Spoilers for November. Dedicated to every raid main healer out there.
"Snap out of it."
She straightens up with a jerk. The air rasps through her throat as she inhales, panting, knuckles fumbling with her fan. Metal ribs bump over her skin. Embroidered silk envelopes one finger before she can grip it properly, splaying the fan in an instinctive defense even though there's nothing coming at her.
Down the hall, the Nyogo lurches and leers. Naoto's fencing with it, quick as a whip. She darts back and forth, her shots picking at the tree's runny trunk. Sap leaks in glistening beads. There's only one enemy left now, but one's enough - Naoto's got her hands full keeping its attention all on her own.
Souji tosses the empty hiranya bottle aside, reaching over to steady Yukiko by the arm. He nods his head questioningly. Yukiko wipes the back of a finger across her mouth, tasting sugar and ginseng intersecting.
"Makajam," she whispers. It's a poor excuse for her lapse.
But Souji doesn't challenge her, doesn't ask why she didn't take the initiative to cure it herself. He simply releases his touch, rocking back on his heels. The tension in his shoulders says he's focused, but his gaze is detached, looking into the distance as if he can see infinity straight through her head. Yukiko's seen him like that in combat before - always right before one of his Personas vanishes and another takes the floor. She can only guess what her lapse made him swap into.
"You'll be fine," he tells her. It's not a question. His intonation is just cold enough that she can sense the presence of another Persona slipping back out, one more suited for offense. Abaddon, she guesses. She's never liked Abaddon.
The Nyogo giggles.
Snap out of it, she hears again, and shudders. He's right, though. The Makajam had hit her just as she'd been calling for Amaterasu, so confident of her Persona's ability to respond that it had been a shock when nothing happened. All she remembers is a panic that ripped through her fast enough to paralyze. She hadn't anticipated how helpless it would make her feel to open her mouth and have nothing happen. How it would make her stagger, to try summoning Amaterasu again and again and again, so desperate to heal that nothing else could penetrate her horror.
She looks back down at the crumpled body of Chie against her knees, and reaches for Amaterasu's warmth.
After the Nyogo is beaten down to nothingness, Yukiko wipes her hands clean with borrowed handkerchiefs, rubbing and pulling at her skin. White fabric turns grungy, scarlet drying into rusty browns. Her skirt is spattered. She daubs at the stains until the edges blur, becoming cloudy discolorations that can get blamed on mud.
All told, it's not one of their nastier battles. It's not even close.
Naoto came away from the fight with a few gashes. Souji has a bruise painted across his ribs. Chie's in worse condition. Spells patched her up, erasing shredded layers of muscles and skin, but Amaterasu is no tailor. The jacket isn't unfixable though, and Chie's legs took the worst of the assault, so she'll be able to walk home without looking like she took a pair of scissors to her own clothes.
They always try to tidy themselves up before exiting into Junes. The other option is to look like they get into street brawls every other afternoon, and if it wasn't suspicious enough trying to smuggle in weapons and armor, ruined clothing would definitely turn some heads. Yukiko's not as clumsy as when she first started to fight, but she still gets her share of bad hits, and she doesn't want to make the maids wonder about why she's doing her laundry separately to hide the mess. It took less than a week after Kanji joined before he was bringing a sewing kit along, a shy white plastic case with lavender flowers, muttering about how they should probably pack spare uniforms, and dammit, he wasn't going to allow them to run around with some kind of hole ripped in their shirts, it was a slight against his masculinity as well as against his needle and thread. Yosuke refused to let Kanji come up with designs for separate combat outfits though; they're still using their regular clothes, and will as long as Yosuke has his say.
But right now, Yukiko wouldn't mind a change of clothes. Or a long soak in hot water. She wouldn't even mind using Kanji's bathhouse if they could clear the shadows away from just one floor, posting guards at the doors to protect them in some sort of bizarre holiday getaway. She just needs to be clean.
For the hundredth time, she rubs her palms against her sleeves, and averts her eyes when Chie asks if she's cold.
Kanji's a welcome distraction: busy blaming himself for not being there, even though he'd been assigned to watch the entrance and Chie had been impossible to hold back from adventuring inside. He moans all the way back from the underground base, until Chie threatens to spar with him right then and there in the street if she has to, even if it means the rest of her clothes get ruined. Yukiko picks at her hands. After Teddy suggests getting towels from the bathhouse to clean them all up, Yosuke scrounges paper napkins out of the Konishi liquor store, and Yukiko scrapes shreds of tissue off her fingers after the napkins start sticking to her, glued by Chie's blood.
She pulls herself together. They work halfway through the Void Quest before Souji takes pity on them and calls practice off early before they've started to get winded. Normally they'd try to clear from top to bottom, but Souji doesn't push. Yukiko's too relieved to protest.
At home that night, when she goes into the bathroom to wash up, Chie's blood is still on her hands. Most of it had been cleaned off before Yukiko left the TV World, but some had clung to the crevices in her hands, working its way underneath her nails and hiding in the grooves. Frowning, she soaks her hands in the sink, trying to resist the urge to scrub.
It is the first time in her life that she hates the color red.
The dreams start that night.
The next time they go into the TV, nothing serious happens. Their practice schedule is straightforward: a trip through the sauna, then in and out of the stripclub like a bad joke. Everything is predictable. Yosuke grouses and makes the most fuss out of all of them; Kanji threatens to enhance the conversation by adding his fists. Souji rolls his eyes and keeps walking forward, completely unconcerned by lesser social quarrels.
Back at Void Quest, Souji takes a team of himself, Yosuke, Kanji and Naoto, saying something about teamwork needing to improve. This leaves Yukiko alone with Chie and Teddy to rest up outside; Rise's there too, technically, but she's chatting away in the corner to the team with her Persona's assistance, a visor lowered over her eyes.
Chie bounces back and forth on the balls of her feet. Her legs show no sign of scarring. "I wish we had some action," she chirps, grinning madly with excitement. "C'mon, Yukiko, don't you wish we had a real fight?"
"I - yes, I suppose," Yukiko stammers. Her stomach flutters. Discreetly, using her fan for cover, she presses a hand against her belly and tries not to think about the ways she's woken up sweating since their last trip, Amaterasu's name on her lips.
Yukiko's nightmares all involve delays. One second too late. One second of misplaced attention, one second too long healing Yosuke instead of Naoto, one second spent fumbling with a potion or thinking she could smack the pesky Cupid that's been in her face for the last few minutes just to get some breathing space. Or she turns back from the fight with her hands full of fire, Amaterasu's searing light vaporizing her enemies - only to see Chie beaten into a raw lump on the floor. One second too long.
One second gone, and Chie's dying. Chie's dying, Chie's bleeding all over Yukiko's red hands and red skirt and red fan and everyone else is dropping to the ground, and Yukiko can't get Amaterasu to obey fast enough, can't get her Persona to pull the spells together in time, and Yukiko wakes up choking.
She's a healer. That's what she does, at least. Amaterasu is powerful, able to attack as well as soothe, but Yukiko knows there are some things she's better at than the rest of the team. In Chie's movies, the mystical female shaman is always a character who's gentle and benevolent. In Yosuke's video games, they are sweet and affectionate: heroines who sometimes are never even expected to fight. There are established personality types.
Main healers. Yukiko's got her own category in strategy guides. Kubo would have mocked her even more, if he'd known her team role.
But the world is not a video game - even if they go into a television, even if they do amazing things with supernatural powers - because Yukiko's just as prone to calling on Amaterasu to cause pain as to fix it. And she's not docile, even if she can be polite and withdrawn. She's not sweet enough to forgive every slight.
She's not like that.
Except that Chie protects her, and Yukiko likes being protected, and she likes being relied on. She likes knowing they can count on her. She's their healer. She needs to be strong. She needs to ready whenever someone stumbles, because they're counting on her to be there.
She needs to stop waking up from dreams of watching her friends die from the smallest of delays - like a juggling act where she keeps missing the catches, losing one ball and then another, then another, people dropping like flies, slipping through her fingers.
November crawls like cold honey. They all take turns visiting Nanako in the hospital. Amaterasu scratches at the back of Yukiko's mind, incited by the reek of disinfectant. For three nights in a row, her nightmares are all about amputations, splintered ends of bones that become perfectly smooth instead of regenerating the limb, Chie howling in despair as she thrashes with the useless stump of a leg.
During breakfast cleanup the next Saturday, Yukiko's thoughts are scattered. When one of the cooks nicks her thumb on a knife that had been mixed carelessly with the dishes, Yukiko jerks. She reaches out automatically to touch the cook's sleeve - and then stops, stammering apologies as she realizes how strange she must look.
She's lucky; the cooks misread her concern. They talk abut how considerate she is, coo and click their tongues, but she doesn't respond, thinking about how she'd been staring at the gash, willing it to get better - and feeling surreal when it didn't mend itself before her eyes. For a crazy second, it was the world outside the TV that didn't make sense. It was the world outside the TV that wasn't right, that ignored the rules, that didn't have supernatural powers leaking out of every crevice along with the monsters. And not because Yukiko can't tell the difference between one side of the television and the other - she's just afraid of any wound left unattended now. It rankles her nerves whenever someone isn't in perfect health. When they're not at one-hundred percent, that's when she knows she's supposed to act; it's what she's supposed to watch for, keyed to oversensitivity of everyone's health. Her own training is backfiring on her.
She closes her fingers on the napkin she's supposed to fold, and shudders.
Do you dream about fighting? she wants to ask Teddy, but doesn't know how it would sound. Teddy's having enough of a hard time figuring out his own existence. She doesn't need to add to it.
Working at the Inn is different enough from fighting Shadows that it takes Yukiko's mind off her worries, and keeps her rooted in normality. Life goes on for the inhabitants of Inaba. People here care about the murders - but they also care about the prices of vegetables and oil and futon covers, and if Sumiko's next child will be a girl or a boy. The biggest discussion that occupies the staff this November revolves around the heating bills for the Inn, now that the temperatures are starting to descend.
Wintertime is generous to Inaba, but it spares them for only so long. Inevitably, it gets cold in the Inn. Both the main and outlying buildings are old; the insulation isn't good, and never has been due to the humidity they have to guard against. In the summertime, the cooler temperatures of the rooms are welcome, but in the winter, Yukiko layers her socks surreptitiously to keep from freezing. Drafts sneak up the bottom of her robes, sneaking around the layers to tickle at her knees.
Testing all the guest kotatsus gets stuffy after a while, but Yukiko doesn't mind. She goes down the list one by one, her nostrils filling with dust as she hauls out them out from storage. Wedged in the back of one closet, she finds a familiar, block-footed model: the infamously malfunctioning kotatsu that they haven't yet thrown out because it always finds a home in one of the storage sheds that needs to be kept just above freezing. The automatic timer on it is miswired somehow, so that it likes to click off too early, like a sulky child that doesn't want to play anymore.
Yukiko claims it for her own room, feeling a curious sort of kinship with it. Fire is a source of heat, and heat is a source of life, which is why it's not a paradox for Amaterasu to be able to incinerate Shadows and erase bruises with equal finesse. The latter is what worries Yukiko the most. As she hauls the defective kotatsu all the way into her room, the last few nights of practice play back in her head. She plugs the kotatsu in, and worries about elemental vulnerabilities. She fiddles with the switch, and feels queasy about the massive hits that Naoto seems to keep taking.
Being a healer is making her neurotic.
She stares at the kotatsu until it clicks off, and the room grows cold.
Like it or not, she hasn't been the same since the Makajam. She's been silenced before, cut off from the warm glow of Amaterasu, or frightened, panicked, even charmed - but it never scared her like this. Chie could have been seriously hurt. Chie could have died. And now that Yukiko knows how close she came to losing her, she's afraid of it happening again. Not just from enemies - from her own inattention, miscalculating a heal or choosing the wrong priority target.
She can't help her behavior in battles these days. Her paranoia grows along with her strength; Yukiko congratulates herself whenever she manages not to show it, but she trembles each time Chie dives too recklessly at the enemy. Her instincts are to conserve Amaterasu's power. She watches her friends more closely than the enemy, waving her fan in half-hearted attacks, until even Yosuke's yelling at her to use something stronger, to bring out the Maragidyne, come on, they're dying here. And those words - dying, dying - yank her like a puppet, so that she fumbles through a Diarama before realizing that no one was even seriously hurt, that she wasted the energy.
But it makes her feel better to see them in perfect shape, without even a bruise. She can keep them pristine; she can keep them safe.
"Hey," Chie says to her during their next practice, crouching down beside her while Kanji and Yosuke argue over who should go into the Club, and Naoto and Souji peer inside and wait for the first Shadows to turn their backs, "are you okay?"
Yukiko pushes her hair back behind her ears, and tries not to let the scab from gym practice on Chie's elbow bother her more than it already does. She doesn't want to admit to the tight clenchings of fear that she gets whenever the team runs just out of reach down the twisting halls, and how she's always rushing, always trying to catch up as they engage the Shadows before she's ready. She's never ready these days. She's always late.
"Please." The word leaps out of her. "Just - don't run so far ahead."
Chie gives her a baffled look. "What are you talking about? You're always right there, Yukiko. You never let us down."
After getting another round of odd looks from Dojima for how often they roam about in a pack, they decide to go in smaller groups down to Junes. Souji comes by after school to walk with her, which normally cheers her up, but today she's dragging her heels. She does and doesn't want to go in - on the one hand, she wants to be there in case they fight, but on the other hand, the pressure makes her flinch.
"Maybe Teddy should go instead," she suggests as they navigate through a rack of discounted slacks.
Souji stops and eyes her over the terrain of young adult sizes. "There are some Shadows that are weak to heat. We could use your fire to clear them out faster."
She tries to evade his gaze by stepping behind the men's brands, but he follows her. "You could do that," she blurts, and if it's too frank, she blames it on awe and honesty, a painful combination from the heart. "You - you can do anything. You can attack and heal - and you're more focused than I am." Less crazy, she wants to say. Less sick with dread.
Souji doesn't relent. "What we all need is for you to come with us. You use your Persona well. It isn't something you have to be perfect at."
The reassurance helps. A little. He doesn't deny the accusation, but he doesn't deny her abilities either, and she feels a tiny trickle of relief twining through her chest. The next part makes her feel stupid for asking, but she does anyway. "Do you ever get afraid?"
He reaches through the maze of hangars and touches her wrist, cradling it in his fingertips. Her hand is limp against his skin.
"All the time," he answers somberly, not missing a beat. "I lose a lot of sleep."
She doesn't know if he's just telling her something she wants to hear. With his perfect sincerity, Souji is good at saying all the right things, and she knows it, even as she can't seem to hold it against him. "Okay."
That night, the kotatsu clicks on at the first try.
As Yukiko lines up and counts her ointments and supplies, it stays on all evening, operating flawlessly for the first time in its life. The table is a small knot of heat in the heart of her room, humming and working with mechanical determination. Drowsiness sneaks in; she's squinting before she knows it. Each yawn feels like it stretches her jaw.
After a while, she lays her head down on the table, and lets her breathing slow. The room is quiet. Everything's still. It's just her and the imperfect kotatsu: both working hard to keep everything warm.