That damnable Kanji! How dare he show me ponies!
Souji exploded out of the house, his shirt buttons in mismatched holes, hair sticking out in every which way and his school bag in one hand and lunch in the other.
In the doorway, Nanako was carrying the little orange kitten in her arms with her hand clutching Souji's phone. "Big Bro, you forgot your—"
"Just give it some milk, Nanako!" he called over his shoulder as he disappeared around the wall. "Don't forget to lock the door!"
"But you forgot your-!"
He didn't hear her over the loud smacking of his shoes hitting the pavement. His heart was racing at the thought of being late, knowing that Kashiwagi would call him out in some way that would make him wish he could take another King Moron vomit bath instead.
"I can't believe I'm going to get molested for watching ponies!" he howled down the street, causing the heads of the many citizens to follow him.
Just then, a student on a creaky bike rode by with a passenger riding behind him. Souji looked up and recognized the green track jacket around the passenger's waist. "Chie! Yosuke!"
Chie craned her neck to look back at him and pulled an apologetic look. "Sorry, Seta! We'll see you in class!"
"Easy for you to say!" Yosuke grunted, pedaling with all his might. "You're not doing any of the work!"
"You didn't have to give me a ride!"
"You're right. Get off!"
"Are you crazy? I'll be late!"
Souji could still hear them arguing almost a block away. He frowned at them both. "What good are the both of you?" he screamed after them, easily making himself winded as he ran. With a furious yell, he tore down the street after them, seriously debating if he wanted to yank Chie off and steal her place.
"This is so unlike you, Seta."
The sultry voice of Kashiwagi made him shudder as he stood at the front of the class, sweating profusely and still very unkempt. She made a slow, little circle around him and eyed him hungrily.
"You might want to fix your shirt," she pointed out, tapping a slender finger against one of the mismatched buttons on his chest. "Or do you need someone to help you?"
He took a large step away from her. "I'm fine," he told her, mustering all his strength to sound calm. "May I go to the restroom to fix myself?"
She flitted a hand as she walked away from him. "Not until after homeroom. Think of it as a little punishment for being late."
When he was dismissed, he walked the walk of shame down the row to his seat. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yukiko making a face at him. He couldn't tell what kind of face it was—he couldn't even bring himself to look at her.
To avoid her stare, he shifted his attention to Kashiwagi, who had begun to call roll. Whenever she called a name, she pretended to scan the room in search of the student just so she could eye Souji for a split second. Every time she did this, he felt bile rise up in his throat. When she called his name, she looked directly at him for a few seconds, taking the time to lick her lips at him.
When homeroom ended, he shot out of the room and into the safety of the men's restroom. He still checked over his shoulder every now and then to make sure that Kashiwagi hadn't followed him.
Halfway through the class before lunch, Souji had managed to calm down and no longer felt his Kashiwagi senses tingling. He was composed enough to have his notebook out to take notes on Nakayama's math lesson, but like most of his classmates he was not focused on the lecture. Her lectures were usually conducted using half complaints about her personal life, and half obscure bits of information.
"…Studies show that women are less forgiving when their male companion cheats on them. I guess I should be thankful for my husband, who just sits around asking when dinner's going to be ready instead of disappearing at odd hours…"
You can't be serious, Souji cringed, in complete disbelief at the topic of her lecture. He scribbled some notes, then returned to a previous page where he was drawing Naoto getting eaten by a tyrannosaurus rex.
Nakayama turned away from the blackboard and set her book down on the podium. As usual, her eyelids were caked with eye shadow, and her lips were coated with red lipstick. Souji idly wondered if she wore that much make-up to repel her husband.
"However, men seem to be more forgiving if their female counterpart cheats on them with other women. Personally, if I get bored of my husband, I just go online and watch my stocks…"
But Girlfriend didn't cheat on me with a girl, he thought miserably as he drew himself laughing triumphantly at Naoto getting eaten. Dammit, I think I could've forgiven her if she made out with Chie, or Rise-chan. Hell, even Teddie's forgivable!
He scribbled a bit of notes, but lost the thought halfway. Instead of erasing what he had, he wrote, "because you can become five-percent pregnant" and went back to raging at Naoto.
Who the hell does he think he is? Coming into my town, mackin' on my woman, seducing all the other women, and forcing his way into our crew? That's disrespect, yo. Mentally, he slapped a hand to his face. Great, and now he turned me gangster.
He rested his head against a fist and tapped his pencil on his notebook. Without him really realizing it, he started to draw Naoto getting gored on a unicorn's horn. He was just adding some Xs for eyes when he glanced up at Yukiko.
Maybe I'll pull a Girlfriend and set Shirogane on fire, he mused, and drew himself setting Naoto's head on fire.
"Women love it when their boyfriends or husbands tell them they love them, but be warned—men are usually the first to say 'I love you' just to seduce women. Don't fall for it! Unless, of course, you two have really been dating seriously then maybe it's okay to believe him."
Souji froze and his pencil dropped from his hand and rolled to the floor. Did I ever tell her that? I know she said it to me, but I don't think I ever…
He looked at Yukiko again, admiring how her hair shook as she erased something on her notes. Should I tell her? But, after this lecture, she might think I'm just seducing her. Then again, I'm not exactly Teddie, so she might believe me.
What the hell am I thinking? I'm the one with trust issues after she stuck her tongue down Shirogane's throat! Damn you, boy! You forced my hand! I'm going to have to talk to her during lunch!
The lunch bell rang, and Chie sprang up from her seat and tugged on Yukiko's sleeve. "Come on! The first-years are gonna get all the good stuff if we don't hurry!"
"In a minute, Chie," Yukiko said. "I want to go over notes with Souji-kun."
"You can do that after we get food," Chie argued, still tugging on her sleeve. "You know I skipped breakfast today!"
Yukiko sighed and rose to her feet. "I do now. All right, let's go."
A loud "whoo-hoo!" escaped Chie as they left the classroom. Souji could have sworn that Yukiko peeked at him through the crack in the door right before she closed it fully. He then balled his hands into tight fists.
Okay, she's coming back to talk to me, so I can tell her then. Or maybe on the roof. Or at Junes. Or maybe I should throw us into the TV so we definitely get some privacy. No! I have to tell her as soon as I get the chance. I must. I MUST!
Souji looked up and saw Rise bound up to him with bouncing pigtails. "Rise-chan, what're you doing here?"
"I tried texting you earlier to ask if you wanted to eat lunch together, but you didn't answer," she said. "So, I thought I'd deliver the message myself."
"That's very thoughtful of you, but—"
She leaned in with both hands on his desk. "Actually, there's something I need to talk to you about," she whispered, her face now serious. She leaned in closer so that their noses almost touched. "It's about Yukiko-senpai."
He thrust himself forward, making Rise lean back. "What about Yukiko-san?" he said in a very low tone.
"Not here," Rise whispered, straightening herself. "Meet me on the roof. I'm going to get us some drinks."
She spun around, accidentally slapping Souji in the face with her soft pigtails and left the room. He looked at Yukiko's empty chair, sighed, then picked up his bento box and headed for the roof.
The cloudy sky was a lie. Even up high on a rooftop at the top of a hill, there was little wind and the thick, humid air threatened to suffocate Souji. Still, he trudged over to the usual corner and sat down to wait. Five seconds later, he lay down with his hands up by his head. He felt like he was melting into the cement.
"Thnow…" Souji whispered lazily to himself, too weak to enunciate properly. "Thummer can thuck it. I wanna take some thnow and thnuggle the hell outta it. And then I'll tell it how muts I…"
The door to the roof opened, and Rise strode up with two cans of soda in her hands. She took a seat next to Souji, with only his lunch keeping her from sitting too close.
"Sorry it took so long," she said, setting both cans next to the bento. "There were some first-year guys, but they let me cut when they saw it was me."
Souji stayed as he was, and Rise placed one of the cans in his open palm. "Oh, you made lunch," she squealed, and Souji sat up to open it.
She took one of the little Chakin Sushi pouches and bit into it. "Mmm, good stuff! You're a culinary genius, Souji-senpai!" she said, hiding her full mouth with a hand.
"She did? Oh, so she's the source of your culinary prowess!"
Souji took one of the little pouches and took a bite. It had tasted great last night, but today, he could have eaten eraser bits and not known the difference. "So, what did you need to talk about?"
Rise set her sushi down and cracked open her can of TaP. "Hm? Oh yeah, that. I had a weird dream a few days ago about Yukiko-senpai. I can't really remember it all, but it felt really real."
"So, what happened in the dream?"
"Well, I felt like I was getting dragged into this dark place," she started, setting her soda down. "Then, I remember seeing an open door, and Yukiko-senpai was there. I think I saw you and Naoto there, too."
Souji felt a jolt of panic up his spine. Why does it sound like I saw her dream?
"Anyway, I saw Yukiko-senpai and Naoto holding each other, and then they…" she trailed off and gasped. "Senpai, I think I saw them—"
"Yes! What? No!" Rise shook her head, her pigtails brushing her ears softly. "I saw them kiss!"
Souji felt his heart do its own little explosion in his chest. "What made you dream that up?" he asked with a forced calm in his voice.
"I don't know!" she cried, her voice squeaking when it rose too high. "I thought it was weird, too, and it felt real. But then when I went to get our drinks just now I saw Yukiko-senpai wave to Naoto and he just pulled his cap over his eyes and walked away!"
"Rise-chan, calm down," he told her through the pounding in his ears. "This is all stuff that could get Yukiko-san and Shirogane some unwanted attention. You remember how you felt when people were spreading rumors about you, right?"
Rise looked down at her feet. "Yeah, I guess you're right, Senpai. I'm sorry."
"Good, because stuff like this could have damaged Yukiko-san's image and her family's image as well. If people got wind that she was drunk and making out with people she barely knew, it could ruin her! Who knows what kind of lies people will make up? And she already had a lot of other rumors to deal with earlier this year, so this would just shame her to death!"
Rise picked up her sushi pouch and nibbled on it, looking very remorseful. Souji also took a big bite out of his when she popped up out of her seat. "What if my dream was trying to tell me that Yukiko-senpai actually likes Naoto?"
Souji felt bits of chicken lodge into his throat, sending him into a violent coughing fit.
"Don't you see, Senpai? Why else would Naoto be so shy around her? He's not like that with anyone else!" she cried with a gleam in her eyes. "Right, Senpai?"
She turned to Souji and saw him smacking the back of his neck while gasping for air. She stood him up, wrapped her arms around his middle and squeezed in short, strong pulses until he coughed up some chicken bits.
"Senpai, are you okay?" she asked, helping him back to his seat.
He sucked in fresh air through his nose, still breathing hard. "Yeah, thanks."
"Don't scare me like that, Senpai. I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to save you," she sighed. "But, it's great to see that you're just as excited as me about them getting together. You're such a good guy, Senpai!"
She popped the rest of her sushi pouch into her mouth and grabbed another one. "You know, I'm pretty impressed with how passionate you are with your friends. Are you even more passionate when it comes to a girl you like?"
Souji picked up his soda. "Not sure. Haven't found her yet," he grunted, taking a sip.
She smiled. "I'm sure that she'd be pretty happy, knowing how caring you can be."
Rise finished her second pouch and the rest of her soda. "Thanks for lunch, Senpai, and for meeting me. Sorry to dine and dash, but there's something else I have to do right now."
She got up and started towards the door. "Oh, and Senpai? If you do find the right girl, make sure that she knows how special she is to you, okay?"
The door closed with a heavy thunk as it closed behind her, and Souji let out a small cough.
"Well, now that that's over, maybe I can just call Girlfriend up here," he muttered as he reached into his pocket for his cell phone. To his dismay, all he had in his hand was pocket lint.
"Did I drop it?" he asked himself, standing up and patting all his pockets. "Did I forget it at home? Is it in my bag?"
He lifted his bento box, but found nothing. He looked around the empty rooftop in search of a little black phone, but only saw cement. Groaning in annoyance, he gathered up his bento box and empty cans and headed back inside where he ran into Yosuke, who occupied the rest of his lunch time talking about some show that Kanji had tried to get him to watch.
Not getting the chance to ask Souji about the notes, Yukiko sent a text to him during afternoon classes if he would meet her after school. She glanced back at him to see if he had received her message, but he kept his head down as he scribbled in his notebook. Figuring that he hadn't felt his phone vibrate a notification, she slid her phone back into her pocket and resumed taking notes. She nearly jumped out of her seat when she felt her own phone vibrate. Tapping her toes rapidly inside her shoes, she waited impatiently for Kashiwagi to turn her back to the class and the second she did, she whipped out her phone with the expectation to see Souji's response. Her excitement deflated when she saw that it was a text from her mother asking her to buy some tofu after school. As she replaced her cell phone into her skirt pocket, she silently swore her never-ending loathing for tofu.
When the final bell rang, she swiftly threw all her stuff into her book bag and sprang up from her desk to face Souji, only to see that he wasn't there. She whipped her head around looking for him and just caught a glimpse of his silver head leaving the classroom.
"Sou—" she started to call, but didn't want to cause a scene.
Chie looked at her funny. "So… what?"
Yukiko cleared her throat. "So, um, so I was thinking that, um, I had better hurry home, so I can't really hang out today," she lied. "Sorry, Chie."
"It's cool. We can hang out tomorrow." Chie waved. "See ya!"
Yukiko nodded and ran out of the room, chasing Souji down the hallway. Students flooded the hallways, making her dodge the moving obstacles on her way to him. She side-stepped around a group of boys that were walking in a line and slid between some girls laughing by the stairs. From the top of the stairs, she could see Souji by the shoe lockers.
"Souji-kun!" she called, but she was drowned out by the chatter of the students. She pushed her way down to him, getting buffeted by the other students and watched as he shut his shoe locker and headed out the door.
Yukiko leaned heavily against the lockers and turned around to look for who had called her and saw Rise emerge from the river of students.
"Rise-chan, what is it?" she asked, glancing back over to Souji.
"Can I talk to you for a second? It'll be really quick," Rise insisted.
"I'm sorry, I can't. I kind of have to get some tofu for my mother."
Rise grabbed her by the hand. "Yukiko-senpai, my family owns the tofu shop! We can talk there!"
They both quickly changed their shoes and started down the hill, Yukiko charging forward with Rise almost jogging at her heels.
"Rise-chan, can't you just tell me what it is while we walk?" she huffed.
The younger girl looked around at all the other students. "Sorry, Senpai, but it's not really something that you just talk about out in the open."
Yukiko scanned up ahead, spotting Souji a few yards ahead of them. Why am I trying so hard to reach him? It's just notes that I wanted. I can get them tomorrow.
She slowed her pace so Rise could walk more easily next to her. They trekked all the way to the tofu shop, where Rise's grandmother was handing a customer her order.
"Thank you for shopping at Marukyu Tofu," she said in her creaky old voice. When she spotted Rise, she smiled. "Rise, welcome home!"
"I'm home, Grandma," Rise announced. "Yukiko-senpai would like to order some tofu."
They both looked at Yukiko, who had to stop and pull out her phone to find out what to ask for. When she gave her order, the old woman started to gather up the tofu while Rise pulled her off to the side.
"Yukiko-senpai," Rise whispered urgently, "I know all about you."
She felt the hairs on the back of her neck leap as her heart began to race. "W-what?"
"You don't have to hide it, Senpai. I know who you like."
Yukiko's knees almost gave way. "Y-y-you know that I like…?"
Rise shook her head. "It's okay! There's no shame in liking a younger man!"
She blinked. "What?"
"I know that you like Naoto, and I think it's great!" Rise whispered excitedly, bouncing on her toes. "I think you two look pretty good together, even if you are a little taller, but he'll grow."
"Rise-chan, how did you—"
"I talked about it with Souji-senpai," she said simply, oblivious to Yukiko's fingers twitching to wrap around her neck. "I told him about a dream that I had and saw Naoto blush when you waved to him in the cafeteria during lunch today!"
The older girl's jaw dropped. "Why was he blushing?"
"Duh! Because he probably likes you, too!"
Rise sighed and put her hands on her hips. "Yukiko-senpai, at least half of the boys at school are in love with you. But, I know for sure that you and Naoto are meant for each other."
Yukiko buried her face in her hands. "This can't be happening…"
"But it is! Senpai, I had a dream a few days ago that you and Naoto were holding each other and kissing!"
While she flashed a huge smile, Yukiko's mind started to fuzz over. "I, I did… huh…?"
"Yeah, and Souji-senpai was there, too!" Rise dropped her voice. "Oh, but when I was talking it over with him, he said to be careful not to let any weird rumors spread about you getting drunk and kissing everybody. I don't get where he got that idea that you were drunk in my dream, though."
"He was there, too?" She swallowed hard, her voice trembling as she asked, "When did you have this dream, exactly?"
"I think it was during the class trip, after Club Escapade."
Thoughts flooded Yukiko's mind as she connected what she had just learned with what she already knew. Drunk? I was drunk? Is that why I can't remember that night? What happened that…
She gasped at the realization, and Rise patted her shoulder.
"Don't worry, Senpai. Only me and Souji-senpai know about it," she told her reassuringly. Her grandmother came over and handed Yukiko a bag full of styrofoam containers.
"I'll just charge it to your family's bill," she said kindly. "You'd better hurry on home, Yukiko-chan."
"See you tomorrow, Yukiko-senpai!" Rise called after her as she trudged down to the bus stop.
Her feet were suddenly heavy and she dragged her shoes across the street. Her head felt light and numb, like she was about to float away. Her body was in limbo, wanting to float away but feeling like the world was crushing her down into the ground. She stood by the bus stop with several others, deep in thought at what she had just learned.
When she arrived at her family's inn, she quickly dropped off the tofu in the kitchen and dashed down the hall to Mitsuru's room. She knocked on the door, breathing hard, and when Mitsuru opened she stormed in.
"What's the matter?" Mitsuru asked earnestly.
"Onee-sama…" She bit her trembling lip and tears formed in her eyes. "I cheated on my boyfriend!"
After school, Souji headed to the place he liked to go to vent out his anger: The Daycare Center. He stood by the sandbox wearing the daycare's apron over his uniform and stared down at the children running around him.
Ah, nothing eases the pain of being cheated on than pretending you're setting children's heads on fire, he thought dreamily to himself as he imagined little bonfires atop their heads as they ran around screaming gleefully.
The daycare lady came up to him holding a baby. "Seta, come here," she called to him. "This is baby Kenichi-kun. Isn't he adorable?"
Yeah, if you're into ugly babies, he thought as she handed the baby over to him.
"He was adopted by a young couple who found him at their doorstep," she told him sadly. "No one knows what happened to his birth parents."
Suddenly the baby wasn't so ugly to Souji anymore. Fine. I won't set your head on fire today, he thought to the baby. He giggled as he reached his tiny, plump, pink hands towards Souji.
"Aw, he likes you!" she crooned as she headed inside.
Souji looked around at all the other kids as they ran around playing some super hero game where they yelled their attacks and made sound effects with their mouths, usually ending with "I shot you!"
Aren't children adorable when they're pretend-killing each other? Souji walked over to the gazebo and sat down at one of the tables. Kenichi wiggled in his arms and started to bawl loudly.
"No, no, no, don't do that," Souji sighed, bouncing the baby on his knee. When it didn't work, he tried to burp him, but nothing came out. "Dammit, this is why you were left on some stranger's doorstep to begin with."
Two little girls approached him, eyeing the baby. "What's wrong with it?" the little girl in the pink jumper asked.
"Wish I could tell you," he muttered, holding Kenichi out far in front of him. "And, it's a boy."
"Maybe his diaper's full," the other girl in the orange shorts suggested.
Souji held the baby out to them. "Here. Smell."
They sniffed and their faces contorted into disgusted looks. "Ew! He poopied!" one of the screamed, and the two girls ran off, echoing "He poopied!" in their high voices.
"Hmph, I preferred it when they were screaming," Souji grumbled as the daycare lady came out. He brought the baby over to her.
"Oh? What's the matter, Seta?" she asked.
"He poopied," he grunted, holding Kenichi out to her like a bomb.
"Oh my, okay."
She took him inside, and Souji was free to mentally set ablaze the children's heads once again.
Back at the inn, Yukiko was in her room with Mitsuru as the older woman poured her some hot tea. Her eyes were red, cracked and puffy, and she blew her runny nose into a tissue before adding it onto the little mountain of used tissues on the table.
"So you think that you did get drunk that night?" Mitsuru asked, calmly sipping her tea.
Yukiko could only nod and blew her nose again.
"Then you have to tell him that. It wasn't your fault that someone slipped you alcohol, and you didn't mean to kiss another boy."
"I thought it was strange that he wasn't replying to my messages," she sobbed. "He probably hates me!"
"You don't know that," Mitsuru reassured her, her eyes filled with determination and compassion. "Give him a call. Now."
She sniffed. "But I—"
"Now," she said more gently, and Yukiko obeyed.
After two rings, someone picked up. "Hello? Souji-kun?"
"Big Sis Yukiko?"
"Nanako-chan? Is Souji-kun there?"
"No, he forgot his phone today and he's not back yet. Big Sis, are you okay? You sound like you have a cold!"
Yukiko laughed dryly. "I'm all right, Nanako-chan, thank you."
"Do you want me to tell him that you called?"
"Could you, please?"
"Yeah! Hope you feel better!"
"Bye," Yukiko said as she hung up. To Mitsuru, she said, "He forgot his phone today, so that's why he wasn't answering."
Mitsuru cocked an eyebrow. "Then who was that Nanako girl who answered?"
"His little cousin," she told her with a smile. "She's a sweet little girl, and she calls me 'Big Sis'."
The older woman smiled. "How cute."
"You didn't think she was some other girl that Souji-kun was having on the side, did you?" she asked suspiciously.
"If that was the case, then I would've had to execute him."
There was a cold fury in Mitsuru's eyes that made Yukiko shiver. "You wouldn't, would you?"
Mitsuru sipped her tea. "Wouldn't I?"
Yukiko looked at her own untouched cup of tea and sipped it, feeling a little better at the possibility of Souji not being upset. Her stomach still churned at what she had done, but she knew that she had to hurry and clear the air between them.
"Yukiko," Mitsuru started, setting down her cup. "Do you see this relationship going further?"
"If we get through my mistake, I think so," she sighed. "Why do you ask?"
"It's just that, your family is a lot like mine when it comes to marriage. They were very adamant about choosing someone for me."
Yukiko glanced up at her. "I thought you weren't married yet."
"I'm not," she replied. "It was difficult, but I managed to become the head of my family's group without needing to be married. They're still upset with me, actually."
The younger girl sipped more tea. "My parents told me that if I didn't find someone that I liked, then they would pick for me. They're giving me a chance, but I think my father's more eager to pick someone himself."
"Do they know about Seta?"
She shook her head. "The only ones who know are you, Kasai-san, and Nanako-chan."
Mitsuru placed her hands around her cup and traced the edge with her thumbs. "You really weren't kidding about keeping it quiet. I'm amazed you trust such a young girl, though."
"Oh no, Nanako-chan is very mature for someone her age," Yukiko said quickly. "She's the most adorable child, and we all see her like our own little sister."
Mitsuru smiled. "Maybe one day, she will be your little sister-in-law."
"She's Souji-kun's little cousin, remember?"
Mitsuru nodded and dismissed her mistake. "Is there a possibility that your parents might choose Seta as a suitor for you?"
"I don't think they even know him as anything besides being my friend and moving here a few months ago," she explained. "But he does have a bit of a reputation for being a nice guy, and a good listener."
She watched as Mitsuru furrowed her eyebrows at her. "Yukiko, you must not let him get away. A man who actually listens to you is indeed, a good man, and very rare."
Yukiko nodded slowly, and Mitsuru settled back down with her tea. "Is a man who listens really a good man?"
"I knew one once. He always listened to my drivel without complaining."
"So why did you let him go?"
Mitsuru looked away, her eyes darkening beneath her bangs. "As I mentioned before, he had someone else. He may not have been mine to begin with. I lost my chance, so I advise you to not forfeit yours, though it's difficult now since he's probably still livid about all this."
"Souji-kun doesn't have a temper," Yukiko mumbled thoughtfully to herself. "Or does he? I don't think I've ever seen him get too angry, but I have seen him get irritated before."
"That night that I met him, he was yelling at a sushi offering at the shrine," Mitsuru told her as she flipped her hair over her shoulder. "That poor young man must have been slipped some alcohol, as well."
Yukiko pulled out her cell phone and flipped through some pictures of Souji. He wasn't smiling in a lot of them, but he didn't seem angry or upset. "Sometimes, Souji-kun says things that are a little strange, but he can be pretty funny at times if you really pay attention," she said idly, studying his face in a picture they took by the two dolls inside Gekkoukan High School.
Mitsuru got up and peered down at the picture over Yukiko's shoulder. "Oh, those. They have a sign with the Kirijo family's motto."
Yukiko squinted, trying to read the sign. " 'Two in harmony surpasses one in perfection'."
"Mm-hm," Mitsuru nodded. "Now, who was it that you kissed?"
Yukiko's face burned red as she pointed Naoto out.
"Him? I can see now why Seta was so upset. He's not so bad-looking at all."
"I know!" she cried. "But he's shorter, extremely serious, and… and…"
"And not Seta?"
She nodded. "I hope he returns home soon."
That evening, Souji returned home to find Nanako seated at her usual spot by the table. She greeted him, and he saw his cell phone in front of her and the kitten in her lap.
"So that's where I left it," he said, opening it and finding a number of messages in it.
"Big Sis Yukiko called earlier," Nanako told him, picking the kitten up and carrying it over to Souji. "She asked for you, and she sounded like she had a cold."
He clicked through the messages, reading one from Yosuke making a crack about him being late that morning and another one making fun of Kanji liking a little girl's show about ponies. A text from Rise asked him to meet her during lunch, and one from Yukiko asked to see his notes. The last one was her asking to call when he got the message.
"She didn't have a cold when we were in class," Souji said bitterly as he stuffed the phone in his pocket. "Maybe it was allergies."
The kitten squirmed out of Nanako's hands and rubbed its orange body all over Souji's legs. Orange fur clung visibly to his black uniform pants. "What is it with today's youth pooping and rubbing fur on me?" he sighed as he went upstairs to dump his bag on his couch. When he came back down, he found Nanako placing a second bowl of instant noodles on the short table.
"Dinner will be ready in a few minutes," she said happily. "But, the kitten needs to eat, too."
Souji ran back upstairs and grabbed the can of cat food he had bought on the way home. Nanako squealed with delight as it licked at the gravy on the meaty surface.
"This thing's eating better than us tonight," Souji mumbled as he petted the ball of fluff.
"Should we name it?" Nanako asked.
"What do you want to name it?"
She gave an exaggerated shrug, and the two sat down to eat their pitiful noodles. Nanako offered to let him watch the colorful pony show again, but he refused, having had his fill of ponies the previous night.
When the table was cleared and the kitten's leftover food was put in the refrigerator, they sat down to watch the evening's news. Nanako let the kitten sleep on her lap as the news report began.
Souji felt his arms tense up when he saw Naoto's face light up the screen. He balled his hands into fists and ground his wrists into his knees. His jaw clenched, and every muscle in his body became rigid.
"Tonight's report will focus on this Detective Prince, Naoto Shirogane, whose handsome looks are sweeping the nation," the announcer said. "Thanks for being on the show."
"No, no," Naoto said coolly. "The pleasure is all mine."
Nanako looked from Naoto to Souji. "Oh, his uniform's the same as yours," she realized aloud. She didn't notice him fuming across the table.
On the report, Naoto talked about his belief that the police had caught the wrong murder suspect and was still looking at the evidence for another possible killer. The announcer soon changed the topic, talking more about Naoto's accomplishments and only infuriating Souji further.
He's also a girlfriend-stealing midget who's so manwhore-ish that he could compete with Teddie! Souji thought angrily as he gripped his knees tightly.
"There's a detective at your school?" Nanako asked excitedly. "When I'm older, I'm gonna go to your school too!"
And now he's after my little cousin! He's seducing the younger female population! Souji scowled at Naoto's face as the kitten tumbled out of Nanako's lap and went over to him. It peered up at him in wonder and let out a squeaky little meow to get his attention.
"What is it, Kitten?" he growled, and the kitten put its paws on his hand then climbed into his lap.
"I think it's sleepy," Nanako guessed with a yawn.
Souji picked up the kitten and switched off the TV. "Time for bed, Nanako-chan."
She sleepily brushed her teeth while Souji balance the kitten on his shoulder so he could do the same. He wished her good night and went up to his room and set the kitten down on the couch. He changed his clothes, turned out the light and slid into his futon. As he settled in, the kitten came up to his face and mewed again.
"I already fed you," he grumbled, turning over, but the kitten just went over to his face and mewed again. "Fine, what do you want?"
It let out another squeaky little mew and licked his cheek with a tiny rough tongue. Souji picked up the little creature and set it on his chest.
"You're too damn cute, you know that?" he told it as he stroked its fur. "Did Nanako-chan give you a bath? You smell like kiddie shampoo, and your fur's softer."
It curled up on his chest and started purring, giving a slight, soothing massage. Souji lay awake for awhile longer, putting all his focus on the kitten and forgetting all about the messages on his cell phone and the Detective Prince.
The next morning, Souji found himself on the way to school, minding his own business when his friends started to talk about Naoto's appearance on the news last night. They discussed his involvement in catching the culprit, and once again, Yukiko jumped in to Naoto's defense by giving her reason as to why he was able to take credit for catching the murderer that they had risked their lives to catch themselves.
Et tu, Girlfriend? he thought grimly. Just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, Naoto himself showed up wearing a teal blue dress shirt and a yellow tie over black pants.
"I've been waiting for you all," he said in his low, serious voice. "There's something I needed to discuss with you regarding the case."
How the hell can you hit puberty and have it affect your voice and not your height? Souji wondered as he squinted bitterly at Naoto.
He started talking about the three murder victims and how they were merely locals who happened to make an appearance on the news. He believed that there was nothing special about them in particular.
"Haven't you all come to the same conclusion?" he asked, his dark eyes locking onto Souji's.
"Yeah, we did," he answered through a clenched jaw.
Naoto nodded. "Then allow me to state my point."
He started to pinpoint Yukiko, Kanji and Rise as either fortunate kidnap victims or the murderers themselves, and Souji had to use every ounce of strength to not wrap his fingers around Naoto's delicate little neck. Instead, he mentally opened and closed his hand like a talking sock puppet to mimic Naoto's continuous speech. He softened a little when Naoto revealed his thought that they might actually be the only ones who could find the true murderer. He also pointed out the discrepancy between Morooka's murder and the other victims, but still felt that there needed to be more evidence.
"…You said something interesting to me not long ago," he added, and walked around the group. Without turning back around, he told them, "This is not a game for me, either," and walked away.
Souji heard Yukiko whisper Naoto's name as the youth walked away, and he also turned his back on her.
Souji hardly paid attention to Yukiko that entire day, and even though his phone kept vibrating with messages, he just ignored them all. Yosuke collected him once school was out for the day, and Kanji joined them to hang out at Junes. They went straight to the food court where Teddie was dressed in his bear suit grilling meat.
"So, did you watch it?" Kanji asked Yosuke.
"I don't watch shows for little girls, Kanji!" Yosuke yelled defensively.
With a crestfallen face, Kanji turned to Souji. "How 'bout you, Senpai? Did you watch it?"
Souji took a long sip from his soda. When he set his drink down, he calmly told him, "Fluttershy is best pony."
Kanji's face lit up so brightly that the boys had to put their hands up just to protect their eyes. "See, Yosuke-senpai? Even a guy like Souji-senpai can appreciate a good show!"
"Dude, what is wrong with you?" Yosuke screeched at Souji, trying to keep what little manly façade he could maintain for the group. "They're ponies. Ponies. They're for little girls, like Nanako-chan and Kanji!"
"You sayin' I'm a pretty little girl?" Kanji growled in his deep, menacing voice, and Yosuke let out a tiny squeak as he shrank into his chair.
"Oh, oh! Teddie's favorite is Pinkie Pie!" Teddie piped up as he brought over a tray with their orders. "She's so fun, and she knows how to paaaar-tay!"
"Not you too," Yosuke whined.
"Don't hack it till you've seen it," Kanji told him with a grin. To Teddie, he said, "I thought you would've liked Rarity. Rarity is best pony."
"Ooh, she's pretty," Teddie said thoughtfully, "But someone's gotta teach her how to party!"
Are we seriously discussing ponies out here on top of a department store? Souji wondered as he ripped off a piece of barbecue with his teeth. We truly are men, eating meat and discussing little girls' shows.
"How 'bout you, Senpai?" Kanji asked. "Why's Fluttershy your favorite?"
Souji chewed on the half-eaten stick. "Because Fluttershy is best pony."
"What? No way, Rarity's best pony."
"The fabulous Rarity."
"You guys, can't we just love all ponies equally?" Teddie chimed in, and the two just glared at him until he hid behind the grill.
"Shut up, you guys!" Yosuke yelled. "They're just stupid ponies!"
They turned their deathly glares at Yosuke, whose angry look melted into a fearful one again. They then turned their glares onto each other, and Kanji let out a little whimper as Souji stared him down. The look of sheer terror on the big teenager's face made Souji feel guilty, so he went down into the toy department of Junes, bought a little toy of the white and purple pony that he loved, and gave it to Kanji. He promptly broke into a smile and thanked his senior.
"Rarity may be best pony, but my favorite is still Fluttershy," Souji told him, and Kanji agreed to it.
"And this is why we are forever alone," Yosuke sighed. "Out of all of us, you'd think that at least this guy would've had a girlfriend by now."
They all looked at Souji, who sat with his leg draped across the other as he sipped his soda. "I haven't found the right girl," he lied pathetically as he was painfully reminded of Yukiko.
"What, and Risette isn't good enough? What about Ai Ebihara, or Yukiko-san?" Yosuke listed on his fingers.
"Senpai, you forgot Chie-senpai," Kanji added as he unwrapped the toy and started to brush her mane.
"Put that away!" Yosuke screamed at him as he popped out of his seat and slammed his flat palms onto the table, and Kanji hastily stashed the pony into his bag. "See, this is exactly why we don't have any girlfriends! We're sitting here playing with stupid girls' toys!"
"You don't play with ponies, so where's your girlfriend?" Souji asked simply, and the truth of his words sent Yosuke crashing back into his chair.
"Dammit, what the hell is it even like having a girlfriend?" Yosuke murmured as he brought his hands to his face.
"It's like finding your other half, the person that you can just be yourself with, who will continue to love you no matter what you do. You're floating away on the clouds when you're with her, and the rest of the world fades away beneath you, and nothing and no one else matters. She becomes your everything: your food, your drink, your air, your very flesh and blood. You don't know why she means so much to you, but all you know is that you want to hold her close and never let her go, and you want to make sure that she'll always be happy, even if it means letting her go."
Kanji finished his speech, standing with one foot on his chair and the other on the table with one large hand out in front of him and the other over his heart.
"Kanji, letting her go means not having a girlfriend," Yosuke grumbled miserably.
The big teenager looked down and saw that his friends and all the other occupants of the food court were staring at him with wide eyes and gaping mouths, and he leaped off the table and sat back down, blushing as he bashfully sipped his soda.
After hanging out with his friends, Souji decided that he needed some time to himself. He grabbed his fishing gear and went to the riverbed after dark, squinting to see if there were any fish he could try to catch. He cast his line and waited, sitting cross-legged at the edge of the rock.
As he stared at the river, he listened to the sound of water flowing away from him. He could hear trees rustling in the wind as a warm, late-summer breeze drifted by. Dogs barked to one another off in the distant neighborhoods and after a time, stopped.
The hang out with the guys had been fun and allowed him to take his mind off of Yukiko for a short time, until Yosuke had to point out how single and pathetic they were. But now he was here, alone, and deep in thought about what Kanji had said earlier in his long-winded speech about love.
"You just want to make her happy, even if it means letting her go," he whispered to himself, and the thought of letting Yukiko go made his heart ache.
He felt something tug on his line, and he sat frozen with a tight grip on the fishing pole. When he heard the reel start to spin, he stood up and fought back, pulling the pole up and reeling it in, up and reeling back, up and again until the fish was dangling in front of him with a spasmodic twitch.
"Red Goldfish," he said with a sigh. "My kitty's eating well tonight."
As he placed the fish into a basket, a motorcycle rumbled down the floodplain towards him. He straightened up and watched as it slowed to a stop and parked at the top of the steps by the riverbed. The rider, wearing a black leather jacket and dark pants tucked into leather stiletto boots, got off and started towards him.
"Stranger danger!" Souji yelled, pointing a threatening finger at the biker. "Stranger danger!"
"Stop! Seta, it's me!"
The rider pulled off her helmet and revealed the young woman with dark red hair he had encountered during the class trip.
"You!" he cried. "You're that cougar woman!"
She put on a hurt look. "I'm only twenty years old, Seta, and my name is not cougar woman."
"You're still older than me by three years," he pointed out, and she scowled in annoyance.
"Will you stop that?" she ordered in a commanding voice. "Honestly, what does Yukiko see in a boy as strange as you?"
He perked up at his girlfriend's name. "How do you know Yukiko-san?"
Mitsuru stuck her helmet on one of the handlebars of her motorcycle and walked down to him. "Yukiko is a dear friend of mine," she informed him in a threatening tone. "And you haven't been a very good boyfriend to her."
"How do you even know about that?" he mouthed in disbelief as he looked away from a moment. He looked back to her, only to meet with her gloved palm slapping him across the face. Souji fell onto his backside, startled by the hidden strength of this young woman.
"Why have you been ignoring her?" she demanded, stepping towards him with her high-heeled stiletto boot stomping on the rock between his knees. "Have you any idea how much pain you've caused her?"
"Caused her?" he yelled. "What about me? She kissed Shirogane right in front of me and has the gall to just act like nothing happened! How do you explain that, huh?"
"Because she was slipped some alcohol!" Mitsuru yelled back at him. "She can't remember anything that happened that night because she was intoxicated! Do you really think she would sink so low as to prostitute herself out to other men?"
Souji was stunned into silence as he processed her words. He cast his eyes to the ground, her words echoing in his mind until he finally muttered, "No, she wouldn't."
Mitsuru offered him the same hand she had just slapped him with. "I've heard that you are a sensible young man with a strange habit of saying funny little things every now and then," she said in a calmer voice as she helped him to his feet. "But I know that you aren't completely foolish. Now tell me, why have you been ignoring her?"
"I just… I…" He pulled out his cell phone while searching for something to say and found five more text messages, all from Yukiko. He exited the text message screen and flipped it shut.
"Is it so hard to just talk to her?" she asked more sympathetically. "Don't you care about her enough to let her know what's wrong, or at least ask her about her actions?"
He clenched his jaw, then relaxed. "Do you know how hard it is to want to believe that the person you care for most didn't just cheat on you?" he asked her with his voice catching on the lump in his throat. "When you see it before your eyes, just watching as she slips away from you and into another guy's arms-it hurts. I didn't want to believe it, and I didn't want to think about it. And it hurts more when your friends keep telling you that your girlfriend might like that other guy, too! Do you know how hard it is to lose someone you love so much that you just don't know what to do? Well, do you?"
He tensed his entire upper body, making tight fists down at his sides. To his surprise, Mitsuru nodded slowly.
"I know that feeling all too well," she said wretchedly. "If my family knew about my first love, they would have told me that I had fallen in love with the wrong man. But they never knew and I had to watch him go with my best friend."
Souji felt his very core frost over. He shivered, not understanding why, but he felt his chest tighten painfully at her story. "How come he ended up with your best friend? Didn't you tell him how you felt?"
She held on to her elbow, her hard expression softening into a pained one. "I did. I screamed it out in the middle of the Port Island Station for all to hear. Unintentionally, to be honest."
He raised his eyebrows. "Okay then. Are you saying that I should drag Girlfriend to the train station and scream out to everyone what she did, and then tell her that I completely forgive her?"
"That's not quite what I meant." She dropped her voice. "When I screamed out my feelings, it was because my fiancé was being condescending towards him."
"You had a fiancé, and a boyfriend? And you're berating me for not talking to my girlfriend about our problem?"
She raised her hand again, and Souji flinched. "It was an arranged marriage, and the man they set me up with was..."
"A complete douche canoe?"
Mitsuru looked at him with her mouth half open. "Where in the world do you keep finding these phrases of yours?"
Souji just shrugged, and she lowered her hand without striking him. "In essence, yes, he was exactly that. I also screamed some unpleasantries at him as well, and he ran away crying for his grandfather."
Before Souji could ask, she automatically added, "He had to be over thirty years old, so you can imagine just how pathetic it was."
He stuck his hands into his pockets. "Damn, what the hell did you say to the guy? Wait, he was thirty? But you just said that you're only twenty!"
"It's fairly common in the business world," Mitsuru said with a sad sigh. "I was only eighteen when I was betrothed to him. Yukiko isn't too far off from that same fate, either."
He felt like someone had dropped a brick into his stomach. "Wait, what's that supposed to mean?"
"Yukiko's family and mine both believe in arranged marriages," she explained, turning her back to him as she stood at the edge of the rock. "One day, she may have to marry someone based on their business stability, not the person that he is. She could end up with someone similar to who I was matched with, or worse."
"I didn't know about that," he said softly. "But, why are you telling me this?"
"A few days ago, prior to her knowing what she had done on the class trip, she told me a lot about you." Mitsuru tucked some loose strands of hair behind her ear. "She talked about how you helped many of your classmates, how you feigned having a spending problem so that your friends would not know about your relationship when she asked you to not tell anyone, and how you even agreed to keep your relationship quiet so that she wouldn't get bullied by the girls in school. I even asked her mother about her friends, and she had heard many good things about you, too. She said that you're a bright student, very diligent, and patient. And from what I can see, aside from your strange utterances every now and then, you seem to be a decent young man who is genuinely in love with her."
She turned back to him, and he could see a tiny glimmer of a smile in her eyes. "When I saw her talking about you, I felt like she truly does love you. When I saw how upset you were about this mess, I could tell that you were hurting just as much as she was when she learned about her actions. A lot of guys would have just gotten revenge. Looking at you, I know you aren't one of those guys.
"Now, I told you about her possible arranged marriage because I don't want Yukiko to end up marrying someone who doesn't care about her as much as you do. I'm not trying to guilt-trip you into marrying her, but warning you to cherish what you have now. My ex-fiancé saw me little more than a lapdog, ordering me around and making me his servant. Just the thought that she might marry someone like that frightens me."
Mitsuru tugged on her gloves. "I don't want her to go through the same pains that I went through. I don't want to see her have to sacrifice her happiness for someone else who won't return the favor. I want her to be happy, to be with the man who loves and respects her as much as she does him. It was painful enough when I was going through it, but to see her go through the same thing hurts worse."
He didn't know what to say. He felt lower than the scum of the earth and wanted to get rid of the feeling, but he couldn't think of anything to say or do to do so. Instead, he just told her, "When you put it that way, it sounds like you love her more than I do."
Souji started to put his fishing gear away, feeling Mitsuru watching him. "I was so afraid that she was going to reject me and go with Shirogane. My friends even started saying that we should help them along in starting their relationship when they saw how nice that Yukiko was being to him. I started to believe them for a moment. I thought that, since a lot of people had the idea that they like each other, she might want to be in a relationship that she didn't have to hide. I was scared that she was tired of hiding at my request."
"But she told me that she understood why you asked to keep it hidden," Mitsuru said warmly. "Seta, you have to tell her how you feel. Not just how you felt when you witnessed her kiss that boy, but how you feel about her. She needs to know."
He rubbed his sweaty palms on his knees. "It's gonna be a bit difficult…"
"Why? You've just divulged your feelings to me, and you hardly know me," Mitsuru said, very much surprised at this sudden turnaround.
"You're a stranger. It's easier to tell a complete stranger all your dirty little secrets because chances are, you'll never see them again, and they don't even know who you are," he explained as he finished packing up his gear. "But now that I know you're friends with my girlfriend, it kind of defeats the purpose."
Mitsuru motioned for him to follow her up the steps to her motorcycle. "I don't plan on telling her anything. She doesn't even know that I'm out here talking to you. I'm leaving you the responsibility of telling her how you feel. It's up to the both of you if you want to make this relationship work. I will, however, tell you what my father used to tell me: Two in harmony surpasses one in perfection."
She handed him the same spare helmet he had used only days before. "I'll take you home. Where do you live?"
Souji just stood there by the side of the road. "Are you sure you're not a cougar? I mean, you came all the way out here to talk to me without even telling anyone where you're going, and you're offering me a ride home. How do I know you're not taking me back to your lair to do stuff to my supple virgin body?"
"Why do you keep thinking that I'm a cougar?" she asked exasperatedly. "And please tell me that your attention span isn't so short that you've already forgotten what we've talked about."
"Nope, still fresh in my mind. And just… those boots…"
He pointed to her stiletto heels. "How in the name of Zeus do you ride a motorcycle in those? Hell, how do you walk in those?"
"How long were you waiting to ask me that?"
"Since you nearly skewered my misters with them."
She turned to her motorcycle, muttering, "If I still had Artemisia with me, I would have executed you!"
Souji raised his eyebrows. "Huh? Who's Artemisia?"
She threw the helmet to him. "Just get on the bike."
Even though Souji now knew that Yukiko had technically not cheated on him, he still faced the daunting task of actually talking to her. On his way to school on that rainy morning, he rehearsed in his head what he was going to say to her, though he kept interrupting himself with bursts of nervousness every now and then.
Come on, if you can tell a cougar about your feelings for Girlfriend, then you can definitely tell Girlfriend about your feelings, too! he reassured himself as the rain pattered heavily on his umbrella.
He stepped into the front of the school and saw Yukiko changing her shoes. Panic struck him like lightning, and he darted behind another wall of shoe lockers to hide from her.
No! Don't be a cowardly dumbass and go talk to her! he yelled at himself in his mind. Just go and talk to her already!
He peeked around the corner of the lockers and ducked back behind it as Yukiko walked past him to the stairs. He watched as she greeted another student on the way up and engaged in conversation with her.
Dammit, what am I? A ten-year-old girl with a crush? Why the hell is it so hard to say anything to her? She's just my girlfriend! When we're married, we'll be so shameless that I'll be free to piss in front of her!
He clawed at his face. Why am I already thinking of marrying her?
Souji faced the lockers and started knocking his head against it in a slow, rhythmic beat. When he finished, he changed his shoes and noticed a first-year male student looking up at him in fear and confusion. Souji put his hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Do not be afraid to piss in front of your wife," he snarled, and left to get to class. The boy just stood where he was, frozen in terror at what he had just witnessed.
Throughout the school day, Souji spent most of the time trying to muster up as much courage as possible, but he found that he just wasn't heroic enough to pull it off. He spent the entire time rehearsing in his mind what to say, and when he finally got the chance to say something he just sat there staring at her until she happened to glance over at him, to which he would look away immediately.
Lunchtime came, and Yukiko and Chie both agreed to head down to the cafeteria again. Chie looked to both Souji and Yosuke and asked, "You two wanna co—"
"YES!" Souji barked a little too emphatically, startling his friends and the rest of the classroom occupants. He mechanically got to his feet and stiffly followed them down to the cafeteria.
The lunchroom was filled with students talking and laughing loudly, and seats were becoming scarce. Chie volunteered to go with Souji and secure some spots while Yukiko and Yosuke got the food. Souji looked back at Yukiko before following Chie to a half-filled table.
"You're not going to believe this," Chie whispered excitedly to him across the table. "Yesterday, Yukiko waved at Naoto-kun and he totally looked embarrassed!"
Souji couldn't help but think that Chie was starting to sound a lot like Rise. "So…?"
"Weren't you listening? Naoto-kun probably also likes Yukiko!"
The words didn't hurt him much anymore, since he knew that it was all a lie. He failed to hold back a smile and Chie took it to mean something different.
"I know, right? I mean, except for being too short, I think Naoto-kun and Yukiko look pretty good together!"
She frantically kicked her legs giddily under the table, accidentally smacking Souji in the shin. He bit his tongue from the pain and rubbed his injured shin furiously to make the throbbing stop.
Chie's eyes opened wide in wonder. "Wow, I thought I barely tapped you. Sorry!"
He grunted "it's fine," but continued to rub his shin under the table. He made sure to pull his long legs under his seat so that she couldn't kick him anymore.
"But don't you think they'd look good together? I mean, sure, she looks better with you, but they're both from distinguished families, so it kinda makes more sense," she thought aloud, her face lighting up with glee.
"Yes, yes, and when they get married, they can have those murder mystery dinner parties at the Amagi inn for fun," he added with an irritated grumble.
"Who's having a murder mystery dinner party at my family's inn?"
Yukiko and Yosuke sat down and placed the instant noodle bowls in front of their friends. Yukiko took her seat next to Chie, and Yosuke sat across from her next to Souji.
"Hey, you guys know that rumor that was going around about Yukiko liking Naoto-kun?" Chie whispered to the group.
Yukiko's face turned sullen. "I thought we agreed to never bring that up again."
Yosuke nervously tugged on his shirt collar. "Yeah, I mean, come on, Yukiko-san's clearly confirmed that it's not true."
"No, I know, but what if the rumor was backwards?" Chie's grin grew wider. "What if it was Naoto-kun that actually likes Yukiko?"
"What makes you think that he'd be interested in Yukiko-san?" Yosuke asked. "He's always so bent on solving cases, so there's no way he'd be interested."
"But you can't really control when you like someone," Chie reasoned. "Look at most of the guys in school—They were all drooling over Rise-chan when she started coming here."
Yukiko just sat with her hands around the little plastic bowl in front of her, still frowning. "Does he really like me?"
Chie shook her shoulder. "Yeah! Why else can't he look directly at you?"
Both Yukiko's face and Souji's burned red at their mutually unknown knowledge, though Souji went unnoticed.
"Ah, so the little guy does like you," Yosuke smirked. "And how come you turned red, Yukiko-san? Do you have hidden feelings for him, too?"
"N-no, that's not it," she said defensively. "But why would he like me?"
"Probably because you keep inviting him to hang with us," Yosuke suggested as he peeled open his bowl. "He might've taken it that you liked him first."
Souji opened his bowl and started slurping up his chicken-flavored noodles while Chie tore into her beef-flavored bowl. Yukiko sat there, leaving her bowl untouched. She looked over at Souji, who kept his eyes fixated down at his bowl.
"What do you think, Souji-kun?" she asked, and he could hear a bit of fear in her voice.
He finished his mouthful of noodles and grunted, "He likes you."
With nothing more to say, he quickly gobbled up his bowl, sucked down the soup, and got up and left the cafeteria. He decided that there was no way he would be able to talk to her while his friends were around.
After school, Souji headed for the library and got on one of the ancient computers they had there to look up tips for how to tell someone that you like them.
"Number forty-seven: Remember their birthday," he read. "Horse apples, I don't even know when her birthday is!"
"What are you doing?" someone asked him.
"Checking to see if Teddie's been registered as a sex offender yet," he answered, and when he heard a familiar snort of a stifled laugh, he turned around and saw Yukiko laughing through her hand.
"Yukiko-san," he muttered and scrambled to exit out of the screen. "I thought you had work today."
"I have a few errands to run first," she said. "Would you like to help me?"
Realizing that this was the chance he was looking for, he grabbed his bag and followed her to the shoe lockers, where they split momentarily before meeting with their outdoor shoes and umbrellas. The two of them said nothing as they walked the entire way to the Shopping District to Yamenaido Bookstore.
Yukiko went off to a corner of the store while Souji just stood there dumbly, watching as she leafed through a book. Is she okay with everything, or am I missing something? he asked himself as he pretended to thumb through a random book. When he looked down, he saw that it was a pornographic novel he had picked up. He shoved it back into the shelf that he had taken it from and went over to look at another display.
He saw that she had returned to his side. "What is it?"
She wrung her school bag handle. "I kind of lied about having errands to run. I really just wanted to talk to you about some things."
She looked away briefly and asked, "Is it okay to talk a bit?"
"Yeah," he said. "There are some things that I wanted to talk about with you, too."
They left the store and headed up the street to Chie's favorite little meat store. They ordered some steak croquettes to share and stood under the awning since the table was soaked with rain. Neither seemed eager to look at the other.
"So, what did you want to talk about?" he asked casually, while he was actually bursting inside to say what he wanted to say.
"There's a lot of things I want to talk about," she answered feebly. "But, I just don't know where to start."
He shrugged. "Then, write down a list of everything you want to talk about, and we'll work our way down," he jokingly grumbled.
He was surprised to see that she took his advice and pulled out a notebook, scribbling down line after line of things she wanted to say. Most of them seemed to center around Naoto and Souji felt his heart burst into flames as anger started to boil in him.
"Okay, stop," he said, placing a hand over her arm. He quickly pulled away. "Why does Shirogane come up so much on your paper?"
She started shaking. "W-well, um… You see… I…"
"Don't tell me you actually do like him, do you?" he asked, forgetting everything that Mitsuru had told him the previous night.
"No! I don't!" she cried. "You know that I don't!"
Souji drummed his fingers against the bottom of his bag. "You're being awfully defensive today. Don't tell me that you fell for him when you kissed him."
Yukiko's mouth fell open in horror. "Y-you mean… that really happened?"
"You bet your buns, honey." He shifted uncomfortably. Wait, why am I saying this? I shouldn't be accusing her like this!
But he couldn't stop himself. His anger stirred within him, and soon he could hold it back no longer. "Why did you do it? Why did you have to go and kiss him?"
"I didn't mean to!" she yelled back at him, her eyes reflecting his own fury. "Someone gave us alcoholic drinks!"
"So what?" he roared back. "You still had enough sense to play King's Game and to tell Shirogane 'Thank you' when he caught you falling!"
"If I had enough sense for all that, then how come I can't remember it at all?" she asked without lowering her voice. "And how is this any different from when you kissed Ebihara?"
"She kissed me!"
"You didn't try to stop her!"
He opened his mouth to retaliate, but could find nothing to say. "Fine, if that's how you feel, then why don't you just go and be with Shirogane?"
Before he could realize what he had said, Yukiko nodded in agreement. "I think I will. At least he's mature enough to reason out things without letting his temper get in the way."
Souji looked up the street and felt himself run cold when he saw Naoto coming down the street in his casual dress and black umbrella. "Well, there's your chance. Go ask him out."
"What?" Yukiko's face softened as she followed Souji's gaze up the street. She burned red when she saw Naoto passing by Tatsumi Textiles, but hardened her face at the challenge. "Since you don't mind, I think I will."
Even after saying that, Yukiko stayed rooted to where she stood. She looked down at the ground with worry on her face, and Souji sighed.
"Just say something casual, like, 'Would you do me the honor of eating with me' or, 'Care to come with me to see a movie?' or whatever," he told her in an annoyed tone. "It's not so hard, since you like him, right?"
"No, it's not," she hissed and turned back to look at Naoto. She surprised Souji again when she waved Naoto over.
The small young man saw her and tipped his cap lower over his eyes before sauntering over to the store. "Good afternoon," he said to his two seniors.
"Naoto-kun!" Yukiko barked suddenly, making the young boy jump. "Would you… I mean…"
Souji locked his eyes on hers and nodded firmly, and she glared back at him before turning back to Naoto and yelling, "Naoto-kun! Come and do me!"
The two boys jumped back from her, horror-stricken by her words. Her face blazed as red as her sweater as she scrambled to fix what she had said. "I-I meant, do me the honor of eating me at the movies!"
Souji was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes and no sound would escape his mouth. Naoto simply bowed.
"I appreciate your offer, but I must decline," he said coolly in his low tone. "I'm sorry, but I must take my leave now."
He briskly walked away down the street, leaving Souji gasping for air while Yukiko stood shamefully next to him. She pulled her hand back and slapped him so hard across the face that his head snapped to the side. He dropped his bag to touch where she had hit him.
"I asked you here to talk about us, and you had to go and ruin it!" she screeched. "I hope you suffer before you die!"
She grabbed her bag and ran, leaving Souji under the awning. He wasn't laughing anymore, and the painful sting in his cheek was nothing compared to the pain of her words stabbing him in the heart. Slowly, he picked up his bag from the ground and saw the owner of Souzai Daigaku holding his order in her hand. He told her to wrap it up to go, and as she disappeared deeper into the store he saw his vision go blinding white as a searing pain blazed in his head. Amid the white light, he saw the Priestess card flip upside down for the second time.
"Dammit, not again!" he growled, and when his vision returned, the woman had left his order on the counter.
He snatched it and his bag up and dragged his feet across the ground on his way down the hill. He had just gone past the bookstore when he remembered that home was the other way. Swearing under his breath, he started back up the hill when he noticed the Velvet Room door shining as brightly as ever by the stores. Not caring if anyone saw him, he strode over to the door and threw it open.
"Igor!" he shouted as he entered the limousine-like interior. "Margaret!"
"Welcome to the Velvet Room," Igor greeted in his soothing voice, hardly seeming to notice how angry his guest was.
"Is it possible for an Arcana to turn upside-down twice?" he demanded. "Because it happened again!"
Margaret let out a tiny bubble of a chuckle. "If it already happened, then why are you still asking if it could happen?"
"You are actually quite lucky," Igor said, his hands held under his nose. "Your relationship with the Priestess is only temporarily upside-down. You are most fortunate that it did not break."
"My master is right," Margaret added. "Perhaps the Priestess is not so upset with you that your relationship is unfixable."
Souji dumped his bag on the ground and plopped on the leather seat. "Then how bad does it have to be that it actually breaks?"
"Well, the last guest of the Velvet Room was caught fooling around with a few of the Arcana," Igor said as he shuffled his deck of cards. "It caused quite a disturbance, but he was able to restore his relationship with the Lovers."
He sat there in disbelief. "Damn, that makes me look like a good little boy compared to him!"
"Well, that's probably because you are dedicated to just the Priestess," Margaret suggested. "Although, I'm sure that they have all forgiven him by now. It has been nearly two years since then."
"We have warned you before to be more careful with your Social Links," Igor chided in his ever-soothing voice. "Keep this up, and you could break the Priestess."
Souji shook his head. "That's not going to happen. I've fixed this once, and I can do it again!"
He gathered up his things then stood up, hunching over to not bump his head on the low ceiling and placed the steak croquettes on the table in front of Igor. "Here, a present from my world," he said. "Enjoy."
He saw Margaret's eyes glint with excitement as he left the Velvet Room. When he came back to the real world, he found that he had dropped his bag and his umbrella and was soaking wet. Only the box of croquettes was gone.
Yukiko ran as fast as she could to get away from Souji, her tears hidden among the raindrops that fell all around her. She ran up the hill to her inn when she saw a young man with a black umbrella coming down the hill towards her. She recognized him.
"Kirishima-senpai, what are you doing here?" she asked, her face stained with tears.
"I was dropping off some new tea sets for your inn," he said, frowning when he saw how distressed she was. "What's wrong? What happened to you?"
"It's nothing," she told him, looking away. "Just a stupid boy."
He grabbed her shoulders roughly, dropping his umbrella. "What did he do? Did he hurt you?" he demanded, frightening Yukiko.
"No, he didn't hurt me like that," she broke free from his grasp and held her umbrella up to cover him while his umbrella tumbled down the hill. "It's just that… Why are boys so stupid? I thought he was smart and brave when he fought shadows and rescued me from inside the TV, and when I tried to talk to him just now, he can't even have a decent conversation with me without accusing me of something stupid and—"
"Whoa, calm down, Yukiko-chan," Kirishima said. "Listen to yourself-you're absolutely hysterical right now. Just take a deep breath and start over."
She sniffed hard, and he handed her a pack of tissues and held her umbrella for her while she turned away and blew her nose. When she was ready she told him everything, starting with the events at Port Island that started the whole issue. Her voice turned furious as she told him about her talk with Souji earlier that day. He listened patiently and nodded as he took in the information, and when she had finished, he sighed.
"Yukiko-chan, a lot of guys put up a brave front because they're expected to be strong," he explained. "But most guys are actually pretty shy inside. They're scared. When your boyfriend saw you kiss that other boy, he probably got scared that you might not like him anymore and covered it up with anger."
"But he ignored me these past few days! He didn't seem angry then!"
"Because he was probably too scared to confront you about it," Kirishima said softly. "And he was probably bottling up everything then, too."
Yukiko stood there, deep in thought as the rain continued to fall around them. "So, why does he have to put up such a strong front? Why couldn't he just be honest about everything? He was honest with me before, so why not now?"
"I can't answer that for you," he said sympathetically. "You're going to have to get it from him."
"How can I if he won't talk to me?"
"Give him time. He'll come around."
He handed her back her umbrella. "I have to go. I hope everything works out for you two."
"Thank you, Senpai," she sniffed, and walked him down to where his umbrella landed at the bottom of the hill before returning back up to the inn.
She had just changed out of her slightly soaked uniform when someone knocked on the door. When she opened it, Mitsuru walked in.
"Who was that that you were talking to earlier?" she asked as she took a seat at the short table. "Don't tell me that you're going for a third boy?"
Yukiko turned around to face her, and Mitsuru got a good look at her cracked, red eyes. "Yukiko, what happened?"
"That was just Kirishima-senpai, a family friend," she explained. "I tried to talk to Souji-kun today, but he got upset and we said a few things."
"And he still didn't… Honestly, if I must then I will exec—"
Yukiko shook her head, forcing a smile. "Kirishima-senpai gave me some insight on guys, so I think I understand Souji-kun a little more. I'm going to try to talk to him again tomorrow."
"Really?" Mitsuru folded her arms across her front. "This Kirishima person sounds like a good guy. Why don't you go with him, instead?"
"Because he's not all that interesting," answered Yukiko, her smile growing warmer. "I know it sounds crazy, but with Souji-kun, I'm never bored."
Mitsuru cocked an eyebrow. "You were upset because he was being difficult, and in a matter of minutes this Kirishima person gave you a simple piece of information that may be the key to repairing your relationship. You bounce back quickly."
Yukiko grabbed her hairbrush and ran it through her wet hair. "After talking with Kirishima-senpai, I realized just how difficult relationships are. Even just looking at my parents, I saw that my mother had to learn to be very patient with my father. But even so, Mother loves Father so much that even his temper hardly bothers her anymore. I feel like, if we can get through this, then one day Souji-kun and I can achieve the same love that they have."
Mitsuru got up and took the hairbrush from her and stood her in front of her mirror. "How wise of you. I suppose there's no reason to worry so much about you."
"Yeah…" Yukiko watched the reflection of the older woman as she ran the brush through her hair. "Hey, Onee-sama? What was your guy like? Was he anything like Souji-kun?"
She stopped and frowned. "He was a nice, intelligent guy like your Seta, but not as faithful. It turned out that he cheated on me with a number of other girls. He ended up getting back together with my best friend."
"Wow. So, are you still mad at him?"
Mitsuru continued brushing her hair. "That was almost two years ago. Things have changed, and I no longer hold any grudges against him."
Yukiko stared at her reflection and smiled. "That's good. Besides, if he and your best friend end up having kids, you'll be an aunt, or even a godmother. You can't hold a grudge against the father if that happens."
The older woman smiled sadly. "Yes, that would have been awful of me, wouldn't it?"
Once her hair was straightened out, Yukiko mentioned that she had laundry to do and started out the door.
"I'll come with you," Mitsuru offered. "Besides, I want to learn more about how to handle men."
"Well, you're going to have to work for it," Yukiko teased as she stuck her tongue out at her. "There are a lot of sheets and yukata that need to be washed."
"I may be the head of a business, but I'm not afraid to do a little dirty work," she grinned warmly.
Together, they went from room to room collecting the things that needed washing and brought them up back up to the laundry room.
Souji returned home, slamming the door behind him. Nanako was sitting on the couch wiggling a string in front of the kitten, allowing it to pounce on it. She looked up and saw Souji come in with a scowl on his face.
"What's the matter, Big Bro?" she asked as she hopped off the couch. "Is everything okay?"
"Everything is just Pinkie keen," he told her. "Did you eat yet?"
"Yeah, and there was still some leftover fish that you got last night, so I gave it to—Did you just say 'Pinkie'?"
Souji threw open the refrigerator door and scanned the contents, immediately regretting giving the steak croquettes to Igor and Margaret. He found a mushroom growing inside and popped it into his mouth, chewing rapidly with his mouth open before slamming the door shut.
"Is your dad home yet?" he asked as he scratched his arm.
"No, he called earlier saying that he'll be late again," Nanako told him sadly. "Hey, Big Bro? Are you sure you're okay? You don't look happy at all."
She picked up the kitten and held it up to him. "I think you could use some kitten therapy. It always makes me feel better!"
Souji took the kitten from her and scratched his stomach. "Did you think of a name for it, yet?"
"Uh-uh. Not yet."
More itchy little spots tingled all over him, and Souji gave her back the kitten. "Confound it, what's wrong with me?"
Nanako pointed at him. "You're wet. You're probably itchy from the rain."
Souji grabbed his bag and ran up the stairs to his room and tore off his clothes, scratching like a maniac. He lay on the floor on his back and pushed himself against the rug so that the friction would scratch his itchy back.
"I ITCH LIKE THUNDERRR!" he roared as he dragged himself across the rug in his underwear. "What the hell is wrong with me?"
A blinding pain in his head made him stop and writhe on the floor, and a deep, booming voice spoke to him.
I am thou, and thou art I. And right now, you are making us look like a complete ass monkey!
Souji opened his eyes and looked around the room, his head still throbbing. "Priestess? How come you sound like a man?"
I am NOT a Priestess! I am thou!
The pain in his head sharpened, and Souji groaned as he squirmed on the ground. " 'I am thou'? Wait… Izanagi?"
That is right. And you're taking being an asshole to such heights that even I cannot stand to watch anymore.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
I mean what I mean. Stop being an ass to your girlfriend and listen to what she has to say.
He felt the pain lessen. "I tried, okay? I just saw Shirogane's name and it pissed me off!"
This isn't about Shirogane, it's about you and your girlfriend.
Souji grabbed his head and squeezed his eyes shut. "Fine! I'll listen to her! Just make it stop!"
The pain subsided, and Souji gasped for breath as he blacked out. When he woke up, his brain was fuzzy and the itching had disappeared. He slowly sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"I am never doing shrooms ever again," he muttered as he got to his feet. "Next time I might dream that I'm having a sexy dance party with Shiva."
He pulled on his pajamas and looked out the window. Nighttime had fallen and it was still pouring rain. He checked his cell phone and saw that it was almost midnight. Sighing, he dropped onto his couch and leaned back heavily.
"That was a weird dream," he groaned to himself. "What the hell made me dream of that?"
There was a scratching sound at his door, and when he opened it, the kitten walked right in and leaped onto the loveseat. Souji shut the door and sat back down next to it.
"And what brings you here, Kitten?" he asked it, and it walked up to him and mewed. His heart melted and he picked it up, hugging it to his chest. He held it up to his face and smiled as he looked it in its yellow-green eyes. "You're so damn cute, you know that?"
Across the room, his TV crackled to life, and a fuzzy image appeared. He got up, still holding the kitten and walked over to the TV, studying the image on the screen. A silhouette of a small person appeared before fading.
Souji grinned at his reflection in the dark TV screen when he realized who the next victim was. "Christmas has come early for me," he sang as he held the kitten high above his head and pranced around the room.
His cell phone rang, and he shifted the kitten to one arm before answering.
"Did you see that?" he heard Yosuke's voice ask. "Someone came on, right?"
Oh no, Puppy, Souji desperately wanted to say. No one came on. We don't need to go into the TV and risk our lives at all.
"Now that the killer's been caught, do we still gotta worry about the Midnight Channel…?"
Souji started to say "No," but stopped as Yosuke continued. "But then, someone said the blurry image seemed like an advance notice…
"What exactly is the Midnight Channel anyway? Did it have anything to do with the murders?"
The Midnight Channel is your mom, and has everything to do with the murders, Souji found himself wanting to answer, but kept quiet.
"Argh, this is so frustrating…!" Yosuke groaned into the phone. "Hey, what do you think? Did you recognize who appeared just now?"
Souji masked the glee in his voice as he answered, "Shirogane."
"Naoto? Why would he show up on TV?"
Yosuke fell silent for a moment. "Now that you mention it, I wonder what he thinks about the Midnight Channel…"
Souji plopped back down on his sofa and set the kitten on his thigh, petting it in long, dragged out strokes as he listened to Yosuke talk to himself.
"Ugh, I don't get this at all," he grumbled some more. "It's gonna keep nagging at me, I can tell… I'm sure the others saw it too, so let's get together tomorrow and talk about it. 'Night."
They both hung up, and Souji set his phone down next to him. "Kitten, do we have to rescue that midget manwhore from the TV?" he asked it.
The kitten replied by purring and curling up into what Souji liked to call the "Kitten Loaf" position, with its legs and tail all tucked in. He scratched its head.
"Who's my precious little kitten?" he cooed. "Oh wait, you still don't have a name."
He set it down on the sofa and went back downstairs to brush his teeth. The kitten followed him, landing on one step at a time and traced Souji's steps to Nanako's room where he opened the room just a crack. The kitten walked in and sniffed Nanako's sleeping face, making her stir in her sleep. It came back out and let Souji shut the door before heading for the bathroom.
When he returned to his room, the kitten followed him there and went straight for his futon. It sat down in the middle, massaging the spot before settling down and staring at Souji. He turned out the light and nudged the kitten out of the way, then slid under the covers and held it open for the kitten to join him.
"But no funny business while you're in there," he warned it as it snuggled next to his stomach.
After class the next day, the Investigation Team met up in the second-year class room to discuss the previous night's episode of the Midnight Channel. They mentioned that Teddie hadn't smelled anyone new inside the TV, and wondered why the Midnight Channel was still showing when the culprit had already been caught. Their attention soon drifted to Kanji, who didn't seem to be paying much attention, but he told them that nothing Naoto had said the previous morning made sense.
The older group picked up on Kanji's sensitivity to Naoto, and Yosuke even took a few playful jabs at him for it. Kanji, growing upset, left the room, and Chie and Yukiko chided Yosuke for his actions, leaving Rise to wonder what all the fuss was about.
"Is it just me, or does the town seem kind of strange lately?" Yukiko asked, changing the subject. "Everyone is in high spirits, for some reason… And they all talk about other people, but never themselves."
"Really? I don't think it's anything special," Chie replied. "Now that the murder case is solved, people feel relaxed, that's all."
Rise piped up. "That's how society is. They all just want to get in on the latest trend. People get excited fast and lose interest even faster… It goes 'round and 'round. There's no underlying reason for it."
"I don't know… It still seems a little too weird…" Yukiko said, unsure of the reason. When her friends gave her questioning looks, she added, "It's like… they're all afraid of something."
Their questioning looks became even more so, and Yukiko finished quickly by saying, "Oh… Sorry. I just had this feeling."
Still not fully understanding Yukiko, Yosuke made note that it was still raining, and they agreed to watch the Midnight Channel again that night. Only Chie, Rise and Yosuke started to leave when they saw that the other two remained.
"What's up?" Yosuke asked.
"Cleaning duty," Souji said simply.
"The both of you?" Chie asked, looking from Souji to Yukiko.
"Yeah," Yukiko answered. "I'll call you tonight after the Midnight Channel."
Chie shrugged, and the three left. Souji and Yukiko joined the other handful of students also on cleaning duty and started helping out. Souji wanted to avoid Yukiko as much as possible, but whenever he needed a rag or some other object or favor, Yukiko would jump in and give it to him. He would even address other students by name, but Yukiko would always be there, ready to get something or move something for him.
When they had finished cleaning, they all packed up and left. At the shoe lockers, Souji heard Yukiko sigh and mutter to herself. He didn't want to come into contact with her, not after how he had acted yesterday, but he steeled himself and walked over to her.
"What's the matter?" he asked, feeling like he was making a mistake dropping his guard.
She held a little note in her hands and showed it to him. "Chie forgot her umbrella and borrowed mine," she said.
"Then how did she get to school dry?"
Yukiko folded up the note. "That's just it. She probably did this on purpose."
Souji leaned back against the lockers. "I thought she wanted you and Shirogane together? Has she given up on that?"
Yukiko peered up into his eyes. "Does it still upset you to talk about that?"
"A little, yeah, but a little cougar in my ear told me that if I don't talk to you about it, then things will never work between us," he told her.
"Don't you mean a little 'birdie' told you?"
He shook his head. "Trust me, it was a cougar. And she had an extra push from a god."
She smiled. "Okay then, let's talk. Where do you want to go?"
"Know any good places where we won't get interrupted?"
"I think I do. Follow me."
She led him up to the second floor and across the long walkway to the club rooms. They reached the abandoned English Literature clubroom and went inside. As expected, there was no one inside.
"I went in here after I saw Ebihara kiss you," she explained. "No one ever uses it anymore."
"Well yeah, what kind of crazy person thinks English Literature is fun for a club?" he joked.
Yukiko dusted one of the front desks and sat down. "Souji-kun, shall we talk now?"
He grabbed the seat next to hers and sat it across from her desk, straddling it backwards. He could feel his heart pounding in his ears, but he simply said, "Let's do this."
Yukiko nodded. "Okay. Please hear me out.
"I was only being nice to Naoto-kun because I thought it was the right thing to do. He's new to this town, and I thought that we should try to help him feel welcome. Chie and I did the same for you and Yosuke-kun when you two were new, so I thought that it was expected. I wasn't being nice because I liked him the way I like you; I was being nice to help him acclimate."
She took a long breath in through her nose and let it out slowly while Souji just sat across from her, watching her intently. "Now, about that kiss, I want you to know that I have no recollection of what happened that night," she said in a serious tone. "If I try hard enough, I might remember an instant here or there, but nothing solid. But if you're fine with it, I would like to know what happened that night."
Souji found the scenes from that night replaying in his head, but they weren't as painful as before. "That night, after we had our fun at Club Escapade, we piled into two taxis with Rise-chan, Chie-chan, you and me in one car and Kanji, Yosuke, Teddie and Shirogane in the other. We rode them to the hotel and you were asleep, so I carried you while Chie-chan and Shirogane helped Rise to her room. The others were busy trying to catch Teddie, I think. While Chie-chan dragged Rise-chan into her room, you woke up, so I tried to put you down so you could stand by yourself. Somehow, you fell over and grabbed onto Shirogane, and for some reason, you kissed him after thanking him for catching you. After that, I bolted."
"I really did kiss him, then?" Yukiko asked, and Souji could see her face sadden, even in the darkening, pale gray light from outside. "It's no wonder you were so angry."
"Yeah, well…" he trailed off, unsure of what to say next.
"Is that why you were avoiding me for so long?"
He could only nod as he felt a lump form in his throat.
Yukiko stared down at the desk. "I really can't remember anything from that night. I don't even know why I kissed Naoto-kun. I can't think of any reasons why. But whatever the reason was, I want you to know that I have no feelings for him whatsoever and that I only asked him out yesterday because I was so mad at you."
Souji cracked a small smile. "That wasn't really what I would call asking people out."
"I panicked and ended up mixing together whatever you suggested!" she cried, her face flushing. "I would never ask someone to… to…"
Souji laughed and took her hand. "I know, I know."
He rubbed her delicate knuckles with his thumb as she continued. "So, why were so you upset when you thought that I liked Naoto-kun? I thought you were more level-headed than to just let yourself get so angry."
He continued to absentmindedly caress her knuckles. "Yeah, well…"
"Was it because you were that afraid to lose me?" she asked, looking deeply at their hands. "Someone told me that guys act tough because they're expected to be that way, that even if they act brave, they're actually scared inside. Were you scared that you had lost me to Naoto-kun?"
It was Souji's turn to inhale deeply. "Yeah, I was. It wasn't like when that Kubo guy kept hurling bombs at you. At least with that I could be your meat shield, but with something like this, I can't control who you like, or make you do things you don't want to. I can't make you dislike Shirogane and make you come back to me, and I was afraid that, because I made you keep hiding us, you were getting tired of it."
"No, I'm not tired of hiding us," she told him reassuringly as she looked up into his eyes. "How can I ever get tired of someone who always has something funny and unexpected to say, who is so unpredictable that I can never get bored? How can I ever get tired of someone so wonderful and caring as you?"
"How can I ever measure up to be a man worthy of you?" he muttered bitterly. "I was too much of a wuss to even talk to you properly yesterday."
Yukiko smiled. "Well, you're my wuss, and as I said before, I love you. Even after all this, I still love you. If I didn't, then I would have just let you stay angry and never would have talked to you again."
At that, Souji saw that blinding white light and watched as the Priestess card righted itself for the second time. When his vision returned, he saw that Yukiko was waving a hand in front of his face with a worried look on hers.
"Are you all right?" she asked, concerned at his sudden silence. "Did something happen to you just now?"
He took a moment to take in what had just happened and smiled. "No, just glad to hear that you still love me."
Yukiko's face also broke out into a smile. "Well, it's true. And like I said before, you are far more interesting than most other guys. Naoto-kun may be an ace detective, but he lacks your personality and warmth."
Souji felt Yukiko's pure and simple love douse any anger and bitterness that lingered within him. "How did I get so lucky as to get you for a girlfriend? I mean, how is it that you're patient enough to deal with me?"
"It wasn't easy," she sighed, dramatically slumping back into her chair. "But, like how you had your little cougar, I had my Onee-sama help me out."
"No way. You have an older sister?"
"Well, no. She's a patron at our inn," she explained. "She's the head of her family's business and we became pretty close. It's thanks to her and another family friend of mine that I was able to talk to you like this."
She took his hand in both of hers and started playing with his fingers. "My Onee-sama said that she met you on Port Island at a shrine the night that we went to Club Escapade. She said that you were so upset that you were yelling at a sushi offering!"
Souji felt his breath hitch in his chest. "Hold on, does your 'Onee-sama' have dark red hair?"
"Yes, she does."
"And does she ride a silver motorcycle with high-heeled boots?"
Yukiko nodded. "She took me on a ride around town when she visited last year. It was exhilarating!"
Souji swallowed hard. "What was her name?"
"Mitsuru Kirijo. Her family owns Tatsumi Port Island."
He leaped to his feet. "That's my cougar woman!"
Yukiko looked up at him with her mouth agape. "You know Onee-sama?"
"Yeah! You know my cougar?"
"Yeah, but not as a cougar—She's only twenty years old!"
He dropped his voice. "Yeah, she mentioned that to me before."
Yukiko laughed heartily. "Who would have thought that the same person would bring us back together?"
"Who would have thought that even without being related, you both would have such a powerful slap?" he sighed as he rubbed his cheek at the painful memory.
"She slapped you, too?" Yukiko got to her feet and stepped up to Souji, examining his cheek. "I'm sorry I slapped you, but you were deserving of it at the time."
"I kinda deserved it when she smacked me, too, so it's fine," he told her. "I'm sorry, too, for being a real ass monkey."
"Still, I feel bad about hitting you like that." Yukiko rose up on her toes and kissed his cheek. "There, is that better?"
Souji thinned his lip, feeling his face grow hot. "Yeah, tons."
Yukiko let a giggle bubble up from inside. "Come on, Boyfriend, we'd better be getting home."
They vacated the room and went back down to the shoe lockers where they changed shoes and stared out at the late afternoon rain. Souji took Yukiko's bag like he used to and stuck it under his arm with his, opened his umbrella and wrapped that arm around her shoulders so that the umbrella covered her more. In return, Yukiko wrapped her arm around his back, blushing more furiously than before as she pressed into him.
They strolled all the way down the hill, not minding if rain got on their feet and legs as they made their way to the Amagi Inn. The air was warm, thick and sticky, but they hardly noticed. Even when Souji's arms began to ache, he kept them right where they were until they arrived at the bottom of the hill leading to the inn.
"Do you want to say hi to Onee-sama?" Yukiko asked. "I promise you that she's much nicer than what you've seen of her."
She took her bag from him, and they removed their arms from around each other, relieving their achy limbs as they trudged up the soaked hill, no longer able to fit properly under Souji's clear white umbrella. When they reached the entrance, Kasai-san and Yukiko's mother, both wearing kimono, greeted them and took Souji's umbrella from him.
"And who is this handsome young man?" Yukiko's mother asked merrily.
"This is my friend, Souji Seta," Yukiko replied confidently. "He walked me home because Chie took my umbrella."
"That Satonaka girl," Kasai-san said, clicking her tongue. "Couldn't she have waited for you?"
"We had cleaning duty, so Souji-kun was nice enough to walk me home."
Yukiko's mother looked Souji up and down and smiled. "You're the boy that moved here a few months ago, correct? I've heard many good things about you. I'm Sachiko Amagi, by the way, Yukiko's mother."
She bowed, and Souji made sure to bend at the waist so that he was lower than her. "It's nice to meet you," he said, feeling nervous for some reason.
"He's so polite!" Kasai-san said happily. "Can we get you anything, Seta-kun? Some tea, maybe?"
"No thank you," he told her kindly.
"Souji-kun just came in to get out of the rain momentarily," Yukiko explained. "And to meet Kirijo-sama."
"Oh? What for? Is he interested in being her suitor?" her mother joked, and Kasai-san laughed while Souji and Yukiko gave forced, nervous laughter.
"No, just to say hello since he met her during the class trip," Yukiko told them.
"Very well, then. Just don't bother her too much," her mother warned cheerfully. "Seta-kun, it was nice meeting you. I hope to see you more in the future."
"It was nice meeting you, too," he said to her, wondering if she meant that seriously.
The two older women left, and Souji turned to Yukiko. "We don't have to meet with her right now, do we?" he asked. "I don't want to bother her too much, especially after all the trouble I've caused."
"It is almost dinner time, so I guess it can wait," Yukiko agreed. "If you want, I can just tell her that we're okay now."
"Yeah, and can you tell her thank you for me?"
Souji looked around the empty entrance. "Do you have any security cameras around here?"
"No, we don't. Why?"
He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. "That's why," he said as Yukiko touched her fingers to her lips.
"I missed that," she giggled. "Okay, I have to go get ready for work. I'll see you tomorrow?"
He started to leave, but remembered something and turned back to face her. "Hold on, there's one last thing I wanted to tell you."
Her light brown eyes focused on him and he found himself fidgeting more than usual. He was touching his hair, tugging at his clothes, rubbing his neck and shifting his stance as he tried to find the right words. "Do you remember that lecture we had for Nakayama-sensei's class? The one where she was telling us about relationships and stuff?"
Yukiko's eyes briefly went to the ceiling as she recalled the lecture. "Yes, I do, why?"
"Well, she said that guys usually tell their girls that they… they have feelings for them. But if they say it too early in the relationship, it could just mean that they're trying to seduce the girl," he said nervously. "But, she also said that if they don't say it at all, then the girl might think that they're not interested."
He scratched his temple. "I realized that I never really told you how I feel about you, so—"
"But you did!" she said. "Remember when I was sick? You came to visit me that day and you told me then!"
"Well yeah, but I haven't said it to you since, so…"
Souji took a deep breath. "Yukiko, I—"
She pressed a delicate finger to his lips. "Souji-kun, I don't want you to tell me how you feel until you know you're ready, not because someone said that you had to. I want to know that your feelings are real, that you're not just telling me something because you think it's what I want to hear. I'm not the only one in this relationship, Souji-kun. You're the other half of it, and you are your own person."
She caressed his cheek lovingly. "I don't know if you're familiar with this phrase, but I was told that two in harmony—"
"—Surpasses one in perfection," Souji finished for her. "Yeah, I was told that by her, too."
Yukiko smiled. "Then let's strive to make this relationship work from now on, okay?"
He nodded, and took her hand in his. He brought it to his lips and kissed it tenderly before slipping away. He took up his bag and umbrella and left, glancing over his shoulder every now and then on his way down the hill to watch Yukiko wave at him. He was so filled with electric joy that he was practically skipping down the road, clicking his heels like in those old musical movies and spinning his umbrella around, not caring if the sky was pouring rain on him the entire way. After awhile, Souji started just walking briskly back to his uncle's house to escape the rain sooner.
When he arrived at home, he was completely soaked and the smell of coffee being brewed filled his nostrils.
"Big Bro, what happened?" Nanako asked as she padded up to him. "Is it raining hard out there?"
Souji set down his things and picked Nanako up under her arms, spinning her high above his head. He set her down and brought his things up to his room where he changed out of his wet uniform and put on dry clothes. He was humming happily when he brought his sopping uniform down to the laundry room.
"Nanako-chan, have you eaten yet?" he called as he returned to the living room. He found her pouring herself some coffee and dumping in copious amounts of cream and sugar.
"Yeah, I cooked eggs for dinner," she answered as she stirred her cup of coffee. "There's some in the refrigerator for you."
As she brought the cup to her mouth, Souji smoothly slipped the cup out of her fingers and drank it himself. She watched helplessly as he downed the entire cup.
"Big Bro, that was my coffee!" she cried indignantly.
"Coffee isn't good for you, Nanako-chan," he said, finishing the cup. The cold cream that she had put in helped to cool it down enough to drink safely.
Puffing her cheeks out in annoyance, Nanako grabbed another cup from the kitchen and poured more coffee into it, adding the same amounts of cream and sugar as the last cup. Souji took this one, too.
"Big Bro!" she cried again.
"Coffee will stunt your growth, and you won't grow big like Big Sis Yukiko, or strong like Papa Kanji," he told her as he grabbed the plate of eggs from the fridge and heated it in the microwave.
With dinner reheated, Souji and Nanako sat at the short table while the kitten played with Souji's toes and Nanako looked through the TV channels. She landed on a sort of variety show where a man dressed up in a frilly shirt was singing a catchy tune in a thick Japanese accent.
"Hah name waz Rora,
She waz a show-garu.
She woah feza een hah heya,
An' hah doresu ka daon ta zeya…"
"Lola…" Souji said thoughtfully to himself. He looked down at the orange fuzzball by his foot and picked it up. "Kitten, would you like to be named Lola Copacabana?"
It mewed and sniffed his face while Nanako stared. "Why Lola?"
"You know, like the song," he said as he set the kitten down and recited the lyrics. "Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl, she wore feathers in her hair and her dress cut down to there…"
Nanako looked at the man singing on TV. "Is that the song he's singing right now?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
She peered under the table at the kitten. "It doesn't look like a 'Lola'. Are you sure it's a girl?"
He shrugged. "No idea."
He wiggled his fingers by the edge of the table. "Here, Lola Copacabana. C'mere, you showgirl!"
To both their surprise, the kitten came to him and mewed.
Later that evening after a nice, long bath, Souji was up in his room, supercharged from his repaired relationship with Yukiko and his two cups of coffee, cream and sugar. He was dressed in his frilly purple shirt and was swinging around his jeweled sword, pretending he was battling Naoto in an epic pirate ship battle. He stood on his sofa, holding Lola in his arm while brandishing his sword at no one.
"You cannot have her, Shirogane!" he yelled at the empty space in front of him. To no one in particular, he yelled over his shoulder, "Ready the cannons!"
Back to the empty space in front of him, he yelled, "You puny piece of midget meat, you may have tricked Lola into kissing you, but her heart will always belong to me!"
He set the kitten down on the sofa and leaped over his table and onto the floor, holding his sword out in front of him. "We shall have a duel to the death to decide once and for all who Lola's heart truly belongs to! Haha!"
He heard his door squeak open. When he turned around, he saw Nanako peeking inside with a fearful look on her face.
"I promise no more coffee, Big Bro," she said slowly as she retreated back into the hallway.
"Nanako-chan, wait!" he called after her as he stepped towards the door. "Coffee is okay when you're old enough—"
Another blinding white light erupted in his eyes, and he felt that same horrible, piercing headache he knew so well as it stopped him in his tracks.
"Congratulations," the deep, booming voice of Izanagi said to him. "You are no longer a complete ass monkey."
"Can't you ever talk to me without making my head explode?" he cried painfully, dropping to his knees and grabbing both sides of his head. "Do you know how rude that is?"
"You're talking to the god who 'saw his wife without any make-up on' because I wanted her to 'make me a sammich'," Izanagi mocked, using Souji's own thoughts from a few days ago against him. "No doubt about it, you're me."
Souji blacked out again, possibly from the pain and possibly from the overload of caffeine and sugar in his system. When he woke up, Lola was licking his face and mewing her squeaky little mew at him. He got up and looked down at his shirt, then at his sword lying on the rug by his feet.
"What happened?" he asked himself groggily. "Did I miss something fun?"
Lola sat in front of him, her orange face craned up to look at him with curiosity. Souji scooped her up and placed her on the sofa while he changed into his pajamas. He went to look out the window when he heard his cell phone announce a new text message.
"Don't forget to watch tonight, Boyfriend!" the text message read.
"I won't, Girlfriend!" he texted back, a small smile on his face. He remembered that he had spoken with Yukiko earlier and sucked in a deep, joyous breath into his lungs.
He checked his phone and saw that it was almost midnight. Sticking his cell phone into his pocket, Souji stood in front of his TV, still feeling refreshed and revitalized from the mending of his relationship.
At the stroke of midnight, the TV crackled to life and a clear image appeared. He could see what looked like a sci-fi setting of an operating table with three giant lights hanging over it. A small young man in a blue cap and over-sized lab coat walked on stage.
"Good evening, everyone," the boy said grandly. "I am the Detective Prince, Naoto Shirogane."
The camera angle changed, and the so-called Detective Prince looked right into the camera. "Welcome to 'Experiment of the Century: The Genome Project'. I will be experimentor and experimentee both, in a forbidden yet wonderful bodily alteration process!"
"What are you gonna do, graft lasers into your nipples?" Souji muttered in disbelief.
"You shall witness my departure into a new realm… The moment of a new birth!" Naoto said, still talking in that grand, overly-dramatic voice he never used in real life. "From the chosen day forth, I shall walk a completely different path in life…!"
The camera pulled back. "And I will share this glorious occasion, this memorable day, with all of you!"
Without blinking, the Naoto on the screen finished in a cheesy announcer voice, "Do stay tuned!"
The TV faded to black, and Souji's phone began to ring.
"Hey! Izzat you, Senpai?" Kanji yelled desperately into the phone. "N-Naoto was just… H-he…"
"Calm down, Kanji," Souji said almost lazily, but Kanji didn't notice.
"So 's this mean he was kidnapped…?" he asked, his voice a little softer but still just as panicked. "You said people only show up clearly on the TV once they're thrown into that other world, right?"
"Yeah, it seems—"
"The hell's going on? I thought we caught the damn killer!" Kanji shouted in a panic.
"Calm down," Souji said again more firmly, and it seemed to work.
"Oh, I-I'm sorry," the younger teenager said. "Being a detective, solving cases… It ain't worth shit if he gets himself kidnapped…"
Souji heard something heavy pound against something else. "Damn, that idiot pisses me off!" Kanji growled. "Anyways, let's get the gang together and meet first thing after school!"
He hung up before Souji could say anything. Shrugging, Souji turned out the light and got into his futon. As usual, Lola crept up next to him in the dark and sniffed his face.
"Sorry, Lola, but I have a girlfriend again," he told her as he pet her smooth fur. "You can't come under the covers anymore."
She settled next to his pillow and got into the "Kitty Loaf" position. Souji petted her, feeling her softly purr with each stroke.
"What do you think, Lola? Is it bad of me that I still don't really want to rescue that damnable Detective Prince?" he sighed. "I still kind of feel like, if he wasn't there, we wouldn't have had this problem at all. We could have been saved a lot of stress if this didn't happen."
She still purred happily next to his pillow. "Right, you're a cat. How can you know?"
He turned over onto his other side. "At least this time, I'll be able to fight with Girlfriend by my side instead of trying to avoid her like last time."
With that said, he let out a big yawn as he stretched. "Now that I think about it, you don't really look like a Lola Copacabana. I'll try to think of something better for you later."
He curled up under his blanket, letting his legs stick out from underneath as he lay thinking about everything that had happened earlier that day. He was just about to drift off when he jolted upright.
"How the hell am I supposed to know when I'm really ready to tell her my feelings?" he shouted, frightening the kitten so bad that it leaped two feet into the air with its fur standing on end.
Author's notes: Sorry this took so long to write. I actually started to lose taste for this story in pursuit of original works and school. Also, I feel that I had overloaded myself with this story and now have about three different projects going on so I don't get tired of one.
What I am amazed at is how loyal and patient you all have been waiting for this chapter. I wasn't sure if I could ever truly drop this story completely, but some of you convinced me to do otherwise, so here it is. Thank you for sticking with me, even when I've made you wait a full year for it.
In all honestly, I am not sure if I will be able to finish this story. As mentioned before, I started to grow tired of it. Hopefully, if I get my copies of Persona 4 Arena and Persona 4: The Golden (and a PS Vita) I can rekindle the fandom within me and continue until the end.
Anyway, I hope that this chapter was enjoyable to read as it was to write. I really did plan for it to be at least this long over a year ago, so I'm pretty pleased that all that planning didn't go to waste! Thank you again for your patience and your encouraging words to keep me going. You guys really made me want to get back to working on this fic.
Lastly, "Copacabana" was from Barry Manilow, in case you're wondering.