Hey, welcome to Benched! Benched primarily concerns itself with Persona 3 characters during the events of Persona 4 Arena-but it does cross over with some elements and characters from Persona 1/2, particularly 2. Now, luckily, if you haven't played Persona 2, the relevant bits are small, but unluckily, if you have played Persona 2, the relevant bits are small.

Real Quick Forenote: Chāhan is Japanese fried rice, subuta is Japanese sweet-and-sour chicken, gyōza are steamed or fried dumplings, and banbanji is strips of meat and vegetables served cold in a sauce, kind-of like a salad. Chinese restaurants in Japan don't serve Chinese food like American-Chinese joints do. They serve dishes that mix Japanese and Chinese cuisine together. (I've added some items to Aiya's menu for ficcing purposes since they are mostly a ramen bar.) Go wiki it—but not when you're hungry.

Warning: This story contains a fair bit of adult language and some fairly intense violence.

Enjoy!


Benched

Chapter 1: On the Evening of May 4, 2012


May, temperate and newly green, warmed the junkyard, and the parked Toyota Century's engine purred low, temperature-controlling even the seats of its passenger cabin while giving off only the most responsible of vehicular emissions. The bank of computers inside, busily networking with the Kirijo mainframe just moments ago, now stood black and sleeping. A minimalist, red Kirijo logo faded in and out on the central monitor. The seats fit along the cabin in a rich, leather-upholstered 'L', its eight-passenger efficiency accommodating just three riders now.

"I can't believe she drove us all the way out here to wait in the car," Junpei said. He threw himself back against the very cushy seats of the Kirijo limousine. The leather, and probably memory foam or something else swanky like that, caught him without holding a grudge. He slouched down in the seat, glaring up at the dark moon-roof. 'And I flew ten hours for this!'

"She's trying to be considerate of our schedules," Yukari snapped, "especially during an emergency."

"It's okay, Yukari-chan," Fuuka said. "Junpei-kun is just a little cranky because he had a long trip."

Yukari rolled her eyes. 'I had a long trip too.' "My gosh, Tatsumi Port's just so far—"

"LAX," Junpei corrected, sitting up straight, "to Tokyo, and then a red-eye out to Yasoinaba." He looked out the tinted window up at the country sky, yellowing with sunset—he'd never even heard of Yasoinaba before this.

"I haven't been off a plane or a train in almost eighteen hours—and I have jet-lag like you would not believe."

At first, Yukari said nothing.

"Why were you in America?"

"I go to college there. Why else do you think?"

"When did that happen?"

"Last winter."

"Why America?"

"I'm doing a year abroad there and I like it! What's with the third degree!?"

"Maybe now isn't the time for this," Fuuka interrupted. "You look like you need sleep, Junpei-kun."

"I do need sleep. It's 3AM where I live, and it's only 7PM here."

"Why don't you take a nap? We're probably not going anywhere anytime soon."

"I'll do that—sorry about the bitchin', Fuuka."

"Don't worry about it."

"Maybe Mitsuru has some—tea or something in here—" Yukari started.

"Nah. I'm not gonna take anything in case we get called in." Junpei dropped down horizontally along the limo seat, the chill of internal air-conditioning meant for cooling asses prickling the hairs on his arms and shoulders. He shivered, fidgeted, finally settled on his back, and adjusted his hat, knocking the cap-brim over his eyes.

"About that," Fuuka started prudently. "Mitsuru doesn't know what to expect. If we don't hear from her in twelve hours, we're to call in the other teams. Nanjo-san will make the call on which team goes in next."

"So, we might not go in at all?" Junpei asked from under his hat.

"It will take the others time to get here," Fuuka explained, "but in the best case scenario, we won't."

Junpei sighed and pulled through an agonized stretch. These seats were not meant for sleeping; he could feel the stiffness already clogging his bones, but just lying down on anything made his head light and his eyelids heavy.

"Good thing it's summer," he said in a breath as a soft night began to come early—just for him. "Not missing anything important."

[- - -]

Junpei slept heavily and without a sound, his baseball cap tipped over his eyes and the bridge of his nose, along the long arm of the 'L'. His jittering, dreaming movements might have attracted Yukari's eye—if he ever moved, anyway.

"He sleeps like he's dead."

Fuuka looked up from the polished screen of her tablet.

"Junpei-kun was really tired," she said, keeping her voice low.

"He's not gonna wake up if we don't whisper."

"Why bother him, though?"

A webpage passed over the tablet-screen and then another, the instantaneous leafing of an electric book. Another breath, easy and slumbering, moved through Junpei's body.

"Hey, Fuuka," Yukari said, looking away from him finally. "Did you know he went to America?"

"No, he didn't tell me."

"So, it wasn't just me then?"

"No, it wasn't just you, Yukari-chan. Does that make you worry?"

"What? No, just—I was wondering why Mitsuru brought him all the way here from America. That's not really like her." Yukari knit her brows as she said it, her own 'summons' that morning still fresh her mind.

The store still smelled of morning and new, fresh-of-the-factory clothing flush with the riot of perfumes over in the Beauty department when she got on her early-bird shift at Mays, Junes's more trendy and urban younger sister-chain (sans grocery, of course) for city-living, disposable fashionistas. The sunlight cut brightly and almost unbearably through her department, and Yukari had worked half-way through merchandizing a rack of gauzy lavender blouses shot through with silver insets when a man with an ear-piece approached her.

She had stopped in the middle of her work then, knowing there wasn't any point in continuing. After all, the Shadow Operatives' front men always had ear-pieces, and they never came for ladies' wear-it-and-toss-it fashion.

The gentleman had been especially tight-lipped on the way to the train, but there was no security like Kirijo security, and not even twenty minutes later, Yukari was on a super express to Yasoinaba. An hour into her trip, Mitsuru finally sent her an e-mail, all duly apologetic and formal while brushing just the tip of the unfolding situation and promising more details when she 'and the others' arrived.

'The others'—that had sounded so promising just a few hours ago.

But now, they weren't going; barely any of them were going, and Kei Nanjo, the heir of the Nanjo Group and co-commander, technically, of the Shadow Operatives would make the call if they went in at all. It ground on Yukari's patience—'What's deal, Mitsuru? Are you really going to jerk us around like this?'

"I think Junpei-kun didn't really tell anyone that he was going," Fuuka said, shaking Yukari back after a moment's silence. "Mitsuru probably assumed he hadn't left the country, and Kirijo did the rest."

She let her growing dissatisfaction with Mitsuru lie for the moment.

"That really bothers me," Yukari said, changing the subject. "He just up and left and didn't tell any of us."

"Akihiko-kun went traveling too—"

"Akihiko told you—"

A somewhat flustered Fuuka smiled anyway and continued: "But why does it bother you? Did you and Junpei-kun go to the same university?"

"No. No, I don't think we did—if we did, we didn't hang out."

"Ah. Well, it's not really surprising that he went to America. He always liked those action movies."

"Yeah, he always did. Sorry, Fuuka, this all just feels weird to me. We're here first and we're not even going in? I know we're 'unofficial' Shadow Operatives but—"

"I think Mitsuru and Nanjo-san are still getting used to working together."

"Number One and Zero butting heads still?"

Fuuka giggled. "I suppose so."

"I can see why; that guy didn't want S.E.E.S. to be official—"

Fuuka shook her head, a sympathetic look on her face. "I don't think it's like that. Nanjo-san and the others have been persona users for much longer than any of us. I don't think he thought it was right to recruit users so young—"

"Aigis was recruited—"

"You know it's not that simple, Yukari-chan—even Akihiko-kun's not official."

"He was so pissed at her over that."

"As much as he gets with Mitsuru—"

"I think he should be mad. They can't just come in and tell us what to do! What do they know about anything—"

"Nanjo-san and the others have fought shadows too—"

"They didn't fight what we fought, Fuuka—"

"But Mitsuru agreed with him, and so did Suou-san," Fuuka cut in. "About the unofficial status. Until we were ready, and then, only if we wanted it."

Yukari huffed and looked away. Speaking matter-of-factually, she felt no more fond of Katsuya Suou than she did of Kei Nanjo. But unlike Nanjo, Yukari had initially found nothing to dislike about Suou during their brief meeting, no more than an hour or so, in a sleek, red meeting room in the Kirijo Spire on the Tatsumi Port skyline. Suou was stoic but pleasant, all dressed in lawful lines and lapels, and her impression of him soured quickly enough.

But Kaoru Saga, however, was older than nearly everyone in the room, and had leaned back in his chair, the leather creaking.

"Suou, we're getting old," Saga said, his voice gritty but even, and his eyes unknowable behind his shades. "And I don't give a shit if the kids fight."

Suou bristled thoroughly.

"It's not about 'giving a shit'," he countered reactively. He calmed and touched his red-lensed glasses further up his nose. "It's about doing right by their futures. Involvement with these operations comes at a high cost. Those with the ability to leave, should." Suou stood up from the glassy table then, a vase of red roses contrasting the smoky color of his suit; the debate settled as far as he seemed to be concerned. His eyes shifted from Saga to Yukari, or maybe Akihiko, or Fuuka, to any or all of them. "And if this is really your road, it will come for you."

Yukari made a fist; like that last bit was supposed to be comforting or something!

'He doesn't know a damn thing about me! I've never had the 'ability' to leave any of this! I've even tried running—' Back in the limo, she paused in the angry rush of her thoughts, the momentum of her emotions carrying on without her. 'But I want to fight now!' Truthfully, she knew the 'luxury' to decide meant much more to others than it ever did to her. She needed no decision anymore; she would fight—always—for him. He died protecting them, all of them, and he wasn't going to hold that thing back alone.

'But I'm not going to kid myself, I'm pretty…ordinary,' for a persona user, anyhow. She and Isis made for no unfound prodigy after all, and the small network of persona-users Nanjo brought to the table when he proposed a 'merging' of the Kirijo and Groups' 'invisible' departments made for the more experienced and powerful group by far. The competition pretty much trounced her (and frankly, much of S.E.E.S.'s) abilities, but for Fuuka, Yukari admitted to herself begrudgingly, even Nanjo's network made exceptions. Fuuka's abilities of perception, detection, and long-distance communication were simply unparalleled and irreplaceable. Of all of the remaining, and human, S.E.E.S. members, Fuuka had been the only one Mitsuru had directly solicited for official membership. In the privacy of the marble and glass corridor following the red room meeting, Fuuka declined that offer under the conditions of Suou's and Nanjo's discussion and her soft-spoken wishes for her education, her future. Yukari—standing just inside the massive elevator walled in mirrors and gold—had heard her gentle, politely regretful 'no'.

'If you had asked me, I'd have said 'yes'! I'd have said 'yes' on the spot,' she had thought back then, almost too angry to see as she stormed into the elevator and slammed the 'close doors' button. Not Mitsuru, not Fuuka, not anybody would see her this pissed off; this anger was hers. 'But you're not going to ask me.' She wanted to kick something, but that elevator had been too obnoxiously fragile.

"I know she did," Yukari said, resigned and returning to the present at last. The sky had finally grown dark, blackening the windows completely. "I'm just—mad today. Why did she bring us here?"

Fuuka's eyes dropped to the floor.

"I get the feeling what's happening now is pretty big, bigger than most things she's dealt with since…back then," she said slowly. "And if it is big, I think she wants the friends she trusts most nearby—official or not."

"You're just trying to make me feel better," Yukari said, resting her elbow against the veneered door and her cheek on her hand.

"Did it work?" Fuuka asked, smiling. Yukari cracked just the smallest smile in return.

"A little."

[- - -]

At 8:25PM, just before the Aiya Chinese Diner shut down all its operations, even its generous evening delivery service, the guy watching the empty counter got a call from a unfamiliar area-code and a girl with a soft, soft voice. She rang like a bell, small and light, in his ear across the line, and she wasn't a regular, not at all.

"Excuse me, but do you deliver to street corners?"

"Depends on the street corner, miss," the head-waiter said. The soft-spoken girl's particular street corner wasn't far out of town, about half-a-block off the main throughway lacing through the center of the Yasoinaba region. Of course, the only thing out that way was an electronics dump—but his guy could meet her there, if that's where she wanted her Aiya's! He heard her laugh lightly at his certainty before she agreed and ordered a large chāhan and subuta with sides of banbanji and fried gyōza. She paid with a debit card, and the head-waiter dragged out the card-processor from where it gathered dust beneath the register. The Junes going up had forced Inaba, and its local businesses, to come out of their loafering and finally warm up to plastic money, but the Aiya Diner had been there for three-and-a-half generations and liked tradition.

"That'll be that, Yamagishi-san," the head-waiter said, the machine finally satisfied with its fare of serial numbers and personal information. "We'll see ya in twenty-five to thirty minutes at your street corner."

"Thank you very much."

[- - -]

Junpei woke up long enough to half-order in a daze but did not wake up again for the actual food. After some idle searching through the cabin, Yukari discovered a concealed and empty beverage well beneath the computer-bank to stash the left-overs in.

"It'll be a little cold," Fuuka said, closing up the well again. "But he'll have something when he gets up." Yukari nodded and sat back down in the short bar of the 'L' seat.

"It's almost 10," she said, pulling her legs up and sitting side-saddle—sort-of—on the seat.

"I know," Fuuka said as she went through the collection of briefcases stashed neatly between the seat and the computer bank, two empty laptop cases and an aluminum suitcase. Fuuka pulled the steel-colored case up on the seat with her and turned the combination easily; Yukari matched the numbers in muscle-memory: '03-05-10'. "I'm starting to wonder a little about them. Are you tired?"

"Not really. Did she bring those with her?"

The lock gave way, and Fuuka opened the case.

"Oh—yes," Fuuka said. Three evokers gleamed in a bed of black foam. Yukari reached for hers without asking, knowing her evoker immediately by the familiar heft in her hand, the easy fit of the grip to her fingers. Mitsuru had taken care of it since its decommission. The device was very clean and still lightly personalized with the S.E.E.S. banner engraved along the barrel and beneath it, in stylistically smaller script: 'TAKEBA YUKARI'.

She put her finger experimentally to the trigger as if to fire.

'I haven't seen this thing in ten months,' Yukari thought. She released the trigger, grasped the evoker along the barrel, and set it back in its foam indentation.

She remembered what she said when she held it last, after her friend left her to freeze under the cold stares of Kirijo security as an agent stopped her in the lobby, like a common shoplifter, with the summer city and sky undisturbed outside. The young man, with the sunglasses and the ear-piece, had escorted her politely, awkwardly, back into the elevator and up seventeen floors to Mitsuru's office and apartments. The double doors had parted onto her golden parlor, draped in classical red and trimmed in old world wood, with a white and modernist sofa curved around a low coffee table, its lamp, and, true to Mitsuru, a gold and red enameled tea set. Mitsuru herself presided over the room with the imperial grace most characteristic of her, but that day, it wavered—as if she had expected Yukari to be upset, but perhaps not this upset.

"Did I steal something or what?" Yukari shot after her escort left. Mitsuru gently stepped over the question.

"Yukari, please sit—"

"I'm gonna stand."

Mitsuru frowned, her eyes turned aside and her arms crossed over her chest.

"I—I realize you are angry, but we need to discuss this before you leave."

"What's there to talk about? You and the others," she spat, "don't want us to fight. I get it. Can I go

now—"

"I have reasons for that decision that I want you to hear—will you please sit?"

"You can tell me standing. I'm not going to be staying long."

Mitsuru relented, dropping her arms to her sides.

"I would be honored to fight with all of you again," Mitsuru started slowly. "There are no better allies—"

"Not even Suou-san back there?"

Mitsuru lowered her eyes and did not answer—again.

"I agree with Nanjo and Suou because there are no better allies, and I want…more for the rest of you. I don't want all of you to have to carry this burden with me for the rest of your lives."

Yukari took a breath and gripped her hands in fists before they could begin to shake.

"I've got a mom already, thanks," she said. "And I don't need you to want anything for me—"

Mitsuru's expression tore, exposing a sad rawness in her eyes.

"That isn't what—"

"No! How could you—how could you just decide that for me? I thought we were—"

"Of course, we are friends," Mitsuru said sincerely. "I apologize—"

"No, you don't," Yukari said sharply. "You just don't! You can't take that back." She paused, an uncomfortable hitch building in her throat as she dug briefly in her purse. "But you can take this back." Her evoker clattered on the lacquered table, rattling the tea. "I can't get into trouble without it. I've still got a lot of stuff to do," she told her stiffly. "I'm going now. Bye."

She had left the parlor in a cold storm then, and no guardsmen followed her to the elevator or through the lobby.

"Mine's here too, and Junpei-kun's," Fuuka said, her voice suddenly cutting through Yukari's memories. "Yukari-chan, are you okay? Are you sure you're not tired?"

"Maybe a little," Yukari said distantly, "but I don't know if I should sleep—"

"Why don't you? I'll stay up and listen. Junpei-kun will wake up in a few hours, and I'll switch with him."

"You sure?"

Fuuka nodded, taking out her tablet again.

"Don't worry about it, Yukari-chan."

[- - -]

Yukari awoke to a cellphone going off in half-darkness and a whispered but distinct "Shit." A door swung open, shut, and then nothing. She stirred, her brain still stuffy and slow, and an unfamiliar hooded jacket slid off her shoulders. A solitary street-lamp stood out in the yard, spilling stark, yellow light through the dim window and in a slice across the floor and the empty bench beside her. She sat up dizzily, squinting in the harsh light, and picked up the coat, rolling it in a lump on her lap. Fuuka appeared like a still, small ghost in her vision, curled up and sleeping out of the streetlight with a knitted shawl drawn up to her chin. The shawl covered her like a web, the ivory yarn twisted into wide, lacy gaps.

'What time is it?' Yukari abandoned the jacket and groped for her purse in the dark. She finally grasped the bag from the shadow and pulled the zipper, her cellphone coming to life from the rummaging. 5:07AM on May 5, 2012, shined up at her face with soothing, lavender light. 'I've been asleep a pretty long time.'

She closed her cell; the twelve-hour deadline would come in less than two hours.

Obviously, if she'd been allowed to sleep so long, no word had come about the mission, and that meant nothing good and nothing bad. Yukari pocketed her phone and zipped up her purse again, tucking it back under the seat. She stood up in the limo, mindful of its low ceiling, and caught scraps of English from the back of the car—some words she recognized and some she didn't. At least, Junpei definitely sounded awake.

[- - -]

This part always sounded cooler in manga.

"Hey, babe," Junpei said to the cool night and the smartphone. The call had come from what had quickly become 'back home' to him, but her specific location was Pasadena, California, where the white cement and black asphalt blazed and burned beside manicured, irrigated lawns in the early summer sun.

"Mushi-mushi," said the answering digital voice, fuzzy with the literal ocean of distance and even fuzzier with the amateur Japanese. She exaggerated the quick 'mu's into slow 'moo's. "Daijoubu desuka?"

Junpei smiled and answered her back in English.

"Everything's all right over here. Your accent sounds funny when you say that."

"I'm trying," she said, cutting back to English herself. "And you should hear how you say 'babe'."

"Hey, I'm teasing you."

"I know, 'baabey'." Then she paused, dramatic, and fateful, and unaware of it. "So, why did you have to take off all of a sudden?"

Junpei sighed; yeah, this part always sounded cooler in manga.

[- - -]

Yukari stepped out into the nighttime humidity, and, like an old, cold, and rather damp man on a train, the air immediately felt up her leg and lingered too long on her bare shoulders.

'Oh yuck,' she thought and ducked back inside for the jacket.

A moment later, Yukari shivered still. The moon hung low and pale on the horizon, casting a silver sheen on the abandoned refrigerators and the dull screens of useless televisions stacked in pillars and pyramids. It was too late for crickets but too early for birds, and ribs of clouds, and the winking pinprick of a satellite, passed overhead without a sound.

"…think I can fly home the day after…" found her ears and her mind organized the fast, casual but somewhat damaged (by too much or too little experience) English into a crisper grammar and vocabulary she could parse together so late at night and so far from a classroom.

"…let you know as soon as I'm leaving." And then, his voice deliberately sank away into the night's soundlessness. On the final note of the muffled, muted exchange, there was a private, sentimental phrase, an expression not meant for bystanders, even dead refrigerators, and Yukari wrapped her hands in the cuffs of her jacket's too-long sleeves and dropped those words from her translation.

The conversation ended with a very discrete beep. Yukari made her entrance, kicking a length of warped antenna out of her way. Junpei jumped at the noise and turned in his spot up on the trunk of Mitsuru's limousine, his sneakers dangling over the license plate.

"Oh, hey, Yuka-tan," he said with a voice for old if distant friends. He scooted over on the trunk, but she declined with a wave of her hand.

"What time did you wake up?" she asked, leaning on the limo instead.

"About 2:30?"

"Did you or Fuuka hear anything?"

"Nothing yet."

"There's not a lot of time left—"

"We just gotta wait until 7."

"6:45," Yukari corrected. Junpei nodded and hopped off the trunk, the car rocking gently with his weight.

"I had a dream I ordered fried gyōza," he said, putting his hands in his back pockets. "Guess I wasn't dreaming."

"Yeah. We saved you some banbanji too, since that's supposed to be cold."

"Thanks."

"So, I haven't seen you in a while," Yukari said before the junkyard could grow uncomfortably still around them. "What's it like living in America? An action movie?"

"Nah, it's kinda better. Nothing blows up. Much."

"So, why did—"

"Hey, d'you hear that?"

"Hear what—"

The thing Junpei heard sounded again, louder this time, much louder, and sharp pops and electric fizzing cracked the quiet junkyard. Broken, ultraviolet bursts flared at the edge of vision.

"What is that—"

"It's coming from over there," Junpei said. They turned in the direction of the sounds and light and stepped around a bank of dead televisions. At the back of a long corridor of refrigerators and near the top of a far junk heap, an ancient, tube television crackled, sputtering sparks as its knobs wretched around its dials in crazy circles, the antenna seizing as flashes of static filled the screen and blinked out of existence just as fast again. Smoke, and a distinct smell of CRTs burning, leaked from behind the glass face-plate as it rattled in the frame, cracks building in the corners. A long fissure tore down the center of the screen, finally cracking the box apart in loud snap.

The yard stilled again.

"That was weird—" Yukari started.

Another television shuddered, and the screen exploded. A storm of them suddenly multiplied across the junkyard, defunct televisions blazing to life in intense rainbows of dead channels as the monitors overheated, cracked open, and vomited tubes and wires through their ragged portals. The entrails twisted and convulsed, sparks hopping from the ribbons of disemboweled tubing, an eerie greenness bleeding out into earth.

"What the hell's going on—" Junpei's words caught in his throat.

There was a smell of blood on the air, thick, and rusty, and rolling over the hills of metal and electronic scrap. The toxic greenness from the guts of the TVs pooled, lacing into the soil, wilting the spring grass, and turning up deep, red puddles in its wake. It crept up the tumbled electronics and touched the sky, and a single drop polluted all of heaven, dying the half-moon an unholy yellow as it swelled, smothering the stars and filling the vault of the sky.

"How?" Yukari gasped. "It's not even midnight—"

"Where are the evokers—are they in the car—"

"Of course they are!"

A puddle of darkness gathered in the empty face of a ruined TV. It trembled and flopped out of the frame, landing in a sick-sounding, shivering pile. It stilled; watery, red eyes meeting together from across the puddle as melted arms stretched out from the mass, the pointed hands dripping blackness as a mouth yawned open.

"We're—we're gonna need 'em," Junpei said, taking a step back. "Back to the car!"

A pile of junk erupted, a massive shadow tearing down the mountain of scrap metal and throwing up a rain of shrapnel and cellphones. It shook off the last of the grime, keyboards, CD players, and a toaster oven twisted into its body. Smaller shadows, matted with curling phone cables, dropped off of it in tangles of eyes and arms.

"They're—they're everywhere," Yukari said, pulling close to Junpei. "I've never seen this many—not even in Tartarus—"

"We gotta get Fuuka—"

"We're almost there—"

Yukari reached for the door-handle, and the limousine buckled, its black exterior suddenly slick and sweating in the sickly moonlight. A limb, long and boneless, slithered underneath the skin of the car along the solitary passenger door. The car shook and distorted, long arms budding from the bumper and counterpanes. The tentacles rolled and twisted, the skin of the car lying over them like a primordial sac, as they gathered in muscular knots and pressed at the thinning film. The film finally split open, with a burst of foul air, and the limo dissolved in a mass of slippery limbs, the metal bones of the car ripping up through the knotting feelers, and the intact windshields and windows glowing like pieces of bright plate armor on the quivering body.

Yukari's handle dropped off the swimming pile of tentacles and steamed in a pool of sludge.

"Holy shit—what the hell even is that—"

"Fuuka's in there! We've gotta do something—"

"I think—I think we can take out the windows!" Junpei said as the limo's silver grill warped and split into a mouthful of teeth.

"How are you going to get to the windows?!" Yukari shouted, the nest of tentacles fanning open.

"Uh—I dunno yet," Junpei said. He pulled down a 38-inch flatscreen, the frame snapping at his feet, and tossed a broken rice-cooker away as he looked for something he could heft—reasonably. The tentacles gathered and flowed in tides along the phantom shape of the car, their arms closing ranks over the vulnerable windows.

"I was kinda just gonna run up there, and break the rear-window with—with—Aha!" Junpei dragged a fat, old 17-inch TV from the pile. "With this!"

"Just run up there? With that?"

"You got any better ideas?"

Yukari didn't. 'Fuuka…'

"I'm going—"

"Don't—don't do anything stupid in there!"

"I'll be—right back," Junpei told her, holding on the TV tightly with both arms. "Go—hide or something."

He ran, his arms already burning with the forty pounds of dead CRT, into the cloud of tentacles and anchored one foot on the remnants of the limousine's bumper and pulled up the other, dragging the TV up onto where the trunk would be, theoretically. His foot slipped hard on a stray, shadowy limb as it slithered away, the TV flying up and into his chin.

"Shit." Junpei winced, hanging on as the TV wedged against what was left of the trunk bed, the metallic tang of blood hitting his tongue and seeping past his teeth. Gutsier tentacles crept around him, wrapping his arms.

"Get the hell off!" Junpei yelled with a sharp and violent shake of his arm, the lesser tentacles breaking into lifeless slime. He gripped the TV and stood up, the car sinking beneath him. 'I wonder how far I can sink into this…stuff,' he thought as he looked for his old hold on the TV again, the rearview window only a toss away. The body of the car bent freely beneath him, sucking on his shoes as an otherworldly chill leaked through his socks. 'Okay, no more thinking about that.'

He lifted the TV high, as high as he could, burn in every muscle of his shoulders, and dropped. It fell heavily, cobwebbing the glass as it rolled off and into the tentacles.

The car screamed, and its dumb, panicked tentacles swarmed, groping blindly for something to seize and twist. Junpei ducked down out of the roiling cloud, reared back, and threw his fist and forearm through the battered shell of the window.

'I got shot in the stomach,' Junpei reminded himself. i'And it hurt way more than this—'/i He gritted his teeth and then let out a mangled "Damnit!" anyway as stars of pain lit in his eyes, the teeth of tempered glass knifing into his skin. He pulled back again, his arm speckled with shards of glass and bright beads of blood, and struck a second time, the last of the window caving into the cabin. He slung his arm into the space, the frayed edges of the window breaking into his upper arm, and pulled himself out of the snarl of tentacles.

Junpei fell into blackness, moist and pulsing as if it drew breath, with his injured arm cradled against his chest. He blinked wildly, the yellow moon hanging above him in strange slices as tentacles striped across it, closing the gap of light.

A drop of wetness struck his cheek, touching just the edge of his lip, and Junpei cursed and shot up, wiping the stuff away. It clung sticky and syrupy to his thumb. The black, ichorous stuff leaked from the roof, dripping down the walls and the shattered faces of the trio of computers.

"Damn, it's like something's stomach in here," Junpei muttered, covering his mouth and nose with his t-shirt, the infected smell of the tight chamber almost too much to breathe in. The stink flayed his nose alive as his lungs tightened fiercely.

"Fuuka?" he called into the cabin, the hot, heavy squeeze of the place eating his voice. He took a step forward, the moist floor still giving beneath him as the windows vanished into dark, fleshy holes above the vague shapes of the seats. He tried again.

"Fuuka!—"

"Junpei-kun?"

Her voice came as it always seemed to in emergencies, an airy whisper rapping gently at the edges of his mind.

"Oh, thank God! Fuuka—you okay? Where are you?"

"I'm here. I'm all right," Fuuka responded. "I have the evokers—but I'm stuck."

"Stuck? All right! I'm coming! Stay there!"

"I will."

"Yeah, yeah, that was dumb," Junpei said, fighting the drag of the floor. "Anyway, I'm coming."

He slugged through the quicksand floor, and reached her after a few fucking hard steps through the tissue and slime swallowing his legs. Fuuka sat nearly where he had left her not even a half-hour ago, curled against the wall of the car's stomach. A pale light wrapped her, and it broke into the misty, peacock-eyed segments of Juno's wings as her six golden eyes glowed like a mask over Fuuka's face. She clutched an aluminum briefcase to her breast. Her eyes opened wide in the mask of Juno's protection, but her limbs held fast, bound in ethereal web.

"Okay, I'm here," Junpei said, bracing his hands on the wet, mushy seat and pulling himself up out of the flesh. "Any idea how I get you out?"

"I—I'm not sure," Fuuka said, her voice a wavering echo. "I can't move. When the enemy appeared, Juno put up a seal, and I woke up like this."

Junpei grinned. "Way to go—sleeping through that." She might have smiled, but worry took it quickly.

"Juno won't respond now—" Fuuka's voice caught, and she swallowed. "I can't make her take down the seal."

"D'you think she'd chill out if I took you outside?" Junpei suggested. "I could carry you back—"

Fuuka's face fell, the membrane around her suddenly clouded, Juno's eyes flaring brighter.

"I don't think we can go back the way you came in, Junpei-kun," she paused, and her lip trembled. "But if we don't do something soon, you'll—oh, you'll—" The vapor around her intensified, clouding her face as Juno's wings curled tighter around her.

"Fuuka!" Junpei grabbed her shoulders, and she streamed intangibly through his fingers. He dropped his hands in his lap. "Fuuka," he started again seriously, and a light note broke in his voice for just a word. "Hey—are you crying?"

"Yes," she admitted quietly, a teary shine in her eyes. She gasped, the tears slipping away as her eyes widened. "Junpei-kun, you're bleeding!"

"Oh yeah," he said, remembering his arm. "I broke the window." The darts of glass glittered brightly and darkly at once; he tensed the muscle along his forearm, stinging pricks lighting up his nerves.

"You have to go," Fuuka told him. "They're coming—through the window—"

"I don't care, I'm getting you outta here—" He cut off abruptly, a lightless snake wrapped around his ankle and pulled. It had brothers flooding in the shattered rear window, slithering and slipping over one another, and tangling in a twitching knot of their own bodies.

"Junpei-kun!" Fuuka screamed, Juno's barrier whiting her out almost entirely. "Junpei-kun, please! Please run! I can't help you—"

Junpei slammed hard on the dank floor, rippled and bumbled like a tongue, and every wound in his body complained like new. He gasped and shuddered, leaning unconsciously on his battered arm, as hot pain shot through the limb. He rolled over onto his other, mostly-okay shoulder and heard them rustle and creep from the snarl at the window.

"Fuuka, Fuuka—hey—" Junpei sat up and threw a fist into the arm throttling his leg. "It's—it gets worst when you're scared—I can't see you anymore when you're scared—" The arm found a mouth to shriek with and retreated. "You—you gotta calm down."

But others filled the gap. Junpei stood up, ropes of shadow flinging from the window and snapping tight around his free arms.

"I—I know this looks real bad right n—" Junpei's voice broke in a sharp and strangled hack, a tentacle strapping his throat. He grabbed at the garrote and pulled with both hands, the shadow squealing as the limb splintered apart, dissolving in black dust. Junpei gasped and coughed, almost dropping to his knees. His voice steadied again, and he said hoarsely: "But—but I'm gonna get you outta here! This—this isn't how we die—we're not getting killed by fucking tentacles!"

The shell thinned, Juno's face becoming a pale ghost, and Fuuka's arms loosened on the aluminum case. Junpei struggled a step back to her side, amputated tatters of blackness still clutching his shoulders. Further back, the window shivered, totally black and totally alive with them. They dropped from the window with hisses.

Her shell tightened, and Junpei's legs failed him under the weight of sudden and brutal reinforcements.

"Fuuka, I'm—I'm gonna get you out." He dragged his body closer. "Just—grab my hand—"


Well, that was happy! But next chapter? Next chapter, shit is gonna get real. Now, chapter 2 will go up on 10/29/2012, and the third and final chapter will follow on 11/5-unless it's not done. Chapter 2 is already done, so that's not going to be delayed, of course, but Chapter 3 is being a pistol. So, do come back and check in.

Also, my beta is the talented gentleman, fall_into_life. This fic wouldn't be here without him and all the time he's given to editing my work and talking me out of writing any Resident Evil fanfic. Kudos, and thanks, to you, fall_into_life!

Peace, readers! o/ - SM