Disclaimer: Persona isn't mine. I just like playing in ATLUS' sandbox.

Warnings: General dark unhappiness. Spoilers for Personas 3 and 4.

Bird and Mouse

It has all the makings of a dream, painted in strange shades of green and littered with symbolism. The clock is stopped at midnight. Two coffins stand beside the door. A girl dressed like some sort of living doll stands in front of Naoto, handcuffs around her bony wrists.

Naoto put them there, outside of this strange dream-world - because the girl (Yoshino Chidori, she calls herself, except there are no records of a Yoshino Chidori ever existing) is a suspect in a murder case. Her confession was so thorough, and matched so well with the evidence, that an insanity defense is her only hope. Even that is a feeble hope at best. To plead insanity, one has to claim they didn't know right from wrong.

Yoshino knew full well what she was doing.

Naoto knows she should not be frightened. A mere dream is incapable of doing her harm - and she is armed, should anything try to prove otherwise. She is armed, and Yoshino is handcuffed. There is no reason to be frightened. And yet she can't stop thinking of the man Yoshino claims to have killed, and the way his body was so utterly consumed by flames that it hardly looked like a body at all.

"Are you scared?" Yoshino asks, and Naoto cannot truthfully say "no".

"There's nothing to be scared of." She flexes her wrists, testing the strength of the handcuffs. Watching the metal bite into her pale skin is almost painful, and Naoto finds herself looking away. Yoshino is... frail, delicate, feminine - everything Naoto is not, and her mere presence grates like a personal attack. "I can't hurt you. You have my weapons, don't you?"

She does - but it isn't Yoshino that frightens her. It's the dead silence of a world without power, the ringing in her ears filling the void the buzzing florescent lights left in their wake. It's the realization that anything could be possible, and that she is helpless to change that.

Her hand hurts when she pinches it. Does that mean that this isn't a dream, or just that her subconscious knows all the tricks?

Yoshino chuckles. "You're not dreaming, detective. This is real. Isn't it wonderful?" She slips past Naoto to the window, and though Naoto turns to follow she freezes when she sees what the world outside looks like. The rain that's been falling since late afternoon has taken on the color of blood, and the full moon glows gold against sickly green clouds.

"Impossible," Naoto whispers.

"Is it?" Yoshino doesn't turn from the window, seemingly transfixed by the golden moon. "I could explain it to you. But I'd like these handcuffs off first," she adds, her soft voice taking on an edge Naoto doesn't like. A murderer has no right to be making demands of the detective who caught her! Shouldn't, at least. But Yoshino seems to know far more than Naoto at the moment, and no amount of rightful indignation will take away that advantage.

Neither one of them is stupid - and while a worthy opponent might thrill any fictional detective, in the real world (or this bloodstained dream equivalent), intelligent criminals are a nightmare come true.

Releasing Yoshino goes against every ounce of training and common sense Naoto possesses, but so does remaining in the dark. This dream-world simply cannot exist - but until she wakes, what can she do but learn the rules?

"If I release you..." Her mouth is dry, her throat choked with something she can't name. She coughs, and tries again. "If I release you, you are not to leave this room. I am armed, and I will not hesitate to use force, if necessary."

She can only hope that she is convincing despite her misgivings; there is a part of her that can't bear to so much as look at someone so... perfect, let alone use force against her. Men shouldn't hit girls - but Naoto isn't a man, not really, and she knows (she does!) that a criminal must be treated as such above all else...

Doesn't she?

"I won't run," Yoshino promises, turning to face Naoto as she does. "I don't need to run," and she holds out her chained wrists as though Naoto has already promised to free them.

Perhaps that's just as well. Even as her mind screams at her to reconsider, Naoto unlocks the cuffs (and tries not to notice how very thin Yoshino's wrists are, or how her too-pale skin is feverishly hot to the touch) and steps back, careful to keep herself between Yoshino and the door.

As she steps back, Yoshino steps forward. "Don't be scared," she coos, as though Naoto is the child, the one who needs reassurance and care. Soon she's so close that Naoto can almost feel the heat radiating from her skin, so close that her full skirt brushes Naoto's legs. "I won't hurt you. I can't hurt you. I just want to talk. Don't you want that?"

"I -" Naoto isn't sure what she wants anymore, only that this dream is quickly becoming a nightmare.

"You know..." Yoshino sounds almost thoughtful, even with that devious note to her voice. "You're nothing like I thought you would be. I thought you might be like Takaya - you feel like him, but..." She shakes her head as she trails off, and reaches out to fuss with Naoto's tie. Her hands are so warm that Naoto is sure she can feel their heat through her shirt and the binder beneath it - and she can't seem to move away. "You're nothing like him. You're just a scared little girl."

Everything about Yoshino is so strange, so hard to take in, that her exact words don't sink in immediately. When they do, Naoto jerks away from her, inwardly cursing herself even as she shrinks back and stares. "I'm not - how did you -" Coherent sentences seem determined to escape her. "How did you know I was a girl!"

Yoshino's forehead wrinkles in confusion, and her hands fall still against Naoto's chest. "Why wouldn't I know? You don't look much like a girl, but... Besides," she adds, and her expression brightens at the change of subject, "that isn't really what you want to know, is it? You want to know about the Dark Hour."

Being able to put a name to the phenomenon is a weight lifted from Naoto's shoulders, no matter how little it might matter in the grand scheme of things, and she lets her discomfort slide. Later, when she's alone, she can examine her mask for cracks. "The Dark Hour?" she echos, trying to commit those words to memory. Until this dream is over, all she can do is gather as much information as possible.

Those too-warm hands start fussing again, and for a too-long moment Yoshino is silent as she traces abstract shapes against Naoto's shirt. "Every night," she finally says, "at midnight, the world stops. Ordinary people sleep inside their coffins... but not everyone. And..." She's smiling now, an unsettling light sparking in her eyes. "It's when Shadows come out to play."

Even though the word itself is innocent, something about the way Yoshino says "Shadows" makes Naoto's blood run cold. She should be laughing at how overly dramatic this all is - perhaps scolding herself for reading badly-written horror novels before bed. But she can't bring herself to laugh, because unlike those novels, this all feels very, very real.

"Don't tell me," she says, weakly, because she's entirely too sure that Yoshino will tell her, "that Shadows are... monsters?"

The moment the words have left her lips, there's an explosion somewhere behind her.

She spins around, her pistol in hand in a matter of moments. Yoshino, on the other hand, just chuckles. "The Shadows don't usually leave their home. You're safe here - from them, anyway." Naoto can feel Yoshino behind her, pressing close against her back, and before she can react Yoshino's hands are wrapped tightly around hers, keeping her pistol aimed harmlessly at the ground.

"Chidori's right," an unseen voice calls from the hallway - male, and rough around the edges. "The Shadows aren't what you should be worrying about... detective."

The door opens to admit a pair of men, both older than Naoto - and both of them armed. The taller of the two is so pale that he practically glows in the golden moonlight, and a revolver is tucked carelessly into the belt of his jeans, while his bespectacled companion is tossing a hand grenade like it's a toy. The utter disregard for safety makes Naoto cringe, but Yoshino is still behind her and she has no room to back away.

"What took you two so long?" Yoshino complains, her sweet voice going sour with annoyance. The young man with the grenade just laughs and tosses something else across the room, something that seems very much like a gun from the quick glance Naoto gets out of the corner of her eye. Yoshino catches it easily, though her other hand remains tightly wrapped around Naoto's.

"Should we deal with him, Takaya?" the man with the grenade asks, giving Naoto a quick glance and then focusing on his companion - Takaya, Naoto tells herself, unable to let go of her attention to detail even now that it doesn't seem likely to be of much use.

Takaya seems to consider this, drawing his revolver and aiming it at Naoto's chest. He moves slowly, almost lazily, and there isn't the slightest hint of urgency to his actions; it's chilling, exactly the stuff of nightmares, and Naoto feels rooted to the spot. "What say you, Chidori? You seem to have... made friends..." He laughs at his own wit, while the other man just grins.

They're toying with her. Complete strangers are disccusing her life as though it's a joke - all because she made the mistake of questioning a suspect, of doing her job!

"Do we have to kill her?" Yoshino, too, is being much too casual about this; she almost whines her question, like an unhappy child. "Can't we just put her back in her coffin? Jin can throw another grenade in here, and everyone will blame everything on a concussion. People are stupid."

"Her?" Jin asks.

Naoto is almost relieved when his confusion is ignored.

Takaya sighs - but he returns his revolver to his belt, and turns to leave. "Very well. But be quick - we have more important things to accomplish this night."

The game over now that Yoshino has her way, the two men leave. Yoshino turns Naoto around to face her - releasing her hand in the process, but shooting her is the last thing on Naoto's mind. Despite what Yoshino seems to think, she isn't stupid. If she shoots Yoshino, Takaya and Jin will hear from the hallway, and she's really in no condition to fight two stronger men.

"I'm glad I got to talk to you," Yoshino says, and she sounds like she means it. "You're not what I expected. But you're... interesting. Now close your eyes..."

Why not?

In the resulting darkness, Naoto feels the fever-hot brush of lips against her forehead... and then there is nothing.

Naoto comes to her senses surrounded by rubble in what had been a fully intact interrogation room, and the Iwatodai police force ultimately comes to the conclusion that she and the two officers assisting her had been knocked unconscious by the explosion that caused the mess. Yoshino, they all agree, must have escaped in the chaos.

It makes sense, of course. It makes far more sense than thinking there could really be a "Dark Hour". Naoto is only too happy to accept the logical explanation, and brush the nightmare aside as the result of a concussion.

It's only after she's been thoroughly examined and released from the hospital, when she's in the calm and quiet of her hotel room, that she happens to look at her reflection in the mirror... and notice a smudge of something red against her forehead. It's the wrong shade of red to be blood, and it feels much too sticky, besides, when she rubs it off with her fingers.

It smells sickly sweet, like fake strawberries. Like lip gloss.

And that she can't brush away as just a dream.