Chapter 43: Reshuffling
July 12th, Moon Voidania, Ground Floor
Taiga stood over them, proud and strong. She was sweating from the brow, but it was only from exerting herself. It was nothing compared to the rather battered teens struggling to stay off the floor.
The first to rise up was the delinquent fighter. He was a powerhouse through and through, despite joining the team around the same time as her. He had fighting experience, even if it was just in alleyway fights, but it helped bridge the gap.
"Stop screwing with us and use your Persona already!" Kanji yelled. He had plenty of stamina to burn, and his agitation at being led by the nose meant he could keep going for days.
Taiga puffed her chest and chuckled. The wooden sword in her hand tapped her shoulder in eager anticipation. "I don't need to use Kaihime to kick your butts."
"I'll show you!" Kanji yelled, holding a compacted wet floor sign in both hands before swinging it towards her. Taiga effortlessly dodged with the slightest step back.
Yosuke did a double-take upon noticing the weapon for the first time. "Uh, Kanji? Where did you get that sign?"
"Junes!" he yelled between swings. "Closet! By! Men's room!"
"Wait, you stole that?! I got in trouble when it went missing, dammit!"
"Needed! Weapon!" He continued. "No Time! For! Daidara's! Will! Return! Later!" The arc of his wide swings was actually quite impressive, as were the dance-like dodges Taiga performed to avoid contact.
"Dude, I know we said you could take anything in the hub place Teddie sleeps at, but that's Junes property, and I got in trouble the other day when that went missing and-!"
Yosuke's rant stopped when Kanji turned to look at him. It wasn't a deadly gaze, but a bored one that encouraged Yosuke to make his point already. Taiga herself stopped and gave Yosuke a similar look. He changed gears, realizing it was a lost cause and that he didn't want to get hurt over this. "…and since it's technically still within Junes' property, I'm willing to overlook this."
"Good," Kanji nodded. Then he paused in thought. "So uh… where were we?"
"At the part where I knock you on your butt."
"Cool. Wait, wha-AAAAAGH!" POW! A powerful free-handed punch collided with his unprotected abdomen and sent him flying across the room. Yosuke and the others barely got time to leap aside as he sailed past them and hit the hard wall.
"KANJI!" Naoto, one of the spectators, quickly rushed to his side with a first-aid kit on hand. Even if Kanji and the others were now super strong to withstand hits like these, it still scared him and they still suffered pain no matter how subdued.
"Too easily distracted!" Taiga yelled as she pointed at him. Her finger turned towards Yosuke. "That goes double for you, Yosuke-kun!"
"Oh crap!" That was Taiga-speak for "you're next" and he was nowhere near ready for another bout with her!
So, he ran. He had the best agility out of everyone on the team, next to Satonaka. If nothing else, he had confidence in keeping away from her long enough for a proper counterattack.
Only Taiga Fujimura was a monster in human form; she didn't weaken. She didn't tire. She didn't stop. Her physical prowess was quickly noted to be above anything in their weight class, given how she could regularly punch Kanji out. So Yosuke's belief that he could outrun her was a fool's hope. He'd be lucky to last a few seconds with her chasing him.
Desperate, he slashed his conjured Persona card for Jiraiya, and had the ninja Persona scoop him up from the ground, bridal carry style (thank goodness Kanji wasn't conscious to mock him for this) while keeping a safe distance away. It worked… until the tigress simply pushed herself to run faster, and closed the distance with the power of a running wind ghost.
With no other options, he settled for desperate pleas. "SOMEONE HELP ME!"
"Just need to time this right," Yukiko answered to herself, barely a whisper. Her fan was out, leveling her spinning Tarot in the air for the right time to focus. Keeping a Persona sustained long term was draining, but if she could time the release just right, she could use minimal energy without the drawback.
She'd gotten the idea from reading a fan comic Chie had recommended to her a while back. Only problem would be a bit of lag in having the summon happen. But that's where timing was everything…
"There!" she focused on the point where Fujimura would pass, and swiped her card. Konohana Sakuya immediately conjured a bright flame with a bright light rising up like a geyser, stronger than a mere fireball Agi.
After days of fighting and struggle, she was the first of many on the team to cross a threshold and cast the next tier spell: Agilao.
And it hit perfectly against Taiga's intended path. "I did it!"
That victory was short-lived though. Before the flames died out, her body vaulted out in a tucked roll, minimalizing the burns on her clothes. Taiga continued her sprint and shifted targets to Yukiko. Startled, the fair-skinned girl stepped back and threw her fan outward, blades first. Taiga pivoted to the side at the last moment, and before Yukiko could hope to pull the chain on her fan back for another attack-
"Too slow!" POW! A heavy blow to the back of her neck and she was knocked out.
An opening! Jiraiya moved faster than he ever dared before, circling to her backside with a full-on Power Slash. With both his knives and the shuriken blades, a two-pronged attack! Even better, an endless onslaught of Power Slashes with a ki scream! She'd never see it coming!
"Too wild!" BAM!
Except she totally did. Turned 180 degrees with a sideways swing before he could even get close to scratching her. The blow was buffered by Jiraiya's form, but Yosuke still collapsed to the ground and cradled his wounded stomach.
Taiga swung her shinai down a few times, shaking off the impact of the blow. He got closer to her that time; not bad. "And all that's left is…"
Chie leaned down from her hiding spot above, on the head of a gargoyle lamp on the first floor. She dive-bombed foot-first, her only warning being a battle cry as she fell. Taiga jumped back at the last moment, but even her reflexes couldn't fully save her from the impact on the ground which sent her rolling.
If Taiga's dodging was like a dance, then Chie's assault was her matching dance partner. Her punches were scarce when she felt she could get a quick hit in, while her legs kicked in rapid movements and precise steps.
She fought better with her boots than any other weapon, she realized. She was free, in full motion, and better yet, she felt like her favorite kung-fu star from Trial of the Dragon. Lighter than air, faster than lightning, able to do anything.
Except hit this damn woman! Maybe if she extended her reach and summoned Tomoe-!
"Too wide open!" THWACK!
Nope, bad idea. Thump.
A bell was rung, courtesy of Teddie hitting it with a tiny hammer (he personally conjured the bell and hammer for this training session). "And that's game! Tiger-chan chalks up another win at 19 consecutive victories! While the Investigation Team is still stuck with their one and only win!" Tama tallied a mark on a chalkboard behind them as he announced the results.
"How are we still losing?" Yosuke whined from the ground. Try as he might, he was too weak to pull himself upright. "We beat her once before, so that must mean we can do it again."
"Correction: Shirou beat me once," Taiga insisted. "And he's busy helping your weakest link learn some self-defense!"
Ah, now they remembered. Shirou knew Taiga better than anyone and used Rise's surveillance to counter her every move. After that win, though, she made a beeline for Rise and easily knocked her out. Shirou was able to rally with the others for a close second round, but it still ended with their loss.
So she changed gears a bit from her crash course battle royale. While she continued to beat some survival skills and tactics into the rest of the team, Shirou would work with Rise one-on-one to better her defenses.
Looking over at the far corner of the room, they could see Rise trying and failing to protect herself with a quarterstaff (Chie's leftover weapon that she had loaned her) while Shirou swung his sword in easily choreographed moves. Soon, she started to flail and fall forward, only for Shirou to quickly catch her under her arms. She smiled and uttered something that to her, seemed to be of profound effect given how flustered he now looked.
"What are they doing?" Chie asked, accusatory.
"I don't know," Yukiko uttered darkly. "But I don't like it."
"I don't like being stuck here for days," Kanji grumbled, nursing his arm after Naoto patched it up. "I want to kick some ass, dammit!"
"You guys still need a few more days of this before you're remotely ready," Taiga warned. A chorus of groans followed soon after.
Finally, Yosuke was pulled up from the ground with a helping hand from Chie. It hurt to stand but it wouldn't be for long. "Ah well, might as well get the next round under way. I'll heal this time." With a quick card slash, Jiraiya appeared and healed everyone one at a time, starting with himself. Diarama really worked wonders.
"I'm surprised you are all still willing to keep fighting after days of this," Naoto said. "On top of schoolwork, no less."
"Yeah, well I'd rather take this training punishment than study for finals any day." Yosuke answered. Chie and Kanji nodded in agreement.
Taiga stopped and blinked, looking like a deer in headlights. "Study? Finals?"
A calm before the storm, one that only Shirou had experienced before, and he paled in fear. Somehow, Taiga's slow reaction scared the others more than fighting her the last few days. It didn't help that she yelled so loud it shook the castle.
"WHY DIDN'T YOU STUPID KIDS TELL ME YOU WERE ALL ON FINALS WEEK!?"
July 13th, Homeroom, Morning
Yukiko moaned as she massaged the back of her neck (and unintentionally got some pointed stares from nearby boys). "Uh, my back is so sore."
"Speak for yourself," Chie groaned back, her upper body lying on the top of her desk. "I can't feel anything below my waist."
"I can't feel my everything," Yosuke countered, slightly muffled. His forehead was firmly planted on his desk, and his state of slouch held no equal.
By now the rest of Class 2-2 was baffled and confused. The one sitting to Shirou's left leaned over to him and asked aloud, "What the hell happened with you guys?"
Even Shirou looked ragged with baggy eyes and swollen arms, but he hid that discomfort better than his friends. Shrugging, he offered the easiest excuse he could think of. "Group study. Finals are coming up, after all."
Their classmates took that explanation at face value. Hanamura and Satonaka were among the most academically challenged students of the class, and their mental fatigue showed to bring down two of the brightest. The four of them had been together since early spring and always left to do their own thing which led to rumors circulating that they were some sort of double date going on.
There was already talk about who was dating who, but that was one bit of the rumor mill Shirou was not entitled to find out. No matter what his Personas said otherwise.
But the real reason for their exhaustion was because of Fuji-nee. When she found out that finals were coming up, she got so mad that she cancelled training until further notice. But not before beating everyone senseless with her shinai for letting this information slip. And he did mean everyone. That included Naoto, Teddie and Tama, despite them being spectators. That even extended to Taiga herself, inflicting self-harm for letting this happen in the first place.
Fortunately, she was convinced from doing any more harm to herself and others until finals were over and done with. And it seemed that it would be a little while before the rain came, so plenty of time to rest. Or at least get back into the swing of things. Despite the tragedy of Morooka's death, the students still needed to go to school.
"Good morning class!" An auburn-haired woman strutted in, smiling wide. Her pink blouse was not fully buttoned up and showed off an ample bust with alluring jewelry around her neck. A velvet purple skirt was cut up to her knees and showed off her leggings and red high heels, deliberately clicking with each step.
It was Noriko Kashiwagi, the biology teacher who quickly stepped in as substitute homeroom teacher. She stressed that it was temporary, but so stressed the word 'further' that she could make it full-time for the students who wanted to know her better… with pointed looks at the young boys in the class.
"Good morning, sensei," the class replied, bored and tired.
"Now now, that's not the proper way to address your new homeroom teacher! You need to say Kashiwagi-sensei. Although I wouldn't mind if you all call me Noriko-chan." She winked, expecting some blushes or laughs. All she got were more groans.
Needless to say, everyone missed King Moron now for the wrong reasons. They'd rather take an angry, berating philosophy teacher who'd double down as a pastor than a sultry adulterer getting way too eager to share the wrong kind of "biology lessons". Boys were creeped out by a late forty-year-old woman making advances on them, and girls hated her for subtly insulting them and catering to her own delusions of beauty.
It seemed only fitting to punish the students that wanted King Moron dead for so long with a teacher objectively worse than him.
"Hmm?" By now, Kashiwagi noticed four of her students looking less than attentive. "My, Emiya-kun. Are you and your friends all right?"
"Just a little tired from our group study last night, sensei," Shirou said. Yukiko nodded to back the story up. Kashiwagi didn't spare her a glance.
"Well, don't strain yourself too hard, boys," she said. "Nothing's more important than your health."
Nothing more was said, despite there being an instinctive need for one. The teens were too tired to be annoyed by her clear bias, and she quickly started the morning lesson. Shirou himself would have let it go had she kept it professional after that. But then she had to open her mouth again.
"By the way, I've been hearing talk of you boys wanting to date our new first-year now that poor Morooka-san isn't around to heckle you," she said conversationally as she wrote down the last few notes for the lecture. "I wouldn't get my hopes up on asking Kujikawa-san out. People are always different in real life than on TV, after all."
Kashiwagi sneered darkly, a look not so hidden despite her turning to face the blackboard. "There's nothing so great about an idol anyway. Gets cold feet on stage and gets all that adoration? She's just a piece of inexperienced jailbait."
"Better that than a delusional vamp."
The words came out of Shirou's mouth faster than he meant to. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation. Maybe he was becoming more open with his thoughts since coming to Inaba. Or maybe he was still a little peeved at his teacher's behavior earlier. It could even be he just felt inclined to defend Rise's honor from a person who badmouthed her, regardless of their position.
But the resounding crack of the chalk on the board sounded like a gunshot. Every student straightened up and held bated breaths, realizing very quickly how tense the room was. Shirou's words clearly affected Kashiwagi with how hard her hand was clenched. Everyone else glanced between the two, worried about what would happen next.
"Emiya-kun," she said slowly as she turned to him. She tried to smile but it was clearly a strained expression on her face. "It's not polite to say things like that to your teachers."
"I agree," he said evenly.
And that was all he said. The tension only grew from there, and Kashiwagi was scowling at him.
"Then why did you say that to your teacher just now?"
"I did no such thing."
"But you said-!"
"I said it's better to be an inexperienced jailbait than a delusional vamp," he repeated clearly. "What do you think that meant?"
More than a few students were stifling laughter. Kashiwagi did not share the sentiment. The intent was there from how he phrased the insult. But there was no guilt or admittance, and he could pass it off as making another comparison.
Kashiwagi hated being made a fool of… but she found it strangely attractive being led on by a man's wit. And just then, the bell rang signaling lunch break. Grudgingly she packed her things to go to her next class, barely sparing a word edgewise. As soon as she left, everyone hovered by Shirou's seat with unbridled interest, barely giving his friends any personal space. Some even pushed against his and Satonaka's desks with their bodies just to lean closer to him.
"Dude, first King Moron, now Kashiwagi? Do you have balls of steel or something?"
"That was just awesome, man! You gotta teach me your material!"
"You really should have taken the Class Rep position when you had the chance!"
"Hey, uh, can I join your group study sometime too, Emiya-kun?"
"No fair! I was gonna ask him first!"
The last one came from a boisterous underclassman. Nearly all of class 2-2's eyes turned to the door, and they all saw Kanji Tatsumi leaning his head in with a hand outstretched to call. He didn't seem to notice or care about their reactions. "You got a minute? I need some advice for a Home Ec. recipe."
"Coming, Kanji." With that, Shirou pulled out of his desk and left. The surrounding students gave a wide berth, looking at him with more awe than before.
They then turned to the remaining students in the sitting area, suddenly dubious. "Seriously, what's your deal?" One of them asked.
Chie glared at her hovering classmates. "Excuse me?"
"Every time someone goes missing at this school, you and Emiya-kun are at the center of it," a chatty girl noted. "Yukiko-chan, I can understand. But Rise-chan's practically attached to his hip, and now he's all buddy-buddy with the school delinquent?"
"Come to think of it, you two were kinda out of it during April," another said.
Yosuke huffed derisively. "What'd you expect? Someone died while staying at the Amagi Inn, and Konishi-senpai died too. It was a pretty shitty month."
"I… guess you have a point," a boy student conceded. Maybe before no one would have cared about the late Saki Konishi given the rumors, but Morooka's death reminded them that anyone they knew could be a victim. There was a fear present now that no one was really safe at the school.
Even a boy from a cram school and his older sister had disappeared, and they knew Yosuke was at least a little familiar with them. At the very least, they pitied how unfair the situation was right now.
"Yeah, but after that? You all started acting closer like BFFs. Or some family group from an anime!"
"It all circles back to Shirou Emiya. I know a cousin who lives in Fuyuki City, and went to his same old school. He told me that Shirou's some kind of legend back there."
Yukiko's eyes gleamed as she leaned closer. "Did you say… he's a legend?!"
"Probably not the kind you think, Yukiko," Chie chided.
"I'd say he is," a girl argued. "He has some sort of sixth sense when it comes to machine appliances, and he would have made pro in the archery field if not for some injury last year."
"I bet he has a bunch of girls waiting for him back home." The female student, and a few others, chorused in swooning. "Ahhhh, so romantic."
"But don't worry, Chie-chan, Yukiko-chan! We're all rooting for you!" Another girl told them, with several nodding their heads in agreement.
Chie flushed and recoiled while Yukiko blinked owlishly. "Wh-wh-what's that supposed to mean?!"
"Next to Rise-chan, one of you three have the most realistic chance of well… you know." Even Yukiko was starting to flush at the implication.
"You guys have way too much time on your hands," Yosuke deadpanned.
"Can you blame us, Hanamura? Your new best friend is the hottest thing in town since a Junes sale."
"Yeah! And for all we know, Emiya's some sort of urban fantasy hero in the making and will save us from the evil underbelly of the demons or something! That'd make a cool story, actually."
Yosuke laughed sheepishly while Chie slumped in her seat, a bit embarrassed. "Haha, you guys are such dreamers…"
Still, a nagging doubt in their minds grew as they heard their classmates' gossip; how much did they really know about their team leader?
Naoto glanced down at the pocket watch in his hand. A cliché for a British-themed detective, but one he thought was fitting and cool to the kind of detective he wanted to be. It helped to keep your mind open and learning, such as how to read roman numerals and the old-fashioned way to tell time.
He couldn't help but feel… nervous. Not because he knew what could possibly blow this case wide open if any of it could be proven true, but because of how he reacted. Kanji trusted Naoto, but he also trusted the Investigation Team as they called themselves. He pushed quite hard for mediation between them, for Naoto to at least apologize for the other.
Oh, Naoto knew full well that he had screwed up. Had that mistake occurred anywhere else but the TV world, he would have gotten a vicious scolding from the police department using a firearm like that. But Naoto felt that they wouldn't heckle him because what he did was wrong. Only that he did something worth punishment.
No one on the force liked him. They barely tolerated him, looking for any excuse to get away from him. They did not like getting shown up by a high schooler on how to do their job. The Investigation Team was just as elite by virtue of being the only ones that knew about the TV world, so it wasn't like they were innocent.
Some people just liked to prey on weakness, on admission. If he were to show that, even with a genuine apology, they would take that kindness and hold it over his head, demanding more out of him. Their bruised egos and pride would need more compensation than anything a mere apology would give. Nothing would ever satisfy them short of his career as a detective ending in failure.
He'd worked hard to build his reputation as a detective, even if the title Detective Prince was very much a mocking moniker from various officers. It was hard to earn recognition… and so very easy to lose it.
It was the equivalent of spending hours making a block tower and then accidentally knocking it down. Sure you could build it back up but the stigma of the mistake would—
A loud, familiar greeting broke Naoto out of his thoughts. Stuffing the watch away, he saw Kanji waving as he walked over to the gate. By now their school day ritual was so routine that there was hardly any pressure between them.
Although this was the first time that he saw Emiya-san following him.
"Kanji, Emiya-san," he greeted them both. "I see you're both recovering well from training."
"Wouldn't be my first time sparring with Fuji-nee," Shirou said before sighing. "I kind of hoped the last was behind me, though."
"No kidding. Your guardian-sis is such a badass, senpai," Kanji said. He looked no worse for wear, rolling his shoulder in place with a smile and interest for another session. "I can't remember the last time I got that good of a workout!"
"I'm not sure if what you went through counts as a 'workout'," Shirou said. "Fuji-nee put you through the wringer the most."
The bleached delinquent bristled at that memory and awkwardly scratched his neck. He could still recall the image of her battle cry as she charged at him vividly. "She might have gotten mad about the whole 'severed arm' thing. Sorry again, by the way. But besides that, you guys have been fighting for months now, right? I'm behind enough as it is, so every little bit of training counts."
"Are you actually looking forward to fighting for real?" Naoto asked, alarmed.
Kanji had the decency to look even more embarrassed. "Uh… I mean, I know how serious this is. Which is why I want to give this my all. Gotta make it up to my fellow senpais for getting my a-erm, butt out of the fire."
"Rise is in the same year as you, though," Shirou pointed out.
"Well, she's my senpai in experience. That's what she said, anyway."
"Yeah, that sounds like her."
Naoto was taken aback when Kanji laughed with Shirou. In all the time that the detective had known his ward, Kanji was so guarded with his feelings that the young detective had only ever found out about his sewing and cooking hobbies through observation. And yet one day he just confided his interests to the Investigation Team in casual conversation on the way to Junes.
That was another thing Naoto noticed. Kanji seemed to be smiling a lot more often these days. He was always a considerate young man and meant well, but his constant anger and inferiority complex followed him like a raincloud. Whether he got shocked out of his rut or found new appreciation for life, it was hard to say with this "Persona Awakening". But one thing was for certain.
"You've changed, Kanji."
"Hmm?" he blinked, regarded Naoto with a frown as he mulled the words over. "Is that good?"
"It is. Before, you would have flown off the handle if someone so much as mentioned the word 'strange'."
His frown fell farther, and his legs shook. It still had an effect on him, but not as pronounced as before. "Oh, right. That. Still working on that."
"I can see that," he nodded. "And I have little reason to worry about you while I'm gone."
Kanji blushed, still unused to praise. "Uh, Thanks, Na-wait, 'gone'? What are you talking about?"
"I'm leaving for Misaki Town. In fact, I'm boarding a train to leave this evening." Their baffled reactions were question enough, so he elaborated. "Satsuki Kubo was believed to be a resident there before moving back to Inaba. If there are any clues about her motives or mental state, they would probably originate from there."
"You really think she's the vampire, though?" Kanji asked.
"Based on what Emiya has told me, supported by my own observations, she's at least the number one suspect. The timing of her arrival is suspect enough, and no one has seen the Kubo parents for weeks."
If Naoto had any pride, it was in his deduction skills. Satsuki Kubo was an enigma, suddenly appearing without warning and not officially on record of living in Inaba. She kept mostly to herself, but the few times people did see her they were instantly charmed by her looks and appeal (a textbook example of a charismatic charmer). And now, the night after Morooka's death, she and her brother Mitsuo had gone missing. When shown a picture, Taiga swore she was the same person that tried to kill her that night.
The only one who refused to believe this revelation was Yosuke. Not that they could blame him; Sacchin was his girlfriend.
"What good would finding clues there do us?" Shirou asked. "If she really skipped town here or there, there probably wouldn't be anything there that points to her being alive, much less a motive."
"I'd rather be the judge of that myself," Naoto replied. "You are more concerned about apprehending the suspect, but it won't matter if we can't build a case."
"Are you sure you can't just wait until we find her?"
"It's not like I can be of any help otherwise," he shrugged. "I lack a Persona to fight with, and the IPD refuse to cooperate with me. They only gave me the ticket fare because it would mean that I'd be leaving." And be out of their hair.
"And you think leaving will help us?" Kanji asked. "Come on, Naoto, you can't limp out like that! You're stuck with me indefinitely, remember?"
"The culprit has already successfully thrown you into the TV. As there hasn't been another case of kidnapping after the first attempt, you are safe from any further attacks, Kanji."
"And we're gonna stomp down her big castle door! I mean, we all know the vampire's behind all this mess!"
Naoto frowned. "I wonder…"
"Nothing. In any case, I feel this trip will help us bring one step closer to the truth of the mystery, one way or another. That's why I'm going."
The blue-haired detective turned to his new red-haired colleague. "Emiya-san, can I trust you to watch after Kanji in the meantime? He seems to have taken a liking to you."
Kanji flinched back, face turning a sickly white as the words played over in his head. "What the-? What the hell do you mean by 'liking'?!"
"I don't mind," Shirou said, briefly ignoring him. "I've been meaning to get to know him better, anyway."
"I see. Then that's good."
"What the hell are you saying 'yes' for, senpai? Don't I get a say in this?!"
"Do you not approve of Emiya-san?" Naoto asked him.
"Then there shouldn't be a problem." Kanji still looked dismayed, but he grumbled under his breath instead of raising further complaints. Satisfied, Naoto turned and left them at the gate. "I'll be back in a few days. Please don't die."
Samegawa Flood Plain
It was a quiet, awkward walk from school. As they reached the road parallel to the riverbed, Kanji groaned and kicked the dirt under his foot. "Dammit, why did Naoto have to leave?"
Shirou didn't have an answer to that. He knew Naoto had just explained why but he didn't think it was the real reason. "He'll be back before you know it," Shirou told him.
"I know that, but…"
It was understandably upsetting with life changes happening after coming to terms with yourself, and not all of them were good. Shirou could tell how much Kanji enjoyed Naoto's company. Exactly how much and why was none of his business, but the least he could do was try to make up for it.
"Incidentally, I heard some rumors back at school that you were involved with some gang of bullies." Kanji stopped and stiffened. Shirou quickly added, "I didn't believe them, of course, but I wanted to ask if you knew something about them."
Kanji sighed, a mixture of sadness and relief. "No, it's just… kinda sucks hearing that. You pick a fight against some bikers, and suddenly everyone thinks you're a biker. Kinda messed up if you ask me."
"They just don't know you, Kanji. You can be a little intimidating by appearance, but if they know how nice a guy you really are, they'd trust you."
"Yeah, and I bet everyone trusts you easily, senpai," Kanji remarked bitterly, turning to face him with a scowl. "You had quite a crowd back at your homeroom."
"I wasn't very social before I came to Inaba, to be honest. I wasn't exactly scary, but I didn't try hard to understand other people either."
The delinquent's face betrayed a look of astonishment. Normally Shirou wouldn't consider sharing much about his past, but he felt a kinship with Kanji since hearing about his father. "I've… also been in fights before. And I can confirm that it gets people worried. So at least consider others before you act on your own. Before it was just your mother, but you have the Investigation Team backing you up. And Naoto, too."
They continued to walk home, a comfortable silence with nature's white noise around them. Then Kanji coughed, drawing attention.
"Listen, uhh… Whenever you have time, could you maybe hear what I have to say?" he said shyly. "I feel all cramped inside, and I'm too dumb to know what it's about on my own."
Clumsy as he was, Kanji genuinely wants to change for the better. What else could he do but endorse that?
Shirou smiled and nodded. "Of course, Kanji."
Then, Kanji's Tarot came into view, number "IV". A silhouette of a regal figure (as noted by the cross and bedazzled crown on his head) sporting a cape with red tassels, over a silver cuirass. Stained glass set the background in cool colors, mostly of purple and green, with the purple set closest to the silhouette. A scepter and a shield were placed side by side of the figure.
Thou art I, and I am thou.
Thou hast established a new bond.
It shall bring thee closer to the truth.
Thou shalt be blessed by Personae of the Emperor Arcana.
"And to start off," Kanji said as Shirou's senses came back. "Maybe I should go smack some bullies before the night's over."
Shirou winced. "Didn't we just talk about how you have a negative reputation?"
"Yeah, but if I beat up the trouble-makers, the town will be safer! Then they'll start trusting me like you, senpai! Hell, you have to help me out on this because you already have a good rep!"
One way or another, Kanji looked determined to start the life of a street vigilante. "…And now I know how Fuji-nee felt."
July 14th, Shopping District
Waiting by the bus stop crossing at the shopping district, Shirou idly pocketed his weekly pay from MOEL. He glanced once more at the gas station, looking and failing to find one of the regulars there. "Nami-san isn't here today either."
Fuji-nee was lenient enough to give the team until Saturday to resume training. They would meet up after school and work through their day off. Although Shirou wasn't extending past his physical needs, he found juggling social lives kind of taxing in their own way. The fact that they helped bolster the power of his Persona still left him with mixed feelings, so he didn't think too much about it. It helped that he felt a state of zen whenever working.
His work schedule for MOEL was always flexible, so he tried to work whenever he could because of obligation (like his other jobs back in Fuyuki, actually). However, Shirou hadn't seen Nami any of the times he worked or passed by the store to work. He brushed it off as bad timing before and being busy with rescuing Rise and later Kanji. Something must have happened though, as the older attendant was never around, even on days when Shirou tried to see him lately.
Come to think of it, where did Nami live? Shirou had to share his place of residence when he first applied, but Nami always dodged the question when asked. He didn't sign a work application when he got the job either. Maybe he lived in a seedier part of Inaba, rife with gossip?
Shirou snapped out of his thoughts and looked over at the corner of the street. To his surprise, Marie was waving and running up to him.
"Marie? What are you doing outside?" To his knowledge, she either wasn't allowed to leave or couldn't leave the Velvet Room without him. And here she was, impatiently tapping her foot like they had an appointment planned.
"Waiting for you, of course. Did you forget your promise to help me?"
Marie's face fell to a stern scowl. "You did, didn't you?"
He did, admittedly. But it came back to him quickly that yes, he did promise to help her own memories. "A lot of stuff happened I didn't have the time before. Sorry."
"Well, you have time now," she insisted, already yanking at his arm. "I'm not stepping back in the Nose's stuffy limo for another minute until you take me somewhere."
Well, he was free, and he did owe her for waiting so long, so he was willing to make it up for her. "Like where?"
"I don't know, somewhere lively, I guess. This… 'Joo-ness' I keep hearing about."
Junes – Electronics Department
"Every day's great at your Junes". That phrase should rather be "every day is packed". It was the closest Adachi could ever see or feel of a bustling city life and it was because a bunch of villagers hunted around the department store for sales.
Not that he was one to talk, picking up yet another cheap bargain meal from the deli. Now all he had to do was avoid that old woman…
Just as he was dreading the trip to the front door elevator, a familiar face caught his eye inside the electronics store. She was in a bunch of stylish designer clothes now from the plaid red skirt to the blue hat, but he'd recognize her anywhere (after doing an all-nighter of finding out who she was). "Oh, Marie-chan! Glad to see you're doing better!"
He walked over to her, standing in front of the large display screen. She was surprised to see him, as was Dojima-san's nephew standing next to her. "Oh, it's the detective guy."
"Oh, you remember me!" Adachi said. "And I see you made a friend with Dojima-san's nephew, too!"
"Dojima-san… the other detective?" Marie wondered. She turned to Shirou with a surprised look. "He's your uncle?"
"Small world," he said. "And it's a surprise to see you here, Adachi-san."
"Well, with the recent murder victim and now two missing kids to find, it's just faster and cheaper to buy food at Junes than anywhere else," Adachi explained. Oh wait, he wasn't supposed to mention that stuff in public, was he? Crap. "Uh, not that you heard it from me. And don't worry, the police are on the job!"
"But… you're here, off the job," Marie pointed out.
"I'm off duty right now. Sometimes rest and relaxation are just as important to diligent hard work. And it certainly beats finding lost cats." His suit got so dirty that day, and he had to put his first paycheck towards the cleaning bill!
"But enough about me," he said, changing gears. "What are you two doing here?"
"I'm just showing Marie around," Shirou told him. "Hoping something will jog her memory."
"Ah. Anything come to mind?"
Marie turned back to the large screen TV. "Not a whole lot. But… I now know how to use a TV. I guess that's something?"
Adachi chuckled, turning to the red-haired teen with a thumbs up. "Not what I expect on a first date, but it sounds like praise to me! Way to go!"
Junes – Food Court
Before long, the three of them left the store and ordered meals at the food court. Adachi offered to pay for the group, assuring them he was the responsible adult, even if he was surrounded by country hicks flooding every corner of the store. While the two got themselves some grilled skillet meats (another new thing the girl was learning apparently), he ordered a small sandwich for himself. It would be a while before he would eat his at-home dinner and a little meal wouldn't hurt.
"There's a lot of people at this 'Joo-nes' place," Marie said between bites, looking at the other tables around them. While not everyone was sitting down and eating, a lot of them were walking into and past the food court, almost aimless. Their heads were always looking at the next bright ad that was distracting them. "Why is that? Don't they have anything else to do?"
Adachi snorted dismissively. "Of course not. Inaba's a town in the middle of nowheresville, where activity is dead in all but a few places. People come here to shop, eat, and hang out because there's literally nothing else to do."
"That's… a rather bleak outlook, Adachi-san," Shirou said slowly. Great, he must think that he was a jerk or something. He was certainly appraising him like one with that wary stare.
"That's just how it is," he argued. "You're from the city, so you know how there's more to do there than here, right?"
"What, like watching TV?" Marie asked for him.
"Nah, anyone can watch TV anywhere. But at places like Shibuya, with big towers and jumbotrons that play commercials and TV dramas 24/7? They make the prized flat screen at the electronics store look like a remote."
Her eyes widened considerably, already imagining what such a tower would look like in her mind. "That's… big," she said.
"Exactly! And there are plenty of stores spread out too, not just one big collection like with Junes. People move around here because they feel there's more stuff to do than anywhere else. But in a city, people constantly move around just to get to all their favorite spots or workplaces on time."
Shirou took another bite of his sizzled meat as they talked. He took the time to mull his words over as he ate before speaking. "I understand the appeal to city life, Adachi-san. As you said, I grew up in one and have grown used to it; so many different places to find and see, that you can't fit it all in one day. But sometimes, having everything you need closer together is just as good. Inaba may not be big, but it has a sense of community all the same."
Adachi blinked. He stared intently at him with a guarded expression before slowly nodding. "Heh… you're definitely Dojima-san's nephew."
"Don't worry, it's a compliment. He'd say some pretty profound stuff too… when he's not yelling at me, anyway."
Shirou chuckled at that. Good, having a little fun always lifted the mood in an otherwise boring setting. And he knew Dojima-san didn't mean the stuff he said to him. Most of the time. At least he put up with him.
"So you're like your uncle?" Marie asked Shirou. Although she wasn't looking right at him when she said that; her attention was directed towards a mother and son pair, with the latter loudly asking for a soda drink.
"I… like to think so." Shirou looked to Adachi for confirmation. "What do you think?"
The rookie detective hummed in thought. Which didn't take long, given what he knew about the two. "No doubt in my mind. They both have this 'badass' vibe about them, and a sharp mouth at that."
Whether it was from the praise or backhanded insult, Shirou's face was now tinted red. He quickly hid his shyness, though, and Marie was none the wiser. "Do you think… I'm like my mother?" she asked.
"Kids take a lot after their parents," Adachi said. "Looks, personality, hobbies, even fashion sense."
"It's not like I picked these out myself," Marie argued, gesturing at her hat and handbag. "Maggie gave these to me."
"Maggie? Oh, your new guardian." He only saw her once at the hospital and damn, what a fine-looking woman she was. That blonde bombshell certainly beat Miss Yamano by a landslide. "How is her place?"
"Cramped, lousy, way too blue, da ba de da ba dye," she told him. "And I'm pretty sure there aren't any 'eclectic loutwits' in there, either."
…damn, talk about living off the grid. Even Shirou looked uncomfortable hearing that. Or rather, what he was about to ask her next. "Do you really not remember anything?"
Frowning, she dug into her handbag and pulled out an old bamboo comb. She clutched it firmly as if afraid it'd fly away from her hand. "All I know for sure is that this belongs to me."
Adachi leaned over to see the item clearly. "I remember that comb," he said. "It was in your hand when we found you."
"Is it anything special?" Shirou asked.
"I'm not big on women's fashion, but it looks unique enough to me. It's probably an heirloom from an old family dynasty."
"Not that it matters," she lamented, already pocketing it. "Having it doesn't help me at all."
…okay this was way out of his comfort zone now. The mood around them was pretty grim, and a young girl was sad. He'd say something to steer away from this, maybe laugh off the bad memory but Shirou had that look in his eyes that screamed he wasn't going to just drop this subject until he was satisfied.
It was the same look he saw in Dojima-san in some cold cases, really.
"Well, I think I overstayed my welcome," Adachi said casually as he rose from his seat. "I hope things look up for you later, Marie-chan."
She barely acknowledged him with a nod, and that was fine. He wasn't good with this sensitive talking stuff. He walked briskly past them on his way to the elevator, before a stray thought came to mind.
Shirou turned to look at him from his seat. Adachi glanced back over his shoulder. A tense moment passed as one waited patiently and another was struck with nerves.
Adachi didn't know what he was doing, as a young kid like him was none of his business. He shouldn't have said anything and just kept going. But he was still Dojima-san's nephew, almost like a son even. So…
"There's no need to handle every problem by yourself. You've got your whole life ahead of you before that happens. And don't be afraid to ask for help. That's what the police are for, after all!"
Smiling and nodding, Adachi left it at that before hurrying out of the store. He shouldn't carelessly offer his time like that, but it was just something to pep the boy up. He gave enough vibes as a cool friend to his relative and nothing more would come of it.
As Adachi left, Shirou felt an odd bond formed from Adachi's genuine concern. In spite of his inexperience and bluster, he was still trying hard to help. If it wasn't clear from talking with Marie, it was clear now from his parting words.
The new Tarot resembled something out of Halloween more than anything else. Purple background with barbed lines at the lower corners, a silver oval light at the center (like the moon?) with a curved stripe of cerulean crossing over. A quartet of animals moving around the border in a circle: a bird, a dog, a cat, and a goat. The prominent silhouette in the center looked like a castle jester, from the pointed shoes, a two-pronged cap and belled hat, a scepter, and a golden neck ruffle.
The most startling fact was seeing the number "0", but this card looked nothing like the Fool Arcana. So that meant—
Thou art I, and I am thou.
Thou hast established a new bond.
It shall bring thee closer to the truth.
Thou shalt be blessed by Personae of the Jester Arcana.
Jester. Another variant card, like Marie's in fact.
Speaking of which, Marie had a scowl as she stared in the direction where Adachi left. "Is something wrong?"
"I don't like him," she said simply. "He smells… empty."
Shirou blinked. "Empty?" He couldn't help but sound incredulous. He could smell magic himself, but he never heard of a description like 'empty' defining someone's aptitude, or even lack thereof.
"You know, like, fake? Flakey?" She added more adjectives as she waved her hands in place, as if that helped explain things. It didn't. "I just don't trust him, okay?"
Normally Shirou wouldn't second-guess a person like that. Adachi seemed genuine in his interaction with them. But if this whole journey to the TV world had taught him anything, it was that looks could be deceiving and that everyone wore a mask. He even saw a demasking in the real world, sort of, through Kotomine.
And he just made a social link with Adachi. Was there more to the cop's façade than he was letting on? "Are you saying I shouldn't either?"
Marie shrugged, turning back to her half-finished meal. "I wouldn't recommend it, but it's your life journey, not mine. Knock yourself out."
"I'm sorry our little trip got sidetracked like that," Shirou said. "I didn't count on Adachi meeting us like that."
"Emptiness aside, it was still fun. Is this what hanging out with friends feels like?"
"More or less."
"I kinda like it. And I wouldn't mind meeting more of your other friends."
Shirou smiled. Maybe it was because she had confided in him how troubling her amnesia was, but they felt a little closer today, not unlike the spontaneous bond he had with Adachi earlier. "I'm sure they'd love to meet you too."
After finishing their meals and more small talk, Shirou eventually walked her back to the Velvet Room, and paid himself an overdue visit with the tenants for some Persona fusion.
July 15th, Moon Voidania, Top Floor
It was almost boring waiting.
She had full control of knowing what happened in this castle. It was an extension of her power, and a perfect training ground to master her abilities. Even more so than the town she hid in prior.
She was worried when some strangers came in after her and her brother ghoul, but they simply settled to train right at her doorstep as a means to mock her. That they knew she was waiting and they were going to prepare for the inevitable conflict.
She eagerly awaited the day of their confrontation but found it hard to keep her patience. The beasts in this world (Shadows, if she recalled) barely sated her thirst. If only she could convince them to come to her now…
Luckily, she found her 'in' with the colorful-looking bear suit creature.
It was so easy to tempt the bear, just like it was for anyone else. Just look into their eyes and say a few charming words. Her boyfriend was surprisingly resilient, but not as much as his other friends.
The bear was just as resilient, surprisingly enough, despite her honeyed words and practice batting her eyes at him. But then an unexpected development happened. It appeared, from the depths of the bear's hollow heart.
And he was much more accommodating. For now, the bear was her prisoner in another room, for blood supply, while her champion was free to act on her whims. A new servant who welcomed the role with open arms, despite the bear's weak protests. Perhaps deep down he wanted this? She didn't know, nor did she care. She simply found a way to finally be rid of those interlopers.
From atop her throne, she looked down at the Shadow. Similar in form and shape as the bear, but with a stern frown and golden oval eyes. "You called, mistress?"
"I want you to dispose of our nosey guests. Use whatever means necessary."
"Yes, mistress," said the Shadow, and left to do his duty.
Ah, loyalty. Why is it that good help had to come from so deep inside someone's subconscious these days?