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- one -

The first time, it's because he's just not sure.

All of the facts add up, of course. Adachi had the opportunity to push both Mayumi Yamano and Saki Konishi into the TV. He had the means to cover up any evidence that might have led the police to finding him out. He had the ability to get close to the Dojimas' house to leave the warning letters in the mailbox. No one would have suspected him.

But Souji thinks back on the time they had shared together: the stolen moments in the lobby at Junes, the dinner he prepared for Adachi and Nanako, Adachi helping Nanako with her homework, the comedy of errors that resulted from Adachi trying and failing to avoid contact with the old lady who kept doting on him.

He thinks of Adachi at the hospital, standing loyally next to Dojima's bed, kindly insisting that Souji go home and rest. No matter how hard he tries, Souji can't reconcile that image with the one of a murderer.

So he bites his lip and stays silent. The snow falls down around them, white flecks in the yellow fog. It's not denying the truth if you can't be sure what the truth is, right?

The winter passes with little fanfare. Dojima comes home from the hospital in January, but Nanako is still weak and frail. They try to take her outside one afternoon in February, but she starts coughing violently and the nurse hurriedly wheels her back into the building. The fog has been particularly thick lately, Souji notices absently, though he's not sure what to do with that information.

He doesn't know what prompts him to go see Adachi on that afternoon in March. He stands in front of the detective in the interrogation room at the police department, and realizes he has nothing to say. He tells himself that he wants to know the truth, but what does that accomplish? The situation spirals violently out of control within minutes, and suddenly he's holding a piece of paper in one hand and a lighter in the other and he can't quite retrace the steps that got him to this position.

The letter burns to ash in his hand.

He still feels numb as he sits on the train back to the city the following day, staring blankly at his phone. Adachi had called him 'partner,' but he has never felt so alone.

 

- two -

His previous choice was wrong. He knows that it was wrong, because why else would he have gone back to live it again? But every other time that this had happened -- the first time they failed to save Yukiko, the second time they failed to save Yukiko, the time they weren't strong enough to overpower Kanji's Shadow, the time they got hopelessly lost in Naoto's laboratory, the time when Kunino-sagiri's hold on his friends was too strong for him to handle -- he had only gone back one week. This time, he had to live everything again, starting from the train ride to Inaba and his first dream of the Velvet Room.

And so, after reliving seven months and trying to pretend he doesn't know the solution to the mystery, Souji finds himself standing outside of Aiya with Yosuke and Naoto again. He stares at his feet and goes over the facts in his head for no particular reason; he knows the truth behind the murders now.

Souji glances at Naoto and Yosuke in turn out of the corners of his eyes. It should be easy. All he has to do is say Adachi's name; Naoto with her sharp intellect and Yosuke with his infectious determination can put the pieces together from there.

He thinks about the March 2012 that no one else remembers, and realizes that Adachi never really confessed.

Souji's throat constricts, the cold December air numbing his lungs. He watches the snowflakes fizzling on the sidewalk and says nothing.

Winter floats by the same as before, except this time Souji refuses to let the nurse try to take Nanako outside in February. Even if her kidnapping was an unavoidable event, he would spare her whatever pain he could. The fog lies over everything like a shroud of concealment.

Maybe it could be different this time, Souji thinks desperately as he waits for Adachi in the interrogation room in March. Maybe it wasn't the choice that was wrong, but his actions afterwards. So instead of asking the real question, the question that burns on the tip of his tongue, Souji lamely shuffles his feet and mutters, "I came to say goodbye."

Adachi just chuckles amiably. The implication that Souji has wasted his time is just there under the surface, thinly veiled, so obvious that even Teddie would have picked up on it.

"I'm glad we found the culprit before you went home," Adachi says as he walks out the door. Souji feels bile rising in the back of his throat.

The next day, he is sitting on a train back to the city, this time without Adachi's number in his phone, but still haunted by the same cloying emptiness.

 

- three -

When he thinks about it, it's strange how he feels more powerful each time he repeats the year. The first times, the times when he only went back to live one week again, he had lost all the things he had gained in that week, as though time had simply reverted. Now, when he goes to the Velvet Room and looks in Margaret's compendium, the pages that should have been blank are filled with Personas. Even more surprising is that every Persona answers his call, right from the beginning; he touches the page with Norn's picture and she fades away, materializing as a tarot card in his hand. It shouldn't be possible -- he hasn't even met Naoto yet -- but he enters Yukiko's castle and Norn answers him there too, subduing Chie's Shadow with a single blast of wind.

His friends never notice anything out of the ordinary, of course. The power of the Wild Card has always made Souji stronger than the rest of them, and it's not as though they retain the knowledge of previous cycles the way Souji does. He tries asking Yosuke about it once, just to make sure, but Yosuke just laughs and makes a comment about how everything feels samey in a small town. Souji considers asking the question again more directly, but he thinks about Igor and the Velvet Room and all the other things he's never told the rest of the team, and decides that this is just another burden he'll have to carry on his own.

The incredibly powerful Personas at Souji's disposal allow them to complete their forays into the TV world in hours rather than days, which gives him more opportunities to investigate Adachi on his own time. Adachi seems reticent to spend more time with Souji at first, but Souji has carefully catalogued all of the responses to which his friends have reacted favorably, and Adachi is no exception. Even so, apart from the fact that he spends slightly more time with Adachi and less with everyone else, his life changes very little.

The problem, Souji realizes in October as he stares at the warning letter in his hands, might not be Adachi at all.

Souji makes his way through the events of November with a steely determination. Chie actually confronts him about it, which is new. "You're acting like none of this is affecting you," she says one night as they're leaving the hospital, her hands shoved into the pockets of her track jacket. "It's okay to feel stuff around us, you know."

He can't decide if he wants to laugh or cry, but of course he does neither. He's already made the decision about what he needs to do; all that's left now is to wait until the opportunity arises. Wasting energy on emotions in the meantime isn't going to change anything. Not that he can tell Chie any of that, of course.

"Push the bastard in," Souji says in the deathly quiet of the hospital room in December, and even Yosuke looks at him in horror.

When he looks back on it, he's not sure what he expected to happen. Nanako had always recovered before, so there was no reason to believe she wouldn't recover again. It's raining on the day of her funeral, and afterwards the fog rolls in and stays.

Souji leaves in March, just the same. He doesn't see Adachi again.

 

- four -

On his fourth trip through 2011, Souji decides to make some changes.

He forms the bonds with Yosuke and Chie out of habit. There is nothing to gain from it anymore; after the third round, he has realized that he knows everything there is to know about both of them. It's that knowledge that keeps him from ignoring them entirely; the two of them are strangely similar, both dogged and persistent, so he patiently spends an afternoon with each of them, placating their immediate need to latch on to the exciting new transfer student. With the first two members of the Investigation Team thus appeased, Souji turns his full attention to Adachi.

The trouble at first is tracking Adachi down. By now Souji has built an entire calendar in his head, cataloging the days when his friends are available as well as all of the important events, but his previous actions have proven that the timeline is not completely immutable. He tries to meet with Adachi even before going into the TV world to rescue Yukiko, but he isn't especially surprised when he doesn't find Adachi waiting on the first floor of Junes. The police department has its hands full with two murder investigations and a missing person case. Souji recalls how Dojima has never been home in the evenings while someone is missing and he wonders why he thought Adachi might be any different. He takes out his phone and calls Yosuke and Chie, tells them he's changed his mind about not going into the TV today; it's not that he needs them there, but that he doesn't want to deal with the inevitable fallout that would erupt if he rescued Yukiko alone.

Nothing in the castle is a match for Yoshitsune's blade, and it's still light out when they emerge from the television in Junes with Yukiko in tow. Yet again, no one notices or says anything about Souji's absurdly powerful Personas. With no memories and no benchmarks, it's impossible for them to know. Souji lingers in the Junes lobby after the others have left, waiting until it's fully and properly dark outside, then paces up and down the shopping district for an hour or so. He knows it's absurd to hope, but he's keyed up from fighting and from thinking about the careful plan he's constructed. Once he's convinced that Adachi won't show himself tonight, he heads home to find Nanako, Dojima, and...

Of course, how could he have forgotten? Souji bites the inside of his mouth to keep from cursing or making a face. This is how it's always happened, Adachi has always come home with Dojima the evening following Yukiko's rescue. While Souji was casting about town looking for him, he was right here all along, having dinner with the Dojimas like it's the most natural thing in the world.

"Ah, there you are!" Dojima says, and Souji's eyes sting with angry tears. He blinks them back forcefully, balling his hands into fists. "Come on, there's still some food left. I wanted you to meet my partner, Adachi."

Adachi smiles sheepishly. Souji nods politely and excuses himself to his room.

--

Each afternoon, Souji leaves Yasogami High and immediately makes his way to the lobby of Junes. When he doesn't find Adachi waiting there, he goes to the police station, but doesn't go inside. That would be suspicious, and he doesn't want to draw too much attention or make himself obvious. Instead he waits on a bench across the street, carefully watching everyone who goes in and out, looking for an all-too-familiar figure in a dark, wrinkled suit. Once the sun sets, Souji tries his luck at the shopping district. He comes home later each night, earning stern looks from Dojima, but Souji can't bring himself to say anything. It's not like he can just ask about Adachi's whereabouts; as far as Dojima is aware, the two of them have spent less than five minutes in each others' presences. Souji considers scrapping the entire plan as a waste of time, but it's hard to believe in that sentiment when his other option is slowly re-scaling the social ladders with friends he knows inside and out.

Out of all the people he's known in Inaba, Adachi is the only one Souji still can't understand.

He isn't surprised when he sees Yosuke at Junes on the Sunday following Yukiko's rescue. He also isn't surprised that Yosuke is alone in the lobby. "Yo, Souji!" he says, rubbing his nose and grinning like an idiot. "Are you busy? Wanna head out somewhere?"

"Sorry," Souji says, already turning to leave. "I have plans with someone else."

"Got a hot date?" Yosuke calls after him, cloying as always.

"Something like that," Souji mutters as he goes through the automatic doors. He's staring at his feet, dejected and frustrated, so he doesn't even see Adachi before he runs headlong into him. They both fall, Souji landing on top of Adachi, and all the breath goes out of his lungs in a rush.

Adachi stares at him for a long moment; he doesn't seem injured, just surprised. "Whoa, you startled me there, kid. Dojima's nephew, right? Fancy running into you here." He laughs at his own terrible joke, but the mirth quickly drains from his face. "Ah, you can get off me whenever you want."

Souji forces himself to blink, then shakes his head in a futile attempt to clear his hazy thoughts. He realizes dimly that this is the closest he's ever been to Adachi, as far as proximity is concerned, and the thought makes his skin feel strangely warm. He tries to get up, but his limbs won't obey his commands.

After another moment, Adachi sighs heavily and wriggles out from between Souji's arms, like a snake emerging from a cave. He gets to his feet, then grins sheepishly as he holds a hand out to Souji. Souji stares at it like it's a work of art. "C'mon, kid, I don't have all day."

Souji takes the proffered hand gingerly, like it's made of glass; Adachi's grip is a vice when he yanks Souji to his feet. He'd practiced this in the bathroom mirror, written out a script, but he hadn't expected that he'd literally run into Adachi on the sidewalk. He hadn't expected the way his heart was fluttering in his chest. "I'm sorry, Adachi-san," he manages through his cotton throat and peanut butter tongue. "Um, it's funny, though? Because I was sort of... looking for you?" He sounds like a fool to his own ears; he seriously considers excusing himself and leaving, simply because melting away into the sidewalk isn't a feasible option.

Adachi smiles, and something twists inside of Souji; the image of Adachi hovering over Dojima's hospital bed pops unbidden into Souji's head. Oh, please. You look terrible. "Aw, man, did Dojima-san send you after me? That guy doesn't know when to quit!"

"No!" Souji doesn't mean for it to be a shout, but it comes out that way. Adachi flinches, eyes wide. "No," Souji tries again, finding the last remaining vestige of calm and infusing it into his voice, "Dojima-san didn't send me. I need to ask you a favor."

--

Souji treats Adachi to steak skewers in the Junes food court, which Adachi seems to regard as an incredible luxury. Once Souji's back on script, everything goes better, the way he'd rehearsed; he explains an imaginary school project to Adachi, about shadowing an adult at their job. "It's supposed to be something I'm interested in," Souji explains, staring at Adachi's single raised eyebrow. "I'd never really thought about it before, but with the murders and all, being a detective sort of piqued my curiosity."

"So why not just ask Dojima-san?"

He'd practiced this, too. "It can't be someone in my family. Too many students used that to cheat." He grins conspiratorially at Adachi and is gratified when the expression is returned.

Adachi scratches his phone number onto a napkin with the Junes logo etched into it, and Souji recognizes it as the same number he received before, three repetitions ago. As soon as he touches it, the familiar voice is echoing in his head. Thou hast established a new bond... It brings thee closer to the truth... "Can we start tomorrow?" Souji asks, and he hates the hopeful puppy tone that he hears in his own voice.

He spends every afternoon over the next two weeks following Adachi like the puppy he doesn't want to be, trailing behind him on patrols, helping him organize files, mostly trying to stay out of the way and observe. He takes notes in a police notebook that Adachi provides; one page about the ins and outs of detective work masks the increasing number of pages about Adachi's character and interactions with others. For Adachi's part, he mostly seems unconcerned with Souji's presence, though he does seem to enjoy fobbing off coffee-making duties onto his teenage apprentice. Adachi is amicable, striking up conversations to fill silences; Souji barely hears the voice informing him of their bond's progression over the sound of Adachi prattling on about the old woman who calls him Tohru-chan and keeps forcing her cooking on him.

"Let me cook for you," Souji says quickly, cutting off Adachi's string of complaints. It's two days before Kanji will appear on the Midnight Channel. "I'll come over to your apartment. To thank you for helping with my school project."

He's sure Adachi will say no. They've only interacted in public places, where Dojima won't ask questions. He's cooked for Adachi before, in previous failed years, but it's always been at the Dojimas' home. Souji doesn't even know where Adachi lives. He thinks he catches a hint of something calculating in Adachi's eyes, but it could have been his imagination, projecting his own mental state onto his companion, maybe remembering something from another cycle. "Okay, sure," Adachi says, his tone hesitant, like Dojima will suddenly come around the corner and they'll be caught.

"Tomorrow?" Souji presses, the puppy tone seeping into his voice again. "I promise I won't make cabbage. Or cup ramen. Or nimono." He emphasizes the last because he can't remember if Adachi told him about the cup ramen this cycle and it's better not to risk it.

The address gets scribbled on a page from Souji's police notebook, torn out and folded in half. They agree to 6pm, but Souji shows up at 5:47 with a Junes shopping bag filled with meat and fresh vegetables. Adachi greets him at the apartment door wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants, and Souji realizes he's never seen Adachi without a tie before.

He wasn't sure what he was expecting out of the apartment. There's barely anything in it, and everything that is in it is immaculate, like it's a sample room in a furniture store. The kitchen looks like it's barely been used; he handles the pots and utensils gingerly, like they're precious relics. Adachi hovers uselessly, as though he expects Souji to ask for his help, but all it does is make Souji increasingly uncomfortable. He can feel Adachi's eyes on him, bright and curious, and it's making his skin feel hot and tingly all over.

Like everything so far, he's rehearsed this; he stayed awake past two the night before, playing out various scenarios in his head, scripting responses, trying to be prepared for anything. He spoons out the curry in equal portions on pure white plates while Adachi lays out the chopsticks on his low table. He turns on the TV while they eat, that same quiz show that Nanako likes, and Adachi blurts out wrong answers through mouthfuls of rice. Souji keeps his mouth shut; he has this episode memorized.

"So is that it, then?" Adachi says, his chopsticks clicking against the plate as he sets them both aside. "Your little project's done, right? I hope it was enlightening."

Something about that makes Souji's veins feel cold. "Yes, the report is due next week," Souji says, staring at the swirl of curry sauce on his plate. Risette's Quelorie Magic commercial is on the TV. 'Good thing there's something even I can handle!' He drags one chopstick through the sauce, drawing lines and then lines through lines. "Thank you again for all your help, Adachi-san."

Adachi ducks his head in what Souji thinks is his usual embarrassed gesture, but he keeps going, craning his neck around until he catches Souji's eyes. "Hey, don't mention it. It was kind of fun, y'know? To be honest, I'll kind of miss having you around. And I'm not just saying that because you made me the best dinner I've had since I moved out to the sticks. You've..." He trails off, breaking eye contact, chewing one side of his lip thoughtfully. "You've been a real good friend to me, Souji-kun."

Souji thought he'd considered every possible scenario for how this would go. The only thing anchoring him to reality is the voice in his head telling him how the power of the Jester Arcana has increased.

He hadn't rehearsed kissing Adachi over the table while the Junes theme played in the background.

--

"Remember that all of your bonds are valuable," Margaret chides him as they sit alone in the Velvet Room. "It is not advisable to sacrifice many bonds for the sake of one."

Souji thinks of the smell of cigarettes and aftershave, the taste of cheap alcohol on warm lips. He chooses cards from Margaret's book carefully, slides them across the table to her, and they combine into Pale Rider.

--

Yosuke grabs Souji's arm in the electronics department after they've captured Mitsuo Kubo, twirling him around and giving him a sullen look. "Dude, what's with you?"

Souji's first instinct is to say he's tired and that he doesn't want to have this conversation right now, but that would only be half true. Instead he focuses on Yosuke's fingers clawing into the fabric of his uniform jacket. "What's the matter, Yosuke?"

"I don't know," Yosuke says, dropping his voice to a whisper. "I know we haven't known each other that long, and we haven't hung out a lot outside of the case or whatever, but..." Yosuke swallows and it's clearly audible, even over the cloying Junes soundtrack. "Do we even matter to you?"

"What do you mean?" Souji asks. He knows exactly what Yosuke means.

Yosuke, on the other hand, seems to not be sure what he means. He releases his grip on Souji's arm, then turns around to face the wall of televisions. Souji doesn't need to see Yosuke's face to picture the look that's on it, brow furrowed and mouth half-open like the words he wants to say are taking a peek before deciding if they want to come out. "I just get the feeling that you'd rather not be around us at all. Like we're insignificant. Or like..." Souji can picture this expression too, a wince like the thought is cutting through Yosuke's heart. "Like we're just getting in your way. Like we're a burden."

Souji comes up with three possible responses and weighs each one quickly, spinning out how Yosuke will react to each before choosing. He reaches for Mada in his mind, trying to shuffle him to the forefront of his consciousness, but the Persona is oddly reluctant. Souji mentally wrestles with it before giving up; it's strange, but it's nothing he can't deal with later. "Of course you're important, Yosuke," he says, stepping forward and resting a hand on Yosuke's shoulder. He thinks about the time he hugged Yosuke on the riverbank, considers whether that's appropriate, and decides against it. "You're all important. We're a team."

"Is that why you fight everything inside the TV world alone?" Yosuke says, unmoving, his voice flat and cold. "Is that why you spend the whole time running ahead while we follow after you? Is that why you act like we don't exist?" He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, his shoulder shuddering under Souji's hand. "It's not just in there, either. You never spend time with any of us outside of going into the TV. You didn't sign up for any school clubs. I don't think you have any part-time jobs. What are you doing all the time?"

Kissing a man who's ten years older than me, and who also might have murdered two women. I'm not convinced on that last bit, though.

"You don't have to tell me," Yosuke says before Souji can decide on a reply that might placate him. "You don't have to tell me anything. I'm not an idiot, Souji. You and I... we're not friends, we never have been, and we never will be. Goodbye, partner."

Inside Souji's head, Mada screams and disintegrates, the way a Shadow does when it dies. The sudden loss makes Souji's vision go black at the edges, and he loses his balance as Yosuke pulls away for good. He crumples into a ball on the floor of the electronics section of Junes, trying not to pass out or throw up. When he comes to his senses, Yosuke is gone but, inexplicably, Adachi is there, gently rubbing between Souji's shoulder blades with a concerned expression on his face.

"Are you alright?" Adachi asks, and it's one of those situations where that's the absolute last phrase Souji wants to hear. Maybe he could have held it together if Adachi hadn't asked, but now the floodgates are open and he's throwing his arms around Adachi's waist, clinging to him like a lifeline as he sobs openly into Adachi's wrinkled white shirt. Souji feels Adachi tense up, then relax, the hand on his back resuming its slow circular path while the other cards gently through Souji's hair.

He doesn't know how much time passes before the tears finally subside; Adachi just holds him quietly the whole time, as though it's normal, as though any of this is normal. When Souji pulls away, Adachi is smiling just a little, and Souji isn't sure how to qualify the emotion behind it, or the emotion it evokes in himself. "Let's get you home," Adachi says, maneuvering his arm around so he can lift Souji to his feet, and all Souji can do in response is nod.

It's dark outside, which is surprising considering the time of year and the amount of time Souji had estimated they'd spent inside the TV; maybe he'd passed out after Mada had left him, or maybe he'd spent longer crying than he'd thought. He gets into the passenger seat of Adachi's car without really thinking about it, instead replaying the scene with Yosuke over and over in his mind, trying to catalog it so that he can make better choices next time, if it comes to that -- but that's a whole different, mind-numbing proposition, and Souji spends the rest of the car ride staring blankly out into the darkness, chest constricting as he thinks about the prospect of reliving the destruction of part of his soul.

He doesn't even realize the car has stopped until he hears the rhythmic bell after Adachi opens the driver's side door. Souji's eyes refocus on his surroundings and he realizes they're not at the Dojima house, but at Adachi's apartment building. He turns slowly to look at Adachi and ask for an explanation; Adachi already has his feet outside the car, but he's got his torso contorted around so he can look at Souji with his usual sheepish grin. "Well, ah, I wasn't sure if you wanted to talk about... whatever it was that happened back there. And if you did, I figured you wouldn't want to talk about it around Dojima-san and Nanako-chan. So I, um..." He trails off, looking flustered, and then puts his feet back into the car. "Man, I'm sorry, this was really stupid. I'll take you back to Dojima-san's place."

Adachi is starting to put the key back into the ignition when Souji's hand shoots out and grabs hold of Adachi's wrist. "No, it's okay," Souji says. Adachi's gaze fixes on Souji's hand, as though it's a dragonfly alighting on his arm and he's afraid he'll scare it away. "There's probably some things I should tell you."

The apartment doesn't look any different from the last time he was here; despite the fact that over two months have passed, the place still looks too tidy, almost unlived in apart from a single plate and beer bottle in the sink. Adachi directs Souji to sit on the edge of the bed and Souji buries his head in his hands as he tells the whole sordid story of the TV world and Shadows and Personas; he's still lucid enough to keep the repeating timeline out of it, but he lays every other detail completely bare. Whenever Souji glances up, Adachi is listening attentively, sometimes with brows furrowed, other times with a frown, but he never gives any indication whether the information is new or surprising. Around when the story gets to recent events, Adachi turns around and crosses his arms across his chest, and Souji can't decide what that gesture is meant to signify.

Adachi doesn't respond right away after Souji finishes his story, and anxious thoughts bubble up in Souji's brain to fill the silence; he regrets telling Adachi the story, regrets coming into the apartment, regrets the single-mindedness that caused the rift between himself and the rest of the investigation team which culminated in the destruction of his admittedly tenuous bond with Yosuke. He's so absorbed that he barely hears Adachi speak. "So do you think this Kubo kid is the culprit?"

Souji looks up to see Adachi watching him with guarded interest. He's suddenly struck by the absurdity of this situation; Adachi should be back at the station with Dojima questioning Mitsuo Kubo, not here at his apartment listening to Souji's unbelievable story. He considers the facts that he knows to be true and weighs them against the things he suspects before answering. "I think he killed Mr. Morooka. But I don't know about anyone else."

The corner of Adachi's mouth turns up, almost imperceptible. "So who do you think is the real culprit?"

All Souji can do is stare, his mouth gone dry. The air in the room feels sharp and dangerous. "It could be you," he says carefully, his stomach twisting around itself as he speaks.

"It could be you," Adachi echoes, the grin now fully evident on his face. "It'd make a great story, wouldn't it? New in town, nephew of a detective who goes on to ingratiate himself with his uncle's partner, just so no one will suspect. Then you turn around and start rescuing the people you kidnap, so everyone will think you're a good guy! You even have captive character witnesses! It's like something right out of a television drama."

"If that were true," Souji says slowly, trying to keep the cold panic out of his voice, "then I did a terrible job with the character witnesses."

Adachi takes a step forward, closing the gap between them and feathering fingertips over Souji's hair. "Not all of them," he says, and there's a genuine fondness in his voice that Souji has never heard before.

--

When Naoto disappears in September, Souji goes into the television to rescue her alone; he considers calling Rise or Teddie to navigate, but decides that will cause more problems than it's worth. It's not as though he needs the assistance. Naoto seems both confused and impressed when he finds her at the end of the labyrinthine secret base; she can't know that there should be more people rescuing her, but she's seen all of them together at the food court enough to be suspicious as to why Souji is unaccompanied. Naturally she expresses interest in continuing her investigation, but Souji simply exchanges phone numbers with her and never contacts her again.

The first warning letter arrives in the Dojimas' mailbox, same as always, and Souji sets it beside the Junes napkin and tries desperately to look for any similarity between the handwriting. They don't look remotely alike, and the implication behind that gives him hope that maybe he's been right all along. He doesn't have time to make the same comparison on the second letter before Dojima whisks him away to the police station.

He executes Nanako's rescue with pinpoint precision, because he no longer knows how to do anything less. In December his righteous anger drives him to confront Namatame, but lets him go free on account of his own crippling fear.

It's March before he knows it, and he goes to meet Adachi at the police station to say goodbye. It seems fitting that he's led to the same familiar interrogation room; as the door clicks closed behind him, he's suddenly filled with overwhelming dread.

When Adachi comes in and flashes a crooked smile, Souji's whole world lights up. Then, moments later when he slides an all-too-familiar piece of paper across the table, it's as though the sun has been snuffed out.

Souji burns it, because he's forgotten how to say no. Adachi's laughter makes his blood curdle. "Did I ever mean anything to you?" Souji chokes out, eyes glued to the ashes on the table.

Adachi reaches across the table and touches Souji's arm, warm but not as comforting as it might have been a few months earlier, and he hears the familiar echoing voice reminding him of the strength of the Jester arcana's bond. Souji glances up and sees something cold and unsettling in Adachi's dark eyes. "Who can say, kid? Does anyone ever mean anything to someone else? Or are we all just paying lip service to each other so we can pretend we're not worthless lumps of flesh who live meaningless lives and then die in some dark place all alone? That's the real cosmic question, isn't it?" The corner of his mouth turns up in that familiar way that suddenly doesn't feel familiar at all. "We're all deceiving ourselves every single day of our lives, Souji-kun. How can we be honest with other people if we're so busy lying to ourselves?" His hand slides down Souji's arm until his fingertips are touching the back of Souji's hand, a fluttering of skin on skin. "It's kind of funny, when you think about it. You wanted to be my friend so fucking bad that you committed a crime... and it's the police's duty to keep tabs on those who've committed crimes..."

Adachi keeps talking, but Souji isn't listening anymore; it's all just background noise to the pounding of his heart in his ears. At some point Adachi turns him around by the shoulders and leads him out of the interrogation room; his breath is warm on Souji's ear when he leans in to whisper "goodbye, partner."

There's no one on the platform to see him off, and he has no one to blame but himself.

 

- five -

As Souji sits on the train returning him to Inaba for the fifth time, he vows he'll have nothing to do with Adachi.

Despite the fact that the slate has been wiped clean, just like every other repetition, Souji still travels through the first few days in a guilty haze. He finds it difficult to look any of his future-past friends in the eye, especially Yosuke; after Souji's Personas reawaken in the TV world, he's not surprised when he senses the searing gash left behind by Mada's violent demise. When he forms the bond with Yosuke the following day, it feels just like it did the first time, new and fragile and small; when he looks in Margaret's book for the first time, the Magician pages are covered in silhouettes.

Souji hadn't managed to reverse the bonds with the rest of the Investigation Team in the same way as he had Yosuke's, but he chooses to spend time with them anyway, nurturing friendships that are familiar to him but brand new to the others. If Chie or Yukiko notice Souji's discomfiture, they don't mention it; Yosuke seems uneasy around him, and Souji has to remind himself that it's just Yosuke's default state, as opposed to a reaction to Souji's behavior in pasts that didn't exist. Even so, the nagging guilt eats at his stomach when he accompanies Yosuke to Souzai Daigaku on a late April afternoon.

Dojima approaches Souji in May, and Souji's blood runs cold when his uncle mentions Adachi's name. He closes his eyes and can almost feel Adachi's fingertips ghosting down his arm, almost see that broken smile, almost hear the laughter in his voice. That's the real cosmic question, isn't it? The dread coils in his stomach like a snake; he bites the inside of his mouth and tries to will away the confused mass of feelings. He won't let himself be ensnared by Adachi's web of deceit again.

"So if you see Adachi at Junes, tell him off for me, okay?"

Souji opens his eyes and forces a smile onto his face. "If I see him," he echoes weakly, already crafting fifteen different excuses to keep from visiting Junes.

He can't avoid Adachi completely, of course. When Adachi shows up at the Dojima house for dinner, Souji shakes his head and says he has a test to study for. When the Investigation Team encounters Adachi in the food court or on the streets, Souji fades into the background, generally letting Yosuke take the lead in speaking for the group. He tries to convince himself that this somehow makes up for the fact that he's been avoiding Yosuke too; every time he sees Yosuke at school or in the Junes lobby, smiling and oblivious to Souji's past betrayals, the absence of Mada throbs in Souji's brain like a bleeding wound. Yosuke, for his part, doesn't press or seem suspicious, but that doesn't keep Souji from reading irritation or resentment into things Yosuke says in mixed company. With the both of them, the excuses come easily; it's not as though Souji has ever been at a loss for other things to do or other people to help.

Time seems to pass much more quickly than it did the previous cycle, though Souji suspects that's just because he's keeping himself busier. He makes an extra effort to be genuinely kind and caring to his friends, and their honest reactions have been refreshing, especially when he compares them to Adachi's veiled plastic platitudes. It's September before he's fully aware of it; they rescue Naoto two days after she goes missing, and Souji returns home to find Adachi sprawled out on the Dojimas' couch, a row of beer bottles on the floor and a lazy drunken smile on his face. "If it isn't the elusive Souji-kun!" he slurs, drawing himself upright and raising the bottle in his hand as if he's making a toast to Souji's existence.

"Where is my uncle?" Souji asks, voice tight and cold. He focuses on the half-eaten tray of Junes sushi on the low table, simply to avoid meeting Adachi's gaze.

"Being a damn spoilsport," Adachi says, slamming his bottle down on the table hard enough to make the tray jump. "They found Shirogane but Dojima-san's still got himself holed up at the office."

"And what are you doing here?"

Adachi cranes his head around the same way he had on that now non-existent night in his apartment, and Souji's heart twists in his chest as their eyes meet. He tries to make himself blink or pull away but none of his muscles will obey. "Someone had to look after Nanako-chan," Adachi says, and there's an accusation hidden under it, a question gone unasked. When he smiles, Souji can't imagine how he once found comfort in that expression. "Good thing Dojima-san has such a loyal, helpful partner, eh Souji-kun?"

Souji bristles at that, narrowing his eyes as he wrenches them away from Adachi's cloying smile. He reflexively reaches for the space in his mind where Mada once dwelled, but only finds the Persona's dark absence, like a black hole, and Souji flinches away, spinning on his heel so that Adachi can't see the pained look on his face. "You don't have to stay," Souji says, his voice choked in his throat. "Is Nanako in bed?"

"Tucked her in myself!" Adachi proclaims, and Souji can picture the self-satisfied look that must be on his face. "Not just a great partner, but a great babysitter! And I make a mean cup of coffee! I'm a fuckin' treasure!"

The last word echoes in the mostly quiet house, and Souji digs his fingernails into his palm. The scent of whatever beer Adachi's been drinking is permeating his nostrils, bringing back memories of that same scent on Adachi's breath that night in his apartment; he hates that he can still feel anything resembling affection for this wretched man, but there it is, stirring in his traitor heart. He turns back around slowly, and Adachi's face is just like he'd been imagining it, dull-eyed and smiling as though he doesn't have a care in the world. Souji almost wishes he could feel that way, or at least pretend for a little while.

"You're drunk, Adachi-san," he says matter-of-factly, crossing the space between them quickly, before he can change his mind. He rests a hand on Adachi's shoulder, gently pressing him down to lie on the couch; Adachi stares at that hand as though it's an alien creature. "Lie down, okay? I'll get you a blanket. Please don't wake Nanako."

Adachi's gaze travels up Souji's arm to his face; when they lock eyes this time, Souji breaks the contact immediately. He all but runs to fetch the blanket from the closet, frustrated tears pricking in the corners of his eyes. He can feel Seiten Taisei swirling in the depths of his consciousness, angry and agitated. When he returns with the blanket, he stares at the floor, the ceiling, the plate of sushi on the table, anything to avoid Adachi's face. He tries to imagine that it's just about anyone else as he spreads the blanket over the form on the couch, Dojima or Nanako or even one of his friends, maybe even Yosuke on some other timeline before he'd screwed everything up, before he'd been too afraid to call him 'partner.' The word rings in his head like a resounding gong, in Yosuke's voice, then in Adachi's. Goodbye, partner.

He's two steps up the stairs before he hears Adachi speak. "I wonder, how many girlfriends do you have, Souji-kun?"

Souji's heart flutters, a helpless baby bird in his chest. "I don't see how that's any of your business."

"So cruel!" Adachi says, his voice ratcheting louder again. Souji opens his mouth to quiet him, but he speaks before Souji can. "You're a good-looking kid, you know? You probably have the girls crawling all over you. Or the guys, if you're into that. I'm not gonna judge."

The bird in Souji's chest twists and cracks, broken-winged beneath its mother's nest. "Good night, Adachi-san," he chokes out, taking the steps two at a time, fleeing before Adachi can scatter the feathers further. Adachi's still running his mouth downstairs; Souji closes his door, locks it, and pulls his blanket over his ears.

When Souji goes downstairs the next morning, he half expects Adachi to still be there, sleeping on the couch or eating breakfast with Nanako at the kitchen table, but there's no evidence that Adachi was ever there. The sushi tray is gone from the low table, the beer bottles have disappeared, the blanket is missing from the couch, and Adachi is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Dojima is sitting alone at the kitchen table, his hands wrapped protectively around his coffee mug. "Good morning," Dojima says, his tone cold and businesslike, more like the man he'd met at the station in April than the uncle he'd come to know in the past five months, not to mention all the cycles before. He inclines his head towards the chair opposite him. "Please, sit."

Souji goes on the defensive immediately, a cat with its ears flat against its head. "Is everything okay?" Panic hits him in a rush. "Is Nanako...?"

"Nanako is fine," Dojima interrupts, his lips in a tight line. "She left for school early today. There's something we need to discuss, just the two of us."

Crossing the small space between the stairs and the kitchen table feels like swimming through deep water. Souji sits in the chair Dojima indicated, his eyes fixed on Dojima's tight grip around the coffee mug, the pads of his fingers pressed flat and white. "Is this about last night?"

"In a manner of speaking," Dojima says, and Souji is startled by the realization that his uncle is using his business voice. It's not Uncle Dojima sitting in front of him now, but Detective Dojima of the Inaba Police. "Shirogane turned up last night. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

"Not at all," Souji says; the well-practiced lie comes out before he can even consider throwing Adachi under the bus, and he almost regrets it. "I'm glad to hear it. We were all worried."

"Were you? I wasn't aware you were closely acquainted."

Souji presses his lips together, trying frantically to spin out this conversation in his head. He knows how Dojima constructs interrogations, with careful questions designed to catch the culprit unawares. He can't let himself fall into a trap. "Naoto goes to Yasogami now. We went on the school trip together. It's not like it's a huge school in the first place. Of course we noticed."

"I hear you were back late last night," Dojima says, forging ahead undeterred. "Care to tell me anything about that?"

"We were studying," Souji replies.

"Studying?" Dojima shoots back, rapid fire.

"At Junes."

"In the food court?"

Souji knows before he answers that he's been caught, but there's no way he can backtrack now, not without raising even more suspicion. All the confidence is sapped from him in an instant. "Yes."

"Strange, because Adachi didn't see any of you there. Not once. Surprising, considering how hard he works at slacking off." Dojima takes a sip of his coffee, a physical ellipsis. Souji doesn't understand why his uncle is stalling. When Dojima speaks again, his voice is softer and gravely serious. "But he did see you in the electronics section with Shirogane. Maybe you'd like to explain that."

There's no recourse at that point. Souji explains everything, just as he did for Adachi in the last cycle, though this time he manages to keep his voice steady throughout. Again he leaves out the repeating timeline as just another unbelievable wrinkle in a completely unbelievable story. Dojima watches him carefully, eyebrows knitted together in serious thought. There's a long pause after Souji finishes the tale, underscored by the hum of the refrigerator. Finally, Dojima sighs. "You realize how this sounds, I assume?"

"I realize it's a little... farfetched," Souji says, choosing his words carefully.

"I realize that if this whole thing is true, it makes you and your friends very suspicious." Souji watches Dojima's face as he speaks, the way his forehead creases, the way his lips form a perfectly straight line between sentences. "It makes you especially suspicious. Hell, even if none of this is true, the facts that can be corroborated by outside witnesses are damning."

Souji squeezes his hands into fists under the table. "You mean Adachi."

"I mean the security footage from Junes!" Dojima snaps, the sound sharp enough to make Souji flinch. "Footage of you and your friends going into Junes on five separate occasions, and each time you come back out with a goddamn missing person! That's not 'farfetched.' Once would be 'farfetched.' Twice might be 'farfetched.' Five times is conclusive evidence."

"Evidence of what?" Souji's voice comes out high and reedy, his desperation plain. "What motive could I possibly have to rescue people I've supposedly kidnapped?"

"Motive is one thing," Dojima counters; he leans forward in his chair, bumping the table and sloshing his coffee over the edge of the mug. "If any of this story is true, what really matters here is opportunity. You're telling me you were the first one to get this TV power? If that's the case, you're the only one who could have done it."

"It wasn't me!" Souji blurts out before he can think better of it.

"Oh, is that so? Who was it then?"

Adachi's name is on the tip of Souji's tongue, but it sticks there stubbornly. Dojima's voice echoes in his ears. What really matters here is opportunity. He has no reason to believe that Adachi has a Persona or the ability to go into the TV world. All he has are suspicions, which he's never been able to positively confirm. "I don't know," Souji admits. He focuses on the puddle of black coffee on the table, no longer able to look Dojima in the eye. "I just know it's not me. I know you have no reason to believe me."

There's a long pause. "You're family," Dojima says, and his voice is different now; it's the voice that Souji knows better, the off-duty voice, the voice he uses when he speaks to Nanako. "That's reason enough to want to believe you. I want to believe you, Souji, I promise I do, but..." He trails off and draws a shaking breath. "I spoke to your mother."

Souji's gaze snaps back to Dojima's face. He can tell from the resigned look on Dojima's face that this isn't a bluff. "What did you tell her?"

"That I have suspicions about your activities here in Inaba, and I thought it would best for all of us if you returned to the city as soon as possible."

There's a panicked fluttering in Souji's mind, Sraosha and Futsunushi and Scathach and Odin and Ishtar and even Pixie, all of them desperate to express the wrongness of this development. Souji presses his fingers to his temples, trying to silence them, but the effort is futile. He thinks of how, if the timeline continues as usual, Nanako will be the next victim; the thought of that happening while he is miles away is agonizing. Even through his desperation he knows that revealing information about the future is a terrible idea. "What did she say?"

He knows that Dojima has heard the crack in his voice by the way his uncle's face softens. He knows Souji's mother just as well as Souji does, if not better. "Your train leaves in the afternoon on the 21st."

It isn't until he's at the train station two days later that he realizes the irony in the date; he should be leaving on a spring day exactly six months from now, instead of an unseasonably cold September afternoon. At least this time his friends are at the station, standing close together and speaking in hushed tones.

"What if there's another kidnapping?" Chie asks. She hops from foot to foot partly to keep warm, partly to mask her trepidation. "We can't just go into the TV without you, leader!"

"Of course we can," Yukiko says, her pragmatism undercut by the nervous waver in her voice. "Someone else will just have to be leader."

Souji bites his lip to keep from crying. He never even considered this outcome, and his teammates' reactions aren't helping him to cope. He looks at each of them in turn and they all look just as unravelled as he feels, though they're mostly managing to hold it together with the notable exception of Rise, who's been sobbing since before Souji arrived. His gaze settles on Yosuke, who's spent the entire time at the station staring at the ground and looking uncomfortable. "Yosuke can be the leader."

Yosuke looks up suddenly, as if he's startled by being addressed. "Aw, dude, no way," he says, fiddling with the cord on his headphones. "Chie should do it, or Rise. I'd just screw it up."

All the guilt Souji has been harboring over the destruction of his bond with Yosuke comes rushing back in an instant. Pixie flickers about in his mind, agitated. He's suddenly overcome with the urge to explain what he couldn't explain to Adachi or Dojima, to tell them all about the repeating timeline and how he doesn't know how to fix it, about how he's ruined everything five times now and he isn't sure how to make things right. He wants to hug Yosuke like he did however many timelines ago and tell him that he wouldn't screw it up; Souji knows that Yosuke wouldn't screw up because there is an annoying, witty, determined, wonderful person deep inside him that Souji was too scared to coax back out. He wants to do a lot of things, but his train will be leaving in five minutes and Dojima is looming at the far edge of the platform, watching them carefully. "I think you'd make a fine leader," Souji says softly, "just like you made a fine partner."

There's a long moment where no one moves or says anything. Yosuke just stares at Souji, disbelief plain on his face; but then he smiles, wide and bright and honest, and lets out an embarrassed laugh. Souji's heart twists in his chest as the voice in his head tells him that his bond with the Magician arcana has increased, a nagging reminder of his failure to strengthen that bond in the first place. Yosuke rubs his nose before he speaks again. "Well, maybe this'll be the end of it, you know? It all started when you came here, partner, maybe it'll stop when you leave?"

Souji glances at Dojima out of the corner of his eye; Nanako is with him, clinging tightly to her father's hand. He has no idea how Dojima has explained all this to her, and a part of him never wants to find out. It would certainly corroborate Dojima's theory about Souji's guilt if this was really the end of it, but he can't decide which outcome would be worse. When he remembers Nanako pale and small in the hospital bed in November, he thinks that being cast out by his uncle might not be so bad, in comparison. "Maybe so," he says, forcing a smile that he's certain his friends won't believe.

He can't relax on the train ride out of Inaba; he fidgets with his phone as he stares out the window, trying not to see Adachi's form in every shadow. He falls asleep in the city on September 21st, and awakens to an April morning.

 

- six -

Souji arrives at Yasogami High on April 12th without incident, which should have been warning enough that something was wrong. He is introduced to the class, same as always, but instead of one empty seat in the middle row, there are two.

"Excuse me!" Chie says, throwing her hand in the air. "It is okay if the transfer student sits here?" She motions to the same desk as always, directly across the row from her, despite the fact that the one behind it is also vacant. An uneasy feeling settles in the pit of Souji's stomach.

He barely hears Chie's whispered apology on behalf of Morooka, not that he really needs to listen to anything his friends say to him anymore. "This is going to sound strange," Souji says, leaning across the aisle to Chie's desk. "Why is the desk behind me empty?"

Chie looks confused, but then just shrugs. "Oh, that was Hanamura's desk. He was a transfer kid like you, but there was a big scandal at his dad's store and now they're back in the city."

There are a dozen questions on the tip of Souji's tongue, but Morooka cuts in before he can ask any of them. "Shut your trap! I'm taking roll, and I damn well expect you to respond in an orderly manner!" Chie makes a face and turns back towards the front of the class, resting her chin on her hands and sighing emphatically.

Souji walks home from school with Yukiko and Chie, just as always; he's glad to get out of the school, where Yosuke's absence feels less pronounced. "So, tell me about this transfer student?" he asks as soon as there's a lull in Chie's excited chatter. "What happened with his store?"

"His dad's store," Chie corrects, spinning on her heel and walking backwards so she can watch Souji's reactions. "Hanamura's dad was gonna be the manager of the Junes branch in town, but then something happened. No one at school really knows what exactly. I tried to ask Hanamura about it before he left but he got all pissy at me."

Yukiko sniffs her nose. "You didn't exactly ask him nicely, Chie-chan."

"I asked nicely enough!" Chie protests, sticking her tongue out at Yukiko. "It's not like we were friends or anything. He'd barely just moved here!" She turns back to Souji and lowers her voice conspiratorially. "Kou Ichijo told me that Hanamura's dad stole a bunch of money from Junes. I dunno where he heard that, but it seems like a pretty good reason to boot him out of the store, don'tcha think?"

"You shouldn't spread rumors," Yukiko chides. "Seta-kun just got here and you're making us out to be a bunch of gossips!"

"We are a bunch of gossips!" Chie grins widely, which is quickly squashed when she stumbles over an uneven patch of sidewalk. Yukiko laughs softly into her hand, then steps forward to loop her arm around Chie's, spinning her around to walk normally. "Besides, he's the one who asked."

Souji lets the conversation drop there; they're only a few blocks from where he knows the crime scene will be, and the atmosphere is already unnecessarily tense. The people and major events have always been immutable, so it doesn't make sense for Yosuke to be inexplicably missing from this version of the timeline. He doesn't have much time to ponder it before they run into the police detail, where Souji keeps a careful distance from both Dojima and Adachi without even thinking about it.

Without Yosuke, Souji's introduction to Inaba seems pockmarked with absences only he can recognize. Saki Konishi is just another name without context to the rest of the future Investigation Team; there's no impetus for Souji and Chie to enter the TV world until Yukiko disappears. Souji is hesitant to go back to the electronics department at Junes, especially without Yosuke to suggest it and provide a modicum of cover, so they go in using a television that Souji tracks down in a storage room used by the drama club. Izanagi tears itself from Souji's psyche with an impatient vengeance on the first floor of Yukiko's castle, shredding two hableries in half with one swing of its sword while Chie looks on in astonishment.

Chie fills the role of trusted second without Yosuke, and Souji doesn't feel as though she's any better or worse at it, just different in a way that feels uncomfortable. Where Yosuke's first thought was solving the case and the resultant justice for Saki, Chie's first loyalty is to Yukiko. The two of them race through the castle to rescue Yukiko at a breakneck pace, but it takes several long trips to reach the end of Kanji's bathhouse. Souji does his best to mask his impatience with Chie's insistence on going slowly for Yukiko's sake; the closer they get to the string of rainy days that signals the deadline, the more tempted Souji is to go into the TV alone with all his strongest Personas to pull Kanji out himself. In the end, it turns out for the best; there is a dire moment while facing Kanji's Shadow where Souji reaches for Hua Po in his mind and comes back with nothing, as though the Persona is eluding his grasp. This leaves him defenseless, and he fears they'll be defeated for the first time since the first cycle, but Chie dives in to shield him from the fatal blow.

Souji balances his free time between spending time with friends and tacitly researching the event that drove Yosuke and his family out of Junes. Information on the incident is scarce; the replacement of a store manager isn't the sort of news that gets into the local papers, and business sources only mention that the store changed hands, with no specifics on why. In truth, Souji is barely interested in the gritty details, only in the timeframe in which it occurred. He'd been under the impression that the repeating timeline began on the day he arrived in Inaba; it didn't even occur to him that anything before that date was able to change, but this was clear evidence that it could. He can't help but wonder if the rules are different from what he'd assumed, if there are other forces at work who can act as catalysts for change, and if maybe he's capable of making more sweeping changes than he previously believed.

His personal investigation into the Hanamuras is derailed when he comes home in June to find Nanako watching TV with round, sad eyes. She turns to Souji in a near panic when he comes in, halfway to jumping to her feet. "Big bro!" she wails, tears in her eyes. "Something bad happened to Risette!"

Souji drops his school bag in the genkan, hurriedly removing his shoes before rushing over to see what's on the television. It's a breaking news report, the reporter standing solemnly outside of a hospital in the city, and Souji would be inclined to believe he is dreaming if he couldn't feel the solid weight of Nanako clinging to his arm. The preliminary information is fairly vague, simply that Risette has fallen ill and will be hospitalized for some time. After watching for a few minutes, he nudges Nanako gently, so as not to startle her. "Let's not watch this any more, okay? Tell me about your day at school."

The details reveal themselves slowly over the next week; Risette isn't an unknown quantity like the Hanamuras, so Souji hears about her everywhere he goes. It was some kind of poisonous substance in a fan mail, which somehow slipped past the screening process and ended up in Risette's hands. Her manager, Inoue, is a near-constant fixture on the news, apologizing for the lapse in security and giving updates on Risette's health. Despite the sensationalism of the reporting, it seems as though she was never in any mortal danger, though there are plenty of reports and speculation about how much more of the substance would have been required to kill her. Souji is quick to turn those reports off, for both Nanako's sake and his own.

Despite all of this, Souji doesn't give up on the timeline somehow righting itself until the end of June, when he passes Marukyu Tofu and sees a Closed Until Further Notice sign on its door. He keeps walking straight past it and marches into the Velvet Room, trying desperately to keep calm.

Neither Igor nor Margaret say anything when he sinks shakily into the chair opposite them. "What is happening here?" Souji finally manages, his voice thin with barely-contained panic.

Margaret's brows knit together in concern, but Igor's face remains neutral as he speaks. "The cards may change, but the journey remains the same. So long as the mystery goes unsolved, all will remain, enshrouded in the fog."

Souji bites back a flippant retort to Igor's cryptic statement, instead gesturing toward Margaret's book. "I need to see that."

She nods, opening the book on the table in front of them. Souji flips through the pages until he reaches the Magician Personas; even the silhouettes are gone now, the pages utterly blank. He holds his breath as he skips forward to where the Lovers Personas should be, but those are blank as well. "The cards may change," he repeats under his breath.

"A bond reversed can be reclaimed," Margaret says gently. "A bond never made is a bond forgotten."

Unable to decide whether to scream or cry, Souji just swallows the lump in his throat, quietly turning pages in Margaret's book. He settles on Isis to replace the faded image of Ishtar in his mind.

--

The time not occupied by Rise's rescue gives Souji the opportunity to formulate a plan. His instinct tells him to go to Dojima, but the memory of how that turned out the last time he tried is still fresh in his mind, so he decides that it's best to try his luck with someone who can't have him shipped back to the city on the next train out of Inaba. His hands are shaking as he enters the Inaba Police Department on July 8th, and he shoves them into his pockets before he approaches the front desk. "Excuse me, I'd like to report a crime. Is Naoto Shirogane available?"

The young officer at the desk peers at him, then his face lights up in recognition. "Hey, you're Dojima's nephew, right? What kind of crime are you reporting?"

"Well, the thing is," Souji says, keeping his voice as even as possible, "the crime hasn't happened yet."

The officer whisks Souji away to the all-too-familiar interrogation room, and as soon as the door clicks closed he's overwhelmed by the feeling that he's made a terrible mistake. He'd intended it to be more of an experiment than anything else, but actually being in the police station has made him realize the gravity of the situation. He looks up when the door opens, and his heart sinks further when he sees Adachi enter the room.

"Sorry, were you waiting long?" Adachi asks, bright and cheery, goofy smile plastered on his face. They've only interacted in passing during this cycle, and Souji wonders if Adachi even remembers his name. "Hamada says you've got a hot tip for us."

Souji swallows hard. He wishes he could take all of this back, reverse the timeline to before he walked into the station this afternoon, but he has no idea if that's even possible or how he would trigger it if he could. As it is, he has no choice but to press forward. "I think someone might be murdered, and I think I know who's going to do it."

Adachi raises his eyebrows and let's out a long, low whistle. "That's quite a claim! Why don't you tell me about it."

It only takes a few minutes for Souji to tell his story, half-truth and half-invention. Kubo isn't a student at Yasogami, so he has to set up one of the members of the drama club as his informant. He tells Adachi about how his drama club friend has become increasingly worried about Kubo's behavior, to the point that he wanted to intervene somehow but didn't know how to broach the subject without fear of invoking Kubo's wrath. 'You're so good with people, Souji,' the drama friend had said in their make-believe conversation, 'what should I do?' The evidence had set Souji on edge, and he'd ultimately decided to take the information to the police.

"So you really think this Kubo kid is going to murder someone?" Adachi says once Souji is done speaking. "You don't think he's just running his mouth?"

"If I thought he was just running his mouth, I wouldn't be here," Souji says, forcing himself to look Adachi directly in the eyes. He can recognize the light of amusement behind them, an expression he's seen so many times before. "Please, just look into it for me. I don't want anyone to be hurt."

Adachi flips his notebook closed and gives Souji a small smile. "We'll have someone take a look, alright? Thanks for coming down, kid."

Souji spends the next few days alternating between anxious and relieved; Dojima is scarce around the house, which Souji hopes means that Adachi has passed along the information about Kubo, but he has no way to confirm. He lies awake the night of the 9th as rain patters incessantly on the window and hopes that tomorrow will be different from how it's always been.

He drags himself down the stairs at the usual time and is greeted by the sight of Nanako sitting in front of the TV, knees pulled up to her chin. "G'morning, big bro," she says in a small, frightened voice, and Souji doesn't need to look at the news report on the screen to know that his gambit to spare Morooka has failed.

It's all he can do to keep himself from storming down to the police station and demanding answers from Adachi. He spends the day at home with Nanako, watching Featherman DVDs while he braids her hair, an attempt to expunge the frightening events from her mind. He ignores Chie's phone calls, and after five attempts he sends back a text to assure her that yes, he is aware, but they can talk about it after school tomorrow. He struggles through school the next day, surrounded by the whispered rumors of classmates and teachers alike, and he can barely contain his frustration when the Investigation Team meets on the roof of Junes to discuss the latest development in the case.

Souji is washing dishes in the kitchen when Dojima comes home, looking bedraggled. It's the first time Souji has seen him since before he spoke to Adachi at the station; he'd assumed that this was because they were investigating Kubo, but now he isn't so sure.

He's about to say something, but Nanako interrupts him. "Dad! Welcome back!" she chirps, jumping up from her seat in front of the TV and hurtling across the room to throw herself into her father's arms. Souji bites his tongue and mumbles a quiet greeting of his own, unwilling to sacrifice Nanako's happiness by mentioning Morooka's murder in front of her.

When Dojima comes back downstairs after tucking Nanako into bed, Souji is waiting for him at the kitchen table. "I need to talk to you," Souji says, voice tight and nervous despite his best efforts.

Dojima sits at the table across from Souji, a tired smile on his face. "What's up? Everything going okay at school?"

The attempt at small talk nearly makes Souji laugh. "I was at the station on Friday. Did Adachi-san tell you?"

The confused frown on Dojima's face is all the answer Souji needs. "First I've heard of it. It's been crazy the past couple of days. Probably just slipped his mind. Was it important?"

Souji swallows the lump in his throat. All the anger he once felt has evaporated as though it was never there. "No. Not important at all."

--

The school trip to Tatsumi Port Island feels just as strange as any other event has without Yosuke or Rise's presences, to the point that Souji nearly doesn't notice that another person is missing from the proceedings. The question tickles the back of his mind until the Investigation Team's visit to Club Escapade, when the realization hits him all at once. While Yukiko is giggling away and throwing her arms around a visibly exasperated Chie, Souji leans over to speak quietly to Kanji. "I heard that Naoto Shirogane started at Yasogami, but I haven't seen him on the trip at all."

"Wh-what, you think I'm keepin' tabs on him or somethin'?" Kanji stammers, the color on his cheeks betraying his true feelings about the situation. "I mean, I heard from some guys that Naoto-kun got special permission to be exempt from the trip, but I dunno why or nothin'. It's just a thing I heard, y'know?"

Souji covers his mouth with his hand to hide his inappropriately grateful expression; in the face of so much uncertainty, he's always relieved when someone behaves exactly as he's come to expect. "It's okay, I believe you." He doesn't press the issue, reluctant to agitate Kanji even further, but he spends the rest of the night pondering what yet another divergence might bode in the grander scheme of the timeline.

Naoto disappears on September 17th, and the team spends far too much time traversing the secret base. Teddie does his best to support them, but no expedition into Rise's Marukyu Revue meant that Teddie’s Persona never awakened, and on subsequent journeys into the television world his Shadow never appeared. Teddie’s simply not as good at navigation as Rise was, though no one but Souji is able to make the comparison, and even with Souji's strongest Personas, the relative strength of their group is greatly reduced. They reach Naoto’s Shadow on the last day possible, and while Souji doesn’t make the mistake of trying to use Magician or Lovers Personas again, the fight is still too close for comfort. They're beaten and bedraggled as they emerge in the drama club storage room, but Souji still notices the mistrustful look Naoto gives him as they're ushering her out of the otherwise deserted school.

On October 21st, one week after Naoto's rescue, Souji finds a note in his shoe locker requesting a meeting at the Samegawa gazebo. The note is unsigned, but he recognizes Naoto's sharp, even handwriting and her formal sentence construction. He rides his bike down to the riverbank; Naoto is sitting at the table beneath the gazebo, hands folded in front of her, and though she looks up when Souji approaches, she doesn't smile.

"Thank you for meeting me, Souji-senpai," she says, quiet and businesslike, "and thank you again for your... assistance within the television. It was an exceptionally enlightening experience." She coughs lightly, then brings her gaze back to meet Souji's. "I wanted to meet with you today to be certain that our relationship going forward is clearly delineated."

Souji purses his lips. This is certainly different from the innocent puzzle mystery he has grown to expect from this first meeting. Something about Naoto's demeanor puts him on edge. "Of course."

"You seem to be under the impression that I intend to assist you in your investigation," Naoto continues, cool and smooth, as if practiced. "If that impression has somehow originated with me, then I must apologize. My own investigation has only converged with yours out of necessity. This has been quite enlightening, but I'm afraid our cooperation ends here."

Unlike with Yosuke or Rise, Souji harbors no doubt about the forces at work behind this development. For the very first time, any lingering feelings of friendship or, heaven forbid, love for Adachi have cleared completely from his mind, which causes gear after gear to click into place until Souji is nearly choking on the bile in his throat. In that moment, every suspicion he's ever had about Adachi solidifies into certainty. "What did he tell you?" Souji manages to say, his voice shaking with barely-controlled fury.

Naoto's eyes widen, the surprise plain on her face. Souji isn't sure what sort of reaction she expected; acquiescence seems most likely, which Souji supposes is in line with how he's reacted thus far in this cycle. He's hit with guilt on top of everything else, guilt at not doing more to track down what happened to Yosuke's family, guilt at not getting involved with what was plainly an attack on Rise, guilt at not pursuing his accusation against Kubo any further after it failed to prevent Morooka's murder. Naoto's voice pulls him back to reality before Souji's emotions can spiral too far out of control. "It would be extraordinarily unwise of me to reveal my own suspicions regarding the case, let alone the suspicions of my colleagues. However..." She pauses for a moment, chewing briefly on her lower lip in consternation before continuing. "I believe I owe you a small measure of debt. Detective Adachi has established quite a case against you, and the facts are quite hard to dispute."

"And you believe Adachi," Souji says with obvious contempt.

The ghost of a frown flickers across Naoto's face, so fast that Souji barely notices. "There are compelling arguments on both sides. I have chosen to remain unaligned. And the fact is that joining your investigation team would cause me to be inextricably aligned." She stands up, holding her hand out for a shake. "Best of luck, senpai."

Souji closes his eyes, trying to will away the image of Adachi's hand from however many cycles ago, reaching towards him as he lay on the sidewalk. He feels ridiculous, every bit the Fool that Izanagi proclaimed him to be. "He's playing you," Souji whispers.

Naoto drops her hand back to her side. "Excuse me?"

"You heard what I said." Souji's voice is louder this time, her incredulous response fueling his conviction. "Adachi is playing you. He's playing you and he's playing the police department." Just like he played Dojima before, Souji doesn't say. Just like he played me. "You say 'facts' and 'logic,' but have you even considered any other possibilities? Has he even let you?" Naoto has her mouth open, ready to refute, but Souji keeps going, unstoppable now that he's started. "Adachi's claims are a bunch of bullshit. He's feeding you all a line so that he can redirect suspicion from the real culprit."

"You can't possibly mean--"

"Of course I do!" Souji shouts, the words ripping free all at once, like pulling off a bandaid. "Look at the facts and the logic and tell me that I'm wrong!"

The silence that follows is heavy, Souji's outburst ringing in his own ears. Naoto looks like she wants to say something right away, but refrains for whatever reason, instead simply holding Souji's gaze, her face perfectly calm. Her lack of reaction makes Souji feel guilty for shouting at her when his anger is meant for Adachi. She purses her lips tightly before she finally speaks. "I cannot deny that the possibility exists. However, I must say that your theory is rather--"

"Farfetched?" Souji cuts in, but there's less bite in the word than he thought there'd be. "I've heard that before." Now that the anger is gone, he feels a profound sense of hopelessness, a kite set hopelessly adrift. He sets both elbows on the table and buries his face in his hands. "You would've believed me the first time."

"The first time?" Naoto repeats. Souji can feel her eyes on him, questioning and curious and maybe a little scared.

Souji makes a sound that began as a laugh but twists into something else entirely. "If you think Adachi being a killer is farfetched, you haven't heard the half of it. Not even a quarter." That strange laughing noise bubbles in his throat again, and this time it almost sounds like a sob. His shoulders hitch, just once, but there aren't any tears. He feels dried out already.

"Senpai." Souji can't even begin to discern all the emotions contained in that single word, doesn't even bother to try. "I think I should go. Thank you for your time." There's a shuffling, then the sound of three steps as Naoto begins to walk away, then nothing. "Please be well, Senpai."

Naoto's footsteps are quick after that; Souji doesn't move, keeping his face in his hands until he can't hear her anymore and can be fairly certain she's gone. The sun hurts his eyes when he exposes them to the light again; everything hurts, every part of his body, in various amounts. There's a small part of his mind that's still racing, even now, trying to piece together some way to fix everything, but he keeps getting caught up on all the pieces that are missing. Nearly half of the Investigation Team is gone completely, and he has no idea what to do with the half he has left.

In the end, all he can think to do is move on, in whatever fractured ways he can. He expects another series of interminable forays into the television after Nanako is kidnapped, but the five of them manage to band together and get her out after three trips. When they confront Namatame in the hospital, no one even suggests enacting vengeance; Chie and Yukiko argue about the veracity of Namatame's claims, but there's no tension in it, only confusion and something like pity. Souji chooses not to participate, despite Yukiko asking for his opinion every other minute, hiding his hopelessness beneath a mask of grief. In the end, they can't come to a decision, and Namatame is taken away. With the entire police department rallied to Adachi's side, there is little point in attempting to accuse him of his crimes, and Souji waits out the months until March in a fog both figurative and literal.

"Are you satisfied with the things you did?" Dojima asks on March 21st as Souji stands in the genkan, fingers tightly gripping the strap of his bag. "The choices you made?"

"I have to do it right next time," Souji says, his voice small and tight in his chest.

 

- seven -

This time, the dream is different.

He is in the usual place, walking down a mysterious corridor shrouded in white fog. "Do you seek the truth?" asks the usual voice, playful and cloying. "If it's truth you desire..."

Souji reaches the square red door, just like always. He touches it and it rotates and expands; he walks through without hesitation.

Instead of a shapeless room filled with fog, he is in the interrogation room. He's alone for now, which is how it always starts when he visits in March. It only takes a few moments for the door to open again, letting Adachi in.

"Sorry, were you waiting long?"

Souji wakes up in a cold sweat.

--

On his way to school the next morning, he feels a little ashamed by his relief when he sees Yosuke barrel headlong into the telephone pole on his bicycle, and for the first time he stops to help Yosuke to his feet. Souji introduces himself, and he can tell that Yosuke is flabbergasted by the warm reception from the transfer student he wasn't even aware existed. Even so, the occasional small smile that flashes on Yosuke's face is such a comfort that Souji doesn't particularly care if he seems weird. From that point everything plays out in the same way Souji is accustomed; Yosuke is sitting in the seat behind him in the classroom, is summarily dragon kicked by Chie after class, then teases Yukiko when Kubo tries to hit on her on their way out of the school. The following day is the same as well, wherein he meets Saki Konishi and vows to watch the Midnight Channel.

Midnight is when everything changes.

He sees the images in the static, a figure who looks like Saki but would be difficult to identify if he hadn't lived this six times before. But this time, when he expects Izanagi to start whispering to him, Souji hears nothing.

Though it's certainly odd, he doesn't think anything of it at first. He takes a few steps closer to the television and reaches out his hand, just as he's always done. But instead of the feel of electricity crackling on his fingertips, his skin simply rests on the cold glass. He keeps pressing, harder and harder, placing his whole palm against the screen, then both palms, but there isn't the slightest indication that it will give, let alone allow him to pass through.

Souji's heart jumps into his throat. He's panicking, and he's aware that he's panicking, but only as some kind of outside observer of himself. He balls up his hands and pounds one fist against the screen, again and again, making a rhythmic hollow noise that echoes in the nearly empty bedroom. The Midnight Channel has long ago faded from the screen.

"Are you okay?" Nanako calls from the hallway, just as always, though the noise that summoned her is different.

Souji slumps to the floor, torn from his agitation by his cousin's voice. "D- did I wake you?" he manages to choke out. The words feel rough on his dry tongue.

"I heard a hammering noise," Nanako explains uncertainly. "Well, good night."

--

First thing in the morning, Souji dashes through the rain to the police station.

The place is a madhouse, of course, because they're still in the early stages of investigating Mayumi Yamano's death. They'll find Saki's body tomorrow, but no one here can possibly know that. In fact, maybe Saki is here right now; since her image wasn't clear on the Midnight Channel, she can't be on the other side yet. Or maybe...

Souji runs through the halls he shouldn't recognize, ignoring shouts and protests, wrenching himself free from at least one rough hand. When he reaches the interrogation room, the door is locked. He’s banging on the door when a hand grabs him by the shoulder and whirls him around, putting him face-to-face with his uncle.

"What on earth has gotten into you?" Dojima demands. "Shouldn't you be at school?"

A small crowd is gathering, precisely the sort of audience Souji would have wanted to avoid under ordinary circumstances. He swallows hard and ignores them, looking straight into Dojima's eyes. "I need to speak to Detective Adachi," he says as softly as he can manage. "I know he's in here. Please unlock the door, before it's too late."

Dojima looks confused, which is only natural considering Souji shouldn't even know who Adachi is. He glances over his shoulder at the crowd of officers behind him, then waves his free hand in their direction. "Get outta here! Don't you have anything better to do?"

It takes a long, awful minute for the gathering to disperse, and Dojima waits until they have before turning his full attention back to Souji. "Please," Souji repeats, desperation seeping into his tone despite his best efforts, "I need to speak to Detective Adachi."

"How do you know Adachi?" Dojima says. He's put on his detective tone, and Souji thinks of the September where everything unraveled in his hands. He pushes it out of his head almost immediately; he can't afford to dwell on past failures now, not when he might finally be able to make a difference.

Souji can't formulate a lie quickly enough, not when he can imagine what might be happening on the other side of the door. "That's not important right now, I really need to--"

"You need to speak to Detective Adachi," Dojima finishes for him, his grip tightening on Souji's shoulder to the point where it's almost painful. Souji bites his tongue and tries not to wince. "There's a police interrogation in progress in this room. I shouldn’t have to explain to you why I can't let a civilian inside."

Souji is opening his mouth to respond when the door opens, pushing him forward into Dojima. "Ah, Souji-kun!" Adachi says, and Souji's heart goes still in his chest; Adachi shouldn't know him at all yet. "Dojima-san, you can let him wait. I've been expecting him."

Dojima's eyes narrow suspiciously. "How do you know my nephew?"

"We've had a few chance meetings," Adachi says with his usual bravado. He flashes Souji a smile, but the expression doesn't reach his eyes. "He can wait outside. I'm nearly done with Miss Konishi."

A fire of anger ignites in Souji, and he wrenches free from Dojima's grasp, trying unsuccessfully to shove his way through the doorway before the door closes and locks. He pounds his fist against the door, but the sound it produces is gutted and sad.

Dojima's hand touches Souji's shoulder, and he braces himself to be wrenched around and yelled at again. "Wait here," Dojima says, and Souji glances over his shoulder to see his uncle's face. He mostly looks confused, but there's a line of worry across his forehead, impossible to miss. Souji wants to say something, wants desperately to find some way to fight what he knows is happening right now, but knows it's ultimately useless. He doesn't know how, but Adachi is holding all the cards again. Dojima watches him for a long moment before speaking. "Would you like me to wait with you?"

Souji is struck by the concern in Dojima's tone, but he shakes his head. "I'd rather be alone. If that's alright with you." Dojima nods quickly, looking somewhat relieved as he disappears down the hall and around the corner, out of sight. The hallway is utterly deserted now, and Souji backs up to lean against the wall and wait, shoving his hands in his pockets to conceal how badly they're shaking. He tries not to think about what might be happening on the other side of the closed interrogation room door, tries not to strain his ears and listen for any sounds of an argument or a struggle. His tortured imagination fills the long, horrible minutes until the door finally opens and Adachi emerges.

"Sorry, were you waiting long?" Adachi asks, all smiles, and it's all Souji can do to not charge across the hallway and grab Adachi by the neck. "Come on in. Let's talk, just you and I."

Souji wants to scream at him, wants to slam Adachi against the wall, but the memory of the line of concern on Dojima's face gives him pause, and he contains himself until the door clicks closed behind them. "Where the hell is Saki Konishi," he hisses, whirling to face Adachi.

Inexplicably, Adachi laughs. "Come on now, Souji-kun. You're not that stupid." He inclines his head towards the corner of the room, and Souji glances over to see a television. "Surely you've put two and two together. That's why you're here, isn't it?"

"You bastard," Souji says, the words choked and heavy in his throat. "Did you... while I was..."

"If it makes you feel any better," Adachi says, taking one step towards Souji, a predatory smile on his face, "you were already too late. But showmanship is everything, and I couldn't let you down like that." He takes another step and Souji stumbles back into the table; Adachi moves closer, his face centimeters from Souji's. "Still, I have to say I'm impressed. I was starting to think you'd never try to stop me. High marks for effort. Too bad you need to get a perfect score to win."

Souji grips the table with both hands, trying to keep himself steady. Nothing Adachi is saying makes any sense. His heart is beating erratically as Adachi leans in even further; the smell of him calls to mind the smoky-sour taste of Adachi's mouth, and Souji's stomach twists at the memory. He feels as though something in him should be telling him to run, but he's riveted to the spot.

"Just how many times are you planning to do this?" Adachi says, his breath warm against Souji's ear. "Ten? Fifteen? Twenty? Forever? C'mon, kid, how fucking stupid are you?"

All the air is gone from Souji's lungs, like he's been sucker punched. He opens and closes his mouth several times before he can finally manage to form words and give them voice. "H- how do you...?"

"You really are an idiot, aren't you? Do you seriously think you're the only person who remembers?" Adachi laughs abrasively, then places his hands on the table on either side of Souji's waist, roping him in. "You've spent all this time thinking you're so fucking special. But let me tell you a little secret, kid. No one is special." He licks his lips and presses his body flush against Souji's, hot like a brand. "You and me, we've got something in common. Want to guess what it is?"

Souji closes his eyes tightly, trying to hold back the panicked tears that are stinging them; he can't think clearly with Adachi so close to him. "I don't understand," he says, and he prays that Adachi doesn't hear the repressed sob in his voice.

Warm breath on his cheek is the only warning before Adachi presses his lips to the corner of Souji's mouth, and Souji shudders and flinches away. "That's the real cosmic question, isn't it?" Adachi says. "Right, partner?"

Souji's eyes fly open; he grabs hold of Adachi's wrists and yanks them away from the table, then releases them so he can shove Adachi's chest with both hands, pushing him back towards the door. Adachi tries to rebound, but Souji keeps charging forward, until Adachi is backed up against the door, pinned against it by Souji's hands on his shoulders. "It was you," Souji hears himself shouting, even as his brain is still frantically connecting the dots. "Everything was you. You killed Mayumi Yamano. You killed Saki Konishi. You turned my uncle against me, and then you turned Naoto against me!"

"Keep going!" Adachi is still grinning, his eyes wild. "I drove the Junes kid out of town! I sent that envelope of poison to Risette! You stopped wanting to play, so I decided to start really fucking with you." He cranes his neck forward, straining against Souji's arms, tilting his head as he stares into Souji's eyes. "Did you know," he says, his voice low and teasing, "you get this look on your face sometimes. It was on your face earlier, in fact! You get this wrinkle in your forehead, right, like you're mad, but then your eyes are real soft, like you're in love with me or something! Crazy, right?"

Souji's body moves quick as lightning, his right arm coming up to press against Adachi's throat, pushing him back further against the door. "You tricked me," Souji says, voice thick.

Adachi tries to laugh, but it just comes out as a shallow wheeze. "Please, Souji-kun. I just let you believe what you wanted to believe. You tricked yourself."

There's a half second where Souji thinks he really is going to cry, but every other swirling emotion buries the regret and sorrow. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, focusing his brain away from the anger and everything else so that he can finally try, after all this time, to fix things. His voice is much quieter when he speaks again, but no less determined. "So what did you change this time?"

"Oh, you haven't figured it out?" The amused grin is back on Adachi's face in full force. He brings one hand up to grip Souji's elbow, pushing it back from where it rests against his throat; Souji tenses at first, then lets Adachi move the arm back just enough so he can speak. "Let me tell you a story, Souji-kun. Once upon a time, a good cop got a bum rap and got shipped out to the middle of nowhere to atone for his sins. When he came to town, he was real down in the dumps, until he found out that when he arrived he received an incredible gift. He felt real special for a while, but wouldn't you know it? It turns out two other people got the exact same gift." Adachi takes a half-step forward and Souji takes a half-step back, unthinking. "It was way too easy to bend one of them to my whims, but the other? He took a little more convincing. Luckily, I got a few chances to really get into his head. And once I found out who gave us the power? I decided to cut him off altogether."

On instinct, Souji reaches for his Personas, but feels only emptiness. There's a brief flash of panic, but he manages to contain it with a slow, shaky breath. He glances over his shoulder at the television, and the decision all but makes itself. "I'm going to rescue Saki Konishi."

"And how exactly do you plan to do that?" Adachi scoffs, a sneer on his lips and amusement in his eyes. "You're totally powerless, remember?"

"Maybe I am," Souji says, moving his arm away from Adachi's neck so he can catch hold of one of his hands, threading their fingers together. "But you're not."

--

Souji lands on hard asphalt after passing through the interrogation room's television; he releases his grip on Adachi's hand, rolling away and to his knees as soon as he catches his breath. "Hello?" he yells, cupping one hand to his mouth to amplify the sound. "Can anyone hear me? Konishi-san? Ted--" He cuts himself off, realizing that Teddie wouldn't know to respond to that name yet.

"So hopeful," Adachi says, and Souji turns to glare at him. Adachi is lying flat on his back, staring up at the cross-crossing metal bars above as they sway gently like trees in the yellow fog. "That's what she said about you, when I found her and asked. Hope, despair, and emptiness." He lifts his head and smiles, and it's nothing like the vicious, wild expression he had earlier; there's something almost sad in it, and Souji's traitor heart catches in his chest. "She wouldn't tell me which one she thinks I am."

He has no idea what Adachi is talking about or who "she" is, but the idea that some stranger had identified Souji as some kind of embodiment of hope feels almost laughable after his years of failures. Souji looks away and bites the inside of his mouth, and the momentary pain keeps him from thinking about Adachi's words too deeply and whatever mixed-up emotions those thoughts would entail. The asphalt stretches in only one direction, and Souji pulls himself to his feet and starts walking without giving Adachi so much as a glance.

A few minutes pass before Souji senses something behind him, following at a fair distance, never getting too close. He refuses to look back; it's either a Shadow or Adachi, and he's not sure which one is more frightening. He keeps both fists clenched as he continues walking, and after a few more minutes the canopy of scaffolding opens up to the wide-open street of the shopping district, the Konishi liquor store large and looming, flanked on either side by smaller nondescript buildings. Souji quickens his pace, and he throws open the door to the liquor store without a moment's hesitation.

Where the walls should be lined with shelves and bottles, there are bare wall covered with bright red graffiti. Where there should be aisles, there is a table covered in ashes. Against the back wall, there is a television. The twisted interrogation room smells of tobacco and alcohol and thick smoke, and Souji presses the heels of his hands into his eyes, fingers scratching against his scalp. "No, no, no, no, no," he whispers over and over, like a mantra, until he feels arms encircling him from the front and he recoils in horror.

He expects it to be Adachi, but the face he sees when he opens his eyes is his own. "There, there," the other Souji says, voice soft and soothing, arms still outstretched. "It'll be okay. We'll get another chance, I'm sure. Not that we'll do any better next time, or the time after, or the time after..."

"Shut up!" Souji yells before he can stop himself, and the Shadow's bright yellow eyes cut through the fog and smoke in the room. Souji clutches at his own throat, raw and burning, as though he can keep any other denials from escaping his lips. He knows how this is supposed to work, logically, but it's entirely different when it's his own Shadow staring him down. "We can fix it," he says, hoping that speaking the words aloud will convince them both. "We have to. If we don't, we'll just be--"

"Trapped forever?" the Shadow finishes for him, the corner of its mouth turning up in the beginnings of a smile. "Would that really be so bad? We have friends here, and family, and purpose. We didn't have any of that back in the city. Year after year, here in Inaba, and all we have to do is keep letting Adachi-san go free."

"That's..." Souji begins, then stops himself short. Only minutes ago he'd been convinced that every loop was Adachi's fault, but his Shadow has made him doubtful. He draws a shuddering breath as he thinks back to the very first time he spent this year in Inaba, and no matter how much he examines it, he can't blame his decision to stay silent on anyone other than himself. The second and third times, too, he could have ended it all if he had only chosen to act on his suspicions; even the later loops, after Adachi began meddling directly, all contained opportunities that Souji chose not to pursue. His instinct is to argue, to deny, but he knows how that will end, so he bites his tongue. "You're right," he admits, and the Shadow smiles gratefully. "But that doesn't make this right. We're sacrificing people, time after time, and for what? Our own happiness? Have we even been happy, this whole time?"

"We make him happy," the Shadow says, its voice little more than a whisper, and the devotion is so plain in it that it makes Souji's stomach turn. "We were happy, too, that year we spent with Adachi-san. We could have all that again, over and over and over... forever..."

"No..." The word feels solid in Souji's mouth, a round mass that he can't swallow back down. "I would never..."

The Shadow laughs joyously, the smile on its face eerily reminiscent of Adachi's vicious grin. "We could! It would be so easy! The two of us, together forever! We could make this world into whatever we want!" The Shadow reaches out to grab hold of Souji's hands, and Souji wrenches away, stumbling back into the wall. His skin feels cold and slimy from where the Shadow touched it. "That is what we want, isn't it?"

Souji stares at the Shadow in horror, then tears his eyes away, focusing instead on the graffiti on the right wall, the word 'partner' scrawled in blood red letters. "You're insane," he breathes, voice wavering, tears pricking the corners of his eyes. He slumps to his knees, leaning heavily against the wall, fingers of one hand digging into the fabric of the opposite sleeve. He glances at the Shadow again out of the corner of his eye, but its form is shrouded in thick black smoke, and he squeezes his eyes shut and sobs aloud. "Please, no, I can't..."

"Say it!" the Shadow shrieks, its voice echoing in the tiny room. "Deny it! Say that this isn't what you want! This is never what you've wanted! Say that you're not dreaming of Adachi-san bursting through that door and rescuing you!" There's a twist in Souji's heart, a hopeful flutter, and Souji sobs again as the Shadow laughs. "Wouldn't that be something? The man you love protecting you from the part of you that loves him most!"

"I don't..." Souji begins, but he cuts himself off when the television on the far wall suddenly flickers to life. Both Souji and the Shadow turn to look at it; the image is mostly static, but there's a blurry figure visible, and after seeing it seven times he knows for sure that it's Saki Konishi. He leaps to his feet, running past the Shadow's grasping hand to press both of his palms flat against the screen, as though he could somehow pass through to reach her. The image on the screen is focusing on her face, still indistinct, and Souji sees that her mouth is open in a scream that he can't hear.

The image flickers off suddenly, and Souji turns to the Shadow, who has the television's power cord in its hand. "Forget about her!" the Shadow says, and Souji knows his own voice well enough to hear the desperation in it. "We don't care about her, or Mayumi Yamano, or Mr. Morooka, or anyone! All we need is--"

"Shut up," Souji says again, but this time his voice is firm, and the yellow light in the Shadow's eyes dims, the black smoke surrounding it thinning. "You know as well as I do that Adachi isn't all we need. If that were true, why would he have tried so hard to cut us off from everyone else we love?" He reaches out and plucks the cord from his Shadow's hand, then rests his palms gently on the Shadow's shoulders. "He was there after we reversed the bond with Yosuke. He knows those bonds make us stronger. If he loves us, why is he trying so hard to destroy us?" The Shadow's yellow eyes begin to fill with tears, and Souji pulls it forward into an embrace. "We did love him. Maybe we still do. Maybe we always will. But we love all of our other friends, too, and our family, and this town. We need to protect all of that. And if that means we can't stay trapped here in this time loop with Adachi forever, then, well..." He trails off, resting his chin on the Shadow's shoulder and letting out a slow breath. "But I don't need to tell you any of this. You already know. Because you're me."

"And I'm you," the Shadow says, its voice wavering. Souji feels the damp splash of a tear on his neck before the Shadow shimmers and fades away, leaving a shining blue tarot card behind. Souji reaches out to pluck it from the air, and the arcana doesn't match any that he's come to associate with his friends and family; the picture shows a figure holding a horn, with the numeral XX on the bottom. Souji takes a deep breath, only hesitating for a moment before crushing the card in his hand.

He blinks to clear the flash of light from his eyes, and before him is a Persona that Souji has never seen before, a human figure with a mirror for a face and black hair tied into a top knot, wearing a robe the color of rice fields. It holds a shining jewel in one hand, and has a sword wrapped in cloth strapped to its back.

I am thou... The voice in Souji's head is different, a clear sound like wind chimes, soft where Izanagi's would have echoed. And thou art I... Let us walk past this crossroads together... The Persona nods its head, and Souji can see his own reflection in its mirrored face before it disappears, settling as a warm and soothing presence in Souji's mind.

Souji takes a moment then to catch his breath; he feels exhausted, mentally and physically, and he wonders how much of it is the effect of the TV world's fog and how much is the exertion of facing his Shadow for the very first time. His newly awoken Persona thrums in his head, like a separate heartbeat, and he can feel its conviction strengthening his own. With new confidence and hope in his heart, Souji crosses the interrogation room and goes back through the door to the twisted shopping district.

Adachi is there in the middle of the street, arms crossed. "Didn't find the girl, I see. What a crying shame. What's the plan now, Mister Hopeful Hero? Do you even have an exit strategy? Gonna track down your little bear friend and tell him what a bad, bad man I am?"

"You killed them," Souji says, ignoring all of Adachi's taunts, recognizing them as the misdirection they've always been. "More than once. You killed Mayumi Yamano seven times. How do you plan on justifying your actions?"

"Someone's gotten awfully self-righteous in the past fifteen minutes!" Adachi unfolds his arms and shrugs. "Let's think about this logically, Souji-kun. Let's say that I did... well, I don't want to say kill. That sounds so violent."

"You killed them," Souji repeats, voice firm. "You knew what would happen when you pushed them in."

"Let's not argue semantics, Souji-kun!" The amusement in Adachi's voice makes Souji's blood curdle. "But fine, if you insist. Let's say that I did kill them. Can you honestly tell me that you didn't know? Why else would I have told you to burn that letter the first time? For shits and giggles? And if you knew, and you didn't do anything..."

Souji’s whole body shakes with fury, and he lunges forward, ready to tackle Adachi to the asphalt when a figure flashes into being between them, its huge sword blocking Souji's advance and sending him reeling backward into the wall of the liquor store. Souji shudders when he recognizes it, the same shape as Izanagi but a mottled red and black.

"Oh don't look so fucking surprised," Adachi says. He takes a step forward to stand next to the not-Izanagi, crossing his arms again smugly. "I told you already, didn't it? You're not special. No one is." He motions with a hand and the other Izanagi rears its head back in a silent scream.

Time seems to slow down then; Souji sees the lightning manifest above him, and in the dilated milliseconds he determines that there is no time to dodge out of the way. He doesn't have the chance to make a conscious choice before his new Persona appears just long enough to encase him in a protective barrier which reflects the spell away harmlessly.

Adachi looks shocked, then angry. "When did you--"

Souji doesn't give him the opportunity to finish the sentence. "Ninigi!" he calls, summoning the tarot card into his hand and crushing it in a single gesture; he doesn't know how he learned the Persona's name, just that the knowledge was there, same as it had been with Izanagi. The Persona shimmers into being before him, gesturing with the jewel in its hand and calling down a lightning bolt of its own. It strikes the other Izanagi, which staggers in pain before it flickers out of existence; Adachi clutches at his chest and drops to a knee. Ninigi keeps charging forward, taking the sword from its back and swinging it in an arc toward Adachi's defenseless form. Souji flinches, certain that the strike will kill, but the sword stops short, its covered edge hovering a centimeter from the junction between Adachi's neck and shoulder.

Everything is still and silent for a long moment, Ninigi unmoving between them, and Souji realizes in a rush that the Persona is waiting for permission. He steps forward until he is standing beside Ninigi, shoulder-to-shoulder; the Persona's featureless mirror face is focused on Souji, watching him. Adachi looks almost pitiful like this, cowering before them, and Souji allows his traitorous heart one last moment of affection before he closes those feelings away for good. "I need you to say it," Souji says. "I need you to tell me. You murdered Mayumi Yamano and Saki Konishi. Say it."

The voice is so small and broken that Souji barely hears it. "I murdered them."

"Say it again," Souji says, the admission only fueling his fury, his whole body vibrating with it. He can feel tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. "Say their names."

"I murdered Mayumi Yamano and Saki Konishi," Adachi rasps. His eyes dart around to the floor, the sword at his neck, the Persona in front of him, until his gaze finally focuses on Souji's face. "So, what, are you going to murder me, Souji-kun? That just makes us the same, you know. The accomplice becomes the murderer. How poetic."

"It's like something right out of a television drama," Souji mutters without thinking.

Adachi blinks, stunned for a moment, then lets out a strangled laugh. "And I did a terrible job with the character witnesses."

"See you next time," Souji says, seeing his somber reflection in Ninigi's face as he looks at the Persona and nods.

The sword swings, and everything disappears.

 

- one (eight) -

He's just not sure.

All of the facts add up, of course. Adachi had the opportunity to push both Mayumi Yamano and Saki Konishi into the TV. He had the means to cover up any evidence that might have led the police to finding him out. He had the ability to get close to the Dojimas' house to leave the warning letters in the mailbox. No one would have suspected him.

But Souji thinks back on the time they had shared together: the stolen moments in the lobby at Junes, the dinner he prepared for Adachi and Nanako, Adachi helping Nanako with her homework, the comedy of errors that resulted from Adachi trying and failing to avoid contact with the old lady who kept doting on him.

He thinks of Adachi at the hospital, standing loyally next to Dojima's bed, kindly insisting that Souji go home and rest. No matter how hard he tries, Souji can't reconcile that image with the one of a murderer.

He is about to bite his lip and stay silent when he senses something, a Persona he doesn't recognize from the collection he's gathered in the pages of Margaret's book. Its presence is warm and light in his mind, and when he closes his eyes he sees the color of rice fields. Let us walk past this crossroads together, it whispers, and Souji can't remember where he's heard those words before. We must not deny the truth.

Adachi at Junes, letting facts about the case slip as though they were nothing. Adachi outside Marukyu Tofu, pursuing the false kidnapper with them. Adachi on the night of Dojima's accident, unfazed by the list of names written in Namatame's diary. Each event on its own could be taken as coincidence, but the confluence indicates a pattern that Souji can't ignore.

"Are you okay, partner?" Yosuke asks, breaking Souji out of his spiral of thoughts. Yosuke looks concerned, brow furrowed, but then he smiles reassuringly and rests a hand on Souji's shoulder. Mada burns bright in Souji's mind, warm as the light in his best friend's eyes; Norn is there, too, and Futsunushi and Scathach and Odin and Ishtar, all of them encouraging him without words.

"Tohru Adachi," Souji says, and Ninigi nods in agreement.