Shin Megami Tensei, Persona, and Persona 4 are owned by Atlus. Characters, names, and likeness are used here without permission. This is a work of fiction, and any relation to real events or persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
This story is Rated M for Mature. If you are offended by sexual scenes or adult language, please do not continue.
Persona 4: "1 More Chance!"
By Mayumi-H, a.k.a. BonusParts
65: Destinies and Promises (Epilogue)
16 June 2018, Saturday, Early Evening.
There had been days and nights aplenty that had passed since Chie had had her first glimmerings of recognition that she and Yousuke were meant to be more than mere friends skirting the edges of romance. An impromptu embrace on a dark evening, and a fateful kiss shared beneath lamplight – to say nothing of the night of full-blooded passion to which that embrace and that kiss had almost invariably led – had shown her that he was destined to be more than just the crass and clumsy boy from her youth, part of her past rekindled...and that she was destined to be more than just the tumbling tomboy with the fierce fighter's streak, who watched from the sidelines as other girls found happiness with their heroes.
Words spoken out of turn – a brash and thoughtless challenge to tradition and patriarchal dominion – could have waylaid her deepest wish to find a champion who was willing to fight for her honor and claim her as his princess. But through a strange miracle of trust and hope (shown in the powerful swing of a kick, and the gift of a song, and a bold and brave step into the path of Fate), she and Yousuke had actually grown both closer and stronger because of the duel, recognizing as they had in each other an equal partner of will and love.
Even the dangers and the darkest shadows of Mayonaka couldn't deter them from being together. If anything, the revelations that had come from both Shadows and Personas had sealed the bonds of their friendship and affection, mating them forever in spirit. So that now, there was only the step of making everyone else realize and know that Satonaka Chie and Hanamura Yousuke belonged together, unequivocally and forever.
Unfortunately, that step proved to be more than a bit confining, at least in the literal sense, as the pair of them had decided (in an uncharacteristic twist of judgment) to take it in a method most traditional, and in garb to match. And that was why Chie now found herself walking – slowly but with certainty, in a tightly-wrapped green-and-yellow kimono with furisode sleeves that drifted nearly to her feet – down the second-floor hall of banquet rooms in the Amagi Inn, toward the culmination of both their destinies.
Walking a few steps ahead of her, her mother chatted softly to her father:
"Yukiko-chan has made such fine additions to the ryokan, since she took over," Hiroko said. "These doors look new! And did you see those lovely brocades in the lobby? I think Emi-chan made those."
Her father hummed. "Or her boy," he muttered. He turned to look back at Chie. "Tatsumi-san's son is taking over the business, isn't he, Chie-chan?"
Chie looked up from her scuffing, slippered feet in distraction. "Hm?" she said, blinking rapidly.
Her mother stopped and turned fully, fixing Chie with a chuckling smile. "Chie-chan!" she said, putting one arm around her daughter's shoulders and leading her up three steps. "Why are you shuffling all the way back there? Come walk with us."
"You seem nervous," her father interjected, a witting snicker twitching at his lips. "Don't tell us you've gotten cold feet?"
"N-No!" Chie replied with suitable indignation; the idea for this evening had been half hers, after all. Though despite the firmness in her voice, she still felt her belly do an anxious little flip.
Her mother gave her father a muffled slap in the chest of his yukata. "Hitoshi!" she scolded beneath her breath. Then she turned back to her daughter and swept her fingers through Chie's hair, curling a sandy-colored lock behind her ear. "I know you're nervous," she murmured, and though Chie opened her mouth to protest, her mother didn't give her enough time to speak. Instead, she simply smiled again and added, "But you have nothing to worry about. You look very beautiful. I'm sure that the Hanamuras will approve."
"Of course they will."
At the sound of Yukiko's calm and confident tone, Chie looked up between her parents' shoulders, to see her friend standing near the end of the hallway.
Like the Satonakas, Yukiko was dressed semi-formally, in a dark kimono with very subtle silver tsuru embellishments, and shorter sleeves suitable for her position and station. Her hair was pulled back (as it usually was, these days) in a chignon close to the nape of her neck, and (like Chie) her face was made-up with faint, delicate eye shadow and lipstick. It was a very unassuming look, not ostentatious at all...and yet still Yukiko somehow looked more radiant than she'd ever done.
Chie's mother noticed it, too. "Yukiko-chan!" Hiroko greeted. "You are positively glowing!"
Yukiko bowed her head and giggled, not bothering to hide her sudden giddiness behind her hand. "Thank you," she said softly.
"Congratulations!" Hiroko said now, and she clasped her hands in front of her, as though in prayer for the younger woman. "Fuyuko-chan told me the good news."
Yukiko rolled her eyes but giggled again, too. "I knew my mother wouldn't be able to keep that quiet," she muttered. Then she smiled more gently, and gave a perfect bow. "Thank you, oba-san."
Chie glanced quizzically between mother and friend. "Keep what quiet?" she asked, even as her belly did another, different kind of dizzy flip. She fixed Yukiko with a wide-eyed and expectant look. "Is there something you haven't told me?"
Yukiko straightened up tall, pressing her lips together primly. Then she laid both hands flat against her kimono, beneath the wrap of her obi, and smiled wide.
It was a good thing that Chie gasped, because otherwise she might have started screaming in her abrupt excitement. As it was, she waved her hands in a rapid fluttering near her face, wheezing a long, "oh...!" just before she flung her arms around Yukiko and gave her a firm and squeezing hug.
Caught in her embrace, Yukiko could only giggle close to Chie's ear for a long second.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Chie crooned as she pushed away, to offer Yukiko an elated grin.
"We just found out this morning," Yukiko told her from around her beaming smile.
"But you could have called me," Chie said, half-scolding and half-ecstatic. "I mean, all I've done all day is wait!"
"And try to put on that kimono," Hitoshi muttered, sparing his daughter a wry smile.
Chie scoffed at her father, rolling her eyes a little at this criticism. (So what if she had come to her family's door a near nervous wreck after work today, rambling breathlessly about how everything had to be perfect for Yousuke and his family, and how she would never be able to make a good impression on her own because she couldn't figure out how to tie the bow of her obi like in the pictures, and why the heck hadn't her parents already dressed in their formalwear, anyway? Nobody was perfect.)
She turned back to Yukiko, grasping at the other woman's shorter sleeves. "This is big news! You should have said something!"
But Yukiko just smiled as she shook her head, both graceful and gracious. "This is your day," she said. "Souji-chan and I can wait." Her smile became a high and happy chuckle. "Besides, I'm only a few weeks along. We've got plenty of time before I'm even going to start to show."
Chie drew back and bit down on her lip, unable to do anything else for a long moment while she considered this new and wonderful change in her friend. Then she took Yukiko in another tight hug, pressing her cheek close to the other woman's. "I'm just so happy for you...!" she squeaked at last, before taking a step back.
Yukiko beamed again, bobbing her head. "Thank you," she said, as she gave her belly another quick pat. But then she blinked her eyes and snapped to attention with a quick clap of her hands. "But enough about me!" she said, glancing between older and younger generation. "Are you ready?"
Both her parents and Yukiko turned to look at Chie, who paused for a second...and then gave a swift and bouncing nod, in an effort to be definitive and confident (though she still couldn't help breaking into a somewhat skittish if eager grin). So like a presentational party of old, they moved as a well-dressed cluster toward the last room on the corridor.
Before Yukiko laid her hand upon one wooden slat of the shoji door, Chie could already hear the low-pitched conversational voices of Yousuke and his family, and Souji, all of which quickly broke into muffled laughter at the end of Souji's friendly-mocking tale:
"...And then he told me to hit him, right there on the river bank. I thought he was crazy...!"
"That didn't stop you from punching me in the face!" Yousuke replied.
"Well, you're my best friend," Souji answered, matter-of-fact. "I had to honor your wishes."
"All of those cuts and bruises," Natsume said around a clicking of her tongue. "That's how you got them! Rough-housing with your friends."
"And Chie-chan!" Yousuke added with a laugh.
Souji laughed, too. "That feisty princess of yours does have a killer punting leg!" he said, and now there was a round of new laughter...from which Yousuke's voice was conspicuously absent.
"Oh," Souji crooned of a sudden, his teasing grin audible. "I've embarrassed him."
"That's karma," Ryuhei said, "for all of those years you tortured your sisters!"
"I knew we should have asked Kujikawa to represent us," Yousuke muttered, and at these words Chie shared a quiet little smile with Yukiko, who slid the door open at last.
"Konbanwa!" Yukiko announced as she removed her walking slippers and stepped inside the room. Then she moved aside, to offer entrance to Chie's parents, followed by Chie herself.
Around the long rectangular table, with each place marked by a colorful zabuton and single ceramic cup, Souji, Yousuke, and his parents all stood, greeting Yukiko and the Satonakas with cordial bows and salutations. Ryuhei and Natsume sat down again quickly after, along with Hitoshi and Hiroko, but Chie noticed Yousuke stayed standing extra-long, fixing her with a tender if noticeably nervous smile; she mirrored him with a quiet press of her lips in his direction. Then, with practiced demureness, she turned her attention toward the tatami floor as she shuffled around her parents, to sit at the bottom of the table in the seat directly across from him.
From his assigned place between the young couple, Souji offered Chie a kind smile, that she returned with a slightly dizzy one of her own. Then he looked up toward the front of the table, where Yukiko was kneeling.
Chie followed his gaze, turning serious as Yukiko lifted her arms with palms upraised, in a gesture of magnanimous reception.
"Welcome, esteemed parents," the ryokan's manager said in perfect presentational speech, enunciating carefully for both weight and meaning. "It is my great pleasure and honor to act as go-between on this occasion today, for both your families. Marriage unites not just two individuals," she said, and she brought her hands together as though in prayer. "But two clans, as well." And she looked around her at both sets of parents, as the four elders offered nodding agreement.
Yukiko paused for a breath, and then tipped her head toward Chie's father first. "The Satonaka family is one long-standing in Inaba," she said, "and well-revered as a powerful and unfailing upholder of the deep-rooted values and virtues of their samurai ancestors." She turned to Yousuke's father then, and gave another subtle nod. "The Hanamura family, while relatively young to this town, brings with it fresh perspective and a dedicated spirit of innovation and modernity, to help bring Inaba into a new age of prosperity."
Across the short width of the table, both families looked at each other, Chie raising her eyes to Yousuke just as their parents did the same. He pressed his lips together, as though to hold back a fluttery smile, and Chie answered in kind; she could almost feel from him the same heart-pattering eagerness that she felt herself, despite his dismissive nonchalance from earlier in the day. ("It's just a formality," Yousuke had reminded her as he'd bounced his bicycle down to the street that morning; "It doesn't change anything." She'd replied that that answer made him sound like Naoto...which had made him scowl and tell her that there was no need for her to be insulting. She'd giggled and he'd snickered, and then they'd said their farewells with brief but sweet kisses, just like any other day.)
Simple formality it might be, but that didn't mean this meeting didn't make Chie nervous...or Yousuke, for that matter, apparently.
At the head of the table, Yukiko looked back and forth between both patriarchs. A calm and gentle smile curled her pink lips, as though she were completely unaware of Chie's belly currently curling into knots.
"Hanamura-san and Satonaka-san," Yukiko intoned now. "Together, your son and your daughter seek to create a new unit, made stronger by the ideals and guidance of both your families. They are not alone in this; they need you to usher them and aid them through this new journey, and that's why they've asked that you come here, today. To understand how important your efforts and your lives are to theirs."
There was a moment of solemn silence, and then Ryuhei nodded his head again, as did Hitoshi. And at the head of the table, Yukiko smiled wide, echoing in more controlled measure the grins that broke across both Yousuke's and Chie's faces at this quiet acknowledgment from their fathers.
Then Yukiko raised her chin again. "Who speaks for this couple?" she asked, and Souji answered:
All eyes turned to him then, though Chie thought that surely Souji must have felt the weight of both her and Yousuke's gaze most of all. For Souji had been the only one of them with the courage and insight and strength to lead them when they'd been younger, in their greatest adventure of gods and monsters. And now he had agreed to lead them again, for the beginning of this smaller but somehow no less significant adventure of trust and fidelity.
As though sensing this collected pride, Souji smiled, softly. "I have known Yousuke-san and Chie-san for several years. And I have had the pleasure of being friend to them both over that time. Their methods may be...unorthodox," he said, and here there was some muted chuckling around the table, "and they are far from perfect."
There was another bubbling of low laughter, amid which Chie felt herself flush in heated embarrassment; a glance across the table showed that Yousuke was doing the same.
But then Souji spoke again, and as she looked at him, Chie could see in his face such an extraordinary and bountiful light and love, that she sobered of a sudden, as he continued:
"But I have never known two individuals who were made so complete by the strength, the bravery, the honesty, and the gentleness of each other, as these friends. They stumble, of course," he said, as another tiny smile came to his lips, "as we all do. But I've always admired how they never fail to stand tall again, usually with the help of the other." He paused then, the calm and affirming focus of his gaze moving between both sets of parents equally. "So I have the utmost confidence in them," he said, "and in their commitment to each other. And it's my humble opinion that your families will only be made fuller by recognizing and welcoming their union."
There was another thoughtful silence now, as Souji's words seemed to hang in the air. And though this meeting had been arranged specifically for their parents, Chie felt the singular love of her friends at this declaration of support. So she smiled at Souji, who returned this kindness; then she looked over at Yousuke again, who answered her mute and heartfelt look of hope with one of his own.
At the head of the table, Yukiko made a tiny noise of confirmation, summoning all attentions back to her.
"Satonaka-san," Yukiko said, and she inclined her head to Chie's father once again. "Hanamura Yousuke, son of Hanamura Ryuhei, has extended a proposal of marriage to your daughter, given in faith and fealty both to her and to you. Do you accept this offer?"
Chie watched her father's gaze flick toward Yousuke for a moment, unable to help her silent willing for her kare to be unwavering beneath that appraising look.
Sitting in his dark kimono, with his hands laid on his thighs, Yousuke straightened up and lifted his chin – just a little bit – as he met Hitoshi's eyes. And Chie felt herself bite back a pleased little smile, as she recognized that same boldly determined squaring of his jaw that Yousuke had given when he'd first gone to Hitoshi and Hiroko almost a month ago, to tell them of his intentions of marriage. ("With all due respect, Satonaka-san," Yousuke had said, his voice pitched low to carry as he'd sat seiza-style in her family's sitting room. "I've come to ask for your blessing, not for your permission." Chie had been delighted at the wonderful kind of surprised look that had broken the look of practiced stoicism on her father's face when Yousuke had said that. And even though there had been a second when she'd unconsciously readied herself into a defensive stance, she'd been even more delighted when she'd seen her father actively fight against the grin that had threatened his solemn visage, before offering his acquiescence to and acceptance of Yousuke's quietly brash proposal.)
With everyone's focus on him again, Hitoshi didn't pause for more than that one moment, before he nodded toward Ryuhei. "I do." And not for all the world would Chie have wanted to miss the excited and happy twitch of Yousuke's lips at this answer.
Yukiko turned her attention to Ryuhei, then. "Hanamura-san," she intoned in the same measured voice as before. "Satonaka Hitoshi accepts your son's offer of marriage to his daughter, Satonaka Chie. Do you agree to honor this decision, with loyalty and respect?"
Yousuke's father didn't hesitate, either. "I do," he said, bowing his head toward Hitoshi.
Yukiko bowed her head, too, now, and when she lifted it again, it was to show off her wide and perfect smile to all. "Then my work here is done!" she said, turning conversational of a sudden with a giggle. "I welcome you to celebrate this joyous occasion, the joining of two families." And here she rose and turned to a low table set up behind her, from which she picked up a lacquered tray with a large ceramic sake carafe, which contents she began to pour out into the cups set around the table, beginning with those of both fathers.
"At last!" Souji declared with a clap of his hands, and his rousing and amused outburst made the rest of them relax and turn abruptly happy and chatty.
Chie grinned at him for a moment; Souji had always known how to initiate festivity without being pushy. Then she softened her smile, and lowered her chin. "Thank you," she murmured beneath the other conversations.
Souji replied with a similar nod. "It's my pleasure," he said quietly, as Yukiko made it down to their end of the table with the sake, which she poured with expert grace. He thanked her, and then snickered at Chie. "If anybody can keep this guy out of trouble," he said, jerking his head toward Yousuke, "it's you."
Yukiko poured Souji's sake with a smirk. "He keeps her out of trouble, too," she said before she stood up again to make her way back to the head of the table.
Yousuke smiled at Yukiko's back. "Thank you!" he called, chuckling briefly. But he stopped when Chie reached across the table and laid her fingers over his, to squeeze lightly at his hand.
He smiled tenderly at Chie, but it was Souji who spoke:
"Watch over each other, now."
Hiroko bobbed her head in agreement. "Your lives are no longer just your own," she told them.
Natsume agreed. "You are the start of a new family, now," she said, and here Chie felt Yousuke's fingers pump hers, as they both broke into pleased grins.
"Speaking of family," Ryuhei said, peering around his wife toward the bottom of the table. "What about children?"
Yousuke shot a gleeful glance at Chie, then replied with confidence: "We want at least two."
"A boy and a girl," Chie confirmed. She shared another giggly look with Yousuke, then added, "However many it takes for that!"
Souji regarded the couple with a chuckle. "I think he was just looking for 'yes' or 'no.'"
Chie shrank a little into the collar of her kimono. "Oh," she muttered, and together with Yousuke she cringed in blushing embarrassment, while around the rest of the table the other attendees offered easy laughter.
"My daughter's always spoken her mind about what she wants," Hitoshi murmured after a moment.
"Well, it's never too early to make those sorts of decisions," Ryuhei said with a snicker.
Natsume looked at him. "They haven't even decided on a date for the wedding...!"
"A year is customary for an engagement," Yukiko interjected, knowingly diplomatic.
"Because you two are known for following custom," Souji muttered wryly from one side of his mouth, and Chie shuddered with a light giggle.
Yukiko made a show of raising her cup. "I think we can agree that the finer details can be arranged later," she said. She smiled toward the couple at the foot of the table. "For now, though, we should offer our congratulations. Yousuke-san," she said, lifting her cup toward him; she followed with Chie a second after. "Chie-san. To your happiness and future."
"Kanpai!" Souji announced, lifting his own cup with a straight arm.
There were echoes of this toast around the table amid the sound of clinking ceramic, and though Chie took a wonderful delight in the presence and support of both her family and closest friends, it was, at that moment, Yousuke's look of love more than anything else that filled her heart near to bursting.
"Ah," Natsume said, leaning back from the table with a quiet chuckle. "I didn't think I'd ever see the day when my son would find a young lady willing to put up with him!"
From over the rim of his cup, Yousuke narrowed his eyes at his mother, but Ryuhei snorted light laughter. "I had faith," the older man said. "We Hanamuras are resilient."
"And persistent," Natsume said, snickering at some private joke.
Ryuhei snorted again at his wife, then turned to Chie's father with distinctly more seriousness. "We are very grateful for your approval, Satonaka." He nodded down the table. "Chie-chan is your only daughter, after all, and I well understand the value of that. I have three of them, myself!"
Chie smiled, just as her father did the same, to the other patriarch.
"Well," Hitoshi drawled with a grin. "It's not like I was going to do something ridiculous, like demand Yousuke-chan fight a duel for my daughter's hand!"
His parents looked about to laugh, but they didn't quite manage it before Yousuke abruptly spurted a mouthful of sake over the edge of his cup, causing the rest of the table to stare at him.
"Yousuke-chan-!" his mother said, reaching over to pat his back while he hacked, red-faced, into his fist. She turned toward Yukiko. "Seta-san, I'm so sorry!"
"That's all right," Souji said, pulling a handkerchief from within his sleeve and wiping at the surface of the table. He flashed a smirk to Chie. "I would have had the same reaction," he added, and the table once again relaxed into light and easy laughter.
Chie smiled gratefully at Souji, then shot a glare toward her father. Hitoshi met her look with an aggravatingly smug smile of his own...but then it fell, as he looked directly at Yousuke.
"It isn't every man," her father said, in a surprisingly low voice that nonetheless carried through the room, "who has the courage and commitment to sacrifice his own well-being for the sake of another. But I believe Yousuke-chan to be such a man." And he gave a subtle inclination of his chin to Yousuke, who fell suddenly mute across the table, as did everyone else.
Hitoshi continued: "So even if, by some strange chance, I should hear someone make such a mad challenge, I would be honored to have Yousuke-chan fight on my daughter's behalf. Or to represent her in whatever brazen contest one might imagine." He tipped both his head and his cup toward Yousuke. "Because a good man will always fight for his woman," he said, "no matter how difficult the challenge." And then there was only thoughtful silence, as he took another sip of his sake.
Chie blinked at him. She'd never quite thought that she'd see her father so supportive of Yousuke himself, let alone her relationship with him. But the kind if resolute set of the older man's jaw made her smile, as did Yukiko's softly-spoken agreement:
"Well said, oji-san."
Yousuke looked both surprised and pleased, too, as he bowed low, his head almost to the table. "Domo arigatou gozaimashite, Satonaka-san." He rose again from this kowtow position with a quick nod. "I consider Chie-chan to be a challenge in herself," he said. "One that I don't accept lightly."
Souji made a little noise of affirmation. "Also well said," he told Yousuke, and once again around the table the attendees raised their cups in agreement.
There was another suspended moment of silence while everyone drank, but when Chie set down her cup again, she paused, for just a second, to stare at its lacquered edge and her reflection that shimmered upon the shallow liquid inside.
She'd been anxious before, but now, surrounded by such supportive strength and well-felt love, that nervousness seemed unfounded. All of the trials leading to this moment had been merely stepping stones on the path to her greater future with the man she loved. That prospect didn't make her belly twist nearly so much as it did only a few moments ago...nor so much as the new question that suddenly popped into her head.
Drawing an emboldening breath, she pushed her shoulders back and lifted her chin, looking around the table as she brought one hand close to her ear, requesting attention. "Can I say something?" she asked.
"Of course," Yukiko said, and then she chuckled. "Chie-chan, this isn't an omiai! You should speak your mind."
Chie smiled gratefully at her friend, and then moved her gaze across parents and parents-to-be. "We've made some decisions today," she said. "Lasting ones. And, there are still some things that need to be settled. But, no one's asked the most important question, tonight."
Yousuke blinked at her, then briefly glanced around the table before returning to look back at her. "What would that be?"
Chie grinned. "Do we get to have steak with dinner?" she asked, taking delight in the sudden dumbstruck expressions around her.
It was only a second later that, in typical fashion, Yousuke gave a chuckling groan and dropped his head into his palm. This was followed by Chie's parents scolding her for her manners, and then Yukiko breaking into light laughter, along with Souji and the Hanamuras. Shortly after, Yukiko suggested that they take a brief break before dinner arrived (yes, there was going to be meat, and lots of it), to collect the rest of the extended families from the restaurant downstairs.
Both sets of parents stood and started to make friendly chit-chat as they filtered into the corridor, but Chie and Yousuke stayed behind with Souji and Yukiko, who began to move around the edge of the table to collect the sake cups.
"Let me do that," Souji told his missus, and he stepped into her way, reaching down to stack his own cup into Yousuke's.
Chie took the moment to offer Yukiko a bow that she hoped was as graceful as it was grateful; the kimono was still not her favored dress. "Thank you so much," she said as she looked briefly to the tatami floor. "Both of you," she added as she rose, as she turned to Souji, too. "For everything."
Yousuke nodded. "It means a lot that you're here." He shot the other man a grin. "I didn't mean what I said before, you know. I couldn't imagine anyone besides the two of you backing us up today."
Souji grinned back. "Absolutely!" he said. Then he settled the collected cups into his palm and gave a kind nod. "We want to be able to support you, too."
Yukiko clasped her hands in front of her. "No matter how much our lives might change," she agreed. She glanced sidelong at Souji and smiled wide. "And they're going to change," she murmured. "Believe me!"
Yousuke looked between Souji and Yukiko. "Why?" he asked blankly. "Are you pregnant or something?"
Yukiko's hands fell to her sides, her face going slack. But she recovered quickly, turning to slap Souji in the arm. "Did you tell him?"
Flinching a little beneath her hand, Souji shook his head. "Wh-! No! I didn't say anything!"
"You mean I was right?" Yousuke crowed, his face lighting up with a gleeful and excited grin. "Oh, man, I totally just guessed!"
"Don't spread it around," Chie hissed, bumping Yousuke in the side with her hip. "They're keeping it hush-hush, for now."
Yousuke turned back to the other couple as he deflated a little. "Why?" he asked softly.
Recovered from her flustering of a moment ago, Yukiko smiled primly. "For the same reason you didn't want to announce your engagement the night of the concert," she murmured. She reached out for both Chie's and Yousuke's hands, grasping them lightly in her fingers. "This day is about the two of you," she said, pumping at both their hands. "And the commitment you're making to each other." She let go then, and gave a subtle shrug of her shoulders. "We don't want to potentially over-shadow that with news of a baby."
Souji nodded his agreement, then gave a snickering smirk. "Besides," he added, "we haven't told Nana-chan, yet. She'll be furious if she finds out we told anyone else before her."
Now Yukiko giggled. "And she's got some wrath in her!"
Souji chuckled, too. "That's from my mother's side of the family," he muttered.
Chie smiled, and Yousuke nodded in acquiescence, adding, "You two sure work fast, though."
Souji wrinkled his nose with somewhat crude mischief. "We'll set the time to beat," he said, and the four of them laughed again.
Then Yukiko drew a cleansing breath, just as a pair of attendants entered the room with table settings and covered trays of food. She gave some quiet orders about zabuton and food placement, then turned back to Chie and Yousuke. "You go and relax with your folks downstairs; dinner should be set shortly."
Yousuke nodded again, but Chie reached for the young manager's hand. "You're going to join us, aren't you?" she asked, and smiled. "I mean, you're practically family."
Yukiko blinked mutely for a second before Souji stepped in with another chuckle. "They did ask you to be their go-between," he told his wife with a prodding nudge. But then his teasing humour fell, as Yousuke elbowed him in the arm.
"She means you, too," he told Souji in a low voice; Chie nodded in agreement. Then he snickered, adding, "Onii-san," and Chie giggled at Souji's abruptly blank expression.
Just like Yukiko, their old leader simply blinked his eyes for a moment. But then he snorted, and gave a hushed laugh, and bobbed his head. "Sure," he replied. A matching snigger escaped him, and he offered the other man a muffled punch against his bicep. "Otouto-san."
Chie and Yukiko giggled between them, and then the ryokan's manager raised both hands in a shooing gesture.
"Enough chatter!" Yukiko told them with a smile; she gave Chie a gentle push. "Let this kaizoe do her work!"
Souji ushered them toward the door, too, adding, "I'll make sure to get you when it's ready." Then he waved them on their way before turning back in to the banquet room.
Still giggling beneath her breath, Chie moved with Yousuke toward the stairs, walking close and slowly and arm-in-arm with him, much the same way that she recalled watching Souji and Yukiko do no more than a few short months ago, on their wedding day. This wasn't a wedding day for her, of course...but she still felt an eager and marvelous swelling in her heart as she walked beside Yousuke, the both of them in their formal and traditional kimono.
Somewhat oddly, they didn't speak as they made their way down the steps, taking them silently and one at a time. Even when they approached the main floor – and could hear the boisterous voice of youngest Hanamura sister Kimiyo explaining in great and loud detail how it had been after her performance concert that her brother and Chie had kissed for the first time, and how she had been the one to convince Yousuke to sing for Chie at last year's Tanabata Matsuri, and how it had been her idea to have her brother propose over a picnic overlooking the lights festival in Sendai (even though that wasn't how it happened at all) – the two of them just shuffled quietly in comfortable closeness, until they reached the edge of the wall between staircase and restaurant (where Hitomi had begun to correct her sister's tales in an equally spirited voice, and Kazunori was striving to mediate around his amused laughter). That was where Yousuke stopped, and turned to Chie, settling his arms around her and stepping up close so that their chests touched.
He offered her a crooked smile. "Still time to back out," he teased, his voice hushed to keep them unnoticed for just another minute.
Chie twitched her nose as she smiled back at him. "Not a chance," she answered, and then she pushed herself against him, rising for a kiss.
Yousuke hummed softly against her lips, then pulled back, lifting one hand to stroke it over her cheek. "My hime-chan," he whispered, and she smiled again at the sound of that favored name; she didn't think she would ever tire of hearing him call her his princess.
He let his gaze drift between them, roving quickly with his eyes before returning to her face. "I didn't want to say so in front of everybody," he said as he pressed his palm to the round of her cheek. "But you are absolutely beautiful."
"So are you," she murmured, and he was: tall and timelessly handsome in his plain-cut dark orange kimono, the hero of her hopes and dreams become flesh and blood, with a quiet laugh and a charmingly impish smile that he flashed to her now, as he dropped his hand to her shoulder.
"I can't wait to get you out of this, tonight," he said, plucking his fingers at the top of her sleeve.
She matched his intended mischief, shimmying her hips against his with a swishing sound of swinging sleeves. "We can play daimyo's daughter and samurai bodyguard, if you want," she offered with a kittenish twitch of her nose. Then she turned hushed and quietly tempting, just before she rose on her toes again for another kiss. "And this time," she whispered, "he can run away with her, to start a new life together away from everything else."
Yousuke hummed with interest as he pressed his mouth to hers once and then again for a pair of clutching kisses. Then he lifted his head, licking his tongue over his teeth. He craned his head briefly around the corner of the wall before looking down at her again, shooting her a lascivious grin. "You know," he drawled, "there's nothing to stop me from just throwing you over my shoulder and running away with you, for real, now."
Chie narrowed her eyes at him. "Nothing," she muttered, "...except for my foot in your ass." And she knuckled him in the chest, making him snicker...but then he fell silent as she fixed him with a suddenly serious look.
"We've always been the crazy lovebirds," she told him, half-lamenting the memory of the words he'd called them over seven years ago. He'd meant it only as a joke then (in the early days of the Midnight Channel mystery, when they'd been barely more than acquaintances and trying to sidestep Kanji's wrath when he'd found them spying on him), but the description came back to her especially clearly, now.
Laying her hand over the fold of the chest of his kimono, she gave a quiet sigh. "I want us to do this right," she told him softly. "I want everybody to know that this isn't just us running headlong into something we don't understand. That we know what we're doing, and that this is the way things are supposed to be." She smiled then, and raised her gaze to his. "That I'm meant to spend my life with you." And now she moved close to him once more, her lips seeking his again as she whispered, "That you're my one and only hero."
She saw Yousuke smile in the last second before she closed her eyes and kissed him, and then she felt his arms close around her, hugging her firmly. She melted a little in that kiss and that embrace, just relaxing for a long minute in the warmth of his love.
The sound of softly-treading steps on the stairs behind them made her drop back to her heels, though, and in the next moment she heard Souji's calmly-muttered chide:
"I should have known you couldn't make it all the way downstairs without grabbing a little something."
"Ah, shut up," Yousuke replied, snickering with one side of his mouth. He didn't step away from Chie, and she didn't pull away from him; they just turned to look at Souji as the other man came close with a good-natured chuckle.
"What do you say we get this engagement party started?" Souji asked, putting a hand each on Chie's and Yousuke's shoulders and glancing between them. He grinned wittingly. "It's been a long time in coming!"
"Has it?" Chie asked, blinking up at him.
Souji raised his grey brows, and then his grin turned wider, as he added a laugh to that amused look on his face. "That's one of the things I love best about you two," he said. "You're both still just as clueless as the first day I met you." And without waiting for either of them to retort or protest, he gave them both a push with his arms, leading them around the corner and into the sight of their lively and gushing families.
There would be food and drink and merriment aplenty (and even more so later, when Rise was due to arrive with the rest of the old Investigation Team, for a long-lasting evening of playful – and increasingly off-key, as the night of celebration wore on – karaoke), but for now, Chie took delight in knowing that this new path of her life was paved with friendship, and support, and love.
. . .
. . .
"Did you have a good time tonight?" Chie asked softly as she pulled the lightweight blanket up to Kuma's shoulders. Despite all of the changes and growing up she'd done over the last several months, putting the girl to bed was still a favored ritual.
Kuma nodded. "Yes, kuma," she replied. Then she grinned, as a tumbling cascade of sparkles flew up around her temples. "I like seeing Chie-chan and Yousuke happy, kuma! Especially with your family, kuma."
Chie smiled back at her, laying her fingers atop the patterned fabric of the futon. "We're family, too," she murmured, giving the blanket a light pat. "You and me and Yousuke-chan."
Kuma blinked her big blue eyes, her lashes fluttering with careful thought. "Won't that change, kuma?" she asked in a hushed voice. "Like with Sensei and Yuki-chan? New home, new life, kuma?"
Chie tilted her head to one side, considering the changes that were happening for Yukiko and Souji (like babies – babies!)...and how those same kinds of changes would likely affect her and Yousuke. "Probably," she answered, truthfully enough. Then she shook her head. "But not right away." She smiled again. "We've got a whole year to figure out what's going to happen!"
The sparkling stopped, abruptly. "What about me, kuma? Will I change, too, kuma?"
Chie paused now, as she thought of Kuma's marvelous evolution, from Shadow to bear to boy and finally sweet-faced girl. There had been other changes for her, too, of course...though Chie was certain that there was no way of knowing – with a unique creature such as Kuma was – what might come next. But if the strange events of the last year and a half (not to mention Kuma's prominent place among them) had taught Chie anything about the mysteries of existence, it was that very little in life could be predicted or prepared for.
So she just patted the futon again. "I think that's up to you," she said. "But, you'll always have a place with us, no matter what you decide."
At this answer, Kuma settled back against her crinkly buckwheat chaff pillow with a thoughtful purse of her lips. Then she blinked her blue eyes up at Chie. "I don't want to change right now, kuma," she declared. "I want to stay, kuma."
Chie smiled. "That's more than fine with us," she told the girl, and then she leaned over and pressed a kiss very lightly and very briefly to Kuma's golden crown.
The girl smiled back, happy and satisfied as she snuggled her chin against the top of her summer blanket. "Oyasumi, Chie-chan," she said, and then she closed her eyes, leaving Chie to click off the tiny andon lamp set beside the futon.
Closing Kuma's bedroom door behind her, Chie chuckled to herself over the girl for a moment. Kuma might never be completely human in the biological sense of the word, but there was no doubt as to her humanness when it came to thought and emotion. She was indeed curious as to what changes awaited the girl in the future...but that particular adventure could wait for another day.
So, leaving that question behind for now, Chie moved into the bathroom, slipping noiselessly from her at-home relaxing clothes (which were so much more comfortable than her kimono and its undergarments!). Dropping the tank top, shorts, and pants by the door, she stepped naked from the outer toilet area and into the inner steamy bath, where she found Yousuke still lounging in the deep tub.
His eyes were closed, and he had let his head loll back against the rim; he dangled one heat-reddened foot over the side, flexing and then relaxing his toes once in the air as she watched. And as she filled the little washing bucket and started to soap up her scrub cloth, Chie had to smile again. Because if Kuma's year of change had been full of marvels, Yousuke's had been full of miracles.
In some ways, he might still (and likely always would) be a coarse-minded and somewhat careless-tongued boy, prone to flights of fancy and unexpected outbursts of emboldened emotion. But he'd also become so capable, so responsible, so brave and giving and tender, that she'd grown to think of him more as a man – like the heroes of her youth and life – than she'd ever done before. The word had become more than just a way to describe him, the simple maleness of him. It was who he was. And that made her proud. That she was going to spend the rest of her life with this man, her champion above all others.
Finishing her quick wash, Chie reached over and nudged his foot with a chuckle. "Hey," she said. "Is there room for one more in there?"
Yousuke blinked his eyes open at her, and then curled his lips into a smile. He pulled his leg back into the tub and slid up toward one side, raising both knees closer to his chest to comply. "Just watch the dangly bits," he told her.
"Don't I always?" she asked with a snicker as she lifted herself over the rim.
She settled down into the hot water with a giggle, scooting up close to the faucet side. But as would usually happen when she'd climb into a bath with him like this, he put his arms around her with a low, "Come here." Then he pulled her back, to rest against his chest, the two of them cuddling cosily.
They relaxed this way for a quiet while, every so often refreshing the comforting and drowsing heat with scooping handfuls of water, until Yousuke leaned his cheek close to hers and hummed beside her ear.
"So," he muttered. "Now that our parents are on-board, what's the next thing we need to do?"
Chie thought for a moment, then replied, "Dates. For announcements, rings, clothes, ceremony-"
He laughed softly. "Can't we just skip right to planning the honeymoon?" he asked.
She laughed, too. "Sure," she said, playing along. Then: "Where did you have in mind? Tokyo?" She knew how much he liked to show off for her, and almost every mention of the capitol since the first day they'd met had been tinged with an unspoken desire for him to take her around his old home turf.
But to her surprise, he just hummed again, nuzzling the patch of skin beneath her ear as he murmured, "If that's what you'd like." He gave a gentle squeeze of his arms around her then, and rocked them gently back and forth, once. "But, I was thinking of someplace a little quieter."
"Quieter?" she echoed, laughing again. "You?"
"Yeah," he said without missing a beat.
She wasn't prepared for him to sound so definitive. "...Like where?" she asked, half-turning to him.
"Like Kyoto," he answered, and the sureness in his voice made it sound like this choice was more than just a fleeting thought. He craned his head so that they were almost facing each other, and she could see that he was smiling, now. "You know, it's kind of like a big city...but kind of like a country town, too. I've never been," he told her in a suddenly hushed voice, and he pressed himself close to her once again. "And I'd like my first time to be with you."
Chie paused for a moment, touched by that sweet sentiment. "Then that's where we'll go," she agreed softly.
"Yeah?" he said.
"Yeah," she replied, and smiled. "What better place for a princess and her hero to have their honeymoon, than the old capitol?"
He grinned. "We can even get a hotel room overlooking the Imperial castle!"
She nodded, joining in with his joy. "I hear it's pretty in autumn," she said. "With all the leaves changing around Nijo-jo."
"So, October, then?" Yousuke guessed. "We can make sure it's not around Taiiku-no-Hi, so you don't have to miss any of the Sports Day stuff at the school or the dojo."
Chie nodded again. "Okay," she agreed. "The twentieth should be far enough into the month to be sure about that."
"Twenty October," he repeated in a thoughtful mutter. Then he gave a swift chuckle, brightening once more as he said, "That was easy!"
She chuckled, too, if a bit more softly. "If only it could all be so easy!" she said, and at the daunting prospect of everything yet to prepare and all that was yet to come, the two of them abruptly fell quiet.
But then Yousuke took a deep breath and bowed his cheek nearly to her shoulder. "Even if it's not easy," he murmured now, "I want to do this. I want to marry you." And as she watched, he smiled again, less jaunty than before but so much more tenderhearted. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you."
Chie mirrored his warm look. "I do, too," she said, and she stretched toward him, for a brief and gentle kiss that was full of faith and love even if it wasn't pressing.
When she shifted away, another smile spread over her lips as a new thought occurred to her. "And who knows?" she said with a carefree shrug of her outside shoulder. "Maybe this is the way we're supposed to do it. I mean, it's not like there's an instruction book we can follow for any of this."
He smiled back at her, simply at first. But then a more wicked snicker made his nose twitch and his nostrils flare with familiar wolfishness, and he gave a low snort beneath his breath. "Any way with you is the right way," he growled, and he shifted against the sides of the tub, making the water splash around them like tiny waves as he half-rolled on top of her.
"Ah-!" Chie cried, letting go a screaming, ticklish laugh as Yousuke grabbed her hip and the side of one breast and snuffled noisily into her neck. But then his mouth found hers, and she met his powerful and passionate kiss with one of her own, grabbing him equally as firmly around shoulder and thigh.
In their wet and loving embrace, their muffled laughter turned to hums, then giggles, then groans and back again. And at one point as they splashed and squeezed and played in the water, Chie thought she heard Suzuka give a little laugh of resignation, as she whispered into her inner ear:
For love, there is no teacher.
Her Persona's sage words couldn't be argued...but Chie didn't mind feeling her way through this next step of her destiny, as she'd done all the others. Because no matter what mad, marvelous, laughable destiny lay ahead of her, she knew that Yousuke – the man she'd chosen, her man, her hero – would be with her for every step, unequivocally and forever, as they were always meant to be:
. . .
Thank you to everyone who took the time to read, and to offer your support with Alerts, Favorites, and reviews. Those few keystrokes meant more to me than you can know. It took almost three years, and there was certainly plenty of frustration and anxiety amid the sense of accomplishment and joy I got from writing this. But the kindness and support of my faithful few readers many times made up for any doubts I might have had about what I was doing with this story.
I would be remiss if I did not take this moment to thank three very conscientious readers who have stuck with me from nearly the beginning, and who never gave up, no matter the wordcount or plot twists or how far I decided to push the boundaries: Kisdota-the Freak Gamer, Lady Cheshire, and zero-damage never let me feel that this story - and the way I wanted to tell it - wasn't worth it. For that, I can't express my thanks enough.
I hope that you've found my story of love, family, friendship, and adventure worthwhile. I want to write more for these characters (there's a whole beautiful timeline I've plotted for all of their lives), and maybe I will, someday. But for now, I'll leave you with this moment of happy togetherness for my heroes, Satonaka Chie and Hanamura Yousuke.
And that, as they say, is that.