Author's Note: It's been a long day already. I just got home from the emergency room, to which I was rushed after suffering a series of painful chest spasms.
Turns out I'm fine. I've ruptured/torn something in my chest cavity. I have no idea how. Anyway, I'm not dying, so maybe I'll finish this story after all.
Fifty Five: Double
Dojima hadn't been able to sleep at all the night before. After getting back from his argument with Margaret on the riverbank, he'd tossed and turned desperately for hours, imagining the closed look in her eyes, the low, defeated tones in her voice, and the way she'd turned her back and walked away from him as though walking away from him forever.
He didn't have any more answers than he'd had that morning, and he was even less satisfied with the person whom Margaret claimed to be.
At the same time, it had become clearer and clearer as the hours had stretched on that he was going to lose her, and that wasn't necessarily something he was willing to accept.
He'd drifted his way through most of Saturday, functioning on autopilot. He ate breakfast, did some paperwork, watched TV and then got roaringly drunk on the sofa in front of the turned-off TV set, still stewing, furious with both himself and Margaret and hoping that maybe, just maybe, she would call.
She didn't call.
By the time he was sober enough to get back on his feet, it was already seven o'clock at night.
Several days ago, he'd made dinner plans with Margaret for tonight at six thirty. Of course, he knew she wasn't coming.
What the hell would I say if she did show up? He frowned. Who knows?. Doesn't seem like there's anything left to say on my end anyway.
The clock continued to tick. The world outside slowly got darker, and darker. The sleepy Inaba nightlife began to come out to play, consisting almost entirely of housewives doing their nightly garden-weeding, or stepping over to the fence to chat with neighbors about the local gossip.
Margaret still didn't call.
Dojima wrestled with himself. He sighed, waffled a bit in his own mind, and then took a deep breath, reached into his pocket, and pulled out his cell phone to dial a now very familiar number.
"Hello?" asked Theodore' politely and perfectly after Dojima had listened anxiously to a few interminable rings.
"Uh…yeah. It's me," he muttered. "Ryotaro Dojima. I need to speak to Margaret, please."
"Oh, but, I thought…" Theodore paused for a moment. There was a brief silence, during which Dojima was sure he could hear the sound of muffled voices on the other end of the line. "But, Dojima-san," Theodore began again finally. "Isn't Margaret with you? She isn't here. She hasn't been here since last night. We both assumed…"
Dojima cursed under his breath. "No," he muttered. "She's not with me. We, uh…we had a fight."
"I…I see." Theodore sounded worried. "Well, that is very disturbing."
Meanwhile, in the TV world…
The confrontation had begun, exactly as everyone had expected. Suzume had arrived, a bit late but just in time to see Ken's shadow emerge from the sea of his soul with a remarkably peevish and childish look on its face.
Ken, stoic and untrembling, now stood before his shadow while the rest of the team ringed themselves around him, forming a kind of semicircle.
"Here we go," muttered Junpei. "Come on Ken, you can do this. Piece of cake…"
"This is so embarrassing," murmured Ken's shadow unexpectedly, gazing down at the floor. "I thought that by now, things would be different, but they aren't. That's..it's so pathetic. I'm so pathetic."
"I…I'm not embarrassed," retorted Ken. "Why would I be? Everybody else already went through this. There's nothing to be ashamed of about it. Everybody has stuff inside that they don't like, right?"
Shadow Ken sighed. "Everyone else did it already? Am I really the last one?"
"Well…no, not the last one," said Ken. "Yukari-san and Fuuka-san haven't come yet, and Aigis-san hasn't done hers, so-!"
"But," insisted Shadow Ken, "everybody else, right? Akihiko-senpai, and Shinjiro-senpai, and Mitsuru-senpai…they all went already?"
"So," muttered Shadow Ken, "then, that's why they're all helping you. Shinjiro-senpai gave you advice, and Akihiko-senpai is here to watch the fight. Everybody's here to help you…just like always."
Ken stared. "What? What's that supposed to mean?"
"It was just the same back then," Shadow Ken went on, his eyes narrowing in a peevish sort of disgruntled way. "Everybody was always there to help you, and to protect you. They treated you just like a little kid, because you were a little kid. Somebody always has to look out for little kids, to make sure that they don't do anything stupid and get hurt. That's why everyone was always looking out for you…and they still are."
That time, Ken didn't seem to have anything to say. His cheeks went pink, and then he looked angry, and a little bit ashamed.
"She tried to protect you," continued Shadow Ken. "Minako-san was always protecting you. You said you wanted her to rely on you, but she didn't. How could she? You were just a little kid. Little kids aren't worth anything…not even if they're brave and strong and have special powers. They're still just little kids. They can't really do anything useful. They're always just in the way. Everyone else has to watch out for them."
"Amada-san," murmured Naoto unexpectedly. Yu looked over and found Naoto watching Ken with compassionate surprise in her eyes.
"Maybe," said Shadow Ken sadly, "if someone else had been there, it would have been okay. If there had been someone big, strong, and powerful to protect Minako-san in that final battle, she wouldn't have died. Someone should have been looking out for her. Instead, she was looking out for you. You couldn't protect her. That's why all that stuff happened. You were too much of a worthless little kid…and maybe you still are. Everyone's protecting you, even now. Are you going to let them get hurt for you, too?"
"Don't let it get to you, Ken," called Akihiko from his position against the wall.
"Worthless? Don't be stupid," mumbled Shinjiro. "That thing doesn't know what the hell it's talking about. You got this."
"Stop it," muttered Ken. Yu couldn't tell if he was talking to the shadow, or to Shinjiro.
"What happened back then's all over now," Shinjiro went on. "Don't waste time stewing about the past. You've gotta-!"
"I said, stop!" Ken turned and glared at Shinjiro. "I don't need your help anymore!"
Shinjiro stopped. For a moment, two men stared at one another.
"I can do this myself," insisted Ken. "I don't need to rely on any of you. You don't have to protect me. Just leave me alone!"
"Hey, Ken-!" began Akihiko warningly.
"Amada-san, look out!" Naoto dove forward just in time to intercept Shadow Ken's spear as it suddenly crashed down towards Ken's unprotected head. She darted in and deflected the blow, taking it on her shoulder.
"Nngh," muttered Naoto, taking a shaky step back. "Pay…pay more attention. Don't let it divert your focus."
Ken's eyes widened. Then he nodded slowly, turned, and faced the shadow his knuckles white as he stranled the shaft of his spear.
"Shit," muttered Shinjiro. "Oh well. Might as well do this the hard way…"
Just as all the shadows before it had done, Shadow Ken twisted, writhed, and then mutated into a vision of Minako Arisato.
She laughed in her carefree way, beamed at them all, then reached out and ruffled Ken's hair. Ken stood completely still, frozen to the spot as she touched him. The image was a perverse one. Shadow Minako had to reach up to pat and caress Ken, who was taller than she was, and somewhat broader as well.
"Don't worry," she told him. "It's okay to be a kid. Being a grown up is boring, anyway. Don't rush! You have all the time in the world!"
"But," mumbled Ken. "But…no, I-!"
Shadow Minako shook her head, and then began increasing in size, changing color and mutating yet again.
Next to Yu, Junpei shuddered. "I don't think I'm ever gonna get used to that," he muttered. "Freaks me out every single time. I mean…maybe it's because it's like Mina-tan is turning into a monster?"
The shadow now towered over Ken. It resembled a giant robot, or maybe a mecha action figure of gigantic proportions, with a swiveling head and massive metallic arms that didn't seem to be jointed at all. It was red, blue, and gold in color, and there were still two staring yellow holes in its face where Shadow Minako's eyes had been.
"Uh…wait, really?" Kanji was frowning at the shadow. "I think I had that figure as a kid…"
"Persona," whispered Cho. Her persona erupted into being, and all around her, the rest of the team began summoning their own personas.
All right, though t Yu. It might be mechanical. If it is, then we can probably use lightening to pick it off relatively quick-!
"Oh…Ken-kun," gasped an unfamiliar female voice from somewhere near the TV world entrance. Yu spun around and saw a wide-eyed girl walking towards them, staring open-mouthed and shocked at the giant robot shadow.
The girl had hair of a kind of light blue color that looked much more natural than the artificially dyed blue color worn by the more daring, punk-inclined students at Yasogami. The idea of light blue hair looking natural on anyone was strange enough, but Yu didn't waste much time worrying about that. He was instead distracted by the remarkably beautiful persona standing by the newcomer's side, which had a pair of what looked like mechanical wings, and was wearing a long red and blue gown which trailed on the floor behind it.
As Yu watched, the persona vanished, leaving the girl alone.
"What's…what's happening?" she breathed "Are you all right? Is that…a shadow?"
"Fuuka!" shouted Akihiko. "What are you doing here?"
"I…I got off work early," began Fuuka distractedly. "I took the train from Iwatodai just like Mitsuru-senpai asked me, but when I got here, I couldn't find you. I had Juno search for you, and…she told me that you were inside the TV. That didn't make any sense, so I thought that it couldn't be right, but when I touched the TV, I-!"
"Save it!" shouted Shinjiro. "Fuuka, get the hell out of here, now!"
The robot shadow lunged forward, one arm prepared to sweep Kanji off of his feet. He took a step back, dodged, and countered with his shield. Unfortunately, the attack bounced right off, sending Kanji reeling.
"What?" Fuuka shook her head. "Oh, no, but I-!"
"We'll explain later, okay?" Junpei started towards her. "Trust me, just get out! We'll come find you when it's all over."
Fuuka looked uncertain. The shadow took another step forward. Naoto moved in between Ken and the oncoming shadow,.
"Megidolaon," she muttered. Her persona moved, and the shadow was bombarded with almighty magic. With a metallic sort of squeaking sound, it turned its attention to Naoto.
"I don't understand," Fuuka was saying. "What's going on? Please, let me help you!"
"You can't help!" shouted Akihiko. "You're only gonna-!"
Behind Fuuka, a new shadow began to materialize. It slowly solidified into a perfect, golden-eyed mirror image of Fuuka herself.
"I can't help?" It asked. "But…yes, I can help. I'm sure I can help. I'm a part of this team. I want to help you!"
Shinjiro groaned. Junpei swore under his breath. Naoto and Kanji were still caught up in the battle with Ken's shadow to have noticed the new arrival.
"Yu," demanded Cho, "what do we do now?"