Chapter 7: Corruption
My eyes were heavy like lead when I managed to drag myself out from under my covers. It felt like I'd been hit by a mack truck and left on the side of the road... okay maybe that was an exaggeration, but I still felt like shit. When I looked at the clock I was surprised at the time.
Obviously my grandparents weren't against me sleeping in on the weekend, which was fine by me, I had never been an early riser on my days off, and it was more than likely not going to change.
Hmph; it looked like I was still in uniform from yesterday.
Damn I didn't even take a bath.
I must have hit the bed like a boulder.
"You have a young lady here to see you."
I stood and rushed to the bathroom, shoving the toothbrush in my mouth and squeezing some toothpaste in right after, "Ill bhe phrit ot..."
In retrospect I probably shouldn't have tried to talk to my grandma through the door with a toothbrush in my mouth, but it was already too late for regrets. I could hear my grandma laugh on the other side of the wall, "Alright dear, I'll let her know you'll be a few minutes, but she seems impatient, so you better hurry," she said in a teasing voice.
A large part of me was expecting to walk downstairs and see them going through embarrassing photo albums of the naked baby variety.
However, when I got down there in some fresh weekend clothes and the taste of mint on my breath...
Inoue was at the table in the kitchen sipping coffee, dressed in a pink sweater and jeans and chatting adamantly with my grandfather, "Yeah," she said softly, "We've only talked once, but I learned a lot; he's a great guy, you don't have to worry about him."
My grandpa nodded firmly, "That's good; my daughter says he's a good kid and they couldn't have asked for a better son, so I'd have to agree with her."
I clapped my hands together to gather their attention to me, "So... where's Grandma?"
"She went out shopping a second ago," said Grandpa.
Inoue giggled and took another sip of her coffee, "Do you always keep cute girls like me waiting for you?"
I was pretty sure I felt the blood shoot up from my legs and straight to my face.
'Well isn't she the confident one?' snarked Uzume.
"A... anyways, what's up Inoue-san?"
"Oh nothing..." she set the coffee down and tossed me a smile, "Just wondering what you were doing today."
"Um... studying... I guess?"
"Good." She stood from the table, still smiling, "You're coming with me to the shopping district then."
"I'm what now?"
She laughed, "C'mon Kurosawa, let's go."
She grabbed my wrist, waved goodbye to my grandfather, who was smirking like he just won something, and dragged me out the front door.
By the time we reached the ten yard mark down the road it was already the point of no return, so she let my wrist drop, "I hope I didn't seem to forward in there."
"No... I'm just not used to a girl... asking me out like that..."
Her face reddened, "Oh God is that what it looked like?"
"You were pretty flirty," I said with a laugh.
She sighed and brought a hand to her forehead, still blushing, "I mean... I didn't mean to... I just..."
I held up a hand, "Cool your jets, I didn't mind. It was... nice."
She blushed again, and we started walking down the street once more, "I just wanted to take you somewhere nice. I figured I'd say thanks for you saving my life and all."
I waved a hand, "Ah I didn't do much, it was all Uzume."
"My Persona, you have one too don't you?"
"Is that what she's called? I just know her name, Alathea. She's always so calm and collected, nothing like me."
"On the contrary she is you."
"Wait... what? No, there's no way. I'm always fumbling over myself and doing stupid stuff like you saw in there, I don't even get very good grades on tests. Ever since Alathea started talking to me I've felt a bit better about myself, but I could never be like her. Besides that... isn't your Persona a girl?"
I laughed and put a hand behind my head, "Um... yeah I guess there's that, but I don't think gender has anything to do with it."
"I see... I guess I should try to have a bit more faith in myself," she said with a soft smile.
The topic changed to a more lighthearted one on the way. We talked about school, Mr. Genji and his nazi like tendencies, and we talked about our favorite TV shows and books, and our favorite idols. By the time we reached the shopping district I hadn't even noticed we had. "This is the place," she said excitedly, spreading her arms out with a big grin on her face, "Jin's Pizza. It's a mom and pop pizza place, and it has the GREATEST pepperoni pizza you have ever tasted."
"A pizza place in a small Japanese town like this? Isn't that a bit weird?"
"Apparently the owner took a trip to New York when he was younger and fell in love with everything to do with pizza. I think I spend at least half my allowance at this place; I have to do extra club time just to keep up with all the calories. If you're in the mood for something normal like a beef bowl or takoyaki there's a place further down the street."
"No... no I like this, besides, I've never had pizza like this before."
She turned to me with wide eyes, "We must remedy this!"
I laughed, "Lead the way Ojou-san."
"Only of pizza."
I grinned, "Of pizza huh? You're a pretty strange girl you know that?"
She laughed, "Believe me that's not the first time I've heard that, and I don't think it'll be the last."
And I felt like I was floating in mid air.
Thou art I... and I am thou...
Thou hast established a new bond.
Thou shalt receive our blessing when creating a Persona of the Lovers Arcana.
"Did you hear that?" I asked softly when the moment had passed.
"Hear what?" she tilted her head.
"Um... nothing." I smiled, "Let's head inside, I just woke up and I'm starving."
Monday came and went with no sign of Erica returning to school, but she had seemed just fine on our date so I was pretty sure she would show up Tuesday. My prediction was not off, as she showed up right as the morning bell had rung. She rushed to the seat directly to the left of me, which I hadn't noticed was empty before now until she was the one occupying it.
"Almost late to home room on your first day back, tsk tsk tsk."
She grinned at me, "I was kidnapped, what is big mean old Genji gonna do?"
"Give you detention and make you clean the basketball court," I said, grinning right back.
"Yeah, he probably doesn't care that my life was in danger, huh? It wouldn't be surprising."
Oddly... Shinji was absent today.
Just as the bell rang for lunch I turned to Erica, "Hang on Inoue, I'm gonna ask Mr. Genji something real quick."
"You better catch him before he goes to the faculty office and downs a gallon of coffee."
I nodded, "Gotcha, be right back."
I was down the hallway and on the first floor, right behind Genji, in under a minute, "Excuse me, sir? Mr. Genji?"
He stopped in his tracks and turned on me as we passed the entrance and the shoe lockers, "Yes? What is it Kurosawa?"
"Um... I was wondering what was up with Shinji? Did he call in sick today?"
Genji frowned, "No, he's playing hooky it seems. He finds it difficult in class sometimes but I didn't expect him to take it this far, I'm disappointed, I thought more of him."
Hmmm... Genji seemed like a hardass, but I guess he really did care for his students, "I don't think he's skipping sir, I'm actually kind of worried about him, that's why we're talking right now. Do you know if you can get a hold of his parents?"
Genji shook his head, "Didn't he tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"It's not my right to say..."
"Please sir, I'll do what I can to help find him, I just have a weird feeling."
'Somethings wrong with this...' mumbled Uzume, 'Something is very wrong.'
"His parents are gone Kurosawa, if you want the details ask him. He's living with his aunt, God knows the woman should be home more often."
'He lied to us,' said Uzume, 'Why did he lie to us before... about his mom being on night shift and... and cooking breakfast?'
I must have been freaking a little because I had yet to hear Uzume this panicked, 'Calm down Uzume, I'm sure he's fine.'
'I hope we're just being paranoid Kei.'
"I've already said too much, but he lives just at the edge of the shopping district, within a stone's throw of the Yuku grocery store. If you find out he's missing call the police and then call me." He pulled a card from his shirt pocket and put it in my hands, "That kid's as bright as you are and I don't want anything happening to him."
I bowed deeply, "Thank you..."
"I didn't tell you anything," he said, resuming his walk to the faculty office.
"Are you sure about this?"
Erica and I were walking through the shopping district when she asked me this. I tried not to sound too paranoid when I answered her, "No, but Mr. Genji said Shinji had never skipped before now, and he didn't call in sick either. I just have a bad feeling, but maybe it's nothing."
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, "Well... I mean obviously Mr. Genji was worried too or he wouldn't have told you what he did. That only makes me more worried, what if what happened to me has something to do with this? What if he got spirited away like I did?"
"We don't know anything yet Inoue; it's not good to jump to conclusions."
"I'm not jumping to conclusions... you're thinking the same thing aren't you?"
I stopped walking and sighed, "Look... that doesn't matter. It's just a feeling and for all we know he could be fine."
Just as Genji had said; Shinji's home was at the far end of the shopping district, and it didn't look like much. It was attached to several others similar houses, some larger and some smaller. When I rang the doorbell I heard several loud noises and what sounded like someone rushing downstairs. The door slid open and I was greeted by the sight of a haggard woman who looked to be in her thirties. Her hair was a complete mess and looked like it had a coat of grease, and her face wasn't fairing much better. When she spoke I noticed she was missing a tooth, "That brat ain't here, he's prolly at the mall or some shit."
She tried to shut the door in my face, but I reached out and stopped it from closing, "Listen," I said hesitantly. I didn't bother speaking politely, as she obviously didn't care about things like that... or her own nephew it seemed. "We think your nephew might be missing."
"So call the police, doesn't got anything to do with me."
Erica stepped forward, glaring, "But you're his guardian aren't you? You're his aunt and you don't even care that he could be missing?"
"That kid is more trouble than he's worth, and you are too."
I could almost hear Erica's teeth grinding into each other, "You bitch! He could be missing! What the hell is wrong with you?"
The woman frowned, "Who the hell are you blondie? You from America? It isn't like over there, you can't just creep up in your neighbor's business."
"You're not my neighbor and I wouldn't want you to be! And it is my business, Shinji is Kurosawa-kun's friend!"
"He likes to hang around the mall like I said, why don't you ask there?"
The door slid shut.
Erica looked like she was about to explode, "You're disgusting!"
I put a hand on her shoulder, "Take a deep breath, she's not worth it and we only came here for Shinji."
'This isn't right,' mumbled Uzume.
'No... it's not.'
I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose, "Now we know for sure that he's missing."
"But what about the mall? We can ask there, right?"
"Listen Inoue-san, he didn't call in sick, Mr. Genji said he doesn't play hookey, and I know he comes this way after school. Even if they hate each other Shinji goes home to his aunt every day; he doesn't just hang at the mall the entire time. If what happened to you is happening to him right now then we need to find him as soon as possible... I'm going to need your help on this."
"Wha... my help? But you're the one that fought that thing, and I've only TALKED to Alathea, and... and..."
"Inoue this is extremely important. I haven't known Shinji long, and I obviously don't know him that well, he even lied to me about his mom, but that doesn't matter; he's a good guy and I want to do everything in my power to help him. I can't do it alone."
"I don't even know if I can fight something like that..." she brought a hand to her chest, "I've never even been in a fight at school or anything like that; I wouldn't know what to do."
"I think that whatever is happening at midnight in this town has something to do with these disappearances, that rain... everything... it's all happening for a reason. Do you know who got kidnapped before you?"
"I heard his name a couple of times but I never remembered it," she mumbled.
"Alright... I want you to meet me here... in front of Shinji's house a few minutes before midnight, you got that?"
She nodded softly, "Alright."
"It should start raining when the clock hits twelve, and then we'll be able to find Shinji."
"I hope you're right..."
I couldn't concentrate on having a normal conversation with my grandparents over dinner, and I definately couldn't get any homework done that night, so I simply ate and waited for the appointed time. I needed a TV in my room; it would help distract me whenever crap like this happened, and it would be a welcome addition to the almost bare desk I had been supplied with.
I snuck out through the window after grabbing my bag; it was easy enough to climb down and jump a few feet with the awning above the front door of the house.
I walked slowly, but with purpose, towards the shopping distract and Shinji's house, hoping that Erica would be there waiting for me.
"Did you wait long?"
"No, I just got here."
I smirked and she tucked some hair behind her ear, blushing a little bit, "Have you talked to Alathea?"
She nodded, "Yeah, I just hope I'm ready for this. It's your fault I'm in this situation you know."
"No thanks for the fact that your standing here?"
She pouted, "That's not fair."
"Oh it's perfectly fair," I said with a laugh.
'Stop flirting and pay attention; it's almost midnight.'
'I really wish you had a mute button.'
'Too bad for you Kei.'
As if on cue everything froze...
And then the rain started.
The lights on the street went out one by one, followed closely by any lights inside of the buildings that lined the street. All that was left was the rain and this strange, grey world.
Not a second in and we were already soaked.
Erica shivered, bringing her arms close. Her small jacket obviously wasn't helping. "You cold?"
"Let's go inside."
She nodded and followed me into the house.
I hadn't noticed when Shinji's aunt answered the door, but the place was a complete and utter mess. Beer bottles lay strewn about on the ground, along with fast food bags and candy wrappers. The kitchen extending out from the left of the living room smelled like something had been left to rot in it.
"Alright," I said, letting my bag drop by the front door and unzipping it.
"Defense..." I said simply. I pulled two large aluminum baseball bats from the bag and handed one to her.
"Do you play baseball?"
"I love baseball, you should join the club, they have a team and they play other schools and everything."
I laughed, "Inoue, now's really not the time."
"Oh, sorry," she said, nervously smiling... "I babble when I get nervous."
I smirked, "I can tell, let's look for Shinji."
She gripped her bat tightly and nodded firmly, "You got it."
First we searched the living room, which was the most disgusting part of the house right behind the kitchen; it smelled of stale alcohol and rotten pizza. "Shinji? You here man?"
Erica frowned, "I hope he's alright."
I waded my way through the trash, freezing in my tracks when I heard drunken laughter.
"Who's the kid?"
It was a male's voice... it seemed like it was coming from everywhere...
"Hahaha, don't worry 'bout him; he's just some pain in the ass I gotta deal with."
Erica looked around, gripping her bat until her knuckles were white and brandishing it in front of herself, "That's his aunt's voice," she whispered.
I tried to ignore the voices... "Shinji! Where are you?"
"I thought I told you brat..."
Her voice seemed to be getting closer...
"SHINJI AIN'T HERE!"
'Look out!' shouted Uzume.
Erica tackled me out of the way just as the world started crumbling around us. I tried to look over her head on the ground, and I could feel the rain pelt me in the eyes.
We were once more on that blank street... under that one lamp.
My hands felt empty.
"Kurosawa-kun! Are you alright?" Erica pushed herself off me.
I nodded, "Y... yeah, you seen my bat?"
I heard a clatter on the ground next to me as my bat landed.
I looked at where it came from.
"Take your stupid fuckin' bat you piece o' crap!"
I picked it up with my left hand and stood, taking position next to Erica. A few yards away from us was Shinji's aunt, stumbling around with a bottle of Sake grasped tightly in her right hand.
"Now get outta my house!"
Lightning struck in the distance...
It took a few seconds for the sound to reach my ears.
"I can feel this shit!" She held the Sake bottle high above her head, "It's festerin', like a... like a corruption! Ever since that idiot kid moved in it's been there. All he does is complain about how much I drink. I popped him a few times and that didn't solve it, so I jus' fuckin' ignore him now..."
"You monster!" shouted Erica.
I glared, "You aren't being influenced by the Shadows at all, you gave into them!" My grip tightened on the bat, "It's your fault the shadows took Shinji!"
'You are alone...'
"He felt like he was backed into a corner... the shadows came for him! Why would you do that to your own nephew?"
"Good riddansh I say, I won't miss 'im!"
'Kei... let me out...'
The lightning struck close enough to flash this time... and everything went to hell...
Shinji's aunt was gone, replaced by a huge mass of black. It had arms sharpened into what appeared to be swords...
The Sake bottle fell to the ground...
It had four legs, and the mask it wore was blue, and held an insane grin.
"THAT BRAT CAN ROT FOR ALL I CARE!"
I gritted my teeth...
I took a deep breath.
Erica looked at me, "What do we do Kurosawa-kun?"
The reality around us cracked, and another lightning strike made the ground under my feet shake with the force. I heard her katana unsheath, and she was at my side. "Follow my movements," she said softly, "And we can win this..."
I nodded, "We have to do this... we have to find Shinji."
Erica's eyes widened, "Is that... Uzume?"
Uzume smiled, "Nice to meet you Erica-chan."
Erica blinked, "Um..."
We charged before she could say anything in response. The monster was as dark as night, as it had been last time. As it struck for us I could hear its blade arm cut through the air. Uzume and I ducked the first strike, separating in tandem to get on the Shadow's flank.
It roared in fury when it realized its blade had not cut flesh... the sound caused my ears to ring...
I was fast... faster than I thought I was...
I heard Uzume's voice, 'This is your power,' she said softly, 'The power of Persona.'
The creature screeched, and I noticed that Uzume had cut it. I ducked another swing from it and planted my feet firmly, jumping into the air. I swung without thinking and the bat made contact.
It was like hitting a thick batch of dough on the kitchen counter. I heard a splat and the creature let out another ear splitting yell. I saw its severed blade arm fall to the ground, and when I landed I realized that my hands were numb and my bat was covered in black goo.
How hard did I hit that thing?
I didn't have time to think...
"Look out!" shouted Erica.
I felt it before I saw it.
I coughed and felt something warm come out of my throat.
"KEI!" shouted Uzume.
Erica ran to me as I fell to the ground, the shadowy needle still impaled into my stomach...
The damn thing had fired off projectiles.
Erica was by my side in an instant, cradling my head, "Oh God... Keiichi..."
"You... called me Keiichi..."
"AW... IS IT ALREADY OVER? TOO BAD, I WAS IN THE MOOD!"
Uzume moved just as the creature had struck for us...
Her katana blocked the otherwise lethal blow, fire spread across the blade, and the creature screamed, pulling back as the flame attempted to consume its remaining arm.
It was a moment before I realized how bad I was bleeding.
Uzume turned her head, giving me a meaningful look.
I sat up, causing Erica to nearly jump out of her skin, "I'm not dead yet," I grumbled, holding a hand to my stomach and struggling to stand, "As long as I still have Uzume... I can fight this fuckin' thing..." I gritted my teeth and grasped the Shadow's needle in my torso.
"HAHAHA, HOW AMUSING, YOU THINK YOU CAN STILL FIGHT!"
"Erica... I need your help..."
Erica stood... she looked like she was about to cry...
"I need your help to beat this thing..."
"But your wound..."
The monster charged us...
We didn't have time to be debating on her ability to fight...
"Alathea! Please help me!"
The world shattered once more, and lightning struck in the distance.
Alathea stood by Erica, tome in hand.
With no hesitation she walked briskly to me and held out her hands to my stomach. She smiled warmly, and I felt something... when I looked down I saw the needle and my wound melting away, "What the..." I knew she wanted to help, but I wasn't expecting something like that...
By the time I looked back up Alathea was already standing by Uzume, facing down the monster.
I leaned down and picked my bat back up...
"This is about to get ugly," I muttered.