Chapter 37: Boiling Tensions
Deep in the Steamy Bathhouse
The first thing Kanji felt when he came to was that he was hot. Like, stuffy hot. He knew it was June, but this was unbearable. "Ugh, dammit Ma, would you turn the AC on or something?"
He blinked his groggy eyes awake, but it was soon clear that the room wasn't hazy from his rousing eyes, but from smoke and steam. He didn't remember his house being like this. In fact, this didn't look like his house at all!
"The hell is this!?" Kanji shouted, but there was no answer.
It looked like he was in some sort of old-styled steam room usually found in resorts and inns and stuff. Filled with buff men in nothing but their towels… no way he was staying here.
"Geez, if this is Naoto's idea for a prank, I'm gonna make sure he regrets it," he grumbled, making his way to the door.
Leaving the cramped sauna room, Kanji walked down the left side of the long hallway, hoping to find a way out. He kept finding doors that led to other sauna rooms, and longer hallways even. It was soon clear that he was getting lost, and he felt creeped out as if there was someone, or something, watching him.
"Shit," Kanji muttered, tugging the collar of his shirt. He had slept in shorts and his flaming skull tank-top, but he might as well be wearing leather slacks with how hot it was in this freaky place. "It's so damn hot in here."
It was getting harder to move, as if the heat itself was a weight bearing down on him. Part of him just wanted to try and sleep again, but he couldn't. Not here. Not when he didn't have any idea about how he ended up here, or that someone was still watching him from behind.
He almost gave up trying to find a way out when his search for an exit led him to some sort of built-in pool at the far end of the room.
"Hmm… maybe a morning soak will help," he mused aloud. Not that he knew if it was morning or not. He reached for his shirt, ready to pull it over his head and set the clothes aside, when he realized he didn't have anything else to wear. What could he go in, his underwear? Maybe try one of the towels lying around, but did he really want to look like some toga-wearing freak? In a bathhouse-like place where the guys get all flamboyant, flexing muscles and showing off their-
No. The clothes stay on. He decided to wring them dry back home later or something. He straightened his shirt and hopped into the pool. The water was heated as well, but in a way that just made him melt and feel at ease. So much he could close his eyes and lean back with a smile.
"Aaaaaah, that's the stuff." Despite the tension of being stuck in this weird place, Kanji allowed himself to relax in the moment.
Steamy Bathhouse, Floor 2
Rise was no stranger to pressure or nerves. She'd never forget the feeling of first stepping before a live stage audience after months of preparation for songs and public speaking practice. So really, learning how to summon the inner will to fend off bloodthirsty monsters should be as easy on paper as well as execution.
But this was a worse feeling, she realized.
Yes, she was scared. Petrified even. Terrors of running from her Shadow doppelgängers and how her then-not-friends getting gored and blasted away was more traumatizing than any lynch mob her security might break up.
And her new friends, who also had that same near-death experience, didn't hesitate at all in going after them. It didn't matter what the Shadows looked like, or what strengths they had. They fought them indiscriminately just for being in the way of their search.
"Yosuke, switch to wind when needed, but stick to offense otherwise! Satonaka, stay with the others and mind your distance! Amagi, hang back with fire but mind your prana in case we need healing!"
Shirou was so scarily efficient in treating this run as a training mission. He focused on all of his surroundings, ensuring that the Shadows never got the drop on them. He would always lead with spells on Shadows they hadn't seen before to see what worked best and remembered those weaknesses (thanks in part to Teddie of course). He knew how his teammates worked best according to their Personas and strengths, giving curt orders to rein them back in.
No wonder he was the team leader.
"WATAAH!" Chie's battlecry echoed through the freaky bathhouse as she roundhouse kicked the cop Shadow in the side of its hollowed-out gut. Her new weapon, a pair of fur boots that gave off an almost Viking-like vibe to them, seemed to ignite in fire with each kick. It looked like she was in her natural element.
"Satonaka, stay in formation," Shirou ordered. His back was towards her, and he was busy swinging overhead at a cupid Shadow, but he knew where she was.
"Right! Sorry, these boots are just awesome. Thanks again, Emiya-kun!"
Meanwhile, Yukiko squared off with another cupid Shadow, extending her whole fan like a shield over her upper body. The Shadow pulled back its bowstring and launched an arrow, but she danced to the side and deflected it past her. Following up, she spun her fan's edge down at the Shadow's face which caused blackened muck to splatter out like blood.
Yosuke came in from behind and slashed both knives at the back of the weakened Shadow, killing it. Following up, he turned and slashed his Persona card. Jiraiya promptly blasted the boulder-shaped Shadow high enough to land it in a pool of boiling water behind it.
"Wow, that was really good, Hanamura-kun!" Yukiko smiled.
Normally he would have appreciated praise from Yukiko Amagi, but he had a girlfriend now and he had to be faithful to her. That, and his current track mind was having tunnel vision on the Shadows and nothing else. So much that he kept chanting "Just keep fighting, just keep fighting, just keep fighting, just keep fighting" like a mantra.
Before long, the skirmish ended and the path to the next stairway was clear. Shirou calmly sheathed his sword and told everyone to "take five".
Rise found herself letting out a breath of relief she didn't know she was holding and slumped down to the floor. Teddie and Tama immediately huddled up to her side. "Ugh, between the humidity and the fighting, I don't think I can last much longer."
"We have a lot more floors to go, but it might be best to head back after climbing the next set of stairs," Shirou told her. "But before that, I think it's time we teach you how to summon your Persona too."
"Right," Rise frowned. "Sorry, I must be dragging you guys down."
Shirou shook his head and extended his hand to her. "I should be the one to apologize. With the rush to help Kanji, I forgot to help you summon your Persona first."
It was always a tough transition for a new Persona user to figure out how to use their power. Shirou figured it out by virtue of being a magus and applying what he knew (even misinformed as it was) into practice. The others were just normal teenagers with simple problems and didn't grasp the trick as easily as he did.
Helping the blushing girl back up, he stayed close to keep her upright. "It just requires a trick to do it, and once you get it, it'll come naturally."
Before he could rely this knowledge, Teddie's nose twitched and he frantically waived to Shirou for his attention. "Sensei! There's a Shadow nearby!" Sure enough, a grunt-like growl echoed around the bathhouse, causing the Investigation Team to tense in preparation again.
Shirou tsked. "Missed one. And it sounds close too."
An aura suddenly flared around Rise. He saw her eyes closed and hands clenched as if in prayer. Himiko's figure solidified behind her, with her hands down at Rise's level and holding a golden visor over them. Rise opened her eyes and saw the world even more clearly combined with her glasses. Numbers and symbols flared, and she could see the figure of a Bribed Fuzz lurking behind a corner.
"There!" she cried out, pointing to the hiding Shadow.
"Ippon-Datara!" Shirou reacted first, summoning his blacksmith Persona. With surprising agility for a being with only one leg, he leaped forward like a whip with his hammer arm poised back to strike.
With a battlecry fitting the sound effect, his hammer struck true and dispersed the Shadow in a single strike. The impact was hard enough to even crack the wood floor below. Having hoped to get the first strike itself, the Shadow was caught unaware by the counterattack and suffered a quick death.
Ippon-Datara looked further down the hall around the corner to be sure, before turning towards Shirou so his one eye made contact. "…Secure." The Persona stated before he returned back to Shirou's subconscious.
The team exhaled relieved breaths. "That was a close one. Thanks, Rise-chan!"
Rise smiled and nodded at Yukiko. Blinking, she realized what just happened, and jumped with a wider smile. "Hey! I did it! I summoned my Persona, Himiko!"
"And without my help at that," Shirou said.
"Rise-chan's amazing!" Teddie added.
"Hehe, thanks!" she giggled. "But wow… this is kind of weird. I feel like I'm seeing the world in three perspectives or something."
"Yeah, it's kind of wonky like that," Yosuke started, before he double-took. "Wait, three? You should only see things in two."
"Well, it's more like two-and-a-half, really. I can see in front of me, and around Himiko, but also through this visor thing like it's virtual reality, or some sort of spy-op game. There are numbers, charts, and maps flying all over it. I know if it was anything else I would probably go crazy trying to figure out, but it's all easy enough for me to understand. I feel like I can see anything."
"Really? Like what?" Yukiko asked.
"Let's see…" Rise said, and stared more intently into Himiko's visor. The shaman Persona moved her head much like a radar, back and forth slowly in a deliberate scan. "I… I can see Kanji. Two Kanjis actually. There's a lot of Shadows up above, and some really big readings a few floors down. Must be those big guy Shadows at the entrance. And… I think there's about a dozen floors total, give or take one below."
"Tw-Twelve floors…?!" Yosuke gawked. He had hoped the dungeon would be a smaller one like Saki's liquor store or Yukiko's castle, but to have a dungeon being as large as Rise's, if not larger, was something that made him very uneasy.
Shirou too was bothered by the news, but for different, less self-conscious reasons. "I was a bit afraid of that. Are these dungeons supposed to be getting bigger?"
"I know the cluttered emotions that come whenever someone is pushed in makes the Shadows more agitated, and thus stronger," Teddie explained. "But I think a dozen floors is the max limit of how deep these places will ever go, because there's only so much thoughts and emotion a person can have when they come here."
"So we should just accept eleven or twelve as how deep these Shadow dungeons go?" Shirou asked, to which Teddie nodded.
"If it helps, we're on the second floor right now, close to the stairway to the third," Rise said. "So it's only ten more floors to climb."
"That's awesome!" Chie cheered. "I mean, not that we still have a lot fighting to do, but the fact how your Persona is like a super radar!"
"Indeed. There's only so much my nose can do," Teddie added humbly.
Himiko vanished back to her subconscious, but Rise was decidedly not as excited as everyone else was. "Yeah, but…"
"What's wrong, Rise-chan?"
"I'm sorry, it's just, my Persona seems to only be good at seeing things and doing dungeon crawling support. I can't move while she's active so I'm just a dead weight when it comes to fighting." She sighed bitterly, clenching her hand into a fist. "I was kind of hoping I could fight with you guys too…"
No one knew what to say. None of their awakenings were smooth transitions either, but they had weapons to fight with and some form of fitness thanks to P.E.. The closest Rise probably ever got to physical exercise was dancing, and that was rare.
Shirou and Teddie exchanged knowing glances and nodded.
"It's a bigger responsibility than you may think, Rise," Shirou told her. "That kind of ability blows away anything Teddie or I can do."
"That's right! You're amazing, Rise-chan!" Teddie added. "You just need to have more confidence in yourself!"
Rise looked happy at the encouragement but still uncertain. "But… I don't know how else to fight."
"So? You'll learn. None of us are experts in this sort of thing either, which is why we're doing this as a team."
Team… she could get used to that. She usually had back-up singers and always led the charge as an idol, but it felt nice to ease back a little as intended.
"Okay," she nodded with a smile. "Thanks, guys."
"Great! Now we're definitely one more Persona stronger for whatever comes our way!" Yosuke smiled and looked at everyone. "...can we leave now?"
Shirou fought the urge to sigh. "Yosuke, this is the third time you've asked that since we got here. Are you going to keep asking that every time we find the stairs?"
"Yes! Because Teddie's dioramas only teleport us between the entrance and the flight of stairs!" It was sound reasoning to try and put off an escape route until reaching the next checkpoint, but Shirou had a feeling that Yosuke would demand escape constantly if Teddie wasn't so reluctant to use a GoHo-M unless it was an absolute emergency. "Besides, you said we should head back after this next set of stairs! You said that!"
"I did, didn't I?" Shirou noted aloud. He knew they hadn't made much progress climbing floors, but that was due to taking the time to work on tactical maneuvers. After the near disaster that was Shadow Rise, Shirou knew they couldn't face future Shadows without being a cohesive and well adapted team.
"I'm all for heading back," Chie said. "Yukiko and Rise-chan are both exhausted, Homophobura here is close to a mental breakdown, and we're still in debt paying Tama for the last batch of leaves we bought. We're not exactly in top-shape to keep going."
It was surprising to see Rise out of breath due to her lack of fighting, but there was a lot of running involved in finding and fighting Shadows. The sauna air didn't make things easy either. He regretted not giving Rise enough time to adjust fighting with her Persona yet, but there was always next time. And there was time for Kanji until the next rainfall.
Weighing all those options, Shirou nodded. "All right. We'll head back for now."
"Oh, thank god," Yosuke sighed with audible relief as Teddie puffed up a GoHo-M. Considering how well he held up, Shirou allowed him this.
June 28th, Samegawa Flood Plain
The last few days were actually a blur and a bit hard for another get-together at Junes. Yosuke made it a point to keep putting it off with excuses like work or hanging out with his new girlfriend. Shirou, for his part, gave him his needed space to adjust while keeping himself occupied, hanging out with the other members of the Investigation Team, and even some time with the Dojimas during the evening.
Yesterday he helped fulfill another ema request for Tama, directing a lost dog back home. It was one of the harder good deeds he had to do, as the dog was not friendly or patient to strangers. But a little time, patience, and a steak skewer from Souzai Daigaku carried the day. Tama was pleased that another ema wish was granted, as it meant more people would pray at the shrine, and even waved him off the leaves bought at the striptease dungeon.
And the day before that, after retiring from the bathhouse, Shirou helped Yukiko do some last-minute grocery shopping. Yukiko was still serious in her endeavors to eventually leave Inaba, and after the disaster that was the camping trip, she had decided to practice. For better or worse, he agreed to help her by being her taste-tester.
Which led to today, sitting under the gazebo, staring at a neatly packed and visually appealing boxed lunch. Yukiko sat next to him, staring expectantly and trying to hide her… excitement? Nervousness? Pride? Shirou honestly wasn't sure.
"Well?" she asked. "Go ahead and try it."
Shirou just stared at it, keenly aware of the pungent smell it was giving off. "Did you taste it yourself?" he asked simply.
"No, I haven't," she admitted shyly. "I wanted you to be the first one to try it."
Anyone else would have been touched and moved by a gesture as sweet as this. But Shirou wasn't moved. His eyes narrowed in suspicion and her smile faded. "…are you sure this is edible?"
Yukiko pouted. Those were not the words she hoped to hear before a taste test. "It's not poisonous."
Shirou eyed the piece of food in his chopsticks with scrutiny. "Forgive me for being skeptical and experiencing PTSD after eating The Sin you and Satonaka made."
Geez, it was hard enough due to him being a smartass about her cooking, but he was still holding that over her head too? "I wish you'd stop calling our cooking that."
"Would you prefer… what did Yosuke call it again? 'Mystery Food X'?"
Yukiko blushed. Both names were bad, actually. "Just eat it, already. Please."
Shirou shrugged and did just that; he promised to taste this for her, and he couldn't help her cooking (or Satonaka's) without learning more about her quirks in cooking. He popped the bit of food in his mouth, and started to chew the soft omelet loo-
…there was something inexplicably hard inside the morsel that couldn't be chewed further. He was also picking up the raw, burnt taste coming out of it. It wanted to be anywhere but his stomach, that much is certain.
"Do it for her."
Sarasvati was right. He needed to do this for Yukiko and help her grow as a proper cook. He taught someone how to cook once in Sakura, he could do it again. Even if it was becoming clear he would have to un-train Amagi and Satonaka first…
Fighting off the growing sense of nausea from the bite, he finally swallowed and eased his breathing. After a few tense seconds, he turned to Yukiko, still brimming with high expectations.
"It's bad," he said bluntly.
Yukiko's mood soured immediately, as her head dropped down in depression.
"But I didn't pass out. That's a good sign of progress."
"Thanks, that makes me feel so much better," Yukiko lamented dryly.
Shirou sniffed the meal again, trying to pick out the smells in the plain-looking... mystery food, should he call it? Or minor sin? "I think you just tried to go too fast in style and flavor. I told you to stick with the basics, but you seemed to dump all the eggs, noodles and greens into one bowl while dabbing it completely in, what, four different condiments?"
Shirou stared at her blankly, before picking up another piece of food with his chopsticks. Yukiko's mood brightened, thinking he was going to give it another try. But instead, he held it towards her and said, "Your turn."
"Your skill level at cooking is simply abysmal. If you ever want to get better at cooking, you need to taste for yourself how bad the flavors are. Even if you followed the recipe to the letter, there are some things that instructions can't tell you that taste buds can."
"B-But I made it just for you," she insisted.
"And it's bad," he told her again. "You need to properly understand exactly what makes your cooking bad so you can avoid doing it yourself. Honestly, you should have done that already, considering what your 'curry' turned into."
Yukiko winced. Admittedly, the smell alone from the campout curry was enough to make her second guess herself, but it was just a fluke, she told herself. Just… conflicting cooking ideologies between herself and Chie. None of them were to blame for causing Emiya-kun and Hanamura-kun to pass out!
And if none of that was true, well… then it was Chie's fault!
She knew her cooking wasn't… great, per say. Not enough to be served at her family inn, but she had never cared before. Maybe if she just stared at him cutely enough, he would back off? It seemed to work in getting a few boys to leave her alone, lately.
"How are you ever going to live on your own if you can't even bother to eat your own food?"
…nope, he wasn't budging. Maybe he didn't think she was cute enough?
Not really. What she didn't know was that Shirou almost gave in right then and there, until Sarasvati reminded him that she was uncertain of her own talents, preferring to shy away from them. It was enough to push forward and insist that she wanted to leave Inaba, she needed to do this for herself.
Sighing, Yukiko opened her mouth and accepted Emiya-kun's offering. Even if it was the food meant for him, he was feeding her. The thought alone brought a smile and flush to her cheeks as she started to…
OH GOODNESS GRACIOUS!
"BLUACK!" she spat the food out on the ground in front of them before coughing. She thought she could block out the smell if that was the only problem, but it was like trying to like a smoldering ball of ash hardened into a mud-covered rock. Nevermind swallowing it; she couldn't hope to chew it without feeling grossed out.
"Water! Water!" she cried, fanning her tongue and looking around their seats. She was so glad she thought to bring bottled water for this lunch date, and that Shirou opened one for her before handing it over. She guzzled it down so fast and clumsily that some droplets spilled down the sides of her cheeks and chin, even staining the top of her sweater.
Shirou patiently waited for her to finish drinking, gasping for breath as the foul taste was cleansed from her mouth. "You understand, now?" he asked her.
Oh, she did. She knew her cooking was bad from what people had told her, but she never actually knew how bad. She'd never felt so fearful for her life eating something before. That it came from her own hand was terrifying. And to think the Sin, the Mystery Food X, was enough to make Emiya-kun and Hanamura-kun enter a near death state…
Guilt and horror from the campout incident resurfaced, as she hugged him tight with tears bawling out her eyes. "I'M SO SORRY, EMIYA-KUUUUN!" she wailed.
Shirou stiffened and blushed. He didn't expect such a reaction from her, and he felt bad making her suddenly cry like this. "U-Uh… there, there, Amagi?" he said awkwardly, patting her back.
A few minutes passed as she calmed down and dried out the tears in her eyes. They were now glinting with an odd mix of determination and pity. "I," she sniffled. "I promise to do better for your stomach's sake, Emiya-kun!"
"That's… great?" Well, as long as she was going to do better cooking now, this was fine, right?
"Hey, big bro!"
Shirou was instantly relieved and happy to see Nanako skip over to them. The feeling was mutual, as the young girl was acting a lot more cheerful since Golden Week. By now she was familiar with all of Shirou's friends, and it was fairly common for her to drop in and ask what they were doing. Like right now. "What are you two doing?"
"Just practicing my cooking and having Emiya-kun here try it." Yukiko explaining, looking at the box lunch on Shirou's lap.
"Can I have some too?"
Nanako flinched at both teens' immediate outburst. Shirou pulled the box lunch away and Yukiko's hands were spread-out forward to stop her, both wide-eyed with fearful expressions.
Seeing the younger girl confused and hurt, Yukiko waved off her protective reflex and smiled. "I-I mean, you wouldn't like it, Nanako-chan! It's… not very good…"
"Oh, okay," she nodded. "Then I'll just have some when you make a good boxed lunch!"
Nanako was so simple and innocent. It was a matter of "when" the food would be good rather than "never" to her, and she was willing to wait until that happened. It was the kind of confidence boost Yukiko didn't even know she needed, which was why she was speechless.
Realizing that fact, Shirou smiled and answered on his friend's behalf. "I'm sure she'll like that very much, Nanako."
"Yay!" Nanako cheered. "I'll be rooting for you!"
"Y-Yes! I'll do my best, thank you Nanako-chan!" Yukiko smiled.
They waved and watched Nanako hurry on to her friend's house. When the younger girl was out of earshot, Yukiko sighed. "This… didn't turn out at all like I had hoped. Sorry."
"You're not going to hug me and cry on my shoulder again, are you?"
"No!" she squawked, more embarrassed than offended. "Maybe…"
"Relax, it's fine," Shirou told her. "Teasing aside, we all have our strengths. And I'll keep eating whatever you make until you get good enough to serve it to Nanako too."
"Really. It's the least I can do after all the times your healing helped us in the TV world. I'm counting on you."
Yukiko's face burned brighter as she looked away. "Th-That's my line," she stammered. But it wasn't an unpleasant feeling, really…
Kanji had lost track of time and what was going on. Soaking in the bath helped a bit, but that endeavor made his clothes wet and sticky. Maybe he should strip down next time he needed a soak. There was nothing else to do, anyway.
At first, this was kind of nice. No one around to scream or judge him, and he could relax as long as he needed. Finally, some time to himself to cool off, and maybe wait until someone did find him.
But now it was just effin' creepy. He had seen no one for… hours? Days? He didn't even know how long he had been stuck in this place and it was something that both scared him and infuriated him. Not that he would ever show that weakness to others. Part of him felt that he really wasn't alone here and that someone was watching him.
"Stop hiding and show yourself already you bastard!" he screamed as he ran through the halls. He rested enough to try wandering the place, but his stamina wasn't like it used to be. Something about this crazy sauna made him just want to sleep and tune out everything.
"Oh, but I'm not decent!"
Kanji stiffened. He was both relieved and rather scared that he'd heard someone for the first time since he got here. Something about the voice sounded familiar, and he couldn't quite put his finger on what. He turned around to see the newcomer.
It was a man with bleached hair smiling and reclining in a pool of waist-deep water. Kanji quickly realized he looked just like himself, and that he wasn't wearing a shirt.
Oh god was he-?!
"THE FLIPPIN' A!?" Kanji wailed as he jumped away.
"Hiya, handsome!" The double waved at him, grinning and opening one eye to look at him. His eye was that of a cat's, gleaming a bright yellow gold. "Sooooo glad I finally found you!"
'Found me'? What the hell was this guy going on about? "Who the hell are you?!"
"I'm you, obviously. Don't you notice the muscles, the scars, and the other subtle male charms? I've been looking everywhere for you, you know."
Talking to himself? This had to be a dream, right? He had been wandering for so long that the smoke was getting to him. Yeah, that's it. Thinking about it like that, he was willing to accept this for the moment. But it was still creepy as hell.
"Th-Then why are you…?" he pointed, but couldn't finish the sentence, as his mind was still processing what was going on. Luckily, or perhaps unfortunately, the other Kanji smiled coyly while splashing the water with his feet.
"Well, it took so long to find you, you know, but when I did, I was trying to think how to make a good first impression. You didn't seem to be causing a hassle running around like a headless chicken, so I'm just taking it easy cooling off here. And what a rest, my feet are KILLING ME. But enough gabbing, come on in! The water's great!"
"The hell I'm going in the same pool with a lookalike! Hell, I wouldn't share a pool with another guy period, much less someone who's naked!"
"Oh, don't worry. I'm not naked, just a little indecent. I'm wearing a towel hugging my crotch and showing off ALL my curves."
"Men don't have curves!" Kanji screamed.
The golden-eyed Kanji's smile never left his face. It was honestly creepy seeing him grin like that. "Aww, don't be like that. We're both guys here! No evil hussies are here to muck everything up!"
"Hu-Hussies?" Something about that word struck a nerve with him.
"You know, girls! Aren't they just the worst?! Always lying, always gossiping, and able to get away with double-standards because they're 'sooooo sexyyyy'," For the first time the other Kanji's smile dropped, especially as he dragged the last two words sarcastically. "You can never trust such two-faced bitches. Much less Shana-chan."
Kanji's face paled. He didn't know how or why, but this other guy knew Shana-chan… and his words hit a little too close to home. A long pause followed before the doppelgänger pulled up a long clear sponge lathered in some soap. "Hechima?"
Kanji had heard enough from this guy. He needed to get out now. Without a word, he bolted further down the hallway, looking for what looks like an exit.
The other Kanji just reclined further back and smiled as he lathered himself. "You can run all you want darling, but you can't hide! Especially not from yourself!"
Himself? Ha, no, he was a man. A man always faces their problems head-on, and right now he was getting away from this deathtrap. If he couldn't, then he had to hope someone from the outside would get him out. Naoto, his ma, anyone… surely SOMEONE was going to get him out of this crazy hell, right? Right?!
June 29th, Okina Station
"Sorry dude, BZ 2day Junes. L8r?"
Shirou read over the text Yosuke left him over and over again. Even after replying back with a simple "okay", he still couldn't believe his friend was putting off Kanji's rescue for so long. By now the police and locals of Inaba were convinced he had been kidnapped by the culprit after being absent from school for so many days. The only thing holding the Investigation Team back searching was Yosuke, as they promised to always go together as a team, and yet he always had an excuse these days.
He was fine for waiting if they were ready, and he could understand if Yosuke had personal conflicts going back to the bathhouse, but they were running out of time. The weather report said it would rain later in the week.
"I'm done, Shirou-senpai!"
Shirou pocketed his phone and greeted the voice coming out of Croco Fur. "I see you got everything you need?"
"Yep! Grandma's allowance for the tofu job is kind of cheap compared to Inoue's checks, but the stuff here was within budget anyway!"
Rise carried four shopping bags under her arms proudly and smiled through her incognito disguise of a white hat, wide sunglasses, and her hair let down. Instead of her school uniform, she was now wearing a white blouse over orange shorts and black leggings. She made a quick turn-around so he could see all sides of her attire. "So, how do I look?"
"Pretty nice," he said. "I hardly recognize you."
"That's kind of the idea," she told him. "I'm done with showbiz, so I need to keep my wardrobe updated so I can hang out in Okina without getting hounded by the paparazzi until they get the hint."
As best as Rise's efforts to stay hidden were, they didn't last long when word of mouth got out. By now every Risette fan with an ear on the floor knew that Rise was currently living in Inaba. Aside from a boost of tourism for the Amagi Inn, not much had happened since. In a few months, maybe she could wander around Okina without worry of someone hounding her.
"Was this shopping trip really necessary though?" Shirou asked. "I thought idols as popular as yourself would have a ton of clothes already."
"Well, most of them are costumes to begin with," she shrugged. "I also left on short notice. I didn't want to waste any time packing my bags and making it a bigger deal that it already was. Perhaps if I had been more patient or spoke out sooner…"
He frowned, saying the only thing he could think of. "Sorry." The whole mess with her quitting as an idol couldn't have come at a worse time. He could only imagine how traumatic it was for her, or any of his friends for that matter.
But Rise smiled and shrugged it off. "It's not your fault, senpai. I quit because I needed a look in the mirror, anyway. And besides…" Her smile grew as she stared pointedly at him. "I wouldn't have gotten to meet my new friends. Like you."
"I-I see…" Shirou coughed nervously and looked away, blushing. It just made Rise giggle, finding his shyness adorable. Man, if Shinji ever found out about this…
"But seriously, you could have asked Satonaka or Amagi to do this with you. Girls know what other girls should wear, right?" It was one thing he still didn't quite get. It was never the fact that he wouldn't do things for his friends if they asked, but he thought the girls would think twice before asking him for a favor, Social Link or no Social Link.
"Maybe, but guys know what they think looks cute on the girl they like," Rise told him. Then she pouted. "You do like me, don't you Shirou-senpai?"
The next words left Shirou's mouth without thinking. "Is this one of those trick questions girls like to ask so much?"
Rise blinked, giving him a sense of urgency that he might have offended her. The moment passed when she just laughed. "You're so funny, senpai!"
"So I've been told," he said. Lately, he found himself less inclined to keep his thoughts to himself. Had he shown this side of himself to anyone back at Homurahara, they'd probably see him as some sort of enigma or freak. But after seeing the extremity of his friend's Shadows born out of suppressed issues, something clicked within him that his own secrets weren't that big of a deal.
At least the ones he was willing to tell.
"I just… think you were the best person to ask."
Shirou blinked out of his reverie. "Huh?"
"I mean, don't get me wrong. Chie-chan and Yuki-chan are great, and Yosuke-senpai's… well, someone likes him so he's kind of busy with his own thing! But you're open, and you recently moved into Inaba too, so you probably have an idea of where to find fun hang-outs and stuff. I'd feel more comfortable hanging out with someone in case other people recognize me."
Fun hang-outs? Shirou didn't think of himself as social or outgoing like Rise. Well, it was true he had been more active since coming to Inaba, he just wasn't sure if he knew the kind of places she would enjoy. "I'm not sure if I know the kind of places you would like to hang-out," he admitted. "But I guess it wouldn't hurt for us to explore Inaba together."
"Really? Woo-hoo!" Rise jumped and cheered. Part of her didn't think Shirou would go along with her request, but he did and everything was perfect!
"There's just one thing I need to ask," she said seriously, lowering her glasses enough to show a disapproving frown. "I've noticed you've been getting chummy with the other girls on the team. You're not going to lead any of us on, are you?"
"She's asking if you plan to act on debauchery."
Angel's voice, coupled with a memory of a specific phone call with Yosuke, suddenly flashed in Shirou's memory brightly enough to make him pale and blush in quick succession. "N-NO! Of course not!" He would never think about cheating. That kind of emotional manipulation was exactly what he feared happening with Social Links. Even if he did somehow pull that off, Fuji-nee would definitely make him regret it.
Rise smiled, satisfied and happy with his response. "Ah, that's good! I would hate to think you were some playboy." She then leaned in and gave him a wink. "Now all I have to do is woo you with my cute charm, Shi-rou-Sen-pai!"
He… didn't know what to make of that comment honestly, so he just glared at her. He was still blushing though, so he unintentionally amused her more. He just wished everyone would stop hounding him about his love life. But even so… he felt he could understand and appreciate Rise's eagerness and friendly behavior. He never expected a former idol to be so approachable, but perhaps that's why so many people loved her as Risette. Some of that behavior was present as Rise.
His senses dimmed as the card marked by "VI" appeared in his mind's eye. A black ink heart in a pink backdrop filled up most of the image of the card. From under the heart and cutting the face into thirds was a tree with fruit dropping off the lower branches. The heart looked like it was being cradled by hands from above and a sun hovered over it. From the lower corners on each side of the tree were two figures in their own colored sections; a silhouette of a man in the left indigo corner, and a silhouette of a woman in the right magenta corner.
I am thou, and thou art I.
Thou hast established a new bond.
It shall bring thee closer to the truth.
Thou shalt be blessed by Personae of the Lovers Arcana.
"Now come on!" Rise smiled, latching onto his arm with both of hers, and started dragging him away from the station. "Let's have a tour of Okina so we can decide what to do the next time we come here!"
Shirou sighed, but still allowed himself to be led along by her. "Isn't this the part where the girl wants to do something fun, rather than sightsee?"
"Oh Shirou-senpai! Being with a guy like you is the fun part!"
June 30th, Shopping District, Souzai Daigaku
I'm the luckiest guy alive.
That was what Yosuke thought as he sat and stared at his girlfriend across the table they had sat down at together. Nothing but sitting and eating, and occasionally flirting. "Your smile looks so adorable, Sacchin."
Sacchin gave him that same smile between bites of her steak skewer. "You're pretty cute yourself, Yosuke-kun!"
They laughed and smiled.
Every time he saw the cute angel that was Satsuki Kubo, he just felt so giddy and light. She wanted nothing more than to spend as much time with him as possible. Sitting at the food court while he worked at Junes. Waiting for him at the school gate when school ends. Late night texts that sometimes share pictures that slowly get more and more… daring.
It was times like these being with her that he felt he didn't have a care in the world, not having to worry about stuff.
I think there's something important to do, though. Was it homework? Well, that can wait until later.
Sure, the Souzai Daigaku wasn't a very good place to set up a date, but frankly he didn't care. And let the people gossip all about him and his family. It meant nothing as long as he was with Sacchin.
"You sure you don't mind me being here?" Yosuke asked her. Just because the stigmata might not bother him, it might make things harder for Sacchin like with Saki-senpai.
"The only one complaining is my younger brother, and even then, he keeps skipping out on his job," Sacchin said. She then looked over her shoulder before leaning in with a whisper. "Between you and me, he likes to complain about everything that isn't a video game or superhero comic."
"Well, who doesn't like a good video game or superhero story?" Yosuke smiled back.
Younger brother… something familiar about this. Ah, right, Saki-senpai had one too.
"Think I could meet him at some point?" he asked. Being friendly with a girl's family members always scored points with being better boyfriend/girlfriend material.
"Not for a while," she shook her head. "He doesn't like going outside, and he's been very seclusive after a run-in with Tatsumi-kun."
"Tatsumi? That sounds familiar…" Yosuke noted aloud. Wait, does she mean Kan-
"Say, how about you visit my house for the weekend?" she asked suddenly. "It's just me and my brother, and if you like video games, maybe you two can get along."
"'For the weekend'? This weekend?" Yosuke asked. "I don't know… it's going to be raining, isn't it?"
"I always thought the rainy weather to be pleasant, honestly," she said softly. "Everything in the land gets cleansed and the sound of drops is relaxing. Especially in a romantic night…"
"R-Romantic…?" Yosuke's cheeks started to color. Surely, she couldn't mean… this early in their relationship?!
"Well, it is our one-week anniversary, today," Sacchin said. "You said you wanted to take me out to someplace special than Junes, but I think you deserve something a little special for our milestone, just like how you like to spoil me."
And what a milestone! If he did everything right, he might even pass Shirou Emiya in reaching manhood first!
Shirou Emiya… wait, he asked me something lately.
"Uh… I might need to check my calendar for that," Yosuke said, reaching for his phone, and surprised to see it turned off. Wait, don't I always have this on?
Sacchin reached over and touched his other arm on the table. Their eyes met. "Surely you don't need to make time for me, do you Yosuke-kun?"
Yosuke didn't know what to say. But then, he didn't need to say anything because of how touched and happy he was. He really was lucky and happy to have met her.
Still, I feel like I'm forgetting something… something very important. What IS this something?
He started to feel Sacchin's leg slide up against his, slowly and seductively. That definitely promised something to look forward to.
Well… maybe it's not that important as the girl in front of me. I mean, heck, she's asking me to spend the weekend at her place! That shouldn't even be a question!
"Well, Yosuke-kun?" she asked again, batting her eyelashes at him.
Yosuke sighed but smiled. He just couldn't say no to her. "Sacchin, I would love to-"
"So this is where you are."
Yosuke snapped out of his emotional trance, and paled. Standing behind him with a deadpan stare was his red-haired classmate. "Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-SHIT-irou! Wh-Wh-What a surprise!" On the outside, Yosuke tried to play it off cool, despite slipping his tongue making a slight curse.
But mentally he was hyperventilating, as the memory of their last shared texts came to mind. Crap, crap, crap, crap, CRAP! I KNEW I was forgetting something!
Shirou ignored him, turning to the girl sitting at the other end. "Satsuki Kubo, was it? Yosuke told me quite a number of glowing compliments about you. Pleasure to meet you."
"And you must be Shirou Emiya. Likewise." She extended a hand out to him. He politely shook it as brief as possible.
"I'm sorry to interrupt your date, and I normally wouldn't impose on a 'one-week anniversary' plan…" Yosuke gulped at how dryly Shirou phrased that. "But I'm going to need your boyfriend for the night."
"Aww… can't he stay?" she asked while leaning in and batting her eyelashes. Yosuke loved that about her. She just looked so mesmerizing like-
Sacchin blinked. "Wh-What?"
"I'm sorry, but no," Shirou told her simply. "I'm afraid this is rather urgent. In fact, Yosuke is going to be busy with me and my friends for the rest of the week. Aren't you, Yosuke?"
"Y-Yeah, that's right." Yosuke was honestly just as stunned as Sacchin. He didn't think anyone ever turned down Sacchin's charm that bluntly.
"Good. Satonaka and the others are waiting for us at the food court. We have a big D&D session to catch up on." Shirou did not wait for Satsuki or Yosuke to leave a comment before grabbing the latter by his wrist and dragging him to the hilltop bus stop.
"Uh, call you later, Sacchin!" Yosuke waved and called out to her.
When the two of them were at the stop, Shirou let go of Yosuke's hand… and then quickly smacked the back of his head. "OW! I thought that was my thing!"
"Your one day off on your 'busy schedule' all week and the first chance you get, you're out dating again?" Shirou snarled. "I'm starting to think Morooka-sensei had a point about his rants on debauchery."
"I-It wasn't like that!"
"Then why was your phone off? Satonaka and I have been trying to call and text you for the last hour."
"I don't know!" Yosuke snapped. He had been surprised seeing that himself but didn't have any time to question it.
"You were the one who said we shouldn't go in unless we were a full team," Shirou reminded gravely. "We've all been waiting on you for days, and you were just making weekend plans with your girlfriend?!"
"I'm sorry, okay!?"
A long moment passed after Yosuke's outburst, breaking the tension between them. Yosuke almost immediately deflated, and his head sank down. "I just… for the first time I feel like I'm somebody important. A guy with a great girlfriend doting on him, and then I guess I let it get to my head."
Shirou frowned, thinking back to the time he spent with the others the last few days. "I guess I can kind of understand that. Having breaks like these from fighting Shadows is more tempting and rewarding than going back in there.
"But we can't just keep sitting idly by. Kanji Tatsumi is still missing, and time's running out for when we can rescue him. Because after tomorrow, it's going to start raining for the next three days."
"Man, we always seem to be cutting these rescues close, huh?" Yosuke weakly joked. Shirou didn't laugh, and honestly, Yosuke didn't either.
The wait for the bus seemed to take longer than usual, so Shirou (with only a little urging from Pixie) coughed before starting a new topic. "So, uh… what's it like having a girlfriend?"
"Oh, it's amazing!" Yosuke gushed, almost blooming with vigor. "She's sweet and funny, she laughs at all my jokes, always makes time to see me, man I could go on and on about how awesome she is!"
"Please don't," Shirou groaned, already regretting asking. Yosuke just laughed more, thinking more about how happy he's been being around her. But as he did, he also recalled something else.
"But you know, the weird thing is that whenever I'm with her, I seem to forget everything else but her."
Shirou looked baffled. "I thought you liked having a girlfriend, though."
"I do! She's great, but… I want some me-time to myself, you know? She's been bothering me all week, even when I'm at work. It was like there was this nagging sensation in my head that made me forget everything but her. It felt nice at the time, but then I just… forget what I was supposed to do."
Shirou stared at him intently. Yosuke took that to mean he was being annoyed again and scratched this chin nervously. "Yeah, I know, sounds weird and sketchy. She's not a bad girl though, honest!"
The bus finally started to appear from further down the road. "Are you prepared for this, Yosuke? You know we have to go back to the bathhouse."
"Yeah, I'm good. I've had enough time to prove and bolster my red-blooded self." He was almost looking forward to seeing those two burly Guys again. If only to scream and ram his knives into their faces with testosterones pulsing.
"Good. Because we're going to save Kanji, and you have no excuse to complain about leaving after all the time we waited on you."
Yosuke winced, wishing he had more time to spend with his girlfriend. "…fair enough."
"One last thing."
Before Yosuke knew it, Shirou suddenly kicked him hard enough in his right shin to knock him off his feet. He swore he felt a static shock from that blow too, and he cradled his leg in agony. "OW! Sonova-! What the hell, man?!"
"That was from Satonaka," he told him. "I told her I'd do it on her behalf since she planned to hit you in a particular part of your body. Again."
He soon realized that his friend spared him from a horrible, painful fate by enacting a lesser one. Tears of gratitude started to mix with those of pain. "Th-Thanks a million, Shirou."
"Don't mention it," Shirou said, and helped him up to climb onto the bus as it arrived.
Neither boy noticed Satsuki staring at them the whole time since they left the skewer stand. "That Emiya boy shrugged off my hypnosis," she muttered. "Interesting.".
A/N: 3 chapters in one year? Man, my muse must be getting weak. I know there are people that have dead fics longer than this but I know this never leaves my concern. I just get occupied playing other games and dealing with stress of trying to earn an upkeep of my own. I'm not like other people that can just write stuff willy nilly and edit later. Even with a reliable beta reader checking so many of my errors beforehand (and will probably have to check for more later that I miss because I just want to share this everyone right away), I just like to write when I get a muse going and follow it through. My style of writing may one day bite me in the ass, but so far things are going smoothly here.
Happy Holidays, everyone! And a happy new year too! Maybe next year I'll be done with Kanji's arc and the one after.