Chapter 36: Sauna
June 26th, Velvet Room
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU WANT TO SIDELINE ME?!"
Shirou flinched and looked up at the fuming face of a black-haired devil hovering in front of him. "Now, Lilim—"
"You need me to fight off the other Shadows that fling curses and hexes around! You would have been dead without me literally sweeping that fight with the snake, the wheel, and the samurai! Not only am I helpful, but think of the A-material I can bring! You're going to a frigging sauna! You can't leave me out of this!"
If Shirou was perfectly honest with himself, this was part of the reason why he wanted Lilim absent from his mind. Her innuendo seemed to grow by the day as she went around with him, and she seemed almost stir-crazy at the prospect of getting a proper candidate to start The Devil Social Link. While he didn't see this power as a gross hindrance anymore, he still wasn't actively seeking to start up new links. They seemed to come naturally when they did, so he'll just wait and welcome them with open arms when they do.
"I've also already left Valkyrie with Margaret," he said, lightly glaring at the amused woman. "And she didn't make as much of a fuss."
"That's because her kind regularly fetches corpses from battle instead of taking part in them, but that's not the point! Why does SHE get to go?!" the she-devil screeched. It was obvious who she meant.
"Angel's my guide to Nanako who I have a Social Link with. I'd rather keep my active roster with Personas that can help me with my immediate friends and loved ones."
It was a new dungeon, and he wanted to be prepared in rescuing Kanji. He needed stronger, capable Persona, blessed by the Arcana. He hadn't noticed at the time as his fusion ability wasn't as grandiose as Igor's, but Sarasvati and Ippon-Datara were both slightly stronger from their original level. They were definitely coming along, as were everyone else.
He made a point to ignore how childishly smug Angel was acting in his subconscious, though. Clearly their century-old conflict of Heaven and Hell would never be resolved.
"That's still not fair! Why are you being a jerk about this?!'
"Because he's taking his power seriously."
Shirou and Lilim turned to see Eligor sitting next to his contractor (sans horse). "A fool he may be, but fools can only last so long through luck alone. A true warrior cultivates his power and skill so future conflicts will be met with easier effort."
"But I'm power and sexy in one card pack!" Lilim huffed. "Shouldn't he have as much power available as possible? Heck, he can bring Valkyrie too, while he's at it!"
Eligor shook his head. "The danger of having too many weapons at hand is lacking the skill or time to use them all. Most fighters stick with one weapon for their lifetime and perfect it. And if they branch out, then they master one weapon before learning the next."
The devil seemed to accept his argument, but still looked mad. "Yeah I guess he would want to master you sooner to get closer to Spat-skirt."
"On the contrary, I wish to also sit out of this sortie."
"Wait, what?" Shirou was just as surprised as Lilim upon hearing this. "But why? You're one of my leading fighters."
"Izanagi is your sword. Pixie is your wand. Cu Sith is your gale. Sarasvati is your frost. Ippon-Datara is your hammer. If you wish to master your fusion powers, you need to learn to make do with what's at hand. To understand your limits. That will help cultivate your judgment in using new powerful Personas."
Shirou found himself nodding to his Persona's assessment. The fight against Shadow Rise was still fresh in his mind as a near disaster, and he never had time to properly assess what Personas to use yet. If he couldn't handle them at this point, then forget saving Kanji; saving anyone would be impossible.
"Then where does Angel fit in all this?" Lilim demanded.
The lights in Eligor's helmet dimmed and narrowed as they glanced over him. "Moral conscience."
"I KNEW IT!"
Smartasses… Even Angel was offended.
"Do you guys have a point going on or do I have to kick your red pubic ass out of here?" Marie complained, eyes locked on her notepad. "You're making it hard to draw the cards you want."
"Are you really an amnesiac?" Shirou asked incredulously.
She looked up at him coolly and with a critical once-over. "Are you really the star of a harem show?"
Shirou's face flushed. Lilim grinned. Eligor awkwardly coughed into his gauntlet.
"I am not!" / "Hell yeah he is!" / "...possibly."
The other members of the Velvet Room were obviously amused, watching as mutely as ever. Marie simply shrugged and resumed her sketching.
Eligor quickly regained his composure and turned to his summoner. "That aside, do you remember the grafting technique you used on Izanagi?"
"You mean Trace Persona?" Shirou answered. That was a literal last-minute saving grace, turning a Persona into their iconic weapon, or at least one that best represents them. It was a miracle he turned Izanagi twice in succession with Teddie's help.
"I am concerned for Chie's weapon proficiency. At the castle she used a chain whip. An accident. At the strip club a staff. A coincidence. And now as we prepare to storm the sauna, she is considering yet another weapon. At this point, it is a pattern."
Shirou could see where he was going with this. "So you want me to Trace you into a new weapon for her?"
"Make him a lance!" she proclaimed, arms spread wide. "A HUGE one with a big, flaming head that can pierce the deepest wo—"
"Lilim, please," the red knight held out his hand like a father would to an overactive child. "Hierarchy men are now talking."
Shirou found himself smirking at how casually Lilim was shot down and reduced to angrily sticking her tongue out. It wasn't inaccurate either; Eligor was a Great Duke of Hell, and he led many legions of demons. The original Lilim were children born of Lilith and Samael to spite God in the Garden of Eden, before a new, deformed generation were conceived in Hell.
In other words, Eligor held authority over her kind. As did Shirou as their summoner.
"I have watched Chie's fights, and her talent lies in martial arts rather than a weapon. I want you to graft my card into a weapon for her, yes. But not a lance," he looked briefly at Lilim as her mood soured. "I want you to focus on my horse, and then turn him into a pair of greaves."
Greaves? An odd choice of a weapon as they're made to protect legs, not attack. But he could see Chie focus on kicking, despite her Persona using a polearm. "I think I can do that," he nodded. "What's your horse's name, anyway?"
Eligor shrugged. "If he ever had one, it is lost in history, and was never even mine to begin with. He is a fine steed that had lived in the Garden of Eden before reanimated by Beelzebub. Though I have taken to calling him "Abigor", after one of my pseudonyms."
Shirou thought it over, and turned to Igor and Margaret. "Could I get some help here? I'd rather have it not break down like my other Gradation Air attempts."
"It will, if you treat it like your previous Magecraft arts," Igor said. "You are probably the only one who understands the full concept of your Trace Persona ability. It is you and you alone that can set the limitations of your power, and break them."
"Consider it part of your training," Margaret added. "And don't worry. We won't let you 'stupid yourself' to death."
Well, at least Pixie was satisfied with that.
Shrugging, Shirou immediately dismissed Eligor into card form, and gently cradled the card in his fingers. He thought back to the steps of magecraft, with the careful focus on a predetermined form of footwear.
He then clenched his hand over the card, and a flash of light later, he was holding a pair of fur boots. They looked innocent at a glance, but the hoof design under the heel and lack of store identification would catch the attention of any sharp-eyed salesman. Structurally, they were very durable and even came with a minor fire shield charm. These Boots of Abigor were perfect, and had a bit of the lingering spirit of Eligor himself in them. Much like Teddie's projection, they wouldn't break down.
Still, he nearly fell over in exhaustion after the attempt. For now, he could only do this technique once a day, so he'd have to plan accordingly.
"Congratulations," Lilim deadpanned. "You got a weapon for your athletic not-girlfriend. Now all you have to do is put me in the book with Maggie here."
She then huffed, crossed her arms, and looked away with him, eyes shut. As much as she was accepting this now, she still didn't like being set aside. She was just a Persona, a facet of himself that may or may not be an extension of himself, but he preferred to think of each Persona as their own person.
"Marie, could you make me a Stagnant Air skill card next?"
Lilim's eyes snapped open.
"Geez, you love making me work, don't you?" Marie huffed with no real venom. She then handed him the card she was working on. "Not that I'm complaining. I could use the distraction, and I owe your little she-devil for that nickname: can't believe I didn't think of Maggie sooner. Anyway, here's your Media card."
"Thanks," Shirou said, accepting the skill card and turning to the she-devil. "There. Now you have a new skill to look forward to when I get ba-AACK!"
Lilim had tackle-hugged him to the side, clutching his side a bit too closely to her slim body. "I LOVE YOU MY LITTLE ROM-COM LEAD!"
"I AM NOT A ROM-COM LEAD!"
Maybe this wasn't the best idea…
For the umpteenth time, Naoto called Kanji's cell and got no answer. "I was careless."
No one had come after Kanji Tatsumi at all during the rainy days, and during that time Naoto's grandfather had called him up to discuss something. That something turned out to be talking about old stories of his parents, continuing the long trend of police detectives that took on any case.
It was nice to unwind and think back to those days, but work never rested for long, and Naoto knew if they were still alive, they would continue to solve cases and find the truth of said mysteries.
They were a team, after all, well respected. They got far together in a male-dominated work force. Naoto couldn't afford a single mistake if he wanted to be as successful as them.
And yet he did just that; Kanji was under his charge and for the few hours he left to see his grandfather, he was gone just like the others. If only he hadn't listened, if only his grandfather didn't call-
No, it wasn't Grandpa's fault. It was my decision in the end to go see him, and he had told me before that it wasn't urgent. I should have anticipated this and brought Kanji along, but…
Maybe I shouldn't have pushed to stay over that night.
That argument shouldn't have happened. Naoto could see Kanji was upset about the very idea of him staying over, but he persisted on the issue anyway. The bleached-haired teen refused to look or talk to him after that, so Naoto thought the call couldn't have come at a better time. He'd catch up with his grandfather and give Kanji the needed time to calm down before the day was over.
Part of Naoto hoped Kanji was just fuming mad and acting out, finding more biker gangs to fight. He had been growing more hostile ever since the talk with Emiya and Amagi, and despite Naoto's best efforts he refused to talk. There was another possibility in that he would show up at Junes, as people from all over town came here to shop.
But it was becoming apparent he might have to call the police for help, despite the fact that they had dumped the responsibility for Kanji on his shoulders, including finding him after losing him. No one was convinced that Kanji was missing yet, but that would change in a few days' time.
Then again, maybe it was also a hurt sense of pride of having to rely on them in the first place. Whether they believed him or not, this would give them an excuse to look down on his failure.
"Oh, it's you again."
Naoto recognized the dismissive kind of tone, but it took a while to jog his memory of who. Looking up, he saw a copper-haired girl wearing an orange, floral stamped blouse and white khakis. He briefly noticed a small heart-shaped locket around the girl's neck before registering her face. "Ah, Kujikawa-san."
"Shirogane," she returned, clearly still angry but at least trying to be polite. She quickly glanced around the store. "Where's Kanji Tatsumi?"
Naoto's eyes narrowed. "How do know his name?"
"Geez, I get you're playing detective, but do you have to suspect everyone?" Rise snapped with a growl. "We go to the same school, and a lot of the first-years gossip about him. He only seems to ever hang around you though, so it seems weird that you're here but he isn't." At this point she actually looked sad. "I know his mom through my grandma and I heard some… concerns, so I figured if anyone knew what happened to him, you would."
"I see…" Yes, that would be logical to assume. Rise and Kanji both attended Yasogami High, and she'd probably heard his name more than once in the weeks following her entry. And living just across the shopping district street would mean she'd know right away if something was wrong there.
With those facts in mind, the detective frowned and fiddled with the helm of his cap. "Truth be told, we had a… disagreement the other day. I had hoped to give him some time to himself, but when I came back he wasn't at home. I have no idea where he could be."
"Oh," Rise said sadly. "He wasn't… kidnapped, was he? Like the announcer lady and that one third-year?"
"Too early to say," said Naoto. "It's the worse-case scenario I would like to avoid, though, but I don't know how to find or contact him."
"Maybe it was something that happened that made him snap? Like that disagreement you two had?"
Naoto's frown grew. "…perhaps I had pushed too much when I suggested we spend the night together. I always knew he was an odd boy, but to react like that—"
"Odd? What do you mean?"
Naoto thought twice about telling her, but she seemed genuinely concerned about Kanji. Fact is, this was an urgent matter and he needed all the help he could get. "He seems to hold a front of forced bravado almost constantly. I recall a number of times when I or someone else asked him about odd or strange behavior, and he would react as if being unfairly criticized. I can only assume it has something to do with a trauma, or perhaps a case of gynophobia."
Rise blinked, trying to remember what the word meant, before leaning forward in a hushed tone. "You're saying the scariest delinquent of Yasogami High is afraid of girls?"
"At the very least, he abhors feminine behavior. He is also socially withdrawn, constantly abrasive and trying to prove himself. After spending several months with him and thinking back to these signs, I'm fairly certain he has an inferiority complex."
"Girls and inferiority complex," Rise repeated to herself. She then nodded to him and started to head for the elevators. "Thanks, that's all I needed to know."
"Can I ask you something?" Naoto called out. Rise didn't turn, but did stop to listen as she waited. "I'm thankful you are concerned and looking for him, but I can't help but wonder why you, a former idol, would care to do this. As I just told you, he holds a general aversion to many of the girls at school."
A tense moment passed. Naoto didn't think she would really answer, and didn't blame her. He was about to leave and try searching the town when she spoke again. "I was in his position once, the teasing bit I mean."
Naoto blinked before nodding in understanding. "So you empathize with him."
"Yeah. It's not easy fitting in while being the weird or odd person out. And if what you told me is true, that complex thing… then he really needs to know that there are people that worry and care for him."
"I see… And for what it's worth, I'm sorry."
This time, Rise fully turned to face the detective. "Huh?"
"You were right, about how I treated things like a game. I have a lot of pressure on my family name to solve this case, and I'm viewed with as much contempt by the police as by you. And it wasn't fair taking things out on you, whether you were really kidnapped or not.
"I just…" Naoto paused, hiding his face under his hat further. "I don't want anyone else to die. Not when there's something I could do to make a difference."
Rise was honestly surprised. She still had some bitter feelings upon first meeting Naoto, and she didn't think he took her words seriously. Looking back, he tried to placate her on the lives of others, but she assumed he was trying to guilt her into complying. Instead, he was just that committed, perhaps even more than most of the cops that just wanted the disappearances to stop.
This Naoto guy reminded her a lot of Shirou.
"I see," she said, before smiling. "Well, maybe I was a little too quick to judge myself. You're not so bad after all, Naoto-kun."
"I thank you," he nodded briskly, still hiding his eyes under his hat. Rise swore she could see a faint smile and tear trail. "Good day, and good luck."
"You too," she said, and watched as the young detective left the Junes front entrance. At the same time, the elevator door finally opened… next to the one Rise was waiting in front of it.
"Stupid Junes and their dual-linked doors," she cursed under her breath, digging her phone out to angrily text. "I blame Yosuke-senpai!"
Tatsuhime Shrine, Midday
"AAAACHOO!" Yosuke sneezed mid weed-pull, before chuckling. "I bet my new girlfriend's bragging about me!"
Tama just rolled her eyes and plopped back down on the bench she was resting on.
The back of the Tatsuhime Shrine had really cleared up over the past month thanks to their efforts, and Tama was so receptive of them that she allowed the Investigation Team to hang around as a sub-base from Junes. Today was Sunday, so that gave the Investigation Team all day to gather intel on Kanji while preparing for the dungeon, as well as other important errands.
Because as luck would have it, Kanji was too hidden in the foggy other world to be found on scent alone, as Yosuke could attest to checking on Teddie early this morning. It would be safe to assume from now on they would need more clues before searching.
Anyway, the gang had split up and checked around several points of Inaba for information gathering, before heading back to regroup at the Tatsuhime Shrine. So far only Shirou and Rise were left unaccounted for, so Yosuke took the time to weed out the rest of the field while Chie practiced with her new weapon.
Her friend Yukiko, who had agreed to watch, blinked bemusedly. "Nunchaku?"
"Yep!" Chie nodded, brandishing her new weapon in her hands. A pair of long, black, hardened sticks connected by interlinking metal chains. "Got it just in time for the new dungeon, and I think they'll come in handy this time."
From his position in the back garden, Yosuke looked up with an accusatory gaze. "Like the chain whip and the short staff?"
"They were learning processes! You switched out the wrenches, you know!"
"Yeah, and I stuck with dual blades," he argued. "Amagi-san is using a better version of the metal fan Daidara-san made her, too."
"And Emiya-kun switched to a bow and arrow! I don't get why you're complaining about my choice of weaponry."
Yukiko frowned, quickly intervening in the fight by pulling Chie away from Yosuke's earshot. "Chie, what's wrong?"
"Huh?" The brunette flinched, but shook her confusion off with a wide smile. "Nothing's wrong! I'm peachy-keen!"
"Honesty has always been one of your better qualities, Chie. So much that it's easy to tell when you're lying."
Yukiko may not be the most aware of the world around her, but when she focused on what she did know, she had no equal. It was how she could study and ace tests to be at the top of her class. And having known Chie for years, she knew without a doubt that something was bothering her friend.
Chie's smile crumbled, before sighing in defeat. "Was it that obvious?"
"I was there when you fought my Shadow and Rise-chan's," said Yukiko. "I know we need weapons to fight Shadows, but you're the last person I expected to pick one up."
Chie looked offended. "What's that supposed to mean?!"
"You're literally one of the strongest people I know," she replied quickly. "You'd sooner dash towards Shadows with your Trial of the Dragon moves than swing a staff around."
She had a flush growing, equally flattered and embarrassed. "Th-They're just that. Moves. Moves of an amateur."
Yukiko tilted her head in confusion. "Hanamura-kun looks self-taught in swinging his knives and he doesn't seem all that bothered about it."
"Like his opinion matters."
"And what about mine? Or Rise-chan's? Or Emiya-kun's?"
Chie looked ready to retort until the last moment, where her embarrassment came back two-fold and her mouth closed firmly. Just as the ebony-haired girl was about to ask what was wrong, the answer to her question came to her like a splash of water. "This has something to do with Emiya-kun, doesn't it?"
Nothing came out but a hesitant squeak. "…maybe."
Yukiko giggled. She couldn't help it; the thought of Chie trying to impress Shirou was so adorable and cute!
Chie knew what was coming and snapped. "This isn't funny!"
To her credit, Yukiko stopped right away. "I'm sorry," she said, the laughter soon forgotten. There was a time and place for everything. "It's just… he's the last person to judge someone unfairly like that. You shouldn't even worry about that."
"But he makes using many weapons so easy. Like the katana or his bow, and he can just make more swords appear like, well, magic! Not to mention he has more Personas than the rest of us combined, and well… it's no contest."
She gripped the nunchaku in her hand tighter. "That's why I need to find the right weapon. The perfect weapon for me, so I can be that much stronger for everyone on the team."
Chie slipped into a stance and started flailing the weapon between her hands in rapid movements. "Aiaiaiaiaiai! "Whataaa-OW!"
Somehow during the shuffle, one end of the nunchaku spun up instead of down. Gravity took over and it clunked her square in the head, which she quickly rubbed with her free hand. She tried to smile through her wincing tears. "Okay, looks like I need to practice some more…"
If there was one thing that Yukiko hated seeing, it was self-doubt. She had wallowed in it for so long that it was surprising she didn't notice Chie having her own insecurities sooner.
"I admit, Emiya-kun has a lot of powers, and with them a lot of responsibility." She then took Chie's nursing hand into both of her own. "But we're a team, and just because he can do everything, doesn't mean that he should."
"You may not think strength is important, but it is. You strike hard and fast before any of us, especially Emiya-kun, so we can focus on our next Shadow. We depend on you more than you know, because you're this team's strongest fighter. And you don't need any secret weapon other than your true self."
"Yukiko…" Chie was beyond touched. Here was her best friend, coming out on their first adventure together in the Shadow World, and giving her a much-needed pep talk. She had been worried it would be a bad idea, but aside from fighting monsters and having more friends, nothing had changed. And by the looks of it, nothing would between them either.
So she wasn't surprised that she was nodding with her friend with a bright smile. "Yeah, you're right! I don't need some lame-old prop! I can kick ass just fine without one!"
Chie carelessly tossed the nunchaku to prove her point, and Yukiko smiled with her. Maybe if she was lucky, her discarded weapon would clunk Hanamura right on the head.
Chie and Yukiko immediately paled, and turned around to where the weapon flew.
...that wasn't Hanamura.
"OH MY GOD I'M SO SORRY, EMIYA-KUN!"
Shirou winced and nursed his aching forehead while holding the offending weapon in his other hand. "Why would you throw something like this around anyway? Kids play here, for goodness' sake."
"Oh, suck it up," Yosuke quipped as he and the fox walked over to them. "Your thick head should have cushioned the worst of it."
Chie was about to snap angrily at him when her phone, as well as everyone else's, started to ring. They wordlessly pulled them out to read the message.
"Looks like Rise-chan found something out about Kanji-kun," Yukiko said.
"Great!" Yosuke smirked, already making for the shrine gate. "Let's hurry back to Junes and hear all about it!"
Tohru Adachi hummed to himself as he carried his modest bag of groceries out of the cash-in line. He'd found some cabbage rolls to last the week, and for once he didn't bump into that crazy old lady who thought he was her grandson. She really tried his patience at times, but he hadn't had any reason to get overly ticked off lately. Heck, he's been having a lot of fun recently.
Dojima was probably the best partner he could ask for in this small urban town. He was experienced, gruff, serious, and made it plain what he wanted. He was also a family man so there were times where, despite him saying otherwise, he cared about Adachi. It left him conflicted that he couldn't do better, but some partnerships just aren't meant to last. With that in mind, he waited in front of the elevator after pressing the call button.
"Hope tomorrow doesn't get too hectic…" he said to himself. It was currently his day off today, and he'd already heard rumors spreading that Kanji Tatsumi was missing. No one was certain it was true or not given that it was Sunday and a similar scare happened with Rise, but then again, you never knew what would happen in a supposedly crazy town like this.
His musing stopped when he heard the elevator open and a group of teens walked out of it. He waited for them to leave before doing a double-take. It was Dojima's nephew, Shirou Emiya.
And the kids he was arrested with the other day, Yosuke Hanamura and Chie Satonaka.
And the girl from the Amagi Inn, Yukiko.
And… the retired idol Rise Kujikawa?!
Man, talk about an ensemble! Why were they all together?
"Are you sure we shouldn't go back to change into our uniforms?" Yukiko asked softly as they walked away. "They'd be better suited for this kind of thing."
Adachi looked between the elevator and the group of kids that didn't notice his presence at all. A moment later, he discreetly trailed the group while looking as inconspicuous as possible; easy in a department store full of eager shoppers all around.
"We'd stand out if we suddenly go home and change into our uniforms on a Sunday, and even people in cram school need to take breaks," he heard Shirou explain. "Besides, our supplies are all safe with Teddie. We'd only need to worry if we're bringing new stuff."
The brunette boy, Yosuke, scoffed. "Says the guy who got one of his girlfriends some new shoes."
Wait, did Adachi hear him right? Girlfriends? Well damn, who knew Dojima's nephew was such a player?!
Though it didn't look like the Satonaka girl was wearing anything different or eye-catching. Rather, she was carrying a box under her arm. Was she embarrassed by the gift and didn't want to wear the shoes right away?
If Shirou was embarrassed though, his next comment didn't show it at all. "You're just jealous because you didn't think to give shoes to your girlfriend yet."
Well played, Emiya. Well played.
At this point, they entered the electronics store, and Adachi stopped following as to not arouse any suspicion. He did see Rise latch onto the red-haired boy's shoulder and make an excited remark that he was too far away to hear.
What did they plan to do in the electronics store? And who's Teddie? Other cops noticed them entering there a lot, but their duties were just keeping to their patrols and making sure no one shoplifted or waved around weapons again.
Adachi paced in front of the store, looking in to see the odd quintet talking in front of a big TV. He was currently off duty, so he had no reason to act professional. It meant he had no reason to look into this either. Something about Emiya and his circle of friends seemed to imply he was in the middle of all this…
But what did he know? The other guys at the station would never believe him, and they barely got Shirogane out of their hair. Dojima's nephew was on thin ice as is, but if it turned out that what he was doing wasn't at all bad or illegal, he knew the veteran cop would go medieval on the ass for jumping the gun.
…Adachi really didn't want to be the one chewed out if that was the case, and made Dojima and the others annoyed enough as it was. It was a miracle they didn't hate him more than Shirogane, really, but he always fancied himself smarter than he looked.
"Well, it's not my problem," Adachi shrugged, already doubling back to the elevator. He was fairly certain that kids like them wouldn't get into any trouble.
TV World; road to Steamy Bathhouse
"Girls and an inferiority complex… Girrrrrrrrrls, compleeeeeeex…"
As soon as they told Teddie the clues to Kanji, he went to work sniffing through the fog. Everyone followed the bear as he did his thing, but were getting worried through the long trek. "He's been at this for twelve minutes now," Rise said. "Is this normal?"
"He said the fog has been messing up with his senses, so things must be getting harder to pick up," Shirou told her. "But with the clues we gave him, he should be able to pick them up accurately."
"Oh, don't worry! I know the way back home easy!" Teddie turned to them with a smile. "It has a distinctive smell of Yosuke, and it was a nice safe space away from most Shadows."
"Wait, why me?" Yosuke asked. "I didn't do anything!"
Chie looked to the eerie sky, a hand stroking her chin in thought. "Actually, weren't you complaining about something that time? Needing to have to go…"
"Ah, he needed to use the restroom, right?"
"But that means…" Yukiko began, before she and Rise both turned to Yosuke, standing between them. She quickly ran in fear and clung to Chie's back. "EEEEWWWWW! That is so gross."
"What?!" the offended teen yelled. "I so didn't piss my pants!"
Rise made a repulsed face, and took deliberate steps to the side, away from Yosuke. "…I so didn't need to hear that."
"Well, I didn't!"
"And no one bothered to ask, thank you very much!" Chie yelled back. "You're just making it sound more suspicious the more you bring it up!"
"How is telling the truth suspicious?!"
"Because you're awfully specific on whether you peed your pants or not!"
"Because I didn't!"
As he watched from behind Yosuke and the girls' growing argument, Shirou smiled wistfully. Tuning their voices off, he looked ahead and picked up the pace with Teddie leading the way. "We're walking to save a fellow student, and we're making jokes at each other's expense. When I planned to fight Shadows, this isn't what I had in mind."
"You don't sound all that upset," Teddie noted.
"Well, it certainly beats having to do this alone," he replied. "Between helping others and catching the culprit to this whole mess, hanging out like this feels… nice."
"Yeah, it does," he said quickly with a smile. Of course the bear would do anything not to feel lonely.
"You've noticed that the Shadows that have been converted to Personas, they have similar powers to when they were berserk, albeit on a smaller scale."
"…I did notice a pattern, yes." Jiraiya's wind. Tomoe's ice. Konohana Sakuya's fire. "It's very convenient we have a full team of varied elements to exploit the Shadows' weaknesses."
"Yeah, very lucky," Teddie said. "Although… Rise-chan's powers would blow ours out of the way in terms of scouting, if she… no, when she gets used to it."
Ah, so that's it. "You're worried Rise will take over and do a better job as support?"
Teddie frowned. "You saw what her Shadow did. We barely beat her when she literally danced around us- I mean, you guys. And if, no, when she figures out her powers-"
"Then you'll be there to help her."
The bear blinked and looked up to him. "Huh?"
"It's possible her Persona abilities would dwarf anything you or I could scrounge up, but she's new to this. She's going to need all the help she can get to keep up on our mission from here on out."
"Furthermore, you're still our resident expert on this world, knowing more than the rest of us, and you still got me beat when it comes to Gradation Air. Your Reinforcement was vital and helped save the day." Shirou told him with a smile. "You're invaluable to us, Teddie. Never forget that."
"Shirou-sensei…!" Teddie sniffled, overcome with emotion, and his eyes watered so much it looked like he was condensing mist from his tear ducts.
Shirou looked around him, noticing for the first time how oddly thick the fog was around them, obscuring their view even with the glasses on. The others stopped arguing and were also starting to notice the shift in the fog.
"Uh, guys?" Rise called out. "Is it just me, or is the fog getting thicker here?"
"It's not fog, it's steam," Yukiko said quickly, lifting her glasses up briefly. "Fog is essentially a state of water condensed into cloud form, but closer to the earth's surface. And it lifts out of the TV world to become rain in our world."
"Wow, you can tell?!" Chie asked. She and the others were amazed by her deduction and wisdom.
"It's not that hard to figure out," Shirou said. "The water cycle is one of the basics of science. Anyone who's ever made a mini-cyclone with two taped-up soda bottles could understand that."
"That, and my family owns a hot springs inn," the heiress reminded. "You can tell the difference easy between a cloud formed by lower humidity and one made with too much. So much that the water boils quickly from a heated source."
"Is that so," said Yosuke dimly. Then his eyes widened, as if a lightbulb went off in his head. "Wait, wasn't the Midnight Channel last night set to a sauna?"
As they looked around, they could make out the inner details of a bathhouse changing room around them. Pale and pink tiles led inside, with rows of lockers leading to a set of wooden doors at the end. Small stools and towels were set up for changing, giving it more ambience without the presence of people.
Teddie smiled and spread his arms in glee. "What do you know! We're here!"
Everyone stared at the bear, exasperated. "Why didn't you say anything before?" Yosuke asked.
"Probably because you were all too busy talking about bowel movements," Shirou told him. "On the plus side, we're in a changing room so if anyone has to go…"
"I'm fine, thanks," Yosuke droned. The girls snickered amongst themselves.
Before anyone made another step forward, a sultry voice called out from nowhere. "C'mere, pussycat..."
Everyone stiffened, and someone let a rather shrill squeak of fear. "Wh-what was that?!" Rise cried out.
"These places tend to have voices pop up that are meant to reflect the victim's reality," Shirou explained. "But this feels…"
"Oh... Such well-defined pecs..." Another voice called, both soothing and welcoming. If words had feeling, they might have caressed the young teens whom their words were directed towards.
The voices were close, and soon everyone was looking up to see two bodybuilders standing at the door and looming over them like giants. They were both in monochrome down the middle, their left half white and their right half black. Besides the briefs hugging their groins, they were naked and well chiseled in muscle. Their faces were remarkably human, sporting full lips and thin black mustaches. They could pass off as identical twins, with the only difference between the two men being insignias itched on their biceps; one had a blue T on his black side, and another had a red N on his white side.
They were both smiling at the group, and the man with the N said, "There's no need to be scared..."
"…I think I might take that bathroom break now, thanks."
Ignoring Yosuke, Shirou took a tentative step forward towards them. "Is Kanji Tatsumi here?"
"Indeed," The T man nodded. "Do you wish to enjoy a soak in the Steamy Bathhouse?"
"I just want to find Kanji, and hopefully bring him back home," Shirou said. "I don't have the time or money for your services, sorry."
The two bodybuilders turned and exchange frowns, shaking their heads and tsking. "Such a waste of good manhood. I was hoping someone of his beautiful physique would be a shoe-in."
"Truly a lost cause if there ever was one, Nice Guy."
"Wait, your name is Nice Guy?" That would explain the N, at least.
"That's correct. And I am Tough Guy. No relation." The T guy paused long enough to smile and make a knowing side-glance. "Yet."
"Oh, you big softie!"
...this was getting off track, and horribly awkward at that. "I'm sorry you feel I insulted you, but me and my friends here just want to bring Kanji back. Too much steam and hot water could lead him passing out from heat stroke, or even drowning under the water. And you don't want your business to go under because of that, do you?"
Tough Guy and Nice Guy exchanged glances and whispers again. Back at the group, Chie looked between him and her friends. "What the hell is he doing?"
"I don't know," Yosuke shrugged. "Diplomacy rolls?"
"I thought DnD was just a cover," Rise said.
"And isn't this dangerous? I mean, those are Shadows, right?" Yukiko asked.
"They don't look like Shadows. Personas, maybe?" Teddie wondered.
"Wait, you don't know? I thought you lived here, Teddie."
The bear shook his head. "All I know for sure is that they come from this Kanji you're looking for, along with the rest of this place. It's not all that different from Yuki-chan having that prince Shadow around."
Rise's question was ignored in favor of Yukiko's embarrassment, as Chie quickly added, "That's different. It had a Noh mask and everything, while these guys look like humans. How could you not know every weird thing that goes on here?"
Teddie had a frown on his face that looked wise beyond words. "Would you have tried looking for answers before all this?"
No one had an answer to that.
"Okay, thanks," Shirou told the two bouncers before returning to the others. "Okay, we're clear. Kanji's inside so let's hurry after him."
The bear and teens all blinked. "Wait, just like that?" Yosuke asked.
"Mister Emiya here has made a convincing case for your… fairer friends," Tough Guy frowned towards the girls. "As long as you behave yourselves and don't do anything untoward to our guests, you are free to enjoy the facilities."
"Do enjoy yourselves!" Nice Guy added with a smile, before sneering aside, "Although I doubt moody bitches would feel anything short of a spanking."
Rise and Yukiko gasped in shock. Chie took a threatening step forward with a few choice words to say but stopped when Shirou placed his hand firmly over her shoulder.
"Quickly," he said rather tensely. "Before they change their minds."
Chie kept her mouth shut for as long as they passed the grinning, waving Guys. Upon entering the bathhouse, a heatwave hit them from the steam, blending with the fog and wooden décor in an orange haze. The path was long, there were rows of benches to sit against the walls, and indentions full of burning red sauna rocks.
When they were at a far enough distance and out of earshot from the entrance, Chie returned the favor by turning Shirou around to face her. "What the hell was that about?!"
"This dungeon is apparently a men's only sauna," Shirou said. "They were intent on only allowing me, Yosuke, and possibly Teddie in, but not you three."
"And now you're concerned about being nice with Shadows? We could just kick their asses like all the others!"
"I'd rather avoid conflict with facets of Kanji's psyche if I can help it."
Everyone looked surprised and concerned. Yosuke in particular looked fearful. "Facets?" Yukiko asked.
Shirou nodded, turning to Yukiko. "They looked different, but they were definitely Shadows, and strong ones at that. They were kind of like the Charming Prince in having a deep connection to his psyche and this dungeon."
"Oh! Like how Yuki-chan wanted to score all the hot guys in the castle?"
"Teddie!" Chie growled. "Learn some damn tact! You know that's not true!"
Beside him, Yukiko slumped and hid her face in her palms. Teddie pondered for a moment before snapping his digits. "Oh, that's right! She didn't just try to make a move on Shirou-sensei and Yosuke, but you too, Chie-chan! OWW!"
"That's NOT what I meant!" she shouted after giving the bear a fresh lump.
"I'm never going to hear the end of this, am I?" the inn heiress lamented to herself.
Rise pouted as the context of the situation, while interesting and hilarious, flew straight over her head. "You guys owe me an explanation for this later," she demanded.
"No, we don't!"
Throughout the whole squabble, Shirou was pinching his nose in exasperation. "ANYWAY," he finally raised his voice, forcing the others to listen. "We're not ready yet to take those Shadows on, and even if we could, we might damage Kanji's mental state worse than him outright rejecting it."
"I… guess that makes sense," Chie admitted.
"It was tricky talking to them, I admit. They kept eyeing me like a piece of meat or something," Shirou continued. He failed to notice the girls exchanging knowing, embarrassed looks. "But I managed to convince them to give us a pass."
"Just like that?"
"...I might have promised to give them a full back massage on a later date."
Bewildered silence filled the room. Chie turned to Yukiko. Yosuke to Teddie. Rise to Tama. Then they all turned to Shirou, who was sheepishly rubbing the back of his head and blushing. "I couldn't think of anything else, all right?!"
Yukiko giggled. "Helpful to a fault even to Shadows? That's just so like you, Emiya-kun!"
"Yeah yeah, he's a great, weird guy. Can we hurry up and find Kanji, now?" Rise asked. "This place is so stuffy I think my hair's getting a perm."
"Good idea. This place looks rather wide between floors, so if anyone has a plan of action, now's a good time for suggestions."
Yosuke's hand shot up. "I have a suggestion, leader!"
"What is it, Yosuke?"
"Can we head back and call it a day?"
For a moment, no one said anything. They had assumed he was joking, but the uneasy smile said otherwise.
"But we just got here!" Teddie told them. "And I know for sure Kanji's down here!"
"And that is all great progress! So I think it's safe to head back and rest up for another day, perhaps maybe a week later, or two."
"Yosuke-kun," Yukiko said slowly. "You're not… scared, are you?"
"What? Me? What a silly proposition!" Yosuke quickly replied. He tried to laugh but his voice cracked between chuckles. "I just uh… need to check up with Sacchin, see. I promised her dinner tonight, and the phones don't work around here so I was thinking of heading back and seeing we can…"
At this point the girls were glaring. Even the fox. "Okay, I'm scared! You saw those two guys! They're ripped, campy, and looked like they wanted to plow me to the ground! My ass isn't safe here, man!"
"Not helping your case, Hanamura," said Chie.
"We're going to have to fight them eventually, especially if we want to save Kanji before his Shadow kills him. We promised to save all the victims involved in this, and Kanji is no exception. You don't want anyone to end up like Konishi, don't you?"
"Well, no, but—"
"And even if you decide to head out without us, you do realize that you'll have to run into those guys again, right? Because they're guarding the door and thought you to be very lean and handsome."
Between the dry tone of his voice, and the deadpan stare in his eyes, Shirou wasn't the least bit amused of his suggestion to leave. Seeing everyone else stare at him with the same level of disdain, perhaps even more, Yosuke slowly lowered his hand back down. "This is gonna suck," he whimpered.
"Well, since there are no other suggestions, I guess we'll move on to business," Shirou said.
"And what business is that, senpai?" asked Rise.
"The same thing we've been doing from the start. Fight Shadows, get stronger, and find Kanji before the next rainstorm. But more importantly, we need to get everyone up to speed on tactics."