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Summary: Escaping from the TV World was always going to be hard, but possibly not as hard as what follows.
Two tears fell from Nanako's eyes, landing on Yu's cheeks and rolling down his sleeping face. A loud, honking snort interrupted the silence after, and when Nanako looked up, it was Kanji blowing his nose on his sleeve, but he wasn't the only one affected.
"Even he has a Persona," Naoto said, his voice raw. He cleared his throat before continuing. "I would have expected it to be a cat."
"Or a dinosaur," Yosuke added in a mumble. He was rubbing his eyes. "Yu... Damn it..."
"He's j-just a little guy," Kanji said.
We have to get him out of here, Nanako thought. He's been in here far too long already.
"You guys found this place by triangulation, right?" she asked, looking up at her friends. "Or did that guy help you?"
"What guy?" Yosuke asked. "We knew where you went in, so we used Naoto's map. Fought through hordes of Shadows to get here. Honestly, it was dicey as all hell. We barely made it."
"A voice guided me through the house," Nanako explained. "It felt like Teddie, but... it wasn't. I don't know who it was. He's gone now, I don't feel him anymore. I'm not sure when he left. I think it was before the battle started."
"A voice, huh..." Yosuke said. He sighed. "I'd be suspicious, but I don't know if I care at this point. Too much going on, you know?"
Nanako nodded. "Exactly. All that mattered to me was that I find Yu-chan, and I did, so... I didn't question it."
"I would say something about you hearing voices," Naoto said, "but now isn't the time. I presume you're asking if we know the way out."
"We didn't actually enter from the Junes TV," Chie said. "It wasn't safe to use so close to closing. But we did stop by the backlot to get our gear."
"Before you ask, we used my dad's TV," Yosuke said. "My family wasn't home. But, umm, the thing is..." He trailed off.
"What?" she asked, tired.
Yosuke's mouth quirked, and then he waved a hand. "The thing is, you can almost see the backlot from here."
That's right, the room's walls were long gone. Despite being only on the second floor of the house, it felt like they were a lot higher up. Without the fog, they could see almost everything from here. The TV World was mostly featureless and flat, basically just a bunch of empty space. The floor reflected the red and black sky much like the surface of a lake. It went on for miles and miles. Way off in the distance she saw Naoki's Junes. In another direction, somewhat closer, was Kanji's bathhouse.
"That's... far," she said bleakly. The distance wasn't even the worst part: the empty areas were teeming with Shadows. There were almost more of them than stars in the sky. Getting through that would be like navigating a minefield.
"And we gotta carry that guy there, too." Yosuke jerked his thumb towards the unconscious Namatame.
"I can do it," Kanji volunteered. "If someone helps put him on my back."
Nanako stroked her fingers through Yu's hair, considering. They had to do it, there was no choice. Kanji with Namatame, her with Yu, the rest acting as vanguard. It would have to work.
She felt something wet in Yu's hair. It wasn't her tears. Her fingers trembled, probing. The hair was matted in one spot with drying blood. "H-He's hurt!" she cried.
"Where?" Yukiko asked, rushing to her side. "Oh... oh no. A concussion?"
"Is that why he can't stay awake?"
Yukiko tried to use her Persona's healing, but it didn't seem to help. In all likelihood, Yu had been hurt before entering the TV World. It had probably been during the scuffle with Namatame inside his truck.
"He needs to see a doctor as soon as possible," Yukiko said. "That's the best thing we can do."
There was a thump nearby. When Nanako looked, the unconscious Namatame was sprawled on the floor. Yosuke had been helping put him on Kanji's back, but one way or another, he'd 'slipped.'
"Let's go," Nanako said, and she headed towards the stairs. She heard the others follow behind her.
Carrying Yu, Nanako couldn't fight. When they ran into their first group of Shadows at the bottom of the stairs, she had to stay on the sidelines. Helpless as she was, she made it her job to be the lookout, warning them when another group of Shadows nearby was about to join in, attracted by all the noise.
She was surprised to find that she didn't need to give her friends any orders or advice. The DEATH Squad fought together well, almost synchronized as a team, even without the snake's head, so to speak.
These Shadows were just plain nasty, all tooth, claw, and blade combined with the most powerful abilities they'd seen so far. It was all Yukiko could do to keep them healed up, and after this last group, she was so peaked that the dark circles under her eyes looked like they'd never be erased. Kanji had dumped Namatame unceremoniously to the floor to join in the fight.
When that group was defeated, they'd barely taken another step before another mass of Shadows came barreling around the corner to replace their defeated comrades, and the fight was on again. This happened again and again until they finally staggered their way through the house's front door.
Outside, the expanse of red and black spiraling sky greeted them. From the ground floor, the Junes seemed as impossible to reach as the horizon.
"We need a plan," Chie said, voicing what was on everyone's mind.
"Wasn't expecting to hafta carry this asshole out of here," Kanji growled, shifting Namatame on his back.
They all looked at him, and then away. The unspoken truth was they only expected to walk out of there with a new Persona user. At that thought, Nanako looked down at Yu still unconscious in her arms. She bit back more tears. They weren't wrong.
"Hey, Senpai...?" Kanji said hesitantly. "The bathhouse is nearby. We can rest there and come up with a plan. The Shadows there are a joke. I bet they're weak even without the fog."
"We can do that," Nanako said.
Or so she'd thought. First they had to get past the strong Shadows around the house. They were entirely unfamiliar to the group, so there was no way of knowing their weaknesses except through trial and error, which was both costly and time-consuming. As battered as they were, they'd run out of healing juice before long. It wasn't so much a race against time now as a race against their bodies' own limits.
After the fifth battle outside of the house, the toll became too hard to ignore. Naoto had used up most of his bullets, Yukiko wouldn't stop rubbing her temple, and Yosuke hadn't bothered to heal a big gash on his hand.
Chie called a halt.
"Nanako," she said, "I was thinking... We can't exit through Junes again. The store is closed by now, but there are all those new security cameras. It's too risky."
"There isn't another way out," Nanako said. She shifted Yu in her arms. "We can't... we can't wait around."
"I know, I know," Chie said, "but... it's just like Kubo again. We have the culprit with us. We got away with it last time, but that was pure luck."
"I don't think I can come up with another cover," Yosuke agreed, "but that's our only way out."
There was a pause, and then Naoto cleared his throat. "What if we moved the exit?"
They all stared at him. "Moved... the exit?"
"The exit stack of TVs," he explained. "If it works the same way as TVs do in our world, perhaps we can exit through a different TV than the one in Junes."
Chie, Yosuke and Nanako exchanged significant looks. "Okay," said Yosuke, "but how would we even move it? It's not just one TV, but three."
"They're lighter than one would expect," Naoto said. "I moved the stack myself out of curiosity. Just an inch, of course. That small distance didn't appear to change which TV it led to, however. That would have to be tested with a greater distance."
"Like...?" Yosuke's brow was scrunched together.
"Move it a few feet from where it is," Naoto said, "and then find out if you exit through a different TV in the electronics department."
Only the Detective Prince could come up with this one. The rest of them never once considered so much as touching Teddie's exit TV, let alone moving it.
"Okay, but where do we move it to?"
"Why not the bathhouse?" Nanako suggested.
"Me and Ma don't have a big TV," Kanji said. "Not one we all could fit through."
Not even big enough for Yu? Nanako thought, but she bit her lip before she could voice it. She needed to exit with him, to be there with him on the other side.
"Yosuke's house?" she tried.
"Maybe," Yosuke said, but he sounded doubtful. "The thing is, I don't know where exactly my house is on this side. There's no landmark to point it out. I don't have a dungeon of my own, you know? "
"I do," Yukiko said quietly.
"Your dungeon wouldn't lead to a TV, though," Nanako said. "You were thrown into the one in Namatame's truck, which is nowhere near there now. It's more than likely still parked outside my house."
"Right," Yukiko said, "but Ms. Yamano's dungeon leads to a TV. The one the killer pushed her through is still in my family's inn's reception room."
Nanako looked at Namatame draped over Kanji's back. He was the trash who'd done that. Though he'd seemed so miserable in the rain. Remorseful, perhaps, but if that was the case then why was he still throwing people in?
Near the edge of her vision, she saw Yosuke grimace and shift his kunai from one hand to the other. "I don't know, Nanako. That's still pretty damn far. I mean, we haven't even made it to the bathhouse yet!"
"We'll split up," Chie said. "The last few Shadows were actually kinda easy, probably because we're getting farther from that house. Me and Yosuke, we can move the stack while the rest of you go to the bathhouse and wait for us to give the all-clear."
"I'll go with you," Yukiko said.
Chie hesitated, her eyes cloudy, but then she nodded. She glanced at everyone else. "That sound good?"
"You guys will have a lot of walking to do," Nanako said. "Are you sure?" And the last time they'd split up like this, well...
"I'm used to running!" Chie grinned, then frowned. "Though it is awkward with only the one boot."
"All right," Nanako said, sounding like it was anything but. "We'll see you soon."
Nanako watched them go.
"'S a good plan, Senpai," Kanji said, walking next to her as they arrived at the bathhouse. The chalk patterns she'd made a long time ago on the floor outside were still there, scuffed a little from where Shadows had wandered over them. "If anyone can do it, it'll be those guys."
"I know," Nanako said. "It just seems so..."
"Precarious," Naoto finished for her. "I have my qualms, but we must trust in them."
Nanako did trust them. Yosuke was reliable, even if he was a doof for not marking down where his dad's TV had led them. But at the same time, she was happy he'd lost his mind, too, once Yu had been kidnapped. Hell, all of them were reliable. It must have been difficult for them to come together on such short notice, but here they were...
"I forgot how hot it is in here," Kanji muttered.
"It's a little less steamy where the baths are," Nanako said. "Looks like the shortcut's still here, let's head up there."
Once they got there, Kanji dropped Namatame to the hard floor. He wiped his brow, but with all the sweat, it didn't really help.
"Go after them," Nanako said softly. "Kanji."
Kanji stared at her for a moment, then gripped his shield with renewed strength and dashed back down the stairs. Nanako felt a little better knowing he'd be with the others soon.
"It is certainly very hot," Naoto murmured. "And so much steam."
"You can take your shirt off," Nanako said. "It's just me."
"Ah, I'm more concerned with Yu. This atmosphere won't be good for his wound."
Nanako gently set Yu on a wooden bench near the edge of the room. There were some towels on the bench, but they were too damp to be used as a dressing. Nanako took off Yu's shirt, then cut a long strip out of it, sad on some level that she had to ruin something that she'd bought him. With Naoto's help, they wrapped it around Yu's head to dress the wound. They also checked for other injuries, but fortunately that was the only one they could find.
After setting another towel under Yu's head as a makeshift pillow, Nanako and Naoto watched the rise and fall of his breathing for some time. Nanako was so glad she'd made it in time, and yet...
She traced her fingers over his bare chest, feeling each of his ribs. He wasn't as thin as he used to be. Maybe all that takeout was catching up to him? And he wasn't so pale anymore, either. In fact, he was starting to develop a nice tan, probably from all the Sunday training she'd brought him along for.
She wondered if it was her fault that he'd been kidnapped. Retribution somehow for her meddling. She glanced, uneasy, at Namatame's unconscious form on the floor where Kanji had dropped him. The Midnight Channel had been so useless to her. She hadn't been able to recognize her own little cousin on it when she knew him more than his own mother. And yet this man had known it immediately, and kidnapped him the very next day. Though... she and the team had missed it that rainy night a few days ago. If that was all it had taken, she would never forgive herself.
"Should we... should we try to wake him?" Nanako asked. "If he has a concussion..."
Naoto shook his head. "Rest is what he needs the most. It's likely he'll sleep for some time."
"Yeah, all right," Nanako said, glad that it was Naoto with her then. She needed his calm.
Nanako stared at her baby some more, at least until the rustle of fabric drew her attention. Though Nanako didn't feel it herself, the heat must have become too unbearable, because Naoto was taking off his shirt and tie, and then the armor she'd bought him from Daidara. Underneath it all he wore a plain white binder that she helped him find online. It suited him, and she was glad he was using it. It made her remember the nice day they'd had. Mr. Morooka had died on such a day.
"How did this happen?" she whispered, or maybe whimpered. She didn't want an answer.
"How did it happen?" Naoto asked, instead. "Kanji-san was too agitated when he called me. I was not able to ascertain the situation as much as I would have liked."
Nanako explained how Saki had come over to show her how popular Yu was on the internet. Not two minutes later, someone knocked on their door, and though Nanako realized what was happening, well...
"It was too late," the detective finished. "The internet," he repeated. "I was so focused on searching for noteworthy persons on television and in newspapers that it completely escaped my mind that the internet is a source as well."
"I'm not sure we would've even noticed, Shirogane-san. I wouldn't have thought twice about a video of his school play being put online."
Naoto sighed. "I suppose we shouldn't beat ourselves up over what can't be helped."
"I'm going to anyway," Nanako said.
Another silence followed. Watching Yu's breathing was hypnotic in some way.
"He accepted his Shadow. That means he has to be okay, right?" Nanako asked suddenly.
"I don't know," Naoto replied.
Nanako's heart plummeted, but she knew he wasn't being negative. He was just being honest.
Naoto hesitated before speaking again. "His Shadow was rather grotesque."
"A thing of nightmares," Nanako agreed. "It's hard to believe it came from him."
"I'm glad you were able to handle it," Naoto said, "since we had our own hands full."
"Barely," Nanako said. "As Yosuke said, it was dicey as all hell. I mean, I might've been able to take on Yu's Shadow alone, but there was Namatame, too."
"About that," Naoto said, cupping his chin. "If that was Namatame's Shadow, it doesn't fit the mold. The Shadow is supposed to be a separate entity from its host."
"It's not like we have all this down to a science. Maybe it's just an exception."
"It had a lot to say," Naoto continued.
"Did it? I didn't even notice."
"None of it was of interest," he confirmed, "which was strange, as well. I was expecting clues regarding his motives and methods."
"Kubo didn't offer any," Nanako murmured, "he barely breathed a word about Mr. Morooka, even though that was his only victim."
"True. The mind of a killer must be a difficult thing for this TV World to process..."
"And Kubo didn't even accept his Shadow."
Yu almost didn't, too, she thought with a shiver.
"I just wish I'd been able to put it all together. I've seen Namatame around town. I knew he had a truck. I've even talked to him!" Nanako sighed and rubbed her face. It was sweaty now from the atmosphere. "Fat lot of good that TV buyer list ended up being."
"I wonder if it was a coincidence, or if he's a very good actor. He was often in the shopping district in his uniform. How many times must his victims have passed by him and never noticed a thing?" Naoto's face twisted. "Myself included. This is the man who broke into my apartment..."
"Yu-chan wouldn't have thought anything of him, either, when he went out to buy takeout for dinner. Hell, Namatame might even have been waiting for him to do that this very night, but got impatient when it didn't happen." She began to shake. "What if that had happened? How long would it have taken for me to notice he was missing?"
"Not long," Naoto answered swiftly. "You are his big sis, after all. He's rarely been alone since you've arrived here. The real problem would be that you wouldn't have known what happened to him."
"We caught him, Nanako-san," Naoto said then. "It's over."
But Nanako didn't feel like anything was over.
After a moment, she asked, "What happened on the outside? After I went in the TV."
"It seems that Saki-san began to call everyone. She doesn't have my number, however, so she called Kanji-san, who in turn called me and told me about the kidnapping. I... I nearly lost my head there, but Kanji-san talked me through it."
"Kanji wasn't panicking?"
Naoto shook his head. "He was admirably level-headed. He shouted at me to calm down, and I did. After that, we made plans to meet with the others. Fortunately Yosuke-san is adept at sending group text messages. He soon had us all heading to his house to join you in the TV World."
"I left Saki-senpai to clean up the mess," Nanako said, feeling more than a little guilty.
In the pause that followed, an odd clinking noise sounded in the distance, like the rattling of chains.
"Ah," said Naoto slowly. "Narukami-san did arrive at home. I know, because she called the police immediately, and I was still at the station then. The commotion that followed... I'm glad Kanji-san was still on the line."
"She called the police? Not Adachi-san?"
Naoto smirked. "Are they not one and the same?"
Nanako smiled, just a little. Adachi must have been panicking too. That her little boy could bring so many people together...
"I met the others at Yosuke-san's house once the address was sent to me," Naoto continued. "We entered the TV World from his living room, then found the backlot for our equipment. From there, we headed to Kubo's dungeon and used our map and a bit of guesswork to find where you fell in."
"I'm glad the map was useful," Nanako said. "It wasn't a waste of time."
"I don't think we would ever have found you without it," Naoto agreed. "The TV World is rather vast. Truthfully, there was a long stretch in which we thought we were only getting ourselves lost. We weren't helped by the number of Shadows we had to dispatch along the way. You know as well as I how easy it is to get disoriented in a fight."
"Yep. And I know for a fact I would've been lost without the help I got. I think that house was a living maze." Nanako hesitated. "The person who was helping me, he never spoke to you guys at all?"
"No," said Naoto. "It's possible there are beings here who are not antagonistic. As Teddie was."
"I wonder," said Nanako. "We might hear from him again at some point, but..." She sighed. "Anyway, you guys found the house eventually. What happened then?"
"We fought more Shadows. They were starting to become more and more agitated and violent. Well, they are always violent, but it was different in some way."
"They could sense the fog was going to lift soon," Nanako said.
"Yes. At some point we made our way down a hallway and found Namatame. We gave chase and he dashed upstairs. You know what happened from there."
"Yeah," Nanako said, playing with the hair of Yu's bangs. She frowned to herself. It kinda sounded like that rattling was getting closer, but she couldn't see anything in the direction it came from. It was too dark and the steam almost as thick as the fog normally was.
Nanako's head jerked up. That hadn't been Naoto. Kanji was huffing and puffing up the shortcut's stairs. Though time was always difficult to gauge here, Nanako hadn't expected to see anyone from the team for a while longer still. It was a relief to see him nonetheless.
"Should be all downhill from here, Senpai," Kanji said after he caught his breath. "The TV's all set up. Yosuke-senpai, he left at Junes to call an ambulance for the little guy. We should be able to make it. The Shadows around there ain't much of a problem. Help me with the asshole and we can get going."
Nanako leaped to her feet to help secure Namatame onto Kanji's back while Naoto began to put his armor back on. When they were ready, Nanako took Yu one more time into her aching arms. Just a little longer, she told herself.
Yamano's dungeon was far, farther than Nanako remembered, but Kanji had been right about the Shadows. She could probably fight them even with Yu in her arms. She didn't try, however, not when Naoto was doing so well with Kanji, who had no qualms about fighting even with Namatame on his back. Being the only one unburdened, Naoto took point with his gun in hand. He wasn't out of bullets, as it turned out, just being economical. He used them now whenever they encountered a Shadow that stood out as more threatening than the rest.
After a lengthy battle, they paused to catch their breaths. Kanji was especially exhausted, but he refused to put Namatame down at this point.
"Shirogane-san... What do you think is gonna happen once we get outside with him?" Nanako asked, looking at Namatame.
"I only thought about this just now, but, the reason we're doing this is because regular people can't, right? The police can't even figure out the cause of death. What happens once we bring this guy outside, and he says his method was throwing people into the nearest television?"
"Ah," Naoto said. "The footage of my apartment, in addition to his actions tonight, should be sufficient proof of his involvement with the kidnappings, but he must have an accomplice within the police, else Mitsuo Kubo could never have been brought here. Once that individual is identified and accounted for, even my own misgivings should be cleared."
"Mayumi Yamano was—"
"We got company," Kanji warned. He grunted as he lifted his shield and turned to face the approaching group of Shadows.
Some time later, they finally arrived at the castle dungeon, where Chie was leaning against the base of one of the rearing horse statues, waiting for them.
Chie straightened as they approached, visibly wincing with the action from some unseen pain. "You guys made it!"
"Where's Yukiko?" Nanako asked, panting for her breath.
"She's on the other side. C'mon, let's hurry."
Nothing more needed to be said. They followed her around the castle to the apartment complex. Before they entered Yamano's room, Nanako hesitated only a fraction of a second to survey the clear expanse of the TV World. She caught sight of red-tiled floor far off into the distance before heading through.
The beeping of the heart monitor was not comforting in the least.
Nothing would be comforting for a long while. Not while Yu was unconscious. Not while he was in this hospital bed, connected to an oxygen mask and an IV drip.
Nanako sat at his bedside, holding his tiny hand in her own, hardly blinking as she watched the rise and fall of his breathing. Even that, as regular as it was, wasn't comforting.
The last few hours were a blur. She hardly remembered carrying Yu to the ambulance waiting outside the Amagi Inn. She did remember refusing to hand him over the paramedics, instead carrying him into the ambulance and laying him onto the stretcher herself. And after that, she'd refused to leave his side.
The police had wanted to talk to her and get her statement about the kidnapping. Naoto had intercepted them, fielding their questions for her and allowing her a temporary reprieve. Honestly, Nanako was in no condition to testify. Only pure headstrong willpower was keeping her exhaustion at bay. She'd held Yu for so long that she could hardly feel her arms.
She'd watched from this very chair as the doctors had seen to him. They'd shaved a portion of his hair to get at his head wound and stitch it up. The smallest comfort she had was that they didn't need to hook him up to a respirator, just an oxygen mask.
Now it was just a waiting game. Waiting for Yu to wake up, or for herself to pass out.
A slam suddenly tore her out of her reverie. The room's double doors had swung open. Swung open, no, they'd been kicked open. The woman standing in the doorway was Aunt Narukami, her hands occupied by a big cardboard box. In a fraction of a second she surveyed the room, her haunted eyes going straight to Yu, and then she was rushing towards him with a strangled sob.
"Yu, Yu," she cried.
She dumped the contents of the box on the bed. Out came Foxie and other plushies, along with a dearth of papers. Nanako caught glimpses of multicolored dinosaurs and scribbly crayon drawings. She realized then that Aunt Narukami hadn't thrown any of Yu's art away, she'd been scrapbooking.
Nanako softly called her aunt's name, but the woman had thrown her arms over Yu on the bed and was crying. Loud, messy crying that not even an earthquake could interrupt. Eventually, the sobs subsided into wheezes. Aunt Narukami wiped her eyes on the bedsheets, stained gray from her tears.
They sat together in the darkness, each holding a hand on opposite sides of the bed, the silence broken only by the heart monitor. Neither of them said anything, but both wanted to say something. Nanako had so much to explain, so much to answer for, but she couldn't pry her eyes from Yu. The spot where they'd shaved his hair; the roots were both black and gray. She recalled noticing his hair was darker towards the nape of his neck, once. Probably on the same day she'd asked him whether he liked his haircut. Mama cuts my hair for me, he'd said. What would he think of it now?
Saki had left for the night. Nanako insisted. Though she denied it, Nanako knew the ordeal had been as draining for her girlfriend as it had been for her, and she still had classes in the morning and a family to report to. For a fraction of a second, Nanako smiled. Saki would probably skip both.
"What happened?" Aunt Narukami said suddenly, her voice hoarse, almost a whisper. Hell, maybe it had actually been a whisper, but for Nanako it was as though it filled the room completely.
Nanako opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. She was still looking at Yu. What should she even say? What did she want to say? This was her fault, and they both knew it. The last time they were in a hospital, Aunt Narukami had talked to her about her involvement in the investigation. Now, this happened. Nanako bit her lip, drawing blood. How was she going to explain anything to her aunt?
"Nanako-chan," said the woman, sounding haunted, "please say something. I have talked to the police, to your friends, but none of them could explain to me how... why... this happened to my baby. I know he wouldn't... be here now... without you, so please, just talk to me."
Yu wouldn't be there without her? That was probably right. Yu would be sleeping in his room, untouched, without her.
"Do you..." she started, but found that her voice seemed to be stuck in her throat. Aunt Narukami shifted in her seat, Nanako could see in her peripheral vision, but said nothing. "Do you know about the Midnight Channel?" she finally asked.
There was a pause as the woman took in her question. Nanako didn't need to look at her to know it was probably the last thing she expected to hear. In the back of her mind she wondered whether she should call one of her friends, get their input. She had promised to include them, to never break her own rules again. Looking at the contents of the box her aunt had dumped on the bed, it just didn't seem important.
"The intended victims show up there as silhouettes," she continued, "before the kidnapping happens. This is probably because the culprit watched the damn thing, just like us, though we can't know for sure until we talk to him."
Namatame. Nanako had tried, but she couldn't even muster the energy to hate him.
"This culprit," her aunt said, "he was the one who broke into the tofu shop, yes? I remember the news mentioning that much. Does that mean the Kujikawa girl was an intended victim?"
Nanako nodded weakly. "We convinced her to go into hiding when we realized she was going to be a target, and as a result he got desperate."
"I had a feeling you were involved," her aunt said with a resigned sigh, "back when you asked those questions during dinner. Oh, you seemed innocent enough, but I knew better by then."
How long is she planning to retire? Did she say? My friends were wondering if she'll go to our school. Of course her aunt had seen through it, when their last two encounters with Adachi-san had both ended badly.
"Nanako-chan," her aunt started once again, her voice no longer hoarse, "you said the culprit watched this Midnight Channel, just like you. What did you mean by that?"
"I'd heard the rumor shortly after getting here in Inaba." Nanako hesitated. This was a long shot, but... "Do you remember one night, maybe my third in your house, that had me making a fuss loud enough to wake..." she trailed off, still looking at her baby boy. Nanako clutched his hand tighter.
"I remember," said Aunt Narukami.
Nanako was surprised, but continued. "That night," she said, "I watched the Midnight Channel for the first time, and saw the silhouette of Naoki Konishi."
"Did that truly surprise you so much? The noise was quite loud."
Nothing escaped her aunt when she was actually paying attention, huh? Yu was like that too.
"No," she admitted. "I had no idea he would end up dead only a few days later. The truth is, right after the TV turned off again, a voice rang inside my head."
That might have been my awakening, she realized, though she could not remember the words. The dream, and then that voice... but why was it different for me?
"I got disoriented, knocked around a few things, and when the pain faded, stared at the silhouette again." Nanako took a deep breath. "Maybe in disbelief that the TV had turned on without my input, I reached out to touch it, and to my surprise, my hand went clean inside the screen."
Aunt Narukami remained silent for a long moment after that. Nanako tried to guess what she was thinking and came up blank. Maybe.... Maybe she thought Nanako was playing with her, like Naoto had back when he'd forced her hand? That seemed so long ago now.
"I know this is hard to believe," she tried, "but—"
"There was a television," her aunt interrupted, "inside the truck."
Nanako raised her head for the first time, shock transparent on her face, but Aunt Narukami wasn't looking at her, wasn't looking at anything in particular; the woman was deep in thought.
"There was blood there as well, signs of a scuffle," she continued. "No one could explain it. Saki-chan said you chased the kidnapper outside, but couldn't say where to. There weren't any footprints or blood anywhere close by, and the neighbors heard only that you called for your senpai. Did you... enter the television alongside the culprit?"
Aunt Narukami slumped back in her seat.
"Chie and Yosuke didn't believe me," Nanako went on, "about the TV trying to eat my hand, I mean. Yosuke joked that Junes had some models large enough to fit a person, so we went there, and, well, I pushed him inside."
If her aunt had been at all surprised by her admission, she didn't show it.
"The world inside the television is covered by thick fog. Without special glasses, you can't see five feet in front of you, and you get tired much faster than you would in the real world," Nanako explained. Aunt Narukami narrowed her eyes, looking away for a moment, but motioned for her to go on.
Nanako told her how they'd jumped after Yosuke once it was clear he wasn't coming out, how they found an apartment that seemingly belonged to Mayumi Yamano, and how they were ambushed by dangerous creatures.
"The next day," she said, deciding to skip the explanation on how exactly they got out because it was too painful for her to remember while in that hospital room, "we were told that Naoki Konishi had been found dead, hung to an antenna."
"I remember that day. I remember the night before as well. Yu had thought you were sick, and knocked on my door to ask for cold medicine." Aunt Narukami paused, fidgeting in her seat. "I got upset with him. That had been a long day at work, and he knew better than to wake me up."
Nanako felt a weight in her heart, because she had never once wondered how Yu got that medicine, she'd simply assumed it was one of his many duties as a latchkey kid.
"But he insisted," she continued, "which was unusual for him. I suppose even back then, he already cared for you. Enough to stare me down with those stormy little eyes."
With her free hand, Aunt Narukami caressed the area between his cheek and his ear, since his actual cheeks were obstructed by the oxygen mask. Her expression was somber.
The path with least regrets, she'd told Izaya once. Sounded like she wasn't walking it alone. Nanako thought her aunt might go on about some of her actions in the past, but she didn't, so they remained in silence. Eventually, it got unbearable, so Nanako continued her explanation.
"We went into the television again that day," she said, "and sure enough, there was a place there related to Naoki, a replica of the shopping district, overshadowed by Junes."
Aunt Narukami didn't seem to have anything to add, so she went on: "That world sort of reflects your mind. Once you spend a certain amount of time there, it creates a structure based on aspects of yourself that you don't want to face. This structure is like a maze, and the corridors are packed with those dangerous creatures that attacked us on the first day."
Though, now that she'd seen a dungeon rise mere seconds after Yu was thrown inside, she wondered why one hadn't when she'd pushed Yosuke. It wasn't always a maze either, she realized. Ms. Yamano and Naoki-kun had both had fairly regular, though twisted, places as their dungeons.
"What about the victim?" her aunt asked, looking pointedly at Yu.
"The victim is always locked on the top floor," Nanako explained, "and though you'd think this would leave them relatively safe, the truth is they're locked in with a special type of creature that comes with the place. This creature claims to be you, knows your innermost secrets, your doubts, everything you're too scared to show the world, and it comes at you with that knowledge. If you reject it, it turns into a monster and attacks you, but if you accept it—"
"—you obtain the power to go into that world freely?" her aunt guessed, cutting her off.
Nanako nodded. Aunt Narukami pondered on her words for a moment, then asked, "What happens if you don't reject nor accept it?"
"I didn't find out for sure until today," Nanako admitted. "The fog in that world reflects the weather in our own. Auntie, you leave for work early, you must have noticed the thick fog that sometimes covers Inaba in the mornings."
"I have. There was some fuss about it on the news earlier this year, but with the murders, that was all but forgotten. Driving in that fog is a nightmare," she added humorlessly. Nanako understood. The real nightmare was waiting in that hospital room.
"The fog is actually quite thick tonight," her aunt said after a moment. "I noticed on the way here, though the policemen that were searching for you had complained about it as well."
"Right," Nanako said, "and this means the fog in that world has lifted. Those creatures, we call them Shadows, and they get violent when the fog lifts, even more so than usual, and even," she choked up, the battle still fresh in her mind, "even your Shadow. If you don't accept it before the fog lifts, it will kill you. This is how Mayumi Yamano and Naoki Konishi died."
"Yu—" her aunt started almost immediately, but Nanako shook her head.
"Yu accepted his Shadow, though yeah, it... it wasn't easy."
Aunt Narukami breathed a sigh of relief, then opened her mouth in horror as understanding washed over her.
"As soon as he wakes up, we need to teach him to be careful around TVs," Nanako confirmed, "here in Inaba, anyway."
"This... phenomenon is confined to Inaba?"
Nanako simply nodded. In the end, none of them knew why this was happening in Inaba, and so there was nothing she could say to reassure Aunt Narukami about her hometown.
"This has been going on since the day you arrived," her aunt mused.
"Yukiko was the next victim. The police wouldn't have believed us, and other than the culprit, there wasn't anyone else who could enter that world. To be honest, I wasn't expecting you to believe me, either."
"This is a lot to take in," Aunt Narukami conceded, "but, you haven't ever lied to me, Nanako-chan, and there are certain things that..." She sighed. "I remember that one day, Yu was trying to tell me about some jar of fog you'd shown him, he said the fog disappeared once he put on your special glasses. I brushed him aside, figuring his imagination was running wild, or that you'd done a magic trick. I was more interested in this new friend he said he'd met, one Naoto Shirogane. Ryotaro warned me you might try to elope with him—"
Dad did what?!
"—and told me to keep an eye open."
"Oh my god."
Nanako wanted to bury her face in her hands, but found herself smiling instead, however briefly.
"There were other things, too," her aunt continued, apparently unaware of her plight. "For instance, the day your teacher died, one of your friends came to us, saying you might have been kidnapped, but he backed down once my brother tried to get more details."
"I'd never realized you and Yu were so similar," Nanako said suddenly.
"What do you mean?"
"Yu is always paying attention," Nanako explained, "even when it seems he isn't. Like an elephant, he never forgets." She paused. "I once used that phrase to describe my dad."
"I do forget," her aunt said quietly. "I forgot about Golden Week. Yu was so happy to see me when I arrived from my business trip. I was happy to see him too, but thinking mostly of my bed. I'd only brought him a candy bag. Did you know he never opened it? I found it, when I was looking for his toy fox to bring here."
Nanako looked at Foxie, sitting upright on the hospital bed. Come to think of it, she'd given her to Yu as a gift during Golden Week. That had been a fun holiday. Right underneath her was the Mother's Day card he'd never had the chance to give his mom. The words 'I LOVE YOU' filled up most of the card, though the many, many hearts around it had faded slightly.
"I thought you threw everything we put up on the fridge away," she confessed, eliciting real shock from her aunt for the first time during that conversation. "I mean, you took them down so fast, the drawings, the flowers, everything. I had no idea you were hoarding them."
Aunt Narukami closed her eyes, quirking her mouth like she had something to say. Evidently, she'd had no idea either.
"No wonder you thought you had me figured out," she did say, a good while later, and then they both went back to watching Yu.
"We couldn't recognize him, you know," Nanako said. "Last night."
Aunt Narukami shifted in her seat. "The Midnight Channel?"
Nanako hummed. "It shows whoever is in the public eye. Rise was easy to predict, but... we never considered the internet. There was a video of his presentation during the field trip to my school. Yu was too shy to say his line out loud, and Takeyoshi-kun had to shout it for him. I guess that made an impression. I should have realized."
"That wasn't your fault," her aunt said softly.
"Everything was my fault," she replied. "I couldn't... just how... how could he recognize him when I couldn't?"
"Nanako," her aunt said, dropping the honorific, and this alone made her look up, "you brought normal back into our lives."
Aunt Narukami got up from her chair and walked over to Nanako's side of the bed, placing her hand over the one that was holding her son's.
"Yu is happier than he has ever been," she said, "he loves you. I love you, as though you were my own daughter. I know he wouldn't be here without you. Not just here in this bed, but here, alive, safe and sound."
Nanako had been clutching Yu's hand the entire time. Right then, she felt a squeeze.
Aunt Narukami excused herself to use the restroom. Nanako just nodded. Truth be told, she probably had to go too. She didn't know. She didn't remember the last time she went, and she didn't care. It wasn't important.
Idly, she wondered whether the door her aunt had swung open to leave the room would ever click shut. The silence outside was too loud. Nanako glanced at the doorway, upset that her aunt was holding it open for whatever reason, but the one standing there wasn't her.
Nanako would recognize that wavy hair anywhere. "Senpai?" she asked softly. "I told you to go home."
Saki strode towards her, letting the door shut behind her. "I did," she replied. "I just felt like coming back. Though," she added with a slight smile, "only family is supposed to visit right now, you know?"
Nanako chuckled without feeling while her girlfriend moved to her side, wrapping an arm around her back and tugging her into an awkward side hug.
"This is your influence," Saki said, and the pride in her voice was almost enough to make Nanako smile for real.
Saki was easy to read, once you got to know her. There was a pause as she took in her surroundings. Nanako watched with some interest as her girlfriend set her eyes on the heart monitor, beeping in the corner, and then the oxygen mask, which fogged up slightly with each breath Yu took. Anyone could tell she loved him almost as much as she loved Nanako herself.
Unfortunately, Nanako wasn't sure what she was supposed to be feeling quite yet, especially after the conversation with her aunt, so she settled on resting her head on Saki's shoulder, comforted by the warmth coming both from her and Yu, whose hand she refused to let go.
"How are you holding up?" Saki asked.
"I never expected to be this side of the question," Nanako admitted. I don't... I don't want sympathy, her girlfriend had said, so long ago. "Honestly, so much has happened, I don't even know. I probably won't find out, not for a while."
"I got your friends together as fast as I could," Saki said. "There was a bit of phone tag, since I didn't have everyone's number, but it turns out Hana-chan's good at group texts."
Naoto had said so as well, but what Nanako wanted to say was...
"Thank you," she murmured against her girlfriend's neck. "Thank you so much. I wouldn't have been able to do it without them, without your help. It was hell in there, Senpai."
Saki squeezed her side. "I can't even imagine."
"Yu-chan's dungeon was his own house. Everything was big and gloomy. Except for..." Nanako paused to swallow before continuing. "Except for my room. That's the room I found him in."
"He loves you," Saki said.
Nanako looked at him for what must have been the hundredth time.
"He knows that it won't be forever," Nanako added quietly.
Saki raised her eyes for a moment, then shook her head. "Yu is scared of losing you," she said, "but you won't let that happen."
"I won't," Nanako confirmed, feeling the palm of his hand with her thumb, "but Senpai, seeing his love and his fears firsthand like that, it was... it was just... too much."
"I try not to think about what it must've been like for my brother," Saki murmured. "With my family's store and the Junes."
I wish Saki would run away with her college boyfriend already so I can stop hearing it…
"It's probably best if you don't," Nanako said, then blinked, suddenly remembering something. "Oh. That's right, I haven't told you. That Junes is right on top of Kubo's dungeon. Kubo was thrown into the TV at the police station, so unless there's a cafe like, right next to the station with a big TV or something..."
"Naoki was thrown in there too?"
Nanako nodded without moving her head from Saki's shoulder. "Might even be the same TV."
Saki was quiet for a while after that. She began to play with Yu's feet through the bedsheets, squeezing each toe one by one between her finger and thumb.
"Nanako," she said. "I... I'm sorry. If I'd just called you instead of coming over, he wouldn't be..."
"What?" Nanako frowned as it dawned on her what Saki was trying to say. "No! No, that wasn't your fault, Senpai. You tried to warn me."
"I distracted you right when the killer came for him."
"Even if Yu-chan didn't answer the door," Nanako said, "the culprit would've found another way. Remember, this guy gave Adachi-san a bloody lip. He was determined. And with those videos, you made me figure it out. I wouldn't have reacted fast enough if you hadn't. I might not even have been close enough to the door!"
There was another long silence.
"You saved him," Saki finally said. "It's too late for my brother, but you didn't let him take yours..." She looked at Nanako with watery eyes. "Thank you."
"Yeah..." Nanako said, her own eyes watering up. "Yeah."
Finally, she realized what she should be feeling.
Saki hugged her. Nanako hugged her back. They were both crying.
Nanako woke up to someone touching her hair. Petting it. Without opening her eyes, she leaned into the touch, enjoying the feel of fingers on her scalp. They were so soft, so careful not to tangle her hair when they moved. As the daze from sleep wore off, she wondered who could be the one doing that. Saki had promised her that she would leave and get some rest, and promises were important, so...
Nanako immediately snapped awake, moving up from wherever she'd been lying so fast that the chair she was in almost plunged backwards, but she managed to stop it at the last moment because someone was pulling on her hand. Nanako straightened the chair, looking in disbelief at the hand that was holding hers, trailing up to the wrist and then the arms and finally to the light blue hospital gown. No matter how dark the room was, she would never mistake that beaming little smile.
"Yu-chan!" she shouted, jumping from her chair and bringing him into a hug. The IV drip that had been hooked to his arm disconnected, eliciting a short yelp, but the strength with which he hugged her back told Nanako everything she needed to know about his health.
"Big sis," he said, and feeling his breath against her neck gave her more joy than she could have ever imagined.
"I was so worried about you," she whispered, kissing his ear and his neck as many times as she possibly could.
"B-Big sis, t-that tickles!" he said, trying to worm away from her grasp, giggling all the while.
Nanako set him down on the bed and took one very long look. There were bags under his eyes, and he looked a little bit pale compared to the previous day, but otherwise he seemed to be in perfect health. The gauze on the spot where they'd shaved his hair remained perfectly white, no visible blood or pus, which was probably a good sign too, or maybe the nurses had redressed the wound during the night, though she doubted they could manage with her sleeping on his bedside. There was, however, a slight trail of blood from where the IV drip had been. Nanako was hesitant to release his hand, but she did so and quickly found some cotton and a bandaid, and seconds later his arm was good as new.
"Good thing we didn't disconnect the heart monitor," she said as though she was sharing a secret, "or there would be a lot of people in this room right now."
Yu giggled. The sound made her eyes water, but Nanako was determined not to cry. Not in front of him.
"Whatever happened to your oxygen mask, anyway?" she asked instead.
"C-Couldn't breathe..." he said sheepishly, pointing to the other side of his bed, where it was neatly laid down.
"Did you wake up just now, or have you been up for a while?" she asked, worried that he might have spent too much time alone in that gloomy hospital room.
"B-Been up for a while," he said, "but I had Foxie with me."
Now that his hand was free from her grip, he raised the toy fox with both hands, maybe to show that she'd been good company. Nanako went ahead and pushed Foxie forward, making her hit his cute little nose.
"Boop," she said, and he giggled again.
"A-And these," he said. "Look." He picked up a piece of paper from a perfectly arranged stack. Nanako ignored the fact that this six year old boy had gone through the trouble to pick up every scattered drawing and project he'd ever made that year and organized it first thing in the morning, and instead focused on what he wanted to show her. Nanako expected it to be the Mother's Day card, or maybe a pterodactyl, but instead he showed her... she had to squint to see it properly, she didn't know whether it was a dinosaur or a rainbow, an ugly rainbow, but then she noticed the goofy hand drawn smile.
Nanako had colored that stegosaurus during her first week in Inaba. Aunt Narukami had saved that up too? Nanako was so stumped that she couldn't find anything to say, but she didn't need to, as her cousin wasn't finished.
"And... you were here with me the whole time... holding my hand. I dreamed about you, big sis. T-There was a doggie there too."
Nanako flinched for a moment, knowing that he had dreamed about the TV World... but the memories seemed to make him smile, so she decided to worry about it later.
"I always thought you were more of a cat person, Yu-chan," she said, squeezing his right cheek a little, not enough to be a pinch, but enough to make him giggle some more. Nanako wanted to hear that sound for the rest of her life.
"C-Cats and dogs can get along... Big bro showed me, on his phone."
Oh, did he now? Maybe she hadn't been wrong in her assessment that the Detective Prince had stayed home watching videos when she'd taken Yu and Marie out shopping the other day.
"B-Big sis... why are we in the h-hospital?"
Nanako had done this many times now. Explaining the TV World after rescuing someone, that is. But... Yu wasn't "someone."
"...Do you remember answering the door last night?" she asked.
Yu scrunched up his face, trying hard to remember. Nanako was too busy holding back tears to pay more attention to his reactions, but eventually he said:
"It wasn't Mama."
"No, it wasn't."
The heart rate monitor started to beep just a bit faster.
"I got you back, though," she said, squeezing his hand. "I got you back."
Neither of them said anything for the next few minutes. Yu was staring into the distance, maybe trying to remember more, or maybe just tired. Nanako was just happy he was awake. They stayed like that for a little while, until Yu put his hand to his head. He frowned when he found the gauze there.
"I-Itchy," he complained.
"Your head got hit there," Nanako said. "It will be itchy while it heals. You have to be strong, okay? Don't mess with it."
He was carefully feeling the area around the gauze. Then he let his hand drop with a sigh. His hair wasn't going to be the same after this, but that was something they could worry about later.
"Big sis, umm..." he started. Nanako noticed he was pouting all of a sudden, and she didn't think it was because of the wound.
"Yes, Yu-chan?" she asked.
"I feel... wet..."
"Hm? Oh, right," Nanako said. "The nurses put you in a diaper, so you wouldn't, you know, wet the bed."
"Diaper..." he repeated.
His pouting became more pronounced. Nanako shifted in her seat, recalling how his Shadow had so resentfully declared that he was ‘a big boy.' She braced herself for him to say it now.
"I-I hope I can take it off soon..." he said instead, looking down and fidgeting with his sheets.
Nanako relaxed and sent him a warm smile. She leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "Actually," she said, "I'd really like a diaper right about now."
Yeah, it suddenly hit her that she urgently needed to go.
"Big sis!" he cried, scandalized.
"I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" she said, laughing. "I don't want to go, though."
"Y-You gotta," he said, crossing his arms.
Nanako sighed exaggeratedly, throwing herself over his legs. "Fine," she said. "I just don't wanna leave you, you know?"
Yu stroked her back amicably, as though she was the one who needed comforting, and after a few seconds, she got up and went.
Aunt Narukami was sleeping on the couch by the door. Nanako held it open with a chair so Yu could see his mom while she was away, then grabbed some blankets to cover her. Nanako was grateful to her; she'd done her a kindness by allowing her to stay in the room all night. Though she didn't remember which arcana her aunt belonged to, she was sure that their link would never break.
With that in mind, she tiptoed her way to the bathroom, leaving a smiling Yu behind.
Nanako returned to the room to find company. A number of nurses were fussing over Yu. Nanako hovered nearby, not wanting to get in the way but too curious about the tests they were running to stay away. She asked a few questions but mainly got only one word answers. None of the nurses seemed overly concerned about Yu, and in fact, they didn't reconnect the IV drip, though they did change his diaper for a fresh one. He wasn't to walk around for a while longer still.
After the nurses left, Nanako expected to be alone with her cousin for at least a little while, but she heard some voices outside the open door. Aunt Narukami was awake and chatting with someone. Then they were entering the room and...
"Dad?" Nanako stared, her mouth still open.
"You look terrible," Dojima said.
"Wh—" Nanako began. "What kind of 'hello' is that?"
Dojima smiled in response, but it was strained. He didn't look much better than she probably did. Nanako thought it over real quick and realized he'd probably once again dropped everything to be here when he'd heard the news.
She tackled him hard in a hug that made him go 'oof.' Soon he was patting her back. He'd missed her too.
"U-Umm..." said Yu.
"Oh, Yu," Aunt Narukami said. "This is your uncle."
"Yeah," Dojima said, letting Nanako go so that he could address the boy in the bed. "I missed seeing you when I was here back in July. I wish I could've stayed then, but... And the time before that, you were still in diapers. I even remember changing them."
"No," Yu said. "I saw you."
Dojima blinked and brought his hand up to scratch his stubbly chin. "You did? I don't remember."
"I-I was worried about big sis," Yu said, "so I peeked... and you were reading."
"You could've said something," Dojima said. "I don't bite."
"His bark is way worse than his bite," Nanako agreed.
Yu's cheeks were all rosy. Probably he'd been too intimidated by Dojima to even think about interrupting his reading.
"I have a diaper now," Yu observed.
Dojima chuckled. Nanako had always loved how rumbly it was. "Are you saying I should change it? Just like old times?"
Even Aunt Narukami was laughing after that.
Dojima moved to the bed and crouched at Yu's side. "You're a brave kid," he said in what Nanako knew as his dead serious voice. "I'm proud of you for getting through this. No one likes to be in the hospital, but I know you'll be out of here in no time."
Yu smiled at him. "Big sis was here, so... I wasn't scared."
"I'm glad," Dojima said. "I've been worrying all year if it was the right decision to send her here to live with you. Now I know it wasn't a mistake."
"Ryotaro," Aunt Narukami murmured.
He turned to Nanako. "What's going on here? I talked with a cop outside but he didn't know much. Yesterday, your aunt said you chased after some kidnapper... and by the looks of it, you got him, too. I can't make heads or tails of this."
"B-Big sis... got me back," Yu contributed, but the scowl on her father's face only deepened.
Aunt Narukami stepped forward. "I called your father yesterday," she explained, though it sounded almost like an apology. "I was waiting for the police and didn't know what else to do. The truck was still right outside our house, and the neighbors were gathering."
Nanako opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. Nervously, she glanced from her dad to her aunt and then back to her dad again. On some level, she knew she couldn't hide the truth from him when she'd already spilled the beans to her aunt, but...
"Dad," she said, her voice cracking. "I can tell you what we know about the case."
"The case?" Dojima repeated, incredulous. "I told you not to get involved."
"I was involved long before you said that," she argued.
"Dad, he goes after whoever is in the public eye, okay? We thought that meant the news, but turns out the internet is important too."
"Again with the we?" he asked, then shook his head. "Nevermind that. I don't want to know about the case. I want to know what happened last night."
"Dad, you can't have one without the other," she tried, but Dojima wasn't having any of it.
"Where did you go, Nanako?" he asked, stepping closer.
"I... sorry... sorry, just... I need Mom to be here," she said instead.
That gave him some pause. "What?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.
"I need Mom to be here," she repeated, "with you. Both of you need to know."
Dojima's expression hardened. "Nanako, your mom is overseas, you know she can't come here just because you want her to."
"I know," Nanako said, "but this is not something I can explain over the phone, and... and I can only say it so many times. Dad, you two should hear it together."
"Damn it, Nanako," he cursed, making Yu wince, "why can't you just trust me? Do you know how worried I was after you fell from the bridge? I had to wait the whole summer for you to talk to me."
"I trust you, Dad, but..."
"But what? What the hell is going on?"
"Ryotaro," Aunt Narukami said in a tone Nanako had never heard her use. It cut through their argument like butter and made the room fall deathly silent. Nanako shifted her glance to Yu, and saw that he was looking at his mom with quiet wonder.
Dojima stared at his sister. "What?" he challenged.
"I know this year has been hard on you," she said, "being away from both your daughter and your wife, working on your mystery case without anyone to talk to, having to rely on your estranged sister to take care of your daughter for you. I realize that her not wanting to talk to you must be very frustrating, but please stop and think about what she must be going through for a moment. In just a few hours, she's going to have to deal with the police. Our house is swarming with reporters. Yes," she added, after seeing the shock on Nanako's face, "some version of the story is already out."
"No," Nanako murmured.
"Ryotaro," her aunt repeated, "did you come here to help your daughter, or did you come to be one more obstacle for her to overcome?"
There was a very long pause as Dojima took in his sister's words. Nanako couldn't read him, and she wouldn't dare get between him and her aunt, so she just extended her hand for Yu to hold, not wanting to make him any more nervous.
Eventually, her dad sighed.
"Damn it, I can't win against you, sis," he said, scratching his head.
"You never could," Aunt Narukami said with a triumphant smile.
"S-Sis?" Yu piped up then, looking at his mom.
"Big sis, actually," Nanako said. "Your mom is my dad's big sis. Is that confusing?"
"No," Yu said. "I knew it... b-but..."
He probably wasn't used to hearing his mom being called that. Nanako understood; it was weird for her too.
"Ryotaro used to call me 'big sis' all the time, if you can believe it," Aunt Narukami said in a conspiratorial tone, "but as he grew older, he became embarrassed whenever he was seen with me, saying only 'sis' and, eventually, simply moving on to my name."
Yu tugged on Nanako's sleeve. "I'll a-always call you big sis..." he promised, and she gave him a big hug.
Dojima sighed again, obviously displeased, but the tension was gone, and he couldn't argue his point any further. "All right, Nanako. If your aunt is backing you up on this, well," he paused to sigh a third time, "I trust her. But you are going to tell me as soon as your mom is back, and not a day later. Do you understand?"
"Yes. I'm not trying to hide anything from you, just..." Things were too complicated, and she had no idea how her dad would react. If he decided to send her back to Tokyo, she'd argue, but no matter how much of a delinquent she might have become, Nanako was still a daddy's girl at heart, so... she wouldn't say no.
"I just hope you know what you're doing, honey," Dojima said, his voice much softer.
"Me, too," Nanako replied, and that was that.
Yu started to get restless cooped up in that room with no windows, so they called the nurse and, after some back and forth, managed to get a wheelchair for him. Nanako had been in that hospital before, after all, and she knew just the place to cheer him up.
Nanako let him play with her phone while she wheeled him there, flanked by both Dojima and Aunt Narukami, when Yu suddenly gasped.
"P-Partner!" he cried.
Nanako scanned ahead. "That guy is here already?" she mumbled. Maybe it would be a little suspicious for them to be seen together so soon after Namatame was caught, since as far as the police were aware Yosuke had caught Kubo last time, but she was glad to see him anyway.
Or, she would have been if she could see him. Yosuke was nowhere in sight.
"Where?" Nanako asked, bending over so she could see Yu better. That was when she realized his eyes were still glued to her cracked screen, which showed...
Yosuke, not wearing a shirt and with a bra on his head.
Aunt Narukami raised an eyebrow at her, while Dojima crouched down to look.
"Nanako, whose bra is this?!" he demanded almost immediately, and as a result she burst out laughing, so loud that the nurses had to come over to chastise her. Oh man, good thing she didn't have any other compromising pictures in there, or she really would have been in trouble. Really, how Yu had even found that among all the other pictures she'd digitized was hilarious enough on its own.
"I took that one with the good camera, so we can have it framed if you want, Yu-chan!" Nanako said cheerfully. Yu obviously approved.
Dojima glared at her fiercely after that, but she'd had enough experience points by then, from dealing with experienced glarers such as Margaret and Mr. Morooka.
Nanako didn't want to give her dad a heart condition though, so after a few seconds, she raised her hands in defense.
"Calm down, calm down!" she said, trying hard not to laugh. "Yu-chan, pass me the phone, will you?" Yu did so, and after a few swipes she found the photo she'd snapped during Golden Week, showing her little cousin in an identical costume.
The bra was different, though.
"Lieutenant Briefs has an admirer, is all!" she declared.
Aunt Narukami put a hand to her chin. "If you took it with the good camera," she said, "then was that during the field trip to Gekkoukan?"
"Guilty as charged!"
Dojima grunted. "Chisato told me you had some fun on that trip. I never know what exactly she means when she says that."
Nanako grinned at him. The Dojima family had an understanding, see. Nanako would talk to her mother about everything, and anything too scandalous Chisato would bring to her father. Everything her mom thought was okay would stay between them. Of course, she couldn't hide some things from her dad, but Nanako had a feeling he ended up finding out even what they'd kept from him through his detective instincts anyway.
They reached the hall that Nanako had almost called a second home a few months ago. She wheeled Yu right to the window with the view of the solitary tree outside. It was never the best view, but that little bit of green always brightened up her day.
Yu did smile a little upon seeing the tree, but not long after his expression changed to a puzzled frown.
"B-Big sis..." he said, holding up the phone for her to see, "it says you have a... t-text message."
Nanako wrinkled her nose while scanning the message. Yukiko had never once texted her. In fact, she was the type to answer texts with a call, which was all sorts of wrong, so Nanako made a point to never text her, either. What could she possibly want?
'Please, don't worry about it. We were in a hurry, and yours was the best idea. I've been asked some difficult questions, but... I doubt things have been easy for you, either. I appreciate your concern, though.
(Don't forget to delete this message.)'
Not five seconds later, before Nanako could even get properly confused, the phone rang. Yu nearly dropped it, startled by the ringtone, but Dojima caught it. Nanako exchanged looks with him before he handed it over.
As expected, it was Yukiko.
"Nanako," she said, "sorry about that. I meant to send it to Yosuke-kun."
Right, the plan, Nanako thought, realizing her father was listening. I should keep this short, she decided.
"No problem," she said, "though you could have said so with another text!"
Yukiko giggled over the line, then sighed. "I should get back to it."
"Me too," Nanako replied. There was an uncomfortable silence as neither of them hung up, and she knew why, but Dojima was still... oh, screw it. "Yu is awake," she added, "he was playing with the phone, even, before you called."
"I shouldn't interrupt him further, then," Yukiko said, sounding distinctly relieved. "Thank you, Nanako."
Nanako sighed as she hung up the phone, because her father was frowning again. Aunt Narukami eyed them both with polite concern, but though she understood the situation, she'd already said her piece; getting into another argument with her brother would only strain their relationship more.
"Why did your friend say you should delete the text?" he asked, getting right to the point.
"Because the police might confiscate their phones," she answered quietly. No point in hiding it now.
Dojima was quiet for a while.
"That message wasn't for me," she went on, "but it was about me, in a way."
"About the case, you mean," he said, and she nodded. "Back when you went missing, I read your texts, hoping to find something that might tell me what happened."
Nanako swallowed hard, but kept her expression neutral.
"There wasn't anything about your teacher, only that he'd been a victim," he continued, "and your friends seemed more concerned with the circumstances than the fact he'd died, or the effect it would have on you. I wasn't sure your girlfriend was telling the truth until you woke up and confirmed it for me."
"Most of them d-didn't know," she said, a lump forming in her throat, "how important he was to me."
Dojima's expression softened, and he walked over to her and put a hand on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry, honey," he said, squeezing her lightly. "I didn't mean to dredge up painful memories."
"I don't want them to be painful," she murmured, leaning her head against his hand. "A-Auntie took me to visit his g-grave, you know."
"I know," he said.
They stayed like that for a while. From the corner of her eyes, Nanako saw that Yu was whispering something to his mother, and then she wheeled him between them, where he patted them both as high as he could reach—the leg for Dojima, the sides for Nanako.
"I saw Papa..." Yu said solemnly. "Mama t-took away his pictures, but he was there."
Aunt Narukami's face was ashen.
"I-I wasn't hiding them from you," she tried, and then paused, as though she wasn't sure herself.
"It's okay, Mama..." he said, looking up at her. "I remember him now."
This did very little to comfort her aunt.
"There weren't any texts about him," Dojima said, pointing with his head to her little cousin.
Aunt Narukami crouched down to talk with her son, and Nanako dearly wanted to listen in, but she couldn't break eye contact with her dad now.
"I didn't see that phone ring or beep until just now," he said, "which means your friends already know what you won't tell me."
Nanako couldn't do anything but nod once again; her father's detective instincts were as sharp as ever.
Dojima sighed, though. "What can you tell me?" he asked after a few minutes.
"Okay, so we didn't know how to explain how I'd rescued him," Nanako said, a grimace coming over her features, "and we were in a hurry because he was injured and we didn't know how bad it was."
Dojima glanced at Yu, specifically at the gauze on his head, and nodded, his own expression mirroring hers.
"I didn't expect the story to spread so fast," she admitted. "I mean, we barely got away with bringing in the copycat killer last time, so—"
"Mitsuo Kubo?" Dojima interrupted. "Are you saying you captured him? I watched the press release. One of your friends got into a scuffle with him, isn't that right?"
"I thought you said you weren't interested in the case," she teased, though there was no feeling behind her words. Dojima just grunted, so she went on. "Anyway, we decided to call an ambulance to the Amagi Inn."
"What were you doing all the way over there?" he asked, but her mouth was a thin line, and she didn't respond. He was annoyed, but didn't press her further.
Nanako explained, without using names, that Yukiko had sent a frantic text message to Yosuke, and that he'd jumped to conclusions and called an ambulance, thinking she'd commit suicide, or so they were going to tell the police, though they did ensure the timestamps would be accurate. "This is why my friend told whoever that message was meant for that they should delete it," she finished.
Dojima appraised her story with only a slight frown. "I see," he said simply, "but what are you going to tell the police about last night?"
Though he would never say it outright, his meaning was clear: he was asking her what lies she was going to be telling the police regarding her catching Namatame.
"I chased the culprit through the fog and knocked him down by the Amagi Inn," she replied stiffly, hating that she had to lie to him, even indirectly like this. "There was an ambulance there by complete coincidence. I didn't have the time to get my phone when everything happened, so... I couldn't have called it myself."
Aunt Narukami raised her head then.
"And you couldn't have asked for help there, because the ambulance would have taken that much longer. Is that what you're saying?" she asked.
Nanako didn't want to take credit for it, but with her father there... and they really were thinking along those lines, so she nodded, but then Aunt Narukami unexpectedly got up and gave her a hug.
"Thank you," her aunt said, and being so close, Nanako could tell she was starting to sob. "Thank you."
"Only the best for my Yu," Nanako said weakly, echoing something her aunt had told her a long time ago, and although her dad had more to say, he decided it could wait.
Nanako was telling Yu about a couple of birds she'd seen nesting in the tree outside while she'd been in the hospital when the conversation was interrupted by her own gurgling belly. Yu giggled at the sound. Nanako opened her mouth to say something when a much louder gurgle followed. Everyone turned their heads towards her, but actually, the sound came from Aunt Narukami! The woman nimbly avoided embarrassment by saying she would visit the cafeteria and get food for everyone.
When she was gone, Nanako got their attention back to the birds. Though the nest was still there, there wasn't any sign of them, but she wasn't gonna let that ruin their day. "Yu-chan, imagine how big a pterodactyl's nest would be," Nanako said, crouching besides him. "Gosh, it'd take up the whole tree!"
"Y-Yeah!" Yu said.
Dojima just shook his head in amusement. Yeah, he remembered Nanako's dinosaur phase when she'd been Yu's age... and the Doraemon phase, and the Batman phase, and the pirate phase… of course, she'd never outgrown the Loveline phase. Not until recently, anyway.
"There they are!"
Nanako looked up to find Kanji heading towards them, and with Yuuta in tow too, though she was slightly disappointed that he wasn't perched on Kanji's shoulders like Yu had been all that time ago. It really was a shame, because Yuuta was carrying a basket that was the perfect size to be set right on Kanji's head.
Kanji slowed as he got closer, though, glancing conspicuously behind him. Around the corner came Takeyoshi-kun and his mom. Nanako had expected her dad's presence to give Kanji pause, but the unpleasant woman was the one to stop halfway to stared at Dojima, who stared back at her evenly. The two adults sized each other up without saying a word.
Nanako was wondering whether there was a story there when Takeyoshi-kun's mom looked down at her son.
"Say hello to your friend, dear," she said somewhat hastily, pushing him forward.
"Hi, Yu," Takeyoshi-kun said. "Were you born in this hospital too?"
"I... I don't know," Yu replied.
"Why are you asking that now?" Kanji shook his head and rolled his eyes before moving towards Yu too. He bent down to his address him, which took some effort. "How you doin', little guy?"
"H-Happy," Yu said, and his little grin proved it.
"Knew you'd pull through."
"Yuuta," Takeyoshi-kun called, motioning to the boy, "come on!"
"Yeah!" Yuuta said. "Here, here, look what we made!"
He came forward with the basket. It was filled to the brim with paper cranes, a dazzling array of different sizes and colors and oh, and the big green one in the middle was made of felt!
"That must've taken a while to make," Nanako thought out loud.
Kanji just shrugged it off. "Didn't have time for a crochet project," he said, though considering how fast he'd knitted that Teddie doll, he was probably lying, "and this guy," he set his hand on Yuuta's head, "came up to me with the idea."
Almost imperceptibly, Takeyoshi-kun's mom shifted where she stood. Nanako noticed now that she was standing kind of away from everyone, especially after the staredown with Dojima. She wondered what her problem was.
Well, it didn't matter now. The kids were chatting.
"Everyone's worried about you," Yuuta said. "I told my mom and we wanted to help. A-And I told Takeyoshi-kun, so we all made these together!"
Yu was took out some of the cranes and marveled at them. "L-Look at this one, big sis! It's pink!"
"I bet I know who made that one," Nanako said with a teasing lilt.
Yuuta did a little dance and sang, "I did, I did!"
Nanako raised her eyebrows at how candid he was, then grinned. It had been so hard for him to admit that was his favorite color back then, but look at him now... the way he'd talked about his mom so naturally, too, was a relief. Nanako felt an odd sort of pride welling up inside her, but decided not to comment for now, simply hugging the boy instead.
"One for you, big sis," Yu said, handing her a paper crane, "and one for you, uncle... and one for T-Ta-chan...'s Mama..."
Takeyoshi-kun's face went beet red, maybe due to the nickname, but then he turned to his mom with a calculating look.
"Um, thank you," the woman said, though she had to get closer to accept it.
Takeyoshi-kun snickered. "You gave her one I made! The chance of that is only 5 in 39."
"Yu-chan is a lucky boy," Nanako said.
"All the luckier," Dojima said suddenly, "now that he has all these cranes. You're supposed to keep them for yourself, you know." He tried to hand back the folded paper that had been pressed into his hands, but Yu was shaking his head, totally refusing.
"Ah, don't be like that, Dad!" Nanako said. "If he wants to give them out, let him."
"D-Dad?" Yuuta asked, eyes wide. "Wait, are you... big sis's dad?"
Yuuta looked up at the imposing figure of Dojima, who peered down at him, bemused in that way of dads who didn't really know how to deal with kids.
"That's right, I forgot to introduce him!" Nanako said, smacking herself on the head. "Everyone, this is my dad, detective Ryotaro Dojima of the Tokyo PD!"
Dojima chuckled, and Nanako smiled at him. Yuuta, meanwhile, kept staring at her dad with his mouth wide open. Then he declared, "You kissed a boy!"
"Oh my god," Nanako said under her breath, wondering what kind of damage control she'd have to do after this.
Dojima, for his part, was as wide eyed as Yuuta had been a moment ago.
"Wh-Where did you hear that?!" he said eventually, having finally found his voice. "Nanako, what tales are you telling these kids about me?"
"It's not true?" Yuuta asked.
Dojima rubbed his face. "Is this about Takeshi?" he asked after a moment.
"Yes," Nanako said, wanting to hear the full story herself.
"I see." Dojima sighed, opened his mouth to say more, then sighed again, but after seeing how focused Yuuta was on him, he decided to give it another try. "Takeshi was a very close friend. When we were in high school, we became even closer. Neither of us had ever kissed anyone, and we were both curious about it, so..." Dojima sighed a third time, though his total tally that day was probably higher. "When I went to police academy, though, I met my wife, and that's that," he finished.
"W-What happened to him?" Yuuta asked.
"Huh? He's fine. I never said we weren't friends still. In fact, he even babysat for us when Nanako was younger."
"Really?" Nanako said, totally taken by surprise.
Dojima smiled at her. "Don't you remember him? I suppose he toned up some over time."
Wait... she remembered him now, yeah... yeah, he'd changed a bit from the photo Aunt Narukami had shown her, but now that she thought about it, they had the same eyes.
"I've had your first love babysit me," she said, each word dripping with wonder.
Dojima grunted... but didn't deny it.
"Don't you go bothering him the next time he visits," he cautioned, "for 'hot deetz,' or whatever you kids are calling it these days." Nanako snickered, because he sounded a lot like Mr. Morooka when he said that, but he paid her no mind as he continued. "And you," he addressed Yuuta now, "you're too young to think about kissing anyone. That stuff is for high school."
"Okay," said Yuuta, smiling from ear to ear.
"That stuff is for high school, he says," said Takeyoshi-kun's mom all of a sudden, one eyebrow raised. "What did you two do behind the sports building all those times, play cards?"
Now all eyes were on her.
"That was in middle school," she added, somewhat mischievously, though was hard for Nanako to see her as anything but a judgmental mom.
"Don't you start with that," Dojima warned her, "or do you want me to tell your son about your middle school escapades as well? I remember covering for you during cleaning."
"M-Mom?" Takeyoshi-kun asked. In response, his mother merely chuckled.
"Do you two... know each other?" Nanako asked very slowly, not knowing what to think anymore.
Dojima turned to her. "Everyone knows each other in Inaba, honey," he said. "This is a ghost town, after all."
Nanako thought her brains were going to leak out of her ears.
"I should have known you were his daughter," the woman said with a sigh. "Did you know he and his friends were exhibitionists too? The river was never safe when they were around. In fact, our parents, that is, the parents of us girls, forbade us from going there when they knew they were around."
Did they, now? Though wait, exhibitionists too? Nanako buried her face on Yu's shoulder. Of course worldly Takeyoshi-kun was going to tell his mother all about their skinny dipping. Of course.
"I remember seeing you around plenty," Dojima replied soundly, and the woman huffed.
Nanako raised her head to look at her, and then she looked at her dad, then back at her, then at her dad, before finally settling on her.
"Did you have a crush on my dad?!" she blurted out. Aunt Narukami did say he was popular with girls... and was in a sports club.
That seemed to be crossing a line, though. Dojima coughed awkwardly, and Takeyoshi-kun's mom assumed an unreadable expression, her lips sealed tight. There was a brief silence, a silence which was then interrupted by Takeyoshi-kun himself.
"Wow," he said.
Nanako could only murmur in agreement.
"B-Big sis, can... can I have the phone back?" Yu asked eventually, bringing Nanako out of her daze; she hadn't even realized she was still holding it. When she handed it over, Yu immediately called for his friends. "Ta-chan, come see this!"
"Me too!" said Yuuta, jumping on the arm of the wheelchair. Nanako idly wondered where his mother was. Did she really let him stay with Kanji like that? Then again, that one time, they'd been doing crochet together long before she arrived. Maybe she was more open minded than Nanako gave her credit for...
While pondering on this, Nanako realized that throughout the entire exchange, Kanji had been quiet. She motioned to him now, and they moved down the hall some, leaving Dojima and Takeyoshi-kun's mom to watch the boys.
"Everything all right?" she asked.
"Y-Yeah, jus'..." Kanji shifted his weight from one foot to the other and swung his head low. "Can't believe Yuuta asked that, but more than that, can't believe your pa answered."
"I'm still kind of reeling."
"Senpai..." Kanji hesitated, shifting his weight once again. "I was tempted to tell 'em all I kissed a boy too."
"You held back?"
"I don't want to air it out like dirty laundry," he said. "It's complicated, you know?"
"I know," she replied, "though there's nothing wrong with wanting to scream it to the world sometimes."
"But your dad," he went on, albeit smiling now. "I mean, just... his generation is always so conservative, but if he was like that when he was younger... it don't make sense."
"Well, appearances can be deceiving," Nanako reminded him. "I know what you mean, though."
"Yeah," he said, then glanced away from her. Nanako sensed one of those awkward silences was coming, so before it could set she hugged him around the waist and said:
"How about we go over there and tell them that you didn't just kiss a boy, you did it tons of times?"
"S-Senpai!" he squeaked, although... Nanako eyed him carefully. Was he considering it? Oh god, he was! "...I'm gonna kiss him a ton more when I get home!"
"Do you think I could get in on that kissing action?" she asked. "I've always wanted to kiss a guy in glasses."
"N-No, Senpai," Kanji said, grinning wide. "He's all mine."
Nanako pretended to look offended, then laughed. Kanji laughed too, but then gave her a sheepish look.
"I-I don't think they need to know that," he said.
Kanji was quiet for a second. "I see myself in him, sometimes," he admitted.
"He's a good kid. Just like you."
He scratched his head. "'s not what I meant."
"Yeah, I know..." Nanako sighed, though it was more wistful than the sighs Dojima had been giving her all day. "With his dad not around," she continued, "he's going to be looking up to us, even though we're not adults. I think the best you can do is set a good example for him. When he asks you questions, answer them, although you don't have to give him ALL the hot deetz about your boyfriend."
"Just some, huh?" Kanji was smiling again.
"Yeah, and give the rest to me!"
They laughed some more as she went from hugging him to simply leaning against him.
"I was surprised when I saw you two at the summer festival," she said, "young love."
Kanji made a face. "Young love? I ain't that young anymore, Senpai," he said, but didn't seem bothered. "Guess that's what it was though. Our first date... we played the pocky game and shit."
"You also caught him a fish!" she pointed out with a grin.
"Eh... that thing with Yuuta was a fluke," he admitted. "I couldn't catch one twice. Yu came by and got him one though, so it was fine."
"Yu-chan did? Adachi-san did say he was helping some of the other kids... oh man, what did your boyfriend think?"
Nanako was pretty eager for his answer, but he just blushed and turned away. Now she was even more curious!
"How did you meet that guy, anyway?" she asked, because she didn't want him to stop talking about it. "I think you mentioned a bench in Okina, but that might have been the brandy speaking."
Kanji raised his eyebrows. "What, you don't remember?" he asked. "That bet we made... you know... w-when you taught me about stuff."
Nanako blinked. There was a guy on a bench waiting for another guy, and they'd confessed... they were both from her school... "Don't tell me that was the same guy?!"
"Huh. I guess things didn't work out between them?"
"Found him at that same bench few weeks later, looking sadder'n a lost puppy. He had his glasses off because he was rubbing his eyes. I couldn't just walk past him when he was like that, so I sat down there and... we got to talking. He was heartbroken from the breakup. I guess he'd fallen in love with all his heart, but the guy had already moved onto someone else."
"What a dick..."
"Anyway, I showed him a plushie I'd made, you know, to cheer him up, and..."
"The rest is, as they say, history?" she teased, sounding a lot like Naoto.
"You got it, Senpai."
Nanako breathed a sigh of relief. "I was so happy for you," she said as she closed her eyes. "I still am, but... right now, maybe not so much for you specifically, but for something that went right for once. I didn't fuck things up for you somehow."
"I couldn't have done it without you, Senpai," Kanji said, wrapping his arm around her, "and back then, while you was fighting my Shadow, you said you'd help me, you said maybe we could be friends and we'd figure things out together, and... we did."
"Do you know now?" she asked. "Do you know whether you like boys or girls, or both?"
"I do," he said, and though she couldn't see him, Nanako had the feeling he was smiling. "I ain't gonna be kissin' any girls."
"...Hey so, what's that guy's name, anyway?"
"Oh, his name is—"
"Whaaaaa," they heard Yuuta's voice carrying throughout the entire corridor. Nanako and Kanji both turned to the kids. "Your jinbei is pink? No fair, no fair, I want one!"
Nanako glanced at Kanji, and he nodded. No time like the present, right? They skipped back to where the kids were.
"Gimme yours, Yu, c'moooooon..." Yuuta pleaded.
"Mama... had them made for us," Yu said, as close to a "no" as he was going to get.
Turned out they were all looking at the photos still. Kanji bent down to see the phone better.
"Me and Ma made that one together," he mused. "Little guy picked out the pattern himself."
"I did!" Yu beamed.
Nanako wanted to be surprised, but Tatsumi Textiles was the only place in the shopping district that did that sort of thing, and Aunt Narukami said the district had everything she needed, so she figured... still, she was tempted to ask which of them made her sexy yukata. Too bad her dad was still there!
"You know, since Kanji-kun made that one for Yu," she said instead, "if you ask nicely, maybe your mom can order one too, Yuuta-chan!"
Yuuta's eyes were bright like stars. Nanako almost had to hold him back from running all the way to his mom right then and there.
"The cutie pie twins become jinbei twins?" Kanji teased.
"It's only fitting that Lieutenant Briefs and Major Carnation match!"
They laughed, but Takeyoshi-kun was frowning. "Why not triplets?" he asked.
Oh, so he wanted in on this. "Are you sure?" Nanako asked. "You'd have to take your shirt off to dazzle everyone!"
"As long as you don't let anyone tickle me, Boss," he said with a shy little smile.
"You should add, 'including you,'" Kanji advised.
"I was about to say," Dojima said. "She might find it hard to resist."
"N-No," she said. "I always respect their boundaries!"
"Unless you splash her," Yu contributed, and she shrugged, because it was totally true.
"Where did you buy those speedos?" Takeyoshi-kun's mom asked primly, looking at a picture of them on the beach that Yu had swiped to as soon as the cutie pie twins had been mentioned.
"Junes has everything," Nanako reported. "Though, what color should your cutie pie be, Ta-kun? Yu is purple, and Yuuta is pink."
"My favorite color is chartreuse," he said.
"That could work," she said, giving him a lopsided smile. Of course he'd have his favorite color down to the tone, and with a fancy name to boot.
"'Boss,' huh," Dojima said all of a sudden, shaking his head ruefully. "Ryoko said you work at the daycare? Do you make all the kids call you that?"
"They've been leaning towards 'big sis' lately," she admitted. "I might not be the only big sis in town, but clearly I am the best one."
Dojima chuckled. "I should have known it would turn out like this. When you were a kid, you were always going on about guts."
"You could join a biker gang," Takeyoshi-kun said. "I saw on television that there's one in the shopping district."
"Was one," Nanako corrected. "Kanji-kun chased them away!"
"My ma couldn't sleep," Kanji said with a shrug when they all looked at him.
"I have a gang already," she reported, thumping her chest proudly. "My right hand Lieutenant Briefs, Major Carnation, Colonel Crochet, and," she sized Takeyoshi-kun up, "as soon as he gets his speedos, Admiral Takeout!"
The kids were so happy she had to get them all together for a group hug right then and there, and Kanji too. It was difficult to lean over Yu's wheelchair to include him, but she managed, though it reminded her of how tired she was. She made her dad take a picture with the phone.
Soon afterwards, Aunt Narukami arrived with the food. She seemed surprised by the visitors.
"Ah..." she murmured after a moment. "It took some persuasion, but the nurses allowed us to eat in Yu's room. I don't think all of us would fit there." Her tone was apologetic.
"We can come back later," Takeyoshi-kun's mom started, but Dojima cut her off.
"I need a smoke," he said, looking right at her. "Do you still...?"
Surprisingly, the woman nodded, and they headed off.
Nanako didn't even need to suggest leaving the kids behind!
"I should prolly leave too," Kanji said. "Gotta help Ma with the store. Yuuta, wanna come with?"
"C-Can I?" the boy asked, finally getting up from the wheelchair's arm.
"'Course. Your ma left you with me."
"Big sis, um... Y-Yu-chan..." the boy stuttered, making Yu smile. "I promise to come back later!"
Nanako ruffled his hair. "Go on Kanji-kun's shoulder!" she urged him, and the boy looked at him with wide eyes. Kanji quickly raised him, and then they heard the shutter sound of a camera. Nanako turned her back in surprise. It had been Yu!
"M-Mama always says... to capture the moment..." he said, lowering the phone. He had a smile so mischievous Nanako wanted to take another photo right then and there.
"I can wheel you there," said Takeyoshi-kun, running behind Yu's wheelchair.
"Ta-chan, you can eat some of mine," Yu whispered, and they both giggled.
"How did they even get in?" Aunt Narukami wondered out loud. Nanako snorted, barely containing her laughter.
"My influence, probably," she said, getting an unguarded smile out of her aunt, and to Yu's room they went.
Nanako buried her head against Yu's bedside and groaned. "I need a bath," she said into his sheets. She also needed a 12 hour nap, but that would also have to wait.
"S-Smelly," Yu said, but there was no malice in it.
She'd just endured a long interview with the police in an empty hospital room. Naoto had texted her about their desire to speak with her, but since she didn't want to leave the hospital, they'd had to come to her. At least her dad had already grilled her, so she'd been somewhat prepared, but man...
In the meantime, Takeyoshi-kun and his mom had left, leaving Nanako alone with Yu and his mom.
"We won't be able to go home easily," Aunt Narukami said. "Reporters are swarming outside the house."
"Outside the hospital too," Nanako said, having seen them gathering outside by the tree on the way back from her questioning.
"I suppose it's a good thing, then," her aunt continued, "that it's your birthday, Nanako-chan."
Nanako blinked tiredly at her. It was? God, with everything that happened she'd totally forgotten.
"I had planned a little vacation for us," Aunt Narukami went on, "for the weekend. Under the circumstances, I was able to move it up sooner. We can leave as soon as the doctors let us."
"H-Happy birthday, big sis," Yu said, stroking her back. Nnn, that felt nice...
"Not for a few hours yet, dear," her aunt corrected.
"I could use a massage," Nanako murmured, totally ignoring that bit, "are we going to a spa or something?"
"Close," her aunt said, a playful smile on her face.
Dojima walked into the room then.
"I talked with the doctor," he said. "Yu needs to stick around a bit longer so they can analyze his test results, but he should be discharged tonight."
"Discharged," Yu repeated, testing the word. "U-Uncle, what does that mean?"
"It means you can leave the hospital," Dojima answered.
Yu grinned wide.
"Dad," Nanako said, not turning to face him, "did they say anything about... him? I know you asked."
Nanako couldn't see whether her dad was frowning, but he didn't sigh.
"He's still unconscious," he replied. Nanako thought about how often Kanji and Yosuke had dropped him on the way out of the TV World, and decided it made sense.
"Good," was all she said.
The next few hours were mostly uneventful as nurses came and went to check on Yu, and he said goodbye to each one of them and then to the doctor. Nanako forced herself to stay awake for all of this, but closed her eyes as soon as they got in the car. It was her dad's car, which had a familiar smell and a lot of feelings associated with it, so she easily drifted off even as her aunt chatted animatedly about their mysterious destination.
She was asleep for most of the ride, and judging by the weight on her side when she started to become vaguely aware of the real world again, so was Yu. She kept her eyes firmly shut even though she felt the car coming to a stop, but then someone opened the door for her, so, working on automatic, she picked up Yu (who was indeed using her as a pillow) and got out.
"Where's the nearest bed," she said first thing even as the smell of pine trees filled her nostrils.
"If you could follow me," replied a female voice that sounded very familiar.
Nanako blinked, rubbing her eyes with her free hand. Before her was a young lady with jet black hair, dressed in a beautiful pink kimono.
"Welcome to the Amagi Inn," said Yukiko with a slight bow of her head.
Nanako woke up to sun streaming over her face through an open window. It was a warm, pleasant sensation, especially since the summer heat had long passed. She yawned and stretched and accidentally woke up Yu, who she didn't realize until then had been napping alongside her.
"Big sis," he murmured, blinking up at her. "H-Happy birthday..."
His smile was so precious. Nanako couldn't help it, she pulled him to her and rolled off the futon hugging and cuddling him, making the boy giggle helplessly even as her sore body complained. Eventually they hit a wall, and Yu fell on top of her. She brushed away some of his bangs, smiling back at him.
"I love you, Yu-chan," she said, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the emotion.
"I... I love you too, big sis," he replied, and hugged her tight.
They stayed like that for a long time. Nanako was content to simply pat his back all day if that's what he wanted.
But man, she really was sore. She wondered whether Chie ever felt this way, and decided that she did. No matter how fit you were, fighting Shadows all night had to be something humans weren't made for.
Come to think of it, she'd learned something about sore muscles at school. What was it called? Oversaturation? No, that didn't make sense. Pff, well, maybe in the TV World. Overcompensation, that's what it was. Mr. Kondo said you'd get more muscles after getting sore, or something. Maybe she was getting toned without even knowing!
"Hm? Oh! I'm sorry, Yu-chan," she said, hugging him again. "Did you say something? I'm still waking up and thinking all sorts of dumb stuff."
"N-No, I didn't," he said, though he hugged her back all the same. "You were... smiling."
"I'm just happy, Yu-chan! You know, I always wanted to stay here. The Amagi Inn is supposed to be as famous as the steaks in town, or so Chie would have me believe."
She giggled, and Yu giggled too. Then he wrinkled his nose. "S-Still smelly..." he said.
"I never did get that bath, huh?" She tweaked his tiny nose. "We should get on that. Just have to find out where the baths are."
She gently pushed Yu to his feet and stood up herself, then glanced around the room. It was as traditional Japanese as it could be, with handpainted murals of cherry trees on the walls and a picture of Mt. Fuji hanging next to the window, which lacked glass.
"Or maybe... we can find the hot springs! Come on, Yu-chan, let's go!"
Nanako glanced down the hall outside the room, trying to get her bearings. She had been here before, way back when she'd investigated Yukiko's kidnapping, but she hadn't made it this far inside the building, so she didn't quite know the layout.
But it didn't really matter after all, because they'd barely started exploring when she ran into someone in a yukata, and it wasn't just anyone, it was Naoto!
"It's good to see you up, Nanako-san," he said.
"Bwuh," Nanako said eloquently, because she'd thought he couldn't be more attractive, and just now he'd proved that wrong. The yukata's base was white with a blue bubble pattern. The upper part and the long sleeves were a blue that nicely accentuated Naoto's hair. He was missing his signature cap.
"Big bro!" Yu said. "We want... hot springs."
"Mmm. Is that the first thing that came to mind upon awakening?" Naoto teased.
Nanako and Yu nodded in unison.
"It's hot springs or bust!" Nanako declared.
"Y-Yeah! Hot springs... or bust!" Yu repeated, making Naoto chuckle. Nanako had been hoping for a giggle, but his laugh, too, filled her with joy.
"It's so good to see you!" she said. "I wasn't sure you'd be here, what with, you know, everything."
"I promised to accompany you, remember?" Naoto said, smiling at her.
Yu nodded sagely. "Big bro... is family too."
Naoto walked over to the boy, crouching to get on his level. "I apologize for not coming to see you in the hospital," he said, his smile morphing into a sad frown. Yu hugged him before he could say anything else, and Naoto squeezed him tight. "How are you doing?" the detective whispered without breaking the hug.
"Happy," Yu said, though the sound was muffled because he had his mouth against Naoto's haori. It somehow made the reunion even more adorable.
"The hospital wasn't lonely?" Naoto asked.
"Ta-chan... and Yuuta-chan... and Kanji-san, and U-Uncle... and big sis, and Mama!" Yu declared, his enthusiasm growing with every word. "They were all there with me, and now... you're here too, big bro."
"I am," Naoto confirmed, stroking the boy's hair for a long moment. "Do you know what day is today?" he then asked, pulling away to look Yu in the eyes.
"B-Big sis's birthday!"
"Indeed," Naoto said, turning to face her. "Nanako-san... happy birthday."
"I want a hug too," Nanako said, holding her arms open.
"Maybe after the bath," Naoto teased, and they both laughed.
"Where are these hot springs anyway? I've been trying to swindle Yukiko for an invite all year!" Nanako said in mock outrage. "Unless someone ties me up, I'm sleeping in there."
"Now that sounds like a bad time," Naoto said, shaking his head in amusement. "I've memorized this floor's layout. The hot springs are this way."
Nanako and Yu followed the Detective Prince like two ducklings as he navigated that mess of samey-looking corridors that reminded Nanako of an old MMO she used to play. Nanako couldn't help but stare at him the entire way; he carried himself so well in his yukata, arms crossed beneath the sleeves of the haori like some kind of feudal lord.
"Shirogane-san, you look amazing in traditional clothing!" she said. "I wish you'd had some during the summer festival. My yellow yukata, Yu-chan's pink jinbei, and something blue for you. We'd have rocked the town!"
"I believe this town has been sufficiently rocked by your presence alone, Nanako-san," Naoto said without missing a beat, "but thank you. We may yet have an opportunity to match, but it is months away still."
"New Year's," Nanako murmured. "I can't wait, but at the same time, I don't want it to come! The here and now is where it's at."
"I feel you, as they say. I want the case to be closed, but there are many more memories to be made in the months to come. We should savor every moment."
"You got it, Shirogane-san!" Nanako beamed. "By the way, your hair..."
Without his signature cap, the Detective Prince's messy hair flowed free... and much longer than it was when she'd first met him.
"Ah, yes," Naoto said. "I have been neglecting to cut it. How does it look?"
"Very nice, actually!" Nanako said, and Yu nodded in agreement. "You just need a comb now."
"My caretaker used to say the same thing," Naoto said, but then shook his head. "Hard-boiled detectives hardly have the time to be playing with their hair, don't you think?"
"Maybe you can be soft-boiled, instead," Nanako suggested.
"Just like... Adachi-san," piped up Yu. Ah, so he'd been paying attention that time as well!
"Hmm. It is something to consider," he said. "I rather like how it feels in the breeze."
"I bet it feels even better from the scooter!"
Nanako skipped a few steps forward, and saw that the detective was smiling.
Finally they reached the changing room. The sign outside said the hot springs were reserved for women at the moment. Nanako entered through the sliding door with Yu without a second thought, but once they were inside, the attendant on duty halted Naoto.
"Excuse me," the attendant said. "I'm very sorry, but you can't go into the hot springs right now. It will be open to men at the top of the hour."
Naoto went very stiff.
"We are going in as a family," Nanako said. "Yu is with us!"
"Children under a certain age are an exception," the attendant admitted, "but the rules are clear."
Naoto closed his fist tightly, ready to argue and perhaps reveal things he didn't want to, but before he could say anything the sliding door was thrown open by none other than Yukiko.
"Don't be such a stick in the mud," she said, giving the attendant a hard look, and then turning to Naoto with an apologetic expression. "Please, go right ahead."
In the corridor leading to the washing stations, they could still hear the argument.
"The rules say..." the attendant began, but a sharp intake of breath interrupted her.
"There aren't even any other guests using the springs right now," Yukiko said, sounding exasperated. "There rarely are, so early in the afternoon. I know we've allowed teenagers to enter with their parents under these conditions in the past, so what makes this any different?"
The attendant didn't respond. Nanako decided they should go ahead, but not before she checked whether Naoto was doing okay.
"I suppose there are consequences to passing as a man..." the detective murmured.
"There are," Nanako said, gently putting a hand on his shoulder, "the same way there are consequences to being a woman."
Naoto put his hand over hers and murmured something that sounded vaguely affirmative. Nanako could feel now that he was shaking, so she gave his hand a squeeze.
"Big bro..." said Yu, hugging his legs.
"Do you still want to do this?" Nanako asked.
"Yes," Naoto answered, although his voice broke, betraying his emotions. Nanako pulled both him and Yu into a hug before heading in.
Nanako stripped off her clothes and threw them in a basket before helping Yu take off his own. After that it was Naoto's turn. Though he'd easily shed his yukata, his binder took a bit more effort. It turned out he didn't need any help; he'd long since found the best way for him to remove it, and soon it was in a basket of its own.
At the washing station, Nanako spent extra time making sure she was completely clean. She couldn't have Yu calling her smelly again, after all. in fact, no one should be able to call Yu smelly either, so it was with great relish she made sure he was clean too. Behind his ears, between his toes, and even inside his belly button!
"T-Tickles!" he protested as the water splashed his belly.
"I can't tickle Ta-chan, so I have to tickle you instead!" Nanako laughed, and so did Yu.
And then they were all done! Nanako headed to the edge of the hot springs and tested the water with a toe before finally—finally—sinking herself into its heavenly depths.
The water was amazing. Nanako gasped despite herself as the warmth poured over her body like nectar; she could feel her muscles relaxing already. She closed her eyes for several seconds, taking in the sensation, and it was hard to open them again, even when she realized it was Yu's first time to the hot springs and she shouldn't miss it.
When she did open her eyes, Nanako saw that Yu was standing a bit away from the water, but it wasn't out of fear; he was mesmerized by the vapor, his eyes following the puffs from the water until they disappeared into the sky. Eventually he approached the water and dipped a toe in, just like Nanako had done.
"It's hotter than the tub," he observed.
"Only fifteen minutes, Yu-chan," Nanako said. "We won't boil for that long."
"But... you're sleeping here..." he said with a cute little frown.
"That's true," Nanako conceded, "but don't worry, if it gets too hot, I'll save you just like we saved Foxie at the beach!"
Yu nodded, apparently satisfied, and with a determined expression slowly got into the water. Yuuta would have jumped right in, which could have been amusing to see, but it was adorable how he gasped and moaned when the hot water touched a new part of his body, and Nanako wouldn't trade that for anything.
"Careful not to get your head wet," she reminded him, but he wasn't listening. He'd gotten his belly in and had his eyes closed, savoring the moment. Nanako knew he wouldn't forget anyway, since he had promised one of the nurses to be careful. She remembered because it seemed to touch the woman, who up until that point had been fairly curt in her treatment of him.
"It feels... good..." Yu said.
Yu was fully inside now. The water went up to his mouth, and he had to raise his head a little so he wouldn't swallow it. "B-Big sis..." he called after a while.
"You can just swim, Yu-chan," she said casually, resisting the urge to pick him up. That was his first time, and she didn't want to make him afraid of this and that by coddling him. There would be plenty of time for that later!
Yu nodded, anyway, and dog paddled his way to her, straight into a big hug. Success!
Now it was Naoto's turn. They both turned to him expectantly.
Naoto didn't test the water, he just went right in. By the look on his face, the hot water was just as heavenly for him as it had been for her.
Nanako aimed Yu towards him and gently pushed him in that direction. Yu floated like a boat, or more like a bath toy by the way he bobbed up and down to stay afloat. Naoto caught him easily and settled him on his lap.
"N-No tickling!" Yu said, wriggling on the spot.
"Ah, I wasn't trying to tickle you," Naoto said, moving his hands... elsewhere, Nanako couldn't really see where with the water, but Yu seemed appeased.
"That can be arranged, you know," Nanako said, grinning, and they both laughed. "Yu-chan, it probably tickled because your skin is sensitive. This water is supposed to have all sorts of minerals that open your pores and stuff."
Yu thought about that for a few seconds. "Big sis, what are p-pores?" he asked.
"I... actually have no idea," she admitted with a shrug.
"Pores are the openings of hair follicles on the surface of your skin," Naoto explained, but that only served to confuse Yu further, so he added, "the tiny dots you see on your arms."
"As academic as ever," Nanako said, chuckling to herself.
For several minutes they just enjoyed the water and the silence. Every once in a while they would hear the sound of bamboo tapping rock somewhere, and then nothing else. Things seemed so distant. Yu had been in the hospital just yesterday, but from the comfort of the hot springs that seemed to have happened in another lifetime.
Naoto briefly broke the silence to ask Yu if he was having fun, and in response he nodded vigorously and then grinned, showing off his cute little teeth. Everything was right in the world.
Some time later they heard the sliding door to the washing stations open. Naoto was so relaxed that he didn't even worry who it could be. Nanako figured his towel was close by anyway, and with Yu on his lap, his secret wouldn't be immediately exposed, so she closed her eyes, allowing herself to drift off.
"I must admit that when she said she was sleeping here, I thought nothing of it," she vaguely heard Naoto say as she regained consciousness.
"Big sis... doesn't joke..." Yu contributed, sounding quite sleepy himself. Nanako smiled, happy to hear him say it.
"Evidently so," Naoto said, probably shaking his head wryly.
"I can hear you, you know," Nanako said, though she was not ready to open her eyes quite yet.
"I know. Your breathing rate changed a moment ago."
"Did she wake up?" she heard a more distant female voice ask. "Our time is up."
"That would be your aunt," Naoto clarified before she could ask. "I know you wouldn't mind staying here with the male guests, but we really must leave, Nanako-san."
"I have some decency," Nanako protested, opening her eyes. Yu was already outside and completely dry, but still naked. Nanako looked at the Detective Prince askance.
"I would never deprive you of the opportunity of dressing him in yukata," he replied, smiling at her.
Naoto helped her out of the water, and to the changing room they went. The attendant from earlier was nowhere to be seen, but Aunt Narukami was there, looking very regal in her yukata. The haori was a brighter blue than Naoto's, which made Nanako wonder whether there were different models to choose from, though maybe that was just the female version.
"Did you take a bath with us, Auntie?" Nanako asked.
"Yes, though sadly you weren't around to enjoy it," her aunt teased. "Do get dressed, please, before your father barges in here and you both see more than you would like."
"I haven't taken a bath with him in years," she confirmed, "but honestly, he's family, so I wouldn't mind. I still remember what he looked like nude, anyway."
"I would rather have him in my memories as the teenager who didn't get around to putting on his briefs, at the most," Aunt Narukami said, shaking her head.
Nanako smiled. "I remember that conversation," she mused. Maybe her aunt knew how developed that Takeshi guy was, she should ask.
"B-Big sis, look," Yu said, interrupting that particular train of thought, "my hands...!"
They were all wrinkly from staying in the water for so long. Nanako raised hers for him to see. "Mine too!" she said, and his grin grew even larger.
Soon they were all dried and dressed, except for Yu, who patiently waited for her to help him with his yukata. Nanako didn't bring him any briefs, so he would have to wear it nude, not that she'd brought anything for herself either. She had always heard her more perverted classmates saying girls didn't wear any underwear under yukata anyway, so hey, time to realize some random high schooler's wet dream.
When they walked out of the changing room, Yu looked like a lordling, riding on Nanako's left shoulder in his tiny haori and carrying a pink fan that she suspected had been brought to the changing room by Yukiko herself. Naoto and Aunt Narukami, in turn, looked like a pair of paparazzi, taking pictures from every angle. Nanako noticed her aunt had the good camera, and hoped her passion had reignited some.
Dojima was waiting for them in the corridor.
"You still look terrible," he said.
Nanako gasped in outrage. "Yu-dono, are you really gonna let him get away with insulting your noble servant like this?" she asked. In response, Yu swatted her dad with the fan like she'd taught him a moment ago.
"I-Insolence..." he said with an exaggerated pout.
"Ow," Dojima said, but he was laughing. He then said, "Happy birthday, honey," and hugged her, though it was a little bit difficult with Yu still on her shoulder.
"Oof," she said, a few seconds into the hug, "you need a bath too, Dad."
"Not right now," he replied lightly. "The hot springs are open to men now, but it would just be me in there. I wanted to take a bath with your cousin and get to know him better, but you whisked him away."
There was a polite cough from behind him.
"I was hoping," said a female voice, "to do the same."
Dojima stepped out of the way so that Yukiko could pass, but she turned to him before doing so.
"There was no time for introductions yesterday," she said. "My name is Yukiko Amagi. I am your daughter's confidant."
Yu made a face. "Compatriot..." he murmured, but only Nanako heard him, and she had to bite back a chuckle. Dojima then offered Yukiko his hand without saying a word, which was even funnier, and she took it without delay. They shook firmly and, the interaction apparently finished, she turned to Aunt Narukami.
"Narukami-san," she said with a curtsy. Aunt Narukami nodded, possibly not knowing how to address the girl, and finally Yukiko turned to Nanako and Yu.
Nanako was expecting another curtsy, but Yukiko closed the distance between them with surprising speed, straight into a hug.
"I'm so glad you two are doing okay," she murmured.
"Only thanks to you and the others," Nanako said, hugging her back. Yu patted her on the head, his annoyance with her apparently forgotten.
They were about to break the hug when Yukiko flinched.
"N-Naoto-kun," she stuttered, "I didn't see you there."
Naoto had been standing behind them, and he was short, so...
"Amagi-san," he said, moving to tip his cap only to realize it wasn't there. His blush afterwards was magnificent.
Yukiko's whole body began to shake, nearly unbalancing Yu. Oh no, here it comes, Nanako thought, moving away just a bit, though she kept holding Yukiko's hand. To her surprise, however, the girl managed to stay in control and ended her spasms by clearing her throat.
"Nice to see you," she said, pretending none of that had happened. Nanako decided she should get the conversation going again before she was the one shaking with laughter.
"Pray tell, what business do you have with my liege, lord of the land, the noble tiger Yu Narukami?" she asked, and Yu fanned himself, pretending to look disinterested.
"Oh, please forgive me, my lord," Yukiko said, getting on her knees and bowing her head all the way to the ground. "I am but a lowly courtesan, and have come to escort you to a secret location for an important mission."
"Yu-dono, she could be a spy!" Nanako said in a conspiratorial tone.
Yu put the fan to his chin before answering, "I trust her."
Nanako put him down and, since she couldn't carry him in a kimono, he and Yukiko went down the corridor hand in hand. It was hard for Nanako to watch him go. Yu waved at her before turning a corner, though, which made her feel a little better.
Aunt Narukami fidgeted next to her.
"I'd better go with them," she said, doing so before anyone could even react.
Nanako watched the now empty corridor in quiet wonder, and then her eyes trailed to Dojima, who she realized was giving her a hard look. Ugh, he'd probably recognized Yukiko's name from the text message yesterday... but as she thought that, she noticed that Naoto was in his sights too. Possibly he didn't notice the detective was there until Yukiko did.
"What's up?" she asked, raising an eyebrow as casually as she could.
"Did this boy go into the hot springs with you?" he asked in turn.
"Of course," Nanako replied, "since we went in as a family."
Dojima was breathing hard now. Nanako had no idea what his problem was... he'd met Naoto back when she went missing, right? Aunt Narukami had surely informed him that he was living with them. Maybe he was still worried about them eloping? No, that couldn't be, they'd been living together for months now, and he knew she had a girlfriend.
Nanako continued to answer his glare with a nonplussed expression until she finally noticed the words he'd used: this boy. Aunt Narukami hadn't told him? Despite her playful tone back when she revealed that she knew, maybe she'd since realized things weren't that simple, which was a good thing, but... crap, how was she even going to handle this?
The worry must have shown on her face, because Dojima's expression softened.
"I know your aunt was in there with you," he began, but then his face screwed up in thought. "Did you hide him from her or something? I know you like testing the limits of what's proper," he said, his tone somewhere between reproachful and incredulous. "Ryoko is not like your mother, she wouldn't just let this happen."
"Shirogane-san is family," Nanako said firmly, surprising even herself with her conviction. "Dad, you saw us coming out of the changing room together."
Dojima didn't seem convinced, so she added that he could ask Yu, who wouldn't lie to him.
"No," he said. "I know you're not lying. But... you're hiding something."
Nanako growled. Dojima didn't have the right to know, it was none of his goddamn business, but before she could say so, Naoto silently placed a hand on her shoulder. Nanako took a deep breath. "Drop it, Dad," she said instead.
"Fine," he replied, hesitating only for a moment.
That was that.
Yu came back from his secret mission covered in mud, prompting Dojima to invite him for a bath. Nanako thought he might refuse, but after fidgeting for a bit, he said yes with a shy little smile. Nanako herself was still a bit red from her nap in the hot springs, so she couldn't follow them in even though she really wanted to. The entire exchange was so quick that she didn't have the opportunity to ask him where that mud was even from. Maybe he'd helped the groundskeeper with his pine trees? What was so secret about that, anyway? Everyone was taking Yu away from her, and she was starting to get upset. Nanako wanted nothing more than to spend the entire day with him, but she couldn't deny him interaction with others, especially since, as his own Shadow had said, she was going to leave him one day.
Those thoughts ended up putting her in a melancholic mood, so she split from Aunt Narukami and Naoto to brood in the reception room, where the television that started that whole mess was. There weren't any attendants around, not even a cashier or something for guests that wanted to leave. Nanako could jump into the television right now and no one would be the wiser. No wonder there had been no leads on Mayumi Yamano... no one to see her there, nor to respond to her desperate pleas for help. Nanako thought about asking Yukiko to beef up the security around that television, but their exit was there now, on the other side.
"Why did this have to happen?" she murmured to herself, hugging her legs. Damn it, she wasn't supposed to feel sad on her birthday.
She didn't even notice Dojima entering the room until he called her name. "Dad?" she asked, straightening herself on the cushion.
"Thought you were sleeping with your eyes open," he joked, but she just nodded.
Dojima was carrying a sleeping Yu in his arms, which was an adorable visual that needed to be captured, except Aunt Narukami had the good camera with her, so she had to make do with her cracked phone, which her dad was quick to notice.
"Please don't," she said before he could even open his mouth.
"I wasn't going to say anything," he said, setting Yu on her lap, which did make her smile a little bit.
"Yes, you were," she replied, and because he'd put the boy on his side, she could see the gauze on his head clearly. Hmm, it was getting yellow, she didn't know what from, maybe pus... she was going to have to change it soon, anyway.
"Ryoko took pictures too, you know," he said, trying to lighten the mood, "but she ran out of film."
"Mmm," she vocalized, idly stroking Yu's hair. "This one time, he fell asleep on Adachi-san's lap, but you're more manly than he is, so the visual wasn't as cute."
"Adachi?" he said, scratching his stubble. "The last time we talked, you mentioned something about him and your aunt. I didn't know he did babysitting."
Without another word, she navigated her phone to the picture she'd taken that day. Dojima leaned over with a curious expression.
"Nice tie," he said, and she murmured in agreement.
Where was that guy, anyway? Nanako hadn't seen him around at all... He hadn't been present during her questioning at the hospital, nor did he come to visit. Naoto hadn't mentioned anything either.
"Nanako," her dad said, or maybe sighed, as he sat down in the cushion next to hers, "what happened to you?"
Not this again, she thought, but it must have read on her face because he shook his head.
"I don't mean the case," he said. "Nanako, you haven't even been here a year, and yet there's so much different about you. Those lines under your eyes... have you been getting enough sleep? I know you had a long rest last night, but I thought that was because of whatever happened to your cousin. How come you still look like you haven't slept in weeks?"
"Dad," she said, but what did she even want to say?
"Your smile isn't as bright as I remember. Even when you're with him," he added, nodding down at Yu.
Sometimes I only feel like myself around my little cousin, she'd once told Izaya. So much for that.
"But worst of all," he went on, "you can barely meet my eyes."
Nanako stiffened, and for a moment she tried to prove him wrong, to raise her head high and stare him down like she'd done when he saw that picture on her phone, but... she kept watching some arbitrary point on the ground, instead.
"The way your teacher's death affected you should've clued me in," Dojima said, raising a hand to put on her shoulder but withdrawing at the last second. "There was just so much going on back home. I should have found a way to stay at least another day."
"Dad," she said, suddenly remembering something, "why... why didn't you take me home with you, back then?"
In lieu of answering, he glanced away, confirming one of her own fears.
"Are things that bad in Tokyo?" she whispered.
Dojima sighed tiredly.
"Yeah. I won't tell you how bad, though," he added before she could ask, "and you have to promise me not to look it up. Is that alright?"
Nanako couldn't do anything but nod.
"I thought you would've known with the internet," he mused, "but I suppose you haven't been using it that much, or your friends back home wouldn't be on my case so hard."
"Phony weekly emails..." she murmured.
"Chisato told me about your friends here in Inaba," he said, "and I can't deny that Konishi in particular left an impression on me that I won't soon forget." There was a pause as they both smiled, though probably for different reasons. "They care a lot about you, you know. They're the reason I didn't haul your ass home after that."
"But why?" she pressed. "Dad, you were only here for two days, was that... was that really enough?"
"The day you went missing," Dojima said, "your friends just kept popping up. The school didn't know anything, but then that boy who was wearing your bra in the picture told me you might have been kidnapped, and I guess one of your daycare kids is neighbors with you because his mother came by to say he'd seen you in the shopping district."
Nanako raised her head in surprise. One of her kids?
"I went to look for you there, and that delinquent boy who visited the hospital yesterday said he'd help me and started shouting your name without even waiting for me. I like him," he added, "he's got honest eyes."
Dojima worked his jaw for a moment before continuing.
"Other people helped out too, you know, some girl walking her dog, a bunch of kids who were playing at the shrine, an Aiya delivery girl, two boys in their school jerseys... but the search went on for hours and we couldn't find you. I almost gave up."
He shook his head at the memory before continuing:
"Konishi came by in the morning, to ask what was going on. I guess she was working the day before and didn't find out until she got home? Shirogane and Amagi came too. I felt helpless... like they were all coming to pay their respects on a funeral."
Dojima sighed again. Nanako opened her mouth to apologize for the trouble she'd caused, but then she remembered her conversation with Aunt Narukami about that exact subject. No, she decided, and leaned against him instead.
"I know you, Nanako," he said after a moment, "you always do things on a whim, without thinking, so even though you love a lot of people here, and they love you back, you'd have run away to Tokyo without a second thought. I thought about your little cousin and how you were helping him, about your girlfriend and how she defended you when she thought I was gonna do something, about those kids who helped me look for you, and decided you'd regret it."
"Do you?" she asked suddenly.
Dojima furrowed his brow and shook his head in confusion.
"Do you regret not inviting me back?" she clarified.
"Do you think I can have regrets?" he countered, looking down at Yu. "From what I gather, you changed this kid almost as much as you've changed yourself. I wouldn't take that away from him. He's already lost so much."
"He's finding it again," Nanako said. "But I'm worried about the end of the year. When I go back home."
"I'm sure your friends will make sure he's well taken care of."
"Yeah," Nanako said, unconvincingly, because of what Yu's Shadow had said about it. "But also... I've changed, and Mom will have to meet the new me too. There are things I'm keeping from you, and the same is true for her too. I'm sure she knows, but I never... I never did this before. I never felt like I had to."
"She might not like it, but she'll accept it, just like I have."
Slowly, Nanako said, "I might not have changed for the better."
Dojima didn't answer, and Nanako didn't see his expression, because Yu stirred in her lap.
"Big sis..." he said groggily.
"Mm. Did our little Momotaro wake up from his peach?" she teased, poking him on the nose, but he didn't react, still half asleep. "Did the bath tire you out, honey?"
Yu nodded and then cuddled up against her, apparently intent on sleeping some more.
"Maybe you weren't ready to handle my dad just yet," she said, lightly stroking his brow.
"Uncle is scary," he conceded, "but Mama is scarier."
Nanako chuckled and gave him a big kiss on the forehead. Right then, she heard the camera shutter sound from her phone and raised her head. Dojima had picked it up.
...He was smiling.
Nanako dozed for a bit against her dad's shoulder. When she woke up next, Yu was lying across her lap, his feet still resting on her dad's thigh so that her dad couldn't really get up. Yu was both wide awake and totally content in this position, though the way Dojima kept nibbling his lower lip, Nanako could tell he needed a smoke break. She gently shifted the boy more fully onto her own lap so that he could go.
He didn't though, because Aunt Narukami arrived with not only the good camera, but Yukiko, Naoto, and Kanji too. As the only one not in a yukata, he looked distinctly out of place.
"Kanji?" Nanako asked. "What are you doing here?"
Kanji's look was quizzical. "You kiddin' me? Wouldn't miss this for the world."
"Miss what—" she started. "Oh no. You aren't."
"Happy birthday, Nanako-san," Naoto said. "We should wait for the others to arrive before opening the gifts."
Gifts too? Sure enough, Kanji was carrying a paper package by the white rope tied around it. It looked large enough to hold a cake, but the way he was carrying it, that probably wasn't what it contained.
"You didn't... you didn't have to do anything like this," Nanako protested. "R-Really!"
"Big sis," Yu said, tilting his head back to look up at her, "you missed my birthday, and you were all sad... s-so..."
"I'm sure that won't happen next year," Aunt Narukami said.
"You got that right," Nanako agreed.
Aunt Narukami took a seat next to Dojima on the couch, and then Yu was crawling over Dojima to sit with her. Nanako smiled after him, a little wistfully. There'd be plenty of time to cuddle him later, she knew. At least he was still in the same room. He asked about the camera his mom was holding, and everyone listened in while she answered in her mom voice.
"Whatever happened to the phone I gave you?" Aunt Narukami asked. "It should be filled with more pictures than Nanako-chan's."
"I don't believe that old phone could carry quite that many pictures," Naoto quipped. There was some laughter and Aunt Narukami admitted that it probably had a tiny memory card.
"I don't know," Yu said. "W-Where..."
"I recall seeing it last at home," Naoto said. "Please don't worry about it."
"'Home,' huh?" Dojima rumbled. He was sizing Naoto up again. Nanako nudged him with her elbow, and his expression relaxed.
Someone's phone began to ring. Everyone looked around for the source. Yukiko was reaching into her kimono's sash. "S-Sorry," she said, "I thought I'd had it on silent. Please excuse me."
Nanako was smiling to herself as Yukiko left the room. That ringtone had sounded almost as rocking as Eye of the Tiger. It could only be Chie. Still, Nanako hadn't pegged Yukiko as the custom ringtone type. Even now she was full of surprises.
Nanako noticed Aunt Narukami's purse on the table. Not a moment later she grabbed it, prompting her aunt to raise an eyebrow at the intrusion of her privacy, but all she wanted were the extra bandages she knew were stored in the side pocket. Aunt Narukami had received them from the nurse at the hospital.
After retrieving them, Nanako began to fuss over Yu, who was still in his mom's lap. "Hold still, honey," she said. "We need to change your bandage."
Aunt Narukami steadied Yu in her lap while she changed the dressings on his head wound. It wasn't bleeding, but there was some discharge.
"That means it's healing," Naoto said. "You'll be fine."
"Big bro," Yu began.
Hearing that, Nanako immediately glanced at her dad. His eyes widened just a smidgen, and she definitely saw him mouth something about family to himself.
"The nurse said... can't t-touch it..." Yu finished saying.
"And you're doing a good job, Yu-chan!" Nanako told him. "If it itches too much, let us know, okay?"
With that done, Nanako was planning to sink right back into her seat, but someone was coming down the hallway into the room. It wasn't Yukiko but Saki and, of all people, Yosuke.
Before Nanako could really think about it, though, Saki had swept her into an embrace and was kissing her passionately. Nanako kissed her back with the same zeal, but she did worry about Yosuke, remembering his old crush on her girlfriend. Out of the corner of her eye, though, she saw him rolling his eyes at the sight of them kissing. He was fine with being the third wheel.
When the kiss was through, Nanako sat down and pulled Saki into her lap. Then there was a little gasp. She'd been standing in the way, but now Yu saw that Yosuke was there. His mouth was wide open in surprise. "P-P-P-Pink?" he squeaked.
"Huh?" Yosuke said. "Oh. Right, haha." He touched the pink streak in his hair. "You like it, little guy?"
"Partner," Yu corrected with a little pout.
"You like it, partner?" Yosuke repeated without missing a beat.
Yu grinned up at him. Watching his face, Nanako could see the exact moment the next idea came to him. His eyes just lit up, and then he was crawling out of his mom's lap and running right up to Yosuke.
And then he tugged Yosuke's pants down.
Yosuke yelped in surprise, dropping the folder he'd been carrying so that he could try and pull his pants back up. 'Try' being the operative word; Yu was holding onto them with all the force of a determined 6-year-old.
"W-Why is he...!?" Yosuke's face was a magnificent shade of scarlet. "C-Come on, partner, let go!"
Yu gasped in delight as he won the tug of war. "T-T-Tiger! Big sis, look, look!"
"Oh my god," Nanako said. She began to giggle up a storm. Yosuke had chosen an unfortunate day to wear his tiger-striped boxer-briefs.
Yosuke tried another tug and ended up falling flat on his ass. Yu, also now giggling, fell with him.
"Whyyyyy," Yosuke wailed. He let go of his pants to cover his eyes, as if he could hide from everyone watching him.
"It's okay, Y-Yosuke," Nanako gasped between giggles. "I've—snrrrrk—seen it before."
"You're gonna say that right in front of your dad?!"
Nanako glanced at Dojima, who looked like he was struggling to contain his own laughter. Aunt Narukami next to him wore a similar expression. Nanako looked back at Yosuke and shrugged.
"You can... roar," Yu told Yosuke. "Or... meow."
Yosuke stared at Yu for a moment before scooting backwards away from him on the floor so that he could pull his pants back up. Too far up, Nanako noted, because there was now quite a bit of ankle visible.
"Oh!" Yu said. He turned towards Nanako. "Big sis, do you have... umm... a b-bra?"
"Sorry, honey," Nanako said. "I'm not wearing one."
"Why would he ask that!" Yosuke sounded almost hysterical. "Is this my punishment for not seeing you in the hospital or something?"
"Yosuke," Nanako said, "do you remember the Queen's Game?"
Yosuke stopped feeling sorry for himself to glance at the two adults in the room before answering a careful, "Yes?"
"I showed Yu-chan that picture I took of you with the bra on your head. I think he feels left out since he wasn't there. He probably wants to make you part of his underwear team. You can be Rear Admiral Tiger Stripes."
"That... doesn't make this any better, Nanako."
"By the way, Yu-chan," Nanako said, "you aren't wearing any briefs, either."
"I'm not?" Yu blinked and then opened his yukata to check. He pouted at the results.
"I'm... very sorry that he did that," Aunt Narukami finally managed to say. "I'm sure you didn't want all that on display.
"Well, I mean..." Yosuke looked at Yu, who was now fussing with the hem of his haori. "I guess... if he can do that, then... he's okay." Yosuke managed a smile and then reached forward and patted Yu's head. The boy smiled impishly up at him.
"Yu?" Aunt Narukami said. "In the future, please ask before pulling your friend's pants down."
Nanako felt her dad giving her a significant look, but suddenly the ceiling seemed so very interesting.
"I think your butt ranks a six out of ten," Saki added.
"Senpai!" Yosuke complained, but he was smiling.
Yu crawled over towards him. "Partner?"
"Uh, yeah?" Yosuke asked, obviously unsure of how to deal with a sudden lapful of 6-year-old.
"I want tiger undies too..."
Yosuke grimaced. "I have A LOT of them," he said, staring off into the distance. He shook his head to clear it. "Too bad they aren't your size. Besides, a pattern like that probably isn't made in your size."
"Junes does sell garish speedos in his size," Nanako pointed out, "so..."
"I can resize 'em for him," Kanji said. "Wouldn't be too hard. Maybe I can even show him how."
"You do that," Saki said, "and Yu-chan will become the talented tailor tiger."
"All he'll need is a tail," Yosuke said. "What am I saying? You can make that too."
Yu leaned back into Yosuke's chest with a big grin, happy to be the center of attention.
They continued to make tiger-based jokes and comments until, fittingly enough, Chie arrived. Yukiko followed shortly after, walking slower due to the kimono.
"Sorry I'm late!" Chie said. "My dog made a mess at home, so I had to clean it up."
"No problem," Nanako said. "I mean, this wasn't really planned or anything, was it?"
"Not really, but I'm the last one here, so. Uh."
Chie paused awkwardly there because she noticed Dojima was in the room. Since they hadn't met before, and Nanako took a moment to introduce them.
"W-Whoa, your dad, really?"
"You don't need to be so surprised," Dojima said.
"I mean I didn't just spawn out of Brahma's belly button," Nanako said. "I have parents too."
"N-No," Chie said, "it's just, he looks like a policeman, so I thought he might be the one assigned to watch over you, but then I thought: if that's true, then he shouldn't be wearing a yukata!"
"I'm undercover," Dojima said.
"He might as well be," Nanako said, "because he's always on duty."
Dojima gave her a halfway offended look, but then he laughed.
"We've actually already met," he then said. "You and your dog helped me look for Nanako back then. Remember?"
Before Chie could answer, Kanji suddenly loomed closer, grabbing everyone's attention. "Now that everyone's here," he said, "you can open your gifts." He held the package he carried in front of Nanako. It twisted a little on its strings.
Nanako didn't immediately take it from him, feeling the need to protest again. "You guys didn't have to get me anything. I mean... I kinda forgot my birthday was even coming up, and now it's here and..."
"Shut up and take your gifts," Kanji said with false gruffness. He pushed the package right in front of her face.
"You heard the man," Yosuke said. Nanako had the feeling that he had a smug look on his face right now. She couldn't see it though, not with this thing in her way!
"Whose gift is this?" she asked.
"Mine," Kanji said. He pushed it even further into her face. It smacked her right on the nose.
After shaking her head Nanako took it from him. She opened the package to find a beautiful jacket in two tones of pink. Nanako took it from the bag and held it up for everyone to see. It was leather! The good stuff, too, she could tell just from touching it. She didn't need to ask to know Kanji had made it himself. He'd once said he could work with leather, after all. But man, a jacket? That must have been a lot more work than the wallet he gave Yosuke way back. Nanako discarded her haori, then turned her back to her friends and took off the upper half of her yukata as well so she could try it on. They'd all seen it, right? Though her dad obviously disagreed, heh heh. Nanako ignored him.
The jacket really was beautiful. Light pink at the top, then darker towards the bottom, not gradually but in stripes, two or three large ones in total. The cuffs... and the elastic waistband too, as well as the collar and lapels, they were an even darker pink, almost purple. Oooh, and the insides were so warm! She recognized the material almost immediately: velvet. How could she not, when she visited the damn room so often? Nanako walked over to the big TV to see her reflection, and very much liked what she saw. She was going to wear that jacket every day if she could get away with it.
She turned to Kanji, almost at a loss for words. "Thank you," she mouthed, and in response he gave her a satisfied grin.
"Wow, Kanji," Chie said, voicing Nanako's own thoughts. "No one's going to be able to top that gift. So, uh, who's next?"
"You're not volunteering?" Yosuke teased.
Chie was about to retort but Yukiko stepped forward. "Unfortunately, I have some business to attend to for the inn. I'll give you my gift and then go on, if that's all right."
She handed Nanako a thick book. Nanako traced the embossed lettering of the title. It was an anthology of philosophical treatises. Opening it to the first page, she found that it was a first print. Her throat was drying up. She glanced up at Yukiko to find her wearing a fond but sad smile. Nanako nodded to her, and she nodded back, leaving the room without another word.
"I guess mine can go next," Chie said after she was gone.
It was an envelope. There was a gift card to the music store in Okina City inside. "4000 yen, nice!"
"What?" said Yosuke. "That's twice what she gave me. No fair, Chie!"
"That's because Nanako's twice the man you are," Chie said. "Anyway, since you're talking, I think it's your turn."
"For what it's worth," Yosuke said with a dramatic sigh. "It's lucky the pages didn't all fall out when I dropped it earlier. It's that folder there. I'm a little burdened here, can someone get it?"
Naoto retrieved the folder and handed it to Nanako. It was a cheap plastic folder, probably sold at Junes. There weren't even any elastic bands to keep it from opening. She flipped it open to find... sheet music, for a song she didn't know. There wasn't a name at the top, nor any credited artists. Nanako scanned the sheet but couldn't identify the tune, though it looked overly simple.
"What is this?" she asked, not taking her eyes from the sheet.
Yosuke tried to answer, but she shushed him as she'd started humming the notes to try and get a sense of the genre, only to stop halfway through and click her tongue in annoyance because there were clearly some notes missing.
"I only just started composing!" Yosuke retorted, sounding hurt.
Nanako frowned. "What, you made this?"
"I did," he said sheepishly. "I thought we could play together. For the kids, since we didn't get to that one time. I thought maybe we could have our own song."
"I see... but wait, what do you mean we could play together? This doesn't even have enough notes for me."
Yosuke scratched his head in embarrassment. "I haven't finished my part yet," he admitted. "Didn't have the time."
Nanako gave the sheet a once more with newfound appreciation. Yosuke composed this himself, she thought. For a beginner it wasn't that bad, not when she knew there was a big chunk missing.
"Me and the piano, you and your guitar," she murmured. "Maybe something for Ayane too, we could invite her... yeah... yeah, this could totally work!"
Nanako grinned at Yu still in his partner's lap. "Did you hear that, Yu-chan? Rear Admiral has his own theme song!" she said.
"That... That's not it at all!" Yosuke protested, shaking his head, but he couldn't hide his smile.
"Sheesh," Chie said. "I'm starting to feel like I'm the only one who got you a lame gift."
"Money isn't lame!" Nanako defended. "Besides, I love music. I haven't had the time to listen to anything since I got here, but Dad's my witness, there was never a moment of silence back in Tokyo."
"As soon as she got home she'd start listening to vulgar foreign songs at full blast," Dojima grumbled, "and when Chisato arrived they'd both practice on the piano. Our neighbors actually sent me a cake to thank me for the silence last month."
"What kind of house did you live in, Nanako?" Chie asked. "I'm kinda curious now."
"It's a Western style house!" Nanako said. "One of those really modern ones with white walls and lots of glass. The living room and kitchen are connected, but almost everything else is on the second floor, except for my room which is on the third. Mom says a friend of hers from high school designed it."
"I would have preferred a traditional house," Dojima said, "but Chisato insisted."
Chie was too stunned to respond, but Kanji said what everyone was thinking:
"Didn't know you were rich, Senpai."
"My mom is on tour internationally, you know," Nanako said, clutching her phone in the pocket of the leather jacket somewhat wistfully. Chisato hadn't called at all.
"Perhaps we should move on from this subject," Naoto said, noticing her discomfort. "Nanako-san, you have yet to open my gift."
"Mine too," Saki piped up.
Yu looked like he wanted to say something, but he just smiled.
"Okay then, yours first, Shirogane-san!" Nanako said cheerfully. "Dazzle me, please."
Naoto handed her a small unadorned wooden box. Blue, the same as his signature cap. Nanako made a show of opening it as slowly as she possibly could, prompting Kanji to improvise a drumroll on the nearby coffee table. Naoto closed his eyes and shook his head, smiling all the while.
Inside the box was a phone. No, a phone case, which made her sigh in relief because she really didn't want to replace her cracked one. Nanako took it out anyway, marveling at the details. Of course the Detective Prince wouldn't get her just any old case. The first thing she noticed was the weight. That thing was heavy! But the insides were really soft and squishy, silicone maybe. The borders were black, made from hard plastic, and the sides were a pure white, but the back... it was at least an inch of solid steel. There was a hound's tooth pattern carved on it, the very same pattern on all Yasogami High skirts. Did he custom order it? The white would go very nicely with her new jacket, which she hoped was a coincidence, because the thought of Naoto Shirogane taking the time to coordinate a birthday gift for her was too much.
"Do bring your phone out, too," Naoto requested.
"Worried it won't fit?" Nanako teased.
"Not in the slightest," he said, and for a second there Nanako thought he would motion to tip his cap again, but he didn't.
Nanako giggled and oh god, she was giggling around him again and her dad totally noticed, but she did as she was told and took her phone out, placing it inside the case, which clicked shut so loudly she thought she'd never get it out of there again. As expected, it was a perfect fit. There were even holes for the cameras and speakers. Nanako decided to inaugurate it by taking a picture of the Detective Prince in his yukata.
"It was difficult to decide on a gift for you," Naoto said after a while. "I'd once offered to replace your screen, but you declined."
It still works, she remembered saying.
"I now understand why," he continued, "but even though it's cracked, a nice case can prevent further damage, wouldn't you say?"
Naoto was smiling kindly at her. Nanako knew he wasn't talking about the phone, but she didn't have the words to say how much that meant to her, so she simply motioned him closer and gave him a hug.
"I suppose I'm up next," Saki said.
Though she said it casually, she was hiding her hands behind her back, and something in her manner indicated that whatever she was hiding, it was important. Saki came closer and brought one hand forward, offering Nanako a tiny velvet box.
Nanako raised an eyebrow. Saki wasn't kneeling or anything, but her mannerisms... the timing... was she...?
"Not yet," her girlfriend teased with a wink.
Nanako shook her head, smiling, and took the box without any further hesitation, opening it to find a beautiful silver locket necklace. There was an intricate flower pattern etched onto its surface, and a glass case in the middle with pressed flowers inside. Nanako squinted, but though they were a soft periwinkle color, she wasn't sure about the actual breed. More importantly, that was silver, right? Nanako had never gotten such an expensive gift from anyone except her parents... She wasn't materialistic, but there was a certain satisfaction to be found in that alone.
"This is lovely..." she murmured while opening the locket, but then she made a face, because there wasn't anything inside.
Saki had taken some great pictures in their time together, and she couldn't find one to put inside? Nanako was unable to hide her disappointment as she said, "It's empty."
"I know," said Saki, holding up the Polaroid camera she'd been hiding in her other hand. "You, me, and Yu-chan. Yes?"
"Oh, yes," Nanako breathed.
Yu looked up from his spot on Yosuke's lap upon hearing his name. "Big sis?" he asked.
"Come over here, Yu-chan!" she prompted, and he quickly hurried over to her. "Aunt Narukami, would you mind doing us the honor?"
Not only did she not mind, the request seemed to add ten years to her life, and she took the camera with such enthusiasm that even Dojima raised an eyebrow.
Nanako, Yu and Saki bunched up together so that their heads were all bumping against each other, Nanako and Saki side by side and Yu slightly below them. Aunt Narukami told them to say 'fuzzy pickles' as some sort of private joke with her brother, who did love his pickles, and they did, but not before Nanako whispered to Yu that he should pay close attention.
The camera clicked loudly as Aunt Narukami took the picture, and seconds later a photograph came out of the slot at the bottom. Yu's eyes were wide with wonder. Nanako almost wished her aunt could take another one.
Aunt Narukami grabbed the photo and waved it around for a few seconds until the picture showed. No one was blinking and Yu had a smile brighter than the sun, which was everything she could ask for.
Saki stepped forward, now holding a pair of scissors with pink handles. Nanako thumbed the locket as her girlfriend cut up the photograph to size, and when she was done, they opened the empty locket together and gently pushed the picture inside, staring at it for a few seconds afterwards.
"Put it on," Saki requested. Nanako did so, only to find herself suddenly swept into a kiss so passionate even Yu was blushing afterwards.
"Mmm," she vocalized as the moment ended, leaving her quite dazed, which was probably the only reason Aunt Narukami held back the comment about restraint she had been undoubtedly ready to give.
Saki adjusted her blouse before clearing her throat loudly, indicating that she wasn't done.
"In the language of flowers," she said, "rosemary equates to remembrance."
Those were the flowers inside the glass case. Nanako thumbed the locket again, intending to take a closer look, but her girlfriend had different plans. With a mischievous smile she suddenly snapped the locket in half, leaving herself with a tear shape holding the glass case, and Nanako with... a moon.
Nanako stared in surprise.
"How did you...?" she mumbled, scanning the embossed pattern and noting that her half depicted a branch. No flowers, only leaves.
Saki conjured a tiny chain to tie up her half, which was larger and, consequently, held the photo they'd taken.
"If anything ever goes wrong between us," she said, "I want us to remember the love we feel now."
"I don't have the picture, though," Nanako protested weakly.
"I don't either," Saki replied. "The locket doesn't open unless both halves are together."
Nanako held up her moon, and Saki held up her flowers, and together they opened the locket once again and stared at the picture for a long moment. No matter what, Nanako thought as their foreheads touched, I won't let this feeling go away.
Yukiko returned about then. Following behind her were two inn staffers pulling a trolley between them. On the trolley was... something square, covered by white cloth. Oh god, it was probably cake, but even as Nanako groaned she couldn't hide her enthusiasm.
Yu jumped to his feet as soon as he saw the trolley, running towards it so fast Nanako thought he'd crash and they'd have to eat Yu cake instead of whatever they'd prepared for her, which she wouldn't mind, really. Yu covered in frosting was an image she wished dearly she could put on paper and... wait, hang on a second. Earlier, he'd had to take a second bath because he was covered in mud, right?
Right as she was coming to that realization, Yu pulled the white cloth, revealing a ridiculously big chocolate cake. Nanako was stunned; it had three whole tiers, with white chocolate icing decorating the base of each one. In fact, some of it was dripping along the sides, and it didn't seem intentional, because across the cake's side in frosting was the message, 'Happy Birthday Big Sis.' The katakana for 'birthday' was a bit wonky, so it could have only been written by Yu.
"B-Big sis, look, look," he said, still trying to catch his breath, "it's my cake!"
"I don't even know what to say," Nanako said. "Yu-chan, you made this for me?"
Yu nodded vigorously.
"You did a wonderful job, Yu-kun," Yukiko said before turning to Nanako. "I apologize for taking him away from you earlier today, but such an important mission simply needed L-Lieutenant Briefs to oversee it."
Yukiko kept herself from snorting and explained that though it was her idea to make the cake, she didn't have the skills to bake one herself, and it would need a personal touch in order to make it as a gift for Nanako. "In the end, I recalled how his gift to Yosuke-kun had been a cake," she said. "I had the chef help us bake it, and Yu-kun had the idea to make it tiered. He said you would get mad if your cake was smaller than the previous one."
"He got that right!" said not Nanako but Chie, and though she was a carnivore, she was totally craving that cake.
"Twice the man you are, my ass, you were just afraid of her wrath!" Yosuke complained, still mad at the gift card thing.
"I made the toppers myself," Yukiko added. "They should be edible, too."
So focused on the message, Nanako hadn't even noticed the toppers. She stood up now to give them closer inspection, moving to Yu's side. They were two little cake dolls. One was a stylized woman with long black hair in a white haori. Nanako didn't need to read the plaque below it to know it was her Persona, Izanami. Yukiko had paid attention the Gekkoukan lesson too, it seemed. Anyway, the other topper was Loveline. It was pink and had an umbrella, so that was kind of neat.
"D-Do you like it, big sis?" Yu asked, and her answer was a hug, the biggest one yet today.
"And now for the candle," Naoto said.
"What, really?" Nanako asked.
"I don't have an actual candle," he admitted, "but this should suffice, though I don't have a way to light it."
He brought out a firework sparkler and, well, he tried to set it on top of the cake, but he wasn't tall enough...
"I got it," Dojima said, the solution to both problems. He lit it with his lighter and the sparkler glowed magnificently into life.
Too magnificently, as it turns out. The heat it generated melted most of the Loveline topper, leaving a sooty pink blob in its place.
"It's, um, still edible," Yukiko said. "Probably."
"Don't eat the Izanami!" Nanako cried.
The two inn staffers began to distribute plates and drinks for everyone present, and after Nanako, Aunt Narukami and Naoto snapped several pictures, Yukiko cut the cake and served it out.
Nanako had the first taste. "Yu-chan," she said after biting off a nice chunk, "you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up, but maybe consider being a chef!"
Yu beamed at her.
"The shopping district doesn't have a bakery," Chie said, "so... why not? You can open it up right next to Kanji's place."
"Junes has a bakery department," Yosuke pointed out. "It probably wouldn't fly."
"That's 'cause they ain't seen how tasty his cakes are!" Kanji declared with his mouth full.
"There doesn't need to be a conflict of interests," Nanako said. "Maybe Yu-chan can work for Junes. He'll be the department head in no time."
"Y-Yeah!" Yu said.
"Why stop there?" Saki said. "He could own the Junes, and then he'd be Hana-chan's boss."
"For some reason," Yosuke said, "if that happened, I get the feeling he would work me hard."
"The first thing he'd do is make you get rid of the elephant slide. Alternatively, turn it into a dinosaur slide instead. How about that?" Nanako asked, tickling Yu's tummy really quick. "Would you go down a dinosaur slide?"
"N-No!" Yu said, but it was hard to tell if he was answering the question or just responding to the tickle.
Saki raised a hand to her chin. "Hmm, I hadn't noticed that they shaved his hair," she said, causing Yu to self-consciously rub the spot, though he was careful not to touch the gauze. "You want that fixed up, honey?" Saki asked. "I could probably do it. I'm pretty good with scissors and hair clippers. I always cut Naoki's hair myself, you know!"
Yu didn't answer, he just sort of mumbled to himself. Nanako could tell he wasn't sure about getting a new haircut, but that he knew he couldn't stay the way he was either.
"How about an undercut?" Saki tried, quickly finding a picture of a hot guy with that haircut on her phone. "I hear it's getting popular in America."
When Yu still seemed unsure, Nanako chimed in. "You could keep your bangs. Oooh, and Senpai has dinosaur hair clips!"
Saki blinked. "I do," she confirmed. Probably she'd forgotten all about that until Nanako mentioned it.
"D-Do you have... pterodactyls?" Yu asked.
"Pink ones!" Saki replied. "But Nanako said that's more your little friend's color, huh? We could get any color you want."
There was a sparkle in Yu's eyes now. He didn't decide right away, but he would definitely be thinking about it! Nanako sent her girlfriend a grateful smile.
Now that the main party was over, everyone began to split off into little groups to chat while eating their cake. Yukiko and Kanji discussed the cake while Saki and Yu apparently hashed out the details of his hypothetical new haircut. Chie was speaking with Dojima, and Aunt Narukami was taking pictures.
Nanako decided to leave them all be and headed for the engawa attached to the room, and a few minutes later Yosuke sat next to her.
"What's up?" she asked.
"I don't even know where to start," he said. "There's a lot on my mind."
"Start with the first thing that comes to mind."
He opened his mouth, then closed it with a 'hmph.' He leaned back, looking past the awning at the night sky as he thought of what to say. The fact that he was even choosing his words so carefully spoke of how much he'd changed in just a few months.
"Did you know," he eventually said, "that Kou kissed Daisuke?"
"I was there when it happened."
"…Of course you were." He paused to roll his eyes. "Well, they're dating now."
"I'm glad for them."
"Me too," he said, "but the thing is, I thought Kou had a crush on Chie. Honestly, it was so big you could see it from space. Then it turns out he also had a crush on Daisuke? I don't get it."
"You can totally have a crush on more than one person at the same time," Nanako said. "Heck, not just crush, but love too."
"I'm not even going to comment on that," Yosuke said. "But I meant more like... Daisuke's a guy, right? Does that mean Kou is bisexual?"
"He could be," Nanako said, surprised and pleased that he'd used the word 'bisexual,' "but it's not always that simple."
By then, Yosuke was fidgeting a lot, so she asked, "Do you want to go somewhere else for this?"
"Can we? I don't want your dad getting the wrong idea."
"Nah, he's got his eye on Shirogane-san right now. Though, after that locket Senpai gave me, I think he knows she and I are serious."
"Then please." There was a hint of desperation in his voice.
Nanako stretched her arms as she got up, then began walking towards the garden. Yosuke didn't follow her right away. He was probably still worried. Eventually, though, they were taking a stroll together among the pine trees.
While they walked, she waited for Yosuke to continue the conversation, but he didn't. It was unusual for him to be so reserved. She spied a fountain along the path ahead and stopped there, pretending to survey it, but really she was surveying him instead. He leaned against the bamboo railing that was there to protect the fountain. Then he messed with his hair, his headphones, then his hair again, his headphones again… Nanako thought it would go on forever, but she didn't interrupt, knowing he was psyching himself up to say whatever he was going to say.
"I called that guy," he finally admitted.
"Who?" she asked. "Katsuragi?"
"No! The guy from the club."
"Oooh," she said, now grinning like a shark.
"Dammit, I knew you were going to react like that!" He glared at her, but there wasn't as much feeling in it as his words implied. "Yeah, I called him. We had a nice long talk. He's a really nice guy."
Yosuke was now smiling at the memory.
"A-Anyway," he said, coming back to himself. "There's that guy, there's Kou, and Daisuke, and Kanji and his boyfriend. And Yukiko and Chie have always been suspiciously close, but… they're girls, so..."
"So what?" she challenged.
He paused at her interruption. "Yeah," he went on. "Yeah, you're right. Besides, there's you and Senpai too. I guess what I'm trying to say is, there are more people like this than I… than I used to think."
"It's not only for eccentric celebrities," Nanako agreed.
"Yeah, exactly. It seems like anyone can be like this. And if anyone can be like this... then what about me?"
She almost quipped 'What about you?' but Yosuke's expression told her it would be best to let him continue on his own.
"I like girls," he said. "I want a girlfriend. I want to feel how full her lips are when I kiss her. I want to stroke her hair all the way down her back. I want to know how soft her body is. And to touch her... you know." He made a crude squeezing gesture right in front of his chest.
"Yeah, girls are great," Nanako murmured.
"But, back at the club," Yosuke said, "when Hiroyuki shoved his hand into my pants, honestly I... I wanted to do the same."
Oh, he has a name now, Nanako thought. "Go on," she said, when he hesitated after that admission.
"It wasn't just the alcohol talking. I mean, I've felt that way before. Not... hands down pants specifically, but… in PE class, I can't help but notice how sweaty the other guys get."
"Boy sweat is a horrible smell," Nanako said, "but sometimes it's just right."
Yosuke made a sound that was kinda like 'nnnnnnnn' and his head swayed some. "It's more about how the sweat makes them look than how it smells. In the locker room, after our workouts, you know..."
"How it rolls down their faces, then over their abs? Down their backs, to their butts?"
"Yeah, you understand." Yosuke sighed, apparently in relief.
So that's why you didn't want to join a sports club, Nanako thought. If only he'd just admitted that sooner, it would've saved him a lot of trouble.
...Though she'd probably still have tried to force him into one, she added with an internal sigh. She'd been a whole different person back then.
"And actually," Yosuke said, "during the Queen's Game, you know how at the end I was dared to kiss Kanji? I was kinda disappointed that he wouldn't let me."
"I never did kiss him," Nanako said, "but you guys got pretty into it back at the bathhouse."
"That guy in glasses is a lucky guy," Yosuke agreed. "When Kanji's angry, he can be terrifying, but even that's just a facade, huh? Underneath it all, he's a gentleman."
"Appearances are always deceiving," Nanako said. "I learned that just this year."
Yosuke touched the pink streak in his hair. "You know I got a lot of shit for this? Mostly at Junes. Obviously my hair is another sign that Junes is out to destroy traditional Japanese values. But maybe they're not too far off with that. I liked the attention it got me." He paused. "You know what I mean."
"Yes," she said softly.
He picked up a stone from the ground, then casually tossed it into the top tier of the fountain. It landed near the edge, neatly splitting some of the water's flow.
"I'm gay," he said.
Nanako wanted to hug him for that, but by the pained expression on his face, the admission had brought him no peace.
"But damn it," he said, "I like girls too. It doesn't make any sense to like both."
"It's not about sense," she said. "It's about feeling, and wanting."
"Well, I want it to make sense!" He sighed and reached over the bamboo rail to flick the stone from the edge and further into the fountain. It was swallowed into the deeper water. "And if I like guys, what does that say about my friendships? I mean, Katsuragi is my friend. And that's it. Right? I'm happy when he texts me, but it's not because I'm secretly crushing on him or something... is it?"
"I think only you can answer that," Nanako said.
Yosuke scowled, gripping the fence tightly. "I don't want to always be second-guessing my ulterior motives like this! That wouldn't be fair to any of my friends, past, present, and future. Boys or girls!"
"Yosuke," Nanako said bluntly. "We can only be friends if you're not interested in me."
"What? Oh... that's what you said way back after we rescued Kanji from his Shadow, isn't it?" He began to blink and then frowned. "You said that, but we went to the bathhouse anyway."
"And here we are, still friends," she said. "Yosuke, make friends for the sake of making friends. If a friendship is meant to turn into something more, it should happen naturally."
"Like you and Saki-senpai? I definitely never saw that coming, but... you really make her happy."
"I was surprised to see you two laughing together the other day," Nanako said. "That's what makes me happy. I was worried for a while there."
"It helps to have something in common to talk about," Yosuke said, and when Nanako didn't understand, he added, "You."
They both chuckled at that.
"And now that we're on the subject..." Yosuke said. "Nanako, why does it always seem like you have all the answers? Everyone and their mom looks up to you. I have to admit, I'm still jealous."
"We're still not drunk enough for this," Nanako told him. She took in a deep breath and let it all out in a big sigh. "Really, Yosuke, there's nothing to be jealous of."
"You have friends everywhere, though. Not just acquaintances but actual friends, friends who make it a point to keep you in their lives," he argued, grimacing as he did. "That says a lot about who you are."
"Does it?" Nanako asked tiredly. "Maybe they just don't know who I really am. You didn't, before our fight."
"You never told me," he said, the same thing he'd said when they were making peace with each other.
"Not everyone wears their heart on their sleeve, Yosuke."
"Don't give me that crap. If anyone wears their heart on their sleeve, it's you!"
Nanako laughed humorlessly. She really wasn't drunk enough for this, but it was happening, so…
"Do you remember the first day of summer?" she asked. Obviously he wasn't expecting that question, but he scrunched up his face in thought. "I skipped school that day," she added.
"Oh. Yeah, I remember…" he said, looking at nowhere in particular. "You kept joking about me going through your stuff."
"I wasn't joking," she said.
"What, you wanted me to see your, um…" he trailed off, and Nanako wasn't sure whether it was from some realization or because he'd seen the serious look she had. "...That does sound like something you'd do," he said instead.
Nanako vocalized a vague murmur of agreement.
"Why did you skip?" Yosuke asked. "I mean, you came to school, but left before the first period was over… you could've just stayed home."
"Why do you think?" she asked in turn.
"I thought you were just being you," he replied honestly, "but if you're talking about it now…"
"Everyone looked too hot in their summer uniforms. Okay? I couldn't handle it."
Yosuke looked like he was about to crack some stupid joke, but he didn't, and as the silence went on, he stopped smiling too.
"Really?" he asked.
"Yeah, really," she said exasperatedly. "Do you want me to describe it to you? Draw you a picture?"
"No need to get mad!" he said, almost raising his hands in defense. "Though, I guess I understand why you would be."
"I just… I didn't go anywhere special, you know, I just hung around the flood plain. I started to get really upset, though, so I called my mom, and, well, it didn't help." She sighed.
"What did you two talk about? Did you tell her you skipped school because hormones or...?"
Nanako nodded. "I told you, we're pretty close. Or were. I don't know anymore. But anyway, we talked about… see, I called her because I didn't have anyone here to talk about that stuff. Everyone would just think I was joking." Nanako practically spat the word, and to his credit, Yosuke noticed. He backed away a little, unable to deny that he'd have thought so too. "I missed my house, and I missed my friends. I was tired of everyone here acting like we were so close when they didn't know the first thing about me. They didn't even know I was a pervert. There, I said it."
She stared at him, defiantly. He stared back, expecting her to say more, but when it was clear that she wasn't going to, he said rather weakly, "You still could have told me."
"No, I couldn't!" she shouted, punching the bamboo rail so hard it cracked. "I couldn't. My friends in Tokyo never needed me to, we always figured stuff out about ourselves together, but you… you met me, and you had this whole other me in your head. I was scared that… that you wouldn't want to be friends with me anymore, if you knew."
"You were scared?" Yosuke asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "You didn't sound scared. I called you. You seemed totally relaxed, like you'd skipped just because you felt like it."
"I wish," she said.
"I guess it's not that hard to believe, though," he continued. "I mean, if Kanji can be a gentleman under those punk looks, then you can be a scared little girl under—"
Yosuke didn't get to finish his sentence, because she tripped him, making him fall flat on his ass.
"Ow! What was that for?!"
"What do you know?!" she snarled. "This is all new to me too! I've never had to live in a fucking ghost town without my parents, and I've never had to solve some stupid supernatural murder case! I've never had to hide who I was! I've never had to doubt it, never had to look deeper or second guess it! I figured it all out so long ago you weren't even having boners about tits on your back yet! Except I came to this fucking place and everything I thought I knew turned out to be a lie! So fuck you, okay?! I'd never even… I'd never even lost anyone before coming here. Before losing Mr. Morooka."
Nanako had to stop, because she was choking up. Tears were streaming down her face, and she was trying her hardest to clean up the snot coming out of her nose. She didn't want anyone seeing her like this. Least of all Yosuke!
She didn't see it at first, crying as hard as she was, but for a long moment Yosuke merely stared at her, looking for all the world like the ground had been pulled out from under him. He eventually tried to say something, then stopped.
Nanako shook her head and waved at him that she wanted to speak. She coughed a few times, trying to clear her scratchy throat. "I'm sorry," she croaked. "I overreacted. I shouldn't have… you didn't... you didn't deserve that."
"N-No," he said slowly. "I'm the one who should be sorry. I didn't mean to insult you, it just kinda came out that way."
You're the master of spontaneous assholery, Nanako wanted to say, but she didn't, she didn't want to fling any more barbs, not after that. She wasn't any better.
"Don't hold back," he said, noticing her hesitation. "If you've got more to say, then say it. I probably need to hear it, anyway. I mean, I had no idea how much everything was getting to you until just now. Besides, you've always been real with me… to be honest, that's what I've always liked about you the most."
Nanako wiped her nose with the back of her hand, careful not to ruin her precious leather jacket, and didn't say anything.
"There was this one day when you were feeling down," he went on. "It was right before school. I remember it, because we talked a little and then you just suddenly perked up. You put on your silly glasses and strode into school like you owned the place. It made me think that, I don't know, that maybe nothing could touch you."
"...You were wrong."
Yosuke nodded. "Mr. Morooka… that's when things really came crashing down, wasn't it? I didn't want to admit it, but you were right back then. I really did think your delinquent looks and all that were just you being silly and over the top and totally in control," he said, "but I see now that it was your way of mourning him. Yukiko talked me down good that day our scores were posted, but you told me to buy you a soda and we'd be even, and I believed it. I was so blind."
"I was blind too," she said. "I wanted to help you become a better person, expand your worldview. I didn't want to see you stuck between the macho jerk and the sensitive wimp all your life, didn't want to hear you snickering about girls, or cracking jokes about Kanji. I just needed to whip you into shape, right?" Nanako laughed bitterly. "I never saw you for what you are. I knew your type, that's all that mattered. I thought I was the superior man."
"You're being too hard on yourself," Yosuke replied. "I noticed back when we were talking things out after our fight. You said you were a terrible friend. You told me to think about the pain you'd put us all through… and you know what, I did, but there was hardly any. Yeah," he added when he noticed her incredulous expression, "so maybe some of the things you said stung, and maybe you fucked up and nearly got everyone killed. You punched me in the face and didn't apologize, but you think this is enough to make me hate you? I've been thinking about this ever since that day, and it makes sense now. No one should have so much weight on their shoulders, but you thought you could carry it alone, isn't that right?"
"Yosuke," she began, but he turned away from her to stare at the fountain some more.
"I don't hate you," he said. "I won't ever hate you, you got that? I could die. I don't care if you didn't see me for me, so cut that crap about being a terrible friend, and start talking to us instead!"
Grateful for his words, and sensing an opportunity, Nanako leaped into Yosuke, catching him in a hug from behind.
"Bwuh?!" he vocalized.
"Don't you dare talk about squeeze play now," she warned, but she couldn't stop smiling.
Yosuke was too stunned to respond.
"I was upset, you know," she said, sniffling against his back, "that all of you seemed to trust me and rely on me so much, but I couldn't trust you back. I couldn't tell you that I haven't had the time or the energy to do the stuff I used to enjoy before coming here, or that lately I've been wondering if there's even anything I like to do anymore, that isn't hanging out with Yu-chan and you guys. I fucked up too much to suddenly p-play the victim."
"Nanako..." Yosuke sighed. "I did think it was weird for someone who plays the piano to barely listen to music. Ayane-san said so too, you know? During practice, I asked her what to buy for your birthday, and she said 'maybe a pair of headphones like yours.' Saki-senpai always did say I could never read the mood… Ayane-san met you like, twice, and that was enough for her to notice something was off."
"Ayane is a nice girl," Nanako murmured. "I'd be okay with it if you dated her."
"Why would I need your okay?!" Yosuke asked in mock outrage. "I don't like her that way," he then admitted. "I think it's thanks to you that I can know that so clearly."
Nanako shook her head, though it was kind of pointless when she was still hugging him. "It's thanks to your own efforts," she said, and he seemed to mull that over for a bit.
"My friendships back in the city were so shallow," he said suddenly. "I never realized. Back then, I mean. I thought that was just how things were, but I could never have with any of them the same conversations I have with Ayane-san, and whenever we fought, they'd just talk shit behind my back for a week or something and then totally forget about it. Nothing like my fight with you."
"I don't know if that's a good thing," Nanako said.
"I don't know either," he murmured. "That reminds me. Last year, Katsuragi lost his grandma. I think he was distant for a while, but he might have had family responsibilities or something. I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary when he started hanging out with us again, but… you know, maybe I just didn't want to see."
"Maybe you should ask him," she suggested, "though everyone deals with loss differently, or so I am told."
"I don't think I've ever seen anyone react as strongly as you did," Yosuke said. "I wonder if… if you'd react the same way, if I died."
"Don't say that! Don't even say that!" she shouted, hitting him on the back repeatedly.
"Sorry, sorry! That was a dumb thing to say. It's just, I can't imagine anyone caring for me that much." He sighed. "Anyway, you were saying that you can't bring yourself to rely on us?"
Nice save, Nanako thought weakly.
"Listening is easy," she said, "but I haven't talked about my problems to many people here, you know."
Kanji. Saki. Aunt Narukami. Naoto could sometimes figure things out on his own and talk to her about them. And then there was Izaya.
"You're talking to me now," he said, turning his head back so she could see his smile.
"Yeah," she said with a smile of her own. "I guess I am."
Nanako and Yosuke slowly made their way back to the engawa, talking about mundane things such as their favorite artists and what cartoons they'd watched when they were kids, stuff they'd somehow never talked about before. Once they got there, Nanako sat down like she'd originally planned to, while Yosuke went inside. She wondered about his doubts and insecurities regarding his sexuality, and wished she'd done more to reassure him. That conversation had been totally derailed… one more item for her list of fuck ups.
Nanako was so deep in thought she barely noticed a scooter parking right in front of the reception room, and yelped in surprise when someone tapped her on the shoulder.
"Four beef bowls, one mega bowl, one hiyashi chuka, one tonkotsu ramen and one side order of pot stickers," said Aika Nakamura. "That last one is on the house."
"A-Aika-chan?!" Nanako said. "I didn't..."
"I did," Dojima interrupted, already holding up his wallet. "I can't eat that much sugar, and this way, it seems more like a party."
"Oh... but what about the pot stickers?" she asked, turning her head to the delivery girl. "I've ordered way more than this in the past and never got a bonus!"
"I missed you at the hospital this time," said Aika-chan, doing a V sign at her. Very briefly, she glanced at Yu, who was sharing his slice of cake with Yosuke. "Enjoy your meal," she finished, and reached out to her bike helmet.
"No, wait!" Nanako said, grabbing her hand. "I mean, um... you're invited too, you know?"
Aika-chan smiled for a fraction of a second, and instead of wrestling free, she squeezed Nanako's hand.
Aika-chan called her dad, who it turned out was Aiya's owner himself, to say that she'd be back late, but as soon as she set her phone down, she was startled by a smiling Yu, holding up a slice of cake for her.
"T-This is for... all the yummy..." he trailed off, blushing all of a sudden. Yeah, he still wasn't totally comfortable around strangers, even if he'd seen Aika-chan deliver them food before. Possibly his pride in the cake had overtaken his shyness and he was just now realizing what he was doing.
Aika-chan took out an uzumaki roll from her apron and offered it to him. A professional businesslike exchange took place as he accepted the uzumaki roll and she accepted the cake. They even shook hands after, and by the end of it, he was smiling up at her with rosy cheeks. But where did she get that uzumaki roll? Aiya didn't sell sushi. Maybe it was her snack. Maybe she was like Yukiko, trying to break free from the path decided for her, and once she inherited Aiya she'd turn it into a sushi bar.
As if reading her thoughts, Aika-chan raised an eyebrow at her. Yeah, right. Like that'd ever happen.
Nanako was idly watching Chie chow down on the mega beef bowl when suddenly her phone vibrated. She quickly took it out. It was a text message. From her mother!
'Turn on the TV to channel 4.'
Though it was unusual for Chisato to send her messages without any emotes or kisses, Nanako hurried over to the big TV and turned it on. It was already on the right channel.
On screen was a gigantic audience chatting animatedly. Nanako couldn't believe her eyes. Was that... Carnegie Hall? In the US? What was it doing on NTV? Everyone was starting to gather around to see what Nanako was watching, but she didn't give it any thought, too focused on the program, and suddenly the audience was silenced and the lights dimmed.
In the distance, a lone figure standing next to a grand piano bowed. Nanako didn't understand why the camera was so far away from them, why there wasn't a spotlight over the piano. There was some whispering in English by the commentators that Nanako couldn't quite make out. The camera did move closer then, but no lights.
The figure on the piano, face framed in shadow, started to play a light jazzy piece. The camera focused on their fingers, going from key to key as though water being poured on a cup, and Nanako couldn't help but imitate their movements.
"I know that song," murmured both Saki and Yosuke simultaneously.
"I do too," said Dojima, and though Nanako couldn't take her eyes away from the screen, she knew he was smiling.
As the figure finished playing, a spotlight finally shone over them, revealing a beautiful woman in her mid thirties with light brown hair and amber eyes; she had a large forehead and an even larger smile, and the way her hair framed her face made it resemble a heart.
"Presenting to you live," said a female announcer with a distinct accent, "from Japan, please welcome Chisato Kasai!"
There was a round of applause as Chisato, wearing a stunning steel blue ballroom dress, gracefully curtsied to the audience.
"Mom," Nanako said, holding her own arm so she wouldn't reach out and touch the television.
"Mom?" said almost everyone in the room.
"I apologize for changing the program," said Chisato in flawless English, "but today, October 4th, is a very special day. My daughter was born on this day, and though we are so far apart, I would like to use this concert to remind her that the tyranny of distance is in the mind. Thank you."
"What time is it in New York?" Yosuke wondered out loud.
"Early morning, I would expect," Naoto said, seeming, for once, completely befuddled.
"Do they normally show piano concerts live on TV?" Chie asked.
"Nope," Nanako replied with a big dumb grin. "Now shut up and listen."
Chisato sat down on the piano bench and, without waiting for her cue, gently started playing. As she did, the spotlight widened, revealing a second grand piano right next to her. Chisato smiled slightly as her hands and body moved between the two as though nothing was out of place, the frilly sleeves of her dress whipping wildly with each sudden movement, almost a dance. It wasn't an original composition, but it might as well have been. Nanako remembered how devoted her mom had been to perfecting both the arrangement and her own playing during the year leading up to her tour.
Dojima put a hand on her shoulder, and Nanako gladly leaned against it. They both missed her so much. Franz Liszt's La Campanella seamlessly segued into Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata—their song—and then back again as her mother incorporated a myriad classical pieces into her own. When it was over, Nanako couldn't help but clap alongside the audience.
"Chisato Kasai," Chie said while they wheeled the second piano away. "I know that name. Misuzu Hiiragi was supposed to open for her before that whole scandal happened. I had no idea she was your mom, Nanako."
"Does that mean you could have been a target?" Yosuke asked, facing Nanako. "The police used to think the victims were connected to the scandal, right?"
"That is correct," Naoto said. "Furthermore, it did not go unnoticed that the mothers seemed to fit the pattern much better than the children once Yukiko-san and Kanji-san's kidnappings were brought to light."
"Oh, you're right... my mother was the one in conflict with Ms. Yamano, not me," Yukiko said.
"Ma made her and that Namatame trash a scarf set too," said Kanji. "I remember 'cause she ended up only buying the female one. We have a hard enough time selling cloth, who the heck would wanna buy a scarf? Damn thing's still there, gathering dust."
"Wait, a scarf?" Yosuke squeaked. "D-Do you mean the scarf?"
"Guys," Nanako said, grinding her teeth as she felt Dojima grow increasingly tense next to her. "Can you shut the fuck up and enjoy the concert?"
The next few songs were completely original compositions. Chisato loved to mix classical music with more modern styles. Anything that caught her attention she would try to incorporate into her music, and that meant some of the songs Nanako listened to at home, but sometimes she'd get really into some obscure genre from the 1600s and her songs would change to match. As a result, she knew how to play not only the piano but also the keyboard and the organ. Funnily enough, back when she was in high school she was actually a painter. Nanako thought her mom was pretty decent, but Chisato obviously disagreed, and said she moved to music because there was always someone better, and she wanted to stand out on her own. Nanako could relate well enough. Listening to her mother play, she felt she'd never be able to top that, no matter how hard she worked.
"How come your mom has a different family name than you?" Chie asked when she thought speaking was okay again. "Isn't she married to your dad? Is 'Kasai' just her stage name or what?"
"It's her maiden name," Nanako explained. "Dad is a high profile cop, so it wouldn't fly to have such an obvious target painted on Mom's back."
"Chisato was always a free spirit," Dojima added, "so she didn't want to give up her maiden name either. It worked out well enough for everyone."
"What, so when you said your family was being targeted by the Yakuza, that could have actually been true?" Yosuke joked.
Dojima noticeably stiffened. "What? Nanako, what's this all about?" he asked with a weird sense of urgency.
"Just some stupid joke I made at the start of the year, Dad," she replied. "I'm surprised Yosuke still remembers."
"Yeah, well, it made an impression," Yosuke said with a shrug.
Dojima didn't relax, but that didn't matter, because Chisato was about to play her last song. Nanako was practically jumping.
"Revolutionary Etude!" she mouthed, sending Yosuke a significant look.
"Oh, this is the one we played when..." he started.
"Shut up!" Nanako ordered.
Chopin's Revolutionary Etude didn't have any particular meaning to her until she'd played it that day in the storm. Now it represented reconciliation and release. Despite ordering him to shut up, Nanako broke free from her dad to go over to Yosuke, and she held his hand firmly for the rest of the song. Yu had been hovering close to him, though, and as soon as she saw them holding hands, he wanted in on the action, and cuddled up against them. Nanako didn't mind. Neither did Yosuke.
There was one last round of applause as Chisato finished her concert. Her mother spun around, making her dress flare, before bowing to the audience, and Nanako was taking in every detail, but her trance was broken by Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, coming not from the television but her own phone.
Nanako blinked. All of a sudden, Chisato was waving her smartphone at the camera with a playful smile as the audience laughed. When did she...?
"Pick it up," said Dojima.
"Mom?" she murmured helplessly into the phone.
"Happy birthday, honey," said Chisato. There was a slight delay between her voice on the phone and on the television, but that made it all the sweeter.
"Mom," Nanako repeated, her eyes watering up. "That was wonderful."
The camera closed in on Chisato as she nodded, smiled, and then silently ended the call. Nanako understood. That had been more than enough.
"I was wrong," said Chie a little while later, "someone did manage to top the jacket."
"Eh, I don't like being on top anyways," said Kanji, and Nanako laughed so hard she nearly choked up on her sobs.
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