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Better for the Repetition

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            Man, he’d had some good ideas in the past, but this one really took the cake.  Junpei’s grin was feral as he paced back and forth in the front hall of Yukari’s dorm, waiting for her to either buzz him in or come down to meet him. 

This was going to be so damned good.

            The doors beyond the receptionist clanged and hissed open as Yukari pushed through, a confused and brittle smile on her face.  “Junpei?  I wasn’t expecting…Hey.  What are you doing here?”

            “Things are happening, the world’s moving, and Tokyo’s totally the place to be, if you get my drift,” Junpei said, edging closer with his broad smile but keeping a cordial distance.  “Akihiko and I’ve been in town for a couple of days doing the whole college run.  Man, Yuka-tan, it’s good to see you, and you’re lookin’ awfully fine, if you don’t mind me saying.”

            It was not an empty compliment.  Yukari did look good.  She had regained her color, her sly vibrancy, since last he’d seen her, and she cut quite a figure with her pink scarf and lightly flared jeans.  Junpei was more caught up with her eyes, though, which had a spark in them that he had almost forgotten existed.

            Yukari rolled her eyes in a display of token protest, but her fragile smile never left her face.  “You just had to start, didn’t you?  God, you’ve been here less than a minute and you’re already getting on my nerves.”

            Junpei shoved his hands in his pockets, his toothy grin leveling out into a more normal smile.  “I’m just saying it like it is.  Don’t get huffy.”

            Yukari actually laughed.  Junpei wondered mutely how he had let their relationship change this much.

            He cleared his throat.  “So, uh, yeah.”

            “I assume that you’re here for a reason and not simply for an excuse to loiter around the women’s dorm.”

            “Now, that hurts.  The thought never crossed my mind.  I’m here with a damn cool invitation, but if you’re gonna antagonize me, I’ll take my propositions elsewhere.”

            Yukari’s smile finally dropped into sneer.  “Junpei-“

            “Bad word choice.  Bad.  Sorry,” Junpei said, waving his hands in an embarrassed plea.  “I’m serious, Yukari.  This is really cool.  A lot of things right now are cool.”  Junpei paused, trying to assemble his thoughts.  “You know Risette, right?”

            Yukari glared at him flatly.

            “Stupid question again.  Geez, I’m just full of ‘em today,” Junpei said, a little bit of panic edging into his voice.  He’d rehearsed this, like, fifteen times on the way over.  Where were his words?

            “I know you know who Risette is.  Right.  I was just saying, you know how she was gone for a while?  And now suddenly she’s back, better than ever, and she’s putting on a show at the dome?”

            That piqued Yukari’s interest.  “Yeah.  That show was sold out less than a minute after the tickets went on sale."

            “Yeah, I know.  I totally tried to score some tickets when they first opened, and sweet lord.”

            Yukari’s face fell.  “Oh.  Oh, sorry.  I thought for a moment that you had gotten tickets or something, and I was about to be really impressed.”

            Junpei grinned internally, but kept his face as neutral as possible.  “Yeah, there’s no way a dude like me could afford a show like that.  It’s a real bummer.”

            “So you just wanted to let me know that you tried and failed?”

            Junpei shrugged.  “Pretty much.”

            Yukari raised an eyebrow, but Junpei noticed that some of the wary happiness that had shone on her face when he had first arrived was fading and being replaced by the bleak look that she wore every time she saw him lately. 

            “Oh.  Well, I’m sorry.  Maybe next time.”

            God, Junpei hated it when Yukari tried to be patient.

            “Aren’t you going to hear what my invitation was for?”

            Yukari blinked.  “I sort of assumed that what you just said was it.”

            Junpei’s mimed pain was only half feigned.  “Oh, sure, thanks for your faith in me.  Like I’d turn up and be like, ‘here’s a fake invitation to a concert I totally couldn’t get us in to see.  Isn’t it cool?’  Jeez, Yuka-tan, I was just trying to warm the water.  It was for thematic purposes.”

            Yukari sighed, and it probably said bad things about Junpei that he was relieved at the level of honest frustration that sigh held.

            “Okay, Junpei.  What’s the invitation for?”

            Junpei smiled.  “Dinner.”

            “Dinner?”

            “Dinner.  With me.  And a friend,” he hastened to add as Yukari’s expression turned stormy.  “Dinner with me and a friend at that Italian place we went to when you were moving in.”

            “Bacchanalia?  Junpei, I go there two or three times a week.  It’s less than five minutes away from my dorm.”

            Junpei waved a hand.  “Yeah, yeah, I know.  The food’s not the point.  Just, please,” Junpei said, his face falling into earnest lines, “trust me?  Please.  I wouldn’t ask if this weren’t important.”

            Her moment of hesitation hurt significantly more than Junpei would like to have believed, but he supposed it was deserved.  When Yukari nodded, it wasn’t with any sort of enthusiasm.  She forced a creaking smile onto her face and said that she’d meet him in the dorm’s front hall at six so that they could walk over together.  She gave him a parting wave, her smile held stiff on her face, and re-entered her dorm, leaving Junpei standing alone by the double doors.

            Right, well, phase one was a bust, but at least he had convinced her to go out with him.  Getting Yukari to the restaurant was the only important part.  Her being pissy and disappointed in him did not matter.

            That was his rationalisation, anyway.

            Junpei nodded at the receptionist and left through dorm’s front doors, hovering on the curb as he wondered how best to kill his time until six.

            Upon deciding to catch a movie at the theater closest to campus, Junpei set himself on autopilot, letting his mind wander as his feet clopped on the pavement.  This whole thing should have happened a long time ago, he thought, pulling his cap down over his eyes.  It was easy to argue that there just had not been time, but those words sounded empty even to him.  It had been half a year since Inaba, but the calls that should have rung across the lines immediately after…well, after…had not happened.  Everyone was reeling, trying to redefine their lives around the changes they had been forced to make.  Souji’s steps towards trying to make things right had alleviated much of the grief that the team had felt, but still…things had been tough, and moving on for the second time had not been much easier than the first. 

Sometimes, when he let himself think about it for more than a moment…

            Those were simply excuses, though.  The rest of SEES deserved to know what had happened, and now winter had passed, pulling spring along with it, and summer was fast approaching.  They had delayed long enough, and if anyone deserved to know about Inaba and what it all meant, it was Yukari.

            Junpei fumbled with his phone in his pocket, debating calling somebody…anybody…but after a moment, he decided against it, letting his hands fall by his sides as he approached the theater in silence.

            At six o’clock, Junpei met Yukari at the double doors.  They barely talked as they made their way down the street towards Bacchanalia, and Junpei did not feel much need to try.  He did, however, opt to walk tall and hold his head high, because he’d be damned if he gave Yukari an excuse to be embarrassed about being with him.

            As they neared the restaurant’s entrance, Junpei began to squirm with excitement.  This was it.  He pushed through the door, a warm rush of air brushing against his hat, and scanned the room looking for his target.

            Souji was there, sure enough, the back of his gray-blonde head standing out amongst the crowd, but he was not alone at his table, and Junpei felt his stomach drop in the heady acknowledgement that his plan was now royally and unrepentantly screwed.

            Rise sat across the table, facing the entrance and half turned so that her legs crossed out from under the booth.  She had not seen them yet, too caught up in gesturing with the stirrer straw from her coffee as she told some story to see them framed against the doorway.  A wild part of Junpei realized that there was still time to salvage his plan, to get out before any damage could be done, but that thought died stillborn when he heard Yukari’s whispered, “Oh my god, Junpei.  See that girl over there?  I think that might be – ohmigod – that’s Risette!”

            He turned towards Yukari in hopes of dissuading her, but saw that Rise had not only spotted them, but had started waving.  Junpei officially gave up.

            Yukari turned towards the doorway, no doubt in hopes of seeing who the Risette was waving to, and Rise laughed, rising from her seat and striding boldly towards them.

            Souji, for his part, glanced over his shoulder, grinned unapologetically, and turned back to his coffee.  The dick.

            “Junpei!” Rise called brightly, and Yukari turned back in time to see Junpei- Junpei – enveloped in a big hug by Risette herself.

            Junpei hugged back because…well…but he pulled away rather quickly, grinning despite himself, because it was impossible to not be pleased to see Rise – and to be seen in public with her.

            “Hey, Rise,” he said, preening slightly.  “Wow, I gotta say, I’m surprised you’re, well, here.  Aren’t you swamped, what with –“

            “Oh, don’t start.  Don’t even mention it.  This whole comeback tour thing was not my idea.  I called up my manager just to reconnect and let him know I wanted back in eventually, and two days later it had exploded into whatever this mess is.  I’m not even done with my year in school yet.”

            “But you’re still doin’ it, right?”

            “Well, I couldn’t back out once I’d seen the fans’ response to the idea.  I had no idea it would be so…”

            “Rabid?”

            “Earnest, actually.  I guess I didn’t think anyone would really miss Risette.  You know, miss her and not just her boobs.”

            The force of will it took not to glance down at Rise’s chest was massive, and Junpei was not quite up to the challenge.  He quickly darted his eyes away, blushing.  “Well, you can’t blame the guys that miss them, too.”

            Rise simply laughed.  “Not really, no.  I mean, after CGI and padding, they were rather spectacular.”

            Junpei snickered, cocking his eyebrows in acknowledgement.  “Yeah, spectacular’s…yeah.  Yes.”

            Rise smiled, cat-like, and turned towards Yukari.  “You’re Takeba, right?  I’ve heard so much about you.  It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”

            To say that Yukari was stunned would be like calling the Arctic temperate.  It was not just an understatement – it was simply wrong.  Yukari was shaken, less by the presence of the idol in their midst and more by their role reversal and her sudden feeling of seclusion.  Junpei knew Risette, knew her fairly well if their ease with each other was any indication, and Yukari was left reeling, trying to think of any possible situation that could have led to their friendship.

            Regardless, Yukari had an image to uphold, and she smiled, shifting her head to the side so that her hair tossed over her shoulder, and nodded a bow.  “Wow, it’s such an honor,” she said.  “I’m a huge fan.”

            Rise laughed.  “Oh, stop.  Please don’t do the formal thing.  Come on, both of you.  I’m sure Souji’d prefer to hide in the corner for the rest of the evening, but he’s got another thing coming to him if he thinks that’s actually going to happen.  You’re such a dork, Souji,” she said, fondly, as she slipped in beside him and across from her original seat.  Yukari froze at the edge of the table, uncertain, and Junpei grabbed her shoulder, pushing her gently into the far side of the booth across from Souji.

            “I was just giving you time with your adoring fans,” Souji said, and Rise knocked against his shoulder, grinning.  “Hey, Junpei,” Souji added.

            Junpei gave Souji a long, appraising look.  The guy looked…harried.  Tired.  No, actually, Junpei thought, there was a better way to describe him. Souji looked like he’d climbed twenty floors of Tartarus and then gone straight back down to the lobby for a healing session.  He was physically fine, but he looked like he’d cast Mabufudyne one too many times.  The dude was run dry. 

After a brief pause, Junpei responded.  “Yeah, hey to you too.  So...what’s up with all this?” Junpei said, gesturing back and forth between their leader and Rise curiously.

            Souji chuckled dryly, but Junpei saw how Rise’s expression turned sour.  “Oh, just my parents being my parents.  You know, the plan was to have them pick me up from the station, show me around and then drop me off here in time for dinner, but I guess they forgot the time at which my train was supposed to arrive.  Anyway, I called them from the station a couple of times but they didn’t pick up, so I called Rise instead.  I knew she had the afternoon off, so…”

            “Yeah, it’s the first evening off I’ve had since I got here,” Rise said, reaching across the table to pull her coffee towards her.  “Good thing too, right?”

            Junpei shook his head.  “First of all, your family’s made of dicks, dude –I don’t mean the kid and your uncle! – but they should have at least had their phone on if they knew their son was coming into town.”

            Rise snorted inelegantly, wrapping her hands around her coffee cup but not lifting it off of its saucer.  “We’re still a little vague on whether or not they even remembered that bit.”

            “I made it here, didn’t I?” Souji said in a display of more emotion than Junpei was used to seeing from the guy.  “It’s all worked out, but thank you both for outlining the sad farce that masquerades as my family life.”  Souji shook his head, pasting on a comically fake smile.  “Hi, Yukari, by the way.  It’s nice to see you.  How’s your day been?”

            Junpei was a bit taken aback.  “Geez, man.  We were just tryin’ to show you some sympathy.”

            Souji exhaled, his shoulders slumping lightly.  “Yeah, I know.  It’s just been a long day.”

            “Why didn’t you call me or Akihiko?” Junpei could not help but ask.  “We’da helped you out.”

            Souji smiled, straightening back up in his seat.  “It was half dumb panic.  I don’t…so I’m not actually sure where home is going to be, exactly.  Dojima said that mom and dad were waffling between two places, but I really could not tell you which one they settled on.  They’re both in the same school district, so it didn’t occur to me to ask.”

            Junpei hoped he did not look as skeptical as he felt.  “That doesn’t sound like you, amigo.  Aren’t you sort of mister must-be-informed-about-everything?”

            Rise giggled, leaning into Souji’s side, and Souji pinched the bridge of his nose, a tired smile worming its way onto his face.  “I’ve had other things on my mind, Junpei.  Which, if you must know, is the main reason I called Rise.  It’s also why I’m so damned tired.”

            Junpei watched as Souji’s smile dissolved into wistful chuckles and Rise shook her head, curling an arm behind Souji and pulling him towards her with a tolerant smile.  Junpei let them giggle together for a moment before what they had said clicked. 

            “Wait,” he said, leaning forwards against the table and eyes growing wide.  “Is he…is he out?”

            “He’s out,” Souji said with a drowsy grin.  “I gave him the evening to explore the city without me getting in his business.  We’re nearing hour three, though and thus the-“ Souji gestured vaguely at his face and rumpled hair, “-for which I really must apologize.  I promise, Yukari, I don’t usually look this mussed.”

            Yukari seemed to have gathered herself, and she tilted her head back, gazing searchingly down her nose at Souji.  “Who exactly told you that it was okay to call me Yukari?  Are you always this familiar with strangers?”

            Souji’s sleepy smile lengthened into a smirk.  “Only with ones I really like.”

            Before Yukari could muster up a retort, Rise’s hand had jumped from Souji’s shoulder to the back of his head, fisting in his hair and shaking his head lightly back and forth.  “None of that, Casanova.  Back!  Back to the pit from whence you came!” she said, eyebrows lowered and eyes focused despite her beaming smile.  Souji, for his part, continued to smirk for a moment, before his lips sank back into a light, placid smile and he shook Rise’s hand off.

            “Okay, okay, I’ll behave,” he said, but when Rise let go of his hair and looked away, he quickly shot a wink at Yukari, who blushed, huffed and looked at Junpei.  Junpei recoiled.

            “How is he my fault?”  Junpei asked, scooting to the end of the seat in a vain attempt to get away from Yukari’s glare.  “Besides, I thought overly forward guys were your type or something.”

            “Stupei,” Yukari said menacingly before gritting her teeth and settling back into the corner of the booth so that she could stare at the table at large.  “So, are you guys going to tell me why I’m here and what the hell’s going on, or are you just going to make me sit here and watch you talk?  If it’s the second one, I’d really prefer it if you would at least make sense.  Who’s ‘out’?”

            Souji mimicked Yukari’s movements, leaning into the opposite corner and crossing his arms.  “Right,” he said, sobering.  “Sorry about that.  Like I say, I’m usually not this…well, I’m a bit off balance at the moment.  I was hoping to make a better first impression, but, unfortunately, helping out a friend of mine had to prioritize over my delicate ego.”

            “Right,” Yukari said, lingering on the single word doubtfully.  “Listen, if we could back up a bit, that would be great.  I’m at a table with Risette, and somehow she knows Stupei here, and I really don’t think my mind’s quite progressed past that yet.”

            “Sorry,” Rise said.  “I think I might have thrown a wrench in things.  I wasn’t actually supposed to be here tonight, but after picking Souji up and hearing his plans, I couldn’t help but want to meet you, too.”

            Yukari looked properly confused again.  “Wait, sorry.  You weren’t the friend that Junpei wanted me to meet?  I mean, I didn't get it at first, but he practically told me that we were going to meet Risette tonight.”

            “You told her that?” Souji asked.

            “No!  No, I didn’t say that,” Junpei said, flushing.  “I just – I was using Risette as an example.  Like, you know how people you see on the news or in everyday life sometimes disappear, and you don’t think that they’re going to make a come back and –“

            Souji groaned, face in his hands, and Rise erupted into a fit of giggles.

            “-and…and then they do come back and they’re like before but different and-“

            “Stop.  Stop now.  Just, god,” Souji said, the sound muffled by his hands but still more than loud enough to be heard.

            “Junpei,” Rise said, her head now tilted back and sideways towards one of her shoulders as she struggled to get her words past her snickers, “what could have possibly made you think that was a good analogy?”

            “Well, what would you have done?” Junpei said, his cheeks burning red and his voice pitched high.  “How would you have prepped someone for a conversation like this?  You want to know how I found out?  I’d just woken up and Akihiko and Yuki-tan start chatting out of the blue about Ryoji and Minato like they’d all been having some friggin’ picnic together and the world was flowers and daisies, man.”

            Souji groaned again.  Rise’s laughter had condensed into something more resembling a fit.

            “I had no warning.  I was trying to give her warning.”

            “Junpei.  You have to stop.  Now,” Souji said, raising his face out of his hands and staring imploringly at Junpei over his fingers.

            “Oh my god, I’m telling everybody about this,” Rise said, pulling out her phone with shaking hands and holding it to her chest as she tried to calm down.

            Yukari’s voice cut through the chaos, her words cold and steely despite the way they trembled.  “What are you all talking about?”

            Rise’s laughter cut off all at once, and she, Junpei and Souji all stared at the girl who had backed even further into her corner, her eyes wide and guarded.  Everyone remained silent.

            “What are you all talking about?” Yukari repeated, louder and angrier than before, and there was something wild in her eyes.  “What do you mean?”

            After a beat, Souji carefully laid his hand down on the table, everything about his posture screaming unthreatening as he softened his voice.  “Rise, Junpei, maybe you two should leave us for a moment.  Yukari and I need to talk.”

            Yukari bristled, her eyes blazing as they locked on Souji.  “And why would I ever want to be alone with you?  Who the hell do you think you are?”

            Souji’s whole body tensed momentarily before he closed his eyes, breathing out in one long breath through his nose as he let the tension slide off of him.  When he opened his eyes, they were steely.

            “Who I think I am, Yukari Takeba, is not only a complicated question, but it’s also none of your concern.  What matters right now is who you think I am.  Junpei’s handle on this has been…inelegant – sorry Junpei, it’s true – and that’s going to make this a bit trickier.  You just heard two names.  Those names are very important to me, and I know that they are important to you, too.  I can tell you everything that I know, but that’s going to require a bit of trust on your part and a willingness to listen.  Given the circumstances, I realize that that’s asking a lot.”

            The hot wariness on Yukari’s face did not lessen.  If anything, she seemed more guarded than before.  “Yeah,” she said, her voice a fierce whisper.  “That is asking a lot.”

            “Alright.  Out,” Rise said, scooting out of the booth and gesturing towards the door, “Both of you.  Souji, take Junpei outside and…I don’t know.  Catch him up?  Make him less of an idiot?  Whatever you think needs doing.  Yukari and I are going to have a little talk.”

            “Wha-“ Yukari said, her anger fading at the prospect of being alone in a booth with her idol. 

            “We’re going to talk, and the boys are going to get some air.  Out.”

            Souji stared up at Rise for a long moment before he nodded thankfully, jaw set, and climbed out of the booth.

            “Hey, come on, man.  We can’t bail like-“

            “You’re joining me outside,” Souji said, grabbing Junpei by his upper arm and hauling him from his seat.  “Come on.”

            “But – yeah, okay,” Junpei said, and Rise and Yukari watched the two move down the isle and out the restaurant’s front door.

            Yukari sat in silence as she watched Rise fold back into the middle of the booth.  The idol twisted one of her pigtails around her finger distractedly, causing her hair to corkscrew.

            “So, Yukari Takeba,” Rise said at last, settling her elbows on the edge of the table and leaning on her folded fingers, “It’s crazy to finally meet you.  I mean, I’ve heard a ton about you over the last few months, but I guess I didn’t expect to ever meet you in person.”

            Yukari shook her head, dazed.  “Right.  Rise Kujikawa’s heard a lot about me.  Right.”

            “I have though.  Not from Souji, obviously.  He…likes to live in the present.  He only gets nostalgic when things get really crappy, but Ryoji’s told me plenty-“

            “No.”

            “-both good and bad, I’ll admit,” Rise said, talking over Yukari’s muttered protestation.  “Enough to put together a pretty good picture.”

            “I don’t – you’re wrong.  You’re just…just wrong.”

            “So, you’re telling me that you don’t know a guy named Ryoji?”

            “It’s not-“

            “You know, cute, brunette – got a mole under his left eye?”

            “-you don’t know-“

            “Fond of scarves?  Any of this ringing a bell?”

            “Look,” Yukari said, banging a clenched fist on the table and jerking forward.  “I don’t know how you know any of this stuff, but whatever you think you know, you’re wrong.  What you’re saying is impossible.”

            Rise sighed, reaching one hand towards her coffee cup and grabbing its handle.  “Impossible compared to what?”

            Yukari shrugged wildly, one hand waving in exasperation.  “They must be different Ryoji’s.”

            Rise scoffed, taking a long sip of her now cool coffee.  “Fine,” she said after clicking her tongue.  “What about Minato-“

            Yukari inhaled sharply.

            “-Minato Arisato.  What about him?”

            Yukari’s indignation was settling into something cooler and more timid.  She shook her head.  “This – what you’re doing – is cruel.  Why would you-?”

            Rise held her cup to her lips, but did not drink.  After a moment, she put the cup back in its saucer.

            “Like I said, I’ve heard a lot about you,” Rise said, locking eyes with Yukari and making sure the other girl held her gaze.  “I know you’re an archer and that you don’t take shit.  I know your element is wind-“

            Yukari swallowed.

            “-and that, once upon a time, you were in love with a kid named Minato.”

            “Why would Junpei have told you that?” 

            Rise shook her head.  “He didn’t.  Actually, I’m pretty sure that I’m not supposed to know, but it’s getting difficult to keep much from me,” Rise said, tapping two fingers against her temple and then settling her chin into her hand.  “That, and I overheard Souji and the featherbrain arguing about you a little while ago.”

            Yukari pursed her lips and seemed to direct her attention towards the least concerning aspect of Rise’s revelation.  “Featherbrain’?”

            Rise smiled.  “Ryoji had wings when I first met him.  Also, his name rhymes with Souji’s, and it totally gets on my nerves sometimes.”

            Yukari’s entire expression sunk even farther than before.  “Wings…oh my god…”

            “You okay?” Rise asked, her expression pinched.

            “You’re – you – you keep talking like I’m an idiot and what you’re saying is completely obvious, but you don’t get it.  If Ryoji’s back, then he-“

            “He’s back too, Yukari.”

            The table fell into one of the most awkward silences either had ever witnessed.

            “How many times do I have to tell you?”  Yukari said at last, her voice a vicious whisper.  “That isn’t funny.”

            “Okay, girly, look.  Comedy isn’t part of my image, but even if it were, I wouldn’t joke about something like this.  Think, okay?  He’s an idiot, but Junpei was trying to help you.  Think for a sec about what he said.”

            Yukari raised a hand to her neck, fiddling absently with her choker.  Her eyes refused to leave the table as she twisted the white leather strap back and forth.  “He said we were seeing you,” she said, almost petulantly.

            Rise decided not to dignify that with a response.

            Yukari’s face clenched, and she turned towards Rise with an aggrieved gasp and sigh.  “He – he said…he said that sometimes things leave and come back again changed.”

            Rise smiled warmly.  “Okay, I’ll give the guy credit.  If I hadn’t showed up and made his metaphor literal, that wouldn’t have been such a terrible line.”

            Yukari shook her head, the set of her eyes still grim.  “But, if he didn’t want to introduce me to you…why would he want me to meet your boyfriend.”

            “Oh, do we look like a couple?  That’s so great!  Unfortunately untrue, but score!”

            “You two aren’t together?”

            “Not at the moment, nope,” Rise said brightly, “but we’ve got the rest of our lives, right?  Actually, I’m pretty sure that Junpei was trying to set you and Souji up.”

            “That is just too weird,” Yukari said, straightening up.

            “What, tall, slick and handsome’s not your type?”

            “It’s not that.”

            Rise sipped at her coffee, waiting.

            “What did you mean, he’s back?”

            “Look, I’m not going to pretend that this next bit isn’t weird, and I probably should have prefaced this whole thing by saying, ‘yeah, he’s back, but it’s totally bizarre and complicated’.”

            “Complicated how?” Yukari asked dryly.

            Rise smiled, leaning forward.  “Have you ever heard of a town called Inaba?”

 

 

            “Why’d you have to bring Rise?  I don’t get it.  Exactly how was bringing your hot, famous chick-friend supposed to help your reunion with Yukari?  In what possible world was that a good idea?”

            “Are you actually upset because you think it was a bad idea,” Souji asked, leaning against the wall a few feet down from Bacchanalia’s large front windows, “or are you just upset because it ruined whatever you’ve been scheming?”

            “I’m upset because you’re not making any sense.  What’s up with you today?  I mean, I get that Ryoji’s not up in that crazy head of yours, but you’ve been letting him out on and off for weeks now, right?  What’s the big deal?”

            “The big deal,” Souji said flatly, “is that this is difficult, Junpei.”

            Junpei came to rest against the wall beside Souji, crossing his arms over his chest.  “Yeah?  I’m not saying I thought it was gonna be easy frickin’ peasy, but…”

            Souji sighed.  “How long is the longest you’ve ever manifested your Persona?”

            “Twenty, thirty seconds tops.  Why?”

            Souji gave him a long, level look.

            “Shit, man, seriously?  Seriously.  Holy-“

            “Ryoji’s my shadow, and shadows and Personas are pretty much the same thing, so-“

            “You said you’re on hour three?” Junpei said, his voice a loud whisper.

            Souji nodded.

            “You’re crazy.  Mental.”

            Souji laughed.  “It’s not like I had much of a choice.  I knew I could do it, in theory, and that made it practically impossible not to at least try.  You’ve known that Ryoji was alive for months.  Why is this such a surprise to you?”

            “I knew he was out, but I didn’t know how.  I figured there was just some door in your head, and you could just – shwoop – let him go.  I didn’t know you had to summon him.  Do you need an Evoker or - ?”

            “It depends.  Ryoji - well, not Ryoji necessarily, but one of his other incarnations – used to manage this same thing for short bursts of time.  He’d show up in my room or around the dorm back in Iwatodai to talk with me and then he’d disappear back into my subconscious.  So, sometimes he can get out on his own with just some extra support from me, but other times he needs a push.”

            “And that works?”

            “Yeah.  I mean, sort of.  The first time we tried, it was a disaster.  Summoning him as a Persona’s not all that tough, and I had thought that simply holding a Persona in existence without forcing it to do magic or fight something would be a simple matter, but that’s…there aren’t words that express quite how wrong I was about that.”

            “But you’re on hour three.”

            “Yeah,” Souji said, with a laugh that lengthened the word into two syllables.  “And look at me.  I’ve made it to hour five before, but then I passed out and was useless for a day afterwards, so I’m not going to try that again anytime soon.”

            “Does he feel the side effects?”

            Souji shook his head in a negative. 

            “And he’s okay with you runnin’ yourself sick over this?”

            “Of course he isn’t,” Souji said with a sigh, “but we have to pick our battles.  I was going to do this anyway, so he’s decided to make the most of it.”

            Junpei grunted, a humming sound that stuck in the back of his throat, before letting his weight fall against the wall, bumping his head in the process.

            “What exactly were you playing at, by the way?” Souji asked, his eyes slipping sideways to consider his friend.

            “Eh, doesn’t really matter now.  You gotta let what’s passed be past, right?”

            It was unfair, Junpei thought, that when Souji rolled his eyes, it looked elegant, rather than immature.  “You weren’t actually trying to set us up, were you?  Please tell me you weren’t.”

            “Why is this such a big deal?  She’s Yukari, and you’re…you!  Of course I was gonna try and get you kids together.  It’s obviously what the universe wants-“

            “Junpei-“

            “-and I’m just obeying the cosmos.”

            Souji shook his head slowly back and forth, a sad smile splitting his face sideways.  “Junpei…thank you.  Thank you for caring, even if it’s a bit misplaced.”

            “How’s it misplaced?”

            With a soft grunt of effort, Souji pushed off of the wall, turning into the movement so that he faced Junpei.  The evening was almost done sinking from golden twilight into dark-blue dusk, and the streetlight across the way caught Souji’s outline, making it glow even as his face fell into shadow. 

            “The last thing I need right now,” Souji said, “is more complication.”

            Junpei was about to retort when Souji cut him off.  “I’ve got enough lifetime commitments to last me for a while.”

            “Yeah, but that doesn’t count, man.”

            Junpei could not see Souji’s face, but the disdainful snort said what expressions could not. 

            “Really?” Souji said, the word long and languid.  “They don't count?”

            “Oh, come on.  You know what I mean.  Stop acting like a jackass.”

            There was a long pause, and Junpei wished he could see Souji’s face.  In the end, Souji’s outline slumped and he moved to lean against the wall again in silence.

            Junpei was not sure what to make of that.  “Is that it?  No come back?”  

               “It’s my problem, not yours to worry about.”

               “Dude,” Junpei said, grinning sideways.  “Sometimes you just gotta complain for complaining’s sake, you get me?”

               Souji breathed a laugh.

               They sat quiet for a moment.

               “So Rise’s here to make sure that you don’t pass out across the table?”

               “It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.”

               “What, did you fall ass over tea-kettle down a flight of stairs?”

               “Slumped unconscious by the shoe lockers at school, actually.”

               “Ah.  Well, there you go then.”

               “Yeah.”

               “I’m lovin’ that power dynamic, though,” Junpei said with a grin.

               “We’re working on it.”

                Junpei cackled.  “God, I love karma.”

               “Why’s that?” Souji asked, raising an eyebrow.

               “This time it’s you being lorded over by a chick for a change.  Justice!”

               Souji froze beside him, and it took Junpei a moment to realize that the strange skritching sound was Souji scraping his fingernails anxiously against the wall behind him.

               “What exactly,” Souji said, his voice quiet and light, “do you mean by that?”

               Junpei grinned nervously, uncertain.  “Eh?  I’m just sayin’ that the rest of us had to stay under Mitsuru’s sexy heels all the damned time, but you managed to worm your way outta that, ya jerk.”

               Souji nodded, his eyes distant.  “Oh.  Yeah.”

               “You can be so weird sometimes, manfriend.”

               Souji popped both eyebrows in a clear pot-calling-the-kettle-black expression. 

               Junpei chuckled.  “How long do you think they’re gonna be in there?”

               Souji shrugged indecisively in response.  “I’d rather not hang on this place’s doorstep waiting for them,” he said.

                 Junpei pushed off of the wall, a toothy grin painted across his face.  “Wanna cruise the area and see if there’s any sketchtastic old pharmacies around that sell snuff souls?”

                 “I’m pretty sure that they’re illegal, actually,” Souji said, standing up straight despite his words.

                 “No they’re not.  I needed some extra cash this one time, so I peddled some off at this, like, drugstore.”

                 The edge of Souji’s mouth twisted down in a display of doubt.  “I’m not saying people aren’t willing to take it off of your hands, but I’ve never seen anybody sell it properly.  The only place that I know of to get it outside of Tartarus and the TV world is that antique shop in Paulownia Mall, and even then I had to barter for it off books.  It is a drug.”

                 “Yeah, like if speed and caffeine had a beautiful, beautiful love child.”

                 Souji chuckled.  “I’d check on the list of controlled substances, but I don’t have a clue what’s in the stuff.”

                 “Huh,” Junpei said with a sideways smile.  “So, is that a ‘no’?”

                 “That’s an ‘absolutely’.  Let’s go.”

       

       

                  It was not until late that evening that Yukari made her way slowly back to her dorm.  She and Risette had declared the booth their territory, and had stayed long after finishing their meals and moving on to dessert and coffee.  Yukari supposed that was one advantage to spending the evening with a celebrity – no one in the restaurant even considered asking them to move. 

                  Throughout it all, Rise had shared her story, and Yukari had listened.  As she thought about it, Yukari felt cold tingling in a rush down her arms and torso, and she shuddered in an attempt to shake it off.

                  In retrospect, she supposed it had been naïve to assume that it really could all have been over.

                  As she approached the curb next to the turnaround by her dorm, she saw him, sitting on an empty flowerpot by the double doors.  It probably had also been naïve to not expect him.

                  “I guess I ruined your night,” she said, her voice strong and unrepentant.  “I’m not sorry about it.”

                  “I woulda been surprised if you had been, Yuka-tan,” Junpei said, not moving out of his graceless sprawl, but looking up at her, eyes clear.  “So you’re not even going to talk to him?”

                  Yukari said nothing, standing straight-backed and still on the curb.

                  “I know it’s tough to believe, but he’s the real deal.  The genuine article – I wouldn’t lie to you about this.”

                  “He’s been back for months, Junpei.”

                  Junpei had been afraid that it would come down to that.

                  “Yeah, he has.”

                  “Then that’s the end of that,” Yukari said, moving towards the doors with purpose.

                  “Yukari-“

                  Yukari spun on her heel, eyes blazing.  “I should have been the first one he told.”

                  “He didn’t want to worry you.”

                  “What are you, his advocate?”

                  Junpei gazed flatly at her.  “So you’re not going to do anything?  You’re gonna pretend like you never heard this and go on your merry way?”

                  “I never wanted to fight shadows.  I only joined SEES to learn what happened to my dad, and now I know.  I’m not going back.”

                  “Nobody’s asking-“

                  “That’s where this all leads, Junpei.  You’re an idiot if you think anything but.”

                  Junpei pulled his hat off of his head with a sigh, scrubbing a hand through his short hair.  Yukari began to walk away from him, but before she got to the doors, she was called to a halt.

                  “I’ve got two tickets.”

                  Yukari was not slow on the uptake.  “To Rise’s show?”

                  “Yeah.  I was gonna give ‘em to you and make you think Souji’d done it.”

                  “Why?”

                  Junpei leaned back, his arms stretched taught as they held him in place on top of the flowerpot.  “To make things right.  Shit.  Fine.  It was dumb.  Just – we’re not trying to trick you.  I promise.  We’re your friends.”

                  Her eyes thinned sadly, and Junpei did not think he imagined her small sniff, but when Yukari spoke, her voice was as haughty as ever.  “I hope you know that you’re taking me, Stupei, and you’d better dress up for it.”

                  Junpei grinned broadly.  “Girl, I think that’s something even I can do.”

                  With a tight smile, Yukari retreated to her dorm, the mechanical hiss of the doors lingering in the air even after she was gone.

                  Junpei waited on top of the flowerpot for a moment longer, grinning into the night.