Chapter 1: prologue
The girl came as a surprise. The sonogram showed a boy at four months, a boy at six months, a boy at eight months. The parents had already chosen the kanji for the name, the clothes, the furniture. Now at the moment of celebration, they were faced with expectations that would never come to fruition and a future that would never materialize. There would be a future, yes. Neither of them doubted that. It would be one different than they expected, but no worse. They had six months to dream of things they wanted their son to become and things they wanted their son to do. There was no reason why their daughter couldn’t do all of that, or why she couldn’t become the same things.
The main problem, of course, was the name. They called both of their parents (grandparents now—they seemed so happy, even if the news was not quite as they had hoped) again to look for names.
Something traditional, all four grandparents said. Something that looked nice and sounded nice.
Masaharu wanted to keep the kanji for commander (“Souko,” he said. “It sounds nice, doesn’t it?” “Dear, don’t get so agitated. It’s raising my blood pressure”), but he was outvoted four to one. ‘Kazuko’ was eliminated by Masaharu's parents; ‘Masami’ because it reminded Minamo of an annoying classmate; ‘Sakurako’ because it was the name of an ailing relative; and on and on the objections went.
Years later, they joked that they chose "Shouko" because it was the least offensive thing they could find. Shouko never laughed at the joke, even though she always felt as though she should have.
Shouko had always known that other people thought she was special. Ideal, even.
"A lovely, even tempered girl," people said to her parents. Good at school, good at sports, would get into a good college. Wouldn't become famous, but would be reliable. Steady. She would find good work, a good husband, a good house. Her child, maybe children, would be raised under a steady hand, a touch that was feminine without being soft, authoritative without being abrasive. She would be a daughter her parents could depend on, a wife her husband could count on, a mother her children could rely on.
It annoyed the hell out of her. Whose future was she supposed to be living, hers or someone else’s? She had a picture of her future in mind, and none of it involved the ridiculous notion that she needed to be a good girl. Well-behaved women never made history because well-behaved women never got to do what they wanted; and while her goals might not be “join the army” or “become a senator,” she held ambitions outside of her parents’ idealizations, and had dreams beyond her future, hypothetical children.
She never failed any tests on purpose, or quit playing sports because she knew that those were two things her parents would not compromise on. She wanted to shake things up, but without causing trouble—too much of it, at least. The middle school she was attending required female students to wear ribbons; she replaced her ribbon with a tie, and though the teachers reprimanded her, they never told her to stop wearing it, either. What did it matter, as long as she kept her grades up and brought her middle school's basketball team to the nationals before she inevitably moved away?
The thrill of quiet, subversive rebellion made her shiver with the potential of possibility. When the time came to switch into the summer uniforms, she wore the boy’s dress shirt rather than the girl’s blouse, and she looked damn good in it. When the teachers called her up that time, she argued. Drew the line in the sand. As long as she wore the skirt, then it was all right, wasn’t it?
“Seta-san,” her homeroom teacher said. “You’ve always been so agreeable.”
That was why it was okay if she acted out at least once, wasn’t it? She nodded her head sharply. Project confidence, her father would have told her. That was how people got their way: project confidence. Project strength.
The teacher rubbed his nose and said, “At least wear the ribbon.”
She tied the ribbon at her neck. No one seemed to notice or care about the change, except the class president, who made a point of railing at her during lunch. That was around the time people started calling her Seta-kun. She didn't mind it and there were worse things to be in life. At least they weren't calling her a whore.
Shortly after the summer uniform incident, she skipped practice to head into the city. There was a hair salon her friends had been talking about, but never dared to approach. Shouko dared. It wasn’t that she was a rebel or a punk or any of that: she wanted a haircut, and this was where she wanted to get it. Her mother made her keep her hair in braids for years. She was tired of feeling like she was eight.
"What wonderful hair you have," said the stylist, lifting up a strand and letting it fall through her hands. There was a faint note of, ‘boring, though.’ Shouko ignored it. "How would you like your hair cut?"
Shouko handed the stylist a picture of a pop star with wild, razor-cut hair, and said, "Like that."
“It’s your decision,” said the stylist. “You’re too meek for that kind of thing, hon.”
Shouko ignored the barb and said, “I want side bangs, too.”
She dug through her pocket to find the picture. The stylist rolled her eyes and said, “Hon, I know what side bangs would look good on your pointy face. Sit still and let me do my work, hmm?”
She left the salon with just enough money to make it back home. Her head felt light, not because of any freak dizziness, but because of how much hair was gone. Not there anymore. It was her hair now, not her mother’s. “Go spend some money on hair if you don’t like it like this,” her mother always told Shouko. Well, now she had done it. Now she had done it.
Her father called her over to the kitchen before serving dinner, and the three of them sat in silence. Shouko tilted her chin up, but under her father’s gaze, all she could think of was, “my neck is cold” and “I really need to scratch my neck.” Her mother seemed torn between berating Shouko and not speaking at all, but her father reached across and touched Shouko's face, his fingers brushing against the freshly cut ends of her hair.
"It's cute, isn't it," he said fondly. "Don't you think so, dear?"
"You look like a boy," her mother said. Then, after a small struggle played out on her face, she said, "You'll need something to keep that styled. You do know how to take care of hair, yes?"
“Have you ever wondered what you’d look like as a boy?” a boy asked Shouko. Renji Matsumoto, perpetual thorn in Shouko’s side. It really was just like him to think of such a weird question, she thought. The guy never thought of anything beyond the ridiculous. Or the absurdly mundane.
“What’s that matter to you?” Shouko replied.
“Well, it’d be cool to know, wouldn’t it? I mean, you're already wearing the shirt, and—”
“Then what?” she asked. She let her papers slam against the desk with a ‘thump,’ and drew up to her full height. She was a tall girl. Still shorter than Matsumoto, but it wasn’t height that mattered in intimidation. “What would that change?”
His mouth dropped open, and then shut again. “Geeze, Seta,” he said. “Chill, won’t you?”
“No you aren’t. You’ve been tense, ever since…”
“Sometimes, I wonder why you have any friends at all, you ass,” Shouko said. She turned back to her desk, and stuffed her papers into her brief. She had spoken too quickly. No good. She adjusted the collar of her shirt, and, for a moment, was tempted to pop it up. She decided against it. Her neck was too thin for her head. It’d look like she was a vampire or something. “Come on, Matsumoto. Let’s end the year on good terms. You’re not going to be seeing me for a while.” Or ever, if she was lucky. She didn’t even know if her parents would be moving back to this city or if they’d hop down to some other town or country.
“Please,” Matsumoto said. “Like I’d miss you. You’re really going to the country? You could stay with Kibi. Or maybe even Wa-ta-ri-se-n-pai—”
“Bye, Matsumoto! Get hit by a truck!” Shouko called, grabbing her bag and heading for the door.
“Hey! Hey, Seta!” Matsumoto was laughing. She turned her head slightly, just enough to catch a glimpse of him, sunset against his back, arm waving back and forth. “Take care! I know we didn’t talk much, but the other guys’ll miss you. Don’t do stupid things.”
“I promised my folks I’d stay out of trouble,” Shouko yelled back. She found herself smiling along with Matsumoto, and, despite herself, raised an arm to wave back. So many memories. So many things to take and leave. Her hand tightened around her bag. Although in this case there were more things to leave than to take. That was the way things rolled. That was the way things would be.
“Have you ever wondered what you’d look like as a girl?” Matsumoto asked Souji.
He considered it. The picture… the picture wasn't a very pleasant one. Risking losing his strength and the power he could unconsciously exude for what, exactly? What would he gain? What would he lose? His reflection in the glass of the window was calm, impassive, undeniably his, and the idea of looking at the mirror and seeing something that was both him and not him at the same time… well, it wouldn’t even be him if it had a different face, would it?
“Too hot for you to even consider dating,” he replied.
Matsumoto’s smile had a sly edge to it, but, maybe sensing Souji’s irritation, let the subject drop.
“You’re transferring out, huh,” Matsumoto said. “Hard to believe… Where are you headed?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know!”
“The countryside,” he said. The name of the town was on his lips; and, digging back into the recesses of his mind, he dragged the name to his lips. “Yasoinaba.”
Chapter 2: April
There was a part of Shouko that was trying to convince her that this was a dream, that she had fallen asleep on a train, that she wasn’t in a limo having her future being read by a man with an incredibly long nose.That nose had to be a health hazard. And this had to be a dream, even though everything felt so real. Dreams didn’t have velvet crunching beneath her fingertips, have the same solid weight of the pen in her hand, or the rumble of the car beneath her legs.
She shouldn’t sign her name. There would be danger ahead. Real danger, the kind of danger that, if she flirted too closely with it, would cut off her head.
So which one was it? Real or not real, fake or not fake? Dangerous or not dangerous?
Shouko wasn’t a rebel or a delinquent, but she liked the taste of risk in her mouth. It was why she played rugby. It was why she practiced karate. It was why she did kenjutsu, rather than kendo. And of all of them, rugby was the one she liked best: the furious tackles, the messy, bloody violence of the sport: broken noses, sprained wrists, gasping and wheezing for breath after making a run, only to have someone practically trample her into the grass. Yeah. She liked that.
In the dream world, she smiled.
Risk and no risk. Danger and no danger. A future that opened up, and then shut again.
She signed her name and a second later startled awake, the blue light vanishing into the soft, yellow-grey of the train.
“Yasoinaba. Approaching Yasoinaba station.”
The gas station attendant's hand rested smooth and cool in hers. But there was a predatory little glint in his expression, one Shouko had seen in the faces of people who thought they could treat her less like a person, more of a doll. It happened. She was a girl in Japan. It happened to all of them.
Shouko removed her hand from the attendant's, just quickly enough to be considered rude, and just as quickly, tried to hide it with a smile.
"We have part-time job offers opening up soon," he—maybe she?—said, apparently oblivious to the quick jerk of Shouko’s hand leaving his. "Stop by and look us up."
Shouko stared at the attendant as he turned around and worked on refueling the car. The more she looked at him, the more feminine he got. Maybe he really was a woman underneath all of that. No, what was she thinking? This wasn’t some bizarre screwball comedy. This was reality—yes, this, definitely not that other world. Only now she felt as though she was cramping up. Impossible. She just had her period. Why did biology hate her so much?
Her uncle returned a second later. He took one look at her and said, “You look like hell.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Tired from all the rides.”
“Well, we’ll be home soon enough,” he said. “Your stuff’s already arrived. Need any help with it?”
“I think I might just crash into the futon.”
“Suit yourself,” said her uncle. She got in the car, and let her head fall back onto the headrest. When her six-year-old cousin pointed out that she looked unwell, she didn’t have the heart to put up a brave front. Yeah. Yeah, she felt weird.
Just the ride, she thought to herself, and nearly vomited when Dojima started the engine.
Endless corridors. Red floor. Fog.
… come to me…
Where was she going? Where did she get the sword? Why did she even have a sword? Was this—she didn’t even…
The door twisted open, red parting away in a spiral. Fog, fog, more fog. She ought to turn back, except she couldn’t even see behind her, even less than she could see in front.
Bizarre. Wasn’t the expression hindsight was twenty-twenty?
… pierce the veil…
Where was she going? Who was she fighting? What was she fighting for—?
… find the truth…
Shouko jerked awake, sweating and dizzy. Her head… Her head felt like it was exploding.
Maybe befriending Chie Satonaka wasn’t a great idea. The girl kicked people hard when she was pissed off. If that wasn’t a warning sign, then Shouko didn’t know what else was. Violent friends: just what a girl needed. On the other hand (or foot, if it happened to go down that path), Chie was genuinely nice to Shouko, nice in a way that was a little surprising and a bit off-putting. Maybe it had something to do with the small size of the town: you got to know everyone by face, if not by name. It wasn’t a ‘it would eventually happen’: it was straight-up ‘but thou willt.’ She was doing all right on that front. People were beginning to smile at her in the halls, and the crowd of strangers was giving way to small pools of acquaintances.
That didn’t change that Chie would pound Shouko into the dirt if Shouko and Yosuke ever made it out of the liquor store alive.
The other person Shouko met was Yosuke Hanamura. Yosuke was… He was nice enough. Shouko suspected that Yosuke’s friendliness wasn’t entirely chivalrous, but she was flattered anyway, and relieved to see someone else from the city. And besides, with Chie around, he treated Shouko more of a harbor than someone he wanted to flirt with. When they crashed into the TV, he tried being protective, but that fell apart once he and Chie started arguing.
Honestly. Those two were worse than cats and dogs.
So Shouko did it. She led them to the strange bedroom. She headed negotiations with that weird bear thing. She made that contract and that promise.
That was when Yosuke’s attention became less eyeballing, and more like a friendship. Shouko didn’t mind. He talked to her in a relaxed, open manner that made her feel like one of the guys, even though she knew that wasn’t how he saw her. He had a way of casually dismissing her that irked her, but not enough to blow him off. Even so, he went to her first after Saki-senpai’s death. They had to go into the TV, he said. Please, Shouko-san. You have to come with me.
… and now they were in this situation, surrounded by the Shadows. Yosuke was defenseless, sprawled out on the ground before the Shadows. She had to do something. If she did nothing, then she’d be dead, and if she did do something, then she might be alive, and she liked that might a lot more than the ‘definitely dead’.
Are you stupid, a part of her asked. You have a golf club. Those things could kill you. You promised you wouldn’t get into trouble again, you promised—
Are you stupid, another part of her asked. He’ll die if you don’t do anything. What kind of person are you? You’re not the kind of person who can run away from something like this.
Are you stupid, another part of her said, low and deep. Weren’t we born to fly?
Her pulse was so fast that she didn’t think she’d be able to count it. Her head—it was in the sky, it was on her neck, it was sliding everywhere and in every direction. She raised her hand up, even though her eyes were barely focusing. Her arm shook. Her legs would’ve been steadier on stilts, walking across quicksand.
Low and deep. It spoke to her very bones: I am thou, and thou art I.
The card caught flame in her hand. “Persona!” she shouted, and Izanagi rose behind her like a mountain being born from the sea.
Well, hell. Saki was a real bitch—no. Not good to think that. Not a bitch, just—troubled—she didn’t even know. Shouko felt bad for Yosuke, but Saki was dead. That made a difference. Sure, Shouko had suspected Saki didn’t like Yosuke that much, but—that had been harsh. Painful, even. So harsh that she felt bad for even looking at Yosuke; he wore his pain too plainly.
He hadn’t spoken since the Shadow disappeared into him. Then, looking up to the ceiling, he sighed and said to her, “ If you weren’t here, I don’t know what would’ve happened. Thanks… Shouko.”
There was nothing overly familiar about that. Her first instinct was to still call him Hanamura, but Yosuke, just plain Yosuke without any honorifics sounded okay, too; anyway, after what she saw, there was no way he was just Hanamura to her anymore. It was a bit sudden, but she was okay with thinking of him like that. She wanted to rib him, joke if he was ready to meet her parents or her detective uncle, but he looked so somber down there on the floor. She couldn’t joke, even if she tried.
“Man,” he sighed. “I can’t believe you had to see that.”
She didn’t think there was a good way to reply to that without sounding cruel. She could empathize with Yosuke: the loneliness of being an odd one out, people saying one thing and meaning something else behind your back, never knowing if someone felt this way or that way about her. Yeah. She knew how that felt. And Yosuke sure dealt with it better than she had. Shouko—well, she had a smoking habit and did stupid things because she could get away with them. She barely qualified as well-adjusted.
“Let’s go, partner,” Yosuke said. “We should get home now.”
Oh, damn, Shouko realized. They had forgotten all about Chie. She looked at the severed rope on the ground, and then… well. They could explain themselves when they materialized back in the real world.
“You!” Chie shouted. “I can’t believe you jumped into the TV like that—you’re idiots! Both of you! I was so worried and you could’ve died and couldn’t you have at least tried to give me a call?!”
“But our phones—” Shouko began, only for Chie to grab her by the collar and shake her. Violently. Chie had lifted Shouko right off the ground—an impressive feat, considering that Shouko had a good ten centimeters on the other girl—and shook Shouko around some more.
“You’re horrible! I at least expected you to keep Yosuke from doing anything stupid, but then you come back looking like a—a giant dog took a bite out of you—”
“I’m never talking to either of you ever again!” And with that, Chie dropped Shouko and left her sprawling onto the floor.
So much for explanations, she thought, accepting Yosuke’s help to stand back up. She and Yosuke stared at one another, equally nervous and awkward smiles on their faces. The atmosphere was so tense that it would’ve felt weird to break it, but, god, if one of them didn’t speak soon—
“It kind of is your fault,” Yosuke said.
“Come on,” Shouko said. “You were the one who came up with the rope idea—”
“You went with me!”
“Besides,” Yosuke said, “you’re the leader, aren’t you? Man up and apologize to Chie.”
“And are you going to give me back that golf club? Because—”
Yosuke called her the next morning. “Hey,” said he said. “You still mad at me?”
It took Shouko a moment to understand why she should be mad to begin with. Right. Yosuke was being a jerk. There were worse things for him to be, Shouko thought, still a little sleepy. And she prefered jerk-Yosuke to trying-to-be-nice-but-staring-at-her-boobs Yosuke. No wonder Chie kicked him all the time…
“No,” Shouko said.
“Great,” Yosuke said. “Can you come to the police station? Got something I want you to check out.”
It took a very, very long time for Dojima to stop yelling at Yosuke for threatening his niece with a sword.
It took an even longer time for Shouko to explain that Yosuke hadn’t been threatening her, per se, just introducing her to some of the weaponry his dad had in a closet—not that they had been real weapons, they just had an edge. Sharp edges.
Shouko was very, very glad when Dojima looked at Yosuke in despair, proclaimed him to be a misguided idiot, and sent Shouko off with a warning to not get too involved with the boys.
“A two-handed sword?” Yosuke asked suspiciously, as Shouko examined a sheathed katana at Daidara’s. “I don’t know. Aren’t you a little—”
She drew the sword, lightning quick, and practiced a few swings. Yosuke stared.
“Kenjutsu,” Shouko said, sheathing the sword again. “Didn’t think I’d find a place to practice it up here.”
“O—kay, then,” he said. “Well, don’t come running to me when your macho bravado leaves you with a broken arm or something.” He looked over the selection, and then picked out a pair of knives. “See?” he said. “Nice and sensible.”
Because having two dicks instead of one really made him more of a man.
“What are you getting so smirky about?” Yosuke said. "Just because I’m not overcompensating for anything doesn't make me less of a man!”
Chie, in the corner of the shop, rolled her eyes and said, “Boys.”
Shouko once thought that she was meant to be born as a man, and her Persona didn’t do much to change that impression. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be female, but there was a—a something in the back of her head that whispered that she was supposed to be different. That the face she looked at in the mirror, with the hair cut and layered like a lion’s mane, should be something else. Politer. Gentler. Less daring, less reckless. More… flat? She couldn’t really put it to words, but her hair definitely would’ve been flatter, if she had been born a man.
Yukiko Amagi probably never wondered, but she had her own set of problems. That was why she was in the TV, wasn’t it? Shouko—well, she wasn’t emotionally stunted or anything, but she always knew, always was faintly aware, that things that troubled other people did not trouble her. Familial responsibilities, for example. Hers had been to excel, and that had never been difficult for her. Her parents didn’t really mind anything else she did, just as long she didn’t go too far off the line.
What would her parents say now? “Hi, Mom, Dad. I went into the TV, smacked some monsters around, and will be diving in there to solve a crazy murder mystery. Do you mind?”
“Just as long as you keep your grades up, dear,” her father would probably say.
What would her uncle say? That was, if he ever realized that the real murderer was still loose throwing people into the TV, and if his partner was ever of some real help, rather than being some bumbling newbie, he might be able to figure that out. What would Nanako say? Nanako looked entirely too sensible to think that what Shouko was doing was heroic. She’d probably say that Shouko was being reckless. In fact, she said that every time she did Shouko’s laundry.
“Big sis, your clothes are always so dirty,” Nanako said after the battle with Chie's shadow. “Is that blood? Are you hurt?”
After that, Shouko kept a special bin reserved for her armor and uniform.
The silly thing was (it really was silly, too), the thing that kept Shouko up at night wasn’t the murder mystery or personal danger or any of that. What really kept Shouko up that night was the question, “Why Izanagi?”
“Shou-sensei,” Teddie said. “What does it mean to score a hot stud?”
“Auugh, fuck, ow!”
“Oooh, is that what it means?”
“Now’s not the time, Teddie!”
Yukiko was right there, just beyond the door. Shouko’s knees trembled and knocked together. The last encounter with the Magi had left her feeling as though there was ice in her joints and fire searing her every wound. All the blood in her body hung about her in a shroud, ready to drop away and leave her dead at any moment. Yosuke and Chie were tired and armor a bit ragged, but not nearly as bad as she felt. Damn it. She was stupid. One stupid, bad decision and now this.
She didn’t know if she could pull this off. With her word, they would go through the door, and face whatever was just beyond that. Chie and Yosuke wanted to go in. She knew that without them telling. They wanted to go. Chie needed to go, to rescue her best friend and fuck she felt awful.
They hadn’t had their elemental weaknesses struck four times in one battle. They weren’t the ones who knew exactly how many medicines they had left (none), how many more hits they could take, how few spirit points they really had. But it was the second rainy day, and any longer than this, Shouko was likely to put Yukiko’s very life at risk. It had been almost two weeks, and god knew that there wasn’t any food or water here—but time moved differently inside the castle. Every time she left the castle, her watch was off: sometimes by minutes, sometimes by hours.
There was a blue butterfly flying in circles by the door. She had a butterfly like this before, in the shopping district, in the school. When she touched it, it gave her the same little, electric shock down the spine, the same spark of memory, of imprinting, of… of going home.
Would it rain tomorrow? She’d take that risk. She drew a Goho-M out of her pocket.
“Wh—” Chie started, then stopped.
“We’re going back,” Shouko said.
“What do you mean, we’re turning back now?” Chie said. “We can’t go back, Yukiko’s still in there!”
“I’m a dead man walking right now,” Shouko said through grit teeth. “Do you really think I can—”
“For Yukiko? Yes!”
Yosuke wasn’t saying anything. Probably because he had been keeping tabs for her for the last stretch to the top floor of the castle.
“If you really want to go, then go in there by yourself,” Shouko said. “I’m going in tomorrow.”
“Goddamn it, Chie, I can’t,” Shouko said. “I can’t. I’m barely standing up as it is.”
“But…” Chie looked at Yosuke, then at Shouko, then at the door, then at Teddie. “We… I still have a few Chewing Souls. And I know Yosuke can still cast a Dia or two on you—”
A few Chewing Souls, Dia—if she said go then they were going, damn it, what was Chie even thinking? Shouko took a steadying breath and then nearly snarled, “Am I the leader here or not?” Was she the leader here, or not? She was the goddamn leader, and if she said that they were leaving, they were getting out of here. Chie shrank back, as though Shouko had raised her hand. It took Shouko a moment to realize that her hands were fists, that her left fist was at chest level, right hand resting at her hip, touching the sword hilt.
Shouko, embarrassed by the flare of her temper, looked away. Her heart hurt: hurt for getting angry, hurt for so bluntly refusing Chie; and more than that, she hurt because she felt as though she had betrayed both Yosuke and Chie’s expectations of her, and her own expectations of her. Was she the leader or not? Never mind that question. What kind of leader was she being now?
“Let’s go back to the main floor,” she said. “I need a break. There’s lightning shooting out of my ears.”
It was all the Chariot’s fault. Shouko went back down to the Velvet Room, fused herself a Berith with a couple of nice skills, including an elemental resistance. She crushed the Chewing Souls between her teeth, and combined with the Chariot’s natural tendency to take things and run with it—
Resulted in her being called a prince and having a front row seat to Amagi’s issues, which knocked some of the wind out of her sails. Listening to other people’s shadows was never easy, but fighting them?
Fighting them… She knew shouldn’t feel like this, but she loved it. It was the reckless part of her, but she loved it: diving into danger, commanding fire and lightning and gales and ice, playing a game of ‘try to not get killed.’ Maybe she was sick.
Well, it wasn’t like anyone had to know, after all.
Don’t panic, said Izanagi.
This is going to be a hard one.
How hard could it be? She’d be fine.
When she got back home, Shouko collapsed on the couch and tried to will some feeling into her fingers. Nope. Still nothing. The fight with Yukiko had burned her hands so badly that the hilt of her sword still had bits of charred flesh and skin attached to it. Her armor had melted beyond any hope of repair; and on top of that, she had to deal with Izanagi saying, “I told you so” whenever she complained.
She hated being wrong.
But that was one mystery wrapped up for the time being. Yukiko was safe. Everyone was still alive. She hadn’t failed anyone yet. She could do this. She could definitely do this.
Chapter 3: May
There weren't any women’s sports teams in Inaba High, which didn’t bother Shouko until she tried to join the basketball team. It had been Yosuke’s suggestion, though Yosuke had said it in a way that made Shouko think that he didn’t actually want her to join. “Oh, sports, huh,” he had said. “Can’t imagine why you’d want to do those. Not like there are any girl’s sports, anyway. If you want to join, you’ll have to play with the guys. You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
King Moron had put it in more direct terms: “So you’re one of those corrupt freaks who want to corrupt the boys by going onto the court and flashing some thigh, eh? Don’t think they’ll let you flaunt your deviancy around like it’s normal!”
Well, if she could jump into a TV and hit Shadows with a sword, then she could play basketball with the guys. Besides, she didn't have a clue how to play tennis. What was with all that talk about donuts and breadsticks?
The basketball team seemed to think that she was coming to be their manager, even when she stated her intent to join twice: once as an introduction to the entire club, and the second time as a way of making sure they understood that she wasn’t here to play manager and boil tea. Even so, judging by the looks on a few of their faces, the message hadn’t… quite sunk in just yet.
Seriously, though. They expected her to make tea?
The club captain only looked at her sideways before saying, “You sure about this?”
“Yes,” Shouko said.
“Are you sure about that?” he said. “I don’t mind if you join us for practice, but I’m not going to do anything for you just because you’re a girl. You practice with us, you get treated like the rest of us. Got that?”
“Got it, captain.”
“Great,” he said. “Well, it’s not like our team’s that good anyway, so you’ll probably be the best one here—except for me, of course.” He called the team for a quick meeting and said, “Okay, guys, this is our newest member, Shouko Seta.”
“C’mon, don’t just stand there,” the captain said, looking pained. “Say ‘hi’! … Man, you guys are no good.” He passed the ball to Shouko, who took it easily, and, from the center of the court, scored a three pointer. Nothing but net.
After the club finished practicing, the captain said to Shouko, “Hey, sorry about earlier. It’s not too often you find someone who takes interest in the team. I’m Kou Ichijo. Same year as you.”
“Good to meet—” Shouko said, only to be interrupted by a member of the soccer team calling out to Kou. The soccer player stared at Shouko and said, “That's your new manager?”
“Nope. That’s our newest member, Shouko Seta.” Kou looked, for a moment, a bit confused, and then said, “Yeah, well, it’s… it’s a little weird, okay?”
“Huh,” said the soccer team member. His expression changed, but whether for the better or for worse, Shouko couldn’t tell. “Well, that’s cool. I’m Daisuke Nagase. Nice to meet you, Seta. Kou and I go way back.” Then, to Kou, he said, “Everyone took off early again?”
“Yep. All we did was take a few shots… Well, I shouldn’t scare Shouko off on the first day. You’ve played before, right?” Kou asked. It was almost a plea.
“I took my middle school team to nationals,” Shouko said.
“Really? Awesome. Hey, why don’t we have a match right now?” Kou laughed. “Nah, I’m just kidding.”
“Let’s do it, Ichijo,” she said. "Right here, right now." She played rugby for fun. She beat up monsters with a two-handed sword in the dungeons of a TV. She wasn’t weak or soft. She didn’t need people treating her as though she were.
Kou was better than she anticipated. She was rusty. It had been years since she had played, years since she had really tested herself in basketball, but she put up, in her opinion, a good fight. She played rougher than Kou expected, and soon Kou stopped treating her like she was a girl player; he took her seriously, and closed the eight point gap that had built between them almost instantly. The final score, according to Daisuke, was twenty-eight to twenty-one in Kou’s favor. Kou looked impressed, but Shouko was disappointed with herself. She could do better than that. If only Daisuke hadn’t stopped the game, she could have scored a three pointer.
This time, though, when Daisuke talked to her, there was approval in his eyes.
“Hey, you’re pretty cool for a girl,” he said.
“Let me play a game of soccer with you,” she said, still trying to catch her breath. “I’d wipe the floor with you.”
“Whoa. She talks big.”
“Do you think I’m kidding?” Shouko said. “I’m not a blowhard, Nagase.”
“Call me Daisuke,” he said with a grin. He clapped her on the back. “I believe you. Anyone who can give Kou a run for his money has to be damn good. C’mon, let’s go clean up.”
The next time Shouko went to fuse a Persona of the strength arcana, she received a pleasant surprise.
“I don’t get it,” Yosuke whined, rubbing his cheek. He shot a glance at Chie and Yukiko's retreating backs. Just before they left, Chie glowered at Yosuke and made a sawing motion across her neck with her hand. “What is it with girls and always thinking the worst of guys? ‘Private lessons’—it wouldn’t have sounded any better if I said ‘tutoring’?”
“Yukiko-san said that her hand moved automatically,” Shouko said. “Maybe it’s instinct?”
“Wh—do you not get how wrong that is?! She has a slap like a hammer!”
“That’s good, then,” Shouko said. “Hey, Yosuke, do you want to study for the midterms with me?”
“Oh, come on, my face!”
“Young men, recklessly riding their motorcycles, disturbing the peace of a quiet rural town…”
Shouko looked up from her cup of tea. She must have zoned out. She could’ve sworn that Nanako wanted to watch one of her quiz shows, but now the news was on instead. … But Dojima was already reading the papers, so wasn’t that a bit redundant?
“Our special report took a turn for the violent when one of the apparent leaders attacked the camera crew!”
“They’re just bikers, aren’t they?” Shouko said. “Geeze, you see them everywhere.”
“Sssh!” Nanako said.
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it? I read a novel about bikers out in the country.”
“There were bikers in the city, too, weren’t there,” said Dojima, still hiding behind the newspapers. “Your mother said you got into a bit of trouble when you were in middle school. Something about the police?”
“They weren’t bikers. They were vandals.”
Dojima lowered the newspaper. His eyebrows… They sure were expressive.
“I won’t ask as long as you stay out of trouble here,” he said, raising the papers again. “But there’s no point in doing that kind of stuff around here. I’m the person normally in charge of those cases, and I won’t go easy on you just because you’re my niece.”
“It was just a phase,” she said. “And I wasn’t a vandal, I was just a… um. Never mind.”
“This ain’t a show, get bent!”
… Who knew news reports could be so entertaining?
Shouko would have preferred pairing Chie and Yukiko together on their stake-out of Kanji, but she volunteered herself with Yukiko, on the grounds that she had never really introduced herself to the other girl. Now that the introductions had started, Shouko felt dumb. Awkward. Like a sore thumb. Like an oaf with three thumbs and no working knees. Boys? Yukiko wanted to talk to Shouko about boys?
“W-well, anyway,” Yukiko said, steering the conversation away from the previous subject as though she had sense the awkwardness in the air (it was hard to believe she had; according to Chie, Yukiko was infamously socially dense). “I think it’d be nice if Chie had more girl friends. Of course, I would like some more friends as well, but it can be hard on Chie sometimes. I know that she says she doesn’t need anyone but me, but I’ll admit that I feel a bit like I’m…” She trailed off, looking almost guilty as she did so. “Y-you’re really quite reliable, aren’t you, Seta-san? To support Chie and Yosuke-kun and even me…”
“You can call me Shouko,” Shouko said. “There’s no need to be so formal with me, Yukiko-san.” Still, it was a bit weird to call Yukiko by her first name. There was a strange, celebrity quality to Yukiko that made “Amagi” feel like the natural way to refer to her. Something she’d have to adjust to, she guessed.
“Shouko-san, then,” Yukiko said, with another one of those gentle smiles that made Shouko feel like an moron. “The kanji for that is… for ‘to fly’, isn’t it?”
“Is it really that common?” Shouko said with a little wince. “There have to be a few other readings for ‘shou’.”
“Oh, no, not at all! Well, it’s how my aunt’s name is written—” Was that supposed to make her feel better, Shouko wondered, with a faint hint of embarrassment. “—so whenever I hear that name, I think of aunt Shouko—”
“That’s really unflattering,” she said, trying to laugh off her own discomfort. When Yukiko snickered, it only made her feel all the more strange. “It’s not that funny!”
“Oh, no, it’s just your face and expression—”
“Aah. So you’re calling me a clown? I see.” That made Yukiko laugh all the harder.
“A villain,” Yukiko said, laughing so hard that Shouko had to put her hand to Yukiko’s mouth in an effort to maintain their admittedly paper-thin cover. “Y-you look like s-some kind of crooked—hahahaha!”
“Hel-LO, dear viewers… It’s time for Bad, Bad Bathhouse!”
“Tonight I’ll introduce a superb site for those searching for sublime love that surpasses the separation of the sexes!”
Nice alliteration, Shouko noticed. Her jaw was sore. Right. Because it was hanging open. She snapped it shut. Needed to get her act together, needed to get her act together—wait, did this mean that there were other sites for this sublime—
“Goodness gracious, just imagine the things that might happen to me there! Ooooh! Well then, let’s get this show on the road! Tootaloo!”
Well, it looked like their attempts to stop Kanji from being thrown into the TV had… failed completely.
The first time Yosuke pushed Shouko out of the way, she had been angry. Furious, almost. Did he think that she was some damsel, waiting to be rescued? Did he think that he should save her, that she was someone who needed saving?
Yosuke pulled her to the side and hissed, “Do you think that you could have taken that attack?”
Shouko gritted her teeth. It had been a Garu attack, when she had equipped a Persona weak to wind. Stupid of her, but she thought she could do it, she really had. Then the Shadow used a Magaru spell and the next thing she knew, she was flat out on the floor, trying to figure out where the floor ended and her head began.
“Chie and Yukiko would’ve done the same,” he said. “The only difference was, I was closer.”
Yeah. Yeah, they would’ve. But it didn’t make her feel any better.
“… Sorry,” she said. “I just—I don’t like it… when you people take my hits. I’m… I’m used to taking risks. I know what I’m getting into.”
“I wish you’d be more careful,” Yosuke said with a frown. “You’re our leader… you’re our trump card. You’re always telling us to keep a cool head, but whenever you go into battle, you act like you’re possessed by something else.”
Something like a Persona, maybe? Shouko wanted to say. She didn’t know how to explain it. Chasing after Shadows was intoxicating, more of a rush than karate, rugby, kenjutsu, basketball—more of a rush than anything she had ever tried. And it irked her, that he expected her to go charging into battle, but not take some risks when it came to blowing the Shadows down. She was the one he expected to lead them into battle. She was the one who was assigned to strike the shadows first—admittedly, because her weapon had the longest reach of any of theirs, but still. Instead she said, “Thank you for watching out for me. I’ll be fine. Really.”
He didn’t look too convinced. He handed her a medicine and said, “Here. Use this.”
“You’d better not do that again,” Shouko warned, as she slathered the medicine onto her neck and shoulders. Yosuke helped her apply it to one of the cuts just under the armor. “Not unless you’re ready to let me push you out of the way a few times.”
“It’s different for you,” said Yosuke. “I wouldn’t do that for Chie—she’d kill me, for one—and I wouldn’t do it for Yukiko-san, because Chie would kill me for that, too. I do it for you because you’re our leader. Got that?”
When it was Yukiko who threw herself in the way of the hit, though, she couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty, especially when Chie gave Shouko a hurt look, the same look she gave Shouko whenever she ordered Yukiko to attack rather than block against an ice-wielding enemy. After the battle was over, she and Chie scavenged through the enemies’ remains together.
“I guess I feel a bit jealous,” Chie admitted. “I used to be Yukiko’s only friend, and when I saw how close you two were getting…”
“Don’t worry about that," she said. "Yukiko and I are just friends, anyway. I guess she did it for the same reason Yosuke did it… and, well, I know she’s tough enough to handle it.” And besides, Yukiko keeps trying to tell you that she doesn’t need to be handled like a flower in a glass vase, Shouko wanted to add. She didn’t. Some things weren’t her domain to butt into, even though people seemed to invite her to very, very private facets of their lives at will. People sure were weird. “I promise, I won’t let anything too bad happen to her.”
“Uh-huh,” Chie said. And then she stared. “Wait—did you just say—?”
“Wh… as in—um,” Shouko said, trying to jumpstart her brain. Nope. Nothing. “Well, of course I need to take her with me, because she’s good at healing, and I don’t always have a fire Persona on me—”
“No, the bit about the ‘just being friends’,” Chie said. “Because—um… well. Y-you know what? Never mind.”
“S-sure,” Shouko stammered, grateful for the end of the conversation.
“Shouko-san?” Yukiko asked. “How is it?”
“M-my teeth. T-they feel like someone just kicked them in—”
“Oh! That’s good, then, isn’t it? Here. Have some more.”
“What instrument do you play, senpai?” Ayane asked as Shouko stacked the chairs in the back of the room.
“Bassoon,” Shouko replied, and then swore loudly when she dropped a chair on her foot.
“Oh, wow! I… I don’t think we need one right now.”
Late at night, Yosuke passed her while she was fishing on the Samegawa.
“… Hi,” he said once the awkwardness of the situation reached critical mass.
Shouko considered shooing him away. Then she said, “Join me for a bit?”
“Depends on how long ‘a bit’ is,” Yosuke said. “What are you doing out here?”
“Obvious enough, isn’t it?” Shouko said, nodding at her fishing pole. “What are you doing here?”
“Dad said I pissed off someone’s mom, so I had to go and apologize,” Yosuke said. He sat on the rock near the cat, and reached out for its head. The cat, with a hiss, swatted his hand away. “Geeze… I was looking for you. Weather report says it’s going to rain in a few days. Wanted to know if you were… you know. Ever planning on rescuing Kanji.”
“Well… yeah, I am.”
“So what’s taking you so long?” he said.
“… don’t laugh, okay?” she said. “I was out of money. I’m trying to fuse a Persona, but to do that I need to summon two others, and to do that I need more money. And right now we have twenty hundred yen.”
“Ouch. For the armor?”
“For the armor,” she said, and shook her head. “Knew I shouldn’t have done it. Personae are a better investment in the long-run. But—you know how protective Chie is over Yukiko, and she was chewing me out for not giving her better armor…”
“Man, that girl’s relentless,” Yosuke said, shaking his head. “You want me to talk to her?”
“Well, she had a point,” Shouko said. “I can’t rely on Yukiko to evade all those attacks, and she isn’t as sturdy as Chie is.”
“Did you just call her fat?”
“Wh—no! It was a compliment!” The pole jerked a few times. Shouko tugged back. Too light. Another red goldfish. Geeze… She knew she should’ve waited for a rainy night to catch something. “Why am—why were you even insulted, anyway?”
“Come on, I’m just ribbing you,” Yosuke said. “And can’t you catch bigger fish?”
“I caught a Genji Ayu last night,” Shouko said. “But yeah, I’ve been on a goldfish streak lately. You want to try?”
“Nah, I’ll pass,” Yosuke said. “But man, I swore I saw you working at the daycare this evening, and then I see you fishing out here at night… When do you do your homework?”
… That was a good question, actually.
"Extreme time management," she said. "Can I copy yours later, then?"
"Hell no. Go do it yourself."
“Oh, how I hate girls,” said Shadow Kanji. “So arrogant and self-centered! They cry if you get angry, they gossip behind your back, they spread nasty lies…”
As a girl, Shouko couldn’t help but feel insulted, in a vague, distant way.
By now, she was getting used to the rhythm and flow of these shadow battles. When Kanji howled, “There’s no way in hell you’re me!” Shouko was ready for the fight.
He was still a kid, after all, Shouko thought. It was a little condescending and rude, but he really was just a first-year kid: lost and confused and still a boy, even beneath the layers of attitude and toughness. She felt a bit bad for him, but mostly glad that he was still alive and that things were going if not well, than at least okay. No one else had died, and that was good.
The thing was, though, it wasn’t good enough. The murderer was still on the loose, their clues few and getting fewer, and an encroaching sense of the murder mystery going unsolved for a while longer. She had hoped to be done with the mysteries by now, but it looked as though they’d be waiting yet again for the killer to make his move.
It drove her nuts. She wished—she wished she could jump in the middle of a kidnapping or do something seriously crazy or bizarrely illegal and stop the killer right there, maybe have Chie take the killer out with a kick to the head, or maybe come swinging at the killer with the hilt of her sword or a really big, heavy club. Of course, she wouldn’t kill him. No. She wanted to shake the killer down and get answers, and she wasn’t the kind of person who would kill people. Shadows, maybe, but Shadows were different. They weren’t human. Sure, they could feel, but they couldn’t think. –Or at the very least, they just weren’t… humans or people or…
She bit her lip and ended that line of thought. Too troublesome. She didn’t want to think about the ethics of cutting up fragments of human desires and emotions. She had enough on her plate as it was.
As things stood right now, though, she needed to pencil in a new budget for Kanji’s armor and weapons. There was a chance he might not join or run wild, but he wasn’t a bad kid. And he was really big. Probably favored physical attacks. A glimpse of his Persona had been promising: something big and hulking, holding a thunderbolt in his hands. A lightning user, like her, or at least, like her with Izanagi.
She wondered if he’d need his own armor. He could probably make do with some second-hand weapons, but they might not have anything that fit him, and Daidara was always looking to make a few coins off of her. Between him and the fox, she didn’t know who was the greedier one. Daidara could at least offer discounts every now and then, geeze.
It wasn't fair. She was getting fleeced at every turn.
“Shouko-san?” Yukiko asked.
Shouko straightened up. The kebab was… well. It was kind of dirty. Too dirty for her to eat. “Yeah?”
“What are you… Are you all…” Yukiko seemed to be struggling. Shouko didn’t blame her. If she had seen herself just now, then she’d be at loss for words, too. “… What are you doing, exactly?”
“Looking for Koro-chan,” she said.
“Oh! A person?”
“A dog. He ran away from home a while ago, and I was thinking that he might be around here, since he wasn’t at the floodplains. But he’s really shy, so I thought that if I smeared the kebab around on the ground, then he might come.”
“I… I see,” Yukiko said. Another struggle, this one between manners and laughter. Good thing manners won out, because Shouko could see a hint of black, beady eyes glinting in the shadows between two shops. The dog was shy, easily scared off, and, like all carnivores, had an appetite for meat. “Well… good luck, Shouko-san.”
She tried out different Personae: Pixie, Slime, Berith, Oberon, Jack Frost, Xiezhai, Ara Mitama, Nigi Mitama. Across the arcanae, across the levels—she wanted to try them all. Which parts were her? Which parts were someone else’s? Which one would speak to her, fit her just as well as Jiraiya matched Yosuke, as well as Tomoe moved with Chie, as well as Yukiko brandished Konohana-Sakuya, as well as Take-Mikazuchi went with Kanji?
Each face felt a little different. Each face felt equally like her own. She fused Izanagi away a bit reluctantly, but what came from that fusion was pleasing and useful. And it helped, too, to match faces: for example, to settle into the mindset of Chie’s Chariot when Chie dragged her out of bed at five in the morning to jog along the Samegawa.
“I’m so glad that you like this kind of stuff, too,” Chie gushed. They were approaching the Amagi Inn with alarming speed—alarming because Shouko didn’t think she had enough stamina to continue at this pace without passing out. “It’s so rare to find girls with my interests in Inaba, you know? Yukiko’s great and all, but I can’t let her train with us, she’s too fragile.”
Shouko grabbed onto Chie’s elbow to make her stop running.
“S-stop,” she managed to say in a brief armistice between an urge to vomit and an urge to die. Dear god. How was it that Chie managed to look completely… unruffled? There had to be some kind of secret.
Chie took a swig of water from the water bottle she was carrying, and wiped the sweat from her eyes. “You think Yukiko can handle herself, don’t you,” she said.
“She’s fighting with us,” Shouko pointed out, once she felt a little less like retching out her lungs. “You… you know her better than I do, but don’t you think… that she’s strong, in her own way? I’m more worried about you stretching yourself too far.” And worried about herself, because she didn’t think stars were supposed to be firing in her eyes like this. She needed to look strong, needed to be strong—no, that was just the Chariot in her head, telling her to run until something fell off.
“… Me?” Chie looked almost as though Shouko had said the entire last sentence in another language. French, maybe. “But I’m fine. I’m training and everything! But I need to be able to protect Yukiko. I’ll train harder! So I can protect her! –and everyone else,” she added, almost as an afterthought. “Let’s keep it up, leader! Me and Yosuke always pretend to be reliable, but we’re really depending on you, haha…” She was bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. Oh, no. The jog was starting again? This wasn’t a jog. This was a mile long sprint. “C’mon, let’s do this! The Inn’s almost in sight! Yukiko might give us some really nice food!”
Oh, god. Chie was already taking off.
Feeling as though she understood Chie a bit better, Shouko staggered back up to her feet and followed.
It was strange how each of the shadows had their way of getting under Shouko’s skin. She could… relate to them. Maybe a bit too easily. Parts of her echoed when the shadows said things: You do it because you want to be a hero. She’s too important to me. That’s why I’ll never let go. I’m sick of it all. I want to run away. What’s wrong with doing what I want to do? They look at me like I’m some disgusting THING and call me a weirdo.
She didn’t have a Shadow. Why not? What was wrong with her? She had thought those things. She knew how they felt. Oh, sure, she rarely thought of it too much. For the most part, her mental mirror was calm and undisturbed—maybe a little too undisturbed, as though she was hollow on the inside or something ridiculous like that.
But didn’t she have her own issues, too? Didn’t she have a shadow? What would it even mean, anyway, if she didn’t have one?
… She didn’t want to think about it.
Chapter 4: June
Well, this wasn’t odd or anything, accusing a member of her own team about whether or not he was bullying a small girl. It wasn't that she didn't believe him, but she hadn't... The long story short of it was... Well, she didn't really know. Calling him out like this hadn't been the best of moves; whatever bravado she had when she first dragged him away from the sewing club had faded into an awkward sense of embarrassment by the time she got to the plains. Kanji was shuffling around in place, looking as though he wanted to both run away and tower over her at the same time. So far he was having little success in either.
“So, uh,” Kanji said. “The hell’s gotten up with you?”
“There’s been a bunch of bullies running around town as of late,” Shouko said. “I wanted to know if you know anything about them.”
“Eh—bullies? M-me?!” Kanji nearly jumped into the air. “T-t-the hell, senpai! You suspecting me or something?”
“I heard rumors flying around, okay?” Shouko said. “I don’t want to believe something about you without hearing it from your mouth, first, okay? Tell it to me straight.”
“Senpai…” He shook his head. “It wasn’t me. Honest. I mean, it ain’t that easy to trust me since people say I’m in a gang and shit, but you gotta believe me… I wouldn’t do that kind of stuff.”
“I didn’t doubt you to begin with,” she said. “Just wanted to make sure, that’s all.”
“… Guess so,” Kanji said. “I mean… It’s my fault rumors like that go around, huh…? If you hang around me too long, then I’ll make trouble for you and shit, and… damn it, I don’t want to let you down or anything, senpai. Believe in me a little, I’m not a bad guy.”
“I never said you were,” she said. “I mean… you’re—you’re one of my friends, you know? We haven’t really gotten to know each other that well, but if you need someone to talk to, then I’ll make some time for you.”
“Wh… you’d do that?” He cocked his head off to the side and said, “You sure about that? I mean, I’m—it’ll be weird, because you’re not a guy, and I’m, uh, not into guys or anything, so it’s okay if I talk with you—not that I think you’re a guy! Because you ain’t! … Shit.”
“Well,” Shouko said, “those kinds of things tend to resolve themselves after some time.”
“Guess so, senpai.”
“Look,” she said with a little sigh. She pulled out a small notebook from her pocket and a pen. “Just tell me the days you’re free and where you hang out. I’ll pencil you in for whenever.”
“Uh, sure. What’s that notebook for?”
“Well… my schedule’s pretty tight, so.” She scratched her ear. “Don’t think about it too much, okay?”
“Hey, Dojima-san,” Shouko said. “Can I ask you for some advice?”
“Hmm?” Dojima said.
“W-well,” Shouko said. “Let’s say you have two friends, and they like doing something that they shouldn’t be doing a lot more than they really should, and it’s really dangerous for everyone involved because one of them cooks like crap and the other one’s lunch sometimes looks charred, even though she says her meals were all microwave-cooked and stuff, so—”
Dojima let out a laugh. “So you were talking about cooking,” he said. “You really had me worried there. I thought you were talking about doing something that was actually dangerous, like… vandalizing things or beating up biker gangs.”
“Dojima-san, I’m serious! This is a matter of—”
“You always take things too seriously,” he said. “But if you want my opinion, you should be honest with them. Or help them cook. You’re a girl, you know. You should be able to do that kind of thing.”
“I cooked dinner last night.” Dojima had been out, though, so who knew if he ate it or not.
“That’s right… I forgot all about that. Your mother always was a horrible cook, so it took me by surprise when you turned out to be pretty good.”
Shouko was a good cook precisely because her mother was a bad one. Her father did most of the cooking at home, and he considered cooking to be an important survival skill. After being a taste tester for the Amagi Cooking Challenge (challenge: stay alive, apparently), Shouko came to a few conclusions: one, cooking was definitely an important survival skill; and two, she needed to find a way to keep Yukiko from cooking explosive curry. What kind of moron invented food that blew up when you messed it up?
“I guess I could teach them a thing or two before we go out,” Shouko said. Or maybe she should focus on Yukiko, since Chie could at least fry things. Maybe.
“What kinds of things go into curry?” Chie asked.
“Well, a lot of things,” Shouko said. “Uh, carrots, potatoes—”
“I wasn’t asking you,” Chie said. “No offense or anything, but… you cook enough for us all already, you know? It’s time to give back! We’ll make something really nice for you! … So what is in curry, anyway?”
“Carrots, potatoes, onions… mushrooms, green peppers and… radishes?” Yukiko said.
“Are radishes the same as turnips?”
Chocolate. They were adding chocolate to the curry. Chocolate and chives and onions and white peppers and black peppers and all-purpose flour and potato starch and whole wheat flour and eggplant and chili peppers and kimchi and tomatoes and durian and apples and mocha and yogurt and oysters shells. Oysters shells. Oysters shells.
“Oh, man, this is going to be great,” Yosuke said. “Homemade cooking from Chie and Yukiko-san! I don’t have much faith in Chie, but Yukiko-san…”
Yukiko was just as bad, Shouko wanted to say. ‘Tradition of the Amagi Inn’ her ass. Nothing could save Yukiko’s cooking. Their last attempt at deviled eggs ended with Shouko giving herself a nasty bruise on the temple when the spiciness of the egg knocked her off her feet and onto the floor.
“I’ll give you mine, too,” she said, trying to find the words she needed to warn him. Maybe she could start with “look at how the curry over there is giving off toxic fumes.” No, that would be impolite. But what was more important here: her life, or being polite?
“Um, sorry for the wait,” Chie said. Crap. The plates were already in front of them. Shouko felt a little queasy just looking at it. “Um… We put a lot of love into it.”
“Whoa, really? That’s kind of cliché, but still awesome!”
“Yeah,” Shouko said. “That’s—that’s great. … Great.”
“Hey, don’t flatter us or anything!” Chie said. “Um, well.”
Yosuke raised the fork to his mouth, and took a bite. He was still alive! —never mind, he was flat on the bench.
“Wh—what the hell is this? This isn’t food!” he sputtered, once he was able to articulate something other than “blech.” “Are you trying to kill me?!”
“What! How rude! We worked really hard on that!” Chie glared at Shouko. “Shouko, you try it.”
“Uh—” Could she refuse? No, Chie would make her bite the curb and break her head open if she did.
Shouko lifted the spoon to her mouth, and put it in. It tasted—it tasted—it—
Igor was in his limo, staring at her as the words scrolled by. Life is truth, and never a dream.
Hey, wait. This couldn’t be the end. She hadn’t done anything wrong yet.
The next thing she knew, King Moron was giving her mouth-to-mouth.
The words, “death is not a hunter unbeknownst to its prey” flashed before her eyes. With a strangled, choking cry, she fainted dead away for the second time that night.
“Okay,” Chie said. “That was a failure.”
There was no need to make Chie feel even worse about what happened, even if Shouko was never going to get the taste of King Moron out of her mouth. Dear god. No, scrap god. There was no god. She said nothing, and instead swished the mouth wash around some more. With great vigor, even.
“I am so, so sorry,” Chie said. “Right, Yukiko?”
“I… I didn’t think it would be that bad,” Yukiko said. “Um… I’m sorry. I should have kept your advice in mind, Shouko-san. I didn’t think that you… would, um…” She trailed off, and said, “Well, you’re still alive. And we avoided having Hanako-san in our tent! That’s good, right?”
“Hanako-san?” Shouko asked, rinsing her mouth out for the last time. She spat it into the grass. Normally she would’ve felt maybe a little bad for the grass, but her mouth.
“She snores like a train,” Chie said.
“W-well, it’s true! Last year we could hear her across the field…”
If Shouko strained her ears enough, she could hear something that sounded awfully close to what sounded like an old-fashioned steam train leaving the station.
“This time, we brought ear plugs,” Chie said. “Well, we only have two pairs of them, but you can have mine.”
“Then you should take mine, Chie.”
“What? No, I couldn’t do that. You’re always complaining about how badly you sleep—”
And there they went, arguing in a way that always bewildered Shouko: Chie would push, and though Yukiko didn’t yield, she didn’t push back, either. After a while, they settled for taking one each. Shouko had just popped the earplugs in when she saw a shadowy figure standing in front of the tent. It looked… it looked really familiar.
“H-hey. Shouko. C-could you let me in?”
… Despite her better judgment, Shouko opened the entrance for Yosuke, who was nursing a livid bruise on his jaw. Chie stared.
“Wh—what are you doing here?” Chie said. “You could get us all expelled!”
“I—I can’t help it, okay?!” Yosuke said, rubbing his jaw. “Kanji went totally wild and—he—come on, you know!”
“Uh-huh,” Chie said. “So you pissed him off and came running back here to us? Come on, get out, get out!”
“Shut up,” Yosuke said, sitting himself next to Shouko. “He just got pissed off at me for no reason.” Then, looking at Shouko, he wilted and said, “I. I tried to make him sleep on a rock.”
Chie took one look at Yosuke and said, “Well, you kind of deserve it.”
Yukiko looked vaguely sympathetic, but not nearly enough to actually say anything beside a polite, “You should try to make it up to Kanji-kun.”
Yosuke looked at Shouko and said, “Dude. I think he chipped my tooth.”
“My father probably knows an oral surgeon or two,” she said, and laughed when he winced. “Do you need me to talk to Kanji for you?”
“Could you?” Yosuke said. “Because he might try to break me if I talk to him.”
“What did you say?” Shouko asked.
“You know, the usual,” Yosuke said. “Uh. … Stuff.”
Dead silence in the tent. Shouko had a pretty good idea of what kind of stuff Yosuke had talked about, and—well, hell if she was apologizing for Yosuke's self-generating messes.
“You should probably get out of here before King Moron makes his rounds,” Shouko said.
“Didn’t you just say you were going to talk to Kanji for me?”
“Come on, you’re a big boy,” Shouko said, clapping him on the back. “You can take him, right?”
“I didn’t mean it that way!”
Dojima said he found Shouko to be intriguing, which was, unlike the time Adachi said it, actually something of a compliment. She reminded him of his sister, Dojima said, which would’ve been a compliment if his sister wasn’t her mother. That changed when Dojima showed Shouko a picture of her mother in her youth. It was—it was weird. She didn’t think her mother had ever been younger than thirty-five in her life, but here she was, a high school student with jet-black hair and a nose ring. Her mother used to have a nose ring. It completely blew her mind.
“She used to make my life hell,” he said. And then he fixed her with a stare. “You’re making things hard on me, too. What are you doing at night that requires you to be at Junes so often?”
“Hanging out,” Shouko said.
“That, I can understand, but Daidara says you’ve been a regular customer, and the owner of Shiroku says that you’re buying all sorts of weird things—things that aren’t even available to the general public to see! What’s going on with you?”
Shouko’s first instinct was to give into her uncle. Her second was to yell, angrily, that it wasn’t his business, that he wasn’t her father, that if it weren’t for his inability to pick a good partner then maybe she could talk to him.
Instead, she wound up being saved by Nanako, who came in and said, “Are you two fighting again?”
“No,” Dojima said. “No, we’re not fighting…”
But they were, weren’t they? Shouko was used to seeking quiet, slow conflict that roiled just below the surface, for having people turn a blind eye to her for her good behavior and good manners, but when Dojima flung it all in her face, she—she couldn’t figure out how to react. The Hierophant in her empathized with Dojima, his obsession with his work, his care of his family, his devotion to the town, even if he was a bit orthodox and more traditional than Shouko was used to. But Shouko? She was… She couldn’t put it to words.
When Dojima had to run out of the house to report to a colleague, leaving her alone with a sick Nanako, she felt almost relieved. Family? Shouko had lived her entire life keeping a distance between her and her parents, both fulfilling their wishes, and spiting them in the most unobjectionable way possible. They hadn’t ever seemed to care, never really seemed to mind. Just as long as she remained unobjectionable. Here, in Inaba, she felt… like a risk taker. She felt like she could do some crazy, strange things, and knew that she could get away with it.
But she hadn’t stopped to consider how adults might see it. How her… family might see it.
Dojima cared, and it left her quietly confused and grateful, all at the same time.
“It’s Risette,” Yosuke said on the phone, in an effort to get her to ditch basketball practice to stake out at Rise’s house. “C’mon, you’ve got to like Risette, Shouko, she’s amazing—”
“Never heard of her,” Shouko said, trying to balance the phone against her shoulder while she tried to fit the model together. It was one of the fox’s requests, because otherwise she wouldn’t be caught dead trying to make a toy robot. It was fun, even if she wasn’t making any headway with this. Her fingers were covered in glue, and the fingers that weren’t stuck together had small, but critical parts stuck onto them instead.
“Shouko. Shouko. You call yourself a city kid, and don’t know Risette?”
Shouko shrugged noncommittally. She had been a busy person back in the city. There were practices to go to, classes to attend, meetings to head, homework to do, chores to do, her family to think of. Really, the weirdest thing about living in Inaba was the influx of free time she had. She had the time to take on part time jobs—even if the job mostly consisted of, thus far, folding envelopes and making paper cranes and translating documents and running around for the fox and babysitting. Maybe she ought to take that hospital job. The tutoring one wouldn’t be too bad, once things stopped being so… hectic.
“Never had the time,” she said. Shit. She couldn’t get her thumb off the table. Or, she could get it off, but it all depended on how much thumb she wanted to have left later.
“You didn’t watch TV?” Yosuke asked. “Listen to the radio?”
“I followed a few of the popular dramas, but I was spending a lot of time in practice and classes,” Shouko said. “I normally got home around ten, went to bed at eleven and did my homework in the early morning.”
“You had to have some free time.”
“A little. I’d make time for friends. But it was the city. We didn’t exactly spend a lot of time staying home and watching TV.”
“Must’ve been a big change, coming here,” Yosuke said.
“A little bit.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
Shouko thought it over. It took all of a second. “No.”
“Oh my god, Shouko, you should’ve seen it,” Yosuke said. “She was so cute. You should’ve seen her. Her cuteness is totally wasted on Kanji.”
“Yosuke, we were talking about keeping Rise out of the TV, remember?”
“Huh? Yeah, totally,” said Yosuke. “But Risette served me some ganmo personally and I ate it and—”
“Just tell me about what happened at the shop and stop wasting your time telling me how cute Kujikawa is!”
Rise was nowhere in sight. Shouko and Chie were the first ones to meet back at the tofu shop, and after confirming that neither of them had seen Rise, Chie moved onto a different tack.
“I can’t believe you tackled him like that,” Chie said. “I mean…”
“Yeah,” Shouko said, rubbing her cheek. She had jumped onto the suspect along with Yosuke and Kanji, but halfway through Kanji noticed that she was diving into the fray and pulled back, which tripped her into Yosuke, which… somehow still let them knock down the suspect anyway. They really were quite lucky, even if Kanji’s elbow would probably leave a permanent indentation in her face. Something was bugging her, though. What kind of moron handcuffed a murder suspect with his hands in front of his body? Pervert or not, a murder suspect should be cuffed with his hands behind his back. Adachi really was kind of dim, wasn’t he? She hoped he got back to the station all right.
“What?” Chie said. “Oh, did you get a concussion or something?”
“No,” Shouko said. “It doesn’t hurt at all. Anyway, we should keep looking for Risette. I mean, Rise. Oh, geeze, never mind.”
Yosuke ran up to them, followed shortly by the others. “Bad news,” he said. “We can’t find Rise anywhere.”
“Maru-Q! Push Risette! Good evening, good evening! I’m Rise Kujikawa!”
… A bikini?
“This spring, one young girl levels up to become a high school idol… Yayyy!”
Why couldn’t the damn camera focus on her face? Shouko thought irritably. It was almost like it was trying to obscure their view of the shadow's—
“So today, I’m gonna celebrate by pushing the limits of Standards & Practices!”
“Did you see Risette on TV?” Yosuke said into the phone, all nervous excitement and… did he sound like he was enjoying it?
“Rise,” Shouko corrected him.
“Was she serious about baring it all?!”
“Geeze, Shouko, don’t be such a wet blanket. Admit it. She’s cute.”
“Yeah, sure,” Shouko said. Geeze, she had thought Kanji’s show made Chie yammer on like there was no tomorrow… “Calm down, Yosuke. Let’s talk about the case.”
“Right… you’re right,” Yosuke said, sobering up. “We couldn’t prevent the kidnapping this time, either… even when we knew who the target would be. That detective from this afternoon was no help at all. I guess we’ll have to do everything ourselves…”
“Not that our Inn is like this at all,” Yukiko said. “Um, we don’t have such—I mean, we’re…”
She snapped her fan open and shut, and glowered at Yosuke, who was bobbing his head along to the beat of the music. Whether it was the music blaring out of the striptease’s speakers or the music of his headphones, Shouko couldn’t tell.
“I know what you mean,” Shouko said before Yukiko could try to set the back of Yosuke’s head on fire. “You’re probably running a drug cartel or something.”
“Hey, Shouko,” said Yosuke, “how do these stripper poles work again?”
“I don’t know, Yosuke,” she said. “Why don’t you show me?”
"I didn't mean that you had to actually--"
"You know something, Shouko? Shut up. Just... shut up."
A few days later, Shouko was looking around Junes for the Fox when she tripped over a head of cabbage. And then another one. And another one. And another one. Adachi came running a second later, picking the cabbages off the ground and stuffing them into the bag.
“Cabbages, Adachi-san?” Shouko said.
“They’re on sale today,” Adachi said earnestly. Then, looking at Shouko sprawled out on the pavement, said, “Let me help you up before you get hit by a car or something.”
"I'm fine, I'm fine, geeze," she said, pushing herself off the ground. Then, when Adachi's extended hand did not retreat, she sighed, and let him help her back up. "Thank you," she said, a little grudgingly.
“No problem, no problem. I tripped over some kind of dog on my way out the store,” Adachi said. “Real pain in the ass.”
“By any chance, did you happen to see where that dog was going?”
“Dunno,” Adachi said with a shrug. “Not like it matters, does it? Dojima-san’s going to dock my salary again after botching the guard on Rise Kujikawa. Although she’s back already. Lucky thing, huh. Everyone else took about two weeks to find.”
“Right,” Shouko said, a bit uncomfortably. The last battle had been a huge pain in the ass. Fighting Teddie immediately after fighting Rise had been exhausting, and more than a little scary. She honestly thought she wouldn’t have been able to make it. All of the Personae she brought with her didn’t have immunities or even resistances to ice. She spent half the battle spamming healing spells and throwing healing items around, and the other half telling Yukiko to be on her guard.
“Funny how you and your friends always seem to find them,” Adachi continued. “You know, Dojima-san was talking about how you might be the kidnapper—actually, forget I said anything, hehheh…”
“Me and my mouth,” he sighed. “Well, I’ll see you around, Shouko-kun.”
“Be careful on your way back,” she said as he left. He stopped, turned to look at her. His eyes were wide, shoulders tense. He was looking at her in a way that could have meant anything.
“You, too, Shouko-kun,” he said with a smile, and after that did not look back.
Chapter 5: July
In the summer, Shouko discarded the sailor collar for a button-up shirt, mostly because she couldn’t stand running around with that damned collar flapping in her face all the time. No one seemed to really care. By now, she probably had something of a reputation: yes, that’s Shouko Seta, member of the basketball team, friend of small animals and children, runner of errands, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Being in a small town really was different than being in a big city. Here she stood out, and… really, she didn’t mind it. It was freeing, in a sense, to have that popularity. Liberating, even: she didn’t have to pretend. Meeting people, getting to know them, and them getting to know her in the process—it was so… freeing. None of the teachers questioned her when she came in with the modified uniform, and most of the comments she got were compliments, rather than the all-too-familiar, “You’re weird, Seta-kun” she had received in the city.
Not that it stopped some of the girls from calling her Seta-kun. But here, people mostly called her Shouko-san, or Seta-san. It was different. It was pleasant.
Kanji, though, looked a bit flustered at the sight of her in the shirt and skirt when she called him up for lunch that day.
“Y’know,” he said, “that shirt don’t fit you that well. If you want, I can… find… someone who’ll tailor that a bit for you.”
“What?” Shouko said. “No, it’s fine. I don’t mind the fit.”
“Y-yeah, but…” Kanji stared. It was… flattering. And a little strange. “Er, never mind…”
Time to go in for the kill. She hadn’t been able to get a hold of Kanji for the last few days, and with the next bout of rain coming in soon, she needed to check in with him. “Kanji-kun, how is the rabbit going?” Shouko asked.
“Wh—what rabbit?! T-there ain’t no rabbit! Y-you think you can j-just say anything you want b-because…”
“The rabbit you were making for that kid,” Shouko said. “I was just wondering about how it was coming along—”
“W-w-w-I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, senpai!” Kanji said loudly. And then, in his normal voice, he said, “Um… sorry ‘bout that, senpai. I lost my cool. Y-yeah, I’m done with it. Was planning on handing the rabbit back to that kid this afternoon. Y’don’t mind comin’ with me, right, senpai?”
King Moron was dead. What the hell. As far as Shouko knew, he hadn’t even been inside the TV.
What had she done wrong? She was sure she was doing everything right, so why was he dead?
It isn’t your fault, Izanagi said.
Like hell it was! She was the leader, she should’ve seen it coming. She should have seen it coming, yet it had just… happened. She didn’t like King Moron, but she never wanted him to die, either. What the hell. What the hell, what the hell, what the hell—she was getting dizzy, was she hyperventilating?
What the hell, what the hell, what the hell this wasn’t supposed to happen! She was supposed to be a… she didn’t know what. A hero, a protector, someone who loved this town, a young man trying to find himself, a girl with a million faces. Which was it, then? Who was she, what did she want?
“Shouko? Hey, Shouko!” Chie was yelling at her over the phone. “Are you there?”
“Well, get over to Junes, right away! All the rest of us are meeting there—hey, are you okay?”
“I’m—I’m picking up some laundry on the floor, that’s all. I’ll be there in a few.”
Shit. Shit, how could that have happened?
Thank god for Teddie. Always there to distract them and take their minds off of the most serious and pressing of issues by being… well, by being himself. It could be annoying sometimes, but really, he was a great help with team morale. Admittedly, before he used to do so while being a hollow bear suit. Now that he was a human inside the hollow bear suit, he needed to put some clothes on.
She had made the suggestion, but then Yosuke actually made her go and buy clothes for him—presumably because he thought it’d be hilarious if a bunch of girls helped clothe a naked guy. Tasteful.
Yeah, he’d think it was funny, wouldn’t he. They'd see how funny it was when he saw the receipt, she thought, a cheerily maniacal smile on her face.
“Hey, Shouko, do you think these shorts would look good on him?” Chie said.
“Jailbait,” she said dismissively, searching through the for sale bin.
“Jailbait, huh…?” Teddie said. A trail of sparkles flew off from Teddie’s body. “So… you’re saying that people look at me… and are locked up in my magnificence?!”
“Would you shut up, Teddie?” Chie said. “Well, it’s not like Hawaiian print looks good on him, either. Yukiko, have you found anything?”
“How about this?” Yukiko said, holding up a collared shirt and dark pants. “This looks really elegant, right?”
“Not tacky enough,” said Shouko. “Can’t you pick something with more clashing colors?”
“Um… are you trying to make him look strange or something?”
“This is for Yosuke saying that I should pick a pair of nice boxers for Teddie,” Shouko said, holding up a polka-dot shirt.
“You realize that you’re the one who’s going to be paying for all this?” Chie said, but she was grinning. Even Yukiko was giggling over the Franken-outfit.
“No I won’t,” said Shouko. “I’m charging this to Yosuke’s bill.”
“The four-color argyle plaid was Shouko’s idea,” Chie said to a dismayed Yosuke. “And so was the Hawaiian print. And the socks and the flip-flops—”
“You charged it all to my account?”
“It was Shouko’s idea!”
Yosuke glanced at Shouko. She shook her head ‘no’. He whipped back to Chie and yelled, “You charged it all to my account!”
Rise Kujikawa was cute. Really cute. The girl was really, really cute. Which didn’t make her flirting with Yosuke any less awkward, especially once Shouko realized Yosuke had no idea how to deal with it aside from occasionally responding with a livid blush and a long, drawn out, “Uhhhhhhhh—well—!” How was that not embarrassing for Yosuke and everyone around him?
That made Shouko feel a little better about how she was dealing with Rise flirting with her. Her response was to stonewall the girl, which served to encourage Rise to be even more outrageous. Most of it, luckily, was just to play with Yosuke’s mind—and, evidently, Kanji’s mind, too.
Shouko didn’t mind Rise’s flirting. That was, at the very least, harmless and even kind of fun for the both of them. But just a few weeks ago she had taken a job at the hospital, and the nurse there had, at first, suggested very strongly that she should leave by trying to scare the wits out of Shouko. It hadn’t worked, of course—the thought of actually meeting a ghost was pretty exciting, even if she didn’t believe they existed.
But on the next visit the nurse had looked at her and purred that she was pleased that Shouko was still here, and that it wasn’t everyday that a girl stayed on board at a such a late hour in such a quiet hospital like this. She tried to ignore Sayoko. That worked right up until she said, “Stop that” because then the nurse went, “Oh, how cute” and went on to pinch her cheeks and offer to take her out for coffee at one of the nurse’s station—all while adjusting the collar of her shirt downwards.
It had gotten better, at least. Something in her clicked with Sayoko, and the Personae she fused from the Devil arcana were all very… interesting. Suggestive, maybe, but still a part of her. The stronger Devil Personae she fused, the more she felt like she could relate to Sayoko. The alarming part was that she became a creep whenever she wore the Devil’s mask: full of vice and aggression, predatory glances, ruthless efficiency and… well, it went without saying that Shouko was more than a little disturbed by what it could do to her.
And then she got acquainted with Hisano, who was so ghost-like that for a second Shouko actually believed Sayoko’s stories.
The mask that whispered nothing into her ear was the Fool’s mask. That was the one that made her most like her “normal” self—but by now, she knew that nothing was really “normal”. Not in the way other people were normal. She was… different. She was… She wasn’t a bad person, but she could go through so many different kinds of faces. Her favorite one was always the one that matched the face of her friends: the Magician’s restless expanse of knowledge, Strength’s controlled victory, and the Tower’s fast, sudden, sometimes ruinous change.
She summoned Pazuzu of the Devil arcana the day Ai Ebihara dared her to skip school, and wore Pazuzu’s face when she exited the school grounds. She had been full of virile, fast, easy strength that dizzied her. She was full of incredible impulse and desire to win, to do. It went well with that ruinously danger-seeking part of her: she let herself be seen, let herself be caught walking about town, flirted with some people she knew she really shouldn’t have been flirting with, and sauntered back into school just in time to talk to Ai at the shoe locker.
Ai Ebihara smirked at her and said, “You actually did it? You’re braver than I thought.”
What did bravery have to do with it? Shouko wanted to ask. Shouko—well, she could be brave. But that had been her being silly. Goofing off, so to speak. Showing off, maybe. There was something about the way Ai grinned—smirked, really—that made Shouko breathless, desperate to prove herself, and she’d be damned if she didn’t figure out why.
“Hey,” said Ai, a wicked smile curling on her face. “The next time you skip, take me with you.”
“You seriously can’t expect me to wear this,” Yosuke said, holding the low-cut armor in front of him like it was a dead fish. “Damn it, Shouko, I thought we were friends!”
“I think it has a flatterin’ cut on you, senpai,” Kanji said.
“Yeah, sure, you think so! If you think it looks so nice, why don’t you wear it?”
“Just because it looks good on you doesn’t mean it’ll look that good on everyone, sheesh,” Chie said. “Come on, Yosuke, please? Kanji-kun’s right. The armor fits all your curves in all the right places.”
Yosuke stared at Shouko with pleading eyes.
“Come on, Yosuke,” she said. “Man it up. You never know when this might come in handy.”
“Like hell it will,” Yosuke said. “No way. I’m sticking with my old chainmail, and that’s that.”
“Suit yourself,” Shouko said, while Yukiko laughed herself sick in the background.
Another long night at the Dojima house. Shouko was, rather frankly, too tired to do anything except rest her chin on the table and try to look awake.
“You can change the channel, if you want,” Nanako said.
… Apparently Nanako was bored. Shouko blew her bangs out of her eyes, and straightened up. Well, she always knew her talent for magic tricks would come in handy someday. She produced a rubber band from her pocket. A few hours ago, she had been using that to keep her thumb from falling off the rest of her hand. Hopefully she had washed it well enough. And hopefully she still remembered the trick.
“What are you doing?” Nanako asked.
Voila. Trick performed.
“I saw it! It went ‘zoom’! Do it again!”
Rubber band on the index finger and ring finger…
Crap. She just shot it into her eye.
Chapter 6: August
“I always see you running around in the rain,” said the gas station attendant.
“I’m busy,” Shouko said, and went straight into Daidara’s. The man—the woman… The attendant still gave her the creeps. It was the smile. That and the false cheer, the way his mouth curved…
In the rain, the attendant looked almost like a ghost come back from the dead to haunt her.
The day before they agreed to storm Mitsuo’s castle, Yosuke called her out to the hill overlooking town and said, “Shouko, I have a confession to make.”
“Um?” she said, maybe a little disingenuously.
“… I… I didn’t see you as the leader,” Yosuke said. “When I said you were special, I meant that. You did so much, even though you were a girl. But I was jealous. Jealous because I thought I should have been the leader. I’m a guy, right? So I thought it should’ve been me who would lead us into the TV. And then when I got to know you… You’re the only one besides Teddie who’s seen all of me. And you didn’t reject that. You didn’t try to knock me down, just because I said some dumb things to you and everyone else. And that really opened my eyes. I used to hate this place because I thought it was so small, so backwards, but when I stepped back and got to know it? I love it. You showed me… you showed me how much I love this town. You showed me something I wanted to tell Saki-senpai. That it doesn’t matter what you do, or where you are. That just by being born, just by being where you are, you’re special to someone.” He looked off into the distance, rubbing his nose awkwardly. “You... you mean a lot to me,” he said. “You’re… special to me.”
The atmosphere was good. Maybe a little too good. Shouko could feel her face going a little red.
“Thanks,” she said. “You… you mean a lot to me, too.”
He looked a little disappointed. Then he said, “Hey, let’s see if we can see everyone’s houses from here.” They passed the hour looking over the town.
Staring up at it from above, Shouko, too, felt as though she wanted to protect this place.
Staring at the town from above, she wanted to jump—no. She wanted to fly.
The case was over.
King Moron was dead—but, Yosuke reminded Shouko cheerfully, King Moron’s spirit lived on inside Shouko’s mouth, which was an instant invitation for her gag reflex to start working up again—and the killer had been caught. The killer's Shadow weirded Shouko out—it was probably the giant baby aspect—but that wasn’t the worst part.
No, the worst part was Yukiko’s horrifying suggestion that the four girls should have a cooking competition.
“… So you’re good at cooking, senpai?” Rise said. Shouko froze up. After the campout, it had been weeks since she could let Yukiko in the kitchen without hovering over Yukiko’s every motion.
“Um,” said Chie, looking at Shouko, then to Yukiko. “Well… kind of?”
“What are you saying…?” Yosuke asked. “Did you already forget the tragedy of the school campout!?”
“W-we already told you that was an accident!”
“Guys, please don’t do this. I’m begging you. I don’t need another trauma…”
“Then I’ll cook!” said Rise. “I’ll cook something good for you, Senpai.”
… This was it. If this was a comedy, this would be the time for her to faint dead away.
Nope. Nothing happened.
“Tadaaaaaah! Let’s make this a cooking battle!”
… Oh. Oh.
“Listen to me, Shouko,” said Yosuke. “For the sake of our stomachs… you have to make something. Just think about Nanako. She’ll be there, innocently helping herself to Mystery Food X, and then… Help me, big sis! I’m dying! I’m dying!”
“S-stop,” Shouko said. Her teeth were chattering. Was perpetual fear of death by cooking the trade off for securing the safety of this town? And poor Nanako-chan… her own little sister, murdered by her negligence!
“Help us, Obiwan Shouko! You are our only hope.”
“I’ll be a tester,” Kanji said, volunteering himself for the front lines of a battle he had no chance of surviving.
“Teddie will be a tester, too! At the end you’re supposed to say, ‘that was delicious!’, right?”
And that was when Chie made the first charge for the grocery department.
Dinner was almost done. Shouko tried her best to not look at the others’ dishes; perhaps it was best that way. Teddie and Nanako were sitting together, and, almost unwillingly, Shouko went to them.
“Sensei… you kept your promise with me,” said Teddie. “So I should go back.”
… What, Shouko wanted to say. Come to think of it, she had almost forgotten about that. “That’s fine,” she said. “You can stay.”
“But… I should—”
“Didn’t I just overhear you promising Nanako something?” she said. “It’s fine. Yosuke needs you at Junes, anyway.”
“Yeah, if you quit your job like that,” Yosuke started, and then stopped as Rise rammed a plate into his back.
“Shouko-senpai! Shouko-senpai!” she woke to Rise shaking her awake. “O-oh, thank god! We thought you were done for!”
“Wh… what happened?” she asked weakly, propping herself up on her elbows. A horrible dizziness immediately assailed her. Rise eased her back down and said, “You really don’t remember?”
“Oh, you’re back in the world of the livin’, senpai,” Kanji said. “Uh… do you still want Yosuke-senpai to call the hospital?”
“N-no, I’m fine,” Shouko said. “The only thing I remember is…”
… That screen again. Life is truth, and never a dream.
“Nanako-chan… the dinner,” she said. “P-please tell me Nanako-chan is still alive.”
“She’s enjoying your meal right now, senpai,” said Kanji. “You seriously don’t remember anythin’? Yosuke-senpai dared you to try eatin’ a bit of Yukiko-senpai and Chie-senpai and Rise’s omelettes. All at once.”
“… O-oh,” she managed. So that explained why her mouth tasted faintly of lava.
“Senpai, I found your elemental weakness,” Rise said. “And it’s omelette. That has to be it.”
... Shouko didn’t know what to say.
Probably because she was remembering Yukiko’s promise of victory: one strike.
… yeah. One strike indeed.
What do you think of that?! Say something, damn it! Wh-what’re you all quiet for…?
I’m nothing! I’m no one! I feel nothing… I have nothing… I am nothing… And you… are me…
No, no… I’m not nothing…
Tick. Three in the morning. She drove her fist into her pillow, groaned into it, and sat up. Sleepless again. She ought to turn on the A/C, but that'd wake up Dojima and Nanako. She should've brought that desk fan with her from home...
Shouko eased herself back down into the futon. Sweat on the pillow and on the sheets. She'd have to wash them later.
“You punch hard,” Yosuke said, lying flat out in the grass. He winced, and spat something into the grass. It looked like blood.
Shouko laughed. Oh, god. Her ribs didn’t feel like they were attached to her chest. That was a bad thing, wasn’t it? “You punch like a girl,” she said.
“Hah,” he said, looking up at the sky. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Summer vacation passed in a leisurely start-and-stop of action, meetings with friends, general laziness, and a vague uneasiness that sat in the back of her head.
Logically, she knew that the case was over. There was no reason for her to worry about it, really. The killer had admitted to his deed. She was free to do whatever she liked with her free time.
So why was she still drawn to the Velvet Room? Why did Margaret still have requests for her? Why was it that the Personae in her head were still there, a low, long rumble in the back of her head?
At the summer festival, she found herself hanging out behind the shrine, petting the fox. The others were looking for her, and it wasn't that Shouko didn't care, but the festival was too big and too loud. She needed some time alone.
"Not so bad, right?" she said to the fox, even as it nipped her fingers. "I don't get to spend much one-on-one time with you. Not that you mind, I guess..." She looked around the shrine and said, "Do you like these festivals?"
The fox yipped.
Dumb question, Shouko thought. People always donated more to the shrine during the festivals. She sighed, scratched the fox behind the ears one more time, and got another bite for her trouble.
Chapter 7: September
Shouko knew Naoto didn’t like her. It was clear enough from the disdain that immediately colored his eyes that he thought she was some kind of city kid, with her messy, layered cut and an entourage of friends she didn’t deserve, or friends she had seduced with fairy tales of city lore. Naoto thought she was suspicious, which annoyed Shouko to no end. It wasn’t something Naoto said aloud, but rather voiced in the way he looked at Shouko and said, “Senpai,” as though he really didn’t think of her as being above him at all. Naoto treated her as though Shouko thought of the protection of the town as a game. He acted as though Shouko was someone who he ought to talk down to, as though Shouko wasn’t worthy of being his equal.
The only comfort she had was that at the very least, Dojima thought Naoto was a well-meaning, if a bit clumsy, kid, and Adachi thought he was a total brat, which meant that Naoto had to have a few good qualities, even if it wasn’t enough to stifle the urge to strangle him whenever they talked. Shouko found Adachi to be pleasant enough, but a bit—off. When he talked to her, there was an edge in there that made Shouko cut their conversations a bit short, every time. Maybe it was the way he looked at her, like she wasn’t any older than Nanako. Still, her uncle thought well enough of Adachi, so she remained civil and polite to him, even as the faces in her head stared long and hard at Adachi and whispered warnings into her ears.
The difference was that when she talked to Naoto, they shuffled about, trying to find the right face to approach him with, and came up with “fortune” by the third conversation.
Shouko ran into Naoto on the stairwells once, and made the mistake of talking to him.
“The underclassmen girls call you Seta-kun here,” said Naoto. She gestured to the modifications Shouko made to the summer uniform. “Is it because of that shirt?”
“… Sure,” Shouko said, a bit curtly, because what was the point in talking to someone who was so hell-bent on proving his own theories that he wouldn’t listen to anything else? Granted, Naoto’s theories were very, very close to being truth. Very, very close, if one ignored the complete lack of presence of the TV World. If only he were a bit more open to the idea of something like that, Shouko thought. He’d be a great asset to the team.
“Hmm,” said Naoto. “I suppose they all know you’re a girl.” The way the last word rolled off his tongue was condescending enough to make Shouko’s temper spark a little bit. Shouko knew that she should get along with Naoto the best she could, especially since he was looking into them, but Naoto’s blatant disregard for her was not like Yosuke’s run-of-the-mouth, but fully conscious, considered statements.
“I don’t make much of an effort to hide it,” said Shouko. For god’s sake, she was wearing a skirt. How could she hide?
He was staring at her. “You look strange.”
“Thank you,” Shouko said. “Excuse me, Naoto-kun. There’s somewhere I need to be.”
She was acutely aware of Naoto watching her as she talked with Yukiko and discussed the weather for the next week.
The school trip to Iwatodai was coming up.
While on the train to Iwatodai, Kanji knitted a small collection of strangely cute stuffed bunnies, dressed like each one of the members of the Investigation Team. There was one of Naoto-kun, too, Shouko noted with a raised eyebrow. What really made her eyebrows hit her hairline, though, was the fact that Kanji had made her out to be more of a hairy cat than a rabbit.
“I know you don’t like this kind of stuff, Shouko-senpai,” he said. “I mean, you hate that kind of stuff, right? You seem too tough to want to get involved in girly stuff like this.”
Shouko smiled a bit. She had never had the time to get into knitting or cute things. She had been… busy. Busy moving around. Busy studying. Busy playing sports. Busy purposefully leaving her room a mess, even as she scrubbed the rest of the house clean. Busy listening to other people, vaguely aware that they were using her as a poor man’s therapist. People thought she listened. That was true, though. She did listen. She listened even better now, when there were faces she could put on to empathize better with the other person.
But lately, with Kanji-kun, she felt more comfortable retreating back to her regular Fool. Not because Kanji wasn’t the Emperor, but because he didn’t want to relate to her as “one of the guys.” He seemed more comfortable with dealing with Shouko the Outsider than anything else. He, ironically enough, viewed her as “safe”: the wildness of her appearance marked her as “similar to him,” while her good grades marked her as “something to strive to,” and her generally even temperament marked her as “reliable senpai.”
“You did say you were going to give me lessons on this kind of stuff,” she said, referring to that one time when she was in Kanji’s room, when Take-Mikazuchi turned into the giant, flaming Rokuten-Maoh. He even made her make an oven mitt.
“Ah, well, you never came for any of the other lessons I was holding for the sewing club, so I thought it meant you weren’t interested,” Kanji said. “Y’know, that’s fine with me. Shouko-senpai’s always busy with everythin’ else.”
Great. Now she felt guilty. “Let me help,” she said quickly, reaching for one of the dolls in progress.
“Ah, no, senpai—no, wait!”
Ow. That had been a pin, burying itself in the bed of her nails.
“Shit,” she swore, sticking her finger into her mouth and pressing her tooth against the injury.
“I’m great,” she said. “J-just great. E-excuse me.”
She returned to her seat next to Chie and Yukiko—or rather, next to Yukiko, as Chie was out arguing with Yosuke about the lunch arrangement. Yukiko took one look at Shouko and said, “Come over here. What happened?”
“I’m about as good as sewing as you are at cooking,” Shouko said with a grimace, allowing Yukiko to examine her hand.
Yukiko giggled at that, not taking any offense. If Chie were there, than she would’ve clapped Shouko on the back hard enough so that Shouko would have a face-to-face encounter with the armrest. “Kasai-san says I’m improving,” she said. “Although she says I’m still not cooking for the Inn. She says that she wouldn’t mind if you would. Chie says the same thing. I think she wants you to stay in Inaba.”
Of course Yukiko would bring up the fact that Shouko would be leaving town one day. Shouko wondered if Yukiko still looked at Shouko with a bit of envy, a bit of curiosity, if Yukiko still wanted to leave town. Just before they left for Iwatodai, Yukiko brought her to the shrine to get a good luck charm. She had been talking about how wonderful the Inn was, how wonderful the staff was, and then, at the same time, how sad she’d be to leave. It was sending mixed signals, really. And besides, Chie was still in town… That had to count for something.
“It’s a wonderful town,” Shouko said. “I wouldn’t mind staying for the rest of my high school years.”
“Mm,” Yukiko said, a bit distantly. It was a bit strange, how quickly Chie and Shouko had hit off, but how much harder Shouko had to work to feel anywhere near that close to Yukiko. Certainly, she and Yukiko were close friends, but the kind of friendship she and Yukiko had was one that could survive weeks and months of distance, the kind of friendship Shouko could come back to after a few weeks of only a few sentences exchanged, or a set of orders in the TV barked out in the thick of battle, and pick up right where she had left off. “Shouko-san… you’re a strange one.”
“... Yeah,” she said, because why not. People had been calling her special a lot lately. Special was only a few stone throws away from strange.
“I’m glad that you are,” said Yukiko. “You know, I’ve always wanted to be more like Chie, but lately I’ve been thinking that taking your example wouldn’t be so bad, either.” She laughed, and gestured at her hair. “I told Chie I was thinking about getting a haircut like yours, just for a little bit of fun, and she nearly fainted.”
What could she say. Long, black hair was one of Yukiko’s charms. So was her bad sense of humor, but lately she had taken to teasing Chie in a way that left Shouko feeling a bit of a third wheel. No, scratch the ‘a bit’. Shouko felt like a complete third wheel around those two. Add Yosuke and they had enough wheels to make an extra bike. Throw in Kanji, Teddie, and Rise, and they could make an SUV with a spare tire.
“You’re going to give her a heart attack if you keep that up,” Shouko said with a laugh.
“… Chie is too stubborn.” Yukiko released Shouko’s hand. “Sometimes I can tell that she doesn’t see me the way I want her to.”
"Oh?" Shouko said, for lack of better things to say.
“I don’t want her to think of me as someone she needs to protect,” said Yukiko. “I mean, I don’t mind it… It’s flattering, to know that she thinks so much of me. But sometimes I wish she’d stop standing in front of me and take a moment to look at me as someone who can fight beside her.”
“Maybe you should step forward and beat the message into her head with your fan,” Shouko said. Or maybe some fire. That always worked.
“Mm. Maybe that’s what I should do.” Yukiko giggled. “Can you imagine the surprise on her face?”
Yes, because Shouko had the sudden image of Yukiko standing behind Chie holding a cinderblock over Chie’s head.
“Shouko-san… When you smirk like that...” Snk, snk. Yukiko’s shoulders shook a bit as she laughed.
Shouko sighed, and waited for the laughter to abate. She could see Naoto staring at her from across the aisle. She smiled and waved at him. He stared at her, evidently trying to puzzle her out, and then looked away quickly.
… How did it come to this?
She was sitting in Club Escapade with a tray of shot glasses in front of her—three trays, even. Naoto had arranged for a game of “I Never,” which Shouko recognized immediately as his attempt to worm more information out of them all. The alternative to I Never was King’s Game, and given the weirdly intoxicated states of Rise and Yukiko, things would quickly get out of hand if they went down that way.
“The rules of the game are simple enough,” said Naoto. “We each state something that we have never done. Those who have done the act must take one drink. I suggest that we enforce a cap of ten drinks each. Is that all right with you, Shouko-senpai?”
“Why not just take as many drinks as we can?” said Shouko. “It sounds like fun.”
“If you say so, senpai. We will go counterclockwise. I trust that you will abide to an honor code, yes? I shall begin.” He looked straight at Shouko and said, “I have never kissed a boy.”
Rise, Chie, and Shouko wordlessly reached for a glass. Hmm. Sweet and… nonalcoholic. Shouko stared at Rise and Yukiko, then glanced at Chie, who shrugged and mouthed, ‘I don’t know, either.’ Chie was next. “I’ve never been to Disneyland.”
Shouko took a shot.
“I’ve never been to Tokyo,” said Yukiko.
Shouko, Rise, Yosuke, and Naoto all took shots.
“I’ve never made anyone pass out from my cooking,” Yosuke said, earning the glare of Rise, Yukiko, and Chie.
“Teddie’s never had a homemade lunch from sensei!”
There went just about everyone, except for Shouko herself and Naoto, who was staring at Shouko with some bewilderment.
“Uh… I’ve never worked at Junes before,” said Kanji. Yosuke, Teddie, Shouko, and Chie all took a shot.
“I’ve never ordered tofu at a shop before. Hee… hee… hic.”
Thank god that these drinks weren’t actually alcoholic, Shouko thought, grabbing onto Rise before she could slide right off the bench. She was terrified of what might happen if Rise actually did get drunk. Presumably, it wouldn't involve having Rise's hand creep up her thigh like that.
It was her turn now. She smacked Rise's hand away from her leg. “I’ve never worked with the police.”
Naoto took the drink without even blinking. And on and on it went, until Chie, Kanji, and Yosuke decided to take Yukiko and Rise home after Yukiko yelled out, “I’ve never opened up Teddie’s head!” very loudly at the top of her lungs. Given that Rise had already said that she had never summoned her Persona to fight monsters inside the TV—well, if they hadn’t blown their cover already, the cover was holding together by a miniscule thread.
Shouko sat there with Naoto, both of them too stubborn to budge. “So, you want to continue the game?” Shouko said.
“If you don’t mind, senpai,” said Naoto. “I believe it’s your turn.”
“Never bought a hat like that,” she said.
“I have never found abduction victims inside Junes.”
“Never bought a jacket like that, either.”
“Very well, then. I will follow your suit. I have never gotten such a deliberately bad haircut.”
Okay, that was just cheap. What was wrong with her hair? She liked it. “Never got a love letter.”
“Really? For a girl such as yourself, I would have thought…” Naoto trailed off, and said, “I have never brought a person who does not attend Inaba High along with me to a school trip.”
“Never written any police reports.”
“I’ve never been a suspect in a murder case.”
Shouko took the shot glass, and brought it to her lips. “Am I?” Shouko asked.
“I can’t say that you were not considered,” Naoto said. “Your name was brought up by Dojima-san himself. The murders did not start until you arrived in Inaba, after all.”
She drank, and then set the glass on the tray.
“What do you want, Naoto-kun?” Shouko said, because if it hadn’t been obvious before that he thought she was a suspicious city kid, then he certainly wasn’t being subtle about it now.
“I want answers,” he said. “And truth. While I do not believe that you are the culprits, I do have reason to believe that you are intimately involved with the murder and abduction cases. After all… all of your friends are related to the murder victims, or the abduction victims.”
Save for Teddie. But Shouko could understand why Naoto would leave him out.
Shouko took a breath. “Remember when Rise-san said that she had never been inside Yosuke’s television and fought monsters inside the television?” Shouko said. “It’s true. That’s what we’re doing. The murderer throws people inside the TV, and they get killed by these things called Shadows, manifestations of human emotions and thoughts. But if you can control your Shadow and turn it into a Persona, then you can fight in there. You can fight and save people who get thrown inside the TV before the fog rolls into the real world, and lifts in the other. Because, see, if there’s no fog in the other world, then the Shadows can see you, and if they do, then you’ll die if you can’t fight them off.”
Naoto looked at her straight in the eye, his eyes widening, and then narrowing. Had she gotten through to him? Did he believe her?
“Shouko-senpai, please do not joke with me. I asked you seriously to answer me, not to give me your… girlish imaginings.” He sighed. “I now see that you never intended to tell me the truth.”
You asshole, that was the truth. Just because he had a stick jammed up his ass didn’t make him a bad person, she reminded herself. He was just… very adamantly clinging to the rules of the normal world, the world that didn’t involve beating up manifestations of his friends’ insecurities and hidden desires.
“Believe what you want to believe,” Shouko said. “I’m not a liar, Naoto-kun.”
“You merely use misdirection and concealment, rather than lie outright,” Naoto agreed. “I’ve had enough of this, senpai. Would you like me to accompany you back to the hotel?”
“What do you think you are, a gentleman?” Shouko asked, biting back her anger. She was a hand's span taller than Naoto-kun, and was strong enough to pry horns off of giant beetles, to cleave through stone and crack plates with her hands. She could tolerate Yosuke and Kanji taking hits for her, but for Naoto-kun to act as though he was above her pissed her off.
“Ah,” said Naoto with a smile. “But I am the one with the gun.” Standing up, he pushed in the chairs and offered his arm out to her. Shouko ignored it, and walked the rest of the way to the hotel half a step ahead of Naoto.
You do it because you want to be a hero.
I can’t compete as a woman, never mind as a person.
I’m sick of it all. They can all go rot, for all I care.
What’s wrong with doing what I want to do? They look at me like I’m some disgusting THING and call me a weirdo.
Oooh, she wants me to stop. As if that’s what you really think, you little skank! I’m sick of being some airhead cliché who chokes down everything she’s fed! Shouko Seta? Who the hell is she? I’m no one but myself!
‘Real me?’ What foolishness… The truth is unattainable… it will always be shrouded by fog… You are hollow. Empty.
I’m no one… I’m nobody… I’m nothing…
Come on, hotcakes. Open up the door.
“You’re not me!”
Shouko woke up with a start. For a moment, she had been afraid that she had actually shouted the words out loud, but the hotel room was silent and empty. Rise was on the bed next to hers, eyes wide in the dark.
“Senpai?” Rise asked. “Are you okay?”
“Weird dream,” Shouko said. She turned over on her side. “That’s all.”
Shouko had done her research before going to the city.
It had been half a year since she went to Inaba, and her hair was, rather frankly, in dire need of a cut by someone who wasn’t Shouko with a mirror and a pair of scissors. Her hair had just crossed the line from “wild” to “messy, in the uncool way.” So she made a few calls, and booked an appointment during the free block they had on the last day of the trip.
She took Chie with her, mostly because Chie had expressed some interested in getting a haircut herself.
“Actually, I kind of like my hair the way it is,” Chie said when they got to the salon. It was, perhaps, a little bit flamboyantly strange, but that was what Shouko liked about getting her hair done in places like this.
Shouko got the same cut she always got: razor cut into layers, a fast, fierce look, something daring and boyish. The Lovers face suggested a bit of a curl, but Shouko’s hair had always been coarse and wavy on its own without anyone intervention. The Lovers face suggested looking a bit wind-swept, and that was something Shouko could get behind.
The stylist dried out Shouko’s hair, and as it was drying she heard Chie gasp. It was same, but subtly different. Dashing. Maybe that was what it was. A bit more dashing than the usual lion’s mane. Cut shorter than usual, too—well, that was fine. She always had looked good with short hair. Shouko took a look at herself, and smiled, pleased.
“Man, no wonder there were rumors of Ai Ebihara asking you out,” Chie said, and Shouko nearly dropped her wallet.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Oh, Kou-san said something about seeing the two of you out on the roof and being all—” Chie stopped. “It’s real?”
“She’s a nice person once you get to know her,” Shouko said. The only problem was, their schedules never really worked out. They wound up splitting up about three weeks after they got together. The two of them were still fast friends, but between the TV and all her after school jobs, making time for Ai was harder than she thought. “Kisses pretty well, too.”
“Seriously?” Chie looked weirdly pensive for a moment. And then she said, “Huh. And there I was thinking you were seeing Kou-san.”
… No, that was just a baseless misunderstanding involving a bunch of their classmates catching her, Kou, and Daisuke in an extremely compromising position. Shouko didn’t want to dwell on it too much, but it involved them passing a letter around, tripping over one another, Kou and Daisuke pinning her to the ground, and then half of the first years deciding to hold a gossip-fest on the roof. Besides, if the school knew what was really going on between Kou and Daisuke...
“I went out with Naoki-kun for a while, too.”
“As in Naoki Konishi? Huh. You didn’t tell any of us…”
Was there any reason why she should have? After all, dating was one thing, leading her team into the murky depths of the TV was another. It wasn’t that she was trying to hide anything from her friends, but having a girlfriend, a boyfriend, whatever. Having someone separate from her other life made life a little less stressful.
“I’m not really looking for that kind of thing right now,” Shouko said. “I don’t think I ever was. I mean…” I have voices in my head that entertain me enough already? … No. It was more like the different Personae made everything feel more like a friendship than a romance. The close empathy she developed with some of her friends would make it just plain odd trying to relate to them on a romantic level. Besides, there was the additional complication of trying to explain to her friends what she did after school. The shadow fighting part, at least. The rest was, she thought, relatively normal. And while she liked Kanji and Rise and Yosuke and Teddie well enough, it wasn’t a romantic “like,” either.
“Well, that’s cool,” Chie said. “I didn’t think that Ai-san would ever hook up with anyone, though. It’s kind of weird to think about it.” Then she perked up. “Hey, we still have a few hours, right? I heard that people in the city go jogging all the time. I figure we could do a bit of sight-seeing before we leave. Run around the city, check out a couple of popular haunts—all on foot, of course. Ohh, but maybe we should eat something first. Rise-chan was talking about a noodle joint. Let’s run there! If we run fast enough, we might get there in ten minutes! Ready?”
Now they were racing?
“Three! Two! Go!”
… Wait. What happened to one?
“Don’t just stand there,” Chie shouted over her shoulder. “Get moving!”
"Back from the city?" Dojima said. "How was it?"
"It was fine," Shouko said. "Brought back some gifts for the two of you. Thought you'd like it."
Even though Shouko knew she should have said it differently, she didn’t. She didn’t say that to her, Nanako was her real sister, that Dojima was like a father to her, that the bonds she formed here felt more real than anything she had before.
After all, Yukiko was right. She'd be leaving this place soon.
Chapter 8: October
“You are here to laugh at me,” said Naoto. Her breath had a slightly sour scent to it, one that Shouko ignored in favor of offering Naoto a get better gift of flowers, canned soup, and chili powder. “If I may be so blunt, senpai, you are the last person I wanted to see.”
“Oh,” said Shouko. “Sorry about that. Yukiko was supposed to bring the basket over, but she was busy.” Actually, it was more like Kanji, Rise, and Yukiko had created the basket, but Kanji and Rise were both busy that day, and Shouko had discovered Yukiko and Chie in the unused English room. What was it with her walking in on her classmates these days? It was like she couldn’t open a door without walking into someone’s argument, make-out session, or desperate plea for help.
Naoto sniffed. It was a real sniff, one that required her to whip out a handkerchief and wipe her nose.
“It’s a basket,” Shouko said. “We’re not spitting in your eye or anything.”
“We’re extending to you our good will,” said Shouko. “We want you to come with us into the TV to help crack the case. Consider it, Naoto-kun. When you get better, give us a call and we’ll meet. Maybe even show you around the inside of the TV.”
Naoto sniffed again. “I will consider it.”
“If I can ever show my face to the world again.”
“Hmm. Well, Naoto-kun is still Naoto-kun.” To everyone except Teddie, who was quickly beginning to refer to Naoto as Nao-chan.
“You are just saying that.”
“I mean it,” said Shouko. “Really.”
“… Thank you then, senpai. And also for saving me. Thank you for that, as well. Even though I might have been abrasive and rude to you at first, I… I came to admire you, Shouko-senpai.” Naoto seemed determined to stare at a point just above Shouko’s shoulder. Then she said, “Will you be on your way?”
“Sure,” she said. She knew when she was being kicked out. “I’ll see you around, Naoto-kun.”
Shouko wasn’t lying when she said that she felt as though she could relate to Rise chasing after her true self. After all, who didn’t spend time reflecting inward? It was to be expected. What she hadn’t expected was Rise to invite herself over to her room and start poking around.
“Aww, senpai. You don’t have anything embarrassing in here at all.”
“What were you expecting?” Shouko asked, tailing Rise anyway. Embarrassing was a relative term, after all. There were things she’d prefer no one seeing, but she had hidden those away pretty well—well, she hoped that she had.
“Mm, something strange like pictures of yourself when you were a child. Maybe a picture of you hugging a tree—I have a lot of pictures of me doing that for some reason…”
“I’ve never done anything like that.” Damn. She should’ve used that one in the game of I Never.
“No? Geeze… You know something, senpai? I don’t get you sometimes. It’s like you’re a little too perfect sometimes, like you know us better than we know ourselves. I thought only our parents were supposed to be able to do that.” Rise made her way over to Shouko’s desk and flipped through the notes and papers. “Hmm… so this is what the second year of high school looks like… Too much math.”
“I like math.” She was tutoring Shu Nakajima in that, in fact.
“I hate it. I mean, all that stuff about triangles and oscillating… um, sine graphs and stuff. Who needs it?” Rise made a face. “But if you like it, then you probably need it to be successful outside, I guess.” She sat at the desk and said, “Senpai, I like you.”
“I don’t mean it like that, senpai.”
She knew that. She knew that, and had been trying to worm her way out of having to reject Rise. She was pretty sure that Rise didn't actually mean it, anyway, and was dead sure that Rise didn't really like other girls to begin with, but that didn't change that Rise thought she was interested, and that Rise wanted to be interested. “I’m sorry,” she said. “There’s too much going on right now for me to consider dating.”
“I know. Chie-senpai already said that you weren’t looking for that kind of thing from people. But a girl can dream, right?” Rise shrugged. “It’s too bad, senpai. Do you know how many people you’re disappointing? ‘Like me, for example. For my sake…’” She lowered her lashes seductively, and tilted her head so she was looking a bit off to the side. “‘Please… reconsider…’” Then she straightened back up and said, “That’s what Maho says in the script I’m checking out.”
… It was pretty heart-pounding, actually.
Rise wrinkled her nose. “Like I said, it’s a total disappointment. And on top of that, I know that you’ve dated Ai Ebihara-senpai, so it’s not just because I’m a girl.” She pouted. “You’re not fair, senpai.”
“You're still my friend,” Shouko said. "You know that, right?"
“Thank you, senpai.” Rise brightened up again. “Senpai, you’re leaving in the spring, right? That’s when I’m planning on making my reappearance in the show business.” Rise looked up at Shouko, all clear determination and unfailing will. “I’m not going to run away, and besides, I’ll have fun doing it. Rise and Risette… I’m going to make sure the whole world sees all of me. My personality, at least. Although you’re free to see my body whenever you like, senpai. … Just kidding.” She laughed, and said, “Senpai, let’s be friends forever, okay? You helped me realize what I need to do. –Oh!”
Rise jerked up slightly. Shouko sensed it, too: the transformation that had visited each of her friends in turn. The sound of a new Persona being born.
“You know, if this was a TV series, this would be the part where things would cut so they could splice in a few flashbacks,” Shouko said. What did Shouko know about TV shows? She had made the mistake of watching TV with Yosuke once, who told her that her taste in television was about twenty years out of style.
Rise giggled, and began to browse Shouko’s bookshelf. “Well, the only problem is, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do after the cut.”
… Shouko didn’t know about that. Rise seemed to be helping herself along just fine. And then she realized that Rise was dangerously close to finding her collection of old shoujo manga.
Naoto started calling Shouko “Shouko-san” instead of senpai. Shouko-san, at the very least, was said without the subtle sneering inflection that made Shouko bristle. Now the two of them were in an awkward spot between friendship and colleagues—but when Shouko got the letter from the man in the black suit…
Well, her first instinct was to throw it away, but Naoto ought to see it.
Which made it all the more surprising when Naoto scowled at Shouko and said, “Could you please accompany me for a brief period? I’d like to hear about what transpired when you got this card.”
… Seriously? Was the card this suspicious? Granted, the man was pretty shady himself…
“I’ll keep the card,” Naoto was saying. “I don’t wish to drag you into this. As the leader, I now know that you have a lot on your shoulders. Please, do not allow my troubles to worry you.”
“I don’t feel comfortable with letting you go through this alone,” Shouko said. “Besides, this might be related to the murders. You are the most visible face of those trying to solve the case.”
“… True. Nonetheless, Shouko-san, please do not worry about me. As a girl, you shouldn’t stress yourself out too much.” Naoto colored slightly. “Ah. Forgive me… I sometimes forget that you are not a typical girl, yourself.”
“People are stronger than you think,” Shouko said.
“… Hmm. You may be right. However, the fact of the matter is, there is an irreconcilable difference in the strengths of the sexes. For example, if the man there were to attack you, then what would you do?”
“I would break his jaw open,” Shouko said honestly. Well, that was what she had done the last time.
“And if he had a weapon?”
“Pick up a nearby stick?”
Naoto looked thoroughly unimpressed. “Either way,” she said, “As our leader, might I suggest investing in some form of self-defense? For example, a concealed revolver? I can expedite the process for you acquiring a concealed weapons permit.”
“You don’t need to worry about that.” Shouko removed her keys, and indicated a stick, about the length of her hand, attached to the key ring.
“… Would that really help, senpai?” Naoto seemed… doubtful, to say the least.
“Well, I could fit the keys between my fingers and use it as a fast set of brass knuckles,” Shouko said, rather matter-of-factly. “But I haven’t practiced punching like that in a while, so I decided to go the safe route with these. You can use them to stab, too.”
“Did Dojima-san buy that for you?” Naoto asked.
“He told me that if I get in trouble, I should yell, punch someone in the face, and run,” she said.
“Then was it a gift from someone else?”
“It’s a long story,” she said. “Look, you want me to walk you home? It’s getting late, and you live along the way.”
“Very well, then,” Naoto said. “I would appreciate the… effort.”
Carrying her briefcase over a shoulder, Shouko hummed to herself as she walked.
—It had happened four months before she moved to Inaba.
Her family lived in a nice part of the city, but there was a spot that everyone knew was bad news. Shouko had let her mouth run a step further than her brain. She always had a love for the subversive, a little twist away from the norm, but this wasn’t a place where she had gone before. This was more than she could take, and she knew it.
Yeah, sure, I could go there. No problem. Find a place to stay for the night, sure, no problem.
She had been a dumb, first-year girl trying to impress her senpai. They hung out in the same group of friends—no. She hung out with his group of friends. He was… serious. Cute, in the serious, traditional way. A black belt, one rank ahead of her, at the dojo. A competitive kendo player. In the top five percent of his class. A guy who was completely, totally focused on self-improvement, to the point of being maybe a little obsessed.
She admired that.
“I could go there,” she had said, sounding cockier and more self-assured than she really felt. He had looked at her. Stared, because really, that had been a dumb thing to say.
What she had really said was, Stop me, senpai.
What actually happened was that he accompanied her down the streets just before sunset to the arranged spot. What she would do, they all agreed, was spend the entire night there, alone. They had Latitude on their phones, a program that determined where you were by triangulating your position using cell phone towers. It wasn’t the most accurate thing in the world, but they’d know if she left that part of town. From sunset to sunrise, they had said. That’s the only thing you have to do. Haha, maybe you’ll even have a bit of fun in town, make a bit of cash—
I swear to god, if you don’t shut up, I’ll break your pelvis right in two. Do you still want to walk to get your diploma when you graduate? If you do, then shut. up.
“We’ve told your parents you’re staying over at Kibi-san’s,” he said. “Her parents are out for the week, so there shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Right,” Shouko said, and took a drink of water because her mouth was completely dry, though her palms were clammy and damp. She was going there in her school uniform. She should have changed. What was she thinking? God, she was stupid, she was stupid, she was stupid, she was stupid. What good was kenjutsu or karate or rugby if she was cornered in a dark alley, twenty to one?
“… Here,” he said, passing her what looked like a small baton. “It goes on your key ring. You can use it to stab someone’s pressure points, or at their eyes, groin. Anything soft.”
“Thank you, senpai,” she said. She pulled out her keys and fit it on. She wrapped her hand around the stick, and found that it calmed her breathing. Just a bit.
“I bought it for my sister, but it looks like you need it more than she does right now.”
“… Sorry, senpai.”
He said nothing. The train made its stop. This was the station. He checked his phone, and made sure that it was registering their location.
Then he said, “Be careful out there, Seta,” and gave her a light push out of the train car.
And then she was alone.
She could stay in the train station for the rest of the night. It wouldn’t be breaking any rules, but it wasn’t a particularly inventive thing to do, either. She had gone out here on a dare, and now she’d have to live with what she had said.
… She was stupid. She was stupid. She should have told them, What, are you trying to get me killed instead of blindly run into this part of the city.
So she left the station. The sun was sinking below the sky and deep into the earth. It was January, cold and dark. The wind cut through her coat, deep into her uniform. There was a ramen stand about two blocks from the station, and she bought a bowl. About halfway through the meal, the owner leaned in and said, “Might want to get up, miss, a couple of regulars are makin’ their way here,” and Shouko stood.
It was a gang of three men. Each walked with a swagger that looked, in Shouko’s opinion, damned stupid. If she had been in her part of the city, then she would’ve laughed at them, but now she was on their turf. The man whistled at her as they settled on their benches.
“Whoo, don’t see those colors ‘round here often,” the leader of the three crowed. “Whatcha doing here, girlie?”
“You orderin’ anything or not, you no good lowlife?” the owner said gruffly. “If you’re just going to hit on the dames, then go to the red-light district and have your fun there.”
“But she’s hot.” As though that warranted talking about her like she wasn’t there. “Hey, miss, here to earn some money? Or you here lookin’ for your boss?”
Shouko drained half of the soup from her bowl, and set it down. The owner of the stand leaned in and said, in a low, quiet voice, “You look like you’ve fallen on hard times, miss. Let me help you out a bit, eh? There’s a hotel over on Benika Avenue, ‘bout four blocks from here, the Red Lantern. Mention that Sato from the ramen stand and they’ll give you a room on discount.”
She stared at him for a moment, trying to decide whether he was honest or lying. She said, “Thank you” and left.
The three men laughed and jeered at her back. Shouko had her hand tight in her coat pocket, one hand clutching her cell phone (the damn tracking device, if she had any brains she would leave), the other around the keys and the stick. The four blocks seemed to stretch out forever; once she had walked four, she realized that she must had gone in the wrong direction. He had been pointing in this direction, hadn’t he, but it could’ve just as easily been the street just down there. She went back the way she came, and this time took a different road.
There were red lights in the windows and hanging by the front doors all along Benika street. Disgust flooded her mouth, sharp and hard. Of course this part of town would have the red light district in it. Already, she could see a few foreigners walking around, talking with some women dressed in unreasonably short skirts despite the weather. She crossed the street so the foreigners were on the opposite side, and scanned for The Red Lantern hotel. Great. Sato had led her to a love hotel. Maybe it was better that she go to a love hotel than anywhere else in here. At the very least, love hotels in this part of town would have to be somewhat clean.
Her phone was ringing.
“Hi, Mom,” Shouko said.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at Kibi-san’s house. Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. Uh, we’re studying for our final exams. Well, I’m helping her study for her final exams. It looks like things are going to run a bit over, so do you mind if I stay over?”
“Kibi? That weird looking girl with the orange hair?” Shouko had always assumed that was a case of bleaching gone wrong, herself. “Well, if you insist. Remember that your father wants you to keep your grades up.”
“Yes, Mom. I have to study.” Oh, there was the hotel. She opened the door and finished the ritual of ridiculously long farewells. She hung up and went to the receptionist. “One room,” she said. “Sato-san from the ramen stand sent me over.”
“Which room would you like?” said the receptionist after a moment’s pause. She was eyeballing Shouko in a way that made Shouko want to say, “Look, I’m not a prostitute, stop looking at me like that.”
Oh, god. These rooms were paid for by the hour, weren’t they. It was just after eight o’clock now. She would be on the first train out of this place. She’d get to school early and pretend this entire horrible thing never happened. Or maybe she’d go home, crawl into her bed, and never come out again. “Nine hours,” she said.
“It’s your poison,” the receptionist said, and then gave her the bill. Five thousand yen. Not bad for an entire night. Seemed almost too good to be true. Shouko accepted the key to the room a bit reluctantly, and went upstairs.
There were condoms waiting to be used on the nightstand. She tore them open, and flushed them down the toilet. Like hell she’d need those—like hell, like hell, why was she still here? She should leave. She should get out. If she was smart, she’d get out, because she didn’t belong here.
There was no desk, so she spread her books across the bed and worked.
She could hear noises through the wall—oh, god, was that a BDSM chick in the room across the hall?—but she blocked them out and concentrated on working. None of her friends called. Some friends they were, she thought bitterly. To them this was just a spot of fun. Well, some fun this was! See what her stupid daring and bravery got her now.
At midnight, exhausted by alternating self-reproach and studiously boiling her brains, she fell asleep on top of the bed without even taking her coat off.
An hour later, she awoke to someone knocking on the door.
“Wrong room, jerk off,” she shouted.
Someone laughed. Shouko felt a chill run up her spine. Shit. Shit, it was those three clowns from the ramen stand. They must had overheard Sato giving her the instructions, or had followed her up here or—or Sato had sold her out, saw that she looked vulnerable and took advantage of that. Told her to come here, gave her a cheap place to stay, told her to tell the receptionist his name so those clowns could have their way with her—shit shit shit she was such a fucking moron, a moron for staying, a moron for letting herself be tricked—what had she been thinking? Had she been thinking at all?
“Go away, or I’ll call the police, dipshit,” she snarled. She stuffed her books and papers back into the bag—strange, that should be the first thing she did. Then she went into the bathroom and worked on prying the shower curtain rod out. She tossed the key to the room into the toilet. Wouldn’t be needing that, either.
“Aww, but we got an officer here, see? Since you only paid five thousand yen, you should’ve been out here an hour ago. We’re just here to help collect. Come on, open up.”
“I’ll fucking kill you if you open that door,” she said. One end was off. The other slid out easily. Shouko tossed the curtain off, cursing as her legs got caught in the fabric.
“Hear that, boys? She said she’s going to—”
Threaten me? I’ll end you. Every nerve in her body was firing, heating up, yet her mind was calm, even as her body burned with the need to run, panic, do anything except stop and rationalize. She held the rod in her hands, then, thinking better, separated the two ends. There was a spring on the inside. No point in having her attack bounce back on her. She tossed the spring and the other half of the rod beneath her bed, and positioned herself just to the side of the door. A good position for stabbing, once the man opened up. In her right hand, she held half of a shower curtain, in the other her book bag. Her shoulders were too tense. Relax, relax. This room had no windows, no avenue of escape except for the door.
They either left her alone, or she’d make sure they never bothered her again.
“Come on, hotcakes. Open up.”
“Yeah, right, asshole,” she said sweetly. “I dare you to open the door.”
“Well, you heard her,” he said. “I’m opening up now, honey.”
The second he got the door open far enough, she rammed the rod into the side of his head. When he fell to the ground, clutching at his head, she drove the rod down onto the back of his neck; something made a horrible cracking sound, and Shouko was disappointed to find that it was the rod. No need in wasting a perfectly good weapon. The guy’s two goons were right there. When the first of the goons lunged for her, she slammed the door closed on his head, and ran the rod into his eye. The second of the two goons was a bit smarter; he swung the door open, and when she stabbed out, grabbed onto the rod and threw it aside.
That left him nicely open for a kick to the knees. As he bent over, Shouko slammed her bag over his head, driving his head neatly down into her knee. She felt the bones in his nose break across her knee, and had to suppress a crow of victory. She had to remain calm, otherwise she’d fall apart in a mess of blind rage. She pushed the police officer aside (so there really was one. Oh well) and nearly flew out of the love hotel.
Stupid stupid stupid stupid— She wanted to kill the receptionist. She wanted to break those goon’s faces open. Forget it. Forget it, forget it, forget it, she was going home, or at least to Kibi’s house and tear off Kibi’s head.
The red-light district was open for business. Shouko shoved her way through the throng of customers and business. Manners—manners, hah. She was planning on heading straight for the train station, but no. There was a place she needed to go to. The calm in her head was breaking apart the further she ran. There was a person she needed to rip apart.
When she got to the place where she had eaten the bowl of ramen, there was nothing there but a boarded up shop and cold winter air. Of course he would move. If she had the brains to call the police, tell them about the ramen stand—for all she knew, Sato wasn’t even his real name. For all she knew, he made a business out of luring impressionable young girls into the red-light district, making a profit of telling punks of where they were—for all she knew, there could be a million of those stands out there.
The rage that had given her the power to defeat three men with a shower curtain and a briefcase of books and papers and run all the way back to the ramen stand left her, in a sudden rush. She wanted to scream, curse the gods, break everything around her. She wanted to weigh her pockets down with rocks and walk into a river and drown there.
Instead, she walked the rest of the way to the station, her head throbbing with exhaustion and adrenaline and a horrible, horrible shame. She took the train to Kibi’s house, where she found a bunch of her friends and her parents and two police officers inside.
The rest of the week had vanished in a blur of police reports, her parents very pointedly ignoring her and pretending nothing happened, her friends visiting her after school, and her trying very hard to contain herself. She couldn’t face them, yet she couldn’t turn them away. She was, after all, a good girl. Polite to her friends, good all around company. Every time she saw them, she felt torn between screaming at them—how could you let me do that, why didn’t you stop me—and crying. She settled on a blank face that got them out of the apartment in under half an hour, every time.
At the end of the week, her mother said, “How long are you planning on sulking?”—as though what had happened was just like a bit of bullying at school. That was right. Her friends said that she had stormed out of Kibi’s apartment after a fight, and that none of them could find her.
Of course. To her mother, she had never gone down to the red-light district, never stayed at a love hotel, never wanted to melt herself in a pot of copper and vanish.
Once Shouko realized that, something in her snapped.
Of course. It hadn’t happened. It never happened. The newspapers weren’t likely to report a girl running around the red-light district beating people up, anyway. All she had to do was become the Shouko from a week, two weeks ago again and everything would be okay. Put on the face of the normal good girl. Talk big, but never act on it. She went back to school the next day, resuming her normal relations with her old circle of friends, and never looked back.
Yeah. Nothing had happened.
Click, went the mask as it slid over her face.
When her parents announced that they were sending her off to live with her uncle in the countryside rather than have her live alone in the city, she was all too glad to leave.
There was a senpai he admired, two years above him. She was a serious, studious girl, whose family had fallen onto hard times.
She called him Souji-kun, and he was completely and foolishly in love.
When she was dared to go into the shadier part of town, she accepted the dare with a little laugh and the promise of money. Souji volunteered to take her down to the station, but when they got there, he couldn’t let her go. The red-light district was nearby, and senpai looked nervous and afraid.
“I can’t let you go in there alone,” he said. And, quietly, she accepted his help. He bought ready-made lunches from a rundown convenience store at a street corner about two blocks from the station, and they took the lunches to a love hotel. They ate in silence, and did their homework on the opposite ends of the room. He slept on the floor.
In the middle of the night, there was a commotion in one of the bars next door, and Souji heard gunshots. That was it. He shook senpai awake, and said, tersely, “We’re leaving.”
As they checked out, Souji caught the sight of a disheveled, messy-looking, and very drunk detective being handcuffed, and an ambulance taking away a man with a gunshot wound on his arm. He didn’t care. He took senpai by the shoulders and steered her through the red-light district, snarling at anyone who even looked at her.
This was too far. This was too, too far.
He called one of his friends with a car, and half an hour later, his friend pulled up. They dropped senpai off first. Then he went to Inugami’s apartment where the rest of his friends were gathered, and, very quietly, told them what it was like going into that part of the city, told them that they ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting a teenage girl go in there alone, that he didn’t want to even look at them, that was how sick they made him.
When his parents told him that they were giving him the choice of staying in the city or going to live with his uncle in the countryside, he chose the country.
Tohru Adachi had been transferred over to Inaba after an incident he had never spelled out loud to Dojima. He was sure that Dojima already knew, anyhow. It had gone as a permanent mark on his record.
He had been out boozing it up with a few pals. Not that they were really his pals, those faggots, he was a policeman and they were below him. He could have them arrested any time he wanted.
… He had been boozing it up with a few pals when he got a call from Todo, the guy who ran a bunch of fake businesses a few blocks down. “Hey, got a hot tip for you, handcuffs. Give me a second to wrap shop. Hope you have some cash on you,” Todo said, and hung up. His pals were practically hard from excitement, those lousy shits.
When Todo came, he had his usual outrageous prices. “Give me ten thousand,” he said. “Then I’ll tell you where she is. Five thousand if you actually want to bang her.”
Adachi was ready to say no when one of his cronies said, “Hey, is it that chick at the ramen stand?” Then they described the girl to him: tall, but not too tall. Had a girlish voice. Looked scared and afraid. Her hair made her look like a mouse with a bad haircut.
Sure, why not. A bit of fun after a night of work and having to put up with these guys. Then when they went down to the love hotel, well, everything had gone to shit from there.
For one, the girl’s voice was like acid scraping across his ears. For another, her hair wasn’t as much as “mousy” as it was “butch.” And, most of all, the girl must had been built like a fucking truck to push him down like that and take out the three pals like that. Bam, bam, bam, one after the other. Adachi was just glad he had stayed back, because fuck, he couldn’t shoot the bitch, he’d be deep fried by the bosses. He thought she had been armed with a club. Turned out to be a hollow tube of steel she pilfered from the bathroom.
The fucking reception bitch called the ambulance, and he wound up in the car with the three dumbasses as they went over to the hospital.
That was when his superiors found out he had been over in the red-light district for something other than cracking down the whores. Bam. One permanent demerit. That fucking butch whore cost him a sweet spot in the city.
He never thought he’d run into her again in the boonies, this time living it up in with his partner. Oh, sure, she had changed her hair a bit, carried herself like she had something to prove, and spoke like a freaking honey bee in his ear, but when she looked at him sometimes, all fierce like she knew that he knew her and she’d do the same thing to him that she had done to his old pals (three concussions, one blind eye, and a nose that had to be put back together with plastic surgery) if he didn’t keep his mouth shut—well, that bitch. She’d get what she was coming to her. And the way Dojima kept talking about her like she was some brilliant, pure, sparkling little girl—man, the old man would have a fucking cow when he found out the truth.
He nearly had a cow when he pieced together the bitch’s explorations into the TV.
Freaking bitch. Didn’t know her place. He constructed a letter from a few magazines and newspapers and slipped it into the Dojima’s mailbox.
It was not, altogether, the worst collection of insults levied against her.
“whore i know what you do
don’t rescue anymore
whore whore whore youll get whats coming for you” ad nausem. Good grief. She’d write it off as a prank, but… ‘don’t rescue anymore’? Sounded like a message. Shouko folded the letter, put it in her pocket, and put it aside to show the others the next day.
“Oh, hey, sure has been raining a lot, hasn’t it,” said the gas station attendant. “Man, when the weather’s like this, it really gets you down, doesn’t it…”
Shouko stared at the attendant. Water dripped down from her hair and then slowly rolled down her face. The two Guardians in her hand wiggled (good God, they were dead. Stop moving.), their fins cutting into her palm. She hadn’t even noticed the attendant there until he (she?) spoke up, and the second that voice came up, she felt a little jerk kicking in the base of her spine, an instinctive “no.”
“Oh, don’t mind me,” she (he?) said. “Went out fishing? Any closer to solving it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Shouko said blandly, even as every nerve in her body said “leave.”
“Remember? The last time we talked, you asked me about the crossword puzzle. You said you needed to solve it to find a rare book.”
No, she hadn’t. No, maybe she had. The crossword puzzle part was right, but she didn’t remember talking to this person about any of that.
“Man, days like these,” said the attendant cheerfully. “Well, I’ll let you go now. Those fish look pretty tasty. Going to cook them for dinner?”
… The way the attendant was looking at Shouko made it clear enough that he thought of her as a snack, too. Shouko narrowed her eyes at him (her… no, she didn’t care anymore) and went on her way.
For the cultural festival, Yosuke decided to bring up a group date café. Shouko voted against it because no matter how she looked at it, it sounded like a damn pain. Of course that would be the one selected by the rest of the class.
That was the least of her problems. There was the beauty pageant—no, that wasn’t quite the source of her problems. Sure, it was too bad that Yosuke had signed up Chie, Yukiko, Rise, and Naoto for the Miss Yasogami pageant, but what had set Shouko’s personal stress meter at “ten” was how Chie had gone ahead and signed her up for the “Miss” Yasogami pageant.
Because that made a ton of sense. She was already a girl! Signing her up for the cross-dressing pageant made about as much sense as dating a radish!
“It’s only fair if you go!” Chie said while Shouko tried to melt into the desk. “I mean, all the rest of us signed up.”
“Were signed up by other people, you mean!”
Goddamn it, Chie! Just because Yosuke screwed her over didn’t mean that she had to take it out on Shouko! A cross-dressing pageant? So would she have to cross-dress as a boy cross-dressing as a girl as a whatever? Or did that mean she should just strangle Chie in her sleep?
“I’m sure Ayane-san and Naoki-kun will have a great time watching you up there,” Chie said. “And the rest of the school, too. I mean, it’ll be an easy win!”
“Chie, you realize this means that everyone thinks of me as a guy or something, right?” The ”Miss” Yasogami Pageant. Uh-huh. No way around it: this was the least flattering contest choice ever.
“Actually, I signed you up to join the regular pageant with the rest of us—” Goddamn! How was that any better?! “—but then Kashiwagi switched you over to the other one.”
“You’re no better than Yosuke!”
“Wh—take that back!”
“I hate the both of you so much right now,” she ground out, and then proceeded to dent her desk with her forehead.
The group date café was a stunning failure. It was such a stunning failure that halfway through Daisuke and Kou barged in and kidnapped her to give her opinion on the test run of the class’ play, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Shouko felt a little better that her class wasn’t the only one who had all the planning and organizational skills of a wet noodle.
She didn’t feel any better when they shoved her into a costume and made her the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
“Shimura ran off on us,” Kou said. “C’mon, Shouko-san, it’ll be fun. The play’s already a failure, anyway.”
So nice to hear that one more failure wouldn’t do any more to it, then, Shouko thought. Ah, despair. She was in despair.
“I don’t know any of the lines, though,” Shouko said.
“That’s fine,” Daisuke said. “No one else does, either. You just gotta say something like… ‘Oh, Juliet, I am the ghost of Hamlet’s dearly departed father! Avenge my death!’ Or something.”
Juliet? Why was the ghost of Hamlet’s father even talking to Juliet?
“I’m going back to the group date café,” she said.
“Oh, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I heard that Ai-san’s going to be there.”
Wonderful. A chance to be laughed off the stage by her ex.
“I’m going back to the group date café,” she repeated. She tugged at the costume she was wearing. It… it appeared to had been glued onto her uniform. Daisuke and Kou grinned at her.
“If I have to be Juliet, there’s no way you’re getting out of being Hamlet’s father,” said Daisuke. Then, looking a little sympathetic, he said, “We’ll cut you out of that later.”
Shouko hated the culture festival.
“Senpai, you were wonderful!” Ayane said after the whole thing was done and over with. “The killing intent you emitted when you dove after Juliet was so—real…”
“Oh, believe me,” Shouko said, wiping the makeup off her face with a damp cloth. “It was very real.”
What was it that they said about hot springs? Good for the soul? Radium enriched?
Shouko sank into the water and sighed deeply. And then she noticed the others pulling away from her and gathering towards Naoto. What the. It sounded incredibly sketchy over there. The other girls’ bodies completely walled Shouko’s view of Naoto, but after something about how soft Naoto’s skin was, Naoto squawked and rushed over to where Shouko and Nanako were enjoying the waters.
“A-are you okay with staying over at someone else’s place like this?” Naoto said to Nanako. “Aren’t you scared?”
“No, it’s lots of fun! At home, I’m always alone until big sis comes home.”
… Shouko was acutely aware of the glares of the other four suddenly being directed at her. What the. Sure, she could stand to spend a bit more time at home, but she had jobs and people to take care of and were they all forgetting the part where there was a crazy murderer on the loose?
“And I’m good at staying home alone. I always do what my dad tells me, like not opening the door for strangers.”
… More glaring. Come on. It wasn’t like she was purposefully abandoning Nanako. Shouko sank into the water, her hair splaying out around her. She gave up. No pleasing anyone.
“Hey, I have a great idea,” said Chie. “Shouko-san, let’s race!”
“Don’t want to,” Shouko said. Come on. In the last two days, she had played the part of Hamlet’s dead father and lost to Teddie in a cross-dressing pageant, in which she wasn’t even cross-dressing. Her energy and enthusiasm was presently at about a three out of a thousand.
“Don’t be a wet noodle, Yukiko and I did this all the time when we were kids.”
“Do you still do it now?” Nanako asked.
“Oh, no, we do a lot of other stuff in here now,” Chie said, maybe a bit too chipperly.
Yukiko smacked Chie on the shoulder and hissed, “Chie!”
Everyone looked to the side, and cleared their throats.
“Shouko, let’s race,” Chie said, before the silence became too awkward.
“Oh, I’ll join you!” said Rise. “Let’s race to the other side. Whoever loses owes everyone a fruit milk!”
“I want lemon soda,” Yukiko said. And then Shouko heard a voice. Teddie’s voice. And then a splash. A Teddie sized splash. “Ow! What the—”
… The boys were here.
Shouko readied her washing basin, took aim, and threw.
They know the score… they can’t do anything without me… That’s right. I’m the one who can’t do anything by myself.
You can’t take me away from here. You can’t save me. I’m sick of all these things chaining me down! To hell with it all!
I’m what you really want, aren’t I? What’s wrong with doing what I want to do?
They’re all watching! All eyes are on me… C’mon, look… you can’t tear your eyes away!
Close your eyes… lie to yourself. At your core you know this. You just cannot accept it…
I… am nothing…
Why delude yourself? I want a reason to stay…
I know the real reason you came… Why so panicked? I thought I was just spouting bullshit!
whore i know what youre doing don’t rescue anymore whore whore
But you’re the one who wants to be rescued, aren’t you?
Shouko woke up with a start.
… She needed a smoke.
Rise must had heard Shouko sneaking out of the Inn, and followed her to the Samegawa River. Shouko heard Rise’s soft, padded footsteps trailing after her, and was not terribly surprised when she appeared at her back and said, “I didn’t know you smoked, senpai.”
“Got to love the city and bad habits,” Shouko said, guiltily flicking a bit of ash off the tip.
“I’m surprised,” Rise said with a giggle. “But it does fit your image, doesn’t it?”
“I went through a weird phase when I was in middle school. Been going on and off ever since. Thought I’d shake the habit here, but…” But between the stress of the TV and a million different voices rattling around in her head, she had taken to making the occasional trip to Okina or the city to pick up a pack and smoke like a chimney stack. “Damn, I’m going to need another bath. Everyone’s going to be able to smell it on me.” Might as well light another cigarette while she was at it. She blew out a cloud of smoke, and it curled around her face. She waved her hand in front of her face and coughed.
“Maybe you should quit,” Rise said. “Can’t have our fearless leader gasping for breath.”
“Haha, I guess not. It’s only an occasional thing, anyway,” Shouko said, and inhaled even deeper than before. “Rise-chan, do you ever…”
Do you ever what? Dream about your shadow? Things your shadow say to you? Things other people’s shadows say to you? That sounded just plain tacky.
“Never mind,” she said.
Chapter 9: November
In retrospect, she shouldn't have opened the letter right under Dojima's nose.
“It’s for you,” said Dojima, handing her a letter.
“fuck bitch don’t rescue anymore whore—” Shouko skipped the next couple of lines. “if you don’t stop this time someone close will be put in and killed whore whore whore”—
The letter was in Dojima’s hands before Shouko could even finish reading the letter. Not that it looked like there was anything worth reading in there.
“So I was right,” Dojima said, staring at her as though he was seeing her for the first time. “Tell me the truth. You’re involved in this case, aren’t you? What have you been up to?”
Naoto hadn’t believed her. Dojima probably wouldn’t, either, but the truth came spilling out of Shouko’s mouth anyway. The TV, the Personae, the Shadows—
“So you’re not going to be honest with me,” Dojima said.
“That’s the truth,” she said. “Please, believe me.”
“I’ve been treating you like family,” he said. “That’s why I’ve never questioned you about this. But I see that was a mistake… I should’ve intervened earlier because I care about you. I will have the truth from you today. We’ll continue this somewhere else. But I’m not letting you leave until I’m convinced. This is for your own good… got that?”
“But I’m telling you the truth,” Shouko said. She got up and made way to the TV. “Look, I’m telling you the—” He wasn’t even looking at her. He was calling the police station, making arrangements for a room to be booked.
Don’t, Izanagi warned. But what for? Should she crawl into the TV just to prove that she was right?
“Nanako,” Shouko said, “go upstairs.”
“She stays,” Dojima said sharply, still talking into the phone. “Don’t try to go against me, Shouko.”
“Uncle,” she said. That caught his attention. Now or never. She put her hand into the TV.
“We’ll be back soon,” Shouko said, a bit lamely to Nanako. Even she didn’t believe herself.
“I’ve told you everything I know,” Shouko said. She had been asked to make statements on everything she knew multiple times now, but Dojima refused to let up. In fact, he insisted on having everything recorded—twice, as though she might suddenly change her mind and say, “Yes, you’re right. They were killed with a TV. The killer bludgeoned them all to death while I was standing there and watching.”
“Just do it again, all right?” Dojima said.
“Dojima-san,” Adachi said from behind her. “This is crazy. She’s not going to tell you anything.”
“I’ve already showed you that I can put my hand into the TV,” Shouko said. “What more do you want?”
“That could have been a trick,” Dojima snapped. “How do I know that what you did there wasn’t just you pulling the wool over my eyes?” He took a deep breath. “I’m going out for a smoke,” he said to Adachi. “Don’t take your eye off of her.”
What was this, good cop, bad cop? Shouko stared at the closing door, and settled a little deeper into her seat.
“You want to watch TV?” Adachi said brightly. “Well, there aren’t many channels, but you can watch the news, at least.” Then he rubbed his chin and said, “Hey, Shouko-kun. Is it true? Your story about the TV?”
“You have to admit, it sounds kind of fishy.” Adachi looked at the TV, as if daring it to move. “Anyone listening to your story would think you’re crazy.”
Shouko stood, and went to the TV. Then she said, “You want me to prove it?” and stuck her arm through it.
Adachi positioned himself behind her, and, reaching along her arm, sank his hand into the TV as well. “Whoa,” he said. “Hey, Shouko-kun, how far do you think you can reach?”
“In a TV of this size? All of me, probably.” To prove it, she leaned in until her head was partially submerged. And then she felt a little, horrible jerk in her stomach.
Adachi was pointing a gun to her head.
“Now there’s a good girl,” he breathed, quiet into her ear. Adachi’s head was in there, right along with hers. If she craned her head, she could see Adachi’s wide-eyed expression, the smile curling on his face. “Come on, don’t tell me that you didn’t do it, you whore.”
“Of course I didn’t! This is illegal, Adachi-san, let me go, isn’t this proof enough?” He was pushing her in, she realized. He had her by the leg, and was lifting her, slowly, into the TV— “Stop that! Dojima-san! Uncle!”
“No one can hear you now,” he said. “No one can hear us now. Come on, Shouko-kun. Nice and easy into the television. If you go in, I won’t shoot.” He was pushing her in, further and further. If he let go of her now—if he let go of her now, she would fall. Fall without any hope of getting out.
This was a joke. This was some horrible, interrogation—
“Just think,” he said. “That a good girl like you would be the killer.”
That a good girl like you would be the killer.
That a girl like you—
“I’ll kill you,” she whispered, low and deep. “Don’t you dare let go of me, you asshole, I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you—!”
He let go.
“Swear it, Dojima-san,” Adachi said. “She just slipped through my fingers. Opened the door to check on you and she ran out the door. Probably somewhere in the city—”
“For fuck’s sake, Adachi,” Dojima said. He slammed his hand against the table, hard enough that Adachi flinched and that his hand smarted something fierce. “Get yourself out of here before I break your goddamned nose.”
He went to the TV and placed his hand on the screen. It was cool and reflective. It did not give in.
He called Shirogane. “Get your ass over here, Shirogane,” he growled. “Tell me everything you know about the television.”
If Naoto were to outline the present situation, it would look something like this:
Taro Namatame, villain (?). Kidnapped Nanako while Dojima and Shouko were out of the house. Ryotaro Dojima engaged him in a car chase. The truck overturned, and smashed Dojima’s car beneath it. Status: Missing.
Ryotaro Dojima, leader’s uncle and guardian figure. Chief investigator of the Inaba murder and abduction cases. After reading the second ransom letter addressed to Shouko Seta, he took her to the police station and interrogated her in a small room. After Shouko’s disappearance, he called Naoto, who gathered the rest of the Investigation Team to a small and isolated room in the police station. After making a series of deductions about the nature of how the kidnappings were conducted, and the identity of the true victim, he rushed off to stop Namatame, but due to the poor driving conditions, ended up in a car accident instead. Begged Naoto and Chie to bring an end to the case. Status: Hospitalized.
Nanako Dojima, leader’s little sister and victim. Kidnapped by Taro Namatame. Spoke the words that were heard on the local news station. Was targeted shortly after that. Assumed to be inside the dungeon inside the TV. Status: Missing.
Shouko Seta, leader. Last seen at the police station, where Dojima was interrogating her. Disappeared into the TV under unclear circumstances; Adachi has gone on record that she forced her way out of the station, but there are no sightings of her on the video cameras. No sign of her on the Midnight Channel. Teddie detected her in the TV. Status: Missing.
On a whole, it wasn’t a good day to be living at the Dojima household.
“We can either save Nanako-chan or Shouko-san,” said Naoto.
“Or we could do both,” said Yosuke. “We pour everything we have into finding Shouko, and before the fog rolls in, run back and grab Nanako-chan—”
“Is that possible?” Naoto asked. “At this point, we must ask whether or not it is possible to rescue both. I do not mean to suggest that we should sacrifice either one, but I am questioning our ability to deal with rescuing two people effectively. At this point, we do not know what awaits us: the shadow of Shouko-san, the shadow of Nanako-chan, or the shadow of Namatame. Even worse, the hand we’ve been dealt removes our best advantage in battle: Shouko-san. Without Shouko-san to cover for the deficiencies in our team’s weaknesses, encountering any of these could be our death. We must assume that, for whatever reason, that any of these battles could be our last. Even if we rescue Shouko-san, we do not know if she will be in any condition to fight Namatame.”
“We should assume that she won’t be fighting anyway,” Chie said. “I-I mean, people get seriously loopy after getting out of the TV?”
“Yes,” Naoto said. “Either way, we must assume that Shouko-san will not be in commission for this fight.” Helpfully, she added, “It is very much like having mono, I hear.”
“What do you mean ‘you hear’?” Yosuke said. “You were thrown in there, yourself…”
“I can’t stand this shit,” Kanji growled. “Ain’t it obvious what we should do?”
“Then enlighten me,” Naoto said coolly. “What should we do?”
Kanji looked between Yosuke and Naoto and then, deflating, said, “Fuck this.”
“Dude. Seriously.” Yosuke sighed. “We can’t leave Shouko in there.”
“Well, we can’t leave Nanako-chan in there, either,” Chie said. “She’s just a little kid!”
“We don’t know the state of either of the dungeons,” Yukiko said. “We should locate both dungeons, then, depending on their layouts, decide. After all, we don’t know yet whether or not Shouko will materialize a shadow.”
… She had a point. After all, if one already had a Persona, would it be possible to create a shadow? If one had the glasses and months of experience in the other world, would the side effects of being thrown into the dungeon be as punishing?
When Rise and Teddie came back, though.
“We’ve found Nanako-chan’s dungeon,” said Rise.
“And Shouko-san’s?” asked Naoto.
“It was easy to find Shou-sensei!” Teddie said. “But sensei’s dungeon is closed.”
“Closed?” Chie asked.
“Um, well,” said Rise. “You’ll see.”
The dungeon was not a dungeon at all, but rather a room floating in the air. Very, very high up in the air.
So high in the air that, in fact, Rise had to point it out to the rest of them. There were no supports; it was lofted there out of sheer defiance of physics.
“So how do we get up there?” Yosuke asked, baffled.
“That does seem to be the question,” Naoto said. She wondered what it said about their leader’s personality: remote and untouchable, maybe, but peaceful? No, that didn’t seem like Shouko at all. Distant and high? Yes, that was rather obvious. Or did it say that she did not want to be rescued?
Naoto found Shouko, as usual, to be infuriatingly opaque. Either way, one thing was made clear: there was no way in. Yosuke experimented with Susano-O’s Garu techniques, Yukiko sent Amaterasu, Teddie and Chie even attempted to build a bridge.
In the end, they paid the fox money, and went into Nanako’s dungeon instead.
Shouko had a splitting headache, and a whole new view of the trauma of being thrown into a TV.
Shouko reached for her glasses. She kept them on her at all times now, in part because her eyes were beginning to give. She didn’t know why. It was almost as though one morning her vision was perfectly fine, and the next she was squinting to see what was on the board.
Shouko had always wondered what her dungeon would look like, what her hidden desires might be. What secret she might be suppressing, without her own knowledge. There was a reason why people called it the subconscious, after all.
She just didn’t expect for it to look like a long, blank corridor. White walls, everywhere. No sign of shadow or her other self anywhere.
“Hello?” she called. Her voice echoed through the hall. “Hello?” she asked. “Is anyone in here?” Shit, would she appear on the Midnight Channel? If she didn’t, then how would the others find her? Would they find her on time? And what about the call she had received from Yosuke halfway through the interrogation? Had he discovered the true identity of the person on the Midnight Channel? How would they find Shouko if they didn’t know where she had gone?
After all, without a shadow self, would there be anyone for the TV to display…?
Shouko walked up and down the corridor. How much time had passed in the real world? How long had it been since she had fallen? Time for a Persona with a keen, sharp sense of intuition.
Click. The room shifted to a pale, weak red color.
How long it had been. Hours. It wasn’t even daylight in the real world yet. How long did she have until the fog rolled in? Long enough. More than a week, at least.
The room had changed. What if she tried a different Persona?
Click. The room shifted to a muted grey.
Lilith. Raphael. Garuda. Ananta. Cerberus. Abaddon. Tam Lin. Yatsufusa. Triglav. Izanagi.
Click. Click. Click. went the room in turn.
At the end of the room was a mirror that stretched from floor to ceiling. Shouko wasn’t afraid of it, but instead regarded it with a neutral, calm eye. She looked like a freaking mess. There was a bruise, right on her temple. Go figure. She probably landed on her head after being thrown into the TV and landing into this... dungeon.
Was it a dungeon? She didn’t understand. Aside from the room’s tendency for changing colors with each Persona she used, it was empty. No shadows. No shadow self trying to tear her throat out, emotionally manipulating her this way and that. Was it because she already had a Persona? Was it some other reason altogether?
At the other end of the room was a door that led to a sheer drop of many, many feet. She tore the second button off her uniform, and dropped it.
After a minute, she had to concede that it did not sound as though it was going to land any time soon.
Shouko’s dungeon bothered Chie. All the dungeons did, on a base level: a whispering sense that humans didn’t belong there, a sense of rejection, denial, whatever. People were not welcome in the TV World, and the dungeons didn’t make any qualms about letting them know. But there was always a way in. No exception. People… people always had a way into their heads, into their hearts. Secrets were always there to be opened up and revealed.
She and Shouko were friends. After all, they had been pals since the first day of school, hadn’t they? Shouko had been there when Tomoe turned into Suzuka Gongen, had been there when she got into a massive slug-fest with the bullies, and helped Chie cover up that one time Chie accidentally bent Yosuke's bike clean in two. Shouko had seen everyone’s dungeon and Shadows, and had listened to them work out their issues. So why couldn’t she let them in? Not that Chie would’ve wanted her Shadow on full display for everyone to see, but opening up was always a better alternative to keeping things bottled in. Did Shouko want to die up there with her Shadow, rather than having people help her?
Kanji said that they weren’t looking hard enough, but four days of scouring the grounds of the dungeon revealed nothing except a sunless, blue sky and white earth.
Shouko was beginning to worry.
For one thing, she was getting hungry. And for another thing, she was really, really tired.
Kikuri-Hime estimated that it had been about ninety hours since she had last eaten or slept. The question was, how did that translate to time passing in the real world?
… She needed to get back. She needed to get Adachi, who threw her into the television at gunpoint. What the fuck. What had he been thinking? Was he the real murderer, or did he just think she was? Dojima might not be able to prove Adachi had tried to throw her into the television—for god’s sake, Adachi would be able to avoid suspicion by throwing Dojima into the television and declare that Shouko was holding Dojima hostage!
Adachi was the true killer. Had to be. But his hand didn’t go through the TV. So what did that mean? Maybe he had been faking. If that was true, then he had been the one to murder Mayumi Yamano and Saki Konishi. He had been the one who threw the rest of Shouko’s friends into the television and hoped for their deaths. Of course! He was the police, he could practically waltz about the town. Never mind motivation, she… She was seriously too tired to be thinking.
Shouko looked at the mirror. Yeah. Ninety hours, and she looked it. Even worse, she was dead sure she was hallucinating, because the room’s colors kept cycling, over and over, from one to another—
“They don’t need us.”
They had to. Well, not that they had to, but they…
“They left us up here.”
The voice was coming from the mirror. Shouko turned, and found White Rider standing before her, his robes billowing in the wind.
“They found us and left us here.”
That wasn’t true. How could they get up here, anyway? There was no entrance.
“Why did they leave us?” Yatsufusa said. “Why did they leave us here? They found us and left us here. They don’t need us. They never did.”
Shouko stared at the mirror. Her mind was slipping. Yeah, that was it—
“They haven’t come for us,” said Tam Lin.
Not now, Tam Lin, she thought, shoving him aside. In his place came Garuda. "They never needed us. Why didn’t Yosuke make himself leader? Why didn’t Chie, or Naoto, or any of them? Why did they pick you? It’s not like you’re anyone outstanding.”
“You’re lying,” Shouko said. Her Personae seemed suddenly transformed, agents of misfortunate rather than aspects of herself.
“Do not forget thy vow, Shouko,” said Abaddon. “I am thou, and thou art I. Take off thy mask. Look inside thyself and know that what we say is real.”
What was so real about this? She was hallucinating, that was all.
“You’re full of doubt and insecurity,” said Raphael. “Look inside yourself and know that it is true. You are afraid and worried for your own life—”
“It’s not as though they owe me anything.”
“Liar,” Lilith said, shaking her head. “Say it.”
“Say it. Say it. Say it! Say it! Say it!”
“Shut up!” she bellowed. “Leave me alone!”
Shouko, breathing hard, hit the mirror with the palm of her hand. “So what?! So what if they’ve left me here? I didn’t ask to be rescued! It’s not like they need to save me. I can leave here by myself. And just because they don’t need me—so what? If I’m the leader, then that means—”
“What does it mean?” said Triglav.
"They need me, don't they?! If... if they didn't, then they would've left me here..."
The mirror was cold under her fingers.
“Talk to me,” she said. “Tell me…” Silence. Izanagi appeared in the mirror. “Why… why are you me? Where did you come from?”
He pointed to the door on the far end of the hall.
“Oh, yeah, very funny.”
“It is no joke. Talk to me. Tell me what you feel.”
How did she feel? Was this some stupid reverse psychology thing? But she wouldn’t get much mileage out of standing here and screaming at a mirror, would she? After all… they were right. They were her, and she was them.
“Alone,” she said. “Like they all left me here. Like they didn’t need me. I… I don’t want them to leave me. I’m… I’m important to them, aren’t I? They always tell me that I am, but how do I know? I spend so much time listening to them talk about themselves, but that’s only because I don’t want them to know that I’m not really who they think I am.” Her smile twisted. “They see me as some kind of saint, don’t they? A person who magically understands them. If they knew that there was this in my head, then what? They wouldn’t need me anymore. Maybe… maybe they never did. I… I don’t want them to not need me… I want to be more like them…”
Her Personae appeared in the mirror: rows and rows of them, small and large, from Slime to Garuda, to a few she had never seen before.
“Why aren’t you turning into Shadows?” she asked. “Why… why are you still with me?”
You know the answer, said Izanagi.
No, she didn’t. She was more than this. She was less than this. She was... she was listening for one, but none came. She listened and listened, but heard nothing. Anything would have been nice. Anything at all.
The Personae faded, one by one, until only Izanagi stood before her.
"Tell me," she said, looking at him with wide, dark eyes. "Tell me... please."
He said, There are people who are born with a gift for being, and nothing more.
Despite the leaked recording of Shouko Seta’s strangled, angry threat, the public’s anger still turned to Namatame for blame.
After all, Shouko Seta was known as a good girl in Inaba.
Shouko Seta ran errands for her neighbors and classmates. Shouko Seta had a talent for finding items hardly anyone else could find. Shouko Seta had befriended the Tatsumi, Ichijo, Amagi, Hanamura, and Ebihara families, each which carried their own weight and strength. Shouko Seta was the niece of Ryotaro Dojima. Shouko Seta had never been a disgraced politician, returning home in shame.
Leadership fell to Yosuke, with Naoto acting as an advisor.
Because Heaven had so many enemies that both used and were weak to Mudo and Hama, Naoto wound up forming the fourth corner of most of the teams that ventured into the TV. For safety, Yukiko and Teddie often made one of the other corners; both of them, if things were especially dire. Both were healers, capable of dealing critical elemental damage when needed and reviving fallen allies almost instantly. Chie and Kanji were on an ‘as needed’ basis, often forming a scouting party to check on things going on ahead due to their high stamina and ability to take a good deal of damage before dropping dead.
The main problem was that Shouko held most of the group’s money. The fox’s rates had gotten cheaper, but the price was cheap only if one had been accumulating money for a good amount of time. They dove into the dungeon in spurts, with great caution, until they reached the top floor of Heaven.
The weather predicted rain for another day, and fog on the last. No matter how much caution they wanted to exercise, they still had Nanako to think about, and Namatame to consider. So they confronted Namatame and rescued Nanako. Half of the team waited for the police to arrive at Junes, while the rest staggered back to Shouko’s dungeon.
There was still no opening.
On the next day it rained.
There was fog the day after that.
Shouko’s head felt very, very light. Her eyes were heavy. She called Izanagi to her.
Was it raining in the other world?
And how, she wondered, did Izanagi know this? Who was speaking to Izanagi? Someone besides her?
Is the fog here yet?
Should I jump?
Only if you can fly.
I can do that.
When Izanagi put it that way, she really wanted to jump.
It was not so much of a flight as it was a fall. A very, long, long fall. After a while, she did think she was flying. Or, at the very least, she was no longer falling. She was brought to a state of equilibrium; she was crossing a barrier. Izanagi was bearing her up.
Then he was gone, and she was plunging through the air again. She could see something that looked suspiciously like a collection of trees.
In fact, she could see something that looked all too much like a roof.
Aw, crap, she thought, and crashed into the roof of the Minami house.
Eri Minami had been awakened early in the morning by something that sounded like a rather large bird, falling through the roof of her house. The very large bird turned out to be Shouko Seta, one of Yuuta’s former daycare instructors, and invaluable friend to both her and Yuuta. Shouko looked almost deranged, and almost certainly concussed.
“Who was it?” Shouko demanded. “Who was the person kidnapped?”
“Y-you, I thought,” Eri replied. “After you vanished…”
“Who else?” she said. “There has to be one more person.” When Eri stepped back, she shouted, “Tell me!”
“Dojima-san’s daughter,” said Eri. “But they found her, just the other day. Shouko-san, come in and sit down, you look terrible—”
“What day is it?” If anything, she hardly seemed to hear Eri.
“The twenty-first.” And because Shouko looked dazed and confused enough, Eri added, “It’s a Sunday. You should call your parents…” Oh, no, Shouko was staying with her uncle, wasn’t she? And Dojima was in the hospital, which made everything very legally muddied all of the sudden.
“Hanamura,” Shouko said. “You need to call Yosuke Hanamura and tell him that I’m here. Don’t call the police, Minami-san, there’s someone there who tried to kill me, please. Don’t call the hospital, either, I don't want them to know where I am. Do you have a pen and paper?”
“Come in, come in,” Eri said, leading Shouko into the house and into the kitchen. She offered the pen and paper out to Shouko, who stared down at Eri's hands for a moment, then, hesitantly and almost uncertainly, grabbed her hands and took the pen and paper from her. "Are you... are you all right, Shouko-san?"
"Fine! I'm fine." Shouko's hands shook terribly as she wrote down Hanamura’s name and number. It was nearly illegible. Hanamura picked up the phone hardly a second later.
“Hanamura here,” he said.
“Hanamura-san? This is Eri Minami. I’ve found Shouko Seta-san at my house. She requested your presence.”
“Shouko? You found her?” His voice became pressured, almost eager. “Are you sure? Is she alive?”
“Yes, of course—” Even though there had been rumors that she was one of the murder victims, with the amount of time she had gone missing. Eri felt a little shiver crawl up her back. How horrible…
“Thank you very much, Minami-san,” Hanamura said. “Where do you live? No, wait, I can look the address up. Do you mind if I bring over some of my friends?”
“Yes,” said Yosuke. “Thank you very much. I’ll be there in a second. No, wait, I know. Naoto-kun lives nearby. She’ll be there in a second. Goodbye, Minami-san, we won’t be long.”
Naoto Shirogane was in her door before Eri even had a chance to get dressed.
“Pardon the intrusion,” said the detective. “If you don’t mind, I will be seeing Shouko-san now.”
“Yes,” Eri said, feeling just a tad overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events. “Please, go ahead.”
“Yes,” said Shirogane. “Please excuse me.”
“You’re tired,” Yosuke said. “The killer can’t be Adachi. How the hell are you going to explain a police car with a giant TV sticking out the back driving up to everyone’s house? The only person who fits the profile of the killer is Namatame! Kanji, Yukiko, Naoto, and Rise all remember Namatame going up to their houses!”
“You’re dead tired, Shouko, no way to get around it,” Yosuke said. “Your brain’s addled. I mean, it might’ve been an accident.”
“Let’s put this off for another few days,” Yosuke said. “We should wait until you’re feeling better.”
“Stay at Naoto-kun’s place, at the very least. If you don’t want to tell the police where you are or go to the hospital, at least go there.”
“Look, we can hold ourselves together just fine. We’re not going to fall apart just because you’ve left. Naoto-kun and I can take care of things by ourselves. Okay?”
When Shouko woke up again, it was the twenty-third of November. She could, much to her relief, see clearly again, though anything past a certain distance became a complete blur. Someone in blue--Naoto--was reading a book at a desk. Shouko had been, evidently, sleeping on a couch in the work room.
“Ah,” said Naoto. “You’re awake. Are you in any condition to meet the others?”
“Think so,” she said. “Give me something to eat and I’ll be great.”
“Very well, then,” she said. “I will gather the others. Let us make some sense of this mess.”
Shouko was angry. Admitting it was like pulling teeth, but she was angry at Yosuke. Or at least, she was angry at the way he said things without thinking them through.
Fine. It wasn’t that she was angry with Yosuke, or even angry at all. “We can handle ourselves without you.”
The words left her feeling quietly out of place. Yes, she knew that her friends were all capable and competent, but she’d be lying if she didn’t admit that she was questioning whether or not she was really needed, whether her leadership was just because of status quo or a weird quirk of fate. Maybe everyone asked themselves that question when she took them off the main rescue team. It was part of the reason why she tried to maintain an even rotation.
She was the leader. Absence or no, Yosuke trying to throw her back into the sidelines stung, even if she had sounded a bit like a complete nut job. It was something so petty she couldn’t bring herself to pull Yosuke over and yell at him; he was looking out for her best interests, and admittedly she had sounded more than a little deranged.
The conversation after she had some time to rest had gone much better, even if it threw her off-balance. Namatame had admitted to throwing people into the TV; Namatame had seemed at least half as crazy as Shouko felt; Namatame had put his hands on Nanako, which sent Shouko’s temper right over the edge when she found out. But Adachi had pushed her, had made it clear to her that he was framing her—not that it had been a very successful frame job.
She didn’t know. She was tired and confused and, on top of that, damned annoyed with herself for her stupid mistakes and vulnerabilities.
What was it her mother had said? “How long are you going to continue sulking?” Not very long. She didn’t have the time to, anyway.
Shouko couldn't see clearly anymore. The thought rattled her completely. She had hoped the last vestiges of blurry vision would fade away, just as the world sharpened from shapeless blogs to blurry, but distinct, figures after a few days of rest, but her vision right now consisted of a meter of clarity right in front of her face and a blur everywhere else without her glasses. She had Chie write a bunch of letters on a piece of paper in different sizes, and stand two meters back.
"No," said Chie, sounding almost as shaken as Shouko did by the collapse of her visual acuity. "That's a 'z'. Next row."
Shouko said nothing. She couldn't even see the next row. All she saw was a white space beneath the 'z'. She put her glasses on, and everything came into focus. "Guess I'll have to get used to wearing these full time," she said.
"Geeze. I mean, it's..." Chie trailed off. "What happened?"
She didn't know. As far as she knew, Kanji and Yukiko and Rise and Naoto's vision were still as sharp as ever. Her eyes had already been straining before she entered the dungeon, but after coming out... Maybe this was her price for speeding through a recovery. Spending a long time in the dungeon took its toll on the body. The others would be knocked out for days or even weeks; it took Shouko two days and a set of bad eyes to get back into action.
Goddamn, she thought.
By the twenty fourth, she dragged herself back to school, almost against her own will, but she figured that if Adachi hadn’t attacked her while she was in school now, he certainly wasn’t going to start doing it now, either.
She visited the hospital with Yosuke after school. Dojima was looking at her as though he was trying to decide whether to yell at her or just talk. It was a face her mother wore often around her, except normally her mother wavered between “yelling” and “scolding silence.”
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“You were the one who was thrown under a truck,” Shouko replied, trying to smile. “I’m fine now. Really.” She went back into the TV the day before and spammed Diarama and Patra until her head felt clear and body a bit less rusty. Add in another day of sleep and forcing herself back into some semblance of normality, and she felt nearly good as new. “How about you? How is Nanako-chan holding up?”
“You haven’t seen her?”
“The doctors say that my reappearance might send her into shock.”
“What! Those morons.” He pushed himself up with visible effort and looked ready to yell at the nearest doctor who walked by.
“No, it’s fine,” Shouko said quickly. “Chie and the others have already told her, so the doctors say I can go in starting tomorrow.”
“Well, what were they thinking in the first place, keeping you out?” Dojima said. “Those idiots. Wouldn’t be able to find a kidney if someone didn’t point it out to them.” That might be because they were doctors, not surgeons, Shouko wanted to say. “Where the hell have you been? You didn’t run away, did you?”
“I was inside the TV. Adachi practically pushed me in. He had his gun at—”
“Do you have any proof?”
“I’m not lying! It really happened!” She wanted to say, ‘Adachi’s the murderer, he’s been the one throwing everyone into the TV,’ but how could she? Adachi was Dojima’s partner. For all the grief Dojima gave him, he would still probably trust Adachi over her.
“Dojima-san, I managed to sneak in a mug of coffee—” Adachi stopped dead when he saw Shouko and Yosuke in the room. His face, for a moment, stiffened. “What are you doing in here?” he said. “You know that we have a warrant for your immediate arrest?”
“Adachi, let it go,” Dojima said. “I’ve taken care of it already.”
“Hi, Adachi-san,” Shouko said. “I’m visiting my uncle.”
Adachi looked torn between talking to Shouko and Dojima. Yosuke was silent beside her, glaring at Adachi and then, after a moment, looking down at Shouko, as though confused by what he was doing. Dojima saved Adachi by saying, “Sit down, Adachi. I want to talk.”
Adachi pulled up a chair—and then tripped, spilling the coffee all over Dojima. The mug cracked against the wall.
“Oh, sorry, Dojima-san! It was an accident, I swear—” He was mopping Dojima off. Shouko pushed him aside, saying, “I’ll take care of this.”
Then he ran.
“For fuck’s sake, Adachi!” Dojima shouted. “Get back here!”
Shouko smashed her palm against the call button, and sprinted after Adachi, Yosuke hot on her heels.
Adachi ran all the way up to Namatame’s room.
By the time Shouko and Yosuke got there, the room was empty.
They had both vanished into the TV.
Chapter 10: December/March
After the fifth time of trying to correct the borked italics failed, I threw my hands up and gave up. My apologies.
Shouko stared at the heart monitor.
Flat line. Flatlineflatlineflatline
No blood pressure. No heartbeat.
This isn’t funny. Nanako’s hand wasn’t holding hers back.
This isn’t funny, this isn’t funny, this isn’t a joke, what the hell is going on—
She had thought she could save Nanako. She thought that she had been a good sister. She had done everything in the right order, did her best to fit with the role of “good family member.”
They had pulled a fake Nanako from the TV. That had to be it. The real Nanako was inside the TV, waiting for her, waiting for her big sis to rescue her—yeah, that was it. She could do that. She could rescue people. She could do that.
Oh, god, this was her fault, wasn’t it? If only she hadn’t tried to show Dojima the TV world. If only Dojima had asked her to stay at home while he interrogated her. If only she hadn’t let Adachi go and throw her into the TV. She could have rescued Nanako faster than the others. She could have—
“Shouko,” Dojima said, dragging her from out of her thoughts.
The doctors and nurses had pushed her out of the room. They were in the hall. Her friends were behind her.
“Namatame… where is he?” he asked. “Is he inside the television?”
“Yes,” she said, because it was hardly as though she could lie to him. Yes, Namatame was in the television.
“Go in there,” he said. “I want you to go in there and get him for me.”
“Yes, uncle,” she said. What was she saying? What was he saying? “Why don’t you go back into your room?” she suggested instead. She mouthed to Yosuke to go fetch a doctor or two. Her uncle seemed on the wrong side of stable, too desperate to care about what happened to him or anyone else.
Into the TV. Into the TV. Into the TV.
“Senpai, you’re not going to go into the TV, are you?” Rise asked.
“No,” Shouko said. “Of course not.”
Just past midnight, the doctors came out and said that Nanako had come back from the dead.
Shouko didn’t mean to cry, but she did, anyway.
“Perhaps now is the time for contemplation,” said Igor. “Things have become murky on the outside. Maybe now is the time you consider where your path will take you.”
“I don’t get it,” Shouko said. “Isn’t it obvious? We go into the TV, bring back Adachi and Namatame—”
“I don’t mean that the external path is murky,” said Igor. “But rather… your heart.”
Her heart. Well, that was a new one.
“Your vision is clouded,” he said. “You are tired, and your attention scattered. Remember the strength your friends and confidants are willing to lend you, and draw from it. Remember the truths that they have taught you.”
She stared at him. She would’ve killed for him to be one of the arcanae, because she didn’t get him at all.
The limo came to a stop.
“Until next time,” said Igor. “Farewell.”
“Two murderers,” Shouko said finally, outside of Aiya’s after they scouted the entire town for clues on who was the true murderer, Adachi or Namatame. It wasn’t the most productive or fruitful of searches, but the cold air outside cleared her head, and for the first time in what felt like weeks, she felt like she was on the same page with the rest of her friends. “Or at least, there were two people who could throw people into the TV. Adachi would’ve been able to murder Mayumi Yamano—Namatame couldn’t have done it, we all know he has an alibi. One of the two put Saki Konishi into the television. We know that Namatame threw in everyone else, with the possible exception of Mitsuo Kubo, in an attempt to ‘save’ them.”
“Save them from what?” Yosuke asked, as Naoto stood off to the side and thought, hard.
“I don’t know,” said Shouko. “I guess we should find out. Let’s go back into the TV.”
“‘Adachy-baby’?” whispered Chie to Shouko.
Shouko mouthed, ‘beats me’ and followed Teddie.
They found Namatame in Yamano’s room, the first one they had ever gone to.
“Horrible… too horrible…” he groaned. Despite herself, Shouko felt a pang of sympathy. The silk scarf hanging from the ceiling… She remembered Kanji’s mother saying that Mayumi Yamano had ordered a pair of matched scarves, a man’s and a woman’s, but only bought the woman’s scarf in the end.
“Namatame-san,” she said. “Please, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take you back to the real world to answer some questions.”
“It wasn’t me,” he said. “I didn’t murder anybody…”
“I know that,” she said. No, she didn’t, but it was what she needed to say. “Namatame-san, please, come with me. You’re not safe here.”
Neither were any of the rest of them. She didn’t mention that, but instead let Yosuke and Kanji shoulder Namatame’s weight and march him out of the room.
Just before Shouko closed the door, Adachi grabbed onto her wrist.
Shouko reacted almost on automatic, countering with a punch. Her fist went through air, and she stumbled back into the room.
“You damn bitch,” Adachi said. “Always react to things with violence, don’t you?”
“Fuck, you cost me my job in the city, then you had to go and chase me all the way here—what the hell did I do to you in a past life?”
Yosuke and Kanji set Namatame on the ground. Yosuke, bristling, said, “Give us the truth, Adachi. You’re the real killer, aren’t you?”
“Can’t prove it, can you?” Adachi said. “Don’t know what you’re talking about…”
“You’re not going to lie your way out of this one, damn it! Just being here proves that you’re a part of this all! Were you the one who killed Ms. Yamano?”
“Not my fault,” Adachi said, and his smile was sick. “It was an accident. She started struggling… What else was I supposed to do?”
“Why aren’t you taking us into the television more often?” Naoto asked, rather abruptly to Shouko as she and Chie were getting ready to go out. Yosuke was making up work he had missed while they were searching the dungeons, and Yukiko was over at the Inn. Shouko only had a vague idea of Rise and Kanji’s schedules on the top of her head—she had, at one point, created a table so she could keep track of who was available when—but she didn’t see either of them after school while she was doing a few errands for her classmates, and assumed they had already left.
“Naoto-kun!” Chie said.
“Because if I keep going in there, then I’m going to hamstring someone.”
“Hmm,” said Naoto. “Yes, you’re right. Adachi seems intent on agitating you. It’s good to take a break every now and then, of course.” Then, seriously, she said, “If you are going somewhere, may I come along? There is something I would like to discuss with you, Shouko-san. Oh… I suppose you can come too, Chie-san.”
“… Why do I feel like I’ve just been dissed by a first year?” Chie wondered.
… A question for the ages.
The gazebo by the Samegawa was empty and quiet in the winter. It was seriously making Shouko wish she was wearing a pair of pants, like Naoto was, because her knees were frozen. Chie was hopping up and down, trying to warm up, while Shouko tried to warm up using the “huddling and trying to pretend that she wasn’t cold” strategy. It wasn’t working.
Naoto was pacing in front of her. After a while, she said, “Shouko-san. I suppose… the real reason I’ve called you here is to ask how you escaped from your dungeon. We were all so absorbed in trying to solve the mystery that we forgot about to ask that basic question.”
“… Excuse me?”
“There wasn’t anything in it,” Shouko said. “There was a mirror and a door.”
“I see,” Naoto said. “That does explain why you were not dead when you reappeared in the real world. After all, without a shadow trying to kill you…”
“Yes,” said Shouko. Instead she wound up hitting her head on the roof of the Minami house. At least she hadn’t been impaled on someone’s antennae. That would’ve been harder to fix.
“Are you sure there weren’t any shadows?” Chie said. “I mean, no offense, Shouko, but even you have to have something to hide.”
“Such as what?” she asked.
“Well—I don’t know, there has to be something.”
“I used to collect shoujo manga when I was a kid,” said Shouko. “In fact, I collected about fifteen volumes of the stuff while I was over here.”
“Please, Shouko-san, take this more seriously,” said Naoto. “I’d like to explore your dungeon some more later on.”
“You just want to get into my head,” Shouko said with a little laugh.
“Would it be so bad if I did?” Naoto said. “After all, sometimes it feels as though I hardly know you. As though the Shouko Seta I know is markedly different from the Shouko Seta that Chie-san knows, or that Kanji-kun knows. The way you respond to me is different from the way you respond to Yukiko-san, or Yosuke-san. I feel as though… you have not been completely honest with me.” Naoto fidgeted for a moment, and then sighed. “I should have come here alone.”
Chie coughed. “Well… I kind of get what Naoto-kun means,” she said. “It’s kind of like how me and Yukiko aren’t going to fight in the same way that Yosuke and I do. Yukiko means something completely different from what Yosuke does. Thank god for that. I don’t think I could deal with two Yosukes in my life…”
“You’re my friend,” Shouko said to Naoto. “I mean… you know that, right?”
“Of course,” Naoto said. “… I suppose… I suppose I was wondering why Adachi only talks to you in Magatsu Inaba. The way he talks to you makes me think the two of you must have met in the past, and had some sort of relationship.”
“I think I’d remember a guy like that,” Shouko said.
Shouko felt a part of her stomach fall after she jumped through the hole in Magatsu Inaba. She had expected, maybe, to arrive at some distant, faraway… place. Maybe similar to Magatsu Inaba. Or just about anything at all, really.
The last thing she had expected to see was the streets of the city’s red-light district again, twisted and warped as they might be.
“Remember this, Shou-chan?” Adachi said. “Hehheh… let’s see how many friends you’ll have after this.”
This wasn’t what happened.
A false image of Shouko pinned beneath (she hoped) an equally false Adachi, squirming and growling beneath him. Oh, god, she was wearing her old school uniform. No, she was just wearing the skirt, that wasn’t the right blazer. The coat, though, that had been hers. Now Shouko would never be able to take it out of her closet again.
She stood at the doorway of the old hotel room, horrified. She was tempted to slam the door shut, but she couldn’t move.
“Like what you see in there, Shou-chan?”
“Like hell I do, you sick fuck,” Shouko muttered. Okay, now she could move. She shut the door.
“Senpai,” Rise said. “The source of the power blocking the path to Adachi is in the room beyond—”
“I know that,” Shouko snapped. Oh, man. Was she blushing? She was. Even if she had never done anything of this sort before, she was still a bit embarrassed. No, more than a bit. Very. Click, went Izanagi’s mask over her face. “Go through this room… normally… I guess…” I guess…? When was the last time she had ever given out a command that lame? Yosuke was coughing, politely looking at the ceiling.
When she opened the door again, there was nothing but the usual crowd of shadows clustering around a conveniently set table.
What the. Her hatred of Adachi and his mind games intensified a little bit more.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Shouko said, burying her face into her hand. After defeating the boss on the top floor of the Red Lantern, she ordered everyone to return to the main floor. No need to go charging to meet Adachi right after a major battle; they needed to upgrade their weapons, anyway. She felt something furry on her legs. It was the Fox, depositing a Soul Drop into her hands. She pet its head absentmindedly, but withdrew her hand when it gnawed on her fingers. Damn. It wasn’t in a great mood today, was it? “I mean, it’s not that it happened, because it didn’t, but it—well—it…”
Shit. She knew that she was drawing even more suspicion to herself, but the entire incident had been so embarrassing, so deeply humiliating to her that she might have found it easier to talk about if she had been shot on her way there or something. She couldn’t talk about it; it was just one of those things that she thought she had left behind in the city. Evidently not.
“See?” Chie said. “It never happened.”
There was an awkward silence. Yosuke was looking at the ceiling. Yukiko seemed distracted by the nonexistent dust on her glasses.
“One thing is clear,” Naoto said. “Something did happen. Shouko-san, for the sake of the team, please tell us. It should relieve a great burden from your shoulders.”
What burden? What burden would be lifted? Would they feel better, knowing that even their Great Leader had a few things to hide herself?
A great burden from her shoulders? Since when did they ever care—
She bit down on it. No. Calm. Izanagi’s mask clicked into place. She should have known that Atavaka was the wrong Persona to hide a secret with. Atavaka had the unfortunate tendency for wanting to smite those who wronged him, and in this case, anything relating to that case felt like an insult.
“If you will not talk about it, then perhaps we should ask Adachi,” Naoto said.
“You don’t even know if he’ll tell the truth,” said Shouko.
Naoto looked at Shouko, her eyes serious and expression… injured. “At this point, I am equally unsure that you will tell us the truth, either.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean? Just because she didn’t want to go spilling her guts…? Just because they had seen a part of her that had no right to exist? No, no, she needed to dial down. That was how people began to think when their human-looking Shadows grew up and became damned annoying.
“Guys, calm down,” Yosuke said. “We need to defeat Adachi, not start arguing amongst ourselves, that would be playing straight into Adachi’s hand.”
“Yosuke-kun is right,” Yukiko said. “After all, if we lose our cool just before we face him…”
“I don’t know,” Kanji said. “Senpai, if you’re hidin’ things from us—how’s that fair?”
Fair? It wasn’t about fair or unfair. It wasn’t as though Kanji told Rise what his secrets were, just because they were on the same team. It wasn’t as though Yukiko told Naoto about her Shadow, just because Naoto demanded that she should.
Shouko glanced over at Chie, who was carrying out a silent conversation with Yukiko. As usual, the two of them wound up disagreeing. Chie went with the go home as soon as possible camp, while Yukiko said, “On principle, I agree with Kanji-kun and Naoto-kun. I’m sorry, Shouko-san.”
“Right,” Shouko said. Because this was a democracy now? Because whatever everyone voted for meant ‘yes’, absolutely and without question?
Hell no. That wasn’t why she was the leader. Her role wasn’t to carry out wishes, it was to give orders.
She needed to calm down. For god’s sake. She needed a Patra. Or at the very least, a long time away from the TV.
“Why don’t we talk about this tomorrow, once everyone’s head’s cooled off?” Rise said. “I mean—”
“Whoa! Teddie smells a shift in the wind!”
Oh, keep speaking, bear, give her an excuse to hit someone.
“It’s coming from the direction of sensei’s dungeon,” said Teddie.
Shouko pushed her glasses up her nose.
“Let’s go to the dungeon,” she said.
“Shouko,” Yosuke said. “Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m not being stupid,” Shouko said. “We should take care of this now. Any new developments could prove disastrous if it benefits Adachi in some way, shape, or form. Besides, you guys might get to see something. Isn’t that what you want?”
She could see the first years flinch, visibly.
“We’re going,” she said, in a low voice. “We’re going, and we’re going now.”
The dungeon’s entrance had not changed that much. The endless, expansive pale sky. The incredible height of the single room that made up the “dungeon.”
There was the giant hole in the floor. That was, admittedly, a pretty large difference.
“Wait,” Yosuke said. “Take this with you, at least.” It was a Goho-M. “Just in case,” he said. “If you’re not going to take me with you, Shouko, at least take this.”
Kanji and Naoto both looked as though they were having a staring contest with opposite ends of the sky.
“I’m taking Teddie with me,” Shouko said. “He still has Traesto.”
“Thanks for caring, Yosuke,” she said. “I won’t go too far. Promise. Won’t go anywhere past the first level. Won’t run head-long into any flashing red shadows.”
“You’d better not,” Yosuke said, wincing. “You know how many times I’ve nearly died because of your stupid fixation with leveling up?”
It wasn’t a fixation. And it hadn’t been to level up. It was because she had wanted to run headlong into battle, feel that rush, feel it flood her limbs. Although by now, that rush was beginning to fade. After being thrown into the TV herself, her love of doing stupid things had… lessened, somewhat. No, not lessened. Felt further away. She looked into the mirror and wondered, “Why did I get this haircut?”
Not that it stopped her from doing this.
You’ve changed, said Izanagi in a neutral tone.
Yeah, she had. The love of a twist, of subversion had turned colder and harder. She could do more with that now. Minor subversion? She had a sword, she had enemies, she could satisfy that urge to stick a thumb into someone’s eye in a very tangible way. And now? Now she had an enemy. It was as though her entire person had distilled to “defeat Adachi.” Everything else was of a lesser importance.
She checked behind her shoulder to make sure that Teddie, Kanji, and Naoto were behind her. Yukiko, Chie, and Yosuke were behind them, ready to take the jump after her. She stepped into the hole.
“Aw, fuck, ow!” Kanji groaned as Shouko landed on top of him.
“Sorry,” Shouko said. And then Teddie came crashing down on her head. “Ow.”
“Is everyone all right?” Naoto asked. Oh, of course. Naoto had landed on her feet. That was until Yukiko crashed into her from above, knocking the two of them onto the ground. Chie was next, landing flat on her back. She rolled out of the way just as Yosuke appeared next to her. Naoto looked about the room and said, “This is… Why aren’t there any Shadows?”
“I don’t know,” Shouko ground out as she pushed Teddie off of her arm and got to her feet. “That’s just the way this place is.”
“It’s… real quiet in here,” Kanji said, as he put a hand on Teddie’s head and pushed himself up, ignoring Teddie’s squawks. No voices taunting. No dark figure at the end of the hall.
Just mirrors and a door.
“What does this all mean?” Yosuke said. “Geeze, this place is kind of creepy…” He looked into the mirror, and frowned. “Is this it? There’s nothing inside here…”
“You guys left me up here,” she said.
The team stopped looking around the dungeon to stare at her. Then they shifted, uncomfortably, as though she had squished a bug, casually, under her finger.
“I was waiting for you to come,” she said. “But you never did.”
“We tried,” Kanji said, almost defensive.
“I know you did. That’s not the problem.” Shouko rubbed her nose. “It’s just that—you never came. I know that it would’ve been nearly impossible for you to have gotten up here, but that doesn’t change how I felt. I knew intellectually that no one could come, but I was still... afraid."
Afraid. There it was, that word.
She waited for someone to yell, "You lie!" No one did.
"I was afraid of being abandoned," she said, trying to shrug it off. "But after a while I got bored of sitting around, so I jumped out."
Maybe this, she thought, was why she didn’t have a shadow. The ugly, dark tension uncoiling in her stomach was fizzing into nothing. Because of a silver tongue? Because she already had her Persona? Multiple Personae?
“Satisfied, Naoto-kun?” she said.
“I wish you wouldn’t be so angry,” Naoto said, sounding genuinely hurt. “Senpai, I still want to know how you know Adachi.”
“Can’t sleep unless you know?” she asked.
“Stop picking on Naoto-kun,” Yosuke said. And would Yosuke prefer it if Shouko picked on him, instead? “Geeze, I know you’re touchy about it, but it doesn’t mean that you have to take it out on everyone around you.”
Well, why not? But she bit her lip and said, “We should get out of here. I’ll tell you guys about it on the main floor.”
“How are we going to get out?” Yosuke asked.
Shouko looked to the door, and grinned.
“Fuck you,” Yosuke said, his eyes wide with disbelief.
There was no way out of it now. Everyone was sitting in front of her. It was almost as though she was telling a story to the kids at the daycare.
“There was a senpai I admired,” she said. “I… I was trying to impress him. A bunch of his friends dared me to go to a shady part of the city. I went because I was dumb and thought I’d be okay. Black belt in kenjutsu and karate, so on and so forth. I ran into some guys at a ramen stand I was at, and the owner tells me to go to a love hotel. Mention his name, and the lady at the desk will give me a discount. I did as he said, and stayed at the love hotel for the night. Stupid thing was, that was how he was making money. He sold me out. Told those punks where I was, and they come at my door in the dead of night. I grabbed a shower curtain rod and beat them up and got the hell out of there.” She smiled thinly. “Adachi was with them. Guess he was just some corrupt bum in the end. So is that it? Got any questions?”
No one said anything.
“Well, good,” she said, because she didn’t feel like answering.
“How did your friends react?” Yukiko said.
“You guys are the first ones I’ve told.”
“She doesn’t mean us, senpai,” said Kanji. “How did the guys at the big city react?”
How had they reacted? She never told them. Maybe they had sensed something a little off with her; maybe they thought she was a little strange after that. Maybe they thought she could walk the walk, talk the talk.
But that hadn’t been what she wanted. She wanted them to listen to her. She wanted to blame someone, anyone, and they were as easy targets as any. After all, would she have gone if they had stopped her? Did they even have an obligation to stop her? No, they didn’t. It was her fault for going, her fault for going through—but at the very least, they could’ve asked her what happened. They could have asked if she was all right.
“They gave me twenty thousand yen for my trouble,” she said.
“Oh, senpai,” Rise said.
“I got out of there in one piece, so—”
“Don’t you dare try to blow us off!” she said, and hugged Shouko before she could even protest. Then Rise glared at Kanji and said, "Well?"
"Huh?" Kanji said.
"Come on and join us," said Rise. "You, too, Naoto-kun."
"I respectfully decline," she said, and for good measure, pulled the cap over her eyes.
"You guys are all horrible," Rise said. "Yosuke-senpai, aren't you going to do anything?"
"Hell no," Yosuke said. "That'd be way too awkward, even for partner."
“You know something?” Chie said. “I want to know why you’re always calling Shouko ‘partner.’ It’s so creepy. Do you have a crush on her or something?”
“But Yosuke’s always saying sensei’s name in his sleep,” said Teddie.
“I told you to be quiet about that, damn it!” He looked at Shouko desperately, and said, “It’s not what it sounds like, I swear.”
“I’m not sure what it’s supposed to sound like,” Shouko said, because she sure didn’t know how to reply to something like that. On one hand, it was Teddie. On the other hand, she was blushing, and she didn’t know what that was supposed to look like, but oh, god, the entire team was watching.
“It’s—it’s just that you’re special to me, okay?” said Yosuke. He was grabbing her hand. “Really!”
“Aww,” Rise said. She had her cell phone out—for blackmail pictures, much to Shouko’s dismay—and the next thing she knew Kanji had a nosebleed.
“I, uh, you, too,” she said. “You know. Special and… stuff. I… um.”
“Wow, that wasn’t awkward or anything!” Chie said. “Why don’t we drop off all this stuff at Daidara’s? We’re going to need ten people to get everything out of here.”
Thank god for Chie, Shouko thought, and moved, maybe a bit too hastily, to help.
When people told Souji he’s special, his default reaction was a polite smile and thanks. He didn't believe it anymore than Shouko did. They were flattering him. Truth or not, it was flattery. There might be a grain of truth in there, but it wasn't real.
When his friends asked why he didn't have a shadow, he shrugged. He didn't know. Maybe there was something wrong with him. He didn't know.
Shouko hated Adachi. She was—she wasn’t going to kill him, but god, he was a sick, twisted bastard. The world killed people? No, he killed people. He killed them, and he did it because he thought it was fun.
She… she loved this world. She loved the people in it, meeting them and knowing them and knowing them. She loved Inaba, for all its flaws and for the annoyances of the small town. She wasn’t fighting him because she hated him, or because she wanted to wipe a part of her past out. She was fighting him because she didn’t want this world to disappear. She was fighting him for the sake of those she loved.
She felt her strength surging inside her, the voices of her Personae speaking as one, at her back and ready to be called and summoned.
… Hey, what. Why the hell was there another boss after Adachi, and why was it a giant disco eyeball?
“Bitch,” Adachi whispered to her while they were waiting for the stretcher to be brought up. “If you hadn’t been the one in the Red Lantern, I’d still be in the city.”
Shouko was dead tired. Her throat was sore from barking orders; when she spoke, her voice sounded so horrifically strange that she decided to not try again for another few minutes. Her arms were just about dead from swinging the sword, and the Personae in her head were similarly tired. She wanted to go home and sleep. But even she wasn’t above gloating a bit.
“If you had kept a clean record instead of hanging out with those punks, you wouldn’t be here, anyway,” Shouko said.
“What were you doing there, anyway? Go figure… I’d be done in by a girl like you.”
She didn’t answer. She saw no reason to. What was there to say? Adachi would have plenty of time to think in prison, plenty of time to think things over.
“I feel sorry for my uncle,” she said. “For getting paired up with a guy like you.”
Even though the battle was over, Shouko still went to the Velvet Room to fuse more Personae.
It didn’t really make sense to anyone but herself, really. The discovery of more Personae, pieces of herself… Well, she was unfogging the mental mirror, so to speak.
Yoshitsune. Trumpeter. Shiva. Asura. All of them were parts of herself she wanted to see, to know. Even if, for the most part, they seemed to be really cranky, old gods.
She kind of missed having cute Personae.
At approximately six-forty in the evening, Rise left her a text message. “hi senpai!!! were goin 2 ur house <3 <3 do u want to hangout??”
Of course Rise would ask if Shouko wanted to hang out after telling her that they were already coming over.
Wait. Who was “we”?
“You know that Christmas Eve is supposed to be for lovers?” Shouko said, cutting up some fruit for the group. “If my uncle comes back from the hospital today and sees all of you people here, he’s going to assume I’m holding a mixer.”
“Well, it’s not like the rest of us have dates,” Yosuke said. Even though Kanji kept accidentally making eye contact with Naoto and blushing. “Didn’t Chie and Yukiko say they’d be a bit late?”
“They called me and said that they had plans.” Plans that would take them the entire night. Yeah. Because that wasn’t suggestive at all.
“What kind of plans?” Teddie asked, as Rise burst out into giggles again.
“Senpai! Let me help you cook!”
“There will be no cooking going on here today,” Shouko said firmly. None. Absolutely none. She didn’t know about Naoto, but there was a bottle of Korean hot sauce in the house, and there would be hell if Rise got a hold of that. Besides, she had let Yosuke cook for her once, and the result had been… Well, it went without saying that he wasn’t as bad as Chie, but it hadn’t been good, either.
“I’ll get that,” said Yosuke. A second later, Naoki Konishi and Ai Ebihara came into the house. Shouko nearly cut off her thumb.
“Hi,” she said. “Y-you... came.” Oh, god. There went her composure. Whoosh, right down the drain.
“Well, it’s been a while since we’ve hung out,” Ai said. “I thought I should pay you a visit. Kind of awkward, huh?”
“No, of course not,” Shouko said.
“We heard heard your little sister and uncle were almost out of the hospital,” said Naoki. “I thought this would be the last time we’d be able to stay at your house without interruptions.”
“You don’t call these guys interruptions?” Naoki smiled enigmatically at her, and shook his head. “Well… who told you about the party, anyway?”
“That must be Kou-san,” Ai said, aiming a sarcastic sort of smile at Shouko that made Shouko smile back like a goof. “I’ll get the door.”
Shouko was suddenly aware of everyone staring at her. She tugged at her collar and glared at the rest of the room. “Who told Kou and Daisuke?”
“Er,” said Yosuke.
The knife came down, hard, against the cutting board. “Hahaha.”
It wasn’t Kou. Good for him, because Shouko might’ve tried to flay the skin off his arm if it was. It was Ayane.
“Naoto-san, senpai!” Ayane chirped. “I’ve brought… oh… are you busy right now?”
“One more person isn’t going to kill me,” she said. “Come on in, I’ll bring out the crackers.”
Ding-dong, went the doorbell again. Had someone gone through the trouble of inviting the entire school to her house?
Even with fifteen people crowded in her house, everything was going pretty well until they began playing King’s Game. After that, everything went to hell.
“Things are finally peaceful again, huh,” said the gas station attendant. Shouko stared at the attendant. Had he been there a second ago? Had it been raining a second ago?
“Yes,” Shouko said.
“You must be pretty happy,” said the attendant.
“Yes,” Shouko said curtly. “Excuse me. I’m going to be late for school.”
“Don’t let me keep you,” said the attendant, and smiled.
The months flashed by in a blur: winter break with her friends, the fatal Valentine’s Day, Yosuke’s impromptu concert, the final day of Shouko’s stay in Inaba.
The only problem was that this mystery had more false endings than Beethoven’s Ninth. More false endings than The Return of the King. More false endings than even that horrid movie she watched when she was a child. What was it called? Oh. Right. Beaches.
That really was a bad movie, wasn't it?
“Who are you?” Shouko asked the gas station attendant.
“Don’t you know by now? After all, isn’t that why you came?”
… She had a faint inkling, maybe. She remembered Izanagi telling her one night that even Personae had their own secrets. Their own regrets.
The dark underworld—
“Your friends were drawn to you by the spark I stirred in you. That’s why they are here now with their awakened powers. Still, I didn’t think you’d make it all the way to me… Indeed, I never expected this at all. You’re really something.”
… The handshake at the gas station. The… little push. The dream she had in the fog. Shouko sank to her knees, her head pulsing with pain.
… The attendant was still speaking.
What had she come for? She had come for the truth.
“What will knowing the truth do? Why such greed? Well, I guess that’s part of the foolish nature of being mortal. I am… Izanami.”
That’s my wife, Izanagi told Shouko as the battle became just plain freaky.
Great, Shouko thought glumly. Why not pull the other finger, too?
Thousand Curses. Souji hadn’t realized what it meant until the first tendril wrapped itself around his ankle.
‘I’m going to die,’ he realized. He was going to die, and that would be that. No truth. No safety for the town he loved as much as a person—
Chie was at his side in a flash, shoving him out of the way. She was looking at him as she went under—died, really—with relief on her face. All he could do was watch in mute horror. The Chariot Personae in his head became, for one terrifying moment, silent; then their voices went up in a horrible cry.
Izanami cast the curse again. The ground went weak beneath his feet. This time Yukiko was at his side, the fan in her hands shaking. Teddie went after her, then Naoto, then Kanji… Yosuke disappeared under the earth with his legs shaking and panic written all over his face.
Then he was alone, alone and afraid. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to die. One more hit, he prayed. One more hit, and he could take her down—
The last thing he heard was Rise, and then there was nothing.
Thousand Curses. Shouko felt a chill covering her body as the ground went weak under her feet.
Her teammates—they were trying to push her out of the way. The same as always. Always telling her that she was the leader, that she was special, that they needed her, that they needed her to survive.
That was a lie, though. Or at least, it wasn’t the entire truth. They didn’t need her. They rescued Nanako without her. They defeated Namatame without her. They could take Izanami without her.
Really, said Izanagi.
She didn’t know. But Izanami-no-Ookami was looking at her, not any of the rest of them. And as long as there were people to take her place, then Shouko was sure that they would be able to defeat Izanami.
Chie was running towards her. Chie was going to push her out of the way.
Or she was going to try. At the last second, Shouko rammed the pommel of her sword into Chie’s chest, knocking the other girl back.
Shouko kept telling them that she hated it when they took her hits for her. And sure, she was okay with them doing it now, but this? This was more than taking a hit for her. They planned on dying for her. As the leader, she couldn’t accept that.
Something black grabbed onto Shouko’s leg and pulled her down.
… They were exaggerating.
Souji knew that.
He was dead, and they were desperate. It was sad, but what wasn’t?
… Still. It was nice to know how much others needed him. It was nice to know that they wouldn’t leave him, even if he wasn’t there.
He stood up.
… They were exaggerating.
Shouko knew that.
She was dead, and they were desperate. It was sad, but everything about this was sad. They were more upset about her dying than she was.
… Still. It was nice to know that even if she wasn’t needed, she was wanted. It was nice to know that she wasn’t alone.
She stood up.
“So that was your wife,” Shouko said to Izanagi.
“She was kind of creepy.”
I loved her, but I betrayed her. This… was my fault. He sounded positively morose.
Shouko wondered, wildly, if it was possible for a Persona to have its own Shadow. And then she said, "I'm sorry."
Everything was packed. Her suitcase was ready. The tickets were in her back pocket. She finally found the truth behind that had plagued this town for the last year.
So why didn’t she feel done? She didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to go.
She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her shirt, and quickly smoothed her shirt for the fifth time that day.
Time to say goodbye, one more time.
“My,” Shouko’s mother said when Shouko stepped into the car. Shouko’s father insisted on piling her bags into the car, and she wasn’t about to deny him. Her arms were still sore from the battle with Izanami. Turned out that dying wasn’t good for your joints. “You look like you’ve been working out.”
“A little bit,” Shouko said. “It was something to pass the time.”
“Really,” she said. “Well, Inaba doesn’t have much to do, but it’s a nice place. Did you keep up with your rugby?”
“I picked up basketball again, mother.” And a bit of soccer, because, well, why not.
“You got another haircut.”
“Yep,” she said. “I was thinking about shaving it all off for a while and getting a weird tattoo or something on my scalp. Do you mind?”
“Don’t joke around, Shouko. When did you start needing glasses?”
"No idea," Shouko said cheerfully, but she could pinpoint the exact moment in her mind: she had beat Rise and Teddie's Shadows, went to school the next morning, and couldn't read a thing on the blackboard.
Her father stepped back into the car. He started the engine. Time to go home. To one of them, at least. She checked her cell. A text message from Yosuke, asking her if she made it to the city in one piece or not; she fired off a reply.
“Made new friends?” her father asked.
“And your grades?”
Aside from the disastrous November midterm? “They’re as good as ever.”
“Excellent,” he said. “I knew you would be able to handle yourself while we were away. What did you do in the country?”
“You know, the usual,” she said. “Jumped into the television, saved people from being murdered by rampaging versions of their own emotions, beat up Shadows, got thrown into the TV for two weeks, fused a hundred and eighty Personae or so, defeated two gods and one psychopathic murderer, dated this one girl—”
“What is her name?” her mother asked.
“Is she the one texting you now?”
“No, that’s Yosuke.”
“Did you ever date him?”
“As long as you’re happy,” said her father.
“Uh… thanks?” Shouko said, sweating a bit as a flood of text messages hit her inbox. How was she going to answer this all…? “I was wondering if I could go back to Inaba.”
“During Golden Week? Well, I don’t see the problem with that. Just make sure you plan, dear.”
“Yes, father,” she said, and began to work her way through the texts.
Chapter 11: epilogue
The plane had crashed just beyond the municipal airport. Chie was the first one to hear about it, and the first one to panic, too.
“Relax,” Yosuke said. “She’s taking the train, isn’t it?”
“Oh my god,” Chie said. “No, Shouko told Yukiko that she just got her pilot’s license, so she was going to try flying a family friend’s plane.”
There was a long moment of silence. And then Kanji said what they were all thinking: “Are you shittin’ me?!”
Which was why they were all at the airport, trying to wrangle as much information they could get out of one poor desk worker. After a while, all the sensible people there (namely, Yosuke, Yukiko, and Naoto) broke off and sat down on the lumpy chairs.
“And she kept telling me that getting a motorcycle would’ve been a bad idea,” Yosuke said with a sigh.
“It is a bad idea,” Naoto said. “Shouko-san has some measure of self-preservation.”
“Dude… seriously not cool.”
“Hmm,” Yukiko said. She checked her phone. “… Oh!”
“What?” Yosuke said. “Did you get any news?”
“Shouko-san’s flight doesn’t take off for another three hours. I confused the arrival time with the departure! Hahahaha…”
“…” said Yosuke.
“…” said Naoto. Neither of them moved to interrupt Yukiko’s laughing fit. At this point, it wasn’t really like anything worked, anyway.
Man, this was so much fail. "Since we’re here, we might as well invite the rest of the town, you know? They'll be glad to see her back. Remember that Christmas Eve party?”
“Mm,” said Naoto vaguely, adjusting her yellow tie.
“Well, it couldn’t hurt to call Kou and Daisuke.”
“I now see how the party became so large, so fast.”
“Are you saying I’m a gossip?”
“I am never inviting you to my house.”
“Oh my god,” said Chie from across the room, as the first fork of lightning split through the sky. “It’s a thunderstorm!”
… Yosuke got the feeling that they’d be waiting for a while.