“Who’s a good boooooyyyyy? Is it you? Yes it is! Yes it issssssss! And so soft!”
Koromaru whimpered as the big one who wasn’t Akihiko petted him over and over. At first it felt nice, but it had been going for for a while now. It would be nice to get some exercise, but the big one just wouldn’t let him leave his lap.
“Kanji, I think he wants to get down” the girl with hair tails said.
“What? No way! We’re havin’ a great time together, ain’t we, Koro-Chan!?”
The big one looked down into Koromaru’s eyes. This seemed the best chance to escape his grasp. Koromaru let out a high-pitched whine.
“Aw crap, I’m totally buggin’ ya…” The big one started pouting and took his hands off Koromaru, raising his arms in the air. “I’m sorry, Koro-Chan. Can ya forgive me?”
Koromaru didn’t want the big one to feel bad. He was very nice. It seemed like he didn’t get to spend time with dogs often, which was something that made the other humans in Koromaru’s life very happy. Before jumping down from his lap, Koromaru hopped up to give the big one a lick on the face. As he lowered himself to the ground and started walking away, he heard a happy squeal from the direction he just came in.
Koromaru felt like going for a walk, so he trotted over to the elevators at the end of the food court. He jumped up and down at the buttons, eventually reaching the down button with his paw. His tail wagged as he waited for the elevator to arrive.
“Uh…” The boy with the headphones pointed at Koromaru from one of the tables. “Should we be doing something about that?”
“It’s fine” Ken said. “Koromaru likes to wander sometimes. He always finds his way back.”
“Yeah, but, this isn’t his home.” The headphone boy gave Ken a worried look. “Are you sure you’re ok with him wandering off like that? Like, I know he can use a Persona and all, but I don’t know if his animal instincts will be as sharp out here in the country.”
“He’ll be fine, Yosuke!” The blue bear stuck himself into the conversation. “People around here are really nice to fuzzy animals! I bear-ly ever get lost, but when I do, I’m never in any danger!”
“Dude, that’s completely different!” The headphone boy winced. Apparently talking to the blue bear gave him a headache. “You’re in a costume and can talk and stuff! He’s a normal dog!”
“You have nothing to worry about, Yosuke-San.” Aigis gave the headphone boy a reassuring smile. “Koromaru-San is very intelligent. Even in a new area, he will surely find his way back to us before we leave.”
The elevator bell dinged and the door opened. Koromaru stepped inside and barked, jumping up at the buttons. After three attempts, he reached the lobby button.
“See?” The new girl who was Aigis’s sister smiled. “He says he’ll be back real soon.”
“Whoa, time out!” Koromaru could still hear the headphone boy’s voice as the elevator doors closed. “You can understand him!?”
Koromaru liked the country air. Everything smelled much cleaner. He liked the city too, but this air was different. Not better or worse than the city, just good in a different way. It made him happy. During the Dark Hour, the air had been bad. Everything smelled like Shadows, and there were all kinds of dangerous sounds. Today was full of normal sounds, and everything smelled nice. All the smells of the different people walking around, some tasty meat smells from a nearby stand, some car smells from the road too, but not a lot of them. And not too far off was the sound of children playing. Koromaru instinctually headed towards that. He liked it when children were playing, because it meant they were happy. And it was always nice to be around happy people.
The sound of playing came from, of all places, a shrine. At least, Koromaru was pretty sure it was a shrine. It wasn’t like the shrine that used to be Koromaru’s home, but it was similar. It wasn’t as big, but it still had a lot of the same shapes as a shrine, and offering boxes and other such things. There wasn’t a playground. But there were children running around with nets, smacking them against the ground under the shade of trees. Koromaru slowly walked over to see why the children were hitting the ground, and saw they were trapping bugs. This confused Koromaru. He had tried eating bugs a few times, and he didn’t hate them, but they weren’t as good as food that people made. Surely these children had parents who would give them people-made food all the time. Why then, did they feel the need to capture bugs too? Humans did very strange things sometimes.
The children stopped trying to catch bugs when they noticed Koromaru, and reached out to pet him. Koromaru was still tired from the big one’s vigorous rubbings just a few minutes ago, and stepped back. The children persisted in trying to pet Koromaru, and soon he was running in circles around the shrine, constantly avoiding the tiny fingers that wanted to run through his fur. The children became very determined to catch Koromaru, and began splitting off into groups to try and head him off. This tactic may have worked on some dogs, but Koromaru was used to Shadows trying these kinds of things, and the children weren’t much better at strategy than Shadows. After a little while, the children gave up, realizing that they were never going to catch Koromaru. They all picked up their nets and left the shrine. After things quieted down, Koromaru decided to move on too. He had seen all there was of this shrine, and wanted to explore the rest of the town.
But just as Koromaru was about to leave, he sensed another presence. Something was watching him. And it wasn’t a human. Through smells and the faintest sound of breathing, Koromaru could tell it was another animal. He turned around and looked up to see a Fox standing on the roof of the shrine. The Fox let out a short howl and then leaped down from the shrine, landing right in front of Koromaru. Koromaru could instantly tell that this creature was a kindred spirit. Not only did it have the same kind of faint static-y scent that all the new Persona users he’d met had, but it had a few scars and carried this air about it like it had lived through some incredible things.
The Fox carried an ema in its mouth. Koromaru was certainly familiar with these, having been raised by a priest. These were pieces of wood that humans put their wishes on, hoping they would come true. Koromaru had seen plenty of them left at his own shrine in his time. The Fox gave Koromaru an expectant look, taking a few steps closer and holding the ema right in front of Koromaru’s face. Koromaru tilted his head in curiosity. Clearly the Fox wanted him to do something with it, but Koromaru wasn’t sure what. He sniffed the ema, picking up a unique smell. It was the scent of a human, but also mixed with a lot of lotion and beauty projects, kind of like how Yukari was. This seemed to satisfy the Fox, as it walked away from Koromaru. The scent from the ema lingered on Koromaru’s nose, and he could detect a similar smell not too far away, so he decided to follow it.
The smell got stronger and stronger, and after a minute Koromaru found himself outside one of those shops with tasty meat smells. There was an upset woman with long, curly hair having a frantic conversation with a man in an apron.
“Are you sure? Nobody’s said anything?”
“I’m sorry.” The apron man shook his head. “I’ll let you know if anything comes up.”
The woman thanked the man and walked away, sulking. Koromaru trotted after her and barked.
“Hm?” The woman turned around and looked down at Koromaru.
Koromaru barked again, wagging his tail.
“A dog in a sweater?”
“I don’t have any food.” The woman tried to shoo Koromaru away with her hand. “Go find your owner.”
Instead of moving away from the woman’s hand as intended, Koromaru got closer. He noticed a section of one of her fingers that was slightly paler than the rest of her hand and pressed his nose against it, sniffing. There were a few smells mixed in, including the woman’s natural scent and a faint hint of soap. But that one spot had another lingering scent the rest of the hand didn’t have: A barely-remaining hint of some kind of metal.
“Hey, what are you doing!?” The woman pulled her hand back. “Get off of me!”
Koromaru barked and ran off.
Koromaru walked around the town for a while, trying to catch that metal scent again. There wasn’t a strong trail for him to follow like the perfume, so he wandered around aimlessly in the hopes that the metal would tickle his nose eventually. He didn’t really know just how much ground he covered. At one point he walked into a shop full of all kinds of metal smells with a large man banging a hammer. At another point he was outside of a house with a little girl in a dress tending to a garden. He even wandered onto a bus in the middle of the afternoon and wound up in a busy city, though it was easy enough to find his way back on another bus.
The sun hadn’t begun to set yet, but it was starting to get lower in the sky. As the light in the world turned more yellow and shadows grew longer, Koromaru was walking by the riverside, growing tired from roaming around the country town all day long. As he strolled along the floodplain, a man and woman holding hands approached him from the distance, leaning into each other, talking, and laughing. They didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the ground ahead of them, so Koromaru stepped to the side, walking past the woman so he wouldn’t be kicked or stepped on. As he did so, the woman’s free hand passed right above his head.
And the metal smell he’d been searching for all day finally came to his nose again.
Koromaru turned around and saw a diamond ring on the woman’s hand. It was the same size as the pale spot on the finger of the distressed woman he had seen earlier. At this moment, the pieces began to fall into place. The first woman had lost her ring. She was sad about it and went to the Fox. The Fox wanted to see her happy and had enlisted Koromaru to get her ring back. But now this other woman had the ring, and Koromaru was going to have to steal it from her.
Luckily, Koromaru was experienced in such things. Junpei and Yukari weren’t always willing to share snacks, and so over time Koromaru had to get devious. He was well-practiced in these tactics nowadays.
Koromaru ran in front of the couple and barked excitedly. He sat down on the ground, looking up at the woman, panting heavily and giving his tail some exaggerated wags. For the final touch, he held his eyes open extra wide.
“Awwwww, look, honey!” The woman fawned over Koromaru, speaking with a nasally voice. “It’s a white shiba! He’s so cute!”
“Hey there, little guy!” The man knelt down and pet Koromaru’s head. There was something Koromaru didn’t like about him, but he couldn’t start growling or his whole plan would be ruined, so he just went along with it. When the man stopped petting him, Koromaru rose on his hind legs for a second and barked at the woman. The man turned to her and smiled. “I think he likes you!”
“Well that’s good, ‘cause I like him too!” The woman bent over and started rubbing Koromaru all over with both hands. Koromaru tried to lean towards the hand with the ring on it, guiding his face closer and closer to his prize as the woman continued. “Oh, I wish I could just take you home! But from the way you’re dressed I bet you have an owner, don’t you? Where’s your owner, boy? Huh? Where are they? Are you lost?”
Koromaru managed to nuzzle the hand with the ring on it and stuck out his tongue, licking the woman’s fingers. Ever so slowly, he got his mouth closer and closer to the ring, tasting the metal. He could make out the lingering smell of the other woman he’d met earlier still on the ring.
“That tickles!” The woman started laughing as Koromaru finally reached his target, opening his jaw and gently pinching the ring between his teeth. He pulled back, yanking the ring off the woman, and ran away.
“Wow, look at him go!” The man laughed as Koromaru ran back towards town. “Guess he got tired of us, huh?”
“Yeah.” The woman took out a handkerchief and started rubbing the dog slobber off her hand. “I guess he-“ As she ran the hanky over the finger where the jewelry had just been, she realized what happened and screamed.
“Whoa!” The man jumped back from her. “What’s wrong, babe!?”
“That dog stole my ring!”
The couple chased after Koromaru. He had a good lead on them, but between the ring search today and all the fighting he’d been doing with the Shadow Operatives since coming to Inaba, he was pretty tired, and they were starting to catch up. He reached the shopping district and tried to lose his pursuers by zigging and zagging back and forth across the road, but where that would’ve worked back on Port Island, Inaba was a much less populated place and there weren’t crowds that Koromaru could easily lose himself in. The couple was gaining ground fast.
Finally, Koromaru could smell some familiar perfume in the distance. Drawing on the last of his energy, he dashed forward in a gallant sprint, winding up outside the Junes he’d been at earlier. He came up behind the woman and bumped into her legs, causing her to stumble forward.
“Oh my!” The woman teetered around, trying to regain her balance. When she succeeded, she looked down at Koromaru, a scowl quickly forming on her face. “You again! What do you want!?”
Koromaru barked and threw his head back, tossing the ring up into the air. The woman clapped her hands around it instinctually, not fully aware of what she was doing at first. When she realized she had caught something, she opened her hands to see what the dog had just given her, and her sour face immediately changed into a wide smile.
“MY RING!” The woman looked down at Koromaru in astonishment. “Did you… find this for me? On purpose!?”
Koromaru barked in confirmation.
“I can’t believe it. Are you some kind of guardian spirit!? I prayed at the shrine, but I never thought I-“
“There’s that thieving mutt!”
The couple finally caught up to Koromaru. The second woman saw the first woman holding the ring in her hand and pointed at her.
“Excuse me?” The first woman asked.
“Hey lady! Is this your dog!?” The second woman pointed at Koromaru. “Did you train your dog to steal jewelry!? That’s low!”
“I don’t follow” the first woman said.
“Your dog came up to me and stole that ring off my hand!” The second woman crossed her arms. “That’s my engagement ring! My fiancé here just gave it to me this afternoon!”
Koromaru looked at the man, who said nothing. He seemed nervous all of a sudden.
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken.” The first woman slid the ring onto her finger. “This is MY engagement ring. I took it off when I was washing my hands this morning and forgot to put it back on before leaving the restaurant. I’ve been so upset since losing it I’ve done everything I could to find it, even leaving an ema at the shrine.”
“A likely story!” The second woman huffed. “My fiancé picked that ring out special just for me! Didn’t you, honey!?”
“Uh… Yeah…” The man rubbed the back of his head nervously. “It was, y’know, real expensive…”
“Is that so?” The first woman pulled out her phone and started pressing some buttons. After a few moments, she turned the screen towards the couple and showed them a picture of herself showing off the ring while kissing another man. “Then how do you explain this?”
“That’s… That’s…” The second woman looked at the man in confusion. “Honey?”
The man ran away.
“That son of a-“ The second woman turned to the first woman and bowed. “I’m so sorry for causing you trouble. If you’ll excuse me…”
The second woman ran after the man with murder in her eyes, and Koromaru was glad he wasn’t involved in THAT chase. The first woman bent down and began scratching his head.
“Thank you for returning my ring!” This woman had a knack for scratching. She got the sweet spot right behind Koromaru’s left ear. “You’re incredible! But it doesn’t look like you have a collar. If only I knew what your name was…”
Koromaru turned around to see Ken running over to him. He barked hello.
“There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you, boy!”
“Excuse me young man,” the woman ask, “is this your dog?”
“Yeah.” Ken looked up at the woman. “He hasn’t caused you any trouble, has he?”
“Far from it!” The woman showed off her hand. “He found my engagement ring! He’s a very good dog.”
“Really?” Ken looked back down at Koromaru. “Mitsuru-San and the others have been looking for you too. We’ve asked around and heard reports of you popping up all over town. Is that what you were doing all day?”
Koromaru barked twice.
“Amazing” the woman said. “It almost seems like he’s trying to have a real conversation with you.”
“He probably is” Ken said. “He’s a very smart dog.”
“I can tell.” The woman waved at Koromaru. “Thanks again Koromaru, but it looks like we have to go our separate ways. Can you say ‘goodbye’?”
Koromaru barked and raised his paw.
“Get away from the door, Koromaru! You’re gonna fall out!”
Koromaru didn’t listen to Junpei as the helicopter rose, letting out a few short barks in argument.
“He says he’s lookin’ for someone” Aigis’s sister said. “He’ll step back when he sees ‘em.”
“Really? I wonder who he’s looking for.”
“Maybe he found a nice lady dog” Yukari joked.
Koromaru kept poking his head over the edge of the chopper, looking out at the town as they started to fly away. He could see the roof of the shrine, and an orange dot appeared on top as it was almost out of sight.
As the sun set over Inaba, a grateful howl rang out through its skies.