There’s a storage room in the back of the Inn. It faces the residential area, away from the river. If you have trouble finding it, then it’s the big room past the first two storage rooms, on the right. The door will be hard to open because I’ve blocked it, and it might be a little dangerous for you to open it until everything’s burned down, so I’d like you to notify the police. Please tell them that the stove is very old, and that they should be careful when entering the room.
I have other things to say, but they’re in the other letters. I wish you the best of luck with your future endeavors, and hope that you live a long life.
Maybe, Chie thought, it was in code. That made, at least, marginally more sense than this letter. Stove, storage rooms, doors, police—it creeped her out. “I wish you the best of luck with your future endeavors, and hope that you live a long life.”
It felt too much like a goodbye.
She had seen Yukiko yesterday. Yukiko said she’d take the day off from school because she was feeling under weather, and asked if Chie might return a library book. That was where Chie had found this note, this… whatever, written on plain, white paper and sealed with official-looking red ink. It said nothing that Chie understood. Talking with Yukiko these days was like that a lot, anyway. Yukiko had always listened more than she spoke, but lately she took to listening and not saying anything, or saying things that hardly seemed like her and blaming it on a lack of sleep. She came late to school almost every morning now, looking dead exhausted and like Yosuke had run her down with his bike.
But no matter how Chie looked at the letter, it still didn’t make any sense. So during lunch, she pushed Yosuke away from Souji and said to Souji, “Hey, can you look at something for me?” and took him up to the roof. She couldn’t stand still and talk at the same time: she paced in circles, read the letter out loud twice, and twitched nervously the more she rambled.
“Calm down,” Souji said. “Give her a call at the Inn.”
The call to Yukiko’s cell went straight to voicemail, which was even creepier. She called the Inn. Gouto said he thought Yukiko was at school. It was the first day in a while that she got up on her own power. She even had breakfast with the staff, something she hadn’t done since summer vacation started.
Souji’s expression became tight. He said, “Ask about the stove,” and Chie did. Apparently, Yukiko had spied the stove in one of the storage rooms, and asked for it to be brought to another room. Just so she could have a good look at it, that was it. It was one of those old fashioned charcoal burning stoves, the ones that hardly anyone used or made anymore.
“Ask him to check on the stove now,” Souji said.
“The door’s stuck,” Chie reported a second later. “Someone’s locked it from the inside. But why? I mean, it makes no sense. Is Yukiko in there, because if she is—”
“Chie,” Souji said, and Chie stopped speaking. “I’m going to bring this down to the guidance office. This note… really bothers me.” He rubbed his fingers against the paper, and then said, “Check your bag. She might’ve left something else.”
She didn’t see what the big deal was. Not unless Yukiko decided to set fire to the entire Inn, but Gouto sounded too clear-headed and unworried for that. She didn’t see what a stove had to do with anything or why Souji looked so scared. Not scary. He looked frightened.
She was halfway down the stairs when the panic hit her. She ran the rest of the way down, and dumped her bag’s contents onto her desk. Then she grabbed Yosuke by the collar and pulled him over to her desk.
“Hurry,” she said. “You need to help me.”
“What the hell are you doing?” Yosuke said. “Geeze, crazy girl. What’s wrong?”
“Yukiko,” Chie said. “She left this weird letter in this book and Souji’s—never mind, help me look for anything that looks like a letter!”
“What’s wrong with—”
“Because!” Because it was something she couldn’t put to words. Because she needed the other letters, needed to see what it said, needed to know more—
A note spilled out of her math notebook (last period of the day, she would later remember. Yukiko had planned this, planned for Chie to find this at a certain time, when it was too late—). It was small, and folded into quarters.
Dear Chie, it started. I hope you found the letter I left in the library book. If you haven’t, then I’d like you to take it out now. By now, you’re in math class. Don’t worry, keep studying. Don’t fall asleep. I’ve left letters for the rest of the team in my desk. If you could check it once class is over, that would be very much appreciated. Don’t forget to live well.
“Yosuke,” she said, weakly.
“I’m on it,” he said. He opened Yukiko’s desk, and removed two letters: one addressed to Souji, the other to the Investigation Team. Neither of them could will themselves to open either. Yosuke took both, and said, “I’m going downstairs to find him. He’s in the guidance counselor’s office, right?”
“I’ll go with you,” she said. They were probably causing a big scene, but Chie didn’t care. The headmaster of the school and the school nurse were in the office along with the counselor and Souji. Yosuke wordlessly handed over the letters. Souji opened the one addressed to him, said to the headmaster, “I’m pretty sure this one’s the same as the others.” The headmaster sized all three of them up, and said suddenly, “Go home for the rest of the day. We’ll call you later. Hang onto those letters.”
Chie didn’t ask what it said. She had a sinking suspicion as to what the letter contained.
“Geeze, you two are making me feel weird,” Yosuke said. “I mean, seriously, what’s going on?”
Souji and Chie exchanged glances.
“Is it about Yukiko-san?” Yosuke said. “I mean, she’s been kind of gloomy lately, but… God, you two are just thinking about the worst-case scenario. She’s probably sleeping in her room and reading a book or whatever.”
“I want to go to the Inn,” Chie said.
“We probably shouldn’t,” Souji said.
“Well, I want to go now, too,” Yosuke said. “Now you’ve made me curious.”
“We probably shouldn’t,” Souji said again, looking down at the letter in his hands. Then he said, “I suppose… we should check up on it.”
Dojima was there, smoking a cigarette.
“You three,” he said when he saw them, his eyes widening. “What the hell are you three doing over here?”
“The headmaster dismissed us from class,” Souji said, stepping forward. “We found some letters Yukiko-san left behind. Is she—”
“Not at liberty to discuss,” Dojima said. “Can’t say anything.”
"Is she okay?” Chie asked. “Nothing bad’s happened yet, right? Because you know, sometimes she can be a little—”
“You kids should go home,” said Dojima. The Amagis were driving back up now, the mother pale and father ashen.
“I’m her friend,” she said, but it was so weak that she didn’t know why she had bothered saying anything at all.
“Yes,” said Dojima. He patted her shoulder. “I know. It’ll… everything will be all right.”
The three of them left the Inn feeling more disturbed than ever.
Dojima came home late, and insisted on sitting down with Souji after Nanako went to bed. He was tapping his unlit cigarette on the desk, rolling it around as though he very much wanted to light it.
“Everything going all right?” he said finally.
“Been sleeping well? Not too stressed out?”
“Everything’s fine,” Souji said.
“You were friends with the Amagi girl,” Dojima said. “Did you notice anything strange about her behavior in the last few months?”
Yeah. Yeah, he did. Going into the dungeons made her pale. She had become unfocused at school. It had been weeks since he heard her laugh, weeks since he had been able to talk to her or get a hold of her longer than a sentence or two.
“A little,” he said. But she had been getting better. Joined them in Naoto’s dungeon for a while, but requested to not be on the main team, which was fine. She needed to catch up with the others. Couldn’t keep up with the rest. “What happened?”
“There was… there was an accident,” Dojima said. “I’m sorry. She’s gone.”
An accident. Souji thought turned to the letter in his desk, the one that told him that he should have her fan, and to not tell her parents anything about the other side ‘in case she should be gone.’ “What kind of accident?”
“In a closed room with the door blocked, and an old stove.”
“It was a suicide, wasn’t it.”
“She’s gone,” said Dojima. “I’m sorry.”
The first thing Souji did was call Chie, because at least Chie deserved to know. Or maybe she already knew. Either way, he wouldn’t find out unless he called. Chie picked up after the first ring.
“Oh my god, Souji-kun,” she said. “Hi! What’s up?”
“Did you hear?” Souji asked.
“What? Oh, yeah. About Yukiko! Haha, yeah, her father called me a few hours ago, and, um, it’s been, uh, I—”
“How are you holding up?”
“I’m great! Just fine! Wonderful! Fantastic, even! Why wouldn’t I be?”
He hesitated. And then he said, “I’m sorry, Chie-san.”
She made a strange, strangled noise into the phone. Something between a sob and a noise of agreement and a whimper. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she said, with a definite quiver in her voice.
“Are you going to school tomorrow?” Souji said.
“My mother wants me to stay, but I don’t get why. I mean, it’ll be okay if I go, I feel totally fine, even though I shouldn’t, so it’ll be okay if I go, I mean, I mean…”
“Yosuke and I were thinking about skipping,” he said. “Do you want to come with us?”
“Isn’t that a bad thing? Not that I’m not up for it! Oh, crap, I think my Mom can hear me—”
“I’ll go call the others,” he said.
It wasn’t on the local news.
Wasn’t in the local papers, either. If it weren’t for the way Chie kept blabbing nervously, and that he heard it from Souji himself, Yosuke wouldn’t have even known. Maybe that was the way the Amagis wanted it. The Inn was still running, but it was like half of the staff was out and about town, making arrangements and speaking to the townspeople in low, quiet voices.
They met up at the Junes food court, all seven (seven?) of them. Naoto was there, too, adjusting her bow nervously. Kanji was next to her, tapping his foot against the ground. Rise was standing instead of sitting, and rocking back and forth on her heels. Teddie probably picked up the atmosphere, because for once, he was subdued, looking back and forth between everyone.
“What?” Teddie kept saying. “What, everyone, what’s wrong?”
“Shut up, Ted,” Yosuke said, but he didn’t feel mean enough to say it again when Teddie started asking questions again. Yosuke knew what it felt like when someone was there one day and then gone the next, but that had been Saki. He hadn’t known Saki that well—hell, hadn’t picked up on the part where she hated his guts.
Souji and Chie were the last to arrive.
“Hi, guys,” Chie said, with a confused cheer, as though she wasn’t certain if she should even try to sound glad to see them. “How are you?”
“What about you?” Yosuke said. The first years were all varying degrees of nervous; it suddenly occurred to Yosuke that Naoto never had a chance to talk with Yukiko. Yukiko was busy at the Inn on the day Naoto felt well enough to come back to school.
“What? What about me?”
“I know I’ve already told you this over the phone,” Souji said, speaking partially over Chie. “But I thought it’d be good to have a group meeting to… talk things over.”
“What’s there to talk about, senpai?” Kanji said, his face drawn into an angry sulk. “She’s gone, senpai. Ain’t polite to talk about the dead.”
“I thought it was an accident,” Rise said suddenly. “My grandmother told me there was an accident over at the Inn, and…”
“The cause of death was suicide by gas poisoning,” said Naoto. “It is completely unrelated to the case. There is no point in—”
“She was our friend,” Yosuke snapped. “Of course it’s related to the case.”
“What I mean is that we know it’s not one of the murders,” said Naoto.
“Lay off,” Kanji said. “You ain’t makin’ things better, Naoto.”
“I was only…”
“Naoto-kun,” Rise said, and Naoto tugged the hat over her eyes.
“Yuki-chan’s down?” Teddie asked. “Why can’t someone revive her?”
“You… you can’t bring people back on this side,” said Souji. He rubbed his hands together, almost nervously. His hands had a subtle shake to them. “The funeral’s tomorrow. I’m going.”
“Me too,” Yosuke said. He looked around the table. Kanji and Rise and Naoto nodded. Chie made no motion, just kept staring vaguely into the distance. “Hey. You going, or not?”
“She’s not really gone, is she?” she said.
“What the hell?” he blurted out. Souji kicked him under the table. Twice, for good measure.
“I mean, the TV… Never mind, forget I said anything.” She covered her mouth with her hand, and rested her elbows against the table, thinking.
“This is… obviously a great surprise for all of us,” said Souji. “None of us saw this coming. There’s no point in blaming ourselves or trying to blame others. Regardless of how we feel, we still have a job left to perform—”
“C’mon, senpai,” said Kanji. “Let’s talk about this after the funeral.”
“We don’t know when the next person might be thrown into the TV,” said Souji. “I thought that we should be—”
“You don’t feel anythin’, do you?” Kanji said. “Just sittin’ there and rationalizin’ it out like it ain’t touchin’ you—”
“Because that’s what she would’ve wanted! It’s…” Souji took a deep breath. “It’s something that… I feel deeply.”
Silence again. And then Teddie asked, in a small, quiet voice, “What is a funeral?”
Rise probably knew there was something wrong before anyone else did. Of course she had. Her Persona was Kanzeon, who heard the cries of the world. And, well, Rise wasn’t Kanzeon, but she had heard something. She had noticed Yukiko’s general mutedness, the layer of quivering self-reproach and disgust that cut through her senpai’s every action. Always roiling below the surface, until it jerked up and consumed her whole. On the day Yukiko locked herself in the room, Rise had been sitting through history when Kanzeon cried out suddenly. Rise had thought it was nothing, nothing until people started talking about how Souji and Yosuke and Chie all suddenly left school, nothing until her grandmother said that it was such a shame about Yuki-chan, until Souji called her and said that Yukiko was gone.
He hated himself for it. She could feel it, even though he said nothing.
She should have guessed it. She talked a lot to Yukiko towards the end, when Yukiko volunteered herself for watch duty on Rise to make sure no Shadows touched her while the others went into the dungeons. Rise thought Yukiko was just a little spooked by the TV World; it happened to everyone. She had thought it was a little strange, that Yukiko had been spooked for so long, week after week. Yukiko had always looked almost—panicked whenever Souji brought into the dungeons with him. And she had become quieter and quieter over the last few days, so quiet that Rise had asked Yukiko a few times if there was something wrong.
Which made it even worse. She had seen all the signs. She had seen them and went right on by. She hadn’t been expecting it. It wasn't an excuse, but it was the truth. She didn’t think it’d actually happen, even though she had seen it, sneaking closer and closer across the horizon.
Chie and Souji got their own letters. Everyone else was addressed in the letter written out to the team. Yosuke didn’t want to read it, not at first, because he didn’t want to know. She probably hated them all. He didn’t see the point in it.
In the end, Rise and Teddie opened the letter for them. It wasn’t a long one, just a bit over a page. He wondered if Yukiko had saved her ink for Souji and Chie, but he didn’t mind. Yukiko’s most important people were Chie and Souji, anyway. He wasn’t about to begrudge her for showing it.
It was a pleasant letter. If not for the beginning, it could’ve sounded like she was on vacation. He could almost recite the entire first paragraph by heart, line-by-line. To Teddie, Rise-chan, Kanji-kun, Yosuke-kun, and Naoto-kun: It was not an accident. I thought I should let you know. It’s not your fault, either. If you can, please watch out for each other. I wish you the best of luck in solving the case. Things should go more smoothly without me.
Bullshit. Maybe she was just doing it for attention, maybe he’d go back home and find out that the funeral had been called off and Yukiko wasn’t dead, she was hiding somewhere in the city, laughing her ass at all of them. That would’ve been better than sitting at a table with his friends and watching Chie’s chin jerk up, halfway into a cry. Because anything would be better than being here trying to fathom what they all did wrong.
He kept thinking about what would happen if Souji died. He didn’t want to even try to think about it. Too damn depressing.
He kept looking at Souji, as though he could make their minds touch. Souji hated himself, anyone could see it. Yosuke didn’t blame him. Souji had slipped up. Souji was supposed to be good at reading people. He was supposed to keep them all together, know when things were going bad—but it was his fault, too. He had talked to Yukiko in Junes on the day she bought that bag of charcoal. He had rung it up for her, insisted on it, joked that he could be her prince for the day. She looked so guilty that he had thought she might have shoplifted something. She kept apologizing to him, too: “I’m sorry, Yosuke-kun, this isn’t fair of me, it’s not fair to you.” Now he knew why.
Naoki came into the shop for a fitting.
“For the funeral,” he said. “Amagi-senpai’s.”
“Yeah,” Kanji said. “Stay still while I get my mother.”
“If she’s too busy, then you could do it,” he said. “I know you can.” So Kanji ordered Naoki to stay still while he took measurements and tried to keep his head busy. Naoki was pretty quiet, too, until he said, “Are you going?”
“’Course I am,” Kanji said. “She was my friend. Why are you going?”
“My parents want to offer their… condolences. The Amagis were kind to us when Sis died.” Naoki’s smile was thin. “I heard that there was a leak in her room. At least she went peacefully.”
At least she hadn’t been murdered by some sicko creep. That would be the only thing worse than this. But this was shitty, too, because Kanji couldn’t stop thinking about it. He didn’t understand it. His father died from sickness, and his mother’s folks died from old age, but that wasn’t the same as… this.
Wasn’t fair to anyone. Wasn’t fair to her parents, wasn’t fair to Chie-senpai. Everyone had liked her. Kanji remembered the shit people said to his mother’s face sometimes, and the thought made his knuckles turn white. People in this town said shit when people were murdered; if they knew it was a suicide—except maybe no one knew except for him and a few others. But if Kanji heard any rumors, then he’d fucking break them.
“Done,” Kanji said. “All I need to do is make the adjustments. Won’t take long.”
“Thank you, Kanji-san.” Naoki was eyeing a few of the scarves on display. His hands lingered on a red one for the briefest of moments, and then returned to his side.
Chie still didn’t understand why. She could understand it if it was an accident, because then it’d be sad, but it’d also be no one’s fault, but people only did things like that when there was something wrong with them. They only did that when they felt like they had nowhere to go.
But Yukiko had her. Chie was there. She would’ve listened to anything Yukiko said. And they had the murder case. There was so much they could’ve done, so much they had to finish. There were so many more things she wanted to do. It wasn’t fair. Yukiko should’ve at least said something, given her a warning of some kind, any kind.
She went to the funeral wearing her school uniform. Her mother made her leave her jacket at home, and all Chie could think was, “It’s cold.” It wasn’t late enough in the year for it to be cold, but it was. She couldn’t stop shivering. Suzuka Gongen wasn’t speaking to her, even though Chie tried to make her talk. The funeral was boring, the funeral was annoying, the funeral was for her best friend who wasn’t dead.
The funeral was a traditional one. The body was dressed in a blue kimono with red flowers, and a rosary was wrapped around the hands. Chie kept staring at the body. She couldn’t think of anything except, “She’s sleeping and we should all get out of here before she thinks we’re being creepy. Oh my god, those flowers, I should’ve bought a more expensive one, thank god Mom made me buy something really expensive.” At the center of the funeral shrine was a school photograph. Chie went to get the picture with Yukiko, and she remembered Yukiko complaining about her hair. Something about it not being long enough or flat enough or the humidity making it poof up. But she looked beautiful in the picture; she always had. It wasn’t fair. There wasn’t any reason for Yukiko to do it, it wasn’t fair that she was dead. Why did they have to hold the funeral so soon, she wasn’t ready for this, why did she have to…
The body was moved to a casket, and the audience was invited to say their last goodbyes. Yosuke and the others insisted that she go immediately after the Amagis, so she did. She didn’t want to, at first. She was a little afraid of what she might see: some hidden emotion frozen in her face, some anger or hate still reflecting in there. But when she went up there, there was only the body, more still than sleep and pale as death. The coloring was a little off, and they parted the hair wrong, but it was Yukiko there, wasn’t it? She was even wearing her favorite lipstick. Or at least, Chie’s favorite lipstick on Yukiko. She told Yukiko once that she liked that shade on Yukiko, and then she started wearing it all the time.
Chie wiped away her tears before they could fall onto the kimono. What was she supposed to say? She felt like she was supposed to say something, but nothing sounded good enough to be a goodbye. She should have talked to her, should have seen this, should have been less selfish, should have protected…
“I love you,” she said instead, quiet enough so no one else can hear. “I always did.”
She touched Yukiko’s lips with her fingers. A bit of red, just a smudge, stuck. She brought her finger to her mouth, and stepped away from the casket.
The others don’t expect her to be like Amagi, which was a relief to Naoto, because her abilities weren’t anything like Amagi’s. Amagi’s element had been fire, with a specialty in healing. Naoto was light and darkness, with a bend towards making sure things that went down never got up again.
She never knew Amagi that well; acceptable, because Naoto figured that none of them had understood Amagi very well, in the end. Rise kept asking how they were feeling, if there was anything they wanted to take care of. Souji pushed them to go faster, to train more, to fight harder, yet was at the same time more cautious. He spent more time with them now, discussing how they felt rather than strategy.
Naoto had studied many suicide cases, and had watched the people mourn, but she rarely stayed much longer than that. But she bore witness to Chie’s absences from school and near constant daze and reckless, berserk fighting. She observed Rise’s sudden near-constant alarm and annoying, irritating interventions, the way Souji fingered a letter in his front pocket sometimes before a battle, Yosuke’s nervous, morbid jokes, how much effort Souji and Yosuke put into talking with the Amagis and with Chie. Then, after Souji’s cousin was kidnapped and Dojima hospitalized, everyone seemed to be on sudden alert for Souji’s abrupt disappearance.
“We’re all a little nervous,” Rise said. “After all…”
After all, the stress of the TV and real life combined could kill a person. It was only logical.
Yukiko’s letter to the rest of the team hadn’t addressed Naoto for very long. She got a few sentences: Naoto-kun, I hope you prove to be an asset to the team. They’re all wonderful people when you get to know them. I hope they’ll be good to you. Naoto wondered if Yukiko had meant to imply that Naoto might not be an asset, that she hadn’t gotten to know the team, that they hadn’t been good to her. She wanted to feel something more than a vague, regretful sympathy, but that was all she had to offer. Her efforts were better concentrated on the future and the present, not this sad, unsolvable mystery with no answer or reward.
Yukiko’s second letter appeared in the mail the day after her funeral. Chie didn’t open it until after they defeated Adachi and the weird eyeball thing. She had been too afraid to, too afraid that the letter might say something hateful, but it was a short, brief letter: two pages, single-sided, written in Yukiko’s neat, thin handwriting. When she finished reading it, she understood Yukiko a little better. A little. But what killed Chie most about the letter was a plain, simple sentence: If I am still alive when you get this letter, then please burn it.
If only Chie had opened that library book earlier, asked Souji about the letter earlier, done anything. But it was too late for that. Time to move on. It hadn’t been her fault. She knew that objectively, yet actually feeling that way… Maybe… maybe she didn’t have to do that now.
Yukiko had sent a box of things to Chie’s things, too. Inside were two sweaters, some clothes Chie had always admired but never dared to want, books, pictures of the two of them from elementary school to high school, a journal they had shared between each other back when they were in middle school, a collection of old fans, a lock of hair. There had been a letter in the box, too, that asked Chie to look through her things fondly. Chie had put the box in the back of her closet. It’d be better to forget.
Igor let him fuse a new Persona, a beautiful, shining thing with metal for wings and a sword in its hands. It was, he realized, his consolation prize for messing up so badly. He didn’t deserve Amaterasu, but Amaterasu was a healing god, and he needed to use her if he wanted to survive. The first time he summoned Amaterasu, Chie had been shell-shocked. It looked like, in a way, Konohana-sakuya. Maybe Amaterasu would have been Yukiko’s. He couldn’t know, except he did. Somehow, some way. He did.
When he wore Amaterasu’s face, he could see Yukiko reflected in him. Not much of her: just little fragments and shards of a link severed too soon.
The murder case was solved, but this never would be, no matter how much Igor talked in philosophical circles. Everyone seemed to be moving on pretty well, even Chie, who had stopped running into every battle as though she wanted something to knock her head off. Maybe it was just him who couldn’t stop obsessing over it. He wasn’t used to failing. He wasn’t used to losing. Amaterasu was a steady, golden gleam in the back of his mind, but offered no insights; and maybe that was punishment enough.
“Awful,” Yosuke said of the cake the girls had made. “Awful.”
“Shut up, Yosuke,” Chie said. She flicked a weird, green glob of—he didn’t want to think about it—at him.
It was the weekend before Souji returned to the city. Yosuke was the guinea pig. The girls had rejected Kanji on account of Kanji actually knowing how to cook.
“I don’t understand,” Yosuke said. “I mean, I don’t get it. How is it physically possible for cake to taste this bad? All you do is add flour and butter and—”
Rise cracked two eggs together. “What was that, Yosuke-senpai?” she said sweetly.
“Sucks,” Yosuke said. “Really sucks. Almost as bad as Mystery Food X.”
Chie sucked in a breath. For a second, Yosuke thought that Chie might start crying. But then she said, stirring some cherries into the batter, “Yeah, well, the secret ingredient in this is—”
“Arsenic?” Yosuke said.
Chie scowled. She whipped the batter harder.
“I assume Mystery Food X is some vile invention of Chie-senpai’s,” Naoto said.
“It wasn’t all bad,” Chie said.
“Um, excuse me?” Yosuke said. “You think it wasn’t bad? Really?”
Chie wrinkled her nose and said, “Well, Yukiko was responsible for the worst of it.”
There was a little silence. Then Yosuke said, “I doubt it.” They laughed, just as much to relieve tension as much as for humor’s sake. It was March. The skies were clear. Everything was fine. It was easy enough to believe that there was nothing they were missing.
In the end, she knows she’s being selfish. She’s an only child. Both of her parents are only children, too. The Inn will have to go to a distant cousin, or a business partner. She doesn’t know. But she’s sick and tired of having her worth being tied to things she does: greeting guests that look increasingly featureless and bland, crawling into a nightmare ten days a month, where her friends break bones and cough blood and drop dead, only to come back alive a second later, gasping for air and shouting things that no one understands. They expect her to bring them back, but they don’t see what she does: three bodies laid flat before her, blood on her hands and in her clothes, the exhaustion that follows after each battle. The others tell her to get her act together; they need her for the next floor, too.
Maybe Chie’s the only one who judges her worth by who she is, but Chie loves going into the TV, and half the time Yukiko feels a dull anger towards Chie for not saying what she wants to be said, for not hearing things she wants to be heard. Souji-kun must be angry with her, because she hasn’t gone into a dungeon with him in weeks. They rescued Naoto-kun without her, and maybe it’s best this way. She can’t go into a dungeon anymore, not without feeling sick to her stomach.
She’s run out. Whatever reserves of strength that tricked her into joining the team vanished in June, and never returned. She thought she could lend other people her strength, but she had been deluding herself. She thought she could change, but now she knows that they’re never going to solve the murders, the killer is going to keep on killing, and it’ll all be because she’s dragging them down. She’s never faced her true self: she’s only put it away for it so it could come back up and wear her down. She’s always wanted to run away, but she can’t free herself from the Inn or Inaba or her duties or herself.
The Shadow is standing behind her, hand on her shoulder, fingers digging into her neck. The Shadow’s grip tightens. There’s a warning on the Shadow’s face: if she doesn’t do this now, then the Shadow will do it for her. Strangle the life out of her, burn her to flames, but a violent death will be too disturbing for everyone else, and she can’t bring herself to do that to them. Konohana-sakuya’s gone, but maybe she’ll return later. If there’s one thing Yukiko’s always lacked, it’s absolute certainty. All of her decisions unravel, and all of her attempts to progress roll back. Maybe if she calls Chie she’ll advance again, an inch for an inch, but Chie’s in class, and her house is empty and there are hardly any guests are here. She’s made sure of it so nothing can shake her this time. She’s planned everything, and left notes for everyone important to her. It’ll be an inconvenience to everyone, but she’ll be dead, so she’s sure they’ll humor her.
Her hands are unsteady. She should have used one of those gas lighters. Instead, she’s trying to set fire to charcoal with a broken match. She blinks at it, and takes out another match. Maybe it’s a sign. A sign that she should cut through the tape she’s using to seal the cracks in the room and remove the desk from the door. Or maybe it’s a sign that she’s never had the mental strength to follow through with anything, that she’s never been strong enough—
The Shadow reaches over and starts a fire for her. Oh. Of course.
It’s an old charcoal burner the Inn’s kept. It’s dangerous, her mother says. Yukiko doesn’t learn the mechanics of it until later, researching on her own. She thinks it’s a good way to die. No mess for the others to find, just a body and invisible, heavy gas.
You should have set this entire place on fire, the Shadow says. That would have been selfish. You think you’re not selfish? Please. You’ve only had two talents in this lifetime: selfishness and running away. Do you think you can run away now? You can’t, you never will. You'll always be a part of me.
There’s not a lot of charcoal, but there’s enough. She’s done the calculations, made sure to buy more charcoal than she really needs, asked the Inn’s staff to help her bring it up to one of the back rooms so she could take a look at it, and brought with her a book she’s always wanted to reread. It’s just past nine o’clock. Second period is starting. She doesn’t feel dizzy or woozy, and she’s not sure it’s working, but the words in the book are blurring and lulling her to sleep, so she must be doing something right.
Things will be better this way. Chie can concentrate on other things. Souji won’t be frustrated by her incompetence. She’s never been worth much, anyway. Snow melts, and flows away. And maybe that's the way things have to be.
The Shadow’s gone, and she shakes with relief. No more Shadow. It’s finally gone. She was so much happier when she didn’t know it was there. What good did truth bring her? All it's brought is anxiety.
The book falls to the ground. Maybe this is a bad idea, but it’s too late to turn back now. She doesn't want to go now, not right now. She needs more time, but this is the time. This is the moment. Her vision is spotting and darkening, folding in and collapsing. She's choking for oxygen she can’t get. Fitting, she thinks, with a giddy little laugh. This is how fires die, isn’t it? Sputtering their way into ash, looking for something to burn.