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Still Waters

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Your name is Yui Narukami.

Everything else is up to you.

---

It’s your third day here. You still don’t really know anybody, although you think Chie and Yukiko have taken a shine to you, which you don’t mind. They seem nice. Not a lot of people would walk the new kid home.

Not a lot of people would kick someone in the balls for accidentally breaking their DVD, either, and you almost felt sorry for the guy, inasmuch as you can feel sorry at all, but you’re still inclined to be on Chie’s side right now. She was nice to you. You want to make friends here--you need to make friends here--and she and Yukiko seem like the best options right now. A good foundation. Two for the price of one.

Still, you did almost feel sorry for him.

So when you see a brief flash of brown hair careen into a garbage can, you decide that you are a good person. You help him out of it. He looks like he needs help in general, anyway. And helping people is important. You need to make friends here. If you help people, they might want to be your friend.

You’re not sure why you need friends, exactly. That dream you had…it told you of a “misfortune at your journey” and a “great mystery”, but you don’t know what those mean, yet. All you have is a strange feeling that you need to prepare for…something. And that making friends is the best way to do that.

“Whew, you saved me. Thanks! Um…” He seems at a loss for words. That happens around you, sometimes. With boys, especially. But he recovers. “Oh yeah, that’s right. You’re that new transfer student, Yui Narukami. I’m Yosuke Hanamura. Nice to meet ya.”

“Nice to meet you too,” you say, because that’s what you’re supposed to say, when someone says that.

Yosuke laughs a little, like maybe he wasn’t expecting you to say that. You file that away for later.

He seems at a loss for words again. “Um…not really used to being rescued by a girl,” he says eventually, sheepishly. Then he backpedals, face reddening. “Not that I’m used to being rescued by anyone! Or, or that girls don’t usually rescue people. Girls can do all the stuff guys can. Girls are great! I mean, um--”

He keeps digging himself further and further. It’s a little annoying, to be honest. “You’re welcome,” you say, smiling a little, cutting him off. You don’t want to embarrass people, not if you can help it.

Although, given that his cheeks are still a little red, it might be difficult with this one.

Thankfully, he changes the subject. That murder again. You wonder if it’s important, although of course you don’t say anything.

Then he realizes you’re both going to be late. He offers you a ride on that squeaky bicycle of his, then seems to immediately regret doing so, judging by how his face reddens again.

You take him up on the offer. Partly because you don’t want to be late, but partly because, throughout this whole conversation, you’ve been feeling this slight spark inside you. A spark you felt when you were talking to Chie and Yukiko, too.

You feel as if that spark is important. You’re not sure you want Yosuke Hanamura to be important, but you need to make friends. And gratitude is a good way to start.

Once you get to the school gate, he stammers that he needs to go park his bicycle and runs off.

You need to make friends.

Fortunately, he seems normal again after school, talking to you about the town.

“Oh, you know about the local delicacy? It’s grilled steak, man! Like that’s anything special, huh?”

He pauses for a moment, like maybe he’s gathering his thoughts, or maybe he’s psyching himself up.

“…I know a place where you can get it cheap,” he says. His eyes are fixed on the floor. “Wanna come? You helped me out this morning, so it’s on me.”

Those last two sentences come out quickly. You’re about to tell him, sure, why not, before Chie interrupts.

It ends with all three of you at a food court. Yosuke seems both disappointed and relieved. He tells you about his connection to the area. It seems like something you should show interest in, since you’re going to be friends, but he spots something on the other side of the court and his face brightens more than you’ve seen in the past three days.

“Hey…it’s Saki-senpai! Sorry, be right back.”

You glance over. “Saki-senpai” seems to be a tired-looking girl with long, ash blonde hair, wearing an apron and sitting at a table. Chie tells you about her. You genuinely don’t feel disappointed when it turns out that Yosuke obviously has a crush on her. You just need to be friends with him.

Saki comes over, and you don’t feel anything in particular when she starts talking. So she’s probably not important. Probably, anyway; you didn’t feel anything the first time Yosuke talked to you. She’s important to Yosuke, though, which means you should be friends with her too. Maybe later. She seems tired right now.

Still, you defend Yosuke when she makes a dig at him, and wonder what he sees in her. You’re sure you’ll figure it out eventually.

She leaves, and after some teasing, the conversation turns to something you’re sure is important. You decide you should check it out.

Back at home, you watch the news with Nanako and Dojima. More details about the murder. More examples of how Dojima maybe is not a very good parent.

The girl being interviewed very much looks like Saki. You get an uneasy feeling.

In your room, lights off, all alone, you watch the clock tick to midnight. Nothing. You’re disappointed; this seemed like something important. You turn away from the TV.

The static starts when you’re not looking. Turning back, you see a blurry, silhouetted image of someone in pain. The uneasy feeling multiplies, growing louder and louder until your head begins to throb and there are words, somewhere, someone is saying something, and reaching towards the TV seems like the best thing to do at the moment, so you do.

Your hand goes in. Your arm goes in. Something pulls at you, yanks you hard, but you break free and fall back, your head banging against the table in the middle of the room. You wonder, briefly, if you’re hurt, but you don’t seem to be.

Nanako calls for you. You reassure her that you’re fine. You go to bed and wake up in the morning.

Things get very complicated, after that.

---

“You came just because it sounded like a good time!” the other Yosuke says. This is all very unnerving, but Izanagi stands tall in the back of your mind, ready to spring into action. “What else is there to do in this shithole? A world inside the TV--now that’s exciting! You didn’t have a single other reason for coming here, did you?”

It smirks and shifts its yellow gaze to you. “Well, aside from wanting to spend some time with her. Can’t even wait for Senpai’s body to cool, huh?”

Yosuke sputters. You stand your ground. It’s just saying things, or you think it’s just saying things. Maybe. The things it’s saying seem to hit Yosuke hard, and you’re not sure they would if they were just lies.

It continues its tirade. You’re on edge, but you can handle it. You’re not sure Yosuke can, though.

“You’re not me! You’re nothing like me!”

No, he can’t.

You stand against a giant monster, and you are grateful for your legendary calm.

You win, of course. You didn’t really think you wouldn’t. It was easy, once you knew what to do. That might as well be your life’s mantra--once you know how to do something, you become good at it, great at it, maybe the best at it. You’ve never known why it isn’t like that for everyone. You never thought you were special. Now, though, with Izanagi resting in your head, and Igor’s words echoing in your mind, you think maybe you are.

Yosuke might not be the same kind of special as you, but the figure floating above him indicates that he isn’t normal, not anymore. Ah, you think. That’s why he felt important.

“If you weren’t here, I don’t know what woulda happened…thanks, Yui.”

You take Yosuke’s hand and lift him up from the floor. Again, his eyes don’t meet yours.

“Saved by a girl again, huh…guess that isn’t so bad.” He smiles half-heartedly as he says it. For a moment, you want to ruffle his hair.

The moment passes, though. He swallows and mumbles, “Um--what it said about you--”

Once again, you throw the guy a bone. “Don’t worry about it,” you say, watching the palpable relief on his face. If he’s your new friend, you don’t want to make him uncomfortable.

Behind you, Teddie clears his throat. Does he have a throat? He makes that sound, anyway.

Together, the three of you try to guess what’s going on. Saving people sounds nice. It sounds like something you’re supposed to do. It probably is what you’re supposed to do; you weren’t given your Persona for nothing.

A great mystery will be imposed upon you…

Decisions and promises are made. You find out what it’s like to be pushed through a TV instead of pulled into one. Chie is understandably upset. You see Yukiko again; you watch the news with Nanako again; you watch the Midnight Channel again; and as you fall asleep, disquieted by the hazy silhouette on the screen, you find yourself in a familiar place…

---

You’d been wondering if you would see that blue room again.

Enough strange things have happened in the past few days that you were hoping to get some sort of explanation, and the strange people in your dream the day you arrived seemed to know a thing or two. So you’re not so much alarmed as annoyed that they haven’t summoned you back sooner.

“As you form bonds by becoming involved with others, your own Social Links will gradually develop…”

So that’s why you felt the need to make friends. It’s still unclear exactly what sort of power you will gain from them, but if it’s related to your new Persona--your new role--then it must be important.

You’ve never been good at friendships. You’re too distant, too neutral; people have called you “aloof” and “stuck-up”, but you don’t think that’s quite right. You just…don’t care, really. You can see why other people like being friends, and that’s all very well and good for them, but you don’t find much of a benefit in it for yourself.

When you were younger, you tried, a few times. It didn’t really work. As you grew older, you stopped bothering.

It isn’t that you dislike people. People are fine. And it isn’t even that you find social interaction difficult; you can hold your own, when you need to, and you’ve been told you have a certain charm. It’s just that you don’t feel the need for it. You don’t feel the need for a lot of things. You do well at school and whatever else you feel like trying, but you’ve never been one for passion. Or anger. Or sorrow. Life is more or less a stretch of calm, for you.

But now, you have a purpose.

And that purpose requires you to make friends.

You’re not bothered by it. You’re not excited by it, either. It’s just something you have to do.

Besides, it’s not like you have anything better to do.

Brush up on your facades. You’re going to need them.

---

The next morning, you walk along the floodplain on your way to school, the same way you’ve walked every day so far. The light breeze coming from the Samegawa makes for a comfortable walk. You can appreciate the little things.

A familiar bell and a familiar voice jar you from your thoughts.

“Yo!”

Yosuke seems jazzed up, confident that there’s something the two of you can do and that the two of you can do it. You’re inclined to agree with him, if only because you already knew that. No sense lording it over him.

“I feel like, as long as you’re with me, I can find the culprit and crack the case!”

He manages to look at you while he says it. Progress. You smile at him. You don’t even need to say anything; his face lights up like your approval is the most important thing in the world. Well, he doesn’t seem to have a whole lot else going on in his life. Maybe it is, for him.

You want to tell him, you’re sweet, but I can’t give you what you want. You’ve never been one for that sort of thing. You’re not sure you’re capable of that sort of thing.

“…well, let’s do our best!” he says with a wide grin.

The spark in you blooms as a voice somewhere deep inside you whispers Thou art I…and I am thou…thou hast established a new bond…

So this is what Igor meant. Energy starts to rise within you; you feel stronger, you feel better. You feel like he’s stronger too. Is it important, that Yosuke is the first one this happens with? It might be. This--Social Link, that’s what Igor called it, this Social Link doesn’t feel like any friendship you’ve had before, not that you’ve had many. And Yosuke’s the first one. Getting in on the ground floor.

You can’t tell him, can you. He wouldn’t understand.

A great mystery…

Make friends, fight monsters, find a killer, deal with the fact that the vaguely annoying kid who obviously has a crush on you might be your new best friend.

It’s gonna be a hell of a year.

---

The Yukiko on the TV isn’t at all like the Yukiko you know. But, you realize, you don’t actually know Yukiko very well. Is this what she’s like inside? The other Yosuke acted strangely, too, but nothing it said was a lie.

You wonder what sort of show would appear if Yosuke was on the Midnight Channel. But you don’t actually know him all that well either, so nothing comes to mind. Something to do with Saki?

In any case, this Yukiko scratches at your skin. You’ve never hung out with any girls who acted like that. There weren’t many to begin with, at the various schools you’ve been to, but there were always a few. Pretty, enthusiastic girls who wanted nothing more than a boyfriend and would try to be as pretty as possible to make it happen. They weren’t always so forward, though. They didn’t think their odds would be very good if the boys knew they were desperate for a boyfriend.

You’ve never been concerned with finding a boyfriend. Sometimes you’ve wondered if that means what you would prefer is a girlfriend, but careful thought has always proven that you’ve never been concerned with finding one of those, either, so that can’t be it.

A boy confessed to you, once. You hadn’t known what to say. You stood there, blank, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did; about thirty seconds of silent staring later, the boy laughed and said he was doing it on a dare, and walked off. He wasn’t laughing all that much, though. Maybe he’d been hoping you would get all excited. But you don’t get excited; smiling is about the best you can manage.

Maybe boys would like you more, if you giggled and batted your eyelashes and acted like those desperate girls or that other Yukiko.

But you don’t think you’d like yourself very much if you were like that.

And right now, someone seems to be perfectly happy with mild smiles and a decidedly conservative school uniform, so maybe there’s something to be said for liking who you are.

In any case, you need to find Yukiko. Whether or not she’s secretly like the one on the screen, she isn’t safe.

You go to bed early tonight.

---

One of the patrolmen apologizes while he brings you in. “I’m sure he set it all up,” he says, glaring at Yosuke, “but we need to at least question you a little. Procedure, you understand. We’ll have you out of here in no time.”

“And what about him?” you ask.

The patrolman frowns. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “It’s not your fault. If he was threatening you in any way--”

“He wasn’t,” you say. “We were just talking. We’re friends.”

The patrolman seems baffled by this. “Well…it’s still dangerous,” he says. “He shouldn’t have been waving around weapons like that.”

“He’s right here,” Yosuke says, glowering.

“You be quiet,” the other patrolman says. He opens the station door. The inside doesn’t quite bustle with activity as much as you thought it would. Maybe it’s understaffed. Certainly there must be a good reason Dojima is always so busy; you think maybe he’s always been like that, always leaving Nanako alone, even before the murders started.

Fortunately, he’s here right now, standing on the other side of the entrance room. He glances over and just stops. And stares. And, after a moment, makes a face and heads over to you.

“Detective Dojima!” one of the patrolmen says, saluting him. “Just a young miscreant and a witness here, sir, nothing you need to worry about.”

“That witness is my niece,” Dojima says flatly. “I’ll take it from here.”

You’re not sure how to feel about Dojima automatically assuming you couldn’t be a young miscreant. But then again, Yosuke’s the only one in handcuffs. The patrolmen had been very particular in not putting any on you, what with you being an innocent witness who was roped into it by a worthless criminal and all.

The patrolmen both salute and start to walk off when Dojima says, “Undo the handcuffs, too.” One of them hastily pulls out a key and releases Yosuke before leaving somewhat faster.

Yosuke rubs one of his wrists. “Man, those things hurt,” he grumbles.

“They’re not meant to be comfortable,” Dojima says. He sighs, long and low. “What were you doing?

There are a number of ways to answer that. “Playing with weapons” does not strike you as a good one. “Yosuke was just showing me his weapons” strikes you as an even worse one. In the end, you settle for, “We were looking at some weapons Yosuke brought. The patrolmen overreacted.”

“Is that so.” Dojima, too, keeps his eyes on Yosuke. “He wasn’t forcing you to do anything, was he?”

“Oh my god,” Yosuke says, putting his hands on his face.

You shake your head. “We were just talking,” you repeat. “We’re friends.”

Dojima stares at Yosuke for a moment longer before finally looking away and sighing again. “…you didn’t seem the type to pull a stupid stunt like this,” he says.

You don’t want to tell Dojima what type you are.

You don’t want to tell Yosuke that, either.

You don’t say anything.

---

The first time Yosuke calls you “partner” is when a pair of Lying Hableries fall to the ground in front of you. They’re down, but you don’t know for how long. You mentally ready another zio.

“Let’s go, partner!”

From his wild grin and the way he’s poised to jump forward, you can guess what he means. You nod.

The ensuing one-sided brawl leaves you breathless with endorphins. Two enemies defeated at once, and you don’t even feel tired. You take note to do that whenever possible.

Yosuke puts his hands on his knees and exhales hard. He laughs. “That was awesome!” he says, looking back up at you and removing his headphones. “You were all, smash, and I was all, slam, and, man, that was just great. I could get used to doing that.”

You decide to grin back at him, which just makes him grin harder. “Partner, huh?” you say.

His grin falters. “Um--just a heat of the moment thing,” he says. “It doesn’t mean anything. I won’t do it again.”

“No, it’s fine,” you say, and his face lights up again. Partner. Why not. He’s your first friend, your first Social Link, which sort of makes him special. And he isn’t bad in a fight. It does imply a level of equality you’re not sure is present, but this is still new. Things might change.

Partner.

You decide to wait and see what that means.

---

You’ve never really been a leader before. In group projects at school, you were the quiet one who did most of the work, but you never told everyone else what to do. You’ve never joined any clubs. You were always just…you. It isn’t that you don’t like responsibility; you’ve never complained about your duties, either, unless they were genuinely bad. But you’ve never thought of yourself as a leader.

Not until you were given this mission.

It feels so natural now, doesn’t it? You paid attention to Teddie’s advice and you made the exact right plans and you never lost. Every order you gave Yosuke felt right. This is the role Igor gave you; this is what you were meant to do.

Being a leader here is much more complicated than being the leader of a school project. People might be injured because of you; probably will, since you know you’ll never be able to block every attack. They might die. You might die.

That scarcely matters. “Leader” is who you are, now.

So when Yosuke and Chie ask you to lead them, you don’t even hesitate in your response.

After all, you’re the Wild Card. Special. It only makes sense for you to lead.

Special and empty, but you’ve known about that last one for a while now.

---

“Hey, um…th-thanks for saving me. Yosuke’s cool and all, but there really is something different about you. I feel like you won’t let me down…”

Thou art I…and I am thou…

Again, that burst of energy inside you. You wonder, vaguely, if sex is similar to this, but you don’t think so; people have sex to relieve an entirely different urge, whereas this connects you to people in a deeper way. Social Links are different. Special. You don’t just feel closer to Chie right now, you feel like she’s a part of you. Her and Yosuke both. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt.

And Chie doesn’t even seem to notice. You can tell that she’s a little stronger now too, but maybe you’re the only one who knows why.

You’ve never had a truly equal friendship. This is no different, really.

---

Funny, how the day Margaret tells you you need to create even more bonds is the day sign-ups start for the sports clubs.

Yasogami High is not especially egalitarian when it comes to sports. The only female sports club is volleyball, which you’ve never liked. Fortunately, both the basketball club and the soccer club have openings for a manager.

You like the basketball uniforms. You don’t feel any particular shame about that.

Some of the boys leer at you a little when the coach introduces you. At your many previous schools, there were always boys who watched you. You’re not bad-looking, even if you rarely wear anything more flattering than a school uniform and your hair is always kept in sensible braids, so you suppose it’s just a fact of life. There have been a few times where boys tried to do more than watch you, too, but they never went too far, and you’re not sure why. You didn’t precisely attack them. You just stared, and then they left, insulting you as they went. There was never any trouble.

You start to wonder if perhaps you have always been special, in a way.

All you do in practice is watch and take notes. You don’t know much about basketball, but you are very good at learning, and you think you will start to know a lot about basketball soon. It’s nice to be useful.

Afterwards, a black-haired boy introduces himself as Kou Ichijo. He doesn’t leer at you. You decide that you like him.

A brown-haired boy from the soccer club drops by and introduces himself as Daisuke Nagase. He and Kou seem to be good friends. You decide you like him, too.

Thou art I…and I am thou…

Two at once. The burst of energy isn’t greater for that; if anything, it’s a little weaker. They’re not getting any stronger themselves. They won’t join you, then. Maybe that’s a good thing; wrangling three people in a fight will be hard enough, and you suspect Yukiko will make four. Six would be troublesome.

Well, Margaret never said all your bonds would be the same. Ordinary friends are still useful.

You’re not going to mention to Yosuke how good Kou looks in his uniform.

---

This time, when Yosuke manages to invite you to get steak, you two are alone.

The steak croquettes at Souzai Daigaku require unladylike gnawing to chew. You wonder if Chie’s ever taken Yukiko here, and if Yukiko politely used a knife and fork to cut them into manageable pieces. You imagine Chie just tearing into one, then noticing Yukiko and guiltily slowing her pace to match.

Surprisingly, Yosuke seems calmer around you now. Maybe it’s the benefit of having spent a few days in a dungeon together. It’s hard to be nervous about a crush when you’re fighting monsters.

But you’ve decided friends can tease each other a little, and you don’t have anything else to do today.

“You take a lot of girls here?” you ask, swallowing a sufficiently-gnawed bite of croquette.

Ah, there’s that flush. “I--um--” But he composes himself quickly. “I told you I’ve only been here for six months, right? Haven’t exactly had time for any of that. Plus there’s that whole ‘Prince of Junes’ thing. I’m not what you’d call popular.” He laughs nervously.

“I see,” you say. You take another bite of croquette. Smaller this time, so at least the awkward pause while you chew won’t be as long.

“So, uh. What about you? Go get steak with guys a lot?” He looks equal parts hopeful and worried.

You swallow. “No,” you say, and leave it at that.

“…I’m kind of surprised,” he says, after a pause. “Well, not that you wouldn’t, I guess. But you can’t tell me no guy ever asked you out.”

“No guy ever asked me out,” you say.

His eyes go wide. “Seriously? Not even one?”

You tell him about the time a boy asked you on a dare.

His eyes narrow again. “Asshole,” he says. “I hope that guy never gets a date with anybody.”

You shrug. You were never really mad at the guy. It takes a lot to break your calm. Or you’re assuming it does--you’ve never actually found out.

“Man, you’re way too calm about everything,” Yosuke says, leaning back in his chair with his arms behind his head. “You didn’t even blink when you saw any of our Shadows. How do you do it?”

You shrug again.

He laughs. “You’re a sterling conversationalist, you know that?”

You shrug again.

Yosuke’s wide grin fades when you both hear the conversation of two passing housewives.

Once you finish and leave, though, you feel a smaller burst of energy. Maybe it’s not as big once you get it started. Still, it’s nice enough that it’s not difficult to smile while you wave goodbye.

Yosuke grins back at you before he turns around to head home. You wonder if maybe this is going to be trouble, if you should hold back. You need friendship. If this goes badly, you might lose one. And if you tell him what sort of person you are, it might go very, very badly.

But you’ve decided you’re a person who likes seeing their friends happy, and Yosuke is certainly happy.

Again, you decide to wait and see.

---

You don’t know what it’s like to have siblings. Your parents barely pay attention to you as it is; you don’t know why they had a child in the first place, much less more than one. Sometimes, on the occasions when you’ve been in one place long enough to sort of be friends with someone, you’ve seen their siblings at their house. Miyoko, in sixth grade, had a sister named Sayuri, in first grade. Miyoko hadn’t liked Sayuri much. You couldn’t tell why; Sayuri was a quiet little girl who read a lot and liked to sit outside on sunny days. She hadn’t seemed particularly objectionable.

You are not in sixth grade now, and you still do not know why Miyoko hadn’t liked Sayuri. After all, you now have a little sister yourself, of sorts, and your role here seems tolerable enough. Love. Care. Protect. You can do that.

“Even if I don’t have a mom, I have Dad with me…and now I have a sister, too.”

Big sis. You roll the words around in your mind. You haven’t even known Nanako for a full month yet, but Nanako thinks of you as her sister. She loves you.

Nanako is sweet and kind and desperately lonely. You are a person who does not want people to be like that, especially not little sisters.

This comes as no surprise, then.

Thou art I…and I am thou…

This is not friendship. This is a different form of bond, and perhaps a more complicated one. Your parents barely show it to you; you have little reference for it beyond fiction and the occasional glimpse around the families of the half-friends you made before you inevitably left.

It doesn’t have the extra boost it did with Yosuke and Chie, but it shines inside you nonetheless.

Big sis.

As you lie in bed that night, you repeat the words over and over in your head until you fall asleep.

---

Yukiko.

A fox.

A young mother.

Dojima, which you were expecting.

Dojima’s partner, which you were not.

Thus far, all of your Social Links have been classmates, relatives, non-humans, and a woman. Tohru Adachi is the first adult man to qualify for the special treatment. He seems harmless, true, and Dojima must trust him, but a certain wariness has been drummed into your bones, and a teenage girl spending time alone with an adult man sets off a great deal of warning bells.

He seems very harmless, though.

“Don’t tell Dojima-san I was in Junes, okay?”

It’s not as if you’re helpless. You resolve to continue your acquaintance; you don’t think that is the kind of danger that you must deal with.

Still, though. You read up on tarot, after you realized knowing more about it might be useful. And you know that Adachi’s arcana is, in essence, the same as yours.

You don’t know what to think about that.

---

After basketball practice, Daisuke enters the gym with a distinctly hang-dog look. You are friends, so you ask him why.

“Ahh, it’s nothing, really,” he says, leaning against one of the walls while you finish refilling the basketball cart. “We got our new manager today. She’s nothing like you.”

“Who’d you get?” Kou asks as he stretches his arms behind his head.

“Ai Ebihara. Can you believe it? She says she doesn’t even plan on showing up. She’s only there to make up for bad attendance in class.” Daisuke sighs. “Man, I wish we had someone like Yui.”

“Yeah, you’re great, Yui,” Kou says, nodding. “You take good notes, you help clean up after practice…hell, I think you put more effort into this than some of the actual players do.”

That’s probably--well, definitely--true. But you don’t mind. You always feel a little stronger after practice, even before you’ve spent time with Kou and Daisuke. You’re not doing this out of obligation to the team, not really. You have no particular interest in basketball, or even in supporting the school.

“What’s she like?” you ask, because there is a particular reason you come to basketball practice, and it isn’t for the sport.

Daisuke looks surprised. “You haven’t heard of her? She’s a real gold-digger. I hear she goes through sugar daddies like they’re actual candy. She’s a knock-out, yeah, but everyone knows she’s basically trash.”

Which does not actually tell you what she’s like, does it.

“And besides, when it comes to looks, our manager’s got it in the bag,” Kou says proudly. “A real girl’s gotta have class.”

You suppose that you should blush at that, giggle, insist you’re nothing special. You don’t.

Daisuke walks over and slaps Kou upside the head. “Hey!” Kou says, mock-offended.

“Don’t be making her uncomfortable,” Daisuke says. He turns to you. “Ignore him. He doesn’t know how to talk to girls.”

You wonder if Daisuke thinks he is much better, for telling you that a girl you’ve never met is trash.

“Anyway, I’m hungry. Let’s grab some food,” Kou says.

You decide to go looking for this Ai Ebihara soon.

At the very least, she sounds like she does not have very many friends, and you know just how to handle that.

---

You find her at the shoe lockers by the school entrance, checking her compact. When she notices you, she quickly closes it and puts it in her pocket. Her makeup looks fine to you, but maybe she just needed the reassurance.

“…what do you want? I’m busy,” she says. She doesn’t look busy. The way she’s standing by the entrance makes her look like she was waiting for someone. But her eyes brightened a little the moment you looked at her. She doesn’t know who you are at all. Maybe she was waiting for anyone who would pay attention to her.

You extend your hand. “My name is Yui Narukami,” you say.

She doesn’t take it. “Ai Ebihara,” she says. “Aren’t you the transfer student? You must be, if you don’t know who I am.”

You nod and withdraw your hand. “I’m the new manager for the basketball team,” you say. “I hear you’re managing the soccer team?”

“Yeah,” she says. “But I don’t care about it or anything. If you want to talk sports, go find someone else.”

You consider your options here. This might not be easy. “I don’t really care about sports either,” you say. It isn’t really a lie; you’re not in the club because of the game. You shrug. “I’m just doing it to meet people.” Definitely not a lie, that one.

Ai snorts. “And how’s that working out for you? Any of those charming boys ask you for your number yet?”

She sounds almost eager to know.

“No,” you say, which is true in a literal sense; you think some of them might start asking soon, and from the beginning there were always a few that looked at you with undisguised intentions, but nobody’s actually said anything yet. “Anyway, I was just wondering if you wanted to--” Compact, perfect hair, slight changes to the uniform. “--go shopping sometime. I don’t know a lot of girls yet, but you look pretty fashionable.”

Ai raises her eyebrows. “Shopping? With me? Really?”

“Shopping. With you. Really.” A touch of personality might make your friendliness more believable.

Ai stares at you for a long moment, then shrugs. “…whatever,” she says. “You should skip afternoon classes next time. We’ll go somewhere far away. I’ll invite you to come with me when I feel like it.”

No burst of energy this time. You’re disappointed, but maybe this one just needs a little work.

“I’m looking forward to it,” you say with a smile.

And you are, actually. Everything else has been so easy. You could go for a challenge.

---

A few days after you’ve saved Kanji, Ai asks you to skip class with her.

Of course you accept. Your grades are always stellar, and Social Links are more important than them anyway.

You’ve only been to Okina City once before. Right now you’re just at the station, but it’s still a world away from small, drab Inaba. Or at least that’s what Ai must think. Personally, you don’t have much of an opinion. You’ve lived in big cities and small cities and small towns and normal towns; everything has its good points and its bad points. Right now, Okina City’s good point is that Ai wants to be there.

“So you go shopping a lot?” Ai asks, running her finger across the collar of a sky blue crop top. “You don’t really look the type.”

“Well, once you leave the city, you start to miss all the stuff you took for granted back there,” you say. Crop tops aren’t very you. They’re not very Ai, either, judging by the way she isn’t really looking at it. “I didn’t shop much before, but now that I see all the drab stuff in Inaba, I feel like I have to make up for it.”

Ai half-smiles. “I know what you mean. I came from a city, too. Then we moved here, and it’s all so blah I could puke. It’s like half the girls here haven’t even heard of contouring, right?”

“Right,” you say, and make a note to look up contouring when you get home.

Ai shoves a frilly white skirt at you. “Here, hold this,” she says. “I’m going to go try some stuff on.”

It proves to be an interesting afternoon. You don’t get to actually try much on yourself; you suspect you’re more there to carry her bags and agree with whatever she says than to buy clothes. But you don’t mind. It’s not like you’d know what to buy, anyway. Is gray good? You like gray.

“I had more fun today than usual. You’re different from the others. I like you.”

Good-different, hopefully. You put up a good front today, you think.

“I think I’ll keep you around. But next time, let’s go after school.”

With this latest burst of energy, you decide that Ai really isn’t so bad. Self-centered, sure, but lonely, if she has to resort to spending time with perfect strangers just so she won’t be by herself. You can work with lonely. You can probably work with self-centered, too.

Kou and Daisuke are still your friends, but maybe their judgment isn’t the best here.

---

When Adachi tells the old woman he promised to have dinner with you, her expression changes to something that could curdle milk.

“That’s a high school uniform, isn’t it?” she says, glancing at you before she returns her glare to him.

Adachi’s eyes widen. “No, it’s not like that!” he says, his voice a little high-pitched. “She’s my boss’ niece, and, and we’re all eating together, right?”

You nod fervently.

The old woman seems unconvinced. “Don’t get into any trouble, now,” she says, and you’re not sure if she’s talking to Adachi or you. “Tohru-chan’s a nice boy. Aren’t you, Tohru-chan?”

“Yes, very nice,” Adachi says. “And busy, like I said, so, uh, maybe next time!”

The old woman nods slowly as she leaves, giving you a careful look.

Adachi exhales. “See? She’s totally clueless,” he says. “Doesn’t understand a thing. She really sucks away my will to live. Can you imagine how awkward dinner would be, just me and her?”

You have a very good imagination, so yes, you can, and you imagine it wouldn’t be that much more awkward than what’s happening now.

“I don’t really like her nimono, anyway. The lotus root is too tough,” he says with another sigh.

You wonder if you should try cooking it sometime. Maybe Nanako would like it.

“Oh, uh, sorry for using you like that,” Adachi says. His face brightens. “You were a big help.”

Your Social Links are important. You need to develop them. Without them, you will not become as strong as you should be. And you are getting better at navigating people; it is often easy to tell how you can become closer to them. Even if perhaps you do not want to.

You don’t dislike Adachi, precisely. It’s just societal instinct that makes you uneasy spending time alone with him. There’s not even really anything wrong with him; he’s still very, very harmless, and sort of endearing, in a way. There’s nothing untrustworthy about him. He’s never done anything that makes you feel unsafe.

Still, two voices war within you: the one that says would Dojima want me to be alone with him at night? and the one that says how much power are you comfortable throwing away?

It is always the second one that wins, and so you internally grit your teeth and externally say, “Why don’t you come over for real?”

It comes as an immense relief when he eventually says, “Sorry, not today,” and the relief lessens when he follows it with, “Maybe next time.”

There are many types of battle you must face.

---

You’ve never had a boy in your room before.

You don’t think Yosuke’s ever been in a girl’s room, either. But you invited him to your house, and it’s polite to show friends your room the first time they come to your house. Even if it isn’t much.

His eyes seem determined to look anywhere but the futon. The shelves, increasingly packed with the books you pick up at the store out of curiosity; the calendar, covered in reminders of holidays and tests; the desk, surprisingly sparse, given that you don’t study much. Finally, his eyes land on the TV.

“That’s where you nearly fell in, huh?” he asks, gesturing towards it.

You nod. “Something pulled my hand,” you say. “I still don’t know what.”

“If every TV leads to a different part of the TV world, maybe yours leads somewhere bad?” he says. “And maybe a Shadow tried to pull you in.” But he looks unconvinced.

“It’s as good a theory as any,” you say. Privately, you think Igor and Margaret might have had something to do with it.

He turns away from the TV. “I’m just glad nothing happened,” he says. “I mean, I guess it’s good that it happened, since you wouldn’t have tried going through the TV in Junes if it hadn’t, but…well, I’m glad nothing bad happened.”

“Me too,” you say with another nod. There isn’t much else you can say.

A brief silence falls. Eventually, he puts a hand on the back of his neck and says, “Man, it’s weird being in a girl’s room.”

You gesture around. “I don’t see anything weird,” you say. “Do boys not have any of this stuff?”

“No, we do, it’s just…” He flounders. “I kinda thought there’d be like clothing all over the place or something. Or makeup. Or, like, stuff guys shouldn’t see.”

“What shouldn’t guys see?” you ask, your tone completely innocent.

“Oh, come on, don’t talk about it,” he says, his face reddening. “I mean, I know I brought it up, but…anyway! I think if Dojima-san saw me in here, he’d bust my ass right back to the station, so maybe we should go back downstairs again?”

“Oh, he wouldn’t do that,” you say.

Yosuke looks surprised. “He wouldn’t?”

“No, he’d need to leave a body to do that,” you say.

You know Yosuke’s fast in the TV world, but it’s still impressive how quickly he vaults down those stairs.

---

You’re just about to pack up your bag and leave school when Yosuke sidles around to your desk with what looks like a carefully-practiced casual smile.

“So, remember how we went to Okina City?” he asks. You nod. “And you remember how we had to take the train to get there?” You nod. “And you remember how we nearly missed it because it only runs twice a day?” You nod.

“Well, I was thinking, maybe we don’t need to be slaves to the train schedule? If we had our own transportation, we could go there whenever we wanted. Or other places, too. The beach isn’t that far by bicycle, and it’s probably gonna be pretty nice there in the summer.”

You try to parse out what he’s saying. “You think I should get a bicycle?” you ask.

“No, regular bikes are lame,” he says, grimacing. “You’ve seen mine, right? I seriously need to upgrade. So I was thinking I should start looking into motorcycles. And it’s boring to go places by yourself, so I thought you should get one too.”

You blink. ‘I’ve never even ridden a normal bike before,” you say.

“Really?” He looks impressed. “I didn’t think I’d ever find something you couldn’t do.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t do it, I just said I haven’t tried it,” you say. “I’m sure I just need to learn.”

He deflates somewhat. “Yeah, I kinda thought so,” he says with a sigh. “You’d probably be a better biker than I am even without learning. But anyway, does that sound fun? Getting motorcycles? Going places?”

You’re getting used to his expression of hopeful worry. “Sure,” you say.

His face lights up. “Good! I got you a manual for a motorcycle license, just in case.” He hands you a thick paper pamphlet. The cover shows a man wearing a helmet and standing next to a parked motorcycle. Judging by how the stern slogans are peppered with exclamation points, the man seems very enthusiastic about road safety.

“Wanna get your license with me, partner? Well, I can’t afford anything bigger than a scooter on my budget, but at least that’ll let us get to new places. Don’t you think we deserve that much, seeing as how we’re investigating the case?”

You’re not sure what the two have to do with each other, but you do like the idea of being able to move around more.

At the very least, Ai might like to ride to Okina City with you. She seems like she might be willing to get up close and personal.

---

The first time you went to Okina City, it was with Yosuke, to hang out; the second and third times, it was with Ai, to go shopping. As you pull into the station on Dojima’s old scooter, you mull over the differences between the two. With Ai, you had to pretend to be interested in fashion, to know and care about why bows were better than lace, why lilac was more in than lavender. With Yosuke, you only had to concern yourself with the usual mask. You’re not sure if that’s actually easier, though; it’s just a different kind of lie.

The ring of Kanji’s bicycle doesn’t surprise you at all. Your latest friend is a persistent one, and you’re pretty sure he doesn’t have anything better to do.

“So, got any plans?” you ask Yosuke, securing your helmet to the scooter.

He takes off his own helmet. “Not really,” he says. “I thought we’d just hang out, like last time? Maybe check out the stores.”

“Croco Fur has a wide selection of products,” you say without thinking.

“Pssh, that crap’s all factory-made,” Kanji says with a snort. It almost amuses you, how he and Yosuke adjust their helmet hair simultaneously. “Mass production ain’t got nothin’ on handmade. And it’s way too expensive, too.”

Yosuke raises his eyebrows. “Do I want to know how you know that?” he asks.

Kanji turns bright red. “I was just--checking out the competition! Yeah! For Ma!”

“I don’t think handmade kimonos and scarves have much to worry about from modern fashion stores,” you say. “There’s no need to get worked up about it.”

“I wasn’t worrying! I--man, there’s this craft shop I want to check out, I don’t need you guys.” And he stomps off into the station.

Yosuke laughs. “Look at him go,” he says, leaning on his bike. “I gotta say, that guy’s one of a kind.”

“I like it,” you say, because you’re the sort of person who would. “It’s refreshing. He could stand to work on that bravado, though.”

Suddenly, Yosuke seems to tense up. “So, uh, that’s the kind of guy you like?” he asks carefully.

“I think everyone has something to like about them,” you say. “How they act, what they do, maybe just what they look like. Everyone’s got something. Kanji isn’t any different.”

Yosuke’s shoulders loosen a little. “Man, you really are something,” he says with a wry smile. “I don’t know if I could ever think like that. I’ve seen a lot of people that don’t have anything going for them.”

“You didn’t pay much attention, then,” you say with a shrug. “You just have to get to know people. There’s always something, even if nobody’s perfect.”

“I don’t know about that,” Yosuke mumbles, looking at the ground. His eyes shoot back up and he puts up his hands. “I mean, that there’s always something, I don’t know about--I already said that,” he says hastily. “So. Um. What was it you wanted to do today?”

You gaze around. The sky is a perfect blue, the air a perfect warmth. The quiet buzz of people in the background is a decent white noise. “Can we just stay out here for a while?” you ask. “It’s nice.”

Yosuke nods. “Sure,” he says. “I don’t have any plans or anything.”

So you sit in comfortable silence, soaking in the early summer sunlight.

Some time later, a few guys walk up to you. Late teens, you think, or maybe early twenties. Carefully cool haircuts. The kind of clothes that reek of city boy.

“Haven’t seen you around here before,” says the one wearing a hat. “You from the city?”

He’s looking at you, not Yosuke. “We’re from Inaba,” you say, keeping your voice neutral. You’re good at that. “Do you want something?”

The one in a black jacket laughs. “That hick town? No way. I didn’t know they had girls like you down there.”

“Hey, we have a lot of stuff down there,” Yosuke says, glaring. You’re a little surprised; he’s always claimed there’s nothing to do in Inaba.

“He wasn’t talking to you, kid,” says the one with the artfully-ripped jeans. He nods to you. “What’s your name?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” you say coolly.

“Aw, don’t be rude,” says the guy in the hat. “We’re just saying hi. No need to snap at us.”

“You were hanging around, we figured you wanted attention,” says the guy in the black jacket. He grins; you don’t like it. “Are you just hanging out, or do you wanna go anywhere?”

Yosuke stops leaning on his scooter and stands straight. “Not with you,” he says, his voice icy.

“I said, he wasn’t talking to you, kid,” says the guy in the jeans, sneering. “What are you, her little brother?”

“He’s my friend, and we’re the same age, actually,” you say, because it’s true, and because it leads to a decent excuse. “Sixteen. How old are you, exactly?”

The guy in the black jacket whistles. “Man!” he says. “If it wasn’t for the uniform, you could hardly tell. Anyone ever tell you you’re mature for your age? ‘cause damn, I barely believe it.”

“Girls these days grow up faster and faster,” says the guy in the hat, nodding. “Age doesn’t even really matter.”

“Besides, if you’re in high school, you should get out and enjoy yourself more before the real grind begins,” says the guy in the jeans. “Have some fun, you know?”

You consider telling them that your idea of fun is piling on a group of stunned monsters with your friends.

“Hey, what’s your number?” asks the guy in the hat.

“Please stop bothering us,” you say. “We were just hanging out together. We don’t want any trouble.”

“I think you could go for some trouble, actually,” says the guy in the black jacket, grinning wide.

Your hand itches for a sword that isn’t there. Glancing over at Yosuke, you notice his fingers twitch, and wonder if he feels the same way.

“What’s this about trouble?” asks a voice from behind them.

Speaking of people who don’t look their age…

Kanji walks up with a death glare in his eyes. “These punks bothering you, Senpai?”

The guys’ faces turn uneasy. “We were just saying hi,” the guy in the hat repeats. “Just being friendly, that’s all.”

“That so.” Kanji looks straight at you. “You want I should take care of them?”

You crick your neck the way you have countless times before battle. “Three against three now,” you say. “We’ve faced worse.”

Yosuke puts his hands to his headphones. “Ready when you are, Leader,” he says with a grin.

“Man, this is getting weird, let’s just go,” says the guy in the jeans. “Freak like you ain’t worth it.”

The other guys grumble their assent, and they all walk off. You exhale.

“That coulda gone a lot worse,” Kanji says, watching them leave. “You sure you don’t want me to show’em what’s what?”

You shake your head. “They might call the police. You don’t need that. Dojima wouldn’t be happy, either.”

“Yeah, he’d find a way to blame it on me for bringing you here,” Yosuke says with a grim expression. “You wanna stick around? I don’t think they’ll bother us again.”

“No, let’s go home,” you say. “The sunlight’s getting a little heavy.” You turn to Kanji. “Any luck with that craft shop?”

Kanji’s eyes widen. “Shit, I forgot!” He runs across the pathway to a nearby storefront and picks up a floral-patterned shopping bag lying propped against the wall. When he comes back, his face is sheepish. “I thought it wouldn’t have the same effect if I was carrying this, so…”

You smile. Yosuke laughs. “Well, at least one of us got what they wanted,” you say.

Yosuke bites his lip. “Man, I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t think it would turn out like this.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” you say. “And the rest of it was nice. I’ve had worse days.”

“Yeah, but…well, let’s just head back,” Yosuke says. The three of you put on your helmets and get on your bikes, Kanji carefully strapping his bag into the basket.

When you finally get back to Inaba, Kanji waves and takes the road to his place. You and Yosuke don’t need to split apart for a little while longer, but when you get to the turn, he stops.

“I’m really sorry,” he repeats. “I didn’t think guys would just come up like that.”

You cock your head. “You think it’s unusual for guys to hit on girls they don’t know?”

“What? No, I just--I didn’t think it was like that,” he says. “For girls.” He pauses. “Has that happened to you before?”

“Yes,” you say, and you’re not lying.

“Like…more than once?”

“Yes,” you say, and once again, you’re not lying.

Yosuke exhales hard. “Shit,” he mumbles. “Well, I’ve gotta go. See you at school.” And he starts up his scooter again and drives off.

You watch him leave before you take your own turn back to the house.

Perhaps one good thing came out of it.

---

Chie and Yukiko’s curry still rumbles in your stomach. Is it a living organism, come to take host the bodies of humans and consume them from the inside out? Certainly it cannot be classified as any form of sustenance; the Geneva Convention would probably have something to say about that. You really, really should have offered to help.

“We said we were sorry,” Chie says, her eyes downcast as she fusses with a stray thread on her blanket.

They are your friends, and as such you need to be nice to them. You refrain from commenting.

Yukiko rolls over so her face is pressed into her pillow. “I want to fall asleep, but I’m so hungry,” she moans, though it’s a bit muffled.

“We made our own bed on that one,” Chie says glumly. She stares up at the tent ceiling. “Ugghh. Hey, Yui, you got any ideas?”

“About how to fall asleep?” you ask. “I usually just close my eyes. There’s nothing to it.”

Chie makes a tch sound. “I don’t know why I bothered asking you,” she says. “You don’t have any weaknesses.”

“Well, there’s wind,” you say thoughtfully.

Chie thwaps you with her pillow. “That’s not what I meant and you know it!”

You take the blow graciously. “Well, if you can’t fall asleep, should we do something to pass the time?” you ask.

Yukiko rises in an instant. “Ghost stories,” she hisses.

Chie’s really quite good at hitting people with a pillow.

“We’re a group of teenage girls in the woods at night,” Chie says, glaring. “Let’s not press our luck, okay?”

“I know some pretty good ones, actually,” you say. “On a night just like this, when no one was around…”

Chie claps her hands over her eyes and hisses “I’m not listening I’m not listening I’m not listening”--

Which is, of course, the perfect time for something to rustle outside.

Chie meeps and covers her mouth. Yukiko’s eyes widen, though perhaps not so much with fear as with excitement. You merely wait to see if the rustling will cease.

It doesn’t. It comes closer, right up to the tent. You find yourself crouching in a battle stance.

Something unzips the tent door.

You’re about to launch yourself at it when you realize it’s just Kanji, looking even more terrified than Chie. As you look at him, he jumps backwards, quickly says, “I was just going to--I mean--I had to--oh, shit,” and falls over.

“You had to what,” Chie says, her voice low and icy.

“I was gonna prove--shit, this was a terrible idea, I’m so sorry, I’m gonna kill him,” Kanji says, cycling from fear to guilt to anger in one disjointed sentence.

You suspect you know who “him” is.

You sigh. “Come on in,” you say, beckoning. “King Moron’s going to be on the lookout for students outside their tents. We couldn’t sleep anyway, more company won’t bother us.”

Kanji’s eyes widen. “You serious?” he says. “But this is a girls’ tent, right? And I’m, uh, not a girl?”

“You’re a friend,” you say. “And it’s cold out. I’ll talk to Yosuke in the morning. We all will. Now, what exactly did he say?”

The tent is warmer with four people in it. You all manage to fall asleep eventually, after Chie vows to push Yosuke off a cliff.

---

As it turns out, a cliff isn’t far.

You hope the river’s as cold as it looks.

---

Rise’s giggling, swanning Shadow is even worse than Yukiko’s Shadow talking about her “lacy unmentionables”. You hadn’t heard of Risette before coming to Inaba, but you’ve never really been into idols; you could always see how thickly they caked over their desperation with cutesy lies. Oh, there are probably some who genuinely enjoy their work. You just never cared enough to look for them.

Now, though, you’re face-to-face with both sides of the idol coin: the simpering stripper and the crying girl. Just because they were never your forte doesn’t mean you can’t see the pain on display here.

You think about being dismissive of the girl in the Quelorie Magic commercial, and you think about how you’ve always been a little proud of how conservatively you dressed, and you think about masks, and you look at the crying girl, and you ready your weapon.

---

Once she’s back on her game, Rise turns out to be just as bubbly as she was on TV--or at least she wants to be, and plays the part accordingly. Out of all the new friends you’ve made in Inaba, she is the most polar opposite to you; her smiles are large, her voice is high, her cheer is wondrous. And she loves you, in a fashion. Her issues were overpowering even before she came to Inaba, and you saved her from that. It makes sense for her to be so attached to you.

And you’re still disapproving of Yosuke, so when Rise jokingly asks you who you’d rather see in a swimsuit--him or Kanji--you instantly say “You, no question.”

The resulting titters from the girls are perhaps even more satisfying than the dumbfounded silence from the guys.

---

Adachi doesn’t really seem to have anything besides “best behavior”, so you can’t strictly say that he’s on it right now. Still, however you phrase it, he seems to be making Nanako happy, and that’s…well, that’s good. It’s good when Nanako’s happy.

You’re really, really not sure how he managed to do the coin trick where the coin ended up in your pocket, but, again, Nanako seemed to like it.

“Maybe I should’ve been a magician. Then I wouldn’t be in such a--uh…well. I guess there’s no job like a government job.”

No, you’re not a Magician, you’re a Jester, you don’t say.

The burst of energy from the rank up feels as good as it always does. It’s a bit of a comfort, knowing that whatever happens from this point forward has no effect, but honestly, Nanako’s happiness is comfortable in and of itself, and you don’t feel so on edge around Adachi right now. Or maybe it’s because you’re not alone with him.

Regardless, the stew is ready. Cooking is nicely mechanical; you don’t have to think too much while you’re making it, and serving it is much the same. A bowl for Nanako, a bowl for Adachi, a bowl for you, and the three of you are all at the table together, eating happily. More or less.

“Dang, you weren’t kidding when you said you were a good cook,” Adachi says, swallowing an overlarge bite. “I wish I’d taken you up on your offer earlier. Is it like this every night, Nanako?”

Nanako shakes her head. “Dad brings home dinner sometimes,” she says. “And sometimes big sis is too tired to make anything. But it’s always really good when she does!”

The days when you come back from the TV world are a little exhausting, yes. Thankfully, there’s a store of ramen in one of the cupboards. You think maybe Nanako has had it for dinner more often than a child should have to.

“School gets you down, huh? I know the feeling.” Adachi takes another bite, thankfully not as large as the last one.

You remember him saying that as a student, he’d spent most of his time studying and little else. It seems a little incongruous, looking at him now, a not-terribly-competent cop in a small town he didn’t choose. You’ve never asked him why he transferred from wherever it was that he came from. You’re not sure Dojima knows either.

“School and work,” you say. “I have a few part-time jobs. They can be a little tiring.”

Adachi’s eyes widen. “A few?” he asks in disbelief, putting down his spoon. “Man, you’re dedicated. How do you even find time to spend with your friends?”

“I don’t need to work every day,” you say. “I make time. Some of us have plenty of free time anyway.”

Adachi shakes his head in wonderment. “You’re one heck of a kid,” he says. “Next you’ll be telling me you have a boyfriend on top of all that too.”

Your smile strains a little. “No, I’m not looking for one,” you say.

“Dad doesn’t like the boys big sis hangs out with,” Nanako says. “He says they’re, um…‘thugs and good-for-nothings’?”

Adachi laughs. “I guess you’d have a hard time finding a boyfriend who could handle Dojima-san,” he says. “Girls should be careful with that sort of stuff anyway. Boys your age can be real troublemakers. You’re way too mature for all that. Maybe you should look into older guys.”

Your mental train derails with a screech.

He didn’t mean anything by it, you’re sure he didn’t, but every conditioned nerve in your body screams at you anyway. Stupid, stupid; you wouldn’t be given a dangerous Social Link, Dojima trusts him, he’s never even touched you, he’s never done anything. The occasional idle comment means nothing.

“Want me to make you dinner?”

“Like…you’d come over to my house? Haha, um, I think Dojima-san would probably have something to say about that…could be interesting, though. Girls should be good at cooking.”

“Why don’t you come over for real?”

“At Dojima-san’s? Well, isn’t that a generous offer. But Dojima-san’s still at work, isn’t he? Does that mean it’ll be just us? I mean, I’d be fine with it, but it’d look weird.”

“Well, I am interested to see what you’re like as a cook. Besides, you’re so pushy about this, maybe I can’t resist any longer.”

It doesn’t mean anything.

But as Adachi and Nanako chat happily, you find you’ve lost your appetite.

---

You didn’t know what to expect from Mitsuo’s dungeon, but now that you’ve reached the final floor, you almost wish you’d never came.

“Wh-what’re you all quiet for?” Mitsuo cries. His Shadow stands silently in the middle of the room, hunched over, looking at the ground.

“Because…I feel nothing…” it says softly.

He’s not like you, that’s for certain. He lashes out; he does not accept anything, and he hides from himself as much as he hides from the world. There is no sympathy to be found here. But still, it is a little…disquieting.

“What are you talking about?! Make sense, dammit!” Mitsuo yells. But his Shadow doesn’t move.

“What the…? Which one’s the Shadow?” Chie asks, uncertainty ringing in her voice.

“I…have nothing…I am nothing…and you…are me…”

You are tempted to tell him that he’s going about this all wrong. Hating people will not make them like you. Sometimes it’s hard work, but putting on a normal face is the only way to convince people you’re like them. You have to decide to be a real person; sometimes you have to decide to be a different person from even your usual normal person, so that individual people will like you.

Mitsuo does not seem to have ever thought of that. It’s almost shameful.

Instead, he has only thought of ways to make people suffer. Which is exactly and exclusively what you are here for--to stop the killer, finally, and fulfill your duties for Igor, and then…

And then what?

You will no longer have a reason to wear your masks; you can return to who you are and let the confusion and worry of your former friends wash over you. They won’t understand, but you won’t care. You won’t care about much of anything. You don’t even really care now.

You can go back to the existence you had before.

…which was what, again?

There’s no time to think; the fight has begun. The familiar beat of battle thrums inside you. You can find out later what will happen when you no longer have a reason.

---

A cooking battle, apparently.

Cooking is something you were good at before you came to Inaba, so it’s safe. If you’re a little quieter than usual, no one notices; they’re too busy celebrating. And as Nanako declares your meal to be delicious, you wonder if maybe it’s okay to keep the masks on for a while longer. You’re still here until March, after all. There’s no reason you can’t continue living with others.

Everyone smiles and laughs and talks. You can do that. Even if you don’t necessarily need any of the strength you might get from people, it’s not bad. It doesn’t hurt to keep going.

It might, later. You don’t know. Maybe you can’t sustain this for long.

Maybe you can’t sustain this for long at all.

But--

--but there’s nothing saying you can’t try, right?

Returning to your old state won’t improve anything. It will just make your days a little grayer. And you’re fine with gray, but when color is an option…

You decide to keep going, for now.

At the very least, the rank up of a Social Link probably still feels nice.

---

The Rise situation, such as it is, reaches a head when she tries to fend off her former manager.

“I have nothing to do with showbiz and all that stuff now! I…I’ve learned some things about myself, and--” She grabs your arm. “--I’m in love with this woman! So I can’t go back! There’d be a scandal, and I can’t deny who I am!”

The manager sputters. At first, you stay stock still, but when you see the look of desperation in Rise’s eyes, you pull your arm away--and she looks horrified until you take her hand instead.

“S-see? I told you…” Rise’s voice only quavers a little.

The manager stays stunned for a moment longer before he pinches the bridge of his nose and wearily says, “Rise-chan, you don’t need to resort to pulling stunts like this. Tell me the real reason you won’t come back.”

Rise’s hand tightens in yours. You are a person who protects their friends.

“It’s not a stunt, Inoue-san,” you say, and you lean over, and you rest your other hand on Rise’s face, and you gently kiss her.

You never put much thought into what your first kiss would be like. Well, you would have thought it would be with a boy, and you would have thought you meant it, probably. But first kisses are supposed to mean something, and a demonstration of friendship is something.

“…we’ll talk later, Rise-chan,” the manager says, his lips drawing into a thin line. And he walks away.

You remove your hand from Rise’s face and step back. “I hope that helped,” you say.

“Y-yeah, I think it did,” Rise says, her eyes wide. “So. Uh. Are you--”

“No,” you say. “I just needed to help a friend. Are you?”

You realize that you’re still holding Rise’s hand.

She looks down. “I don’t think so,” she says quietly. “You’re just so amazing, you know? You lead us all so well, and you’re so calm and patient and understanding, and you listen to people, and you’ve been so nice to me even though I’m not Risette anymore…” She looks back up with a small smile. “And you’re really pretty,” she says. “I don’t know if you know that, but you are.”

Some of her words make you tense, but you tamp it down. “Thank you,” you say, and you mean it. “I don’t know if you know it, but you’re pretty amazing yourself.”

Rise giggles. “Oh, stop that,” she says. “Thank you. Really. I’ll still have to talk with him, and I don’t want to lie about something like this, but…it really helped just now.”

She squeezes your hand one more time and lets it go.

“I wish I could spend more time with you, but…I’ll save it for next time. See you later, Senpai.”

You watch her walk into the tofu shop.

The others don’t need to hear about this, but especially not Yosuke.

---

You haven’t hugged anyone in a long time.

Your parents are not prone to physical affection, or any kind of affection, really. You were never close enough to the occasional friends you made throughout your childhood. It never bothered you; you never needed it, and you were never close enough to anyone to notice if they did.

Now, though, Yosuke looks more abjectly miserable than you can ever remember seeing anyone, and you may still have to click together every social interaction in your head before you decide it’s the right one, but you’ve learned enough about people and enough about him to know that holding onto you is what he needs right now, and you don’t mind providing that.

He laughs shakily when you wrap your arms around him and pull him in. “Never thought this was your style,” he mumbles.

“Do you want me to stop?” you murmur.

“No, it’s--it’s good, you can stay,” he says. His own arms hesitantly slide around you. He presses his face into your shoulder and clings, fingers digging into the back of your shirt. As he shakes, another sob heaves out of him, muffled by your body.

The two of you stay there for a while longer, holding onto each other, until he stops shaking and the tears finally run dry. You give him one more squeeze for good measure before letting go of him.

He exhales hard and gives you a crooked smile. “Thanks, partner,” he says. “I needed that.”

You smile in return. “There’s no need to thank me,” you say. “It was my pleasure.”

The look of raw devotion on his face is almost as powerful as the energy from the rank up.

---

It’s the week before the festival when Yukiko springs her suggestion on you.

“Do you own a yukata, Yui-san? It’s traditional for girls to wear them at the festival. Chie and I always do it, and now that we have even more female friends, I thought it would be wonderful if we could all dress up together.”

Yukiko’s voice is practically breathless over the phone. It does sound interesting, but… “I don’t have one with me,” you say. “It’s in storage back where I used to live.”

“Oh, that’s no problem! We have plenty at the inn,” Yukiko says. “Will you join us?”

There’s no need for hesitation; she sounds so excited, and besides, Rise’s revelation that you’re “really pretty” has been making you wonder what to do with that. “Sure,” you say. “I can’t come over for a few days, though. I’m going to help Yosuke with the summer sale at Junes.”

“Chie mentioned that, didn’t she,” Yukiko says. “I’m busy at the inn, too. Could you come over Saturday afternoon? It’s a bit last-minute, but I think we can work it out.”

“All right,” you say. “I’ll see you Saturday, then.”

With a cheery goodbye, Yukiko hangs up. You stare across your bedroom, lost in thought, until you remember that you really need to get to Junes.

---

The week passes slowly. Summer heat is bad enough; a never-ending stream of customers only exacerbates it, and Chie’s constant patter, while useful business-wise, doesn’t help. The cool quiet of the Amagi Inn’s storage rooms is a welcome relief.

“Let’s see,” Yukiko says, opening a closet. “You wear so much gray, Yui-san. I think you could use some color.”

“Oh, but maybe not too much?” Rise says, having tagged along once she found out. “Something subtle. Like a gray-blue.”

Nanako, who of course you had to bring, makes a soft “Ooh…” as she looks at the carefully-stacked yukata. She already owns one, but you think she enjoys looking at them anyway.

“You gotta go with a dragon pattern,” Chie says with a nod, having tagged along too. “You’re not really a flower person, so you need something cool, and dragons are always cool.”

“I don’t think we have any ladies’ yukata with dragon patterns,” Yukiko says, frowning. She runs her fingers through the layers of stacked clothing. “There’s a nice orange with spider lilies…”

“No, that’s too gaudy,” Rise says. She opens another closet. “Senpai, what are your thoughts on rose?”

You stand dazed. Your previous yukata was light purple checkers, and you haven’t worn it in years. “I…don’t know?” you manage.

“Oh! Oh, this one’s perfect!” Chie exclaims. You turn to her; she shows you a folded deep blue yukata, speckled with light pink cherry blossoms. “You came to us in the spring, and you’re always so calm, but there’s more to you than that--like, still waters run deep, you know? So cherry blossoms for spring and blue for water.”

You take it from her. From the feel of it, it’s made of high-quality cloth, and it doesn’t seem new, either. It must be something the inn’s had for a long time.

“I’m wearing blue too,” Yukiko says. “Though not this deep. What about the obi? We’ve got a lot of nice ones over here…” She walks to yet another closet.

You end up with a lavender obi, and it all fits perfectly. All in all, you suspect it’s the most valuable clothing you’ve ever worn, and you tell Yukiko as much.

“Don’t worry about it,” Yukiko says, waving a dismissive hand. “Just take good care of it. I told my mother I’d be letting you borrow one, and she agreed without question. She knows what a dear friend you are.”

You’ve never been one for blushing, but you think you could, here.

This is nice, isn’t it? Or it would be, if you weren’t…well, you’re a person who enjoys spending time with her friends, so it must be nice. People who enjoy spending time with their friends would like this, so it’s important that you do, too.

“You look beautiful,” Chie sighs. “I feel so plain now.”

“Don’t be down on yourself, Chie,” Rise says. “We’ll all knock’em dead. Right, Nanako-chan?”

“Yeah!” Nanako chirps, eyes wide. You haven’t seen her this excited since the last time you took her to Junes.

Yukiko nods. “Now, the rest of us should get ours on too,” she says. “We don’t want to be late for the festival.”

You do end up being a little late, but the looks on the guys’ faces tell you they don’t mind at all. Are yukata really that special? Well, they’re very pretty, you suppose, and if you already like the girl wearing one, the effect must increase. You wonder what the guys would look like in festival attire. It’s somehow hard to picture.

“We gotta go two-by-two!” Teddie says, a dangerous gleam in his eye. “Raaaawr!”

But of course there are four girls and three guys, so that wouldn’t work. You consider abstaining and going to find Nanako and Dojima, but you shudder at the thought of one girl having to deal with Teddie on her own.

Besides, the past few weeks have put Yosuke back in your good graces, and he’s looking at you like the skies opened up and you walked out, and that’s not bad.

“I’ll go with Yosuke,” you say, if only to see how brilliantly his face brightens.

He does have a very nice smile.

Rise ignores Teddie’s theatrical moan of “Sensei abandons me!” and says, smiling, “Kanji-kun? Is it okay if I walk with you for a while?”

“U-uh, yeah! Sure! That’s fine!” Kanji stammers. Smart girl; that leaves Chie and Yukiko as the ones to go with Teddie, and they’ve always worked best together.

“Well, if I can’t go with Sensei, at least I get two lovely ladies!” Teddie says brightly, quickly inserting himself between them. “Chie-chan, Yuki-chan, you’ll go with me, won’t you?”

“Why do we get stuck with him?” Chie demands. “What’d we do to deserve this?”

“You can use him for target practice in the firing range if he gets too bad,” you say. Yukiko stifles a giggle.

“Oh, fine,” Chie grumbles. She fixes her eyes on Teddie. “But you’d better pay for our food! The meat here doesn’t come cheap!”

“Actually, the prices are pretty reasonable,” Yosuke says, glancing over at a stall selling grilled steak.

“It adds up when you buy in bulk,” Chie says grimly.

Teddie looks significantly less excited while Chie and Yukiko drag him off.

Kanji, bright red, offers Rise his arm. She giggles. “Such a gentleman!” she says, and takes it. If possible, he turns even redder. They walk off in the other direction, towards the games.

It’s just you and Yosuke now. The light, cheery sounds of the other festivalgoers enjoying themselves fill the warm summer air. Somewhere, Nanako is probably having the time of her life spending the evening with her dad. Somewhere else…hm.

You turn to Yosuke. “Actually, there’s someone I’d like to check up on. Care to join me?”

“Of course!” he says, grinning widely. “A friend of yours?”

“Something like that,” you say. You hold out your arm with a smile. After a moment, he takes it, and you’re impressed he doesn’t blush.

“It should be somewhere behind the main building,” you say as you walk through the path. “Out of the way of the crowd.”

“You know your way around here, huh,” Yosuke says. “I’ve been here longer than you and I’ve only visited this place a couple times. What do you do here?”

“Well, there are lots of bugs by the trees,” you say unthinkingly.

Yosuke stares at you. “You collect bugs?” he asks, like he’s not quite sure he heard you correctly.

“I need bait for the fish,” you say with a shrug.

“…you fish?”

“I need fish for the cat.”

“…you have a cat?”

“Sort of. You should meet it sometime, it’s very friendly.”

Yosuke just stares at you for another moment before shaking his head. “Man, you never stop surprising me,” he says.

Your smile strains a little. “I do my best,” you say, and hope he doesn’t notice.

It’s not a long walk to the back of the main building. You lead Yosuke to a little clearing, obscured by bushes. “It should be around here…” you say.

The bushes rustle. Yosuke twitches. “This friend of yours…” he starts.

The fox steps daintily into the clearing. Yosuke’s shoulders slump. “I should’ve known,” he says.

You let go of Yosuke’s arm and crouch down to the fox’s eye level--not an easy feat, in a yukata. “Hello,” you say. It dips its head at you.

“Not too loud for you, I hope?” you ask.

The fox shakes its head. It looks up at Yosuke with an almost inquisitive face.

He waves at it. “Uh, hi,” he says. “It’s kinda weird to see you outside the TV or Junes. I guess I knew that you live here, but…anyway, hi.”

“I saw a few people giving offerings,” you say. “It looks like word’s spread about all the wishes.”

The fox yips. You reach out, and it graciously allows you to pet its head.

“Wishes?” Yosuke asks. “Like the emas?”

You look up at him and nod. “I’ve been helping out,” you say.

Yosuke snorts. “Of course you have. You won’t stop until everyone in this town is happy, will you?”

There aren’t that many arcana. But you are a person who helps people. “I don’t see why not,” you say.

Yosuke sighs, but he looks happy. “I know I said it before, but man,” he says. “You really are something.”

The fox yips. You stroke its muzzle and stand up. “Thank you,” you say, smiling. “Shall we get back to the festival?”

Yosuke holds out his arm. “Let’s go, partner,” he says with a grin.

And so you do.

---

You have no plans to attend the festival on the second day. You are surprised, then, when Ai calls and invites you, but the only thing you had planned was to catch up with your fishing, and that’s not vital. So you accept. She sounds a little desperate on the phone, anyway. Maybe she needs this.

Your yukata is back in storage at the inn, and while you’re sure they would let you borrow it again, it seems like a hassle. So you show up in your usual summer clothes--white T-shirt, brown slacks--and come to terms with Ai’s inevitable judgment.

But she almost looks pleased when she appears at the gate. Her own yukata is light pink with white peonies, and she’s even done up her hair. Her foundation is a little paler, her lipstick a little brighter, her eyelashes a little darker. You consider asking if she’s waiting for someone else.

“You don’t have a yukata?” she asks as she walks towards you in dainty steps. “I guess it makes sense. You just moved here, and all.”

You nod. “I borrowed one from the Amagi Inn last night,” you say. “I’m told I looked pretty in it.”

Ai laughs. “Of course you did,” she says. She pauses. “Did you come here with a guy?” she asks.

“With my friends, but I walked with Yosuke Hanamura for a while,” you say.

Her eyes widen. “Really? The Prince of Junes? You’re friends with him?

“He’s not so bad,” you say, shrugging. “Everyone has their good and bad points.”

Ai shakes her head. “I don’t get you,” she says, but she smiles as she says it. Her smile turns a little crooked. “So…what’s it like?” she asks. “Walking around a festival with a guy?”

“It was nice,” you say. “But it wasn’t really like that. We’re friends.” More or less.

Ai’s smile fades. “Oh,” she says. “I was just wondering…never mind.” She nods brusquely. “All right!” she says. “Let’s go…play games, or whatever.”

You nod in return. You don’t think Ai will much care for catching goldfish, but at least the atmosphere is nice.

First, the two of you end up at the main building. “We might as well make wishes,” Ai says. “They won’t come true or anything, but, whatever. It’s tradition.”

You gaze at the familiar offertory box. “I don’t know about that,” you say.

“What? You’ve had a wish come true here?” Ai asks, eyebrows raised.

“Something like that,” you say. “I don’t think this is the same, though. We don’t have to write it down.”

You wonder if the fox listens to all the wishes, even the ones that aren’t written or spoken.

“Fine,” Ai says with a shrug. “We might as well. What’re you going to wish for?”

You already made one last night, with Yosuke. When he asked, you said it was a secret, and he laughed and said he was just wishing for better grades.

You’d wished that Eri would open up to you more. She’s been difficult lately.

It’s probably best you didn’t share that.

“Everyone’s health,” you say. It’s as good a wish as any.

Ai’s mouth twists. “That’s so boring,” she says. “I’m wishing the truant officer will get off my case.”

But somehow, as the two of you clap your hands and bow your heads, you don’t think that’s true.

As the evening winds down, you decide to ask the question that’s been on your mind since she appeared at the gate. “Why are you so dressed up?” you ask. “Not just your clothes, I mean. You’re wearing more makeup than usual.”

Ai hmphs. “Can’t I just want to look pretty?” she asks.

“You can,” you say. “But I already know you’re pretty, and you weren’t showing off to anyone here. Was there another reason?”

Ai narrows her eyes. “You ask a lot of questions, you know,” she says.

“I know,” you say. “I’m just curious. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

You think, underneath the foundation, you detect a little flush on Ai’s face. “…you have to promise you won’t laugh,” she says.

“I promise,” you say, nodding.

“Well.” She bites her lip. “I’ve never been to a festival with a boy. So I thought…maybe going with you would be like that. And I just wanted to…look the part a little. That’s all.”

So that’s why she wasn’t disappointed you weren’t in a yukata. “Was I a good boy?” you ask.

Ai wrinkles her nose. “Don’t say it like that! And it didn’t work, anyway. This wasn’t much of a date.”

“Well, if I’d known you wanted one…”

“I’m going home now,” Ai says firmly. “Goodbye.”

You wave at her while she leaves the shrine. Really, all she had to do was ask.

---

You’ve always liked the hill overlooking town.

It’s a quiet, peaceful place. The hot summer air is tempered by a hint of breeze, and there are hardly ever any people there. Whether that’s due to people not appreciating it or there not being very many people in Inaba to begin with, you’re not sure. But it’s nice, all the same.

It’s a good place to sit down for a few minutes and think about what you have to do today. Plans of attack, as it were, although you’ll never mention it to anyone. They’d probably think memorizing people’s schedules to optimize time spent with them is “weird” or “creepy” or “not really something people do, are you feeling all right”.

Today, you’re spending time with Yosuke.

“I always wanted to be ‘special’,” Yosuke says, staring off over the edge. “I thought my life'd finally have meaning if I was ‘special’ to someone. That's why I was really excited when I got my Persona.”

You remember thinking, at the time, that he was special, for having a Persona. Or at least not normal. By dictionary definition, anyway, he’s certainly uncommon, as is the rest of the team. But maybe that’s not what he’s talking about.

“But I really didn't need it,” he continues. “It's not what you have or what you can do...just being born, living your life...before you know it, you're already special to someone.”

“You’re right,” you say. You’ve met so many people in this town, and seen so many kinds of lives; everyone is connected to someone, no matter what they do or who they are. And of course on a very logical level there are many people who are special to you because they unknowingly give you power. Not very inspirational, that one, but it’s true nonetheless.

“Yeah…like you. You’re special to me, you know?” Yosuke rubs his nose and doesn’t look at you. You think he’s smiling, but you’re not sure.

This has the potential to go very badly. You’re changing a little, but you’re still not really…all there, as it were. You can’t give him what he wants. You aren’t like that. You could try to be, for him, and you might do a very good job of that, but sooner or later he’d notice.

The fact remains that, as much as you are a person who cares about their friends, you are only doing this because Igor and Margaret told you to. Spending time with people makes you stronger. Sometimes it makes them stronger, but in ways that are only important when you are doing something else Igor and Margaret told you to do. Without your mission, you would not have bothered even talking to anyone in the first place.

And yet you can’t reject him, because he’s never actually asked you. It’s obvious to anyone who even briefly sees the way he looks at you, but he won’t say anything. He can’t think you don’t know. It’s almost genius. He never has to worry about rejection, because he’ll never try in the first place. He can keep admiring you from afar, and if admiring is all he does, there’s nothing you can do about it.

So you don’t tell him he’s special to you, even though he sort of is. You don’t think he’s even expecting you to. Him saying you’re special isn’t a love confession; any of the others could say the same.

“All right, let’s see if we can find everyone’s house from here!”

He’s your best friend, and your partner, and your first Social Link; he’s a lot of important things.

But you aren’t a person who can fully appreciate that.

---

The burst you feel after Yosuke gives you the bandage would almost knock you off your feet if you weren’t already lying down.

New potential whispers in your mind, eddies of energy swirling around into the form of a familiar blue card. Moreover, a shining blue figure appears overhead, overtaking Jiraiya and shifting him into--Susano-o, your mind tells you.

It feels like the culmination of years, though it’s only been months. You are stronger, he is stronger, he is much stronger, and you’ve never felt anything as powerful as this. Is this going to happen with everyone?

And yet, here comes a disquieting thought: does this mean there is no more power to be gained from him?

You don’t want to think about that.

“Well…we’re all counting on ya, partner!”

So you don’t.

---

You’re always tired after spending time in the TV world, and new dungeons are the worst. Right now, after a long, grueling afternoon in Naoto’s lab, all you want to do is collapse into bed. Yes, the fact that Naoto was in the TV world to begin with means the case may be far from over, and you need to sort out your thoughts about that, but Naoto is safe now, and everything else can wait until the morning.

The presence of a drunken Adachi in your living room does not improve your mood any. Nor does the idea that Dojima is comfortable just going to bed and leaving him in your care. You glance at Nanako; she seems uneasy too, though that may be because of what Adachi is saying about the murders.

Adachi didn’t say anything odd in his last two ranks. Nevertheless you find yourself on high alert around him, waiting for something, anything, and finding nothing.

“W-well, now that Dojima-san’s gone, I should get going too. G’nite!”

But as he stands up, his eyes linger on you. Just for a moment. Then he’s out the door.

Your skin prickles. You barely hear what Nanako asks you, and you answer her on automatic. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to notice.

It might have been nothing. It probably was. But you’re getting very good at reading people, and you know he was looking at you, and you know he wasn’t looking at your face.

You are very, very tired.

You go to bed early tonight.

Usually, when you dream about people, it’s strange but not unpleasant, and you always wake up feeling like you somehow understand them a little better. Tonight, you dream about Adachi chasing you, and you wake up in a cold sweat.

---

Your name is on a list.

Why is your name on a list.

Your name is on a list on the school billboard, and you did not put it there.

“Look, Chie’s entering too. She’s actually pretty close to my type.”

“Actually, I hear she has a lot of secret admirers.”

“Oh man, check it out--Yui Narukami? We get to see her on stage?”

The excited murmurs in the crowd grow stronger.

“I didn’t think she was the type. She’s got the longest skirt in the school.”

“Anyway, I heard she was dating Naoki Konishi. People see her with him all the time.”

“Nah, it’s Kou Ichijo. Naoki’s a dud. A team captain’s way more her style.”

I heard it was Kou Ichijo and Daisuke Nagase.”

A resounding ooooohhhhhh echoes throughout the crowd until a smaller girl--is that Ayane?--timidly raises her hand and says, “Actually, I see her with Yosuke Hanamura a lot…”

There is a brief pause before the crowd bursts into laughter.

You walk up the stairs to the roof aware of a variety of potential feelings, none of which are good.

When you arrive, many of them are confirmed.

Yosuke looks so hopeful, though.

“What about you? You want to be in it, right?”

You shake your head and feel no regret when his face falls.

You start to wonder about plans of your own.

---

Ms. Kashiwagi is not difficult to persuade, once you use the right tactics.

---

Later that day, a passing student looks at the bulletin board and is surprised to notice some changes. Firstly, a second list, with the names of several male students. Secondly, the title of the first list has been slightly altered.

Where did a Mr. Yasogami Pageant and a “Mr.” Yasogami Pageant come from, anyway?

---

“You better have a darn good explanation for this!” Yosuke practically yells.

“Show some school spirit,” you say mildly. “We only wanted to make things fair.”

“Yeah, it’s your fault,” Chie says, hands on her hips and a smile on her face. “We figured, if you’re all over the idea of girls dressing up all nice for boys, wouldn’t you be fine with boys dressing up all nice for girls?”

“That’s completely different!” Yosuke says. But his head falls. “I guess we’re stuck with it now, huh,” he says in a weary tone.

“It ain’t so bad, Yosuke-senpai,” Kanji says. He looks almost thoughtful. “It’s a chance to show off, yeah?”

“Oh yeah, show off next to Kou Ichijo,” Yosuke says bitterly. “How the hell did you get him to sign up, anyway?”

“I asked nicely,” you say, and shrug. In truth, once you mentioned it to him, he jumped at the chance. You suspect this may have been because you were the one to ask him. You think you’ll have to keep an eye on him after this is over.

“Just accept it,” Yukiko says. She glances at Kanji. “Besides, we’ll be in the audience. All of us.”

Naoto isn’t in the room, but her presence is suddenly felt strongly nonetheless.

“Y-yeah, okay!” Kanji says. He pumps his fist in the air. “Let’s do this!”

“Fine, whatever,” Yosuke says. “But a “Mr.” Yasogami Pageant? Why did they even let you change that?”

Again, you say, “I asked nicely.” And pointed out to Kashiwagi that high school boys could never properly appreciate a mature female figure anyway.

Yukiko grins slow and wide. “Oh, I’m looking forward to that,” she says.

“Isn’t it kind of redundant with Naoto-kun, though?” Chie says. She purses her lips. “I mean…she’s already…”

“She’s agreed to it,” you say. “But partly in an advisory capacity.”

“Oh yeah…” Chie says. “That’s a good point.”

Partly. There’s a battle plan.

Yosuke puts his head in his hands. “I regret literally everything,” he mumbles.

Chie pats him on the back. “You damn well better,” she says brightly.

---

The group date café is, as you secretly expected, an utter failure on all fronts.

The boys stammer through questions, and the one they finally land on--“Out of the three of us here…wh-who would you date?”--makes all six of you tense.

“All right, let’s start with you, Chie-san.”

“Huh?! Wait, um...a-ahaha...uhhh, well...” She clearly doesn’t want to answer, judging by both her non-response and her increasingly pink face.

You decide to lend a hand. “Yukiko, what about you?” you ask.

“M-me?! U-um, who would I choose to date...? Well...th-that's private...” Yukiko looks even pinker. Perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea.

“Isn’t it?!” Chie says, but she winks at you in thanks anyway.

Yukiko turns to you. “Okay…your turn,” she says. “Who would you want to date?”

You can’t even look at Yosuke; you don’t want to know. But this whole thing is a farce, really, so you decide to end it the best way you can. So you keep your eyes on Yukiko, and say:

“You, actually.”

Her face goes from pink to scarlet as she stammers, “Me? But that’s…”

“Hey, that’s against the rules!” Yosuke says, his voice maybe a little higher than usual. “He said out of the three of us!”

“He didn’t actually indicate which three that was,” you say with a shrug.

“That’s…true, I guess, but…” The class president looks mortified; Kanji looks oddly unsurprised; Chie seems to have cottoned onto your idea and gives you a grateful look; Yukiko’s face is fading back into pink as she maybe figures it out too.

Yosuke looks like he doesn’t know how to feel.

At least the class made a noble effort, you think.

---

“All right, Naoto,” Rise says, flexing her fingers. “Show us what you got.”

“Well, you see, I’ve had to make some…attire…over the years, at various…stages of development, so…” Naoto shoves a large box onto the table and stares resolutely at the floor. “These will be useful,” she mumbles.

You open the box to discover four--tank tops? They look like them, but lifting one up, you discover the material is considerably more restrictive. Not inflexible, though.

Naoto coughs. “You may wish to turn around while you are putting them on. They, ah, don’t mix well with bras, so…”

Ah. You each take a different corner of the classroom, with Naoto standing guard outside. After disrobing, you discover that the article of clothing is not completely uncomfortable. You’d expected it to be harder to breathe, but you seem fine. Moreover, it masks your chest completely.

“We’re ready now,” you say, as you each turn back around. Chie, Yukiko, and Rise are all as flat as you are; their exclamations of surprise are fitting, given the circumstances.

“You made these, Naoto-kun?” Yukiko asks, running her hands down the front.

Naoto nods. “Yes,” she says, her voice a little more resolute. “They come in handy, as you can see. I hope they are not uncomfortable?”

You all shake your heads. “No, it’s fine,” Rise says. “I’ve seen them used in a photoshoot once. They’re pretty great, aren’t they?”

Naoto looks at the floor again. “Photoshoots and beauty pageants are not really their intended use,” she says quietly.

Chie claps her on the back. “Well, whatever they’re for, they’re a real help,” she says. “Even if I don’t think Yui really needs one for hers. Thanks, Naoto-kun.”

You think you see a bit of pink on Naoto’s cheeks.

“Anyway!” Naoto says, raising her head again. “We’ve much more to do than just trying on those, so let’s get to work.”

And indeed, work is what you do.

---

“Ladies and gentlemen! Who’s up for a daring twist on an ever-popular attraction at our fair festival? I give you…the ‘Mr.’ Yasogami High Pageant!”

Behind the curtain, Chie takes a deep breath. “Okay,” she whispers. “I can do this. I kicked a giant statue through the ceiling. I can do this.”

You all nod. “Go get’em, mister,” you whisper.

“Let’s get right down to it and introduce our first contestant! He’s a hero of justice who strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies…and boys! Presenting Chie-kun of the second-year class 2!”

Chie bounds onto the stage in a black kung fu uniform, complete with straw hat. She strikes a pose, palm extended, bare feet braced wide on the ground. “Hee-yah!” she shouts.

A girl in the crowd cheers. A guy says to his friends, “I think I saw something like that on TV last night.”

“Now, Great Master, if you don’t mind answering a question…is your training schedule too extensive, or do you leave any room for gentlemen?”

A few guys in the crowd chuckle. Chie stiffens. “Well…well, I just haven’t found any who can keep up with me,” she says in a decisive voice.

The MC nods. “As good an answer as we’ll get! Now, our second contestant comes from a family business going back for generations. He’s cool, he’s as cold as his name, and he’s someone I wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley. Presenting Yukiko-kun of the second-year class 2!”

Yukiko moves towards him with the slow grace of a predator eyeing its target. When she glances at the audience, she raises the edge of her upper lip and makes a tch noise before continuing and putting her hands in her pockets. There are no cheers or giggles this time; maybe they’re intimidated by the sharp cut of her black suit, or the long black coat, or the stark contrast of the white scarf hanging down from her shoulders. Maybe it’s the sight of Yukiko Amagi with short, slicked-back hair. (Rise could do marvels with hair pins and wigs.) Maybe it’s the cigarette in her hand. Or maybe it’s how one of her sleeves is rolled up to reveal an intricate dragon tattoo.

“You want something, pal?” she says with narrowed eyes and the low voice of someone whose patience is at an end. She brings the cigarette to her mouth and inhales.

“Aheh, well, that is…” the MC stammers. “That is to say…Yukiko-kun, that’s quite a tattoo you have there. Where did you get it?”

Yukiko removes the cigarette and exhales. “I don’t have time for questions, friend,” she says.

“Oh dear, I seem to have run out of them. Next contestant! You know him as a detective prince, but this prince is more the type for fair maidens than crime scenes. Presenting Naoto-kun from first-year class 3!”

You give Naoto a gentle push. She only stumbles a little before striding onto the stage, resplendent in princely garb: a long, deep blue coat and tails, buttons trimmed with horizontal silver braid. Silver epaulets accentuate a high, silver-edged collar, with a white cravat topping a dark gray waistcoat. Blue trousers are cut off by tall black boots. Boys and girls (but mostly girls) alike gasp at the sight.

Naoto only struggles not to cough.

“A real prince at last! Now, Your Highness, a question we’ve all been waiting for. Is it truly the fair maidens who catch your eye?”

Naoto freezes. “E-eh?” she stammers.

But a voice comes from offstage. “Now, now, dear MC, I think you all know who the crowd’s really been waiting for,” a deep, American Southern accent purrs. “So why don’t we let our royal pal take a break and really get this show on the road, huh?”

The MC hesitates, but takes it in stride. “I guess a real king knows more about royal treatment, ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “The famed singer who’s captured all our hearts…and our blue suede shoes. Presenting Rise-kun from first-year class 3!”

There’s no other word for it--Rise shimmies onto the stage. The sparkly white jumpsuit clings, but Naoto knows her stuff and it only gets her hips, which she thrusts at the crowd to a universal scream. Below that black pompadour, her smile is positively wicked. She grabs the microphone from the MC and croons, “Now then, y’all gonna be good boys and girls for me?”

The screaming intensifies. Even Chie, Yukiko, and Naoto widen their eyes.

The MC, perhaps sensing he’s not wanted, slinks back a little. Rise winks at the audience and rolls her hips again. “Looks like it’s up to me to introduce our final contestant. His blade is almost as strong as his desire to protect the people of Japan, and one swift strike is all he needs to cut down his enemies--whether they be evil warriors or people who don’t feed their cats. Presenting Yui-kun from second-year class 2!”

Daidara had been all too happy to lend out what he called his finest art. So long as you bring it back untouched, anyway. But man, is it heavy. And not quiet, either. But from the gasps in the audience, you can tell the red lacquered armor has caught their attention. Behind your mask, you try to look out into the crowd, but the stage lights make it too difficult. You suppose all of you can look for the boys later. For now, you sweat under your cuirass and try to keep your shoulder plates from clanking too much while you walk. How did people fight in these things? Well, practice, you suppose. And they probably didn’t have stage lights.

You unsheathe your katana and raise it in the air to the roar of the crowd. It’s your actual katana, the one usually left stored in the backlot so you don’t have to go in and out of Junes carrying it all the time, brought out now partly because of its authenticity and partly because it looks damn cool. You make careful not to bump it against the horns of your helmet.

Rise relinquishes the microphone to the MC, who accepts it and gets right back as if he never stopped. “Great warrior, I must ask--is there a face underneath there, or must we assume your identity?”

Your hair’s too long to keep a bald cap smooth, so the best you can do is remove just the mask, not the helmet. You think you can see one girl fanning herself.

“Excellent! I feel safer just knowing such a warrior is protecting our people. Now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s voting time. Which of these fine fellows do you think deserves to be ‘Mr.’ Yasogami?”

The crowd buzzes for several minutes. You continue to sweat under your armor. You envy Chie--of the five of you, her outfit is the lightest.

“The votes are in! And the winner of this year’s ‘Mr.’ Yasogami Pageant is…our prince, the noble Naoto-kun! Those fair maidens must have had a thing or two to say after all, eh?”

Naoto’s eyes widen--honestly, all of you expected Rise--but she composes herself as she steps to the front.

“As our champion, Naoto-kun will receive a very special prize…later this afternoon, we will be holding the Mr. Yasogami Pageant, with an entirely different variety of masculinity on display! Your reward is a position as an honorary judge in that pageant!”

You each look at Naoto and nod. She nods in return--no matter who won, there was a plan.

“Well then, Naoto-kun, how does it feel to have won the pageant and become a judge?”

“I feel honored by you all,” she says, bowing to the crowd. More than a few girls titter. She straightens back up. “As for my role as judge, I decree that one of the criteria for the pageant later today shall be…a swimsuit competition.”

You’re not sure if the person falling over in the back actually is Yosuke, but you have a pretty good guess.

---

“But that’s not all for the Culture Festival’s main event! There’s still more to come in the Mr. Yasogami Pageant!”

The cheering from the crowd rises, Near the front, you and the rest of the girls stand in anticipation. You already heard about the surprise contestant…and, well, you’re looking forward to it.

“The judging continues! Can you hear the crowd going wild? Now, for our first contestant, who is no longer on the police watch list! Kanji Tatsumi of first-year class 3! Come on out, Kanji!”

Kanji strides confidently onto the stage, or at least it looks confident; this close, you can see him sweating.

“I’m Kanji Tatsumi! Hi!”

“Tell us a little about yourself, Kanji!”

“My family runs a textile shop! I-I, I like…bikes! Yeah!” It’s all said very quickly, with Kanji staring well past the audience.

“Thank you very much! Up next, a contestant who much have quite a lot of confidence for entering this! Yosuke Hanamura of second-year class 2!”

You cringe, but, well…

Yosuke doesn’t look at all confident when he steps onto the stage. He glances at the floor for a moment before squaring his shoulders and managing to make it over to the MC without incident.

“Uh, I’m Yosuke Hanamura and I…”

Please don’t say anything about Junes, you silently pray. He’s still your friend; you don’t want him to be too humiliated.

You’re in luck. “I’m a transfer student, but I’m having more fun than I thought here!” he says with a shaky grin. Well, that’s surprisingly normal. If maybe a little dismissive.

“That’ll do! Our next contestant is someone whose skills on the court can only be matched by his eyes. Kou Ichijo of second-year class 3!”

Kou waves at the audience when he steps up. “Hi, everyone! I’m Kou Ichijo, and I’m the captain of the school basketball team!” A few girls sigh in the audience. He smiles in return.

“Our last contestant is a random, unaffiliated entrant! He's a friend of our other lovely gentlemen! Calling himself ‘King of the TV World,’ he’s sure to charm the hearts of every girl in town! Give a warm welcome to Teddie!”

Teddie leaps onto the stage, ending in a dramatic twirl before holding his hand out to the audience with a rakish grin. “Ladies,” he says.

“And with that, all our handsome fellows are on stage. Now, let’s have our special judge, Naoto Shirogane, ask them questions.”

All eyes are transfixed on Naoto, who steps up to the stage, perhaps benefiting by not having the crowd look at her face. “I am Naoto Shirogane, the honorary judge for this event,” she says. “I have only a few questions for you all.”

Kanji and Yosuke look relieved; Kou and Teddie look excited.

“Mr. Tatsumi. What sort of bike do you prefer?”

She’s softballing him, you realize. Well, he didn’t actually have much to do with Yosuke’s plan, did he.

“The bigger and louder the better! But, uh, maybe not too loud when people are trying to sleep.”

Naoto nods. “A thoughtful answer,” she says. “Mr. Hanamura, when was your first kiss?”

“Wh--I don’t have to answer that!” he stammers.

“Your response is noted. Mr. Ichijo, what’s your favorite food?”

“I like whatever someone makes for me,” he says with a smile, and the girls in the audience would probably be sighing less if they knew you’re the one who cooks for him.

“Excellent. Mr. Teddie...what is ten plus two?”

Teddie freezes. Yosuke facepalms. Kanji sighs. Kou just looks curious.

“Eheh, well…a stunning bear such as myself does not need fancy numbers to charm the ladies!” Teddie says with a slightly frazzled grin.

Naoto tilts her head. “As you say.”

The MC coughs, and as Naoto steps to the side, the eyes of the audience return to him. “A-anyways, I have a surprise announcement for you all!” he says, grinning widely. “Wait 'til you hear this! For the first time ever, this year's pageant will feature a swimsuit competition! And it's all thanks to Ms. Naoto here! We'll take a brief break while our contestants put on their swimsuits and be back in just a few moments!”

The crowd buzzes again. You turn to the other girls. “Thoughts?” you ask.

“It’s not any different from what we usually see,” Chie says. “I guess I don’t see Kou as often as the others, though, so he stands out to me.”

Yukiko nods. “And Teddie seems to be having fun,” she says.

“Kanji…well, he’s trying,” Rise says. “I kinda feel sorry for him. Especially since Naoto isn’t that far from him on stage.”

It’s a little unnerving, how all their eyes turn to you.

Well. “Yosuke isn’t bad,” you say with a shrug. “But since the point of this is to get back at him, I don’t mind a little awkwardness.”

Outside your circle, you hear strains of “I kind of liked the little blond guy” and “Kou looked nice, didn’t he?” You had assumed Kou had it in the bag--sorry, Kanji--but perhaps he has some competition after all.

The stage is readied once more. “Come on back, fellows!” the MC calls.

Of course Kanji’s in the speedo. You expected nothing less. You did not expect there to be a couple catcalls, but he is pretty decently-muscled.

“Uh, well…enjoy!” Kanji says, and the crowd bursts into laughter.

Yosuke’s out next. You’ve already seen him in his swimming trunks; this is nothing new. The way his hands are jammed into his pockets and his eyes are fixed on the floor is new, though.

“H-hi,” he mumbles, and you almost feel sorry for him. The crowd laughs again.

Kou, on the other hand, you were looking forward to. And it’s certainly not a bad presentation; you already know what his arms and lower legs look like, and they’ve always appealed, but the rest of him turns out to be nice too.

“I hope you like what you see!” he says to a reasonable amount of cheering. He raises his hand to his eyes.

And oh dear, is he scanning the audience for you? There might be trouble the next time you hang out together. Well, you can deal with it.

Teddie vaults onto the stage in the same blue-and-white-striped piece he’d somehow acquired you saw on the beach, including the orange life ring. “This is for all the ladies out there!” he says, blowing a kiss to the audience. Some people cheer, some people laugh; you’re not actually sure the latter one isn’t a point in his favor.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the voting finally begins! Who will be the finest specimen of our fair school? Let’s find out!”

You might as well vote for Kou. Kanji and Yosuke are more or less locked out, and you wouldn’t mind Teddie losing, since you’re positive he would have colluded in Yosuke’s plan if he’d known about it.

“Thanks for waiting, everyone! The results are in, and ooh, there’s some division here. Different tastes, I see. But it wouldn’t be a contest without a winner, and so our Grand Prize goes to…Teddie!”

Half the audience--and you’re surprised at the gender split within it--cheers mightily. Teddie himself bounces on his feet as he accepts the award. “Thank you all!” he cries. “I shall treasure your love for all eternity!”

In any case, the pageant is over. You and the other girls wait outside the gymnasium for the boys to change.

When they return, Yosuke instantly rounds on Naoto.

“What kind of question was that?!” he yells. “‘When was your first kiss?’ Like any of you guys are one to talk!”

Kanji scratches the back of his head. “Actually, there was this drunk chick I was helping home once after I found her on the street…”

“I once had a very grateful and very affectionate client,” Naoto says, lowering the brim of her cap.

“We were kids, okay, it didn’t mean anything!” Chie hisses while she and Yukiko both turn pink.

“The ladies at the food sample stalls are so attentive,” Teddie says with a dreamy sigh.

“Oh, come on,” Yosuke says. “Rise I’d get, since she’s probably done a movie or something, but everyone? Well, except you, partner--”

You clear your throat.

Rise is suddenly fascinated by the floor.

Yosuke looks downright betrayed. “You too? But you said--”

“I said no one had ever asked me out before,” you say with a shrug. And you’re technically not lying--that is a completely true statement. You’re just leaving some stuff out, that’s all.

Yukiko raises her eyebrows. “Wait, before?”

“Oh, big sis!”

Nanako is the very best little cousin.

---

The morning after the hot springs visit, you decide to purge it from your memory.

So, what happens next?

---

There are a number of reasons why Ai asking you to ask Kou what sort of girl he likes is awkward.

The first, of course, is that you are asking him at all, instead of her. She should learn some courage.

The second is the way Kou looks at you when you ask, like he can’t tell whether or not he’s won the lottery.

“I like reliable girls,” he says. “Girls who always work hard, and who put others before themselves, and who don’t put too much effort into making themselves look pretty but always look good anyway, and…”

You politely thank him and excuse yourself before he can say “girls with gray hair and long skirts.”

The third is that you now have to report this to Ai.

---

You decide to just stick with “reliable” girls when you tell her.

“…‘Reliable’ girls? What does that even mean? He didn’t say anything about being cute? Not even like, ‘a beautiful woman’ or anything like that?”

You honestly have no idea what to say here, so you just shrug.

“B-but, every guy wants to be with a pretty girl, right? It's the good-looking girls who find love, isn't it?! Forget this, I'm tired of beating around the bush. Just go ask him if he's got a crush on anyone. What are you waiting for?! Go!”

Oh, dear.

Oh, oh, dear.

You are a person who helps their friends.

“Huh? You wanna know who I like? Uh…well…”

He’s waffling. You stare at him.

Oh, to hell with this. You know she’s listening. You need to cut this off before you lose on two fronts.

Just as he takes a deep breath, you whisper, “Say ‘Chie’ or I will never talk to you again.”

“Ah--huh? I--okay, I like…Chie-san,” Kou says, his eyebrows knitting together. “Is…that all you wanted?”

You nod. His face is a perfect mixture of confusion and dismay.

“Well…I’ve gotta go, I guess,” he says. “See you at practice?”

You don’t nod at that; you already maxed his Social Link weeks ago.

“Uh…goodbye, then,” Kou says, and walks off, waving.

You run upstairs, confident that while you may have averted one disaster, it was impossible to get out of this one completely free.

After you coax Ai away from the ledge, you sit down with her and wonder, how can all of this possibly be worth it? What makes love such a be-all end-all of life? You know it can bring great happiness and fulfillment to many people, but here, helping Ai to sit down from attempting to kill herself over a crush, you can only wonder why people call it such a great thing, when it can ruin people just as easily.

As she tells you about her past, you realize there is more than one kind of mask to have.

“You’re…so nice to me…” Through her mostly-dried tears, she smiles at you, and oh no. “I should’ve fallen in love with you.” Her smile turns crooked. “Haha, just kidding,” she says. But she’s still smiling at you, in a helpless sort of way.

There are a number of options you have here. You don’t think Ai’s gay, or if she is, that’s not where her problems come from; if anything, girls would reject her even more than guys, in this town. But she needs to be loved.

You’re still not gay yourself. The Rise situation was temporary, and mutually agreed-upon to be so. You don’t think this is something to lie about, especially when lying about herself is part of Ai’s problem in the first place.

You sense that she’s about to ask you something that you do not really want to answer.

You stand up and take her hand.

As she looks at your face, startled, you say, “Ai, you’re an important friend to me. I wouldn’t spend so much time with you if I didn’t like you.” Well, she doesn’t need to know the truth. “Let’s keep being friends, okay? I want to help you, and I think you need a friend right now.”

She swallows. “Yeah, okay,” she mumbles. “I was just being stupid. Sorry.”

You withdraw your hand and pull her in for a hug instead. Physical affection is useful in times like these. “You weren’t being stupid at all. There’s no need to apologize.”

Ai laughs softly into your hair. “You should be a counselor,” she says.

“Thank you,” you say, and pull back with a smile. “If it helps, you’re not the only one.”

Ai’s eyes widen. “No way! Who? Do I know them?”

You put a finger to your lips. “I shouldn’t say,” you say. “They wouldn’t want it to get out, after all.”

This is not technically a lie. Rise probably counts. And there was that one time the girl who stands outside the library all day gave you a soulful look after you said she didn’t need to worry so much about her senpai.

Ai laughs. “Not in this town, yeah,” she says. “Although you hear stuff about Satonaka and Amagi--”

“I think that’s their business,” you say. Although, well. You’ve heard stuff. You’ve seen stuff. Maybe more stuff than most people.

“Well, anyway, this was really nice,” Ai says with a smile. “Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure.”

Man, you’re getting good at this.

---

What you are not getting good at is knowing how to deal with Kou.

You’ve already maxed your Social Link with him and Daisuke; the scene on the roof was very touching. You’re keeping the letter from the orphanage in a box in your room, along with the various other gifts you’ve acquired throughout your efforts. The basketball club has been getting along fine without their manager in attendance; it’s not like you ever attended every meeting in the first place, after all. You wave to Kou in the hallways when you see him, politely decline when he asks if you’re going to the meeting, and consider it over.

Kou does not seem to think it is over.

Which you completely understand; you’re friends with him, and friends are supposed to spend time together, and you’ve never said you disliked him. He has no reason to believe you’re no longer interested.

But even before your latest conversation with Ai, you’d often noticed his eyes lingering on you as you passed by him. Not in the unsettling way that Adachi’s had, that one time, but it’s still noteworthy.

And so you are not surprised when, the day after talking to Ai, Kou walks up to you after class and asks if he can talk to you in private.

You end up in an empty classroom, one where the students don’t stick around after school for whatever reason. Once you’re both inside, Kou closes the door behind him. He tries to be discreet about wiping his hands on the sides of his pants, but he’s not very good at it.

“So…Yui,” he starts. “You’ve been a big help to the team. Seriously, I think some of the other players started putting more effort into it once they saw you were writing everything down. And you’re a really important friend to me. You’re probably my next-best friend after Daisuke, and you know how much time I spend with that big lug.”

It’s like an oncoming train. You watch in fascination, hoping it doesn’t show on your face.

“Yesterday you asked me what kind of girl I liked, and…” He catches himself fidgeting and instead balls his hands into fists at his sides. “I told you, didn’t I? Reliable, hardworking, selfless…” His eyes hone in on yours, his mouth firm.

“I was describing you, Yui.”

And there you have it.

“I’ve never met a girl like you. I never knew there could be girls like you. You’re the smartest person I know, but you’re not conceited about it. I know this is cheesy, but…I think you’re the most beautiful girl in the school.”

You glance at his hands; they’re quivering a little. You almost feel sorry for him. But to his credit, he keeps going.

“I feel all mixed-up just looking at you,” Kou continues, his voice just slightly wavering. “You’ve helped me so much, and I don’t want to mess up our friendship, but I can’t stop thinking about you.” He swallows. “I like you, Yui. I think I kinda might…love you.”

Well, that’s a little more than you expected.

“So…Yui…willyoupleasegooutwithme?” The words come out almost too quickly to be understood, but you were expecting something like them anyway, so you get the gist of it. Kou’s mouth is set in a line, but his eyes are filled with emotion: desperation, hope, fear.

In another world, you might say yes. Kou’s attractive, reasonably pleasant, and there’s nothing particularly objectionable about him. He’d probably be a good boyfriend. In another world, one where you were friends with him purely because you liked him, you might say yes.

This is not another world.

You are not the person Kou thinks you are, and the bridge between the two of you is unsurpassable. Moreover, you do not love him; you are not even especially attached to him. He’s not even a team member. He fulfilled his role as a Social Link and helped you at the culture festival, but you don’t need him anymore. You never needed him that much in the first place.

You are a person who wants their friends to be happy, though, so of course you can’t tell him any of that.

Instead, you put a touch of sadness into your smile. “Kou…I’m sorry, but I don’t feel the same way.”

His whole body wilts. His fists loosen, his shoulders lower, and he exhales long and low. But he puts on a crooked smile of his own. “At least you’re letting me down easy,” he says quietly.

You put your hand on his shoulder. “Any girl would be lucky to have you,” you say. “I’m just not interested.”

Kou looks at you for a moment. “…it’s not Naoki Konishi, is it?” he asks.

Where are people getting that from? “We’re just friends,” you assure him. “I’m not interested in anyone right now.”

You don’t think you’ll ever be, you don’t say.

Besides, if you were

…there’d be a different option.

But right now you have to deal with Kou.

You take back your hand and instead give him a gentle punch on the shoulder. “Don’t let it get you down,” you say with a smile. “Go find Daisuke and regale him with your tale of woe. I’ve got some stuff to do today.”

His own smile is a little brighter now. “Okay, okay,” he says, laughing and rubbing his shoulder. “Will you be at practice next time?”

“I’m actually pretty busy these days,” you say with your utmost diplomacy. “Maybe later, though.”

“Yeah, all right. I’ll see you around, Yui.”

He waves, you wave, he leaves, and you’re left in the empty classroom. It could have gone much, much worse. As it stands, you’ve done no harm; he almost certainly won’t ask you again, and he wasn’t crushed by your rejection. It all worked out okay.

Now then. You’ve still got the rest of the day. What should you do?

You decide to go look for Ai again. At the very least, you’ve already climbed that particular hurdle with her.

---

Nanako.

Nanako.

Nanako Nanako Nanako

You still aren’t very good with emotions, but you know, you know that this would be the time for them, seeing Nanako on the Midnight Channel, hearing your heart beat louder and louder and feeling your head fill up and you are a live wire trapped in a concrete room.

You are outside.

You are listening to a list of names.

There is a TV.

You will go tomorrow.

It is tomorrow.

He has her

You have her

she is safe?

she is not safe

And yet, and yet, and fucking yet, you are not--you do not--

you do not know who to pretend to be

there is nothing you can do for her

there is nothing you can be for her

your head is full of nothing

all you have is the knowledge that you should worry for your beloved little cousin little sister

so that’s what you’re trying to do

you do not know if you are doing it

nanako nanako nanako

You spend the first night alone in the house staring at your bedroom ceiling with your head full of things you can’t define.

---

The rest of the month goes by in a blur. Every day you are grateful for your ability to mask yourself, because staring into space will not help you, and you still have duties to fulfill.

It’s almost mechanical, really, how you comfort and aid and cheer up so many others. You’re as invisible to them as ever. Even your teammates do not notice.

You’ve already gotten that final burst from all of your teammates, and several others in and outside of school, including--Nanako. And Dojima. You are very, very grateful you helped them fully before all this.

It does make a strange sort of sense that Marie would be the only one to notice what is happening to you. After she gives you the comb, she gives you a look, like she’s not sure what to say.

“…you’re doing okay, aren’t you?” she asks. “I mean, I know about your family…”

“I’m doing okay,” you say. You’re very good at saying that.

“Hrm.” Marie stares deeply at you. “I don’t know, I just get this weird feeling,” she says. “Igor and Margaret won’t tell me anything about you. They don’t tell me about anything in general, though. I always thought I could trust you to tell me anything, but…”

“You can always trust me,” you say with a smile. “Is there something you want to know?”

Marie frowns. You hold the comb a little tighter. “It isn’t just that you’re sad about your family,” she says. “It’s like…you’re not, and that’s the thing. You’re not acting any differently. That’s weird, right?”

“I’m just good at keeping stuff in check,” you say, carefully softening your smile. “I’m not doing so good inside, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to let that get out, right?”

“No, that’s…hrm. I don’t know how to describe it. I can tell you’re hiding something, and it makes sense that that’s what you’re hiding, but now that I look back on it, I can see that you were always like this. Before your family was hurt. You were always hiding something. I just didn’t notice it, because I didn’t have a reason to.”

Very softly, you say, “And what do you think I’m hiding?”

Marie shakes her head. “I don’t know. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. I just want to know if you’re okay. If you’re really okay.”

You don’t say anything.

Marie bites her lip. “That’s fine,” she says. “As long as you’re making it work, that’s fine. I don’t…I don’t think I can help you. There’s still so much I don’t know. But I’m here, you know? If you ever want to talk about not being okay.”

“…thank you,” you say. “I’ll remember that.” You don’t know if you’ll ever take her up on it, but. You’ll remember it.

“Right!” Marie nods. “Remembering. I can do that, so you can too. Now, let’s go visit a bunch of new places! I want to go to a beach, and on a mountain, and…”

You don’t think Marie will understand. But you don’t know if anyone will, and Marie at least knows what it’s like to feel disconnected from the world.

So, are you really okay?

You don’t have an answer for that.

---

You are in a hospital room.

You are not ice. Ice melts. You are not stone. Stone cracks. You are an empty space, a hole in the universe in the shape of a girl.

They want you to make a decision.

You do not know what to do.

Which is the decision you make.

It is the right one.

nanako nanako nanako

This is what you learn: the strongest reaction you have ever given. It’s a masterwork. Everyone believes it. You almost believe it yourself.

big sis

There is so much to do.

Get started.

---

Ah, so this is anger.

This is all-consuming, raging fury at the sight of Adachi just standing there, in that room, after all that he has done. What right did he have to make it here? Why couldn’t the hospital TV dump him somewhere full of Shadows? Anger, this is anger.

This is anger for Nanako, and you realize it is a relief to know that. This is anger for always telling yourself your uneasiness around him was only due to social conditioning.

This is anger for Dojima, and Saki Konishi, and Mayumi Yamano, and all the deaths that almost happened. This is anger. This is the emotion you are best acquainted with, now.

“It was a lot easier the second time. High school girls are thinner, you know? Lighter.”

This is anger for how he looks at you while he says that.

This is--

--unproductive.

Inside, you take deep breaths. You need to calm yourself, or you will lose what is right now a precious commodity: your ability to analyze a situation and determine what is needed.

Right now, what is needed is calm. Adachi is trying to shake you all; Shadows are made from emotion, and so emotion is his trade. Blind anger will only weaken your judgment. Be calm. Think.

The world will become Shadows, he says? Well, you have all been fighting Shadows for months now. It might not even be all that difficult to keep it from happening. You’re all as strong as you’ll ever be, you think. And Adachi is one man. One important man, yes, but you are important too, and you are backed by seven others and the strength of dozens.

“I’ll be expecting you all…we’ll put an end to this.”

Yes. You will.

But what Rise says, about him calling to you…

---

You go in with the intention of--you don’t know what your intention is. To see him one last time before the confrontation begins? To ask him what made him this way?

You are very curious, these days, as to what makes people the way that they are.

But it doesn’t even matter why you go. You just go. Into that haunting, spattered room where a woman died because a man thought she wasn’t good enough for him. A woman whose identity hardly seems relevant anymore. A man you want to talk to.

When you enter, the red and black portal disappears. But the door is still there.

You don’t need to see him to know that he’s behind you, and you don’t need to hear the click to know that he’s pointing his gun at your head. What else could you even expect? “I was expecting the whole gang,” Adachi says. “Honestly, it’s kind of disappointing.”

“They don’t need to be here right now,” you say, standing perfectly still, your voice as level as ever. “I just want to talk to you.”

Adachi laughs. “Talk to me,” he says. “What, you think you can change anything? Make me see the error of my ways?”

“No,” you say. Because you know you can’t; you know it’s too late to change anything about this, not until it’s all over. And that’s not why you’re here, anyway.

You realize why you are here. You do not like why you are here. Part of you desperately wants to leave, now, before you even tell him why you are here, before you even ask.

“I just have some questions,” you say.

No bright flash leads to him appearing in the chair several feet away from you, not even a puff of air. He’s just there, his gun dangling from his hand, his smile wry.

“I guess I could give you an audience for a few minutes,” he says. “As long as you don’t get all boring and ask why I did it or anything.”

You’re silent for a moment. Don’t ask. Don’t do this. You don’t want to know.

“You wanted to sleep with Saki Konishi,” you say.

“Yeah? So what? I pretty much already told you guys that. Is that your question? It’s not a very good one.”

You still do not move. “You seem very blasé about admitting you wanted to have sex with a minor,” you say.

He shrugs. “It’s not like I ever tried to or anything. No harm, no foul. What’s your point?”

The question, the question. “When you spent time with me,” you say, “you were always very friendly. Complimentary. It is not usual for an adult man to be friends with a teenage girl.”

His grin turns wide. “Oh, I see where this is going,” he says. “Go on, ask me. What are you so dying to know?”

You don’t say anything.

You can’t say anything.

You don’t even want to think about it. Why are you here? You need to leave. This will not help you.

Moment after moment passes.

“You can’t even say it, can you,” he says. Suddenly, he bursts out laughing. “Oh, this is rich,” he says. “You’re too proper to say the words, but you just had to know anyway. I love it.”

Almost every single instinct inside you screams danger danger danger get out get out get out.

One instinct, deep inside you, only whispers, you have a card and a word. You can use them, if you need to.

“Honestly, you never needed to worry about that,” he says. “I only acted like an idiot. Don’t shit where you eat, you know? Dojima-san would’ve flayed me alive if he ever thought I even looked at you funny.”

This is not actually a comfort.

“Not that I never thought about it, mind you,” he says with a lazy grin.

And there it is.

As every inch of your skin crawls, he continues. “You might have tried to hide it with that uniform, but you’re a real knock-out, did you know that? You’ve got the complete works. Nice tits, good waistline, pretty smiles, and you’ve got a decent ass when you’re not hiding it with that skirt. And you were so damn persistent about having me over, too. Sometimes I thought, hey, bored city girl wants some attention.”

A card waits in your mind, ready to be summoned. Kohryu? Beelzebub? Something with teeth.

Adachi leans back in his chair, gun hanging loosely from his fingers. He wears the self-satisfied grin of a predator that thinks it’s cornered its prey. He’s enjoying this. “So big deal if every now and then I pictured you with your skirt hiked up and your voice begging so sweetly. It’s not like I’m the only one. Every guy in this town drools over you. Hey, did you fuck that Hanamura kid yet, or are you just going to have him trail after you with puppy dog eyes forever?”

You finally find your voice, and it comes from deep within you, searing like a flame. “Leave him out of this,” you growl, balling your fists at your sides so tight your fingernails dig into your skin.

Adachi laughs out loud again. “That struck a nerve!” he says. “Sore subject, huh?”

His face grows cold and he leans forward in his chair again, tightening his grip on the gun. “You know, I always hated girls like you,” he says. “A guy waits on her hand and foot, and she won’t even give him a chance. He’d do anything for her, but she just doesn’t give a damn. All she thinks about is herself; she won’t even spare a thought for what he wants.”

“It’s not like that,” you say loudly, and that makes the second time you can ever remember raising your voice, after the hospital room.

“It isn’t?” He shrugs. “I guess you’d know, since you’re the girl who knows everything and he’s just the guy trailing in your wake. Hey, you ever wonder how shitty he feels after he jacks off thinking about you? Like he thinks he’s the one at fault for not being good enough for Ms. Perfect?”

Shiva roars into being above your head with the crush of a card.

Adachi cackles. “That’s my cue!” he says, and then he’s gone, the chair is empty.

“Didn’t you remember?” his voice says from nowhere. “This isn’t really me. I’m far away from here. You’ll have to come get me later. You and all your friends--and him, right? Won’t that be interesting. Well, see ya!”

Shiva fades back into the recesses of your mind. You stand there, breathing heavy, filled with more raw anger than you ever thought you were capable of. You have lost your calm.

You will destroy him.

You barely hear the whispered words in your head, or process the mental image of a cracking card giving way to another. You want nothing more than to go charging in after him, barehanded and alone.

But there is still a part of you that says, that is not the way to win, and you know you have to listen to it.

Still, you make your way back through to Junes with your mind in a blaze. You need to go home. You will be more rational in the morning.

“Welcome back,” says a horribly familiar voice, and rationality is the furthest thing from your head.

Yosuke walks up to you, his face wry until he sees your expression. “Holy shit, what happened?” he says, eyes wide. “You didn’t fight him, did you?”

You manage to shake your head.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” he says, hands up. “I just want to make sure you’re okay.” He hesitates. “Are you? Okay?”

A small part of you wants to shrug it off, lie, and go home. He’ll accept it. It’ll all be fine.

The small part of you is not in charge right now.

This raw desperation to prove Adachi wrong, to (madly, for why did you ever want to?) prove that you are human, is setting fire to your mind.

You grab onto his shoulders, yanking him towards you. You barely notice his cry of “Wait, what are you--”, cut off by your mouth crashing onto his. One of your hands moves up to grip the back of his head; the other moves down to wrap around his waist, keep him pinned. Your tongue charges into his mouth, claiming it as much as you can. You’ve seen it phrased like that in romance novels, dubious things like “claiming” and “dominating” during a kiss, and you’ve always thought that wasn’t terribly romantic, but that’s what you’re doing, he’s yours.

Your eyes are closed, so you don’t know what he looks like right now. His mouth is occupied, so he can’t say anything, although you think he’s trying to. His hands are at your shoulders, clenched into the fabric of your shirt but not moving. That’s fine; he doesn’t need to do anything.

The only other person you’ve kissed was Rise, and that was brief, gentle, a favor for a friend. This is not any of those things.

The pressure from his hands against your shoulders increases slightly.

You break away from him long enough to locate the closest wall to push him up against, and do so. He’s saying something, but you don’t know what and you don’t care. You shove your mouth back onto his, and press your body against him. You can feel his heart beat jackhammer-fast as one of your hands starts to slip up his shirt.

Mine, mine, mine.

You’ve just got your fingers on his skin when his hands on your shoulders push hard and you find yourself separated from him again, his face visible.

His face is flushed, his eyes wide, his mouth partly open. He’s breathing heavily, almost panting.

He looks terrified.

Dimly, you notice that he’s shaking.

You withdraw your hands and take a step back. And another. And you whip around and run out of the electronics department, out of the store, out into the street, ignoring his cry of “Yui, wait!” You run and you run and you don’t even remember how long it took you to get back to the house, or how you managed to unlock the door with shaking hands.

Once you’re inside, you slam the door behind you and slide down it, back pressed against the hard surface. You stare at the floor. You stare at your hands. You pull your knees to your chest and bury your face in them and scream.

When the morning comes, you haven’t moved.

---

You arrive at the studio backlot on edge, flames licking at your mind. You don’t look at Yosuke and you don’t think he looks at you. Everyone else is tense but ready for battle. Well, battle is what they’ll get. What you’ll all get.

The swirling portal in Mayumi Yamano’s room awaits you. You stand before it, everyone around you waiting for your orders.

“Chie, Yukiko, Kanji, you’re with me,” you say. “Naoto, Teddie, Yosuke--” Your voice does not catch. “--in the back with Rise.”

Yosuke’s probably the only one who notices the change--you’ve almost always taken him with you in the vanguard. But not now.

Through the portal and into a twisted yellow world you go.

Ahaha! I told you to come after me, and you actually came?! Don't you guys have anything better to do?

The pavement underneath your feet could be a road from anywhere, but the traffic signs and caution tape ring of Inaba to your mind, much less the far-off red background of silhouetted buildings and telephone wires. None of the dungeons could be considered mentally sound, but this wreckage could not have come from a sane mind. Everyone else’s dungeons reflected their attitudes about themselves; this place is a twisted portrayal of the world itself.

Adachi’s voice is like nails on a chalkboard to your ears. “I see you kept him in the back this time. Couldn’t bring yourself to talk to him, huh? Too shook up?

The others glance at you, waiting for an explanation you will not give.

Nothing to say? Bo-ring. Maybe I’ll just tell everybody. Hey, boys and girls! Guess what your flawless leader did with me last night when she came to visit me all by herself?

Yukiko speaks up first. “If you think you can hurt us just by talking to us, Adachi-san, I think you do not have a very good grasp of combat.”

Then Chie. “Yeah! You wanna take us on? Get down here and do it yourself!”

Kanji. “Or are you too much of a coward to face us head-on?”

Ooh, such good friends you have. But it doesn’t matter. Keep on coming…Ms. Perfect.

On and on your footsteps clatter. Shadow after Shadow falls to blade, foot, fan, and shield. Shadow after Shadow after Shadow. Are there more than usual, or is everything blurring together in your raging mind?

Because you are still raging, burying it as deep inside you as you can. You want to blame your actions on Adachi, and it is so very easy to be angry at him, but you know Adachi was not the one to do them, and anger at yourself roars just as easily, perhaps even more so. So inside yourself you scream, and outside yourself you destroy, and you do not think, you cannot think.

The last of a group of Jupiter Eagles falls and you find yourself breathing hard, too hard. Yukiko puts her hand on your shoulder. “Are you okay, Yui-san?” she asks softly. “We can rest for a moment.”

You shake your head. You are almost there, or at least you think you are. The paths seem strange, here. Or maybe your head does? It doesn’t matter. Keep going.

Ahaha! That's right! As you have guessed, I'm waiting for you just beyond here. But did you really think I'd just let you through?”

You want to scream. It wouldn’t do anything, though, besides make everyone worry and say they can be done for the day. Is there a way to finish this floor and leave? There must be. Keep going, keep going.

A giant hole in the ground? Well, why not. There doesn’t seem to be anything else. The floor you land on is filled with red and purple, rather than dingy yellow, though the police tape remains.

Oh, you were able to escape! Not bad, not bad! You guys are better than you look.

Every word he says adds fuel to the inferno inside you. Of all the emotions to get a crash course in, anger is--well, it is what it is, and you can’t do anything about it. Besides grit your teeth and raise your sword and crush your card.

Half a group of Shadows goes down, leaving only two Judgment Swords. What are they weak to, again? Ah. Wind. Well, you can do that. Norn springs forth from your mind, sending a magarudyne straight at them--

--and missing--

--(his attacks hardly ever miss)--

--and a giant sword swings down on you--

You barely hear the crackle of electricity as Kanji roars at them, though you think you process Yukiko falling to the ground; everything is a sharp scream of pain, a maelstrom from your shoulder down, and you are on the ground, and you are--ah, so that’s what the inside of your lung looks like. You’d never wondered, but every day is a learning experience.

Yukiko is--Yukiko is not there. Yukiko is down and Chie and Kanji don’t have any healing spells and you don’t think you can raise your hand to summon anything and you can’t breathe you can’t breathe your throat is full of blood and and you are going to die this is how you will die you have failed you have failed you have failed everyone you have failed hi--

Loud footsteps crash into the room. Three, four people? Does it matter? Everything is a red blur. Something is holding your head.

The unfulfilling but cool wave of a diarama flows over you. Is it--are you--you can see, and you can breathe, and you can lift your head, and you don’t think anything that should not be outside your body is currently outside your body.

But you don’t think you can stand up. Whatever was holding your head lets go; you let it fall back, and stare blearily at the red sky.

Sounds rush in. Voices. Is Chie crying? Yes, but--you vaguely see a red shape stand up on wavering legs, and raise what might be a fan, and something tall and pale yellow flickers into view, and ohhhhhhhhhh

The wave this time is an overpowering jolt to your senses. You stand up in an instant, running your hands down your torso. Healing spells even clean up the blood, somehow, but the long tear in your clothing still shows what must have been a clean cut through your shoulder down to your hips, slashing open your left lung. If it had been at an angle, it might have hit your heart.

You finally lift your eyes and look around. Yukiko’s shirt has a similar gash. Everyone else is more or less untouched. Everyone? Yes, the rearguard has caught up. All their faces are pale, eyes wide, breath heavy.

“You stupid--” Kanji barrels into you, pulling you into his arms for a moment before pulling back. “You coulda just used whatever you had on you,” he says. “Yukiko-senpai’n’me would’ve helped you take them out, no sweat.”

Behind him, you see Chie holding onto Yukiko, still sobbing. Judgment Swords are immune to physical attacks, and resistant to ice; you all knew from the start of the battle that she couldn’t do much this time. What must it be like, to see people cut down and know you can do nothing to help them?

Kanji lets go of you. “Stupid,” he repeats. “If Yosuke-senpai hadn’t shown up--”

Diarama. Yes. Weak, these days, but if you and Yukiko are both down, and Teddie can’t run as fast in that stupid suit--then there really is only one person who could have saved you so quickly, is there.

You step to the side. Kanji was blocking your view; Yosuke stands next to Chie and Yukiko. His face is white as a sheet, his fingers jittery around his kunai. You almost want to tell him, Careful, don’t cut yourself.

Instead, you can’t meet his eyes.

“We’re going back for today,” Chie says firmly. “That last salvation took a lot out of Yukiko, and everyone needs a rest.” The unspoken Especially you, Leader rings in your ears.

Everyone nods. You pull a goho-m out of your pocket and toss it in the air, letting it absorb you all into a burst of white light and transport you back to Mayumi Yamano’s room.

You all trudge back to the backlot and into Junes without a word. Just as silently, you separate to go home.

But the rage in you has not gone away.

---

You arrive at home feeling like your mind is an itch you can’t scratch. It’s still too full, too choked up with anger. And yet you are also so, so tired; you don’t know if sleep will help, but it’s all you can think to do right now.

But first you lean your back against the kitchen counter and stare across the darkened room. All this fullness in your mind hasn’t made the house any less empty. It’s still a silent, motionless reminder of your failure. You need that reminder. Maybe the cold will chill down the inferno in you.

There is a knock at the door.

You start, but you do not answer it. You do not need to talk to anyone right now.

The knocking continues.

You wait and wonder when it will stop.

It does, not long after. They must have decided that a house with no lights on and no one answering the door is not a house to bother.

You straighten up and start to walk to the other side of the room; you might as well turn on the light, while you’re here, and there’s one above the kotatsu.

The door opens.

You wonder, dully, how you could have not noticed that he was following you, before the storm of emotions crashes inside you again. He stands in the doorway, backlit by fog. Neither of you move.

Eventually, he closes the door. But he doesn’t step past the genkan.

“It’s dark in here,” he says. “Were you going to turn on the light, or were you going to just stumble around until you found the stairs?”

“You need to leave,” you say.

He laughs, for some reason. “Probably, yeah,” he says. “This wasn’t my best idea. I just…wanted to talk to you.”

“No, you don’t,” you say. “You need to leave.”

You’re impressed by how level you’re keeping your voice. It’s on the verge of stumbling, getting too low and rough.

“I can decide for myself what I’m thinking, thanks,” he says with a touch of wryness in his voice. It’s not so dark that you can’t see him put his hands in his pockets.

You need to leave,” you repeat once more, and your control over your voice must be slipping a little, because it’s a little louder than it should be.

“You keep saying that,” he says. “But I’m still not hearing a reason why.”

You’re silent for what feels like a long moment before your voice slips and you croak, “I don’t want to be alone with you.”

That shuts him up. But only for a few moments. “You’re not going to hurt me,” he says quietly.

Your bark of laughter isn’t controlled at all. “You don’t know that,” you say.

“I know you enough by now to see that something’s really wrong right now,” he says. “It’s messing you up. And I’d be a really shitty friend if I just let that slide.”

It’s too dark to really see his face, but you think you can guess what it looks like: his mouth set in a hard line, his eyes fixed on you even though he can’t see you very well. You wonder if he can guess what you look like right now. You can’t guess it yourself.

“I don’t know what’s going on with you,” he continues. “But I swear to god, whatever it is? I’ll help you. I’ll do whatever I can.”

“You don’t,” you say.

“I don’t what?”

“Know me. You don’t.”

“…well, that’s gonna need some unpacking,” he says.

Do you want to tell him? You do, but you don’t. Can you? Maybe you can’t. Maybe you can.

“I’m not…” You hesitate. You hesitate for a while.

“You’re not what?” he asks, and he sounds so, so calm.

“Me,” you say. “None of this is me. None of you have even met me.”

“Okay. That’s something,” he says. “Can you tell me who you are, then?”

You still haven’t moved, and neither has he. The lights are still off. Two unmoving silhouettes in the dark.

“When I came here…” You pause. Oh, why not. Why not. “I had a dream,” you say.

You tell him about the Velvet Room. You tell him about what Igor and Margaret said. You realize that “Social Links” sounds rather silly when you say it out loud yourself.

He whistles. “If this was anyone else, I’d have a hard time believing that,” he says. “But I always did wonder where you were getting your other Personas, and why you always walked over to the edge of the backlot and just stood still for a moment before turning back around like you’d forgotten something. So that’s what you were doing. Huh.”

“That’s not the important part,” you say softly.

“Yeah? So what is?”

“You didn’t hear it? You didn’t understand? When Igor told me Social Links would give me power?”

“Oh, that.” In the dark, you see the outline of him shrugging. “That’s weird. But the rest of it’s weird too, so…whatever.”

“You don’t get it,” you say, and is your voice a little louder? “That’s the only reason I talked to people. To get that power. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered.” Your voice has a bitter edge now. “Everyone says how caring I am. How helpful. They don’t get it. I don’t care about any of them at all.”

He doesn’t respond, so you continue. “Every single thing I do for people, I do because it makes me stronger. The team members get stronger too, sometimes--you never thought about how you just suddenly knew how to do things, and not right after a battle? That was me making you stronger so you would fight better--fight for me. I couldn’t do it all alone, so I let other people help me. You called me the leader?” You laugh. How are you laughing? “I was the leader before I met any of you. I was always the most important one.”

“That still isn’t--”

You cut him off. “And it isn’t just that I don’t care,” you say. “Everything is fake. Every time I looked happy, every time I looked worried, every time I looked sad--I don’t feel any of that. I decided what sort of person I would pretend to be, and I did everything that person would do. But that person is not me. There is no me.

“The girl you like so much is a construct,” you say. “An assembly of characteristics designed to be appealing. There is nothing underneath. I have no personality of my own. I don’t want to help people. I don’t not want to help people. I don’t want or not want anything, except to do what Igor told me, and I don’t even know why I want that.”

You’re breathing hard; you didn’t think you would ever say anything like that. Not out loud.

There is a long, long silence.

But it ends.

“But you didn’t want to hurt me,” he says quietly.

Tendrils of cold creep into your inferno. That’s--true, but--that isn’t--

“And you seem to have anger down pat, so…I don’t think you’re always like that. Maybe you’re changing. Maybe you’ll only change so much before you stop, but…I think that’s okay. You told me once that everyone’s got something good about them. That includes you. Maybe you’re nothing, but if that’s what nothing can do, maybe nothing isn’t so bad.”

You stare at the dark. Its own stare is not harsh, or cold. It’s just there.

“I don’t know what I am,” you whisper.

“I don’t know either,” he says, and you know, you know he’s smiling. “But whatever it is, it’s something I love.”

For a moment, you stand still.

You reach above you and turn on the light.

“You can come in now,” you say.

Yosuke’s smile is so big and bright it could light up the room by itself.

It’s just the light above the kotatsu, so it doesn’t really fill the room. But it’s light and it’s warm and as he takes off his shoes and steps into the room it feels like the sun.

As soon as he steps in, he turns bright red. “Okay, I can’t believe I said all that,” he says. He puts one hand on the back of his head and cringes. “That was, like, the cheesiest thing I have ever done. Seriously, that’s like, some shoujo manga shit, and don’t ask me how I know that. I am going to die. I am going to just stand here and die out of sheer embarrassment. It will be the most awkward funeral ever--”

You cross the room and wrap your arms around him, burying your face in his shoulder. His skin is cold from being outside, but you don’t care.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay. I can deal with this. I am really okay with this.” He wraps his arms around you in return and says, somewhat muffled by your hair, “You know, that is really not how I imagined a possible confession going.”

“Yeah?” you say into his shoulder.

“I mean, I thought it would be, like, right after the final battle or something. But you seemed kinda distracted after we beat Mitsuo, and Namatame…yeah. So I thought, maybe the next final battle. Maybe after we save everything for real. And I could be all, like, ‘Partner, now that it’s finally over, there’s something I have to tell you…’and it would be all dramatic and we’d kiss and everyone would cheer and say they knew about it all along and I’d be like, ‘But how?’ and they’d be like, ‘You are the most obvious person on the face of the planet’ and we’d all laugh and it’d be great.”

“I think it went okay,” you say, muffled.

“Yeah. Yeah, so do I,” he says.

The two of you stand like there for a while. Eventually, you mumble, “Stay. Not for anything. Just…stay.”

“I can do that,” he says.

You end up on the couch together, side by side, your head resting on his shoulder, your and his hands together. You can’t remember ever feeling so comfortable.

Presumably you fall asleep at some point, but you don’t recall when, and you don’t care.

---

A weak and bleary dawn filters through the windows. The sun can barely push through the fog, these days. You wake up with a stiff neck, and move to crack it, when you see the person sitting next to you.

The events of the previous night flow back into your head. You don’t really feel like moving. It’s a nice place, where you are. But it’s already uncomfortable and only going to get more so, and you’ll need to get to school.

You let go of his hand. He stirs as you get up, yawns and wipes his eyes. Then he seems to process where he is. He bites his lip. “Um,” he says. “This is…this is kind of weird, isn’t it.”

You shrug. “I think it’s okay,” you say. “What do you want for breakfast?”

“Um. Whatever you want, I guess? Don’t put too much effort into it on my account.” He lets his head fall back and stares at the wall. “Man. So that happened.”

You nod. “That happened,” you repeat. “I’ll make eggs.”

As you cross to the kitchen, he gets up and says, “No, seriously, I’m fine with whatever, I usually just eat cereal.”

“I want to make eggs,” you say firmly. “You don’t have to have any if you don’t want to. You should, though. I’m very good at them.”

You open the refrigerator and pull out the egg carton. There are only two left. Not really enough for two people. Well, you can work with that.

“I also want to make rice,” you say. “Can you pass me the bag from the lower-left cupboard?” You pull out the rice cooker yourself and get the strainer. You don’t often use it in the mornings--Nanako likes cereal too--but there’s enough time before you have to leave that you can cook a few servings in it.

He steps into the kitchen area, which is sort of large enough for two people, and pulls open the lower-left cupboard. “I don’t see any--oh, there it is. Behind the…everything. You keep a lot of stuff in here, don’t you?”

You glance down. “You might have noticed that there isn’t a lot of space,” you say.

“Right. Yeah. I noticed.” He pulls out the bag of rice and closes the door, maneuvering as he stands up so as not to bump into you. “This good?”

You nod and take the bag from him. “You can sit down now,” you say. Honestly, you didn’t even need him to get the rice for you. You just didn’t want to leave him standing in the middle of the room with nothing to do.

“Okay,” he says, moving to the table and sitting on one of the chairs. Dojima’s chair. Well, he couldn’t have known that. Besides, he probably just picked the one that was closer to you.

The room is quiet for a minute while you wash and strain the rice. Cooking has always been relaxing. You already feel oddly relaxed, but it’s nice anyway.

Once you’ve got the rice in the cooker and started it, Yosuke says, “So, are we going to talk about it?”

There’s no use pretending you don’t know what. “If you want to,” you say, pulling out two medium-sized bowls and putting them on the counter.

“I don’t know if I want to, it’s just…dude, we held hands all night. That’s kind of noteworthy.”

“I suppose so,” you say. You put out two sets of chopsticks, too, and search for the soy sauce.

He rubs the back of his neck. “Does this…change things, I mean? Like, what are we now?”

“Partners,” you say. “How much nori do you want?”

He blinks. “Uh, the usual amount, I guess? What’re you making?”

“Breakfast.”

“Right. Okay. So…that’s it, then?”

The soy sauce and the nori having both been located, you lean against the counter. “I don’t know what to say,” you say. “It was nice having you here. It would be nice to have you here again. Is that good?”

“That’s fine, that’s good. Um.” He hesitates. “Are you…feeling okay?”

You consider your answer. You don’t want to make him worry, but you think the entire point of what happened last night was telling him the truth. “I’m not feeling bad,” you say. “I’m not feeling amazing, but I don’t really do amazing. Not feeling bad is good. It’s nice.”

“I guess I’ll take it,” he says with a wry smile. “If ‘nice’ is as good as you get.”

“It’s nice when everyone’s happy,” you say. “Other people being happy is good. Not bad. Not amazing, but not bad.”

“See? That’s something you want,” he says. “You’re not a total robot. That’s a start.”

“Not a total robot,” you say. You glance at the rice cooker. It’s still going.

“Oh, you know what I mean.”

A comfortable quiet descends for a few minutes.

“You know, for the longest time, I kept thinking, there’s no way she’s that perfect,” Yosuke says eventually. “There’s no way she’s gorgeous and smart and great with people and a great leader and always knows what to do. After a while I just gave up and figured, okay, whatever, maybe there can be one person like that. And I just felt really insanely lucky that you even spent time with me. I knew you spent time with a lot of people, but…god, this is so stupid.” He laughs quietly.

“I felt like I was maybe at least a little special,” he continues. “I mean, partners, right? But then I’d start worrying that maybe you were just humoring me and didn’t actually like being called that. And every time I screwed up, I’d think, this is it, she’s done with me. She’s finally decided I’m not worth it.

“But you never did. And I just kept thinking…someday I’m going to wake up and none of this will be real. Because you were just so perfect, but you still seemed to like me, and I couldn’t understand why. I was kind of hoping you’d turn out to secretly have a major flaw, to be honest. Maybe then it would make sense.”

He leans back in his chair and purses his lips. “Gotta say, I did not expect that flaw to be that you’re actually an emotionless puppetmaster, though,” he says.

“I don’t know about puppetmaster,” you say. The rice cooker beeps at you; you open it and avoid a faceful of steam.

“Humor! There you go! You’re sounding more and more human by the minute. So, everything was a lie? I don’t really wanna bring it up, but…Nanako…”

You unplug the rice cooker and get out the paddle. “I’m a person who loves her little cousin,” you say. “Her being in the hospital is not good. Her death was not good.”

Your thoughts about Nanako are…complicated, now. But at least you can say those things.

You can’t actually see him at this angle, but you’re pretty sure he’s making a face. “That’s still pretty vague,” he says. “So…there’s not good and not bad? Is that how you think about things? No judgment here, I just wanna know.”

You put some of the steaming rice into each bowl, careful not to drop any. “I like some things,” you say. “I like cooking. I like cats. I like you.”

Yosuke laughs. “Good to know I rank up there with stray animals.” You glance back at him; he’s smiling, but his face is pink.

You take one of the eggs and crack it on the edge of one of the bowls, then pour the contents over the rice. “There are things I don’t like,” you say, repeating it with the second egg and the second bowl. “I don’t like losing. I don’t like it when my friends aren’t happy.” You hesitate. “I don’t like Adachi.”

Yosuke sighs. “Well, you’re not alone there,” he says. “The other stuff, though, that’s normal. No one likes losing. Friends always want to see each other happy.”

You throw away the egg shells, then drizzle soy sauce over the bowls and stir each of them until the egg and sauce are fully combined with the rice. “If my friends aren’t happy, we can’t get stronger,” you say. “That’s not good, right?”

“That’s…something. I don’t know if it’s bad. You were never mean to us or anything, and that’s good. Well, except for when I did something stupid, but that’s kinda justified.”

You sprinkle some of the shredded nori over each bowl and hand one to him, followed by chopsticks. “Eat your breakfast,” you say. “We should probably leave soon.”

“Yeah, good idea,” Yosuke says. He claps his hands together and says, “Thanks for the food.” He takes a bite of the rice, and his expression turns blissful. “Man,” he says dreamily. “That didn’t even look that hard, but I bet it’s way better than if I tried. You like cooking, huh? Maybe you should be a chef. Chefs don’t need a lot of emotion.”

You take your own bowl and sit down on the chair opposite him. “Ai told me I should be a counselor,” you say. “I’m good at reading people. I might do that.”

“I could see that. You’d get, like, a really fancy degree and diplomas all over the wall and stuff.”

“Maybe,” you say. You say “Thanks for the food” yourself and start eating. It really is quite good. Sometimes simple recipes are the best. “I don’t really think about it much.”

Yosuke swallows a large bite. “You could probably do whatever you wanted,” he says. “I mean, you’re good at everything. It’s kinda freaky.”

“Thank you,” you say.

“Oh, hell, I didn’t mean--well, you know what I meant. Good freaky.” He smiles at you, eyes light. “I like freaky.”

“I said thank you,” you say. “Finish your food. I’m going to go change.” You’re still in the torn uniform from yesterday. It’s an unsalvageable mess; even Kanji won’t be able to stitch it back together in a way that makes it still match the school dress code. Good thing you’ve got a few extras.

Yosuke nods and keeps eating. As you walk upstairs to your room, you think about the significance of cooking breakfast for someone. Lunch, sure. You do that all the time. You’ve made dinner sometimes, when you knew Dojima was going to be late, or when you knew he would be on time and wanted to reward him. Not that he’d think of it that way, but if he subconsciously associated being on time with getting good food, maybe he’d do it more often.

You’d probably make dinner for a date. There aren’t a lot of restaurants in Inaba, and none of them are fancy. So if you didn’t want to eat at Aiya’s for the ten thousandth time, you’d just cook dinner yourself. For a date.

Yosuke probably wouldn’t mind eating at Aiya’s for the ten thousandth time. But you think about what it would be like to make dinner for him. He’d love anything you made, you’re sure of it. Maybe fish. The cats won’t mind if they only get four meals a day instead of five.

Breakfast, though. Making breakfast for someone after they’ve spent the night has certain implications. You’re positive if Dojima walked in right now he’d arrest Yosuke on the spot. Wouldn’t that take some creative explaining.

As you change your clothes, you idly wonder if Yosuke is thinking about you doing this, right now. And feeling guilty about it, then wondering if maybe he doesn’t have to feel guilty about it anymore, then feeling guilty about wondering that, then finding himself still thinking about you, then repeating the whole process, and all in all you should probably get back downstairs before he has an aneurysm.

He’s finished his rice by the time you get back, fingers twisting his headphone cord. He stands up when he sees you.

You gesture at the headphones. “You slept with those on?”

“Well, yeah,” he says. “Didn’t get a chance to change. I guess I could’ve taken them off, but…” He shrugs. “Besides, I fall asleep wearing them all the time. Not all night, usually, but it wasn’t uncomfortable or anything.”

You reach the table and finish off your own rice with a few chopstick-assisted gulps. Then you pick up both bowls and leave them in the sink. You’ll wash them tonight. Or not. Maybe you’ll be too tired after…finding Adachi. Which is what you’re going to do today.

“I’ve got some ramen we can take for lunch,” you say. You pull open the cupboard and examine your options. “Shrimp or chicken?”

“Uh, shrimp, I guess. You don’t have to keep feeding me.”

“Neither of us ate dinner last night,” you point out. “And it’s not like we’ll have time to eat after school.”

“Yeah, okay,” he says. “I just don’t want to be a bother.”

You take his hand and run your thumb over the back of it, acknowledging his sharp intake of breath. Back when he was first getting used to his kunai, he’d managed to cut his hand pretty badly. Healing took care of it, but he’d jokingly complained that it would be cool to have a scar.

It looks fine as it is, to you. “You’re not a bother,” you say. “Take the ramen and let’s go.”

He does, and you do.

---

No one notices that you arrive at school together, because you usually do anyway; you live closer to the school than he does, so by the time you’ve nearly walked there, he usually shows up on his bike, and he either offers you a ride or he walks next to you. The offers of a ride are sporadic and seem to depend on the events of the previous day; mornings after a dungeon, yes, but not mornings after he’s done something stupid.

Today, he doesn’t have his bike with him, so the two of you just walk in the fog together, listening to the occasional person moaning or saying something vaguely ominous.

You brought your books with you, but of course he doesn’t have his; you didn’t have time to stop by his house, and besides, he seems to have forgotten the rather important fact that his parents would know he didn’t come home last night, so you didn’t feel the need to remind him yet. Better to let that bombshell drop later.

Class goes slowly. Kashiwagi tries to maintain order, but the other students still mutter under their breath, things like “I heard the meat at Souzai Daigaku makes people sick now because the fog got into it” and “My sister didn’t even come to class today, and my parents didn’t even care, so I think I’ll skip tomorrow too”. It sets you on edge, but you know it will all end today. It has to. Defeating Adachi is the only way you can think of to fix all this, and if it doesn’t work…well, you’ll deal with that if it happens.

At lunchtime, Chie and Yukiko round on you. Chie says, “Are you feeling better?” Yukiko bites her lip.

You nod. “Much better, thank you,” you say. It doesn’t even need to be said that you’re going back in after school. “Are you ready?”

Chie and Yukiko nod in tandem. “We were just worried a little,” Yukiko says. “You seemed…off.”

“I’m fine now,” you say. “Sleeping helped. I was just tired.”

Tired of a great many things, including yourself, you don’t say.

They seem to accept the answer, although Yosuke stays quiet.

Not a minute later, Teddie bursts onto the scene and divebombs Yosuke. “Where were you?” he sobs. “Calling you went straight to voicemail, you never answered my texts…I told your mom you were having a study session with Sensei, but she just looked at me funny! I was so alone!”

“Easy, easy,” Yosuke says, trying unsuccessfully to pry Teddie off him. “I turned my phone off. I--oh, shit.”

His eyes widen. Ah, there’s the bombshell.

He pulls his phone out of his pocket and turns it on. When the screen lights up, he winces. You crane your head to see--ten missed calls, twenty missed texts. Nine of the calls and nineteen of the texts are from Teddie. The other two are from Yosuke’s mom.

Yosuke puts down his phone and puts his head in his hands. “My parents are going to kill me,” he moans.

“You didn’t go home last night?” Yukiko asks, eyebrows high. “What were you doing?”

You see his eyes through his fingers. They look hesitant, uncertain what to say.

“Actually, a study session isn’t that far off,” you say. “You all saw how I was last night. I wasn’t in a good place. Yosuke…talked me down.”

Odd, how you don’t even really need to lie about it. That is what happened, after all.

“And we lost track of time,” you finish. “That’s all. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Sensei…” Teddie looks up at you, eyes wide. “You weren’t scoring, were you?”

Yosuke breaks into a coughing fit.

Chie and Yukiko look equal parts horrified and intrigued. You pat Teddie’s head.

“No, I wasn’t,” you say. It’s true, after all. “I just needed to talk to someone. It’s okay now.”

“If you say so, Sensei,” Teddie says, but he looks unconvinced.

You consider the fact that you’ll probably have to tell everyone something, eventually. If things between you and Yosuke have changed. And you’re pretty sure they have. But not right now.

After school, you all arrive at Junes. No words are needed; everyone enters the TV with a new spark in their eye, seeing you back to normal.

Back to the Mandala.

“Teddie, Naoto, Yosuke, you’re with me this time,” you say. It’s just a way of making sure everyone gets their turn. Nobody will think anything of it.

You expected Adachi to cut straight to the chase once he sees Yosuke next to you. He doesn’t disappoint. As you run down the battered streets, his laughter echoes through the dungeon.

Ms. Perfect returns, with the boytoy by her side! Have you told him anything?

“Why do you need to know so badly?” you ask, cutting your way through a wall of caution tape. “Projecting about your own little crush? Sorry, sad and desperate isn’t my type.”

Everyone’s eyes widen, especially Yosuke’s.

Adachi whistles. “Man, you try to cut right to the quick, don’t you? But don’t flatter yourself. That weird combination of frigid and desperate to please you’ve got going on isn’t my type either. And you didn’t answer my question. Hey, Hanamura, your fearless leader tell you about all the time she spent with me, or did she think you just weren’t important enough to know?

Yosuke jumps over an outcropping of rebar. “Everyone’s got a right to privacy, dude,” he says. “And don’t try to twist that into something. Seriously, I don’t even care.”

You sure about that? You don’t want to know what she said about you, when you weren’t there to listen?

“Not really, no,” Yosuke says with a shrug. “She’d tell me if she wanted to. Why are you making such a big deal about it? Scared we’re getting closer to you?”

Adachi snorts. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. Anyway, what are you trying to accomplish, putting yourself in danger like that? Trying to see ‘justice’ done?...

Adachi’s voice as you dodge his traps is an irritant, but you have regained your calm, and it no longer kindles a fire. Every Shadow that falls is progress, not frustration. It is wonderful, to be blank again.

Well, not blank, not precisely. Whenever you give Yosuke an order, and he obeys without question, you feel a flicker of--contentment. Not joy; you don’t think you’ll ever have that. But contentment. A good thing. And if Yosuke’s the one that makes you feel it, well, that’s what normal people are like, and you can do normal just fine.

You meet Adachi at the edge of the world.

His own anger, twisted and laughing, fills the air. You almost feel sorry for him. Everything he says is a childish tantrum, scrabbling at the universe for a hold without knowing there’s a step just beneath him.

Not that it matters, anyway. With one last ziodyne, everything ends.

Except it doesn’t.

To defy me is a senseless act that goes against your world’s wishes…

Honestly? You know what?

Everyone’s tired from the long trek through the dungeon and the fight with Adachi. Your view of everything that happened in the last eight months has been overturned. You would like to go home and think about things and sleep. You would like the fog to go away. You would like to see Nanako again. You would like to reevaluate your life. You would like to find out what sort of fish Yosuke likes.

So, basically? Fuck that.

You raise your blade, and you ready your card, and you fill your mind with strategy, and you get ready to just finish this.

And, after a long round of every attack each of you can throw at it, and enough healing spells to drain Teddie dry if you didn’t have enough souls to make up for it, and ziodyne after garudyne after agidyne after bufudyne after everything…you do.

Isn’t that something.

You do feel pity for Adachi, when you find him half-dead on the ground, and you’re not sure if that or finding out a giant fog monster was controlling humanity was the greater surprise of the day. He laughs, when he sees you.

“You know…I was kinda hoping you wouldn’t let all that get to you,” he says. “Not that I wanted this or anything…I just thought it would be a shame if Ms. Perfect turned out to be brought down by a few insults.”

You can’t tell him--or anyone--what happened right after you finished talking to him. That’s up to Yosuke, not you. “The effect was overall beneficial,” you say instead. “I could almost thank you.”

His laugh is a broken chuckle. “My good deed for the day…” he rasps. “Not that it really matters, anyway…”

“Everything matters,” Yosuke says, standing over him. “Even you, asshole.”

Adachi coughs. “Fine…” he says with a bitter smile. “Live however you want…if you think…you have the power to change the future…then go right ahead…”

Kanji and Yosuke are the ones to carry him back to the entrance in the backlot. You’re a little surprised that Kanji doesn’t at least grumble about it, but maybe you’re all too tired to complain.

You don’t mind Kanji giving him a good kick to get him through the TV exit, though.

The clear, fog-free world outside is literally a breath of fresh air. You breathe it in, savoring everything it means.

After you all separate from your impromptu circle, you remember something. You turn to Yosuke.

“Wasn’t there something you wanted to say to me, after this was all over?” you ask.

He seems hesitant. “It’s okay? For me to say that?” he asks.

You nod.

He grins, wide and bright. “In that case…partner, now that it’s finally over, there’s something I have to tell you…”

But you don’t let him finish. Instead, you put one arm around his waist and another along his back, pull him into a dip, and kiss him in the middle of the street, front of everyone.

Rise claps, giggling. Teddie makes an astonished “Sensei!” Naoto lowers the brim of her cap to hide her smile. Yukiko’s gasp is way too loud to be real; Chie nudges her in the side and grins. Kanji stands dumbfounded for a moment before pumping his fist in the air and saying, “Yeah!”

After you pull your face back and pull Yosuke up, he stares at you, dazed, before shaking his head to break himself out of it and saying, “Dude, I had this whole speech planned, you could’ve let me finish!” His sappy grin indicates that he doesn’t really mind, though.

You gently bump your forehead against his. “I think the gist of it was already evident,” you murmur.

He closes his eyes and lets his forehead rest against yours. Perhaps, for once, he doesn’t have anything to say.

The moment is broken by Teddie grabbing your sleeve and wailing, “No fair, I want a kiss from Sensei too!” Yosuke opens his eyes and glares at him; Teddie lets go and backs off, but doesn’t seem to have actually changed his mind.

With some reluctance, you let Yosuke go. People in the street are staring. You wouldn’t normally care about that, but rumor spreads fast in this town, and you’re not 100% positive you’ll get to be the one who breaks it to Dojima. That’s…potentially troublesome.

You move to Teddie, take his hand, and press a brief kiss to it. He downright swoons and nearly falls over; fortunately, Kanji catches him in time.

Sensei…” Teddie sighs.

“And don’t expect anything else, you dumb bear,” Yosuke says, crossing his arms, but the annoyance in his voice belies the slight smile on his face.

“Such a real life movie moment!” Rise says. “I think there was something like this in one of the scripts I read once…”

“Uh, good luck, and all that,” Kanji says gruffly, his eyes fixed somewhere on the ground.

“You’ll need it, with that idiot,” Chie says, and this time it’s Yukiko’s turn to nudge her. “Ow! What? Everyone’s thinking it!” she says with a glare, rubbing her side.

“I believe what Chie was trying to say was that we wish you all the best,” Yukiko says brightly.

“Agreed,” Naoto says. “After all of this, it’s good to find something that makes you happy. You certainly deserve it.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Chie says begrudgingly. She does smile, though.

You tilt your head down. “Thank you, everyone,” you say. “Now, I believe we’re all very tired. See you tomorrow?”

Everyone nods. “Tomorrow…” Rise says with a smile. “I can’t wait to wake up under a clear sky again.”

And a clear evening sky, too. It might be light out now, but it’s late enough that you know it’ll get dark soon. A clean, untroubled dark, with no one huddled by the side of the road mumbling something vaguely ominous.

Tendrils of unease creep into your head. Now that everything’s done, and your mission is complete, and you no longer need power…

But you wrest it from your mind. Now is not the time to think about that. Not now, when the world is clear and joy and relief fill the air.

You all say your goodbyes and disperse. You and Yosuke are the last ones walking together, since your houses are in the same area. Once you get to the corner where you’d separate, you stop. So does he.

“Something the matter?” he asks.

You consider things for a moment. Well, why not. “Want to come back to my place and make out?” you ask.

“…yes,” he says. “Yes, I do.”

The rest of the walk is understandably awkward; neither of you seem sure of what to say, and, besides walking, you don’t know what to do, either. Hold hands? Sure. Okay. You reach out and take his hand; he starts, but quickly settles, and squeezes your hand back. You can feel the calluses from long hours of fighting, the places where scars should be from mishandled weapons or attacks he couldn’t dodge or that one time in the bathhouse where he tripped and slammed his fingers in a door, breaking half of them and swearing profusely until Yukiko healed him.

Your own hands have similar calluses, though fewer healed scars; it’s harder to cut your hand holding a sword than holding a kunai. You wonder what they feel like to him. And of course you’re both a little sweaty, from both the exertion and the confused team effort of several minutes ago. All in all, it’s probably not the most romantic handholding out there.

You wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The house, when you get there, is as empty as ever. The absence of someone waiting by the TV rings louder than any voice. But you’re not alone, now.

You let go of Yosuke’s hand. He rubs the back of his neck. “So, should we…what’s the plan here?” he asks.

“I thought the couch,” you say, gesturing towards it. “It’s traditional. And there aren’t really any other places.” Except the couch in your room, but, well, that has its own set of implications.

“Okay. That’s fine,” he says. He follows you over to it, and sits next to you once you sit down. His hands twist in his lap.

After a moment, you reach over and rest your hand on his face. He doesn’t look scared, not really, but--

--ah.

Perhaps you should talk about that.

“Is this…okay?” you ask. “Are you okay?”

His eyebrows pinch together. “What? Why wouldn’t I be?”

“After…” You don’t know how to say it.

“…oh. Right. Uh.”

You withdraw your hand.

He exhales hard through his teeth. “Well,” he says. “After…that…I kinda just went home and tried not to think about it. I mean, something was obviously wrong, you wouldn’t…so I tried to block it out of my head. And it was all so fast, anyway. Nothing actually happened. So I kinda…didn’t even know what to think about it? Like, I couldn’t really process it. I didn’t know how I was supposed to react. I didn’t feel good, but…I don’t know. I just decided I would think about it tomorrow and went to sleep.”

You fold your hands in your lap. You still don’t know what to say, or if you even should say anything right now at all.

“And then the next day we went to the TV world, and there’s not really any time to think about things in there. I could tell you were messed up, though.” He scratches the back of his head and gives a shaky grin. “I sort of wondered if maybe that was my fault.”

Your hands clench, and you find your voice. “No,” you say. “None of it is your fault. Please, please don’t think you were responsible for any of that. That’s on my head, not yours. I was the one to--”

He puts up his hands. “Chill, it’s fine, I get it. That was yesterday. I’ve had some time to think about it. What Adachi said today, in the dungeon…something went down between you and him, right? You don’t have to tell me what it was.”

You nod slowly. “We just talked,” you say. “He said some things. I shouldn’t have let it get to me. That’s all it was.”

“Okay. I figured it was something like that. Like I said, I knew something was wrong. And when you got hacked up by that sword--seriously, it did not look good, between you and Yukiko I thought I’d stepped into a splatter film…I just freaked the hell out. It’s stupid to say I didn’t want to lose you, but…I didn’t. And I realized that if I just left you alone, I would lose you. So I followed you back to your house, and, well, you know the rest.”

Your fingers bunch in your skirt. “Maybe you shouldn’t be here right now,” you say softly.

His eyebrows knit together again. “Do you want me to leave?” he asks.

“…no,” you admit. “But I think pressuring you into anything would be one of the worst things I could do.”

His head falls back against the top of the couch. “I don’t feel pressured, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he says. “You weren’t threatening me or anything when you asked me to come over. I came because I wanted to. And you know I--” His voice catches. He puts one hand over his eyes. “Augh, this is so embarrassing,” he mumbles. “I said it last night, I can say it now…I love you.” He removes his hand and looks directly at you. “You know that, right? There’s not a lot I wouldn’t do for you.”

Your chest feels tight. “I know,” you whisper.

“So I’m not going to throw that away. And, okay, it is a little…weird. But I’m not afraid of you. Plus, I don’t think avoiding you would make anything better.”

You don’t want to look at him. The tightness in your chest doesn’t soothe you or make you think this is okay. But you can’t look away.

He smiles, and takes your hand. “So can we get back to what we were going to do?” he asks. “There’s only so much seriousness I can do in a given day, and I think I’m tapped out.”

You raise your other hand back to his face. You stroke your thumb across his cheek. He is so very, very human; warm and real in a way you will never be. An affluence of heart to make up for your own deficiencies. You are struck by the absurd urge to just keep him; for all his faults, he loves you more than anyone else has--not the distant appreciation from your parents, not the infatuation from Kou, not the deep but platonic friendships with the rest of the team--and you want to wrap yourself in the depth of such emotion. It’s probably creepy, to be honest. You decide not to tell him about it.

You bring your face to his, and close your eyes.

The first kiss, after that disgusting confrontation, was unthinkably rough. How did you even do it? A sort of primal instinct, maybe. The kiss in the middle of the street was quick and simple, a spur of the moment. This is not either of those things. This is a slow, sweet press of lips against his, a soft warmth all around you. You lift your other hand out of his and slide it through his hair. His own hands loop around your shoulders, holding onto your back.

It stays like that for a little while, just lips against lips, before he parts his mouth and you slide your tongue inside. You’re familiar with the phrase “making out like two teenagers”; well, you can see where it comes from. His mouth is as warm and soft as the atmosphere suffusing your mind. You want nothing more than to stay here in this languid bubble.

On a whim, you pull back and press your mouth to his neck instead, trailing kisses down his throat. Judging from the strangled sound he makes, it wasn’t a bad idea. You stop to nip at the skin where his throat meets his collarbone, and suddenly want to leave marks all over him, show the world who he belongs to. But, again, that’s probably creepy.

It occurs to you that your current angle--sitting next to each other--is probably going to leave a crick in both your necks. So it makes sense, really, to slip onto his lap, so you can be face-to-face while you return your mouth to his. He sighs into your mouth and tightens his arms around your back.

It honestly doesn’t take that long for you both to notice a new result.

Probably the better term would be that it isn’t difficult to figure out what’s pressing into your thigh. You’d been expecting it eventually, after all; teenage boys are in some regards extremely predictable. Still, you find yourself smiling into his mouth as he tries and fails to shift into a less noticeable position. After a moment, he breaks away, red-faced.

“So, that’s kind of…obvious…” he mumbles.

You bump your foreheads together. “I really don’t mind,” you say. “I’d be more surprised if this didn’t happen. Are you uncomfortable?”

“No, not at all, I’m fine, I just--” He makes a face. “God, this always goes so much easier in porn.”

You take that as your cue to shift in his lap. He actually whines, then claps his hand over his mouth in mortal embarrassment.

You resist the urge to pat his head.

He removes his hand and glares at you. “You did that on purpose,” he says.

You kiss the tip of his nose. “Maybe,” you say. “Should I do it again?”

He screws his eyes shut. “Actually,” he says, “and I know this sounds so stupid teenage boy-y, but…could you take off your shirt?”

Well. You can do that.

So you do. You move his other hand off your back, straighten up, tug at your sleeves, and in a few movements pull your shirt over your head and let it drop to the floor. His eyes open again, half in trepidation and half in disbelief.

“Okay,” he says faintly. “Wasn’t actually expecting that, to be honest. Not really what happens on your first time making out, right?”

You tilt your head. “An hour ago we saved the world,” you say. “I don’t think this is a day for normalcy.”

“Right. Okay. So…can I…?”

“You don’t need to ask permission,” you say with a slight smile.

He looks offended. “Hey, I’m just covering my bases here!” he protests. He sighs. “Okay, here’s the thing,” he says. “Before two days ago, I wasn’t sure you even had a sexuality. It was difficult to picture. Not that I didn’t--um, anyway, my point is, you always seemed…unattainable? Like romance was beneath you. So now, even though I know it isn’t, I still get caught up in that image of you and I feel like I’m doing something wrong here.” He gives a wry smile. “It’s stupid, I know.”

You think the right response to this would be to take off your bra, so you do.

Yosuke makes that strangled noise again. “You are actually going to kill me,” he says hoarsely. “Holy shit, you are going to kill me right here and I’m not even going to complain about it.”

“I think the phrase here is ‘what a way to go’, right?”

“Damn right it is. So--”

You don’t need to ask permission.

“Right! Sorry!” He reaches out and cups one of your breasts. It’s both strange and unremarkable--you’ve had your own hands on your breasts before, for various reasons, so it’s not as if you’re unused to them being touched. But this is the first time someone besides you has touched them, and something in your stomach tingles.

He squeezes it lightly. “You know, I never really figured how soft they’d be,” he says. “Like skin, I guess, and in porn and stuff they always looked soft, but I didn’t have any actual reference or anything.”

You trail your fingers past the collar of his shirt. “You’re not exactly the embodiment of muscle mass yourself,” you say.

“I feel like I should be offended by that. Should I be offended by that?”

“I don’t know. But remember when I said ‘Let’s get equal’?”

“Wh--oh, sure.” With obvious reluctance, he removes his hand from your breast and starts unbuttoning his own jacket. You lift up his headphones; the cord trails down into one of his pants pockets, where you locate and remove the MP3 player. Maybe someday you’ll ask him just what it is he listens to during combat.

With his jacket off, all that’s left is the T-shirt. He pulls it over his head and off in one fluid motion, discarding it beyond the armrest. You’re both topless now, skin on show.

You run your fingers down his chest. He’s not terribly muscular, true, but he’s pretty lean; you’d be more surprised if he wasn’t, given how much fighting he’s done in the past eight months.

He squirms a little under your touch. “You’re not ticklish, are you?” you ask.

“Wha--no! Of course not! It’s just a little cold in here. Are you ticklish?”

“No,” you say simply, because you’re not. Grade school was full of kids who wanted to test the theory. They were all inevitably disappointed.

He pokes you in the stomach. You don’t even twitch. “Should’ve figured,” he grumbles.

It is cold in here, though. The Dojima house doesn’t have heating. There’s the kotatsu, of course, but it’s not really designed for making out under.

Out of curiosity, you flick one of his nipples. He starts like he’s been burned. “Hh--warn me before you do stuff like that!” he says.

You tilt your head to the side. “Did you not like it?” you ask.

“No, it’s fine, it’s just…” He twists his mouth. “Unexpected? I hadn’t really thought about that, I’ve only seen it with girls.”

You shrug. “I just wanted to see how you’d react. You can do it with me, if you want.”

“Yeah?” He reaches out and pinches one of your nipples. It’s a strange feeling, but not unpleasant.

You run your hand down his chest again, letting your palm glide over his other nipple. He only twitches a little. “See?” you say. “Guys can like it too.”

“I guess…” He lets go and cups your breast again, squeezing a little harder. You kiss his forehead.

It continues like that for a while, little kisses and general fondling, until you’re feeling worked-up yourself. You shift in his lap; he makes that little breathy whine again, and you think, well, why not.

You look straight into his eyes and say, “I’d like to try sucking you off. Does that sound good?”

You wish you had a camera; the expression on his face should be recorded for posterity.

“Hhhholy--how can you just say stuff like that?” he says in a strangled voice.

“Well?”

“Does it sound goo--it sounds great, are you kidding me? Yes! If you want to! You don’t have to or anything--”

You press your lips to his, just briefly. “I want to,” you say. You slide off his lap and onto the floor, on your knees between his legs. His erection certainly wasn’t unnoticeable earlier, but now you have a more direct view of it.

You’ve read porn. You know how this goes. You reach out and carefully unbuckle his belt, noticing his fingers clenching into the couch cushions. Once his belt is undone, you pull down his zipper, the sound suddenly the loudest thing in the room. Then you slide down his underwear and you find yourself looking directly at his cock.

You’ve only read porn, so this is the first time you’ve seen someone’s erection. In the near-silent house, all you can hear is his breathing, tense and barely there. Your own breath has stilled. The moment stretches with expectation.

Well, you can’t just sit there forever. You take his cock in your hand and give it an experimental lick.

It has the non-taste of skin. You’re vaguely reminded of the time in your childhood when you licked your own arm to see what people tasted like. You glance up; he looks both breathless and oddly vulnerable, like he’s trusting you with something important.

You take the head of his cock into your mouth, sliding your tongue across it. He whimpers, fingers clenching tighter into the couch cushions. As you continue to move your tongue, one of his hands gradually unclenches and moves to your head, fingers sliding through your hair. It’s not a bad feeling. You reward him by laving your tongue around the head of his cock, resulting in another whimper.

His fingers keep combing through your hair as you lick; gradually his other hand moves to your head and does the same. You wonder how deep you can take him; on one hand, you’ve never done this before, but on the other hand, you do tend to do well at just about anything. No harm in trying. You slowly push forward. His hands grip a little harder in your hair. Pretty deep, as it turns out, though you’re not sure how long you can breathe through your nose.

It goes on like that, you tonguing his cock, his hands in your hair, his breath coming in little pants and other sounds you like. Eventually, his fingers clench and he says hoarsely, “Yui--I’m gonna--”

You stay where you are. You’ll never know if you can handle it if you don’t try. As he spills into your mouth with a breathy moan, you swallow with no real difficulty. The taste’s a little weird, though. You slowly pull back, lapping up any spare drops while you do.

His fingers loosen and fall from your head. “Shit,” he says in a faint voice. “That was…wow. Wow. You’re sure that’s not your first time doing that?”

You sit back on the couch. “I think I’d remember if it wasn’t,” you say mildly.

His head falls back. “Wow,” he repeats. “I think I win at first times. I know I say stuff like this a lot, but--man, you’re the best, Yui.”

You press a kiss to his jaw. “You’re not bad either,” you say.

He raises his eyebrows. “Not bad? Okay, I can do better than that. Can I, uh--can I do that to you too?”

You genuinely hadn’t expected that. But he’s full of surprises. “Of course,” you say. “I should probably take my skirt off first, though.”

“Oh, of course,” he parrots. “How can you be so blasé about this? I’m all awkward and you’re all perfectly composed and know exactly what to do.”

“Comes with being an emotionless puppetmaster, I guess,” you say, shrugging.

“Another point in your favor, then,” he says with a smile.

You don’t know how to respond to that, so you just start taking off your skirt instead. It falls to the floor, another piece of fabric littering the area around the couch.

You slip off your slippers, socks, and underwear, too. You’re completely naked now, much more so than him, since he’s only got his shirt off. It seems unfair.

You gesture at him. “If I’m going to be naked, you should too,” you say.

“Uh--all right. Okay. I can do that.” He’s a little slower at it than you, maybe because he’s distracted, but eventually he’s as bare as you are, face bright red.

It’s almost amusing. “Is it really that embarrassing to show your legs?” you ask.

“No,” he mumbles. “It’s just, I don’t think I’ve been completely naked in front of anyone since, like, when I was a kid. It’s just weird. I know you’re immune to embarrassment, but most teenagers aren’t like that, you know?”

“I’m not judging you or anything,” you say, running your fingers across his thigh. “I like the view.”

The rest of him isn’t terribly muscular either, but you think you prefer it that way. Just a nice, lean, slightly tanned male body, warm despite the chill in the air, and all yours, if you want it.

If possible, he turns even redder. “D-don’t just say stuff like that!” he stammers. ”Jeez…” He glances to the side. “Uh, you too,” he mumbles.

“So, you were going to…”

“Right!” He jumps off the couch and manages to land in front of you. You open your legs obligingly and shift forward on the couch. To his credit, he only looks a little intimidated.

“Man, this is dumb, but…it kinda only just now hit me that you’re a girl,” he says, his face sheepish.

You raise your eyebrows. “No other hints tonight? Really?”

“Shut up! I know it’s dumb! But you don’t really act feminine, and your normal outfits are pretty gender-neutral, and your uniforms don’t show much…I knew you were a girl, but in an abstract kind of way. But now I’ve got the evidence literally right in front of my face, so…it’s pretty clear now.”

You ruffle his hair. “You’re adorable,” you say.

“I’m going to take that as a compliment. Okay. Let’s do this.” He braces his hands on your thighs and leans in.

Ohhhhhh. That’s not a bad feeling. You trail your fingers through his hair, let them rest on the back of his neck and rub circles on his skin. As he licks into you, you can feel your toes curling. It’s miles better than making out, that’s for sure, although you did quite appreciate that too.

You don’t think he’s especially skilled at it, but he’s certainly trying, and it’s not like you have anything to compare it to, anyway. You let out a breathy sigh and let it wash over you, little waves of happiness at your shores.

You don’t last much longer than he did before electricity spikes through you and you discover what it’s like to orgasm at someone else’s hands, or, well, tongue. It isn’t quite like a maxed Social Link, though you can’t say one is definitively better than the other. Besides, you’re not likely to get any more Social Links, but you’d quite like to have more of these.

He pulls back, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “Was that okay?” he asks, a hint of worry in his eyes. “You were pretty quiet…”

You pet his hair. “I’m a quiet person,” you say. “It was lovely, thank you.”

“Um, you’re welcome? I don’t think people really say that during sex…whatever, if you’re happy then I’m happy.”

He hesitates. “Uh…are you happy? Do you do that? Being happy?”

“Endorphins are nice,” you say. “Come on, up.” You take his arm and try to pull him back onto the couch.

He holds up his hands. “Wait, hold up,” he says. “You do know we’re both naked, right?”

“…right?”

“And this is the couch Dojima-san sits on, right?”

“…ah.”

He runs his hand through his hair and gives a weak grin. “So, uh, maybe we should relocate? Or at least get some clothes on again?”

You nod and stand up, letting go of him. “I’ll get the futon ready,” you say. “I have some pajamas you can wear, if you want.”

“Oh. Futon. Right.” He looks uncertain, but then he laughs. “I guess we don’t really have to worry about that being weird now, do we?”

“Well, our parents would probably still have issue with it…”

His eyes go wide and he freezes. “Ohhhh no,” he whispers. “Oh shit, I completely forgot--my parents haven’t seen me in two days, they’re definitely freaking out right now. I’m gonna be grounded for a year.”

“Do you think they believed Teddie?” you ask. “About the study session? We could just tell him to say there was another one.”

His laugh comes out as a short bark. “Yeah, I’m sure they believed that me spending the night at a girl’s house was a study session,” he says weakly. “And spending the next night there too? Totally for educational purposes.”

You purse your lips. “I wouldn’t say it was uneducational…”

“Very funny. Shit. I really, really don’t want to go, but…”

“Then don’t,” you say. “Get your phone. I’ll call Teddie.”

He locates his phone from his discarded jacket and hands it to you. It’s off, of course--no sense having it on in the TV world, and it’s understandable why he would have forgotten to turn it on again once you returned. You press the on button, and are momentarily distracted when you see the screen.

“…why is a picture of me at the beach your background?” you ask.

“We literally just had sex! I think it’s okay for me to be attracted to you!”

He does have a point.

He also has six missed calls from his dad, fifteen missed text messages from his mom, and twenty of each from Teddie.

You show him the screen. “I think you might be in trouble,” you say.

He puts his hands over his eyes, groaning. “They’re gonna ground me for the rest of my life,” he says.

You skim through the texts. The ones from Teddie, at least, seem benign:

yosuke r U w/ Sensei agn?????? GOOD LUCK!!!!!!!

yosuke ur Dad is yellng plz come Bak

yosuke NO do Not come bak if ur w/ Sensei tht is MOR IMPORTNT

yosukeeeeee when U come bak i need detailzzzzz

yosuke ur mom n dad wnt stop yellng

btw congratz on new bedrom lock it is VERY HANDY

The ones from his mom, less so.

Where are you? Come home NOW.

Who is ‘Sensei’? Are you with one of your teachers?

It’s not that Kashiwagi woman, is it?

Yosuke, we need to talk.

Please come back.

Are you okay?

You can talk to us about anything. We’ll listen.

Yosuke, please come back.

Admittedly, those last few aren’t as funny.

The last time you asked Yosuke about his parents, he’d made a face and said they were always busy. From the occasional tidbits you’ve picked up over the last eight months, you’ve been able to ascertain that he doesn’t have the best relationship with them; they don’t seem abusive or neglectful, but they don’t seem to listen to him much, either. Then again, you’re not sure he actually tries to talk to them much himself.

You asked Chie, once, if she’d ever met his parents, and she’d said she didn’t even know their names. Come to think of it, you don’t know their names either. It seems strange that he’s never introduced you. You wonder if there’s a reason for that.

You open the contacts list and select Teddie. Not even one ring goes by before he picks up.

Yosuke! I know I told you not to come back yet but your dad won’t stop yelling and your mom won’t stop crying and--”

“Teddie, it’s me,” you interrupt. “What did you tell them?”

“Sensei? I told them he was with you again! But they asked why he wouldn’t tell them that himself, and when I told them his phone was off they wanted to know why it was off and it’s really scary, Yosuke! Please come back!”

“You said it was another study session?” you ask.

“They didn’t believe me, Sensei!”

Honestly, you didn’t expect them to either.

“Teddie, which one of them seems more rational right now?” you ask.

“Ummm…Yosuke’s dad is really mad at him, but Yosuke’s mom seems really worried, so…maybe his mom?”

“Give the phone to his mom. It’ll be okay.”

“If you say so, Sensei…”

You hand the phone to Yosuke. “I think you should be the one to talk to her,” you say. “She’s probably scared about you.”

He winces and takes the phone. “And I bet my dad started yelling at her, too…” he says.

Yosuke puts the phone to his ear. After a few moments, you can hear a faint buzz on the other end of the line, and he winces again.

“I’m okay, Mom, I promise,” he says. “I just forgot to call, I swear.”

Buzz, buzz.

“I promise. Everything’s fine. You don’t need to worr--”

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

“Okay, I guess that’s a good reason to worry, but I’m fine, Mom. I’m at Yui’s house. I came here after school.”

Buzz, buzz.

“Yeah, I stayed here last night, but we honestly were studying, you know I need all the help I can get--”

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

“I keep my phone off during school! And I didn’t want to be distracted while we were studying, and I just lost track of time--”

Buzz.

“…Mom, I’m fine,” Yosuke says softly. “Yui’s really smart. She’s helped me a lot. You’d like her.”

BUZZ, BUZZ.

You can guess who has the other phone now.

Yosuke’s face changes from guilty concern to tightly-controlled frustration in an instant. “Actually, Dad, I don’t think it is your business,” he says, his voice stiff. “I know I should’ve called, but I’m safe and I’m not doing anything stupid, so could you just--”

BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ.

“No, I’m not--Dad, she’s at the top of the class and she volunteers at a hospital and literally everyone she talks to loves her, she’s not--Dad, she’s my best friend--”

BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ.

Yosuke’s other hand balls into a fist at his side. “You know what? I’m done talking to you,” he snaps. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Probably. If you’re even there.” He presses the off button so hard you’re surprised it doesn’t break.

He lifts his hand like he’s going to throw the phone to the floor, but stops, exhales hard through his teeth, and puts it down on his jacket. “Sorry you had to hear that,” he says quietly. “You can probably guess that I don’t really get along with my dad.”

“Really? However could I get that impression?” You cross over to him and pull him into your arms; he laughs and rests his head on your shoulder, returning the hug.

“It’s a long story, but it boils down to him being disappointed about my grades, my friends, my life goals, my crap excuses for what I’m doing when we spend all day in the TV world, and my even worse excuses for all the tears and burn marks I get in my clothes after spending all day in the TV world. So basically everything. Yeah, everything.”

You run your fingers through his hair. “Your friends? I thought he didn’t know us?”

“Yeah, well, he heard about Kanji, and he thinks Rise’s great for sales but trash as an actual person, and he knows enough about Yukiko to be disappointed I’m not dating her, and enough about Naoto to think she’s a freak,” Yosuke says, leaning into your touch. “He only lets Teddie stay because of the whole mascot thing--I’m pretty sure Ted would have been out on the street on day one without it. I don’t think he knows anything about you or Chie, though.”

“Ah. Well, he knows a few things now, it seems.”

Yosuke pulls back with a wry grin. “Yeah, he thinks you’re a gold-digging harlot trying to steal the most eligible bachelor in Inaba,” he says. “Introducing you to him is gonna be fun, I can tell.”

You rest your forehead against his. “If it helps, my parents probably haven’t noticed I’m gone,” you murmur.

“Parents, man,” he says.

“Parents,” you agree.

A moment passes. Yosuke coughs.

“So, not for nothing, but we’re both kinda sweaty and also naked,” he says. “Do you think we could get a shower or something before bed?”

You consider it. “Normal shower or second round shower?”

“…partner, I like the way you think.”

After an interesting combination of getting clean and getting messier and getting clean again, the two of you end up in your room, damp and finally coming down from the endorphin rush. Yosuke yawns; you toss a pair of sweatpants in his general direction and start putting on your own pajamas.

He catches it, though it’s a near thing. “Wearing a girl’s clothes,” he says. “Most guys would probably think that was weird, but since I just had sex with said girl twice, I think I can take the high ground on this one.”

“My sweat pants are pretty gender-neutral anyway,” you say, and, after pulling your shirt on, pull out the futon. A few somewhat awkward silent moments pass while you set it up. Once you finish, you reach up and turn off the light, casting the room into semi-darkness.

You pull away the blanket and flop down, gesturing for him to follow. He does, with a little hesitance that probably has more to do with ingrained cultural disapproval of a teenage boy sharing a bed with a girl than with any actual nervousness.

Once he’s down, you pull the blanket over and settle in next to him. It probably isn’t some sort of mental link that makes him turn on his side and you curl up around him, but whatever it is, you’re not complaining.

“Well…goodnight, I guess,” he says.

“Goodnight,” you say, and rest your head against his neck, hoping your hair doesn’t tickle.

---

Morning comes with a brightness you haven’t seen in what feels like forever. That’s what really sets it in, somehow; the fog is gone, the town is saved, your duties are done.

Your duties are done.

It is not the weather that sends a soft chill up your spine.

You break away from Yosuke, who seems to still be asleep, and lie on your back, staring at the ceiling. You avoided thinking about it last night, but you can’t put it off forever. With the mystery solved and the fog gone, there is no more need to fight. Weapons, orders, Personas; none of it is necessary.

It seems much more real than it did when you last assumed everything was over, after defeating Mitsuo. You can’t just shuffle it away now. It rings too harshly in your head.

The power you gain through your bonds with others is no longer required.

Here is a dreadful question: do you, in fact, still want those bonds?

Whatever you have with Yosuke is…nice. Even on the barest and most logical of levels, the sex, at least, is a tangible benefit. But you’re not sleeping with any of the others, and you don’t really want to. Spending time with them will neither advance the case nor bring any strength. You have never been an emotional person, and the only emotions you’ve acquired now--anger, pity for one person, and contentment from one person--are not enough to make you fully human.

You still don’t know what you are.

Yosuke doesn’t care what you are.

But is Yosuke enough?

He stirs next to you. With a yawn, he rolls onto his back and stretches his arms over his head. He turns his head to you. “Morning,” he says.

His smile is like the sun.

It fades, though, once he sees your own expression, whatever that may be. “Hey, are you okay?” he asks, propping himself up on his elbows.

Are you?

You reply with the only answer you can come up with. “I don’t know.”

He sits up, his eyes full of worry. “It isn’t…anything to do with last night, is it?” he asks hesitantly.

You shake your head. “More emotionless puppetmaster stuff,” you say. “It’s not your fault.”

“Well, maybe not, but if something’s messing you up, I’m not going to just stand by,” he says. He stands up and extends his hand out to you. “C’mon, let’s go downstairs. Believe it or not, I can make breakfast too.”

You take his hand and let him pull you up. You’re not sure you do believe it, but he’s always full of surprises, isn’t he.

Once you’re downstairs, you sit at the table. Your seat, not Dojima’s, even though his is closer to the kitchen. It just feels strange to take that one.

Yosuke opens the fridge, peering into it. “There’s…really not much in here, is there,” he says.

“Nanako usually does the grocery shopping,” you say. “I’ve been forgetting to go myself.” Just as it feels strange to think about sitting in Dojima’s chair, it feels strange to go to the grocery department by yourself. No one to be excited by the vegetable section. No one to share your appreciation of coupons.

Yosuke closes the fridge door. “There’s always rice, I guess,” he says. “No eggs, though.”

“Rice sounds fine,” you say. “Do you remember where--”

“The lower left cupboard, got it.”

As he starts putting things together, you find yourself staring again. At him, this time. He’s so…something. Accepting, maybe. There’s just something easy about him, comfortable, warm.

He knows what you’re really like, and he still loves you. That’s something.

He finally notices you staring at him. “So, are you ready to talk about it?” he asks, draining the rice from the strainer.

You remain silent for a moment.

“Everything’s over now,” you say eventually.

“Well, yeah. That’s good, isn’t it?” He pours the rice into the cooker.

“We don’t need to fight anymore,” you say. “So I don’t need power anymore.”

Yosuke’s mouth twists. “Okay, I think I see what you’re getting at,” he says. “You think you’re going to separate from everyone now, since there’s no concrete benefit to hanging out with them, right?”

Is it odd that he says “them” instead of “us”? Maybe he’s figured out what the sex means to you. Or maybe he automatically assumes he now ranks higher than the others just by virtue of being the only one who really knows you. Maybe both. Does it matter?

You nod.

Yosuke closes the lid of the rice cooker, presses the on button, and settles his back against the counter, arms crossed. “Do you actually want to?” he asks.

You blink.

“Because it seems to me the fact that you’re talking to me about it, instead of just brushing me off and going through with it without question, shows that you’re not actually that big on the idea,” he says. “If you really 100% didn’t care, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So you’re at least a little conflicted about it, aren’t you?”

It…makes sense. Damn him for noticing these things. “…maybe,” you say.

“All right, then let’s talk concrete benefits,” he says. “Is spending time with people actually annoying?”

“…no,” you admit. “But it isn’t anything. It isn’t good or bad. Sometimes it feels like I could enjoy it, but…”

You remember trying on yukata with Yukiko, Chie, Rise, and Nanako. At the time, you’d thought, maybe this could be nice, maybe normal people would think this was nice. You’d been a person who enjoyed spending time with her friends, so it must have been nice.

“But you don’t not enjoy it, so that’s good,” Yosuke says. He taps his fingers against his arm. “Do you get bored?” he asks.

“No,” you say, shaking your head. “There’s always something to do. Reading, fishing, making paper cranes…”

“And is that what you want to do until March? Just kill time doing the little things?”

You frown. You are running out of books, and the cats can only eat so much in one day, and spending all day sitting down folding cranes makes your muscles stiff. “I guess not,” you say.

Yosuke uncrosses his arms and spreads out his hands. “There you go,” he says. “Hanging out with people kills time better than doing stuff alone. And it’s got a better variety, too. Fishing is just standing in one spot for hours, but with people, you never know what’s going to happen. Maybe you’ll go to the movies with Chie and get kicked out again because she shouted at the screen. Maybe Kanji’ll talk your ear off about dolls and you’ll end up making one for Nanako. Who knows.”

“So you’re telling me I should maintain my ties with people…just for the sake of keeping myself entertained?” you ask, your eyebrows furrowed.

“Hey, it’s a reason,” Yosuke says. “Maybe kind of a cold reason, but that’s what you need, isn’t it? Something that doesn’t rely on fuzzy emotions.”

That’s…true. A normal reason wouldn’t work, not with you.

“Just think it over, okay?” Yosuke asks. “You don’t need to decide right now.” He shifts from one foot to another, suddenly awkward. “And…I’d like it if you stayed with us,” he says quietly. “That shouldn’t be the only factor, but I just thought I’d say it.”

For a long moment, the only sound is the faint hum of the rice cooker, busily working while you try to figure out what to say.

“…I’ll try,” you say softly.

Once again, that sunbeam smile. “That’s all I’m asking for,” Yosuke says. “And hey, if it doesn’t work out, I am totally down with you using me for sex,” he says. “Just gonna get that out there.”

The morning passes warmly and peacefully.

---

The afternoon once school ends, less so.

Teddie found you at lunch again, and if yesterday he was clingy, today he’s a limpet. You could barely drag him off Yosuke, and you spent most of the lunch period being reminded over and over that Yosuke’s parents are still An Issue.

So the moment of truth, after school ends for the day and Yosuke’s left with the choice of going back to his home or yours, is a thing that happens, yes.

“As much as I’d love to come over again, I really need to talk to my folks,” he says with a heavy sigh, eyes downcast on the pavement at the corner between the route to your house and the route to his. “I should’ve called them this morning, really, or at least my mom…”

“It’s okay,” you say. “I could come with you, if you want.”

He looks back up and laughs for a good five seconds. “Man, I wish,” he says, wiping his eyes. “That’d be something, my dad trying to shout you down for corrupting me and you just standing there with that thousand-yard stare of yours…but I gotta take care of this myself. I’ll talk to you later. Even if they take away my phone, they’ll leave Teddie’s.”

Teddie, standing next to him, salutes. “I will do my duty for Sensei!” he says firmly. “And for Yosuke too, of course.”

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” you say with a nod. “I hope everything works out.”

Yosuke’s laugh this time is a little weaker. “Yeah, we’ll see,” he says. “Maybe a day without fog will’ve improved my dad’s mood a little.”

“But Yosuke, your dad didn’t like you before the fog came, either…” Teddie says, frowning.

Yosuke slaps Teddie upside the head. “Shut up, Ted! Anyway, bye, Yui.”

As Teddie clutches his head and whimpers, you say goodbye and wave to them. They walk off into the other street, eventually taking a turn and disappearing from your range of sight.

What is there for you to do now? You don’t have any homework. You don’t think you’re ready to visit Nanako again just yet. You’ve maxed all your Social Links.

…but didn’t you have a conversation about that not being important?

After a moment of hesitation, you pull out your cell phone and dial Chie’s number.

“Hello, Chie? I was wondering if you had time to train today?”

You won’t get anything out of it. But spending time with someone, even if you won’t get anything out of it, might be…something.

As you agree to meet her at the Samegawa, you reflect on a number of things, and none of the answers you come up with feel bad.

---

Yosuke calls you later that night, after you’ve just finished dinner. (Ramen again. You’ll go shopping tomorrow.)

He launches right into it without even saying hello. “So I’m not grounded forever, but it’s not good, either. Could’ve been worse, though--my dad wanted it to be until the end of the school year, but my mom talked him down to January. And I’m working every day until then, too, so I can’t exactly sneak out.”

“What about nights?” you ask, tossing the empty bowl into the garbage can. “Do you think you can sneak out during those?”

Yosuke sighs. “Maybe. I don’t know. I’ll still have homework, and I’ll be pretty tired. At least this didn’t happen while we still needed to go to the TV world, right? But don’t you dare apologize. They could ground me for a year, and it still would’ve been worth it.”

You find yourself smiling, just slightly. You were about to apologize.

“They, uh, do wanna meet you, though. I think my dad is trying to size you up in case he wants to press charges, but my mom wants to know more about you. Teddie’s been singing your praises non-stop, by the way.”

You lean against the counter. “Oh yeah? Anything especially memorable?”

“Well, ‘Sensei’s the prettiest girl in the world’ didn’t seem to help much…”

Another smile. Once, you would’ve thought it strange, but your life has been strange in a variety of ways, of late.

“…so he stuck to things like ‘Sensei is so kind’ and ‘Sensei spends so much time helping people’, and I think those went over better.”

“Thank him for me,” you say. “That was very nice of him.”

Yosuke laughs a little. “I’ll let him know,” he says. “Anyway, I was thinking tomorrow night? If you’re not busy? My dad wants to get this over with as soon as possible so he can go back to his usual level of disappointment with me.”

“Tomorrow sounds fine,” you say. “Should I bring anything? I could make dessert…”

“Dessert would be fantastic, my mom’s not that great a chef and my dad keeps hinting I need a girlfriend who can cook.”

“I thought you said he wanted you to date Yukiko?”

“I also said he didn’t know her very well.”

The two of you set the plans and say your goodbyes, and you’re left in the same silent house as usual. It doesn’t feel as hollow as it used to, but you still feel a little disquieted by it.

Well, Junes is still open. No one said you couldn’t go shopping tonight instead.

Besides, you’ve got dessert to plan.

---

The following evening, you arrive at the Hanamura residence without a touch of nerves. You’ve yet to meet someone you can’t charm. And you know your cake is flawless. You made it, after all.

The residence itself is a little smaller than you thought it’d be. You’d assumed the house of the branch manager for a store as big as Junes would be well-to-do, but it seems on par with the other houses on the street. The front lawn is a little unkempt, though you’re not sure that’s actually a reflection on the owners; a solid month of no rain hasn’t done anyone’s grass any favors.

Yosuke opens the door the moment you ring the doorbell. His smile belies his slightly frazzled look. “Come on in!” he says. He turns his head back and calls over his shoulder, “Yui’s here!”

You hand him the box with the cake so you can remove your shoes and put on slippers without hindrance. He peers at it. The box doesn’t have a see-through lid, though, so he doesn’t see much.

“What’d you bring?” he asks. “This is kinda heavy.”

“You’ll see,” you say.

Two sets of footsteps herald the arrival of your latest challenge. Yosuke’s father turns out to be a tall, thin man with a severe, deeply-lined face, thinning gray hair, and a wary expression; Yosuke’s mother is a contrast in almost every possible way, being short and plump with bouffant (but perhaps dyed) black hair, and a pair of round spectacles resting on possibly the most motherly face you’ve ever seen. Even their clothes are in contrast; Yosuke’s father looks like he just came back from the office, with a pressed white shirt, black tie, and black pants only missing a suit jacket to go with them, whereas Yosuke’s mother wears a buttery yellow sweater over a soft-looking brown skirt. You’re not sure they could be more different if they tried.

You step up past the genkan and bow. “My name is Yui Narukami,” you say. “I am pleased to finally make your acquaintance.”

“Hello, Yui-san,” Yosuke’s mother says with a smile. “I’m Tomoyo, and this is Hajime. It’s very nice to meet you.”

“So you’re Dojima’s niece?” Hajime asks, his face no less severe after the introduction. “The one from the big city?”

“Dad, we’re from a big city,” Yosuke says. The resigned look on his face plainly states that he’s expecting this to be a long evening.

“I’ve lived in many cities and towns during my life, actually,” you say. “My parents’ careers require them to move around a lot. Inaba is probably the smallest town I’ve lived in, but I wouldn’t consider myself a big city girl.”

Hajime opens his mouth to say something, but he’s interrupted when Teddie bursts in from the nearby stairs with an enthusiastic “Sensei!” Probably for the best, you think.

“Hello, Teddie,” you say. “Everything holding up in the few hours since I’ve seen you?”

Teddie nods perhaps more quickly than he needs to. “Everything’s fine!” he says. “I’ve been in Yosuke’s room the whole time, though, so I couldn’t really hear if anything wasn’t fine--”

“He means it’s nice to see you,” Yosuke says, putting his hand on Teddie’s shoulder and squeezing.

Before anything else can happen, Tomoyo asks, a cheery note to her voice, “Well, shall we go into the dining room?”

The ‘dining room’ proves to be a fair bit larger than your own ‘kitchen counter and table plus kotatsu in the living area’ setup, and the dining table itself, with five chairs, is western-style. Aside from the occasional breakfast, you rarely eat at the western table at the Dojimas’. There are only two chairs there, anyway, so whenever Dojima manages to come home, the living room table is really the only option.

Yosuke gestures for you to sit down, so you do. Your chair seems a little dusty around the edges, and it squeaks when you pull it in; perhaps it was in disuse somewhere, the usual ‘guest chair’ having been occupied by Teddie.

Yosuke disappears into the kitchen with the box, and his mom follows, and for a few moments, you are left alone with his dad and Teddie. The stony silence speaks volumes. You get the impression Hajime’s examining as much of you as he can see; briefly, you wonder if you ought to have worn something fancier than a gray turtleneck and darker gray slacks, but the only remotely fancy clothing you own is a couple of nice winter coats, and those aren’t really suitable for inside use. Does he want you to be more feminine? Should you have undone your braids? But you almost always wear your hair in braids, so he’s just going to have to deal with that.

Thankfully, Yosuke makes a quick return. He immediately takes one of the seats next to you; the other was already grabbed by Teddie, leaving Hajime at the opposite end of the table and the other chair next to Yosuke presumably being saved for Tomoyo. As much of a buffer as they can offer.

“Mom’s going to bring the food out in a moment, so just sit tight,” Yosuke says brightly. He rests his forearms on the table; you don’t think Hajime notices the slight tapping of his fingers, but you do. Your own hands stay in your lap, atop your napkin.

You wonder if Hajime is going to wait for Tomoyo to return to start with the heavy questions. Or maybe he’ll softball you for a while longer, until he thinks you’ve grown complacent, before springing them on you. Well, let him try. You kept your cool in front of a giant eye responsible for the near-destruction of humanity. One man is nothing.

Fortunately, he remains silent until Tomoyo bustles in with a pot of nikujaga. She sets it in the middle of the table, sliding the ladle to your direction.

“Thanks for the food,” you all echo, and you ladle some of the stew into the bowl in front of you. It certainly smells good.

Hajime manages to wait until everyone has their food before he starts. “So, Yui-san,” he says.

You brace for impact.

“I hear you volunteer at the local hospital. Very high-minded of you. Do you see your uncle and niece there often?”

That…isn’t quite what you were expecting. “Not while I’m working, no,” you say, cautiously. “I’m a night janitor. Visiting hours are over by the time I arrive.”

“I see.” You’re not sure what to make of it. He still hardly looks friendly, but…well, you’ll see. “And your grades?”

Ah, that you were expecting. “Top of the class,” you say. “I believe Yosuke told you that the other day?”

The mood tenses once more. Teddie takes the opportunity to stuff his face. The others don’t seem so ready to start eating.

“Yes, he did,” Hajime says. His voice is careful, composed. “While he was…studying with you.”

You glance at Yosuke. His mouth is set in a hard line, his breath quiet. Under the table, you slide your hand onto his knee and squeeze it. It seems to relax him a little, though not much.

“Sir, I don’t want to lie to you,” you say. How should you phrase it? A few options pass through your head; some too formal, some too informal, some inaccurate. You settle on just “We’re together.”

But before anyone else can say anything, you add, “But we were studying. I hear you have thoughts about Yosuke’s grades? Well, so do I.”

You only said you didn’t want to lie to him.

Besides, that last part is true.

Silence passes. Yosuke slips his own hand under the table and wraps it around yours. Teddie swallows loudly, then looks alarmed at having done so.

Eventually, Hajime says, “Well, it’s good to know we have that much in common.”

The tension lifts. Tomoyo gives you a faint smile. Hajime doesn’t, but you feel like he doesn’t really do that sort of thing.

“We’ve already had a conversation about keeping phones on,” Tomoyo says. “Yosuke says that wasn’t your fault, and I agree.”

You give Yosuke’s knee another squeeze. He responds in kind with his own hand over yours. “Thank you,” you say. “Trust me, we’ve had that conversation too. I wasn’t thrilled about that phone call either.”

Again, you only said you didn’t want to lie. And again, that last part’s true, too.

It occurs to you that the picture you’re painting is that of a girlfriend trying to deal with her boyfriend’s deficiencies. Well, if Yosuke’s dad really does have a problem with him, maybe that’s the best tactic.

Tomoyo folds her hands on the table. “What I want to know,” she says, her smile increasing, though you’re not sure how genuine it is, “is how the two of you got together. You’re in the same class, yes?”

And there it is--in a household where Yosuke is frequently criticized, doubts of his ability to get a girlfriend must have surfaced. Moreover, he’s barely ever mentioned you before, and while you could claim that some of the time spent in the TV world was actually a date, there’s no reason he would have kept such a respectable girlfriend a secret from his parents.

Fortunately, the two of you spent lunchtime coming up with an explanation.

You return her smile with one of your own, wide and practiced. “It’s a recent thing,” you say. “We’ve been friends for some time, though we’ve mostly only hung out with the group--Chie and Yukiko and the others.” Careful avoidance of the names of the people Yosuke’s father disapproves of: check. “Sometimes we studied together during lunch. Then…”

Make it look difficult; make it look hard to say. In reality, the events of two days ago are no longer a fresh wound. But normal people’s emotions don’t tie up so easily. You keep your eyes downcast and half-lie your ass off. “…lately, with my uncle and niece in the hospital,” you say quietly, “…things have been…difficult, for me. I’m not used to living in such an empty house. Two days ago, it came to a head, and I asked Yosuke to come over to study. He’s such a good friend…and then things just…progressed, from there.”

Half-truths sprinkled throughout shameless lies. It’s almost masterful.

By the grace of the universe, Teddie keeps his mouth shut. Yosuke gives a sheepish smile; as you look back up, you match it. The silence reigns again.

Finally, Hajime exhales through his teeth. “I can’t say I approve of this,” he says, his voice chilly.

Tomoyo purses her lips and taps his hand; he looks over at her, a little surprise in his eyes. “Well, we can’t exactly do anything about it now,” she says firmly. “And the times keep changing. Teenagers these days are very different from what we were, just as we were very different from our own parents. I think the situation could be much worse.”

“Plus, come on, you wanted me to date Yukiko?” Yosuke asks in a tone that indicates a familiar argument. “Yui might not own a business, but--and no disrespect to Yukiko here--everyone loves her. Honestly, I’m more worried the town’s going to turn on me for daring to date their beloved angel.”

It is a concern, yes.

Hajime snorts. “Not very pure for an angel, I must say…”

Yosuke’s hand on the table clenches, his hand on yours starts to lift up. You pull it back down. “Sir, I work at a daycare,” you say sweetly. “I look after my little cousin. I’ve helped clean up the local shrine. I spend time with the elderly. I feed stray cats with fish I catch myself. I make lunch for my friends without them asking me to. I run errands for complete strangers. I spend some of my evenings cleaning the hospital rooms of the recently departed. I am the purest goddamn person in this town, and a little consensual underage sex isn’t going to change that.”

Well.

That, admittedly, was not in the plan.

You’ve become familiar with anger; this is a far cry from your previous experiences, but nevertheless it scratches at you. What you have with Yosuke is not something you thought you’d ever have, and something as insignificant as parental approval is not going to get in your way. You have fought for many things, in the last eight months. You have not lost them. You will not lose this.

You’re not looking at Yosuke, but his fingers entangle in yours and squeeze tight.

In the thunderous silence, you pick up your chopsticks. “I’m really quite hungry,” you say, smiling. “Shall we start eating? I don’t want the food to get cold. It looks delicious.”

Teddie nods vigorously. “It is!” he says, perhaps more loudly than he needs to. “Mrs. Hanamura is a wonderful cook!” And he goes back to wolfing down his food.

You take a bite of potato, keeping your eyes straight on Yosuke’s dad. He seems stunned, barely able to blink.

Frankly, you’re reminded of a downed Shadow.

The food isn’t bad. Not great, but not bad. You continue to chew in complete relaxation.

Finally, finally, Tomoyo speaks up. “Thank you,” she says, her voice faint. “I didn’t know what sort of food you liked, so I just went with something simple.”

You swallow. “I like just about everything,” you say. After all, if you can brave the contents of the Dojima household’s fridge, you can handle anything. “This is delicious, by the way.”

“Come on, Dad, eat up,” Yosuke says, his own mouth full and his chopsticks reaching for more. “Unless you like it cold.”

After what seems like forever, Hajime finally starts eating. His eyes stay on you, though, as yours do on him. Bring it, you find yourself thinking.

Some chewing passes before he speaks again. “You must understand that my son is very important to me,” he says in a perfectly even voice.

Yosuke snorts. Under the table, you knock your foot against his ankle; he flinches, but doesn’t say anything.

“He doesn’t make things easy for himself,” Hajime continues. “We disagree on a number of issues. But what I want most of all in this world is for him to lead a successful life.”

Tomoyo puts her hand on his arm. You are reminded, abruptly, of Yosuke reaching for your own hand.

Yosuke stays silent.

“He has different ideas than mine as to what that means,” Hajime says. “I haven’t given up hope that I’ll manage to convince him. Still, overall, I do realize that success and happiness are not mutually exclusive. I have always hoped that he will someday find someone who can help him find both.”

You put down your chopsticks and disentangle your hand from Yosuke’s with some reluctance, folding both your hands in front of you. “Then I hope to be that person,” you say. “But frankly, sir, your approval is not required. I would very much like to have it, but I assure you, if you attempt to keep us apart, you will fail. Yosuke is extremely important to me, and I’m a person who doesn’t give up.”

Hajime actually laughs at that, to the apparent surprise of everyone at the table. “I can see that,” he says dryly. “You haven’t thought about going into business, have you? You’d have quite the knack for the corporate world.”

You give a prim smile. “Actually, I’ve been told I’d make a good counselor.”

“Oh, that can be quite lucrative,” Tomoyo says with a grin of her own that seems more real than any of the others she’s put on tonight. She leans forward, eyes bright. “If you ever need some corporate clients, just let us know. We know plenty of people with more money than sense.”

You suddenly get the impression there was, in fact, a reason those two got married.

“What do you think about that, Yui?” Yosuke asks, a slightly helpless smile on his face. “Therapist to the rich and evil?”

You purse your lips and put a hand to your chin. “I was thinking more along the lines of high school, actually.”

Yosuke gives a heavy sigh. “So much for a life of luxury,” he says.

You pat his arm. “Don’t worry, dear,” you say. “I’m sure I can support you somehow.”

Is it presumptuous, to assume you’ll be together that long? Maybe. But he’s not just infatuated with you, and you don’t think you’d ever find anyone like him. Besides, so much of what’s happened in the past eight months has the ring of destiny to it. This may be no different.

And most importantly, the hopeful little smile on his face says it all.

What his parents think of that, well, it hardly matters.

The evening continues, with the food actually being eaten, the conversation somewhat less awkward, and potential disaster averted. (You do still have a plan for if Yosuke is ever disowned, though.) Hajime proves to have collected models in his youth, which you pounce on immediately. Tomoyo proves to be a cat person, which you pounce on even sooner.

Eventually, the dinner plates are cleared away and you and Tomoyo make your way into the kitchen to get dessert ready. Her eyes widen when you pull it out of the box. You don’t think it’s that fancy, but you suppose maybe you did overdo it a little. A little.

Teddie actually gasps when you bring it out. Well, maybe you didn’t need two kinds of chocolate shavings and drizzles of melted chocolate and raspberries, and you probably could have gone with just one or two layers. At least you’d decided not to experiment with fondant. And you’d managed to limit the icing decorations to just flowers.

Pride is an acceptable emotion, so you allow yourself to feel it as you dish out the food. Teddie digs into his right away, and slides down his chair, making unsettling noises. Everyone else’s reactions are less extreme, but it does seem to go over well.

“This is delicious, Yui-san,” Tomoyo says, swallowing a large bite. “Do you cook often?”

“Sometimes,” you say mildly, pausing your own fork on the way to your mouth. “I find it calming.”

“Liar, you cook practically every day,” Yosuke says. There’s some chocolate on the corner of his mouth. It would be impolite to lick it off, but it’s tempting. “You’re always eating lunch with somebody. And don’t tell me you always let Dojima bring home takeout. How’d you have time to make this, anyway?”

You only smile.

Hajime’s bites are smaller, but continuous. “Cooking is an important skill to have. And another potentially lucrative career.”

You suspect Yosuke’s parents may be a little focused on money.

Teddie clings to your arm and stares deep into your eyes. “Sensei, if it doesn’t work out with Yosuke, please consider me,” he breathes.

You gently push him off and pat his head. “I’ll think about it, Teddie.”

Finally, the meal winds down and you’re all back at the front door. “It was a pleasure to meet you,” Tomoyo says, extending her hand. You shake it, and are a little surprised by how firm her grip is.

“Yes, it was certainly an experience,” Hajime says, a wry note to his voice. “I hope we’ll see you again.”

You shake his hand as well. “I do too, sir,” you say. And perhaps you do. It’s important to build a good relationship with your future in-laws.

You’ve got the cake box in one arm, so it’s a little awkward when Yosuke hugs you, but you manage. “This could have gone way worse,” he says. “Thanks for coming. I mean it.”

“Remember what I said!” Teddie says. “Any time you want!”

“Goodnight,” you say, waving, as you step back outside into the frigid but clean air. It’s late now, too late to do anything once you get home besides put away the box and collapse into bed. But it was a good evening. As Yosuke said, it could have gone much worse.

It occurs to you that you still need to tell Dojima.

Well.

That’s going to be something.

---

Regardless of parental approval, Yosuke’s still grounded, so you are left in a somewhat awkward position. Should you tell Dojima by yourself? Or should you wait until January and hope that somehow he doesn’t find out beforehand? The chances of him remaining ignorant grow smaller and smaller with every day he spends in a rumor-filled small town, not after that kiss in the street. But it might go better if Yosuke’s there with you.

Then again, it might go better if there’s no one there for him to punch.

You end up at the hospital by yourself after all, two days after meeting Yosuke’s parents. It’s a much calmer place than it was the last time you came; no more people raving in the halls, demanding answers the doctors couldn’t give. And it’s definitely a change of pace from your night janitor work.

Dojima waves at you from his bed when you enter his room. “Hey, Yui,” he says. “Anything new? I hear the fog’s cleared up. That’s good--I was really getting sick of all the screaming.”

He looks healthier than he did the last time you saw him, although that’s not saying much. His face isn’t so haggard. But there are still bags under his eyes, still a roughness to his voice. If you had to guess, you’d say he still hasn’t gotten over the news about Adachi.

You sit down on the chair next to his bed. How should you start this? “Everything’s going well,” you say. “The people around town are back to normal. Is Nanako still doing okay?”

Dojima nods. “She’s stable, anyway,” he says. “Getting a little better, but the doctors say it’ll take a while. Are you going to visit her today? I think she’d like that.”

You honestly hadn’t thought about it. She’ll have no trouble learning about you and Yosuke, so it’s not really an issue when she finds out. And you’re still not sure you’re up for seeing her, not until you’ve decided what your relationship with her is going to be like.

But…you’re here now, and you can’t really come up with an explanation to Dojima as to why you wouldn’t visit, not if she’s in stable condition.

“Yeah, after this,” you say. “I just wanted to talk to you first. Something’s…come up.”

Dojima straightens up in his bed. “Is it about the case?” he asks, suddenly on edge. “Is there new information?”

You shake your head. “No, nothing like that,” you say. “You remember Yosuke, right?”

“The Hanamura kid? Of course I remember him. He’s in your little gang. The kid with the swords. What, is he sick or something?”

“No, he’s fine.” How to put it, how to put it…oh, throw caution to the wind. “Turns out he’s a pretty good kisser, though.”

Dojima stays still for a moment. “He what,” he says in a low, dangerous voice.

“He’s also responsible, supportive, and my closest friend,” you say, keeping your own voice light. “Really, when it comes to boyfriends, he’s not a bad choice.”

Dojima’s hands clench in the blanket; he looks like he’s struggling not to jump out of bed. “If he’s taken advantage of you in any way--” he starts.

It’s so horribly ironic you can barely stand it. “Not at all, don’t worry,” you say, putting your hands up in front of you. “The incident with the swords was a single poor decision, not a reflection on his overall character. He’s really quite nice once you get to know him.”

“He’s a teenage boy you’ve known less than a year,” Dojima says. You’re starting to be concerned he might tear a hole in that blanket. “I know you must’ve been feeling vulnerable lately, but you can’t rush into something you’re not prepared for.”

“I know him well enough to trust him with my life,” you say calmly. “And he trusts me with his. We may only have known each other for eight months, but those eight months have been…full.”

Dojima opens his mouth like he’s going to say something, but doesn’t. Finally, he exhales, unclenching his hands. “More TV stuff, huh?” he asks, a resigned look on his face.

“Yes.”

“And he’s not…forcing you into anything?”

“No.”

A long moment passes. “You know I think of you like my own daughter,” Dojima says quietly. “I don’t want anything to happen to you. But I guess I’m not really the one in charge of that.”

You reach out and take his hand, careful to avoid the IV. “I value your opinion,” you say. “I know you only want the best for me, and I know lately you’ve seen a lot of the worst. But he’s my best friend, and I’m happier with him than I’ve been in a long time.” Ever, you don’t say. “Give him a chance. That’s all I’m asking.”

Dojima gives a slight smile. “You hardly ever ask me for anything,” he says. “Except to get my shit together. I guess I can give him the benefit of the doubt, if you’re the one vouching for him.”

“Thank you,” you say, tipping your head down. “It’s good to hear you say that.”

“But the moment he steps out of line--”

“--is a moment I can deal with myself,” you say.

Dojima laughs, but just a little, probably so he doesn’t pull his stitches. “I bet you can,” he says, shaking his head. “I hope he knows what he’s getting into.”

You very definitely avoid saying Well, my mouth, mostly.

Instead, you say, “I actually met his parents for the first time this week. They thought I was a corrupting influence.”

Dojima laughs harder, that time, and winces, putting his other hand over his stomach. “Seriously? You?”

“In fairness, he did leave the house for two days without telling them…”

You end up giving a heavily-edited description of events. It’s nice, you realize, to get it out there, to not have it hanging over your head.

Whether or not it would have gone better with Yosuke there, you don’t know. But it seems to have worked out anyway.

Now, though…you have to visit Nanako.

---

Nanako’s hospital room is still filled with the periodic beeping of the machines that might be keeping her alive. You remember the sound of a long, sustained noise that very nearly ended the mystery and perhaps the world, someday. You don’t mind the beeping so much, compared to that.

Her eyes are closed when you enter the room, but the sound of your footsteps makes them open. The smile on her face is a little dim, but in its own way, it could rival Yosuke’s.

“Big sis!” she cries, and struggles to sit up. You rush over and coax her back into lying down; she doesn’t have any stitches to tear, but movement has always seemed to hurt her anyway.

“Hello, Nanako,” you say, brushing her hair away from her face. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m a lot better now,” she informs you. “The doctors say I still can’t leave yet, though.” She pouts. “They never tell me when I can.”

You sit down next to the bed and find yourself holding her hand. It seems so small in yours, so pale and thin. And yet it’s still warm, still unquestionably alive. Her fingers curl around yours, and you don’t know how to feel.

“They don’t know yet,” you say. “Once they’re sure you’re not sick anymore, they’ll let you leave, but until then, they’re being careful. They want you to get better as much as you do.”

“I know…” Nanako says with a small sigh. “That’s what Dad keeps saying, too.”

Here is the problem you have been trying to avoid: you do not know what to do about Nanako. You have been a person who loves their little cousin, and you are keeping your masks on, at least for now. The night she almost died was the first time you ever yelled at anyone, and all through November you were in a fog that had nothing to do with the weather. Looking back on it now, the time she was kidnapped was the first time you had felt real, genuine fear.

But your only real reference for what it’s like to care about someone on more than a surface level is Yosuke, and that is not at all the same.

You’re not sure if you love Yosuke, even. You like him. You like him more than you like a lot of things. But love? Love is supposed to be big, powerful, something that sings in your heart. Nothing does that for you. Comfortable contentment is the most you can reach. Bizarrely, it seems like Yosuke doesn’t mind that; he hasn’t asked you what you feel about him, he didn’t seem bothered when you said “Yosuke is extremely important to me” instead of “I love him”.

But your relationship with Nanako is very different. If you don’t feel romantic love, you don’t think you can feel familial love, either, but…you don’t know, that’s the thing. You do know that Nanako is in a different category from all your other Social Links. A more important one, maybe. Does that mean you love her? You don’t think it does. You don’t think. Thinking about Nanako is difficult, these days, because you just don’t know what to think about her.

You’ve been quiet. Nanako tugs at your hand. “Are you okay?” she asks, clear worry in her eyes.

“I’m fine,” you assure her. “I’m just thinking about things.”

Her brow wrinkles. “You don’t look like you’re fine,” she says.

What do you look like? There’s no mirror; you don’t know. It’s unsettling, to not know what you’re projecting to the world.

You manage a smile. “I just want you to get better,” you say. “It’s a little lonely at home with no one to help me garden.”

“Oh! Are the veggies still growing?” Nanako asks, her eyes suddenly bright. “The food here is okay, but I miss the stuff you make.”

“The veggies are doing well,” you say. It’s true; they don’t seem to mind the cold at all, at least not yet. “Right now I’m growing some melon. Maybe I can bring it to you once it’s ready.” After all, you don’t need it for healing anymore.

“That would be wonderful! I really miss gardening with you,” Nanako says wistfully. “Are you really all alone at home? Your friends don’t come visit you?”

Well…

“Actually, I do have something nice to share,” you say.

Her face lights up. “What? What is it?”

“I’m dating Yosuke now,” you say. It’s strange; you haven’t really thought of it as “dating”, and it’s only been a few days, but…that’s probably what you’d call it. Dating. Going out. A couple. That’s what you are now. Huh.

Nanako’s eyes widen. “Does that mean you get a discount at Junes?” she breathes.

“I…don’t think so?” Trust Nanako to think of that before anything else.

“Oh.” She seems genuinely disappointed. “But I still like him. He’s silly.”

“That he is,” you agree.

She smiles and squeezes your hand. “I know I’m not getting a new mom,” she says. “But it’d be nice to have a big bro, too. Are you going to get married?”

“I’ll get back to you on that.”

It’s not easy, spending time with Nanako. But you have two options--sit there feeling sorry for yourself, now that you know you can feel sorry, or feel the warmth of her hand and her smile and appreciate the fact that you are loved by such a sweet, caring person. She might love you more than anyone besides Yosuke does, and that’s not nothing.

You don’t know what to think about her. Well, maybe that’s okay. It’s never been your thoughts so much as your actions that matter, and with every fiber of your being you will do your best to repay Nanako for her love.

You end up staying with her until visiting hours are over, and as you wave goodbye, you return her smile with no difficulty.

---

December 24th. Christmas Eve.

Yosuke’s a little out of breath when you open the front door to let him in. As he takes off his shoes, he breathes in and out hard. “So, turns out it’s not actually that easy to climb down the tree next to my window,” he says, standing up. “But I don’t think my parents heard me, and Ted promised to cover for me if they ask anything. I don’t actually know how he’d cover for me, but…I’m not gonna let that bother me. Yet.”

You lean in and kiss him on the cheek. Just briefly, but the soft, warm touch is nice anyway. “I’m glad you could make it,” you say. “My room?”

“You don’t even have to ask, partner.”

The little table in your room hasn’t seen much use lately, since you’ve got enough models to fill the shelf and you don’t really need the money or the items from your jobs anymore. Besides, your evenings are filled with equally unnecessary socializing. Sitting on the steps of Marukyu Tofu with Rise, window shopping at the bookstore with Naoto, eating at Aiya’s with Chie…you don’t need to, not with your maxed Social Links, but it’s a good way to kill time and it certainly isn’t boring.

Now, though, the table is topped with a round, white cake. Much smaller than the last one, though only somewhat less elaborate; it is a celebration, after all, even if only a small one for two people.

Yosuke sits down on the carpeted floor and gives the cake an appreciative look. “One of yours again?” he asks.

You nod. “There wasn’t much else to do today, and I thought I’d try something smaller. I’ve never made a Christmas cake before. It was interesting.”

“Interesting how? Good interesting?”

“Well, there’s a certain traditional component, isn’t there? Trying to impress your romantic partner and all that.”

Yosuke laughs. “Trust me, Yui, there is no way you could impress me even more than you already do,” he says.

That’s not a bad feeling, inside you.

You lay out the two plates and forks, picking up Yosuke’s plate and readying the knife.

“Wait, actually--” Yosuke pulls a small box out of his pocket and hands it to you, his eyes firmly planted on the ground and his face pink. “I kind of…made you something. Since you made the cake. I figured, this is what Christmas is for, so…I hope I didn’t mess it up too badly?”

You take the box. He did do a decent job wrapping it; the shiny red paper is only creased where it should be, and the tape isn’t too haphazard. Tearing off the paper reveals cardboard underneath, and opening the lid reveals…

…a small, stuffed gray cat. As you lift it up, you notice how soft its fur is, how the stitching is a little wide at times but mostly on-point.

Yosuke’s smile is sheepish. “You can probably guess that Kanji helped,” he says. “But I didn’t know what you’d like and I thought, hey, cats, so--”

The cake does eventually get eaten, but only some time after you tackle Yosuke to the ground.

---

And then, it turns out, you get to make another Christmas cake.

Or help with one, anyway; you’ve learned your lesson from the cook-off and the campout. Nanako might have been surprisingly tolerant of the omelet rice, but you won’t risk Chie, Yukiko, and Rise’s efforts again, even if Naoto is helping this time too.

Fortunately, their suggestions aren’t actually that unrealistic. No lobster. No vinegar. Naoto manages to keep Yukiko from eyeing the soy sauce for too long. And so the end result is not only serviceable but perhaps one of your best efforts yet. It’s nice, seeing the girls beaming at their success.

The conversation around the table is as poignant as you thought it’d be. Nobody really wants to think about you leaving in just a few months. But the food and company are good, and you can’t remember ever having a Christmas like this, not in your life of distant parents and half-friendships.

As the conversation swings back into laughter, you find that your smile is less of a mask than it used to be.

---

You’ve never lived near a shrine on New Year’s, so you’re a little surprised when you wake up to a text from Yosuke.

heyyy happy new year! wanna go 2 the shrine? 1st wish for new year. no need 2 dress up. but u could if u want. just saying.

Nanako’s in poor enough condition that she and Dojima are staying home themselves, so it looks like you’ll be spending the day with Yosuke. As for his unsubtle suggestion, well…Yukiko would probably be happy to help again.

As it turns out, she certainly is. Your kimono this time is one you pick out yourself, from deeper in the storeroom: a familiar velvety shade of blue with light, almost glowing blue butterflies. Yukiko herself seems surprised to find it. You suspect it may have only recently come into existence.

The snow on the ground of the shrine makes for the usual eerie quiet that can only be found on a snowy day, and it isn’t helped by this being, well, a shrine. You wonder if the fox found a warm place to sleep. Maybe the inner part of the shrine isn’t so cold.

Yosuke, standing by the entrance torii, whistles when he sees you. “Okay, I didn’t actually expect you to go through with it,” he says. “Did Yukiko help out again?”

You nod. “Not the comb, though. That was all Kasai-san.” You gingerly touch the black lacquered comb Kasai-san put in your hair the moment she saw you leave the storeroom. It’s not really holding anything together--your braids don’t need it--so it’s just an ornament. A nice one, though, with those cherry blossom engravings. It reminds you of Marie.

“It’s a good look for you,” Yosuke says. “Not that you don’t look good in your normal clothes, but the colors really fit you. It’s got this air of elegant mystery.”

You run your hand down one blue, butterfly-bedecked sleeve. Really, you’re going to have to talk to Margaret. “It certainly does,” you agree.

Yosuke stretches his arms behind his back, crossing them around the back of his neck. “So the last time I was in Inaba for New Year’s Day, I pretty much just stayed at work,” he says. “Did the shrine stuff for New Year’s Eve, but on the day itself, I just did a couple shifts at Junes and collapsed into bed when I got home. It wasn’t until the day after when I heard people talking about how they did their first wish of the new year here. I kinda felt like I missed out, but my parents aren’t really into traditional stuff, so I didn’t exactly get a lot of sympathy.”

“Speaking of your parents,” you say, “do they know you’re here? Are you still grounded?”

“Nope! Grounded, I mean. They know I’m here. Yesterday was officially my last day of detention. Or did you think I managed to sneak out last night, too?”

Ah, you should’ve thought of that. “In any case, it’s good to know you don’t have to worry about getting down that tree anymore,” you say. You take his hand. “Shall we go make our wishes?”

The golden offertory box glitters in the chilly sun. The two of you stand in front of it, staring thoughtfully.

“What’re you going to wish for?” Yosuke asks.

“At the festival last year, I wished to get closer to one of my Social Links,” you say with a faint smile. “I don’t need to do that now, so…I’m not sure.”

“This is gonna sound cheesy, but…I’m wishing for us to stay happy together.” It might only be the cold making his face pink; it might not. “If that’s okay? Maybe happiness isn’t the right word for it, with you.”

“Happiness is fine,” you say. “I’m not unhappy. It’s nice. I’ll wish for that too.”

As you bow your heads and clap your hands together, you think your wish, and you wonder what it means. Happiness. Or at least being happy with Yosuke. You can do that; you like him, and you like spending time with him, and you like the idea of spending a lot of time with him. Regardless of emotions, you certainly wish you’ll stay together.

“We should draw fortunes, too,” Yosuke says, gesturing towards the inner torii. “They probably won’t do anything, but hey, tradition.”

“Actually, I’ve drawn a lot of them,” you say as you step up towards the box. “They’re useful for Social Links.”

Yosuke stares at you. “That’s…kinda creepy, partner,” he says. “Wait, you didn’t draw any for me, did you?”

“Once or twice.” Well, four times. You had your off days.

“…you know what, I’m just gonna let that one go.”

He picks a sealed fortune out of the box, and as you reach for your own, you find yourself remembering what he looks like after sex, flushed and blissful and debauched.

…‘Great Blessing’. Whaddyaknow.

“You too? Sweet!” Yosuke brandishes his own fortune with a grin, and yes, that’s another great blessing right there. You wonder what he thought of.

“I’m gonna keep mine in my room,” he says. “For luck, and all that. What about you?”

You give careful consideration to the paper in your hand. “I usually tie them to the tree,” you say. “But that always takes longer than you think it will. I suppose I’ll just hold onto it this time.”

“Your life remains a mystery to me, partner.”

You walk around the shrine for a little while longer, talking and discreetly looking for the fox. It’s probably inside. You hope it doesn’t get too cold.

It’s not a large shrine, though, so the walk doesn’t take very long, and the two of you end up back in front of the main building. Yosuke sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “I guess I should head home now. There’s not a lot to do here.”

You sigh yourself. “In theory, I’d like to make some comment about there being other things we could do together, but Nanako and Dojima are back now, so that’s a bit off the table.”

Yosuke groans. “And definitely not my house, either…do you think Yukiko’d let us borrow a room at the inn?”

Suddenly, you have an idea. It’s--well, it’s an idea, at any rate. “You know, I wonder if the entrance at Junes still works,” you say thoughtfully.

“…no way. You cannot seriously be suggesting that. You cannot.” Yosuke looks at you like you’ve suggested a tiger pit.

“The backlot’s always been safe, and if I have to go home to change anyway then I could get some blankets…”

“That is--okay, so I can’t actually think of anything else, but that is--uh…I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…I guess if it is our only option…?”

“I can’t think of anything else either. Or I could just go back to my house and you could just go back to your house and spend the rest of the day thinking about it.”

Yosuke slowly shakes his head. “God, you’re evil,” he says, but his voice is more reverential than condemning. “Okay. Sure. Why not. Add that to my list of crazy shit I’ve done this year. At least our weapons are still there if we need them.”

You hold out your hand, smiling. There’s really only one thing that can be said right now, and he knows it.

He takes your hand, giving you a wild and slightly disbelieving grin, and says, “Let’s go, partner.”

And, indeed, you do.

---

Man, that increased physical ability you all have in the TV world turns out to have some interesting other uses.

---

When Margaret calls to tell you finding Marie will require a “true test of your Persona powers”, a chill runs down your spine.

It was supposed to be over. It was supposed to be done. The mystery is solved, the source was defeated, no one needs saving, even training is unnecessary--but apparently that is not enough. Once more you must be a leader. Once more you all must fight.

Once more you need power.

As Margaret ends the call and you stand still in your living room, the only sound Teddie’s soft snoring from the floor, you think about calling Yosuke. He wouldn’t know what to do, but he’d be here in in instant, and you think right now you might need that reassurance that power isn’t the only thing that matters. There is more to your life than needing to be strong. There is.

You can almost feel that mask sliding onto your face again. Leader, hero, Wild Card; you are not a girl with friends and a boyfriend and a peaceful life, you are someone important, and how could you have forgotten that? How could you have thought even for an instant that your life could be quiet?

Could be something approaching happy?

But you don’t call Yosuke. You go to bed and stare at the ceiling until you fall asleep. You wake up and go to school and everything is exactly the same as it was for those few weeks in December where you thought everything was finally finished.

But it isn’t the same as December. It’s the same as April, and May, and June, and on and on through November. And you’re the only one who knows it.

---

The first solid example of what Margaret told you comes in the form of a shimmering yellow figure above Yukiko’s head. Amaterasu’s silver wings have turned gold, and golden hair streams behind her head; her shield, now gold as well, is larger and more ornate. She is not Amaterasu anymore. The whispery voice inside you tells you that she is Sumeo-Okami.

“My Persona…? I see…so I can still change…” Yukiko’s voice is reverential, her expression awestruck. Of course, she has every right to be so; her very soul has just sprung forth, stronger and more beautiful than before. For her, the existence of Sumeo-Okami means she is a stronger person.

For you, it means that Margaret was not lying. There would be no need for anyone’s Persona to evolve if there was not another battle in the future.

And it keeps happening. Susano-o turns orange and his fire expands, with whirling blades under his feet. Takehaya Susano-o. Kanzeon becomes a turquoise telescope, surrounded by a silver solar system. Kouzeon. A green cape flows from Suzuka Gongen’s newly golden armor, while long white hair ripples out from her helmet. Haraedo-no-Okami. Rokuten Maoh grows a white cape of his own, as his own armor turns white where it was red and red where it was yellow. Takeji Zaiten. Yamato Takeru’s coat becomes red, his wings red and white, and long blonde hair flows forth behind him. Yamato Sumeragi. Kamui becomes a rainbow cone with a crown, his cape speckled with white stars and his missile bearing a rose. Kamui-Moshiri.

None of your own Personas grow. You are not sure what that means. Are you a finished person? Is there nothing left in you to change?

Whatever the case, no one else seems to realize that there must be another fight up ahead. You’re not certain why you don’t tell them. To allow them to maintain their happiness for a while longer, perhaps.

You play your usual game of smiles up until the last day of exams. Yosuke corners you at the gates after school.

“Something’s up, isn’t it,” he says, one side of his mouth twisting down. “I’m getting okay at telling how hard you’re faking things, and lately you’ve been a real Stepford wife. Is it more emotionless puppetmaster stuff, or what?”

You shake your head. “It’s just a little strange, thinking about how I’ll be leaving next month,” you say. “That’s all.”

But the look in Yosuke’s eyes says he doesn’t quite believe you. “All right,” he says. “Just let me know if you ever want to talk.”

No one’s been able to read you before. Well…there was Marie, that one time. Marie. Marie who is in danger, somewhere far away. Marie who can only be saved by you returning to battle.

You want Marie to live, but you do not know what else to think about her.

---

The cabin barely blocks out the freezing wind, and does nothing for the temperature. Is this how it will end? The past two days have been good--helping Rise ski, watching everyone have fun, narrowly avoiding being torn apart so everyone can share you equally--but freezing to death was not high on your list of “ways I might die”.

If you had to be stuck with someone, though, you probably would pick Yosuke. At the very minimum, dying with him would be nicely poetic.

“I wish we could find more firewood,” Yosuke grumbles, settling against your side. “We probably won’t freeze to death, but I’d feel a lot safer with more insurance.”

You rest your head on his shoulder. “Sharing body heat seems risky,” you say. “We don’t have any blankets, so taking our clothes off would probably just make things worse.”

“Again with the you just saying stuff like that…” If it helps, Yosuke’s face is definitely pink from the cold. “But I kinda agree. I don’t know enough about wilderness survival to know if that actually works anyway.”

A brief buzz interrupts your thoughts. Glancing to the back of the cabin, you see the old TV resting in the corner. It’s not plugged in, but…you are not inclined to be unwary of TVs, of late.

“You hear that?” Yosuke asks, glancing back himself. “That…probably wasn’t good, was it.”

You shake your head. “That was definitely an electrical noise,” you say. “But there’s no electricity in this cabin.”

“Just a TV,” Yosuke says. “Just a random TV we just happened to come across. At night.” He hesitates. “How late is it, anyway? It isn’t…?”

“It can’t be midnight yet,” you say, though you’re not certain. How long have you been out? “Besides, the Midnight Channel is done. Nobody’s being thrown in anymore.”

But you have a decent idea what this might be related to, don’t you.

You stand up and start to walk towards it. Yosuke stands up too, grabbing your arm. “Wait, are you gonna try to go in there?” he asks. “We don’t have any equipment!”

“I can improvise,” you say. “What, no sense of adventure?”

“I just don’t think I’m ready for something like that,” Yosuke says, shaking his head. “You don’t know what you’re getting into. Can’t we at least wait?”

“You can just stay still if you want,” you say, shrugging off his arm. “Relax. I’ll be careful.”

“I DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON BUT--” Chie bursts into the cabin, kicking the door wide open and letting in a rush of freezing air. She seems oddly taken aback when she sees you.

“…apparently nothing,” Yukiko says, slipping in from behind her.

The others follow, mostly looking relieved, although Teddie looks strangely disappointed. “What are you two doing in here?” Rise asks. “We were looking everywhere for you!”

“We got lost in the storm,” Yosuke says. “How’d you know where to find us?”

Chie walks up and thwaps him in the arm. He jumps back with a yelp. “This place is right behind the lodge, dumbass!” she says.

You and Yosuke exchange twin looks of embarrassment. “We…did not know that,” you say.

“Obviously not,” Naoto says, shaking her head. “But what were you doing before we came in? It sounded…um.”

You suddenly have a very clear image of what it sounded like, and make a note to have a conversation with Yosuke later. Alone.

You point to the TV in the corner, and begin to explain.

Shortly after, things become quite eventful.

---

As Marie falls into your arms, you find that you cannot blame her for returning the need for power into your life. No anger rises within you; only the knowledge that she, too, was trapped by cruel necessity. She could no more change what she was than you can.

But Marie has now moved past her role. She is free to live however she wants. She is not bound by the fog within her.

Can you truly say that you are still bound by the emotionless calculations within you?

As she opens her eyes, relief flows through you. You find a curious openness in your heart, an unblocked door ready to let in whatever you wish. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps only a little. But just as Marie is free, so too are you, in a way.

No, you do not blame her.

You let her wrap her arms around you, and through your open door, you thank her.

---

When you finally come home, you are faced with something of a conundrum.

Today is February 13th. You’ve been busy, the last few days. You haven’t had time. And to be honest, you’d nearly forgotten; you’ve never had anyone to make chocolate for in the first place, after all.

But now you do.

The night beforehand. After spending the day in the TV world.

…do you even have any ingredients?

Out of pure curiosity, you check the kitchen.

Well. It seems you do.

Nanako seems oddly shifty.

With an inner weary sigh, you set your alarm for rather earlier than usual, and fall into bed.

---

You arrive at school the next day with a bag large enough to bestow chocolate upon all your teammates, not just Yosuke; his is a little more elaborate, but friend chocolate is a thing, after all.

Rise actually pouts when she walks in to find you handing it out to everyone. “I was going to wow you all with my generosity,” she says. “Upstaged by Senpai…” But her pout turns into a brilliant smile. “Well, if it means I get some of Senpai’s chocolate too, I don’t mind at all!”

She sets her bag down on the desk and accepts the red paper package you hand to her. Everyone else already has theirs--except Yosuke.

“…I’m getting mine later, right?” he asks, a slight thread of worry in his voice.

“Of course,” you say, and ruffle his hair. He makes a token, unconvincing attempt to bat away your hand.

The only person missing is Naoto. Where is she, anyway? You suppose there hadn’t really been a plan to meet in your classroom after school, but surely she suspected there would be something. Speak of the devil--once your thoughts turn to her, she appears in the door.

“What are you all doing together?” she asks, as if she really doesn’t know.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Yosuke asks, raising his eyebrows. “Today’s a huge deal!”

“Ah,” Naoto says. Her face does not change one iota. “Well, if you’ll excuse me.”

She turns to leave. Nope. You bound over your desk, bag in hand, and nearly tackle her. She lets out a startled noise and looks at you in alarm. “Senpai, what--?”

You hold out a package. “For you,” you say. “No escape.”

“Ah…eheh.” Naoto takes the package, a crooked smile on her face. “Thank you. I…assume you’re giving these to everyone?”

You nod, and pat her arm. “Don’t worry about it,” you say. You lean in for a whisper. “You might want to leave before Rise gives you hers, though.”

Naoto’s face flickers back to alarm. “I see. Well, goodbye, everyone.” She waves as she beats a hasty retreat.

“Aww, she left,” Rise says, pouting again. “I was gonna give her one too…”

“Actually, Chie and I bought some ourselves,” Yukiko says, pulling out some packages from her bag. Chie does the same.

“They’re not homemade, though,” Chie says as she starts to pass them out. “Don’t get your hopes up.”

“I think I can honestly say that I am okay with that,” Yosuke says. He grins as you walk back over. “Now, I don’t want to brag that I’m the only one here getting more than friend chocolate, but…”

Kanji kicks his foot. The resulting yelp is actually a little endearing. “We all got chocolate from Senpai, pal,” Kanji says with a glower.

“His is different,” you say. Yosuke gives another smug grin as he rubs his foot.

With all the chocolates passed out, everyone starts to make their way home. At the school gates, you tap Yosuke’s arm. He turns to face you.

“Let’s go to the beach,” you say. “It’ll be cold, but that’ll mean no one else is there to bother us.”

“Just lead the way,” he says with a smile.

The beach is indeed cold, but at least not windy, and the two of you settle down on the steps leading to the shore. Yosuke gazes over the sea for a moment.

“I’ve only actually been here once,” he says. “That time when we all went together. Going by myself seemed kinda lame, and I didn’t think anyone else would be interested in another trip so soon, so I never mentioned it. But it’s nice here.”

You smooth out your skirt. “I lived in a coastal city once,” you say. “All spring long, all the other students kept talking about how they were looking forward to going to the beach once summer started. I knew I would be gone by then, so I ended up going there myself, just to see what it was like.”

“Yeah? Did you like it?”

“It was a little crowded,” you say. “Everyone else seemed to be having fun, but I didn’t really see the point of it without anyone with me. Not that I had anyone to go there with to begin with. I ended up going home after about twenty minutes.”

Yosuke laughs. “Man, I know the feeling,” he says. “I didn’t live near the ocean, so we couldn’t go there on a whim. When I was little, my parents took me there sometimes, but always when there were other business families that wanted to talk shop outside while their kids had a place to play in. All the kids would run amok while their parents weren’t looking. It was a lot of fun.”

His mouth twists. “When I got older, though, that didn’t happen so much. I kept thinking I’d go there with my friends, but my friends never actually asked me. Looking back on it now, that’s probably because they didn’t actually like me. I was pretty annoying back then. All clingy and not so great with boundaries.”

“But you have friends now,” you say, reaching over and squeezing his hand. “Even if you screw up sometimes, there are still people who care about you.”

“Ha, I don’t know if Chie cares about me all that much…” You flick his nose. His head jerks back a little, and he glares at you. “Ow! Fine, fine, I get it.”

“And there’s me,” you say. You stroke the back of his hand with your thumb.

His smile lights up the gray beach. “And there’s you.”

You remove your hand and grab the bag next to you, pulling out another wrapped box. It’s a bit taller than the others, but also a little lighter. “Here,” you say, passing it to him.

Yosuke takes it. “Man, I’ve never gotten anything besides obligation chocolates,” he says. “I’m not even sure what to do here. Uh. Thank you?”

“Just open it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He tears off the red wrapping paper and lifts the cardboard cover. His eyes widen. “No way…”

It took a little research, but eventually you found what you were looking for: a way to sculpt chocolate without using equipment you didn’t have. After you’d finished the main batch and left it to cool, you’d taken some of the still-melted chocolate and mixed it with sugar syrup, then let that chill on its own into a semisolid form. From there, vague memories from art classes at previous schools took over.

The end result is a small but reasonably accurate chocolate sculpture of Takehaya Susano-o, lying carefully on its back so the overlarge head doesn’t make it tip over. Yosuke very carefully lifts up and examines it.

Damn,” he says in a reverential tone. “How’d you even…?”

“Research and steady hands,” you say. “It’s edible. You should try it.”

“I dunno, I feel like that’d be eating art,” Yosuke says. He squints. “Are those tiny toothpicks attaching the blades? Did you actually cut down toothpicks?”

“Normal-size ones would be out of proportion. Are you going to eat it?”

He exhales. “I guess at least a nibble,” he says.

He takes a careful nibble off the head. His eyes go wide again. After he swallows, he says, “What kind of ingredients did you even use? This is amazing!”

“I think Nanako bought them,” you say with a shrug. “They didn’t seem to be anything special, but I am pretty good at cooking.”

“No kidding.” He eyes the rest of it. “I really feel like eating this would be a shame, but…damn.”

“It was made to be eaten,” you say. “I still have some of the molding chocolate at home. I could make another one.”

Yosuke gives you a Look. “Partner, have I ever mentioned that you are literally the best person in the world?”

“Just eat the chocolate.”

He finishes it one little bite at a time, admiring it all the way. Once he’s done, he looks straight into your eyes and says, “Okay, here’s the thing. I can’t even try to pretend meeting you wasn’t the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I know I keep saying how great you are, but I mean it every time. You’re smart and beautiful and funnier than you think you are and ridiculously good at everything and you can do some really cool stuff with your tongue. And I’ve mostly gotten over wondering why someone like you would be interested in me. I don’t care how many emotions you have, or if you feel like a human being or not. I love everything about you.”

You reach out and stroke the side of his face. It’s a little cold, in this chilly weather, but underneath you can still feel the warmth suffusing him. You still don’t love, not really. But you think if you could, you’d love him.

“I don’t like anything more than I like you,” you say, and hope it’s enough.

Yosuke’s face is still sunlight. Apparently it is.

Tasting the chocolate in his mouth is better than any you’ve eaten on your own.

---

You knew you wouldn’t want to go.

There’s nothing waiting for you at your old home; your parents will be happy to know you’ve kept your grades up, and they’ll probably like it if you mention all the work you’ve been doing, but the distant approval of your parents is a pale imitation of what you have in Inaba. You have so many things here, and when you leave, you will have nothing.

Oh, perhaps that isn’t strictly true. Everyone’s given you their phone numbers. They’re likely to text you on a regular basis. You’ll probably see Rise on TV eventually. You’ll definitely be returning for however many holidays and breaks you can grab. But you won’t wake up in the Dojimas’ house every day and put together a plan of attack for who to spend time with today again.

You won’t be able to be with Yosuke whenever you want.

So as you say your goodbyes to everyone, smile and console and listen to their plans, you are more grateful than ever for your masks. Without them, you might spill out your thoughts all over the place.

Once you’ve finished saying your goodbyes to Yosuke and Teddie, Teddie dashes off back inside, possibly to drown his sorrows at the food sample stations. But Yosuke lingers.

“Is this gonna be our last time alone together before you leave?” he asks. “You’ll be resting up tonight, and the train leaves early tomorrow…so this is it, huh.”

You realize that he’s right. There won’t be any more time tonight or tomorrow. And you still have other people to say goodbye to; you can’t even stay here for long.

“I guess so,” you say softly. “The food court isn’t really a good place for goodbyes.”

Yosuke gives a crooked grin. “It’s not like we’ll never see each other again. You’ll visit, right?”

“Of course,” you say. “Whenever I can.”

“And I still have to meet your parents. Unless you think they’ll be horrified that some nobody out in the country corrupted their baby girl?”

You find yourself smiling, just a little. “They might grill you on your education prospects…”

Yosuke slides his hand down his face and makes an exaggerated groan. “Don’t remind me. My mom’s started leaving college leaflets outside my door.”

You hesitate; there is something you’ve been wondering about asking. Is it too presumptuous? “Do you have any college plans?” you ask. “I’ll probably get into something prestigious.” That’s not bragging; that’s a fact.

“I dunno,” Yosuke says with a sigh. He crosses his arms and leans back in his chair. “I still don’t really know what I wanna do. My dad wants me to get a business degree, but I don’t know if I want to stay in the Junes family forever. I definitely don’t want to work on the sales floor anymore. I’m not bad at it, but yeesh…” He makes a face. “Anyone who says they like working retail is an out-and-out liar.”

“You know, you could probably get into a good school if you wanted,” you say. “You’re smarter than you think you are. If you’d just study more…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Yosuke says. He tilts his head back, gazing up at the sky. “You’ve got it lucky. You could do just about anything. Me, though? I can’t think of a dang thing. Nothing seems to fit.”

You think about it. True, nothing stands out. You can’t picture him in law or medicine or science or teaching or even anything creative, vague experience in guitar notwithstanding. He’s not unskilled, but…well, skills from the TV world probably don’t count, do they.

“You could figure it out at school,” you say. “Lots of people do that. There’s a reason they don’t make you declare your major right away.”

“I guess…” Yosuke says, but he sounds uncertain. “It just seems kinda risky to spend all that money on college without knowing what I’ll even do there. Hell, I don’t even know what kind of college to pick.”

“Like I said, you’re smarter than you think you are,” you say. “If you tried, there are lots of places you could go. I could help you.” And here is the most presumptuous thing. “…you could try to get into the same place I’m going.”

Yosuke actually laughs at that before he realizes your expression hasn’t changed. “…you’re serious,” he says, disbelief written plainly on his face. “You are actually serious about me going to a college you get into.”

“It’s not so impossible,” you say. You fold your fingers in front of you. “You’ve still got a year left. There’s time to get your grades up. It can’t be any harder than fighting monsters, can it?”

“That is a completely different skillset and you know it,” Yosuke says. He leans back forward, crossing his arms on the table. “Seriously, you can be as optimistic as you want, but that just isn’t gonna happen. One year of good grades isn’t gonna make up for a lifetime of not paying attention. Grades don’t even matter in admission. There’s no way I can pass the tests without actually knowing the stuff that’s on them.”

“Yosuke.” You reach over and put your hand on his lower arm. “You don’t have to do anything. But if you want to try? I will do everything in my power to help you. And you know just how much I can do.”

For a long moment, Yosuke doesn’t seem to have a response to that.

Eventually, though, he gives another laugh, and a sheepish smile. “And I know you’re not great at backing down,” he says. “Fine. Sure. Whatever. I can make my life hell for a year if you think it’ll actually do anything.”

“That’s the spirit.” Truth be told, it’s not an entirely selfless gesture. One year mostly apart from Yosuke is going to be difficult enough. The idea of four years, or more, where you’ll probably be too busy to leave for a visit anywhere? You desperately, desperately, do not want that.

It’s another one of those things you’re not going to tell Yosuke about. Maybe you don’t love, but you do want, and you don’t think you’ve wanted anything more than you want him. Not even for sex, though that’s certainly a nice benefit. You want someone who truly knows you and truly doesn’t care. It’s a possessive want, an unsettling want, a want to have him stay with you forever, even if maybe he doesn’t always want to stay with you.

You’re very much aware of how creepy it is, and that’s why you’ll never tell him, even if it’s sort of romantic, in its own way. He is yours. There’s not a lot that’s yours. Maybe you’re subconsciously trying to make up for a lifetime of solitude, and going a little further than you should; maybe there actually is something wrong with you, and it’s only chosen now to surface. It doesn’t matter. He belongs to you.

Mine, mine, mine.

You hold onto his arm a little tighter.

You can picture a nice life in a big city; living together, talking about work or school, reminiscing about what it was like to be in genuine danger, having sex in every room of the apartment, feeding him every day, doing boring things like fixing cabinets, making sure he’s happy. Everything a normal couple would do, probably, sort of.

You can picture a lot of things about yourself and Yosuke. Most of them are good. Some of them are a little odd, but probably okay. A few of them are…well, things you’ll never mention.

None of that can happen yet, though. Right now, it’s just the two of you in a food court, counting down the precious minutes until you have to leave to say goodbye to the others.

You pull up one of his hands and bring it to your lips, pressing a kiss to it. He reddens a little, but he’s still smiling like there’s nothing he’d rather look at in the world. Good.

You stand up, releasing his hand, and so does he. “I should go now,” you say. “But I’ll see you at the train station. And I’ll call you as soon as I get there.” You don’t say home. It isn’t, not really. Not at all.

“You better,” he says. “I’ll figure out Skype. We’re gonna make this work. Especially since apparently you’re going to put me through the wringer for school.”

He leans over and kisses you on the mouth, just briefly. Then he pulls back. His smile is a little softer, now, a little sadder. You want to smooth it out, move it back to where it was, but of course it doesn’t work like that.

“Well, goodbye,” he says.

“Goodbye,” you echo.

And you leave the food court.

---

But there’s something bothering you…

---

You do not want a letter from Adachi. You do not want to read it; you want to throw it away, you want to burn it. But you feel that it is important. Tendrils of the mystery creep back into your skull. It is important…

…horribly important, as it turns out, as you find yourself facing a goddess in the rainy main street of Inaba.

You do not even care that this means your role is not over; you have proven that there is space in you for both power and friendship. You care that Inaba is still unsafe, that your friends are still in danger, that this town which is yours is still under the whims of a malicious force.

This is the end, the true, final end.

And you have never been more resolute in your life.

---

The long red corridors of Yomotsu Hirasaka pose little threat to any of you, not as strong as you are. Countless hours of training and the results of friendship have served you well. As each Shadow falls, you feel immense contentment and not a little pride. You have your friends, you have Yosuke, you have a katana in your hand and well over a hundred Personas in your mind. What are mere mindless monsters compared to that?

What is a goddess compared to that, perhaps?

Izanami greets you at the highest point in Yomi.

Perhaps a goddess is quite a bit.

Still, it is a fight like any other. You throw everything you have and then some. She is on her last legs--

--she is not.

She is the rotted, repulsive thing of legend, many spindly arms outstretched to continue the battle. She is Izanami-no-Okami, and she is the end.

Yosuke isn’t even the first to push you away.

Yukiko is closer. You watch in horror as Yomi drags her down, pulls her into death. Then Chie, knocking you to the side as the shadowy arms cling to her instead.

Yosuke--

Yosuke does not even look at you as he yells “Not a chance!” and, with a swift shove, takes your place in death.

You cannot do anything. You cannot be anything. There is nothing, you are nothing, your mind is screaming at you and you can’t think you can’t move past their faces their voices how they didn’t even hesitate and you are too blinded to notice the long arms creeping up on you

…and then, all there is is fog.

It’s quiet. It’s calm. It’s almost peaceful. Maybe you can’t move; maybe you don’t want to. Everything is fog. A white shroud in an empty world.

It is not unlike the empty calm you used to live in.

…but then the world is not so empty.

A familiar blue form appears in front of you. No spirit come to take you.

“What are you doing?” Margaret asks, her voice sounding almost annoyed. “Get up. You are not someone allowed to fall here. You must know already...the true nature of bonds...what bonds give to you...”

Friendship. Yes. The connections you worked so hard to build, and what you only recently started to properly appreciate.

“Here, listen closely…” Margaret says, her form disappearing into the fog.

Another one replaces her. Dark gray uniform, brown hair, orange headphones.

Of course.

“Don’t go, partner,” Yosuke says softly. “There’s still so much we have to do. I can’t even say how much I owe you. You brought so many things into my life…I could say I love you a thousand times, and it wouldn’t be enough. I can’t lose you, not like this…so please keep going, Yui. You can do just about anything, right? You can do this.”

No words come out of your own mouth. He disappears with another soft, hopeful smile.

But he is not alone. Everyone has something to say, it seems. Dojima, the team, your friends at school, Hisano, your friends from work, even the fox…even Adachi…Marie…Nanako.

Friends. All of them. The bonds you forged, even if for not initially altruistic reasons. There are so many people who care for you. So many people who love you.

Him.

You find yourself rising from the ground. A curious peace descends upon you. This is not like your anger towards Adachi, which was raw and rough and poorly-handled. This is more than the brand of cold determination that has brought you through countless battles. This is--you. Your heart’s true fullness; your undisturbed still waters with something waiting in the depths.

Izanagi-no-Okami rises from your soul.

Izanami-no-Okami’s cries of fury and desperation mean nothing to you; one spell, one final truth, is all that is needed.

Suddenly, everyone is around you again. Alive, untouched, unclaimed--they are all by your side. Izanami’s final words echo throughout your very being.

“Children of man…well done!”

You should be annoyed when the Velvet Room wraps itself around you, denying you from your friends for even a few moments, but Marie is your friend as well, and you’ve grown reasonably attached to Margaret, and so you do not really mind. Besides, Marie’s words are a comfort. Izanami is truly no longer a threat. Everyone is truly, finally safe.

A beautiful world blurs into your vision. Clear skies, rich green meadows, newly-blooming flowers, a flowing river dappled in the same warm sunlight shining down on all of you…you have seen many places, but you have never seen anything like this.

The world inside people’s hearts? Well, perhaps so. It may not be impossible for your heart to contain something like this. Not now.

You are surrounded by beauty, and wonder, and friendship, and love, and something brilliant bursts inside you.

Perhaps it is happiness. Perhaps it is something unique to you. What does it matter? It is you.

Everyone is laughing and running around and enjoying this new world. Yosuke, sunlight-faced, runs up to you and holds out his hand, inviting you to join.

You are a person who--

…you care about your friends.

You grab onto his hand and run with perhaps the most genuine smile you have ever given.

---

You spend your last evening in Inaba packing.

Oh, you’ve done most of it already. But there are still some odds and ends. Models for Dojima to ship out later. Books. Today’s clothes.

There are some odds and ends in your head, too.

You have been through many things, this past year. You have learned a few emotions, though not all of them; you have made more friends than you ever thought you would in your lifetime; you have acquired a family that genuinely cares about you; you’ve acquired Yosuke, and all that implies. All these bonds you have made…they give you an entirely different kind of power than the one you used to want.

Something still itches in you that it isn’t enough. Are you really human, even now?

On a whim, you pull out your phone and text Yosuke.

Yui Narukami: 22:03
Thinking of you.

He doesn’t take long to respond. You’re not surprised.

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:04
normal way or dirty way? bc u need 2 sleep no distractions

Yui Narukiami: 22:05
Normal way. But thank you for your concern.

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:06
np. whats up?

Yui Narukami: 22:07
Well, thank you in general, really.

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:08
ur being introspective again arent u

Yui Narukami: 22:09
You can type out that, but not ‘you’?

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:10
i have layers. feeling down?

Yui Narukami: 22:11
Just thinking. I’ve changed. It’s weird.

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:12
do u like being changed?

Yui Narukami: 22:13
I think I do. It’s just weird.

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:14
then dont overthink it

Yui Narukami: 22:15
You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:16
don’t be mean ill tell teddie where ur ticklish

Yui Narukami: 22:17
I’m not ticklish.

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:18
he doesnt know that he will test it

Yui Narukami: 22:19
Touche. I guess I should get to bed.

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:20
id say think of me but dont no distractions

Yui Narukami: 22:21
I’ll do my best. Goodnight.

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:22
night

Yui Narukami: 22:46
Really though. Thank you.

Yosuke Hanamura: 22:47
go 2 sleep partner

You put away the last of the boxes. The last of your memories here.

Yosuke was right. Don’t overthink it. Just be content, and let your heart do whatever it wants.

You dream of everyone, and it advances nothing, and it’s the best dream you’ve ever had.

---

You expected nothing less than a bittersweet goodbye at the station. They all give you one; even your other friends from school make an appearance. You did expect Nanako to cry, at least a little.

In the last moments before the train pulls in, Yosuke rubs the back of his neck. “Man, we keep saying goodbye, don’t we,” he says. “It’s like if we say it enough, you won’t have to leave.”

Teddie immediately pipes up with “Goodbye goodbye goodbye good--” before Chie thwaps him on the shoulder.

“I’ll come back,” you say firmly. “As soon as I can. And I’ll keep in touch with all of you.”

You’ve got your duffle bag in one arm, so it’s a little awkward, but nevertheless you pull Yosuke into a hug, pressing your face into his shoulder. He doesn’t smell like anything in particular, but that in itself is nice. His arms around you, the sensation of his heartbeat against yours; they’re nice, too. You pull back and kiss him, maybe a little more gently than you would have liked; Nanako is watching intently, after all.

It’s the last kiss you’ll have in a while. You want to make it count.

When you separate, he doesn’t say “I love you”, not in front of a crowd of people who wouldn’t understand why you don’t say the same thing to him. He just gives another sunbeam smile and says, softly enough that only you can hear, “See you soon, puppetmaster.”

As the train departs, everyone yelling their final goodbyes as they run along the station, you find yourself full of something you once wouldn’t have wanted to define. You are leaving this world of the mystery; the normal world, the one where power is not even known, will take you back now. Your view of it is markedly different, now, but it is still a world where you are not important. You have no greater role. There is no Velvet Room; there is no story waiting for you. Gods and monsters and heroes are out of your life.

When you first discovered your role, you were fine with the idea of it ending eventually. It would be an interesting diversion, but when it would finish, nothing would really have changed.

The idea that you have not changed is laughable.

True, your role is done now. But you have found other roles; other things to be, other places in life to occupy. Friendship, family, what might as well be love--you have those things, now. You do not have to work to get them. They were given willingly to you, and you can hold onto them just for the sake of having them, with no greater reason behind it. Maybe you aren’t like them. Maybe you never will be. But you are what you want to be, and being who you are has brought you so much. Nothing else matters.

You are a person.

You are Yui Narukami.

And that’s the only person you need to be.