Despite his silence, Souji had passed through this little town like a storm. A tumultuous flurry of alternate universes, murder, greek motifs, demons, and physical manifestations of humanity's darkest insecurities, with Souji at its center. To think someone so even tempered and reserved would end up being not only the catalyst to the chaos that descended upon them last year, but the glue that held them all together. Shape shifting. He drifted in and out of social groups effortlessly, becoming what each of them needed at any given time, osmose to any given situation or personal affair. One had to wonder if he was manipulative or simply gregarious. Either way, who better to spearhead their battle against monsters born from their peers’ bottled up emotions? As much as Naoto sometimes found herself resenting him for it, he truly was the only one fit to be their leader. And then, he left.
1 month and 5 days ago to be exact.
She remembers the moment the train disappeared from view clearly; Rise and Teddie were crying, Kanji was tearing up, Yosuke was pretending not to cry, Chie and Yukiko looked at each other glumly before turning back to help Dojima console a sobbing Nanako. Naoto doesn’t know what expression she had back then, but she felt a little empty inside. As she looked their group over, the picture just didn’t seem right without him. That fact hasn’t changed much.
There were times she wondered why they were even friends, given their history with one another they felt more like confidants or even a cult. Friends of circumstance, perhaps? A group of people who happened to be standing in the right place at the right time when one another's walls came tumbling down. All sharing a secret. She always felt a little left out having been the last one to join the group, the only one to have her privacy violated without violating anyone else’s in return, but maybe that’s a cruel thing to think.
Souji was the only one she could really talk to, who knew her most personally, and now that he was gone she felt somewhat alone in a crowd. Perhaps the others felt the same, the intimacy of someone getting to know you by choice rather than a possessed doppelganger blurting out all of your darkest secrets just seems a bit more genuine.
It was foolish of her to think she was special, and perhaps even more foolish to think that getting close to one person, especially someone like Souji, meant that she had changed. She hated how much she missed him, how there was an unspoken awkwardness in the air whenever they all got together, how it still felt impossible for her to bridge the gap between her and everyone else, how-
Naoto’s eyes snap up from her coffee towards whoever was yelling at her.
“Earth to space cadet, I asked if you were going to get dessert,” Chie says with a pleading look.
The six of them were crammed into a booth at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Okina city, sans Teddie who bounded off to the drink bar with Yosuke’s credit card and hadn’t come back. ‘How much trouble could he get in, he doesn’t even have an ID!’
“No, no way. You’re just asking somebody else so you don’t feel like the only hog here,” Yosuke says from the corner, earning a scoff from Chie and a laugh from Yukiko.
“Don’t call Chie a hog, she just wants more plates so we can win a prize,” Yukiko says, trying to be helpful and failing. The restaurant's gimmick is for every four plates you buy and dispose of via the chute connected to the table you get a chance at a prize indicated by a slot machine displayed on the screen above it, all of the prizes are capsule toys aimed towards children, an easy way to get parents to buy more. Naoto scolds herself for staring greedily at the featherman keychain listed on the screen’s prize showcase.
“Yukiko!” Chie yells embarrassed. Naoto can’t help but snicker as they all fall into laughter, some days were better than others. That is until Teddie returns with a large green stain running down his shirt and a half empty cup of what looks to be a swampy mix of soda, slush, and lemonade, scooting into his seat beside Kanji and cheerfully outstretching his hand towards a very angry Yosuke to hand him back his credit card.
Despite the available seating they were more or less clumped together the same way on the train ride back to town, Yosuke sitting as far away as possible from Teddie who was happily resting between Yukiko and Chie’s elbow.
“Naotooo, do you need Kanji to walk you home?” Rise coos, tilting her head towards her. She doesn’t need anyone to walk her home, she can hear Kanji shifting in his seat, is he uncomfortable walking around at night? Perhaps he’s worried about getting scolded by his mother for staying out late, all the more reason.
“I’m quite capable of going home on my own,” she replies coolly, hearing Kanji let out a breath on her other side.
“It’s… It’s cool with me,” he stammers, were they mocking her? Naoto didn’t like feeling coddled, she’s about to say as much before she remembers what she was thinking about at the restaurant.
“... Thank you for the offer, but I’d prefer to go home on my own. Perhaps you can escort Rise home instead. You live quite close to her, after all.”
Rise sighs a heavy sigh and Kanji looks a little disappointed, what did she do? She’s trying to be less cold and it never seems to work out how she expects, she wonders how Souji would handle this and cuts the thought short.
After the train pulls into the station they begin going their separate ways, Yukiko and Chie heading down the hill towards Chie’s house for a sleepover, Yosuke dragging Teddie towards the bus, all waving goodbye at Rise, Kanji and herself. When the four of them are out of view a silence hangs between the three of them. Naoto tips her hat to them and is about to head towards her own bus when Rise shoots her hand out and latches onto hers.
“Hey, why don’t you walk with us?”
“As I told you on the train, I don’t require-”
“Yeah, yeah, you don’t require any assistance. No duh. You have a gun, but that’s not it, we just want to walk with you! Right, Kanji?”
Kanji looks at them both with wide eyes and says nothing for a moment before rubbing his neck and letting out a gruff "Yeah."
Naoto is a little taken aback by this.
“See! Who wants to be the only one walking home alone? Us first years need to stick together, so let’s go. We’ll drop you off at your bus stop.” As if that settled it, she grabs onto Kanji with her other hand and leads them down the street.
Naoto stammers unintelligible excuses before giving into Rise's iron grip and allowing herself to be dragged along.
The three of them walk down the dimly lit sidewalk, quieted by the sounds of families finishing dinner and turning in for the evening and soothed by the smell of the summer night’s warm air. As they remain hand in hand like innocent children, willingly or unwillingly she can no longer discern, she feels something like a warmness spreading through her. She tries to tell herself it’s simply a by-product of thermal energy given off by Rise’s warm hand transferring heat into Naoto’s cold one to reach an equilibrium, but when she looks over at both of them walking pleasantly beside her, she realizes she’s just happy.