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Desperation

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Ever since Yu Narukami left Inaba, a time of peace befell upon the rural town. The mystery about the serial killer was solved. Future deaths were prevented from the TV world. Petty crimes that were easily handled by the local police were the worst crime that could be committed. The fog finally lifted from the premise. Eventually, Yu would return and rejoin the investigation team in a friendly reunion. A bright future awaits for all of them.

Or so everyone had hoped for.

The town is still thick with fog. It had gotten so much worse ever since the city boy left. It was as if he left a disaster in his wake, his presence acting as a warning before his departure. Naoto Shirogane herself had not expected this. They were so close to solving the mystery… only for it to be left hanging. Shreds of evidence from the television world all pointed at Taro Namatame in the act, and they had successfully caught him. Nanako Dojima was barely saved from the grasps of death and is in stable condition at the hospital. Teddie, unfortunately, had left their world to return back to where he came from. However, the investigation team was unable to deduce the true culprit behind the Midnight Channel.

Taro was transferred elsewhere to await his trial. It was not long until his defense attorney twisted the prison sentence into a plea for insanity. They were too late. The truth is now forever lost to the fog.

The intelligent female slowly walked down the foggy streets of the Shopping District. Head lowered, her blue hues remain fixated on the road through the glasses Teddie had provided. There was no one but herself patrolling on the streets. Rumors about the fog had spread throughout Inaba in hushed, whispered conversations around its existence. Come the following months after December and no one, other than the police force, dared step foot outside of their homes. For the investigation team, everyone else had gone to their respective homes in hopes of recuperating for the next day. Although Yu may have left, the teenagers can still work on their current case in hopes of concluding it before the fog overwhelms their senses.

‘Senpai…’

Naoto recalled the expression Yu made before he entered the train. The whole party stood at the isolated train station. Each and every one of them sent their best wishes and farewells for the temporary transfer student. Everyone promised to give him a warm welcome the next time he visits Inaba. The young man agreed to return in the near future. But the detective is no fool when it came to deducing lies. Although she lacks sensitivity to read the mood and is best known as the “killjoy” member of the group, the first-year makes it up with her ability to logically reason and roughly analyze psychological profiles of others.

Yu had smiled. The corner of his lips slightly curved upward as he watched over his group of friends. The bonds of trust that built up since he came to the tiny town were irreplaceable. Yet Naoto felt like there was something more behind his features. His eyes hardly shone like it once did during their investigation, his smile tainted with splotches of guilt. The last exchange they privately had together consisted of nothing more than empty words and topics hardly related to the investigation. It was almost as if he wanted to avoid talking about the strings of murder in the first place. 

Naoto almost raised a question to him before he took a step into the train. A step was taken forward as the young man adjusted his grip on his luggage. She wanted to ask him if there was anything wrong with the investigation that made him dodge the subject entirely. Maybe have him provide her a subtle hint or clue of his true feelings. However, the atmosphere was already as heavy as it is after watching him leave the rural area. The last thing the petite female would want to do is cast another layer.

‘Was there something you were hiding from us?’

She paused in place and cupped her chin. A faint hum left her lips as she closed her eyes. Is there really a possibility that he could have hidden something from them… from her and Yosuke Hanamura when they tried to predict the mastermind behind the fog and Midnight Channel of Inaba? Attempts were made to narrow down the list of suspects. No matter how much they brainstormed, the three arrived at a dead end. There weren’t enough pieces of evidence to point at a specific suspect. Still, Naoto’s gut feeling tells her that there is something more to it. She had glanced at their leader from the corner of her eyes during their wonderment. Yu had fidgeted. A rare sight to behold as the male was one of the strongest figures the detective have known in her entire life. Sadly, Naoto decided against the idea to pursue his nervous reaction. It still feels like they’re missing a vital piece of information though…

A sigh. Naoto shook her head and retracted her hand. There’s no point in dwelling upon the matter this late in the day. It was a missed opportunity. What’s done is done. For now, she should continue her patrol on this particular area of the Shopping District. Although Yosuke, Kanji Tatsumi, and Chie Satonaka suggested that they lend a hand, the detective told them that it was best they return home to rest. She despises lies. Naoto would never forgive anyone who dares sully the truth for their own gain. In this case, the blue-haired female mentioned headquarter had requested everyone in the police force, including detectives, to exercise protection of the public. Her lie was supported with the fact that almost everyone was indoor excluding the local police. It was for their safety and security. Orders are orders from headquarter.

Naoto’s hands tightened into fists by her sides. Still, it wasn’t just “orders.” She just didn’t want to lose anyone else anymore. The deaths of her parents and nearly Nanako’s crushed her entire soul. It wasn’t easy coping with their passing at such a young age. Never again does she want to experience such a sensation again… especially if it comes down to Rise Kujikawa. If anything were to happen to the person she found her first love in… She bit the bottom of her lip. Would the detective be like Ryotaro Dojima upon losing his daughter?

“Wah!”

She nearly jumped an inch off the ground from the loud, obnoxious beeping within her pocket. Naoto felt her heart race as she dug her hand into her cardigan’s pocket. The phone instantly flipped open once it was pulled out. Had she not held her tongue in, she would’ve snapped at the caller.

“Naoto Shirogane speaking.”

“Naoto-kun, how are you doing?”

That voice… Perhaps it was for the best that she did hold her tongue in. (God forbids what might happen if she did unleash her annoyance.) The first-year Yasogami High School student knew very well who it belonged to. A small smile bloomed on her face as she slightly tipped her signature hat. As expected of the idol… the first thing she asked for is for Naoto’s well-being. It may sound mundane and generic, but to Naoto, this meant everything to her, especially in her line of duty.

“I’m holding up on my end. How about you?”

“Mm… I’m doing okay. Just sad that senpai had to leave.”

“I can’t blame you.”

“Wish he would stay longer. One year feels like it’s too short.”

“Time certainly flies by…”

“But even though he left, I still have my girlfriend~”

Naoto felt a wave of heat wash over her cheeks as she covered her mouth. If anything, their current conversation is slowly dispelling the heavy atmosphere that weighed on their shoulders. Not only was her girlfriend excellent in keeping everyone’s mental health in check, but she also knew how to drop a romantic line here and there to the easily flustered female. Yet that is what Naoto loves about Rise.

However, before she was able to reply to Rise, the idol threw in another remark.

“Anyway, what I wanted to ask you was how you really feel. You’re probably out there alone, patrolling the streets, right?”

Naoto glanced up at the nearby building structures. She was a couple of blocks from Rise’s grandmother’s tofu shop, Marukyu. A chuckle slipped past her lips. Then, she placed one hand on her hip.

“I’m nearby, you know.”

“Um, no I don’t. I don’t know since the fog is so thick! I can’t see anything outside of my windows.”

A frown. Was the fog really that thick? Naoto lowered her glasses and took the time to carefully examine her surroundings. An eyebrow was raised. Odd. The visibility level that was somewhat bearable to the naked eyes just seconds ago had now plummeted to the point she could not see anything beyond her nose. Did it thicken over the course of their conversation on the phone? Or did Naoto simply lose track of time and allowed “mere seconds” to tick by, when it was really an hour or two? Right when she was about to apologize for making a general assumption about Rise’s visibility, her girlfriend made an additional observation.

“Speaking of that, is it really normal for the fog to be in the bedroom too? It’s not as bad as outside, though.”

“...”

It’s impossible. It’s scientifically impossible for the fog to creep through sturdy building materials and linger around from within. Fog should evaporate the moment it enters a home. Unless the temperature inside of the shelter is colder than the air outside, there is no plausible reasoning as to why fog can exist inside an individual’s house. Not only was there that knowledge, but there is that growing sense of concern bubbling underneath Naoto’s chest. In Inaba, where there is fog, something is bound to happen. For it to happen inside of Rise’s home… Naoto immediately placed a hand on her rapidly beating chest. She’s got a bad feeling about this. A really bad feeling that she just can’t seem to shake off.

“Rise, I’m going to head to your house right now, okay? I am going to also call Kanji-kun and—”

She could not finish her sentence. Rather, a scene that unfolded before her was so bewildering, her thought process came to a screeching halt. Her mouth opened, then shut. That continued on for a couple more times as Rise called Naoto’s names out a few times. Once the detective found her voice, a peculiar feminine tone trickled into her outburst.

“Are… those shadows?!”

The sight of these shadows beyond the TV world shook the detective to her core. Sweat began to form on her forehead and the palms became wet. This was the second time she froze up; the first time was when she was using herself as bait to identify the kidnapper. Creatures dyed in black erupted from the pavement below and the walls of homes and buildings nearby, their mask violently twitching at a set interval. It was almost as if Mother Nature summoned the monsters into the mortal realm.

It was surreal. Naoto tested her theories of whether she was daydreaming, having a nightmare, or hallucinating from the heavy fog by closing her eyes and pinching her cheeks. None of the procedures illicit the sort of response she desired. Therefore, none of the theories were proven to be true. This is the cold, harsh reality that she is witnessing.

‘Impossible! What could have led them to escape the television world?!’

There was that possibility from what Chie had originally said back in December. The fog that crept into their world had leaked from the TV world. Could this mean that the shadows are finally making their appearance too? Naoto would love to critically analyze the situation and gather evidence in order to support her line of reasoning… and she could. However, the detective could ponder upon this later. Right now, she is staring directly at death. Three nearby shadows with elongated arms stared at her direction, their blue masks concealing the monstrous features that could deliver nightmares to an unfortunate soul. Minor nuisances in the dungeons of the TV world, yet could the same be said right now?

“Naoto? Naoto! What do you mean by shadows?!”

The panicked tone from the idol intensified the turbulent emotion that boiled underneath the gunner’s professional exterior. Rise was very frightened, and that in turn frightened Naoto. Naoto clenched her jaw, dug her fingernail into her thumb, and forced herself to take deep breaths. Then, she quickly gave one last reply before hanging up on her girlfriend.

“Stay inside and don’t you dare come out. Call the others to stay inside of their homes.”

“Wait! You can’t--”

Click.

“Tch—“

Naoto’s dominant hand reached down to her waist and ripped off the handgun. Both hands steadily held the weapon. She placed her aim on the three foes. Another inhale was taken. The female strengthened her resolve and held her breath. A loud bang resonated in the air. Then, it rang again in rapid successions. The bullets pierced the shadows, its metallic features plunging into the smooth surface. Each and every one of her shots was easily absorbed into their black, murky substance. Not even a flinch was produced. Nothing was working in her favor.

Naoto narrowed her eyes and backed away. Why were her normal attacks so ineffective? Could it be due to the effect of the fog? Or were they far stronger upon stepping into their world? Whatever it was, she was powerless in this situation without her Persona. On her own, she is nothing more than easy prey for these hungry shadows.

Would she be torn apart? Would she be shredded from the inside out? Would she be eaten alive? Would she die a slow and torturous death?

Flashes of possible scenarios ran through her mind, and she felt her heart rate accelerate. The detective desperately tried to keep her cool. Her body screamed otherwise as her hands fumbled to reload the firearm, her legs wobbled to keep balance. If Naoto were to be blunt, she wanted nothing more than to cower and scream for help in this hopeless predicament. But who could she call for help? There was no one more fit for this kind of battle than she was outside of the TV world, save for Kanji and Chie with their punches and kicks. Would they be effective in battle though? Not likely. If bullets can’t faze the shadows, what makes physical strikes any better? Besides, the young lady would rather place herself in danger than have her comrades risk their lives needlessly in this battle. That was the least she could do… even if she is terrified. She could only pray that those indoors are safe for the time being.

The gun clicked and pointed back at the shadows again. However, that does not mean she has endless supplies of ammunition. It would eventually run out. Once it does, it means checkmate for the detective.

Before she could pull the trigger again, one of the shadows’ hands reached out and swiped at Naoto. It was too fast for her reflexes to react on time. The enlarged, black hand slammed straight into her petite figure and threw her towards a nearby wall. Her back had slammed hard against the building’s exterior that even faint cracks began to form on it. An outcry escaped from Naoto’s mouth as she barely clings onto her firearm during the impact.

Taking damage in the TV world is completely different from taking damage in the real world. The amount of pain running through her spine felt as though someone poured lava onto the bones. She slid down to the ground, back hardly resting upon the wall as she naturally leaned forward. Eyes watery as a faint groan left her lips. Naoto was not trained to undergo pain like this. A wise detective would never place themselves in a tight situation. Clearly, Naoto was not.

Shuddering breaths escaped her as she squeezed her eyes shut. Starbursts shone behind her eyelids as if they attempted to keep her from blacking out. Barely cracking her eyelids open confirmed the worrisome news that the shadows are still present on the scene through her glasses. Those masks twitched as if they were glitching. An inhumane growl emitted from their direction. If anything, dying from them would be far worse than bearing through the burning sensation. Naoto would like to avoid that outcome at all cost.

The first-year struggled to get back on her two feet. An arm rested on the building’s exterior nearby, she forced herself up. Body bent almost at a ninety-degree angle, beads of sweat gleamed on her face as she shakily aimed the handgun at the shadows. The three enemies simply waited in place. It was almost as if they were mocking her lackluster ability to fight against them. It was as if they were mocking her that, outside of the TV world, she is nothing more than a little girl. A useless little girl who tried so hard to become the hero detective. The three shadows made it clear that they were going to be the ones to kill Naoto.

Naoto’s lips whitened as she fired the bullets again at the three. As she shot them, she pushed her body to move away from the closed structure and towards an area far from her friends’ homes. Somewhere far away from Rise… Oh God, if she could just make sure these three shadows don’t come anywhere near the idol. If Naoto, who had firepower, was unable to take these normally weak shadows down, then Rise is in a world of trouble. The idol had nearly zero skills relating to combat due to her supporting and navigational role in the investigation team. To face a shadow on her own would spell a guaranteed death sentence.

“Come… over here, you three!” she taunted, albeit rather weakly.

She eventually emptied her rounds upon the murky creatures in order to keep their attention on her. By the time her projectiles were gone, she was barely by the gas station and highway from the southern part of the district. Several times along the way, she nearly tripped and slammed face-first on the hard pavement. Many more times were when the shadows tried to swipe at her direction. Thankfully, she was able to avoid their assaults so far. Did the gods take pity on her? Did they sprinkle a bit of luck to keep her from meeting her demise? Or were they ridiculing her just like the shadows, entertaining themselves at the sight of a lonesome human struggling against all odds? Naoto glanced over her shoulders and realized that these shadows were purposely sliding after her in a dramatically relaxed manner. Their masks’ features remain fixed with one expression, but their mockery is showcased through their physical attitude.

One of them finally gave up the stalking game. Another smack came from one of the three shadows. This time, one of their monstrously large hands rose up and dropped its entire weight onto the petite female. It was to her surprise that she hasn’t turned into a literal pile of goop or became a pancake from the crushing impact. Naoto gasped from the strike and felt every single fiber part of her being slammed with immense pain, especially her ribcage. It would not be surprising to find them fractured or broken from the harsh contact against earth. The hand, however, did not retract. The shadow placed a great amount of weight on her back, its fingers trapping her sprawled limbs from further movement. They successfully caught their prey.

Naoto was pinned down to the ground, the one shadow keeping her in place as the other two began to disgustingly crawl at her direction. The detective widened her eyes at her approaching demise. Thinking back about it, there were plenty of times where she was close to death had it not been for her tactical teammates. Yukiko, Yosuke, Teddie, and Yu would use healing spells and items to stay on their toes during a heated match. Chie, Kanji, and Yu would focus on the offensive alongside with Naoto to push back their foes. After battles, Rise would support the team by healing most of their wounds and ailments. She would also reinvigorate them in order to continue using Persona skills for the upcoming battles.

Now, there is no one but herself in this fight.

...no one?

Is it… really possible to use her Persona though…?

It has never really been done, but…

Outside of the TV world?

She has the glasses Teddie gave her...

Could that really become a reality…?

A monstrous grunt came from the nearing two shadows. Time is running out. She narrowed her eyes and felt her right wrist twist till her palm is facing upward. Since half of her body is now in the realm of the underworld, the first-year might as well give it a go, even if it sounds like nothing more than a fantasy. Naoto reimagined the Persona that dwelled within her soul. A Persona that fought by her side, an extension of herself, a natural being that represents who she truly is and what she stands for.

‘I can’t die right now!’  

Gentle blue light emits around her body as an Arcana card slowly appeared in thin air. This caught the attention of the three shadows. They became motionless at the wondrous sight. By nature, they knew what it meant. A shrill voice emitted from their direction. They began to back away from Naoto, the hand that once pinned her down quickly retracted. The card gently descended upon the palm of her hand, standing upright and twirling in place. Still down on the ground, she let out a pained exhale.

“Per… so… na…”

Her dominant hand crushed the Arcana card. The sound of glass breaking echoed into the district as a strong gust of wind violently blew against the three surrounding shadows. The fog that surrounded the fallen female disappeared as a new guest entered the fray. Yamato-Takeru appeared before her eyes, its docile and uniformed figure floating above her laid body. Once his form solidified, he swung his sword down. Another gust of wind blew at the detective’s direction. The sight of her Persona brought about shaky laughter. A savior had finally appeared.

‘Please… Kill them for me!’

The mental wish to rid of the dangerous shadows immediately passed on to her Persona. Though his expressions are concealed, he heeded to his user and prepared to use the ability “Mahamaon.” He pointed the tip of his sword at the three shadows. Using a portion of his user’s stamina, a faint white light emitted from the ground beneath her body. (Since she is resistant and able to block any form of dark or light magic, Naoto does not have to fear being instantly killed on the spot like the other three shadows.) Talismans rose from the pavement and proceeded to cling onto the surface of the murky creatures. All three of the shadows became frantic, their hands clawing at the unbreakable seals. The white light brightened until it became blinding, forcing Naoto to shut her eyes as their inhumane gurgles echoed into the night. They were brutally executed on the spot. Bits of red residue similar to that of blood stained her dark blue cardigan. As she cracked open her eyes, the shadows had left behind a pool of crimson liquid behind where they once stood.  

A huge breath left her, which was accompanied by a wince and a hand placed over her side. Now that she was free from danger for the time-being, Naoto attempted to push herself up. However, her arms won’t react to her calling. No matter how much she forced her arms to move, they continued to be immobile. Only her hands weakly operated, one softly digging its fingertips against the pavement and the other still grasping ahold of her only firearm.

Naoto heard ringing in her ears after. All of the adrenaline slithered away and left behind heavy muscles and dulled senses. Her entire figure started to throb as if she were swollen and bruised. Perhaps this is due to the need to use a stamina-required skill. The detective’s eyes were involuntarily drifting shut. She didn’t allow them to fully close and jolted herself awake.

‘I can’t fall asleep now.’

Out of concern, Yamato-Takeru swooped down and carried Naoto in his arms bridal-style, his weapon temporarily gone. She flinched at the sharp burning sensation that resonated from both of her ribs at his action. One eye shut, the detective bore through the anguish.

‘So… it looks like I can summon my Persona even outside of the TV…’

She would have to research more about this later with her teammates and friends. If she could have done it, it could be possible for her friends too. For now, she has something of a higher priority.

Another shaky exhale left her lips as her Persona cautiously floated towards Rise’s destination. Though Naoto dislike showing her injured self to the navigator, she had to check on her girlfriend. If those shadows prompted any sort of threat towards the idol, the detective would be more than pleased to unleash her Persona’s potential in exterminating their existence from this plain. Even if it means at the extent of her own life. Naoto prayed for the first-year to be safe amidst the chaos as they continue onward into the dense fog.

Shadows continue to erupt from the grounds and walls as if they were newly formed lava. Luckily, they were the small fries that could be exterminated by a single slash from her Persona’s sword. Her luck kept on adding as the dark creatures decided to keep its distance from the two figures. This gave another layer of protection to the injured Naoto. She was in no shape to fight again. Unless Yukiko, Yosuke, or Rise were able to summon their Personas like her and use their healing spells, it was best she stays out of avoidable conflicts.

“Naoto-kun!”

It was no surprise who the owner of the voice is. It was Kanji— and there was Yosuke too. The two of them standing in front of Marukyu with their signature glasses. Just hearing them brought a small sense of ease to Naoto’s already worn-out body. Her hand loosened its grip on the handgun and it dropped once they got closer. The muscular male literally paid no attention to Naoto’s Persona as he rushed towards her direction. Upon the sight of her friends, her Persona decided that it was best to transfer her over to the muscular teenager. He co-exists with Naoto. If there are more battles to come, it wouldn’t be burdensome to carry his wounded user in the middle of it. Should Naoto expire, he too shall expire along with her soul.

The blonde made no hesitated and received the hurt girl into his arms. Fresh tears spurted from the corner of his eyes.

“My God, what the hell did you get yourself into?!”

“…I--”

“You look like you got hit by a car!”

If anything, Kanji hated losing another person in his life. His father already placed a heavy weight on his heart. The student doesn’t need Naoto to follow after him.

“Kanji-kun! Take it easy with the yelling, will ya?” Yosuke slapped the back of his hand against Kanji’s shoulder after he picked up the dropped handgun. “Naoto-kun is hurt and we need to hurry over to the Amagi Inn ASAP with Rise-chan.”

‘Rise is okay…?’

Naoto’s eyebrows rose in response. After sending a nod at Yosuke and shooting a quick glance down to the detective, Kanji appears to have read her mind.

“Yeah, your girlfriend’s okay. Though I dunno how I can explain to her about you.”

If she wasn’t in great agony, the detective would have chuckled in response. Maybe even said a (dry) line about how “danger” is her middle name.

Kanji adjusted his grip on the female and turned to look at Yamato-Takeru. He blinked. Then, his eyes widened.

“When the hell did ya summon your Persona?”

The detective scrunched her eyebrows. She opened her mouth, only for it to falter and clamped shut unintentionally. Naoto can’t seem to verbalize her words. Then again, she is far too concentrated on keeping herself awake. If she falls unconscious, her Persona would fade away. In return, those enhanced shadows would hurry over to their spot like hungry piranhas. It was unclear whether Yosuke or Kanji could summon their Personas like Naoto. If they could, they would be of vital help in defeating the shadows in this small town. If not, then it’s up to Naoto to fend them off on her own. With limited manpower, the group would not last any longer than a few seconds.  

“Kanji, I think we can save the questioning for later.”

“Rise-chan…”

When Kanji spoke of her name, Naoto’s ears perked upward. Thankfully, the first-year student faced the entranceway of the tofu shop. The sight of her girlfriend caused the gunner’s consciousness to waver. Rise walked up to the junior detective. Through the eyes of Rise, her girlfriend looks like a train wreck. Discolored bruises painted upon the smooth skin. A tinge of redness splotched on the girl’s cheeks. Blue locks disheveled and plastered to her sweaty forehead. A mixture of fury, sorrow, and happiness blended into Rise’s facial features at the sight of Naoto. Naoto, in return, could not help but crack a slow smile.

“Ri… se…”

That hurt to say her name. Each inhales and exhales throbbed of a sharp piercing sensation, yet she yearned to say her name. They were not apart for long, but after an almost hopeless battle, Naoto felt like she might have never had the chance to see Rise ever again. The idol placed a hand on her girlfriend’s cheek. It was warm, yet faint. It was so faint, it threatens to be extinguished if a great amount of stress is placed upon the detective once more. Rise’s head lowered, allowing her copper-colored bangs to hide a portion of her face.

“Why didn’t you run away?” her voice cracked. Tears began to stream past her glasses and down her face as she resisted the temptation to hug the detective to death. Instead, she resorted to tenderly caressing Naoto’s bruised cheek. “You could’ve come to my house and hid there.”

Rise cursed herself for being so weak. She knew the limitations of her skills. The idol could do nothing more than stand on the sideline and beg for the fighters to survive through the ordeals in the dungeon. Naoto, on the other hand, always stood in the frontline with Yu and the others. Beyond the TV world, Rise was as useless as any regular bystander, and she despises that. All she could do was call Kanji for help after Naoto hung up on her. The most she could do was call in for back-up. If only there was something more she could do…

The detective may not be much of a sensitive person, but she could tell that her girlfriend was beating herself up. She knew that expression all too well. Naoto barely managed to shake her head in response to Rise’s question. She lowered her eyelids and murmured, “I could not.” As droplets of tears fell upon her unkempt cardigan jacket, Naoto brought her uninjured hand up to Rise’s face. She used the back of her fingers to wipe her tears away, albeit sloppily. Although she wishes to whisper sweet words of comfort to her girlfriend, the detective must retain and scrape whatever energy lingered around. Naoto could take care of Rise later.

Yosuke gently gave a pat on Rise’s shoulder. A strained smile ran across his face as his feet bounced from the pavement.

“We should let her save whatever remaining strength she has left. I won’t lie, if it weren’t for her Persona in the area, both Kanji and I wouldn’t have been able to fend off the nearby shadows.”

A scoff came from Kanji. He rolled his eyes and grumbled, “Yeah right. All you did was run inside and scream for Rise’s name while I did all of the fightin’.”

“H-Hey! You’re trying to make me look uncool here or something?”

There was a pause. Then, despite the tears that still ran down her cheeks, Rise could not help but giggle. The two of them were trying their best to ease the heavy atmosphere, even if it was unintentional. She eventually retracted her hand from Naoto and gently grabbed ahold of the detective’s lingering hand. The idol brought her lover’s palm close, her lips brushing against the sensitive skin. Rise nuzzled against Naoto’s hand with soft words uttered.

“I’m glad you came back alive.”

It was a hot mess for Rise earlier. After she phoned for Kanji, it was not long till the second-year burst into her grandmother’s tofu shop. Yosuke frantically urged her and her grandma to leave the area. During their conversation about how Rise was the only one in the house and her grandmother is actually at the Amagi Inn already since yesterday, Kanji showed up. Unfortunately for him, a couple of shadows awaited for their prey. He was not going down without a fight though, especially if it is to protect Rise and Yosuke. The first-year threw nearby equipment and furniture at the dark threats. He was not able to defeat them, but he was able to push them back enough till they scrambled away at the sight of Naoto and her Persona; his bruised knuckles and minor lacerations apparent on his exposed arms.

Naoto Shirogane though… The Prince Detective never fails to live up to her name. A light that shone for the three students in the bleakest moments of their life. Like a fairy tale, the shadows all cowered and hustled away at the presence of the detective. Rise tightened her hold on Naoto’s hand and closed her eyes.

Just how long would her prince keep them from harm’s way?  

Rise reopened her eyes. She raised her other arm and tried to wipe away as many tears as possible. Then, she turned to the second-year, still keeping ahold of Naoto’s hand. In contrast to her current state of emotion, she managed to make a casual remark about his prior actions.

“Yosuke-senpai sure is something.”

“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Yosuke frantically motioned his hands around to get his point across as Rise continued her verbal assault. Even during the bleakest moment of their life, the investigation team managed to keep themselves upbeat. It just goes to show how resilient they are.

“You sure like to make us worry, don’t ya?” Kanji said jokingly. Knowing full-well that Naoto isn’t able to reply at the moment, he continued, “I knew you were so strong and so brave… but at the same time, I just wish I could do something more for you.”

He looked over his shoulder and still saw Naoto’s Persona. Her Persona began to glitch slightly as if his existence could fade at any moment. Kanji made note of it and turned back to the other two.  

“We should hurry and get to the Amagi Inn. I don’t think Naoto-kun could hold out much longer.”

Once he proclaimed that particular fact, both Rise and Yosuke became quiet. Their expressions, once full of playful aggravations, disappeared. Yosuke shot a glance at the floating Persona and bobbed his head.

“I agree. We should hurry to the inn— Though I think we need to be careful since Naoto doesn’t look like she can take much more if the trip gets rocky.”

“Yeah, she’s not doin’ so hot.”

Yosuke gave a faint hum. Then, he snapped his fingers. “You think we can summon our Persona so we can keep Naoto and Rise safe too?”

Kanji blinked, his eyebrows raised. “Sure, but how do you think we go on about that?”

“Well…” The owner’s son of Junes began to curl one of his hand into a fist. He brought it down, eyes closed. A great amount of concentration was put into the act, his mind focused on his Persona. Afterward, he brought his hand up, palm facing upward as he exclaimed, “Persona!”

“...”

“...”

“...”

Nothing happened. Not even a single speck of the familiar blue light made its existence present to the squad. Kanji, Rise, and Naoto simply stared at the second-year as he kept his posture. A bead of sweat ran down the side of his face upon realization of what just occurred. His arm faltered as the second-year lowered his head.

“...yeah, I didn’t think it would be THAT easy like in the TV world.”

That led to even more questions on how Naoto was able to summon her Persona, yet the others were unable to naturally go at it. As much as Kanji and Rise would like to give it a go, they have more important matters at hand: the detective’s health. They can theorize and test their hypotheses once they’re in a safe zone. The three agreed that it was time to move on for now.

It was a long walk. This was likely due to the lack of civilians walking about on the streets. Not even the police officers were present. It felt as though paranoia had escalated to unfathomable level since December. There were also lingering shadows nearby. Many of those monsters were too terrified to go near the four members though. Should any strays unnecessarily closer, Yamato-Takeru would swing his sword and slice up any hapless creatures. His blade stylistically flicked downward as the other users paced themselves. Unfortunately, the Persona would fuzz in and out without warning. The possibility that he could fade away without warning placed an extra layer of pressure onto the four members.

Eventually, they managed to leave the district and walked upon the roads nearing the inn. At their current pace, it would take them 10 more minutes till they reach their destination. So far, they have yet to encounter any shadows that would cause great concern.

Kanji, Yosuke, and Rise all let out a huge breath at the same time. As for Naoto, she felt like an extra load of lead was placed on her eyelids from hearing the news. That finally meant she can heal and rest. Though she understood the need to protect the others after reaching the inn, it would do her no good to push herself till the brink of collapse. The negativity outweighs the benefits of going overboard.

Plus, based on her observations and theories, it appears that the shadows have yet to enter households and shelters. The black creatures and masked blobs simply slithered around on the empty streets. None of them dare broke into the structures. She wasn’t sure how long it would stay true, but for now, that is a fact grounded with evidence.

As they got closer to the inn, Naoto’s Persona paused in place. That prompted the group to stop simultaneously with him. They exchanged looks of confusion. Shortly afterward, he raised his sword and ran forward without warning. The sound of metal clashing against metal rang in the air. The four immediately diverted their attention to the source of the sound. Upon seeing it, Yosuke’s face paled. His legs began to tremble and took a couple of steps backward. He fell on his bottom as his eyes widened.

“Aren’t these shadows different from the ones in the Shopping District…?”

He wasn’t wrong. Compared to the earlier shadows where they merely swung their hands to attack, this one was a samurai warrior decked in full gears. His katana came into contact with Yamato-Takeru’s sword. The two separated and launched another offensive charge. Sparks flew within each and every strike. Not a single one was able to land a hit; it was a complete stalemate between the two.

Naoto frowned within Kanji’s hold. Adrenaline kicked in once again as her mental and physical fatigue washed away. She began to run through a list of abilities and skills she could use in battle. Naoto could try to use dark magic, but would it be effective against this type of enemy? Without Rise’s Persona, no one would be able to distinguish the strengths and weaknesses of the enemies they face. Based on previous experiences, this particular kind of shadow is resilient against magic… right?

Naoto’s Persona retracted his sword and violently swung it at the shadow. The human-size dark warrior easily brought his katana up to block the incoming blow. More sparks flew upon impact. This went on a couple more times, each horizontal, vertical, and diagonal slash from both sides deflected, parried, dodged, and blocked. Somewhere in the background, a long blade similar to that of the samurai glimmered due to a nearby lamp post. A setback that this abnormality was caught on a little too late.

Yamato-Takeru bounced back as his user brainstormed a tactical plan. Then, he leaped sideways. Had it not been for his quick action by Naoto’s command, the inflicting sensation of a sword slicing upon her left shoulder would have been at the center of her spine from a new source. If her spine wasn’t already messed up in the first place, imagine the state it would be in now! An outcry came from Naoto. Her body instinctively curled up despite the extra pain that accompaniebyom her initial affliction, a hand gripping on her affected shoulder. Kanji nervously watched over Naoto as he clenched his jaw and tightened his hold on the poor girl. He squeezed his eyes shut and let out an angry outburst.

“Dammit! Why can’t we do anything!?”

As for Rise, she could only helplessly watch from the sideline. Her heart thumped against her chest hard enough for her eardrums to pick up. She was never one fit for combat and certainly not meant for it. However, during her time in the TV world, the idol was able to act as the group’s navigator and support before, during, and after battles. That is if she could summon her Persona. But even with her Persona, the duo would be unable to play an active role in the conflict zone.

“Naoto... “

Fresh tears sprang out of her eyes as she stood by the detective side. Her hand rested on the small, trembling figure’s arm. The only thing Rise could do is let Naoto know that she’s here for her.

As Naoto and her Persona attempt to gain a sense of their situation, Rise’s brown hues flickered over to their other friend. Her eyes enlarged at the sight of a blade raising high above the terrified student.  

“Senpai!” Rise screamed. “Above you!”

Thanks to her warning, Yosuke was able to throw himself out of danger from the second samurai shadow. He successfully somersaulted out of harm’s way and glanced over his shoulders. His limbs felt like noodles and whatever bravery he once had dissipated instantly. It did not help that he was still holding onto Naoto’s firearm. Though it might be useful, it was out of bullets. It was utterly worthless in this predicament.

The young man cursed his inability to protect his friends as his fist slammed against the ground. The times he had with Yu and the bond he had with his best friend since day one hardly stood up to the obstacles that stood before the four. He did not have his partner by his side, and he certainly doesn’t have his Persona to protect him from the impending doom that awaits them.

Compared to the tough male like Kanji and Yu, the Junes manager could hardly use his fist. If he only had his kunai knives— or any knives, really, he would be able to defend himself and protect his friends. However, he had lost his kitchen knives to one of the shadows. Earlier, Yosuke simply ran out the front door of his house upon receiving a phone call from Chie asking for help getting everyone into the Amagi Inn. He bumped into one of the weaker shadows and threw the knives at their direction. It was hardly effective. As a result, the poor second-year ran for his life and eventually met up with Kanji, who was fighting off the shadows with nearby supplies and Rise, who was hiding inside her foggy bedroom.

He bore his teeth as the shadow raised its katana once more. Yosuke began to laugh. It was here to deliver the final strike.

“Guess this is it, partner.”

However, Naoto wasn’t going to let her comrade die. She can’t. She won’t allow anyone to die under her watch.

Her Persona shook off the prior infliction with a shake of his head and proceeded to go with a physical attack. This would drain a chunk of his user’s lifespan, but Naoto willed for it to happen. She would be able to deal the burnt end of her decision in wiping out the now-two powerful samurai shadows present before them. (If she did not have the strength, her Persona would ultimately reject her wish and continue onward with a different tactic.) “Vorpal Blade” was unleashed and successfully made an impact on the enemies. The shadowed warriors wobbled a bit on their feet before bursting into nothing more than a puddle of crimson substance.

An eerie silence was left hanging in the atmosphere. Almost half a minute ticked by at an agonizing rate for the four. Other than Naoto’s shallow breaths, everyone kept silent and held their breath out of sheer terror. The appearance of another shadow has yet to be seen. A shaky exhale came out of Kanji’s mouth as he peered down to the female in his grasp. The tension that clung to their muscles relaxed as Yosuke got back up to his feet from Rise’s help.

“Is… that all of them?” Rise whispered.

Yosuke examined their surroundings. “I-I think so.”

Despite the limited visibility, he sensed that there shouldn’t be any more unexpected surprise for now. Supporting his claim is Naoto’s Persona, who calmly floated nearby. The battle may be over, but someone’s battle isn’t.

The detective felt dizzy and numb after the intense battle. Had she been standing on her own two feet instead of resting in Kanji’s arms, she would have collapsed. Although she received less damage in comparison to the first fight, the first-year had wielded a powerful ability that drained huge portions of her remaining life force. She rested her head against Kanji’s chest. A distant glaze was seen in her eyes.

The role has now been reversed. Everyone else in the group knew there was no time to banter. Yosuke, Kanji, and Rise briskly walked the remaining distance to their destination. Naoto’s Persona, though wildly glitching and flickering, still remained by their side.

Kanji and Yosuke felt frustrated that they were unable to summon their Personas nor were able to let Naoto properly rest till they get to the inn. Rise, on the other hand, felt a combination of fear and anger at herself. She wanted to beg Naoto to stop using her Persona and for her to sleep. However, she understood that Naoto was unable to do that. If she did, she risks having the group surrounded by some very nasty shadows. They don’t have the means to fight back aside from the detective’s empty handgun. It won’t end on a positive note.

‘Please, Naoto, please stay with us…’

They finally made it inside the Amagi Inn. Yosuke and Rise barged right into the entranceway without waiting for one of the attendees to open.  

“Senpai! Naoto needs medical attention, fast!” Kanji barked.

The four were quickly greeted by the remaining investigation members, Yukiko Amagi and Chie. Though they were grateful to see them arrive, their expressions instantly transformed to horror at the sight of the injured Naoto and Kanji’s demands. As a result, Yukiko immediately ordered one of the workers to prepare a private room for the detective to rest in. She also requested for a surviving doctor and a nurse by the name of Sayoko Uehara to tend to the first-year.

“Kanji, I need you to bring Naoto-kun and follow after Uehara-san. She needs treatment now.

As the blonde agreed and hurried over to the nurse, Rise stepped up to Yukiko.

“Please, Senpai, let me go with Kanji-kun and Naoto.”

“Rise-chan…”

There was no objection from Yukiko. The upcoming owner of the Amagi Inn nodded and motioned her hand towards the direction of Kanji and the nurse. If anything, it would be a crime to turn down Rise’s pleas. How could Yukiko be so cruel as to separate the two lovers apart during their most precious time? She would do anything to prevent Rise and Naoto from experiencing a harrowing fate like hers and Chie’s from the past.

Rise gave a quick thanks and rushed after the two figures. In the meantime, the ace detective desperately clung to her consciousness. The aches and sharp jabs poked and probed at various parts of her skeletal and muscular system. Her sensory nerves were highly active as it sent waves of pain towards the first-year. It was enough to drive any normal person into insanity with the torment. Yet none of it had registered in her brain. The numbness and dizzying spells still affected her perception and bodily condition. Could this be a blessing in disguise?

No, that wasn’t right. There was a heavy weight pressed against her chest. A shudder quickly ran across her body. Death... when was the last time she had thought about it? Was it when they fought against Taro? Or was it when she faced her shadow for the first time? Flashes of past near-death experiences ran through her head as Kanji and Sayoko entered the room; Rise shortly followed after the two.

Once the injured female was placed down on the prepared placemat, her blue hues began to lose its shine. Naoto blinked once. Then, she turned to look to her right. She saw Rise sitting by her side. Kanji was heard sitting on the other side, his brows scrunched together. As the nurse and doctor began to pull out the necessary medical equipment and items, Naoto managed to extend her hand out towards one of them.

“Ri… se... “ she croaked.

Rise immediately grabbed ahold of Naoto’s and enveloped it with both hands. The idol’s eyes enlarged. The temperature greatly contrasted between hers and her lover’s.

‘Oh God, please don’t tell me she’s dying!’

The doctor then bent down to his knees and proceeded to inspect her exterior wounds. His latex-free gloves hovered and gently pressed against various parts of her body. Certain spots forced a weak outcry and flinch from the detective’s lungs. With each fragile vocalization, Rise’s hands squeezed her lover’s cool, quivering hand. Did the two of them do something wrong for Naoto to deserve this treatment?

“She needs to have a surgical operation now,” the doctor proclaimed to the nearby nurse. He got up on his two feet and reached out to snag a syringe and bottle on the table. As he popped the red cap off and inserted the needle into the medication, he added, “Her spine and ribs might be fractured. However, we must patch her up to prevent them from breaking and puncturing her internal organs. We need to conduct a further examination to make sure her spinal cords aren’t damaged either.”

Just hearing the severity of her lover’s condition shook Rise to her core. She stared at Naoto’s pale features. All of this just to protect the three of them… She risked her life for their sake.

“Naoto, you’re so reckless…” the brown-haired female pressed her forehead against Naoto’s hands. For the nth time that day, tears pricked from the corner of her eyes. A small sob erupted from her mouth as she tightened her hold on the detective. “Why couldn’t you be more careful?”

The petite female heard everything, and it pained her to see the emotional angst Rise is undergoing. Naoto wanted to tell her that everything was going to be alright… to tell her that she isn’t going anywhere… to tell her that she will still be here for her. But Naoto’s body screamed otherwise. She could barely articulate her words without slurring her speech, let alone move her lips now. A blink. Soon, the lights expired from her blue eyes. Rise and Kanji instantly noticed the changes and hovered above her.  

“Naoto? Naoto! Naoto, please, stay with us! Naoto!”

They shook her shoulders and arms. Their tears dripped down onto her disheveled appearance. Rise continued to call out for her girlfriend’s name as Kanji barked at the doctor to do something. Naoto felt oddly distant, as if she were hearing their voices from afar, her attention drawn to the ceiling. Alas, that was the last thing she heard from them before allowing her consciousness to submerge into darkness. A delicate blue light surrounded her Persona. He then faded away into thin air from outside the inn.

Mortality and death. It struck suddenly, it was invariably fatal, and no one could prevent it.

Did she feel regret?

Yes… Yes, she did. After all, she might not see her friends and Rise anymore.

Many people under extreme pain wish for death to be bestowed upon them.

Naoto wished that wasn’t the case.

‘So... this is how it all ends… I guess my parents might be seeing me sooner than expected.’

Chapter Text

Was the afterlife this warm? Perhaps, but Naoto didn’t know that. All the memories that she had from before were muddled. Traumatic recollections of the night were promptly erased. She had woken up to a new reality.

Inaba, but without the fog. The mystery was solved, though who the true culprit was had blurred out in the scene of her fantasy. It was her, Yu, and Yosuke that discovered the man and brought him to justice. By the end of it, the rural town had its true color shown. The great blue sky, the sun beating down the countryside, and students wandering freely about on this town’s land… It was as if the mystery murder cases never happened. Not a single news outlet spoke about the terror that once struck the isolated town. Everything reverted back to its pristine state of peace.

‘How peaceful.’

Two easily identifiable figures were seen together in their casual attire. Upon closer inspection, it was Naoto, who sat by Rise’s side on the staircase near the Riverbank. It was during the evening where very little pedestrians would cross by this area. Even fewer people crossed by during the weekends as many adults and students hung out at the mall, Central Shopping District, beach, or Junes. This gave them even more privacy at the premise. To simply put, no one other than the two females would be present till nightfall. Not a single soul would bother them till the sun goes down the hill. Any sort of urgency would be deliberately shoved to the side in favor of this carefree date.

The detective reached out and placed a hand on top of the idol’s. Though their eyes are still fixed on the river, Rise leisurely intertwined their fingers together. A faint squeeze came from her end. This prompted Naoto’s attention.

“What is it, Rise-chan?”

A dazzling twinkle came from the girl. As expected from an ex-idol… she could fool just about anybody with her smile. Not that Naoto minded. She easily fell to the charms of the charismatic and trendy female since day one, and wouldn’t mind falling for her over and over again. The petite girl leaned forward and squeezed her girlfriend’s hand.

“Well… I always thought about how we got together.’

Ah, this again. Naoto knew this topic would arise once in a while. It was not out of paranoia nor hysteria. Rather, her girlfriend likes to take a step back and explore their relationship from beginning to the present time. Kind of like taking a step into memory lane for the sake of nostalgia… even though they have been dating for half a year now. A chuckle emitted from the criminal justice warrior as she closed her eyes.

“Aren’t you the nostalgic type.”

Rise giggled and squeezed her hand again. “Nothing wrong with that, right?”

A smile scrawled on Naoto’s face. How adorable of Rise. The idol proceeded to lean against the detective’s shoulder as they began to reminisce about their past.

When they first met each other— well, it was kind of awkward.

The ace detective was faced with discrimination from the workforce due to her haughty personality. It didn’t help that she is a child genius with an IQ of 2000. Naoto triumphed over the majority of the workforce population with her brain. Even if she did not mean any ill-will, many of her colleagues perceived her intent otherwise. There was the added pressure from the higher-ups to close the case on the string of murders as soon as possible. Tack on the factor that she has close to zero social skills due to her gender and age complex and Naoto was already in a world full of landmines.

Rise was the first one in the group to confront the detective and call out on Naoto’s harsh words. It was impossible to forget that moment. The very first meeting they have of each other and they were throwing rocks and salt at each other. It was nothing like they envision for their introductions.

However, Rise opened Naoto’s eyes that day to her purpose and the existence of the investigation team. Later on, after Naoto was saved by the team, she was brought to the Amagi Inn to rest for the next two weeks. Mental and physical fatigue lasted longer than she had expected. That forced the detective to remain bedridden. Sleep ate up most of her days, and during the rare times she is awake, they were either spent cleaning herself up or thinking long and hard about her true self.

Naoto had accepted her true self. She received her Persona after accepting her shadow. Yet her identity… She had originally disguised herself as a male, with the help of her grandfather, to enlist in the police force as a detective. A sexist job that even pushed her mother’s button despite her status alongside with her father. There was also her age too. After her parents passed away during an active investigation, Naoto was forced to mature.  All of her dream to become a detective in hopes of solving mystery after mystery for the fun of it were ground to fine dust. As someone who came from a long and noble lineage of detectives, she had no choice but to grow up for the sake of her family.

There were only two people in her life that she told intimate details about her past. The first being that of their investigation team’s leader, Yu. The second being that of a sympathetic listener, Rise.

How ironic. The two had a thin relationship, yet Rise was the only one who consistently visited Naoto on a daily basis for two weeks straight. The first couple of days had Rise drop by the guest room and provide some fruits. They didn’t speak anything beyond the new Persona-user's health status. Sometimes, it was sprinkled in with an apology here and there of how they treated each other in the beginning. The meetings never lasted any longer than five minutes. Eventually, Rise began to speak about their previous cases. The experiences the investigation team underwent and the lives that were saved… It was not long till they start to talk about something else.

“Shirogane-san, I feel bad for you.”

Naoto remembered those words. It threw her off beat when the remark was inserted into the conversation about Rise’s Shadow. The recovering female tilted her head.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just…” A deep breath. The first-year paused in slicing the fresh red apples and glanced up at the other. “Everyone has a dark side in our group and we all saw at least one of them. You’re the only one who had to show everything to us.”

The short-haired blinked. Then, she chuckled.

“Kujikawa-san, I think that would be for the best.”

It was not out of malice. Rise instantly understood why the detective to say such a thing. It was that very moment when she respected Naoto even more than she originally upheld.

The trips to the inn were frequent up till Naoto fully healed from her fatigue and injuries. It was a bit awkward for the detective to face the group once again. Had it not been for the supportive nature of the idol, the first-year would have lost her composure and chickened out. It was out of character for the usually-stoic female, but almost forgettable that Naoto is only a young child.

There, they proceeded to continue their investigation about the string of murders. Rough patches are inevitable for the group, but for the duo, these incidents led them to become closer to each other. They became more dependent as they trained in dungeons on their own. The two were in the same classroom and, after a new seating arrangement was conducted by their homeroom teacher, sat next to each other (to Kanji’s dismay). Outside of class, they interacted with each other more so than the others, save it for Yu.

At first, they were good friends. A healthy relationship that consisted of the two party members fully supporting each other’s decisions. There was the occasional flirting from Rise. There were occasional compliments from Naoto. Then, that was when their feelings began to blossom. Rise’s flirtation nature became more perverse. Naoto’s compliments became haphazard. It was starting to tip the scale into a whole new realm. The more time they spent together, the more they wanted to push their relationship beyond friendship.

Rise was the first to realize that she was starting to swing “that way” like Kanji when it came to Naoto. She tried to shake it off in the beginning, thinking it was simply due to the detective’s androgynous appearance. Had it not been for the TV world, Rise would have still seen the first-year as a male. The idol also tried to sway her emotions elsewhere as she overheard Naoto’s opinion about romance when expressing them with Yu on a love letter she received. How could she be so stupid? Of course, a detective has no time to mingle when it comes to falling in love. Despite the newly-gained knowledge, why is it that Rise still doesn’t want to give up on her feelings for Naoto?

Naoto, on the other hand, was starting to crush on Rise. She was still oblivious to Kanji’s initiatives and merely brushed his reactions as that of an abnormality. Yet when it came to the idol, she found herself thinking more and more about the female. The way she was so easy to talk to, and how much of a hard worker Rise is really struck the petite individual. They’re still friends, right...? However, is it truly normal to find her cheeks become hot at the sight of Rise? Or when her heartbeat begins to accelerate when they’re going out and walking each other home? How about the times when she wanted to actually test out of the theory of whether Rise’s flirtatious statement can become a reality? The detective indulged in the mystery that surrounds the two, but never deepened her search.

In the end, the two continued to stay as friends who hid the truth of crushing on each other. At least, until that incident in December.

What pushed their relationship to the brink of collapse was Nanako. The investigation team desperately hunted down Taro in order to save the poor elementary student. Their leader became frantic and stubbornly pushed everyone to their limits in order to save his younger cousin. Not that it mattered for everyone as they were willing to spend an entire day scouring through the dungeon. Fatigue was the least of their concern. However, the result of their effort crashed into the netherworld once they reached the end.

Nanako had died despite the group saving her life from the television world.

Flashes of Naoto’s parents came and went through Naoto’s head upon hearing the news. They were killed during one of their investigations. There were barely enough proofs aimed at the culprit. An innocent suspect was thrown into prison and executed shortly afterward in order to close the case as fast as possible. The real killer is still on the loose and hiding from society. There was nothing the young Naoto could do except mourn at her parents’ funeral. Is she going to relive the experience all over again, with Nanako?

Not this time. The killer is cowering right before them. Unlike her parents’ case, the culprit can be caught and tried.

But is that really possible with their current justice system? Lack of evidence easily pointed out that Taro would be let loose from the incident. His alibi also held up for the first two cases, which would prevent him from being properly tried in court. In addition, his mental instability is enough to warrant an insanity sentence for his kidnapping attempts. To simply put it, he would get away with his crimes due to insufficient irrefutable proof.

Her fists trembled. Had it not been for Rise, it would not be Yosuke, but rather Naoto who would cast the kidnapper into the TV world. Naoto was so close to declaring a death sentence out of pure rage.

She remembered grabbing ahold of his collar as Yu held Yosuke back from strangling the politician. Yukiko and Chie were trying to keep Kanji from launching a metal chair at the kidnapper. Rise was the only one left who could stop her. As the detective walked closer to the television set, she heard the idol’s desperate pleas ring out from behind.

“Naoto-kun! Why are you doing this?!”

“I’m sorry, Fujikawa-san, but we have to take matters into our own hands.” Taro’s pale expression became even more bewildering as his back dipped into the set. Ripples were sent across the gray screen as a small part of his body submerged into the world. He shook his head frantically. All that came out of his vocal chords were panicked wheezes and fast respirations. The detective tightened her grip and glared at the man. “If anything, I will be the one to bring justice.”

Naoto nearly dropped the patient had she not held solid footing. The idol ran forward and tried to pull the first-year back on the shoulders. Rise’s eyes watered as she cried out, “How could you be so selfish?!”

The two were stuck in a stalemate. Naoto was unable to move forward, and Rise was unable to pull her crush back. The others in the room kept their eyes glued to at the two. Half of them urged Naoto to be quick and throw the kidnapper to his doom. Feed him to the shadows! Let him taste his own medicine. The other half begged Rise to keep the detective from committing murder. Keep him in the room! Sending him to the TV world will accomplish nothing.

It was noisy. Way too noisy. A pinched expression formed on Naoto’s face, and she snapped at Rise.

“Selfish? How am I selfish?! He’s the one that killed Nanako and the other victims! The law won’t prosecute him and he won’t learn from his crimes!”

Rise was taken aback by her sharp tone. She was nearly left speechless. Then, it turned into frustration. She shook her head and gave another tug.

“That doesn’t make sense! How would you know that he won’t learn from his crimes?!”

“If it happened to my parents’ killer, then it could happen to him too!”

“Naoto! Stop it!”

The detective growled, “There’s no use in stopping me. I’m going to throw him in.” If anything, Rise is nothing more than a nuisance in this situation.

She finally stopped pulling at Naoto. However, the tension from the tugging was replaced with warmth. The idol had buried her face into the short girl’s back. Naoto’s blue eyes grew as she felt arms around her body.

“Please, listen to me, Naoto,” she begged. “I can’t have someone I love become a murderer.”

“...what?”

That was unexpected in more than one way. Even the other members from the investigation team could not help but stop in their track. All eyes were placed on the popular idol as she squeezed Naoto. As for the detective herself, everything in her mind came to a complete halt-- No, that would not be the right way to describe it. Perhaps the word “crashed” would be more fitting in this case. All forms of fury just evaporated as the other female sobbed into her back. Naoto eventually realized the extent of her actions; the colors drained from her face. Just what was the detective doing? She made Rise cry!

“You’re right…” she released Taro. The gunner began to tremble as she murmured, “What was I thinking…?”

Thankfully, Yu released his hold on Yosuke and assisted Rise in an attempt to keep everyone calm. His reasoning? They needed to hear Taro’s side of the story. Not to mention the nagging sensation that there was something more than meets the eyes. Naoto recollected herself and began to slowly develop Taro’s situation.

It turns out that there are plenty of gaping holes in their theories of Taro being the culprit. Everyone eventually agreed that there was actually another culprit behind this act. Another good fortune was bestowed upon the group as they received and witnessed Nanako having been revived. The price paid for it was Teddie’s disappearance into his own world again by a letter. But for now, the gang needs to take a breather and regain their composure. Not only do they have a mystery to solve, but they also have to find Teddie in the TV world.  

After they all broke off and decided to properly interrogate the politician once his condition improves, Naoto had one more thing to do.

She pulled aside Rise once everyone else left the hospital. The two knew where this conversation was going. However, none of them knew how it was going to end. Rise watched the detective’s eyes flicker around, her slender fingers fumbling and toying with each other. Naoto opened her mouth, but clamped it shut. This repeated a few more times until the idol gave an exasperated breath. She crossed her arms and furrowed her brows.

“Naoto-kun, if you’re not going to say anything, I’m going to take my leave--”

“Please, don’t leave.”

Naoto finally directed her gaze at the first-year. Without even thinking twice, she started to reach out to the idol. A short “ah” left the girl’s lips before she retracted her hand with an apology. Rise, on the other hand, let out a small sigh.

“Okay, I won’t leave.”

“...okay.” A deep inhale. Once Naoto exhaled, she began talking. “I just wanted to apologize for my actions earlier. I… I let my emotions get to the best of me.”

“Did it remind you about your parents?”

Right to the point. Naoto wasn’t sure whether she should be grateful for Rise’s bluntness. Then again, that’s a trait she found lovable. A faint, forced smile ran across her lips as she slightly lowered her head.

“Yes. My parents were killed during their investigations. I’m not sure if you remember me telling you about it when we were at the club, but the killer has yet to be found. Even if he did get caught, the statue of limitation would likely keep him safe.” The detective tipped her hat downward and partially hid her eyes. “Namatame… Nanako-chan… I-I thought it was going to happen again.”

‘So that’s why Naoto-kun reacted to violently towards Namatame,’ the first-year uncrossed her arms. A great weight was already placed on top of the detective’s shoulders. Not only did her parents die unnaturally, but she also works in a high-stress field where anything can happen. At such a young age… a first-year under this much overwhelming burden… it’s no wonder she finally cracked upon hearing the news about Nanako supposed death. ‘I can’t blame her.’

A pause. Then, she felt a bead of sweat run down the side of her face. How could she have forgotten-- or rather, gotten “drunk” and was unable to remember something so crucial as Naoto’s past? Sure, the detective had mentioned her past again when she just achieved her Persona, but Naoto brushed over the sensitive topic that day. For someone who had a crush on this girl, the idol sure is dense.

She shook her flustered state and approached the short female. Then, Rise wrapped her arms around Naoto. That somewhat startled the short-haired, her eyes quickly glancing upward at the other.

“F-Fujikawa-san…?”

“Naoto-kun, you’re not alone. We’re all here for you-- I’m here for you. Besides, Nana-chan is alive, right?”

Alone…? Ah, she had forgotten that she could rely on her friends. They fought together and protected each other from harm during battles. They walked together to school and ate lunch at the rooftop. They bumped into each other and hung out together at the movie theater or wandered about around town. The bonds they formed were strong. How could Naoto forget something so important as this, especially her close relationship with Rise? If Rise were not holding Naoto, the detective would have smacked her head against a nearby wall.

“Mm... “ Naoto felt tears well up from the corner of her eyes. She blinked a couple of times in hopes of keeping them back. “You’re right… I didn’t… I just didn’t want to lose anyone anymore.”

If Nanako was to stay dead, how would the blue-hair cope? She cannot imagine that the outcome would be pretty. Her hands reached up to cling onto Rise’s back. Fingertips dug into the female as she buried her face into the idol’s shoulder. More tears were shed as she softly wept. Rise found herself wanting to bawl too. The usually-stoic and cool demeanor female that rivaled with Yu broke down from immense pressure and stress. Yet she kept herself from bawling as her hands smoothed Naoto’s back. Soothing words were delivered, her hold reinforced on the female.

A few minutes ticked by till they separated. Naoto sniffled, eyes red. Rise found herself sniffling too. An awkward silence hung between the two till Rise broke it.

“Do you feel better?”

“Better than before.”

Another sniffle. Rise could not help but pull out a pink handkerchief and wipe the wet smudges from Naoto’s cheeks, the sight similar to that of a mother consoling a child. Small words of “there there” were chanted as she gently swiped away. Once done, she took a step back and handed the item over to the junior detective.

“Keep it. It’ll come in handy if you need to wipe your tears again. Besides, I have plenty of them.”

A tiny “thanks” left the receiver. Naoto’s blue hues gazed upon the partially soaked cloth, her thumbs and index fingers pressing against it. She pinched it hard. Rise had done so much for her, but all Naoto did was cause unnecessary trouble alongside with Kanji and Yosuke.

“Um… Fujikawa-san--”

“Naoto-kun, you know, you can call me by my first name.”

Naoto felt her cheeks flush. It never occurred to her that she would be able to call her crush by her first name, especially in their current environment.

“R-Right, Ri… se-san.” It was better than nothing on Rise’s end. There is still a lot of work to do on the detective’s social skills. The idol smiled at Naoto, a hint that she could continue. “Um, first, I wanted to properly apologize to you about my previous action.”

“I forgive you. Besides, that’s what friends are for, right?” Rise flashed a grin. “We’re here to make sure we’re all walking down the right road together.”

“Thank you. I also want to talk to you about something else too.”

“?”

It was notable that Naoto started to fidget. The number of times she pinched the handkerchief increased the more she spoke. Her eyes darted to the right and left in an attempt to avoid eye contact. Eventually, Naoto’s natural, feminine tone trickled into her sentences.

“I wanted to clarify something with you. Back when you were holding me back, you said something to me.”

Uh oh. Rise knew where this is going. After the heat of the situation, the idol had completely forgotten about it, her brain sticking it in the backburner. The first-year just had to bring it up. Then again, Naoto is sharp as ever. It’s no wonder why she is called ace detective from Inaba. She sucked in a deep breath, and watched Naoto ask the question.

“Did you… Do you love me?”

The wordings were awkward. Most people would never open up a topic like that to the person in question. It would ruin the atmosphere between both parties. Rise knew what she meant though, and it was time she is honest about it. There was also no use in beating around the bush. If she did, she would be lying to both Naoto and herself. Damages sustained from such a foolish action would disrupt their relationship. Even if Naoto thinks love is nothing more than a silly activity to pursue, Rise wants to let her crush know how she truly feels. She can handle the aftermath, whatever it may be.

It was a little difficult at first. Compared to confessing her empty “love” to the cameras for her fans as an idol, this was on another level. The word “love” refuse to leave her voice box. Synonyms threaten to diminish the value of the key terminology as Rise fought to confess.

“Yeah. You’re someone special to me. I love you, Naoto.”

It was a proud statement. Redness colored the ex-superstar’s cheeks as she kept her eyes focused on the young official. She took a step forward. Naoto reflexively took a step backward. Rise knew the other female did not mean to react in that fashion, but it still wounded her heart at the sight. The idol pushed forward with her advances anyway.

“Sorry, I guess that’s strange of me, right? To think someone from your team would fall in love with you, let alone someone of the same gender… It’s gross, isn’t it?”

She waited for those crushing words, and she was prepared for them. Would she be facing the same oblivious reaction as Kanji had? Or would she be faced with the unfathomable words that would shatter her heart? Naoto’s constant fidgeting made the waiting far more agonizing than it needs to be.

“Rise-san, I, um… I’m not sure how to put this in words…”

‘It’s likely a rejection, huh.’

A pessimistic theme floated into Rise’s mind as she watched Naoto struggle to formulate words. Disappointment. Sorrow. Understanding. What sort of emotions would Rise feel when she hears it?

“I think… I’ve solved the puzzles to my emotions.”

Naoto’s nervous antics came to a cessation. The short female approached the navigator. Both females’ have their heart beat wildly against their chest. Happiness was not the emotion she was expecting, however.

“Is it okay for me to return the same feelings to you?”

Such innocence from her dear Naoto. Rise almost wanted to combust on the spot from the oddly adorable question. It was as if a little kid with little to no experience in romance needed permission in order to return mutual feelings. Rise hugged Naoto without warning. Naoto froze up on the spot, her posture straight as a stick. The smile that Rise had on her face was one of the brightest smiles the gunner had ever seen in her life.

“Naoto-kun, I love you!”

So blunt and straight to the point! That’s just like Rise. Naoto could not help but burst out a laughter as she felt her heart become at ease. The crush that she had on Rise… all this time since she had recovered, it was finally out there. She closed her eyes and finally brought her arms around her new lover.

“I love you too, Rise.”

How ironic. All of those tensions the two had and they were confessed right when their relationship was going astray. Both sides had struggled with their true feelings towards one another. Was it really that simple all along? Rise and Naoto could not help but stifle touches of their laughter. In the end, they missed the most important aspect: communication.

Speaking of that, there was something she wanted to give to the idol. It wasn’t much, but Naoto had originally planned to give it once she gathered the courage to confess her feelings to Rise. (Which translates to almost never.) The timing was somewhat inappropriate due to today’s chaotic events. However, Naoto’s gut instinct told her it was now or never. Besides, it would do no harm to cheer up her newly-received girlfriend, right? Once the two parted, the detective dug her hand into her pocket.

“I, um… I made this for you,” she pulled out a plastic detective badge. Naoto extended the item out towards Rise as her entire face glowed. “I haven’t crafted anything like this in some time. Ever since we started working together in the dungeon and you helped me with a minor case regarding the Phantom Thief with Senpai, I thought this would be appropriate for you. Please accept this.”

The idol felt her heart warm up. Rise had to admit that it was a gift she did not expect. Then again, the person before her is the one and only Prince Detective. This was appropriate no matter how hard she thinks about it. Once she received it from the first-year, Naoto’s eyes began to light up.

“It flashes light, just like the one I had when I was a little kid. Too bad I couldn’t install the camera and transceiver on it… but I could do that once I return to the estate. It would be helpful if we keep in contact in the future this way if we don’t have our phones on us. If you ever do return back as an idol from your hiatus, this could be beneficial for us both. I would--” A pause. Then, another wave of heat washed over the girl’s face. Her rapid speech and declining articulation… Talk about a spark of excitement. “Er… I apologize. It’s childish, isn’t it?”

“It isn’t,” Rise shook her head. “I actually think it’s cool you could make this.”

If anything, it made her happy. Not just the handmade gift, but to be able to see the real Naoto. The normally stoic female who is a little too serious for her own good is showing an innocent and childish, but passionate side. Rise can’t help but feel special for seeing this part of the detective.

Although the two finally confessed their love to one another that day, unsurprisingly, not much progress was made that day. The only advancement done was Rise’s invitation for Naoto to stay over for the night. Consideration was given due to how exhausted they were from the stormy event.

“At least we slept on the same futon,” Naoto laughed in regard to past memories, the two now found sitting on the grass by the riverbed.

The detective’s fingers lightly drummed on the back of Rise’s hand as their eyes gazed upon the scenery.

It was a little awkward at first when they shared the same mattress. They both yearned to cuddle and hug each other. Not a single one of them closed their proximity though. No one budge from their position. Their shoulders would be hunched and kept a death grip on the blanket. A tingling sensation tickled their chest and stomach. Whether it was out of embarrassment or confusion, they couldn’t tell from one another. Fatigue hardly kept them pondering about it for too long, however. By the time Naoto woke up, she found Rise huddled close to her for warmth resting her head on the gunner’s slim arm. Looks like they unconsciously cuddled with one another instead.

“But I’m really glad you invited me over,” Naoto continued. “It was nice to stay with you a bit longer that day.”

“Of course. Though…” Rise looked at Naoto and gave a pout. “I have to say, you don’t exactly know when a good timing is doing ‘it,’ huh.”

“Timing?”

The idol nearly groaned. Out of all the negative traits Naoto could possess, obliviousness was one of them.

“Yeah. Ever since I made a move on you that one night, you tried to get back at me out of revenge. Are you trying to get us caught in the act or something?”

Oh, that was what Rise was talking about. Naoto felt her entire face burst into flames about the sensitive subject. She wasn’t experienced in such forms of love and romantic acts, but Rise certainly taught her a lot. Maybe a little too much that one night if they went at it for an hour straight.

“O-Of course not! I mean, I just didn’t know that your grandmother would return from the trip so soon or grandfather coming home a day earlier.”

Compared to Rise, Naoto seems to have rotten luck when it came to choosing a place and time to return the payment. No matter where she tried, it never escalated beyond a passionate kiss. If the detective was lucky, she might be touching her lover’s chest and thighs past her skirt and shirt. Nothing more than that though. That frustrated the androgynous female in more ways than one. Rise was able to initiate it successfully on her end every single time they did it. How come Naoto wasn’t able to on her end?!

The navigator pout was replaced with a sly smile as she scooted even closer to the flustered detective. She blew on the female’s sensitive ear. After a squeak from Naoto, Rise whispered into it.

“You’re like a bunny in heat, you know that? Did you really want to do me so badly, you wouldn’t care about the circumstances?”

“T-That’s not it!”

Kind of.

“Was my swimsuit photobook not enough for you?”

“R-Rise!”   

No objection there.

Naoto tried to swat her seductive girlfriend away in a desperate attempt to recollect herself. Jeez, Rise can get a rise out of her! Watching her lover react in this manner was comedic to Rise as she laughed out loud. An index finger gently poked the tip of Naoto’s nose. This caused the gunner to turn her head towards Rise’s direction. Rise used this to her advantage and quickly cupped Naoto’s face. She leaned forward, her lips pressed against the other.

“You know, I’m glad we have a serious relationship together though,” Rise breathed. “I hope we can get married on a tropical island in the future~”

“If Japan’s laws change in favor of same-sex marriages.”

“Then let’s move out of the country then~”

Always the optimist. It is a fantasy, but perhaps it could become a reality. Naoto had the inheritance from her lineage and she has income thanks to working actively as a detective. A faint hum left her lips as she stared into Rise’s brown eyes.

“I feel like there’s something missing though…”

“Something missing?”

Naoto was brought back in for another kiss. This time, Rise made sure to take her time tasting the detective’s lips. They separated once more for the junior to finish her thought.

“Yes. It feels like there is something I have to do for you.”  

Rise blinked. Then, she placed her hand over Naoto’s chest. She gently pushed her lover down onto the grass. (It was prominent who the dominant one is in the relationship.) Their faces were mere inches apart, a twinkle sparkled from the idol’s brown hues.

“Actually, there is something you can do for me.”

“And that is…?”

She smirked. One last playful smooch was delivered to the detective before the idol laid on Naoto’s arm.

“Be my pillow.”  

Naoto raised an eyebrow. Then, she chuckled and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her girlfriend’s ear. “You must be exhausted from the small concert you held at the school auditorium earlier today.”

Rise nodded. She buried her face into Naoto’s shoulder. Although the petite female would furiously blush under normal circumstances, this was actually the norm for Naoto. In retaliation, the short-haired nuzzled against the idol’s head and planted a small kiss on her.

“A short nap won’t hurt…”

Upon hearing Naoto’s suggestion, a smile bloomed on the other first-year’s lips as she placed a hand on her girlfriend’s chest. (A shame that Naoto still binds them. They were glorious peaks that deserve to naturally showcase themselves to the world, as Rise would say.) It didn’t take any more than a minute for the idol to slow her breathing and fall into dreamland.

The detective brought the girl closer to her body and adjusted her grip on Rise. Naoto soon felt her eyelids become heavy and didn’t bother to hide her yawn. Birds chirped, sun rays beating down upon the land, and a gentle gust of wind provided the perfect weather. Aside from the fact that Rise was sleeping on her arm, the warmth that came with the package made a perfect formula to make Naoto drowsy.

She squinted her eyes. Her blue hues were still kept on Rise as she thought about their future. The mystery was solved. Yu may have left town, but he promised everyone that he would return the following year for a reunion. The fog had lifted and left behind the clear, blue sky. And there was Rise, who continued to be her girlfriend. There is a possibility that, if their red strings of fate continue to keep them together, marriage might be an option. Maybe adopt a child and have pets in their home. Move out of Japan and travel the world… Just thinking about their future nearly made Naoto’s heart flutter.

Everything just seems so perfect.

“I would hate for this to be a dream.”

Then, Naoto closed her eyes.

Chapter Text

Naoto cracked open her eyelids. She was met with a blur of everything as if someone painted an abstract and replaced her vision with it. The student blinked. The color schemes were dim. Her sense of touch slowly came back, noticing the soft blanket and mattress. She soon squinted her eyes. Although her vision began to sharpen, a thin film of fog muddled with her sight. It was not unbearable, but it was, at its best, an annoyance, and at its worst, worrisome.  

‘Where am I…?’

The one million dollar question that everyone asks upon waking. Naoto felt disorientated, and she has to recollect herself, fast.

First, how is she doing?

Incredible was not the right answer. Quite the opposite, in fact! She felt absolutely terrible! There was an uncomfortable weight settling on top of her sides. It couldn’t be from the futon’s red blanket as it should not be that heavy. A discomforting pressure was also resting against her back. No burning sensation was deduced. (That at least scratched out bedsores.) Her main body did feel slightly constricted though. When the detective tried to lift her hands, her stiff shoulders were limited in its mobility. Her blue eyes fell upon a sharp color that contrast with her exposed skin. Gauzes, and there were plenty of them. She felt a white patch settled on her shoulders as gauzes wrapped around the majority of her right arm and both hands. They concealed the discolored and bruised skin from underneath. It didn’t take a genius to determine the source of the constrictive force around her abdomen.

‘Did I really need to be patched up that much?’

Naoto didn’t dwindle upon the matter for long, her thoughts scattered. But now that her status was roughly disclosed... Just where is she? This is clearly not the riverbank that she observed with Rise.

She glanced over at the opposite wall. Her work attire hung on there. Its disheveled and torn marks apparent even from a distant. The detective re-examined her arms again. She’s wearing a light blue hospital gown. Without thinking twice, Naoto proceeded to sit up to further her observation. Or at least, she tried to. Not only did her bones make strange creaking sounds, she found her limbs to be heavy and difficult to move. It was as if a load of lead weighed them down. Naoto closed her eyes. A couple of deep breaths were taken. Then, she opened her eyes and clicked her tongue.

‘This is annoying.’

“Naoto-kun…?”

It was a soft voice. Not like Rise’s, whose voice was dipped with a joyous tone. Elegant. Smooth. Easy to the ears. Naoto knew exactly who it was. When she turned to see who it was, to her shame, it was only Yukiko present by the now-opened door. Yet at the same time, her existence retraced her memories. All of those gleeful moments with Rise… The events that occurred before January were real. Everything else after that was not only a blur but the opposite from her dream. The junior drew in a long breath with a strained, but very brief, smile.

‘I’m back to reality, it seems.’

Fate is crueler than it appears to be.

Naoto greeted Yukiko as the glassed female hurried over to her side, her voice hoarse at first.

“Oh, thank goodness you’re awake,” Yukiko remarked. She held a hand over her chest as she got down to her knees. The female eventually reached over the rested girl and grabbed a pair of glasses. After Yukiko placed the spectacles on Naoto, she asked, “Tell me, how do you feel right now?”

Naoto wanted to shrug. “Okay, I guess? I can’t move my body around, though.”

“I’m not surprised. You had to undergo a major operation in order to treat your injuries.”

“Was it really that bad?” A nod came from the second-year’s direction. As a result, the recovering female let out a sigh. “I should count my lucky stars for this year. Maybe my parents didn’t want me dead just yet.”

“That’s likely. The doctor and nurse also told us that you had only fractured a couple of false ribs. Your spine is still perfectly intact despite blunt traumas received, and they treated any internal bleeding you may have had. You did have plenty of bruises… but otherwise, nothing bad enough to warrant a will.”

“I think a will would be useless in our situation.”

It was a dry joke, and sure enough, it didn’t deliver. Not even the next head of the Amagi Inn could break out a forced laugh. Naoto loudly cleared her throat. Well, that was awkward. The detective is certainly living up to her name as a “killjoy.”

“A-Anyway, how long have I been out for?”

“Two weeks.”

Naoto felt a sudden coldness hit right at her core, the detective barely able to hold back a small gasp. Her blue hues slowly fixate themselves upon the dimmed room’s ceiling as a tingling sensation sparked from her exposed skin. Was she really out for that long…? Then what about the others? Her grandfather? Their family? The civilians of Inaba? As if Yukiko had read her mind, she adjusted her position and placed both hands on her lap.

“While you were sleeping, Chie has been keeping a close eye on us with her Persona.”

Another curveball is thrown. As if this day couldn’t have gotten any weirder, for better or worst.

“Chie-senpai could summon her Persona too?”

The second-year nodded. “She summoned her Persona around the same time as you.”

“How?”

Naoto needed answers. Unlike her comrades, she is trekking behind their trails two weeks late. Besides, this could confirm possible theories on why she-- or rather, both Chie and her now, could summon their Personas in the real world. The raven-haired female tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. She then drew her mouth into a straight line and bit her lip.

“She was protecting me from the shadows.”

The events that had transpired scorched itself into her hippocampus so deep, it would take great effort to forget it. Yukiko made sure to provide every single detail down to the minute ones from that day for Naoto.

Both second-year students were on their way back to the Amagi Inn shortly after bidding farewells to their leader. Hand-to-hand, they took their time during the trip. Their exchanges were filled with a trip down to memory lane. The first day they met Yu, the first day they opened up to each other, the first day Chie saved Yukiko from her Shadow, the first day Yukiko confessed, and many more first that they had together. Despite the dense atmosphere after Yu’s departure, the two knew better than to stay down in the dump. They had much to work on tomorrow anyway. The investigation isn’t over till they breathed their last breath.

That was when trouble struck them. A single swipe from those black, murky masked shadows was all it took. The strongest of the pair was knocked far out from the battle and ignored in favor of the weaker. Seconds felt like minutes and minutes felt like hours as Yukiko awaited for her doom.  No matter how much Chie ran back to save Yukiko, the shadows swatted her away as if she were a fly. She even briefly lost her glasses in the process! It was a matter of life-or-death. The princess yearned for her prince to come by and save her. Had Chie not summoned her Persona, Suzuka Gongen, Yukiko would have been brutally pummeled by the fairly weak shadows.

“She went all-out with those shadows,” Yukiko’s dialogue stilted. “I’m surprised she was still able to stand up on her two feet. I nearly fainted from shock.”

It was vivid. Splatters of blood-like substances blotched on the second-year’s red attire as Chie unleashed physical attack after physical attack. Stronger shadows shortly appeared after the four weaklings. Cubes with discs floated in the air as they cast magical spells of thunder and wind. That didn’t stop the kung-fu warrior from protecting her girlfriend. No matter how battered she is, no matter how much they kicked her down, no matter how much they fried her, she will rise up from the ashes and crush them with Suzuka Gongen. Literally.

Naoto’s index finger tapped a few times on her blanket and faintly chuckled.

“I’m actually not surprised. She’s protecting someone she holds dear.”

If anything, Naoto could relate to Chie.

“I guess you’re right,” Yukiko lightly scratched her cheek as her expression softened. “I only wish I could’ve summoned my Persona at that time than later.”

“Wait-- You too?”

So it wasn’t just Chie and Naoto in the end. Their exchanges proceeded forth. As a result, Naoto was able to build up a reasonable theory. It appears that one must summon their Persona under dire circumstances. It didn’t even matter if they possess their glasses or not. This drastically differed from how they regained their Persona in the television world. A simple vocal command nor ounce of raw strength could call them forth. Physics and the law governing this world should not even allow them to become real in the first place. Their worlds were far too different from each other.

However, sometimes the impossible is possible.

Yosuke, who was unable to summon his when Naoto met up with them, is now able to after having saved Kanji a couple of days ago. He envisioned his soul as his Persona and strongly screamed out for Susano-o to come forth. If the thought of his Persona did not cross through his mind, the second-year would have been killed in action. A similar pattern followed for Kanji and Yukiko shortly afterward. Something that is worth celebratory for this miracle was dampened by Inaba’s predicament. It was also worth noting that both Yukiko and Yosuke immediately cast their healing spells on Naoto in hopes of a speedy recovery. Sadly, it only alleviated pains and sores just like in the TV world; the risk of infections and scarring from open wounds are still present. No one is immortal on their plane.

On the positive end of the spectrum, this led to greater manpower on their end. Naoto isn’t the only one anymore. Now she has the majority of the investigation team ready to protect their friends and family. However, the number of shadows increased over the weeks, and Rise was still unable to summon her Persona. Their weaknesses were yet to be exploited. Experimentations ran the risk of facing death’s door at any given second out in the battlefield. It did not help that the shadows were not as weak as they were before. Many of them gained newfound strengths to oppose the remaining investigation team. One wrong step would lead the team members straight into the grave.

As for the civilians and innocent bystanders? The fog remains dense in the area as Inaba slowly transformed into a ghost town. The families of the investigation team were gathered in the Amagi Inn for refuge and collaborated in an effort to keep their children and themselves safe from unnecessary harm. Nanako and Ryotaro acted as the unofficial leader in the movement. They were surprised about how their children were involved in a supernatural conflict, but nonetheless, supported their fight. After all, they are the only ones who could eliminate shadows with their Personas. As for the others? Many had fled the suburban. They were smart to leave before it got any worse. Few who remained were either courageous or utterly foolish.

Death tolls were slow, but steadily on the rise. So far, the number of deaths are all from police officials. That doesn’t mean it will not include other parts of the population’s demographics soon. Another evidence leading back to this theory is due to the merging of two worlds: the TV world and Inaba. It hasn’t stretched far as the news station from outside the town made no reports about their situation. There is a rare likelihood it’s due to negligence and even rarer as apathy towards Inaba.

“I see. I’m not sure whether to say if it’s a good or bad thing that this is happening to Inaba only,” Yukiko grumbled. 

“That’s definitely up for debate.”

Before Naoto could continue their conversation with another topic, she felt another friendly presence. Then, there was the sound of porcelain shattering. Standing near the doorway, the tray that once held teacups are on the floor. Sharp shards scattered about on the premise. Any unlucky passerby might stab themselves with the expensive mess. Not that it mattered for Rise. Her brown hues through the glasses were fixated upon the laid figure, her jaw slacked.

“Oh my God, Naoto-kun, you’re awake...”

It appears that since the time the detective was awake, no one bothered to inform Rise about her status. Not surprising since Yukiko and Naoto were engrossed in an informative session to play catch up.

Yukiko looked at the two youngsters one at a time. Their eyes boggled at the sight of one another like they haven’t seen each other in decades. In the meantime, raven-haired smiled with compassion and got back up to her feet, her hands smoothing the dark skirt.

“I’ll leave you both alone then. I need to clean up the broken glasses.”

Before the detective or idol could verbalize their thoughts, the next head of the Amagi Inn swiftly left the room. She gave a fleeting pat on Rise’s shoulder upon brushing past the female. Silence followed afterward. Rise still stood by the doorway, and Naoto still in the futon, their eyes interlocked with each other. The nearby mantle clock audibly ticked in the background. Naoto’s fingers drummed on the edge of the blanket, and Rise shifted the weight on her legs. From the distant, it looks as though they came from different worlds.

“I made you worried, did I?”

It was an attempt to break the uneasy atmosphere. A ridiculous rare grin was also smacked on the gunner’s face to emphasize the effect. That... did not seem to work in Naoto’s favor as her girlfriend kept quiet. A couple of ticks from the clock ensued during the lackluster reaction. If the first-year wasn’t glued to the mattress, she would have approached the other and given her a tight hug. A rush of apologies would spill from her lips during the embrace. She would shower Rise with plenty of love to make up the past two weeks.

Naoto reverted her grin. She had to do something for Rise. The detective bit the bottom of her lip and made an effort to sit up again. Perhaps strength returned to her stiff muscles as the girl shakingly propped her elbows on the mattress. A grunt escaped her throat. That prompted Rise to hurry over to Naoto’s side. Delicate hands assisted the junior up. There, Naoto noticed those supportive hands trembling.

“Of course you made me worried!” Rise bawled. Like a little kid, she desperately wiped her tears away with the back of her other hand, only for more to pour out of its lacrimal glands. She vigorously rubbed against her cheeks. Rise tried to keep her voice down, but it created the opposite effect instead. “I thought you were never going to wake up!”

For Rise, waiting for the girl to wake up felt like forever. Naoto’s heart stopped beating the very moment those lights were extinguished from her blue eyes two weeks ago. Cardiac arrest. The cause of it was unknown, but it was likely influenced by the traumatic events that led up to the inn. Sayoko and the doctor were forced to use the defibrillator to kickstart her heart. An operation was promptly performed after the restoration of her pulse in order to mend her fractured bones. Stitches were necessary for any open wounds. Patches were a must for other exterior injuries. Consequently, both Kanji and Rise were kicked out of the room during the ordeal.

Kanji had gone berserk in the hallway. Had it not been for Yosuke and Chie, he would have caused various damages to the inn’s interior. As for the first-year, she was seen near the room, her hands clasped with her elbows on her knees, and forehead pressed against those hands. Mutters and mumbles past her lips as the others tried to control Kanji’s destructive impulse and irrational thinking. She had never lost anyone in her life. Rise hoped that it would never happen. Not after nearly losing Nanko, and certainly not when Naoto is slipping away. Her knuckles became white as her mantras became louder. Rise was not much of a spiritual individual. In fact, her only times worthy of praying is when she hoped her concert would go well and the yearly festival held in the city or Inaba. But she was willing to commit her whole life to Buddhism and various other sorts of religion if it meant keeping her lover alive for one more day. She was just a girl who didn’t want to be met with devastation.

Alas, everyone’s prayers had been answered. The operation was a success. It had taken 6 hours, although the timeframe could have shortened had the room been more suitable for surgical procedures. Naoto was transferred not long after to another vacant room for recovery. Relief washed over the entire group. The doctor told that it would take Naoto 3 to 4 months at least to regain all of her strengths. As for moving around, it would take her 4 to 6 weeks before she could return back to her daily activities without assistance. However, what everyone did not account for was her coma-induced state.

No one knew how long she would be unconscious. IVs and oxygen mask were eventually removed soon after and Naoto was transferred once again to another room close to Rise by request. Yosuke and Yukiko granted healing spells after they successfully summoned their Personas, yet that didn’t make an impact on Naoto’s status.

As each day flew by, Rise took care of her girlfriend 24 hours, 7 days a week. She dressed and bathed the unconscious detective. She made sure to inform the medical staffs if there were any changes or abnormalities present in Naoto. She cautiously and consistently shifted Naoto’s sleeping position to avoid bedsores. She replaced the bandages and gauzes as needed. She watched over the blue-haired till her eyelids can no longer stay open. The only sort of rest she received was a restless one. Rise had done everything she can to ensure Naoto won’t wake up to complications.

In the back of her mind, as she watched over the slumbering prince day-by-day, sits a lonesome doubt. What if Naoto never woke up? It was a fate far worse than death itself. Death ensured a person’s status. Once they are dead, they would never wake up ever again. But a coma? The answer is not as straightforward as it seems.

Anxiety clung to her sanity as the female’s internal anguish ensued. The longer her girlfriend remains asleep, the longer Rise’s suffering continues. That is until Naoto is finally awake.

Another teardrop fell from Rise’s eyes as she sniffled. “I’m just glad you’re awake.” If Naoto had not woken up after two weeks, would the young navigator be able to retain hope? Actually, it was better there isn’t an answer to it. Rise was not sure if she could face the harsh truth.

Immediately following her lover’s remark, the gunner leaned towards Rise’s direction. Naoto took her chance to capture the warmth with an amused expression.

“You know I would never leave you behind.”

“Are you sure?” the girl frowned. She buried her face into Naoto’s uninjured shoulder and grumbled into it. “If it weren’t for the doctor and nurse, you would have left us all behind.”

“You aren’t wrong. However, I believe my parents would have kicked me back to you.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I wasn’t trying to.”

“...pfft.” A smile was unavoidable on Rise’s face. She tried to keep it from showing by gently tightening her embrace on Naoto. “I don’t know what to do with you, girl.”

The dense atmosphere gradually dissipated from their interaction. This time, Naoto was the one who almost laughed out loud. (She kept her outburst out of fear her stitches from her abdomen would pop!) She closed her eyes and slowly rested a hand on Rise’s arm.

“Well… for starters, I would like to get something to eat.”

“Oh, you’re right.” How could Rise overlooked this? For two weeks straight, nutrients were provided via injections. A shot twice a day was provided to prevent Naoto’s system from resorting to self-cannibalism. Regardless, Naoto probably wanted a proper meal after so long, even if she had slept the entire time. “I could make you some soup if you want.”

All of the hairs prickled on the back of the girl’s neck. Uh oh. Naoto knew where this is going. She felt a drop in temperature, her eyelids refusing to crack open. As much as she loves her girlfriend, the detective constantly warned Rise to never ever cook for her. It pains her to admit it, but her guts screamed danger as if the extremely spicy meals had morphed into serial killers. The last time she cooked for Naoto, the gunner saved and used it as a weapon against a rural criminal in the shopping district. It is safe to say that the thief did not make it far after coming into physical contact with the rice balls… The spice level was apparently “over 9000” when he testified in court. It was not believable until one takes into consideration the scorch marks on one side of his face.

The first-year rotated her head like she was a robot towards Rise with a feigned grin.

“U-Um… I hope you remembered that I don’t want you cooking food for me…?”  

“Of course I do. I know I make my food really spicy, but I can cut down the spices for you!”

“I really don’t want to end up in the operating room again…”

“You do trust me, right?”

“I really don’t want to die again…”

“What’s that?”

Naoto opened her eyes. The pair were glossy as she stared at the red blanket. A strained smile was still scrawled on her face. There’s no getting out of this, is there? Rise may have promised the changes she made to the dishes and would uphold her end of the bargain if this wasn’t the 56th time she said it during their relationship. It didn’t help that those were the same exact words she used each and every time. Exact sentencing and phrasing too! Naoto was even convinced Rise simply rehearsed the statement like she was preparing for a reality show on television.

Maybe it was time to write a living will.

“Naoto! You’re okay?!”

Or maybe not. Thank God a savior has appeared.

That voice belongs to none other than Kanji. The muscular boy, gauzes wrapped around his hands, pointed at the detective with his slacked jaw. Meanwhile, Yosuke and Chie were bickering right behind the first-year about a minor nuisance they had with one another. Despite their somewhat mangled appearances like soldiers returning from war, the pair were lively as always. They had dagger-like stares exchanged past their glasses with each other as they followed suit towards Naoto’s room. As for Yukiko, she rejoined the group following that she cleaned up the broken glasses near the premise. Bewilderment was written all over her face as Kanji barged into the bedroom with his index finger still aimed at Naoto.

“Y-You!”

“M-Me?” Naoto pointed at herself. She was completely perplexed at his loud reaction. “What about me?”

Kanji finger curled inward into a fist as he lowered his head, hands violently trembling. If Naoto wasn’t injured, he would’ve grabbed ahold of her shoulders. There was just so much to say! He wanted to crush her into a bear hug. He also wanted to punch the nearby wall. The male gritted his teeth. In brief, Kanji looked up at the recovering female with distraught.

“Dammit, you know how much you made us worried?!”

If there was someone she had to label as the mother hen, this first-year would win the role. Not even Rise could beat his overprotective nature for the group. His reactions amplified when it came to his best friend. Beads of sweat flew out of Naoto’s head as she watched Kanji fumble with his emotions.

“Kanji-kun, I think Naoto-kun understands how she made us worried,” Yukiko graced her presence near him and gently pat his bandaged arm. “Besides, didn’t you say that we should hold a celebratory party once she wakes up?”

“I-I guess so…” His rigid posture loosened. “I’m just... worried for her, ya know? She nearly died and we could’ve done something--”

“Kanji-kun, the past is the past.”

“...’ight.”

The blonde scratched the back of his head. He seems to be beating himself over the events. Even though she’s okay now, he could never forgive himself for being so pathetically weak and useless for his best friend. He despised that. Kanji returned his gaze towards Naoto. There was a pause. Then, he sheepishly apologized for his loud outburst. Naoto forgave him. She also apologized for her recklessness from two weeks ago.

“So!” Yosuke finally leaped into the conversation after his skirmish with Chie. He theatrically squirmed himself between Kanji and Yukiko while ignoring the barking fighter from behind. The second-year flashed a wide smile. “We should definitely celebrate now that Naoto-kun is wide awake.”

“I think we should all cook for her for this occasion.”

Naoto wasn’t the only one with a forced smile. Kanji and Yosuke had doe-like eyes and became mute at Yukiko’s idea.

“I think so too!” Chie piped in. She flexed her muscle and nodded. “I’m sure Naoto-kun needs all the energy she can get for a speedy recovery!”

The three figures’ expression paled.

Rise leaned forth and whispered into Naoto’s ear, “You have to promise to try my dish first, okay?”

Naoto sucked in a deep breath.

‘Did I do something to anger you, God?’

In the Investigation Team, Yu knew very well who can cook. It was him, Yosuke, Kanji, and Naoto. They deserve a passing grade. As for the others? Despite their beauties, Rise, Yukiko, and Chie need more than a mentor and therapist to save them from their horrendous skillset. If anything, giving them an F in cooking would be a miracle.

Before Kanji could object about their kitchen duties, an obnoxious alarm similar to that for fire blared throughout the inn. All six teenagers nearly received a heart attack as a result. Naoto was the most perplexed with the unfolding event. She didn’t have to ask what it was about. Her teammates’ reactions told her everything she needed.

“Again?!” Chie groaned. “I swear to God, they never give up!”

“Well, there’s no use in complaining.” Yosuke ran a hand through his hair and whipped out a kunai knife from his waist. “It’s up to us to protect our family and friends.”

It appears that Yukiko and Yosuke took the time to install an alarm dedicated to detecting intruding shadows on the inn’s property during Naoto’s operation. Unsurprisingly, Naoto’s grandfather was the one who invented the security measure. (Explains how creative the junior detective is with her gadgets.) The equipment was hardly difficult to invent. Their worlds had merged to the point that it one can’t distinguish if Inaba is the same Inaba anymore. Magic and technology naturally collaborated in order to create a new law of physics. Hence, the retired man became of use during times of peril.

Many footsteps thumped outside of the room. Civilians and family members ushered each other for safety underground. Others such as Ryotaro Dojima armed themselves to keep the inn’s walls up. His voice barked from within the hallway as he clicked his firearm. A few other officers and security guards followed suit to his orders. As for the four active Persona users, they were obviously fit for the frontline. They pulled out their weapons and fired themselves up for another warfare. Yukiko, Chie, Yosuke, and Kanji exchanged looks. Now that their comrade had woken up, this strengthened their resolve to fight for another day. A sliver of hope is all that is needed for this despairing time period. After all, one person could even make a difference and the future is determined by one’s action.

“We’ll be back soon,” Chie waved as she, Yosuke, and Yukiko rushed out of the room.

Kanji cracked his knuckles and began to trail after them. However, he stopped short upon reaching the doorway. The young man glanced over his shoulder at the two first-year students.

“Rise-chan, um, could you protect Naoto-kun?”

The idol’s hold tightened on her lover as she proceeded to pull out the very gun Naoto uses.

“Of course. This is the least I can do.”

Kanji sent a genuine smile at their direction. Any trace of anxiety eroded as he returned his gaze to the hallway. He was gone shortly afterward.

Now it was just Rise and Naoto in the room. One sat in her mattress, and one sat near the patient. The petite girl gathered a chunk of the blanket’s surface. Naoto knew better than to push herself. If anything, she would only hold them back from their duties. Her main priority is getting better. However, she detests the fact that she was useless. Rise had to protect her, and Rise didn’t even have a Persona! She was literally risking her own life to shield Naoto from the shadow’s threats. It pained Naoto to see Rise armed with her firearm. (It’s apparent that her grandfather had given a crash course to the idol on how to wield it.) Muffled sounds of Yukiko, Chie, Yosuke, and Kanji were heard as they summoned their respective Persona. The gunner clenched her jaw and felt her tendons standing out. All they could do was wait for their comrades, the ground shuddering from the conflict outdoor.

This went on for the next two weeks she was awake. Kanji, Yosuke, Yukiko, and Chie were fighting hard for their sake. The party that they were supposed to toss for Naoto was delayed due to the shadows. Not that Naoto was concerned about the lack of celebration. Both she and Rise prayed in the safety of her bedroom for their returns. Sometimes their teammates would return battered and bruised. Other times, they would return scathe-free. On rare occasions, one or more of them are forced to visit the two medical staffs in this inn for stitches and bandages. Throughout the commotions, they always returned back soundly.

Until today, that is.

Broken woods abruptly scattered about in Naoto’s room. By reflex, Rise instantly shielded her girlfriend from the debris. A loud crash emitted on the opposite end of the premise. Rise’s and Naoto’s ears perked up from the sudden commotion. The sight Naoto witnessed caused her heart to skip a beat.  

“Senpai!”

Chie grasped ahold of her head as bits and pieces of wood slid off of her ragged jacket, blood trickling from her damaged scalp. The second-year slowly pushed herself up from the bedroom’s flooring. Suzuka Gongen from nearby shook its head at the same time with her owner.

“They’re… stronger than before, aren’t they…?” she breathed. “I have... to get back out there.”

She staggered to her feet. Rise separated from Naoto and bit the bottom of her lip. She raised the pistol in preparation.

“Don’t push yourself too hard, Chie-senpai. I’ll back you up.”

Chie sloppily motioned her other hand in the air.

“You don’t need to. I just need to find Yukiko--”

The fighter widened her eyes. She retracted her hand from her head and hollered at her Persona. Suzuka Gongen twirled her double-sided spear and rushed forward. “God’s Hand” was executed, a deafening crash heard right outside of the bedroom. An inhumane squeal rang in all three of their eardrums as Chie’s Persona leaped backward. Tension clung to their skin as they kept their eyes on the one and only doorway.

“I… I think we’re safe… for now…”

Dizzying spells were cast on multiple successions to the fighter. Looks like using a physical skill cost her more than she could take. Chie’s eyelids drooped as her Persona quickly vanished in a gentle blue light. She stumbled backward like she was delirious until her back smacked against the damaged wall. A faint wince was heard till the second-year slumped down, and her head hung low. Rise parted from Naoto and scrambled towards the fainted student. She grabbed ahold of Chie and lightly shook her.

“Senpai? Chie-senpai!”

Not a single twitch came from her. Rise’s complexion paled. The second-year was still breathing, the rise and fall of her chest visible, thankfully. However, there were many variables that could put Chie’s life in the red zone. Loss of blood, possible concussion, fresh nicks and lacerations evident on her exposed skin, and the fact that she is unconscious already screams that the female has one foot in her grave. Dread draped its veil over the two first-years.

“We need to get Yukiko or Yosuke, fast.”

Naoto’s suggestion accompanied her action of crawling out under the blanket. She got on her knees and pressed the palm of her hands against the tattered flooring. The gunner’s legs shook as her body tried to make peace with earth’s gravity. Had it not been for Rise supporting her, Naoto would have surely collapsed face-first on the floor. The ex-Persona user readjusted her arm’s position to keep her lover standing up straight and from falling forward.

“Thank you.”

Lo and behold, as if the Chie’s fainting episode was not enough, another dilemma reared its ugly head into their room. This time, three additional shadows made their appearance. Their eerie red masks floating about in the air as black clouds sprout from behind as if they were mechanical machines spitting carbon monoxide. Both Naoto and Rise glanced over at Chie. Unfortunately, the second-year was still knocked out. Not even the growls of the newcomers stirred her awake.

Naoto clicked her tongue. Rise was by her side with the gun. It meant very little in a confrontation against a shadow, let alone three of them. At its best, it can serve as a mean of distraction and provocation. The junior detective extended her hand out. Familiar blue lights enveloped the two female as an arcana card came down to her palm in its usual manner. She had to be bold, and she had to be snappy.

“Persona!”

A gust of wind blew against the creatures. Yamato-Takeru graced everyone in the room with his presence. The male Persona gallantly floated right behind the two students. He bent his knees, forging his offensive stance to slice down his foes. This should end in a flash. However, Naoto didn’t take into consideration of the lashback of summoning her Persona with minimal stamina and poor health.

“Naoto-kun!”

Fatigue dragged all four of Naoto’s limbs down to the earth. Rise was unable to retain her hold on the abrupt action, causing the poor student to crumble onto the floor. The detective hugged her own body and felt lightheaded. If it took an average of 3 to 4 months to recovery, one month was clearly insufficient. A wave of nausea tickled her throat and made her eyes watery. It took all of her strength to resist the urge to barf bile from the sudden movement. The idol shot a worried glance and placed a hand on her girlfriend’s trembling back.

Yamato-Takeru glitched. Frankly, his summoning was already a miracle in itself at this time. He reeled his occupied arm back. There was no time to waste. The more prolonged he exists, the more energy Naoto would exert in the process. Naoto’s Persona proceeded to assault the three shadows with quick slashes.

It went through.

The three shadows stared at him.

He tried again.

The three shadows continued to stare at him.

Nothing was going in Naoto’s favor. Each and every flick of his wrist, those elegant slices didn’t tear through anything. The attacks ran through the misty smoke. When the Persona made an impact, the mask deflected and caused his sword to bounce away as if he hit pure steel. Naoto lifted her head and watched with great horror at the unfolding scene.

It was useless. It was all useless. Naoto knew not to give up, but in this hopeless skirmish, what could she and Rise do? The detective’s face turned white and her hands were clammy. She rapidly blinked and felt her respiratory rate hastened.

Were they going to die?

She looked at their surroundings. Chie was motionless in the room, and Naoto was still on the ground. She may have summoned her Persona, but his attacks barely did a number on the floating masks. If anything, it all went through their black misty body as if they were a ghost. Rise was down on one knee and watching over the detective with worrisome features. Yukiko, Yosuke, and Kanji, on the other hand, were all frantically protecting other parts of the inn. If one of them breaks away from their post, the shadows would pour into the estate and slaughter innocent lives. If anything, they had to prevent the survivors from becoming a buffet for the shadows.

Yamato-Takeru slowed his movements till both he and his user drained most of their stamina. The first-year female struggled to keep back the nauseating sensation. No matter how much she pushes her Persona, he isn’t going to move anymore. They’ve both pushed to their limits. If anything, it’s only going to make things worse for the two. Naoto squeezed her eyes shut as she lowered her head.

Checkmate.  

In this game of chess, Rise wouldn’t allow that though. Rise may be the king on the board and Naoto as the knight, but that did not mean a king was useless. They could fight back.

“Rise…?”

When Naoto raised her head, she saw a new sight. The idol stood in front of Chie, Naoto, and even her Persona. Rise aimed at the shadows with the pistol with a sharp glare. Naoto’s heart raced, and her adrenaline spiked. She knew too well what might happen-- No, she knew what will happen. Naoto weakly reached out towards her girlfriend.

“Rise!” she begged. “Don’t do this!”

Rise didn’t budge from her spot. She dared not take one step away from shielding Chie and Naoto. Even if Rise were to be killed on the spot, it was better than having Naoto be killed, she believed. The female solidified her will and felt her index finger pull at the trigger. If anything, she can be a fortified wall for her recovering lover.

“I won’t let you hurt her!” Rise hollered.

She fired three shots in slow succession, one for each shadow. Was it effective? Not necessarily. If Naoto’s Persona could hardly touch them, how could man-made bullets make a difference? Nonetheless, this did attract their attention to another source.

The trio made a gurgling sound. They found it amusing. How could a puny, weak human like her protect two Persona-users? Bullets from her firearm hardly did a number on them. Pathetic. Weakling. Reckless. Just the kind of prey they were looking for. Another growl from their direction. This would be interesting for the shadows. If anything, this would make it far more entertaining to gobble her up. The sensation of excitement flowed through their hollow existence as they closed their proximity. They were going to take their time with Rise and thoroughly extinguish her flame.

Naoto dug her nails into the flooring. Tears streamed down her face as she wailed out towards Rise and threw weightless threats at their enemies.

“Don’t you dare touch her!” she screamed. “I won’t let you touch her!”

Yamato-Takeru took a step forward. However, the Persona glitched wildly and paused in his place. He had a terribly weak grip on his sword as the two were forced to watch Rise slowly meet her demise. Naoto’s heart raced so fast, she feels like it could explode any second now. They were getting closer. Rise would empty the pistol’s content. Once they were emptied, the shadows would become a pack of ruthless predators to the eventual-defenseless prey. Uncontrollable whimpers expelled from Naoto’s lips as she screamed one last time.

“NO!”  

“Persona.”

It was inaudible over Naoto’s vocals, the key terminology uttered simultaneously. It was almost like a whisper, its articulations nearly soundless. Rise’s brown hues widened as a flurry of wind blew wildly outward. This forced the detective to raise one arm and block the powerful force. If Naoto and Chie were not on the ground, they would have lost their balance or tumble backward from its intensity. As for the three shadows, they backed away from the female. They clearly underestimated her abilities as a human.

Eventually, Naoto felt her body become light and strong. Aches and pains washed away and became nonexistent for the gunner. It was as if someone cleansed her soul and reinvigorated her life with an influx of vitality. She slowly lowered her arm in unison when the gust died down. Rise had kept her posture fixed, the firearm’s aim unmoving at the enemies. But Naoto sharply inhaled. Rise’s Persona stood right behind her user. Kanzeon towered over the armed idol with the headset device resting in her grasp. The two of them had automatically unleashed their healing spells for nearby party members.

Confirmation had to be made. Naoto curled her bandaged fingers inward. She tightened them into a firm fist. Then, she sprung up on her two feet with great vigor. At the same time, Chie groggily woke up from her blackout. She got up from the ground without the need for any support. Once she was on her two feet, she stared at Naoto and, in particular, Rise. She blinked. Next, the kung-fu fighter shook her head and lightly slapped her own cheeks.

“Rise-chan, you summoned your Persona!” Chie did not hold back her tongue. Despite the pickle they were in earlier, enthusiasm tainted her tone. She performed a few kicks and punches to test out her revitalized status. Turns out, it was the real deal. The Persona-user grinned. “Thanks! You’ve really helped me out.”

The detective approached Rise from behind and placed a hand on her girlfriend’s shoulder. In response, Rise lowered the weapon. Both exchanged glances.  

“Naoto-kun…”  

“Thank you, Rise.” Naoto proceeded to retrieve her gun from Rise’s hold as she planted a kiss on her cheek. There were plenty of praises the gunner wants to glitter her lover with. It wasn’t only the fact that she just summoned her Persona, it was the fact that Rise had just saved her and Chie’s life. The petite girl leaned in close to the first-year’s ear. “I think it's time we defeat the shadows just like old times, right?”

A smile bloomed on Rise’s face. Soon Kanzeon placed the device over her Persona-user’s eyes. Rise immediately took the chance to analyze the enemies. A weakness scan brought up various details on the floating shadows petrified in the air.

“It’s weak against magic other than dark and light!”

“Guess it’s a good thing I have some ice skills left in my arsenal.”

Chie wiped the corner of her mouth with her thumb. She had a feeling it was best to save some Bufu skills. Turns out, her instincts from many months ago is one-hundred percent accurate. The arcana card materialized in front of her. Chie reeled her leg back and gave it a wallop. Shattered glasses resonated throughout the air as Suzuka Gongen made her appearance once again.

“Suzuka Gongen!”

At full health and stamina, the duo unleashed ice magic upon the masked monsters. Garbled and distorted voices emitted from the misty creatures as they sprayed bits of crimson liquid to their surroundings. The room became still in a new way. Signs of danger dissipated as the three stood with their Personas.

“Thanks, Chie-senpai,” Naoto said. “It’s a good thing you’re here with us.”

The second-year had both of her hands on her hips. She beamed at the juniors. “No problem! That’s what teamwork is for, yeah?”

Before more could be said, the ground shook. Yellings of “Persona!” were heard from outside. Gunshots rang in the air as Ryotaro barked orders. Nanako and the two medical staffs ran about to gather and treat the injured. It was hectic out there. Chie tapped the tip of her ragged shoe on the floor.

“I’ll be back outside to help everyone else. I think you two should stay inside and guard the civilians.”

“Chie-senpai, I--”

“Not another word from you, missy! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about your surgery!”

That clamped Naoto’s jaw shut. Chie was right. Just because of Rise granted healing and stamina boosters does not mean her past afflictions would patch up in one go. Actually, her condition would worsen on the long-run if she keeps this up. Who knows what would happen to her afterward? The detective glumly agreed to the older girl. As for Rise, she sided with her senpai and enveloped Naoto’s hand with hers.

“Naoto, you should listen to Chie-senpai. Besides, I need someone to protect me while I relay information over to the rest of us.”

“...I suppose you both are right.” Naoto cupped her chin and tilted her head. At least she wasn’t going to be sidelined. “Very well. I will support you all in the background if needed. Otherwise, I will remain here with Rise.”

The new tactic was set into stone. Naoto and Rise were to remain behind inside the inn and provide support. As for Yukiko, Chie, Kanji, and Yosuke, they would continue out in the frontline. It was a terribly long and arduous warfare for the next month. Naoto was eventually well enough to participate in the frontline so long as she has Rise by her side.

The investigation team, minus their leader, forced to fight against the shadows regardless of their statuses. Their efforts seem almost futile though. The shadows continue to swarm them right outside of Amagi Inn on a daily basis in a desperate attempt to gobble and mindlessly slaughter the refugees from within. It was an endless battle only they were able to fight in.

Would they be successful in fending them off? Unlikely as the swarms are numerous. It almost seems as though they came from an endless source. The Persona users would soon succumb to exhaustion and be beaten down till submission. Eventually, death would be the only fate they can accept as the two worlds finalize their merging in Inaba.

Naoto held onto Rise’s hands and pointed her gun at the powerful shadow. Yamato-Takeru slumped forward out of fatigue but kept his fighting stance ready in order to defend his user, Rise, and Kanzeon. Naoto was panting as she kept one arm in front of her girlfriend. The shadow, its form closely related to that of a large chained lion, bellowed as it prepped for a devastating strike against the two. She narrowed her eyes as her Persona began to formulate a spell.

“You’ll have to get through me if you want to get to Rise!”

So long as she can still stand on her two feet, she will protect Rise, and she will keep her safe from all harms. The question is… how long will she be able to keep this up?

Meanwhile, in the background, a young adult sat on a bench near the inn. A revolver twirled in his grasp, his dead eyes staring at the mass. His lips hardly budged from the straight line it had formed. Annoyance. Bothersome. Pests. Boredom. Those terminologies effectively described his feelings towards the unfolding scenario. These children possess Personas. They are fighting against the shadows. It’s a simple good-versus-bad plot. The man’s shoe tapped on the pavement, his index finger itched to pull on the trigger. One side will win, the other side will lose. It was ridiculously predictable.

After that spectacular show Yu had proven to him, would the rest of the investigation team be able to meet their leader’s standard? Adachi’s eyes narrowed and ceased twirling his firearm. He bounced himself up to his two feet with an audible “hmph!” from his direction. After a short while, a wicked grin ran across his face.

“I think it’s time I make it more fun for all of us.”