At the end of a short, dirt path lined with barbed wire, the Investigation Team arrived outside what appeared to be an old bunker with a bouquet of satellite dishes fitted on top and a large, red light over the left side of the entrance. Trees surrounded the base, hiding it from the rest of the inside of the TV, although a thick cluster of trees in a world of a TV studio did stand out all on its own. Souji tapped his foot against one of the plastic cones outside the entrance.
"When I was a kid, I had my own secret place near the mountain by Yukiko's house," Chie said as they approached the base. "I'd pretend that a legendary kung fu master was teaching me special techniques. Hwataaaa!"
She threw a kick out in the air and posed with her arms over her head. Souji imitated her, wanting to have more fun with his healed knee.
"But hey, so this secret hideout thingy came from Naoto's mind?" Yosuke asked while the two goofed off. "I guess our proper boy detective isn't as grown up as he looks."
With a shrug, Yosuke added, "All right. Let's get going."
They all started to head inside, but Souji called for them all to stop for a moment.
"Remember what happened last time when we all went inside at the same time?" he asked them all. Everyone shook their heads. "It got chaotic in there, and Rise-chan got hurt."
"Ooh, are you worried about me, Senpai?" Rise asked with a coy smile.
"Well, yeah. We're going in blind if you don't scan for us," he said bluntly, and Rise began to pout at his lack of romance. "You can communicate to us without physically being there, right?"
She summoned Himiko. "Testing, one, two, three," she said, and her voice rang clearly directly in their minds.
"Whoa!" Yosuke yelped.
"Rise-chan, you're coming in loud and clear!" Teddie cheered.
"That's so cool!" Chie gasped.
Kanji scratched his temple. "S-So, uh, can you read our minds or somethin'?"
"Let me try." She focused hard on Souji. "Ooh! Senpai, you naughty boy!"
"Huh?" Yukiko turned to face him. "What were you thinking?"
Souji began an elaborate tale about how he and Yosuke were once stuck on a frosty mountaintop during a blizzard with nothing between them to keep warm. Everyone's mouths fell open as he described how they tried to withstand the harsh winter storm, and how he held Yosuke in his arms as they braced against the wind and snow.
"'P-Partner,' he said to me, 'Please, be gentle-'"
"THAT NEVER HAPPENED!" Yosuke screamed at everyone. "And why am I the catcher?"
Kanji scratched his head. "What do you mean by 'catcher?' When did we talk about baseball?"
"Oh! It must be during a baseball camp that they were stuck on the mountain!" Yukiko concluded as she pounded her fist into her palm.
Yosuke's face began to turn purple. "We're not even in baseball!"
Himiko disappeared, letting Rise looked around at everyone without the visor. "I was just kidding. I can't read minds at all," she said. "But, Senpai, that story-Are you telling me that you're-"
Souji flipped his bangs and started for the base. He spun around on the balls of his feet and blew kisses to Yosuke, Kanji, and Teddie.
"You three come with me," he said to them with a wink.
Teddie's bear eyes bugged out, and he put his two furry paws on his head in fear. "Ngh, Teddie doesn't want to anymore."
Kanji balled his hands into fists and let out a mighty roar. "NAOTOOOOO!" he bellowed and charged forward, running over Souji on his way into the base. Souji had the wind knocked out of him as he lay on the ground, gasping for breath.
Yosuke tapped Souji's foot with his shoe. "You deserved that, you sick bastard," he growled.
Yukiko helped him to his feet. "Come on. You have to help Kanji-kun before he gets into trouble," she urged.
Souji grabbed Teddie by the ear and dragged him inside, ignoring his kicking and fearful wailing.
Inside, the base was full of a green haze. It was uncertain if it was toxic or not, but they seemed fine upon entering. Everything was metal and electronic, with two-layered doors that opened top to bottom and side to side. High voltage and toxic signs were everywhere they looked, with thick, yellow and black tubing placed every few yards. Under a chain link flooring, Souji saw more green haze and more tubes running beneath them.
"UNKNOWN INTRUDER DETECTED INSIDE FACILITY. THREAT LEVEL: YELLOW. DEPLOYING GUARDS INSIDE THE FACILITY. WARNING! WARNING! ATTENTION INTRUDERS! LEAVE THE FACILITY IMMEDIATELY! I REPEAT: LEAVE THE FACILITY IMMEDIATELY!"
The robotic voice rang throughout the base. The group of three ignored it, passing a large, red banner with a golden insignia of a long-tailed phoenix surrounded by a circle with three spikes coming out of it.
"Rise-chan, can you see Kanji anywhere?" Yosuke said aloud. "Man, that's weird when she's not here."
"I hear you loud and clear, Yosuke-senpai," Rise said inside their heads. "He's up ahead fighting Shadows right no-Wait. He won?"
Souji grinned. "Good work, Kanji!"
They entered a large room with consoles all around the perimeter. It appeared that their fourth member had been there and thrashed all the Shadows in sight.
"Damn. Here, too?" Yosuke remarked as they ran through. "We'll find Naoto-kun in no time."
Somewhere further down, they heard Kanji's enraged yells further down on the right. They hurried down the hall in time to find Kanji smash his bath lid against a Shadow, turning it into black smoke. Before they could stop him, he took off again.
"Kanji, come back!"
And with that, he was gone again. They gasped and panted as they watched his ever-shrinking figure run up to an unsuspecting Shadow and bash it with his bath lid, defeating it in a single hit. Souji pressed a hand over a stitch forming on his side.
"Damn. What's got him all worked up?" Yosuke griped.
"We did take awhile finding anything on Naoto," Souji reminded him as they ran after Kanji.
"Hey, if he's been here for over a week, wouldn't that mean that he hasn't eaten or anything all this time?"
It was a worrisome thought that they had to consider. Unfortunately for them, Kanji hadn't gotten rid of all the Shadows in the next room. Two Shadows like giant red and green balls with fat, black tongues greeted them by slapping their tongues at them.
"Gross!" Yosuke yelled as he touched the purple saliva the Shadow left on his arm.
"Senpai, can you hear me?" came Rise's voice. "Their weakness is ice."
Teddie bounded up to one of the Shadows and swiped a large claw at its tongue. "Kintoki-Douji!" he cried as he slashed at the blue card that fell before him. It shattered, and his Persona appeared and blasted the two Shadows with a burst of ice. They collapsed, allowing the team to finish them off with just their weapons.
"Hurry! Kanji's already down to the next floor!" Rise urged them all.
"Everyone, keep in mind that we need to need to rescue Naoto-kun as soon as possible," Souji reminded them.
"But not this quickly," Yosuke panted as they dashed down the next hall.
They made it down to the next level through a dark tunnel and heard another one of Kanji's erratic howls accompanied by glass shattering and electric explosions. Something sounded like it had been cleaved in half, with metal slicing through flesh.
"WARNING! WARNING!" came the robotic voice again. "ATTENTION INTRUDERS! LEAVE THE FACILITY IMMEDIATELY! I REPEAT: LEAVE THE FACILITY IMMEDIATELY!"
"Yeah, yeah, we're trying," grumbled Souji.
"Does this mean Naoto-kun doesn't want our help?" Rise asked. "I-I don't really get it, but let's go on for now!"
"W-Wait! Slow down, Sensei!" Teddie wailed as he bounced along.
"Guys! Hurry! Kanji-kun's in dange-No, wait. He's fine. Ugh. Someone, stop him before he gets hurt!"
"Tell him to recover!" Souji shouted to Rise.
"I'm trying, but he's just going berserk!"
She gasped. "He's on the third floor!"
"Seriously?" griped Yosuke. "We just got here!"
The only sounds around them now were the clicks of their shoes against the metal flooring and their loud panting as they hurried through. Souji and Yosuke dashed passed a pair of black-clad ballroom dancers sharing a rapier, only to hear Teddie cry out.
"Dammit! Not now!" Yosuke growled as he looped back around and had Susano-O blast the Shadow with Garula. The powerful wind tore the Shadow apart and into smoke, and Souji went to grab Teddie by the paw to lead the overjoyed bear away.
They continued through the green haze, following Rise's directions as they hurried through. They strained to listen for Kanji as they went down to the next floor. Just as they set foot onto the chain link floor, the defense system shouted its same warning again.
"We know! We know!" Yosuke at the voice.
They ran through another large room with consoles all around the edges when something glinted in the light. Souji slowed down and went to investigate the shiny object, letting the others run ahead of him. That's when a golden, hand-shaped Shadow sprang up from under one of the consoles and ran.
"Hey! Come back here! I need your money!" Souji shouted at it. He needed money badly, and those kinds of Shadows carried the cash he needed. If he got even a few thousand yen, he would be able to get a new Persona, one a little less disturbing to use. He rushed after it, only to collide into Yosuke. The two fell in a heap, Yosuke flat on his back and Souji on top, And Teddie bounded up to them, flapping his stubby little bear arms.
"We can't rest now! Kanji's still out there!" he cried.
"You think we're doing this for fun?" Yosuke shoved Souji off of him. "What the hell is wrong with you, Partner?"
"It was a Shadow," Souji said hastily as he got to his feet. He looked down the hallway past Teddie's shoulder and saw the golden hand waggle its fingers at him before scurrying away. "There it is!"
Souji shot past Teddie with his sword on his shoulder, ready to strike it down. He slipped on some green goop on the ground and landed hard on his face. When the others caught up to him, they found him near tears.
"I'm so poor," he uttered in a miserable squeak.
"Come on," Yosuke said as he helped him to his feet.
Just then, two Shadows like giant boulders with black hands coming out from the top hopped over to them, shaking the ground and threatening to break a hole in the metal plates they walked on. The others saw enemies. Souji saw a chance for money and new Personas.
"Senpai! You have to get Kanji!" Rise reminded him. "They're slow, so just run!"
"Let's go, Sensei!" Teddie led the way past the Shadows, and Souji had no choice but to follow, sadly waving good-bye to them.
They continued through the path that Kanji had carved for them, finding few Shadows but most of them easy to run past. They made it down to the third floor.
"Hey, Senpai? When Naoto-kun appeared on the Midnight Channel, he said he was going to undergo a 'body alteration operation.' Did that mean Naoto-kun's going to be altered here?"
The thought shook everyone up.
"Crap!" Rise shouted. "We need to hurry!"
"What the hell is Naoto-kun altering his body for?" Yosuke asked as they continued running.
"Maybe he wants to be taller," Teddie suggested.
"Well, he is a little guy."
"Just think: He's been in here for over a week," Souji murmured to himself. "How do we know that he hasn't been altered yet?"
Two large hourglasses with arms, legs, and thorny hula hoops greeted them in the nearest room. The team almost ran into them, all three boys getting slashed across the chest.
"You're gonna pay!" Yosuke roared, and cast Magarula on them both. The wind spell rebounded and struck him instead, but his Persona protected him from all wind attacks.
Souji tried smashing his sword at the nearest hourglass, but its metal hoop sliced his arm before he could get close enough. One of them began to dance, and all three boys became as enraged as Kanji.
"Get it!" Souji yelled.
"Senpai, no!" he heard Rise cry in his head. "Just run away!"
"She's right!" Yosuke yelled at him, only to try and attack the Shadow with his knives. He ended up with more cuts across his chest. "Aaaahh! I think I lost a nipple!"
Teddie growled and pounced on one of the Shadows, landing on top of it, away from the bladed hoop. With a single swipe from his massive claws, he sliced the hourglass at its thinnest point, and it exploded into a burst of smoke.
"Great job, Teddie!" Rise cheered.
Souji ran at the remaining Shadow and slid underneath the deadly hoop, slashing the weak point like Teddie had done. Like the one before, it split in half and disappeared into smoke. Souji then gave each member a sedative for their rage and had Teddie heal their wounds.
Yosuke patted his chest. "Found my nipple!" he announced gleefully.
"Ew. Did Yosuke-senpai really-You know what? I'm good," Souji heard Rise say.
Souji picked up some money that the Shadows had left behind, but no new Personas showed up. Disappointed, they continued on their way further into the secret base, refusing to return until they had Kanji with them. As they entered the fourth floor, the security system screamed at them again.
"UNKNOWN INTRUDERS HAVE ARRIVED AT B4F. THREAT LEVEL: ORANGE. MAJOR FACILITY AREAS LOCKED. ELIMINATE THE INTRUDERS!"
Souji pawed the air with both hands. "Exterminate! Exterminate!" he said in his best robotic voice.
"Hm? Senpai! Kanji-kun's on that floor! He's struggling!"
"Let's go!" Souji ordered.
They ran, Souji clutching a stitch in his side as they bolted down the hallway.
"There! The door on the right! He's-Huh? He got back up! Senpai, he's hurt! Kanji, stop!"
"THE RESEARCH AREA IS BEYOND THIS POINT," they heard a robotic voice say somewhere up ahead. "ENTRY IS FORBIDDEN TO ORDINARY COMBATANTS. PLEASE PRESENT YOUR ID."
"I ain't got time to find your ID!" Kanji growled.
The three boys ran up and tackled him to the ground, using their full weight to pin him down.
"Beam us out, Teddie!" Souji yelled as he gripped Kanji's legs.
Teddie swiped his claws at a falling blue card. "Traesto!" he cried, and they were engulfed in a white light that gradually faded to show them the outside of the base.
"Get off me!" Kanji roared, but the three clung to him as tightly as they could.
"Not until you relax!" Souji yelled. Kanji unwittingly kneed him in the jaw, forcing him to bite his tongue. He tasted blood.
"Naoto's in trouble! H-he could be-"
SMACK! Yukiko slapped Kanji across the face. Everyone stared in horror at the hardened expression on her face.
"You can't save Naoto-kun if you're reckless," she told him harshly. "Do you think that he would want to see you this way? Look at yourself!"
Souji, Yosuke, and Teddie backed away from Kanji, who sat on the ground, covered in his own blood, his pants and shirt torn and shredded. Rise handed him a mirror to let him look at himself. He gasped and began to shake.
"I'm sure that Naoto-kun would be touched to hear that you care so much about him, but I don't think he would want to hear that you almost died rescuing him," she answered in a gentler voice. Yukiko healed him with Diarama, covering him in a warm light. His wounds mended, but the bloodstains remained.
"Wh-What should I do?" Kanji asked, dumbfounded as he examined himself for injuries.
Rise clapped a hand on his shoulder. "You gotta work with everyone," she told him with a big grin. "We're all here for each other."
"She's right," Yosuke piped up, flashing him a thumbs' up. "We all have the same goal, and we all want to see Naoto-kun safe. But, we can't do that if we all just run in and start killing everything. We need a strategy."
"I guess this is one instance where 'Don't think; feel,' doesn't work," Chie giggled bashfully.
Teddie patted Kanji's head with a blue paw. "There, there, Kanji," he cooed.
Yukiko offered Kanji her hand to help him up. "It'll be okay, Kanji-kun," she reassured him with a smile. "You don't have to do it alone. We're here to help. We'll all make sure that Naoto-kun will be home safe. Will you help us?"
Kanji blinked, still shocked. Nodding, he took Yukiko's hand and got up. "Thanks, Yukiko-senpai!" he sniffled.
"Aw, don't cry."
"I'm not cryin'!" he grunted as he hastily rubbed his tear-filled eyes. "I-I got dust in my eye! It's dusty as hell in that base!"
Yukiko patted his arm and turned to Souji. "It might be best if we all went home for today," she suggest to him.
"We got through almost half of the base," Rise added. "We can come back tomorrow."
Nodding, Souji went over to Kanji and looked up at his blood stained face. "We'll rescue Naoto-kun together," he said to him. "For now, take tonight to rest and reflect. We're going to need you tomorrow."
A powerful sniffle from Kanji alarmed them all, and out of nowhere, he wrapped his long arms around Souji's middle and hugged him, lifting him off the ground, squeezing him so hard that they all heard a series of pops from Souji's spine.
"S-Senpai! Thank you!" he howled, oblivious to Souji clawing at his arms, trying to break free as sharp pain shot through his back. When he set him down, Souji did his best to pretend that he hadn't been injured, even though everyone else knew that he had been broken in half. Yosuke and Rise led Kanji away, allowing Chie to hold Souji up on his feet while Teddie and Yukiko healed him.
"Anyone else afraid that he might crush Naoto-kun when we rescue him?" Chie asked. It didn't sound like she was joking.
To Souji, letting Kanji crush Naoto would have been a delightful way to end the rescue, and he would have happily watched with popcorn.
"I just don't get why you keep getting hurt while trying to help Naoto-kun," Yukiko told Souji over the phone later that night. Souji sat on his loveseat, fresh from a bath.
"It's like I'm cursed," he groaned.
"But, did our healing spells help at all?"
"Loads. But, it's not like we can keep jumping into the TV whenever we get hurt. I'm getting tired of wearing this brace on my leg."
"Just bear with it for a week."
"You just wanna play with my crutches!" he yelled, popping up onto his feet.
She giggled. "But, but they're so fun! Teddie beat my balancing record with twelve seconds! I have to win my title back!"
"Ask that Cougar woman! She'll run you over and buy you your own pair!"
"But, she went home already. Today was her last day."
"Aw." Souji sank back down on his couch. "And I thought that we were getting along."
"Oh. Hold on a second."
Yukiko's voice became distant as she spoke to someone on her end. It sounded like a man's voice, smooth but also critical. He strained to listen.
"This coming weekend, we've arranged for you to have tea with Tatsuo Kirishima," he heard the man say.
"Kirishima?" Souji mouthed silently to himself. "Who the bloody bonk is that?"
"Kirishima-senpai? This is sudden," Yukiko said in a sullen voice. "May I ask why we're having tea?"
"Your mother and I thought that it would be good if you two got to know each other better."
"Father, I don't under-"
"it's best to have good relationships with business associates. But also, we're only thinking about your future."
"My future? Father, I-"
Yukiko's voice came loud and clear as she hastily said, "Chie, I'll talk to you later," and hung up.
"Yukiko?" Souji checked the screen to find that their call had ended.
What went on between Yukiko and her father during that conversation? Who was Tatsuo Kirishima, and what did he have to do with Yukiko's future? Souji held onto those thoughts as he sat through class the next day, keeping his leg outstretched to accommodate the thick brace around his knee. Twice, he tripped his classmates on their way back to their desks, though he hadn't done so intentionally. He was so deep in thought that it took Kashiwagi four tries at calling his name.
"Seta-kun, what is it that has you so captivated that you aren't paying attention to the lesson?" she asked in her sensual, husky voice.
"I'm just so lost in your eyes," he answered without thinking, and stifled a cringe when she licked her lips at him.
After surviving a real Cougar attack, Souji was eager to get to Junes. The horror had been enough to make him forget about the conversation he had overheard between Yukiko and her father. Everyone went separately and met up at one of the round tables before heading inside the TV. He tore the brace off of his knee and tucked the crutches under his arm while everyone took their weapons out from Teddie's bear costume.
"Ngh! Those meanie Shadows tore up my suit!" Teddie griped as he showed them the masterful stitches he put for repairs. "Sensei! Avenge me!"
Souji pulled his sword out from the bear costume and inspected it. "I'll do my best," he told Teddie, who bounced happily from foot to foot.
"Who's going in today?" Chie asked.
"Let's go with Yosuke, Chie-chan, and Yukiko-san," he said, pointing the pommel of his sword to each of them.
While they geared up, Souji went to the glowing blue door that no one ever seemed to notice and went inside. The Velvet Room materialized before him, and with a grumpy greeting, he slammed money down on the table and requested to be given Izanagi to take into battle.
"Are you sure?" Margaret asked.
"Give!" he yelled with the intensity of being punched in the gut. In seconds, he held up the blue card with Izanagi's image and was finally glad to switch to something less alarming. He had been lucky with not needing to use a Persona the previous day, but this time, he knew he wouldn't be so fortunate.
He returned to the harsh, yellow, TV world, with Rise and Chie poking at his head. He looked to them both, startling them with the small movement.
"He's awake!" Rise cried out.
"Geez! Don't scare us like that!" gasped Chie.
Souji ignored them both and looked to Kanji. "How are you doing today?"
The oversized teen scratched his bleached head. His face was contorted with worry and uncertainty, with a hint of guilt.
"You guys were all right," he finally sighed. "I thought about it, and I remember that you all were really chill when you rescued me. I guess it might've been pretty scary if you guys charged in yelling and covered in blood like me. I-I'm sorry, guys."
"Aw, it's okay, Kanji!" Rise leaped up and hugged him from behind. Everyone else gave offered words of encouragement, telling him how proud they are that he took the time to think and learned something from yesterday.
"All right! Let's rescue an ace detective!" Souji announced.
"Is it just me, or do Yukiko and Souji-kun look more in sync than usual?"
They were down on the fourth floor again in a hazy, green room with consoles, battling two Shadows shaped like hourglasses with spinning, thorny hula hoops. Souji had been hit with a spell that enraged him, but it gave him the extra strength he needed to fight. Together with Yukiko, Souji used his boost in power and wedged his sword between one of the Shadow's bladed hoops, stopping its motion entirely to give Yukiko a clear shot at throwing her fan at the tiny weak point at its center. It shattered and became black smoke, and they turned their attention to the remaining enemy.
Chie and Yosuke stood by, impatiently tapping their toes while the other two worked. Souji picked up Yukiko's fan and threw it to her. She easily caught it in one hand and spun in one fluid motion, giving it extra power before throwing it at the Shadow's narrow center. While it focused on the fan, it didn't notice Souji run up and hack it into two pieces. Like its partner, the Shadow faded into smoke.
"Wow! That ruled!" Chie exclaimed as they regrouped.
Without looking at each other, Souji and Yukiko high-fived.
"Damn! What's gotten into you guys?" Yosuke asked. "You're like, kick-ass now!"
"Let's not dilly-dally, children!" Souji sing-songed in a British accent. He led the way down to the fifth floor, where the defense system screamed at them again.
"INTRUDERS WILL BE ELIMINATED! I REPEAT: INTRUDERS WILL BE ELIMINATED!"
The doors at the end of the short hallway opened, and two black lions chained to enormous balls with indigo masks lumbered towards them.
"Spells! Now!" Souji ordered.
They took turns hitting them with their elemental attacks. Souji summoned Izanagi for the tiny sizzle of a lightning bolt that was Zio, which was little more than a tickle to the lions. They did fire and wind, but it was ice that knocked them over for an all-out attack. The four pounced on them like Teddie on hot girls, throwing their weight behind every attack, until the Shadows were nothing more than wisps dissipating in the air. Souji stifled an excited squeal when he found a Persona card next to some money left behind by the lions. He pocketed Hitokoto-Nushi and smiled at the immunity it had to ice and wind.
As they went through the floors, they fought more battles, accumulated more money but not that many Shadows. They encountered chubby Shadows with keys in giant holes in their stomach and enormous lion heads on wheels. Souji was taken by surprise when rounding a corning and came upon a black knight accompanied by spiraling fish with glass wings. The knight charged at him and nearly skewered him in the gut; the tip of his lance scraped his side. Souji let out a pained grunt before crushing a blue card to summon Izanagi. Yukiko healed his wound with a Diarama spell before everyone began casting their elementals again. Not one spell had much effect on them. A fish smacked Chie with its tail. The other fish slashed at Yosuke with its wing. Yukiko barely dodged the knight's lance, spinning out of its way.
"This isn't working!" Yosuke growled, wiping blood from his brow.
"Careful guys! You're really low on health!" Rise warned them from inside their heads.
Yukiko healed everyone, renewing their strength. Souji watched as Chie cast Bufula on one of the fish, missing completely and leaving a large chunk of spiky ice on the ground. The fish used its tail to shove it towards Yukiko, who exploded it with fire from within before it could touch her. Ice shards dug into the Shadow, but Yukiko blocked any that came her way with her fan. It gave Souji an idea.
"Chie! Cast Bufula four times but don't aim at any of the Shadows!" he yelled.
"What's that gonna do?" she complained, but obeyed.
"Yosuke! Magarula! And keep it going!"
The combined spells created three tornadoes of giant hail, where the Shadows were sucked into the windy vortex and the chunks of ice smashed mercilessly into them. Each chunk that broke became smaller, more jagged pieces that bludgeoned the Shadows. Chie threw more tiny icebergs into the twisters, until they heard the satisfying, muffled sound of Shadows bursting into smoke.
"Genius, Senpai!" Rise cheered.
"That was awesome!" Chie whooped.
"Good thinking!" Yukiko praised.
Yosuke fist-bumped him. "Nice one! Hey, what if we did that with our other spells? We can make fiery tornados, or create a lightning storm!"
They discussed other combinations, like the exploding ice he had seen from Chie and Yukiko. It only worked if the ice chunks were large enough, as tiny pieces would melt from the heat in an instant. When they reached the sixth floor, they found a key card needed back up on the fourth floor. As they ventured back up the levels, they tested out their new combinations, trying out the flaming tornado and exploding ice. The experiments alone cost them nearly all of their energy, but the battle against the guardian on the fourth floor depleted whatever little they had left.
They returned to the surface for healing from the fox. Souji reluctantly handed over the money he had accumulated in exchange for healing. And with the special leaves the fox provided, they were instantly revitalized.
"We have about two hours before closing time," Yosuke announced to everyone.
"You guys managed to get both of the key cards, so that should help move things along," Rise reasoned. "If not, we can still go back tomorrow."
"Let's use those two hours that we have," Souji suggested. "The more we get done, the better off we are."
Souji switched Chie out with Kanji. Yosuke and Yukiko remained on the team, and while they took a break, Souji paid more money to Margaret and Igor to get King Frost so that they could have an ice elemental in their team.
"You're choosing a lot of weaker Personas lately," Margaret remarked as she closed the compendium.
"This wouldn't be a problem if you guys hadn't screwed up my Yoshitsune," Souji grumbled on his way out.
"But, you can always try again."
Souji glanced at Margaret over his shoulder. "I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me," he said to her.
Igor leaned towards Margaret. "He's just a poor boy, from a poor family," he whispered to her.
As Margaret eyed Igor with a puzzled look, Souji returned to his friends. They took what little precious time they had to get as close to the bottom of the base as they could manage, making it to the eighth floor. With time running out, they had no choice but to leave. Junes was closing and no one wanted to be stuck inside the TV any longer than they needed. They agreed that tomorrow would be the day to rescue Naoto, and they made sure that they would send someone to buy supplies in preparation of the battles looming ahead.
Teddie had been elected to take care of selling the scraps of junk they found inside the TV, letting him take Chie's star backpack with him while they were at school. When they all arrived at Junes, he unzipped his bear head and dumped a bunch of snacks, drinks, medicines, and other strange items from inside his costume.
"Not here! Kids might think you're a piñata!" Yosuke screeched as he and Chie worked to shove all the items back into his head.
Inside the TV, Souji checked through his Personas. The few that he had managed to procure from battles were either too weak or didn't have any decent moves. He tried fusing some, but none of them had the skills that he wanted. Recovery magic was limited, and most of the Personas he fused were mostly physical-based. He still had the one crazy Persona that was a complete accident on Igor's part, and he had to admit, the fact that it was resistant to wind, absorbed fire, reflected darkness, and was only weak to light was not a bad balance. The only problem was whipping it out, and that was not going to happen on his watch, no matter how strong it was compared to the others.
For the time being, he equipped himself with Hokuto Seikun for being stronger than King Frost, but with a team of Yosuke, Yukiko, and Kanji, he would have to switch if he wanted an ice spell. It wasn't an ideal set up, but at least it provided a variety of powers for him.
They reached the bottom floor. The green haze was less here, where they could see numerous red banners with the golden bird insignia hanging on the walls between yellow and black hazard stripes. At the end of the short hallway was another door with two red lights on either side. The combat team paused for a moment to let Rise, Teddie, and Chie catch up to them. Kanji started to reach out to the door when Souji stopped him.
"Let's let Rise-chan scan ahead first," he said, and Kanji stepped away from the door.
"I'm scanning right now," they all heard Rise say in their heads. They hadn't arrived yet, but she was already working on checking out the next room.
"Something's behind that door," she told them. "I think it's Naoto-kun!"
Kanji snapped his body to turn back to the door. "H-He's there? Well, what're we waiting for? Let's go!"
"We need to wait for the others," Souji reminded him. "Just calm down."
When they arrived, Souji looked to Chie and Teddie. "I need you guys to make sure that Rise-chan is safe. Got it?"
The two saluted. "Roger!" they said in unison.
"Everyone, heal up."
They all exchanged snacks and drinks to replenish their energy. Souji faced his friends as they munched on candies and crackers and meat gum.
"The goal for today is to get Naoto-kun out of here safely," he said to them all. "We all know that he's got a Shadow that might attack us, but we need to try to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible. Should a fight be inevitable, I want us to use the tactics we learned yesterday. I also want us to consider buffers. Whoever has spells that could increase our strength, defense, or agility, use them now so we go in ready."
Yosuke cast Sukukaja on all of them, and Kanji cast Rakukaja. They had no strength buffer, but it was the best they could do. Souji looked to Yukiko, who gave him a determined nod. Giving the command, Souji led the team inside the room.
The door was in two layers like all the others, with two panels sliding open from top to bottom, and two more panels sliding open to the sides. Inside, they found a large, steel table covered with an enormous buzz saw, a bloody drill, and colossal lights overhead like blossoms of eyes all focused down on the table. Standing before the table were two Naotos: One in the andes blue shirt and yellow tie, and the other in the same outfit wearing an oversized lab coat with sleeves that went past his arms. It glowed blue as it wept, rubbing its eyes like a child.
"Naoto!" Kanji shouted as the team hurried forward.
His voice made the Naoto without the lab coat turn around. Pale and exhausted, he calmly said, "Ah. It's about time you arrived. Dealing with this child has been quite a pain."
Naoto started towards the group when the other Naoto grabbed his hand.
"No! No, no, don't go!" he cried in a high voice.
The real Naoto wrenched his arm out of his grasp and turned to face his other self. "It's useless speaking with you. I need to go back now," he said coldly.
"Why? Why're you leaving me here? Why am I always left alone?" the other one sobbed. "It's so lonely! I don't wanna be alone!"
"Naoto-kun," Souji heard Yukiko whisper out of pity. They all knew that these were Naoto's true feelings that he kept inside, no matter how calm he looked right in front of them.
Naoto shook his head. "You wear the same face as me. It's as if you're implying we're one and the same. But the different between me and you is-"
The other Naoto lowered his arms from his face. He lifted his head, revealing large, yellow eyes. His lip thinned, and he no longer sobbed.
"Why delude yourself?" the other Naoto demanded in a low voice. "I am you."
Naoto didn't seem to react. The fake touched a hand to the gigantic buzz saw behind him. "These childish gestures are no mere affectation; they're the truth. The fools all say it, don't they? 'You're on a child,' 'Keep out of our business, kid,' and so forth. No matter how many cases you spend hours cogitating over, no matter how many crimes you solve, you're a child in their eyes!"
The Shadow Naoto spun the saw. "It's your brain they're interested in. The grey matter locked up in that skull. As long as they need it, you're an ace detective! But once you're done, it's back to the playpen with you."
He smashed his fist onto the table. "You haven't the means to deal with society's two-faced nature! You're just a lonely child!"
"Naoto," Yosuke uttered, but no one did anything.
They watched as the Shadow held up his arms again, rubbing his eyes and wept. "I wanna be a grown-up," he wept, his voice rising up high again. "I wanna be a big boy right now. Then they'll see who I am. I-I want a reason for me to stay."
"That's enough," the real Naoto said in a tired voice. "I can find my own reason for living."
The other Naoto dropped his arms again and laughed. "Hah! I'm telling you that's impossible. You are but a child. How can you change that essential truth?"
"S-Stop it!" His voice trembled.
"At your core, you admire the sort of 'strong' and 'cool' men who populate detective fiction. But in trying to emulate them, you must know that in truth, you're nothing of the sort-You're a child."
Naoto said nothing and let the other one talk on. "There's no avoiding first principles. Admit that you're a child, and admit that there's nothing you can do about it!"
The Shadow patted the saw again. "Now then! Our analysis is compete. Let us begin the body alteration procedure! You have no objections, do you, 'Naoto' Shirogane?"
"Stop it!" Naoto ordered. Fear made his voice shake.
The other one straightened up to his full height. "'Naoto'-Such a cool, manly name! But a name doesn't change the truth. It doesn't let you cross the barrier between the sexes. How could you become an ideal man when you were never male to begin with?"
"Wait, what? Did he-Did I hear that right?" Yosuke asked aloud.
"H-He's not a guy?" Kanji echoed in disbelief.
Souji couldn't believe what he had heard. He studied the posture, the clothes, the face, and everything else registered as male. But, that would mean-
"I won't throw a tantrum," Naoto muttered to himself. "That accomplishes nothing!"
The Shadow began to chuckle, letting it escalate to wicked laughter. "How often I've heard those words from the adults! 'Throwing a tantrum won't solve anything, Naoto-kun,' and other such bilge! They made you cry, didn't they? Yet here you are, mimicking those same men. What exactly are you trying to justify?"
Naoto's face froze in realization. "What?"
"It's all right," the Shadow said softly, almost soothingly. "You needn't suffer anymore. That's why you're undergoing this body alteration procedure to begin with. You throw a tantrum, but it fails to change the situation a single bit. I can quite understand the feeling.
"After all, I am you."
Naoto's eyes went wide with horror. "That's not true!"
Everyone knew what was coming next. "Don't say it!" Chie shouted to Naoto.
"It's okay," Kanji said calmly, startling the others. "Let the kid spill the whole thing. If not, Naoto's just gonna keep hurting."
He looked to Souji. "We'll just do our job and kick the Shadow's ass. Yeah?"
The Shadow cackled. "As if you know anything about me! You'll kick my ass, huh? Fine! Go ahead and try, you lizard-brained imbecile!"
A dark cloud came over the Shadow Naoto. It grew, larger and darker, consuming the figure within.
"Save the discussion for later!" Yosuke yelled to everyone.
"Here it comes!" Rise warned.
The darkness exploded. Naoto was thrown from the platform, slamming into Chie as she ran out to catch her. She dragged Naoto to safety as the Shadow emerged, looking like a robotic version of the unconscious detective, with half her body in the clothes she usually wore and the other half a shiny steel. Metal wings had been strapped to her back, and she carried cartoon-like toy ray guns with plastic yellow spirals for muzzles. Her metal face stared blankly at them as she propelled herself into the air through small rockets that shot out from her feet. Hovering above them, she fired off a single laser round into the ceiling.
"I am a shadow-The true self," Shadow Naoto said in a robotic monotone. She swept her head from side to side, unable to move plastic eyes independently. "What? Are you sick of yourselves, too? Very well. Then let's begin the special operation!"
"Bring it on, man! I'll pull you through this!" Kanji shouted.
Shadow Naoto focused on him. "Have you made up your mind? Then let us commence!"
"Everyone! Elementals, now! Multiple shots!" Souji ordered.
He switched his own Persona to King Frost and cast Bufula five times. The small ice boulders were picked up by Yosuke's prodigious tornado, smashing the ice into the Shadow and leaving dents in her metal body. Kanji's lightning spun with the wind, the light casting elongated shadows on the walls, and Yukiko's powerful Agidyne spells engulfed the Shadow, the heat so intense that Souji thought his face was going to melt off even after backing against the wall. The Shadow rocketed through the flames, spinning as she dove at Yosuke. He barely had time to raise his arms to protect himself as they collided, sending him flying and smacking into the wall.
Shadow Naoto then shone a bright, green light on Yukiko. She started to gasp and cry out, but no sound came out of her mouth.
"Oh no! Yukiko-senpai can't use her Persona!" Rise shouted, both in their ears and in their minds.
Shadow Naoto hit Souji with Agilao. The explosion singed his shirt and blistered his skin. The pain was so unbearable that he collapsed, screaming as he rolled on the ground to put out the flames. Only Kanji stood unharmed before the Shadow, and he smashed a blue card to summon Take-Mikazuchi. The Persona raised a lightning bolt-shaped blade and sent it crashing down on Naoto's Shadow. He missed and gave chase, swinging at it like a pesky fly in the kitchen. She flew past the steel table, and Take-Mikazuchi dove after her, snapping the saw and the drill from their stands as his massive body plowed through.
"Ugh. Dammit," Yosuke groaned as he got back up on his feet. Yukiko rinsed her mouth out with Mouthwash and hurried to the metal trash can by the table to daintily spit out the liquid. She moved her mouth around and tested her voice.
"I can talk again!" she cheered.
"Great. Now heal me," Souji griped as he held his raw arms to the sides. Any bit of contact his oozing skin made with anything stung like a thousand bees in a single spot. Yukiko healed his burns in time for Naoto's Shadow to bowl him over and then Take-Mikazuchi to nearly crush him underfoot.
"Change of strategy!" Souji yelped as he scrambled away from the giant Persona. "Just kick its ass!"
"No, no, that will never do," The Shadow said with a wave of her ray gun. "Patients must lie still for me to drill proper holes into them."
She then blasted Kanji off his feet with an enormous tornado that slammed him into the ceiling before dropping him onto the hard ground.
"Kanji!" Yosuke healed him as Take-Mikazuchi faded away.
Souji dodged Naoto as she came swooping by. One of her foot rockets grazed his side with intense flames. He doubled over, clutching his side, and decided that he couldn't rely on King Frost anymore. He switched to Hokuto Seikun and struck her with Zionga. The lightning spell sizzled her and made her smoke a tiny bit, but hardly phased her at all.
Amaterasu unleashed a series of explosions that missed the Shadow, who flew an arc over Rise and the others and hit them all with the green silencer beam. Chie visibly swore as she let an exhausted Naoto rest her head on her lap. Teddie frantically flapped his paws, but no squeaks or whines came out of him. Rise couldn't even speak to them through telepathy.
"Come back here, you Buzz Lightyear reject!"
Souji's irascible growl was followed by small lightning bolt explosions that chased the zooming Shadow. He picked up the broken buzz saw and hurled it at her, watching it miss her completely. Four Personas gave chase, until Souji gave the order to make the elemental tornado again. As they all charged up, the Shadow hit them all with a bluish-white light. She then proceeded to hit Souji with a lightning spell that connected. He felt pain sizzled all over his body.
"Wh-Why did it-?"
"Testing! Testing!" Rise got her voice back. "She just cast Element Zero. It nullifies the protective bonuses your Personas have! Senpai, until as long as the spell's in effect, your Persona won't reflect lightning spells!"
The Shadow conjured up an aqua blue eye that cast a light on Yukiko. She dodged just in time as it flashed bright. No one wanted to know what it was supposed to do.
Their spells combined again, where everyone flattened themselves against the wall to give the tornado as much room as it needed. Souji shoved Yukiko into a corner to protect her as the flames and lightning joined the fray. The Shadow and the broken parts of the operating table got sucked into the storm, and Souji hastily swapped Hokuto Seikun for King Frost again to cast more Bufula spells. The Shadow retaliated with Mabufudyne, encasing everyone in a massive block of ice before exploding. She was immediately bludgeoned with the stray drill.
"Ugh! Why must you struggle so much?" The Shadow cried out.
Souji felt Yukiko sink to the floor behind him. He turned to hold her up, her skin pale as she trembled from the recent ice spell. She couldn't even stand.
"I need healing!" Souji yelled. "Yosuke! Heal-"
He felt his own energy restore. "Not me! Yukiko! Heal her!"
Souji saw Shadow Naoto aim her ray gun at him. In the next instant, he felt his strength deplete, and his knees buckled beneath him. Fatigue overpowered him, and Yukiko tried to hold him up.
"Souji-kun! What's wrong?"
The saw came flying at them, but Amaterasu blasted it with powerful flames that sent the saw zooming back across the room. It struck the Shadow across the face, leaving a large gash against the metal mask. She let out a furious yell and hit them all with another powerful Mabufudyne spell. Now Yukiko collapsed with Souji, whose sluggish body fell on top of her.
"G-Get up, Souji-kun," he heard her utter weakly.
Souji felt her hands try to push him back up. She got him to his knees and pulled herself up by holding onto his shoulders. As Souji tried to rise to one foot, powerful flames came flying towards them, and he felt Yukiko wrap protective arms around him. Amaterasu's golden light appeared before them, taking the full impact of the spell. Yukiko squeezed her arms around his neck, almost choking him as she resisted the pain that she felt through her Persona.
The tornado dissipated again, leaving the Shadow free to fly about. Susano-O appeared and cast Sukukaja on Souji, taking time to make sure that everyone was given a speed boost. Souji crushed a blue card in his hand and had King Frost bombard the Shadow with ice. One chunk froze on her foot and made her fall like a stone. Her foot rocket blazed right through it, melting it quickly, and with a single kick against the wall, she was back to flying and handing out spells like murderous Christmas presents.
"Why won't you lie down and die?" the Shadow demanded. "You children can't do anything at all!"
She cast something on herself, and Souji heard Rise gasp. "Heat Riser! All her stats are up! Someone, cancel them out, quick!"
"I-I'm outta magic!" Yosuke yelped. He was doubled over, panting, and was hit with a fiery explosion.
"Yosuke-senpai!" Kenji ran and slid over to Yosuke. The Shadow hurled a giant block of ice at them, and Kanji braced his shoulder against the shield. Just as it was about to hit, Take-Mikazuchi speared the ice block on his sword and began swinging it like a hammer at the Shadow.
"Thanks, man," Yosuke uttered with a weak smile.
"Yosuke!" Souji threw him a couple of Snuff Souls and turned to check on Yukiko. She trembled from how much pain she had endured, but gave him a brave smile.
"I-I'm okay," she murmured as he helped her to her feet. She cast Mediarama on everyone, and their aches and pains dulled to mild fatigue.
A metallic crunch got everyone to look up. Take-Mikazuchi had managed to smash his makeshift hammer into the Naoto Shadow, slamming it into the wall. The ice block shattered, but the Shadow managed to get back up. She flew slower than before, with shoulders sagging and her chin down on her chest.
"Come on, guys! Keep going!" Rise shouted.
The Shadow threw lightning and flames at Rise and the others. Teddie tackled Rise out of the way while Chie dragged a dazed Naoto in the other direction. Naoto's legs were caught in the blast, and Chie blasted her with a Bufula spell to extinguish the flames. Now she was anchored down by a large chunk of ice.
"Sorry! Sorry!" Chie grabbed Teddie's claw to chip away at the ice while Teddie cast Diarama over the injured Naoto.
Souji tossed Snuff Souls to Yukiko, Kanji, and Yosuke before shoving two in his own mouth. The other three panted heavily, leaned on their weapons or had their hands on their knees to remain upright. They were burned, bruised, and bloodied, but they needed to finish the job.
"Caft mavik fpells!" he ordered with his mouth full of Snuff Souls.
"What?" chorused the combat team.
"Mavik! Mavik fpells!" He swallowed hard and switched his Persona. "Magic spells! Now!"
They were all struck by Mabufudyne, encapsulated by massive blocks of ice that shattered, leaving them to lay on broken, jagged chunks. Kanji got back on his feet and chucked a large piece at the Shadow. Souji got back onto his shaky legs, watching Yosuke cast Garula to gather the gigantic pieces of hail into another tornado. Next to Souji, Yukiko was shaking so badly that he was afraid she was having a seizure. He helped her up, supporting her. When his own legs gave out, it was Yukiko who supported him, and held him up under his arm.
"Yosuke-senpai! Use Dekaja to cancel the Shadow's stat increase!" Rise shouted.
While the green tornado gained speed, the Shadow fought to rocket away from the squall. Susano-O seized the opportunity to cast Dekaja, and Rise whooped.
"Stats are null! Attack!'
Card after card smashed and shattered as lightning, wind, ice, and fire swirled in an unrelenting storm, until no cards fell from the air. The storm cleared, and Shadow Naoto still hung like a marionette on strings, with her limbs too heavy to raise.
"No way! That didn't beat it?" Rise gasped.
"But I threw everything I had!" whined Yosuke.
Kanji was on all fours, panting hard. "Dammit! Just one more!"
Yukiko's knees buckled, and Souji couldn't hold her up anymore. "I-I won't lose!" she hissed, but she couldn't stand up again.
Souji knew that he needed to finish the battle quick. He still had some strength left, and as much as he didn't want to do change Personas, it was the strongest Persona in his possession. He swapped the card in his hand, and crushed it in his fist. An enormous, green Persona with a bulbous head and long body appeared, waggling its tongue as it rode around on a golden chariot. Tentacles rose out from behind it, and tiny, clawed hands made groping motions.
"Mara! Blight!" Souji roared.
Everyone watched in wide-eyed horror as the phallic Persona reared its head up and sent itself smashing down on Naoto's Shadow. When she tried to get up again, Souji crushed another card, making his Persona rise up and slam the Shadow beneath its ridged underside. After a third strike, it stayed down with the Shadow crushed below, and let out a loud roar before its squeaky chariot wheels made it retreat. All eyes slowly turned to Souji, who wore a bashful grin as he scratched his head and shrugged.
After the battle, everyone gathered around the unconscious Naoto. Teddie cast healing spells on everyone, and cuts, bruises, and other injuries mended like new.
"So, Naoto-kun was a girl," Chie said slowly, as if still trying to process the fact.
Souji ground his knuckles into his forehead, unable to wrap his head around it. Before him lay what appeared to be a boy-The same boy who had accidentally been kissed by Yukiko. Now he's a girl?
Naoto stirred, groaning, but remained on the ground.
"Are you awake?" Yukiko asked as she knelt by the detective. She helped Naoto to her feet.
"Where am I?" Naoto asked wearily. With tired eyes, she looked around at everyone surrounding her. "I remember you all arriving, and-"
Her legs failed her. Yukiko and Chie caught her and held her up.
"That's right," Naoto sighed. "You saw everything."
She mustered the strength to stand on her own and approached her Shadow, who had shed the robot appearance and was now back to a childish version of herself. "I lost both my parents in an accident," Naoto told them all. "I was still young, so my grandfather took me in. I was inept at making friends, so I spent my time reading detective novels in my grandfather's study."
"When I grow up, I'm gonna be an awesome, hard-boiled detective!" the Shadow said in a high, timid voice.
Naoto sighed again. "My parents were proud of their job. I had no qualms about following in their footsteps. An inherited occupation can feel stifling to many, but I welcomed it. I yearned for the day I could be a detective myself. Perhaps I inherited that desire from them as well."
She studied her Shadow's sullen face. "I was always alone. Seeing that, my grandfather must have believed it was his duty to help me realize my dream. I secretly aided my grandfather with his clients. And before I knew it, people started calling me Junior Detective. At first, I was delighted. But not everything went so smoothly."
"What was that you said about 'You're only a child'?" Yukiko asked.
"Not everyone welcomes my collaboration when it comes to solving cases," Naoto explained. "My status as 'a child' was sufficient to offend many of those whom I worked with. Were that the only issue, then it would have resolved itself with time. But though I will one day change from a child to an adult, I will never change from a woman to a man."
Everyone except Yukiko and Teddie shot Souji a dirty glare. His face remained placid, but inside, he was screaming rapid apologies.
"Do you not like being a girl?" asked Yukiko. "Is that why you always dress like a boy?"
Naoto nodded. "My sex doesn't fit my ideal image of a detective. Besides, the police department is a male-oriented society. If they had the slightest 'concrete' reason to look down on me, no one would need me anymore."
"You don't know that."
Everyone looked to Kanji. His face was stern but understanding, and when Naoto gazed into his eyes, he didn't shy away.
Yukiko called to Naoto. "You must know already that what you yearn for isn't to become an adult or become a boy."
Naoto lowered her head and sighed. "You're absolutely right," she said.
Turning to her Shadow, Naoto locked eyes with her. "I'm sorry. I kept ignoring you, pretending you didn't exist. But you are me, and I am you. You've always been inside me."
Ew. Souji rubbed his nose.
Naoto continued. "What I should yearn for-No. What I must strive for isn't to become a man. It's to accept myself for who I really am."
The Shadow nodded, and transformed into a tiny figure in a blue suit with large, golden buttons, moth-like wings, and held a long, thin, pale blue saber made of energy. It faded into a blue card that slowly spun as it lowered into Naoto's awaiting hands.
"Sukuna-Hikona," Naoto uttered, and her legs crumpled beneath her.
Panting, the detective managed to sit on her knees as she told them, "In any event, you're devious bunch. I can't believe you kept something like this hidden for so long." She chuckled. "No wonder the perpetrator has eluded the police."
She looked to the blue card in her palm. "But it's apparent now-This case is far from over."
"That's right," Yosuke piped up. "And you proved it, Naoto.
"Anyways, we can talk more later. We need to get you out of here."
Teddie bounced on his feet. "Ooh! Ooh! I got this! Traesto!"
A bright light consumed them. When they all opened their eyes, they were back by the stack of three TVs in the middle of the familiar TV studio setting. Yukiko helped Naoto to her feet while Chie stuck her head inside one of the TV screens.
"All clear!" she told them, and they all fell through the TV and landed back inside the Junes electronics section.
Kanji squatted in front of Naoto, who was still sitting on her knees, panting hard.
"Hey," he said, but she didn't move. "Hey!"
"Sheesh. She really put her life on the line for this," Chie murmured to Yukiko.
Yukiko didn't try to keep her voice down. "But without her efforts, we'd never have realized that the culprit is still at large."
Everyone nodded. Even Souji couldn't deny it.
Kanji stood up. "You're too frickin' reckless, dammit," he told Naoto.
To their surprise, Naoto raised her face to them all. "I never doubted that you'd all come for me," she panted. "Although, the reality turned out to be far beyond what I'd imagined."
Kanji grunted. "Tch. What a dumbass. You're no genius at all," he spat. "We were tearing our hair out over you!"
Rise nudged him in the ribs. "So you did worry about her, Kanji!" she teased. "Awww."
"Shuddup!" He nudged her off of him. "M-Mind your own damn business!"
The rosy pink on his cheeks betrayed his true feelings, but no one said anything and only grinned at each other.
"I'll take her home," Yukiko volunteered. "I don't think she can go back by herself."
"It's all right," Naoto said as she tried to stand. "I can-"
"No way, missy!" Rise hissed. "Don't think that doing everyone on your own is the 'adult' thing to do!"
She stuck her hand out for Naoto to take. "C'mon, let's go! Grab on!"
The girls all escorted Naoto back home. Souji went with the guys, helping to carry Teddie's bear suit filled with their weapons and items, except for Kanji's bath lid, which he hefted onto his back. No one ever questioned the full bear suit or the bath lid. They stared, but never bothered to ask, possibly out of fear.
"That was a dick move you did there," Yosuke said to Souji as the left Junes.
Souji let out a sigh. "It was the strongest Persona I had," he argued. "We needed to finish it quick!"
"At least he knew how to use it," Kanji told Yosuke. Souji slapped his palm to his own face, not sure if Kanji had any idea of what he had just said.
"Whaddya mean? All he did was go in and beat the hell out of Naoto's Shadow! What part of that does he need to know how to use?"
Kanji looked to Souji with disappointment. "Senpai, you are one sick, sick man."
"But, but I finished it quick," Souji squeaked.
"Come on, guys! Sensei did a noble thing today!" Teddie said in his jolly tone. "He whipped it out and handled it like a champ! What strength! What splendor! What majesty!"
"Teddie, do you even know what you're saying?" Yosuke groaned.
"Sure I do! Sensei has a big, strong, amazing Persona!"
Souji couldn't handle it anymore. He sat down on one of the Junes benches with his face in his hands, shaking with silent laughter. Teddie went over and patted his shoulder.
"I like your Persona, Sensei," he whispered encouragingly to Souji.
Oh, gawd! Souji shot from the bench and began to jog away. "I-I gotta go! Nanako-chan's waiting for me! Good work, everyone!" he shouted in haste. He ran home, not stopping once, feeling so dirty that even a dip in molten lava wouldn't cleanse him of his deed or of Teddie's unintentional advances. He made it home and found his uncle on the couch and Adachi drunk on Nanako's usual cushion on the floor.
"Sorry. We got off early today," Dojima said to Souji as he entered the room. He spotted the brace. "Ah. Nanako told me about what happened."
Nanako sat at the kitchen table with Cougar on her lap. "Hi, Big Bro," she greeted.
"C'mon! Take a seat!" Adachi gestured to the cushions around the table. He wore a big smile and his face was flushed red from alcohol.
Adachi proceeded to tell Souji about the safe return of Naoto.
"I'm relieved," Souji said with a forced smile.
His uncle squinted hard at Souji's face. "You don't seem surprised."
Souji felt sweat layer on his forehead and back as his uncle stared even harder at him. "You didn't already know he was found, did you?" he asked accusingly.
"Awww, you really oughtta do somethin' about that habit of yours, Dojima-san," Adachi said, flapping his hand at him. "They go to the same school. Rumors spread fast out here, y'know."
Souji could almost kiss the drunken fool. Almost.
"But man, why'd Naoto-kun disappear?" Adachi asked with a yawn. "I guess he can be a little difficult. Maybe he got sulky after being given the boot and ran away from home? But I tell ya, I was shocked to hear that he up and vanished like that. If there'd been a fourth kidnapping and murder, we'd be back to square one again."
"Adachi." Dojima said his name in a warning tone.
But his partner kept going. "You know what sucks?" he asked Souji while the teen helped himself to some of their food. "We still don't have any proof that the Kubo kid murdered anyone besides Mr. Morooka. How're we gonna make a case like this? I wonder if Dojima-san's instinct is right-Maybe there really is another perp out there-The real one!"
Dojima crushed his beer can in his fist. "Adachi! How many times I gotta say it? Quit running your mouth like that!"
Nanako flinched while Adachi apologized. The kitten buried its face against her body.
Dojima stood up and continued to squeeze the destroyed can. "All right, see here," he said in a firm voice to his nephew. "Don't worry about the case. Just go study like a normal student. If you don't-"
Souji braced himself for the worst, only for his uncle to sigh and look away. "I'm going to bed," he grumbled, and sauntered off to his room.
Adachi apologized for killing the mood. "But yeah, I can totally understand why Dojima-san's worried. Just leave the case to us police. You know the problems it could cause if something happened, right? Like, if it happened you were mixed up in it, we'd be real worried."
Nanako hopped off the chair, still cradling Cougar in her arms. "Are more scary things going to happen?" she asked Adachi in a tiny voice.
He quickly tried to convince the small girl that everything was fine. He let out a small speech about capturing the culprit, but Nanako's skeptical stare and dull "Okay" let Souji know that she was still worried. Adachi made another attempt to reassure Nanako and failed again. He then excused himself and left the Dojima home.
Nanako eyed her cousin. "What does 'got brains' mean?" she asked.
"It means he's smart," he explained.
"Huh." She thought about it. "So things'll be all right?"
After dinner, Souji went to bathe and soak in the tub. The battle had been long and brutalized his body, even though a quick Diarama fixed everything. He stretched and let out a satisfied groan when his phone rang.
"Hey, Boyfriend!" Yukiko greeted from the other end.
He sat up higher in the tub. "Uh, hey!" he answered back. For a moment, he was afraid she would see him naked, only to realize that he was using a phone and that her seeing him would be impossible.
"Great job today, Souji-kun! You really nailed that Shadow!"
He groaned at the innuendo that his girlfriend remained oblivious to. "Um, yeah. I guess I did. But I couldn't have done it alone," he said, immediately regretting his poor phrasing.
"So, about Naoto-kun-"
"Oh, yeah." A sly grin spread across his face. "So, how does it feel to kiss a girl?"
Yukiko let out a strangled noise. "I-It's not like I did it on purpose! And how about you? You felt threatened by a girl stealing me away!"
"We all thought she was a dude! How were we to know she was really a chick?" The water sloshed and slapped as he made erratic hand gestures. "How would you feel if Ebihara kissed me and you found out later that she was a dude?"
He shuddered. "Ugh. Bad idea. Very bad idea."
Yukiko laughed. "You can be so cute, sometimes," she told him. "I think it's sweet that you got jealous. It tells me that you really care."
Souji leaned back against the tub and sighed. "It's crazy, though. I actually feel kinda bad for getting mad at her."
"Yeah. But, I can also kinda relate. She's being expected to fulfill a role that was assigned to her based on her sex. I was expected to take the position of being the head of my family's inn due to me being my parents' only child. We didn't choose what we wanted to be, but at least you helped me learn to accept that it's okay to make the choice for myself."
"But in Naoto-kun's case, she can't really choose to be female or male."
"No, but like she said earlier, she wants to learn to accept herself."
Souji thought for a moment and recalled the conversation he had heard between Yukiko and her father. "Hey, Yu-"
"Hm? Coming, Mother! Sorry, Souji-kun, but I have to go. I'll see you later!"
The line clicked before he could say anything more. Annoyed, Souji got out of the tub and dried off. He dressed for bed and headed up to his room, hearing a tiny bell ringing behind him on the stairs. The kitten now wore a little black collar with a silver bell hanging from it. She raced past Souji and sat outside his door, mewing at him.
"I guess you're officially part of the family now," Souji said as he smiled at Cougar. "Well, in you go!"
Inside, his room was stifling from the late summer heat. He walked into an invisible mass of thick, wet heat that threatened to suffocate him, where opening the window barely did anything to help cool him down. He turned on the fan and aimed it at his loveseat, where he stretched out and let it blow warm air around him. Cougar climbed onto the table and leaped onto his stomach, where her tiny paws stabbed his gut. With a groan, he lifted her and set her down on his chest.
"Can you believe it, though?" he asked the kitten. "Naoto's a chick! We all thought she was a dude!"
His eyes narrowed. "A chick we thought was a dude? A 'Chude'? Or would it be a dude who's really a chick, so-A 'Dick'?"
He shook his head. "This is all so hard."
The kitten nuzzled his jaw. "Mew!"
He sat up and set Cougar down on the cushion next to him. He remembered his conversation with the guys earlier and cringed at the memory of Teddie's comment. Staring at his crotch, he yelled, "Persona!" Nothing happened.
"I don't know what I was expecting," he muttered to himself.
That night, Souji set the fan down on its side so that he could feel the air while he lay in his futon. Cougar has nestled into the folded blanket he left on the side, curled up like a tiny ball of fluff on a large, cushy throne. He reached out to her, gently stroking her head with two fingers.
One thing still weighed heavily on Souji's mind: Yukiko's conversation with her father. He recalled what Mitsuru had told him about Yukiko being in an arranged marriage and how she only had so much time left before a husband was chosen for her. He wasn't ready to think about marriage, but he also wasn't ready to let go of Yukiko just yet.
His phone rang again. The sudden brightness of the screen made him wince as he identified the caller. "Hi, Chie-chan."
"Souji-kun! I hope I didn't wake you."
He feigned a yawn. "Oh, no. Not at all. What's up?"
"Well, you know how we were trying to get Yukiko and Naoto-kun together before?"
He scanned his memory. "I guess?"
"Well, now that Naoto-kun's not exactly a boy, I was wondering if you're still interested in a girlfriend?"
"Chie-chan, we went over this. You can't just force two people together."
"But you haven't even given her a chance!"
"Why not let Kanji date her?"
Chie fell silent, as if considering the idea. It almost made Souji worry.
"Nah. She'll never agree to that," Chie answered. He let out a relieved sigh.
"But it wouldn't been so cute!" Chie gushed. "Yukiko's from a distinguished family, Naoto-kun's from a distinguished family-They could have had murder mystery dinners at the inn!"
"Good night, Chie-chan."
"No, wait! Souji-ku-"
He hung up and rolled over onto his back. "It might not matter anyway if you find her a boyfriend or not," he muttered. "She might end up marrying someone else."
Author's note: So, when I wrote this, I was afraid that I didn't have enough battles. When I read though it again, I realized that there were plenty of battles. I am so tired of writing battles right now.
I had envisioned this boss fight for years now, and I'm pretty pleased with how it came out, even though the only part I had really planned was the end of the battle.
I thank you all for your support and your encouragement. I hope that you all enjoy this chapter!