angevon: (Default)
2017-10-04 09:06 pm

Nanako Explains It All Chapter Index

Fandom: Persona 4 
Pairing: Multiple pairings (and almost no one is straight. Let's leave it at that.)
Rating: T 
Category: General, Multi 
Summary: Nanako Dojima is a sixteen-year-old transfer student to Inaba. She awakens to the mysterious power of 'Persona' and then rocks everyone's world.  Character Swap AU: Nanako is the protagonist, and Yu is her little cousin. Other changes have occurred as well!
Author's notes: This is a crosspost from AO3 and ffnet. Since it's a multichapter story, this post will be a link repository for each chapter.
angevon: (Default)
2017-10-04 08:58 pm

Nanako Explains It All - Chapter 49 - Growing Pains

Author's notes: See this page for rating information and the chapter index.

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."

"Y-yeah..."

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."

"Y-Yeah..."

"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.

"Senpai!"

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.

"Hmm?"

"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."

"What misgivings?"

"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?"

"I did."

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?"

"N-No!"

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.

"Nanako—"

"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.

"Yuuta might!"

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?!"

He nodded.

"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."

Nanako grinned.

"...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!

"B-Big sis?"

"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.

"Y-Yes, Mama..."

"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.


Author's notes: 

Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!


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angevon: (Default)
2017-04-11 07:39 pm

Vermillion Room

Fandom: Persona 4, Persona 5
Pairing: Yu/Akira
Rating: T
Category: M/M
Summary: Yu learns more about Akira's Velvet Room.
Author's notes: This is a crosspost from AO3 and ffnet. I wrote this when the Japanese version of P5 came out, but held off on posting it due to minor spoilers on P5's Velvet Room mechanics.

Yu was at the kitchen counter, chopping up some carrots, idly thinking about his shopping list for tomorrow. They were almost out of curry powder, and he needed another half-gallon of milk, and wasn't there a sale over at the grocery store this weekend?

A presence ghosted behind him, and soon hands were settling around his waist. "Akira," Yu murmured, not even fazed.

"Whatcha making?" Akira breathed into his ear.

"Stew," Yu answered succinctly. He used the flat end of the knife to push the chopped carrots out of the way, then grabbed a bell pepper and continued chopping.

Akira watched him work for a while. After the pepper, Yu moved onto a beef block. As he began to cut it, Akira remarked, "Maybe Igor should hire you. You're good at this."

"Hmm?" Yu wondered what Igor had to do with anything.

"Chopping."

"Chopping, huh?" If Igor was hungry, Yu supposed he could bring some of his stew to the Velvet Room.

"Chopping Personas' heads off," Akira said. "What else?"

Yu faltered in his slicing, causing the next strip of beef to be far larger than the perfectly-sized pieces he'd cut before. "What?" he asked, turning an openly-confused gaze onto the other boy.

"You know," Akira said, waving a hand. "For fusion."

Yu stared at Akira's face, but there were no answers forthcoming. Akira's expression began to match his own.

"With... the... guillotine?" Akira continued slowly, his normal confidence suddenly full of doubt.

"Are we even talking about the same thing?"

"I-I don't know!" Akira stepped away from him. "How do you make new Personas, oh wildcard-senpai?"

The sarcasm at the end there meant he was getting defensive. Yu set his knife down and turned around to face Akira and found him standing there with his arms crossed, clearly agitated. "My cards," Yu said. "They kind of... float up, and combine together to make a new card."

"That's right, you use cards," Akira said, more to himself than anything. "I wonder why it's so different. You even summon them differently."

"What happens in your Velvet Room?"

Akira was slow to answer. "...I don't use cards, you know."

He didn't say any more, and his gaze was directed at his feet.

"Akira."

"You're not going to like it," Akira muttered, not looking up.

"I don't have to like it."

"I don't want to tell you."

"You don't have to tell me."

Akira glanced at him now, clearly startled.

"You... kind of already said," Yu clarified. "A guillotine?"

"...yeah."

Akira was playing with his fingers now, trying to avoid Yu's searching eyes. Yu let the silence draw out until Akira filled it.

"Two guillotines," he finally said. "For both Personas."

"And... the new Persona?"

"Is fused from their heads," Akira finished. "I don't know."

Another silence followed. Yu really didn't know what to say. The differences in their situations were so great, sometimes. The fact that Akira's Velvet Room was an actual jail cell was only the tip of the iceberg.

"Do you think..." Akira mumbled.

Yu tilted his head in question, but Akira was still not looking at him.

"I'm broken...?"

Yu blinked. "What..."

"I kill my other selves to create better and stronger ones." Akira raised his voice. "What kind of person does that?"

Akira was trembling. In a flash, Yu crossed the short space between them and enveloped him in a hug. The other boy was surprised, then Yu began to run his back and he began to relax.

"What kind of person does that?" he repeated into Yu's shoulder.

"Someone who really needs that strength," Yu answered.

"I guess..."

Yu tried to hold him tighter. He enjoyed having him close like this. He could feel the rise and fall of Akira's breath.

"I mean, you still have a compendium," Yu murmured. "So it's not like they're really dead if you can have them brought out again."

"Yeah," Akira said. By the sigh that followed, he was not entirely convinced.

"And maybe my card fusion is painful to the Personas too," Yu tried. "I don't really know."

"More painful than a guillotine?"

"At least a guillotine is fast. They don't, you know, suffer."

"I guess," Akira said again, and this time his tone sounded amused. Yu smiled to himself and released Akira from his hug to find the boy smiling faintly back at him.

"Feeling better now?" Yu asked.

Akira nodded. "Thanks."

They gazed at each other for a little while, and then Akira glanced at the kitchen counter.

"Well," he said. "Your stew won't cook itself."

"Maybe I should let you do the chopping now," Yu suggested. "You should be good at it!"

Akira batted him on the shoulder, and they both laughed.


Author's notes: Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!

angevon: (Default)
2016-12-12 09:58 pm

So for the Yo

Fandom: Persona 4 
Pairing: Yu/Yosuke 
Rating: T (some suggestive content)
Category: M/M
Summary: A series of one-shots written for SouYo Week 2016 on tumblr.
Author's notes: Souyoweek2016 Original Post
This is a crosspost from AO3 and ffnet. Since it's a multichapter thing, this post will be a link repository for each chapter.

angevon: (Default)
2016-12-01 06:31 pm

Nanako Explains It All - Chapter 48 - Like, Comment, and Subscribe

Author's notes: See this page for rating information and the chapter index.

Summary: Fun times with family and friends.


[9/26: Monday]

Using the mirror built into the standing closet in her room, Nanako brushed her hair with the softest brush she owned. It was messier than she liked, and she considered washing it under the faucet in the bathroom, but in the end she settled on tying it back under its headband. She tilted her head to the side. It was still messy, really, but it would do.

There was the tiniest of knocks on her bedroom door. "Yes, Yu-chan?" she called.

"Breakfast," Yu's little voice answered.

She smiled to herself and opened the door. She took Yu's hand and helped him down the stairs to the kitchen, where Naoto was making some toast. It wasn't much of a breakfast, but Nanako was starving so she didn't complain at all. Besides, bread was probably the best thing for her at the moment.

"Good morning, Nanako-san. Did you have fun last night?" Naoto asked, cutting right to the chase. His tone was just a little too neutral.

"Yep," Nanako answered, "and I called you before I got on the train home, just like I said I would. There was nothing to worry about. It's not like I went to Kabukicho."

"I know that, and I know you needed that escape as well." Naoto sighed. "But I have to disapprove on principle. You are not yet 18, so you should not be drinking. Perhaps more importantly, however: is Hanamura-san's dignity still intact?"

"Yosuke's fiiiine," Nanako drawled. "Really, he had a good time. He even made a hot new friend."

Yu squeaked at that, perking up at mention of his 'partner.' "I-I'm glad!" he said. His eyes were closed as he grinned up at her.

"You're not even jealous, are you?" Nanako remarked. "That's good."

"I'm glad," Yu repeated, blinking now. "I'm glad that you went somewhere with partner, and had fun. I want..."

He trailed off, apparently flustered by his own train of thought. "Yes, honey?" she prompted.

"Can we hang out with him sometime? Big sis, I want to be there!"

So he was a little jealous. Nanako readily promised that soon they'd go out somewhere, either to Junes or to the flood plain to have a picnic with Yosuke. "And I'll tell you a secret, Yu-chan. Do you know what it is?"

"N-no, big sis!" His eyes were almost as big as the 'O' his mouth was making. "What is it?"

"Yosuke wants to hang out with you, too!"


"Fuck everything," Yosuke moaned. The heel of his palm continuously rubbed circles on his forehead, and his face was contorted in a grimace.

He and Nanako were walking to school, though it was more like trudging than walking simply due to Yosuke's pace. It had been a surprise when he'd sidled up beside her, but as it turned out, he was in no condition to ride a bike. He must've left it behind at home.

"I feel like shit," he finished.

"Drama queen," Nanako teased. "You should have joined the theater club."

"Please don't talk." He sighed and rubbed his forehead harder.

While they walked on in silence, Nanako observed that clouds were gathering in the sky. The weather report had said it would rain today. All day, in fact, so it should be raining right now, but it was probably lucky that it wasn't. Otherwise, she suspected, Yosuke wouldn't have even gotten up out of bed this morning.

Yosuke suddenly looked at her with one eye, because his other eye was hidden behind his palm. "Nanako."

"Yeah?"

"That was a gay bar, wasn't it? Last night."

"Sure was."

Yosuke didn't visibly react, just continued to stare at her while they walked on.

Finally, he frowned. "Doesn't that mean everybody in there was gay? That bartender didn't look gay."

"Not everyone wears their heart on their sleeve, Yosuke."

"Heart, huh..." he muttered.

He let his gaze fall. A boy in glasses rushed ahead of them so fast that Nanako couldn't tell if it was her classmate or not, and that caught their attention for a moment.

"I thought you'd be making noise to annoy me," Yosuke said once the boy was out of sight.

"Honey," she said, "I'm hungover too."

"You did get those two double tequilas at the end there."

"Tequila squared," she joked weakly. She regretted that, really she did.

They turned down the road that led to the school. It was a long road, and Nanako hated it. It seemed like it was long just to increase your dread for the day to come (and boy, were she and Yosuke going to dread it today).

"Did you have a good time?" she asked him casually, since it seemed like it was okay for her to talk now.

Yosuke lowered his hand from his face to smile at her. "Yeah, I did. Thanks for taking me there, Nanako."

Nanako smiled back. Yosuke did have a nice smile, she would grant him that much.

"Be honest, though, is my hair gay?"

Nanako spent the rest of the walk to school assuring Yosuke that his magenta streak was not, in fact, a beacon to dudes who liked dudes. Before she knew it, they were already at Classroom 2-2.

Inside, several students were gathered around one desk, all straining to look at something on the female class rep's cell phone. By the various murmurs of 'aww' and 'how cute', it was probably a cat video or something. It reminded Nanako that she needed to get the newest pictures on Aunt Narukami's camera developed so she could show it off to everyone she met. The photo album would surely be filled in no time.

Before they knew it, Ms. Kashiwagi arrived to start class. She told them to put everything away. They were going to have a pop quiz.

"Fuck everything," Yosuke moaned.


[9/29: Thursday]

When Yosuke had rejoined the team, he'd informed everyone that he'd never stopped watching the Midnight Channel, but seeing as he'd reportedly crashed harder than a lame donkey the moment he got home Monday night, he missed it this once. To be fair, Nanako did too; hopefully the murderer hadn't been given an advantage over them or anything. What was this town even talking about, anyway? Nothing of interest had been shown on the news at all.

It didn't rain on Tuesday. It didn't rain on Wednesday. And it certainly didn't seem like it was going to rain on Thursday. If she could, Nanako would be glaring at the sun right now, but then she'd burn out her retinas. It was one staring contest she'd lose.

On the plus side, the overwhelming heat left even the guy in glasses with his back drenched in sweat, leading Nanako to discover a new kink.

Anyway, in the attempt to beat the heat after school, Nanako had originally planned to go out with her girlfriend to a cafe, but as it turned out, Saki had to work. Good for her, at least she could enjoy Junes's air conditioning.

Nanako had a backup plan, though: the Velvet Room. It was always nice and cool; maybe Margaret's demeanor kept it that way.

Surprisingly, Marie seemed eager to see her. She was gripping the strap to her handbag tightly, and her eyes were brighter than Nanako remembered seeing before. "You're back!" she said. "Can we go out again? Take me out again!"

"Let me cool off a little first," Nanako requested, fanning herself with a hand. "Did you write anything while I was away? Why don't you show me?"

Marie's excitement flagged a little, but soon enough she was looking through her notebook. "Just... let me find a good one."

"Any will do, honey."

Marie carefully tore a page out along its perforated edge, then handed it to Nanako. Nanako rolled the page up and then began to fan herself with it. When Marie made an indignant sound, she unrolled it with a little 'sorry that was a joke!' laugh.

Sometimes it's a struggle to get out of the nest

Sometimes my feathers are all in disarray

Sometimes my cries are totally ignored

...

Someday it'll be different

Someday I'll fly to a distant land

Someday I'll be free

As poetry went, it was a little too short, though that wasn't exactly its main issue. The ending lines held some promise, however: who wouldn't empathize with a desire to be free? Marie had the right idea. Putting it eloquently into words was something she would have to work on.

More importantly, Nanako noticed some doodles at the edge of the paper. The likeness of Igor's bulging eyes and overlong nose was eerily exact.

"What's this?" Nanako asked, pointing at the doodle.

"Oh, that?" Marie's tone was dismissive. "When I'm thinking, sometimes my hand works on its own."

"You did this without thinking about it?" Nanako put a finger to her cheek. "Next time I'm at Junes, I'll pick you up a sketchbook and a better pencil."

"Junes! You said we'd go—take me there!"

Marie's exuberance over Junes reminded Nanako of a certain little boy with a bowl-cut, amusing her entirely too much... and also giving her an idea. With a nod, she held out her hand, intending to grab Marie's, but she found that Marie had beat her to the punch and had grabbed her first! Hand in hand, they exited the Velvet Room.

Outside, the heat wave hit Nanako full force and she immediately regretted not staying in the Velvet Room just a little longer. If she was being dramatic, she'd compare it to a Shadow's Agilao. Maybe that comparison could be used in a poem.

For her part, Marie was blinking her eyes at the sudden brightness, but the heat didn't seem to bother her too much. She shaded her eyes and scanned the horizon. "Where are those balloons?"

"We'll go there soon," Nanako promised, "but first I gotta head home. Do you want to know where I live?"

"Home..." Marie murmured to herself, and for a moment Nanako thought she might trigger another sudden headache, but then she nodded. "Show me where the magic happens!"

Nanako suppressed a laugh. What magic? The only trick she knew was sticking her hand into the TV. Unless she meant... Nanako allowed herself a grin. It was going to be a fun day.

A short while later, Nanako opened the front door to the Narukami Residence. Sadly, Yu was still at cram school, but Naoto was sitting at the tea table with the laptop set out in front of him. An electric fan was set on the floor, blowing right at him. When he saw Marie, he smiled to himself. "Ah, I was wondering when we would be introduced."

"What are you talking about, Shirogane-san?" Nanako asked.

"I'd heard some time ago that you were seen with an oddly-dressed individual, but I couldn't narrow down the identity of this individual as someone in our group of compatriots." Naoto stood up and took a short bow. "I am Naoto Shirogane. It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Love the hat," Marie said, touching her own. It was a lighter shade of blue than Naoto's and had a longer bill. The golden metal button on it was engraved with the letter V, and Nanako once jokingly thought it stood for 'virgin,' but more likely it meant 'Velvet.' Or maybe it was supposed to be a Roman numeral 5. "I'm Marie. Nice to meet you."

"She's from the Velvet Room!" Nanako said excitedly. "It's real. If you can see her, it's real!"

She'd told Naoto about its existence before, and though Naoto seemed to believe her, he'd also been humorously sarcastic: 'You mean you are serviced by an elderly man with bulging eyes and a long nose alongside a youthful, well-dressed companion...? And this limo, you say the windows are covered? Nanako-san, you need an intervention.'

"Marie, go and pinch him!" Nanako requested. "That way he'll know for sure you're real."

"That won't be necessary," Naoto said. "Marie-san, please tell me more about this Velvet Room."

"Why are you both so interested in that?" Marie crossed her arms much like Yosuke would in the same situation. Well, any situation made Yosuke do that, to be honest. "It's boring and it smells."

"It smells?" Nanako repeated. She'd never noticed a smell before.

"Yeah. I don't know, like, moldy or something."

"Huh." Maybe it was Igor's body odor. He was so otherworldly, like he was older than time itself.

"Nothing happens in that place," Marie continued. "It only gets exciting when you come along. It was annoying, how they suddenly got all animated just for you. But I guess your journey is important to them, or something."

"Sometimes I feel like I'm just a chess piece," Nanako muttered. She'd be the queen, of course. Yukiko would be a bishop, and Chie a knight, and... Kanji maybe a rook? Okay, that analogy was getting a little silly.

But the big question was: who controlled the board?

...On second thought, she didn't want to know.

"I wonder if it's more like a Go board," Naoto remarked. "You think you're ahead, but with one simple move, suddenly you're very much cornered."

Nanako shuddered. That was enough speculation, she decided. She shook her head and then led Marie upstairs to her room.

She'd never had much time to decorate her room. She kinda still lived out of her moving boxes. As such, there wasn't much for Marie to look at. She basically scanned the room with a glance and didn't say anything, poetic or otherwise.

Then suddenly she was moving towards Nanako's open standing closet. She tugged at one of the dresses. "I like this one. You should wear it."

Nanako tilted her head. "No... I think you should!"

"Me?" Marie nearly backed away from the closet in her surprise. When she recovered, she took the dress down from the hanger and held it in front of her body as if to imagine herself wearing it. It was the black and white striped dress that Nanako had worn to Love is Blue with Yosuke.

"Though I would recommend not wearing those striped stockings with it," Nanako said. "That's a bit too much."

"I like my stockings," Marie mumbled, but when Nanako brought out a pair of black ones that she'd been saving for a special occasion, she seemed quite pleased.

Nanako helped her put it all on, and when she was through, Marie looked great! With her thin frame, the horizontal stripes were flattering, and they worked well with the red-and-black striped arm warmers she wore. The splash of color from the blue of the messenger bag she carried completed the ensemble, and the black boots combined with her black stockings were simply icing on the cake.

Working on automatic, Nanako took out her phone to take a picture, then shook her head and put it away. "Let's use the good camera."

"Good camera?" Marie repeated, but Nanako was already pulling her downstairs to the kitchen. She took Aunt Narukami's old camera from atop the table and told Marie to smile. The smile she produced was way more awkward and shy than expected, and when the picture was taken, Marie demanded to see the camera and asked how it worked. Nanako was just glad Marie even showed up on the picture preview screen, what with her being from the Velvet Room and all.

While Nanako was showing it off, the front door opened and Yu entered the house. Standing on the threshold, his backpack strapped to his back, he stared openly at Marie, who stared openly back.

Introductions were in order, Nanako supposed. "Marie, this is Yu-kun, my cousin. Yu-chan, this is Marie."

"This is your little cousin?" Marie's stare turned critical. "Why isn't there a bra on his head?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Nanako claimed. "There's no way my cute little cousin could really be THE Lieutenant Briefs, hero of ages, wielder of the Wand of Justice. Simply no way."

"I'm not a hero," Yu said quietly, sheepish at the attention he was receiving.

He was blushing big-time, and Nanako wondered why he'd deny that when he hustled to the corner of the room and picked up the kitty headband and put it on.

He then dropped down to all fours and meowed.

"The noble tiger," Marie said appreciatively. "King of the jungle."

"Tiger?" Yu repeated, lifting his head up to look at them. "Big sis, do tigers... meow?"

"Yu-chan, they roar!"

"R-roar..."

His roar sounded so plaintive that Nanako had to hold in her laughter. "I think there can be tigers that meow instead of roar."

"You have stripes," Yu noted while looking at Marie. "Are you... a white tiger?"

"Rare tiger," Nanako said.

"I can roar," Marie said. "Watch me."

When Marie took a deep breath, Nanako rushed forward and covered Yu's ears, wishing she had another pair of hands to cover her own. Marie's roar was powerful enough to wake the dead.

"I... I like meows more," Yu admitted.

"I-I can meow too," Marie defended. She cleared her throat and emitted a very tame meow, after which everyone giggled.

"As amusing as this is," Naoto said from his place at the laptop in the living room, "tigers and other large felines do meow. There does not, in fact, need to be a tiger that can meow, as much as all tigers do meow."

"Is that legit?" Nanako asked. "Huh... I bet Takeyoshi-kun could have told us that."

"He could!" Yu agreed.

While Nanako adjusted the headband on Yu's head since it had fallen down, she came up with a haiku:
"Tiger prowls softly
Through the shadowy jungle
Seeking his next meal."

"I gotta write that down!" Marie said. She began to rummage through her messenger bag. She became increasingly more frustrated as she couldn't find what she wanted. "There's always paper in here. Where'd it all go?"

"You probably used it all," Nanako said.

"No, you don't understand. There's always paper, and pens too. I never run out. Never!"

"Maybe it's because you're in the real world now," Nanako suggested. "If you're going to live in our world, you'll have to live by our rules, y'know? Anyway, since you need to pick up some paper, I think it's the perfect excuse for a trip to Junes! Yu-chan, are you ready to go?"

"Junes?" he repeated. "Y-yeah!"

Nanako took the headband from his head, intending to put it away, but Yu stopped her. With a shy smile, he asked if he could keep wearing it. There was no way she'd deny him that, but she couldn't let it keep falling off his head. With some rubber bands, she adjusted it so that it stayed more securely in place.

"I've found a video of a tiger meowing," Naoto announced. "Would you like to see?"

What a silly question! Moments later they'd all gathered around to watch it. Marie was the most fascinated of them all. "It really does meow. Say, what's that on the side?"

"What, those? More videos," Nanako explained. "When you watch one, the site will recommend others." When Naoto selected one at random, Nanako added, "You can lose hours of your life clicking through them like this."

"L-look, baby tigers!" Yu said excitedly. "Watch that one, please!"

"They're called cubs," Naoto informed him as they watched the tiger cubs playing with their zookeeper.

"Are you a cub or a full-grown tiger?" Nanako asked him.

"I'm... I'm full-grown," he announced without too much hesitation.

Nanako didn't laugh, knowing how important it was to treat a kid with respect, though she dearly wanted to. "Okay, my big tough tiger. I'm ready to go to Junes if you are."

It took some effort to pull Marie and Yu away from the laptop, Marie especially since the technology seemed to speak to her. Nanako wondered if Aunt Narukami had another old cell phone she could pass on to Marie. She'd definitely have fun with it. Naoto stayed behind to watch the house (or perhaps more videos).

They weren't even at Junes and Marie could hardly contain her excitement. "Look at those huge balloons! They're like..." - she paused to grope for the words she wanted to use – "giant flying peaches!"

Well, the balloons were orange and yellow, so Nanako gave her that. "You know in some places, people go flying with balloons. It's called hot-air ballooning."

"Can we do that sometime? I want to soar as high as a seagull."

"Maybe when we find an elephant," Nanako promised, knowing that would never happen.

Once inside the store, it was a shopping adventure in every sense of the word. Marie was so easily distracted by every sales sign in the store that it was difficult to keep up with her.

"Buy one, get one boxer shorts!" she squealed in delight. "Wait, I don't need those."

"Go briefs or go home," Nanako agreed. "Here, you should try this on!"

Together they picked out so many outfits to try on that the changing room attendant soon gave up trying to keep track of it all. Little Yu was their judge; he sat on the bench just outside the changing rooms that was reserved for henpecked husbands.

Marie came out of the changing room wearing a flower-patterned blouse and a purple tiered skirt. "This doesn't seem like my style at all."

"M-maybe if the flowers were purple too," Yu suggested meekly.

"Is there a black skirt like this?" Marie asked the attendant. "Black goes with everything."

"You really like black, huh?" Nanako remarked, coming out of her changing room with a red t-shirt and orange short-shorts. Wearing them she felt like she was advertising condiments.

"It has a lot of meaning," Marie said. "In poetry and otherwise."

"The empty space between stars," Nanako said, "the pupil of an eye, the depths of the ocean..."

"It also just looks good on me." Marie grinned while toying with one of her arm warmers. "Doesn't it?"

"I think..." Yu said, and trailed off like he often did when voicing an opinion.

"Yes, oh King of the Jungle?" Nanako prompted.

"Wh-what about... gray?"

Marie considered it. "It's worth a try."

They tried on several more sets of clothes, and Marie conceded that gray was a good color, too, as long as it was a fairly dark shade. Nanako found a nice low-cut top that she knew Saki would love.

After about the tenth skirt, Yu began to get restless, so Nanako decided it was time to find something more interesting for him. It also helped that some middle-aged women came by to use the changing rooms. Yu was obviously relieved when Nanako took his hand and led him away to Junes's small crafts section.

But his happiness was only temporary. Nanako was looking through some notebooks when she felt him clench her skirt in a fist. "What's the matter, honey?" she murmured.

"C-can I... t-take it off?"

She blinked and looked down to find him tugging on his headband. Since she'd rubber-banded it, he couldn't do it himself. Was it irritating him...? She helped him take it off, but it hadn't visibly rubbed his skin raw or anything.

Even with it off, he was suddenly overcome with shyness and buried his face in her skirt. Nanako noticed some ladies gathered together down the aisle. That wasn't odd in Junes, what was odd was that they were whispering to each other and pointing at Yu.

The cute kitty band was attracting attention, apparently. No wonder he wanted it off.

Of course, his hiding from them was even cuter. The women whispered louder, not realizing or not caring that their attention was stressing the boy out.

Nanako set her mouth in determination and intended to go over there and say something, but...

"FLOCK OFF!"

...Marie beat her to it.

The women were so startled by the volume she employed that they left the aisle without a fight.

"Thanks," Nanako said.

"What was their problem, anyway?" Marie said. "He's not a real tiger, or they'd be eaten!"

Yu made a small sound, and Nanako gave him a hug. "How about we go to the food court and have a snack," she suggested. They could all use a breath of fresh air after that.

It wasn't all that busy at the food court, which was probably to be expected this late on a Thursday afternoon. What was unexpected was that Saki and Yosuke were sitting across from each other at the bench table and chatting. Saki was laughing at some joke or something he'd told her. She said something in return, and then he was laughing, too.

Whatever they were talking about, Nanako was happy to see them getting along.

And so was Yu. "P-partner!" he cried, a big fat grin coming to his face.

Yosuke turned on his seat and his smile grew. It was too bad he was wearing a hair net, since it hid his hair's pink streak. Yu's reaction to that would be priceless. "Hey, Yu! It's been a while, huh?"

Unprompted, Yu climbed onto the bench to sit right next to him. Saki's expression was about as bemused as Yosuke's own. "Hello Yu-chan," she said. She noticed Marie following Nanako. "Oh? Who's this?"

Nanako pushed Marie forward. "Guys, meet Marie. She's not from around here."

"I'll say." Yosuke took in Marie's appearance. "Isn't that your dress?"

"That's right," Nanako said. "She's from my closet. Kidding, but yeah, I let her have it."

"Hello," Marie said rather blandly after Nanako introduced her friends to her. She paused, apparently unsure what else to say. Then she blinked and narrowed her eyes. "Are you a baker or something?" she asked Yosuke.

Saki giggled, and Yosuke looked puzzled for an instant before he understood. "Ah, no, this apron is because I work here. I'm on break right now."

"And my break ends in another minute," Saki said with a regretful sigh. "They're way too short. It was nice meeting you, Marie-chan."

"Aww," Nanako said. When Saki headed back to the store, she stopped to give Nanako a quick hug and a peck of a kiss.

"I want to work at Junes," Yu murmured.

"The pay isn't good enough, Yu," Yosuke said. "Trust me."

"But... you work here," he pointed out.

Yosuke scratched the back of his head. "Yeah. It's a long story."

"You think I could get a job?" Marie asked. She held up the notebook she'd picked out earlier. It had rainbow-colored dolphins on it. "Gotta pay for this somehow."

"It's on me today, Marie," Nanako said, but she wondered what sort of job would be right for Marie. None of her part-time jobs seemed to fit the bill. One of the Velvet Room doors was right at the shopping district, so maybe she could work for Grandma Kujikawa. Nanako was sure they'd get along swimmingly. "We'll think about that later."

Yosuke turned around in his seat to better face Marie, since she was standing a distance away from the bench. "So, where are you from?"

"It's a long story," Nanako evaded, not wanting to explain the Velvet Room to him at that moment. "Anyway, we're here because I promised Yu-chan a snack."

"Yeah? What are you getting?" Yosuke asked. "A root beer float?"

"No," Yu answered. "We're going to have ice cream..."

"A root beer float has ice cream in it," Yosuke pointed out, "but I get you. What flavor?"

"Neo... puh..."

"Featherman flavored ice cream?"

"N-no..."

"It's Neapolitan," Nanako explained.

"I know," Yosuke said. "I'm just teasing. So, vanilla, strawberry, AND chocolate... Which one's your favorite?"

"I like... the strawberry and the vanilla."

"Yeah, when they mix together, it's cool, but with Neapolitan, everything always end up brown and tasting like chocolate, doesn't it?"

"You should eat the chocolate first," Yu advised.

Yosuke patted him on the shoulder and declared that he was very smart.

"I'll take the chocolate," Marie volunteered, and that settled that.

Yosuke had to excuse himself right when the ice cream arrived; his own break had ended. Yu gave him a hug before he left, mimicking what he'd seen Saki do with Nanako. Yosuke didn't really know what to do about a kid wrapped around his legs. Over Yu's head, Nanako gave him the okay, and Yosuke ruffled his fingers through the boy's hair before saying goodbye and extricating himself from his grip.

"Hey, Marie," Nanako said after Yosuke was gone. "Don't look now, but there's an elephant."

"What? Where?!"

Marie stopped prodding her ice cream to face the direction Nanako indicated, and then snorted at the sight. It was the elephant slide in the kids' play area.

"You really had me going there," she said, shaking her head.

"They say elephants never forget," Nanako said. "I bet it remembers you, Yu-chan. Maybe you should say hello?"

"I don't... want to go down it..." Yu murmured.

"That's fine, I won't make—Marie?"

Marie had stood up and was now walking towards the elephant slide. When she reached it, she climbed up the ladder and sat at the top. A minute passed. Was she too scared to slide down? Nanako suspected not. Marie seemed to be lost in thought.

Then Marie climbed down. "You can feel the wind up there," she reported, "and the breeze is nice, but the sun is just too hot."

"The plastic burned you through the dress?"

Marie nodded. "It's no wonder no kids are around. Maybe they should add a pool."

"The ice cream," Yu piped up from the table. "It's melting..."

After finishing their tasty snack, Nanako was reminded of one of the other reasons she'd wanted to come to Junes: to get prints of the pictures she'd taken of Yu and his classmates in the gym at Yasogami High. She planned to send them to his teacher as an adorable memento.

They went to Junes' self-service printing area to get it done. As the pictures came out of the printer, Marie commented, "That looks like it was a lot of fun."

Nanako held up the picture of a trio of grinning first graders hugging the rubber balls they'd used in the presentation. "It was, wasn't it, Yu-chan?"

Marie picked up the next picture, a group photo of Nanako surrounded by what might have been the entire class. "The kids are flocking to you like you're their mom or something."

"My little ducklings," Nanako murmured. She was too young to be a mom, of course, but she did feel protective of every child she met. Yuuta was a case-in-point. How could she not love them when they were just so young and innocent? Well, maybe not completely innocent, she amended, thinking of Ta-kun's worldliness. He was going to be trouble later, she could tell. His mom would have her hands full.

"I wonder," Marie said, "if kids would like me...?"

"Well," Nanako said, "there's only one way to find out! I'm going to the daycare this Saturday. Maybe you can come along?"

"That'd be awesome," Marie said.

"Then I'll pick you up before I go!"

It was a plan. Nanako hummed to herself, quite satisfied with the day, and as the last picture printed out, she felt her bond with Marie grow stronger. It gave her pause; she hadn't felt any of her other social links do this in quite some time.

She shrugged the feeling away. It had never been that important to her in the first place.


[9/30: Friday]

The rain arrived just as the weather report had predicted. Nanako went to the gas station, expecting to see Izaya enjoying it as he always did, but he wasn't in sight.

Under the awning she found a car with all of its doors wide open. Its trunk was popped open, too. Since there was no one at all around, the sight was odd. It was almost like someone had abandoned it here after a bank robbery or something.

Nanako approached the vehicle warily, unsure if she should even be getting near it. It wasn't a new model, maybe a decade old or so. Aunt Narukami would turn up her nose at it.

She was eyeing the driver's seat when she heard a muffled curse coming from the direction of the convenience store. She turned and saw Izaya struggling to pull a wet/dry vacuum behind him. Its wheels were sticking, making him tug so hard on the hose that the whole thing ran over his foot.

"Do you need some help?" Nanako asked mildly.

Izaya saw her, then flashed teeth in something that was half-grin and half-snarl. "Find an outlet for this," he requested, handing her the plug to the vacuum. It was attached to an extension cord.

She found an outlet inside the convenience store behind a shelf and plugged it in, nearly jumping at the electricity that zapped across the plug and the socket before she'd got it all the way in. It was going to be one of those days, wasn't it?

She returned to the parked car to find Izaya wiping sweat from his brow. With a sigh he began to exchange the vacuum's hose attachment to one that had a larger nozzle.

"I didn't know we did auto detailing," she remarked.

"They say that the customer is always right." He glared at the car, making his thoughts on that phrase crystal clear.

"Your sales pitch still needs some work. Don't worry, I'll help."

She took over vacuuming the car's interior while Izaya cleaned the windows. He didn't do a great job cleaning the outer side of the windows, and Nanako didn't call him out for it. It was raining anyway, so the windows would just get ruined again as soon as the customer took the car back.

The work was more intense than she'd expected, and by the time she was done using the vacuum, she understood why Izaya hadn't been enthusiastic about the job. Her arms were sore from manipulating the hose into the car's every little crevice and her back had a kink in it from bending over so much. By the time they were through, she needed the can of green tea Izaya offered her as refreshment.

She fell onto the bench by the garage. "If I never clean out a car again, it'll be too soon," she told him. The rain falling on her was refreshing and helped cool her off more than the green tea did.

"When you live in a big city, you have no need for a car," Izaya said, taking the spot next to her.

"One of my friends has a scooter. Maybe I should invest in one."

"It might be nice to feel the wind in your hair."

"Yeah," she said, "but I'm the type to always wear a helmet." She let her hair down now; she'd had to tie it back since it'd kept getting in her face during the vacuuming.

"Safety first?" he asked, one eyebrow upraised.

She nodded.

"So you're no longer going to rush headlong into things?" He sounded skeptical. "I wonder if you've changed that much."

"Look," she said with feeling, "when it comes to something simple like wearing a seatbelt or a helmet, there's absolutely no reason not to. It's a well-known fact that scooters and motorcycles get into accidents more often than other vehicles, and that helmets substantially reduce the injuries that result. I mean, they're not always the difference between life and death, but in some cases, they totally are."

When she was done with her spiel, she realized that Izaya was giving her a funny look. He didn't say anything or even seem to be ready to say anything until she sent him an annoyed look.

"That's not what I was talking about," he finally admitted.

"What did you—" she began, but stopped because he was chuckling.

"You're so interesting, Nanako," he said.

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Am I one of the people you people-watch?"

He leaned his head back in mild surprise. "Ah, well, I watch many people in this town," he defended all too feebly.

"I hope you get some entertainment value out of it." She sighed.

"Don't worry, Nanako. Out of all the humans I have observed, you are the one with the most mileage."

"Well I am all the way from Tokyo, after all," Nanako responded on automatic. When Izaya began to chuckle, she grinned slowly, recognizing in that moment that it was a double-entendre. She punched him playfully in the arm and giggled herself.

"Speaking of Tokyo," she murmured. "I'm suddenly reminded of my trip here. When I was waiting for the train, I'd seen some people watching an ad for Quelorie Magic. You know all those ads Risette does that are just this side of risque."

"Ah, what's the tagline? All of the flavor, none of the weight... something like that."

"What I'm getting at is that, from those ads, no one would imagine that Risette is actually a smart and kind person in real life."

"Are you really one to talk about judging books by their cover?" Izaya said, hiding a grin behind his spindly fingers.

Nanako shook her head. "That's not what I meant, and I think you know that."

Izaya didn't say anything, though he radiated curiosity. He watched her not like a hawk and its prey, but closely all the same.

"You," she said. "You get me. You got me first out of all my friends. I think that says something. I'm not sure what exactly, but something."

Izaya stopped hiding his smile, allowing it to grow into a full-on grin. "I must confess something," he said. "You recall how you said that you feel calm around me?"

"Yes?"

"...I feel the same around you."


[10/1: Saturday]

The weather report hadn't been mistaken. It was pouring buckets when Nanako arrived at the central shopping district. She was happy to enter the Velvet Room and get out of the rain. It wasn't all that different from how she'd escaped the heat the other day, come to think of it.

"Marie~" Nanako sang. "I'm going to the daycare, wanna come along?"

Marie shook her head slowly.

Nanako frowned, then noticed that Marie was definitely not looking very good. She was paler than usual, like she might have a fever. "Are you all right? Maybe we should go to the doctor instead."

"I'll... be all right..." Marie said quietly. "Today is just not a good day. I have to stay here."

"Your existence is wavering?" Nanako remembered that Marie had used that phrase once before. The last time it happened, though, Marie had seemed to be in perfect health.

"Yeah," Marie said.

"Margaret?" Nanako asked.

Margaret had a troubled frown on her face. "I do not know the cause, but I believe it has to do with the fact that she is not from your world."

Nanako considered it. Marie had been out for longer than ever before when they'd gone to Junes. Maybe after that adventure, she needed to recharge for a while. Wasn't there a ghost story that went like that?

"What about you, Margaret?" Nanako asked. "Are you able to leave the Velvet Room?"

Margaret blinked, and a playful grin came to her face. "That should remain a secret."

Nanako grinned back at her. She and Margaret had come to an understanding after she'd fused that Soma. Margaret was a strong personality, for sure, but she was all right.

"But as for Marie..." Margaret's expression turned serious. "It's a mystery we are hoping you might solve."

"The next time she can leave here, I'll look into it," Nanako promised. "For now, Marie, just try to relax? If you need more paper or pens, let me know now."

Marie managed the ghost of a smile. "I'm all right, thanks. Have fun with the kids for me."

Nanako left the Velvet Room. In the far distance, thunder rumbled, mirroring her troubled mood. The number of mysteries she had to solve just kept piling up, and this one in particular made her uneasy. Marie's problems had to stem from her forgotten past. The only other being Nanako knew who'd wanted to know more about his past... Well, his mysteries would never be solved.

For better or for worse, the downpour calmed into a steady drizzle by the time she reached the daycare. She forced a smile onto her face and entered the building, but soon enough the sight of the children playing turned it into something far more genuine. She hadn't seen them in so long!

"Nana-chan! Nana-chan!" several kids chanted, running circles around her.

"It's a good thing you're well enough to work," the caretaker remarked. "We could really use the help."

That fact was obvious by the way the kids tugged on her from all directions while she was trying to get her work apron on. She bent forward slightly in a vague attempt to reach their height. She swept her arms forward, catching several of them in a big hug. "I've missed you all too, don't you doubt it!"

With that, the caretaker left Nanako in charge, presumably to take a really long break. Nanako didn't mind. She had things under control. Maybe. A little boy and a little girl were already fighting over an action figure, and Yuuta kept spinning around in circles apparently just to see how long it would take to make himself get dizzy and fall over. Yu's role was apparently to steady him when he began to fall.

Normally the rain meant it was an indoors day, but the kids were full of such boundless energy that a movie wouldn't be enough to keep their attention, no matter how new or exciting it was.

"Miss, Miss!" A little boy missing his front teeth began to tug on her apron. "I wan'... I wan'... I wan'..."

"What do you want?" Nanako asked him with the patience of a stone.

"I wan'... anover cubber..."

"Another what?"

Though the kid repeated it several times, Nanako just couldn't decipher his words. She was lucky that Yu spoke so clearly! It was only until another child told her that 'it' was on the table that she figured out what 'it' was: a cupcake. As it turned out, one of the mothers had left a whole box of chocolate cupcakes for the kids. And that was the answer to the mystery of why the kids were so hyper today—they were all on a sugar high.

With all that energy, the kids needed to be let loose, but of course they couldn't be let outside in the rain unprotected. Nanako improvised a solution. She found the supply closet and a box of trash bags. With a pair of scissors, she began to cut the bags to create ponchos for the kids to wear. When putting them over the kids' heads, she made sure their entire head went through the hole she'd made for it. Safety above all! The suffocation hazard warnings could not be ignored.

"I can fly!" one of the kids said, waving his poncho'd arms around like they were big wings.

"I bet I can fly faster than you!" a girl challenged him, and soon it was a race across the room. Boundless energy—they weren't even outside yet!

"Yu-chan, come on," Nanako said, motioning him forward. Yu had held back earlier, letting Yuuta get suited up first, but now it was his turn. With a shy little grin, he stepped forward and held his arms out while Nanako covered him up with the plastic bag. She couldn't resist giving him a hug.

When Nanako opened the door after suiting up the last kid, they all raced outside like a herd of beasts. They were just so excited to be allowed to play in the rain. Yu jogged along after his playmates, but he slowed and turned back to Nanako. "Big sis... what about you?" he asked.

"Huh? What about me?"

"You're getting all wet."

She'd completely forgotten to put a bag over herself. The idea hadn't even occurred to her. Izaya was totally rubbing off on her. If only he was here, though he'd probably be arrested if he so much as thought about getting this close to kids. He'd have loved to see her getting soaked like this.

In fact, there wasn't anything particularly special to do outside except get wet. There wasn't any mud; even the grass in Inaba was boring! There were, however, worms coming up through the dirt near the sidewalk. One little girl picked up one the of these wriggling things, and two other girls went 'Eww!' at her and made disgusted sounds. Nanako determinedly strode over there and picked up a snail wandering across the sidewalk.

"There's nothing bad about slimy things!" she declared. "They won't make you sick or anything. You can play with them if you want to!" She held up the snail. "This little guy is my assistant, and we'll see how long it takes him to get to the other side. Make sure no one steps on him!"

That preoccupied some of the kids, at least until they got bored of it. She gave a group of boys a rubber ball to play with, warning them to be careful not to slip on the wet grass when they chased after it. It was harder for the kids to pick up and hold onto the rubber ball when it was so slippery from being wet. She used this as a learning lesson by asking them why they thought this happened.

"Because it's wet," Yuuta said. It was an answer worthy of Takeyoshi-kun, and Nanako couldn't help but laugh.

Checking up on the worm-loving girl and her friends, Nanako saw that someone had found a second snail and apparently the two were racing. Or they would be if the snails weren't going in completely opposite directions. She told the kids not to encourage the snails too much and left them to it.

On the side of the daycare building, a group of kids discovered the drainpipe that let out the rain collected from the roof. They were having fun trying to stop the flow of water from it with their hands. Nanako had them throw some leaves into the stream and watch how far the leaves went.

Returning to the main yard, Nanako found that Yuuta and the ball-playing kids were now reenacting some scenes from the Featherman TV show. "You watch Featherman now, Yuuta-kun?" she asked in surprise.

"Y-yeah," he answered. "I watch it every Saturday in my room!"

Nanako fist-pumped into the air. Finally Minami-san was making progress at being a good mom.

"I watch it... with big sis!" Yu declared, grinning up at Nanako and then impulsively giving her a hug.

"No fair," a girl declared. "I want her to be my big sis!"

Nanako held out her arm and waved her forward. "Come on, you can have a hug too. I think Yu-chan can share."

Yu paused before declaring, "Y-yeah...!"

Nanako patted both kids on the head and then told them to try and catch the rain on their tongues. While she watched them play, she contemplated how much Yu had changed in the time she'd known him. He wouldn't even play dress-up with the other kids just a few months ago, and here he was playing ball and make-believe with them now. He didn't mind that she was here, crashing his daycare, and in fact wanted her there.

It stopped raining. Nanako looked up when she noticed that, and saw a rainbow arcing across the sky. "Look, look!" she said, pointing at it.

"Woooooowwwwww," the kids cried.

"Can you name all the colors in the rainbow?" Nanako asked to make it a learning moment.

She began to sing a song about the colors of the rainbow, remembering how she'd sung the very same song to Yu so long ago. If only he'd brought the Loveline umbrella today! The sun began to peek through the clouds, though, rendering it unnecessary anyway.

"Mommy's here!"

Nanako blinked and looked around. Sure enough, the daycare manager was coming out of the building, bringing along the first set of parents coming to pick up their children. Playtime was over, though the remaining children continued to run around in the yard, and Nanako continued to keep them company. The kids would recognize their family when they arrived, anyway.

Some time later, there were only a few kids left. Yuuta, Nanako knew, would be one of the last to leave since his stepmom was always late. Not unlike Aunt Narukami, really, though Nanako could take Yu home now at any time if she wanted.

"Big sis!" a boy shouted, and for a moment Nanako thought he meant her, but in fact he was directing his attention to a girl about Nanako's age. Some of these kids had to have siblings, she realized. This 'big sis' was playing with her phone while the daycare manager double-checked her name against the list.

I suppose I can't be the ONLY big sister in this town... but clearly I'm the best one, Nanako thought, smiling smugly to herself.

The girl glanced at her over the phone as if to ask, 'What's your problem?'

Of course, Nanako had too many problems to name, and in fact began to mentally list them in her head when the other girl gasped, looking past her. Nanako turned around just in time to see Yuuta trip over his untied shoe. His arms flailed as he tried to keep his balance, but he was unable to stop himself from landing headfirst on the ground.

Nanako hissed in sympathy, and when Yuuta began to wail, she began to move forward, but the boy was several feet away. So far, in fact, that someone else beat her to it.

Yu.

Yu patted Yuuta's shoulder until the boy looked up at him. Then he cupped Yuuta's head in his hands, leaned forward, and kissed him on his forehead, right on the spot he'd hurt. He was kissing it better.

Yuuta's wails subsided into sniffles. When he wiped his eyes a moment later, he stopped crying altogether and sent his friend a grateful smile.

Too. Precious. It took all of Nanako's self-control not to squeal. She did, however, have to make sure Yuuta was okay so she went over there and fussed over him herself. He had a nice bump growing on his head, but it wasn't bleeding or anything, so he was probably okay.

"Big sis, can Yuuta-kun come home with us?" Yu asked while she was still rubbing Yuuta's head. "And... and stay the night?"

Nanako almost replied automatically with a 'sure,' but it wasn't entirely up to her. "Only if Yuuta-chan's mom says it's okay. And Yuuta-chan has to ask her himself!"

"Awwwww," Yuuta whined, pulling away from her. "Do I gotta?"

"You gotta," Nanako said, nodding her head.

Yuuta sighed in an exaggerated way, and then said, "Okay."

Of course that would only happen when Minami finally arrived to pick him up. While waiting for her, Nanako asked Yu and Yuuta to help clean up by collecting all the discarded makeshift ponchos and putting them in the trash.

But to Nanako's surprise, instead of being dead last, there were still a few other kids waiting for their guardians when Minami showed up. "Yuuta-kun," Minami called. "Are you ready to go?"

"Actually, Mom!" he said. Then he realized what he'd just said and his cheeks turned all red. "I-I mean, Minami-san... I wanna go home with Yu-chan!"

"What else do you need to say, Yuuta-chan?" Nanako prompted.

He blinked. "P-please?"

Minami mulled it over. "I guess it's all right." She addressed Nanako. "When do you want me to pick him up?"

Nanako hashed out the details with her, and soon enough she was taking both of the boys home to the Narukami Residence. Naoto had not been expecting company, but he wasn't exactly surprised to see Yuuta, and at least they'd met before after the beach trip. And now that Yuuta was better-versed in Featherman lore, they had so much to talk about! In fact, Yu took out one of several volumes of the manga Naoto had purchased and all three ended up sitting on the floor in Yu's room to read it together.

Aunt Narukami came home while they were still reading, bringing takeout she'd picked up for dinner. Nanako had texted her about Yuuta's presence so he wasn't left out. While they ate, though, somehow the conversation turned to dessert, and Nanako lamented the fact they had none.

"You still have some cookie mix," Naoto pointed out. "But I suppose it's getting late to bake."

"It's never too late for cookies!" Nanako declared. "Err... if it's okay with you, Aunt Narukami."

"Please," Aunt Narukami said. "Just save some for me."

"We have the best cookie-cutters," Yu told Yuuta.

"I wanna see!" Yuuta requested, and then Nanako was getting out all the ingredients and telling the boys how they could best help her make a batch of cookies.

In the process, however, the bag of flour fell off the counter and onto Yuuta, caking him with a fine layer and ruining his clothes.

Yuuta looked like he might cry again, this time out of embarrassment. The poor boy kept looking between Nanako and Aunt Narukami, expecting to be punished or reprimanded somehow, so Nanako went and screamed:

"Aunt Narukami, we got a ghost in the house!"

Now the ball was in her court. Nanako had no idea how her aunt might react; she was certainly cool, but she only ever joked when Adachi was in the room, which in hindsight was a pretty obvious—

"That won't do," Aunt Narukami said suddenly. "Ghosts are not allowed in the house. Yu-chan, you must catch it."

Now smiling from ear to ear, Yu pounced on his friend like a ferocious, 2 foot tall werecat, covering himself in flour.

Long story short, the boys needed a bath.

But not before they baked ghost cookies. Aunt Narukami volunteered to watch the oven. Maybe she was in a good mood? Whatever the case, they started having fun the moment Yuuta lost his shirt. Nanako hauled them out of the kitchen and into the bathroom stat, but once there, they were surprised by a wild Naoto in the bathtub.

"Oh!" Nanako exclaimed. "Cover your eyes, kids!"

"It is quite alright," Naoto said, smiling softly. No, more than that, his smile was... peaceful. Nanako hadn't seen him wear that expression before, and silence filled the room as she admired it.

"Um... big sis... can we look now?" Yu's tiny voice asked, hands still covering his eyes. Yuuta too. Not what Nanako would have done at their age, that's for sure.

Nanako looked at the detective once more, and he simply nodded. "Yeah, you can look now."

Nanako watched carefully for Yuuta's reaction. Wide eyes scanning back and forth, a slight shifting of weight from one leg to the other—but his mouth was set in a grim line, like he was determined not to say anything stupid.

"I thought you only had one big sis," he said, after a few seconds.

"I do," Yu answered firmly, a rare thing for him.

"I suspect this must be quite complicated for you, Yuuta-kun," Naoto said, looking at him kindly.

"But I thought this was your big bro?"

"I am," Naoto answered, sharing a look with Yu, then a smile.

"You remember when I said some girls liked both boys and girls?" Nanako asked. "Well, some girls don't like being girls. Some girls feel wrong. These girls might not know what they should be or how they should feel, not for a good while."

"I don't like being a boy sometimes," Yuuta said, fidgeting a little bit. Nanako raised her eyebrows, surprised, but decided not to confuse the boy further by getting into it.

"Naoto here decided that until he figures it out, he'd rather be a boy," she continued, "and to us, he is."

"I guess that makes sense," the boy said as the fidgeting passed.

"Big bro is big bro," Yu offered, shrugging slightly, and Yuuta seemed to accept that.

"Now," said the detective prince, "I believe we have a mystery on our hands. These two innocent boys seem to have been turned into ghosts."

Yuuta giggled.

It was a nice bath.

When it came to be time for bed, the rain outside meant it was cold like it was supposed to be, which meant Yuuta couldn't just sleep in his underwear like last time. On the upside, Yu had this set of adorable footie PJs that fit his friend like a glove, and as always, big bro and sis both took a copious amount of pictures. Subtly, of course.

Since they were exhausted from their exciting day playing outside, it was easy to put them to sleep. Really, Nanako thought, all the parents should thank her for tiring the kids out so much. Anyway, like last time, Yuuta shared Yu's futon. It was cute to see them side-by-side like that. Yuuta was on his back with his mouth wide open. Yu was cuddling Foxy next to him, and his breath kept hitting Yuuta's hair, making it blow this way and that.

"Are you going to head to bed now, too?" Nanako whispered to Naoto as they watched the children sleep.

"It's only a little longer before the Midnight Channel," Naoto said. "We should both watch it."

Nanako tried to tune out Yuuta's snoring to hear the rain and determined that it was steady. Steady enough to last until midnight, hopefully—especially since they'd set up a VCR in Nanako's room to record what appeared on the TV. No longer would they rely solely on Yosuke's shaky hand to record it on his phone, nor would they have only a single snapshot of the TV screen to go on. Nanako only wished she'd thought of this before, especially when Yukiko's Shadow had been on so long ago. Lacy unmentionables, heh heh...

"Rise-san is having a good time," Naoto remarked while they waited for midnight in Nanako's room. "She's still far from Inaba. I suspect the Midnight Channel will have given up on her by now."

"She's definitely not been on the news at all," Nanako agreed. "But neither has anyone else. The town's been so quiet." Too quiet, Nanako wanted to add, but that was too dramatic even to her sensibilities.

"Everyone's already forgotten the Tofu Shop Incident," Naoto said. "But I can't blame them. Nothing came of it, after all."

"It was news for a week." Nanako sighed. Adachi-san had refused to be interviewed on TV regarding the incident, so he was probably safe, though his statement had been circulated in the newspaper. Nanako began to snicker. If the whole situation revolved around newspapers instead of TV, would it be called the Midnight Edition?

Naoto ignored her snickering, correctly identifying that it wasn't about anything important, to focus on turning on the VCR. They'd decided to start it recording early so that there wasn't any chance of fumbling it and missing the show.

"On the one hand," Nanako said, "I hope nothing's on so we don't have anything to worry about, but on the other hand..."

"This waiting game is starting to become tedious, yes," Naoto agreed. "Every day that passes with the murderer free increases the likelihood that he will never be caught."

Nanako opened her phone to check the clock. She wondered idly if Yosuke was sitting in his room, ready to watch it as well.

The next few minutes passed painfully slowly, and during them Nanako kept one ear on the rain. It remained steady.

The TV clicked on with the sound of static. Nanako held her breath, aware that Naoto next to her was doing the same.

A silhouette appeared on the screen, but it was so blurry and indistinct that she couldn't tell the person's age or even their gender. Who is it? she wondered. If only the static could clear up for just a second...!

She blinked. For a moment, she thought she'd seen something familiar through the static, but it was so small and distant that she couldn't name it.

And then the silhouette was gone, and the TV turned off.

Nanako and Naoto looked at each other. Naoto spoke first. "That was rather fruitless."

"We can only hope the killer hasn't a damn clue who it is either," Nanako said. "Still, I thought I saw something... Well, we recorded it, so we can watch it as many times as we want."

Naoto nodded. "Yes. In fact, I'd like to take the recording to the police station in the morning. They have special programs to deal with security camera footage and make them clearer. I can try it on this, and convert it to a digital version in the process."

It sounded good to Nanako. With that, she bid Naoto a good night and went to bed.


[10/2: Sunday]

Yuuta didn't have anything to wear the next day, so Nanako just let him keep wearing the footie PJs. He could borrow some of Yu's play clothes, but where was the fun in that?

As befitting of a lazy Sunday morning, they spent it watching cartoons and eating gummi snacks. Both Yu and Yuuta sang the Featherman theme song, alternating the lines like it was a duet. During the show, Nanako texted Chie that training was out for the day since she was babysitting.

After the shows, they went to Nanako's room and played dress-up with her clothes so that Yuuta could have a costume for Colonel Carnation. She made sure it contained as much pink as she could possibly manage, including some of her own lacy unmentionables. He wore these on his arms, making them resemble Marie's arm warmers.

Nanako introduced Yuuta to all of her stuffed animals, including, of course, Princess Chan-chan, the big purple bunny. When Yuuta hugged the plushie, it lasted a long time, and he stroked the soft fabric over and over again, probably without even realizing he was doing it. She could tell the kid needed it. She'd have to convince Minami to buy him a giant plushie of his own sometime!

They continued to play with the stuffed animals until late in the afternoon. Foxie was the rapscallion that she always was, this time stealing one of Chan-chan's ribbons and then being teleported to a whole other world as punishment by the Wand of Justice.

At some point, a knock on the door interrupted their play. It was Yuuta's stepmom come to take him home. It was actually a little later in the day than Nanako had planned, but she didn't mind; they'd been having so fun that she hadn't realized the time anyway. Yuuta was still wearing his Colonel Carnation costume, and when Minami saw him in it, she couldn't help but smile (though she tried to hide it behind her hand).

"I see that you had fun, Yuuta-kun," she remarked.

"No I didn't!" Yuuta replied vehemently.

"No?" Minami asked. "You had no fun at all?"

Yuuta crossed his arms, accidentally pulling off a pair of underwear in the process. He nodded. "No fun."

Yuuta maintained his stance for a good ten seconds before both he and his stepmom began laughing. Apparently they were sharing a private joke of some sort. Though she didn't get it, Nanako was glad to see them getting along so well.

"Ah, I'll get him changed," Nanako said when they'd both calmed down. A few minutes later Yuuta was back in his old clothes and on the threshold, holding his stepmom's hand.

"All right, Yuuta-kun, are you ready to go?" Minami asked.

"Yeah..."

"Did you thank them for having you over?"

"'Course I did," he said, but then he followed it up with, "Thanks, Yu! And big sis!"

"Silly goose," Nanako thought out loud. "Oh, don't forget to give your mom some of those cookies!"

His eyes widening, Yuuta rushed to the kitchen to grab a plastic bag full of cookies they'd prepared earlier for him to bring home. Minami took the bag from him, held it up to the light, and remarked that they looked delicious.

And then they were off... leaving Nanako and Yu with a messy house to clean! Yu was low-maintenance, but Yuuta was a bit more energetic. When playing with Nanako's plushies, he often picked them up and then left them at random places all over the room based on his whim or whether something else had distracted him. Not only that, he'd gotten into her Loveline manga so she also had to reorder the books on her shelf.

The sheets to Yu's futon had to be resettled since the boys had shifted them during their sleep. While she was putting the pillow back in the pillowcase, Yu held up something pink. "Yuuta-kun left these!" he said.

They were a pair of briefs. Nanako hadn't noticed at all during bath time, but they were definitely pink. Was Minami also shopping at Junes? And when had she discovered the boy's favorite color? Nanako shook her head with a smile and put the underwear in the laundry bin. They'd sort it out to return to him later.

By the time they were finished cleaning up both rooms, it was evening. Aunt Narukami was still away, having been called in to do something for work—Nanako hadn't asked for details—even though it was a Sunday. Since there hadn't been any word from her, Nanako and Yu simply ate some leftovers in the fridge for dinner.

While she was cleaning up the dishes, she noticed that although they'd swept up the flour disaster yesterday, there were specks of white here and there on the floor; obviously they'd missed some. She took the broom out of the closet and began to sweep the dust into a pile, and Yu, darling boy that he was, volunteered to help. She gave him a brush and a dustpan and told him to get to work while she finished up the dishes.

They were still cleaning when there was a knock on the door. Yu perked up from where he was bent over the floor. "Mama?"

Nanako patted him on the head on the way to the front door. It was Saki! Nanako looked her girlfriend up and down—she was wearing a red dress and matching flats. "Well, well, well," Nanako said with a purr, "this is exactly what I'd ordered."

Except that the worried look on Saki's face meant this wasn't a sugoi booty call. "Nanako," Saki said, stepping forward, "there's something you need to know about."

"What's up?" Nanako asked, turning serious in an instant.

Saki removed her shoes and followed Nanako into the kitchen, where she paused at the sight of Yu on the floor. She stared at him for a moment, then looked at Nanako, who wondered if it was something too serious for the boy to overhear. Then Saki shook her head slightly and spoke in a whisper. "Yu-kun, he..." she began, then stopped, as if finding the words she wanted to say was difficult.

In the end, she gave up entirely, instead taking out her phone and showing its screen to Nanako. She navigated a few menus before arriving at a video. Nanako's eyes narrowed as she focused on it.

She recognized the auditorium: it was Yasogami High's gym. And on the stage was... Oh! It was Yu's elementary class! Apparently someone had taken a video of the presentation and uploaded it to the Internet.

She looked at Saki, who continued to look worried. "Yeah?" she queried.

"Look at the comments," Saki said.

'inaba's best and brightest'

'raining cats and dogs lol'

'I had to do this when I was in elementary too'

'Who is the boy with gray hair? He's adorable'
→ 'you think he's cute here? Look at this!'

From the timestamp, the last comment was from only 20 or so hours ago. Frowning, Nanako followed the link and another video played. Yu and Yuuta were in a grassy field. Yuuta was crying and then Yu kissed his head.

"Oh, this happened yesterday," she said. "At the daycare. But why is there a video of it?"

She remembered that other girl with a cellphone who'd come to pick up her little brother.

"That's rude," Nanako thought out loud. "I mean, a video of their school presentation, sure, but Yu-chan and Yuuta-chan were just playing. She didn't even know them."

"Only yesterday?" Saki's voice was a disbelieving hush. "But look how many views it has!"

There were thousands of views. Nanako stared. A silly video of her little cousin had gone viral overnight. It seemed like everyone in Inaba had seen it, and then some.

There was a knock on the door. Yu lifted his head once again. "I'll get it," he volunteered. "Mama should be home."

Nanako nodded at him and went back to the previous video to re-read the comments.

Cats and dogs, huh... The timestamp on that comment was a few days ago, and she recognized the commenter's name as a student in her own class. Those kids she'd heard laughing before school that day hadn't been watching a cat video—they'd been watching this.

And those women at Junes who'd been pointing at Yu when he'd been wearing his cat ears. They must have recognized him from the video.

When she heard the lock from the front door click open, the gears clicked into place in her head. A wave of apprehension came over her.

"No," Nanako whispered, moving into a sprint towards the door, but it was too late.

The masked deliveryman grabbed Yu, who let out only a squeak before his mouth was covered by a gloved hand.

Nanako screamed. The kidnapper turned and ran. "D-don't follow me!" he shouted behind him, rushing down the front walkway towards a parked moving van.

Nanako chased him as fast as she could. The van's back door was wide open. There was a massive TV inside. Without pausing, the kidnapper pushed Yu towards it.

"No!" Nanako cried, launching herself desperately at the man, but he scrambled forward at the same time so she only got ahold of his pants leg. He kicked her hard in the face with the heel of his boot. Blood welled in her mouth as her teeth cut on her lip. Heedless of the pain, she held on for dear life. Not her life, but Yu's.

"I'll save him," the kidnapper growled. "You won't stop me." He kicked again, trying to pry her off his leg.

She hissed in pain. "Give him back, you bastard!"

But Nanako's weight on his legs was not enough to keep him from reaching the TV. Yu's body disappeared through the screen. The killer kicked her one last time before he pulled himself up and over the edge of the TV's screen, escaping into it.

"Senpai!" Nanako shouted, brushing away the blood on her face. "Get the others!"

The last thing she heard was her name.

Falling into the TV World was different this time, possibly because it wasn't the Junes TV she'd entered and possibly because a dungeon of some sort was forming around her as she descended. Not that Nanako could see her surroundings very well through her rage and tears.

She landed hard on her back, hardly noticing the pain.

"Yu!" she cried out. Maybe she had landed close to him, or maybe he would wake up, or something, anything.

Nothing. No response, she couldn't see or hear a thing. Yu was all alone in this darkness, and so was she.

Nanako was crying. There was nothing she could do about this. No glasses, and she realized when she pulled herself to her feet, no shoes either. Maybe her eyes would adjust once she stopped crying, but her thoughts kept darting back to Yu, her baby boy, her darling child, he didn't deserve any of this. This shouldn't be happening, not to him, not to anyone, but especially not to him.

Yu... why...

It took her some time to calm down enough. It shouldn't be happening, but it was happening. She wiped her eyes and bloody lip on her blouse. There was something she could do. Only she could rescue Yu now, and first she'd have to find him.

Nanako took a step forward and the wooden floor creaked under her feet. Though she paused, hoping she hadn't alerted any Shadows to her presence, it was actually a relief to hear a sound other than her sobs. Listening carefully, she could also hear a howling in the distance; she hoped it was only the wind.

Anyway, there was a floor, which meant there were walls too. Nanako found one and kept her hand on it as an anchor while she walked along. Rounding the corner, she found a room illuminated by a faint blue light, a dining room of some sort. There was something familiar about it, but she didn't have the time to contemplate. Everything in it was much bigger than it should be, she noticed that much. The table was as tall as she was, she had to step on the tips of her toes just to peer over it. There was a shoebox on it, too far for her to reach.

All of a sudden, the shadows in the room moved. Nanako's heart pounded. Instinctively, her hand moved to the strap on her leg, where she kept that combat knife. Maybe she wasn't completely unprepared. However, she soon found the shadows weren't moving on their own, but rather it was the light source... not that that was any less frightening.

As she focused on the light source, she discovered that it was a bright blue butterfly. "What are you doing here?" she whispered.

The butterfly danced in the air as if answering her, and then flew towards the door at the far end of the room. She followed it, not wanting to be left in darkness. The next area was a winding corridor. The butterfly flew aimlessly through it, but Nanako didn't mind so much. Its presence was calming in this dark place. Perhaps sensing this, it fluttered around her head, reminding her of the one that had alighted on Yu's nose by the river during Golden Week, and before she knew it, she was smiling at its attention.

It doubled back, flying behind her, and she turned around to follow. Soon it alighted on a windowsill that she didn't remember being there before. It flexed its wings open and shut, relaxing. It really was very pretty. She thought she could see a pattern on its wings.

She was still watching it when the window shattered into thousands of fragments, some grazing her in their flight. The glass was followed by a massive, scaly arm—the Shadow that had destroyed the window was now after her.

Nanako jumped back to avoid being snatched, slamming herself hard into the wall behind her. She called on Izanami to defend her, but as the Persona appeared, bathing the area in blue light, there was suddenly nothing for it to attack. There was no sign of the Shadow she was sure she'd seen, and when she blinked her eyes, the window was no longer broken.

The butterfly winked out of existence. In the ensuing darkness, Nanako slid down against the wall, gasping for her breath, her heart pounding in her ears. She shouldn't have gone into the TV World without her friends for backup. She hoped so hard that Saki was gathering them, because at this rate, she would need to be rescued as much as Yu.

Thinking of her cousin brought back some strength. She gathered her energy and stood up on shaky legs. A scraping sound to her right caught her attention, but without any light, she couldn't see anything, and the sound soon stopped. She glared into the darkness, feeling helpless. She couldn't rely only on her hearing like this—she needed to see. She remembered the light from Izanami, but none of her Personas could remain summoned for very long. She would exhaust herself if she continuously brought them out just to use them for light.

The card itself, though, also produced light. She wondered if it was possible to keep the card out without actually bringing forth the Persona. She thought of Soma, the Persona that Margaret had asked her to create, and its card, but try as she might, she couldn't manage to produce just the card. It began to give her a headache before long, and her hand cramped up from her palm remaining open for so long.

But it had to be possible, she reasoned, because once in a while an enemy would interrupt her right in the middle of summoning with the Persona's card still out, essentially canceling the summon. This meant that finishing the summon wasn't a requirement for the card to exist.

She pictured a card floating over the palm of her hand. It was a tarot card, of course, with that expressionless mask on the back. The face side... it was Izanami's card. This was the Persona she defaulted to the most, after all.

The card appeared in her hand. She smiled wryly to herself at its sight, but the urge to break it and bring out Izanami was almost overwhelming, like trying to stop an oncoming sneeze. She resisted it as best she could, but when she took a step forward, she stumbled and the card blinked out of sight, leaving her with a burning afterimage before her eyes and an uneasy feeling akin to regret.

She knew she could do this. She tried again, picturing the card until it manifested. As soon as it was there, she grabbed it with her left hand. As she closed her fingers around it, a pain shot through her head and she almost let go, but she was too fiercely determined to give up. Though her head pounded in protest, the card didn't break despite the iron grip she held it in. Carefully she lifted it up like a torch. There was enough light to see by. It wasn't nearly as vibrant as the butterfly had been, but it would do.

She smiled to herself. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. She could find Yu. The smile dropped. She had to find him, and fast. He must feel so scared and alone...

She was in a short hallway with a few doors. She set her hand on the nearest door handle, but before she could turn it, she heard the creak of another door opening behind her. She whirled around, but despite her light, there was nothing she could see. Her new problem was the fog.

She couldn't let it get to her. Moving forward, she found an open door to her right. She peered inside, but the darkness within it was so pronounced that even her Persona card's light could not penetrate it, even after shining it from several different angles. It was almost as if the darkness itself had body to it.

A muffled voice came from the other side, too indistinct to identify. "Yu?" she whispered. Her voice echoed after her, magnified somehow.

There was no answer. Nanako took a step towards the impenetrable darkness, but the hairs rose on her neck, and she decided that maybe that wasn't the direction she wanted to go. Instead, she chose another door in the hall at random and entered it.

It was a bathroom, though the tub was too large for her to climb in. The wash faucets were high on the wall, well out of reach. She could barely make out the shape of a shelf above her, but it was too obscured by fog for her to see if there was anything on it. She stood on her tiptoes to get a closer look, and a sense of deja vu came over her, disorienting her for a moment until she shook her head and cleared it away. She felt like she'd been here before, and recently, too.

With a sad sigh, she went back into the hallway. None of the other doors would open, so she had little choice. She steeled her nerves and entered through the wall of darkness. The air felt cool around her, and her Persona card winked out of existence despite her every effort to keep it out.

She could still see, though, because on the other side there was a lamp on a nightstand shining faintly through the fog. The room was an unfamiliar bedroom. The futon had been rolled up and neatly put away. Walking around the room, Nanako found it was mostly featureless, with no pictures or decorations on the walls. Most importantly, there was no sign of a little boy, and the room appeared to be a dead end. The only door was the one she'd entered from.

There was, however, an open closet. Nanako approached it slowly, unable to trust anything in this place. She peered into it, allowing her eyes to adjust to the lamp's light in this far corner of the room, and found that the closet was packed to the brim with binders. The text on the binding was illegible.

Curiosity won out over caution, and Nanako pried one of the binders out from the stack, careful not to upset the balance and end up buried by them. It turned out to be a photo album. Working on automatic, she flipped it open to a random page.

The people in every picture were just black silhouettes. The eeriness was magnified by the fact that the backgrounds were completely intact, it was just the people that were turned into these misshapen blobs.

As she watched, the silhouettes began to move and dance in their photos. Though it might've just been a trick of the dim light, she slammed the book closed and shoved it back into the closet before she could find out for sure.

Yu definitely wasn't in this room, so she left it behind, trying to put the whole experience out of her mind. It wasn't until after she was quite a bit away that she realized the binders had been normal-sized, when everything else was larger than they should be.

She walked down the hallway briskly, knowing she'd wasted too much time already and hadn't seen even one small sign of Yu. She wondered if calling his name would help, but it seemed too dangerous to alert her presence to any Shadows in the area.

In her haste, she stumbled over something, barely managing to catch herself against the wall. Upon closer inspection, the 'something' turned out to be a pair of shoes. Thinking nothing of it, Nanako slipped them on.

They fit perfectly.

A chill went through her, and then she spied another pair of shoes nearby. These were smaller and black... like they belonged to a child.

There'd been something familiar about this place, and it came to her then—this was the Narukami Residence. The shoes fit so well because they were actually hers.

But the entryway's dimensions were completely off. The walls weren't supposed to be so far apart, and the front door was too large. This was the Narukami Residence, yes, but it was warped and twisted by the TV World, like Naoki's Junes. There was even a hallway here to her left that did not exist in the real house. Thinking nothing of it except that she hadn't explored it yet, she headed towards it.

'Wrong way,' a voice cut through the silence. Nanako whirled, instinctively bringing her knife up, ready to stab it through the Shadow's chest, but there was nothing.

She shook her head, sure that this place was messing with her mind, and took another step forward.

'You're going the wrong way,' the same voice said.

Nanako looked around, scouring the darkness around her, but she knew she wouldn't see anything. This feeling, the way the voice spoke to her, it was familiar.

"Teddie?" she whispered.

Her breath stopped for a moment as she remembered that Teddie was dead. It wasn't him. It couldn't be.

'You want to save him? The kid?'

"Yes!" she shouted. "Where is he? Is he okay?"

'He's upstairs. You need to hurry.'

Upstairs. Nanako nodded. All right. If this was the Narukami Residence, and she was in the entryway, that meant the stairs were... this way. After resummoning her Persona card for light, she headed on her way.

'Stop!'

Nanako stopped in her tracks. "What?"

'Back up! Get out of that hallway, now!'

Confused, she took a step back, and was just in time to witness a massive shapeless Shadow charging right through the place she'd been standing. Her Persona card blinked out as she jumped away in surprise. If she hadn't moved, the Shadow would have tackled her, possibly crushed her into a wall.

Her mouth opened and close several times. She couldn't find words to react to this near-death experience. "So there are Shadows in here," she finally managed to remark.

'You're lucky I'm here.'

"Yeah," she said simply.

There was a short pause, and then, 'Turn to your left. A little more. Perfect. Go that way.'

Nanako nodded to herself and strode into the darkness. If she could rely on her newfound friend, she wouldn't need light. She followed the voice's directions through several turns in the house, bumping into the walls a few times until she got more used to it. Every time it told her to stop and wait, she held her breath, knowing that she was waiting for a Shadow to move out of her path. She could hear them sometimes, and it made the wait nearly unbearable.

In fact, she'd been standing at this corner for a while now, awaiting the all-clear. It was making her impatient. "Is there a problem?"

'This one's not moving, and there's no way around it.'

She peered around the corner, carefully summoning her card and angling it both to provide light but also not attract attention. It was a black blob Shadow, not as large as the one that had nearly crashed into her earlier, but still intimidating.

The voice began to speak rather skeptically of another path she could take, but Nanako had already rounded the corner and was now making a mad dash towards the Shadow. She sunk the combat knife deep into the amorphous flesh. As she twisted it deeper, the blob began to shift under her, desperately trying to transform into something more monstrous. She punched at the face beginning to take shape—a lion's head—and pulled out the knife and stabbed again and again until the Shadow gave up and dissolved into dust under her.

'Nice,' the voice said as she panted for her breath. 'That saves us time.'

Nanako was just glad it hadn't been immune to physical, or worse, reflect it. Her friend didn't waste any time, instructing her then to take a left.

While going down the empty hall, she suddenly felt a presence ghost past her. She shivered and closed her eyes, willing it to be her imagination. It wasn't a Shadow; her friend would have warned her if it was.

'Ah, that's...' the voice began, trailing off.

The voice didn't continue, and Nanako had the feeling that maybe it didn't know. She opened her eyes and peered through the fog. She saw nothing, but then a movement caught her eyes. She strained her eyes further, but still couldn't see anything. Right when she was about to give up, a door creaked open, bringing in light from outside the house. In the doorway she could see...

"Yu-chan?" she whispered.

The ghostly form of the child standing there didn't respond. There was little substance to him; she could see right through him to the street beyond. She wasn't sure if he was really there or it was just another trick of her mind.

The child stepped outside. Nanako headed outside too, intending to follow, but the voice came loud and clear: 'Don't! That's not what you think it is!'

"It looks like Yu-chan," she whimpered. "But it's not... it's not..."

'It's not,' the voice agreed. 'Haven't you looked outside? You don't want to go out there.'

"But... Yu-chan..."

On automatic, Nanako began to follow the ghost child outside and down the street. Everything here had an odd orange hue, but at least she could see without her Persona's help. It was a welcome change from the darkness within the house.

As she hustled after the child, an inhuman cry broke her out of her reverie. A trio of ravens carrying lanterns were bearing down on her, and their calls brought the attention of both a nearby minotaur and a giant arm carrying a sword. At a glance, several other Shadows were behind them. A fight could only escalate the amount of enemies she would have to defeat, assuming she even could. She scrambled back to the house, the Shadows hot on her tail. She slammed the door behind her barely in time. Several heavy thuds rained on it, making the wood shudder and bend.

Fortunately, the door managed to hold out longer than the Shadows' attention spans. The thuds ended as the Shadows apparently wandered away. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps.

Nanako relaxed, heaving a soft sigh and letting her weight fall from the door.

'I told you.'

Though the voice's tone was chiding, there was an undercurrent of worry to it. "I'm sorry," Nanako said.

'Don't make this all for nothing, okay? You can save him. There's still time.'

"All right. Thanks. Where do I need to go now?"

'Follow the wall to your right. Oh, hold on...'

The door behind Nanako unlocked, and it was wide open before she could stop it. She drew her knife, expecting a Shadow, but it was just the ghost child, returned from its errand. There was no denying it now—despite the transparency, she could clearly see the boy's yellow eyes. Staring at them, it took a moment for Nanako to process the fact that the child was now carrying several boxes of takeout.

The Shadow child moved past her, and Nanako followed it without really thinking. It returned to the kitchen, where it settled the boxes onto the table. It climbed into a chair too large for it and sat at the table.

Several moments passed with the Shadow just sitting there, staring at its takeout. Every so often it would glance out the kitchen window, then return its attention to the box.

Finally it released a resigned sigh and opened the box and began to eat.

Nanako blinked away the tears forming in her eyes and turned away from the scene.

'Not to hurry you or anything,' the voice said, 'but they're starting to get restless.'

She wiped her nose on her sleeve, wondering what the voice meant until it dawned on her that it had to be the Shadows. She could hear it now, arrhythmic thumping against the kitchen window and the front door. The Shadows outside were trying to get into the house with unusual focus.

'I'm not sure what's got them riled up,' the voice admitted, 'but I get the feeling there isn't much time.'

"I think…" Nanako began, and paused because she then realized she could see all the way to the front door from the kitchen, despite the distance. The fog was beginning to clear up.

She needed to get moving. She made to head for the stairs, but a new sound caught her ear. She'd recognize that crisp tone anywhere: Aunt Narukami's voice. Though Nanako couldn't make out the words, Aunt Narukami sounded like she was on the phone. The sound drifted through the air, sourceless, towards the living room. Yu's Shadow watched it move. When the TV turned on in the living room, the child sighed and turned its attention to the homework it was working on.

Nanako remained there for a while longer, surprised on some level that the voice wasn't goading her into action despite the fact that the Shadows outside were getting louder. She just didn't want to leave the Shadow boy here, but she also didn't want to know what would happen when the fog lifted. She remembered what Teddie had said about that.

She shook her head and headed for the stairs, finding them easily enough, though the way they twisted made them unrecognizable from any set of stairs she'd seen before. She blinked up at the darkness at the top. "Are you sure he's up there?"

'Positive. Or at least, there are two things that aren't Shadows up there.'

Two? The kidnapper had to be up there with him. "He's..." Nanako began, then swallowed the question she'd almost asked. "He's okay, right?" she tried again, a more palatable question.

'For now,' was the answer, and that was enough to move her up the foreboding staircase.

To her surprise, she only had to round one twist before she ran into a big door. Orange light bled out under it. She stared at this light for a long moment because the brilliance of color in this house of darkness was notable all on its own.

She put her ear to the door, but couldn't hear anything past it. The door wouldn't budge when she pushed on it. There was an overlarge keyhole by the handle. She didn't have the key—wait. She knew what room this was, and she did have the key on her, even if she never locked the door herself.

She unlocked the door, and with a click, it opened. Though she'd tried to prepare for it, she was blinded by the brilliant orange light that suddenly bathed her. The light originated from a massive cartoon sun far in the distance.

When her eyes adjusted, she found herself in a large room open to the sky. She didn't care to take in the room's details, though, because a little boy's form was lying on a pile of stuffed animals right in the center.

Nanako jogged towards the boy, slowing as she drew close. Yu was breathing, apparently asleep. Despite being here in the TV World, he seemed at peace. She knelt by his side, wondering if she should wake him first or just carry him out of here. She knelt down by his side and cradled his head in her hands, cooing softly at him.

She picked him up, and he stirred but didn't awaken. She took a few steps towards the door and stopped. The little ghost boy had apparently followed her up the stairs and was standing in the way.

It stared at her. Then its eyes moved from her to Yu, then back again. Not once did it blink.

Finally, it spoke. "I'm... alone..." it said, sounding almost as if it was asking a question.

"I'm here," Nanako told it. "And Yu-chan will be okay."

"I'm all alone." It said these words with more strength, and more than a little sadness. "Papa left me..."

Nanako's heart fell. It really was Yu's Shadow, then, and her baby boy was hurting. He missed his dad probably more than she ever suspected.

"Papa left me... If he loved me... then why did he go?"

In her arms, Yu made an unpleasant sound, though he didn't awaken. She tried to hold him closer to her chest.

"I miss him," the Shadow said, "but he didn't love me."

"He loved you," Nanako said, spying the sudden frown on her sleeping baby's face. She knew she couldn't keep quiet. "I know he did. He bought you Rainbow Fish, and..."

The Shadow just shook its head. The furrows of Yu's frown grew tighter until it seemed more like a painful grimace.

"A-and he took baths with you," Nanako rallied on. "He'd pet your head, just like this, Yu-chan!" Though she couldn't pet him, carrying him as she was, she lifted him up to her chin and rubbed his hair with it. His expression remained disturbed.

"Papa left me," the Shadow said, "and Mama's no different. She loves work more than she loves me."

That was more difficult to argue against, but Nanako tried anyway. "No, no, she's doing her best, Yu-chan! That's why she lets you go to cram school. You love cram school, you told me so yourself!"

Yu was biting his lip in his sleep.

"Someday," the Shadow said, "Mama won't even come home from work, and I'll be completely alone."

"She won't do that," Nanako said. "She might stay late, but she always comes home for you!"

Yu whimpered several times but still remained asleep. He shivered, as if he needed a blanket.

"And Mama said..."

The Shadow paused.

"W-what?" Nanako asked.

"Big sis will leave me, too."

Amid several more whimpers, Yu's body twitched, like he was having a nightmare.

"Yu-chan!" Nanako said, stricken. She hugged him ever tighter, but the nightmare didn't end. Yu didn't awaken, and his body wouldn't stop shaking. "It's okay, I'm here. I won't leave you, not now..."

"I'm always alone..." the Shadow said. "Because I'm a big boy..."

Enough, Nanako decided. She had to get Yu out of here. She maneuvered around the Shadow, stepping past it and towards the doorway.

Only to find a man in a green jumpsuit rushing into the room. He didn't notice Nanako and threw the door shut behind him, screaming "No!" and slamming all his weight behind it. Someone's hand was crushed in the gap.

"Fucking hell!" shouted a familiar voice on the other side of the door. It was Kanji! Kanji pulled his injured hand out of the gap and the man slammed the door shut, keeping his weight against it.

"Open the door, jackass!" That was Yosuke. Was the whole squad here? Nanako felt immensely relieved.

"Guys! I'm here, and I got Yu!" she shouted.

The man nearly jumped away from the door, startled at hearing her. He cast a baleful eye on her. "You again?"

He must have lost his mask somewhere along the way. In the fading sunlight, Nanako could recognize him. It was Taro Namatame.

"Let the boy go," Namatame said. "He'll be safe here. This is the only safe place."

"Safe?" Nanako repeated. "You think this place is safe? You've been killing people!"

"N-no… this place is safe!" Namatame said. "I've been saving everyone. The innkeeper, the punk boy, th-the detective! But I couldn't save the idol..." He shook his head, and then his mad eyes were even more determined. "I won't let this boy die!"

He reached out for Yu, and Nanako stepped back. Namatame didn't follow, not willing to take his weight from the door. The whole team was there now, Nanako could hear them, all trying to break it down. It wouldn't last much longer under their assault.

"Just look around you!" Nanako said. "You think this fog is safe to breathe?" Namatame looked around, but there wasn't actually much fog anymore. The room's features were clear now: the unrolled futon in the corner, the TV she rarely used, the desk she never once studied at, the moving boxes she had yet to unpack…

The door was suddenly blown off its hinges, nearly crushing Namatame, who was then thrown to the floor. Nanako hardly noticed because she was looking out of the window. The fog was dissipating before her very eyes, revealing an ordinary-looking street, the view she saw nearly every day out of her own window. Except the street never crawled like it was covered in ants before. These weren't ants, though, they were hundreds and hundreds of Shadows writhing together.

"You think those aren't going to slaughter anyone they see?" Nanako cried.

Namatame pulled himself to his knees. He blinked owlishly at her, then looked where she was pointing. "W-what are…"

"When the fog is gone," she said. "We won't want to be here."

"No," he said, and she couldn't tell if he was agreeing with her or not. After a moment, he turned his head from the window and stretched out both arms towards her. "Give me… the boy!"

The sun was beginning to set. In its odd lighting, Namatame's skin looked like it was crawling. She recoiled by stepping back.

"I have to save him," he pleaded. He stumbled towards her, shuffling on his knees with his hands outstretched and making grabbing motions. Nanako couldn't tell if their claw-like appearance was just her imagination or not.

"Give it up," Yosuke said, disgusted.

The DEATH Squad had fanned into the room. Nanako might never have been more happy to see them, though she noted how bruised and battered they were. Kanji was rubbing the hand that had been caught in the door, Chie had lost one of her killer boots somewhere along the way, and Naoto was carrying Nanako's naginata as if it he'd been using it.

"Is Yu all right?" Kanji asked.

Nanako began to answer, but suddenly Namatame had closed the distance and was pawing at her skirt. "Give me…!" he growled. In a flash, Nanako held Yu higher in the air and kicked Namatame in the face, like he'd done to her before. Namatame coughed and spluttered against the floor. "No…" he moaned.

Nanako shivered. He'd touched her! "Yu's fine," she said. "But we have to get him out of here as soon as we can. Do you guys know the way out?"

"He can't leave," Namatame gasped from the floor. "He can't… he can't!"

Discordant wails came from outside the window. The last vestiges of fog were fading away, and with that, the Shadows were going crazy. They massed together and began to hiss, screech, and claw their way up the wall, taking huge gouges out of it as they tried to climb up to the very room Nanako and the rest were in.

Namatame writhed with a squeal, and before anyone could do anything, a sourceless wind whipped through the room. The Shadows outside were yanked through the window, together forming a black fog thicker than soup that coagulated around Namatame's body. The sudden pressure in the room caused all the walls to collapse outward like they were made of cardboard.

Seconds later, Namatame was floating into the air, his body twitching this way and that like a puppet on the strings of a twisted puppeteer. His anguished cries drowned out the sounds of the Shadows as his body swelled like a balloon, growing, bloating, more and more until… Nanako closed her eyes, more out of politeness than disgust. "Nobody deserves this," she muttered, even as her thoughts rushed to blame him for everything wrong. But closed eyes could not hide the disgusting sound that came afterwards, a gruesome squelching not unlike crushing a blister filled with pus. When Nanako opened her eyes, Namatame and the Shadows were both gone, replaced by a black-skinned creature vested in a white robe. It flew with tiny red wings and had a massive head. Red gears sprouted from the head, whirling around like some unearthly halo.

"I'll save him…" it sighed.

Nanako swallowed hard, but somehow her heart was calm. We can do this, she thought, as the squad wordlessly lifted their weapons. They can do this.

Kanji charged right ahead, while Chie and Yukiko exchanged a glance. Nanako couldn't pay too much attention—her eyes kept darting back to the boy in her arms, wishing he wasn't there, wishing she could save him—but she did notice Naoto lining up a shot, right before a massive spear of ice summoned hit him.

The fight was on. Nanako decided her best bet was to get Yu as far away from the front line as she could, but when she turned around, she found herself face-to-face with Yu's Shadow.

The Shadow wasn't doing anything. It was just standing there, staring at her as Yu was wont to do. At least it had stopped speaking, but the real Yu in her arms was not about to wake up anytime soon. There was no way he could confront it in his condition, even if she wanted him to.

And then she noticed that there was something off about the ghost child now that the fog had lifted. For one, it seemed to be drooling something as it stared at her. No, not just drooling, but…

A second later, the black substance, slick like oil but much thicker, began to pour from its mouth, eyes and ears, covering its body until there was no more child, only an amorphous blob, not unlike those wandering the corridors of every dungeon. During what seemed to be an eternity, there was silence; even the monster that was once Namatame had one beady eye peering at the creature yet to form. More than ever, Nanako dreaded what was to come.

Soon, a multitude of spindly arms and legs began to pour out of the Shadow. Just as soon, they retreated back into the misshapen mass, as though there was something keeping them there; it wasn't until a face poured from it, coming dangerously close to her, that Nanako realized that maybe there was. Unconsciously, she reached out—that was her baby cousin, her baby brother—but the face bared teeth at her. The teeth became fangs as the face forced itself out, nostrils flared and canines enlarged. From the corner of her eyes, Nanako saw that two of the arms had also escaped, scrabbling at the ground, crawling towards her with their fingers curling into claws. She took a step back, suddenly overcome by fear as she watched the head grow larger, and, after a sickening crunch sound, emerge from the Shadow, covered in chains and black fur.

The... dog... growled at her, its enormous tongue drooling the same substance it had come out from. Nanako noted it had only one eye, the left, misshapen and colored a muted yellow; she found herself unable to match its gaze, in a way that very much reminded her of Margaret. Instead, she trailed the chains. Most of them were hooked to flesh and led to darkness, but one of them was bent, leading back towards the creature itself. Nanako squinted, and saw a tiny hand clutching at it. The hand was soon joined by another, and using the chain as an anchor, they pulled themselves out of the beast, revealing a humanoid figure wearing a silver faceplate. There were belt buckles around its neck, and two white streamers flowed from its head like some sort of oversized headband. Like the dog-beast it was joined to, this humanoid being had only one eye.

"I am a Shadow," said the creature. Nanako wasn't sure whether it was the dog or the human part speaking. "The true self."

There was a squelching sound; something was coming out of the dog's drool. The human half of the Shadow reached out towards it.

Nanako felt the hairs stand up at the nape of her neck. She clutched Yu tighter and jumped to the side, narrowly evading... something, something that hit like a blade. When she looked back, she realized it was a blade, only not the kind she was familiar with, half sword, half spear, half fucking meat cleaver.

The spot where she stood a second earlier was now debris.

With that, she snapped into battle mode.

"Yosuke!" she called.

In response, Yosuke tossed her her naginata, which Naoto had dropped at some point and which she now almost failed to catch. With a nod, she thanked him, then laid out the battle plan. The one part of it she had actually thought about, anyway.

"I need you to protect Yu," she said while gently laying the boy on the ground. Shadow selves usually didn't attack their host while engaged in battle, but she wasn't gonna leave it to chance. Yosuke grunted something and summoned Jiraiya to deflect an attack from the Namatame monster. That would have to do. The beast was approaching.

Nanako saw that the humanoid half was carrying the gigantic blade with ease in one hand, while clutching the chains with the other like they were reins. It ran towards her, blade pointed straight ahead. She'd seen this before on TV. Jousting? Whatever. Nanako raised her naginata and deflected the blade at the last second, but then the dog half lunged at her, its neck seemingly growing in size until its horrifying fangs were grazing her skin, stopped short only by the humanoid half, who had raised the chains. It was taunting her. Nanako ignored the rancid stench coming from the dog's mouth and jumped back, aware that she wasn't fast enough to attack it while it was on so short a leash. Instinctively, she knew that the Shadow would not be doing any more taunting. The real fight started now.

Compared to the mostly whimsical Shadows she'd faced so far, this one stood out as nauseatingly real, in that she could perceive every part of it in horrible detail, from the mangy fur to the blood leaking out of the wounds caused by the chains, or more accurately, the rusted hooks they were attached to. Every now and then, the dog half would flinch and try to shake the chains off, only for the human half to pull them, causing the dog to whimper. They were the same creature, and yet…

The humanoid half was no less disconcerting. Its one eye stared unblinking at Nanako, glowing intensely yellow and locked into a frown due to the faceplate. It seemed to be wearing a waistcoat of some sort, but the creature had no actual legs, so the coat just hung over the dog, slowly but surely being torn apart by the hooks and chains. Nanako couldn't bear to look at it... at them... for too long. That thing was Yu, just like the many-eyed abomination in Kubo's dungeon had been Teddie. No longer a hermit child? Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Nanako took a deep breath. No use in dwelling on it now. She'd help him through it, just like she'd been doing all year. She'd never let him be lonely ever again. This, she swore.

With a Persona card in hand, Nanako charged towards the beast. "Izanami!" she cried, spraying high pressure water at it. When it was over, both halves were drenched, but had barely moved an inch. Damn it, she cursed in her head. Gotta find out his weakness.

Next up was electricity.

Nanako had to keep it to close quarters because her friends were fighting in the same room. None of them had the skill to fight two battles at once, herself included, so she blocked it out, focusing only on the beast in front of her. On the other hand, she had to be careful not to step on the water she herself had conjured, or she'd be victim to her own combo. That being the case, she decided that some crazy was in order and ran head first towards the creature, sticking her naginata in the floor the moment it prepared to attack and using the momentum to vault over it. Nanako lost the naginata, because it wasn't a real pole, but her Persona card was already prepared, and with a desperate yell, she crushed it in midair. Lightning erupted from above her and into the beast, shocking it to hell and back. Nanako landed clumsily against some wall, already smiling over her success, except…

The human half had its weapon pointed at her. The blade crackled with so much energy that some of it zapped towards the floor and the ceiling, leaving minor burn marks. Without a word, the Shadow released the energy it had absorbed from her attack right back at her; all she could do was raise her arms in futile defense, and hope that the Persona she'd used for the attack was resistant.

It wasn't.

Nanako felt as though her body was burning from the inside as she took the brunt of her own Ziodyne and let out a piercing scream, falling to the ground afterwards, legs shaking, fingers twitching wildly, arms still crackling with electricity; but a second later it was over, and she was on her feet again, reaching for her naginata, only to find that it was still where she'd left it: behind the beast.

"Jiraiya!"

A tremendously strong gust of wind swept over the room, knocking every box flat into the wall. Nanako had to cover her ears as the beast howled, taken by surprise. Inch by inch it was pushed back, away from her, until it fell to its knees as the humanoid half momentarily released its grip on weapon and chains both. It was weak to wind! Nanako looked over at the source, a ragged-looking Yosuke breathing hard.

"The heck was that?" she asked, giving him a slightly twitchy thumbs up.

"Been saving it up," he answered, coughing heavily afterwards. Whatever it was, it'd taken a lot out of him.

Nanako glanced to where her other friends were fighting the hippie monster thing. Kanji was beating it raw with his huge shield while Yukiko took care of an unconscious Chie. Naoto seemed to be charging something in the background. Good. They were doing good. She didn't need to worry. Actually, they were doing better than her. That had been a fairly stupid move. Setanta had Zionga and blocked electricity, but she'd decided to use Seiryu instead, because it had Ziodyne. Whatever, she wouldn't make that mistake again, not during this fight anyway.

Though hurt, Nanako ran for her naginata as soon as she realized the monster was down for the moment, then summoned Izanami to heal. Wind. Okay. I can do wind. The problem was she barely ever did. Yosuke was almost always on wind duty, and though she'd specifically fused a wind Persona after he'd left the team, she'd made a point to fuse it into something else when he came back. Maybe it was still there somewhere though. She closed her eyes, envisioning the different arcana in her mind. Izanami, Soma, Setanta, Queen Mab, Seiryu, Black Frost, Samael and... Oh! Fortuna. Fortuna had Garula, though she was fairly weak. Whatever, she'd won battles with Omoikane, she could do this.

Just as she switched to Fortuna, the beast got up and charged at her. This time the humanoid half wasn't pointing his sword, so it was probably the dog half attacking. Nanako decided to charge at them too, ready for a ferocious face off…

...Not. She slid under the beast, raising her naginata as best she could. Predictably, it got stuck in one of the chains, leaving her stuck too. Fuck me and my stupid plans, she thought, trying not to pay too much attention to the disturbingly human paws the dog half had. The good news was it didn't seem to be able to get at her there, but she figured this wouldn't last long.

Okay, new plan.

"Fortuna!" she called, and a moderately strong gust of wind came in response, raising the beast just enough that she could free her naginata and roll away. It really was weak to wind, too, because afterwards it stumbled back, growling furiously at her. No reaction from the humanoid half.

Nanako prepared to summon Fortuna again, but before she could, the beast charged at her again. Shit shit shit. Nanako raised her naginata to deflect its blade, but it attacked with such strength that it knocked her back a few inches.

Unfortunately, it wasn't done.

"Big sis," it said, and now she knew it was the human half speaking. Something told her to dodge, an instinct of some sort that forced her to jump to the side, and as result she narrowly avoided getting hit by an electric blast. The humanoid half looked curiously at this. Just like Yu when he tries to understand something, she thought, seeing it clear as day in her head.

That moment of hesitation was all it took. The beast leaped at her, biting down hard on her right shoulder. Nanako gritted her teeth in an effort not to scream, not to distract Yosuke again. She couldn't use her naginata anymore, not with her right hand, it hurt enough trying to keep a hold on it.

"Go away, big sis," the Shadow said, dropping the distorted voice for once and letting Yu shine through, "the more you stay, the more it hurts."

Nanako couldn't say anything without screaming, she was in too much pain, but the fact that the Shadow was trying to get at her like this was just too much. With her left hand, she pulled one of the hooks from the dog's back. Blood, not fresh and red but very old, almost dry blood, oozed from it. The dog howled, releasing its grip on her. It was still lying on top of her though, too heavy, so she closed her eyes and stuck the hook back in. The weight immediately left her body as the beast leaped back, apparently against the wishes of the humanoid half, who was desperately pulling on the chains.

Again with the left hand, she picked up her naginata and pointed it at the creature, trying to ignore the blood pouring from her own wound.

The humanoid half pointed its blade in response.

For the third time, Nanako charged at it, but she wasn't going to vault or slide. Instead, she switched Personas.

The dog half was still in considerable pain and took a moment to move. When it did, it was slower. Unconcerned, the humanoid half swung at her with all its strength. She dodged, dropping right under the swing and swinging back strong with her own naginata.

"Setanta!" she called. The black haired boy with the bowl cut joined his blade with hers, and together they aimed at the weighty hilt of the Shadow's weapon.

The sound of a blade hitting the ground told her it worked, and so she twirled, grabbed the naginata with both hands, let out the scream she'd been suppressing and stabbed the humanoid half in the throat, breaking part of its faceplate.

Underneath, gurgling blood, the mouth and jaw of a child no older than six.

The image seared into her mind before the Shadow fell apart, extremities dissolving like any other Shadow until it left behind just the yellow-eyed boy again, the mirror of the one still slumbering by Yosuke's feet. At this point, Nanako wanted to hug both of them. Or, in her relief and exhaustion, maybe just cry.

A squeal from the Namatame monster nabbed her attention. Its big black hands were covering its face. It was cowering where it floated in the air. Her friends had defeated it. A moment later its skin began to melt. All the Shadows that it had been made from were now pouring out of it, streaming down and over the edge of the room to where they'd come from outside. When they were gone, only Namatame's body was left. He fell limply to the ground after that and didn't get up. Kanji wasted no time in securing him to ensure he would no longer be a threat.

Nanako moved to Yu's side, kneeling down and cradling him in her arms. To her surprise, he finally stirred into wakefulness. "Big… sis…?" his soft voice whispered.

"Everything's going to be okay, honey," Nanako told him. "I'm here."

Yu smiled faintly. "Yeah…"

"What about his Shadow?" Yosuke asked in a hushed tone.

Nanako looked up. Her friends were now gathered around her. The child Shadow was among them, standing very close to her. It was still staring, and she wasn't sure what to do about it.

"He has to accept it, right?" Chie asked. "If he denies it, we might have to fight it again."

"How can we expect a child to face his Shadow?" Nanako wondered aloud. Though Yu could be mature for his age, he was just a child, and he felt so small and weak in her arms.

"We can't just leave it there," Chie said. "But…"

"There is the chance that it will simply disappear," Naoto said. "What that might do to him, however, is unknowable."

"That's what happened to Kubo," Yukiko said, and they all shuddered at the memory.

"Big sis…" Yu repeated. He grasped the front of Nanako's blouse. "I… I had a nightmare…"

Though worried about his Shadow, Nanako turned her attention to Yu, who needed it now more than anything. "You dreamed of sad things, didn't you?" she murmured, brushing fingers through his hair. "Of your dad and your mom."

He nodded, closing his eyes. "Papa's gone… and Mama works so much…" He shifted in her arms. "B-but I… I know…"

Without moving her head, Nanako strained her eyes to glance sidelong at the child Shadow, but it remained silent. "Go on, honey," she murmured.

Yu took a breath too heavy for him. "I know Mama likes to work, a-and she has to work, because Papa…"

"But you get lonely at home, right?" Nanako asked. "You wish she wouldn't always be on the phone. I know I sure as heck wish that!"

Yu giggled, but the sweet sound turned into a coughing fit. "Y-yeah," he managed. "I miss Papa a lot, big sis, but he worked a lot, too. Maybe I don't miss him… but I miss Mama being happy…"

"She's your mama," Nanako said. "Of course you would."

"Big sis…" Yu's eyes fluttered open. "It almost feels normal again at home, because you're here."

"It doesn't feel so lonely, huh?" She tugged him up in her arms to rub her cheek against his.

"I don't w-want you to go home, big sis!"

The boy's cry had been just a whisper, but it filled the room. "I know, Yu-chan," Nanako said. "I…" She faltered, unable to promise him things that weren't true.

Yu sighed, but to her surprise, it wasn't heavy or sad. "I know," he said. "Your mama and papa miss you, so… you have to go home. Me and my mama will be okay."

"Yu-chan," she whispered.

Then, his eyes widened, if only slightly. He raised his hand as his frown turned into a smile. He was pointing at something above them.

Nanako looked up to find the shimmering image of a wolf cub at play. It had beautiful white fur with red patterns seemingly painted onto it. It soon faded into a card, which twirled in the air as it moved downward towards Yu.

"Yu-chan?" she whispered again, but the boy was now fast asleep.


Author's notes: 

Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!


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angevon: (Default)
2016-11-22 08:20 pm

A Promise + A Whisper

Fandom: Persona 4, Persona 5
Pairing: P5Hero/P4Hero
Rating: General
Category: M/M
Summary: Prompt from a prompt meme: Wildcard - A promise + a whisper
Author's notes: This is a a crosspost from AO3ffnet, and tumblr.
It's a drabble that resulted from a tumblr prompt thing.

I'll be there at 8 :)

Sitting in the booth at Wild-Duck Burger, Yu read the text on his phone for probably the 50th time. With his other hand, he absently brought a french fry to his mouth and munched on it, hardly tasting it.

It was 8:10. Akira was late.

Since it was in his nature to always think the best of people, Yu tried to be generous. Perhaps his boyfriend was just running late. Shibuya was a busy place, and fighting through the thick crowds of people was never easy, especially if you were taking the subway. Heck, maybe Akira had missed his train and then been forced to wait for the next one. Maybe he'd be along any minute, maybe he'd slip right into the seat across from Yu before he even noticed.

Maybe Yu wasn't being stood up.

Again.

Yu scoffed at the thought. He re-read the text one more time, his eye catching on the emoticon. Was it genuine? He didn't know anymore.

It was now 8:13.

This wasn't the first time Akira had failed to show up. Nor the second, nor the third, nor... For whatever reason, Akira had problems keeping their dinner dates. The first time it'd happened, Akira had sent a card via the waitress, which had been cute. The stationery had been so fancy with its red and black lettering. Yu had put it in a scrapbook.

It had been less cute the next time, and after that, Akira had apparently grown complacent in their relationship, instead simply sending Yu a text when he couldn't make it.

Yu wasn't even getting that tonight. In frustration, he sent Akira a 'where are you?' text himself.

8:17.

All Yu wanted was to spend time with his boyfriend. Was that so much to ask for? Just to have a quiet dinner together. They would talk, though Yu enjoyed listening more. He enjoyed hearing Akira's tales of his classmates' antics. How the teacher had thrown a piece of chalk at him when he'd fallen asleep in class and the chalk had left a noticeable white mark in his black hair for the rest of the school day...

Yu imagined the boy sitting across from him now, with his nerdy (but cute) glasses, his hair so messy that it always looked like it had never once seen a comb in its lifetime, his sweet smile... He imagined holding the boy's hand under the table, maybe entwining their fingers or simply setting his hand on the other boy's knee. Akira would give him those coy looks whenever he squeezed that knee, and...

Even if Akira arrived late, Yu would forgive him if it resulted in that.

8:20.

Yu snapped his phone shut, trying to force himself not to keep looking at it. At the rate he was going, its battery wouldn't last the night. He ate another soggy fry, feeling miserable.

The door to the restaurant opened, grabbing his attention, but it was just a mom and her young daughter. Not a cute boy with red plaid pants. He watched them order, then idly checked his phone again.

8:26.

Almost a half an hour now... He wondered how long he should wait. The waitress looked like she was about to come over and ask if he needed anything—Wuck food could do things to people, after all—but he kept his eyes on his phone to deter her.

The worst part was that he'd told Akira. This is it, he'd said. If you're not going to be there, I...

I'll be there. I promise.

8:29.

Yu blinked away the tears he suddenly felt welling in his eyes. Akira had lied to him. Honestly, if he couldn't be trusted to keep a simple dinner date, then was it even worth it? Yu would be better off with someone else, someone who valued him enough to be there when he needed him, someone who thought he was interesting enough to spend the evening with, someone who genuinely liked to be around him.

Yu squeezed his eyes shut. He had some choices to make. He could forgive his boyfriend (again), or... go through with his threat. He was aware that he was kind of a pushover, and that had to change.

Drawing his lips into a thin line, he decided he'd change it now. He'd give Akira another ten minutes, and if he didn't show up, or at least reply to his text or call... then it'd be over. He'd break it off.

8:35.

A man at another table was starting to give him sympathetic looks. Maybe he should be dating that guy instead. His glasses made him look really cute, but... Akira had glasses, and that'd only remind him of...

Well, of being stood up in a Wuck like this. A Wuck, of all places. When Yosuke found out about this, he would never let Yu live it down.

8:43.

Yu didn't know how the time had moved so fast, but the ten minutes were up. He bit his lip hard, willing himself not to break down here in public. He picked up his half-eaten tray of food slowly—just in case Akira would suddenly show up—and took it to the trash can, where he began to throw it all out. The fries sliding down the tray and into the trash felt like the pieces of his shattered heart.

He returned to his table to pick up his coffee. He hurt his throat in the process of swallowing a sigh and tried to get the resulting ache out of his throat by finishing the drink. It had grown so cold by now that it only worsened the ache in his heart.

He couldn't do this anymore.

He left the cafe and headed home, keeping his phone in his hand while he walked. If Akira texted him, he wasn't going to bother answering.

There were no texts.


Yu woke up sometime later because his phone had lit up the room. He was being called. The ringtone was the one he'd set for Akira, something classical because he'd always thought 'classy' was romantic.

He reached for the phone with a groan.

11:54.

Yu scowled at the 'Now calling...' display. Now he wanted to go out? Over three and a half hours past their intended date time?

His entire body shaking, Yu held up the phone to his ear and accepted the call. Akira's voice immediately came over the line. "Yu, thank god you're there. Listen, I'm sorry, but I—"

"W-we're through," Yu interrupted, the hurt in his voice unmistakable. "You promised."

"Yu, listen to me, you don't understand! I need you, I'm—"

Yu slammed his phone shut so hard that he almost broke the case. Breathing heavily, he hugged his pillow so tightly that he almost cut off circulation to his hands. He hiccuped and hot tears began to roll down his cheeks. He cried himself to sleep for the second time that night.


"I'm in jail," Akira whispered into the phone. A police officer listened in over his shoulder behind him, but the line was now only a dial tone.


Author's notes: ahahaha WELP

This could turn into a longer work if, like, when Yu finds out the next day and feels awful and... but I don't have time for that, so you get stuck with this, haha. I'm sorry.

Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!

angevon: (Default)
2016-07-07 07:28 pm

Nanako Explains It All - Chapter 47 - Yes, Please

Author's notes: See this page for rating information and the chapter index.

Summary: Pink is a color of the rainbow.


[9/23: Friday]

The entire DEATH Squad was gathered at the TV World's backlot, despite the discussion they'd previously had about not always having to go in together. Nanako suspected that no one wanted to go in, and she didn't blame them. For one, the fog seemed thicker than normal. She wanted to believe that it was just because it was a bright and sunny day outside in the real world—Teddie had once said the fog here was related to the real world's weather—but she suspected that had nothing to do with it.

"It's almost as thick as the fog in the morning," Chie remarked while looking around.

"What do you mean?" Nanako asked.

"It's thick," Chie repeated. "Like... you can't see in front of you. I've almost had to cancel my jogging before school. By the time it goes away, I gotta be on my way to school."

"Is that normal?"

"Not at all. It's never been like this in all the years I've lived here. Right Yukiko?"

Yukiko was playing with her glasses, putting them on and then taking them off again. "I don't think it was this foggy when we first started coming in here," she said, apparently not having heard Chie's question. "I wonder what's causing it. I remember being able to see at least to the other side of the stage without my glasses, but now I can't see anything."

Nanako shivered unconsciously. She tested her vision the same way as Yukiko, and it turned out that without the special glasses, she couldn't see more than maybe four feet out in front of her.

It was quite distracting to have such clear vision with the glasses on and see the thick fog swirling beyond them. Since the glasses were now irreplaceable, they'd have to be very careful not to break them. Nanako made a note to buy some of those straps designed to be worn around the neck and protect glasses from accidentally falling to the floor.

"It's giving me chills, though it's not cold or anything," Chie said, rubbing her arms anyway.

"Yeah..." said Nanako distractedly. "Shirogane-san, what did you do with those samples of fog I gave you?"

"Despite the double-sealed container, the fog ended up evaporating," Naoto reported. "Vexing, to say the least."

"Freaky," said Yosuke. He tossed one of his knives into the air and caught it by the handle, stumbling only a little. "What's the plan, Nanako?"

"An upgrade," she answered. She began to hand out gear she'd purchased from Daidara's. Previously she'd considered giving Yosuke the thief knife, but in the end, she'd decided to keep it strapped to her thigh for emergencies.

As it turned out, her friends had visited the blacksmith on their own. Apparently old man Daidara wasn't against modifying Naoto's gun, despite the questionable legality of it, but when Naoto had visited, he hadn't the materials to do anything with it.

"Well, maybe we'll find something he can use for his 'art' today," Nanako said. "I thought we'd go through Shirogane-san's dungeon. The Shadows there are probably going to be pretty tough. We don't have to go very far. I mean, it's the first time we've all fought together."

"We won't know anything about these enemies," Yukiko observed. "Unless you remember anything from when you were here."

Nanako shook her head. "Not really. Well, if it's too much for us, we'll visit Kubo's instead. We're all rusty and I'm not going to push it. Besides, I doubt we're gonna find anything of interest. I mean, Shirogane-san's been rescued already."

"The only thing at stake is my professional pride," Naoto said. "It is quite embarrassing to have created such a place."

Although he said that, when they arrived at the base, his excitement over how it resembled the set of his favorite TV show betrayed him.

"The satellite appears to be one hundred percent accurate to scale!" he gushed. "It's incredible!"

"Buy the costumes at Croco Fur and we can film our own episodes," Yosuke commented.

"I have written an episode of my own," Naoto admitted. "One in which Blue Swan invents a device that—err..." He stopped because he became self-conscious. "That is... we should be preparing ourselves for the fight ahead of us."

"It's too bad cameras won't work in here," Nanako said. "We could totally use our Personas for special effects."

"You're both nerds," Yosuke said, shaking his head.

"You're the one who suggested costumes!" Chie pointed out.

"I know." Now Yosuke was grinning. "And I'd wear one of them if Nanako got them for us."

"You sure?" Nanako said. "The spandex leaves little to the imagination."

"I've nothing to hide," Yosuke said. "Besides, it's nothing you ladies haven't seen before. Remember the bathhouse?"

"I'll pay not to see that again," Chie said, splaying her fingers over her eyes in emphasis.

"Don't be such a prude, Chie," Yukiko said. "It wasn't all bad."

"I'm afraid to ask," said Naoto. "Though I do wish to visit this bathhouse and the other dungeons. It can wait, however. Shall we go inside?"

Naoto went up to the base's huge metal door, marveling at how well-made it was while it opened before him.

"I must bring a screwdriver the next time we visit," he mused, eyeing the control box on the inside. "I wonder if I can discover how it works."

"Total nerd," Yosuke repeated, though there wasn't any malice in his tone. "Next thing we'll know, you'll be trying to dismantle one of those giant robot Shadows."

"Don't tempt me," Naoto murmured in reply. He sighed and turned away from the control box. "Let's get a move on."

Around the first corner, they ran into their first group of Shadows. They'd talked about strategy earlier. The plan was to be systematic: one after another, Chie, Yukiko, Yosuke, and Kanji would use their elemental abilities in order to determine the Shadow's weakness. If nothing worked, Nanako would attack with her naginata. Regardless of what happened, Naoto would record the results in a notebook.

Of course, battles never went as planned. The Shadows morphed into a mixed set: two hableries and two giant lumps of rock. And a damned angel statue! Nanako remembered that pain-in-the-ass from her sneaking mission. She called her friends to attack it first.

With the hableries flying at their faces, though, they were too slow. The statue split open like a closet door and emitted its blue fog. Chie fell to her knees, her strength sapped. She was unable to bring out her Persona to use an ice attack like they'd planned.

Fortunately, Yukiko had successfully fanned the fog away so it hadn't affected her. She summoned her Persona and brought down flames on all of the enemies, but to everyone's surprise, the damned hableries just stuck their massive tongues out further than they already were, and suddenly the fire was reflected right back at Yukiko! She wasn't down, though, since fire never did much to her. It was just the principle of the thing! Were those damned tongue-balls grinning?

Yosuke's wind was next, cutting through the enemies and knocking over the rocks as if they were only feathers. With a war cry, Kanji slammed into one with his tower shield while it was down, destroying it instantly.

The other one, however, righted itself, and then exploded.

Kanji was slammed into the wall by its impact, and Yosuke knocked off his feet. Nanako flew right into the statue that she'd been preparing to attack. Her unprotected head knocked against its hard surface, making her see stars. She didn't know what happened to the rest of her friends, but her body was screaming in pain. That had hurt!

With a growl, she swung her naginata at the statue, but the impact hurt her wrists more than it hurt the enemy. It was as if the Shadow was actually made of stone. Its face sneered at her, and then the statue opened up again. She tried to hold her breath so that the blue fog wouldn't do anything to her—it was worth a try, at least—but found herself feeling sluggish, regardless.

The statue moved towards her, apparently planning to impale her with its sharp edges. She tried to call on a Persona, but with her mind so foggy, they all seemed so far away. Though she was able to form a card, she had no strength to break it.

Before the statue managed to strike her, a circular purple sigil made of light suddenly surrounded it. Now the statue was no longer sneering. In fact, its expression looked quite horrified in the seconds before the sigil glowed. Moments later the Shadow dissipated into nothing but dust.

Nanako lurched forward as her strength returned to her. These status ailments were always so disorienting! She felt like she wanted to throw up. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Yukiko comforting Chie, who was also nauseous. To her relief, the others seemed to be all right. Kanji was leaning on his shield, but no worse for the wear, and Yosuke was fussing over him, wondering if he needed a Diarama.

"That one seemed to be weak against Sukuna-Hikona's dark skills," Naoto remarked. "I suppose we'll need to take that into consideration."

Nanako sighed so heavily that her whole body shook. "Yeah. I wonder if we should move you to the front, because when that works, it's really effective. Then when it doesn't, the rest of us will jump right in. But..." She paused, looking at Yukiko. "Those tongue-balls reflected your fire. I'd hate to see a Shadow reflect Shirogane-san's skills."

"My Persona is resistant to both light and dark," Naoto said. "It's not impossible for such skills to affect me, but the probability is low. Compound that with the likelihood of a Shadow reflecting it, I think we should take our chances."

Not scared at all, are you? Nanako thought with a faint smile. They didn't have much choice, though. A Shadow's weaknesses could only be determined by trial and error.

After Nanako made sure everyone was up-to-date with their battle plan, they continued on through several floors of the dungeon, defeating at least a dozen groups of Shadows on the way. Some of them they cut through like butter, but it wasn't always that easy. By the time Nanako called a rest, they'd all worked up a healthy sweat, and Naoto had made a nice spread sheet of the different Shadows' strengths and weaknesses, though they were beginning to memorize these through repetition.

They took a break in one of the dungeon's pretend control rooms, since there were comfortable chairs in front of the consoles. Nanako divvied out sports drinks to everyone and slumped into one of the chairs. The momentum caused it to twirl on its axis.

While she was sipping her drink, she overheard the others chatting. Naoto was sitting at a console, apparently trying to make sense of the its colorful display of knobs, levers, and buttons. Yosuke leaned against the wall near him, his arms crossed and one leg bent against the wall. "Say, did Nanako ever tell you about our Shadows?" Yosuke asked.

"She didn't give me the details, no," Naoto answered. "May I assume that you're asking because you're curious about mine? My subconscious created this place, after all." He waved a hand to indicate their surroundings.

"Well, yeah," Yosuke said, "but I didn't want to ask if it wasn't, y'know, fair. It's not that our Shadows are taboo to talk about or anything, we just don't really talk about them. No one wants to have their dirty laundry aired out, so if you don't want to talk about yours, it's all right."

Naoto had a funny smile on his face now. "I wonder if you can figure out what mine was like. I'm aware that you don't know me very well just yet, but... Don't guess, I'd like you to think it over some."

"Huh," said Yosuke. He stood a little straighter against the wall and scratched his cheek. "Let's see... it probably talked about an insecurity you have. Maybe something to do with your age?"

"Go on," Naoto said.

"Well, I mean, you're way too young to be a full detective," Yosuke explained. "That's one problem, but there's also what your Shadow said on the Midnight Channel."

"Ah..." Naoto hesitated before continuing it with a soft, "yes."

Yosuke nodded. "Body modification, right? But I don't blame you at all." He paused. "I mean... anyone your height would want to be taller."

Nanako hid a snort by transforming it into a fake sneeze, and then focused her attention on the other side of the room. Kanji was buffing out a scratch on his tower shield, and Yukiko and Chie were watching him, but not really seeing him.

"I thought you'd be wearing shorts," Chie said.

"'Scuse me?" Kanji looked up from his work. "Don't think I've worn any since elementary school."

"I wasn't talking to you!"

"I don't have many pairs yet," Yukiko said. "I didn't want to dirty any of them."

"You could borrow some of mine," Chie said. "Oh, but we're not really the same build. They probably wouldn't fit."

"How sad," Yukiko said. "We could have been shorts twins."

"Wouldn't be as cute as the cutie pie twins," Kanji said.

"To be fair," said Chie, "I don't think anything can be."

You got that right, Nanako thought to herself. Aloud, she asked if everyone was ready to continue. "We can go back if you're tired. I'm still good, but this is Yosuke's first time here in over a month, so..." She stopped because Yosuke was shaking his head in an 'I can keep going' gesture.

"I'm good," Chie said, and Kanji just cracked his knuckles.

Nanako nodded, picked up her weapon, and strode towards the door. She frowned down the hallway on the other side. "Teddie, did we go this way before—oh."

As she was saying it, Nanako's brain had caught up to her mouth.

No longer could Teddie keep a mental map for them.

"Damn it," she cursed under her breath.

"Don't worry," said Yosuke. "I've been paying attention to where we've been. We came from there." He nodded at the door behind them at the far side of the room.

"I have been keeping a map," Naoto said. "Though I understand it might be difficult for you to decipher. My writing... isn't always the clearest."

"We can use the string again next time," Chie suggested. "I mean, it worked pretty well in the castle. Yosuke was able to follow it, remember?"

"Yeah," Nanako agreed, trying to ignore the bitterness within her.

Yukiko set a hand on her shoulder. "We all miss him, but we have to move on."

And move on they did, defeating floor after floor of Shadows.

On one of the lower floors, they ran into a Shadow that looked like a man chained upside-down to a massive circular disk. The Shadow's arcana mask covered the writhing man's face. Naoto started out with a light skill, but the Shadow simply rolled out of the sigil's area of effect.

Chie followed up with ice, as per their plan, but the masked man just laughed creepily and the ice seemed to become absorbed into the disc. Yukiko's fire did the same.

The enemy rolled on its disc, which had spikes all around its circumference. One of them caught Yosuke a glancing blow while he was trying to summon his Persona. Jiraiya still appeared, but its wind did nothing to the enemy.

"What the hell's its weakness?" Yosuke shouted.

Kanji glared hard at it while he summoned Take-Mikazuchi. The lightning ground itself into the Shadow, which just laughed once again.

Nanako charged towards it with her naginata. Halfway there, the enemy stopped laughing. All of a sudden, Nanako felt a change in pressure in the air around her, and when she looked up, intensely bright starlight rushed towards her. It struck her right in the face, knocking the wind out of her. She dropped her naginata and fell to the ground in a daze.

Her eyes saw only stars, an aftereffect of that powerful attack. The clink of spikes rang out as they hit the metal floor—the Shadow was rolling towards her, intending to run her over!

She struggled to pull herself up, but then there was a bang like a gong had been struck. She blinked her eyes, and soon enough they cleared to reveal Kanji on top of the Shadow beating the nonliving shit out of it. Moments later the Shadow dissolved into whatever Shadows dissolved into when they were defeated.

Kanji was panting triumphantly. He grinned at his friends around him and announced, "Its weakness was having its ass kicked!"

"Good one, Kanji," Nanako said weakly.

She pulled herself to her feet, and after a quick healing song from Izanami, they were on their way again.

Eventually they found the big door that led to the boss room where Naoto's Shadow had once resided. Looking over her team, Nanako considered opening it, but knew there was probably a very strong Shadow living in there now.

"Let's go back," she decided. "We've done enough today."

"Are you sure?" Yosuke asked. "I am tired, but..."

"We'll come back some other time and take out whatever's in there," Nanako said. "We have school tomorrow, you know."

No one argued with her. They were all tired, and Nanako for one was tired of breathing in this fog. It was bothering the others, too, she could tell. The way they sucked in deep breaths of the fresh air when they were back at Junes...

Something was up in the TV World, but without Teddie, it was anyone's guess as to what.


[9/24: Saturday]

If only there was another holiday today, Nanako thought with a mental sigh. She was sore all over, and walking to school seemed like a chore. At least she had Naoto to share that misery with.

Though honestly Naoto didn't look any worse for the wear than he normally did. The late nights he kept while poring over police files meant his tired appearance was his usual appearance.

"I don't think we'll be training tomorrow," Nanako said conversationally while they were walking to school. "I think we deserve a break."

"I would welcome one," Naoto agreed.

Yu, holding Nanako's hand as they walked, looked up at her with sudden excitement. "Oh! Big sis, can...?"

Nanako looked down at him with amusement. "Yes, honey?"

"Can Ta-kun come over? Tomorrow?"

"If his mom will let him, sure!" Nanako had only planned to study, but if Yu wanted a friend over, well, that became Priority One. "Maybe we can bake something with him, or you can teach him how to crochet. If he comes over in the morning, we can watch our cartoons with him!"

"Yeah!"

They saw Yu off at his elementary school, and then Nanako and Naoto continued on their way to Yasogami High. Naoto informed her that the results of the forensic analysis of the tofu shop and related evidence had been released.

"There isn't much to say," Naoto said. "The culprit wore gloves, and the tofu counter is wiped down upon closing every evening, so there were no unusual fingerprints. As for that diary entry we discovered among Kujikawa-san's accounts..."

"Yes?"

"It also contained no prints, but now we know where it came from. Adachi-san reports that the intruder had dropped it in their scuffle. Adachi-san had made a grab for it, and after a tug-of-war, the intruder pulled it away. A page must have been ripped out during that time and fallen to the floor. In the commotion, Adachi-san hadn't noticed it."

"He had been punched in the face, after all," Nanako said with a sympathetic nod. "And there were a bunch of dirty footprints over Kujikawa-san's accounts. It must have been a mess. I'm surprised Adachi-san didn't slip on one of those papers and fall on his ass!"

"He might have," Naoto said. "Do you remember how that stool had fallen over...?"

They had a few laughs at Adachi-san's expense until they reached the shoe lockers. It was as busy as always, full of students reluctant to be at school on a Saturday morning. While she was switching out her shoes, Nanako overheard some kids talking.

"Weren't those kids on Thursday so precious? I hope they come back again!"

"Well, if they get us out of class again, sure. But I had that planets song stuck in my head all day..."

"They were so cute!" the first student went on. "I wish I had a little brother or sister."

"That kid with the pink umbrella was something else," the second one agreed. "How he got stage fright, and that other kid had to speak up for him!"

That was my cousin! Nanako thought.

"Yes, it was," Naoto said, smiling rather indulgently. Whoops, had she said that out loud?

And so, they entered the school, Nanako almost lightheaded with pride.


"This is the place!" Nanako announced.

Ayane stood at her side in front of Uphairval in Okina City.

Nanako had been totally surprised when Ayane had come to the second year hallway after school let out to find her. It turned out that she wanted to go to the hair salon! Nanako had almost given up that quest as a lost cause—but of course she was delighted to go with her.

The salon's logo in the window consisted of a swish of dark-colored hair wrapped around a pair of shearing scissors. The salon was just one part of the strip mall: to the left was a sweets shop, and to the right was a clothing store with a rack of dresses on display outside. It looked rather busy inside the salon.

"I can dye my hair myself," Yosuke muttered.

Yosuke was there, too, and it was not the first time he'd said that today. He was such a party-pooper!

Nanako rolled her eyes and led them inside the salon. She went up to the front desk and signed them all in. She took a seat on one of the comfy leather chairs and grabbed a magazine from the short table. Ayane and Yosuke sat down with her while they awaited service.

Now that they were there, Yosuke seemed resigned to his fate. He glanced with suppressed interest at their surroundings—there were many glamorous posters of women with beautiful hair, and behind the counter were shelves with a wide array of hair care products—then he asked Ayane what she was going to have done.

"Just a professional shampoo, I think," Ayane answered. "My mom always buys this stuff that... well, it doesn't seem good for my hair, so I want to treat myself."

"What about you?" Yosuke asked Nanako.

Nanako was flipping through the magazine. The hottest fashions were totally not her style at all. She'd thought of getting her hair permed again, but eating her own hair was not her favorite past time. And she didn't want to be Saki's twin.

"That one looks good," Yosuke said, stopping Nanako from flipping to the next page by putting a finger in the way.

The style in question was a layered cut, which was nice enough, but needed more maintenance than Nanako was willing to give. "Nah," she said. "I'd rather not cut it. I want to let it grow out."

"It's already kinda long," he remarked.

"Oh, it can grow longer," Nanako assured him. "Before I cut it last year, it was right down to my butt!"

She scooted forward in the chair and showed him where on her hip, possibly exaggerating it by a few inches, but it wasn't like he'd know. Sadly, the long skirt meant she wasn't showing her assets off very well—not that she hadn't already shown them off to Yosuke before, heh heh.

"I think I'll just do the same as Ayane-chan," she concluded. "But what do you want, Yosuke? You came all this way with us."

He gave her a mildly puzzled look. "You already know. I just want a touch up." He smoothed his fingers through his hair. "The roots really are starting to get bad. I just want it the same color, though, if that's what you're wondering."

"How about this color?" Nanako said. "It'd look so good on you!"

Yosuke stared flatly at the picture in the magazine she was pointing to. "Oh, come on. It's pink!"

"It's Yu-kun's favorite!"

"I like it, too," Ayane added mildly. "It's a good shade."

"Well, I don't know if it's actually Yu-kun's favorite," Nanako admitted, "but he definitely likes it." And it's his little friend's favorite, so that counts, right? she added in her mind.

"W-why would that even matter?" Yosuke demanded.

"You don't have to do the whole thing," Nanako said. "Just one streak?"

"No," he said emphatically.

"One liiiittle streak?" she pleaded. "You can get rid of it if you don't like it."

"It would get everyone's attention," Ayane remarked. "Umm, that is, if you want that, Senpai."

"No," he said, and this time he crossed his arms. End of story.

Oh well. It had been worth a try. Nanako considered dyeing her own hair, but only for a second. She didn't need anything else drawing attention to herself, and it would probably have to be lightened by shades first. Dark hair was always so difficult to dye properly without resulting in breakage from the bleach. It was kind of amazing that Yosuke's light brown had turned out as well as it had, considering he'd dyed it all on his own.

Soon enough an attendant approached them. Yosuke was led to a different part of the salon, since he wanted a different service, and Nanako and Ayane were together brought into the back, past the rows of people with their feet in wash basins getting pedicures, past the old ladies with their heads inside those big metal dryers getting their hair curled, and to a couple of empty salon chairs where they were invited to sit.

"When I came here last," Nanako said, "they took me down that way instead." She waved a hand towards a doorway nearby while she got comfortable on the salon chair.

"W-what's back there?" Ayane asked. She seemed a little nervous, probably because she'd never been to a salon before, which was why Nanako was talking about something so unimportant.

"Just more chairs. I think it's overflow. This place is the only hair salon in the mall, so it's pretty busy."

"I noticed!" Ayane said. "Do you think we'll be here long?"

"An hour, hour and a half, maybe. Two hours, tops. Don't worry, it'll be worth it!"

To fill up time while they waited for service, Nanako began to relate her experience getting her hair permed. Ayane commented that it seemed like a lot of work, and Nanako agreed that it wasn't something she'd repeat any time soon.

"A nice wash will be fine today," Nanako concluded, grinning at the pair of attendants heading towards them.

A short time later, Nanako and Ayane were both reclined in their salon chairs, their hair being washed in the ceramic basins behind the chairs. It felt great to Nanako, having someone combing through her wet hair. The shampoo she'd chosen smelled like vanilla. It was a little too strong right now, but she knew it'd fade after the wash.

In the middle of the shampooing, Nanako's pocket began to buzz. She didn't open her eyes, but her face creased into a frown. She'd put her phone on silent so it wouldn't interrupt this event, but she hadn't expected anyone to try and contact her. She'd informed the team and Saki that she was busy this afternoon, so they shouldn't be trying to reach her.

Had... had something happened?

She stirred restlessly as the phone buzzed again a few moments later.

"Do you need to get that?" the girl attending her asked.

Nanako bit her tongue while she thought about it. "No... it's okay."

If it was an emergency from the team, they'd contact Yosuke, too, or so she hoped. If he came running over here all of a sudden or something, then she'd worry.

Nanako sighed as the buzzing finally stopped.

"This is lovely," Ayane murmured.

"Isn't it?" Nanako said, pushing her phone out of her thoughts. "Rub my scalp a little more, why don't you?" she asked, and her attendant giggled and indulged her.

"I'm glad we came here," Ayane said. "Thanks for coming with me, Senpai..."

"Oh, no problem, Ayane-chan! You need to treat yourself like this sometimes. You work hard with your trombone, you know? Live a little!"

"I will!" Ayane declared, and her enthusiasm made Nanako smile.

The attendant began to comb conditioner into Nanako's hair. If it wasn't for the phone at the back of her mind, she might have enjoyed it enough to be lulled into sleep. Ayane definitely did; she seemed to be purring in the chair next to her, just like a cat.

"Hello, ladies," came a sing-song voice. "Still being worked on? Check this out!"

Nanako opened her eyes. It was, of course, Yosuke, and he had—wait, what? She blinked her eyes rapidly, not believing it for a second. There was no way...!

There was lock of bright magenta hair on his head. It was about an inch wide, to the left of his part.

"Oh my god," Nanako breathed, barely restraining herself from jumping out of the chair to give him a hug.

"Senpai, wow...!" Ayane squeaked her agreement.

"Y-yeah, I thought it over, and..." Yosuke said, shrugging nonchalantly. "I was thinking of red or yellow, but they didn't seem to have the right zing, you know?"

"Oh, I know," Nanako agreed fervently. "It looks great, Yosuke, it really does."

"Yeah...? Good. Well, I'll wait for you two at the counter. Enjoy!"

Some time later, they emerged from the salon, all of them looking fabulous. Nanako's hair felt fuller than it had been in a long time, despite it being its natural straight. Ayane's looked great, too—she'd had the bangs clipped a little so that they framed her face in a very flattering way.

And Yosuke... well, he kept touching the magenta streak in his hair. He really seemed to like it.

"You know, Yosuke," Nanako remarked casually as they left the store. "If Kanji wasn't taken by that guy in glasses, you might have an honest chance with him now!"

Yosuke didn't even look at her—he just continued to play with the lock of hair.

Now that they were free, Nanako finally checked her phone. She found several texts and a missed call from Aunt Narukami. She read through the messages with a frown on her face. Her aunt had been trying to contact her to pick up Yu from his daycare.

Nanako swore under her breath. Her aunt had been so good at picking the boy up lately. Nanako hadn't expected this at all. By the timestamp, her call had been almost an hour ago.

There was a more recent text, though:
Well, don't worry about it Nanako-chan. I was able to find someone else.

Nanako sighed with relief. Probably Aunt Narukami had been able to get ahold of Naoto.

Feeling better now, Nanako poked Yosuke in the side. "Hey, we should go clubbing! I'd promised you forever ago, and now that we're friends again and all, it can happen."

Yosuke held a few strands of his magenta hair between his thumb and forefinger. "You think girls are gonna like this?"

"Positive, Senpai!" Ayane piped up. "It's very cute."

"Oh, I don't wanna be cute," Yosuke complained, "I want to be hot!"

"Why do guys have such an aversion to being called cute?" Nanako rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Don't you know some girls say that because they're too shy to say what they really feel? And for some girls, cute equals attractive! Take it as a compliment, Yosuke. That's what it's meant to be."

Yosuke appeared to consider it for a moment. "No one ever said 'smoking cute,'" he muttered, though he didn't seem all that indignant anymore.

"Why don't we go out tomorrow night?" Nanako suggested. "I know it's a Sunday, but that means the club won't be super packed like it will be tonight. We won't stay out too late for school."

"I think I work until four," he said. "That works, right?"

"It sure does!" she declared. "Do you want to meet in Inaba or somewhere over here? The fountain's a nice place. We can't miss each other there."

"I'll need to grab a bite to eat," he said. "I'm going to be starving when I get off. I suppose I could eat at work, but I'd rather not."

"We could go to the Chagall Cafe," Nanako suggested.

As they further hashed out their plans to meet up, Nanako felt like she was missing something, but she couldn't place what it was. Yosuke began to frown, too, and then suddenly he whipped his head up, startled. "Ayane-san!" he said. "Are you free tomorrow? You should join us."

Ayane seemed startled herself. "O-oh, n-no thank you," she stammered out.

Nanako eyed her critically. Ayane seemed to fade into the background when she and Yosuke got to talking. She'd have to work harder in the future to keep her involved in the conversation.

"Are you sure?" Yosuke asked. "I'd feel safer if someone other than Nanako came along."

"What, do you think I'm planning something?" Nanako feigned indignation for a moment before leaning in towards Ayane conspiratorially to whisper, "He's right."

Ayane's cheeks grew redder. "I'm sorry, Senpai! But I promised my family..."

"It's all right," Yosuke said, "but this was fun right? We should do something like this again."

"Yeah," Ayane said, her eyes glowing suddenly. "Maybe next time... we can get our nails done!"

"I'm gonna have to draw the line there," Yosuke said.

"You'd be even cuter with nails to match your hair," Nanako said, and Ayane began to giggle. She'd been joking from the start. She was a cool girl, wasn't she?

They took the bus home from Okina, and on the ride home, Nanako reflected that maybe scooters were something to look into. The bus had to make so. Many. Stops. It was one of the reasons she so rarely made the trip out of town, even though Okina was the nearest 'happening' place. And she'd have to make it again tomorrow night! It would totally be worth it though. Yosuke didn't even begin to suspect what he was in for.

When they finally got off at the central shopping district, Nanako bid farewell to her two friends and headed home. She expected to see Naoto and Yu sitting at the tea table. Yu would be working on his homework, and Naoto would be working at his laptop, and...

But the sight that greeted her in the living room was a completely different one.

It was Adachi, sitting on the floor with his back against the foot of the couch.

Yu was sleeping in his lap.

"What," Nanako said out loud. Then her instincts kicked in and she grabbed Aunt Narukami's camera from the counter and snapped a photo of the adorable scene before the detective could raise any form of protest.

"I-I don't know how this happened either!" Adachi said, looking mostly embarrassed, but Nanako suspected she saw a hint of something akin to fatherly pride on his face.

"Shush, don't wake him," Nanako scolded in a whisper.

Yu stirred, and they held their breath, but he didn't open his eyes. He simply snuggled his head against Adachi's chest, burrowing further into the man's jacket.

"He's been asleep for twenty minutes now," Adachi said in a murmur.

"And you've just been sitting here, thinking about things, the whole time?"

"Pretty much," he admitted. "What else would I do?"

They watched the rise and fall of Yu's breathing for a long time. Nanako quietly told him about all the pictures she took on Thursday, promising that she'd show them to him after she got around to getting them all developed. He nodded, but it didn't seem like he was listening. His eyes appeared far away. Either he was not interested, too tired to be interested, or something else was on his mind.

"Uhh, thanks for picking him up, I guess," Nanako tried. "Auntie's been so good about picking him up lately that I didn't even think about it. I'm totally sorry. It's my job to get him when she can't."

"You're welcome," he said without enthusiasm. He sighed, and the rush of air from his nose ruffled Yu's hair.

"It won't happen again!" she promised right then and there. She needed to work at the daycare again anyway. It had been a long time.

"Shit happens." Adachi shrugged as much as he could with a 6-year-old in his lap. "But I'd rather I didn't..." he trailed off, looking down at Yu now with an unreadable expression.

"I wasn't even doing anything important today," she said absently. She frowned as something occurred to her. The daycare was really strict about who they let kids go home with. "Wait, they let you take Yu-kun from the daycare?"

"Yeah... I guess I'm still an emergency contact." Adachi said it a little too flatly.

"Did you get pulled away from work?" she asked. "I'm really sorry about... wait. 'Still'?"

She caught herself before she asked if something had happened. Of course something'd happened, it was what was still hanging over this whole household and had been for almost a year now.

Adachi confirmed it a second later. "It would have been better if I hadn't picked him up today. The only other time I picked him up before was the day his pop died."

Nanako breathed in and held her breath.

"Yeah," he said, noting her expression. "So when he saw me at the daycare today, well, he thought the worst. Had to assure him that everything was okay..."

"I'm sorry," she said.

Adachi shook his head. "I'm the one who made a bunch of mistakes that day." He sighed and looked down at the boy in his lap. "Kid's probably scarred for life. I'm surprised he ever warmed up to me this much."

"He's a sweetie," she said with feeling. "And I think his scars are healing, a little bit at a time."

"Yeah...? I'm glad to hear it."

They regarded the sleeping Yu for a quiet moment. The rise and fall of his breathing was so soothing that Nanako almost wanted to take a nap herself. But she didn't really want to cuddle Adachi-san...

Poor Yu. Aunt Narukami probably hadn't realized how the boy might react to Adachi picking him up from the daycare. When she found out, she'd probably feel as awful as Nanako felt about it. Yu might have relived a nightmare today. He looked so peaceful right now, asleep as he was, that no one could tell if he was hurting.

"Hey, uh," Adachi said. "I know it's your duty to tell her and all, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't make a big deal of this to his mom."

She wondered for a moment how he'd read her mind, but remembered that he was a detective. It was probably clear as day on her face.

"He's all right now," Adachi went on. "When we got home, I cheered him up with some magic tricks. He's a smart kid, though. He saw right through them all. It became kind of a game."

"And before you knew it," she murmured, "he'd fallen asleep in your lap."

Adachi looked at the boy for a long moment before whispering a soft "Yeah..."

They watched the boy sleep for a little bit longer. He was just too precious! Nanako considered taking more pictures of her slumbering baby, but the noise might startle him awake.

Eventually Adachi shifted awkwardly under his burden. He looked at Nanako a little desperately. "Uh, I need to move him."

Nanako considered the situation. No matter how carefully he tried to move him, Yu would probably wake up, so she decided to cut to the chase and wake him herself. She gently shook his shoulder until he opened his eyes. "Honey," she murmured. "Adachi-san needs to pee."

Yu yawned widely. He looked up at Adachi, and then began to extricate himself from the man's lap. A moment later he was sitting on the floor. His hair was such a mess that Nanako had to snap another picture.

Adachi unfolded his legs and hightailed it to the bathroom. Nanako had only guessed that he needed to go, but she was apparently right!

"Are you all right, honey?" Nanako asked, setting the camera aside.

"Big sis," Yu said with another big yawn. "I'm sleepy..."

"You gotta stay up," she said. "We'll have to go get dinner soon."

"Oh!" he said, perking up. "Mama will be hungry. Uhm... Adachi-san..."

He was looking past Nanako now, so she turned her head. Adachi was standing sheepishly near the dining room, having finished his business. It wasn't hard to imagine that he felt like an intruder. "Ah, I should be going," Adachi said, already beginning to back away.

"W-wait...!" Yu called after him. "Adachi-san!"

Adachi paused in mid-step. "Er, yeah?"

"W-will you stay for dinner?" Yu asked.

Nanako wasn't sure who was more surprised by this, herself or Adachi. Emotions crossed over the detective's face, too quickly to be recognized before he affixed a smile in their place.

"Sure," he said.


[9/25: Sunday]

Nanako didn't have a chance to watch Tanaka's Amazing Commodities like she'd planned to because right when it was about to air, there was a knock on the door to the Narukami Residence. It was rather early in the morning—whoever it was was lucky she was even dressed!

She took the stairs two steps at a time, but Naoto had already opened the front door and was greeting the visitors: Takeyoshi-kun and his mother. Yu was right behind Naoto, peering around him and then waving at his friend. Nanako joined them at the doorway.

Takeyoshi's mother was staring openly at Naoto. "I've seen you on TV," she said slowly.

"Detective Prince!" Takeyoshi announced, also recognizing Naoto.

"That's right," Takeyoshi's mom continued excitedly, "you put the police in their place! It was all over the news for a while there." She paused, and her excitement faded into thoughtfulness. "That was some time ago. It seems like nothing's happened since then."

"Dad says it's boring," Takeyoshi remarked.

"The police are surely hard at work, now that their eyes have been opened," Naoto said tactfully, "even if it seems that things are quiet. And I promise that I am still working on the case."

"He won't rest until it's solved," Nanako chimed in.

Naoto suppressed a grin. "In any case, would you like to come in? I'm brewing some hot coffee, but I can also serve some tea."

"Are there cookies?" Takeyoshi asked. "More dinosaur cookies. They were so good."

"Unfortunately, we are all out of cookies," Naoto said, "so it would just be tea."

"I have to get going soon," Takeyoshi's mom said, rejecting the offer. "But I'm glad to know that Ta-chan will be in good hands! I didn't know the Narukamis entertained such company."

Nanako bit off a harsh reply. Why was the woman such a bitch to her? Nanako had been nothing but nice to her and her son.

"But first," Takeyoshi's mom went on, "I want to see the star of the show!"

It took everyone a moment to realize she was looking at Yu, who was still half-hidden by Naoto. His big eyes blinked and he stepped forward shyly.

"Ta-chan tells me you forgot your line in the play!" The woman bent down to his level and patted him on the head. "That's so adorable... aren't you glad you have such a great friend?"

"C-compatriot," Yu murmured.

"So adorable," she repeated with a tight grin. She straightened up and addressed Naoto. "What time should I return to pick him up?"

"About three," Nanako answered promptly, though her tone was clipped. The woman earned some points for recognizing what a treasure Yu was, but not many!

Takeyoshi's mom promised she'd be there, then swept her own son in her arms to kiss him on the cheek in an embarrassing display. "Aww, Mom!" he protested, but his rosy cheeks betrayed his happiness.

Nanako wondered if that was worth another point as they watched her leave down the road.

After Takeyoshi removed his shoes, he told Naoto, "I want some coffee."

Naoto raised an eyebrow. "Have you had it before? It requires a refined palate."

"Ta-kun likes it black," Yu said.

"You are the weirdest kid, Ta-kun," Nanako remarked. "No coffee for me, thanks, Shirogane-san. Oh, Auntie! Would you like any?"

Aunt Narukami had come out of her room. She blinked owlishly at everyone present. "Ah, I'm sorry. I should have been the one to answer the door. I was in a call..."

"I'm just glad you're here," Nanako said, smiling brightly. Yu was already looking up at his mom, ready to hang onto her every word. "You've met Takeyoshi-kun before. He's staying over for a bit."

"Did I miss his mother? Perhaps it's for the best."

"You don't like my mom," Takeyoshi stated, having heard the woman's sigh of relief.

Aunt Narukami paused, startled at being called out. "Ah, Takeyoshi-kun," she said, recovering quickly. "I'm sure your mother is a wonderful person, but she always tries to get me to join her candle parties, and I simply don't have the time."

Takeyoshi's eyes remained narrowed for a long moment. "Those parties are kinda boring," he conceded.

"I've been to one exactly once," Aunt Narukami said. "And then said, 'Never again!' I imagine you're told to remain in your room and be quiet when your mother is hosting one?"

"Actually, she kinda dresses me up nice to show off..." Takeyoshi trailed off. "Umm..."

"To show off how cute you are," Yu finished helpfully.

Nanako snorted in laughter, though underneath it she was thinking that the cutest one was her cousin! Takeyoshi looked a little put out, so Nanako bent down and rubbed her nose against his. "Yep! Cute as a button!"

Now Takeyoshi was blushing even harder, but he obviously wasn't displeased.

"I used to be quite the same as your mother," Aunt Narukami remarked, "until a certain someone helped me realized that my little boy was cute in all the clothes."

"When Yu wore that jinbei, it was the cutest cute to end all cutes!" Nanako said. She proceeded to give Yu several Eskimo kisses as well, and the boy just giggled.

"Oh, oh, big sis," Yu said when she let him go. "Umm... I-it's almost time for Loveline!"

Loveline or not, with a group that big there was no way they wouldn't have fun. Takeyoshi-kun tried to escape, mumbling that he never watched the show, but Nanako just tugged him over to the low table and sat him right down on a floor cushion. Yu squeezed in between him and Nanako, and Naoto sat on her other side. Aunt Narukami took a seat at the couch just a few feet behind them and turned on the TV for them.

Nanako brought out the bag of gummi snacks she kept under the table and had everyone take one, feeling rather guilty that this silly tradition made her happier than the actual show nowadays. When the opening song started to play, Yu sang along with it, just as she once had. No one had prompted him, either, which made her so happy that she decided to nudge Takeyoshi until he was humming along, too. The real surprise came when Naoto started poking her, urging Nanako to do the same. As always, nothing got past the Detective Prince.

The episode was about stolen love letters between two minor NPC lovebirds who would likely only appear in this one episode and never again after, but even so, she shouted "We're on the case!" with Yu when Detective Loveline said her catchphrase, and fun times were had.

All of a sudden, Nanako heard a giggly snort come from behind her. She glanced back at Aunt Narukami, who was looking down at her phone. "What's up?" Nanako asked, curious.

Aunt Narukami shook her head. "I was looking for a photo I'd taken at a business meeting, but I found this." She turned the phone around so that everyone could see the picture.

It was a photo of Yu sitting in Nanako's lap, with Nanako covering his ears. By the clothing, Nanako easily recognized it as from the summer festival. There wasn't much lighting since it was evening; they were only illuminated by the fireworks blasting in the sky. And possibly the particular firework that was going off at the time had been a pink or red one, since it made Yu's jinbei look even more rosy pink than it actually was.

"I wish I'd had my actual camera at the time," Aunt Narukami remarked, "but I hadn't brought it down by then. It's still a scene to remember. He really is adorable in his jinbei."

"He looks so pink," Takeyoshi observed, noticing the exact same thing Nanako had. "You know, that's Yuuta's favorite color."

Nanako blinked. "Wait, how did you know that? I don't think it's something he advertises."

"Well, it's obvious," he said, and if he wore glasses he'd sure as hell have been adjusting them right then. "Everyone at school makes fun of him for it."

Nanako's hackles rose as defensive anger awoke within her. She was about to say something, but she was beaten to the punch.

"Does his mother know about this?" Aunt Narukami demanded, dropping the phone and setting her hands on her hips. "She needs to."

"Probably not," Nanako said, calming down a little simply because seeing Aunt Narukami get riled up gave off the impression that something was going to happen to someone soon. "But I can talk to Minami-san this Saturday. I'm planning to go to the daycare."

"Yuuta-kun," Yu volunteered. "He, umm... he really likes plushies."

"The cutest ones," Nanako murmured.

"B-but he doesn't have any at home, so... when I brought Foxie, it was his first time playing with one. He really liked how soft she is, big sis... But the other kids, they..."

Naoto smiled wryly. "It begins this early, huh...?"

"That's when Foxie got ripped," Nanako mused. "This reminds me, my first time at the daycare, I had the kids play dress-up, and it was all just fun and games, you know? But some of the parents were so awful about it. 'Why is my little boy in a skirt?' 'How dare you put a baseball cap on my daughter!' Man... most of those boys looked so cute in dresses, let me tell you."

"You have no pictures of Yu in a dress?" Aunt Narukami asked.

"Oh... Yu wasn't playing with us at the time. He was really shy back then! Weren't you?" Nanako tickled him just enough to make him giggle.

"You know..." Naoto began, but then he paused. With everyone's eyes on him, however, he pressed on. "Well, sometimes I think about how it would be to wear a dress."

Nanako tilted her head and raised an eyebrow.

"...but I absolutely hate skirts," Naoto finished.

"You'd look lovely in a dress," Aunt Narukami commented.

"Oh, but not as lovely as when you wear that cardigan!" Nanako said with a grin.

Naoto blushed, and just a moment later laughed heartily. Nanako wrapped an arm around her friend so that they'd sit just a bit closer during the next show.

Which was, of course, Featherman! Takeyoshi's excitement grew when a short preview was shown during Loveline's credits. "Yeah! They're gonna fight the Kooky Gang today!" he exclaimed.

"The Cookie Gang?" Nanako teased. "Sounds yummy!"

"No, it's..." Takeyoshi frowned, and then his expression became flat as he realized Nanako hadn't misheard him at all.

"It's the gang that Owl used to be in before he joined the Rangers," Naoto explained in his stead. "His past is meeting up with him. It will be interesting, to say the least."

Nanako smiled indulgently at him, thinking about cookies instead. They'd have to bake some later!

The episode of Featherman might have been more interesting to Nanako if she'd been more invested in the series, but everyone else's excitement was catching. She cheered along with Yu and Naoto when Owl rejected his sinister roots to continue to stand with the good guys.

She noticed then, however, that one little boy was having the opposite reaction.

"Why would he give up on his old friends like that?" Takeyoshi muttered. "They took him in when his parents died. It, it almost feels like... the Rangers stole him away."

But they're the bad guys, Nanako almost said, but she didn't, because it was all a matter of perspective. "Sometimes," she said, "you're friends with the bad guy."

She sighed, then noticed that Yu was playing with the phone his mother had given him. In fact, he offered it to her now. "M-Mama, look... I saw a kitty with Ta-kun when we went to cram school."

Aunt Narukami took the phone from him and looked at the screen. "Very nice, Yu. Here, I'll show you a trick. You can hold the phone on its side... Do you see? Next time you can get the whole cat in the picture."

"Y-yes, Mama!" Yu said, beaming up at her and tilting the phone different ways to see how the camera app reacted. "I can even hold it upside down. Big sis, look!"

It was a close up of a gray cat's face. It was just sitting there under a bush. Its eyes looked demon red from the camera phone's flash.

"Felis Domesticus," Takeyoshi said. "That means 'domestic cat.'"

"It meowed at me, like this!" Yu said excitedly. "M-meowww..."

"Yu-kitty?" Nanako teased. "Y'know, I think..." She paused, her mind racing. Had she packed those? No, that would be silly. But she was silly, so maybe she had...?

"Big sis?"

"One moment, Yu-chan!" With a small grunt, she heaved herself to her feet. Sitting for over an hour made her legs a little tired, so she stumbled a bit before making her way up the stairs and to her room.

She'd lived here for over almost half a year now, but she still had some of her less essential stuff packed in moving boxes. It was probably in this one... She rummaged through it, pulling out extra hair clips, a friendship bracelet, a manga that she didn't really like, and then there it was.

A kitty-eared hairband!

So sometimes she liked to cosplay! At least this item from the costume was coming in handy… Maybe one day Saki could be allowed to see the rest.

Yu's eyes lit up when she came back downstairs and he saw the hairband in her hands. She put it right on him, though it didn't fit his little head all that well. Regardless, he immediately got into character and began to purr. He rubbed his head against her side.

Nanako began to giggle. "Yu-chan! That tickles!"

Yu just continued to purr. There was a surprising amount of strength behind him as he butted his head right into her side, rubbing her affectionately just like a cat would.

Helpless, she fell onto the floor, giggling, and Yu followed her there, purring harder now. He'd curled his hands into fists to mimic paws, and now he was setting them on her belly. Soon he'd climbed right onto her stomach and was hiding his 'paws' under his own belly, sitting imperially on top of her like... well, like a very comfortable cat!

When Nanako finally caught her breath, she just looked at the boy's grinning face. She reached out a hand and scritched his head, right above his ear. The hairband had fallen off long ago, but he leaned into her fingers and maybe his smile grew even bigger.

Then she wrapped both her arms around him and enveloped him in a huge hug.

Suddenly there was a heavy weight on her legs.

"Meoowwwww," came Takeyoshi's voice.

"What is this, a kitty pile-up?" she asked, laughing, though not very hard with a little boy on her belly!

The two boys began to meow in unison, or perhaps not in unison, it sounded quite noisy, but it was music to her ears.

Perhaps the most melodic part of all was the sound of a camera capturing a photo of the scene. When Nanako turned her head, she found Aunt Narukami beaming down at them from behind the lens, looking more at home than Nanako had ever seen her.


Nanako met Yosuke at the fountain in Okina, finding him easily since he stood out so much, and not just because of the magenta streak in his hair; he was dressed casually in a salmon-colored shirt that was cut so low about his shoulders that it showed his entire collarbone. Did he have any inkling what that did to her? Probably not, but the sight surprised her even more than the fact that he'd left his signature headphones at home. Instead, around his neck was a necklace with a metal charm of some sort hanging from it.

"What are you wearing?" he said upon seeing her, sounding both awed and accusatory all at once.

"I could say the same to you!" she said. "I didn't know you even owned a pair of jeans."

"Who doesn't own a pair of jeans?" he countered. "I wish we could wear them at school. But really, Nanako. That dress... kinda reminds me of the TV World."

Now that he mentioned it, the black and white striped design she was wearing did evoke that disorienting feel of falling into the TV. She did a light twirl, letting her dress flare out a bit. That only made it worse. "I didn't intend it to be like that at all! Man, I liked this dress too. Why'd you have to ruin it?"

"S-sorry," he stammered. "It looks great on you, it really does! Maybe black was your color all along. It goes well with your eyes."

"Yeah? People always like to put me in pink, not that I hate that or anything." But pink was Yuuta-chan's color now. Nanako couldn't think of it without thinking of him. "Or yellow, but I don't always want to look like a sunflower."

"It worked well for a swimsuit," he agreed, "but not so much for casual clothes. Anyway, what's on the agenda?"

"This!" She handed him a slip of a paper she'd purchased before meeting him here.

"A train ticket?" Yosuke stared down at the item in question in his hand before fixing her with a questioning look. "I thought we were just going to a club here in Okina."

"There is exactly one club in Okina," Nanako explained, "and since, unless you count Old Lady Shiroku, that number is zero for Inaba, the whole town will be there, all four people."

Yosuke held in a little giggle. "True," he conceded, "but I thought this was to help me get a girlfriend. It's not going to work out if she lives all the way in Shibuya!"

Nanako raised an eyebrow at him, inwardly laughing at a joke only she understood. For now, anyway. "Yosuke, when did we ever talk about getting you a girlfriend?"

"We totally talked about it!"

"Besides," she brushed him off, "distance isn't the end all, and anyone dating you is gonna need some loooooooong breaks."

Yosuke rolled his eyes. "Very funny, Nanako. What are we doing there, then?"

"What else? We're going to have some fun!"


The club's greeter, a big burly guy named Kouichi who also acted as the bouncer, stood right outside the entrance. Nanako knew he was truly a sweetheart underneath his 250 pounds of muscle. In fact, he reminded her of Kanji, or rather, Kanji had always reminded her of him! "Nanako-chan!" he said, uncrossing his meaty arms and moving in for a hug. "I thought you died."

"I almost did," she told him as they exchanged kisses on the cheeks, and they both knew she wasn't joking, "but you know me. Like a zombie, I just keep coming back up!"

Nanako waved Yosuke forward, since he'd been lingering back, intimidated at the sight of all that muscle. "This is a friend of mine," she said. "Don't worry, Kou-chan, we aren't going to cause any trouble."

Kouichi looked Yosuke up and down. "...You sure he belongs here?"

"What? Just look at his hair!"

Under his scrutiny, Yosuke nervously began to toy with the pink streak in his hair, and though he had no idea, that was exactly what Nanako meant for him to do. Meanwhile, Kouichi's hard look softened. "All right, honey, go on in."

"Told you we wouldn't need fake IDs," Nanako whispered to Yosuke as they crossed through the doorway, just as his mouth started to drop at the sight of the club. Nanako knew why: the lighting. Red was the only color that could be seen in there.

"I see why you're wearing black and white now..." he murmured, and then she took his arm, and in they went.

"You haven't seen anything yet," Nanako said as he took in everything. Red was only for the bar. The dance floor was a vivid yellow, and the tables beyond a somber blue, and that was not even the best part!

"Whoa, hello there handsome!" someone said as they approached the bar, amidst a number of wolf whistles.

"You sure are popular tonight," Yosuke murmured as he took a seat.

Nanako smiled. The music wasn't too loud yet, so the comments wouldn't stop, but she paid them no mind. From the corner of her eye she spied her old flame sitting in the corner, as dazzling and beautiful as she remembered, leagues above the one back in Inaba.

"I don't understand half this list," Yosuke complained, oblivious to her lust.

Nanako looked over at him.

"Oh, you aren't supposed to use the menu, silly," she said, swiping it from his hands, then raising her own to call the distant bartender.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"You're new here, so let the master decide," she explained. "Besides, there are new drinks everyday. You should experiment!"

Yosuke seemed nervous, but his body language—sitting on the edge of the seat, hands on knees—told her he was giddy. Eventually, the bartender, a slim, handsome man with glasses and a rigid expression, approached them. Yosuke promptly straightened his back on instinct.

"Nanako-san," the man said politely, even bowing his head a little bit, though his expression went unchanged.

"Ryu-san," she said in kind. Yosuke just sort of watched. Probably, she realized, he'd never seen her being polite.

"What can I do for you today?" Ryu asked, giving Yosuke only the most cursory of glances.

"I was hoping you'd introduce my friend here to one of your wonderful cocktails," Nanako answered. This earned Yosuke a longer glance, though she suspected his eyes were hidden from view by the lighting, same as they were the first time she'd met him. Yosuke didn't dare breathe, so she nudged him to introduce himself.

"M-my name is Yosuke Hanamura!" he said in a squeaky voice.

Ryu sent her a subtly disgruntled stare. No doubt he was thinking, 'another jailbait,' but he'd never say it out loud. Wordlessly, he began preparing ingredients from under the table. Nanako had to straighten her back to see them—a watermelon, some lime, a bottle she didn't recognize but was probably syrup, and some Shiranami. Nanako had always loved the waves on the label, and... gosh, was he popping it open? That was rare. The whole watermelon was too, usually he had them cut beforehand. Yosuke watched in awe as the weird ingredients were smashed and mixed and shaken until a very small glass containing a foamy pinkish liquid was presented to him, with four ice cubes added afterwards.

"Um, thanks..." Yosuke said, not knowing whether he should take a shot or comment on the drink or what. Nanako knew, she'd been there once.

"Pink, just like your hair," she offered.

"In this lighting, at least," Ryu said, smiling to make Yosuke feel more at ease, though inwardly he was probably facepalming.

Yosuke picked the glass up carefully, taking a long hard look at the contents before allowing himself the slightest sip. Nanako rolled her eyes, but allowed him to savor the moment.

"This is really good," he said eventually, then taking another, longer sip. "I thought sake was supposed to burn in your throat, though. This feels more like drinking juice."

"This is a common cocktail not usually served here," Ryu explained, "not made with sake but with shochu, specifically Shiranami distilled from sweet potato."

"You need to appreciate the basics before moving on to stronger drinks," Nanako added, reminded that Ryu had told her the same thing, a long time ago.

"There was potato in this?" Yosuke asked, raising the now nearly empty glass. Nanako couldn't help but laugh, and even Ryu could not suppress a more genuine smile.

"Ryu-san, do you still have that Okinawan one?" Nanako asked as a blushing Yosuke finished his drink. Ryu nodded, so she ordered two before he went to serve the other clients.

"That guy was scarier than the bouncer!" Yosuke whispered to her once Ryu was out of earshot.

Nanako played with her new yellow drink a little, remembering the first time she'd tasted it. "Ryu-san takes his job seriously. I heard he used to work at one of those underground bars that open at night and stay open until morning, so he knows how to deal with seedy people."

Yosuke bit his lip. Nanako noticed because he'd spilled some of his drink despite being extra careful, and it was gleaming in the red light... She almost raised a hand to clean it, but maybe that'd hurt his odds with the people there, so she decided against it.

Eventually, he spoke:

"You really had a life before Inaba, huh?"

"I did," she said, raising an eyebrow at him. What was he getting at?

Yosuke downed his entire drink (pausing to hiss a little, because this one was a lot more citric) before proceeding.

"I envy you, Nanako," he said.

That was new...

"You have all these friends," he continued, "you've seen things, and lived things. Inaba is just another chapter in your life, but what about me? What have I been doing all this time?"

Nanako was the one to down her whole drink this time. "We're not drunk enough for this," she finally said, "but don't envy me, Yosuke. Inaba has been messing me up more than you know."

There was a pause as he pondered her words, but that time was cut short by a drastic change in scenery. Without any warning, the red light that had been covering them from head to toe disappeared, as did the yellow from the dance floor and the blue from the tables beyond. The entire club stood in complete darkness and silence, the drinks in their hands and distant whispers the only proof they were still there, until just as suddenly, the lights went up again, but different. The music was replaced by a cacophony of ecstatic screams as the dance floor turned blue and the bar yellow, the club's gimmick finally at play.

Then a real song kicked up, much louder than anything before, and Nanako turned to Yosuke.

"Come," she said, offering her hand. "Let's dance."

Several other patrons were unable to resist the dance floor's siren call. Nanako pulled Yosuke right into the center of the small crowd gathered there and then began to dance, kicking up her heels and swinging her arms to the steadily-increasing beat.

Yosuke matched her movements easily, a soft smile playing over his features. Any reservations he might have entertained were gone now as he became one with the music. It was a wonder his Persona didn't specialize in water; his movements were just so fluid. Without consciously thinking about it, he knew exactly where he was going to place his feet, and his body followed with him.

It was fun to watch, and—oh, he was drawing attention! A cute boy with brown hair not all that dissimilar to Yosuke's own had pushed his way forward, apparently wanting to dance with him. He wore a green flannel jacket and tight yellow pants. Nanako nodded at him and stepped back to give him space.

Despite suddenly being confronted by this new partner, Yosuke was so into the music that he didn't falter at all. He flashed a grin at the boy, who smiled so easily back at him that Nanako's own heart went doki, snapped his fingers to the next part of the song and moved into a smooth slide. This brought him closer to his new partner than he'd intended, mostly because said partner had stepped forward into it for that express purpose.

Nanako held her breath—this was a moment of truth—but Yosuke seemed uncomfortable at the closeness only for a second. He glanced around at the others dancing around him, noting perhaps that pretty much all of them were same-sex and dancing just as close to their partners, and then relaxed, winking at the boy in front of him and leading him into the next dance.

She decided to let them have fun and returned to the bar, where she found Ryu already pouring her a refreshing glass of water and setting it next to her alcoholic drink. He remembered how she'd complained about being thirsty that time so long ago after dancing for almost an hour straight. She thanked him for the water before downing the entire glass. The sweat trickling down her back only proved how much she needed the rehydration.

Nanako turned around on the stool to observe the dance floor, where Yosuke and his new friend were still busting moves. "Is there anything I should know about that boy?" she asked Ryu as casually as she could manage.

Ryu adjusted his glasses. "He was hurt in the past," he answered, "though there's nothing unusual about that."

"Yeah, tell me about it." Nanako sighed her agreement. "I just wanna make sure Yosuke's in good hands. He'd be eaten alive by some of your customers I could name!"

"In this case, you have nothing to worry about."

"Good," Nanako murmured, and then she blinked as the lights went out. When they came back on, this time the bar was bathed in blue, which was her cue to get away from there before she was run-over by the stampede.

She stepped around to the dance floor's sidelines, peering into the group of dancers tinted red by the lights, but frowning when she was unable to find Yosuke. He'd been there just a minute ago!

Then she spied him over at a table, his dance partner sitting across from him. She sneaked forward until she could overhear their conversation.

"Do you come here often?"

"N-no, actually, this is my first time here," Yosuke answered honestly.

Nanako bit off a chuckle—Yosuke might get eaten alive yet! But she knew Ryu wouldn't lie to her about this, and now that she'd voiced her concerns to to him, Ryu'd be watching out for Yosuke too.

Yosuke was so awkward, though. Nanako wasn't sure he even realized the guy was hitting on him, though that was adorable on a whole other level. Maybe she ought to give him a hint? Not for the first time that evening, she eyed her old flame, now bathed in magnificent blue light. None were allowed too close, and why should they? Few understood that sublime beauty. Nanako was proud to be one of those few.

Now determined, she made her way back to the bar. As expected, Ryu was no longer working the counter, leaving the job to some new hire she didn't recognize. Ryu was more about serving clients individually, and right now there were too many pissants just out for cheap sake. With some work, she sneaked past the hordes until she and her flame were face to face.

The grand piano at Love Is Blue had to be the second best in Japan. Even from afar, she could tell there was not a speck of dust on it, and she'd bet good money that all the keys were sparkling underneath the mahogany case. The one in Inaba must have been this beautiful once, she thought to herself.

"I've never seen your eyes so longing," Ryu said suddenly, making her jump.

Once her breath had calmed, she managed to quip that yes, he had, every single time she saw that beauty, but he shook his head.

"Yes, you always want to play," he said, "but you never take in the details like you are right now."

"I haven't seen anything like this in months," she admitted as he allowed her past the safety line.

"Did you not have one back at home?"

"I had to move in with my aunt for this year," she explained. "There is a piano at the school there, but can you believe they let it rot in a storage room for years? The club captain even threatened to scrap it!"

Ryu was so disgusted that the crowd around him even cleared a little bit. It was great talking to someone who could recognize the crimes committed against that poor piano; sadly, Ryu had never allowed her to play this one, no matter how good a sob story she conjured, and this time wouldn't be any different.

"Do you want to play?" Ryu asked, and for a moment it was as though the bar had gone dark again.

"Wha—?" she said eloquently.

"Only one song," he clarified.

"What what what?" she further explicated.

Ryu shrugged his shoulders, and without any further ado, she hopped on that chair and raised the wooden case, trembling as she tentatively touched one of the keys. The note was perfect, and signaled the club to go silent. Nanako wouldn't let this go to waste.

Yosuke. Yosuke needed a hint, she had been going to ask Ryu to play a romantic piece but now she could play one herself; she recalled the piece she'd played for Saki, and decided nothing would be more romantic than playing what she had played for her own love.

A blue spotlight began to shine on her as her fingers lovingly caressed the keys. She was the club's focus now, or rather, her old flame was, as she began to play.

She blinked away tears that began to form in her eyes. Surely no one could be unaffected by the beautiful sound the chords were producing. She almost imperceptibly glanced up at the audience, able to play this song blindfolded if she ever needed to, and there was quite a crowd around the piano stage, though it was difficult to make out any details since they were just outside the edge of the spotlight. She barely heard someone squeak in surprise at the sight of someone other than Ryu playing, but beyond that were only indecipherable whispers.

She tossed her head, allowing her long hair to flow back and around her shoulders. Her headband had fallen off during the dancing, but she liked to have her hair loose while she played, it made her feel... unrestricted. Free.

And with that act she could take a better look at those watching, even managing to catch eyes with Yosuke. She smiled at him and his partner, who whispered something in his ear now, and Yosuke nodded in response without taking his eyes away from her.

She suspected he still didn't get it. It was almost too bad the song lacked lyrics, not that she could sing well enough to do this piece justice. Instead, she transferred her gaze to Yosuke's new friend. He blinked at her and tilted his head in question, and Nanako winked at him.

It was up to him now. Nanako returned her attention to the keys, thinking about the song as she played it. As the story went, her mom once worked in a bar much like this one, "for a given value of working." Chisato always loved her mysteries... but, the story must have been at least partly true, since Ryu had known her from that bar. Either way, there was no doubt the song held great meaning to her. Nanako would often find her playing it absentmindedly, and even her hardass father smiled more softly during those times.

There was a round of applause as the spotlight left her. Not too much, she was an amateur compared to Ryu, but since the man himself was among the ones applauding, well, she allowed herself satisfaction. There were also lots of people making out. Nanako looked over to try and see whether Yosuke was one of them, but he was too far away and her eyes hadn't adjusted to the dark; she hoped that he'd at least be smiling.

She returned to the bar and waited for Ryu to return from wiping down the keys to the piano. She would've done that if he'd asked, but probably he wouldn't trust anyone else to do it. The piano was precious to him, after all.

"What'll it be this time?" Ryu asked when he was behind the bar once again. "Something foreign, perhaps?"

Oh, so he wasn't even going to comment on her playing? That was a very Ryu response, so she couldn't complain, not really. "Something a little harder this time. A tequila sunrise!"

While she watched him pour orange juice and tequila into a tall glass, Nanako suddenly found herself hugged from behind. No, it wasn't actually a hug, it was just Yosuke pressed right up against her back, his arm reaching around as he shoved a paper in front of her face. "Nanako, look at this!" he yelled.

She crossed her eyes peering down at it but couldn't make any sense of the chicken scratch. "Yeah?"

"That guy... he shoved this in my pants!"

Nanako grinned at him but said nothing.

"I-I think it's his phone number," Yosuke finished, sounding awed.

"Nice. Someone's getting out of this night ahead!"

"I wanted a girlfriend, not a boyfriend," he protested.

He sighed after that, but Nanako could tell that despite his words, it wasn't an unhappy sigh. Besides, he suddenly began to smile, and it was completely unprompted. She suspected that he might be thinking of his new friend. Especially considering the way he kept toying with a particular spot on his neck. Had he been kissed there...?

Ryu slid the tequila sunrise forward in front of Nanako, then turned to Yosuke. "Hanamura. Would you like a drink?"

"Oh, you remembered my name..." He sounded uncertain about that, likely intimidated by it. "Uhh..."

"Try this," Nanako suggested, offering him the glass.

He sipped from the straw and then grimaced. "Whoa, that's stronger than the last one."

"You like it?"

"I..." He licked his lips. "Yeah, actually. Could I have one?"

She gave him her drink to have for himself. Taking in the blue lights now covering the tables on the far side of the dance floor and the club's name, she decided to ask Ryu to make something that used blue curacao. She watched him put a splash of grenadine into a shotglass, then add some sort of schnapps, and lastly, the curacao. The way it layered made the blue coloring seem like it was lazily sinking into the clear schnapps.

As it was a shot, she downed it in one gulp, shuddering afterward. This place always served the good stuff.

"Nanakooooo," Yosuke suddenly wailed. She turned and found him toying with the paper in his hands. He'd finished his drink faster than she'd expected him to. "I don't swing that way, y'know?"

"Did you read what was on that guy's t-shirt?" she said. "It said he swung both ways. There are people like that."

Yosuke blinked at her twice, his eyelids seeming very heavy, before slowly replying, "You're like that."

She nodded. "Yep. There are more people like that than you're aware of. And there's nothing wrong with it, you know? Experimenting, discovering who you are... It can take years, but we're young, we have time."

After another moment of staring at it, Yosuke folded up the paper and put it in his back pocket, then smiled. "Hey, bartender, can I have another?"


Author's notes: The last scene was a little crossover with a bl hentai game called No Thank You!!. It's, umm, explicit, so don't look into it if you're not into that. It takes place in a classy bar so we couldn't resist, and Hiroyuki, a dateable character in it, is a cutie pie who wears the best shirt. 

Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!


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angevon: (Default)
2016-06-18 08:47 pm
Entry tags:

On Top of the World

Fandom: Persona 4 
Pairing: Yu/Yosuke
Rating: Teen
Category: M/M
Summary: Yu tries to face one of his fears so that he doesn't ruin his date with Yosuke.
Author's notes: This is a crosspost from AO3 and ffnet. It was written for Souyoweek2016 on tumblr.

Day 7 (June 18) : Shadows / Fluff

I didn't have it in me to write for day 5 or 6. Of all the fics I've written for the week, I actually wrote this fic first, intending it to be a confession, but decided that it fit the Fluff theme much better.

This is an established relationship fic.

Content Warning: Panic attack 

"I didn't know you were so good at Mr. Digger, partner!" Yosuke said.

"It's fun," Yu replied with a nonchalant shrug.

He and Yosuke were just leaving an arcade at the KEP Four mall. They'd been in the arcade for longer than he'd expected, mainly because he hadn't expected to see his favorite video game there.

"I'll say. You used up all my change."

Yu began to apologize, but Yosuke shushed him. "It's fine," Yosuke said. "I'm taking you out, remember? If you're having fun, that's all that matters. You want a drink?"

They'd stopped by a vending machine in a little alcove near the arcade. Yosuke might not have had anymore change with him, but he still had some bills. He stuffed one into the machine and selected a can of Orange Smash. He took a long sip from it.

"I'll just share yours," Yu suggested, staring at Yosuke's upper lip, which was now stained orange from the soda.

"Oh?" Yosuke raised his eyebrows. "Wanting to share an indirect kiss?"

"If an indirect one is all I'm getting on this date..." Yu trailed off, sending his partner a suggestive look.

Yosuke was shaking his head and grinning. "You just wait, partner. The best is yet to come. Follow me."

Curious, Yu followed Yosuke to the elevator. The mall spanned several stories, most of it dedicated to designer shopping. They'd been to a cafe on the basement level earlier, and the food had been pricey but good, though the coffee'd had a little too much cinnamon in it.

When Yosuke selected the 7th floor, Yu felt a wave of apprehension go through him. He didn't really like elevators, not when they went this high. The one at Junes in Inaba had been fine because it was only two floors. When there were more than three, it made him antsy. He didn't know how elevators worked, and it bothered him knowing that there was nothing but empty air under the floor.

Yosuke's presence was calming, at least, and when the doors closed and the elevator began its ascent, Yu grabbed onto his hand. Yosuke seemed surprised at first, but then grinned and squeezed his hand back.

Immediately once the doors opened on the 7th floor, Yu broke away from Yosuke to dash right out of the elevator. He had to apologize afterward to the woman outside he'd almost run into, but now he was on stable floor and everything was okay.

"You all right, partner?" Yosuke asked, trailing behind him as he caught his breath.

"Y-yeah," Yu answered. "I don't like elevators that much."

"Too cramped for you? I guess we could've taken the escalators instead."

Yu shuddered at the thought. He'd seen those escalators in the very center of the mall. If you looked over the railing on any floor, you could see the escalators criss-crossing each other all the way down to the lower levels. It was so far down... Rationally, he knew he couldn't fall off the side of an escalator, and there were even protective guardrails to prevent that, but it didn't stop him from thinking about falling from such a height.

"A-anyway," Yu said to change the subject. "What are we doing here?" He glanced at the nearby map kiosk, but this floor only had a bunch of restaurants, and they'd already eaten earlier.

With a wide grin, Yosuke handed him a paper from his pocket. "You were so busy getting that high score, I bought the tickets and you didn't even notice I was gone!"

Yu stared at the paper now in his hand. It was a ticket for the Ferris wheel at the top of the building.

"Ever since I saw it," Yosuke said, "I just knew we had to ride it."

"Oh... this is great," Yu said slowly with a smile so fake it wouldn't fool Nanako.

But Yosuke was already heading towards the part of the mall that led to the attraction. Since there was little other choice, Yu followed him to where the line was forming to go on the ride. There were only a few people ahead of them.

"We'll be alone at the top of the city," Yosuke told him quietly, as if it was a secret. "It'll be nice and private, just the two of us." His eyes were dancing with anticipation and his cheeks had earned a mild flush at the thought.

"It does sound nice," Yu admitted, though he hesitated to take the spot in line behind his boyfriend.

"It'll be the perfect end to our date. It'll be, you know..." The flush on Yosuke's face darkened. "Intimate."

He sounded so sincere that Yu decided there wasn't a way he could back out of this. Burying his trepidation, Yu stepped in line behind his boyfriend. A man soon took their tickets and directed them into the chamber beyond.

The next room had glass walls so that one could see the lower section of the massive, bright red Ferris wheel on the other side. Yu craned his head to see the top of the wheel, but he grew lightheaded before he could even spy the wheel's hub.

"This is so cool," Yosuke squealed. "Come on, partner, let's go on!"

The Ferris wheel was in continual motion, moving so slowly that the cars didn't actually stop at the loading zone to let people on or off. You had to get on while it was still moving, but that wasn't hard to do. The loading zone was so long that three cars were present and available to board at all times, and there was an attendant present to help with the process.

One of the cars was already boarded and beginning to leave the loading zone, but another was ready to replace it at the far end as the wheel continued to move. Yosuke motioned Yu to follow him to this car, but Yu found that his legs had locked on him.

Yosuke inched his way alongside the car, keeping pace with it as he waited for Yu, who... didn't want to go on. He began to think up and discard various excuses to get out of this.

But as Yosuke chatted away at the attendant holding the door open for him, his excitement for the ride to come was so tangible that Yu knew he couldn't back down. Yosuke was counting on him to have a good time. Yu knew it was safe. People went on this ride every day and no one had ever fallen out of it. It was perfectly safe.

Still, it took a gargantuan effort for Yu to get his legs moving towards the car. Even facing gods hadn't made his heart race this much.

"Yu!" Yosuke said, somewhat chiding, as Yu finally reached the car. "Any slower and it would've gone without us! Here, you go in first."

Now Yu couldn't refuse. He swallowed his rising fear and entered the car, Yosuke following after. Once inside, Yu took a seat and immediately closed his eyes. He knew it would help if he couldn't see. He carefully controlled his breathing, in and out slowly, trying to find his happy place. Right now the car was only less than half a meter from the ground. Even if it detached and fell, it would be okay. It was survivable. He could do this.

"We're going up!"

Involuntarily, Yu felt his stomach drop at Yosuke's announcement. They were moving. They were moving and there was no way back down.

His body began to shake, even with his eyes closed. He couldn't do this.

Yosuke's voice seemed far away as it said something about hooking up his phone to the car to play custom music. Yu was frantically trying to rediscover his happy place. It's fine, he told himself. It's fine, people ride this thing every day! It didn't matter how high it was, it was still safe.

Yosuke nudged him in the shoulder to get his attention. "Look, look!"

Yu opened his eyes to see Yosuke's face pressed right up against the glass of the window.

And behind him, the clear night sky and stars beyond.

"There are birds living there," Yosuke said, eyes focused on something outside the car. He was tapping the glass as if to point them out. "Right there on the light fixture. You can see their silhouettes in the light. Man, they'll build a nest anywhere."

But Yu didn't see any birds because white spots were appearing before his eyes. They were so high up... He whimpered and slid bonelessly down to the floor of the car. The redistribution of weight caused the car to sway slightly, which only made him feel even dizzier.

Yosuke soon noticed he was on the floor. "What are you doing down there?" He patted the seat next to him. "Come on, sit here so we can cuddle."

Yu didn't move. He didn't trust himself to move. What if... what if his weight caused the whole car to shift again, and it made them fall, and...

Yosuke reached down and tugged on the collar of his shirt, apparently intending to pull him up, but recoiled and let him go. "Dude, you're soaking wet! Is that... sweat?"

"I can't," Yu muttered. "I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't—"

Yosuke hovered over him now, eyes wide. "Yu...?"

"I can't I can't I can't..."

He repeated it about a dozen more times, and after expending all those words, he couldn't breathe. He couldn't breathe, or else the car would rock, and then they'd fall, and then...

Yu clutched his head to stave off the sudden headache, his face getting paler and paler from lack of breath. They were going to fall any second, and he didn't want to fall, he didn't want to, he didn't want to!

"Yu!" Yosuke called from what felt like far away.

"I don't want to die!" he wailed, gripping and tugging on his hair clutched in his fists.

"Yu, it's—it's all right, partner," Yosuke said, perched awkwardly in his seat as he tried to give Yu space. "I'm... I'm here, okay? And I... I need you to do something. Can you hear me? Just nod."

With some difficulty, Yu managed a nod.

"I need you to take a deep breath," Yosuke said.

"I c-can't!" Yu choked out.

"Y-you've got to!" Yosuke said. "Do it for me, okay? Everything's gonna be okay."

Yu was so lightheaded by now that he couldn't even nod. He concentrated as hard as he could and took a breath. It wasn't deep at all; his lungs wouldn't fill because his throat was closed so tight.

"All right," Yosuke said. "Now breathe out... and in... and out... and in. Good, you're doing great. Partner, we're almost at the top."

"Top?" Yu's voice was a high-pitched whine.

"Yeah, like... w-we're almost halfway done!" Yosuke quickly explained. "Just another five minutes and we'll be on the ground again, can you hang in there?"

"Don't know..." Yu whispered hoarsely. His body felt tingly all over, and he still couldn't see for all the white spots in his eyes.

"Dammit, I wish I still had my old inhaler." Yosuke was wringing his hands. "Keep breathing okay? In and out, that's right..."

A few breaths later, and Yu could almost see again. Almost, because the spots had been replaced by tears. His body was trembling now, too, and he didn't want it to tremble, because that would rock the car, and...

"Hey, Yu," Yosuke said in a low tone. "Can I hold you? Will that help?"

"D-don't know... We might... f-fall...if you move..."

Yosuke shook his head. "If we do fall..." – he moved into the small space behind Yu on the floor and pulled him into an embrace from behind – "We'll fall together, all right?"

"I don't want to die," Yu whimpered. "We're so, we're so high up, I don't want to fall!"

"It's okay, it's okay," Yosuke cooed into his ear. He held Yu tighter, wanting him to know that no matter what, he was there. "I won't let you fall. I won't let you go, I'll hold onto you until we're at the bottom. We're almost there. Just a little more."

In Yosuke's comforting embrace, Yu's breathing began to turn into something more regular, but he still hiccuped when he tried to speak.

"Keep breathing," Yosuke murmured. "I'll breath with you, okay? In... and out..."

Yu followed his boyfriend's directions, and before he knew it, the car door opened and the attendant was peering in at them.

"We're there," Yosuke said, gently stroking his fingers through Yu's hair. "Do you think you can get up?"

"Help me," Yu whispered.

When Yosuke stood up in the car, it rocked, and Yu immediately grabbed onto his legs, a new slew of tears escaping his eyes.

"It's okay, partner, I've got you," Yosuke said, pulling him onto his feet even though he was forced to carry most of Yu's weight. "Now we're just going to step down..."

Yu nearly fell to the floor, but Yosuke had the strength to keep him upright. With firm floor under him, Yu found that he could finally catch his breath.

"Just a few more steps," Yosuke said. "Let's get out of the way of these nice people...

Yosuke led him away from the curious onlookers at the Ferris wheel and into the next room, then turned down a secluded hallway that led to the restrooms. He carefully settled Yu's back against the wall, then pressed up against him to make sure he could stay upright.

After some time, Yu finally relaxed. His senses returned, but he didn't want to say anything because Yosuke hugging him against the wall like this was really nice.

Except that his nose was running, and he didn't want to get that into his boyfriend's hair. "I'm... I'm okay now," he said, his voice sounding rather raw.

Yosuke released him slowly, like he wasn't sure he believed him. "Partner?"

"Thanks," Yu mumbled. He avoided Yosuke's eyes. "For... back there. For not... calling me stupid, or telling me it wasn't real, that it was all in my head." He pressed his eyes closed, willing the tears welling in them to go away.

"Whatever danger you thought you were in, well... it was real to you," Yosuke said. "But I have to say, I never would've expected our date to end with you having a panic attack."

"I'm sorry... I ruined it..."

"Nuh-uh!"

Yu suddenly felt Yosuke take hold of his hands. Yu opened his eyes and found the other boy kissing his knuckles, a tender expression on his face.

"You know," Yosuke said casually, "I used to have them too, when I was a little kid. Panic attacks."

Yu blinked at him. "Yeah...?"

"Mm-hmm. They stopped after a while, guess I outgrew them. That's how I knew what was going on with you back there."

"I'm just... t-terrified of heights," Yu admitted. "I can usually manage it, but that Ferris wheel... I couldn't stop thinking we were going to fall."

"It was too much, huh? I wish you would've told me. We didn't have to go on it."

"You were looking forward to it. I didn't want to ruin it for you... but I did anyway..."

"I'll admit I wanted to kiss you at the top of the Ferris wheel," Yosuke said. "It would've been really romantic. But..."

Yu began to apologize again, but found Yosuke's warm lips on his, silencing him.

"The thing is," Yosuke said right against his mouth, "you're my boyfriend, so... I can kiss you anywhere."

"Can we..." Yu began sheepishly, only continuing when Yosuke nodded for him to go on. "...go to the ground floor?"

Yosuke's expression couldn't get any softer. "Sure, partner. Why don't we call it a night? And... we'll take the stairs."


Author's notes: Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!

angevon: (Default)
2016-06-15 08:59 pm
Entry tags:

Look Behind

Fandom: Persona 4 
Pairing: Yu/Yosuke
Rating: Teen
Category: M/M
Summary: Yu doesn't get memes. What else is new?
Author's notes: This is a crosspost from AO3 and ffnet. It was written for Souyoweek2016 on tumblr.

Day 4 (June 15) Prompt: Fan Content Based on Fan Content

The fan content this was based on is this piece by eggchef. It's not souyo but was inspirational nonetheless, I guess? haha
This is pointless and silly. You have been warned.

Yosuke put his foot all the way up on the bathroom sink's edge. He pointed his phone at his reflection in the mirror, making sure the phone itself covered his face, and posed with the fingers of his free hand making a sign over his head.

He was pretty happy with the picture, though the Junes apron wasn't all that flattering. He added a caption and sent it to all his friends.

And then he went back to work because his break was over. He grabbed a cardboard box full of sunglasses from the storage room. The sunglasses were stock meant for the summer display he'd set up earlier. Anyone could tell they were cheaply-made and probably had no UV protection, but the idea was that if you were already buying sunscreen, you might be inclined to pick up a pair.

Yosuke began to set the sunglasses into their holders on the display rack, putting the more expensive ones in the front. Stores could be so dishonest with their displays sometimes... but he wasn't gonna let the shift manager have any complaints when she checked over his work later. He would just follow orders for now.

He was still pulling sunglasses out of the box when he had the feeling that he was being watched. Good customer service told him he couldn't ignore this. Swallowing a resentful sigh, he asked, "Can I help you?"

"Maybe," a soft and familiar voice answered. Yosuke grinned to himself upon hearing it. He turned around and found his friend Yu standing just a few feet away, all casual with his hand on his hip.

"Hey," Yosuke greeted. "What are you doing here? Shopping for Nanako-chan? I think I saw a pair of sunglasses that were perfect for her. They're pink."

"No," Yu said. "I'm here for an ass-kicking."

It took several moments for Yosuke to process that, because it wasn't in the realm of possible things he'd ever expected to come from his friend's mouth. "Wait, what?"

"An ass-kicking," Yu repeated.

Yu's face was completely serious, and it took Yosuke just another moment to recall that picture he'd sent to everyone earlier in the day.

"Dude," Yosuke said. "That was a joke!"

"Oh..."

"Don't sound so disappointed!"

Yu looked disappointed, too. Yosuke began to shake his head. This guy was so silly sometimes. His deadpan sense of humor made it hard to tell when to take him seriously.

Yosuke was about to go back to stocking when he spied Yu turning away and hunching his back over slightly against the nearby shelves. "Are you sure?" Yu asked.

Yosuke's eyes were drawn to Yu's most prominent feature in this pose: his ass. "D-dude! What are you..."

"Are you sure?" Yu asked again, bending over further.

Yosuke continued to stare, because all things considered, his friend had a nice ass. Yu's school uniform pants today were quite tight, making it well-defined. Possibly they were a size or two too small for him.

Finally Yosuke shook his head with vigor until he came back to his senses. He glanced around, making sure there weren't any other customers around before hissing a sharp, "What is wrong with you!"

Yu straightened his posture with a sigh. "I'm just saying, you should be prepared to deliver on your promises."

"That wasn't a promise!"

Yu's soulful eyes watched him doubtfully, almost like Yosuke'd really disappointed him somehow. It was so unnerving that Yosuke had to break the silence.

"L-look," Yosuke said. "I'll kick your ass someday. Not today. Someday. You... you won't even see it coming."

"Good," Yu said with a determined little smile. "I'll look forward to it."

Good?! Yosuke frowned as Yu turned away from him. Unconsciously, Yosuke stared at his friend's ass as he walked down the aisle. He wondered what exactly he'd just promised.


Author's notes: I don't know either

Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!

angevon: (Default)
2016-06-14 08:46 pm
Entry tags:

The Late Night Expansion

Fandom: Persona 4 
Pairing: Yu/Yosuke
Rating: Teen
Category: M/M
Summary: A video game reveals a problem in their relationship.
Author's notes: This is a crosspost from AO3 and ffnet. It was written for Souyoweek2016 on tumblr.

Day 3 (June 14) Prompt: Video Games

This is inspired by my own recent adventures in casual gaming.

Yu came home from another long day of university classes and work. He offered a casual hello to his boyfriend and roommate, Yosuke, who was studying at the tea table, before moving into the bedroom they shared to put his briefcase away and to get changed into more casual clothes.

He headed back into the entryway after that since it also housed their kitchen. Instead of a one-room mansion, they were fortunate enough to have two rooms for their apartment: a bedroom and a room that was everything else at once. He heated up some leftover yakisoba for himself in the microwave, knowing Yosuke had already eaten something for dinner. The unlucky guy had early morning classes, so he would be heading off to bed soon enough.

Once the microwave did its thing, Yu brought his meal to the computer desk to eat it while he browsed the web to catch up on news. Not much seemed to be going on in his network, which was just as well.

By the time he finished eating, Yosuke was out of sight, probably in the next room getting ready to head to sleep. That was always how their evenings went, barely an exchanged greeting between the two, but there wasn't much to be done about it when their schedules clashed so much.

Since he could stay up a bit later, Yu settled himself more comfortably into the computer chair with a soft sigh and launched the casual game he'd recently become addicted to: the Sims.

He'd been drawn into the game by the promise of owning virtual pets. The landlord of the apartment complex didn't allow them, but he could live out his fantasy via this silly little game. He'd only been playing it for about a week, and he'd found it was a nice way to unwind and get his mind off the events of the day. He was looking forward to another evening spent lost in his Sim world. He'd only made a few Sims: himself, Yosuke, and the two cats that he'd put into their household. His favorite cat was the white one he'd named Fwuffles, but he also liked the black cat with long fur he'd named Mr. Nibbles.

But when he started the game, he frowned, because it wasn't where he'd left it last night. He'd stopped when his Sims went to bed, since it always seemed like a nice stopping point. This was early evening, quite a bit before the Sims would decide to sleep.

With a mental shrug, Yu let the game play. He had his Sim make himself a dinner of ratatouille. He didn't have to make his Sim clean up after eating—the character did it automatically because he had the Neat trait. It was pretty funny how true to life the game was sometimes, though Yu hadn't yet thrown away his microwave meal box at the computer desk in real life. Maybe he really didn't have that trait.

After brushing one of the cats and cleaning out the litter box, Yu's Sim decided it was time to take a shower. Yu thought nothing of it until the Sim was actually in the shower.

Then he just stared, because the censor bar that was supposed to blur out the shower scene was not there, and his Sim was completely naked.

Completely naked and apparently packing.

"Wh-when did...?" Yu asked aloud, blushing hard. There wasn't an update to the game or anything, was there? No, the game company wouldn't do something like this!

And then he realized he had one too many cats in his Sim household. He moused over the offender and saw it was named 'Awesomesauce.' With that, Yu had his culprit.

"Yosuke!"

A short time later, Yosuke came shuffling out of the bedroom in just an undershirt and his boxer-briefs. He looked so tired from his full course load that Yu felt marginally bad for calling him like this. Marginally, because Yosuke only had himself to blame!

"What's up, partner?" Yosuke glanced at the computer screen. "Ohhhh... Haha, so you are still playing that."

"You added a nude mod to my game!"

"Yeah," Yosuke said without any remorse, "and I had to use like five different websites to get it all to work right. You should thank me."

"I'm not playing this game for that sort of release!" Yu crossed his arms in the computer chair to emphasize his displeasure.

"You know," Yosuke said slowly, sounding and looking a bit unsure of himself. "I noticed that. When I was playing around with your household."

Yu tilted his head. "Noticed what?"

"That..." Yosuke continued, still speaking slowly, "your Sim's relationship with all of his cats is maxed out, but his relationship with my Sim is only at Acquaintance level, even though we're living together."

"Well, I mean..." Yu frowned, because the reason behind that was...

"Our Sims should be lovers already." Yosuke was pouting. "I mean, we are in real life!"

"We are," Yu conceded.

"Yeah!" Yosuke said. "So, our Sims should totally get together. ...Why are you making that face?"

Yu looked away, but it was too late. Yosuke had seen that he wasn't excited about the idea.

"What, are you not planning to get our Sims together? Yu!"

"Well..."

"You're not?" Yosuke's volume rose as he began to panic over a character in a video game. "Oh no, partner. Don't tell me! Your Sim... has he found someone else?"

"N-no, it's not that." Yu was shaking his head. "It's just..."

"What is it, partner? Don't hold out on me!"

"I don't..." Yu began, but he cut himself off with a huge sigh. "Yosuke..."

"J-just tell me! The fate of our Sims' relationship is in your hands!"

Yu blurted it out. "I don't want my Sim to get more action than I get!"

Yu's face was burning from his embarrassment. Yosuke stared at him, speechless.

"Wh-when was the last time we found time for each other?" Yu explained. "With school and work and everything, it's been a while."

"Yeah, you're right," Yosuke said. "It has."

"I feel like I haven't kissed you in weeks," Yu confessed. "Let alone, well, WooHoo."

"We could... we could change that right now," Yosuke murmured, leaning in closer.

"No," Yu said, but it was with reluctance. "You should be asleep already. You have classes tomorrow."

"You care more about my classes than I do," Yosuke said. He sighed. "All right... but do you have any free time tomorrow? We can make some time for each other."

"I have some time between my last class and work," Yu said. "I usually come back here for a late lunch then."

"Well," Yosuke said, "you'll have a little bit more for lunch."

He leaned in and kissed Yu on the lips, sealing the promise. Despite not wanting to keep Yosuke from going to bed, Yu didn't let him pull away until they enjoyed several long kisses.

After that, Yosuke's eyes were dancing. "So... now can our Sims get together?" he asked.

"Yeah," Yu said with a genuine smile. "Now get to bed." He pushed Yosuke out of his lap.

After emitting a sigh, Yosuke began to walk back to the bedroom. He paused right before the door, however, to tell him one last thing: "Make sure to keep those mods on!"


Author's notes: Yes, there are nude mods for the Sims. I haven't installed any myself.

...yet.

Also you can't tell me Yosuke isn't the type to install such a thing, haha.

Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!

angevon: (Default)
2016-06-13 08:39 pm

A Picture is Worth So Many Words

Fandom: Persona 4 
Pairing: Yu/Yosuke
Rating: Teen
Category: M/M
Summary: Souji is away from home, but not without a way to keep in touch.
Author's notes: This is a crosspost from AO3 and ffnet. It was written for Souyoweek2016 on tumblr.

The inn that the Kirijo group had set him up in was nice. Yu really couldn't complain. It was traditional in style, much like the Amagi inn with its floor futons, but it had modern conveniences, such as a private bathroom and a digital alarm clock.

Yu's only real complaint was that he was away from home. Mitsuru-san had called him up for some urgent Shadow Operative business, so he'd had to leave his comfortably domestic life to take care of it. It shouldn't take long—it was just some training he had to help with—but it was the principle of the thing.

He hadn't wanted to leave his family, though he was sure Yosuke and Kichirou were doing just fine without him. They'd managed before, after all, but he couldn't help thinking about them and worrying. Had Kichirou done all his homework?

He sent the boy a text asking him just that, and thus opened a line of communication. Kichirou wanted to know everything about what he was doing and where he was, so Yu sent him a bunch of pictures he'd taken. He loved showing off; a monster had been created the day he'd bought a phone with a built-in camera.

Oh! you're going to sleep on the floor, Kichirou texted in response to the latest set, which were a bunch of pictures of his room at the inn.

Yeah! Maybe when I get back, we can have a campout night in the living room, Yu suggested. We'll invite Hiro-chan and it can be a party!

I can't wait!

I'll need to buy a yukata. Or maybe I'll 'borrow' the one I have on right now.

A yukata? I wanna see!

Yu stared at the message for a second before breaking out into a grin. With all the pictures he'd taken of the room, he'd forgotten to include a picture of himself! The inn had provided a yukata to walk around in. It was cream-colored and had the stiff quality of clothing that had been washed a few too many times.

He sat down on the tea table, smiled, and took a selfie. He sent it to Kichirou with a cute cat emoticon at the end.

There wasn't an answer from Kichirou after that. According to the digital clock, it was around his bedtime. Routine was fairly strong in the Hanamura residence. Yosuke should be giving him a bath right now, and then Yosuke would read him the next chapter of the book they were reading, and then he'd be asleep.

Yu wasn't yet ready to turn in himself. He had to meet with Junpei-san in the morning, but he knew the guy was a late sleeper. There wasn't any need to head to bed early, so Yu pulled out a picross book he'd bought in the lobby and got to work. He was on the third puzzle when his phone buzzed with a text message.

It was from Yosuke.

Please don't send sexy pictures to my son

Sexy pictures?!

Yu was offended. There was nothing wrong with the picture he'd sent. To make sure of that, he opened it on his phone. Nope, it was just him in a yukata. It was waist-up, the belt was tied and tight, and the only skin he'd been showing was his face. It wasn't sexy at all, and in fact, the most prominent thing about it was the shot of the hand-painted mural of a koi pond behind him.

Unless... Yosuke was just saying that because he himself wanted some actual sexy pictures.

Yu's frown morphed into a grin. He pulled the collar of the yukata down some to expose his left collarbone and mussed his hair up in a way that he hoped looked dashing. Then he took a snap and sent it directly to Yosuke.

I promise I'll never send him a pic like this, he captioned it.

He found a souvenir fan he'd obtained at a tourist site. He lifted his head high to show off his neck and pretended to fan himself as he took another selfie.

Or this.

He loosened the sash just a bit so that he could show off more of his chest. Yosuke had always found his scars fascinating, so he made sure the big one was prominent. He put hand over his mouth and sent what he intended as a coquettish look at the camera.

Partner, Yosuke responded

Yu's grin grew wider. He leaned over the phone, eager to see what else Yosuke was typing.

More

Yu laughed. He scanned the room, trying to come up with something exciting and settled on the low table he was already sitting on. He stretched out on top of it, one leg over the other, and took one of his legs out of the yukata so that it looked like he was about to fall out of it.

It was hard to take a photo that got the whole image in, but he was pretty satisfied with the result.

Would be better w/o yukata, Yosuke sent.

This was getting beyond risqué, but Yu wasn't complaining.

Too bad you aren't here to take me out of it, Yu sent back.

Yeah...

Yu stared at that message for a long moment. Then he pressed the call button on his phone. "Yosuke?" he said when it was picked up.

"Partner?"

Yu swallowed the lump in his throat. "I miss you."

"Yeah," Yosuke said. "I miss you too."


Author's notes: Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!

angevon: (Default)
2016-06-13 07:57 pm

Just Pretend

Fandom: Persona 4 
Pairing: Yu/Yosuke
Rating: General
Category: M/M
Summary: Yu can't stop himself from daydreaming about something he can't have.
Author's notes: This is a crosspost from AO3 and ffnet. It was written for Souyoweek2016 on tumblr.

Yu didn't know when exactly he'd fallen for his best friend, or even how, but it had happened and there wasn't much help for him now. Perhaps the fact that he represented the Fool arcana had some significance. Only fools fell in love, after all, or so the saying went.

He and Yosuke weren't on a date. They were just friends having an after school snack at Souzai Daigaku.

"–and then she demanded to see the manager." Yosuke laughed. "It was like, 'Lady, don't you realize the manager is my dad?' Ahh, customers. Can't live without 'em."

Yu maintained the indulgent smile he always wore when listening to his best friend ramble on. He could half-listen to Yosuke talk all day like this. Half-listen, because a good portion of his mind was dedicated to his daydreams.

He could pretend. Pretend he was on a date.

How pathetic was that...? Yu held in the sigh trying to escape. Why did it have to be Yosuke? Why couldn't it have been that guy in glasses that hung out in the second floor hallway after class? Maybe it was because of all they'd been through in the TV World, or maybe it was because of how much neck that boy had. He always wore those v-necks. In fact he was wearing one now. Yu could imagine kissing the boy from his shoulder all the way up to his ear...

"Hey, partner," Yosuke said, tossing the remains of his steak skewer into the nearby garbage can. "You ready to go?"

Or maybe that was it. 'Partner.' Yu had misunderstood Yosuke's meaning back when he'd first used it and continued to think it might mean something more than simple friendship. Or at least, pretend it might mean something...

"Partner?"

Yu stirred in his seat, blinking back into the here and now. He nodded and pushed out of his seat. He and Yosuke began to walk down the central shopping district.

He could pretend it was a date, but... he couldn't hold Yosuke's hand. It was swinging at his side while they walked. Yosuke had once said that Yu seemed good with his hands, but Yosuke had long fingers of his own. They'd be good for playing piano, or maybe guitar. Yu imagined those fingers threading through his hair, maybe tugging just a little...

They arrived at the overlook. Yosuke leaned against the railing, resting his arms flat along the top. He looked out over the town. Yu pretended to do the same, but he was really watching Yosuke from the corner of his eye. The sunlight caught on his hair, making it seem lighter than its dyed hue. The wind blew in a gust, stirring up some of the fallen early autumn leaves. It was a scene right out of a romance movie. Yu could imagine Yosuke turning to him with a sudden, needy look. 'Kiss me,' he'd say.

And Yu would pretend to be all shy, then move in and kiss him long on the lips. They'd be warm and then, and then they'd pull apart and stare into each others eyes and...

"Yu?"

Just like that, almost! Yosuke's eyes were such a soft brown, they matched his hair perfectly. Yu smiled hopelessly at him. "Yeah?"

"Kiss me?"

Yu blinked at him several times, and then frowned. He was getting his fantasy mixed up with reality. "Huh?"

"K-kiss me, please," Yosuke stammered.

The puzzled look remained on Yu's face. He worked his jaw as he struggled to come up with a coherent response.

"I'm not stupid," Yosuke said. "I've seen the looks you give me when you think I'm not looking."

The shock had worn off, leaving Yu merely bewildered. His mind seemed to be chugging along at a snail's pace.

"Look," Yosuke said frankly, "if you're not gonna... I guess it's up to me."

Before Yu knew it, Yosuke stepped right into his personal space. Suddenly those lips that had looked so kissable earlier were coming right for him.

When they were there, pressed against his own, that's when Yu sighed, a long sigh full of all the relief he felt in that moment. It caused the kiss to break apart for a moment, but he was quick to draw Yosuke into a longer kiss, one that made Yosuke make a noise that sounded very close to a moan.

"There," Yosuke whispered less than an inch from his lips, so close that his next words brushed their lips together. "Was that so hard?"

"Yosuke, I..." Yu began, but Yosuke shushed him.

"It's all right," Yosuke said. "I've known for a while. That you're not just my best friend."

"It's... It's okay to want to kiss your best friend," Yu managed.

"Not the way I want to kiss." Yosuke's eyes were narrowed, focused entirely on Yu's mouth. There was a moment's hesitation, and then he closed the distance.

Their noses bumped and their teeth clashed, but it was okay, because Yosuke was so eager, it felt like it was out of a dream. "This is real, right?" Yu stopped to ask.

"I could pinch you if you'd like," Yosuke offered. "But..."

His hesitation only made Yu curious. "But what?"

"I might..." Yosuke paused again, his face turning a deeper shade of red than it already was. "I might... pinch your butt instead."

There was no way this was real.

"It's real," Yosuke assured him. "I like you, and... I don't know. It's a little frightening, but I've never felt this way about anyone before."

"Me neither!" Yu said. "That's why it was so hard to..."

"Sometimes," Yosuke said, "you just need to reach out and grab it."

Dream or not, Yosuke was asking for it. Yu put his arms around Yosuke and grabbed his ass with both hands. "Like this?" he breathed.

"I-I thought I was supposed to be the one pinching you!"

Despite his embarrassment, Yosuke didn't pull away, instead he squeezed his arms under Yu's so he could do exactly the same thing. It felt weird, having hands on the seat of his pants, but Yu was too deliriously happy about this turn of events to care.

"I like you," Yu was inspired to announce.

"Yeah," said Yosuke, smiling softly, shyly, back at him.

They kissed again, and when they separated, they stared into each other's eyes for quite some time. As the quiet moment turned into several quiet moments, Yu began to accept that it wasn't a dream. Yosuke was here, he was holding him and wanting him close. Yu knew they'd have a lot to talk about soon, a lot to figure out, but for now, he was just happy to enjoy the moment—happy that he no longer had to pretend.


Author's notes: Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!

angevon: (Default)
2016-06-02 07:28 pm

Nanako Explains It All - Chapter 46 - Cats and Dogs but not Men

Author's notes: See this page for rating information and the chapter index.

Summary: Every day brings Nanako closer to her family.


[9/17: Saturday]

Nanako followed Aunt Narukami down the dirt path. Her aunt carried a bucket of water that she'd filled at the temple's water pump. Nanako had offered to carry it for her, but the woman had simply shaken her head. It was her burden.

Yu was silent next to Nanako as they walked. He was wearing his best clothes, including a dark gray vest, and that only emphasized his solemn demeanor. Nanako held his hand. In fact, she'd been holding it since the car ride that had brought them here. He squeezed her fingers sometimes, as if she needed the support more than he did.

He might not be wrong, at that.

The graveyard was an old one situated atop a hill, housing generations of departed Inaba residents. Some of the signs around the graveyard were illegible, not because the writing had been worn over time, although that was true, but because the language was too archaic to be understood. Many of the gravestones were taller than she was, and as densely packed as they were, she felt almost like she was lost in a stone jungle as she followed her aunt.

They passed several gravestones, some better-tended than others, before Aunt Narukami stopped at a particular plot. It was a family grave, the name 'Narukami' carved into the stone pillar.

A framed picture of Sachio Narukami was sitting in front of the stone.

Nanako stared at it. The only other picture she'd seen of him had been the one Adachi had shown her. Yu took after his dad so much.

Speaking of Yu, Nanako noticed then that he was staring at the picture too. How long had it been since he'd seen a picture of his father? She recalled all of a sudden how Yu had admitted he was afraid of forgetting his father's face.

So focused on the picture, he wasn't blinking. It made her want to pull him into a hug, but then Aunt Narukami moved the picture off to the side, and with it no longer in sight, Yu was left blinking, suddenly free of his trance.

Now Aunt Narukami set the bucket down right by the gravestone, dipped a sponge in the water, and began to clean the monument. To Nanako's relief, the plot seemed to be well-tended. Sachio Narukami hadn't been unpopular, or perhaps Aunt Narukami visited more often than Nanako knew. She wondered if Adachi-san visited him, and how often.

The gravestone only needed to be washed because the recent rain had scattered dirt all over it. Oh, and some wild birds had decided to add their own decorations to it. Nanako volunteered to take care of that, since she felt the need to do something other than simply watch her aunt work, and Aunt Narukami gave her the okay. While they worked on that, Yu replaced the wilted star anise flowers in the gravestone's built-in vase with some fresh ones. After that, Aunt Narukami asked him to fill the water basin with fresh water, and he did so without a word.

When the gravestone was cleaned, Aunt Narukami set incense into the holder and burned it. She resettled the framed photograph in front of the gravestone, then took Yu by the shoulders and pointed him towards it, murmuring that they should pray now. Yu, however, became fixated on the picture of his father and wouldn't close his eyes until his mother nudged his head down into bowing.

Nanako shouldn't have witnessed that, by all rights, because she should've had her head bowed as well. She remedied that now and silently wished her uncle well.

"All right," Aunt Narukami said, breaking the ensuing silence. Her voice was... raw, dry from either emotion or lack of use. "We'll visit your teacher now."

Nanako nodded and picked up the wash bucket, for it was her burden this time. Yu was still looking at the picture, and Nanako decided she didn't have the heart to pull him away. "Yu," she said quietly. "If you'd like, you can wait for us here. We'll be back soon."

"Yes," Yu said in an unexpectedly strong and clear voice.

Even Aunt Narukami seemed taken aback by this, but a moment later she motioned for Nanako to follow her.

Morooka's gravestone was a new one, and by the wooden memorial board, he was the only one interred there. There was leftover incense in the holder, and right next to it was...

A metal bracelet. Nanako inspected it without touching it, noting how the metal had been shaped into interlocking strands.

'Intricate,' she recalled.

It didn't take long for her to clean the gravestone. Aunt Narukami helped by sweeping the dirt away from the base. When they were done, Nanako took a step back and bowed her head.

What did she want to say to Mr. Morooka? She thought for a second that she could come up with a haiku but dismissed it as disrespectful.

In the end, she simply told him, "Thanks."

The ensuing silence was broken by Aunt Narukami. "When you went missing after his death..."

Nanako jerked her head up to look at her.

"I didn't know anything about it until your mother called me. She said you weren't answering her calls or texts, which she said wasn't like you. She'd heard the news about your teacher and was worried about your reaction."

"With good reason," Nanako murmured.

"Indeed," Aunt Narukami agreed. "It was the first time she'd ever called me, and from that, I knew the situation was serious. I promised her I'd look into it, and then called the school and I found out that you'd left class. You weren't at home, either, so I called my brother for advice, and... Honestly, I did not expect him to drive all the way here on such short notice. He was very afraid for you."

Nanako wanted to apologize for that, but couldn't find any words.

Aunt Narukami continued, "He searched for you all night in that pouring rain. He wasn't alone, by the way. Naoto-kun came around the house, and Kanji-kun trailed behind, looking a little like a lost puppy." Aunt Narukami smiled briefly. "He didn't know where you lived, or the number to the house, but he still wanted to help, you see. Both of them did."

"Kanji-kun is a sweetie," Nanako murmured. "I knew Shirogane-san met Dad then, but... I didn't know..."

"When he couldn't find you," Aunt Narukami went on, "Ryotaro was almost crushed. It was the most vulnerable I'd seen him in years." She paused, a reminiscent smile coming to her face. "The last time had been when he was a groom."

Nanako smiled sadly, too, remembering the pictures her aunt had shown her of that wedding day.

"He is such a grown man," Aunt Narukami remarked. "Always was, but... you'd be surprised by how vulnerable his eyes were, like he was a little boy all over again."

"Do you mean when he was married, or when he was looking for me?" Nanako asked.

"When he couldn't find you," Aunt Narukami answered. "Instead of letting out his frustration on me, as I could tell he wanted to, we ended up hugging. It was... Well, I hope to never experience his fear that night. It was a great relief that Saki-chan managed to find you in the morning."

"I... I'm sorry," Nanako finally managed. "I didn't... I didn't want anyone to worry about me like that. But I hadn't been thinking at all, and..."

Aunt Narukami shook her head. "Don't apologize, Nanako-chan. You were not at fault in any way."

She paused. Around them, the wind picked up, and the wooden memorial boards from the graves nearby clacked together in their racks as if they were whispering to one another.

"Before everything happened," Aunt Narukami finally went on, "I'd sometimes wonder why Ryotaro sent you here. I knew part of it had to do with the case he's currently working on. He did not want you exposed to any of it. But you were such a bright, inquisitive girl... Nothing seemed to faze you, least of all the serial murders, which you had an unhealthy interest in, even."

Nanako blinked, surprised that her aunt had noticed.

"When you went missing," Aunt Narukami continued, "we thought the worst. Ryotaro said you'd always liked to play detective, and with a murder having occurred just the previous day, what else could it be? I only realized later, that despite appearances, you're quite sensitive. You even sensed..."

She trailed off, looking back the way they'd come. Towards Yu.


[9/18: Sunday]

It was a bright, sunny day at Inaba's flood plain.

"And left jab, and then... kick!"

Chie was really getting into the role of personal trainer. Nanako, Yu, and Naoto were as synchronized as they could be while they followed her instructions.

"Naoto-kun, you need to roll your shoulder into the punch," Chie said. She demonstrated, pulling her arm back just a little before letting it strike in a forward punch. "You see? Now try it."

Naoto's face was the visage of concentration as he followed Chie's example and threw a punch into the air.

"Good," said Chie. "Again!"

"Again...?" Naoto murmured. He nodded in determination and followed up with another air punch, and then another, and then another, and then...

"That's good, that's good!" Chie began to laugh. "You can stop now. I think it's time we work with our left hands!"

While they were repeating the drills, a bicycle bell began to sound nearby. So focused on following Chie's instruction, they all ignored it. It began to become insistent, however, ringing more and more furiously to get their attention. And then the bell gave up and there was a honk so loud that Yu nearly fell over in surprise.

"Stop it!" Chie snapped, turning towards the source of the sound, but then she flinched back. "Wh-wha... Yukiko?"

Nanako, still holding Yu to help him remain upright, looked at the newcomer and found it wasn't a bicyclist at all. Yukiko was sitting proudly on a brand new scooter, a red helmet in her hands.

More important perhaps than the scooter was Yukiko's wardrobe. Instead of her light red sweater, she was wearing a red vest over a blouse, and instead of a skirt, she had on a pair of black slacks. The long black hair that Nanako envied was tied back into a bun.

"When did you get a scooter?" Chie demanded. "Don't you need a license?"

"It wasn't difficult to get," Yukiko said. "It only took a few days of studying the manual."

"You... didn't tell me..."

"It was a whim," Yukiko said, "but I'm glad I went with it. There's so much freedom in not having to use the bus to get home!"

"I bet," Nanako said. Although she'd recovered from her shock much sooner than Chie, she was still reeling, because Yukiko looked damn fine and badass to boot. "You can get across town real fast with that."

Yukiko nodded her head. "If there's an emergency, I can respond in a flash."

"A flash of fire, even," Nanako said absently.

"Yes!" Yukiko giggled.

"But what's with those clothes?" Chie asked before the giggles could become untamed.

"Since we're training," Yukiko replied, "I thought I should dress the part! Without the skirt, I don't have to worry so much about, well, propriety. And the vest makes me feel like a different person."

"You should try the long skirt," Nanako said, pulling up her own skirt to demonstrate and then letting it fall back down. "It's long enough so no one can look under it. And it would go well with the scooter! Though it'd be even better if you had a motorcycle."

"I always wear shorts under my skirt," Chie said. "I've never had a problem."

"Motorcycles, a long skirt..." Naoto mused. "Are you aiming to start a gang, Nanako-san?"

"Of course not, Shirogane-san."

"Good—"

"I already have one, why would I start another?"

Naoto blinked only once. "Ah, yes. The 'DEATH Squad.' I'm not sure how to feel about being a member of this inscrutable group. My reputation is surely in jeopardy."

"Can't become worse than my own," Nanako said positively.

"Maybe one day the yakuza will really be after you," Yukiko agreed. "Oooh, that sounds exciting!"

"D-don't jinx her," Chie said, following it with a nervous laugh.

They continued to joke around, and then Nanako felt Yu tugging on her skirt. "Big sis," he said quietly while he continued to tug for her attention. "C-can I...?"

"What, honey?" she murmured back, brushing fingers through his hair.

He pulled away, and it took Nanako just a moment to realize he wanted to take a closer look at Yukiko's scooter. She followed him, protective instincts in full swing, though she knew he wouldn't be any trouble. In fact, he stopped a few feet away from the scooter, too bashful to ask if he could approach any closer. Yukiko noticed him and smiled. She got off the scooter, hung the helmet on the handlebars by its chinstrap, and then beckoned him forward.

It was a nice scooter, as far as Nanako could tell. It had a white body and its seat cushions were a red that matched the helmet. Although its engine was turned off, the pungent smell of burning gasoline lingered.

"It's sleek," Nanako commented.

"My mother helped pick it out for me," Yukiko said, "though she wondered why I wanted it."

"You know," Nanako mused. "A while ago, Yosuke wanted a scooter, but I talked him out of it."

"Yosuke-kun with a scooter," Yukiko said thoughtfully. "That sounds dangerous."

"I know, right?"

Yukiko knelt in front of Yu to meet his height. "Yu-kun, would you like to ride it? It's all right," she added when Nanako seemed about to protest. "He won't get hurt."

"N-no thank you," Yu murmured. "It's... t-tall..."

It was the elephant slide all over again, apparently. Nanako put her hands on her hips. "If Yosuke had one, he'd ride it."

"Yeah," said Chie. "He'd ride it right into the river."

Yukiko sighed dramatically. "Yes, that's right. When I said 'that sounds dangerous,' I meant to himself."

Knowing they were making fun of his friend, Yu looked a little put out. Nanako tousled his hair and gave him a soft smile, and a moment later she suddenly found herself being hugged by him.

"Aww, well that's just cute," Chie remarked at the sight. "Oh, that reminds me! Isn't the elementary school having a field trip this week?"

Nanako looked up from cuddling Yu to send Chie an alarmed look. "What?"

"Yeah! Umm, I don't know the details, but they're going to be visiting our school. Maybe we'll see this little guy during it."

"Yu-chan, do you know anything about this?"

"It's Thursday," he said.

"Wouldn't it be cool if Yu-kun's class is assigned to visit our class?" Chie said.

"Yeah!" Nanako agreed. She could show Yu the music room and the piano, the gym, the rooftop where they sometimes ate lunch... It'd be totally fun. And maybe he could bring Foxie along, too!

Excited, she picked Yu up right then and there and heaved him onto her shoulders. His cry of surprise quickly turned into a series of giggles.

"Now you're higher than the scooter," she teased.

He didn't comment on that, instead choosing to play with her hair.

"Well, I suppose that's it for training, huh?" Chie said, scratching her head.

"Chie, that's what I came here for!" Yukiko protested. "These new clothes serve a purpose. Please, show me what you're up to while I'm busy at the inn!"

Chie's face flushed with apprehension. "W-well, I..." she stuttered.

"You were teaching Shirogane-san to punch," Nanako said. "Why don't you show Yukiko that?"

"I am ready to demonstrate," Naoto said evenly, already moving into the proper stance.

"Well, all right," Chie said. "First, you need to learn to make the right kind of fist. Though it might feel more natural, don't put your thumb inside the fist!"

As Chie went on about proper punching technique, Nanako smiled to herself and lightly squeezed Yu's legs. They were a great team, weren't they?


[9/20: Tuesday]

Since Monday was Respect for the Aged day, Nanako had invited her friends to spend it eating tofu at Grandma Kujikawa's shop, much to Yosuke's distress. It wasn't until Tuesday, then, that Yukiko surprised the heck out of everyone at school by wearing a boy's school uniform.

Nanako expected someone to complain. She'd been hassled enough for simply wearing the long skirt, and that wasn't against the rules. Wearing the wrong gender's clothes would definitely attract administrative attention. It was going to be a disaster.

But during homeroom, Ms. Kashiwagi only glanced at Yukiko once and didn't say a word about it.

"It's because her grades are so good," Chie told Nanako later when she remarked about it. "She's under the radar. You know how she's missed school a few times because she needed to help the inn? The teachers never bother her for that, either."

It was totally unfair, but Nanako couldn't deny that her grades could use some work. At least their next exams were over a month away. There was plenty of time!

A month away. A lot could happen in a month. With that looming over her mind, Nanako headed right home after class, deciding it might be a good time to look over her notes for the term so far. She'd already forgotten what venison was at this point.

She was at the tea table in the living room, brushing up on trigonometric identities, when Yu came home from cram school. "Big sis, big sis!" he cried upon opening the front door. He rushed forward so fast that he nearly tripped over his own feet. "I f-finished it!"

"Careful, careful!" she said while pushing herself to her feet. "Finished what?"

He held out a crocheted thing about the size of her own hand. It was made entirely of brown yarn, making it appear like nothing more than a misshapen blob. She turned it over in her hands and then she finally realized it was supposed to be a dinosaur. A flying one, at that! One of its wings was longer than the other, and its head was smaller than its neck. It was no wonder the dinosaurs went extinct if they were proportioned like this.

But he'd tried, and that's all that mattered. "Can we show it to..." He trailed off.

"Kanji-kun?" she guessed, and he nodded. She nodded back—Kanji would at least be able to tell him how good his stitching was—and his face positively glowed.

They headed right out, though Nanako made sure Yu brought the Loveline umbrella along since it was cloudy out. The weather forecast hadn't included rain, but it hadn't been completely reliable lately. It was better to be safe than sorry, and Yu was so happy to carry it along with his crocheted dinosaur that it was worth bringing along even if it had been completely sunny outside.

In the textiles shop, Kanji was sitting on the raised floor, his legs stretched out in front of him onto the lower level. He wasn't working on anything, just apparently relaxing while he chatted with Yosuke next to him.

Wait, Yosuke? Nanako almost did a double-take. What was he doing here? The textiles shop was the last place she expected to see him.

"Finally," Yosuke said, noticing her. "I was wondering what was so—"

"Partner!" Yu cried, running up to him.

Yosuke scratched the back of his head. "Uhh... Hello, Yu." He sent a questioning look at Nanako over the boy's head.

Yu shyly offered up his crochet creation. Yosuke gingerly picked it up and held it out so that Kanji could see it too.

"You finished it!" Kanji enthused. "Good job, li'l guy. You'll be a pro in no time!"

"Oh, you made this, huh?" Yosuke said. "I, uh, like its... eyes?" It sounded so much like a question that Nanako had to suppress a chuckle.

Yu smiled widely in response to this praise. When Yosuke tried to hand the crocheted thing back to him, Yu wouldn't take it.

"I guess it's yours now, 'partner,'" Nanako said. "Cherish it always."

"Sure...? Thanks, Yu." Yosuke sounded gracious enough. It fooled Yu, anyway. He stuffed it into his pocket and turned to Nanako. "So what's the urgent business you needed me here for?"

"Urgent business?" Nanako didn't hide her puzzlement. "I'm only here because Yu asked to see Kanji-kun."

"But Saki-senpai said..." Yosuke's brow furrowed. He paused, shook his head, then started again. "See, I went in for my shift at work, and she told me she was going to take it since I needed to be here. Urgent business."

Nanako thought it over for a moment before grinning. "I think you got pranked, Yosuke!"

"If she needs the hours, she can take all my shifts," Yosuke said. "She didn't need to make me come here, though."

Yu had climbed up to the upper level to sit next to Yosuke. He was now smiling up at his friend and mimicking his sitting pose, with his arms crossed and his legs slightly bent.

Yes, she did, Nanako thought.

"While you're here," Kanji said, "maybe you can learn to crochet."

"Nahhh," Yosuke replied. "What with guitar practice, I don't really have the time for another hobby."

"Bring your guitar on Thursday," Nanako requested suddenly. "We can play for Yu's class!"

"That would be really embarrassing," Yosuke protested, but he had on a shy smile which meant he wasn't opposed to the idea.

"Do you know what you wanna make next?" Kanji asked Yu. "Come on, I'll let you pick out the colors you wanna use."

He stood up, took Yu by the hand, and led him into the back room. Yosuke also stood up, but Nanako waved him back before he followed along. "Actually, Yosuke," she said when she was sure that Yu was out of hearing range. "It's not 'urgent business' or anything, but are you working Friday?"

"On the holiday? Probably. But maybe I can switch with Saki-senpai again."

"Holiday? What holiday?" She gave him a funny look. "We just had a holiday!"

"It's the Autumnal Equinox."

"Whatever that means," she muttered. "That one always trips me up. Well, anyway, I'm thinking it's time we went into the TV. It's too late today, and I got stuff going on tomorrow, and who knows what Thursday's going to be like."

"If I'm off, I'm game," he said. "Wait a second, what's this?"

Yosuke toed something on the floor of the upper level. It rolled right off the ledge. Nanako picked it up. "Oh, it's just Yu's umbrella," she said.

"Are you sure?" He sounded skeptical. "It's pink."

"The best color," she declared, shaking the umbrella at him as if it was an extension of her finger. "And of course I'm sure. I gave it to him, after all. It's his Wand of Justice."

"His what? Nevermind, I don't think I want to know."

Nanako grinned, more to herself than anything. She needed to bring Yosuke over to Aunt Narukami's sometime so that Yu could play games with him. She'd have to think of a dumb title for him to go with it.

"Now I really don't want to know," Yosuke said, noting her grin. "Oh, they're back."

The door to the back room slid open and Kanji and Yu stepped through. The little boy was carrying a basket of crochet-related goodies, mostly a few spools of yarn. They walked to where the others were, and Kanji helped Yu down to the lower level.

"I gave him some simple patterns to use," Kanji said. "They're in the basket, at the bottom. He should know all the stitches needed for them, but if he's got any problems, you bring him right over and we'll sort it all out."

"Thanks, Kanji-kun!" Nanako traded Yu the basket for the Loveline umbrella, said goodbye to both of her friends, and led Yu out of the shop.

Nanako almost whistled because she was feeling pretty good, but the urge died when they passed the shrine Kanji and his mother had built for Teddie.

She stopped walking so that she could pay her respects to it. She set the basket down at a respectable distance away, then approached the shrine, noting that someone, probably Kanji, had replaced the flowers recently.

The star mask was still present on top of the shrine, and she stared at it for a long moment. She no longer felt the stirring within her that she once had from it.

After paying her respects to the shrine, she thanked Yu for waiting for her, picked up the basket, and then continued on her way.


[9/21: Wednesday]

Nanako was so excited for Yu's field trip that she totally forgot it was Wednesday until she came home to the strong scent of freshly chopped onions. Aunt Narukami was preparing a home-cooked meal in the kitchen. By the thin strips of chicken and onions on the cutting board and eggs in a bowl nearby, it was going to be oyakodon. Nanako's mouth watered at the thought.

Yu was at the tea table, apparently working on his next crochet project, something that currently looked like a green blob. Nanako reserved her judgment for now. Naoto was sitting across from him, keeping him company. Nanako joined them and she made some small talk. She was a little nervous about Adachi coming over. The last time had been so long ago, and he'd shown her that incriminating video. If he talked about the tofu shop incident at all tonight, she had to be sure not to seem too excited or give away that she knew anything!

That is, if he was even going to show up. He'd been skipping out on these family Wednesday nights so often lately that Nanako had her doubts about the status of the Adachi-Narukami courtship.

A knock on the door threw those doubts to the wind. Aunt Narukami answered the door, and after exchanging pleasantries, Adachi was welcomed into the house. Today the cabbage detective was wearing a magenta tie with his suit. It looked sharp on him! If only he had a matching flower in his breast pocket.

Aunt Narukami informed him that her dinner wasn't quite ready, and he nodded politely at her before moving into the living room. He inclined his head at Naoto. "Shirogane-kun," he greeted.

"Ah, yes," said Aunt Narukami from the kitchen. "He'll be joining us for dinner. I hope you don't mind."

"The more, the merrier," Adachi replied. "Besides, I know he lives here. You should be asking him if it's okay to have me around!"

"Of course it's quite all right, Adachi-san," Naoto said. "You are a guest here as much as I am."

"As long as you don't talk business," Nanako quipped.

"Yeah, no," said Adachi, shaking his head. "Uhh, what's that?"

Yu was holding up his crochet project by the crochet needles, trying to show it to him. "It's a dinosaur," he murmured. It was as much a mess of yarn as it had been earlier in the afternoon, which meant it was still completely unidentifiable.

"Show him the one you finished," Nanako suggested. "Oh, right, you gave that to someone."

"He has that, err, other... one," Naoto said. Halfway through that sentence he'd turned hesitant, probably regretting his words.

Yu's eyes lit up, and he put his current project down to run into his room. Moments later he came out with the egg-shaped Teddie doll he'd made some time ago and gave it to the detective.

Adachi turned it over in his hands... over and over again, trying to figure out what the heck it was.

"It's very round," he said finally.

He was saved from coming up with more faint praise by Aunt Narukami announcing that dinner was served. They relocated to the dining room. The table was a bit crowded with five of them—an extra chair had to be brought out from a closet—but it definitely felt more alive with so many people there!

Or it would have felt more alive, if two of the group weren't overworked detectives. Both Adachi and Naoto ate almost mechanically, as if they were being forced to by their worried coworkers. "Psst! Taste your food!" Nanako hissed, and both of them looked up, startled. "Auntie worked hard on that!"

Adachi grinned sheepishly. "Y-yeah. Sorry, Ryoko-san. After bento for lunch and nimono for dinner every day, I almost forgot what good food tastes like!"

"Nimono for dinner every day?" Aunt Narukami raised an eyebrow. "That sounds very much like torture."

"I wonder if I can arrest the fossil who keeps making it for me," Adachi agreed. "She's got me confused with her son. Seems we share the same given name." He shoveled a portion of chicken into his mouth and made a dramatic 'mmm' sound. "This is way better than nimono. Heck, it's even better than any of that 'gourmet tofu' Kujikawa-san shoveled down my throat."

"Oh, don't let her hear you saying that," Aunt Narukami warned. "That old lady is quite the pistol."

More like a Gatling cannon, Nanako almost corrected. She resisted the grin that tried to come to her face at the memory of that awesome granny.

"I have a feeling if I don't check up on her after a while, she'll have my ass," Adachi said.

"That's assuming she'd want it." Aunt Narukami 'hmhmhm'd after that.

Adachi pretended to look offended, and then announced ruefully, "You got me there!"

After everyone had finished dinner and the dishes had been cleared from the table, Aunt Narukami invited Adachi to stay a while and relax, and he accepted with a shrug and a 'why not?' She leveled only one complaint about an annoying coworker before continuing on to talk about how Yu was doing in school.

"You're making your mama proud, huh?" Adachi asked the boy rhetorically. "Keep it up, but don't forget to have fun."

Aunt Narukami waved a hand. "Oh, Nanako-chan makes sure of that."

Adachi glanced in her direction. "I'm sure she does."

"And Shirogane-san, too!" Nanako added quickly.

At that, Adachi appraised Naoto. "Huh, I wasn't aware that Shirogane-kun knew what fun was. You learn something new every day."

"Big bro..." Yu began, but he stopped. Everyone looked at him and waited expectantly for him to continue. "Big bro... bought me Featherman manga."

Adachi's eyes danced, and his grin was mischievous. "Is that so..."

"Yu-kun watches the show faithfully," Naoto said rather stiffly, "but the manga is superior in every way. I couldn't let him miss out."

"I knew you were a nerd!" Adachi declared, slapping the table to emphasize his victory.

"Yu-kun will be raised correctly under my watch." Naoto tipped his cap.

"He'll become a little nerd, too." Adachi sighed dramatically. "I suppose there are worse things he could be."

"Since you mentioned it," Aunt Narukami began hesitantly. When everyone turned their heads towards her, she appeared embarrassed. "Well, I was quite a nerd in my day..."

"A photography nerd," Nanako said.

Aunt Narukami grew a tight smile. "Indeed. Ah, give me a moment..."

She got up from the table and picked up a shoebox that had been stored in the kitchen's far corner. She set it on the table and opened it, sneezing once from the dust accumulated within it. She rummaged through it a moment before bringing out a photo album.

She hesitated again. "I brought these down from my closet to show Nanako-chan, but if you'd like..."

She was asking Adachi, who was blinking at her in astonishment. "Uhh..." he said before recovering. "Well, now I'm curious! What is it?"

Aunt Narukami turned the album to face them. The cover was decorated in little bunny, duck, and heart stickers. She set it down on the table, and they gathered around it, Nanako getting out of her seat to crowd behind Yu's chair to get a closer look.

"No way," Nanako breathed. "Yu's baby pictures?"

"A mother's pride is her kid," Adachi remarked, looking interested despite himself.

There was a glint in Aunt Narukami's eye that Nanako had never seen before. Nanako wasn't sure if it was caused by said pride, or because she was about to show these pictures to someone important to her.

Nanako gently pushed Yu out of his chair so that she could sit in it, pulling him into her lap after so that they could see album together as Aunt Narukami opened it to the first page. The very first picture was a bald-headed baby with piercing silver eyes wrapped up in a soft yellow blanket. There was a date with the album. Nanako did some mental math, and...

"Right out of the hospital, huh?" Adachi said, beating her to the punch.

"They wouldn't let me bring the camera in the hospital," Aunt Narukami said, "so I took as many pictures as I could when we brought him home."

"What, you mean there's no video of his birth?" Nanako pretended to be disappointed, making it clear that she was joking.

"None," Aunt Narukami reported with feigned sadness. "There's no video of his conception, either."

If Nanako had been drinking anything she'd have spit it all out right there. She hadn't expect that Dojima sense of humor in front of Adachi-san!

"Forgive me if I say 'Thank god for that.'" Adachi was shaking his head, and Aunt Narukami and Nanako laughed with him.

She felt Yu shift in her lap. When she looked down, she saw him curiously mouthing the word 'conception.' Quickly she distracted him by pointing to the next picture. "Do you remember being this small, Yu-chan?"

Yu shook his head.

"I remember it like yesterday," Aunt Narukami volunteered. "I know there's a picture of his first steps here... Ah, there it is!"

Nanako eagerly leaned over Yu's head to look. Apparently the event had happened during a picnic at the flood plain. Little baby Yu was standing in one picture and flat on his butt in the next. He was grinning happily up at the camera, his fists grasping the grass growing around him.

"How precious," Naoto murmured.

Nanako agreed. She didn't take her eyes off the album as Aunt Narukami flipped to the next page. There were so many pictures! Here Yu was on the couch—it a different couch than the one in the house now, they must've bought a new one since then—here he was in a crib, here he was in Uncle Narukami's arms, the adult wearing the alarmed expression that men everywhere wear when handling such a fragile and precious item.

By the sheer amount of pictures, it was obvious they were proud parents. The album mostly went in chronological order. To see Yu as an infant, and then a toddler, and then a three-year-old, and then four...

The album ended there. "Is there another book?" Nanako asked, looking up at her aunt.

"Oh, no," Aunt Narukami answered. "That's all I have."

No more? Considering the sheer volume of baby and early childhood pictures, it seemed strange that she hadn't taken any of Yu's first day of kindergarten, at least!

Though, that would have been last year, and considering what had happened then... It was probably no coincidence that Aunt Narukami had dropped her favorite pastime at the same time.

"I do have an empty photo album," Aunt Narukami murmured. "Actually, I've been meaning to..."

She moved to the kitchen, opened a drawer, and pulled a cell phone out of it. She returned to her seat at the table and slid the phone across the table to Nanako.

"Yu," Aunt Narukami said. "That's for you. I'm sure Nanako-chan can teach you how to use it."

"Mama?" Yu looked at her for confirmation before tentatively reaching out to it.

"It's one of my old work phones. It was replaced by a newer model last month, and they allowed us to keep the old one. It's inactive, but some of its functions still work, such as... its camera."

Yu was looking up at his mother in awe. "I can... it's mine?"

"Nanako-chan has my old camera," Aunt Narukami said. "Perhaps you two can go have a shoot together."

"Your old camera?" Nanako repeated. She'd left Aunt Narukami's camera on the kitchen counter after the field trip. Aunt Narukami had never put it away, so it was still there. Nanako hadn't realized she was meant to continue using it. She nodded now with determination. "We'll fill that photo album up, and then some!"

She showed Yu how to unlock the phone's screen after Aunt Narukami gave him the passcode.

"Don't look now, but I think you've unleashed a monster," Adachi said.

Nanako opened the phone app, helped Yu hold the phone up, and had him aim it right at Adachi. "Smile!"

The grin captured by Yu's new camera was more indulgent than anything. "You should've put it in selfie mode," Adachi said. "That would have been a better picture than little old me!"

Nanako decided it was a good idea and did just that. Now Yu had a picture of him and Nanako looking right at the phone's screen. Adachi was totally right—Yu's smile was so big!

"Thanks, Aunt Narukami!" Nanako said with feeling. "We're going to have a lot of fun with this."

Naoto recommended that he not use the phone at school, and Yu promised he wouldn't.

"Aww, but I want him to take pictures of his field trip to Yasogami High tomorrow!" Nanako brushed her fingers through Yu's hair while the boy continued to look at the phone's screen as it provided a live feed of its camera. He was aiming it at Adachi, who was pretending not to notice that he was being watched. Nanako pretended not to notice the funny faces he occasionally made.

"He might not be able to," Aunt Narukami said, "but you..." She was smiling in a way reminiscent of Margaret. Or perhaps Igor.

"They'd confiscate my camera for sure," Nanako protested.

Aunt Narukami's smile grew even more sly, if it was possible. "They won't."


[9/22: Thursday]

It started with an assembly.

Of course it did. What the elementary school kids really needed most was the adults lecturing them about how educational their field trip was while they were on it.

Nanako hummed to herself, hardly listening. The visiting kindergarteners and first graders were sitting in neat little rows on the floor near the front of the high school's gym, right before the stage. The gym could hardly hold all the students, and in fact, for that reason Yasogami's third years weren't invited. Nanako and the other first and second year high schoolers were sitting in a large group behind the kids. She could see Yu easily from her place on the floor. Gray hair really stood out in the sea of black.

According to Ms. Kashiwagi, the field trip had been inspired by the 'success' of their own trip to Gekkoukan High School. Why just the high school? some official must have thought. The elementary school and middle schools should participate in a cultural exchange as well!

A cultural exchange within the same town. It seemed a bit silly, but apparently there wasn't any funding to go with that official's decision, not to mention most parents wouldn't allow their young child to go out of town like the high schoolers had.

Nanako blinked out of her daydreams about cuddling Yu because there was sudden movement in the front few rows of students. Apparently the assembly was over. She made to get up herself, but felt someone tugging her back down. It was Chie. Nanako sent her a puzzled look and Chie just rolled her shoulders as she held in a laugh.

"You need to pay more attention!" Chie whispered too loudly.

"What's going on?" Nanako whispered back.

"The kids are gonna do a presentation for us. We're supposed to just sit and watch. Look, it's Yuuta-kun's class!"

After a bit of searching, Nanako spotted Yuuta among his classmates as they filed onto the stage and were shuffled into place by their teacher. Yuuta was carrying a big rubber ball about the size of a watermelon. Some of the other kids carried other rubber balls, too, and each was a different color and size. It wasn't obvious what the purpose was until the teacher turned on a boom box that she'd set on the stage and the students began to sing along to the music it played.

The planets,
The planets,
We're studying the planets,
Mercury and Jupiter and Marrrrrs

Well, it wasn't so much singing as mumbling along, but no one could deny it was cute. The kids carrying the rubber balls raised them excitedly when their planet was named in the song, which went on to describe the order from the sun and other solar system-related factoids that the high schoolers had already learned years ago.

"Wish our exams would be on this stuff," Yosuke muttered. "I'd pass for sure."

Nanako hushed him and tried her best not to wave at Yuuta, though she was almost bursting with excitement. The kids looked like they were having such a good time! What was Yu's class going to do? She could hardly wait. They didn't seem to have any props with them... No, they had rubber balls, too. Well, the assembly was taking place in the gym, where the Balls Club met, so she supposed it was appropriate.

When the presentation was over, Yuuta's teacher directed her students to bow to the audience. There was polite applause from the collective high schoolers, and then Nanako leaped to her feet and hollered, "Great job, Yuuta-chan! You're so talented! I always knew it!"

Yuuta stood there on the stage, looking much like she must have looked when she'd faced that giant robot in Naoto's dungeon. Then he shouted a "Don't call me that!" back at her before scurrying after his classmates and off the stage.

Then Yu's class stood up, and Nanako couldn't stop herself from waving furiously at her little cousin. Because she was still standing from her outburst, she was easily noticed, and an instant later Yu was waving back at her. Takeyoshi tried to interrupt, but Yu just nudged him, and soon both of the boys were waving at her.

At least until Ms. Kashiwagi strode over from the sidelines where she and the other Yasogami High teachers had been standing. She glared at Nanako, who almost rolled her eyes. Ms. Kashiwagi's glare had nothing on Mr. Morooka, that was for sure. But Nanako's arm was getting tired of waving by then, so she sat down without a fight.

Yu's teacher switched the CD in the boom box, and then, like Yuuta's class, the students began to sing.

We love the rain,
We get all wet
The sun comes out,
It dries us up,
Where does the water go?

The teacher held up a neon orange ball that represented the sun, and the children held blue, gray, and white balls to represent water, clouds, and wind. The song went on to explain the basic rain cycle, with the kids sometimes losing their place in the song because their props and the actions they were supposed to perform with them were too distracting for them.

When the song ended, the audience began to applaud, and Nanako was halfway to her feet again when she realized the students weren't actually done with their performance. The students put on plastic ponchos, except Yu who took out his Loveline umbrella and opened it up.

Yu said something to the audience, but it was basically inaudible because he was so soft-spoken.

"That's my cousin," Nanako informed the student sitting in front of her. "The one with the incredible umbrella. My cousin."

The teacher had him repeat his words, since apparently she couldn't hear it either, and she was on the stage with him.

"That's my cousin, isn't he cute?" Nanako said to the male class representative, who nodded politely.

Yu opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it and shook his head. Takeyoshi stepped up and spoke for him: "He said IT'S RAINING CATS AND DOGS!"

All of the students on stage began to meow and bark at once in response. Twisting the umbrella in his hand, Yu meowed too.

Nanako leaned towards the girl next to her, and before she opened her mouth, Chie put a finger to her lips and said, "That's your cousin, we know."

Nanako pouted and then kissed Chie's finger, and Chie withdrew it as if it had been burned, glancing around as if afraid anyone had seen that. Yukiko just smiled and shook her head.

"He's adorable, anyway," Nanako muttered. "The best cousin. My only cousin. My darling baby boy."

"The light of your life, you love him so much?" Yosuke added.

Though she recognized that he was teasing her, she'd redirected her attention to the stage and was too focused on said light of her life to say anything other than, "Yep."

The boom box began to play the sound of falling rain. The children were now doing a very unchoreographed dance to this 'music.' It lasted for a few minutes too long, even by cute little cousin standards. When it was over, the kids once again faced the audience and bowed.

When Nanako jumped to her feet to shout, "You're the cutest, Yu-chan!" she found she wasn't the only one standing—Yosuke was by her side, waving hard at Yu.

"I didn't know you had a soft spot for kids," Chie remarked when they'd both sat down again.

"Nanako's right. Yu is cute, okay?" Yosuke crossed his arms, and Nanako nodded firmly her agreement.

It took over an hour for the other classes to make their presentations, and then they had to suffer through another speech from the principal about how happy Yasogami High was to have hosted this event that helped nurture young minds blah blah...

When it was over, everyone pretty much stood up at once. Ms. Kashiwagi attempted to organize her homeroom class and lead them out of the gym. Nanako didn't follow, intending to slip away so that she could be with her cousin, but Ms. Kashiwagi caught her. However, Nanako had an ace up her sleeve. She produced her camera and the shiny, laminated press pass that Aunt Narukami had let her borrow. It didn't have any real authority, but it looked official... official enough to bluff with.

"I gotta take pictures of those cuties," Nanako told her teacher. "It's for the yearbook!" When Ms. Kashiwagi looked suspicious, she waved the press pass and added, "And the newspaper! Y'know, for the 'Local Flavor' insert."

Ms. Kashiwagi's expression changed. "Oh, well, in that case, you can take as many pictures as you want... as long as you take one good picture of me."

Nanako agreed, though she expected the woman to want her to take several outrageous pictures that would only suit someone half her age. It turned out, however, that Ms. Kashiwagi really wanted only just the one, although the woman made sure her assets were prominently displayed. Nanako took care to ensure it was tastefully done.

Nanako took, in Naoto's words, 'a truly inappropriate' amount of pictures of all the little kiddies. Though her focus was Yu—she had a whole photo album to fill up, after all—she tried to give all of the children a chance to be in the spotlight. Considering Inaba's poor track record so far, who knew how many of them needed the attention? There weren't enough hours in the day to solve everyone's problems...

"Need anything, Captain?"

She took her eyes from the lens to blink owlishly up at the towering form of Kou Ichijo. "Shouldn't you be in class?" she asked.

Kou shrugged. "The kids keep losing their balls, so..."

It was then she noticed he was carrying a couple of the rubber balls the kids had been using in their presentations under his arms. "Well, Expert Ball Wrangler is your position on the team, after all."

"Better than Expert Ball Mangler," Kou replied seamlessly. "Like Daisuke here."

"Oh?" Nanako raised her eyebrow, intrigued. She hadn't noticed that Kou's soccer friend had been recruited, too, but there he was in his teal PE tracksuit, the big neon sun ball in his hands. A couple of kids were trying to take it away from him.

"You headbutt a guy in the crotch one time," Daisuke complained, "and they never let you live it down." He lifted the rubber ball high over his head and the kids began to try and jump up to reach it.

She'd have to get the whole story sometime. For now, though, the teachers had made their decision to bring the kids back to the elementary school for an early dismissal day. Since that seemed pointless to Nanako, she asked that Yu be allowed to stay with her, and after a round of phone calls, Takeyoshi was allowed to stay under her supervision, too, as long as she brought the two boys to their cram school on time later in the afternoon.

After one last round of pictures and goodbyes to her new little friends, the students followed their teachers out of the gym to the parking lot where their buses awaited, and Nanako was left alone with Yu, Takeyoshi, Kou, and Daisuke. The sudden quiet in the gym was disorienting, but the sound of a ball bouncing brought her attention back to the present. "Ta-kun," she scolded, "you were supposed to give that back to your teacher."

"Actually, that basketball is one of ours," Kou said. "Pass it here, will you?"

Takeyoshi tossed the basketball to Kou after bouncing it twice on the floor. It was a perfect pass, and Yu went "Oh!" at the sight. Kou caught it easily, and then began to balance the ball on the tip of his index finger.

"You should show them your slick moves, Kou-kun!" Nanako suggested.

Daisuke snorted. "Slick moves? He doesn't have any."

"Not for the ball court, I suppose," Nanako remarked, raising both her eyebrows suggestively before realizing she needed to keep things G-rated when there were children present. She'd done worse in front of Yu, but Ta-kun was a relative innocent.

"Yeah?" said Kou, sounding indifferent. "I guess I could..."

"I bet you won't make the basket from here," Takeyoshi said, holding his hands behind his back and looking rather smug.

"Was I really just challenged by a 5-year-old?" Kou shook his head.

"I'm not 5," Takeyoshi retorted. "I'm 6 years, 9 months—"

"Ta-kun is older than me," Yu murmured. "And... I'll be seven next year."

"Next year?" Nanako repeated. "What... I missed your birthday this year? No... No way!"

In her disappointment, she enveloped Yu in a tight hug. The boy accepted it with an embarrassed but happy smile, and then ended up cuddling Nanako back.

Takeyoshi glanced at the two of them before returning his attention to Kou. Under that gaze, Kou looked at the ball in his hands, and then at the nearest basket. They were actually standing on one of the lines painted onto the court, which Nanako assumed meant it wasn't an impossible throw, but the basket did seem pretty darn far.

Kou rolled his shoulders and then his neck in a stretch. Then he reared back and let the ball fly. It spun through the air, soaring towards its goal.

It hit the backboard and then bounced to the far side of the gym.

Takeyoshi was grinning in the ensuing silence. Then Kou muttered, "I didn't think I'd make it..."

His whole stance screamed dejection. His shoulders drooped and even his purple-dyed hair seemed down.

Now Takeyoshi frowned. "Hey," he said. "You were kind of close. You could try again."

"'Kind of close,'" Kou repeated. "I didn't even hit the net!"

"If at first you don't succeed," Takeyoshi said, "try, try again. That's what our teacher always says. In fact, Blue Swan said that on Featherman last week."

"She did, big sis!" Yu said, looking up at Nanako from where he was still enfolded in her arms. "It was right when they were—" Nanako gently hushed him, because Daisuke had retrieved the ball and handed it back to Kou.

Kou turned the ball over in his hands, apparently thinking. He looked at Takeyoshi, then at the basket. Without another moment's hesitation, he went for it.

The ball hit the basket's rim, bounced up and then teetered on the edge. Everyone held their breath as the ball seemed indecisive.

Then it rolled inside.

Instead of cheering or shouting, Kou was just smiling at his victory. Takeyoshi held his hand up to him, and it took Kou just a moment to hand him a high five.

"See?" said Takeyoshi.

"Yeah," said Kou. "Thanks, kid. You're all right."

"Now it's Daisuke-kun's turn to show us some soccer moves!" Nanako said. She turned to Kou. "Ball Wrangler, got a soccer ball somewhere?"

"I think I'll pass on that," Daisuke said. He sent a scowl to his left, where a couple of girls were standing on the sidelines, watching them. Or rather, watching him.

"Daisuke-kun," one called. "W-would you like to umm... go to Aiya with us?"

"I already ate lunch!" Daisuke snapped back. He stomped after the basketball to retrieve it. It had rolled all the way to a far corner of the gym.

"Girl problems, huh?" Nanako remarked while he was out of earshot. "Is that why he's not into soccer anymore?"

Kou smiled, though there was no humor in it. "Maybe. It's always like this."

"You should..." Yu said slowly, looking up at Kou. "Umm, you should... Hug him, and stay like that for a while. Then the girls will leave him alone."

"Where did that idea come from, Yu-chan?" Nanako asked.

"Saki-san said you did that with her, big sis... and then the boys left her alone."

Nanako blinked hard, her brow knitting together until it clicked. "Wait, Senpai told you about that!?" she exclaimed. That had been ages ago, in that club in Okina. Huh, that must have left a strong impression on her... Nanako began to grin.

Kou scratched his head. "Uhh, you know, little guy, not everyone is like that."

Nanako let the grin drop to send Kou an unamused look.

He held up his hands defensively. "Okay so, maybe I do love, err, balls, but I'm not sure what Daisuke would think."

"I think he'd thank you," Nanako said.

Kou nibbled his lip while he considered it. "Well, it's true he never liked girls."

Takeyoshi spoke up. "I saw in a documentary that homosexuals are born this way, rather than an acquired condition."

"I thought you were six!" Kou said, incredulous.

"Just kiss him, Kou," Nanako said. "There he is now."

Daisuke was jogging back towards them, the basketball under his arm. One of the girls called after him, "If not lunch, what about dinner?"

"I guess I have nothing to lose," Kou said with a sigh. When Daisuke opened his mouth to retort to the girl, Kou stepped towards him and planted a quick peck to his cheek.

The girls gasped as one.

Daisuke was frowning now. He looked at the girls, then at Kou, who was obviously sweating, and then at the girls again.

Then he tossed the basketball aside, grabbed Kou and pulled him into rough but firm kiss right on the lips.

The expectant hush that followed was punctuated by the sound of the basketball's bounces.

Then the girls burst into cheers:
"Oh my god!"
"He didn't!"
"He did!"
"Holy shit!"

When Daisuke let go of his partner, Kou shook his head, glanced at the cheering girls, and then looked askance at Yu. "Well, that didn't work."

"What didn't work?" Daisuke grumbled. "Whatever, let's grab some lunch." He took Kou by the hand and led him out of the gym, the hysterical girls quickly following them.

"I think it worked just fine," Nanako murmured in the ensuing silence, thinking that if it was a social link, it'd definitely be maxed right then and there. She shook her head to clear it and narrowed her eyes on a certain little boy. "Ta-kun! I bet you impress your teacher every day with your worldly knowledge."

"He does!" Yu exclaimed, twisting excitedly in Nanako's arms. "She's called his mama lots of times to.... t-tell her about it."

Takeyoshi looked put out after that. "Mom wouldn't let me watch TV for a week last time," he muttered.

"Did she set up parental controls, or did you find a way past them anyway?" Nanako teased.

"Big sis," Yu said, "can we have lunch? Ta-kun's hungry."

"What?" said Takeyoshi. "I didn't say that!"

"Your stomach did. I heard it."

"Heh, I guess we should eat, huh?"

Not wanting to cross a teacher by going into the classroom to grab her lunch box—everyone else was still in class, after all—Nanako took the boys to the nearest vending machine and bought a bento that they could all share. She led them to the rooftop, where she and her squad sometimes sat, though she had to help the boys up to their seats. She sat between them and opened the box after handing the boys each a set of chopsticks.

"So, Ta-kun," Nanako began conversationally. "How was your summer? You didn't come with us on our beach trip, and we missed you at the festival."

"That's because he was in Aus... er..." – Yu's face screwed up as he tried to say the word – "Aus... Auster..."

"Australia," Takeyoshi finished, pronouncing it flawlessly. "My great uncle lives there."

"Oh really?" said Nanako. "No wonder you're so worldly."

"Australia is home to the platypus, which is one of five existing mammal species that lay eggs," Takeyoshi recited.

"What are the other four?" Nanako asked.

Takeyoshi blinked, having not expected that question. "I don't know."

"Neither do I," Nanako admitted. "Maybe you can ask your cram school teacher this afternoon. Come on, now, let's eat up."

After they ate, Nanako took them to the music room. It was empty, as it always was when it wasn't in use by the club or the elective music class. Nanako set the boys on a couple of chairs and then sat at the piano bench. She idly brushed her fingers over the keys. They were almost gleaming; she and Yosuke had done a great job cleaning them.

She'd already picked out a song for this event, and had even found the sheet music for it, though she'd never played it yet. It was going to be fun.

"Ta-kun, let's see if you know this song!" she challenged.

Without further ado, she began to play. It was, of course, 'The Love Detective,' one of the opening theme songs to Magical Detective Loveline.

The little gasp that Yu emitted when he recognized it was so cute, it almost distracted her from playing.

"Oh, I know this," said Takeyoshi. "But I don't watch that—huh?"

Yu had stood up and was tugging Takeyoshi out of his seat, too. Yu then began to dance and sing to the music, mimicking some of the moves from the video that went with it, or so Nanako assumed, it was difficult to tell. Takeyoshi stared for a moment before smiling and beginning to dance too, though he didn't know any of the words so he didn't attempt to sing.

Nanako cursed her inability to simultaneously play piano and take pictures. It was just too precious. Her little Hermit child, not so Hermit-like at all anymore!

And Yu had the folded up Loveline umbrella with him, too, the perfect prop. He waved it around—it was his Wand of Justice, after all—and hit Takeyoshi with it on accident, though there was no damage done. Takeyoshi snatched it from him in apparent retaliation, and Nanako's playing slowed as she watched, worried, but Takeyoshi just twirled it around in his hands before handing it right back to Yu. Nanako smiled and continued on playing. They were both good kids.

"I'm Miss Loveline, you'd better beware!"

After playing the last few notes, Nanako clapped so hard that her hands almost hurt. "Bravo! I think you both have a stage career ahead of you."

Takeyoshi was glowing from the compliment despite himself.

"Big sis, can you dance in space?" Yu asked.

"I don't see why not, Yu-chan!" Nanako answered. "But why space?"

"Because Ta-kun wants to be an astronaut and go into space."

"No, I don't!" Takeyoshi interjected. "Not anymore."

Yu's eyes grew wide with surprise. "Wha... you didn't tell me! Big sis, he didn't tell me..."

"I wanna be a diver," Takeyoshi announced, "and see all the fish in the Great Barrier Reef! I wanna swim with the sharks."

"You might... get bitten," Yu remarked.

"Nah, most sharks only attack when provoked. I won't provoke. I just want to look at them, and watch them eat!"

"That sounds exciting, Ta-kun," Nanako said. "And the Great Barrier Reef is right by Australia. You got that idea on your trip, huh?"

Takeyoshi didn't answer, for he had turned back to his friend. "Yu, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Yu's lips puckered. It wasn't exactly a frown, but close to it. He stared down at the umbrella in Takeyoshi's hand, but didn't answer.

Nanako decided to rescue him. "You can be anything you want, Yu-chan! And you don't have to decide right now, and you can change your mind anytime. Just like your favorite color."

The little boy continued to think. After over a minute, he said, "I don't know," and Nanako was satisfied enough with that. At least he hadn't said 'doctor' or 'lawyer' or anything else his mom wanted. Not that those were bad occupations, but they weren't for everyone, and Yu was only six, anyway!

"Hey, Yu-chan," she said as an idea came to her. "Wanna try out the piano?"

Yu perked up, his eyes sparkling. "Can I...?"

It couldn't hurt the poor old piano. She motioned Yu over and lifted him into her lap, then scooted the bench closer to the keys. Yu stared reverently at them, then slowly moved his hand out towards them, then drew back to look up at Nanako's face to make sure it was okay. Nanako smiled down at him and put her own fingers on the keys. She tapped them playfully on the surface, then pressed one key hard enough for it to sound out. She encouraged him to do the same.

He pressed the same key that she had and smiled to himself when it sounded out. Growing bolder now, he pressed the key next to it, and then the one next to that. Finally, he leaned forward and pressed one of the black keys. It was one of the sharps.

"Here," Nanako said, and she held his hand as she played a short little ditty. It was, in fact, the tune to Junes's infamous commercials.

As if he'd been called, the door to music room opened and an out-of-breath Yosuke rushed in. He was lugging his guitar case, and he stopped halfway into the room to pant loudly. "Y-you're still here!" he gasped.

"What, did something happen?" Nanako asked, alarmed. She ignored Yu's cute little cry of 'partner!'

Yosuke shook his head. "No, I just... didn't want to miss you guys. I finally found a chance to sneak out of class. Hey there, little guy!" He waved at Yu who was still in Nanako's lap. "Oh, and your friend." He nodded at Takeyoshi. "What's your name, anyway?"

"Oh, right, I told you to come here." Nanako had totally forgotten that she'd requested that he bring his guitar today. "That's Takeyoshi-kun. He sits next to Yu-chan in class, and they go to cram school together."

"Yeah, I know about you," Yosuke said. "You want to be an astronaut."

Takeyoshi crossed his arms and pouted. "I do not!"

"Yu-chan told you about Ta-kun?" Nanako said. "That's so cute."

"I've seen him before," Yosuke explained. "You know, over summer, when he and Yu were walking to cram school."

"I was wondering who you were," Takeyoshi said, regarding Yosuke with suspicion.

"It's p-partner," Yu said, as if that explained everything.

"What's that mean?"

"He's my friend." Yu said it so solemnly, like it was an immutable fact.

Takeyoshi sent Yu a querying look, and then his expression softened. "Okay." He inclined his head towards Yosuke. "Nice to meet you."

Yosuke wiped his forehead with the hand that wasn't holding his guitar case. "Felt like I just met the in-laws or something." He chuckled, then unlocked the case and brought out his guitar. He strummed it and listened, then nodded his satisfaction. "What are we going to play, Nanako?"

"Why don't you play something for us?" she suggested.

"I thought we were going to play together." Yosuke hummed thoughtfully. "I guess... no... well..." He shifted the guitar into a better position. A moment later, he smiled determinedly and began to play.

Nanako smiled too, recognizing the song pretty fast from just the first few seconds of play. She couldn't name it, but it was something foreign, a country song. Wait, didn't it have lyrics?

"Sing!" Nanako requested. "Sing!"

"No way." Yosuke shook his head emphatically. "It's Western."

"So?" she challenged.

He stopped playing to send her a hard look. "I am not going to sing in English!"

"It's just me and the kids. I won't make fun of you, I promise." Nanako whispered into Yu's ear, "Come on, you tell him too!"

"I heard that," Yosuke informed her. "All right, all right. You kids put on a show for me today, so... I guess I'll put one on for you."

Despite his reservations, Yosuke seemed to get pretty into it. He straightened his back, lifted his guitar, and restarted the song. "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine..." he sang softly.

He played on, his head bobbing in time to the beat he'd set with his foot tapping the ground. He started off sounding rather self-conscious, but as he continued on, his voice became stronger.

"What does it mean, big sis?" Yu whispered.

"Knowing Yosuke is a hopeless romantic, it's probably about a girl or something," Nanako replied. "Ask him when he's done!"

Yosuke stopped singing rather abruptly, though he continued to play the tune on his guitar. He admitted that he only knew the first stanza by heart. He'd been more interested in the tune than the lyrics, and he'd replayed the first stanza several times just to practice. "I'm still a beginner, you know," he murmured.

"Everyone has to start somewhere," Nanako said. She wasn't judging him at all.

Suddenly the dismissal bell rang, startling everyone present.

"Ah, crap." Nanako sighed. She set Yu down on the floor and reluctantly got to her feet. "I guess I gotta bring these two to their cram school now."

"We didn't get to play anything together." Yosuke sounded more disappointed than she'd expected. "I don't know the next time Yu will have a chance to hear us play."

"I'll find a way," Nanako promised. "I'm sure he wouldn't miss it for the world."

"Don't forget me!" Takeyoshi threw in rather fiercely. "I-I want to be there."

"And Yuuta-chan, too," Nanako said. "Maybe we can have the music club play for the elementary school, or something."

"I dunno about that," Yosuke said. "I mean, our club leader is..."

"Grand theft piano isn't above me," Nanako answered. "Anyway, we'd better head off. Say goodbye to Yosuke, Yu-chan!"

Yu walked over to Yosuke, who was bent over a little in the chair as he carefully put his guitar back in its case. Yosuke paused to send him a smile.

Then Yu hugged him around the waist.

"Aww," Yosuke protested, "you didn't have to do that, little guy. I didn't even finish the song."

After an awkward moment, Yosuke finally patted the boy's back. Yu wasn't ready to break the hug, though, and not to be outdone, Takeyoshi strode up to them and hugged Yu from behind. Takeyoshi was a larger kid, so it was easy to do.

And also adorable to see. Nanako snapped a picture, happiness welling in her heart.


Author's notes:

Next Chapter: Yes Please

The crossover no one asked for.

Please leave comments/kudos/likes/reviews on AO3 or ffnet!


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