl, occasionally coughing up blood? No, not at all, though my sister certainly wishes that was the case, if only to have an excuse to stay in her room more.
    No, she may be somewhat unfit from a lack of exercise, but I assure you, Tomomi is otherwise perfectly healthy" he told you.

    "T-then, she's not a hikikomori, is she?" you whispered.

    "The Hikikomori condition, from what I understand of it, requires an inability to socialise. Tomomi however is more than capable of socialising, she simply chooses not to," Azuma sighed out.

    "Oh, okay then," you said, before asking something else, "So, er, you got into acting because of the family legacy, then?"

    "I won't deny that was a factor, yes, but I assure you, my love of the stage is as much my own as it is inherited," Azuma felt the need to point out.

    "Still, your Dad being a National Living treasure though, that's... certainly something" you had to say.
    You had to admit, being in Azuma's home and meeting his family did confirm your image of him more, but in other ways, kind of shattered it, at least with new context...

    - The Emperor has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    <<BGM: Umineko - Scorpion Entrails>>

    Then came the moment you'd been dreading, being in Azuma's room. Or rather one of them anyway, the mansion was big enough for him to have multiple rooms to himself, though this did appear to be his sleeping quarters, with no less than a gold-framed four-poster bed and several scripts neatly arranged in folders.

    As you both sat down on his bed, you shivering all the while, he then said to you, "I take it Melissa would have already blabbed to you about your imminent promotion to a personal Jack?"

    "What, er, oh that, yeah," you said, having actually forgotten that for a second, what with everything else that was going on.

    "Well, I thought now, right at the end of the Golden Week, would be an opportune time to finally put that into motion" he said, clapping his hands as, to your shock, Kikuko, Gakuto and Himawari walked through the bedroom door.

    Melissa came in slightly later, her hair all a mess and her lipstick smudged. "Don't. Ask." she spat out to the others.

    Kikuko, as you'd come to expect, immediately drew a sword at you and announced "On your knees", you wasting no time kneeling onto the floor, the sword still hovering over you.

    "Remain calm, Honoka, this is but part of the Promotion Rite," Azuma said, "Now, Nakamura Haruka of Class 2-C, to whom among the All-Aces do you swear allegiance to?"

    [x] Aoyagi Himawari, Ace of Hearts.
    [ ] Maeda Kikuko, Ace of Grails.
    [ ] Melissa Lilian, Ace of Coins.
    [ ] Momoi Gakuto, Ace of Wands.
    [ ] Sakurazuka Azuma, Ace of Spades.

    Himawari stumbled back when she heard your decision. "Oh, Honoka, um, t-thank you" she smiled, if still flustered. She then produced a Jack of Hearts playing card and slipped it in your shirt pocket, completing the ritual.

    "Well then, you have made your choice," Azuma muttered "I suppose that is that".

    "I'm surprised at your surprise, this was the most predictable outcome ever," Gakuto had to laugh, pushing up his glasses.

    "Though perhaps not the most tactically sound move," Kikuko stated, "Among us remaining All-Aces in battle prowess, Himawari is far from outstanding".

    "Meh, whatever, you two can just go and be losers together," Melissa said, her attention barely held.

    Himawari, the look on her face briefly reminding you of Nightshade for a second, then leaned in and kissed you directly on the lips. She held a while, but then pulled back and said, "Er, t-that was just part of your Initiation as my own Jack, nothing er, p-personal or anything".

    You couldn't help but smile at her and say, "It's okay, Himawari, you don't have to apologise".

    "'Just part of initiation'? Really? I only made Reina kiss my hand," Melissa then came back with, "And my feet, ooh, and now I'm picturing Kaneto smooching Eitaro and Shinsuke tonguing Azuma, ahem, but anyway. Well, if you two are gonna carry on with that sorta thing, just don't go reporting me for any hate crimes," she said.

    "Seriously, can't you keep it down in there?" Tomomi grumbled as she suddenly opened the door, before saying "Oh geez, you brought all your loser friends around too, didn't you bro?"

    Kikuko was the first to stand up and glare at her, "You are aware you have intruded on highly private All-Ace affairs, correct?" she hissed, with Azuma seemingly doing nothing to defend his older sister.

    "How did you even get in here anyway, I thought the door was meant to be locked?" Gakuto piped up.

    "Heh, I've been sneaking into my little brother's room for years, I've long worked out any code of his," Tomomi chuckled, adding "Granted, he's done the same to me plenty of times. Oh, and about your freakin' clique, I'm sorry that I couldn't care less about high-school politics of all things anymore, I'm a graduate y'know," she put a hand to her chest and smirked.

    That was the point where Kikuko really lost it, as she then pulled her sword on Tomomi and rasped, "I no longer care that you're of the Ace of Spades' blood, your besmirching of our prestige means we shall have to settle this in battle!"

    "Wow, the company you keep's still as shit as ever, eh bro? This is why I just keep to myself," Tomomi shrugged, before telling Kikuko, "Okay fine, Miss Kurosawa extra, onna-bugeisha wannabe, hmm onnabe? Anyway, you wanna whip out your blade in front of everyone, I say bring it the fuck on, baby".

    With you just exhausted at this whole situation, but also worried that Oh shit, I don't know what to think about Tomomi, but I-I don't want to see her slice up so soon, you went with everyone else on a ferry out into the middle of Lake Toya. On a little field of sand and rock at the top of a shoreline cliff, Kikuko and Tomomi stood facing each other with swords. Well, that was the idea anyway, Tomomi already looking bored at the fact that she was about to duel.

    <<BGM: Genji - Yatagarasu>>

    Kikuko just spat out, "What is that ridiculous nodachi you have brought into battle? You intend to fight a noble duel with an inelegant blade meant to chop up horses?"

    "Whaddya mean 'noble'? Besides, you look pretty horse-faced yourself," Tomomi said, before eyeing up the size of her own blade, "I just chose this 'cause I thought, y'know, bigger is better".

    Kikuko just seethed at that, before lunging out screaming to try and land the first blow. Tomomi may not have been as elegant a wielder as Kikuko, but she did know how to block an attack, knocking Kikuko to the side. The Ace hardly seemed fazed though, as she sprang up to swiftly strike again.

    "Sheesh, to imagine Kikuko's like this in battle even without a Persona," you had to remark, over the constant clanging of blades.

    "She's scary, I know, and this is her without a Persona," Himawari muttered, her hand moving over to yours on the stone you were using as a bench, "She'd be just as strong as Eitaro or Melissa, but with actual technique and strategy to back it up. Well, from what I know of technique and strategy, eh heh".

    "And to think, Kikuko's not even using her full potential," Gakuto had to chime in, "Tomomi quite obviously employed tactics before their little duel even started, by riling up Kikuko and making her not think clearly... Or maybe Tomomi really was being honest and Kikuko's rage worked out in her favour," he had to admit, "Still, one plus to having Kikuko around is that you don't even the need the Gameboard to see a duel in action".

    The sun climbing high and the duel still with no end in sight, both Kikuko and Tomomi starting to pant with exhaustion, it was then Melissa suddenly strode up with her own shotgun and blasted an off-guard Tomomi at point blank range.

    As Tomomi fell to the ground, Kikuko walked right up to Melissa and grabbed her by the collar, "This was my duel to fight alone, Melissa! Your little intervention has insulted my fighting skill!"

    Melissa, despite having an enraged Kikuko right in her face, just shrugged and said, "Hey, I did you a favor, ya know. I mean, she's defeated isn't she, isn't all that matters? Besides, I used a blank on her, she'll be up in a few hours, so what's the big deal?"

    Kikuko then roared and pinned Melissa right to the ground, her fiery voice turning frigid as she asked, "Does my name, my status, my prowess, all mean nothing to you? Is our entire way of life for hundreds of years just some joke to you?!"

    Melissa just grinned and kicked up at Kikuko, reversing their positions as she held her in a pin, her eyes beaming and her teeth bared as she said "Still itchin' for a fight, huh? My Daddy invests in a pro-wrestling circuit, so I'm not gonna get creamed by some jobber!"

    "Alright, enough!" Azuma had to break it up, "This Duel was to be held between my sister and Kikuko, so in the future, Melissa, I'd advise you to keep to your own matters," he looked down at her.

    The two girls pulling apart, Melissa just coughed and mumbled "She started it".

    "You do have a point," Kikuko said to Azuma, sheathing her blade, "For us All-Aces, no less than the Gameboard should be our duelling grounds".

    Well, that was a disaster, you could only think, but at least all this gave you some insight as to how the Persona Game may go from here...
    - The Fool has Journeyed to Rank 5! -

    * * *

    The last major event that day was sitting down for dinner at the Sakurazuka dining table, which was appropriately gilded, painted dark red, and with a lacy white tablecloth laid over. You took in the heavy smell of the various sizzling meats, ripe fruits, and creamy cheeses and creams laid out in front of you, most of their aromas only cancelling each other out though.

    "So, um, Kikuko then, I heard you duelled our daughter just earlier today," the Sakurazuka patriarch tried to start things off with, "Well, ahem, tell us about that".

    Kikuko was silent for a moment, clearly fidgeting in the Western-style red frilled dress she'd been given to wear, but she then said, "Unfortunately, we weren't able to reach an acceptable conclusion".

    "You mean you cheated?" Tomomi interjected, her face showing no signs that she wanted to be out here, "Yeah, had blondie over there bring a godforsaken gun to a swordfight".

    "I gave no such order, that was entirely Melissa's own doing," Kikuko was quick to point out, tensing herself to remain composed.

    "Really, is that true?" Azuma's mother Rurina spoke out, hand up to her cheek, "From my talks with Melissa, she seems an absolutely lovely young lady, so I'm sure she was just trying to help out".

    "Er yeah, you know me, just thought to be a little Good Samaritan, from the bottom of my heart," she smiled at and leaned over to Rurina, who she happened to be seated right next to. You did see that in between her smiling, Melissa snuck in a sharp scowl at Kikuko.

    "See, I knew my young Azuma would associate with no less than the society's finest," Rurina smiled as she hugged and drew Melissa closer with her arm.

    Melissa just smiled and laughed at this, but you could hear her whispering beneath her breath "Remember she's loaded remember she's loaded remember she's loaded".

    Aren't you already loaded? you thought of Melissa.

    The rest of meal passed with more of the same stifled pleasantries, from all except Tomomi anyway. The thing that stuck out most to you though were the formalwear you'd dressed in for the occasion. Azuma's was pretty similar to his Regalia, just a bit less obviously vampiric, Tomomi was is burgundy Victorian style, Melissa was decked out in glittering golden scales, Himawari wore an elegant white sleeveless dress with shades of blue, and Gakuto had donned a tuxedo, though still with his trademark jumper underneath.
    As for you, you'd been given the choice to pick out:

    [ ] A pink and glittering gown with a large, puffy ribbon, almost like a princess. [+Etiquette]
    [ ] An appropriately simple black gown for a growing woman, blending in suitably. [+Perception]
    [x] What you'd determined was the most vintage dress on offer, a kosode or proto-kimono dating back all the way to Sengoku times. [+Education]
    [ ] A relatively masculine but still fancy outfit, with a green coat decorated with golden swirls, long white trousers, and appropriately ruffled cuffs and neckerchief. You'd seen Ryouko and Megumi pull off androgyny quite well, so you figured you might as well give a shot. [+Resolve]
    [ ] Write-in.

    With your day at the Sakurazukas' over, you soon headed back home, at long last. Your first instinct was to just race in there and embrace Megumi, but unfortunately if unexpectedly, Azuma insisted on seeing you off at your door, though not before one last reminder from Melissa about how she'd paid for all this.

    "Honoka, I... cannot deny there were some setbacks this Golden Week, but still, I hope you had a wonderful time all the same," Azuma smiled at you and held your door in the apartment corridor.

    Your heart was pumping, although not for the typical reason it would be in such a situation. "Yeah, you too. But ah, I really need to get some shut-eye right now," you said, attempting to yawn as you tried stepping away from Azuma, "So I'll just say goodnight and-"

    "Oh hey, Honoka, you're back!" you heard a familiar voice exclaim as they rushed in to hug you, thankfully breaking you apart from Azuma. "Man, you must've had some vacation, huh? I at least got to catch up on a bunch of old shows- er, I mean coursework, and oh boy do I have stuff to say about them- er, I mean, them being the teachers, yeah," Megumi told you.

    "Ahem," Azuma gave a restrained cough, "You are aware you are interrupting our farewell, aren't you?"

    Megumi glanced at Azuma, saying "Yeah, well, you and your lot came in and crashed our apartment, forgive me if I'm not exactly sympathetic in your case".

    Azuma sighed, "Need I remind you that incident was nearly a month ago now, yet you still bring it up? Besides, it's not like it was much of a dwelling to crash, I fail to see what harm we did to it".

    As opposed to what, an overgrown lakehouse that nobody normal could ever hope to not get lost in? you thought.
    "If you're concerned by where we live, couldn't you just, y'know, buy us a bigger house?" you tried to ask, wondering why none of the All-Aces had even made an offer like that.

    "The Sakurazuka treasuries are vast, but not infinite. And besides, you are the Ace of Hearts' Jack now, so isn't this a matter you should discuss with Himawari?" Azuma said, with probably the iciest words to you he'd ever spoken, but he then seemed to warm up and added, "...I'll see what I can arrange", before finally exiting.

    With him gone, Megumi turned to you and said, "Whew, goddamn finally! Anyway, let's get inside".
    Megumi's cooking was passable at best, but after all that haute cuisine you'd had on this trip, a basic squid ramen bowl as a late-night snack was quite the refresher for you.
    "Huh, where to even start? Okay, so I learned early Featherman, back in the 70s and start of the 80s, was basically nothing like what it this now. Yeah, guys and a girl in spandex and quarries, but that's it, no giant robots, no transforming giant robots, nothin'. Also checked out Zephyrman, that one-hero 80s show that I would've forgotten about if not for some guy only raving about it, meh, it was alright," Megumi started rambling.

    Sitting on the couch with your squid, you had to smile, "Sounds like you were pretty busy actually, just not with schoolwork".

    "Yeah, tell me about it. Also, Phoenix Rider I guess wasn't as different, though no form changes and a lot less flashy, obvious. Also, the first season ran on way too friggin' long, but anyway. Oh, and I also checked out Kaichuu Eiyuu Kabuto Orihime, that was, well, weird," Megumi slumped down right next to you, "It's an adaptation of a Western hero tale, something about a girl, Himura Taeko I think they called her, who can control bugs so she uses them to control a giant Hercules Beetle robot, and then there's this snake with two heads. Obviously a bunch got lost in translation. Sorry, I guess I'm talking way too much about my own interests".

    "No, not all," you giggled, patting them on the back, "I like your stuff fine, and besides, I'm just happy to hear your voice after days and days of All-Aces".

    Megumi didn't respond at first, letting your words sink in, but they then turned to you and smiled "Thanks, Honoka. I mean, my parents treat me like crap, I'm in contact with none of my old high school buds, so... you don't know how much it means to have someone who still appreciates me. You and Ryouko, of course".

    - Temperance has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    "But anyway, I suppose I should get around to asking you about your trip," they said, leaning back, "It's the polite thing to do, after all. So tell me, how did it go, was it a total disaster or something?"

    "I'd be lying if I said I got to enjoy the trip as much as I would have liked to, but I at least managed to keep Azuma at enough of a distance to avoid a total disaster. They also pretty much ambushed me with the news that I'm supposed to pick one of the Aces to swear myself to. Still, out of all of them, Himawari is somewhat of a friend, so things should work out. I hope," you decided upon.
    "Geez, can't say that I'm surprised to hear that," Megumi muttered, "But hey, sounds like you at least managed to avoid the worst. I don't know much about this Himawari, but she seems... decent enough from what I've seen, and you trust her, so, well, what could go wrong there?"

    "Huh, yeah" you responded with, feeling you were holding something back.
    Something you weren't holding back though, was "One upside was, speaking of old media, I got my hands on a copy of Godzilla vs Deathdemona".

    "Wow, neat. Heard it was pretty rare, where'd you find it?" Megumi asked, eyes wide.

    "Oh, you know, connections," you just said.

    You saw that by now your boxy TV was showing ice-skating footage, which Megumi started to stare almost... longingly at, like they were reliving a breakup or recurring dream or something, the graininess of the screen probably only added to that. You noticed this hadn't been the first time they'd gotten like that at skating like this.

    "Er, Megumi..." you began, trying to get through to them, "Something the matter?"

    "What? Oh no, nothing really," they said before turning off the TV, "Just got reminded about how I wanted to be a figure skater when I was younger. When I saw it as a kid, noticing how graceful and elegant even the guys were, well, it really got me thinking about gender and stuff..." they sighed, "Of course, my Bachelor has nothing to do with the sport, which for all I romanticise it is still pretty gendered, so... that's that then".

    "Well hey, maybe I could invite you on as a dancer or something for Nightshade, assuming I can convince her," you tried to say.

    "Dancer? Thought the music you're playing was too hard for that sort of thing?" Megumi cocked their head over.

    "Ah, well there's heaps of dancing types, we could find one that fits. Plus, Nightshade moves around on stage a lot," you brought up, leaving out the bit about how she'd usually be smearing blood on herself while doing so.

    Megumi smiled at that, before yawning and saying, "Sheesh, 'bout time to get to bed, especially with starting school again tomorrow".

    Oh, right, you thought to yourself as you sank into silence, before rising back out with "Um, thanks for reminding me, with everything happening over Golden Week, it was kinda easy to forget".

  18. #18
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XVIII. Suzako

    'So, what did you do over Golden Week?'

    - 'Eh, nothing much, same little vacation I have every week.'
    'Wow, hard to imagine it's been nearly a month since Eitaro died'-

    - 'Melissa's peak Western beauty, Kikuko's peak Japanese beauty. Man is our school lucky!'
    You walked back up to Hanataba Gakuen for the first time in what had only been a few days, yet had felt like forever. As you did so however, you had the misfortune to be approached by possibly the last person you wanted to see.

    "Ah, salutations Nakamura, or should I say 'Jack of Hearts'?" Gakuto sidled his way up to you, cornering you in the corridor.

    "Ugh, what is you want?" was all you could reply.

    "I'm simply here to give a more personal congratulation that I didn't have the room to at the manor," Gakuto stated at first, before moving in and whispering, "Namely, that I have a little secret to share about your Ace, one I believe you're partly privy to. I know all about Nightshade and Himawari".

    You stumbled back, your breath getting heavy, your fists clenching.

    "However, you'll also note that not a word has been typed about it on Secret Lives of Students. Hmhm, that's no oversight," Gakuto adjusted his glasses and smirked, "I first thought about revealing her secret, but then it occurred to me, especially after that ceremony. Wouldn't it be the most devastating for her if you, her own Jack and bandmate, were the one to reveal her true identity instead?"

    Your fists and clenched and your blood boiled when you heard that, as you snarled out "What the Hell makes you think I'd ever do that? Why the Hell would you even do that in the first place?!"

    "I'll answer the last question first for better flow. First off Nakamura, you are aware that Shadows and Personae are the exact same entities, the only real difference being whether or not they are under human control, right?" Gakuto asked, then continued before you could even reply, "I mean, this is basic beginner's knowledge. Your emotional status is the reins by which your Persona remain yours".

    You gasped, before stuttering, "Y-you're trying to make Himawari lose control over her Persona, revert Anastasia back to a Shadow?"

    "Correctamundo, brilliant deduction," Gakuto flashed a wicked grin, "You of course may have noticed that Himawari is by far the least emotionally stable of us, the least assured of herself, thus she should be the easiest to take out. Besides," he then added, lowering his tone, "Given you've seen how she truly is beneath that flimsy, oh-so-innocent mask, you'd be a fool to think that nicotine is the hardest drug Nightshade's done, or the people whose management she's fallen under are just 'very nice businessman'. So, as an upstanding and respected student here, shouldn't blatant violations of school rules be reported, hmm?"

    Your froze for a second, as you'd had your suspicions about... all that, but you then asked, "Alright, Gakuto, but all this dirt on Himawari, did you genuinely find it out yourself, or did Mamiko or whoever else in your Club put in all the hard work for you?"

    Gakuto twitched when he heard that, but said "I assure you, Mamiko is far from that skilled. Still, she's worth keeping around, for if my humble info-leaking operation is ever seriously reported, I can simply shift all the blame onto her. After all, she's one of the least popular kids in school, so who would ever stick up for her?"

    "Grr, I will!" you exploded at him, "You know what, I'll ask Himawari to take her on as another Jack of Hearts, so you can't use her as your little scapegoat!"

    Gakuto just laughed. "Good luck with that, her shrill speaking voice would not translate well to Choir, and I doubt she knows one end of an instrument from another".
    He then went silent, before he said out of nowhere, "I'm aware this is somewhat of a derail, but tell me, Nakamura, have you ever heard of the Turing Test?"

    You, er, didn't know what to say to that at first, but did reply "Uh yeah, it measures whether you can tell computer intelligence from human, right?"

    "That's simplifying it, but essentially yes," he had to give you.

    You then had to laugh, "What, you honestly think that you could crack the answer to something like that?"

    "Oh ho ho, don't underestimate me," Gakuto came back with, "...I fear that egg may've been long cracked."

    He finally went away after that, and well, if nothing else you'd certainly gained some insight into Gakuto's mind, and what he was planning, and that last bit you doubted was something he'd tell just anyone...

    "I am thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Hierophant Arcana"

    Oh joy, a Link for the last person I'd want to spend any time with, you internally groaned.

    You just wanted to get to class but, you guessed from now being a higher-ranking Jack, you were then approached by another All-Ace, this time Melissa.

    "So hey, wanted to make sure Gakuto was out of the room before I dropped this question," Melissa began with.

    "Oh, I don't know about that, he could've hacked into the school cameras as we speak," you gave a dead-eyed stare at her.

    "Gawd Honoka, you're talking like a total tinfoil-head! Anyway, with your vacation over, naturally I had a question about Azuma and you" she went on, and you hoped like Hell she wasn't going to ask what you thought she was.
    "Did-you-and-Azuma-do-it?!" she pressed in way too close to you.

    "What, what the Hell?! Whether we did or not, and we didn't, what gives you any right to know?!" you hissed right back in her face.

    "Um Hello~, it was the whole point behind the trip remember, which oh yeah, I paid for I might add," she spat out, baring her teeth, "But I see that all went to waste, since ap-par-rently you decided to be a complete lesbo".

    "Oh don't give me that 'I paid for it' garbage. You're an Oil Heiress, not a street urchin, it would've been pocket change to you," you stared right at her and crossed your arms, "If you wanted to put that money to some real use, you should've sucked it up and paid your Daddy's taxes with it".
    As you walked over to your class door, you said one last thing back at Melissa, not caring if any other students overheard, "Oh yeah, and FYI, I'm Bi!"

    * * *

    You collapsed exhausted in your seat, and to think your first day back had barely begun yet.
    "Oh hey there, Honoka, didn't see you all Golden Week," at least one friendly voice, Yuya, had to say, "I mean, Keiko said you'd be away, but she's mostly been keeping to herself lately too, other than all the jogging around town she's been doing".

    "Well, I don't know about Keiko," you muttered, remembering that your last meeting with her hadn't gone the smoothest, "But I actually got sent on a trip over to Cape Erimo, of all places. Some weird All-Aces arrangement, I would've asked them to bring you and Keiko along, but I doubt they'd take kindly to that".

    "Oh," Yuya was taken aback, "I never imagined the All-Aces being like that at all. Still, I suppose that does explain that, um, argument you were having outside".

    Oh yeah. That. You sighed out, "Er, so I guess you now know about me being bisexual, right? I mean, you're one of my closest friends, so I would've gotten around to telling you anyway," you insisted.

    "No no, that's okay, you have the right to tell who you want, when you want," Yuya said in return, before trying to say, "Still, er, you should be proud of yourself for coming out, even if it was in, er, that sort of circumstance. Plus, your roommate's X-gender, or 'non-binary' I've also heard, so this sort of thing's, ah, nothing new to me".

    You just nodded along at Yuya's words, before your attention was caught when a rather striking student walked right into your class. She had a neat brown bob that spiked out a little at the sides, with two wavy hair strands touching her smooth shoulders. She had her uniform modded to switch her dress for hot pants that let her show-off the extent of her legs. She had sparkling hazel eyes, her makeup was on point... Okay, I'm getting carried away now, you thought.

    She turned and greeted the class with a bright and cheery "Hi there, I'd like you all to call me Suzako. We've all been through a lot here recently, but luckily you've all got me to cheer you up, whoo! Ahem, I sing, I dance, I act, I game on stream, I model, I- well, you get the point, heehee".
    You guessed that was her transfer student intro as you'd have noticed a girl like this before otherwise, even though wouldn't one of those tell where she used to be from? Tanizawa-sensei also hadn't introduced her beforehand as was common in this case... but Ryouko not doing her job properly was far from unheard of.

    Either way, that intro sure to worked, as you could already pick up on the whole class talking about her. Eavesdropping a little, you could already hear people saying she was All-Ace material.

    Then Suzako sat down... right in Keiko's seat. Come to think of it, wouldn't Keiko normally be here by now, and you sure hadn't heard anything about Keiko moving? Wait, no, that couldn't mean-

    "Keiko?!" you said as you leaned over to this 'Suzako'.

    She looked from side to side first, before she said "Ahem, it's Suzako now. But yeah, er, hi there Honoka, whaddya think of me now?" she giggled, trying to maintain her cheeriness.

    You didn't know how to respond, and even Yuya was struck silent, but you then said, "Well it's, er, certainly a change, you must've put a ton of effort into your makeover," and a ton of your savings, you kept that though private, "But er, Keiko, a-are you sure you're being true to yourself?" you had to ask.

    Keiko twitched for a second, but then insisted, "Of course I'm being true, it's just that now my outer beauty reflects my inner beauty! And please Honoka, I've told you already, it's Su. Za. Ko. Like," she beckoned you closer, "When this school hears the name 'Suzakuin Keiko', they think of some trashy, penniless loser, if they even think of anyone at all. I, I don't wanna spend the rest of high school being thought of like that," she muttered, before smirking and saying, "And admit it Honoka, you're just jealous that I've finally surpassed you in hotness, and I did without any assistance from Melissa!"

    You almost facepalmed. "Hey, Kei-Suzako, being attractive's not meant to be a race, y'know" you tried to tell her, and all gaining popularity taught me was overrated it is. "I mean, I never had a problem with you".

    "Yeah, but your All-Ace friends do," Suzako muttered, before brightening up again, "But when they see looking like this, they'll never be able to say I'm too 'normal' or whatever to hang out with you, and Azuma will have to be all over me! And there you go, our friendship saved!"

    Oh, how you underestimate them, you thought. It then selfishly occurred to you that siccing 'Suzako' on Azuma could potentially get him off your back... but she'd probably need a Wild Card to pull that off.

    "What do you think, Yuya? You think I'm pretty, right?" Suzako leaned over to ask him.

    "Er, sure. You certainly been putting a lot into maintaining your appearance lately, guess that explains what you were doing all Golden Week," he tried to offer a compliment.

    "...Suzako, you're freakin' gorgeous," you said to her, drawing a deep breath, "You are, without a doubt, the most stunning girl, the most stunning human, in our entire class". You then relaxed, hoping she'd finally be satisfied with those words.

    It seemed to do the trick, as her eyes started welling up, "Aw, you- you mean it?!" she said before she suddenly hugged you tight.

    - Justice has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    "Alright class, break's over," Tanizawa-sensei then came in, "Right Honoka, you would've been studying up a lot. Which of the following was not a Symbolist poet?"
    You could tell Ryouko was trying her hardest to be professional, but all you could think of right now was her in her latex nun outfit, as you giggled to yourself.

    [ ] Arthur Rimbaud.
    [x] William Blake.
    [ ] Charles Baudelaire.
    [ ] Paul Verlaine.

    * * *

    Having remembered meeting Takako around, you thought you could at least get on some common ground with her by studying up on her favourite sport. Currently things were going...

    "A-alright, here I go!" Himawari, your new Ace, called out as she threw the ball overarm towards you, right across the Prized Pupil Lounge. You had to go quite out of your way to hit it, keeping it out from Reina as wicket keeper's grasp, but some beginner's luck let you succeed in hitting it with your bat right across the room.

    The ball ended up flying right over an inattentive Gakuto, ricocheted off right past Azuma to, before it ended up almost hitting Melissa by accident as she walked in the room.

    "...Would someone explain what the Hell this is?" she seethed as she held up the ball.

    "Oh, I've been talking without Takako, and thought trying to learn a bit about cricket would help," you then said, "So i asked some people here to help me out".

    "...In the lounge?" Melissa's eyes furrowed. "Wait, Takako? Wasn't she the captain of that stupid sport club Eitaro had to keep pressuring Hotaru to defund?"

    "Er, anyway, Honoka," Himawari then said, trying to quickly change the topic, "Ah, that reminds me, the rest of the All-Aces told me to tell you that, now that you've sworn yourself to me, you need to prove your worth in turn by heading down onto the Gameboard again".

    Prove my worth? Why, was beating the crap out of a full-fledged Ace not enough?! you thought, but said "Ah yeah, sure, guess i had to get round to it".

    [x] Head to Azuma's Empire. That's likely where Keiko-Suzako's Shadow will be, and you really need to check up on her.
    - [x] Go with Himawari, you can't risk any other All-Ace knowing about Suzako's Shadow.
    - [ ] Go by yourself.
    [ ] Head to Eitaro's Empire. Now that he's gone, you ought to check up on it.
    [ ] Head to Gakuto's Empire, the guy's become a real problem lately.
    - [ ] Bring Kikuko with you, she's the one he fears most.
    - [ ] Bring Melissa with you, she at least shouldn't stand for any of his bullshit.
    - [ ] Bring Azuma, he at least should be able to deal with whatever Gakuto can come up with.
    [ ] Head to Himawari's Empire, she's your Ace now after all, plus you should check up on Colette's Shadow.
    - [ ] Bring Himawari, it's her Empire.
    - [ ] Go by yourself.
    [ ] Head to Kikuko's Empire, she's probably the one Ace you know least about.
    - [ ] Bring Gakuto with you, if only to scare him shitless.
    [ ] Head to Melissa's Empire.
    - [ ] Bring Kikuko with you, she does have unresolved issues with her.
    [ ] Head to Rin's Empire. Yyou've grown since, you can take it on.
    - [ ] Bring... everyone, you know you'll need the firepower.

    "I believe you haven't even touched the Gameboard since your Duel with Eitaro," Kikuko made eye contact with you and stated, "The last thing you need, especially after your recent promotion, is to lapse in your training".

    "Okay then, if it's my worth you need proving," you said as a whole hand of Tarot cards appeared between your fingers, all of which you positioned over the Gameboard. "Himawari, um, I'm your Jack, so I guess you'll be wanting to go along with me?"

    "Yes, of course," she nodded, her own Tarot emanating out in her palm.

    The whole world swirling again as you laid your cards down, leaving you stumbling what with this being your first descent onto the Gameboard in some time. Turning to Himawari as Nightshade, you pointed to the thorn-covered theatre looming above you and said, "Okay, that's where we're heading".

    Nightshade cocked her head as she looked at you, then giggled as she asked, "Really, Azuma's Empire? Whatever for, unless you're that desperate to 'prove your worth'? And I thought we could just take a nice little stroll around my Empire".

    "It's, it's not just about Azuma or me or anyone," you muttered to her, before you came out with, "It's about my friend. She's been acting, well, kinda weird lately, trying to reinvent herself to get more people to notice her," you flinched when you remembered who you were talking to, "Anyway, I wanted to check up on her Shadow, which since she's huge on Azuma is probably in his Empire".

    "Hmm, I see. But what makes you think that I won't use any knowledge I gain on her against you?" Nightshade leaned in and slyly grinned.

    Her words did make you hesitate for a little, but you then told her, "Because if you were really that untrustworthy, you probably would've known better than to just say that". You would've added something like, and you wouldn't turn on your own Jack, right?... but then remembered that was not unheard of from the All-Aces.

    Nightshade sighed at you, resting her head on her hand, "You know, Honoka, I can't tell if you're really open-hearted and trusting, or just really dense. Well, either way".

    You were about to head off to Azuma's Empire, but did consider a quick stop into the Velvet Room:

    [x] Emperor Richard III + Chariot Cuchulainn = Rebirth Arsene (Curse and Physical) Write-in: Re-summon Richard after
    [ ] Hanged Man Argus + Chariot Cuchulainn = Fool Coyote (Psy and Fire)
    [ ] Death Santa Muerte + Hanged Man Argus = Moon Camazotz (Wind and Curse)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Fool Theodora or Chariot Cuchullain = Temperance Themis (Physical and Psy)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Emperor Richard III = Justice Saint George (Physical and Bless)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Death Santa Muerte = Chariot Thor (Physical and Electric)
    [ ] Strength Atalanta + Emperor Richard III = Tower Chernobog (Curse and Nuclear)
    [ ] Stick with your current roster

    "I am Rebirth Arsne, the Pillager of Twilight," spoke a red and black, top-hatted devil with a cape like wings,Arsene
    [Rebirth XIII-2]

    Elements: Nulls Curse, weak to Bless and Ice
    - Strength: |||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: ||
    Skills: Eiga, Death Needle (Phys, chance of Poison), First Star (Auto-Tarukaja upon pre-emptive strike)
    Fusion Bonus: Dia, Resist Physical
    Arcana Bonus: Survival Trick (one-time insta-death null)
    "You may not have been born with the soul of a rebel, but few are. A rebel's soul isn't born, it is forged".

    * * *

    <<BGM: Melty Blood - For Crimson Air

    At least the trek over to Azuma's Empire was straightforward, no hilly dunes or steep ascents in the way, though without a stack of fire spells, all those thorns and hedges in your way were looking to be a problem.
    You also had to notice two watchtowers as you approached, one red and one white, that looked like chess piece heads on top of giant plant stems. The white one's bright searchlight seemed to be scanning Kikuko's imperial armada nearby, while the red's dark spores looked to be blotting out the neon glow of Melissa's mall chain.

    Trying to remain stealthy but breaking out into a mad dash, you rushed past the two watchtowers, while Nightshade simply sauntered her way over.
    "You've clearly gotten to Azuma, I'd say," she smirked down at you, "I doubt those watchtowers would've let you past if you were anyone lesser known to him. Guess that long trip away with him accomplished some good".

    "Yeah, I just hope I don't have to spend any more with him," you mumbled, before you used a Psy detection spell courtesy of Theodora to spy on a flock of Shadows prowling the grounds. The masks they wore reminded you of those old comic-tragic masks in classical theatre, though zooming in a little closer with your magic, they almost resembled Commedia dell'Arte clowns, Harlequin and Pierrot.

    "Shadows don the masks of whatever their Imperial sees the people around them as," Nightshade told you, "For example, Eitaro judged everyone by their strength, so his Shadow subjects were at best mindless foot soldiers, at worst slaves, the weakest of the weak".

    "Yeah, think he well drilled that into me. Okay, so I guess Azuma sees everyone as... actors? Guess that makes sense, or wait, as clowns?! I mean, I never imagined him to be the humourless type, though his sister sure did get him riled up the other day" you started to ponder, before asking Nightshade, "Wait, so what about your Shadow subjects then?"

    Nightshade didn't answer at first, but then just said, "Fellow musicians, like my backup singers, backing bands, or at least fans".

    You stared at her a second longer. Himawari sure, but it usually wasn't like Nightshade to clearly not give you the full story.

    "Still," she then said, "I have my own theory on why, even with your newfound popularity, you can't manifest an Empire, and it has nothing to do with any Wild Card. We all see the people around us as beneath us, being the most popular kids at school it comes with the territory. You however, still can't help but look up to everyone, or at least see them as your equals. That's why you lack the capacity to Rule".

    You thought about that, but had to counter with, "Oh come on, you honestly don't see people as beneath you, do you Himawa-" you stopped as you found yourself saying that name in front of Nightshade.

    "No, Himawari wouldn't," Nightshade snarled, before look you dead in the eyes, "I would".

    Past the front gates, the next part of Azuma's Empire was a snaking, overgrown hedge maze, like if the garden at the front of his manor had been left unattended for a hundred or so years. Knowing where enemies were would've made this a lot easier, but you also knew Theodora had only so much SP to go around.

    "Hey, Nightshade," you whispered to her as you were trying to sneak around, "Er, I think Kikuko's and Gakuto's Personae are the only two left that I haven't seen. So, that is, how much can you tell me about them?"

    That question made her let out a boisterous laugh, before she placed her hand over her mouth on remembering you were trying to be stealthy. "Truth is, my dear Honoka, I'd spill the beans on both those two... if I could, honestly I don't know much more about them than you. Hmm, I can at least say Kikuko's is Tsuruhime, Empress Arcana, while Gakuto's is Octavian and a Hierophant, and sometimes does navigator stuff. They're Agi and Zio casters, the last two elements left, except Almighty anyway".

    "And..." you gulped, before continuing, "And speaking of Personae, um, y-you're not like, jealous or anything of my Wild Card, are you?"

    Nightshade folded her arms, "I'll confess, certainly a little. But well, I try to think of it like this, that since you don't have an Empire, you genuinely need all the extra firepower you can get. Whereas if I or other Aces needed another Persona, all we'd have to do is call on one of our Shadow subjects," she had to grin.

    Through an arch of thorns in the hedge maze though, you then came across a raised wooden pathway, cherry blossoms scattered atop it, leading over some sort of moat, the swirl-engraved iron door into the theatre being just on the other side. From the other side here, you could vaguely make out a figure trapped outside the door, that of a lone schoolgirl- Ah, that must be Keiko's Shadow!

    You then started heading across the bridge, but maybe should've thought twice, as out of nowhere appeared a hulking wild monk, wrapped in frayed white folds over a ragged hakama, a manic expression on his face, and him wielding a naginata the size of a lance.

    A single tap of his foot sent a shockwave across the flower bridge, knocking you down and giving you a good view of the moat below, where what looked to be a serpent was swimming below, before closer inspection showed it to be ghostly, centipede-like insect with a girl's upper body.

    Nightshade though then hurled a stream of throwing axes right at the monk, with Anastasia giving them the extra touch of an ice-cold coating. As axe edges and icicles crashed into the Shadow monk, Nightshade gestured at you from one side of the bridge to head straight over to the other, she could deal with this.

    But the monk wasn't so easily deterred, as when you tried to run past what little space on the bridge was left, he swiftly swatted you with his naginata, knocking you straight off. However, a split-second Garu tempest was what you needed to be blown back up away from the water and on the rocky cliff on the other side of the moat, though already that insect-girl below had caught sight of you.

    You casted Sukukaja to grant you the agility needed to climb up this ledge and fast, before the ravenous insect could climb up before you. Meanwhile, that monk had somehow caused a circle of hidden swords to spring up the moment Nightshade tried to step onto the bridge, however she was able to knock them all into the water with one hurl of her ball-and-chain.

    Having gotten to the other side, you dashed over to Keiko's Shadow ahead of that bug creature, but were faced with the new challenge of figuring out what to say to her. Shadow Keiko, like most in Azuma's Empire, wore a festive and smiling harlequin mask on top, its bright expression almost matching her as Suzako, but there was a crack on the left side, revealing a pitch-black teardrop and part of a frown underneath. Both layers of mask had a reflective, mirror-like sheen to them.

    "Well now, Honoka, got yourself in quite the situation, haven't you?" an unfortunately too familiar voice came on from above, "I've identified the two Shadows as Benkei, Hanged Man, and Okiku-Mushi, Lovers. Oh, and thank you for leading us directly to Keiko's Shadow, Melissa will no doubt appreciate that. Azuma too, after all it's his Empire, his subjects, his to Rule how he wants," Gakuto chortled, "By the way, if you wanted to know about my Octavian, all you had to do was ask".

    You son of a godforsaken- you began to think as you gritted your teeth, but then felt Keiko's Shadow staring right you, somehow through that mask. Now that you'd found her, you realised you hadn't come up with anything to say to her.

    [ ] "Keiko, Suzako, argh, just remember. Who you are shouldn't be the school's to determine".
    [ ] "Please, I know he's your idol, but you have to stop looking up to Azuma. You don't need him, and I don't want him! Flee to Himawari's Empire, or No One's Land, anywhere but here!"
    [ ] "Ally with any Shadows around here you can. Form your own army, 'cause if Melissa or whoever comes, don't let them take you alive!"
    [ ] "Look, can you see now what becoming one of the 'popular ones' got me? Keiko, Suzako, please, don't go down this route!"
    [x] "Take my hand, let's fly like the wind out of here, Azuma isn't letting you, or anyone, in!"
    [ ] Write-in.

    Hearing your words, Keiko's Shadow took one look backing at the looming, iron-gated theatre, before seeing you were holding out your hand to her. However, the two of you were interrupted as the Okiku-Mushi bug struck, calling upon the deathly image of a skull surrounded by funereal embers around you.

    Arsne, the Persona you'd just equipped though, had the resistance to completely nullify this would-be-instant-death spell, swishing his wing-cape dramatically back at Okiku. The worm-woman then screeched and tried to counter you with a mesmerising glow but, seeing it was like Theodora's Psy magic, you immediately switched to her to take the blow.

    "I won't be accepted... no matter what I do?" came the echoing voice of Keiko's Shadow.

    "No, you will be accepted!" you called out to her, as you then tried summoning your own form of Anastasia to try freezing the watery insect solid, "Just not by a bunch of tools whose 'acceptance' you don't need, and trust me, you don't want".
    [23 Perception + 24 Resolve + 3 Justice = Success]

    "Oh, harsh words, Honoka. But where do you plane to take Keiko's Shadow, if not here? We've long scoured the rest of the Gameboard, and Melissa especially will quite eagerly track her down," Gakuto's voice came again from above, "This is what you get for not assisting with my plan, I could've been persuaded to keep where Keiko's, Yuya's, and Kentaro's pieces on the board all were a secret-"

    But before Gakuto could say any more, Keiko's Shadow erupted into a searing pyre, as all her masks fell away to ashes as a towering, rainbow-coloured bird woman rose out of them, its tail like that of a blue flame peafowl, and three feathers on each wing and torso in particular burning bright gold.

    "I am Justice Simurgh, Companion of Heroes," what had been Shadow Keiko now proclaimed, "In the darkest days, my light shall blaze the brightest!"
    Simurgh swooped to pick up Okiku in her talons, before dropping the Shadow into a pillar of blazing Agilao fire she had conjured up. The Simurgh flew up high and away from Azuma's theatre, but as she did, a single shining tailfeather drifted down into your palm, dissolving into a scale-emblazoned Tarot card.

    Of course, this still left Benkei. You could see Nightshade had been using her flail to try and slowly nudge Benkei towards the edge of the bridge, but he seemed far too physically enduring for that to work. Still having Anastasia out though, you glanced down at the bridge then back up at Nightshade, trying to make charade-like signs at her in the process. The both of you started casting ice spells in unison, but not aimed at Benkei, but at the bridge he stood on.

    Picking up on what you were planning, the Shadow Benkei tried to stick his naginata straight down in what looked like an attempt to pole-vault out of there, but by trying to pierce the glaive down in combination with his massive strength, he ended up breaking the now-frozen bridge below, sending him falling into the murky river far below.

    Nightshade giggled at first, only to say, "Good job, Honoka, now we're both stuck on opposite sides, and poor me without any Wind spells to carry me across".

    "Hey, you went along with it," you shrugged.

    "Grr, that was just heat-of-the-battle thinking," she hissed and crossed her arms, "Besides, I just really wanted that Shadow to go down already".

    "Yeah well, not that much of a problem, I've already done what I came here to do," you told her, before staring up at the Gameboard's version of the sky, "You got a Goho-M or something on you? Because I have... something to say to the rest of the All-Aces right now".

  19. #19
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XIX. A Jack's Challenge

    Teleporting back up to the Lounge, the first thing you did was glare directly at Gakuto.

    "So, ahem, what's the problem here?" Gakuto tried to play it cool.

    "Gakuto, that little pro-gaming strategy of yours, sic everyone else on each other while you play info broker, then wait till you're the last standing," you snarled at him, very much within earshot of the other Aces, "Do you honestly think that's going to work out?"

    Gakuto froze, as everyone's eyes quickly came upon him. "I, I haven't the slightest idea what you're on about," he said, gritting his teeth, "But if I were you, I'd show a little more restraint in keeping secrets to yourself".

    "Oh really, given the shit you've been posting about everyone online?" you then barked at him, Himawari having to restrain you, "Deadnames, sexual histories, sexual assaults, revenge porn, who's friggin' sleeping with who!"

    It was then Kikuko strode up next to you and placed her hand on your shoulder, murmuring to you, "Honoka, you want Gakuto to be gone, don't you? There's a simple way to accomplish your will, all you do have to do is say the words".

    <<BGM: Umineko - The Candles' Dance >>

    "I didn't want to be the one to have to reveal this, Honoka, but if you insist on being so uncooperative," he said before asking, "Tell me, Melissa, Azuma, Kikuko, what is your mental image of Himawari?"

    "Wait, d-don't listen to a word he says!" Himawari then shrieked out, probably implicating herself further.

    "She appears a delicate flower of Japanese womanhood, an idol of ideal partnership to young men, and of proper behaviour to young women," Kikuko began with.

    "What, her? Yeah, she's cute and all, if you're into that sorta girl, but I'd say way too girly and not womanly," Melissa shrugged.

    "Quite a trained singer, useful to us in fact whenever we stage musicals. The Idol archetype is a common one, but you seem to imply she's been playing a dual role?" Azuma observed.

    "Mmhm, prepare to have your minds blown," Gakuto smirked as he brought up a Himawari hologram, before dragging the image of a pink wig on top of it, "She's outside of acceptable society, but surely you would've heard of the mindlessly rebellious singer-screamer Nightshade by now? Just a stage name for our Himawari, oh, on top of all the drugs and having to rely on the yakuza for management, can't be a star without that!" he burst out laughing.

    "Hah, knew it!" Melissa had the smuggest grin on her face, "It's the same with all those perfect, pure little princesses, there's a freakin' skank in all of them just waiting to come out!"

    All this made Himawari run away crying into her private room, while Kikuko kept staring right at you, not saying a word, but giving a nod.

    "Gakuto," you were seething by now "Everything you've done, all my friends you've targeted, and now you're attacking the very Ace I've chosen! Gakuto, I-I..."

    "You'll what?" he sighed at you, "You're a Jack, not a Knight, don't give me that oh-so-noble 'defending your lady's honour' crap".

    "...I challenge you to a Duel!" you screamed out, conjuring your Tarot and throwing it down.

    Everyone in the room took a step back, everyone except Kikuko, who was forming a slight smile of all things.
    "Well now, Gakuto," she said turning to him, "You now face the same warrior who slew Eitaro. What chance to do think you have?".

    "Ahem, er, that is," Gakuto struggled to respond, but was able to say, "I believe this'd hardly be a fair duel without appropriate planning time, wouldn't you say? How does, er, next Friday sound, a whole week should be long enough I presume?"

    Now that your rage had settled, there was part of you that felt like you'd gotten completely lost in your anger, saying all that without thinking. But there was another part of you that felt the opposite, that felt Gakuto had been getting off scot-free for far too long.
    "Yeah, next Friday, sure," you muttered, before gulping and demanding, "If I win though, you have to promise, no more of that 'Secret Lives of Students' shit. Deal?"

    "And if I win..." he chuckled, nudging up his glasses, "Well, I think you can already guess".

    Kikuko then whispered something right in your ear, "I'll admit, I thought little of you when you first arrived, but now, now I can see the true warrior potential within you".

    "Pity Gakuto though, I doubt any of us Aces would still side with him at this point," Azuma said, after somehow picking up on Kikuko's words.

    "My, what an ignoble end, all of you choosing a Jack over me," Gakuto had to laugh, before hissing, "Pity the only end here will be for you, Honoka".

    - The Hierophant has Journeyed to Rank 2! -

    * * *

    You then headed into Himawari's room, as she was slumped over on a pink, flower-patterned bed still crying. Her room was, well, pretty much what you'd expected, frilly and girly with a cluttered assortment of music paraphernalia like stacks of sheet music, CDs and LPs, mic stands, and speakers. There were a few touches that hinted at Nightshade though, like the more leathery couches, a couple of spikes and skulls scattered along the bed, and a bunch of black checkmarks and zigzags patterned over the drawn-shut curtains.

    <<BGM: Umineko - Wingless >>

    "Himawari, you okay?" you tried to reach out to her, "Um, hey, at least Gakuto only told on you to the All-Aces, not the whole school or something, so ah, it could've been worse," you realise how feeble those last words sounded.

    "They'll tell, I know they will," Himawari tried to hold back her tears, "If this reaches the principal, I- I could be expelled. That'll be it for the Ace of Hearts or whoever, I'll become the most hated girl in town!" she pulled herself back into a foetal position.

    "But like, drugs and yakuza, that stuff can't be true, can it?" you had to ask.

    "It is," she mumbled, "I was- I was in over my head, I didn't know what to do, or who to trust, only that I couldn't go to my parents about becoming Nightshade. So I, I had to turn to... outside sources for help, but then I thought, 'Hey, this is exactly what a badass, take-no-shit-from-anyone girl like Nightshade would do'."

    "Heh, and that impulse-thinking just got you in deeper shit, right?" you said, but quickly admitted, "Not like I'm any better, though".

    "Honoka, there's, er, something I have to tell you about Nightshade," Himawari gulped, shaking as she continued, "I'd always been repressing emotions, yeah, but it wasn't until Rin died that, well, it became clear to me what being an All-Ace really was. It was about wielding power, about stepping on anyone who dared no to toe your line, about how you had the authority to deal out even death if you wanted.
    Someone like me had no idea how to cope with a world like that so, on my own, I tried to think of what sort of person could. That's when I found Nightshade in me, like an imaginary friend I was determined to make real, so that if the All-Aces tried to come after me, I'll be ready to throw down with them!" She exclaimed, then settled back down, "'A mask you wear to endure life's hardships, that was how Popo described Personae to me when we first met. It makes sense that I could never really gain any control over Anastasia, until I became Nightshade".

    "Look, Himawari, Nightshade, whoever you're more comfortable being," you spoke up, then looked deep in her eyes, "I'm your Jack either way, so you won't ever have to throw down alone".

    Himawari's face blushed the deepest red, before she leapt straight over to kiss you directly on the mouth. "Thank you, oh thank you, Honoka!" she beamed, before saying, "But ahem, I think Nightshade really likes you too. Hold on a sec, I'll just get her out".

    She then hopped over to her towering closet, pulled open its snaking handle and, your eyes widening, began to change right in front of you. When she'd fully gotten into Nightshade get-up, which wasn't soon what with that leather corset, she then purred as she swayed over to you, pressing her nails along your skin as she said, "Hmhm, I'm not exactly the most monogamous girl, you know? But Honoka, darling, I feel you've definitely earned a special place in my black, bleeding heart". She then started ferociously kissing you, as you couldn't help but collapse down onto the bed.

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    * * *
    Long schoolday over with, you started heading out to the gates, only to see someone waiting outside you hadn't seen there before.

    "Why hello, you'd be my Azuma's friend, I remember you from Golden Week!" came the warm yet mature voice of Sakurazuka Rurina, the Ace of Spades' mother, as she waved to you.

    "Wait, I thought Shinsuke usually picked Azuma up?" you found yourself saying.

    "She's with me," Melissa of all people said, walking past you, "Hey, Mrs. Sakurazuka's a fairly lonely woman these days, her son busy and her daughter a bitch, who just needs someone to spend time with her, so that's where me and my generosity come in!" she threw an arm around Rurina's shoulder.

    Right, and this totally isn't for her money, you couldn't help but think.

    "Oh thank you, dear Melissa. Ah, I promised you a tour of all the extravagant costumes I've kept from younger years, you'll certainly find style inspiration from them!" she smiled and took off with Melissa.

    "Later, loser," were Melissa's parting words to you then, "Hope Gakuto doesn't gank you".

    Shinsuke then approached you from behind, saying "The Ace of coins is doing Madame quite the favour, she's only really had us and the Master of the house to talk to for quite some time".

    "Which reminds me," Azuma then said appearing behind you, "I believe you never did get around to choosing whether Shinsuke or Tsubasa would come aboard as your housekeeper. Had you picked Kikuko or I as your Ace, the matter would've been settled by now".

    "Oh, Mistress Honoka, hi there again!" Tsubasa hurried her way over, "I've ah, heard Mistress Kikuko's gone and took a liking to ya. That's great to hear, she sure can have difficulty opening up to people".

    Oh yeah, forgot all about this, you slumped, Do I want another of Azuma's eyes on me, or Kikuko to watch me like a falconer instead? Geez, tough choice.

    [x] Choose Tsubasa as your Maid.
    [ ] Choose Shinsuke as your Butler.
    [ ] Put this off until the duel with Gakuto's over (will delay a Social Link)

    "Okay, um, Tsubasa then" you hurriedly said, this whole choice having taken you off-guard, despite being offered it months ago, what with everything else that was going on.

    "Ah, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Miss Nakamura! I-I'm so grateful to be on board with you!" she then bowed deeply only centimetres away from you, "Er, I'm not much 'round the kitchen, Miss, but I assure you, your flat will be clean as a whistle once I'm done with it" she shot back up and beamed.

    "I see. Well, I am plenty sure that my Master has his eye firmly on you without needing my help," Shinsuke nodded at your choice, "As his cook and dresser, my time is more than well spent".

    "Tsubasa meanwhile could use someone to keep her occupied," Kikuko muttered, appearing on the scene, "There is little around the Maeda Winter Manor for her that I cannot accomplish myself".

    "Um, right you are, Mistress Kikuko ma'am," a trembling Tsubasa immediately bowed to her out of impulse.

    "Wait, Winter Manor?" you had to ask, though it should've been no surprise.

    "The Maeda, along with Teradaya Shipping, are normally based in the area from Nagoya to Kanazawa, my home at Noboribetsu having been purchased for its proximity to Kuchinashi," Kikuko was swift to state.

    "Wow, mind lending it out to use when you're not using it?" you ventured with a joke, but Kikuko didn't even dignify that with a response.

    Azuma and Kikuko heading off on their own, Himawari was the last Ace to stop you again before you could walk out the gates. "Er, Honoka, I'm sorry if I got a bit too wild on you Nightshade back there, maybe I should've held back as her more," she deeply blushed then bowed as she apologised.

    You had to blush yourself a little, "Hey, that's alright, I was kinda in the mood already, er, I admit. But yeah, maybe a little less rough next time?"

    "Huh, who'd this Nightshade be, Miss? I only see the Ace o' Hearts here," Tsubasa then looked at you, before going "Er, ah, my apologies Miss for intruding somewhere private, I'm such an eejit~" looking down.

    You were more embarrassed with yourself for how careless you'd just been with Nightshade's identity, but Himawari just walked up to Tsubasa and said, "It's okay, I'm already in danger of the whole school finding out anyway. Nightshade is my, how do I put this, alter-ego, I become her to perform songs that, ah, otherwise wouldn't fit my image. My Jack Honoka helps me out by playing bass".

    "Oh, that be all, Miss Aoyagi? Ah, perfectly sensical explanation you have there!" Tsubasa smiled, taking this confidential information quite well, though of course she wasn't in much of a position to question any All-Ace.

    "Don't tell me you're already resigned to Gakuto revealing everything?" you had to ask Himawari.

    "Well, we don't really have no way of knowing whether he'll keep his word as a Duellist for now," Himawari shrugged and sighed, "I believe in you, Honoka... but still, it pays to be prepared for the worst, just in case".

    You admitted to your Ace, "I know the feeling. Just last month, I was scared out of my mind that Eitaro was gonna straight-up murder me," you paused before saying "Now I'm still here, and he's gone".

    "Jaysus, Miss Nakamura. Worst I've had it is when Mistress Kikuko goes ballistic at me when I forget to sweep a spot," Tsubasa drooped.

    "Anyway, I've got you've got Tsubasa here to introduce to your apartment, so I'll head off," Himawari then said, but turned and gave you one last wink and said, "But I'm really looking forward to our next rehearsal, Jack of Hearts~"

    * * *
    While it wasn't that long a walk through the Town Centre back to your apartment, you attracted, or rather Tsubasa did, a surprising amount of attention. Most of it stopped at just some whispers and stares, but the fact that Tsubasa was dressed in a full maid apron over her school uniform certainly did not go unnoticed.

    "Ah, Nakamura Miss, it's quite odd for me to be in the spotlight like this" Tsubasa said, trying to smile yet still all fidgety, "Normally at the Manor, I'm just expected to keep quiet and dust things".

    "Eh, Kuchinashi's hardly the biggest city, people tend to pick up on stuff that's out of the ordinary more," you muttered at first, but then twitched and quickly said, "Um, not saying you're abnormal or anything, Tsubasa, just that, y'know, you rarely see maids outside the cities and manors and stuff".

    Tsubasa had to chuckle at that, explaining herself with, "Aye, Miss Nakamura, you almost remind me of myself whenever I'm 'fraid that my Mistress is about to go off at me. It's okay, took no offence, in fact I'm used to mean stuff being thrown my way, honestly".

    Getting back to your apartment, Megumi wrenched themselves off the couch to greet you, only to freeze when they saw Tsubasa. "Oh no, oh no, I remember you! You're with the All-Aces, aren't you, and that creepy traditional girl!"

    "Gumi, relax, Tsubasa's just gonna dust the place and put our stuff in order, there's nothing to worry about" you tried to tell them, only to think Okay, maybe a little to worry about from her Mistress.

    Megumi snarled, "Hona, I don't need my 'stuff' in order, I know where everything is already" collapsing back onto the couch.

    "Oh, uh, I'm sorry, Master-er-Mistress-er..." Tsubasa began, not knowing how to continue, and despite not technically being assigned to Megumi.

    "Hey look, it's fine, guess I overreacted," Megumi calmed down, before saying, "And you don't have to address me as anything but 'Megumi'... but okay, if you really insist, hmm what's a genderless title? Ah, got it, 'The Honourable'".

    You took a step back. You sympathised with Megumi not wanting to be gendered, but 'the honourable', really?!

    "Aye, that'd be grand, Honourable Megumi," Tsubasa smiled and bowed, going ahead with it anyway.

    Your new maid got to work in your room for a second, while you sat with Megumi and thought about studying, neither of you getting around to it. However, Tsubasa was back out before long, chirping "Aye, all clean now, though granted you room's quite sparse Miss, so I had a quicker time of it than usual".

    "Yeah, even if I could afford to decorate, or the landlord would allow hung paintings, I'm not even sure what I'd do with the place" you had to shrug, but smiled at Tsubasa.

    "Right Miss, not sure how I'd pretty up the place though. I mean, thanks to the Mistress, I'm mostly just familiar with traditional design right out of a Kyoto townhouse" she said, but began thinking, "Guess we could fix you with a charm on your bedpost, then hang a scroll somewhere. Maybe some futons and tatami mats, though your place has a bead already. Well, one bed that is. Ooh, and a big screen with an old painting printed over it, that'd be leefs!".

    "Leefs?" you shrunk back and had to ask.

    "Er, short for lethal, Miss. B-but in a good way, like how people used to say 'wicked' to mean 'good' way back when," Tsubasa tried to explain.

    "Why not just get a potted plant or something?" Megumi had a suggestion, "Honoka's dad's a gardener after all, well in his spare time anyway. Or some figurines of a show?"

    "Probably because if Kikuko sees me buying modern stuff like figurines she'll freak," you sighed out, "Unless maybe they're from way back, like a Showa franchise, or maybe if they're of a feudal period piece".

    Megumi had to glance at you, "Hey, it's our apartment, not Kikuko's," they said, but double-checked themselves with, "Okay, technically it's the landlord's, but fuck him".

    "I'm still kinda at a loss for all this, Miss. I mean, I just clean up how a place already looks, I never really get to chip in on its design," Tsubasa said, looking off into nowhere for a moment, "B-but, I can certainly learn, Miss Nakamura-Honoka! They'll be more than a few sites, tutorials, and library books out there, well, all this assuming Mistress gives me the time".

    "Seriously, Tsubasa, no need to stress yourself out," you said to her. "You've been a big help already, I mean, I'm pretty bad about remembering to clean, I'm just glad my parents haven't visited my apartment in person, they'd stare in shock," you had to giggle.

    "Oh, t-thanks Miss Nakamura," Tsubasa said, going back to your last name again, before having to confess, "I know it ain't right of me to say this, but I honestly envy Mister Ohtsuka, ah that'd be Shinsuke, Miss. He's such a professional no matter what the Sakurazukas require of him, but me, I'm just a nervous wreck".

    "Look, Tsubasa," you tried to reach out to her, "You're fine. Like, far as I know, you haven't blown up a house or shot a guy or whatever, you have the right to feel proud of yourself, or at least happy with you who are".

    "O-oh my, my pleasure Miss Honoka," Tsubasa almost started getting teary-eyed, "Mistress Kikuko would probably just have told me to get back to work by now. Ah, that reminds me, I still need to clean up your living room here, just a second!" she finally brightened back up again.

    "Hold on, I'm still watching that-" Megumi shouted out as Tsubasa got to work.

    "I art thou... Thou art I
    Thou anointest a new Knight to defend thy Crown
    Thou shalt take the mantle of the Hanged Man Arcana"

  20. #20
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    May 2012
    In-Between Days
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    XX. The Being Behind the Gameboard

    Tsubasa's specialty was cleaning, not cooking, so you only had the usual in the house when you got up Saturday morning. After a whole week of fancy food courtesy of the All-Aces, at first the more normal meal Megumi had prepared was a treat, but you had to admit you were starting to miss the king crabs and caviar, all that stuff.

    Looking in the pantry, you ultimately settled on:
    [ ] Another ramen cup, to keep costs down. [+Perception]
    [ ] Heading out to Caf Okumura, for the first time since with your parents. [+Education]
    [ ] A more local caf, to do your bit in helping the local economy. [+Etiquette]
    [x] Some leftovers in your fridge. Well, better eat them before they expire... [+Resolve]

    Being a Saturday, school at least flew by fairly quickly, though you did have to sit quite the drawling lecture about the Sengoku Era, which being a Japanese student you feel you've examined every inch of.
    You'd kept telling you'd be out by noon today, and sure enough noon came, as much as what school time you had dragged.

    Sheesh, after Golden Week you sure had a lot of social catching up to do around town. These 'Social Links' honestly couldn't help but remind you of why you used to be such a wallflower, because having to remember to make time for everyone was a real strain.
    But let's see, on Saturday afternoons there was:

    [ ] Occult Club was on, but it wasn't going to be the same without Colette.
    [x] You should catch up with, ah, Suzako, you certainly have some things to discuss.
    [ ] There's Hotaru's gaming group, you could use a little escape right now.
    [ ] You were gonna apply part-time back at a Sweets Shop- wait, isn't that where Yuya works right now?
    [ ] Lurk around the Computer Club, it's time Gakuto was the one who had his secrets spilled.
    [ ] Sports Clubs are open:
    - [ ] Cricket.
    - [ ] Football.
    [ ] Oh yeah, you seriously considered being a part-time model, hmm.
    - [ ] Well, you looks and confidence sure have improved. Hopefully you won't have to shrink your diet too much.
    - [ ] Maybe apply as a photographer instead. You don't know much about the field, but you snap pics on your phone all the time, so how hard can it be?
    [ ] Invite your parents to your apartment, they might like to see the job Tsubasa's done.
    [ ] Eitaro's family ran a Dojo, didn't they? You did, er, kill him, so maybe you should check up on them?
    [ ] You've got a Duel before the end of next week, you should really get to scoping out the Gameboard (write-in which Aces to accompany you)
    - [ ] Head to Gakuto's Empire, to know what you're up against.
    - [ ] Head to Himawari's Empire. She's your Ace after all, and Colette's Shadow may be there.
    - [ ] Head to Kikuko's Empire, learn what Gakuto's afraid of.
    - [ ] Head to Azuma's Empire, you only got to see so much of it.
    - [ ] Head to Melissa's Empire, before she can do anything to Reina's Shadow.
    - [ ] Head to Eitaro's Empire, see what's become of it.
    - [ ] Head to Rin's Empire, you're due for a rematch with Heimdall.

    You knew Occult Club was on but, er, really didn't know how you'd feel in that with Colette not being there. You did figure you'd probably have to get around to the place sometime though, for the other members' sake, possibly Monday?

    You definitely figured, after everything that had got down on and off the gameboard yesterday, that talking with K- with Suzako again was a real priority. First thing though was to check that Melissa or Gakuto weren't anywhere in sight, which you figured might be easiest if you just waited outside the school gates for Suzako.
    Way to make me feel like a stalker towards my own best friend, you sighed internally.

    You soon caught up with Suzako, even if it took you a while to recognise her as Keiko due to her drastic glow up. Huh, didn't she make the same mistake when the All-Aces gave you your makeover? Not that you changed your name though, though you remembered Melissa saying she'd call you 'Harriet' or something if you became her Ace, dodged that bullet.
    Actually, why didn't she rename Reina then? you thought, Guess she got bored of her or something. A quick Internet search told you though that apparently 'Reina' was already an English name, that might be useful on trivia night.

    "Hey, ah, Suzako!" you called out to your friend, "Er, ah, you're not averse now to hanging out with me, right?"

    Suzako blinked at first, but then said, "No, of course not! It's just, well, I'm starting my new part-time job today, that's all, and all the way down at a caf in Sapporo. But hey, that means you can be my first customer!"

    That solved, another issue arose, as you then noticed you weren't the only one hovering around Suzako. She had gained quite the crowd, with girls gossiping and boys ogling her.
    "Uh yeah, guess you would've seen them eventually. I... don't really know how to feel, I mean hey, I'm finally getting attention, but on the other hand, some of my stuff they do creeps me out," Suzako twitched.

    "Eh, whether they jeer at you or leer at you, arseholes are arseholes," you told Suzako, "Attention's not worth it if it's from pieces of shit, I had to deal with creeps when I first joined the All-Aces, before they lost interest and went back to ogling Melissa or whoever".

    "Geez, you've really not been holding back lately, huh?" Suzako giggled, but then said, "Though about Melissa- you know, nevermind, I'll get to her once we're on the train down".
    Walking towards then getting aboard the polished yet boxy Sapporo-bound train, Suzako then turned to look at you and laughed feebly. "You can say I was getting ahead of myself, but... I did it. I asked Melissa what she thought of me now, if I could be All-Ace material with the old Keiko gone," she began, but then absolutely collapsed in her seat.
    "Melissa just laughed at me, saying 'As if you could ever be an All-Ace'. I- I wasn't gonna take that for an answer, so I mustered up my courage and then finally talked to Azuma, and-and..."

    "He just brushed past you, didn't he?" you were blunt.

    Suzako was starting to cry now, "I don't get it, what more do I have to do?! I'm both pretty and popular now, I can be all smiles and sunshine, Hell I've been part of Azuma's fan club since I started high school, but the Aces still treat me like I'm less than nothing!"

    "Kei- Suzako," you then put her hand on her shoulder, "I think I get it now. Being an All-Ace isn't about being pretty or popular, not just anyway. It's about power," you rasped out, summing it up as "They treat you like dirt because they can, or rather because they can get away with it, because they fear they'll lose their privilege if they don't abuse it.
    Argh, I'm no philosophy student, yet look at me go off," you tried to laugh, before slumping back yourself.

    "No, I-I think you've got a point," she said to you, this time putting her hand on your shoulder.

    You started thinking to yourself, Did-did helping Suzako's Shadow out on the Gameboard change her thoughts to All-Aces? That positive thought was soon replaced by a big negative however, when it occurred once again to you that the All-Aces had to same power, and could use it on anyone they wanted at any time, your Persona being the only thing that protected you from that.

    It was then Suzako showed you something on her phone, "Can you believe I genuinely used to write All-Ace fanfiction? I was embarrassed to show anyone this before, but now, I don't care".

    "Really? Sweet," a shit-eating grin eclipsed your entire face, "I have got to see this. Ooh, tell me you shipped Azuma and Gakuto!"

    "What? No! Azuma and Eitaro actually," Suzako told you, "I thought about Azuma and Shinsuke, but figured it'd be too obvious".

    <<BGM: Futurama The Game - Red Light District >>

    The train reached Sapporo before you could get that much reading done, with just a walk south landing you in the Susukino district, looking less dangerous if also less vibrant in the afternoon glow this time.

    "And here it is!" Suzako beamed, pointing out no less than a... Phoenix Rider-themed caf, like the sort you'd expect more to see in Tokyo. "I've been thinking about a waitress job, but only felt confident applying here once I reached a level of beauty on par with a Tokusatsu actress. Come on in!"

    "Er, I'm sure they're not that selective with waitresses, most diners aren't," you said to her. Still, when you heard that Suzako had gotten a job in Susukino of all places, this was definitely a relief compared to what for a second you'd feared.

    The cafe's interior was, like a Phoenix, coloured in red, yellow and some magenta even, with a bunch of high-priced show merchandise arranged on the shelves, and a little library nook containing DVDs and even some spin-off manga. Suzako arranged for you to sit down on a padded couch around a table for two while she got dressed in her job's apron. She eventually waltzed out and posed right in front of you, dressed in a red and pink yukata-like outfit with a checkered suspended apron flowing from her waist down.

    "Ta-da, I'm Rider Suzako, Servant of the Scales of Justice!" she burst out, spinning her notepad around her finger, only to notice you struggling not to laugh. "Aw, come on Honoka, this is serious, my first real job! Oh wait, ahem," she composed herself, "Anyway, may I take your order?"

    "Huh?" you muttered, forgetting about afternoon tea with everything going on as you fumbled with the menu, "Oh yeah, of course, I'll have the-"
    [ ] "Ichigou Strawberry Sundae", a pun on the first Rider's unofficial title. [+Perception]
    [x] "The Rider Raven egg curry", which you figured used squid ink to get the eggs that colour. [+Education]
    [ ] "The Scales Rider salmon norizushi", which was a stretch for the weighing scales Rider, but you remembered Keiko used to dress up as. [+Etiquette]
    [ ] "Er, the STOPPER wasabi volcano lair?", the 'hottest' option on the menu. [+Resolve]

    "Okay, got that down. We'll be serving you soon, as swift as the falcon!" Suzako proclaimed, sliding the notepad into her belt before pressing some driver button on its buckle.

    Having to wait again, as the caf radio blared "Phoenix Ri~der! Phoenix Ri~der! Rider!" you were reminded of how one fanfic Keiko had shown you before was of Phoenix Rider, but was also her rough idea for her own season. Only in retrospect did it occur to you how much the lead character was blatantly her, but hey it was her early work.

    Suzako then came back out dressed in the glittering gold and silver sequins of Phoenix Rider Scales, who from memory hadn't even been the main character in his own series.
    "Justice has served you!" She then twirled around and presented you with your food, "Itadakimasu!"

    "Er, thank you," you mumbled and bowed your head, "Ah, I know you're excited, but what's with all the cosplay?"

    She looked from side to side, before kneeling down and whispering, "Well, being a waitress I'm still not exactly flush with cash, so I was also thinking of modelling-"

    "Modelling?" you gasped, "...It's just, confidence is cool and all, but are you sure you're not getting too ahead of yourself?"

    "Hey, I'm still gonna do things my way, I promise! I'll be a cosplay model, see?" she told you, "I think that's the most fame and fortune a nerdy girl like me can have in society".

    "Well, okay then," you sighed out, as you had to admit, "To tell the truth, I thought about modelling myself. The idea felt weird, but I know someone now who's into that stuff, so who knows?" you shrugged.

    Afterwards, you wandered around Susukino a little more while waiting for Suzako's shift to finish, the smell of ramen reminding you how full you were, and The Swords-Dancer interesting to look at when it wasn't nighttime.
    "Okay Honoka, all done", Suzako chirped, before noticing where you'd wandered to, "The Swords-Dancer? Isn't that some exclusive club?"

    "I wouldn't say 'exclusive'. I've actually been in there to perform," you told her.

    "P-perform?" Suzako was clearly startled.

    "Yeah, with Nightshade, got a job as her bassist," you straight-up told her.

    "W-wow, I never would've thought, Honoka," Suzako gasped, before she had to say, "Is, is Nightshade still looking for musicians, or maybe a co-singer? Or maybe I could launch my own rival singing career to her! ah yeah, shame we haven't gotten the karaoke booth set up in the caf yet".

    You sighed, "Suzako, don't stretch yourself too thin", before you bit your lip when it occurred she could easily say the same to you, "Er, I meant, that your karaoke voice is alright, but aren't you more into poetry and that sorta stuff?"

    "S-so? I can write lyrics then!" she spoke out, but then looked at the time and said, "Er, guess this talk will have to wait, train's almost arrived!"

    On the train back to Kuchinashi though, Suzako instead raised a completely different question, "Hey Honoka, do you think if I can become a star cosplayer by the end of, like, the year, the All-Aces will have to accept me? Or I'll form my own club to rival the Aces?"

    You couldn't help groan, thinking You just had to relapse on me, didn't you? I thought we'd had this discussion?
    "Hmm, all the current Aces are third-years, so I guess that'll leave all the spots free" you had to remark. Speculating which students would get made All-Aces the next year was one of the most popular pastimes at your school, though if the word 'Empire' came out of Suzako's mouth you'd scream.

    "Okay, so the All-Aces have titles, right? Like Azuma's the Ace of Spades, for instance, so... what would I be then?" Suzako murmured, getting lost in thought.

    "Hmm, I dunno, Ace of Base?" you tried to joke, though showed how serious you really were about this.

    "Wait, I know, Ace of Batons, I like that," Suzako smiled, but soon furrowed her brow again as she said, "No, maybe Ace of Discs instead? Ace of Staves?"

    Even after having confronted her Shadow, you could see getting through to your oldest friend still wasn't going to be easy. But, well, at least you were making some progress, and your friendship seemed back together...

    - Justice has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    * * *

    Saying goodbye to Suzako at the station, you soon thought about making plans for the evening back in Kuchinashi. Maybe you could've had some fun prowling around Sapporo at night, especially since it was Sunday tomorrow, but this was all a bit too short-term for that.

    [x] Mid-terms will be soon, you should get to studying.
    [ ] Hang out with Megumi, maybe you can study together?
    [ ] Check out the Arcade in town, get your mind and energy going after that double train ride
    [ ] Go out for Karaoke, since you didn't get to do anyway in the Rider caf.
    [ ] Watch some shows, see what's streaming.
    [ ] Browse the internet, you got your old computer back after all.
    [ ] What you had at the Rider caf wasn't really dinner, but only the expensive restaurants would be open right now...
    [ ] Just get to sleep.

    Before all that though, you thought to stop at the Velvet Room, since after that stint on the Gameboard, Popo probably had some new personae ready for you.

    However, you soon ran into a problem, when the pegasus pony told you "Sorry Miss 'Onoka, looks like you've hit yer limit of eight. Don't think you've had Sacrifice unlocked for you, so guess you'll have to fuse some Personae or bin 'em in the Compendium".

    Fusions on offer:
    [X] Death Santa Muerte + Hanged Man Argus = Moon Camazotz (Wind and Curse)
    [X] Strength Atalanta + Emperor Richard III = Tower Chernobog (Curse and Nuclear)
    [ ] Emperor Richard III + Rebirth Arsene = Priestess Nimue (Ice and Psy)
    [ ] Strength Atalanta + Rebirth Arsene = Star Decarabia (Fire and Almighty)
    [ ] Hanged Man Argus + Rebirth Arsene = Devil Mephistopheles (Psy and Curse)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Rebirth Arsene = Chariot Nike (Physical and Electric)
    [ ] Death Santa Muerte + Rebirth Arsene = Fool Galahad (Physical and Bless)
    [ ] Tower PITT + Rebirth Arsene = Death Vanth (Curse and Fire)
    [ ] Fool Theodora + Tower PITT = Empress Birrangulu (Ice and Bless)
    [ ] Emperor Richard III + Tower PITT = Star Decarabia
    [ ] Strength Atalanta + Tower PITT = Rebirth Thanatos (Curse and Physical)
    [ ] Devil Anastasia + Tower PITT = Magician Orlando (Physical and Nuclear)
    [x] Store Okiku-Mushi
    [ ] Exit.

    I am Justice Simurgh, the everlasting flame of the skies," said the blinding bird that'd emerged from Keiko's Shadow, "Honoka, do not fear the dark, for the light of justice is with you!
    Elements: Null Bless, Resist Fire and Psy, weak to Ice and Curse
    - Agilao
    - Mahama
    - Sukukaja
    - Makakaja
    Justice Bonus: Fire Boost

    I am Hanged Man Benkei, Thief of 999 Swords," proclaimed the bulky Shadow monk you'd fought, "For your bravery at the bridge, I shall now stand strong for you
    Elements: Null Bless and Curse, weak to Gun and Electric
    - Mighty Swing
    - Kouga
    - Tarunda
    - Rakukaja
    Hanged Man Bonus: Maeiha

    I am Tower Chernobog, shade of nuclear winter," came the lightless voice of a sinister, blade-wielding mushroom man, "We shall sink the heavens in blackest night!
    Elements: Null Curse and Nuclear, resist Ice, weak to Wind and Bless
    - Freila
    - Mudoon
    - Blight
    Tower Bonus: Invigorate
    Inherit Bonus: Media, Swift Strike

    I am Moon Camazotz, the wings of Xibalba," shrieked a hanging bat with rows of fangs, bouncing a human head, "See you on the court, but don't lose your head!
    Elements: Null Curse, resist Wind, weak to Bless
    - Garula
    - Life Drain
    - Eiga
    Moon Bonus: Spiral Edge
    Inherit Bonus: Analyse, Dekunda

    Your new Personae received, you then hesitated to speak before you at last let out, "So, er, problem. Gone and got myself into another Duel".

    Popo could only bury his head in his wings hearing that, while Lauryn spoke up, "Oh, ahem, w-who would this be with?"

    "Gakuto," you sighed out, then admitted, "In my defence, he was basically asking for it-" but you then stopped, realising those words only made you sound worse.

    You could see Lauryn biting down on her lip, as she said, "I'm... sadly not surprised. When I first met Gakuto, all those years back, at first I thought he was just an avid computer enthusiast. He did tend to make dirty jokes, and er, wasn't too respectful of us girls until Kikuko, ahem, voiced a complaint. If, if I'd still been there, maybe I'd be able to-"

    "You were killed," you told her bluntly, "And not even in a Duel or anything, but off guard, hate to remind you. But honestly, you're still doing stuff right here and now in this room! Granted, not the same stuff, but still".

    "Yes, um, thank you," Lauryn muttered, but had to ask, "Still, Honoka, where does this 'Persona Game' end? Popo told you we were given our Personae to fight Shadows, not each other".

    You shuddered. That even Gakuto wouldn't be the last of your Duels was something you'd thought of, but seriously hadn't wanted to contemplate. "Yeah, like, is fate gonna keep forcing me to battle the All-Aces till there's none left? Am I gonna have to fight Azuma, Kikuko, Melissa and, oh God, even Himawari? Or when the year over and I'm magically Campus Queen or whatever, are some new kids gonna come and make me fight them?" that all burst out of you at once.

    "Melissa?" Lauryn had to ask.

    "Ace of Coins, she would've joined after you," you filled in.

    "I, um, well isn't Mr. Azuma the one who got this 'ere Persona game going? If best case scenario Miss, he leaves school, then all this should stop with him, right?" Popo tried to reassure.

    Lauryn shook her head, "The Gameboard can change locations, I believe that's been established? It'd be like Azuma or whoever's left to just try and take it to University, then out into the adult world," she spoke up.

    You clutched your temples and moaned, "Oh yeah, good friggin' Lord, how did I not think of that?! Ugh this is stupid, but the Gameboard can't just be some free-for-all that magically wound up at some high school.
    Popo, please, you have to tell me, you're a Messenger right? Well, who’s on the other end, it has to be someone more specific than 'the Gameboard'? I mean, it's a board, how can it answer back?!" you pleaded.

    "Oh, take it you're meaning the Overseer, right Miss?" Popo said, before clearing his throat, "Er, most stuff about our Black Queen on High is right confidential, Miss 'Onoka, but I know you've always been a decent enough girl, so I tell you as much as I'm allowed.
    The Overseer is officially known as Mr-Roghain Macha, but she's fine if you just call her The Morrigan for short. She's a great goddess of Death, Fate, and War, so you can see why someone like her'd be refereeing the Gameboard," Popo told you.

    "You said she oversees the Persona Game, right? Can you put me through to her or something? Because hoo boy have I not been entertained so far," you sat back and folded your arms.

    "Not sure, Miss 'Onoka, the Queen's awful busy most times, but I know on the Gameboard you're bound to run into her sooner or later," Popo muttered, "Problem is, it's not that she can't do anything about your current situation, it's... more that she won't, and would say something all convoluted about fate and luck, right? Things have to have gone horridly off-the-rails for her to intervene", he then gave as much of a shrug as a winged pony could.

    "I should've expected as much," you mumbled beneath your breath.

    "You said this fight's gonna be against Mister Gakuto?" Popo then asked, before telling you, "I remember awakening his Persona for him like 'twas yesterday, 'cept it was three years back of course. He was already like a kid in a lolly shop when he first gazed on his Empire, talking 'bout all the possibilities it had and whatnot. So when I told him to just write the kanji for 'Bishop' in midair to call his Octavian, he did it in a flash".

    "He was a little jealous when I showed him what my Empire looked like though," Lauryn giggled to herself.

    "Ah, okay," you just said, but you got to thinking, Guess I've only been focusing on all the bad stuff going on that I forgot, hey, summoning mythical guardians from your mind is pretty cool, or at least it should be. "W-what about Eitaro then?"

    Both Popo and Lauryn shrugged. "Hard to say, Miss 'Onoka, he was mostly expressionless when it 'appened, basically just nodded and that was it," Popo said.

    "My, all the things I miss, keeping strictly to this room," Igor then joked. he had been somewhat left out of the conversation, but he didn't seem to mind.

    You then asked one last thing of Popo before leaving, "Could- could you at least inform Morrigan about everything that's been going on, if nothing else?"

    "Of course, it's me sworn duty, Miss 'Onoka," Popo said, trying to give as much of a bow as a pony possibly could.
    While you hadn't learned that much really, it was something at least to finally be able to put a name to whatever forces were behind the Gameboard...

    - The Tower has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    "Oh, Honoka, one last thing," Lauryn then said, "About my Empire, I was able to get a word through to that Heimdall via the Sea of Souls. He's agreed to let you pass, especially since, well, Eitaro was the main aggressor, though I can't guarantee the rest of my old Empire will be smooth sailing".

    "Hey, thanks for that," you smiled. Admittedly your thoughts had been more on Gakuto's Empire for obvious reasons, but from the sounds of it, Rin's could at least provide some serious training.

    * * *

    Back in your apartment, Megumi asked you, "Oh hey, how's Keiko's new job treating her?"

    "Hard to say right now, but she sure seems enthusiastic about it," you said, but smiled. "I guess it's a plus she can still be in good spirits, what with school not exactly being kind to either of us. Food's, ah, interesting too, squid ink on egg curry and all".

    "Ah, so worth the commute then?" Megumi said, their attention not all there.

    "Yeah, suppose so. Ugh, anyway, I've gotta study, midterms coming up and all," you groaned.

    "Study hard then, that way you can get into a better college than mine," Megumi smiled at you.

    Yeah, knowing you, you probably fell asleep for the whole of your exams, you thought, but definitely didn't speak.

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