Post-game, True Ending, Main Character POV. Every power has its drawbacks. Without the opportunity to use it, having infinite possibilities is not always a gift.
The train rumbles like a car on a never-ending road. In the other compartments, the fans are running full blast. In yours, they're on strike. Temperatures that should have been tolerable become stifling. Sunlight wanders inside and gets trapped; outside, it's March, but inside it's July. You are smothering in heat, your body shutting down as it chooses to conserve energy in any way possible.
The photo almost slips out of your hand as your awareness starts to flag. Its glossy surface has warmed to your skin. You can barely feel it pinched between your fingers. In the back of your mind, the noise of your Personas becomes a murmur, running counterpoint to train vibrations.
Behind you on the tracks, Inaba dwindles away.
When you close your eyes, you do not dream.
Your parents greet you awkwardly upon your arrival, but with honest warmth. You smile and bow. Your father offers to take your luggage. Your mother steps forward, touches your hair. You've grown.
Your parents don't know how to deal with you, but it's mutual: they're gone more often than they're around, and there's never been time for casual family outings. In the course of your life, your parents fit on the outskirts. They're cool-headed examples that you've learned to emulate, a formality that you've always appreciated for their reliability in being there, filling out required paperwork and paying for your food and tuition. They let you grow up silent and independent. You've never begrudged them for that freedom.
You've lived by yourself more than you've spent time together. You've moved from year to year. At first it was hard, being the new guy; now it's normal. You've learned to appreciate what mobility has taught you. Learning the ins and outs of a neighborhood isn't useful when you abandon it six months later, but learning the types of people that inhabit it is. Traveling has severed you from your surroundings; you stopped craving roots long ago. Now you have a bad habit of not setting them down. That made it easy to leave Inaba.
It should have made it easy to leave everything that happened to you in Inaba behind.
You're third year now, 3-A. You should be thinking about college; you should be thinking about what you want to become when you're older. People talk up a storm to you about what do you want to be, who do you see yourself as in the future, and when you open your mouth, you make all the usual sounds. A doctor, a lawyer. Business class.
Your parents don't have all your possessions. Some went into storage, others had to be discarded or sold to the weekend thrift markets. Another lesson: the only things you can count on are the ones that fit in your suitcases, because once something's out of your immediate reach, you can never assume it'll come back to you. Your mother immediately apologizes for needing to replace everything, and you say you don't mind. It's standard. You're used to losing things, to starting over.
That's what you tell yourself as you lie in bed that night, turning the photograph back and forth in your fingers, watching the moonlight shine grey over glossy faces.
One of the first purchases you ask for is a television. It's not huge - nothing widescreen or fancy, but it's larger than a normal set. You spend all afternoon debating between models, trying not to look like you're trying to estimate how the diagonals could fit around your shoulders if you hunched and twisted just right.
The television is the sole luxury you beg for. Everything else is practical: clothes, towels, sheets, school notebooks. You blame your craving on living in Inaba for months with a murderer on the streets; you need your news reports. Your parents - bemused by the atypical request - accede.
When they drop off the boxes and bags to your room, you open one with the television first. The power cord flips like a worm as you unspool it, hurrying to plug it into the nearest socket. When you reach towards the screen, your breath catches in your chest - but the surface of the glass ripples obediently when you touch it, like dabbling at a dish of black oil.
In the back of your mind, your Personas stir. You grit your teeth, trying not to think abut the million horror movies Chie made you watch where people end up with the flesh stripped off their bones while doing the exact same thing you're doing now. Then you plunge your hand in the rest of the way.
It's exactly like Inaba. Your fingers feel like they're waving around in thin air, except for the tingle that's running over your skin, like the tickle that comes from standing too close to power lines on a humid day. Electrical current teases your bones. Your Personas prickle the inside of your skull.
If Teddie was on the other side - if Teddie was there to help you - you might be able to travel to Inaba and back in a weekend. In a night. You could see your friends anytime you wanted. You could go anywhere.
But Teddie doesn't close his furry paw around your wrist, and your skin does nothing but itch, and you withdraw your hand eventually.
Next week, you tempt fate again.
Can you find me? you ask into the phone, with one arm plunged into the television up to your elbow. You try to ignore the static playing in the background. The black and white noise on the screen is nothing compared to the whispers caged inside your body. Beckoned by the TV, your Personas swim closer to your skin, bobbing to the surface like fish attracted to a lone light. Each one is poised, ready to be called upon. With no enemy in sight, they react to your uncertainties instead: a hundred instincts warring together, impulses of fight and flight racking up like opposing stones on a balancing scale. You're wedged between them, impatient to act.
"No," Naoto says. Her voice crackles on the line. "Teddie says you're too far away."
Rise doesn't have much more luck. She apologizes over the phone, and then she calls you up again the next day in the middle of classes. In her message, all the bounciness is absent; the Risette is gone, replaced by the serious Rise she shows to only a few. "Sorry," she says, over and over, filling up the expectant emptiness of your voicemail. "I know you - I should know you well enough to find you, but you're not close enough. I'm sorry Senpai. I'm sorry, you're just not - "
You turn off your phone halfway through her litany and shove it deep in your pocket.
Your Personas flex like air pressure in your ears, responding to your environment - some attracted to conflicts, others shying away. In Inaba, you learned how to live with them constantly hovering around. But it was different back when you had help, when you knew what the purpose was for having your strange talents. Now you have no direction. You searched out the truth, you solved the mystery, and now you're expected to simply get on with your life and pretend your Personas never existed.
In Inaba, there was a clear purpose for your self-discoveries. You knew when and why to pick one Persona over another. You had people to help guide you. There were strengths. There were weaknesses.
That night, you dig your phone out and toss it on the chair, unwilling to play Rise's message again and too tired to erase it. The television pulls at you, blank screen expectant. When you skim your fingers over the screen, you're tempted - tempted to go back inside the other world and summon them all, all your Personas, every single one of them you can find. They could all swarm together until they broke free and rose into the sky, golden-eyed Shadows unleashed with the magic words: You're not me.
You could disappear into the realm of humanity's unconscious, lost forever like a mythical hero fading away into legend. You could put on a mask, let your skin change colors, and let future generations summon you instead.
Lacking the Velvet Room, you have no means of keeping track of your Personas. The others didn't need assistance, but they only had one Persona to contend with, let alone over a dozen. Margaret always helped you before when you had problems, flipping pages in the book, or holding up cards from Igor's deck while you stared at the pictures until the fuzziness in your mind cleared, and you could find the illustrated face inside you. It's not that your Personas were somehow stored in printed format; the pages didn't contain them, simply recorded what you knew about each name, so that they wouldn't fade back into the tangle of your soul and make you search for them again.
If you lost track of a Persona, it didn't disappear into smoke. Once Igor helped you discover one, all you'd need was a reminder, like following string through a maze to find the creature holding the other end. The Velvet Room had revealed truths that were already waiting. Without the Velvet Room, those truths didn't go away.
A door was opened inside you. You can't shut it again.
You're not sure what happens now with other people who have Personas. For people like Chie and Kanji and the rest of your friends, they might simply become so used to that other presence that - conscious of it or not - they become one and the same, until their Personas end up dwindling to the same tiny voice that a conscience might serve. They accepted their Shadows, but you - you had to accept nothing in order to claim your power.
You try to write your own Compendium, using a clean school notebook that you hide between your manga. Not all your Personas like being labeled. They slide around, hide behind others whenever you reach for them. You flip through the pages of your notebook, remembering some Personas only when you see their names, using scribbled notes about their appearances as flimsy replacements for the illustrations of Igor's cards.
It seems to work for a time. Your confidence in this new method grows each day, until you're sorting through the index cards and turn over one you don't remember. Hitokotonushi, it reads, and you stare at the scribbled description until the memory fades back into place within your thoughts - but instead of relief, your stomach churns as you feel a sudden, nauseating sense of doubt.
The reason you couldn't find Hitokotonushi instantly might have been because that Persona never existed at all. You might have made up the name unconsciously, and it had all been a trick of the night, of your dreams, of hallucinations hatched in the gently bumping cushions of a velvet-clad car. Maybe Hitokotonushi isn't real. Maybe none of your Personas are, and you had only imagined them to be faces other than Izanagi. Maybe your friends had been humoring you all along, letting you pretend that your Personas existed, when in fact there had only been one.
You never really cared if you were delusional or not before. Crazy never came to mind. After all, how could you be, when there was a talking stuffed bear and soaring castles, and everyone seeing what you saw, everyone believing what you believed, and listening to what you said. You would close your eyes at night and Igor and Margaret would be there. You would call out names, and exotic powers would leap to obey. The door to the Velvet Room appeared to you and only you, and Igor floated cards through the air to lead you further and further into your own soul.
The more you think about these things - in your family's nice, normal apartment, with dinner regularly on the table in the form of local takeout - the more you wonder.
You used to be familiar with losing things, leaving things behind, things leaving you, but you can't turn a blind eye to it anymore. Your Personas traveled with you from Inaba, and even as they rode along, they became untamed.
Now there's no way to see them clearly, and no way to tell. The only proof that anything mysterious exists is the television screen - and the fact that you feel your Personas nearby, but you feel them all, always in motion like a crowd at a train station. The more you try to figure out how to control them, the more you lose control. Everyone's Personas were reflections of their Shadows. You have dozens of Shadows too, technically, because that's what Personas are: Shadows coaxed to perform on command. Two applications of the same power, weapon and threat.
Attracted by your distress, Parvati makes soft, perplexed noises inside your head, concerned reassurances that need no words to communicate. The emotion bleeds directly into your thoughts; you let it cover you over like syrup. When you've calmed down, you pick up the phone and ask a question.
"No," Yukiko replies. "Without the Shadows to fight... I mean, I know they're still there. But I don't need to see Amaterasu in order to know she's always with me. Don't you - aren't you the same way?"
The daily routine of school becomes something you welcome for once. Everyone's emotions are loud, blaring: you make it through each day remembering how you're expected to react, calling up socially appropriate responses to each shred of gossip that your new schoolmates heap upon you. It's a fresh battleground, even though there's no blood. You always were a loner, but now it's effortless to integrate yourself into the crowd. By the time the third month of classes rolls around, you have an entire phonebook loaded into your contacts, feeling Succubus and Alraune slide through your mind whenever you page down the list.
Everyone fits into their nice, neat categories: hopeful Stars, regal Empresses, studious Hierophants. Your Personas rise on cue to meet each person who talks to you, responding to small signals of body language and tone. Club members stammer hellos. Sport captains cajole you. Teachers call upon you expecting that you haven't done the reading, and you floor them every single time. It's easier - natural - to let your Personas prompt you, and you give in with a mental sigh of exhaustion, content to let them pay attention to things instead.
Everything's going so perfectly that you leave yourself running on autopilot one Wednesday, right on time to run into a third-year delinquent. Unlike Kanji, this one's really tied up in the biker gangs; you've been working on him for weeks, trying to get inside his bravado. Distracted, you don't realize you've almost walked into him until his startled yell echoes through the hall.
Other students turn, see you, and start whispering. Quickly, you grope through the Personas at the top of your mind, but none of them respond to him, and you don't have the time to dig deeper. You fumble, try not to think about if he'll notice that you're not reacting with your customary ease, about if he'll think that you were lying the last time you rattled off five jokes in a row that he laughed at without meaning to. Loki rises, suggests a darker kind of humor; Genbu is close behind, feeding you line after line of platitudes that you know will never work. You could use any one of them. The problem is, no single Persona is a perfect fit, and the ones who are hover just out of reach.
The third-year sneers, says something about how he knew you didn't have the balls to take him on.
You walk away.
Orthus roars silently inside you.
Try as you might, it seems like you're running on overdrive these days - overdrive only because everything's normal around you now, because you're not chasing monsters and murderers and television screens. You keep thinking about what to do next to maximize your effectiveness. Your mind is more restless than it ever has been before: restless and trapped and limited, a hundred forms of potential swarming inside your skin, like a piece of machinery that's been tuned to peak condition before being suddenly put aside. Now you can't shut it off. Some switch inside you is broken and won't get reset.
And you think this: Mayumi and Saki appeared on the television before Adachi put them in. It's a coincidence, but that's all it is. Adachi could just as easily have left them out, and someone else would have taken their places on the screen - or he could have thrown someone else in at random. Some things just happen by chance.
Some things don't have a reason.
And you keep trying to line things up, but it's over, like a movie that other people have turned off while you were in the middle of reciting lines - and you understand what Naoto feared. You understand being able to do something, but not having the opportunity: sitting on your hands and feeling your ability pace like a tiger.
The fall weather brings in fog. It's a thin mist, gone by mid-morning. Your Personas are tantalized by it; some of them are, at least, while the others yawn and nap longer, lazy in the cooling temperatures. Alice leaves the sensation of cold hands on the back of your neck; Nekomata giggles and scampers. Hariti and Ishtar shoo away the noise, whisper encouragements throughout the afternoon, while Thoth offers structured goals towards making sure the school principal trusts you, laying out plans and to-do lists.
On Saturday evening, your friends are out singing karaoke. You sit in your room, a blank page of your notebook in front of you, watching the sun go down while you don't trust yourself to write a single word. Is this what you're supposed to do now with your life, you wonder: use your Personas to say the right things to the right people, ruthlessly fitting in to whatever environment you find yourself?
Or are you supposed to forget about it all, and ignore what you've learned?
Now that you've tasted of power, you can't let it go. You can't pretend that you only have one way to react, that there's one way your true nature goes, that you're the same as everyone else who talks about being yourself when what you are is a person who can be anything and mean it. It's impossible. You're on overdrive. You can't stop.
Maybe this is your Shadow, revealed at last: ravenous, formless, insatiable for potential and unwilling to be reduced to just a single form. To return to the way things were, when you were a loner and didn't have a mug with your name on it in Dojima's cupboard. When you didn't tell people what they wanted to hear, because you had no involvement and no investment in their lives; it was all the same to you, the kindness and bluster and coyness and patience, all simply reactions to other people being so loud about what they wanted to hear. Now you're involved. Now you're involved in everything.
You stumble away from your desk, leaving the blinds at half-mast. The bed catches you as you sprawl onto it; your thoughts rampage onwards. Your Shadow could have always been the greed lurking inside you, wanting to have it all, wanting to use it all. Wanting each time you met someone to say what worked best, to respond how they wanted the most, the act itself defining you - and maybe it's why you keep acquiring things now, phone numbers, dates, people. You're no longer detached. You keep building connections.
The television squats like a brooding block on its cabinet. Outside, you can hear the steady roar of cars going past, their engines purring, gears shifting, machinery roaring into the night.
Accept, you think wildly, feeling your Personas snuffling around the edges of your mind. The lights from the nearby stores seep in through the window. The multicolored glow keeps the night from being a perfect black; the silhouettes around your furniture are shaped in dozens of different forms.
You spread your arms, feeling the bed cradle your weight, and let them in.