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The Truth of the Matter

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It's usually the same, he reflects quietly as the scenery slowly passes him by for what has to be the millionth time by now. What he's looking for, what he has to find, it's a perfect ending. At least, that's what he's come to believe anyhow. He can't remember the first time if there even was a first time. For all he knows this could be everything his life has ever been. That distant memory is just that, distant and shrouded in a fog that not even Teddie's glasses seem to be able to pierce. It's a hollow memory but he can't place why. He allows it to slip away from him as he focuses on the now, this time, what he can do better and what he can avoid doing at all. 

A shame really, all things considered. 

He wishes he knew what to do. The image of Igor's expression, patient as always, is singed into the back of his eyelids. Igor is just as aware of the circumstances as Souji himself is, if not more aware. Margret is a little less patient, but still willing to help the boy along. They allow him to summon Personas that by all means, he shouldn't have, high-level Personas from a future he has yet to face.

Izanagi is eerily quiet so Souji sets up his party with a good number of powerful Personas that will let him skate through the first dungeon or two. He keeps all his powers as the last time. In fact, sometimes it seems as though his capabilities just keep stacking. More health, more stamina, shocking amounts of knowledge and charm. Of course, revealing that could become dicey. He'll have to go easy on the shadows in the area to keep from one shotting them. He can't use spells because that again would be too obvious. All he can really do is hold back as much as possible and wait out Izanagi's unbearable silence. 

Izanagi will appear when he needs to, just like always. Protecting not Souji in those first couple moments of his existence but Yosuke, that's always Izanagi's priority. With his level 99 skills he'll one shot the shadows to protect Yosuke and then he'll disappear. 

Izanagi treats Souji with a bizarre amount of disdain and always remains quiet. His Personas have always chattered in the back of his mind in one way or another, each piece of himself making itself known through his daily decisions. He feels like Izanagi should be loudest by merit of status as Souji's 'true' Persona. He feels like Izanagi's spoken to Souji with conviction and strength in the past, spoken often. But Souji can't hear him anymore and he can't summon up any memories of hearing the pouty god in other resets, so he lets the sinking feeling drop without a second thought. 

It's weird for a piece of his own self to treat him in a way that borders on hatred, but he feels as though he's done something to deserve it even though he can't summon up any memories. 

He thinks it has to do with the looping. Over and over again he keeps looping, looking for a 'perfect' ending that he's not even sure exists. Why? He's miserable, deeply miserable even though a small part of him says that he shouldn't be. He should just forget about the looping and enjoy the fact he gets to spend a year with his friends all over again. It should be a dream come true! 

The thought feels foreign and he pushes it away like the plague, a bit unnerved by its presence. 

He allows his thoughts to wander to his teammates for a couple of moments. His heart wrenches in his chest. He cares for them all so deeply, it's hard to describe just how much it hurts watching them have to go through all of this so many times. He can't confide in them. There are emotions surrounding some of his teammates that he just can't admit out loud to them. 

That doesn't mean he'll actively ignore them himself. Ignoring all of... that can't be healthy. Trying to turn away from the truth of the situation would be a good way to manifest a shadow, and that's something he just can't handle right now. 

He has a theory as to why he never manifested a shadow before. He's never tried to actively lie to himself. Yes, he's lied to other people about himself, but he's never repressed any of his thoughts and emotions the way that many of his friends have. If his shadow strolled up to him and started accusing him of being terrified his friend with abandoning him then he'd just nod sadly. He knows this truth about himself, and while he might not actively wear it on his sleeve he acknowledges it enough. 

If he started trying to ignore these emotions as a whole, he feels as though he'd be turning away from his internal truth and trying to lie to himself. That was the fast track to getting a shadow. 

He needs something to take his mind off all of this.

Souji sighs as his train finally comes to a stop, the announcer calls out the stop but Souji doesn't need to listen. He already knows. He decides he's not going to keep lingering on doubts and fears. He needs to find the truth and get that perfect ending if he ever wants to get out of this looping hell. Not just for himself, but for the friends who are trapped inside of it with him. So far he's the only one to start realizing that things are off. Little things that he can't really always place along with all the big attention stealing things. 

His body lurches slightly as the movements around him start to slow and eventually comes to a stop. There are few people remaining on the train as things stand, so he's able to silently pass through the car all on his own. It's exciting and terrifying in equal measures because of what it represents. 

When he steps off the train he takes a deep breath and savors the way that the air rests in his lungs. It's springish and light, not carrying the same heavy undertones as the air does closer to the end of the year. Nervous energy doesn't charge the air and air doesn't sit on the back of his neck, silently judging his every action. Instead, the air is gentle with the slight hint of nip from the retreating winter and it smells sweet like nature and he tells himself this is the way that Inaba is supposed to feel. 

He takes the familiar steps towards Dojima and his little sis-... his younger cousin. He doesn't need to look around in confusion because he already knows exactly where the two are standing and he strides towards them with a chilled kind of confidence that he's perfected by now. His composure is unflappable, even though there's a sharp pain in his chest every time he reminds himself of what he's going to have to go through all over again. 

"Well hey there Souji," the voice that belongs to Dojima says but the words have changed from the typical pattern they create. It's instantly noticeable to the silver-haired boy who has to look a little closer at his uncle. Everyone always says the same thing, especially at the start where he hasn't acted differently enough for the slight changes in the dialogue he comes to expect during later months. His heart beats a little faster when he realizes that for the first time since all of this began, something's changed. He's terrified and excited by the fact he doesn't know what. 

If Dojima wants to act different, then so will Souji. The silver-haired boy smiles as he approaches, a rare expression that he saves for those important to him. In all this time he's become no more talkative and he's still just as stingy with his more obvious facial expressions. He gives off a blank expression at school and saves his smiles (and his energy) for the rest of the Investigation Team and his various friends outside of the team itself. Trying to be expressive, be emotionally open, it was just so draining. 

Nanako is already slightly ducked behind Dojima but she seems to light up at Souji's expression. "Long time no see, uncle," Souji says with a gentle voice as he gets close enough to the pair they can hold a conversation at a normal volume instead of shouting across the train stop. Not like there's anyone to disturb. He holds out his hands and Dojima offers him a quick shake. 

Dojima overall looks quite pleased, and if Souji isn't mistaken then is disposition as a whole almost seems gentler. "I'm glad to see you still recognize me! I haven't visited in a while, so I have to say it's a little bit of a shock," he says before turning to Nanako slightly. "Nanako here is my daughter, I don't believe the two of you have ever had the chance to meet. She's a little shy. You think you can introduce yourself?" His voice is carefully measured as he addresses Nanako, trying not to scare the small girl. Nanako initially hesitates but Souji gives her his warmest smile, the one that's only reserved for her.

Eventually, she gives a quick nod and steps out of Dojima's shadow, hesitant but brave in her approach. "Hello. I'm Nanako," she says, but quickly jumps back behind Dojima after her introduction is done. It's three words as opposed to a single syllable so Souji considers himself lucky. He nods quietly, keeping his expression warm and as unintimidating as possible. He tries not to default back to the emotionless poker face he's gotten used to. He'll still wear it for classes of course because that's just always how he's been. He'll be the cool and mysterious transfer student, but for his friends, he'll be warm. He'll try to be transparent and affectionate, especially for Nanako.

He has to be her big brother, after all, now doesn't he? 

Dojima seems satisfied with his daughter and nods quietly more to himself than anyone around him. "Alright then, with introductions out of the way we can all pile into the car and we'll get you home. We'll have to take a quick stop at the gas station. Hopefully, you can hold out?" Dojima's hesitation is met with a silent nod from a mostly silent boy. No matter what he continues to be a man of few words. He's always specialized in nonvocal communication though, so he's sure it'll still be fine. 

Right before he leaves, tailing his cousin and his uncle, he's met with a rather familiar occurrence in what so far has been an unfamiliar reset. Marie walks past, knocking a piece of paper from her pocket as she goes. Or, at least, she's supposed to. It looks like something flies out of his pocket, but the address is still there when he slips his hand inside. Yet the paper flutters on the wind curiously. 

Marie picks it up, and of all things turns to him with a sad smile. "Please be happy already, Souji. I'm getting tired..." She says as she passes the paper to him without an extra word. She turns on her heels and disappears as quickly as she came. The boy finds himself jarred as she leaves with a certain aura he can't place. Souji doesn't know how to describe it. Elegant? Intelligent? Regal? All of those words could easily apply but they don't seem like they're enough. He tails Nanako and Dojima feeling deeply shaken by the whole encounter. 

There's something different and he doesn't know what, let alone why. He hasn't done anything yet which could have triggered a change. Even his own internal musing are similar to past thoughts and trends. Had he many done this too many times? Is the loop starting to break down? Is it a preemptive change caused by Izanami? Did he do something remarkably small and just not notice? He can't help thinking about the butterfly effect, but he's quick to dismiss it. 

It takes active force to change the future. He doesn't doubt the butterfly effect as an idea, a thought that small actions can change the course of events life can follow, but he doubts how extremely small things can be. How can the beat of a butterfly's wings possible shift life so drastically? 

If he wants something to change he'll have to actively pursue it, it won't just plop itself into his lap. 

"Hey, you okay, you look a little pale," Dojima asks and Souji realizes that they've come to stop at the gas station. Souji still hates this gas station if only for the encounter he knows he's about to have with Izanami. She always pretends like she doesn't know him, shakes his hand and smiles. But Souji can always see that damned smirk glinting in the corners of the goddess' eyes. 

"Just lightheaded," he says, trying to keep the shiver out of his voice. He turns his attention away from the prying eyes of an aged detective and steps out of the car. He can already feel his stomach roll as the rest of his family does the same, Dojima getting a fill up on gas while Nanako runs off to go to the bathroom. 

Izanami of course, as always, approaches Souji with that insistent chatter and an outstretched hand. When she grips his hand, it's fierce and dangerous. Her eye suddenly hardens and her voice drops, taking on the tone and elegance of the goddess presiding over Yomi and death. "I don't know what you've done, child of man, but I'm not amused," she hisses before she lets go and the pleasantly fake smile slips right back onto her features with an efficiency that puts Souji and Rise combined to shame. 

The silver-haired boy is confused and floored. It's a weird mixture of emotions and goddess seems to pick up on the boy's confusion, backing off slightly. "Ah, my mistake, I thought you were someone else," she amends with a nervous laugh. Souji is blessed with an effective poker face even if it pales in comparison to a goddess, and apparently, she believes it, thinking that his confusion is more rooted in misunderstanding towards her actions than a genuine confusion as to what he's done. What has he done, he asks himself quietly. 

What are you going to do?

Souji shivers and his thoughts scatter in all directions as a jolt runs down his spine. Izanagi, who up until this point has been silent as the grave, finally speaks. It's not as harsh as prior reruns. Instead, it borders curious. 

What have you already done that you are going to do?

The personification of the god quickly amends. Souji is left to his confusion as Izanagi falls silent. With the god's silence, the silence that had existed over all his other Personas finally breaks and it turns into a cacophony of noises that make it impossible to think. Each one offers up answers and Souji grows irritated because Izanagi already knows the answer. Souji himself already knows the answer, but why can't he remember it?

Is something wrong with him.

He feels the worried gaze of Dojima rested on him as he returns with Nanako. "Hey, you've been traveling for an awfully long time. You wanna stretch your legs and get some fresh air for a moment?" Dojima asks. His is gentle and he rests a hand on Souji's shoulder so delicately that the boy feels like a young child. 

Souji quickly shakes his head. "No, just feeling a little homesick and tired. I just need to lie down for a bit is all," he dismisses the offer with something that isn't quite a lie. He is already starting to feel a little homesick, but not sick for the home he just left. He wants to be back in the Dojima residence, his shelves covered in the mementos of a long year, his cheeks stretched him a smile while his phone chimed with texts from all of his friends. 

Dojima hesitantly nods but doesn't try to continue the conversation, quietly slipping into the car and taking it the rest of the way home. Home is a good word, it already helps Souji's chest to feel a little lighter even though his head is heavy with secret and truths he's forgotten or is currently ignoring. The brush with the goddess always leaves him a bit out of sorts, but now is even worse. Now all his Personas are screaming out possibilities and ideas and not a single one of them feels right, like little red herrings swimming through his mind. Scales flush enough to rival the blood in his veins when a shadow gets in a lucky hit. 

When he arrives at the family home a little bit of the illness and stress he's been feeling starts to slide off of his shoulders. "For the next year this'll be your home too, so don't be shy," Dojima says as he opens the door and slips off his shoes. Nanako and Souji follow his lead, and Souji can't wait to get upstairs and flop onto his futon. He barely manages to make it through dinner with Dojima before feeling the need for sleep. He feels fatigued in ways that words can't describe. 

Yet, there's a small flicker of hope that burns at his ribcage as his memories of the last run become foggier and foggier, more useless but still useful enough to know what to expect. Just useful enough. He needs sleep but the voices in his head just demand more attention.

Finally, Izanagi's voice rises above the rest. It's hesitant, as though he's hesitant to help Souji, but it demands silence and silence is in fact given. Souji quickly falls into a restless sleep. 

(~~~~)

"Why do you still fight it?" A voice echoed through the fog. Souji's eyes strain to try and pierce the shield of white but it seems impossible. "You keep trying to fight this, but all will be to no avail. We both know that for this is the truth that you seek. A helpless, hopeless reality. Why embrace it when I can give you much more wonderful dreams!" The voice sounded borderline distraught in Souji's ears. The beings words resonate deeply as the word truth is spoken, but not in a way that makes him think the creature is right. Quite the opposite actually. 

As far back as Souji can remember, this dream was the one thing that always went differently. Always different words, mocking phrases meant to harry the young Wildcard into giving up. Peering through the fog, her voice was always condescending. Mocking him for his attempts to free himself from the looping circular motions of time. Mocking him for trying to face the truth but also forge his own. Fight for a better future. 

There was a necessity in facing the truth of the moment, but the boy had long ago realized that truth wasn't absolute. Maybe it was painful now, maybe it hurt, but there was always a way to change it. Bitter trials might face those who tried, but there was always a way. He saved Marie, didn't he? Even when he knew the truth, knew that releasing her from her grave could so easily result in a world of fog, he'd still tried to forge a better truth for himself. Or had he? He couldn't remember right now. His thoughts swirled like fireflies, twinkling little sights that became distant and gloomy through a fog so thick he could cut it with a knife and somehow not even make a dent. 

It pooled around his ankles and tried to drag him down. It wasn't he who wanted to live in this fog, but the voice of the many which cajoled for him to give up. Give up already! He didn't listen, he'd never listened. Perhaps it was one of the many good traits he'd learned from his beloved friends. He'd never quite been this stubborn before coming to Inaba. Such was the way of life when one spent so much time around so many strong personalities. 

Despite this being's typical upper hand, Souji could swear he heard the trepidation in the voice who represented humanity's shared desire to be blind. The fear. Did it think that maybe it could lose this round? Its words sounded more like distressed accusations. There was a little jolt of excitement and he could feel Izanagi stir.

"Why can't you just be happy!" The voice echoed in his ears with a bellowing shout. Souji flinched but he didn't back down. He couldn't back down, there was too much at stake. Pushing his way through the fog he lashed out.

The voice snarled at him as his swing missed, but he could feel movement as something seemingly stepped back from the blow. Retreating. This was new in a way that even this dream usually wasn't. Never before had the being lost ground in one of these dreams. "Very well, let us see how you fare. Perhaps you will prove to me humanity's true wish. Their true strength." 8 canary yellow pairs of eyes suddenly blinked open where the creature had been moments before, looking at him curiously. They were waiting for something, but the boy didn't quite know what. Something they hadn't gotten in a long time. 

They placed the weight of their desires onto Souji's shoulders even though he couldn't tell what that desire was. Something told him he did, another something told him he didn't. It tried to be louder, but the something that did was so very clear, cutting through the mist that had started to seep inside his skull, trying to banish memories which he suddenly felt the desire to cling to with every last drop of his strength. 

Souji could feel himself starting to lose consciousness. The fog swirled around him, coaxing him into what was likely to be a deep sleep, a forgetful sleep, a blind sleep. He wanted to give in, a large part of him just wanted to lay down and sleep. To dream. It was a tempting offer, but for half a second he could swear he saw one of those pairs of canary yellow eyes masked behind silver bangs starting him down. There was a fire in their expression. A dare. 

He returned the expression, answering the dare with a promise. 

He had never turned his eyes away from the truth. Not willingly. He finally refused to let the others do the same.