Chapter Thirteen – Losing Control
Bebe and I made it to the hospital in fifteen minute's time by bus, though we didn't take a second to dawdle once we arrived. At the back of the bustling white lobby stood Pierre, highly noticeable in dark clothing among the bright scrubs of the nurses and white coats of doctors. As we approached, I realized his face and eyes were splotched with red, tear tracks reflecting the florescent lights from above. His shoulders shuddered violently as his arms held themselves close to his middle.
"Pierre?" I asked breathlessly, once we were close enough, "What's going on?"
He abruptly jerked his attention towards me, thrusting his arms around my shoulders tightly and collapsing in sobs against my shoulder.
"P-Pierre, what happened?" Bebe asked nervously, trying to meet his eyes.
His shudders battered against my front and his sobs were muffled against my shirt as he vented his distress without words. After about a minute's worth of crying, he picked up his face slightly, just enough to croak out an explanation.
"She's in a coma…" he whimpered, "Her roommate found her on the floor in their room…"
"M-Marie…?!" I gasped, "She's-?!"
He nodded shakily, frantic.
"I don't know how long she has…!" he sobbed, "She's my sister…! She's the only one I have and the one who's always been there for me!"
He shook his head and burrowed it against my shirt again.
"And I was being such an ass to her… I should have been happy she finally found somebody she was interested in… She's going to die thinking I wasn't happy for her… when it was everything she wanted…"
"H-Hey, don't talk like that," I said, "It'll be all right. Someone woke up, remember…? If he can pull through, she can."
"That was one person!" Pierre snapped, "It'd might as well be a fluke!"
"Pierre…!" Bebe gasped.
"I want my sister to make it, okay?! But I'm not going to fill my head with hopes and fantasies and wait around for some damn miracle if it never happens! As I see it now, I'm losing her and I can't fight for her the way she does for me! All I can do is watch her die like our grandmother!"
I jerked him away angrily from my shoulder and stared him in the eyes.
"Now you listen to me," I snarled, "You need to calm the hell down. You know your sister is strong. She can get through this, and so will you. But your pessimistic attitude isn't helping her fight. If you were the one in the coma, do you think she'd give up on you?!"
Hesitantly, he shook his head.
"Then you've got to believe in her no matter what… Really, what harm could that do?"
His hold loosened and he let go of me slowly, wiping his tears away with his sleeve. Though I had him pacified for the moment, I knew his mind was still frazzled with worry and grief. Everyone has their own way of dealing with tragic situations, but I guess I'm surprised his is like this… When he had steadied his breathing enough to speak, he sighed a reluctant surrender.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, "I just… I don't know what to do without her… Sometimes I think she's the one who holds me together… and watching her like this without any way to repay her for everything she's done for me… makes me feel lost…"
Bebe approached him and placed his hand on his arm.
"She'll make it out of this okay, Pierre," he said, "I'm confident you'll see her awake again…"
Pierre shook his head.
"But what if she doesn't…?" he asked.
"She will," I said, "Just trust us…"
I don't know what else I can say to make him believe us. It's not like we can tell him that we're personally involved in her fate… But he needs to understand that he's not losing her… and he can't give up on her… I don't want to see him lose faith… With a calm sigh, Pierre closed his eyes and ceased his crying.
"Okay…" he whispered, "For her… I'll believe she's strong enough to make it…"
I nodded, though unable to smile through my own concern for our friend. I'm almost struggling to keep my own faith here, but I have to remain confident that we'll be able to handle her Shadow they way we did Ivon's…
"Good…" I said quietly.
Pierre shuddered and sniffled, keeping his eyes on his feet. I feel bad for snapping, but it was the only way to calm him down… At least this way, his outlook on the situation can be a bit more positive at the moment…
"I'm sorry…" I said quietly, "…neither of you deserved this…"
"Is there anything we can do to help…?" Bebe asked.
(Aside from saving his sister, anyway.)
"No…" Pierre croaked, shaking his head weakly, "I'm… I'm just going to stay by her tonight… the way she always did for me…"
"Okay… we'll keep you both in our thoughts and prayers…" Bebe said softly.
"And thanks for letting us know," I added.
"Not at all," Pierre said, rubbing his eye, "You're our closest friends… Even if we haven't known each other long… I still felt like you should be a part of it…"
After exchanging sympathetic embraces and farewells with Pierre for the night, Bebe and I went back outside to the front of the hospital. The night was quiet, and the wind was particularly frosty for spring. I took a long gaze up at the sky, unable to see stars through the city lights, though the moon stood out nearly full. Otherwise, the sky would be nothing but black… I'm not sure how long we have to save Marie… but I can't afford to lose her… She was the one who volunteered to help me find Bebe when I had no one else to turn to. She had dreams and fantasies… always beaming and cheerful, like a ray of sunlight. Knowing all of that makes it hard to grasp the fact that a Shadow was growing within her…
"Tetsuya…" Bebe said quietly, "We 'ave to do somezing quickly, before eet's too late… I don't want to break our promise to Pierre… or to ourselves…"
I sighed and took my cell phone from my pocket.
"We're not gonna break that promise," I said, "We'll see to it that she wakes up tomorrow…"
I opened the phone and dialed the first number that came to mind, placing the device by my ear as I awaited his voice. After three rings, a groggy response came through.
"Ugh… Tetsuya, what is it…?" Souji asked.
"We've got our next rescue mission starting first thing tomorrow," I said, "…it's Marie…"
The sun peeked over the top of the courtyard's perimeter, lighting up the pink petals of the cherry blossom tree that was still slowly withering its flowers for the coming of the bright green leaves. The air was still chilly with night, though that time had passed hours ago. The surrounding campus was silent, without a single passerby to disturb the silence of the moment. Only the seven of us were present.
When I checked in with Pierre this morning, I was relieved that he reported Marie had made it through the night. As long as our luck doesn't run out, we can have her out of this mess soon. I left it up to Yukari and Aigis to stock up on supplies from the pharmacy this morning, so they're the only ones besides Teddie who are missing. We're gonna have to go without Akihiko today, but hopefully we'll be enough. Souji and his group stood across from Junpei, Bebe, and me, somber and quiet. Though they had little to say this morning, I could sense their determination and will to fight. Even if they only met her yesterday, Marie was sort of important to their party as well…
The sound of rushed footsteps approached alongside a high-pitched squeaking noise. Yukari and Aigis arrived first with breathless apologies for the wait, and then came Teddie in his bear suit trailing closely behind.
"Is it true…?!" he asked, his voice quivering with anxiety, "Is Marie-chan really…?"
"She's the one we're looking for today," I said, "Apparently, she fell fast last night… We're not sure how long we have, so let's try to pull this off in one go, all right?"
"I don't understand what happened…" Chie said, "She seemed just fine yesterday afternoon… There weren't any symptoms of illness or anything…"
"It's the first time we've all personally known the person who fell…" Yukiko murmured.
Yukari turned and showed me a bulging plastic bag.
"It was still early enough that Ivon was still at the pharmacy when we went down. He knew we were going back to save someone else and offered a better discount. We picked up everything we could carry," she said, "I just hope it's enough…"
"I think we can make do with that," I said, "If not, we can always rely on healing skills."
Souji looked around at our slightly smaller group with a furrowed brow, clearly bothered by something. His mind is sort of elsewhere this morning. I just hope it's not going to affect the fight today…
"Are we ready…?" he asked.
"I think so," I said, then to the rest, "Everyone?"
They all responded with a single nod, though all quiet. Even Teddie. I'd never seen him less than exploding with energy before. I guess I never thought about it but, of all of us, this tragedy has struck him the hardest.
"I'm ready…" he said quietly, "I won't let her down…"
The sight of red was extremely disturbing to my eyes when we re-entered the Dream World. None of the bubbles were green today, which I can only assume is a bad thing. The problem is, with them all looking the same, we'll have to listen particularly close for Marie in order to find her. She could be just about anywhere…
"Does anyone remember what Marie's voice sounds like…?" Junpei asked, "I couldn't really talk to her or understand her, so I dunno if I'd know her by ear…"
"I think I'd remember if I heard it…" Yosuke said contemplatively, "But it's not like there's anything unique to her voice…"
"Maybe to Yosuke ears!" Teddie retorted, "But to Teddie ears, there is a difference!"
He cupped his paws behind his little blue ears and began listening to the silence intently, shushing Yosuke aggressively when he tried to speak up. I have to keep my ears open too. Hopefully, I'll know what voice to listen for, but I'm fairly certain I'd know Marie's voice over strangers'. I couldn't even hear the others breathe as we all listened closely for a voice. Any voice. But the silence that responded was making me feel less at ease. If we have no direction, we'll end up wasting valuable time searching through the wrong bubbles, and we don't have much time to spare. If we get closer to the bubble field, maybe we'll start hearing-
"Big Bro? Are you there?"
…that's definitely not the voice I was listening for…
Souji was already moving, looking around for the source of the voice.
"Nanako, where are you?" he asked aloud.
"Are you here to save me?"
"I'm here," Souji said, "Can you hear me?"
"Can you hear me…?"
The longer it took for her to respond, the more frustrated Souji became. He started passing by the bubbles in the field and listening to each one closely. Reluctantly, the other members of his group began to follow. Augh… this isn't what we're supposed to be doing. We're already a team member short…
"Guys, come on," I said, "We've gotta find Marie."
Teddie looked up from a bubble quickly, almost as if he'd completely forgotten the mission he was so dedicated to.
"M-Marie-chan and Nana-chan, both…?" he asked.
Yukari and Aigis went forward as well, but I'm not sure who they're listening for, exactly. Junpei followed them, having nothing better to do, which left Bebe and I alone before the field. Something isn't right about this… When we heard Ivon here, his voice came from outside, but we couldn't understand what he was saying at all. Why can we hear what Nanako is saying within our ears when she speaks so quietly…?
"I hear something!"
Teddie began circling about one area of the field excitably, looking at three different bubbles. A faint, incoherent cry rang through the abyss, and I recognized it instantly.
"Zat's Marie for sure," Bebe said, going on ahead to where Teddie was.
"She's in this one!" Teddie announced, waving as he hovered over one of the three red bubbles.
The rest of us gathered around the bubble and watched it carefully. An image materialized inside, blurred by ripples much like Ivon's. This time, I was able to make out the face of a young girl with blond hair that fell past her waist in braided pigtails. She looked directly up, though not at any of us specifically, overwhelmed by something above her head. She snapped her attention back to her own level, frantic, and began to run away from sight. When she was gone, the bubble turned black inside. No doubt in my mind… I recognized her…
"She's here… I'm positive this is where she is," I said, "Let's be ready for anything…"
"I'm ready…" Teddie said quietly, "I'm ready to get her out safe…"
Everyone redirected their attention to Souji, who looked behind himself reluctantly before facing me again. I knew he couldn't stay quiet about his thoughts much longer…
"Tetsuya, you take your group to look for Marie," he said, "I'll take mine to look for Nanako."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you talking about?" I asked, "We've got five members on each team. We struggled even with eleven total, yesterday. No, we need to stay together."
"But Nanako's calling out for help," Souji said, "You said it yourself. We don't have much time, and I don't want to risk losing her."
"You won't lose her," I said, "But Marie's the one we agreed to look for today."
"Y'know, you stayed behind to help us find Nanako," Souji said, his voice tight with impatience, "We've figured out she's here, and now you're saying we should abandon that? She's as much our responsibility as Marie is."
"I didn't say we should abandon that. I said we should find Marie first," I responded sharply, "We know where Marie is. We can't find a direction on Nanako's voice. Why don't we deal with what's at hand before getting lost along the way?"
"We've been looking for Nanako blindly since the beginning of the year! That's why we came here in the first place!" Souji barked, "It led us this far, and we shouldn't waste any more time! We're lucky she's okay!"
"It… led you this far because of us…" I pointed out.
"The hell is that supposed to mean?" Souji snarled.
"He's got a point, Souji… He and Bebe found this place…" Yosuke said, "We wouldn't be on the right track otherwise…"
Souji looked back at Yosuke, though his anger was overridden by his pain from the betrayal of his friend siding against him.
"Yosuke…" he muttered.
"Seriously, dude, she's been okay for awhile now," Junpei said, "We're gonna save her too. Don't worry."
"I agree we shouldn't separate," Aigis said, "Whether it's to save Nanako-chan or Marie-san, we should stay together to help each other. However, if Tetsuya says we're going after Marie-san, I won't change objectives."
Teddie faced Souji reluctantly, keeping his eye contact elsewhere.
"I wanna save Nana-chan," he said, "But… I wanna save Marie-chan too. What do we do, Sensei…?"
"I think we should split up," Souji said hintingly.
"No!" I barked, "What part of this aren't you getting?! I organized this mission last night. Don't just go changing the plan!"
"I'm leader, too, Tetsuya. My priorities lie with my own mission, which has been in effect since before you even met Marie. Besides, wasn't the original plan to return here to look for Nanako? I thought that was the point in yesterday's meeting."
"Well, I'm not abandoning Marie after promising her brother that she'd be okay!"
"And I'm not abandoning Nanako after promising her father that I'd find her and bring her home!"
"Will the both of you just stop?!" Yukari snapped, grabbing both of our attention and silencing the bickering immediately, "Nobody said anything about abandoning Marie or Nanako. Do you really think that we'd let either of them die? Look, to be totally honest, I would suggest going after Nanako if we knew where she was. The point is, we don't. So let's save Marie first since we know she's here, and use remaining time to look for Nanako. Easy enough?"
"Yes," I said impatiently, "Thank you for explaining it to him."
"Augh, just do your job, Tetsuya," she sighed, keeping her arms crossed.
While it sort of pisses me off that she had to embarrass both of us, I understand it was to make progress in the mission. I turned back to Souji, realizing he was also less than pleased by the scolding. He looked back at me, exasperated.
"Fine. Have it your way. We'll go look for Marie," he hissed.
My irritation faded, relieved by his surrender though also wary of his resent. Well… as long as he stays quiet and does what he's told… This shouldn't be a problem. My eyes fall back to Marie's bubble and I let out my breath slowly through my nostrils. We're coming, Marie… I reached out my hand and placed it against the bubble, allowing it to swallow the rest of me into the world it contained…
The fall was a bit sharper than I anticipated, and not one of us was able to land on our feet. Even if we had, the large pile we landed on gave out beneath our weight. The objects clattered down with us as we all let out an exclaim, Teddie shrieking all the way down the sudden decline. Whatever we were rolling down was hard and managed to drive into every external part of my body. Wait- if this is hurting me, then Bebe is hurting too! We're feeling this twice!
I finally made it to the base of the pile, facing a pitch black ceiling with other suspended objects. The clatters of plastic still approached, and I looked up at the rest of the group, who were almost at the bottom. I held my arms out to Bebe as he rolled toward me and caught him to assure he landed a little softer than I had, ultimately saving both of us from further discomfort.
"Are you okay?" I asked breathlessly.
"H-Hai," Bebe stammered, still shaken by the fall, "Arigatou, Tetsuya."
"Oww, my ass…" Yosuke grumbled from a distance.
The others began assuring we were all okay, though I knew we were already off to a rough start. Most of us suffered an injury of some sort, and I'm sure we're all bruised pretty badly. The hell did we fall on…? We slowly got to our feet, and as Yukari healed us, I took the opportunity to observe the pile. …huh…? That's strange… As I looked closer, it came to my attention that the pile consisted of cheap plastic toys. A lot of them were demented-looking dolls with missing parts. All of the missing parts appeared to be in another heap beside the one we had landed on, and beside that was a pile of… …worn plush toys.
"Of course we had to land on the pile of pain…" Junpei muttered, noticing this inconvenience.
The piles didn't seem to be the only place for the toys. They were covering the floor too… Even outside this place, they lay haphazard in the doorway that led to a long, messy hallway. Bebe kept close, looking around warily at the area.
"Zey're all over…" he murmured, "Eez zis really ze inside of Marie's dreams…?"
"It's so dark and cramped in here… Yukari muttered, shuddering, "I feel like we're in some sort of giant box…"
I think… I'm starting to understand this environment…
"A toy box…" I said quietly.
Just as the others looked at me, a familiar, but weak voice spoke out,
"A child… small… tiny… That's how they all see me. It's not like I asked to be this way… I try so hard to emphasize my age, but they never see past it. They're always looking down on me… What choice do they have…?"
"Marie-chan…" Teddie whimpered.
…I see… I guess those girls got to her yesterday more than she let on… She always acted like her height never really bothered her. I wonder how long she's been struggling. A soft touch against my hand brought my attention back to reality, and I met eyes with Teddie. Even in such a weird costume, I can actually see worry in his eyes… Though he harbors conflicted feelings on which leader he should be following, he has a personal agenda… and knows I'm the one on his side. The impact Marie left on his life is something I don't think any of us completely understand, but enough that I know he's scared of losing her… Like Bebe to me, Marie is special to him…
"We won't waste any time," I promised him, then to the rest, "Come on. Let's get moving."
I took the lead into the hallway, trying to avoid the toys on the floor by stepping on the few open spots of solid ground. Plastic clattered behind me as the others struggled to match my pace without stepping on the tripping hazards. The hall stretched several yards before offering any sort of turn, but the piles of toys didn't seem to have any intention of stopping. When we finally reached the end of the hallway, we were left with a split path. I guess I could ask Teddie if he could smell where Marie was…
"Teddie, do you know which way she is?" I asked.
Teddie ran to Souji's and my side enthusiastically, sniffing at the air with a frustrated expression. A low whine emitted from the bear suit, displeased.
"Actually…" he muttered, "I can bear-ly smell her at all now. But that smell from before is stinking it up in here! I can't really tell which direction it's coming from."
"Smell from before?" Junpei asked.
"Yeah, that Shadow-y smell…"
"So the Shadows are still here?" Souji asked, as if he'd expected otherwise.
"Somewhere, but I think they're pretty far away," Teddie responded, "That other smell is either close or it really just stinks that bad…"
He rubbed his nose with a grimace, disturbed by the acrid smell the rest of us couldn't pick up. So much for relying on Teddie's senses… Whatever this… thing is that's masking Marie's scent is clearly formidable… Bebe turned to look at me hopefully.
"So, Tetsuya…? Which way?" he asked.
…nice to know he's relying on me as a leader… As I started to motion to the left, Souji pointed in the opposite direction.
"I get the feeling we should head this way," he said, and before I could argue, he began walking.
H-Hey, did he just blow me off? Bebe asked for my call. My call. What the hell is with this guy today? He's narrowed his focus to the point that he's not even open to my opinion… Reluctantly, my thoughts transitioned to a form of acceptance. Who knows…? His intuition about the Shadows was right… maybe he knows what he's talking about… I slid my feet from their place and began to follow behind the other leader unsurely, a little sick as Bebe silently followed me down to the hesitation. I'm supposed to be the leader too… Why doesn't that mean anything…? And why do I get to look like the moron in front of my friends…? Why do I feel like I'm letting everyone down…? Just as we reached the next corner, Souji stopped abruptly and turned around to head in my direction. Out of curiosity, I peeked around to see what had caused the change of mind and realized the hallway shrunk into a small indent, leading nowhere. I wrinkled my nose and turned back where I'd intended to go in the first place…
We managed to find a staircase after a few trial and errors, but after about three floors we got stuck. I stopped at a split path, refusing to follow any longer. We're going nowhere fast, and we have yet to run into Shadows or even Marie. We haven't even heard her voice since we first came in here… I feel like we're getting further away from her. Souji's leading us nowhere… …literally, nowhere. In fact, I'm sure I saw this exact pile of dolls four times now…
"Hold up," I said abruptly as Souji began turning to the right, "Let me take over for a few floors. I'm starting to feel like we've been here before."
"Everything looks the same here," Souji said, "Of course you feel that way."
He ignored my words and continued on.
"Hey," I snapped, "Didn't you hear me? We've already gone that way."
"We're not going in circles, Tetsuya, this place is just repetitive. It's not my fault Marie couldn't dream of a wider variety of dolls."
"Where the hell are you pulling these accusations from? I didn't say the layout was your fault! But you are taking us in a loop!"
"For the love of God, Tetsuya, we haven't been here before!"
"Would you just listen to me?!" I snapped, "Get your head out of your ass and hear me out!"
"Screw you," Souji hissed back, "I told you, you're wrong. I don't care if you're my senpai; I'm following my instinct before yours. It worked in the past."
"Guys, come on…" Chie groaned.
"Seriously, now's not the time," Yukari said.
"Well I don't know about you, but I'd like to pick a different direction, and I say left," I said, pointing down my choice corridor.
"I say you're dense, and we should go right," Souji argued, pointing down his own direction.
"God, why did we have to make them both leader…?" Yukari sighed.
"I blame Teddie," Aigis said bitterly.
I faced the rest of the group for support, hoping someone would side with me. Instead, they all nervously backed down, looking in every direction that wasn't mine. Luckily, though reluctant, Junpei had my back.
"W-Well… Tetsuya was my leader… and he always knew what was best, so… I-I think we should go with him…" he murmured.
"Now hold on," Yosuke piped up, "Souji was our leader and we never had any trouble at all. Plus, it's been… what… four years since Tetsuya led anything?"
"Yeah, he was dead and he didn't feel any time pass. So it's really only been a few months for him," Junpei said.
"Well… Souji was the one who figured out Nanako was in Nanparaux in the first place. So he's pretty good at figuring things out. Like… when something is safe or not."
"I vote for Sensei," Teddie piped up.
"Ano… I don't want to take sides, demo… If I 'ave to pick, I'm putting my faith in Tetsuya…" Bebe murmured softly.
Chie finally sighed and stepped up to the front of the group beside Souji and me.
"Okay, look. We all trust our respective leader from before. I get it. I really do," she promised, "But if we stay here arguing over whose instinct we should trust, we'll never get anywhere. Either we pick a direction or we split up. You decide."
I looked back at Souji who returned the gaze with a hint of disgust. I'm definitely against splitting up, hence the reason he's so pissed with me, but I don't want to put up with this bastard anymore. Let him figure out that he was wrong on his own. Whatever. I'm not making the others suffer as consequence of his stupid mistake.
"Okay, you know what? Fine. Have it your way. We'll split up from here and meet up at the stairs when I find them down that way," I hissed.
"So glad we did that for Nanako," Souji snarled back.
"Oh, leave it alone, you dick."
I shook my head and turned away from him, storming off down the correct hallway. I did this plenty of times in Tartarus. Even when I thought I was wrong, I always found the stairs through instinct alone… Footsteps trailed behind me, and I peeked over my shoulder to determine who had sided with me in the end. It was no surprise that I only met the faces of Bebe, Junpei, Yukari, and Aigis. I don't really expect Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, or Teddie to trust me over their leader, and I don't really feel comfortable enough leading them on my own anyway… Still… I guess I'm just a little disappointed only half the group trusts my instinct… I'm glad these four still trust me… I don't know how I'd feel if any of them hadn't followed…
The hallway branched off into two paths, one leading to a very conspicuous dead end. The other appeared much longer and with more rooms. Surely one of these will lead to the next floor…
"Let's check each room separately," I said, "Let me know if you find anything."
Without as much as a moment's hesitation, my party advanced down the hall to check the individual rooms. I took the straight path down the corridor, which stretched out much further than I had expected. My eyes shifted towards the mundane pattern that continued indefinitely down the hall. Something's not right… Either… the patterns are getting bigger or they're getting closer… I looked beside me, only to realize the walls were closing in as well. Immediately, I braked, watching to make sure I wasn't imagining things. The walls aren't… moving… but… the space is certainly getting smaller… …my forehead can nudge the ceiling…
Bebe came running breathlessly to my side, only to freeze as he noticed the shrinking space as well. It's leading into nothing but a tiny point in the wall… What's that all about…?
"I'm a dreamer because I have to be… Really, at my height, it's not likely to find a guy who will stay to know me as a person… He'll only see a child… To be with me would destroy his image. I'm a risk no one's willing to take…"
…a matter of size… …jeez…
I turned back to Bebe, examining his solemn expression until he took notice of my attention.
"Looks like this is a dead end… Did you find anything back there…?" I asked.
To my disappointment, he shook his head.
"Iie," he responded quietly, "Demo… I didn't 'ear from ze ozers. Zey might 'ave found somezing."
I sure hope they did… if not, we're at a complete dead end… …after… after I insisted upon it. Bebe read the thought that must have done something to my expression.
"Eto… I'm sure zey found somezing," he said with an optimistic smile, "After all, we did 'ear Marie again, so we must be getting closer now. You always know what's best for us, ne? Zat's what makes you a great leader."
I chuckled a little at the way he was hamming it up, but it still felt kinda nice to hear from him, even if it was exaggerated for my benefit. I opened my mouth to respond, but a faint noise silenced me immediately. Somewhere behind us came the clanging of a sword… …Junpei…!
"Shit, we gotta go!" I said quickly, taking off back to the other end of the hallway.
Of course the damn Shadows would come out after we split up. This is EXACTLY why we should have been sticking together! Dammit… why did I let my anger change my mind…? I feel like an idiot! As I reached the room Junpei was in, I predictably found him fending off attacking enemies: seven Shadows that took the shape of devilish-looking teddy bears with dangling limbs. They swayed limply in wide swoops, evading Junpei's long sword and leaving him in a storm of profanities as his frustration grew. Quickly, I summoned Yurlungur and sent him into the fray, Napoleon joining with Maragi shortly after Bebe caught up to me. Small bursts of fire took each of the dolls by surprise and distracted them from the flailing Magician in the center, attracting their attention towards the two of us. Immediately, all seven abandoned their previous target and flew at us quickly while emitting ghastly wails that rattled my spine. I tried to shake away the shivers and face the Shadows head-on, but the wails were impairing my focus. I drove my sword into one, but it hadn't been the intended target. The escapee hurdled past me and let out a scream as it prepared to attack Bebe. Fortunately, in a panic, Bebe swung his sword at it and cut it off before it could deal any damage.
The remaining five appeared distressed by the dwindling number and began to wail louder, to which I couldn't help but back away from. At my surrender, two of the dolls came at me full-force. I lifted my sword to repel them, but the sound of a gunshot and a brief fire took one out, severely injuring the second. Aigis came rushing into the fray, a vaguely familiar Persona, Palladion, hovering above her head as it dealt a great deal of damage to the five enemies.
"Is everyone all right?!" she asked.
"We're fine," I responded, "Nice timing, by the way."
One of the dolls took advantage of the brief distraction and dared to go around Aigis, though her perception was acutely directed toward all four of her targets, and she fired mercilessly until it evaporated into black mist. The other three slowly backed off into the long blade in Junpei's hands as he swung the weapon with immense force. Before we could even let out a sigh of relief, a scream came from one of the other rooms across the hall.
"Yuka-tan, hang on!" Junpei shouted.
The four of us bolted to the other room, only to realize with horror that our cluster hadn't been nearly as foreboding as the one Yukari was dealing with. Though smaller in number, the four black Jotun rocking back and forth upon red rocking horses caused a hiccup in my pace. These Shadows are notoriously difficult, and everyone in SEES knows it…
"Shit!" Junpei yelped.
In the center of the cluster was Yukari, unarmed. Her bow was a good five feet from her at least, well out of any of our reach. She grasped desperately at the air for something, likely her card, which wasn't materializing for some reason. Without another moment to hesitate, I pushed forward, my sword drawn in offense. The Jotun pulled their attention away from our fallen comrade to take notice to the oncoming attack. All four began charging Deathbound in attempt to delay my move, but I'd already thought ahead. I quickly dashed my blade against the one closest to me and darted to the side, leaving the Shadows forced to redirect their attack away from the others. By then, Junpei, Aigis, and Bebe had already followed behind to claim an enemy of their own. I stooped by Yukari's bow, grabbing it up and tossing it to her so she could resume as soon as possible. Between Junpei's, Bebe's, Yukari's, and my attacks, and the loud firing of Aigis', the Jotun appeared flustered by the sudden number of us and began to attack more furiously. One was particularly hell-bent on getting rid of me, throwing itself forward in heavy rocks in attempt to head-butt me. They don't appear immune to any of our attacks as of yet, so physical, Agi, Bufu, and Zio skills are safe. If only we had an analyst…
My vision went white briefly, and a throbbing pain took over my head. I didn't feel an impact, though, and I don't think the enemy came close enough to find any sort of opening… why…? … …no! Shit! I looked up in time to see Bebe hit the ground and his sword hit the floor with a clatter. The Jotun closed in on him as he struggled to rise again.
"Bebe!" I cried out, trying to run to him and fend off the approaching Shadow.
To my irritation, my enemy was still in my face, blocking my path no matter where I wanted to turn. Bebe managed to regain his senses in time to notice his enemy and roll out of the way of a second strike. He clambered for his sword desperately. He may have time to attack again… but I'm not taking that risk. I can't let that bastard touch him again! I clenched my fist into my card tightly with only one Persona in mind. One I trusted would never let me down. Especially not in a situation like this… Please… Please, help me…
A familiar, terrifying roar split the air as Thanatos emerged. An entire deck of giant playing cards with spears fell from above, driving into each of the Jotun relentlessly and without fail until they perished in four puffs of black mist. The five of us looked around at each other. Junpei, Bebe, and Yukari all trembled faintly, but Aigis and I still stood perfectly still Though the Shadows were gone for the moment, I wasn't convinced we were safe just yet.
"Aigis… can you sense any others?" I asked quietly.
She looked off at the hallway, her eyes darting about various places as she searched for sign of movement. Finally, she relaxed and lowered her guard.
"No," she said, "We seem to have emerged from this victorious for now."
With her confirmation, the rest of us were able to relax and let out a breath. Junpei approached Yukari first with his hand extended, so I went to Bebe and helped him to his feet. He placed his hand to his forehead as he stood up. I felt faint for a moment as the pain came throbbing back to my head and I gripped a little tighter on his hand.
"Are you okay…?" I asked him.
"H-Hai, and you?" he asked, "You're 'urt too, ne?"
"It's not too bad…" I said, trying to keep him from worrying.
Luckily, he seemed to see through it and had Napoleon cast Mediarama on the group anyway.
Yukari shuddered as Junpei released her hand.
"I'm sorry…" she croaked.
…huh…? Is she… crying…?
"Yukari?" I asked.
She turned back to me, not quite in tears though it was visibly taking quite a bit of her strength to keep them back.
"I couldn't… I couldn't summon Isis…" she said, "Even facing death. If I just had my Evoker, it'd be easy, y'know? But it's just like before… I can't do it…"
She couldn't look me in the eye anymore, speaking to the floor at my feet. A sinking feeling in my chest left me without an immediate response for her. I hadn't really noticed that she never summoned Isis in the Dream World before. I always thought it was part of her strategy… I don't imagine that she can't summon a Persona anymore, but it certainly is a dramatic change for her. It was hard enough for her to use her Evoker in the beginning; trying to summon a Persona with something she has to materialize can't be easy on her. But still… the fact that I never took notice to something so serious, and then had the group split up like that… shit… I really haven't focused much on any of them since all this shit came up. What would I have done if we hadn't gotten to her in time…?
"Yuka-tan, you can't beat yourself up for that. You're still getting used to this new summoning method," Junpei said, "We all are."
"Even for me," Aigis said, "I was only able to summon Palladion just today. Since I was programmed to summon my Persona differently, this has been a difficult method to alter."
"And I 'ad only summoned mine once before coming 'ere," Bebe said, "Ze Evoker was ze way I was taught, but zis eez ze way I was trained…"
Yukari sighed and stood a little straighter.
"I know…" she said quietly, "I just wish… I wasn't the one having trouble again."
She looked to me, composed and ready for a change of subject.
"Did you find the way out?" she asked.
…I wasn't quite willing to have the subject change back to that, but I guess this is the matter at hand… Shit… The delay in my response had everyone's faces, aside from Bebe's, fallen. If I could see my own, I'd probably look pretty stupid and lost… They all trusted me… and I blew this.
"Let's… let's just head back…" I said quietly, the bitter words struggling to release.
No longer wanting to see the others' expressions, I turned my back to them and began leading the group back to the original split path. If I'm lucky, Souji's group had no better luck, but I'm pretty much hoping for impossibilities at this point. What happened back there…? What got the better of me…? Pride? Doubt? I know I'm better than this… They know I'm better than this… What am I doing anymore…? I can't focus on anyone in my team the way I used to, my instinct has gone to shit, and I'm letting stupid emotions cloud my judgment. I'm not the leader I used to be… I'm going to put someone in a bad place, like I did today. And someone's going to get hurt worse… Knowing that Bebe and I are suffering each other's pain, this is the worst possible timing. If I get us killed… … …
I heard quickening footsteps and a presence caught up to walk beside me as we reached the split path once more. Bebe walked close to me, not quite touching but enough to feel his warmth. He spared me eye contact for awhile, seeming unsure of what to do or say though he clearly wished he could do something to help. It's nice to know that even when I falter, Bebe will always stay loyal to me. At least if the others doubt me or if I doubt myself, there will be someone who believes I can do right. Whether he's right or not… he won't let me be completely alone. I reached for his hand and gave it a brief squeeze before letting it go again.
The new hallway was much like the last, filled with rooms full of dolls but otherwise empty. There were no signs of Shadows, but that didn't mean there hadn't been any. The hall appeared to stretch into another point in the wall, but the room on the very end appeared to lead to a larger space. I took a deep breath, knowing exactly what I was about to find. Sure enough, there was the rest of the group, standing around the stair case and relaxed as if they'd been waiting around awhile. When they noticed us approaching they stood straight again, pushing off the walls they'd been leaning against or whatever otherwise comfortable position and prepared to advance. Staring from the front… staring from the back… I'd just like to feel like I'm not the one holding all the attention right now… I guessed wrong… just leave me to that thought and don't say anything about it…
"Looks like Souji was right after all," Yosuke said almost mockingly as the rest caught up.
Seriously, screw this asshole!
"Yeah, yeah. It's not like it was a major setback," I grumbled.
The way the others continue to stare at me condescendingly, Yosuke in particular, doesn't make me feel any better at all, and it's frankly pissing me off. I can almost feel the disappointment from my own group radiating into my back, from Junpei and Bebe especially since they were the ones trying to defend me.
"We're just glad you made it out all right," Yukiko said, "You didn't get ambushed too, did you?"
"It could have been worse," Yukari responded, "We've dealt with worse swarms. Just some Shadows and a dead end."
"Still, running into a dead end wasted time we can't afford to lose," Souji said, glancing in my direction as a well-aimed shot at my ego.
"Okay, lay off already," I hissed.
"One of you 'ad to be wrong. Eet's not like eizer of you are perfect and eet's not like Tetsuya knew any less zan you did," Bebe said defensively, "We're not fighting over who eez wrong and who eez right. We're fighting to save Marie and Nanako-chan."
"Well-put," Chie agreed.
"Whatever, man," Yosuke sighed, "My faith in Souji has only grown stronger. I think we've found the leader we should trust."
A faint but proud smile curved Souji's lips, taking yet another shot at my already weakened self-esteem. The funny thing about fighting is the tendency to lower one's maturity as well… We began climbing the stairs and I took my place at the front with Souji once more, my entire body burning with anger and spite. Though I knew it wasn't going to help the situation, I wasn't about to let this go without a fight. I wasn't going to let him berate me in front of my team, and especially not take it in front of Bebe. I'm better than that. I'm not a doormat. I might not be what I used to be, but I can still be a leader. And the first step is not letting anyone else talk shit to me and expecting me to back down. I leaned closer to him and spoke under my breath, though loud enough that he could hear me.
"In terms of leadership… your instinct might have been right this time," I said, "But at least I'm nobody's bitch."
Souji looked at me sharply, his eyes wide and glaring. Something in that look told me I'd said something a little stronger than intended, but I refused to back down from my statement. I wasn't going to shudder as the cold chill channeled through my spine either.
"You take that back," he snarled.
I looked straight ahead and quickened my pace to leave him behind me as I reached the top first.
"Take it back, Tetsuya! I'm not kidding!"
Hell no, you bastard. You asked for it. I chose to ignore him and leave my insult rotting him from the inside out. The new area was so open… I walked ahead a few more paces and heard the others keeping a casual pace behind me. Well… save for one…
"What? What did he say, Sensei?" Teddie asked curiously.
"I SAID TAKE IT BACK!"
From behind me, I heard a shatter and a resonating surge that grew rapidly and increasingly louder. Oh my God, he really went that far. That bastard! I whipped around quickly enough to summon Thor and absorb the Zio skill headed directly toward me. Souji already had Izanagi going in for another hit before I even had a chance to switch out Personae.
"WHOA! What the hell, man?!" Yosuke cried.
"Stop it, Souji!" Chie barked.
Thor managed to fend off Izanagi once, sending him back far and long enough that I could switch to Orpheus without a problem. As soon as I switched, Izanagi was flying at Orpheus full-force.
"Take it back, you bastard!" Souji shouted, initiating a physical shot at my Persona.
Orpheus blocked the hit as best he as could, enough that I didn't feel the impact.
"You're only taking it that strongly because you know it's true!" I snapped.
"SHUT UP!" he roared, and Izanagi took another strike at Orpheus.
"Souji-kun, leave 'im alone!" Bebe yelled.
"Stay out of this, Bebe, don't put your nose where it doesn't belong!" Souji yelled.
That does it, you son of a bitch.
Orpheus reared at Izanagi with an Agi attack, blasting him with fire and extracting a scream from my opponent.
"Tetsuya! Stop eet!" Bebe barked.
But I couldn't stop it. Souji was already switching to another Persona, which took the form of a large black Jack Frost, and initiated Bufudyne. Son of a bitch! I switched to Yurlungur and attacked with Garudyne, simultaneously absorbing the ice. I can't let myself be hit with Bufu-skills. He knows as well as the others that something weird is going on with Bebe and me, and since Napoleon doesn't handle ice well I can't afford to take risks! He's not thinking about who he's putting at risk! I didn't either when I made the remark, but I didn't expect him to take it this seriously!
"Souji-kun, whatever it was, let it go!" Yukiko cried, "We're all on the same team!"
"Yeah, c'mon, we're supposed to be looking for Marie!" Junpei insisted.
Black Frost came at Yurlungur with Agidyne and I began to get flustered, combating with Garudyne again and weakening my opponent and his Persona. He recovered immediately following the hit and started to approach me again.
"Souji, knock it off!" Yosuke barked.
Souji stopped to catch his breath for a moment. He stared at me for a long time, filling the air with a heavy tension that had my guard up as high as it could possibly go. I dare him to attack me again. Slowly, his body hesitantly began to yield and he let out an irritable "tch" to let me know I wasn't worth his time before turning his back on me and slinking back to the others. What an idiot. All he's doing is proving my statement.
"Exactly. That's what a submissive bitch does," I said.
I'll admit that instigating the continuation of our fight was a huge mistake, which I figured out quickly as Souji charged at me again with Kohryu at the front, Ziodyne at the ready. I switched to Thanatos as a reflex, though I remembered that Thanatos doesn't null or reflect such elements. In addition to the throbbing pain that surged through Thanatos' being and through my soul, I had to focus on avoiding a second hit that followed directly after. Jeez, why can't he use this energy and speed in battles that matter?! Or in looking for Marie?!
The others screamed angrily at both of us to stop fighting, though not willing to get involved themselves. I don't even care anymore. I can't afford to let him get another hit. I just have to end this quickly. Through some surge of adrenaline and panic, I somehow managed to summon the Magician Persona Surt again, attacking viciously with Deathbound. Only slightly fazed, Souji quickly healed via Diarahan and attacked me again with Ziodyne. The electricity was far more painful than anything I had felt in a long time, whiting out my vision temporarily, but I refused to let it hinder me in the slightest. As Souji switched back to his initial Persona, I mimicked the movement and went in to attack with Bash. Shit-! What am I even doing?! Orpheus is weak against Izanagi's main element! Doesn't matter. I have to win this. To my relief, Izanagi went in to attack with Cleave, attempting to counter the physical attack. Try to double your strength, Orpheus. Please…
Izanagi's sword clashed with Orpheus' harp, but both were suddenly broken away by a third party who threw himself between them, detaching the touching weapons and creating a spacious gap between the two Personae. Napoleon rammed against both of them forcefully, dealing a fair amount of pressurized pain against my chest as Orpheus was struck by the portly Persona's weight. What the hell-?!
Bebe took a stand in front of me, absolutely brimming with rage that was well-aimed at both Souji and me. His hair stood up in the back and his entire body trembled violently.
"DAMMIT, BOZ OF YOU JUST STOP EET!" he shrieked, "Tetsuya, you tell 'im you're sorry! Nozing eez worth more zan your safety, no matter if you were right or not! Souji-kun, if you come at Tetsuya again, so 'elp me GOD I will not 'old back anyzing and I WILL get involved in zis fight just to kick your ass! BACK. ZE 'ELL. OFF."
Though I'm always brought back to reality when Bebe loses his temper, I was more distracted by his quaking. This isn't shaking with rage, something's wrong. He's hurting… And I'm not the only one who sees it either…
"B-Bebe? Are you okay…?" Souji asked.
He teetered to the side once, swaying left in attempt to retain his balance. I was thankful to be closest to him, being the one to catch him when he stumbled and took a sharp fall against my chest.
"Bebe?! What's wrong?! What happened?!" I asked, scared out of my mind by his weak state.
…oh my God. I was hit. I was hit twice. Yeah, I can handle it, but Bebe's not used to handling pain the same way I am. How bad is it…?
"Bebe…?! Can you hear me?!" I asked, growing more frantic.
"H-Hai… I'm okay…" Bebe croaked, slowly putting weight on his legs and attempting to stand on his own again, though it was proving difficult as he was unable to without leaning on me for support.
"Here, let me help…" Souji said quietly, going to us quickly as he switched to a support-oriented Persona. Hell, I don't want him anywhere near Bebe! He's already done enough!
"Hey—back off!" I barked.
"I'm trying to heal him, you asshole!" Souji yelled at me defensively.
"Shut up!" Bebe snapped, "Boz of you just shut up! Nobody wants to 'ear eet! Neizer of you 'ave anyzing to be proud of right now!"
He broke away from me sharply, attempting to summon Napoleon to heal. His Persona left the card, but appeared to be moving more lethargically than before. Bebe's and my own pain didn't vanish at all. He must have used up a good bit of his and Napoleon's strength back during the ambush. I brought Yurlungur forth to cast Diarahan, but to my surprise, my Persona had also grown too weak to cast another spell. How much spirit energy did we use…?
Souji sighed, knowing full-well I wasn't going to give in and accept the charity from him. Yukari approached the three of us and handed us each some medicine from the pharmacy bag, which helped a little, but not enough. My body is shaky and everything's starting to feel tired. At least I can see that the others are feeling the same… Souji looked to the rest of the group.
"We've been in here awhile…" he said, "Maybe it's time for us to surface and call it a day. We'll pick up back here tomorrow morning…"
He's doing it again… And I can't even argue this time, not with Bebe's condition… He looked at me sharply.
"Is that all right with you?" he asked, then adding sourly, "Senpai?"
Could have done without the sarcasm, but I'll take it for what it is.
"It's fine," I grumble.
The others slowly began fading away one by one, surfacing to wake until tomorrow. I looked at Bebe once more, and he looked back at me angrily before fading. Eventually, I was left standing alone. All I thought before… maybe… I'm doing this wrong. Bebe should always be my priority, meaning that leading this group should come second to his safety. If backing down and taking crap once in awhile means keeping him safe, that's what I'll have to do… I don't want him thinking poorly of me… thinking I can't lead or that I can't be dependable… but if I have to sacrifice what he thinks of my leadership for what he thinks of my dependability, then maybe that's how it'll have to be. If I can't keep up with Souji as a leader… If I can't protect the people in my group anymore…
Then maybe… I shouldn't be pretending I still can.
By the time we returned to the courtyard, it was far later in the day than we'd expected. We all went our separate ways without much conversation to exchange. After a late lunch, Bebe and I stopped by the hospital to visit Pierre and Marie, just to assure Marie was still holding up. Teddie was just on his way out before we went inside. He let us know Marie was still in the coma, but breathing at least. He kept his eyes on the ground.
"Sensei will always be my sensei…" he said, "But you're my sensei too, Tetsuya… I know you want to help Marie as much as I do… Even if you and Sensei fight again, I'll still be your bear."
He left without waiting for me to say anything else. Admittedly, it was sort of nice knowing that someone didn't hate me for what happened earlier. Bebe and I stepped inside Marie's room, only to find that Pierre was still in the room with her, his body slumped over the side of the bed as he slept with his hand holding onto his sister's lightly. Someone had left a blanket draped over his shoulders. With neither of them awake, we decided not to stay long.
I stepped out into the hallway again and stopped in the middle, listening for Bebe's footsteps behind mine.
"What were you zinking…?"
I turned around, realizing Bebe had stopped much further behind. He looked at me, less angry than before but definitely still disappointed.
"You were doing fine, Tetsuya… you didn't 'ave to attack Souji-kun like zat…"
"In case you didn't notice, he attacked me first," I said indignantly, "I had to fight back to keep both of us from getting hurt."
"'E didn't do zat out of nowhere, Tetsuya," Bebe said sternly, "Don't treat me like I'm stupid. I know you can be 'arsh wiz your words. And even when 'e stopped, you 'ad to jab again. Zat's not ze Tetsuya I know… I expected better from you…"
Great, now I'm making him feel like I think he's stupid. Can't do anything right today… Maybe I should just shut up… I looked away again, avoiding anything else that might get me in trouble. He's doing that thing again, just like before. At a time he should be yelling at me, but he's acting so damn calm about it… I heard him sigh and his footsteps approached me slowly. His arms wrapped around me from behind and his chin rested on my shoulder affectionately. …wasn't he just scolding me…?
"Onegaishimasu… please… don't put so much pressure on yourself… You always push yourself so 'ard… I don't like to see you 'urt… Eet's okay to make mistakes…" he said.
"I could have gotten you and Yukari killed today, Bebe… Some mistakes aren't forgivable for making…" I told him.
"But we're fine, Tetsuya…" he said, "You made sure of zat… Even zough I didn't need ze 'elp… You protected us… I know being wrong bozered you, but eet doesn't make you a bad leader… Souji-kun 'ad 'is share of faults, too. Neizer of you were at your best today… everyone 'as bad days…"
Bad day… more like a bad week. Ever since all this started, I haven't been the leader I used to be. I constantly find myself hindered more often, and when Bebe's in danger… Back in the days of SEES, Bebe was my amplifier. He made me fight harder, made me stronger. Now, I… I'm barely even strong at all. Can I even tell him something like… I might not be able to always keep him safe…? That I'm not the one he used to look up to…?
"I'm sorry, Bebe…"
Bebe lifted his head from my shoulder and looked at me.
My body let out the slightest tremble.
"…I won't let you down like that again…" I whispered.
Bebe's hold on me tightened a little.
"I know you won't, mon chéri…" he whispered back, "Just zink of Yukari-sama… She can't summon 'er Persona right now… but… zat doesn't mean she never will again. Eet will come back in time… And no matter what, she's still fighting wiz us."
I looked back at him.
"I'm still fighting too," I promised, "No matter what it takes, I want to make sure we get Marie out of there as soon as possible. You didn't give up on Ivon, and I'm not giving up on her… I'm not giving up on any of you…"
A smile spread across his lips.
"Zere 'e eez…" he said quietly, "Zat's ze Tetsuya I fell in love wiz…"