Disclaimer: Atlus owns Persona. Rating for violence.


Izanami-no-Okami reared back, hair writhing, the wind singing through the splinters and hollow cores of her skeleton. It was the last thing Rise saw, because, even as the black hands rose around her, clamping her waist, dragging on her shoulders, she chose to close her eyes.

Tell me, the goddess asked, watching her from the empty pits of her eyes, through the visor across Rise's, what is it like to be a widow? Have I now made two of us?

The hands rose around Souji, and Rise strained forward, Kanzeon's coronet cutting into her brow and cheeks - but it was useless, she was useless, Kanzeon couldn't do anything, nothing but see, and Rise wished she couldn't. Wished Kanzeon gave her the slight power of being able to look away as Souji was swallowed by darkness.

Naoto's shoulders tensed, and the look she threw at Souji - for a moment - was hatred. Souji's fault, Souji should've seen this coming, Souji should have realized they'd be no match for a god, Souji was killing them. But the anger slipped, became a flinch - and Naoto lunged forward, cutting across Izanami's spell, closing her eyes as black fingers tore through her throat.

Rise saw it coming (she could see perfectly, even with the tears; Kanzeon never wept; Kanzeon couldn't be herself, couldn't be so calm in the face of this). She strained against her Persona's protective grasp.

Not content to shove Souji, Kanji came in with a kick, throwing Souji well beyond the spell's parameters, far enough away that Souji couldn't reach over to help him. Naoto tried, her hand jerking back as the black fingers punched through Kanji's eyes, wrenched his head to his spine and shattered his neck as he fell under the darkness.

Rise was whimpering, a high cry in the back of her throat. She couldn't stop, struggling to think ahead, to plan.

Yukiko went more passively than Chie, but she kept her eyes open, gazing steadily up at Izanami, her mouth pressed to an unforgiving line. The shadowy hands buffeted her, tangling in her long black hair. With sudden strength, they jerked her completely under, darkness beading on her pale skin.

The wooden fan snapped.

Rise scanned, searching for an escape, casting Kanzeon's awareness across the dais, her power radiating uselessly over the clouds. Izanami barred them from the stairs. The only way out was to jump off the platform. There had to be another way. They'd push through, they'd win, they'd always won before.

Chie swore and thrashed, fighting the darkness even as she thrust Souji away, even as he plunged and grabbed blindly for her hand. Rise almost wanted to laugh as one of the hands clamped itself over Chie's mouth and she bit, hard, her teeth digging a ragged edge. Then the thumb hooked around and punched through her cheek, blood slithering down her neck.

"C'mon, hold it together, guys, we have to get through this!" She didn't know how well her friends could hear her, everyone was shouting now. "They'll be all right, I know we'll - we'll always-"

Yosuke was the second, and, even then, it came as a surprise. Darkness pooled under Souji's feet, and Yosuke was there, pushing him to the side. A surprise because Souji was the strongest. Souji was the last one Izanami should try to attack. (In the first chill of shock, they could still think clearly.) Then Yosuke slipped under, glasses crooked. The hands had grabbed his shoulders, but his own arms jerked up, trying to hide his face.

Souji cried out, a ragged sound she'd never heard before, and he half-lunged towards the darkness. But it was already closing. She couldn't see Souji's face, only the taut line of his shoulders and back, the way his left hand, held out to grab, suddenly slackened.

Darkness, red haze flared under Souji. He stepped back reflexively, but the darkness was rising, stretching towards him, forming bars, arms, long fingers. Souji raised his sword to strike, then tumbled to the side, shoved back into the light. Teddie stood in his place. He was much shorter than Souji. The arms were arcing high over his head by the time he turned to his Sensei, started to say something.

"Stop worrying," Souji said, taking Rise's hand and leading them to catch up with the others by the final gate, where they waited quietly for their leader. "Just tell me when and how the gas station attendant's going to nuke me, and we'll be fine."

"I wish I could help you more-" she started, but he didn't let her get far.

"I mean it. How often do I lie to you? I don't even lie about your cooking."

"I just..." She trailed off, glancing to be sure the others were still far ahead of them: Yosuke playfully smacking Teddie across the head, Chie chatting with Yukiko as she stretched her hamstring, Kanji and Naoto on opposite ends of the group, tentatively watching each other. "It's just surprising. I've never heard you talk like this. I always...thought you didn't have any uncertainties."

"You don't believe me?" he asked, bracing just a bit.

She raised her eyebrows; it didn't happen often, but she was at a loss for words.

"It's because you're different," he said, growing serious. "You're the only one, really." And he gestured to the others. Teddie, hearing something, glanced back, but Yosuke pulled his arm and dragged him away, giving them the semblance of privacy. "With all of them, their powers," Souji went on, "I can understand them. Garudyne, Salvation, Mamudoon, God Hand." He opened his palm and closed it, cards flickering in and out of being. "I can make any number of Personas with any number of those powers." He lowered his hand and looked squarely at her. "I can't make a single Persona that matches yours. Without you, I'm sunk."

"No you don't," Rise said, impatience jabbing through the cheer in her voice. She hadn't planned on saying it, but she'd thought it often enough over the course of the year. "They're the powerful ones, Kanji, Chie, Yukiko. All I do is-"

"Because I need you." He pulled an ironic smile.

"What was that for?" Her eyes crinkled.

As they stepped through the door, met by a short avenue of red tile and cold fog, Souji leaned down and kissed her. On the lips and everything. It wasn't the first time, but he usually didn't do it where Yosuke could wolf whistle at him. Which he totally did, and Souji'd better kick his butt later for it.

"Hey, Senpai!" Rise called ahead, jogging to catch up with him. "We're almost there." She took a deep breath. She was afraid - she guessed they all were - but no one was saying so. They had to face this with confidence, even if Izanami had struck from nowhere, hours from when Souji would leave them all. They'd had no Midnight Channel to prepare them, no foggy days to let them know when everything would be too late. The fog was all around them. She looked up at Souji, forced her best smile, the one that made her feel brave. "Don't worry, Senpai. We'll pull through this." She tapped her temple, then winked. "Rise will keep her eye on you."