Author's Notes: Well, this is a first for me. I've been reading fanfics for years, and have had ideas for them for at least that long, but this little number's been bouncing around in my head for a while, and so I'll put it down and see where it goes. For story clarity, this takes place after the good ending, picking up from the scene where the protagonist (Souji Seta from this point on) is looking at the photo.
Disclaimer: I own neither Persona 4 nor any of the characters of said game, nor am I making any money from this work. I simply wish to explore the demented realms of my own mind with them. Besides, if I did own Persona, I'd nail down when the next installment is coming out and for which platform.
The clicking and clacking of the train on its rails pulled at his awareness, trying with the steady rocking, back and forth, to lull him to sleep. Despite having not moved from his seat in more than an hour, nor even looked up from the photos in at least as long, sleep was a distant concern. Instead he was awake and aware, filled with the memories of the past year, going over them with his mind's eye. Back and forth the memories went, speeding up and slowing down, some clear, some dim, like a movie theatre projector with a broken reel.
His cell phone chirped sharply, breaking his reverie for a moment. A text message. After a glance at the screen and a frown, he put it back in his pocket. Enough time for that later.
He fell back into his memories, tying them and the emotions they evoked with the faces on the picture. Yosuke and his sharp wit and observations, one closed eye and knowing grin. Souji couldn't help smiling in return, though the act made his head and jaw ache for a moment. Chie's smile and grit, which had faced her deepest fears, faced herself, and come through the other side the stronger for it. Their training sessions, more than one of which ended with him bruised and getting reacquainted with his humility, reminded him of the conversation they'd had on the nature of strength, and how she was determined to use hers. Kanji, who towered over all of them both in body and in confidence now, radiated a self-assurance and pride that'd been missing when Souji first met him. He was the first person Souji'd ever seen chase cops off with the threat of mending their uniforms, and the impromptu, though beautifully crafted, puppet show that followed was hardly something Souji could forget. Ever.
Rise's effervescent laugh rang in his ears from the picture, reminding him of the shopping trips and regular mobs of fans they'd encountered, some which included immediate autograph signings, others resulting in flight to the train. She'd made him promise to text her with his new address in Kofu, since she'd be near Tokyo and "couldn't stand being separated from Sempai and the others for that long." In a bid to keep the tears his departure had inspired to a minimum, he made the promise without a second thought. Not that she needed to twist his arm on the matter, of course, but he didn't want the others thinking he was easy.
Teddie's enthusiasm was something Souji hardly needed a photo to remember. Indeed, between the awful bear puns, the knee-jerk explanations of where the bear had come from on the field trip to Tatsumi Port Island, and the excursion to the bar that had left him blushing every time he saw Yukiko for weeks, the bear would be one of the harder ones to forget from Inaba, and that was if he never saw him again. Knowing Teddie, there was no worry of that. Naoto's level stare made him chuckle, recalling how expressive the staid and calm detective became when the puzzles from her grandfather's secretary had stumped her. For someone who never spoke until she was ready, Souji always felt like she was picking up more from him with a simple answer than if he'd let his guarded tongue loose. Though disconcerting, he found her ability to read him a strange comfort, all the more so when they became friends. Even when her eyes and quirky mouth told him he was full of shit, and she wasn't buying it for a moment when he gave watered-down answers to her questions about his family life and past, words she never would have said, never needed to say, there was an ease between them that told him she'd respect his reticence. That, she'd taught him, was the nature of being friends.
Finally Yukiko's calm gaze and classical beauty made him close his eyes as the memories, already clear as life, burned even brighter. Their shared kiss during the festival at Tatsuhime Shrine, their stolen evening walks and talks in the months leading up to his departure, and the calm she brought to his mind, burdened with leadership and the questions of their investigation, all pulled at him, trying to remind him that he was now moving further and further away from her. He quashed the thoughts ruthlessly. Like the text message, they could wait.
The other photos spread out on his hands. Though not part of the group, and not forged of the same links that connected the investigation team, his other friends were no less important to him. Kou and Daisuke's photo was next, taken by one of the basketball team members. The pair had shown Souji the marvel of the world, one of the six redeeming edifices of Inaba, known to everyone else as the Aiya! Restaurant. With how little fast food Souji ate before moving to Inaba, testing the limits of the menu had been an eye-opening experience, but the casual conversations the trio'd had over the various bounties of the kitchen staff, at tables, booths, or stools at the counter, fed a part of Souji that he didn't know he'd been missing. After the matter of Kou's birth and place in his family had been resolved, they'd set out to help Daisuke with his "girl troubles", which taught Souji even more about peer relationships than he ever thought he'd be subjected to. That said, the pair had been even more adamant about getting his contact info than Rise, and Souji was expecting regular phone calls starting the day after he got to Kofu.
Ayane and her trombone, taller than her in the picture taken by the Samegawa, made him think of the instrument in his bags, stowed away above him. Her quiet determination and the stubborn set to her lips was something he'd grown used to seeing, especially after she was passed over for the school concert. No longer content to simply accept her place in the band, she'd set to bending the instrument to her will. Some of the scenes only he and the fish were privy to, her stubborn resolve and sheer obstinance when the instrument refused to cooperate had made his brows hit his bangs more than once. Her ticket was still in his wallet, and his parting words to her, besides the invitation to text him, was that he'd hold her to that promise. The blush had been expected, but the steely grit in her eyes and the determined smile told him he had nothing to worry about.
Photos of Ai and Naoki complimented their well-wishes from the train station. The open happiness in Ai's smile reminded him that he wasn't the only person who'd changed over time, nor the only one who'd beaten the odds of his upbringing. She'd flirted lightly with him, more to see which of the girls among the investigation team would react the most, but their little secret was how it was all out of fun. Keeping his lady's name a secret, he'd gone to her for advice on a woman's mind and perspective when he felt like he'd hit a wall. Once they'd gotten past her insistence on solutions that involved multi-million-yen credit cards and portions of his life savings, she'd been an able and ready source of advice. Some of it had to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, and he'd always had to be careful about never quite disclosing who he was asking for advice for, but she'd told him to keep in touch so he'd have ready fashion advice, since he clearly "had no taste of his own."
Naoki, still set on helping his family's store, had made the comment more than once that he'd probably be too busy beating Junes' sales records to chat much, but left the option open for texting. He also hadn't been able to resist the dig that he'd gladly offer Souji business tips when he came back, promising a new business centre in Inaba. Beneath the glum passivity and part-of-the-wallpaper mask, Naoki surprised Souji with a sharp wit that rivalled Yosuke and Kou. Though his friend bordered on cocky, Souji looked forward to seeing how his friend made his dream a reality. He'd caught Naoki off guard with that, but, like with the others, the promise of something grand glittered in Naoki's eyes. Also, he caught a few dry remarks between Naoki and Yosuke in the last days before his departure. He had no idea where, if anywhere, it would go, but he hoped for the best.
After the photos came the letters. Two that had been passed on from the daycare centre, one from Yuuta and the other from an Eri Minami. The letter from Yuuta had been about what he'd expected, starting with thanks to the "old grownup", and ending with a long description of the most recent Featherman X episodes. Eri's had been shorter and much more to the point, thanking him for opening her eyes and saying what she needed to hear instead of just agreeing with her. The two were evidently still working toward being a family, and they both echoed a note of hope for the future. Shu's farewell letter carried a similar note to it, though it ended with a request that Souji remain his tutor in the next school year, even over the long distance. The request was buried in the various reports of his adventures with the exchange student, which brought a smile to Souji's lips, but he did promise himself to keep the boy in mind.
Sayoko hadn't left a letter, nor sent one from Africa, but Souji hoped for the best nonetheless. He palmed her ID card and shuffled it in with the rest of his momentos, keeping his mind from wandering down those hallways and hospital rooms, and simply wishing her well. Hisano had sent a letter from where she'd moved, regaling him with tales of her children and how much she realized she'd missed by staying in Inaba. That letter always brought a surge of happiness with it, no matter how often he read it. Death's Lady had found a reason to live. The Fox hadn't sent a letter either, though after the renovations to the shrine, Souji was surprised it hadn't found a way around not having fingers or thumbs. He did, however, receive a postcard from the local souvenir shop, on which was the picture of a large red fox wearing a new red bandana. Yesterday he'd gone to visit the enigmatic shrine animal, only for him to not show up. Souji did find the old red bandana resting on the shrine steps, however, and a leaf for which the fox was so well known among the investigation team resting atop it. The bandana was in his bag, as was the velvet key. That thought brought him Margaret, and a half-smile crept across his face. He'd heard of women learning things through strange means, but he'd never expected to show himself through his Personas in that manner. He still didn't understand what appealed to her so much, but she'd seemed more than satisfied. And as for her parting gift, well… Souji grinned for a moment. Thieving older women indeed.
The train's chime interrupted his reminiscing. 'Passengers departing at Kofu Station, please have your bags and possessions ready. We accept no liability for misplaced or lost effects. I repeat...'
Souji glanced out the window, surprised by how much time and distance his memories had taken up. The train just passed Hokuto, and the urban sprawl of Yamanashi Prefecture's Kofu appeared when the train took a turn, spreading out like modern art block models and grey canvas sheets. Despite only having been there a year, Souji came to expect the vibrant greens and yellows of Inaba over each hill. Even the town centre and cement roads seemed clearer from the top of the hill. Kofu, where he'd be living until he finished high school, was limned in hazy grey soot and smog, with the buildings looking like ordered family gravestones while the parks, breaks in grey few and far between, were faded to the hue of antifreeze. Finally putting the letters and photos away, he pulled his phone from his pocket and glanced at the message on the screen. Directions. An address.
The desk clerk has the key, give him your name. Room 1736. We'll see you at the end of the week. Mom.
The apartment complex looked like it'd been plucked from Utsunomiya or Chiba and dropped from the sky into the backyard Tokyo suburb, a carbon copy of every other residence he'd lived in for as long as he could remember. Off the main streets to keep the noise down, cleaned and whitewashed walls, the same rows of trees in front near the office and walkway, even the bike racks were where he expected them to be. Large and spacious on the outside, the entire structure held itself separate from the bustle of the people on the streets and sidewalks. To Souji, it had the same air of emotional distance, pomp, pretention, and familial stagnation he'd gotten so used to, more effective at warding away people than a brick wall and iron gate. Before Inaba, it was bearable from lack of variety. Now it was suffocating. The revulsion weighed down his every step while the thought of staying here for at least a year choked his thoughts and spawned a headache.
The desk clerk had, as the instructions said, been accommodating enough to show him the door and hand over the key after learning his name. Souji had nodded politely in thanks, though the dull look and duller "welcome home sir" echoed the same heavy emptiness of the complex. When Souji entered the residence, the first thing that struck him, besides the door swinging shut like a prison grate, was the sterility of it. There was furniture and cooking appliances, a fridge and TV and tables, high and low. The blinds looked recently cleaned, and the entire place smelled like a hospital.
Nanako's weakened frame covered with blankets and machines, doctors and nurses bustling around her.
The smothering guilt, knowing the TV world had taken an innocent because of him.
Dojima's haunted eyes, begging for an answer. Yukiko's arms on his shoulders. Her scent. "It's not your fault."
Laboured breathing. Weak voice. "Big... Bro... I'm scared..."
Souji shook his head sharply, the memories nearly knocking him over. He tossed his keys to the nearby counter, moving to his room by memory. He'd never set foot in this place, but his room was the last one on the right. Always had been, and he'd never known it to change. The room itself was as bare as an empty tomb. A large window, desk and chair, futon, small couch, and low table were spread out before him, reminiscent of his room in Inaba. Only this wasn't home.
Contrary to what the clerk said, Souji didn't view this apartment, with its windows and polished counters and concrete walls as a home. It was a place to cook, eat, study, sleep, and encounter his parents when they finally arrived, but there wasn't a trace of the family that dwelled within. No pictures adorned the walls or tables, all the cutlery and plates were box sets, the blankets came from packaged catalogues, and the sheer sterility of the place struck an old, familiar cord. This was the house he'd always known, no matter its location, the people who dwelled within bound together by common blood or marriage bond. Never a place of laughter, parties, or emotions.
No, this wasn't home, Souji knew. Home was Inaba with its small, homey quarters, the smell of Nanako's breakfast and Dojima's coffee, the door pad with all its shoes when the team got together, no matter the reason. Home was the gazebo by the Samegawa and the table on the hill overlooking town, where all the colours felt brighter and clearer no matter the time or season. Home was tea and flower-print kimonos, the feeling of age and tradition, pale skin, dark eyes, and coal-black hair.
His pre-Inaba life beckoned with spectral hands, taunting his determination and offering the promise of dull, sedated mediocrity. "Not this time," Souji promised himself. "Not now, not ever."