Author's Notes: No need for much preamble this time. I still don't own the IP, it still belongs to Atlus, etc etc etc. First some review responses and then some story, yes?

Ramix: Thanks for the review. The clash of wills between Izumi and Ryoko did make for some fun writing, and oddly enough, so did Izumi vs. Doujima. That second one was especially interesting to write since I don't have siblings, so if it felt like a proper clash between a brother and sister, then I'll take that as a compliment. And yes, Izumi's a sharp one, so she wouldn't miss the afterglow in our favourite couple. Enjoy the chapter!

Cyklos: Glad you liked the chapter! Yes, Teddie is going to be interesting (maybe he'll show up sooner? Or later? Who can tell?) with Izumi given just how much his explanations wouldn't make any sense. Nanako will handle things, though. I'm glad that you liked Yoshiro and Megumi, they are quite fun to write, and they'll still show up and help out where they can. Hope you enjoy the chapter!

Anime obsessed fan: I agree, the timing of the chapter was a bit odd given how little romance there was, but I'll just say that there was a grander plan in mind and run with it. The tension between the parents and Izumi and Doujima will be there for a while since these sorts of things will take time to iron out, and it's ultimately going to be Souji who resolves this little matter. As to when that happens and where it goes from here, that's the real question. Thanks for the review, and enjoy the chapter!

Theralion: Thanks for the review. I'll try to address your points as best I can. Nanako's less like her canon self because she's had some time to grow up and mature, and her being around people older than her, mixed with her upbringing requiring her to be self-sufficient, is going to make her sound older than she is. Also, she might have had a hard time opening up to Souji at first, but then she was crying for him not to leave by the end of one year. She's grown a lot since the game, and that's reflected in her personality. Doujima is a hypocrite for being angry at Izumi for doing the same thing to Souji as he did with Nanako. That's the point: Doujima sees how they both did the same thing with their kids, but Izumi didn't have the excuse of losing a spouse. It's uncomfortable to have the mirror held up in front of you, and that's part of the reason he's so hard on his sister. His logic isn't perfect, but it's very human, and that's what I was going for. The hostility between Izumi and the Amagis was mostly due to them wanting to assess what Izumi was made of, and the best was to test something is to see where the cracks are. Souji might be the one marrying Yukiko, but he's not in a vacuum, and if his parents are flaky or have problems that he'll bring into the marriage, then Ryoko and Katsu would want to know that. Naoto talking about the case is admitting it a bit easily, I agree, but what option is there? People know the murders happened, they know that Nanako and Doujima were in the hospital and that they had a connection to the person who confessed to the murders, so even if the team didn't come out and say they were responsible (who would believe them anyway?), there are enough threads that people are going to leap to conclusions, whether they are accurate or not. And while Naoto could have downplayed it, she couldn't have lied about it or skipped very much since Izumi was going to hear about this stuff anyway, plus she certainly wasn't expecting Izumi to come out of nowhere, nor for that information to pop up like it did. Naoto's sharp, but she's also human. Souji chose a university that was south of Tokyo because it's one of the best business schools in the country, so it's in line with his skills as well as his interests. And I tend to write chapters based on a sentiment or an idea. Cutting them in half for the sake of being shorter might work for smaller pieces, but then it's two or three chapters to get a point across and tie the overarching idea together, and given my bad release schedule, I don't think that would work very well. Glad you liked the chapter, and I hope you like this one!

greymouser: Thanks! There's a fair bit for Izumi to go through, but that photo and the emotions associated with it are pretty important. As to what she will learn from this point on, well, we'll see. Enjoy!

Zelenal: Obvious or not, I'm glad that you enjoyed some aspect of the chapter.

Guest (Feb 19): It truly is Izumi vs. the world, and that's what makes it so interesting. I'm confident that she can handle some hardship, so we'll see how she pulls a win out of this one. It's a tall order, but I think she can do it. Nanako is pretty precious, so it's hard to resist putting her in the chapter where I can, and I'm glad you liked Kanji and Naoto. They are a rather unique pairing, so I'm glad they came across all right. Enjoy the chapter!

Kyral: Wow, lots to unpack here. I guess I'll start from the beginning. Nanako is a ball of sunshine, I agree. I don't think there's anything that could really bring her down for long, and that she could subconsciously turn her section of the TV world (or the Metaverse, to use P5's terminology) into a piece of heaven speaks to how incorruptible she is. Izumi has a lot to catch up on in Inaba, and what started as a decision made on a whim isn't going to stay that way. The reactions of the others would have been different if Souji had talked about his parents, I agree, but I wonder if Izumi would have let that stop her or if she would have doubled down and made things work in her favour anyway. Ryoko's the dangerous one, I agree. Great to have on your side, but do you ever know when that is? And especially with so many preconceptions and details to work with, there's a lot of work to be done. Doujima chewing his sister out was necessary, yes. He might have been telling Souji to make nice for his own sake, but Doujima has the luxury of a good memory and growing up with Izumi, and seeing how much he neglected Nanako like Izumi's neglected Souji is going to really grind his gears. And will Izumi keep her promise to Nanako? Who knows, but I think that the girl has the best chance at getting through to Izumi. The extent to which Izumi can learn what happened in Inaba is pretty limited. No one would understand the TV world and what it did to the Investigation Team, and there's really no way to prove anything now that it's all cleared up. She can follow the murders and that angle of things, but what she, or anyone, can learn at this point is pretty questionable. That said, the effects of those experiences are still with the Investigation Team, and those aren't the sorts of things to go away easily. And how is Souji going to take Izumi making nice with his friends? Is he going to handle it or will it get the best of him? Hard to say... Thanks for the review, and I hope you enjoy the chapter!

Grimraven.V: If the whole chapter was good, I'll definitely take that. Thanks for the review!

zainethedemonking: Well if my work is good enough to not only warrant an alert, but a complete re-read in one sitting, I'll take that as a compliment. As to Yuuma, we'll have to see where the story takes us. Thanks for the review, and enjoy.

jack the writer: Glad to hear from you! Izumi's a lot of fun to write purely because she's flawed but she tries. She's not perfect, she doesn't have the answers to her questions, and even when she learns things that doesn't give her a clear direction that she should go in, but she still puts the effort in. I'm trying to make her as human as possible, so I hope that is coming through. Her meeting Ryoko and arguing with Doujima was also a fun bit to write given how many emotions and perceptions are at play all at once. Where they can go from there makes for some fun ideas. Thanks for the praise, I certainly try to improve where I can. I have played Persona 5, in fact I'm on my second playthrough. Quite a good title, Atlus really used the improved engine to their advantage. Enjoy the read!

Originaljuan92: Thanks for the review. If Izumi and Souji are what keep you coming back, then you're in luck. Where are they going in the future? I wonder...

Binbix: Glad that Nanako made such a strong impression. She's always a blast to write. If Izumi is serious about being part of Souji's life again, then she does have a long road ahead of her. Will she make it? Will she fall back into bad habits? What will Yuuma do when he finds out what's going on? Time will tell. As to Naoto and Kanji, there will be more of them, perhaps sooner rather than later. Thanks for the review!

Dragoon Swordsman: The fox is a pretty interesting aspect of the , especially given how much character it has without speaking a single word. I'm glad that you liked the fight between Izumi and Doujima, it was quite interesting to write – so much history to bring up and work with instead of them just starting from scratch. For Naoto and Kanji, I appreciate your points and they are certainly valid. My opinion on most cases like that is that communication and common ground play a huge role in working with someone that different from yourself. I get it if they aren't your thing, however. Everyone's different and that's fine. Thanks for the review, and enjoy the chapter.

Now then, let the show begin. Huge thanks to Firion on this one, his insight and commentary were invaluable.

Chapter 31

The Christmas holidays were beginning to ramp up in Inaba. The town's decorations were modest but heartfelt as vendors and townsfolk alike got into the seasonal cheer, and Naoto couldn't walk down the street without being called to or offered something from one of her neighbours. Even though she was on speaking terms with many of Inaba's citizens, being seen as readily accessible was still an odd feeling. She'd gotten so used to observing people from the outside that she'd assumed that that was how other people saw her: as an outsider. But since her time with Senpai and the others, she found her facade cracking more and more, and she didn't mind it in the least. She even found herself humming along to the various Christmas carols and stopping to speak to people more often than work demanded, inquiring how they were doing and talking about her grandfather's health, about what her plans were when she graduated, about the local goings-on. It was simple and mundane and very comforting to be able to forget her work for a while and partake in the activities of the season. This year was looking to be especially festive, with the town seeming to have at last shaken off its shock and wariness from the murders.

Naoto had snuck over to Tatsumi Textiles for a pre-Christmas get-together with Kanji and Tatsumi-san. The older woman had been incredibly accommodating, and even more embarrassing when she'd decided to "turn in early" so that the young could "make the most of the evening." Kanji had groused good-naturedly about it, but had nonetheless brought out the snacks and gifts he'd prepared for Naoto. Naoto was touched and warmed from the show of affection, and she sat next to him at the low table to have a nice, seasonal evening with him. She'd even brought over some fresh-baked treats, trying her hand at cooking, and she was relieved when Kanji devoured half of them and praised her for minutes on end on how they tasted. She wasn't sure how much of his praise she should take to heart, however; all she'd done was follow the recipe. Now the lights were dim, the music from outside was cheery, and the evening had an air to it that she categorized as rather romantic in nature. It was the sort of evening that one spent with a sweetheart or a significant other to make the most of the time while it lasted.

That had been what she'd planned, just spending the evening with her boyfriend. However, her mind had chosen this night to pop up with all sorts of theories about Izumi-san and how Senpai was going to react when he learned that his mother had so recently arrived in Inaba. Those theories led her to concerns about when Izumi-san planned to leave, then to questions of how Doujima-san was going to answer any inquiries about the murder, and then back to thoughts of Nanako and how the girl was taking the change in routine. Naoto reflected on whether there was something she could do with the situation, but that very train of thought started chasing itself into circles and led her down useless avenues of inquiry.

She frowned to herself, trying to get back into the mood and enjoy her time with Kanji, especially given her busy work schedule in the new year, but it seemed like every commonplace point of conversation had a word that her analytical side would latch onto so that it could supply her with new ideas. It was getting rather aggravating.

"What's botherin' you?" Kanji asked suddenly.

She blinked, looking over at him. "Pardon?"

"You've got somethin' on your mind," he observed. "Somethin' pretty big, from the looks of it. What's up?"

Naoto smiled ruefully. It seemed that Kanji was becoming better at reading her. She didn't mind, especially given how attentive he was while listening to her problems when she talked about them. An old part of herself grumbled about how unbecoming it was for a detective to show her feelings so easily, worse yet that she would consider sharing her thoughts before she could make a definitive case one way or the other. However, that part of her psyche was a small portion compared to the larger whole of her that was very much enjoying her time with Kanji, from the gifts to the smiles and touches to the chance to speak her mind. "I'm just thinking about Izumi-san."

Kanji nodded in agreement, his face pensive. "It was kinda weird how she came outta nowhere. Seems Nanako-chan's over the moon about her though, so I think it'll go well with her an' Doujima." Then he looked at her a bit closer. "That's not what you're worried about though, is it?"

She looked at him sideways. "It's a bit long-winded," she warned him. "I wouldn't want to derail anything you had planned."

He shrugged. "Everthin' I had in mind's already here and done. If you need to get somethin' off your chest, then let's hear it."

She nodded. He was one of the few people left in Inaba who would understand her concerns, and that thought made her miss the others. She would be sure to call them all tomorrow; friends should be in touch during the holidays. "There is more to it, but I don't know if what I have makes sense. I'm not even sure if I have everything straight right now."

"Well, let's start from the beginning and see where it goes," he suggested.

Naoto took a breath and started speaking. "I wasn't expecting Konishi to bring up his sister's death like he did. Keeping the murders a secret was never going to happen since everyone knows everyone else in Inaba, and Senpai was especially well-known when he was here, but Izumi-san learned about the murders far faster than I expected. I'd hoped that Doujima-san would have been the one to tell her about them. Instead she came out of nowhere and heard about the case on her first day here."

Kanji grunted quietly. "Yeah, that'd be a problem. Naoki let the cat out of the bag, did he?"

"Yes, and I'm not sure how that will reflect on Senpai. There are many things that I doubt he talked to his family about. On that note, I don't even know how much Izumi-san knows about us, or what she will think of us if she learns we were involved in the murder investigation." Naoto let her thoughts works themselves out while Kanji remained silent. "What do you think of her?"

He tapped the table for a few seconds before speaking. "She's not what I expected, but she kinda is. Senpai never talked about his parents, so I always assumed that they were just kinda there, you know? Izumi-san feels pretty normal, really smart and into business but not stuck-up or... I dunno, she just seems like the sort of person who'd be Senpai's mom. I didn't get a bad feeling from her or anything. But if Naoki talked about his sister and the murders, then we'll have to tell Teddie and Nanako-chan to keep quiet about the TV world and everything that happened."

"I already did," Naoto told him. Teddie had been ecstatic when she'd told him that Senpai's mother had come to visit Inaba, so much so that he'd wanted to race over and greet her right away. Naoto had clamped down on that idea and been very, very clear on why discretion was of paramount importance when speaking to Izumi-san. Naoto had especially stressed why anything regarding Personas and Shadows and the TV world was not to be spoken of. "Teddie said that he wants to meet her, and I want to be there when he does."

Kanji chuckled, the sound deep and smooth. "I don't blame you. But is that what yer fretting over? That Izumi-san might go digging into things?"

Naoto let out a breath, moving to the next topic that had been on her mind. "Only to a point. If none of us talk about the TV world or mention our Personas, then there's nowhere for anyone to go for an inquiry. That secret is easy enough to keep. The murder investigation is a different matter, but I trust Doujima-san to handle that, and I suppose I can step in if I need to. I'm more worried about how Senpai will react to Izumi-san being here in the first place. I get the impression that he's not on the best of terms with his parents, but I don't know anything more than that and so I don't know what questions to ask or what information is taboo."

"You think there's bad blood between them?" Kanji inquired with a touch of surprise. "It's not like Senpai got abused as a kid or anything. He'd have had a Shadow if he did, and Izumi-san really doesn't seem like the sort to hurt someone. Comin' out here and talkin' to us shows she cares, if you ask me."

"I agree," Naoto explained, "and I don't think he went through anything that dramatic. He'd be a very different person if he'd physically suffered at the hands of his parents. But he talked about his parents causing him problems once when he tried to come out to visit. Even after he resolved the matter, he never talked about them beyond that point and I don't even know if he brought it up with Yosuke-senpai or Yukiko-senpai. It makes me wonder how he feels toward Izumi-san, especially since there's so little that she seemed to know about Inaba and what went on here."

Kanji nodded before replying. "It's not like he could tell them what went on with the murders, but I think I see your point. There were lots of things that he could have talked about, but Izumi-san didn't seem to know anything at all."

"That's what concerns me," Naoto admitted. "I'd have thought she'd know the basics, at least. Friends he'd made or what he did while he was here, but Izumi-san seemed to be very much in the dark about everything. Why would Senpai keep that information from his parents unless he's not close to them? There are other reasons why he wouldn't say anything, like work schedules or there just not being time to go over things. But if his previous problems were commonplace, then I wonder just how distant they are from each other. And this is only from what I can tell from Izumi-san; I know very little of what Senpai's father is like."

Kanji tapped the table in thought again. "It does seem strange that Izumi-san'd come talk to us in person, in that case. She just coulda called if she wanted to talk to Nanako-chan and Doujima. But it could also be that Izumi-san did want to come out here for the holidays like she said. Could be that she didn't expect to meet us here at all since Nanako-chan was the one showing her around town, right? Might've just been a dumb coincidence."

"Which raises its own set of questions. Nanako-chan seemed very excited to introduce Izumi-san as her aunt. Nanako-chan even said that she hasn't seen Izumi-san in years, perhaps since she was a child, so why the change now?" Naoto sighed and pulled back on her curiosity. Even if Kanji was okay with her getting these things off her mind, it felt wrong to be discussing work right now. It was their first Christmas as a couple, and even she knew that spending time together during the holidays was important. She felt a bit bad, knowing that she should be thinking in the mind of a girlfriend instead of a detective. "I'm sorry, that took longer than I wanted it to. If you want to talk about something else, we can try that."

He smiled, a rather handsome smile that got her heart tripping over itself. "It's no problem. I asked, right? Besides, Izumi-san's here now, so maybe we'll hear more about Senpai and how he was before he moved here. And if she's going to be around for a while, then Nanako-chan'll be talkin' about her for months. Actually, I heard that she even went to visit Yukiko-senpai's parents."

Naoto perked up at the new information, ready to wade right back into the conversation. "Really? Do you know how it went?"

He shrugged and held up a hand, rocking it back and forth. "I'm hearin' different things from people, so it's hard to say what's real or not. I know that Yukiko-senpai's dad gave Senpai the third degree when they started going out, and her mom's pretty tough when you get to know her. Some people say that they had a fight with Izumi-san, others're sayin' things went okay. Seems like it could've gone either way."

Naoto gave a discontent little huff. "That's frustrating. I wish I knew what went on, or what Doujima-san has said so far. I wonder if I should call Senpai and see what his opinion on this is."

Kanji's content look turned guarded when she said that. "Wouldn't that be like interferin' with his life?"

"I don't think so," she defended. "I'd just want to know what's going on in case we need to account for anything. I'd prefer to know if Izumi-san's presence here will, to use Teddie's preferred expression, make the fur fly when Senpai finds out."

He smiled at her use of the idiom. "If that's the case, then it makes sense to call him. But this is Senpai's thing so he's the one who's gotta work the rest of this stuff out. Besides, this stuff's probably only gonna last for a little while before Izumi-san goes back home. I'm sure she's got a job back in Tokyo, so she won't be here for very long. Worst that can happen in that case is that she sticks around until January and Nanako-chan gets some good memories out of it, right?"

Naoto raised an eyebrow. He made good points, but he almost seemed dismissive of the situation's potential ramifications. "That's a rather cavalier approach to take, isn't it? There is the chance for problems to arise if Senpai's parents don't have a good relationship with him and someone says something wrong. His engagement to Yukiko-senpai comes to mind in that regard."

"If Senpai's got a problem with his dad or Izumi-san, then he'll have to work it out," Kanji established. "We'll be there for him if he needs it, but it's Senpai we're talking about here; he's always got a plan. No matter what his parents throw at him, I don't think it's something he can't handle, especially if Yukiko-senpai's there to help him." He chuckled. "She won't let anything get in her way once she gets going."

"Do you think that she would be enough if the worst case happened?"

There wasn't a trace of doubt in his voice when he said, "I think she's enough to handle it on her own."

Naoto nodded. Kanji's rationale made sense, and it was easy to forget that as well as she knew Senpai, Kanji had known him and the others for quite a bit longer. "That's a fair point. She has been through a great deal, and I think she'll fight to protect what she cares about. Senpai certainly falls into that category, as does their engagement."

Kanji laughed. "That ain't the half of it. Yukiko-senpai's always been like that. She's quiet and polite and all, and she's usually smart enough to get what she wants that way, but if you get her mad, she's pretty scary. That TV crew scam, guys at school, and anyone who thought she was an easy mark because she looked good ended up learning that the hard way. I don't even think that the Shadows got to her in a big way, so Senpai's parents won't be a problem. And that's if there even is a problem at all, y'know? I think Izumi-san'll go back home and things'll go back to normal in no time. She doesn't seem like that bad of a person."

"You have a great deal of faith in Yukiko-senpai," Naoto observed. "You've known her for a long time, haven't you?"

Kanji shrugged. "Since we were kids, on and off. She loved playin' house, wantin' to be a good wife and mom and look after her family. She was the same way when her an' Senpai hooked up and we were in the TV world, maybe even more. If she's with Senpai then she's not gonna take anyone's shit. Not from Izumi-san or from Senpai's dad, no matter what they do."

"You're right. I shouldn't worry, in that case."

"She's got a good head on her shoulders," he asserted. "She'll be all right."

"Thank you for entertaining that line of discussion," she told him sincerely. "It's helped put things in perspective."

"No problem. I'm glad it helped." He blushed a bit and scratched his cheek, seeming to wrestle with something.

"Is something wrong?"

"No, not wrong. It's just, y'know, it's Christmas, an'..." He seemed to fight more with what he wanted to say before his left hand slowly, hesitantly, came around her. He'd given her ample time to protest, but she had no intention of doing so. His hand settled on her side, then lowered a little to rest on her hip.

Naoto paused before giving a small smile and a rosy blush. She'd been thinking of how to be a better girlfriend, and she was glad for the chance to make use of her notes and research. She shuffled over next to him, resting against his sturdy frame and wriggling a bit with his hand still on her hip. "It is Christmas," she noted, looking up.

He chuckled, nervousness and affection in his tone, and leaned down for a soft kiss. The way he gently ran his free hand through her hair made her sigh and thrill a bit; their practice sessions in affection were paying off quite well. The kisses remained soft, and in the dim light of the room, with festive colours blushing outside, Naoto revelled in the chance to let her rational side rest so she could try some new things.


Rise breathed out in the cold night air. Kyoto was beautiful in the winter, and the city had gone all out for Christmas this year. Paper lanterns swung and the multi-coloured lights made the streets almost as bright as daytime, only much prettier. The people laughed and joked around her, a lot more open and friendly than the staid, black-clad workers in Tokyo and the rest of the Kanto region, and the energy in the air was infectious. It wasn't just the hustle and bustle or the enthusiasm that she could feel as she watched the crowds ebb and flow before her – she could hear the sounds of those people around her, the bouncing symphonies that sounded rather baroque and full of life. She found herself swaying and tapping her fingers to the music, unable to help herself. When she thought of the music classes she'd taken, she compared this auditory buffet to the sounds of Tokyo and found the latter to be closer to what her teachers would call "verismo," or standard, everyday music. There was an energy and a liveliness here while the east sounded more uptight and set to a schedule. Rise wondered if she'd eventually get worn out by the vivid melodies around her if she lived here and went to festivals like this all the time, but as it was now, she thrived on the unique music and made the most of the opportunity. The unusual audio was proof that Kanzeon was still with her, even if the average person was at a lower volume than her Persona-wielding friends.

"Sorry for the wait," Yosuke-senpai told her as he approached. "I hope you haven't been here too long."

Rise smiled, welcoming her friend over, and held her hand out to indicate the passersby. "I was early so it's fine. I was just watching the people."

He turned to look at them with her, smiling handsomely as he did so. "They're different from back in Tokyo, aren't they? Kansai people seem a lot more laidback and easygoing."

"Maybe it's the accent," she suggested.

"We Osaka folk don't speak with an accent there, Missy," Yosuke-senpai drawled in a surprisingly good imitation of Kansai-ben. "It's them Kanto folk you've gotta be on yer toes fer. Buncha sticks in the mud, all serious and uppity-like."

Rise laughed. "That was really good!"

"Move around a little and you learn a few things," he replied, holding his arm out toward a food stall. "You hungry?"

"Sure." She fell into step with him as they bought some sugared nuts and warm drinks. Yosuke-senpai insisted that they stay away from the holiday sake, much to Rise's protest, but he bought her some spiced hot chocolate instead and they found a bench to sit on so they could enjoy their food and watch the people some more. "How have your classes been going?" she asked once her insides were nice and warm.

"Pretty good," he informed her once he swallowed his food. "I have a few professors who seem pretty decent, and I think I know what classes I want to take next year. I was hoping you'd be able to help me out with a few things, actually."

"I wouldn't be able to help you with your homework, Senpai," she began, not knowing how she could help someone in college. "I wouldn't even know where to start with that stuff."

He shook his head, tossing his empty cup and food wrappers into a nearby garbage can. "That wasn't what I had in mind – I have Souji and Kou to help me with my homework. I want to look into the music program and get into something formal, and you know music better than they do."

Rise tilted her head, not completely sure what his point was. "I can give you some advice, but why are you asking? Do you want to join a band?"

"That's not what I mean." He took a moment before speaking, his smile turning surprisingly warm. "I'm thinking of taking some classes so I can learn to put music together. Compose it, that is. I want to start off with background music, like the sort you hear in video games or anime. I wouldn't need a band or a studio, and I might be able to get around the traditional publishing contracts that everyone seems to be stuck with. Lots of musicians are putting their stuff online these days, and the reach you can get is pretty impressive. I've been talking to some people in the business and I was wondering if you knew anyone who wouldn't mind giving me some pointers."

Rise perked up the more of his idea she heard. Yosuke-senpai's idea tickled her auditory senses enough to make her giggle. "I'd love to help! I know a few people, I'll give you their numbers. I have one condition: When you get something done, you have to let me listen to it first, okay?"

He nodded, his eyes alight. "It's a deal."

"I didn't know you were serious about making music," Rise admitted. Yosuke-senpai loved listening to music so much that he always had something playing when they were in the TV world, and the times when she'd seen him working at Junes without his headphones had been when he seemed the most listless or distracted. Naoto-kun and Kanji always gave him crap for damaging his hearing and not paying attention to what was going on around him, respectively, but Rise always admired how he fought while listening to his own song mix; he seemed to flow with the music, and it had been hard to take her eyes off him sometimes. "When did you get into composing?"

"I haven't put anything together yet," he corrected her a bit sheepishly. "I still have to look at what sort of equipment would work for what I want to do. But it started when I got to talking to some people at college in between classes and reading some things online. Some of their ideas were pretty impressive, but there are a lot of people who seemed like they were missing the point when I talked to them. They'd say that they were looking to be the next big thing or that they wanted to be just like their favourite idol. When I asked them about the point of some of their songs, I got a lot of blank looks or people thinking I was being a hipster for reading too much into it. But then I listened to some interviews and TV shows and it felt like I was on the right track, so I want to see where that takes me. Songs should have a point and they should mean something to the person putting them together, or you're just copying someone else's work instead of making something that's yours."

Rise paused before replying. She'd heard this sort of talk from people in the biz, and they generally fell into two categories: The ones who critiqued the mainstream and became part of it, or the real artists who had a vision and followed it. In her experience, there were far more of the first option than of the second. "Is this a pride thing? Are you trying to prove them wrong?"

Yosuke-senpai shifted a bit in his seat, seeming to weigh his answer. "It's not really about pride. I don't care what other people do or how they see music, so I'm not trying to make a point and shove someone's face in it. But I do want to see where my approach goes, so I guess so? But that's not all there is to it, and it's a bit hard to explain. I wake up in the middle of the night with a melody in my head. Sometimes it goes away on its own, other times it keeps playing until I write it down or do something with it. The thing is, that's always happening now, and if I don't do something then I regret it or wonder what it might have become if I had written it down. If this is something that's going to be with me from now on, then I want to make the most of it while I can."

Rise nodded. Whether Yosuke-senpai had worked this all out in steps or if he'd just had the switch flipped and landed on the answer as a fluke, it seemed like he had the right idea. "The composers and musicians I know, the ones who are really serious about their stuff, they say the same thing. They say it's always on and always happening and they have to do something with it or it'll drive them crazy. Or sometimes it does go away if they shut it out, but the guys who do that end up miserable."

"What about you? Do you feel that way?"

Rise was a bit flattered at the question; not a lot of people asked her that. Everyone seemed to assume that just because she was an idol and she was young that she couldn't write her own stuff. "It's a bit different for me. I don't have it going 24/7 like some people, or at least not in the same way you're describing. It's more like I'll hear something or see something and get an idea for some lyrics or a composition. People have been the best inspiration for me, so that's why I love doing interviews and talking to the fans. Some of my best stuff has come from that."

"Would Ruby Red be one of them?" he asked, referring to the titular hit of her most recent album.

Rise blushed and nodded. "I didn't know you listened to my stuff, Senpai."

"It stands out," he told her confidently. "The whole album feels like you're hitting your stride again, but that song feels the most like you."

"Thanks," she murmured. She had to admit that Ruby Red had been her favourite song on the album, from writing it to performing it. It was a bit more risqué than her usual stuff, but that might have been why she liked it so much. "And yeah, that's an example of what we're talking about, I guess."

"Good to know I'm not alone, then," he remarked a bit wryly. "Sometimes it made me wonder."

"You've never mentioned composing music before, though," she noted in curiosity. "Listening to it, sure, but not making it. Is this pretty new?"

Yosuke-senpai leaned back, a thoughtful frown on his face. "I don't think so. I've always loved listening to music, and it didn't matter what genre or even what language it was. If I heard something I liked, then I liked it. I never followed just one band or one style just for its own sake, and it seemed that other people were the weird ones if they got too stuck in their ways. The thing is, the more I listened, the more I got a feel for what seemed to fit and what didn't. A right or wrong chord or chorus line, an instrument out of place or something that really made the whole song pop, that sort of thing. That made me look for different bands and different influences, but when I started looking for the people who were doing it right, it seemed like there were so few who felt like they raised the bar. Some people were making the best stuff while everyone else seemed like they were just trying to be heard instead of adding to the experience. So I decided to start writing my own music and make the stuff I liked, and that's when things felt the most... natural, I suppose. Like it was scratching the itch in the best way."

Rise nodded, a new warm feeling emerging in her stomach. It was nice to be able to talk shop with someone who understood music and really got it like this. Like Yosuke-senpai said, there were a lot of pretenders and people just following the most recent fads, but real artists were pretty rare. "I know what you mean, and I think you're on the right track. My advice is to keep going. Not just because it feels right – I couldn't say for sure since I don't know how it feels for you – but if you're composing things when you're in the zone like that, then I really want to hear what you can make."

"I want to see where it goes," he continued expansively, "so I'm going to talk to some people when I get back and look into the music program and get as much information as I can. Lectures, interviews, anything."

Rise nodded and smiled. "That sounds awesome, Senpai. Like I said, I get to listen to your first demos, okay?"

Some of his sheepishness came back then, and he scratched the back of his head. "It feels kind of embarrassing, saying it like no one's done it or something. I feel like I'm a new guy in the game and I don't even have my feet wet, so what does it matter what I think?"

"Everyone starts there," she told him, thinking of how frightening it had been to talk to composers and meet other idols when she'd been starting out, "and if you can approach it from the right angle then there's no reason you can't make something out of it. Everyone I've talked to about singing and song writing says that they have to keep growing and keep working at it or they lose their edge."

"Yeah, I know the feeling. I'll be careful," he said with a nod and a far-off look.

"This is exciting!" she gushed, leaning over. "I can't wait to hear what you put together now."

"I'd appreciate it," he told her before looking over with a raised eyebrow. "How about you, though? We've talked a lot about me, but how are things going on your end?"

"They're going fine," she replied, a bit too quickly.

Yosuke-senpai chuckled before turning on the bench to look at her. "Okay, let's try that again. How's work?"

She smiled a bit ruefully at how he was able to read her. "It's going good," she told him honestly. "I was just thinking of something before we came here."

"Like what?"

Rise sighed a bit. She didn't want to bring the mood down, but Yosuke-senpai and her friends had always told her to call them and vent if she needed to instead of bottling everything up. Her time in the TV world had taught her that lesson pretty well, too. "The future, I guess," she began. "Inoue does a really good job of keeping me busy and relevant, but I know what the idol business is like. Even at my best, even if I change things up to stay in the spotlight, I've only got ten years or so before I'm yesterday's news. And ten years is being pretty generous; it could be as little as five or six. I might be a washed-up idol before I turn 25, then I would have to find something else to do. And once I find something else to do, I wonder if I'd be any good at it. All this time on the road doesn't let me study much or get degrees like you guys. I'll probably try to stay in the business, but the idol industry is pretty cutthroat, and people have really short memories when someone else comes up. That's the case even when you're sweating blood on the stage, really, and lots of girls want to take your place whether they're ahead of you or behind you. Inoue tells me not to worry about things like that, and I'm sure he'll do his best to keep me going for as long as he can, but you can't fight the nature of the industry."

"Pretty heavy thoughts for the holidays," Yosuke-senpai commented steadily.

Rise sighed. "Yeah, I know. Mom and Dad said the same thing when I talked to them. They said I should enjoy it while I can and worry about that other stuff when it comes up."

"They're probably right," he concurred. "It might be that you're on limited time as an idol, sure, but you also might want to do something else when your time is up. You might even find something you really want to move on to by sticking it out and giving it your best, like being an agent or teaching singing lessons or something."

"That's what I hope," Rise admitted, starting to feel better from talking about it. Much as she loved what she did, it was easier to think of a downfall in popularity as a beginning to something else instead of as an end to all the fun times and good memories. "I'm just not sure if I'll find something like that, or if I'll recognize it when it does come along, you know?"

"You will," Yosuke-senpai told her with some pretty strong conviction. "You sound like you're doubting yourself right now, but you'll know what you want to do when the time comes. You also have the rest of us to help you out if you aren't sure."

Rise smiled when he said that. It was true, she had the best friends that she could have ever hoped for. She felt sorry for the girls in the industry who had to look at every person either as a revenue source or as a potential scandal, and her meetings with Kanamin and other idols only reinforced how lucky she was to have such sincere people in her life. "Yeah, you're right. Thanks for listening, Senpai."

He shrugged and gave her his usual smile. "Hey, no charge. For what you've offered, it's the least I can do."

"Being around everyone helps," she told him, feeling better now. "Sometimes I get stuck in my own head. It's nice to be able to talk to someone about this stuff."

"Believe me, I know the feeling. If you need someone to help you kill some time, let me know."

She nodded. That was a load off her mind. "I will. Thanks again."

Something seemed to amuse Yosuke-senpai just then, because he startled chuckling before looking over at her. "Since we got off topic, I wanted to address something."

Rise tilted her head, curious of what might he might be talking about. "What's that?"

He scratched his neck, seeming like he was fighting the urge to start laughing. "Well, I wasn't quite sure how to do this, but I don't really want to keep putting it off. I tried to think of the right words for it, but this is the best I can come up with."

Rise was really curious now, but an icy dread filled her heart when he got up, turned in front of her and got on one knee. People around him immediately started looking and gawking, and it was easy to guess what was going through their heads.

"Kujikawa Rise," he began expansively, and that got some whispers as the name Risette started floating around, "you've been a great friend, and I hope this doesn't seem too out of place, but I couldn't keep my feelings to myself anymore."

Rise felt like a boiling pot, not sure if she was about to die of embarrassment or yell at him for making a spectacle of them both. She could already see the cameras and cell phones coming out. Fans proposing to her wasn't uncommon, but Inoue had asked to be kept in the loop where her friends were concerned. How was he going to take it when pictures of this came across his desk?

"You're a wonderful person, the brightest star in my sky, and every time we meet it becomes harder for me to contain my true feelings!"

Rise glared at him, recognizing the cheesy soap opera he was quoting. Being associated with something that tacky was almost insulting by itself. Contrary to her reaction, however, she could hear some girls and women in the crowd gasping and giggling while others watched with baited breath.

"It is with great affection and the profoundest humility that I ask you this, perhaps the hardest question I have ever asked in our long time of association! Could you please find it in your heart... to accept my Christmas present?" He presented a small box from his pocket, wrapped in pink paper and sporting a red ribbon on top.

The crowd went silent as more and more people stopped to watch. Some people in the crowd began conveying what had happened to newcomers, and more than a few of them mentioned the word "proposal." She knew that she had to handle this situation properly, that storming off or overreacting would come back to haunt her. Worst of all was the smile he was giving her, the bright gleam in his eyes that told her that he knew exactly what he was doing. She clenched her fists, and demurely rose from her seat as she concocted the correct response. "Hanamura Yosuke," she replied with the same gravity as he'd first addressed her with, "you are such a jerk."

He burst out laughing. "Was it the delivery?" he asked. "The lines? I'll do better next time, I promise!"

"I'll let you figure that part out," she answered, "and don't worry about getting it right – don't try it again. Ever."

She turned to leave him on his knee, but he reached up with his free hand and lightly grasped her wrist as she passed. "That's for you and Chie setting me up before," he told her in a tone low enough that only she could hear him. "Does it make us even?"

She glared at him, but couldn't deny that some part of her did find both the joke and his delivery quite well done. She pushed that part down, however, and yanked her hand back before storming off. The crowd parted with some people taking pictures and others laughing as they got what had happened. Yosuke-senpai followed her a few steps behind, still laughing to himself and asking her which part of the joke didn't work.

It was the next street over that Rise slowed down enough that she could turn and glare at him as he came up next to her. "That wasn't funny," she insisted.

"Sure it was," he replied. "And it was completely harmless. A bit of Christmas controversy will sell a few albums, and I'm sure I'm not the first fan to try that."

He was right, and it was true that she'd had proposals from fans begging to be her boyfriend. Even if she weren't contractually obligated to remain single, however, none of them had really stirred her in the way she wanted. In the way that Souji-senpai had. She'd made her peace with him being taken, but he did make for an excellent bar that every other guy had to reach before she'd take them seriously, even if she did feel bad about turning those hopeful fans down.

"Forgive me?" he asked with a grin.

"Not a chance," she grumbled.

"C'mon, don't you even want to see what I got you?" he persisted, holding the pink-wrapped box up again for her to see.

She glared over at him, about to chew him out. But then she saw his still-offered gift, wrapped in sparkly pink paper. It couldn't have been easy for a guy to carry something so girly, and it did make her curious about what he'd gotten her. "Hand it over," she groused half-heartedly.

"As the lady desires," he replied, presenting it almost flamboyantly and giving her a rather handsome smile.

Clown, Rise thought with a grudging smile. It was hard to stay angry with him when he looked that good. She took the gift, turning it around and looking at it.

"And I promise it's not a voucher for cooking classes," he added with a grin.

Her head snapped up as she glared at him. "That's not even funny, Senpai," she answered coldly.

"C'mon, that would be a great gift, wouldn't it? You'd definitely get some use out of it!"

"Don't. You. Dare."

He laughed, holding his hands up in surrender. "Okay, fine. Not for Christmas, but what about for your birthday? It's at the beginning of June, right?"

Rise was a bit flattered that he knew that much. He was right; her birthday was June 1st. "If I don't tell you, you can't make the mistake of following through, can you?"

"That's pretty cruel," he complained good-naturedly. "Go on, take a look."

She unwrapped the gift, carefully peeling the paper back and opening the plain box. The gift looked like a small keychain, and when she lifted it up so she could look at it better, she couldn't help the smile that grew on her face. There were two chains attached to the larger ring. One of the chains was connected to a well-made miniature microphone while the other was linked to what looked like a polished satellite reflector. To anyone else it would have been an odd accessory, but she knew that he'd framed the gift after Kanzeon's sensory mechanisms. Just touching the gift sent a ripple of harmonious thrills through her, and it reminded her of the high points in the TV world. For such a simple gift, it was something only one of her friends could have thought up, and even they might not have fully understood just how her Persona had affected her. But Yosuke-senpai did, and she smiled at him for it. "Thanks a lot, Senpai. I love it," she told him as she held the gift up, tapping it with a nail and feeling the sound run through her.

"My pleasure," he told her with a genuine smile.

"Where'd you get it made? This is pretty impressive work."

He held up a finger to fend off the question. "Ah ah, trade secret. A gentleman never tells, after all."

Rise pouted before batting her eyes, not about to let the question drop. "C'mon, please?"

He looked at her archly, seeming to consider whether he should or not. "Hm... maybe I'll tell you, but why don't we see some more of the sights while I decide?"

She smiled then. He didn't need an excuse to spend time with her, but it would be a nice change of topic compared to the heavy stuff from earlier. "Sure. Do you have someplace in mind?"

"Yep. C'mon."

Rise fell into step next to him, and as he started talking about the places they could hit up, she heard an old, familiar chord rise up from him. It was independent of his voice, and it wasn't as loud as when they'd been fighting in the TV world, but the beautifully harmonious cascade from his soul was still playing. It was strong and pure, and perhaps it had never stopped since he'd awakened to his Persona. She timed her questions and comments with the rises and falls of the music, moving in between the notes where she could. She didn't try to stop her smile this time, and as they moved through the well-lit Kyoto night, she found herself shuffling just a bit closer to Yosuke-senpai so that she could hear him just a little more.


Chie took a long, deep breath, enjoying the way the cold air bit at her lungs. She hadn't had as much time to exercise and spar lately with all the studying she'd been doing, so this felt like quick, easy exertion. Now that she had a break in her classes, she was looking forward to hitting the gym and attending her martial arts lessons again, the sooner the better.

She chuckled and walked a bit faster. Well, not too soon. She was meeting Kou and she wanted to get in as much time with him as she could before he left. She moved through the crowds, something she'd become much better at compared to when she'd first moved to the university, and made her way toward the bridge where they said they'd meet. She was about to go down the stairs to the meeting spot when she saw him coming from the opposite direction, dozens of metres away.

Her breath caught when she saw him. He was walking toward the bridge railing and it was like a scene in those movies that Rise gushed over where the lead actor arrived and everything moved out of the way for him. He was dressed clean and sharp in whites and blacks, a buttoned-up jacket and dark slacks that emphasized the lean lines of his body. She moved to the railing of the stair landing pad and smiled when she noticed again how he'd been letting his hair grow longer. From how smooth it looked, she wanted to give him grief about how he was more girly than she was, but even from where she stood she could see how his hair highlighted the handsome angles of his face and the thought died off. The way the festive lights reflecting off the river lit up his face, making him even more handsome, and even though Chie wanted to deny that she was ever the kind of girl who swooned over an attractive guy, there was definitely something like a sigh of longing in her chest as she took a few seconds to watch him.

That moment, that dreamy vision of him looking so damn handsome, gave rise to a voice in the back of her mind. A voice that was irritatingly familiar and very unwelcome right now: He deserves better than you.

It was hard to ignore those words. Talking to Natsuki-san and Yukiko had gotten her past the worst of it, but that didn't change the idea from always being in the background, waiting to hit her when it would hurt the most. It was an idea that she'd been wrestling with and hadn't been able to shake. She looked at Kou and how he was smiling and nodding to passersby, even having some good-looking girls come up to him to talk. Those girls wore skirts and shoes and had long hair, and even from where Chie stood she could see that their tops allowed for a nice view of a fun amount of boob. They radiated femininity and seemed perfectly happy to look and be looked at, given how they giggled and shifted around Kou. He felt like he belonged there, classy and smart and striking with classy and beautiful people. When Chie glanced down at what she was wearing, her fur-collared winter jacket and a skirt with leggings to keep the cold out, she couldn't help the feeling that even her best fell pretty short of the mark in comparison.

She shook her head and narrowed her eyes, shutting those ideas down. She'd heard the doubts whispering in her ears for weeks. How Kou deserved someone who wouldn't make him go through a long-distance relationship, someone closer than a three-hour train ride, someone who could support what he was going through instead of being up to her neck in her own studies and barely able to text when he needed her. How he deserved someone more feminine, someone who couldn't beat up half the boys in town when she was growing up, and who didn't have rough hands and scarred knees. How he deserved someone who wanted to settle down and have kids rather than pursue an independent path of her own in life. He deserved all those things and more, and she would have stood aside and told him to go for someone like that if he'd wanted. Even if, at this moment, it would have torn her heart out of her chest to let him go after he'd helped her so much, even if it would mean giving up on the happiness that she felt every time they texted or he called her to ask how her week was going, she would have done it and been miserable and let those doubts win.

But one fact burned brightest in those tumultuous thoughts: He'd chosen her. She'd thought of every other reason why he might be with her, and some of those reasons had gotten Yukiko pretty angry when Chie had admitted what was going through her mind. She'd considered that it might be a mistake or that he'd get tired of her once he saw how much work it was going to be, but the thing that stuck out in her mind, that kept her head straight and her smiles genuine, was that he'd chosen her and pursued her and hadn't seemed to regret his decision one bit. When they spoke he seemed happy, and when she talked with him she could hear the energy seeping back into his voice. She'd been hoping for some show of affection at the train station before and he'd given her a hug that still made her blush just thinking about it. Nothing about him suggested he was regretting things, and if he had any doubts, she couldn't find them.

Her phone vibrated, and she glanced once more to where those two girls were getting way too close to Kou before looking at the screen. She laughed unexpectedly when she read the text she'd been sent.

"Waiting at the bridge, cornered by two girls, perfume is way too strong. Are you almost here? Could use an assist."

Chie closed her phone with a smile. This was something she didn't need to think about. He needed his girlfriend to come to the rescue, and she was going to do just that. She picked up the bag she'd brought along with her and went down the stairs and confidently walked toward Kou. She couldn't blame him for commenting on the perfume the girls were wearing; Chie's eyes started to water when she was still several yards away.

"There you are," he told her once he saw her. "As I was saying, ladies, just waiting for my girlfriend."

Chie glanced at the girls and immediately had them pegged. Still in high school or just barely graduated, pretty and primped up with designer clothes and nice make-up, but they lacked the overall sense of style that Natsuki-san had, or the maturity that Yukiko exhibited without even thinking of it. Their girly expressions didn't cover up the haughty, expectant look in their eyes, and the way they looked at her – like she was a dripping-wet mongrel pulling itself out of the river – said it all. Chie sidled up to Kou and slipped an arm around his, smiling congenially while her eyes narrowed. "Sorry I'm late. I hope you weren't waiting too long."

"The girls here were just telling me about Kyoto," he replied smoothly. "We're done now."

"There's still a lot more to say if you're interested," one of them pointed out in a smooth, innocent tone that, again, did nothing to hide the contempt in her eyes when she looked at Chie.

"I live here too, so I can do that for him," Chie informed them directly. "And we have plans for the evening that we need to get to, so excuse us."

The girls glared at her, discretely or it would have blown their cover, but Chie smiled coldly and cocked her head to the side. Move along. Now. That got her an expression that bordered on a sneer, but Kou cleared his throat and the girls turned and left without another protesting, muttering to each other under their breath.

"Thanks," he told her, wiping at his eyes and breathing deep to clear his lungs of the smell. "I'm not sure I'd still be conscious if you hadn't shown up. I thought perfume was something girls wore in moderation, but that was way too much."

Chie thought back to the times when Natsuki-san had brought up the topic of beauty, always telling Chie to play to her strengths and never overcompensate. "Some people don't know how strong the smell is," Chie replied. "That or they think everyone's sense of smell is as bad as theirs is."

"Either way, I'm glad they're gone." He smiled at her, genuine and a bit shy and utterly gorgeous. "And I'm glad you're here."

Chie quivered and giggled – actually giggled – at the line, happy to be so readily appreciated. "I hope that wasn't too much."

"It was fine, believe me."

Chie wasn't sure where to take the conversation from here, so she dug into her bag. "So, before I forget, Merry Christmas."

Kou's eyes widened in surprise, taking the wrapped package she offered him. "Oh. Uh, thanks. I wish I'd known, your gifts are at the hotel."

"Sorry," she told him bashfully, scratching the back of her head. "That probably came from out of nowhere, didn't it?"

"It's fine. Thanks for the gift; I know how hard it is to buy things on our budget."

Chie blushed a bit. She'd keep to herself that Daddy had been helping with the dorm costs and she'd been working part-time at the dojo to help her to live on more than canned soup and instant ramen. The gift had been something she'd had to set aside two months' pay for, but she wasn't going to miss the chance to get him something for Christmas.

Kou peeled the wrapping paper back, smiling at the green and gold designs, and his eyes widened when he saw what she'd gotten him: A book on muscle-building and neural physiology.

"I remembered that you were looking for some books on that stuff, and I'm pretty sure this was one of them," she began bashfully. Souji had helped a bit here; he'd told her which ones Kou already had so there wouldn't need to be any returns or mistakes. "I couldn't think of what else to get you."

"This is perfect," he told her after a moment. "I can use this next semester." His smile widened. "Thank you, Chie."

She knew he was handsome, but the way he looked at her then made her blush and trip over her words. "Y–you're welcome. I'm just... glad that you like it. It feels like the least I can do after everything I–" She bit her lip to stop talking, afraid that her doubts would come out.

His smiled subsided a bit and he leaned in closer. "After everything what?"

"Oh, uh, it's nothing."

"You stopped halfway through saying it," he observed cannily, not letting the matter drop. "It's not just nothing, is it?"

Chie tried to recover, but even as she spoke she knew that she was nowhere near convincing him. "I didn't mean to say that. It's just... something that's been on my mind."

"Call me a narcissist," he joked, "but I get the feeling that it has to do with me."

"It... Kind of," she hedged, "but not in the way that you think."

"Do you feel like sharing?"

She sighed. It was the holidays. She really didn't want to talk about her insecurities right now, or ever if she could manage it. "It's a few things, I guess. More my own problems than anything you're doing."

"Or not doing?"

His answer caught her off-guard. "Hm?"

"I'm not here where I can help you. The best I can do is text you or answer your voicemails when I get a chance. It's not the best situation in the world." He scratched the back of his neck and glanced toward the river, his eyes clouded. "It's not a fun feeling. I'm supposed to be your boyfriend, but there's a lot of things I can't do over a phone, and you really don't deserve me not being around to help you."

Chie froze, momentarily flabbergasted by what she was hearing. He was blaming himself. It might have been because he felt guilty about not being there with her, or perhaps it was because he was trying to take the weight of the larger problem on himself so that he could rationalize it, but either way he was doing the same thing she'd been doing just minutes before. Her smart, handsome, rich, athletic boyfriend was blaming himself for the situation, and might even be blaming himself for how insecure she was feeling. The irony of her tormenting herself, of not feeling worthy of him, while he was doing the same thing as she held him on a pedestal was enough to turn her stomach. She wanted to help him in that instant, even though she also hated herself for only focusing on how she felt about the situation. But in the twisting bile that hadn't let her go, there was a solution. She knew what he was feeling, and she had a chance to address the problem. She knew she had to take this opportunity, or these problems would keep weighing them down. "That's okay," she began. "I understand."

"You understand?"

"Yeah, I do, because I've been thinking the same thing."

"The same... You know that's not the case, Chie. I should–"

She shook her head and held her fingers up to his lips. "I need to say this and get it off my chest," she told him. Her thoughts were surprisingly lucid and the words felt like they were ready to be said. It felt a bit like when she'd been in the TV world and she was with the others, setting out to save someone; singularity of purpose and skill, an objective and the will to reach it.

Think. Feel. But most importantly, act.

She told him about the doubts she'd been having, the insecurities and how she'd had to lean on Yukiko and Natsuki-san to get her through the worst of it. She told him how she didn't know what he saw in her and how she'd look in the mirror sometimes and get scared that he'd see her how she saw herself – tomboyish and gangly. Then she told him that she was scared that he'd move onto someone else when the novelty wore off, like there was a time limit that was being shortened by them doing everything long-distance.

"Sometimes I feel like crap for doing this to you," she continued. "It doesn't seem fair to put you through this when I don't know what's going to happen or even where this is all going. But the more I beat myself up about it, the more pointless it seemed. You've been there to help push the rock up the hill. Sometimes I look around the classroom and I know I shouldn't be there. School's never been my thing and I'm probably keeping a chair from someone who would get something more out of it than I do." She let a breath out and looked up at him with a smile. Her eyes stung a little, and it was because of the calm, understanding look he was giving her instead of the cold. "But you picked me. You've been with me for this long and you never gave up. You and Yukiko and Souji never let me bow out or stop going for what I wanted just because it was too hard, and even after all of the crap we've gone through so far, you haven't seemed to regret it."

"Because I don't," he told her softly, moving in closer and giving her the most sincere smile she'd ever seen on anyone. "Even with everything that's going on at school, trying to work my time out so we can talk and I can help you, I'd be worse off without you, not better."

"I used to wonder if this was just a fad, or if things were going to crash and burn because I'd do something stupid. I felt like you deserved more than me." Her eyes narrowed even as she smiled. "But that's over now. I don't want to keep wondering when it's going to go wrong, or I'll never see all the good stuff that we can do together. I'd drive myself crazy and then things really would turn into a mess. I guess what I'm saying is... I'd like to be there for you, as your girlfriend. For real, with no regrets."

She expected him to smile brilliantly at her, maybe move in and try to kiss her, not caring that they were on a bridge with tonnes of people around them during the busiest season of the year. He'd be confident and fun with that killer smile and they could go and get some dinner together. Like a beef bowl with a side order of steak.

But he didn't. He smiled, and it was pretty damn handsome, but his eyes were still clouded. "Since we're having this talk, I have some things that I need to address."

She noticed that he hadn't addressed what she'd said, but she wanted to give him a chance to speak. "Sure. What is it?"

"Are you sure you want to be with me? You say that you can't do much when you're here and I'm there, but it's the same with me. You could find someone closer to home, someone more available. I want to think that helping you is enough, but you should be able to go to parties and hang out instead of staying in on the weekend and having a relationship with a text screen. No matter what I want to do when we get the chance to be together, it's not fair to you to only do those things whenever the holidays line up. This is supposed to be the best chance of your life to expand your horizons and live things up, after all."

"You've made me a priority in your life when you could have left at any time," she told him firmly, without any hesitation. She was already thinking of her schedule and working out things she could do to improve how they communicated, like texting him on her spare time, even if it was just to encourage him in a class or talk about her day. Souji and Yukiko talked over their computers and watched the same movies so they'd have something else to speak about. She could do that and talk to her sensei at the dojo to learn more about the stuff Kou was studying. It was interesting when he explained it, and she didn't want to be left behind. "I'll do the same. You're in my corner, I'm in yours, and this is where I want to be."

"You're okay with how things are?" he inquired softly.

"Are you okay with dating an insecure tomboy who loves martial arts?" she replied, almost as a challenge.

"I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Neither would I."

He chuckled then, a genuine sound that lit up his face and cleared his eyes to those brilliant blues that made her heart flutter every time.

"What is it?"

"I just had a thought," he began. "We're talking about how hard things are with us being apart, but things could fall apart even if we were living in the same place. Could be that your kung-fu movies would drive me crazy, or you'd hate me for leaving the lights on at night or how I clean up after dinner or something. Being apart might be the best thing of all for us."

"I think we can handle a few small bumps in the road. Even if the odds are a bit crazy." She snorted just then, a stray thought coming to mind. "Not as bad as Yosuke's, though. He'll be single forever, I swear."

"You're worried about him," Kou jibed. "You'd lose sleep if he ended up like that."

"Not a chance," she protested. "He'll just call me and whine in a few years, or he'll ask me to hook him up with a friend or something. He's hopeless, pure and simple."

"He threatened me when I asked him about you, you know," he told her. "Back in Inaba. Like everyone else, I thought you two were going out so Souji dragged me over to talk to him."

"I didn't know that," Chie admitted, frowning at the idea of those two meddling in her love life. Souji was pretty solid, but Yosuke... "What do you mean he threatened you? Did he say he'd beat you up or something?"

"Just as I said. He told me that if I was going to go out with you, I'd better do it right and not screw it up or he'd find me and make me regret it. Right there in the lunch area at Junes. I'm pretty sure Souji was thinking the same thing, even if he never said it."

Chie groaned and wanted to bury her face in her hands. She loved her friends, but she didn't need them to be such mother hens. Daddy was bad enough about stuff like that; she'd had to be very cautious about broaching the subject of dating in the first place. Sure, Daddy had been okay with her going out with Kou once they'd met a few times, but there had been guys who'd asked around about her, and Daddy hadn't taken it very well at the time.

"I'm glad they did that," Kou continued, surprising her. "It helped give me some perspective."

"What do you mean?"

"I've never done this before," he admitted without hesitation. "Going out with someone, I mean. No one's ever really mattered this much to me in the past, so I had no idea what to do. Souji and Yosuke made it clear that half-measures and guessing my way through things wasn't going to cut it. The more they pushed me, the more seriously I had to take it, and I've got nothing against the results so far."

Hearing him say those words made her melt a little inside, and she let herself blush and shuffle in place. It was a girly gesture, but out of anyone in the world, her boyfriend was allowed to see her like this. "I'd like to hear you say that more," she told him, trying to contain her excitement. "Could we get some dinner? Talk about it over a beef bowl?"

"And then hit up a movie?" he suggested. "I got some tickets."

"That's moving pretty fast," she noted.

"I had some help. You wouldn't believe me if I told you who from," he smirked.

She looked at him for a moment before one name crossed her mind, and then she shook her head. "You're right, I probably wouldn't, and I'm not going to give him any credit no matter how much help he gave you."

"That's pretty cruel, you know. Actually, he said that you'd probably say that, so he's got you."

Chie frowned. She'd have to make Yosuke pay for meddling like this, especially since he had her in a situation where she couldn't get him back. If he'd guessed that she'd turn down his support, then taking said support would make him right either way. "Just don't tell him," she decided. "He's bad enough as he is."

"Deal," Kou chuckled, leaning back toward the bridge railing and gesturing for her to follow. "Come here for a sec."

"What do you need?" she inquired, walking up to him. She was surprised when he took a step up to her, his free hand going around her and pulling her close. She squeaked in surprise, but the sound died off halfway through when she smelled his cologne – light and clear, like a spring morning after a good rain. Miles away from the crap those girls were soaked in. "Kou?" she murmured quietly.

"You're not allowed to think that you're not contributing to this relationship," he told her gently. "Not ever again. The only people who know this are Souji and Daisuke, but when I froze up back in school, it wasn't because I had a crush on Yukiko-san; it was because I had a crush on you. You've always been an amazing person, right from the day I first saw you, so you're not allowed to say that you're not worth the trouble or that I deserve to be with someone who you think suits me better. You're the girl I want, and I'm not giving up on this, so don't think I'm humouring you or just in it for the cheap thrills. No more doubts, okay? Your boyfriend forbids it."

Chie was getting redder, and her grin was getting wider, with every sentence he said. By the end of it she wanted to shout and hug him and do a dozen other things all at once. Only one gesture really would have gotten her feelings across, however. She leaned in and hugged him hard, burying her face into his shoulder and inhaling his scent and his presence and everything that was him just then, burning it into her memory for when those doubts arose. Because they would, but now she had a way to fight them off, and she was very confident in her chances. "Okay," she murmured, looking up at him in the bright Kyoto light. "Back at you. You're not allowed to think you're not helping either. Maybe it's not a normal relationship, but if I wanted normal I wouldn't have left Inaba in the first place. I'm in this if you are, so let's do this together, all right?"

"Deal," he replied, leaning down and laying a gentle kiss on the top of her head that made Chie giggle like she'd been tickled. They held each other until the moment passed, and it would have taken a demolition crew to get the smiles off their faces. Without a word, Kou turned them toward the restaurant again, citing the movie's start time and insisting that he pay for her dinner. Chie beat down her protests before they could arise. Now that he was here, they had time to spend together. She'd buy breakfast tomorrow to keep things even, and maybe spend some time in the arcade or at the museum with him, something to pamper him while she could. His arm was firmly around her, and she returned the gesture while leaning her head against his shoulder. They spoke as they walked, slower than usual but the words didn't matter. Sometimes the sentences faded off halfway through, other times they meandered in new directions entirely, but neither really noticed.

Chie didn't care if they were mismatched or what the people around them thought. The last thing on her mind was how they looked together. All that she knew was that this felt right, and she wasn't going to let it go.


"So you like having her there, do you?" Souji asked Nanako, trying to inject some cheer into his voice that he didn't feel.

"Yep! She's nice and a lot of fun to be around!" Nanako chirped on the line. "I was worried that Auntie would have trouble here or wouldn't know what to do, but so far everything's been great!"

"I'm glad to hear that," Souji replied, biting his tongue a little. He didn't want to put a damper on the girl's fun, especially when it was so clear that she was enjoying her time with her aunt, but he couldn't help the anger that turned his stomach at the thought of his mother being in Inaba. He'd thought that he might have some time to visit Nanako and Doujima before he had to go back to Fujisawa, maybe take a quick trip out by train and then fly back in time for work and the new semester. His mother being in Inaba, probably staying with Doujima and Nanako rather than at a hotel, strangled that idea in the cradle. He didn't want to fight with her, and he definitely didn't want to bring that kind of tension to Nanako. The girl sounded like she was having the time of her life and he wasn't going to ruin that for her, especially at Christmas.

He didn't like cutting off his plans like this where his family was concerned, and he liked even less what it said about him that he was letting his mother's choices dictate what he did. Were Nanako and Doujima so low on his priority list that he was willing to brush them off just because things were hard for him? Was he this afraid of his parents? Yukiko's words about him running from his problems instead of facing them echoed in his ears, and he bit back some of the harsher words in his vocabulary at how on point she was.

"Big Bro?" Nanako asked. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," he assured her, pushing those thoughts aside. He wouldn't go to Inaba now, but he'd have more time once he got through this semester, and he was already considering some ideas on how to spend his summer with the others. That would include Nanako if he could manage it. "I just had some things on my mind."

"Is everything all right?"

"It will be," he assured her, more warmth coming into his voice. "I'm glad you're helping Auntie out."

"She said we could stay in touch after she leaves!" Nanako gushed. "I'm sure she's busy in Tokyo, but I'm going to try and call her or text her when she's not busy."

Souji bit back a remark about how he'd been trying to do that for as long as Nanako had been alive and he hadn't succeeded. He didn't want her to get her hopes up, but neither would he be the one to break them down. If anything, he hoped that his mother kept her promise to the girl. He could handle how things were, but Nanako deserved to have something good come out of this. "I'm sure she'll appreciate that. Has she been getting along with your dad?"

"Dad said that they had a long talk, but that was part of being a family," Nanako noted a bit dubiously. "I think he meant it like when you and him talked after I went to bed."

Souji shook his head at the memory. Her wording was subtle, but the reference was clear. She meant when he and Doujima had argued about the importance of being a family and how Souji couldn't agree with how Doujima was handling his role as Nanako's father. The discussions had gotten heated at times, and he'd hoped that Nanako hadn't heard some of the things that were said. A vain hope, apparently. "You were supposed to be asleep, you know."

"I couldn't help it; you were talking pretty loud sometimes."

Souji didn't have a reply to that. Under all that cheer, Nanako was pretty observant, and she wasn't the little girl who'd hid behind her father at the Inaba train station. She was growing up, faster than he expected, and he'd have to make sure he didn't treat her like a child. "Are they doing all right now?"

"Yep. Dad said that we're going to take Auntie to the shrine tomorrow, so we can spend time together like a family!"

That was the keyword of the day, it seemed. A lot of the truths he'd cleaved to about his family for years were beginning to take on water and list heavily to starboard, and he wasn't sure what to do about it now. He hadn't heard anything from Naoto or Kanji so hopefully nothing had gone up in flames in his absence, but as calm as he was trying to be about this whole situation, he was losing sleep when he thought of everything that could go wrong. "Make sure you enjoy yourself, and look after Auntie, okay?"

"I will!" The girl's good humour hadn't wavered, and sometimes Souji didn't know where she found so much enthusiasm.

"I have to go, but you take care."

"Okay! Thanks for calling, and love you, Big Bro!"

"I love you too, Nanako," he answered before cutting the call and giving a heavy sigh that clouded white in the cold air. "Here's to hoping nothing happens, I guess," he told himself as he leaned against the railing above a busy footpath, not terribly convincing even to himself.

"Personal problems?" Mei-san inquired from where she was leaning a few feet away, looking over speculatively and almost blending in with the sky thanks to all the grey she was wearing.

Souji glanced over at her, trying not to let her see that she'd startled him. "When did you get here?"

"Around the time you looked like you bit into a lemon," the woman replied dryly, dressed in her layers and heavy coat that didn't hide how slender she was. "You seemed happy so I thought you were talking to Yukiko, but then you seemed like you'd heard about a stock market crash."

Souji shook his head. He was getting careless if someone he'd known for only a few months could sneak up on him this easily. "It's complicated," he told her, hoping to avoid talking about the situation at large.

"Family usually is," she observed. "Feel like sharing?"

Souji snorted, in no mood to entertain jokes. "Do you really want to hear about my problems?"

"You've usually got it together, so it's easy to see that something's bothering you. I'm curious."

"You mean nosy, don't you?" Souji didn't try to keep the bite out of his voice.

"Same thing," she shot back without a trace of hesitation or shame. "So? Let's hear it."

His eyes narrowed. He'd hoped she would take the hint and drop the matter. "I appreciate the concern, but my life is my own business. What does it matter to you?"

"It matters to me because you're important to Yukiko," Mei-san told him, blunt and unapologetic, "and she's automatically involved with whatever's happening to you, whether you want it or not. If you go off the reservation, it's going to ruin her. She's a good friend and a great person overall, so I'd rather you talk about whatever's bothering you so you don't explode from trying to keep it all to yourself."

Souji gave a frustrated breath. First Megumi, now Mei-san. Why did it seem like every time he turned around, more people wanted to know about his past? It was nice having friends this close, but talking about his problems this much was starting to get old. "It's personal, and not very pleasant."

"I gathered that much," she remarked. "You wouldn't be like this if it was all sunshine and rainbows, and that probably means you need to talk about it more than anything."

"Maybe your assessment of me is wrong," he suggested dryly. "Maybe I'm shallow and self-centred, so the small things are what set me off."

She shook her head. "Yukiko wouldn't put up with a guy like that. You're all she talks about, and that wouldn't happen if you were some sort of trust-fund baby with a silver spoon in his mouth. Also, shallow people who've never faced a hard day in their lives don't have the self-awareness to know that their problems are small; they think every little bump in the road is a catastrophe."

"That's pretty insightful. Sounds like you've been through it yourself. Care to share?" he offered.

"Maybe some other time." Her shrug was off-hand and entirely shameless. "But I asked you first."

He snorted at her bluntness. "That's some nice logic you've got there."

"Thank you. I'm rather happy with it."

Souji knew that he wasn't going to get out of this short of blowing her off and walking away, and while there was a part of himself that wanted to do just that, another part knew that he could trust Mei-san and Natsuki-san. They were unorthodox by nature, but they had been good friends to Chie and Yukiko, and the time Souji had spent chatting with Mei-san over the computer, discussing business portfolios and economics, had told him that she was solid. The fact that she was being this direct, almost antagonistic, when she'd been welcoming up to now told him that she was doing it deliberately, probably because she knew that being nice would have given him an out. She wanted him to get past his problems faster so he wouldn't worry Yukiko.

He didn't want to talk about his problems, however. They were his problems, and he could handle them on his own. But even entertaining that thought proved it false. Ever since his mother first called, he could feel things slipping out of his control. He felt like these new developments with his parents, even if they didn't go any further than they already had, were changing too many things for him to keep in line. Maybe he did need to talk to someone about it. Someone who didn't have a stake in this mess, who wouldn't meet him halfway like his friends were wont to do. He gave another sigh, braced himself, and told her about his unexpected encounter with his mother, the ramifications that the meeting had on his situation, and how he was concerned about where this was going to go in the future. He threw in his concerns about his father for good measure, just to see how she'd react. Baring himself like this wasn't something he particularly wanted to do, but she'd asked what was bothering him, so she was going to get it. "Does that help?" he inquired when he was done.

She looked at him pensively before nodding, blowing smoke from the cigarette she'd lit while he was talking. She'd considerately moved downwind from him when she brought her smokes out. "Yes, it does."

"Good," he told her shortly, feeling raw after talking about everything. "Then we don't need to talk about it anymore."

"There is one thing I'll say," she told him before he could move away. "I think it's at the heart of your problem, actually."

"And what's that?"

She flicked some ash from her smoke and turned to stare him in the eye. "You need to stop being such a control freak."

Souji straightened, almost recoiled, at her words. "Excuse me?" He bristled, teeth gritting.

She held up a hand to keep him from continuing, if only for a moment. "Let me explain. I don't say that as a bad thing, or at least not as a completely bad thing. Given what you've said about your parents, I can see why you have the opinions that you do, and I'd probably have ended up the same way. In a lot of ways, it's a good thing you are the way you are. It helps you plan things and make good predictions based on the information you have. It also helps you stay steady when things do go sideways. But there's a bad side to that trait, and this is one of those cases. Everything you just talked about, with your mother and your father and where Yukiko fits in, it's all too big for you to handle. It's too big for anyone to handle. All sorts of things are going to happen outside your control, and that's how life is. If your mother's in Inaba, then she might run into Yukiko's parents and some of your friends, and it sounds like she's already making nice with your cousin. Lots of things could happen, and any one of them could blow the top off of your plans. The thing is, you can't change that stuff from here. Even if you were there right now, you probably wouldn't be able to keep everything under control, and trying to would be a 24/7 job. That's not an existence you want to have. You have your own life to live, and that means working and going to school and making Yukiko happy instead of running around putting out fires. Letting this stuff dictate what you do will cause a lot of problems in the future, and it won't solve the overall issue in the end."

"And what do you suggest?" Souji growled. "That I just let it happen?"

"You pretty much have to at this point, don't you?" Mei-san pointed out, not backing down. "Whatever you think of your mother, she's her own person. She has her own resources and things she wants to do, so unless you plan on locking her in a cage somewhere, things are going to happen outside your ability to control. Same as your father, if he comes back into the picture."

"Don't even talk about that," Souji told her, turning to stare at the busy Kyoto street below.

"That's what I mean," Mei-san pointed out after an inhale. "You're afraid of what's going to happen, and maybe you have good reason to be, but you don't want to let other people handle the consequences of what happens. People like your cousin and your uncle and your friends. Especially your friends. They're involved in this situation whether you like it or not, and I think you need to let go a little and trust them to act in your best interest. If they are your friends, then they won't stab you in the back or ditch you just because thing get hard, and it's not good for them if you turn yourself inside out trying to control something that's bigger than you."

Souji was quiet for a while, letting the words sink in and cool his blood a little. "That's not what I'm worried about," he admitted. "What will people think if things go wrong because of my parents? What if they have their own lives and they're doing great, but I'm what drags them down?"

"You won't," Mei-san assured him immediately.

Souji shook his head. "You don't know that. You don't know my father."

"No, but I do know your friends, and they won't take crap from him lying down. Yukiko definitely won't. Neither will Chie, and Risette and Hanamura are pretty tough too. You're treating them like they're all going to go down without a fight as soon as things turn bad, and that's not who they are. You're the sort of person who's been in their corner all this time, but they'll do the same for you. It's easy to see just by watching how you guys act around each other." He was silent, so she took another drag. "If you believe in fate or cosmic coincidences, then this stuff with your mother is probably happening so that you learn that you can trust them and let things happen, no matter how much it scares you. Shielding them from problems isn't going to help them, and it's not going to help you either."

Souji bit his tongue. Mei-san's words cut past his fears for the others and all the crap he'd been keeping to himself. She was right when she said that he was afraid of losing them, of bringing it all down around them – of watching them fall and die right in front of him like when he'd faced Izanami. That cold, horrific moment when silent emptiness occupied the spaces where his friends and comrades had stood. The drawn-out minutes as reality sank its teeth into him and he couldn't deny what had happened. The screams that burned in his chest and the desire to die with them rather than lose them and live. He'd brought them back, he'd protected them and together they'd fought Izanami and prevailed, but the loss he felt, even if the others didn't go through it or remember it, hadn't gone away. For those brutally long few minutes, it had been real, and their victory hadn't changed that.

He choked out a breath, pushing those memories down. Was this what the others had gone through when they'd faced their Shadows? Having their deepest, darkest sides revealed to them and to others and being unable to cram those problems back into the hole they'd been born from? The fear, the loss of control, seeing the things they loved waver in front of them like a mirage about to vanish, had this been why they'd denied their Shadows? If so, then Souji couldn't blame them for reacting like they did. To quote Yosuke, it sucked having to face yourself.

Mei-san was right, though. He needed to let this go, or it was going to fester and slowly poison him. Yukiko had told him the same thing, but hearing it from someone who barely knew him, someone who seemed able to read him and wasn't afraid to tell him what she saw, made it clear. He had to let go of those fears, or at least stop letting them govern his actions. He had a life to look forward to, a life with Yukiko and Nanako and all of his friends, and he needed to trust them enough to let them help him if things got that bad. He needed to trust them enough to let things happen on their own. "You make some good points," he began after he collected his thoughts.

She raised an eyebrow, apparently skeptical. "But?"

Souji shook his head, feeling his head clear and his emotions wind down. "No buts. Those are good points. There's a lot of stuff that I have to let go of. It's just that it's happening all at once and out of the blue, so..." he trailed off.

"No one expects you to drop those problems right away," she told him. "Being aware of the situation in the first place and knowing what the stakes are is good practice, and you might end up having to deal with those problems later on. But there's a difference between being cautious of what might happen and being afraid before it actually does. Have fun with Yukiko and make the most of your life. Let your mother do what she wants. Worry about this stuff when it happens, not if it does."

Souji chuckled. "Do you moonlight as a shrink?"

"I took a few psych courses last year," she admitted. "It helps with negotiations when you can get a read on people. And they were easy credits."

"Figures."

"No charge," she told him calmly.

Souji let out a heavy breath, straightening. The fear was still there, but he'd keep it under control. One step at a time, that was the best he could do right now if he didn't want to crack. He glanced over at the woman. "Why did you come here?"

Mei-san put out her cigarette and flicked the butt into a nearby trash can. "Yukiko wanted to let you know that we have dinner plans. Natsuki dragged her off to go shopping and she didn't hear back from you when she texted you, so I'm playing messenger."

A messenger with some impressive timing, given what had been on his mind. "An apt description," Souji noted, checking his phone and seeing that, yes, he had missed Yukiko's texts.

She tilted her head, looking curious for the first time since they began their conversation. "How so?"

He shook his head, brushing the inquiry off. "It's nothing. Just a bad joke. Where are we going for dinner?"

"A place where you don't pay for a meal and get a lot of garnish with an empty plate," Mei-san told him dryly. "Natsuki found it a while ago and the reviews have been promising. It's near your hotel, and we promised to take Yukiko out after classes were done."

"That's nice of you," he noted.

"We invited Chie too," Mei-san continued, "but she seems to be busy with her man tonight, so we'll have to settle with you two."

The woman's steady delivery made Souji smile in spite of the mood he'd been in before. Whatever else happened down the road, Yukiko and Chie had found some very good friends in these two. "I'll try to make up for her absence, in that case."

"Glad to hear it." Mei-san led him down the street toward a small park where they saw Yukiko and Natsuki-san – dressed in red and strong splashes of colour, respectively – chatting and carrying some shopping bags. Mei-san sighed. "I hope she didn't buy too much."

"Is that a common problem?"

"Not really," she admitted. "Natsuki's pretty picky about what she spends money on. Her problem comes down to space and how much she doesn't have."

From the times he'd gone shopping with Yukiko, Souji knew that she wasn't a big spender on frivolous things. For someone who grew up with the space of a ryokan around her, she was rather particular about what she bought and what she didn't, seeming to have found her preferred look and sticking to it rather than changing with the fads around her. Though to be fair, Souji had been surprised to see her wearing jeans when he'd arrived. Maybe being in the city was expanding her horizons. He liked the looks she'd adopted so far, so perhaps she'd continue to surprise him.

The girls came up to them, chattering about something and laughing at a joke Natsuki-san had told. When Yukiko approached, she slipped into her place at Souji's side, wrapping an arm around his and leaning in close. "Are you okay now?" she asked.

He raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"You seemed like you were stressed about something, so we didn't want to impose," Natsuki-san supplied. "Mei volunteered to get you and see if you'd cooled off."

Souji sighed in resignation. Either his facade was well and truly cracking, or he'd subconsciously chosen to associate with people who could read him at a glance. He looked over at the slender woman who was presently blushing a bit and not meeting his eyes. "Volunteered, huh?"

"Don't read too much into it," she grumbled as she glanced away.

"Perish the thought." Souji squeezed Yukiko's hand and gave her a sincere smile. "I'm fine. I just needed some space to clear my head."

Yukiko looked at him closely for a second before nodding and leaning against his shoulder. "Good. I was worried you'd be stuck in your head after the other night with your mother."

Souji didn't say anything, grumbling on the inside about observant women in his life.

"We're going to dinner once we drop these off," Natsuki-san told him. "We promised Yukio and Chie once we were done our exams."

"Mei-san mentioned that. Where are we going?"

Natsuki-san told him and Souji recognized it as a chain he'd been to when he'd lived in the Kansai region when he was young. "That's a good choice," he noted, looking it up. According to his phone, the branch they were going to was within two blocks of where he was staying with Yukiko. "What time is our reservation?"

"As soon as we get there, if we leave now," Mei-san replied, checking her watch and looking at Natsuki-san. "We're going to be late if you don't drop that stuff off."

"So you'll help me carry them?" Natsuki-san asked hopefully, holding out half of her bags.

Mei-san cursed under her breath, but still acquiesced. "We'll meet you there," she told Yukiko and Souji a bit shortly. "See you soon."

Yukiko led him back toward the hotel, quiet and holding onto his arm. Souji enjoyed the closeness but he knew she was wondering about his absence that afternoon, maybe concerned even if she wouldn't say it. "You have some good friends," he observed, breaking the silence when they were in the elevator. "Natsuki-san and Mei-san, I mean."

She perked up, even if it was a neutral topic and not addressing what she knew the problem was. "You like them?"

"They're certainly interesting. Very colourful." Mei-san didn't need to wear something that wasn't monochrome to have some variety to her, after all.

"That describes Natsuki-san," Yukiko agreed. "I don't think I've seen anyone so attached to fashion and clothes before. I can't follow half of what she says when she talks about labels and manufacturers."

"You should take Rise with you next time," Souji suggested. "They'd have a field day."

"I'd feel sorry for whoever got to carry the bags," she giggled, tightening her arm around his. "Would you come with me if I invited you? Could I rent you out for the day?"

Souji gave her a crooked smile, brushing aside the mental image of being loaded down like a packhorse. "Only if I get to see you in whatever you buy," he replied as they entered their room.

She blushed, returning his smile with one of her own, still new and a bit awkward but undeniably sincere. "That goes without saying." She detached from his arm only to hug him directly, turning her head so he could hear her. "Are you okay? I was worried you'd be fighting with your mother or something."

"I wanted to talk to Nanako," Souji explained, reflexively bringing his arms around her and running a hand through her hair. Being this close to her slowly released the tension in him like a leak in a water jug. "I'm not sure if I'll catch her before Christmas."

"How did that go?"

"She's doing all right," Souji replied, not saying just who he was talking about.

She looked up at him, concern showing in those dark eyes. "And you?"

He couldn't resist her when she looked like that. There was something about her that made the truth come to the surface, and she'd been able to do that since they'd first met. He was beginning to wonder if she was conditioning him to not be able to resist her when they were together, and if that was the case, he didn't really mind. "I'm trying. It's not very much fun, and it's probably not going to be very easy, but I'll give it a shot."

"I'll be here if you need help," she promised. "We can always talk about these things, whatever's bothering you."

"Same to you," he replied. "You have to have some problems of your own, and I wouldn't be much use to you if I didn't help you through things."

"I don't think anything on my end is that bad compared to what you're going through," she noted.

"That doesn't stop the problems from being there," he rebuked her gently. "This is a two-way street, remember? I'll try to talk about this stuff, but you have to do the same." She was silent for a moment, and Souji sighed. He knew that she was trying to find a way to put him first and avoid "burdening him" with her problems. "This is non-negotiable. You have to pitch in too, or I'll ask Mei-san to keep tabs on you."

"If you do, I'll just bribe her with some sake," she replied, looking up with an impish smile.

"You're being a brat again," he growled in good humour.

"You love me for it," she sing-songed.

"I love you no matter what," he corrected, smiling at her rosy blush and goofy smile. He hadn't missed the fact that she'd dodged the point at hand. He wouldn't forget that, and he knew he'd have to cover this matter before he left.

"You're cheating again," she chided quietly as she turned red. "You know that's not fair."

"All's fair," he began as he looked at the clock on the wall. "It's a shame we have a reservation to keep," he told her quietly, slipping a hand down to her backside.

"Mei-san and Natsuki-san would get angry if we showed up late," she murmured regretfully, resting against his chest and looking at him with half-lidded eyes. "And they'd know what we were doing."

"So?"

She seemed to genuinely consider it, the air heating up until she shook her head. "They promised to take me out after classes were over. They've been looking forward to it, so I don't want to give them the wrong idea. But you're here for a while still. We'll have time for that."

"I'll hold you to that," he promised quietly.

"You'd better." she murmured back.

The air still sizzled, but began to cool down a bit, and their amour turned into comfort as they stood together, soaking in how the other felt. "We should get going soon," he told her after a few silent minutes like that.

"We should," she agreed in a whisper.

"Do you need to change?"

"Probably."

"Then you should get to it."

"Yep."

He wasn't sure if she was tired at this point, or if she was just acting needy. "Or are you going to fall asleep?"

"You could carry me to bed if I did," she offered.

"You're being a brat again."

"Mm hm."

Souji sighed good-naturedly, pulling back and prying her arms off of him. "Come on, let's get to it."

Yukiko let him go reluctantly, pouting a bit before leaning up for a kiss. "Give me a minute?"

"I'll give you two," Souji replied, feeling generous. "If you fall asleep I'll get a bucket of water."

She waved him out, going for her bags while he waited in the hallway by the door. She wasn't done in two minutes, but to her credit, she wasn't much longer. Souji had heard stories from his classmates and coworkers about how long girlfriends could take to get ready, trying on every dress or outfit and still not being happy with it. He kept to himself that Yukiko wasn't like that, seeming to know what she looked good in or what she wanted to wear and getting into it without too much fanfare. Even when she wore that dress when they had dinner with his mother, she took far less time than he'd expected given how much work she'd put into her appearance. This time she wore a familiar combination of skirt and leggings with a button-up blouse as red as a carnation. To him it felt like an evolution of her usual style, different without her usual cardigan but more like an adult without it. "Thanks for waiting," she told him as she approached and slipped into her shoes. "See? No water required."

"I'll save it for next time," he promised.

"Mei-san and Natsuki-san should be there soon," she told him, tugging him toward the door. "Let's go."

Souji smiled, wondering where her lethargy had gone. "Lead the way."

The restaurant, when they arrived a few minutes later, was a classy affair that was filled with the lights and sights of the season, but wasn't too crowded. Mei-san and Natsuki-san met them just outside the door and together they found a booth that had as much privacy as one could hope for. When Souji looked through the menu, he gave a mental sight of relief; he wouldn't go broke if he covered Yukiko's dinner as well as his own.

"Drinks are the best way to unwind after exams," Mei-san explained when the topic of libations came up.

Souji was a bit dubious, but he curbed the urge to make any suggestions. He didn't want to come across as the control freak Mei-san had pegged him as before, not where Yukiko was involved. This was her time off too. Luckily, what she ordered didn't sound very hard. He'd never had a Tokyo Iced Tea before, but it sounded pretty benign.

They placed their orders and struck up conversation, talking about their various classes and instructors, the hijinks of their classmates, and how they were glad that the semester was over. When the drinks came, Souji kept a judicious eye on his fiancée but she seemed to be doing well. Her words were fine and she was in the middle of the conversation, talking about some of her classmates and the various projects they'd had to do.

Their food came and he relaxed, enjoying a stiff cocktail that Mizushima had introduced him to during one after-hours bar run. Everyone, including his fiancée, dug into their food as they socialized, so he wasn't too concerned about anyone drinking on an empty stomach. When the conversation turned to him, he added what he could around his dinner, talking about work and giving a condensed, family-friendly version of how he'd landed the job in the first place. He let Natsuki-san take the conversation over when a passing customer's jewelry caught her eye. That brought up a discussion about various shops and designers in the area who dealt in earrings and necklaces.

"Anyway," Natsuki-san was saying, "we were talking to them about their collection, and you wouldn't believe what they paid for it."

Souji was going to ask when Yukiko bumped into his side. "I know, I know!" she interjected, her words slightly slurred. "The collec... coll... Hmm... Colek shin? Koleksh in? Call lection!" she tittered, bright-eyed and tripping into an Amagi giggle fit as she swayed back and forth.

Souji looked at her with dawning horror, glancing at her glass. It was only a third of the way down, but he remembered that she'd ordered a second one after praising the first for tasting good and being suitably sweet. "Yukiko, are you all right?"

"Fiiiine," she replied, flushed and shuffling over to his side. "Bett'r than ev'r."

She'd taken possession of his arm again, so he asked Mei-san to pass him her drink, trying to ignore the amused gleam in the girls' eyes as they watched them. He took a few sips before he tasted the bite of the alcohol, then quickly looked up just how many ounces of liquor were in a Tokyo Iced Tea. His eyes widened when he found out and did the mental calculations.

"Is there a problem?" Mei-san asked calmly.

"She's trashed," Souji noted.

"I'm not!" Yukiko objected.

"Is she a lightweight?" Mei-san inquired, raising an eyebrow but not looking very concerned.

"She's completely new at drinking, to my knowledge," Souji replied, his hand slipping down to Yukiko's waist to hold her steady. "And she's about six ounces in, assuming they don't cut their drinks here."

Natsuki-san looked her friend over, giving a shrug. "If this is as bad as she gets, then I don't see why it's–"

"Meeeiii-saaaaan," Yukiko drunkenly objected, pushing even closer into Souji's side. "You can't have my fiancé."

Mei-san blinked, as did Natsuki-san. "What?"

"Going to talk to him, vol'nteering an' saying he's having problems," Yukiko clarified unsteadily. "You can't have him. He b'longs to me."

"No one said anything like that," Souji informed his girl, very glad that the booths and tables were as far apart as they were. He'd prefer not to draw a crowd in case Yukiko went further.

"Good!" the Amagi heiress declared before taking a long draw from her drink. She kept it out of Souji's reach so he couldn't take it away from her, and neither of the ladies moved to help. "No one's 'llowed to say anything I don't say! King's orders! No, Queen's!"

Memories of Club Escapade ran through Souji's mind. The only positive thing that ran through his head, fleeting as it was, was that at least Rise wasn't drinking with them. "Oh god..."

Natsuki-san was chuckling, ignoring Souji's pointed stare. "King? Does she mean what I think she means?"

Souji was going to reply when Yukiko drew her legs up from under her and hugged him tight, rubbing her face against his chest like she was trying to burrow into him. "Mmm, miiine," she insisted, stroking his chest.

Mei-san covered her mouth as she laughed, looking over at him speculatively. "Is this the first time she's been like this?"

"The first time with real booze, yes," Souji confirmed, trying to hold Yukiko's hand in place and not attract any more attention. She used the chance to steal more sips of her drink.

"Real booze?" the woman asked, growing even more amused. "Sounds like a story. Care to share?"

"Not right now, no."

"We shuld get some chopsticks," Yukiko suggested, perking up and looking around. "Rem'mber last time? What did we... ohhh, I remember."

Souji clamped his hand onto her hip, preventing her from crawling onto the seat. "This is close enough, sweetie."

"But I can hug you, riiight? You're sitting right next t' me..."

Souji looked at his dinner companions, blushing in spite of himself when he saw how hard they were trying not to laugh out loud. Natsuki-san was fiddling with her phone and he could only wonder how many pictures she'd gotten already "Would you mind if we cut this short? We'll make it up to you tomorrow."

Yukiko squirmed up against him, managing to half-crawl into his lap and trying to kiss his neck while he was speaking.

"I think that's for the best," Mei-san noted as she poured herself another drink. "They'll definitely kick us out if she starts taking her clothes off."

"Please don't give her any ideas," he muttered, shuffling toward the end of the booth. "Let's get you to bed."

"Heeeeyy, you can't leave me," Yukiko objected, pouting against his chest where she refused to let go. More than half of her drink was gone now.

"We're not leaving you here."

"I jus' heard you! You did!"

"I said we'll both leave," Souji clarified. "You and me."

That seemed to calm her down. "Mmmm, okay. You can take me w'th you when you leave. To Fujis... Fugesas... home with you. Th'n we can be together forever."

"At least she's a happy drunk," Natsuki-san offered. "It would be a lot worse if she got angry. Or cried. Crying's the worst."

The idea of Yukiko angry and trying to incinerate him in a drunken rage was enough to sober him up in a heartbeat. The questions he'd have to answer, about why she kept shouting "Perrshona!" and talking about an ancient Japanese goddess, would have been mortifying. "That's really not helping."

"You can go to w'rk and I'll cook f'r you and raise the kids," Yukiko continued as her dark eyes glittered. "No more trav'lling and long d'stance. We can live happily ever after!"

"Do you have any suggestions for sobering her up?" Souji inquired.

"Put her to bed and let her sleep it off," Mei-san suggested simply, not moving from her seat while she watched with clear amusement. "Give her water and aspirin in the morning, and keep a bucket next to the bed."

Souji was trying very hard not to think about the next morning. Hopefully Yukiko's hangover wouldn't be too bad. "Thanks."

"You're ign'ring me again," Yukiko pouted, hugging him tighter.

"Not at all," he replied, hugging her and stroking her back.

She purred like a cat, oblivious to angles Natsuki-san was getting with her phone. "Mmmm, good." Just then the sports station being shown on the TV near them changed to the news and she looked up with a crooked smile. "Mmm, that's it!"

"What?"

"We c'n go into the TV! That'd make you feel better. It should be nice and sunny there now, right?"

Souji shook his head with a sigh.

"Into the TV?" Natsuki-san asked, tilting her head in curiosity.

"It makes sense," Mei-san noted. "You're friends with Risette, so I guess she would have taken you to a set for a show at some point."

"Pretty much," Souji agreed, deeply grateful that no one was taking Yukiko seriously.

"Sunny an' warm," his girl continued. "Maybe we could go to the beach while we're there. Oh, or we can go to the beach right now! No one would be there, right?"

"That's because it's December," he pointed out. "And it's freezing out there."

"We c'n still go swimming. Just dress up. I'll keep you nice and warm..."

Souji shook his head. There wasn't much chance of her sobering up anytime soon. "Can you help me get her out of here?" he requested of the women across the table

"Are you sure?" Mei-san inquired, her smile turning cat-like. "We don't want to spoil her fun."

"I'll help you," Natsuki-san offered. "You'll need help once she gets outside."

Souji nodded. "I appreciate it."

"We're going home?" Yukiko asked, putting her now-empty glass on the table. She shuffled over and slipped a bit, almost banging her head on the table.

"Yes. Come on," Souji coaxed, getting out of the booth and holding her hands as she rose. She swayed even more while she was on her feet, but she didn't fall over. Instead she clung to him and sighed happily. "Looks like we'll have to pick this up next time. I'll pay you back tomorrow."

"This was worth the price of admission alone," Mei-san informed him with a smirk. "Do you know if Chie handles her booze like this too?"

"Talk about that after I'm gone," he requested, holding Yukiko by one side while Natsuki-san handled the other. They managed the stairs somehow and handled their ward, who was pointing and laughing at the various holiday ornaments as they walked, as best they could. While Yukiko slurred and shuffled along, Natsuki-san seemed to adjust to her movement like a natural. The woman almost seemed able to guess where Yukiko was going to move and shifted along with her, keeping her moving forward far easier than Souji could. "Not your first time taking a drunk friend home, I take it?" he asked.

"I've been to a few parties," she replied, shifting again. "She's not doing too bad. You wouldn't believe how bad some of the first-years can be."

Souji could remember how bad some of his classmates had gotten after mid-terms. The cheers and shouting coming from the campus bar had drowned out the loud music with almost no effort at all. "I'll take your word for it."

"Wheee, so warm," Yukiko sighed when they entered the hotel lobby. "Muuuch better."

"Are you sure you want to use the elevator?" Natsuki-san asked. "That's not always a good idea with someone this drunk."

Souji could only imagine. The motion, the changes in direction, and the closed spaces would be a nightmare if Yukiko couldn't handle it. "I don't know if the stairs are any better. We'd take forever."

"It's your choice," Natsuki-san told him with a shrug. "Just keep her facing the wall if anyone else is with you."

"That's a cheery thought," he muttered as he took Yukiko into the elevator. "I hope we didn't ruin your evening too much,"

"It's no problem," she brushed off. "Like I said, this is nothing. Mei and I'll have lots to talk about, if nothing else."

Souji sighed, but smiled with his girl in his arms. "Enjoy it. Thanks again."

She nodded and patted Yukiko on the shoulder before leaving, letting the elevator doors close. Much as he would have preferred to take care of her alone, there were other people with them, so he nudged her into the corner and hoped that any forthcoming damage would be manageable. Once the car jolted upward, however, Yukiko giggled and laughed, almost slipping off her feet as she pressed against the wall and remained oblivious to the stares from the people around her. Once they stopped, six floors below their destination, she tried to leave but ended up clinging to Souji again. Her rubbing up against him turned him red as they got more stares, but he said nothing. He gently pulled her out of the car when they did get to their floor, having to adjust to her crooked walking which had gotten much worse than before. He decided to forego decorum and swept her into his arms, amidst her laughs and giggles, to get them to the room faster.

He managed to get them into the room, somehow getting the key out and navigating the door while Yukiko started kissing his neck, and he set her onto the bed with a sigh. "You're drunk," he noted. She looked bewitching, however, with her flushed face and half-closed eyes. The low light from the window – he hadn't been able to get the room lights on – made her look even more incredible.

"Am not," she denied, looking almost lucid. "Jus' having fun."

"Liquid fun then?"

She pawed at him, pulling him close for a kiss. He tried pulling back but she was surprisingly strong and wouldn't let go. The kiss was messy, as much tongue as it was lips, and it tasted of soda and strong alcohol. Souji's resistance began to weaken as she wrapped around him, filling him up, and didn't stop kissing. He was surprised when she flipped him over, her strength less affected than he expected, and then she was on top of him, purring down his throat.

"Mmmm... Mine," she whispered as she straddled him, breath hot against his face, smelling like lust and her.

Souji was trying for some semblance of control, thinking that if they were going to do this, he'd like her to be able to remember it the next day, but those protests were dropping further and further away. Her hands stroked his chest, her blouse coming half undone at some point, and she rested more and more on him, heating him up through their clothes. She broke the kiss and leaned down to his ear, murmuring something he couldn't quite hear.

"What's that?" he asked, breathless.

"This is won'erful," she told him. "An' I love you. G'night." She collapsed on him as though her arms gave out, and in seconds her breathing had steadied.

Souji blinked, unable to process what had just happened. What... had just happened? She'd gone from affectionate to amorous to... asleep? Did things happen that fast? Was this how she was with booze?

She giggled in her sleep, curling up to him and embracing him, but she didn't wake up. He couldn't move her without waking her up, and who knew what she'd be like if she did. Souji wasn't sure whether she would be hung over or need to throw up in the middle of the night, but he wasn't in a position to do much with her on top of him.

The sound of her breathing calmed his mind, as did the scent of her hair and the feel of her warmth on his body. Mei-san had told him that he needed to learn to let things go, and whatever happened in the morning, he'd deal with it then. He was on vacation with the girl he loved, and he'd go with the flow until something went wrong. He smiled, hugged her gently and relaxed.

If something went wrong, he'd handle it. Yukiko was with him, and he felt like he could get through anything that came up now. Maybe that would change, and perhaps those fears and doubts would come up again in the morning, but he'd take it a day at a time and see where it got him. His last thought, other than how wonderful it was with her up against him, was how he felt a bit lighter than he had that morning.


"I'm glad you're enjoying yourself," Yuuma told her distractedly, the sound of shuffling papers in the background loud enough to hear over the phone. "Give your brother my regards."

Izumi frowned; he'd already told her that once. She knew that he valued his work, but what was so important that he couldn't spare a few minutes to talk to her? "I have a question. It's about Souji."

"Mm hm."

His reply was so distracted that it didn't even sound like an inquiry, but more like a noise given by a man who didn't care about what was being said to him. Izumi clenched her free hand into a fist but began to speak. "When he came back to Kofu, did you ever–"

"Hold on, I have a call coming in that I've been waiting for."

Before she could protest, he switched lines and left her scowling and tightening her fist in frustration. Her texts to him had gone unanswered except for the briefest of responses, and she'd left messages for him to call her back that had, apparently, not been listened to. She'd wanted to speak to him and have a nice conversation, but the longer he ignored her, the more pointed her questions became and the less time she allowed for niceties.

She was beginning to understand just how much Ryo had put up with from her. If this was what he'd experienced, then she owed her brother a bottle of sake as an apology. It was the holidays, so she'd get him an expensive brand that was normally out of his price range.

After an insultingly long time, the line reconnected again. "Are you still there?" her husband asked, still apparently distracted.

"Yes," she replied testily.

"We were talking about Chisato and Nanako. How are they–"

"We were talking about Souji," she corrected him, her tone rather short. She didn't like getting this riled up so early in the morning, but her patience was starting to run thin. "Chisato passed away years ago."

"Did she? I see. That's unfortunate."

Izumi wanted to scream at him for making it sound like Ryo's wife being killed and left in the middle of the street was of even less importance than a restaurant menu, but she restrained herself. She had a line of inquiry to pursue and she wasn't going to get distracted. "I had a question for you."

"So long as it's a short one, I have a lot of things to do."

"You can't spare some time for your wife when you haven't spoken to her since you left? So close to the holidays, even?"

There was an icy silence on the line, but after several long seconds, she heard him sigh and shift around. It sounded like he was sitting back in a couch. "Point taken. What do you want to know?"

She settled back in her seat before speaking. "I've been thinking about something since I got here. When Souji came back to Kofu, there was a night when he seemed like he was having nightmares. They were bad enough that he was crying and it seemed that he couldn't stay in his room."

"He hasn't cried since he was a child," Yuuma noted. "Not since Kanashita moved away, I think."

That much was accurate; Izumi remembered how badly the girl leaving had hit him. Even if he was over it now, he hadn't taken it well back when it happened. "He doesn't cry over much at all anymore, which is why it stood out to me. Did you ever see anything like that when he was at home? Did he talk to you about anything that was out of the ordinary?"

"No, to both questions. He was busy with school and his friends most of the time."

Izumi nodded, her eyes staring beyond the walls of Souji's room. The memory had arisen the night before, from the rain to the dark, surreal scene to the wet, weak sound her son had been making. The memory tugged at her like a hand on fresh stitches and she couldn't help the feeling that her decision at the time, to back away and leave him alone, had been the wrong one to make. "I see. I'd hoped you could shed some light on the matter."

"He's not a baby anymore, you know," Yuuma rebuked gently. "He's grown up and he can look after himself. A few bad dreams aren't going to kill him."

"He'll always be our son," Izumi pointed out with fresh determination. "Even now that he's at university, even when he gets married and has children, that's not going to change."

Her husband chuckled. "I'm glad you brought that up."

"Brought up what?"

"You're in Inaba, and Souji's girlfriend lives there, or is at least from there. Have you been able to meet her yet? What have you found out?"

Izumi hesitated, instead asking, "Why do you want to know?"

"You were worried about what kind of girl he'd want to be with. I said he wasn't with anyone foolish like that Risette," he pointed out with a touch of humour. "I'd like to know that I'm right."

Izumi knew that the question was loaded, and as much as her first instinct was to answer her husband truthfully, she held her tongue. Yukiko-san had expressed her reservations about Izumi even knowing who she was, and Souji had told her about how Yuuma had been acting behind her back. There was more going on here than met the eye. It went against her grain, but she held back a little; she'd made a promise to Souji and she wasn't going to break it. She needed more information before she could get involved in this fight. "I've met her, yes. She's very respectable."

"Then I was right," Yuuma informed her, his smile evident.

"Yes, you were. Actually she's more than I think even you would have expected." Izumi recalled the short conversation she'd had with the young woman after the dinner in Kyoto, how Yukiko-san had outright told her that she wasn't allowed to interfere with Souji's life in as polite a way as Izumi had ever heard someone deliver such a statement. It brought a smile to the woman's face; that girl was certainly a strong one. "She's an excellent match for Souji."

"Do you have any details? What's her name? What does her family do? Would we know any of her relatives?"

Yuuma meant in the corporate spheres rather than social ones. Izumi couldn't think of the last time that either of them had gone out for a night on the town, wining and dining with friends with no greater motive than pleasant company. Everything had been business related for so long that she'd had to shut thoughts of her friends out, lest she see just how much her career had consumed her life. "I'm still looking into that. I haven't had the chance to make any clear assessments yet." It wasn't really a lie; Amagi Ryoko was a very hard woman to pin down.

"Let me know when you do. I'll look into them and see where they come from."

Izumi found herself hesitating, and she knew the reason why. Whatever misgivings she had about how her meeting with the Amagis had gone, she knew they didn't deserve that degree of scrutiny. She didn't like keeping things from her husband, but she wanted to make sure that she didn't do anything that would haunt Yukiko-san in the future – Souji would never forgive her if she did. "I want to know something."

"I need to get back to work, can this wait?"

"Not really, no."

He sighed. "Then what is it?"

"Did you get involved with Souji's housing arrangements and scholarship?" she asked directly. "He says that everything he set up in advance went sideways when he got to Fujisawa. He thinks you had something to do with it."

"He said the same thing when I talked to him," Yuuma informed her calmly.

Izumi didn't like that tone of voice. She knew how he sounded when he was calm but working, calm but active, calm but distracted. His tone now sounded different from that, and she knew there was more going on than what he was saying. "Did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Did you get in the way of the arrangements he made?"

"I can't help it if things turned out the way they did," he replied smoothly, the shrug evident in his voice.

That response was as clear as a smoking gun. "Why did you get involved?" she asked, not sure if she actually wanted to know. "There was no need for you to do that, and it makes you look like you're trying to control his life. I can't blame him for being angry at you."

"Souji's problem is that he's short-sighted when his blood is up," Yuuma observed with a touch of exasperation, like he was explaining something he didn't think he needed to. "Sometimes bad situations are the best thing for a person. You know that, right? Things turned out well for him in the end, and that's what matters. He secured his own housing and I understand that he has managed his financial situation while also getting a job in the area. Those are good skills for him to have for the future."

Izumi shook her head, an old feeling of sadness flickering to life in her heart. Yuuma still couldn't let it go. He presented himself as the "necessary villain" at times, citing some greater end goal that justified foul play in the present, and while it had appealed to the businesswoman in her years ago, she'd begun to see that behaviour as something that he couldn't escape. As Yuuma saw it, if Souji had given in and asked for help then he'd have learned something and been stronger for it. If Souji didn't ask for help, then he'd have to be self-sufficient and handle a crisis on his own, which also taught him something and made him stronger. It was Machiavellian by nature and Izumi found the idea of their own child being subject to those actions to be less and less forgivable. The feeling was amplified because she knew where it came from, and she knew that Yuuma probably didn't see anything wrong with what he was doing, nor did he appreciate how serious the side effects could be. "Souji's not you, you know," she told him softly. "And you're not your parents."

Yuuma's tone shifted, a crack appearing in his slick facade. "What do you mean?"

"Listen to yourself. Doesn't this sound familiar? Didn't it happen when you were going to university?"

"And I became better for it," Yuuma pointed out, apparently not understanding where she was coming from, same as how he hadn't when they'd discussed this in the past. "Why are you bringing it up?"

"Souji deserves to have a different life from either of us, you know. He should be able to do as he wishes, and if he gets into business or the corporate sphere, then it should be his choice."

"Of course he should," Yuuma concurred, not seeming to see the problem. "He has that different life right now, and he'll need to be strong if he wants to make the most of his potential. Life isn't going to be easy on him, and he'll need to be ready when things go wrong. You know that."

Izumi sighed. She wasn't going to argue the point, and just thinking of her in-laws, neither of whom were alive to see what their machinations had done to their son, was going to sour her mood.

"I have to get back to work," Yuuma told her curtly. "Keep in touch."

"You too. I love you, and make sure you look after yourself."

"I will," and the line went dead.

Izumi let out a breath, not sure what to make of the information she'd gained. She hadn't wanted to think that Yuuma would act against Souji like that, and the implications told her that she couldn't stay neutral in the matter. She also suspected that Souji had been struggling with something right after he'd come home from Inaba, especially now that she knew he'd been involved with a murder investigation, of all things. She wanted to call him and talk to him, to get some answers and find out what had happened, but she also knew that he was with Yukiko-san for the holidays and wouldn't have wanted his mother taking up his time. Nanako had spoken to him just the day before, and the girl's glowing praise of her Aunt Izumi was probably enough family talk for him for a while. But she mentally wrote a memo to herself to make the time to talk to him when the time permitted. Whatever happened to him, he was her son and she wasn't going to let him suffer if she could help.

Izumi got up and cleared a space in the room, steadying her breathing and falling into her familiar tai chi movements to centre herself and get the blood flowing. She was halfway through her katas when a knock sounded on the door. "Come in," Izumi replied as she moved slowly from one stance to the next.

"Hi, Auntie!" Nanako chirped when she cracked the door open. "Good morning."

"Good morning Nanako," Izumi replied, smiling but not interrupting her movements.

The girl stood by the door, politely waiting for Izumi to finish up. The very image of decorum, the girl didn't fidget or even look bored by the time Izumi was done. Instead, the girl looked interested and impressed. "Is that martial arts?"

"It's tai chi," Izumi informed her, working her words in with her even breathing. "A form of martial arts, I suppose. It helps me focus."

"It's different from what Chie-san does," Nanako noted. "I think she practices kung fu."

"Those two are quite different, yes."

"Can you teach me how to do it?" the girl asked, looking up with trusting eyes.

"You want to learn?"

"It looked fun, and you were really cool," she giggled. "You looked like a karate teacher in those old action movies, the ones where the good guy learns the ultimate technique and beats up the bad guy!"

"I wouldn't go that far," Izumi chuckled, "and tai chi's not the sort of thing that you would see in movies. But if you want to learn, I can show you the basics."

Nanako nodded enthusiastically and walked over to her. "What should I do first?"

Izumi walked her through the beginnings of a breathing exercise and showed her how to stand, explaining what they would be doing and how the slow, controlled movements would be different from normal fighting katas. The girl listened avidly and practiced the stances several times before she moved onto the next step. She teetered a little when Izumi showed her how to move, not balancing quite right, and when she tried to shift and pivot, she tilted over too much, flailing as she fell and giggling when Izumi caught her.

"That was fun!" the girl told her aunt once she was steady on her feet, already moving like she wanted to try it again.

"It's not something you should try on your own," Izumi cautioned. "If you want to continue learning it, then you should ask your father to find you a dojo or a teacher."

"If I learn it, then you and I could do what you were doing before!"

"We certainly can, Nanako. Is it time for breakfast?"

"Yep! I was going to ask you what you wanted."

"I'll defer to you. You've done a wonderful job so far."

Nanako blushed and giggled, leading her aunt downstairs where they put together a colourful breakfast of eggs, toast and vegetables. The conversation at the table was mostly dominated by Nanako asking questions about tai chi, and the more Izumi clarified on why she did it, the brighter the girl's eyes became.

They were cleaning up the dishes when Nanako looked up at her. "Dad said we could go to the shrine tonight. They have all sorts of neat things there, and they're putting a big celebration on closer to New Year's, too. Naoto-san and Teddie said they'd be there."

Izumi had heard of this Teddie, and as odd as the name was, she was looking forward to meeting another of Souji's friends. "That sounds wonderful, Nanako. Is there anything in particular you want to see or do there?"

"The snack stands always have really good food, and Okama-san makes the best hot chocolate. Everyone loves it so much that she runs out sometimes."

"We'll be sure to get there early then." Izumi hesitated before she asked her next question, not sure how the girl would react or even if she would understand what was being asked. "Nanako, do you know if Souji had any nightmares when he was here? Did he have a hard time sleeping?"

"Sleeping?" Nanako looked up thoughtfully, quiet for a moment before she replied. "He'd stay up late when it rained and got foggy, and him and everyone would study when they had to do their exams. Was that what you meant?"

"In a way, I suppose. I was more wondering if you've ever seen him get up late at night because of a nightmare, or if he was sad or depressed about something." Izumi didn't want to make the connection to the murders, wondering if Nanako would talk about those herself.

The girl thought some more before shaking her head. "I don't think so. He was quiet when he first moved here, probably because he didn't know anyone. But then Chie-san came over and I met Yosuke-san and Big Sis, and everything was a lot of fun after that. He always enjoyed it when they came over or when we went to Chie-san's house and played with her dog, and he got really happy when he was around Big Sis, too. She was the same way. I think she was sad about something before he came here, maybe because of school, but then she got happy and had fun with Big Bro. I don't know if he had nightmares though; my bedtime's before theirs."

Izumi covered her lips with a hand, smiling at the girl's assumptions that her friends still had bedtimes, and the way that Nanako talked about Souji and Yukiko-san and how they interacted was charming beyond words. Just the girl's description gave the impression that Souji and his fiancée were meant to be together and that them getting so far while they were still so young was as natural as the stars coming out at night. "I see. Thank you, Nanako."

"I'm sorry if that doesn't answer your question."

"That's fine. You've told me plenty."

The rest of the day was spent shopping for gifts and preparing to go to the shrine. Nanako was positively buzzing with excitement by the time they were bundling up to head out, so much so that Izumi had to gently remind her that Ryo had already agreed that he'd be there to meet them. "He won't break his promise to you, Nanako," Izumi told her as they left the house and began the walk. "Not at this time of year."

"Oh I know," Nanako assured her. "Dad doesn't do that anymore. He's gotten a lot better ever since we became a family with Big Bro."

Izumi was about to point out that they'd always been a family given their ties by blood, but she held her words when she thought of how that hadn't necessarily been true. It didn't surprise her that Souji had made a change in Nanako and Ryo's life given how they held him in such high esteem – in fact, everyone in Inaba seemed to have that same opinion of him. If anything, the comment made her smile as she saw yet another sign of the young man he'd become in her absence.

"But Teddie and Naoto-san will be there, and they really want to see you, Auntie!" Nanako continued, practically gushing and flowing over.

"Teddie doesn't know me though," Izumi pointed out as they made their way to the bus stop. "That's a bit of a tall order, isn't it?"

"I told him that you're my Auntie and Big bro's mom, and he wanted to meet you right away," Nanako giggled. "And Naoto-san and Kanji-san liked it when you visited them, too. We might see Big Sis's family there too!"

Izumi smirked uncomfortably at the thought of meeting the Amagis again. She wanted to learn more about Yukiko-san and work out how Souji had fit into the young woman's life, but she wasn't sure if she wanted to run the gauntlet again so soon after her first meeting with the pair had turned out the way it did.

Before long they were at the shrine, and Nanako ran up the stairs ahead of Izumi when she saw Naoto-san and Kanji-san there. Izumi followed and saw a brightly dressed blond young man who lit up like a city power grid when he saw her, racing over to her against Naoto-san's immediate warnings and objections.

"You must be Sensei's mother!" Teddie-san greeted her enthusiastically. "Nao-chan and Nana-chan talked about you. It's beary good to meet you!"

Izumi blinked before bowing a bit uncertainly. How had Souji met this foreigner named Teddie-san? Was it a bad choice of words that Teddie-san mixed "bear" into his wording like that, or did he not understand Japanese very well? Maybe that was it. He acted very familiar with Nanako and Naoto-san, after all. "Of course. I'm Seta Izumi. It's an honour to meet you."

"No no, it's an honour to meet Sensei's mother!" Teddie-san gushed, bowing deeper.

"Do you mean Souji? How is he Sensei to you?"

"Teddie holds Senpai in very high regard, Izumi-san," Naoto-san commented, coming up next to them and looking sharp in a dark blue blazer and slacks that fit her quite well. "I don't know if there was a clear reason for Senpai getting that particular appellation while the rest of us didn't, but it seems to have stuck."

"I see," Izumi murmured, not actually certain that she understood. It was encouraging to see that Souji had made such an interesting group of friends, but now she was curious why Souji had warranted such respect.

"Sensei's a wonderful person," Teddie-san continued, getting even more enthusiastic. "He gave everyone a chance to find themselves when they needed it, he kept going when things got hard, and he helped me grow myself and get used to everything here on this side! He's an amazing person, ma'am, and I'm sure you're proud of him!"

Naoto hissed, tugging on Teddie-san's coat sleeve while Izumi interpreted that as Teddie having come from America or Europe and being out of place until Souji helped him out. That had to be what Teddie-san meant by "on this side," after all. It wasn't such a great faux pas to make; lots of foreigners felt that way when coming to Japan. "I understand," Izumi told him. "I'm glad that you had such a good experience with him. It's clear that you look up to him."

"No one deserves it more than Sensei! Hi Nana-chan!"

Nanako bounded over to gush at Teddie-san, and Naoto-san sighed and slipped over to Izumi's side. "They're good friends. They've been like that since they met. It's amazing how fast they got so close, actually."

"Teddie-san is certainly interesting," Izumi noted with a smile, watching the pair as they chatting happily and pointed at the different food stalls on the shrine grounds. "Where is he from? His Japanese is a bit rough, but I can't place an accent.

"We're not actually sure, and you're right about how he speaks. He's always been like that, according to Senpai and the others."

"He's a bit strange," Ryo mentioned as he came up to them, keeping a watchful eye on his daughter, "but he's pretty harmless. Souji just brought him home one day and Nanako got along with him better than anyone else I've seen before. That was that."

"Doujima-san," Naoto-san greeted the man. "I'm glad you could make it."

He nodded gruffly to the young woman in reply. "I called in a few favours. As a heads-up, your phone's probably going to ring tomorrow, so make the most of your time here."

"I understand. Thank you for that." Naoto-san nodded politely to Izumi before returning to her beau, slipping an arm around one of his and watching Teddie-san with a remarkable degree of scrutiny.

Izumi smiled before looking around at the shrine. It seemed that they had come during a busy spell. All around them were families and couples, some of whom were talking to Kanji-kun and Naoto-san, and the food stalls were especially popular. The smells of the food were making her stomach growl despite her having eaten before they came.

"Hungry?" Ryo asked.

"I think I'll wait for now," she replied. "I wanted to ask you something, if you have a minute."

"Want something to drink, Dad?" the girl asked, apparently overhearing them.

"We'll be there in a minute, Nanako," Ryo told her. "Go say hello to your friends."

The girl nodded enthusiastically, scampering over to talk to a classily-dressed blonde girl and a young man wearing two sets of earrings, apparently together if their clasped hands were any indication. "She certainly doesn't lack for friends," Izumi commented, watching her niece as she flitted from person to person and brought smiles to every one of them, Teddie-san following closely.

"She's come a long way," Ryo agreed before looking over. "What did you want to ask me?"

Izumi let out a white breath before turning to her brother. "Did Souji have any nightmares while he was staying with you?"

Ryo gave her a look like he thought she was joking. "Is that a serious question?"

"Of course it is."

"He was here for a year, and that's not including the time between when he graduated and when he left for university," he pointed out steadily, like he was explaining something simple. "If he's like any normal person, then of course he had nightmares. Everyone does."

"That's not what I meant," Izumi clarified. "I'm asking if there was anything out of the ordinary about him, maybe as a result of him being tied to the murder investigation."

"Why are you asking?"

Izumi told her brother about that night in Kofu when Souji had broken down by the window, how out of place it had been for her in-control son and how she still couldn't reconcile the image even with what she'd learned so far.

"Nightmares like that aren't uncommon for people involved in strenuous situations," Ryo told her when she finished. "Lots of cops have that problem, especially the rookies. That's why they have mandatory debriefing sessions and psych tests and they get transferred once they've run out of steam. I never saw Souji have those sorts of problems when he was here."

"Nothing came up about the investigation when you were talking, then?"

"I didn't know he was involved until a little bit before Adachi turned himself in," Ryo explained. "I found out the same night that Nanako was kidnapped, and after that she was in the hospital. A lot was going on, and he seemed to take it in stride, which is why I know he was involved a lot earlier than he'll admit. But I wasn't looking for those signs at the time, so I don't know if he had those problems in May or later. I don't think anyone besides him knows the answer to that question, even with the friends he has now."

"I'll have to ask him then," Izumi noted.

"Give him some room," Ryo warned. "It's the holidays, and he probably doesn't get to see Amagi that often anymore."

"I'll wait until the new year," Izumi promised. "He deserves some time to himself. But I do want to know if he's handling it well."

Ryo gave her a sidelong look before grunting. "Sounds like you're taking this 'mother' thing seriously," he commented bluntly.

Izumi knew he was trying to bait her, and even a few weeks ago she might have taken offense to his words. But she knew what he was saying and she wasn't going to make excuses for her past decisions. "I said I would try, and I plan to do just that."

Ryo shrugged without replying, but Izumi knew her brother better than that. She could detect some measure of respect, and maybe even pride, in him that hadn't been there before. If that was his way of showing her tacit approval, and perhaps also the unspoken jab that he'd be around to help pick up the pieces, then she could say with certainty that he hadn't changed that much, and the familiarity of it warmed her heart.

They walked toward the offering box side by side, and the sound of steps on the shrine walkway brought an old memory to mind. Izumi smirked and held her hand out slightly, stopping Ryo and reaching into her pocket.

"What is it?" he asked.

Izumi didn't say anything. She brought a 100 yen coin out and set it on the end of her thumb, looked at the offering box and flicked the piece in from six or seven feet away. The coin rang as it twirled through the air and slipped through the wooden slats without a fuss, landing amongst the rest of the coins. Nanako and Teddie-san cheered and clapped for her, but she gave an arch smile to her brother. "Your turn," she murmured, instigating the competition they'd begun when they were young and hadn't let up on until she'd moved away and had Souji.

"Are you kidding?" he asked, half a smile cracking his firm facade.

"The best luck comes from the best throws," she told him, quoting their mother who'd first started the game. The woman had told them that if they wanted the best luck for the new year, then they should try and get their coin offerings in from the furthest distance they could. In retrospect, it had probably been a ploy to get the brother and sister to behave when the family went to the shrine together, but within minutes the siblings had turned it into a contest that ate up their spare change in no time. It had gotten so intense that they'd both taken part-time jobs on the weekends and practiced with friends to outdo the other, and their record remained firmly tied across the years. "Unless you can't do it anymore," she suggested with a smile. "There's no shame in that."

Ryo stared at her before reaching into his own pocket and pointedly taking two steps back from where she was standing, casually flicking the coin into the offering box with the same ease that she had.

Izumi dug out another coin and stepped back two paces from her brother, lining up her shot and sinking it easily. Ryo stepped back even further and made his shot, and back and forth it went until they were making overhand throws and asking Naoto-san to tell them where the coins were going. The competition had gained quite a crowd, and might have continued right back to the shrine stairs if Ryo hadn't just barely sunk his coin before calling an end to the game. "We're holding up everyone else," he pointed out, gesturing to the people around them, "and I don't have any more spare change."

Teddie-san immediately rushed forward with two handfuls of coins. "Here you go, sir! I don't mind! Until the war is won, the battle's bearly begun!" he announced fervently, Nanako echoing him with a pump of her small fist.

"They seem to want us to keep going. Are you conceding?" Izumi asked.

"Come back next year and we'll go all day," he promised. "Assuming that you last that long, of course."

Izumi smirked. It was the same trash-talk as usual, but it was also a good sentiment to end their game on. She had a reason to come back next year – probably before then if he'd allow it – and she wouldn't let it go to waste. "You're on."

He nodded, a tight grin on his face as he went to collect his daughter and allow the other shrine visitors to go about their business. There was some disappointment amongst the crowd, but the energy among the people had increased, and there were even some younger couples who began lining up their own throws to the offering box, apparently set on emulating a good idea. The shrine fox was slinking around the shrine grounds, she noticed, watching her with what she thought was approval. It was a ridiculous thought, really, since animals, even smart ones, wouldn't have cared about people throwing their money around. That didn't stop the strange canine from looking at her and glancing at the offering box, however. Izumi stood to the side and watched the people of Inaba, feeling the slower pace of life gently flow around her, and this time she didn't mind it as much. It wasn't the breakneck pace of Tokyo, but that wasn't such a bad thing. There was a shuffling next to her the she didn't respond to, assuming it was someone passing her by.

"Yukiko has good memories of this place," Amagi Ryoko told her quietly. "She said that Souji asked to go out with her here, and Kasai says that whenever Yukiko needed a place to clear her head, this was where she came. I doubt the connection is a coincidence."

Izumi didn't turn to the woman, instead thinking about that photo that Ryo had sent her. Before Izumi had left, she'd framed the picture and set it up in her office in front of her degrees and certifications. Just thinking about the image made her smile – Souji looking happy and at peace, like he belonged with the beautiful girl in red, set against the shrine's pillars and the enormous sacred tree. It was probably a special place for him as well, here in a town that he seemed to connect with more than any other place he'd lived before. "It's easy to imagine her here," Izumi replied. "Same as Nanako. I can't imagine her being in Tokyo. Inaba suits her."

"Might I ask what you wished for?" Ryoko-san inquired quietly. "With all the good luck you just accrued, you must have some wishes that you want to come true."

Izumi glanced over at the woman, seeing the expectant look on her face. This was another test, but Izumi knew on some level that there wasn't any criteria for a pass or fail. The woman wanted to see how she responded, and Izumi decided to say what was in her heart and damn what someone else thought. "I want them to be happy," she replied simply. "Souji and Yukiko-san. They have a lot to go through from this point forward, even if everything goes well. I hope they get through the worst of it stronger and happier, and that things get better from here on out."

"Do you feel that they'll still be together at that time?"

Izumi smiled. For a test question, that one had a very easy answer. "I think that's a given, don't you? They won't let anything get in the way of what they have right now."

"Those are some fine wishes, but what about yourself? Don't you want some good luck for your own endeavours?"

Everyone asked that question, or some form of it, when they saw the coin-tossing competition of the Doujima siblings. They saw how she and Ryo competed and assumed that they both wanted the best luck and the best outcomes because of how much money they threw into the shrine box. It was never about that, however. Good luck was something you made on your own, not something you asked for, and as Izumi looked over to where Nanako was drinking hot chocolate with her father, surrounded by friends and family and all the connections she'd made, only one word came to mind. "No. I don't need it. There are things I want to do, so badly that I can't wait for the new year to get here, but I'm not going to rely on luck and gods to get me there. Whether I succeed or fail is up to me, and nothing else."

Ryoko-san hummed pensively. "Strong words, if you don't mind me saying so."

"They're the only ones to live by, I've found."

Silence settled between them for several moments, long enough that Izumi glanced over to see if the woman had left or gotten distracted by something else. But Ryoko-san wore an expression that felt welcoming and readable, and her voice held a clear undercurrent of warmth this time where she'd been as smooth as a mirror before. "I'd like to meet with you again. For lunch or tea or whatever you like, and it doesn't have to be at the Inn. Just us, if you have the time before you go. There's no need for the men to get involved."

Izumi chuckled, reading between the lines. Amagi Ryoko was a formidable woman, even more than Yukiko-san had shown herself to be, and Izumi got the impression that the respect of both women was not easily earned. While the first meeting with each Amagi had not been without its trials, Izumi knew that she'd passed on some level. It wouldn't have bothered her much if she hadn't – she could always get closer to Souji and let the Amagi women do as they pleased and maintain a polite distance from them if need be – but there was something about Ryoko-san's words that made Izumi feel like she was making the right choice. Having her eyes opened had taken running into a wall and seeing the worst that Junko had sunk to, and there were still many problems to be dealt with. She couldn't even say that she and Souji were starting to get along better when the best they could do was sit in a room and not argue, and she had years of catching up to do with Ryo and Nanako. None of this was even accounting for what her job would look like when she got back home. But in saying those words and earning the canny woman's acceptance, something in her heart told her that this was where she was supposed to be.

"I'd like that," Izumi replied easily, giving the woman a knowing glance. "What day works for you? The sooner the better, no?"

There was a current of good humour in the woman's voice when she spoke. "I agree, Izumi-san. The sooner the better."

Post script: For those who haven't contracted diabetes yet, what was your favourite part? Or favourite two parts, since narrowing it just down to one might be unfair.

Next, some news regarding Continuance. The short version is that it's going a planned hiatus. The long version is as follows. Lately I feel like I've been edging the ideas and scenes of this story close to my other work, Change of Engagement. Switching back and forth with my alternating schedule has me worried that I'm just writing the same stuff for each piece without letting the tone and flavour of each story really come through to the degree that I want. Therefore, I am putting Continuance on hold and working of CoE until it is finished. I don't especially want to put anything on hold, but the alternative is that I continue as I have been, and my abysmal release schedule in the last 18 months shows that this isn't acceptable. In a nutshell, something has to change. Focusing on one story will allow me to finish one project faster so I can work on the other with fewer concerns. Firion, my newest editor, has pointed out that if I'm focusing on one story at a time, I can get my ideas across better and faster and in doing so, shorten the delivery time for both stories in the long run.

I'll pre-empt a few concerns people might have. Am I dropping this story? No. Not by a long shot. The story has become bigger than I ever imagined, and therefore it's something that I will finish. There's no guarantee that I will stick to this new method. If I try pushing CoE for a while and nothing's coming out, then I'll come back to Continuance and try something else. Plans change and if I strike upon something that doesn't work, then I'll keep trying new things until I hit the thing that works best for me. It's a disservice to the stories I want to tell if I dawdle along and don't give them the energy they deserve, or worse, release something substandard just because I couldn't focus. And Firion and I will be brainstorming notes and ideas for the future Continuance chapters even while it's on hiatus, so this time away from it will give us time to sharpen a few things and make sure it's all going to work. The fic has changed a lot in 30+ chapters, and my old ideas might not still fit like they did originally. For those who feel that I only just got back into the loop after spending so much time away, I agree that the timing is pretty shit. This is necessary for the vision I have for the story, however, so when something isn't working, I need to try other avenues. On the plus side, Firion's been a huge help in shaping ideas and helping me with the works as a whole.

Finally, Firion and I are putting together the notes and ideas for a Persona 5 fic called Casino Advantage. It's only in the concept stages so it's a ways away from even a rudimentary outline, but for those who want to see where I go with Atlus's most recent Persona installment, that's something to look forward to. I won't go into any details yet, but it is something you can look forward to in the future. Thanks to all my readers for sticking with me this long, and I'll be back as soon as I can.