Epilogue: The Chosen
"Welcome to the Velvet Room, for what I believe may be the final time." Igor peered at him over his arched fingers.
Souji looked about the room. It was indeed the same Velvet Room as he'd seen before, and aside from Igor, it was just as empty. As he took a second to think, he realized that, somehow, it seemed to have grown smaller than it was the last time he were here, weeks ago. "I – I didn't think I'd be able to come back here, after what happened. I haven't seen the door in the Shopping District since then."
"You are asleep in the real world. Your dreams are now the only avenue through which you may access this realm, and even that is closing to you shortly. In sacrificing your powers you have also given up your key."
"But I didn't sacrifice my powers," Souji said. "I mean, everyone else sacrificed them, for me. And Naoto."
"Your powers and your life are intertwined. In sacrificing your life for your cousin, in giving up your life force, so did you give up your powers. Never fear, for your need for them is, for now, at an end."
Igor's grin widened. "None can truly know what your future holds. My powers of prescience are limited, aside from the fact that I can see that yours holds more...living than it did before."
Souji tried, but failed, to suppress his smile. Indeed, the past few weeks had been some of the best he'd had in years. Perhaps his entire life. Despite the pain and suffering they had all experienced at the hands of "superior" beings, Igor had never once lied to him, nor withheld crucial truths. At least, as far as he knew. "I hope you're right on that," he said, his mind immediately focusing on Rise's face. No, not just hers: everyone's. They were a part of him now. He didn't have to be a loner. No matter where he was, nor what he did, he would always have them with him. If he was sure about one thing, though, it was that he wouldn't be staying away long ever again. Where could he be that would hold more meaning for him than with his friends?
He then remembered one thing. "Do you know where Margaret is? We haven't seen her in a while. She was staying with Taro, but she just left the other day. He said she was 'summoned', or something, but wouldn't say where she was going. Nobody's seen her since."
Igor's grin narrowed slightly. "You will see her soon. I cannot say more, because it is not my place."
"Really," Souji said, feeling a little dejected.
"Do not fret," Igor said. "Remember, you hold a piece of her within you, just as she holds a piece of you within her. She will never be far from you, no matter where her future takes her."
Souji sighed, and then nodded. "So it's, um, really all over, isn't it? Not just the fight, but our powers, our Personas, everything."
"For the future I can foresee, yes. But throughout humanity's history, there has always been a need for heroes. Some day, you may once again be called upon to fulfill that role. It may not be in the manner with which you are accustomed, but from what I have seen of your actions, you will fill it well."
The light started to dim, and then went out completely, with Igor's face being the last thing to disappear into the darkness. "Farewell, and should we not have the fortune to meet again, allow me to wish you happiness for the rest of your days. Few of whom I can think have done as much as you to earn it."
July 24, 2018
"Wow, it's like deja vu all over again," Kanji said, glancing at the train and at the bags on the platform at Souji and Rise's feet. "Can't believe you guys gotta go already."
"Yeah," Chie said. Yosuke was standing behind her, his arms draped around her, and she squeezed his wrist with her left hand. A small diamond gleamed from the gold band on her third finger.. "I mean, I know it's been like over a month, but it's like you both just got here!"
"I know," Souji said, "but my semester starts in a few days. I have to go check in at school, get settled at my parents' house again." And if I'm lucky I might actually get to meet them again, he decided not to say.
"And I've got a lot of promises to keep," Rise said. "The only way I could get them to put the concert back together so quickly was to promise my manager I'd go back on tour by the end of this month." She turned to Souji. "I'm just glad I get to take the first part of the trip with you."
Souji smiled. "Me too."
"That concert was totally awesome!" Teddie said."You're gonna come back and do another one, right?" He stretched out the front of his T-shirt, displaying a stylized caricature of Rise singing and dancing with a microphone. "I gotta get more RIsette shirts!"
"I'm sure they'd go well with all the Risette shorts and Risette wristwatches you bought," Rise said. "If I came out with a line of shoes you'd probably end up paying for my apartment all by yourself!"
"Well he might as well pay for someone's," Yosuke said. "He hasn't paid me his part of the rent in three months."
"I paid for us to go to the concert!" Teddie said.
"I gave you those tickets for free!" Rise said, putting her fists to her hips. "And the limousine ride, too!"
"But I delivered them!" Teddie said. "That counts for something, right?"
"Speaking of the concert, though," Yosuke said, "it definitely helped bring people back to town. But, I kinda think we're getting a real rep for crazy stuff happening, too. People wanna see the freak storms, and go visit the 'Destroyed Shrine'." There was a bark at their feet. "And you're getting lots of donations from that, aren't you?" Margaret and Teddie, with their remarkable ability to understand Oinari even while in her fox form, had relayed to them all about her exile to Earth. Despite their new distrust of all things having to do with the gods, they had welcomed her as one of them, and done their part to help take care of her.
Oinari nodded solemnly.
"They did a really good job of restoring it, by the way," Chie said. "I think that 'anonymous' donation helped some." She winked at Rise. "And speaking of donations, you still owe me for that library book you lost."
"What?" Rise said. "I paid you back for that like a month ago!"
"Anyway," Yukiko said, interrupting. "I'm glad you were able to transfer your credits to Tokyo U., Souji. Having you all the way across the ocean – well, I think we can all agree it wasn't great."
"Well," Souji said, shrugging, "I've seen enough of America, I think. I'd rather be home. Or, a lot closer to it, at least."
"You'll always have a home here," Ryotaro said.
"And a room, too," Nanako said. "I'll try not to take it over this time." The three of them laughed.
"So what do you have planned after you graduate?" Taro said.
"I'm not really sure," Souji said. "I've got an internship lined up for this semester, so maybe I'll stay there for a while, get a few years under my belt."
"A few years with trips back to Inaba, of course!" Chie said.
"Don't worry, I'll make sure he comes back," Rise said. "I may be doing a lot of traveling for a while, but don't think I won't come back to drag you here!" She poked him in the chest with her index finger.
"I don't think it'll come to that," Souji said, "but thanks for the offer." He kissed her cheek.
"Know what, Rise-chan? I'm so glad you fixed your hair!" Teddie said.
"Me too," Nanako said. "The short blond thing just didn't work for you."
Rise smiled and brushed her fingers through her now-red, shoulder length locks. "Thanks. I've got an image to keep up. Plus I got sick of everyone calling me 'blondie'. It's gonna be a while before it really grows out, though. These're just extensions."
"Well, duh!" Chie said. "We kinda figured that out when it got so long overnight!"
"Really?" Yosuke said. "I thought she just took a lot of vitamins."
Chie jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. "Dork."
"So," Yosuke said, wincing from her blow, "Taro-kun, how 'bout you? You said you were thinking about moving."
"What?" Kanji said. "Really? When'd you say that?"
Taro shrugged. "I don't know. My dad's still trying to get me to take over the family business, but I'm not sure I really want to."
"My sympathies," Yukiko said.
Taro bowed his head to her. "I'm still thinking about it, but I'm also thinking about just going away somewhere, starting again. Not too far away, though. There are some places in Japan where my name's not mud."
"But what of Margaret?" Naoto said, speaking up for the first time since she and Kanji had arrived. "Have you seen her?"
Taro shook his head. "Not since she left. I'm – I guess I'm kind of worried about her, but she promised she'd be fine. I think she was telling the truth, but I've..." he frowned, "...got a feeling I won't be seeing her again."
"'Summoned', you said," Yukiko said. "You don't suppose by her 'master'? The mysterious one she wouldn't tell us about?"
"I think that was it," Souji said. "I, um, got called into the Velvet Room last night. While I was sleeping, remember about that?"
"Aww!" Teddie said. "I wanted to go back there again too! It just - felt nice."
"Sorry, I think that might've been the last time for us." He shrugged. "Igor didn't say anything about her being in trouble, but I hope she's all right."
"I appreciate your worry, but it is not necessary." They all turned to see Margaret step onto the platform. She looked impeccable, no hair out of place, and every seam straight, though her arms were conspicuously empty. Neither Souji nor Taro had seen her looking this perfect since she had first left the Velvet Room.
Taro ran up to her. "Margaret! What happened?"
"I was welcomed back," she said, her face and voice the model of serenity. "My master decided that I had performed a great service for this world, in helping forestall the Heavenly Civil War, as it is apparently being called. Also, someone spoke on my behalf and convinced him that I had 'learned my lesson'."
"Igor," Souji said.
"Yes, and also my brother."
"What?" Teddie said. "Brother?"
"You've got a brother, too?" Nanako said. "But you never tho...said anything about him."
"It had been a long time since I'd seen him, as he has spent a very long time in another thread of existence, much farther removed from this one."
"Wow," Rise said. "Well, congrats, I guess! What're you doing now?"
"I have a mission," Margaret said. "I believe I mentioned the thread where we once did battle?"
"Only like a million times," Chie said.
"I am to return there and fulfill the same role as I did here, for the same battle we all fought."
"The same battle, in another universe?" Naoto said. "You're saying that Amaterasu and Susano-O are trying this all again in that other universe?"
"Yes, and no. That thread's gods are indeed taking the same actions as here. In fact, as we speak, that thread's Souji-san is waking up to his first full day in Inaba, after having learned his friends can no longer remember him. I am to be there to help that thread's Taro-san learn of his Personas and, hopefully, things will work out there at least as well as they did here."
"Oh," Taro said. He nodded thoughtfully, though frowning a little more deeply than normal. "So, then, I guess you and I...?"
Margaret stepped close to him. "You will always be close to my heart, Taro Namatame, and not only because of the life essence we have shared. I promise you that, if it is ever possible again, I will come to see you, in person, like this." She took his shoulders in her hands, pulled him to her, and kissed him deeply. Taro was a bit surprised at first, though pleasantly so, and after the initial shock gave himself to it. He was even more surprised, and a bit embarrassed, to feel her tongue play at his lips, but after another second he reciprocated.
There were a few hoots and hollers from the team, and Teddie said, "All right, Taro!"
As the kiss continued, Yosuke looked away and started shielding his eyes. "Jeez, guys, get a room or something."
Chie turned her head slightly toward Yosuke and whispered, "Don't they need to come up for air at some point?"
"Hope Yukiko still remembers her CPR."
"Don't even joke about that."
Nanako knew she was supposed to be embarrassed in watching this very public display of affection, but she could not help but watch with a broad grin on her face. For all the pain they had experienced together, it had served to bring them all closer than they had ever been before. Some, it seemed, had grown closer than others.
After the kiss finally ended, Margaret backed away. "No matter how many Taro Namatames I may meet in my service to Philemon, you shall always be the one that I truly love."
"Philemon?" Ryotaro said.
Margaret drew her fingers to her lips. "Forgive me, I misspoke. Anyway, I must go, for I have much traveling to do, and many trials before me. As do you all." She smiled. "Or, rather, your other selves whom I am going to meet shortly."
"Excuse me, Margaret-san?" Naoto said. "May I speak with you for a moment? Privately?"
"Of course, Naoto-san," Margaret said. Naoto looked back to Kanji, who nodded. The two of them stepped away from the group, and while the others' conversations turned to congratulations and affectionate cat-calls for Taro, Nanako kept her eyes trained on Naoto.
Naoto cleared her throat. "I must ask you a favor. If possible, is there a way you can help my other self? Knowing what you know now, I mean. Can you stop her from – from being Susano-O's pawn? I know it's my own past, and it's..." She sighed. "It's something I have to live with for the rest of my life. But if there's a way that I – she – this other me – can be spared this..."
"I promise you, I will do everything I can," Margaret said. "All with this other thread is not exactly as it is here, and events may well unfold – differently."
"I suppose I can ask no more than that," Naoto said. She bowed her head. "Thank you, Margaret-san, and may your travels..." she glanced back over at Taro, who was stealing his own glances back to Margaret, "may they bring you happiness." With another bow, she returned to Kanji's side, passing Souji and Rise on their own way to Margaret.
"Hey," Souji said, "listen, before you go, I just wanted to say...thanks. I mean it. You – pretty much gave up everything to help me, and there's nothing I can do to even begin to pay that back."
"Then you should – how do you say – 'pay it forward'," Margaret said. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Consider it my gift for all you have done for me."
Rise bit her lower lip. Margaret, seeing this, said, "Oh, forgive me." She kissed Rise's cheek as well, and Rise gasped. "Take good care of each other. And also, if you could..." She glanced over at Taro, who was still trying to pretend to not be looking at her, "Please watch over Taro. My only regret in returning to my master's service is that I may never see him again, and I want to ensure he is happy."
"Well, we'll...do our best," Souji said. "I'm thinking we're all gonna be a lot closer than we ever were." He glanced to Rise, and she smiled.
"I think so too," Rise said. "Actually, I know it."
Margaret nodded. "Then goodbye, dear friends, and may all the rest of your days be peaceful." She turned and walked away. Souji and Rise watched her go. There was a flash of blue in the sky and they both glanced up at it. When they looked back down, Margaret was nowhere to be seen.
"She sure knows how to make an exit," Rise said.
"She's definitely unusual," Souji said, taking her hand.
They had just started back to the group when the overhead speaker chimed. "Train fifty-seven from Yasoinaba Station to Tokyo. Departure in three minutes. All riders please board now."
"No, I thought we had more time," Nanako said, rushing over to Souji and hugging him. "It's already time for you to go!"
"Sorry," Souji said. "You guys have no idea how hard it is to leave."
"Yeah," Rise said. "Maybe some day we'll just move here."
"Buh – wha...?" Souji sputtered, turning to her. She giggled, followed by several of the others. "W-we'll move...?"
"Souji, you dog," Kanji said, bumping his shoulder with his fist.
"What?" Souji said. "No, it's not like that." Yet, he thought, a small smile crawling up his lips despite his effort to suppress it.
"But you want it to be," Chie said. Souji felt his cheeks grow hot and he turned away. "It's all over your face. Don't try to hide it!"
"You guys better come back," Nanako said. "I mean it. I will come and hunt you both down if you don't!" She squeezed Souji more tightly.
"Cross my heart, hope to d..." Souji started. Hesitating for a second and clearing his throat, he said, "Promise."
"Me too, Nanako-chan," Rise said. Nanako reached out and pulled her into the hug.
"We'll throw another big party at the Inn when you guys come back," Yukiko said.
Teddie gasped. "With ice cream?"
Yukiko laughed. "Every flavor."
"Seriously, though," Yosuke said, "don't be a stranger, huh? You got my IM address and everything, right?"
Souji nodded. "Don't forget to come back for my grand re-opening, too," Kanji said. "Bigger and better than ever."
"And don't forget to call," Naoto said. "Don't forget." It was probably intended to sound innocuous to the others, but Souji knew what she meant. Not long after they had returned, the two of them freshly resurrected, Naoto had crawled into her shell, not speaking to or seeing anyone, not even allowing the Inn's housekeeping to enter her room. After a week Kanji had eventually coaxed her out of hiding, and after another few days convinced her to see the others again. She had rather quickly mended with the others, but her initial meeting with Souji was perhaps the most strained. They had found nothing they could say to each other, nothing to even begin to bring sense to what they had experienced. When their souls had intertwined within Nanako's body, they had shared each other's thoughts, feelings, and memories completely. Souji instantly learned of the full extent of the torture she had suffered under Susano-O's control, particularly near the end, when she kept breaking through and he piled on the cruelty to force her control back down. Any animosity he'd felt for her over what he'd thought was her betrayal had vaporized at that moment.
Likewise, she'd felt his persistent pain: of always having to be "on", of almost losing his friends both to the Memflies and in battle, of losing his very body and it being used to attack them in much the same way as Naoto's was used. They'd eventually managed a few short conversations, but had never found a way to broach the subject about which they both truly wished to speak. He knew that, in asking him to call her, she wanted to talk about it, but only when they had privacy, something they had not been afforded since they'd first become friends years ago. He wasn't sure if she was afraid Kanji or Rise, or both, would become jealous, or if it was just the fact that, among all the others, they two had inadvertently shared the most intimate parts of themselves with each other, and that it was simply something nobody else could understand.
"You bet," he said. Naoto smiled politely.
"Last call for train fifty-seven from Yasoinaba Station to Tokyo. Departure in one minute. All riders please board now."
Rise grabbed Souji's arm. "C'mon, grab your bag!" He followed her onto the train, snatching up his bag on the way. They immediately took an adjacent window seat, Rise sliding it open and sticking her arm out to wave. "Bye, guys! I'm gonna miss you so much!" She started to cry. "Lots and lots!"
"Me too," Souji said.
"Hey, cut that stuff out, Rise-chan!" Kanji said, sniffling once.
"You promise you'll come back this time?" Yukiko said. "Truly?"
Souji and Rise both started to speak at once. They stopped and looked at each other. She nudged him with her elbow, and he said, "If I don't, you have my permission to come tie me up and drag me here in the trunk of Chie's car."
"But it doesn't have a trunk!" Chie laughed. "It's a hatchback!"
"Just tie him to the hood!" Yosuke said.
The train jostled and started to move. Rise and Souji stayed at the window, and the others started walking alongside it. "You keep leaving like this and I won't need to work out anymore!" Chie said.
The train accelerated, and they all broke into a run. "Try not to work too hard!" Teddie said. "Gotta stop and smell the ice cream some time, right?"
"You bet!" Rise said.
"Don't forget to call," Ryotaro said, falling behind the others as he slowed to a jog. "Let us know how you're doing." Oinari keeping pace at his feet, barked her agreement.
"And you'd better call each one of us!" Yosuke said. "None of that 'tell Yosuke I said hi' stuff!"
"Good luck you two crazy lovebirds!" Taro said as he also fell behind the others.
"Taro-kun!" Rise said.
"Come back as often as you can!" Yukiko said.
"I will!" Souji said.
"Me too!" Rise added.
The window passed the end of the platform and the others stopped there, still waving. Rise and Souji waved back for several moments, but then finally pulled their arms back in. Rise plastered herself to the window for a few seconds longer, watching the team, the platform, and the station grow smaller in the distance. With a sigh, she slid toward Souji and into the seat, taking him down with her. She laid her head in his lap, and he could see she was still crying. He took her hand in his and squeezed it. She looked up into his eyes and smiled. "I'm gonna miss everyone so much," she said. "I already do."
"Yeah," Souji said.
"You most of all," she said.
"Yeah," Souji said again.
"Is that all you're gonna say? 'Cause it'll be a real boring trip."
"Yeah." She slugged him in the arm, and he laughed. "Okay, okay. This better?"
"Yeah." She scrunched her nose at him, and then wiped some of her tears away. "I'm really glad I'm coming with you this last little bit alone, though." She slipped off her sandals and put her feet up on the seat.
"Absolutely," she said, nestling her head a little deeper into his lap.
Souji glanced out the window, seeing the water tower that, over a month ago, he had watched crawl past him in the other direction. That time he had felt far more anxiety, and little hope. He looked back down at Rise. He felt a brief sting, wondering if this long-distance relationship would work. Maybe it would, if he didn't somehow manage to screw it up this time.
Rise smiled. "What?"
"Um, just thinking. You're much more fun to look at than the scenery."
She placed a hand at the back of his neck. She pulled down, and he bent as far forward as his back would allow. She pulled herself up by his neck, putting some extra strain on it, but he tried to ignore the discomfort. They kissed.
It lasted only a second, thankfully, for he was afraid his back and neck would give out after too much longer. She returned to his lap and released his head, allowing him to stretch his spine back out. "So," he said, "you probably have to get right to the airport after we stop, huh?"
"What?" Rise said. "No way. I'll have like five hours before I have to be at the airport. I'm gonna come with you, meet your parents, see your new school, maybe put on a little of the Risette charm for your classmates," she winked. "Scare off all the girls who'll try to take you away." She raised a seductive eyebrow. "Maybe find a nice quiet place we can go make out for a while before I have to catch my plane."
Souji blinked with surprise, and his cheeks grew warm. Rise laughed. "You are so cute when you blush."
He absently rubbed his cheeks, trying to wipe away the redness. "You're so cute all the time."
"You know, I hear that kind of thing a lot from guys, but you're the only one where, when you say it, it really means something to me."
He smiled. For the first time he could remember, he felt happy. No, better than that. Contented. He ran his fingers gently through her hair. "Then I guess we'll make it a day to remember." We'll make all kinds of memories, he thought, holding her in his arms. Ones that'll be so strong that nobody, nothing, could ever take them away.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph. Both of them looked at it. It was taken the night after they had returned from Susano-O's realm, during the party at the Inn. They were all in their yukata and kimonos, and there was a smile on nearly every face. Naoto had been the only solemn one, but he hadn't begrudged her. Despite her depressed mood she was still there, completing the team. Even though she had sequestered herself in her room shortly after this picture was taken, he was sure the party, being with all her friends in an atmosphere of celebration, had helped bring her out of her depression much more quickly than she would have otherwise.
"We're gonna have lots more days like that," Rise said, running her finger over the photo. "I mean, like the party, not the...well..."
"Yeah," Souji said. "Lots more." He looked down at her again, stroking her cheek. "Lots, lots more."
As they kissed again, he swore to himself that whatever happened, whatever he became as he grew older, he would never forget to make time for those he loved. He would not be a simulacrum of a friend; he would be the real thing, now and forever. Because now he understood: love and friendship were the only things that really mattered. They gave life meaning, and with the new one that his friends had given him, he swore to live it to the fullest.
As the others ran alongside the train taking away her Big Bro and, if she could believe the feeling she got from them, her eventual Big Sis, she fell back. Something was tugging at the back of her mind, and there was a tingle at her thigh. She felt in her pocket and pulled her Persona card, examining it. She had kept it on her ever since returning from Susano-O's realm, though it always felt slightly cool to the touch no matter how long she kept it in her pocket. On its face was the faded image of a man, clothed in armor over his otherwise sparse robe, with his front covered by his four massive white-feathered wings, and long white hair flowing from a helmet that almost completely covered his face. The image was so dim it was only visible if viewed at an angle.
"Things will be better from now on." She turned to see the ghost of her mother standing beside her. Her heart made a couple rapid beats. "It is over."
"It...was supposed to be over last time," Nanako said. "Six years ago. Then your brother and Loki came back and started screwing with our heads. What's next, now?"
"Well, I can say it will be a long time before any gods interfere with humanity again," Amaterasu said, maintaining both the form and voice of Chisato Dojima.
This was not the type of individual Nanako wished to equate with her mother's face. "Then why do you keep coming back?" she asked. "And why do you look like my mom again? How many times do I have to tell you to just leave us alone?" She glanced at the others, who had just reached the end of the platform. They had stopped moving, their arms stuck out in the air in mid-wave.
"Our conversation will be private," Amaterasu said. "We have all the time you need. I thought you might be more willing to speak with me if I returned to this form. I know you have many questions, and despite your anger toward me you truly desire answers."
Nanako frowned and shook her head. "Why don't you just go to Hell? What makes you think I'll believe anything you say, anyway?"
"Nothing, but you do not have to," Amaterasu said. She touched Nanako's shoulder, but Nanako pulled away in disgust. "You need only ask."
"Just go away."
"Not before you ask one question," Amaterasu said.
"Why do you keep acting like you care so much?"
"You may not believe it, but I do care. I care for all humanity. I care for you, and your friends. I care for all godhood, and I care enough to do everything I can to ensure my fellow gods allow you to face your own destiny however you see fit." She touched Nanako's cheek, and while the girl pulled away from the touch, the movement was less sure than before. "I cared enough to allow you to channel me, to defeat my brother, and to give you the means to revive your friends."
"Uh uh," Nanako said, shaking her head again. "Nope, I don't buy it. I didn't remember this until after, but when you were inside me I saw what was in your head. You don't care about us. You're only worried about keeping your empire together."
Amaterasu sighed. "Forgive my crudeness, but you are as a flat piece of paper trying to understand all the round world. You only saw the tiniest fraction of my thoughts, because with your limited, human mind that is all you are capable of perceiving. If only I could make you understand."
"Why don't you make me understand? Just wave your magic wand or something and make me."
Amaterasu sighed. "It is as I told you before: we gods are not all-powerful."
"Right," Nanako said. "You know, I've done some studying about you. You're the bringer of life, right? I mean, flowers spring up when you walk and all that crap. You could've just brought Big Bro and Naoto-senpai back without us giving up our own life force, couldn't you?"
Amaterasu smiled. "Perhaps, but their lives as they are now will be much more fulfilling, with you as a part of them, and they a part of you. The tiny amount of life force you each sacrificed will not be missed; in fact, you have all long since replenished it. I can guarantee that the separation you have experienced over the recent years will not be repeated. For the rest of your lives, you will all be close, and each will complete the others. You will understand this more as you mature, and as your tribulations become a distant memory."
Nanako sighed and rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Look, if I just ask my questions will you go away?"
"You have already asked several, and had them answered," Amaterasu said, "but I placed no artificial limit on them. Proceed."
Nanako couldn't be sure if she was being sarcastic or serious, "Fine, then tell me this: why'd you pick me? Why not someone else, like Yukiko-senpai? She's the one that loved you the most, I guess. Before all this, anyway. What's so special about me?"
"Because of your strong mind," Amaterasu said. "As I told you before."
"Strong mind?" Nanako said. "Wasn't that why Susano-O chose Naoto-senpai?"
"You and Naoto are the strongest-willed of your friends. My brother only knew of Naoto's mind, while I was able to keep yours hidden until it was too late for him to take you himself, rather than Loki. It was – a fair bit of fortune that Loki did not reveal that bit of information to him. What you need to understand is that my brother wished to make the loudest statement to all the gods, and indeed he did, though not as he intended. He showed them why he is not a fit leader, in his hunger for power and his viciousness. That, combined with your and your friends' loss of powers, has quelled their uprising, forestalling a war."
"So you just lied to me about the whole 'fulfilled life' thing. Where we'd all be happier with having pieces of ourselves in each other. It was all so you could show the other gods we didn't have our Personas anymore." Nanako crossed her arms. "That about sum it up?"
"No, I simply gave you the reason that most benefited you. The second reason benefits all of existence."
Nanako shook her head. "You haven't made yourself any friends down here, and the more you keep talking the less I like you. If that's even possible."
"I know, and I am sorry, but my responsibility goes far beyond you and your friends. Whether you believe it or not, though, they are best off as they are now."
"I don't know," Nanako said. "It's...kinda hard not to tell them. I mean, their powers, the Shadow World, it was all a part of their lives for so long. They say they're happy to have it all behind them, but I can feel it deep down – they all feel like they're missing something."
"They have each other," Amaterasu said. "They have their lives, and their futures. Soon enough, if necessary, they will each fill the missing part of their lives with something far more fulfilling."
"And me?" Nanako said. "Why can I still hear inside their heads? Why isn't my Persona card totally blank like everyone else's? I didn't want this. I begged you to take it all away. Are you pissed at me 'cause I attacked you?"
"I, unlike my brother, am above such pettiness. You retain your power for a reason. When the time is right, it will be up to you to reawaken them all."
"What?" Nanako said. "Awaken them all? You mean I can give them their powers back?"
"Or, you can choose a new team and awaken theirs, if you see fit," Amaterasu said. "You have been given a unique opportunity, my dear child of the greens. You have the power to awaken anyone to their Personas. Even yourself. You, the 'True Zero' as you called yourself, will lead them to defend all of humanity. Perhaps even more."
"I still can't figure out how much of what you're saying is true and how much is bullshit," Nanako said.
"In the end, you will see whether or not I am being truthful," Amaterasu said. "However, I have no need to lie to you about this."
"Okay, fine," Nanako said, waving her hand. "Say you're telling the truth about me being able to 'reawaken' them. What's to stop me from doing it now?"
"Because you care too much for them to put them through the resulting firestorm," Amaterasu said. "The civil war has only been temporarily postponed, as it is now. It will take much work to undo the damage my brother and his supporters caused, but your willingly giving up your powers has taken away their chief ammunition, that humanity is motivated to grow powerful enough to challenge and destroy the gods."
"What do I care about your politics?" Nanako said. "I don't owe you anything. What makes you think you can trust me?"
"If you re-power yourselves too soon, war will quickly follow, and I can guarantee they will bring it down upon Earth. Innocents will die before it is done, and I may not be able to protect them as I did from my brother this time." She knelt down and stared Nanako straight in the eye, and as she did so her face reverted from that of Nanako's mother to that she recognized as Heaven's ruler Amaterasu, the one she had come to know and distrust. "If they win, the survivors of humanity will be subjugated under them, instead of left to your own devices as now. Do you wish to be responsible for those deaths? For humanity becoming slaves?"
Nanako's stomach quivered. She could see the fire in Amaterasu's eyes, and despite her distrust of the goddess, she knew this was not open to negotiation. In that gaze she could see the consequences, and knew she wasn't ready to fight this fight. She didn't believe she ever would be.
"I see I am understood," Amaterasu said. She started to fade from view, and Nanako could see the others, still frozen, through her. "However, if war is inevitable, I hope it will not return within your lifetime. I wish for you to live the rest of your life without worry of all this, if at all possible."
"Not likely," Nanako said. "And don't expect to see us around any shrines, or to hear any prayers from us ever again."
"I would be foolish to expect that," Amaterasu said. "I can only hope that, one day, you will truly understand why I acted as I did, and why it was for the greatest good." And then she was gone.
"I hope I never get that cold-hearted," Nanako muttered. "I'd rather be dead."
"Nanako!" Ryotaro called. Nanako snapped back to the present and saw that the group was all walking toward her.
"Hey, Nanako-chan!" Chie said. "What're you doing over there all by yourself?"
Nanako tried to force a smile. "Oh, just thinking."
"You miss your Big Bro, huh?" Kanji said.
It was true, she did. And yet, that was not what vexed her. While it was far less powerful than before, she could still feel their minds, their thoughts, their feelings. She had asked to be rid of these powers, but it seemed that request was denied, apparently for some future battle. It was not something she anticipated with any excitement.
"Well, come on, Nana-chan!" Teddie said. "We're going for topsicles!" He jumped up and down, cheering.
"Man, you'd get excited about going to the dry cleaners," Yosuke said.
"You mean we're going there too? Yyyeeesss!"
With a smile, Nanako joined the group and they walked off the platform, the various conversations trivial and as warm as the late-July air about them. After they left the station, but before piling into Ryotaro's and Chie's cars, Nanako said, "Hey, Dad, can we talk later?"
Ryotaro looked down at her, lines of concern starting to etch his face. "Sure. What about? Everything all right?"
"Yeah, everything's..." She thought for a second. Yes, yes it really is, at least for now. "Everything's great. I just want to talk. About things. You know, you, me. Uh, Mom." She smiled sadly. "I wanna talk about Mom."
"Hello, my daughter. I can see you've been busy."
A deferential bow. "It has been a trying time, father, but I believe we have come through with the best possible result."
"Indeed? You will forgive me if I disagree."
A bemused tilt to the head. "In what way?
"My son, your brother, lies in chains, atoning for sins not entirely his own."
"He murdered a mortal in cold blood. He led an insurrection that could very well have brought down the heavens and all of creation. Surely those sins are his own."
"And you goaded him into them."
A shocked pause. "I beg your pardon?"
The father shook his head. "Do not lie to me, I beg you. This is not what I hoped for you. You have always been such a benevolent ruler, deserving of your reign over Heaven. You have made mistakes before, costly mistakes, but never have I seen you as cold and callous as you are now."
"Father, I'm afraid I do not..."
"You used those mortals, the ones I chose, in a dangerous game that could have turned out very badly for all."
"And yet I succeeded."
A sigh. "And so you have, in more ways than you know. You have succeeded in caring more for the forest than for the trees. Willing to sacrifice pieces to protect the whole, with no thought to the cost to the whole for the loss of its pieces. And all the while you remain in that throne, the secrets that could remove you from it tucked safely away."
The daughter put a hand to her mouth. "Father, why do you hurt me so?"
"Because you must hear this. Because despite the change this insurrection has caused in you, I believe there is still hope for you." He turned away. "I chose neutrality in this feud between you, because I hoped one of you would choose compassion. I was wrong." He glanced back at her. "Had you asked before, I would have passed along this wisdom. Now you have lost that privilege. Do not call me for my assistance, or my approval, for the actions you take from now on. I know everything, but I will tell nothing. As important as a hard-learned lesson would be to you, it is not worth the countless billions of lives that my revelations would likely cost. But you must live with the consequences of your actions."
"What – what consequences?"
"The knowledge of what you have become, and of my disapproval. The web of lies you must maintain, because you cannot trust any others with your secrets." He turned to face her fully. "If you are still a decent being, and not fully corrupted by your station, these will still matter to you." The father closed his eyes. "I wish to believe that they do." He vanished silently into the clouds.
The daughter sat slowly into her throne, her chin resting on her hands. Never once had her father spoken to her this way. Never once had he told her he was disappointed with her, not even when her brooding had once caused darkness and death to descend upon creation. But he couldn't be right, could he? She had saved both Heaven and Earth from a bloodbath.
But he was right, she knew. He was always right. She had played the humans in the same way her brother and the trickster had. The only difference was that, as she had done so, all the while she'd convinced herself that she was not doing it. For the first time, she truly contemplated the cost of what she had done. The cost to her, the cost to everything and everyone. And yet, as she thought back, she could find no point in time where she would have chosen different actions. That, perhaps, made it real for her.
Her father was right about her. She was becoming a callous and cold leader. She had once been so loved by other gods and by humanity. What would she be now? Could she cover these lies for eternity? Would she lose her hard-earned trust? Would she still be respected? Would she be feared?
For the first time since she had first learned of the insurrection, she truly saw her actions from another's perspective and understood that simply being the ruler of Heaven did not make her infallibly good. And yet, she had set events into motion that would require even further acts of cold calculation rather than compassion or love, merely to prevent further deaths. She would have to keep her brother imprisoned and silenced forever. Her former friend would be trapped, on Earth and in animal form, for all eternity if she could not sustain her silence. Any friends that remained she would have to keep at arm's length, lest they learn of her actions and throw all the heavens into chaos. If only she had thought of this before taking action. If only she had thought to ask her father's sage advice before it was too late. Perhaps he would have found a better path.
She was beyond the point where she could second-guess herself. She could only move forward, and continue holding her Heaven together by any means available to her. In her leadership she was, now, truly alone. After all these eons, she had none to whom she could turn, none she could trust, and it was all her doing. A single tear ran down her face.
On Earth, a chill, cleansing rain washed away humanity's overflowing bitterness. Just for that one day, the tears of the sun's remorse set aside hatred and greed. Just for that one day, there was true peace.
Persona 4: Simulacrum 12