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Summer Dreams

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Monday 7/20/12 Yasogami High School, Late Afternoon

The soft chime of the school's final bell resonated loudly through the room, stirring Kanji out of his restless nap. He sat up in his chair, fighting the stiffness in his broad shoulders by shrugging them up and down, wincing at the pops and snaps he heard. The bright July sun bore down hard through the window, but Kanji was pretty sure he would have been sweating in the dead of Winter, too. His palms felt clammy and wet as he nervously clenched a fist, the way they had always got before he knew a fight was coming. In a way, he figured, this was the biggest, scariest fight he had ever undertaken. Well...maybe fight was the wrong way to put it, but he didn't know any other way to describe what was he was planning to do.

Around him, the rest of his classmates all got up and started chattering excitedly. It was now officially Summer vacation, after all, and with the town finally back to normal after a weird year, everyone was looking forward to relaxing. Kanji, himself, was pretty pleased with the idea of working with his Ma over the Summer and really getting better integrated with the business side of craftwork. But before any of that could begin, there was one thing that he had to do, something that had been languishing for almost an entire year and was hanging over his head like a sword. He saw Rise get up from the front of class and head towards him, which was good; she was his partner-in-crime on this, and part of her job was to make sure he didn't screw up.

After all, If he was gonna finally confess his feelings to Naoto, he wanted to at least make sure he couldn't run away in fear again.

The tall second year student had liked Naoto for a very long time, but he had mixed results when it came to expressing how he felt. There had been a few choice opportunities; back in February, him and his friends had gone up North to the mountains to do some skiing, and he and Naoto were attached at the hip while they were there. Her trepidation about falling over made Kanji, with his skiing experience, her safety blanket. Despite all the time they spent together on the slopes, Kanji faltered once again when the moment seemed right, and like usual he just got tongue tied and awkward.

These kinds of things kept happening, to the point that Kanji had been at his wits end. How hard could it have been to tell a nice girl that you liked her? That was just it, though; Kanji had never had a particularly easy time around girls to begin with. His proclivity towards things he considered 'cute' and other types of hand-crafting had, as a younger man, made him the butt of jokes for some particularly nasty girls in primary school. 'Afraid' might have been too harsh a word, but Kanji was, if anything, nervous around girls because of his past experiences. The frustrating part was, as he had come to find out over the year, that was a stupid way to think! As he had come to know Chie, Rise, and Naoto, he found that there was nothing about them being girls that really made a difference to him. Even Yukiko, whom was a childhood acquaintance that he always thought was kinda stuck up, was a super swell friend. It was like all his bad experiences were just the exception, and not the law.

Even with his comfortability on the rise, he still had a hard time asking any of those girls for advice on how to handle this particular issue. It wasn't a big secret; the two older girls knew, and Rise teased him about it incessantly, but he just wasn't comfortable with talking about things like that. It felt awkward; how do you ask your friend out without seeming like a creep? And, even worse, what happened if they said no? Were you still friends? He didn't want to bother the girls with questions like that, especially when two of them were literally swatting away suitors all day; the last thing he wanted to do was come off like a horny jerk.

And the guys? Yosuke was nice but he seemed to forget just how big of a dork he could be when it came to the ladies; Kanji had seen him embarrass himself in enough places to know that. He seemed to also have corrupted Teddie, who stayed in Yosuke's closet and seemed to have absorbed Yosuke's caveman-like sensibilities by osmosis. The only positive influence for him was Yu Narukami, who was easily the coolest guy Kanji had ever known. He was also the only one of their whole group who had been successful with the opposite sex; Rise and Yu had been dating for the better part of six months and both were happy, even with him being all the way in Tokyo. The man was a bonafide casanova, but he was hard to get a hold of between his studying, his after school jobs, and his girlfriend. For awhile, Kanji felt himself fighting the one fight he wasn't sure how to win.

Luckily, when Summer started, his fortune started to change. Rise and Naoto had become quite close, and since Rise already knew about Kanji's true feelings, she did her best to relay information about her to him: what kind of food she liked, TV shows, movies, anything , really, to help get the ball rolling. Kanji felt bad, like he was taking advantage of Rise's friendship, but the idol had assured him that she just wanted to see them together. While he felt she was a little too interested in it, Kanji was happy that Rise was being such a pal to him; they'd kind of gotten off on the wrong foot for awhile, but they had really bonded over the past year, almost like siblings. That made asking Naoto out even harder, because what if she didn't want to hang out with him anymore, and made Rise stay away too?

Thoughts like those had plagued him over the past few weeks as he brainstormed ways to finally confess his feelings. He had originally considered a letter, figuring that if he was so bad at talking, then maybe he explain himself better in writing. On the best day, a conversation with Naoto would inevitably leave him saying something so outrageously embarrassing things that, in his mind, Naoto probably thought of him as not so much a person but something resembling a barely evolved ape.

Worse still, Kanji realized that he wasn't much of a writer, after several rough drafts; it turned out that he just didn't know how to dress it up as anything more than "I like you." He had been at wit's end until a ray of hope suddenly appeared: Rise let Kanji know that during a sleepover one weekend, Naoto had admitted, while playing truth-or-dare, that she felt he was the boy she was closest to in the group. It was an iffy claim, but Kanji felt energized enough to kick it into third gear.

He finally decided that on the last day of school, he was gonna end the first half of school on a good note and tell Naoto how he really felt. He wasn't 100% confident, but the truth-or-dare admission was a solid point in his favor, as was the "Little Stuff." The "Little Stuff" was what Kanji called the collection of moments where he felt Naoto may have shown an interest in a relationship. It was small and uneven, with moments that could be as little as 2 minutes apart and as long as 3 or 4 months. On their skiing trip, as an example, she had clung to him while she was getting off her skis, something he remembered almost passing out over. Then there was the time she had mistakenly touched his hand when she went to grab her pencil during a Junes study session and lingered for a second or two longer than she probably meant to. Again, it wasn't much, but he needed all the examples he could get to help build his confidence.

As Rise settled into the empty desk in front of him, he tugged at the collar of his annoying school shirt, which he had left unbuttoned to reveal a black flaming skull tank top. A yellow bandana covered the top of his head, making his hair invisible from the front. In an attempt to curb his trouble-making image a couple weeks earlier, Kanji had removed his nose and ear piercings and attempted to re-dye his hair black, but had botched the job, requiring a solid portion of his hair to be cut out. IT had finally grown back fine, but Kanji hated that it made his already less-than-generous hairline, so he tried to hide it as best he could with the bandana; the school faculty all seemed a bit too afraid of him to call him out on wearing a hair accessory indoors anyways. The saving grace in the whole thing was that Yukiko and Naoto had both told him that he looked much better without all the thug material, which made his confidence skyrocket, even though he was going through some growing pains.

Rise looked jubilant and mischievous as always when she sat down. Her pigtails flopped happily as she giggled at her obviously nervous friend. "Longest. Class. Ever . Okay, she's gonna be here any minute now; you remember what you're supposed to say?" she asked nervously.

Kanji nodded. "Y-yeah, 'o course: 'Ey, Naoto, can you meet me on the roof? There's somethin' really important I gotta talk to ya about.'"

"That's right! Then you guys go up there, confess your undying, wonderful love for each other, and then I'll be waiting to greet the new happy couple!" Rise chirped, clearly in her own headspace.

"'Ey, c'mon," Kanji cringed, uncomfortable with how lightly Rise seemed to be taking it, "Couldja at least take it a little serious? It ain't yer ass on the line!"

Rise immediately toned it down, grasping the seat back as she leaned in close to Kanji. "I am serious! I'm just trying to make you relax a little."

Kanji still wasn't 100% convinced, but he could see sincerity in her big brown eyes. "I don't mean to yell at ya," he said softly, "I'm jus'...nervous."

Rise reached out and patted his hand, which made him shiver a little. "I know, I can tell, but you gotta have faith, okay!? Trust me, I'm just as nervous, but it's a good nervous, the kind I would feel when I was about to go on stage! That's a good sign! I think you guys will be great together, all you need to do is...!"

Rise clammed up as she caught a glimpse of someone or something entering the classroom. Kanji followed her gaze to see the object of his affections gliding down the aisle toward them. Like him, she wore the male school uniform, although her shirt was buttoned tightly up to her neck with just one button undone. As always, he felt his chest tighten with how heavy his heart was pounding, as if it would leap out any second. Once she got fairly close to them, she smiled and waved at them. Rise  immediately took the lead and started gushing to her about summer vacation. Kanji tuned it out; it was really hard to focus on anything when Naoto was in front of him. All he could think about was what it would be like to hold her hand, to caress her cheek, to hear her shyly admit that she had feelings for him, too...

"...something....ay, isn't that right, Kanji?"

Kanji heard his name being said by Rise but he couldn't break his gaze on Naoto, who turned to look at him and gave him a confused glance, destroying his illusionary world. He suddenly felt a flat shoe viciously kick his shin, and as he winced in pain he noticed Rise giving him the stink eye.

"You had something to say, right Kanji!?" she repeated slower and with more venom. Quickly he remembered that was his queue to ask Naoto up to the roof. Unfortunately, his mouth couldn't catch up to his brain.

"HeyNaotolet'sgoroofsomethingIgottatellya!" he blabbed, which made Rise smack her forehead in frustration and further confused Naoto. She stepped a bit closer, which made Kanji recoil until his head gently smacked the plaster wall behind him.

"You have to slow down. You are speaking too quickly," she said, sounding like a mother addressing a child.

Kanji swallowed hard; he was so close, he couldn't back down now! He straightened up, and did his best to look directly at Naoto. "C-can you come up to the roof, Naoto? I got...somethin' I wanna talk to ya 'bout..."

There was hardly a moment of hesitation. "Of course. Rise, would you mind waiting for me?"

"Oh, of course not!" Rise grinned, a little too obviously, for Kanji's liking, "I'll be by the stairs. Have fuuunnnn! "

With that, Naoto beckoned Kanji out of the classroom. Taking a deep breath, Kanji followed suit and was soon in the hallway, following Naoto's lead toward the steps in the middle of the hall. As Kanji took one last look back at Rise, she flashed him a peace sign, then slowly crossed the two fingers.

"Good luck," she mouthed, a determined look on her face as she watched Kanji leave the classroom to face his destiny.

The long walk to the roof was agony; Kanji imagined himself as a peasant in one of the historical dramas his mom watched on TV, being escorted to the local magistrate to be beheaded. The nonchalant way Naoto had agreed to go up to the roof was a sign, wasn't it? Or the fact that she was silent the whole time? Kanji couldn't decide what to think as the two quickly rounded the 3rd floor, where there other friends' classroom was, and up toward the final set leading to the roof entrance.

After a minute, Kanji heard the creak of the school roof door and nervously looked up instead of at his shoes, seeing the bright light of the late afternoon just above him. He climbed the last few steps and looked at Naoto, who was holding the door for him.

He took a second to steel himself. The big teen knew that whatever the day's outcome, he had to shed this particular albatross. He was tired of spending every night just staring up at the ceiling of his room, unable to push his detective friend out of his mind's eye. Like an addict, memories of his best moments with her played on a loop while hours ticked by like picoseconds. He barely had any sleep, and his already shaky hold on academics had slipped even further since he had met the Detective Prince. He couldn't bear this secret anymore, and it was time to give up the ghost. Feeling that he was losing his confidence the more he waited, Kanji hastily stepped through the open door and into the buggy Summer air of the rooftop.

Although it was fairly plain, with nothing but a few scattered AC units, ventilation shafts, and a large fence running around the perimeter, the roof was pretty special to Kanji. He and his friends met up there almost every day for lunch or just to talk, and along with the Junes food court, he considered this place hallowed ground. It was the perfect place to confess his feelings, he thought, because it felt like each of his friends was there in spirit, giving him some extra support. He heard the roof door close, and Naoto stepped forward to speak to him, a small smile in the corner of her mouth.

"So, Kanji-kun, what did you need to speak to me about?" Naoto asked, shifting her book bag to her other hand as she did.

"U-uh, well...," he started, his throat suddenly seeming beyond dry and raspy, "There's somethin' I gotta tell ya, an' it's important. Real important," he repeated, hoping his cracking voice would portray the seriousness of what he was saying. Since Naoto's stare had forced his gaze down to his shoes again, he heard rather than saw her step closer to him.

"Is there something wrong?" she said in a concerned voice, her smile changing into her usual, more placid expression. He clenched his fist and grit his teeth, struggling to form the words he wanted to say.

Something Kanji had struggled deeply with his whole life was getting over his expectations of it what it meant to 'be a man'. Without his father in his life, Kanji could only act out in ways that he thought could be perceived as manly without ever knowing the truth. In his adventures with Yu and the rest of the Investigation Team, Kanji had come to realize that maybe the truth was that it didn't matter, and being his own man was more important than anything. Nevertheless, he could feel a pulsating and powerful pull in his chest that demanded he discuss his feelings with Naoto while looking her in the eye. He obeyed it, his fists trembling as he did.

"N-nah, nothin's wrong," he started, scratching the back of his head. "More like...I..." Dammit! The words wouldn't come out!

He didn't even notice Naoto stepping a bit closer to him. "Kanji-kun, you musn't always be so nervous. If you have something to say, stand up straight and say it." In an earlier time, Kanji would have immediately balked at the vague hint of condescension in her voice, but he was different now. He understood now that she was trying to be helpful, in her own way.

He took the deepest breath he could fathom, then took Naoto's advice and stood up to his full height, almost two heads taller than the detective. "Look, uh, Naoto-kun ...I never met anyone like you before. After everythin' that's gone down this whole year, I dunno what th' hell to think about me, but I know what I think about you. I-I think you're...like, awesome, at everything. You're really smart, and you don't care what people say about who you are. I w-wish I had th' balls that you had..." he stammered and groaned when he saw Naoto's eyebrow raise suspiciously, "I-I don't mean it that way or nothin'! I just... shit! " This was harder than any fight he had ever been in. He almost forgot to take a breath as he hurriedly tried to get to his point.

"I know that I'm...I'm, like, not good at this stuff, but I really like you, Naoto-kun. A lot." There. It was out there. But he had to stick the landing. "I-is it awright if we, y'now," he almost lost it, choking on the words as they came up in his throat, "t-that we, uh, well...start seein' each other? In a-a-a romantic-al type way?"

As soon as all the thoughts left his mouth, Kanji finally inhaled. He wanted to scream from the sheer relief that came with relieving his mind of this immense weight, but he knew that he had to hold it together, for both his and Naoto's sake. He had shut his eyes trying to hold back tears of anguish, but was too nervous to even make an attempt to look for a reaction. When he finally cracked a single eye open, Naoto was still standing in front of him, the same infuriatingly blank expression on her face. Aside from her earlier eyebrow twitch, she didn't appear to have moved a muscle.

There was a long silence before Kanji finally saw her smile a little, the sides of her eyes crinkling as she did. In the dying light of the day, he could barely make out a blush spreading through her cheeks.

"K-Kanji-kun..." Naoto broke off, a pensive look on her face as she considered what to say, "I-I am flattered, of course, by your kind words. To be quite honest, when we first met, my first impression was that you were crude, unsophisticated, and merely a means to an end for my investigation."

Kanji winced, not really wanting to hear something like that. Luckily for him, she wasn't finished.

"...And yet, I have never been so happy to have been wrong. You turned out to be a very loyal, kind, and strong person. We could never have solved the case last year without your help. There are many ways in which I greatly admire you, too, and I am proud to count you among my closest and dearest friends," Naoto finished, the shy smile remaining as she praised him. Kanji was on cloud nine; here was the girl of his dreams, making him feel like he was every bit the person he wanted to be. He couldn't contain the chuckle that came out his lips as he bashfully rubbed the back of his head.

Just as quickly as it had appeared, however, Naoto's smile vanished. Her eyes looked downward, and a thin-lipped frown rose from the ashes of her previous, happier expression.

"But..." she uttered, again looking unsure of how best to frame her speech.

But . Kanji hated "but." Ever since he was a kid, he had been haunted by that conjunction, which was always used to fuel others' rejection of him. "You're really good at sewing Kanji, but that's for girls!" "You were doing so well, but now you've ruined everything!" "You did help those kids, but you're still just a thug, Kanji!" Kanji hated "but," and just the mention of it was enough to turn his blood cold.

"B-but...!?" Kanji stammered, coming down hard from the high he had just been on.

Naoto let out a deep sigh, and continued her own confession, "B-but, having said that, a dear friend is all that I think of you as..." she stopped and pulled the bill of her cap down just a tad, shielding her eyes, "I am afraid that I cannot return your feelings, Kanji-kun, I...I just can't. I'm sorry."

Kanji knew there was a summer wind blowing around them, but the air around him had slowed to such a crawl that he could no longer feel it. He had definitely heard what Naoto had said, but processing the information was a different story. It must have showed on his face, because Naoto took yet another step forward, although he again only saw her feet as he forced his gaze elsewhere.

"Y-you must understand this has nothing to do with you as a person! I meant every word I said, but I-I just don't have... those kinds of feelings for you. O-or anybody! I wish I could give you a clearer answer but..." she stopped, lost in thought again. Kanji just stared at his shoes, still too shaken to respond. After a while, he finally felt the soft wind blowing into his face, which made him keenly aware that a few hot tears had begun leaking out of his intense, smoldering eyes. He didn't look up or attempt to wipe his eyes as he answered her as best he could.

"'S okay, Naoto...was a long shot anyways," he mumbled, annoyed by the shakiness in his voice, "I jus', y'know, figured I should try at least. L-least I know now..." The words felt like sandpaper on his tongue. He thought about the "Little Things," and how now each one of them was tainted by his stupidity at thinking that he had a shot with her. He wished he had been smart enough to be able to tell the difference between basic kindness and romantic gestures; it would at least have let him temper his expectations, at the very least.

When he finally managed to turn his neck up and look at his friend, he was very surprised to see that Naoto, too, had moist eyes, a sight he thought he would never see. Despite the watery sadness in them, the detective's eyes remained steely and serious, like trembling, gray ball bearings.

" Please don't blame yourself; it was nothing you did or didn't do," she almost whispered, forcing Kanji to listen closer, "That isn't it at all. B-but I understand if you don't wish to see me or speak to me f-for a while..." she looked away for a second before turning back. She tugged her cap down over her eyes even further, breaking her long, pitying stare.

There was another sting at Kanji's eyes, which pissed him off; he may not have known a lot about what men did, but he definitely knew they didn't cry in front of girls they liked. He angrily swatted at his nose, trying to rid it of the mucus that was rapidly rushing into it. Her words made sense, but Kanji couldn't break through his own self-loathing long enough for his brain to communicate a positive, constructive response; right now, opening his mouth would involve his heart leaping out of his throat. Seeing Naoto so upset, upset because of him , was way too much to take. And the last thing he wanted her to do was leave, but he couldn't force himself to say it, not when he was already on the verge of blubbering like an idiot.

Naoto answered his silence by taking a big swallow and bowing gracefully, her bookbag scraping the concrete of the roof as she did. "I-I'm going to go now. Forgive me, Kanji-kun," she choked, turning and hurriedly walking back out the rooftop door as quickly as she had appeared.

"N-Naoto...!" Kanji hissed, his voice cracking at the end and making the noise unintelligible. He reached his long-left arm out, as if he could catch the fleeing detective, but she was gone. Kanji stared at the swinging door for too long, hoping that this was all just a dream and this was where he finally woke up. No such luck.

His heart and mind rendered useless, Kanji slowly walked up to the rooftop fence, interlocking his fingers with the steel mesh. He was trying as hard as he could, but there wasn't a shred of strength left in him to help stop the harsh sobs that were beginning to emerge from deep within his chest. He angrily rattled the mesh, muttering curses to himself as he did. In his suffering, he didn't hear the rooftop door opening again.

"K-Kanji! ?"

Just what he needed: the familiar but now shaky voice of Rise coming from behind him.

"W-what happened!?" she asked, "Nao-chan just...she ran past me! Was she...did she..."

Rise stopped dead when Kanji turned to look at her. His eyesight was blurry, and he could barely make out the idol getting closer to him. This wouldn't do.

"S-stop, just guh-get outta here," he moaned, hoping Rise would get the message.

The mirage he assumed to be Rise stopped, its head looking off to the side. "What are you saying!? I'm not gonna leave you alone right now! T-tell me what happened, why was she..."

Rise kept babbling, and the more she talked, the more Kanji felt a familiar, visceral reaction beginning to grow in his gut and his throat. He was hurt, he was embarrassed, and he just wanted to be left alone, like usual. Why couldn't Rise understand?! Kanji fully turned around and looked at the his fellow 2nd year, magma in his eyes. The girl seized up immediately, seemingly horrified at what she saw.

"How many times I gotta say it!? Get th' hell outta here, now ! Jus' leave me the fuck alone!" he hollered, smashing the fence behind him with his fist, dramatically. He hated himself for it, but the familiar feeling of using his rage to handle his emotions was stabilizing, like an addict engaging in vice for the first time in years. He heard a meager whimper come out of the idol's form before she made an about-face and ran toward the exit, her pigtails thrashing to and fro in the wind.

Bitter and ashamed from the outburst, Kanji slumped on a nearby air conditioning unit and lay back down on it, his heart pounding and his soul exhausted. Feeling like the fading sun was too invasive and burning him up, he quickly peeled off his white school shirt and placed it over his face. Lying perfectly still on the air conditioner unit and covered up like a corpse, he just wanted badly to wake up; if it was actually the first day of Summer vacation and he overslept, then it would mean he and Naoto were still fine, and he never would have tried something so stupid.

But each heavy sob that forced him to take deep breaths through the stifling fabric of the shirt was a cruel reminder of the truth: this wasn't a dream, and there was no cure for a broken heart.

Chapter Text

Sunday, 7/26/12, Dojima Residence, Early evening...

Yosuke Hanamura yawned, stretching out his sleepy limbs on the Dojima's long green couch as a TV quiz show droned on in the background. While he was disengaged from the action on the screen, his charge, Nanako Dojima, was completely enthralled in the show, bouncing excitedly on her cushion positioned close to the TV.

"Alright, for 600,000 Yen, can you tell us who built Sunomota Castle in just one day?" the host asked, prompting a concerned look from the contestant as she struggled to think of the answer.

Immediately, the 8-year old sprang up to her feet, a firefly glow in her eyes.

"Oh, oh! It's Hideyoshi! Hi-de-yo-shi! " she shrieked, cupping her hands over her mouth as if the TV was straining to hear her. Yosuke chuckled as the host revealed her and the contestant on the television to be correct, at which she clapped her hands and did a little victory cheer. Yosuke was pretty impressed that she was interested at all in quiz shows, let alone getting the answer right.

"Woah, pretty smart, Nanako-chan!" he complimented, giving her a high five. "How'd you know that?"

Nanako grinned cheesily, her childish innocence lighting up her face. "I studied realllyy hard for my history test, and I still have it all up here," she informed Yosuke, poking the side of her head with a finger. Yosuke chuckled; he always found it hard to resist Nanako's playful energy. The 3rd year leaned over and tousled her now shoulder-length auburn hair, but stopped when she abruptly gasped after looking back at the TV.

"I didn't see that it was already six! Time to start dinner," she said like an adult. She straightened out her white sundress as she walked into the tiny kitchen,strutting like a mother hen, her youthful skip all but disappeared. Yosuke sat up and put his hands behind his head, a secret smile tucked in the corner of his mouth.

"Yo, Nanako-chan, need a hand?" he asked, holding back an evil laugh as her response came exactly as predicted.

"Um...well...no, it's okay. If I need something high up, or a knife, you can help me then," Nanako said carefully, appearing to tiptoe around what she may have been actually thinking. With the little girl's back turned, Yosuke laughed into his hand, happy that his plan worked out. Yosuke had been in a few different cooking sessions with the group and always proven to be sub-par; Nanako, who always took pride in both her independence and her cooking, probably thought it would be easier without him. Made an already cushy gig even cushier, he thought.

A few weeks before Summer break, Chie had gotten the whole team to agree on setting up a way to see Nanako during their time off. An only child, Nanako was often left home alone while her father went out and worked long hours as a police detective; when her cousin, Yu, was around, this wasn't as big an issue, but he was gone now, with no suitable replacement. Nanako loved her cousin dearly, and proudly referred to him as "big bro," a moniker that started as joke from Chie but had clearly taken on a life of its own. The group had tried their best to hold back tears at the train station back in May as Nanako clung to Yu, unwilling to let her "big bro" go back home after Golden Week; a memory as painful as that helped everyone agree to figuring something out quickly.

The way the system worked had one of them over at the Dojima home every other night until her father, Ryotaro, got home later in the evening. Dojima had no complaints; he and Nanako had become closer than ever since Yu had taken off, but he was also extremely dedicated to his work, and appreciated the help that his nephew's friends were willing to give. Since Yosuke worked on the weekends, he had agreed to come over afterwards for a few hours. He didn't mind at all, considering how much he liked Nanako and how boring life had gotten in the past few months. As Yosuke had discovered when confronting his shadow self, he had an unbearable sense of ennui that Inaba rarely seemed to help cure. Without Yu around, trouble seemed to stay away, which was good for the town but lame for the Investigation Team, and Yosuke by extension.

He yawned again, gently tugging at the collar of his white t-shirt as he tried to vanquish the humid summer air from his body. While he leisurely listened to the gentle hum coming from Nanako as she pattered about, a loud chime rang out over the sounds of the kitchen and the glowing TV in the family room. The vibration in his pocket gave away the source of the noise, but he took his time retrieving the rumbling phone from his pants. Once he did, he could see the name on the phone's caller ID read " Risette!", which was also accompanied by a rather revealing cheesecake shot of her in lacy nightwear.

This finally made him sit up, a little excited. Even though it had been roughly a year, he still found it surreal that a celebrity, a smoking hot celebrity like Risette not only had his phone number, but texted him on a decently regular basis. While he did genuinely enjoy the friendship and company of Rise Kujikawa, the idol's true name, it was difficult to get over that it was freakin' Risette talking to him when he went to school or hung out at Junes. It was hard not to have the tiniest bit of a crush on the beautiful starlet, as Yosuke wasn't much different than any other hot-blooded Japanese boy whose good friend was a national sex symbol.

With a grin a mile wide as he slowly examined the photo of her on his screen, he pressed the answer button and eagerly pressed the phone to his ear.

"Hey, Rise-chan, ya checkin' up on me? That's so nice," he said in a wise-ass tone. The haughty huff of air he heard on the other line was music to his ears.

" In your dreams, Dopesuke!" she hissed; Yosuke loved it when she was feisty. "I'm not in the mood! Are you able to talk?" she asked, the tone in her voice serious enough to jog Yosuke out of his joking mood.

"Uh, sure, hang on a sec," he answered, peering in to see Nanako happily standing on a stool as she watched something fry in a pan on the stove. He briefly worried that she shouldn't be playing with the stove, but Nanako seemed like she knew what she was doing, so he let it go. Satisfied, he settled back down into a comfortable position on the couch.

"Yeah, I'm good. So what's up?"

There was a deep, shaky breath on the other line. "Alright, so, like, how much do you know about what's going on? With Kanji and-"

Yosuke winced, whistling some air through his teeth as he cut off Rise. "Um...I-I dunno a whole lot, just what Chie told me the other day. Why? Did something else happen?" he asked, hoping that he was conveying how uncomfortable he was through his words.

Rise was, of course, referring to the drama that had been manifesting between the 2nd years since school had ended. As far as Yosuke understood, Kanji had finally manned up and asked Naoto out, only for the Detective Prince to reject him; Yosuke could only shudder to think at what it was like to be shot down cold by someone like Naoto. Rise made it sound about as dramatic as Romeo and Juliet, but Yosuke figured it was closer to the sort of high school junk one would find in a manga magazine.

While he half-listened, Rise aired her frustration. "Nothing yetbut it just sucks, y'know?! I can't get a hold of Kanji, and I'm totally getting the cold shoulder from Nao-chan! I've never been ignored this long! I dunno what to do, Yosuke, and I'm worried that they won't talk to each other and it'll get worse until..." Rise broke off here, and Yosuke could imagine her just staring off into space with wide eyes, stunned into silence at the prospect of the two not speaking to each other anymore. You kinda had to respect how earnest she was about feelings, he thought.

"Look," he started, "I'm sure it seems crappy now, but it's only been less than a week! They'll forget about it in like, another few days, tops. People get crushes and break up and stuff all the time, why is this any different?" He didn't mean to sound rude, but he thought Rise was overreacting quite a bit. If he knew Kanji like he thought, he couldn't imagine him ever disliking Naoto, even if he tried; he was too much of a sissy to do that. And Naoto was a pro at everything, her attitude aside, so she'd probably just continue to be her usual self and nothing would be different, Yosuke figured.

"You didn't see Kanji like I did! He was devastated!" Rise moaned, "And I tried to talk to Nao-chan today, and she was just like 'I appreciate the urgency of your call but there is no need for you to concern yourself with my well-being, Rise.'" Rise said this with an exaggerated, sultry, man-ish voice that made Yosuke snicker sinfully into the receiver, upsetting the idol.

"Ugh, screw you, Dopesuke! Why did I even bother if you're just gonna be a jerk..."

Yosuke held his side as he worked through his chuckles, "Oh, c'mon, that was funny! You got the robotic part down like a champ!"

"But that's the worst part! Nao-chan only does that when she's, like,  super  upset; she just totally shuts down and won't talk to anybody. None of the other girls can even get a hold of her, either. That's...sorta why I called you..."

Yosuke shot up, immediately annoyed at even the slight hint that Rise was dropping. "Oh no..."

"Just listen! You're, like, our last resort here. I need you to at least  try  and talk to Nao-chan. Me and her always go to Junes for lunch on Monday afternoons, but I have a shoot this Monday so I can't go. Can you just like, I dunno, go and talk to her then, see if she's doing okay?"

Yosuke scoffed at how nonsensical this sounded to him. "W-wait, why me!? I don't wanna get involved in this crap! Plus, I gotta work tomorrow morning anyways!"

Rise blew out some air again, clearly exasperated. "Well, use your lunch break or something, I don't know! Please, Yosuke, I wouldn't ask if I wasn't desperate. She's not really talking to me or the older girls, and I have no idea what will happen with her and Kanji. That means there's only Teddie left, and are you really gonna leave this up to Teddie!?"she wailed, letting her emotions override any sense of volume control; Yosuke quickly pulled the phone away and rubbed his aching eardrum.

His back was now figuratively against a wall. Obviously, Kanji would be of no use in reaching Naoto, Teddie would probably make it worse, and Yu was only available through the phone. If the girls were truly unable to talk to Naoto, it made sense for Yosuke to do something about it. But he really didn't want to, something he tried to make clear one last time.

"Rise, please, I'm beggin' you, just leave me outta this! What am gonna say!? Why can't I just call Kanji and figure it out!?"

Surprisingly, Rise took a little while to contemplate an answer. Finally, she sighed and calmly said, "Don't worry about Kanji, I'm taking care of it," she said ominously , "And as for Nao-chan...just be there for her. She'd do it for you."

Even to a grouchy Yosuke, something about Rise's sentiments seemed to hit closer to home than anything else. He wasn't exactly sure it was the truth; he and Naoto weren't exactly the best of buds, even on a good day, but he supposed when it came down to it, it was pretty hard to ignore a friend in need, even one as stuffy and weird as Naoto. Rolling his eyes, he acquiesced.

"Urgh, fine, fine, you win. I'll see what I can do, I guess..."

"Yay! Thank you so much, Yosuke. I owe ya one!" Rise squealed, her attitude doing a complete 180. Yosuke tried, but he just couldn't help his mouth.

"Well, y'know, I'm not doing anything tomorrow night..."

A loud raspberry came out of the receiver. "God, as if! Listen, if I find out you bailed, you're gonna be so dead-"

"Alright, alright, I got it! Geez! I'm hanging up now, bye!" Yosuke yelled teasingly, inching his finger toward the red end-call button.

"Don't you  dare  hang up on me!"

"Too late!"

A little bloop let him know the call was disconnected. With a loud groan, he tossed his phone down near his thighs and put an arm over his eyes, wondering exactly what he had been roped into. A part of his ego was satisfied that he was being depended on to help, but he really would have preferred not to get involved. Yosuke supposed it was only a matter of time before feelings and romance started to intrude on the group friendship, but it all seemed to be coming too fast for him.

He slowly moved his arm away and blinked in surprise when the nervous form of Nanako was suddenly right near up in his face, tightly gripping his arm.

"U-uh...what's up, Nanako-chan?" he asked nervously.

Nanako looked as if she was going to tell him she had a serious disease. "Are you...are you and Rise-chan fighting? Big Bro said to tell him if you were mean to his girlfriend..."

Yosuke wanted to laugh, considering how deadly serious she looked, but all he could muster was a sigh before he put his arm back over his eyes.

"Tell your Big Bro he's got nothin' to worry about, we were just messin' around," he huffed, which got Nanako to back off a little. As she went back to the kitchen, she turned and looked back to Yosuke, a very sincere look on her face.

"Being a grown-up seems weird ," she mused, scuttling back over toward the stove. This made Yosuke grin sadly, momentarily forgetting about the mess he was stuck with cleaning up.

"Nanako-chan, you have noooo idea..."


 

Sunday 7/26/12, Satonaka Residence, Nighttime...

"Okay, okay, okay Yukiko, you gotta be quiet and watch this part! It's the best !"

"Chie, I duh-don't hahaha know howwwhaaaaa much more I-I can take...teehee..."

"Oh, c'mon! There's just this last part, okay!?"

" -Snnnrkt- Ahaha-Alright..."

An action-packed gorefest slowly played out on the television screen as the lead actor, bizarrely dressed as a mime with sunglasses, laid waste to his opponents in police uniforms with a flurry of fists and kicks. Across the room, Chie Satonaka and Yukiko Amagi watched, polar opposites in their reactions.

Chie shot up, her arms and legs flying in wild directions as the tempo of the fighting increased. Yukiko just squeaked and buried her face in her palms, doing her damndest not to break out in hysterics at the over the top gore.

"Ohhhoh man, this is awesome! WataaaHyaaa!"

After getting it out of her system, Chie hurriedly leapt back toward Yukiko, who sat fidgety and giggly under a quilt on the floor in front of the TV.

"You ready!? You ready!? " she said excitedly, pressing on Yukiko's shoulder. Yukiko nodded, but in truth, but she was not prepared for what happened next.

The square jawed, fair-haired hero finished off what appeared to the police chief main villain with a sliding side kick that knocked him right out the high-rise window of the local police station, seemingly killing him. With the chaos over, the main character grabbed his sunglasses off, revealing extensive mime makeup covering his face. Looking over the carnage he had wrought, including the large broken window where his foe had just tumbled to his doom, he uttered his first words of the entire picture, having no need to keep up his mime facade.

"If ya can't fight the crime," he started, before putting his sunglasses back on, "don't fight the mime!"

Chie, who had mouthed the phrase along with the character, pumped her fist in victory upon hearing it and eagerly turned to see the reaction of her friend as the credits rolled in the background. Yukiko removed her hands from her face, just staring wide-eyed at the screen, trying her best to truly process what she had just seen and heard.

"Well? Yukiko!? Wasn't that so freakin' awesome!?" Chie urged, shaking her friend by the shoulders like a vending machine, eager to get something to fall out. It jarred something, as the young hotel heiress felt something stir from deep within her stomach.

"Pfffftttt...snrrrrkkkk..."

"Oh no," Chie moaned, knowing full well what was coming. She grabbed both of her ears just in time.

"HAAAAAHAAAHAHAAHaaaaa...H-he said...fight the crime, fight the miiiiiieeeehheeeheeheehee! That's-that's so silly-eehaaahahahaahaahaa!"

Despite covering her ears to avoid the painful shrieking, Chie was laughing as well. Yukiko's laughing fits were loud and obnoxious, but they were also utterly infectious, ending with both girls doubled over laughing on the floor of Chie's bedroom.

The two best friends had decided to celebrate the first official day of their last Summer vacation by staging a sleepover, which left the two 3rd year girls alone to watch bad action flicks, eat junk food, and talk about the goings-on around town. Chie had recovered first from the impromptu guffaw-fest, getting up to her feet and throwing out a few more martial arts kicks toward the direction of the hanging bag toward the corner of her room. Even dressed for bed she exuded athletic prowess in her dark green Yasogami High short-shorts and yellow tank top, which showed off a bit of her flat tummy and offered a meager look at her lime green bra as it slipped off her left shoulder.

By contrast, Yukiko looked as if she were a life-size China doll that Chie owned. Her conservative white nightgown reached just below her knees and accented her pale skin. The long sheet of black hair that cascaded down the back of the gown was perfectly combed and shiny even late at night. She was still working through some last-minute chortles as Chie began speaking to her.

"Man, that movie is so cool ," she cried, beaming excitedly, "That was the fifth time I saw it since I borrowed it and I still have goosebumps!"

Yukiko wiped an errant happy tear from her eye. "Y-yeah, that movie was (hee-hee) something else! Where (snrrkt!) did you say it was from?"

"America," Chie replied, snatching up the DVD box cover that read Ninja Mime from the top of her player and handing it to Yukiko, "Daisuke-kun told me to check it out. The effects are so much better than the usual stuff I watch! And that actor..." she drifted off, eagerly retreating into a fantasy that Yukiko could tell involved training at the feet of her new idol.

"Johnny...Cage? -teehee- That sounds fake," Yukiko chuckled, reading the description on the back of the DVD box. Chie whirled around, her eyes still bright with the fervent glow of her inner martial artist.

"Maybe, but those kicks sure weren't," she growled playfully, sliding across the room on her socked feet with a rising knee attack, then turning around and gliding the other way with a side kick, "The Dizzy Knee and the Shadow Kick are seriously killer moves! Looks like I have some things to add to my morning routine!" As she was sliding, the auburn-haired girl lost her balance and gently fell forward onto the floor, to her friend's delight

"Ha ha, well, maybe you should actually practice them first," Yukiko commented, setting aside the box and pulling the quilt she had been sitting on around her waist. Chie's room was small, but her essence was all over the place: martial arts posters adorned every wall, and a piece of fitness equipment sat near her bed that was adorned with nunchaku and green boxing gloves. The two girls were seated near a small table that held an assortment of snacks and drinks that had begun to disappear as the night went on. It was as comfortable and familiar to Yukiko as if it was her own room; because the inn was often so busy, Yukiko rarely got a chance to let Chie come over and spend the night, so it was typically up to the budding martial arts master to host sleepovers.

Chie laughed off the accidental tumble and rolled over to where Yukiko was, propping her head up on her hands as she lay on her stomach.

"Yeah, yeah, no one's perfect! But hey, thanks for watching it with me," Chie said graciously, "I know you're not usually real into the action movies I watch..."

"Oh, don't worry," Yukiko assured her friend, "It was very funny, I laughed a lot!"

Chie rolled her eyes. "It's not s'posed to be funny...!"

Chie's phone vibrated from its comfortable spot on her bed, interrupting her. She quickly flipped over to her bottom and scooted across the wooden floor, retrieving the phone before laying back down, her head on a cushion right near Yukiko's crossed-leg form. Her eyes widened a bit as she read the text she had received.

"Hey!" she started, rolling back over onto her belly to catch Yukiko's eyes, "Rise-chan says she wants to see if me and you could help set up a lunch for Kanji to help cheer him up. I'm down for that, whattya think?"

Yukiko looked up at her friend, a little more bashful than normal. "Oh...w-well, gosh, Chie, is it really our business?" She had only found out a few details from the girls' exclusive group text, but she really wasn't sure if she wanted to get involved in the conflict between Kanji and Naoto for many reasons, least of all how eerily similar the situation was to the blowup between Yukiko and Rise earlier in the year. Even months later, it was hard for Yukiko to think about, and she didn't like being reminded of it.

"Uh...yeah?" Chie answered sassily, as if it was the most obvious answer in the world, "We can't just leave our pals hangin'! Now, the only way to get over heartbreak is with the proper consumption of protein. Everyone knows that! We'll get him the mega beef bowl at Aiya; I'm sure that'll give him something else to focus on!"

Yukiko wasn't sure she liked the direction this was heading towards. "I...I don't know, maybe he just needs some time to himself," she answered honestly, her eyes downcast and melancholy. Something about the whole thing was suddenly making her feel a little sad, and she couldn't ignore the bit of frustration in her that Chie was seemingly not taking it very seriously.

Chie groaned, brushing her bangs out of her eyes as she got up to her knees and leaned back, her legs sprawling in opposite directions on the cushion. "Time? It's been, like, a whole week! Is it really that big a deal?"

Yukiko shook her head, in heavy disagreement with Chie's unsympathetic take. "Chie, you know how he felt about Naoto-kun. Did you really think he would get over it, just like that?" It came out a bit sharper than she had intended, and she nervously looked away from Chie as she saw her friend's eyebrows crinkle in frustration.

"Hey, what's that s'posed to mean?" Chie said, befuddled, "It's not like I don't feel bad for him! He just...I dunno," she sighed, rubbing her forehead. "Gah, I just wish this... romantic stuff wasn't always so complicated! Y'know Kou-kun and I still get along fine!"

Yukiko knew what she was referring to, although she still wasn't convinced it was a fair comparison. Kou Ichijo was a member of Yasogami High's dwindling basketball team, whose boundless enthusiasm was the only thing keeping the team going. He also just so happened to have quite the crush on Chie, stemming from their elementary school days. He had pulled Chie aside one day in June and confessed, asking if he could date her. Chie had told Yukiko that she was grateful, especially since she had very rarely received romantic attention from boys, but told him as gently as she could that she didn't feel the same way. Instead, she had insisted that the two remain friends. Kou had seemingly obliged; Yukiko remembered he and Chie carrying on like nothing had happened on the last day of school.

The heiress let out a rueful sigh, hoping she could say what she was thinking so her friend would understand. "It's still not the same. You weren't the one who confessed your feelings!" Yukiko tried to change the subject, hoping that would be the end of it. "Now can we please talk about something-"

At that, Chie lurched forward, causing Yukiko to jump a little; Chie was nothing if not intense in almost any conversation. "W-well hang on, why'sat matter?," she asked skittishly, crossing her legs under her as she shifted to her new position, "It's still awkward! That's a lotta pressure on a girl! I didn't have time to think or anything before I answered! Besides, me and Kou-kun have been friends for way longer than Naoto-kun and Kanji! Wouldn't that probably make it more awkward for us?"

The hotel heiress glanced sideways. "As long as you and Kou-kun have been friends," she uttered, looking nervously at the TV displaying the silent menu for the film they had been watching, "has he ever seen your worst feelings come alive? Literally? "

Chie winced at the unpleasantness in Yukiko's tone. "Y-yeah," Chie said sadly, "I guess that's true..." Yukiko was talking about the shadows, the manifestations of all living people that the whole team saw come alive in the world behind the TV's of Inaba. Apart from Yu, everyone had, at some point, had a nightmare version of themselves that personified the darkest sides of their personality put out across the airwaves on the Midnight Channel. Yukiko could still see, in her head, the immaculately dressed and flirty "Princess Yukiko" that had made her look like a shallow and selfish brat who only cared to get away from her family's inn and Inaba.

Yukiko felt this was the crucial point; as long as she had known Chie, she'd never seen her make a pass at any boy in school, and had in fact only known the girl to drool over hunky martial artists who were obvious pipe dreams. Would she be able to handle if, on the off chance, one of those types came up to her and told her directly that they didn't have any romantic interest in her? Especially if her worst character flaws and insecurities had been made very clear to them? Did she understand at all how devastating that could be?

Unfortunately, Chie still wouldn't concede. "...B-but I mean, even then, like, Yu-kun and Rise-chan seem to be doing pretty good, and hers was pretty freaky! Although I suppose Yu-kun didn't really have one..."

This was exactly why Yukiko didn't want to get involved; why did Chie have to bring that up!? "Chie, don't... " Yukiko broke off, and she tried to force herself to calm down. She wasn't annoyed at Chie per se , but the topic was digging up a lot of sour feelings that she would have preferred to have left alone.

This seemed to finally wake Chie up to the reality of their conversation, as the spunky 3rd year could only say " Oohhh... " and look away, embarrassed. There was a long, awkward silence as both girls struggled with what to say to each other.

They finally spoke at the same time. "Yukiko, I'm sorr-"

"Sorry I-"

Chie put her palms up, as if he was pushing herself away from the conversation. "You go first."

"I-I was just going to say...I'm sorry, but I'd really rather not talk about this right now," Yukiko sighed, tucking her onyx hair behind her ear. "I know you're only trying to help, but..."

Chie nodded, her gaze becoming determined again. "Y-yeah, definitely! I-I'm sorry, Yukiko, I didn't mean to make you feel like-"

"It's fine , Chie," Yukiko interrupted, smiling sadly at the girl across from her, "Really. Let's just talk about something else. Erm...Do you have any other movies?"

The short-haired girl bobbed her head in acknowledgment before reaching over to the table in front of them and pulling out a small CD case. There was a DVD inside, and she showed it to Yukiko, a nervous smile on her face.

"H-hey, funny you should ask! Daisuke-kun lemme b-borrow his copy of A Conjuring in Kobe too! Y-you wanna watch it?" Chie could barely finish the sentence trying to talk past her obviously forced smile, which pulled her face into a sort of ghastly grin.

Yukiko was surprised; that was a horror film!. "O-oh, I heard that one is really good! But I...don't you...not like these kinds of movies?" Yukiko had always known Chie to, ironically, be a huge scaredy-cat when it came to almost anything resembling the occult or elements of the macabre. Yukiko loved the stuff herself, but usually watched them on her own because of Chie's fear. It must have taken a lot for her to even offer up such an idea.

"W-well, there's a first time for everything, isn't there?" Chie said through clenched teeth. Yukiko couldn't help but smile; Chie really was a great friend.

"Okay, let's watch! I heard the scariest scene happens almost right away!"

" Awesome..."


 

Monday, 7/28/12, Satonaka Residence, Very Early Morning...

Yukiko awoke, startled at hearing noises coming from Chie's bed. She sidled out from underneath the comforter and got up off her futon to check. Sure enough, Chie was thrashing in her sleep, making a lot of panicked-sounding noises as she twisted to and fro.

While unnerving, this reaction wasn't exactly unexpected; Yukiko knew that Chie didn't handle horror very well, and she often mentioned that she couldn't help but have nightmares about whatever monster, ghoul, or ghost that scared her senseless. Considering that the movie they had watched earlier had been a film about a haunted house, Yukiko could understand the apprehension in sleeping peacefully, given their surroundings.

Luckily, experience had taught Yukiko that there was a trick to getting her to stop. Standing closely by the bed, Yukiko began to whisper softly at the sleeping girl.

"Chie, it's alright! Nothing's after you...you're just dreaming."

This had a bit of an effect; Chie stopped turning so rapidly, but her face still looked pained and anxious. "Nnngh...d-don't let 'em get me...please..."

Sensing things were calming down, Yukiko then reached under Chie's blanket and found her friend's hand. Grasping it gently, she gave the hand a little squeeze and queued up her second round of soothing commentary.

"I'm right here. Sshh...nothing bad will happen to you, I promise."

After about a minute of this, Chie's mumblings died down and the tight lipped grimace vanished, making way for a neutral but far more calm look to appear on the spunky girl's face. Satisfied, Yukiko released Chie's hand and stepped back toward her futon.

"Mmm thanks...Yukiko...zzzz..."

Yukiko stifled a giggle, thinking Chie just sounded so darn funny when she was sleep-talking. She gently lay back down on the futon and reached for her phone, safely cradled on the far side of Chie's bedside table. The face read "2:58 AM," a sign that Yukiko needed to get back to bed; the inn was going to be getting busy soon, and Yukiko needed to be back home bright and early in order to help out around the place

Before she could make do with her plan, she lingered at the sight of her home's phone screen. Chie's earlier remark had, indeed, stirred up feelings that were better off buried deep inside the young heiress, and she couldn't help herself as she quickly tapped her thumb on the screen until she was looking at the log of all the messages she had received. One, in particular, stood out the most, even though it was only part of the full message shown as a preview:

Narukami Yu:  I never meant to upset you. Please don't...

Yukiko quickly tapped the side of the phone and put it into sleep mode, blackening the image she had just seen. As was usually the case, she could feel a tear or two begin to well up in her eyes. She put the phone down and pulled the comforter up to her chin, paralyzed by a familiar, unwanted sadness.

For a few seconds she indulged the sadness, quietly letting out one sniffle while she turned her head toward the opposite wall. She could hear that Chie was snoring, but she wanted to make sure there was no chance her friend would see her as she was; one close call had been enough for the night.

While she lay there, Yukiko prayed to any God whom would listen for a chance at a good night's sleep, a prayer she had made almost every night for the last few months. Like all the other times, she didn't expect to have much success, but the routineness of it helped make her eyelids heavy, and before long she shut her eyes and drifted into a deep, turbulent sleep.

Chapter Text

Monday, 7/27/12, Afternoon, Junes Food Court...

"At Junes, every day is customer appreciation day! Every day's great at your Junes!

As often as it annoyed her, Naoto never truly tired of the repetitive, catchy Junes theme, not missing the irony of finding stability in a milquetoast corporate jingle. It always reminded her of a lot of fun and happy times in the food court, times that made her forget the turmoil currently invading her life.

Recent events had proven to a very difficult for Naoto. Even now, a whole week later, her conversation with Kanji replayed in her head over and over again, her normally brilliant brain torturing her by splintering the incident into hundreds of possible outcomes with a varying degree of success and even worse failure. It was all too much, a sensory overload that had rendered her heart and mind unable to do much but languish in stasis, recovering. Message after message had passed through her phone in the past week and been left ignored, even Rise's; Naoto hoped no one took it personally, but she needed time to herself.

She poured some more packaged sweetener into the dark cup of coffee in front of her. She looked across from her to the empty seat at the other end of the round table; Rise usually joined her for drinks or lunch on Mondays, but she had been forced to skip out for an important work meeting. Without Rise's brightness, Naoto's thoughts remained as black as the liquid in front of her, an old and sadly familiar feeling.

It should have been so simple. Rejection was a big part of her life; she had been told 'no' by so many adults in her life that Naoto didn't find it difficult at all to say it back. Ever since she had appeared on TV and gone to Yasogami, her shoe locker had become a veritable Wailing Wall of confession notes from boys and girls who saw her as the object of their affections. She ignored them most of the time, but eventually she started confronting her admirers one-on-one and shooting them down so they might help spread the word that the "Detective Prince" was not so easily won over.

All of those previous suitors had done little to prepare her for Kanji's awkwardly worded confession on the school roof last Monday. She, of course, had heard the teasing from Yosuke, Teddie, and Rise that Kanji liked her, but she always thought it was just them playing a joke. Kanji was awkward around her, sure, but he was like that around every girl. Naoto had assumed he just had a problem interacting with the opposite sex, and his relative comfort with her over the other girls was because of the way Naoto presented herself. She had, legitimately, come to think of him as a very good friend, someone who had all the qualities that a good man should have.

That had become the crux of her conundrum, however. There was nothing wrong with Kanji. In fact, if one were to consider someone who would make an able partner, Kanji was it: strong, a good heart, and skilled in an astute, steady profession. She had no doubt that he cared for her very much, and would never do anything to hurt her. Naturally, this posed the question of why, then, she felt the need to turn him down. The answer was simple, but still hurtful: she simply didn't feel those same romantic inclinations that he did.

For a moment, Naoto had wondered if the feelings she had toward Kanji made her a hypocrite. After all, it was only a little while ago that she could definitely say she felt some sort of way for Yu Narukami. But as the months had gone on, listening to Rise talk about her own relationship with Narukami, Naoto was finding that her feelings about romance were far more complicated than they had first seemed.

Truthfully, the detective had rarely considered a future where she was in a meaningful romantic relationship. She was just so focused on becoming the best possible detective that the thought honestly hadn't come up, and her general lack of any relationships didn't help either. But even as she let more and more people into her life, Naoto was finding that her thought patterns seemed... incongruous with that of her other female friends when it came to the opposite sex. It wasn't uncommon for Rise or Chie to comment on someone's looks as they passed by, or for Yukiko to get worked up and embarrassed talking about handsome foreigners who had come to her inn and flirted with her, situations that, for Naoto, never seemed worth commenting on. She specifically remembered a study day at Junes where all three were distracted, gushing over a gossip magazine that had a fold-out of a popular "boy band" pop group. As the girls tittered and blushed and discussed who their favorite was, Naoto found that she had nowhere near the same reaction. She couldn't understand what was so great about these boys; "he's so dreamy! " and "these guys are hot!" didn't mean anything to her. Yes, she could admire the aesthetic features of them as one might for a painting, but how did these girls get so worked up?

Being sucked back into the realms of adolescence through consistent high school attendance had made her more and more aware that her value in the social marketplace was largely depended on how the people around her thought of her body and general appearance. After all, if they didn't even know her, how else could they have been infatuated with her? Naoto had never had a great relationship with her body, and the attention paid to her by these other students often made her deeply uncomfortable. She wasn't even sure what she wanted to identify herself as for the longest time, so figuring out how to navigate the realms of romance and her own sexuality seemed like a Sisyphean task that would make solving the Inaba murders look like child's play. Narukami, truthfully, was the first person she ever remembered having some sort of attraction to, but the longer he was away, the more she realized that the romantic part may have been fleeting; she did not imagine her and Narukami locked in a passionate embrace or locking lips, and in fact found that uncomfortable and odd to think about. If that was the case, then what even was a romantic relationship?

Her biggest fear was that any potential suitor, be it Kanji or Narukami, would want a romantic relationship that  eventually become physical; as far as she understood, that was very much the nature of adolescent relationships. Naoto had never been comfortable (to put it lightly) with any aspect of physical contact, which probably greatly affected her very small understanding of her own sexuality. The hazy memories that included her parents remembered a hint of physical affection, but her Grandfather was not that sort of man; it wasn't out of a lack of love for her, but she assumed that he had been raised a certain way and was too old to change it. As such, she usually got by on hearty handshakes and maybe the occasional pat on the back. Her friends on the Investigation Team were the first real friends she ever had, and it was hard for her to adjust to their chummy nature. Rise was the only one who she was okay sharing physical contact with, and that was only because their bond was incredibly strong, more that of siblings than simply friends, and even then, it was still difficult at times to put up with Rise's extremely touchy-feely nature. But even then, her and Rise's relationship was what she imagined she would quite like if she were to have some sort of romantic partner: sharing a lunch, going to see films, and just quietly enjoying each other's company. Naoto had a long way to go before she could even begin to imagine doing things like hugging or kissing a preferred partner, let alone physical intimacy.

There was also the matter of whether or not any future partner would be comfortable with who she was. This was Narukami's greatest asset: when he said he didn't matter what gender she was, it had a profound effect on the young detective. Rise had helped a lot there too, as she was just as accepting of Naoto exploring who she wanted to be. Since getting their encouragement, Naoto had begun to do a little more research into this, finding that while she was different, she wasn't alone. There was a term for it: non-binary. It made perfect sense to the young detective; she never did quite feel like she belonged to any one gender, and in fact barely understood why it mattered, except for the purpose of labeling someone. Still, she didn't understand all of it quite yet, and kept this mostly to herself and Rise, who was equally tight-lipped. She couldn't imagine explaining it to someone who was seriously romantically interested in her.

All these feelings had assaulted her when Kanji confessed, and it was very difficult to try and explain how she felt. Although she had tried to be as gentle as she could, Kanji was clearly heartbroken, and it was all she could do to quickly head home and seal herself away in her room. Their had been a barrage of texts and attempted phone calls she had gotten from her other friends, but she wasn't sure she could face anybody. She wondered if the others would judge her for not accepting Kanji's feelings, or maybe they would hear her explanation for how she felt and judge her for being weird. She just felt embarrassed, and she needed some time on her own to sort out what was going on. At least Kanji's timing had been fortuitous: having to face everyone at school the next day would have been impossible.

A warm draft of wind swam through the open air of the food court, leading Naoto to tug a bit at her collar. Naoto had, with a significant input from Rise, done her best to find clothes that were comfortable, less warm, and still in line with her preferred style. The checkered, button-down blue flannel with the sleeves buttoned up by tabs just past her elbow and tan chino pants were breezy enough to feel comfortable, yet also provide Naoto the more androgynous style she preferred. A dark black t-shirt lurked underneath the flannel, a much preferred alternative to her usual buttoned up shirt and tie combo, even if it meant her arms were more exposed than she might have liked.

She was considering finishing up her coffee and just leaving for the day when a shadow crossed over her table. She looked up, thankful the bill of her cap was shielding the sun from her eyes, to see that someone was standing over her table.

"Y-Yosuke-senpai...?" she said out of surprise more than anything. Indeed, Yosuke was standing over her table, an anxious look in his eye clashing with the smile on his face. Naoto noted that he was still wearing his apron, a sign that he was working for the day.

"Uh, 'sup?" he muttered, before quickly heaving his apron off and taking a seat opposite from her across the table, "I just went on break, so I thought I'd come say...'sup?."

Naoto blinked, unsure what to make of this sudden arrival. "Um..Yosuke-senpai, is there something I can do for you?" she asked, formal and stiff.

Yosuke had a half smirk on his face, clearly in on a joke that Naoto was not. "Well, I can already tell this is gonna be fun...," he sighed, easing back in his chair and placing his hands over his eyes.

Now Naoto was even more confused. "What are you-"

Yosuke put up a hand, interrupting her, "I'm-I'm kidding. Uh, Ri -er, wanted stop by if I got a break and...see how you were doin' with, uh, y'know...everything," he revealed, a nervous look on his face.

Naoto felt a frown pool up in the corner of her mouth; Yosuke couldn't have more obviously been lying. Based on his slip-up, it sounded like Rise was sending in the cavalry to help, even when she was unavailable. It would have been very sweet, if not for the fact that Naoto specifically told Rise she did not want to talk to anyone about this. The detective did her best to turn the frown into a more neutral look, studying the person across from her very carefully.

Naoto's relationship with Yosuke was, much like her and Rise earlier in the year, largely cordial. Yosuke had proven himself to be a steadfast and confident teammate in the TV World, and there were few greater endorsements than the one he had from Yu, who considered him his best friend and "partner." Unfortunately, he was also a bit shiftless in personality, which meant that he tended to bury his insecurities behind mean spirited jokes and pranks. More than once, Naoto had ended up frustrated and annoyed at his endless teasing. She did her best to keep her guard up, not in the mood to put up with his chicanery.

"Are you here to change my mind?" she started, gauging his response carefully. He shook his head shyly, rubbing the back of his head. She noticed that he seemed particularly uncomfortable, and his body language was shifty and cagey.

"N-no, that's not...! Look, I'm not here to try and tell ya how to feel or anything but," he stopped, chewing on what he was going to say, "I just wanna, y'know, make sure you're alright."

This was surprising. Even with her senses having taken a beating over the weekend, Naoto was still fairly astute at sniffing out false pretenses, and she couldn't feel any coming from the boy across from her. Despite this, she had to consider what the risk of opening up to him was: even though she was very close to her, Naoto was still wondering how to explain to Rise what confusion lay within her. She had no such faith in Yosuke, given his track record. Naoto crossed her arms and aimed her careful glare at the Prince of Junes.

"Thank you, senpai," she started, affixing a neutral expression to her face, "but I will be just fine. I know Rise is concerned, but she truly has nothing to worry about." She was satisfied that this answer would assure Yosuke and hopefully send him off for the day.

She was a bit puzzled as the Junes employee gave a mirthful chuckle and shook his head. "Who are you trying to convince? Me or you?"

Naoto grunted, a bit caught off guard by the smart remark. "I-I don't know what you mean-"

"Oh, come on !" Yosuke whined, abruptly straightening up in his seat, "I thought we were over the whole 'silent badass' thing? Look, your friends are worried about you, and it bugs 'em when you don't answer any of their messages," he clarified, a stern look invading his normally laid-back stare.

Naoto sighed, uncrossing her arms, sensing that perhaps it wouldn't be very easy to make him leave. "It...it is an unfortunate situation that I have found myself in, yes, and I appreciate your concern, but I do not need you or any of the others' help. I am not a child, I can handle myself," she surmised, watching as Yosuke's jaw went slack and his eyes widened a bit in amazement.

He chuckled again, although Naoto could sense nervousness and incredulity rather than genuine humor in it.

"Unbelievable. You're completely unbelievable, y'know that?! Why did I even..." He sneered, trailing off as he threw his arms up in the air.

The 2nd year was unsure what to say. What was his problem? "There's no need to be upset," she said sternly, "As I said, I value your concern, I just don't believe it is nece-"

"God, can you please ," Yosuke interrupted, " Please , just for once, sound normal? I'm beggin' ya, please!"

Naoto focused her steel grey glare again, trying to keep a lid on her shortening temper. "If you are going to resort to ad hominem, then this discussion is over. This is a private manner that is just that, private . I'll thank you and everyone else to leave it be."

As soon as the words came out, Naoto regretted them. Rise had been helping her make so much progress in strengthening her friendship with the Investigation Team, and now she was doing everything she could to prove she was still the same old stick-in-the-mud. As she tried to conjure up a mea culpa and perhaps a small, if not all too revealing, statement about her troubles, Yosuke got up from his seat, scooping his apron from the table.

" Wow. Wow, wow, wow. Okay, fine, I gotta get back to work anyways. Sorry I bothered ya," he huffed bitterly, beginning to tie the apron back around his waist. This jolted Naoto out of the maelstrom of her mind and back into reality. She could see on Yosuke's face that he didn't quite seem angry; more than anything, she could see disappointment and hurt feelings.

Flustered, Naoto felt the need to say something, anything that might alleviate Yosuke's mood. Anger came and went, as she knew all too well, but disappointment festered like an old wound.

"Wait, Yosuke-senpai," she blurted out, "I-I didn't mean to upset you-"

"Really?" Yosuke groaned, pushing his chair back in, "'Cause you're doing a pretty crappy job! Always gotta make me the idiot because I'm just so beneath you, right?!"

Like a light switch, Naoto went from regretful to angry. Why was he being so rude? Her face grew red as she gripped the table's edge tightly.

"Why are you insulting me!?" she growled through clenched teeth.

She could hear Yosuke mutter something before he strolled aggressively up to Naoto's seat, looking down on her as he spoke. Now he looked angry, his brow furrowed above his hazel eyes.

"You started it!" he jeered, "You always have to be so smug about everything! I was just trying to help, but you always gotta..." He cut himself off, jamming his thumbs in his pockets while muttering under his breath.

Naoto felt torn. On the one hand, yes, she was being overly cold toward someone who had come offering his support, but on the other, it was a very delicate subject. As Yosuke turned to leave, Naoto tried to retake control of the conversation.

"I don't intend to belittle you, Yosuke-senpai, but you have to understand that this is... complicated, " she said finally, hoping that word conveyed her reluctance and regret, "I'm not...I don't have experience in dealing with something like this, so I'm not sure what reaction is appropriate or not. I haven't even spoken to Rise about this..." This was the truth; Naoto's conflicted feelings about romance and relationships aside, she was deep in unfamiliar territory and just trying to come up for air. Rise was her closest friend, and she would have at least liked to talk to her first. Couldn't he understand that?

Yosuke stopped, appearing to consider Naoto's answer for a moment, then turned back around. His face had softened, looking more pitying than angry. "That's fine, but...like I said, I wasn't trying to tell you how to think, just trying to see if you were okay. I know it's..." He sighed, taking a few steps back toward the table.

"It's not easy to handle this kinda stuff, but just 'cause Rise is busy doesn't mean we don't exist too, y'know," he admitted sadly, rubbing the back of his longish hair. Naoto watched as turned back around for good and didn't stop walking until he was back inside the Junes store.

After a few short minutes of silent reflection as to what Yosuke meant, Naoto snatched the cup of coffee off the table and took a sip. It had gone stone cold, the sweetener all but dissolved, and the bitterness hit her like a ton of bricks. Oddly fitting, she thought grimly. She set the cup down and slid her cap off, letting it fall to the table. She massaged the bridge of her nose and tried to do some deep breaths to deaden the stress headache worming its way into her skull, but nothing worked. Resigned to her fate, Naoto put her hat back on and gently tossed the cup into a nearby trash receptacle; she had had enough of Junes for one day. As she hurriedly made her way towards the exit, she heard the familiar, although no longer comforting, jingle.

At Junes, every day is customer appreciation day! Every day's great at your Junes!

Chapter Text

7/28/12, Mid Afternoon, Tatsumi Textiles…

Yukiko gently turned over the fabric in her hand, in awe at the fine craftsmanship that went into weaving it. She rubbed her rosy cheek into the center, feeling just how soft and wonderful the cloth felt. Across from her, Mrs. Tatsumi was giving her a pleasant and knowing smile.

The cloth was a traditional Japanese Tenugui towel made from cotton that was typically used for decoration. Yukiko's mother, anticipating even more Summer tourists than usual do the rather unusual liveliness of the town lately, had commissioned sets of commemorative towels for the rooms of the inn that would also be available to purchase in their gift shop. Like the kimonos of the staff, the towel was a deep pink color with "Amagi Hot Springs Inn" written in characters across the bottom. The Amagi Family Kamon , or crest, rested just above the lettering: a plain white lily with a small yellow center, the same that was on the kimono Yukiko was currently wearing.

She carefully handed the towel back to Mrs. Tatsumi as if it were a frail bird, unwilling to disturb its exquisite beauty by wrinkling it. The elder Tatsumi folded it and placed it back among the stack of forty or so that had been sitting in a wooden container.

"Well, Yuki-chan," the older woman started, adjusting her glasses a bit, "are they to your satisfaction?"

Yukiko grinned as she addressed her elder. "Oh, absolutely , Tatsumi-san," she gushed, bowing a bit, "My mother is going to love them!"

Tatsumi-san chortled, a wrinkled hand going to her chest as she did. "My, my, child, it's not nice to make an old woman blush!"

Yukiko joined in on the laughter, tucking some of her long ebony hair back behind her ear; when she was working she did not wear her headband, which made her hair a bit more of a nuisance than it typically was. Tatsumi-san sighed and moved her feet out from under her so they could rest on the small wooden step that lead up into the front of her shop. Yukiko admired the older woman's forest green kimono as it swayed with her movements; a part of her hoped that she looked as graceful in one when she was that age.

The Amagi heiress had known the Tatsumi family almost all her life, her family having associated with them in regards to the various textiles of their inn for as long as she could remember. Yukiko had fond memories of visiting the small shop as far back as primary school, where she was as mesmerized by the talent hidden in Mrs. Tatsumi's fingers as she was now. The only difference now were the larger wrinkles and grey hair, likely caused by the years of dealing with her son, Kanji.

Kanji was actually on the forefront of Yukiko's mind. Last weekend's sleepover had been a long night for the restless 3rd year, her mind distracted by her passionate reaction to Chie and Rise meddling in Kanji's affairs. She and him had never been particularly close-despite knowing each other most of their lives-but Yukiko had felt really bad for Kanji, lately. She wondered if the others truly knew what it was like to deal with a heartbreak so critical like that, to spend every waking hour dreaming of having someone special in your life only for it to be torn away by fate's cruel hand.

A part of her also felt as if she was ignoring Naoto over Kanji. Naoto was her friend as well, and the fact that Naoto had chosen Yukiko to confide her own secret crush on Narukami months earlier meant she felt doubly guilty, like she wasn't reciprocating the friendship. Still, her guilt only went so far; her text messages to the detective had gone unanswered, which Yukiko took as a sign that like Kanji, Naoto wanted to be left alone, too. She chose to respect that, while at the same time hoping that the detective bore no ill will toward her for attempting to reach out.

In the meantime, Yukiko had convinced Chie to not go through with Rise's planned "get-well" lunch. Kanji had stayed off the grid since school had let out, and Yukiko figured bugging him to go to lunch with the girls, with whom he was already kind of weird around, wasn't going to help. The more she thought about it, however, Yukiko also realized that perhaps it wouldn't do any harm to do a personal house call, just to see how he was doing. Surely he could handle the presence of just one friend.

The towels weren't needed anytime soon, but they provided a decent excuse for Yukiko to bus all the way over during a busy day at the inn. Taking advantage of the momentary silence after the two ladies exchanged laughs, Yukiko made her move. "Um, Tatsumi-san, while I'm here... is Kanji-kun in? I'd like to speak with him, if possible," she asked, affixing a serious look on her face. Mrs. Tatsumi sighed heavily, unfolding her hands from her lap.

"I'm sorry, dear, but Kanji stepped on a personal errand for me. He should be back soon," she revealed, her demeanor seemingly taking a 180, "It's about the only thing I can do to get him out of his room…"

This intrigued Yukiko "O-oh?"

"Yes," the elder Tatsumi moped, "He's behaving like…"

The woman looked up at Yukiko suddenly, a somber glint reflected in her glasses.

"Yuki-chan, I must ask you something and you must tell me the truth," she stated, looking deadly serious. Startled, Yukiko couldn't help but nod, her own heart beginning to race. What could she mean?

"Did something happen to him? He's been acting so strange lately: he stays inside all day and lays in his bedroom just staring at the ceiling. I try to talk to him but he's just so quiet and..." she stopped, a sad smile appearing on her lips, "Look at me, trying to go through his friends like a gossipy old maid. Forgive me, Yuki-chan," she sighed, waving her hand as if to wipe away her request.

Yukiko felt her spirits sink at Mrs. Tatsumi's revelation. His mother was right, that didn't sound like Kanji at all. Typically, it was very easy to figure out Kanji's emotions; as gentle as his fingers were when it came to textiles, he had the emotional subtlety of a brick. If he was mad or sad or anything , he had a habit of loudly letting you know.

"Tatsumi-san," Yukiko uttered, debating quickly whether or not she should reveal Kanji's plight, "I...w-what I mean to say is that I think Kanji-kun is-"

Her confession was cut off by the sudden bleating of a nearby telephone. The older woman rolled her eyes and gave the 3rd year an apologetic glance as she slowly got up to her feet and moved beyond the open door in the back of the room to find the source of the noise.

Yukiko sighed in relief, having been granted a few more minutes to get her thoughts together. Just watching Tatsumi-san made her wary of adding on any more reasons for her to worry about her son, who had already provided more than a lifetime of struggles. At the same time, Yukiko cared about Kanji's well- being, and wondered if telling his mom about what he was going through might help make him feel like more people were on his side. It was a difficult choice.

Before she could make her decision, there was a sudden gust of air that blew up the edges of her kimono a bit. Someone had come in through the shop's entrance, and it wasn't until she heard the clack of the door being shut roughly that she managed a sideways glance at who or what had entered.

" S-senpai!? "

"Hmm? Oh! Kanji-kun..."

Indeed, Kanji had returned from wherever it was he had been. Judging by the package in his hand, he appeared to have gone and picked up some sort of medicine, probably for his mother. He was wearing a blue T-shirt that had a small penguin spouting out some characters in loud font, matched up with a loose fitting pair of dark blue jeans. Yukiko was surprised to see that he didn't have any sort of headwear; instead, his natural, messy black hair swayed gently in the still air.

"What're you...I mean, you here to get yer families' order?" he said rather sheepishly, avoiding eye contact.

Yukiko bit her lip, faintly tasting the cherry flavor of her chapstick as she did. "Ye-yes, I am," she said quickly, also doing her best not to stare, "B-but actually...now that you're here I wanted to speak to you…"

"What about?" Kanji said sharply, a look in his eye that let Yukiko know he was on high alert. Yukiko quickly took a breath and made her move.

"You know...about Naoto-kun and y-"

" Nope. Ain't interested, 'lright?" Kanji spat, stepping past her with his long legs, "Figured you of all people would get the picture...ain't like I got a million unanswered text messages fer nothin', ya know!"

"H-hey! Wait," Yukiko begged, gently tugging at the waist of her kimono so the skirt wouldn't trip her up as she moved to the large platform that Kanji had just stepped onto, "I don't mean to bother you, I just…" She knew what she wanted to say, but the words kept getting stuck. Why was she this nervous, anyways? She had been so confident in her decision-making yet was tripping at the finish line.

"Well ya are bothering me!" he growled, turning to face her, his already towering height made even worse by the platform, "I've seen all 'a ya every day for a year, can't I get one week to my damn self!? Sick of you guys, man..."

Okay, that was mean. Yukiko felt her eyebrow twitch in anger, but before she could retort, she heard footsteps coming from the back of the house. Kanji's mother peeked her head out from the doorway, no doubt hearing the racket her son was making.

" Kanji! " she hissed loudly, which tore the 2nd year's attention away from Yukiko and towards her, "I am on the phone with a very important client! Will you keep your voice down?!"

Kanji snorted and rolled his eyes. "Butt out, ya old bat! Gah, what is it with ev'ryone today!?"

"I don't know what's gotten into you, young man," Mrs. Tatsumi fired back, "but I won't tolerate you behaving this way! Now you can apologize to poor Yuki-chan by helping her back home with her order." The older woman beckoned at the box sitting near Kanji's feet.

Yukiko blushed, thoroughly embarrassed at all the trouble she had caused. "Th-that's really not necessary, Tatsumi-san…"

"Damn right it ain't!" Kanji roared, "Senpai ain't some broken down old hag, she can do it herself!"

"That girl," Kanji's mother began, "is the daughter of one of our oldest and dearest clients. If she finds out you were disrespectful to her child…"

" Alright, geez!" Kanji huffed, lugging the box up over his shoulder like it was a toothpick, "Quit layin' the guilt trip on me, I get it!" He stepped down from the platform with an aggressive stomp and headed toward the door. "C'mon let's get this shit over with, senpai."

Yukiko blushed harder. This was not going like she hoped. "I-I'm so sorry for being so troublesome, Tatsumi-san," she apologized, bowing deeply to the older woman.

"You having nothing to be sorry for, dear," Tatsumi-san assured her, "It's always a pleasure doing business with your folks, and I'd like to keep it that way." She aimed her beady eyed glare at Kanji, who stuck his tongue out at her in response. What an odd relationship, Yukiko thought.

With a final curt nod, Kanji's mother shuffled back into the house to finish her phone call. Yukiko fixed her hair nervously and followed Kanji as he threw the door open and stepped out into the street.

Yukiko felt like she should say something, anything to ease the tension. "K-Kanji-kun, I'm sorry, I didn't want-"

"Yeah, whatever," Kanji interrupted, not even looking at her, "Let's jus' go."

Fair enough, Yukiko thought. She straightened out her kimono and began to lead the way toward the bus stop just a block down the road, hoping that the day couldn't get any worse before she got home.


7/28/12, Mid Afternoon, Bus Stop outside the Amagi Inn

It had been an agonizingly silent 15 minute bus ride for the two friends. Kanji had just looked out the window, not even taking a seat next to Yukiko as he proceeded through his task like he was an android programmed to do it. The 3rd year thought about trying, but she again found herself struggling to find some way to break the silence. Kanji just looked so done with everything. Before too long, they arrived at the stop, the Amagi Inn only about a ten minute walk away.

Yukiko gave a gentle smile to the driver as she exited the bus, a smile that faded the second he was out of sight; she had so much practice putting on a brave face for strangers that it came easily. Kanji followed, the picture of frustrated silence stuck on his face. Above them, the afternoon sun was just beginning its journey to its home on the other side of the Earth, which left it ample time to still remind Inaba of its power. Dressed in her form-fitting and layered kimono, Yukiko felt the full bore of it, the heat doing little to contribute to her overall dower mood.

After a minute of walking, the poor heiress couldn't stand it any longer. She had to say something. "Did you...mean what you said? You're sick of all of us?"

Kanji stopped and let out a pronounced sigh. " -hhrrrkkk- No."

"'No' what?" Yukiko asked.

"No, I ain't sick 'o you guys!" Kanji yelped, the box on his shoulder shaking as he tried to keep himself from being too overly animated. "I jus'...when I say 'leave me alone', I mean it!"

Okay, now she was getting somewhere. "A-alright, I understand," she started, "I just hope you know that the only reason we keep trying is because we're worried about you... I'm worried about you…" The heiress blushed, but it was the truth; Kanji was her friend, and even in just their small interactions that day, Yukiko could see he wasn't acting like his usual self. Kanji could be crude, but he was rarely mean like he had been back at the textile shop.

Kanji scoffed dismissively, which mildly hurt the girl's feelings. There was a beat of silence, the only sound the scuffle of Yukiko's sandals and Kanji's boots against the pavement.

"What're ya worried about?" Kanji suddenly asked, with way less of an edge to his voice.

Yukiko looked up at him, seeing if she could tell where his head was at; he looked as stern and annoyed as ever. Undeterred, she continued. "Well, a lot of things, but...I guess I'm mainly just worried that you're…" The raven-haired girl knew she had to be careful, given her tall companion's current mood.

Unfortunately, his patience was already thin. "That what!? I don't got my shit together? I'm no good, just like always? What!? " He exploded, stopping to turn and snarl at Yukiko. Reflexively, she stopped as well and took a step backwards, seeing from his clenched fists and the vein popping out near the scar on his head that he really wasn't messing around. Biting her lip as she felt a nervous chill run down her spine, Yukiko did her best to finish her thought.

"N-no, nothing like that! I...I'm actually really glad that you have changed so much! That's what I'm afraid of...I don't want you to go back to the way you were," she pleaded, feeling her voice start to shake a little. Kanji's face dropped from rigidly angry to a more neutral, softer state.

"You don't have to be...to be afraid to talk about what you're feeling. I-in fact, I…" she hesitated in admitting what she was thinking for a second, "...I may understand what you're going through more then you know," Yukiko revealed, hoping the burning sensation in her ears would pass. "I know I'm not very good at sharing my thoughts with the others either, but...I'm trying . And I want you to try, too...but I won't force you to if you don't want to."

Now that both teens had stopped, only the buzz of the cicadas sounded out around them. Yukiko tried not to look at Kanji in the eyes; she was already embarrassed that she may have said too much. Her personal anecdote had only been there to provide some encouragement, but she was already worried that it would come across as selfish, a problem she had always struggled with. Confronting her feelings about this was proving rather difficult, and she was finding more and more that there was clearly something deeper to this than she had thought previously.

As she got to know the sidewalk outside of her inn a little more clearly, she heard him step back and move the box containing the towels from his shoulder to his hands, holding them in front of his stomach.

"I...I didn't know it bugged ya so much," he started, a deep sigh emerging from his throat, "Izzat what everyone else thinks, too?"

I don't know , Yukiko thought, before quickly shoving that aside. It wasn't important whether or not she had personally quizzed everyone else about it; she knew the right answer in her heart. She gave a tight nod, still avoiding eye contact.

Kanji took a few steps closer, offering the box to her, saying nothing. She quickly grabbed it, noticing it was decently heavy but not terribly so as she balanced it in her arms. Was this...goodbye? Yukiko finally looked up, almost relieved to see the anger and frustration had left Kanji's face. It wasn't a smile or anything, but he did look more content.

He nervously wiped the back of his neck before speaking, in a much quieter voice than he had been using all day. "Maybe yer right," he mumbled, "But...I can't...I don't want make this a big deal or nothin'."

"It doesn't have to be a big deal," she said softly, "i-if you wanted, you could just talk to me about it. I wouldn't mind..." It was a selfish offer, but again, Yukiko felt as if she was in a unique position to understand what he was going through, and would have felt bad if she didn't lend an ear.

Kanji gave her a quizzical look, which Yukiko couldn't really blame him for doing. The two hadn't exactly been close pals, and he always got nervous around girls anyways. Why would he take her up on that when he could just as easily vent to Yosuke or Yu? She was about to retract her offer, when she heard him mumble some more.

"Maybe I should..." It wasn't much, but Yukiko felt her heart soar. She had broken though! She couldn't help the smile that lit up her face.

"Y-you should, yeah! I really don't mind!" She said quickly, trying not to jinx it.

Kanji scratched his head some more, appearing to think hard. "I mean...I dunno, aren'tcha gonna be busy, anyways? I don't wanna bug ya if you got work to do."

This stumped the heiress. Kanji had a point: it was going to be a very busy summer at the inn, moreso than ever before, and Yukiko wasn't sure when she'd have time to get away from work and hang out or talk on the phone, at least for a little while. Unless…

A light-bulb went off in her head. "Wait, I know! Can you wait here a minute? I'll be right back," she yelped, barely letting Kanji give a befuddled nod before she quickly turned around and shuffled as quickly as she could-given her kimono-toward the inn's entrance, which looked more like an ancient castle gate than the entrance to a bustling town institution.. She quickly threw open the door, removed her sandals, and peeked to see if anyone was in the front lobby; she needed to get behind the front desk and grab something she wasn't supposed to, so she hoped there wasn't much traffic. Luckily, there was no one but a plump woman in a similar pink kimono manning the front desk, looking ever so bored. This was Himari-san, one of the inn's longtime employees, and more importantly, someone who would do anything for Yukiko, whom she adored.

Yukiko fixed her face, putting on a pleasant, fake smile as she walked toward the desk and her beaming co-worker. "Ah, Yuki-chan, welcome back!" Before Yukiko could utter a return greeting, the older girl's attention fell to the box she was carrying. "Oh, oh, are those the new towels? Ah, I'm so excited!" Kanami cheered, stepping around the desk and through the folded up section that acted as a barrier to non-employees.

"Of course, Himari-san!" Yukiko grinned, before wincing and beginning to act as if the box was really heavy. "Oh, geez! Sorry, I've been carrying this box for a while, must be losing my grip," she said with a nervous titter.

As expected, Himari started to fuss and fawn. "Well no wonder, you poor thing! Carrying that around in this heat and that kimono, ugh! Your mother needs to hire use an errand boy, a cute one, too! It's about time we had some more decent looking men-folk around here to balance out us gorgeous girls!" Yukiko tried not to laugh and break her act, but Himari could say the silliest things.

The taller woman quickly seized the box from Yukiko and took a look inside. "Oh my, so beautiful. That Tatsumi-san really knows her stuff! You want I should take them up to your mom?" Himari offered, signaling with her head that she should go up the nearby stairs to her parents' office. Yukiko nodded, holding back a sly grin.

"Really? I-if it's not too much trouble...I'll watch the front for you!" Yukiko offered incredulously, her plan almost complete.

"Great! Be back in a flaaasshh," Himari said in a sing-song voice as she quickly began bustling up the stairs on her way to Yukiko's mom's 3rd floor office. Knowing she had to act fast so as to avoid suspicion, Yukiko brushed past the still-open barrier and went behind the front desk, looking for something in the myriad of cabinets hidden from view. After a few seconds, she silently mouthed her joy at finding exactly what she needed: a paper gift certificate.

Yukiko's mother typically kept a few rooms open and gave special vouchers out as favors to people such as local business folk or visiting members of the National Diet, hoping that a free night at the inn would help spread word of mouth. They weren't something Yukiko was supposed to be giving out to her friends, but she was worried that since the reservation ledger had been filling up so quickly, it wouldn't be easy for her to just borrow a room like she had before, when the Investigation Team had a big sleepover. Thankfully, she knew that her mom also liked to give Mrs. Tatsumi these coupons as an additional gift for her services, so it wouldn't seem all that weird if Kanji got a hold of one. Considering that her time was going to get really tight for a short while and Kanji seemed like he needed this intervention sooner than later, she felt that it was better if she could talk to him without leaving the hotel.

Her sneaky deed completed, she moved out from behind the desk and across the tatami mats at the front door. She didn't bother to put her sandals back on as she exited the inn and saw Kanji still standing over at the street entrance, looking utterly confused.

Excitedly, Yukiko hurried over to him and pushed the paper certificate into his hand. "Sorry to make you wait! Here, take this and you can use it whenever!" she panted, having lost her breath moving awful fast in her tight and restrictive kimono. Kanji held up the paper and squinted hard in the afternoon sun, trying to read it.

"Uh...senpai?" he asked, "Didja write me a note on here or somethin'? It's kinda hard to see…"

Yukiko's cheeks flushed even more red than they already were, realizing she hadn't exactly explained her ingenious plan. "I-it's a certificate for a free stay at the inn! We're only supposed to hand them out to VIPs, but I think this can be an exception," she answered, pointing to the big heading across the top that read "GOOD FOR ONE NIGHT'S REST AT THE AMAGI INN!"

Kanji didn't look like he understood. "Uh...like, ma's mad at me and stuff, but I don't think she's gonna kick me out or nothin'..."

"Th-that's not what it's for!" Yukiko huffed, exasperated at his inability to understand, "Look, I'm going to be busy at the inn soon, and I might not have very much free time. If you use this, though," she said, tapping the certificate, "then I won't have any choice but to wait on you, a customer! Do you...see what I'm saying?"

She watched as Kanji's face went from puzzled, to thoughtful, then finally to enlightened. "Ooohhhh...I gotcha. I'll, uh, I'll think about it," he commented, folding up the little paper and placing it in his back pocket. "Um...there's one other thing, Yukiko-senpai..."

Yukiko grew a little nervous, brushing some hair out of her face. "Y-yes, Kanji-kun?"

Kanji looked like he had forgotten what to say, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and darting his eyes back and forth. "Uh...just...thanks. Fer whatcha said. It, uh, it means a lot." He sighed again, probably not aware of how much he had just made Yukiko's day. He coughed awkwardly and turned to look down the street. "A-anyways, bus is comin', so…d'you have bus fare on ya? I'll pay ya back."

"O-oh," Yukiko exclaimed, realizing he had left home so abruptly he may not have grabbed his wallet. She quickly reached into her sash and pulled out her change purse, taking a 500 yen coin and handing it to him. "Here." She bit her slightly chapped lips again as she addressed his previous statement. "And it's really no trouble; I'm just glad to see that you're trying," she said, slowly turning her expression into a smile, "Just text me before you plan on coming in, okay? I'll make sure there's a room available."

"Cool. Thanks. Seeya," he mumbled, offering a meager wave as he turned to walk down the street toward the bus stop.

Yukiko returned his wave and went to go back inside, but stopped to take one last look at Kanji as he walked away. With his hair back to its natural color and his slumped shoulders causing him to slouch, he looked like a different person, as if the world was weighing him down. Yukiko recognized it all too well because she, too, had walked around like the world had done her wrong a little over a year earlier. She remembered the pain of feeling like the Gods have your life on a string, whimsically pulling you back anytime you tried to be brave and break out of your beaten path, and felt great empathy for her big friend.

Before she could advance her thoughts, however, the stinging sensation of the sinfully hot pavement reached the bottoms of her sock-covered feet. She let out a small howl of pain before running on her tip-toes at top speed back toward the inn, Kanji's struggle moving to the back of her mind as she hoped like hell that there was a bucket of water somewhere close by.

Chapter Text

Friday 7/28/12, Morning, Junes Marketplace…

Friday morning was always a big day for the employees of Junes, but no one was as excited about it as Teddie, who let out a jubilant whoop as the shopping cart he was riding raced into an isle in the eerily empty electronics section.

The cause for the excitement? For one, it was the only day of the week in which he was asked to not be in his bear mascot suit, entertaining children and other patrons in the food court. Teddie certainly didn't dislike that part of the job (his bear suit was neatly tucked away in his locker, never too far away), but it was nice to enjoy the all the benefits of being out of his costume, as well. Without his suit, it was far more likely that he'd be able to talk to girls, which meant that he could finally put his skills to the test! Sure, they would think he was cute in the bear outfit, but could they resist the full unbridled might of his beautiful human form? He doubted it very much so.

More important than even that, however, was what he was scheduled to do, which was break down the large amounts of product that Junes received on Thursday nights. Teddie could still remember watching with awe as Yosuke had him stay after hours on evening so he could see what it was like when the store received a shipment. The trucks that delivered the shipments were titanic, with huge trailers attached to them pulled up to the back of the store, where a loading dock filled with employees awaited to receive the products. From the gaping mouths of the trucks came saran-wrapped towers, all containing boxes and boxes of items. Yosuke then explained that the next morning, the employees that were scheduled would be responsible for making sure that all of those boxes were emptied and discarded before the store opened.

Endlessly curious, Teddie begged Yosuke, as the manager's son, to move him to Friday mornings so he could be a part of what sounded like an incredible, life-changing process. After a week of incessant, possibly annoying pleading, Yosuke relented and pulled some strings so Teddie could work Friday mornings instead of Thursday afternoons. This was back in April, and he had blossomed greatly into his new responsibilities.

Teddie's shift was at 4 AM, which meant that he had to be up a significant amount of time before the rest of the Hanamura household, where he stayed. This wouldn't have been an issue, but Teddie tended to make a lot of noise doing pretty much...anything, especially in his morning routine. He had already received plenty of whacks to the head from Mr. Hanamura's slipper for talking loudly to himself as he got ready, but those were quickly remedied by an all-too-sweet kiss from Mrs. Hanamura on the afflicted spot.

He also wasn't used to getting up early since he usually worked in the afternoon, which had caused him to be late all during his first week. A frustrated Yosuke bought him an alarm clock, telling him that being on time was his responsibility. Teddie had taken that advice to heart, and although it was difficult, he managed to learn how to work the alarm clock, and hadn't been late since.

But, as he would find out when he got to the store, getting up was the easy part. Junes was a very big store with multiple stories, and it required the freight boxes to be separated out by department, then carried to and from each floor. Teddie had done some minor stocking, but he was nowhere close to having the near encyclopedic knowledge needed for his new responsibilities. As usual, however, Teddie didn't let this get him down and tried to think about what his sensei, Yu, would have done instead.

His attempts to persevere through the adversities presented to him were admirable, if not nearly disastrous for the store. He was quite fast when it came to restocking, but that was because he just went with his first thought on where product was supposed to go, and didn't consult any store maps or planograms. He also had a bad habit of defaulting to the electronics section if he didn't understand what he was holding, which lead to some customer complaints regarding Post-It notes hanging where DVD's should have been and rotting foodstuffs tucked behind stereo equipment. This got him in trouble frequently during his first month, and it seemed as if there was a weekly discussion at the Hanamura household as to whether or not he should even be working at the store anymore.

Luckily, Teddie had conjured up goodwill with some of his co-workers due to his sunny and friendly disposition, which lead to them giving him lots of additional help despite his less-than acceptable work. Within a few months time, thanks to their help, he had gotten a decent hold of what items went where and how to quickly break down a pallet of store items. More powerful than even his co-workers' approval, however, was the simple fact that Mrs. Hanamura adored Teddie. She was a stay-at-home mom, and the prospect of Yosuke finishing up high school and going to university was difficult for her to accept; Teddie's childlike sensibilities had lulled her out of a bored housewife malaise, and she had begged her husband to let Teddie stay on. He, of course, acquiesced.

Teddie was more than happy that he was among people who had come to accept him for who he was, and thought of losing his job and those associations scared him. There was always a small part of Teddie that wondered just how good his relationship with humans was; after all, he had only really been interacting with them for about a year, and he still had much to learn. As such, he found it difficult to branch out from his small group of friends and find meaningful relationships with others. Not that he didn't try, of course; on a daily basis he would chat up at least twenty or more patrons, trying to find new friends. Unfortunately, he was finding that not everyone was as accepting of him as his Investigation Team friends were, and it could be tough to deal with the rejection, which wasn't always nice.

He loved all his friends very much, but there was a mild nagging thought that reared its head sometimes: what would his life be like if they never showed up? Would he still find his way outside the TV World? It made him wonder if he was capable of operating without them. Teddie wasn't very familiar with how most humans operated in their day-to-day lives, but he did know that Yosuke, Chie, and Yukiko were always talking about university, which he had assumed was a place kind of like the TV World that all humans go to after high school. Teddie had been happy to assume that Yosuke would just take him with him to wherever he went next, but the idea that they would have to split up had lead to some anxiety for the bear.

The blossoming relationship with his morning crew helped put him at ease, however; they were nice and friendly, and didn't seem to care that he asked a bunch of questions. Two older ladies in particular, Akari Yoshida and Sara Jeong, had become his confidants, people he could depend on for help should he ever need it. It helped that they were the only women on the morning crew, and that they seemed to fawn over his human features.

Even more than the fun to be had at work was the fact that it was now Summer. How could he stay worried!? This was the season of festivals, food, yukata, and very possibly bikinis at the beach! Who had time to mope when those prospects were on the table, he wondered. He had a new pep in his step, which caused him to glide his way to the electronics section rather than just walk (or strut, typically).

Teddie quickly settled into a decent groove, hacking away at the mountain of product in his cart. He never got tired of opening up the boxes and seeing what was inside; it was like Christmas come early! He ooh'd and awe'd over a USB stereo system and some SD cards as he emptied out one particular box, before gazing in wonder at a vibrant keyboard/mouse combo in another. As he turned to unload the items in his arms, his eye caught his reflection in the screen of the currently depowered big-screen television at the center of the department.

His blonde hair, which got him a lot of stares around town, was still perfectly coifed and styled like he had spent all morning getting it ready. In truth, his hair was always like that, no matter what he did; he figured it was the perks of growing a human body versus being born with one. His large, shiny blue eyes smiled at him in the reflection, and he couldn't help but carefully wedge an arm out of the stack of electronics he was holding and wave back at his doppleganger, grinning like it was the best day of his life.

As he turned back around, he felt a weird tingling sensation jolt his body. He stopped attending to the product in the shopping cart and looked at the TV again. This TV was the very same that the Investigation Team used to traverse between their world and the world inside the TV. Teddie had not been back since the incident back in April, and he was curious as to the actual state of it now that it was free of any malevolent entities. On the other hand…

"Hmm….nahhhh I have important work to do! No one's gonna be able to buy this awesome stuff unless I put it out!" he assured himself. He moved over to the computer accessories section and began to place the speakers in their appropriate spot when the hairs on the back of his neck rose again. He did an about-face and saw nothing behind him, furthering his confusion. Something weird was going on, he was sure of it, but his attention span- which was already dreadfully small-wasn't strong enough to keep him occupied with this particular mystery. He finished putting the speakers down into their place and was moving back toward his cart when this time a voice broke the still air.

" Teddie!"

The boy whipped around, squealing a bit in surprise and horror. Okay, this was getting capital-C creepy! Teddie was seriously hoping it was either Akari-chan or Sara-chan, playing a trick on him. Oh, what cruel old maids they could be! He looked to and fro, but saw no sign of either of the ladies.

"A-A-Akari-Chan? Sara-chan? Is that you? Why are you being so mean to poor Teddie!?"

There was no response. Teddie tugged at the collar of the poet shirt underneath his work apron, now beginning to work up a nervous sweat. He heard something, he knew he did! He did a quick reconnaissance tour around the electronics section, seeing if any of his co-workers were playing a trick on him. His search turned up bupkis.

"Maybe I am just hearing things," he yawned, stretching out his sore arms and scratching his confused head, "it's still so bear-y early after all…"

He was considering giving up and going back to work when he heard another noise. Teddie turned to see that the TV in the department was suddenly on, a small grey text box stating "HDMI 1" appearing in the corner amidst the stark white static on the screen.

" Whaaaa !?"

Intrigued, Teddie slowly drifted toward the TV, unsure as to how it could have turned on. From what he could remember, a master switch far away controlled all the electronics; it was impossible to turn on just the one TV! Pushing through his fear, the shadow-turned-real boy cautiously moved in front of the TV, gazing in amazement at the high quality of the static covering the screen. A thought slowly crawled across his mind.

"I wonder…"

Teddie gently stretched his fingers out, intending to place his hand inside the TV. Because he was a denizen of the world, he should have had no problem traversing between the worlds, as he had done so many times before.

It was tough to describe the feeling of sticking one's hand directly into a TV screen. As best Teddie could tell, it was mushy, cold, warm, sticky, and weirdly dry at the same time, but he sort of liked it; it wasn't very often you got to stick your hand in a TV, after all! Before he could make it all the way through, a voice screeched from inside the screen.

" What are you waiting for!? Get in here!"

The boy gasped, less astonished at the rudeness with which he had been greeted than the voice itself. Someone he thought he'd never hear again!

"Eh!? E-Emmy-chan, is that you!?"

Marie was here! Marie was a strange girl, a moody yet fashionable oddity who seemed to have just been another planet pulled into Yu Narukami's orbit. In truth, Marie was a Goddess in disguise, keeping an eye on Inaba for the other deities running the world. The Investigation Team had freed her from her servitude, and Marie ended up absorbing the powers of her former masters before disappearing shortly after Yu had left town. Teddie had always been fascinated with Marie; not only was she someone else who wasn't originally from this world, but she was so darn cute too! What magic did Sensei possess, Teddie often thought, to wrangle up such a gorgeous harem of girls!?

"Emmy-chan, wow! I thought you'd left us for good! I'm so happy you're back!" he shouted excitedly, retracting his hand from the TV screen and clasping it with his other in joy. There was the sound of nothing for awhile, before the screen flickered a bit, and a voice answered back.

" Yeah, sure, whatever, just come in the TV! I need to talk to you," Marie muttered. Teddy squealed and leapt back from the TV, astonished at his luck that morning to hear fromMarie of all people.

"Emmy-chan wants to talk to me! I knew my bearamones were far too powerful for even a Goddess to resist," Teddie said, proudly pointing to his chest with his thumb. Even amidst his romantic high, he did wonder something. "Hey Emmy-chan...how'd you get into the TV? I thought the one where all the snow was went away forever…"

He remembered the last time he had seen Marie, she had entered the TV World through an alternate location all the way in the mountains up North, where everyone had went skiing. They had helped her get out, but how did she get back in? Teddie and Yosuke worked all the time at Junes, and they hadn't seen any sign of her for months.

" Urgh, why does it matter!? Look, I came to find you and headphones kid, but nobody was here, so I just decided to wait in the TV World. That was, like, days ago, and I want to come out!" Marie barked, the frustration evident in her voice. Woah, so she'd been waiting in the TV, just to talk to him ? Teddie's excitement was now through the roof.

"Alright Emmy-chan, say no more! Your un-bear-lievably fuzzy friend is coming to save you!"

He was about to take a running leap into the TV when he caught a glimpse of his cart, sitting idly at the front of the electronics aisle. Teddie wasn't sure what it was, but something tugged at his heart when he looked at it. As much as he wanted to go in the TV and hang out with Marie again, he also thought about how much trouble he would be in if he left his shopping cart. Everyone at the store had been so nice to him even after he came in late or put things in the wrong place; it would be cruel of him to leave his job half-finished after they covered for him so many times! Plus, freight day was an extra busy day with customers as well, so it was important that Teddie be around to help the nice people at the store.

He tiptoed back over to the TV, his knees shaking a bit as the reality of what Marie may say back to him over his decision slowly circled the corridors of his mind.

"E-Emmy-chan?" He asked, waiting for a response. After about ten seconds, he continued anyways, "Uh, listen, I wanna see you real bad, but...erm, well I gotta do stuff...for the store! I can come in tomorrow when it won't be so busy but uh...yeah."

Another ten silent seconds passed, which made Teddie let out a huff of relief, glad that he was able to get through what he was trying to say without Marie being too mad. He was about to walk away when suddenly the TV seemed to collapse in itself as a red and black striped arm emerged from the screen and grabbed Teddie's collar, catapulting him toward the screen at lightning speed.

"Waaaaaaaah!" Teddie cried, being pulled so close to the TV that his head was in danger of going through it. Luckily, the incredibly strong force of the arm seemed to stop just as he was about to plunge in.

" You better not be lying, bear, or you'll be dealing with a summer blizzard right on top of your head! Stupidballoffurwithnobrain!"

With that, the vice grip on Teddie's shirt ceased, and he fell panting to the floor, watching as the arm of a very angry young Goddess slowly retracted into the TV. He wiped a bead of sweat off his head as he sat up, still staring at the TV, which was now blank again. He talked to himself while he slowly got up.

"Boy, beautiful girls sure are scary! Where's Sensei when you need him? He seems to get them…"

Just as quickly as he had been fearful for his life as Marie grabbed him, Teddie was back to his usual cheerful self, singing quietly as he walked back to his cart and began to move some computer equipment into its proper spot. After all, it wasn't often that someone had a cool job and a hot date with a pretty Goddess; what choice did he have but to be happy? Despite his joy, the thought of what Marie wanted sat in the back of his mind as he picked up his normal pace, hoping that the rest of the day would fly by so he could hurry up and get on with tomorrow.


Friday 7/28/12, Afternoon, Hanamura Residence…

"Mom, I'm home!"

Yosuke spewed some exhaust out his mouth as he tugged on the straps of his white Junes work apron, revealing a white t-shirt with red trim underneath. He hung it up on a hook near the home's sliding door and schlepped his way toward the kitchen where his mother sat at the table, a book in her hand. The sound of the mid-day news could be heard quietly coming from the living room.

Kaori Hanamura was, unlike her son, relaxed and poised despite her day of chores. Since she had had Yosuke, Kaori had been content with being a housewife, doing the best job she could at raising her son and supporting her husband as he worked his way up the corporate ladder at Junes. She had been quite supportive of the family's move to Inaba, and frequently voiced her pleasure at going for pleasant walks around town without having to worry about the bustling traffic and heavy pollution. In her long sleeved red shirt and white slacks, she showed a sophistication that would have given her away as a city girl, but she had come to embrace the country lifestyle far before her son did.

She smiled as Yosuke walked in, tucking a strand of her neck length, jet black hair behind her ear.

"Welcome home, son! How was work today?" she asked, her full attention on Yosuke as he shuffled toward the refrigerator. The 3rd year mustered a brief shrug before he opened the fridge door, on the hunt for food.

"Well, y'know, Mom, same 'ol same 'ol. Dad said he'd be a little late but should be home for dinner. Did you-" he stopped, following his mother's bemused stare toward the kitchen microwave. With a small smirk, he stepped around the dinner table and opened it to see there was a paper bag containing shrimp and rice sealed in a plastic container from the nearby Aiya Chinese restaurant.

"You're welcome, by the way; that was supposed to be for Teddie-chan!" Kaori chortled as she looked back to her book, "Where is that little rascal anyways? He promised to help me clean the living room if I got him lunch!" Yosuke sighed, a bit annoyed at how much affection was in her voice. His mother loved Teddie beyond all reason, mostly because he was cute and needed mothering; he hadn't learned yet that his naiveté was easy to exploit for manual labor.

"Somethin' about 'improving his chances' for an 'epic score.' I think he's up to no good," Yosuke huffed, reaching for some plastic chopsticks out of the drawers near the front counter. After his shift had ended, Yosuke went looking for Teddie to find him near the Tatsuhime Shrine, looking through all the various charms. He wouldn't exactly say what he was doing, and Yosuke was admittedly nervous, but decided to let him be. A few months earlier, Yosuke would have immediately done everything in his power to drag the amorous bear home lest disaster ensue, but he had begun to relax his attitude lately. Teddie, for all his misgivings, had been adapting quite well to a routine life, something Yosuke was happy to see, even though he would never let Teddie know that.

He heard his mom sigh, and as he turned back with chopsticks in hand he could see her roll her eyes. "That boy," she chuckled, a mischievous smile on her lips, "He's such a hot mess! You keep an eye out on him, okay?" She demanded, a gold bracelet jangling on her wrist as she pointed a finger at her son.

It was Yosuke's turn to roll his eyes. "What am I, his babysitter?" he sneered, popping open the container and gathering up some of the still-warm food. "Ted'll be fine, he's probably just copying something he saw on TV."

"If you say so," Mrs. Hanamura replied flippantly, "I suppose now that you're home, I could use that extra hand in cleaning up…"

Yosuke groaned again. "Mom, can't I at least -"

" After you eat and take a few minutes to rest your feet," Mrs. Hanamura interrupted with a cheeky smile, "That mess isn't going anywhere."

Yosuke grinned and flashed her a thumbs up before heading over to the wooden stairs near the front door. He appreciated that his mom doted on him like that, and now that he was in his third year of high school, he realized that he should probably appreciate it while it lasted. Crossing the last step, he sauntered into his room, quickly shutting the door behind him.

Although he was eager to dig into the surely delicious meal his mom had left for him, there was something that had been on his mind all day, something that needed addressing. He quickly reached into the pocket of his khaki trousers, pulling out his cell phone and finding "Naoto Shirogane" in his contacts folder.

Yosuke had not heard hide nor hair from the detective ever since they had a bit of a row at the Junes food court on Monday; Yosuke wasn't one to be shy about when he felt slighted, and something in him had snapped when Naoto had denied that anything was up with her. As the week had gone on, however, he kept thinking back to that moment, and wondered if maybe he had been wrong in his anger. After all, he had complained to Rise that he didn't want to get involved because he didn't care, yet here he was days later still thinking about the thing.

His feelings on the matter were... complex , to say the least. On the one hand, his empathy remained with Kanji who was, even if Yosuke teased him a lot, his close friend. It upset him, more than he expected, to see Naoto try to be so nonchalant about it when he knew Kanji was taking it really poorly. It wasn't even just that - Naoto had always kind of pissed him off. Sure, she had gotten better recently when it came to actually talking with everyone and hanging out, but why did it always seem like she'd rather be doing something else? Yosuke's inability to find a solid answer as to why she was the way she was drove him up a wall.

However, there was a side of Yosuke, deep down, that felt sorry for the Detective Prince. As far as he understood, Naoto had never really had friendsif she couldn't even manage that, how could her behavior regarding a relationship possibly be expected to be even remotely normal? Plus, he had said some pretty harsh things to her; as usual, the impact of what came out of his mouth had only occurred to his brain later, and he had been feeling pretty guilty ever since. As annoyed as he could get with her, she wasn't a bad person, and had saved his butt in the TV World more times than he could count. So what if she had some baggage, who among them didn't?

In times like these, Yosuke typically turned to a single phrase that could help steer him down the right path: what would Yu do? Yosuke's partner-in-crime was a stand-up dude, someone who always did what was right and was a master of forging relationships to boot. He would probably have never had cross words with Naoto to begin with, let alone need to consider ways in which he could repent for his actions.

But, as he was beginning to realize, he wasn't Yu, no matter how much he'd like to be. He was fast on his feet but he wasn't a great speaker, which was always Yu's best quality. Besides, he didn't even have a gameplan for what to say. It was just so weird right now, and maybe, if he was lucky, the whole thing would blow over in time and Naoto could forgive him. He swiped away from her contact page and turned to focus on his food. He had just finished stirring his rice when he heard his phone making a familiar noise.

Boooooooopppp

He craned his neck to look at his phone and gasped: he had accidentally called Naoto! And it was already dialing! Panicking, Yosuke dropped the chopsticks in the container and snatched the phone up, hastily trying to disconnect the call. In his rush, his thumb kept slipping and missing the red hang-up button, and it was only a few seconds before he heard a deep voice emerge from the tiny speaker.

"Yosuke-senpai? Hello?"

Terse pronunciation with a severe, low tone of voice; this was definitely Naoto. Yosuke silently cursed, bemoaning his terrible luck. The one time he didn't pay enough attention and now he was stuck in an impossibly awkward situation.

"Y-yeah, yeah, this is me...I-I mean, he? No, me!" God, it was getting worse every second! Yosuke could feel the blood rush into his face as his brain went into overdrive trying to find a way out of this situation.

" Mm, yes," she responded drolly. As usual, Yosuke immediately felt dumber the second she began talking. "I apologize if this comes across as caustic, but is there a reason for your call? Hopefully not an emergency?"

And she was already using big words that Yosuke didn't understand, too. Shit , he thought. His instincts told him you should never tell a girl you accidentally called her, but he was running short of options.

"Uh...well, y'see," he started, trying to find his footing. Before he could finish, Naoto interrupted him.

" I would appreciate your honesty, senpai. "

Something about the way she said it almost sounded like...a callout. Did she think he usually lied, or something? Yosuke quickly moved from being flustered from being defensive.

"Hey, what's that s'posed to mean?! Look, I was just calling because I...well…"

He could almost hear her roll her eyes. "If you cannot explain why you did something, there's good reason to believe there is no real motivating factor to your actions." She paused briefly before resuming, sounding more tired than confrontational. "Look, if you accidentally called, please just say so. Let's not waste both your time and mine"

Yosuke recoiled, gobsmacked by her stunningly accurate analysis. It was so impressive that his initial angry response was all but forgotten. "Um...y-yeah, that's...yeah, I accidentally hit call instead of text, haha," he laughed more out of dread than anything.

He heard Naoto give out a very uncharacteristically sorrowful sigh , " I...I see."

Yosuke stirred in his seat, unsure what was coming over him. Naoto didn't tend to, at least when talking to him, show much emotion. Even on Monday, she had gotten angry, but it still barely registered as much beyond her usual state of being. Her voice, that confident and deep voice, never wavered, and if it ever did, like just now, then you could bet that something was wrong.

He quickly maneuvered his foot and nudged his door closed, hoping that his mom wouldn't barge in an this inopportune time. He couldn't hear much on the other side of the call and worried that she might have hung up.

"'Ey, Naoto, you still there? " He asked hopefully.

There was a long silence before he heard a response.

"I am."

Yosuke took a deep breath. He still wasn't entirely sure how he felt about what was going on, but he knew that if he was ever going to help make it right, he needed to do the right thing. The thing Yu would have done.

"L-listen, forget about how I called, I just wanted to say…" Yosuke bit his tongue, searching for the right thing to say, "I just wanted to say that...a-about Monday...I...I shouldn't have said that stuff."

A beat passed, with neither saying anything more. Yosuke decided to keep going, even after he heard Naoto start to speak again.

" Senpai, I-"

"I-I didn't mean to say you were smug, that was dumb. This whole... thing is just...it's really weird and I didn't wanna get involved because…"

Confessing his feelings was harder than he thought. It had been easy to open up to Yu, he figured, so why couldn't he do it here? What was stopping him? He took yet another deep breath and soldiered on.

"I think that because of...well, stuff, that I don't, er, I mean, I wanted to help you get through it, but you didn't seem to want my help, so I got kinda pissed. I'm probably not makin' a whole lotta sense but just trust me, I didn't mean all that crap I said on Monday. Sorry," he finished, feeling like he had worked two full shifts back to back. That was way harder to say over the phone than it was in his head. And to think this all came about because of an accidental phone call!

It was weird talking to her about this kind of thing, too; in some ways, Naoto was still kind of a stranger, someone he wasn't used to talking about personal matters with much. It made him uncomfortable, but he wasn't sure whether it was a good or bad thing that it did.

After an agonizingly long minute, he heard her sigh. For some reason, he began to picture what she may have looked like on the other side of the phone. She was probably still dressed to the nines, maybe holding the bridge of her nose in frustration like she usually did, the pale skin on her cheeks tinged with a little blush from the surprise of his call. As she began to speak again, that strangely conjured image of her went away as his focus went to what she was saying.

" Thank you, Senpai," she started shakily, " I...I really didn't expect this. It takes a certain kind of…character to admit when you are wrong, and I must admit that I'm quite impressed that you are willing to. But even so, I can't let you take on all of the blame in this instance. I wasn't…" There was a sharp pause before she continued, "I mistakenly took your offer of help to be disingenuous, and for that, I am truly sorry. I can only hope that you don't...you don't think ill of me for doing so.

Again, Yosuke sat up in his seat. Unlike before, where there was just a hint of feeling in her words, Naoto just sounded... sad . Like she had a long time ago, when she was just an antagonistic force against Yosuke and the others trying to investigate the murders. Hearing how clearly broken up she was about the whole thing was making him feel worse and worse by the second.

" Erm Yosuke-senpai? Are you still there?"

Yosuke snapped back to reality. "S-sorry, just thinkin'! It's, uh, it's all good! I'm not as mad anymore about it," he stuttered, almost choking on what he wanted to say next. "I...I was serious, though, about, like, talking when Rise wasn't around..."

" I beg your pardon?"

Yosuke winced, guessing that he wasn't going to get away with half measures and noncommittal platitudes this time. He scratched his cheek and tried to speak again, working his way through the complex thoughts circling through his head. How hard could it be to not sound like an idiot for just one sentence?

"S-sorry, what I mean is that I know Rise is kinda busy right now, and that you're more comfortable talking with her," he said, feeling oddly vulnerable, "but I wanna help, too! And not just because Rise asked me too, but...because I know how much this kinda thing sucks. Trust me, I…," he stopped suddenly, realizing that he didn't really have it in him to talk about Saki Konishi right now. He was so not prepared for this after a long day of work, and he could feel his leg nervously shaking uncontrollably.

Yosuke could forgive Naoto for not saying anything for awhile, as he could barely make sense of what he had just said himself. He was having an even more difficult time rationalizing why he was being so forthright to the one person in his circle that he would argue was not a close friend. It was frustrating and confusing for Yosuke, who was usually the one holding cards close to his chest.

" Clearly I still have some growing up to do," Yosuke heard Naoto say with a bemused huff, " Rise lectures me about this all the time, and yet, I still can't grasp it. I don't mean to push you and the others away, senpai, but I guess old habits truly do die hard. I will...I will think a lot about what you have said today."

Yosuke wasn't sure what to be more excited about: the fact that, for once Naoto admitted she didn't have all the answers, or the seemingly genuine admission that he appeared to have made some sort of impact on her. He felt a wisecrack tickle the back of his throat, eager to bring some much needed levity to the call. "Heh, looks like even a super-genius Detective Prince doesn't have all the answers sometimes!"

He heard Naoto gently chuckle, which brought an unusual, warm smile to his face. " Hoho, indeed. If I did, there's a chance I wouldn't be in this mess in the first place," Naoto said wistfully, before her softer tone disappeared again. " Yosuke-senpai, may I ask you something?"

"Hmm? What's up?" Yosuke asked, his mild jubilation disrupted by her more serious voice.

" You've mentioned twice now since Monday that you understood what it meant to not have your feelings returned by someone else. Given my...circumstances, I'd be very curious to know how you handled that. If it's not asking too much, do you mind answering some questions?"

Yosuke grimaced, forgetting that with Naoto having joined the group so late, she never knew Saki beyond being the victim of a horrible crime, or of the friendship she and Yosuke had shared prior to her death. Naoto was asking a lot, and even the thought of Saki brought painful memories to the surface, memories that, with the help of Yu, Yosuke thought he had sealed away for good. He supposed Naoto was right about old habits.

"Um, yeah, about that," he stalled, trying to find a way to weasel out of saying anything, "it's a real long story, and you said we shouldn't waste time, so..."

" No, I understand. I should have deduced the complexity of what I was asking," she said hastily. Yosuke pumped his fist, glad that she didn't inquire further. While he had the chance, he figured he'd try to bring the call to a close before she asked him another tough question.

"Hey, I, uh, I think I hear my mom calling me. Talk to you later?" 'The Mom Trick' was a classic that Yosuke had used hundreds of times without fail, and it looked like the winning streak would continue.

" Alright, I've stolen enough of your time anyways." He could hear her clear her throat, as if she wasn't done. "Yosuke-senpai?"

"Hmm?"

"I'm...I'm glad I was able to speak with you today, even if it was unintentional. Monday was regrettable, but I'm pleased we were able to settle our differences like adults. We ought to do this again sometime soon...I quite enjoyed our little chat."

A weird shiver went through Yosuke's body as she said that. "Y-yeah, no problem. A-and may-maybe we should...I liked, er, talking to you too," he stammered quickly, hoping Naoto didn't catch it.

"Of course. Goodbye, Yosuke-senpai."

"Y-yeah, seeya…"

Yosuke set his phone down, staring into space for a bit. They " ought" to? She was glad to talk to him?! "That girl can be a real goofball," he laughed to himself, mostly at his dumb luck. In just a few short minutes, he had gone from washing his hands of the ordeal to making amends, and even got compliments from Naoto, of all people.

Truthfully, that made him feel warmest of all. Losing Yu had meant losing his biggest supporter, and without his partner's seal of approval, Yosuke could feel a little lonely, at times. Being 2nd-in-command of a crack Investigation Team had earned him the respect of his friends, but he wondered if that respect carried over from the TV World to the real world. These thoughts were often apropos of nothing, but they deeply worried him all the same, and he was sure that Monday was just him playing into those fears in a bad way. Naoto's reassurance that she held no hard feelings, and that he had in fact been a positive impact on her day, was like music to his ears.

Maybe he had underestimated his little detective friend. Since he had been obsessing over Monday all week, Naoto had been at the forefront of his mind as well. While he disliked her arrogance, he had to admit that her ability to always stay reasonable and calm was pretty cool. He didn't know if it was Rise's influence, but he also noticed that her wardrobe had opened up significantly from the very serious look of collared shirts and ties and jackets to a more relaxed style. Her new-ish haircut was also pretty impressive, and although Yosuke was still more drawn to the luscious locks of Rise or Yukiko, Naoto made the boy cut work. Hell, if he didn't know any better, he'd wager that she was now just sort of...cute.

Yosuke jolted in his chair and shook his head, weirded out by what he was thinking. When did he start to notice all this stuff about Naoto? Typically, his usual cycle of daydream figures included Rise, nurses, maybe some other idol he may have seen at the magazine rack at Junes, but not the comparatively boyish and plain looking Detective Prince. Sure, she was cool and all, Yosuke thought, but her look, her style was just something he wasn't into...or was he?

He groaned in frustration as he tried to wipe the mental image of Naoto out of his head. Spying his chopsticks, he quickly scooped them up and lobbed a few pieces of shrimp into his mouth, unphased by the rubbery taste of the long cold seafood. He continued to stuff his face, hoping that finishing the food and helping his mom clean would take his mind off of the whole weird conversation. This was the first time he could remember actually wanting to help his mother do chores, but he supposed stranger things had happened.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday 7/29/12, Junes Electronics Department, Early Afternoon

"Alright! It's showtime, baby!"

Teddie grinned stupidly and began to hum a merry tune as he sauntered through the Junes Electronics department, happy as a clam. Along the way, he stopped in front of a blank television, peering into the black abyss so as to once again get a better look at his visage. As usual, he had donned his poet blouse and black slacks, which he considered his fanciest outfit (he only owned two). He adjusted the red flower he had attached to the front frills and smiled, revealing glowing teeth. Satisfied, he turned away from the television and kept on moving through the department, looking for the big screen TV.

As he had promised, he had returned to the store to venture into the TV World and meet with potential for their meeting excited him-Was she in trouble? Were there monsters back in the TV World? Was there more problems with Gods? As scary as all those sounded, Teddie couldn't help the giddy feeling in his stomach, something he hadn't felt since back when he and all of his friends were trying to rescue people.

Recently, more than ever, Teddie felt like he had faltered in his responsibility to protect the TV World. He liked working at Junes and having fun hanging out with his friends, but the thrill and excitement of being in the TV World and sniffing out no-goodniks was something he missed a lot. Maybe what Marie had to say was about something that needed to be beat up, something Teddie and his friends could all did together again! He giggled in glee as he rounded the final corner to his destination spot.

He now stood proudly in front of the giant television which he and his friends used to venture into the other world that existed just beyond its screen. He felt a rush of adrenaline course through his arms; if he was in his bear suit, the soft fur would most likely be standing completely on end. He took a few glances around, noticing it was still early enough for the department to be a little empty.

He cleared his throat and declared his intentions, if only to further hype himself up. "Allllright, Emmy-chan! I'm coming to rescue youuuu!"

With that, he marched proudly to the television, sticking his arm out as he reached the screen. Like quicksand, the blank screen began to swallow up his arm, all the way up to his bicep. Taking a deep breath, Teddie next put his head in, followed by his right foot. One last push off with his left foot, and Teddie was now spiraling through an empty space, feeling like he was traveling at the speed of light through a very small tube. It had been so long that he felt his stomach churn a little, but he took slow breaths as his body continued to fall deeper and deeper into the television...


Saturday  7/29/12, TV World, Early Afternoon

When Teddie opened his eyes again some fifteen seconds later, he smiled at the sight that greeted him. He was in the middle of a beautiful meadow full of rich grass and flowers that flourished under a sun that was even brighter than in the real world. Up ahead, brooks babbled incessantly and he could just make out the edge of a forest beyond a stream of crystal clear water just a few miles away. He took a big sniff, his sensitive nose overwhelmed by the cacophony of brilliant smells that assaulted it. Despite all the new and wonderful things he was able to suss out with his nose, there didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary. He felt his heart swell, and he could barely contain the emotion in his voice as he let out a loud whoop of joy.

When Teddie had first met Yu and the others, the TV World had become a terrifying place, corrupted by the haze of humanity's insecurities and fears and full of vicious, dangerous shadows who lurked around every corner. The fog only cleared up on certain days, but even then, Teddie languished in a dark and misty world that was cruel and uncaring to someone as cuddly as him. After Yu had vanquished Izanami, the omnipotent being that had been toying with humanity, the TV World ceased to be a rotten place. Instead, the world was restored to its original state, a peaceful paradise that had been gone so long that Teddie had forgotten it. The shadows, free from their unbridled rage, now resembled the mascot-like Teddie, and were nowhere near harmful. Teddie had appointed himself guardian of the TV World, but as far he was concerned, there was no need; harmony was the name of the game. Until now, perhaps?

He was so caught up in the sights and sounds that he missed a figure slowly stalking him from the shadow of a nearby tree. When he finally turned around, he ran smack dab into the person, tumbling over along with his mysterious companion.

"Yeow-za! Don't sneak up on a bear, we're more ferocious when scared! Grrrrowwll!" he blustered, rubbing his head as he got back to a vertical basis. He looked down to see what appeared to be a human girl in a similar state of distress. Recognizing her immediately, he quickly got to his knees and put his hands on the girl's back, trying to help her back up.

"E-Emmy-chan! What have I done!?" he shrieked, "I just can't control my own strength sometimes, I swear!"

Marie had not changed much since he last saw her: white sleeveless shirt and a short skirt that was accented by black and white high socks and red gloves that went all the way up past her elbow. Big combat boots made her appear a bit taller than she actually was, and she continued to accessorize herself with a floppy blue hat, a similarly colored handbag and a black tie that had some safety pins in it for good measure. The only thing that had noticeably changed was her eyes: they had been a normal shade of green before, but embracing her goddess side had turned them into a glowing jade color, similar in brightness to Teddie's own blue eyes.

Unfortunately, her attitude didn't appear to change much. "Y-you idiot, why don't you watch where you're going next time!" she whined, shoving Teddie off and hastily getting to her feet. She brushed off the grass collecting on her socks as Teddie excitedly rolled over onto his stomach.

"Oh, I'll always watch out for you, Emmy-chan!" he gushed, stars in his eyes as he gazed at the prickly Goddess, "You'll never have to fear anything now that Teddie's here!"

Marie gave him a once over, still looking rather disgusted. "What are you babbling about!? Dammit, I knew this was a bad idea…"

She let out a melodramatic huff and began walking back toward the tree that she had been standing under before, Teddie close on her heels as he scrambled back up to a vertical base.

"W-w-what'dya mean a bad idea!?" Teddie wailed, trying to stand tall and appear as if he was bigger than he was, "I'm the only bear for the job, just look at me! Show me the baddies, and I'll knock 'em down," he snorted, adopting a faux boxing stance not unlike one he had seen in one of Yosuke's cartoons and throwing a few air punches.

"You don't have to fight anything," Marie snipped,swatting away his hands harshly, "Just..stop for a sec and listen!"

Teddie couldn't say he was wasn't at least a little disappointed; he was always eager to prove to himself and his Sensei, Yu, that he was just as powerful a Persona user as the rest, and opportunities to prove that came so few and far between. Nevertheless, he calmed down with a groan as Marie began to speak again.

"Look, I do need help with something , but not fighting. I could handle some stupid monsters, duh! Who'dyou think you're talking to!?" she hissed, crossing her arms in her usual passive aggressive stance, "It's more... complicated than that…" She trailed off, seeming to run out of words to continue her tirade.

Well this was unexpected, Teddie thought. Marie wasn't one to mince words, yet here she was struggling to put together a sentence. "E-Emmy-chan?" he asked, "What is it? You can tell me!"

Marie's jade green eyes shifted back and forth before settling firmly on the ground as she pouted her lips. "Okay, fine, here goes...I…"

" Yeeesss? " Teddie squeaked, trying to keep a lid on his patience as Marie beat around the bush.

"I got...a-bic-ded? E-bick-tid?"

Teddie scratched his blonde hair, totally lost on what she was saying. "Uh," he grunted, wracking his brain trying to find the right answer, "A bit dead? A tick bite?"

Marie rolled her eyes in frustration, then suddenly snapped to attention. "E-vic-ted! That's it! I got e-vic-ted!"

"Oh, I see!...Is that bad?" Teddie asked, completely oblivious still to the word she was using. He had done his best, but he was never book smart, particularly when it came to language. Humans just talked so stiff and serious and weird all the time! His question didn't appear to settle the powder keg of a Goddess across from him.

"Y-you moron!" Marie snapped, making Teddie wince, "It means I got kicked out of the Velvet Room, okay!? I...I can't stay there anymore," she finished sadly. Teddie's eyes widened, the words triggering a memory of the previous Winter.

It had all happened rather suddenly, but Teddie remembered that after they solved the Inaba murder case, Marie had disappeared without a trace. On a trip up North, the Investigation Team was pulled into a subset of the TV World called the Hollow Forest by a beautiful woman named Margaret, who Yu referred to as a woman from someplace called the Velvet Room. Margaret had implied that she and Marie were not humans, but Teddie had never known exactly where they came from. He didn't know what the Velvet Room was, but he wondered if that was another part of the TV World, like the Hollow Forest had been before.

"Oh, no! So does that mean...you can't go home?" Teddie asked, working out her situation in his head. Marie nodded quickly, a bitter look on her face.

"The Nose said something about my 'journey' being incomplete and some crap about finding the 'true me' in the real world. I dunno. All I know is I can't go back, so now I got nowhere else to go," Marie revealed, kicking up a tuft of grass with her boot.

Stuck? "Wait, but...you can stay with me!" Teddie grinned, turning around to point at the largely out of place exit television still sitting in the meadow behind them,, "Well, Yosuke and me, but still! It's just Yosuke's mom over there, we need more ladies to balance it out!" He didn't think it would be a big deal to have Marie stay over; after all, who could deny the sparkling beauty in front of him?

Marie sighed heavily, looking very cross. " God , you're so stupid! It's not that simple, Teddie," she hiss, stomping away from him and planting herself on a nearby boulder, "I can't just go back to the regular world, not without….I mean, he's..."

Everything got real quiet, the only sound coming from the rushing water of a nearby stream. Teddie stepped a little closer to Marie, more cautious than before. "Y-you mean Sensei, right?" He wasn't totally sure what was up with those two, but Teddie had noticed that Marie only really stuck around if Yu was with them. Oooh, Sensei , he thought, what a lucky guy! Girls just seemed to want to hang out around him, and he did it while barely even trying!

As Teddie fawned over his Sensei's studly powers, Marie continued. "Yu did so much to show me what's out there in the human world, but I still don't get everything!. I know you need money to buy food and stuff, and I know to live somewhere you gotta have money too. That's stupid, and I don't even know how to do any of that stuff!" She shuffled over on the boulder, towards Teddie's direction. "...I...I need your help," she finally admitted, her emerald eyes focusing intensely on the beautiful boy in front of her.

It took a minute, but Teddie finally began to understand. "Oh... ohhhhh! Oh-ho-ho! You mean…" he did his best to keep his voice at a reasonable volume, "You want me to show you how to live in the human world?!"

Marie shrugged, looking like she almost regretted what she had said. "Y...y-yeah, I guess. Look, the only reason I need your help at all is because you're...also not from there," she stuttered, gesturing around to the TV World, "but you seem like you're okay. And if you can do it, then, well, it can't possibly be that hard, right?" she asked mostly to herself, looking longingly at the exit TV.

The bear's heart thundered in his chest. Woah ! This was more than he expected, yet at the same time, so much cooler! Him, escorting Emmy-chan around the human world? It was too good to be true! This must be my calling , he thought.

"B-be still my furry, beating heart!" Teddie growled, feelings his cheeks go red with pride, "I proudly accept your quest, lady Emmy-chan! On my life as a bear," he said goofily, getting to one knee, "You have my claws."

He only heard a disdain teeth sucking in response. "Ugh, weirdo . Whatever, I don't care, just get me outta here, please! I don't wanna be here any more!"

That was the one thing confusing him a little. "W-wait, Emmy-chan! I...I would love to help and I could never say no to such a wonderful girl! But…," he took a moment to look longingly over the oasis that lay stretched out ahead of the two, a rainbow now laying lazily across the sun, " Look at this place! It's always sunny and everything's so nice and peaceful. This is like...what's that Nana-chan called it? Oh, yeah! Heaven ." He looked back at Marie, a rare serious glint in his baby blue eyes. "Do you really wanna leave here for good?" he asked sincerely, closely watching for Marie's response. The reluctant poet took a deep breath, appearing to weigh her answer carefully.

"You're right," she conceded, "It's great here. It's quiet, and no one bugs me or anything, it's just…"

"Just..."

"Just...so boring! "

"W-w-wait, what!? " Teddie shrieked, stumbling back a bit in surprise. What on earth did she mean?

Marie's glare hardened and her grip on her own arms tightened as her dander began to rise, "I mean everyone's so nice and polite, it's terrible! There's, like, nothing to eat, and no one has anything like chocolate! And the weather never changes either; how am I supposed to relax if it never rains? Ugh, stupidsunshineandparadise!" As she finished, Marie stuck her tongue and blew a loud raspberry to put an exclamation point on her frustration.

This was baffling for Teddie, to say the least. A paradise where you could do nothing but sing and frolic and look at beautiful sights sounded amazing!

"Y-you mean the TV World isn't any fun?" Teddie asked sadly, nervously rubbing his hands together. He had hoped that after he and his friends had gotten rid of the influence of the fog, the tortured and angry shadows that had been living in the TV World would finally get to have some fun that had eluded them for who knows how long. It must have been obvious how much this disturbed him, because Marie bit her lip, looking like she regretted what she had said.

"I-I didn't mean it like that," she stuttered, a small blush crawling through her cheeks, "I just meant that...I prefer the human world. It's not perfect, but perfection is overrated anyways! Just...trust me on that one..."

Teddie could get behind her argument on perfection. Sure, there were times where it would get too hot for his bear suit, or someone was really mean to him for no reason, but the human world had so many wonderful things: girls in skimpy summer outfits, frozen treats, fireworks, festivals, and of course, friends. The TV World was his home, and he would always defend it, but like Marie, he knew where his heart truly belonged.

"Well, when you say it that way, I think I get it!" he said joyfully. He got up off his knee, dusting the grass off his pant leg. "Sorry, TV World, but until you get frozen bananas, you'll always be second banana to the other side!" He said loudly to the still air, grinning cheekily to himself.

While he was busy entertaining himself, he hadn't noticed Marie slowly get off the rock and walk beside him. She sighed, getting his attention, and tugged off her cap, wringing it nervously in her hands., "I-I know that... Yu went away or whatever, and I…" she broke off for a second, a rare twinge of emotion passing over her face, "If he never comes back, I dunno what I'll do. But I don't have any other choice here, and if he trusted you, then I guess it's okay for me to trust you too...for at least a little while. Until you totally screw it up." She spat, putting her cap back on aggressively.

Teddie beamed, feeling a pride that he hadn't felt since the first time his Sensei and the others first came to the TV World. Back then, he was like a navigator, a beacon for the humans who had found themselves in strange and scary world. His uncontested nose and ability to see through the fog meant that he was just as important as any other member of the team. Now, it felt like the same thing was being asked upon him again, only instead of an all powerful Sensei, he would escorting a pretty Goddess with a killer fashion sense. If he wasn't already sure he was in heaven, he would have declared he had died and been on his way.

"Well, have no fear, Emmy-chan," Teddie grinned, getting the confidence he had earlier back, "I may not know everything about the human world, but I know how to make money and get sweets! What more could you ask for?"

Smirking, he marched through the meadow in front of them and back to the TV, offering his hand for Marie to take. Marie blushed and looked away.

"H-hold on, dumb bear! I just...I need a minute or two," she groaned, crossing her arms again and looking back over the meadows and fields that were sprawled out in front of the two of them. Teddie mimicked her, once again taking in the breathtaking beauty of the fog-less TV World.

He nervously stole a glance at Marie, who had a sad look on her face. Finding some courage, he did his best to say something comforting. "I know that it might be scary to leave this place," he started, feeling emotional as he surveyed his former home, "I was scared too, but I wanted to be with my friends, and that let me be not so scared. You're my friend, Emmy-chan, and I'll do my best to make sure you don't feel scared anymore!" He gave himself a mental high-five, proud of giving a speech that would rival that of his mighty Sensei.

Unfortunately, Marie quickly burst his bubble, turning back to Teddie with a red face and a scary look in her eye. "I-I'm not scared! Don't you have any culture!?" she shrieked, waving her arms, "If you're leaving someplace beautiful, you have to take in the sight! That's been the rule since, like, ever! Urgh, what am I even doing ..." She rubbed her face with her hands, as if to wipe off the blush on her face.

Teddie recoiled a bit, but he was more than used to being yelled at, and he also knew that they usually weren't mad like they were saying. "There's nothing to be ashamed of, Emmy-chan! I can give you a beary nice hug if you're nervous…" He cooed, slyly stretching his arms out. Marie no-sold his hug attempt and instead grabbed his ear and began to tug, dragging him toward the television as he howled in pain.

" Owwwie ow ow ! This isn't how it's supposed to work! It's not good to be so mean to this poor old me!" He wailed, surprised at the iron-like grip of the goddess as she got in front of the TV and finally let him go, leaving him panting on his hands and knees.

"Ladies first!" She sneered, using her boot to kick his behind and send him flying into the portal back home. A familiar, dizzying experience took over, forcing Teddie to cry out as he once again traveled between the worlds and back into the Junes marketplace.


Saturday  7/29/12, Junes Electronics Department, Early Afternoon

Soon enough, Teddie landed face-first with a thud on the tile of the Junes electronics department. Wincing, he took a deep breath, although he almost immediately regretted it; while he loved the human world, he could not deny that its smell could not compare to the paradise on the other side of the screen, and the juxtaposition was jarring. As he recovered, Marie landed a little more gracefully next to him.

"Y-you guys just land in front of everybody like this?! What if someone sees? People'll say something!" she questioned urgently, looking around nervously at the shoppers on the other side of the section as she crossed her arms. Teddie laughed, despite his pain, enjoying the feeling of being the one with all the advice again. He sat up, his eyes closed arrogantly

"Oh Emmy-chan: so beautiful, yet so innocent! We only get in the TV when nobody's watching," Teddie explained, wagging his finger in a "I-told-ya-so" gesture, "so that way, when we come back, no one really ever knows we went in! Plus, the day goes by wayyyy slower there! It's like we never left!"

When he first arrived, time in the human world moved far too fast for Teddie. He was restless, always keeping Yosuke awake because he fell asleep and woke up at odd hours trying to find the rhythm. After almost a year he had gotten used to it, but it was still a shock sometimes that he could spend a long amount of time in the TV world and come back to see only minutes had passed.

"U-uh, bear, th-that's a-" he heard Marie stutter. He decided to finish her sentence.

"A perfect plan? Why thank you, I think you're ri-"

Teddie stopped dead when he opened his eyes and saw what Marie was actually reacting to: a small child staring wide-eyed at the two of them. It was a little boy, his fingers locked longingly around a video game of some sort. His dark gaze was unflinching as he swapped his focus between Teddie and Marie, and then to the television that the two otherworldly figures had come from. With a start, he dropped the plastic box, which clattered along the store's tile.

"Wuh-what do we do?!" Marie yelped, almost squeaking in embarrassment. Teddie, ever confident, flashed a thousand watt smile. He had this.

"Don't go bear-zerk, Teddie's got a plan!" he winked as he got up and strode over to the boy, hands proudly on his hips.

"Well hellooooo there, lil' guy! Would you like to learn the secret to having bright and shiny fur, just like moi? " he asked, his large eyes almost sparkling in the fluorescent lighting of the electronics department. Within seconds, the boy uttered a little shriek before turning tail and running hard toward the other side of the store.

"D-d-d-duh- daddy! These weird people just came outta the TV~~!"

Teddie mirrored the panicked yelp of the boy, suddenly feeling very unsure what to do. He looked frantically to Marie, who had her hands over her face and was turning tomato red at an explosive rate. He decided to resort to the one thing that had always saved him in the old TV World when the shadows got restless.

"Mayday! Abandon ship! Gangway! Run for it~~~~! "

As he was shrieking he began to run as fast as his legs could carry him through the store, instinctively heading for the exit. He didn't stop to look back, but he was pretty sure he could hear Marie's combat boots clonking heavily along the tile floor behind him. Satisfied, he picked up his pace as shoppers and some of his fellow employees gave confused looks to the very pretty, very disheveled boy and intensely fashionable yet unapproachable girl tearing full speed through the store like out of control rockets.


Saturday 7/29/12, Shiroku Store, Late Afternoon

Kanji yawned loudly, trying to shake the stiffness settling into his legs. The line at the Shiroku drugstore was taking what felt like hours to dwindle down; Kanji had only been in there to get some animal crackers, but he had unfortunately stumbled right into the heart of a brutal storm of tourists.

Summer was one of the few times in the year that the normally rustic town actually looked alive, thanks to the hustle and bustle of activities and out-of-towners, although this year was actually more excessive than usual. The appeal of the murder case of the previous year, along with many of the salacious scandals that had followed, had bought the town some infamy, meaning more visitors than ever were coming to spend some time in the country.

He felt for Yukiko, whom he imagined was absolutely swamped at her family's inn, which doubled as both one of the only nearby hotels and the town's main attraction. It would probably be extremely busy for a little while, and since Yukiko was trying to be more active in taking over the hotel that probably meant she was working overtime. In his wallet, the gift certificate she had slipped him sat next to some crumpled Yen notes; he had taken her offer into consideration, but he had yet to totally come to terms with what was going on between them.

Kanji couldn't help but feel weird about he and Yukiko's little interaction a couple days earlier. It felt bad to say, but he wondered what game she was playing at, exactly. In many ways, he was still getting past his years-long impression of Yukiko as a somewhat stuck-up and quiet family acquaintance, so he naturally had a hard time accepting such an earnest act of friendship, even though it had affected him more than he had let on to her. Plus, she was a girl, and he hadn't had the best of luck with them lately; the last thing he wanted to do was assume stuff that weren't actually real again. He sighed and rubbed his head; if he thought too much about those things, it tended to hurt his head.

The line moved a little, so he stepped up along with the natural progression. As he did, he could see his reflection in the glass of the refrigerators lined up along the wall, filled with various goods and drinks. He had finally decided that his hair was growing back in okay enough to go out without a hoodie or bandana, so his short black hair stood out in the mirror. Other than that he wore a fairly inconspicuous black tank top and jeans; he was impressed about how much taking out his piercings and changing his hair color could do to make him look a lot less like a schoolyard thug. He felt a small smile come up onto his mouth, the first genuine one in what felt like a long time.

The box of animal crackers crunched in Kanji's hands as he began to get a little antsy. He had been in the store for almost twenty minutes now, and while he was close to the front of the line, the last few customers in front of him were taking forever to finish up. What was so hard about paying for snacks and cough syrup? Finally there seemed to be some movement near the front, and a small family stepped through the store's front doors and into the warm Inaba street. Kanji was up next behind a disheveled salaryman, a feeling of relief flooding over the big second year; he was going to enjoy this box of animal crackers as if they were a gift from the Gods themselves.

As he settled in on a nice daydream of munching on delicious cookies for the rest of the afternoon, his eyes sort of wandered lazily to the left, to the side of the checkout counter. He saw someone had moved there, presumably waiting on a specialty item from behind the counter. Nothing about the person stuck out, until they turned slightly to the right, revealing more of themselves toward Kanji. All of a sudden his breath caught in his throat, and it took all of his power not to start coughing as it did. His pleasant fantasy vanished, reality now becoming something much closer to a nightmare. He was very happy that he was holding the box of crackers, because he wasn't sure what he'd do with his hands otherwise.

For standing at the counter, seemingly unaware of him, was Naoto.

He hadn't seen her out of a uniform or the usual fancy attire, so he was thrown briefly by her surprisingly casual clothing; a long sleeve, navy polo that matched her hair, complimented by a nice pair of dark blue jeans. Kanji also noticed she wasn't wearing her policeman's cap, which may have thrown him initially; compared to her frumpy school uniform she looked like a completely different person. Kanji felt himself staring, a lot of feelings suddenly stirred into a frenzy. He had only to remember the events of the past week, however, in order for the joy of seeing her to turn to a hideous and paralyzing anxiety.

There was brief, terrifying moment where she turned her head in Kanji's direction, and the would-be tailor was almost sure that she had caught his eyes. Unfortunately, she had her usual poker face on, and as she turned away, Kanji couldn't determine whether or not he had been spotted. He blushed as he considered just dropping the crackers and making a quick getaway; sure, it might have been yellow and cowardly, but what choice did he have? The salaryman in front of him was finishing up, and in just a few seconds he would be right next to her, with no way out.

Did he dare talk to her? No, no , that was far too terrifying, but also ridiculous. She had been all he could think about for the past week, night and day, and he was going to give up this chance to finally say something? He had yet to see her since that fateful day on the rooftop, and one of the dominant thoughts in his head was what he would ever say to her if he did, but the answer was never simple.

Yeah, he was hurt, and he had definitely tortured himself over what he could have done to make her not want to pursue a relationship, but there was more to it than that. Her incredible friendship over the year, plus the emotion she had shown after turning him down, had lead him to believe that perhaps she, too, was confused about what her true emotions were. In the face of that sliver of evidence, Kanji couldn't just ignore what he felt, and he had absolved to find the courage to speak to her in the near future. Maybe, if he played his cards right, he still had a chance. This, however, may have been too soon.

As a jumble of thousands of courses of action coursed through his mind, there was another that began to worm its way in: what would his senpai do? After all, Yu was utterly fearless, someone who always did what was on his mind, even if he was scared. If he was in a situation that was awkward, would he be afraid to face that with his head up and eyes clear? It made sense to Kanji, and he slowly began to imagine his other friends' thoughts on the situation: Chie would bark at him to go for it with all his might, Ted would tell him to follow his heart, Yosuke'd probably say something that pissed him off enough to do it, and Rise would push hard for him to express his feelings. Lastly, he imagined Yukiko, a big smile on her face, urging him to not give up and to try his hardest, because she believed in him.

For whatever reason, that final thought was enough for Kanji to grow some courage, and take the situation into his own hands. As he waited for the guy in front of him to finish up, he stepped off a little to the side, in full view of her. Once he was within earshot, he gave it his best shot.

"Uh, hey, Naoto. 'Sup?"

One second. Two seconds. Six whole seconds went by with no response from Kanji's blue-haired classmate. Was she ignoring him on purpose? Before he could sink further into despair, Naoto turned around, looking at him with a surprised and forlorn look in her eyes.

"O-oh, it's you," she exclaimed, in her typically placid and bored-sounding way, "It is loud in here, I was unsure if I had heard my name or not…"

A wave of relief washed over Kanji; she had acknowledged him! He barely processed her words, just happy enough to know that she was willing to speak with him. His heart soared and blood rose to his cheeks as he tried his best to think of something funny or clever or charming to break the tension.

"Yea-yeah, that was me talkin'," he choked, further mangling the innocent box of crackers in his hands in a nervous fidget. "So, uh, what's been goin' on with you, since, y'know-"

Before he could finish, Old Lady Shiroku had appeared behind the counter and given Naoto what appeared to be a small capsule of medicine. As she took it, she looked over to Kanji again, shifty-eyed and nervous.

"I, er, I have to get going now. Farewell."

In a split second, she moved from the counter and out the front door, barely stopping in time to make a weak attempt at a wave goodbye as she opened the door with her back. Kanji watched helplessly through the glass as she quickly moved back onto the main street and out of sight, scurrying like a mouse toward wherever she was headed.

It all happened so fast, Kanji didn't know how to react. The girl of his dreams had acted like he was a ghost, a familiar passer-by that she had known briefly from another life. As big as he was, he suddenly felt very small, small enough to fit into one of the little bottles of medicine that Old Lady Shiroku had behind the front counter. His eyes welled up, and his breath caught in his throat once again.

"...Tatsumi-kun, I said next! "

Snapping out of his stupor for just a second, he saw the old owner glaring at him over her tiny little spectacles, a few strands of her black hair dripping out of the kerchief on her head. He handed her the crackers and paid for them without even thinking about it, just going off muscle memory. His mind was frozen on the moment that had just happened, so it began to loop over and over again while he continued on with his task. He felt the crisp smoothness of a paper receipt being pressed into his hand before he was shooed out the door to make way for the next customer.

Even the glow of the hot afternoon sun did nothing to stop the stupor Kanji was in. His home wasn't more than a mile up the road, but it felt like a journey into the Underworld. As he walked, the entirety of the brief conversation continued to play in the background. He kept going back to " Oh, it's you." He hadn't noticed it when she had said it, but now it was beginning to become a source of great agony to the 2nd year. Why would she say something like that? From Kanji's perspective, that was the kind of thing you said to an annoying guy you didn't want to run into. The thought of Naoto being annoyed by his presence made him physically ill, and his animal crackers began to look very unappealing.

He moped all the way to his house, slamming the paper door on his way in and getting an expected scolding from his mother upstairs. He made haste to his room and tossed the cookies away before settling down on his futon. Suddenly, they didn't seem so important anymore.

" Oh, it's you."

He felt it in his nose first, the familiar stuffiness and runniness that came with a day of too many heavy thoughts. Pretty soon that same sensation moved to his eyes, a sting like the feeling of an old friend slapping him in the face. This just embarrassed him more; crying was for fucking girls , a part of his brain would scream, but he couldn't help it. In just three words, Naoto succeeded in confirming all of his worst fears, and that was a horrifying thing to have to confront. Maybe what he had done was shitty, and maybe she wouldn't ever forgive him, or at least not anytime soon. Every dark path that was in his mind's flowchart of events began to overtake any potential upside to the situation, which just made the tears harder to hold back.

As he lay back in his futon, he winced at an uncomfortable pressure in his back pocket. Reaching back, he removed his wallet and cell phone, idly tossing them away like he had the crackers. When he did, his wallet, a flimsy one he had made himself a few years back, fell open, spewing its contents on the wooden floor. He didn't really care to pick them up, but he did notice the gift certificate Yukiko had given him stand out from the few paper yen notes that were in there.

" Oh, it's you."

Another wash of emotion flooded through Kanji, this time bringing a sob up. He made sure to do it as quietly as possible; his Mom had enough issues without him blubbering really loudly to disturb her. He couldn't stop himself from looking over at the card again, thinking about how he had felt just ten minutes earlier about Yukiko and her invitation. In just those ten minutes, he felt like his heart, barely repackaged together with hope and stubbornness, had just shattered into an even bigger mess than previously thought possible. Worse, cooped up in his room as he was, he never felt more alone or helpless, even when he was lost in the fog of the TV World. He needed someone, anyone to talk to, to be vulnerable to, because if he kept up like he had for the past week, he wasn't sure what would happen and he didn't want to find out.

In a desperate effort to push back yet another loop of negative memories, he thought back to his earlier thought, of what his friends would say to him to get him to go and talk with Naoto. He remembered his construct of Yukiko, assuring him that she believed in him no matter what. It was just a figment of his imagination, but the words rang out to him as true, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yukiko may have been a girl, and maybe she wasn't as close to him as Yu, but if she was willing to talk to him about this very specific issue, Kanji figured that he didn't really have any other choice but to take her at her word.

Sniffling, he reached for a nearby dirty shirt and dabbed his nose and mouth before honking into the thing, trying to blow out his bad day. He then grabbed for his phone, looking for Yukiko's name in his contact list. He swallowed a particularly hard lump as he used his big fingers to type out a message to the heiress, hoping that she would answer soon.

" i need 2 talk iz it still ok 2 com over?

 

Chapter Text

Monday 7/31/12, Junes Food Court, Early Afternoon...

" Hey~~~~ it's Rise-chan! So sorry I'm not available right now, but leave a message with your number so I can call back, m'kay!? Mwah!"

"Damn…"

"At Junes, every day is customer appreciation day! Every day's great at your Junes!"

Naoto set her cell phone down on the table, her hand clenched in frustration. She sighed and reached into her pocket, pulling out two silver metal spheres. She eased both of them into her right hand, moving them back and forth across her fingers and palm in a circular motion, never once letting them touch. While she did this, the mechanism within the orbs chimed, indicating she had completed a full revolution.

Rise, at some point or another, had acquired these balls from a new age-y friend of hers in showbiz who swore that they helped her calm down after performing for a large audience. She had foisted them onto the detective after the idol had been an unfortunate witness to Naoto having a temper tantrum. Even now, Naoto could feel her ears flush at the thought of it, more than two weeks later. She quickly put the thought out of her mind and went back to focusing on the movements of her hand.

A natural skeptic, Naoto was pretty sure the spheres' supposed meditative values were hogwash, but she found herself using them constantly all the same. After all, Rise was just trying to help her control her temper, and it was...difficult to say 'no' to Rise, at least for Naoto; the idol had a way of being very convincing. After about ten revolutions, Naoto sighed and brought the two balls together in her palm, squeezing tightly. It felt like she was going through the motions, distracting herself from what was really going on, and that was very frustrating.

It was Monday, so she had waited dutifully at Junes for Rise, but the pop-star hadn't been answering her phone all morning. Unfortunately, missing Monday lunch was something that Naoto suspected was going to become quite frequent.

As happy as Naoto was that her friend was finally getting back to doing what she did best, she couldn't help but feel jealous that showbiz was pulling her away. Sometimes it felt as if they had become such close friends at the wrong time; just as their relationship had begun to reach its peak, both girls seemed to get unbelievably busy. Ever since April and the mess with the Kirijo Group, Naoto had been frequently called away to help the Japanese Self-Defence Force on special cases; she had requested that she have some time off for her summer vacation, which had been begrudgingly granted.

As for Rise, she had spent a good deal of the summer in intense training and rehabilitation, prepping for her return to the big stage. That stage would be the multinational extravaganza known as the Love Meets Bonds Festival. Idols from all over the world were going to be in attendance, including Rise, whose new album was going to drop just before the festival. As such, there was a lot of dance routines to rehearse, sponsors to schmooze, and interviews to be conducted, leaving little time for anything else in her life but that.

Even the time she had to talk on the phone was getting pretty limited, which meant that she and Naoot were mainly exchanging text messages. While this was a decent alternative, Naoto still wished for Rise's presence; something about her bouncy, jovial nature made it very easy to talk with her about almost anything. And right now, she wanted that more than anything in the world.

Naoto had had a very bad weekend, and her anxiety about it was becoming far too large to ignore. She had been out picking up a prescription for her Grandfather from the Shiroku store when Kanji had appeared, seemingly out of thin air, in her peripheral vision. He didn't notice her at first, and she looked away as soon as he turned his eyes back toward her. She couldn't believe she hadn't noticed him come in, as she was normally much sharper at observing her surroundings. Pretty soon he came up to greet her and she froze, unable to find a single thing to say. Instead, she just hissed out a quick greeting, picked up her things and bolted, making her way home as quickly as possible.

Why was it so damned hard , she thought angrily as she tugged on the bill of her cap. Kanji had been her good friend for almost a year, and now all of that work was beginning to unravel so quickly it made her head spin. A part of her wanted so bad to just say she was sorry directly to his face, but every time she thought of Kanji she could only picture the look of unbearable heartbreak he gave her on the rooftop back on the last day of school. It was such a devastating memory that Naoto was adamant that he hated her guts for what she had done. It made the mere act of being near him so uncomfortable that she felt it was better to try and remove herself from the situation than confront it, which was so antithetical to her natural personality that it was driving her mad .

Rise not being there to be her sounding board or to push some positivity into her mindset was the final straw. The web of thoughts in her head was overwhelmingly large, containing bubbles of thoughts about Kanji, her feelings on love, her sexuality, her aversion to physical contact, and so much more that it didn't seem possible to keep them contained in her head anymore. It made Naoto feel so weak , so powerless, and she hated every second of it; her mind was a powerful tool for investigation but it also made even everyday crises like this an exercise in mental exhaustion. Rise was good at helping stunt the growth of that web, but without her help it was multiplying at a rate that Naoto simply couldn't contain.

Since she was getting close to her boiling point, Naoto kicked the ground angrily and stood up, feeling she was wasting her time by staying at Junes any longer. She smoothed out the short-sleeved, light blue Oxford shirt she was wearing and made sure it went just below the belt of her tan trousers before heading toward the exit of the food court. Just as she got to the door, it opened from the other side, revealing a familiar face.

"W-woah, Naoto, hey! I-I thought I might find you up here."

"Ah, Yosuke-senpai..."

Indeed, the bright-haired 3rd year stood in front of her, his usual nervous grin on display. He was holding his folded up apron, a v-necked yellow t-shirt and sagging blue jeans in place of his usual orange work shirt.

This was sudden. The two teens stood awkwardly in front of the door, clearly unsure of what to say. A sloppily dressed man grunted from behind Naoto, making her aware that she was in the way.

She hastily stepped to the other side of the door, near Yosuke, as the man let out an annoyed huff and moved on. Yosuke turned to her, fiddling with the headphones ever-present around his neck. Aside from the rude man going toward the elevator, they were alone, the Junes jingle playing softly in the background as the afternoon sun sent streaks in through the windows.

"So...Rise not here today again?" Yosuke asked, sucking on his lip.

"No, she's not." Naoto answered. She was unsure of what else to say, although she noticed that she didn't feel hostile toward him anymore. Yosuke had, to Naoto's pleasant surprise, been apologetic about some things he had said last Monday, and the two had a nice chat about it over the phone. But even though she didn't mind his sudden presence, she also didn't feel like talking with anyone right now.

"I was just leaving," she announced, jerking her head toward the elevator door. Her voice was cold and formal, the usual tone she slipped into when she wanted to mask her feelings

This got his attention. "O-oh, really? Well, uh, did you eat? 'Cuz I just got off work and was thinking of goin' somewhere for lunch and, uh…" He trailed off, his eyes gazing downward as Naoto stared blankly back at him. Perhaps she hadn't made herself clear.

"The thought is appreciated," she droned, coldly, "but I would really rather go home. Perhaps some other time." As she finished, she gave a gentle wave and turned toward the elevator. The squeak of sneakers across the tile floor alerted her to the fact that Yosuke wasn't giving up.

"Hey, hold on a sec!" he huffed, quickly stepping in front of her again, "Listen, I...I…" he scratched his head, clearly flustered at what to say. "I-I still feel kinda bad...about last week, y'know? I just, y'know, wanna...make it up to you." As he spoke, his cheeks turned a shade of red and he again began to play with the cups of his headphones.

It was very strange for Naoto to hear Yosuke, usually so full of braggadocio and snark, sound contrite, apologetic, and sincere. This was how he had acted when he called her last Friday, too. Still, surprising though it was, her head was simply too engulfed in chaos to indulge his request.

"That is...very kind of you, senpai," Naoto said carefully, doing her best to maintain a neutral, tone, "but I assure you that any and all hostility between us has been forgotten. There's simply nothing further to say on the subject." She hoped that was a definitive enough response.

Yosuke sounded a bit dejected. "Oh, okay…" he mumbled flatly. Satisfied, Naoto nodded and once again turned to the elevator, this time pushing the button that would send it her direction. She inhaled deeply through her nose, hoping it wouldn't take too long.

"It's just that… " Naoto heard Yosuke say quietly from behind her.

Naoto turned around, this time feeling herself glare at her fellow Investigation Teammate. It must have been a vicious one, for Yosuke kind of recoiled like he'd been struck. "Just what ?" Naoto asked with a loud sigh, unable to hide her annoyance. She knew Yosuke could be stubborn, and she didn't want to lose her temper, but he was really pushing it.

To his credit, Yosuke stood firm despite his flinching a second earlier. "I-I was just thinkin' about the other day!" he warbled, still a little shaky, "when we talked, y'know, and...and you seemed kinda... sad ."

Naoto felt her breath catch in her throat, really not knowing how to respond to that. Yosuke was Yu's number 2 for a reason: he was far more perceptive than he appeared. She would have given him a compliment if his analysis didn't sting so much. Sad...was it so noticeable? A part of Naoto had hoped that she hadn't let the maelstrom of feelings inside her reveal themselves to the outside world, but it was looking like she hadn't done a very good job.

Seizing the opportunity, Yosuke continued. "I-I still feel bad about last week, but only because...you looked like you needed to get some stuff off your chest, and if Rise isn't here again..."

So there was his intention; it was very much like him to be indirect, but Naoto just wished he could have just said that at first. Despite her frustration she had to admit that keeping all of her frustration bottled up for two whole weeks had been very draining. It would be...comforting, she thought, to at least vent some of that frustration onto someone whom she considered a friend and trustworthy enough. Perhaps his perspective, as a man, could even be useful since he implied that he had gone through a similar romantic entanglement,.

But, much like last Monday, she questioned how much she needed to keep her guard up. Although she felt she understood him a little bit better, they still weren't as close as she would have liked, not enough to talk about everything , at least. Sure, he had been surprisingly graceful over the phone, but a lot of people acted different in person, something Naoto had learned through years of detective work. Could he truly be trusted, especially with something as sensitive as this?

She spent a long minute in silence studying Yosuke, who again squirmed underneath her gaze. Like before, she didn't get the sense that he was deceitful, and even just a cursory glance at his red face showed that whatever he was saying was uncomfortable for him, which typically meant only one thing. Trusting her gut, Naoto took a long, relaxing breath to calm herself down and rolled the dice.

"I-I see. Perhaps I was too...hasty in turning down your offer," she offered, being very deliberate in her word choice, "I could stand to eat something, I suppose. What did you have in mind?"

It was pretty obvious just in his voice how happy he was to hear she had changed her mind. "Really!? Uh, er, that's, uh, that's great! I was just thinking...maybe Aiya? On me, of course. Unless you have some Detective Prince fortune lying around?"

Naoto realized he was simply trying to calm his nerves by deflecting with humor, but she didn't understand his angle. "Erm...I have money, if that's what you're asking," she answered, watching as he kind of winced, clamping his left eye shut.

"Y-yeah, I-I know, I...never mind, just forget it," he said sadly, his nervous smile returning.

Feeling awkward, Naoto tried to bring the conversation back. "Aiya sounds fine," she said quickly, "Shall we go now?"

She heard him take a small breath. "Uhh...yeah, sure. Let me, uh-" he stuttered, holding up the apron in his opposite hand, "Lemme toss this back in my locker, 'kay? It'll take just a sec, promise! " He began edging his way over toward the stairway. "The employee area's on the second floor, so…"

Naoto nodded, quickly calculating the most efficient way of meeting up again."I'll just meet you downstairs, on the first floor" she said, jerking her thumb behind her head

"Okay, that works too," Yosuke concurred, "Seeya down there!"

With that, he quickly sauntered through the door and disappeared, the sound of his excited footsteps echoing off the concrete steps. Alone now, Naoto grasped the bridge of her nose and squeezed, hoping it would make her feel less anxious. In a different life she would have just soldiered on by denying Yosuke's request and suppressing her anxieties, but ultimately, Rise was right: she needed to grow up and move past that, no matter how uncomfortable it seemed. Placing trust in someone else was not weakness; her relationship with Rise proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The elevator doors soon opened to let a new group of shoppers into the food court, forcing Naoto to sidle past all of them into the enclosed space. As she pushed the button for the 1st floor, she reached into her pocket and brought her meditation spheres out again to pass the small ride, finding much more comfort in the gentle chiming than she had earlier.


Monday, 7/31/12, Chinese Diner Aiya, Mid-Afternoon...

"...That's all you're gonna eat!?"

"You say that as if this is an atypical meal."

"W-well, kinda! Aiya's whole thing is the beef bowl and you get just veggies !? Hoff cuh yu jsst et 'at? Whu?"

"I eat it just like anyone else - with a closed mouth."

"Yeff, muffer…"

Yosuke loudly and obviously chewed the beef in his mouth, making a face at the detective before swallowing and awkwardly stirring the remaining rice in his bowl, apparently out of witticisms. Naoto found sarcasm to be a tiring trait of most people her age, but she couldn't deny that sometimes it felt good to indulge in it, especially if it spurred people into action.

The two had been at Aiya for a little over ten minutes, and even amidst a thick crowd of teens hustling in for the lunch specials, they had managed to snag a small corner booth. The walk there had been rather quiet, both schoolmates unsure of what to say in order to break the tension. Yosuke, for his part, looked rather uncomfortable, and his face never seemed to rid itself of the blush permanently etched across his nose.

The steaming food in front of them provided at least some sort of conversation starter that soon devolved into a comfortable silence as the teenagers picked away at their food. As always, the Chinese restaurant's food tasted cozy and familiar to Naoto, like a favorite book plucked out of the recesses of a dusty bookshelf.

As Naoto quietly munched on a piece of broccoli, Yosuke looked up from his bowl, a question in his eyes. "So," he started, shoving some more rice into his mouth, to the detective's chagrin, "Whuff's goig on en thuh beg hed uf yuhrs?"

Aside from her annoyance at being able to see the pulpy remains of his rice as he talked, Naoto realized that he was essentially giving her the floor to air out her grievances. As she chewed, she thought of the best way to give words to her feelings without revealing too much of her inner dialogue.

"Much, unfortunately," she said after swallowing the last of her broccoli, "Forgive me if sound unintelligible...I confess that even am unaware of what any of this means…" This was the scariest part for Naoto. While it was common for the truth to hurt, it was another thing entirely for it to be indecipherable.

Yosuke may have been thrown by this, but if he was, it didn't show. "It's okay," he said softly, "just...start from the beginning. Last day of school, Kanji just shows up...what happens?"

Naoto interrogated the wily 3rd year with her eyes. He didn't appear to be winding up for a punchline or holding himself back. His chopsticks lay horizontally across his bowl, his attention totally focused on her. Lastly, she met his eyes; just like earlier, they were shifty but resolute: "You can trust me."

Sighing, she hoped her trust wouldn't be misplaced. "Al-alright. I met with Rise and Kanji-kun in their classroom, as I am wont to do after school. Kanji-kun was as nervous as I had ever seen him, and he asked me up to the roof, alone…"

It all just came tumbling out. Before Naoto could stop herself, she had moved on to discussing why she had been so short with Yosuke the previous week, as well as her run-in with Kanji at the Shiroku store. With the way her memory worked, all the events of the past couple weeks were as clear as a photograph in her head. She barely listened to herself as she spoke, hoping that it wasn't as garbled and incomprehensible as she feared it sounded. After about two uninterrupted minutes, she finally finished, almost out of breath from how much she had been talking. She quickly reached for the small glass of water next to her still full bowl, gulping generously as Yosuke sat back with his arms folded behind his head.

"I, uh," he started, chuckling nervously, "that's some...that's somethin' else. Wow ."

Naoto fidgeted, not knowing if that was a good or bad thing. Thankfully, he continued.

"B-but I think I get it now...that does sound pretty heavy. I kinda figured it was, but yeesh ." With some difficulty, Naoto looked up at him to see that he had a rare serious look on his face. "You really think Kanji doesn't want to be your friend anymore?" he asked.

Like before, the words just came flowing out of the detective. "I am not really sure, Yosuke-senpai. I...I told myself time and again that our friendship was strong, and yet...I don't mean to sound melodramatic, but I realize now that I...I broke his heart. I am not sure he will ever forgive me, and I cannot blame him, either" she groaned, taking a small bite of her now cool vegetable bowl. She was trying not to tell herself that she was being weak, but it was a tough fight;

"Hmm...well, I can see your point. Erm, actually," Yosuke responded, uncharacteristically nervous, "why, uh...why not Kanji? I-if you don't mind my, uh, asking?"

Naoto didn't understand. "Why not Kanji-kun what?"

Yosuke looked to make sure no one was eavesdropping before leaning in close, arms folded. "Why not, y'know, date Kanji? He's a good dude, and he really cares about you. Man, I can't even count how many times me and Yu would tell him to nut up and -"

Naoto was in shock. "You...you knew!? And Yu-senpai as well!?" Had everyone known except for her?

Yosuke looked flabbergasted. "Uh, yeah? Wasn't exactly a huge secret! I mean, don't get me wrong, we were all rooting for you guys, but yeah, we knew."

Suddenly, Naoto realized what Yukiko must have felt like, back when she was sure everyone kept Yu and Rise's relationship a secret from her. It wasn't anger, however, that came to her mind first, but loathing: was she that stupid If everyone around her knew that Kanji was infatuated with her, why hadn't she been able to see it?

Stuck in her thoughts, she barely registered Yosuke speaking again. "Wait, you don't…" he paused, completing his thought quietly in his head. "Did you really not know at all before Kanji said something?"

At all. The way he had said it, like it was the strangest thing in the world, gave life to the thought that that had scared her the most: something was wrong with her. After all, normal people would have noticed one of their friends' romantic inclinations, right? As this revelation quietly devastated her, she couldn't help but cycle through her memory again and find moments where Kanji had gotten bothered and hot over the boys teasing him. Knowing that it was talked and joked about plainly in the open while she had sat oblivious to his very real feelings made her feel like the worst person in the world.

Naoto pushed away the bowl of vegetables, her appetite having suddenly evaporated, and folded her arms, staring straight down at the table. She wanted nothing more in the world than to just close her eyes for a second and disappear back to the solidarity of her room, where her actions couldn't cause any harm. But she didn't want to be there alone; Rise would be there too, gently beaming at her, telling her everything was going to be just fine. Her absence hurt twice as bad now.

"..oto? Hey, you alright? Naoto!"

The detective looked out from underneath the bill of her hat to see Yosuke staring at her, flummoxed. She could almost see a flash of red across the bridge of her nose. "It-it's nothing, I'm fine. I just…" How could she possibly explain how she felt? "I-I didn't know that he felt that way. Truthfully," she answered, shakily. The tremor in her voice was unwanted, and she cursed herself for letting it slip past her throat.

Now Yosuke knew something was up. "Hey, look, I-I'm not trying to make you feel dumb!" he yelped nervously, "Wh-what I meant more of was like...I-I guess I assumed you had just kinda figured it out, since you're so smart and all! Y-yeah..."

Flattering, Naoto thought, but an easy trick to see through, even now. "No need to disguise the truth, senpai," she muttered coldly, "I'm such a fool..." Every now and again, the world seemed to give Naoto a cruel reminder that she wasn't a grown-up, and that for as intelligent as she was about certain things, she could be comically naive about others. Knowing Yosuke, she figured it delighted him to know that she could be so foolish; his outburst last week had revealed his frustration about her perceived intellectual snobbery. The longing to be back at home got stronger by the second.

Yet another awkward silence sprung up. Naoto could tell that Yosuke was uncomfortable; he was fidgeting, and his eyes wandered if she even attempted to meet his gaze. Why did I even agree to this, she wondered. She was in such a weird headspace that even a friend's nice gesture was bringing out the worst in her personality. After quietly chewing a single piece of beef for what felt like five minutes, Yosuke pushed his bowl aside too, mirroring her earlier gesture.

"I think, like…" he paused, his pupils continuing to dart back and forth in thought, "like, you're in your head too much, if that makes sense? You're really smart, but you can't read people's minds. How were you supposed to know he liked you if he never said anything? Also, you didn't answer my question: even if it was a surprise, why not?" Yosuke finished, his voice low and hard to hear over the dull roar behind them.

Naoto had almost forgotten that he had asked that question in the first place. Where to even begin? She wasn't comfortable talking too personally, and that question was definitely encroaching on that territory. Still, she figured it couldn't hurt to just say the truth; as uncomfortable as it was, it wasn't too deeply personal.

"I simply do not feel the same way for Kanji-kun that he does for me. I do not think it would be fair, to him, to be in a relationship in which the feelings are not reciprocal. He is a friend, a dear one, but that is all. And besides, I…" She stopped herself, realizing that if she didn't, she would just continue to spit out whatever was on her mind. That was a conversation best left uncorked.

Yosuke nodded slowly, seeming to think hard on his response. All of a sudden, a cheeky grin burst out of the thin-lipped grimace he had been wearing. "Man, you're really thinking way too hard about this!"

The 2nd year wrinkled her nose, a little hurt at his flippant response. "I beg your pardon?" she asked, hoping this wasn't the insult she thought it was.

"Well, think about it," Yosuke started, sitting up a little straighter, "You don't hate Kanji or think he's super annoying or anything. He's just not your type." Naoto was about to ask what that meant, but he just continued talking. "And trust me, he doesn't hate you. He's nuts about you, and I don't think this is gonna change that. You've got yourself all worked up over something that's not really an issue!"

That...made sense, Naoto thought. If there was no malice on either side, then an easy resolution could be reached. Despite the logic in Yosuke's speech, Naoto still wasn't entirely convinced.

"Your argument is sound, but I still think it's flawed," she began, staring off into space as she explored the thought thread in her mind, "How will things ever return to the way they were? I feel if I completely ignore Kanji-kun's feelings like he never said anything, I may be at peace, but he won't, and I cannot abide by that. How will he ever feel comfortable around me, knowing that our relationship has a ceiling? It would be easiest, obviously, if we just stayed away from each other, but given that we share mutual friendships, that is an impossibility. I just don't think… nngh !"

There was a deeply strange feeling in her knee, like something was poking her, and Naoto gasped and jerked in her seat to shrug off the feeling. She went to see what it was when she saw Yosuke out of the corner of her eye, shrugging sheepishly as he casually twirled a chopstick in his hand. She quickly put together what happened in her head, and turned a deep shade of red.

"Well I had to do something to get your attention!" Yosuke explained, chuckling a bit, "That's what I mean when I say you're thinking about it too much! If you keep talking, all you'll do is work yourself into oooowww! "

Naoto almost smirked watching his face twist in agony. She also wanted him to stop talking, so she figured turnabout was fair play. Of course, she had instead used the toe of her leather shoe to kick him in the shin instead of poking him with a chopstick, but that, too, was a natural escalation that couldn't be helped. The embarrassment of a few of the other patron's nervous stares was well worth the satisfaction of Yosuke doubled over in pain, she felt.

Yosuke managed to open one eye while keeping the other one clenched tightly shut. "Feel...better…?" he wheezed, clearly trying to sound more okay than he was. Satisfied, Naoto quickly nodded, which received a strained thumbs up from the 3rd year. As he recovered, Naoto considered what he had been saying before she acted out.

"You really think that I...am just overthinking this? I didn't do anything wrong?" she asked quietly. Interestingly, he had a confused look on his face as he fixed himself back into a proper sitting position.

"Well, no! It wasn't what Kanji wanted to hear, but at least you were honest about how you felt. Not everyone's lucky enough to get even that…" he sighed wistfully, looking off to the side.

Naoto sighed, tugging on her cap a little; working out all these strands was exhausting, but she was at least happy to hear from someone like Yosuke that she hadn't done anything wrong. She wasn't sure she totally believed it, but it was still nice to hear, all the same. Despite his odd behavior and her earlier misgivings, Yosuke had proven to be an able listener, which surprised the young detective, as listening didn't seem to be his strong suit.

She noticed he had stayed relatively quiet since his last statement. It was then she remembered what she had asked him during their phone call, an answer that he had been a bit reluctant to share as well. If turnabout was fair play...

"Senpai," she asked, "you said not everyone is lucky enough to be told how their...romantic interest feels. Could that stem from your own experience in this sort of thing?" As he seemed to be in a different mood and they had some time, Naoto was hoping he might expound upon this.

Yosuke gave a noticeable gulp, chewing on the inside of his cheek. "Uhh, sorta , I guess? I mean, not sorta, more like...mostly " he said bashfully, pointing a chopstick at himself, "I kinda had this thing a while a back, and I was, like, I was…" He trailed off again, a more concerned frown emerging. Naoto frowned as well; had she struck a nerve?

"Yosuke-senpai, if I have overstepped my boundaries, please let me know," she encouraged, wanting to hear more but understanding if he didn't feel like sharing. Yosuke let out a nervous laugh and fiddled with the headphones dangling around the neckline of his shirt.

"S-sorry, I just haven't really, y'know, talked about this with anyone other than Yu-kun," he chuckled, looking over at his half-full beef bowl, "And, t-to be honest, I never really thought I'd be sharing it with, erm...you, if that makes any sense?"

Blunt, but she understood where he was coming from. Perhaps it was wrong of her to assume he would be forthcoming."We are more acquaintances than anything, so I understand your hesitation," she admitted, "There are some things that I wouldn't discuss with just anyone, either." As she said that, his face fell and he suddenly looked...hurt? Whatever it was, she understood she wasn't helping this awkward situation. "Let's just change the subject..."

"No, no!" Yosuke interrupted, waving his hands in front of his face, "It's fine! I mean, it's only fair right? I've been bugging ya to talk about your personal life, so I guess it's my turn, haha," he said, winking as he laughed. Naoto was happy to hear they were on the same wavelength and found herself caught up, offering a small smile in return. This made Yosuke chuckle again.

"Heh, I like that smile. It suits you," he said softly. Naoto squinted in response; what an odd thing to say, she thought. Something about the way he said it and the way he was staring at her indicated he was expecting a response, which made her feel strange.

"Um, thanks?," she said nervously, again fiddling with her cap to try and hide her obvious awkwardness, "A-anyways, you were saying, about a prior relationship?" she asked, trying to get back on subject. Yosuke's smile dropped, and he seemed to have lost his nerve if his body language were any indication.

"Yeah, about that...um, do you think we could grab this stuff to go and head someplace else?" He asked, blushing a little when Naoto gave him a confused glance."N-not for any bad reason or anything!" Yosuke added hastily, "It's just...kinda loud in here, and I don't wanna yell this stuff to all of Inaba."

Naoto looked around, noticing that even more traffic was beginning to file in. She suspected it was some of the nearby cram schools that ran during the summer letting off for the day, which meant even more hungry and exhausted students were headed their way. She agreed with a nod of her head, then reached for her wallet as both of them got up, but stopped when she looked up to see Yosuke with the same grin plastered on his face and his hand raised up in front of her, as if to stop her.

"Woah, I got it," Yosuke chirped, holding up his own wallet. Naoto felt that, as one of the only people in the group with his own supplemental income, Yosuke was already relied upon too much to pay for group outings, but she supposed she wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

"If you insist, senpai," She acquiesced, putting her wallet back and watching silently as Yosuke went over to the register with the two bowls, asking for take-home bags.

As the day went on, Yosuke was becoming more and more of a mystery to her. She had known him for the better part of a year, and yet she couldn't put a finger on what he was all about. Some days he came across as a leche, only interested in trying to find an output for his hormonal tendencies, and other days he had shown to have a quick wit and keen sense of duty and responsibility. He had gone the whole lunch without saying anything remotely insulting, which had to have been some sort of record. Perhaps he acted differently in a group setting?

Or maybe...this was his roundabout way of asking for help? Naoto noticed that whatever was going on between her and Kanji seemed to strike a particular nerve within the 3rd year, and he had been more unusually forthright with her than ever before. It was a mystery, and she could already feel herself getting into a more investigative sense of mind and studying his body language as he paid at the register. Her earlier thoughts about Kanji seemed to evaporate once she had a goal to focus on, something to distract her from her own emotional distress.

Once he was done, Yosuke gestured over to the exit, holding open the door. Naoto got focused, pushing her own foibles to the side and preparing to listen intently to Yosuke in order to get to the bottom of what was going on.


Monday, 7/31/12, Central Shopping District, Mid-Afternoon...

The two stepped outside and into the warm glow of the Inaba afternoon, where Yosuke handed Naoto a seal bag containing what remained of her vegetable bowl. They began heading south; Yosuke lived much closer to the main street than Naoto, but his house was along the same path.

"So…" Yosuke mumbled, folding his hands behind his head as he stepped lightly upon the concrete sidewalk.

"About your, erm, history with romance…" Naoto finished, putting her hands in her pockets as she too focused on the road ahead.

Yosuke snorted, giving her some side-eye. "C'mon, you make it sound so dramatic."

The 2nd year rolled her eyes. "Well, what would you have me call it?"

"I dunno, the skeletons in my closet?"

His what? "Is that really something people say?" she asked, utterly confused.

This got yet another chuckle out of Yosuke. "Man, we gotta loosen you up one of these days…"

Naoto realized she was just digging herself into a deeper hole. " Anyways ," she said pointedly, trying to steer the conversation back to Yosuke. She had to give him credit, he was very good at avoiding talking about himself.

"Right, sorry, like I was saying, I used to have this...crush," he started, craning his head to look at Naoto as they walked past the Daidara Metalworks, "I haven't actually lived her for very long; my dad got the family transferred out here from Tokyo a year and a half ago so he could run the Junes they built. At first, I gotta be honest, I hated living here! A lot of Inaba's market is so empty because Junes came and took a lot of business, and since it's such a small town, everyone knew I was the boss's son, and I could feel everyone just..." He took a moment to search for the right word, " resent me! But then...I met someone. And man…she was somethin' else! She didn't seem to care about who I was or where I came from, just that I was... someone , y'know?"

As Naoto listened, she realized that she'd never really looked into or asked about Yosuke's background; given his demeanor and style of dress, she figured he was from someplace a bit trendier than Inaba, but Tokyo, just like Yu? It was all intriguing information, and she dutifully nodded as he continued, soaking in everything he was saying.

"Her family owned one of the shops in town, and she needed a little extra money to help out at home, so I helped her get a job here. Her family wasn't very happy, but she never let it get to her. She was strong enough to not let things like that bother her...I wished I was as tough as she was..." he cut himself off, suddenly clenching his right hand into a fist.

"Was?" Naoto asked, curious about his choice of words..

Yosuke looked at her again, his eyes more cagey and nervous. The two had walked onto the Sanegawa Flood Plain, and the river's gentle hum helped fill the lull in his story.

After a few seconds, he spoke up once more. "Yeah, was. She's...erm, she's gone, now. She..." Yosuke seemed like he was laughing, but it definitely wasn't a gleeful chuckle. If Naoto didn't know any better, she could have swore he was choking.

"She...m-moved away...a little before you got here," he said in a near whisper, sounding nervous and uncomfortable, "And I...I never got to tell her how I felt. But...boy, did I ever find out w-what she thought of m-me…"

Naoto looked up abruptly, recognizing the raw emotion in his voice. Yosuke had stopped walking and turned away from the river, facing the road ahead with his back to Naoto. She could hear him taking big labored breaths, as if trying to keep his composure.

"Senpai…?" Naoto asked shyly, not sure if she could believe what was happening. Was he trying not to cry ? She moved closer to him, and he quickly turned away again, startling her. There was no doubt that he was at least a bit distressed, given his red eyes and suddenly shy body language. Naoto was unsure of the root cause, but given his last statement and the hints he'd given throughout the past couple weeks, Naoto had a feeling she knew how the story ended, and it wasn't so nice for him.

"Yosuke-senpai...what did you find out?" She asked, knowing full well what the response was probably going to be.

"Let's just say...she didn't think I was very cool. At all. Apparently she thought I was 'really annoying' and she was only nice to me because of who I was," he said quickly, brushing his nose with his forearm and speaking very fast. He looked annoyed, the strain of holding back his true feelings evident in his scrunched up mouth and crossed arms.

The air became still, and even the babbling river wasn't loud enough to break up the thoughts settling into Naoto's head. Seeing Yosuke so shook up and upset over this personal turmoil was not something she expected to see. Her natural instincts were kicking in, and they were protective; she thoroughly hated seeing one of her fellow Investigation Team members in pain, and she wanted to do anything in her power to help him not feel as bad. At the same time, her assurance in her ability to comfort anyone was at an all time low thanks to the situation with Kanji. It was taking far more power than she expected to even comment on all that Yosuke had said, even though she found his story intensely relatable.

The detective took a deep breath, gathering up all the energy she could muster. She stepped in front of Yosuke, who didn't make a move to hide his face this time. Doing her best to catch his eyes, she spoke simply what her heart, not her brain, commanded.

"Senpai, I had no idea. That sounds truly dreadful; I am sorry that it happened to you," she admitted, "I...I know what it feels like, to be feel resented for what you represent and not who you are. It doesn't feel very good…"

Yosuke's pupils shifted wildly before settling firmly on the road below, tucked away from Naoto's piercing gaze. "I...I appreciate that Naoto," he said, as if every breath threatened to break the levee on his sorrow. While still staring at the ground, a quiet question slipped out from his lips. "Hey, did...this is gonna sound stupid," he muttered, prefacing his question, "did you...did you mean it earlier, when you said we were 'acquaintances'?"

She certainly wasn't prepared for that . Yosuke was referring to a statement she had said not ten minutes earlier at Aiya; it sounded much worse hearing him say it then it had coming out of her mouth. Naoto cursed herself, wondering what it was going to take for her to be more mindful of her schoolmates' feelings. Why did she have to be the way she was? It frustrated her, and she could feel the anger at herself boil over into her response.

"Wh-what I meant was," she stuttered, tripping over her thoughts as they aggressively bounced out of her throat, "that we don't... normally we..." The look on his face was a clue that she was already messing up again. She huffed, taking a deep breath in her stomach, and let it out before she spoke again. "I'm trying to say that we don't normally share our thoughts with one another. At least, not as much as Narukami-senpai and yourself or myself and Rise. I understood why you were hesitant to be so open with me...but," she took one last breath and tugged her cap down, hoping she didn't sound as foolish to Yosuke as she did in her head, "...I'm glad you were."

Yosuke turned a little red as a shy smile overtook his frown. "W-well, it's really no problem! I guess lately I've been feelin' like...like maybe we just haven't gotten a chance to know each other. That, and I've seen your bad side, and I don't wanna be on it!" he laughed, starting to get back to his old self. Although it was a joke at her expense, Naoto realized that it was mildly complementary, and felt herself smiling too, glad that they had come to an understanding of sorts.

In that moment, Naoto wondered if perhaps she had been too harsh in not wanting to find Yosuke trustworthy. It was clear that, when he wanted to, he could be mature and open about his thoughts and feelings, not too dissimilar to Yu, his partner-in-crime. Obviously she wasn't sure how well he was able to balance his clownish side with this more sensitive and thoughtful one, but perhaps that was a risk worth taking; in just a little over an hour it was impressive to see how much her mood had improved thanks to his advice and stories.

After a few seconds, Yosuke uncrossed his arms and gave his full attention to Naoto. "A-anyways, like I said earlier, you and Kanji have nothin' to worry about. Just...don't think about it so much, y'know?" Naoto could practically feel her ears turning red; she didn't handle being reprimanded very well, even if it was a well-intentioned critique, but she held her tongue as Yosuke finished. "A-and who knows, maybe this'll all blow over faster than you think! Getting rejected isn't the end of the world, and I'm sure Kanji'll see it that way...e-eventually, anyways. I know I did!"

Sound advice, Naoto thought. It didn't really matter, but she had one last question to ask of Yosuke, as long as he was still in a talkative mood.

"This girl...did she go to Yasogami? What was her name?"

"O-oh! U-uh...y-yeah, she went to our school, but she wasn't in my grade," he said quickly, as if the memory would disappear if he waited too long. He didn't answer Naoto's other question, however, and she got a little suspicious the longer he stayed silent. Before she could say anything, a loud chime echoed through the air, coming from Yosuke's direction.

With a sheepish grin, Yosuke held up a finger and pulled out his cell phone, examining the screen carefully. After a few seconds, he groaned loudly.

"Aw, you gotta be friggin' kidding me," he moped, looking up from the screen at Naoto, "It's my dad, I guess someone skipped out on their closing shift and he needs my help. He wants me to come in now!"

Naoto, ever the consummate professional, hid her disappointment behind a stoic, neutral face. She pulled her cap back on straight and addressed him. "I see. Well, you probably don't want to keep him waiting. We can continue our discussion some other time...i-if you want to, at any rate," she added nervously, not wanting to ruin what had been a good day with her awkwardness.

"O-oh, yeah, totally! I thought today was pretty awesome. When, uh, when can I see you again? I-I mean-! Not like " see " see you again, but y'know like...when do you wanna hang out and do something again? Yosuke sighed, frustrated with his clumsy wording. In truth, whatever he was worried about flew over Naoto's head; why was he being so nervous again?

Still, she owed him a response. "Hmm," Naoto hummed, legitimately unsure of her schedule for the next few days. She'd wanted to see if she could get a hold of Rise, and lately she had begun to take one day a week to review cases with her Grandfather as well. "That is a difficult question to answer now. May I contact you later and arrange something?"

"Okay, that's cool, yeah," Yosuke answered, looking at the time on his phone. "I really should get going now! Uh, hey, Naoto," Yosuke began, his voice squeaking a little bit, "I really wanna thank you for today. That might sound weird, since I know I said I wanted to pay you back, but…"

Naoto felt a genuine smile come up at Yosuke's humble words. In both getting to know his background a little more and sharing his thoughts on how she had handled things with Kanji, he had both calmed some of her anxiety and helped to refocus her mind on something new. He helped her more than he knew.

"No, I concur," she said proudly, "I...I don't know where things will go next with Kanji-kun, but I am happy that I was able to speak with you today. Perhaps...perhaps Rise isn't the only person I should feel the need to turn to in the future." It was a big statement, but she felt he had earned it: the other shoe never fell, and his sincerity in trying to make her feel better made him seem like he was far more trustworthy than she had previously thought. The earnest reply made both her and Yosuke blush again as he rubbed the back of his head.

"Heh, no problem. I better get going, or Dad's gonna kill me. I'll talk to ya later! Oh, and Naoto?"

"Mmm? Yes?"

"If, uh, you could just keep all this between us, I'd really appreciate it. Like I said, I never really talked about this stuff, and-"

Naoto nodded, understanding what he was getting at. "I assure you, you have nothing to worry about Yosuke-senpai."

"Great! Uh, see ya 'round!"

"The same to you."

The Junes Prince waved goodbye as he jogged back in the direction they had come, on his way to stock shelves for the night. Naoto watched as he became a smaller and smaller dot on the horizon, and began her own way home once he was out of sight.

As Naoto settled into a comfortable pace, she took her hat off and squeezed it, letting out yet another big sigh into the summer air; she wasn't used to the stamina drain that deeply felt social interactions could be on her. Still, she didn't regret it one bit, especially since it helped her see that, once again, she was not alone.

As the afternoon sun began its short descent into darkness, Naoto began her journey home, hoping that once she got home she could put a plan into action for how to deal with Kanji in the future. Now it seemed less like an impossible task and more like a difficult puzzle, thanks to Yosuke's advice, and solving puzzles was her specialty. Most importantly, however, the future finally looked less bleak, and that was what lifted her spirits the most.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, 8/2/12, Amagi Inn Kitchen, Early Evening…

"Hmm, I wonder if we need to balance out the ginger with something else...maybe some thyme? That's bitter, so if we combine the two flavors, it should be even better, right?"

"Erm, Yuki-chan, you already got garlic in there. Thas' a mad bitter taste there, girl!"

"O-oh, you're right, I-I forgot...is there, erm, any way we could take out the thyme?"

"Aye, little manu , you gonna gimme a complex…"

Yukiko scrunched up her nose and offered an apologetic frown to the man next to her, Haku, before turning back to the simmering bowl of ingredients. She had been mixing together a bunch of spices in order to create a little garnish for the sardines she was grilling, and although the grilling had been relatively simple, she was having a more difficult time with the garnish.

The bigger man was rubbing his head, playfully exasperated at his charge's dilemma. Kohaku Nakano was a recent addition to the Amagi Inn, but he was quickly becoming the top chef at the establishment. A native Hawaiian with Japanese heritage, Kohaku had moved to Inaba to get some experience cooking in Japan while simultaneously, as he put it, re-creating the small town feeling he felt back on his native island of Maui. He definitely stood out in Inaba with his heavily tanned skin and stringy, iinky black hair, usually pulled into a tight ponytail, along with his casual attire of shirts and a largely unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. Haku, as he liked to be called, was also a large man, no doubt due to a lifetime obsession with food, but he always had a good attitude, and Yukiko found him to be a pleasant addition to the already close-knit staff at the inn.

The two were currently at the central station of the decent-sized Amagi Inn kitchen. While the Inn itself was old-fashioned, the kitchen was a little more up to date. The furniture was all modern and slick stainless steel, and an industrial sized dishwasher and refrigerator sat in opposite corners of the room. On the other side of the room, a few other men and women in chef whites worked hard at preparing an endless string of appetizers and entrees for the packed inn. As Yukiko had predicted, summer was already proving to be a very busy season.

For now, however, she had a more different, personal task to focus on. "Do...do you think it'll still taste okay?" Yukiko asked nervously, holding the wooden spoon she had been using to stir up to her nose and giving a sniff. She tried to maintain a neutral expression as she felt her eyes begin to tear up.

"Well, lemme put it this way: you want this kane to die right away, or in his sleep?" Kohaku answered, biting his tongue to keep from laughing.

Yukiko glared at him as she wiped her eyes, setting the spoon down in the bowl. "Nakano-san, please! I'm really trying here!" she complained, a little upset.

"'Ey, c'mon now, I'm just playin' wit' you, little bird. Look at those fish! I'd serve that to the guests right now," Haku laughed, a toothy grin decorating his chubby face as he pointed behind her. She turned and attended to the sardines on the grill behind her, smiling as she quickly agreed with Haku's observation. Satisfied, she turned the grill down and removed the fish, placing the skewered food neatly onto a long rectangular plate with a blue flower motif.

"See!? Ain't no bummah, lil' bird. An' how many times I gotta tell you to call me Haku like e'ryone else?"

"Ahah, sorry, Haku-san," Yukiko giggled, feeling a little bit better after his compliments. Haku had started calling her "little bird' after their first meeting, when Yukiko was going in and out of the kitchen to fetch food and drinks for the guests; he said that she was like a bird, a pretty little thing peacefully flitting about and doing her duties as if nothing in the world bothered her. Most of the staff had a pet name for her, having known her since she was very young, so she didn't mind. Yukiko also appreciated the nickname for the irony: her Shadow form in the TV World was literally a bird. She kept that to herself, naturally; she wasn't sure when the appropriate time to joke about things like that was, if ever.

"Don' worry about it so much. Kasai-san says you doin' a lot better than before!" Haku said, rearranging the sardines on the plate so they looked a little more presentable. "This fella you're makin' these for, he must be pretty special, yeah?"

Yukiko blushed hard as she began to dole out the garnish onto the fish. "I-it's not like that, really! He's just an old friend who is having some hard times…"

Haku made a motion with his hand across his lips, implying that they were sealed. Yukiko was referring to Kanji, who had messaged her a few days earlier to ask if her earlier offer to be his sounding board was still on the table. Yukiko had been out celebrating Chie's 18th birthday, but quickly responded that yes, he was more than welcome. He had since arrived and was in a room, awaiting service. To help make him feel more welcome, Yukiko had thought it would be a good idea to present him with a nice, hot meal; by making it by herself, she figured it would give the night a nice personal touch, just to show that she cared. Haku had only been supervising and giving a few tips when it came to using the grill, so garnish aside, she was pretty happy with how everything was going..

When she finished with the bowl that had contained her "creative" concoction, Yukiko properly disposed of it in the sink and rinsed it out as Haku got back to preparing a big vat of miso soup. On her way back she passed by the kitchen refrigerator, which she opened to look over the extensive choice of beverages the hotel supplied to restock the vending machines in the lobby. She first grabbed for an iced milk tea, but stopped and instead took a can of melon soda off the rack; for some reason she figured that Kanji preferred a sweeter, fizzier drink as opposed to the milk tea.

When she got back to the plate, she grabbed a small tray and arranged the beverage and the sardines carefully; the hotel was busy with workers and guests milling about, so she'd have to be very precise with how she carried the tray lest there be an accident. A bowl of rice was added as an additional side dish, and the prepared meal was finally complete.

"Alright, Haku-san, I'm going to take this to his room. Thanks for everything!" Yukiko said sweetly, turning to smile at the big chef.

"Anytime, Yuki-chan," Haku responded, "Give 'em! Oh, wait, your apron!"

The heiress blinked and looked down, playfully rolling her eyes as she realized that Haku was pointing out that she was still wearing a large white kitchen apron over her usual pink inn kimono. Carefully, she untied the back of the apron and pulled it over her head, setting it back down on the counter.

Haku gave her a hand gesture where he waggled his thumb and pinky finger at her, to which Yukiko nodded happily and grabbed the tray. As she approached the door, she shifted so her behind was able to nudge open one of the heavy kitchen doors. In her kimono, this was a bit harder than it looked; the lovely garment made for a fetching look, but it was a snug fit, and she had to be careful to make sure her she didn't trip herself up or let the garment come loose. With some effort, she made it through the doors and into the narrow corridors of her parents' inn, slowly but surely making her way toward room 206.


Wednesday, 8/2/12, Amagi Inn Room 206, Early Evening...

Kanji paced the moderate-sized hotel room for what felt like the hundredth time, flexing his fingers and finding a weird calm in the intense crackling of his knuckles. While he was at it, he started rotating his arms and stretching his shoulders out, only mildly inhibited by the grey yukata he was wearing that the inn had provided. This was a ritual he was used to doing any time he geared up for a fight, although he honestly wished that was what awaited him any minute now; at least that would be a little less awkward.

In a moment of intense isolation and fear, Kanji had accepted Yukiko's offer to stay at the inn for a night as a cover so that he could vent some of his frustrations to his senpai. Even on paper this felt weird; despite being acquaintances since they were kids, Kanji and Yukiko weren't exactly buddies even now. Although he bore no ill will toward the inn heiress at all, Kanji couldn't help but wonder what her agenda in all this was. She had approached him with the idea, and for some reason she really seemed to be all up in his business about talking about what he was feeling. What was up with that? He stepped away from the closet door and walked back toward the middle of the room, where a ground-level table and two padded seats sat silently.

For just a moment, he did feel bad for his distrust. Even though he had done his best to grow past it, his general nervousness around girls was still in full effect, even with someone like Yukiko, someone he'd known since he was a kid. Despite almost a whole year of her being nothing but kind to him, he still couldn't set aside his biases, and that frustrated him. What would Yu-senpai say to him if he knew he was thinking that way? Tapping his socked foot on the traditional tatami mat in frustration, he realized that for better or for worse, he was just going to have to lie in his bed now that he had made it.

With that tempest of thoughts swirling in his head, he was barely prepared for the sound of someone clearing their voice from the other side of the room's paper door.

"Kanji-kun," a sweet voice called out softly, "It's me! Could you please open the door? I've brought you something!"

Shit, she was here! Now was not the time to lose his nerve; he was a man, dammit, and the only way he was going to get through the night was to face it head on! Taking a deep breath and feeling his chest expand, Kanji stoically walked to the door, inflated by a strange, masculine sense of duty. This, of course, crumpled as soon as he opened the door and saw the petite Yukiko at the door, dressed in her pink kimono and smiling as if nothing was wrong.

This was gonna be a looonnngg night, he thought to himself as all the insecurity came flooding back the minute he realized he couldn't back out anymore. "Y-yo, senpai. Come on in," he said, wincing as his voiced cracked. He turned his awkward, slouched stride toward the table, Yukiko following in a poised position with the tray she was holding. She carefully set the tray down in the middle of the table and took a seat. Kanji perched himself in the opposite chair, a small blush hanging on his nose as he put his large palms on his knees and desperately tried to think of something, anything , to break up the glacier that was slowly forming in the room.

"So, uh…" Nothing. Crap! His blush started to get worse as he tried to stare at anything else in the room but her.

"Y-yeah...um, I brought f-food!" Yukiko interrupted, her nervous energy seeming almost equal to his, "There's sardines, some rice…"

Kanji smiled as he listened, happy that she took the initiative to say something and at the smell of the tasty looking food in front of him. "Woah, badass! I-I love sardines!" he said shyly, only mildly embarrassed that aside from the taste, he loved how cute they looked all stacked up and dead on his plate. Yukiko giggled softly as she watched Kanji eagerly grab one of the sticks, taking a hearty bite out of the grilled black fish.

"I'm glad!" she grinned, setting her posture a little more straight on the seat, "I seemed to remember that you liked fish, so I made sure we had some that I could use for tonight. Hopefully they weren't too old-Hmm? Kanji-kun? Is something wrong?"

"That I could use…"

"That I …"

"I...  "

While she had been talking, Kanji had frozen up, his mouth open to reveal the gooey bits of fish he was still chewing. The remains of the sardine in his hand clattered back onto the plate as he struggled to regain his composure. Did...did she just say what he think she said? Yukiko squinted her eyes in confusion, but was interrupted before she could say anything.

"S-senpai, are you tellin' me that...that you made this?" Kanji asked, the food in his mouth garbling his speech a bit. The lanky 2nd year had been on the unfortunate receiving end of a Yukiko-made meal before, and if this too was the case, he probably had about 30 seconds before the taste hit him like a ton of bricks. Yukiko let out a little gasp, her eyes slowly lowering in embarrassment.

"I-is it...that bad?" she asked, seemingly too embarrassed to look up at Kanji. Quickly, the boy looked around for a napkin or something that he could spit out the potentially fatal food in his mouth, but there was nothing around. Out of options, he clammed up, squeezed his eyes shut, and swallowed hard, feeling every inch of it as it slid down his throat. He waited for the inevitable stomach-ache or for the cacophony of bad flavor to assault every one of his senses and clog his eyes and nose with tears...

...But...nothing happened!

Shocked, Kanji slowly opened his eyes as he analyzed what he had just eaten. For starters, the sauce or whatever was on top of it definitely sucked, and he was sure he was going to be tasting that for a while, but the actual sardine? It...wasn't bad!

"K-Kanji-kun?" Yukiko asked again, the blush still on her cheeks. "Y-you can be honest, it's okay…"

Kanji looked at her, his eyes free for the first time of tears or disgust toward Yukiko's food. "N-no, it ain't that! It's...weirdly...kinda good?"

Yukiko's head shot up as he continued with his blunt yet honest critique.

"I mean, that sauce stuff is kinda makin' my tongue numb," he noted, his face souring as he tried to will himself past the bitter taste, "but the actual fish tastes okay," he revealed, taking another bite of the fish after hastily scraping off the garnish. Although the remnants of the bitter garnish were still there, the sardines just tasted like solid grilled fish, like they were supposed to. He couldn't believe it.

Yukiko looked overjoyed. Beaming, she sat up straight and grinned at her friend. "I-I'm glad you think so! I've tried so hard to get better at this, and I feel like I'm finally-"

While she gushed, Kanji decided that he may be able to counteract the poor taste of the garnish by taking a rather large bite of the rice that was served alongside his fish. Unfortunately, in his haste, he swallowed far too much rice, and almost instantly he began to choke and sputter violently. He did his best to shield Yukiko from his coughing by using the sleeve of his yukata, but he was hacking like a newborn spitting up his dinner. Thinking quickly, he tore the lid off the can of melon soda and took a long swig. He was still sputtering a little and could feel his eyes tearing up as he looked sheepishly back at Yukiko, like a dog who had just been caught chewing up a shoe.

"S-sor -hack- ry…" he muttered sadly. Yukiko responded, only not with any recognizable words.

"Snnrk...hkkkgh…"

Even in his weakened state, Kanji had heard that sound enough to know what was coming.

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Ohoho I'm sorryyyheeeheeeee! Haahaaaaa!"

She couldn't control herself, her laughter reaching a crescendo as Kanji rubbed the back of his head while he turned a bright shade of red. She would really laugh at anything , wouldn't she?

"'Ey, c'mon -kaff-! 'S not that -erhrm- funny! I coulda died probly…" he whimpered softly. Yukiko continued to cackle, unphased by Kanji's pleading.

"I (snnrkt) know (teeheheeee) but you should (-snort-) you should have seen your faaaaheeeccce!" she wheezed, holding it together briefly before collapsing into giggles again. She grabbed her stomach and leaned forward, her flowing hair dipping past her face as she did. Despite his initial annoyance at her finding such humor in his pain, Kanji couldn't deny her laughter was so earnest and obnoxious that it was very easy to get caught up in.

"Heh," Kanji chuckled as he wiped his mouth, "I guess it is (heehee) kinda...heheheheh!"

Before too long, both teenagers were in laughing fits, eyes tearing and breaths short and labored. It was a good while before they were able to compose themselves, although Yukiko had it far worse than her customer.

"Ohhoh damn ," Kanji exclaimed, wiping his eye dry, "I haven't laughed that hard in a long ass time! Not since…"

Kanji blushed again, remembering exactly when he had last cracked up so much. It was back in June, during a pretty routine lunch on the school rooftop with all of his friends. Rise was making a loud boast that since she and Naoto had become so close, she was picking up her smarts by osmosis. To prove it, she recited an English word, "excrement." Naoto's face went immediately blank, and it was a few minutes before she, deeply embarrassed, let the group know that "excrement" was a polite word for human waste. Rise had never looked so horrified, and everyone else laughed so much they either forgot about eating lunch or were too grossed out too.

Of course, thinking of anything Naoto related soured his mood, and he felt his face sink from a winning grin into a dour frown almost immediately. Yukiko must have noticed, as she seemed to stop her giggling. An uncomfortable silence sprung up, both unaware of what to say. After what seemed like an hour, Yukiko finally spoke up.

"Was it something to do with…w-well, with Naoto-kun?" She asked softly, her hands folded in her lap with perfect poise. Bingo, Kanji thought, giving her a meager nod to confirm her suspicion.

"Y-yeah, somethin' like that," he huffed, annoyed that he could already feel his emotions rising. He couldn't even think of something to do with her without everything trying to spill out. In order to avoid having to say anything else he reached for the can of soda and took another long swig, almost emptying the sweet drink completely.

Man this was awkward. Yukiko had long since gotten the giggles out of her system and just sat quietly as Kanji tried to distract himself with the food, half-heartedly chewing on one of the sardines after hastily scraping off the garnish.

"Do you, erm," Yukiko began to ask, fixing her hair nervously, "do you want to talk? A-about...what's been going on?

Finally the two friends' eyes met, and Kanji could see that any trace of goofiness had left her; indeed, she was as serious as she had been the other day when she had made the offer to took a deep breath, telling himself that it was easier to trust her then keep it bottled up anymore.

"Might as well...jus' ta get it over with," he huffed, getting into a more comfortable position on his chair. Yukiko sat at attention as well, as if she was preparing for another journey into the TV World rather than a frank talk with a friend.

So Kanji talked. He told Yukiko everything - his confession to Naoto, her response, the week of self-loathing, and finally about his odd encounter with her at the drugstore. Throughout, Yukiko listened intently, her face a blank slate as she absorbed all that Kanji had to tell her, only asking for clarification at some points. The further the story got, the more Kanji could feel his heart beginning to tear itself in two again; by the time he was finished he was blinking back tears, a matter of great shame to him.

"So, uh, -snrfff- that's it, I guess," Kanji sniffled, trying to rub his face with his sleeve in a poor attempt at disguising his eye wiping, "I 'unno if it makes sense but...yeah." Yukiko reached into the sash around her waist for a handkerchief, passing it across the table to the beleaguered second year. He ignored it and just kept wiping with his hand, too proud to accept her handout.

The two teens moped silently for a minute or two. The longer the silence went on, the more Kanji wished he hadn't said anything. Regardless of what Yukiko thought, this... changed things between the two of them. Forever! Even if he were to suddenly gain the mystical powers that his Persona granted him in the TV World, turning back time wasn't one of those powers. Yukiko wasn't going to un-hear everything he just said, and now she was privy to a lot of his deep-seated fears and anxieties. Of course, she had also seen his Shadow, so maybe it wasn't that big of a leap, but the fear of rejection still plagued Kanjis' heart, and he wondered if perhaps Yukiko was going to think less of him now. Hell, if she liked a guy like Narukami, who was the toughest and manliest guy Kanji knew, what else was she gonna think of him blubbering and crying about his feelings?

While Kanji aggressively rubbed his quickly clogging nose, Yukiko looked like she finally was ready to give her input. "I...I-I'm so sorry that this happened to you, Kanji-kun," she began, pushing her hair back behind her ear, "I...gosh, I don't even really know what to say. E-everything you said, it just...it reminded me of, well, um…m-me and..." the heiress suddenly stopped, nervously playing with her fingers as if to distract herself from what she was trying to say.

Kanji looked at her, confusion briefly flashing across his face before it went flush in realization. Their could be only one thing she was talking about.

"O-oh, you mean your, uh, thing with Yu-senpai…"

It had only been a few months ago that Yukiko, in a mood Kanji had never seen before or since, lashed out at Rise for secretly dating Yu behind everyone's back. He only knew what he could figure out from the big talk the group had later, but as far as he could tell Yukiko was sweet on Narukami, and just hadn't gotten the nerve to say something while he was still in Inaba. The shock of learning that he wasn't interested and finding out Rise had already been seeing him had made her explode, although it was Kanji who was able to broker peace between the two girls relatively quickly by having them meet on neutral ground at Junes.

That must have been on her mind, too, as she looked back at him. "You know, I don't know if I've ever mentioned how grateful I was for you doing what you did back then, Kanji-kun," she said shyly, her cheeks as pink as her kimono, "I-I know it must have been difficult...y-you must have thought I was being so childish…"

Yukiko looked down, clearly regretful of how everything had went down. Kanji, however, didn't see it that way. "I...I wouldn't ta said you were actin' like a kid," he mumbled, rubbing the back of his shiny black hair, "Hell, I actually...kinda get it now. That musta been frustratin' as shit to just find out about outta the blue like that." He didn't want to know how he would have reacted if he knew one of the guys had been seeing Naoto on the sly the whole time and never let him know; luckily that was too farfetched to even waste time worrying about, he thought.

"O-oh, you think so?" Yukiko replied, looking a little surprised, "Well...maybe you're right. Either way, I'm still glad you did what you did." She waited a few seconds before asking her next question. "I have to say, it's not something...well, don't take this the wrong way, but...I just never would have expected you to...take charge like that. What...what made you do it? I-is it alright...for me to ask?"

Huh? Kanji wasn't expecting that . He felt weird that she even had to ask. "Uh...well, it ain't nothin' big, Yukiko-senpai: yer my pals and I didn't wanna see ya fightin'. Simple as 'at. Someone hadda do it, an' I know you and Naoto 'r usually the smart ones, but you were both mad, so…" With as much effort as he could muster, Kanji shrugged his big shoulders, hoping that said more than the meager words he had to offer.

To his surprise, Yukiko giggled a little. "Well, when you put it that way, maybe I was overthinking it. I think that's…" she stopped and fumbled with the sleeves of her kimono, sounding nervous as she gazed down at the tatami tiles, "th-that's really... sweet ."

The big 2nd year's ears got a little hot hearing that. Wasn't that big a deal, he thought. Besides, if he was so cool and sweet, he probably wouldn't be in the predicament he was.

"Th-thanks, I guess...still, not like I had any guts when it mattered…" It sounded like he was just being a wet blanket, but he couldn't help it. A part of him had always wondered that maybe if he hadn't have sat there and just taken what Naoto had said, if he had fought for what he so passionately felt, then maybe everything would have worked out better. He'd fought his whole life - why was this fight suddenly so hard? The idea pecked at him like a vulture gnawing on flesh.

He looked off to the side, breathing out slowly as more black thoughts crept into his skull. Before he could get too comfortable with it, a sharp voice sliced through the thoughts. "Don't say things like that!" He snapped his attention back to his friend, who suddenly looked quite cross. "I-I know that it's easy to say you could have done something more, or been different, but you're just torturing yourself! I...I still think sometimes that maybe...maybe if I was…"

Yukiko stopped, sounding like she was quietly choking on nothing. He peered at her, confused. "Yo, senpai, y'alright?" he asked. She sounded like was about to say something pretty profound, although Kanji also felt a twinge of pity; he never really knew how bad the whole thing with Yu had affected her, and it looks like it was worse than he may have realized. He thought about how tough it had been for him to even agree to begin talking about his love issues, and that twinge of pity turned into a pretty heavy pinch very quickly.

"I-I'm sorry, Kanji-kun," she said sadly, "It's just...I keep making it about myself, don't I? I'm so selfish…"

What the hell was she talking about? Kanji grunted and got up off his chair, pacing a bit to get out whatever frustrated energy he had built up. The hell did she mean she was selfish? Wasn't anything selfish about using her own experience, he thought. Yukiko was helping him a lot already, but she didn't seem to be getting it. He decided to make her aware, in the hopes it would get her to keep talking.

"Ya ain't selfish, senpai," he sighed heavily, feeling the annoyance in his voice, "In fact it makes me kinda pissed you'd even say that!"

"...!" At that, Yukiko looked up, her blush returning twofold as her eyes squinted in confusion, "W-what do you-"

"Yeah, I said it!" Kanji quickly cut her off, making her gulp nervously, "Whatever... this ," he growled, gesturing with his hands as if he could mime out his feelings of inadequacy and shame, "is, it sucks! I hated it so much that I...I didn't wanna talk 'bout it at all!. But you were the one who told me I should. Fer nothin', too; you didn't haveta to do it, but you did. You ain't selfish...you're strong ! Stronger 'an me anyways..."

It took a lot for Kanji not to tear up right then and there. All the frustration and self-loathing about what his friends would say was creeping up on him there, and the relief that he had a friend as compassionate as Yukiko that sort of understood what he was going through was almost too much to bear. He quickly sat himself back down on the pillow, muttering angrily to himself to calm down as he rocked back and forth, big hands on his crossed knees.

Yukiko was just staring at him, her mouth agape, like she couldn't believe what she wa hearing. "I-I...Kanji-kun...th-thank you." She closed her mouth and turned red for the hundredth time, although there was still a touch of sadness in her eyes. "T-to be honest," she nearly whispered, almost like she was trying to hold herself back as Kanji was, "you're the first person I've really talked to about this...I haven't even spoken to Chie about it…"

Woah . Her and Chie were like peas in a pod, so if Yukiko hadn't even brought it up to her, then it must have been really serious.

"Y-yeah?" he replied, still a little taken aback by that, "But...why not? Chie's a cool chick, and she's your best pal. She'd get it, I think."

Yukiko looked at him as she answered. "Y-you're probably right but..it's hard . I'm afraid I'll sound like I'm...like I'm crazy or something. And Chie is so strong that I'm worried she'll think I'm being pathetic. You...can understand that, right?"

Kanji felt that one pretty hard. Sometimes he wondered if the feelings he had was just him being a big baby, and that his friends would mock him for being so worked up. He still sort of felt that, but Yukiko was helping to stave off the worst of it. Maybe he should return the favor.

"Nah, I get that," he said, leaning closer to the table in between them, "but honestly...even just sayin' some of this shit has helped. A lot . So...y'know, thanks. Fer just listenin' I guess. Without...sayin' I'm crazy or whatever," he mumbled, turning red as he trailed off. As comfortable as he was feeling at the moment, it still felt weird to be having such a sincere moment with a girl in front of him without saying something stupid. Even if that girl was a good friend, of sorts.

"You...you're welcome," Yukiko mumbled back, looking like a tomato. Kanji honestly worried for her health. "I want you to know, too...these f-feelings might be ugly, and lead you to believe the worst about yourself, but...no matter what, you are a good person, Kanji-kun. I believe that with all of my heart," she revealed, making the second year turn as red as she was. "It's just love... stupid love. It's supposed to be this great thing, but I'm wondering when it will finally feel like that instead of... this ." She mimicked Kanji's earlier gesture, chuckling sadly as she did.

Kanji nodded quietly, a little surprised by his senpai's cynicism. He expected that kind of talk from Yosuke or someone, but not her. Again, he wondered if he had only scratched the surface of her trauma, and that like him, darker feelings still lurked below the depths. He don't know what made Yukiko suddenly reach out, but he was glad; there was no way he could have even begun to share this with anyone else. They may have sort of understood, but Yukiko was in a special position to know exactly what he was talking about.

He rubbed his face with his hands, suddenly wondering what his Ma would say if he said all this to her. Even weirder, he pictured what his dad would think. Kanji's father had passed away years ago, and it was only recently that he had begun to creep back into his thoughts, thanks to some advice from Yu. This made him snort, which got a look from Yukiko.

"''S nothin'," he assured her, "Just…thinkin' about what my old man woulda thought 'o all this." Again, it sounded weird to say, but Yukiko's presence had him feeling like he could say anything.

Yukiko played with her sleeves again before looking up at Kanji, a remorseful look on her face."I-I don't remember much about your dad, but he seemed like a nice man whenever he was here at the inn or if I saw him at your house. I-I'm sorry that he's not...that he's..."

He had forgotten, but Yukiko was the only person in their group who knew his dad. Since the two families had always done business with each other, and since she was a little older, she must have seen him enough to have a memory of him. Kanji was aware his father had been a good man, but it was nice to hear it reaffirmed by a third party.

Nevertheless, he always felt weird when people got all morose about his dad dying. "Heh, what're you sorry for, senpai?" he said, chuckling not at her sentiment, but the hesitation. "Not like you coulda stopped what happened. 'Sides, I gotta stay tough for Ma; she's always tryin' to run the shop on 'er own, she don't need me mopin' about my Dad too. It happened, and I gotta move on."

This made Yukiko smile, although he wasn't sure why. After a few seconds, she spoke up again.

"Um, Kanji-kun?" She asked, looking less nervous and more confident than before.

"Mm? 'Sup?"

"I...I may not have all the answers as to how you can get over something like this, but I want you to know that I'll try my best to find them, even if it's confusing and painful sometimes. And...when I do, I'll share them with you. I promise!" she said affirmatively, the dour look finally leaving her dark eyes. In its stead, a powerful look that reminded Kanji of when they would all get psyched up to go in the TV World. It was infectious, and for the first time in a while he felt like the weight of the world wasn't crashing down on his shoulders.

"Y-yeah? A-awesome! M-mebbe if we try together, we can figure out how we're s'posed to handle alla this junk," he replied earnestly, feeling a strange cheesy grin on his face; grinning like an idiot had seemed so out of the question even just ten minutes earlier that he couldn't believe it was happening.

"Yeah!" Yukiko replied, matching his grin with one of her own.

They both laughed, although not as hard as before, while a gentle calm finally settled into the room. After about thirty seconds, the small buzz of a cell phone suddenly broke that silence. Yukiko reached into her sash again and pulled out her cell phone, blinking as she read the little screen. She muttered to herself before looking up at Kanji, looking a little sad. It wasn't hard to figure out what she was going to say

"Y'gotta run?" he surmised. She nodded apologetically.

"Yes, my mother needs me. Sorry! I didn't realize I had been gone so long. I-I'll come back later, if you need anything!" She offered, getting back up to her feet and fixing her kimono.

Kanji was thankful for her continued kindness, but he decided to decline her offer. Chatting with her was cool and all, but it was tiring. He needed some time on his own. "Y-you don't haveta do that, Yukiko-senpai, I got-"

"It's really no trouble," Yukiko interrupted, "I check on everyone on this side of the hotel since it's closest to my room, so I'll just be back in a while, okay?"

Kanji opened his mouth to say something again, but closed it when Yukiko fixed him with a glare that would have seemed laughable coming from a small girl in a pink kimono if that girl was anyone other than Yukiko Amagi. He sheepishly nodded and waved as she shuffled over to the paper door and hurriedly took off down the hallway, leaving Kanji alone with his thoughts.

He was feeling good now, but the 2nd year also knew it was only a matter of time before he got down on himself again; this was one of the few fights he knew was pretty much a losing one every time. Looking down at the table, he noticed that there was still some food left. It was probably cold now and wouldn't taste great, but when you need a distraction...


Wednesday,  8/2/12, Amagi Inn, Late Evening...

Yukiko sighed as she washed her hands in the sink, diligently scrubbing every square inch, including under her fingernails. The last half hour had been replete with dinner order after dinner order, and Yukiko was worn out from how much she had to engage in hostess-type behavior. No one was rude, thank goodness, but considering the weight of her conversation with Kanji, being a good hostess who laughed at everyone's bad joke and bantered about every customer's day was just so exhausting . Relieved of her duties for the night by her mother, she had stopped to use the restroom before going to see Kanji one last time. Her hands finally passing inspection, she went to dry them with a nearby towel when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror.

She was surprised to see, looking in the mirror, that whatever stress she felt didn't appear to show on her face. Yukiko wasn't as extreme as Rise when it came to beauty products and makeup, but she did her best to look good: her preferred cherry chapstick and light mascara were applied and doing their job, along with a skin care routine that left her face free of any noticeable marks and scars. Most importantly, however, there was an honest-to-goodness spark in her eye that seemed to be a new arrival. At her worst, Yukiko couldn't help but feel that perhaps she was just too much of a plain, small-town Japanese girl to appeal to a boy raised in the city like Yu, and that's why she was passed over. A foolish thought, she knew, but she also couldn't help herself. She didn't know why, but her self-confidence was on the upswing, however, and the feeling was tremendous; she never wanted it to go away.

Pleased, she smiled at herself before turning off the light and quietly making her way out of the restroom, back toward Kanji's room. It was later, closer to 9 o'clock now, and the inn was eerily quiet compared to how lively it had been only a few hours earlier, save for the chirping of hundreds of crickets quietly filling the summer air.

While she walked Yukiko's mind dipped back toward her time with Kanji. It hadn't gone perfect, exactly, but she was relieved that Kanji told his story, even though it made her confront some difficult problems she was facing too. He was an unlikely ally, but she felt better knowing that perhaps there was someone that she could talk to about what had been going on the past few months. Chie was always going to be her best friend, but while her freewheeling, sunny disposition did wonders to stop the bleeding, it didn't do much to heal the wound that was left in Yukiko's heart. She felt the damaged organ in question speed up a little as she approached the door to Kanji's room, making her ears get hot as well.

"I'm so silly," she said quietly to herself, "It's just Kanji-kun!"

With that affirmation in mind, she continued until she was right in front of room 206. Through the thin paper of the door she could see the light of the room's lamp was still on. Quiet as a cat, she knocked on the wood paneling, listening for movement on the mats inside.

"Kanji-kun?" she asked in a hushed tone. Her fingers had naturally been resting on the edge of the door, and she was surprised to see it partially open. Inevitably, Kanji hadn't thrown the deadbolt when she left. She thought for a minute whether or not it would be rude to enter, and settled for a small peek between the door's edge and the frame.

The futon that had been in the closet was sprawled out on the floor, and Kanji lay on top of it, the comforter he was under not totally applied on him out of either laziness or his sleepy fidgeting. He wasn't snoring too loudly, but it was audible; he was dead asleep. That would explain the lamp, Yukiko thought.

Chuckling quietly, she gently opened the door halfway and slipped in, moving to shut the lamp off. The click of the lamp wasn't too loud, but she still nervously glanced over at the sleeping second year to see if he was bothered by it. Nothing, luckily. In the corner of her eye she saw the table with the tray she had brought earlier, and went to grab it and gasped; the food was all gone! Kanji had eaten all of the sardines and rice, leaving only a large trail of the garnish on the side of the plate.

Yukiko was so happy she could cry. She knew the food probably got cold while they were talking, and even with Haku's help, she could tell that Kanji was probably being a bit nicer than he let on when he tasted it. Still, the fact that the dish was clean was probably the most anyone had eaten one of her meals since Yu dutifully tried out her lunch boxes.

Well, if he was going to be such a good friend, Yukiko saw it only fit to return the favor. Being as careful as possible, she crouched, difficult considering her kimono and the lack of lighting, and did her best to pull his comforter over him, so he was a little more covered up. He didn't appear to stir, but as soon as she turned to gather the tray, she heard a stifled groan.

She turned back around and took a closer look at his sleeping form. Kanji was definitely not awake, but he was tossing and turning, his breathing uneven. A little bit of flop sweat had even started to appear right around the edge where his black hair met the scar on his forehead. Yukiko recognized this behavior from years of sleepovers with Chie: he was having a nightmare. After all they had talked about, and considering her own experiences, she didn't need more than two guesses to figure out what he was dreaming about.

It hurt to remember his happy, goofy smile from just before she had left earlier juxtaposed with the pained grimace he now sported. He was also starting to make little noises, like a wounded puppy. Anxious, Yukiko bent down and began to whisper gently to him.

"Kanji-kun, it's okay! Sshh , everything's okay!"

No response. She tried a few more times, but nothing seemed to be getting through to him. It looked like she was going to have to bring out the big guns. Without really thinking of what it entailed, she decided to try the same tried and true tactic that had always worked on Chie. As her hand unconsciously moved underneath the comforter, she used her most comforting, soft voice possible.

" Sssh . I'm right here, I won't let anything happen to you. Ssshh… "

Somehow, after several repetitions, this had an effect. Kanji stopped twisting around, settling back on the futon in a normal sleeping pose. He still had the flop sweat residue, but even his frown was beginning to fade. It wasn't until she felt a vicious squeeze that she realized what she was doing: she was holding Kanji's hand! That had always been part of her routine with Chie, but this was... much different! Kanji was a boy , and she was holding his hand tightly, feeling his sweaty palm clash with hers. Worse, she had interlaced her fingers with his, meaning that she was going to have to forcefully pull them apart, which could wake him up. Within an instant it felt like every drop of blood left her body and was now entering her head, and she considered fainting briefly. Just let go , her mind screamed, but she found that she could not. There was...something compelling her to not let go, a feeling that she couldn't really understand. The poor 3rd year inhaled deep and took a deep breath, hoping she could power through this awkward moment without it getting any worse.

Luckily, Kanji's ramblings produced something strong enough to provoke a reaction from the heiress, distracting her from the hand holding. "Naoto…" she heard him mumble as his face turned and sunk into the pillow under his head. It was only natural; Yukiko frequently had dreams of an alternate dimension where she and Yu were in a relationship and doing something happy. She supposed it helped some people, but for her, these truly were nightmares. Maybe Kanji thought the same?

For a moment she considered what it was Kanji liked about Naoto. Perhaps it was just because Yukiko didn't hang out with her as much, but she wondered what about the little detective was so great that it would thrust Kanji into so much pain just to date her. She had wanted to ask him the question earlier, but lost her nerve; she spent the rest of her night building up the courage again, but with him asleep now, she had lost her chance for the night. Beneath her inquisitiveness, however, lay something darker: Yukiko could feel just a smidgeon of actual anger toward Naoto. Couldn't she see that her refusal to talk to the group was hurting Kanji so? Did she really think that was going to help? It wasn't fair, Yukiko realized, but the feeling still existed, bubbling just beneath the surface.

Another jolt from Kanij's hand made her once again acutely aware of what she was doing. Stifling an embarrassed squeak, Yukiko untangled the sweaty mass of their hands as gently as possible and got back to her feet, stopping first to grab the tray of food on the nearby table. Carefully and quietly, she started edging toward the door, thanking her lucky stars that she had left it cracked open so she could grasp it with just a finger from her full hands. She stopped one last time in the door frame to look back at Kanji. He now looked the epitome of peace, snoring slowly as a light smile brightened up his face. In spite of her burning embarrassment at what she had done, Yukiko found herself smiling back.

"Goodnight, Kanji-kun," she said to herself more than to him. "Sweet dreams!"

Like a pro, she shut the door without so much as a sound and turned to head toward the end of the hall, where one of the cleaning staff had a large cart filled with other discarded trays. After depositing the leftover dishes, she walked over to the foot of the nearby stairs, stopping to look at her right hand, the one she had held Kanji's with. It was now covered in sweat, and it smelled a little weird. Internally, she was scolding herself for doing something so silly, but another part of her brain compelled her to use the other hand to simulate what had just happened in Kanji's room. As she did, she started to feel the same feeling she had then: a pleasant feeling of peace and contentment that calmed her machine-gun heart and made her feel not as alone. It was hard to describe, but it was like having the warm feelings that being with her Investigation Team friends created distilled into a simple but meaningful gesture.

Yukiko blushed again as she realized she was enjoying that feeling a little too much. I can be such a child , she scolded herself as she separated her hands. She shook her head as she began the difficult walk up the stairs, hoping that her sleep would not only be better than Kanji's, but that it would also alleviate whatever silliness was clearly clouding up her mind.

Chapter Text

Saturday, 8/5/12, Shirogane Residence, Morning…

*Knock knock knock*

Naoto opened one eye like a castle drawbridge, almost feeling the weight of her eyelid as it struggled to maintain its temporary victory. The stupor of sleep had yet to fully wear off, so the detective found herself with serious doubts as to whether or not the noise she heard was real or the lingering echo of a distant dream. Maybe a wait-and-see approach would prove most eff -

*Knock knock knock*

Real. It was a mild groan that came out next, the annoyed grunt of an under-rested teenager who felt it was far too early for such loud noises. A slow and arduous turn of her head could confirm that seeing the glowing red digits of 8:30 A.M. on her bedside clock did little to disprove her theory. Normally the 2nd year was very punctual waking up, even if she often slept far past a normal time for someone her age, but she had hoped that summer vacation would be the one time where she could be a little more lax. As usual, life wasn’t so interested in what she wanted.

The sleepy indigo-haired girl rolled off her bed, ignoring creaky and stiff joints as she stumbled to her feet. Giving herself a minor inspection, she was at least pleased to see that she had managed to dress for bed; the detective had a bad habit of working past the point of exhaustion, which caused her to nod off in her regular clothes far more often than she’d like.

Her pajamas consisted of a dark blue, long sleeved, collared silk shirt, with three buttons and a chest pocket decorating the front, and a pair of matching silk shorts that hung just below her knees. It wasn’t really her style, but it was incredibly comfortable and, more importantly, a gift from her Grandfather. She grabbed for the black robe hanging off one of the myriad hooks up near the door and slowly began -

*Bang bang bang*

Okay, that was enough!

“Yakushiji-san, please! This noise is excessive and unnecessary!” Naoto hissed, clamping one eye shut as she reeled from the sounds of something banging on the wooden door. What had gotten into Yakushiji, she wondered. Was there some emergency? Naoto forgot about tying the robe and just reached for the door handle. “If you would please just wait a moment, I can - !”

The 2nd year had thrown open her door, expecting the stern and bespectacled face of her Grandfather’s assistant. That wasn’t exactly what stood in front of her, and she couldn’t contain the audible gasp that escaped her throat. The loud visitor picked up the slack from Naoto’s mouth-agape silence.

Snnrkt ...so, 2 things: number one, I am in love with those PJ’s! I am all about this sleepy detective look. Secondly, I’ve been standing here un-hugged for, like, forever, and it’s really bugging me, honestly!”

Rise. Rise. Sure enough, the recently reinstated idol was standing there, in the flesh. With her black, long sleeved crop top, cut-off denim shorts and beautifully styled and combed hair running long down her back, Rise looked like she’d just stepped off the stage of a film and into real life. Naoto was torn between a veritable multiverse of feelings: overwhelming joy, anger at her being gone so long, sadness that she probably wouldn’t stay, anxiety at what to say about what had been going on, and a nagging sleepiness that wondered if she was still somehow dreaming. The maelstrom of thoughts paralyzed her, which made Rise laugh as she closed the gap between them.

“Don’t worry,” she snickered again, slowly placing her arms around the smaller girl, “I’ll forgive you. This time!”

After a few seconds of standing there stunned, Naoto hurriedly reached her arm around Rise’s lower back, leaning into her bigger friend as the redhead began to gently rub her back. Her face heated up, naturally; it was expected that Rise was always going to hug her, but Naoto still couldn’t shake the embarrassment she felt whenever the idol embraced her so... lovingly . Obviously Rise only meant to convey her affection, but the pint-sized detective still had some hang-ups about physical contact, even with her best friend.

As Rise let go, Naoto did her best to suppress that uncomfortability, and felt a contagious smile arise to match Rise’s 1000 watt grin. “My apologies, Rise. I...this is quite a surprise,” the detective said, “Wh-what about the show, are you not still practicing?” As far as Naoto knew, Rise was in the final stages of preparing for her massive comeback show at the Love Meets Bonds festival later that month. She had gotten so busy lately that even texts were going unanswered.

Rise giggled as she trotted past Naoto into her room, hands clasped behind her back as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “Of course! Buuuttt while they’re setting up the stage and doing other boring planning stuff, I figured I could take a little break! I never used to take them before; I would always get so worn out, and I want this time to be different. Plus,” she sighed, turning back to give a mournful look at Naoto still in the doorway, “I missed you. A lot . Everyone else, too!”

It seemed that even after a few weeks of being away, Rise hadn’t lost her irresistible charm nor her natural ability to make Naoto feel like the luckiest person on the Earth to have her as a friend. “You are always missed,” she said wistfully, joining Rise in the center of her room, “It feels like we haven’t spent any time together since…” If Naoto was remembering correctly, it was that wretched last day of school when she and Rise had seen each other last. Her expression hardened, accordingly.

Rise must have sensed it, as she stepped a little closer to her friend. “I-I know. And believe me, I feel terrible about not being around since...well, everything. But I want to make it up to you!”

Naoto was again touched by the girl’s sincerity, but wanted to make it clear that her being here now was all that mattered. “R-Rise, please, you don’t have to do anything other than-”

“Which is why,” Rise announced, overpowering Naoto’s objections by just raising her voice, “I’m organizing the 2nd annual Investigation Team Beach Party! ” she squealed, doing a little wiggle with her hips and gesticulating her fingers in a silent dance, earning a raised eyebrow from her companion.

The beach? Naoto couldn’t remember the last time she had actually stepped onto an honest-to-goodness beach; it was another of those things one does as a child that had just never occurred to her. Even now, she felt no real pressing desire to sit in dirty sand amidst or frolic amidst likely polluted water, nor did she feel like going out in her...swimsuit, of sorts. Still, she had also been rather ambivalent towards the ski trip the team had taken at the beginning of the year, but ended up enjoying herself. It was the first time that she had really spent time with everyone without the pressure of having to solve a murder case, and it was such a great feeling. Perhaps this could match that high, although Naoto had her doubts, given recent happenings.

“Hmm...the beach, eh?” Naoto asked, mostly to herself, “I’ve never actually been, although I suppose there’s a first time for everything...”

Rise’s pink lips formed an almost perfect oval in shock. “ What!? Never!? Th-that means…” The girl had clenched her fists and was holding them over her mouth, as if the next sentence was in danger of harming Naoto. Even then, a muffled squeal made its way out. Naoto wasn’t sure what had got her so anxious, but this was usually never a good sign for the detective.

“It means…” Naoto groaned, preparing herself for whatever crackpot idea Rise was clearly cooking up.

We get to buy you a bathing suiiiittt!” Rise shrieked, skidding up to Naoto and wrapping her arms around her in yet another celebratory, claustrophobic hug. “I’m so happy, you have no idea! Now, if you ask me, it’s bikini or bust, and I have several reasons why-”

Naoto slowly pushed Rise off of her and held up a hand, already not thrilled with her plan. “I’m going to stop you right there,” she insisted, trying not to be too hard on her friend’s good-intentioned plan, “I have not even said whether or not I would like to go, for one, and as for your bathing suit plan…” Again, Naoto had to swallow a lump of disgust down her throat at the mere thought of having to wear a bikini, “That will not be happening,” she stated firmly with her arms crossed.

Rise pouted, crossing her arms across her chest. “Hmmph! You say that now, “ she began, “But you’ve never been shopping with my eye for this stuff. Maybe we can downgrade to a one-piece. Maybe .” Her eyes got a little more melancholy as she paused for a few seconds. “Do you...do you really not wanna come? I know it’s not your thing, but…”

Naoto felt a twinge of pain in her chest, hating to see Rise so sad. In truth, although the idea made her uncomfortable, she wasn’t completely opposed to the idea, per se. She liked spending time with her friends, no matter the setting, but things were different now. Well, one thing, anyways.

“R-Rise, please don’t be upset,” Naoto begged, scratching her hair in frustration, “I...I would like to spend time with you all again, truthfully. And you and I get such little time to ourselves that I would stop time if it meant spending an afternoon with you,” she finished, blushing deeply as she did. Rise had a tendency to bring out her sappy side, although she couldn’t say she disliked it. It made her feel grounded even at her lowest moments, when she was sure she was more alien than human.

Still, she wasn’t prepared for Rise’s reaction. “Nao-chan...that’s…” Rise leapt forward and hugged her once again, little sniffles of emotion gunking up her words. “Thu-that’s -sniff- the swuh-sweetest thing -sniff- you’ve ever said!” Although it was unexpected, Naoto let Rise enjoy the embrace, realizing her discomfort was worth Rise’s happiness.

“I-I wuh-would do the same!” Rise explained, finally letting go of her indigo-haired friend and revealing legitimately moist and teary eyes, “A-and I hope you know I’m just teasing you about the bikini stuff...yuh-you could wear anything you want! Just so long as you come…”

A wry smile fell over the detective’s face. With that kind of presentation, what else could she say? “I...yes, I’ll go, but I-”

Naoto was interrupted by a shrill scream of joy from Rise, a piercing shriek that hurt the detective’s ears. As she shook her head and made sure her equilibrium was intact, Rise began to babble, her teary face all but cured of its temporary fit of sadness. “Alright, I’m gonna let everyone know!” she yelped, firing out a blitz of texts on her phone, “I was thinking next Saturday, because I know that’s when Yosuke usually has the day off and Yukiko should be available before the weekend is up. Oh man this is gonna be so cool! You didn’t get to go last time ‘cause you were still Meanie-Face McNo-fun Shirogane.” Naoto made what she presumed was the "meanie" face at Rise, who laughed as she continued. “But you seriously missed out: we built sand-castles, swam in the ocean, and had so much fun! You’re gonna love it, I promise!”

This all sounded well and good, but Naoto was hoping Rise was finished so she could explain her more pressing point. “I-I’m sure, but-”

“Oh!” Rise exclaimed, interrupting her poor friend again, “You know what, though? I know that Chie and Yukiko have bathing suits that Dopesuke bought for them, so maybe we actually should go shopping. Girls as amazing and beautiful as them deserve better than something that perv picked out!”

Even through her exasperation, Naoto couldn’t ignore what she just heard. “W-wait, what was that?”

“Mmm?” Rise blinked, knocked out her tirade.

“You said that... Yosuke-senpai bought our senpai their swimsuits?”

Rise nodded, scoffing and rolling her eyes. “ Right!? Barf! I mean, they were pretty sexy, but still, it’s, like...the principle, or whatever, y’know?!”

Naoto didn’t know why, but this new bit of information made her feel strange and bothered. Perhaps it was because the two had recently gotten a bit closer, but it was upsetting to hear that Yosuke had done something so... odious . Obviously she knew he was much like most teenage boys when it came to having an insatiable and tiring lust for the opposite sex, but this...this felt a step too far. She made sure to file it in the vast archive of her mind for a future conversation with her older friend.

"Something else, too," Rise began, her eyes still glued to her phone, "You are up shockingly late today. Did you find an awesome new case and stay up all night studying and not tell me!? Oh, you're gonna get it, Shirogane..."

Naoto couldn't help but let out another chuckle. "Ha, I wish I was doing something of that nature! No I was...erm..." The detective hesitated, deciding whether or not she'd have to bend the truth a little.

She had been up very late, that was true, but it wasn't because she was studying a new case; she had actually been texting Yosuke, having a conversation about some of the things they had discussed on Monday. Naoto wasn't sure how to explain it, but Yosuke's admission of his own troubled past when it came to romance as well as a more docile and tolerable nature had done quite a number on his opinion of him. The follow-up conversation had solidified said opinion, as he continued to be thoughtful and forthcoming about his experience while toning down his usual bawdy behavior. It had been awhile since she had texted someone until very late at night, and she barely remembered getting into her pajamas and crawling into bed amidst their digital conversation. 

Having said all that, however, she wasn't sure now was the time to sing his praises, especially in light of the new information Rise had just given her, which still creeped her out.

"You weerrreeee?" Rise repeated, tapping a socked foot on the floor.

"H-homework. I was attempting to finish my summer homework," Naoto said hastily, pointing to the school bag next to her desk, "I figured I could save myself some time and work on it now instead of toward the end of Summer." Rise scanned her face for a solid 10 seconds after that, the answer apparently passing muster with her.

"Well, that sounds positively dorky, just like you!" she said, snorting embarrassingly as she giggled. Naoto turned red but was glad that the white lie seemed to have worked. Besides, there was something else standing in the way of Naoto enjoying herself at the beach other than late night texting. 

“R-regardless,” she stammered, trying to get back on track through her troubled thoughts, “as I said, I want to go, but I have a concern…”

Rise suddenly got a serious look on her face. “Is it...is it Kanji?”

The girl was too good, Naoto thought. “I-it is. I would like to do my best to make amends, but I worry that it may be too little, too late…”

That statement stood heavy in the air for a while as both girls struggled with the weight of it. From her conversation with Yosuke, Naoto realized that it was quite possible she was overthinking all of this, but she would feel terrible if her presence upset Kanji in some way, or force him to not attend. He deserved to have his vacation unsullied, and Naoto was more than willing to step aside if it meant making things less awkward for everyone else.

It was Rise who finally spoke up. “W-well, I mean, why would it be too late? Kanji’s a sweet guy, I don’t think he’d let this get to him too much...would he?”

Naoto sighed, realizing that in the whirlwind of her busy life, she probably hadn’t seen the texts that the detective had sent her about the more recent developments in the Kanji situation.

“I didn’t think so,” Naoto sighed, turning away from Rise and looking at her wall, dredging up the painful memories of the past couple weeks, “but there have been...let’s just say, some events progressed, and...I’m not so sure anymore.”

Naoto heard the approach of Rise’s socked feet, and before long, the idol was in front of her, a worried frown etched on her face. “Whattya mean? What happened?”


Saturday, 8/5/12, Dojima Residence, Morning...

“...8. 9, 10 ! Alllright! Come out, come out, wherever you arrrreee!”

Chie giggled to herself as she turned away from facing the foyer wall, scanning the small living room of the Dojima household. There weren’t many places to hide, but she still gave her prey the benefit of the doubt. After all, she thought, man was the most dangerous game.

It was Chie’s turn to watch Nanako while her dad was at work, an event she had been greatly looking forward to. Even though he was always available at night to talk to over the phone, Nanako was still struggling with not having her ‘big bro’ around anymore. Yosuke’s plan of having the group rotate out who spent most of the day with her during the Summer was a good plan, but there was still a big void left in the little girl that was pretty noticeable.

Enter Chie Satonaka, big sis extraordinaire! Being an only child, Chie had never gotten to experience what it was like to have a younger sibling to play with, but boy, was it fun! It was not only a distraction from summer homework and studying for a future police entrance exam, but also deeply satisfying: Chie wanted nothing more than to protect the people she cared about, and watching over Nanako was something she took very seriously, especially since the incident last year, where she had been abducted and nearly killed. It was most likely never going to happen again, but if it ever did, her would-be-abductor could expect a roundhouse kick right to the face.

Chie wasn’t a big fan of sitting around and watching TV, so she always suggested they do something on their feet, which Nanako was surprisingly game for. Today, the little girl had suggested that Chie learn to be an expert at hide and seek if she was ever going to be as good as her dad at being a police officer. Always up for a challenge, Chie obliged, and was now tiptoeing on ankle-socked feet, looking for her crafty charge.

“Hmmm, if I was a sneaky little 1st grader,” Chie taunted loudly, making sure that Nanako could hear her no matter where she was, “Where would I hide?” Mayybeee over... here!?

While she was announcing her play, Chie pounced on a pile of clothes that were in a sort of vague Nanako-shaped lump near the backdoor, only to find herself covered in dirty clothes waiting to be gobbled up by the washing machine. No Nanako.

“Rats!” Chie whined, shoving away the clothes only to neatly reassemble them into a pile, feeling bad about littering in the Dojima household. She folded herself onto her knees, a hand on her chin in thought. Where could she be? The two girls had agreed that the upstairs would be off limits, as Nanako’s father didn’t like her playing around in his bedroom and it made her sad to go into Narukami’s old room. If she wasn’t around the backdoor, where else could she be?

It was right then that Chie noticed something rather suspicious near the couch. The Dojima couch was a three seater with no really outstanding qualities to speak of, except that if you were very tiny, you could probably hide underneath it. Otherwise, Chie had to assume that the couch was sentient, as a hint of white socked feet was peeking out underneath the center cushion. Chie snickered quietly, wanting to revel in her victory a little. She got up to her feet and plopped down lazily across the couch, taking care to do it gently as she didn’t want to crush Nanako.

“Oh, man, ” she mused out loud, barely holding back a laugh, “Nanako-chan is just too good at hiding! I just have to face it: I’ll never be as good as her dad!” Letting out a false wail, she slowly let her hand drip over the side of the dark green couch, her fingers getting ever so closer to the exposed feet of Nanako.

Now was the time to strike! “Hey, this couch is pretty awesome! But I wonder if it’s... ticklish?” Chie grinned like a hyena as she snatched Nanako’s feet quickly, devilishly running her fingers up and down the younger girl’s socked soles. It soon produced the desired effect.

“Waahhhahahaahahaha!! C-Chhiieee-channeeeeheheeeheeee!”

Chie joined in on the laughter as she slowly scooted off the couch, tugging on Nanako’s feet to pull her out from under the couch. The 8 year old was a giggly mess, brown hair covering a red face as Chie scooped her up around the waist and into her lap, resuming her tickle assault by targeting the little girl’s orange dress-covered stomach.

“Mwa haha! Go ahead, squeal for mercy, because I have none! ” Chie said in a goofy affected voice, not unlike that of a villainous martial arts master in one of the corny action flicks she loved so much. Nanako’s wails reached a crescendo as Chie’s lithe fingers danced across her belly. She put up a mild fight, but was so tired out from the tickling that the best she could do was flutter her legs about weakly as Chie finished up her assault.

“Ya give up, or you still doubt my hiding and seeking prowess!?” She gloated, laughing in spite of her attempt to sound serious and foreboding. Chuckling through tears, Nanako nodded, her giggle fit impeding any attempt at speech. Chie rubbed the girls’ head and moved her off her lap and onto the floor, patting Nanako’s back to help her catch her breath again.

“W-w-wow- hee y-you’re real-reallly-heeehee goo- hooo -d!” Nanako wheezed, moving to rub her eyes as Chie continued to pat her back. “N-not even my- heehee big b-b-ro was that fast!”

Chie could feel her heart melt a little. Any time you got put on the same deified pedestal as Narukami by Nanako, it was something to pay attention to. “Aw sheesh, Nanako-chan,” Chie muttered, fumbling with her hands bashfully, “I ‘unno about all that! Your big bro’s pretty amazing, after all…”

Nanako, finally having recovered, stood up and smoothed her dress down over her calf-length tights before turning around to address Chie, hands clasped in front of her. “But it’s true! My daddy says that if you’re good at something, you should be proud. And I think you’re really good at finding people!” the little girl explained, blushing a little, “So, you should be proud then!”

Geez, was Nanako trying to make Chie cry so early in the day!? The 3rd year could barely keep her emotions in check as she got up to her feet too, placing her still nervous hands into the pockets of her cutoff denim overalls. “W-well, if you say so, it’s gotta be true, right?!” Chie chuckled, flashing a cheesy grin in Nanako’s direction. Nanako nodded before trotting back over to the dining room table, where a host of arts and crafts supplies were already splashed out over the table.

“Yep!” Nanako said, settling in at the head of the table, “Here, I’ll draw you a picture so you’ll always remember to be proud of it!” With that, she picked up a few colored pencils and got to work, a joyful yet serious glint in her eye. Chie snorted, always amused by how quick Nanako could switch gears from being a happy-go-lucky little kid into a serious and thoughtful young adult.

The older girl went to join Nanako at the table, gently scratching at the skin that was exposed on her back thanks to the knotted up, dark green shirt she wore under the overalls. Chie could see that Nanako had a little folder or portfolio that she had taken her supplies from, which contained other pictures she had drawn that Summer. While Nanako was busy, Chie gently slid out some of the other pictures, feeling her heart warm all the way up again.

“Wow, these are sooo good!” Chie offered, earning a warm smile from the girl. Of course the first few were of her and Narukami, holding hands and standing in the Dojima home as they did various things. While the drawing was definitely amateurish, they weren’t stick figures either, and Nanako clearly knew to choose a few identifiable traits and detail her characters with them; in Yu’s case, it was his steely grey hair and school uniform jacket that made him stick out.

But it wasn’t just her big bro: all of the Investigation Team showed up in her drawings. There was one of Yosuke and her cooking, another of her and Yukiko coloring, and even Naoto was there, sharing the couch with Yu’s tiny cousin as they enjoyed an episode of Detective Loveline . It really looked like they weren’t just friends spending time with one another, but family , who shared a bond as thick as blood.

A little sigh escaped Chie’s lips as she thought about how their “family” seemed a bit distant, lately. Obviously everyone wanted to make time for Nanako, but with everything that had happened since the last day of school, Rise really getting back into performing and Yu having to leave for good, it just seemed more and more that maybe this summer wasn’t going to be like last summer. Even Yukiko seemed to have some sort of monkey on her back; Chie had invited her over for a sleepover to see if she could help Yukiko get rid of it, but her friend had clammed up tight and gotten defensive over even the littlest of things. Hanging out with Nanako, who seemed to have retained her innocence even after all this time, was a nice break from a kind of icy start to summer break.

Taking a seat at the table next to her, Chie wanted to give Nanako a receipt for her kind words earlier. “Hey, Nanako-chan?” she asked, gently placing a hand on the girl’s free left wrist. The youngest Dojima looked up at her quizzically before both of the girls’ eyes were drawn toward a buzzing, rotating object on the table. It was Chie’s cell phone, informing her that someone was texting her. Nanako smiled and passed it over to her older friend.

“Here! It could be important!” she said with a sweet smile. Chie barely stifled a laugh, wondering if Nanako could just stay innocent forever and never enter the world of getting texted inane jokes from friends or requests from parents to pick something up on the way home. Just the notification, however, made her aware this wasn’t anywhere close to a mundane text.

“Hey, it’s from Rise-chan!” she exclaimed, hurriedly unlocking her phone and scanning the text. Nanako gave a small gasp in surprise as well.

“Really!? What’s it say!?”

Text from Rise to Chie about beach!

Wooaahh , Rise-chan wants to go to the beach again!? Hoooo, man, that sounds awesome!” Chie squealed, memories of last year flooding into her mind. Maybe that was just the thing to help get everyone together again! She quickly responded to Rise’s text, her grin lighting up her face even more than the glowing LCD screen on her phone.

 

Chie's response to Rise

Nanako clapped her hands together excitedly as Chie set her phone down. “My big bro told me that when you went to the beach last year it was really fun! I’m happy that you get to go again,” she said, turning back to her picture. There hadn’t been any hint of it, but Chie got the feeling that the beach was a place Nanako hadn’t been before, what with her dad working all the time. Considering all the craziness that had happened during Golden Week that year, too, it seemed like Nanako hadn’t really had a chance to have a vacation at all in quite a while.

Chie looked from her phone to Nanako, and back again. She really did care for Nanako, maybe the most out of all of Yu’s friends; Chie had volunteered the most out of everyone to sort of babysit her over the Summer. Sometimes, Chie couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she was just switching her dependence from Yukiko to Nanako; after all, Yukiko had become so strong over the past year that Chie couldn’t even get her to talk about what she was feeling anymore, and getting to be the cool big sis to Nanako helped her cope with that. The budding kung-fu expert always struggled with wanting to be relied upon, to be the coolest girl in the room with plenty of admirers, and she hated how weak she was that she needed that validation.

No! The spunky 3rd year shook her head, realizing that thinking about all that stuff wasn’t helping. She wanted to do something nice for Nanako because it was the right thing to do, not because it made her feel better. Scrunching up her nose, Chie turned in her seat to face Nanako.

“Yeah,” she said casually, “it’s gonna be pretty fun. But y’know...it would be a lot more fun if you tagged along too, don’t ya think?”

The look that Nanako gave her was all the confirmation Chie needed to know she made the right choice. “Y-you mean it?! You’d let me go...with you guys!?” the little girl asked, her brown eyes now the size of dinner plates.

Chie nodded, grinning at the overjoyed reaction. “Of course! Your big bro would kill us if we didn’t make sure you had an awesome summer vacation!” She winked and flashed a big thumbs up, which made Nanako squeal with joy. In a flash, she had leapt out of her seat and flung herself at Chie, wrapping her arms around her waist.

“Heeheehee...thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Both girls shared a laugh while Chie got out of her chair and squatted down to Nanako’s level, wrapping her arms around the 1st grader to return the hug. For a moment, holding Nanako, all of Chie’s insecurities sort of melted away. She wasn’t worried about Yukiko, or the group hanging out, or any of that - right now, she just made Nanako’s day, and that was enough to power through all the negativity.

“U-um...C-Chie...y-you’re squeezing really t-tight…”

“O-oh!” Chie quickly let go, which made Nanako gulp for air, “S-sorry! You’re just too, uh, a-adorable, Nanako-chan, so I have to hug you extra hard! Y-yeah, that’s it…”

If Nanako was confused or weirded out by the older girl’s mumblings she didn’t show it; she just blushed and gave another one of her tooth-rotting-ly cute smiles. Chie gave a quiet sigh of relief as she escorted the girl back to her drawing, teasing her along the way that she could beat her at drawing, just like she did at hide ‘n seek.


Saturday, 8/5/12, Tatsumi Textiles, Mid-Morning…

It was too early for this.

Kanji had already been up way earlier than he wanted helping his mother with a large order, and now he had spent the last five minutes just staring at his most recent text message, the reticule in the message box blinking as he struggled with how to respond:

Rise text to Kanji

It was nice to hear from Rise, especially since she had been MiA since summer started, but he couldn’t quell his anxiety at this announcement. Despite his... mishap last year (he made a mental note that he needed new swim trunks ASAP), it was cool to get out and go to the beach. But moreso than even the embarrassment of trying to hide his unmentionables from everyone, all he could think about was Naoto being there. There was always a chance she just wouldn't show, but he knew that if Rise was going, she was going to physically drag Naoto there if she had to. There really wasn’t any avoiding it, he figured. The idea of Naoto in a bathing suit was... intriguing , to say the least, but he didn’t want her to be uncomfortable, which he most certainly would if he went.

Kanji leaned backwards, finding the soft comfort of his pillow. His mom wouldn’t need him for a while, so he had retired to his room to think about how to respond. Obviously he couldn’t hide from Naoto forever, but he also wondered if it was better to talk to her more privately than with the group all together like that. And hell, if it was uncomfortable for him, imagine everyone else trying not to say something! More and more, he was starting to lean towards turning Rise down.

Still, maybe there was something he wasn’t thinking about. Ironically, he remembered a piece of advice Naoto had given him at a study group meeting from what felt like years ago:

“If you find yourself unable to determine an answer, seek the opinion of someone else. Two heads are always better than one, Kanji-kun .”

And he knew just the person. Sitting back up, he quickly opened up his messaging app and fired off a text to the one person he knew may understand:

 

Kanji asks Yukiko for advice

He got up and stretched himself out a little, figuring it might be a while before Yukiko would reply. Luckily he had already been working on a small project, so he moved over to the small desk in his room and picked up his needle and thread to continue working on it. For some reason he had gotten the idea to make a plush of a bird, but he was using a pattern he was unfamiliar with. He didn’t mind the challenge, but his current anxiousness made it hard to work; he could barely thread the needle after a few tries.

Before he could truly get into his work, he head the -pling- of a phone notification. He quickly snatched up the phone, devouring the message:

 

Yukiko's initial response to Kanji

 

Yukiko continues to have advice for Kanji

The “...” lingered for a moment, then disappeared. They came back for a split second, but went away again. Kanji grunted, knowing that was never really a good sign. He waited, drumming his big fingers on the wood of his desk, trying not to get too antsy about what her response would be.

Ever since he had spent a night at the Amagi Inn, he wondered if he was in a weird spot with Yukiko. She had been really accommodating and attentive while he was there, but he couldn’t help but notice she seemed kind of sad, too. They had been interrupted during their talk, and when he went to say goodbye to her the next morning, she had been a bit standoffish. He hoped that he hadn’t said something stupid (although that was certainly possible), because he actually really liked talking with her.

Suddenly, yet another -pling-. He barely felt his hand move to snatch the phone:

 

Yukiko's answer to Kanji

Well, that made sense, he thought. Kanji remembered that Rise always used to tell him to take Naoto’s actions with a grain of salt because sometimes, if she came across as mean or cold, she probably didn’t know she was doing it. Still, their little run-in at the drugstore stayed stuck in the back of Kanji’s mind, looming over any further attempt at reconciliation. It was going to take a daring amount of courage in order to let that one not get to him.

Ultimately, thought, he trusted Yukiko, especially given her experience. Since Wednesday, he had come to understand that Yukiko must have felt just as bad as he did when they were all together during Golden Week. Not only did she have to deal with Yu being there as the center of attention, but his new girlfriend was right there too! At least Kanji was safe there. But even if she was still mad about it, Yukiko was at least putting on a brave face and trying not to let it keep her away from hanging out. Why couldn’t he do the same?

A deep breath left Kanji’s lungs as he swapped over to Rise's profile on his phone and texted a simple ‘KK’ to her, acknowledging that he was going. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say to Naoto, or if he’d even have the guts to do it, but he was done letting her spectre keep him away from hanging out with his pals. Yukiko’s quiet strength had infused him with some courage, and even if it was temporary, Kanji was definitely feeling better than he had in a long time. Besides, who knew? Maybe Naoto wanted to do more than just make up. Maybe, deep down, she actually did care for him but wanted to search her feelings first. It was a pipe dream, maybe, but in his current mood, it felt like it could actually happen, no matter how small the odds.

Satisfied, he set his phone down and got back to work, stitching the fabric with a buttery smoothness that he had been lacking even just a few minutes earlier.


Saturday, 8/5/12, Junes Break Room, Mid-Morning…

“I see my name in there too, Yosuke! You’ve gotta let...me...see…!”

“In a second , Ted! Geez, hold your horses!”

Yosuke was desperately trying to hold back the vivacious boy/bear with his elbow, to mixed results. The boy’s arm was dangerously close to Yosuke’s phone, and once Teddie got a hold of someone’s phone it was usually all downhill from there. Teddie could realistically send texts, but when it came to any other part of the phone he was essentially a baby. Yosuke had his phone factory reset twice in the past 6 months because of the hyperactive bear, and he wasn’t about to take another chance.

“Look, I’ll let you read it,” Yosuke sighed, holding the phone up to Teddie’s shiny blue eyes. The boy went on a facial journey, going from jovial, to thoughtful, to perplexed, and then to almost teary-eyed as he read the two-sentence text:

 

Rise's message to Yosuke

Ohhohoh , Rise-chan, delightfully devilish! And she thought of me too! Sensei hasn’t taken all of her heart, after all…”

Yosuke couldn’t help but snort at Teddie’s insane rambling. Teddie was a lot of things, but boring and dull wasn’t one of them; despite all the annoyances that came with him being a roommate, Yosuke could always count on him to get jacked up over something, no matter how inane.

“Okay okay, relax,” he grinned, putting his phone back in his pocket, “We gotta come up with a strategy for this! Last year was good, but this year? This year could be great!

The two were in the employee backroom of Junes, getting ready for that day’s shift. Teddie was getting his mascot costume out of the storage closet as Yosuke began to tie his apron over the long orange sleeved t-shirt he had been wearing.

“Okay, strategery! Now you just tell me what that means, and ‘ol Teddie has got it taken care of!” Teddie announced bombastically, this lower body already covered in the beady legs of the costume.

Yosuke refrained from rubbing his forehead in frustration. “God, I forgot you can be so dumb sometimes...and why do you always take your shirt off when you’re in costume!?”

Indeed, Teddie was bare from the torso up, his strangely featureless chest and frustratingly perfect coiffed hair almost glistening in the fluorescent lighting of the room. “It gets really hot during the summer, and a sweaty Teddie is a recipe for - well hey there, Akatsuki-san!” Teddie shrieked, interrupted by one of the other employees crossing the room. The man took one look at Teddie and sighed, increasing his footspeed so he could leave quicker.

“Yes, I have that effect on people,” Teddie said, a hand on his chin and eyes closed as if he was in deep meditation. Yosuke had enough, and quickly grabbed the mascot head lying on the shared break room table and smashed it over his half-naked companion.

Focus , Ted!” he growled, helping a surprised Teddie zip up his suit, “You know what I’m talking about! We’re not gonna have Yu there to help us out, so we gotta be extra cool to make up for that. Especially after Kanji and his ‘wardrobe malfunction’ last year...” Yosuke was confident but had to admit that Narukami was just next-level when it came to attracting women and just oozing cool, and Kanji’s faux pas may have ruined them forever. Getting him a new suit was a top priority.

“Oh, that’s right! Poor Sensei...to miss out on the beautiful mermaids...oh but wait!” Teddie gasped, awkwardly shifting to face Yosuke with his full costume attached, “Does this mean that Nao-chan will be coming too?! She wouldn’t even wear a swimsuit for the beauty contest, which is a real shame, if you ask me! Nao-chan may be a delicate flower, just eager to bloom in the beauty of…”

As Teddie droned on, Yosuke felt a rock sink into his stomach. He had forgotten, but Naoto wasn’t really hanging out with them until the fall of last year, which means she missed going to the beach. If there were two things in his head that seemed like the polar opposites of each other, it was the bright, sunny beach and the pale, indigo-haired Naoto. Her being in a swimsuit wasn’t just the only thing making him anxious, either.

Ever since they had hung out the other day, Yosuke hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her. For someone he had always thought off as kind of closed-off and cold, she showed a range of emotion that he wasn’t aware was there. Hearing her side of the story made him really feel bad for her, more than he already had, but it was her listening ability that left him startled as well. She showed a deep curiosity in his personal life, which made him feel weird; he wasn’t really used to having anyone besides Yu really care about that stuff.

It got even worse, as he had gotten emotional when talking about Saki Konishi. Not able to handle Naoto’s grace and the intensity of the situation, he had been dishonest with her, not mentioning Saki’s name or even that she had died. Worse, he got a text from Yu and lied that it was his dad calling him into work. He felt terrible about it, and he knew Yu would rake him over the coals for it.

But why did he care so much? As sad as it was to admit, Yosuke had wondered that since Yu was gone, that old jealousy was coming back. The guy never cracked, and if he liked a girl, he was at least honest and direct about it; after all, he nabbed Risette of all people! But wait...did that mean he liked Naoto? Like that !? No. No way. Absolutely not.

Still, it was hard to think of a time when a girl was on his mind like this. And not in the way he thought about, say, Tamami Uesugi, the pop idol; he’d be lying if he said that wasn’t mainly about her amazing chest and butt. No, Naoto stuck in his mind kind of like Yu did at first, a person that he not only admired but was almost afraid of. He wouldn’t know what to think if Yu, and now Naoto, was ever disappointed in him. He had done enough of that in his life, especially with Saki, that the thought of Naoto getting the wrong idea about him tied his stomach in knots.

It was so... confounding . He wasn’t shy about what he liked, and Naoto didn’t tick any of those boxes, and yet he couldn’t get her out of his head. If he saw her in a swimsuit, it could very well be the tipping point, and that was a scary thought. As he helped Teddie squeeze out the door, he tried to think of something, anything other than her. Rise in that insane orange bikini, glistening in the water, her long hair dripping and wet...Yukiko, who was always so proper, wearing that white bikini top and giving a rare look at her delicate white skin...Chie...who looked nice sometimes…

“...suke? Yoo-hooooo , Yosuke!”

Snapping back to attention, he saw that they were now in the long hallway that lead to the main area of Junes’ 2nd floor. Teddie snickered, his giant eyes following Yosuke mischievously.

“Heehehee...the thought of our beautiful mermaids in their wonderful swimsuits has got you all excited too, huh? Oh I can’t wait, either! And to think...I can bring my special friend too!”

Yosuke grunted and clocked Teddie on the head, although he supposed he wasn’t lying. For the past week or so Teddie had bragged high and low about this “special friend” he had met that he apparently was just waiting to show off to the rest of the group. Knowing how goofy he could be, Yosuke largely suspected this person was imaginary, but it got him out of the house, so there was an upside to it. He just hoped the clueless bear hadn’t befriended some bum that he met near the old shopping district and taken them on as a friend. He was incredibly sweet but Teddie still had a lot to learn about the human world, particularly who and what was safe to be himself toward.

“Psh, whatever!” Yosuke muttered, grabbing Teddie’s paw, “let’s get to work; maybe if we work hard enough, next week will come faster.” At this point Yosuke would have wished for anything, even a rude customer, to help distract him.

“Really!? Is that how things work here!?”

Teddie…”


Saturday, 8/5/12, Amagi Inn, Late Morning

Yukiko was well aware that her phone hadn’t vibrated with a notification in a good ten minutes or so, but she still compulsively checked the thing, wondering if maybe she had just missed it. A secondary glance proved her initial theory correct, to her dismay.

Sighing, she set her phone down on the dresser near her futon and began the daily process of rolling it up. Grabbing the bright red comforter by the bottom corners, she carefully folded it in half, then once more for good measure, until she had a nice, fluffy square that held both the comforter and the white fitted sheet around it. She repeated the process on the similarly white sheet covered mattress underneath that, setting that folded square on top of the previous one. All that was left was to fold the bottom sheet, a sky blue thing with cherry blossoms on it, and place it like a delicate cherry on top of a soft, pillowy sundae. The 3rd year then gently slid it to the open door and placed the three pieces of bedding out into the hall, where one of the staff would come pick it up to for its weekly fluffing and airing.

She stepped back into her room, shutting the door as she did. Her room wasn’t unlike the typical structure of the hotel’s many rooms, but it was customized to be a bit more habitable and personal than a hotel room. All red everything was the theme of the room, from the red carpet that was sprawled out over the center of the room to the cherry red wooden bookcase in the corner and its matching desk near the window. The short-legged table in the middle was where she and Chie had exchanged many a fizzy drink after a long day of school, and Yukiko even smiled a bit thinking of Chie lazily lying on the top of the cabinets in the eastern wall nook. While she used to think of it more like her prison, Yukiko had now believed this was a sanctuary away from a world that had a nasty habit of being cruel, protected all around by her family at the inn.

It was that cruel world that was on her mind as she pulled the shade off her full-length mirror so she could brush her long raven locks. Specifically how nasty that world had been to Kanji, whom she hadn’t heard from since his earlier texts, to her dismay. When she got the message, she had thought long and hard about what to say; while she was a bit angry at Naoto for her somewhat callous reaction to the whole situation, Yukiko also knew that no matter how much she may have hurt him, Kanji still cared for her. Besides, she didn’t want to discourage him from going to the beach, so she texted what she thought was a careful and measured response, only to receive nothing back.

Admittedly, she was less concerned about whether he took her advice to heart so much as she just hoped that her and Kanji’s relationship hadn’t taken a turn for the worse. He had come to say goodbye the morning after his stay, and Yukiko could feel the awkwardness in the lobby when he did. She wasn’t sure whether or not he was aware that she had come back during the night, and that made finding the right words to say all the more difficult. After having a whole night to sleep on it, she had also now begun to wonder if he thought that she was being weird by having him come to the hotel, and that insecurity plagued their hasty morning conversation.

It wasn’t like her to fret so much about something like this, but she had thought the night had gone so remarkably well that she’d hate to have ruined it at the finish line. Kanji had come in with his guard lowered, and in admitting everything, Yukiko felt like she was hearing an alternate universe version of her own relationship woes. And even in exploring his darkest feelings, she could almost hear a change in his voice, like a very heavy weight was being lifted off his shoulders. Yukiko recognized it because it was the very same feeling she had whenever she and Yu had chatted on their many outings together where she was able to confess some of her latent feelings. She wanted that feeling back, more than ever, but sadly it wasn’t going to come from Yu anymore, for many reasons.

But perhaps Kanji could do that for her. Truthfully that was what she wanted the most, someone who would listen to her but also could understand and maybe help her make sense of the emotions raging in her soul. The sleepless nights were getting more frequent, and it was feeling like something was going to give one way or another. Kanji may not have been as laid back as Yu, or as intelligent, or even eloquent , but Yukiko was now convinced that he was at least as empathetic and sweet, if not more.

She had been absent-mindedly going through her morning routine as she had these thoughts, and just thinking that Kanji was sweet made her drop the tube of cherry lip balm she was dragging across her bottom lip. Flustered, she grabbed it off the floor near where she was kneeling, only to see in the mirror that her face was as red as the rest of her room. Oh, goodness! What was this all about? Scoffing at herself, she reached into her purse for a handkerchief and quickly dabbed at the excess chapstick on her chin, feeling like a fool. If Chie had seen her like this, she’d never hear the end of it!

Passing one final inspection in the mirror, Yukiko got up off her knees and reached for her signature red hairband, carefully placing it on top of her head. She had chosen a simple but fun outfit of a white-and-red-striped long sleeve shirt with a high-waisted, mid thigh-length flared skirt. She had to go do some shopping for the inn, and her scooter still needed gas, so she was going to have to take the long way via the bus. As she gathered her purse and phone, Yukiko checked one last time to see if any message from Kanji had come up. Nothing.

Despite her disappointment, she tried to shrug it off and think of the exciting week ahead as she headed out the hall and down toward the lobby. Rise had promised to take the girls shopping for new bathing suits, which was something Yukiko actually didn’t have experience with. Yosuke, unfortunately, had picked out Yukiko’s current suit, and although it was (sadly) not a bad look, the Amagi heiress was more than pleased to try and find something that suited her own style. She made a mental note to be courteous but passive-aggressive if she saw Yosuke at Junes while she was shopping.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, 8/9/12, Junes Shopping Center, Mid-afternoon…

Kanji sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets, doing his best to just tune out the ludicrous verbiage coming from one of his companions.

“...So I said ‘Why don’t you come hang out with us!?’ and she was like ‘That sounds stupid, but okay!’ We are so alike...oh, I can’t wait ‘til she gets here! I wonder if she knows what swimsuits are...I guess it’ll be up to us to show her, right guys!? But we must be gentle-bears about it! She’s a delicate flower...and thorny like one, too! Thorns hurt…”

Teddie had been babbling incessantly ever since Kanji had arrived. Yosuke had phoned Kanji and told him to meet them at Junes so they could shop for new bathing suits. It had been so long since Kanji had heard from him that he almost didn’t believe it, but he also knew that if he was going to face the beach, he wasn’t going to do it in the skimpy, easy-to-have-a-wardrobe-malfunction speedo he had worn last year. Since he arrived however, both he and Yosuke had been forced to wait in the lobby of the store while Teddie waited for his “special friend,” whom he had invited to join them.

“Ted,” Kanji started, trying his best to not sound like he wanted to strangle the bear, no matter how bad he did, “Y’know just cuz this.. person is yer pal, don’t gotta mean me and Senpai should wait! We’re gonna be here all day at this rate!”

The big teen was glad to hear Yosuke concur. “Yeah man, this is looking prretttty grim. It’s already been like a half hour! Plus, there’s no way you found a girl to hang out with you, I just don’t believe it!” Yosuke was harsh, but Kanji couldn’t disagree; Teddie was cute and cuddly in or out of the bear suit, but he had a hard time imagining any girl who didn’t already know how he was to really be all that into him, at least enough to come swimsuit shopping with him.

The bear pouted, his human form still clothed in the only outfit he ever seemed to wear. “Oh you two of little faith! When have I ever lied about something?”

A resounding “ Uh… ” came out of both Kanji and Yosuke, causing them to chuckle slightly. Kanji had dressed lightly for the occasion, wearing his yellow ribcage t-shirt and an old pair of jeans. By contrast, Yosuke looked like he had a hot date: designer red skinny jeans and a short-sleeve white collared shirt, not too unlike their summer school uniform.

As Teddie continued to babble, Yosuke leaned toward the wall, motioning for Kanji to join him. Kanji folded his hands behind his head and obliged.

“Sorry man,” Yosuke sighed, taking his phone out of his back pocket and fiddling with it for a moment, “I didn’t know Teddie had this up his sleeve. He’s usually so bad at keeping secrets that he actually fooled me! God I hope that doesn’t mean he’s getting smart on us…”

Kanji shrugged his shoulders. “‘S’alright dude. Ain’t like Junes is goin’ anywhere soon. Gah, I haven’t been back here since...well, its been a while,” he rambled, sort of glad just to be talking to someone other than his Ma.

“Heh, I was just here last night ,” Yosuke complained, giving Teddie the stink eye, “Fuzzbrain over there was on his first closing shift. Let’s just say that we’ll be more than happy to keep him on mornings and mascot duty…”

This got a chuckle out of Kanji before a silence sprang up. Even almost six months later, it felt weird to be hanging out with ‘just the guys’ when that didn’t include Yu. Still, after all the girl drama that had been going on with him lately, it felt nice to just chill with the guys. Took his mind off the upcoming beach trip anyways.

Aside from his bad wardrobe malfunction, Kanji actually really enjoyed the trip last year. Sandcastles were awesome to make, and he liked swimming even in the salty, crappy ocean. Of course his anxiety about seeing Naoto there was sky-high, but he had to give a lot of props to Yukiko, who had slowly been talking him through the worst parts via text recently. Her experience with Rise and Yu turned out to be pretty darn applicable to his situation.

He had zoned out while thinking about all that, which meant he barely noticed Yosuke desperately flapping a hand in front of him. “Yo! Dude!”

Kanji snapped to attention. “Uh, wuh, huh? What ‘s it?”

Yosuke was still casually leaning against the wall, but he had put his phone away and looked a little more serious. “Um, I was tryin’ to ask you how you’ve been. Everything okay? Y’know...with Naoto?”

Yeesh, he just couldn’t get away from it, could he? “Uh...I mean, ‘s whatever, I jus’...I try not to think about it, y’know?” he mumbled, rubbing the back of his black hair.

“You gonna talk to her at some point?” Yosuke asked. Man, he had a lot of questions!

“Heh, who’s askin’?” Kanji jokingly responded. Far be it from Yosuke to usually ask about this stuff; Kanji was still waiting for whatever dumb punchline the 3rd year had cooking.

Yosuke blushed a little, nervously rubbing his cheek. “Hey c’mon, I-I’m bein’ serious! Never gonna get over it if you don’t -”

Okay, that was enough. “I’m ‘gettin’ over’ it just fine, man. Leave it, ‘lright?” Kanji hissed. Yosuke seemed to have gotten the message.

“Alright alright, you win,” Yosuke groaned, sliding off the wall a little bit. “I-I don’t wanna bug ya or nothing, I just...well, I thought I should check-in, y’know? Haven’t seen ya in a while…”

Kanji let out a deep sigh. He figured he was going to be having this conversation a lot when he saw all his friends again, so he might as well prepare his answers now. “Yeah, I get it. Didn’t mean to snap at ya, its just been a...hell of a couple weeks. I just kinda wanna do my best to forget it ever happened, y’know?” Truthfully, that was where his head was at. Obviously he wished like Hell that him and Naoto were in a relationship and happy, but he was so sick of fretting about it, too. He’d settle for just a casual friendship if it meant that things wouldn’t be so awkward with everyone anymore.

“Y-yeah, I could see that. Hey, listen,” Yosuke started, turning towards Kanji, “I know I’m not...like, this isn’t usually my thing , but if you ever wanna talk or somethin’...”

Wow, was this the same Yosuke? “Y-yeah?” Kanji asked, more out of disbelief than anything.

Yosuke shrugged, his blush getting a little bit darker. “Y-yeah! I mean, I know it’s the kinda thing Yu woulda done, but since he’s not around...we gotta look out for each other, right?”

Kanji chuckled, “Well I can definitely agree with that. I’m, uh…” again, he figured he was going to be saying this a bunch, so he wanted to get it over with. “Sorry that I ain’t been hangin’ around too much. I...I missed you guys.” he admitted, which got him a returned grin from Yosuke.

“Hey, it’s no problem, man! Just, uh, y’know, keep your head up and all that. Now that you dropped all that punk stuff, I’m sure the ladies will come crawling your way soon!” Yosuke grinned, flashing a thumbs up.

Alright, now he was getting weird. “Well, I ain’t interested right now…”

Yosuke coughed, not expecting that. “O-oh, r-right, yeah. Well, in any case, just, uh, y’know call or text or…if, y’know...”

“Y-yeah,” Kanji muttered, hoping this conversation was ending soon.

“Y-yeah!”

Now both guys just stood there loitering, unsure of how to break the tension. After a second, Yosuke coughed and offered up his left fist. Kanji chuckled again and bumped it with his right, the gesture saying all it needed too.

Now pent up with nervous energy, it looked like Yosuke was fed up with Teddie’s shenanigans.. “Alright, man, we’ve been waiting for too long, let’s just go inside!” he yelled, shoving himself off the wall to harangue the boy, who was doing a little happy dance in front of them, “I’m sure whoever this... person is, they’ll find you. You, uh, kinda stand out.” With that, he patted Kanji’s shoulder and motioned toward the elevators. Kanji went to join him but felt someone grab his hand.

“Oh, geez…” Yosuke groaned as Teddie began his plea.

Pllleeasssee , Kanji, she’ll be here soon, I promise! Cross my cuddly, furry heart and hope to cry! Wait, too late!” Teddie sniffled, an honest-to-goodness tear welling up in his giant, crystalline blue eyes. Instinctually the 2nd year wanted to just rip his hand away, but Teddie, with his big hair and bigger eyes all welled up with tears, looked just so darn...well, cute .

“Look, Ted, I -”

“HEY! You stupid bear, I’ve been waiting like a million years for you! You know how many people kept asking if I needed something!? Gross! Stupidjerkservicepeople!”

All three of them stopped dead and turned, with the rest of the small crowd in the lobby, to the elevators toward what sounded like thunder booming through the room. Kanji’s eyes widened with fear as he took a full glance at the source of all the noise.

“N-no freakin’ ...way!”

Woa-woah, holy shit!”

With that, Yosuke leapt into action, leaping behind Kanji in some sort of attempt at self-preservation. Not wanting to be first on the firing line, Kanji dipped behind him and instead cowered behind Teddie, where he was soon joined by his now shivering 3rd year companion.

“T-Ted, th’ hell is she doing here?! Don’t tell me she’s -”

Teddie cut Kanji off before he could finish. “Emmy-chan! Whattya mean you’ve been waiting?! We’ve been here the whole time waiting for you!” he yelled with no filter across the room, to the obvious embarrassment of Yosuke.

Marie stomped across the lobby, her combat boots echoing like gunshots across the glass lobby. “You said to meet where you guys always do! And you dummies never leave that stupid food...skort? Food kart? Whatever, you weren’t there and I waited around like some sort of idiot!”

“B-be careful Teddie,” Yosuke whimpered through chattering teeth, “Y-you know she could flash-fry us by blinking right?!”

The pretty boy laughed out loud, to Kanji’s terror. “Oh, Emmy Emmy Emmy-chan...it’s food court ! And I meant the Junes store, so we were supposed to meet at the entrance. Classic mistake! But now that you’re here, we can go in finally!”

Kanji winced, thinking about all the good times he’d had in his life, because death was surely coming for the foolish bear and it might take him with it. He was very surprised to see her just calmly flex her fingers and flick Teddie on the forehead, a gentle “Yeeowch!” coming from the boy as he rubbed his head. She then turned around and glowered at the similarly terrified crowd of people in the lobby, who all immediately went back to their business, as if nothing had happened. Her wrath was still mainly directed at the Investigation Team boys, however.

“That’s what you get! Don’t ever leave me like that again, got it!? And what are we doing anyways? Why is the old man and his son here?” Marie barked, causing Kanji and Yosuke to grimace at each other. They didn’t like being called names, but neither had the guts to challenge Marie on a good day, let alone while she was in a foul mood.

“W-we jus’ wanna do some shoppin’...i-if that’s alright with you ‘n all…” Kanji mumbled, feeling like his t-shirt was somehow getting tight around his neck like a noose. The tall 2nd year had always been somewhat afraid of Marie, who had blown into town last year and always seem to leave a trail of sliced up bodies courtesy of her razor sharp and acidic tongue. And seeing how his life could never be normal again, of course she turned out to be a Goddess-in-disguise, watching over Inaba like a hawk. He had to give his senpai credit, he really attracted the kookiest people around. Their last meeting had ended with all the boys receiving an electrical shock that had scared all of them straight into never crossing her again. What the hell was she doing here!?

“Y-yeah!” Teddie groaned, still rubbing his head in a bit of an oversell of the flick, “Remember? We were gonna shop for bathing suits! Don’t let a lil’ slip of this handsome tongue scare you away from the bestest, most enjoyable shopping trip there ever was!” Somehow, Kanji wasn’t sold on Teddie’s hyperbole, but he had to give the bear his props for somehow holding his own against Marie.

Yosuke finally stepped out from behind Kanji, rubbing the back of his head. “Wait, so you’re telling me that it was Marie you were hiding all this time, Teddie!?”

Marie aimed her glowing green glare at the Junes employee, who immediately cowered. “I’m not hiding , stupid! I’m right here!”

Yosuke balked and and hid once again behind the more stable Teddie, who looked, Kanji noted, not as freaked out by her anger as everyone else. “Yosuke, how rude! Refined ladies like Emmy-chan don’t ‘hide,’ and that’s certainly not what I was doing! I was just...” Teddie stopped and stuck his nose in the air, in an attempt to seem sophisticated and deep, “keeping her from you guys until the time was right.”

The oldest among them smacked his head. “Teddie, that is hiding, you goof-”

“Ugh, do you guys ever shut up!? Let’s just...get this over with!” Marie growled, which snapped the boys to attention. She quickly jammed her red and black striped arm out like she was stabbing something, leaving it hanging in the air. Kanji and Yosuke watched with utter fascination as Teddie quickly grabbed her hand and held it lovingly, his eyes almost glazing over in amazement.

“W-what the shit is that?!” Kani couldn’t help but hoarsely whisper to himself, which made Yosuke give him an elbow and a “ shut the hell up” glare. Marie rolled her eyes and turned toward the two boys in a sassy pose, her free arm on her hip.

“He’s like a dumb little kid. If I don’t do this, he’ll run around everywhere and then I have to chase him! Stupidfurbrainwithweirdlonglegs!”

Kanji had several questions as to how she reached that conclusion, but Yosuke just elbowed him again and motioned for Kanji to follow the Goddess and the boy bear into the store. He did so reluctantly, trying to ignore how weird all of this was getting.


Wednesday, 8/9/12, Okina City, Mid-afternoon…

Yukiko nervously rubbed her arm, trying to keep her stomach from doing backflips as she half-heartedly looked through a rack of swimsuits. The bow that hung from the ruffled neckline of her short-sleeved white blouse seemed like it had tightened around her throat, keeping her silent as Chie and Rise chatted happily nearby. She glanced nervously to her left, turning away with a small blush when she noticed that the source of anxiety was also turning to meet her curious eyes.

Rise had gotten Chie worked up about going shopping for new swimsuits, and naturally the spunky 3rd year had dragged along her best friend. While Yukiko was certainly up for purchasing something to replace the one Yosuke had gotten for her, she had also assumed it would just be the three of them. When she and Chie got to Okina on their bikes, it was a big surprise to find not only Rise, but Naoto as well.

Of course it made sense: ever since May, the two girls had struck up a friendship that could have rivaled Chie and Yukiko’s in intensity. It was rare before then that Naoto would join the girls on something like a shopping trip, but the Detective Prince had done a lot to get out of her shell since then. Still, this particular excursion seemed out of character; Naoto had balked so hard at the idea of wearing a swimsuit for the ludicrous (and weirdly fun, in Yukiko’s opinion) beauty pageant at the culture festival the previous year that she simply ran away. Why change her mind now?

This was also, awkwardly, the first time Yukiko had seen Naoto since whatever had transpired between her and Kanji. While she had her opinions about how Naoto had been handling the situation, Yukiko still felt a great deal of sympathy for her friend, and hoped that she was holding it together okay. Much like she had with Kanji, Yukiko wanted to reach out to her, to see if perhaps there was even a remote chance of getting the two to talk to each other. After all, it would make Kanji happy again, and Yukiko wanted that more than anything.

In the days since Rise’s return home, the two had been texting quite a bit. While they often just talked about their day, Naoto did come up every now and again. He seemed to be keeping a brave face, but Yukiko could tell that his isolation was starting to get to him. She was so excited for this beach trip, hoping that getting Kanji out amongst his friends who cared about him would shock him back into his old self. Naoto was the biggest dice roll, however, and Yukiko wanted to hedge her bet.

Sadly, Naoto was still as hard as ever to approach, which lead to Yukiko’s current state: blankly looking through rows of swimsuits as she tried to figure out the best way to strike up a conversation without drawing too much attention from other girls.

“...’as just sayin’! Right, Yukiko!?”

Yukiko blinked, forced out of her somewhat dark thoughts and back toward her group of friends. Chie had stopped and turned toward Yukiko, evidently wanting her input.

“Y-you were saying?” Yukiko repeated, hoping that would cover up the fact that she hadn’t been listening at all to their conversation. If Chie was offended, she didn’t show it.

“Remember? About more girls’ nights?” Chie had been so happy to hang out with everyone again that she had suggested they do something similar to what they had done last year and reserve some time at the Amagi Inn, only just for the girls. Despite the inn’s busy schedule, Yukiko figured she could figure out something like she had for Kanji, plus it would at least avoid a fiasco like the boys walking in on them at the bath.

“Oh! Right, yes, of course,” Yukiko nodded, managing to conjure up a half-hearted smile for her friends, “Chie and I were just talking about that. I’d be more than happy to host you girls for a night!”

“Ooooh, fun!!” Rise cooed, turning her attention over toward the last of them standing a few meters away. “What do you think, Nao-chan? You in?”

The blue-haired girl looked over, seeming to soak in the expectant gazes of all her friends. “I get the feeling I don’t have much of a choice in this matter,” she said sardonically. Still, she gently winked at her friend, making Rise and Chie squeal with delight.

The four girls had stopped at the northern end of the city’s main square, at a small second floor store called Youth and Beauty Arrowhead . It was certainly very fancy, something Yukiko wasn’t used to; she liked to keep it simple and shopped at bigger chain clothing stores that had reasonable pricing more often than springing for a more trendy boutique such as this. A sleek grey and black decor permeated everything, even the cheap metal racks Yukiko was flicking through, and there were at least three different fountains in the relatively small store. The staff was also immaculate, wearing the finest designer clothes and walking around with expensive tablets that all had credit card machines attached to them. For both Yukiko and Chie, nothing could have made them feel more small town and behind-the-times than this.

Sensing the girls’ hesitation, Rise had assured them that since she was given ample per diem and access to a credit cart it was on her, but Yukiko still felt bad looking at some of the price tags on the clothes she was searching through. Goodness, she thought, they were just swimsuits! How could such a skimpy piece of cloth be worth 11,000 yen!?

While she looked, there was an audible gasp to her right, which made her flick her head in surprise. It was Rise, apparently going into hysterics over the suit she was holding, a risqué bandeau top-style bikini.

“I’m in love!” the idol announced dramatically, looking it over like one would a newborn baby. “Someone has to come with me to try it on! Please please pleeeasseee!? ” In her floral pattern romper that accentuated her long legs and stopped right below her shoulders to reveal pale skin and her signature pigtails fluttering about as she pleaded, Yukiko wasn’t sure if she could be any cuter.

Chie rolled her eyes. “You’re a big girl, why do we have to come?” The 3rd year had sprung for a much simpler look than Rise with her bright green tank top and white capris shorts.

Because, ” Rise whined, putting her hands on her hips, “I need feedback, like, immediately! And it better be positive, too!” With that, she flipped the suit over her shoulder and immediately lit out for the nearest changing room, her wedge shoes clopping along the tiled floor. Chie gave an amused huff and shrugged, grabbing a suit of her own and quickly going after Rise.

Yukiko breathed a sigh of relief; this was her chance! She gave up on looking through the more extravagant bathing suits and turned toward Naoto, running her fingers down her black skirt in order to eat up some nervous energy. The 2nd year was casually standing near the main aisle, looking utterly disinterested in her fancy attire of dark blue slacks, a navy-colored waistcoat over a white and blue striped shirt that was rolled up to her biceps. Along with that was of course her signature cap, which was doing a good job of hiding her bored expression.

Now or never, Yukiko thought. Her boots sounded like lead on the tile as she slowly approached her detective friend. “Um, N-Naoto-kun?” she asked timidly, still finding something about the girl intimidating after all this time.

The younger girl gently turned her grey-eyed gaze toward Yukiko. “Mm?”

“It’s, um, well it’s just...it’s nice to see you again!” Yukiko started, blushing a bit. “I haven’t seen you since…”

“R-right,” Naoto interrupted quickly, crossing her arms as she turned her full attention over to the inn heiress, “I thank you, and it’s good to see you too, senpai. I have missed your and the others’ company.”

“O-oh? Well we’ve missed you too,” Yukiko answered, a little surprised.  It was clinical and not delivered with a ton of passion, but it still warmed Yukiko’s heart to hear that Naoto was actually happy to be out and about. Maybe that positivity would help loosen her tongue.

“So...I get the feeling you’re not here to pick out a new swimsuit,” Yukiko observed, grasping her forearm behind her back.

The detective shrugged as a half-hearted chortle tried to escape through her closed mouth “Absolutely not,” she stated affirmatively, “but Rise insisted I join you, so here I am. As I said earlier, it is nice to see everyone, so I can amuse her antics for an afternoon, if I must.” At this, Naoto gave the slightest hint of a smirk, which made Yukiko giggle earnestly. It was sweet how much she cared about Rise, enough to go on a shopping trip she had no interest in just to placate her friend’s desire to hang out with her.

“That’s kind of you,” Yukiko responded, “I...I’m not really sure what to pick out, myself. I guess it’s just not something I think about very often...” she admitted, looking around at all the racks and again finding herself too shy to pick something out. While she was no prude, Yukiko was still often blissfully unaware of how to pick out something like a swimsuit that was both flattering to her and wasn't too embarrassing to wear.

Naoto didn’t answer for a while, which was a queue for Yukiko to finally ask what she wanted to.

“Um, can I ask you how you are -”

“May I ask you someth-”

Evidently, both girls had something on their mind. Yukiko blinked and looked over to see that Naoto was definitely on edge, as her normally sharp eyes were shifty and nervous.

“M-my apologies,” Naoto offered, waving her hand, “I didn’t mean to interrupt…”

While she knew she was working with a bit of a time limit before the other girls came back, Yukiko couldn’t quite help her curiosity. And who knew; maybe Naoto was going to ask about Kanji! “N-no, please! You go first, I can wait.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes!”

Naoto took a breath, and tugged on the bill of her cap. “A-alright, thank you. This, erm, might sound... strange , but I am curious.” She leaned in closer and lowered her voice, as if she was telling a very confidential secret, “Is-is it true that Yosuke-senpai purchased swimsuits for you, last year? Without asking?”

The heiress could almost feel her face slowly fill up from the bottom of her chin to her eyebrows with nervous blood, turning it as red as her headband. Of all things, why on Earth was she thinking of that!? How did she find that out? It was such an annoying thing to remember, and even worse to admit.

“W-w-where did you…!?” she said hoarsely, almost completely forgetting whatever original intent she had had in engaging in conversation with the detective.

For her part, the detective looked equally embarrassed. “I-I’m sorry, truly! It’s just that...well, Rise had mentioned it in passing and I…s-so it is true, then?”

Not even wanting to say it, Yukiko meekly nodded her head, hoping she had enough blood left to work her arms to fan her now scorching forehead.

“I-I see.” Naoto was silent for a minute before shaking her head in disbelief. “But... how? H-how did he know your...your measurements a-and -”

I don’t know! ” Yukiko wailed, feeling she might die from embarrassment, “He-he just showed up with it, I didn’t really have a chance to think! That’s...just how he is, he can be such a…” she paused for a second, not wanting to speak too ill of one of her teammates and friends but a little too overcome to contain herself, “ pervert!

The silence after that was palpable. Neither girl was willing to say much as they just stood in the aisle, awkwardly not looking at each other. The relative emptiness of the store never felt more noticeable, as it only made the lack of communication more deafening. After about a minute, Yukiko finally spoke up, doing her best to look Naoto in the eye.

“I-I’m sorry for that,” she apologized, shyly rubbing her forearm, “I just...why are you asking? Did Yosuke-kun say something?”

It felt like a bit of a snappy response, and Yukiko felt her heart drop when she saw Naoto sigh heavily. Of all things, why was this on her mind?

Naoto was quiet for a few seconds before giving her answer. “I had thought that your dignity and friendship was more important than his... needs ,”  she sneered, like she was saying a curse curse word, “but I guess I was sorely mistaken.”

Wow! Yukiko thought. “What’s this all about...? Did something happen between you two?” Naoto’s dander was unreasonably up, it felt like.

The tiny girl took a deep breath, jamming her hand in her slacks pocket. “Ever since...everything that’s happened, Yosuke-senpai has been...courteous to me. Suspiciously so. I just can never tell what he’s thinking, and when I hear stories like this it makes me...errgh!” She folded her arms, her cross expression saying more than any words could.

How odd. Yosuke had been talking to Naoto? Yukiko searched her memory and could barely remember the two of them interacting at all. Even so, she couldn’t necessarily find herself disagreeing with the detective’s suspicions; Yosuke did always seem to have something up his sleeve. Still, she felt bad knowing that Naoto already had a lot on her plate, and didn’t need to be dealing with any more drama. Plus, Yukiko also could identify with the pain of having someone you considered a friend suddenly disappointing you with their actions.

“I-I know Yosuke-kun can be a bit much,” Yukiko murmured, clutching the bow around her neck, “I’m sorry if what you heard upset you. Sometimes...sometimes I wish Yosuke-kun and Teddie were more like Kanji-kun,” she sighed. She didn’t notice Naoto’s confused expression as she continued, lost in her thoughts a bit. “He’s always so kind and respectful! He’s not like other boys…” Wait, what !? “B-but! Not in...not in that way, I m-meant more like…!”

What was she saying!? Naoto was staring at her, an eyebrow raised to match her puzzled expression. Yukiko went to say something, anything , to correct course, but her heart was beating so loud she could hear it in her ears and it was drowning out everything. How could she be so insensitive!?

Naoto stripped her hat off, rubbing her forehead anxiously. Yukiko was prepared to receive the girl’s signature death stare, but Naoto started talking, surprisingly. “I...I know what you mean. I’ve begun to realize how fortunate I’ve…” she cut herself off, a look of pain etched across her previous grimace, “how fortunate I’ve been to count Kanji-kun amongst my dearest friends. His absence is...noticeable.” Naoto stood silent for a beat before putting her hat back on and pulling it tight over her eyes.

With that revelation, Yukiko’s heart was suddenly pounding even faster. This was it! It had been a bit awkward getting there, but that sure sounded like Naoto just wanted a reconciliation as well. Still, she couldn’t ignore the little pang of guilt that was eating at her. Sure it was Kanji’s problem, but Yukiko felt that perhaps she needed to do something . Naoto was clearly still hurting as well, and what kind of friend would she be if knew something that could cheer her up and she didn’t say it?

Naoto’s cap was still pulled tight over her eyes as Yukiko approached her, ready to spill what Kanji had told her. Before she could speak, however, she suddenly froze as the words were working their way into her throat. There was something in her that...that almost didn’t want to tell Naoto about Kanji’s feelings. But why on earth would she do that!? Kanji couldn’t have made it more clear that him and Naoto being friends again was all he wanted, so what was the hold up? She thought again of Kanji, tossing and turning in a nightmare because of the stress of all this, and that only made her feel more guilty.

With all the thoughts rambling in her brain, Yukiko did her best to break it down into simple statements of fact:

“I want Kanji-kun and Naoto-kun to be happy.” Telling Naoto how he felt could ease both of their heartache and set them back on the path of being dear friends.

“I want Kanji-kun to be happy,” Thinking of how happy he had seemed laughing with her at the inn the other night, being himself again, made her smile and she felt her heart grow warm at the prospect of enjoying more moments like that.

“I want Kanji-kun to be proud of me .”

She was lucky to have caught the gasp that was speeding up from her throat before it escaped. Where...where did that come from? She couldn’t believe how selfish she was being again. This wasn’t even about her!

“Erm...are you alright, Yukiko-senpai?” Naoto asked, snapping Yukiko out of her maelstrom, steely eyes giving the heiress a suspicious look.

“O-oh! E-erm, yes, I am!” Yukiko hoped her face wasn’t too tomato red. “I just wanted to say that…” Yukiko bit her cherry-flavored lip, struggling to beat her inner voice. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and just let the words come out. “Th-that I’ve...I’ve actually spoken with Kanji-kun recently,” she revealed, which got a wide-eyed stare from the Detective Prince, “and...he says the same thing. About you. All he wants is for you two to be friends again...th-that’s what he told me, anyways…”

For some reason, just admitting that drained Yukiko of all her energy. She felt as tired now as she had felt when the gang had rescued her from the TV World and she had slept for almost two whole days straight.

Naoto’s eyes stayed wide for a while, then sharpened back to their usual state. She put a hand to her chin and started rubbing, ostensibly in thought. “He...he does? Truly?” Naoto sounded, for once, like a kid, eager to trust the words of someone older. Not willing to risk opening her mouth and saying anything more foolish, Yukiko just nodded roughly.

“I-I see. This is…” For a moment, it looked as if Naoto was getting emotional before she put a hand on her hip and relaxed. “Th-thank you, Yukiko-senpai. You...you can’t understand how comforting that is to hear,” the 2nd year said, a shy smile lighting up her previously dour face. For all the self-loathing she had felt inside just a few seconds earlier, Yukiko now felt as if she was on top of the world.

“Y-you’re so welcome!” she responded excitedly, “I...I understand it will be hard, but maybe you can talk to him at the beach? He said he was going to be there, so…” Whatever weird thoughts had stopped her earlier seemed to vanish in the elation of seeing Naoto’s reaction.

For the first time in what seemed like ages, Yukiko saw Naoto’s face run red. Her hat was already being pulled down to hide it. “P-perhaps I shall. I suppose I owe him that much...”

This was all great to hear. She had had some misgivings about Naoto’s emotional capabilities, but Yukiko could now clearly see that perhaps it was her awkwardness, not her frostiness, that had caused the discord. Before she could respond positively, the chattering voices of Rise and Chie coming back from trying on their outfits distracted her. Both girls had shark-like grins on their face and a fit of the giggles.

“Girls,” Naoto greeted them with a tip of her hat, “Welcome back.”

“Hey! Any luck?” Yukiko asked, her smile almost as big as theirs. Rise tittered and winked at Chie.

“Welllll, I don’t want to be too dramatic, but ,” she teased, putting her arm on Chie’s shoulder, “Those boys don’t know what they’re in for! They're holding them up front for us; we’re gonna have the boys drooling all over us! ”

This got a nervous laugh from Chie, who blushed a little at that. “Oh jeez! Yeah, we looked good, but it’s not like that ! Plus, gross, I don't want the boys slobbering all over me! And don’tcha already have a boyfriend?!”

This made Rise laugh even more. “Pfft, and !? Of course I love Naru-chan, but where’s the fun in wearing something cute and awesome if you’re not gonna tease some dumb boys with it? Honestly!”

This got a hearty laugh from three of the girls, but Yukiko noticed that Naoto had gone awfully quiet. This was probably a good sign; when Naoto was quiet she was thinking, and hopefully she wa thinking about what Yukiko had told her.

“What about you two?” Chie asked, looking at their empty hands. “Any luck?”

Naoto broke her concentrated thinking to scoff. “I already have... something , thank you very much.”

Rise mock sniffled. “She won’t even show me. Me! You’re a real heartbreaker, you know that Nao-chan!?” She stuck her tongue out at the end, which earned her a good-natured eye roll from her friend.

Naturally, Yukiko had also been so focused on her conversation with Naoto that she hadn’t even thought to find something, although that had already been difficult enough.

“Sorry, I’m just not very good at picking out...!”

In the corner of her eye, she saw a mannequin near the center of the store that almost looked too be to be true. Like she was in a trance, Yukiko stepped past Chie and Rise to take a look at it, her jaw going a bit slack.This was... perfect. It looked right about her size, it matched her aesthetic, and most importantly, she could see herself looking beautiful in it. It wasn’t often that she dressed to impress anyone but herself, but for some reason, she had the overwhelming urge to do so with this swimsuit.

“Oh my God...how did we not notice this before!? It’s totally you!” Rise cheered from behind her.

“I-it’s amazing…” Chie whispered, clearly awestruck.

Naoto’s take was far more observational. “Well that is, erm, certainly very red …”

Yukiko had to concur with her girlfriends. Just looking at it now was almost empowering . For reasons she couldn't explain, but she felt like she had just been charged up, ready to release the power of Konohana Sakuya, her Persona, on some unsuspecting shadows. She didn’t just want it, she needed it.

A salesman dressed smartly in a black shirt and tie had wandered somewhat nearby, and Yukiko pounced. “Excuse me!” she half-yelled, the fervor taking over, “H-how much is this one!?”

Beleaguered, the salesperson rubbed his head, “O-oh, well this one is, uh, 13 thous -”

I’ll take it!”

Chapter Text

Saturday, 8/12/12, Shichiri Beach, Afternoon…

“How, exactly, did we get conned into being the only ones to ride our scooters out here today!?”

“You -huff- go to hell, man! I hadda -huff- ride my damn -huff- bike up here! Again!

“But you got to help me again, Kanji! Doesn’t that just fill you with joy, helping little ‘ol moi?

“Ted, I swear ta God…”

The three boys were grumbly and irritable as they trudged their way down the concrete steps that separated the nearby road from the sands of Shichiri beach. It was the day of the big beach trip, and Yosuke had gotten up bright and early to make sure his scooter was going to be ready for the trip. To his surprise, Chie texted him to let him know that she and the rest of the girls would be hitching a ride with Dojima, who apparently had some things to do in the area and wanted to make sure his daughter, Nanako, got there okay.

This left the three boys with a lonely ride to the beach; Kanji had it a bit worse, since he still only had his plain bicycle and was responsible for Teddie as well, who stood on the spokes of Kanji’s bike and generally made it hell to pedal. The sun was also beating down mercilessly, which served to make the trip up there a sticky, sweaty, experience; Yosuke swore he swallowed half his weight in bugs, and cautiously rubbed his stomach as his sandal-clad feet finally touched the sand.

Well, at least the view was sure worth the trip! Just like last year, the ocean was a glimmering, shiny blue, a far cry from the gloomy grey streams and rivers back in Inaba. Since it was the middle of Summer there was quite a few people out and about, although Yosuke was really only paying attention to the girls. Or at least trying to pay attention.

Something odd had been happening recently: Yosuke’s normally hot blood felt like it was beginning to run rather cold. He had noticed it the other night when browsing his laptop for some “entertainment,” particularly of the sexy nurse variety. He found plenty of material, and it wasn’t like “business” as usual hadn’t gone down, but it felt kind of...empty. Several nights worth of similar activities failed to produce any real excitement (although it did cause him to waste a ton of tissues). Even now, with plenty of bare flesh to ogle, there was only a hint of the normal rush he remembered getting last year. One in particular, a dark haired beauty who was doing a mighty fine job of filling out her yellow bikini, would have normally cycled right into his memory for future fantasies, but now he was struggling to even remember her after he looked away. He only usually forgot their faces.

In truth, this was making him extremely nervous, and the girls’ impending arrival wasn’t helping. The last time he had truly felt that kind of blasé attitude toward other girls was...well, the last time he had felt that there was really only one girl for him. Back when he first came to Inaba, he would mess with Chie, sure, but his heart only really desired Saki, which did effect his normally unquenchable teenage lust. Under any other circumstance, this would be a nice feeling, as it always was to have a crush on somebody, but this was... weird .

For what seemed like the past week and a half, Yosuke had been unable to purge his thoughts of Naoto. Whether it was while conducting nighttime “business,” or working, or even just zoning out while Teddie babbled, she always seemed to remain right there in his frontal cortex. He almost laughed - even just a month ago, he probably would have laughed his ass off at the thought of even hanging out with Naoto, let alone getting the feelings he was having now. But, as she had been consistently doing ever since she first came to town, Naoto was full of surprises.

A long week of texting each other had, in his mind, solidified that there was... something there. Naoto had deemed him trustworthy, it seemed, and was opening up to him far more than he could ever recall her doing with anybody but Yu and Rise( maybe Kanji?). In turn, he was doing the same, although he still kept his guard up slightly; it wasn’t that he didn’t trust Naoto, but he didn’t trust himself. He was prone to put his foot in his mouth all the time, and now he truly worried he had, since Naoto had not texted him in a few days. The last few nights had seen him constantly return to his messages, trying to dissect and critique his responses in any way he could to understand why she was ghosting him. These searches and analyses would frequently go late into the night, but still Yosuke persevered.

Since Yu had left, there was a part of him that felt he had lost his own main source of trust, and that had hurt quite a bit. Yu was always a phone call or text away, but he had his own life, and probably his own problems now; if there was one thing Yosuke hated, it was that he might be a burden on anyone else's’ life, more than he already was. With Naoto coming, he could just ask her if something was wrong, but he was worried that his courage would fail him or, worse, he’d find himself paralyzed by the anxiety plaguing him now.

And if she was wearing a swimsuit or something!? Yosuke didn’t want to imagine how he might react. He felt an extra pang of sympathy for Kanji, who had bemoaned his own tentative nervousness at seeing the detective again since she had rejected his confession a few weeks back. That both of them were going to feel odd about seeing her definitely made him glad that Teddie was with them; his energy, while usually dumb and mischievous, was always a nice reminder that sometimes it was good to just have fun. Of course, Yosuke couldn’t really understand the sentiment at the moment, but it was nice all the same.

“...’ey, Senpai! You fallin’ asleep or somethin’? C’mon, let’s set up our stuff!”

Yosuke snapped out of his troubled thoughts, seeing Kanji carrying a drawstring bag that had his towel in it. Sighing, he took one last look at some of the more curvy beachgoers before walking over towards Kanji. At least he felt some confidence in his beach look: he had swapped out his red swimsuit from last year fo a pair of orange boardshorts that had a white stripe down the side. To go with it, he brought his blue hoodie, since last year it had gotten real cold and his wet towel did him no favors on the ride back. Kanji was also a massive improvement, having ditched the black speedo trunks for a...well, it was at least better stylistically . Yosuke held back a snicker seeing the purple swim trunks again.

“Dude, tell me again, you sure that thing was in the guys’ section?” He chuckled, pointing to the trunks, which had a bright green stripe and a penguin with its flippers in the air that made up a decent size of the right leg. Kanji turned red and he aggressively laid out his towel, a plain white and yellow beach towel, across the sand.

“S-shuddup! I like it, it’s fine! I don’t make fun of yer...yer dumb…” Kanji was struggling for a comeback, so Yosuke pounced.

“Oh c’mon, would you just admit it’s at least weird ?”

“S-so!? Didn’t hear you complainin’ when I bought it!” He huffed, sitting down on his towel and turning his flustered gaze toward the ocean.

“Hey, at least it’s better than what you had before! ‘Least now we don’t have to worry about seeing your bag on accident…” Yosuke muttered, removing a similar drawstring bag he had on his back and fetching his and Teddie’s towels. Teddie had been somehow drawn to the idea that his whole beach outfit had to match, so in addition to the white and blue stripes he wore last year, he had now added a similarly colored towel and tank top. To Yosuke, he looked like a turn of the century bather who happened to have a side job as a professional model.

“Aw, I love how soft this is! Not as soft as moi , of course,” Teddie remarked, rubbing his cheek into the towel as Yosuke handed it to him. As he began to set up his own towel, Yosuke felt he should ask about the “surprise” Teddie had in store today.

“Hey, fuzzbrain, where’s Marie? I thought you said she was gonna ‘surprise’ everyone?” He asked sharply, quickly scouting around to see if she was nearby. Knowing she was a Goddess he was paranoid she could hear everything, and the last thing he wanted to do was to bring down her wrath again. Her violent temper was exactly why he thought her just ‘surprising’ all the girls was a bad idea; her and Rise definitely had some heat between them, and he hoped Teddie had prepared her for that.

“Don’t worry, she’s coming! And wait ‘til you see her, ooh la la! No one will be able to resist her!” he said proudly, a self-satisfied and goofy smile on his face. This was not giving Yosuke confidence.

“I’m just sayin’,” Yosuke muttered, finally getting his towel straightened out on the sand, “It was pretty clear she was into Narukami in that way. Did you ever tell her that he and Rise are, y’know…”

Teddie let out a large gasp and looked at Yosuke as if he had gone mad. “Yosuke, you should clean that filthy mind! Sensei and Rise-chan are doing no such thing!”

Yosuke could only smack his forehead in frustration. “Okay, fine. Forget it! But if we all get roasted with lightning again, I’m taking away your dessert privileges!”

The boy gasped again. “Y-you m-monster…!”

Before their bickering could continue, Yosuke saw a familiar sight in the corner of his eye: Dojima’s black Subaru Outback, an upgrade he had gotten after his car accident last December, pulling up near the top of the stone steps the boys had just gone down. Quickly, he looked away; for some reason he figured this would somehow make it less awkward. He was wrong, especially when he could hear the excited chattering of Rise and Chie over the slam of car doors and the general sounds of the beach.

“Well, everyone’s here. Now ‘r never…” he heard Kanji mumble as the big teen slowly lulled to his feet. Teddie, however, was in his usual cheery and slightly delirious mood.

“Last time, the girls’ beauty had the power of over a thousand burning suns,” Teddie began slowly, his gestures matching the ostentatiousness of his words, “But now a whole year has passed, and with the changing of the seasons, these suns will burn brighter and more mature than ever. Will we see more bold outfits? Or simply more filled out? The time is now for us to - eep!

Yosuke, his anxiety already sky high, had had enough of Teddie’s pretentious prose, socked him in the belly, causing him to fold over and groan in pain. Before too long, the noise of the girls got closer and closer, and finally he forced himself to look over, doing his best to brace himself.

As usual, the girls looked pretty stunning. Rise lead the pack, striding confidently in a white and purple bikini that had a bandeau-style halter top which had purple strings going up past her pale neck and a pair of bottoms that were ruffled around the waist. Her hair was down, and she was wearing a big pair of sunglasses, which would help a little to disguise her. Behind her was Yukiko, who appeared modest: she had a white lace cardigan over whatever swimsuit she was wearing, although the bottom part of the cardigan was see-through, which gave a tantalizing hint of bare skin. Interestingly, her shiny black hair was also up in a high ponytail, which was a pretty rare look for the heiress. Right next to Yukiko was Chie, holding the hand of Nanako, who had a bright smile on her face as she took in the sights and sounds of the beach. They were dressed fairly similarly; Chie had a large white t-shirt that had the hem tied into a bun knot a little above her hip, revealing a pair of lycra boyshorts there were lime green with a waist that was yellow with green stripes, and Nanako had a big tank top on that covered most of her body, likely borrowed from one of the girls. Both Chie and Rise were carrying tote bags that appeared to have towels sticking out of them. 

Yosuke could almost feel a nosebleed coming on, but it wasn’t until Rise waved and each of the other girls followed her closer toward where Kanji had his towel set up that Naoto appeared, almost out of nowhere, behind them. Being the shortest in the group had sort of hidden her, but worse still, she and Yosuke locked eyes for a second. Blushing wildly, he turned away and pretended to fiddle with his drawstring bag, which was so apparently empty that he felt even dumber for trying this. The stare was so brief that he hadn’t really noticed what she was wearing, only that she did not have her usual hat. As he did his best to just act cool and no sell the girls’ arrival, he heard the cheery voice of Nanako.

“Wow! It’s so pretty and blue, just like on TV!” the little girl squealed, running down past Yosuke’s towel and eagerly kneeling down so she could put her fingers into the sand. Teddy laughed and joined her by burying his arms elbow deep in the sand, his enthusiasm matching hers despite having already visited the beach before.

“Get used to that sandy feel, Nanako-chan,” Rise laughed, setting down her bag, “it will be all over you for a few weeks!” She began setting up her towel as the other girls settled in.

“‘D’you guys get here all right?” Chie asked, tossing her bag next to Rise’s.

Yosuke wanted to answer her, but he also didn’t want to turn around. “F-fine,” he mumbled, scratching the back of his head. Suddenly, he felt himself pushed forward, his already hunched over body losing balance, and he yelped as he fell face first into the sand. Chie’s self-satisfied giggle rang in his ears as he clenched his fists in the sand, deeply annoyed.

“Dork,” she sneered, “Tryin’ to hide your nosebleed or somethin’, ya perv? Well, Kanji-kun?”

“Was alright, I guess,” Yosuke heard Kanji answer as he slowly got back to his feet, “Damn Ted can’t sit still for nothin’. How come you guys got the red carpet treatment? Ain’t fair, man…”

“Well, we had to take Nanako-chan, and Dojima-san offered, sooo...sucks to be you!” Chie teased, sticking her tongue out playfully. “But seriously, it’s great to see you, Kanji-kun! Hey, Yukiko, what’s the matter? Too hot? Told ya you shoulda brought a hat!”

“Chie, I’m fine! H-how are you doing, Kanji-kun?”

“Uhh, good? I guess? Why, somethin’ wrong?”

“N-no! Just asking…”

Yosuke turned around, fully ready to yell at Chie, when he finally caught an extended sight of Naoto shyly standing next to Rise, who was motor-mouthing about something. She was wearing...an outfit. A short-sleeved rashguard of some kind that clung to her skin and was zipped up in the middle to her neck, black with silver lining running through the arms and torso. Below that was a pair of dark blue swimming trunks that came down to just above her knees, and under that, what appeared to be dark leggings of some sort that went all the way to her slippered feet. She was rubbing her right arm nervously, looking around as if she was watching to see if people were staring at her, a blush almost as bad as Yosuke’s on her face.

Truthfully, Yosuke felt both disappointed and sympathetic. He couldn’t help picturing Naoto in something that was maybe a little more flattering like Rise or Chie; he didn’t know what he had expected, but Naoto looked as if she was just as ready to play basketball as go for a swim, which wasn’t exactly thrilling. A part of him felt bad for thinking it, but he figured as long as he kept that to himself it evened out. She was clearly not very comfortable even with this conservative outfit, and that made him feel for her, especially since she had the double whammy of being out at the beach and having to see Kanji again. Even if he was in the doghouse, his incurable urge to be helpful and needed was boiling to the surface, and he suddenly found himself wanting nothing more than to go over and maybe put her at ease. And who knows? Maybe he was just overthinking everything and they would get along as well as they had over the past week!

Feeling lighter and more confident, Yosuke put aside his anger at Chie and started to walk toward Naoto, gulping nervously. Before he could, he felt a tugging on his arm. He looked down to see Nanako looking up at him, a big smile on her face.

“Yosuke, can you help blow up the beach toys? Chie-chan said you would!” She said sweetly, motioning over to a host of plastic inflatables that lay sprawled out across Kanji’s towel. Chie was now sitting over there too, giving him a smug grin as he looked at her with disdain.

“Don’t worry Nanako-chan, Yosuke would love to help us, right?” she said with a tone that was probably indistinguishable to Nanako but clearly taunting in some way to Yosuke.

He groaned lightly, looking back over at Naoto quickly before turning his attention toward the little girl. “Y-yeah, sure Nanako-chan. Happy to…”

Yosuke shoved his hands in his pockets as he walked over to Kanji’s towel, noticing Yukiko and Kanji were locked in some kind of deep conversation. Weird, he thought, before taking a seat down on the towel and finding an deflated pool tube in his lap.

As Nanako frolicked in the sand with Teddie some more, Chie nudged Yosuke with her foot. “Okay, you have a job to do now, so you can stop gawkin’ at Naoto-kun!”

Yosuke sputtered, totally caught off guard. How had she even noticed!? “Pfft, I don’t - I mean what do you even...I was just…!”

“I’m just sayin’!,” Chie replied, waving her hand dismissively, “I know how you can get, so can you please just not do it today with her? It took a lot to get her to come to the beach, so don’t you go makin’ her feel weird about it!”

“I know it did!” Yosuke responded as Chie blew up a duck toy, “I wasn’t...I’m not trying to-”

“Wait, you know? ” The spunky 3rd year asked, setting aside the duck, “Did she mention it or...?”

Yosuke took a quick gander over at Rise and Naoto, still locked in conversation, and then looked Chie in the eye, realizing he was getting way too worked up. “I...yeah, we’ve been texting a little lately. I know that she’s…” he looked over at Kanji, also still locked in his conversation with Yukiko, “she’s been going through a lot, and hanging out with everyone is tough right now, so I just wanted to...see how she was doing. That’s all!”

Chie just sat and listened, taking in what Yosuke had said. Her scolding frown slowly turned into a gentle smile. “Well, look at this: Yosuke Hanamura, finally acting like he cares! Looks like I got all worried for nothing!” she chuckled as she grabbed the last blow-up toy and quickly began to blow into the open air hole on it. Yosuke took that as his queue to finish blowing up his own, an inner tube with the words “SWIM TIME” on it. He didn’t quite buy Chie’s sincerity, but he figured he’d try not to let it bother him.

Once they were both done, Chie’s smile turned into a wicked grin “Y’know, the last time I heard you be that nice to a girl, you had somethin’ else on your mind... soooooo ” she said mischievously, “When did ya start crushin’ on Naoto-kun?”

Time to panic . “N-no, what!? That’s insane!” Yosuke choked, his face now lobster red as he flailed his arms dramatically. Chie’s smile got even more devious as she let out a few chuckles watching Yosuke sweat. He took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair, hoping his voice wouldn’t crack as it had just a moment ago. “I just...we’re friends, so of course I like her! B-b-but not what you mean!” he added quickly, watching Chie bite her lip to stifle her giggles so Nanako wouldn’t get suspicious.

“Okay, okay, Mr. Defensive! Didn’t know you were just admiring your llooovvee …”

Oh, God! “W-would you…! Gah, you’re such a pain…you don’t even know what you’re talking about!” Yosuke wasn’t even sure what he was saying, but he knew that if he didn’t at least try to fight back, that would mean she was right. And she couldn’t be right, right!?

Chie hopped up to her feet, holding up the inflatable inner tube to show Nanako. “Trust me, what you’re saying right now is all I needed to hear!” With that, she laughed maniacally and turned to Nanako, who was looking at her strangely. “C’mon, Nanako-chan! Let’s leave Yosuke to his brooding and get in the water!”

“Yay!”

She turned and stuck her tongue out at Yosuke one last time before flinging off her t-shirt, revealing a matching lime green high neck halter bikini top. With a large whoop, she charged for the water with the inner tube, crashing into the ocean with a strong -kerplop-. Nanako followed suit, her pink and white one-piece suit flashing in the sun through her thin tank top as she leapt into Chie’s waiting arms so she could be put in the tube.

Yosuke watched all of this with a heavy frown. Teddie, having been left partner-less since Nanako had joined Chie, sidled up to him. “What’s the matter, Yosuke? Are you tearing up over how wholesome it is to see Nana-chan and Chie-chan have fun together? -Sniff- ‘C-cause I might!”

He ignored the bear, who continued to blubber and rant, focusing instead on how laser-accurate Chie had been. Was it that easy to tell? He had known her the longest of all his friends, so Yosuke figured that she, of everyone, would be more likely to pick him apart than even Yu. Still, the thought of it... scared him. Anytime he had a crush before it had ended pretty badly: asking Yukiko out only to be totally ignored, Rise literally being on of his dream crushes but showing negative interest, and not to mention everything with Saki.

Saki-senpai...

It was her, more than anything, that gave Yosuke pause. It seemed like a thousand years had passed since he had spent almost all his waking hours thinking about her and wanting to be a part of her life. That she was ripped away so violently and without warning still scarred Yosuke, as did her inner monologue he had heard when he was in her section of the TV World. Why would he put Naoto through all that again? She had just had a bad experience with this sort of thing, and here he was, ready to pick the scraps like some kind of vulture. She needed a friend, not a boy friend, he told himself.

Besides, if his life up to that point was any indication, she probably didn’t think much of him anyways. So why bother? He pulled his knees closer up to his chest as the wind picked up, trying to get warm, and snuck another look at Rise and Naoto a few yards away.

Naturally, he decided to look right when Naoto turned her attention away from Rise for a brief second and caught him. Yosuke wanted to turn away but his gaze lingered for a second, and that’s when he saw it: Naoto shyly smiling and giving him a single wave as they locked eyes.

It was like someone had defibrillated his heart by 1000 volts. All the rational, smart-minded thoughts he had had just a second ago went up in smoke, and all he could think about was trying to talk to her, if even for a little while. He really wished Yu was around; he had a habit of giving pep talks that could inspire regular men to move mountains, so Yosuke was sure he would have had a good one for talking to a girl.


“Who’re you waving to?”

“Oh, just...erm, Yosuke-senpai.”

“Woah, is he checkin’ you out!? That little…”

“N-no, Rise, please! I was just waving, that’s all.

“If you say so...”

Rise flipped her sunglasses back down over her eyes as she leaned her head back to let her lithe neck catch some sun. She let the silence sit for a moment before she decided to ease the tension radiating out of Naoto.

“Still, could you blame him? I’d check you out, you’re killing it!”

“R-Rise!” Naoto hissed, pulling her arms tighter, if it was possible, over her torso, “Please stop, y-you’re embarrassing me!”

This got a giggle from the idol, who flipped over on her stomach to let to her bare back roast and conveniently lock eyes with her detective friend. “Okay, okay! But still,” she said softly, trying to be encouraging, “I’m really proud of you for coming out here today. I know it’s not easy. You doing okay?”

Naoto looked pensive for a second, a near permanent blush on her cheeks, before she nodded meekly. “I..I’m alright. I just feel underdressed, that’s all...and yet, that is the point. Forgive me, I must sound like such a-”

“Ugh, you’re fine!” Rise scolded, startling the Detective Prince out of her thoughts, “It’s okay to feel a little weird! Don’t be so harsh on yourself; you’ve already done the hard part, so just relax .” Naoto opened her mouth to say something back, but Rise just repeated “ Relaaaxxx ” in an even softer voice, which silenced her before she could speak. Rise took a moment to rest her head in her folded arms, soaking up as much sun as possible.

The gentle hum of the ocean spray and the seagulls crying out to each other covered the quiet silence between the two as Rise hummed a little tune to herself, happily enjoying the glowing warmth of the sun. After a few minutes she looked up from the pillow she had made of her arms to see Naoto still sitting next to her quietly. The poor girl, she thought.

“Ummm, Nao-chan?” she asked, once again snapping her friend out of some deep thought. “You know I love having you around, buuuttt you don’t haveta sit around and watch me tan, that’s probably boring!”

Naoto scratched her cheek as she responded. “O-oh, my apologies, it is just that I…” she trailed off, her eyes suddenly catching something off in the distance. Rise raised her sunglasses again and followed her gaze, seeing it was fixed squarely on Kanji and Yukiko, who were sitting and talking to each other a few yards away.

Rise felt her heart sink. “Look, Nao-chan, one way or another, you’re gonna have to figure out something to say to him,” she started, flicking her head toward Kanji, “He won’t bite! I’m sure of it.”

The blue-haired 2nd year remained silent, a small frown tucked into the corner of her mouth. She had explained to Rise how angry and helpless her inability to talk with Kanji had made her, and while it was quiet, the idol was now wise enough to know when Naoto was trying to hide it. Rise sighed and sat up on her heels so she could reach out and put a hand on Naoto’s shoulder. Before she could, the detective had reached into her pocket and removed two steel orbs that were lodged in her palm.

“Hey! You’re using them!” Rise cheered, her mood further elated by seeing a shy smile replace the frown on Naoto’s lips. The orbs had been a gift from Rise to Naoto based on an idea from a fellow idol, Tomoe Sayama, who Rise always looked up to because she always seemed so calm and collected, even in the stressful world of showbiz. While she had always been a bit space-y, Rise was still a little surprised when, after asking what helped her keep so calm, the older girl had deposited a small box with Chinese meditation spheres in her hands. Still, she figured they would make a nice gift for Naoto, who had had a few pre-summer incidents of losing her temper hastily.

“Well, of course,” Naoto replied, beginning to rotate them in her right hand, “I must admit that I am not entirely convinced of their supposed spiritual power, but they are...growing on me. The repetition of rotating them helps me think a little better.”

After a few silent rotations, Rise could see that Naoto’s eyes were glowing, a phenomenon she always compared to gears working behind her eyes to light a spark in them. “ Soooo what are you thinking now?” the bikini-clad idol asked.

“I...I will speak with Kanji-kun today,” Naoto sighed, “but...perhaps later; he and Yukiko-senpai seem to be discussing something important…”

Rise clapped her hands in excitement and placed both of her hands over Naoto’s closed right fist, returning the blush to her face. “Yes, awesome! Trust me, you’ll feel so much better when you do. Just don’t overthink it and you’ll do great, ‘kay!?” Rise assured her, earning a small but confident smile from the detective.

“I’ll do my best not to,” she as she got up off the blanket and slipped off her sandals, “I think for now I’ll join Chie-san and Nanako-chan in the water. Would you mind holding onto these?” Naoto held out the orbs, which Rise dutifully took and deposited into the tote bag she had brought all the towels in.

“Okay, have fun! Just yell if you need a sexy lifeguard to come save you!” Rise cooed, winking cheekily.

“I can swim , Rise,” Naoto huffed good-naturedly, rolling her eyes. “It won’t be like at the slopes, I assure you!” With that, the pint-sized detective began walking toward the shore, her arms tightly crossed across her body as she dutifully avoided looking in the direction of everybody else. Rise sighed as she saw Kanji, still in conversation with Yukiko, sort of eyeball her moving down the beach before tearing his sight away. Those two can be so stubborn , she thought.

Still, the idol couldn’t help but smile as she laid back down on her towel. They hadn’t discussed it a ton, but Rise was aware that Naoto was trying to, as she had put it, “embolden myself and cast off the shackles that would chain me to any one particular gender,” not just in her thoughts, but in her outward appearance, too. It was a little heady to think about, but Rise was more than happy to help her best friend in any way she could, even if it was just complimenting her swim attire. It wasn’t what she would have picked out, but Naoto made it work, and, most importantly, it was what she was most comfortable with. And finding comfort for Naoto was going to become important, she felt.

As the weeks had gone by, the young starlet had been a little concerned that perhaps Naoto was falling into a troublesome pattern: get extremely close to one member of the group but otherwise keep to herself. Getting regular updates from the rest of the gang that Naoto hadn’t really even attempted to make contact with them had really worried her, and with the time off she had, she was determined to make sure that Naoto got out of her head a little bit. She wanted everyone else to get to know Naoto like she had, and perhaps something like this beach trip was a way for her to not only just not be a homebody, but also be herself , like who she was with Rise. So far, it seemed to be working, or at the very least hadn’t been a total disaster.

One other thing that weighed on Rise’s mind a bit was that the girls had had such little time alone together that they hadn’t had the talk. She had been willing to leave it alone because it was still probably a very fresh wound, but Rise was very curious as to why Naoto had rejected Kanji. They just seemed so cute together, and she had honestly felt like there seemed to be a spark between the two on the occasions that the three younger group members had gotten together to study or hang out. Maybe she felt weird about having a boyfriend while having some thoughts about her gender again? Was she still holding onto feelings for Yu? Rise had a lot of questions, and while she could have just used...someone’s razor (Naoto explained it to her once, but she had long since forgotten) to figure out what the simplest answer was, Naoto Shirogane wasn’t a simple person, and was far more in tune with her emotions than she let on.

But for now, Rise was very content just seeing Naoto hang out with everyone again. Whatever fears she had had regarding a pattern of behavior were dissipating quickly, and it was beginning to seem like this particular area was just the exception to the rule. Satisfied, Rise got comfy again on her towel and basked in the sun’s warm embrace. She tilted her head back and closed her eyes, truly enjoying a time spent away from the hecticness of preparing for the Love Meets Bonds Festival or worrying about her friends.

When she opened her eyes again she wasn’t sure how much time had passed, as the sun still sat high in the air before it was suddenly blocked out. Blinking, she whipped her sunglasses off and saw a random face staring at her upside down. In a panic she shrieked, causing everyone else in the group to immediately focus on her and attracting the concern of a few bystanders as well.

In a flash she had gotten to her feet and turned to face her attacker or harasser or whoever they were, and her mouth dropped in shock. It was hard to recognize her in the very revealing bikini she was wearing, since she rarely changed out of her usual look, but Rise would never forget someone like her in a million years.

M-M-Marie-chan!?

“W-what are you screaming for!? You’re a-acting like you saw some kinda...some kinda pervert! Stupiddancingqueenairhead!”


“Chie-chan?”

“Yeessss?”

“This water tastes...bad.”

“W-well, you’re not ‘sposed ta drink it! Goofball!”

Despite her concern, Chie couldn’t help but chuckle as Nanako pitiffully spit and wiped her mouth and tongue to get rid of the nasty taste of the ocean water piling up on the top of her inner tube. Nanako was a pretty clever kid, but sometimes Chie forgot just that - she was a kid, and sometimes kids do silly things too, like taste the water in the ocean.

The two girls were having a good time splashing around not too far from the shore; they were in such shallow water that Chie had no problem standing, even as foamy waves batted her around. Still, she wanted to play it safe for Nanako, who appeared to be having the time of her life slowly navigating the water in her inner tube.

As she watched Nanako, Chie saw out of the corner of her eye that Naoto was heading towards them, shyly digging her toes in the muddy shore. She remembered Rise mentioning that this was the first time Naoto had ever been to the beach, and it definitely showed; Naoto was shuffling toward the surf at a snail’s pace, her normally placid expression mired by a furrowed brow and slightly gritted teeth.

The 3rd year couldn’t help but have a little fun. “Yo, Naoto, it’s not gonna suck you in, you know!” she called cheekily, earning a giggle from Nanako.

Naoto looked up, her face mildly red. “It-it’s just so cold! I wasn’t expecting it to be…”

The sheepish 2nd year stood shivering in the shallow ocean for only a few seconds before she steeled herself and pressed onward, wading slowly into the water until she was near Chie and Nanako. Once she reached them, she submerged herself even further, up to about her neck, before popping back up, taking deep breaths while her teeth chattered.

This made very little sense to Chie. “What’d ya do that for!?” she scolded, shaking her head. If less of her body was wet, she wouldn’t be as cold!

“Yeah, you could get a cold!” Nanako said, incredulously mimicking Chie’s sentiments.

“W-well,” Naoto said, her erratic breathing not quite subsided, “e-everyone experiences a c-c-cold shock when they enter low t-temperature water. I-it is why I’m still a l-little short of breath. G-gradual immersion, starting with the waist and then going up to the neck, will shorten that discomfort.”

“Woah . Is that, like, some kinda science thing!?” Chie asked, impressed. Naoto nodded quickly.

“Wow, you’re so smart, Naoto-kun!” Nanako said pleasantly, “I think it’s cool that you know so much stuff about...stuff. I like your bathing suit, too!”

“O-oh, thank you...Nanako-chan,” Naoto responded, her cheeks flushing red as she slowly rubbed her arm. “Yours is, erm...it’s very...cute.”

Nanako laughed and thanked the detective, which preceded a bit of an awkward silence as Nanako went back to playing. Truthfully, Chie wasn’t sure what to say to the detective; they didn’t really hang out much, and she was trying to watch Nanako closely, her over-protective nature in full force. While Nanako flitted away, Naoto moved a little closer to Chie.

“Erm...C-Chie-senpai?”

Chie leaned her head to the side, trying to keep an eye on Nanako. “Mmm? What’s up?”

Naoto took a deep breath before continuing. “I...I wanted to apologize to you. You had sent me some text messages and voicemails over the past couple of weeks that I ignored, and that was truly rude of me. I hope you can-”

Chie put her hand up to interrupt her, giggling a bit. Naoto was always so serious . “What are you sayin’ all that for!? I was never mad at you! Look, this kinda stuff is always awkward, so forget about it! Let’s just...enjoy today, ‘kay?” she said softly. Everything had been kinda weird for a while, Chie thought, and today was probably best served as a day to just relax and hang out rather than feel sorry for what had already happened.

“Yes, you’re right,” Naoto said after a while, “Rise and Yosuke-senpai have said I’m not very good at relaxing, so…” she trailed off, bracing herself as a small wave crashed into her tiny torso.

At the mention of Yosuke’s name, Chie perked up. She had mainly been teasing Yosuke earlier, but it was hard to deny he acted very strange once she pointed out that he had been staring at Naoto. Plus he had mentioned that he “knew” it would be hard for her to come to the beach. It was probably nothing, but her curiosity got the best of her.

“Ya know, Yosuke did mention you guys had been chatting a bit lately...” she said casually, finally turning her attention to the Detective Prince once she was sure Nanako was fine.

“...Did he now?” Naoto said, her face not even moving an inch. A tough cookie , Chie thought.

“Yup!” she affirmed, grunting as she felt a little bit of ocean spray get near her mouth, “Just curious, why him? Only thing he’s ever texted me is dirty jokes at like midnight!”

Chie wasn’t a master of observation like Naoto, but she had watched a lot of martial arts movies, and she could clearly see Naoto’s shoulders tense up somewhat.

“I have never experienced that,” Naoto replied tersely, “He has been...surprisingly cordial in his communication.”

Wow, Chie wasn’t expecting that . Did that mean that the Yosuke she knew was... changing!? No, couldn’t be, she thought. “Wow...what the hell, man!?” she chuckled, more to herself than Naoto, “First he’s all gushy about you and now I hear he’s “cordial”...guess you can’t judge a pervy book by its cover, eh?” Almost as soon as it left her mouth she blushed hard, realizing maybe that was something better kept to herself. She feared meeting Naoto in the eyes, but braved it anyways.

Naoto’s face largely retained its typical stoicism, but she had cocked an eyebrow at the spunky 3rd year, and was...blushing too? “I...beg your pardon? ‘Gushy?’ What do you-”

“EEEEEEKKK!

Naoto gasped and looked back toward the beach, as did Chie. The scream...it sounded like Rise!

“Stay with Nanako-chan!” Chie grunted, hustling out of the water and sprinting back toward the beach. She couldn’t help it - any time she felt someone was in danger, especially her friends, Chie felt compelled to take action, a fight or flight response that was very imbalanced toward the safety of others above herself. It probably wasn’t always smart to go rushing headfirst into things - Yu had scolded her for running up on a group of bullies, and Yukiko always chastised her for intimidate-first-ask-questions-later methods - but she knew in her heart that this was what she was meant to do.

It didn’t take her long to find the cause of the commotion; Rise, in a somewhat fearful pose near her towel, squaring off with a bikini-clad stranger. Although on closer inspection, she didn’t seem to be much of a stranger…

“W-woah! Is that…”

“M-M-Marie-chan!? ” Rise finished, in just as much shock as Rise. What the hell was she doing here!? How was she still around!?

“W-what are you screaming for!?” Marie shrieked, her usual ornery tone still very much in effect, “You’re a-acting like you saw some kinda...some kinda pervert! Stupiddancingqueenairhead!”

“A-airhead!? Who are you calling an airhead, missy!?”

“You, you idiot!”

Both girls were circling each other now like cats ready to engage in a battle to the death. Chie knew that Marie was otherworldly (to say the least), and that Rise was asking for something she wanted no part of, so it was time to diffuse the situation.

“Okay, okay, hey! Break it up!” Chie roared, stepping in between the two girls like a boxing referee, recoiling from the sheer venom coming in from each girls gnashed teeth and fierce glares as they continued to literally swipe at each other. Luckily, she saw Kanji and Yukiko getting closer, as well as Yosuke and Teddie.

“Rise-chan, relax! It’s just... woah ,” Yosuke exclaimed, his “ woah ” very familiar to Chie, who rolled her eyes.

“Oh, my God , quit drooling and help us out here!” Chie yelled at Yosuke, who snapped into action and moved to pull Rise away from Chie when she suddenly stopped and turned around.

“Ohhhhh no!” Rise yelled, a finger in Yosuke’s suddenly fearful face, “Teddie’s done that a million times, and it’s not gonna work this time, buster!”

“H-hey, I wasn’t gonna…!”

Marrriieee-chan! You made it!” Everything stopped as Teddie’s gratingly loud yelp of happiness overpowered the commotion from everyone else.

This also seemed to snap Marie out of her anger towards Rise into another new ball of hate. “Teddie, you moron! What the heck am I wearing! There’s barely anything on this!”

She had a point, Chie thought. Her usual fashionable attire was gone, and in its place was a designer swimsuit, a two-piece string bikini with bottoms that sat very low on her hips and a top with a window almost specifically designed to leave very little to the imagination. Teddie walked up to her and beamed up at the goddess, clearly enraptured.

“Oh my goodness ,” he moaned, walking up to the seething girl as if she hadn’t just screamed at him at the top of her lungs, “I took a few naughty guesses on the size, but my bear-riffic senses never fail me! Truly there never was a bathing beauty who has graced this beach with as much grace as you, Emmy-chan!”

Marie scoffed, her fists balled up as she shook them at the awestruck boy. “Y-you shut up! I look like one of those ladies from StarScandalz! I don’t have any scandals! Stupidfuzzbrainslimeballcreepo!”

“Wait, you picked that out for her, Teddie? That’s...just creepy, man!” Yosuke grimaced, shaking his head in disapproval. Teddie went to defend himself, but Marie was up in his face again giving him the business.

While Marie continued to screech at an oblivious Teddie, Yukiko, who had been meekly standing with Kanji a yard or two away, finally managed to say something. “M-Marie-chan! W-what are you doing...I-I mean h-how are you…?”

“Where have you been ?” Chie asked, turning towards her and away from Rise, “Ever since the Hollow Forest…”

Marie stopped yelling at Teddie and turned her attention over to the inquisitive 3rd years. “P-places! It’s not important! Why does it matter anyways!?!” She huffed, walking over to one of the towels and taking a seat, folding her arms tightly over her chest and pouting.

Rise flipped her sunglasses back on her face, an agitated, forced smile on her lips. “We’re just sooooo happy to see you, Marie-chan,” she said, which was so laced with irony that Chie could practically taste the sarcasm, “So nice of you to drop in without telling anyone!”

“Not necessarily.” Chie heard the familiar calm voice of Naoto, who was coming up the beach, Nanako clutching her hand behind her. “It seems as if Teddie is the one who picked out your...erm, outfit, correct? Which would mean that your appearance here is expected by at least one of us...”

“Guilty as charged!” Teddie said proudly, pointing a thumb to his chest, “As usual, my polar-izing taste has prevailed!”

Yukiko put a finger to her chin when she heard that. “But wait, doesn’t polarizing mean...oh... ohhh ... snrrkktt …’polar’ izing?!”

“Gah, now ya done it!” Kanji moaned, smacking his forehead. Chie gave a similar groan, knowing all too well what was coming.

“Ahaha...hahaheeeheheeheeehaa! HAHAHAHAHAHAAAA! Polarizing eehheeeheee!

“What the hell’s wrong with her!? Make her stop!” Marie demanded, a bewildered look on her face.

Chie couldn’t help but laugh at the futility of that suggestion. “Heheh, sorry, you’re gonna have to wait this one out! Puns are at least a full minute of giggles, tops!”

While Yukiko nearly spit up her lung laughing, Naoto finally reached everyone else with Nanako in tow. “Back to my question. Teddie, you clearly knew she was coming, why not inform everyone else?”

This got even Marie to turn and glare at Teddie, who was looking like he was starting to sweat under the pressure of everyone’s expectant looks. “U-um...w-well, it was gonna a surprise! A big one! And y-you’re all surprised, right!? Betcha didn’t see this one comin’, huh!?”

Chie almost laughed at how silent the response was except for Yukiko’s obnoxious snorts.

“Um…” Teddie’s big eyes swung like pendulums between everyone’s stares, before he finally cracked. “Y-Y-Yosuke and Kanji knew too! I confess, they were my partners in this grizzly crime!”

Hey!”

“‘Th’ hell, man!?”

Grizzly crime!? Ahahahahahaaaaaahaa…”

This kept getting weirder . Now Yosuke and Kanji knew about Marie!? “Wait, how long have you guys known she was back!?” Chie asked, her hands on her hips as she gave a suspicious glare toward the two boys.

“W-we went shopping with Ted the other day, ‘n she just showed up! ‘S not like we were tryin’ to hide her or anything, we were just as surprised!” Kanji yelped in response.

“Is this true, senpai?” Naoto asked towards Yosuke, who just gave a shy nod as he rubbed the back of his head. Chie once again noticed the detective slightly tensing up in her shoulders, and Yosuke looked pretty sheepish himself. Okay, something was definitely up between those two yahoos, Chie thought, but at the same time, like, what!? It was almost too surreal to be true.

As she contemplated... whatever was going on, Rise spoke up again. “Okay, but like, why? I mean, if you knew she was back, why not say anything, Teddie?”

All eyes turned to Teddie, whose crystalline blue eyes were so wide and glassy they looked like they would shatter any moment. “W-well, uh...that’s a bearrryy interesting question…it all started a few weeks ago, during a particularly groovy morning shift! I, half Teddie-fur and half kindness Teddie, was going for my usual stroll of the electronics apartment, looking at all those little goodie and wondering if…”

This continued for almost two whole minutes, before Chie grew impatient. “He...he just keeps talking...what’s goin’ on!?”

Naoto narrowed her eyes, a very droll look on her face. “It is clear through this transparent attempt at a filibuster that he has no intention of revealing his reasoning.”

Everyone murmured in agreement, which finally made Teddie be quiet. There was a prolonged silence before Nanako ran from Naoto’s back and toward Marie, who was still pouting.

“Hello again! I remember you from that time Big Bro brought you over!” Nanako said innocently.

“He what!? ” Rise snapped, beginning to move toward Marie again before Chie snatched her by the arm.

Marie broke her long held silence, although she didn’t look up at Nanako. “I remember you, too. TV girl. What do you want?”

Despite the harshness with which she had asked the question, Nanako didn’t even flinch. “I was going to go play in the ocean again. Do you wanna play too?”

The earnestness of the question was enough to even throw Marie for a loop, the Goddess finally looking up at Nanako with an intense jade glare. “I’ve...I”ve never been in the ocean. I don’t know if I can swim…”

Chie felt her heart sink a little. They had all been so concerned with why Marie was there that they were ignoring that she just was here. She could be a little moody, and the fact that she was an actual Goddess with powers far beyond their wildest imagination was definitely more than a little scary, but she was a friend, above all. After the initial shock, Chie was glad that Marie was back, and she suspected everyone else was too. Who cared why she was back? Taking a queue from Nanako, Chie walked over to the little girl and put a supportive hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t worry about that! We’ll teach ya, right Nanako-chan!?” she said with gusto, which earned a smile and nod from her little companion. Marie sheepishly looked at them, before pointing behind her.

“Okay, but Teddie has to come too!” she demanded, her gesture appearing to have the same effect on Teddie as Cupid’s arrow might have. In a flash, he moved to her side, offering his hand to help her off the ground.

“But of course,” he said sensually, “let moi guide you toward the purest waters this world has to off- oof!

Before he could finish, Marie had kicked him over, choosing to get up on her own. “Just be quiet and come on!” she hissed. Chie groaned, feeling uneasy about why Teddie had to come with her, but put it aside as the trio of girls began to go back toward the sea. After all, she thought, sometimes it was better to just be curious than to find out an answer you probably didn’t want to know.


“And she just...dragged him around?”

“Yeah, like he was a little kid or somethin’! Well, I guess he kinda is…”

“How strange…”

“You said it.”

Kanji chuckled as he leaned back on his towel again, putting a hand up to keep the sun from totally frying his eyeballs. Next to him, Yukiko contemplated silently, as she was wont to do. The pair had been discussing the sudden arrival of Marie, and more specifically the odd shopping day Kanji had had with Marie, Teddie, and Yosuke. It was an extension of a pretty long conversation they had been having ever since the girls had arrived. Kanji didn’t usually think he could talk for a long time, but Yukiko was pretty easy to chat with, even if she did ask a lot of questions. He didn’t mind, however; he still felt he owed her for being such a pal about everything.

“What do you think she wants?” Yukiko asked quietly. Kanji hadn’t really thought about that; he figured since she was a Goddess and all, what more could she want from them?

“I dunno,” he said honestly, “Seems kinda lonely, though. Maybe she just wanted to chill with people she knew instead ‘o...ya know, whoever Gods hang out with.”

Surprisingly, this made Yukiko giggle, although not quite the full blown cackling she was known for. “ Teehee , you’re funny. I wonder if the Gods have a place like Junes they can go to just to enjoy each other’s company. But what do you talk about if you’re all powerful? The weather?”

“Beats me,” Kanji shrugged. “Tell ya the truth, it still freaks me out a ‘lil. I never really believed in all that stuff, but now...shit, I dunno what to think.” It was something that Kanji had struggled with a little during the late stages of the prior years adventure: Gods were real, and they had the power to play with humans like playthings. Kanji wasn’t one to just let some authority walk all over him, but knowing he was almost... powerless to do anything in this case was kind of a scary thought.

Yukiko listened to him before pulling her knees into her chest, resting her chin on her knees. “I go to the shrine in the shopping district a lot. My family was always very traditional about that sort of thing, and I guess,” here she paused, making Kanji tilt his head in confusion, “I guess I always wanted to believe, even if it sounded silly. I used to think I was very unlucky, so I hoped that by visiting the shrine I could undo that. But now…”

This was surprising to Kanji. Wasn’t Yukiko’s life kinda...awesome? Obviously he knew that, like everyone else, she had her Shadow to deal with, but he wondered why she felt the need to have more luck. “N-now what?” he asked, very eager to have her finish.

Yukiko sighed, looking outwards towards the beach for a second, then slowly turning her gaze over to Kanji, a tiny hint of red beginning to crop up near the top of her pallid cheeks. “Now, I realize how lucky I am, because of everyone...because of you ...you’re all always there for me when I need you. And everyone at the inn, too. I...I still like to pray, though, when I get a chance. I guess it’s a habit now, haha. Pretty silly…”

Kanji noticed that Yukiko had a odd tendency to cut herself down every time she said something cool. He didn’t much care for it. “Ya don’t always gotta do that, ya know,” he said, crossing his arms over his bare chest.

Yukiko’s gaze turned from appreciative to confused very quickly. “‘S like the way you always say like ‘I’m selfish’ or ‘I’m lame’, or whatever. I don’t get it; you kick ass at yer job and people think you’re cool. I mean... I think you’re cool at least. If it wasn’t for you, I might still be holed up in my room feelin’ sorry fer myself. So...don’t.” He felt his ears get hot and he rubbed his nose to get rid of his nervous energy. It was still weird to talk to a girl like this, and he felt that was the core of his anxiety.

Still feeling a little bit of pent-up energy, he stretched his arms out wide and leaned back in a lazy pose. Both teens were quiet for a minute.

“Thffk ymm,” Yukiko said, her voice muffled because she was pressing her mouth into the tops of her knees as her blush increased tenfold. What’s she being all weird for, Kanji thought. Before he could say anything he heard the crunch of footsteps in the sand, and a voice suddenly appeared from behind him.

“Erm...Kanji-kun?”

Aw, shit . He’d recognize that voice anywhere; it had only been in like every dream he had for the past year or so. Although he knew who was talking, it didn’t stop his legs from suddenly turning into jelly and his mouth to be as formless and dry as the sand around them. “Y-yeah?” he heard a voice that barely resembled him mutter, not even having the strength to turn and face her.

“I - well, I was wondering if perhaps I could borrow a moment of your time...to talk.”

Talk? Now she wanted to talk!? Naoto was a smart girl, but man, her timing was bad, he thought. Lacking the nerve to turn and face her, he just looked over at Yukiko, who had gotten up to her knees and was giving him a nervous look. After looking from side to side, she suddenly nodded, before getting up to her feet.

“I’m sorry, Kanji-kun, but I don’t want to be a bother, so I think I’m going to join the others,” she said like a pro, the nervousness Kanji had just seen on her face replaced with a pleasant smile. “Excuse me, Naoto-kun.”

“Mmm…” he heard Naoto grunt in response. Kanji wondered if it was Yukiko’s job at the inn that made her so good at just swapping out faces whenever she liked; either way, it still made him uneasy to have her leave, and he quickly got to his feet to tell her.

W-wait ,” he said in a choked whisper, “I-I dunno if I can…!”

As he said that, Yukiko put a finger to her lips, which quieted him, before whispering “ It’ll be okay!” She turned around and slowly unbuttoned the lacy cardigan she had been wearing. “Can you hold on to this for me?” she asked, craning her neck to look at Kanji one more time. He didn’t want her to go - he wondered if he could even look at Naoto without some help - but he still nodded sadly. It wasn’t until the Amagi heir had gently slipped the dainty article off her shoulders that Kanji’s eyes grew wide.

Unlike last year, Yukiko was now wearing a full bikini, but it still totally fit her style: high waisted bottoms with a halter-style top, knotted at her neck, that gave just a slight glimpse at her back and stomach. It was a fiery scarlet with little white polka dots all over both pieces, which was an extra fun touch Kanji really wouldn't have expected from her. Since her hair was typically worn long Kanji had never noticed, but he now found himself enamoured at the nape of her neck, near where the bikini top was tied. It was long and pale, little pieces of her elegant onyx hair trickling out of her tightly bound hair down the back of her neck like black raindrops. She started to turn around, so Kanji averted his gaze, not really wanting to make an ass of himself any further.

She folded up the cardigan and held it out for him to take. He wasn’t particularly interested in touching something like that, but he did it, using his fingers more like tweezers than anything. As he did, Yukiko’s fingers suddenly curled up over his as they touched the garment. Kanji blushed and went to pull his hand away, but nothing happened. Somehow, the muscles stopped listening to his brain, and he could only stand there as Yukiko shly smiled, her face boiling-lava-red, and whispered again.

“Good luck!”

She gave his larger fingers gentle squeeze, then let go and quickly turned, her ponytail almost whipping Kanji in the face from the speed of her movement. Before too long she was in the ocean with everyone else, leaving Kanji and Naoto alone.  

Naoto had stepped around to where Yukiko had just been, barely leaving Kanji any time to gather his thoughts about like ten things that had just happened. She took a seat, and although he had a torrent of thoughts turning his mind near to mush, Kanji mimicked her actions and squatted down. The sounds of everyone else playing on the beach or near the water gave a soundtrack to their silence. It was a minute before Kanji could even turn his body in her direction, and he mentally cursed himself as all the same feelings just came rushing back again.

He had liked literally almost everything about her. Her hair. Her eyes. Her voice. Her body. In his younger days he had been a little too angry to really even care about what he found attractive, but even then, he realized in gym class that there was something about the boyish look of some of his male classmates that spoke to him. When Naoto first approached him, he, like everyone else, was convinced that she was a boy, and even then, Kanji noticed that she ignited feelings in him like no one he had ever met. That she later revealed herself to be a girl just further confused the tall 2nd year as to what his predilections were, but he couldn’t deny that there was some sort of powerful energy that kept Naoto at the forefront of his thoughts.

Of course, there was more than just her appearance that made Kanji covet something more with her. Her social awkwardness and rather blunt style of speaking was something he could identify with a lot, and more than that, her talent for observation made her a great listener with a knack for sussing out the real truths behind even the most latent of emotions. Because she was more like a boy, he didn’t feel as awkward around her; she was also never judgemental to him, so Kanji didn’t have a problem opening up to her. She was truly one of his very best friends, and, boy or girl, someone he could see a future with romantically.

Then he went and blew it.

This waterfall of thoughts roared in his brain, so loud that it was only on the third repetition of his name that he finally realized Naoto was trying to talk to him.

“Kanji-kun!”

“E-er, w-what!?”

“...Could you look at me, please?”

“A-awright…”

As hard as it was, Kanji lifted his head up to face her and met with her familiar gunmetal grey eyes again. She must have recently gotten a haircut, as the sides of her head looked freshly shaved and the top of her blue hair was a few inches shorter, the side-swept bangs barely going over her hairline.

Once she felt she had his attention, she spoke. “I w-wanted to talk to you today because...because I feel like this can’t continue,” she sighed gravely. That didn’t sound good.

“L-look,” Kanji started, already getting upset, “I don’t like it either, but what am I s’posed ta do!? I can’t...I don’t know what ta do about...us…”

Naoto scratched the back of her head, a tepid frown on her face. “I’ll admit that I don’t have any particularly innovative ideas myself…” She sighed a little before continuing, “I hope you understand that I-I didn’t mean to reject you . I’m...I’m a poor conductor of social etiquette, and there hasn’t a day that has gone by since that last day of school where I wish I could have worded it differently…”

Kanji looked at her, trying to keep in control. He had a lot of thoughts on the subject, but it was hard for him to put into words, although he gave it his best shot. “It ain’t that, I jus’...I felt like such a dumb asshole, y’know?”

Naoto just stared at him. He couldn’t tell if he liked or hated that she could be so unreadable even at a time like this, although he was leaning toward the latter. “I-I don’t understand,” she said, her brow wrinkling a bit, “Why? You did nothing wrong.”

Kanji blew a big puff of air out of his mouth, still trying to find his mental footing so he could best communicate what he was thinking. It was hard amidst all the emotion quickly building up. “Just ‘cuz you say that don’t make it true! Must be somethin’ wrong, otherwise why’d you ditch me at the drug store like that? I know you were tryin’ ta be nice at first, but fuck , man, I wish you were just honest with me! If you think I’m some piece o’ shit, jus’ say so and we can be -”

Enough!

It wasn’t anything above her normal volume, but the timbre of Naoto’s husky voice made Kanji’s spine tingle. She had turned her head away, looking down the beach as she continued softly.

“You are not a mind reader, Kanji-kun. Do not tell me what I do or don’t think, because I know what is true in my heart, and it isn’t anything that you’re saying!” At this point she turned toward him, and Kanji couldn’t help but flinch at the fire in her eyes.

Why on earth would I spend all that time with you, for almost a year, if I found you in any way detestable? You are not thinking logically, you are just telling yourself what you want to hear! You are not the problem, I am!”

That sat like a mushroom cloud in the air. Kanji felt himself blinking back tears as Naoto continued to bear her soul.

“I...sometimes I fear that I am...broken, in some way. I understand now that you were not exactly subtle in your feelings, but...it h-honestly never occurred to me. T-That's just one example. There are things about me that I won't even tell Rise because I am not sure she would understand, and I’d rather not find out what she thinks. As such, I’m afraid that I just don’t think I’d be a very suitable partner, particularly for you. It is very clear that you wear your emotions on your sleeve and have so much to give. While I truly consider you a very dear friend, I would rather you have a-a romantic partner that could reciprocate all the feelings you have to give. And right now, that’s just... not me. I-I know that probably doesn’t make it hurt any less, but I want you to know I was truly... truly touched by your confession, even if I didn’t share the same feelings...”

Now Kanji’s eyes were just full on glassy, the confession he was hearing full of revelations both good and bad. Naoto wasn’t finished, however.

“H-having said that, I-I have no defense for what happened at the drugstore. You didn’t deserve that, and I’m sure I just made e-everything worse...P-please understand that it was never my intent to cause you any further pain. I panicked, and in doing so... D-damn !”

Without warning, Naoto smashed a fist into the sand, the breaths coming through her nose shallow and erratic. Kanji hastily wiped his left eye, where a squeaker of a tear had managed to emerge. Aside from the rooftop confession, this was the most upset he had seen Naoto ever, and it was clear she was airing out some long-held feelings.

Ultimately, she was right, Kanji thought: he was hoping that she just hated his guts, because that was the easiest answer. But as she had explained, the answer was messy and complicated, with no one really in the wrong and yet, nothing seemed to be going right, either. But...maybe that was just it? Boy that was shitty he thought. Still…

“Yuh-you’re right, ya know,” he said shakily, earning the detective’s attention again, ”Ya did make it worse, but I didn’t help, neither. Spent so much time feelin’ sorry for myself that I never wondered ‘bout you. I-I shoulda known better, an’ I’m sorry…” He sniffled, letting a couple more tears fall down his face, the ocean breeze doing its best to halt their travel.

Naoto’s perspective had really done a number on him. While he certainly never thought she was reveling in the lack of communication, he didn’t expect that she was so broken up either. He almost felt foolish, wondering if Yukiko and everyone else who had been so nice to him during this whole ordeal were just humoring him. He quickly shrugged that thought off, though, realizing he was falling into the same old habit, the same one he had just chastised Yukiko for.

The Detective Prince waited a long while, no doubt thinking long and hard on what had been said. Eventually, she looked back at Kanji. “So...what do we do? Things will never be as they were before,” Naoto huffed, crossing her arms tightly across her chest again. Kanji agreed, but he also wondered if maybe...that wasn’t such a bad thing? Hearing Naoto’s explanation...it didn’t sting quite as bad. And maybe it would get better with time. Maybe.

“W-well,” he started, rubbing his head, “mebbe that’s just somethin’ we have to deal with. Like our Shadows. Shit changed then, but we got over it...y’know, eventually. Alls I know is...I miss hangin’ out with everyone. You, too.”

Naoto nodded. “I...I concur. I d-don’t expect this to heal every wound, but...for now, do you think it would be acceptable to reach a detente ?”

A what? Kanji looked over to her, hastily rubbing his eyes dry again. “Uh...a day taunt? Wuzzat?”

Naoto blushed a little before clearing her throat. “O-oh, It’s when two opposing sides reach an agreement to improve their relations. It’s not...perfect, but it’s a start.”

Then, suddenly, Naoto reached her hand out, placing it perfectly in between both of them. “Friends?” she asked, sounding less confident than her actions would suggest. Kanji looked at her and saw that the formerly intimidating, passionate stare had gone soft, but in a good way. While he could see sadness in them, there was also a warmth there, a kindness that he could recall seeing during fun hangouts at Junes or over lunch on the school rooftop. A warmth he thought would never come back.

Without hesitation he clasped her hand, shaking it heartily as some tears of relief seeped out of his eyes. In one handshake it felt like years had returned to his life; the last time he felt this emotionally drained yet excited was after Take-Mikazuchi, his Persona, first connected with him. He was glad that no sobs were coming up, because he didn’t wanna start blubbering in front of her. That could wait ‘til he was safely in his bedroom under the covers.

“Fuh-friends, Naoto-kun. I...I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely. He looked at Naoto, who appeared to be equally emotional.

“Y-you needn’t be, Kanji-kun.”

Slowly but surely the two teens hands came apart, and they both just sat in a peaceful sustained silence as they watched their friends frolic and play. Before too long, Nanako, who had been playing in the sand with Teddie and Marie, ran up to them, a big smile on her face.

“Hey you guys! Do you wanna help me and Teddie and Marie-chan build a sandcastle?”

Kanji and Naoto exchanged a look before getting up to their feet and nodding at Nanako, who cheered in response and took off back to her spot. Before they could start moving, Naoto looked over at Kanji again.

“You know, Kanji-kun, according to legend, the most important detail one need pay attention to when building a castle isn’t supplies or manpower, but speed...”

Kanji’s face went blank, utterly confused by the odd non-sequitur. “Um, okay? What’s that s’posed -”

“I’ll race you.”

With that, the Detective Prince suddenly made a run for it, laughing as she did. Kanji’s mouth was agape for a second before he got over his shock and guffawed at the 2nd year’s very rare attempt at a joke.

“Hold up, ya punk!” he yelled playfully, his longer limbs jutting into motion as he sped off. It was hard to imagine this scenario even just hours earlier, but Kanji felt like he was on cloud nine running down the beach to catch up with his friend and hopefully enjoy building a nice sandcastle with her, too.


On the one hand, Yukiko was thrilled .

Although she had joined Chie, Rise, and Yosuke in the water, the Amagi Inn heiress had made sure she had a convenient view of Kanji and Naoto back up on the beach. Their conversation was short, maybe a few minutes, and then before she knew it, the two 2nd years were shaking hands admirably, their beef squashed, so it seemed.

She had been hoping those two would eventually just get together and talk because in her interactions with both of them separately, both seemed to want things to go back to normal. While she obviously felt a special connection with Kanji, Naoto was her friend too, and she wanted them both to be happy and to not feel alienated from the group. She also knew that they deserved props for summoning up the courage necessary, because from her own experience, that kind of thing was extremely difficult.

So thrilled on one hand.

But on the other...

It was hard to deny the feelings that took hold of her after Kanji told her that she shouldn’t be so down on herself. It was simple advice, but the way he had said, in his usual brusque manner, had made Yukiko’s heart skip a beat. The last time that had happened was when Narukami had told her he’d protect her when they were doing a stakeout at, ironically, the Tatsumi textile shop. Other than Chie, no one, especially no boy, had ever shown a concern for her well-being, and it made her fall hard for the city import. And now, all those feelings were starting to repeat themselves again.

While this should have been a glorious feeling, as it had with Yu, Yukiko instead felt this revelations sitting like a rock in her stomach, and she hoped that the weight of it would sink her into the ocean. This timing was so bad, she thought; Kanji was younger and didn’t have to deal with the schooling pressure that Yukiko was going up against, but more importantly, both of them had broken hearts on the mend. While she wished like crazy for the highs of having a crush on Narukami to return, she was in no rush to accept the lows, especially when those hadn’t really gone away yet.

This was all without even mentioning that ridiculous hand squeeze she had given him. For some reason she got the idea to comfort him before his talk with Naoto, and in her mind, the same trick she used on Chie to calm her down from nightmares, the same one that she had foolishly done on Kanji at the inn a week earlier, was the move to do it. Except he was awake and utterly confused instead! Yukiko herself barely understood why this crush was happening, and letting her passion get the best of her was something she was already beginning to deeply regret. The more she thought about it, the more she was counting on that rock to sink her, because otherwise there wasn’t a chance in hell it wasn’t going to come up sooner or later.

Amidst all these depressing thoughts Yukiko suddenly heard a loud commotion to her left. Snapping out of it, she looked to see Chie emerge from the water, grappling with a large piece of seaweed that had wrapped around the top of her chest and neck.

*Hack* Pfft, uughhh!! Grooo- oooo -sss! Oh yuck! I think that was in my mouth!”

Even if her insides were a bit twisted up, Yukiko’s sense of humor never turned off, and watching Chie earnestly struggle to fight against the seaweed entangling her tickled her funny bone something fierce.

“Pfft...snnrrkt...hahahahahaha! Ahahahahaha oh Chie-heheheeeeee!”

Giggling intensely, she waded over toward Chie and helped get the slimy plant off her. Because she had been fitfully rolling around, her hair was all wet, and it hung over her eyes and down to her nose like  a Sheepdog. Unfortunately, this made Yukiko laugh even more heartily.

“Sor-hahaha-ry, you just looked so  fuhuhuhuhunny!” She said through tears as she flung the seaweed back into the ocean and offered her hand to her friend. Chie looked up (or at least Yukiko thought she did), huffing and puffing as she got up on one leg.

“Yuck it up, Yukiko!” Chie hissed, finally pushing her hair back up over her eyes, “‘Cuz you’re next!”

Without warning, Chie suddenly grabbed Yukiko around the waist and flung her into an oncoming wave, which engulfed the heiress as she struggled to keep her footing. It was of no use, however, and Yukiko found herself being dragged under the surface by the force of the impact. It felt like she was under there for minutes, thrashing to break through the surface, although it was really only a few seconds before the wave had pushed her toward the shore. Sputtering and drenched from head to toe, Yukiko stumbled to her hands and knees, thankful that her ponytail had somehow held up so her hair wasn’t completely wrecked. Behind her was the combined sound of sloshing water and a howling, hysterical Chie.

Bwahahaha , who’s laughin’ now!?” Chie taunted as she followed her friend, who had somehow crawled up to the sand away from the shore. Yukiko could only glare as she still tried to catch her breath.

“Chie, what *gasp* was that for!?” she huffed, gathering up some sand in her first and hurling it at Chie, who laughed as she dodged it, “Look at me, I-I’m *kaff* soaked !”

“Haha okay, okay! Sorry! Look, I’ll make it up to ya. Be right back!” Chie grinned, running up the beach to where Rise’s towel was laid out. She rummaged in the tote bags that were collected on the towel before coming back with two other folded towels. She handed one to Yukiko, who swiped it roughly  before wrapping it around herself.

“This doesn’t make us even!” The onyx-haired 3rd year growled, pulling the red beach towel tight across her bare shoulders. Her companion rolled her eyes as she spread out her own towel, a yellow one, and lay on it with her hands folded behind her head.

“Fine, but at least now you’re mad at me and not zoning out again! My master plan was only briefly delayed by the killer kelp!” Chie cackled, sitting up on her knees in sort of lazy slouch. Yukiko felt herself blush, suddenly very annoyed at Chie and the intuition she had developed over 10 years of friendship. She just pulled the towel tighter around her body and tried her best to ignore Chie, who was still talking.

“Okay, c’mon, quit bein’ a baby. What’s goin’ on? Aren’tcha havin’ fun?” she asked, nudging Yukiko with her shoulder.

It was difficult, but Yukiko looked over at Chie and saw her friend’s face. Her confident, easy smile and glowing brown eyes were inviting and warm, almost hypnotically compelling. Still, she hesitated; the last time Yukiko had spilled her guts to Chie about something like this, Chie had gone and told Rise, which ended up causing a lot of future drama. Obviously Chie had more than enough goodwill built up, but still, Yukiko was already so twisted up over this that she almost didn’t want to even try and run the risk. Even so, keeping it to herself clearly wasn’t doing her any good, either.

“I...Chie, I-I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” Yukiko said, “I feel so…” She remembered what Kanji had said, and caught herself before she could negatively refer to herself again. “I-I mean I thought that I’d been overthinking something, but lately, I don’t know if I am...and I’m, well, scared .”

Chie’s smile deteriorated as she listened, replaced with a puzzled frown. She swept her wet hair behind an ear and turned her full attention to Yukiko. “Seriously? What’s going on, Yukiko?” As always, Chie was bound and determined to cheer up her friend, like she always was. In a way, Yukiko was so thankful, for the thousandth time, to have Chie as her best friend. But her fear was winning out.

“J-just let me think about it, for a few more days...I p-promise, I’ll tell you everything soon,” she offered, biting her lip when she saw Chie’s disappointed reaction. It hurt to keep things from her best friend, but now that this crush was starting to seem like a real thing, maybe a few days of letting that sink in would help make it easier to explain to Chie. Hopefully.

“Okay, fine, I won’t bug ya about it anymore,” Chie said, settling back down on her towel, “Anymore today at least. But sooner ‘r later, I’m gonna crack you. You’ve been warned!” She gave a cheeky wink after, which made Yukiko giggle in spite of her inner turmoil. Like she told Kanji, she really was very lucky to have the friends she did.

“Thank you, Chie.” Yukiko said earnestly.

“Anytime. Sorry about, y’know, throwin’ ya into a wave.” Chie admitted, chuckling as she rubbed the back of her head.

“Haha it’s fine, I was a little distracted out there.” Yukiko replied, doing her best to scratch out some of the sand and other junk that had gotten into her hair.  “You can make it up to me, though! I brought a boxed lunch I made myself today; you should try it, and let me know how it tastes!” That was only fair, Yukiko thought.

Chie seized up, her eyes narrowing in a very deadly glare. “You’re pure evil …”


* click *

Naoto stared at her cell phone for a few seconds before nodding in approval at the image that appeared. She showed it to an eagerly awaiting Nanako, who looked at the picture and cheered her approval.

The small group of Teddie, Marie, Kanji, Naoto, and Nanako had all been hard at work on making the perfect sandcastle. With Naoto’s keen sense for physics and Kanji’s skilled artisanship, they had crafted a pretty magnificent one. Four large towers surrounded a square interior, and Teddie and Marie had done a good job of carefully making the tops of the towers pointed. Using a stick, Kanji carefully made windows in each tower while Naoto had carefully drawn a moat around the exterior and filled it with some water for prime accuracy. Nanako was ecstatic, but sad that they would have to leave and let the thing collapse over time. Naoto had assuaged her fear by taking a nice picture of it, so they could always remember it.

“Wow, that’s a great picture! Do you think we could make it even bigger, like so we could put it in a frame?” the 8 year old asked, her hands clasped together anxiously. Naoto chuckled, eager to relieve the child of that anxiety.

“There is,” she said, pointing to the phone’s charging port, “we can run a universal serial cable from here to a PC, and search through the phone’s internal data to find the photo and print it in a more common size such as 8x10 or 4x7.”

Nanako sat and absorbed the information, looking a little confused as her big eyes wandered back and forth. “U-um...is that hard? ” she asked of her older friend.

“Not for our copy shop experts at Junes!” Naoto heard Yosuke, who was sitting nearby on his towel, answer. “If you take your phone to Junes, we could easily convert it into whatever photo you want!”

“Really!? I love Junes even more now!” Nanako squealed, clapping her hands together. Teddie, who was sitting nearby, seemed to be in just as good a mood as her.

“Is that true, Yosuke!? I never knew we had camera magicians at the store!” He beamed. Yosuke groaned and rubbed the side of his head.

“So that whole day, where we took a tour through the printing department, did nothin’ for ya, huh?” he said sardonically. Teddie shook his head proudly, not really picking up on Yosuke’s tone.

Marie, who was also admiring the sand castle, looked toward Naoto’s phone. “Hey, so you can take pictures in that? I thought that was a phone.”

“Well, it’s both,” Kanji answered from the head of the castle, “you can take pictures with yer phone. You didn’t know that?”

The goddess sat back on her heels, annoyed. “Well how was I supposed to know!?! Anyways,” she said, pointing at Teddie, “why don’t you have a phone?”

Teddie sighed and looked toward Yosuke. “ He won’t let me! He says I’d be an irresponsible bear, but he’s wrong! I’m bearry responsible!”

“Please, you don’t even know how to work a regular phone, why would I let you have a cellphone!?” Yosuke fired back. This shut Teddie up, and he instead opted for an exaggerated pout.

“If I had the moolah,” he sighed, “I’d scoop up one of those little guys for myself! But they cost sooo much!”

“Oh yeah, money’s important, right? Even for snacks,” Marie said to herself. She looked toward the ocean, her short attention span already captured again.

“I wanna go in the ocean again. C’mon Teddie!” she demanded, grabbing Teddie by the wrist (to his surprise) and jerking him toward the beach. If he minded, he didn’t show it; he looked elated even as he was somewhat dragged down to the shoreline.

Kanji sighed and stood up. “Sumthin’ tells me those two need to be watched. I ain’t gone for a dip yet, so guess I’ll go too.” He started to follow them, before he turned to Naoto. “‘Ey…you wanna come too, Naoto-kun?”

Truthfully, it warmed Naoto’s heart to hear him offer even just this casual invitation. Considering she had honestly considered the idea that any conversation they had would be painfully stilted and awkward, this was encouraging in its banality. Nevertheless, she could hear her stomach growling, even over the sounds of the beach.

“Actually, I think I’m going to eat some of the lunch I’d packed. Thank you for the invite, but I’ll pass.” she said politely. Nanako did leap to attention, however.

“Don’t worry, I’ll go too!” she announced, bopping up and down in her excitement. Kanji smiled and held his arm out for Nanako, which she dutifully grabbed on to as they followed Teddie and Marie. Nanako had an odd habit of diffusing even the smallest bits of tension, a trait which Naoto admired greatly in the little girl.

As she watched the four of her friends plunge into the ocean, another groan from her gut urged her to get moving. She went back across the beach over to her and the girls’ tote bags, rummaging around and finding a insulated flask she had brought for the trip. She also found a paper napkin and some chopsticks before settling down on Rise’s towel to enjoy her lunch.

It wasn’t anything fancy: a cup of ramen noodles with beef and vegetables that she had prepared before they left. Luckily the warm sun had kept the water relatively warm, and while it was slightly soggy as she poured it into the top part of the flask, her first bite still tasted okay. She had a packet of flavoring she was beginning to open when a shadow was suddenly cast over her.

“Ramen, huh? That’s a lot smarter than me, hehe. I just, uh, packed this sandwich…”

The confident yet still shaky voice of Yosuke was easy to recognize, although Naoto wasn’t sure if she was entirely glad to see him. “Erm, yes, just some ramen. Are you eating lunch as well?”

“O-oh, yeah! I was just wondering if, uh, y’know if you wanted to, erm...well, more like if I could...maybe...join you?”

Again, Naoto wasn’t terribly sure if she wanted to eat with him, but she also didn’t want to seem rude. “If you insist.”

Yosuke grinned a little as he heard that answer, stepping over to the other side of the towel and plopping down. Sure enough, he was holding a little plastic baggie that had a sandwich rolled into it; ham and cheese, by Naoto’s observation. He unwrapped it and took a bite, and then a few more, seemingly content to just quietly eat his lunch in Naoto’s presence. Feeling odd but not totally uncomfortable, Naoto began to slurp up her noodles as well.

“S-so,” Yosuke asked, his mouth full, to Naoto’s chagrin, “youff nd Knji r gudd nww?”

It took a second to interpret, but Naoto understood that he was asking about her and Kanji. She nodded. “Yes, we agreed that there is no need for hard feelings.”

“That’s great! You must be so psyched!” he replied. Naoto just nodded, again hoping to diffuse the conversation. She was elated and thrilled, but she felt like she had to keep her guard up around Yosuke, sadly..

After a few more minutes, Yosuke finally set his sandwich down for a moment. “Um, hey, listen, d’you...I mean, I guess I just wanted to know if I...did something wrong? You haven’t texted me in a while...”

This hit Naoto just as she was slurping up a decent sized batch of noodles, and it took her a moment to remember to ingest and swallow them once she heard that. It was a conversation she figured was coming, and truly the reason why she had wanted to avoid Yosuke as much as she could, although it seemed as if fate had deemed their meeting inevitable.

Ever since Rise had informed her of Yosuke’s actions regarding Rise and Chie’s swimsuits, Naoto had been recalling all of the times that Yosuke has said or done something lecherous, and it truly bothered her. The other girls didn’t disagree but seemed to just pass it off as “boys will be boys,” but Naoto took it a little more personal. She didn’t much care to be the object of someone’s lustful thoughts, and she certainly didn’t like that it mainly focused on her as just a girl.

What frustrated her even more was that the Yosuke that seemed to always have some trick up his sleeve and had fun in teasing the girls was not the Yosuke that she had gotten to know better over the past few weeks. He had been a bit immature, sure, but he was also a good listener, thoughtful, and wiser than he appeared. This Yosuke was someone she actively enjoyed being around or talking with, and it clashed badly with all the evidence she had of his bad behavior. Until she could sort out what her true thoughts were, she had decided to stop texting him. Clearly, he noticed.

“I-I don’t mean it like you have to respond every time, and I know Rise is here and you guys are real good friends, but...I’m gonna sound like a dork, but I kinda... liked talking with you. A-and I know I can say some dumb shit, so if I said something…”

Naoto finished up the last of the first portion of Ramen and resealed her flask, putting it aside. She took a deep breath, and turned her attention toward her older friend.

“It is not anything you’ve said or done... recently ,” she began, “but moreso things I’ve learned that you have done. Rise informed me that you purchased swimsuits for Chie-senpai and Yukiko-senpai last year, without their knowledge and without their consent. Is that true?” She knew the truth, but this was a test for the normally squirrely Yosuke. As she expected, he got a real nervous look on his face that he tried to cover with a smile.

“O-o-oh, th-that? That was...y’see, we were on our class trip, a-and Chie and Yukiko-san had said they wanted to go swimming, so I -”

Naoto was losing hope, fast. “So you purchased revealing swim attire for them in the hopes that you could trick them into swimming with you? Did you ever once think that might be a gross invasion of their privacy?”

The coldness in her voice further shrunk Yosuke, who was starting to get defensive. “L-look, it was a long time ago, and plus, I got pushed off a cliff and puked on, so it’s not like I didn’t suffer for it! Besides, like I said, I was just having a bit of fun w-”

Still defensive. Naoto sighed, preparing her trump card. “So when Teddie buys Marie-san a revealing and embarrassing outfit without consent it’s “creepy,” but when you do it, it’s “a bit of fun?” Do you see what a hypocrite you’re being right now?”

Ding ding ding. Yosuke went to reply but his face went through several emotions before he just gave up, a pouty look on his face. “O-okay, you’re right, but still, what are you so mad about!? That didn’t have anything to do with you!”

Unfortunately for him, that was only the beginning. “Not directly in that case, but your boorish behavior has affected me before. What about that disaster of a ‘beauty pageant’ at the school festival? Did it entertain you to see me and the other girls get up on stage for the approval of the entire school? And a swimsuit competition, as well!? Is that all you think of us?!” She tried to keep the emotion out of her voice, but it was difficult; this had been boiling up for a while.

Yosuke scoffed, his defense giving way to annoyance. “Oh c’mon, that again!? L-look, you won the thing, so why d’you -”

Naoto was not happy to hear that, and pointed a threatening finger at Yosuke. “Is that supposed to be comforting?! That I won the approval of boys who only care about my body, you included?” That stunned Yosuke a bit, his face falling into more of a nervous frown. “I am not some piece of flesh to be ogled; I’m a person with thoughts, feelings, and agency! If you can’t even respect that…”

She cut herself off, trying to calm down and lose the emotion that was heaving up into her throat. Yosuke’s defense, mealy-mouthed as it was, hurt Naoto the most, because he seemed adamant in defending his actions rather than understanding her point of view.

After a few seconds, Yosuke adjusted his sitting position and looked at her, his eyes a little more sorrowful. “You...you think I don’t respect you? That’s...that’s stupid! I think you’re smart, and-and you’re a good detective, and-

Don’t be obtuse,” Naoto interrupted, fed up with Yosuke’s immaturity, “You know what I mean.”

“I-I really don’t!” he whined, his hands flailing, “I know that you deserve respect, all that stuff was just…” Naoto sighed as he failed to come up with a convenient way to phrase his obvious lechery. “I-I didn’t know it bothered you so much…” he mumbled, scratching the back of his head.

“Well, of course you didn’t,” Naoto responded, crossing her arms tightly, “because you never asked . That’s what I mean; you don’t care if what you do hurts my or anyone else’s feelings so long as you are satisfied in some way. Have I ever given the impression that I enjoy all the attention I get in school? If you must know, it is very off-putting and embarrassing, and I don’t need it exacerbated by you or anyone else!”

That sat heavy in the air as Naoto struggled to calm down. She had expected to be upset with Yosuke, but her current mood was a bit of a surprise. Dealing with Kanji earlier may have taken a toll on her emotions, and this was just overloading her systems, but she also realized that, more and more, it was bothering her that Yosuke, specifically, didn’t take her feelings seriously. Why was she so focused on that?

As if on queue, Yosuke sighed and started playing with the zipper of his hoodie. “I-I didn’t know that, a-and you’re right, I should’ve asked but…” Looking back toward him, Naoto could see that he appeared to be bracing himself for something. “I n-never wanted you to think that you or your feelings didn’t matter, I just wanted, y’know…” he trailed off again.

What ?” Naoto prompted him, harshly.

The 3rd year swallowed hard and continued. “I’m still working on...sometimes I do dumb things because...because I think it’s exciting . Remember when I told you that I hated living here at first? It was because I thought it was a boring town, and I wasn’t boring. So I would find “fun” wherever I could, even if it meant taking something horrible that happened, like a murder, and trying to tackle it myself. Narukami...he helped me understand that it wasn’t the town’s fault, it was me…”

Naoto’s eyes softened a bit hearing that. For obvious reasons, she and him had never discussed what his Shadow had been like, nor had she bothered to ask Yu, who was the other person present at the time. It didn’t shock her to hear that he may have decided to start solving the original Inaba murder case because of boredom, but it did explain a few things.

“I-I know that I shouldn’t be so...A-all of you girls have been so important to me, and I-I don’t want you to think that all I care about is your bodies. I was just tryin’ to have a little fun, but I s-see now that’s just me being my dumbass self again…”

So the truth was starting to come out. Naoto had long imagined that anyone who would so doggedly pursue a woman just to see her without her clothes on certainly lacked some sort of self-esteem, but it was a bit worse than she had imagined, in Yosuke’s case. As upset as she was by his behavior, figuring out the reasons why it existed was garnering him some sympathy.

“We are all only human, and we all make mistakes,” she began, looking out toward the sea and seeing her friends being happy and playing together, “I’m...I don’t expect you to be perfect, but...in these past few weeks, I’ve come to know a Yosuke Hanamura that is not weighed down by those flaws you mention. Indeed, senpai, you have been a significant positive effect in what has been a very difficult time.” She felt herself blush saying that, and a glance over at her companion showed him playing with his zipper even faster as blood ran through his cheeks as well.

“I heard what Rise had to say and began to think about my own experiences, and I worried that the senpai I was starting to know was a facade, a phony creation only intended to lower my guard so you could...I’m not even sure what , exactly” she admitted, scratching her neck shyly. “The point is, thinking about the past made me believe you were trying to decieve me. It made me distrust you, and for that reason, I ceased communications.”

Yosuke stopped playing with his zipper when he heard that. “You...you don’t trust me?” he said softly, sounding very small. The pitifulness in his voice actually stirred something in Naoto, but she did her best to not let him see that. Still, she felt perhaps she should clarify what she meant.

“Please don’t misunderstand; you risked your life for mine. I would, and still do, trust you in that regard. But I have a... difficult time letting others know me personally. I shouldn’t be so guarded amongst people I would consider my friends, but...as I said, we are all flawed. And if I can’t trust your intentions, then I can’t trust you to not...to not hurt me…”

It was embarrassing for her to admit, but it had to come out. A part of her felt childish, admitting that someone had gotten to her, but she knew that, as Rise and her Grandpa had lectured her, part of being honest was telling the truth about your feelings, as well. Her usually high emotional guard tended to keep her from admitting these kinds of things, but her talk with Kanji earlier had emboldened her, if only a little. Taking that risk could pay off, although she wondered if Kanji was more susceptible to that kind of argument than Yosuke.

Another few seconds of fidgeting passed before Yosuke turned his whole body to face her, crossing his legs underneath his body. “You remember when we were hanging out the other day and I got a text from my dad to come into the store and help?” It took Naoto only a second to recall the exact memory, and she nodded, curious as to where he was going with it. “I did get a text, but it w-wasn’t from my dad, it was...Narukami. Just a totally normal “what’s up” kinda text.”

Naoto felt her fingers curl into fists. “You...you lied to me?” she said incredulously, almost in a whisper. “Wh...what would cause you to do something like that!?” she hissed, her emotions starting to become a little unglued. Honesty, and a lack thereof, was something she took very seriously.

“I-I know!” Yosuke said defensively, noticing how angry she was getting, “I-I’m sorry, but I had to leave. I couldn’t…! We were talking about all that stuff, and...I got so worked up, and I didn’t want you to think...to think that I was an idiot for thinking about the past too much. I...I fucked up, okay!? And I’m sorry!” Naoto could see that even now, he seemed to be on the verge of tears. “I just felt I had to say it ‘cause...I want you to be able to trust me, but... Shit …” He put his face in his hand, seemingly lacking the pride to look at her.

Naoto’s fists, so tightly clenched that her skin was losing color, began to unfurl slowly. She hated that he had lied to her, yet she also could identify pretty hard with someone who wasn’t used to being emotionally vulnerable making a hasty, poor decision. The anger didn’t completely vanish, but it did begin to subside a little.

“Senpai…”

Before she could continue, Yosuke looked up again. “I-I know what you’re gonna say! ‘You shouldn’t feel that way,’ ‘It’s not bad to to cry,’ all that stuff. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I can’t stop myself from thinking that it does. I-if you ever thought less of me, for any reason, then...I-I wouldn’t know what to do. If you guys didn’t need me, I’d...”

Amidst his rant, there was something Naoto had picked up on that gave her pause: “ If you ever thought less of me...I wouldn’t know what to do. ” Yosuke, in her experience, clearly had a chronic need to always come across as being “too cool” for whatever situation he was in, but it was more intense than she had even realized. Naoto’s brilliant intuition told her that he was being truthful, which meant he actually owned up to lying to her. She was still mad, but like an hourglass, it was dropping bit by bit down into her core and out of her brain.

“Senpai,” she said again, although this time a bit more forcefully, pulling Yosuke’s ashamed stare back toward her, “I don’t like being lied to, but...I can see that you are making an effort to tell the truth, to atone, and I appreciate that. In turn, I’ll tell you my truth: I would never think less of you for holding on to your past. I’ve greatly appreciated you telling me your experiences, because I can see that it is painful, yet you do it anyways. Without your advice, I may have never made amends with Kanji-kun today. If what you desire is to be needed, you’ve...already achieved it.”

This was a big admission, and at a time like this, Naoto really missed her hat; it was such a convenient tool to hide her face that would have been perfect for a time like this. Still, it made her smile shyly seeing Yosuke’s face evolve from being very downtrodden to impossibly happy in about 3 seconds. Rise had once told her that she liked to be positive because it’s very difficult for her friends to be upset around someone who’s really happy; if today was any indication, she may have had a point.

“Uh,” Yosuke mumbled, still grinning like a fool, “that’s... wow . You - I-I hope that I can...continue being that person...f-for you.”

Naoto felt oddly... warm hearing that. Trying to ignore whatever it was, she issued a warning. “I...I would like that as well, but only if we can come to an understanding.”

Yosuke leaned forward, a desperate look in his eye. “S-sure. Anything! W-what is it?”

Naoto cleared her throat, taking a moment to gather her thoughts. “I would appreciate if you could refrain from making...bawdy comments about my body or how I choose to present.”

Yosuke twisted his head, seemingly confused. “‘Body’ body comments? I don’t -”

Naoto tutted, interrupting him. “‘Bawdy’ means making fun in an overtly… crass way…” Naoto felt her whole face scorch, and hurriedly rushed to her main point. “A-anyways, I don’t need you to ask questions, I just need you to promise me! Please...”

The older boy swallowed big before nodding quickly. “G-got it. I-I-I promise. Shutting up now,” he said, making a zipping motion across his lips.

“Lastly, I...in the future, I need you to be honest with me. There is no mutual respect between us if there is no truth, so I would greatly appreciate if you would be honest with me, even when it’s hard. Can you do that?” Naoto asked, affording Yosuke her toughest stare. He squirmed under its intensity, before giving yet another very quick nod.

“O-okay...no more lies..”

“Alright then. That’s all I ask,” Naoto finished, sighing in relief. She’d have liked him to be more direct and less evasive, but she also got the sense that Yosuke was fighting his very nature. Perhaps he deserved a bit of grace.

“C-cool...erm, is it okay if I…well, can I text you later?” Yosuke asked, turning one eye toward her.

Naoto nodded, but with the relaxed atmosphere and odd buzz in her chest, she opted for a more teasing answer. “I’m sure you can . Don’t you mean ‘ may I text you later?’”

Yosuke laughed, a kind of gasping and disbelieving wheeze. “ Wow , it’s like that now!?” Naoto’s smile only increased in confidence as she took a rare minute to indulge her wit, as she had with Kanji earlier.

“Sheesh...I need to keep an eye on you. You’re a devious little squirt!”

The Detective Prince gasped, her face turning tomato red all over again as she looked over at Yosuke, who had that infuriating grin on his face. S-squirt !?

“I-I-I am in no way a ‘squirt’!” she cried, realizing he was having a laugh at her height. “B-besides, w-what did I just say!?”

Yosuke kept giggling, no doubt amused at her annoyance. “Haha-hang on, you said to not talk in a “boa-dy” way or whatever! Your height is your height!”

Naoto felt a vein in her neck pop out as she closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose “I-it’s ‘bawdy!’ And d-do not look for loopholes in our understanding!” In truth, he was right, but it was still annoying.

“C’mon, ya gotta loosen up a little! You just made a joke on me, how come I can’t do it back? And like I said, I’m well within the rules; some people are born tall and some just aren’t, squirt!”

Y-you..s-stop that!”

Yosuke was now giggling like a hyena. “You’re so red! Hahahaha!”

Naoto opened her eyes to yell at him some more, but stopped dead when she looked at him. He was having a little laughing fit, but his stupid grin remained. While a part of her still found it maddening, something about his grin, so cheery and full of genuine joy, stopped her from giving him a tongue lashing. The warmth from just a few seconds earlier was returning, but now it felt like it was spreading throughout her whole body. It was almost... paralyzing .

Rather than reply and make a fool of herself, Naoto chose to turn her body the other direction and pout. It wasn’t that funny, was it!? A few seconds later the laughing stopped, and she could hear a noticeable tonal shift in his voice.

“C’mon, I’m just kiddin’ around,” Yosuke said softly, “Even if you are a little squirt, you’re still the smartest and bravest of us all. I feel really shitty that I made you feel like less of a person. Honestly I...I wish I was more like you. Maybe then I wouldn’t be such a dumbass all the time…”

Naoto turned back around, her eyes scanning Yosuke. There wasn’t a hint of jokiness in his body language, and engraved in his eyes was both sincerity and admiration, although he was blushing and doing his best not to look in her eyes. Moved by his admission, she suddenly found words coming to her, no longer jumbled by embarrassment.

“Your words are...too kind,” she replied, pushing some of her barely wet hair off to the side, “You may have uncouth habits, but do not sell yourself too short; you are braver and smarter than you know. I cherish our friendship, and I can only hope you take to heart what I’ve said today so that it...may continue to grow in the future.”

“N-Naoto…”

Both teens gazed at each other, their blushes softening as their comfort level increased. For the third time, Naoto could feel a peculiar, unfamiliar, but not unpleasant warmth surging through her body. She hoped the combination of her being wet from swimming and the summer breeze wasn’t making her ill, although she was so pleased with her conversations with both Kanji and Yosuke that perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to rest for a few days.

Although she could tell he, too, was embarrassed to share what was on his mind, Yosuke’s grin came back in winning form. Caught up, Naoto had no choice but to match it with a large smile of her own, the biggest she could muster.

The two stayed like that for awhile, before the sun was blocked out by a shadowy figure and a giggly voice.

Oooohoohhh ...am I, uh, interrupting something?”

Naoto could practically hear the eyebrow waggle in the teasing voice of Chie, nor did she miss the blatant innuendo in her phrasing. Yosuke must have too, for he was giving the scantily-clad 3rd year the same mildly horrified look that Naoto was.

“N-no! ” both Yosuke and Naoto yelped at the same time, turning away from each other as both of them went lobster red all over again.

“Gah, whattya want, Chie!?” Yosuke asked, his annoyance clear. This just made Chie chortle harder.

“Oh, nothin’ much. Nanako’s dad called and said he was gonna be here in about 45 minutes, so we were gonna start packing up and eating our lunch over by the sandcastle. I was gonna ask you guys to join us, but, uh, if you two need a minute...” Chie teased, winking very obviously and biting her tongue to keep more laughs from escaping.

“Th-there will be no need for that!” Naoto said hastily, grabbing her flask up off the towel and getting up to her feet in record time. “I’ll...I’ll see you over there, Hanamura-senpai, Chie-senpai.”

“Hanamura…?” she heard Yosuke mumble slowly as Chie burst into laughter again.

As fast as she could move without being suspicious, Naoto made her way west, not sure whether or not her formal use of Yosuke’s last name combined with an honorific would have thrown Chie off her obvious suspicions. Thinking back, the spunky meat lover had mentioned something similar about Yosuke when they were talking in the water, and it just made Naoto move even quicker. Did Yosuke think the things Chie had been saying? The detective’s curiosity begged her to find out, but her conscience warned her that she wouldn’t want to know the answer.

She risked a small look over her shoulder toward where Yosuke’s towel had been set up  and saw him standing there, adjusting his hoodie. He had a carefree smile on his face, as if he had just remembered something pleasant while he packed up his towel and other supplies. Without warning, the strange feeling, like sipping hot coffee on a particularly cold winter morning, began to creep up into her stomach, so she ceased her little observation.

Before long, she caught sight of everyone gathered around the sandcastle, talking joviously amongst themselves as if they were all at Junes again. Kanji, who was sitting next to Yukiko, noticed her coming and waved while pointing to a spot next to him that was open, a shy grin on his face. Naoto smiled back and nodded; even if there was some awkward spots in her relationships, knowing that she had repaired a friendship that had been so important was powerful enough to ward off any negativity. She hurried to join the circle and enjoy what time she had left at the beach enjoying the company of the people that made her happiest.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, 8/16/12, Dojima Residence, Late Afternoon...

“So, if you had 36 pieces of candy to give out to your three friends, how would you figure out how much to give to each of your friends?”

“Um...oh! I would count by three until I got to 36, right!?”

 Sort of , Nanako-chan. Remember what we talked about before, when you di~~”

“Di…? Di...v-vide? Divide ! I should divide 36 by 3 and use that number!”

“Very good! Can you show me how?”

“Yep!”

Kanji chuckled as he sat at the Dojima kitchen table, hard at work with a crochet hook and some yarn as he listened to Yukiko and Nanako fuss over her summer homework. Yukiko was a pretty sharp cookie, but it amused him how she gently guided Nanako toward the right answer. She could be goofy and a little sullen, but it was fun to see her be doting to the young Dojima.

He had caught a glimpse of this recently. While they were at the beach, Yukiko had again invited him to spend some time at the inn, which he had obliged on Monday. He was a little less holed up this time around, and as he enjoyed the hot springs and the large sitting room, he saw a side of Yukiko he had never seen before. She was always moving, yet she seemed to have endless energy as she conversed with the various guests and laughed at their jokes and offered them anything they needed. It was then Kanji realized just how good she was at being an inn hostess, and that he had continued to underestimate the odd girl he had grown up with.

Snapping back to the present, he realized, looking down at the partially crocheted bear that was his work for the day, that he really wasn’t one to judge who or what was odd. Following a suggestion from Rise, he had talked with his mom about selling some of the stuffed toys and other plush accessories he pieced together in his spare time, and as embarrassing as that was, he was surprised to see his mom agree to it rather quickly. She displayed them amongst the other textiles they sold, and sure enough, they were becoming a hit with local students and other children. Not only did his mom let him keep a significant portion of the profits from them, she encouraged him to make more. It wasn’t something he would have even dreamed of a year ago, but now he didn’t really feel shame at doing it outside the privacy of his room.

Without a lamp like on his desk, however, he was having a bit of hard time threading his needle so he could sew the muzzle onto the head he had made. Kanji’s eyesight had been bad since he could remember, but he didn’t want anybody to know; was hard to be a badass when you had to wear corrective lenses, he figured. As such, he usually kept them in his room and only used them if he had total privacy, but lately it felt like he couldn’t even see basic signs at Junes without squinting really hard. To combat this while also being careful, Kanji had taken to keeping a spare pair in his pocket that he would effectively use only in emergencies. And while crocheting a bear may not seem like a realemergency, it was a cute emergency, and that was enough for Kanji to risk it.

Carefully, he took a peek into the living room to see if Yukiko and Nanako were looking. Both girls were hunched over the center table, so he felt the coast was clear enough. He reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a thin leather case, one of his earliest creations. Inside were one of his thin pairs of wire frame glasses, which he hastily slipped on before taking another look into the living room. No change. Breathing a quiet sigh of relief, he got back to work, his now improved eyesight making the work a cinch. He easily threaded the needle with his steady, trained hands and got to work on sewing.

With his expertise and now-renewed eyesight, the work went quick. Within minutes he had almost completely sewed the muzzle on, but there was one more piece missing. Reaching into the plastic bag he had set on the table, he pulled out some polyfill stuffing and packed it into the small hole still left open. Now the muzzle looked lifelike and full, and he smirked as he sewed it all the way shut, admiring how much the full purple head looked.

He was so involved in the work he didn’t hear the creak of the chair next to him.

“Are those... glasses? ” He heard Yukiko ask.

“-Grkkt!-”

In his shock, Kanji scrambled with the items he had in his hands and somehow ended up jabbing his palm with the needle, which made him drop everything. As he tried to lift his glasses off, Yukiko had already gotten very close to his face, making him stop fidgeting out of fear of hitting her.

“W-what!?” he yelped, hastily reaching up to pull the glasses off before throwing them on the table, “‘S nothin!’ T-thought ya were doing stuff with Nanako-chan…”

Yukiko giggled a little, a devious giggle that made Kanji even more nervous. “We (heehee) finished and then her show came on. I didn’t know you wore glasses! Why haven’t you been wearing them?” She sounded sincere, but Kanji was still sore about it.

“”Cuz I knew you’d laugh, like now!” He said grouchily. “I don’t want people to think I’m some kinda four-eyes or whatever.”

Yukiko cocked her head, the onyx hair trapped underneath her traditional red headband swaying slightly. “But...you wore glasses in the TV World. I did, too! Why would I make fun of you?”

Kanji growled, not ready for that level of probing. “Well, first of all, those were sun glasses, and it made me look like a badass, okay!? As fer two, I dunno, none of you guys wear glasses, and everyone already clowns on me, so - where’re you goin’!?”

As he was talking, Yukiko had suddenly looked anxious, and gotten up and moved toward the kitchen unit. In her white sundress, which exposed her milky shoulders and swished as she moved around, Kanji felt like he was underdressed in his jeans and blue tank top. She grabbed her black purse from where it sat and began to rummage through it. The hell was she doing?

“Senpai, what’re you up to...oh no…”

Yukiko had evidently found what she was looking for, and Kanji only needed to see the black rims of the object she was holding to know what it was. Before he could make a break for it, she pounced, pinning his arm to the table. The feel of her hand on his forearm made him blush and become a stuttering mess.

“H-hey, w-why don’tcha jus’...leggo and…”

“Wait wait wait, it’s perfect!”

Kanji flinched as Yukiko (gently, at least) slid what she had been holding onto Kanji’s face. Sure enough, he could feel it: the familiar rubber bulging against his nose, the tickle of cheap plastic right above his upper lip, and the burning feeling of utter embarrassment. The nose glasses had returned.

 Snrrrkkk ...hahahahahahaaaaaaa! Youhahahalookkkheeeheee...you look so (hee) great! Bwahahahaaaa! They look the best on you, Kanji-kun!”

The tall 2nd year drummed his fingers on the desk, almost wishing he could suffer Yosuke teasing him about knitting rather than endure this again. For reasons only a God could know, Yukiko found a cheap pair of disguise glasses with a big nose and a moustache and twirly eyes to be the funniest thing in existence. Teddie had made them originally, but how she got a hold of them was a mystery. Not one he was keen on solving, either.

During Yukiko’s cackling, Nanako quickly came over to the table with a frown on her face. “Yukiko-chan, please! I’m trying to watch Detective Loveline and I can’t hear!” Kanji only now noticed how similarly the two were dressed; Nanako, too, wore a white dress, although it wasn’t quite as poofy and had a big sunflower on the front.

“B-b-but pfftttt hahaha…” Yukiko sputtered, pointing at Kanji, “Loohoook at himmmmhahahaha!”

Nanako looked, and her frown curved into a gentle smile. “Heehee, you do look funny, Kanji! Like a clown!”

This just made Yukiko guffaw harder. “Don’t encourage her! Go watch yer show, we’ll keep it down in here” Kanji grumbled, to which Nanako obliged, shaking her head and giggling a little. Yukiko put both hands over her mouth and took a seat next to Kanji at the table, but it only mildly muffled her laughter. She put her head down, her face turning so red it looked like she was getting sick.

“Geez, yuck it up and get it over with!” Kanji spat, taking the glasses off and quickly grabbing the real ones he had tossed aside earlier and replacing them back on his face. Yukiko laughed for a few more seconds before picking herself back up, brushing her hair behind her.

“Sorry (hee) they’re just soo good (hahaha)! If you wore those ( snrk) no one would ever fight you again, they’d be too busy laughing!” Kanji couldn’t help but laugh at that. Did she still think he was getting into fights?

“Would rather be in a fight than wear those goofball glasses,” he chuckled, running a hand through his now thick black hair, feeling the scar on the left side of his forehead. Sitting at a friend’s kitchen table, sewing together a bear and babysitting with a girl he’d known since he was a kid would have seemed like some sort of darkest timeline pipedream a year go. Times really had changed, he thought.

He decided to bite the bullet and inquire about the origin of the glasses. “Where’d you even get those!? Though Yu-senpai tossed ‘em somewhere…”

“Well, he was going to,” she said, still giggly, “Buhuhut I asked for them back! Snrkt! They’re just so fun! 

“Yeah but why d’you have ‘em with you!?” Kanji asked, flabbergasted, “You don’t need ‘em…”

Yukiko gave him a confident smirk. “Everyone could use a laugh once in a while! If I’m having a rough day...I just go somewhere with a mirror and presto! Instant laughs!”

Well if that wasn’t the damndest thing Kanji had heard all day. Only Yukiko would intentionally carry around those dumb glasses in order to get herself into a giggling fit. It was so overwhelmingly goofy that he found himself joining his senpai’s final blast of chuckles.

Eventually, she calmed herself enough to give a few nice thoughts. “Well, while I’d always prefer the nose glasses, I think those look nice, too! It makes you look…” she put a finger to her chin as she combed for a word, “ softer .”

Kanji made a face. Who wanted to hear that ?! “Gee, thanks…” he said sarcastically.

“N-no, I mean it in a good way!” Yukiko pleaded, waving her hands a little bit. “I...I like that you’ve changed up your look. It suits the Kanji-kun I remember, and not the one you’d hear about in the halls at school.”

That made Kanji feel a little better. Still, he wondered what she meant by the Kanji she remembered. “Heh, we barely knew each other, though,” he sighed, picking up his crochet hook again, “An’ we were just kids. There’s no way you coulda known about this ,” he held up the bear head and crochet hook for her to look at, “back then, right?”

“N-not necessarily,” Yukiko admitted, rubbing her bare arm, “but still, there was always...a certain softness to you. Even when you would stomp around with that mean look on your face, I could tell. If I saw you at your mom’s shop when I’d visit with my mother, you’d complain, but always help her when she asked you to do something. Hearing that you ran off a gang just because they were upsetting her...that sounded more like you.”

The boy’s ears went a little hot hearing this. Even back then, she thought he wasn’t just some punk? He didn’t know what to think, so he just decided to play it cool...or as cool as he knew how to anyways.

“Heh, thanks, I guess,” he said shyly, rubbing his nose a bit where the glasses were irritating him, “No one, uh...well, my Ma does, but she kinda has to, y’know? B-but I mean that, erm...no one...I’m not used to people thinkin’...that.” Yukiko gave him a quizzical look, and he rolled his eyes, knowing he was going to have to say more, even if he really wasn’t sure what he meant either. “I-I mean, like, I’m used to...girls makin’ fun of me for this kinda stuff, not thinkin’ it’s a good thing.”

Yukiko lowered her eyes, a kind of sympathetic yet sad look on her face. “I...I actually think it’s really neat that you can do all the things you can do. I try, but I’m just so bad at it...even worse than cooking.” She stopped and scooped up a bit of her long flowing black hair, holding it loosely in her hand. “You can crochet a whole teddy bear, and I can’t even braid my hair! Isn’t that sad? I’ve always wanted to, so it could be out of the way while I work, but…”

This surprised Kanji. Doesn’t every girl know how to do that? “Woah, really? I mean...I don’t wanna make you feel crappy or whatever, but that’s pretty easy stuff.” Yukiko gave out a sad chuckle, which made him feel bad. “W-well, y’know, if you never learned I guess not though, right? Uh…” he was scrambling to say something nice, but he always had a hard time with this. “You...you should learn how. It’s easy, plus...y’know, when you had your h-hair up at the beach it...it looked good. You looked...g-g-good…”

Both of them had to avoid each others’ eyes, lest they die of embarrassment. Kanji had tapped into the same feelings that had come up when he watched Yukiko take off her cardigan at the beach, and her hair was a big part of that. As soon as it came out of his mouth he felt like a jerk; those kind of compliments were the same thing Yosuke would say at his horniest and dumbest, and he didn’t want Yukiko to get the wrong idea. Not that she wasn’t pretty, of course, but…wait, what!?

“T-t-thank you,” she stuttered, her arms shyly locked behind her chair, “You’re the, erm...the first person to really say something...”

Okay, that definitely didn’t sound great , Kanji thought. He wanted to try and smooth it over, but his dander was up and his tone was starting to get scraggly and nervous. “I-I didn’t mean nothin’ by it, y’know! Jus’, uh… dammit! ” he wheezed, fiddling with his crochet hook in a fit of nervous energy.

Yukiko gave a kind of breathless laugh, although it might have been a scoff for all Kanji knew. “D-do you think...if it’s so easy...you could show me how to do it?” Bashfully, she picked her head up a little, eyes rising slightly to meet his. Her cheeks were rosy, although they were no doubt tame compared to the inferno raging in Kanji’s face.

“Y-ya mean, like, right now?” Ohshitohfuckohshit why did he say that!?

“I-if it’s not too much trouble…what do you need me to do?”

- Klang-

Kanji dropped his hook, now sure his heart was going to explode. She wanted him to braid her hair?! Now!? Did that mean...she was okay with him touching her hair? Wasn’t that, like, a huge deal!? The big teen had so many questions running through his mind that he could barely focus.

“Kanji-kun?”

Yukiko’s soft voice drifted him back to reality. Words formed and zoomed into his mouth, totally skipping the front part of his brain. “Uhrm, just, uh, sit tight and take off yer hairband.” As soon as it came out he wanted to smack his forehead in frustration. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Yukiko nodded and did as she was told, carefully removing the red headband and running her hands through her long locks to straighten it out. Kanji began to quickly put away his crocheting tools - he doubted he was going to be able to concentrate on that again today - while Yukiko reached over to her purse on the counter for something. When the big teen looked up again, she had a disc-like object in her hand. She must have seen his quizzical stare.

“So I can see what you’re doing.” She said, answering the unasked question dangling from Kanji’s lips. The heiress quickly popped it open, revealing the small circular mirror inside. At this point, he supposed, there was no going back; she was totally prepared to let him do it.

Why wasn’t she as nervous as he was? For Kanji, the very fact that a girl, any girl, was allowing him to braid her hair was astonishing. Of course the girls in the Investigation Team were all super cool and way nicer to him than others he had shown his secret passions to, but he still just figured they all thought it was kind of weird and didn’t want to talk about it. But here was Yukiko, actively inviting his touch.

Taking a deep breath, Kanji stepped over toward her, his position giving him a convenient glance at Nanako, who was very deeply engrossed in her show. Good, he thought; hopefully he could finish before she noticed. It’s not like he figured she’d be mean to him either, but he didn’t want her to think something was going on between him and Yukiko...not that that was a bad thing. But it wasn’t true!

Besides, ever since his conversation with Naoto on the beach, he’d been really thinking that maybe, just maybe , there was chance to change things around with her. She had been very clear when she said that she and him couldn’t be together “right now,” which was open for interpretation. She had also asked him to join her and Rise on Monday for lunch, which he had gone and enjoyed greatly. It just seemed like it was too good to be true, a dream he wasn’t waking up from, that he didn’t want to try and jinx it by having rumors start spreading.

He could also, of course, just decline to braid her hair, but braiding was just so... fun. And Yukiko seemed like she had nice hair. His more creative side couldn’t resist the pull of a good project, but he was still worried that this was too weird. Then again, Yukiko had been nothing but a pal to him for a while now, and she could be a little odd herself. Maybe he was just overthinking this. Maybe . He sighed, rubbed his face, and tried not to think so hard as he prepared himself.

“Will this take long?” Yukiko suddenly asked, looking back at him. He shook his head, allowing himself get a little cocky about his skill.

“Not with me, nah. 5 minutes, tops,” he said confidently, taking a moment to wipe his glasses on his tank top. Yukiko had an impressed look on her face as she nodded and turned back around, flipping her hair over the brown X-back of the chair.

“Okay, ready when you are!” she announced, holding up the mirror to frame her and Kanji in its reflection.

The younger teen gulped, but felt like he could at least explain the basics okay. “‘Lright, so, ya gotta make sure your hair is straight...which it is. Then, you, uh, gather up a bunch from the top of your head and pull it back…”

Okay, moment of truth, he thought. He reached his hands up, his long and delicate fingers twitching with anticipation. As carefully as he could, he used his index fingers to slice into the thick inky hair on the sides of her forehead and pulled back, gathering it at the back of her head and using his right hand to smooth out the long strand.

Instantly, he felt a potent cocktail of emotions. Her hair felt as amazing as it looked; there was nary a knot or curl to be found, and it flowed like water in his hands as he continued to smooth it out. Whatever conditioner or product she used was working like a charm, because no part of it felt too dry or frayed, either. Kanji also couldn’t help but notice the fragrance radiating from her, a very sweet smell that reminded him of citrus fruits and flowers. It was all too intoxicating, and it was only a grunt from her that knocked him out of the lull he had been in.

“Do you have...enough?” she tittered, a bit of sass in her voice. Kanji took a sharp inhale through his nose, feeling his blood vessels about to burst, and tried to speed the work along and not go into sensory overload again.

“R-r-right. So then,” he explained, splitting the large strand he had pulled back into three separate ones that he held with both hands, “you take that original buncha hair and split it in three. Then ya loop each side under the middle part here, first the right.” Carefully, the right most strand of Yukiko’s hair went under the middle strand, followed by the left strand going under the moved right strand. “Then the left.” There were still three sections of hair strands, but now they were crossed at the top.

Now he had the anchor that would hold her braid done. Next came the most repetitive and important part, which he was nervous about. Her hair was just so gorgeous, and he was really worried that his big clumsy fingers were going to damage it in some way. He persevered, although he could now feel the beads of sweat forming on the sides of his head.

“S-so now, we jus’ take some more hair from the right and combine it with the right strand again…” He worked as he spoke, quickly gathering more hair from the right side of her head and looping it under the middle strand, as he had done previously. “K-kinda like before, we move that new big strand ‘o right hair under the middle, and then do the same again on the left side…”

In repeating the same actions on the left side, he was losing himself in the feel of her hair again. He had really only ever braided with yarn hair on dolls before, and yarn had a much more ropey and coarse feel to it. Yukiko’s hair was like silk, the same kind his mother would use to make yukata and other fine cloth. It was a perfect blank canvass, and Kanji found himself revelling in swooping more hair in as he continued to braid down the length of her neck.

“Then ya just keep goin’ with this, all the way down,” he murmured, pulling firmly on each new loop he completed in order to make sure it would hold strong. Time crawled to a stop, and he was beginning to forget all about the embarrassment and nerves he suffered beforehand as he got more and more into making sure Yukiko’s hair was perfectly braided. Once again, the only pull from his concentration was a slight hiss of pain from the heiress as he finished a braid near the back of her neck.

He immediately stopped, concerned. “I-I’m sorry! You alright?”

The mostly-done braid moved up and down with the nod of Yukiko’s head. “Y-yeah, I’m fine! It’s just sensitive, is all. Please keep going, I want to see how it looks!”

With that enthusiastic response, Kanji felt his blush subside a little, energized into doing his best work. In just a few short minutes he was nearly done, having braided her hair all the way down to the nape of her neck. He paused here, odd feelings coming back up at once again getting a rare glimpse at her neck and back unfettered. Her sundress left a good portion of her shoulders bare too, and Kanji found himself admiring them, too.

This was all very new and very strange to him. Previously he had only found some sense of carnal desire when it came to boys or a girl with a boyish build, like Naoto. Yukiko wasn’t skin and bones, exactly, but she wasn’t particularly curvy or athletically-inclined either; this shouldn’t be causing such a reaction in him, he thought. Still, holding her thick hair and admiring the poise and grace in her features, those very same feelings that he would get while looking at Naoto were beginning to break from under the surface.

For a moment, he felt deep shame. This was gross, he thought; Yukiko was his friend, and now he was taking advantage of a favor asked of him to voyeuristically admire her usually more conservatively dressed figure. Again, it was something he could see Yosuke or Teddie doing, and he didn’t want to be that way, ever. It took a lot of focus, but he tore his eyes away from her body and back to her hair, which was almost done.

“A-awright, so now,” he stuttered, trying to get back to the matter at hand, “when you get to the back of your neck, you wanna go back to what we did at the start, since we’re runnin’ outta hair.” Yukiko moved her mirror down, so she could see what he was doing a little more clearly, “make three strands, and pull the right one under the middle, then the left one under the right one…”

After creating the last few stitches, he had reached the edges of Yukiko’s hair. He sighed and reached over to his plastic bag of tools, remembering that he kept a few rubber bands in there. Finding a small one, he took it and carefully bound the tip of her hair into a small ponytail, which smoothed out the braid so it wasn’t messy at the end.

“Done,” he announced quietly, noticing Nanako still hadn’t moved from her engrossed position at the family room table. He stepped away and moved back to his original seat, now getting to admire Yukiko’s hair from a different position. With her dress, gently applied makeup and lip gloss and perfect posture, the braid did even more to add to her usual sophisticated aesthetic. The contrast of her dark hair as it laid over her milky shoulder in a tightly wound braid was very engaging, and while Kanji didn’t want to toot his own horn too much, he thought he did a damn fine job on the thing.

Yukiko was still looking down, her breath coming slow and sharp. She looked almost...euphoric? Kanji raised an eyebrow as she took a minute to compose herself before getting up out of her seat. “I-I’m g-going to go see how it looks!” she announced suddenly and loudly before bowing slightly and scampering off to the washroom down the hall near Nanako’s room. Kanji laughed at her awkwardness, finding relief that she was at least acting like this was a little weird.

Her loud pronouncement had drawn in Nanako, who shuffled up to the table looking confused. “See how what looks?” she asked Kanji.

“She, uh, , erm...s-she braided her hair,” he lied, hoping that Nanako wasn’t going to cut that logic to ribbons.

“Really? Heehee, I remember when my dad would do that sometimes. It was a lot of fun! Can I see too?” Nanako asked the question but was already pulling out the chair adjacent to Kanji so she could take a seat at the table. Her tiny stature allowed her to sit on her knees, legs bent back, affording her a bit of a higher position.

She was just in time, because Yukiko came shuffling back over, her hands on her still-flushed cheeks. “I-it’s so wonderful!” she sighed dreamily, “Just like I’ve always wanted. You’re amazing, Kanji-kun!”

Nanako looked between the two teens before figuring out what happened. “Wait, so you did that to her hair?”

No longer able to hide it, Kanji rubbed the back of his head and nodded briefly. He remembered that he hadn’t really shared with Nanako his proclivities, and for a second he worried that she might say something about how it was weird.

“C-can you do me, next!? You made Yukiko-chan look so pretty, like a princess!” the little girl squealed to his surprise, hopping over to Yukiko and beginning to geek out with her over the braid. Sheesh, Kanji thought, all this over a really simple braid job. Still, he wouldn’t lie and say that it didn’t make him feel extremely proud to see the girls so over-the-moon about it.

“Heh, whenever you want, kiddo!” he said confidently, giving her a big thumbs up. Yukiko smiled at him, and for a brief second looked the spitting image of her mother. Kanji always remembered Yukiko’s mom as a serious businesswoman who was always dressed to the nines and had her hair up in a tightly coiled bun. By contrast, Yukiko could be like that sometimes, but seeing her giggling with Nanako over the stitches in her braid, Kanji could see that the future of the Amagi inn was definitely taking a turn for the goofy, and maybe that was for the best.

Yukiko and Nanako eventually returned to the table, and the three of them engaged in some polite chatter for a few minutes. During a lull, Yukiko looked at her phone on the table, gasping slightly.

“Oh! I didn’t realize how late it was. I promised my parents I’d be back to help with the evening service,” she futzed, quickly gathering her purse and headband. Kanji couldn’t help but feel a little deflated; he couldn’t lie and say his ego wasn’t enjoying the constant praise from the girls, but it was also just... pleasant to be in Yukiko’s company, lately. Sure, she would always end up in some laughing fit or ask some really boneheaded questions, but that all added to a package that really helped Kanji relax, which he had always struggled with.

Well, he thought, least he could do was do the right, manly thing. “D’you need me to walk ya to the bus stop?” he asked earnestly, adjusting his glasses. The Amagi Inn was a bit more toward the main roads leading into Inaba, so Yukiko always bussed in if she was going to be near the shopping district or the Dojima house.

The heiress shook her head, busting his bubble. “Oh, please, don’t trouble yourself! I’ll be fine.” Kanji nodded, trying to hide his disappointment again, when he noticed she was still looking at him. “Erm...I’ll be fine going to the bus stop, but would you mind...walking me to the door?” she asked, clasping her arm behind her back.

Huh? That was...kind of weird, Kanji thought. Then again, it was Yukiko, so he figured her reasoning might just be weird and that was that. All the same he grunted his affirmation, which got him another smile. Nanako got up from her chair and hugged the heiress’ waist, affection Yukiko returned by gently running her hands through the little girls’ long hair.

“Goodbye, Yukiko-chan! Thank you for helping me with my homework! Hopefully one day I’ll be smart like you and won’t need your help,” Nanako said cheerily.

“Of course, Nanako-chan,” the 3rd year replied, “You’re plenty smart, don’t worry. We all need a little help from time to time.”

Nanako let go and beamed at her older friend one more time before heading back to the living room to watch some more TV. Left alone, Yukiko beckoned with her head for Kanji to follow her, which he obliged.

Like most homes in the area, the Dojima household had a small foyer near the front door where guests could place their shoes and other accessories before going inside. In the small space, Kanji watched quietly as Yukiko sat on the small step leading to the kitchen and slipped on a pair of flat white shoes that matched her outfit. Once she was done, she moved aside so Kanji could join her past the step.

“Um, I just wanted to say…” she looked nervous, like what she was about to say was bad. Was it? Kanji couldn’t help but feel his heart start to beat a little faster.

“Say what?” he asked, more out of nervousness than anything.

The heiress took in a deep breath before she revealed what was on her mind. “These past few weeks...I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you more. It makes me feel a little silly that I spent all of middle school entertaining those rumors about your reputation...I should have known better, and I hope you can forgive me for that…”

Kanji scoffed. While he certainly wasn’t one to judge, he felt Yukiko was still hanging on to the past too much. “Forget it, senpai. ‘Sides, I wasn’t someone you would have wanted to hang around, not ‘til I met all you guys, anyways...”

He coughed as he trailed off, hoping the mood wasn’t getting too corny for her. Yukiko maintained a steady gaze, her cheeks slightly red.

“I-I just wish…” Yukiko paused, readjusting her purse so the carrying strap sat better on her bare shoulder, “I wish I could do something nice for you, like you did my hair...to pay you back for how much I’ve appreciated your friendship lately. I’d make you a boxed lunch, but…” she trailed off, a nervous chuckle betraying the somewhat downcast look in her eyes.

Kanji laughed nervously himself, agreeing that he didn’t need a boxed lunch from her but not wanting to say it out loud. “You don’t have to do anything,” he stressed, waving his hands gently, “I was happy to do that. I don’t get to...well, show off what I can do to many people, y’know? Just knowin’ that you don’t think I’m some weirdo and you actually like what I did...that means the world to me, Yukiko-senpai.” He felt himself smiling in spite of the embarrassment he should have felt at the mushy crap coming out of him. “So please, don’t worry ‘bout it. You done enough, seriously!”

Yukiko’s face burned a little more as her eyes narrowed. What was she thinking, he wondered silently. “I...y-you’re welcome, Kanji-kun. But please, you should give yourself some credit. You’re very talented at what you do,” she said, once again eyeing her newly fashioned braid, “and you should be proud of it. And with everything you’ve gone through...you’ve inspired me to be a braver person, and I can’t thank you enough.”

Kanji’s mouth went dry from the praise. Was she shining him up for something? Either way, he tried to not let her see how his hands were shaking out of nervousness as he replied. “Y-y-yeah? Ya think so? I dunno about all that...but I ‘preciate it anyways, senpai.”

There was something else on his mind, something he’d wanted to say since the beach, and he figured now was the perfect time to do it. “Y’know, uh, after all...if it wasn’t for you helpin’ me get myself outta the rut I was in, I mighta never made up with Naoto-kun. I...I won’t forget that, senpai. Ever. I-I thought Yu-senpai and Naoto-kun and Rise-chan were the only ones that cared about..y’know, me. I-I dunno really what I’m even sayin’ , but...yer awesome. Thank you,” he finished, rubbing his nose a bit as he tried to take his attention elsewhere. Despite his nervousness, he meant every word; Yukiko’s advice and insistence on joining everyone for group activities had probably done more to mend the rift between him and Naoto more than anything he did. This past week had been one of his happiest, and a good deal of the credit for that deserved to be hers, he thought.

The earnest statement seemed to surprise Yukiko, who looked a little stunned and unsure of what to say. Kanji was never very good at detailing his emotions, but his ordeal with Naoto had been a trial by fire in learning how to manage rampaging teenage feelings very quickly. And weirdly it didn’t freak him out as much as it did before, the idea of sharing what was on his mind. As Yukiko had shown, sometimes people could surprise you in how well they understood what you were going through.

“K-Kanji-kun…” she said breathlessly, looking up at his eyes. Suddenly, and without much warning, she stepped closer to him, so close that he instinctively wanted to back up. Before he could, however, Yukiko reached up and gently placed one arm around Kanji’s neck and another over his arm and across his back, lacing her hands together where they met and resting her chin on his shoulder.

What. The. Fuck!?

Kanji wanted to speak, but his throat had seized up. In a moment, a flash of observations rocketed through his mind:

Her scent. The same smell of citrus and flowers hit his nose, but now overwhelmingly so. It was hard to think of anything else, and every breath exacerbated the intensity of the smell. Not that it was really a bad thing, but Kanji felt that perhaps it was possible to have too much of a good thing

My hands! Yukiko had latched onto him so quick that his arms were still locked outwards, as if he was going out of his way not to touch her. He didn’t want to be a dick and do nothing, but what was the appropriate way? It’s not like he had much experience hugging girls! He first went to put his arms around her back, but stopped; her shoulders and the top of her back were mostly bare because of her dress, and he was not about to experience that awkwardness. He settled for reaching low and putting his hands on her waist, where there was plenty of dress. Of course, this lead to his next issue.

We’re...super close. While she wasn’t squeezing the life out of him or anything, Yukiko’s embrace was firm and tight. As such, her chest was pressed up against his, and Kanji almost swore he could hear her heartbeat, which was pounding just as hard as his was. Worse still was that between having his hands on her waist and her chest pushed up against his, Kanji, for the first time, was noticing the feel of Yukiko’s body, and it was giving him odd feelings, ones he hadn’t experienced about a girl’s body ever.

Most of all, he was noticing just how petite Yukiko was despite being his senpai. It reminded him of a time that, as a kid, he had rescued a small bird from drowning in a local river by scooping it up with his hands. Even as a young child he was pretty big, and the bird felt so small and frail that he was afraid he would crush it even if he didn’t mean to. While Yukiko certainly wasn’t that small, that same energy exuded from her as soon as she had pressed herself against Kanji. Like she needed saving.

While the maelstrom of thoughts and his anxiety had led him to believe the hug lasted forever, the reality was that after a couple seconds Yukiko let go, her face flush and her eyes glassy. She looked...scared? Embarrassed?

“K-Kanji-kun, I...I-I need to go, I’m sorry,” she said quickly, bowing before she threw open the sliding door and nearly jogged down the street, heading toward her bus stop. He tried to get her attention to stop, but only strange gibberish came out.

“S-senpai why’dyou uh...d-didja...wha…”

Kanji stood peering out the door until he could see her turn a corner and disappear out of sight. What the hell was going on? Yukiko wasn’t some cold hag, but she wasn’t Rise or Teddie, who were prone to hug people randomly and on sight. He also was now finding it impossible to lose trace of the scent of her perfume, or the feeling of her hair in his fingers, or how she felt pressed up against him…

Nope, he thought. Whatever this was, it was the exact same type of thing he would start feeling anytime something vaguely and possibly romantic would happen with him and Naoto, and look how much good that had done him! If there was even a remote chance of working things out with Naoto, he needed to get out of that headspace, to grow up; not every little intimate action with a friendly girl meant anything deep, he told himself.

No matter how nice it may have felt.

With a sigh, he closed the door and locked it, heading back into the Dojima kitchen. Nanako was still watching TV, so he thought he’d join her just to relax, if nothing else, for the last hour he needed to babysit her. As he passed by the kitchen table, he saw the nose glasses still lying there. Evidently Yukiko had forgotten to pick them back up in all the commotion. He picked them up and stared at them, her obnoxious laughter ringing in his ears.

Sighing again, he slipped them into his pocket (with some difficulty). He knew he’d have to return them, and when he did, that conversation was going to be more than a little awkward.

Chapter Text

Saturday, 8/19/12, Junes, Early Afternoon

“Excuse me? Young man?”

Naoto looked up from her notebook, blinking at the unexpected acknowledgement. She turned around to see an older woman shuffling toward her, coming from the food court. Her frizzy hair and frumpy blue dress that went all the way down to her ankles were charming, as was her thin, wrinkled smile.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” Naoto asked politely, straightening up and placing her detective notebook in her back pocket. She had put together what she thought was a nice summer outfit herself - a white button-up blouse that was slightly more rugged than the usual femme options, tucked into dark blue chino pants with a nice pair of dark brown slip-on shoes that were very comfortable, all held up by pair of black suspenders clipped onto the pants. She had rolled up the sleeves of the blouse to just above her forearms to combat the summer heat, and while she didn’t usually like exposing her arms, she was slowly getting over that, especially now. To further resist the dry Inaba sun, her policeman’s cap was perched neatly on her heat, the fringe of her neatly coiffed hair peeking out just over her right eye.

As soon as she heard Naoto, the old lady blinked in surprise. “O-oh, I’m sorry. Young lady ,” she said, correcting herself, “do you happen to know where the restrooms would be?”

Dejected, Naoto pointed down toward the elevators of the hallway they were in. “They are to the left of the elevators at the end of this hallway. You can’t miss them,” she said in a dull, almost robotic voice.

The old lady bowed as best she could and continued in the opposite direction of Naoto, who was quietly seething. The more she had looked into what it meant to be non-binary, the harder it was becoming to ignore the tiny, daily occurrences that would cause her to become deeply unsettled about her gender identity. The feeling had always been there, but her desire to be free of gender norms had only increased the unease she felt whenever her failure to do so was pointed out. Her research had given a name to this unease - dysphoria - although the detective considered herself lucky in this regard. Since a non-binary identity was on the same spectrum as that of a transgender identity, she had read the testimonials of some folks who were deeply dysphoric about their entire existence as their assigned-at-birth gender.

A younger Naoto may have agreed with that statement, but the days of her shadow self wanting to have a body transformation were long gone. As she actively paid more attention to her experience, Naoto noticed that there only a few things that could truly trigger what she considered to be a dysphoric feeling, and it wasn’t anything as dramatic as her private parts or general sense of self. Nevertheless, her particular brand of dysphoria was still deeply hurtful, and the old woman had, unknowingly, nailed one of those areas with laser precision.

It was very difficult for Naoto, who was so logic-minded, to accept that no matter how hard she tried, it was never going to be enough. Presenting as she wanted in spite of any gender norms didn’t mean those norms weren’t imprinted into every facet of society, nor did it mean everyone was going to so easily accept her for who she was. Still, Naoto thanked her lucky stars that she at least was no longer alone in this battle; Rise had been an enormous help in relieving a lot of her stress, as was any time spent with the rest of her wonderful friends, even if they weren’t completely aware of her situation.

She was waiting for one of those wonderful friends now, just outside the “EMPLOYEES ONLY” door in the hallway leading to the Junes food court. Even before her dysphoric encounter with the old woman, Naoto had mixed feelings about her planned excursion. Spending time with Yosuke was proving to be a very enjoyable experience, one that often left the young detective feeling light and optimistic, emotions she still wasn’t used to even almost a year later. He was fun, bright, and only sometimes put his foot in his mouth. Even when Naoto had confronted him during their beach trip with some of his more lecherous past behavior, he apologized and revealed some past lies, which came totally out of left field. While she had been angry, Naoto found it very endearing that he cared enough about their friendship to admit his wrongdoings, even if it was clearly the first time he had been confronted in such a way.

Of course, this gave way to the thought currently plaguing her: what was his goal? In observing him at school and around town, Yosuke didn’t really interact with other people like he did Naoto. He was charismatic and could easily make friends, of course, but because of his job, it didn’t seem like he spent a lot of time hanging out with other people that weren’t in their close circle of friends. Even then, he rarely did so without at least multiple Investigation Team members present. Clearly he made an exception for Naoto, which meant that he had to have some motive for doing so. But...what?

She couldn’t help but think back to something Chie had mentioned at the beach about Yosuke being “gush-y.” Her later teasing of the two of them seemed to imply that she felt they were being, in some way, flirtatious or romantic with one another. Naoto found this notion to be silly, of course - Yosuke was far more subdued than she gave him credit for, but he was also rarely subtle. If he had even the slightest hint of a primal urge, he would have made that clear by now, she thought, or at least fail to keep his composure, like Kanji had in the past. Her current take was that, like her, he was missing his best friend, Yu, and they had grown closer because a void in their life was filled by the others’ friendship. Or at least she hoped...

It was times like these that Naoto wished she could seal herself off somewhere for a while, just so she could come out feeling less unsure of herself. With everything going on in her not only her social life but also her personal life, it felt like there was hardly any room to breathe. She had jumped in the deep end of the introspective pool, and this unfamiliar territory felt like it was going to drown her. Taking a deep breath, she reached into her pockets and pulled out her meditation orbs, rotating them in her palm and trying to think of more positive thoughts.

In the midst of her concentrated effort, she heard some legible chatter from the sealed door at the end of the hallway to her right. Not wanting to snoop but unquenchably curious, Naoto ceased her exercise and took a few steps closer to the door, the voices getting louder and clearer.

“...Son, I don’t want to have this argument again -”

“Then don’t! It’s not even that big a deal!”

In a flash, Naoto remembered that Yosuke’s father was the branch manager of this particular Junes store, and therefore Yosuke’s boss. Were they...fighting about something? Naoto tiptoed even closer, depositing the orbs back in her pocket. She was no more than a few inches from the door now as the conversation continued.

“That’s two weeks in a row now where the Friday freight hasn’t gotten done in time! Two! This is unacceptable son, and if you don’t try to fix it -”

“Dad, I’m trying! We are trying to train a bunch of new people, and you know I’m the only floor supervisor until -”

“I don’t wanna hear it, Yosuke! When I gave you this job, I had some expectations, and one of them was that the work gets done on time . This is a big machine son, and if one little cog gets jammed, then -

“‘The whole machine does,’ yeah I know, dad, I know.”

“Hey, fix that attitude, wiseass. You’re not at home, you’re at work. Act like it.”

“Okay, fine! I’m sorry! I-I gotta go, my friend’s waiting for me.”

“Fix the time management, and we won’t have any more problems.”

-Hrrnnkk- O-okay, dad, okay. I’m s-sorry…”

“It’s alright son. Just needed to give you a reminder. Go on, go.”

“‘Lright…”

Realizing the conversation was at its end, Naoto quickly scooted back over to the end of the hallway, hoping her snooping would go unnoticed. A few seconds later she heard the sound of the door opening, and Yosuke walked out in a pink t-shirt and skinny khaki jeans. The headphones he usually kept around his neck were absent, as was any hint of a sunny disposition; on the contrary, he looked rather glum. Given the conversation she had just heard, Naoto understood why.

“Senpai.” she called, getting his attention as he came down the hallway. He looked up at her, and for a moment she saw a face not too dissimilar to the one she had seen on the beach: disheveled, pained, and on the verge of tears. Like a chameleon, his expression changed instantly when he saw Naoto.

“H-hey! Hope I didn’t keep ya waiting too long!” He said with a forced saccharine smile, winking cheekily.

“Not at all.” she replied, stepping aside as he moved past her. The two teens stood together for a moment, both awkwardly trying to conjure up something to take their minds off their heavier thoughts. Nothing worked.

“Erm…”

“Y-yeah...so…”

“We should...get going, then?”

“D-definitely! Yep! Okina, here we come!”

With that jovial announcement, Yosuke took the lead in heading back toward the elevator to the ground floor. Naoto sighed but followed suit, hoping that she could get over the funk she was in to at least have a good time with her friend. For his sake, anyways.


Saturday, 8/19/12, Okina City, Afternoon

Okay, something was definitely up.

Yosuke could understand the two not talking very much on the way to Okina. Both being on their scooters, it was difficult to talk over the roaring winds and sputtering engines, and truthfully, Naoto didn’t seem like much of a yeller. But even once they got there, the detective had been quite sullen, even for her. Was she mad at him? Did he do something wrong again? He had invited her out to Okina on the basis that their beach talk had gone so well, but perhaps that had been a mistake...

The sun buzzed overhead, bearing down bright on the two as they walked through the city streets, headed toward a korokke stand to get something to eat. Yosuke sneaked a glance at his companion, noting that she had no real expression on her face as she walked with her hands in her pockets. On any other day, he may have complimented her outfit; as usual, Naoto had made her style work excellently, and he felt his heart race every time he caught a glimpse of her. But today didn’t seem like the day to press his luck and see what her response would be.

Sighing, he wished he would have just made up some excuse as to why he couldn’t come when he saw her at Junes. The whole day had been pretty lame, and while being in Naoto’s presence was enough to make it better, he still felt pretty crappy. A very busy day at work had ended with yet another chastising from his father, an occurrence that was becoming all too frequent in the busy summer season. He understood; Junes was a busy place in the summer and he was sure his dad, as branch manager, was getting a lot of guff from upper management to maximize sales. That kind of pressure made him more irritable than usual, and Yosuke, as a floor manager, usually received the brunt of it. Just because he understood it, however, didn’t make it hurt any less.

When they reached the stand, Naoto quickly stepped in front of Yosuke. “Good afternoon. I’d like two korokke pan, please.”

The man operating the stand nodded, tugging on his white apron. “You got it, sir. 950 yen.”

The Detective Prince reached into her back pocket and slid out a black wallet, pulling a 1000 yen note from the clip on the front and depositing the change she received into the small tip jar on the counter. The two then stepped aside as they waited for the sandwiches to be prepared.

Yosuke couldn’t help but feel a little emasculated by Naoto’s actions. “I-I was gonna get that, y’know,” he said petulantly, a small blush on his nose.

Naoto waved her hand, seemingly dismissive of his complaint. “I wanted to do it. You always get it, and fair is fair.”

Yosuke scoffed; one annoying thing about Naoto was she always thought so logically that it made arguing with her rather moot. Still, at least it broke the ice somewhat.

“I guess. Uhh, listen, are you...I-I mean did I do something stupid again?” Yosuke asked bluntly, figuring he’d ask now while he was ahead. Given his luck today, he was sure she’d tell him yes.

Naoto just blinked at him, her grey eyes wavering only slightly. Nervously, Yosuke tried to explain himself. “I-It’s just that...you’ve been kinda quiet...I dunno. Usually that means I must’ve-”

“No,” Naoto interjected suddenly, startling the 3rd year. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just...thinking.”

Well, that wasn’t insanely vague. “...About?” Yosuke asked, puzzled. Before she could answer, the cook from the korokke stand handed her two sandwiches wrapped partially in paper, along with some napkins. She thanked him and handed one of the korokke pan to Yosuke. It smelled amazing , and his mouth was practically watering at the thought of taking a bite into the deep fried and battered sandwich.

Naoto must have noticed. “Come, let’s find somewhere to sit.”

They had wandered into a large forum, where street vendors surrounded a large fountain that helped to direct passers-by into each of the different districts. Naoto led Yosuke through the bustling crowd to an unused bench that overlooked the fountain. Hastily, she took one of the napkins and wiped down the seat of the bench before she sat down, Yosuke chuckling as he joined her. Always proper.

As soon as he sat down, Yosuke took a hungry bite of his sandwich. “Oh, maann ,” he moaned in pure ecstasy. This korokke pan had curry as filling, and the rush of flavor from both the curry and the breaded potato outside was giving Yosuke a sense of existential joy he was sure he hadn’t felt in some time. As he was taking his first step into flavor country, he heard a gentle hohohoho from his friend.

“Suffmn’ fnnh?” he asked, savoring the food in his mouth.

“I have never seen someone so... intoxicated by a sandwich,” she answered, taking a small bite of her own and having no discernible reaction. “Not even Chie-senpai.”

Yosuke finally swallowed before he responded. “Yeah, well, let’s see you work a morning shift without a snack break! This may literally be the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted!”

“Literally?”

Literally!

Another hohohoho from Naoto followed. It was only recently that Yosuke had heard Naoto’s unique chuckle, but he found it unbearably cute every time she did it. He could feel his face growing hot so he tried to disguise it by taking another big bite of his sandwich.

“Speaking of your work,” he heard Naoto say, “that...is what I was thinking about earlier. You will have to forgive me, but I couldn’t help but overhear your... conversation with your father.”

The warmth in Yosuke’s face seemed to drain immediately as his blood ran cold hearing Naoto say that. “You...you heard that?” he said softly. Looking over at Naoto’s dead serious face only increased his dread. How did she hear that?! Was she spying or something?

“I did…” Naoto paused, taking a quick bite of her lunch before carefully wrapping it in the paper and setting it next to her on the bench, “Does he...always speak to you that way?”

On a scale of 1 to 100 percent, Yosuke was 10,000% sure he didn’t want to have this conversation, but knowing Naoto, he wasn’t going to be able to weasel out so easily. He also hadn’t forgotten his promise from the beach.

“N-not all the time. Just when I don’t have a very good day,” he answered quietly, not able to look at Naoto.

“Surely that’s not very often. I admit I haven’t observed you with any consistent manner, but...it seems as if you take your work very seriously.” Naoto stated, which made Yosuke feel good, even if he realized she was just being nice.

“It’s not, but…” The older teen bit his lip as he thought of how to phrase his frustration, “I just feel like nothing I do is ever enough, y’know? I try, I really do, and I think I do a good job! I have a pretty high rating as far as customer service, and I do pretty good when it comes to selling everything we have to offer. But I never hear about that from him…”

He mimicked Naoto and wrapped up what was left of his korokke, feeling a rant coming on. “It’s always ‘why didn’t you do this?’ or ‘you need to be better at that!’ Isn’t he happy with what I’m doing? I mean, if he didn’t need me he’d tell me to just stay home, right? But...I only hear the bad parts most of the time. It’s annoying!”

Yosuke slowly began wringing his hands, a little embarrassed. He had talked with Yu about this, but it felt way different to talk to Naoto about his inferiority complex. As he had mentioned on the beach, he legitimately didn’t know what he would do if he ever thought his friends didn’t need him, and much of that stemmed from his inability to stand up to his dad. To have done so much in a year but still have this crippling anxiety made him feel weak, and showing weakness wasn’t exactly up his alley.

Worse, he didn’t want Naoto to think he was weak. Try as he might, the pint-sized detective remained in his thoughts almost daily, especially since the team’s trip to the beach. Chie’s little digs at him, while insanely annoying, were also obvious observations taken from his body language. At this point, he had to just straight up admit it: Yosuke Hanamura had a crush on Naoto Shirogane. Just that sentence was gobsmacking: Yosuke Hanamura had a crush on Naoto Shirogane . And boy, did that revelation come with a lot of baggage.

Between both of those pressing issues, Yosuke was feeling like he was in a room that was slowly closing in. One of those things had to give, but they were both impossible choices; rejection on either end would have been soul-crushing. Revealing either was probably a step too far, and he instantly regretted even entertaining Naoto’s questions.

“...Senpai? Are you alright?”

Snapping out of his turmoil, he saw Naoto looking at him, concern in her sharp eyes. He did his best to shake off his nerves and answer her. “Y-yeah, I’m fine. I’ve...I’ve never told anyone this, and I kinda regret doing it, if I’m being honest…”

Naoto cocked her head. “If I’ve struck a nerve, I sincerely apologize. It was not my intent to further upset you, I just...well,” she said, turning more to face him, “I could see that you had a lot on your mind, and I thought that if you were to talk about it, you’d feel better.” She was now rubbing her cheek oddly, as if she had gotten some of her food stuck on it.

Yosuke chuckled in spite of the heavy air, amused at her shyness. “Well well well, our ice cold Detective Prince has a pulse after all!” he commented, feeling he needed to lighten the mood, “Paying for my food, asking me to share my feelings...if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were buttering me up for something!”

He tried to keep his laughter under control as Naoto looked back at him, her face red from embarrassment. “M-must everything be a joke at my expense!?” she whined, clenching her fists.

Luckily, Yosuke was aware of when he should probably relent. “Hey, hey, don’t get mad! I appreciate you askin’ and all,” he said, rubbing the back of his head, “but I don’t want you to worry about my dumb drama. Seriously. I-I’ll figure it out...one way or another.” He hoped she believed that statement more than he did.

There was a slight pause before Naoto picked her sandwich back up and took another bite. Her eyes were shifty, however, and Yosuke could see that she wasn’t quite done with her inquisition.

“Do you...find it strange,” she began, wiping her mouth with a napkin, “that I’d ask you about such things? You know I...care about your well-being, yes?”

It was an odd question, but Yosuke could see that she was probably still a little sore about his joke. Now he felt bad. “N-no, not at all! Well, maybe a little...I dunno, I guess it’s just usually so tough to get you to talk about that kinda stuff that I don’t expect you to ask me about it…” He felt bad that he sort of made her clarify, but he couldn’t deny that his heart was beating faster to hear her admit she cared about him, at least platonically.

Naoto finished up her sandwich, crumpling the paper and tossing it into a nearby wastecan. “You have a point, there. I’m...trying to be better about that. It’s not...it doesn’t come naturally to me,” she explained.

Yosuke could see that this was perhaps a cue for him. “It’s alright. Um...how are you doing, by the way? Everything good with, like, Kanji?”

To his delight, the 2nd year brightened up a bit at the question. “Quite! He, Rise, and I actually had lunch together the other day. I am so happy that things appear to be going back to normal in that regard.”

A genuine smile popped up on Yosuke’s face hearing that. “Good, I’m glad! I know it was hard, but trust me, Kanji’ll be fine, and so will you.”

Naoto looked at him warmly, which made his heart soar. As Yosuke went to finish off his sandwich, she started wringing her hands together, her eyes blank. While he threw his own paper container away, she turned to him again, a much more serious look in her eyes.

Yosuke gulped. “‘Sup?”

“If...if I’m being honest, I wasn’t having a very good day before I met up with you.”

What did she mean? “Huh? W-why? Something wrong?”

Naoto took her hat off and nervously scrunched it in her hands as she explained. “While I was waiting for you, an older woman asked for directions to the restroom. She addressed me as ‘young man’ when she saw me, but after I asked her what she needed, she corrected herself by saying ‘young lady.’ I...can’t stop thinking about it…” As she spoke, she crunched the hat even harder, clearly very frustrated even if her voice was still rather calm and measured.

Yosuke could very clearly see her distress, but he was having some trouble. “Um...I think...I-I’m confused,” he admitted, straightening himself on the bench so he could turn to face her. “Isn’t her correcting herself after realizing she was wrong...a good thing?”

“That’s what bothers me,” Naoto answered, putting her hat back on and crossing her arms tightly, “I’ve...lately, I have been thinking a lot about my gender, and I have realized that I do not quite identify with solely being a girl...and yet, I very clearly don’t feel as if I’m completely a boy, either…”

Now Yosuke was utterly confused. “W-wait, wait...but, in the TV World, didn’t you figure out that you wanted...well, I mean, that you were a girl at the end of the day? And that was okay?”

The detective stiffened, clearly very uncomfortable. “I...I know what I said , but the feelings...every time someone would correct themselves about what gender they perceived me to be, it...hurt. As if someone took a needle and prodded me with it. Even after I obtained my persona, the feeling persisted. And as you can see,” she said, looking down at her clothes, “I still feel most comfortable dressing like this. I cannot ignore all those signs.”

It’s not that Yosuke couldn’t see and hear what she was saying, but it just didn’t make sense to him. “S-so wait, you don’t really feel as if you’re a girl, and being a guy isn’t doing anything for you either. So you’re just...a person?”

Naoto stopped wringing her hands and Yosuke could almost hear how hard she clenched her fists. Was she pissed at him? He was just asking questions! After a very deep breath, the Detective Prince grabbed one of the loose napkins sitting between them on the bench and a small pen from her back pocket. Balancing the napkin on her thigh, she quickly began to draw something that Yosuke had a difficult time seeing. A few seconds later she held it up to him.

As best he could figure, it was a straight line with the two ends labeled “M” and “F.” Before he could ask, she began to explain.

“This,” she said, using her index finger to guide her narration, “is the spectrum of gender.” Yosuke went to say something, since that made no sense in his head, but she held up her palm to keep him from talking. “The left end is male, and the right female. Over here are you, Narukami-senpai, and Kanji-kun.” She picked the pen back up and speckled the left end of the line with three little dots. “Over here is Rise, Yukiko-senpai, and Chie-senpai.” Another quick application of dots on the opposite side. “And here, somewhere about the center...is me.” One last dot, placed dead center on the line.

Yosuke stared at the napkin for awhile, then back at her, then back to the napkin. “R-right, but...what does that mean? ” he asked again, feeling bad that he wasn’t getting it. Didn’t being in the middle mean you had... both parts? Surely that wasn’t true…

Naoto sighed. “It means ...that I don’t exist within the binary thinking of strictly male or strictly female. While I was assigned the gender of female at birth...I don’t think that is what defines the person I am today. I-I’m still learning, myself...but because of this, a person going out of their way to put me into one category...is upsetting.”

There were a million questions zooming through Yosuke’s mind but they mainly centered around what he was interested in mainly: what did that mean for her romantic preferences? It was selfish, sure, but he couldn’t help it; the notion of rejection was so scary that he was willing to be insensitive if it meant he still had a chance. Still, he figured that was a question better asked later. He had other, probably less selfish ones anyways.

“So if you don’t think of yourself as either a boy or a girl...how are people supposed to know? Guess? That guy who sold us the korokke, he called you ‘sir’…did that bug you?” Yosuke winced, hoping he didn’t sound too much like an ass.

She shook her head. “No, I didn't mind that. Truthfully, I do not mind whichever pronouns or titles someone wants to refer to me as. What bothers me most is...there are certain things about myself that I feel are very much what people would typically associate as a female trait. I do my best to hide them, but…”

“Like?” It slipped out before Yosuke could stop himself. He went to apologize, but Naoto was already answering.

“W-well...the old woman at Junes, she only had to hear me speak to ascertain that she had mistakenly identified me as a boy. My voice is...I have tried all my childhood to sound different, and how I am speaking to you now is almost natural, but...it’s still not enough. I slip sometimes, and my real voice comes out and I...I hate it.”

This was news: Naoto wasn’t speaking in her real voice?! “R-really!? I-I never woulda guessed…” Naoto gave him a look that said don’t patronize me , which Yosuke balked at. “Honest! Hey, until your shadow said something, I was 100% convinced you were a guy! I-I mean...y’know, closest to a guy or...you get it!”

Naoto paused for a long time, before briefly observing their surroundings. While Okina was a bustling city, a bit of a lull had come over the forum they were in, and the two teens were somewhat enclosed by both the fountain and some of the kiosks and food stands in front of them. As far as Yosuke was concerned, they were alone.

She leaned in closer, which made Yosuke blush, before speaking again. “I-if...if this ,” she said, her voice changing quite noticeably, “was how I talked, would you have been as convinced?”

Yosuke almost did a double-take. Sure enough, Naoto’s natural voice was still somewhat deep, but also noticeably higher pitched. Not only that, she had a bit of vocal fry in her voice, giving it a sort of creaky sound. He agreed with her that if he had heard her sound like that, there would have been no doubt that she was probably a girl.

“W-woah…” he said breathlessly. Naoto squirmed a little, clearly embarrassed and annoyed.

“I-in any case,” she hissed, now back to her affected voice, “hearing that older woman identify me because of my voice...that’s why I wasn’t having a good day. I-I’m sorry, I realize this is quite a bit to process…”

She had that right, Yosuke thought. He figured that she was just taking a while to get used to being a girl, hence why she hadn’t really changed her wardrobe style. He’d be lying if he said he really understood what she meant, but he could see it plainly on her face that not only was this what she believed to be true, but it was deeply uncomfortable and painful to talk about. Plus, it’s not like Naoto, of all people, was one to just make something up.

Most of all, however, it was seeing this person, whom he had come to care about in a special way, hurting and in need of friendship that spurred him past his hesitant, unformed feelings. He was still curious about what this meant exactly for certain parts of her life, or if the ‘gender spectrum’ she had said was a real thing, but he could look all that up later. For now, perhaps it was best if they both did something to take their minds off of their bad mornings.

“Hey, it’s no problem at all!” Yosuke said, a sly grin making its way across his face, “I asked, didn’t I? I don’t really...I mean, yeah, this is all pretty brand new to me, but...hey, we’ve all had bad days, right? I can definitely relate to that. A-and trust me...you’re a cool person, no matter what, so you just...be who you want to be, and I’ll do my best to support it, okay?”

Naoto looked at him, an emotionality in her eyes that Yosuke couldn’t ever recall seeing. “Y-Yosuke-senpai...thank you. That...that means...quite a bit to me. T-to be quite honest, I cannot believe I just said all of that out loud. I’ve...You’re the first person I have ever talked to about my voice…”

“N-Naoto…”

The two looked at each other, and Yosuke could feel the blood rushing out of every part of his body to cover his face. Naoto, in his experience, Naoto was a very private person, and anything you ever found out about her personal life was only because she let you. To know that she would entrust Yosuke with something so deeply private gave him hope that maybe, just maybe , the feelings he had for her were mutually shared.

Emboldened, he stood up, grinning like an idiot. “W-well, what are we still sitting around moping for?! C’mon, let’s forget about all that and just...enjoy the day. Sound...like a plan?”

His smile got even wider as Naoto got up from her seat and nodded, a smaller but no less pleasing smile on her face as well. “I think I would like that. What did you have in mind?”

Yosuke put his hands behind his head and started walking forward, taking the lead. “Well, for starters, I thought we could go to…”


Saturday, 8/19/12, Okina City, Mid-Afternoon..

Even an hour later, Naoto had to pinch herself to see if she wasn’t dreaming.

She couldn’t explain why, exactly, she had built up the nerve to say something about her dysphoric episode, but before she knew it all came tumbling out. Truthfully, she had been terrified - she barely knew what to think herself , let alone try to explain it to someone else. In her mind, Rise was going to undoubtedly be the first to hear about it, as she was about most things, but clearly that was not to be. Still, just that she had said it, out loud, to another person, was a massive step forward.

It was something about Yosuke’s response to Naoto’s questioning that put her at ease. In relating his insecurities about his father, Naoto could see that, like her, he just wanted some sort of validation that what he was doing was the right thing. Even though he had joke-y tendencies, she had hoped that maybe he could see her situation and realize that, despite the rather extreme difference in reasoning, he could understand her fear and his fear were cut from the same cloth.

And surprisingly, despite the “Prince of Disappointment’ moniker she had heard some schoolmates refer to him with, he could not have been more understanding. He had some questions that teetered on the edge of insensitive, but overall, she felt just as safe confiding in him as she would Rise, which is something she never would have expected.

The validation he gave her completely lifted her spirits. That wasn’t to say that she was never going to feel bad about her voice or other parts of her again, but it sure stung a little less knowing that one of her best friends wasn’t going to judge her for it, and respected her identity, in his words, “no matter what.”

Naturally, the detective couldn’t help but feel that he was merely placating her irrationality. She hated herself for thinking that, but there were times when it was difficult to ascertain whether her feelings about her gender were valid instances of self expression or eccentric pleas from an odd person. It shouldn’t have mattered either way, but years of internalized hate made her second guess herself endlessly. She tried to put it all aside, however, as she truly was having a very enjoyable time.

The two had zigzagged around most of the major shopping centers, mainly looking at tech stores for cool gadgets. Along the way, Naoto had explained her childhood love of tinkering and impressed Yosuke with how familiar she was with the specs and guts of the myriad electronic products they saw for sale. It felt a bit odd to just look in all the stores without the intent to purchase anything; Naoto was always the type to shop exactly for what she needed and nothing less. Still, Yosuke always had a fun story up his sleeve about the perils of working at a major retailer and how it related to all the things they were looking at, so Naoto didn’t mind the window gazing.

They had almost completed a full circle around the main forum when Yosuke stopped in front of another store, his eyes twinkling with boyish glee. “ Ohohoh man , okay, we gotta go in here! This place is still coin-operated: old school as possible!”

Naoto looked up at the storefront, and could see that it was a branded arcade. “An arcade, hmm? Well, I’ve never actually been in one, so -”

Yosuke interrupted her with a loud, disbelieving sputter. “ Never?! Oh, c’mon, you had to have gone to one as a kid or somethin’!”

Naoto rolled her eyes as she turned to address him. “Between learning how to be a detective and avid schooling, I had little time for leisurely activities. As a matter of fact,” she thought out loud, realizing how strange it might sound, “I have never even played a video game…”

She could almost hear Yosuke’s jaw hit the floor. “W-w...h-how...w-why...okay, that’s it! We’re going in,” he announced, marching into the arcade with renewed vigor. The detective could only shake her head and chuckle as she followed him into the noisy, dim den.

Inside it was more impressive than it looked on the outside. The afternoon light had disguised a healthy amount of fluorescent lighting on the inside that kept the arcade well lit. Operators in aprons stood around, cleaning up any mess and ensuring that each machine was working and keeping the patrons satisfied. Although the population was mostly school-aged children, no doubt also enjoying their summer vacation, Naoto was surprised to see quite a few grown men in suits ambling around and playing some of the games as well. Perhaps there was more appeal in these video games than she thought.

Her first impression was wondering how anyone could even hear in one of these places. Whether it was the sounds of the games themselves or what sounded like countless sirens going off, Naoto could barely hear herself think, let alone listen to Yosuke as he pointed to various machines and rattled off some information. Still, she stuck close to him, lest she get loss in the mini labyrinth of cabinets, stands, and full-on booths that seemed to populate the store floor.

“...’mon, over here!”

She snapped out of observation mode, seeing Yosuke was gesturing her over to a white cabinet with a stool in front. He took a seat first and deposited some change into an extended slot on the deck of the machine, which also contained a joystick and two rows of shiny plastic buttons.

“Okay, watch me, and then you play, okay!?” he said very quickly, already focusing on the game he was playing.

“Wh-what do you mean ‘play!?’ I’ve never done this before!” Naoto answered back frantically, finding that she had to nearly scream to be heard. She looked over his shoulder at the game, seeing if she could follow it. He appeared to be controlling a tiny spaceship that floated around the center of the screen, and it was constantly driving north across a map of cloudy atmosphere and larger vessels. Assaulting him from literally every side were enemies, firing small little projectiles that he was dutifully trying to avoid.

Yosuke tried to talk and play at the same time. “Look, so you are this ship on the bottom of the screen, and you have to just keep shooting all these bad guys as they come on the screen. If you get hit at all, bam, you’re dead! You fire with this button,” he said, pointing to the leftmost button on the top row, “and you use bombs with this one!” He timed it so that when he pressed the bottom left button, a large flash exploded onto the screen and blew up most of the enemy ships around him.

“Last two buttons - and these are important! This,” the rightmost button on the top row, “will let you boost to get around. Use it when you need a little bit of speed to get around something! Lastly, this button here,” he tapped the right button on the bottom row, which caused his avatar on the screen to suddenly flip over, the hull of the ship turning from red to green, “will make you change colors, and then you don’t get hit by green bullets anymore! That’s also how you kill green enemies” He tested it, flying his ship into a wave of green projectiles and passing through them unphased.

Naoto couldn’t help but give her hypothesis on what she had observed. “So the goal would be to flip your ship between the two colors as frequently as possible in order to best position yourself to destroy them.” she said loudly, her gaze never breaking from the game.

Yosuke looked back at her, an impressed but also somewhat frightened look on his face. “Y-yeah that’s r-right, I - crud! ” In his attempt to converse with her, he had lost concentration and run into some stray fire. Sighing, he got up and gestured for Naoto to take a seat.

“Alright, you’re up, Naoto!”

“O-okay. I suppose anything is worth trying once…”

As she took a seat, her brain just wouldn’t turn off. The stool was in less than mint condition, and she could feel some of the stuffing coming out from a rip in the fake leather cushion. She put her hands on the controls, and could immediately feel the years of wear and tear on the joystick making it feel loose and uncooperative. When she pressed a few of the buttons just to test them, the boost button barely depressed, also most likely caused by over eager smashing from years’ worths of players. How did Yosuke even manage to use this thing?

Unfortunately she didn’t have time to form an answer to that question, as he was already putting in more coins. “Just remember everything I told ya, and you might live for a few seconds. Heheh!” he snickered, stepping back to watch with his arms folded and a confident smile on his face. While it was just a silly video game, Naoto wasn’t one to back down from a challenge, and the thought of Yosuke losing that annoying smirk on his face pleased her enough to want to give it her very best shot.

Within a flash, the game had started, and Naoto’s red avatar flashed to signify its position on the screen. She took that moment to observe the screen’s heads-up display, and could see that there were three little dots along the bottom of the screen. Curious, she tapped the bomb button, and while the screen lit up with the explosion she saw the dot count went down to two.

“Gah, not yet! Those are only for when ya gotta clear the screen!” she heard Yosuke groan.

Indeed, only a rudimentary amount of enemies had come onto the screen, and they were easily swatted away by a quick hold of the fire button. Naoto was intrigued by the fact that merely holding the fire button down would cause her ship to spray its bullets continuously and without pause. Thinking quickly, she curved her right hand so that her index finger was fixed to the fire button, and her thumb, middle, and ring finger were all primed in position over the other buttons, in case she needed them.

A mindless minute went by as she slowly exterminated every enemy ship that came on screen. She remembered that she was quickly approaching the same moment where Yosuke had to flip his ship’s color, and she did so as well, avoiding a wall of green bullets headed toward her. Surprisingly, her own ship never stopped firing even when she switched colors, which made reacting to red enemies flying back on the screen as easy as twitching her ring finger on the button to take care of them before swapping back over to green to dodge yet another wall of enemy bullets heading toward her.

“D-damn…” she heard Yosuke stutter, which made a secret smile begin to pool up in the corner of her mouth. By now, she had gotten past where he had played, and she could also see in the top corner that her point score had also eclipsed the one she remembered him getting. She continued on, her strategy of holding the fire button and just twitch reacting to any color change able to carry her all the way until a giant mecha appeared along with a long bar that had “BOSS” written above it.

“O-okay, that’s the boss! This is really tricky, so you have to be real careful! Spamming shoot won’t be enough!” Yosuke whooped, attempting to coach her.

He was right about that; the boss didn’t even flinch from Naoto’s firing, and his health bar barely whittled down. Worse still, he sent out continuously varying waves of different colored projectiles that made Naoto have to flip back and forth at a more rapid rate than ever before, which was tiring out her finger. All looked lost, until she noticed something: the boss only had one pattern!

Sure enough, it would fire two lines of bullets that crossed perpendicularly, then shoot a zig-zag of green bullets followed by a u-shaped spray of red bullets, then repeat the process again. It took a little time before it started each new attack, and Naoto knew that’s when she could strike. With careful precision, she boosted her ship forward during the quick downtime between volleys and set off one of her bombs, which took a rather large chunk off of the boss’s health.

“Woah, you can do that!?” The more disbelief Yosuke emoted, the more confident and excited Naoto could feel herself get. It was a rare feeling, to let herself be so caught up into something, and before she knew it, her plan had worked, and now the boss was reeling from both of her bombs having been used on it. Another minute of careful dodging and firing, and the boss went up in smoke, exploding into a shower of sparks and debris as the screen tallied up Naoto’s points.

“I-I did it! I won!” she exclaimed, bouncing up from her seat to face Yosuke, “That was...exhilarating! I have always believed video games were a crude, mindless toy and yet...that was taxing both physically and mentally! Are-are all games like this? I think I would like to play more!” She could feel herself blushing from the amount of praise she was giving out, but other than detective novels or sci-fi manga, she never felt this excited over a piece of media.

Yosuke gave off a nervous grin, which confused the detective. “Y-yeah, that’s great! I’m happy you’re into it, but, uh…” he gently pointed behind her, “You weren’t done…”

“Huh!?” Naoto turned around to see her avatar floating helplessly into a spray of enemy fire on a new level that looked completely different from the one before. She could only wince as the little ship was blown away and “GAME OVER” flashed over the center of the screen.

“Yeahhhh...these things usually have multiple levels so, y’know, you get more bang for your buck,” he tried to explain, a small fit of giggles being held back by him biting his tongue. Thoroughly embarrassed, Naoto tugged her cap down over her quickly reddening face.

“O-ohh, of course...that would only make sense...geez…” Her bashfulness only made Yosuke laugh more, and before long he had that maddening grin on his face again. Naoto huffed and looked away, but kept Yosuke in the corner of her eye. As much as she hated his insufferable smile, a part of her also didn’t want it to go away, for whatever reason. Just like at the beach, she was starting to feel warm all over, and that only made her more sheepish.

Once he calmed down, Yosuke signaled for her to follow him away from the white cabinets and over to the other side of the arcade. Before long he led her to a glass box that had a variety of stuffed animals inside, along with a mechanism that held up an ominous looking claw attached to a crane. Naoto knew enough to know that this was, naturally, a crane game. She also noticed that his was a much quieter section of the store, and she didn’t feel the need to yell anymore to be heard.

“Ever seen one ‘o these before?” Yosuke asked, loading in some yen.

“Only in films,” she answered, noticing the control dashboard for this game was far simpler than the shooting game she had just played. There was only a single joystick with a rather big button, which Yosuke quickly took hold of as he tried his luck. He used the joystick to position the claw over a small mountain of plushie dolls, then pressed the button to drop the crane. The claw opened up as it descended and sunk into the fluffy formation, only to reform and rise again, with nothing in its grasp.

“Aw, damn! Yeah, these things are pretty rigged most of the time. You gotta get a feel for ‘em, y’know?” he explained, scratching his head. He reached into his jeans pocket to get more change, only to come up empty. “Welp, I’m out. You got any change?”

Naoto searched her own pockets, finding two 500 yen coins from the change she got earlier at the karokke stand. Yosuke stepped aside and let her in front of the machine as she placed one of the coins in the slot near the bottom. It whirred to life, the claw now in her control for, as the dashboard noted, 50 seconds. She took a second to get used to how the joystick moved, noticing the claw moved on a strict path.

Choosing a target was difficult, as she didn’t really care much for any of the little dolls available. One did catch her eye, however: a little Corgi puppy that had, ironically enough, headphones around his neck just like Yosuke. Carefully, she maneuvered the crane right above it, keeping a close eye on the claw’s shadow so that it lined up perfectly with what she wanted. Once it was in prime position, Naoto pressed the release button and confidently watched the claw sink down into the excess dolls in order to reach the puppy. To her chagrin, however, the claw once again seized nothing in its retraction as it rose back to its original place.

“Yep, like I said, it’s tougher than it looks,” Yosuke commented.

Naoto’s brow furrowed in frustration. While she still felt in control, she could feel her temper begin to flare at the thought of this game beating her. Not only that, she now really wanted that little puppy, if only to give to Yosuke. Whatever his reasons for getting closer to her, the truth was that she hadn’t had such an enjoyable day in a long time, and he was to thank for that. She was never great at expressing gratitude, but Rise always said that giving someone a nice gift could make up for when words failed. The last 500 yen coin in her hand felt like it actually weighed 500 lbs as she turned it over in her palm.

“You gonna try it one last time?” she heard him ask. With renewed determination, Naoto turned and nodded at her companion.

“Yes, I think I shall,” she said seriously, inserting the coin into the machine’s slot. The dashboard lit up, a digital timer letting Naoto know she had 50 seconds before the crane dropped. Immediately she maneuvered the crane to where it had been previously above the dog, but here she hesitated. This wasn’t like the shooting game: she could at least bet on her hand-eye coordination and reactions to help her amateur ability, but this seemed way more based on chance than anything else. The timer continued to tick down as she began to retreat deep into her thoughts.

40...

39…

38…

She was so unfocused she could barely notice a presence moving in behind her. Suddenly, a cold and clumsy hand was placed on the joystick over hers and, instinctually, she flipped. Tearing her hand away and taking a big step back from the machine, she turned to see Yosuke with his hands up as if he was under arrest.

“W-woah, woah! I didn’t mean to-”

“Please... don’t …” Naoto took a deep breath, feeling her ears grow hot with more embarrassment over her overreaction. “I...I don’t like that…

Yosuke’s chocolate eyes looked concerned as he slowly put his hands down. “S-sorry, I know I shouldn’t have...I just had an idea and I, y’know, rushed into it...you don’t have much time left.”

Sure enough, Naoto looked at the dashboard, her breath catching at what was left.

22…

21…

20…

Her brain whirring, Naoto stepped back to the machine and saw that her actions had caused the crane to move a little out of place. She went to move it when Yosuke was beside her again, this time with his hands safely behind his head.

“No no, don’t move it back! That’s not the spot you wanna be! That’s what I...well, the only time I ever won something from here was when I was just a litttllee off. C-can I...uhm, well, can I show you?”

Naoto looked at him, then at the machine, then back to him. Time was running out, and he was more experienced…

11…

10…

There wasn’t time to let him take over the controls, so she moved her tightly clenched hand a little bit lower on the joystick, jerking her head for him to come over and help. Very carefully, he put his hand above hers and began to slowly jostle the crane a few centimeters to the left, moving even farther from the epicenter of her intended prize.

7…

6…

“Y-you ready?” he stuttered, hovering his palm above the button on the left of the joystick. Naoto sighed, but smiled in spite of herself. She put her left hand just above his.

“T-together,” she nearly whispered, and Yosuke blushed as he nodded in agreement. The two teens then simultaneously pressed down on the button, their hands resting on top of one another.

They both watched with bated breath as the crane lowered down, seemingly taking hours to do so. It opened up ever so slowly and sunk down into the fluffy underbelly of the machine, taking just a second to enjoy the ride. Then, like a shark, it clamped down hard, scraping across the soft surface of the plushies…

With the ear of the Corgi firmly in its grasp.

Yosuke let out a whoop, and Naoto found herself laughing as the crane rose up with its plunder in tow.

“Way to go, Naoto!” he grinned, winking at the detective.

“I just pressed a button, it was your expertise that won it all!” Naoto replied back. It was about that time she realized that the two had yet to move their hands from their position over the drop button. Which meant they were still resting on top of each other…

Yosuke must have seen it too, as he too quickly pulled his hand off the button and turned away. Naoto clutched the hand close to her chest, as if it was in danger of being stolen right off her wrist. A few awkward seconds later and she worked the courage up to turn and face Yosuke again.

“S-sorry, I kinda…”

“N-no, it is quite alright, I…”

Looking for a way out, Yosuke pivoted over toward the dropbox of the machine, plucking out the cute plush dog that was his prize. He laughed as he looked it over, admiring its odd headphones.

“Do you, erm, like dogs?” Naoto asked, completely realizing she never even asked if he had a preference for his prize.

“Yeah, they’re cool,” he nodded cheerily, “‘Course, taking care of Teddie is like having a dog, so I don’t know if I could put up with one, but…” As soon as he stopped examining it, he held it out towards Naoto, to her surprise.

“Here ya go!” he said, shaking it to emphasize that she should grab it. The 2nd year shook her head, pushing it back toward him.

“No, please, I insist. I picked that out for you, and I want you to have it. It’s...it’s the least I could do,” she said shyly, plunking her hat down over her face.

Yosuke chuckled awkwardly, rubbing his neck. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, his curious eyes betraying a nervous smile.

Hmm...what was the best way to put it? Naoto took a few seconds to compose what she wanted to say. “It means...it means that I don’t know how to thank you for all that you have done for me this past month. I...wasn’t in a very good place for a while, and I wasn’t sure things would ever be normal again. And yet...Kanji-kun and I are on friendly terms, and my friendship with all of you is stronger than ever. I...truly don’t know if those things would have come to pass if it hadn’t been for your kindness and support, even when I wasn’t very receptive. I’m not...great at expressing that, so I thought that perhaps the dog might serve as a sign of my, erm, thanks…”

That was a lot. Luckily there was a stool nearby, which Naoto took advantage of to rest for a second. Her heart was beating like crazy, and she was sure her face was lit up like an oven burner. Yosuke didn’t say anything for a while, but eventually he ambled closer to her, clutching the dog tightly with moist eyes, to Naoto’s surprise.

“N-Naoto...I...I-I don’t even know what to say ,” he laughed, sniffling a bit, “You’ve, uh, you’ve meant a lot to me too! Without Yu around I…” He quickly wiped his eyes, nervously laughing again, "I dunno, it was like I kinda...lost a part of me, y’know? I miss him a lot but...if nothing else, I’m glad him leaving was able to let us get a little closer. But seriously...take it!”

With that, he gently pushed the dog into Naoto’s hands. “It sounds like you might need him more than I do...besides, you should be proud! You played games for the first time and kicked both of their asses! That deserves some kinda reward!”

Naoto was a bit overcome hearing his words. She looked up at him, and even though he was clearly emotional, his big enormous grin was back. It never failed to make her smile, and especially so now. “A-alright, senpai. I’ll keep him…but still, I feel as if I...owe you some thing...”

Yosuke chuckled. “Well, okay, how’s this? I’ll let you keep ‘im on two -” he winked and held up two fingers - “conditions: number one, you let me name him!”

That sounded dangerous. Still, Naoto nodded, hoping that was the worst of it.

“And number two,” he stepped aside, pointing to a large, phone booth-like machine across from them, “We take some photos in the photo booth!”

That didn’t sound too bad, Naoto thought. Taking a photo with someone was hardly the worst thing in the world, and everyone had access to a camera through their phones anyhow, so it was a common occurrence, especially around Rise. The name thing was still a bigger problem area, in her view.

“Those are...reasonable. Very well, I accept your terms,” she answered him, clutching the dog under her arm, “What were you thinking for a name?”

He looked up to the sky, seemingly in thought. A few seconds later his head twisted to look at her, his familiar grin slowly etching up his mouth like a butterfly in bloom. Like always it made her feel funny, but given the context, it was also very ominous.

“W-what?” she asked nervously.

“I think I’m gonna call him... Squirt! ” he said devilishly, sticking his tongue out for extra emphasis.

Naoto immediately balked. The nerve! “A-a-absolutely not! Oh, you...change his name at once!”

Yosuke shrugged, giggling up a storm. “C’mon, you know the naming rules! Once he has one, you can’t take it back!”

“There are no such rules! No legal text on this planet would ever have such a ridiculous law on the books!” Naoto whined, her face growing redder by the second. It took her awhile to realize that this was exactly what he wanted. He wanted to see her get all riled up, because it clearly amused him. How irritating !

In order to combat his ridiculousness, she just carefully re-positioned... Squirt , and folded her arms again, silently pouting. Yosuke was still giggling as he started heading over to the photo booth.

“O- hohoho -kay, c’mon, let’s get this part over with, Squirt!”

She knew better, but Naoto couldn’t help but respond, like a nervous tic. “I-I told you, do not call me -”

“Ah ah ah, I was talkin’ to him ,” Yosuke laughed, gesturing to the puppy, “Way to make this about yourself, Detective Prince!”

“I-I... grrgh! ” she seethed, angrily stomping over to the booth. “I know you are merely trying to tease me, but I will have you know that it is not working!” Unfortunately, Yosuke’s face didn’t exactly change to suit what she expected.

“Definitely not. No way,” he said sarcastically, opening up the curtain on the side of the booth. “Now luckily this takes yen notes, so I got this one...if I can find it…” As he searched for where to insert money, Naoto took a peek inside, and let out a quiet gasp.

“E-erm...senpai…”

Yosuke peeked his head back around. “Hmm? What’s up?”

“Is this,” Naoto asked, pointing inside, “ all the space we have to take a photo?”

“Uh...yeah?”

“Err... That's... a bit close…”

Her earlier observation that it was like a phone booth wasn’t entirely off. The space inside was probably a half a meter wide, certainly big enough to fit the both of them, although it was probably going to be a bit snug. Naoto didn’t exactly do snug.

“Found it!” she heard Yosuke say as he hopped into the booth from the other side. He gestured for her to come in. Nervously, she did so, passing Squirt off to him so she could better ease herself in. The space was small, and although she and Yosuke weren’t so close that they were forced to touch, it was still a bit uncomfortable.

“Okay,” Yosuke said, fiddling with the small console in front of them, “so this thing will do a countdown, and then it will take a picture, countdown again, and take another one. You can pose different every time, or do a goofy face, or whatever. It’s pretty neat!”

“O-okay,” Naoto replied, just hoping that at some point they wouldn’t bump into each other. That would be awkward…

Before he finished setting up the booth, Yosuke turned and looked at her, a small hint of concern in his eyes. “Y’know, if this...I-I know you’re kinda iffy on your personal space and all that, so if you don’t wanna do this, you don’t have to…”

Naoto was a bit taken aback, although not because of Yosuke; she found it very endearing that he could see that she was a bit anxious and tried to comfort her. What truly upset her was that, yet again, one of her eccentricites was getting in the way of doing fun things that every other “normal” teenager did. She was so tired of feeling like an anomaly or outsider to the average teenager experience, and more than anything she wanted to shut her brain off and just... live . Most of the day had been like that, and she couldn’t recall the last time she’d enjoyed a leisurely day off, so why stop now? Besides, if there was someone she had decided was safe enough to be around, it was Yosuke. 

She turned to him and shook her head. “You needn't worry, senpai. I’ll be fine.”

Yosuke’s only response was to grin wildly and return to the controls. As the warm feeling took over once again, Naoto found it was easier to lose herself and to forget the anxiety and the insecurities once that feeling swarmed into her brain. As she thought back to how the rest of the day had gone, it overwhelmed her senses, and by the time Yosuke was done, she had done an almost complete 180 from her previous nervousness.

“‘Kay, counting down in 5. You ready? I’ll make sure Squirt gets in the pictures too, don’t worry.”

An amused eye roll. “Yes. Perhaps one day I will get used to that name.”

“Someday! Hey, uh...thanks for doing this, Naoto.”

“Of course, senpai.”

“Oh, here it comes! Say cheeeessee!

There was never a more effortless smile than the one Naoto expressed for the duration of the photograph.



Chapter Text

Monday, 8/21/12, Amagi Inn, Afternoon…

* Knock Knock Knock* *Knock Knock*

Yukiko recognized Chie’s signature knock and turned around from her small desk to see the winning, familiar grin of her best friend framed in the doorway. “Yo!” she greeted, panting and tugging on her yellow top as she walked into the bedroom. Judging from the spaghetti strap tank that criss-crossed across her upper back and the calf-length blue leggings that were variably soaked in sweat, Yukiko figured Chie had run to the inn.

“Do you need...a towel, or something?” Yukiko asked, not wanting Chie’s sweatiness anywhere near her. Not that she was too terribly attached to the short red dress over tights combo she was wearing, but her spunky friend had a tendency to be overly animated as she talked, which could lead to some bad splash damage.

“Nope (pant) I got it!” Chie grinned, taking the bottom of her shirt and using it to wipe her face and neck, exposing her red, flushed stomach that matched her face. How hard did she run, Yukiko wondered.

“I really should let you borrow some of my moisturizer…” Yukiko groaned, shaking her head. Chie was never one to really focus on beauty routines, although lately she had been doing her best to try and change that. The heiress was at least happy to see that Chie had a small but taut ponytail of dyed pale brown hair poking out from the back of her neck. Yukiko had suggested it since Chie had let her normal bowl-cut grow out quite a bit over the summer, leading it to get shaggy as it fought to maintain its previous shape.

“That can wait ‘til later!” Chie exclaimed, her energy reserves somehow already kicking in as she walked over to the table in the center of the room and took a seat, bouncing impatiently, “Tell me what’s up!”

Yukiko had asked Chie to come over to the inn after having been sentenced to a day of rest by her mother, in a rare happening. Yukiko had been quite distracted the past week; she dropped three dishes in as many days and was getting drink orders wrong all the previous night, which had led her mother to give her a day off. She knew she meant well, but Yukiko was fairly frustrated with her mother for treating her like she was a sick child.

She wasn’t sick...at least, not in the traditional sense.

It was Kanji. Again . Ever since Wednesday, it was all she could think about. She didn’t know what came over her; it wasn’t like her to lose control of her emotions like that. Laughing was one thing, but hugging? Even at the height of her crush on Narukami, she never would have taken the next step of physical contact. But everything about that day had been so perfect, and his extremely kind words were the straw that broke the camel’s back. She hadn’t dared to contact him since, and neither had he, so she could only think that he thought she was a total weirdo and didn’t want anything to do with her anymore.

These dark thoughts were intrusive but sadly familiar. Before she met Yu and everyone else, Yukiko remembered often sleepwalking through school and work at the inn, feeling like she had no chance at true happiness. This combined with her selfish tendencies had caused her to take her friendship with Chie for granted, and could have sent her down an even darker path were it not for the unfortunate events that befell Inaba that year. While Yukiko was eternally grateful for all that had happened, she was still very frustrated that all of it hadn’t been enough to stave off her perpetual gloominess, which was overwhelming he now. Still, she knew now that it was better to rely on friends to prep her up when she couldn’t fight alone, so she had called Chie over. The fact that her friend had literally come running was definitely a pick-me-up, but she had a lot to get off her chest.

“W-where to start,” she sighed, scooching over to the pillow at the opposite end of the table from Chie, “I should have said something sooner, but...I-I don’t know, I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t a phase or…” She took a deep breath, not wanting to spill it all out at once.

“You said something like that at the beach,” Chie replied, drumming her hands on the table, “And that you were scared of something. What is it? It’s not the inn thing again, is it?” Chie was referencing her old stance on not wanting to inherit her family’s inn.

Yukiko gently shook her head. “No, nothing like that. Everything at home is fine, it’s something with me that’s the problem…”

Chie squinted in thought before a light bulb appeared to go off in her head. “ Oooh , it’s not about…you-know-who is it? I know you said everythin’ was cool there, but -”

“N-no!” Yukiko said quickly, realizing that Chie was about to mention Narukami and she didn’t want that to come up at all , “N-not him! B-but…” what was the best way to say it? “I think it’s something like that, though…”

Chie gasped. “Y-you mean... like, you’re into somebody!?” Yukiko meekly nodded. “S-shuddup, no way! Yukiko! ” Chie squealed, her bouncing getting even more frenetic as her excitement reached peak levels. “Why didn’t you say anything before!? That’s awesome!

Yukiko was a bit taken aback by the response. “Y-you think so?”

“Heck yes! ” Chie yelled, startling Yukiko a bit, “S-sorry, sorry, I know I’m being a little extra but...I mean, after everything that happened in April, I was a little worried that, y’know, you would take a long time to get over it. A-and I totally would have understood! Must be a helluva guy!” she cooed, a teasing little grin spreading across her lips.

As usual, Chie’s energy was infectious, and even through her glum outset, Yukiko felt herself blushing and smiling. “C-Chie, please! A-although I,” she said nervously, starting to play with her hair by practicing a mini braid, “I have to admit...even just thinking about him puts me in a better mood…”

Cuuuuu~~te! ” Her friend responded. “C’mon, c’mon, details! ” Chie was practically on the table as she leaned toward Yukiko in an exasperated panic.

“Alright, alright!” the raven-haired 3rd year pleaded, grimacing at her now sweat-stained table, “I’ll tell you! Just…” she tucked some hair behind her ear, feeling ashamed that she even had to ask, “d-don’t laugh, okay?”

“I. Would. Never! ” Chie said solemnly, a hand over her heart. “Only the bravest of souls could be daring enough to conquer the Amagi Challenge, and they deserve my respect!” With her goofy tone, Yukiko couldn’t help but giggle a little, although not quite a full blown laughter meltdown. Again, she was grateful for Chie, who always knew how to get her out of feeling blue.

“O-okay then,” Yukiko sighed, holding a fist over her heart to keep it from pounding out of her chest. “It’s...Kanji-kun…”

There was only the sound of birds outside of Yukiko’s open window to greet her revelation. Chie just sat there, her blinking chocolate eyes the only sign of life on her.

Did she not hear? “C-Chie?” Yukiko asked shakily, not sure what was going on. Chie shifted her position so that she was sitting on her heels, her legs lazily bent outwards.

“K-Kanji-kun?” she said suddenly, as if she didn’t know who that was.

“Yes?” Yukiko confirmed.

“Like...Kanji Tatsumi?” Chie asked again.

“Yes.”

“Tall guy. Black hair. That Kanji Tatsumi?”

“Yes!” Yukiko was getting annoyed now.

“...”

“...”

“...”

“S-stop staring and say something!” Yukiko finally snapped. What was her problem!?

“Pfft. Snrrrkt.

Wait, what!?

“Ba hahahahahahahaha! Wahahahaha! ” Chie cried, stumbling to her side and kicking her feet up in the air from laughing so hard. This role reversal was a little much for Yukiko to take, and she began to pout, her feelings a little hurt.

“Y-you p-promised you wouldn’t!” she whined, glaring at Chie. Unlike her, Chie got over her laughing fit and got back up to a seated position quickly, although she was still giggly.

“N-no, no it’s not (tee) that! Re heehee lly! It’s just (haha) a reallllyyy funny coincidence,” she explained, still wheezing for air. What did that mean?

“H-how so?” the heiress questioned, only to receive more giggles back. Is this what it was like dealing with her laughing fits? If so, she now felt bad for the rest of her friends.

“I’ll (hic!) tell you later,” Chie grinned, propping her elbows up on the table so she could put her face in her hands and stare cheekily at her friend. “So. Kanji. You like ‘im? Like that? ” The “that” was said in a suggestive enough way with Chie’s eyebrows waggling that Yukiko got what she meant.

Funnily enough, Yukiko realized that despite wanting immediately to agree with Chie’s statement, she’d never actually said it out loud. “Y-yes...I l-like...Kanji-kun…” It made her blush more, but also filled her with a joy she could barely describe. It made the dread she felt even worse.

Chie snickered again, although she seemed more amused at Yukiko’s reaction. “Okay, okay. How long have you felt that way?”

Sensing no trap, Yukiko answered honestly. “N-not too long. At first I thought I just felt bad for him over what happened with Naoto-kun, but then...he spent a night at the inn, and we talked for a while, and I really enjoyed getting to know him more, then...w-well, I…” Yukiko hadn’t ever really said any of this to anyone, so she wasn’t sure if it was weird or not. “I kind of held his hand, and from then on, I -”

“W-wait, slow down! You can’t just leave that there! How’d that happen?!” Chie gasped. Yukiko couldn’t tell if her face was still red from her run or she was blushing at hearing the details.

Yukiko gulped. “I-I didn’t do it just to do it, if that’s what you’re asking!” she yelped defensively, “H-he was having a nightmare, so I did the thing I do with you. I wasn’t even thinking...but I just grabbed his hand and tried to get him to relax. It felt so... nice . And from our talk earlier, I knew that he was hurting the same way I was, so I...I-I don’t know, I guess the feelings grew from there…” Again, because she was working this all out for the first time to someone else, Yukiko found it difficult to explain.

To her credit, Chie listened and clearly took in what she was saying before asking more. “Okay, so you guys have some stuff in common.” A more devilish grin suddenly emerged after that. “D’ya think he’s cute?”

“Ch-Chie!” Yukiko scolded, earning titters back from her friend. What did that matter!?

“Well c’mon! I think if you’re really into somebody, it can’t just be all touchy-feely stuff! We’re animals, we can’t help it! Sooooo...hot, or not?” Again, more laughter from the cheeky 3rd year. Yukiko felt like her face was going to explode.

“Geez!” Yukiko huffed. Stll, she wanted to be honest, and she did feel it was a good thing to keep working out her feelings to someone else. “W-well...I think...once he started to be more like himself, and not just a punk...he’s... handsome . The way he wears his hair now, and he’s so tall, and his smile...I know he can be a little crude, but because of that, he’s always honest about what he thinks, and is very sweet. When I’m with him, I feel safe, like he wouldn’t ever let anything happen to me...And that makes me want to always be around him…”

Awww !” she heard Chie pine, which made her already extraordinary blush get worse. “I gotta agree with you, he does seem to be a bit more attractive now that he’s got his own thing goin’ on. Still, wouldn’t figure him to be a sweet talker. Guess ya really do learn somethin’ new everyday.”

A little silence came up, both girls not sure of where to go next. Chie was the quicker draw.

“Have ya said anything to him?” she asked, which Yukiko quickly answered with a shake of her head. “Do ya think he feels the same way?” That was a bit more difficult.

“I...I don’t really know,” Yukiko admitted, wringing her hands together, “Sometimes I feel like he does...but I also worry sometimes that he still… -hnnk- this sounds silly but...I worry that sometimes he still likes Naoto-kun, and that he would never accept me instead of her…” Truthfully, this weighed heavily on her mind all the time. She knew that movies and books and soap operas were just made-up, but she had seen so many were two people refused each other’s feelings and then ended up together. Who was to say that it wasn’t going to happen here?

Chie reared her head back. “Huh!? B-but...I mean, didn’t she totally break his heart? Why would he…” she stopped, probably noticing that Yukiko was having a reaction to that.

“I-it’s... complicated , Chie. You can be rejected by someone...even in the harshest way...but when you’ve spent so long hoping and dreaming that one day you’ll be together, even rejection doesn’t make the feelings go away completely. No matter...no matter how much it hurts …”

Yukiko felt weak as she could feel her voice wavering with emotion. Thinking about Narukami at all could be very painful, and although she tried her best to keep that private, it was unavoidable in this situation, she supposed. That and the anxiety over Kanji was quickly overwhelming her. Within a second, Chie was at her side, gently patting her shoulder.

“Okay, okay, I get it,” she said softly, “But still...you said sometimes you feel like he does like you. What makes ya think that?”

Clearing her throat, Yukiko tried to put into words the little things she had held onto. “I-it’s not much, just...sometimes he says things that make me think that maybe he does. He...he said I “looked good” with my hair up at the beach…”

Chie let out an “ Oooohhhh, ” which embarrassed Yukiko. “I mean, he’s not wrong! You were hot stuff ! How was he supposed to resist?! Now that I think about it, you guys were talkin’ for a long time…”

Yukiko nodded, her face on fire from the compliments. “Yeah. He also said that he likes talking to me, and gets mad if I am hard on myself. H-he also...I let him braid my hair, and I think he...I think he liked touching my hair. I know I did,” she admitted shyly. There was a moment the previous week, a very brief one, where Kanji lingered as he pulled Yukiko’s hair back to braid it. She couldn’t help but wonder if he took his time because he was looking at her or liked feeling or hair or something.

“Geez!” Chie laughed, slapping her on the back, “When’s the wedding!? He braided your hair?! That’s, like, omega adorable! I dunno, man, it sounds like he’s pretty into you too. What’s the problem?”

Yukiko felt her previous sadness come back a little as she remembered her goodbye last Wednesday. “W-when he braided my hair, I just felt like everything was too good to be true. It was almost a perfect day, and never wanted it to end. Before I left, he said some of the nicest things I’ve ever heard a boy say to me, and I was just so...I ended up... hugging him…”

W-w-what!?” Chie cried, her mouth comically agape, “Y-you don’t even hug me !”

“I-I know!” Yukiko replied, “I don’t know what came over me! And I can tell he thought it was really weird, too...I-I don’t want to seem like I’m clingy, but I know I can be so selfish - !”

Chie had unexpectedly shook her by the shoulders, startling her out of her woe. “ Enough with that, already! It’s not selfish to have feelings for somebody that you wanna share! So what if you hugged him? You’re acting like he’s not the luckiest guy in the world for getting a hug from the Yukiko Amagi!” she yelped, poking her finger into Yukiko’s shoulder as she finished. “Besides, what if he liked it!?”

It was childishly simple logic, but Yukiko had been so distraught that it hadn’t really pierced her dark thoughts. Thinking back, there was one interesting moment. “H-he did put his hands on my waist when I hugged him...but that could be platonic! I was...sort of hoping he’d put his arms around me…” Yukiko wasn’t sure if it was possible to get as red as her dress, but stranger things had happened. She hadn’t worked this out as much either, but the more they interacted physically, the more Yukiko began to wonder about... other things. She wouldn’t have really minded hugging him again, because more than just comfort, something inside of her just liked the feeling of them being close and the warmth it created not just in her heart, but her whole body. It was that kind of passion that made her think back to their time together at the beach, tracing the outline of his bare back with her eyes and feeling his own stare on her as she stripped to her bikini...

Chie was too impatient to let her retreat into her fantasies. “Hey, horndog, before you start overthinkin’ everything again, why not just settle it right now!? ” With that, Chie hopped up to her feet and went over to Yukiko’s desk, removing her smart phone from the charger and bringing it back over to the table, plonking it in front of the heiress. “Call ‘im and ask ‘im out on a date! Or confess! I dunno, something!

Yukiko couldn’t believe Chie’s brashness. Her horrified gaze only got one of the spunky carnivore’s trademark cheesy grins back. “C-Chie, I-I can’t! N-not now!”

“Ohoho my gawd, ” Chie barked, rolling her eyes as if Yukiko had said the dumbest thing in the world, “Now’s the perfect time, are you kidding!? The Summer Festival just started! Talk about the perfect place to admit your forbidden romance!”

Her goofiness aside, Chie really was churning out a host of good ideas. The group had lazily talked about getting together to hit up the Summer Festival, the annual carnival-like event that sprung up just as summer break was ending every year. It was always a grand time, filled with fireworks, frozen treats, and fancy dress: the girls usually dressed in the fashionable traditional yukata . While they had gone as a group last year, Yukiko remembered, even back then, thinking that she would like to have gone alone with Narukami. Reading fortunes together, walking through the shrine, and eating festival treats together did sound romantic. Still, this was a big risk…

“What...what if he says no?” Yukiko muttered, more to herself than anything. She immediately regretted it, but her pessimistic side forced her to beg the question. Chie, rather than lambasting her, calmed down a little and grabbed Yukiko’s hands, forcing the raven-haired girl to turn and look at her friend.

“Look I...I know it’s scary for you. You don’t wanna get hurt again, and I don’t wanna see you get hurt either. But sometimes, I think you gotta get out ,” she rubbed a knuckle painlessly against Yukiko’s forehead, “of here, and just go with your gut, y’know? Look at me: what do you want?”

Chie’s stare was always intense, but there was extra fire in it as Yukiko took a long look back at her. She was right, like always; just like with telling her parents about the inn, so, too, did she need to rip off this bandaid and deal with her feelings once and for all. After all, playing the waiting game before hadn’t worked out, so perhaps it was time to take matters into her own hands.

“I-I want...I want Kanji-kun to like me back...I-I want to get to know him better...and the only way to do that is to confess my feelings to him,” she said, blushing at how easy it was to say that. Chie gave a little cheer and wiggled the phone in front of her again.

Do it~~~,” she droned.

Confidently, Yukiko took the phone and quickly pulled up her contacts, zeroing in on Kanji. All she had to do was press the call button, and suddenly it seemed like that was the hardest thing in the world to do. She looked up to see Chie practically on all fours in excitement, both thumbs way up as a means of cheering her on. That was just the boost she needed, and before she knew it, she saw that the phone was dialing.

Quickly she brushed some hair aside and put the phone to her ear, three rings going by. She would hate if she build up all this energy only to find out he had stepped out. By the time of the fifth ring she was starting to lose faith, but just as the sixth started, the other line crackled to life.

“H’lo?” a tired-sounding voice answered. Moment of truth.

“H-hello Kanji-kun. How..are you?” he asked pleasantly, Chie nodding in the background.

“Oh, senpai, ‘s you. Urrm...I’m ‘lright, jus’ tired. What time izzit?”

Yukiko rolled her eyes. Boys and summer… “It’s half past eleven o’clock. Did I...wake you up?”

“Nah, nah! ” she heard him say as a lot of shuffling began to muffle his line, “Jus’ restin’ my eyes and whatever. Hey, y’know ya left yer goofy ass glasses at Nanako-chan’s? I still got ‘em, if that’s what yer callin’ about.”

Yukiko felt a smile easily come to her lips. She had forgotten that she didn’t pick them up, but of course Kanji did. He really was a sweetheart. Oh, “I-I honestly hadn’t realized! Thank you for keeping track of them, they’re very important to me!”

“If you say so...still don’t get it, but hey, I’d rather see ya happy than bummed out, y’know?”

Obviously Kanji couldn’t have heard the girls’ conversation, so he probably wasn’t aware how much he was making Yukiko’s day. “Th-thank you so much, Kanji-kun! B-but I was calling for a different reason…” She felt her nerves trip her up a bit, and she turned to see Chie trying to mime out a response.

“Oh yeah? ‘Sup?”

Now or never. Yukiko took a deep breath, waved off Chie’s silent ravings, and did her best to lay it bare. “You know the Summer Festival started this week, right? I...well, I was hoping that you...or at least I-I wanted to know if you’d, erm...want to...go?” It felt like it took more effort to say that than summon her Persona. Chie clapped her hands somewhat loudly in excitement, forcing Yukiko to quickly put an index finger to her lips to try and shush her.

There was a moment of silence before Kanji spoke up. “Oh, hell yeah! Last year was awesome, they had the cutest shit there, and food, too! Did you guys wanna meet up again on the weekend ‘r somethin’ for it?”

If there was ever a more deflating statement, it was that. While she tried to recover, Chie went back into silent coaching mode, urging her to put the phone back to her ear. Grimacing, Yukiko did just that, trying to control her tempo as she clarified what she meant.

“N-not exactly,” she hissed, finding it hard to get the creak out of her voice, “I-I meant that... we could go. You and me. Erm... just you and me.” Oh my God, she had said it! Chie was now doing a full on happy dance at her side, her socked feet silently moving to the beat of some rhythm that the budding martial artist clearly didn’t have.

Again, more silence, even longer this time. “Uhhh… ” she heard Kanji croak, sounding like he was at a loss for words. “ Ain’t that, uh, somethin’ like...I dunno, I just always heard that was somethin’ people ‘round here do if they’re like, uh...y’know, real close or somethin’...

Yukiko was now clenching her fist so tight that they were turning as pale as the cloudy sky outside her window. “Y-yes...it can be…”

“Well,” he began, Yukiko imagining him rubbing his head thoughtfully as he tended to do, “I-I wouldn’t want ya to have people get the wrong idea. Yer kinda...popular, if ya hadn’t noticed.”

Would it be the wrong idea?”

Yukiko almost gasped before she caught it in her throat and awkwardly choked it back down. She put a hand over her mouth and looked at Chie, whose mouth was stuck in an “o” shape out of disbelief at her sudden boldness. Where did that come from!?

Most stunned of all was Kanji, who suddenly went into a coughing fit in surprise. “-kaff- -kaff- W-w-what are ya...wuzzat mean?! Y-ya don’t mean...ah, shit, you’re pullin’ my leg, aren’tcha? Look, I...don’t listen to me, ‘lright!? I dunno what th’ hell I’m sayin’...”

Things were too far along now to stop, Yukiko thought. She was a little worried about her phone cracking from how tight she was clutching it now. “N-no, no, it’s okay! I...meant what I said.”

Another agonizingly long pause. Yukiko could tell that he was thinking hard, and likely to think everything was his fault again. She tried to assuage his fears. “I wanted to go to the festival because...well, b-because…” Why was this so hard , she thought, as tears of anguish began to sting her eyes, “It’s fun to be around you... just you. I-I don’t know if you feel the same, but…”

Kanji responded eventually, but it barely sounded like him. “Y...you...think so?”

Reflexively she nodded, although some quick emphasis from Chie made her quickly hiss “Yes!” into the phone. She could hear him sigh, and she feared the worst.

“Senpai, I...I like hangin’ with you too, but...I don’t want ya to feel like ya gotta do this ‘cause ya feel bad fer me or somethin’. Everythin’ you’ve done has been so cool, you don’t haveta keep -”

Yukiko had heard enough. “Kanji-kun,” she stated, finding the clarity that had been lacking in her voice since the beginning, “I don’t want to spend time with you out of pity !” Chie was now acting like an umpire, gesturing and trying to get her to slide to home plate.

“‘Then why…?” Kanji asked seriously.

“Because I really like you…!”

It was only five words, but each one was a hydrogen bomb that was now plummeting down upon a poor, unsuspecting Kanji. As more tears welled up and blurred her vision, Yukiko could still see Chie silently going mad with elation. She wished she could muster up the enthusiasm her friend did, but all Yukiko could hang on to was the silent chasm that was quickly opening up between her and Kanji.

“K-Kanji-kun? A-are you...still there?” she nearly whispered, seeing that the call was still connected.

“Y-yeah,” she heard, although she noted he didn’t really sound thrilled. “I-I heard ya. I jus’...Yeesh, I wasn’t expectin’ that…”

Annoyingly, Yukiko felt her insecurities rear their ugly head. “I-I’m sorry, I know. I sh-should have thought about how it would make you -”

“H-hey, it ain’t yer fault!” he interrupted, “I’m...well, hell, I’m glad ya told me at all! Sorry if I sound weird, I jus’ think I need a little time to like, y’know, process this and whatnot…”

Well, it wasn’t perfect , but it wasn’t a negative answer either! “O-okay! I-I understand…”

“What day did ya wanna go to the festival?” He hadn’t forgotten!

“Tomorrow, Tomorrow!” Chie squeaked from the sidelines. “No, wait, Wednesday!

Yukiko felt maybe giving him a little time was the right choice. “U-um, I was thinking maybe...Wednesday?”

“‘Kay, I think I could do that.”

Euphoria began to set in. “Y-you will!?”

“Y-yeah, I will. I’ll see ya, uh, Wednesday night?”

“Y-yes! Maybe like 7:00?”

“Alright, sounds good. Uh, later, senpai.”

“Goodbye Kanji-kun…”

* Boop boop *

And that was it. It was only a couple minutes of a phone call, but Yukiko felt like her entire life had been upended, and not necessarily for the worse, either. She felt herself laughing, although more as a way to keep from crying. She laughed more when Chie crashed into her, wrapping her arms around her neck from behind and giggling as much as she was. Yukiko was so relieved she didn’t even care that Chie was still very sweaty from her run.

You did it! See!? Was that so hard!?” Chie chortled, letting go of Yukiko and ruffling her onyx hair.

“I-I did it! I can’t believe it...he wants to hang out with me!” Yukiko nearly whispered to herself. Chie clicked her tongue and wagged a finger in her face as if to correct her.

“It’s a D-A-T-E, and don’t you forget it! Now c’mon, we need to talk strategy!” As always, Chie was laser focused on helping her friend out, which was a tad overwhelming, but Yukiko found herself getting more and more excited.

“O-okay, let’s do it!” She nodded, which got Chie to leap up and open up her closet, chattering on about yukata and which kind to wear. Yukiko only half-listened, instead choosing to lose herself in the fantasies of her and Kanji strolling through the Summer Festival together. Nervously she clasped her hands together, hoping that maybe the two could recreate what happened the night he stayed at the inn, only this time he’d be awake, and maybe his hand would squeeze back as she gently curled her fingers over his...


Monday, 8/21/12, Hanamura Household, Mid-Afternoon…

Yosuke pulled his headphones down from around his ears, the sounds of a couple of podcast hosts wafting out past the doorway of his home. He deposited his shoes in the foyer and walked past the front step to see his mother curled up in her usual chair in the family room, reading again while some lousy soap opera gave the room some ambiance. The 3rd year boy could only offer her a grunt of recognition as he schlepped through the kitchen to grab something to drink. It had been a long day and there was a lot on his mind, so much so that he only noticed his mother calling him when he looked at her and noticed her lips were moving.

“..uke, I’m talking to you! Hello!?

Shaking his head, Yosuke answered her. “U-uh, yeah, Ma, what’s up? Sorry, just kind of a busy day,” he mumbled, reaching into the state-of-the-art refrigerator and grabbing a bottle of mineral water.

“Geez, must have been! I’d tell you to get some sleep, but Teddie-chan and his little girlfriend are here and they’re - “

Yosuke choked on the water he was drinking, sputtering into the sink as his mother looked on concerned. “ W-what!? ” What the hell was she talking about!?

Kaori chuckled, setting her book down on the arm of the chair. “Oh, you haven’t seen her? Cutest little thing, and very trendy, too! I’m not surprised, Ted-chan is such a - well, geez, no need to finish listening to your mother!”

Before she had even finished, Yosuke was hurling himself out of the kitchen and toward the stairs. Teddie being alone and unsupervised in his room was already enough to make him queasy, but if he was with who Yosuke thought he was, the potential for disaster had skyrocketed .

He leapt up the stairs and nearly slid on the floor as he struggled to halt his momentum in front of the door to his room. It wasn’t closed (thank God ) and he could see Teddie and Marie huddled together near the entry to Teddie’s “room,” which was just Yosuke’s closet with a few accommodations for sleeping. Teddie must have heard him, for the boy turned to greet him, dressed, surprisingly, in a yellow t-shirt and khaki cargo shorts, while Marie was in her usual fashionable yet intimidating outfit.

“Oh, hey Yosuke! You’re just in time: Emmy-chan and I were just going to test whose bed is more comfy, yours or mine! I have a feeling mine is bear-ly gonna win!” Teddie grinned, sparkling blue eyes thinning as he grinned widely.

Marie blew a shiny pink bubble from the gum she was chewing, her nonchalant and aggressive energy in full bore. “Yo,” she said simply, her gloved arms tightly crossed over her chest as usual.

Yosuke was horrified at the prospect. “Y-you keep your furry ass outta my bed! And you can’t just bring a girl into the room whenever!” He sputtered, pointing at Marie, although not sharply enough to where he’d draw her ire (hopefully).

Teddie looked crestfallen. “B-but Yosuke, how else am I supposed to show off my collection of mochi sticks?! Or the funny magazine I got from under your -”

“That’s it!” Yosuke announced, not willing to entertain this charade anymore, “Teddie, from now on, you have to tell me if you’re gonna bring someone over!”

Marie scoffed. “What, you think I’m gonna steal something? There’s nothing here I want...Wait, you don’t have money here, do you!?” she asked suddenly, her jade eyes growing wide with anticipation.

“Oh boy does he!” Teddie revealed, making a move toward Yosuke’s desk, “But remember, it’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone else where -”

Yosuke quickly moved across the room and grabbed Teddie by the shoulders, directing him toward the door to the hall. “Nope, nope, nope , we’re not doing this! Look, Teddie, I got some... stuff , I gotta do. Can’t you and Marie go somewhere else?”

“Can’t we do stuff with you?” Teddie asked sadly, clasping his hands together, “I promise we’ll be good!”

“Oh wait, what if he’s gonna try to kill his scandal?” Marie asked suddenly. Yosuke gave her a look of confusion, but Teddie was viciously nodding, a sly, dangerous smile coming onto his face.

Oh~~ yeah~~~ , you’re right, Emmy-chan! Yosuke, you dirty boy! When were you going to tell me you had a scandal going on!? I love scandals!”

“What the hell are you two talkin’ about!?” Yosuke screeched, feeling like he was going to lose his mind if they didn’t leave. Marie blew another bubble before she moved over toward his desk, boots clopping along the way. Yosuke watched as she snatched something out of the mess of summer homework and magazines on his desk and held it up to him.

He felt his heart sink. She had found the little length of film that contained pictures of Yosuke and Naoto taken at the photo booth in the Okina arcade. Yosuke had spent the better part of last weekend staring at it, and must have carelessly left it out on his desk.

“According to StarScandalz, photos get more people in trouble than anything else. You and blue. Can’t be true. What’d you do?” As she said it, Marie’s eyes widened, and she put the picture down on the desk so she could reach into her bag, pulling out a bright blue notebook that matched her hat.

“You and blue...as one? Blue as one with...Yeah yeah yeah...can’t...can not ... sure ly...Got it!” she said happily, jotting down a bunch of words before reading clearing her throat and speaking again.

Blue as one with you?

Surely this cannot be true!

Now what did you do?

 

Yosuke looked on in disbelief. DId she just...make a haiku out of her question?

“Not my best work, but hey, you try and write AAA rhyme scheme. Not easy!” Marie boasted, a self-satisfied smirk on her face. Yosuke couldn’t recall ever seeing the weird, moody Goddess ever smiling, so he felt doubly creeped out.

“She’s not wrong, Yosuke!” Teddie chimed in, although it was clear the technical details of the haiku went over his head, “I have a hard time bear-lieving this! Are you and Nao-chan... canoodling?!

Yep, it was time for them to leave. “Alright, get outta here, both of you! And keep your mouth shut about this, or no more mochi for you!” Yosuke groaned, continuing to shove Teddie toward the doors, Marie following close behind. As he finally got a lively and whiny Teddie to step out, he turned to Marie, who just stared at him with her unsettling eyes.

“W-well, get goin’!” he said, jerking his thumb toward the doorway, “Get. Out. Be-fore. I…”

Marie chuckled. “You’re at five, genius. Stupidnonlinguistjerk!”

“Yosuke, wait!” Teddie wailed, his fingers gripping the doorway tightly, “Not my mochi, please! I’ll keep quiet, I’ll even bear witness to you destroying the evidence!”

Out!” he finally roared, which scared Teddie away but only made Marie roll her eyes. She joined Teddie in the doorway before turning back to Yosuke.

“Oh, also, how did you get a job?” She asked, blowing a third bubble. “Teddie said he only got one because he’s pretty, but that can’t be all, right? How much money do you make?”

Yosuke didn’t answer, instead choosing to slam the door as she was talking. He realized, in hindsight, that this was a pretty silly move to do to someone whom he knew could conjure and bend the very elements of nature to her will, but he still figured it the right choice. If she sent him to his maker, after all, than the thoughts plaguing him would be gone and he’d finally be at peace.

He didn’t know if he’d refer to it as a “scandal,” but his whole weekend had been consumed by The Detective Prince in some way or another. Whether it was the aforementioned gazing at the photos of them, her comically stoic-yet-amused smile staying the same for 5 whole photos while Yosuke hammed it up, or texting her in casual conversation, to even his fantasies , she had become inescapable. A new favorite thing he had caught on to was the scent she carried around; it was hard to tell, but it was definitely a cologne of some kind, a rather intoxicating scent that was hard to forget after you noticed it. Sometimes he imagined being alone in his room with Naoto, and slowly stripping off the many layers of clothes she usually wore to explore what was underneath all of that. Despite its lewd nature, Yosuke knew from experience that this meant he was truly head over heels.

But was she? This he was less sure about, which caused a lot of his anxiety. Naoto was just such a hard read; it seemed like she had a great time on Saturday, but did those feelings extend beyond friendship? It was impossible to tell. There wasn’t any doubt she thought highly of him, as she had said so at the arcade, and there was a certain comfort to be taken from that. She at least trusted him enough to tell him things she was sharing things with him that she hadn’t even with Rise, which was a very encouraging sign.

That particular fact was still bugging him, however. He had done his best to do some research of his own, but he had to admit that he still didn’t really understand the depth of what Naoto was talking about. If she felt that she wasn’t of either gender, did that mean her only preference for a romantic partner was another non-binary person? Or did she “go both ways?” He was ashamed to admit that a part of his ego was stung by this revelation; the idea that Naoto may, in some ways, even partially identify as a guy freaked him out a little. And if he was into her, what did that say about him? There were too many questions, and of course Naoto wasn’t going to answer all those questions, nor did she have to.

Still, even amidst his fits of doubt and insecurity, Yosuke could only find affection and respect for her in his heart. In many ways, she had the most challenging changes to go through over the past year, and yet she kept persevering onto bigger and better things, and was earnestly trying to be more open. She really was an amazing person, and Yosuke knew more than ever that he wanted her in his life as more than just a friend and confidant. But how did he go about that? And should he go about that? Those questions were for someone wiser than him, and he knew just the person to consult.

Like them, Narukami should have been on summer break, and as Yosuke pulled up his contact info on his phone he crossed his fingers that the ever-enigmatic 3rd year wasn’t off at a part-time job or doing some other great deed of his own accord. He fished his phone out of his pocket and tapped until he got to Yu’s contact page, the call button hovering innocently in the corner. Taking a deep breath for good luck, he slammed the button with his thumb and hoped it would work.

Two rings. Three rings. A fourth was interrupted. “Hey Yosuke, long time no talk!”

Succes! “Heh, same to you, partner,” Yosuke said softly, falling from his standing position to a more relaxed one laying across his bed. His red shorts and white t-shirt let the cozy feeling of his comforter comfort his skin.

“So what’s up? I’ve only got a little bit of time before I’ve got to head off to work.”

Of course, Yosuke thought. “You, working? I’m shocked !” he said in a sarcastic tone. “Where’s ‘work?’”

“Believe it or not, a local law office.” Yosuke sat up, intrigued. “They needed a part-time clerk to help them make copies and run errands, so I took up the job. Guess you can’t take the ‘Investigation’ part out of the Investigation Team, huh?”

Yosuke wasn’t too surprised. Yu had talked about a potential law career on occasion, and considering three people he had come to know a lot in Inaba were detectives, it seemed to be a natural fit. “Ha, guess not! Good for you. But I need the advice of my partner, not a law office gopher!”

“Alright. Shoot.” Always a straight shooter, was Narukami.

The Junes employee took a deep breath, hoping he wouldn’t falter now. “It’s, uh...it’s about a girl…”

An amused chuckle on the other end. “My answer now is the same as last time you asked: you can follow them on social media, but don’t message them directly, that’s weird. It’s a little cruder line of work, but they’re entertainers, they appreciate your -”

“N-no, no, not that! ” Yosuke squeaked, cutting off his odd friend before he could go further. How he could talk so professionally about adult fetish models was beyond Yosuke’s mind.

“Oh.You mean someone you haven’t seen in a magazine or on the internet.

“Y-yeah...it’s, erm...okay, don’t say shit, alright! But it’s, uh...N-Naoto…”

He didn’t expect Yu to answer right away; one of his charms was how much he thought about every response. Yosuke could almost hear him blinking and see the placid look on his face as the seconds ticked by.

“Naoto-kun, huh? Sorry ,” Yu apologized, chuckling softly, “I definitely wasn’t expecting that .” That brief laugh was about the strongest reaction one could get out of Narukami, so Yosuke knew he was taking seriously.

“Yeah,” Yosuke shrugged, “It’s all...yeah, it’s kinda weird for me too.”

“So you like her?”

“Yeah, a l-lot.” Yosuke felt his cheeks reddened with embarrassment, although he knew Narukami would understand his next statement. “I haven’t felt like this about a girl since…”

He didn’t even need to finish saying it. “That serious about it, huh?”

“Yeah. It’s like day in, day out, I’m always thinkin’ about her. But I know if I wait to say something...well, I don’t wanna sound paranoid, but let’s just say I don’t have the best luck with this stuff…”

“Yeah.” Another beat of silence. “Sorry, it’s just that you guys always seemed like you didn’t talk all that much. What changed?”

Boy was that a long story. Still, Yosuke relayed an abridged version to Yu, trying to best describe the ups and downs. He left out any talk of her gender discussion; even in private, he didn’t want to take any risk with the personal information Naoto had given him.

“Hmm, I see. Well, I definitely respect what you mean about giving her some space to recover. I only know what Rise told me, but that whole mess with Kanji seemed pretty exhausting.

Tell me about it,” Yosuke sighed, kicking his shoes off lazily as he talked, “I feel like a jerk coming in so hot with this but...I just...I don’t wanna lose again when I’ve got such a clear shot, y’know? I wish she wasn’t so damn hard to read...how did you do it?” He had only heard a few stories, but everyone in the Investigation Team knew for a while that only Rise and Narukami had cracked the code on how to converse with Naoto.

“With a lot of patience, that’s for sure! Naoto-kun’s got a lot of defenses up, and she’s got her reasons. To be honest, her letting you in as much as she has means she at least likes you a decent amount. Plus, as you can see, she appreciates honesty. Maybe if you’re just upfront about it, everything will be fine.”

He made it sound so easy. “Gee, why didn’t I think of that? Just waltz on over and say that I’m into her,” Yosuke mocked, earning a another chuckle from Yu. “That may work on your average everyday pop idol, but detectives are a harder nut to crack!”

He joked, but Yosuke felt his stomach knotting up at the thought of confessing to her. It was sadly familiar; before Saki died, he had felt a similar pain urging him to say something to her. As always, he knew he should go for it, but Yosuke wasn’t sure that he could handle a rejection, as frustrating as that was to admit.

There was a fair amount of shuffling and ruffling on the other line. “Sorry, I really gotta get going.” Yu sighed. “All I can leave you with is that I trust you. And if you want to get to know Naoto-kun better, I say go for it. If you’re going to confess, take her someplace high up. She likes that.”

Geez, it was getting sappy quick. But he was grateful for the crucial information on Naoto. “Thanks, dude,” Yosuke chuckled nervously.

“Oh, one more thing,” Yu said, Since I trust you, could you break the news to everyone? I’ll be back in town next week, on Thursday. Rise wants us all to meet at Junes, says she has a big surprise that couldn’t wait.”

Woah, what!? “D-dude, that’s awesome! I’ll let everyone know right away! Oh man, that’s great!” Yosuke could feel an excitement starting to build with not only the news that Yu was coming home, but that he had his support in courting Naoto.

“Alright, knew I could count on you, partner. I gotta go. I believe in you, and I hope by the time I come, you and Naoto are happy together. Later!”

“Peace, man! Thanks for...well, everything…”

“No problem.”

*Boop boop*

Yosuke set his phone down, feeling a tear come to his eye. He groaned at himself, rolling his blurry eyes as he wiped them. He was such a wimp sometimes. But that was Narukami: he had a way with words that could affect you deep into your core. He’d also by lying if he said it was just Yu forcing this emotion.

Like always, he couldn’t help but think of Saki Konishi. Over on his desk, stuck to the computer, was a similar photo strip to the one with Naoto, only he was posing with Saki instead, a few weeks before she died. Even a year later, moving on was hard, but in his heart he knew that Naoto gave him the same special feelings she did. He wondered what she’d say, to see him happy and not being such a clown. Her laugh still rang out in his ears, and he smiled through the tears that were starting to come harder.

But that was the past. Now, now was the time for action. He picked his phone up again and quickly swiped to Naoto’s contact information, pressing the call button. Her response was quick, a good omen.

“Senpai, good afternoon.” she answered, making Yosuke grasp his comforter in excitement.

“Hey, Naoto! How’s things?”

“I am doing well. It’s a bit warmer today than I had expected.”

He appreciated her attempts at small talk, but he was far too wound up to indulge. He needed to get to brass tacks. “Yeah, sorta. Hey, listen, are you doing anything erm~~~,” he quickly took a glance at his calendar, seeing that Wednesday evening was the nearest time he was available in the evening. Lunch dates were for friends; lovers went out at night. “Wednesday night?”

“I will need to see.” Yosuke could hear the flapping of a book. He wondered if she had one of the big daily planners he had seen so often at work, seeing as how she was such a punctual person. “Yes, I am free on Wednesday night. Is there something going on?”

Okay, almost there, he told himself. “W-well, sorta. I-I was wonderin’ if...if, uh, you wanted t-to, um…” Damn this was hard!

He suddenly heard hohohoho and he nearly had a heart attack. “It’s not like you to be so nervous, Yosuke-senpai. What is on your mind?” she said, amusement in her voice. She was clearly relaxed and in a good mood, he had to do it!

“S-sorry, I just lost my train ‘o thought for a second,” Yosuke lied, feeling some sweat come to his forehead. “I wanted to know if you…” Quickly, he cycled his mind on what made a good date at a high location. The Summer Festival was the first thing that came to mind, but he wondered if that was too cliche.

While he was thinking, Naoto interrupted him again. “Did you want to...spend some time together?” Geez, she read his mind! Trying not to get too freaked out, he quickly affirmed her answer.

“Y-yeah, that’s exactly what I was gonna say! I-I mean, only if you want to…” He cursed himself for that. Now was not the time to lose his cool!

“W-well, erm, if I may make a request…” Yosuke perked up, wondering what she could mean.

“Y-yeah? What’s up?”

“There is a, ah, a very old cinema near my Grandpa’s estate. It hasn’t played a new film since way before we were born, but all this week they are playing a slate of legendary films celebrating the world’s greatest directors. One of them is, erm, an adaptation of a work that is a personal favorite…”

A movie! Perfect! “O-oh, yeah? That sounds cool. What, uh, what movie?” Yosuke didn’t really care what movie as long as he got to sit next to Naoto, but he did want to know if his ass was going to go numb from some 3-hour epic.

“It’s called ‘The Maltese Falcon.’ Are you familiar?”

Yosue wasn’t, but he was pretty impressed at the English Naoto just whipped at him. “Nah, no.”

“I...see. P-please, you don’t need to feel obliged to engage my request. It’s a very old film, and I’m aware my tastes are -”

Yosuke grinned; he always loved to hear her sound flustered. It was very cute. “Hey, it’s no problem! If I’ve never seen it, it may as well be new, right?”

She chuckled again, sending tingles up his spine. “Hohohoho, that sounds like something Narukami-senpai would say. Alright, if you are certain. The film is playing~~~” she mimicked him, clearly searching through some document, “ Wednesday at 6 o’clock P.M. Is that acceptable?

“Yeah, definitely! You’ll just need to tell me where to meet ya.”

“Of course, I will send you directions. I...thank you, senpai. As always, I look forward to seeing you.”

Naoto couldn’t have possibly realized what she was saying, and Yosuke felt himself overcome with affection. “N-n-no problem. Same to...you.” He felt like he needed to do something to bring himself back to reality.

“Alright, then I shall see you Wednesday night.”

“Y-yeah, cool. Say, listen, do you think we could get a discount on tickets if we passed you off as my kid sister? I mean you kinda fit the bill!”

Abject, impossible silence before an annoyed sigh came over the phone.

“I’ll have you know that I am still growing. There is a .05% chance that I may go through another growth spurt, and when that day comes, I will pay you back for all the times you have teased me!”

Okay, that was awesome. Yosuke felt himself breaking into a laughing fit. She did sound a little perturbed, but he could tell she wasn’t seriously upset, which meant he could push her a little further. “Oh-hoho, wow , that big a chance, huh!? I’m lookin’ forward to your revenge. Hey, do you think they make booster seats for teenagers?”

“Rrrrgh, you are going to make me regret agreeing to this rendezvous! Good evening!”

*Boop boop*

Yosuke was still chuckling as she hung up. She was too easy to tease, but honestly, he was just working out the nervous energy that built up in disbelief over how well it had gone. He knew well enough to not read too much into her tone of voice, but there were little things, even in that phone call, that made him believe that this was really something that could be happening.

Ecstatic, he leapt to his feet and did a dance, his confidence through the roof. A movie theater was a great place for a date, and he was fairly sure he could convince her to take an after-movie walk to one of his favorite haunts: the cliff overlooking the town. It was high up, it was secluded, and it was romantic. Right in that spot, where he and Yu had solidified their bond, he was going to confess everything to Naoto. And hopefully there was more than a .05% chance that she was going to return his feelings.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: I Can’t Tell You Why

Wednesday, 8/23/12, Showboat Theater, Evening…

Naoto checked her watch again for the fifth time in less than a minute before turning back around and looking at her reflection in the grungy theater window. As it was the previous three times, her hair was neatly swept, the shaved sides thin and top neatly parted to the right, a healthy application of a hair spray borrowed from Rise keeping the style consistent. Her outfit was pressed and demure: a grey cardigan sweater over a plain white collared shirt somewhat haphazardly tucked into a pair of dark blue jeans, complimented by a red and blue striped tie hanging from her collar. While she expected the air-conditioned theater to be a lot cooler, the summer air outside had caused her to roll the sleeves up of both the cardigan and the shirt to about her forearms. Instead of her usual more formal shoes, the detective had opted for a pair of black slip-on shoes that more resembled sneakers. Lastly, she had sprinkled on some cologne, which she hoped gave the same type of impression as her Granpa, whom she was emulating with this choice of scent.

Truthfully, this outfit was a bit more relaxed than she was used to. In a past life, she would have opted for a double breasted coat and perhaps some slacks, as well as laced elevator shoes along with her trademark policeman’s cap. She had been more adventurous in her dress ever since her and Rise’s friendship had gotten very close, but Naoto’s growing comfort with her preferred gender identity had pushed that adventurousness even further. Seeing herself as non-binary meant that comfort and style were beginning to take priority over performance; she didn’t mind if she wore clothing that would emphasize her smaller shape, nor did she necessarily feel the need to wear her chest binder every day, which she wasn’t currently. This was about as femme as she was going to get, but even this was a massive leap than how she was even a few months prior.

Naoto sighed as she turned back around, wondering if this newly renewed focus on her appearance had anything at all to do with the boy she was waiting for. When he had called the other day, it was difficult to contain the intense warmth that tended to spread through her body whenever Yosuke did things like smile big at her or compliment her. Her scientific mind knew that this was no coincidence; a consistent pattern of strong reactions like this had to have meant that something he did was likely having a big effect on her, which made her uneasy. Not the feeling, of course - if anything, it felt very much like what she had read an addictive narcotic could feel like - but what that feeling could have meant. Her ever-curious mind couldn’t resist doing some basic research on the internet, but unfortunately, they all seemed to point at something unsettling:

She was in love.

Of course, the assertion seemed ludicrous. Naoto had very little experience in this realm, relying mostly on whatever feelings she thought she may have had for Narukami last April, but it certainly didn’t seem like she was in some whirlwind romance. Sure, Yosuke was, by any clinical definition, “attractive:” much like Narukami, he had a pleasantly angular face and he took care to dress well and style his hair. But there seemed to lie the disconnect: Naoto had read plenty of anecdotes (sometimes going into graphic detail) about how much the passions of the parties involved were inflamed, the two would-be-lovers desiring the other on a very physical level as well as emotional. Yosuke, himself, had frequently ranted about his own carnal desire for girls he thought were attractive. For Naoto, whose conception of romance was largely informed by things she had read, this seemed to be the problem: she just didn’t feel those things.

This was no slight against Yosuke; Naoto legitimately could not remember a time where her desires had at any point made her want to be physically intimate with anyone . Even with Narukami, while she could admire his handsome aesthetic, she had no desire to hold hands, run her fingers through his hair, have him hold her or touch her, or kiss her. The most it ever seemed to go was wishing to spend her day with him, to be near him, which was something that Kanji hadn’t inspired in her, despite also being a dear friend. As far as she could tell, that feeling wasn’t so much different from a very strong platonic relationship, not unlike the one she shared with Rise. Whatever romantic love appeared to be amongst her peers, she didn’t really seem to understand it.

Even then, the intelligent 2nd year couldn’t help but notice that this felt... different . There were things she had admitted to Yosuke that she had kept from even Rise; not that she thought her friend would be anything less than incredibly supportive, but - and this had been quite a shock - Yosuke was not only supportive but also inquisitive. She enjoyed their talks not only because he was her friend and wanted what was best for her, but he also sought to understand what they discussed and understand her . Naoto knew that sometimes she tended to babble on about a subject she was interested in, and she had come to recognize a glassy-eyed, disinterested stare and force herself to stop. With Yosuke, he always had that boyish gleam in his eye, like he was absorbing the information and concocting something in his mind with it. 

In truth, Naoto was both frustrated and smitten with that fact. Frustrated because, as a detective, her reads on what someone was thinking was one of her best traits, and only at his most immature and thick headed could she determine what was going on in his mind. But at the same time, it was... alluring. She found it childish, but she couldn’t help how competitive she could be and she saw the game of trying to unlock the secrets of Yosuke’s mind as a kind of fun challenge. That’s why she didn’t mind his teasing as much; as annoying as it was, she saw it as a sure sign that she was winning in their mental chess game, and he was on the defensive. 

Inevitably, however, she would always think back to them sitting on the bench in Okina Square, where he vowed to always support her no matter who she was. It was impossible to get that moment out of her head; she thought about it at least ten times a day. She had a tendency to build up in her mind all these defenses and evidence as to why she felt she was the way she was, yet it only took a minor explanation to make Yosuke understand, or at least appear to. Maybe he didn’t, but it at least didn’t seem like he let that color his perception of her, or their friendship. It was more than she ever could have asked for, and before long, the warmth began to overwhelm her. Even in the dying light of the day, her blush was extremely obvious in her reflection from the theater windows.

She sighed and did her best to just let the feeling runs its course as she checked her watch again. It was getting close to the film’s start time, and the precocious 3rd year was still nowhere in site. A quick check of her phone revealed no new text messages that may have alerted her to his current status, which made her worry just a tad. She was now rifling through their message history, making sure she had sent him the proper directions. As she was thumbing through the decently large text history, she heard an obnoxious whistle.

“Y’know, you’ll get wrinkles if you frown so much! Heheh…”

The pint-sized detective thrust her head up and quickly pocketed her phone, seeing her taller friend winking and smiling at her. She couldn’t help but blurt out her first observation.

“S-senpai...your hair…” 

Indeed, Yosuke had gotten a pretty noticeable trim of his previously neck-length hair. It was still a bit shaggy, but now it looked more like a fashion statement than laziness. His attire was his usual ouvre: orange v-neck t-shirt with yellow trim and a pair of blue skinny jeans.

“Heh, like it? Thought I could use a touchup,” he explained, shyly rubbing the back of his head, “But what about you? You look real, er,” his cheeks suddenly turned a soft shade of pink as he eyed her up and down, “ cute!”

What!? “Wh-why would you say something like that out of the blue!? You love saying embarrassing things, don’t you? Sheesh…” Naoto pouted, crossing her arms over her chest and turning to the side, hoping he would look away. With the maelstrom of thoughts swirling in her head about Yosuke, she couldn’t tell if he was teasing or being serious, which made her all the more embarrassed. 

Of course, her reaction got a rise out of him. “Hey, c’mon, I didn’t mean anything by it! You look nice , okay, that’s all I was sayin’!” he said gently, trying to catch her eyes again. She looked up at him and recognized his nervous smile as sincere. The last thing she wanted was for him to be upset; it wasn’t that she was mad that he complimented her outfit, but it was something she wasn’t used to hearing. Aside from that, she also didn’t happen to think she was particularly pretty at all, so her knee jerk reaction was that his compliment was patronizing, a habit Naoto knew had to stop sooner rather than later. She relaxed a bit, not wanting him to be alerted to her troubled thoughts and also aware of how late it was getting.

“A-alright, if you say so. We really should get going, though, the film will be starting soon,” she said, giving a nod toward the theater doors, hoping the placid expression she was forcing masked her uncomfortability. Yosuke nodded and quickly got ahead of her, holding the door open.

“After you!” he said cheerily. From him, that was more suspicious than anything, and as Naoto walked through the open door, she felt her more devilish side ignite with intrigue. Just what was he up to? Getting her complacent so he could pull some foolish prank? While these thoughts were mildly absurd, it helped distract her from the warmth, which was still clobbering her senses even when Yosuke was teasing her.

Inside, the theater looked even older than it already did on the outside. A heavy smell of cigarette smoke, long since banned in Okina and other cities, overwhelmed the senses, and Naoto felt her eyes tear up a little bit from the stench. Banners that were clearly decaying with age hung on the walls, and its carpet and wallpaper were similarly outdated. There was only a small hallway beyond the lobby, which appeared to only hold room for two small theaters. An usher, apparently the only employee, appeared to be responsible for running both the box office and a very small stand that had a popcorn machine and some candy in it. His red uniform and square hat, also old-fashioned, bounced as he approached the two teenagers.

“Uh, hi! Come this way please,” he said nervously, waving at them to follow him. He stepped behind the box office counter and prepared his (also very old) register. Naoto got her wallet out and approached the desk.

“Two for Maltese Falcon, please,” she announced, handing over a 5,000 yen note. The clerk quickly processed the change and handed over two stubs. While she handed Yosuke his stub, the man had already ran over to the concession stand.

“They really oughta hire another guy…” Yosuke groaned.

“I’m not sure they could afford to.” Naoto sighed, beginning to walk past the concession stand.

“Woah, woah! You don’t want anything!?” Yosuke squeaked, “You gotta at least get popcorn!”

They were already running late, Naoto thought, why would he stop for snacks? “No, thank you, I’m fine. We really should -”

“I’m getting some,” he said determinedly, going through the monotonous line formed by an overabundance of red velvet ropes, “You go save us some seats!”

“B-but senpai, you’re going to miss -”

“I’ll catch up!”

“Y-you...rrghh!”

Well, she certainly didn’t find his stubbornness any less annoying than usual. This was a mystery film, which meant every scene was critical to understanding! Even missing one minute could lead to complete confusion, she thought. Truthfully, Naoto was greatly looking forward to a post film discussion, and his nonchalant attitude was giving her the impression that he was, again, straining himself to go somewhere because of her and her odd eccentricites. She huffed to herself before heading to the theater’s only showroom, which was down the garishly colored hall and past a black set of double doors. 

Inside, Naoto found herself getting a little more excited. It was smaller than many theaters she was used to, but the intimacy made it easier to focus on the film. The screen was very large, which was perfect for reading subtitles, and the theater only had a few other patrons: a man in a stuffy suit with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a notepad, and another person nearly asleep on the opposite side of the theater. A film critic, Naoto thought, and perhaps a salaryman who had one too many at a nearby bar and needed somewhere dark and quiet to doze off before he could drive home. 

Naoto silently made her way to the staircase on the side and climbed two sets of stairs to reach the middle row. As she walked to the center of the aisle, she couldn’t help but notice how little attention had been paid to the floors. She had to use some force to get her feet off the floor every time she moved, which made her grimace in disgust. Luckily it only took a few seconds to reach her seat, so she quickly plonked herself down, enjoying the relatively cushy seat. The theater was just playing soothing operatic music over a blank screen, but that soon changed as Naoto heard the very loud clanging of someone, most likely that poor usher, operating a film projector a bit above her. After a minute of the noise, the screen suddenly lit up, revealing a splash for the movie’s distributor, Warner Bros. It was starting!

As the title sequence began to play, Naoto found her eyes torn between staring at what was unfolding on the screen and the entrance near the bottom of the stairs, hoping Yosuke would appear sometime soon. The images on the screen slowly faded into the opening scene, and Naoto could already see yellow kanji appearing at the bottom of the screen, indicating speaking parts. Reluctantly, she kept her eyes peeled on the screen, absorbing the scene and getting a glimpse at one of her fictional idols, Sam Spade, doing his thing. While she was watching, she heard someone clumsily moving through the seats, quietly cursing and hissing in pain. 

“Damn! These floors are sticky...I can barely see... pppst , Naoto, that you?!” 

Naoto turned her head and saw Yosuke trying to juggle a container of popcorn and some other things in his hands as he floundered about, trying to find his seat. Not that there was a ton of other moviegoers, but she still shushed him as he whined, snatching the popcorn from him so he could find his footing. He finally did, sitting in the seat next to Naoto sheepishly.

“Sorry,” he whispered, “Damn guy took his time…”

“It’s fine, just please, pay attention,” Naoto quickly hissed back, trying to focus on the film. She handed him back the popcorn and she felt him slip something back to her. Surprised, she looked to see that it was a chocolate bar. 

“S-senpai, you didn’t…”

“Don’t mention it. Juff warch!” Yosuke grinned, pointing at the screen as he shoveled some popcorn in his mouth. Feeling her own smile come up, Naoto turned her head back to the screen, tearing off a small part of the foil on her chocolate while Sam Spade listened to the mysterious and beautiful woman who was offering him a job.


Wednesday, 8/23/12, Tatsuhime Shrine Festival, Evening...

Kanji sighed and kicked yet another rock toward the side of the entrance gate, hoping at some point that the butterflies in his stomach would subside. It was a bit warm, and all the lit lanterns probably didn’t help, but the flop sweat was already starting to build on his forehead, and he found himself having to wipe his head again and again. If he was already this nervous just doing nothing, how was he going to handle a whole evening?

The past two days had felt like he had taken a rocket to another planet. On Monday, just totally out of nowhere, Yukiko had called him and asked him to go with her to the Summer Festival. Alone. With no one else. Just them . Even days later it still sounded like absolute nonsense in his head, but it was his strange and scary reality.

Naturally, it had been very hard to get out of his head the past couple days so he stayed cooped up in his room, ignoring text messages and cancelling on a planned basketball game with Kou, Daisuke, and Yosuke by feigning illness. It was odd; it’s not like he felt bad or anything like at the beginning of summer, but there was still some sense of melancholy, of dread , that he just couldn’t shake. With his luck, everything would be disastrous, he just knew it.

Worst of all, he still didn't know how to handle Yukiko's confession. She was odd, way weirder than he could have ever known growing up; when they were kids, she was always the stuck-up princess to him, someone who probably felt it was beneath her to even be associated with Kanji and his family. Getting to know her over the past year, however, revealed sides to her he never thought he would find: her grit and determination when trying new things, her really bizarre sense of humor, but most importantly, her big heart. Without her hanging around him all summer, he wasn’t sure what kind of headspace he’d be in, and she deserved all the credit in the world for that. But how far did that credit extend?

He knew something was up as soon as she hugged him when they were babysitting Nanako. Friends hugged, sure, but Yukiko Amagi wasn’t hugging people willy nilly. While he was naive about this kind of thing, that was far from a subtle action. But he could also write it off as just another of her odd quirks, or at least he could have, had it not been for her phone call. There, the words just came out, plain as could be:

“Because I really like you…!”

That, more than anything, was playing on a loop in his head. Even the most charitable interpretation of that phrase left little to the imagination: Yukiko Amagi was into him. Like that. Why? He couldn’t make any sense of it in his head. He wasn’t kidding when he initially tried to tell her that he didn’t want people to say anything if they were at the festival together - Yukiko was really popular. At school, he’d seen tons of guys in his class try (and fail) to get her attention at the school gate almost every other day. She could literally pick anyone she wanted, so why the hell was it him!? 

There had to be some catch, he thought. Maybe she just didn’t really mean it like that. Yeah, that could be it! Or maybe she meant “I like hanging out with you,” and not like-like him as a person...although liking to hang out with someone could also mean you liked them in that way too…

Kanji, hey ! Sorry we’re late!”

Ch-Chie, be careful…!

That was Chie’s voice. And with her... Crap! Well, out of the frying pan and into the fire. He quickly looked himself over, hoping he picked out something that didn’t look too dorky, considering he wasn’t even sure what you wore for something like this. He had taken his summer uniform white shirt and paired it with some khakis he had found deep in his closet and given a good ironing. His black hair had grown out enough that he was able to slick it back with just a bit of pomade, although he made sure to comb it so it looked stylish and not like some sort of punk. In his attempt to try and forge his own unique look (and since she said they looked nice), he had decided to accessorize by wearing his glasses and putting on some of his old jewelry; he left out the cuffs and the nose stud, but a pair of silver earrings were dangling from his earlobe. 

Steeling himself, he turned from the fence to look toward the shrine gate, where Chie and Yukiko were just coming up the steps, and felt his breath immediately get taken away.

Yukiko was carefully moving her way past the shrine gate, supported by Chie. Like last year, she was wearing a kimono, although this one was blood red with white flowers decorating it instead of the purple outfit from before. Aside from a kimono being particularly restrictive and tight, Kanji could see that Yukiko needed Chie’s support due to the large wedge heels she was wearing, which were stylish but probably not meant to climb stairs. Those combined were astonishing enough, but what really floored Kanji was her hair: it had been teased up and curled, accessorized with a headband that had three red flowers on it. The remains of it cascaded down to her shoulder, where some of the curled ends lay like black icicles. Her eyeliner was also heavier, punctuated by thick black wings, and she had a decent amount of rouge on her normally pale cheeks. Lastly, she had swapped out her lip gloss for lipstick as red as her kimono that made her seem older and more elegant than ever. Even through all his confusion, Kanji’s jaw was completely agape - she was gorgeous , like something out of a storybook. 

Despite the confidence seeping out of her look, the young heiress was clearly very bashful, staring at her feet as she shuffled closer to Kanji. Chie stayed back at the gate, leaning confidently with her arms crossed against one of the tall stone lanterns. Her white silk tank top and denim miniskirt wereilluminated by the lantern’s light as she grinned at her two friends.

“Okay, ya crazy kids, I’m outta here! Have fun~~~~ ” She called, waving her fingers casually before making eye contact with Kanji and curling her right hand into a fist and smacking it against her other palm, her grin quickly changing to an intense glare. Kanji flinched, now aware that Chie was hip to what the purpose behind this festival visit was. Chie was obviously much smaller than he, but her glare was more than enough to let him know that she would well and truly kick his ass should he make the wrong move. Great, just another reason to be nervous, he thought.

But back to Yukiko. Like his other friends from school, she was usually an exception to him acting weird around girls, but he wasn’t really sure if that was going to hold up so long as she was dressed like that . His tastes must have been changing: last year he was pretty impressed by the girls’ beauty, and now he couldn’t help but notice every beautiful detail to Yukiko’s outfit. He was so enraptured that he barely heard a very shy sigh emerge from the object of his eye.

“D-don’t stare so much!” Yukiko yelped, bashfully turning to the side a little, her makeup not enough to cover up the extreme blush spreading through her face. 

“W-woah, s-sorry!” Kanji said back, equally flustered. The two spent a few seconds avoiding each other’s gaze before Yukiko turned back around.

“I-I guess it’s alright if you want to stare a little bit...I don’t look like this very often...w-well, I do wear kimonos at the inn...but certainly not like this ,” she mumbled, gesturing to her current kimono and hair. Kanji cleared his throat, understanding that this was a sensitive night, and he needed to be very careful with the things he said.

“N-nah-no, you don’t,” he started, shoving his hands in his pockets if only to find an easy solution for what to do with them, “You look really...a-ahm... pretty. Like, uh, real pretty.” God, that was so hard to say without his speech melting into some sort of boiling pot of guttural noises. Still, he could see that, for once, his words didn’t land with a thud; Yukiko lit up like a Christmas tree, and in her ecstasy she quickly closed the small distance between them.

“R-really!? I’m so glad you said that...I-I don’t usually wear this much makeup, so I wasn’t sure if it looked ridiculous or not...geez, my heart’s beating really fast right now, haha…” She placed her hands over her heart as if to confirm what she was saying, her face volcanic red. 

Kanji sighed and rubbed the back of his head, struggling to think of what to even say. He had to say something about Monday, right? I mean, they were clearly both thinking about it, and it’s not like they weren’t going to not talk about it. Before he could say anything, Yukiko beat him to it.

“Y-you look...good, too! I-I like your earrings...I could never pull them off, but they look nice on you!” Kanji felt the ears containing the earrings burn a little at the compliment. At the very least, he now knew that he didn’t look like a total dork.

“Y-yeah? Thanks! I figure not all that punk stuff was bad,” he said, tugging gently on one to emphasize his statement. Yukiko laughed and nodded in agreement.

Another silence sprung up as the sounds of festival goers and their children punctuated the air around them. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as the previous, and it was only now that Kanji realized that he and Yukiko were standing mere inches apart. Much like last Wednesday, he was close enough to smell her perfume, which was just as pleasant and intoxicating as the previous time. This distraction was enough to let Yukiko break the silence first.

“I’m...really glad you’re here,” she said quietly, staring up into his eyes, “I woke up this morning and thought I had just dreamt everything that happened on Monday. B-but even if it is a dream, I don’t want to wake up from it anytime soon!” she finished, nervously chuckling to herself. God , Kanji thought; this was really happening!

“Y-yeah,” he gulped, feeling sweat begin to soak through his undershirt. He hoped it wouldn’t show up on his white school shirt. “S-so...did you w-wanna...go do some...stuff?” Kanji gritted his teeth, feeling like he sounded so damn dumb. Of course she did, why was he making it so awkward!?

The giggle he got in response from his 3rd year friend wasn’t inspiring more confidence in him. “I...Y-yes! Let’s do ‘stuff!’ But you know, they say it’s bad luck if you don’t offer up a prayer first!” she explained, trotting carefully past him toward the haiden. Kanji took a few deep breaths and followed, his long legs able to easily keep pace with his companion’s stilted movement. He noticed Yukiko nodding at several people who offered greetings as she went by, and he instinctually hung back a little, not wanting people to see that they were together. As he had explained to her on Monday, he felt bad that Yukiko was choosing to her lot in with someone like him, and he didn’t want to be a stain on her good reputation. Being friends was one thing, but... whatever she wanted, that was a whole other thing.

Before too long they reached the haiden, where the big offering box lay. Yukiko reached into the sash of her kimono and pulled out a handful of coins, handing some over to Kanji as well. He always thought this kind of thing was hokey, an ancient ritual that people did because they didn’t know any better that just stuck around. But he knew Yukiko was very into it, so he sighed and grabbed a handful of the coins.

“What are you going to wish for?” Yukiko asked innocently. When Kanji looked over at her, however, there was a playful gleam in her eye, and he remembered one of the things he always remembered getting told as a kid by his mother.

“Hey, ain’t it bad luck ‘r whatever if I tell ya what it is?” He answered back, somewhat amused by her attempt at trickery. 

She laughed, although it was fortunately not full-blown hysterics. “Haha, that is true, you got me. They say a wish can only come true if it reflects what’s truly in your heart, and that telling someone robs the wish of its honesty.” After her explanation, she clutched the coins even tighter in her palm. “Okay, here I go!”

Gently, Yukiko placed her coins into the offering box, which made a loud clacking sound as it received the change. As soon as she did, Yukiko clasped her hands and closed her eyes, all hint of laughter or lightness leaving her features. She was almost deadly serious as she stood in silent prayer, the festival going on around her almost becoming an afterthought. Feeling awkward, Kanji cleared his throat and gave his offering as well, then, in the spirit of solidarity, attempted to simulate Yukiko’s pose.

He felt silly. Like he had told Yukiko on the beach, Kanji never really prayed due to his agnosticism, but that was hard to balance with the fact that he had seen with his own eyes that Gods and Goddesses existed. Did that mean prayer would work, or was that just wishful thinking? Regardless, he sighed deeply as he closed his eyes, thinking about all the things he could give a prayer for.

He thought about Naoto. Being cool with her again was absolutely amazing, a blessing, but also at times completely unbearable. He understood and respected her want to just remain friends, but he still couldn’t help but separate his romantic thoughts. Having spent most of his life thinking he was the biggest weirdo on the planet and carrying that shame meant seeing someone else who also had that struggle was deeply motivating. Almost like a sign from heaven, were he to believe in that sort of thing. Even though she had rejected his initial advance, his soul screamed at him to not give up, and just stick it out long enough to convince her to change her mind. Stranger things had happened, right?

Of course, this naturally brought him back to Yukiko. Ever since he hung up the phone on Monday, he started to think back about everything the two of them had done together, and he now felt incredibly foolish not to have noticed something. Sure the hug was a no-brainer, but she had really gone out of her way to hang out with him on multiple occasions. And for what? He knew from experience that she had a thing for Narukami, and he was three times the guy Kanji was. Besides, he had some lingering questions about his own sexuality that his attraction to Naoto had conjured up, and who knew how long that would take to sort out. Yukiko didn’t deserve to go through that; she was too smart, nice, and pretty to be chasing around a weirdo like him. Even if hanging out with her had saved him from losing it over Naoto, even if he could honestly say he wasn’t thinking about that hug at least once every ten minutes, and even if her saying she liked him hadn’t made him feel better about himself than he ever had, he just couldn’t bear the idea of her being disappointed in him once she got to know him better.

After a while, he opened his eyes, thinking he had been in prayer for the entire evening. In reality, only seconds had passed, and Yukiko was just finishing up herself. She pulled her clasped hands together under her chin, and above the din of the festival goers, he could hear her softly say “Please, God, answer our earnest prayers…” She opened her eyes as well and turned to him, her serious expression immediately changing to a relaxed smile.

“Sorry, I tend to be a little serious with my prayers,” she sighed, pushing some of her curls out of her eyes, “But I think it’s good to be serious about some things...especially when they’re important to you!” She blushed a lot as she said this, the combo of that and her slightly mischievous squint making Kanji turn red with understanding. Did girls always do that thing where they were talking about one thing but really meant something else, he wondered, or was it just her? 

“U-uh, ‘s fine! Ya know, ‘s not a big deal. ‘Ey, listen...” Kanji mumbled, feeling more sweat drip from his temple. The moment of prayer had given him time to calm the maelstrom of thoughts in his head, and he was starting to realize it may have been a mistake to agree to this... date (it was that, wasn’t it?) so quickly. But he wasn’t exactly a wordsmith, and while one of Yukiko’s most endearing traits was how well she could listen and respond, it also meant that she was going to hang on to everything he said. How could he possibly explain how he really felt without trampling all over her feelings?

“...Yes, Kanji-kun? You were saying?”

Her gentle voice made him look back up at her, and seeing her face - smiling, happy, eager to help him finish his thought- it made him feel even worse, and the nerve he had built up to say something diminished down to a cinder.

“Y-yeah, I was sayin’, uh…” he looked over and saw a series of tents with griddles steaming, serving food, finding his excuse. “I was getting hungry! Yeah! Do you...I-I mean, did ya want to grab a bite to eat?”

Yukiko followed his gaze, then nodded her head in understanding. “Oh, okay, sure! It took me so long to get ready that I didn’t really have time to eat before I left, too! I need to be a little careful, though - I’m wearing a lot more makeup than usual, and festival food can be so greasy…”

Kanji couldn’t help but chuckle, even though his stomach was turning cartwheels; Yukiko’s habit of working her thoughts out aloud to herself always amused him. “Y-yeah, I hear ya.” He squinted to see what the vendors were serving, seeing some decent choices. “What are ya hungry for? They got yakisoba, toumorokoshi...prolly not the best stuff if ya don’t want to be messy. Erm...okonomiyaki, kara-”

“Oh, the okonomiyaki sounds good!” Yukiko piped up, stepping a little ahead of Kanji to get a better look, “You can at least eat that with a napkin. Although...last year, I remember the portion sizes were really big,so...do you think, erm...w-well, “she stammered, turning back to look at Kanji with her face red yet again, “do you think we could just... share one piece?”

She was staring at him with her sneaky squinty look again. What a weirdo . “‘Kay...wait, what!? What ‘r ya laughin’ at!?” Kanji squealed, hearing her giggle a bit when he answered. 

Ohho , nothing, nothing at all!” She chuckled, hiding her mouth with her hand. “Just...I think this will be the first time I’ve ever shared food with someone other than Chie or someone from the inn... hehheh …”

This did very little to settle Kanji’s stomach. “C-c’mon, let’s go! Yeesh…” he sputtered, jamming his hands in his pockets as Yukiko followed him, giggling some more. When he moved his hands, he felt something in his pocket that he almost forgot he had left the house with - Yukiko’s ridiculous disguise glasses. He had meant to give them back, but touching the glasses now made him think back to the day she left them at Dojima’s house, which got him all bothered again: her forcing them on him so she could laugh, braiding her hair, and of course, the hug

The very sound of Yukiko’s obnoxious, snorting laughter now just reminded him of all the things about her he found alluring and desirable, and it made him feel worse. What kind of friend was he, he thought, if he was not only thinking about her in a kind of skeevy way, but also agreeing to a date without knowing if he even wanted to take it this far? He knew he was dumb, but this was another level. His long strides kept him ahead of the nearly hobbled Yukiko trying to move in her yukata, and he was glad; then she wouldn’t see the frustrated, sad expression he had on his face as he made his way over to the okonomiyaki tent.


Wednesday, 8/23/12, The hill overlooking town, Mid-Evening...  

“...It’s old hat by now, but the innovation in the cinematography was truly revolutionary! The way the camera closes in on the actors...it’s almost claustrophobic, and yet, that truly captures what it can feel like to be trapped in the pursuit of the truth. There’s a realism and dynamism to the film that makes it timeless, and the performances were just as -”

“Okay, okay, take it easy, ya nerd! Seriously, though, I’ve never seen you this revved up about something. It’s pretty fun!”

“You know I’m not some sort of unfeeling, logistical robot, yes? I am quite capable of enjoying things on a purely artistic level! Sometimes I feel as if you think I’m like Aigis-san or Labrys-san.”

God , I was doing such a good job at forgetting they existed. How did our lives get so weird that we know living humanoid androids?!”

“Trust me, however odd you may feel about it, I assure you I feel it with ten times the intensity...and yet, I wouldn’t trade this past year for anything. I...well, I wouldn’t be here with you were it not for our strange, strange lives…”

“Y-yeah, good point…”

Yosuke and Naoto had been walking for awhile, and, to Yosuke’s surprise, it was Naoto who dominated their conversation about the movie. He was somewhat glad - the combination of it being a foreign film and his inability to concentrate on anything but what was in his head that night made it pretty hard to dissect the film. Still, there were parts of it he enjoyed, and most of all, he really liked to hear Naoto get so animated talking about it, which was a rare occurrence. 

Her excitable mood only accentuated her cuteness, which was at its absolute peak for Yosuke. She had chosen a more casual outfit, and for the first time he could ever recall, Yosuke definitely noticed that whatever she usually did regarding her chest was done away with, at least for the evening. That and the strong but sweet cologne she was wearing almost stopped Yosuke dead in his tracks when he first saw her, and of course the first thing he had to blab out was how cute she was. Stupid! Luckily he was able to play it off, although he was curious to see that Naoto wasn’t so much angry at him for saying it so much as embarrassed he said it out loud.

The teens had gotten away from the theater, towards the location Yosuke had always intended for them to end up at: the hill overlooking the town. He always liked going up there to look down at the town, and since Yu had told him she liked high places, it seemed like the perfect spot to hang out. As long as his nerves could hold up.

Every day up until that very moment had been excruciating. Yosuke had been doing dry runs of this date in his head almost every waking hour of the day, trying to make sure he didn’t screw it up in his typical fashion at some point. Even his dreams were haunted by the potential failure, and it was then where everything seemed to go terribly: He said something that offended her, he got cold feet and said nothing, or, worst of all, she repeated verbatim what Saki had said, that he was annoying and not worth her time. 

With his fear of rejection so high, he had sometimes questioned why he even bothered at all. Clearly he and Naoto made a great pair of friends, so why complicate it? Then he would remember their talks, and his choice would become clear once again. Like him, Naoto seemed to just want to be useful , to use her skills and abilities to be helpful and be liked, maybe even loved , in return. Hearing her talk about herself, rare though it was, made him realize that, more than just a friend, he may have found a kindred spirit who also struggled with feeling like she had to prove her worth to everyone else before she could be worthy of, well, anything . It wasn’t what he expected, sure, but if the past month was any indication, he was head over heels.

After a little while they reached the top of the hill, where a crude wooden fence and some nearby foliage were the only things obstructing their view of the entire town. The moon only partially shone, its first quarter phase very near, and there was a big speckle of red and orange near the center of town - the summer festival, of course. It was a grand sight, one that Naoto and Yosuke were in no rush to interrupt with more conversation. The 3rd year dared a look at his younger companion and saw that she was smiling, clearly enraptured by the view before them. Sensing his opportunity, Yosuke started what felt like one of the most crucial conversations in his life up to that point.

“Awesome, isn’t it?” he started, taking a step toward the fence and using his arms to lean on the top post, “I remember when I first moved here, I used to laugh at being able to see how small Inaba was from up here, and I hated that. That feels like a million years ago now, haha…” His nervous laughter didn’t immediately draw a response, which unnerved him. 

A few seconds passed before Naoto stepped forward to join him at the post, although to his surprise she climbed up and planted her feet on the second post, giving her for (for once) the edge in height over him as she surveyed the sight before them. 

Yosuke was confused, but she beat him to the punch. “It is,” she said with a hearty hohoho , “When I was little, I loved to climb to high places. I don’t know why; I’ve never been particularly suited to the outdoors or had the urge to be close to the sky, but there was something about being high up that was...comforting. In fact, that’s why I was never put in a dress: my father knew I’d just ruin them with my peculiar habit, so he always let me dress in long pants.”

Hehheh, sounds like you. I’ve, uh...I’ve never heard you talk about your parents before,” Yosuke said lightly, wondering if he was treading a little too far. If he was going to confess his feelings, it probably wasn’t a good idea to push Naoto’s buttons. Luckily, she turned to look down at him, a sad but noticeable smile on her face.

“For a long time I found it...painful to.” She carefully stepped over the top post and adjusted her position so she could sit down on the top of the fence, hooking her legs across the second post for balance. “I used to truly believe that if I pushed them out of my mind and never discussed them, I would have, in time, forgotten them, and the pain of their loss would finally leave me. I was a fool. I still think about them, but now I think of the good things they left behind, and cherish what little memories of them I have. Kanji-kun told me that was how he dealt with the loss of his father, and it has worked wonders for me, too.”

Great . If there was a rampaging elephant in the room that threatened to trample anything, Kanji was it. Yosuke hated to think that he was trampling on his friend’s territory, but he had done a pretty good job of convincing himself that maybe now that they had patched things up, Kanji didn’t think of it like that anymore. Teasing aside, Kanji was a pal, and he’d had a pretty rough month; Yosuke didn’t want to stress him out any more than he already had been.

Now the question was trying to figure out how Naoto felt about that. He considered this task carefully before speaking. “Kanji...he’s a pretty great guy, right?” That was a loaded question: he figured Naoto was clever enough to know the difference between being “a great guy” as friends and as lovers.

“Mmm,” she hummed in response. Was that good or bad!? Luckily, she followed it up promptly. “I’m glad we could put aside the past. A person’s heart can be fragile, and I know that rejecting Kanji-kun’s feelings had put quite the crack in his. I know it’s not fully repaired, but I’d like to think it is on the mend. He’s a good friend, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Yes! Yosuke nodded wistfully, but inside he was screaming his head off in excitement. That was as good a confirmation as any that they were going to be just friends for the time being. With that last bit of guilt dropped from his conscious, he felt he was finally ready to make his move. 

He took a deep breath, feeling his tongue swelling up with nervous energy. “U-uh, hey...you, erm…” Naoto eyed him curiously from her perch on the fence, making him feel even clammier. “Y-you had a g-good time tonight, yeah?”

The detective inspected him a bit before nodding and smiling. “I did. I wanted to thank you again for putting up with my odd tastes,” she said, shifting a little on the fence. 

Yosuke smiled, wanting to put her at ease. “Nah, you kidding? Yeah I don’t usually watch foreign movies that aren’t cheesy action flicks like what Chie watches, but y’know, this wasn’t bad! At least I had you to explain it to me. Yeah...tonight was, uh, *ahem* the stuff dreams are made of.” Yosuke croaked, trying his best to do an impression of the lead actor he had just seen. His English wasn’t good, and the guy had an unplaceable accent, but it got the reaction he wanted out of Naoto, who made him super red with her laughter.

Hohoho , not bad, senpai! But as to what you were saying…” Naoto stopped, running a hand through the small crop of hair on her head, “This film...well, this story means a great deal to me personally, so...I-I’m glad I was able to share it with you.” The 2nd year looked away then, maybe out of embarrassment? Either way, Yosuke felt his heart swell as he took a step closer to where Naoto was sitting on the fence.

“Y-yeah, you said that, erm, it was like your favorite book, right?” he asked, taking yet another step forward, gently testing how close he could get before she said something. 

“...You remembered?” She asked cheerfully, looking back at him with blood swimming into her cheeks. 

“Well of course! You don’t usually talk about stuff like that, so it’s pretty memorable when you do.” Yosuke was now very close to where she was, leaning one arm on the fence post where she sat at as he looked up at her. The moonlight was weak, so the only source of light was a nearby lamp; even in the miniscule lighting, Yosuke found her to be unquestionably gorgeous, and he could feel his heart begin to put the rest of his body on cruise control.

“Hey, Naoto, listen…” She looked at him, her smile fading in accordance with the seriousness in his voice. He felt awkward saying something like what he was about to say while he was looking up at her, so he attempted to mimic her seating arrangement. He got up on to the middle post and swung his leg over like she had, but his more gangly stature made it harder for him to balance on just one leg. Naoto saw it coming before he did.

“S-senpai, be careful, or you’ll…!”

Right on queue, his left leg slipped, and he fell forward, his head crashing into Naoto’s lap. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the part that was impacted the hardest in his fall.

"N-Not...the nads..."

All the air felt like it had been sucked right out of him as he tried to reach between his legs for comfort, finding instead that his arms clutching the top post were all that was keeping him from sliding on the opposite side of the fence and down the rolling, rocky hill that the fence was supposed to be a protection against.

Naoto swung into action, quite literally; in a fluid motion, she unhooked her legs from the center post and rotated her short legs up and over onto the safe side of the fence, using the inertia to push herself off the post. She quickly grabbed onto Yosuke’s thin torso, which shifted his balance over so he wasn’t in danger of plummeting down the other side.

“Yosuke-senpai, you have to get your leg back on this side,” she ordered in a calm but demanding voice.

“I want to but...it hurts ...so much…” Yosuke gurgled, still trying to catch his breath. What kind of wood was this fence made of!? He’d been thrown into brick walls and smashed into steel floors in the TV World and never felt this kind of pain. Still, even with his whining, he moved his right leg back over the top post, and a gentle tug from Naoto got him back on his feet, where he bent over and did his best to take a few breaths, hands on his thighs in agony.

“Are you alright? Just breathe, you’ll catch your breath back in a few seconds. Here, walking will help your body calm down and stretch the, erm... affected area,” she gulped, gently trying to guide him over to a nearby bench that was right underneath the area’s light source. Yosuke sucked in all the air he could and followed her lead, his breathing labored but steady as he limped over to the bench to join his friend.

She sat down on one end and patted the other, urging him to sit. He did so very carefully, finally feeling his lungs fill up to capacity with air. He was so relieved that that part was over, but he quickly remembered what he was about to say. Or tried to. He had a whole big speech planned, but suddenly he couldn’t remember any part of it!

“Senpai?” Naoto prodded, making him panic even more, “If you think it’s more serious, perhaps we should find the nearest medical facility and - “

I-I like you!

Yosuke certainly hadn’t intended to say it quite so loud or to have his voice crack, but his squeal of a confession reverberated like a gunshot through the still night air. Even the cicadas seemed to gasp in horror at what he had said, their rhythmic cry cutting off abruptly. It was suddenly hard to tell whether the tears in his eyes were from the pain of having his groin crushed or the painful awkwardness of what he had just said.

Naoto, for her part, was equally speechless. “Wha... Huh …?”

Sniffling, Yosuke put his face in his hands, already feeling like he could just shrivel up and die. He fucked it up!

“You…” he heard Naoto say breathlessly,  “Y-you don’t mean it in... that way...do you?” The last part was quiet and high-pitched, as if she was saying it to herself in her normal voice. Yosuke actually dared to take a peek out from his hands because she almost sounded...relieved?

“I-I didn’t mean to just...just s-say it like that but...yeah,” he admitted, trying his hardest not to let the lump in his throat sound notable, “I do. Th-these last few weeks...any time I spend with you is when I’m happiest. Just hearing your voice makes up for even the shittiest day at work. The other day, when you heard my dad yell at me...I felt like such a piece of crap. But you said some things…” He took a deep breath, although it was very shaky, and kept trying to find the words in his jumbled brain. “A-and I know that...my timing is so bad ...all that stuff just happened with Kanji, and I’m sure you don’t want any part of this kind of thing, but...I had to say it. I promised I wouldn’t lie to you, so I couldn’t hold it in any more. I really like you...and now...I don’t know what to do…”

Yosuke was sure that nuclear fallout would have been a bit more of an optimistic situation than right now. A small summer wind nipped at the leaves in the surrounding trees, puncturing the silence. Yosuke wanted to start running for his life, and would have if he didn’t feel terrible about leaving Naoto alone in the dark. 

For her part, the Detective Prince was still sitting up straight, processing all the information. After a long while, she spoke, softly. “I a-always a-appreciate your honesty, Yosuke-senpai,” she started, “so I feel the need to be honest with you as well.”

The Junes manager closed his eyes, expecting the worst from that statement. That was the exact kind of thing you hear when someone wants to be polite as they dress you down. He recognized the same tone from many conversations with his dad. 

“Th-there...well, I don’t know what to call them exactly, but for a while now there have been... special feelings that I’ve never felt before...and they have to do with...y-you.” Yosuke suddenly looked up at her, not quite believing what he just heard. She turned away, quickly. “N-now that I’ve said such a thing...I can’t even look you in the eye…”

Desperate, Yosuke scooted a little closer to her, hanging on her every word. “W-w-what do you mean ‘special feelings?!’ Do you...like me too?”

The detective fidgeted, a familiar sign that she was more than a little uncomfortable. “Th-these past few weeks, it’s...it is as if I’m not some alien anymore,” she murmured, still not quite able to look at him, “It can be v-very difficult for me to make sense of the world, but with you, it doesn't feel as overwhelming. And...When you told me you would always accept me for who I was....I’m having difficulty even thinking of ways to describe how that made me feel. The only thing I can say is that now, whenever we’re not together, it feels…”

A big pause. Yosuke was doing his best to stay calm, but his heart was beating so fast it was about to burst, and he was doing his best to hold back the stream of jubilant and vibrant profanity he wanted to scream out into the ether. Swallowing it back, he prodded her to continue.

“It feels…?”

Finally, Naoto looked at him, her face resembling a tomato with a sad smile and eyes engraved with sincerity and passion. “Like there’s a part of me missing...As if you have stolen my heart.”

That did it. Yosuke first started laughing, a choked series of cackles that fought their way past the ever growing lump in his throat. Before too long he was in near-hysterics, the pain from a minute ago seeming to vanish in a wave of euphoria. Naoto watched quietly as the Prince of Junes got up to his feet and leaned over the fence in front of them, hooting and hollering into the night sky. Each time he warbled into the air he slapped the top post with his open hand, which hurt a little but was necessary to work out the energy surging from within. Tears of exalted joy were pricking his eyes, and although he wiped them away he wasn’t sure how much longer he could stave them off. 

He just couldn’t believe it. His best case scenario didn’t involve words as heartfelt and meaningful as the things Naoto just confessed to him. The repeated whacks to the fence post wasn’t just him working out nervous energy: he also needed to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. If the past minute or so wasn’t a fever dream or some sort of coma from him falling on the fence, then this was easily, easily , the best day of his life.

Still trembling with nervous energy, Yosuke turned back to Naoto, only to find his elation suddenly muted. Despite the very sweet confession of her feelings, Naoto looked dreadfully sad sitting alone on the bench. Her grey eyes were unfocused and downcast, and her smile had vanished, replaced with an all-too-familiar frown. What in the world…?

The 3rd year quickly went back to the bench and sat next to her, trying to coax her gaze back toward his. “Naoto? What’s the matter? C’mon, say somethin’!” He wasn’t trying to bark orders at her, but her very distraught demeanor was worrying him. Had he done something stupid again? He did overreact, but he hoped she didn’t take that the wrong way.

Naoto sighed heavily and looked at him. “I just...I’ve never felt this way about anyone , not even Narukami-senpai. And I’m... afraid ,” she said in a low voice, turning her head away from him again. To see Naoto, who was normally more brave than almost the whole Investigation Team put together, say she was scared upset Yosuke even more. 

“Wh-whattya mean?!” he asked, “What’s there to be afraid of?”

“M-making friends was difficult enough as it is,” she answered softly, “and even now, I-I have trouble, sometimes, maintaining those relationships. To go a step beyond friendship...how can I do that, when it seems like there’s still so much I don’t understand? Surely you have expectations, expectations that I can’t possibly meet…”

Expectations!? Yosuke wanted to tell her she was in her head too much again, but the detective wasn’t quite done. “A-and Kanji-kun...how can I even claim to be his friend after all this? Th-there’s no way he won’t be upset, and then all this work that we’ve done will be…!”

Yosuke wasn’t sure what else to do, so he had gently grasped her by the shoulders, which got her to stop talking, if only by gasping in shock and seizing up. Looking into her shifty eyes, Yosuke could a cagey fear, which was so far from her usual calm and cool state that it scared him a little. He could feel his face burning red to match hers, but he soldiered on, speaking from the heart.

“Listen,” he sighed, which got her to at least focus her eyes on his, “I...I get what you mean. I’ve thought about Kanji a lot too, but...it’s like you said: when I’m not with you, it’s like a piece of me is missing. I mean, I’ve felt this way about someone else before, and it’s exactly how I remember it. It sucks that you and Kanji weren’t meant for each other, but...doesn’t this just feel right?”

He could feel Naoto’s shoulders rise and fall with a heavy sigh she heaved out. “It...it does …”

Feeling more confident, Yosuke continued. “And you know that, no matter what, I’ll always be here for you, right? I’m not the toughest or smartest guy, but I promise that I’m reliable! I don’t exactly know what I’m doing here, and neither do you, so...why not work this thing out together?”

Truthfully, he had no idea where this confidence was coming from. He felt like he’d been on the verge of almost peeing his pants for the past few minutes, yet somehow, here he was, channeling Yu at his best. There was a small moment of silence before Naoto’s eyes found their way back to Yosuke’s, and she gently seized his wrists and removed them from her shoulders. He quickly retracted his arms and felt bad for a second, thinking he’d made her uncomfortable, when she suddenly placed her hand on top of his, not too dissimilar to how they had been at the arcade the other day. 

“Together.” she said, finally letting a smile find its way onto her lips. Yosuke found that he couldn’t close his mouth under his own power; his combination of agape jaw and a look of panicked surprise made Naoto blush and turn her head away again. She didn’t let her hand linger too long, and before long she had pulled it back and clasped her hands together in her lap, fidgeting nervously again. Similarly, Yosuke had no idea what to do with his hands, so he just folded them together behind his head, trying his best to process what just happened.

“It’s getting late,” Naoto suddenly announced after what very well could have been hours but was probably just a minute, “I have a bit of a walk home…”

“O-oh, oh, yeah!” Yosuke blurted, snapping up to his feet, “G-good point. I can, y’know...I can walk ya home, it’s no big deal…”

As Naoto got up, she shook her head. “That is not necessary. However...if you were to accompany me halfway...I-I would not object.”

She still couldn’t even look at him, she was so clearly embarrassed. Yosuke couldn’t help but snicker; she was sure cute when she tried to be coy! 

“Well well well,” he said in a teasing tone, “Halfway it is!”

Naoto nodded and began walking ahead of him, rather quickly, past the bench and back toward the path that had led to their location. The 3rd year laughed and jogged a little to catch up with her, finding himself in a dilemma when he reached her. There was something he had been wanting to do, like crazy, almost every day of the past few weeks, and the opportunity was going to present itself very soon. It was risky , however, and everything great that just happened could very well be undone by it. As the two started their walk back down the hill, Naoto still walking a bit faster than him, Yosuke debated on it internally for a bit before grinning madly as he settled on a decision:

When you’re on this much of a roll, why not press your luck?


Wednesday, 8/23/12, Tatsuhime Shrine Festival, Late Evening...

“That chocolate banana was really good! I would have gotten ice cream but it can be so messy, and this is a really nice kimono. How’s your shaved ice?”

“‘S good. Kinda hurts my teeth a lil.’”

“Oh, that’s such an odd feeling! But it’s also...kind of fun, in a way, isn’t it? It’s like when you get scared of something; you’re uncomfortable for a moment, but that little chill in your spine stays there and makes you want to keep watching!”

“Yeh, I guess…”

“Y-yeah…”

Yukiko did her best to maintain a smile as her and Kanji’s conversation finished up awkwardly. The two were walking toward the exit of the festival, back near the top of the concrete steps that lead down to the main street in the Inaba marketplace. Kanji was still munching on a small paper cone with some shaved ice in it, his expression rather neutral and unconcerned.

The teens had done pretty much everything to do at the festival: they had attempted to fish for koi, drawn lots, sampled some food (they did indeed end up sharing some okonomiyaki), and tried on some of the masks that were available. Kanji had won a book that appeared to be written by the staff at the shrine, while Yukiko had successfully guided him into catching a small fish, before they both agreed that their lives were too busy to take care of a fish and let the little guy back into his pond.

The Amagi heiress was having a good time, but she was still dismayed to see Kanji acting so vacant. Chie’s enthusiasm had gotten to her a bit, and the past few days had been fraught with Yukiko wondering how to use this night to further her and Kanji’s relationship. After all, she had confessed to him over the phone and while he didn’t use the exact words, he agreed to go to the festival after acknowledging her confession. 

For Yukiko, this was almost too good to be true. After almost a year of wallowing in quiet heartbreak, having her feelings be even somewhat validated was such a high that she didn’t want to come down from it. She had restrained herself, but she wanted more than anything to hold Kanji’s hand, or maybe even give him another hug, and not let go. Being in public was enough to dissuade her, but now that their evening was heading toward its end, she hoped that perhaps Kanji would invite her back to his home and she could indulge in her fantasy.

Kanji stepping away to toss his snow cone cup away finally snapped her out of her head. As he stepped back toward her, she noticed a look of consternation on his face as he shoved one hand in his pocket and rubbed the back of his inky black hair with the other. Feeling again that something was wrong, she felt now was a good time to express to Kanji how the night had gone.

“I just realized,” she started, feeling a blush come to her cheeks at the thought, “when I get home, I’m probably going to be teased so much by the people at the inn. Every time I’ve come to the festival, Chie and I would help each other with our kimonos and leave together, but this time I was by myself.”

“Y-yeah?” Kanji grunted, looking like he wasn’t paying much attention.

Yukiko nodded in response. “But that’s okay. I had...I had a really nice time with you tonight,” she confessed, nervously playing with the sleeves of her kimono, “and I’m so happy that you came. I almost don’t want it to end…”

The coy smile that came across her face was no accident, and she hoped that was enough of a hint for Kanji. He sighed and looked at her, his face unmoved.

“Look, Yukiko-senpai, there’s somethin’ I gotta tell ya,” he announced. Yukiko suddenly frowned, the tingle running down her spine the exact opposite of the more pleasant one she described earlier.

“Wh-what is it, Kanji-kun?” she said very quietly. Kanji looked around and motioned for her to follow him elsewhere. He led her around the purification fountain near the entrance to the small area behind it. The fountain was surrounded by a tall hedge, so they were more or less hidden to the crowd of people that were either entering or exiting the shrine.

Kanji sighed again and pushed his glasses up his nose as he looked down at Yukiko. “Senpai, I...when you called on Monday, I didn’t really know what ta think. I mean, I ain’t dumb, I thought that you had kinda been actin’ a little funnier’n usual, and now it all makes sense.” He stepped a bit closer to her, which made Yukiko’s heart start racing even faster.

“The thing is, though,” he continued, “everything’s happenin’ so fast, that I dunno if you really thought it through, y’know? I mean, what’s ‘sposed to happen after this? We go back to school and we’re just a thing now? You know me, you know what people think about me...you don’t deserve to have that stink on ya…”

The cricket chirps that followed Kanji’s statement were a sadly funny coincidence. What was he talking about!? 

Yukiko, now scared, tried to decipher his words. “K-Kanji-kun, what are you saying? Do you think I’m... embarrassed of you?”

The taller boy grit his teeth, his short temper starting to flare up. “No, that’s not what I’m sayin’! I’m sayin’ that people are assholes, and I don’t want you to have ta go through that kinda shit. It ain’t worth it, okay!? You got a great life, you don’t need me around to fuck it up.”

The heiress felt numb. Where was this coming from, and why now? She stepped a bit closer to him, the gap between them almost nonexistent as she looked up at him, tears swimming in her eyes.

“Y-you’re right,” she said hoarsely, which made Kanji give her a puzzled look, “I don’t need you around.” Kanji looked like he was going to say something but before he could, Yukiko reached out and grabbed his big right hand, to his shock, holding it with one hand and massaging the tops of his knuckles with the other. “I want you around. I don’t care what anyone else thinks, and I never will. Why would you think that?”

Kanji’s face was beet red and he looked very conflicted, but eventually he pulled his hand away from Yukiko’s, making her gasp slightly. “Y-you’re not gettin’ it! I know you care about me, that ain’t the point! An’ I like you too, alright!? I do, but…”

As much as her emotions were on fire, that was enough to make her heart soar briefly. “K-Kanji-kun…”

“Jus’ listen! I like you, but how I feel ain’t gonna change the fact that this just isn’t a good idea right now. ‘Sides, you don’t know me as well as ya think. Trust me, I ain’t perfect, an’ the sooner we go back to bein’ just pals, the better. Let someone else deal with my shit…”

That last sentence confirmed to Yukiko what this was really about. It was her. Again. The sadness and tears started to evaporate, and in its place was something that she had felt back when Rise’s secret relationship with Yu was revealed to her: righteous anger. Not at Naoto, but at Kanji, who just couldn't see the forest for the trees.

“You still like her, don't you?” She hissed, clenching her fists together at her side. Kanji looked up at her, surprise on his face.

“Wh-whattya mean?”

“Naoto-kun.”

Checkmate. His face sunk before he looked back at her, his expression stern. “Look, she means a lot to me, okay!? No one else can - “

Yukiko had had enough. “She doesn’t feel the same way, she told you so! And she’s not ever going to!” Her voice was starting to lose a little control, and her breathing, already harder because of the wrapping around her stomach, was getting more dramatic.

“Y-you don’t know that!” Kanji roared back, although it was evident in his voice that he did, in fact, know that.

Kanji-Kun, please," Yukiko pleaded, trying to catch her breath, “you're only going to keep getting hurt if you convince yourself there's still something there! Naoto's not the only girl in the world, you don't have to make up connections when there isn't - “

“I’m not making shit up!” By now, Kanji was raising his voice enough that Yukiko stepped back, a little scared. “I’m a weird guy, don’t you get it!? You saw my shadow, you know the deal! Naoto didn’t have to see that, she only knows me how I am now, and that’s better! Be honest, would you ever not think about that shit?”

Yukiko felt her heart ache that Kanji was clearly still bothered by that, but wasn’t phased. “No, I wouldn’t! We all had shadows, I know you’re not perfect! You think I’m any better!?”

Kanji’s scoffed, which hurt more than anything he could have said. He wasn't done, however.

“Don’t gimme that!” he yelled, “Look at you, you’re like the town princess! Everyone loves you, everyone wants to be you. You’re so goddamn beautiful that it’s embarrassing you would ever want to be with a loser like me when you could throw a dart and pick someone who's goddamn normal and would drool all over ya!”

Kanji couldn’t possibly know how close he was to hitting home, and even with his compliment mixed in, Yukiko’s anger was quickly turning to rage. “K-Kanji-kun, stop it…”

“Oh, what, we gonna pretend like that ain't true?! What am I, your last resort?" Kanji spat, now pointing a finger at Yukiko in a derogatory way. "Student council ran outta dweebs that wanted you as arm candy, so you had to find some loser you could pin all yer problems on, izzat it?”

“I said stop! ” Yukiko shut her eyes, unable to bear any more of Kanji’s tongue lashing.

“Whatsa matter, don't like hearin' the truth!?" He was now at his full height and towering above the scared and upset Yukiko. "What was your shadow anyway? “ I’ve been accepted at every university and I don’t know which one to pick!’? Or “I’m the prettiest girl in town but I can’t get a boyfriend ‘cuz no one wants to hear me laugh like an idiot?’”

-CRACCK--

The slap reverberated like a shotgun blast. Yukiko could immediately feel her palm stinging, a pain that wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. Whether it was the pain in her hand or her heart she didn’t know, but a stream of tears was leaking from her eyes, making her mascara run in ugly black streaks across her red face. She hadn’t intended to strike him, but the cruelty of the things he was saying had completely overwhelmed her until she was only seeing red. At that point it was just a visceral, rageful reaction.

Kanji’s face was red, too, where she had hit him, and his glasses had been knocked a bit askew. For a moment he reared back, death in his eyes and breathing heavily through his nose, like he was about to explode. Eventually, however, he just scoffed again and shook his head. He went to leave, but he turned around while searching for something in his pocket. He pulled out some sort of object and tossed it up in the air in Yukiko’s direction, and in her dazed state she was barely able to catch it. 

While he stormed off, Yukiko looked down in her hands to see the disguise glasses. She remembered that he had said he had them from when she left them over at the Dojima house, and he must have brought them to give them back to her. Unfolding them, she could only imagine Kanji’s face on the other end, and although they normally made her laugh, they now only served to further break her heart.

The music and sounds of people laughing and having a good time helped to drown out the 3rd year girls’ cries as she buried her face in her hands, feeling like she had, once again, ruined her best chance at finding happiness with someone she cared about.


8/23/12, Central Shopping District North, Late Evening…

Kanji’s home was nearby but he didn’t want to go home in the mood he was in now. It had been a while, but he remembered the jittery feeling in his legs, dry mouth, and itchy hands and hair that usually belied a searing need to punch someone in the nose. Back before he met everyone this was a pretty common feeling, and like an addict tasting alcohol for the first time in years, he was both relishing in it and hating himself for it.

He had tried. He really had. During their whole time at the shrine, Kanji had run scenario after scenario in his head, trying to find the one where he could communicate that perhaps he and Yukiko weren’t meant to be and somehow not crush her feelings. He expected to do one or the other, but he didn’t quite expect it to get as nasty as it had, which the stinging mark on his cheek reminded him of.

As he walked along the sidewalk, he felt angry tears starting to well up. He wasn’t lying when he said that he liked Yukiko; no other girl, even Naoto, made him feel as good as she did, nor was as fun to be around. But for whatever reason, he still couldn’t accept that Yukiko Amagi, queen of Yasogami High and darling of the Amagi Inn, thought he was someone worthy of being...a boyfriend? More? Amidst all of that were his genuine feelings for Naot, which had persisted for so long that it was safe and natural to him. Whatever the case, his psyche wouldn’t allow this potential union to be a thing, so, naturally, he had to tear it down in the worst way possible. 

Despite all the strides he had made, that kind of behavior was unfortunately par for the course. He always picked fights with his mom when she would fuss and worry over him, and it was the same with any teacher or other adult that wanted to help him. Kanji had been so obsessed with the idea that he was this outcast, this freak , that anytime anyone offered help he tended to assume the worst of their intentions. Old habits were hard to break, and even in his closest friends it seemed like he couldn’t quite shake his aversion to kindness and empathy. Even still, the fact that Yukiko brought up Naoto and essentially called him out on his behavior made him even madder than usual, and even just minutes later he knew that he probably had crossed a line from which there was no coming back.

Still jittering with nervous energy, he made his way over to the long-closed Souzai Daigaku food stand and took a seat at one of the circular tables there. The night had settled in nicely, with a deluge of stars littering the sky next to a moon that was only just starting to shine. It was hot, but Kanji barely noticed as he sat and stewed, running back the past ten minutes in his head over and over again as he massaged his cheek. A sob started to work its way into his chest and he fought to keep it down, which was unbearably difficult.

In his agony, he noticed two other figures walking along the sidewalk across the street. It was pretty late to be out, so he figured it was just yet another couple coming back from enjoying the festival. They suddenly stopped under the pole across the street, gazing at each other in a sort of loving way. Great . The notable size difference between the two didn’t really help to take his mind off of what had just happened, either.  Souzai Daigaku had no lights, and the nearest light pole on his side of the street was a few yards away, so Kanji figured he was pretty well invisible to them too. Good, he thought; he didn’t need anyone to see him be a crying, blubbering mess.


8/23/12, Central Shopping District North, Late Evening..

“Well, I suppose this is halfway.”

“You sure? I think it’s a couple more blocks.”

“You said that a few blocks ago.”

“Did I?”

“I’m beginning to think you have intentionally been dishonest in order to spend more time with me.”

“C’mon, can you blame me?”

Yosuke and Naoto had completed their journey and were standing underneath a street lamp in the Inaba shopping district. It had been a bit quiet for most of the journey; Yosuke wasn’t sure what to say, nor did he even want to do anything but have a big smile on his face and be in the company of his...he wasn’t sure what now. Still, over time, the two had opened up into a lighthearted conversation, and this playful banter seemed like a good spot to end the night.

Naoto stepped in front of him, as she had a bit ways to go south while Yosuke was going a mile or so in the opposite direction. In the beam of light coming down from above them, she looked nothing short of angelic to Yosuke. An easy grin found its way to his lips as he stepped a bit closer to her, which made her nervously brush her hair with her fingers.

“Erm...I’m not sure what to say. There are a lot of things on my mind, none of which seem adequate enough to describe this evening,” she said, crossing her arms as she looked up at him. Yosuke chuckled, feeling like he was drowning in cuteness.

“Well,” he started, taking yet another step toward her, “I can think of a few. Amazing. Astounding. Awesome. And that’s just the A’s!”

This got a small laugh from the Detective Prince as she continued. “As always, you have a knack for getting inside my mind. Perhaps the only thing I can say is…”

Feeling a moment coming on, Yosuke stepped in and interrupted her. “You don’t have to say anything. How about that? There’s just...no words.”

“N-no words?”

“Nope! Not one.”

Naoto shook her head as a weary smile replaced her puzzled frown. “So if there are no words, how do we best comment on...everything?”

Yosuke felt it in his bones that this was the time. He felt just as cool as Sam Spade as he winked at Naoto. “Why don’t we just seal the deal?”

Even with the lamp light casting a shadow on her, Naoto’s bright red face was pretty evident. “O-oh, you mean…? I-I suppose…”

Alright! Yosuke felt like his heart was going to explode out of his chest. He licked his lips and took in a few quick breaths through his nose, ready to pull off what was surely the boldest move of his life. He bent over a little and went to move in, his target in sight…

Only to find Naoto’s outstretched hand in his face.

Baffled, he looked up to see his companion looking away, with her eyes seemingly closed. Evidently she found that shaking hands was a very intimate affair. Yosuke snickered quietly, still unable to process this tiny little genius weirdo actually liked him. Despite this comical misunderstanding, Yosuke decided to roll the dice once again and press his luck.

He reached his hand forward, ignoring Naoto’s hand and moving toward her chin. He grasped it gently and turned her head toward his. Naoto’s eyes shot open, and that was the last thing Yosuke saw before he closed his eyes and pushed his lips to hers. Naoto's immediate reaction was muffled by the sudden sealing of her mouth.

It was brief, maybe less than a second, but Yosuke could feel his entire body tingling like nothing he ever felt before. The closest comparison he could find was when he first became one with Jiraiya, his Persona: the rush of energy and the feeling like he was going to collapse on his feet were pleasantly familiar. As far as first kisses went, he thought this was a home-run; the feel of her warm breath against his and her soft, thin lips was something he already desired to do again and again.

More stunned than him was Naoto, who looked as if she’d seen a ghost. Her face was somehow both red and pale, and she was clearly trembling a bit. Her eyes, already wide from before, were now like giant saucers with beady little pupils quivering within. 

“O-oh...I-I thought you meant...something else,” she whispered breathlessly. 

Yosuke laughed, unmoved from his bent over position. “Nope! I’ve...I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, honestly,” he grinned, wishing he could take a picture of Naoto’s face to treasure forever. As he moved back up to his full height, Naoto turned to leave, suddenly.

“W-well, I-I really must be going,” she said quickly, “So...err...G-Goodbye!” She finished turning in the opposite direction and literally took off running, disappearing into the dark of night quicker than the kiss the two had just shared.

“H-Hey, wait!” Yosuke called futilely, “I’ll...I’ll call you, I guess…” He scratched the back of his head as he watched her run off, wondering if he was going to have to get used to this awkwardness. Not that he minded; truthfully he had just wanted to give her another kiss goodnight, but he understood that the day had been a little intense. Who wouldn’t be a little weird after all that?

It still felt unreal to him that he was already normalizing the idea that him and Naoto were romantically involved. How did it go so well ? This was crazy! He wanted to run all the way back up the hill he was just on and scream from it like he had before, except now he had the energy to do it all night long, especially since he had most of the day off the next day. Still, Yosuke realized that maybe the best way to celebrate the night was 8to end it now and have some sweet, blissful dreams about it.

As he started making his way toward his house, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, a feeling he usually got when he knew someone was watching him. He turned around, puzzled, only to see an empty street and flickering street lights behind him. Okay, maybe he was getting a little too excited. Shaking his head, Yosuke began his short journey home, whistling merrily as his head began to fill with replays and still images of the entire night.

Chapter Text

Thursday, 8/24/12, Yasogami High Gymnasium, Afternoon…

-swoosh-

An orange basketball sailed through the air and slid right into the net, never touching the rim, as if guided there like a missle. Just outside the paint, Kou Ichijo wolf-whistled, a cheerful grin ever-present as he stood in the Yasogami High basketball uniform of a black jersey with black athletic shorts.

“Dang, when did you learn to shoot, Hanamura-kun? You’re on fire today!”

On the other side of the court, near the three-point line, Daisuke Nagase stood uncomfortably, scoffing at Kou’s praise. “Pfft. Lucky break.” Like always, he was wearing the school’s standard tracksuit, although he had tied the green jacket around his waist to reveal a white t-shirt stained with sweat.

“Oh, I’m sorry Daisuke, is that a little bit of salt I hear?” Kou snickered loudly, tucking some of his shaggy blue hair behind his ear. “Worried that your chances of victory are slipping away? This ain’t soccer, y’know!”

“Shuddup!”

Yosuke felt a cocky smile come across his lips. “Hey, you guys can solve this lover’s dispute after I win this one!”

Daisuke audibly ground his teeth together. “Just focus on the next shot and don’t get cocky!”

It was always too easy to rile up Daisuke, Yosuke thought. Daisuke and Kou were fellow third years, and while Yosuke wouldn’t count them among his closest friends, they were reliable buddies who were usually up to hanging out during the summer. Yosuke felt strange to be back in the school gymnasium when he was still on summer break for at least another week, but it was hard to deny the appeal of hanging out in an air-conditioned building instead of roasting while they played at some spare lot with a court. He had borrowed a spare pair of black shorts from Kou and matched it with a plain red v-neck t-shirt he had laying around.

Kou and Daisuke were both very into their respective sports clubs of basketball and soccer, so naturally, meeting up to play one of those two sports was a common theme among them. Luckily, since they were so involved in clubs, they still had access to the school gymnasium, as club activity usually didn’t cease even during the month-long summer break. It was Kou who had suggested that he, Daisuke, Yosuke, and Kanji should all meet up to play a game of basketball against each other, which Yosuke happily agreed to. He wasn’t particularly talented at sports, but hanging out with school chums was a nice way to spend the time, and they were nice guys, if a little competitive. Kanji had asked them to push it back a few days, apparently feeling a bit under the weather, although he had yet to show up to the gymnasium.

The three 3rd years, bored of waiting, decided to come up with a way that all three of them could play. Kou suggested a game he had heard about from some more worldly teammates in which the players took turns matching each other’s trick shots, with each missed shot earning the player a letter. When one player earned all the letters necessary to spell “HORSE,” they were eliminated. Since he was the more experienced player, Kou stepped aside to coach Yosuke and Daisuke through the rules of the game as they went along. So far, Daisuke was at H-O-R, while Yosuke had yet to earn a letter. Like Kou had said, he was playing like a man possessed.

Truthfully, Yosuke was just on cloud nine, and had been ever since he woke up. He was still half-convinced he had dreamt everything that happened the previous night, but several successful pinches told him that this was no dream: he and Naoto’s relationship had become, if only mildly, intimate. He had done it! Only one screw-up, but no tongue twisting and no rejection; Naoto, the girl he had been dreaming about, was now his girlfriend, more-or-less. Right? Sure, he knew of some guys that would kiss a girl and not think twice about dating them, but he wasn’t like that! All he could think about was her face, blushing and shocked, as she turned to leave him for the night. 

“...Hanamura, c’mon! Let’s get this over with!”

Daisuke’s ire knocked him out of the 3rd or 4th daydream he had had that day. “Uh, sorry, just take your shot!” He watched as Daisuke moved to the top of the paint, lining up what appeared to be a free throw. The gym at the high school was surprisingly decent; shiny wooden floors with black paint on it for the basketball team, a stage on the east side of the room that had its curtains drawn but held many a band recital, and bleachers on the west, currently folded into the wall. While Yosuke wasn’t a fan of the paintjob being the same drab brown color as the floor, it still looked modern and fresh, unlike the rest of Inaba. 

Taking a moment to inhale deeply and bend his knees, Daisuke’s fingers grazed the lines of the basketball, his intense eyes alight with renewed energy. Suddenly, he shifted his stance and moved to shoot the ball from behind his back and over his left shoulder. Whatever glorious shot he had conjured up in his head fizzled out as the ball barely got any air and landed like a stone onto the court, not even getting halfway toward the net.

Dammit! Ball’s probably deflated,” he hissed, rubbing the back of his short brown hair. Yosuke and Kou both shared a look and laughed, enjoying Daisuke’s tantrum. Just as they finished laughing, the doors of the gym burst open suddenly behind them, and Kanji stepped into the room. Like Daisuke he had chosen to wear his green Yasogami sweatpants, but paired them with a blue tank-top instead.

“Woah, Tatsumi-kun, ya made it!” Kou chirped loudly, his kind eyes shining, “Thought ya got lost on the way here!”

“S-sorry,” Kanji said, rubbing the back of his black hair as he approached them, “I, er...forgot to set an alarm. Whatever, let’s jus’ play.” 

Yosuke noticed Kanji looked nervous and shifty, or at least more so than usual. “Yo, Kanji, you good? If you don’t wanna play you can -”

This got Yosuke a nasty glare from the taller 2nd year. “I said I was good, ‘lright!?” 

Both Kou and Yosuke recoiled in fright. “Alright, alright, relax! Was just askin’...” Yosuke scoffed, recognizing that it was better to just let Kanji deal with whatever was going on his head when he was in this kind of mood. As Daisuke came over to greet him, Yosuke took advantage of the distraction to go over to the small drawstring bag he had left lying just out of bounds, plucking his phone from inside. He noticed he had one new text, and his heart started racing for a moment, only to realize that it was from Chie, instead. He sighed, disappointed, but opened the text.

“Have u seen kanji? Need to find him asap n he not answering texts”

Well, that was weird. What did she need to see him for? Either way, he nonchalantly answered.

hes at gym w me kou dsuke. jus got here”

He went to put his phone back and was shocked that he got a notification again so quickly. It was Chie again.

“k i’m comin rn. Don’t move!”

Just what he needed: Chie to come in and no doubt ruin whatever plans they had. He tapped out of Chie’s window and saw Naoto’s right below it. Grinning, he quickly tapped her name and the most recent message, from late last night, came up. When he got home, Yosuke couldn’t help but fire off one last text to her before he went to sleep.

“2night was gr8, bst night evr! it iz hRd 2 leave some1 special ;) sweet dreamz, squirt!”

Reading her reply for the thousandth time made his heart melt all over again.

“G/N. U R SPECIAL 2 ME 2. I’M NOT SQUIRT”

A giggle fell out of his throat, which soon turned into a full blown laugh. If this was a sign of what he could look forward to, then he couldn’t wait to dive in. Interrupting his snicker fit was a big throat clearing from Kou.

“You can look at memes anytime, let’s get this game started already!” he said jokingly, eagerly tossing the basketball in between his hands. Yosuke nodded and set his phone down in the bag again, shaking his head and trying to stop laughing. Every time he thought he was done, the phrase “ I’M NOT SQUIRT” would pop in his head and he’d start all over again.

“What’s so funny?” Kanji asked, arms crossed tightly. 

“If ya ask me, he’s been acting weird all day.” Daisuke commented, stretching his calves a bit to warm up. 

Yosuke, with all his soul, wanted to brag and say something, but if he learned anything from this past year, it was that talking about this kind of thing could bring a lot of unnecessary drama. As funny as he found it, it was serious, and if he wanted to be in a serious relationship, Yosuke knew that pissing her off was not a good idea, considering her temper. There was also the matter of Kanji being right there; Yosuke knew that no matter what, the news would probably sting. Now probably wasn’t the time to say anything. 

“Let’s just say,” he started, taking the ball from Kou and dribbling it excitedly, “last night was pretty awesome. I, uh, finally... got something I’ve wanted for a long time…” He finished with a wink, which only seemed to affect Kanji, who narrowed his eyes a little.

Kou blinked for a second before responding. “Oh, was that supposed to be your answer? I couldn’t tell because it was vague as all hell! What are ya keeping secrets from us for!?”

Before Yosuke could respond, Daisuke moved forward and slapped the ball out mid-dribble, taking it in his hands. “C’mon, guys! We gonna gossip like a buncha girls or are we gonna play!?”

“Well, that’s Daisuke for ya,” Kou chortled, stepping over toward his old friend. “Okay, so we’ll just do two on two, first to twenty five points wins. Half-court only, and I’m calling traveling this time!” He said this loudly in Kanji’s direction, who seemed to ignore Kou as he continued to stare at Yosuke.

“Wait, wait, I gotta be on his team?” Kanji groaned, as if Yosuke was some sort of leper. 

Ouch , dude!” Yosuke said, a little offended. “I’m not that bad!”

Kou defended Yosuke. “It’s true, and trust me, Daisuke’s worse than he looks!” he winked, which got him a slap on the back from his cantankerous friend. Kanji sighed and nodded, walking over toward Yosuke. As the two athletes dithered about and argued playfully, Yosuke turned to Kanji, who was giving him a funny look.

“So...what were ya up to last night?” Kanji asked, his voice weirdly serious. Yosuke just stared back blankly; what was up with him? 

“I’ll tell ya later,” he replied quickly, waving his hand and stepping over toward Daisuke and Kou, “let’s play!”

Kanji muttered something under his breath but stepped over to the half-court line, where everyone else had gathered. Kou offered the ball up to him as he came up.

“Alright, Tatsumi-kun, since you’re the tallest, we’ll have you toss the ball up for the tip-off.”

“Kay,” he said blankly, grabbing the ball. “Jus’ toss it up and whoever grabs it goes, right?”

“Right,” everyone responded. Yosuke took his position to Kanji’s left, trying to get his mind off Naoto, although it was hard; almost every one of his senses was still stuck in the previous night, just absorbing all that he could about her. He stomped a sneaker to the floor, trying to focus and get his head in the game. Kou took his opposite position, while Daisuke waited in the wings.

“Alright, game on!” Kou hooted, which was the signal for Kanji to throw the ball up. He soon did, and both Yosuke and Kou jumped up, eager to grab the ball and get the game started.


Thursday, 8/24/12, Hanamura Household, Early Afternoon…

The sun was not shining quite as bright due to a little bit of overcast, which Naoto was thankful for. She was going to be travelling quite a distance today, and even with her helmet on, the summer heat could be a little overbearing. As an added bonus, the grey clouds looming overhead, keeping the joyous and bright light of the sun from piercing through the sky, were a bit of a mirror for her current mood.

For the past 12 hours, Naoto had constantly been replaying and analyzing the events that lead right up to the present moment, hardly getting any sleep in the process. Everything had happened so fast that, at first, she could barely process exactly what had transpired or what it meant for the future. It didn’t take long after the initial excitement had died down, however, that she began to get very anxious and concerned over what had happened. 

When Yosuke told her that he liked her, it was like he had placed the missing piece into the jigsaw puzzle that was Naoto’s feelings. Ironic, she thought, considering she had spent the past week telling herself that it couldn’t be that. Naoto had come to enjoy his company, and he sparked some strange new feelings in her, but in her mind she couldn’t justify that as reason for them to move beyond friendship, nor could she decipher why he would care about her in that way. Hearing him say that even the sound of her voice, a voice she often despised, was enough to perk up his day was overwhelming, and she realized that in many ways, she could say the same about him. The warmth that would consume her whole body whenever he smiled at her or made her laugh, like she was just dozing off to a comfortable sleep, was probably similar to what he described. 

That said, she was being very literal when she said it felt like he had ‘stolen her heart.’ While there was no doubt a desire for her to be close to him in an emotional sense, there were so many things missing, things that seemed common in most romantic situations she had studied, that it felt like her heart was abducted rather than smitten. It was frustrating, to have affection for someone on a deeply emotional level but still not being sure how to express it or have it expressed to her mutually. 

The epitome of that was last night, just before bidding Yosuke goodbye, when he surprised her with a gentle kiss that she had been too late to stop. It was brief, it was intense, and it was…

Awful.  

Perhaps that was a bit histrionic, but every fear Naoto had ever had about kissing someone, even someone as precious to her as Yosuke, was confirmed in that three-quarters of a second. The way he held her chin as he did it, emphasizing their size difference, made her feel like she was out of control of the situation, something she found intolerable. Beyond that, it was all just too much - Naoto would consider herself hypersensitive to touch on a good day, so the very idea that she could partially feel Yosuke’s bodily fluids on her lips made her feel nauseous. There was no pleasure to be had from the kiss because she forced her mind to disassociate from the situation. It was all she could do afterwards to run away without saying much, because she was terribly afraid she would have said something dreadful.

Truthfully, this is what spurred her to make the decently long excursion to his home. Whatever her issue was, she knew that whatever was going on between her and Yosuke needed to have a more serious, in-depth discussion. The problem was that she was almost at a loss as to how she could explain how she felt without making her sound like some sort of overly cold prude or, worse, really hurting Yosuke’s feelings. It wasn’t his fault, per-se, but he was a hormonal teenage boy - was there any other way he would take this news but as rejection?  Blunt as she often was, even Naoto understood that it was largely considered poor conduct to tell someone you liked that physical contact with them was, at minimum, nauseating. Her attempts to text him that morning had all come out sounding harsh and robotic; this was something that needed to be done in person. As usual, she had tried her best to outline her jumbled thoughts in her notebook, so she hopefully wouldn’t sound as garbled and jargon-heavy as her thoughts were. Her main objective, circled in bright red ink, was to convey positive feelings about him while being clear about her physical discomfort should this..."enhanced" friendship continue.

These goal consumed her mind as she slowly approached Yosuke’s home on her scooter. The group had long ago exchanged information including addresses and cell-phone numbers, and she had memorized them all rather quickly. She also remembered that he had mentioned having the day-off today, which made her happy that they had a chance to discuss the matter alone. The scooter slowed to a crawl just outside the fairly upscale Hanamura home; indeed the whole neighborhood was a tad nicer than most of the homes in Inaba, no doubt a sign of how much Junes had paid Yosuke’s father to migrate.

As she hopped off the bike, Naoto took a look in the makeshift rear-view mirror she had created for it, giving her person a quick once-over. She had chosen to wear a light blue and black checkered flannel, a design not dissimilar to a pair of pants she frequently wore, that was tightly buttoned to her neck, successfully hiding her binder, which she had felt like wearing today. She paired the shirt with a black pair of slacks and some nicely polished black shoes to match. As was necessary in the buggy heat of the summer, she had rolled the sleeves up to a bit past her elbow, and her hat kept what little remained of the sun from getting into her eyes. Satisfied, she began walking up the small path to the Hanamura front door.

The bright white door in front of her felt more like a barrier, something keeping her out rather than inviting her in. Sighing, she tapped the small doorbell switch next to it, hearing a pleasantly generic chime come from inside the house. She felt a little bad about surprising him like this, but she also didn't want him to seem too clingy; they had just spent most of the night together, and surely he needed a break from her. As usual, that little instance of doubt brought forth a wave of thoughts that urged her to abandon the plan and just go home, but she remained steadfast. A few seconds went by with no answer, and she was about to ring again when the door suddenly opened, revealing a smiling woman with a bob of dark hair, dressed in a pair of white capris pants and a short-sleeved beige chiffon blouse. Almost right away, Naoto could see Yosuke’s kind eyes and bright smile in her face.

“Yes? Can I...help you with something?” Her confused tone was no doubt a result of the look of embarrassed shock on Naoto’s face. It suddenly occurred that she had not only dismissed the idea that Yosuke’s father could have a day off, but also completely neglected that he had a mother who may or may not have been working. Or, heaven forbid, Teddie . It was a humiliating oversight, and she had half a mind to listen to her brain and run away if not for the fact that she didn’t want to make a horrible impression on her friend's parent.

“Erm, yes, my name is Naoto Shirogane, and I was...I was wondering i-if your son is home,” she managed to squeak out, already hating herself for how scatterbrained she sounded. As she pulled her hat down to hide her flushed face, Yosuke’s mother cocked her head and leaned back on the open door a bit, a clear gesture meant to imply the door was going to be closing soon.

“Oh, well, not at the moment, no...he’s out with his friends,” she answered, her brown eyes looking observant but wary as they scanned Naoto up and down. She felt her heart sink again, beginning to lose any hope that her plan was going to end in success.

Before she could muster up a response, Kaori took a brief step forward. “I-I’m sorry, but you...you look so familiar . Have I seen you before?” she asked the teen. 

Naoto saw no harm in being honest. “No, we haven’t met, ma’am. I’m a friend of Yosuke-senpai, and my only intention was - “

“Wait, yes! I know you! You’re the...King of Detectives, right!?” Kaori suddenly gasped, “I saw you on TV!” Almost immediately, her voice twisted with concern. “I-is Yosuke in trouble? Did something happen?”

This was getting profoundly worse; at least she had remembered a slightly better epithet than what the news broadcast had coined. That TV appearance was going to haunt Naoto to the end of her days, she thought grimly. “N-no, ma’am, not at all! I-I am a detective, yes, but I assure you, I’m merely here to inquire about the whereabouts of Yosuke-senpai. N-Not for anything nefarious!” she made sure to emphasize, waving her hands wildly. Kaori looked relieved.

“Oh, thank goodness! Well, he said he’d be back around noon, so he should be home any minute now! Please, why don't you come in and wait for him?” the older woman smiled, revealing oddly perfect teeth as she stepped away to unblock the doorway, “It’s so rare that Yosuke brings any of his little friends around…”

The gulp Naoto made probably could have been heard all the way at Junes. To turn down Mrs. Hanamura’s invitation would have been the epitome of rudeness, yet Naoto knew that absolutely no good was going to come out of awkwardly spending time with Yosuke’s mother while her head was in such a state. Unfortunately there seemed to be little recourse other than running away again, so Naoto resigned herself to her fate and walked past the smiling form of Kaori into the Hanamura household.

Naoto had no real eye for architecture, but it was clear that the Hanamuras lived in comfort. The foyer was tidy and organized, a small white shoe rack holding everyone’s shoes on the top row and white house slippers on the bottom row. Naoto dutifully removed hers and slipped into a spare pair of slippers, finding them comforting. The wood floor of the house was lacquered, giving it a very nice oaky shine that Naoto admired as she and Kaori moved out of the foyer and towards the living room. She also noted a staircase off to her right, as well as a rather nice dining room table that looked like it could seat at least six. 

The living room was even more impressive. A large cherry-red entertainment center held a wide LCD television and various knick-knacks and family photos, while a glass coffee table with a fine bamboo centerpiece and an L-shaped green couch set nicely across the room. Kaori made herself busy in the kitchen, which had similar wooden furnishings and a very nice granite countertop that was centered between the stove, the refrigerator, and a closed pantry. Naoto detected the very familiar scent of coffee wafting out from a fancy black appliance on one of the countertops. 

“Please, make yourself at home. Would you like some water, or…?” Naoto felt odd, again, taking advantage of her gracious host, but coffee did tend to settle her nerves, and if there was ever a time…

“Erm, actually, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” she said politely, gesturing towards the machine, “I could really use some coffee.”

The Hanamura matriarch quickly tried to assuage Naoto’s request. “Oh no, no, no trouble at all! We’re a coffee-drinking family, so I’ve always got a pot on. How do you take it?” 

“Black. Just black, thanks.” 

Naoto winced at the surprised click of the tongue Kaori made before she quickly got two mugs and went to work pouring the beverages. More than ever, she was keenly aware of all of her idiosyncrasies and quirks, and any hint of judgement coming from Yosuke’s mother was enough to cause her already critically high anxiety to skyrocket. Luckily a steaming mug was handed to her in short order, which was a nice distraction. A sip confirmed that the coffee was bitter and strong, just the way she preferred it. 

While Naoto politely drank from her mug, Kaori walked past her with her own cup, moving back toward the dining room table. She took a seat at the head of the table and nudged out one of the chairs for Naoto to join her; the 2nd year did so, cautiously

As Naoto placed the now mostly empty mug on a coaster, Kaori began her motherly assault. “Sooo..you’re really a detective?” she asked, resting her chin on her hands, a tone in her voice that Naoto had gotten very familiar with over the course of her long life. Naoto wasn’t annoyed by it anymore so much as bemused.

“Yes,” she answered, finding the confidence to look Yosuke’s mother in the eye, “I realize it may sound odd for a high-schooler, but it’s the truth.”

Kaori’s eyes sparkled with glee. “Oh, how fun! Well, not fun, especially since you worked on those murders...but still! So you must be a classmate of Yosuke’s, then?”

So far, so good. Naoto felt herself calming down just a little; it was clear Ms. Hanamura was a little starstruck. “Erm, of sorts, yes.”

“Oh, but you called him ‘senpai,’ didn’t you? Sorry, I’m such a snoop sometimes!” she giggled, which Naoto gave a gentle “hah” in response to, if only to be nice. “But how does a famous detective like you come to know my son ?” Her gentle tone betrayed the serious, inquisitive look in her eyes. Naoto got the feeling Yosuke didn’t involve Kaori much in his personal life, so she was taking it upon herself to discover the kinds of people her son hung out with.

What could she say? Naoto had become an expert in covering up everything regarding the Investigation Team and the TV World, but it was rare that she had to explain how she came to meet her friends. Taking a deep breath, she decided to let her heart do the talking. “When I first arrived in town, I had yet to attend a high-school due to my duties as a detective. I...wouldn’t call myself “famous,” but I did have a bit of a...reputation when I enrolled at Yasogami, which afforded me a lot of attention.But even after the initial commotion died down, there was a certain group of students who seemed to not care about my job, or what I was doing, but just...me. You see, I was never very good at making friends, but they were always kind to me, nevertheless. Y-Yosuke-senpai was one of them...”

As anxious as she felt over everything that had happened recently, speaking about these memories was bringing a bright smile to her face. Still, she felt she was being too familiar with a stranger for her comfort. “I-In any case,” she stammered, bashfully pulling the bill of her hat down a bit, “Yosuke-senpai has become a good friend, and I merely need to discuss something with him. That’s all.”

Kaori nodded along, sipping at the last of her coffee as she quietly listened to everything Naoto said, before her ruby lips parted to give a smile. “Well that is so sweet!” she cooed, standing up so she could take Naoto’s mug and hers back to the kitchen. As she flitted away, she continued talking. “You know, you hear such scary things about teenage boys on the news, but I’m glad to see Yosuke and yourself setting an example! Having jobs, being responsible and polite...”

It was small, and Naoto would be the first to admit that she was in a bit of an emotional state, but the fact that Yosuke’s mother had heard her speak and seen her in a bit more of a relaxed mode of dress and still chose to see her as a man felt like a lightning bolt of euphoria was coursing through her body. It was the total opposite of the feeling the nice older woman at Junes had given her, a gentle validation that perhaps her petite body and angular face and chest weren’t dead giveaways of her assigned-at-birth gender, and there was room for ambiguity. It was now impossible to stop a smile from working its way across her face.

Feeling a little more calm, she looked around the room and saw a recent family photo of the Hanamuras. It was taken professionally, with the family posing nicely in front of a stark blue background, with Yosuke in the center of his parents. Getting a good look at him, Naoto realized she had definitely seen Yosuke’s father around Junes: handsome and square jawed face complimented by a black goatee and thick glasses, with a bit of a soft middle. Although it was pretty obvious, both of his parents having black hair confirmed that Yosuke must be dying his hair, a piece of information she filed away should that ever come up in conversation. His mother looked perky as ever, her black hair in a small ponytail as she gave an easy and confident smile, her hand on her son’s shoulder.

Then, of course, there was Yosuke. Despite a tempestuous past couple of days, seeing his happy-go-lucky grin, even just a photograph, transported her out of the Hanamura home and back to the hill overlooking the town, the night sky a patient audience as Yosuke stumbled out his confession to her. As the memory progressed, it froze just as Naoto put her hand on Yosuke’s, the two teenagers capturing each other in their sights, smiling and blushing like mad, happy fools. The detective still didn’t know exactly what it meant to be in a romantic relationship, but she was pretty sure that this feeling as she admired Yosuke’s cheesy grin, mysterious as it was, was something along those lines. Her cheeks ached from how much she was smiling and it felt like the coffee she had just consumed was creating a tidal wave in her stomach. Not even her brief infatuation with Narukami had produced that feeling on sight.

The sounds of the kitchen sink turning on snapped Naoto back to reality, and with it, her present issues. While she was over-the-moon that Yosuke’s mother seemed to recognize her as male, it would have felt even better if she, like Yosuke, understood what her true feelings toward her gender were. Since she was there to discuss some uncomfortable topics with Yosuke in regards to their future, perhaps it was also important to establish trust with his mother, lest she get the wrong idea. Of course, that set off a whole new host of insecurities, and Naoto’s very powerful brain could only conjure up stinging, harmful responses should she be honest about her gender.

“Shirogane-kun? Are you alright?” 

Without her even noticing, Kaori had come back into the dining room and was standing behind her chair, clutching the back with a concerned look on her face. Evidently, Naoto’s turbulent thoughts had leaked out onto her face. Years of experience helped her quickly affect a neutral, disarming tone and appearance.

“It’s…” she stopped, realizing that were she to continue this preloaded response, there was a good chance she would never get the right opportunity to have this discussion. Swallowing hard again, she forced her gunmetal eyes to look directly into the Hanamura matriarch’s unassuming stare.

“Mrs. Hanamura, earlier you said that boys like Yosuke-senpai and I set a good example, correct?” A polite nod answered her question. “I...I don’t want there to be any confusion, so I must be honest with you.”

That was when it came. It was a familiar feeling, one that might follow an uncomfortable night’s sleep: her shoulders suddenly twitched with discomfort, sending a jolt down to her forearms and hands. Doing her best to disguise it, Naoto shifted in her seat and folded her arms, hoping that the tremors wouldn’t be noticeable if they were close to her chest. A shaky breath followed, an ominous sign that her fear may have been stronger than she realized.

“Y-Yes, Shirogane-kun? Honest about what?”

Now or never, Naoto . It was rare to feel the omnipresence of Sukona-Hikona, her Persona, in the real world, but hear it was now, pulsating in her brain. Naoto felt her heel begin to jitter uncontrollably as she took a deep breath and pushed through the pain and discomfort.

“Y-yes, I…” It suddenly felt as if she had to answer a million questions, and quickly: Explain her birth gender? Say this is a recent feeling? Forgive Kaori for assuming? Was her tone of voice too judgemental? Did Kaori seem weirded out? Was this a mistake? Is it too late to back out? Is it too late to run out the front door? Will Yosuke hate her for this?

Fighting to stay calm amidst a typhoon, Naoto narrowed her eyes and focused solely on Mrs. Hanamura, hoping that if she divorced the two of them from the context of her being at her... something ’s home, talking to his mother, then it would just be a dry run for how Naoto would hopefully, someday, inform any other person about her feelings. It wasn’t working.

“T-the truth is that...It’s...I-I’m not...A-a boy…” It felt like she had been in the TV World for too long, and that the fatigue that came with being engulfed in the fog was overwhelming her whole body. Naoto wanted to lay her head down, but she hadn’t explained everything yet. For her part, Kaori gasped in shock.

“Y-you’re not...oh... Oh... Oh! O-oh my goodness, I’m so sorry!” Kaori squeaked, putting her hands over her mouth. “It’s just that...Well you look just like a -”

Naoto moved to stop her, her pride not able to put up with the usual apologies and excuses. “It-It’s fine, Hanamura-san! Really!” Her hand waved dismissively but with a distinct lack of energy, “A-a lot of people make the same mistake…” 

Kaori nodded, her hands fumbling together as she again gave Naoto an apologetic look. “No wonder you looked so upset! Here you are, first time in my home and I get such an important detail wrong. I-I had thought on the news that they said -”

“Th-that was...Also a mistake,” Naoto sighed sadly, realizing that the opportunity was most likely lost, “As I said...Everyone gets it wrong.”

“Well that’s too bad!” Kaori said, dipping back into the kitchen again, “So Yosuke has a nice young lady waiting for him...very interesting...”

Naoto felt as if she was going to be sick. “M-ma’am, may I please use your restroom?” She wheezed, her thumping foot going into overdrive.

The older woman’s head appeared from the entrance again. “Sure! It’s the one right next to the stairs,” she pointed with her eyes. Naoto gave a nod and waited for her to duck out of the frame again so she could move as quickly as she could towards some semblance of solitude.

Once safely past the threshold of the small restroom, Naoto gently shut the door and plonked herself down on the toilet seat, putting her head in her hands and breathing very heavily. Why? Why had she compromised? The words had been on the tip of her tongue, yet at the moment of truth she had faltered. Was she still so weak? 

“Just...be who you want to be, and I’ll do my best to support it, okay?”

Yosuke’s kind words only further served to upset her. She folded over a little more, removing her hat and just spending a minute to absorb a mental beating by her own hand. If she couldn’t even do it in a relaxed atmosphere, how could she expect to do this same song and dance to a professional colleague? Or her friends on the Investigation Team? Was it always going to be so hard?

She was so lost in her head that it took her a moment to hear the commotion going on outside the door.

“Yosuke!? Oh my God, what happened!?”

“It-it’s nothin’ mom! Just a little sports injury…”

Naoto barely felt in control of her body as she thrust open the door and rushed into the living room.


Thursday, 8/24/12, Yasogami High Gymnasium, Mid Afternoon…

“Awrgh! Shit!”

“Daisuke, here! Over here!”

Yosuke watched exasperated as Kanji bounced the basketball off his big foot, which lead to Daisuke picking it up and quickly throwing past Yosuke down to Kou, who hit a quick layup to score once again.

“Alright! That’s 22! Better pick up the pace, Hanamura-kun!” Kou teased as he jogged backwards from the net. He and Daisuke shared an enthusiastic high-five, making Yosuke stick his tongue out at them as he picked up the basketball.

“Keep talkin’! We all know Kanji’s hands weren’t made for that kind of dribbling!” He laughed to himself, which got a nervous chuckle out of Kou and Daisuke. Kanji stood off to the side, sulking and breathing heavily. He’d been acting a little weird, but luckily the game was almost over, Yosuke thought. Maybe he just needed to take a break.

“Alright big guy, go ahead and inbound. We might be able to make it at least a single digit game!” He tittered again, passing the ball to Kanji. Kanji looked down at him, a notably angry glare on his face.

“What, you think it’s my fault?” he hissed, squeezing the ball rather tightly. Yosuke scoffed, annoyed that he was getting so pissy. It was just a pickup game, what was there to be mad about?

“Dude, relax, ” Yosuke scoffed, taking a position near the top of the key, “You’re gettin’ way too upset about this. It’s not like you had a real shot at winning anyways! Now c’mon, let’s get this over with!”

Kanji just stared at him, a very strange look on his face, almost like he was looking through Yosuke. He absent-mindedly dribbled the ball once before taking the ball in one hand and hurling it has hard as he could in Yosuke’s direction. “ W-woah!” With surprising speed, Yosuke juked out of the way, falling to his stomach and watching as the ball smashed into the stacked up bleachers on the opposite side of the gym, making an impossibly loud bang that echoed through the room.

Kou was the first to comment, jogging over to check on Yosuke from his position a few yards away. “Hey, hey ! What’s gotten into you, Tatsumi-kun!? You coulda hurt him!” he cried, his hand flapping up in the air in disbelief. 

Daisuke was far more aggressive, going right up to Kanji and squaring off with him. “What kinda crap are you tryin’ to pull!?” he spat, pointing a finger at the tall second year, “Get yer head outta your ass!”

“Back off, Nagase!” Kanji suddenly roared, brushing past his senpai to get near Yosuke. “Get up, you bastard! Get up!

Yosuke was still trying to catch his bearings as Kanji approached, a scary look on his face; the piercings and the blonde hair was gone, but the fire in his eyes was that of the old Kanji Tatsumi. Embarrassed, more than a little scared, and hot with his own anger, Yosuke obliged Kanji’s request and took it a step further, shoving Kanji in the chest with both hands. He must not have been expecting it, as the act staggered him off balance.

“What the hell, man!? When did you turn into such a sore friggin’ loser!?” Yosuke jeered, suddenly feeling Kou grabbing him around the waist as Daisuke did his best to hold back Kanji.

“Knock it off, you guys! They’re gonna call a teacher over!” Kou hissed. The older boy’s pleas fell on deaf ears, however, as Daisuke was pushed aside by Kanji and he returned the favor to Yosuke, actually knocking him and Kou over with the force of his shove.

Wincing at the pain in his arm from the way he collapsed onto the court, Yosuke did his best to back away from Kanji. A part of him knew that picking a fight with Kanji was a fool’s errand, but he was too upset at being knocked about so easily to really let the logical part of his brain win. His movement was in vain, however, as Kanji quickly caught up to him with his long strides and snagged him by the collar of his shirt, easily lifting the thin and wiry Yosuke and dragging him quite far to slam him back first into the folded up bleachers. Yosuke tried to blink away the stars he was seeing as Kanji began to growl at him.

“What th’ fuck were you doin' wit Naoto!? Did you say somethin' to her ta make her run off like that? Tell me, ya sonofabitch!” He put a further exclamation mark on his demand by once again jerking Yosuke’s collar and making his head bump the bleachers, which caused him to cry out in pain.

Naoto!? What was he...He didn’t mean...But how!? These thoughts swarmed through Yosuke’s increasingly foggy brain as he tried his best to break the hold Kanji had on him. It was a dirty move, but he went low and kicked Kanji right in the shin, which got the taller boy to howl in pain and let go of the hold, tending to his leg.

*kaff* None of your freakin'  business, that’s what!” Yosuke panted, trying to get his breath back. He had no clue how Kanji could have seen what had happened last night, but even so, he wasn’t about to hear Kanji whine about it again. In his currently frantic state of mind, his conscience was cleared as soon as Naoto made it apparent she saw Kanji as just a friend. For him to pull this now was completely uncalled for, he thought, and Yosuke wasn’t going to hold back if Kanji wasn’t.

“Were you and her jus’ plannin’ ta rub it in my face the whole time!? This whole time!? ” Kanji went to rush Yosuke again but this time Kou and Daisuke decided to combine their efforts to hold him back. The sturdier built Daisuke grabbed him around the chest and right arm, and Kou held onto the left like it was a bucking bronco. It worked, but barely; each attempt at escape from Kanji thrust the two older boys helplessly in that direction.

“That’s...enough, Tatsumi!” Daisuke grunted, “He’s had enough!” 

“He...ain’t...had... shit! You ... keep yer hands off ‘er, ya hear me!? ” 

With Kanji temporarily restrained, Yosuke was able to clear the cobwebs out of his head and meet his glare with his own. If he was of clearer mind he probably would have ran for his life, but with the adrenaline coursing through his system, masking the pain in his head, Yosuke felt the need to set Kanji straight right then and there. He shook out the pain in his right arm and socked Kanji hard in the stomach, where he was defenseless. Kanji gasped for air as Kou let go of his arm and moved toward Yosuke, pushing him back. Daisuke gapsed and shifted, now left to contain the wounded bull that Kanji was by himself.

“Knock it off! The hell are you guys doing ,” Kou grunted, having a slightly easier time holding back Yosuke, who was trying to get at Kanji still. In his mind, this was defending Naoto’s honor; she didn’t have to put up with this pining act and it wasn’t any of his business who Naoto decided to be with. The very idea that someone thought he shouldn’t be with Naoto, the girl whom he had come to care for so much and was one of the only things that made it seem like he was worth something, was so deeply offensive to him that he didn’t care what he said at this point. Kanji was his buddy, but he needed to learn some tough love if this was the way he was going to act. Besides, all was fair in love and war.

“You’re so stupid! Don’t you get that she is done with you!? Quit bein’ so  gay about it!” he spat in a voice he barely recognized, taking some delight in watching Kanji’s eyes go from raging to hurt, “She’s mine now, so you stay away from her! Go find some guy to make out with and leave us the hell alone!.” Yosuke couldn’t help the self-satisfied sneer that lit up his face. It was rare that he ever got to feel superior to someone, so he was going to drink it in while he could.

At least for a second anyways. Kanji stopped struggling, a tear or two building up in the corner of his eye. Whatever sadness was there suddenly collapsed as he clenched his fists hard and wrenched his right arm free from Daisuke’s grip. Yosuke could barely react before Kanji’s fist came rocketing past Kou and toward his face. He did his best to dodge, but the punch was too fast and collided with the bottom of his right eye. Yosuke felt his neck snap in the direction of the blow, and his legs suddenly turned to jello. The world started to spin and turn black; before Yosuke even hit the ground he could see some dark blood spilling onto his shirt.

Kou gasped and fell to Yosuke’s side, again trying to help him get up as Daisuke and Kanji got into another shouting match. Yosuke could barely see them through the blackness swallowing his vision, let alone concentrate on what they were saying. He had taken bad hits in the TV World and experienced something in the realm of what had just happened, but his head had never hurt this much. The coppery smell of blood overloaded his senses, and he could feel his stomach churn as some of it dripped down past his eye.

Unfortunately there wasn’t much time to recover, as all of a sudden a huge weight was on top of him, anchoring him to the court. His blurry sight could just make out Kanji getting ready to pound on him like a wild ape, so he did the bare minimum he felt he could do and put his hands up over his head. It did little to soften the impact as Kanji rained blow after blow down upon him, Yosuke’s meager defense only seeming to further anger him. 

Yosuke’s focus was now transfixed on his own survival, but he could still hear a faint noise in the distance, a far-away whistle that seemed to echo across the empty gymnasium. Was that Kou and Daisuke yelling? Just when he could feel his arms begin to crack and bend under the weight of Kanji’s mighty strikes, they suddenly stopped. The restrictive weight also vanished, letting Yosuke suck in some of the wind he had lost. 

His exhausted and battered limbs trembled as he slowly pulled them to his side, his non-swollen eye still closed in fear of what he might see. Carefully, gently, he opened it, only to be astonished by what he saw.

Kanji was on the floor next to him, mumbling curses and fumbling around for balance. Kou and Daisuke were also in similar states of distress a couple yards away. Standing tall amidst the carnage was Chie, bouncing in some sort of kung-fu state of awareness. Chie!?

Indeed, his fellow 3rd year classmate stood fiercely, her eyes laser-focused on Kanji, who was still struggling to get up. Her blue and green striped spaghetti-strap tank top and cutoff jean short-shorts didn’t exactly cut an imposing figure, but her wild, shaggy hair and intense glare was familiar to Yosuke. He had seen this look in the TV World many times when surrounded by shadows. Once Kanji staggered to a knee, Yosuke could see that he had a huge welt on his face, presumably the result of a firecat kick from Chie. 

“C-C-Chie…?!” Yosuke managed to groan, finding it painful to even think. Before he could say more Kou and Daisuke were at his side, trying to get him to sit up. Daisuke unwrapped his jacket and balled it up before offering it to Yosuke, who quickly covered his eye, feeling bad for staining the olive green jacket with the blood from his eyebrow.

“Man, we gotta get you to a hospital or somethin’,” Kou said urgently, wincing at the blood he saw, “that looks really bad!”

Yosuke balked immediately. "N-no! No hospital!" The first thing he thought was that someone was going to call the police, just like they had when he and Yu had fought it out on the Samegawa flood plain. He didn't want to go through that again, but mostly he was thinking of Kanji. As mad as he was, the last thing he needed was for cops to have a reason to bust him.

“Well we gotta tell someone , look at all this!” Daisuke pointed out, nudging his head toward the blood that had dripped onto the court. Yosuke shook his head again, trying to shake off the cobwebs as he slowly got one knee and tried to get up on his feet without the boys' assistance. It was apparent as soon as he tried to stand up, however, that he was still not in great shape, and he found himself falling off balance easily. His two classmates quickly set him upright, each taking an arm and draping it over their back. With their support, they turned to look at Chie.

“S-Satonaka, c'mon, what are you standing around for…!” Kou gasped as soon as he saw Chie not coming to join them. 

“You guys get outta here!” she hissed, turning her head to the side and making Kou shiver with the intensity of her every word, “I got this! Get him some help! Go!

Even Daisuke, who was a fairly rugged and tough guy, jumped a little as her growl vibrated across the room. Yosuke tried not to blink his damaged eye as Daisuke and Kou scampered across the court with him and toward the exit. Before they could leave, Yosuke mumbled “M-my stuff…” which got Kou to take a second and run to the other side of the court so he could grab the small bag Yosuke had brought. With that in tow, the three teens took their exit, leaving Chie to deal with Kanji. 

“Dude, she’s gonna get pulverized , we can’t just leave her!” Kou whined as they stepped into the outside corridor that lead back to the main building. “Tatsumi-kun is gonna pick his teeth with her!”

Daisuke grunted, rolling his eyes at Kou’s continuing concern for his old crush. “I got a feelin’ Tatsumi wouldn’t stoop so low as to hit a girl. You know ‘im better, Hanamura, whattya think?”

Between them, Yosuke just continued to press Daisuke’s jacket against his eye, tilting his head back so it wouldn’t drip out as much. “C-Chie 'll be fine...She's probably just gonna talk to him...Not sure about my eye…” While he was sure nothing was broken, there was probably going to be a nasty black eye in store for him.

“Well, there ya go,” Daisuke nodded at Kou, who still looked back at the gym doors apprehensively. “C’mon, we gotta get him to the school nurse, at least.”

“N-no!” Yosuke shouted again, which made the trio stop. If he went to the school nurse, she'd definitely be able to tell that no basketball could have cut his eyebrow so bad. That, and he was starting to notice various scrapes and bruises starting to form on his arms from blocking all of Kanji's punches. Yosuke would have to make up a ton of lies to come up with something remotely plausible, and it didn't seem worth the trouble. He couldn't imagine Chie or Kanji going to the police or school authorities, so all that was left was...

“No!? Th-then what, you just wanna keep bleeding?” Kou asked sarcastically.

Yosuke quickly ran some scenarios in his head. It was only the mid afternoon, which meant that his mom was usually out getting her daily walk to the market out of the way. Since it was only about a 15 minute ride home, there was a chance he could sneak back home and just recover at home. He could always make up an excuse later for the black eye. It was the cut on the eyebrow and his bruised arms that were the biggest issues.

“Just...just get me to my bike,” he said, gesturing toward the front of the school. “I-I’ll be ‘lright…”

Daisuke and Kou shared a concerned look before nodding, hustling down the corridor and into the main building. Luckily it was pretty empty, as most teachers stuck to the lounges on the upper floors and most clubs kept busy in the classrooms. They moved Yosuke without incident to the front doors, ushering him through and out into the sunlight.

Yosuke had parked his scooter just down the path leading up to the front gate, and it seemed like the longest trek possible as he was escorted down the gravel pathway, wincing as the pain in his arms was starting to become more noticeable. Finally, he was next to his scooter, and that much closer to getting home and figuring out what the hell he was going to do.

As the two boys gently sat him on the seat, Yosuke dabbed at his eyebrow one last time with the jacket, feeling like he got the most of it. He looked up apologetically at Daisuke and sheepishly held the soiled article of clothing towards him. “H-here dude...uh...sorry.”

Daisuke grimaced as he took it, holding it by the lone clean sleeve. “‘S all good, man. The school has a million of ‘em, I’ll just get a new one. You sure you’re good to drive this thing?”

As Yosuke retrieved his bag from Kou and slipped it across his back, he offered up a half-hearted smile. “In my sleep. It’s not far, I got this.” He slid the key into the ignition, but before turning it he turned to his companions. “H-hey guys? Erm...thanks. That really sucked. If you guys hadn't been there, I mighta…” It was scary to think about the possibility. He had never seen Kanji that angry, not even in the TV World with Adachi, and the fear of that was only just now getting to him. Kou sheepishly smiled and gave him a swat on the back.

“It’s no problem dude. What are friends for? Just, uh...look, I’m a lover, not a fighter. Think I’m gonna feel that body check for weeks ,” he whined, rubbing his sore shoulder. Daisuke nodded, straightening his back out and cringing at the stiffness.

"H-how's the eye?" Yosuke asked, offering his head closer so they could look.

"Well, ya got a hell of a bruise, and you're gonna wanna look into that cut. But it looks like it's mostly stopped bleeding," Daisuke observed, which got a concurring nod from Kou.

"Okay, thanks again guys. I'll, uh, I'll seeya later," Yosuke responded, turning on his scooter.

“A-alright, we’ll just, uh...Hey, Daisuke we should probably go check on Satonaka, right? It’s not, y’know, chivalrous or whatever to leave her, right?” Kou asked, nervously rubbing the back of his head. Daisuke chuckled, putting a hand to his forehead.

“You’ll never change, will ya? ‘Lright, we need to clean that place up anyways, so let’s go see if Satonaka-san took care of that rampaging rhino. Later, Hanamura!”

The 3rd years waved and quickly took off back towards the school and the gymnasium. Without a moment’s hesitation, Yosuke turned out on the main road, aching to get home and hopefully run a warm bath. After that, he'd have to think about what he was going to with Kanji. He'd always feared it, but this was bad. If they couldn't even be in the same room together, what did that mean for the future? Yosuke tried to shrug off any dark thoughts as he slowly navigated the Inaba streets, his eye stinging the entire time.


Thursday, 8/24/12, Hanamura Household, Mid Afternoon…

Yosuke!?

“Aack!”

“O-oh my God, what happened !?”

It had all been going so well, too. Yosuke had made it home, albeit with his body getting sorer and sorer by the minute. The scooter was a lifesaver, as pedaling on his regular bike may have been impossible. Wisely he had pulled around back, parking his scooter by his back fence and wheeling it in through the backyard. He was pretty positive his mom was gone, but Teddy was quite the wildcard. Playing it safe, he made his way in through the back door, which was less noisy and was an easier march to the upstairs. The kitchen had been empty, which was good, but as soon as he tiptoed over to the living room and put a toe on the bottom step, he heard a mild shriek and knew he was done for.

“I-it’s nothin’ mom! Just a little sports injury…” he started, trying to get up the stairs without too much interrogation. Unfortunately, Kaori Hanamura wasn’t that kind of mom. She almost blocked his path, concern etched in her eyes.

“Nothing!? Your eye is massive, son! I told you to be careful on that thing, now look what you’ve gone and done. Stay here!”

Without warning she grabbed at the scruff of his neck and sat him down in a chair by the dining room table and went back to the refrigerator, probably to get something cold. He huffed, annoyed but grateful that she seemed to buy the story about his bike. 

“Y-Yosuke-senpai?”

Yosuke nearly peed himself; he'd know that voice anywhere. Sure enough, he could just barely make out Naoto standing silently next to him, having emerged from the bathroom. A weird half gasp and scream squeaked out of his throat, a cocktail of emotions running through his already achy head. As usual he found everything about her adorable, but the look of concern, grave concern, in her eyes made him jumpy and nervous. Besides, what the hell was she doing here!?

“Wah, buh, N-Naoto!? W-what are you...h-how did you…?!” He stopped dead as Naoto walked toward him, never breaking eye contact.

“A-are you alright!? Your eye...you’re bleeding!” Without another word she fished in her pocket for a handkerchief, and Yosuke couldn’t pull away before she was using it to mop up the caked blood around his eyebrow, much to his chagrin. It was still a bit tender, so even Naoto's careful wiping caused little jolts of pain to sting him. His mom returned soon enough with a frozen bag, which she pressed to his eye and forced him to hold there. Not that he cared about being fussed over, but when it was by his mom and his...well, someone special , it felt weird.

“G-guys, guys, I’m alright, sheesh!” he groaned, pulling his head away from both of them as he pressed the compress to his eye. “I just got hit with a basketball and took a spill, nothing serious!” The bitterness of the lie unnerved him, and he quickly tried to put it out of mind. “I-I just need to lie down, maybe get a hot bath…”

“Of course, I’ll run one for you!” his mom chirped, turning to move down the hallway toward the washroom, “Honestly, Yosuke, you've always been such a clumsy boy!” Her muttering only served to further embarrass Yosuke, although she saved the best for last. “And it’s not polite to keep a girl waiting! Naoto-kun has something she wants to discuss with you!” She finally disappeared into a room at the end of the hallway, leaving both teens sufficiently mortified.

Both stood red faced and silent for a while, neither knowing how to address the other. Of course Yosuke was happy to see her, but his mom saying she had been waiting for a while? That was never a good sign. He turned to her slowly, using the package against his face to hopefully mask how nervous he was.

“Y-you’ve been waiting? W-why didn’t you text me, I would have...come sooner,” he said quietly, hoping to avoid talking about where he had been. Naoto rubbed the back of her neck slowly, her little face scrunched up in thought, as it usually was.

“Y-yes, w-well...I-I needed to discuss something with you, but...I felt I owed you the respect of speaking to you directly about it,” she said nervously, taking her hat off and nervously wringing i in her hands. While this made Yosuke a little nervous, he couldn’t help but find himself enamored with how cute she was when she acted shy.

Before long a joke wormed its way up his throat. “Lemme guess...I dreamt last night up. Knew it was too good to be true! Heh heh…” His nervous laugh petered out, as he saw that she didn’t seem to be in the mood for jokes. 

She put her hat back on and looked up at him. “Is there somewhere private we can talk? Perhaps, erm...Y-your room?”

Wow. Just like that, huh? Yosuke’s face was crimson as he looked up behind at the stairs, which suddenly seemed foreboding. “U-uh...Y-yeah, sure.” Before they went, he figured he’d better let his mom know. “Mom, I’ll be in my room, okay!?”

A moment before he heard her from the back room. “Okay, dear! Door ajar, please!”

Geez. Another nervous laugh followed, and Naoto looked as if you could boil an egg on her forehead. “C-c’mon, this way...Sorry about my mom…” he sighed sadly, beginning his trek up the steps with Naoto following close behind.

“P-please, there’s no need...I should apologize for being so troublesome…”

Yosuke rolled his eyes, bemused. He liked Naoto a lot, but he hoped one day he could get her to not always be so serious. He stopped short of his door once he reached the top of the steps, trying to think of something to say to introduce it. He had cleaned up a little bit that morning, but it was far from being in the condition he would have liked for his... something to see for the first time.

“U-uh, just so ya know, I usually clean things up, but I didn’t know you were coming, so I didn’t really - “

“It’s fine,” Naoto interrupted, “I promise I won’t stay long.”

Ouch . That kind of sounded like she expected his room to be messy, he thought. With a sigh he opened the door, letting Naoto walk past him first.


Naoto really didn’t know what she was expecting, but it probably wasn’t a large poster of a bikini-clad woman posing on the beach. Or a similar poster with even more scantily clad girls posing jubilantly in front of a brightly colored background. Yet these were the two things, along with a very pungent odor, that greeted her as she walked into Yosuke’s room. The wood flooring and center table were nice enough, but the area around Yosuke’s computer desk and his closet were a mess. The idol posters, with the large amounts of exposed skin and clear sexual overtones, made her feel worse, and she rubbed her arms to fight off the chill running through them as Yosuke hurriedly tidied a few things around and set down the package of vegetables he held on his eye.

“S-sorry...Really sorry, I know this is, uh…” as he was mumbling he looked down at his red shirt, now significantly spattered with dried blood. He was holding a white t-shirt in his hand, and after giving it a careful sniff, he looked up apologetically. “D-do you mind if I...it’s just, this shirt is bloody, and I don’t want you to…”

Through his gesturing, Naoto understood what he meant. After a tight-lipped nod, she turned and faced the window on the east side of his room, turning more red as she heard the shuffling of clothing. It was far too embarrassing to admit out loud, but despite the blood and general disheveled-ness of his appearance, she still could admire that he was boyishly handsome and had a nice smile . She didn’t know what to do with that information, exactly, so she filed it away in the card catalogue of her brain, hoping it would stay there forever.

“‘Kay, you’re good now.”

She turned back around to see Yosuke in a plain white t-shirt with an orange collar, looking around bashfully. True to his mother’s demand he had left the door slightly ajar, but this was still a rather intimate affair, and she could completely identify with his nervousness. Add to that, of course, the conversation with his mother had taken out quite a bit of energy. She almost doubted that she had enough left to discuss what was almost an equally difficult topic. 

“Hey.”

Naoto blinked, and suddenly Yosuke was right in front of her. A more on-her-game Naoto would have immediately asked him to back out of her personal space, but drained as she was, she found little strength to resist. Even more, Yosuke’s gentle energy, as always, was comforting and familiar, something she desperately needed when her anxiety was so high. 

Fighting her nerves, she gazed up at him, finding his weary eyes. “I know this wasn’t...it’s been a rough day, but I’m still really happy to see you. God, you don’t know how happy…”

Before she could say anything, he had leaned in close to her face, his lips puckered for a kiss. Naoto was frozen, her voice locked in her throat. He was so close that she could feel his breath on her face, just like last night, and it started to churn her stomach all over again. His swollen and red eye, nearly clamped shut, as well as his mostly clean but still stained red eyebrow lurched close as well, which did not help to the inherent queasiness of the situation.

Spurred to action, Naoto put her hands on his chest, rather forcefully creating some space between the two. She looked up to see Yosuke staring at her with a confused look on his face, confusion mired by hurt in his one good eye. 

“What’s wrong? Don’t you -”

“Yosuke! Bath’s on!”

Yosuke made a frustrated noise. “Gimme a sec, okay?” He quickly exited the room and headed downstairs, most likely to tell his mother off. The look on his face just then was now etched in her mind, and Naoto felt like a monster. Why did she do that? Everything was happening so quickly, and she hadn’t even gotten to even come close to explaining the jumble in her head. Yosuke probably already thought the worst of her before she could even say a word. He had clearly had a bad day, and the last thing he needed would be for someone he’s supposed to believe cares about him to treat him so coldly. How could she possibly explain that it wasn’t what he thought?

Calm down , she told herself, You need to breathe. To get herself to focus, she started looking around the room and observing, the details of the room being filed away in her mind. This was busywork for her, something that she always did if it got too intense to stay cooped up in her head.. She saw magazines, a file drawer, a television, a set of DVD’s, a laptop, and all sorts of things. Before long, her observations began to spiderweb into harmless thoughts, such as wondering if this room was indicative of most boys’ rooms. In her mindless observations she saw something tucked into the corner of his folded down laptop. Her curiosity made her reach for it.

It was the roll of photos that the two had taken at the arcade in Okina. The memory was a very pleasant one, and she felt her jackhammering heart begin to relax a little as she swam in the memory of that for a bit. She was happy to see that he kept it, as she had kept hers too; if today was any indication, his bright smile could be quite the calming influence. Naoto gingerly tucked the photo reel back into the laptop with a bit of a fuller heart.

Curiously, she saw a very similar reel off to the side of it. Was there more than one copy? She moved some of the papers scattered on the desk away in order to get to it. It was definitely from a similar photo booth, but it was not a copy of the photos from the arcade. Indeed, these pictures featured a different girl. What could this mean!? Naoto’s heart started racing again as she looked closer, feeling there was something weirdly familiar about the girl. Her curly hair was a rare sight, and she had a pleasantly relaxed smile as opposed to Yosuke’s more devlish and charming one. Looking into the girl’s eyes suddenly made a light bulb go off in Naoto’s head, and she nearly dropped the reel from the shock of it.

She had seen that face hundreds of times as she had pored over the case file for the Inaba murders. It was quite literally burned into her skull, but seeing her face in a non school photo was jarring, like seeing a corpse move. In the photo, smiling and posing with Yosuke, was Saki Konishi, the 3rd year Yasogami High student whom Adachi had murdered more than a year earlier. But what on Earth would she be doing with…

Suddenly, Naoto felt her head spin, the cogs of her memory working overtime to connect all the pieces. Yosuke had said that he’d been pursuing a relationship with a girl in Inaba a while ago, but she had moved away. He hadn’t actually been there that long, maybe close to two years, and he’d also said that it happened when he first moved to Inaba. That would place it before the murders occurred. And lastly, Yosuke mentioned that her family owned a shop in town, and he helped her get a job at Junes. Konishi Liquor was a store in town, and her last employer, according to her file, was Junes. How could she have not figured it out before?

...And why did he lie to her? Again?  The levees that usually kept her mind from going into overdrive evaporated, and suddenly Naoto's head was full of little things that she hadn't paid attention to before. Yosuke saying he was hit by a basketball, yet bleeding from his eyebrow. It was also plain to see that he had bruises on his forearms and wrists, which would be an odd injury unless he fell constantly while playing. There was also a noticeable mark right below his eye, where he must have been struck by whatever damaged his eye, and to her best recollection it looked like the small indent one would get from the knuckles of someone else's fist. Did that mean...

As she stood in shock, the door opened again, and Yosuke’s shaky voice permeated the room.

“S-sorry, I told her to stop buggin’ us. Now what’s wrong? Did I do someth- Wh-where did you get that!?”

Naoto turned around, clenching the photo reel as if it dropping it were certain death. Her breathing, already troubled, was now getting more rapid, and it was impossible not to see red.

“You lied to me.” she hissed, feeling her natural voice come out as she was beginning to lose control of her focus. Yosuke walked over and snatched it from her, setting it down with force back on his desk.

“D-don’t just snoop through my stuff! That’s so messed up!” he said petulantly, his voice beginning to raise as well. 

Don’t ,” Naoto shrieked, causing Yosuke to step back in disbelief, “change the subject! Why do you have that!? Why are you in a photo with Saki Konishi!? Is she...w-was she the girl whom…”

Yosuke, now caught in his lie, stammered and huffed as he tried to bluster his way through it. “I...I-I can explain! Really! I-it’s not what you think!”

“I don’t want to hear it!” Naoto snapped, “Why would I believe you this time? How could you!? After you promised …”

Naoto was trying her best, but the culmination of all of the day’s frustrations and anxiety was now raging out of her. She hated how temperamental she could be, and felt very childish, but there was no stopping her. He was going to answer for everything, and she wasn't leaving until she got an answer.

“How did you hurt yourself?” she questioned, walking closer to him, which got him to back up. “A basketball hit your eye? Do you think so little of my intelligence that I'm supposed to believe that you bled from a spherical, dull object on one of the toughest parts of your skin? Why do you keep lying to me!? Tell me the truth, or so help me, I’ll -”

“I-I didn’t get hit by a ball!” Yosuke squeaked, clearly afraid of what Naoto was threatening him with, “O-okay?! You-you're right, it was...It...I-I got punched in the eye...B-but you don’t need to -”

Punched !? "By whom!? Am I supposed to believe a random person in town just walked up and punched you in the eye? How stupid do you..." her voice trailed off as she seriously considered what he had said. The odds of it being a random act of violence were pretty rare, and it would mean he'd had to have made someone likely pretty angry if they were going to haul off and punch him. If his mother had said he was with friends, that only left a few candidates who were likely to do something like that: Chie or Kanji. 

“No…” she whispered as the only plausible option became achingly apparent, “K-Kanji-kun…”

Yosuke didn’t even answer, but just hung his head in shame. Naoto’s throat began to burn, her eyes warm and tingly from the feeling. This day was becoming far too stressful, and it was pushing her emotions to the brink. Her mind was flowing with scenarios of how Yosuke and Kanji could have come to blows, and none of them were ways in which Yosuke came off as totally innocent. Why couldn’t things just be simple? Why did all of this have to be so hard? Why couldn’t Yosuke stop hurting her? Didn’t he care?

This was beginning to feel like April all over again. Friends fighting, romance complicating everything, and half-truths causing all of the issues. Naoto felt like the world’s biggest fool; she knew better than to play with fire, but she got burned again, all the same. Clearly she wasn’t meant for this sort of thing. She was too weird, too ugly, too honest, and too emotionally compromised. She was still angry, but mostly at herself for trying to pretend like she could do this "relationship" thing and not have it end in disaster. If all of this occurred before they could even have a frank conversation about her aversion to touch, what was the point!?

Her face must have been an open book, because Yosuke was looking at her like one would a wounded animal. His eyes were moist and his voice shaky. “P-p-please, Nuh-Naoto...I-it’s not...I need you right now because...I-I don't know what to do...”

Looking at how pathetic he looked, Naoto wondered what he would possibly have to gain by lying now. Still, it was hard to forget that almost every other time he had been confronted on a lie, emotions like this were a frequent occurrence. She was far too angry and hurt for them to work this time.

“I-I...I just n-need to leave,” she said, brushing past him and going for the door. With one last ditch effort, Yosuke used his free hand to grab for hers as she opened the door. She froze from the contact, a host of feelings suddenly taking hold. His hand was cold, no doubt from holding the frozen vegetables, but because it was larger than hers it felt comforting and protective all the same. Once again, the memory of last night played in her mind, where the two of them were connected by their hands on the hill. She dared to look back at him, feeling something crack in her heart once she did.

He was still only able to keep one eye open, but the look in his left eye was the same as it was then. The very same look that she had fallen so deeply for, that told her he’d support her, and always be there for her. Unfortunately, it was also the same look that had also lied directly to her face when she had lain her soul bare to him, and the same that had looked so hurt when she rejected his kiss. 

“Duh-don’t go,” he cried, interlacing his fingers with hers. “I’ll fix it, I’ll fuh-fix e-everything , you just have to give me a chance…”

It hurt so bad, but she quickly untangled her fingers from his and turned back toward the door. “I-I'm sorry, but...please, j-just leave me alone!”

Before he could respond and further break her heart, she thrust the door open and walked as quickly as she could through the small hallway and down the stairs, her eyes firmly focused on the ground. 

“Shirogane-chan?”

It legitimately made her skin crawl to hear herself referred to by anyone other than Rise as “chan.” Affecting the tightest smile she could imagine, she tucked her cap down to hide her red eyes as she turned to face the befuddled Mrs. Hanamura, still waiting in the hallway. “Is everything okay? I thought I heard -”

“Fine!” Naoto announced, “J-just fine. I have some urgent business I need to attend to at home. It was...lovely to meet you, Hanamura-san.” She made her way to the door but turned back to Kaori before she grabbed the handle. “Please...make sure Yosuke-senpai is well.”

With that, she finally exited the house, spiriting down the sidewalk and toward her bike as if fleeing from Hell itself. Once on her scooter she reached for her keys and tried to insert them into the ignition, but found herself shaking far too much to do it accurately. Three times she failed, letting out a frustrated and rageful noise as the tears in her eyes could no longer hold their position. Finally , after about thirty seconds, she was able to complete this basic task, and the engine roared to life as she sped away from the Hanamura household as fast as what was legally allowed, the tears that were beginning to fall trailing off the side of her face as the afternoon wind picked up.

Chapter Text

Thursday, 8/24/12, Yasogami High Soccer Field, Mid-Afternoon

Ow ow ow!

Shut it!

“Fuck you!”

Fuck you back!”

Kanji roared impotently, settling for clenching his fists so hard his knuckles turned egg white. He was still burning with rage after what Yosuke had said, but even at his most animalistic he knew that there were some lines he couldn’t cross, and hitting a girl was one of them.

Even if that girl had literally kicked the shit out of him.

One minute he had been pounding on Yosuke, getting out nearly a year’s worth of frustration at the older boy constantly wanting to make jokes about Kanji's sexual identity in addition to this recent dust-up with Naoto, and the next he was collapsing to the ground and feeling like his cheek had caved in. It took him a minute to recover and see that Chie had come running in from out of nowhere and laid into him with a devastating roundhouse kick. Kanji always thought that Chie’s martial arts “expertise” was really her just making up stuff that she thought looked cool, but the kick was no joke; aside from the shooting pain emanating from his right cheek, he could taste blood secreting from his gums every time he sucked his teeth. 

After the rest of the boys left, Chie had marched over, grabbed him by his ear while he was still recuperating, and dragged him out the side door that lead to the soccer field. It must have looked ridiculous - he was at least two heads taller than Chie, and here she was leading him by the ear like he was some stupid kid. The only silver lining was that she had grabbed him by the top of his ear, and not near the lobe where his earrings still dangled. That would have hurt even worse.

Luckily the field wasn’t in use, as the soccer club met every other day. In that sense, the plain, open field gave the teens an air of privacy as they walked past the painted lines of the clay turf and toward the center of the pitch. At that point Chie finally relinquished the hold, pushing him by the back of his neck so he stumbled in front of her. 

The little detour hadn’t exactly done much to quench his bloodlust. “Gah, yer gonna rip my damn ear off!” Kanji shrieked, not caring if the whole world heard him. Of course, screaming made the pain in his jaw and cheek much more noticeable, so he tended to those while Chie chastised him.

“You’re lucky if that’s the least I do!” she roared back, brushing her nose with her thumb and starting to lightly bounce up and down on the balls of her white and green sneakers. “Get up!”

Kanji could see, through her body language, what she was getting at, but he still couldn’t believe it. “What’re ya…”

What’re ya,” she mocked, doing a goofy fake deep voice, “I’m gonna kick your freakin’ ass, that’s what !” Suddenly, she came in with a low kick, striking rather hard at Kanji’s calf. Again, she was stronger than she looked, and the 2nd year grunted as he tried to shake out the pain shooting up his leg.

“Ah, shit!” he huffed, now circling Chie as she continued to bounce, looking like a tiger ready to pounce. “You dunno what th’hell you’re even doin’! That asshole deserved it, so jus’...Butt out!”

Chile let out a sneering chuckle. “Oh- hoho , trust me, I’m sure Yosuke could have used a punch in the face a long time ago, but you took it too far! Besides, that’s not why I’m kickin’ your ass!”

Now he was even more confused. “Then what - ow! ” Another kick, right in the back of his left knee. That one actually made him stumble and put his fists up, and he was starting to seriously consider breaking his one rule if Chie was actually intent on fighting him for real.

“That was for Yukiko , you stupid dick!”

Yukiko . If anything was going to put a dent in the rage Kanji had accrued over the last half hour, it was the equally vicious shame that was simmering deep in his bones. Once she said that, it all made sense: Yukiko had said Chie had helped her get ready for their date, and Chie had sort of hinted that she would hurt him if he messed up back at the shrine. And boy, had he messed up bad . But still, couldn’t Yukiko see that he was just trying to protect her from a bunch of needless drama? Maybe if Chie would hear him out, they could come a sort of understanding…

“Ya...Ya don’t know everything!” he pleaded, starting to feel his fists uncurl a little bit, “I dunno what she told ya, but-”

Nothing!” Chie hissed, interrupting him. “She didn’t say anything about you, or last night, or anything! ” She came in to strike him with a right hand, but Kanji easily moved out of the way and got some distance between them, his longer limbs helpful in this case. His confusion was only getting worse the longer this confrontation went on.

“Then what're you so mad about?!” He asked, throwing his hands up in disbelief, “You don’t even know what you’re talkin’ about, so what th’hell is this?”

At this, Chie actually stopped bouncing as much, taking a more firm stance on the ground as she clenched her fists up even harder. Kanji looked to see that her eyes still contained fury, but there was a genuine emotional anguish in them too.

“You don’t know her like I do! When she gets really upset, she totally shuts down, and she’s too nice to say bad things about people she cares about! I don’t know what you did,” she said through gritted teeth, her hands literally shaking from how hard she was making a fist, “but I’ll make sure you pay for it!”

This was insane , Kanji thought. Who the hell did she think she was to get in between two people’s problems like this? He knew she wanted to be a cop, but he was hoping she wasn’t going to be just another pig, looking to tell him how much of a nuisance he was to everyone. 

“Shut yer damn mouth!” he screamed, tired of being the only one who cared about how he felt, “I didn’t do nothin’, I was jus’ honest with her! But she’s just like everyone else, not givin’ a shit about anybody but herself. Same as you, same as Yosuke-senpai, same as all ‘o ya!”

This was something he’d wanted to scream from the tallest hill in town for the past month. It felt like Yukiko was the only one in the group who actually cared about him and the weird, messed up thoughts he’d been struggling with, but after last night and how mad she got that he still had some feelings for Naoto, it seemed like it was only about how she felt. Kanji had tried to explain this, but that only made it worse, because he inevitably flew off the handle and hurt her feelings really bad. He’d felt manipulated, toyed with, and then add on top of that, it was looking like Naoto and Yosuke had also been playing him? It was all too much, and even now, he could feel the tears start to well up his eyes and his throat getting choked up.

Me!? ” Chie asked incredulously, “I’m literally here for Yukiko! What the hell are you even -”

Kanji’s rage was giving him an odd clarity in his thoughts that was so often missing. “ Bullshit! Yer only doin’ this ‘cause it makes you feel good! You beat up the weirdo guy who had the nerve to tell little Miss Princess to go screw, and yer the fuckin’ hero, right!? Doesn’t matter how he fuckin’ feels, nah, ta hell with that! It’s always his fault, right !? Everything ...It’s his...It’s his fuckin’ fault…”

While he was finally feeling like he was speaking his righteous truth, it didn’t make it any less painful for Kanji to hear it out loud like this. He felt like such a weakling for being powerless to stop the wave of tears rolling down his cheeks as he relaxed his body and put his hands to his side, biting his lip so at least he wouldn’t be sobbing. It didn’t stop little pained noises from seeping out his tightly sealed mouth.

Chie was still tensed up, although her confidence seemed to be waning from seeing Kanji clearly so emotional. “Y-you dunno what you’re talkin’ about!” she barked, her voice far shakier than the booming tone she had started with, “Y-Yukiko’s my best friend, I just wanna see her happy, so I...S-she seemed happy hangin’ out with you , and…”

“You don’t think I know that!?” Kanji snapped, his normally tough voice sounding more like a painful wheeze, “I know what yer gonna say: senpai’s the greatest, she likes ya, ya idiot, bla bla bla! I know all that! She’s…” he had to take a second to breathe as his nose was getting clogged up, “She’s, like, the most amazing girl I ever met, and she’s got a good family and everythin’... Why would she fuck all that up with me !? I-if you were smart, you’d be glad I told her off, ‘cuz I just saved her bein’ made fun of by everybody!”

This revelation finally got Chie to relax a bit. “K-Kanji, that’s not what I -”

The longer the conversation dragged on, the more Kanji could feel that sinister urge to fight back boil up from within. Considering he was already emotional and felt like he had nothing to lose, it was an easy choice to make. He still wasn’t about to hit a girl, but just like with Yukiko, he knew that the right words could hurt just as much as any punch.

“I knew you were stupid, but I didn’t figure ya for an idiot ,” he said, which got a desired flinch from Chie, “If ya cared about Yukiko-senpai at all, you’da told her not to go out with me! What were you thinkin’!? You are a part ‘o this mess jus’ as much as me, but I guess you’re too chickenshit ta actually own up to it, huh!?” Chie’s face hadn’t changed from her hardened glare, but Kanji could see that his verbal assault was cracking her defenses; her whole body was trembling and she clenched her hands into fists again. 

He went in for the kill. “At least Yosuke-senpai was honest about not wanting some dumb queer around. Guess you ‘n Yukiko-senpai ain’t got the guts...Or do ya? Well!? If yer gonna do it, jus’...Jus’ do it already!”

As he said this, Kanji dropped to his knees, somewhat lowering himself to Chie’s level as he grabbed clumps of the chunky terf in between his fingers and pushed his forehead down to meet them. A half-sob came out of his mouth, and he was already starting to cry so much that gobs of clear mucus were dripping out of his nose and onto the terf as he struggled to find his breath. While he had meant for his words to harm Chie to her core, every word was a razor blade across his tongue and an even worse cut to his soul. He knew this was wrong, to lash out and yell at the people whom he had come to know so well, but he couldn’t fight it any longer. The revelations of the past few days had sapped any sort of internal logic out of him, leaving only his instincts, all of which told him that the world was just biased toward him and he was better off alone. Trying to make sense of it all was too exhausting, so why not just burn it all down?

He heard the crunching of something moving across the terf and looked up a little to see that Chie had closed the distance between the two. She was breathing heavily, still trembling as she started down at him aggressively. The girl held up a wobbly fist and reared it back, presumably to sock Kanji in the face. Her breathing got more intense the longer she held that position, as if she, too, was fighting off her instincts. A single tear rolled down her increasingly red cheek and she made no effort to stop it; Kanji couldn’t help but take a sick satisfaction in knowing that he had gotten to her.

“C’mon, what are ya waitin’ for?” He begged, sitting tall on his knees so she could get a good shot. “Do it. Ya gonna just let me talk all this shit!? C’mon! C’mon you stupid bitch, do it! ” he roared, closing his eyes in order to prepare for the attack that was surely coming. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but he figured if Chie was even half as good a puncher as she was a kicker, it wasn’t going to be pretty. Still, taking shots was something he had spent a while getting good at, so what was one more? He patiently awaited his fate, doing his best to breathe through his runny nose.

And he waited.

And he waited.

Suddenly, a pair of arms snaked across his back and neck, pulling him forward into...Feeling soft and warm? Was she trying to smother him? Puzzled, he opened his watery eyes to see that Chie had in fact crouched down and put her arms around him, resting her chin on his shoulder.

“Wha...W-what’s happenin’’...?” Kanji mumbled softly, curious as to why he hadn’t been beaten to a bloody pulp yet.

“It’s a huh-hug, you asshole !” Chie whined, clearly fighting back more tears as she said it, “Juh-just shut up!” She angrily bounced her fists on his back, although it wasn’t really painful. “God, yuh-you just don’t know when to shut up...

For a moment, Kanji couldn’t even blink. Why? Why did he deserve this grace? Didn’t she hear anything he just said? Why couldn’t she just play along and let him believe what he wanted?

Losing his grip on his emotions, Kanji didn’t know what to do but just sit there and sob into Chie’s shoulder, his whole body trembling while Chie held onto him tightly. 


Thursday, 8/24/12, Amagi Inn, Mid-Afternoon

Yukiko stepped in front of her bedroom mirror, feeling exhausted and sick to her stomach. From the moment her eyes fluttered open she wished that they hadn’t, but she just couldn’t fall back asleep no matter what she tried. Except for some trips to the restroom, she hadn’t even left her room or changed out of her usual nightwear: a white nightgown that went down to just past the bottom of her thighs and her ruby red silk robe. Her hair, typically so shiny and silky smooth, was lying breathlessly over her shoulder in a hastily wrapped ponytail. She could hardly stand to look at herself, wincing at the puffy eyes, tear-stained cheeks, and chewed-up chapped lips. 

At least the crying had stopped, for a little while anyway. Left alone at the festival, Yukiko had been tasked with the unenviable task of either calling Chie to come help her or trying to make it home and hoped no one noticed her sobbing. She just couldn’t face Chie, much to her own embarrassment, so she stoically walked home on her own, able to clean off the worst of her smeared makeup while she was still behind the hedge and the purification fountain. 

This bravery only lasted until she made it home and into the shower, where she had cried herself senseless, until her chest ached and her throat was raw and scratchy. This continued all through the night, the evidence on the tear-stained pillow and soiled handkerchief next to her futon. Unable to get any sleep, she decided to try and brush her hair out, but what she really wished for, more than sleep, was to just disappear into the aether, freeing her from the responsibility of listening to her silly broken heart.

How could it have all gone so wrong? In the whole week leading up to Wednesday, between picking out the perfect kimono with Chie and getting her hair done, she felt like the luckiest girl in Inaba. It had been awhile since she had allowed herself to feel so confident, and she was relishing in how much she had missed that feeling. To have a date with the boy she had been crushing on at the town’s big summer event with her best friend’s support was almost too good to be true.

So of course it was.

Kanji had never looked quite comfortable the whole night, but the two had been having such a good time that she thought it was just his nerves, especially since it hadn’t exactly been a walk in the park for her either. But, as usual, she was wrong, and Kanji did have something on his mind. One of the things Yukiko had come to admire the most about Kanji was that he clearly didn’t have a dishonest bone in his body, and he really didn’t hold back. 

He said a lot of things that hurt her, but it was his clear pining for Naoto that had stung the most. She had never really gotten to talk with him about what he saw in her, and that mystery was at the heart of why she was so angry. It just didn’t make sense : who was there for him when he was at his lowest? Who had actually fought to save his life? And most of all, who was the only one who was going to share the same intense feelings that he had for Naoto with him?

Truthfully, she was as angry with herself as she was with him. It didn’t feel good at all to think of Naoto, who hadn’t (as far as she knew) done anything to stoke the flames of Kanji’s heart, as an enemy. It felt childish, irrational, and, worst of all, selfish. 

Growing up in a traditional household, Yukiko had the perils of being needy imprinted in her bones. Self-reliance, according to her mother, was important because being a burden on others was “not what a woman was supposed to be.” If she was going to one day run the inn or her household, it was going to take a lot of discipline, and making sure she was well groomed or maintaining steady beauty routines were practices that helped hone that discipline, in addition to being selfless toward strangers.

Even after years of practice, however, it was a hard thing to maintain. All that talk of tradition and values seemed to pop like a balloon any time that her heart was tugged in a particular direction; was it such a bad thing to want to rely on someone else sometimes? Was it wrong to want something, some one for yourself, and pursue it with gusto? 

Her brush ran artificially through long streaks of black hair as she tried to remember the good parts about the previous night. Laughing at how Kanji had gotten shaved ice on his face like a snowy beard. Sharing okonomiyaki with him, blushing fiercely as their chopsticks collided over a contested piece. The normally ornery Kanji laughing together with her as they fumbled with a tiny fishing pole to try and hook a goldfish. 

But the image most burned into her mind was the rageful, indignant look on his face after she had hit him, his cheek glowing orange in the light of the stone lanterns. She hadn’t meant to do something so violent, but she just wanted him to stop : To stop telling her she was a bad person for following her heart, and to stop assuming things he knew nothing about. 

More still, she wanted Kanji to stop thinking he was a terrible person. If she had learned anything over summer break, it was that his capacity for kindness and gentility was remarkable. There wasn’t a bad bone in his body, as she had known in her heart all along. He just had this armor around him, a shell meant to keep everyone away, and it was proving almost impenetrable, even with his true-self realized.

The even more haunting thing was that he said it himself: he liked her , too. Even in full-on denial mode, he couldn’t hide that. But for whatever reason he had this silly hangup about...she didn’t even know what , really. And that didn’t excuse the things he had said about her, especially the personal insults about her laugh and her shadow. 

Yukiko turned to her mirror again and saw that she had gotten rid of most of the tangles in her hair, but the dullness remained. Looking at herself just made her turn away, fighting the tears that were beginning to fog up her sight. In contrast to having her beauty complimented by Kanji at the festival, she could only see the flaws now. Tired eyes, plain hair, and beyond those, a darkness below the surface that swallowed up any chance at a healthy relationship.

Just like it had with Narukami. 

Once the seed had been planted in her mind, it festered like a virus. Tears began to run down her cheeks, tracing their way through streaks left by older outbursts. Quickly shuffling back toward her futon, sobs ripped through her sore throat as memories of a time she’d desperately tried to forget clouded her hazy mind…


Tuesday, 5/3/12, Junes Market, Mid-Afternoon

“Hey, Yukiko-san, is something up?”

Yukiko gasped a little, although this was hardly a surprise. Narukami was, if anything, incredibly astute at finding out what lay just beyond anybody’s expression, no matter how plain. The two had been at Junes with Nanako, trying to figure out something to cook for the group, who would be getting together later that night at the Dojima home. They weren’t having a contest, but Nanako had told Yukiko she felt bad after she heard the guys making fun of her cooking again. Determined, Yukiko offered to cook for everyone to show off her improving skills, but there was a determined group vote on what the meal would be and that she had to be supervised during the cooking. 

The group had settled for curry, and as per the agreement, Nanako and Yu had joined Yukiko, making sure she only got ingredients deemed essential to the process. Yukiko felt a tinge of disappointment; wouldn’t curry be better served with some flavors like that found in spicy mustard or bean paste? Still, she had relented, and so far the trip had been pleasant. While Nanako looked through the meat on display in the refrigerated shelves, both the third year students were combing through some spices in one of the adjacent isles. It was here that Narukami sprang his question on her.

“U-um...W-well…” Yukiko didn’t know the best way to phrase it. Everything during the past week had been so crazy, what with the sudden reappearance of the TV World, that the two hadn’t really had any time to talk. And truthfully, Yukiko did have something on her mind regarding...them. 

While she was sincere when she said that she was happy for Rise and wished her nothing but the best, Yukiko was still holding on to some feelings regarding Narukami. The two had spent a considerable amount of time together over the past year, sometimes on shopping trips like this, which should have made it easier to just be open about her feelings, yet here she was, completely at a loss for words to say anything.

Part of her knew that there was no good answer to what she sought. She was just aching to know why Yu hadn’t taken their friendship to the next level. Yukiko had thought she’d made it pretty clear, even telling him that she wanted to be a woman worthy of him one day when they went to pray at the shrine. Did he just not understand how she felt? Yukiko supposed if that was the case it would be wrong to be upset with him, yet she wasn’t 100% convinced that was the case.

It was a very awkward situation, and she struggled to communicate her complicated thoughts. “It’s not much, Yu-kun, but...I-I just thought, b-back then, that maybe...Did I…” Her cheeks flushed red, unbearably so, and she found herself turning away from Yu.

“Hey, c’mon,” He said gently, taking a step closer, “There’s no need to be so nervous. It’s just me.”

Just him , Yukiko thought sadly. That was the problem, wasn’t it? “I j-just wanted to say...you and Rise seem...Very happy together!” Yukiko hoped to the gods above that Yu couldn’t tell how forced her smile was towards him.

Yu blinked, his usual reaction at almost anything you could throw at him. He was unreadable in that way. “Oh, thanks! I know it got kind of sprung on everyone, and I know it caused a little bit of trouble…”

Well, if he was going to bring it up, Yukiko thought, then now was fair game to get to the heart of what she wanted to say. “Y-yeah, it did, didn’t it? I suppose that was my fault…” It hurt to say it, but Yukiko knew that peace between them was more important than the pain. Now that it was seemingly never going to happen, however, it couldn’t hurt to ask a what-if, could it?

“L-like I said, I’m happy for you two. Really! But...D-did you ever, erm, think that we...You know, had a chance at...Being...Together?” Having no experience in this realm, Yukiko wasn’t sure if that sounded horribly childish or not. Based on Yu’s uncharacteristic sigh and the slow raise of his hand through his neatly coiffed hair, he seemed to have understood her just fine, and it didn’t seem like there was anything good headed her way. Right again.

“Er...hrm,” he started, a rare flash of hesitation passing through his face. That was bad , wasn’t it? “I-I kind of got the feeling that you felt that way, yeah. A-and don’t get me wrong, I was flattered, really! I liked spending time with you, and I think it’s great that you decided to stay in Inaba and inherit the inn, especially since I know you had to work out a lot of stuff to come to that decision...” 

Well, that was certainly nice. But Yukiko knew that wasn’t all he wanted to say. “...But?” she asked, the conjunction hanging heavily in the air. Miraculously, the aisle was still abandoned, so only the sounds of the muzak playing through the Junes speakers gave ambience to their conversation.

Another heavy sigh. “Look, before I say anything, I really don’t think this means you’re a bad person or anything, I just felt like - “

A stab at her heart nearly made her cry out. Somehow she managed to keep a cold composure “Tell me.” Yukiko said, feeling it shoot out of her mouth like a bullet. It had been very easy to say she could handle what Yu might say, but if the lump in her throat was any indication, she was fooling herself.

“Y-you remember that time that I ran into you in Okina? And I was with my friend Ai?” He asked, putting a hand on his hip. Yukiko searched her memory and remembered it exactly: she had gone to do some shopping and Narukami happened to be there with another girl. She was quite rude, in Yukiko’s opinion, and seemed to be upset that Yukiko had come to say hi. After asking Yu what they were doing, the girl, Ai, took offense, at which Yukiko sternly reminded Ai that she was not addressing her. That was when she suddenly took off, leaving Yukiko and Yu alone, who then turned it into a bit of a fun shopping trip. It was a pleasant memory for Yukiko, so she was curious as to what Narukami meant.

“Y-yes, I do,” she answered shakily, “What about it?”

Yu’s eyes shifted back and forth before he answered. “Well, we were just out and about, and then you came up, and...it got really weird. I don’t know, I just...I didn’t understand why you were like that to her. We were just hanging out as friends, but you seemed to turn it into this weird thing about you, and...”

Yukiko furrowed her brow. Was that how it happened? It felt like it had been almost a year ago, so she was having trouble remembering. She didn’t much care for the implication that it was a narcissistic move

“I...I don’t remember it happening that way,” she replied coldly, “B-but surely that can’t be the only reason why - ”

Yu answered her quickly. “No, it’s not the only thing, but I just...I think sometimes you have this tendency to be really intense about certain things, and if you don’t get your way then this...I don’t even know how to describe it, but… You remember when you said you hoped the inn would close if it meant you didn’t have to inherit it? It’s like that. Just sort of...”

Yukiko couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. She felt her throat get choked with emotion. “S-so what are you saying!? That I’m just this b-bitter person, a-and that’s why you -”

“I didn’t say that!” Yu said, putting a hand up defensively, “But I won’t lie to you and say that moment didn’t make me think of what...a future where you and I were together was like. And...I just didn’t want that. I think we’re great friends, but I don’t think it would have been good...For either of us! You know, if it went further than that…”

She couldn’t stop herself. “ What didn’t you want?” It was a laser beam, concentrated and deadly, aimed right at Narukami. Yukiko did her best to try and focus a glare at her friend, but it was hard to glare when she was also blinking back tears.

Narukami was in a way she had never seen him before: Unsure. Contemplative. Almost...afraid? “- Hrrk - I didn’t want it to be like...I was going to be gone in March, so we would have had to try some sort of long-distance relationship. If just me hanging out with a friend upset you so much, how would you handle me being hundreds of miles away, where you wouldn’t have a chance to run into me? I know that if you can’t control something it really bothers you, so I - “

What!? “I-I’m not controlling!” Yukiko hissed, the first half of the sentence coming out much louder than she had wanted and getting one nearby shopper to quickly peek at the two of them. 

“You need to stop trying to twist what I’m saying,” Yu answered back harshly. Yukiko felt like he had just plunged a dagger in her heart. “I don’t think you’re controlling, but I know that you don’t like it when you feel like you don’t have control. And for now, there’s nothing I can do about living outside of Inaba, so I figured that would be really hard for you to deal with. It wouldn’t be fair to you, and I...well, I just felt a deeper connection with Rise. I’m sorry.”

Yukiko had heard enough. She turned back toward the shelf, putting her back to Yu. She barely recognized her own voice as she addressed him again. “I...see. Well, I appreciate your honesty, Yu-kun. Thank you.” Stone cold.

Yu didn’t seem satisfied. “Yukiko-san, I know that tone; that’s exactly what I meant. You asked me, so please don’t - “

“I-I need to look at some other things, so why don’t you and Nanako-chan go ahead and check out?” she asked, not even waiting for an answer as she slid past Yu and started walking down the aisle, arms tightly crossed over the red dress she was wearing. 

“Yukiko-san, wait !” Yu called out, doing his best to catch up as Yukiko beelined through the various stack-outs and customers walking around with carts. She was going as fast as she could, the click of her black boots against the floor the only thing she focused on as she quickly made her way towards the clothing department, which was in the middle of the store not far from the meat counter. Once there she quickly went to the center construct, where there was a cubicle of sorts that served as dressing rooms for the customers. Yukiko found one that was free and hurried in, shutting and locking the door behind her and taking a seat on the bench. 

Once she was alone, the mask she had been wearing for the past minute completely slipped as she buried her face in her hands and started weeping quietly. There were a few gentle knocks on the door, and she thought she could hear the faint sound of Yu’s voice, but she ignored them and kept bawling. She wasn’t sure how long she was in there, but she stayed long after the knocking had stopped, and when she eventually stopped crying long enough to exit the room, nobody was there to greet her. Yukiko silently walked to the entrance of the store, her head down so no one would see her tear-streaked face.

After exiting out into the cloudy May afternoon, Yukiko started on her way home. She wasn’t sure she could bear the thought of going back to Dojima’s; indeed, she wondered if she could ever find the strength to look Narukami in the eye again, or even be in the same room as him. She felt even worse that she was ruining a rare time for the whole group to be together, but she just needed to be alone with her feelings for a while.

At least nobody had to worry about getting sick from her curry anymore.


Thursday, 8/24/12, Amagi Inn, Mid-Afternoon…

Since that day, Yukiko had not spoken to or even texted Yu, and she honestly had no idea what she’d even say if she did. He had sent one text to her, trying to summarize what he had said and apologize, but Yukiko read it once and never responded. This presented quite the issue, since he was arriving in a few days for a brief summer visit, and she’d been so busy with Kanji that she didn’t even bother to think about a strategy for either avoiding him or confronting him.

Her feelings toward him now were even more complicated. While his pointed and direct criticism of her character had hurt in a profoundly personal sense, it was just as frustrating to see that, like always, he was on to something. Even now, Yukiko could feel the same pangs of jealousy she had felt toward Ai and Rise directed at Naoto. If she were to take it back even farther, it wasn’t all that dissimilar from the jealousy she had felt towards Chie, who she saw as strong and unshackled from a responsibility to her family. In that sense, had she really changed at all in the past year?

Part of the reason she hadn’t told anyone about what happened with Yu was because she thought it would reveal her to be a total fraud. All of her friends were changing, becoming bolder and more dynamic people with dreams of the future and goals to pursue, and here she was, committed to staying where she began and still suffering from the same old flaws. This situation with Kanji only brought the ugliness back to the surface, which compounded her feeling of weakness. 

Most frustrating of all, in spite of all the horrible things he had said, she still wanted to be near Kanji, to feel his weathered but delicate hands gently caressing her hair, or perhaps experiencing his calloused fingers curled up over hers. Most of all, she just wished that he could be there , and she could experience what it was like to feel safe and secure in the presence of someone she really cared for. After all, all she ever wanted was to be liked by the person she liked. Was that such an impossible thing?

It was only a minute before she had worked herself up again. There wasn’t any big dramatic sobs this time, but what little tears remained slowly dripped down her face as she sunk back into her pillow, which thankfully kept her pathetic whimpering muffled. She could make out the sounds of her phone vibrating, but she ignored it; the odds were that it was Chie, who had been frantically texting her since last night. She had only given vague answers in response, and didn’t feel like elaborating just yet. 

Just as she had with Narukami, she thought it was better to be silent about her failure rather than reveal it all and look even worse.


Thursday, 8/24/12, Shirogane Residence, Mid Afternoon

Rage.

Intense. Burning. Familiar. Unwanted. Needed.

Naoto was pacing across her room, breathing heavily, biting her tongue rather hard to try and keep the internal conversation that was happening in her head from spilling out into reality. It was hard enough to control her emotions at the moment; she didn’t want to risk what would happen if she tried to give a voice to the lump in her throat.

Leaving Yosuke’s house and speeding back home had done very little to calm Naoto down. She felt lucky that her Grandpa and Yakushiji were busy at work in his study when she first walked in, as it would have been obvious from her red eyes that something was wrong. The last time she remembered getting this upset was when she and Rise had their big row back in April, but this still felt a little different. As mad as she had been at Rise, she was still more angry with herself back then, and Rise bore the brunt of that frustration.  

Now, her rage had a target. She just couldn’t fathom why Yosuke would do this to her, going so far as to break his word that they would have no secrets between them. Naoto realized it could sound childish, but trust was very important to her, and she had revealed to him information that relied upon that trust, things she would have never told anyone else. Did he really think so little of her that he felt the need to keep more secrets from her?

Didn’t he care?

She felt embarrassed and ashamed to admit something as shallow as a person she admired not giving back the same intense levels of admiration back hurt her this badly. He was just a stupid, foolish boy, wasn’t he? Why did he have this power over her? Even with Narukami, it was her feeling inferior to Rise that brought out the darkest of those feelings; now, she just felt inferior , period. 

And why shouldn’t she? Her whole life seemed to revolve around cruel burden after cruel burden, a sick cosmic joke that kept on revealing additional layers. She sometimes felt as if two beings existed: Naoto Shirogane , the person she truly believed herself to be, and “Naoto Shirogane,” the ill-formed husk that was her avatar into the physical world. One did its best to simulate what it meant to be a normal human being, but was cursed to be resented by the other, a melancholic observer doomed to never see the world outside of the lens of the shell they had been born into.

She had always wondered if this explained how difficult it was for her to not only express her emotions and handle physical contact, but also her gender. It was like the body she used could put forward the illusion of understanding, but somehow it never made it back to the other person the right way. The way most people communicated could be processed by the body and reacted to in the (mostly) proper way, and she was incredibly good at reading the truth in people, but the substance of why people acted the way they did never became clear to her. It made more sense to put forth the persona of a boy as a simplistic measure to deal with her discomfort at being identified as a girl, but the more complicated truth was always hidden away by the voice only she could hear.

In this dual-minded way, she tortured herself with more thoughts of Yosuke. On a mental level, it was easy for Naoto to hate everything about Yosuke: his insidious and disingenuous grin, the cruelty sewn into his particular brand of humor, the fact that he took nothing seriously, and the overflowing libido that dominated his personality. He was a nuisance, and whatever schoolgirl crush she was experiencing needed to be destroyed, lest she just open herself up to more pain in the future. He was not worth the mental energy she was exerting even just hating him.

But for whatever reason, Yosuke didn’t abide by the rules. Where there normally was a large disconnect between her body and mind about things like touch and certain emotions, it was always crystal clear with Yosuke. Even he at his most downtrodden and pathetic stirred imposible feelings in Naoto: The smoothness and softness of his hand as it desperately latched, gently, onto hers, interlocking his clammy, sweaty fingers with hers. His swollen, bruised face and scarred eyebrow betrayed the beautiful, almond-colored eyes that were swimming with tears, the same eyes that had bravely stared her down as he confessed to her his true feelings. His voice, normally always lazy yet confident, was creaky and labored while he expressed a deep reliance on her presence, a vulnerability that she was sure he wouldn’t show to just anybody. He wasn’t perfect, but neither was she, and if she was being honest there were enough times he had made her feel not odd, unloveable, and broken that it would almost be impossible not to feel a certain special connection with him. 

In fact, she would be a damned liar if she couldn’t admit the way he looked at her with that silly grin made her heart flutter, that the very thought of spending the day with him was enough to make up for a sleepless night fighting off her invasive, oppressive self-loathing. Knowing that there was at least one person in the world who dared to not only know her intimately and personally, but also desire her on a level beyond friendship, gave her hope that she wouldn’t be alone as she continued discovering the mystery of herself.

Of course, reconciling this fact with the very legitimate grievances that still existed stifled that euphoria, and her early rendezvous with Yosuke had just added more weight to the grievances. Her natural instincts to protect herself had kicked in, and they were all urging her to stay away from Yosuke so this pain would stop. It made sense, and physically she removed herself from his presence, but her mind could not reconcile so easily with the decision her body had made. Story of her life.

She was getting upset all over again, so she stopped at the edge of her large executive desk and put her hands on it, trying to find her balance as her shaky breathing continued. She prepared to do a simple breathing exercise that would hopefully calm her down a bit when suddenly her cell phone began ringing.

Her first thought was to ignore it, seeing as how there was a highly likely chance it was Yosuke calling to try and soothe things over; she still had no desire to speak with him at the moment. The little grey phone sat there whirring and vibrating for another half second before Naoto dared to look at who was calling: A private number. 

The 4th ring had come and gone. Seeing as it was at least not her biggest concern, Naoto snatched the phone from her desk and hit the green answer button, taking a second to take a deep, unsteady breath and clear the cobwebs out of her creaky throat. Using the voice she preferred was pretty routine at this point, but it still required a somewhat conscious effort.

-Ahem- Shirogane.” She droned, all business.

Shirogane. It has been some time.”

Even in her heightened state of emotionality, Naoto knew that this was a serious call just by the voice on the other line. That was the unmistakably cold tone of Mitsuru Kirijo, the CEO of The Kirijo Group. The two had previously worked together back in April, and while “friends” may have been a strong term, Naoto found herself getting along quite well with the enigmatic young woman. 

“Kirijo-san. It...It has been some time,” Naoto coughed, taking a moment to sit down in her rolling leather desk chair. 

“Indeed. I hate to phone you out of the blue like this, but I could use your help.” Naoto heard what sounded like the clacking of a keyboard in the background. “We may have had a breakthrough in deciphering the mess with Labrys back in April. It seems that the Shadow Operatives were not the only unofficial organization in the Kirijo Group with interest in Labrys. I have leads, but it is difficult to act on them without a mess of red tape. As such, I’d like to request your assistance as part of an independent investigation team I am forming to get to the bottom of this.”

Naoto could hardly believe it. Having spent most of the summer in Inaba, she hadn’t made much use of her detective skills lately, which always seemed to go hand-in-hand with a lull in her attitude. Mitsuru was a bit of an ice queen, but Naoto found working for her to be rather easy; she was a no-nonsense kind of person, just like Naoto, and she respected results, which Naoto always got.

More importantly, the Kirijo group operated out of Tatsumi Port Island, which was a significant train ride away from Inaba. With all the recent happenings Inaba was starting to feel more like a war zone for Naoto, and getting away for a bit seemed like the best option.

Of course, there were complications to just packing up and leaving, especially now, which Mitsuru seemed to anticipate. “I understand this may be difficult - it has been brought to my attention that you are rather dedicated to your schooling, and I’d need you here beginning the 1st of September and for at least a few weeks after that. Please don’t feel pressured to accept, but I must stress that you had my highest personal recommendation, and that your skills -”

“Y-Yes!” Naoto nearly yelled, feeling that if she didn’t say it now she could be talked out of it. Getting lost in work somewhere far away seemed like the only response that could save her from this current cycle of agony.

Yes? You will?”

“Yes, I...I have been...Eager to work with you again.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, but Naoto felt dirty hiding her real reasons behind this sentiment, even if it was mostly true.

C'est magnifique !” Mitsuru exclaimed with excellent French, a peculiar habit Naoto had noticed back when they worked together previously. “You have my utmost thanks, Shirogane. I will have someone contact your Grandfather to help arrange your travel. As I said, you will most likely be arriving here September 1st. I’ll give you a briefing myself and introduce you to the team. We’ll talk more then. Au revoir.”

“G-Goodbye, Kirijo-san…”

-Boop-

The line disconnected, and Naoto set the phone down, almost completely drained from holding in her emotions for even one conversation. She was so relieved at getting this sudden excuse from the Gods to get away from what was causing her so much grief, but at the same time there was an even greater feeling of shame for wanting to leave without resolving the issue. She realized full well that this could possibly make the divide with Yosuke worse, but she didn’t know what to do. It just seemed easier to take this offer and go away for awhile, and hope that it would be easier when she got back.

Her gaze suddenly turned to her nightstand, and almost immediately hot tears filled her eyes to the brim. On the stand she had set Squirt, the little puppy doll that she and Yosuke had won out of the crane game in Okina, and next to him was the roll of photos that they had taken subsequently in a nearby photo booth with their newly won prize. Yosuke’s handsome face and wonderful grin brought back a flood of memories from that day: Revealing a bit about her dysphoria to him, Yosuke showing her how to play the arcade game, and the moment that their hands touched as they conquered the crane game together. It wasn’t a big smile, but Naoto’s expression in that photo was of a very genuine happiness that came from starting a day off rotten but having a wonderful friend who could make her forget that ugly start.

Unfortunately, it only took a moment for the cruel reality of what had transpired earlier to render all of those feelings inert and cold, a fireplace still smoldering from the remains of a passionate flame. She staggered over to her bed and sat for a few seconds before reaching for Squirt, hugging him tightly to her chest as tears slowly fell down her face and onto his fur. In just a week’s time she would be leaving, but until then, she barely felt like she could move away from the position she was in now. It had been easier lately to feel cathartic in releasing her emotions, but this felt like it did a year ago, where she’d have an outburst and never feel any relief, just more emptiness and doubt. The pain was familiar, but now it came with the knowledge that she was running away from a person who had made her feel worthy of things that she never dreamed of: love and validation.

8 days, she thought. She just had to survive for 8 more days. She hoped Yu and Rise could forgive her; not even the excitement of their visit could lull her out of her intended hermitude.

Chapter Text

Friday, 8/25/12, Hanamura Household, Afternoon…

“Oooookayy! Ta da! Whattya think, Yosuke!?”

“I officially hate you now, Bear…”

Yosuke groaned like an ogre, his one good eye barely open as he lifted his head toward the door of his room. Teddie stood in his usual outfit with his arms spread wide, framing a blushing and embarrassed Marie. If it were any other time, Yosuke was sure he would have gasped in surprise.

Marie had always worn the same eclectic outfit every time he’d seen her, so it was quite a shock to see her looking...normal. Well, close to normal, anyways: a black pencil skirt that generously hugged her thighs and waist, a camisole version of Teddie’s ruffled shirt, and a black pinstripe blazer with the collar popped up. Most curious of all was a thin black pair of eyeglasses that clashed rather garishly with her humongous jade-colored eyes. 

It was an odd sight, but Yosuke just couldn’t be bothered. “Okay. Go away now.” he mumbled, wincing as he felt a throb coming from the black and blue bruise on his eye. 

“Alright, outta here,” Marie huffed, turning swiftly toward the door before being ushered back by a frantic Teddie.

As Yosuke lay back down on his pillow, he heard Teddie’s shrill voice ring out again. “J-just okay!? You’re supposed to marvel at the exquisite, refined beauty on display here! Plleeeassee!? Just a little marveling?”

Yosuke had had enough. “Look,” he hissed, sitting up and turning toward the two goofballs invading his room, “I don’t care, alright!? Whatever stupid thing you two are up to today, I don’t wanna know! Just...Just leave me alone.” The last part was more to himself than anything.

“C-c’mon, Teddie, let’s just go, I look stupid anyways,” Marie stuttered, clearly roasting in the awkward air. Teddie wasn’t ready to give up, however.

“B-b-but we need you, Yosuke!” he pleaded, getting on his knees a the side of Yosuke’s bed, “Emmy-chan has a job interview today, and you know way more about this stuff than we do, so -”

“Teddie.”Marie interrupted with a deadly coldness before Yosuke could give the overly loud bear a piece of his mind. Teddie seized up, as if someone had grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.

“Y-yes, Emmy-chan?” he wheezed, looking a bit ashamed.

“He’s not feeling good, or whatever, so just leave him alone. You’re being annoying.” Wow, harsh, Yosuke thought. Teddie looked back at Yosuke then to Marie, his head down.

“O-okay...I’m s-sorry Yosuke,” he whimpered, getting back up to his feet and quietly shuffling away.

“Wait for me downstairs, okay? I...I need to ask him something,” Marie asked, never taking her eyes off of Yosuke. He tried to contain the nervous chill running down his spine as Teddie looked up at her in confusion.

“B-but Emmy-chan, what are you -”

“Now!”

With a skittish squeak, Teddie scurried out the doorway, which Marie hastily closed. Yosuke couldn’t deny that he was mildly terrified of what she could want with him, but he was also too annoyed and heartbroken to care.

“If you’re gonna electrocute me to death or whatever, just do it,” he whined, turning his back on her brazenly, “Make it quick...”

It was flippant, but Yosuke didn’t want to be anywhere on planet Earth, let alone Inaba at this moment in time. He hadn’t left his room since Naoto had walked out the door, and he was really struggling to figure out a good reason to get out of bed again, even to go back to work or school. After bawling for the better part of the previous evening, he now felt a grogginess and fatigue that seemed to infect his bones, which in turn made him want to be alone indefinitely. Saki Konishi’s death hadn’t made him hurt quite as bad as this; he had been sad and angry, sure, but he never wanted to just disappear like this. 

Being in a relationship with Saki had always been a dream, a dream that was never going to happen. With Yu’s help he had been able to better process and get over her and her death by thinking of it on those terms, as something that he had imagined as a greater deal than it was. Most of all, he had come to terms with the fact that although she may have thought he was annoying and pitiful, she at least didn’t hate him or resent him for who he was as a person. Or so he figured, anyways.

With Naoto, it was all the heartbreak of losing someone but none of the bittersweet detachment of a relationship that never came to be. It was real, they had confessed to each other, even kissed! Not only had he been assured that his feelings weren’t misguided, but also, in her own words, that not being with him made her feel less whole as a person. For as often as he struggled with feeling useless, hearing someone he cared for very much tell him that having him in her life was special beyond all compare was enough to send him into overdrive.

Of course, life had a funny way of giving him a cheap shot when he felt he had it all figured out.  He had actively worried about Kanji’s feelings, and despite Naoto’s assurance that they were just friends, Kanji clearly hadn’t gotten the memo. However it was that he found out they kissed, Kanji came to the casual basketball game the two had agreed to with fury in his eyes. It all happened so fast that Yosuke got too hot and bothered to explain why Naoto and he had this special relationship, and instead fell back on his most reliable weapon: his sharp tongue. The things he had said to Kanji were deeply hurtful, and he knew they were, but he wasn’t going to let Kanji’s feelings get in the way of the bond that he and Naoto had developed. It may have been cruel, but Yosuke’s insecurities ran too deep to let Kanji win, no matter how dirty he had to play.

The stinging sensation in his eye was a constant, jolting reminder of the consequences of that action, although if he was honest, that was still a distant second as far as painful reminders went. What hurt the most was the same image that had been burned into his mind so bad he was even seeing it in his dreams: Naoto, normally so stoic, tough, and cool, looking vulnerable, weak, and upset, her wet grey eyes burning a hole through him as she warned Yosuke to leave her alone. Just thinking about it made his breath go short and his eyes water.

The worst part was that he didn’t even have a good reason to lie! Being honest about what happened with Kanji would have made her upset, sure, but intentionally keeping it from her always had worse potential. The Saki thing made even less sense; if he told Naoto that he was scared she’d think he was weak if he pined for a dead girl, Yosuke had no doubt she’d just tear him a new one for being stupid, and reassure him that she did not think that, as she had done before about him being emotional. She was too smart to fall for such desperate lies, and they bit him in the ass harder than he could have ever imagined. Ultimately, Naoto was right: she had two things she truly asked of him, and he couldn’t even stick to one. Why would she ever entertain the notion of being with him?

That wasn’t even taking into account what she was there to talk about in the first place. Surely it couldn’t have been the photos she found? The possibilities were also driving Yosuke mad, and they largely centered around her thinking that everything that had happened that week was a mistake she wanted out of. The lying had just been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The potential threat of Marie frying him didn’t scare him now, because she would only be granting him mercy. He couldn’t imagine a happy life going forward without Naoto, so what was a few hundred thousand volts going to change?

Surprisingly, Marie had still not moved from her fixed position in the center of the room. This was odd; Marie was loud and abusive on a good day, so this silent treatment was somehow more unsettling than if she had been screaming and yelling at him. Unnerved, Yosuke swung his legs out from under his sheets, revealing his orange and black plaid pajama pants.

“What, cat got your tongue? Not gonna call me a stupid idiot or a jerk or anything?” he asked, doing his best to suppress the sadness swelling in his throat. He blinked and Marie was suddenly next to his bed, seizing his right wrist like a pouncing tiger. 

“Wh-wha-hey!” Yosuke moaned, doing his best to pry his hand loose but finding the small girl’s grip like iron. While it didn’t hurt, he couldn’t help but notice that Marie was grimacing and grunting, grasping the top of her black hair as if she was in a severe amount of pain. After about five seconds, Marie finally let go and backed up, taking deep breaths and holding her head with both hands.

“The hell was that!?” Yosuke shouted, wiping his hand and wrist on his white tanktop as if Marie had cooties. “What did you do!?”

Marie staggered forward, clenching her fists. “I knew it! You’re going backwards! What kinda stupid moron does that!?”

While she did sound more like her usual self, Yosuke was still utterly confused. “Uh...huh?”

Grrr,” she growled, stepping a little closer, which made Yosuke scoot back in his bed, “Look, when I became whole again I...I could feel things that most humans don’t. If people get to be the way they were before, during the fog? I can sense it. I sensed it in you.” 

She wasn’t making any sense, Yosuke thought. “What are you even talkin’ a-”

“Listen, you stupid, no-tact, smarmy...ass!” That got Yosuke to back up so far he hit his head on the side wall, “I know when someone isn’t themselves! I promised...him,” she sighed, her suddenly reddening cheeks giving away exactly who she was talking about, “that I would look out for this town, and especially his friends. And now you’re screwing. It. Up!” With each word, she jabbed a finger at the bit of Yosuke’s collarbone exposed by his sleepwear, causing him to whine a bit each time. He appreciated that Marie was trying to watch over the group in Yu’s stead, but he wasn’t sure this was the best way to go about it.

Beyond the uncomfortable poking, he was also disturbed that this unhinged Goddess was possibly looking into his thoughts. “W-wait, you mean you know about…”

“-Sigh- no, nothing specific. But I can feel it, like I said. Like, literally, or whatever. I started noticing at that beach place, and its just gotten worse. You, Red, Big Dummy, and your blue girlfriend...you guys give me a migraine all the time! It’s exhausting!

Wait, Red? Wasn’t that what she called Yukiko? And Big Dummy...Kanji? But wait, did she just say…!? “I-I m-mean...Naoto’s n-not my…” He stopped when Marie gave him a look that had “Really, dude?” imprinted all over it.

“That’s why I grabbed you,” Marie explained, softening her look a bit, “Direct contact helps me focus, and I wanted to see if I could help.” She didn’t say anything for a moment, before looking at Yosuke with a notably more sympathetic stare. “No wonder you wanted to be alone.”

Even when he was talking to a Goddess, Yosuke didn’t want any pity. “I don’t want to be, but it’s what I deserve,” he huffed, pulling his legs up onto the bed and laying his head down on his knees, “I...I hurt her. She trusted me not to do that, and I...dammit!” All the same angry tears began to flood his eyes again, and he did not want to cry in front of Marie. At least Teddie was gone for now.

“Yeah, seems like you screwed up big time,” Marie said casually, which caused Yosuke to glare at her through red and puffy eyes. “...What? Didn’t you just say that?”

“...Just leave me alone,” Yosuke sighed, realizing Marie was getting to the end of her usefulness and he was feeling an ugly cry coming on.

Marie glared at him for a few seconds before shrugging. “Fine. I haveta interview for this job thingy anyways. I tried,” she announced, going back toward the door nonchalantly. Before she left, she turned to face Yosuke again, an uncharacteristically shy smile on her face.

“I hurt a lot of people once, and I thought that I only deserved to be alone forever, too. But someone and his friends came along and told me that even I deserved forgiveness and friendship. I dunno what you did, but I think if you’re really ready to make up for it...she’ll forgive you.”

With that she slipped out the door, walking a bit awkwardly on her fashionable black pumps. Yosuke could hear Teddie frantically attempt to figure out what she had talked with him about, the voices getting progressively quieter until he heard the front door close. 

Now left alone, his thoughts began to overwhelm his already fragile state of mind.“If you’re really ready to make up for it...she’ll forgive you.”

How could you!? After you promised…”

“It feels...Like there’s a part of me missing...As if you have stolen my heart.”

Please...just leave me alone!”

It was still too much. Yosuke felt himself start to get upset, and he quickly buried his face in a pillow, if only so it would muffle what he could hear of his own sobs. He just wanted to see Naoto again so bad, to hold her close and tell her how sorry he was. But the scary part was figuring out how he could trust himself to be honest with her, because he was so bad at doing it with himself; even now, he was trying to hide the sound of him crying to no one. Why was he such a coward?

The crying continued for a few minutes before Yosuke got up and went over to his desk, where he kept a small box of tissues. He blew his nose a few times and went to throw the tissue away when his eye caught something on his desk. It was the photo set of him and Naoto in Okina, still tucked a bit under his laptop. Sniffling, he slipped it out and took a good long look at it, feeling a warmth overwhelm him

His eyes began to well up again when he thought about how much Naoto’s friendship had helped him over the past year, and especially recently. Her stern, no-nonsense demeanor which used to infuriate him actually meant that no matter what problems he was having, she could anchor him and talk through his worst thoughts with total clarity and empathy. He had hoped that perhaps he could be the same for her - much like him, he got the feeling Naoto hid how she felt in order to not be a bother. If only she could know not only how much Yosuke could relate to that feeling, but also that he needed her: her wisdom and her insight, the silly little laugh she had, the way her right eyebrow would lift ever so slightly when she had a question, the earthy, cinnamon scent of her cologne…

As he was getting lost in these pleasant thoughts, his eye wandered to see the similar reel of photos lying a little scrunched on the desktop. Even a year later, the memories of Saki hadn’t gone anywhere; all the same sweet thoughts about Naoto also still existed for the deceased 3rd year. 

Like usual, an overwhelming sense of melancholy replaced the cheery warmth that had been encircling Yosuke. Feeling his nose getting stuffy with emotion again, he placed the Naoto photos down to look for the millionth time at the Saki reel. Nearly golden curls that cascaded down to her shoulders, a sly, knowing smile, and smokey eyes that were as haunting as the first day he remembered seeing her. These photos had actually been her idea: she was in a particularly good mood after hearing about a test score and wanted to celebrate. Yosuke had almost worked up the nerve to confess his feelings right there in the booth, but had faltered at the last minute. Crazy to think that a little over a month after those were taken, she would be dead.

Yes, Saki Konishi was dead and gone forever. It didn’t hurt as much to say it anymore; a whole year of investigating and finding out who was behind her death, as well as unpacking his own feelings about it with Yu had left Yosuke with lots of clarity and little regrets about her time in his life. 

And suddenly, there it was.

Saki Konishi was dead. Yosuke had no regrets about her because...there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He had said to himself that he was going to live for her, to honor her by not living with regrets. There was no chance of changing what happened with Saki, but what was that whole experience for if he was just going to give up on a chance to move on and find true happiness? The photo reel in his hand represented a future that had been extinguished before it could begin, but the one on the desk represented a future that was fragile, uncertain...but possible

Could Marie have actually been right? Even if he felt lower than a piece of trash, didn’t he deserve a shot at redemption? Maybe this was one mistake too many...or maybe it wasn’t. How could he know if he didn’t try and find out? He scooped up the other set of photos from his desk, his eyes darting back and forth between the Saki reel and the Naoto reel. In only a few seconds, the choice was clear. With a few tears dribbling down his cheeks, Yosuke set Saki’s photo down in an open drawer on the side of the desk and closed it, feeling like a huge rock was taken off his chest as he did.

Looking over at the mirror that stood up in the corner near Teddie’s closet door, Yosuke wasn’t too keen on what he saw. His eye was hideous, the purple bruises starting to show around the barely-open pupil, and in his tear-stained nightwear he looked like a hot mess. Still, he couldn’t help but notice too that he was standing up straight, the tears on his face betraying a serious expression that had replaced his quivering lips. Carefully rubbing his non-black eye, he quickly rushed over to his side of the closet, rummaging for some decent street clothes.

He wasn’t entirely sure he had a plan, or even if he had the strength necessary to pull it off, but there was one thing he knew for sure:

Naoto was worth it.


Friday, 8/25/12, Tatsumi Household, Mid Afternoon

Kanji looked himself once over in the mirror again, hoping that he at least looked decent. Instead of the more stuffy look he had gone for during his and Yukiko’s date, his outfit was far more casual now: ripped jeans and a yellow tank-top that had a winking black skull on the front. His black hair was slicked with gel again, although this time he teased it into more of a messy pompadour, a few strands dripping in front of his forehead. His glasses lay lazily on the bridge of his nose, begging to have the arm screws tightened after years of being ignored.

His phone buzzed from its spot on the low table in the middle of his room. He tore his attention from himself and looked at his lock screen, a small smile creeping up his lips.

“Good luck tday dood u got this! Call me if u need me <3”

It was from Chie, wishing him well. After their heated confrontation, Chie had sat with Kanji in the unused soccer field for a little while, mostly just trying to calm down. To his surprise, his spunky friend was humble and silent as he poured out some of the mess of feelings that had been boiling over in his brain the whole summer vacation. It felt like the first time since he had gone to the Amagi Inn that he actually got to vent and sort out his thoughts with someone else, even if they weren’t very coherent or logical. Chie didn’t have much to offer in the form of advice but that was okay - the fact that she started out wanting to beat him up but ended up quietly listening to him rant was more than enough to show that she actually cared about him. 

At some point he felt obligated to mention what had gone down with him and Yukiko, in excruciatingly accurate detail. Chie was disappointed, but she had encouraged Kanji to do what he thought was best for him. She only asked him to do one thing:

“Just don’t leave it like this, y’know? Whatever you feel, she really liked you. If it got too heated and you can’t be friends with her anymore, I get it, just...no one’s harder on Yukiko than she is to herself.

That was all he needed to hear. Yosuke could wait - Kanji wasn’t going to forgive his little jabs so easily - but Yukiko deserved better. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that even if she had expressed it out of a jealous anger, her feelings were raw and genuine. He got a tingle down his spine remembering how gently she had wrapped her hand around his at the festival, her spindly fingers feeling like silk while she massaged his knuckles and assured him of her infatuation. 

He winced a little as he inspected that very same hand now. The swelling had gone down on his ring and pinky finger, but the achiness had yet to go away. Since he was being restrained while doing it, the blow to Yosuke’s eye had not gone as intended. Without the explosive power in his hips driving him through with the punch, Kanji ended up using his weaker fingers to land the strike. It hadn’t hurt at the time, what with all the adrenaline pumping through him, but his talk with Chie afterwards and the rest of the night had been torture on his hand. Just another price to pay, he figured, along with the mark Chie’s roundhouse kick had left on the same cheek Yukiko had slapped. 

Despite that, it was very difficult to ignore the feelings that had stirred that night, which had been bubbling up to the surface for the past few weeks. Even if it was already too late, Kanji knew that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t try to explain those feelings to her, in addition to apologizing for the nasty things he’d said. The plan was for him to get to the Amagi Inn before Yukiko left to do her round of babysitting for Nanako, and hopefully she wouldn’t just shut the door in his face. He had texted her after his chat with Chie, but he didn’t get a response, not even a read receipt. Kanji felt bad surprising her like this, but if she wasn’t answering his messages, he didn’t see much of an option. Nevertheless, he fired off another quick text to her, saying that he was coming. At least that way it didn’t seem much like an ambush.

He gave himself one final check in the mirror, finding satisfaction as plucked his jewelry out of the little dish he kept them in. Right as he finished up putting in his earrings, he heard the sound of his front doorbell.

“Door, Ma,” he called, fiddling with the left hoop. He couldn’t hear his mother’s shuffling, and sure enough the bell rang again, much to his annoyance.

“‘Ey Ma, the door’s ringin’!” He said a little bit louder, hoping this time she’d hear him. Still nothing. Groaning, he finally affixed the earring and blew through his door to try and reach the front of the store. He stepped down from the high floor and onto the soft tatami mats, noting the doors were still closed. This usually meant that his mother had stopped to use the restroom or make a phone call.

Muttering to himself, Kanji quickly went and unlocked the doors, hoping that his mother’s break wasn’t going to cost them some business. He threw open the doors only to see Yosuke standing there, looking just as surprised as Kanji.

“O-oh! H-hey, look man, erm…” Yosuke rubbed his head, losing his train of thought pretty quickly. He was wearing a black v-neck t-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts, looking like he was just having a casual afternoon out, except for the notably big aviator sunglasses he was wearing. They didn’t do a very good job; Kanji could still see the bruising under his eye, and it looked like a big one.

The feeling of shock passed quickly, and the same anger at what Yosuke had said and done came rushing back. He somehow resisted the immediate urge to punch him again and settled for quick hostility. “Th’ hell are you doin’ here?” Kanji snarled, stepping outside of his mom’s storefront and into the street. He didn’t even need to stand at his full height to have Yosuke already scrambling backwards, looking scared.

“W-wait, please, I just wanna -”

“I don’t give a fuck,” Kanji hissed, getting right up in Yosuke’s face as he was now at the edge of the sidewalk, “Get outta here before I pound that face ‘o yers to -”

“I-Iwannatalkabouther!” Yosuke squealed, his voice betraying his attempt to stand up tall and look Kanji in the eye,or so it seemed; the glasses made him unreadable. Kanji had parsed out what he was saying even though he said it incredibly fast.

“You wanna - -tchh- God, you’re really jus’ tryin’ to get yer ass kicked, aren’tcha?!” The last thing Kanji wanted to hear was Yosuke try to defend what was going on with Naoto. He just wanted to try and move past it plus he wasn’t in any state to process it healthily. There was just simply too much on his mind.

“Hey, listen, man!” Yosuke suddenly growled, losing his previous skittishness, “I get that you’re mad, I get it! But...look, I...I-I dunno what you think, but I swear this just sorta...happened! If you just gimme a chance, I can expl-”

It was taking everything in Kanji’s power to not shatter the big stupid glasses Yosuke was wearing with a headbutt. “Oh yeah,” he groaned, sarcastic as hell, “Things jus’ happen, man, that’s all it is. Not like ya get told over and over again that if ya keep makin’ the same lame-ass jokes, I’ma cave yer head in. It jus’ slipped out, y’know?”

This got to Yosuke, who visibly winced. Kanji continued, unabated. “What, I’m s’posed ta feel bad ‘cuz I decked some fuckin’ jerk who’s always makin’ fun ‘o me since the day we met? I’m s’posed ta feel sorry for ya now that you got a girl who’s way too fuckin’ good for ya? Huh!?” He barked, giving Yosuke a solid shove in the shoulder that pushed him back out further toward the street.

While he stepped out and shut the shoji behind him, Yosuke composed himself. “I...I’m sorry, alright!? I-I messed up, I shoulda told ya a long time ago how I...th-that I was feeling that way about Naoto. B-but you have to believe me that I only want -”

In light of Chie’s grace and compassion from yesterday, Kanji had little patience for this tactic from Yosuke. “Who gives a shit what you want, man!?” he cried out, earning some stares from some of the people on the street and a desperate shushing gesture from Yosuke. “What about me!?” 

This actually gave Yosuke pause, which caused him to sigh and tilt his head down. Kanji didn’t want to have this kind of angry energy for when he saw Yukiko, but he couldn’t help it. Slowly but surely, the desire, the need that he had felt when hanging out with Yukiko was coming back, and it made him all the more ashamed of the hurtful things he had said. In particular, the image of her beautiful, sad eyes welling up with inky tears had haunted him more than anything; to know that he was the source of those tears was almost too much to bear. Add to that his still sore feelings over Naoto and he was suddenly feeling his chest getting tight all over again.

Yosuke sighed, putting his head down. It could have been that his eyes were hidden, but Kanji could see that Yosuke’s face was far from angry or smug, like he had expected. Instead he looked depleted, sad, and weary, much like Kanji felt.

“You’re...right.” he murmured, almost too quiet to hear. Kanji wasn’t sure he actually did hear him; he didn’t expect someone as proud as Yosuke to stoop to that level.

“H-huh?”

Yosuke let out another deep sigh before carefully grasping the bridge of his nose. “I said you’re right, man. You’re right! She’s...N-Naoto’s a better person than I could ever hope to be, and I’m not good enough. S-she told me herself.”

Now Kanji was just confused. What the hell was he talking about? His temper was still on a hair trigger, but he had to ask questions. “W-what is this? What’ra ya doin’?” he said aggressively, his fists still clenched and ready to clobber his “friend” should the need arise.

Yosuke looked around, clearly a bit shaken and uncomfortable. He hastily adjusted his sunglasses before addressing Kanji. “Could-could we not do this, uh, o-out here?”

Kanji scanned the area around them, noticing that there were a few people about giving him a nasty look. The textile shop was in the northern part of the shopping district, and while a majority of the stores were still closed, it was close to the main road, so there was a decent amount of foot traffic. He was already working on borrowed time, and he didn’t need someone calling the cops on him and making a scene should anything escalate.

With an annoyed huff, Kanji flicked his head at the fence on the side of the house. With Yosuke close behind he went over to the side gate and unlocked it, traversing through a small alley and into the backyard of his house. He listened carefully to the sound of shoes crunching on the rock path, in case Yosuke tried something, but they moved to the center of the yard without incident. 

Like most backyards in the town, Kanji’s was nothing special: Aside from a small bush with a stone lantern next to it and a path of square tiles leading to the back door it was plain. Kanji felt he could relax a little and turned to face Yosuke, his face still sharp and eyes intense. Memories of Yosuke finding different ways to jab at his character ran through his brain like a fork poking at his skin, egging him on to stay angry.

“H-hey, this is random, but…what the hell happened to your face? Did Chie do that?” Yosuke asked as he placed his hands in his pockets.

“‘I’m askin’ the questions,” Kanji answered gruffly, "Spill it!” He hissed, staring at the lens of the dark glasses in front of him. 

“O-okay, I’ll do my best. But p-please, just let me tell the whole thing…”

It was quite a story. Kanji listened stone faced as Yosuke mumbled his way through not only what happened after their little brawl and how Naoto had been waiting for him at his house, immediately discovered what had happened, and went so far as to reject his apologies and ask him to leave her alone, but also the nature of his and Naoto’s relationship, and how they ended up kissing the night before. As he talked, Kanji could hear in his voice how deeply this affected him. Yosuke always sounded like he was in control, as if he was a step ahead of you, but now it was like he was suddenly lost and scared that he couldn’t find out how to get ahead. He kept the glasses on but it was pretty easy for Kanji to see that he was hurting inside. This clearly wasn’t some cruel trick orchestrated by the two of them to personally get Kanji, or at least the way Yosuke told it.

“S-so that’s it. I fucked up, and now…” he trailed off, and Kanji heard him sniffle before he spoke up again. “I-I don’t have a whole lot..T-to give. Even a-after the murder case, I-I felt, like, nothing I could ever do would stack up, y’know? But Naoto, she...she was the first person since then to make me feel like I was doing something right, that I wasn’t letting Sa - everyone down.”

Another pause, another sniffle. Kanji felt his fists soften as a single tear fell down Yosuke’s cheek, peeking out from under the cover of the darkness of the shades. “Buh-but I did! Yuh-you were my friend, and I juh-just completely threw you under the bus so I could feel better about doing what I did. I shoulda come to you, like a man, and ‘cause I didn’t, this happened. All ‘o this.”

Yosuke’s face turned red in the cloudy light of the day, reflecting his anguish. Kanji could feel himself getting a little emotional and choked up; the things Yosuke were describing weren’t far off from the feelings he himself had felt for Naoto. It was hard to rationalize that Naoto simply just had different feelings when it came to him and Yosuke, especially when, in Kanji’s mind, Yosuke hadn’t changed all that much. He was somewhat happy that Yosuke was admitting to some of his faults, but there was an elephant in the room going unaddressed.

“Why’s it always gotta be about the gay thing?” he asked pointedly, his nostrils flaring as he struggled to keep the emotion out of his voice. Yosuke tried to say “it’s not” but Kanji cut him off. “No, it is, all the fuckin’ time! What, it’s not enough that ya don’t got the balls to talk to me ‘bout Naoto, you also gotta be a huge piece-’o-shit bigot, too!? So what if maybe I ain't just into girls, who the fuck are you to judge me for it!?”

Yosuke’s casual bigotry regarding even the potential of any sort of queer actions on Kanji’s part had never gone unnoticed. For Kanji, what hurt so much was the realization he had come to that, no matter how much he tried to deny it, there was an undeniable attraction he had to men that had bloomed alongside his growing appreciation for girls. It wasn’t 1:1 and he wasn’t even sure if he had a preference or not, but for all intents and purposes he was attracted to men. Which made Yosuke’s jokes all the more hurtful.

It was a strange thing he had never talked about with anyone, not even Yu, and ever since his little situation with Yukiko started flaring up so too did his old insecurities. Part of the reason he had balked at Yukiko’s feelings was the fear that the more she got to know him the faster she would eventually be weirded out by his proclivities, whether it be the sewing or his penchant for cute things or, most damning, his attraction to men. Hearing it constantly distilled down to a negative trait to be ashamed of did little to alleviate his fears.

There was silence between the two boys as Yosuke gently removed his glasses, revealing his gruesome injury. Kanji winced and could feel and almost hear his injured knuckles pulsate even harder.  A deeply ugly grape-colored bruise covered most of Yosuke’s right eye socket and cheek; Kanji wasn’t a stranger to a black eye, but Yosuke’s looked like it hurt to blink. A small bandage hid a cut on his eyebrow, both injuries combing to give him the appearance of a prize fighter with the disposition of a scared puppy. His good eye was wet and runny, the reflection of a teardrop glistening on his cheek before he hastily wiped it off. Kanji was never one to handle crying very well; his soft heart was always prone to be more forgiving if someone was legitimately upset.

“Luh-look man, I…” Yosuke wiped his nose in the crook of his arm, trying to find the words, “I-I dunno huh-how to deal with...W-when I suh-see you just...Doin’ what you want, bein’ you? I want that too. Buh-but I’m afraid, because I’m not...I need people to rely on me, and if they don’t, then I’m useless. A-and I can’t deal with thu-that! So muh-making fun of people like you or saying dumb shit to girls...I think that’s th-the only way I can make myself feel better...By steppin’ all over someone else... ”

He stopped to swipe away some more tears with his thumb, failing to make eye contact with Kanji. “Tuh-to be honest...I d-don’t hate gay p-people, it’s just d-different from what I always thought guys were ‘sposed to be...I-I like you a lot, dude! But like I said, I-I knew it hurt you, so...W-when you told me to stay away from one of the only people who make me not feel like trash, I-I wanted to hit back as hard as I could...” Yosuke finally looked up, his bad eye blinking rapidly as his emotions continued to leak out. “N-Naoto’s called me out on this shit before, too, a-and I want to be better. The only way I could ever even begin to make it up to her is if I truh-tried to fix all the stupid shit I’ve done, so…I-I’m sorry. I’m really sorry for like...Everything I’ve said. ”

Kanji also had to quickly use his forearm to catch some snot that was starting to drip out his nose. He could appreciate the honesty of what Yosuke was saying, and of course the apology was nice, but it still really hurt to hear that Yosuke knowingly teased him about his sexuality in order to make him feel small. Much like when he’d had his heart-to-heart with Naoto, he wondered if life was full of these situations where the answers you wanted aren’t great, and dealing with the crappiness of it was what made all the difference in the end. 

It was also hard to shake the conspiratorial thought that this was all a long con; Yosuke doing anything and everything to get back what he wanted wasn’t exactly out of character. At the same time, this didn’t feel like the usual Yosuke shiftlessness, especially considering that he was basically a blubbering mess. Who would possibly go through all this trouble, have their face practically smashed and bear their soul to somebody, if they didn’t care?

Kanji could only think of one final way to test his sincerity. “Do ya love ‘er?”

There was a gasp from the 3rd year as he processed what Kanji said. “Wh-wha…!?”

“You heard me,” he replied, stepping a bit closer to Yosuke as he bit his bottom lip to keep it from quivering, “Do. You. Love. Her?”

For Kanji, it was only fair to ask. With hindsight, he could see now that love, or at least what it seemed to be, was truly what he had felt for Naoto and what was making it so hard to move on. It took a lot of guts for Yosuke to do what he was doing, but only through his answer to this could Kanji see what kind of person his friend, whom he loved very dearly, had fallen for. Although it potentially could hurt just as much as it had when Naoto rejected him on the school roof, he needed to know that Yosuke was going to do right by her.

And by letting her go to someone he could trust, perhaps he could finally be truly honest with Yukiko.

Another deep sigh escaped Yosuke, but when he looked up again at Kanji, his face somehow puffier than ever, there was a clarity and sincerity in his expression that was impossible to ignore. “I-I dunno, man…Th-that’s kinda heavy, but...She’s really special to me. She’s all I ever think about, and even d-dream about. Like I said, I d-dunno if it’s love, but if it isn’t…it’s pretty freakin’ close. Hopefully she’ll at least hear me out…”

Kanji felt a few tears slide down his face as he listened to Yosuke’s response. It may have just been lip service for all he knew, but it was damn good lip service. Hearing words that could have easily come out of his mouth just a month ago was enough to convince him that, for once, Yosuke was being genuine.

“’K-kay,” he muttered, sniffling as he put his hands on his hips, “I…I believe ya. It ain’t cool, that shit you said, but...Thanks, fer – fer sayin’ somethin’. Jus’ know that if you ever do it again, or hurt Naoto again…” Kanji raised his fist, showing Yosuke the battered knuckles, “There’ll be a lot more where this came from, ya understand!?”

Yosuke gulped, but nodded quickly. There was a quiet moment as both teenagers struggled to fill the air, before Yosuke moved in and threw his arms awkwardly around Kanji’s torso, who flinched in surprise. He seemed to have given up on a full-on hug and settled for putting one arm around Kanji’s back and sort of clapping him on the opposite shoulder and holding firm.

Kanji, deeply confused, just reached around with his right arm and patted Yosuke’s back rather forcefully. “O…’kay?”

Yosuke quickly let go and backed away, sniffling and rubbing his nose with his index finger. “S-sorry man, I just…I th-think you’re a cool dude and all and I’m just glad that we can still be…”

For Yosuke, who had spent almost the entire time he’d known Kanji deriding him for anything that seemed to have a remote homosexual connotation, hugging another guy just seemed out of the question. Kanji couldn’t help but chuckle a little at how full of it Yosuke had been, but also how quickly that could get torn down when he decided to stop being a jerk for once. Yosuke noticed his laugh and offered a little snicker of his own, smiling through his tears.

“Ya don’t gotta be corny about it,” Kanji snorted, “But…Yeah, I’m glad too. S-sorry ‘bout yer, uh, face ‘n all…”

Another huffed out laugh from Yosuke as he carefully felt around his bruised eye. “Well, least you didn’t beat me with a folding chair. ‘Sides, I think…Yeah, I’ll say I had this one comin’, heheh…”

This time the silence was a lot more comfortable as the boys both let out a big sigh of relief. He was worried about Naoto, but Yosuke’s guts and determination in making his apology gave Kanji some confidence that those two were going to be okay. More still, knowing that Naoto had well and truly moved on made the prospect of him doing the same seem possible.

Uh oh!

Kanji fished in his pocket for his phone, swearing as he saw the time. He had been talking with Yosuke long enough that it was past time for Yukiko to be babysitting Nanako. Damn! He didn’t want to make things awkward by interrupting their day, but he also realized that he really couldn’t wait any longer. While he thought of what to do, Yosuke must have noticed his anguished expression.

“Somethin’ wrong?”

“Eh, yeah,” Kanji said, “I was s’posed to try and meet up with Yukiko-senpai before she had to babysit. Now I gotta…” he trailed off, realizing that he actually hadn’t talked to anyone about Yukiko other than Chie. Sure enough, Yosuke looked rather puzzled.

“Yukiko? What for?” Kanji looked up, regret traced along his face. How could he possibly explain everything that had happened? As he searched for the words, Yosuke’s good eye lit up a little.

Kanji rolled his eyes, hearing a bit of the old Yosuke in his voice. “Look man, I don’t have time ta explain it, okay!? I just…I gotta go now. I got my own…Girl problems, or whatever…”

“W-wait, are you gonna meet up with her…Like, were you guys hangin’ out?” The way he said it clued Kanji in that he really meant something else. Shyly, and with his teary face burning red, he gave a barely seeable nod before looking back to his phone.

He felt like he could hear Yosuke’s jaw hit the gravel. “N-no way…You-you gotta be kiddin’ me! Marie-chan meant...You two!? H-how did that…When did you… but she’s…”

He turned to leave, not really wanting to deal with the obnoxious questions, before Yosuke quickly moved in front of him. “Hey, hey, wait a sec!” Instead of asking something, however, Yosuke just extended his fist. “Good luck, man! Go get ‘er!”

It wasn’t much, but Kanji could feel himself getting emotional again as he returned the fist bump. “Th-thanks. I-I dunno what’ll happen, but…”

“I hear ya,” Yosuke said quietly, taking his own cell phone out of his back pocket.

“Wh-what about you? What are you gonna do?” Kanji asked, wondering what was next if Naoto and he weren’t really on speaking terms. Maybe he could get some ideas for his own issue.

“W-well, it’s nothin’ fancy. I was just gonna text her or call her and tell her to meet me at this one spot in town that she likes. I’d go over to her place but…”

Wasn’t much better than his own plan. “Huh, okay. Well, whatever it is, I hope you guys ‘r okay. Lemme, uh, lemme know how it goes, ‘kay?”

“Sure thing. Same to you, too! I gotta hear this story.”

Kanji nodded and chuckled again as he led the way out of the backyard and back onto the main road, Yosuke typing away on his phone the whole time. Once outside, they both looked in opposite directions.

“’Kay, I’m gonna head out to Dojima’s place. I’ll, uh, I’ll see you later, dude.” Kanji grunted, not sure how to end the conversation on a very strong note.

“Seeya. S-sorry again, and I, er, I promise that…I-I promise that I’ll never hurt her again. I-if it takes forever, I’m gonna make it right, I swear.” Kanji again had to marvel at just how humbled Yosuke sounded. Desperate, sure, but genuine in his feelings.

“I’ll hold ya to it.”

With that, the two teens went their separate ways. The sidewalk and everyone he passed all became a blur to Kanji as he struggled to regain his focus on what he was going out there for. His emotions were all over the place, and he wondered if part of his body had yet to fully process all that Yosuke had revealed to him. Even still he soldiered on and did his best to keep his thoughts centered on what mattered: Yukiko. The flowery, sickly sweet smell of her perfume. The way she’d clutch her stomach as she trembled with laughter. The bitter tears in her eyes as he cut her down to size with the most hurtful things he could say. What could he possibly say to fix it? Could he fix it? How was he supposed to forget the memories of being caught up in her embrace, or a fun night spend at the summer festival?

As far as battles went, his shadow was starting to look like a distant second. Still, with fresh tears threatening his eyes again, he fired off one more text, hoping that this one would at least get read unlike the others. He put the phone away after its delivery, not wanting to put himself with the torture of waiting for the read receipt.

Comin 2 dojimas. Need 2 say srry.

Chapter Text

Friday, 8/25/12, Shirogane Residence, Mid-Afternoon...

Naoto shifted in her bed, trying to relieve the small ache in her side. Try as she might, she never managed to find a position to lie in that would feel comfortable. The easy solution would have been to just get up and dress herself for the day, but that would also mean getting up.

Since yesterday afternoon Naoto had been lying in her bed, unable to muster the energy to get up and go somewhere, do something. Her eyes were heavy and sticky, caked with dried tears that had hardened after a weepy night and a shower-less morning. Naoto almost never skipped a shower and now felt dirty and disgusting, telling herself that she couldn’t leave her bed because then the world would see how hideous she looked. Normally that was reserved for the days she woke up awash in dysphoria, but this entire ordeal with Yosuke had triggered an entirely different level of self-loathing.

A lurid growl from her stomach only added to her discomfort. It wasn’t uncommon for Naoto to skip meals; she suspected that her fierce work ethic and generally anxious mind did a lot to suppress her appetite. With the added stress of everything going on, she had now slept through lunch, dinner, and breakfast, and her body was feeling the effects. Despite hearing the snarls in her gut, Naoto couldn’t register feeling hungry, so she continued to ignore it as she lay lifeless in her bed.

At times the twin-sized bed was a cocoon, insulating her from a world that rarely made sense to her and providing a safe space to have an internal conversation with the judgmental and temperamental voice in her head. Other times it was a prison that kept her trapped with a hostile actor who had nothing but contempt and scorn for her own body. It felt much more like the latter recently, especially given her current wretched state. The progress she had been making over the summer seemed to be eroding and giving way to the familiar fog that clouded so much of her mind at any given time. Naoto’s head currently felt like it had been pumped full of cement, which tended to happen any time she had a big emotional outburst in anger or in sadness. It physically felt like she could no longer process emotions or even basic thoughts, like yesterday’s crying had just completely wiped the slate clean. It was a frighteningly familiar feeling that prompted Naoto to wonder what good she had actually achieved in the past year, and if she was ever going to change from being the strange, sullen husk she had always feared she was.

Only the buzzing of her phone was enough to get her to even look over toward the other side of the room, where Squirt and the photos of Yosuke still lay in state on top of her drawer. She did her best to ignore them as she reached out lazily for the phone also perched on the surface. She almost threw it away immediately upon seeing the screen’s caller ID

Hanamura Yosuke

It seemed natural that he would try this, she thought; she had asked him to leave her alone, yet here he was, already disrespecting her wishes. What good were his apologies anymore? Naoto’s head was too fuzzy to contemplate the rationale behind his actions and too angry to reasonably speak with him, so she simply ignored it, letting the phone buzz to its heart’s content. After several seconds she picked the phone back up, noticing there was a notification on her screen.

(1) new voice message: HANAMURA YOSUKE

A voicemail. Again, her first instinct was to just throw the thing further down her bed and forget about it. Nothing good was going to come of this, she was sure, and she was better off just waiting out the next few days until it was time to go work with Mitsuru. And she almost followed through, holding the phone menacingly in her hand and prepared to give it a healthy toss. But somehow, peeking out through the malaise flooding her head, the insatiable curiosity that she had been cursed with since a very young age began to stir. Obviously she was in no mood to have a long prolonged conversation or argument, but… was there any harm in listening to it, no matter how clearly phony it might be? Just for curiosity’s sake? She tried to ignore her muffled mind screaming at her the obvious answer, to not make things worse, as she confirmed the notification and brought up her voicemail, listening to the recording as it went along its pre-scripted chime:

“You have (1) new message. Sent today at (4:44 P.M.)”

“Nuh-Naoto?! –Sniff- it’s uh…it’s me. Look you were totally right, and I understand if you don’t wanna hear from me right now, but…I talked with Kanji. Things are alright now. I’m trying, okay? If you’ll just give me a chance…I’m guh-gonna be on the hill where we we…y’know. I’ll stay there all night if I haveta, but p-please...Please just come and talk if you can, okay? I…I’m so s-sorry! I lo-”

The message cut off then, Yosuke having come to his limit on the length. The robotic voice on the other end asked her to press 3 to delete the message, but Naoto hastily pulled up the keypad and swiped 1, which replayed the message again.

Nuh-Naoto?! –Sniff- it’s uh…it’s me. Look you were totally right, and I understand if you don’t wanna hear from me right now, but…I talked with Kanji. Things are alright now. I’m trying, okay? If you’ll just give me a chance…I’m guh-gonna be on the hill above town, where we were last night. I’ll stay there all night if I haveta, but p-please...Please just come and talk if you can, okay? I…I’m so s-sorry! I lo-”

She pressed 1 one more time.

Nuh-Naoto?! –Sniff- it’s uh…it’s me. Look you were totally right, and I understand if you don’t wanna hear from me right now, but…I talked with Kanji. Things are alright now. I’m trying, okay? If you’ll just give me a chance…I’m guh-gonna be on the hill above town, where we were last night. I’ll stay there all night if I haveta, but p-please...Please just come and talk if you can, okay? I…I’m so s-sorry! I lo-”

It was hard to ignore the rawness and vulnerability in his voice. Yosuke was shiftless and oftentimes selfish, but even when he lied, he wasn’t terribly good at hiding his emotions; years of experience in doing the same made Naoto an astute judge of that. The warble in his voice had been there at the flood plain when he reminisced about Saki Konishi, at the beach, and the previous night when he confessed to her. And, given the lack of any stuttering besides his own emotional, labored breathing or long pauses, Naoto also sensed that this didn’t even sound like a lie. Even the part about Kanji!

But most troubling still was where he was cut off. “I lo-“ It could have been a lot of things: I long. I loathe. I loaned. I load…

No. This may have been new to her but Naoto was no fool. There was only one viable option:

I love you.

It was a deeply manipulative thing to say, she thought immediately. How could someone who knowingly lied to her (and was aware it would hurt her) love her? To Naoto, love was the passive, gentle reassurance of her Grandfather’s words or the dramatic and touchy but pure-hearted theatrics of Rise. What did Yosuke’s hypothetical “love” entail? Lying to her, teasing her, playing with her emotions…but also making her laugh, spending time with her, doing what she wanted, encouraging her to be who she wanted, and most of all listening to her when she felt ugly, sad, and lonely.

Naoto finally sat up, wincing as the ache in her side pulsed. A lump in her throat was forming and it was going to take a lot of energy to hold everything in as she tried to process what was going on, to force her brain to trudge through the molasses it was stuck in. How could all of these things be true? Impossible! Maddening! Being lied to as a method of sabotage by countless awful men in police investigations she’d worked on and hearing the cruel whispers of classmates behind her back had forced Naoto to become very defensive against anyone who would do these things to her. Much like when she and Rise had their fight back in April, she couldn’t stop her overactive imagination and anxiety from taking over when confronted with the possibility. She hated herself for it, but at the same time felt powerless to stop it; not even the recognition that the situation with Rise had worked out okay was enough to calm her down. The dried-up old tears were starting to be replaced by fresh wet ones as Naoto tried to breathe easy, feeling her face grow warm from all