Fate/Reach Out

Chapter 38: Shadow of the Masculine Self


Steamy Bathhouse Entrance

It was a long time coming, but Shirou was making good on his promise to Nice Guy and Tough Guy. Part of him hoped they had forgotten or that they weren't at the front entrance anymore, but they have been patiently waiting and reminded Shirou of his end of the deal, with the necessary tools at that (table, towels, massage oil, the works).

Luckily he had experience in giving massages to Taiga years ago, and he read a book on how to give massages and the techniques involved during the reprieve, so he was prepared. It was really fortunate that the Shopping District had the exact book he needed, but that was another story.

And if nothing else, Shirou Emiya was a man of his word, and was now currently pressing the back of Tough Guy to relieve pressure points. Judging by the Shadow's euphoric moans, he was doing something right.

"Ooooooh YES." Tough Guy said. He rolled his shoulders slightly and pressed his head deeper on the head towel he was resting on, enjoying the feel of Shirou's hands over his oily back muscles. "Your hands are just simply divine, Shirou-chin!"

"Are you sure?" Shirou asked as he worked. "It's been a while since I've done this, so I think I'm a little rusty."

"Rusty, you say?" The bodybuilder Shadow beamed. "Could've fooled little ol' me. You're pressing all the right joints so wonderfully!"

"I'm glad you appreciate it. I want to make up for the long delay we had coming back."

"And it is so worth it!"

Despite himself, Shirou smiled. He strived to always help people for praise and feel a bit worthier, and despite this being an obvious enemy he would have to fight, that moment wasn't here or now. In fact, if this could help avoid fighting Kanji's Shadow at all, it was worth the investment.

"How the hell did I get roped into this?!"

From the next table over, Yosuke was standing over Nice Guy, also set up for a massage. He looked like he rather be anywhere but there and didn't even try touching the Shadow yet.

"You have no right to complain, Yosuke," Shirou told him dryly. "We all waited on you."

"I-I'm not complaining! I just find this coming from completely out of left field! Couldn't you do both yourself?"

"I need time and focus on one at a time, and you're the only other person they'd allow to help, like it or not. We don't have the time to spare."

Shirou emphasized his point with a hard elbow drop at the lower back of Tough Guy. Between the impact of the blow and the cry of pleasure the Shadow made, Yosuke couldn't help but cringe.

"I-I don't even know how to do massages!"

"Just rub your hands over my back in circular motions. I'll tell you when you're being too rough and need to press somewhere else."

"See, even Nice Guy is willing to make this easy on you," Shirou told him expectantly. "So start rubbing. The sooner we both get this done, the sooner we can find Kanji."

"B-But he's so thick and veiny and… manly," he muttered the last word softly with envy. Shaking his head out of that train of thought, he quickly added, "Look, I get that I'm getting punished for this, but this is way beyond my comfort zone!"

"Did you even use the oil?"

"It feels gross, man! Like, dipping my hands in vinegar!"

"It's meant for the customer's enjoyment, not the masseur's!"

"Since when are Shadows customers?!"

Nice Guy sighed, his patience clearly waning due to not having gotten a massage yet. He pushed himself enough off the massage bed to turn and look flatly at the worried teen. "Would you rather I give you the massage instead?"

Yosuke smiled, willing to take any lifeline out of this. "Oh, you're volunteering?! Well, my back has been feeling a bit stiff lately—"

"Because I'm thinking of pounding you firmly into the ground until those aching bones of yours are as fine as the grains of salt that I would then use to season my dinner."

It was as implied a death threat as the jovial "Nice" Guy could put it, and it left Yosuke feeling sick and nauseous. He could see the no nonsense expression on his face matching his deadpan tone, and he clearly had the bulk to follow through on his words.

Yosuke gulped, briefly tugging on his scarf to do so. Then he forced his smile back up and quickly squeezed the oil out the bottle into his hand. "On second thought, let's not strain those big muscles of yours! You deserve a good old-fashioned rubdown!"

"That's more like it," Nice Guy smiled back, and laid back down.

Realizing that he had no more excuses, Yosuke started to press his hands down over Nice Guy's back. He groaned and looked away, completely creeped out by the feeling. This Shadow wasn't really a man, so this didn't count, right?

"Lower," the Shadow commanded. Yosuke moved his hands down as instructed, still doing the rhythmic circles to placate it. Hopefully this would end soon and they could get Kanji out and he could salvage his date with Sacchin-

"Lower."

He nearly stopped and gawked. "I did go lower!"

"Lower than that."

The auburn-haired teen hissed through his teeth, and reluctantly moved his hands lower. "F-Fine, but this is as low as I'm going!"

"Oh, don't worry, I won't let you touch my balls." Graphic image and bluntness aside, Yosuke was so relieved to hear those words. "Those are Tough Guy's property."

Yosuke's relief gave away to a single eyebrow twitch and loud, internal screaming.

Further back at the entrance, the girls and Tama watched the massages with rapt interest. "I feel kind of bad for Hanamura-kun," Yukiko admitted.

"I don't," Chie spat. "If his constant dating makes it so we can't save Kanji-kun in time, I'll never forgive him."

"Well, I wouldn't be in a hurry to come back here either with those biased bouncers around," Rise said. "They wouldn't even let us use the shortcut until Shirou-kun massaged them."

Honestly, standing in front of the path they'd made through that Goho-M? Talk about petty.

"At least Emiya-kun is taking this well."

"Yeah…"

While Yosuke was slowly going through the notions, Shirou was doing this almost naturally and enjoying himself. It wasn't hard to imagine how sensual those hands could be, as Tough Guy let out an occasional moan of satisfaction.

Chie, Yukiko, and Rise all swooned in a dreamy sigh. A guy that knows how to please a girl in more ways than one… that was always a plus (never mind the fact how he was technically massaging a guy).

Rise then noticed their bear friend having a peculiar expression on his face; flushing red and mournful. "What's wrong, Teddie?"

Teddie didn't answer right away, as he was still staring at Shirou. Then he turned, face slightly red, and asked her, "…is it weird that I kind of find this hot?"

The girls all stared at the bear with alarm and shock. Even Tama, previously resting in a corner, declared her surprise well as she shot up and turned to him.

Poor Teddie got defensive as his flush glowed brighter. "What?! That's why I was asking!"


July 1st, Samegawa Floodplain

They were ready.

It had taken the last two days of training and strategy, but Shirou could finally say they were like a well-oiled unit in fighting. Rise's sensory skills were especially a boon by having a layout of where the Shadows were and how many were present on a floor at a time. The other members had seemingly grown in leaps and bounds with new skills and spells to use, and they even found some rare treasures like an electricity suppressor for Yosuke.

Shirou himself had a stronger grasp on his Personas' limitations and was fully ready to test the tools at his disposal to fight Kanji's Shadow, or at least his facets in the Guy bouncers. Having finally reached the top floor and prepared as much as possible for the inevitable fallout, nothing was stopping them from marching to the final room and rescuing Kanji.

Except a mutiny to rest a day before going in.

Chie was the most adamant about it, going as far as to physically pull Shirou away from the door.

"We've been fighting all the way up here! Yukiko's out of breath, our supplies are all used up, and we sure as hell don't have the money to buy more of Tama's leaves!

"But Kanji-!"

"-Will be fine for one more day. The rain's not going to let up yet, the worst of the Midnight Channel has already happened, and it doesn't look like Kanji's Shadow is going to burst yet. We haven't even seen him the whole time we've been here."

"And thank god for that," Yosuke had said, but no one commented on his delivery. They did listen to his input though. "Look, as vice-captain of this team, I have to side with Chie on this one."

The others predictably made fun of how he wanted to get away from the bathhouse and into Sacchin's arms, and to Yosuke's credit he was only mildly sidetracked from the point he was trying to make. "Every time a fight with one of our Shadows comes up, we get our asses kicked, and barely win by the skin of our teeth. And each time that happened, it was because we were not at the top of our game or had some fights already leading up to them. These Shadows keep getting stronger, and we need to be at our best from here on out."

After that, it was a unanimous decision as the others agreed to head back, and Shirou had to swallow his pride for a day.

As he and Chie lived closer together, they were once again walking the same road down the floodplain, with umbrellas at hand. The walk was quiet, and he had no cues to start a conversation with Chie as Eligor was absent.

But should he start a conversation? She looked like she didn't want to be next to him, daring only a few awkward glances his way.

Come to think of it, it was raining too when they first met under the gazebo. At least she got a new umbrella this time.

"Hey, uh," Chie started, surprising him. She was still looking ahead and away from him, though. "You're not mad at me, are you, Emiya-kun?"

"Mad? Why would you think that?"

"You were scowling the whole time since I argued for going back instead of fighting. It was kind of scary."

Oh. That. He didn't even know that he'd had a scowl on his face, but he recalled feeling very bitter back there. "No, Satonaka, I wasn't mad at you, or the others. What you and Yosuke said made a lot of sense. I was… madder at myself, really."

"Yourself?"

"If I had been a bit stronger, or managed our time better, we could have rescued Kanji by now. All I could think about was what I could have done better, or if I hadn't screwed up—"

"No." Chie stepped in front of him and was now scolding him again. "No, I'm going to stop you right there. This is no one's fault." She paused. "Well, a little bit of Hanamura-kun's fault, but that's it."

Despite himself, Shirou chuckled. He had a feeling that poor Yosuke was never going to live this down.

"Kanji-kun is still fine. And he will be when we get him back home tomorrow. You've done enough making sure that we got close enough for a fresh battle and getting us ready and coordinated and stuff. Among other things." She awkwardly tapped the ground twice with her right foot, testing her shoes after kicking with the Boots of Abigor for what felt like hours.

"So don't beat yourself up about this!" she added with a smile. "You're a great leader! No one blames you for managing time, or doubts how serious you are rescuing Kanji-kun. Allies of Justice need their rest too."

Shirou was speechless. He had been warned about his habit of overworking from his family and peers for all he had known them back in Fuyuki. Taiga and Issei were the most concerned about his wellbeing, and Sakura did her part to cook breakfast to alleviate some burden off him.

He was so used to being mocked for his dream of being a hero that he never heard someone appeal to it as a reason to rest. "Allies of Justice need their rest too." He could have never fathomed such a sentence. And yet, all he could do was gasp in awe upon feeling a sudden, unexpected warmth fill him.

It felt… nice.

"Hey, Satonaka-kun!"

The moment ended as a voice called out to the now startled Chie. She turned with some surprise and unease at the approaching teenager their age. "T-Takeshi-kun?!"

"I didn't think that I'd see you out in the rain, and with someone other than Amagi-san!" he said casually, walking up to them. He carried his own umbrella, which he looked over and under it as if looking for Yukiko.

He then settled on appraising Shirou head-to-toe before asking her. "So who's the guy? Wait, don't tell me; your recruit, right? A fellow 'Ally of Justice', like you were going on about earlier? You haven't used that title since grade school!"

Chie's head dipped downward, and her umbrella was pulled closer to cover her glowing face. Takeshi either didn't notice or care as he continued. "Actually, I think you were part of the Runt Gang way back in kindergarten, and after that you were the undisputed King of the Hill."

Shirou looked between the two; the more names Takeshi listed, the more humiliated Chie reacted. It didn't help that he didn't seem to have a tone of endearment towards those memories, either. He was embarrassing her, and… was her lip trembling?

"Oh, and the Vanguards of the Lunch Revolution! Man, the crazy names you came up with!" Takeshi chuckled. "What exactly are you this time? A Defender of Earth's Peace or something silly like that?"

"I-I…"

"Shut up."

Chie and Takeshi were startled by Shirou's sharp tone. He was scowling again, directing his anger towards the teenager that came to greet them.

No. Chie realized it was different. That time wasn't anger. This was.

Takeshi quickly stepped back, holding his hands up. "Whoa, hey man, relax. I'm just joking—"

"Do we look like we're laughing here?" he cut him off dryly, gesturing to him and the clearly uncomfortable Chie.

Takeshi winced. "N-No, I guess not. Let me start over." He then extended a hand out to him. "Name's Takeshi Kouno, old friend of Satonaka-kun! Pleasure to meet you!"

"Shirou Emiya. Trust me, the pleasure is all yours."

"Emiya-kun…" Chie hissed. Just because Takeshi was being rude didn't mean he should be rude back.

To his credit, Shirou noticed Satonaka's warning and restrained his emotions a little bit. He still made no move to shake his hand, though, and Takeshi took the hint. "Look, Kouno was it? We're kind of in a hurry here, so if you have something to say, make it quick."

"Oh, don't worry! I'm not getting in between your date or anything!" Takeshi said. For some reason, Chie felt a pang of disappointment rather than embarrassment of what he implied. "I was just passing by for some… errands, when I saw Satonaka-kun, and I was wondering how Amagi-san was doing these days. Satonaka-kun is her best friend so—"

The story was already sketchy enough on errands, but as soon as Amagi's name came up, Shirou knew how crestfallen Chie felt without showing it, and nipped the problem in the bud. "Ask Amagi yourself how she's doing. That is, if you have the balls to actually talk to her."

Shirou was already walking past him as he spoke. Again, both teens were gobsmacked how cutting and brutal his verbal responses were. Chie spared a glance at Takeshi to see him failing to make a sound out of his flapping mouth, before leaving him and rushing over to Emiya as they continued to walk home.

"You didn't have to be that mean," Chie told him.

"So it was okay for him to make fun of you like that?"

"I'm used to it," she argued. "We were classmates up until high school, and only friends at that. Nothing really came between us since he had his eyes on Yukiko."

Shirou frowned. Would an old friend really take another's dreams and feelings for granted? Clearly there was more to this Takeshi Kouno than Satonaka was letting on, but he was her friend and it wasn't any of his business.

He felt he needed to say something to her. Anything. But what? Dammit, of all the times to be without Eligor…

They reached the street corner where their destinations split off, but both of them hesitated to leave. For several minutes they stood in the rain, waiting. They spared each other glances but just as quickly looked straight ahead as if afraid to make eye contact.

Still not a word spoken.

"Weeeeeell," Chie dragged the word out, making a long, exaggerated step off to the side. "I better get home for an early night's rest! Tomorrow's a big day after all!"

Now or never. "I'm sorry."

Chie stopped and looked back. "Huh?"

"About Kouno, I mean," Shirou said. "I usually don't go off badmouthing people like that, but when he talked about your titles and laughing, it bothered me, for a lack of a better term, and I just said things without thinking. Because I've been there too, mocked for wanting to be an Ally of Justice and I saw how sad you were that I thought…"

Chie stared at him, wide-eyed. That didn't look like a good sign. Rather, he saw it as his cue to leave. "Forget I said anything. It was just stupid of me."

"No, no!" she said quickly. "I mean, I get it, Takeshi-kun can be rude sometimes. I don't want you badmouthing him again of course. I was just surprised hearing you snap at him like that. You had a reason though, and hearing it makes me… happy."

She smiled at him, relieved and thankful. As opposed to her sad resignation from meeting Takeshi earlier, this was a much-needed improvement on her mood. Enough to also relax Shirou with a deep exhale.

"Well, we Allies of Justice got to stick together, right?"

"Right!"

And there was nothing more to be said. Come tomorrow, they would finally rescue Kanji.


Steamy Bathhouse, Top Floor

Kanji was exhausted. It didn't matter where he ran to or how far. He couldn't find a way out of this damn bathhouse! Instead, he just found his way right back to his lookalike, even in a different room. It was so frustrating, and this heated sauna was getting way too humid now.

"You've been way too tense, darling!" The other Kanji said, walking around a big room with nothing but a towel around his waist. Why don't you just relax and take a load off? Oh, and watch that wet floor sign over there; the water in this room tends to spill over a lot."

"Screw that!" the sweating, bleached teen snapped. "Just tell me how to get out of this damn place!"

"Don't you get it now? There is no way out!"

"Bullshit! I had to have gotten in here to begin with, right? What kind of prison doesn't have a way to get out, you know, for the jailers and shit!?"

These arguments were just as aggravating as getting lost. This guy, supposedly his "Shadow" (who didn't at all look black or dark or anything like that, just creepy), kept talking in circles about how he needs to accept his innermost feelings and junk. What did he think he was, some looney foreign therapist?

Lucky for him, even the Shadow looked tired of their play-by-play, sighing dramatically with his hand resting on his chin. "I guess you have a point. Then again, you reinforced the beautiful, dim-witted men stereotype by getting lost for nearly a week."

"I thought I told you to can it with the— wait. A WEEK!?" Kanji was flabbergasted. He lost track of time and thought he was just gone for a really, really, long day, maybe two at most. But seven? Crap, his ma and Naoto must be worried sick how he went missing like those murder victims back in April. Well, Ma at least. Not so sure about Naoto.

"Alright, I've decided," The Shadow said, pleased with himself. "I'll let you out. On one condition."

"Figures," Kanji spat. That was the most stock 'evil bad guy line' he had ever heard, and it pissed him off a bit that someone with his likeness said it so seriously. "What do you want, then?"

"For you to admit your deepest, darkest secret to me, and accept that we are one and the same."

"That's it? Fine, I'm—"

"You didn't let me finish~! I don't want a fake verbal promise you'll break as soon as I show you the door." The Shadow leaned closer to Kanji with a creepy smile. "I want you to forever promise that you are – how should I say this? – VERY MUCH in touch with your feminine side!"

Something about those words chilled Kanji to the bone, and a knot in his stomach started to form. He hid this unease with angry swagger. "Wh-What the hell's THAT supposed to mean?!"

"Come now, handsome. We both know you're not that dense. You're me after all."

Suddenly the door was slammed open and a stomping of feet rushed in.

"There they are!"

"Kanji!"

Kanji looked back to the door in surprise. Among the five teens wearing glasses (and some cute looking mascot character), he recognized at least two of the people in the crowd. "Emiya? Yukiko-senpai?!"

"Wait, what are the bitches doing here?!" Shadow Kanji stomped in anger. "This is supposed to be a MEN'S SPA!"

The red-haired girl winced and uttered under her breath, "That's gynophobia, all right…"

Emiya stepped forward to confront the Shadow, standing between him and Kanji. "Kanji, come with us. I promise when this is over, we're going to take you home."

"Wait, I get out of here?"

"Yeah, we have an escape route."

That was the best news Kanji had heard all day! Or week, rather. He didn't care if he had to be near a few girls, just as long as he could get out of this freaky place!

"HA! Joke's on you, asshole!" Kanji smirked and pointed at the copy. "I'm getting out of here, and don't have to see, hear, or think of your ugly pansy mug again!"

"B-But I'm YOU! How could you think this handsome face to be ugly?!"

"To hell with that!" Kanji snapped, already marching to the group. "You can die in this overgrown bathtub for all I care!"


Shirou was worried. This was almost too easy.

They had managed to catch up to Kanji and his Shadow in time before the transformation. That was lucky… or maybe a coincidence. Perhaps they could finally get out of this without a fight, and they were just better safe than sorry.

He liked to think that he was just getting paranoid or nervous due to a magi lifestyle being ever-so riddled with death, but… something didn't feel right.

Kanji feeling emboldened enough to mouth off his Shadow probably had something to do with that.

"You'd rather trust those hussies and jerks than me? Than yourself!?" The Shadow demanded.

Kanji stopped and turned to snap back. "They didn't keep me prisoner here!"

"I never put you here in the first place. I kept you here, yes, but to protect you. From those ugly little liars."

"Why you-!"

Shirou could see how this fight was escalating too quickly, and he pushed Kanji back. "Enough of this, we're leaving." If there was a chance to avoid a deadly battle, he would take it.

He stopped when he felt a sudden killer intent in the room, from behind. He wasn't the only one, as Teddie's fur bristled and Rise's Persona sense kicked in. "Guys! We got- KYAAAH!"

Without warning, two monochrome blurs rushed from behind and attacked the girls. The others turned and blanched at what they saw.

"Oh shit, it's the bouncers!" Yosuke cried in dismay. For once, Shirou couldn't blame him for feeling scared of their presence.

Nice Guy and Tough Guy were both very tall, muscular Shadows, and for the first time they were showing the extent of their physique by manhandling the female members of the Investigation Team. The former had Yukiko and Rise both in a painful bearhug, while the ladder was applying a sleeper hold on Chie. They were completely at their mercy.

Shirou immediately drew his sword at pointed at them. "Let them go!"

"I'm afraid that isn't an option, little Shirou-chin." Nice Guy told him, almost sounding sincere.

"You are free to leave, but the girls must be punished." Tough Guy added, squeezing ever so tightly around the struggling Chie's neck.

"That's not fair!" Teddie shouted. "You gave your word after Sensei and Yosuke gave you massages!"

"I say it's perfectly fair," Shadow Kanji scoffed. "You girls think you can just keep breaking the rules whenever it's convenient for you, and then cry foul when you happen to see someone flashing you? Sorry hunnies, NOT in MY bathhouse!"

Yosuke pulled out his knives and moved to swing at Shadow Kanji. "You son of a—!"

"Yosuke, no!" Shirou grappled him from behind and held him. "Don't do it!"

"You said that the Guys are some part of Kanji's psyche before, right?! That means if we beat the source, they'll go away!"

"We're trying to save Kanji, remember?!" Teddie warned him. "If you kill his Shadow, you'll kill him too!"

Yosuke's struggle reluctantly ceased. "I know that, but…!"

This whole thing was a trap. Shirou couldn't berate himself more for letting this happen, brought down half their fighting strength in an instant, and Yosuke felt the same way. The only way to safely save the others was for Kanji to fully reject himself. The fight was determined entirely against them and they were forced in an impasse.

"I'll deal with you cuties later," Shadow Kanji taunted with a wink. "Now as for you…"

The real Kanji was numb. He couldn't stop staring at the two burly men seemingly choking the life out of the girls like from some weird torture video. He barely knew these girls, and yet they came all this way… to help him?

And… he was somehow causing their pain? Was this his fault?

A tap on his shoulder shook him out of his trance, and he saw his golden eyed doppelgänger grinning at him. "I'm waiting on that heartfelt apology~."

Somehow, Kanji knew that if he just played lip service, or at least made it convincing, this would be over. Before he would have denied it as a fact of pride, but this…

"Why are you doing this to them?" he asked, gesturing toward the Guys.

"It's what wewant. What we deserve after everything we've been through."

"The hell are you talking about?"

"I'm just going to say it plain; WOMEN SUCK!" Kanji's Shadow roared, no longer smiling. "They're so arrogant, so self-centered, and so damn entitled! They complain that chivalry's dead, but they want to be pampered like little princesses and knock men down like dogs!"

If Yukiko and Chie were aware of anything but their own dimming consciousness, they probably would have winced at the too-close-to-home admittance.

"They cry when you get mad, they gossip behind your back, they spread nasty lies," The Shadow ranted, his features contorting with line listed. He then stared at his shaking hands. "They just take one look at me and laugh like I'm… I'm some sort of FREAK to them!"

He started to stomp in a tantrum, enunciating his re-enactment of shrill girl voices. "'You bake cookies? That's so not you!' 'You like to sew? What a queer!' 'Why would a guy like you do painting?' 'Are you really a guy?' 'Shouldn't you act manlier that this?' What do they know about being a guy? About being manly? THEY'RE JUST A BUNCH OF GIRLS!"

The Shadow grew more unhinged and angrier as he talked, looking much like the regular Kanji during one of his own tantrums. No one dared to stop him, worried at how he would react. But as soon as the rising anger came, it went away with a sense of somber melancholy.

"I hate them, really. But deep down? They scare me," The Shadow admitted sadly. "They can do so many mean things to you, and even when you mean well or apologize, they are never satisfied. They would go so far as to wish your head on a pike if they can make that happen, and who would people rather listen to? A scary guy, or a cute girl?"

It was then that Shirou realized that they never once encountered Shadow Kanji throughout the whole dungeon crawl. Yukiko and Rise's Shadows saw fit to taunt them mid-way as they searched for their shared person of interest, but not Kanji's. Which meant that this Shadow was probably more dangerous than any they have faced before. Was it because it had more time to fester and grow?

"Men are easy to understand. They're strong. Loyal. Hard-working. Straightforward. They can be stupid, but also simple, because you can tell when a man likes you or not. Even if you piss them off, at least they're upfront about it. They'll just kick your ass and admit so right to your face. Women would just mock you and play the victim to get their way.

"And Naoto," The Shadow smiled and squirmed as the name left his lips. "Oh, Naoto, he's just an angel. So lean yet forceful. Angry but in a tranquil manner. Mysterious and at the same time honest. There was nothing extravagant in our meetings, nothing grandiose or romantic like those bitches would dream about, but it didn't matter. Those few months with Naoto… were the happiest I've had since daddy dearest passed away. And now he's going to hate me. Unless I admit I've been wrong."

Suddenly, Kanji had a flash of clarity.

"What do you say? Are you ready to admit the real you, Kanji Tatsumi?"

"…yeah, I hear you all right."

POW!

No one saw the blow coming. Kanji reared his arm back and decked his own Shadow in the mouth. The force was so strong that it sent the Shadow careening across the room and crashing into a small side pool.

He felt a phantom pain over his own jaw but ignored it. Damn, so that's what I feel like…

At the same time, Shirou and Yosuke noticed the Guys stagger and their grips on the girls loosen. Immediately they summoned their Personas Izanagi and Jiraiya to strike them while they were still stunned. Ironically, the body-builder Shadows were body-checked across the room, allowing the three girls to safely land on the floor relatively unharmed.

Teddie and Tama rushed over to them. "Are you girls okay?!" "Hrrn!"

"Ugh, five more minutes," Chie half-groaned in drowsiness, craning her neck as she did so.

Rise was the worst off of the three, having turned on her back and was clutching her sides. "Oooooh… I never thought a hug could hurt so much."

Shirou quickly dismissed Izanagi for Sarasvati, casting light healing over the girls. "Get ready, it looks like a fight is going to break out."

"Is it weird to admit that I'm kind of glad this is our best outcome?" Yosuke joked. No one had an answer for that, and just watched the inevitable fallout from the sidelines.

Yukiko was the most torn. "Kanji-kun…"

Meanwhile, Kanji and his Shadow were in their own world, the former watching his double climb out of the pool and then stumble down to the floor. Both had a hurt jaw, but the impact of the punch was more emotional than physical.

"You… you punched me?!" The Shadow screeched, cradling his swollen cheekbone.

"Quit whining. If you have my face, then you should at least be able to take a punch."

"But why… why would you help the same sex that ridiculed you?! Why would you lie to yourself?!"

"Yukiko-senpai and the others don't deserve that kind of crap! A true man doesn't make girls cry, let alone hurt them!"

'That's rich! Coming from the guy who made Shana-chan cry!"

Kanji flinched but stood vigilant. "And you think blaming everyone associated with her is any better!? You claim you're like me, but you're a rag-wearing pansy throwing a hissy-fit! Take responsibility, dammit!"

Shadow Kanji's posture was outright hostile. Barred teeth, clenched fists… and especially the glowing aura that Kanji could see spike. "Even you reject me now? You reject me like everyone else?!"

"I don't know what the hell is going on, but I know two things for sure. For one, I'd never be able to look Naoto in the eye if I let you have your way. And second…" He pointed defiantly at the Shadow and yelled, "This is no way in hell you're me!"

Shadow Kanji growled, and the aura around him grew darker. Kanji felt a distinct feeling that he was getting weaker but tried to stare him down. He did, however, step back as soon as the Guy Shadows landed behind Shadow Kanji with mighty thuds to crack the wood.

"YOOOOOOOU…" he bellowed. "I WILL MAKE YOU REGRET EVER SPURNING MEEEEEEE!"

An explosion of darkness knocked Kanji off his feet, his body sliding over the wet wood tiling. Try as he might, he couldn't get back up, like a lead weight was strapped over his chest. The Investigation Team hurried past him with weapons drawn for battle.

When the dust and smoke settled, standing there was a giant figure with a size and muscle bulk that dwarfed even the Guys by a few extra feet. Shadow Kanji was now an Olympian in physique and colored in perfect monochrome; half white, half black, wearing only a loincloth. Around the upper body was a bed of roses arranged like a Mars symbol pointing down to the crotch, and vines grew out to entangle around the arms. Surprisingly enough, Shadow Kanji's original face was still intact, popping out of the bed of roses from the chest up. Perhaps the most alarming feature of this Shadow's form was the pair of golden Mars symbols it held like weapons.

"I am a Shadow, the true self! And all I want to do is be true to myself! I don't care who gets in my way, BECAUSE I'M GOING TO KILL THEM DEAD!"

To follow through with this threat, Shadow Kanji took a single step forward before swinging his right-hand gold weight down so that the round end would hit the ground.

"Scatter!" Shirou ordered as he lifted the real Kanji up, and the team split in time before the attack connected, barely avoiding the shockwave explosion that followed. Dust and splinters were sent flying from the impact, with a piece of sharper shrapnel nicking Yukiko in the arm.

"Yukiko!" Chie cried. She would have rushed to her friend's side if they hadn't been separated by the attack with Tama, Teddie, and Yosuke being in similar straits.

"Ahh!" she yelped, reflexively covering her arm. "I-I'm all right!"

"Me too, sorta!" Rise whined on all fours, having tripped during the escape.

"You won't be when I'm through with you!" Shadow Kanji roared, stepping forward to swing the second weight down where they were.

"Izanagi!"

Luckily, Shirou was with them, and his God Persona intercepted the attack in time. To ease off on the pressure, he also let out a Zio attack through the weapon to shock their enemy. He may be stronger than a normal Shadow, but with gold being an excellent conductor, it was only natural that the effect should stun him for a bit.

"Hmm?" Shadow Kanji, however, didn't seem affected at all. His lecherous grin just grew wider. "Are you really trying to taze me, bro? Bitch, please. Fanatical Spark!"

Almost right away, a stronger surge of blue thunder pulsed out from his body and through his metal symbols, shocking the ground around him. Shirou immediately tried to buffer as much damage as possible so the shock wouldn't hit the girls behind him. He and Izanagi held out due to natural resistance, but the force was stronger than any other electric attack he had felt until now, and nearly caused his legs to buckle.

"Emiya-kun!" Yukiko cried.

He winced and exhaled a steady breath as the last sparks of electricity died out, with Izanagi barely staying stable. "That… shouldn't have hurt as much as it did."

The Shadow reared back his second arm as he spoke. "A bit of advice, mano-to-mano; a real man can dish as much as he can take, not either or. Try again when your Zio is a Zionga at least."

After sharing his advice, he swung the weight at Izanagi's open midsection. He took sadistic joy at Shirou's wide-eyed expression of pain before he went… bing?

"Huh?" he blinked before he noticed a transparent shell around him, and the sudden appearance of a Shaman Persona. "Well, that's new."

"What in the-?" Shirou asked aloud, before noticing he was being held from behind by Himiko's user. Rather close at that, since he could feel her brushing against his back. "Rise?!"

Rise giggled, sliding the visor off to look at him. "Himiko's not a fighter like the rest of you guys, but she can support you and protect me. I thought that if you were in her small shield range, she could protect you guys too."

Yukiko was beside them too, just under Himiko's body. Between the quick thinking and ingenuity of her skills, Shirou couldn't help but smile at her. He didn't even mind the skinship as it meant that their lives had been saved. For now, anyway. "Thanks."

Rise smiled, as did Yukiko.

That moment of peace shattered as a harder strike rang against Himiko's shield. Rise yelped, biting her lip down against the phantom pain. "Amagi, can you heal her?"

"Not in here, there's not enough room for Konohana Sakuya!"

"Guess it's up to Pixie," he said, summoning the fey right away. But with her limited healing, it would be a stalling tactic at best. He just needed to wait on the others to find an opening…

"So all I have to do now is break your little bubble? This is too easy!" Shadow Kanji gloated, continuing his assault. "I'm not even sure if I need my posse to help me whip you bad boys and girls down!"

Shadow Kanji's smile was soon wiped out as a fast, straight punch hit his face hard. "Aacck!" The gargantuan Shadow stomped back, almost dropping the symbols outright, while his small human hands cradled his important feature. "My face!"

"Keep your dirty monochrome hands off of Risette's Persona!" Yosuke shouted, sprinting alongside Jiraiya to get some quick hits in. "The fight's just getting started!"

Yosuke managed to quickly stab at the Shadow's legs, taking advantage of its top-heavy size. Jiraiya continued to deck the Shadow like a boxer, ducking and dodging every time the enemy Shadow tried to swing those gaudy weights around. The weight played a huge factor as he couldn't lash out against the naturally agile Persona quickly enough. Now fully absorbed in fighting Jiraiya, Shadow Kanji was successfully dragged away from Himiko so the others could recover without pressure.

Despite the strong start, Shadow Kanji wasn't worried. He had been in fights before with street gangs, and knew that the quick ones usually had piss-poor endurance. All he needed was just one opportunity, and an opening for that hit. "Has anyone ever told you that you've been coming on too strongly?"

It seemed to have worked as Yosuke's expression gave away to shock, but instead of pressing the attack or slipping, he just jumped back. "Nope! Ignoring that! Your turn, Satonaka!"

"Aww, don't be like-GYAH!"

The Shadow's banter was interrupted, this time by a hard staff strike at his stomach. Tomoe held her weapon there for a second before lowering and pointing it down. Chie, running straight forward, stepped on her Persona's staff before her for a boost in momentum. In perfect synchronized movement refined with hours of practice, Chie jumped as Tomoe lifted.

The spirited girl soared in the air, higher than she could ever achieve on her own. She reached the surprised real body of Shadow Kanji in the bed of flowers, and threw her leg forward to meet him. "Galaxy Kick!"

In a panic, he tried waving his hands to stop her. "Wa-Wa-Wa-Wait just a FUMPF!"

Shadow Kanji's words died as Chie's foot sank into his face. Literally. It was like the face was just a putty mold that she ruined and it imploded around her boot.

"I didn't think that could really happen!" Although she didn't show it or say it in the heat of the moment, Chie was quite disturbed. She had seen this kind of thing happen in anime, but never in real life. Then again, the Shadow World worked on different rules and this was the Shadow of Kanji Tatsumi, not the human.

Luckily, with her other foot free, she broke loose by applying an impromptu backflip to launch herself back and out of the Shadow's body. With the added bonus of hitting him a little more.

She even stuck the landing back on the ground with a crouch and just some cracked wood. "Ha! That went perfectly!"

"Hell yeah, it did!" Yosuke agreed with a grin. "This guy may be a titan, but he's slow as hell!"

Annoyed and head ringing, Shadow Kanji lurched back upright with his weights as support. His humane face returned to normal but had lost its haughty smile. "Slow as hell, huh? Well, I have just the remedy for that." He turned slightly back to the Guy Shadows, patiently hanging in the back since the fight started. "Boys! I'm going to need your help after all!"

"But of course!" Tough Guy smiled, already striding into the battle.

"Let's make this quick just to be on the safe side, Master Kanji," Nice Guy said, flexing his muscles in a rear double biceps pose. "Heat Riser!"

A triad of colors (orange, green, purple) flowed over Shadow Kanji's body, before a stunning rainbow aura shone around him. Whatever had just happened, it couldn't be good.

"Let's blitz him!" Yosuke shouted. "We just need to focus on Kanji!"

Rise, with Himiko still active, notice a sudden spike of power in Shadow Kanji, and paled. "Guys, wait! He's—!"

The warning came too little too late. Jiraiya and Tomoe vaulted forward, easily jumping over Tough Guy who tried to intercept them with a grapple. With a winding fist and twirling spear respectively, they struck forward at Shadow Kanji's smug face.

But he just grinned against the Personas' blows, the muscles of his face actually hurting Jiraiya's fist than the other way around.

Yosuke gulped as a sense of trepidation set in, a feeling he was all too familiar with when pain was imminent. "Oh crap."

"Harder!"

He grabbed Jiraiya's arm and spun him around like a flail, giving Yosuke an uneasy sense of vertigo like riding a roller coaster without actually moving. The wild attack caused Tomoe to back away in order to avoid friendly fire.

"Better!"

He then hurled Jiraiya to the other end of the room, the Persona's body crashing through a small support beam and against the wall. Yosuke quickly followed suit with a wall dent of his own, and felt enough pain from the attack to knock him out. Jiraiya fizzled out of existence soon after.

Angered, Tomoe lunged forward with her spear, trusting her reaction time to be faster than the bulky Shadow's. He was still leaning forward when he had thrown Jiraiya so there couldn't be enough time to even block her strike.

"Faster!"

A blink later, he was gone, and her spear pierced the empty space where his shoulder used to be. Instead Shadow Kanji was looming behind her, grinning with both arms raised behind him with the weights pointed downward.

"STRONGER!"

BOOM!

The wooden floor exploded from the impact, leaving a hard bedrock underneath. When the dust settled, there was no sign of Tomoe left, let alone a gory corpse.

Chie exhaled a breath of relief, having dismissed her Persona at the last moment. The act was so shocking and draining that she nearly collapsed to the ground. "I didn't think that would work…"

"Clever girl," Shadow Kanji admitted, before turning fully towards her. "But not clever enough!"

"Cu Sith! Sic'em, boy!"

Those were words no one, least of all Shirou himself, would ever expect to hear him say out loud. But it served as a perfect distraction to the giant Shadow as a green fey dog charged forward with a snarl and swung its whip-like tail with a powerful slash. For good measure, Konohana Sakuya lobbed fireballs his way at a distance, forcing the Shadow to back away least he be burned.

As his Persona landed blows, a slightly bruised Shirou closed the distance to Chie and helped her up. "We have to get rid of his weapons. Can you still use ice?"

"Yeah, but I'm better at physical attacks. You know that."

"Amagi will help too. It'll work, just wait on my signal."

"But—!"

"Trust me, Satonaka."

Chie would have argued more, but the finality on Shirou's words told her that this wasn't up for debate. Not in the middle of a deadly Shadow battle, anyway. And he was their leader at the end of the day. He trusted them to follow his lead, and she trusted him to know what he was talking about.

But more importantly, Tough Guy choose that moment to make a beeline for them and swing a haymaker down their way, forcing both of them to leap away at the last moment.

"I don't know what you're planning, but you're not going to hurt Master Kanji as long as I'm around," he taunted, flexing his arm before charging at her again.

"Fine by me!" Chie shouted. "I've been meaning to get payback for that sneak attack, you creep!"

Her foot shot forward to stop his fist, and the impact cracked the ground beneath them. Undeterred, Tough Guy threw another punch at her. Chie hopped back and turned to dodge out of the range of his fist, and then finished her spin by lifting another leg to strike him in the face.

A hit!

Chie's victory was short lived as the Shadow's eyes snapped open and he threw a punch at her midsection before she had time to dodge. The force was enough to knock her into the air, back a few feet, and land hard on the ground.

Tough Guy took the time to crack his neck muscles from the hit but didn't let his eyes leave her downed form. "You're going to have to try better than that to beat me, girl."

Despite the ringing pang in her abdomen, Chie pushed herself up and smiled. "Don't worry," she said, with Tomoe's card in view, just in range of her high kick. "I haven't even begun to fight."

Snarling, Tough Guy rushed over with rapid fisticuffs, the blows matched by Tomoe's rapid spear work as she burst into being. Chie kept her distance, bouncing back and forth as her Persona fought the bodybuilder. Despite the severity of the battle and stakes raised, she felt a sort of adrenaline high that made her excited.

This felt natural. Perfect, even. She didn't need to compare herself to anyone else, least of all Shirou, because in this moment, she was in her element. And she could kick this Shadow's ass all on her own.

As they squared off, Shadow Kanji was slowly gaining an edge over Cu Sith now that the element of surprise was gone. His enhanced senses made all the difference, as he now matched the fey dog Persona in agility, taunting him by twirling his symbol around in front of him. "You want the stick, doggie? WELL GO FETCH!"

He slashed the symbol sideways, meeting Cu Sith's face with the narrow arrow edge. A single blow was enough to send the dog flying and he dispelled out of his corporeal form with a whine. Shirou, meanwhile, coughed some blood out of his mouth alongside the phantom pain.

"I told you I'm unstoppable, baby!" The flamboyant Shadow grinned, stomping over to him. "You're not the only one that likes to use a team, and mine are in a class of their own! With such sexy bods to boot!"

"Do you ever shut up?" Shirou snapped. Sure, the other Shadows liked to gloat, but this one was especially loose-lipped.

"Don't be like that, hun!" he smiled, inching ever closer to him. "You'll enjoy the sound of silence when you and your little buddies die real soon! So just wait because there's nothing you can do to stop it! It'll be over faster than you can say—"

"Dekaja!"

The sound of glass shattering echoed throughout the room as the powerful aura around Shadow Kanji faded away. The bulky Shadow tripped mid-step, having lost his speed and he fell to the ground in a comically graceless flop. Everyone turned to see the one responsible, a recovered Yosuke in a crouched position, left hand over his face, and right arm clenching his short blade to summon Jiraiya again; who mirrored his posture.

"Ha! So much for your little power-up!" Yosuke grinned. "Took me a while to remember I that had this spell to use, but like with my self-healing, it's a jack-of-all-trades thing, and the perfect counter to use against you! What do you say to that?!"

"Heat Riser!

Almost immediately after, the same rainbow glow surrounded Shadow Kanji, giving him a literal second wind. Everyone's gaze was now on the monochrome bodybuilder, flexing his muscles to a side chest pose.

"I say your intelligence is almost as pitiful as your hand dexterity!" Nice Guy shouted. "I am Master Kanji's shield, and I will continue to support him with the necessary means to defeat you! Your efforts are useless! Useless! Useless, useless, use-!"

"Dekaja!" The shattered glass effect promptly ended the Guy's rant, and depowered Shadow Kanji once again. Yosuke and Jiraiya seemed to pose again for the spell, arms crossed like a T and both hands flipping the bird.

"The same thing applies to you, dumbass," he said. "As long as I can keep your so-called 'Master' back on a level playing field, it's a win for me. Keeping you preoccupied to do nothing but waste prana on him is just a bonus. And FYI, that impersonation sucked!"

With a snarl and popped blood vein, Nice Guy made a front lat spread as he cast his spell again. "Heat Riser! You wouldn't know sucking if you were a pufferfish! You're the one wasting prana like the mewling knave you are!"

Without skipping a beat, Yosuke leaned forward with both arms extended back, imitating a hawk in motion. "Dekaja! I can do this all day, Tiny!"

"Heat Riser! Cannot!"

"Dekaja! Can too!"

"Heat Riser!"

"Dekaja!"

"Heat Riser!"

"Dekaja!"

"HEAT RISER!"

"DEKAJA!"

The two of them (three if you counted the Persona) continued to shift their bodies as they volleyed their spells like a ping-pong match. Shadow Kanji continued to glow and dim in rapid succession, staring at himself in shock and confusion. In the meantime, Shirou kept his distance away from Kanji and close to Yukiko as her Persona quickly applied Dia-grade first aid.

Rise groaned. "If it weren't for the fact that they're actually throwing spells around, I'd accuse them of immaturely showboating at each other. Feels like a kind of thing you'd read in a shōnen manga."

"Well, it's working to keep the Nice Guy occupied, so I'm willing to overlook it," Shirou said. "Right now, we need to get rid of Kanji's symbols while he's distracted."

"Sounds great, but how? The only other guys strong enough to lift those things are… well, the Guys!"

"Is it part of the plan you told me about earlier, Emiya-kun?" asked Yukiko.

"Yeah, but we still need help from one other person," he said, before calling out across the room. "Satonaka, are you ready?"

"Give me a sec!" Chie called back, still fighting Tough Guy. "Just need one good hit…"

"That's my line, girl," the Shadow said. It was a testament to his fitness that he could speak so evenly while exerting his muscles to throw a Rampage of fisticuffs. "Once I get you into another sleeper hold, you'll stay asleep."

Jumping out of range of his attack, Chie bent her knees down to make herself looser. "Yeah, not gonna happen. Not this time. I'm done playing games here."

Tomoe was suddenly dismissed, a brief flash that startled the Shadow long enough for her to close the distance between them.

Both incredulous and insulted, Tough Guy's face morphed to a stern frown as he readied his fists for another Rampage. "Do you have a death wish, girl?!"

"Oh, I'm making a wish all right! On a shooting star!" She leaped forward in a hop, spinning in place, and then landed on her left foot. With her right extended at the same time. Aimed right for his crotch. "Galactic Punt!"

BOOM! CRASH! Ding!

With a powerful roundhouse kick, the Tough Guy Shadow was sent flying so hard and fast that he might as well have been shot out of a cannon. The quick crash that followed came from the bathhouse roof, where Tough Guy left behind a perfect outline of his body from launch; hunched forward, rounded edges for shoulders where the arms should be, and legs crossed over each other. No doubt he was still in that position even as he soared further beyond the horizon.

Everyone stopped and stared, still processing what they had just witnessed. From his hiding spot, Teddie broke the silence asking aloud the important question. "What the fluff just happened?!"

"I… think she just kicked Tough Guy to the moon. If there is one in this world," Shirou answered slowly. Looking down, he noticed a faint viscous liquid splashed in front of Chie, and it didn't look like sauna water.

"Yay!" Rise cheered as she pumped her fists up. "Just what I'd expect from Chie-senpai! Woo!"

Yukiko giggled. "Well, she's the strongest one of us on the team, that's just to be expected."

"Uh, well… it's nothing, really!" Chie said, slightly embarrassed at the praise.

"You killed Tough Guy," Nice Guy croaked, before his face scowled with intense hatred. "YOU KILLED TOUGH GUY!" He started to dash towards her, forgetting all about his Master Kanji in order to enact vengeance on his other half.

"And you're joining him, sissy!" Yosuke yelled, Jiraiya lunging towards him with a sucker punch before he could reach her. POW! A single blow to the jaw was enough to rear the Shadow back and knock him on his back. But the attack left Yosuke with a phantom pain in his arm that Jiraiya had punched with. "Gaah! Geez, that smarts!"

"My turn~!"

Yosuke paled, looking up through Jiraiya's eyes to see the creepy grinning Shadow Kanji holding one of his symbols up with his beefy hand. He then swing it down like an executioner's ax. The Ninja Persona barely managed to leap to the side at the last moment before the floor exploded in a cloud of wood splinters.

"That clinches it!" Shirou said. "Amagi, Satonaka, it's time!"

"Right!" "Roger, leader!"

Yukiko stepped up first, facing the Shadow of her old friend with her Persona summoned. Konohana Sakuya spread her flower-petalled chain, sending a fan-wave of fire out to strike both of the enemy Shadows. With Nice Guy vulnerable and only able to curl closer to his body at the moment, Shadow Kanji used his symbols to protect his face and flower garden under his torso. The flames harmlessly licked over them, which given their girth and stamina, might as well be comparable to a sun's heat wave.

"What was that?!" Shadow Kanji taunted. "Compared to all the blunt blows your posse made, I barely felt a thing!"

"Don't worry! We'll cool you right off!"

From the other end of where Yukiko stood, Chie was behind him, and their Personas acted quickly. Sarasvati played a note on her lyre, and Tomoe spun her naginata in place; both actions followed with blocks of ice flying in a wide spread.

Grinning, Shadow Kanji turned to face them and shielded himself again. The ice came just as quickly as the fire, and felt just as harmless. "I always knew girls were weak, but this is just pathetic!"

CRACK!

"Eh?" Shadow Kanji looked down, seeing his weapons crumble in his hands until they were just gold dust. "My symbols!"

"Funny thing about metal," Shirou said, smirking. "It has a higher tolerance to temperature than most objects, but it still expands in heat and contracts in cold. Normally the act to expose it so quickly in fire and ice would be impossible in practical terms, but this world runs on altered reality."

"And gold happens to be the most malleable of known metals," Yukiko added. "Its weight is only possible by its density. Solid gold is simply not strong enough to last under extensive use."

"In other words, you've been scienced!" Chie ended with a dramatic point. "So up yours!"

Yosuke gave her a flat look. "'Scienced', Satonaka? Really?"

"Guys, focus!" Rise said. "He's down and vulnerable! Give him hell!"

The team took the opening as soon as they could, rushing over to the still shocked Shadow Kanji. Shirou hacked at his leg with a slash. Yukiko slapped at his arm with her fan. Chie kicked hard at his crotch. Yosuke jumped up to jab his fingers into his eyes. All these attacks and slapsticks happened in quick brutality, doing everything to end the fight as quickly as possible.

It worked to a degree. When the All-Out Attack ended, the Shadow was ragged and bloodied, but still standing. They just needed to push a little more.

Yet, despite the sudden turnaround, and surrounded by all four fighting members of the Investigation Team, Shadow Kanji didn't rage or despair at losing his weapons. Rather, he started to cackle in mad laughter. That gave Shirou a bad feeling; the giant Shadows always seem to get more emotional as the fight went on, good or bad, and it always meant trouble.

"Oh you darlings are so naïve," Shadow Kanji grinned between giggles. "Let me show you something… absolutely toxic. Forbidden Murmur."

A thick cloud of purple gas suddenly expelled out of his pores and swept around most of the room. Shirou felt the effects almost immediately and he started coughing.

"Emiya-kun!" Yukiko cried, rushing to his side.

"Sh-Shit, I feel so nauseous," Yosuke rasped, quickly supported by the shoulder of Chie.

"Be careful, guys!" Teddie called out from the back. "You've been poisoned!"

"It must be a situational poison," Rise noted. "One that targets men."

"Bingo! Give the piglet a prize!" Shadow Kanji chuckled. "As you can see, I don't need my sex toys to defeat you. Just some… machinations."

The team stopped and stared in shock. Mostly by fear, but the last comment raised even more questions. "Uh… did he just call his weapons—"

"SHUT UP, HANAMURA!" Chie flushed and snapped before he could finish that question, going as far as to push him away.

"There it is! The bloody rage! Let me help you bring it out! Let me hear your Roar of Wrath!"

This time, orange-red gas expelled out of his body. The team immediately edged back and covered their mouths, wary of inhaling the unknown substance that could be something poisonous again. Shirou didn't feel any different, so he believed that nothing had happened.

For about five seconds.

"RAAAAAAAAA!"

"AAAAAAAAAH!"

"Shirou-sensei, watch out! Chie-chan and Yuki-chan have gone bear-zerk!"

"I can see that, Teddie!" Shirou growled. This was bad; Chie was normally the front-line fighter, but her attacks were so wild that Shadow Kanji was just dancing around her. Yukiko was even worse as she just threw her fan wildly and kept tripping on the water to pick it back up. And they weren't even thinking of using their Personas. Rise was barely able to shield herself with Himiko's barrier, but it was a small comfort, as with two moves the team was effectively crippled.

Shadow Kanji enjoyed every minute of this. "Look ma! No hands!" he taunted, raising both sets of hands up as he moved away.

A gas that poisons men, and a gas that enrages women. At least they weren't mixed, or else a poisonous rage really would be the end of them. Yukiko was the healer, so she needed to recover first. Actually, he could help both her and Chie at once.

"Pixie! Me Patra!"

The fey Persona followed the command right away without commentary, creating a ray of light that illuminated the room in a rainbow cascade. The girls immediately stopped their frenzied movements and clutched their heads from a migraine they were just now becoming aware of.

"Uh… is this what a hangover feels like?" Chie asked aloud. She quickly realized how close they were to Shadow Kanji and stepped protectively in front of Yukiko. "Get back!" she barked, jumping back while at the same time quickly summoning Tomoe to skewer him.

The lance grazed through his arm and triceps, leaving a thick red gash. Growling in both pain and anger, he suddenly spun his upper body into a lariat with such speed that he quickly connected with Tomoe's helmet. Chie herself was whipped to the side, seeing stars and almost knocked clean off her now wobbling feet. A gash started to form on her scalp, marring her features with strings of blood.

"I'll deal with you two later," he promised, already stomping past them. "But first… now Nice Guy!"

Crap! There was still one of those bodybuilders left! Shirou looked around, failing to see any sign of the monochrome Shadow. He wasn't as dangerous as Tough Guy, and not as nimble either. As long as he could find him before he got close enough to—

"Behind you."

Shirou's nerves stood on end. He had no time to summon a new Persona, and simply swung his blade as he turned. Or at least that was the plan before Nice Guy hooked his arms under Shirou's armpits to lock his arms and cross-choke his neck.

"I rarely feel the need to use my Heat Riser technique on myself," the Shadow explained. "But this time is an exception."

Shit, he'd actually enhanced himself while they weren't looking?

"Hey! Let go of him!" Pixie yelled, throwing Zio after Zio at Nice Guy's face. "Why aren't you listening?!"

"Shh shh shh shhhhh," Nice Guy hushed quickly. "Don't struggle. It'll all be over soon."

Yeah, for them. If he could summon a new Persona. Try as she might, Pixie's zaps might as well be bug bites with how they didn't even bother Nice Guy. Between her low aptitude and the poison, it was a struggle for Shirou just to stay awake. Yukiko and Chie were too far away, and Yosuke was casually swatted away by the bigger Shadow.

This was a worst-case scenario.

Grunting through the hold covering his mouth, Shirou immediately imagined Ippon-Datara's card; his power should be enough to pry his body free. Already the card was dancing within range of his hand. If he could just touch it—!

CRUNCH.

Shirou barely fought down an urge to scream. Standing before him, Shadow Kanji had his thick white arm crushing his hand. He tsked and waved his humane hand in a scolding manner. "Not this time, handsome." Forcing his hand up, Shadow Kanji then lifted his arm, reared his titan black arm back, and chopped against his elbow hard.

A crack, then a split, and a complete severing with a sickening squelch of blood.


Pain. So much pain. Almost like that one time.

Shirou couldn't stop himself from screaming, but he wasn't sure if he was anymore. All sound seemed to be muted to a dim heartbeat. His own? Or… someone else's?

The Shadow of Kanji had a sardonic smile on his face, whispering something that he couldn't make out. Taunting him, mostly. And pointing to his left arm, holding something. Why? What was… wait. A severed arm?

Oh… so that was what the pain was.

Was this how it will really end? It seemed so surreal. He'd survived countless Shadows before. A giant frog, a towering dominatrix, an angry phoenix, a technocolor stripper… okay, those were pretty ridiculous in hindsight, but did he really need the shame of dying to the most ridiculous of all, a very campy bodybuilder?!

Looks were deceiving, though. It was foolish to think that with his active enforcer gone and his weapons destroyed, Kanji's Shadow would be easier to defeat. He'd had more tricks up his sleeve… and still had the raw power to rip their bones apart.

If the poison didn't kill him, the bleeding from his arm's stump would.

No, he couldn't let this happen. Even now, the others were fighting, desperately. He couldn't make it out clearly though; his vision was getting dark, and he was still being held by Nice Guy in a numbing hold. Almost like fire, and it was burning…

Wait… why was the scenery changing? It was almost like everything had been lit up… and burning….

'My first memory was of fire.'

The scene before his eyes morphed. The steam house was no longer present, the wooden floor having been replaced with cracked asphalt, broken pieces of glass, and random chunks of concrete. The heat surrounding him went from somewhat stifling to a scorching inferno, and the bright red and orange flames darkened to otherworldly black and blueish hues.

Everything burned, even materials that shouldn't be flammable in the first place like rock and steel. People, of course, were no exception.

'My second memory was of the agonized cries of a woman.'

The seven-year-old child he once was covered his ears to the screams. Some begged him for help, others cursing him to die with them, a few uncomprehending ones simply asking for a reason.

All of them in agony, all of them waiting for the release of death. But then again, so was he.

'My third memory was of the tears falling from Father's eyes.'

The pure bliss in Kiritsugu's eyes that day would forever remain in Shirou's memories, even now.

The child wondered how anyone could ever be as happy as him. Was it possible for him too? Was it… as simple as what Fuji-nee said? Being happy with being alive?

Could he be happy with his own life?

'Is it alright for me to live, Father?'

Could he be allowed to live when so many others were denied that right on that day?

Could he be allowed to die today without first atoning for his sins?

'Is it a sin for me to want to live, Father?'

Between the poison and his spurting arm, it hurt to do anything. He felt cold in both body warmth and realization. The bitter realization that if he were to die here and now, the killer would get away. That his friends, whether they survived or not, would never be the same.

In the end it was fear that pushed the magus, the Persona user, into action; the realization that the enemy may not stop after claiming its first victim too terrible to bear.

'I want to live!'

Shirou Emiya couldn't allow himself to die yet, not like this. Not with his friends on the line. He'd brought them here, possibly leading them to their defeat, they were his responsibility.

He had to live in order to save them, no matter the cost to himself.

'I want to be _!'

Damn the poison, damn the Nice Guy, damn the arm! He could still call someone to save them from this fight. He reached deep into his soul, to find a Persona that could answer his call. Either they ignored his plea, or it went unheard in his weakened state, so he called again, deeper.

And that's when he heard it; a primal roar unlike any Persona he had ever seen or heard before. It was simply indiscernible. He thought he also heard Izanagi cry out, but the sound was quickly silenced. What was left was a raw power that seemed to just consume him. A Tarot card appeared, just in front of his eye, blackened as the night sky on each side. He reached for it with his hand, barely aware that it was now ablaze.

'Fire is my blood!'


"I'LL KILL YOU!"

Tomoe surged forward in a powerful thrust that punctured Shadow Kanji in the stomach. To his credit, he grinned despite a slight trail of blood coming out of his mouth. "Ha, to think this was enough to send you into a frenzy! Maybe I should have played with his little piggies first."

Chie roared again, rushing to sweep-kick his legs, only stopped by his thick muscle. Gritting her teeth, she jumped away before he could swat her across the room.

This wasn't supposed to happen! They were supposed to kick Kanji's Shadow's ass, give him a pep talk, and bring him back home! Even with the close calls they'd had in previous fights, they always came back in top form. They were ready this time! READY!

And yet Emiya-kun… his arm… his arm was—!

"Yuki-chan! Yosuke-senpai! Shirou-senpai's heartbeat is dropping way too fast! You have to get him out of there NOW!"

"What the hell does it look like we're doing?!"

"Please be okay, please be okay, please be okay…!"

Chie heard so many voices from the others going around, but her eyes were focused solely on the bastard Shadow, grinning like a murder clown as he blocked most of Tomoe's strikes. She had to get his attention, just long enough for them to get to Emiya-kun!

But Shadow Kanji could see them both trying to run past him on either side, and he held his arms out wide in expectancy. "Ooh, don't be like that! Come closer and hold me! HOOOLD MEEEEE!"

At the height of his scream, Fanatical Sparks flew around him in a wide radius around him; a perfect maneuver of attack and defense. The teens screamed in pain, Yosuke taking the worst as he was knocked out thanks to his weakness towards electricity. Due to a combination of pain and exhaustion in constantly trying to get past Kanji, Yukiko too collapsed.

Chie forced herself to stay up, trying so hard not to let herself trip over her feet by counting her heaving breaths. Just needed to rest a bit, then try again, maybe hit him just hard enough to win?

No, that was foolish. He might be weak, but everyone else was weaker and he knew it. Yukiko's prana reserves were almost all gone, and even after she purged his poison, Yosuke was too weak to help now. What could Chie do on her own? Without Emiya-kun?

"This is bad," Rise said, as if also realizing the severity of the situation. "This is really, really bad."

"Don't worry, guys! I still got the item bag! I'll save Shirou-sensei!"

Shadow Kanji's eyes glanced over to the room entrance, where Teddie and Tama had dragged the real Kanji over since the fight started. Teddie, seeing the Shadow stare at him down, quickly covered his mouth.

"Aww, so the teddy bear wants to help too? I almost forgot about you, but we have a no pets policy," Shadow Kanji said. He cracked his knuckles and started to march over to him. "Well, I was thinking of redecorating with some animal skin pelts anyway."

BOOOM!

A sudden explosion and subsequent heatwave stopped the fight. Everyone turned to the source, to see a giant tower of fire where Shirou and Nice Guy were last.

Only Nice Guy was nowhere to be seen; the most likely explanation was he was instantly incinerated from the blast. All that stood there now was their leader, covered in a shadowy hue… and a flaming arm, cradling a Tarot Card.

Chie felt relieved at first, as this meant he was okay and had a great comeback going. But the more she looked at him, the more she felt a sense of fear and foreboding, that something was terribly wrong. "E-Emiya…kun?"

The fire wasn't blue, instead being a tainted, bloody orange. It was bigger, and more volatile than any summoning fire before. The Tarot card summoned… it was hard to tell if it even WAS Tarot because both spinning sides were completely black.

And when he spoke… it was like a voice of the Legion, unable to hear anything but a deafening, crushing voice.

"K̷̬̬̲̝̗͓̎̄̄̏͛̀͑̀̈͝å̵̯g̷̢̪̲̬̫̜͗̄̀̽͛̈́̋͠͠ų̴͈͕̳̮̺͓̖̏͒t̶̨̰͇͉̭̱͎̠́̍̃̓͒͝͠s̴̙͖͕̫͖̻͙̥̗̍́̑͗͜ū̸̯̫̜͙̂̇̍͋c̷̡̹̥̳̩͚͚̮̈́̔̄̋͆̾͝ĥ̶̹̗͔̼̻̺͇̥͖̿̈́ȉ̵̡͎͇̻̺̹͇̄̅͋."

The summoning that came forth was like an explosion, bigger than the last, that blinded everything in light, and then, silence.


A/N: I was sitting on this for so long, and I apologize. I barely manage to get it done in time for my birthday, the 19th of June. I wanted to get it out sooner but me and my parents were behind in getting ready for a big move to Alabama and on top of juggling other writing work, it was stressful. Still doesn't excuse nearly half a year of no updates though, aside from me juggling other stuff. So here's my time-capsule note for the chapter; got quite a handful opportunities ATM through discord channels, and may one day become a big successful original-work author I always dreamed of being since high school. As a side note, I also started working on another fanfic called "Star Hero Mega Man" so if you love My Hero Academia and/or Star Force Mega Man, please give it a read sometime. And maybe some other stuff too like Hyrule League... if I manage my time better to update everything, lol.

But yeah, shit hit the fan this chapter. Shadow Rise felt so weak and cheap compared to Shadow Kanji, that I remember dying to him once because even without one guy giving him a buff and/or healing and another being another flunkie to hit you, the main boss could hit hard and brutal. Shirou's not going down without a fight, but... is that a good thing? Hopefully I'll get the next chapter out sooner so we can find out together.

-Vegeta the 3rd