Chapter 1: A Request Of A Different Nature
"Keep an eye on him, will ya? He was a good student in high school, but the last few years might have changed that." Naoto contemplated the request from Detective Kurosawa and sighed.
Ryotaro Dojima was contacted by the Kirijo Group some months after the conclusion of the murder investigation that plagued Inaba, and through a series of cryptic inquiries, discovered that similar Shadow incidents had occurred in other areas around the world. The Kirijo Group had put him in contact with Officer Kurosawa from Iwatodai, as the Group believed that local officers and detectives could prove a vital way to detect these kinds of incidents in the future, and put them to a stop before they escalated. The detectives had grown into a strange friendship, a sense of camaraderie budding from dealing with children who took too many risks dealing with the paranormal.
Dojima had requested that Naoto join him at one of their monthly get-togethers, which surprised and delighted Naoto. She thought her expertise would finally be tapped to help in their investigations, but in actuality, they were making a request of a different nature.
"He took a few years off to focus on work for the Kirijo Group, but he's finally getting his act together and going to college. I believe you and him will be in the same degree program, so if you run into him, can you keep an eye out, Shirogane-san?" Kurosawa asked, a twinge of concern in his voice. "He's dedicated for sure. I just think it might take time for him to get back into the swing of schooling. Plus, he knows what it's like to face the Shadows, but in a different context, so you can compare what you've been through."
Naoto agreed, but not without a bit of regret. She was already not pleased that her career path required her to earn a degree - despite years of detective work, she was unlikely to be promoted until she received one. The idea that she would not only have to take classes in subjects she was already familiar with, but to babysit a legal adult who should be nearing completion of his degree wasn't an exciting task.
"Chie is also in the degree program, and a year in as well. Why not ask her?"
Dojima raised an eyebrow. "I am fairly certain Satonaka-san needs to focus on her studies more than you."
Naoto nodded, already assuming that response. I guess, for once, I can be the senpai.
Kurosawa had given Naoto Akihiko Sanada's contact information, so Naoto decided to write him an introduction email a few weeks before classes started. She kept it fairly brief and professional, merely introducing herself and asking him a few polite questions. She excluded discussion of the powers of Persona - Kurosawa had already told him about her as well, but Naoto was unclear if Sanada realized the introduction was more for his handling than for making a new friend. She was also interested in gauging how he responded to the email. While their method of introduction was unconventional, many cold emails like this were sent while working in law enforcement, and she would be able to gauge how much he had to overcome by his response.
She was pleasantly surprised by his response. He was cordial, if not a little friendlier than she would have anticipated. He expressed his excitement to be introduced to someone with real-life experience in the field, to which Naoto appreciated his wording indicating more than her detective work. Perhaps I've been concerned for nothing. I can reassess when our paths cross at orientation.
The freshman class of Criminal Justice students proved to be small that year, so when Naoto attended orientation, it only took Akihiko Sanada a moment to identify her. "Shirogane-san! I'm Akihiko Sanada, it's a pleasure to meet you." She was almost taken aback by his presence; for some reason, she almost didn't recognize the man that stood in front of her. The picture Kurosawa had dug up of the boy - a group picture of the S.E.E.S. team - wouldn't have readily indicated that Sanada would have had the capability of growing so much more muscular in a relatively short amount of years since the photo was taken. His stature was almost imposing and would have made her approach him with more caution if his posture hadn't been so casual, as well as his smile. He gave her a wave.
"Sanada-san, it's nice to meet you in person," Naoto replied, taking note of the scars in his hair and the wrap around his wrist. His role in the Shadow Operatives must have been fairly combat-oriented before his resignation.
He gestured to a table near the front, and they sat, waiting for their instructor to arrive. They compared their schedules to find that they shared two classes together. This was a relief for Naoto, realizing she would easily be able to keep her promise to Kurosawa. They made polite, small-talk about the perils of filling out the online registration from when a girl with long, silky black hair gestured to the other seat near Sanada and asked. "Mind if I sit here?"
She had seen the way this girl stood countless times from Rise - angled slightly with a small shift of her hips to accentuate her curves. A small pout in her lips spoke volumes.
"Seat's free," Sanada replied neutrally, and she sidled into it.
"Name's Mizuki Kago, but my friends call me Miwa-chan," she said, leaning slightly towards Sanada. "And yours?"
"Akihiko Sanada," he answered. "And this is Naoto Shirogane."
"Nice to meet you," Naoto added.
Undeterred, Kago continued, "I plan on becoming a lawyer, also I'm studying English so I can work in international law. What about you, Sanada-senpai? Did you change your major, or is this part of a dual degree?"
"Not your senpai," he replied, almost brusquely. "I'm a first year, same as you. Shirogane-san's more our senpai than anyone with her experience."
Naoto was almost unsettled by his tone when she realized he was fidgeting with his pen under his desk. This girl is clearly interested in him romantically, but it's making him uncomfortable.
"Yes, please rely on me if you need help with your studies, Kago-san," Naoto said.
Kago stifled an annoyed face and opened her mouth to speak until the instructor entered, slightly frazzled as he rifled through his notes. Sanada turned to the professor and opened his notebook. Kago reluctantly did the same.
Naoto smiled to herself.
After orientation, Naoto and Sanada left the classroom, chatting amiably and trying to skrit the path of Kago. Once they reached the courtyard, Naoto braved asking, "Are you...often approached like that?"
He chewed his lip. "It's...not uncommon. You'd think I'd figure out how to handle it by now, but nope. Still terrible." He sighed. "I should apologize to you. I shouldn't have been so...casual, earlier, but it was a relief that I was going to at least know someone. I mean, I don't know you but, we've been through similar experiences."
"Please, don't apologize," Naoto said. "I understand. And also...in high school, I had received similar unwanted attention when I transferred to Inaba. I'm only fortunate that the interest subsided shortly after the novelty of my arrival wore off."
"Small town life, huh?" he smiled. "You think you're gonna miss it?"
"I made a lot of good friend in Inaba," she said with a nod. "One attends this school as well but most have traveled elsewhere for college. Technology bridges the distance nowadays." She held her phone up.
"I guess that's fairly true," he said, holding up a phone so shiny and new Naoto could have sworn he went out and bought it right before classes. Her surprise must have shown on her face.
"Oh! It was a gift when I resigned. Mitsuru Kirijo is head of the Shadow Operatives, and she and I had been fighting Shadows together since middle school. I shattered my screen on one of my last missions, so I think she was mostly teasing me." He shrugged. "She deserved to get one last shot in before I left. Plus, I think she's going to try and pull me back in after some time passes. For bigger missions and such."
"Do you want to?" Naoto asked, berating herself for being so intrusive.
Sanada smirked. "Sounds manipulative, right? She does know my weakness for a good challenge. And I did get to travel around the world on the Group's dime, so I'd feel bad refusing the gift strictly from the possibility."
"Fair enough," Naoto admitted with a small smile. "However, as your senpai, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that a good education is worth exponentially more than a smartphone."
Chapter 2: Professional Curiosity
Naoto quickly realized that the concerns about Sanada's adjustment to the classroom were valid. In particular, it proved difficult for him to sit still, as he'd end up bouncing a leg through most of the lecture. She had caught a few annoyed glances there way after their first few classes, so she suggested they move towards the back of the lecture hall. "I could use fewer distractions," Naoto tried to explain, but he quickly realized that he was the actual distraction to others.
After class, he apologized. "I'm sorry about that," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "High school wasn't a problem because I had boxing and S.E.E.S. And working for Shadow Ops meant I was always on the move. I just haven't had the chance to plan a good training regimen to deal with...how sedentary school life is."
He then fidgeted with the cuff of his cream jacket. "I'm afraid I don't have may recommendations in that regard," Naoto said. "Even in combat, I relied on a revolver rather than anything else, so my training was more focused on increasing accuracy."
"Don't worry about it," he replied with a smile. "I think I can figure something out. I just need something I can do between classes on campus. But that means I'm gonna have to change my wardrobe." He tugged at his black dress shirt with fingers bandaged at the knuckles. "I thought dressing up a bit would me look a little less like a thug until my injuries healed, but I guess it's not that important now."
"Are you okay?" she asked, finally brave enough to ask about his bandages.
"Oh yeah, they've long healed, it's just that the marks take a while to fade, and they look a bit rough until they fade completely. I've had a few in the past that that scar that way permanently, so hopefully these aren't like that." He pointed to the bandage above his eye.
"Oh! I'm sorry."
He waved a hand dismissively. "It's my fault. Took a wrong turn on a hike in Alaska that made me realize I'm a bit too old for that line of work."
"What could be so perilous about that turn that makes someone in their twenties say that?" Naoto asked, raising an eyebrow.
He gave her a wicked smirk. "Promise me you won't get mad?"
That's a strange request. What could he think would affect me so, when we barely know each other?
"I'm sure there's nothing to be upset about on my part," Naoto replied.
"Well," he said wryly. "I've only told this story to a handful of people, and they've all been fairly upset." He took a breath. "I was hiking in the wilderness of Alaska, and I took the wrong fork in a trail, which sent me sliding down a cliff."
"And at the bottom, I ran into a grizzly cub that was caught in a trap."
Her eyes went wide.
"So I freed the cub, but the cub was making a racket the whole time. And where there's a baby cub, there's sure to be a momma bear nearby."
Her expression shifted to horror.
"I was able to escape when I managed to pop it in the nose - that was at least enough of a distraction to get some distance and convince her I wasn't coming back."
"You said you won't get mad!" he pouted.
"That doesn't count if you are lying!" Naoto argued. "That's what you're supposed to do for sharks, not bears!"
"I can prove it!" he said, determined, and gestured her to follow him behind a building.
Professional curiosity, Naoto justified to herself as she realized what this meant as he reached to the top button of his shirt. I'm not employed anymore, she remembered, but that fact wasn't enough to tell him to stop.
It took two buttons to expose most of the length of a scar against his muscle chest that angled across his pecs. Still dark red, the jagged edges of the slash were reminiscent of the damage Teddie would inflict in the TV world. The thought made her shiver.
"You fought a bear," she whispered. Not just a bear - Teddie was a bear, but a bear that could be easily distracted by Topsicles - a wild animal that was acting completely in its nature.
"Lost the fight, really, but coming out with as little damage as I did is a victory in itself," he said and re-buttoned his shirt. Naoto thought she was starting to breathe correctly again.
"Are you mad now?" he asked, genuine curiosity seeping past the prideful attitude from before.
"Not mad," Naoto clarified, reorganizing her thoughts. "More...understanding as to how classroom work proves to be difficult for you. And doubtful of your ability to keep yourself alive."
He shrugged. "That's probably the best I could have hoped for."
Chapter 3: An Obvious Trap
"Somebody made a mistake when designing the layout of this library," was the message waiting for Naoto after her Corrections lecture. She almost snorted.
"Librarians are available if you are struggling to find a reference book," she replied, triple-checking her grammar before hitting "Send". The last thing he needs to be aware of is my old texting habits. She could almost hear his laugh at that thought.
"Haha. No, I mean there's no sunlight in the psych section! It's giving me claustrophobia."
"There r means of removing books from the library..." She swore when she noticed the typo after she sent it, but she was almost giddy when typing it out.
"I will not finish writing this paper in a timely manner if I leave. However, if I had someone to keep me on task..."
She was tempted to jump on the offer on the spot. I was just assigned a paper myself that I could get a head-start on. However, she felt it necessary to jab one more time. "So far, texting seems distracting as it is. Who could possibly help u focus?"
"SHIROGANE-SAN, PLEASE! I've forgotten how to be inside for extended periods of time!"
And then, shortly after:
"Consider it part of the favor to Kurosawa."
She froze. "U KNO?"
"Now I do :)"
She walked briskly to the library and wove her way through the stacks to the psychology section to find him at a table, pouring through one of the books. Clad in workout gear, the red jacket seemed loud for the dimness of his surroundings. He smirked at her approach.
"I'm rather ashamed of myself for falling for such an obvious trap," Naoto admitted in a low voice as she took a seat across from him.
He shrugged. "Element of surprise was working in my favor. Based on my last conversation with Kurosawa, I suspected he may be up to something like that."
"I apologize for not being honest with you," Naoto said, staring at her thumb as she worried at a cuticle.
"My pride suffered a bit at first, but now...it's kind of a relief," he admitted. "I don't think I've ever been good at making friend...but I realized I'm not as good at being a loner as I thought."
She looked up and gave him a shy smile. "In that regard, we're fairly similar." The thought warmed her, so she looked to his notes and asked. "What are you working on?"
"Social Psychology," he said, holding up a flash card. "Just a little shaky on the terms."
"Let me help," she said, and he handed her a stack of blank cards. He slid the book between them, but she shortly found the arrangement slowed their progress. "Do you mind if I take the seat next to you? It'd - it'd be easier to share the book that way."
"R-right. Please, do," he said, making a space for her.
As they wrote out flash cards, Naoto felt the side next to him was burning, as if he radiated heat. It made the hairs on the back of her arm stand up, but she soon discovered that she liked the warmth.
Chapter 4: I'm Curious
Akihiko took a sip of his beer, and Naoto contemplated her soda. She normally didn't drink this much sugar, but for some reason drinking water made her feel childish. What, am I trying to appear to have some sort of cocktail?
"You feeling good about the exam, Shirogane-san?" he asked.
"I'm fairly confident. Do you need to borrow my notes?" She fidgeted with the tip of her straw.
"I think I'm alright. I'll at least be able to see if my note-taking skills are up to snuff. I'm a bit rusty."
"I'd offer to organize a study session, but in high school those always devolved into discussing anything but the exam." She chuckled to herself, and her phone chimed, showing her that Kanji had responded to her message. "I apologize, Sanada-san. I forgot to turn the ringer off. I guess it's just a habit from working with the police." She quickly silenced her phone and stuffed it in her pocket.
"That's not an old coworker, then?" Akihiko furrowed his brow. "Sorry, I just noticed that name pop up on your phone off and on, and I just assumed." His voice was strangely hesitant.
"No, it's just a friend from high school, Kanji Tatsumi. He was part of the Investigation Team as well. He's just worried ever since I moved to the city. He's never lived outside of Inaba, and is a bit on the protective side."
"Oh. Right." He took a contemplative drink. The unease on his face made her stomach flip.
"Kanji-kun...him and I have always had an understanding. His traditionally feminine interests clash with his overtly masculine appearance, and that can be a struggle in a small town. And when I came to town, he cared for my welfare, whether he thought I was a boy or a girl."
"What?!" Akihiko shook his head. "He mistook your gender?"
"Everyone did," she clarified. "They did because I did my best to hide it. I did because it's hard enough to be a young detective, but a female detective is even more of a detriment to my credibility."
Akihiko set his jaw, and opened his mouth to speak, but took another drink before he composed himself. "Obviously, that's horrible that you were treated that way. But beyond that, who would buy you being a boy? Are they all blind?"
Naoto stifled a blush. "I dressed considerably more conservatively than I do now, and I wore the boy's uniform. I'd even deepen my voice to complete the effect."
He shook his head. "Still, you're obviously a girl. Not - not because -" He made a face trying to figure a graceful way out, but he failed and buried his head in his hands, running his fingers through his grey hair. The bandages were finally removed, only the faintest marks still visible. "Can I just stop talking?"
She felt positively emboldened to see such a large person so flustered. Something burned in the pit of her stomach, and Rise's voice popped in her head and said "Do it! Ask him to explain!"
"No, please, I'm curious. I'm assuming you don't just mean my figure seems feminine?" Naoto encouraged. She felt her other hand shake under the table.
He finished the last drink in his bottle before he said, "Right. It's more...your attention to detail. It's a lot more...holistic. And you've got that teaching or like, caretaking tendency towards others. And the way you walk down the street...like men are just in their own worlds, but women are always observing everything around them. Women from the country tend to be a bit more cautious and tentative, but women from the city command the street, like they know all and see all, so you better not mess with them. That's you, you've got that mastered, so no one would mistake you for naive."
Naoto buried her face in her soda for a moment. "That's...incredibly perceptive. But, at the time, I thought I had to discard my gender to do what I was passionate about. But, the team helped me overcome that, and Kanji...it took me a long time to acknowledge that Kanji had a crush on me. Even though I never returned his feelings, something about him caring about me even when he thought I was a boy, emboldened me to be more of myself." She pulled out her phone and found a picture. She showed it to Akihiko. "After the case was solved, Rise, the girl in the photo, worked hard to try and get me to fall in love with him. However, in the process, they ended up falling for each other. This is the picture they took after Kanji proposed to her."
"Proposed?" Akihiko asked as he analyzed the photo. "You all...you're all way too young for that! And why...I swear I've seen that girl somewhere."
Naoto smiled. "Have you heard of the idol, Risette? That's her. And yes, they are fairly young, but Kanji comes from a traditional family, and Rise's schedule has her traveling much of the time. Such a firm commitment especially helps Rise avoid unpleasant...advances while she's away."
"Jeez," he shook his head. "But who am I to judge these kinds of things? Mitsuru was nearly married off in high school. That was a close call."
"The head of the Kirijo Group?" Naoto pried.
The waiter showed up at the table, removing their plates and grabbing his empty bottle. "Another?" he asked.
"I shouldn't, might not make it to the station if I have too much," he ansered. "I'm a lightweight."
"I-I'll escort you back," Naoto offered impulsively. "You'll make it without issue."
"Alright, thanks." He looked to the waiter. "Just one more, please."
"You were saying?" she prompted, trying to stifle her guilt. What's done is done. I might as well execute on it.
"Right, Mitsuru's father tried to find her a suitor starting her junior year of high school, but people were clearly speculating about who she'd marry long before that. I had to be her boyfriend on more than one occasion to keep them at bay, but unfortunately, it wasn't until her father passed away that the board decided to back down on the issue." Another beer appeared in front of him.
"That is incredibly unfortunate, but at least she had you to help her through." Naoto bit her lip.
"Mitsuru and I have been watching each other's backs since middle school." He seemed lost in his memories for a moment as he took a drink, and the expression needled at her.
"And you are dating to this day?" Naoto ventured, deciding that the finishing blow wasn't coming fast enough for her preference.
Akihiko almost spit. "Oh, no! Shit, I pretended to be her boyfriend at those events. I mean...I guess we'd tried to date a couple of times, but something was just missing. I never really fell for her, ya know? But, Mitsuru fell for one of our other teammates, just like your Kanji." He dug out his phone and a few taps and a zoom later showed her a picture. "Mitsuru's the red-head, and that's Yukari Takeba. I don't know if you'd recognize her, though, she's..."
"Pink Argus!" Naoto exclaimed and then her face turned beet red. She avoided the eyes that darted over to their table. "I...used to watch Featherman when I was a child. It's nice to see the show is still going."
Akihiko was nearly rolling with laughter. His smile is so sweet. "Hey, I'm the grown man who has to watch every episode nowadays. Nothing for you to be embarrassed about."
As they neared the station, Akihiko turned the conversation back to Featherman, and Naoto shortly realized that he indeed was somewhat intoxicated. She started formulating a way to offer to ride with him to his stop in her mind, but a few details were still missing by the time they arrived.
"Thanks alot, Naot - I mean, Shirogane," he said, turning to her. "Next time, I'll be a liiitle more responsible so you don't have to babysit. But that means you've got to get up to date on Featherman."
Naoto couldn't fight the pit forming in her stomach, so she promptly bowed and apologized vehemently. "I am so sorry, Sanada-san. I shouldn't have encouraged you to drink more! It was completely irresponsible, and I'll-"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" he said, hands out. "Slow down, and please stand up! You didn't do anything, and I'm not that drunk."
She straightened slightly and studied him carefully. While clearly unable to operate a vehicle, his expression had become more serious than Naoto thought him previously capable. "I just...I wanted an excuse to keep asking you questions."
He thought for a moment. "About...Mitsuru?"
"In - in a way," Naoto said, face burning. It's a necessary penance, though. An announcement told them that he needed to be headed to his train shortly or risk missing it. "Will you be able to make it home?"
"I will," he said with a solemn nod. "You...you don't need an excuse. You can just ask next time." Another announcement urged him along. "I'll let you know when I get home safe, okay? See you tomorrow, Shirogane."
"Goodnight," she said and watched as he slipped into the crowd.
Chapter 5: Ding, Ding, Ding!
"Dammit, Shinji, why'd you put me on speakerphone!" Akihiko swore at his phone. "Hi, Fuuka, how are you?"
"Good! How are you? Shirogane sounds nice; why haven't we met her yet?"
Akihiko rolled his eyes. "Maybe if you two would actually come in to the city, you would!"
"A double date!" Fuuka exclaimed. "Doesn't that sound fun, Shinji?"
"Like a root canal," Shinjiro retorted.
Akihiko wished he would have had alcohol in his apartment, any type at this point, as his buzz from early had worn off. It would have made this conversation considerably less painful. "We are not dating! She's eighteen!"
"Which is completely legal," Shinjiro argued.
"It's weird!" Akihiko growled. "Like, I should basically be graduated already, and if I was, that'd be weird, so this has to be wrong."
"I don't think so," Fuuka said. "She sounds fairly mature from what Shinji's told me. Plus, didn't she specifically ask if you had a girlfriend?"
"I don't remember!" he said, exasperated. "I think she asked if me and Mitsuru were dating. Or, maybe it was if she ever did date. I don't remember the phrasing."
"A common hazard when you're distracted by pretty girls," Shinjiro teased. Fuuka chuckled in the background.
"So what?" Akihiko said, growing frustrated. "So what if she is? What do I even do with that information? I quit Shadow Ops to focus on school. It's not a good time to date. And even if it was, I don't want to be a creep!"
"You've never thought it was a good time to date," Shinjiro reminded him. "You always find some damn excuse. And this sounds like the one time in your life you're not gonna be surrounded by violence, so maybe you should just change your tune."
"I agree," Fuuka said, not unkindly. "And finding another Persona-user who wasn't in S.E.E.S...that seems like a rare opportunity. Just pay for her dinner sometime, see if you make a connection!"
"I just did!" he exclaimed. "But I guess I hedged it as a 'thanks for the help, senpai' thing."
"You're going to die alone," Shinjiro sighed.
"Shinji," Fuuka scolded. "Just be honest with her, Akihiko. She's a detective, she'll sense deceit if you try to fight it too much."
"Yu-kun, you din't tell me you put me on speakerphone!" Naoto lamented.
"It wasn't really his choice," Yosuke explained in his defense.
"He was, quite frankly, overwhelmed," Yukiko said. "Yu said something about you and a boy, and he had no hope."
"It was a sudden, violent overthrow," Yu agreed solemnly.
"Necessary fur the sake of love!" Teddie chimed in
"Anyway," Yu said. "What's going on with Sanada?"
"We just...had dinner tonight, and I feel rather...confused about how the conversation went," Naoto admitted.
"Wait, start from the beginning!" Yukiko said. "You had dinner? You ate together and paid separately, or did he pay?"
"He paid. He said it was a gift for my help with his studies."
"That sounds bear-y preposterous!" Teddie said. "But, continue."
Naoto sighed. "Towards the end of the meal, I brought up high school, and how Kanji and Rise got together, and that morphed in to a conversation about the head of the Kirijo Group, who happens to be one of his friends -"
"Who he happened to date?" Yu asked.
"Please, not you too," Naoto said, rubbing her temples.
"Damn!" Yosuke gasped. "I just searched for her - Mitsuru Kirijo! She's beautiful!"
"Hubba, hubba! Mit-chan is bear-y gorgeous!"
"She seems so elegant and radiant," Yukiko added.
"She is very attractive," Yu admitted.
"Please!" Naoto groaned. "They did at one point, but it didn't work out. She's dating someone else now. And, really, that's not what's important!"
"Isn't it?" Yu asked. "I understand why you weren't interested in dating in high school, between the investigation and your work with the police station, but now those responsibilities aren't there. Would it be so bad?"
"What are you doing, Yukiko?" Yosuke asked in the distance.
"I - it's...it's...Dojima's colleague Kurosawa requested that I keep an eye on him! To make sure he adjusted well to school life. Wouldn't that be a dereliction of my duties?"
"Sounds like you'd be keeping a real close eye on him if you dated him," Yukiko quipped slyly.
"What?! He knows Pink Argus?" a quieter, slightly distorted Chie exclaimed.
"Chie? How are you in the conversation?" Naoto's head was starting to spin.
"Yukiko called me and put me on speakerphone! Yosuke, I'm emailing you a link, Sanada knows Pink Argus!"
"How did you figure that out?" Naoto asked.
"Haha! My studies are paying off; I'll become an ace detective myself in no time! I did some searching on Mitsuru Kirijo, which lead me to a picture with Pink Argus, which then lead me to her social media, and her and Akihiko Sanada in the same picture! He got to visit her on set!"
"Oh, he's very cute," Yukiko cooed.
"Very cute," Chie chimed.
"Hubba hubba, Akky!"
"Handsome seems more appropriate, don't you think?" Yu said.
"Why did I call you?" Naoto set the phone on the table and rested her head next to it.
"Because you're conflicted," Yu said simply. "You keep spending a lot of time with Sanada, and yet somehow Chie, your senpai, and fellow student in your criminal justice program, has yet to meet him."
"Ding, ding, ding!" Chie hollered. "If he was just a friend, you wouldn't think twice about introducing him to his senpai, and a fellow Persona-user! But, he's not just a friend in your mind, he's -"
"I don't know!" Naoto exploded. "I...I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled. I just...he's older than both of us, Chie. He's traveled around the world. I feel like I can't measure up, especially since I'm no longer employed."
"Naoto-chan..." Chie said softly. "If he's worth a damn, he doesn't care about that stuff! And I can help you that out. Will you please introduce me to him?"
"Okay," she relented. "That doesn't mean I am confessing to anything! I just realize it was wrong to not introduce the two of you."
"Sure," Yosuke groaned. "Sounds logical."
"Rise-chan says that you should wear one of your blue button-ups for the introduction!" Teddie chimed in. "With Chie-chan's bright green jacket, the blue will really help Nao-cakes stand out!"
"Teddie, did you call Rise?"
"No, silly! I texted!"
"This. This is the kind of stuff that made it easier to infiltrate the murder investigation. Good night, everyone."
Chapter 6: What's Your Affinity?
Major shout outs to Iba and TataBanchou for help on this! Everybody, get psyched for some Chie time!
Naoto realized too late that she had subconsciously taken Rise's fashion advice, and her only saving grace was that Chie didn't say anything about it. Naoto had set up the meeting as an excuse to help Sanada with his Introduction to Criminal Justice paper on cybercrime. Chie was taking a course dedicated to the subject, so even if the conversation deterred, she was positive her textbook would at least help him select a topic. They agreed to meet at a picnic table in the courtyard, as Naoto was positive both of them would be more at comfortable outdoors than the library.
They're fairly similar in temperament. They're both physical, relying on hand-to-hand combat, and enjoy kung-fu movies. As if a final piece slid into place, Naoto realized, Chie shares considerably more in common with him than I do. The thought made her throat tighten.
When Sanada spotted them approaching, he gave a small wave from his seat on the bench. Naoto swallowed and gave one in return.
"Nice to finally meet you, Sanada-san!" Chie said without hesitation. "I'm Chie Satonaka."
"Nice to meet you," he replied, and the girls took a seat across from him.
"How's your day been, Shirogane-san?" he asked as Chie started digging in her backpack. Naoto almost thought she saw her friend flinch at his means of address, and she had to push away the thought. It's perfectly appropriate, she told herself. It doesn't matter what Chie thinks it should be.
"Alright," Naoto replied. "I was able to complete a few essays earlier today, so I have a bit of a reprieve for the next few days."
He gave a shy smile, a small gust of wind tousling his hair, which was overdue for a cut. Or does he prefer it making him look more boyish, in contrast to his scars? "Good deal. I'd hate to be a bother if you're busy. Same to you, Satonaka-senpai."
That received a more exaggerated flinch from Chie. "Sorry! That's just strange to hear nowadays. I mean, I've always technically been Naoto-kun's senpai, but like she has real-world experience, so I feel like that doesn't apply to her anymore. And you're older than us, right?"
He shrugged. "Yeah, but you're still further along in the degree, so you two have got to be my senpai. Unless it comes to," he looked around to ensure there were no eavesdroppers, and then said, "Shadows. I've got years on you two when it comes to that."
Chie smirked. "That's right, you started fighting them in middle school, right?"
Sanada made a move to close his notebook, his self-satisfied grin emerging, and was about ready to continue the line of conversation when Naoto put a hand inside of his notebook to keep him from closing it. "Your essay?" she prompted.
He sighed and opened the notebook again. "Right, senpai. This shouldn't take too long."
Chie opened her textbook to a diagram. "Now, I'm not good with all this tech stuff, but this diagram is pretty easy for even me to understand all the different things that cybercrime covers. It even includes things that already were crimes before computers, but the process of doing them is digitized. Like, buying drugs can be a dealer on the street, or you find a site on the dark web and bam! on your doorstep, like Tanaka's Amazing Commodities. Sorry, my handwriting's terrible, but I wrote examples next to each one that confused me."
He seemed to latch on fairly tightly to the topic of drug trafficking for reasons Naoto couldn't understand. With a little help from Chie, he had an outline for his essay completed in short order, and a list of questions that seemed to encompass a lot more than the scope the essay required. Naoto busied herself on her laptop, compiling a list of sites for both of them to use as references in the future.
Chie squinted when he finished it. "Hey, I thought you were supposed to be a bad student, like me! You finished that way too quickly for that to be true."
He scratched the back of his neck. "I promise, I'm not as good as I used to be. This topic's just a bit...personal to me, going back to our Persona-related conversation." He looked to Naoto and raised an eyebrow, asking, "Can we shift topics now?"
Naoto sighed. "Very well. That is a good outline to work from so I'm sure you'll finish up fine."
He smirked. "Good! Okay, Shirogane's light and dark, but what's your affinity?" he asked, pointing to Chie.
"Ice! But I'm no slouch when it comes to physical, either."
He sighed. "You're kidding me. I thought it was bad enough with one senpai who can insta-kill, but ice is my weakness. I'm double-screwed."
Chie laughed and slapped the table, and Naoto forced a chuckle.
Chie crossed her arms, almost self-consciously. "My legs. I'm sure it's not as cool as like spiky fists, but it works!"
"Who cares about cool if you win the fight? Coming back alive is what really matters."
Naoto found herself nodding in agreement. "It's hard to remember that we were all putting ourselves in considerable danger back then."
Chie shivered. "To think, a murder was walking among us the whole time, pretending to be our ally."
Akihiko set his jaw in the way that told Naoto that he understood all too well what they meant. She let her need to see him smile overtake her curiosity. "But, these situations have all been handled. And all of our work has clearly been effective because otherwise the Kirijo Group or Dojima would let us know."
Chie beamed. "That's right!" She directed herself to Sanada. "And, if she comes to that conclusion, you've got to take it as truth."
He nodded. "I have no doubt. I'm thirsty, actually, so I'm gonna get some drinks. Shirogane, coffee? Satonaka, what's your poison?"
Naoto reached to her wallet when he waved a hand. "I've got it, put your money away." He walked toward the vending machine.
Chie sighed. "I'm not gonna lie, I can't get a read on him!"
"What do you mean?" Naoto asked, furrowing her brow.
"Like, when I first saw him I wasn't sure if that was the same guy I saw with Pink Argus. He's like...so much gruffer now."
Naoto nodded. "That picture was a few years ago, and his work with the Shadow Operatives was fairly demanding. It's an even more stark contrast if you compare to his high school photograph."
"And like, one minute he almost seems standoffish, and the next he's all excited to talk about Shadows! Was he like that when you first met him?"
"Not quite..." Naoto admitted. "He seemed more relaxed, but I had already introduced myself. He only became uncomfortable when..." when someone tried to flirt with him "...when a classmate tried to introduce herself. I suppose he'll warm after he meets you a second time." Her stomach turned.
"How old his he?" Chie asked, chewing her thumb.
"Twenty-two, I believe."
She nodded as if that were acceptable. Her phone buzzed, and Naoto gave her a pleading look. "Please, tell me you were not live-texting the group this whole time."
"I am not that sneaky. You'd have totally caught me!" She checked her screen. "But, Yukiko was aware today was the day, so she's totally trying to get minute-by-minute details. Okay, the big question, what's with the band-aids?"
"He's just covering up some scars," Naoto explained. She tapped above her eyebrow. "Not sure what this one's from, but I guess the scar attracts unwanted attention." She then touched her chin. "This one, I believe he acquired fighting a bear."
"Nuh-uh!" Chie gasped in shock. As he returned with the drinks, Chie called out, "Did you really fight a bear?"
He smiled and passed out the drinks. "For a moment or two, until I punched it in the face. Then I mostly ran away."
Chie made a face. "Okay, even I know that's supposed to be to protect against sharks!"
He gave Naoto a quick glance when he argued back, "Any species would be distracted if you punched it in the face!"
The absurdity of having to make that statement caught Naoto off-guard. She snorted. "He's not wrong," she added as she covered her mouth.
"So, are you guys getting hungry?" he asked, fidgeting with his pen. "There's a beef bowl place a couple blocks from here that's really good."
"Unfortunately, we cannot join you," Naoto said. "We have a class in twenty minutes we must attend."
"Yeah, I've already determined going on a full stomach is a bad idea," Chie added. "Makes me super sluggish."
"Some sort of martial arts?" he asked.
"Just a general self-defense course to start, since we're on the smaller side, and girls," Chie explained.
Sanada furrowed his brow. "That doesn't limit your potential. A smaller target just means you're harder to hit."
Avoiding his gaze, Naoto said, "It does increase your likelihood of being a victim of a crime."
"Naoto-kun has been kidnapped before, back in Inaba," Chie explained carefully.
Through the corner of her eye, she could see Akihiko's hand clench into a fist. "The murderer? The murderer kidnapped you?" he asked in a low voice.
"It's more complicated than that." Naoto finally looked up to see a storm brewing in his eyes. "The kidnapper and the murderer are different people. The kidnapper thought he was actually saving people. Regardless...I'd like to not be caught unprepared again."
"So maybe that means you'd help us practice one of these evenings, Sanada-san?" Chie probed. "Everyone in our class is about our size, so that means we really don't have the chance to practice against someone bigger."
The storm had only slightly calmed at that point, so he simply said, "Yeah. Yeah, I'll do that."
"Thank you. I'll - I'll create a chat with the three of us in it, and we can coordinate that time later. We should get going." Naoto grabbed her gym bag and looked to Akihiko. "I'll see you tomorrow, Sanada-san."
"It was nice to meet you!" Chie chimed in as she collected her things.
"Likewise, Satonaka-senpai. See you tomorrow, Shirogane."
Chapter 7: It Distracts Any Species
Sanada embraced his role as a supplemental self-defense instructor, setting up a two-a-week practice schedule, and decided to teach them some of the basics of boxing. Naoto was unclear if that was a wholly good use of their time, but it brightened his spirits considerably. After the first few sessions, Chie told Naoto, "You were totally right, he's loosened up so much! I changed my mind, he's a cool guy." Naoto was almost upset it happened so quickly.
During one session, Chie also conned him into letting her utilize her kicks in practice as well, mostly to reenact to a sequence in one of her favorite movies. After showing him the clip, he agreed to work through it with her, only for her to mix up a few of the moves and punch him in the nose. He grunted and backed away, covering his nose with his hands. Blood started pouring from them.
"Sanada!" Naoto cried. The girls rushed to his side and sat him on the ground. Naoto put her hand on his back to lean him forward.
"I'm so sorry! I forgot the order of the combo, dammit! Are you okay?" Chie panicked, looking around for something to mop up the blood.
He looked up for a moment, pinching the bridge of his nose and grunted, "Told you, it distracts any species." The blood had run over his lips and started spotting his white t-shirt.
"L-let me get you some ice!" she squeaked and ran to find first aid.
"Are you feeling okay?" Naoto asked, trying to study his nose the best she could. "It doesn't appear broken, but a visual inspection wouldn't account for smaller fractures."
"'S'fine," he managed. "Always looks worse than it really is." He noticed the spots on his shirt and stripped it off to use it to mop up the blood on his face. Naoto watched in stunned silence. He winced as he dabbed it closer to his nose, but his willingness to do so at least assured Naoto that he wasn't lying.
It was then that she saw the full extent of the scars on his chest from the bear attack. Three muted, jagged slashes crossed his defined chest, slightly faded from when Naoto saw them last. Sanada caught her looking. "I'm pretty sure they're always gonna be there. Didn't heal up as nicely as these." He wiggled his blood-covered, formerly bandaged fingers, scars barely visible.
Desperate to stop staring, she pointed to his shirt. "That's going to be ruined," she pointed out, foolishly.
He gave a low chuckle. "Bleach works wonders. Why do you think I wear white for stuff like this?"
Naoto bit her lip. "I think I finally understand why people get angry when you tell stories about your scars."
That received a more boisterous laugh, and by that time, Chie was hustling back with a washcloth full of ice. "I couldn't find any proper packs, but this should do the trick, since - whoa!" When Akihiko reached for the ice pack, Chie caught a clear view of his chest. "What - oh, right. Bear. Gah, you're reckless!"
He winced as he put the ice pack on his nose. Once it stopped bleeding, Naoto declared this session over, and they returned to the locker rooms to change back into their street clothes. "I have to make it up to you two," Chie declared in the gym lobby. "There's a chop-socky film festival ending today at the theater three blocks away. Let's go, my treat!"
"I'm in," Sanada agreed, swollen nose an angry shade of red. A dull pain ached in Naoto's chest. He turned to her.
She shook her head. "I have an exam tomorrow that I need to review for. But please, go ahead without me."
Chie frowned. "But, then that doesn't make it up to you! I've delayed our training!"
"I think Sanada's repayment is more important at this time," she said, nodding to herself. "You two will enjoy the film more than myself. Have a good evening." She turned and waved before she could let herself read their reactions, thinking to herself, I need to focus on school. It's good that they're bonding. She shivered. He's weak to ice. I shouldn't forget that.
Naoto couldn't ignore Akihiko's plea this morning for exam preparation assistance, so after class, she made her way to meet him outside of the college's swimming pool. Windows into the pool lined the hallway, so Naoto planned to make herself comfortable on a bench outside of it until he was finished training. When she arrived, however, she spotted a soaking wet and scantily clad Sanada talking animatedly on the phone. He was haphazardly drying his hair when he saw her, which prompted him to drop the towel and gestured for her to come in.
Naoto knew that nothing good could come from approaching a scarred, well-muscled man in a black speedo, but his smile was infectious - a parasite that took control of her body. She was opening the door to the pool before her mind could argue otherwise.
"Yeah, yeah, just circle around the block and give me five minutes. I was in the pool, Mitsuru, I need clothes!"
He hung up and grabbed his towel. "Sorry, Shirogane," he started, with an expression that was decidedly not remorseful. "I know I'm the one who asked for help, but we need to delay studying like twenty minutes. Can you wait while I change? I want you to meet some friends of mine." His phone nearly slipped out of his hands as he toweled off vigorously, so Naoto snagged it from him before he dropped it.
"Mitsuru Kirijo?" she asked with growing trepidation.
"Among others. Please just let me get dressed! I'll make it up to you, I promise. But, it'll be worth it, you can't miss it." He threw his towel over his shoulder and bolted to the locker room.
Naoto stared at his phone for a moment when she realized it was unlocked. She hit the sleep button and rubbed the fingerprints away before she could try and decipher the code.
As she waited on the bench, she almost regretted not having the puzzle to focus on besides how could one possibly have the courage to wear so little? She pulled out her own phone and started doing her own research on Mitsuru Kirijo - not that of her public image, but of the traces of her on social media. How did Chie find that picture again? She decided she'd have to get more familiar with the different platforms that were popular nowadays, so she started making a research list in the corner of her notebook, and that distracted her well enough.
Soon, Sanada came charging towards her, slinging his gym bag over one shoulder, and tugging a glove on his hand with his teeth. "Come on, come on!" he urged once the first glove was secured.
She stood and held her hands out. "Are you sure? If this is a private matter, I can wait, it's not a -"
Before she could finish her sentence, his ungloved hand grabbed one of hers and he towed her along, outside of the building and right up to the curb. He looked down the street and waved, his other glove still balled up in that hand. "Do - do we need to find a means of transport?" she asked, as she became astutely aware of just how soft, yet strong his grasp was.
"It's finding us," he smiled as a stretch limousine pulled to a stop in front of them. The back window rolled down, and none other than Mitsuru Kirijo smiled at both of them. "Come in, quickly! We have six minutes until it's time!"
Sanada opened the door and Kirijo scooted to a seat on the other side of the car, straightening her knee-length skirt and crossing her legs in the process. The knee-high boots and sleeveless blouse only served to emphasis exactly what Naoto expected - the picture of feminine elegance. Naoto swallowed as she took a seat next to her.
Kirijo found a keyboard and began adjusting a monitor mounted in front of them while she spoke. "Shirogane-san, I deeply apologize for not introducing myself properly, but I'm sure Akihiko has mentioned me before?"
"Of course I did!" Sanada said as he slid in next to Naoto, slamming the door behind him and finally slipping on his other glove. "Give me some credit!"
"I likely should be the one apologizing," Naoto added. "If this is a Shadow Operatives or personal matter, I am happy to wait somewhere else while you - "
"Nonsense," Kirijo said with a wave of her hand. "Driver?" The limousine took off. Naoto's stomach lurched.
Kirijo pulled up a video call with other callers joining as she did. The names "Stupei," "Feather Duster," "Smol Boi", and "Grumpmaster 5000" popped on the screen, followed by their video feeds.
"Okay, who changed our names again? It had to be an admin!" Yukari Takeba growled in what Naoto quickly recognized as her Pink Argus costume. "Fuuka?"
"That's silly! Why would I change ours to 'Grumpmaster 5000'?" a blue-haired girl said, leaning into the side of a shaggy-haired boy to fit better in the screen.
"Camouflage," Shinjiro Aragaki said. "Aki's usually the one who goads me, so no one would suspect it's you. Then again, our other admin's with good ol' 'Stupei' himself."
"C'mon, babe, why?" a goofy guy with a shaved head said to a red-head next to him.
"Why would I?" Chidori Yoshino asked slyly. "Have you looked at Mitsuru's name?"
"'DYE-JOB'!?" Mitsuru exclaimed. "That is an outrageous accusation!"
"'Smol Boi'" was rolling in laughter next to a Shiba Inu, the teenaged Ken Amada nearly in tears. Koromaru looked as if he was smiling.
"Ai-chan, nobody's paying attention, let's skip it," a blue-haired boy said to a blonde.
"Negative, Minato. Perhaps you should simply utilize your authority?" Aigis suggested, holding a walking cane.
He rolled his eyes. "Listen up, let's get this over with!" and with that, all the attendance on the call quieted. He took a moment to look at all the video feeds and then looked to her. "You're Shirogane-san?"
"I am," she replied, surprised Minato Arisato knew who she was.
"Welcome to the chaos." He took a deep breath. "I'm going to preface this by complaining about Mitsuru asking the doctor to type this up."
"I will treasure it always," Aigis said with a smile. Minato shot her an exasperated look, and Naoto could proudly say that she saw a robot chuckle.
"Okay, here it is. 'As of this day, Minato Arisato is no longer required to use a wheelchair, walker, cane, or any other walking assistance device." He paused and shot another disgusted look. "Seriously?"
"Keep going!" Kirijo encouraged with a chortle.
"'Against all probable likelihood, Arisato no longer requires supplemental oxygen and has regained his ability to walk. He is truly a story of perseverance and - ' Okay, that's it, Ai-chan!"
"Close enough," Aigis conceded and snapped the cane in half. She threw the pieces on the ground.
The callers cheered, and corks were popped over the call.
"Champagne? What the hell?" Arisato groaned.
Iori and Yoshino were drinking out of a large bottle, while Aragaki and Yamagishi were pouring theirs into flutes. Takeba said, "I'd have it too if I didn't have a stunt coming up soon.
"It's worth celebrating!" Sanada said. "We'd have had some too if I'd have had time to grab a bottle."
"If we weren't in a car, and if we weren't contributing to the delinquency of a minor..." Kirijo added.
"It is an incredible accomplishment," Naoto finally managed, remembering just how devastating it was to see the Dojimas hospitalized. And he's been trying to recover for this long?
Aigis addressed the camera. "I want to take a moment to recognize Akihiko-kun. It should have been my responsibility to lead the efforts in the Shadow Operatives, but he allowed me to stay by Minato's side to ensure his safety and recovery."
"It's nothing," he said, shaking his head. "Convincing our leader to keep going to his physical therapy, that'd be real daunting."
Takeba scoffed. "A bear! A BEAR!"
Kirijo nodded in agreement. "That was only the most recent risk. Akihiko, you took on considerably more on your own then I'd ask a whole team. I can never properly repay you."
"I'd have helped if you all weren't ageist," Ken pointed out.
"Nope!" several voices boomed in unison. "Finish high school first," Shinjiro warned.
"I cannot either," Aigis said. "And from this point on, I will be available to handle what missions may arrive...however, I still wish to remain at Minato's side." She finished with a soft voice and a gentle hand taking his. Minato gave a solemn nod.
"Of course, I'd never order you otherwise," Kirijo said. "Akihiko's diligent work these past four years has ensured an organization with locations around the world that can act independently. Any of us being deployed on a mission would only happen in the direst of situations." She smirked. "I wouldn't give Akihiko a reason to put off his education again."
He rolled his eyes dismissively, and Naoto let out a relieved chuckle.
"Alright, that's it, people!" Arisato said with a dismissive wave. "Show's over!"
"Bummer, I've still got champagne left!" Iori said as Kirijo went for the keyboard again.
"What a burden," Yoshino snarked.
"Wait, wait, Shirogane-san!" Yamagishi said, waving. "It was nice to meet you! I hope we get to do it in person soon! Akihiko, when do we get to meet her in person?"
"I'm not dragging her out to the boonies, you guys have to come into town!"
Aragaki managed to flip him off before Kirijo ended the call. She turned to Naoto. "I apologize for this rather unorthodox introduction, but I'm afraid I need to continue on to a meeting. My next few weeks are fairly hectic as well, but I hope you'd be willing to meet again, afterward? If this display wasn't enough to deter you, that is?"
Naoto smiled. "Actually, this feels fairly similar to the dynamic of the Investigation Team. I'd be happy to."
"Tres bien! Akihiko, try not to annoy her in the meantime." The limousine slowed to a stop.
"Goodbye, Mitsuru, have fun with your spreadsheets!" he said as he exited the limousine and held his hand out to help Naoto. She took it.
As the limousine drove away, Akihiko took a deep breath and ran his hands over his face. "Sorry, sorry, just...lotta feelings, gotta take a moment to chill out. Get back into school mode." He rubbed an eye. "It was just...real hard on the guy, you know? We all just kinda held our breaths for the longest time to see what would become of him."
"I think I understand. I...I don't know how we would have handled it if we saw Yu-kun in such a state." She felt something buzz in her pocket, only to remember there were two phones in there. "Sorry!" She handed it back, avoiding looking at the notification.
He took it and checked the message. "Heh. See?" He showed it to her.
"Would have been cooler if I'd have snapped the cane myself."
"That sounds like a new goal worth celebrating when he achieves it." She smiled softly.
"Just what I was thinking!"
"Sanada," she said as he finished his text back. "I - I hate to be the bad influence, but I don't think I'm in the mindset to study anymore. Perhaps we could go for a walk instead? There's a bookshop that I'd like to check out nearby."
His eyes darted up playfully. "Mind reader." He tucked his phone in his pocket. "Let's go!"
It took everything in my power to not title this chapter "A Soaking Wet And Scantily Clad Sanada" and I'm still not even sure that was the right decision. XD
Chapter 9: Make Real Progress
If it isn't totally obvious, I'm borrowing heavily from a United States college experience. It's perfectly ripe for CUTE and ANGST and PINING!
Chie felt like a mastermind as her and Naoto made their way to the quad. This is perfect! A movie screening in the quad is going to be the best way to push those two in the right direction. She's gonna call him '-kun' before the end of this, I know it! Maybe not Akihiko-kun, but Sanada-kun would be a real improvement. Chie made sure to hint that no movie screening would be complete without a picnic basket, and he seemed to understand perfectly. At least he's not like our friends, all wrapped up in the idea that the women should do the cooking. Naoto's gonna be so surprised!
Blankets covered the quad as couples and friend groups alike got comfortable as the projectionist finished setting up. They found Sanada had claimed a spot toward one of the sides of the quad. Perfect! Once the movie gets going, I can sneak away and leave them to their accidental date. Also, to Chie's luck, the film was some sort of old Yakuza film that focused a bit too much on the angst and not enough of the fight scenes, so she wouldn't be loathed to miss it.
"I dunno..." Yukiko had said when she explained her plan. "That's actually kind of a notorious movie. Film aficionados say it's a masterpiece, but I've heard in some circles it's a shorthand as an excuse to make out. Are they gonna be okay if people just start kissing all around them?"
"Well, ideally, they'd join in, but I see your point. I won't just bail on the plans, I'll go with them to make sure they're immersed before I leave."
Sanada waved them over and started fishing in a plastic bag in front of him. "How's it going, senpais?"
"What's this, Sanada-san?" Naoto asked.
"Underclassmen are in charge of the picnic basket, right?" he asked, setting out a few bottles of water and grabbing containers. "Except, the basket is a plastic bag, and all the sweets are store-bought. I'm terrible at making desserts. But, these ones are salmon and these ones are tuna," he explained, tapping the appropriate containers.
"Wow, what a spread! I could get used to being a proper senpai. Right, Naoto?" Chie said, elbowing her.
Naoto nodded, not quite as enthused and Chie would have hoped. "This is extremely generous, thank you."
Chie snagged a set across from Sanada, closest to the edge of the quad. A perfect escape route. Naoto sat between them.
"Can we dig in?" Chie asked, barely able to contain herself.
"The film hasn't started yet," Naoto pointed out, helping herself to a bottle of water.
Sanada tugged the opening of the bag and revealed the contents to Naoto. "Don't worry, we've got plenty to last us."
Her eyes went wide. "That is an absurd amount of food! Three people can't eat all of this!"
Sanada scowled. "You're in training! You've got to eat properly to make real progress."
Chie took that as all the permission needed and opened the first dish. The onigiri inside were neither circular nor triangular, but at least they stayed together.
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry. At least you know they're homemade, right? Because they look like - "
"Rustic," Naoto finished as she fished one out. She took a bite and her eyes lit up. "Delicious!"
"There's no need to pad my ego, I know I'm not a -"
"Whoa!" Chie exclaimed after her first bite. "These are great! Like, the salmon's really tasty and the rice isn't too salty."
"Seriously?" he asked sheepishly. "I was afraid the rice was overdone."
"You did very well. It's...somewhat of a running joke that our friend group is rather deficient in culinary ability, so believe me when I say we are fairly knowledgable about 'bad' food," Naoto explained.
Sanada wiped an imaginary bead of sweat off of his forehead. Alright! He's made a good impression, now I've just got to wait like ten minutes in to the movie, right?
The chatter of the quad quieted when the film started. Chie stretched her legs out and leaned back, almost wishing she had a pillow to complete the effect of getting comfortable. The golden light of the sun setting cast a softness over the scene that she hadn't witness since leaving Inaba. I've got to get out of her while this light is here! Naoto looks so cute, and it really softens up Sanada's appearance. Damn, even my legs look good! This is the light for lovers, man!
Sanada had stretched his legs out as well, leaning over to Naoto and gesturing to something in the opening credits. She pulled her legs in to her chest and wrap her arms around them as she nodded. Chie almost swore. Well... at least she's not wearing sleeves! Look at those arms, Akihiko-kun, don't ya wanna just touch 'em?
That's a thought...should I just call him '-kun' first? Show Naoto that it's fine, or that he even prefers it?
Before Chie could make a decision, a couple two blankets ahead of them started kissing. Akihiko seemed oblivious, but Naoto noted the development warily. Shortly, a couple catty-corner from the first started in as well, making the first couple seem positively chaste in comparison. Naoto bit her thumb and tried to focus on the movie.
Chie now regretted that he wasn't in kicking distance. Is he friggin' blind? Naoto's uncomfortable! Stop staring at the screen and look at her!
She sighed and grabbed another rice ball. This is gonna be a long flick.
Chapter 10: Seafaring-Related Activities
Akihiko Sanada: I blew it. This confirms it; I really blew it.
Chie Satonaka: Come on, it's not that bad!
Akihiko Sanada: She knows this stuff front and back, right? She doesn't really need to study in "peace and quiet" to pass tomorrow's exam. She doesn't want to spend time with me anymore.
Chie Satonaka: Just bc she missed a couple of training & study sessions doesnt mean that!
Akihiko Sanada: 6. Not a couple.
Maybe I did something stupid during the movie?
Chie Satonaka: You didnt really do anything during the movie...
Akihiko Sanada: What everyone else was doing seemed wildly inappropriate...
Chie Satonaka: Prob right
Akihiko Sanada: I know I'm a weird guy. I just thought I finally had it under control.
Chie Satonaka: THAT'S CRAZY! UR NOT WEIRD!
Akihiko Sanada: SHIT
Chie Satonaka: What?
Akihiko Sanada: She saw me in my swimsuit the other day.
Chie Satonaka: Shes not a fan of wearing like bikinis herself but unles u were like in a speedo, I doubt thats it
Akihiko Sanada: ...
Chie Satonaka: WHAT?
Akihiko Sanada: It cuts down on water resistance!
Chie Satonaka: Hoo boy.
But she agreed to go t the movie np. So like...that doesn't quite logic
Listen she enjoys spending time with you. Maybe somethings going on with her grandfathers health? Maybe shes been under the weather? She's always struggled to express her feelings, doesnt want to be a burden. Lemme talk to her.
Akihiko Sanada: Okay, thanks.
I really do appreciate it.
Chie Satonaka: Happy to help! The gangs all very team AkiNao, so I'm the designated meddler ; )
Akihiko Sanada: WHAT
Chie Satonaka: Kanji and I actually prefer ShiroNada, but popular opinion is tough to sway
Akihiko Sanada: A SHIP NAME
YOU GUYS ARE SHIPPING US
Chie Satonaka: HARD
Akihiko Sanada: THAT'S NOT WHAT I'M AFTER! I JUST WANT TO MAKE SURE I DIDN'T UPSET NAOTO!
Chie Satonaka: That's why we ship it! : D
Akihiko Sanada: Please
for the love of whatever gods actually exist and don't want to kill us
figure out what I did wrong
and leave it at that.
No seafaring-related activities.
Chie Satonaka: I'll do my best!
AND SPEAKING OF GOD
Yeah, what the hell? Like, we faced gods, you faced gods, how many gods are there, and why do they have such beef?
Akihiko Sanada: So like, I talked with Minato about this, and he was telling me it's probably that humanity's belief in gods is what made them manifest. They grow or shrink with strength based on how many people believe.
Chie Satonaka: Thats one of those chicken or egg things right? It makes my brain hurt
Akihiko Sanada: There's a class next semester that should talk theories like that I plan on taking. Wanna join? I can send you the details.
Chie Satonaka: YES!
Chapter 11: Either Way, You Lose
Rise pouted on Chie's phone screen. "Come on, Nao-kun. Chie-chan's worried, and she asked for my help, so just tell me what's upsetting you!"
Chie scrunched her face. "In my defense, I asked for advice, not for you to try and take over!"
Rise flipped her hair behind her shoulder. "And Naoto happened to walk in right during our conversation, so a video call just makes more sense. I have an interview in an hour anyway, so that'll make it quick."
"This is unnecessary," Naoto said, shaking her head. "Everyone's meeting their expectations in class, therefore, I don't see any reason to be - "
"Oh, come on!" Chie groaned. "You're fine when it's just us, but whenever Sanada joins, you've been bummed, and I don't know if it's him or me in those situations."
"Oh," Rise said, all-knowing, and nodded. It annoyed Naoto.
"What exactly have I said that would lead you to that conclusion?"
Chie rolled her eyes. "You know you didn't actually say anything! You've been skipping group activities, and when you can't, it's your behavior. Your tone and your eye-contact, they've changed around him!"
"And how could you possibly know if that were the case?" Naoto retorted, taking a breath. "All of you have been making assumptions that you couldn't possibly substantiate - "
"Because he told me!" Chie snapped. "He thought you two were getting along fine, but now he's worried that he offended you and he doesn't know why!"
Naoto's eyes went wide.
"Chie, do you talk to him him without Naoto?" Rise raised an eyebrow at her. "That's a no-go!"
"They have gone to the movies together," Naoto said, instantly regretting her vengeful tone.
"After I broke his nose!" Chie retorted. "I owed him, and you were invited as well! You've been invited every time, and you wile your way out of it half of the time!"
"You didn't break it, you're exaggerating - "
"This is gonna take forever," Rise said, rolling her eyes. "Naoto, it's okay if you're jealous. Just admit it so Chie can explain why you don't have to feel that way."
Naoto winced. "Tha - that's preposterous, that's - "
"Oh," Chie gasped, shrinking. "Oh. We're fairly similar, and you think that - "
"She just served you up to the guy she likes. But if she didn't, then she could have been keeping two people who belong together apart," Rise finished. "Either way, you lose, and you hate yourself for having negative emotions towards one of your best friends. Hello, Nao-kun, didn't you realize that someone else went through the exact same thing not too long ago?" She pointed to herself, the light glinting off of her engagement ring. "Why didn't you talk to me?"
Naoto hung her head. "Because that also felt wrong. I didn't recognize it at first, but once I did, it felt like I had completely disregarded your experience with Kanji. If I'd have been more emphatic, I might have been able to stop myself sooner."
"Naoto..." Chie sighed. "I'm sorry I didn't recognize how deep this ran. I - I thought maybe you thought I was trying to get close to him, but I promise, I just wanted to make sure he's worth your time. I consider him a friend, nothing more."
"What's so different about him?" Rise asked. "Jealousy...isn't a bad thing all the time. As long as you ask yourself why? What about Sanada gets you this tied up in knots, when you didn't over Kanji? How are they different?"
Naoto wanted to dissolve into nothingness. "Rise, Kanji is a very important friend, someone I'd give my life for, but -"
"Oh stop!" Rise growled. "Everything worked out perfectly for me, quite frankly, stop dwelling on it! I'm being serious, they're both light-haired muscle boys with a penchant for electricity and beating Shadows up. I want to know how he's different."
Naoto fidgeted with her cuff. "I...he's observant. He sees the world so - no. Anything I say in this regard will just insult Kanji."
"Okay, let's try this again, from the top," Rise said, folding her hands. "I knew I loved Kanji when I finally saw things from his perspective. So, there was this one time when I was trying to find a new stylist, so my agent sent me a few samples of what different stylists were suggesting for Risette's comeback. I was just gonna try them all on and pick the stylist that sent the cutest outfit, but Kanji..." She flushed at the memory. "Kanji looked at the rack of clothes and started getting rid of options left and right. He'd look at a piece and say, 'This one will never hang right off of your hips, they should know better,' and, 'This fabric isn't breathable and you'll end up fainting on stage,' and 'This style is old Risette. It doesn't display the new Risette that gives the world a peek at who Rise really is.'"
She cupped her face in her hands, lost in the memory. "That told me...so much. About how he saw me. About what he noticed about me, and how he valued what I was trying to do with my career. It just...warmed my heart. To be really seen. And that's when I knew I had to end my crusade to get you two together because it would be totally disingenuous. And...that maybe he felt the same about me."
Naoto's face was burning by the time Rise finished her story. "What is it?" Chie asked, pointing at her accusingly. "He's done something like that, hasn't he?! Sanada's said something adorable, right?"
Naoto swallowed, and Rise leaned in closer to her phone. "Spill, spill!"
"He - he explained how silly he thought it was that I could be mistaken for a boy. Not just my body, but...my actions. My mannerisms. How I carry myself. And he...his mind is a steel trap for things I tell him about myself. I feel...like the information he learns about me is important. Clues he collects to see me more clearly, and I..." Her heart was beating uncomfortably fast.
"That's it," Rise smirked. "You want to be seen by him. It breaks your heart to think that maybe someone else would get that kind of attention. That sheer possibility is just so heart-wrenching that it makes you suspicious of one of the few people in the world you can trust wouldn't betray you."
"I absolutely wouldn't!" Chie emphasized.
"I have analyzed countless cases where the root cause was romantic jealousy. Why would I want to be involved in that which would make me turn against my friends?" Naoto asked despondently. "Isn't that just a special kind of curse?"
"Apples are good for you, but if you leave 'em in the dark, they're gonna rot!" Chie exclaimed. "Anything goes bad if you don't treat it right!"
Naoto stared at her hand, the one he had taken with his ungloved hand. Her heart leaped to her throat.
"He's like staring into the sun," she explained. "He keeps showing me more and more pieces of himself that I find myself caring so much about. He...he introduced me to his friends on a video call, as if I belonged there with them and...I slipped up." Her voice cracked. "I let myself feel like I did. I let myself get pulled in, and I enjoyed it too much. And then, at the screening in the quad...I remembered. That I didn't match him as well as you did. Even my body language didn't match him as you did."
"That is not how attraction works!" Rise scolded. "Take some psych classes, Nao-kun, 'cause you are way off there."
"But marriages tend to be more successful if the couple shares more in common! The idea that opposites attract is -"
Chie and Rise burst out laughing. "Look who's already trying to get married!" Chie cackled.
Naoto clutched her head. "I...I know, you two are right. You're right, but still...It's hard, and I'm scared."
"Naoto," Rise said softly. "Kanji's crush on you was only part of the reason I tried to get you two together. Part of me was trying to bury my feelings for him. I felt insecure because you're an accomplished, brilliant detective. You're a distinctive beauty. Like, you're so amazing you made him question his sexuality rather than forsake your safety!"
"Rise..." Naoto squeaked, face turning beet red.
"Hush! In comparison, an idol feels...interchangeable. And Kanji deserves someone special. I know better now, I know I am special, intrinsically now, but before that...it took Kanji showing me, several times before I got the message. It was my issue, with my self-esteem."
Naoto's stomach was rolling. She bit her lip.
Chie took a deep breath. "Just to be crystal clear...it's insane to me that you'd even be remotely jealous of me. I...I kinda always believed that I'd always just be a low-level cop because I'm not as smart as you. But that's fine because that means if I do my job well, you can focus on the real bad guys. The real bad criminals, and when I think about that...it makes me proud. We'll be on the same team again, fighting for justice."
"Chie..." Naoto breathed.
"This isn't for you to feel bad for me or anything! I just want to make it clear, we've all got our insecurities, and they're all pretty silly. Not that it makes it easy to deal with."
"It takes time. You don't have to rush it," Rise added with a nod. "You're both freshmen, remember? Plenty of time to start seeing from his perspective." She winked.
Chapter 12: A Powerful Hunger
The streetlights cast long shadows along their path as the left the library. Akihiko had claimed to have a powerful hunger, so they made their way to a convenience store down the empty streets. As they neared it, they heard a loud bang! followed by a bloodcurdling shriek.
Scanning her surroundings, Naoto didn't find a police officer, so she steeled herself and ran towards the sound. A hand reached out to her but missed grabbing her sleeve. "Naoto!" Akihiko called, but she was already slipping into the entrance to the alley, scanning the scene. The smell of smoke filled the air as she found a woman bracing herself against the wall, breathing heavily. The car engine growled. In the next instant, an arm wrapped around her waist and Akihiko yelled, "Stay back!" She was pulled into his side.
"The car backfired!" Naoto yelled. "Look at the scene!"
Akihiko took in the rusty sedan, sputtering and stuttering. The middle-aged women's face had morphed into an expression of exasperation, clearly over the shock of the loud noise. "Everything's fine!" she yelled with a small wave. Only then did he let go of her.
Fuming, Naoto left the alley and took a few deep breaths. She turned to him and growled, "What was that?"
He scowled. "What was that? What were you doing?! You thought it was a gunshot, same as I did, and you ran in!"
"I ascertained it was not before entering the alleyway," she argued, narrowing her eyes.
"You still ran towards it! That's incredibly dangerous!" His ears were starting to burn as his anger grew.
"There were no officers present, and the situation needed to be managed!"
"By an eighteen-year-old girl?!" The storm in his eyes intensified.
Naoto snapped. "By a detective! By someone who is actually licensed to carry a gun, and understands how to handle situations involving one! You, on the other hand, attempted to impede that by tossing me around like a child!"
Akihiko set his jaw and took a deep breath. He tried to speak, but instead, he pressed the heel of his gloved hand into his forehead and tried to compose himself. His other hand was clenched in a fist.
"Can...can I explain myself?" he asked in a strained voice.
She was tempted to continue lecturing him. "Of course," she replied and decided let her anger subside.
"Can I...have a moment? To compose my thoughts?" His voice was sounding weaker by the moment.
"Let's go find something to eat," Naoto said, gesturing him to come along. He walked alongside her in silence, deflated. She could almost hear his mind buzzing as he bit his lip in concentration.
She got him seated at a restaurant and ordered two specials. He rested his chin on a hand and a deep breath. "I...I'm an orphan. I was in an orphanage for most of my childhood, with my best friend Shinji and my sister, Miki. I...I spent most of my childhood taking care of her. She was everything to me, and...she passed away in a fire. Shinji literally had to hold me back so I wouldn't run in after her. When she was gone...the only thing that kept me going was trying to get stronger. So I'd never lose anyone important to me again. Miki and I, we were...we were supposed to get adopted together. Afterward...I just could never make a real connection with my adoptive parents. It was just a reminder of what I'd failed to protect."
As he spoke, his eyes were distant, and every word was cutting him. She was tempted to reach over to him, to tell him he could stop. She didn't need an answer; she just needed him to look whole once again. However, she sensed the confession was important to him, so she held her tongue.
"I couldn't help Shinji control his Persona, and it killed Ken's mom." He pressed his thumb to the side of his face. "Shinji nearly killed himself with illicit drugs to keep it under control." He pressed his index finger next to his thumb. "My senior year of high school, we thought we found a way to stop the threat of the Shadows for good. We couldn't find Shinji and Ken the evening of a big mission, but we had to go and face the threat without them. Afterward, we found them, corned in an alley. Shinji had been shot." He pressed another finger.
Naoto inhaled sharply.
"A fucking pocket watch. Shinji had been missing it forever, and somehow, Kurosawa found the damn thing and returned it, days before this happened. That damn pocket watch kept the bullet from killing him. Still put him in a coma, but..." Naoto could see tears brimming in his eyes.
"Akihiko..." she whispered, but before she could reach to him, he continued.
He pressed another finger to his head. "Mitsuru's father was murdered, right in front of our eyes. Hell, she's one of my best friends too and I couldn't free myself to stop that bastard's rampage. And then our leader, Minato? In order to keep the world from ending, he had to face Death itself, alone. The rest of the team was just paralyzed, and he was taken away to face the final boss on his own." His pinky joined the rest. "We thought he died. We just found him, cradled by Aigis, on the roof, not moving. We tried to resuscitate him, but the only thing that saved him was this fucking rock thing that was in his pocket. Just happened to be in his pocket, but it burned this purple-white light and somehow, he was breathing. Still out, but he was alive. The damn thing was called a Plume of Dusk." His fingers curled in his hair as if trying to anchor himself.
Their food arrived, and Akihiko stared at the steam coming from the bowl. "I have dedicated my life to trying to protect those I care about. But in those big times, in those moments where it really mattered...I didn't do shit. A thing that happened to be there was the determining factor if these things ended in tragedy. Trying to do something is all I can do to keep from just giving up. On everything." He continued to stare at the steam as his eyes watered.
"Thank you," Naoto said, barely above a whisper. "Thank you for caring."
He finally looked up at her and gave her a small smile. A tear rolled down his cheek as if that's all he had needed someone to say for so long. He chuckled and wiped his nose on his napkin. "I know, I'm a pain in the ass crybaby. Shinji's been telling me to stifle that shit like a man for years, but I just - "
"Shinji can stifle himself, then," Naoto retorted, a little more aggressively than she expected. Akihiko's eyes lit in a flicker of amusement.
She could feel her face turning red. "I - I mean, trying to hide the truth of yourself only causes more pain and suffering. That's what the Shadows fed off of in Inaba. And - and even if you look at it from a sociological perspective, warped ideas about masculinity are a leading cause of -"
Akihiko started shaking with laughter. His eyes were still red, but there was a joy that was taking over him that finally allowed her to breathe. He grabbed his chopsticks and broke them open. "I can't wait to tell Shinji that the Detective Prince told him to shut up."
Naoto was mortified at the prospect, but she couldn't help but laugh as well. "I would much prefer you didn't."
"What, are you afraid it'll make things awkward when you meet? Afraid he won't like you?" He scooped up some rice, but before it reached his mouth, Naoto spoke.
Her stomach had leaped to her throat, but she couldn't stop herself from asking. "Shouldn't I? Don't you...want him to like me?"
Akihiko froze. For a moment, they both watched the steam rise from his chopsticks. He set them back in his bowl. "I do."
Naoto stomach fluttered. Did I hear him correctly?
"But, I've told Shinji to shove it countless times and he still tolerates me. Only once will probably actually help your case."
She grabbed her chopsticks and smiled. When they finished eating and the bill arrived, he reached for it, but she snagged it first. "I think it's only fair for me to pay for once," she explained.
"Fine, but I'll get the next one." He took a deep breath and looked her in the eyes, as seriously as he could muster. "As a date. I want to take you on a date." With a nod, he added, "Feel free to say 'no', but if I haven't made this clear already, I just don't know when to quit, but - "
"Yes!" Naoto cut in, barely able to breathe. "Yes, I would like to go on a date with you."
He sighed in relief. "Okay! Okay, I will plan something a little more exciting than diner food." His smile was infectious.
Chapter 13: Invading Your Personal Space
Akihiko promptly determined that a date to shrine festival the following week would be just the right thing. "There are games, plenty of food, and the sunset's just gonna make the place look perfect. And don't - don't think you need to wear a yukata if you don't want to. They seem wildly impractical anyway." He wasn't wrong, but something inside of Naoto wanted to wear one anyway. She promptly acquired Chie's word that she would help her find one. "I am so excited! Neither of us are really the clothes-shopping type, but this is a mission of love! It's bound to be a success!"
Chie had been ecstatic at the news of the impending date, and Naoto had been promptly bombarded with countless questions. "Are you two dating? Are you boyfriend and girlfriend? Is he a good kisser?"
"Technically, one can't be dating until they have been on a date. I don't know, and I don't know." She had been very clear on the last part, as her inbox had been inundated with questions about such topics as well. She was perfectly comfortable with not knowing the last two things, as the fact that she had so bluntly accepted his request still filled her stomach with butterflies. Plus, Akihiko's response to Chie's pestering made perfect sense in her mind: "I'm just happy she said yes - we can figure out what pieces of that kind of stuff apply after the date." If there was anything Naoto knew for sure, it was that words mean different things to different people, and she knew that it was vital that she be as clear as possible. She needed time to know what exactly she was being clear about. All she knew for sure now was that anytime she sought him out on campus, a terrifying thrill ran through her that she eagerly chased.
Before the festival, however, both Naoto and Akihiko received visitors. Yu, Nanako, and Kanji contacted Naoto the evening before their arrival as Kanji needed to pick up some replacement parts for the textile shop, and Nanako was desperate to go to the city. Ken Amada, Koromaru, and Minato Arisato made their pending arrival known the morning of. "Ai's looking for a new apartment today. I've got my annual Kirijo-sponsored poking and prodding, so the kid and the dog are joining me. Pretty sure both of them would murder me if we didn't stop in and meet Shirogane."
It almost seemed too perfect.
"We must introduce the two Wild Cards," Naoto insisted when Akihiko showed her the text.
Akihiko nodded pensively. "I think your right. Even if Minato might not seem keen on it, I know he'll agree."
She didn't understand.
"Your leader didn't face any...adverse effects, after the investigation, did he?"
"Oh," Naoto breathed, slightly ashamed. "I apologize. However, I have the utmost confidence that Yu-kun will be sensitive."
"Hopefully not too sensitive," Akihiko said with a wave of his hand. "Minato's not the type to take pity."
They were able to assemble everybody for lunch at a corner of the city full of street food. It gave Kanji the perfect opportunity to coo over Koromaru. "You are the softest boy ever, yes you are! Look at you, so sweet!"
Koromaru yapped happily at the attention while Nanako fed him pieces of her pork cutlet and stole glances at Amada.
"It's really nice to meet you, Shirogane-san," Amada said, the picture of maturity.
"Mm," Arisato agreed with a nod. "I can confirm to Shinjiro that you're real."
"Real? Naoto-kun's as real as you get!" Kanji said adamantly. "It's Sanada-san that sounds unreal, like some sort of comic book hero."
A gleeful look entered Arisato's tired eyes as he grabbed his phone.
"I agree. I'd love to hear some stories about your travels," Yu said amiably.
Akihiko glanced as Nanako. As the only person present without a Persona, his stories would have to be heavily redacted, but Naoto coached him to have the more family-friendly anecdotes ready at a moment's notice. "Well, I could talk about my time in South America. I saw a massive pack of capybara this one time, had to be like fifty in the group."
"What's a capybara?" Nanako asked, finally taking her attention away from the dog.
Akihiko pulled out his phone and pulled up an album. "See for yourself! They're huge rodents that live by the water."
"Whoa!" Nanako exclaimed and went Yu's side to flip through the pictures. Kanji joined in as well. "So cute!" Kanji and Nanako exclaimed simultaneously.
Akihiko leaned over to Naoto and asked in a low whisper, "Hey, I know this is sudden but...do you mind if we take this gathering to my apartment?" He gestured ever so discreetly towards Arisato.
Whatever glee that existed earlier had dissipated, replaced with his eyes glazing over, trying to look at his phone screen. Naoto then realized just how oppressive the humidity was that day, so she nodded.
"Goodness, it's hot," Naoto declared. "Akihiko-kun, would you mind terribly if we went to your apartment? I think I could use some time out of the sun."
"I agree," Yu said. "We're not used to heat like this on Inaba, the humidity rather aggressive. I'd like to get Nanako into some air conditioning."
"I'm fine!" she pouted. "I'm not a child!"
"But Koro-chan's rather hot too," Amada added. "It's hard having such a thick coat."
Koromaru started panting more animatedly.
"Let's book it!" Kanji said. "Besides, no offense Sanada, but we kinda gotta scope out your place anyway. For Naoto's sake."
"Kanji!" she snapped, a blush rising on her face.
Arisato finally consented with a quiet, "Hm," and they made their way.
It was only when they were in the hallway approaching his door did Naoto's stomach fill with butterflies. His apartment was a private place, a reflection of himself, and likely fairly small. Fairly simple to analyze if it were a crime scene. But, is that right? For me to pry his life apart when he's only trying to help his leader?
She felt like she was going to burst when he unlocked the door. The first thing she noticed that, despite the size, everything was placed with purpose. It couldn't feel small, because everything looked like it belonged. "Make yourselves at home," he said, slightly distracted as he looked towards Arisato. Yu had taken to walking next to Arisato, chatting amiably in the way that only he could that made your worries disappear. Akihiko pointed them to his bedroom, and Yu escorted Arisato in to lay down. "Mi casa es su casa,'" Akihiko called to the rest of the guests as grabbed a glass of water and went back to the bedroom as well.
"Huh?" Kanji asked as he inspected the multi-colored throw on the couch. "Hand-crocheted, and hand-dyed," he mumbled to himself. "Artisan, for sure."
"I think it's...Spanish?" Naoto said uncertainly. "The phrase, I mean."
Nanako and Koromau made a place for themselves on the floor, the dog torn between getting pets from the girl and exploring the new smells of his friend's apartment.
"Probably," Amada said and gestured to the bookshelf.
A bookshelf in the living room was practically begging to be perused, so she quickly busied herself by scanning the titles. The first shelf was language book: Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and Mandarin. Dictionaries and phrasebooks existed for each, and there were even fiction books in English and French, and a couple of children's books in Spanish. The next shelf was nutrition and fitness, with a few biographies on famous athletes. The third shelf was fiction books, skewed mostly towards mystery, as Christie and Doyle books numbered heavily. The bottom shelf was reference books as well as his current course textbooks.
"Whoa!" Amada exclaimed. Naoto turned to find him on the opposite side of the room dedicated to a punching bag and other exercise equipment. The lanky teen was trying to lift two rather sizable dumbbells, one in each hand, and was at risk of dropping them.
"Oh no!" Nanako exclaimed, and ran over to try and take one of them, only to exclaim, "Heavy!"
Kanji finally decided to take them from the both of them, and with a tone of approval said, "These are some serious business."
"Akihiko-san gave me a lot of his equipment when he graduated high school," Ken explained. He pointed to the wall. "And those are only a fraction of the trophies he earned. Probably could have fit them all on that bookshelf, though." There were three trophies on a shelf mounted above the workout equipment, and a picture of what Naoto quickly ascertained as S.E.E.S.
Nanako stood on the weight bench to better see the photograph. "Amada-kun, you've grown so much!" she exclaimed.
He rubbed the back of his head self-consciously. "Growth spurt, ya know?"
"Naoto-kun, did you see this? Sanada-san looks so different now! Kanji-kun, did you look like this too at one point?"
Kanji analyzed the picture. "Huh-uh. Born huge, raised huge. Is he compensatin' for something?"
"Are you? You've dyed your hair blonde again," Naoto jabbed, to Kanji's shock. It was rather uncharacteristic of her, but knowing what she knew now about Akihiko, she couldn't tolerate belittling his accomplishments.
"Wha?" he flinched and started to blush. "Rise...Rise asked if I'd dye it back for a few months. For engagement pictures, like some sort of 'when we first met' flashback, and then we'll do some 'modern day' ones. I even gotta break out my old skull t-shirts and leather."
Amada went wide-eyed for a moment. "Rise...how did I miss that? You're marrying Risette?!"
"Pink Argus!" Nanako exclaimed. "It still blows my mind, he grew up with Pink Argus!"
Composing himself, Ken made his way back to the bookshelf and grabbed a photo album off of the very top of the bookshelf. "There are some pictures of her on set in this, among other things..." He set the album on the coffee table, and everyone gathered. "Fuuka-san made similar ones for everyone about a year or so back." Pictures from high school morphed into pictures of college and work, of Yamagishi graduating and Aragaki working in a chef's kitchen, of various members of S.E.E.S. visiting Takeba on set, until...
"Whoa, is that a costume?" Nanako asked.
Amada laughed. "Nope! Mitsuru-san met him in...Mexico, I think? Mexico, and he was claiming it was to help with the heat, but -"
"Ken!" Akihiko growled as he entered the living room. He sighed. "Can't leave you alone for a minute." He winced as he looked at Naoto and all he could manage was, "I...thought it was time to change things up. Not be so preppy."
"It's certainly not that," Naoto admitted. A slightly younger Akihiko wore red, shin-high boots and shredded, brown pants. His gloves matched his boots, and his Evoker hung from a shoulder holster. He was gesturing to something in the distance with his Bowie knife, but to what exactly became unimportant in comparison to the lack of shirt and presence of a red, tattered cape. This must be what Arisato was trying to show us. She was tempted to pick up the album and study the photo, as there were scars on his arms and knicks on his torso that she couldn't recall seeing before. Perhaps they healed? Or perhaps...I was distracted. She could feel her face burning. She quickly pointed to the bookshelf. "You - you speak six languages?'
"A-uh, parts of them, at least," he admitted, thankful to direct his attention to the top shelf. "English I'm pretty solid in now, works in a lot of places, French is up there too for the same reason. I'm alright in Spanish, can at least get direction, find a bathroom, what have you, but that's kinda cheating cause it's a Romance language like French. Portuguese does not have as much overlap with Spanish as I thought, so I kinda gave up on that quickly. And Mandarin's kind of a lost cause. Just not clicking."
A bit more composed now, he continued, "So Narukami and Minato seem like they're gonna be talking for awhile. And I just realized I'm out of coffee and tea for everyone, so do you mind if I run down the street real fast to the shop? Since I'm already a bad host."
"I'll join ya," Kanji said, straightening up. "Rest of you keep an eye on them and cool down."
"A-are you sure? I could do it!" Naoto quickly offered.
"I think between the two of us, we can manage," Akihiko said with a nod. "Be right back."
As the two plunged themselves back in to the heat, Akihiko decided it was best that he broach the subject first. "I'm prepared to get my lecture if you're ready to give it."
Kanji grunted in concession. "Not quite as polished as I'd like it to be, but here goes. Naoto's been through a lot. Shitty adults not giving her a fair shake because of her age, no parents to tell her just how special she is and that she should embrace who she is, and gobs of pressure from all sides for her to live up to her family's legacy. Even if her grandfather never meant it, he's old school and that piles on it. She never just let herself have fun." He gave Akihiko a sideways glance. "And she was livid when she had to resign to get her education. She wanted to do both, even though it would be like crazy-hard. I spent several evenings trying to convince her to just give herself a break, ya know? And just focus on one thing."
"That's good advice," Akihiko responded with a nod. "I'll do my best to make sure she enjoys herself."
Kanji twitched and stopped them before they reached the shop. "Alright, I'm gonna spell it out for ya, real clear. You're an older dude, whose been around a lot of places, with a lot of different ideas of stuff that's okay and not, but Naoto's not like that. Naoto doesn't even want to be seen in a bikini, so don't think you can just expect that just because she's legal - "
"Whoa!" Akihiko exclaimed, holding his hands up. "I've like held her hand once, that's it."
Kanji wasn't deterred. "She ain't like some girl you met on the beach in France, she's not gonna show it all off and be flirty to some stud she finds-"
"Again, not a concern! If anything, roles are reversed there."
"Huh?!" Kanji balked. "You callin' her a pervert?!"
"God, no! She met me at the pool one time, and I wasn't in my street clothes yet! I should have thought it might upset her, but I always forget speedos aren't the norm."
"Well, they should be! Cuts down on water resistance!" Kanji blustered, his temper redirecting towards cultural norms for a moment.
"Right! Thank you! My friends think I'm crazy, but at least someone gets it." Akihiko took a breath. "Listen, Tatsumi - I get it. I...I've liked her for a while now, and honestly, I've been too scared to say anything, 'cause the last thing I wanted to do was scare her away or make her uncomfortable. I wanted her to know, first and foremost, that I liked her as a person, and I cared. Ya know?"
"Too damn well," he said with a chuckle. He composed himself and put on a 'tough guy' face. "You may be in better shape, but I'm still bigger, and I learned to fight on the street. So you better not hurt her." He sighed and dropped the act. "Sorry. Pre-wife's orders."
"Pre-wife?" Akihiko asked, amused. "That's a new term."
"Oh, she hated it at first, until I just told her it's an excuse to call her 'my wife' more often. She nearly melted into a puddle, she thought the idea was so cute."
Akihiko felt his phone buzz, twice in quick succession. One was a quick message from Chie, proclaiming, "COMIN' YOUR WAY!" The second was from Naoto. "Chie finally saw the message from Yu-kun, so she invited herself over to your apartment. I am deeply sorry that we are invading your personal space." He showed the messages to Kanji.
Kanji barked a laugh as he opened the door to the shop. "Seem about right. Let's see, we need coffee, maybe some sort of black tea and Mad Bull? Chie drinks Mad Bull, right?"
"Cielo Mist, last I knew," Akihiko said, and entered the shop.
Chapter 14: Your Date With Prince Charming
Akihiko had his phone pressed to his ear when he spotted Naoto. He waved her over and put the phone on speaker. "Seriously, man, check that email and actually do that exercise and you won't be straining your deltoids so much," Akihiko urged. "Hey, so Nao-"
"Okay, she's gone," Shinjiro cut in abruptly. "I gotta ask you a favor. I know your date with Prince Charming is Friday, but -"
"Hey," Akihiko scolded. "She's right -"
"Fuck, let me finish!" He sighed, and Akihiko gave her an apologetic look. Naoto chuckled to herself; she actually quite enjoyed the idea of herself dressed in royal garb.
"My checkup's always freak Fuuka out, so I need something to distract her. Can we make it a double date?"
Akihiko paused and studied Naoto's stoic expression. She did her best to stay as still as possible, trying not to give any sort of reaction to the request, because at that moment, she didn't know what to think.
"I dunno -"
"I know it's a lot to ask. But last time, the Kirijo lab rats found a slight decrease in liver function, so they switched up my medication. Fuuka's trying to keep herself distracted with projects, and I keep telling her it's no big deal, 'cause livers grow back, but it's not doing shit. Last week, she built a personal cloud storage system for our files and movies and whatnot. Because apparently popping in a DVD is too much work? Yesterday, she installed lights that change colors under the cabinets and has them on a timer so they adjust based on the time of day. Now, she's talking about redoing some of the wiring in the bedroom to do the same, and I gotta stop her before she finds a sledgehammer to tear open the walls."
Akihiko bit his lip. "What's a double date gonna do? You've still got axes in storage somewhere, how's a sledgehammer what's stopping her?"
He gave a reluctant chuckle. "Last time she tried to pick one up, she nearly took out a lamp. It was fuckin' adorable. And a date means she can get her yukata ready, buy some shit for her hair, and figure out what she's gonna ask Shirogane about. It's something good to think about instead of my mortality for the ten-thousandth time."
Naoto reached a hand out and touched Akihiko's wrist to get his attention. He gave her a bewildered look when she nodded at him, determined. Yes, she mouthed in emphasis.
Are you sure? he mouthed in response. Her look back was almost a glare as she nodded again.
"O-okay. It's a double date. She'll be okay with it."
"I owe you big time."
"Do your fuckin' exercises, then!" he retorted.
"Yes, Mom, fuckin' hell." The call ended.
Naoto took a deep breath and pulled her hand back before he could feel her tremble. "Very well then. I - I'm sure the parameters of a double date aren't too different from a standard date."
He smiled apologetically. "I don't actually...know?"
Following Kanji's extensive advice, Chie and Naoto were able to find a suitable yukata for her made of a rich, navy fabric. Delicate sunflowers pattered it in white. "Just stick to colors you're already comfortable with and it'll eliminate a lot of confusion. You already know they work good with your complexion."
"Akihiko seems 2 prefer the color red. I don't kno if my normal style is appropriate..."
"Rise just rolled her eyes so hard I thought they were gonna get stuck there. She says 'He fell for you in your style, why do you think you need to change it to his?' To that, I'd add if he thinks that's how things should work, tell him to fuck off. Or, I'll tell him."
"PLZ DO NO SUCH THING! He doesnt even kno Im wearing one!"
"Wooooow. And Rise won't stop shrieking, she loves it."
Chie mercifully helped her get ready before taking off to Inaba for the weekend. "All this lovey-dovey stuff has me thinking...I need to go talk to...well..."
"I understand," Naoto said, giving her friend a quick hug. "Besides, I'm sure Yamagishi will be chronicling the entire event if you need a moment-by-moment recounting."
"I'm gonna need that like you won't believe," she said. "Give her my chat info!"
Naoto had plenty of time to get used to walking in the traditional garb on her way to the shrine. She caught sight of them approaching from the opposite direction, her clear bias catching sight of Akihiko's cream suit, despite being near the taller, easier-to-spot Aragaki. It was then she clearly noted a strange coordination between the two. Akihiko wore a tight, red v-neck underneath his suit, while Aragaki wore a maroon, long-sleeved shirt and dark pants. They were both pictures of youth - long, lean, and...unburdened. That...that would have been more appropriate for their high-school picture, right? But no, they were so deeply embroiled in tragedy when they were younger. Even Aragaki not wearing a coat and hat during this heat is an accomplishment.
She felt a lump starting to form in her throat when she then caught Yamagishi waving at her excitedly. Her blue braid bobbed against her light-blue yukata. She was covered in pastel flowers and a beaming smile as she yanked on Aragaki's sleeve to get his attention.
Akihiko stopped for a moment and Naoto blushed realizing it was because of her. He quickly blushed in turn and she heard the word "dumbass" thrown his direction before he started walking again.
"It's so nice to meet you, Shirogane-san!" Fuuka said with a smile.
"You as well, Yamagishi-san, Aragaki-san," she replied, trying to control a thousand questions she had for Akihiko about his reaction to her appearance.
"Naoto-kun, your yukata looks - I mean you look - well, I mean, you always are but it's..." He rubbed the back of his neck as he turned redder by the moment until Aragaki slapped him on the back. "Beautiful," he finally spat out. "Sorry, I wasn't expecting that you'd..."
"I...wanted it to be a surprise," she said, and only at that moment did it strike her to be slightly embarrassed by admitting that in public.
"Alright, alright, niceties over," Aragaki said. "I've been fasting all day for those stupid tests, so I need to eat."
"Right, sorry dear!" Yamagishi said and pointed them to the closest yakisoba stand. Akihiko and Aragaki went to stand in line while Yamagishi hung back with Naoto. "I'm so excited, Boys' Buffet is my favorite!"
"What does that refer to?" Naoto asked cautiously.
"Simple! Those two have incredibly large appetites, and there is so much food here, I want to try it all! So, I simply take a bite or two out of whatever they get, so we all get what we want!" She clapped her hands together. "I highly recommend it!"
Before Naoto could contemplate the wisdom of sharing a meal so directly with Akihiko, he had already returned with a pile of noodles. "You gotta try these, they're fantastic!" he said, scooping up a bite and offering it her direction.
Before she could let herself consider the potential ramifications of sharing cutlery with him, she leaned in and devoured the bite. It's - it's not any different than if we ki - oh god. "I agree!" she said, trying to distract herself while pointing to a frozen banana stand. "Do you mind if we try that next?"
"I could do something sweet," he said, and lead them to the stand. "Do you want your own? Sorry, Fuuka usually just - "
"We can share," she said before she could change her mind. "If - if that's okay with you."
"Ugh, this is why we don't hang out with people who just started dating," Aragaki said as he waited for his order. "The weird negotiations, the tip-toeing around -"
"The reason you don't hang out with anyone besides us former S.E.E.S. members is that you're a bit of an asshole. Eliminates the number of people who might have just started dating," Akihiko retorted. He looked to Naoto. "Sorry."
Yamagishi chuckled and swatted Aragaki's arm. "He softens up considerably after he's full."
"I got stabbed with ten needles today to for them to tell me that I'm perfectly fine," he grunted.
"That's what happens when you're cared about by a Kirijo," Yamagishi said with a nod. "Just think about poor Yukari! I'd hate to find out what happens when she has the sniffles." The boys merely exchanged a look, a look Naoto had seen numerous time with members on the police force deciding on the wisdom of telling a bawdy joke.
She quickly found a cork gun game and pointed Yamagishi that way. "Would you like to join me? I think with a few tries I can win some plush toys."
Their evening proceeded in such a fashion, interspersing jests with various fried foods and games. Naoto snuck away to purchase beverages for everyone when she noticed Aragaki looking a little paler than before. "Ginger tea," she explained while Yamagishi and Akihiko played a ring toss game. "It should assist with your digestion."
"Thanks," he grunted and took a sip. "You know, I'm supposed to be the one winning toys for Fuuka, right?"
Naoto cocked a small smirk. "And how's that going?"
"Aw, shaddup," he said with a laugh. "Now, normally, I'd feel bad saying that, but apparently you've already said that about me."
She blushed. "Well, you see -"
"Don't back down now," he taunted. "He needs someone to fight for him. So he stops thinking he's gotta do it all himself." He pointed over towards a stall. "Shaved ice, on me? Or there's taiyaki over there, your pick."
"Shaved ice would be very pleasant. I'm getting a bit full, personally," she said, already hearing Akihiko's arguments in her head about her needing more calories for proper muscular development. "But I can pay myself, you shouldn't feel obliged simply because of the tea."
"That ain't how it works," he said with a wave of his hand. "For once, he picked a good one that we all want to stick around. So you're a part of this now, and we don't keep track of who bought what last. Or who did what favors. Or who saved who's ass when Shadows were starin' you down. Nobody owes anyone anything, but nobody's ever even."
"V-very well," she yielded, surprised at the depth of Aragaki's heart. That is unfair of me. How is he that different then Kanji-kun in that regard? "I - I'm fond of their mango flavoring."
They managed to find a bench to sit on before the fireworks began, but shortly into the celebration, Yamagishi and Aragaki slipped away. It took her a moment to spot them near the tree line and would have assumed there to be some sort of altercation if she didn't see Fuuka decidedly grabbing Shinjiro's ass. They're making out. The realization made her shiver until she thought about it more rationally; they lived together already and had been in a relationship for nearly four years. I thought such displays were for new couples without access to privacy. Perhaps the adrenaline of his test results lead to pent-up amorous feelings? But, Aragaki said he was healthy...
She turned back to the fireworks and watched the world explode in shades of pink and green and white, and her lips parted in awe. It's beautiful. Everything was beautiful - the weather, their surroundings, the entertainment, the locusts in the background, and her present company. She watched the colored lights reflect off of his serene smile, and she felt her heart would burst. She snaked a hand out and grabbed his. Surprised, he looked at their joined hands for a moment to confirm the truth of the matter, and then he interlaced her fingers with his.
His grasp was warm and soft, a gentleness about it could make a person forget that they were also weapons. To protect people. Always to protect. A thrill ran through her recalling that it was the hand that had grabbed her around the waist and pulled her into him when he feared for her life. The foolishness of the action only served as more reason it flustered her. Sometimes, one does something nonsensical because being sensible is unacceptable. Like overindulging in festival food when your body can't handle it to lift another's spirits.
She became very conscious of the fact that, as they held hands, her arm crossed over his. She was suddenly concerned she was putting too much of it's weight on him. Or would it be strange if it wasn't? She sighed internally as a rainbow of color spiraled in the sky. Human bodies weren't designed to coexist like this. Or is there some sort of strategy of orientation that I am unaware of?
"Naoto-kun?" he asked with concern in his voice. She realized she had been holding his hand tighter than she was before. But which amount of pressure was the correct one? "Sorry about them, I know it's uncomfortable, but -"
"Does it make you uncomfortable?" she asked, stricken by some sort of madness.
"Huh? Them...doing that?" He furrowed his brow, trying to find some sort of explanation for her question. Good luck, as I have no earthly idea myself. "I mean, at this point, no, but that's exposure therapy for ya."
Naoto thought for a moment. "I simply...the appeal of...a public setting. Is a bit curious I-I suppose," she admitted, squeezing his hand tighter. "I am so...uneducated on matters like that."
He snorted. "Fair enough. Some people just like the thrill. Other people can't find a private spot. And some people..." He squeezed her hand back. "Find themselves overwhelmed by the beauty around them and want to be a part of it."
Her heart started pounding in her ears. The final option resonated so deeply within her, and the concept of feeling your affections being on the same level as fireworks or as the trees on the horizon made sense. She herself wouldn't have ever thought such a thing before, but somehow, even with her awkward hand placement, she understood how beautiful Akihiko was to her. Something deep inside of her wanted to show him, and have that resonate deep inside of him, and out to the world.
But why hadn't he shown her first? doubt asked. His thumb lazily rubbed the back of hers and sent goosebumps up her arm. Because he's patient. Because he knows better than to rush. Because he wants to be nothing but respectful of my needs.
"Akihiko?" she whispered. When his grey eyes caught hers, a stillness finally overcame her, and somehow, she asked, "Would it be acceptable if I kissed you?"
He pulled her into him and pressed his lips to hers, and every nerve ending of hers came alive. The urgency of his kiss was underlined with gentleness, as if he'd been aching to show her a sweetness she'd never known existed. She had no idea how their hands became unwound, but soon his rested on her waist. The relief she felt was soon being overtaken by a desire to do something herself, to deepen the kiss or touch him or something, but there were several options and none of them seemed intuitive. What if my teeth hit his? What if he doesn't like his chest being touched? I should be doing something with my hands, right? My hands, what on earth are you supposed to do with your hands?! It didn't make sense! The smart thing to do would be to let him lead, to let his mouth guide her and mimic whatever he did with his hands, but that felt so wrong. She wanted to make him feel beautiful.
She managed to part her lips in a way that continued their kissing and sent her body tingling. It was as if she were being wrapped in silk, and it thrilled her to realize the feeling was caused by only two points of contact. But does he feel the same?
When she was starting to feel light-headed, he leaned back slightly, breaking their kiss. However, she could feel his breath caress her face. It left her weak and wanting more.
"Was that okay?" he asked, watching her carefully. She studied him for a moment and realized he was catching his breath as well.
She wished she'd have had something more elegant to stay than, "More than okay," but that's what she managed. "Considering I don't know what I'm doing."
"I disagree," he said with a shy smile.
"But I've never...and I don't know if you enjoyed...and...and what do you do with your hands?!" she sputtered.
"Slow down," he coaxed, trying to contain a laugh. "What about hands?"
"Where do they go? How are they supposed to fit together when you're holding hands? And how do you know if it's comfortable for the other person, especially when you can't say it because you are otherwise..."
"Occupied? Can't speak?" he teased, ever so gently. "It doesn't matter," he said more earnestly and took her hand again. This time, his palm was upright, so her forearm rested along his. "As long as you're comfortable, it goes where you want them."
"But, but how do I know if you're comfortable?! The weight of my arm is entirely on yours!"
"Do you think that's too heavy for me?" he stroked her thumb with his again. "It's like...a blanket. Sometimes the weight of the thing is what's most comforting."
She nodded and committed that to memory. "And...when..." She could feel her cheeks burning.
"That's...a public versus private matter," he explained. "In public, generally the arm, the waist, or the face." He stroked her cheek with his free hand as if trying to smooth away the signs of her tension. His voice dropped to a whisper. "In private...where you want. Whenever the time is right."
Naoto felt a warmth coil inside of her for a moment that released just as quickly. She dearly wanted to chase the feeling, but a particularly loud crack! in the distance reminded her of where she was. She nodded and tried to distract herself. "But, even this!" She gestured to their joined hands. "It almost feels like they're in the way. As if it'd be better if we both only had one arm!"
Amused, he asked, "Can I show you something? A more comfortable configuration that is perfectly public-appropriate for this event?"
She nodded and let go of his hand. He scooted closer to her and guided the arm nearest him behind him, resting in the hollow towards the lower part of his back. His arm wrapped around her shoulders, fitting nicely behind her neck. She had options, as well, to sit that way or to lean further into him and rest on a particularly tempting spot on his chest. It made her heart pound. "This...certainly makes more sense," she managed, trying not to count the muscles that she could feel along his body. "However I - I still feel like something's not quite right." She held up her free arm, as it felt positively frigid being so far away from the warmth of him. A strange notion crossed her mind. That's something Rise would say. She'd claim that part of her was cold in order to increase contact. The thought that Naoto had been inadvertently so forward made her giddy.
"There are options for that too. On your own lap is perfectly fine, but that's generally the arm holding a beverage. If it's not then...it can rest on the other person. If you want. "
Before she knew it, her hand found rest on the field of red as if his shirt had been a target. His arm adjusted to keep her close, and his "blanket" comparison couldn't have felt more apt. Finally, her heartbeat slowed, as if trying to match time with his breath. They stayed that way for a while, the show mesmerizing her as much as the firmness of his chest under her fingertips did. Her captivation was only broken when she felt the slightest kiss on the top of her head. It was enough to let her realize that Yamagishi and Aragaki were returning, slightly disheveled. She sat up a bit, removing her hand from his chest, but somehow she felt that was the only concession needed for their return.
"Get a room," Aragaki grunted as he took a seat next to Akihiko.
"Hypocrite," Akihiko rejoined.
"Exactly. A tree isn't actually a door yet," Naoto added.
Yamagishi had to clamp a hand over her mouth from to keep from laughing too loudly.
Thank you all for coming to my TED Talk called "Arms Should Just Be Detachable Because Sometimes They Just Get In The Way."
Chapter 16: On The Same Page
Quick content warning for underage consumption of alcohol!
Fuuka and Shinjiro spent the night at Akihiko's apartment, so Naoto spent the next day with them and Akihiko shopping at various technology and cooking specialty stores. "I can order this stuff, but you never know how it's gonna fit in your hand. You gotta test it out yourself," Shinjiro said as he wielded a particularly sinister looking filet knife.
"Just move your ass here then," Akihiko said as he eyed a juicer. "Better jobs are gonna be here for you anyway, plus Fuuka already works from home."
Shinjiro could only grunt in return. "Don't get one of those, you need the fiber from the whole piece of fruit or it's just pure sugar."
Naoto found herself enjoying attempting to persuade them to move, which at times felt disingenuous. My home is Inaba, she reminded herself. Grandfather is there, and it's terrible that I haven't visited lately. She had spoken on the phone with him often, but something about leaving town always tied her stomach in knots. It's because I expected Akihiko to text. Every morning I woke I knew I could count on him contacting me in the near future. Not at the same time, not even about the remotely same topic from day to day, but he always reached out. Even...even when I tried to push him away.
Shinjiro and Fuuka took the train home that evening, but not without exchanging chat information. "Send me pictures from this weekend, Shirogane-kun!" Fuuka implored her. "I'll send you the ones I've taken."
"Don't fuck it up," was all that Shinjiro left Akihiko with.
On Sunday, Akihiko offered to cook lunch. "I figure it's the least I can do after dealing with those two," he offered. "And...we can just talk. Make sure we're on the same page."
"I quite enjoyed spending time with them," Naoto admitted. "But yes...yes I think we should have some time to talk in private."
Naoto didn't sleep well that night, as most of it was spent researching exactly what those various terms meant that she knew Chie would launch at her when she returned that evening. Kanji had previously taken it upon himself to grill Naoto about what Akihiko had asked of her so far, to ensure he wasn't some sort of deviant taking advantage of her, but those questions were so...unbelievable, in reference to Akihiko. Naoto's questions circled around the most basic, the most simple things like what it meant to be dating someone, what it meant to be someone's 'girlfirend', why did the terms for dating have to be so gendered, and how to tell...how to tell what you meant to them. Akihiko's patient guidance during the fireworks display served to make her conflicted because if he knew even innocent aspects like that, he clearly possessed knowledge of things that weren't innocent. She didn't know what to make of that knowledge, except it sent a hot iron through her gut to extrapolate possible interpretations.
Akihiko prepared salmon fried rice and lots of it. The absurd pile of food was almost comical until he scooped it into a handcrafted bowl and garnished it - then, it looked elegant. Authentic. It looked like home. "Generally, I prefer pork, but the salmon's a lot lighter on the stomach if you're not gonna be training that day," he explained, almost apologetically.
"Thank you, it's very considerate for you to modify it," Naoto explained, unable to convey just how nervous she was and that she couldn't possibly stomach his typical portion sizes at this moment. ''
"So," he began, sitting in the seat across from her at his tiny dining table. "Apparently the date wasn't too terrible if you've not taken off by now."
Naoto's face burned. "It was lovely. I...I enjoyed myself quite thoroughly. Did you?"
"Of course!" he replied, almost insulted. "Isn't it obvious?"
She swallowed. "I...I don't know." She buried her head in her hands. "I...feel like I can't trust my observational skills in this regard as I'm...quite biased as to the results. I simultaneously hope for a positive outcome and dread failure due to inexperience."
"Hey, hey, don't!" he warned as he reached out and touched her wrist. "Please...don't worry like that. As long as you're happy, I'm happy. It's that simple."
Naoto jumped as her phone rang. She pulled it out to see it was Chie, so she stared at it for a moment. I don't know if I should...I might lose my courage if I switch topics right now. I don't even have the answers she's looking for.
"You can take it," he said, withdrawing. "Make sure she's okay."
Naoto bit her lip. "It...certainly can wait. Until we're done eating at least. She'd understand." She hit the sleep button and sent it to voicemail.
Almost instantly, Akihiko's phone rang. It was Chie.
"Perhaps I was mistaken?" Naoto said, suddenly alarmed. He put it on speakerphone.
"Are you okay, Chie-chan?" she asked.
Chie exhaled. "Um...I...I think so. Maybe?" She sighed. "I'm really sorry, but can I come talk to you guys? My train just pulled in."
"I'm currently at Akihiko's apartment," Naoto explained. "I can meet you somewhere halfway in between if that's more convenient."
"No - no, actually...I think Sanada might be helpful, too. Can I just come there? I'm really sorry, I'm just barging into your apartment again, and it's super rude, but -"
"Get over here, Satonaka," Akihiko insisted. "I made way too much food. Come drown your worries in fried rice."
"Really?" she said, starting to perk up. "Thank you. Both of you, you're the best. I'll be there in fifteen."
"You said she went home this weekend, what could've happened?" he asked, furrowing his brow.
Naoto fidgeted with her spoon. "I...may have let out some pertinent details. She...went to speak with Yosuke-kun."
He thought for a moment. "Hanamura. The Junes kid who took in the bear."
"Correct. When Yosuke moved into Inaba, Chie was one of the few to befriend him without some sort of grudge against how the chain store affected the local economy and stand by him. She ended up developing feelings for him, but he had feelings for one of his seniors who also worked at Junes. She...she was one of the murder victims. After that, it seemed rather tasteless in her eyes to attempt to pursue him, and then..." Naoto tried to gesture nonchalantly, but she could feel her hand become sweaty. "Somewhere, along the line, feelings for our leader arose... in both parties." She winced. "I can't deny...similar feeling are not foreign to me either, but have long passed." She shook her head as if trying to shake off a chill. "In, in my, in all of our defenses, Yu-kun as some sort of appeal that seems to transcend -"
"I know, I know. He's the leader. Somehow, they've just got that thing," Akihiko said, waving his hand. "Makes the ladies feel like they're the only one in the world, makes the dudes feel unstoppable. Maybe it's something about Wild Cards, you don't gotta explain it."
That was a relief. Another benefit of him being a Persona-user. "Thank you. Regardless...our group was never as fortunate as to pair off as nicely as yours did. Yu attempted to pursue a relationship with a girl who, at one point was a deity intended to bring upon the destruction of the world, but that dissolved for her to end up with...Teddie, of all people." She shook her head at the bizarreness of the relationship. But, somehow, it works. They both have a flair for the dramatic. "During that time, Yosuke dated Yukiko-chan, but that proved to be unsustainable as well. Yukiko is now dating Yu, and has attested to me countless times that she would be perfectly accepting of Chie dating Yosuke, but...she's terrified. She doesn't want to lose one of her best friends over a boy she teased mercilessly in high school."
"So she finally decided to confront Hanamura?" he concluded.
"It seems to have not gone well," she added. "I...I suppose I'm cashing in on your goodwill to support her through this. I might have to say things like, 'men are pigs' and 'men can never understand.'"
He laughed and took a bite. "'S'fine, can't argue that anyway. Besides, you dealt with my side earlier." He went about setting a place at the table for Chie, and sooner than Naoto had thought possible, they heard a banging at the door. Naoto answered it.
Chie was panting and covered in sweat as if she had ran the whole way there. Naoto ushered her in. "Are you okay? Did something happen while you were in Inaba?"
Chie turned pink. "Not what I expected to, in the least." Chie sniffed. "It smells amazing in here."
"Chow down," Akihiko said, gesturing to her seat. "There's plenty more where that came from."
Chie ate and drank for a moment to sustain herself before she began. "So does he know the...everything, of it all?" Chie asked Naoto.
"The broadest of strokes, yes. Were you able to speak to Yosuke?"
Chie turned from pink to red. "Yes," she said, more bashful than Naoto ever thought possible.
"Did he rebuff your affections?" Naoto asked, confused. A blush would assume not, but why isn't she happy?
"No," she said shyly. "We...talked. We got on the same page about...everything. But...we didn't have time to talk this morning before he went to work."
With that, Akihiko went to the fridge and retrieved three cans of Sasahi Super Dry. He cracked open one and took a long drink. Chie snagged one as well and followed suit. "Ugh! Disgusting!"
"Ya get used to it," he explained. She took another sip.
Naoto didn't follow. "Do you mean you weren't able to see him this morning?"
Chie shook her head and took another drink.
"She spent the night," Akihiko explained with a knowing look.
Oh. It was her turn to turn pink.
Chie held the can in one hand while she rested her head in the other. "Was it a mistake?"
"Does it feel like it was?" he asked, plainly, as Naoto's mouth went dry.
"No," she said, closing her eyes. "But...that's a terrible way to start things, isn't it? It means we're doomed for failure."
Relationships that begin focused on the physical side tend to not last long . But...how could I say that to her?
"What're you talking about?" Akihiko rebuffed. "You've known him foryears. You've fought side-by-side. You've seen each other's shit, that's not nothing. Throwing a new label on it doesn't get rid of the history of your relationship."
She perked up a bit. He continued, "Maybe the timing wasn't perfect. The morning after...something like that deserves to be respected. But, wasn't it nice to wake up by his side?"
She nodded. Naoto's stomach plummeted.
"Sometimes it's just more important to show someone how you feel in the moment, rather than trying to execute it perfectly."
Naoto clenched her fists as she felt his lips once again.
"But, what's he thinking about? And he's working with the frozen section all day, he can't check his phone and talk to me!"
"About how much he hates his job from tearing him away from you. Though...thankful to the cold for keeping him from getting too lost in memory." He took another drink.
Chie did as well. Naoto finally managed, "Yosuke would never treat something like this callously. I'm sure he's just as overwhelmed as you."
Chie gave her a thankful smile. "I miss him already."
"That's good," Akihiko said. "Means it's real."
Chie spent the rest of lunch telling about the latest in Inaba, most notably how Nanako couldn't stop talking about Amada. "Dojima is so freaked. Like, yeah, Nanako had a crush on Yu, but that was like kiddie stuff. This is like a proper crush! One of her notebooks even had 'Nanako Amada' written in it." She left shortly after, claiming the absurd amount of homework she had to catch up on before tomorrow. She gave Naoto a quick hug before she left, whispering, "Sorry," in her ear.
As Naoto closed the door behind her, she heard Akihiko dumping Chie's mostly unfinished beer down the sink. "I don't quite understand the purpose of the beer," she said as he crushed the can.
"Commiseration. Distraction. Admittedly pairs better with pork than salmon." He gripped the countertop and watched her carefully. "Please...all I ask is that you think out loud, rather than let me torture myself with speculation."
"Okay," she conceded as she eased herself back into her seat in front of her mostly-untouched meal. "You are older than me. You are well-traveled. It's...it's only logical. It's...it's only..." She felt a burning in the back of her throat. She almost laughed. "Is this going to be my life? Reeling from things that are typical parts of the human experience?"
She could see his knuckles turn white. "Don't...just don't." He took a deep breath. "Soon after graduation, everyone started pairing off. I didn't. I thought...that part of me was broken. Or didn't exist. I mean, hell, I had how many chances with Mitsuru and I still didn't fall for her? Then I thought, 'I'm not built for this'. And that was fine. I could keep Shadow Ops going so that everyone else could live some semblance of a normal life. And then...after some time, it wasn't. Fine. But I could never have what everyone else had because no one else in the world was a Persona-user. I could never be fully honest with anyone else, but also...I couldn't be a monk. I needed...to find what I could."
"Did you love them?" she asked in nearly a whisper.
He barked a laugh. "Is there a right answer to this question?"
She couldn't deny the unfairness. "I don't actually know," she confessed, her thoughts tangled.
He leaned on the countertop and stared at his hands. "I liked them. I trusted them. I cared about them. But none of them are you. I couldn't have fathomed a 'you' existed."
Naoto grabbed his half-empty beer and the unopened one on the table and took them to the counter. She sat his in front of him and cracked open the other one. She stared at the mouth of the can. "I don't want to...punish you for existing before you knew me. But..." She took a ragged breath. "I...hate that there are people out there who know you better than I do."
She took a sip, and the bitterness assaulted her taste buds. "This isawful!" She finally braved to look at him. "Why would you drink something so awful?"
Delighted and incredulous, he watched her. Somehow, the words came more freely. "Even though on an intellectual level, I understand that knowing someone physically and knowing them emotionally are two separate things, it's eating at me. And even though, I understand that I can't possibly know you on an emotional level better than anyone from S.E.E.S., it still feels wrong. And now, I feel some sense of sympathy for some of the culprits in former cases? As I'm getting an understanding of how these types of emotions could drive someone to break the law." She took another sip to punctuate her statement and shook her head in disgust.
"Does that make you more or less inclined to be my girlfriend?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"More! Because I'm apparently indulging in all sorts of nonsense nowadays!" She sighed. "I'm sorry. I am reacting incredibly inappropriately, but...I would very much like to be your girlfriend, even if I don't agree with the gendered terminology."
He reached across the table and took her hand. "Thank goodness. And I don't care what we call it, pick the terms you like best." His thumb rubbed her hand. "You're not the only one conflicted. Right now alone, I hate that this is throwing you into such distress...but it's kinda flattering to see someone in such a tizzy over me."
She swatted his arm with her free hand indignantly. He chuckled. The way his expression had lightened, the relief in his eyes, and the curve of his mouth made her want to hit him again. She leaned in and kissed him instead.